A weekend of ‘Engaged Compassion’ with Bodhi Path

Trinlay Rinpoche, Reverend Cathlin Baker, and Rabbi Brian Walt discuss “Engaged Compassion.” — Photo by Susan Safford

Three spiritual leaders from three diverse faith traditions appeared at Katherine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven last Thursday evening to exchange ideas, insights, and personal experiences about “Engaged Compassion.” The discussion, sponsored by the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in West Tisbury, brought Trinlay Rinpoche, a Buddhist, the Rev. Cathlin Baker, minister at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, and Rabbi Brian Walt to share views and reflect on audience questions. More than 75 attendees listened attentively to the dynamic two-hour discussion.

Bodhi Path co-coordinator Barbara Dacey welcomed the gathering, offering background on Bodhi Path, which was established here in 1999 by Shamar Rinpoche, who passed away last summer.

Co-coordinator Sharon Gamsby asked the speakers to describe their backgrounds, then speak about what it is in their personal lives that “ignites you to engaged compassion.”

The panelists depicted different beginnings, all leading to an early connection with spiritual life, and a deep passion for stopping injustice and helping others.

Trinlay Rinpoche, born in Switzerland to French and American parents, was identified early as one who would become part of the Buddhist teaching tradition. He grew up guided by great masters who influenced his outlook and behavior. Later, he learned much from Shamar Rinpoche.

“His life was characterized by action of compassion,” said Trinlay Rinpoche.

“From a very young age I was concerned with matters greater than me, and had a strong sense of connection to God and a heart breaking at the injustice I saw around me,” said the Rev. Baker, describing herself as “claimed by compassion at an early age.” Drawn to meditation and Christian theology courses, Ms. Baker traveled in India and became committed to helping the poor. She worked with humanitarian projects before feeling called to the ministry. Meditation, prayer, and commitment to social action remain important to her.

She said that even the privileged suffer. “Each of our personal experiences of suffering can be a path to empathy for the suffering of others,” she observed.

For Rabbi Walt, witnessing the injustices and poverty oppressing his black neighbors as he grew up in South Africa spurred him to work for social justice and equality. Rabbi Walt emphasized his view of compassionate action in the context of community, and people working together for good.

He stressed the need to care for others, especially “the orphan, the stranger, the widow,” and to “regard every stranger as kin.”

Trinlay Rinpoche cited primary principles of Buddhist tradition as the basis for compassionate action. In Buddhism, taking care of and bringing happiness and freedom to others is top priority.

“The more our kindness and compassion is genuine and universal, the more we are empowering our greater goodness, what is good and pure in ourselves,” he said.

“In Buddhism, separation between self and others is an illusion,” Trinley Rinpoche added. “Recognizing our essential connection to all beings leads to kindness. Kindness benefits all,” he said, the person who is being kind and the recipient as well as others. “While society urges us to become selfish, it does not help but instead harms us.”

He cited an ancient Buddhist text: “All happiness and joy in the world comes from wanting happiness for others.”

Audience member Niki Patton asked the speakers for advice, “baby steps to improve our kindness.”

The Reverend Baker said meditation is a valuable source of strength and serenity for her when dealing with difficulty, and gives her “resilience to connect with those who suffer.”

“Thy will, not mine, be done,” is a perspective she focuses on when facing challenges. Surrender and trust allow answers and resolution to emerge.

The Buddhist tradition suggests a person must act according to one’s ability to deal with the situation. “Sometimes there are limits to what we can do,” Trinley Rinpoche said, and it is important to do no harm. Serenity, perseverance, and concentration are needed.

Rabbi Walt again stressed community, joining together to confront social problems. But do not try to do it all, he advised. “We’re here to do a piece of the puzzle, but we’re not free to absolve ourselves of responsibility.”

The public discussion was planned as part of a weekend of “Engaged Compassion,” in connection with Trinlay Rinpoche’s live lobster release at Owen Park on Sunday, a practice exemplifying Buddhism’s goal of joy and freedom for others. Stanley Larsen of the Menemsha Fish Market provided several lobsters, preparing them in such a way as to prevent illegal resale if the lobsters are trapped in the future. The lobsters were blessed on the beach by Trinlay Rinpoche and taken by boat to be released back into the ocean.