Seeds of Compassion: The Bodhi Tree, Ramadan, and Survival of the Kindest.

Earlier this month, while many people around the world were celebrating the birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the man whose immeasurable compassion has touched the world, a few were planting bombs by the holy Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. The tree has grown from the seed of the sacred one, under which it is believed Gautama Buddha, reflecting in deep meditation upon the suffering of the world, achieved his awakening. For centuries, the Bodhi tree, like the walls of the nearby Mahabodhi temple, has witnessed peaceful devotion of all who come here from different parts of the Himalayan region and beyond.

Six months ago, I sat under the Bodhi Tree right before the sunrise and was deeply touched by the harmony of azan, a Muslim call for prayer from the nearby masjid, blending with beautiful Pali and Sanskrit chants of monks and nuns, and the unceasing Tibetan mantra invocations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion by pilgrims who prostrated themselves before the tree. The serenity of this place is indescribable. Yet, early Sunday morning, July 7, 2013, a series of ten low intensity bombs exploded at the Mahabodhi temple complex badly injuring several people, including two Buddhist monks, one from Burma and another from Tibet[1]. Whatever motive lay behind the bombs, we know that no acts of violence can overcome centuries of compassionate wisdom and no bomb can uproot the seeds of human kindness that the Bodhi tree represents.

Let none through anger or ill-will

Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish all living beings:

Radiating kindness over the entire world.[2]

These words of the Buddha are meant for all of us, no matter how much we may be under the sway of what Buddhism describes as the ‘three poisons’: ignorance – a fundamental misunderstanding of how things are; greed or attachment; and hatred or aversion. Recent Muslim-Buddhist violence in Burma, condemned by the Dalai Lama, has once again shown us how a misguided sense of separation, and with it our preoccupation with our differences – not least of all religious differences – has caused humanity more suffering than good.

The cause of our discontent is our mistaken feeling of separateness. This isn’t based on anything tangible. It’s based on beliefs and concepts. The duality of subject and object, self and other, is an illusion imputed by the mind. This absolute understanding is arrived at through the practice of letting go. Meanwhile, we can work at the level of everyday pain and treat other people’s suffering as our own.[3] – Pema Chödrön

In many traditions, both religious and secular, treating other people’s suffering as our own is compassion. One of the Hebrew words for compassion, rachamim, the root of which is rechem, the “trembling womb” of a birthing mother (Isaiah 49:15), indicates that compassion is the bond, both physical and psychological. The Arabic word for compassion is rahman, and all of the 114 chapters of the Quran, with one exception, begin with the verse, “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

This month, the followers of Islam observe the holy time of Ramadan, “a special time for purifying oneself, the greatest opportunity to implement the discussions and cures with regard to the heart… The Prophet, May God’s blessings and peace be upon him, said that the best charity in Ramadan is setting things right between people who are in conflict, even those who harbor hatred for each other.”[4] If religious traditions teach us that our love and compassion dwell in our heart, then for a believer to turn away from the Heart is to turn away from the Most Compassionate, or to turn away from our true awakening, depending on one’s spiritual path. We are responsible for our own interpretations and actions. In my understanding, the Buddha’s teachings on causality are not about our actions in the sense of some mechanistic physics of the effect of an action of one object on the other, but about our interconnectedness, in which compassion is absolutely essential for the cultivation of a good heart.

Compassion is the source both of inner and external peace, it is fundamental to the continued survival of our species. On the one hand, it constitutes nonviolence in action. On the other, it is the source of all spiritual qualities: of forgiveness, tolerance, and all the virtues.[5] – The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama, speaking via live video, appealed to everyone to commit to practicing compassion, non-violence and the education of the heart. To me, one example of such education is Malala Yousafzai, the brave girl from Pakistan, who survived gunshots in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen in 2012 for standing up for her right to education. On her 16th birthday, July 12, 2013, she exemplified a courageous compassion in her powerful speech at the United Nations: “I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha.”

People like Malala Yousafzai, the Dalai Lama, and also Nelson Mandela, whose birthday we celebrate this month, are not inherently exceptional; it is, rather a matter of degree: the qualities they embody are also a part of us and we can see their reflection in others too, no matter what faith they profess. These figures are the seeds and the trees of our awakening, our human sisters and brothers who remind us of the good faith and compassionate choices available to us. They are the living proof that it is not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the kindest that saves our humanity after all. May we, too, purify our heart and allow ourselves to let go of our false sense of separateness, wishing all beings safety and happiness.

Image Credits: Enver Rahmanov. Image is in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[2] Karaniya Metta Sutta. The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness. (accessed July 11, 2013).

[3] Pema Chödrön, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Sambhala, 2007, 310.

[4] Hamza Yusuf, Purification of the Heart: Translation and Commentary of Imam al-Mawlūd’s Matharat al-Qūlub. Sandala, 2012, 174-175.

[5] Ethics of Altruism, Introduction. The Dalai Lama Foundation. (accessed July 12, 2013).

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2 thoughts on “Seeds of Compassion: The Bodhi Tree, Ramadan, and Survival of the Kindest.

  1. I like how you are blending two religions here, how they can live side by side, how they believe in similar issues. I also like how you then open it up to the world and how the world can leave from various religions. I love the fact that people can do this and glad that dialogues like this are popping up. I think it is much needed. The only thing being subject to judgment is the terrorist acts and not religions. How blessed is this outlook.

  2. I am very grateful for your article, as well as all the sources that you included. The story that you wove together was as beautiful as the compassion to which you called your readers. Your understanding of the fundamental elements of love within all religions is a voice I wish we heard more often. Your ability to speak to that gives me hope in what can seem like an increasingly hateful world. I implore you to keep writing and making your voice heard!

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