Emotional Development of Compassion

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We were speaking about the initial and intermediate level motivations in the lam-rim process for self-development on the spiritual path. And we saw that on the initial scope, or with the initial scope, we are aiming for better rebirths. We want to avoid worse rebirths because we are really afraid of experiencing the sufferings of worse rebirths, and we see that there is a way to avoid that. And so we put a safe direction in our life to try to get rid of, at least as much as possible at this stage, the causes for worse rebirths, which is our destructive behavior.

In the process, what we are doing is affirming and strengthening the sense of a conventional “me” that actually takes responsibility for our own actions and the consequences of our actions. This is very important for a healthy development. But, as we open up our minds and our scope to think beyond just this lifetime to our next lifetimes, then we start to consider what would these future lifetimes be like, even if they were happier. We see that they would still be unsatisfactory, because they don’t last and we continue to go up and down, up and down.

And, of course, if we study lam-rim we’ll understand the many, many different types of problems and sufferings that are associated with each of the different possible realms of rebirth and with samsaric rebirth in general. No need to go into all that detail now. And we want to get out of this. This is boring, it’s going on with no beginning, and if we don’t do something about it, it will continue with no end. So, we are determined to be free of it. That’s called “renunciation.” So, we renounce it, which means renouncing the cause of our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, determining to be free of it, and that is our confusion about how we exist, how others exist.

To overcome the compulsiveness of karma, which drives rebirth, we have to rid ourselves of the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes that cause us to act compulsively (either destructively or constructively), and to rid ourselves of these “emotional obscurations,” they’re called. We need to rid ourselves of the unawareness, confusion, or sometimes it’s called ignorance, about how we exist. To rid ourselves of these emotional obscurations, which are preventing liberation, we need discriminating awareness about how we exist, so that we reject, or refute, an impossible way of existing for ourselves and others. To stay focused with that, we need concentration; and to develop concentration, we need ethical self-discipline.

Impossible Ways of Existing

Now on the advanced scope, what we want to be able to do – I mean ultimately, if we look at the goal of the advanced scope – is to gain the enlightened state of a Buddha. This is what bodhichitta is all about. We want to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha because everybody else is experiencing the same type of suffering that we have been experiencing, and this is just awful. And we can’t just stand by and work for our own liberation, or be liberated already, when everybody around us is suffering. Even if we’re liberated, we still are limited in our ability to know how best to help others. So, we need to overcome what’s known as the “cognitive obscurations” as well.

Now, it starts to get a little bit complicated. The Buddha taught many different philosophical systems, so-called “tenet systems.” These were taught by Buddha to suit different levels of personality and disposition, intelligence. The way that the Tibetans understand them and apply them is that these are steps for going deeper and deeper. Each of these systems, and the insights of each of these systems, is a step on the way of getting the most sophisticated understanding. In other words, if we want to deconstruct our confusion, our projections of what’s impossible, we have to do it step by step by step. So, each of these assertions about what’s an impossible way of existing that are posited or explained by each of these tenet systems is going to help us to get rid of successive layers of confusion.

How We Exist

Remember, we spoke about an impossible way of how we ourselves exist. And so the first thing that we need to refute is that the self – this is the word atman in Sanskrit – the self as asserted by some other systems that we had been taught – that this is not accurate. We don’t exist that way. We don’t exist as some sort of atman or soul that is static in the sense that it doesn’t change from moment to moment, it’s not affected by anything; and that it can become liberated from a body and mind, and exist all by itself, either as one with the whole universe (the size of the whole universe), or as some tiny little spark of life.

This is not the way that things are. So we refute that and then we have to go deeper. So even if it’s not possible that we exist this way – that we could be liberated and just exist on our own, the size of the universe, or whatever – that even though the self exists in terms of a body and mind, [we need to refute] that it can be known separately from a body and mind.

On the basis of thinking that we exist like that, then all our disturbing emotions arise. So, according to some of the less sophisticated Buddhist tenet systems or philosophical systems, if we understand just that much, then in fact we will rid ourselves of these emotional obscurations and we will attain liberation. And we become an arhat – a liberated being. But, with deeper understanding, we understand that we also have confusion about how everything else exists besides just me and you.

How Everything Exists (Gelug Explanation)

Now, there’s a whole sequence of tenet systems or philosophical systems that deal with how does everything exist, not just me and you. And again, this is not the occasion to present each of these progressively deeper and more sophisticated understandings. But the deepest understanding is what is presented in the Prasangika system. And regarding the Prasangika system, the Gelugpas – Tsongkhapa specifically – has quite a unique explanation of the Prasangika position. You should be aware that other schools of Tibetan Buddhism explain Prasangika differently. So let’s stay within the Gelug explanation.

