I would like to explore something with you this evening that is so close to my heart that I do not often speak about it. I would like to discuss ideas concerning kindness and how we can actualise it in our lives.
Compassion is the word normally used in Buddhist circles, but I like to use the word kindness. In a down-to-earth sense – kindness simply means just what it means. Kindness has a direct meaning for us. We know what it means to be kind. We know what it means to be unkind. That is simple and straightforward. On the other hand we may feel that it is compassionate to point out to people that they are not practising properly, or to tell them of their shortcomings in terms of the particular Buddhist rules we have learnt. We may feel impelled to tell someone:
Don’t you know it’s a bad thing to place Dharma books on the floor?
But what does this mean? I think it means someone is saying:
I am spiritually correct and therefore justified in gaining pleasure from putting you in your place. I have heard people speak in this way. I have observed the tone of voice and the facial expression – and the compassion of the persons concerned has tended to elude me.
A young man who attended a retreat once asked me about Compassion. It seemed that he was keen to making a point of dogma rather than being open to a new perspective – so my immediate answer was somewhat shocking to him. I said:
I’ve got no time for Compassion – it’s all people ever talk about.
I then pointed out that too many people talked about it, and too few people attempted it. It seemed to be that there was too much compassion, not enough tolerance – let alone kindness.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us asking some pertinent questions about how we are in relation to our practice and to other people. It does not matter how much we know or how many empowerments we may have received – if we are not kind, all our advanced practices are merely a colourful entertainment.
His Holiness Düd’jom Rinpoche on one occasion in Princess Road in Kilburn, London said:
You can make people believe you have wisdom and special powers, but you cannot make anyone believe you have Bodhicitta if you do not.
It is the one pretence that is totally transparent. People are attracted to Vajrayana for many different reasons. There are many good kind people, but there are a sad number of others who seem only to poison themselves with their approach to Vajrayana.
During the last decade I travelled around Britain, and stayed in most of the Tibetan Centres for periods of time. I have mixed memories of those times, mostly happy, and inspiring, but some sad. I have seen people who were supposed to be senior practitioners acting in ways which merely displayed arrogance, spite, greed, agitation, and closed-mindedness. Yet I saw others—relative new comers—who seemed genuinely friendly. I have also seen people who practised no religion at all who seemed kinder and more well-disposed to others than a considerable number of western Buddhists I have met.
It is important for us to think about these matters because Vajrayana has not been with us long in the West, and when a teaching finds itself in a new environment, its teachers may need to observe the development of the teaching for which they are responsible – with some degree of care. This should not be surprising, because it applies to any aspect of life.
So when I talk about kindness, it is not possible to do so without relating it to what I have observed. And as I have said, I have observed things that have saddened me – things that have made me feel vaguely exasperated. One problem that arises when discussing ‘compassion’ is the not entirely incorrect notion that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. It is my feeling however that there seem to be a surprising number of people who find it expedient to ‘manifest wrathful compassion’ whenever it suits their irritation or vanity. Somehow I cannot quite believe that there are so many people with non-dual awareness. Wrathful compassion is utterly valid – but one needs to have the utterly valid non-dual awareness from which wrathful compassion springs.
In our practice of kindness it is valuable not to speculate concerning the motivation of others. Voicing one’s personal criticisms of what we imagine to be the motivation of other individuals is merely the expression of subjectivity. This is not to say that other people are beyond criticism, but who are we to assume the authority to point it out? It does not matter if our perception is correct or incorrect – it is our motivation in criticising that is called into question. It is the rôle of one’s Lama to offer criticism – not one’s vajra brothers and vajra sisters.
I met a young man whose Lama had instructed him to practise Tantric Ngöndro. He told me that the student of another Lama has enquired as to the nature of his practice. The young man answered in all innocence, and was treated to an agitated diatribe which consisted of the opinion that his Lama had no right to give him permission for such a practice before he spent however many years studying the Sutras. This type of response I’d call ‘mi kha’ in Tibetan – literally ‘bad mouth’. This type of ‘mouth-rubbish’ causes a great deal of distress and has nothing to do with kindness or wrathful compassion – it is merely self-righteous bigotry and ignorance of the different approaches of the different schools and Traditions. There are some touchingly pertinent words by Longchenpa on this subject, which illustrate that self-righteous bigotry and ignorance is not exactly something new. These words are called ‘Advice from the Heart’, and if we take these words to heart we will find kindness less complex that we may have imagined.
We may like to think we have no selfish motives when we tell others of their defects; we may like to think it will be for their benefit – but although what we say may be true it will only cause them pain.
To use only gentle words is my advice from the Heart.
