Recently I was doing a search in Webster’s Dictionary and I stumbled upon the definition of “compassion fatigue.” Webster’s defines it as a loss or lessening of sympathy for the misfortune of others because too many demands have been made on one’s feelings. We get numb, burned out. I think of people who work in jobs where they have to constantly give to others. If they don’t have a spiritual practice, it is very easy to get consumed.
Then there is “idiot compassion,” as Trungpa Rinpoche called it. It is the act of giving ourselves completely without thought or reflection—so much so that we become obsessed by the object of our compassion, we lose our focus and become overwhelmed, so that instead of helping we do damage. Trungpa said it’s better not to have any compassion than to have idiot compassion. That is a pretty strong statement, but he’s right. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel others’ pain, but if our emotions or judgments are out of control, then we will not be able to truly help.
So how do we truly help? And what does the dragon song have to say about that?
First of all, the dragon’s song doesn’t deal with what happened yesterday, and it doesn’t deal with prophecy. It deals with what is happening right now. Only those who are able to be present in the moment and not be preoccupied with their own agenda, their own history, their own future, have any space to ask “What can I do? How can I help you? What do you need? Where does it hurt?” Only a person who is fully present can manifest true compassion. Being present is where compassion is born.
At the same time, There can be no dragon’s song unless there’s a withered tree, says the commentary. This is where wisdom comes from. Unless we’re clear about the nature of the self and how it works, we will not experience the heart of being, the dragon’s song.
The commentary continues, If you can see through to the point of this koan and make it your own, then your own voice will be the dragon’s song and you’ll be able to make use of it among the ten thousand things. How do you see through a koan? As I’ve said many times before, it’s not through linear, sequential thought. To see through a koan you have to be creative. You have to trust your intuition. You have the answer. You just need to trust that you can see it.
And if you do, then your own voice will be the dragon’s song. You may think that you can’t carry a tune, but you’re wrong. You would have never come to practice if you weren’t a potential singer of the dragon’s song. Somewhere in your being there’s a driving force that brings you to your cushion, to the bodhi seat. Your own voice is the dragon’s song. Once you realize it, you’ll be able to make use of it among the ten thousand things. That’s the incredible thing. You don’t need to be taught how to use it. Training and practice don’t show you how to use it. They just help you to discover it.
When my son was five years old, someone gave him a little turtle with the word “Florida” written on its back. He put it in a small tank, fed it, and watched it everyday, but this turtle was incredibly lethargic. It barely moved. I knew it wasn’t going to last long, so when spring was approaching I told my son that the turtle was telling us that it wanted to go into the river, and that we should really think about letting it go. I finally convinced him that letting the turtle go was the noble thing to do, so one day we hiked to a mountain stream and released it.
The moment that turtle hit the water, a wonderful thing happened. This half dead, lethargic being swam like a fish and went right to the lee side of a rock in the middle of the stream. It clung to the rock, stuck its head out and immediately started feeding on the little bugs and things floating by. It didn’t take it long to discover its turtle nature—it was there from the beginning. That’s the way it is with the buddha nature, with wisdom and compassion. It’s a process of discovery. Once that discovery is made and we break free from our agendas, we’re free to give, to help, to nourish.