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Karma and compassion: Part 2 of 2

Karma and compassion: Part 2 of 2

Closeup of Ven. Chodron's face while teaching.

The second of two talks on karma given at the Unity Church of North Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in June of 2009. (Part 1)

I was thinking, because last night there were a few points about karma that I didn’t get to talk about, that maybe I would just talk a little bit about those at the beginning to wrap up. Is that okay with people? And then we’ll move on to love and compassion. So if you’re angry because you don’t get a whole teaching on love and compassion then you can remember that you’re creating negative karma by being angry, and you can generate love and compassion instead!

But before we do either of those or anything, we’re just going to sit quietly for a few minutes and watch our breath and let our mind settle down. Okay?

Breathing meditation

So, breathe normally and naturally. Let your body relax, not become sloppy, but just release whatever tension there is in your body. Then breathing normally and naturally, turn your attention to the breath and be aware of the sensations as the breath goes in and out. Watch your breath either at your nostrils, feeling the sensation of the air as it passes on your upper lip and into your nostrils; or you can watch it at your belly watching the rise and fall of your belly. So let’s do that now for a few minutes. Let the mind calm down and get more decongested by developing some concentration on one object—in this case the breath.

Large Buddha statue with pink flowers in background.

To become fully enlightened we have to learn about our actions—karma—and their effects. (Photo by pixarno /


Before we actually begin let’s take a moment and cultivate our motivation. Begin by really rejoicing that we have this time to spend listening to teachings and thinking about them, and let’s see that that makes our life very meaningful. It pulls us out of the view that ‘my happiness now is the most important thing,’ and puts us more into the view of making spiritual preparation for death and beyond, and for actualizing our spiritual goals as something that’s very important and meaningful in our lives. Among those various spiritual goals, we want to develop our human potential to its fullest. And we want to do that not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of all living beings. So we aim for full enlightenment in order to do that. To become fully enlightened we have to learn about our actions—karma—and their effects; and we have to learn how to cultivate love and compassion and good will as these are very important qualities on the spiritual journey. So let’s set that as our motivation, our intention, for listening and thinking about the teachings this morning.

And then open your eyes and come out of your meditation.

What makes karma heavy?

To finish off a few of the points about karma, and actually karma is a huge topic—talking about our actions and the effect of our actions—it’s a huge topic. So we’re actually just touching a few points on it. One question that came up last night was what makes one action heavy and one light? It’s not like everything we do is going to have the same influence on what happens to us in the future. One of the factors that influences whether the action is heavy or light is if we do the action completely, in others words if we create a complete action, a complete karma.

Four factors that make an action complete

There are different branches that have to be fulfilled for an action to be considered complete. First there’s the basis (or object), second there’s the intention, third there’s the action itself, and fourth there’s the completion of the action. So there are those four branches.

  1. The basis (or object)
    If we take, let’s say the action of killing—because we went through last night in the discussion of ten non-virtues and also ten virtues. In the action of killing the basis or object would be another living being. So the worst would be killing a human being. It’s less severe to kill an animal or an insect. So that’s the first branch. You have to identify what it is that you want to kill. If you misidentify it and think you’re killing one thing and kill another one, then it’s not a full action or karma.
  2. The intention (or attitude) includes discerning the object, presence of an affliction, and motivation
    Then in the second branch, the intention or the attitude, this has three parts in it. The first part of the intention is discerning the object correctly. So if you want to kill a cockroach but you kill a mosquito it’s not a full action. Still doesn’t mean the mosquito is going to like it. But in terms of the imprint on your mind, it’s not as severe because you didn’t discern the object correctly.

    Then the second part of the intention/attitude is the presence of an affliction. So there has to be a mental affliction like ignorance, anger, or attachment that is functioning in the mind. Now often killing is motivated by anger, but it can be motivated by attachment too. For example, a hunter wants to get the meat, or wants to get a trophy, or wants to put this poor animal’s head on their wall. (I don’t know if they want somebody else to put their head on the wall—it’s interesting, isn’t it? You want to put an animal’s head on the wall, but we don’t want somebody to put our head on the wall.) So there has to be the presence of an affliction. You can also kill out of ignorance. For example people do animal sacrifice. That’s an ignorant intention for killing.

    Then the third part of the intention/attitude is to actually have the motivation to want to do this thing, to want to do the action.

  3. The action
    Then the third branch, the action, is that you do the action of killing or you ask somebody else to do it. Also, there are different ways in which somebody can kill: you can kill by torturing the person first and not by torturing. So there’s going to be difference in weight of the karma there due how the action is done also.
  4. The completion of the action
    Then there has to be a completion of the action, which is that the other person dies before you do; and that you feel satisfied with having done that. They always use killing as the example, but I don’t know how much any of us are going to go kill human beings—hopefully not too many.

If we used an action like harsh speech that maybe we do more often, then the branches are: So there’s the basis—the person that you want to speak harshly to. Then there’s the intention, so you have to identify the person you want to speak harshly to. Then you have to have a mental affliction. So again it’s usually anger, but it could be ignorance, it could be attachment that initially motivates it. Then you have to have the intent to speak those words. Here you might say, “Well, the words just came out of my mouth. I don’t know how they did that.” Well, there was an intention because the mouth doesn’t move without the mind moving first. So we may say, “Well, it just came out automatically. I didn’t mean it.” Yet at the time, just prior to the time you said it, there was an intention. So we have to own that part of it. Then there’s the action, which is speaking the harsh words; and the completion of the action which is the other person hears them, internalizes them, and understands what they mean.

So those are the four factors that make a negative action complete, and that also make a constructive action complete. You have to do all four.

