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The Wisdom and Compassion of Avalokiteshvara


Guided Nondual Meditation by Michael Taft


Now we’ll be sitting really, really still for an hour. I will be moving to sometimes have a drink because I have to talk, but other than that I’ll try to be as still as possible. So make sure that if possible, your hips are kind of rolled just ever so slightly forward. We usually do that by having our hip joints just above our knee joints a little bit, so that our pelvis rotates forward just a tiny bit. It gets that nice curve in your lower back and that’ll just make your spine easily lift upward. The very, very tip top of your head the topmost top point should feel like it’s just being almost like pulled upward with an invisible thread to the ceiling. 

And you can move around just a little bit with your spine but you’ll find there’s just this one perfect spot where the absolutely least amount of effort is required to keep the back upright. In fact, it almost just feels like it’s floating upright and looks like all of you have your chin tucked which is good. We don’t want to get into a situation where our chin’s pointing out like that or even too tucked.  Just a little bit so that it keeps that spine feeling just right. And then your hands either like this or like this or this. All good. 

Now as usual I’d like you to just check in with yourself. How’s it going or as I say, what’s it like to be me right now? The thoughts, the emotions, your regular, just how’s your body feel?  How’s your life going? Just the whole thing. Just check-in. Take the temperature or the weather report. But it’s very important that as you do this that no matter what the weather is, it’s perfect. Okay, even if you’re upset and in a bunch of pain and all that for now, for the meditation, that’s just the way it is and that’s perfect. Okay so we’re not judging our state, we’re just checking in with how we’re doing. So let’s just do that for a while. How is it going? What’s it like to be you right now? 

Good, and next I’d like you to just tune into a sense of spaciousness, a sense of openness, a sense of ease. And from that space of open ease, just begin to notice the rising and falling breath. So we’re not focusing on it, we’re not narrowing attention. Attention is very broad, it’s vast and open, but into that awareness, we’re noticing that the sense of the breath appears rising and then appears falling without any effort. We don’t have to focus on it, we’re just aware of it. 

We’re being absolutely still. And just notice how awareness is already aware. We don’t have to do anything to make ourselves aware. We’re not flipping on some special awareness button, we’re not extra efforting or if we are, it’s not helping. That doesn’t do anything. Awareness is already there. It’s already there. And into that awareness, we’re noticing that the sense of the breath rising and falling is just occurring. So let’s do that together now for a little while.

Very gently, just staying with the breath. Again, not focusing hard, not trying too hard, just very gently noticing the body sensations of breathing appear in awareness and staying with that. Mainly simply resting as spacious awareness, already existing easy open free awareness.

Now I want you to make sure that you’re aware of every moment of that breath.  Again, not focusing on it hard, but simply aware of it throughout its entire cycle. Notice the arising of the in-breath and the movement of the in-breath, and then the end of the in-breath. And then sometimes there’s a pause there. And then notice the beginning of the out-breath and all the way through each moment of the out-breath, and then the end of the out-breath. And then often, there’s a pause there as well. So even though we’re not narrowly focusing on it, we’re just aware of every moment of it without missing even a millisecond.

Good. Now often in here, we do various kinds of visualizations. Usually, I leave it a little open. You can get kind of creative with your own process, but tonight we’re going to do a very specific visualization of the bodhisattva named Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Avalokitesvara has a thousand arms and each of these arms is symbolic of reaching out to help relieve the suffering of some beings. So the bodhisattva has metaphorically infinite arms performing infinite acts of compassion for infinite beings. And the mantra of this bodhisattva is the very famous mantra om mani padme hum. 

So I want you to picture the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara. Picture a meditating buddha-like figure, but with a thousand arms in a circle around them, able to take infinite action on behalf of all beings. And if you want to you can even silently, in your mind recite the mantra om mani padme hum if that appeals to you. Either way, I want you to see the eyes of Avalokiteshvara opening. Including the third eye opening and gazing into your being. And as the eyes of Avalokiteshvara open and gaze into you, you feel that profound sense of both wisdom, the wisdom of emptiness, the wisdom of clarity, and of course also the tremendous heart of kindness, of caring, of joy and compassion.

