Radical Compassion: A Reflection on Buddha’s Birthday

On April 8th, Buddhists across America took time to celebrate the birth of Buddha. Of course when Buddha’s birthday is celebrated (and how it is celebrated) depends on both the culture and the type of Buddhism. Many believe Buddha was born on April 8th; thus, that day is designated as the official celebration in America. Some adherents throw festivals, like the famous Flower Festival in San Francisco, and some opt for smaller celebrations like dinner parties. Others go to Buddhist temples or even spend the day at home in meditation and prayer. I spent last Saturday at my house in the woods, reflecting on compassion, which Buddha believed to be a crucial tool for those on the spiritual path.

What is compassion? Compassion is about putting ego aside; it is about caring for someone else. Sometimes we define compassion as pity, but that word has a negative connotation. I would argue that compassion is the feeling of wanting to help another being—human or animal. We can have compassion for our mothers, our pets, our friends, and our partners. We can (and should) have compassion for strangers.

What does compassion look like? Is it a feeling or an action? I would say that it is both. We can feel compassion for a person who is homeless, but that is not enough. A feeling alone cannot affect change. Compassion in action, what Vietnamese Buddhist nun Cheng Yen calls “Engaged Buddhism,” means not simply praying or meditating for a person in need, but rather affecting change for that person. In other words, compassion is also doing. This doing should not be for recognition or ego; rather, it should be selfless and should truly benefit the being in need.

Before I became Buddhist, I would pray daily for my family and my friends. In other words, I prayed for those directly involved in my life. Buddhism has made me acutely more aware of universal suffering. Now, I pray for all living beings, that all sentient creatures on this planet will one day be free from suffering. In this way, I have become radically compassionate. I cannot be discriminatory with my compassion; it is all or nothing. I feel for beings all over the world, not just those in my circle, not just those in my country. How radical it is to open your heart to everyone.

During my reflection last Saturday, I realized that I need to be more engaged. I made a list of actions I can take to affect change. One of those things involves finding a way to help the hungry. I realize that giving to my local foodbank during the holidays my family celebrates is not enough. I need to give more frequently. I challenge readers to make a list of ways they can be radically compassionate. Then, display the list somewhere visible, and act on your words.

In peace and kindness,

Jer Bryant

Posted in Jeremy