“Compassionate and Wise” (interfaith song in response to 9/11)

The song “Compassionate and Wise,” which appears on an album of the same name recorded by Father Cyprian Consiglio in 2006, represents a cross-pollination of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

An earlier version, simply called “Dedication of Merit,” was first sung at a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Benedictine convent in Indiana the week after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Rev. Dr. Heng Sure, an American Chan Buddhist monk, was asked to offer a dedication of merit (similar to what Christians would call an intercessory prayer, though it’s phrased more like a benediction). For this he and a colleague translated a passage from the Mettā Sutta, the Buddha’s discourse on developing and sustaining loving-kindness. Their translation reads:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace
With hearts of goodness, luminous and bright.

If people hear and see
How hands and hearts can find in giving, unity,
May their minds awake,
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May kindness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Break the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

In reciting the dedication, Sure spontaneously matched it with a melody by Canadian singer-songwriter Loreena McKennitt, which she had written in 1994 for the song “Dark Night of the Soul,” a setting of verse by the sixteenth-century Spanish Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. Conference attendees, their hearts full of grief over the falling of the Twin Towers, joined in singing, lifting up their collective longing for light to break through the darkness.

A few years later at a different Buddhist-Christian gathering, Sure met Father Cyprian Consiglio, a Camaldolese Benedictine monk, author, and musician from California. He shared the song with him, struck by its similarity to some of the prayers Consiglio had offered that week.

With the blessing of Sure and McKennitt, Consiglio and his regular collaborator John Pennington, a percussionist, recorded a new arrangement of the song in 2006 under the title “Compassionate and Wise.” Here they are performing it with friends on June 28, 2018, at the “Arise, My Love” concert in Santa Cruz to raise money for New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, where Consiglio has been the prior since 2013:

(The song starts at 2:43, following Consiglio’s spoken introduction.)

Their version has slight lyrical alterations and opens with two Sanskrit chants that Consiglio learned from the monks and nuns at Saccidananda Ashram (nicknamed Shantivanam, “Forest of Peace”), a Camaldolese Benedictine monastery in Tannirpalli, South India. The first chant, which is from the Rig Veda but also appears in the Yajur Veda, is known as the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (Great Mantra for Conquering Death). The second is a svasti pāṭhaḥ, an invocation for the welfare of all.

The following Sanskrit and its English translation were provided to me by Consiglio:

OM tryambakam yajâmahe
Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvâr ukamiva bandhanât
Mrityor mukshiyam amritat

OM sarvesâm svastir bhavatu
Sarvesâm shantir bhavatu
Sarvesâm pûrnam bhavatu
Sarvesâm mangalam bhavatu
Sarve bhavtu sukhinâh
Sarve shântu nirâmayâh
Sarve bhadrâni pashyantu
Mâ kashchid dukha bhagbhavet
OM shânti shânti shânti

We worship the true God who is the Supreme Being
Who is fragrant and nourishes all beings
May he liberate us from death for the sake of immortality
Like a cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper

May all be happy
May all be free from disease
May all realize what is good
May none be in misery
May the nonvirtuous be virtuous
May the virtuous attain tranquility
May the tranquil be freed from the bonds of death
May the freed make others free
Peace, peace, peace

And here is the sung English that follows:

May every living being,
Our minds as one and radiant with light,
Share the fruits of peace,
Our hearts of goodness luminous and bright.

If people hear and see,
Our hands and hearts can find, in giving, unity.
May their minds awake
To Great Compassion, wisdom, and to joy.

May goodness find reward;
May all who sorrow leave their grief and pain;
May this boundless light
Dispel the darkness of their endless night.

Because our hearts are one,
This world of pain turns into paradise.
May all become compassionate and wise,
May all become compassionate and wise.

This song is full of interfaith exchanges. A melody written to set the text of a Carmelite Christian friar was adapted to fit a Buddhist dedication of merit and is introduced by a Benedictine Christian monk with a passage from the Hindu scriptures! For more information on the song’s history, see urbandharma.org.

Explaining the significance of a dedication of merit (and metta practice) to his Christian readers, Consiglio writes on the hermitage blog, “We can dedicate whatever closeness to God we have to the good of someone else.” I myself wouldn’t use the phrase “dedication of merit” or its derivatives to describe what I’m doing when I intercede to God for others, but I see what Consiglio means, and I think it’s this: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). Through Christ, God hears our prayers, and it is our duty in prayer to think more widely than just our own needs or the needs of those in our immediate circles—though that can be a good starting point. As the apostle Paul says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1, emphasis mine).

What if our prayers extended to enfold all living beings? I was always taught to avoid genericisms in prayer, and while there is value in direct naming, there is also a beauty to those kinds of broad prayers often heard on the lips of children—for “the whole world,” for “peace everywhere.”

Perhaps you are uncomfortable by the lack of doctrinal specificity in “Compassionate and Wise,” or by what you might call “syncretism” (the mixing of belief systems). But as Consiglio says, there is nothing in the song that contradicts Christianity. The song arose out of an interreligious context, so it’s meant to invite the participation of people of various faith backgrounds.

“Because our hearts are one” refers to a unity of intention or desire. The singers may not be united in theological particulars, nor even around the deity they’re addressing, but they are one in their wish for universal well-being, for liberation from the bonds of death and a walking together in friendship across boundaries of difference.

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