Five factors affecting the weight of an action (karma)

  1. Strength of the intention
    Now, in terms of some of the more specific things that influence the weight of the karma we have: The first one is the strength of our intention. If our intention is strong that karma is going to be heavier and so the result’s going to be heavier. If you lie and you really have a strong intention, “I really want to deceive this person” and you craft out the lie very nicely beforehand, it’s going to be much heavier than if you just say something that’s not true without thinking about it whole lot. Similarly, with our virtuous actions: If we do an action that’s kind and we’ve really thought about it, we have a really strong intention to be kind—that’s going to be a weightier positive action than just doing something kind offhand that’s nice for somebody. So the strength of our intention. It pays to really develop a strong intention when we’re doing positive actions.
  2. Method of doing the action
    The second one is the method of doing the action—how you do it. Like I was saying, with killing torturing the person beforehand makes it much more severe. In terms of harsh speech, befriending the person beforehand and then turning on them with your harsh speech. The method of doing it is going to make it heavier. It’s similar with the positive actions: If we say something, if we praise somebody with a really genuine motivation that’s strong, then the intention is strong. And then if we praise them in a very truthful way and explain it very well, pointing out their good qualities so that that encourages them, then that’s also going to be a weightier action of good speech.
  3. Lack of an antidote
    The third one is the lack of an antidote. If we do a negative action and we don’t apply an antidote, then that action’s going to be heavier. Or if we do very little virtuous action in our life, then the negative actions are going to have more space in our mind to germinate. Similarly, if we do a lot of positive actions, then there’s not so much room for the negative actions to kind of germinate—and we’re much more likely to apply an antidote to them when they do come up.
  4. Holding wrong views
    The fourth factor is holding wrong views. If we have very strong wrong views while we’re doing a negative action, it makes the action much heavier. The idea here, behind wrong views, is that you’ve really beforehand sat and thought in a very incorrect way and come up with an incorrect conclusion. For example, if you take the mind of somebody who thinks they’re going to go to heaven for killing the enemy—that’s a pretty wrong view. And they’ve thought about it, like, “Oh yes. There’s the enemy and I’m fighting on the side of good; and so, by destroying the enemy I’m doing something positive. I’m going to get a good rebirth.” Yes? So they have all these reasons behind their wrong view. Then if they go out and kill it’s going to be much heavier because they have all these incorrect reasons validating what they’re doing. So we can see this nowadays, can’t we? On both sides. Both sides.
  5. The object of the action
    Then the fifth thing that makes a quality strong is the object of the action, so who we do the action towards. Our parents, for example, are very strong objects of our virtuous or non-virtuous actions because of their kindness to us in this life. If you have problems with your parents it’s very important to work them out in your own mind because they’re powerful objects with which we create karma. Similarly our spiritual teachers are powerful objects because of their kindness towards us. So if we serve our spiritual teachers or if we criticize them, the karma becomes either especially strong or especially negative. The poor and the ill are also strong objects because of their neediness, their need for compassion. If we help the poor and the sick it becomes a very strong positive action. If we get in their way and harm them then it becomes a strong negative action.

Those five factors—the strength of the intention, the method—how we did the action, whether we applied an antidote or not, whether there were wrong views or not, and the object that we did the action towards—those all are factors that make an action strong or weak.

What’s the reason for explaining all this? It is that it’s very interesting to sit down and look at some of the actions we’ve done in our life and do this assessment. How have I done what I’ve done; and have I done them with all four factors that make the action complete? If so, you now have the perfect negative action or the perfect virtuous one. Also, this gives us more of an idea of how to create more of the complete virtuous actions, and how to refrain from creating the non-virtuous actions. So it’s helpful in that way. And then also knowing the objects and who are strong objects of karma, the methods that make a karma strong, becoming very mindful of what our motivation, our intention, is. And if we have a positive intention really cultivating it so that our virtuous actions become really solid. If we have negative intention then trying to apply an antidote or trying to weaken the intention in some way.

So, all this information—if we think about it and make lots and lots of examples in our own life of karma that we’ve created, it gives us the way to analyze whether our karma has been strong and heavy. It gives us the tools in the future to be able to even mitigate karma, negative karma, that we’re doing because we’re out of control; or to increase the positive karma that we’re doing because we know the factors of how to make it strong.

Let’s pause and see if you have questions on what we’ve done before we get into the talk about love and compassion.

When to apply antidotes

Audience: When we get angry with someone—this person used to trigger something and when you’re doing it you don’t seem to be able to stop yourself, but after you walk away can you apply the antidote right then? And what would that be?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So if you repeatedly get angry at somebody, and I’m assuming you say harsh words in it, and as soon as you walk away you realize kind of, “What have I done?” Can you apply the antidote and if so, what would be the antidote? Yes, you can apply the antidote. Any time you apply an antidote it’s something good. Yes. So even if we don’t realize until years later that what we did was something negative, and that’s often the case—sometimes it takes us years to realize that we actually acted with a horrendous motivation. But whenever you realize it, whether it’s one minute afterwards or ten years afterwards, apply the antidote then; and it’s very important and very effective for doing that.

Then what would the antidote be? Last night remember I explained the four opponent powers? So you would do those: regret, refuge and bodhicitta, making a determination not to do it again, and then doing some kind of remedial action. Okay?

Let’s move on to love and compassion. This may surprise you but actually sometimes the teachings on love and compassion really push our buttons. Why? It’s because they make us look quite clearly at the difference between attachment and love, and the difference between pity and compassion. They’re quite different.

The four immeasurables

I’m going to talk about what’s called the four immeasurables or the four brahmavihāras or the four sublime thoughts. These come in all the different Buddhist traditions. The four are love, compassion, sympathetic joy (or sometimes it’s just called joy), and then equanimity. So if you want terms—any of you want the terms at all? You might hear terms. The term metta, you might hear term metta in Pāli, that means love. Karuṇā is compassion. Muditā is joy. Upekkhā is equanimity. We have a moose at the Abbey. We named it Muditā the Moose. We try and give them good names, good imprints. I think she brought some friends—because there’s a lot of moose droppings, so maybe we have a whole lineage of Muditās.

