Dr. Rebecca Li
Cultivating Compassion for Ourselves
On Sunday, May 14th, 2023, after meditation we watched excerpts from a Talk by Chan teacher, Dr. Rebecca Li, about cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves.

The teacher mentioned that some people experience resistance to being kind to themselves – they feel that the cultivation of self-compassion is too self-centered, and that being compassionate is all about directing loving-kindness to other people. However, she quoted Buddhaghosa for saying: “First of all, [loving kindness] should be developed only toward oneself” from The Path of Purification. Buddhaghosa cited the Buddha, saying: “the person who loves himself would never harm another” – when we are able to embody kindness to ourselves in our daily practice, that’s when we can truly be kind to others and not cause harm to others; and vice versa. This is because when we are unkind to ourselves, we are perpetuating an unhelpful habit of giving rise to aversion toward ourselves, and whenever that happens, we are suffering, our mind is agitated, and we lack clarity, and thus we can’t be truly here to see and respond to the person who is with us. Therefore, we aren’t able to see how we can express our care or be available for this person, to support them in the most appropriate and helpful ways. Instead, we are more prone to acting out our hatred and agitation toward others.

Rebecca also taught that cultivating loving-kindness is precisely what we are doing in Silent Illumination practice. By not trying to chase away thoughts – which would only agitate our mind – but instead: “let through, let be, let go,” we allow what’s already arisen be, instead of blocking or resisting what’s already in the present moment which is a habit of aversion. She shared that a practitioner has once told her that, allowing thoughts and feelings to be fully felt, heard, and seen in Silent Illumination practice, it’s the kindest thing to do for ourselves.

Loving-kindness is an effective antidote if we are willing to take them. First, we need to know how we direct hatred toward ourselves. How the habits of the mind arose – what triggered it, the kind of narrative that supports it, and that we fall into. Many practitioners have shared this with Rebecca – the way they experience this hatred of themselves shows up in a strong belief that they are not worthy of kindness. “What if I’m kind to myself, I become self-indulgent and I would just go and do whatever I want?” This is a frantic reaction with imagined catastrophic results that arise from self-hatred. However, being kind to ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t also be working hard. How? By cultivating clear awareness of our body and mind, moment to moment – thereby, knowing, for example, to drink water when we feel thirsty, to take a break when we are tired. Caring for our body and mind, like how we would tell others to take a break when they are tired, arises from the clarity of mind, which in turn allows us to both be kind to ourselves as well as work hard at the same time. On the other hand, if we don’t know how to care for ourselves, we would likely show up as stressed and agitated, and be harsh to others as well.

In addition, Rebecca cautioned that we often have an entrenched habit of freezing a past moment of our mistake and labeling that as “that’s me,” and thus feel we are “bad” and “unworthy” of kindness. However, that’s a habit of forgetting emptiness – i.e., that the self is not an independently existing entity with a fixed characteristic. Even though that moment of us hurting someone did happen, that’s not all that has happened. That was just one moment, and we’ve ignored all the other moments of our life when we are actually loving, kind, hard-working, and doing our best in fulfilling our responsibility. She invited us to cultivate clarity in our practice to see these habits of taking one moment as “the permanently bad me,” and then reacting to it with aversion.

In group discussion, members shared how they appreciated the helpful linkages between loving-kindness for ourselves and the cultivation of clarity, the Silent Illumination practice, and the concept of emptiness; as well as how cultivating compassion for oneself is a crucial foundation for cultivating true compassion to others. And they shared how self-hatred sometimes shows up in subtle ways in their minds and how that impacts their relationships with friends and families as well.

Scroll down to listen to Dr. Li’s talk. Happy Learning!


From the Teachers: Cultivating Compassion for Ourselves

Dharma Video:

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Cultivating Compassion ” by Dr. Rebecca Li*

The following recording includes a 15-min meditation session at the beginning, with guided instructions by the teacher. The Dharma talk starts immediately after the meditation session ends at the 00:16:20 mark.

* Rebecca Li, PhD, a Chan Buddhist teacher in the lineage of Master Sheng Yen, is the founder and guiding teacher of Chan Dharma Community. She began practicing in 1995 and in 1999 she began serving as Master Sheng Yen’s translator. She started teaching Dharma classes in 2002.

In 2001, Rebecca began to also train with Drs. John Crook and Simon Child, two of Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma heirs. Over the years, Rebecca co-led intensive Chan retreats with Simon Child and collaborated with other teachers of the Western Chan Fellowship of the U.K.. In 2016, Rebecca received Dharma transmission from Simon Child, becoming a Dharma heir in the Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Master Sheng Yen. Her transmission Dharma name is Zhi-Deng Fa-Chuan (智燈法傳 Wisdom Lamp, Dharma Transmitting).

In 2017, Rebecca founded Chan Dharma Community to support practitioners who want to deepen their practice after attending her retreats. Currently, she teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures, and leads Chan retreats in North America, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan. Her teachings have also appeared in various Buddhist publications in North America and Asia.

In addition, Rebecca is a sociology professor at The College of New Jersey, where she also serves as faculty director of the Alan Dawley Center for the Study of Social Justice. Her book “Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times” was published in early 2021.