Sadness and Compassion

Conducting funerals and memorial services is one of the characteristic activities of a Japanese Buddhist temple.  As a result, Buddhism is closely associated with death in the minds of many people in Japanese communities.  When I became a Buddhist priest, one of my friends who had lost her mother at a young age asked me, “Isn’t it depressing to be around so much sadness all the time?”

Certainly, every encounter with death is deeply saddening.  At the same time, sadness is deeply connected with the Buddha’s compassion that liberates us from suffering.  Shinran Shonin shares the following reflection on compassion (jihi 慈悲) in his major work The True Teaching, Practice and Realization of the Pure Land Way:

[Concerning compassion (jihi慈悲):] To eliminate pain is termed ji 慈; to give happiness is termed hi 悲. Through ji 慈, one eliminates the pain of all sentient beings; through hi 悲, one becomes free of thoughts that do not bring them peace.

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 169)

How do we experience compassion in our daily lives?  The actions we do with our bodies, the speech that comes out of our mouths, and the thoughts that run through our minds are the three kinds of karmic activity that make up the lives we live.  Actions we might take to eliminate pain could include offering food to someone who is hungry or giving a blanket to someone who is cold.  Mindful of our speech with the goal of eliminating pain, we might take care to avoid making hurtful comments or speak up in defense of someone who is being bullied.  If we wish to direct our thoughts toward eliminating pain, we could refrain from creating divisions in our minds between people we like and dislike or separating people into enemies and allies. 

There are times when pain can be difficult to eliminate.  For example, when a person is lonely and distraught after losing a dear loved one, the pain of sadness cannot be easily eliminated.  However, accompanying them in their sadness could bring them peace or even provide a moment of happiness in the midst of their grief.  Simply sitting with them could be a way to give happiness.  Attentively listening without providing one’s own commentary while they share their feelings of sadness, and then offering words that acknowledge the sadness they are feeling could bring some peace as well.  This compassion arrives in our minds when we notice the sadness of another, and then awaken concern for their pain as if it were our own.

For a person like me, who spends most of my time caught up in my own concerns, it can be difficult to feel the pain and sadness of others as my own.  In this regard, I am reminded of the following words of Shinran Shonin from his Hymns on the Dharma Ages:

Lacking even small love and small compassion,
I cannot hope to benefit sentient beings.
Were it not for the ship of Amida’s Vow,
How could I cross the ocean of painful existence?

(Collected Works of Shinran, p. 422)

Amida Buddha feels our pain and sadness as his own, so he established the Primal Vow to provide liberation for all beings.  The Buddha’s heart of great compassion equally embraces all beings without exception.  In the mind of the Buddha, sadness takes the form of deep concern for all beings and the wish to bring about their liberation from suffering.  Viewed in that light, sadness is not an emotion to suppress or shy away from, but rather can be the gate through which we encounter lasting happiness and peace of mind.

Namo Amida Butsu