I’ve been having an odd experience of late, and I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing: some word or a phrase–or often, a tune–you just can’t get out of your head. That’s what I’ve been dealing with for some days now, and I think I may know why.
The word that keeps playing over and over in my mind is “Avalokiteshvara.” I know, it’s a mouthful. So here it is, broken down a bit: Ava-lo-keet-esh-vara. In Mahayana Buddhism, this is the name of “The Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion.” But I need to back up a little and explain what I’ve been up to in recent weeks.
About a month ago, I decided to begin work on a new book, aimed at synthesizing three great spiritual-philosophical traditions: Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. (Yes, some would prefer the term “religion” for at least the first two, but that’s a discussion for another time). My original title for the book was a contraction of the three words—hence, “JuBuSto”—but I later settled on the more mellifluous title, “The Three-Petalled Rose”. The idea grew out of my growing conviction that Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism share many features, and lead to a common path of spiritual and ethical development. Of course, there are important differences that distinguish the three, and in some cases, may even render them incompatible.
But the word that kept resonating in my mind—Avalokiteshvara—was telling me otherwise. Avalokiteshvara was telling me that the three petals of the rose are joined in a corolla of compassion. In simple terms, kindness and compassion are core features of all three traditions. You can leave out all the fancy theology and metaphysics and do very well as a Jew, a Buddhist, or a Stoic by living a life of compassion, tempered by reason. (For that matter, one could make a similar claim for the other major faiths: Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam). As the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Chagdud Tulku, observed: of the 84,000 methods taught by the Buddha, they all “…came down to the essential point of good-heartedness.”
And so, I keep hearing that name: Ava-lo-keet-esh-vara . But do we know anything about this personage? In Sanskrit, the name “Avalokiteshvara” is translated in several ways – for example, as “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World”; “The Lord Who Looks Down”; and “The Lord Who Looks in Every Direction.” Sometimes, Avalokiteshvara is represented as male, sometimes as female; and sometimes, with both male and female features. As I mentioned, “he” (if I may oversimplify) is a bodhisattva. In the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is one who is on the path to enlightenment, but who foregoes complete enlightenment in order to help all other beings attain this state. Among these awakened beings, Avaloketsehvara is especially renowned for compassion (in Sanskrit, karuna) and understanding.
So what does all this Buddhist lore have to do with Judaism and Stoicism? I believe that, like Buddhism, both Judaism and Stoicism place kindness and compassion at the forefront of the spiritual quest. In the Talmudic and rabbinical tradition, for example, we are told that “The world stands on three things—Torah, sacred service, and the practice of loving-kindness” (Pirke Avot, 1:2). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once defined the religious person as one “…whose greatest passion is compassion.” He also remarked, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” As I enter my sixth decade, I can easily identify with that!
But what about Stoicism? In my experience, many people who hear the word “stoic” think of some character on “Masterpiece Theater,” showing us his “stiff upper lip” and tamping down his anger or sorrow. Those of my generation might think of Star Trek’s cerebral Mr. Spock, extolling the virtues of logic and disparaging “displays of human emotion.” But these are caricatures of what is actually a deeply spiritual philosophy. Fundamentally, Stoicism entails living in harmony with the Universe, Nature’s laws, and with the rational principle that is said to govern the world at large—sometimes known as the Logos.
The Stoic ideal is not the complete absence of emotion, but rather, the modulation of emotion, such that we can enjoy life without undue distress—what we might call a state of “equanimity.” And there is a strong kinship between Stoic values and those represented by our friend, Avalokiteshvara. The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) put it this way: “A man’s joy is to do what is proper to man; and man’s proper work is kindness to his fellow man.” The Stoic way was one of benevolent action, in accordance with reason. Another Roman sage, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), expressed this idea in a moving essay on “hatred.” Seneca wrote,
“Hatred is not only a vice, but a vice which goes point-blank against Nature. Hatred divides instead of joining, and frustrates God’s will in human society. One man is born to help another. Hatred makes us destroy one another. Love unites—hatred separates…it is not hatred, but mutual love that holds all mankind together.”
And so, I think I understand why I keep hearing those odd-sounding syllables: Ava-lo-keet-esh-vara. These sounds carry with them the universal message of compassion and kindness. And compassion is at the very heart of the three-petalled rose.
For further reading:
A.A. Long: Stoic Studies. University of California Press, 1996.
C. Davis: Greek and Roman Stoicism. Herbert B. Turner & Co., 1903.
Thich Nhat Hanh: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Broadway Books, 1998.
Chagdud Tulku: Gates to Buddhist Practice. Padma Publishing, 1993.
Ronald Pies: Becoming a Mensch. Hamilton Books, 2011.
Ronald Pies: Everything Has Two Handles. Hamilton Books, 2008.
Acknowledgment: I have also relied on lecture notes from Prof. Stephen Prothero, Boston University [The Modern Scholar: Religions of the East: Paths to Enlightenment]