The first immeasurable attitude of love

So love is the wish for, it could be one sentient being, or two, or a group, or all sentient beings, to have happiness and its causes. In Buddhist practice what we’re trying to do is generate these four—love, compassion, joy, and equanimity—towards everybody equally. Of course, at the beginning we don’t always feel that so we start where we are. But love is simply the wish for someone to have happiness and the causes of happiness. Here when we’re talking about happiness, we’re thinking not just of good food and entertainment and so on. Rather it’s the happiness that comes from having a tranquil mind, the happiness and peace and satisfaction that comes from being free of hatred, or the peace of having gained spiritual realizations, of having attained liberation or enlightenment. So we don’t just think of happiness as, you know, having a glass of water when you’re thirsty. That’s pleasure, sure, but it’s not long-term. We also want to wish people long-term, a very substantial, meaningful kind of happiness.

The second immeasurable attitude of compassion

Compassion is the wish for somebody to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Again, suffering doesn’t mean just the ‘ouch’ kind of suffering—stubbing your toe, being sick, being mentally unhappy. It can also mean just the whole unsatisfactory condition of being in cyclic existence—where we take rebirth again and again without choice, but under the influence of our ignorance, anger, attachment, and our tainted actions. Compassion includes really wishing that beings be free of that.

Sympathetic joy is being happy at someone else’s happiness. It’s rejoicing at someone else’s happiness. And then upekkhā, or equanimity, is being equal—not seeing a difference between others, not seeing a difference between us and somebody else. It’s just a balanced state of mind that really accepts our self, accepts others, and accepts everybody in a very equal way. Okay?

Love and compassion towards our self as well as towards others

It’s important to also cultivate these in regards to our self. So loving our self is something good. But loving our self is very different than begin self-indulgent and narcissistic—extremely different. I say this because often when we’re self-indulgent, you know this whole thing we have now of, “I’m going to go out buy myself a present.” It’s what they do in advertising, like “Treat yourself to go and buy da da da da. Treat yourself to a new dee dee dee dee dee.” Then we think that’s being kind to our self. Actually, it’s usually done out of attachment and it usually makes us more miserable—because how did we get in so much credit card debt as a country? I mean we think, “Oh, yes. I’m going to go get myself a present” and then what’s the result? It’s this huge credit card bill with so much compounded interest that you freak out and you’re miserable. So I don’t see going out and buying ourselves presents that we can’t afford as a way of being kind and loving towards ourselves. I see that more as self-indulgent. Why? It’s basically because usually we don’t need half the things we buy in this country. What do you think? Yes?

I think that often it’s kinder to our self to set aside some quiet time—so that we can sit and think quietly. Isn’t that a nice gift to give to our self? Some quiet time. No TV. No internet. No iPod. No cell phone. No music. Where you can just sit and be peaceful and enjoy your own company. Do some meditation. Do some spiritual reading. Think about your behavior and how you want to be in the world. Don’t you think that’s a better gift to give yourself than going out and buying another watch or another whatever it is?

We have to think about: What does loving ourselves really mean? Hmm? I think actually it’s an act of kindness to our self when we can admit our mistakes. I think admitting our mistakes is symbolic of loving ourselves. Why? Because when we don’t admit our mistakes and we spend a lot of time repressing, suppressing, denying, rationalizing, excusing, and otherwise explaining away our mistakes—that takes a whole lot of energy, doesn’t it? Don’t you think? You know? To hold up this whole big thing of, “Well, it really wasn’t my fault. You say it was…da da daaahh.” We write a whole book on how, “I was just sweet innocent me.” It takes so much energy to do that. Whereas being able to look at the situation in very clear way and say, “Okay, this part of it is my responsibility. This part isn’t. But the part that’s my responsibility I own, I clean it up, I apologize.” And I go on in my life having learned something important. I think doing that is being kind to ourselves. Whereas indulging the excuse factory is actually not being so kind to ourselves.

With compassion, we want to have compassion towards our self as well as towards others. Compassion is the wish for someone to be of suffering and its causes. It doesn’t mean just may somebody be free of mosquitoes, may somebody be free of a boss who doesn’t like them, may somebody be free of competitors in their business, may somebody be free of an irascible neighbor. It’s not just like that. But may somebody be free of having ignorance, anger, and attachment in their mind. May somebody be free of their own self-centeredness. May somebody be free of their own personal limitations. So it’s a way of extending compassion—and we can extend that same compassion to ourselves.

Compassion doesn’t mean feeling sorry for somebody. Again, it doesn’t mean making excuses for our negativities. But it really means—if we have compassion for ourselves, some kind of understanding for ourselves, wanting ourselves to be happy, clearly recognizing how sometimes our own actions and our own mind makes us miserable. Wanting to do something about that, to create the causes to have a peaceful heart, a peaceful mind. I think that’s having compassion for ourselves. Not expecting ourselves to be perfect. That one’s very important because we have a whole epidemic of perfectionism in America. I think it’s much more rampant than swine fever. I actually think it’s more dangerous to always expect ourselves to be perfect. It’s very dangerous because if we expect that of ourselves, we expect it of others; then when we don’t do everything in a way that meets our own criteria we get down on ourselves, we judge ourselves, we tear ourselves up to shreds, then we get depressed. Then to handle the depression we overeat, we spend too much time on the internet, we go shopping too much. So many things we do, you know? Take drugs that we don’t need to take, or take drugs that we need to take but too many of them. Having compassion for ourselves is letting go of impossible expectations of our self.

Similarly, compassion for others means letting go of impossible expectations on them. It’s worth some time to do a little review and ask ourselves: What impossible expectations do I have for other people? Start with the people you’re very close to. Those are the ones we usually have the most impossible expectations about. Your spouse, your kids, your parents, the people with whom you’re very close, and our self, too—we carry these impossible perfectionist expectations. If they don’t meet those expectations, then we completely trash them and think that there’s nothing good about them at all.

