Great Compassion and Tonglen, Giving and Taking

Verses 17 through 21

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Today, we will discussion compassion, great compassion, and bodhichitta. I will try to make it quite short. We have a lot of material and to go through. 

Developing Compassion

Although we might know something about how to practice, what we lack in daily life is actual action. This is because we lack renunciation – the determination to be free from suffering. If there is no renunciation, even a little bit, our practice won’t have much impact on our life. To develop renunciation, the most important thing is to contemplate impermanence. 

Not contemplating impermanence weakens our practice. That’s why the Buddha and other great teachers always urge us to meditate on impermanence, so we can see what we are wasting our time on. For certain, once we have this determination to be free from suffering, we will feel like spending more time on practicing the Dharma. Once we practice and see how it’s possible to eliminate the causes of suffering, we will understand how it’s also possible for us to no longer have to take rebirth in samsara. We will then aim for moksha, liberation, a state of no more suffering. That is true happiness. 

It’s like when someone next to us has a migraine, we feel sad for them, but we also feel lucky that we don’t have one. We are very lucky. It is the same feeling. And if we knew how to get rid of the migraine, it would be terrible of us if we didn’t tell the person how to do so. This is what bodhisattvas do. They immediately see how they can help any being they encounter. It takes quite some time to get this kind of motivation, that we call bodhichitta. Once we attain liberation, we will want to give this same liberation to all other beings.

Great compassion comes from compassion. All of us have some compassion inside, and this is our great hope. This is one of the factors of “Buddha-nature” that we all have. The problem is that our compassion is limited and is usually mixed with attachment. Compassion like this is not pure and, ultimately, not of much benefit. For example, when a mother sees something happen to her child, she will be very worried. But when something happens to other children, she might feel sorry, but she won’t really reach out to help. At the moment, it is very difficult for us to put ourselves in others’ shoes and truly feel their suffering. One of the main reasons is that we actually don’t want to. Most of the time, we want to ignore it. We have self-cherishing. To cherish others, we have to value others in a different way. 

In Tibetan Buddhism, we love debating. We debate a lot about the difference between the compassion that arhats and bodhisattvas have. Arhats have a lot of compassion – much more than us – but it’s limited. They focus mainly on freeing themselves from uncontrollably recurring existence, and while they certainly try to help others, we say that the compassion is measurable because there is a limit. Today, they might practice for one hundred beings, tomorrow for two hundred, and then that’s it. Bodhisattvas are not like this. Their compassion is totally immeasurable. They do not leave out a single being. 

It’s like a mother seeing her child drowning in a river. A bodhisattva’s compassion is like that of a mother with arms – she will immediately jump in and try to save her child. An arhat’s compassion is described as being like a mother without arms. The mother sees her child drowning and wants to help but she feels, “If I jump in there then I’m helpless, I won’t be able to help them so much, there is not much that I can do.” She lets go of hope because there is still some self-cherishing there. 

Lama Tsongkhapa writes about it in his Lam-rim chen-mo, A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. To develop great compassion within our minds, we need to first see that there actually is a method to get out of uncontrollably recurring existence. And then we also need some knowledge about the deepest truth – the fact that everything is devoid of impossible ways of existing. We have to see this truth, this reality of existence. Through seeing this reality, and the fact that there is a way out of uncontrollably recurring existence, we will feel a great sense of hope. We understand that is possible to truly help others. 

When we see that there is no true existence to grasp at, we feel like everything is like an illusion. Seeing this creates much less clinging and attachment to the self and also lessens the distance we have with others.

The understanding of voidness takes away the glue that binds us to samsara. When we know the deepest truth of everything, we realize that there is nothing to grasp at. Then, we can easily exchange ourselves for someone else sitting on our cushion without any problem and cherish them the same as we have been cherishing ourselves. 

One of the biggest problems created by not knowing the deepest truth is self-cherishing. Because we feel like we are so independent and solid, we cherish ourselves and anything and anyone close to us. Even when we can see that other sentient beings have been so kind to us, the thought of actually repaying their kindness is very difficult. This is all due to our self-cherishing. 

All Beings Have Been Our Mothers

To get rid of this self-cherishing, we need to try and regard all beings as our mothers. Of course, in Buddhism, since we believe in beginningless rebirths, logically it must mean that at some point or another, every single being has been our actual mother. We can’t say that there is a big difference between the kindness of our mother in this life and the kindness of our mother in a different life. It is simply a fact of remembering it or not. We need to contemplate this a lot, so that we come to an understanding that other beings are like our mothers, and we have to remember their kindness. The most difficult thing is to actually repay their kindness. Nowadays, it seems like children don’t have the ability to take care of their parents and give time, patience, or even just a smile. So, if it’s hard to do this for our own parents, we can imagine how difficult it is to develop the thought to repay the kindness of all sentient beings. 

