When the Hasidic Master, Yitzhak of Vorki passed away, his son was broken- hearted. He acutely felt the loss of his father and prayed for a sign from him.

After a few weeks had gone by without any sign in word or dream, Rebbe Yitzhak’s son went to see his father’s close friend and fellow Hasid, the Kotsker Rebbe. Rebbe Yitzhak’s son explained his plight to the Kotsker, and then asked him if he had received any word of his father, since Rebbe Yitzhak had left the world.

The Kotsker Rebbe replied:

“No, your father has not come to me, but I think it is time that I went to him.”

The Kotsker Rebbe then withdrew within himself and turned towards the inner realm. He rose higher and higher into the supernal worlds – going from heavenly palace to heavenly palace. In every ‘palace’, the Kotsker asked the souls if they had seen Rebbe Yitzhak. Each time, he received the same response: “he was here, but he left and ascended higher’.

The Kotsker Rebbe ascended through the Celestial courts, and up into the Heavenly Jerusalem, on and on he soared until, finally, he reached an enormous forest. The Kotsker entered into the forest and journeyed on to its farthest edge, where he came upon a mighty ocean whose waves lapped against the white sands of a long, empty shore. There, standing on the shore looking out over the vast ocean, he found his dear friend and spiritual brother, Rebbe Yitzhak of Vorki.

As The Kostker Rebbe approached the water, he could hear the sound of a deep wailing, and he felt a profound sadness penetrate into his heart. When he reached the side of his beloved friend, Rebbe Yitzhak turned to him and said:

“Menachem Mendel, do you know what this ocean is? This is the Ocean of the tears of the Children of Israel. I have vowed before God not to leave this place until He fulfills His promise and wipes all of the tears away.”

One of the greatest of all virtues is the virtue of compassion. Compassion can inspire us to extraordinary deeds. Compassion can lift us up to the highest heavens. Compassion can lead us down into the lowest hell.

Compassion is a complex attribute. When one feels compassion one feels a great sense of love, but also a deep sorrow. Part of any real compassion is a profound sharing of another’s pain. The wonder of it is that this sharing of another’s pain helps to relieve the depth of his suffering. It washes away his sense of loss and aloneness and replaces it with a feeling of love and peace.

Echammal was a longtime devotee of Ramana Maharshi who came to him after losing her husband and all of her children. She was broken-hearted and shattered when she came to the Maharshi, but in his presence she found healing and peace.

After a time, Echammel was able to begin her life again. She even adopted her brother’s orphaned daughter named Chellamma. Chellamma stayed with Echammel and grew up into a beautiful young woman; then she got married and had a child. However, not long after giving birth to her son, Chellamma suddenly passed away.

When Echammal received the news of her death in a telegram, she ran to Bhagavan in a state of inner agitation and handed him the message. As Bhagavan read the words announcing Chellamma’s death, a river of tears began streaming from his eyes. He seemed to feel the loss as keenly as Echammal herself. As she watched the tears fall down upon the Maharshi’s face, Echammal’s own terrible grief dissolved away and she became filled with a great inner peace in its stead.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the degree of our compassion is intimately connected with our state of consciousness. The higher our state of consciousness, the greater is the compassion that we will feel.

When we are very young, the world seems a wonderful place to us, but as we grow older, we start to become aware of the struggles that others are going through. We become aware of people’s pain and suffering. We become aware of what a coarse and merciless place this world can be. As a result of this increasing awareness, we develop greater and greater compassion for others. Finally, after many lifetimes, we reach the point where we have the great compassion of God Himself – a compassion that encompasses all living things.

Jesus taught that: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”

A rich man’s life is removed from the troubles of ordinary people. He is cushioned from many of the sorrows of this world. As a result, he feels no compassion for others. Without compassion his heart remains closed. If his heart centre is closed, then God cannot reach him, so he will never be able to gain entrance to the Kingdom of God – never attain the higher consciousness of the spiritual realm.

When the Buddha was born, it was foretold that he either would become a great holy man or a great ruler. His father, the king, wanted his son to become a great ruler and not a wandering mendicant; therefore, he tried to control the Buddha’s life in such a way that he would never know suffering. The king reasoned that if his son was not exposed to suffering, then he would never question the meaning of life – never feel compassion for the pain of others, never seek out a way to heal the world.

Once we have truly experienced the suffering of this world, we can no longer go on living our ordinary lives. Once the suffering of this world has penetrated into our heart, we cannot rest until we have found a way to relieve it. Once we have seen the suffering of this world, our only choice becomes to find our way through the eye of the needle.

In one of the Buddhist Sutras, the story is told of a pigeon that happened upon a forest fire on a mountain. The pigeon wanted to extinguish the terrible blaze, but what could a mere pigeon do against such a conflagration? On one hand, the bird knew that it could not put out the fire, but at the same time, it could not accept simply doing nothing. Therefore, the pigeon began flying back and forth between a distant lake and the mountain fire with a few drops of water in its beak. Before long, its strength was exhausted and the bird fell dead to the ground, without having achieved any visible result.