We may engage in argument defending our point of view. We may think that in contradicting others we preserve the purity of the Teaching, but if we behave in this way we only cultivate a distorted view.
To remain silent is my advice from the Heart.
We may think it beneficial to uphold our Lama’s Lineage and view through partisan activity, but through bolstering ourselves and criticising others we only ripen our attachment and distraction.
To forget external differences is my advice from the Heart.
We may think we have thoroughly examined the teachings, and imagine that noticing the ‘mistaken-views’ of others is a sign of discriminating wisdom, but this way of thinking merely causes further confusion.
To view everything as pure is my advice from the Heart.
So what do we mean when we use the term ‘wrathful compassion’? We mean ‘a form of compassionate activity which seems uncompassionate because we lack the clarity to see it as compassion’. Some of the greatest Lamas have been wrathful in this way, and their pupils have benefited to an extraordinary extent through the complete appropriateness of their Lama’s non-dual intentionality. There is the story of Milarépa and Marpa. Marpa worked Milarépa nearly to death as part of his teaching. Milarépa had to build and dismantle houses over and over again before Marpa would give him any formal meditation instruction. Every time Milarépa had completed a new house, he would ask Marpa to come and check to see whether it was satisfactory. Milarépa fervently hoped each time that he would receive the teachings he needed so intensely – but Marpa would rage at him:
Idiot! It’s the wrong shape and in the wrong place! Pull it down and replace every stone just exactly where you found it!
Milarépa had to build these houses with his bare hands, without even the help of a yak or donkey to carry the stones, and after a while he was covered with sores where the stones rubbed against his back.
Now this must sound terrible, and in some way it is – but Milarépa had something terribly important to learn. He had cultivated vengeance – the worst, most unskilful motivation. He had left an appalling trail of destruction. Marpa’s teaching was therefore—partially—to display practically to Milarépa that to do things is infinitesimally easier than to undo them.
Think about it: Try breaking an egg, then try to reassemble the egg! Think of how easily you have had your confidence knocked in the past and exactly what it may have taken to build it up again. Think about the one harsh word that has ruined the day for you or for somebody else. Think of the expression of an opinion that has destroyed a friendship or the refusal that has led to sadness. His Holiness Düd’jom Rinpoche said—on the same occasional as I quoted before:
To cause benefit is not easy – so try first not to cause harm.
If anything comes of this talk I hope it will be the genuine feeling that kindness is crucial. I am sorry if this seems rather disturbing. I had not intended a hell-fire and brimstone sermon. It is merely a reminder for you and for me—for all of us—that we are ultimately responsible for all our actions whether we choose to live in the acceptance of that responsibility or not. Everyone we meet. Every place we find ourselves. Every scene we witness – is our responsibility.
The idea of such far-reaching responsibility is enormous. It may seem frightening – but being responsible does not mean that the sole responsibility is ours. It does not even mean that there is necessarily deliberate positive action we can take. Nothing holds us personally responsible for the world in which we live – there are only the consequences of abdicating our felt-responsibility: impoverishment, resentment, isolation, suspicion, and insensitivity.
What does felt-responsibility mean? It is the understanding that we are not separate as beings. We are intimately and inextricably interconnected. This idea of connection is subtle because our connection can take any form, and only our innate kindness—liberated through our non-dual awareness—can guide us to respond accurately.
Although we are responsible in our intimate connectedness, it does not mean that we can always act beneficially. We cannot help unless we have the exact quality or capacity to help. We cannot take on every problem in the world, we cannot single-handedly relieve a famine, we cannot save every tramp from a chilly Christmas death on a park bench – but we can have an open heart. If we are developing our awareness we will be increasing our capacity to know when and how we can be of help. Even if we know that we cannot be of help we can still allow a situation to touch us. We can wish strongly that something will happen that will help – and we can link that wish with mantra. We can remind ourselves to make that wish repeatedly until the next time we find ourselves powerless.
It is not always easy to be kind, but it is also not that difficult because kindness flows naturally from our beginningless non-dual nature. So if we remind ourselves constantly to be kind, we constantly put ourselves in closer contact with our primordial non-dual state. There is also something in the activity of kindness that has an effect on us because what we are doing is ‘true’. When I say ‘true’ I mean true in the way that an arrow’s flight may be ‘true’, or in the way that a wheel can run ‘true’. ‘True’ means as it is – without need of correction. When we make the effort to be kind, we may find that it becomes increasingly effortless. It may begin to flow naturally, and make us glad that we can experience such warmth and openness. A truly kind act is an act of pure appropriateness and therefore whenever we are kind , there will be an element of appropriateness. Life will seem more infused with energy, and there will seem fewer obstructions. Kindness simplifies situations. An act of kindness enables us to side-step our attachment to the past and future – it is a holiday from ‘me-centred concerns’, and as such can be lived moment by moment.
