Compassion towards suffering is the second of the four bhavana exercises.
Bhavana in Sanskrit has the sense of saturating, steeping, completely infusing, psychologically it means something which permeates the whole mental life.
The yogi exercises compassion in his thinking, in his meditation, and in his action which springs from them. He is expected to find skilful means for relieving suffering at its root, not superficially. To keep giving alcohol to a drunkard or money to a gambler whose vice is ruining his life and that of his family, is not compassion.
This is not to say that an enlightened man might not manage to use just that method. A Zen monk was asked to come and preach to a drunkard. ‘I cannot do that/ he replied, ‘but I will come and stay at the house for a week.’ He told the family to go to bed early each evening, and himself used to produce some of the best quality rice-wine, which he would pour for his host. They stayed up talking late each night. At the end of the week the host said, ‘I’ve enjoyed having you here – you’re so cheerful and it has lightened my life. But it’s surprising that you don’t need any wine, because I’d thought no one could be really happy without it.’ They said good-bye. Some weeks later the monk received a letter from the man saying that the drinking habit had been thrown off. It would be no use for an ordinary man to imitate such methods – the change was brought about by the spiritual light and strength within the monk, not by his outer actions.
Men of the world try to help suffering as their feelings dictate, supplemented with a little bit of reason, and perhaps tradition. But until there is a considerable power of meditation, it is often found that the acts do not have the expected results. Bhavana practice is meditation and practice of action together, not just meditation alone or action alone.
It is not creating a vague idea of compassion to all that suffers. This kind of practice can be depressing, because yogi can be overwhelmed at the hopelessness of individual efforts to relieve what he sees as an ocean of suffering.
Nor is bhavana taking some pattern of action, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, and forcing oneself to follow it as a duty. This also leads to inner disturbance from the parts of the mind which are unconvinced. The English saying ‘Cold as charity’ is a cruel illustration.
One of the traditional methods of bhavana is to meditate for at least six weeks on an incident in the life of a saint or avatar till it becomes intensely vivid. It is as it were lived through. When doing this practice, an attempt must be made over the weeks and months to bring outer conduct into line with the theme of the incident, but not as a compulsory task without feeling.
As an example, this is how a yogi might be directed to make bhavana on the Good Samaritan story. (It would be distracting for a Westerner to take an unfamiliar story from an Eastern source, requiring many explanatory notes. Another advantage of a familiar story is to find out how deep the ordinary acquaintance with it has penetrated.) First he would learn this little story, just about 300 words, by heart. Even the dullest memory can do this in a week, by writing it on a card to carry round $ at moments of waiting, some sentences of the story are recited internally, and when he sticks, he can glance at the card to get going again. If he uses the old translations, he should compare them once with a new one – the derisory ‘two pence’ of the Authorized Version means ‘two silver pieces’. Here is the story, with its introduction, as it appears in the New English Bible (Luke 10:25):
On one occasion a lawyer came forward to put this test question to him: ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said, ‘What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?’ He replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ ‘That is the right answer,’ said Jesus; ‘do that and you will live.’ But he wanted to vindicate himself, so he said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’
Jesus replied, ‘A man was on his way from Jerusalem down to Jericho when he fell in with robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went off leaving him half dead. It so happened that a priest was going down by the same road; but when he saw him, he went past on the other side. So too a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him went past on the other side. But a Samaritan who was making the journey came upon him, and when he saw him was moved to pity. He went up and bandaged his wounds, bathing them with oil and wine. Then he lifted him on to his own beast, brought him to an inn, and looked after him there.
Next day he produced two silver pieces and gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Look after him; and if you spend any more, I will repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three do you think was neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He answered, ‘The one who showed him kindness.’ Jesus said, ‘Go and do as he did.’
All the words of this story have to be examined, in the light of the New Testament as a whole, if the yogi knows it. Why is it a Samaritan? In the same gospel of Luke, Jesus calls a Samaritan whom he has cured ‘this foreigner’, remarking that the foreigner is more grateful than the Jews cured at the same time. In the gospel of John, Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan; elsewhere it is recorded that Jews will not associate with Samaritans, who are ‘unclean’. A final point is, that when at the end the inquirer is asked, ‘Which was neighbour to the man who had fallen into the hands of the robbers?’ he does not make the natural reply, ‘the Samaritan’, but only says that he supposes it would be the merciful man. He can not bring himself to utter the word ‘Samaritan’. Why not?