The confusion about how everything exists including ourselves, that is asserted in Prasangika, which needs to be refuted, is that there’s something on the side of objects that by its own power, or in conjunction with the mind that observes it, establishes that it exists; establishes that it exists as something knowable by itself. And since it establishes it – that it exists as something knowable from its own side – then that means independent and unrelated to anything else, just by itself.

Now, according to Prasangika, with the understanding that we just explained before – that there’s no self-sufficiently knowable “me” or self – that really is not sufficient for gaining liberation. That really is not going to get rid of all your emotional obscurations. So, those of you who have followed and gained just that understanding, as explained on this intermediate scope, you may think that you’ve attained liberation, you’ve become an arhat, it’s called, a liberated being. But you haven’t really attained full arhatship. This is what is known as a “tenet arhat” – an arhat according to these lower tenet systems.

You’ve deconstructed a lot of confusion and projection about how you exist. Very good – you have attained something. But you haven’t gone deeply enough to get rid of all the causes for uncontrollably recurring rebirth. You’re going to need to go deeper and deconstruct on a more sophisticated level impossible ways of existing with regard to everything including yourself and others.

What you need to understand is that this projection – that things establish their own existence by their own power, by themselves – that that does not correspond to anything real. You might think and believe that it corresponds to what truly exists; so you think this is true existence, or truly established existence, but it’s not. There is no such thing as truly established existence the way that you define it. What you call “true” is not true, basically.

When we talk about voidness, that’s referring to an absence of something; an absence of an impossible way of existing, which means that you project a way in which things exist, and what is absent is anything that corresponds to it. It doesn’t correspond to anything in actuality. That’s what’s absent; voidness is talking about that absence.

So basically it’s the understanding that there’s no such thing. A simple example being that I exist as someone who should always get his way, and everybody should like, and is the center that everybody should always pay attention to, and so on – and that doesn’t correspond to reality. Nobody exists that way. No such thing. We want to clear our minds of all the projections, basically, the levels of mind and the ways of dealing with things that are involved with these projections of what is not corresponding to reality. These levels of mind are the ones that are involved or contain these disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, and the unawareness that’s behind it. Those constitute what are known as the “emotional obscurations.”

Cognitive Obscurations

The cognitive obscurations are coming from the habits of what’s called “grasping for truly established existence.” We hear this term “grasping for true existence” quite frequently, don’t we? What does it mean? True existence is referring to this truly established existence that is believed in by these less sophisticated systems. “I believe that there is something in me that makes me me by its own power; that makes me me and not you.” It’s very subtle. But you can see, based on believing that, we could act in very selfish ways.

And “grasping,” that word, which is a very difficult word to translate, has two meanings together. One means to “perceive things in that way,” and the other meaning of it is “believe that it corresponds to reality.” “It seems to me that there must be something in me that makes me me and I believe that. I believe it to be true.” But in fact it’s not true.

So, first we have to get rid of believing that it is corresponding to reality, but it still seems as though I exist that way. I still perceive that; it still feels like that. This is because of the habits of believing in it and perceiving it. Because of the habit of that, our mind still projects that type of appearance – that there’s something inside me that makes me me by its own power; inside of you that makes you you by its own power; inside of the wall, inside of the floor, inside of everything. It’s like an appearance of there being solid lines around everything, like in a child’s coloring book, that everything exists by itself, encapsulated, unrelated to everything else. And we perceive things that way, it looks like that.

You look at everybody here in the room, for example, and what appears to me – just you sitting there. Now, none of you arose from nothing. What I perceive [however, is that you are] established by just you sitting there. [But in fact] your sitting there has arisen from what you did this morning, what you did yesterday, your whole family background, etc. I don’t see that, do I, when I look at you? All I see is what’s in front of my eyes. And what is in front of my eyes is just this moment, like a still picture. Reality does not exist like a still photograph, does it? The things in that photograph aren’t there just by themselves, just by their own power. The have all come from something. And their being there is affected by all sorts of causes and conditions, isn’t it?