Compassion is actually an antidote to this very swinging mind of perfectionism versus denigration. We have compassion. Sentient beings are sentient beings. They have many good qualities and they also make mistakes. Why are we so surprised when they make mistakes? It’s interesting, isn’t it? How surprised we are when somebody we care about doesn’t act the way we think they should. When they have a negative intention towards us. It’s like, “How could they do that? They’re not supposed to!” Or when somebody who says they’re going to do something doesn’t do it—we’re so shocked. But we’re never shocked when we say we’re going to do something and then don’t do it. We have lots of good reasons for it. Yet the other person never has any good reasons—and so we get agitated. Then instead of having compassion, we’re angry; we want them to suffer some way.

The third immeasurable attitude of sympathetic joy

Sympathetic joy is really rejoicing at somebody’s good fortune. It’s the antidote to jealousy. We’re always saying, “May somebody be happy,” and here now there’s somebody who is happy; so we rejoice. It’s nice to feel good at somebody else’s good qualities. When somebody else is better than us—rejoice about it. You think I’m really crazy, like, “Somebody’s better. We can’t rejoice. We have to compete—because we have to be better.” That’s the way our mind is trained, isn’t it? Why can’t we just rejoice that people are better than us? When people are better than us then we can learn something from them. I’m very happy a lot of people are better than me because you know we would be living in the caveman era if I was the best—if my knowledge about electricity, plumbing, house construction were the best that there was. So I’m really glad that there are people that are better than me in that.

It’s good to rejoice at other people’s talents, at their knowledge, at their recognition. Instead of being jealous, to rejoice that they’ve been recognized for something. Rejoice when they do virtuous actions instead thinking, “Oh, darn! I should have done that!” You know? Well, maybe we should have done something, but we need to do it with a good motivation—not just to compete with somebody and put them down because they did a wholesome action before we did. So really to rejoice.

The fourth immeasurable attitude of equanimity

Equanimity is an attitude of impartiality. Equanimity brings so much relief in our mind because if we look, a lot of our mental suffering is because our mind goes way up and way down towards other living beings. We see something good in them, we get attached, we’re so excited, and we think they’re wonderful. Then they don’t do what we want, we feel depleted and dejected and rejected and abandoned and everything like that. So emotionally we’re going up and down based on other people’s actions towards us. Then we favor friends, we harm our enemies—we develop all sorts of extravagant ways to favor our friends, all sorts of incredible ways to harm our enemies.

We do this as a nation, don’t we? We spend billions of dollars every year helping our friends and harming our enemies. What would happen if we had a mind of equanimity that cared about everybody equally? It doesn’t necessarily mean we treat everybody in the same way. You treat a two year-old different than you treat a twenty year-old. But, in our heart having an attitude that cares equally about everybody. That would be such a nice mind, wouldn’t it? Then whoever you’re with you feel peaceful, you feel satisfied, yes? People act this way, you don’t get too excited. People act that way, you don’t get too bummed out. It’s a mind that cherishes everybody equally, that has equal hearted concern for everybody—a very nice state of mind.

Near enemies and far enemies of the four immeasurables

Now in talking about these four immeasurables the texts also talk about them having a near enemy and a far enemy. A near enemy is something that is similar to each one of these four, but is actually a negative attitude. On the surface if we’re not mindful it looks like this virtuous attitude. The far-enemy is the mind that’s the total opposite, that’s definitely a negative one. I find this topic very interesting, especially the discussion of the near enemies because it really shows how tricky our mind can be sometimes. Yes, incredibly tricky—so let’s look.

Attachment vs. love vs. malice

For loving-kindness (love) the near-enemy is attachment to somebody—which is worldly affection, clinging to somebody, or being very possessive of them. Many people don’t recognize when they have these attitudes. Or even if they do, they think these attitudes are part of what it means to love somebody. For some people loving or when they think of love, in their mind they’re thinking of attachment for that person. Now what’s the difference between them? (First of all Open Heart, Clear Mind [a book written by Venerable Chodron] has a chapter on this; so you might want to refer to it.) Attachment exaggerates somebody’s good qualities and then clings to them. Love doesn’t exaggerate somebody’s good qualities. Attachment wants people to be a certain way, and this way is a way that pleases us. Whereas with loving somebody there’s space in the relationship. We don’t have an agenda for that person—how they have to squeeze themselves to be so that we care about them. With attachment there are a lot of strings attached, with genuine love there are not.

That kind of attachment? This is what we hear about on the radio, the “I can’t live without you!” and “You’re everything in my life.” You know? This kind of thing is actually attachment, it’s not love. Rather, there are a whole lot of expectations and strings attached and clinging and possessiveness. Because the song after “I can’t live without you” is “You left me, baby and I’m in the hell realms now.” Isn’t it? This is what’s on the radio. So if your life is a series of the “I can’t live without you” and “I’m in the hell realms”, those two songs, then you’re not actually having a lot of love. Rather, you are having a lot of attachment. What makes us go so high and then crash so much is all these expectations in our minds and all the strings that we have attached to people and how they should be.

With the near-enemy, if you aren’t wise, then you think that attachment for somebody is loving them. It’s not, because with attachment you get this very possessiveness of other people. Have you ever been with people who are very possessive of other people? Yes? They think it’s because they love the person so much. It’s not that. It’s because they’re very attached. They’re very jealous. They’ve confused love and attachment. Or somebody who worries a lot. Now people are going to get nervous. Yet when you spend a lot of time worrying about somebody, why do you worry about that person, but you don’t worry about the next person? Why do you worry about your own first grade kid flunking spelling and you don’t worry about all the other kids in America flunking spelling? So you know, there’s some partiality going on, isn’t there? There’s some attachment to what we label mine.

