Extending Compassionate Action

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Varieties of expression

Karuna should be rendered in English by such words as “love,” “pity,” “mercy,” “compassion,” and all their synonyms or approximate synonyms together. No one word can convey an adequate idea of what karuna means. It is perhaps the word that occurs most frequently in Mahayanist literature.  

Har Dayal

Here the extension of compassionate action—a mode of engagement—becomes a path in its own right. Whatever the state of one's engaged practice, it can almost always be extended—in scope, duration, skillfulness, depth of understanding, or degree of integration.

Collective action directed toward structural change can be advanced by strengthening intentional communities, reinforcing links with like-minded groups, and reaching new audiences.

Extension is also an abiding theme in Buddhism's historical and doctrinal development. When Shakyamuni created the Sangha, he boldly extended a welcome to members of all castes. In the "greater vehicle" of Mahayana Buddhism, the ability to achieve enlightenment is extended not only to laypeople, but ultimately to all existence—animal, mineral, or vegetable.

The statement “It is more blessed to give than to receive” is sometimes understood as a should. But it is also an observation: giving gives us pleasure. What does your own experience suggest?

Activities that express this path vary greatly in outward form.

  • When Patrick McMahon taught at an inner-city school in Berkeley, California, he sought to extend the domain of practice to his classroom: “Unless I thought there was a point to Buddhist peacemakers working in the schools, reforming society from within, I wouldn't be there .... How do you teach peace in the war zone of present-day education?... How do you practice mindfulness, much less teach mindfulness, in the rat cage of an overcrowded classroom? How do you translate Buddhist teachings into the various languages of class, color, and culture of an inner-city school?”

  • In Yonkers, New York, a Buddhist group under the leadership of Zen teacher Bernard Glassman set up housing for the homeless and created work programs, including a bakery, to employ the poor. When the socially progressive Zen bakery attracted a burst of publicity, it defined Zen "for hundreds of thousands of people who might never have heard of it before," according to Glassman.

  • Once a year, in New York's Central Park, the Buddhist journal Tricycle sponsors "Change Your Mind Day." In a festive atmosphere, teachers from various lineages offer instruction in meditation to all who are interested, free of charge. That too is the spirit of this path. Change Your Mind Day participants have found that two thousand people meditating together in the heart of New York City create an exceptional quality of silence.

Most of us have areas in our lives that seem to fall outside our efforts to deepen awareness. It is possible, however, to notice those neglected places and consciously make them a part of practice. Jack Kornfield offers a meditation to advance the process:

As you sense each area, hold it lightly in your heart and consider what it would mean to bring this too into your practice. Envision how your sense of the sacred could grow to include this in your practice with full attention and compassion, honoring these people, places, or activities .... Sense how each has a lesson to teach, how each area will bring a deepening of your attention and an opening of your compassion until nothing is excluded.