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Transparency and compassion Barry Magid February 14th 2009

Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is said to have her entire body made up of hands and eyes. Why is that? Every part of her being is an eye of wisdom and a hand of compassion. In every possible situation she discerns what is needed, and responds accordingly. That's our ideal. But most of us aren't covered with hands and eyes, we're covered with buttons. In situation after situation, instead of compassionately responding, one of our buttons gets pushed, and we give a self-centered, knee jerk reaction. Instead of seeing what is helpful, we are preoccupied with being right. And it's always easier to be "right" than to be helpful. What's the difference? Being right is based on our own personal perception and judgements, all of which may be perfectly OK for us, but which may fail to take into account where the other person is coming from, what they're capable of hearing or using in that particular moment. Being "right" leaves no room for empathy.

Or, when our buttons get pushed, we may become preoccupied with how we're being treated, and forget to notice how we're responding. Our knee jerk reaction is: "I'm not being understood," or "I'm not being treated fairly," or "Nobody can talk to ME like that!" One way I can tell how someone's practice is going is whether they are focussed how they're being treated or on how they're responding. We might say that practice is a matter of learning how to respond well when you're treated badly. Avalokitesvara is ALL response, with no self-centered thought at all about how she's being treated or thought of. "Those ingrates!"

When we sit, we should simply be open to whatever is happening. We should be completely transparent, like a perfectly clear, clean pane of glass that any light, any scene can pass through unimpeded. Thoughts come, and pass through, pain comes, and passes through, boredom comes and passes through, one thing after another, leaving no trace. But when one of our buttons gets pushed, we leave a big trace. We get hung up on a particular thought that we can't get out of our head, we allow ourselves to drift down some daydream path, reluctant to return to our breathe, we get stuck on some judgement we have about how we're doing in our practice, and so forth. Then our pane of glass is anything but transparent. It starts to look like the windshield of a car driving on a hot summer day - spattered with dead bugs! All that gunk! See, when we're not transparent, everything sticks to us - and life is one messy thing after another, leaving one messy trace after another on our minds. And naturally we blame life for being messy, instead of paying attention to our own lack of transparency. Like the head monk's poem in the story of Hui-neng says, our practice is to endlessly polish or wipe clean the glass or mirror of our consciousness. That poem is usually maligned in favor of Hui-neng's poem which said from the beginning there's no mirror and no dust, so what's there to wipe? That's all well and good, but of no use when your windshield is splattered with bugs! We have to meticulously learn how our buttons get pushed, feel our way down into the bodily tensions that wire them into our reactions, and year after year, study them and disconnect them. We have to learn what sticks, what our egos don't let pass through. The more we label our thoughts, the more they are simply "thought," regardless of their content, the closer we come to Hui-neng's experience of no dust. But remember, no dust or no thought, doesn't mean a completely empty, thought-free mind - it means a mind that's transparent, where everything is free to pass through and nothing sticks. To believe that you should never have thoughts or emotions or pain in your sitting is a sure way to convert them into bugs and dust!

Well, I've gone from eyes and hands to buttons, and from windshields and bugs, to mirrors and dust! It must be a record for mixed metaphors! But what are a thousand hands and eyes good for if not to keep all those balls in the air?

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