Passion, Dispassion, Compassion

January 15, 2010

There’s a Pali term, raga, which is usually translated as passion. And there’s its opposite, viraga, or dispassion. There are areas in which raga or passion is a good thing. Passion for the Dhamma is a good thing. The desire to practice, the desire to attain the results of the practice: having a passion for these things is something the Buddha actually encouraged.

But otherwise, raga is something you’ve got to watch out for, because it’s a major cause of suffering. That means that an important stage of the practice, an important attainment, is the ability to develop viraga.

First, there’s dispassion for sensual desires. We’re more in love with our sensual desires than we are with the actual pleasures. The pleasures come and we’re not satisfied. So we want more, and then we’re obsessed with our desires for these things. You can elaborate your desires for sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, relationships, whatever, for days on end. Then the actual pleasure comes and it’s not really all that much. Yet when the Buddha points this fact out, everybody says, “Oh, you’re just bad-mouthing the pleasure.” But when you look at it, there’s really not that much there.

Ajaan Lee’s image is of a dog chewing on a bone and getting nothing but its saliva, and yet it’s obsessed with its saliva, drinking down the saliva, thinking that it’s getting food.

Then there’s dispassion for form and for formlessness. In other words, once you’ve mastered jhana, then you develop dispassion for it. It sounds kind of sad, doesn’t it? You master it and then you’re no longer obsessed with it. You have to go beyond it. People don’t like to hear that, or think about the implications of dispassion. It sounds like we’re trying to become numb, indifferent, without energy—as if passion were the only energy that we have to keep us going. Well, in some ways, yes, it is. The fact that we keep going after things, the energy we put into fabricating things, is what keeps the whole process of fabrication going, along with all the stress that comes with fabrication. Yet this sort of passion is something that society encourages. We’re happy to play along and don’t like to think that we’re misguided. So we tend to paint a picture that dispassion must be some horrible gray state.

But as the Buddha said, dispassion is the highest dhamma, the highest phenomenon, and leads to the ultimate happiness, the ultimate clarity of mind, the ultimate unconditioned happiness, where you don’t have to keep creating things. You don’t have to keep salivating all the time. You’ve actually got something that’s really fulfilling. But to get there requires that you abandon your taste for all the other things that get in the way.

Most of us practice with the idea we’d like to collect new pleasures to add to our store, and meditation is simply another pleasure to throw in with the other ones. We’d like to have our cake and eat it, too—and have a few more cakes put aside, ready to consume as a midnight snack. But the extent to which we keep pursuing other things gets in the way of our pursuit of true happiness. You’ve got to look at it that way.

And the passion that keeps us creating these other forms of pleasure that then let us down: You’ve really got to realize that it’s not all that fulfilling.

This requires a real shift in our orientation, because we do identify ourselves around the pleasures that we look for, the pleasures in sensuality. You identify yourself as a person who likes this particular sensual pleasure, that particular sexual orientation, this type of food, that type of music. A huge amount of our identity is mis-centered there. And it’s difficult to step back and look at our identity as something to let go of because we feel that if we don’t have that identity, we’re nothing—regardless of how much the Buddha says that to let go of that particular identity is no great loss.

He goes even deeper into our ideas. It’s interesting that in the pattern of the different levels of passion that get abandoned, sensual passion goes first, and then it’s passion for form and formlessness, which can include not only the states of jhana but also abstract ideas and ideals. He’s asking us to step back from our identification with those as well. That’s scary, too.

We feel that if we abandon our ideals, we’re betraying them. But if we abandon passion for them, we aren’t betraying them. It’s still possible to act on compassion. It’s still possible to act on empathetic joy, without passion.

You maintain these motivations because they’re the right thing to do. You have compassion, and this is where English plays a trick on us. Compassion, in terms of its etymology, means you feel the same thing, or you feel with somebody else. When somebody is suffering, compassion of that sort is a painful emotion. You feel part of their pain as well. For most of us, we live in a state of obsession with our pleasures, so that only if we feel somebody else’s pain will we turn from our pleasures and focus on helping them. But a mind free from passion doesn’t need that pain in order to be helpful. You see that there’s suffering and you want to help. That’s it. You don’t have to feel pain along with the people. You just see that it’s the right thing to do. The Buddha calls compassion of this sort an ornament of the mind—an ornament of the mind that’s become cleansed of its passions.

So it’s not that you become hard-hearted or unfeeling. It’s simply that you don’t need the same play of emotions, the same play of feelings, in order to get yourself to do the right thing.

As I said, when most people are passionate, passion for a particular pleasure, the only thing that will peel them away from that to notice other people is the pang that comes when you see that they’re suffering. It hits you. It disturbs your pleasure, so you’ve got to do something to work on that in order to get back to your equilibrium, or to get back to the pleasure that you’re fascinated with. That’s normal motivation.

So when we hear of another kind of motivation, the motivation of an awakened mind, it seems strange and alien. But as the Buddha said, it’s the most effective kind of compassion there is, where your mind is not pained. You’re not trying to work off your pain in helping someone else. In other words, your identity doesn’t get involved.

Ven. Ananda once made an observation related to this point. He was talking with Ven. Sariputta. Sariputta had been commenting on how he’d reflected one day in his meditation: Is there anyone whose death would affect his state of mind? And he realized there was no one. Ananda asked, “Well, what about the Buddha? You wouldn’t get disturbed if the Buddha passed away?” And Sariputta replied, “I’d reflect that it’s a sad thing that such a beneficial being has to pass, but then everybody has to pass.” And Ananda made an interesting comment: “It’s because of your lack of conceit that you wouldn’t grieve over that, the loss of the Buddha.”

A lot of our compassion is tied up in conceit. There has to be a feeling of pain, that it’s your pain. Your sense of self gets involved in one way or another, in order to act in a compassionate way, in a helpful way.

We’re so used to it that we don’t notice it. And we also don’t like the idea: that our compassion is selfish—which is another reason why we don’t notice it. But it’s there. And it’s good to recognize that and good to realize that it would be beneficial for everybody involved if you could still be compassionate without that conceit, where your compassion is simply an ornament of the mind.

So thinking in these ways helps you to realize that some of the qualities we see as good in ourselves are not totally good, and that the admixture of passion actually creates problems. We’re so used to having passion mixed up with everything good in our lives that we feel that a state of dispassion would strip the mind of its goodness. So it’s wise to stop and think. Actively use your imagination to think in these other terms, because the good done by a mind that doesn’t need conceit in order to do that good contains a lot of genuine goodness. The compassion that comes from a mind that has found true happiness—total happiness, the happiness inside that doesn’t have to depend on conditions—is a very different kind of compassion from the compassion that requires conceit.

So try to stretch your imagination every now and then. Look at the ways in which you feed on things to find your happiness. And learn to look at their drawbacks so that the possibility of a happiness that doesn’t need to feed, that doesn’t need to be driven by passion, becomes more and more attractive. This kind of thinking gives more and more motivation to the practice, so that someday you’ll know what it’s like to find the happiness that comes with dispassion.

Because you’ve opened your mind to the possibility that it could be a good thing.