Every so often I have the experience of reading through a sutra that I have chanted or read hundreds or thousands of times before, and a line suddenly pops out. It may be a line that I hadn’t noticed, or a line that I’d always been puzzled by. That happened recently for me with part of the “Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo” chant that we do at every sutra service.
Here’s the English translation of the whole chant:
Absorbing world sounds awakens a Buddha right here!
This Buddha, the source of compassion.
This Buddha receives only compassion.
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—just compassion.
Thus, the pure heart always rejoices.
In the light, recall this.
In the dark, recall this.
Moment after moment the true heart arises.
Time after time there is nothing but this.
The line that really popped out at me was “This Buddha receives only compassion.” Kanzeon, Guanyin, Kwan Um, Avalokiteshvara—whatever name we use for the bodhisattva of compassion—is said to receive only compassion. When I noticed this line at all, it seemed odd to me. It seemed to perhaps imply that Kanzeon has some kind of filter or block that keeps out everything else and lets in only compassion.
But lately I’ve seen this in a new way. I’ve been reading about Chan, the precursor of Zen, as it developed in China. It was influenced greatly by the Taoist notions of Qi or Tao, and the whole Taoist cosmology of Absence and Presence. As author David Hinton puts it Qi or Tao or (he prefers the term) Absence is the single undifferentiated tissue that we talk about as emptiness in Zen, from which Presence or form arise. When I hear either “absence” or “emptiness,” I tend to think of a black void. Hinton points out, however, that Absence is actually very generative and energetic. The original character for Absence, he points out, is a representation of a woman dancing with foxtails in her hands. That’s a much more active idea of emptiness than I would have thought! And so this emptiness “burgeons forth” into the world of form and becomes the 10,000 things.
Reading about Absence, Tao, and Qi got me back to practicing a little bit of Qi Gong, which I used to practice more regularly. Qigong (similar to Tai Chi) is about regulating Qi (chi) in our bodies. According to ancient Chinese philosophy and medicine, the enormous energy of the cosmos also flows through our bodies as Qi. But the Qi can get blocked, or get stale. Such Qi can be unhealthy, even though we’re told in Qigong (and in Zen) that the fundamental energy of the cosmos is compassion. And so when we do Qigong, we release that stale and blocked and unhealthy energy and open ourselves to the healthier, compassionate energy of the Universe.
When I brought the reading and the activity together, I started to notice the flows of energy around me. What kind of energies am I picking up and receiving in my encounters with other people, or from other people? And even more than that, how am I storing it? Instead of thinking of Kanzeon having a filter or a block that excludes other energies, I realized that acting as Kanzeon means becoming something like an electrical converter.
Let me explain. Someone recently treated me in a way I found hurtful. And so the energy of pain rises up. My ordinary way of reacting to hurt is to let that sensation of pain become a charge that goes into my “pain battery.” And that internal pain battery tends to power thoughts of revenge, impulses to self-protection, “poor me” thinking, and similar patterns of reactivity. Also, some people around me have been angry. Science tells us that we have mirror neurons that, when we are near someone experiencing a strong emotion, we actually experience that same emotion in our body. Our nerves react as though that emotion is ours. Social psychologists know about the phenomenon of mass hysteria. We pick these things up from each other, and when we pick up rage we can get whipped into a violent mob as such energy goes into our batteries of anger, hurt, or panic. When people around me are angry, does that feeling of anger I get in my body feed my “anger battery”? Certainly, if somebody is feeling angry with me, I get my back up right away. The energy from my anger battery then powers my defensiveness.
What if those energies were diverted, and went into my “compassion battery” instead? What if Kanzeon works an alchemical sort of change that takes one kind of energy, which perhaps initially hits briefly and near the surface, and converts it into a deep, long-lasting well of compassion? If I could receive the pain I felt at others’ actions and convert it this way, I could feel compassion for myself. And, though it can be hard, compassion for the person who hurt me. But even more than that, compassion just for our situation as human beings. We screw up. We mis-speak. We misinterpret. We feel we need more than our share. We develop our habits and loyalties and don’t always take time to examine them. So perhaps we can feel compassion for our whole screwed-up human condition.
In my limited experience of being with people who are experiencing great grief, or great physical pain, this sort of alchemy is exactly what is called for. If you witness someone grieving and let the grief feed to your own grief battery, you may say something unhelpful, like, “Oh, I know just how you feel. That’s how I felt when my mother died.” That is not helpful to the grieving person. It’s much more comforting if one just says, “I’m so sorry. I’ll be here with you.” When you see someone else in unrelievable pain, it may activate your own stored pain energy, and you start telling them about your own surgeries and accidents. Again, not helpful. What might help the person in pain is “I see you are in pain and I’ll stay here with you as long as you want me here.” Likewise, anger may activate anger, escalating the conflict.
Or the slightest twinge of a type of energy that we have worked hard to avoid and repress may send us packing. We fear being overwhelmed. One intends to visit a friend in grief, but never quite does so…ghosts a friend whose presence would remind us of our own pain…backs away from any conflict. Whether one is activated by it or pushes it way, one is unable to be a witnessing presence because one takes the emotional charge personally.
But what if we receive that grief or pain or anger as Kanzeon? What if we let the various energies charge up our compassion battery? What if, instead of taking things personally, we just witness our human frailty and our human sadness? I suspect that people who work as chaplains, nurses, or hospice volunteers are most effective when they are good at such energy conversions.
A note about compassion: It doesn’t always look the way we expect. Compassion may arise as warmth, gentleness, quietness, and generosity. But acts of compassion may also include demanding accountability, working for justice, doing the unpopular thing, or saying “no.” Compassion is not merely a sentiment. What is appropriate for the situation shouldn’t be determined by our ideas of “niceness,” or by some set of rules, or by what we think will make us feel most effective and successful. Skillful action arises from the wisdom of the awakened heart-mind, and is not attached to outcomes.
On the same page of our liturgy book as “Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo” chant there is a reading entitled “Invocation of Kanzeon” by Robert Aitken. We don’t chant this one nearly as often, but I think it gives a hint about this alchemy that Kanzeon performs. Aitken writes, “The compassionate action of Kanzeon arises from the place of grateful receiving.” I see this as grateful receiving not just of joy, but grateful receiving of the opportunity to be alive and aware in this moment. Grateful receiving even of these experiences that are unpleasant. Gratefully receiving of the fullness of our human experience. We’d be very shallow people, if we never experienced hurt, grief, or anger. Can we gratefully receive, and act compassionately from, whatever types of energies we encounter?
(An audio version of this blog entry is also available.)