However, once we develop very strong compassion and understand the lack of an impossibly existing self, we will see all phenomena as being like an illusion. When we feel that there is nothing solid about existence, we will automatically feel like everything is interdependent and connected. We see how everything is connected to everything else. We will see the need to take care of each other. 

The practice of bodhichitta is so important. Without bodhichitta, we will just stop at this level of wishing to repay the kindness of others. But, as a start, we really need to contemplate how all beings have been our mothers and think of their kindness to us. The next time we’re out and give some spare change to a beggar, instead of just thinking that they’ll be able to enjoy a cup of hot tea in the cold weather, try to think, “This person has benefitted me many times in my previous lifetimes, this is my chance to repay their kindness.”

The purpose of our life is to achieve full enlightenment. Giving some change to a beggar is something, but actually, the only way we can truly and fully benefit others is by achieving full and perfect enlightenment. 

Sometimes when we’re outside, we might notice a small ant crawling on us. Before blowing it away, just think of it for a moment, think of how you want to help this poor thing. Whenever the great master Atisha saw a donkey, with his full attention he would go over and say, “Hello Mother.” This was his practice. And His Holiness the Dalai Lama, wherever he goes and whoever he meets, he holds people’s hands. This is the practice of bodhichitta. He could just wave like President Trump. But His Holiness holds their hands, to show his connection with each being. 

We need to slowly follow the patterns we notice in these great beings, so that we too come to value other sentient beings. Then, we will slowly feel that the main reason to be born in this world as a human being with a very intelligent brain is to benefit others. We will not want to waste this opportunity we have. This precious human life we have is good for not only me, but also for all others. 

When great masters pray, when they visualize sentient beings, they visualize all of them, no matter their different forms. When we talk about developing compassion in ourselves, we need to focus on sentient beings – all sentient beings. With our human heart and intelligent brain, we can fit all sentient beings in our prayers. Even if we hate our enemy or don’t like someone, because of our great human intelligence, with compassion we can include everybody in our thoughts. If we can do this, we shouldn’t feel like an ordinary person. Now, we are extraordinary people, because our practice of bodhichitta is now superb. Once we develop bodhichitta, whenever we see someone, we will automatically feel like hugging them. We naturally have love for others, and naturally feel close to everybody. This should be the gift from our practice. 

The Buddha gave a special vow to bodhisattvas, instructing them not to stay in meditation for too long, but to go out and benefit others. How do they benefit others? With total absorption, they see the voidness of all phenomena. When they arise from that state of absorbed concentration, they have the power to see all phenomena as an illusion. Through this, without any grasping, they can help sentient beings. This is the number-one way to benefit all others. Now we are ready to go back to the text.

Dealing with Arrogance

(17) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if an individual, our equal or inferior, were to treat (us) insultingly out of the power of his arrogance, to receive him on the crown of our heads respectfully, like a guru.

Seeing an enemy as our Guru is a hard thing to do. If our practice is missing this, we cannot gain full enlightenment.  

Taking On the Suffering of All Sentient Beings

(18) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are destitute in livelihood and always insulted by people, or sick with terrible diseases, or afflicted by ghosts, to accept on ourselves, in return, the negative forces and sufferings of all wandering beings and not be discouraged.

Here, we are talking about the amazing practice of giving and taking, known as tonglen in Tibetan. When should we practice this? Well, we should always practice it, but it is especially useful when we feel very helpless. You know, sometimes we have to play games with our own minds. Imagine we’re in a lot of pain and somebody comes along and says, “You have this suffering but someone else is suffering more than you.” They compare our suffering to someone else’s. Our physical suffering will not necessarily diminish, but mentally, it gives us a sign that our suffering is nothing compared to even bigger sufferings. In a way, automatically our pain will become smaller. 

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama had painful gall stone problems, he was being driven to the hospital and, from the car window, he saw many helpless Indian beggars. He saw that they had nothing, nothing even to eat. Still, they were smiling and playing. His Holiness saw that their condition was quite terrible, but they still managed to smile, and so His Holiness’ pain automatically went down. 

Bodhisattvas don’t just stand around while beings suffer. They actually try to take on others’ sufferings. They feel so sad when they see the suffering of all others, that their own seems like nothing at all. Then, they try to take others’ suffering onto themselves, and give their pleasure and happiness to others. This is one method of visualization. Practically, we cannot give our happiness to them or take away their suffering. The happiness we have gained is ours; we can’t give it to others. 

