There is a Zen story about the Buddha walking arm-in-arm with the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and the three go happily to the market with a big grin on their faces.
Becoming friends with compassion and wisdom is the goal of any spiritual aspirant and no buddhahood or self-liberation can be achieved without them. Like the two wings of a bird they complement each other and if one is missing flying is not possible. Compassion without wisdom is sentimental love and wisdom without love is cold and cerebral knowledge.
In some schools of Buddhism compassion is represented by the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. A bodhisattva is a being who vows to help liberate all sentient beings before attaining his or her own liberation. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. In China Avalokiteshvara became Kuan Yin, a goddess rising from the waves of the sea to listen to the cries of the world. In Tibet Tara also hears the cries for help of her devotees cupping her ear with one hand to better listen. In Hinduism Krishna enchants the love-struck gopis with the sound of his flute as they lose themselves in a trance-like dance. So many ways to express love and compassion! And then there is Rumi, the Sufi saint, who despairs when his beloved remains absent at night:
Last night, I was lying on the rooftop, thinking of you. I saw a special Star and summoned her to take you a message… I opened my chest and showed her my scars, I told her to bring me news of my bloodthirsty Lover.
Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion is the path of falling in love with the Divine. The Beloved colors your vision and you see Him everywhere and in everybody. Only those of an emotional or devotional nature that can fall in love with God are called to this exalted path.. For others there is the path of action, Karma Yoga, just as effective in opening the heart. By serving others selflessly our egoism dissolves and love manifests. Mother Theresa was a famous karma yogi who dedicated her life to the care of the destitute. She was also a bhakta and she saw God in every sick and poor person that came to her. Jesus also took on the suffering of the world and he is often depicted with a bleeding heart. Perhaps not all of us can experience mystical raptures or forget ourselves at the sound of Krishna’s flute but we can all practice love and compassion by giving a little, sharing a little and loving a little. Altruism is the key to this practice. Parents know well unconditional love but is it possible to love friend and enemy the same way? In the Vipassana metta meditation we picture ourselves loving our close relatives and friends, wishing them happiness and well-being, then we extend that circle of love to include people towards whom we are indifferent and finally we include those we don’t like. In everyday life we can also practice compassion every time we are patient instead of angry, every time we yield and let go, every time we give of our time and attention and every time we listen to someone without preconceived ideas. So many ways to put compassion in action!
The other friend of the Buddha is wisdom. Without it we may become a love punch bag who gives indiscriminately in detriment of himself and others. The knowledge of what is right or wrong is not easy to attain. We need the sharp sword of discrimination that cuts duality into oneness and sees what is real or immutable and what is unreal or impermanent. In Tibetan Buddhism there are specific meditation practices to develop discrimination, equality of vision and mirror-like clarity, some of the facets of wisdom. At the base of all these practices is meditation, the stilling of the body and mind as without this inner silence we hesitate, doubt and cannot hear our inner voice. This is also the ultimate practice of Raja Yoga and the ground of Jnana Yoga, the yoga of self-inquiry and introspection. But until we achieve profundity in our meditation where can we go to find wisdom? The best place is where the wise are. This is why satsang and the company of the sangha is so important. We learn by observing and hearing the wise and remaining in their enlightened company. If we don’t have a teacher we can read elevating books and study the sacred texts. Ultimately we need to realize who we are and what is our true nature by ourselves. When in deep meditation we have some intuitive insights, glimpses of the truth, our doubts are dispelled for a while and we know with certainty what to think, say and do. At that moment we don’t need any more confirmation or reassurance, we just know. But the development of intuition -and also of compassion – is an ongoing process and the Masters remind us that enlightenment is a very deep well and that we can always go deeper.
“The Paths are many but the Truth is One” is one of Sivananda’s motto but regardless of the tradition compassion and wisdom need to be cultivated always. We may have the impression that they are separate qualities or virtues because their practices are different, but in fact one leads to the other and vice versa. The bhakta through union with God attains wisdom and the Jnana or Raja yogi through self-inquiry and meditation opens his heart. Wisdom and compassion are truly Buddha’s companions, the two wings of the bird of enlightenment.