The Importance of Compassion

[From a public talk on Natural Meditation, Wisdom, and Compassion given by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche in Phoenix, Arizona in February 2012. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso. Transcribed by Pema Wangmo. Edited by Matt Willis. All rights reserved. Please do not reprint without permission.]

Compassion is of tremendous importance. Most Westerners who are enthusiastic about dharma are particularly devoted to the mahayana and the vajrayana tradition, such as the teachings of Guru Rinpoche and so on. Compassion is essential because all of the dharma of the mahayana and the vajrayana is founded on love and compassion. Without love and compassion, all of this dharma is as dead as a corpse.

In particular, the mind of awakening — bodhichitta — is as essential to the practice of dharma as an aorta is to a functioning, living body. An ordinary person who is practicing dharma is not really a practitioner if they lack bodhicitta. A holy being who lacks bodhicitta is in fact not a holy being at all — they are just a fake. Monastics who lack bodhicitta, no matter how impressive they may seem in their behavior, or how glib they are in their explanations, are utterly heartless.

Fortunately, the cultivation of bodhicitta is not something that is so terribly difficult that no one can do it. It basically is a way of thinking. It starts with thinking about yourself, thinking about what it is you really want and what it is you really don’t want. No matter who you are, you want to feel good, you want your mind to be happy, and you want to be free of physical suffering. You want a state of pleasure or well being of body and mind. You want to be free of pain of all kinds.

Once you have admitted to yourself that you want to be happy, if you look around, you’ll notice that other sentient beings are your equal in this respect. Each and every being wants to be happy and wants not to suffer just as much as you do. That empathy, that understanding of the common ground between you and other beings, is the starting point of the development of bodhichitta.

There is a very clear example of what our lack of bodhichitta has done to us. We spend our lives dividing those with whom we interact and whom we know into two classes: friends and enemies. Those we call friends are those who in some way gratify us, those who give us what we want, those we suspect of harboring good feelings toward us, and those to whom we therefore become strongly attached. And, once we identify someone as a friend, we need them.

Then, there are our enemies: anyone who in any way prevents our doing what we want to do. We call an enemy anyone with whom we enter into conflict, anyone who we suspect harbors ill will towards us. And just as much as we feel we need our friends and need to support and surround ourselves with our friends, we encourage ourselves to hate our enemies as much as we can.

As time goes on, this distinction between friends and enemies becomes more and more reinforced and more and more deeply entrenched within us.

If you think about this carefully, the distinction we make between some people as friends and other people as enemies has no more substance to it than the difference between a good and a bad dream. We can distinguish between a good dream and a bad dream, but they are equally dreams, equally illusory. In the case of friends and enemies, neither our friends nor our enemies were born as such. None of your friends were born your friend. None of your enemies were born your enemy. Therefore, your friends are not inherently, or unchangeably, your friends; your enemies are not inherently, or unchangeably, your enemies.

Yet through habit and through reinforcement of thinking in that way, we fixate on friends and enemies very strongly. This fixation comes from a lack of empathy, the weakness within us for love, compassion and bodhichitta. We think this person hates me, they are my enemy; this person loves me, they are my friend. And by thinking in this way, with such fixation, we can actually ruin our lives. But in fact, these ideas we have about people have no more substance to them than the ideas we have about the dreams we have had. And, if we recognize that these distinctions are not inherent within beings themselves, our fixation on them as such will lessen.

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