Great compassion

Great compassion

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Boise, Idaho.

  • Wishing self and others to be free from suffering
  • The six realms of cyclic existence
  • Equanimity and relationships
  • Freedom from cyclic existence
  • Attitude to have towards those who harm

Bodhicitta 08: Great compassion (download)

The fifth one [of the Seven-Point Cause and Effect method of achieving bodhicitta] is great compassion, the wish that self and others be free of suffering. You can see that when you have heart-warming love that really cares about beings and sees them as lovable, then wishing them to be free of suffering becomes a possibility. Here again this compassion is generated towards all living beings not just towards some of them. We can meditate on compassion beginning with ourselves and then extending it to friends, to strangers and to people we don’t like. We can start thinking about the suffering we have, the misery that we have. Don’t just think in a small way, “May I be free of cancer, may I be free of AIDS.” You might say, “What’s small about that? I think that is quite big. I want to be free of cancer. I want to be free of AIDS.” But wish ourselves, “May I be free of all the suffering of cyclic existence whatsoever. May I attain full liberation and full enlightenment.” Don’t be stingy in your compassion towards yourself. What we often call renunciation or the determination to be free is basically compassion for ourselves: wishing ourselves to be free of cyclic existence and all the suffering in it. So let’s wish that for ourselves, and then let’s wish it towards other beings. When we’re meditating on compassion, extend it like that.

Venerable Chodron giving mani pills to a retreatant.

When you have heart-warming love that really cares about beings and sees them as lovable, you wish for them to be free of suffering.

It also helps to remember that other beings at this time have much greater suffering than what we’re experiencing. I don’t know if you think about this on a daily basis. I try and train my mind to do that, and I’m often very aware. When I get out of bed in the morning, the first thing I do is make three prostrations. I feel very aware of the fact that I can move my body to do prostrations. I’m not always going to have good enough health to do prostrations, but today I’m well enough. My body functions well enough so that I can offer my respect to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. And just really feeling what great joy and how incredibly fortunate I am to have a body that functions well enough to do that. When we sit down to eat breakfast, think how incredibly fortunate we are to have breakfast. And again think of the people who are ill and the people who are hungry. And think about what that really means in their life.

I was reading this morning that in Baghdad, there are 47 times as many people who died of gunshot wounds in July this year than last year. The morgue has 47 times as many bodies from gunshot wounds. Imagine living in a city where that’s going on, and imagine how the people living in that city feel. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were free of that fear and that threat? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the perpetrators of crimes, be they in Baghdad or Boise, were free of the suffering that leads them to act violently towards others? We train our minds to do this meditation on compassion, and like I said in terms of the meditation on love, when we do the meditation on compassion, we also try and extend it beyond human beings. May animals be free of suffering, may all the sheep that are being grown to be slaughtered and all the cows that are being stuffed to get slaughtered, may they be free of suffering.

Somebody interviewed me yesterday for Boise Weekly and he was telling me that he was going to go to a rodeo tonight or sometime this weekend where these guys are riding on the backs of bulls. They deliberately inflict great physical pain on the bulls so that they will buck and run around and do all of this stuff. And I was thinking, “My goodness, that somebody’s definition of happiness is to be able to inflict pain on another being that makes that being so angry that you have a good time riding on its back and risk getting trampled underneath them.” I started to think how funny we human beings are in what we define as happiness. Think of the suffering of that bull instead of thinking of that guy. “Wow, how macho he is to ride on that big bull’s back! What is that poor bull going through right now?”

