Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part IV – Sutric yanas

The Yanas – in Terms of Bodhicitta

Bodhicitta in terms of Shravakayana:

When we look at bodhicitta, or compassion or active-compassion, one has to look at the question of motivation: why am I doing this? We can approach this in terms of the nine yanas. The first yana is called Shravakayana. This does not exist as a path—you cannot find ‘Shravakayanaists’ anywhere—but as a yana it is an interesting approach. Shravakayana is when we are beginning to get suspicious about our condition. We want to hear people talking about our condition, or read people writing about our condition – but we want to do it at a safe distance. I find out more and more about this state I am in, and what I can do about this state. Shravaka means hearer or listener. Shravakayana does not mean doing anything. Nowadays in the wonderful world of weekend workshops, Shravakayana is what a lot of people are doing. It is good to understand that and to validate that – one could certainly be humorous about it, but it is valid. How does one begin a spiritual path, unless one has curiosity and spiritual interest? Shravakayana is there: ‘I am interested, I am listening. I do not want to do it yet; but I am intrigued.’ To practise at that level means that one reads, one studies, one attends talks, workshops – and one continues doing that until it becomes too frustrating. There is a natural follow-through.

In terms of compassion, one has compassion for oneself and one’s situation. In terms of honesty, owning-up to what I actually want, if what I actually want is: ‘I love to hear this stuff! I love to come to talks, to listen, to think and to talk with my friends about it. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to lock myself up in a cave, I don’t want to sit too long.’ This is Shravakayana – the first yana. This is a valuable place to start. One is tickled about something; one is wanting to know about something. From a certain point of view, one could say: Oh, dear! Precious human rebirth! You should not be wasting your time in this way; you should take it seriously. This is actually problematic if the Shravaka model is where I am. If I have to cope with the pressure of: I am not serious enough; I should be practising. I want people to like and respect me; I want to be part of the gang… – well, this is not Dharma, anyway. This is simply neurosis. It is important to be able to accept oneself as one actually is: This is my interest. It extends thus far at the moment – but everything changes. I can pursue this; and it is far better that I get frustrated with this myself, than if someone seeks to frustrate me with myself. Then I say: You know, attending all these talks is great. But I have no experience; and somehow, this is getting stale for me – to keep hearing and reading. My library gets bigger and bigger; and the talks I attend get longer and longer. And I am now quite ‘expert’ in talking about this. But it all becomes quite hollow, because I really don’t know this. At this point I need to do something about it. I need to say: I’d really like to find out now; because it irritates me.

This irritation is called ‘bodhicitta’. Here we are looking at a state where we have become successful at samsara – successful within samsara. That is, I can live my life; I can study and pass exams; I can get a job and function well within that job. I can have various goals; I can meet those goals. I can learn to play golf, I can do it relatively well; I can go skiing; I can look after the garden; I can do whatever it is I want to do. I am a reasonably functioning human being, and I can gain success in the things I try. This is the basis of Shravakayana; because I have to be able to do that, and it has to occur to me: ‘OK, that is that, then. I can do all that; but somehow there ought to be a bit more going on.’ I notice that when the lust comes on me for something – I save up for it, I get it, and I think: ‘Jolly nice, too.’ After a while I think: ‘My relationship with this isn’t what it used to be.’ I got it and it’s great – but somehow it wasn’t the answer to everything. There’s always another thing and I can go and get that, too. Somehow I know that it is going to be an endless series of lusting after things, and going for them and getting them. What does that mean? What is that intensity that I have – that once I get the object or the person or the situation, that it slides through my fingers in some way and becomes less intense? What is that process – what is that about? Is this not a good thing? Was I wrong to like it? Is there something better? That kind of question about our perceptions can only start arising if we are successful. If I never get what I want, then I never find out what it is like to get what I want.