What is compassion? Compassion is that feeling that you actually care and want to do something to help. It’s motivational. It’s not simply a feeling. It’s much deeper than that. Sometimes we mix it up with empathy. It’s different than empathy. Empathy means you’re having the same feeling as the person you’re thinking about. Compassion is about wanting to help. Caring deeply and wanting to help. So feel that tremendous sense of being regarded as a being who matters. Feeling loved, feeling cared for, feeling kindness, feeling joy, feeling really met in all your sorrows and all your difficulties by this loving radiant bodhisattva. And actually, see a beam of pure compassion coming from the heart of Avalokiteshvara into your heart and feel it filling up your being. And I’ll just recite the mantra here a little bit. You can just do it silently if you wish, just a few times.

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

om mani padme hum

Continuing to feel that radiant compassion flowing into your being. Filling your being. Loving and healing your being. 

Good. Now breathing in, take the image of Avalokiteshvara into your heart. Breathe Avalokiteshvara directly into your own heart where the image plugs in and begins to radiate powerfully from your own heart. So that the energy and wisdom and compassion of Avalokiteshvara, which translates as the one who hears the cries of the world, starts beaming out from your being.

I want you to picture this energy radiating out. And I want you to very clearly picture it helping everyone it touches, bringing kindness, bringing gentleness, bringing caring, bringing joy, healing, love, connection to every being it touches. See and feel that very clearly. See the happiness, the love, the joy on the faces of all the beings it touches, or if it’s non-human beings see their tails wagging or them jumping around or whatever they do when they feel joy and love and being cared for and peace. Really feel that energy radiating out powerfully, powerfully in all directions, and see it clearly affecting all beings. Generating endless joy, endless compassion, endless kindness, and caring. There is no limit. It just keeps pouring through. 

Remaining perfectly still. 

Good, now we’re going to flip it around and instead of bringing joy and kindness and caring and compassion, I want you to take in all the sufferings into ourselves. We’re taking in all the pain, all the sorrow, all the suffering of every being in the universe. And we’re feeling it. Every beaten and abused child, every mistreated animal. All the suffering of all the beings everywhere, not just on earth, but everywhere. Bring it into yourself. Take it on so that they don’t have to feel it. We take their pain, we take their suffering into ourselves and feel it deeply.

Seeing it as empty, seeing it as handleable because of our vast spacious awareness. There’s more than enough room to take it on without it becoming a problem. But neither do we try to avoid it, we fully feel it. Let it break your heart. Let it break your heart wide open. If it’s not breaking your heart, imagine a little more clearly what’s really going on out there.

With each in-breath we take in more and more and more of the sorrows of the world. Burns it away, burns it away with no remainder, burns it away with no ashes. We feel it deeply. Don’t hold back, let yourself really feel it. The love and wisdom of Avalokiteshvara in our own heart burning it all away.

Good. Now let’s switch back. We’ve taken in all the pain, taken in all the suffering. Now having burned that all away entirely without any remainder but wisdom, light, the compassion, the compassionate warmth of Avalokiteshvara beams out with joy and kindness and caring bringing relief to the sorrow. Bringing kindness, the kindest most helpful touch, warmth, caring, compassion to all beings everywhere.

Everyone’s scared and sad and trapped and alone and without any help feels suddenly this touch of kindness, this ray of warmth and caring. The caring that comes from a truly broken open heart that feels so deeply. Radiating out in all directions. Really feel it, joy kindness, caring, wisdom, compassion, love.

Good, now allow the image of Avalokiteshvara in the heart to just dissolve into space. Let all thoughts dissolve into space. Let all sense of the body dissolve into space. Let emotion dissolve into space. Let all conceptual fabrication dissolve into space and simply rest in the open awareness of the great perfection. 

Free from all doing. Free from all distraction. Free from all concepts. Simply resting as the awareness that is always present. It’s always there. There’s nothing to do except allow awareness to be itself. 

If you notice yourself getting caught up in thought, just let go and fall back into open awareness. If you get caught up in thought, again, just relax again. Let it go. Drop back into simple awareness, spacious open awareness.

Even if the mind kickstarts into thought a thousand times, just let go back into open space a thousand and one. 

