“I felt my feet were praying”
Matthew Fox & Lama Tsomo Explore Compassion
A TIO Interview by Megan Anderson
This month, TIO “sat” down via Zoom with renowned spiritual theologian Matthew Fox, author of more than 40 books, and Lama Tsomo, co-founder of the Namchak Foundation and one of the few American lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, to talk about compassion and the role it plays in our world today. Edited for length, below are some of the insights they offered. MA
** ** **
TIO: Near the beginning of the book you co-wrote, The Lotus & the Rose: A Conversation Between Tibetan Buddhism & Mystical Christianity, you both use ocean imagery to describe compassion. Can you talk a little about why the ocean is a good metaphor when trying to understand compassion?
MATTHEW FOX: One thing is, of course, the ocean in French is la mére, the mother. It’s our mother. This is science as well as poetry, or mysticism. We come from compassion, we come from the ocean, we come from the fetal waters of the maternal. And if compassion is essentially about interdependence, which I think it is, what’s more interdependent than the relationship between the fetus and the mother, the womb? Utter interdependence. I think those are some of the reasons why compassion and ocean really create a common archetype. It’s about our togetherness.
Thomas Merton defines compassion as a key awareness of our interdependence; the interdependence of all living things. We are all a part of one another and involved in one another, and I think that’s a good working definition of compassion.
Meister Eckhart has an amazing sermon where he talks about compassion as an ocean and how the first outburst of everything God does is compassion. He ends the sermon with an amazing passage on what does a soul mean? and he says: “Some say the soul is about knowledge, some say it’s about love, but I say no one can define the soul. It’s ineffable like God is. The soul is where God works compassion.” What he’s saying is, you don’t have a soul until you’re part of compassion. Until you’re busy doing it. The soul is where God works compassion.
LAMA TSOMO: The metaphor of the ocean is so meaningful to me that I’m glad you brought it forward. The ocean is the mother, as you were just saying Matt. Tibetan and Sanskrit words connote the Great Mother and Great Wise Mother of Supreme Knowledge and Wisdom. She’s the creator of everything out of this insubstantial state of unity that is all potential, all compassionate, all loving, that all form comes from, and that would include us. Our roots are one common thing, that state of unity.
And so there is the ocean, and its nature is to make these everchanging waves, and those are the forms. In Buddhism, what we understand is that state of unity is a state of ultimate compassion, If you’re all together, then … you know what it is like when you hit your funny bone, all of you suffers? [laughter] It’s like that. If we realize reality, which is that, then why would we ever want to hurt our fellow waves on this ocean? Because we’ll suffer too. That’s why compassion is the antidote to violence.
And I want to add that the form comes from that compassion, which is then the urge to come forward and create and manifest. That’s what makes the waves. So that’s what we’re made of.
TIO: Compassion is often thought of as being caring and non-confrontational, which raises questions about its effectiveness in the tumultuous times we face today, where compassionate offerings like “thoughts and prayers” just aren’t enough. What are your thoughts about the relationship between compassion and action?
MATTHEW: Ultimately to me, compassion is about action. There is that marvelous archetype from Hildegard von Bingen where she paints a man in sapphire blue – it’s a vision she had – and the man in sapphire blue is bringing his hands up, palms facing outward. If you do that, you literally feel your chest rising and your energy is going from your heart into your hands, and I think that’s what she’s really captured in an archetype. Compassion is work of the hands coming from the heart. It reminds me of Rabbi Heschel when he returned from marching with King in Birmingham I think it was, and his daughter asked him, “So what was it like daddy?” And he said, “I felt my feet were praying.” My feet were praying, so there’s that experience of interdependence and of justice happening in your feet. And in the midst of danger. So courage and compassion have to go together too.
TSOMO: As a psychotherapist I’m interested in the distinction between empathy and compassion. I just finished the manuscript for my next book in the series Why is the Dalai Lama Always Smiling? Series, and empathy I would define as getting inside the feelings of another person. But it stops there. That’s as far as you go with the definition of empathy. There’s nothing about this compassionate action we were just talking about.
I found in practice, specifically in practice as a psychotherapist – that’s where I first encountered this – I had to have one foot in the water with the other person and one foot on shore. Or I wasn’t going to be helpful to that person, and my compassionate intent was to help them. Too much empathy and I’m just plunking myself in the water with them and no one’s on shore. That’s not going to help anybody. But compassion is also keeping one foot on the shore.
MATTHEW: Yes. And, well obviously compassion is about more than just words, even holy words. So to me it’s more in the realm of the things we’ve talked about. Sharing silence together, you know, meditating together. Going deeper to get into that source, that root. Into our, what Eckhart calls, our unborn self. Into our deepest self, our truest self. And then acting out of that. For me compassion has a lot to do with joint action in interfaith. What we stand up to and the risks we take to do that.