The basis for Shravakayana has to be that I have the capacity to get what I desire and then to experience what that is like. That makes me question… that makes me suspicious about my life – suspicious about my perception. When we look at the life of the Buddha, it is important to consider what is meant by developing revulsion for samsara. Revulsion for samsara does not mean: ‘I’m in a bit of a mess. I can’t find work; I’m poor; I live in this rotten place. I’ve got halitosis. People don’t like me so much. I have revulsion for samsara.’ This just means that I am a failure at samsara; and this is not a basis for Buddhist practice – not at all! If I have an idea ‘I can’t hack it in life; I can’t keep my bank balance in credit. Therefore I want to go away and live on some retreat land somewhere’ – this is not a spiritual motivation. What if one’s Lama says: ‘Go and get a job as a banker. Get qualified. Be a straight person.’ How would one respond to that? In order to become suspicious of samsara, one has to achieve some success with it. That is the root of suspicion – one sees that it does not function, even within its own parameters. Unless one discovers that, then one cannot enter into Shravakayana. Simply to have a fascination for Eastern teachings is not a basis for Shravakayana. One can see the people who have this fascination, because they want to ask endless questions about occult mysteries that have nothing to do with their lives or experience at all. They want to hear the next fancy thing that is there – some secret empowerment, or some special piece of information. It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with that – it is always nice to have something that is a bit special. But if there is no basis in anything else there, then it is non-functional. Shravakayana begins with this idea of suspicion. I need to find out what is going on; there is a source somewhere of information on what is going on, and I am intrigued to learn about that. However, I am enjoying my life enough that I don’t particularly want to sit in a cave or take three months out for retreat. I want to study this from a distance. One thinks: ‘Well, maybe next life, or later; I’m not going to think about it at the moment. I like this stuff. It helps me in my life; I maybe apply a little bit of it. But practice – well, that’s not really for me. I have too much going on yet.’

The interesting thing here is that teaching is infectious. It is like a virus that gets in, and it starts having an effect. If one thinks about it a bit more, if one applies it, one cannot help but look at one’s life. You cannot keep hearing things and not apply them in some way. It becomes boring – unless you become an academic and want to publish books on the subject, and that becomes a goal in itself. That is one way to remain in Shravakayana and make a profession out of it; but that is also not helpful. In the end even with that one becomes frustrated. This frustration—this irritation—is the beginning of the sense of compassion. There has to be connection between this information and me at more than an intellectual level. I have to touch ground with this in some way. This has to be real and apply; otherwise, I have to forget it and find another hobby. But this is a peculiar hobby, because it is an addictive hobby. One can let go of it, but it remains there and one always comes back to it. One comes back to it if it is real, because one cannot somehow deny that – so this irritation is the birth of compassion. Compassion here is this quality of feeling tantalised by the thing, being drawn by the thing, trying to reject the thing and working with this connection and disconnection. This we call Shravakayana.

Bodhicitta in Terms of Pratyékabuddhayana and Bodhisattvabuddhayana:

This moves into Pratyékabuddhayana – this means solitary realiser. This is the point one reaches when one says: ‘Right. This is something I have to do here. I have started to practise; and I can see that something really functions here. I can change; bits of me can drop off. This ‘me’ is intangible; I could lose any bit of it and it would not matter.’ One becomes intrigued about getting rid of all of it. Now Pratyékabuddhayana is very much a way in which people practise in the West: ‘What’s in it for me? What can I get from this?’ This is quite a reasonable, intelligent approach. There is this thing here. Am I playing with it, or is it real? Does it do something? If it does, then I want to see it in action. I want to manifest it; and where better to manifest this than in myself. At this point I am not connected with other people in particular, because this is my concern – this is my spiritual practice. I am going in a certain direction with it – I want to be realised. That is why it is called ‘solitary realiser’.

The interesting thing with all these yanas, is that one never reaches their conclusion; because they exhaust themselves before the conclusion. One has not gone far with Pratyékabuddhayana before one realises that, if this really is effective with me—if there is less pain to be experienced through giving up the struggle for a coherent identity—then one begins to see the pain of other people. It becomes apparent as soon as one begins to have some recognition of one’s own neuroses. As soon as one is able to allow space for those neuroses to perform, they have less of a grasp; one can be a little more relaxed around them. It does not mean that we stop being neurotic; but somehow the neurosis does not ride us completely. As soon as we enter into that condition, we start to observe people who are ridden by their neuroses; and compassion naturally arises. We feel sorry and think: ‘I am glad I am not there.’ I remember that I used to be there – that used to happen for me, and I could not do anything about it. I did not even know what was going on; I thought that was a natural response. ‘You look at me in a funny way; I break your nose – sure! That is the deal.’ Now I do not have to do that. We then move into what is called Bodhisattvabuddayana.

