Question: In dharma talks, the causes of suffering are often discussed, as is the cessation of suffering. I have been a Buddhist for about eighteen years, and while I feel I have an understanding and acceptance of the causes of personal suffering, I find it difficult to understand the causes of suffering when we suffer for others. Such suffering is not due to ignorance or attachment. It’s raw pain when I see an animal beaten, or a child abused, or prisoners tortured. The suffering of others makes me feel so helpless. How can I accept this?
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: The pain you speak of when you witness the suffering of others is what we mean when we speak of compassion (“to suffer with”). It is a natural feeling because of the inherent connection of all beings. And what a cruel world we might live in if we did not have the capacity for compassion!
Like the Buddha, you may have been working on this question since you were a child. As a child, he went to watch the spring celebration of the first plowing of the fields to prepare for planting, and during the colorful celebratory festival in which his father ceremoniously made the first furrow, the young Siddhartha noticed that the plow cut through the underground homes of the insects and worms and exposed them to the birds, who then ate them.
Even today, as we consciously make an effort to live a life of no harm, we discover that we cannot literally follow the first precept of not killing. We must either starve ourselves or eat food that has been alive. Even if we are strict vegetarians, the life of living beings can only be supported by food that has itself been alive.
The important work for us, then, is to remain aware of our intrinsic connection with all beings and to continuously cultivate our capacity for the beneficial mental states of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. How we actually live this precious life we have been given is the most important point. Although we may fervently wish to end all pain in the world, as many before us have wished, the best we may be able to do is not add to it. If we add judgment and anger to the situation it can only increase the suffering.
My latest inspiration for how to live is this quotation attributed to the Dalai Lama: “Every day, think as you wake up: Today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself to expand my heart out to others for the benefit of all beings.”