Letting go of all sense of doing. Letting go of any need to change anything. Letting go of any arising thought just allowing it to become space. Not hanging on to it. So we come back to our own vast, spacious awareness which is already present, which is primordially present. It’s always been there. Just come back to that and rest. Wide awake, crisp, clear, unfabricated, absolutely pristine, open, complete, awake. 

Good. Now again, allow within this vast spacious awareness, the vision of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara to arise with thousand arms of compassionate helpfulness and once again radiate out this love and joy and kindness and caring in all directions. And feel it for yourself too. You’re a being too. Don’t skimp, don’t leave yourself out. Avalokiteshvara has wisdom and kindness for all. Joy and kindness and love and caring filling you up and radiating out in all directions, touching the heart of all beings everywhere.

Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.

Good. Let’s end the meditation there. Feel free to move and stretch. Feel free to keep feeling the compassionate heart of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara for as long as you want. That’s always available. 

Dharma Talk, Q&A

In other languages, Avalokiteshvara is also known as Guanyin or Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenrezig. 

I talk a lot about emptiness, we notice the emptiness of things. We notice a vast space, any particular appearance, any spontaneous appearance of anything tends to or can tend to just dissolve into space, or be seen as space. And this is–this understanding of emptiness and the ability to really notice it–is the wisdom component of your own already existing bodhisattva nature. 

We all have a bodhisattva nature that’s already there. It’s already complete. It’s already fully awake in its own right. And its wisdom component is that it sees the emptiness of all things. That doesn’t mean they’re not there. That doesn’t mean they’re nothing. It means that they have no inherent nature of their appearance in the fullest sense of that term, but they don’t have a ground. And so that’s the wisdom part of our wisdom nature. That’s our deepest wisdom, this understanding of emptiness.

But what’s funny is people tend to lean into just that, like that’s it and there can be this sense that awareness itself, vast spacious awareness, this clear awareness is somehow kind of neutral or sort of sterile or sort of cold. Or when we say it’s empty, that can feel like it’s kind of vacuous in sort of an uncaring way. And that it has some kind of supreme neutrality to it. But that is not the case. Bodhichitta, the awakened mind of your already existing buddha nature, has that wisdom component of emptiness, but it also has the compassion component which is just as deep and just as important. It’s totally not neutral. It is utterly kind and utterly caring and warm. Now that doesn’t mean it always feels like overwhelming gushy–it can be, you know, strong or weak or have different flavors, but it is essentially caring. It is essentially kind and warm and the two things come together. They go together. You can’t have one without the other. 

So for example, because emptiness shows us the nonduality of self and other, there’s no real boundary between self and other. That’s the wisdom of emptiness showing the nonduality of this apparent boundary because that boundary is empty, everyone else is us and we are them. And so that makes that immediate kindness, that immediate caring, and immediate compassion totally natural. It’s not something we have to generate, it’s just instantly there. 

And in the same way the compassion as it arises when you really see the suffering of others and it breaks your heart open. That broken heart will show you the emptiness, will show you the nondual nature of everything. The fact that there’s no real boundary and that any sense of a boundary is a kind of a temporary and contingent fiction that we’re using to just move through the world more easily. But that shattered open heart of total compassion will just reveal the emptiness of that immediately. And the sort of immediate and intimate and direct caring for others is the instant result.

That doesn’t have to make us stupid. There’s such a thing as idiot compassion, right, where I guess in the west we would call it something like enabling where someone is killing themselves with whiskey and they just want to drink. Your compassion doesn’t cause you to give them another bottle of whiskey to relieve their need for more. That’s idiot compassion, that’s not helping anybody. We would call that enabling so we can still be wise. It’s not somehow necessary to almost injure ourselves or others to try to help. That’s almost an oxymoron. So there’s still a wisdom component in there. 

There’s also the idea of fierce compassion that would be more like the anti-enabling. Like in order to help someone you might have to have a stern talk with them or an intervention or something. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is be very sharp

so it doesn’t always look like, you know,  “it’s nice to be nice” it can have some more nuance than that, a lot more nuance than that. And in the same way, emptiness is nuanced. It’s not simply that things aren’t there or something. Everything dissolves into space and that’s the end of the story because it’s not the end of the story. Everything that appears is itself radiant, awake space. 

