Activating Karuna

Karuna (in Pali and Sanskrit) is usually translated in English as “compassion” and the word has many different connotations. In Mahayana, it is seen as a quality that needs to be cultivated alongside Prajna (enlightening insight). Just like a bird can only fly by using both of its wings, aspiring bodhisattvas can make progress on the path only when they practice Prajna and Karuna together.

Ideally speaking, Karuna is the natural expression of Prajna. In deep samadhi one can realize that there is no separation between self and other, and that this whole world is one single organic and vividly alive body. That enlightening insight (Prajna) comes with a total identification with all the different parts of this body – however unlikely some might seem to be! – and a great urge to take good care them (Karuna). We start to feel more responsible for everyone’s well-being.

Prajna is an experience and, in principle, just one strong occurrence of it should be enough to start manifesting Karuna throughout the rest of one’s life. But, being human, for most of us things don’t quite work out that way. Our enlightening insights may just not be profound enough to keep the Prajna batteries charged when challenged by unexpected situations, and we can easily fall back into conditioned self-serving patterns of behaviour.

For this reason, it is important to return to zazen on a very regular base to deepen our insight, so that we can be better prepared for the next move. This seems like common fare for most of us in Zen training. Although there are meditation methods such as the Four Immeasurables that focus specifically on Karuna, in general Prajna is primarily addressed during sitting meditation, while Karuna is expected to be practised when we get into action.

Fortunately, the Buddhist tradition offers a great number of guidelines that can help us express Karuna, even if our Prajna insights are still somewhat weak. The sixteen bodhisattva vows, the six (or ten) paramitas, and Dogen Zenji’s Bodaisatta Shishobo (generosity, identification with others, kind speech, and beneficial action) are basically all manuals for cultivating Karuna.

As we engage in the practice of Karuna as well as Prajna, we’ll see that the two reinforce one another. But each also has its own specific intricacies, and to really find ways to manifest Karuna is not easy, even with all the guidelines available. To return to the English word “compassion”, I personally like to interpret it as a passion for something that benefits all beings — which implies that one needs to be passionate in order to be compassionate.

Now, what is it that we feel passionate about, and would really like to take responsibility for? Everybody has different talents and abilities, and the Buddhadharma can use all of them. Perhaps that is the main reason we need physical places – such as Zen centres, temples and monasteries – where people can get together and take on responsibilities great or small: for each other; for kitchen, office, sewing, and garden work; for maintenance and renovations; and for outreach to those in special need. Without such opportunities, any spark of Prajna might just not come to flourish.

Of course, we can practice Karuna at any location. But we just seem to learn more quickly if we do things together under experienced guidance in a conducive environment. We need special places not only to sit and develop Prajna but also to physically work together and develop Karuna. Over time, we can extend this further and further to all life situations until the whole world becomes our place of practice.

It is interesting also to see the practice of Karuna as taking on responsibility for future generations. In what format will the Three Treasures be best kept alive and transmitted to people who have yet to be born? It would clearly help if there were well-educated and accredited teachers, accommodation where all elements of training can be addressed, and a dedicated sangha with a passion for compassion. In other words, we have our Karuna work cut out for us!

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