You see, this is a natural progression. We are not talking about these yanas as spiritual systems – like you do your B.A., your Masters and your Ph.D.; and you do the cookery class, and then the mechanics class. It is different to this; this is a natural human spiritual process. And it is outlined in this particular way. It is useful to see oneself in this process – how that is evolving. Shravakayana is a mind-set. Pratyékabuddhayana is a mind-set. We can say: ‘What am I practising at the moment? Is this Shravakayana I’m practising?’ One has to observe that in oneself and say: ‘Yes, this is what I’m practising. I’m not really practising Pratyékabuddhayana here, because I am not drawn with this effort.’

So in Pratyékabuddhayana, if we look at it in terms of compassion and what that is: this first emergence of bodhicitta is the irritation that wants to make contact with method in some way. That is awoken by one’s suspicion and one’s curiosity about one’s condition. Then one has to formulate that into will. This is one of the first things people do in their lives when they want to be a better person. ‘OK, I’m only going to eat hand-kneaded bread from now on; I’m going to adjust my diet; I’m going to do exercises…’ Willpower is applied. There is some kind of a philosophy there – one is interested in it, and one decides to apply it. Will comes in, some kind of push, because I have to break that inertia. Being fascinated is one thing; actually doing something requires energy. This is why in the monks and nuns vows—especially in the Theravadin School—they are strict. They have to maintain the will; that is important, because the will is fragile.

Q: In Shravakayana, is there a tendency to explore all the possibilities? And then in pratyéka one chooses a particular method?

R: If you are going to move, then you have to choose.

Q: And sort of stop listening to all the other ones?

R: Yes. That is important, because you cannot apply unless you narrow down and choose. The monastic system of vows is designed to protect the will; it is will that creates the energy that moves you. In Bodhisattvayana we have the bodhisattva vow. What is interesting about this vow, is that it takes precedence over the Vinaya – over the monastic vows. One of the bodhisattva vows is that it is considered a breakage of vow not to break the Vinaya, in terms of compassion. That is important – that one of these vows says that you must break the Vinaya if it is a question of compassion; otherwise you have broken the bodhisattva vow. In a system where they do not have a bodhisattva vow, one has to maintain the Vinaya all the time. I saw an interesting television program about this – about a Theravadin monastery. The Theravadin system has compassion teachings, but not formulated as a bodhisattva vow; it is Mahayana-Hinayana hybrid. According to the Vinaya, you cannot operate as a monk or nun while being a doctor. They showed this incident about a man with a bad back, who was sitting outside the monastery wall with his friend. They were talking in a loud voice about having a bad back. One was saying to his friend: I really have a bad back that has been hurting me for a long time. I wish there were something I could do about it. Inside, the monks hear this and say: Oh, we better get Fred, because he used to be a doctor. Then they sit on the other side of the wall and they say: Hey, Fred. Take the hypothetical case of someone who might have a bad back. What would you do about that? Oh, he said. This is what I would do. He would give all this advice. The person with the bad back would then go away and implement that information. He would not have had to have any contact with the man-as-doctor. That is how they get round it – which is compassionate activity. It is their way of how to maintain Vinaya and have compassionate activity at the same time.

Lama Yeshé Dundron, who is the Dala’i Lama’s doctor, is a doctor and he is a Mahayana monk. There is no problem with a Mahayana monk being a doctor – or even with a Mahayana monk giving a lady a cuddle if she is upset about something. But for a Theravadin monk, you cannot do that; because there is nothing that overrides the Vinaya. Here we have an interesting principle. If we take it away from vows, and we start to look at our lives – and look at the principle of this shift between Pratyékabuddhayana and Bodhisattvabuddhayana – one is broadening one’s view. Compassion goes beyond strictures, whatever they are. For example, I was vegetarian and abstemious for about thirteen years as a Buddhist practitioner. I remember once when I was at art college, my lady friend at the time had made a tape/slide project for which she wanted to include a Zulu warrior. There was a Nigerian gentleman who offered to play the part, and they hired a grass skirt and a spear from the museum – and there he was. As a thank-you to him for doing this, we invited him round for afternoon tea; he had scones and things. Then he invited us round for a meal – I was not part of the project; I was just tagged on with the three ladies. He made us this Nigerian meal; it was a seriously revolting meal. I hated it—not just because there was beef in it—and I was glad it was revolting in a way. The ladies all ate meat, but they could not eat this stuff. I thought: ‘He is going to be really upset’; so I just ate it. He offered me a glass of whiskey too. They did not drink. I did not drink either; but I had this whiskey, and I ate this beef curry. Afterwards they said: I thought you were vegetarian, and that you didn’t drink alcohol. I said: That’s right. He would have been really upset, if no one had eaten his meal. They asked: Did you enjoy it? I said: No, it was bad; I hated it – but he was trying to do something nice for us. There are more important things than sticking to a rule. This was a practice – not to drink alcohol and not to eat meat. Then at a certain stage my teacher told me that I had to drink alcohol and eat meat; and I did. So that was the end of that practice – finish! What is important there is how one applies things. As soon as you break a rule, you move into a grey area. When do I break this? Did I phone him up the next day and say: Hey! I’d really like to come around for another meal. And how’s that bottle of scotch doing – is that still there? When one does that, one then lives in a more spacious condition, in which everything is its own rule in the moment. Compassion in that way introduces an element of continual uncertainty; there is no rule that can be applied anymore, because everyone is an individual.

