To rescue a world

Many years ago, when I was a newly ordained monk in Sri Lanka, I decided to “moisten” my practice of mindfulness of breathing by supplementing it with metta, the meditative cultivation of loving-kindness. For guidance, I turned to the instructions in the the Visuddhimagga, the classic Theravada treatise on Buddhist doctrine and meditation. Following the guidelines laid down in the treatise, I began by taking myself as the first recipient of metta, directing toward myself the thoughts: “May I be well, happy, peaceful, and safe!”

I next turned to several people in the second category, the class of “those who are dear,” and found that, after a few fits and starts, loving-kindness flowed smoothly toward these people.

Next came the third category known as “neutral people,” mere acquaintances that one normally regards with indifference, those toward whom one’s feelings are neither friendly nor hostile. When I tried to direct loving-kindness toward people in this category, the flow of benevolent feelings dried up and my mind became dry and restless.

I persisted in my efforts, but repeatedly found myself pushing up against a wall that would not yield. I would build up momentum with the persons in the “dear” category and then turn toward the “neutral persons,” but there I would get stuck. Instead of launching out upon the open sea of loving-kindness, I would find myself bogged down in the sand dunes of apathy.

One day, however, a shift took place that transformed my practice.

The shift occurred spontaneously and inexplicably, without deliberate effort on my part. Up to this point, I had been mentally visualizing the people toward whom I had been trying to develop loving-kindness, taking them, in my mind’s eye, as the objects of my meditation.

The key event that triggered the shift was the realization that these people were not “objects” at all but subjects—irreducible centers of experience.

It dawned on me that these people did not merely exist “out there” in the objective space of my  own awareness, but were each the center of their own domain of experience, each the nucleus of an expanse of experience unique to themselves.

Each was an irreplaceable subject, persons with their own story, their own desires, hopes, and fears, their own personality and projects, their own complex web of relationships and concerns.

With this shift, the recognition hit me that, as subjects of experience, each of these persons was impelled by the primary aims that motivate all subjects of experience: to avoid suffering and achieve happiness, to escape harm and dwell in peace, to live a secure life of meaning and fulfilment.

With this a deep wave of empathy swelled up in my heart. This does not mean that the cultivation of loving-kindness toward them immediately became effortless and spontaneous for me. I still had to make the effort to apply this empathy to the task of generating and sustaining loving-kindness. But I had found the key to unlocking the door, the means to extend the feeling of loving-kindness toward those people I had previously viewed as objects—as mere impersonal faces.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that this discovery had a far-reaching implication. From the recognition of the indisputable subjective reality of the people I was mentally conjuring up in my meditation, I came to see that every person is at bottom a subject of experience. This truth can even be extended to all sentient beings, to the understanding that birds and bats, mosquitoes and spiders, are also subjects of experience, each a complex node of feelings, plans, and purposes, a bundle of fears and desires. But my primary concern at this point was with the type of being with whom I could most easily identify, that is, my fellow human beings.

I came to see further that, as a subject of experience, every person is the center of a world. From the core of every person a world opens up and expands outward to infinity. Every person, every being, every center of consciousness reflects the entire universe, and the entire universe converges upon and embeds itself within every person and every being. Every person, every being, can be conceived as a unique perspective from which the universe experiences itself, a beam of light through which the universe bears witness to itself. I look out at the sky at night and see stars and galaxies light years away. You look out at the sky at night and you too see stars and galaxies light years away. All those stars and galaxies are present for me, converge upon my consciousness; and they are also present for you, converge upon your consciousness.

This line of reflection next led me to understand that since every person stands at the center of the world—at the center of their world—every person’s life is endowed with intrinsic value, with a value that can never be canceled, can never be obliterated for the sake of practical efficiency or in the name of any cause, no matter how exalted. Being endowed with inherent value, a human life can never be reduced to a bearer of mere instrumental value. People are ends in themselves, not means to some other end.

As I pursued this line of reflection, it led me to certain conclusions that I considered incontrovertible. Above all, I concluded that the recognition of persons as subjects entails that every person is entitled to the things they need to flourish, the things they need to transform their innate, primordially given value into realized living value. While we possess innate value by reason of our status as conscious beings, we have to make an effort to give our life concrete value by seeking to achieve ends that we consider truly worthy of pursuit.

We actualize concrete living value by living in a way that enables us to achieve our potential for meaning. A life without meaning is a futile life, an empty life, a pointless life. Human beings are not driven merely by blind instincts—to eat and reproduce—but seek to impart meaning to their lives, to live with purpose. The purposes we set for ourselves may be worthy or worthless, admirable or reprehensible, but the quest for meaning is inscribed in the very template of our consciousness.

