Compassion is a virtuous quality admired and advocated by all great religions. It includes having sympathy for the misfortune and suffering of others, as well as the intention to help them. Cultivating the mind of compassion is one of the two foundations of the Buddhist lifestyle; the other is attaining the wisdom seeing reality that opposes the fundamental cause of our problems. By seeing through the illusory nature of our self image, this wisdom custs the root of disturbing emotions and brings everlasting peace.
Confusion about our self-identity leads to repeated birth within the “wheel of life”. According to Buddha’s teachings, virtuous actions lead to rebirth as a human or a divine being in a realm of great pleasure, whereas non-vituous actions lead to birth as an animal, a denizen of hell, or a starving spirit in a barren land. Each of these birth states is temporary; we soon die and are reborn in another place according to our actions. Nowhere in this wheel is there freedom from confusion about reality and the resultant suffering; therefore all beings born within this wheel are objects of compassion.
Complete cessation of suffering only occurs when we break the chain that binds us to our wheel of life. This is not a state of annihilation, nor is it abandoning other. As a Buddha, we can be in this world and yet not of this world, with freedom to participate in ordinary life without being harmed by its problems. How often have we prayed for such a situation?
Although we all have some kindness in our hearts, our compassion is usually partial and not very powerful. We like some people and we dislike others; even for those we like, our friendship has its limits. Upon observing the bickering, competitiveness, jealousy, anger, and so on among his Western students, my first teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, said, “You people amaze me: it seems that you have more compassion for animals than you have for each other.”
I still struggle with this problem: the difficulty in having compassion or concern for the welfare of those who are hostile towards me, or whose attitudes oppose my own values. We all have a world-view based upon the morality of the society in which we grew up, and moulded into shape by our personal experiences and adopted beliefs. Naturally, we think our own values are best, otherwise we would not hold them. Due to our innate self-centredness, however, our views are contaminated by selfishness, which prevents our seeing or even acknowledging the views of others. This makes us resistant to change. We become blinded to alternative approaches, our thinking becomes ossified, we turn into conservative bigots, and compassion is left far behind.
As much as I try not to by, in my heart I see that I am a conservative bigot. Maybe not totally ossified, there is still a chance for me to emulate Lama Yeshe, who had tremendous flexibility in being able to observe and respect the attitudes of others and communicate with them at their own level. This may sound like, and could well be, a condescending attitude, but whether or not it is or not condescending depends upon the sincerity of one’s compassion and its supporting wisdom.
Real freedom from self-centredness is the ability to choose any role in life that is useful for others, and to write our own script. In this way, we can enjoy our lives and help others without making the mistake of being too serious. Once we have fixed attitudes about right and wrong we lose flexibility and feel oblidged to defend our beliefs and attack opposing ideas and those who hold them; then we lose our ability to communicate with others. What is important is not that we should avoid seeing things as right or wrong; it is that people are more important than principles, and people can change whereas principles cannot.
It is a good thing to give temporary relief by providing food, shelter and medicine with compassion, but this is not enough. To really help others, we need to show them how to recognize and overcome the root cause of their suffering, their self-centred ignorance. This requires us to overcome our own self-centred ignorance. Then, to inspire people to abandon their habitual self-destructive behaviour, we must be able to communicate with them; and to communicate with them, we must meet them at their own level. As long as we retain awareness that we are like actors on the stage of life, we can speak meaningfully without worrying about loyalty or feeling that we will betray our own principles. Compassion supported by wisdom is a complete and pure purpose for living, an approach to life that nobody can deny. Our compassion brings relief and happinese to others, at the same time, the subjective experience of giving love and compassion brings sublime happiness and peace to oneself.
You may still ask, “Why should we have compassion for very harmful beings? Shouldn’t we rejoice in their suffering as being their just reward? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Whether suffering is viewed as God’s punishment or as the ripening of bad karma, we must have compassion for evil people because all beings are exactly the same as ourselves in that they are simply trying to be happy and avoid suffering. Hatred and wishing pain and revenge upon others is, in the words of my computer, a ‘fatal error’. Anger never creates peace and only compounds our problems. In our confusion about the real causes of happiness and unhappiness, we all make mistakes. Just as we forgive the mistakes of our children and still love them, so too should we forgive the mistakes of others and keep on loving them. This does not mean we cannot resist or punish evil; resistance and punishement can be performed with a compassionate mind.
Why should we love everybody else? In past live we have had every relationship with every living being many times. All others have been infinitely kind to us in the past, and it is only natural to love others because all beings are our own family.
I received these words from Lama Yeshe, a consummate practitioner of compassion, and I repeat them to you. Neverthelesss, I still struggle with my own self-centred attitude, which restricts my ability to practise compassion. It is clear, however, that bad habits cannot be changed overnight. And so I indulge in some compassion for myself.