Primary to Buddhism—perhaps to all religious teachings—is the fact of suﬀering. Religion or not, the fact is inevitably impressed on us in the course of our lives. That we are not alone with it may not be so clear. Each of us may learn to keep it to ourselves: “Don’t be a baby.” “Be a man.” “Don’t cry.” We may curl around it as a knot of identity. We may experience it vicariously: see, but don’t be touched. The newspaper we read as we eat our cereal, the mayhem we expose ourselves to behind the shield of the TV screen, the depressing stories we use to lull ourselves to sleep—our temptation to view pain as being outside ourselves is amply catered to. We may simply numb to it, in ourselves and others. Or we may seek a religious solution in hopes of escaping.
Some time ago I read in the pages of Turning Wheel Lin Jensen’s essay, “Bad Dog: The Journey from Shame to Compassion.” I had found the reading of it nearly unbearable, telling as it does the story of a dog, and a boy, being disciplined in a particularly callous manner. The images were unforgettable. What had saved them from being brutalizing—as witnessing misery can so easily be—was the journey Jensen makes over the course of fifty years, and in the course of telling the story, toward understanding. That understanding was emphatically not abstract, but visceral, from “the bowels of compassion.” It was also an intuitive understanding, as well as a poetic one, both seeing and vividly expressing the intimate connection between seemingly distant matters—in this case the shaming of a dog by a man, and years later the shaming of that same man by old age. “I have written these things,” Jensen ends by saying, “out of gratitude, so that others may know, as I have come to know, that pain summons its own healer.”
Having gone that route with Jensen, from pain to healing (or more accurately, from perception of pain as a separate and separating phenomenon, to an expanded perception of pain as connecting the parts of one’s being and connecting one’s being to the collective being), I was encouraged to take up the essays in Jensen’s recently published book, Uncovering the Wisdom of the Heartmind. In them, he continues to explore the landscape of suffering: of physical pain, as in the case of his own spinal injury, or in the debeaking of turkey chicks; of sympathy, as in witnessing a child being browbeaten by ignorant parents, or in finding a stricken fawn on the highway; of the heartache of love, as in letting in the sure knowledge that there is no guarding against the loss, sooner or later, of one’s loved ones.
I found myself not wanting, each night that I would return to the book, to be put through another round, to be taking in images so searing that I found myself provoked to reviewing my own traumas or those I have witnessed. But that very process of review, safely travailed in company with another, was what brought me back, night after night. For without fail Jensen includes the reader, redeems from his personal darkness a common treasure. He locates the death of a fawn precisely on a particular stretch of Highway 395 in southern Oregon. “I tell you this,” he says, speaking directly to us, “because I want you to understand how Oregon spreads out from the place where the fawn died, out into Washington and Idaho and California and the Paciﬁc Ocean.” He helps us hear the fawn’s dying call, not as a voice coming from another, and another species, but as our own, inescapable: “You can hear it now. It is the voice of our dismay, the cry of our innocent bewilderment. It is the injury received of our ears, the wound from which our sympathy bleeds forth.” Being present to this voice, so particular and so universal, isn’t easy. But not to hear it turns out to be even harder. In the blood of sympathy, in the bowels of compassion, we ﬁnd one another.
Having found one another in these pages, through what Jensen calls the “call of the Heartmind,” who would want to escape? Would want to numb? Would want to possess? Would want to isolate? Traveling these byways that extend everywhere, we ﬁnd opening to us the capacity to act, as in whispering to the child who is drowning in the ignorance of his parents, “I will not let you sink.” But more than any particular act, extending out from all particular acts, we have open to us an intention, a vow if you like. Speaking of young people who, like himself as a boy growing up on farms, have been brought up to take life yet have not been taught to atone, Jensen says, “I would teach them pity; bring them to the sorrow that ever abides in the taking of things. I would shape their mouths to words of gratitude, teach their hands restraint, the gentle acts of mercy. I would commit their minds into the care of their own natural sympathies. I would have them know peace.”
Growing up on farms or in cities, we all, inevitably, take life, or participate in doing so: in cars that kill, in supermarkets stocked with dead animals, in homes lit with the power of vanquished environments. We are all hard on each other. There may be some things we can do to lessen the mass of pain: in being more conscious with our life choices, in being more careful with each other, in following one or another religious path. But any moralizing—on a political, environmental or spiritual level—will only contribute to the mass of suﬀering, only further insulate ourselves from it. I trust Jensen’s unjudging approach: simply not turning away from suﬀering turns out to be the primary way to save a world sinking in unconscious sorrow.