A life of positive meaning, of genuine value, has certain landmarks. It involves earning one’s living by fulfilling work, developing one’s skills and talents, finding sources of healthy enjoyment, exploring one’s interests, and pursuing one’s aesthetic and spiritual aspirations. It also involves making positive contributions to the lives of others: to one’s family, community, society, and country, and even to the entire world.

The recognition of the subjective status of people that dawned on me long ago when I started to practice the loving-kindness meditation led me to another insight that gained increasing weight as the years went by. This was the realization that the overwhelming majority of people in this world pass their lives under conditions that block and crush their quest for optimal meaning. Sadly, even tragically, the forces that govern their lives condemn them to a relentless struggle merely to subsist. Too many hover at the edge of unspeakable misery. They pass their lives weighed down by poverty, compelled to work long hours for mere survival wages, ever subject to the caprices of others who often show them no mercy at all.

Many don’t enjoy even minimal standards of decency. They must endure the horrors of war; struggle against ethnic, racial, or religious persecution; see their homes destroyed by fires and floods, their fields wiped out by droughts and storms. They are stricken by an array of illnesses. Their life is cut down by premature death, or they must witness the senseless death of their loved ones, their spouses or children.

Among the harshest fates that any person can face is chronic hunger. Whether it is imposed by famines, war, or endemic poverty, hunger erodes an individual’s sense of their own innate worth. It condemns a person to a relentless quest for food, a quest that has to be renewed each day, always with the threat of more severe hunger lurking just beyond the corner. For those in the grip of hunger, life loses all purpose but the one compelling need: to eat. The one thing that brings a fleeting satisfaction is an adequate meal. The one thing that brings a plunge into despondency is the realization that, once the meal is finished, the search for food must begin again.

Perpetual hunger throws you into an immense solitude, a sense that you are walking on a razor’s edge. Thrown into the pit of poverty, you know that if the source of food dries up, you will be condemned to death—you yourself and those who depend on you.

The recognition that we, as individuals, are each a center of subject experience has a corollary, a principle that stands alongside it and is equally valid. This is the fact that our subjectivities intersect. Although I am the center of my universe, and you are the center of your universe, and those people over there are each the center of their universes, these universes are not closed off from one another and folded in upon themselves. Rather, they are interwoven; they penetrate each other and reflect each other. The multiple fields of subjectivity constitute a unified field. We occupy a shared space in which, as subjective beings, we face each other. We literally look one another in the face, and looking at the face of another opens up their universe to our vision and invites us to participate within it.

It is from this encounter with the other, with other persons and with the other universes constituted by the subjectivity of other persons, that love and good will are transformed into compassion. To see others as subjects is to incur the obligation to listen to their voices, to recognize their suffering, and to respond in the way that best suits the situation. Compassion, as the Visuddhimagga puts it, is what makes the heart of a good person shake with the suffering of others.

We might try to escape this obligation, by turning away, closing ourselves off, and confining ourselves to our own sphere of concerns. This response comes to us easily but can lead to dreadful consequences: to indifference to the plight of others, to selfishness, to narrow isolation within the cage of the self.

Another approach to the encounter with others as subjects is to deny their subjective reality, to objectify others, to treat them as objects to be drafted into our own self-referential projects, to be dominated and subdued, subjugated to our own ends. This is an approach to the encounter with the others that has been gaining strength in today’s world. Its expressions include racism, ethnocentric hatred, and various modes of a caste system. Its ultimate expression is autocracy and genocide. 

Yet a third approach is that of empathy, of sharing in the happiness and suffering of others. The expression of this attitude is conscientious compassion, the heartfelt commitment to reduce the suffering of others, contribute to their well-being, and strive to create a world conducive to human flourishing. This is the approach that underlies the work of Buddhist Global Relief. We see our work not merely as an expression of charity or a humanitarian undertaking—though it may certainly be described in such terms—but as a bold affirmation of the intrinsic dignity of every human being.

When we provide people with the life-sustaining food they need—or even better, with the chance to emerge from poverty and earn a sustainable living on their own—we are acting from a recognition of our inextricable connection with others, from the resonances between our subjective being and their subjective reality. To rescue a single life is to rescue a single subject, and thereby to preserve a single world, to sustain a single universe. To rescue many lives from the chasm of hunger is to rescue many subjects, and thereby to preserve many worlds, many universes, each hosted by a unique being whose life is of inestimable value.  

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi is a scholar-monk, translator of Pali Buddhist texts, and founder of Buddhist Global Relief, an organization dedicated to combating chronic hunger and malnutrition around the world. The present essay is adapted from the cover essay of the BGR 2022 Fall newsletter.

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