Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part III – Emotion

Bodhicitta, Chang-chub sem:

Enlightened Anger – the Liberated Emotions:

Q: You said that one should have compassion for people who act in a negative way; and also that you can be enlightened and have anger. Is that anger a transformation of that energy, that doesn’t confound you on it?

R: We could start by looking at the essential part of what kleshas—the Five Buddha Families—mean; what these neuroses are, how they are transformed. In order to have compassion you have to have understanding. There would be a simplistic level at which one could say: Oh, this is a nasty, cruel person who is acting in despicable ways. I feel sorry for them because I am trying to be a good person; and part of the rule book of being a good person is to feel compassion for those who aren’t, because in some way they are going to suffer for it, etc. etc. That is hard to maintain; because there is no reason for it in particular, apart from the fact that ‘this is the correct way to approach it’ and I want to be correct. I think this is one of the problems of Victorian morality – that you simply did not do certain things because it was ‘immoral’; not because you understood why. That is a reason why a lot of morality disappeared, especially with regard to sexual relationship. One cannot simply follow edicts because they are holy or moral; one has to understand why they function. In terms of having compassion for others who express anger, paranoia, greed, obsession, wilful stupidity – one has to see them in oneself. That is important. If one cannot see them in oneself, one cannot have any compassion. One has to have some degree of clarity. One has to say: ‘How do I cause myself pain with this? How have I caused myself pain in the past, and how have I got greater clarity now? Although this is still manifesting, it is not riding me. When I see another who has got that thing riding them, then I can say: Whew! If I could do anything to help that person out of that, I really would like to; because that is a terrible place to be. The place I am is not much better; but that is a worse place. There is a direction – as much as I wish to be out of that, I wish everyone else was out of that too. One sees it in oneself and one understands it.

There is an important point about samsara in general: there is only one thing wrong with samsara – samsara does not work; that is what is wrong with it. It is not that it is naughty, evil, bad, wicked or whatever. It does not work; in its own terms it does not work. Until one discovers that samsara does not work, one will continue to ‘do’ samsara. The basis of compassion is realising that samsara does not work. That is so poignant – because even when you realise that it does not work, it is still worth a try! Somehow, we still go through the motions of it, saying: ‘Yeah, I’ll give it another shot, even though…’ You think: ‘Maybe I’ll get away with it once; and I will actually get what I want and it will be great.’ Then you think: ‘Nah… I did it again, didn’t I? And I knew it would be like that.’ That is tragic – and humorous too; and it is that ambivalence that breeds compassion. Otherwise you would look at other people doing samsara as being stupid – you would despise them for their weakness for doing samsara when ‘I am on the way out’. But there is humour there; because you can see that there are brave and noble qualities involved in beating yourself to death with samsara; it is charming in some ways.

One has to understand the living texture of that situation. That is in terms of answering your question about compassion. Looking at what ‘enlightened anger’ is, one has to understand the process of samsara. In Tibetan we use the word ‘khor-wa’, which means going around in circles – this is a self-defeating circle. One has to understand the manner in which the circle defeats itself. This can be an explanation of any of the five elements. You named anger; so we will have a look at that one. All of these ‘negative’ emotions have a root, which is a reaction to the experience of nonduality. We start from the basis that we are beginninglessly enlightened. Unenlightenment is the effort to hide from that; because we have misinterpreted the enlightened state as a state of non-existence. Because we are beginninglessly enlightened, that state cannot help but sparkle through – it is the real state, nonduality. Whenever that sparkles through we have a moment in which we are free – not free in the sense of being realised, but we are free to move in one of two directions. We either move into experiencing that openness, or into retracting back into samsara and regenerating the process. These moments happen spontaneously, caused by all manner of things. They also happen through exhaustion. One can explore the whole quality of exhaustion when one looks at the six realms. The realms have to wear themselves out. And at the point of exhaustion one can either recreate the realm or one can move into a higher realm of being; in terms of the six realms, that is how that works.

