Excerpt: 'The Age of Waiting' by Douglas J. Penick


Surrounded by continuous violence, destruction, sickness, we feel burdened by caring and resentful of our innate sympathies. In such circumstances, the experience of compassion as real and available becomes deformed, and confidence in the power of compassion fades.

In ordinary usage, according to the OED, “compassion” means first: “suffering together with another, participation in suffering; fellow feeling, sympathy,” and second: “the feeling or emotion as moved by the distress of another and the desire to relieve it.” Buddhism, however, understands compassion as something far more extensive than merely a feeling or emotion, with all the itinerant qualities which those words imply.

The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet maintains that the complete and entire basis of our life in this world is compassion. According to this view:

In the infinite expanse of the natural state

Free from the limits of conceptual mind,

All the realms of life and death and their inhabitants

Arise spontaneously from the radiance of Great Compassion.

The Tibetan word for compassion, nyingje, literally means “noble heart,” and this refers not simply to one’s own heart, but to the heart of the world as well. It is called “heart” because compassion is at the core of all our responses to external and internal phenomena. It is the basis of why our minds always move outside ourselves, why our perceptions lead us out into the world of phenomena, and why we are spontaneously moved by the sight of beauty and suffering, the smell of early spring or rotting garbage, the memory of the taste of lemonade, the sound of thunder in the afternoon.

Compassion is mind’s innate movement outward. It is the underlying momentum of our emotional and perceptual experience. If we examine even our most self-absorbed thought, we always find it is prompted by the vivid awareness of something we consider outside ourselves. Even when we are concerned with pain in our own body, that pain is somehow viewed as “other,” as something alien to our “real” self. In fact, no matter what the emotional twist, all our thoughts begin with the sense of “other.” So, at the core, our heart places others before ourselves. Thus, because our mind is naturally inclined to concern with others, it is called “noble.”

At the center of all our mental functioning, as the natural basis of all our perceptions, instincts, impulses, and more elaborated motivations, is this primordial awareness of other, this “noble heart.”

Tibetan Buddhist traditions describe three aspects to the experience of compassion:

1) There is compassion as occasioned by awareness of the specific suffering and pain of others.

2) There is compassion arising from awareness of the inescapable causes of suffering.

3) There is compassion without reference point, free, omnipresent, ever-expanding and continuous.


§ §


One afternoon, I sat with my wife’s colleague and friend Iván in a Budapest bakery renowned for flódni, a confection with layers of poppy seed, walnut, and apple. We were in the old Jewish neighborhood only a few blocks from the Great Synagogue.

“You see that door over there?” He pointed a thick hand at a faded green door across the street which, no doubt, gave onto an interior courtyard. I turned and peered. There was nothing special about it.


“My cousin, Tomi, you know him?”

“Yes, we spent last night wandering all along the river with him.” Iván’s cousin was a retired chemical engineer, a great connoisseur of all kinds of local history, and a delight to wander with though the city.

“Well, you know that shit Eichmann, just a few months before the war ended, rounded up all the Jews.” I nodded. “He loaded them in barges on the Danube to take them to Auschwitz. And they were all herded along this street right out front.”


“Tomi and all his family were in the crowd being pushed down the street. And someone opened that door and suddenly grabbed them, told them to shut up, pulled them into the courtyard. That’s why they lived. Tomi, all of them. They risked their lives, the people who saved them.” I shook my head. “And you know what? We never knew who those people were, and we never found out.”

And it seemed, at that moment, that what Iván was telling me was not so much a Holocaust story, or a Jewish story, or even a family story; he was showing something miraculous woven into the fabric of an ordinary street.


§ §


Generally, our most direct experience of compassion is occasioned by the awareness of suffering itself. When we hear of the illness of someone we love, when we see a wounded animal, and even when we hear of someone whom we despise suffering the loss of a child, we feel that pain well up in our heart. Here we experience the utter spontaneity of compassion, which rises up past all distinctions and differences, predilections and conceptual frameworks.

However, our habitual second thought, particularly with respect to those who are not close to us, is to draw away from the sight of others’ suffering, just as we try to distance ourselves from our own experience of pain. Just as we feel isolated within our own pain, we tend to isolate others in theirs. In doing so, we tend to justify ourselves by referring to a body of conventional concepts and secret fears; we try to secure our own “needs” and “preserve our boundaries.”

But no matter what conceptualizations we may make use of in these circumstances, we cannot quite ignore that this life is filled with disappointments, sorrow, sickness, death, and continuous sufferings of many kinds. Suffering is universal and unavoidable. This cannot be escaped, no matter how we invoke the decency of our aspirations, the excellence of our successes, the virtue of our goals, or the reality of our powerlessness.

We can cut through the morass of reflexive ego-clinging in many ways, but the essence of how to do so is always the same: we put the needs and concerns of others before our own. This is practiced in simple acts of courtesy, as well as in many kinds of attention, generosity, care, and consideration. Parents routinely put the lives and aspirations of their children ahead of their own satisfactions; people often make sacrifices to take care of parents and friends. These kinds of actions, which go on continuously and unremarked, are the essence of social life. Acting in this way, we constantly discover that we do not need to rely on compulsive ego-centered logic. There is a vast range of possibilities alive right before us, revealed in the light of how we take care of the world around us.

Compassion that is occasioned by suffering itself brings us into this world ever more fully. We cannot escape what arises in our hearts, even if we are unable to prevent the sufferings around us. The wellsprings of primordial compassion rise in us constantly to dissolve the limits we have set for ourselves and our view of the world.

Excerpted from The Age of Waiting by Douglas J. Penick © 2020 Arrowsmith Press. All rights reserved.

Image: Unknown artist, Nagarjuna and Aryadeva as Two Great Indian Buddhist Scholastics, c. 1800s (detail)

Comments are closed.