The world is full of suffering. The times are troubled. How can we respond with wisdom and compassion to our struggles, other people’s and the world’s?

Thought for the Day 27.6.2014

It’s early morning in Cardiff. A rough-shaven Afghan man stirs painfully in the morning sunlight after a night sleeping rough. In his exhaustion I sense the journey he’s made and the terror he’s fled: all the distanced horrors we see on the news made real and concrete right here in front of me.

The world is full of suffering. The times are troubled. So who needs the Buddha – the chilled-out fat guy who closes his eyes in Nirvana? My friend Stan’s son died a few weeks ago, then at the funeral Stan collapsed and died himself. A couple of days ago I heard of another death, a suicide, that’s so raw and fresh I can’t talk about it.

Religious pieties won’t do when suffering comes as an immediate presence. I can’t make sense of it, but at least the Buddhist teachings school me in finding a response.

The best word for that response is compassion, but we need something else as well. Call it wisdom. As a teacher of Buddhism and mindfulness I spend much of my time hearing people express their struggles and fears. There is so much suffering in the world. I encourage people to listen kindly to themselves because sometimes, when we give ourselves space and let go of the ways we keep the world at bay, we find we have more resources than we might believe. Something else can grow from that.

The Buddha’s eyes are closed as a sign that we must start with self-awareness. But some later Buddhists replaced images of withdrawal with images of engagement.

One myth describes Avalokateshvara, the embodiment of compassion. He looked across the world and saw that pain was endless. His heart shattered and the tears formed a lake. From it emerged a beautiful girl: sixteen years old, shining, smiling, green in colour and filled with the power to enter people’s hearts. Her name is Tara, and for many Buddhists she’s a mythic source of sustenance.

The myth is important because it suggests the power of opening to a compassionate force that’s greater than our narrow conception of ourselves. It’s hard enough to face the struggles of my own life. The problems of the whole world are overwhelming. But I can ask, what is my work today, and where in my life are wisdom and compassion?

The Buddha said, ‘Hatred is never overcome by hatred, but only by love. Others do not realise that we are all heading for death. Those who understand this will compose their quarrels.’