by Venerable Sheng Yen
The purpose of Compassionate Contemplation is to help us eliminate anger and arouse the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Someone who practices compassionate contemplation with a mind of bodhi would seek to help sentient beings free themselves from bodily and mental suffering, and if causes and conditions are right, to help them derive happiness from the Dharma and ultimately to reach nirvana. There are five aspects to compassionate contemplation. The first is to contemplate sentient beings in terms of how we see them as beneficial to us, harmful to us, or neither beneficial nor harmful. We contemplate our relationships to others to better understand how we can help them.
The second aspect is to contemplate oneself. When we interact with sentient beings we respond with feelings of like or dislike. We investigate why we have these feelings. Most times, these feelings are based upon the perceived benefit or harm an interaction will have upon us. However, if we understand that mind is merely an unending succession of ever-changing sense impressions and delusory thoughts, we would see no need to be attached to them, and no reason to like or dislike our interactions with others.
The third aspect of compassionate contemplation involves investigating what really happens in our interaction with sentient beings. We should contemplate these interactions in terms of the contact of one body with another. We see that praise and rebuke are only sounds or vibrations entering our ears. A smile or a frown is only light rays perceived by our eyes. Just as the body is illusory, so are these external phenomena illusory. Once we realise this, we no longer need to give rise to feelings of like or dislike, and we will treat all sentient beings as equal.
At this point, however, there is still no true compassion. How can we feel compassion towards beings that possess an illusory self? The fourth aspect of compassionate contemplation again involves the contemplation of sentient beings. However, this time the contemplation focuses on their suffering and the reason for their suffering, which is that they are ignorant of the true nature of the self. They don’t know why they do things; they may feel happiness or anger without knowing why they feel that way. They are attached to things and are fearful of loss. These things cause people to suffer. We should also realise that sentient beings are not really free in body and mind and that this is another cause of their suffering. People know that they shouldn’t do certain things but do them anyway. Sometimes it seems we have two selves, each struggling towards different ends. Sentient beings are born, grow old, get sick, and eventually die. In the very short life span, each sentient being endures all kinds of afflictions of body and mind. Because of the suffering they undergo we should have compassion for them.
The fifth aspect of compassionate contemplation also entails contemplating sentient beings, but now we view them as equals, not as beneficial, harmful, or neutral. This is done by realising that our relationships with sentient beings are neither fixed nor unchanging. We cannot say that those with whom we now share affinity were not once our enemy, or vice versa. There is no definite, unchanging relationship of closeness or adversity. Seen from the perspective of the past, present, and future, all sentient beings have had some interaction with each other in the past, and probably will have in the future. From this point of view we can see all sentient beings as equal to ourselves, and can feel compassion for them.