But, what we perceive is how our mind makes things appear. It’s because of limited hardware, actually, our limited body and minds. It makes everything in each moment appear like a still photograph or in a coloring book. And that does not correspond to reality. Reality is not like a photograph or a page in a coloring book. So, that “deceptive appearance-making,” it’s called, that is coming from these habits – those are the cognitive obscurations. They obscure our cognition of the interrelation of everything. So, if we want to become an enlightened Buddha and help everybody, we have to get our minds to stop making what we perceive appear like a still picture in a coloring book. Even though we might not believe that that corresponds to reality, still our minds make it to appear like that.

So, according to Prasangika, we have to really familiarize ourselves more and more with this and with stronger and stronger strength of mind and motivation to get rid of both:

  • The emotional obscurations – that’s the belief that this corresponds to reality
  • The cognitive ones – that our mind makes it appear like that even though we don’t believe in it.

Let’s take a few moments to digest that before we go further.


According to Prasangika we need the same understanding for attaining liberation and for attaining enlightenment – this is unique to the Gelugpa version of Prasangika. So, what we need to digest here: our mind projects an appearance of how things exist that is false. Alright? Like, to use this simple example, a still picture in a coloring book. And that’s what we perceive. Then we believe that that corresponds to reality. Because we believe it corresponds to reality, then we get all the disturbing emotions and attitudes based on that.

For example, somebody says something right now, and we never think of what happened to them this morning, or anything like that. There is just the moment they said something that we didn’t like, and then anger, “Oh, you’re a terrible person.” It seems that what they said, which is not very nice to me, that’s established just by them sitting right there. It’s something inside them that makes them a terrible person. They don’t like me. It’s totally unrelated to, maybe something difficult has happened in their home before, maybe they’re not feeling well. It’s totally independent of their history. Just by its own power of sitting there, they’re a terrible person. There is something inside them that makes them that way. And then we get angry, “grrrr,” because they said something nasty to me. “If they would have said it to somebody else, I don’t care. But they said it to me!” And then we get angry.

So, these are emotional obscurations. It’s believing in this false appearance and then emotionally reacting to it. The cognitive obscurations are just that appearance that our mind makes – even though we don’t believe that it corresponds to reality. And because our mind makes things appear separate – separate, establishing itself – we really can’t know what are the causes for the way that you appear now, and what would be the effect of anything that I teach you. We wouldn’t really be able to lead them to enlightenment. So we have to get rid of that appearance-making, that false appearance-making of our minds. We try to digest that.



This is the first question that arises: how to achieve that state, where these appearances would not arise?

Well this is exactly our topic. We need to develop the two aspects of bodhichitta, relative and deepest. And that’s what we will get to in our lecture. Remember, I’m trying to present the context within which we develop bodhichitta, so you see why you need it and what it does.

If this deceptive appearance-making is conditioned by our limited hardware of body and mind, and we perceive everything through our limited sense faculties and so on, then is it possible to stop it in this human body, or perhaps another human body?

No, it’s not possible. That’s why we have to gain liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth with these so-called “tainted” body and mind. We have to attain the body of a Buddha, which is not at all like this limited hardware body. And we have to attain the mind of the Buddha, which is not at all like the limited hardware of the type of brain that we have, which enables the type of limited awareness that we have as a human.

If you’re born as a worm, the type of body you have as a worm is very limited in how it can help others. And the type of brain and mind that you have as a worm, relying on the brain, is also incredible limited, isn’t it? The type of body that we have and the type of brain, and consequently the type of mind that we have as a human are likewise really very limited. You get old, you start to forget things, your body isn’t so strong anymore, you get sick – all sorts of limitations are there, aren’t they? It’s part of the suffering of samsara.

I always joke, this body is like a bottle of milk. The bottle of milk has an expiration date. It will expire by such and such a date, and slowly it goes bad. So, this body comes with an expiration date, except it’s not clearly printed so we don’t know when it’s going to expire. But it definitely will expire, won’t it? And slowly go bad. It’s horrible, isn’t it? It’s a wonderful way of regarding our bodies and our brains, our minds. By “mind” I mean the type of awareness and consciousness we can have on the basis of just this brain. I’m not talking about the nature of the mind in general. Don’t get confused please. So, with the attainment of enlightenment, we no longer have the type of limited body and limited minds that we would have in any type of samsaric rebirth situation.

There are three levels of motivation, or three scopes, and the question is: each moment our mind and our motivation changes, and so, what is our aim here? Do we need to see our motivation at any particular moment, from moment to moment, or we need to take a look, for instance at one month and make any kind of overall estimation of what our motivation generally is, and then make conclusions?

Both. Atisha said: when you’re with others, keep a watch on your speech; when you’re by yourself, keep a watch on your mind. So, from moment to moment we need to check our motivation – why are we behaving or thinking in the way that we do. And then for our general development, we look over long periods of time, to see what is the basic trend, realizing that from moment to moment it’s always going to go up and down.