This is something I am always coming up against in terms of what happens with my own students. Khandro Déchen and I invent rules: ‘This happens this way: it takes three years to do this, five years to do this…’ – it is a structure. Then within this structure we discover there are human beings, who are individuals and who do not accord with the rules. The rules do not always suit that individual, even if they want to – it is not always the best thing. There have to be generalised rules; it is just that one cannot apply them – one can only apply them in general. One always has this situation; the rule is a guideline then. The Vinaya becomes a guideline, rather than a rule, and it is a guideline then for how compassionate activity manifests. One has to be able to break that rule. At first, to break a rule is damaging; because the rules give you a great deal of strength. If you break them then, you lose the energy of being able to keep those rules. One has to develop to the point at which rules can become amorphous; and that has to be a knowledge of other beings. Appreciation has to arise there – appreciation of other beings in their specific condition. Wisdom and compassion are always moving hand-in-hand in that way; one cannot actually separate the two. When we look at Bodhisattvayana, and we look at all the other yanas in terms of Bodhisattvabuddhayana – how does this apply? There is a bodhisattva vow that we can take; but I would like to look at the whole thing more essentially. I would like to look at the principle of what Bodhisattvabuddhayana is – that is a sense of appreciation of other beings. One creates the space through maintaining rules, like the rule of silent sitting – this is a rule, this is a structure that contains a space.

Q: I am not sure how that is a rule – silent sitting?

R: Rule is one word; form is another. Pattern, distinction, criteria – it is a form word rather than an emptiness word. So you have the form or the rule or the instruction, which is the posture. You will be hearing me using many form and emptiness words. You can look for form and emptiness in everything, and say: ‘What is this aspect of Buddhism here? This is form; this is emptiness.’ What is the word ‘rule’? Rule is fixed; it is form, it is not emptiness. You can say ‘awareness’ – one operates awareness, or one follows a rule. One con-forms. You conform to the posture, which allows emptiness. With Pratyékabuddhayana, one is creating the space in which bodhicitta can arise. It is not until one has this space, that one can have appreciation of what lies within that ground. Appreciation is important – the actual connection with other beings that allows us to see them as they are; not as we would like to see them, not as we hope they are, not as we compartmentalise them. We have to have that space, or that chaos, in order for people to be what they are. As soon as we can allow them to be what they are, compassion arises because we are connected with them.

We can only have real connection with beings if we appreciate them. You cannot help someone you do not like; you cannot help someone to whom you are indifferent. If you are going to help a person, you also have to find them attractive – you have to like their face. For a teacher to help students, he or she has to enjoy their neuroses; you cannot help somebody if you do not enjoy their neuroses. If I do not like their neuroses, I have to sit here and say: ‘You’re bad! You’re going to hell!’ In that way you also have to think: ‘Oh, I don’t like them – I hate them’; and then you have to whip yourself. There has to be appreciation—even of neuroses—because that neurosis is the ground of one’s realisation, the distortion of one’s realisation. When we say that the teacher has to enjoy our neuroses, ‘enjoy’ here is no different to the word appreciate, or value, or understand. It is important to see the connection between these words. The words in Buddhism are not simply terminology; they are a living context of understanding.

