Compassion without Illusions

By Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

AS WE GO THROUGH OUR LIVES, we undergo tremendous struggles; yet we do not seem able to accomplish or achieve what we would like. In addition, there are a great many undesirable things that we would like to avoid, but we are unable to do so. As a result of these conflicts, we experience a great deal of pain and suffering.

Yet the simple truth is that each and every one of us inherently possesses powerful resources. Each of us has the potential to experience true wisdom, or, for that matter, transcendent awareness; we have the potential to express gentleness and genuine compassion; we have the potential to generate great warmth and kindness towards ourselves and others; we have the potential to engender openness and patience. Nevertheless, we have misconceptions about ourselves and the world around us. We wrongly assume that that which we all desire--a true sense of well-being and contentment--comes from external situations, things outside of ourselves.

Armed with this erroneous notion, we try to solve our internal conflict and dissatisfaction externally. But the truth of the matter is that no matter how much we try to manipulate external things to secure a complete sense of well-being for ourselves, we will never have complete control over external reality. All along, we have been working with the wrong tools, overlooking the actual, workable potentialities and concentrating on superficial things, hoping something genuine and unconditioned will come out of that. But whatever is superficial runs counter to that which is genuinely true. This seems to be our basic problem, confusing our external situation with our own potential for internal well-being and mental harmony.

Another serious delusion we have is the unyielding primacy of our egocentricity, our "I for myself" attitude. We limit our perspective to our own happiness, our own satisfaction. We are concerned only with how we can make things better in our lives, and if it creates problems or inconveniences for anyone else, it doesn't matter, because we need this or that for ourselves. Thus we create a fence, or an enclosure, around ourselves. Once this egoistic mechanism has been constructed, it causes an upheaval of conflicting emotions, such as jealousy, aggression, and so forth.

When we limit our minds to a selfish notion of happiness and well-being, obstacles of all kinds will seem to arise spontaneously in order to thwart our plans or destroy what we have created around ourselves. Consequently, we respond to these obstacles with aggression or with jealousy, feeling that our private enclosure is being threatened or jeopardized. And we know from personal experience that when conflicting emotions are constantly running rampant in our lives, there is no possibility of experiencing or even appreciating any sense of well-being, goodness, or true sanity.

When we stop to think about it, we find our lives full of uncomfortable experiences. We all know certain individuals whose lives seem to be constantly plagued with problems, no matter where they are. Their relationships with other people do not work out, nor do their living or job arrangements. They try to find new acquaintances, or they move to another place, and that does not work out either. They find themselves in situations where it seems as if the world is isolating them. They feel as though they were excluded from the world, in some sense. In this way, wherever they go they have very painful experiences. This is caused by the tremendous expectations they have of others and of the world at large. Instead of recognizing that they have the inherent potential to experience this for themselves, no matter who they are or what their current situation is, it is as if they believe the world owes them the experience of well-being and goodness. Failing to acknowledge their own resourcefulness, they indulge in this deception and develop a sense of total deprivation about themselves.

There are other individuals who seem to have an atmosphere of pleasantness or friendliness around them, who have endearing personalities and are well mannered and cultured. Wherever these individuals go, they feel good about themselves and have healthy, positive attitudes about things. They can generously extend genuine warmth and offer others a genial smile. They are able to do this because there is an element of stability and gentleness, maybe even clarity, about their minds.

Our lives can be led in the same fashion. Since we basically experience our lives through the filter of our minds, the makeup of our minds will determine the quality of our lives. For instance, when we experience a very gentle, easy mind, we then allow ourselves to feel good about who we are, and the things that we do become enjoyable. We are able to enjoy the food we eat, and our interactions with others are very good. On the other hand, when we have a disturbed mind, a mind of aggression and jealousy, subject to the upheaval of conflicting emotions, we are not able to fully enjoy anything. Even if we are surrounded by the best of things--good companions, good food, and various other luxuries--we cannot enjoy them. In this case, it would not be too farfetched to say that our minds have flipped upside down, because all priorities are completely inverted. While we have the potential to be totally free from deception and to experience genuine love for ourselves and others, we still entertain ourselves with the illusion of limitations. We believe that our only resort is to change the phenomenal world outside of ourselves.

Hence, while we strive for well-being and an experience of life that is free of suffering, as long as we are not free from conflicting emotions such as aggression and jealousy, we are never going to be free from dissatisfactions of one kind or another.

As you begin to understand this predicament, you may start entertaining various solutions to it in your mind, thinking that perhaps you should retreat to a secluded place where you would be free of the objects that arouse aggressive and jealous tendencies. But this would not solve the problem. These conflicting emotions are mental patterns, and even if we go to a place of seclusion, we are going to take these habits with us. And just as we usually do, we will then open up a world of speculation (What went wrong in the past? What good or bad things might happen in the future?) and create a mental world that will become the basis for further intensification and amplification of these conflicting emotions.

The solution to our problem is basically quite simple. Since the problem begins with the mind, we must go where the problem is, and work with the mind. As was mentioned earlier, although our minds have become weakened by conflicting emotions and habitual tendencies, we do have the potential to become completely self-liberated of these conditionings and to express our inherent freshness in the true, unconditioned heart of compassion and loving-kindness. Loving-kindness, or maitri, is a Buddhist term denoting the sincere desire for others to experience happiness and well-being. And when this happiness is achieved, there is genuine rejoicing.