One can see how samsara operates in each of the five elemental patterns. Anger is described as distorted clarity. The root of anger is fear – we perceive our enlightened nature, and we misinterpret it. We perceive it as a direct force that is out to obliterate us; so fear arises. We have to attack whatever we are afraid of; because we are being destroyed, we have to lash out in order to feel safe. This forms aggression of all kinds – from the mildest irritation up to various forms of genocide are all included within this aggression. This is why I say: We are all Hitler. When I get irritated, I am on that track that leads to Hitler – one has to recognise that: ‘I can escalate this irritation. I can feed that irritation.’ This arises from fear. That is important. Whenever you see anyone who is acting aggressively, you know they are afraid. Then some compassion can arise, because you can say: ‘I am glad I don’t have to do that.’ I am glad I do not live with that tension of having to attack people, because they are different, or they remind me of something I do not want to know about or something in myself that worries me.

Q: The question arises because of a discussion I’ve had with someone, who works out of anger and fear quite a bit. And he says: I’m going to work on achieving enlightenment even though it is there.

R: Being an angry person gives you something with which you can work. You sit with it. You do not act it out; that is important. There is a whole method where you sit with that anger arising, and you simply experience what that is like. You do not follow thoughts about it. There are many different things you can do—subtly different—depending on your level of practice. In terms of Dzogchen, one would find the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sensation of anger. You would locate that in your body as either in a place or as pervasive. You would find the presence of awareness in the dimension of that sensation. Whatever thoughts about the anger arose, you would not follow.

Now naturally, everyone in their own practice would be practising something different. Practising that at the level of shi-nè, there would be thoughts arising and one simply would not follow them. In terms of Dzogchen, you would not have that situation of thoughts arising at all – one would simply go directly into the sensation. Usually with a strong enough emotion, the emotion will burn up namthog in a certain way. In terms of Tantra, the inner Tantra practice of working with negative emotions is to arise as the yidam. If there were anger, one would arise as Dorje Phurba or Dorje Tröllö; in that anger you would become Dorje Tröllö and experience the anger as that. Here, once you dissolve subject and object of anger, you have clarity.

You can begin to create space in which you see the pattern of it and in which you can recognise that fear as groundless – as pure sensation. That is where you begin to work on it, or embrace it – that whatever arises, you simply become the sensation of what arises. Now if you look at anger, you can see within anger many qualities of clarity – it is intelligent, lucid. Whatever you say might be witty, sharp, sarcastic – sarcasm is often so perfect; you say the thing that humiliates the person in the worst possible way and it is just ideal. You have increased memory, loquacity – it is absolutely to the point. All these are qualities of clarity. There is crispness around fear and anger – hot anger or cold anger – it is the water element. The hot anger does one thing. With the cold anger there is this icy thing – it has these clear qualities of tension, sharpness. The enlightened state is that quality in the nondual state – which is clarity. Everything contains this compassionate reflex; because without clarity, compassion is not possible. It is seeing the situation to be exactly what it is.

Q: There is one situation if you’re angry; but there’s another situation if anger is being directed at you. If someone else was angry at me, okay then my response would be fear. And so there is like a dance going—anger and fear—that then could turn back into anger and aggression.

R: Absolutely. That is exactly what it does.

Q: I feel that I don’t have an honest, compassionate way of being in such a situation, other than fear. I am fear!

R: It is like dogs… I was a postman once, among other things, to earn money in order to travel to India. There were dogs; and dogs interpret fear as aggression. If you are afraid, it is not that: ‘I am a poor, harmless little thing.’ Rrrghh! They will go for you. There was this dog; I knew this one. One day he came bounding towards the gate; and I said: RRRrrrghhh! He looked at me and went: Mmmm… It was alright after that – it was fine. He even let me stroke him. It depends on the circumstances in which you are feeling the fear.

Obviously there are some circumstances in which fear is probably appropriate. And relaxing into it is – well, maybe that would not hurt either. If it is a physically safe situation, let us say, but you have got someone’s anger at work, you have to remember that they are frightened. There is nothing like someone being afraid that draws somebody on in their anger. People can get into a sadistic spiral then, of wanting to see how much they can brutalise you. They are afraid of it happening to them, and they are almost hypnotised by you as a victim – which draws them on to do more and more and more. It is a horrible trap – both people get trapped in that. Unfortunately, the only thing to do is to relax and to recognise that the person is afraid.