Gross and Subtle Disturbing Emotions

Okay, now, if we’ve understood this much, at least to a certain extent, let’s go on. We have the emotional obscurations and these are the disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes and the tendencies from them. I don’t want to get too complicated here, so just the disturbing emotions and attitudes. And these lower systems have asserted that if we understand that the way that I seem to exist is not corresponding to reality, that we will get rid of these disturbing emotions, these emotional obscurations.

And they say (these other systems) that the only understanding that we have to get in terms of voidness – what is absent, what is complete fantasy – is that I don’t exist as something that can be known on its own, separate from a body and mind. Of course we already have to get rid of all this false view that the liberated self can be by itself, one with the universe. That you have to get rid of first. But to really gain liberation, what you have to understand is this subtler level, that there’s no “me” that can be loved for itself, just for itself – that type of “me.”

And if we stop believing that I exist in this impossible way, then we won’t continue to use all these emotional mechanisms to try to make that kind of “me” secure. So, all of these syndromes of “I want you to like me,” “I want you to love me;” and “Uh, you don’t like me, I want you to get away from me;” or “Uh, you threaten me” so I put up a wall around myself to defend myself. All of these things will dissolve with this understanding, that that kind of “me” behind the walls doesn’t exist – doesn’t correspond to reality, to how I really exist.

So, Prasangika comes along and says, “Okay, you’ve gotten rid of at least the majority of the gross disturbing emotions. But there are subtle ones that you haven’t gotten rid of. And so, you really haven’t gained liberation because you haven’t gotten rid of all the emotional obscurations.” This is quite specifically Gelug Prasangika.

So, there are subtle disturbing emotions, which are based merely on grasping – that means perceiving and believing in – truly established existence, but not, together with that, belief in a self-sufficiently knowable “me.” So, then you say, “Oh my goodness, what in the world could this be referring to? What in the world does this mean?” I think that once we understand this, then you can understand and appreciate much more deeply the presentation of the advanced scope in lam-rim. If you can understand this – the distinction between the gross and subtle emotions – you will appreciate much more the structure of the advanced scope (how it’s presented, step by step by step in lam-rim.) You’ll understand why it is structured the way that it is.

Advanced Scope of Lam-rim

So, now I will present the analysis of the advanced scope, based on my own analysis. You’re not going to find this in the books. So if it’s mistaken, it’s my fault. But this is my understanding at the moment, based on a great deal of thought about this and meditation. See, this is a great challenge of the Dharma. First of all, if you accept the Dharma as being correct, then you accept the fact that everything that’s in it makes sense. And so you don’t give up and say “Oh, what in the world is this?” and then forget about it. You try to figure it out. It may be very, very difficult, but you put in the effort to try to understand what it is, because obviously it was taught like this to help us to overcome suffering. There’s no other reason for presenting this.

So, in very simple language, gross disturbing emotions are based on a big ego trip: “me,” “me,” and how you are relating to “me,” and all the things that are happening to “me.” So the whole focus is on “me.” And even if we clear that up, still there are subtle disturbing emotions based on how things appear to me, how things appear in general. Okay? Everything in relation to “me,” or just the general appearance of everything.

Developing Equanimity

Now, in the advanced scope we have two ways of developing equanimity, and we have two ways of developing compassion. So, let’s try to understand why we have these two ways. We start with the equanimity. We want to open up our minds to be concerned with everybody, not just my own welfare. This is the advanced scope, because we see everybody else is suffering. So, we need this common type of equanimity that’s common to both what’s called Hinayana and Mahayana – common to intermediate and advanced scope, because you follow that intermediate scope not necessarily all the way to liberation, but far enough so that then you can advance to the advanced scope. This is the usual way of practicing. So you still have some of these gross disturbing emotions left.

Equanimity Based on Emotion

The first type of equanimity is the equanimity that we need within that context of these gross disturbing emotions that are all revolving around “me,” and the relationship of you with “me.” So, we think what we want to get rid of is attraction to some, repulsion from others, and indifference to yet others – these three gross disturbing emotions. These are based on the relation with “me.” “You’ve been nice to ‘me,’ so I’m attracted to ‘you,’ I like ‘you.’” “You’ve been terrible with ‘me,’ so I don’t like ‘you,’ I’m repelled.” And “You’re a stranger, you’ve done nothing to ‘me,’ so I’m indifferent, I don’t care.” These are gross disturbing emotions. They’re all involved with “me,” “me,” “me,” and how you’ve acted toward “me.”

