Compassion, the Holy Action

I used to live in an apartment that was built in 1921. It was a cool place with a small landing and stairs going down four flights into the alley. With restaurants on either side of the apartment some of the neighbors thought we had a “rat problem.” One day the building management decided to resolve the problem: they poured concrete into the rat burrows, destroying the rats’ homes and suffocating the rats that were in the holes.

The night of the day this happened I came home from work and was a little surprised to see this was done. I hadn’t seen but one or two rats the 8 or 9 years I lived there. The something caught my eye. One of the surviving rats was frantically digging at the hardened cement.  I thought I heard him crying.

Oddly enough we seemed to bond at that moment. My heart went out to the rat that lost his home and family through the cruelty and misunderstanding of a few business owners. As I trudged the four flights of stairs I wondered how the rat must feel. After I was upstairs I fixed a cup of tea and a sandwich. Sitting on the landing I was enjoying my dinner when the rat came limping up the stairs. I called him by the name that popped into my mind, “Ratso,” and then tossed him a piece of bread.

For days after that, Ratso continued to scratch at the cement that hid his home—and family. Somehow, I thought, I could relieve him of some of his suffering. Each night at 9 pm he would limp up the stairs, the limp became a permanent part of him, and we would have dinner together. Sometimes we would discuss politics, sometimes I would rehearse a Dhamma talk with him. He was a good listener. A friend of mine, another Buddhist priest, reminded me of the Bodhisattva Vows. He said, one has to do with teaching animals. Somehow I thought that was pretty cool. That was not really the way I recalled the vow, but that was okay.

The way I remembered the 36th downfall was, “Avoiding taking care of those who are sick.” When a bodhisattva has the opportunity to look after a sick person or animal and they do not do so due to anger, laziness or other delusions, they will incur this branch downfall. I was doing what I could to take care of Ratso.

As the weather became cooler and winter set in, Ratso became more and more illusive, eventually disappearing altogether. I came to miss him and our Dhamma talks. At the same time I noticed something in me had changed just a little.

Karuna is an ancient word from the Vedas that was taken to mean “holy action.” In Buddhism the word is translated as “compassion.” To feel compassion, you must turn away slightly from your own focus on superficial happiness to sense the true condition of others, honestly facing their pains. The etymological origin of the term karuna is “suspending happiness.”  We have to somehow learn how to be willing to suspend our own happiness so we can develop the capacity to help others bear their burden, their share of suffering. This is a tough act.

Many people confuse metta (friendliness) with compassion. Metta has to do with the desire to bring to other beings that which is welfare and good. Karuna is more about the desire to remove the bane and sorrow from other beings. Metta gives while Karuna takes away.

The 37th Bodhisattva Vow (Tibetan version), points out that not making a serious attempt at dispelling the sufferings of others is a downfall of practice. If you do not help to dispel the suffering of the blind, deaf, handicapped, those who are exhausted, afflicted by the five hindrances, under the influence of malicious thoughts or superstition, and those disdained by others, you will incur this downfall. 

We often neglect to help whoever needs assistance by not providing counseling, teaching, protection, shelter, guidance and so on when we have the opportunity and capability to do so. Sometimes anger, laziness or other delusions get in our way and we decline to help others in need. (Vow 35)

It would have been easy for the average person to miss the point of Ratso’s presence.He was in despair. This is not personification or the pathetic fallacy, it was obvious that he was in grave distress, grief stricken and wounded. Not relieving the grief of others because of malice or laziness, not dispelling the grief of others who are struck by misfortune, poverty, depression and so on is inhumane. It is easy to be kind to kittens and puppies, children and bunnies. It is harder to befriend a rat, the homeless, the mentally ill and the grieving. We often feel uncomfortable around them. That is precisely why the Bodhisattva vows were created, to lesson our obstacles by lessening the obstacles of others.

It is obvious that I still think of the Ratso rat on occasion. He taught me a valuable lesson about myself and what it means to be human. 

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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