That is not an easy thing to do. One has to start by seeing it in oneself. It is a process; but the important thing is to remember. Always with teaching, one has to remember it in the situation; and one only remembers it if one has experienced it at the level of practice. When you feel fear or you feel anger, you sit with it and you get to learn about that. When you see it in other people, you know it might not have anything specifically to do with you. You think: ‘This is what this person is experiencing. Maybe I could deal with this in some other way.’ That has to be your experiment; to say: ‘Maybe I don’t have to reflect anger back; maybe I don’t have to protect myself. Maybe I can just hear this person out and wait for them to run out of steam.’

Q: That was helpful; because I saw that there’s actually a positive energy working inside of myself that could move in a supportive way to the situation…

R: Yes, you have got to remember that you have to help this person in some way. You might not say the right thing – you cannot help that. There is no right answer apart from doing your best in the moment; but knowing that that person is coming from a fearful place. You can only de-escalate that by not responding with anger, by simply being there like some empty punch-bag. There was a strange man in Cardiff who used to turn up at people’s parties and be objectionable; and he seemed to like physical contact – he liked people to hit him. He would do things like stand by someone’s cutlery drawer and pull it out and drop it on the floor; and look around as if to say: So what is anyone going to do about that then? Really peculiar behaviour. Once he was standing by me and a few others; and we were having a conversation about something. He turned to me and he said: You are full of shit, aren’t you? And I said: You are a perceptive man! and just continued with the conversation. He did not know what to do and walked away; and that was it.

There was another occasion, with someone else being objectionable at a nice party that these people had put on. This man, who obviously thought he was ‘Mr. Wonderful’, said: I don’t call this much of a party. The gentleman friend of one of the ladies who had done all the preparation, said: Glad I didn’t say that! and everyone burst out laughing; and the guy left. I thought that was wonderful: Glad I didn’t say that. He just had to have it all reflected back. The gentleman did not cause a bad scene; he did not say it in a nasty way – he just grinned, and that was the end of it. Humour is great in situations like that. But you have to be brave to be humorous; it is a risk to say something like that. But then it has to be you – what you say; you cannot learn these things from other people. It has to come out of the situation, out of the space of it. The idea that I could say anything; and I will see what occurs to me here – but with kindly motivation. The guy who had been objectionable could have laughed as well and said: Yes, I am a complete dick-head for saying that. I deserve that. Sorry about that. That was an opportunity that was presented for him there, because it was not an aggressive situation; it was just humorous.

Q: I often feel I have such a limited range in a problem situation.

R: It is not that one has a limited range; one has limited space. Your range is infinite; it is as big as the space you have to offer the situation. It is not like you have a list that you can draw from; that is not the concept somehow. It is having the space to be there with the person, and let something suggest itself. Maybe it is the wrong thing sometimes, because we are not enlightened; but we try our best.

Q: I am reminded of the story of Trungpa Rinpoche. He was in Texas one time, and somebody pulled a gun on him when he was in a car. A guy came to the window and pulled a gun on him and he rolled down the window and said: Shoot! I wonder how it would work for me, if I were getting mugged in San Francisco. You have to know if that is the right thing in the situation.

Q2: He actually squirted him with a water gun. Rinpoche had a water gun with him; and he actually took it out and squirted him with it.

R: Great. If you are going to be shot, you might as well invite it – if it is going to happen anyway. That is about accepting the situation completely.

Q2: It was the last thing in the world the guy probably expected.

R: These stories are endless. There was someone in New York who was held up by a mugger who had a knife. He said: Hand over your money. The man said: It is exactly a quarter past nine, and walked on. The guy just stood there and thought: I thought… Coming from some completely oblique direction might have made some space for him to think: I don’t understand what is going on here. It is not my day; I am not a good mugger today.

Q3: Can you delineate a little bit between being compassionate and understanding, and being involved in co-dependency? Especially in a situation like an abusive husband where all that abusive behaviour is reinforced by always having someone be compassionate and understanding?

