Most of the time, my compassionate impulse is to see a problem, analyze it, see what can be done to address the problem, and then implement the steps to fix it. But, every now and then, I come across a situation where nothing can be done (or at least I can’t see anything that could wisely be done). In the face of this “nothing can be done” situation my compassion seems to take on a burdensome quality: it is sort of frustrating.
Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett wrote: “All acceptance is the key to the gateless gate.” While this can seem a little exotic and out of reach, and it may have dimensions that I do not yet see (probably does), it turns out to be pretty down to earth and practical. Like, when I encounter that “nothing can be done” sort of situation, I can work on acceptance, I can work on seeing and letting go of the views and opinions and suffering that get in the way of acceptance. And remember that when I talk about acceptance, I am not suggesting that we condone or approve of suffering or its cause, just that we allow it to be what it is so we can see it clearly. Seeing it clearly, we may or may not be able to takes steps to help it.
The “key to the gateless gate” means that acceptance is what gets us in the door of being able to clearly and effectively work with suffering; acceptance is the real starting place.
We each have our obstacles to accepting what we see as insoluble suffering, large or small. (One of the main obstacles is just our disbelief that there are some problems that we can’t fix, at least not right away.) Part of the work of handling suffering, whether it is our own or someone else’s, is being willing to see our own obstacles to acceptance and finding ways to convert them. This conversion is what really helps with the burdensome feeling that arises when we encounter suffering. It seems paradoxical, but actually accepting some aspect of suffering, not resisting or trying to push it away, helps to relieve the burden of it, helps to relieve the suffering.
And then there is the obstacle of a despairing attitude: when I encounter a suffering that just seems like it won’t go away I might look down or look away from the suffering, but this doesn’t really help and is a way of denying it or pushing it away.
To start with, there are two things that help with this tendency to look down or despair in the face of suffering. The first is deciding to believe (maybe even just provisionally) in what the Buddha and all the ancestors and teachers since the time of the Buddha have taught: there is a cessation of suffering. There is something positive beyond or on the other side of the suffering that we encounter in our own life and in the lives of those around us.
The second thing that helps with this tendency to despair is actually doing the practice and proving it true for ourselves. When we actually apply the practice to a suffering that arises in our own life, when we actually sit still with a suffering and see it directly with compassionate acceptance, we can prove it true that there is something beyond the suffering. We use the teaching to help guide us to how to deal with a suffering (“look up, have a positive outlook when we practice” say the ancestors and masters) and by doing this we build our own fund of experience which strengthens our practice.