December -07 2019 Barry Magid December 7th 2019

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The Book of Equanimity
Case 54

Ungan’s Great Compassionate One

The eight compass points bright and clear. The ten directions unobstructed. Everywhere, bright light shakes the earth. All the time there is marvelous functioning and the supernatural. Tell me: How can this occur?

Main Case:
Ungan asked Dogo, “What does the great compassionate bodhisattva do when she uses her manifold hands and eyes?” Dogo said, “It’s like a man who reaches behind him at night to search for his pillow.” Ungan said, “I understand.” Dogo said, “What do you understand?” Ungan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.” Dogo said, “You’ve really said it -- you got eighty percent of it.” Ungan asked, “Elder brother, how about you?” Dogo replied: “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

One hole penetrates space. Eight directions are clear and bright.
Without forms, without self, spring follows the rules.
Unstopped, unhindered, the moon traverses the sky.
Clean, pure, jeweled eyes and virtuous arms:
Where is the approval in “throughout the body”
instead of “all over the body”?
Hands and eyes before you manifest complete functioning.
The great function is everywhere. How could there be any hindrance?

So here we are given a somewhat paradoxical paradigm for the nature of compassion. I think it’s fair to say if someone asks you to explain what compassion is in Buddhism, it would not occur to you to think that, Oh it’s like a man groping for his pillow in his sleep at night. We would talk about all sorts of acts of charity, care-taking, service. Groping for a pillow at night? What does that have to do with it?

I would contrast this story of compassion with one that Joko used to like to tell. Her story was of a little bird caught in a raging forest fire that was consuming thousands of acres of the forest in which this little bird had lived. In response to the fire, the bird flew miles away to a lake and dipped herself into the lake so that her wings were wet and flew miles back, shook her wings over the raging forest fires so a few drops of water would fall on the fire, and having done that she would fly back to the lake one more time, do it again, bring back a couple drops of water for the raging forest fire and simply do it over and over again until she died of exhaustion.

What does it mean to put these two stories side by side? One is automatic seemingly effortless functioning, the other utmost exertion until the point of exhaustion and death, completely exhausting your life in service. In a certain sense, most of us would be inclined to say, oh -- the little bird, that’s the great bodhisattva, that’s true compassion, and we would think it’s a marvelous idea but want to have nothing to do with it whatsoever in our actual life.

We might want to add a third point of reference, the first of our great vows: Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all. How do you do that? How do you understand that vow? You can understand it either from the perspective of the pillow or the perspective of the bird. If we think of it from the perspective of the bird saving all beings, it is an endless, potentially exhausting, task. You have to give your life to it forever. Beings are numberless and I must save them all.

But from another perspective, who says what constitutes saving? Beings from the beginning are all Buddhas, are just what they are, are themselves already manifesting their true nature. All beings are already manifesting interdependence and impermanence, what we call Buddha nature. Saving them might be just seeing them as such, seeing them as already complete, not needing anything at all. You might think that’s sort of cheating and getting out of it, but it’s actually to treat people as if there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s as they would say, the great mitzvah, where we rarely encounter being treated like that.

In my business of psychotherapy you get a similar kind of dichotomy between what people want or expect from therapy. There’s certainly a dimension in which they’re undergoing very real suffering and loss and pain, and they come wanting some solutions to their problems, and inevitably some level of problem-solving takes place. But there’s a whole other level at which therapy operates that’s similar, which is simply about a person wanting to feel recognized, understood, accepted, just being able to present themselves and have that, just be heard, just be accepted as is without any notion of what you’re going to do about it. That kind of deep acceptance, when it happens, is often paradoxically more transformative than all the problem-solving you can offer someone.

So what’s the nature of compassion? Somehow it has to contain both of these calls in some kind of dialectical tension. Pure acceptance without action is not enough; action without that grounded acceptance just leads to exhaustion or burn-out, futility. Now on the side of acceptance, if we really see who and what we are, we see that we’re not separate from everyone else, and in that non-separateness we automatically throw ourselves into responsive functioning, so that the full acceptance leads spontaneously to the action of the little bird, because the bird is inseparable from every other creature in the forest and from the forest itself.

I think there are all sorts of actions that can flow out of seeing and accepting who and what we are. It doesn’t have to somehow burst forth as a vow of endless social work. There are lots of ways to manifest that. I think there’s something of that in the response that you’ve got eighty percent of it: Hands and eyes all over the body versus hands and eyes throughout the body. Both are right in some sense, but I think one point could be that because the bodhisattva’s hands and eyes are numberless, there’s no one description of how they function. Anything at all that you say is only going to get eighty percent of it. It can’t be a complete list or picture of all the possibilities. To try to say it’s one thing is already to constrict it. So I think it’s an open question for each of us: How do we balance out these two sides of acceptance versus responsiveness and action? It’s something to present to dokusan and perhaps it’s something we can take up in our group discussion next week as well.

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