The teachings focus on the law of causality. The Buddha stated in the sutras that for all the negative emotions we have, we have to study voidness and attain enlightenment ourselves. We can’t purify ourselves by washing in the Ganges. And I certainly can’t lay my hands on you and take away all of your problems and suffering. This is the strict rule of causality.  

When we exchange our happiness for others’ suffering, it is actually for our own good. Through this method, we grow more compassionate toward others, we make more room in our hearts for others. Of course, some naughty people will come along, and we need to be ready for them. In fact, we need to be ready for all sentient beings. Once we open our hearts in this way, it is like being wealthy and giving our credit card to everybody and letting them use it for their shopping. For bodhisattvas, whatever they have, they share. And they share it with everyone, not just people who are nice to them. They see that there is nothing to grasp at. Whatever they have is everybody’s property. They feel connected to everybody. 

It doesn’t mean they allow others to use them. They have the wisdom and confidence to be able to deal with all sentient beings. This is the practice of the bodhisattvas. With this wisdom and confidence, they open their hearts to everybody and let others have all their good things, and they take all the pains upon themselves. If we don’t have this kind of wisdom and confidence with which to deal with others, it is better not to take the risk. We are not bodhisattvas yet, but we can try. We have our limits, but we can slowly broaden our scope.

Giving Away Our Happiness to All Sentient Beings

(19) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if we are sweetly praised, bowed to with their heads by many wandering beings, or have obtained (riches) comparable to the fortune of Vaishravana (the Guardian of Wealth), never to be conceited, by seeing that worldly prosperity has no essence.

It can be very dangerous when we have fame and money, when we have everything that we could dream of. This is actually the greatest danger, because it makes us feel proud and arrogant. Someone might study Tibetan and then feel they know the language so well, that they’re better than other Buddhists who don’t speak Tibetan. Or they might have a Ph.D. in literature and, when listening to the teachings of great masters, automatically their brains will judge the teacher’s English. It’s very difficult to learn from others if we feel better than them.

It’s like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who actually speaks English very well, but obviously he isn’t a native speaker and hasn’t studied much grammar. So, if we listen to his English, we might see some mistakes. But people like us, who have the motivation to really listen to His Holiness’ teachings in order to benefit ourselves and others, we don’t care at all. We would never judge his English.

I think that most humans want to show off. For me, when I buy something, I have noticed that most of the pleasure seems to be in waiting for the box that I ordered. As soon as I open the box, the pleasure is gone! But then, the next pleasure comes when I have a party with my friends, and I want to show off my new purchase. This is me! Well, maybe it’s not just me who has this problem, maybe you all have it too. With this verse, Togme Zangpo says that whatever riches we have in this world – even if we own the wealth of not just humans but of all the gods – we must always remain humble. 

This really is excellent advice. In Dharamsala, I have heard elderly Tibetans tell their children and grandchildren that they have to be very careful not to show off. As refugees, Tibetans receive many donations from various international organizations and there are even special funds from the government. So, I have heard these old people say that we should be very humble because if we show off, the local Indian people won’t like it. The local people’s living conditions are not great but most of them don’t get any special assistance, so if we come to their community and build fancy hotels and shops, that could create trouble. Showing off makes more enemies. And then there would be more competition. These elderly Tibetans are really giving good advice to the younger generations. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have wealth. Certainly, it’s good to have wealth if we use it to benefit others and our family. But if we feel anxious to part with any of it and think, “This wealth is only mine,” then this is a sign of strong grasping. 

This makes me think of the Seventh Dalai Lama. He was the king of Tibet and lived in the impressive Potala Palace, but he was also a great practitioner, who said, “Even though I’m a king and a monk, there are only two things I want: my yellow robe and begging bowl. These are the only two things that I own.  All the other things in the Potala are the property of the Tibetan people.” It is wonderful, to live without conceit like this. 

Overcoming Hostility and Attachment

(20) A bodhisattva’s practice is to tame our mental continuums with the armed forces of love and compassion, because, if we haven’t subdued the enemy, which is our own hostility, then even if we have subdued an external enemy, more will come.

I would say that although this verse mentions the armed forces of love and compassion, it’s also about patience. If we don’t have patience, if someone even says something small about us, we want to fight back or get justice. But when we have patience, one huge benefit is that we won’t have many enemies. When we practice patience, there are no enemies to bring harm to us. This isn’t an easy practice, either. But, once we have practiced patience and love toward others well, we will be ready to forgive others easily. 

A few years ago, there was a Tibetan family with a new-born baby traveling by car in America. There was a terrible car accident and the child died, the mother was injured, and the father was left unconscious. It was quite big news. The father made a statement, saying that the person who caused the accident had no intention to kill his son, that he forgives him, and that this person does not have to feel guilty for the rest of his life. That was like, “Wow!” This is a real sign of having a practice. They were ready to forgive someone, even for something so devastating. 