That kind of worry, that possessiveness, that kind of gooey attachment—that is the near-enemy of love. They’re similar because they both feel—both love and attachment—feel positive towards the other person. Right? In both of them you feel positive towards the other person. So that’s what makes it a near-enemy; because if you’re not careful you get them confused and you think attachment is love. But attachment isn’t. Attachment is going to lead you to the “You left me and I have no reason to live anymore” flip side of the previous song—which we’ve all been through, haven’t we? Yes?

The far-enemy of love is something that’s the complete opposite of love. This is malice, or hatred, or ill will. It’s a mind that wants somebody to suffer. You can see that when you have attachment towards somebody. It can very easily, if we don’t get what we want, turn into ill will towards that person. Ask any divorce lawyer. Yes? The person you ‘love’ tremendously—because there’s a lot of attachment, unfulfilled expectations, then it turns into ill will towards them.

The near-enemy and the far-enemy here they have some relationship, don’t they? And neither one of them are the attitude of love that we’re aiming to cultivate. Love is just wanting somebody to have happiness and the causes of happiness—simply because they exist, because they’re another sentient being just like us. That’s all. Not because they like us. Not because they praise us. Not because they agree with our political opinions. Not because they give us presents. But simply because they are a living being who is exactly like us in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. And caring about others just for that reason. Just for that reason.

So this takes a lot of conscious deliberate cultivation on our part to cultivate this kind of love. We really have to spend some time with it. Looking at our relationships and how we treat other people, how we think of other people—so that we can discern when we have attachment and then practice correcting that so that it’s love. Actual love. Because the actual love isn’t going to be subjected to the—what’s the word? Vagaries? Am I saying it right? The ups and downs. Actual love is not subject to the ups and downs of attachment. It’s able to remain steady. Somebody wants to be happy and not suffer, you’re just like me. They may have different things that make them happy, they may have different things than I do that make them suffer, but in terms of that wanting we’re exactly the same.

Everybody has Buddha potential. Everybody has the possibility, the capability of becoming a fully enlightened Buddha. So I can’t say these people are inherently good and those people are inherently awful. I can say these people do lots of good deeds and these people may do a lot of harmful deeds, but I can’t say that the people themselves are different. Everybody has the possibility to become a Buddha.

The kindness of others

Based on those kinds of reasons, and then really seeing that everybody’s been kind to us in the past, then wanting to reciprocate their previous kindness to us—and that is the attitude of love, wanting them to have happiness and the causes of happiness. We see them as equal to us in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. And then we spend a great deal of time meditating on their kindness and how they’ve benefitted us. Now the trick is, when you’re meditating on the kindness of others, that you don’t do it in a way that generates attachment for them. You want to do it so that you don’t generate attachment, but you do realize their kindness.

Here we can see that people have been kind also just because of the work they’ve done in society that we’ve benefitted from. How many people were involved in making this box of tissues? If you look, there were so many people involved in making this box of tissues—from the loggers, to the people who designed these little lotus flowers, to the people who built the machines in the factory that packaged the tissues. Many living beings were involved with us just having a tissue here to use. So we’ve benefitted from them; they’ve been kind to us. Whether they had us in mind particularly? Me—like they wanted me to have a tissue; that’s not so important. They don’t have to have us specifically in mind for us to see that we’ve received benefit and they’ve been kind to us. In that way we cultivate love that wants them to be happy, that doesn’t get attached and that doesn’t go over to the other side of having ill will and hatred and anger and upset.

So these things really we have to work at. We can’t just sit there and pray, “Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, may my mind be free of hatred.” Then at the same time we’re doing that saying, “Why don’t those people outside be quiet while I’m praying?” But we really have to work at it and apply our love in actual situations to transform our minds.

Worldly grief vs. compassion vs. cruelty

Compassion: The near-enemy for compassion is personal distress or what’s called worldly grief. Compassion sees suffering and wants beings to be freed of suffering. But sometimes, when there’s attachment involved, then we fall into worldly grief because we don’t want that person to suffer because when they suffer it adversely affects us. Again there’s some partiality involved here because some people we don’t mind at all if they suffer. In fact we want them to go to hell. But other people we mind very much if they suffer. And so because of this partiality and this attachment to these people we fall into a sense of worldly grief. Or even if we aren’t attached to the people, sometimes just watching the 6 o’clock news you can have a sense of worldly grief or of personal distress. It’s like, “What in the world is happening to this world?!” There’s a sense of depression, despair, distress. It’s very easy to confuse that with compassion. This is because both of those are similar in seeing others suffer and feeling their suffering and not wanting them to suffer. They’re similar in that way. But compassion has the wisdom that knows that we can’t stop all suffering. Compassion has the wisdom that knows that we need to do what we’re capable of doing, and not get distressed because we can’t snap our fingers and stop somebody else’s suffering instantaneously.

Whereas with personal distress what’s happened is we’ve seen somebody’s suffering and when we see their suffering the focus is on them; but then we get distressed by seeing their suffering and that point the focus has shifted back on ourselves. It becomes, “I can’t stand to see them suffer.” So when we have despair and personal distress, this kind of reaction even to the 6 o’clock news, we’ve shifted the object of focus. It’s no longer exactly on the other beings, it’s more on us. It’s “I can’t stand to see them suffer.” Again, with compassion we keep the object of the compassion very strongly as the other being; and we also have the wisdom that knows that we can’t stop all the suffering immediately. Suffering is caused. Anything that’s caused, if there’s a way to eliminate the cause we can bring about that elimination of the causes.

