There’s a story my mother tells from when I was a child. She used to be very involved in the church we went to at the time (Episcopalian). One day she was volunteering at a ecumenical luncheon being attended by our priest and priests from several other denominations. Perhaps there was a rabbi there as well. It’s too long ago for me to remember, but no they did not go into a bar…
In any case, the subject of pre-marital counseling came up. There was apparently some discussion regarding how the Catholic priest can adequately provide premarital counseling when he is unable to get married. Naturally, the priest became somewhat defensive and asked how any of the others could provide counseling for terminally ill parishoners, given that they had never been terminally ill. Our family’s priest then countered with something to the effect of, “Yes, that’s true. But I have at least been sick.”
In the context of Buddhism this raises a significant question, given our emphasis on compassion practice. To what extent does one have to have an experience oneself before one can truly be compassionate for others in a similar situation?
Another example came my way last week, when one of my singing students was telling me how her husband does not understand her or their son’s allergies. She told me that he is the type of person who has never been sick a day in his life. He missed one day of work at one point because she made him go to the doctor to have something checked. It was fine. He has no allergies, no chronic medical conditions and has never been seriously injured. Their son, on the other hand, is on significant medication for allergies and asthma and this guy can’t understand why they can’t get a dog. After all, the kid is on the medications. Doesn’t that take care of it all? He just doesn’t get it.
Historically, I have gone through difficulties at time with depression and anxiety. So, when I am presented with a therapy patient who has trouble in this arena, I recognize it very quickly and instinctively understand how to approach the person to try to diffuse the situation. I find that I am able to be quite patient with these folks. Even when there are other, presumably less stressful things that may completely stress me out. I like to think I have cultivated this compassion, but I wonder sometimes if I have only cultivated the ability to recognize my own pain in others.
At some level, recognizing one’s own pain in others is the heart of Tonglen practice – breathing in the pain of all others who are experiencing something similar and then breathing out healing. So, perhaps even at the heart of buddhist philosophy is an inherent understanding that we need experience to fertilize our compassion. Nonetheless, I don’t think this is necessarily all that is required of us. So, I wonder to what extent it is possible to be truly compassionate without similar experiences to draw upon.
Some day, when I’m a bodhisattva, perhaps I’ll understand…
Now buy the Book!