Q: Would this be like unconditional love?

R: That is an aspect of it, also. Unconditional love is allowing someone their own space to be precisely what they are. If someone has the sense in which they are accepted, fundamentally, then that gives them the space to grow and to change. The worst thing is if you have to conform to some criterion of how you should be, and then you pretend to be that way. This happens a lot in spiritual environments; and it often happens by default. One ends up in a place and sees how people are, and thinks: ‘I want to be accepted; so I will pretend to be like that. I’ll fit in with this.’ One falsifies oneself. If the teacher encourages that, then that is not so useful. In order to be oneself in a situation requires courage; just to say: ‘Well this is me; I’m stupid sometimes. I make mistakes. This is what I am.’ I want to change; I am not saying: ‘This is me’ in some arrogant manner; but to say: ‘Here I am; and I am prepared to work. I am prepared to acknowledge what is happening here.’ That is a question of compassion – that sense of connection, that sense of appreciation. The form of one’s neurosis is the method through which the teacher operates. The teacher has to enjoy my neurosis; and that gives me a sense of connection with the teacher – that my neurosis is OK. It is a ground from which I can work; it is a channel of communication. In terms of Bodhisattvabuddhayana, one cultivates this sense of connection with all beings – not in some idealistic manner, but in a real manner of saying: ‘Here I am with these people – I have to find out what I can appreciate here, in order to make contact. I have to notice how someone wears their clothes, how they cut their hair, how they put their makeup on – whatever they do. That has to be part of one’s appreciation. How the lines on their face are formed – there has to be appreciation, otherwise one cannot have any compassion; it simply does not work. It cannot be applied as an abstract that is cut off from individuals. One has to be personal in this.

Q: You have also used the word ‘understanding’ in terms of this. So if you look at somebody, do you also try to figure them out – for example, by looking at what they are wearing?

R: Oh, no; that is a laboratory practice. One allows the person to explain themselves through how they are. One simply appreciates what one sees; and if one does not appreciate something in particular, then one can let that rest. Someone’s whole appearance is their language of being; and one needs to learn how to speak with that. That is not to try to analyse it – if one does that, one only puts it in boxes.

Q: And appreciation comes from… space? From…?

R: One has to have the space to appreciate. One has to be comfortable in that space; otherwise, everything has to be judged – otherwise, one is on military alert all the time.

Q: Where does the warmth in that space come from – the warmth of appreciation rather than the more clinical appreciation?

R: That is naturally arising! As soon as you stop compartmentalising—someone’s appearance, the tone of their voice—that warmth is naturally there. We simply have to drop what we do that freezes it. That is one of the most important discoveries with shi-nè, with shamatha, with silent sitting; and with the application of that in one’s life – of simply letting go of the obstacles that are there, the barriers we put there, the series of compartmentalisations that we create around looking at anything.

Q: To link that back to when you were speaking of ‘small disconnections’: I was trying to think of a concrete example of the small disconnection that I do in my life. I’m linking this – that disconnections are our tendency to compartmentalise and judge. Would that be small disconnection?

R: Sure. It was happening to me a while back: I noticed that I was revolted by the way that certain men do up their trousers – where you get a paunch, and you do the belt up tight underneath, and it hangs over the top. Then I thought: ‘This is a bad attitude of mine. The next time I see someone doing that, I am going to look at that thing.’ Actually, it is quite graceful – it has got a curve on it. I still would not do it myself—I would just buy bigger trousers and I would do them up higher—but I need to appreciate that, because that was a problem for me for a while. When you find yourself in some antagonistic relationship with something, it is nice to relax around it; and say, ‘Well, there is something I am missing here’.

Q: Why does appreciation bring pleasure?

R: Pleasure is bodhicitta. You see, this word compassion is vast in Buddhism. It is not just feeling sorry for somebody and wanting to help them – these are ideas within it. One has to have a far broader sense of what bodhicitta means. It is pleasurable and enjoyable to help somebody because one is in connection. If one is helping someone out of duty, because one is trying to be a good person and do good works, it is maybe not enjoyable. It is tricky to try to help people in a clinical way. In order to engage in compassionate activity—to help somebody—one has to be open to them. Otherwise there is only the concept of what would be good: ‘You need one of these.’ Pleasure, lust, desire – all these are aspects of compassion, because they are about connection.