Then, one time at the Tibetan Children’s Village, they were practicing for an anniversary celebration. There was a big wall and a child threw a spear, and by chance it went through the body of another child who was practicing something else on the other side of the wall. They took the child to hospital where he underwent difficult surgery, but unfortunately, the child lost his life. They heard that this child’s father was a very big and strong Khampa – Khampas are often very fierce warriors – so everyone was worried that he would go crazy. This father asked what had happened and listened carefully. Then, surprisingly, with folded hands he asked to see the child who had thrown the spear. He hugged this child and told him that he doesn’t have to worry because he had no intention of hurting his son, “I lost my son, but now can you be my son? You should continue your education and never forget who you are and your tradition.” This takes practice. 

These fathers do not have enemies. They don’t feel negatively about the person who caused their losses. If you defeat the enemy inside, there will be no enemy outside. 

Abandoning Objects of Desire

(21) A bodhisattva’s practice is immediately to abandon any objects that cause our clinging and attachment to increase, for objects of desire are like salt water: the more we have indulged (in them, our) thirst (for them) increases (in turn).

This is a very important verse. The Buddha made various vows for the monks and nuns, including celibacy vows, for giving up things that give you more attachment. The Buddha left the palace and his wife and newborn child behind because he felt that by leaving, he could do so much more for them. I was speaking with some of my friends in California about the Buddha’s life story and one of them looked very unhappy and stopped me. He said, “If the Buddha were still alive, I would sue him! How dare he leave his small baby and his wife!” 

Of course, this is one way of thinking. From one perspective, we might think that the Buddha was being quite selfish in leaving his family. But actually, the Buddha wasn’t thinking about his own good at all. He truly wanted to find a way out of suffering for all beings, including his wife and child. Certainly, he would have been much more comfortable if he hadn’t left. He lived in the royal palace, after all, with all of his needs met. Instead, he decided to go off and search for a way to stop aging, sickness and death. And as we know, he succeeded in his mission.

It is very difficult to point out what stirs the most attachment within us. For most people, I think it’s the body. Other things are more obviously temporary. We know that. We buy things and get rid of them, so although we have attachment to them, it’s not that hard to let them go. But this body is always with us, as long as we’re alive. When the consciousness leaves the body, we feel like we’re losing the whole world. 

For many of us, it will be quite difficult when we die. Not everyone can be a Milarepa and die with complete happiness and joy. But, with the guidance and inspiration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other great masters, we can train our minds to be able to face death. Before facing death, of course, we have to train ourselves to lessen our attachment. Our attachment is unlimited! The Buddha was very clever, and in many sutras he talks of the voidness of the Buddha. The voidness of everything and everyone. So, there is nothing to cling to. Boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing to cling to. And it’s the same with teachers. Some people are very attached to their teachers and when the teacher speaks to another student, they get jealous!

I will share an interesting story. There was a great rinpoche, who is no longer alive, who was invited to Taiwan by a millionaire businessman, whom we will call Businessman A. Businessman A had a millionaire friend, Businessman B, who was also this rinpoche’s student. The rinpoche was staying at Businessman A’s house, and Businessman B wanted to come for an audience with the Rinpoche, but Businessman A said, “You can’t come into my house, but you can wait outside the door.” Businessman B was very respectful, but still wanted to come and bid farewell before the Rinpoche left Taiwan. He waited near the gate, holding a kata. The rinpoche started to leave and said goodbye to everyone, then he suddenly noticed Businessman B waiting by the gate. He said he would go over to give a blessing on his head, but businessman A rushed between them, held the rinpoche’s hand and said, “You can’t give a blessing to him because I am the one who invited you and paid for everything!” This shows the power of attachment, and the way it can make us act, even in regard to our spiritual teachers.

But we all have this within us. Sure, Businessman A might have a bit more, but we also have this inside us a little bit. So, we need to remember that one day we will have to leave our body. There is nothing to cling to. When we drink salty water, we always want more and more. That is how many of us live our lives, just wanting more and more and more. But at the end of our lives, we will see that everything we’ve enjoyed, we will have to leave behind. And not only this, but our constant thirst for more has been a complete waste of time. There was nothing that gave us real satisfaction. Shantideva gives an example of scratching an itch. When you feel itchy, you scratch the area, and you feel relieved. You feel happy. But Shantideva said, “I don’t call this happiness.” Do you like feeling itchy? Of course not, that’s why we scratch an itch. So, we shouldn’t confuse the scratching with happiness!