Even conceptual fabrication, the opposite of emptiness is empty and is just radiant awake space. It can seem like when we’re letting go of thought or letting thought dissolve back into awakeness, that we’re somehow against thought or anti-thought, which we’re not because again the core of each thought is itself radiant awakeness.  It’s, itself, totally enlightened. We just want to recognize that, rather than only sort of being lost in the jumble of thought.

So what we did tonight is sort of a slow tonglen. Normally if you do the practice called giving and receiving tonglen you do it on the in-breath and the out-breath each time,  but we just did a really slow version of it. There’s a long time of giving compassion to the world and a long time of taking in the sorrows. So we would call this practice slow tonglen. It just gives you more time to kind of get into each part of it.

But again, it’s funny because people will tend to think that a practice like tonglen is somehow less than, you know, this super intense concentration practice or this super strong sharp emptiness practice. But that is absolutely not the case because again, bodhicitta has both the wisdom of emptiness and the power of compassion. And getting that real sense of compassion going can drop us into awake awareness just as powerfully or even more powerfully than some kind of sharp emptiness practice. 

And if you want to check how your compassion and emptiness are doing just notice the resistance to taking on the suffering.  You really start doing that practice if there’s you know, “oh I want to cover it and hide it, I don’t really want it to touch me,” and that kind of thing. There’s your edge. To that extent, we can look more deeply into emptiness. Whereas, when it just breaks you open and you don’t hold back, then we’re starting to really feel the depth of it, the power of it.

Questions or comments or reports. Yes, please speak up. 

Questioner 1: Okay, I have two questions. I’ll just do one first. I’m sorry if it’s annoying. I’m just really curious what you have to say, you said that everyone has a compassionate nature. I’m just wondering what about people who do a lot of bad things, how do we know they also have that?

Michael: How do we know that bad people have a compassionate nature? Even Putin has his children and takes care of them, his own children. There’s a little tiny ember visible of that compassionate nature. People do get lost in delusion, get lost in their hatred, their greed, their fear, their disgust, their sadness. They get lost in that, but if we could dig out all that muck, underneath there is a pure radiant bodhisattva of compassion.

That’s just like if you imagine this million-year-old diamond statue of a buddha that’s lit up from inside, but it’s just at the bottom of a thousand-mile-deep sewer, but it’s still perfect in there. And if we bring it up and rinse it off, it’s absolutely untouched. And so that’s the idea. Every human being is fundamentally sane, fundamentally kind,  fundamentally beautiful, fundamentally wise, but that can get really lost and covered up, especially after a lifetime of just piling on the delusion.

But at a certain point, you just start seeing that about people. You see their own buddha nature even if they don’t see it and that’s the weirdest thing is that sometimes you can see it and they don’t. But it’s there. And so little by little through our own work, through our own meditation, through our own helping of others and all that, that helps to reveal that in others. Or helps them to see it about themselves. But it can be funny when you see it and they don’t.  It can be kind of a funny moment–odd funny, not ha ha funny. Does that make sense? Good thanks for your question.

Questioner 2: Do you have a story or an anecdote or a time in which you saw it and they didn’t? I think that would be a really interesting challenge to pull that out. 

Michael: Yeah, it’s not a very satisfying story, but I remember when I first really started seeing that clearly, I would just talk to someone’s buddha nature. Like okay, well clearly you understand this, that, and the other. And or act as if they must know it. And the funny thing is, and this is an odd way to talk, but their buddha nature does know it.

But through all the layers of ignorance, it’s not reaching kind of their normal mind and so there was a friend of mine that I worked with, and I would see this, and he was very depressed. And we were super good friends and he was quite depressed and at first, I used to really talk to his buddha nature and thought that between me and talking to his buddha nature he could just kind of see what was going on with him and work it out. So I worked really really hard for years to kind of directly do that and I finally got it. It took a long time for me to realize he doesn’t see that part of himself. That’s why this isn’t working. He doesn’t see it at all and if I talk about it he thinks I’m insane. And so I learned that you can’t force that on somebody and you can’t expect them to see that. Not a very satisfying story, but after a while, it becomes the story of every day. 