The Tibetan word for Bodhicitta—active compassion—is ‘changchub sem’ (byang chub sems). The one who realises changchub sem is called ‘changchub sempa’ (byang chub sems dPa’). The term changchub sempa has a specific meaning which differs from the Sanskrit word Bodhisattva, which means ‘one who has Bodhi – the compassionate mind of Enlightenment’. Changchun Sempa is not a direct translation of the Sanskrit word, because the final syllable—which has the phonetic sound ‘pa’—is not spelt in the same way as it’s spelt in the word ‘ngakpa’ where ‘pa’ means ‘person’. The spelling we see is actually ‘dPa’, which is a contraction of the word ‘dPa-bo’, warrior. So Changchub Sempa actually means ‘awakened mind-warrior’. This could seem a trifle contradictory – the idea of compassion set together with the idea of a warrior – so we need to look at the qualities of a warrior in order to understand how this idea is applied. More specifically we need to understand how this idea applies to us in our practice and in our lives. Before anything else, a warrior has to accept Death. There is no way anyone can call themselves a warrior unless they can live with the constant presence of death. No one can be a warrior unless they are free to die. The fear of death does not inhibit a warrior. So we have the felt presence of death. We know that death can come at any moment, and we live in that knowledge. This knowledge is liberating. It enables us to be free and fearless. Such warriors have the capacity to act without reference to personal safety. Such warriors have already given up all there is to give up. There is nothing left to defend, so threat no longer exists.
When we talk about the path of the awakened mind-warrior we are not speaking about aggression. We are talking about the qualities of fearlessness and the capacity to act without the clutter of self-cherishing motives. Fearlessness refuses nothing. If we are invited to go somewhere we go. If someone wants to talk with us we talk. If someone wants an ear, we listen. If someone asks a favour we give it. If someone admires something we have we offer it to them. This is what it means to live the life of commitment to the changchub sempa vow. To take such a vow is to become public property, so we should think seriously and carefully before we take such a vow. To fully accept being a doormat is to be an invulnerable warrior. To be such a warrior is to welcome the death of every thought of self-preservation. To be a doormat however, is only possible if we have advanced as practitioners: if we are so stable, fluid, warm, non-clinging and spacious in our practice that we can accept whatever treatment we receive without resentment, anger, loneliness, anxiety or depression. From the changchub sempa’s view however, to become a doormat is the greatest victory – and anyway, doormats are not really treated that badly. I have never heard of anyone torturing a doormat or burning a doormat at the stake. There would be no point. A doormat is simply that upon which we wipe your shoes.
In a battle, warriors have to act in reaction to everything that presents itself. Warriors do not run away through fear – they do what must be done without hesitation because that is the nature of the life they have chosen. The Samurai of Japan likened the nature of their lives to cherry blossom—pretty image, isn’t it?—but cherry blossom falls at the slightest gust of wind. Cherry blossom drops from the twig at the slightest touch, and the life of the Samurai was as precarious as cherry blossom. It takes an heroic sense of humour—a fearless whimsicality—to feel yourself balancing on that existential razor’s edge.
The vow to lead this extraordinary life is the determined commitment to practice, not for ourselves but for all beings. We make the vow to renounce enlightenment until all beings realise their beginningless enlightenment. Now obviously this vow concerns attitude and motivation – it concerns what we would wish to do if we could. To lay down our lives for others is considered to be a noble act. Ideas of self-sacrifice are part of all religions. But the noblest sacrifice we can possibly make is to sacrifice our ‘selves’. True ‘self’-sacrifice is to lose the ‘self’, or the habit of continually recreating duality from the ground of being. Obviously the most suitable person to help ‘all sentient beings’ is someone who has fully realised their non-dual nature – so although we vow to ‘relinquish enlightenment until all beings attain enlightenment’, this is the surest method of attaining realisation. It is a little paradoxical. In fact it is actually quite humorous: the expansive good-heart and open warmth we generate through our intention to maintain this projects us inevitably towards our goal, through the very practice of giving up our goal. If we realise that realisation is more important than our few fleeting years of life—life after life—and yet can generate the strong wish to abandon it until all can share it – then our practice will develop rapidly. We will then be of real benefit to everyone and everything everywhere.
So now I have talked as requested, about compassion and what it means. I hope that what I have said will disinhibit the innate kindness that is bursting to flow out of us all. I hope that kindness will develop in all of us, for the sake of everyone and everything everywhere. This is the only way we will ever change the world, or ourselves.