Overcoming indifference to suffering

Leo, Battle Cat. April, 2012.

While walking on the pilgrimage (henro) in Shikoku last summer, my mind turned frequently toward questions pertaining to karma.  I don’t know about others, but the henro walk is an excellent time for me to attend to such questions.  I have not lived in Japan for decades so my speaking ability is limited to courtesy words, directions, and basic survival phrases.  I thus spend most of my time walking in solitude and silence.  I enjoy this.  It is meditative, and my questions were not so much internal dialog, but rather more like sustained mental attention.

One night, after some days of walking meditation on karma and rebirth, I had a disturbing dream, which involved me behaving with unspeakable and neglectful callousness toward one of my pets.  It was the heartlessness of the scene – the complete indifference to the suffering I witnessed, and my tacit consent – and not deliberate cruelty that stood out.  The animal in the dream was a kitten I rescued last spring.  I love him and it is impossible that I would ever do him any harm or stand by and allow him to be hurt.  But in my dream I stood by as he suffered.

The truth of the dream was that I have been neglectful and callous to the suffering of others – to those who “don’t matter” – be they people, animals, or unseen beings.  The kitten dancing around my feet as I type was, and was not, the kitten in my dream.  It represented all beings who, when kindness and warmth was most needed, have instead been treated to stone and ice.  If one loves one kitten, or person, or any living creature, and wishes them to be safe and happy and healthy, one cannot help but see that each and every other creature has the same wish to be happy and free from harm and neglect.

If caring for animals softens us, turning a blind eye toward their suffering hardens us.  Our hardened hearts bring us misery and unhappiness.  Living in this joyless state, we suffer because of who we have become.  I don’t understand the mechanisms of karma, but I get its truth as I have not before.

The usual instruction is that we not pay much heed to our dreams except when the Dharma is clear and obvious.  This dream was an extension of my waking thoughts and walking meditations.  At one point during the dream, I woke up and tried to shake it off but when I fell asleep again, I saw its nightmarish misery — a sign its substance was really on my mind.  It allowed me to see the consequences of indifference to the suffering of “the other kitten.”

We all recognize that we cannot give material aid and comfort to all who suffer – that is too much to ask of any ordinary being – but we ought not steel our hearts to the pain and anguish of others.  Even if we can do nothing, we can always spare a kind thought, and a wish for future happiness.  What we do for the beloved at our side, and learn to do for antagonists and adversaries in our midst, must also be extended to the distant and the unseen, the unknown and the unknowable.  Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman; but do not pass by the living and the dead in callous indifference.

3 thoughts on “Overcoming indifference to suffering

  1. Sometimes a dharma teacher will try to help his students understand universal compassion by starting with thoughts of their mother. The love and compassion of a mother and for a mother is something many can relate to. However, this is a contrivance, and often backfires if students do not have those feelings for their mothers. (I think it was created as an example to use with child monks who probably missed their mothers greatly).

    In this case, the kitten becomes that specific means of understanding compassion, from which universal compassion grows within you. How very fortunate and meaningful to have such a lesson. A wonderful story, too. 🙂

  2. True. Most understand the maternal influence in our lives and its relation to our understanding of compassion even if, as you note, our actual relationships are not always positive, With equanimity we are asked to apply the same care to all beings — our mothers, yes, but also the unknown, forgotten, neglected and despised. (Hopefully there is not a lot of overlap in these categories. )

  3. I like, no, appreciate the idea behind the last sentence: paying attention to other beings, rather than to the state they are in. So simple!

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