On How Compassion is a Key

Crucified Jesus and Dismas

During one of her {highly recommended talks} Jetsumna Tenzin Palmo, a British born Buddhist nun who spent 13 years sleeping in a meditation box 13k feet up in the Himalayas, relates a story of when, during one of his pre-enlightenment incarnations, The Buddha spent some time in one of the hell realms.

In this realm, the floors were made of iron and a river of lava ran beneath them making them searingly hot to walk on, {not exactly luxury underfloor heating}. The Buddha and a companion were yoked to a heavy chariot and tasked with pulling it back and forth eternally along a great, burning hall. On either side demons, whipped them with flames if they began to tire and slow.

Tenzin Palmo relates this story for two reasons. One to convey how difficult it is to escape such a realm and two, to give us a key to doing just such a thing.

She says that souls often fall from the heavenly realms because life becomes too easy for them there. They don’t have to struggle, they lose their compassion and they fail to spend time cultivating their spiritual life anymore as there are so many other distractions.

But, it is also difficult to escape the hell realms because consumed by such suffering, souls easily become overwhelmed, bitter, angry and inward looking.

Buddha apparently endured his suffering in a similar way for quite some time until one day he turned and glanced at his companion. He saw how the sweat poured from his skin, how the tears fell from his eyes and how weary he was of the struggle. The Buddha called out to the demons. “Let me take my companion’s burden for a little while. I will pull this chariot on my own so he can sit down and rest a while.” The demons reacted with immediate rage, knowing instantly that The Buddha was now lost to them. They tried to beat him with their flaming whips but he had already ascended to a higher realm.

The Buddha found that the key to such a prison of the soul was compassion. His ability to look beyond the limitations of his own condition, to feel empathy for another and then, crucially, to act upon that empathy even if the implications of doing so might increase his own burden, was what unlocked the doors.

A similar key is found in the story of the good thief in the New Testament. The two men being crucified beside Jesus react to their suffering in a completely different way.

“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

– Luke 23:39-43

In this story, we see that the one who could reach out beyond his own suffering to extend compassion to another finds his way out of the hell realms and into the highest of all heavenly realms.

Because of his compassion, a criminal became the first to be promised paradise!

The ancient Greek meaning of the word sin literally means “missing the mark.” These stories show how true charity {compassion in action} is a key that can cast out all fear and cover many sins.

The ancient texts, scriptures and traditions are integral to gaining a deep, resonant and full understanding of our humanity. We are living in a time when the wisdom of religious traditions, ceremonies, texts and practices are being thrown out indiscriminately and disregarded as irrelevant.

Someone once asked me whether I thought those living thousands of years from now would scorn “the naivety” of our religious belief systems. I actually think they would wonder at an arrogance that presumed that after millenia we could ever manage without them.

To argue from a scientific perspective, our consciousness’ have evolved alongside spiritual traditions. If we eliminate such practices from our lives, we might only fill the vacancy they leave with other tenants; political ideologies, philosophies of varying quality or neurosis, a lingering squatter.

Whether based in religion, philosophy or politics, both society and individual identity is founded upon belief systems. Error occurs when those belief systems become inflexible and stop serving selfless compassion and true charity {love in action} as their primary function.

Love has been trivialized in the collective psyche by sentimental hallmark cards, cheesy hollywood movies, frilly poetry, vacuous romantic novellas, false displays of emotion or flashy public donations to charity. This has dis-empowered it, made it seem, weak or disingenuous. Of course there are different levels of love. Some love is thinly disguised dependence but real love will always be the most powerful thing our consciousness will ever come into contact with.

“Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
 Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it would be utterly scorned.”

– Song of Songs


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