R: I am not good on abstract examples. It depends so much on the precise situation what one does. It is certainly not compassionate to allow someone to abuse you. It is not only not compassionate with regard to your own being, but with them as well; because you are allowing them to pattern themselves further with that activity – that you are accepting it. Compassion does not mean that you accept anything from anybody in particular; that is different. You have to tell people: ‘This is not acceptable.’ Compassion there is that you do not have to hate them for that activity. That is their pattern; that is where they are locked and trapped. You might have to realise: ‘I cannot help you by remaining in this relationship with you; I have to leave. You keep doing this, so I am going; I am getting out of here. I am sorry. You have to realise that it is not me, either. This is your problem; and you are not even doing it to me. You are doing it, and I happen to be here; so you are doing it to me because I am here. If I were not here, you would be doing it to somebody else. In a way it is completely impersonal; so I do not have to take it personally. It is your situation.’ That is compassionate activity. You then go away and you feel sorry for that person. If that person wants to contact you later you can always do that and say: ‘How are you doing with your situation?’ You do not have to have any recriminations about that; you do not have to want to punish the person. You acknowledge that everything that everybody does is its own punishment. The concept that one is going to reap bad karma for this is irrelevant. There is no purpose in punishing anybody; who they are is their own punishment – they carry it around with them. My punishment is being me; and your punishment is being you. Maybe they are different punishments; maybe they are different rewards; whatever they are is simply what they are. It is recognition of that.

Q: Could you apply that to a court of law? It sounds great; but I am trying to imagine the judge saying: You are who you are.

R: This is one of those impossible situations. A judge is only a judge because he or she is appointed under certain legislation and can only act in a certain way. One would have to talk about destructuring the entire society. One can only ever do what you can do according to where one is. I remember I spent a while teaching art in a school to ‘ROSLA’ kids – ROSLA stands for ‘Raising of School Leaving Age’. The boys did not want to be there—they had to stay on an extra year—and made trouble everywhere they were. I had given them this project, and they did not look interested. I said: Well, if you don’t want to do this, what would you rather do? Go home. I said: Right. I could say ‘yes’, couldn’t I? What would happen? Maybe you’d go home. Maybe you’d get out the school gate; maybe you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t be here for the next lesson – I’d just get the sack. Then you’d just get some other teacher. They had not had anyone who was honest with them like that before. I said: I’m not free – I have to be here or my grant is cut. We are both prisoners in this thing. We might as well have fun – I’d like you to have fun; I don’t want to punish you. So – I’ll give you my idea again. You can see if you can like it, or if you want to adapt it. But we’ll see how we can work with this. I do not know what I would do as a judge; but I have been a schoolteacher, and that was ‘a’ situation. They were great after that. We made soft objects – Claus Oldenberg type things. They made frying pans with eggs in them, out of bits of felt – weird things they made. They were into sewing! It was amazing – getting these boys into sewing; but because it was weird, it was OK; they made them well. They recognised: Well, let’s have fun then. After that battle of: We don’t want to do anything.

Q: Rinpoche, you mentioned the situation where you are on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. How about if you are an observer to that? I know a man who was driving home one day, and saw a man beating a woman on the street. He pulled over and interfered, and waited till the police came. The question there is: when you are aware of those situations around you, or you are involved in something where you see this happening, and you are not personally involved – how do you apply compassion there?

R: You do what you can. I do not know what I would do in that situation. But I was in another situation, in a pub car park, where this big guy was beating a little guy around badly. A friend and I got out of the car and pulled them apart. The little guy got furious: My friend’s got every right to beat me up. We said: Fine. And the two of them walked back into the pub, arm in arm. There we did help, but we got a lot of abuse for it. I thought: ‘That is interesting. The little guy was able to save face and re-establish his connection with the guy who was beating him up; he, in turn, obviously thought that was friendly and they shouldn’t have been fighting after all; and it was all over.’ When you ask about examples, they are impossible because you do not know what is going on – what the karma of that situation is, what the karmic vision is. The last thing we expected was for the little guy to turn on us after we had tried to help him. Such a weird situation! Basically you have only got your own kindness and what to do; and maybe you do it wrong; that is OK. There are worse things than making mistakes; it is what your motivation is. You obviously do not try to lurch around, trying to help everybody regardless; but if you feel that you could do something, then you should do something. It might not be the right thing; you do not know. Unless you are a realised being, you never know what the right thing is to do. As long as you have good motivation in trying to do it; and you are not caught up in some idea of being a hero looking for people to help – if it just happens.

