Why We Suffer
Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, you are sharing in the totality of this pain and are called upon to meet it in compassion and joy instead of self-pity.—Sufi master Pir Vilayat Khan
Alan Wallace, a leading Western teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, puts it like this: “Imagine walking along a sidewalk with your arms full of groceries, and someone roughly bumps into you so that you fall and your groceries are strewn over the ground. As you rise up from the puddle of broken eggs and tomato juice, you are ready to shout out, ‘You idiot! What’s wrong with you? Are you blind?’ But just before you can catch your breath to speak, you see that the person who bumped into you is actually blind. He, too, is sprawled in the spilled groceries, and your anger vanishes in an instant, to be replaced by sympathetic concern: ‘Are you hurt? Can I help you up?’ Our situation is like that. When we clearly realize that the source of disharmony and misery in the world is ignorance, we can open the door of wisdom and compassion.”
Each person who comes for spiritual teachings or psychotherapy carries his or her measure of confusion and sorrow. Buddhism teaches that we suffer not because we have sinned but because we are blind. Compassion is the natural response to this blindness; it arises whenever we see our human situation clearly. Buddhist texts describe compassion as the quivering of the heart in the face of pain, as the capacity to see our struggles with “kindly eyes.” We need compassion, not anger, to help us be tender with our difficulties and not close off to them in fear. This is how healing takes place.
Beneath the sophistication of Buddhist psychology lies the simplicity of compassion. We can touch into this compassion whenever the mind is quiet, whenever we allow the heart to open. Unfortunately, thick layers of ignorance and trauma can obscure our compassion. On the global scale, ignorance manifests as injustice, racism, exploitation, and violence. On a personal scale, we see our own states of envy, anxiety, addiction, self-judgment, and aggression. When we take this blindness to be the end of the story, we limit the possibility of human development.
In Buddhist psychology, compassion is not a struggle or a sacrifice. Within our body, compassion is natural and intuitive. We don’t think, “Oh, my poor toe or finger is hurt, maybe I should help it.” As soon as it is injured, we instantly respond because it is a part of us. Through meditation we gradually open the boundaries of consciousness to compassion for all beings, as if they were part of our family. We learn that even when our compassion is lost through fear and trauma, it can be reawakened. Faced with a crying child in a burning house, a hardened criminal is as likely as anyone else to take the risk of rescuing her. We all have moments when the openness and beauty of our Buddha nature shines.