Radical compassion is such a hopeful idea that, even amid the darkness of violence, poverty, injustice, and the seeming impossibility of accomplishing anything positive in the world, it raises a glowing torch of possibility. Empathy, writes philosopher Khen Lampert, is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. Compassion is empathy directed toward another’s suffering. But radical compassion is more than that: It is not just caring about suffering, but an impulse to do something about it. It is an “inner imperative to change reality in order to alleviate the pain of others.”
Lampert believes that radical compassion is a universal state of mind, deeply rooted in our psyches, and innate. It isn’t the survival instinct that guides our behavior, according to Lampert, or the pleasure principle—at least it isn’t only those—but a natural desire to relieve suffering. What a lovely thought.
Buddhism has a similar notion. It holds that each one of us has the potential to become a buddha: “one who has developed his or her compassion and wisdom to the ultimate level, beyond all limits,” as Tibetan lama Ringu Tulku Rinpoche puts it. The work of our lives is to discover the essence of compassion that lies at our core. That essence is there, Buddhism tells us—no matter how distorted or obscured it may have become. It is our buddha nature.
I’ve been working with mythical archetypes lately—especially archetypes that have the potential to shape our lives as writers—and this week, I’m focusing on the East Asian Buddhist deity Guanyin, known in the West as the Goddess of Compassion. I’ve been thinking about what Guanyin represents, how I can work with her, and why I feel compelled to keep her image in front of me as I write.
Guanyin is said to be an incarnation of the Buddha, but her relationship to people is more personal than his, and prayers to her are answered more quickly, making her the go-to deity in times of need. She is the protectress of women, sailors, merchants, craftsmen, and prisoners, and some texts say meditating on her name will rescue you from shipwreck, fire, poisonings, and attacks by demons, among other disasters. There are still people who claim that when Americans bombed Japanese-occupied Taiwan during World War II, Guanyin appeared in the sky catching the bombs before they reached the ground. Little wonder that her image appears in shops and homes all over the Far East.
It is too much to ask of us modern types to believe in a goddess who catches bombs, answers prayers, and hears the cries of all living beings. My picture of Guanyin is more of a conversation piece than an item of worship. But I am fascinated by the popularity of Guanyin, her presence in daily life throughout East Asia, and her multitude of worshippers.What does she offer the millions who burn incense in front of her image and offer her fruit and rice? Is it just the security of believing some gracious and powerful being is watching your back? Or the comfort of having a divine friend?
My work with archetypes tells me it is much more than that. If archetypes are representations of ourselves, as I believe they are, then Guanyin must symbolize the very best that lies within us. She represents the deep empathy that lies inside us—buried, perhaps, but still alive. She is that part of ourselves that is compelled to hear the cries of others, to relieve their suffering, to change the world for the better.
She is radical compassion personified.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...