The six realms of cyclic existence

Here is where it can be really effective to think about the six realms of existence. Very often people have trouble thinking of the six realms of existence, because we think that there are only human beings and at the most animals. But to talk about hungry ghosts and gods and hell realms and demi-gods, it’s like, “How do I know those beings exist? Are they a metaphor or are there real beings like this?” Well for me that’s not an issue. Who cares if it’s a metaphor for human suffering or if there are real beings like this? Still it describes suffering doesn’t it? Doesn’t matter if it’s a metaphor or real, it still describes the kind of suffering living beings experience. So think of beings in the hungry ghost realm, for instance, who are tormented by their own greed, by their own dissatisfaction, and by their frustration in not getting what they want. Now the way they’re described is that they’re starving so they run here and they run there looking for food, and when they get to food it turns to pus and blood. Or even if it doesn’t, when it gets to their mouths it turns to fire, and if that doesn’t happen their neck is so thin that it can’t get down. And you go, “Huh? How am I supposed to believe in beings that look like that?” Doesn’t matter. Don’t get so hung up on the specifics.

Some people are hungry ghosts in terms of feeling loved. They have such incredible feelings of being unlovable that they go from one person to another person seeking love. As soon as they have a relationship, they wind up doing something where the relationship has trouble and they break up. You know people like this; maybe you’re one of them. People constantly looking for love but things never work out. Always problems, always frustrations, always bad relationships. People cheat on them or they’re in love with somebody who is a substance abuser, or they’re always together with people who are ill and die. Think of that mental state of human beings who live like hungry ghosts. I can imagine in Afghanistan and Iraq—many places. It’s the hungry ghost mind, isn’t it? Looking for something. It’s the mind of an alcoholic. The hungry ghost realm is the alcoholic’s mind because you’re always looking for something. “Where’s my satisfaction, where’s my happiness?” Go here, go there, do this, do that, try and get it. And in the meantime you dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. That’s a hungry ghost mind, isn’t it? Any substance abuse. Somebody who’s a shop-until-you-drop person, that’s a hungry ghost mind. So think about that mental state. Think about how that appears in human life, but think about if that mental state is so strong in a human body, it’s very possible that if you die and change bodies that you get a hungry ghost body. Think about it for a little bit. If that way of looking at life is so strong, that a hungry ghost mind is so strong when you’re a human being; so habituated with dissatisfaction, and greed, and running here and there, and craving happiness and frustration and discontent because you’ve never found a way to be content with yourself. If that mind is so strong at the time of death, you leave this shell of a body; you jump into another body. What kind of body are you going to get? It’s a hungry ghost realm, isn’t it? If you think like that, that there are other realms that we can’t see, it begins to seem a little bit more feasible.

Take the mental state where we’re so full of fear and hatred. We’ve had that mental state before, haven’t we? We’ve been so totally out of control with hatred of somebody or with fear of something—totally out of control—we’ve all had that, haven’t we? We like to pretend that we’re nice sweet Dharma practitioners, but we’ve all had times where we’ve been totally bananas. Now that’s in a human body, that kind of rage. Imagine you die at that moment with that kind of mental state. What kind of body is that mind going to be attracted to? It’s a hell realm body isn’t it, because your body matches your mind at that point?

Imagine somebody who’s very generous and very giving but is just totally enveloped in luxury. They might be attracted to a body of a god. They were generous so they had good karma, so they’re going to have sense pleasure deluxe in the next life. But they didn’t dedicate it for karma to ripen in terms of spiritual progress, so it will just ripen as a good rebirth and then be over. But if we think like this we can begin to get a feeling that there are other realms of existence, because if you just take that mind and change the body—because the body is just a shell, isn’t it? It’s just like how people do the cartoons for the paper, how the drawn cartoon figures reflect the state of that person’s mind. They’re very exaggerated. They all look somewhat human, but they’re trying to express through the body what the mind state is. Well that’s the same thing that happens with all these mental states. If you die with that kind of mental state, or if it’s very well habituated, your body just matches it. So think about that and then start generating compassion for the beings who live in that kind of body and that kind of mind and that kind of realm, which is a product of their own karma, product of their own mental afflictions. And begin to generate compassion for them.