And so being able to be courageous together, to stand up to forces of injustice and denial – I mean look what we’re facing as a species. We have 12 years left, we’ve been told, to radically change our ways so that the planet as we know it can survive and flourish. Well, that is where interfaith should be operating I think, both out of the dimension of contemplation and stillness and getting to the root, but also out of action, which isn’t just marching, it’s also using our minds to create alternative forms of energy and of living on the planet and living simpler lifestyles in the world. So that’s where I look for interfaith. To me it’s not about saying prayers together unless by prayer you mean responding to the signs of our times and the suffering of the times and the suffering of those who are not yet born. I mean what kind of an Earth are we going to have for our great great great grandchildren, seven generations from today? The way we’re going, this is not at all pretty.
TSOMO: I’ll just follow up that then word of warning. I do think of you Matt as a modern-day prophet, and you know, there you go. I’m thinking of the term bodhisattva when I hear the nun you just referred to and the courage it takes quite often to be compassionate in this world. That’s quite in the consciousness of Buddhists as well. So there’s the term bodhisattva. “Bodhi” means “awake. It’s a progressive term like “awakening.” And “sattva” means “mind.” So mind of awakening. So the great bodhisattvas are the ones who are awake to this reality that we’ve just been talking about. And they are acting from that. And their hallmark is that they’re motivated by compassion.
For example, Chenrezig, the Sanskrit name of the bodhisattva of compassion, is sometimes depicted having a thousand arms reaching out in all directions, but it’s absolutely not just about action when it’s easy, but courage in the face of those coming from a place of an “I-other” mentality. And which could put your life in danger. Or you could suffer in the effort to relieve the suffering of others.
I also wanted to mention how we’re sort of like lemmings running for the cliff environmentally – that’s the image that comes to my mind. I think of the Jewish physicist David Bohm, because he was aware of that. He said it’s not enough for one person to wake up because that pool of humanity consciousness is so damp. You can’t catch it on fire with just one person waking up. But there’s an exponential benefit of groups of people waking up. More people waking up, and waking up together – that’s the only thing that can catch that damp pool on fire so that we can make a radical turn away form that cliff.
TIO: So how do we get people to wake up?
MATTHEW: Well I think one’s own suffering is a great wake-up call. So if you’re in northern California, we’ve had seven years of drought. That gets you a little bit awake about the sacredness of water. I was with a group of 150 scientists for a week two summers ago on an island in New Hampshire – the topic was climate change – what they said was that the dry areas are going to get drier, the wet areas are going to get wetter, and that’s happened. As more people get overly dry or overly wet, they’ll begin maybe to wake up to the ideology, but the ideology denial is so strong. The power of denial is so great, so we have to cut through that denial. That’s where science can help, but it’s not just a scientific problem, it’s not just a matter of facts. It’s a matter of fear and, “What can I do?” It’s disempowerment. When people feel they can’t do anything, then they shut down. That’s another way of feeding denial.
So things have to happen at many levels, I think, for people to wake up to this, but they are waking up, especially the young, because they’re asking questions like, “Do I bring children into the world in this circumstance?” These are heavy questions. And when you do bring children into the world, you want them to breath healthy air and have healthy water and all the rest. So there has to be a new alliance, I think, of what I call the elders and the young and move this forward. And I do think a lot of young people around the world are very much not in denial and therefore susceptible to the invitation to real compassion in this in the way we’ve been talking about this entire conversation.
TSOMO: So as you’re talking about the elements, I’m thinking of the prediction of a great Buddhist master, made when he was in Tibet establishing Buddhism in that country– that was in the 1800s C.E. He stated that the elements would rise up against us, and there you have it. You have Houston, you have New Orleans, and it’s happening more and more. The wind of the hurricanes is faster than it’s ever been. We have fires worse than they’ve ever been because everything’s drier. And it’s hotter. So you can look at the elements, fire, water, and wind –they’re all rising up against us just as he predicted.
So what can we do? Joanna Macy talks about first we have to get out of that numb hopeless state that, Matt, you referred to, and allow ourselves the first emotion, which is going to be grief. In her workshops for years she would help people open up to that and experience it together, so people weren’t just alone in it. And after you open up to feeling, then you can feel prompted to act. Otherwise you’re just closing off and reinforcing the self-other dichotomy, which isn’t going to be the thing that solves the problem.
Then we’ve talked about practices for helping ourselves really become energized and act from compassion, and hopefully with skill, and that’s also where practices come in. Skillful means and compassion are considered two hands working together in Tibetan Buddhist thought – also wisdom and compassion. You don’t get a bodhisattva if it’s just idiot compassion. It’s got to be wisdom and compassion. That is a powerful force for the good. And if people join together, as Bohm was talking about, then there’s this exponential factor that can happen, which we very much need at this time if we’re going to turn things around.
Go here for TIO’s review of The Lotus & the Role: A Conversation Between Tibetan Buddhism & Mystical Christianity (2018).
Header Photo: Pxhere