Where can I go between the pleasure and the pain of all experience – between sentiment and horror-shock, indifference and anxiety? When I see you suffer, should I suffer? Would that help? Or would it help if I felt nothing, and just got on with life?
No, and no; but then what would help? If I also vibrate with what you feel, I know it helps, but still it hurts. Can anything be done about pain - beyond having sympathy, or maybe living differently?
I don’t think so, unfortunately. But understanding this does change the space where the great mass of dissatisfaction happens. Suddenly there isn’t anything to stop me giving whatever I have, and that’s all anyone can ever do.
Suffering is in everything. No experience, no deed is ever totally satisfactory. What we all need is a creative response to all this suffering – our own, and others’. We can all be overwhelmed by it. Being overwhelmed by suffering is generally very far from being an insight experience. Yet it could induce transformative insight if we could be overwhelmed in a different way – as was Avalokitesvara who fell apart like Humpty Dumpty when he saw how impossible it is to save all beings from suffering. Yet from the shattered remains arose a thousand arms tooled, equipped with wisdom eyes, and ready to go into action.
Kurukulle is another archetypal image that represents insight springing from great compassion. Like the whole great gang of Bodhisattva forms, like Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani, Tara and Manjusri, she is a pop icon, a superhero acting out the story of how we could all be if we were enlightened. On a mega scale, Kurukulle embodies positive response to suffering. She dances wild in a cremation ground, wearing bones. She is naked, young and gorgeous and draws all beings to her irresistible allure. In Tantric Buddhism there are four ritual forms: the yellow prospering or maturing rite, the white pacifying and calming rite, the black destroying rite, and the red rite of fascination. Kurukulle is about the fourth of these. She is red, very red and her beauty hypnotises and magnetises all beings. She holds flowery weapons, especially a flowery bow with which she fires love arrows into all beings’ hearts, causing them to fall in love with Dharma.
Yes, this is another Buddhist fantasy. And quite likely a male one. Yet it represents a truth for us all: the life of full awareness is profoundly joyful, and suffering can be overcome! You really can dance in the midst of death and darkness! These fantastic images represent a spirit we can partake of if we take them into our hearts. We can meditate upon them. They represent the innate Buddha nature that can be brought to life in us.
The question for us, of course, is how we can even approach such an extraordinary place. We need to fall apart and be put back together differently.
The two main avenues of practice, roughly covering 'falling apart' and 'total renewal' are that of wisdom and that of compassion. The path of Wisdom explores non-self. You see that ‘self’ is a fantasy based on a fundamental misreading of experience. Our experience of self is there all the time as normal. Even a Buddha has one, but he or she doesn’t think it has some kind of special existence. Non-Buddhas like us take it very seriously indeed – as something fixed, real and so important that our whole life is geared around it. But self is just one frame of the movie of our lives. It is just a snapshot reading, a bundle of ephemeral memories, wants and fears happening at the moment. And the view that it is fixed (as me, mine, myself) is the root condition for all our worst suffering. By that I mean all the suffering we add on to the circumstances we cannot avoid. It is usually the worst suffering by far.
Wisdom practice sees this in meditation and lets it go. Wisdom can be there in action too: try giving up a few preferences and being less me, me, me – it is liberating. Well, it is liberating if one does it clean and straightforwardly. It is not if one does it out of duty or to please the group. That is just me, me, me in another form.
Compassion practice is demonstrated through the Bodhisattva’s life and The Four Immeasurables of Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity.
Maitri (metta, Pali), ie love – better expressed as friendliness, kindness and wellwishing – is the basic and very Buddhist quality. Buddhists may sometimes be weird but they are usually very friendly. This is the ritual of attraction. Maitri or metta (the actual terms in Sanskrit and Pali) is not sentimental, or just fancying someone. It is ‘disinterested’ in the sense that it is not for ‘me’, but responds to how the actual person is – however attractive or otherwise they may seem at the time.
Karuna, or Compassion is what happens when this so-well-grounded friendliness meets with suffering. It is not pity, not a kind of frozen anxiety, but just a direct, helpful and friendly response. In other words it is less self referenced.
Mudita or (sympathetic) Joy is that grounded friendliness when it meets happiness and is joyful at it – rather than feeling resentful or wanting to undermine it, which unfortunately is a common response.
Upeksha (upekkha, Pali) comes out of insight into the non-self nature of all things, the understanding that all beings are already free of self, yet they grasp on to an idea of a self, and therefore suffer. The response of upeksha meets that reality, by understanding, through experiential insight, how much of that suffering is self-caused. You may be born into terrible conditions, but self-grasping makes that suffering far worse. So you meditate on that and it gives you more power to help – frees you from more levels of self-grasping – and makes you just a little like Kurukulle. ￼