That is what enables us to have compassion for that fly because flies are pretty ignorant. So if you’re a human being and what you do when you come home from work is you sit down in front of the TV set with half a gallon of ice cream and flick the channels, or with a bag of potato chips and space out and flip the channels, and that’s all you do, isn’t that kind of like a fly’s mind? Think about that mind. That mind is too lazy for the body to get up and move. It just presses the buttons to flick the channels. The fly’s mind is moving just as rapidly isn’t it? It’s going from here to there, from the strawberries to whatever it is that it flies around on. Never satisfied, totally ignorant. We have a precious human life with a precious human body and are we making use of it? Or are we, by the way that we live our life, actually creating the cause to be born as a fly in the future? And what’s that mind like? When you’re sitting in front of the TV with a bag of potato chips flicking channels, are you happy? Think about it for a minute. Are you happy? No, you’re not happy. What going to make you happy? Is sitting there flicking the channels from one violent, sexy story to another one, is that going to make you happy? No. What’s going to make you happy? I think this is where opening our heart and connecting with living beings comes in. Offering service and being involved in worthwhile activities and worthwhile projects, putting our energy in a good way that helps society, that helps the Dharma, meditating on cultivating a good heart. These are things that bring happiness and internal peace.

We can begin to see how karma works, how our mental state is reflected in our behavior. That behavior is karma. It leaves residual energy, karmic seeds; the disintegratedness of the action gets left behind. Then that ripens into what we experience and into the body that we’re attracted to. So that process exists for us. It exists for other living beings, too. When we really spend some time thinking about it, real compassion can come up because we really begin to understand what suffering is. We really begin to understand what it means to have a mind under the influence of ignorance, anger, and attachment. Then, this feeling, “May I be free of suffering, may you be free of suffering” really comes strongly. You don’t want to harm anybody anymore, because you realize that people already, and animals already, and everybody already has enough suffering. What’s the use of retaliating? Instead, we wish for happiness for ourselves and others and want to put the time and energy into cultivating it.

Questions and answers

Audience: You talked about equanimity and love; and loving all people more or less the same. I was wondering how the relationship, say, that a husband and wife have for each other. Certainly this isn’t the place where you generally think of equanimity applying.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So how does a relationship between a husband and a wife fit together in terms of equanimity? I think recognizing that the person who you feel so much love towards now hasn’t always been in that relationship to you. In previous lives they been a stranger, maybe they’ve even been an enemy. So what that does is lessen the clinging attachment towards them. When you lessen the clinging attachment, you’ll be able to love them more. Think about that one. When you lessen the clinging attachment, you’re able to love them more. Because you all know, when you are married, you really love the person and wish them well. But sometimes you get really mad at them, too, don’t you? You probably get madder at them than any stranger. The anger towards your dear ones is because of the attachment you have towards them. Because you build up expectations, and when they don’t meet your expectations, then you get upset. You can see that the expectations are related to attachment. If you diminish the attachment, then you diminish the expectations, so then you diminish the anger and the hurt and to be able to actually care for them. It takes some work. Also, you can then think that the affection that you have for your spouse, or your child for that matter, spread that level of affection to other people. Because our affection isn’t a fixed pie that once it’s eaten, it’s gone. Our affection is something that is limitless, so it’s not that you have to pour it into just a few people. Try and take it and share with others. Because you are not loving your spouse or your child any less when you develop equanimity in the sense of affection and connectedness with other people.

Audience: Freedom from cyclic existence. Can you help me to understand what that means?

VTC: You’re asking, “What is cyclic existence and what is freedom from it?”

