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Compassion is far more than emotion. It is something that springs
Up in the emptiness which is when you yourself are not there,
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it (If they knew it, it would not be Compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the Heart of the Void
(‘The Unseen Flower’, by Bhante)
BAM in Ireland opened with a retreat over the June bank holiday weekend in the lovely surroundings of Sandville House, Co. Cavan. Twenty four people took part – including a mix of Sangha members not just from Dublin, but from Donegal, Westport and even Berlin! Despite the weather being not particularly summer-like four brave beings camped on the grounds.
The theme of the retreat was “Self and Other: the Alchemy of Transformation” – an apt theme for BAM! Vajrashura and Prajnagita led the retreatants through a comprehensive and uncompromising look at Vasubandhu’s four factors for the arising of the Bodhicitta – an integral part of becoming a Bodhisattva (a being who seeks to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings). These four factors are:- recollecting the Buddhas; seeing the faults of conditioned existence; observing the suffering of living beings; and contemplating the virtues of the Tathagatas. Prajnagita stated that Vasubandhu’s four factors starts with recollecting the Buddhas so that we remember they were men and women just like us – and what they attained, we can also – we can become Bodhisattvas trying to alleviate suffering everywhere (good news for us all!).
Particularly challenging was a Dharma talk which went into the three lakshanas, really emphasising that all conditioned things (yes all!) are unsatisfactory, impermanent and lacking a fixed self. Prajnagita argued that it is vital that we all put effort into engaging with a solid reflection on the three lakshanas as this is necessary for the Bodhicitta to arise – with a firm caveat that one must have a strong basis of Metta first. As she said: “any effort causes inroads, but until there is a decisive turning in our deepest being then we will always feel the gravitational pull towards the conditioned. So we need to keep plugging away and really get to grips with this fundamental teaching, over and over again, when we are standing, when we are sitting, when we are lying down…Otherwise we will be like the broken record that keeps getting stuck on a particular note unable to play the proper tune it was originally designed for.”
Vajrashura led a Karuna bhavana meditation (the development of compassion) as part of the third factor for the arising of the Bodhicitta, observing the suffering of living beings. Again it was clear how important Metta is for any sustained practice of this sort. Something to bear in mind before we charge off to save the world – unless one has a strong basis of Metta, compassion for others will be quickly deflected into either sentimental pity or, more likely, horrified anxiety.
Lastly, contemplating the virtues of the Tathagatas (or Buddhas) is helpful for developing a positive vision of something to move towards. Vajrashura argued that such contemplation is essential when trying to engage more deeply with social issues because, “if we’re in touch with something beyond ourselves, we will not fall into horrified anxiety or passivity when we have to face into climate change, or when we read about the horrors of what’s happening in Syria, or hear about journalists locked up in Egypt, or about children being bombed in Gaza – instead we’ll respond with the compassion and wisdom of the Bodhisattva. We’ll be able to have a really creative response, we’ll be able to effect the world in a much more positive way.”
So plenty to think about and reflect on there and a great start to BAM!