The Art of Compassion

The Art of Compassion

Our local sangha wasn’t able to have our four-hour sitting yesterday because of a huge snowstorm, which knocked out power at the Unitarian church where we meet.

I just got back from a writers’ conference in Chicago. While I was there, I ended up having enough free time to spend hours at the Art Institute, something that gives me great pleasure. I stood for long periods in front of the images of the Buddha, Kartikaya (God of War Seated on a Peacock), and Avalokiteśvara.

I was particularly interested in the expressions on the faces of the images of Avalokitesvara, the god who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. His name in Sanskrit means “Lord who looks down.” According to Mahāyāna doctrine, Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva who has made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has assisted every being on Earth in achieving Nirvāṇa. “He” was also personified as female by the fifth century, and probably earlier also, according to Red Pine in his commentary on the Heart Sutra.

What struck me in the various faces of Avalokitesvara is the playfulness. You might think there would be great seriousness, considering the human condition, but the lips are upturned not in laughter but something like bemusement. It didn’t seem mocking or detached. It was actually comforting—there was freedom enough to smile. Everything is as it should be. It is all okay, no matter what it is.

Goldstein says, in “Liberation Through Nonclinging” the chapter in One Dharma we’ll be picking back up on in our discussion next week: “Anything can happen anytime. Changing conditions are not a mistake. It’s just how things are. . . . .Sometimes people feel that recognizing the truth of suffering conditions a pessimistic outlook on life. . .actually, it’s quite the reverse.” More on that next week.

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