The fundamental cause of suffering

From a Buddhist viewpoint, the fundamental cause of suffering is our ignorance—the ignorance that actively misapprehends how phenomena exist. That ignorance can be eliminated by generating the wisdom that understands how things do exist and that sees that reality very clearly. So it’s possible to overcome the ignorance. When the ignorance is overcome then all the negative karmas, the anger, the attachment, the mental afflictions, all those things crumble. In that way, the person’s suffering also ceases. When we have that kind of wisdom perspective we know that suffering can be ceased. We also know that it’s not going to happen with a snap of the fingers, or even overnight; and that the person themselves has to make some changes. Everybody—we each have to free our own minds from ignorance, anger, and attachment. It’s in this way that compassion wants to help others as much as we can so that they can free their minds. But we also realize that we can’t do it all and it’s not going to happen quickly. Yet that mind is still very optimistic because it knows that that suffering can be stopped.

We see that the near-enemy of compassion is this mind of personal distress. The far-enemy is cruelty which wants to directly inflict suffering on others. While compassion wants others to be eliminated from suffering, cruelty wants to inflict suffering. So whereas the near-enemy for love was ill will, so ill will is like malice, negative feelings towards somebody; here in cruelty we actively want somebody to suffer. And we might even go out and cause that for them. So that’s the total opposite of having compassion.

Because compassion looks in a very long-term way for somebody’s long-term benefit, then to act in a compassionate way there sometimes has to be short term suffering. It’s kind of like if you’re sick and you need surgery. The doctor has to inflict some suffering by doing the operation in order for you to feel better. The doctor doesn’t have the intention for you to suffer. They’re doing it with compassion. But because of the nature of our illness, we have to go through some kind of suffering first in order to get better. It’s the same way with compassion. When we’re acting with compassion towards others, sometimes in order to help them in the long run, we have to do things that they don’t like in the short term. That may make them unhappy—and any parent knows this, don’t you, parents? That sometimes for the long-term benefit of your child you have to say, “No. You cannot eat that half gallon of ice cream.” Or, “No. You cannot take whatever you want from any family member.” Or, “No. You can’t just expect everybody to wait on you. You have to contribute to the benefit of the family and do some chores.” Any parent knows that for the long-term benefit of their child, sometimes you have to say things that your child is going to be unhappy with. But you’re compassionate when you do—you know, your long-term motivation, hopefully, is compassionate. Sometimes you might be angry at the child, then it’s not so compassionate. But if you’re not angry and you really have their long-term benefit in mind—then sometimes you have to do that because if you don’t, your child’s not going to be able to function as an adult in the world because they’ll be quite spoiled.

Worldly happiness vs. sympathetic joy vs. jealousy

Then sympathetic joy, that’s the third of the four immeasurables. This is the one that feels happy at others’ joy and good talents and things like that. The near-enemy is worldly happiness and enjoying samsaric pleasures with attachment. There’s the mind that can look at somebody’s talents and happiness and just rejoice and feel good about it; and then there’s the mind in which we jump in and enjoy everything with them but with a lot of attachment and a lot of clinging on our own side. It’s not just rejoicing at somebody’s good qualities. Rather, the near-enemy is kind of getting entangled with that—seeking something for our self, enjoying pleasure for our self instead of just a very pure kind of joy.

The far-enemy of joy, of sympathetic joy, is jealousy—which can’t stand to see somebody else happy. It’s because jealousy says, “They can’t be happy, I have to. They can’t get the promotion, I have to. They can’t get first place, I deserve it. They can’t be with this person, I want to be with them.” So this jealous mind is the far-enemy of sympathetic joy. And so that’s why joy is the antidote to jealousy. Of course, when you’re jealous that last thing you want to do is feel joyful of somebody else’s happiness because when you’re jealous you hate the fact that they’re happy. That’s exactly why it’s a good antidote to it—because that’s the last thing you feel like doing because it’s the total opposite to how you feel.

It’s very good when we have jealousy to cultivate joy as an antidote and say, “Isn’t it wonderful that that person’s happy! I’m not the only person that has to be happy on this planet, and I’m not the only person that can make this other person happy. And I’m not the only person who does something well.” So just kind of accepting our role in the universe a little bit more; instead of always thinking I have to be best, I have to be on top. But instead really having joy. There’s somebody who’s happy, who did some wholesome deeds, and I didn’t even have to do anything to make that happen. They call rejoicing at other people’s happiness the lazy person’s way to create good karma. So since we’re all basically kind of lazy we should rejoice a lot!

Indifference vs. equanimity vs. partiality

Equanimity: So equanimity is this equal-hearted joy towards everybody, an equal-hearted openness towards everybody—not discriminating friend, enemy, and stranger. It means not being attached to friends, having hatred towards enemies, and so on. The near-enemy, the mental factor that’s near this one that can be mistaken for it, is indifference. This is because both equanimity and indifference are free from attachment and hatred. But it’s a near-enemy because indifference doesn’t care beans about somebody else, whereas equanimity does care. So we have to make sure that when we’re applying the antidotes to attachment or to hatred that we don’t slip over into indifference and say, “Oh, I just don’t care about him anymore. Who cares? Who cares? I don’t care.” You know how we do that sometimes when we care a lot? Then we say, “Oh, I don’t care at all! They can do whatever they want. It’s their life. Let them live the way they want. They can go shoot themselves in the head for all I care.” You know? We say this, don’t we? Yes?

Is that a virtuous attitude? I don’t think so. I think it’s a phony baloney kind of indifference. It’s actually hostility, isn’t it? Indifference just doesn’t care at all. You know? It’s like they’re not even a human being. It’s kind of how we feel about so many strangers that we walk by on the street or pass on the highway. Somebody cuts you off and you get so angry, but you never think that maybe that person is upset, that maybe somebody in their family is ill and they’re trying to get somewhere quickly. We never feel some kind empathy or tolerance for that person or equanimity—and we go to hatred.