Cyclic existence is having a body that gets old and sick and dies, and a mind that’s under the influence of anger and ignorance and clinging attachment. That’s cyclic existence. Cyclic existence is the reality of this; what we’re in right now. Cyclic existence is not the world around us. Cyclic existence is our body and mind. The world around us is not cyclic existence. If we have a mind of wisdom, the world around us looks like a pure land. When we generate love and compassion for others, everybody around us looks like a friend. But it’s the thing of having to take one body and mind, one life after another. That’s why it’s called cyclic, because it keeps going, without choice, because were under the influence of ignorance. And because we have so much attachment to, “Me,” “I,” “My,” “Mine” and everything that makes us happy, and so much hostility towards everything that interferes with our happiness. Those three, the ignorance, anger, and attachment are called the three poisonous minds. As long as those are active in our mind, we are acting, creating karma, which leaves imprints on our mind stream. And at the time of death, these imprints ripen, and when they ripen at the time of death they determine what we’re born as. And when they ripen while we’re living, they influence what we experience. So liberation, or freedom from cyclic existence, means that we are no longer under control of these afflicted mental states, but instead we have freedom. If you’re following the Mahayana path, then you don’t want just freedom from cyclic existence, but you want full enlightenment. That is where we generate infinite love and compassion and great resolve and bodhicitta in regards to everybody. Because of that, we want to become a fully enlightened Buddha so that we’ll have the wisdom compassion and skill necessary to most effectively be of service and benefit to others. When you have that, you’re a bodhisattva aspiring for liberation. When you’ve reached the third level of the bodhisattva path, called the path of seeing, at that point you begin to have some control of where you are born and you begin to be able to make manifestations, many manifestations of your body that correspond to what different sentient beings need at different times. This is the advantage of being a bodhisattva, and later a Buddha, is that you all of a sudden have so much more ability to be of direct benefit to others. So that’s what we are aiming for in our path.

Audience: I can’t help but ask: You said later when we become a Buddha. What’s the difference between a Buddha and a bodhisattva?

VTC: It’s the difference between a doctor and somebody in med school. (Laughter). That’s just an analogy.

Audience: What is a good mental attitude to have towards someone who commits harmful actions when I tend to be repelled?

VTC: We tend to be repelled because we confuse the action with the person. We think that because the person did one action that that is the whole sum of their life. One of the guys that I write to is now out, but I still write to him. He was in for child molestation and he said that the way they treat people in there is that that’s all that you are. That the one action you’ve done determines the value of your entire life. He said, “My life is more than that. Yes, I did something wrong, and I don’t want to ever do that again, but that’s not the meaning and value of my life.” I think one thing is differentiating between the action and the person. A second thing is recognizing this whole thing of how things change. You had given the example of a child molester. I remember being in retreat once and a therapist came to talk to me who was telling me about one client who had been continuously molested as a child and how much compassion she had for this person. Until one day, he came and told her that he had molested a child. Then she said it became very difficult to have compassion for him. I said, “Why? He was a very similar person before he told you that and after he told you that. And isn’t there a link between him mentally being in that kind of distorted state of mind and emotional pain that made him molest somebody. Isn’t there a link between him doing that and how he was treated when he was a child? So isn’t he worthy of compassion?” So we have to be very clear here, because often we aren’t. Having compassion for somebody does not mean that we say that what they do is okay. Forgiving somebody does not mean that we say that what they did is okay. Forgiving means that we stop having anger about it. Compassion means that we wish that person to be free from the suffering that caused them to do it. I think that is helpful when we find our mind and our heart closing to other people. Instead of just saying, “That person’s evil. I would never do anything like that,” Stop and ask ourselves, “How do I know I would never do anything like that. How do I know? If I grew up in that person’s situation, if I were subjected to what they are subjected to, if I were put into the situation that they are in, how do I know that I wouldn’t do that?” We can’t be so arrogant. As long as we’re under the influence of ignorance and our contaminated karma, we have no security. We can’t say, “I would never do that,” because we’ve seen in our lives how sometimes our mind can be really unruly. We’ve been really fortunate, hopefully, that the damage we’ve caused hasn’t been too bad. But you know we can’t say I’m totally different from that other person.

Let’s sit quietly and do a little meditation here. Think about what we’ve talked about. And even though this is a short meditation, when you go home do the meditation on love, do the meditation on compassion as we’ve talked about here.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.