Christmas Day: A Bodhisatta of Compassion

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • December 2012

It’s Christmas day. I don’t know much about Christianity. Even though I grew up as a Christian, I wasn’t very attentive to the religion. As Buddhists, we can sometimes have our own limited perspectives about Christianity. We may find ourselves making different judgments about the religion, or at least about how it’s practiced in the world these days. But one of the more positive memories that I have from growing up as a Christian is Christ’s essential message of compassion. Very similar to the Buddhist motivation for compassion, Christ expressed his wish for others to be free from suffering. We find compassion inherent within the Four Noble Truths—we’re looking at the truth of suffering and how to end it.

One of the messages I remember from my early Christian upbringing was that Christ was there to help others find an end to suffering. As the teachings from Christianity suggest, Christ was so tuned into the suffering of others and had so much compassion for wanting to end it that he offered his life on the cross for all other beings, saying that he would willingly die so that others could be absolved of their sins. That’s not something that we as Buddhists think is possible—that we could take somebody else’s kamma away from them. But the notion of wanting to be able to do that, even if it’s not possible, is quite a powerful contemplation. The sense of wanting others to be free of suffering so much that we are willing to die for it—that’s, at least, in the Buddhist paradigm, the sign of a real Bodhisatta.

Whatever the reality is, having that kind of aspiration—of wishing to be free from suffering and wishing to help others do the same—is a useful message. As followers of the Buddha, we aim to figure out how we can realize that. It means focusing our attention on the First Noble Truth and recognizing the need to penetrate it. Before we can try to help others become truly liberated from their suffering, we have to face it within our own lives. We have to be willing to take a close look at this dukkha—to experience and know what it really means before we can move on to understanding its origin, letting it go, and developing the path. This entails honest self-appraisal, and it starts right at home inside ourselves. We begin to open up to this Noble Truth because we are willing to look at our own unskillful habits and the unwholesome ways that we’ve learned to operate in the world.

For all of us, deep conditioning in some way or another causes us to continue our old habits of behavior, which tend to bring on more difficulty and stress. This includes the way we view experience or view other people and what we try to get from the world or from our relationships with other people—the whole gamut of what it is that we do in our attempts to gain happiness and gratification. It takes bravery to go deep inside, look at the cause of suffering in our lives, have compassion for that, and begin the process of uprooting it. This requires honesty and integrity to truly look at ourselves. As we do that, we naturally experience more sensitivity, knowing that this same process is happening to everyone else too.

Because we are willing to examine ourselves and understand our own suffering, this helps us to see that others are experiencing the same difficulties as us. We can be more accepting of other’s foibles and bad habits because we realize that all of us make these same mistakes when we try and take care of our own needs. If we have compassion for ourselves, then we can have compassion for everybody else. To me, that seems like a way we can understand and emulate some of the teachings that come from the Christian traditions.