Occasionally, without warning, tears well up in me. I don’t suppress or ignore them anymore, nor do I make excuses or fish for rational explanations. I merely notice and, when I have a moment to myself, listen to the source. As the eighteenth century hermit-monk Ryokan writes—
When I think of the sadness of the people in this world, Their sadness becomes mine.
In Japan the Bodhisattva of Compassion is called Kanzeon or Kannon (in China Kwan Yin or Guanyin). When Buddhism arrived in China from India in the first century CE, the people there considered compassion an essentially feminine quality and depicted it as such in paintings and statues. Neither then nor now is she considered a distant deity to be worshipped. Instead, she is a representation of certain intentions worth emulating. In its Sanskrit form, her name is translated along the lines of “the one who hears the cries of the world.” According to Zen scholar Taigen Dan Leighton, this–
implies that empathy and active listening are primary practices of compassion. Just to be present, to be upright and aware in the face of suffering without needing to react reflexively, is compassion. … Often, when we are troubled, what we most year for is acceptance, to be heard and have our pain recognized.
There, in a nutshell, is what draws some people to be of service to others and what makes me break into tears at the faintest whiff of others’ pain.
sources: Stevens, J. (trans.) (1997). One robe, one bowl: the Zen poetry of Ryokan. Boston: Weatherhill, p.76; Leighton, T.D. (2003). Faces of compassion: classical Bodhisattva archetypes and their modern expression. Boston: Wisdom Publ., p.185. see also “what gets in the way” on August 28.