Or if somebody doesn’t affect us one way or the other, then it’s almost as if they just don’t exist. The one who cuts us off we get angry at. All the other drivers on the road? It’s like they’re not real human beings with feelings, with lives. Or when we think of people in other countries it’s like, “Yes. But you know. Who cares?” And when we’re using too many of the world’s resources; we don’t really think of the effect on the environment, for the people living in those other countries, or for the people who are going to come in future generations. Do we have compassion for those people who are coming in future generations? Or is it just kind of apathy, indifference? Like, “Well, I’ll let them figure it out.”

This kind of indifference is the near-enemy to equanimity. It could look like equanimity because it doesn’t have attachment and anger, but it’s not equanimity because it’s cold and uncaring—whereas equanimity cares.

The far-enemy of equanimity is partiality. The total opposite of equanimity is partiality. So the mind that’s prejudiced, that’s biased. The mind that has attachment for some people and aversion for others. It could be on a personal level—we’re attached to some, averse to others. It could be on a group level—we’re prejudiced for a certain group of people, prejudiced against a certain group of people. Partiality includes all these kinds of things and that’s the far-enemy of equanimity.

If we feel ourselves being not very equanimous—lacking equanimity—then we have to come back and recall that everybody wants happiness equally, everybody deserves to be happy. Then your mind’s going to say, “That person who harmed me, they don’t deserve to be happy. No way!” Well, why not? If they were happy then they wouldn’t have done what they did that harmed you. Think about it that way. I say this because why did they do what harmed you? It’s because they’re unhappy.

The four immeasurables (love, compassion, joy, equanimity) as antidotes

Meditation on loving-kindness is recommended for people who have a lot of anger and ill will. Do that meditation—developing loving-kindness, seeing others as kind and wanting to repay it, and seeing them as worthy of happiness simply because they exist.

Compassion is very good for people who have a lot of cruelty. With compassion then you meditate really thinking of others’ pain and not wanting them to experience it. In that way, it helps you overcome any sense of cruelty you may have towards others.

Joy is a meditation that’s very good for people to do who have a lot of jealousy. This is because joy rejoices at other people’s good qualities.

Equanimity is a good meditation for people to do who towards others have a lot of bias, and prejudices, and attachment and hatred, and up and down emotions.

Loving-kindness is concerned with bringing happiness and well-being. Compassion is concerned with eliminating suffering. Joy is concerned with feeling good about other’s happiness and success and virtuous activities. And equanimity is concerned with having an impartial, balanced, and receptive mind.

Buddhaghosa, who’s one of the great sages in the Theravada tradition, in his commentary “The Path of Purification,” he said that we should practice these four immeasurables like a mother does towards four kinds of children. The first one is a small child. The second one is a sickly child. The third one is a child in the prime of their youth. And the fourth one is a child who is busy with their own life and with their own affairs.

For the small child, you want that child to grow up—so you nurture the child. You’re trying to nurture. That’s what love is—nurturing that being. The child who’s sickly you have compassion for. You want them to be free of suffering. The child who is in the prime of their youth and is enjoying things very much, then you rejoice because you want them to be able to have happiness for as long as they possibly can. And for the child who’s managing their life very well, who doesn’t need any help, then you have equanimity and impartiality without intervening in any unnecessary way. These are just, kind of, worldly examples of how these four different mental states work.

Short and long recitations of the four immeasurables verse

In the Tibetan tradition when we [recite these Four Immeasurables as a verse in many our sadhanas and practices.] Because some of you do some of these practices, there’s a short form of the Four Immeasurables verse where we say:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes, [that’s love]
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes, [that’s compassion]
May all sentient beings never be separated from sorrowless bliss, [that’s joy]
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger, [that’s equanimity]

We also have longer version of it where it starts out:

How wonderful it would be if sentient beings had happiness and its causes.
May they have these.
I will cause them to have these.
Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so

meaning to make this come about.

In this longer version, and this is the one on love that I just said—“How wonderful it would be if sentient beings had happiness and its causes.” That’s just the virtuous wish. That’s the wish. Then the second sentence, “May they have these” is an aspiration. It’s a much stronger form, the “May they have these.” Next is, “I will cause them to have these.” I will cause them to have happiness and its causes. Now we’re getting involved. There’s commitment in there. And then lastly, “Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.” Here we’re requesting the Buddha and our spiritual mentors to inspire our mind so that we can actually bring this about. Whether we’re totally successful or not, we don’t care about. But it’s rather, may we always act in a way that will bring sentient beings happiness and its causes, and encourage their happiness and its causes.

You have those four things: You start with a wish, then you go to an aspiration, then there’s a resolve or a commitment, and then there’s a request for inspiration. That’s a nice way to see developing each one of those four. Because you start out with a wish. A wish doesn’t require too much effort. But sometimes it requires a lot. Especially if you’re going to feel that way towards everybody—“How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and its causes.” Try thinking that about Al-Qaeda members, or about the people who—the political party that you don’t like. Generating that wish can take some energy on our part; an aspiration takes more, and a resolution or a commitment takes more. Then the request to the Buddhas and the spiritual mentors for inspiration is really opening ourselves up to receive their inspiration. Why? It’s because we really want to be able to bring it about; and we know that we’ll need some inspiration from the holy beings so that we’re able to continue doing that kind of work to bring that about for a long time.

Questions and answers

So, that’s a little bit about the four immeasurables. We can now have some questions and comments about what we’ve talked about.

Reaffirming our commitments to make our intentions firm

Audience: Well, when you reach a point where you’ve made a commitment and then asked for guidance, that means that you’re jumping in the car, or karmic stream of both good and bad. And I’m coping on that day after day after day, and it has to be a challenge. So how do you keep reaffirming your commitment?