In relating this story, the Zen Master, Abbot Zenkei Shibayamma, adds the following words of commentary:

“[We would not be wrong] If we were to call what the pigeon did foolish, nothing could be more foolish and useless. But there are saints who could testify that nothing but such a holy, meritless life is the real life worth living; and it is these saints who, in spite of many difficulties, give harmony to the human world and direct it to peace and happiness, however little by little. It is [may be] true that the sincere efforts of individuals and nations for peace and happiness are wasted and in vain for many thousands of years, and are still wasted in vain. Yet there is no other way but this for us to follow, and for which we should strive even at the cost of our own lives.” [1]

There are thousands, even millions of people that see suffering every day and yet are unmoved to do anything about it. In fact, there are many who take advantage of the goodness of others in order trick them out of the little that they have. But this does not undo the kindness of the compassionate, for it is the love and compassion of these people that upholds the world.

A feeling of compassion for others is the first sign that a person is entering the path. It is from this place of compassion that all true spiritual aspiration begins. As a result of this feeling, we start to take up a life of service, and try to accomplish all kinds of good works. But eventually, we come to realize that transforming the lives of others can only begin after we have transformed ourselves. So then we leave aside our life of service, for a time, and embark on the process of self-transformation.

After we have spent many years working hard to perfect ourselves, we come to a new realization that we can never become a perfected instrument on our own. It is a strange paradox of the spiritual life that we can only begin to help others out of their suffering after we have reached the stage of giving up on our own ‘little selves’ – after we have surrendered our egos to God.

“The first step in pursuing the way to religion”, Abbot Zenkei Shabayama tells us, “is to ‘empty oneself’. But this ‘emptying oneself’ does not mean, as ordinarily understood, merely to be humble in one’s thinking or to clean out all from the self-deceived mind so that it can accept anything. It has a much deeper and stronger meaning. One has to face the ‘ugliness and helplessness’ of oneself, or of human life itself, and must confront deep contradictions and sufferings, which are called the ‘inevitable karma.’ He has to look deep into his inner self, go beyond the last extremity of himself, and despair of himself as a ‘self which can by no means be saved.’ ‘Emptying oneself’ comes from this bitterest experience, from the abyss of desperation and agony, of throwing oneself down, body and soul, before the Absolute.” [2]

It is difficult to understand why this is so. Normally, we would assume that we become strong vessels by ‘filling’ ourselves, how can it be that it is the opposite which is true?

Annamalai Swami, one of the disciples of Ramana Maharshi, gives us one possible explanation:

“All suffering begins with the notion of duality”, he says. “As long as this duality-consciousness is strongly fixed in the mind, one cannot give any real help to other people. If one realizes one’s non-dual nature and becomes peaceful within [in other words, if one empties oneself], one becomes a fit instrument to help others.”

The truth is that the help which arises out of the little ‘I’ is usually short-lived and often misguided. It is only when we give up our little ‘I’ and work instead from the big ‘I’ of God that we can become potent workers for humanity. And the help that comes from the big ‘I’ – from our true Self is a power that never ceases.

As Annamalai Swami affirms:

“When one has stabilized in the Self, the inner peace which one experiences at all times flows out to all people. This natural radiation heals and uplifts humanity far more than any amount of physical activity.

“The jnani [realized sage] is just like the sun. The sun radiates light and warmth continuously and indiscriminately. The jnani effortlessly radiates his own nature – his love, his peace, his joy – to the whole universe.” [3]

A realized soul feels compassion, because it is his natural state of being. When a person reaches complete identity with the Self, then everything that he sees is part of God. If wherever he looks, all he sees is himself, will he not feel other people’s pain and sorrow?

As a devotee of Ramana Maharshi once remarked:

“Sri Bhagavan’s heart was as soft as butter, and it would melt at the slightest touch of sympathy. It was full to overflowing with the milk of grace.” [4]

This, then, leads us back to the ‘great compassion’ of Zen and of Tzaddikim like Rebbe Yitzhak of Vorki. This ‘great compassion’ compels us to act to relieve suffering wherever we see it, even when we know that our actions will not really change anything – even when our act of compassion endangers our own lives. This ‘great compassion’ comes from the Lord Himself and is the foundation of both the heaven and the earth. As it states in the midrash:

God first created the world with only the attribute of judgment, but the world threatened to collapse under its weight. Then He infused the creation with the attributes of mercy and compassion and the world was able to endure.

Every act of compassion, no matter how small or insignificant it may be, helps to sustain the spiritual balance of the creation. And it is the sacrificial acts of ‘great compassion’ that uphold the whole world.

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Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  A Flower does not Talk, Abbot Zenkei Shibayama 
  2.  A Flower does not Talk, Abbot Zenkei Shibayama 
  3.  Living by the Words of Bhagavan, David Godman 
  4.  Power of the Presence, Vol III, David Godman