To make bhavana on this story, the yogi first identifies himself with each character in turn. The victim is probably a pious Jew, who has just come from offering worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Should not God have protected him? In each event of life, if it is meditated upon profoundly, the ultimate questions appear. He is attacked by robbers, who not merely take everything he has, but beat him and leave him for dead. This is not necessarily meaningless cruelty; the robbers do not want to leave a living man who could report on them, and recognize them. The victim lies helpless, half-conscious, on the side of the road. Anyone who has been beaten, or knocked into semi-consciousness, can revive his memory of that state for the bhavana; others can think back to a time when they were very ill, and vividly imagine what it would be like to have been thrown then on to the side of the road, naked and in great pain. The meditator lives through the experience of being picked up, gently bandaged, held on the ass and finally brought to an inn; the total collapse, the relief at being put to bed, then being looked after for several days; the wonder at finding that the benefactor has gone on without waiting for gratitude or any return.
The priest and the Levite (an assistant at the Temple) have had an undeserved reputation for extreme callousness. The man whom they saw was probably dead, and to have touched a dead body would have made them ‘unclean’ and ineligible to carry out their duties till they had undertaken ritual purification. Chapter 6 of the Book of Numbers explains the background – if someone died suddenly in the presence of a devotee engaged in a vow of purity, the devotee had to offer ritual sacrifice and then begin his period of the vow all over again, because he would have become unclean from mere accidental proximity to death. For bhavana it is essential not to look at the priest and Levite from the outside, but enter into the conflict of duties which was their situation.
As for the Samaritan himself, to identify with him may not be so easy as is generally imagined. This was entirely Jewish territory, and the victim must have been a hated Jew, probably on his way down from worshipping in the hated Temple. (Twenty years before, the Samaritans had deliberately defiled the Temple, and their own temple on Mount Gerizim was still in ruins after its destruction by the Jewish king Hyrcanus over a century before.) The yogi in his bhavana lives through vividly the details of washing and binding the wounds, and when the man revives a little, supporting him on the ass to the inn. The Samaritan knows he is despised by the Jew as unclean. The next day, having seen the injured man a little better, the Samaritan goes; he evidently knows the innkeeper well, and makes provision for the victim’s full recovery. But he himself goes, without hanging about for any gratitude. This is a theme which recurs constantly in Christ’s teaching; it is the theme of the Bhagavad Gita on action: ‘Do right action without any attachment to results.’
Both the Gita and the New Testament stress that the man who does charity, expecting and receiving appreciation for it, is a good man, but he is not the highest type of man. In the Gita this charity is said to be mixed with the guna rajas, passion- struggle; Christ says simply that they have their reward – from men.
There are other meanings in the fact that the Samaritan passed on without waiting.
The further form of the bhavana is to picture Christ telling this parable, the yogi being one of those who hear him. He now lives through each part as the story is told – and yet is aware of the teller all the time.
When this happens, the story begins to take on its own life; it becomes radiant, as Patanjali says. Some of the details reveal a new meaning, not merely intellectually but in feeling, and ultimately a meaning deeper than either thinking or feeling. For instance, the phrase ‘and your neighbour as your Self’ can begin to unfold itself. Humanists who reduce Christianity to a system of ethics fail to understand this phrase, partly because they ignore the ‘love the Lord’ which precedes it, and which also comes from the Old Testament. It is not noticed that Jesus
gave his approval ‘that is the right answer’ to the combination of the two phrases which the lawyer, who must have been a learned and spiritual man, had extracted from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and put together as a summary of the Law.
When the bhavana begins to enter sometimes into samadhi, the story extends. The robbers themselves are victims of other robbers – greed and cruelty have stripped them of their spiritual discrimination and power of love. Who is the Samaritan who will rescue the victims of the spiritual robbers? How will it be done?
The world itself is a victim of the robber of cosmic ignorance. The whole universe becomes wrapped up in the parable of the Good Samaritan, told by Christ to an expert in the Law. The parable becomes externalized to the limit of greatness, and also it becomes internalized. In the soul of man are the robbers, the victim, the ones who pass by on the other side, the Samaritan, and the innkeeper.
© Trevor Leggett
Compassion towards suffering is the second of the four bhavana exercises.