And this is another place where you’ll notice the compassion arising. You can see everyone’s buddha nature and they can’t see it about themselves and it’s very sad.  And so you want to help. On the other hand, you can’t force that helping on anybody so you just silently feel compassion. That could sound arrogant or paternal or something, but it’s more like having your heart broken continuously. Does it sound like fun to have your heart broken continuously? Most people think that sounds like hell, but remember, the buddha nature is pure compassion and so as your heart is broken it drops you back into your own deepest wisdom, your own most fundamental okayness. So we don’t resist that broken heart. We let it break further and further because at the very furthest last brokenness, we see its absolutely pure awakening, pure bright, clear wakefulness.

What else? Other questions or comments? You got another question? Sure. 

Questioner 1: The other question is when you said imagine all the beings being touched by this light of compassion and feeling joy. 

Micheal: Yes. 

Questioner 1: And at the retreat last weekend you said a harder version of that which is like imagine all the beings that are suffering and tortured also receive this joy. I found that extremely hard, especially in comparison to later you said imagine all the suffering, I found that part really easy. Just yeah, there are so many cases and the first part is really hard. I imagine others feel the same.

Michael: Yes, certain parts of it are really hard, and when I say really hard, I mean heartbreaking. Right, it’s so sad. 

Questioner 1: I found the sad part more real but everywhere seeing joy, even for those who are suffering, I found it hard to imagine that.

Michael: Keep trying.  It’s not about whether you can really make that happen in the world. I mean, of course, we try to really make it happen in the world, but it’s not about some logical rational mechanism, it’s about seeing it anyway, imagining it anyway. So it’s heart-based. We’re coming back to our heart, not seeing how we can possibly make that happen in all cases. If you’re going there you’re lost in concepts. And so that’s we just let go of the concept and come back to that pure wish that if you were in the room with that person being tortured you would want to help them feel better.  You would want to do something and you want them to feel that and you would do anything you could. That’s what you’re beaming out to them.

Questioner 1: So is it ok to imagine specific things that I could do and then…

Michael: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Questioner 3: Yes, maybe I follow up on that, when you give these instructions that have involved making contact in some way with all beings, of giving something and receiving from all beings, I sort of feel like I can see two ways of approaching this and I’m wondering if one of them is sort of..

Michael: Which one makes you feel the most compassion?

Questioner 3: I feel like I can start to get there either way. I’m not sure. Yeah, I’m not sure I can quite get I think I quite feel completely open… Do I start with a bird’s eye view, trying to sort of look at everything at once and then make that feel more concrete or sort of visualizing sort of faces one by one starting…?

Michael: Most people find individual, starting individual is much more powerful because you can relate. Yeah, that’s usually, you know, a million people is a statistic right, but one person you can really relate to. So we want to keep it on the relational level and keep it in a way that we actually feel the compassion arising.


Questioner 4: I have a report. Yeah, thank you so much 

Michael: Thank you. 

Two hours ago I had a really traumatic thing and I just went into a shock state. And two of my friends here held a really great space for me. I was like a little child. I was like I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m gonna die, I want to die. And yeah, I felt such a, like a big weight that I wanted to just not face it.

Michael: Yes.

Questioner 4: Coming here I felt like I got a lot of relief, particularly with the spaciousness and then the tonglen practice was, wow, that really broke my heart open, especially since I was feeling my own suffering and then imagining the suffering of all of these different people and how much worse they’ve got it. I really felt with suffering every day and it’s a lot easier for me to have compassion for people than to like judge, or to like try to survive or whatever it was. Also having the heart of Guanyin, receiving that first, and then receiving that again, and being it. I felt like it helped bring me out of my collapsed state… into more of an okay, yeah, compassion I can receive and give. 

Michael: That’s right, that’s what that kind of visualization does. It’s a resource, right? We realize we have a lot of resource available. And so, even if we’re, you know, all crushed from feeling all the suffering of the world or even just our own suffering we tap into that resource, and guess what? It’s right there. Right, you imagine it and it will start immediately helping.

Questioner 4: And the interesting thing about it was that, what started helping me, was imagining the suffering of all the other people. That somehow took it out of that took me out of my own spiral. 

Michael: That’s right, that’s right absolutely. 

Thanks. Good. 

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