Doing and Not Doing

During this period of the Corona virus pandemic, and the worldwide lock-down of millions of people, great acts of compassion and self-sacrifice are being carried out all around us. Nurses and doctors, carers of many kinds and support staff, have literally died for their patients in numerous countries and thoughtful acts of kindness and unselfishness are reported daily.

In some of the classical iconography – Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese – the figure of Avalokiteshvāra has a thousand hands, holding many kinds of implements, and each hand has an eye in it. This kind of imagery represents the capacity for ‘doing’ that arises from having listened, having attuned and seen.

We often associate compassion with being in the presence of the suffering of others when they are facing terrible tragedy, and then doing something to alleviate those tragic circumstances. However, there are also smaller, more local difficulties and sufferings in people’s lives, and sometimes the best thing to do is to leave things alone.

The primary quality of compassion, the root of compassion, I would suggest, is learning how to listen, to attend to what is here, to what is present – whether small or large. And from that attending, a capacity to do the appropriate thing arises.

From the root of listening, the thousand eyes are watching what’s going on and the thousand hands can offer help, as needed. Guan Yin has a lot of hands to lend! That multiplicity of hands represents the multitude of ways, the ten thousand fingers and thumbs that can help – both by doing and saying, or by not doing and leaving alone, as is appropriate to the time, place and situation – but the manner of helping stems from the root of listening.

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