The Courageous Heart

As children, many of us were taught courage in the form of the warrior or the explorer, bravely facing danger. In the Buddhist understanding, however, great courage is not demonstrated by aggression or ambition. Aggression and ambition are more often expressions of fear and delusion. The courageous heart is the one that is unafraid to open to the world, to care no matter what.

With compassion we come to trust our capacity to open to life without armoring. As the poet Rilke reminds us, “Ultimately it is on our vulnerability that we depend.” This is not a poetic ideal but a living reality, demonstrated by our most beloved sages. Mahatma Gandhi had the courage to be jailed and beaten, to persevere through difficulties without giving in to bitterness and despair. His vulnerability became his strength.

Martin Luther King Jr. exhorted us, “Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the instruments of love.” At the worst times, such an attitude may seem impossible. Yet even though some of King’s followers later rejected his precepts of non-violence, something in us knows that closing down is not the way. Yes, the world is full of pain, uncertainty, and injustice. But in this vulnerable human life, every loss is an opportunity either to shut out the world or to stand up with dignity and let the heart respond.

Compassion is not foolish. It doesn’t just go along with what others want so they don’t feel bad. There is a yes in compassion, and there is also a no, said with the same courage of heart. No to abuse, no to racism, no to violence, both personal and worldwide. The no is said not out of hate but out of an unwavering care. Buddhists call this the fierce sword of compassion. It is the powerful no of leaving a destructive family, the agonizing no of allowing an addict to experience the consequences of his acts.

In our personal relations, in community, and in every sphere of public life, we can draw on the power of compassion. This is the source of human happiness. Wherever it is practiced, compassion brings us back to life.

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