Most of us are vaguely familiar with this attitude, because we are able to feel that way when our friends or relatives experience good fortune, and when something is going well for them, we want it to continue. We are also familiar with the attitude of compassion in a general sense. When friends or relatives are experiencing difficulties, we genuinely wish for them to become free of these sufferings. We have these basic qualities, but our experience of loving-kindness and compassion is, shall we say, tainted. It is something like the toy we call a yo-yo: you play with it and make it spin, but there is always a string attached. Similarly, we can afford genuine sympathy, concern, and loving-kindness for these people because they are our relatives, our friends, because they somehow seem to fit within our territory. There is a string attached; the pull is back towards ourselves. Therefore, egocentric tendencies and fixations remain, so these experiences are contaminated and are not free from deception. Still, although we have not worked on developing these qualities, we have glimpses of them because they are inherent potentialities.

At present, our experience of the mind has the shortcomings and defects of habitual conditionings. At the same time, our mind has the potential to become completely free of defects and limitations. The difference between the defects and the potential is great; the defects are entirely extraneous to the mind, while the potential is inherent. Therefore, no matter how serious our present limitations may be, we can work with our minds and achieve a state completely free of such limitations.

To put it another way, as long as we are experiencing a defect like jealousy or envy, we cannot experience loving-kindness. And when we are experiencing loving-kindness, we cannot experience jealousy or envy. The two cannot happen at the same time. To be jealous is to desire someone else's well-being and success for yourself. To experience loving-kindness, on the other hand, is to be happy for others and rejoice when you witness their well-being and success, whether it be of a material or a spiritual nature. Jealousy runs completely counter to this disposition. In a similar fashion, when you experience genuine compassion, you cannot simultaneously experience hatred, anger, or aggression. As long as there is the one, it will displace the other.

The Buddhist teachings instruct us to practice true loving-kindness and compassion, but, in order to genuinely do so, perhaps you should first sit down and allow yourself a few moments of reflection. Become aware of the fact that each day is spent in constant restlessness, constant striving, constant preoccupation. This is how it has always been, because you do not want to experience suffering, pain, or discomfort; you want to experience well-being and contentment. You want to feel good about your life, you want your life to be meaningful. Your experience of life is meaningful to you; that is why you are continuously striving, constantly busy.

Just as you want to avoid the experience of suffering, and just as you want to experience happiness and well-being, so too does each and every being want to avoid suffering and to experience its own well-being. This is a fundamental truth, no matter what their way of life is or how it may appear. This being so, how could you then cause suffering to anybody else? Knowing that you would not like others to inflict sufferings upon you, how could you inflict suffering upon others?

This is why it is necessary to work with the mind. You may not immediately be able to wipe away the sufferings of others on any grand scale, or immediately be able to permeate the lives of each and every being with happiness and well-being. But you can certainly cease to harm yourself and others. To brush it aside just because the results are not immediately tangible, and then continue to harm yourself and others, would reveal an attitude lacking in true understanding and compassion.

As we have seen, the conflicting emotions jealousy, anger, aggression, and so forth--cause harm, and genuine loving-kindness and compassion bring about well-being and happiness. As is said in the teachings, "The best protection, for oneself and for others, is true loving-kindness and compassion." Again, since we have the potential, we must begin to work with our minds and use the mind's potential to free itself of defects. Furthermore, we have to scrutinize our lives and what we feel to be the purpose of our lives. Then, if we have achieved any level of clarity, we will realize that an adjustment of our minds is essential. We must become more thoughtful and considerate. We cannot afford to act on impulse, driven by the upheaval of conflicting emotions, causing harm to ourselves and others both in the present and in the future.

It is not, however, easy to become victorious over our confusion and illusions. It is as if our minds have walled themselves in. We must begin to break through the barriers of our conditionings. In the teachings of the Buddha, the way to generate an accommodating, open mind is through the practice of sitting meditation, known in Tibetan as shinay. Shi means stability, tranquility, or harmony. Nay means to dwell or to stay. So, shinay literally means to dwell in stability, in tranquility. Although we may understand the importance of experiencing a noble heart of compassion and loving-kindness, when it comes to actually practicing it, our egoistic patterns will invariably obstruct or deflect our intentions. This is why we must first train our chaotic and constantly distracted minds through the practice of basic meditation. This will help us to develop a habitually centered and tranquil mind. One of the most seriously detrimental attitudes we can take is to view ego's negative habitual patterns as permanent aspects of our personalities, to attribute such defects as anger or jealousy to our natures. It is very harmful and destructive to make no effort, to simply say, "I can't do anything about it because it's my nature." From the point of view of Buddhist psychology, and even of basic common sense, this is faulty reasoning. The experience of anger, jealousy, or aggression is an experience of the mind. It arises because of habitual patterns, because of mental conditionings. When we say something is a part of our nature, it makes it seem to be a permanent, unchangeable thing. But the mind is the easiest thing to change.

On the other hand, if we were talking about the body, maybe that would be harder to change. For instance, Rinpoche says, now that he has become an old man, no matter how much he wants to be a young person, it is not going to happen. It is difficult to change these physical things. But the mind is the easiest thing to change. As we know from experience, just one little thing can make someone extremely happy. And just one little thing can make someone raging mad. It does not take anything major to set the mind reeling in one direction or the other, because it changes so easily. So we cannot make excuses and claim that limitations are a part of our "nature," because they are not, and there is no way to prove that they are.


Excerpt of a teaching given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche on December 16, 1986 at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra. This transcript is available in its entirety from Namse Bangdzo Bookstore