VTC: That’s a very interesting question. So when you go that point of making that commitment and making that request for inspiration, then it’s not something that you’re going to change your mind and back away from. So how do you deal with that day after day? You keep saying it to yourself day after day. You keep reaffirming it to yourself day after day. Some days you heart is in it. Some days your heart isn’t in it so much. But still by the fact of saying that and reaffirming it again and again, it deepens what we know is what’s really in our heart. Because you know, we’re such that sometimes we can’t always feel what’s really deeply in our heart. Isn’t it? Yes? So this thing of saying it day after day after day helps us get in touch with what our real deep intention and wish is, and in that way makes it firmer in our lives. Even though we may not always feel it super strongly, we’re forever in the process of increasing it.

Using compassion to work with our anger

Audience: I just wanted to ask how about when you were talking about the different things to meditate on, like loving-kindness if you’ve got a lot of anger or something. What did you say about compassion?

VTC: Yes. Compassion is good for people who have a lot of cruelty. So if your mind is always kind of wishing that somebody suffer, “May they get a taste of their own medicine. May they get hit by a truck.” We really have some heavy duty animosity that wants others suffer. Or the mind that wants to inflict, either we want somebody to have suffering or we want to be the one who inflicts it. “I’m going to get even. They hurt me. I’m going to do something that’s really going to hurt them back.” So to that kind of cruelty that wants others to have suffering and its causes, then you meditate on compassion which is the opposite—which wants them to be free of suffering and its causes.

What is love and what is attachment?

Audience: If you could repeat what you said about love and attachment for a person.

VTC: Okay, so what happens if in your relationship with somebody you have love and attachment? And that’s very often the case—that you have both mixed in. They occur at different mind moments, yes? We can’t have love and attachment at the very same mind moment because one is virtuous and the other is non-virtuous. But our mind can go back and forth really quickly sometimes, okay? So if you have that in a relationship with somebody—where sometimes you really genuinely, purely want them to be happy, and other times you’re like just clinging to them and being jealous and possessive and wanting and things like that.

Then what you need to do is back away a little bit mentally, and ask yourself, “Can this person fulfill everything that I am expecting them to fulfill? Is that reasonable?” Okay? And then you think, “What am I expecting of this other person?” You sit there for a while and out comes this incredible list: “They’re supposed to tune into my emotions, whatever I’m feeling. When I’m happy, they’re supposed to be happy and increase my happiness. When I’m sad, they’re not supposed to be really happy; they’re supposed to be encouraging and sympathetic and comforting. They’re supposed to also be able to read all my emotions at any time I have them, and adjust what they’re feeling accordingly in the snap of a finger. They have to be interested in everything that I’m interested in when I’m interested in it. They have to talk about what I want to talk about when I want to talk about it, and not talk about it when I don’t want to talk about it. So when I want to be intimate and talk about feelings, they need to want to be intimate and talk about feelings. And when I want to talk about sports, they have to want to talk about sports. So don’t talk about sports when I want to be intimate. And don’t talk about intimate things when I want to talk about sports.” And then you go on, “They’re supposed to want to spend money in exactly the same ways that I spend money. They’re supposed to be rich and have an abundance of money that just pours off these trees. They’re always going to be pleasant to be with. They’re never going to be in a bad mood. They’re going to like all of my relatives and all of my friends. And if they don’t like them, then they’re going to pretend they do and get along with them anyway. And in fact they’re even going to go so far as to patch up the bad relationships that I’ve had with my relatives and friends.” (L)

Sometimes when we look at our expectations for other living beings it is absolutely out of this world, you know? If you see that you have a lot of those, then that’s often indicative of some attachment. I mean, even Buddha appeared, the Buddha’s not going to be able to fulfill that whole list of things that we want. So then we have to say, “Okay, I need to work on my attachments a bit, and my expectations. And I need to be able to see this person more accurately. They have some good qualities and they also have some faults. And basically they’re like everybody else—they want to be happy and they don’t want to suffer. And so why am I cherishing them and not caring about other people?”

We’re all just sentient beings; and a hundred years ago we we’re in completely different relationship to each other because a hundred years ago we were both in a previous life. Maybe I knew them, maybe I didn’t. Maybe we were good friends in our previous life, maybe we were enemies in a previous life. Maybe we didn’t even know each other. So, there’s no reason to get super attached to some people and have all these incredible expectations.

Try and become a little bit more reasonable about things; and much more accepting of what the other person is, and what they’re capable of. I can want all I want for them to be able to tune into my emotions whenever I have them, but the reality is that they don’t—and that’s the reality. I can either fight reality or I can accept reality. If I fight reality, I’m making myself pretty unhappy. If I accept it, I’m going to be a lot happier.

And then to reverse it—to say, “Do I tune into their emotions, whatever they’re feeling?” “No, and why should I have to?” (L) So we do a little bit of this kind of work; and then it helps us see what our self-centered mind is doing and let go of a lot of that unrealistic way of thinking.

Okay. Let’s sit quietly now. It’s a little closing meditation to think about what you’ve heard, so that you can remember it, and take it back with you, and use it in your life. [Silence]


Then let’s rejoice that we were able to spend the morning together in this way; and really feel happy at our own and others’ virtues, or the wholesome minds that we and everybody here generated this morning. So let’s practice rejoicing for a minute.

And then let’s dedicate all the happy results from the virtuous actions we’ve done this morning, and let’s send that merit, that good karma, out into the universe with the aspiration that it ripens so that living beings can have temporal and ultimate happiness—so to be happy in samsara, and especially to be free of this cycle of existence. And may all living begins be free of all misery and attain all happiness, and develop all of their own good qualities so that they can be of the greatest benefit to each other. And have the most peaceful, blissful, realistic minds themselves.

Let’s dedicate so that people who are sick may recover, people who are injured may be healed, people who are depressed can see meaning and purpose in their lives, and for people to think of helping each other.

Okay. Thank you all very much.

The first talk in this series of two can be found here: Karma and compassion, Part 1 of 2

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.