Honesty and Lying in Terms of Compassionate Activity:

R: Even when someone asks you for your honest opinion: ‘Come on! What do you really think of me?’ It is a tricky one. What do you actually say, bearing in mind that my opinion is subjective anyway. What is going to help? There is something important here. I was once on an aircraft with someone, who was showing me a long letter that she had written to a friend who had treated her rather shabbily. She said: What do you think of this letter? I read the letter, and I said: This is a coherent letter. You make your points well. She asked: You think I should send this letter? I said, I don’t know – it all depends what you want the end result to be. She said, Well, I want to be friends. I said, Don’t send the letter. If you don’t care what the result is, and you don’t mind if you never see this woman again – send this letter! Maybe what you are saying is right; but there is a principle here: There is what I want to say, what should be said, what this person should hear, what this person needs to know, what I have every right to say—endless lists—and what I want the result to be. One has to act according to what one wants the result to be, not what one wants to say, or what should be said, or I have every right to say. That is important – to say: ‘What result do I want?’ Then maybe I do not say everything I want to say. I think: ‘How will this person react? Will this be helpful to this person – with my knowledge of this person?’ She ended up not sending the letter.

That is an important principle. People often use honesty in the wrong way; because honesty is not just the expression of one’s unwithheld subjectivity. Honesty is simply not lying in order to gain unfair advantage. Sometimes it is important to lie. One could lie through kind motivation; and I think this is important. If someone knocks on your door, looking for your friend because they want to ‘blow them away’, and you say: ‘Oh, yeah – he’s upstairs,’ – this is not useful behaviour. You say: ‘Joe! Right. I saw him last week; he said he was heading for Texas,’ or whatever. Do you say: ‘He’s upstairs; I’ll tell him you’re down here,’ or ‘Just go up – he’s third door on the left – he’s taking a shower at the moment, you’ll find it real easy.’

Cultural Differences:

Q: I have noticed that Tibetans have a different idea of honesty – there’s a lot of exaggeration that’s permitted within honesty. And I’ve noticed there’s a withholding—maybe it’s too broad a generalisation; maybe it happens in Western venues—there’s a lot of withholding of information. You don’t tell a person your correct age or something – there are these little innuendoes of not telling the whole truth. I’m never quite sure. It might have something to do with having advantage over somebody. It’s something that’s always bothered me.

R: There are different cultural forms. I would say one has to distinguish between culture and Dharma. Every culture has its particular qualities. I remember Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche once saying he admired Western people for the way that couples could split up and still be friends. He said Tibetans cannot do this. And he said: ‘I really admire this. This is good; this is in accordance with Dharma. What we do is not.’ That was interesting. One has to look at one’s culture—let us say, the greater openness—here maybe people are a bit too open. There are certain aspects of their culture that are a little bit paranoid; that is there – one has to guard certain things.

Q: Could you give an example or ours being too open?

R: Well, I say: Hi. How are you doing? And they say: Oh, I’m having a really bad time. This happened this morning. And my leg is not so good… Qualities are interesting, when we look at other people’s cultural qualities. Consider hugging as an example. Maybe hugging people is good. You could say: ‘That’s warm and friendly, isn’t it – hugging people, touching people; that’s nice.’ Then you could say: ‘Actually, it can be problematic.’ From my point of view—the point of view of being English—all this feely-touchy business is strange. When I first came to the United States, someone was talking to me and they put their hand on my shoulder. I thought: ‘What is this hand on my shoulder? Who says you can do that? I met you five minutes ago, and your hand is on my shoulder.’ Not that hugging bothers me; if I have known a person for a number of years, they will get a hug out of me – if I like them. That is just a different mode; and there are different modes of being.

If you look at Tibetan culture, you can see that there are also good qualities in that culture – it is a mixed bag. And it grows – it is an organism. They have the quality that, if they get upset with each other, they are enemies. Phht! But then, when they get over that, they are friends again. Phht! There is no process; you do not have to sit together with a counsellor for months to work it out. It is just – emptiness – gone… friends… forgotten… phht! Maybe you call that repression; I do not know. It is a black-and-white culture; good-bad, black-white. We, on the other hand, are good at grey. And from that black-and-white position, grey is rather frightening. But that is our quality – we can go into all that grey. We are more frightened of black and white – of making decisions.

Dharma exists in all these different cultures; and we simply have to understand what is Dharma and what is culture. It is important not to make a virtue out of culture, whatever we feel our virtues are, and the problems of another culture – or indeed, what the virtues are of another culture and how bad our culture is. From the point of view of Tantra, every culture is workable, with all its aspects.