Is Compassion Important In Zen?


At first glance, it might seem like compassion isn’t important in Zen. There’s a whole lot of emphasis on insight and concentration practices.

It’s true that in the Zen tradition there is a lot of focus on the mystical experience, cultivating insight to try to attain Enlightenment. Texts like the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra do spend a whole lot more time talking about non-duality than they do about compassion. But I’d argue this is a slight misunderstanding.

The truth is that compassion is fundamental to every branch of Buddhism.

The story of the Buddha tells us that he sat under a tree and attained Enlightenment. At first he thought he couldn’t possibly teach it, because Awakening requires an intuitive understanding and he knew that any explanation would be difficult to express.

But he decided to try anyway. He was motivated by compassion.

In that story we have the two most important aspects of Buddhism, in my opinion. They are great insight and great compassion.

Attaining Enlightenment, striving to Awaken and helping others to do the same IS compassion. If I can become more mindful and aware, I am making the world a better place. When I save myself from the effects of my delusion, I am saving others from the effects of my delusion too.

Additionally, I should mention the vows.

One might have difficulty finding a lot of compassion in sutras and teachings of Zen masters.

But the vows we take in the Zen tradition are clearly motivated by compassion.

Here are the four great vows.

These are often recited in Zen retreats and some practitioners recite them daily:

Sentient beings are numerous. I vow to save them.
Defilements are endless. I vow to eliminate them. 
Buddha’s teachings are unlimited. I vow to learn them. 
The ways of enlightenment are supreme. I vow to achieve them.

We can see right there that the first one is all about helping others. I don’t think it’s an accident that that is the first of the four vows.

Additionally, we have the Bodhisattva Vows, which are all about making sure we are as harmonious as possible in our interactions with others.

And we talk about cultivating the Six Perfections as fundamental to the Buddhist path. These are:
Generosity, Virtue, Patience, Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom.

Those first three are pretty clearly motivated by compassion, by a desire to engage the world in a way that is positive and helpful, rather than harmful.

At its core Zen is about transcending duality. It’s about tearing down the false barriers that separate us from others. If we engage duality compassion naturally results.

So, in this way, compassion is always fundamental to the path.


Where Do We Start?

Q: If someone is interested in learning about Zen and incorporating a Zen practice into their daily life, where do you recommend they start?

A: This is a great question.

Where to begin is something that I struggled with back when I started. I can suggest some steps to get you on your way.

1) Start practicing meditation.

Meditation is the core of Zen practice. Meditate daily if you can. Start with five minutes a day and gradually increase to 10 and then 15. Go up to 20 minutes if you want. Don’t let me hold you back.

We often tend to think we don’t have time to devote to meditation, but most of us do. We could cut down on a lot of the things we do and meditate instead. I don’t have to check my Facebook so much or watch so much Netflix. I can use some of that time for meditating instead.

It can be hard to force ourselves to sit down and meditate sometimes. But, it is important and there are a number of benefits to meditating regularly.

Meditation helps prepare our minds for contemplating spiritual truths. It is what truly opens the door to unleashing our Buddha nature. When we meditate, the delusion that stops you from recognizing our Buddha nature is—at least temporarily—cleared away. When we meditate, we pay attention to what’s really going on.

2. Practice being present.

A solid meditation practice helps with this. Often in life we are distracted, not living in the moment and missing our lives entirely. Learning to be present in the moment allows us to avoid getting brought by down worry and stress.

3. Do some reading.

A lot of great introductory material is out there. Look up Shunryu Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, Philip Kapleau or Robert Aitken. Once you read through some introductory material, you can go into some deeper teachings like the Diamond Sutra and Platform Sutra.

4. Find a teacher or community.

This is the hardest for some people. It’s been said that it’s very very difficult to practice alone. Practicing with a community is like having a workout buddy. Being around someone else who has the same goals as us helps keep us on track. It doesn’t have to be a community with systems of authority (ie ‘Masters’). A simple community of equals who practice together often works really well too.

Practicing alone isn’t impossible, but it’s sort of like teaching yourself how to drive. Can you teach yourself how to drive without getting advice or watching other people do it? Sure you can, but that’s a more difficult way of doing things. Most areas in this country have Buddhist communities in them now (there are several here in Kansas City) so you should be able to find one. That said, if you can’t find a group, there are some online. If you’re interested in that, send me an email letting me know and I’ll show you where to go.

Now, our communities don’t necessarily have to be on the Zen path, as long as they’re on some similar path of transformation that’s fine. I practiced with pagans for a while and with Vajrayana Buddhists for a while too.

Our beliefs aren’t always the same necessarily, but some of our practices are, so that’s fine.