To care, to cry, to remove the suffering

I had another post planned for today. I think I will save it for some other time, because for the last few hours I have been watching on live television a tsunami devastate the Pacific coast of Japan, and now the entire west coast of the U.S. is under a tsunami warning . . .

It is extraordinary, and heart wrenching, to watch:  A tsunami wave carrying mud and debris (some of it burning)  went up a river to sweep over homes and farm land, cars speeding out of the way, cars and huge trucks swept up and carried along, boats crashing into bridges, buildings filling with water, fires in Sendai, Tokyo . . .

A tsunami warning has been in effect for Russia, Marcus Island and the Northern Marianas, and a tsunami watch issued for Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Hawaii. By the time you read this, who knows what the situation will be.

I have never been to Japan. I have spent a great deal of time with Japanese people, and I am very fond of them and love their culture. May they and all people in the regions affected be free from suffering.

Whenever there is a natural disaster, people struggle to find an explanation. However, the truth is that there is only the scientific explanation. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not caused by supernatural forces. Buddhism certainly doesn’t try to provide an explanation other than that it is suffering and this is a world of suffering.

Somehow, though, that doesn’t seem enough. There should be ideas or words that comfort, that heal. That’s the compassion part of Buddhism. The Japanese word for compassion is jihi. I believe it corresponds with the Sanskrit karuna. Ji means “to care, to cry” or to have empathy. Hi means “to remove the suffering.”

It is not enough to simply know there is suffering. We must also remove suffering whenever we can. Or make the attempt. There are times, however, when we are helpless, too far away, unable to render any direct service. In such cases, all we can do is heal and comfort ourselves, and those immediately around us.

In that regard, we have two powerful tools. One is the aspiration to remove the suffering. We may not be able to help, but we can still want to help. An aspirational wish, or prayer if you will, can be very effective. Just ask the Dalai Lama:

The root of [aspirational] prayer is compassion. To be interested in one’s own welfare and to desire happiness for oneself is natural. But it is more important to be concerned with the happiness of others. What an altruistic aspiration like this does is counter the self-centeredness that neglects others. If you are centered on your own well-being, and ignore the well-being of others, you will never find true happiness. The act of wishing others to be free from suffering brings great benefits and blessings to you, even though you do not seek them.

Secondly, we have practice. Tibetan Buddhism has a meditation called Tonglen. It means “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.”  You visualize taking into your own body the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath you send out warm thoughts of loving-kindness. There are different ways to do Tonglen. Some are a bit ritualistic. I do “giving and taking” very simply, as I described it here.

Healing and comforting oneself is not selfish. It is an essential requirement to practicing compassion, empathy and removing suffering. Again, the Dalai Lama:

Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.

If you would like to learn more about Tonglen, Pema Chodron’s explanation is a good place to start.

All that mass of pain and evil karma I take into my own body. I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble,  I am not afraid,  nor do I despair. Assuredly, I must bear the burdens of all beings for I have resolved to save them all. I must set them all free.

– Shantideva


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