First we need to get rid of that, at least temporarily – provisionally I should say. So, we realize that if we look in terms of beginningless lifetimes, everybody has been nice to us, everybody has been terrible to us, everybody has been a stranger to us, at different times. Everybody is the same in that respect. So we develop that type of equanimity that is common to Hinayana and Mahayana, in other words we need this because it’s dealing with a lack of equanimity, based on thinking of “me,” “me,” “me.” “I want you to like ‘me,’ and I don’t like it that you don’t like ‘me.’” Do you follow that? Take a moment to let that sink in.


On which basis can we get a reference, or can we realize, that all other beings at some moment in the infinite past lives treat us in a nice way, in this particular method? How do we get convinced of that?

Well, first of all, one needs to understand beginningless rebirth and the beginningless rebirth of everybody, which is certainly not a simple thing to understand or believe is true. In Indian culture, in which Buddhism developed, it was something that everybody accepted just as part of the way that reality is. They didn’t need convincing of this. The only thing that was an issue is how to understand how it works. We are unfortunately not coming from that cultural background, so we need to understand and become convinced about rebirth. But traditionally that wasn’t an issue.

But it’s quite obvious that with any one person, that before we knew them, they were a stranger. And even when we got to know them, sometimes they were nice to us, sometimes they weren’t nice to us. Sometimes we wanted to be with them, sometimes they annoyed us. Come on, that’s absolutely true with everybody, isn’t it? So it follows from that that everybody at some time, if we think in terms of past lives as well, has been kind to us, and sometimes they’ve been unkind to us, and sometimes they’ve been strangers. It’s just a matter of difference in terms of what’s happening right now.

Okay, so we have this initial equanimity, in which we’re not drawn to one and repelled from another and are indifferent to another because of our strong emotions revolving around “me,” “me,” “me.” Okay, so now we have considered everybody; we’re starting to open up our scope to think about everybody.

Now we want to develop compassion, right? The wish for others to be free from suffering. There are two ways of developing compassion: one way is emotional and the other way is rational. And by “emotional” I mean warm positive emotions. If it’s just one of these, if it’s just the warm emotions, then it’s not terribly stable. And if it’s just rational, it doesn’t have this warmth, which allows you to connect in a nice way with others.

So, having cleared the field, at least provisionally, of the disturbing negative emotions with this first type of equanimity, we want to first generate a warm, connected feeling – positive emotion toward everybody. We’ve already established that everybody is equal in the sense that sometimes they’ve been nice to us, sometimes they’ve been terrible toward us, sometimes they’ve been strangers. So, now, how would we develop a warm emotional feeling toward everybody? Based on biology, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always explains, based on biology there is biologically a feeling of warmth and connectedness with our mother. We’re talking about a newborn infant. Obviously all sorts of things could happen in your life that could make a difficult relation with your mother. But basically that feeling of warmth and connectedness is that feeling of the love toward a mother, or whoever has given us primary care when we were young and dependent.

So, in terms of beginningless rebirth – everybody’s been nice to us, everybody’s been horrible, everybody’s been a stranger – everybody’s also been at some time our mother. And then the next step, we remember the kindness that we have received from our mothers and from everybody in general, but here specifically from our mother. She fed us, she changed us when we went to the toilet – I mean, so many things that she took care of us, she’s been very kind.

Then the next step is usually translated as we want to repay that kindness, but that sounds like a business transaction. So you have to look a little bit more deeply at the words that are involved here. It’s not that I owe you something, and if I don’t pay back my debt, I’m guilty. That’s certainly not the emotional framework that we’re trying to develop here. But, when we are aware and we remember, we keep mindful of the kindness that we’ve received, we feel grateful for that: “I really am grateful. I appreciate so much how kind you have been. So naturally I would like to do something for you.”

This leads to what’s called “heart-warming love” – that I feel so warm toward you, and I would feel terrible if something bad happened to you. This is a very, very positive emotional development, after having cleared the field of our gross negative emotions. So, we’ve opened ourselves up to absolutely everybody – this is the Mahayana vision – with this initial equanimity. And we’ve developed now a very warm emotional feeling toward everybody. It’s the basis for this warm-hearted, positive emotional development of compassion.

But, now we have to be careful, because you can get overwhelmed with this emotion, and so we have to make it more stable with a rational approach to reinforce it. And for this, we need to work on overcoming the subtle disturbing emotions.