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Joyful Wisdom
»» 9. Empathy

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Trí tuệ hoan hỷ - 9. Sự cảm thông

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A human being is part of a whole called by us the universe.

from a letter quoted by Howard Eves, Mathematical Circles Adieu

THE PEOPLE AROUND us, the situations we face, and the messages from our own senses indicate that who and how we are, are not only subject to change, but can be defined in many different ways that are themselves subject to change. I am a mother or father. I am a husband or wife. I'm an employee who performs certain tasks in relation to the demands of my employer and other people I work with.

Nevertheless, deeply entrenched in our habits of relating to ourselves, other people, things, and situations is a kind of lonely separateness—a sense of independent being that obscures our connectedness to others. This very subtle sense of difference or separation lies at the heart of many personal and interpersonal problems. The practice of empathy takes whatever difficulty or crisis we may be facing as a starting point for recognizing our similarity to others. It gradually opens our minds to a profound experience of fearlessness and confidence while transforming personal problems into a strong motivation to help others.

There's an old story, told in several sutras, about a woman who had suffered the death of her young son. She refused to believe that her son was dead, however, and ran from house to house in the village asking for medicine to revive her child. Of course, no one could help her. The boy was dead, they pointed out, trying to help her accept the situation. One person, however, recognizing that her mind was deranged by grief, advised her to seek the Buddha—the most capable of physicians—who was staying in a monastery nearby.

Grasping her child closely to her chest, she ran to where the Buddha was staying and asked him for medicine to help her child. The Buddha was in the middle of giving a talk in front of a large number of people; but the woman pushed through, and seeing her distress, the Buddha answered her request. “Go back to your village,” he advised, “and bring me back a few mustard seeds from a house where no one has ever died.”

She ran back to her village and began asking each of her neighbors for mustard seeds. Her neighbors were happy to give them to her, but then she had to ask, “Has anyone died here?”

They looked at her strangely. Some of them just nodded; others told her yes; and others, perhaps, told her when and under what circumstances a family member's death had occurred.

By the time she completed her circuit of the village, she came to understand through an experience that cut deeper than words that she was not the only person in the world who had suffered terrible personal loss. Change, loss, and grief were common to all.

Though still grief stricken by the death of her son, she recognized that she was not alone and her heart cracked open. After the funeral ceremonies for her son were completed, she joined the Buddha and the disciples around him. She devoted her life to assisting others in achieving the same degree of recognition.


When compassion develops we see that all life is the same, and that every single being wishes to be happy.

— Kalu Rinpoche, The Dharma That Illuminates All Beings Impartially Like the Light of the Sun and the Moon, translated by Janet Gyatso

It's so easy to think that we're the only ones who suffer while other people were born with the Happiness Handbook alluded to earlier—which, through some accident of birth, we never received. I've been as guilty of this belief as anyone else. When I was young, the anxiety I almost constantly experienced left me feeling alone, weak, and stupid. When I began to practice loving-kindness/compassion, however, I found that my sense of isolation began to diminish. At the same time I gradually began to feel confident and even useful. I began to recognize that I wasn't the only person to feel scared and vulnerable. Over time, I began to see that considering the welfare of other beings was essential in discovering my own peace of mind.

Once we've begun to stabilize the mind somewhat through bare attention to our experience, we can begin to proceed to open our attention a little bit more broadly. We can dissolve the delusion of independently existing selves and others through what is known in the Buddhist tradition as loving-kindness/compassion practice. In modern terms, the practice may be better understood as empathy: the ability to identify with or understand the situations in which others may find themselves.

Many people have asked why the practice of empathy is called loving-kindness/compassion. Why not one or the other?

According to the Buddhist understanding, there are two aspects to empathy. Loving-kindness refers to the desire for everyone to achieve happiness in this life and the effort we put forth to achieve that goal. Compassion is the aspiration to relieve everyone from the fundamental pain and suffering that stems from not knowing their basic nature—and the effort we put forth toward helping them achieve relief from that fundamental pain.

These two concerns, the longing for happiness and the wish to be released from suffering, are common to all living creatures, though not necessarily verbally or consciously, and not always in the complex terms of human consciousness. Suffering and the causes and conditions thereof have been discussed in great detail earlier on. Happiness is a much more generalized term, which may, at its simplest, be described as “flourishing.” It means having enough to eat, a place to live, and to go about ones life without threat of harm. Even ants, which I understand don't have a physiological structure that registers pain, still go about their daily tasks of collecting food, bringing it back to the nest, and fulfilling other functions that contribute to their own survival and the survival of their colony.

For most of us the process of developing loving-kindness/compassion develops, as I was taught, in stages. It begins-as with the woman who lost her child-with acknowledging our own suffering and our own wish for release. Gradually, we extend the wish for happiness and the aspiration from release from ourselves to others. This slow and steady path leads from awareness of our own difficulties to an awakening of a potential far deeper and more profound than we could ever imagine as we sit in our cars in the middle of a traffic jam cursing the conditions that caused the delay or standing in line at the bank wishing desperately that the line would move faster.

The initial stage is commonly referred to as ordinary loving-kindness/compassion, which begins with developing a sense of loving-kindness and compassion toward oneself and extending it toward those we know.

The second stage is often known as immeasurable loving-kindness/compassion, an extension of the aspiration for happiness and release from suffering toward those we don't know.

The third stage is known as bodhicitta, the mind that is awake to the suffering of all sentient beings and spontaneously works to relieve that suffering.

Ordinary Loving-Kindness/ Compassion: Focusing on Ourselves

Ordinary loving-kindness/compassion includes several phases. The first involves learning to develop a sense of tenderness toward one-self and an appreciation for one's own positive qualities. It doesn't mean feeling sorry for oneself. It doesn't mean endlessly replaying scenarios of suffering or regrets and thinking about how differently things may have turned out if one or another circumstance had been different. Rather, it involves looking at your experience of yourself in the present moment as an object of meditative focus. In this case, we're not looking for the concept of "I" but rather for the experience of being alive in this moment. If I were to achieve happiness and the causes of happiness, that would be very nice. Perhaps the simplest method is a kind of variation on the "scanning practice” described in relation to the shamatha practice of attention to physical sensations.

Begin by “taming your horse.” If you're practicing formally assume the seven-point posture to the best of your ability. Otherwise, just straighten your spine while keeping the rest of your body relaxed and balanced. “Tame the rider” by allowing your mind simply to relax in a state of objectless attention.

After a few moments, perform a quick “scanning exercise.” This time, however, instead of focusing on the sensations themselves, gently allow yourself to recognize that you have a body, as well as a mind that's capable of scanning it. Allow yourself to recognize how wonderful these very basic facts of your existence really are and how precious it is to have a body and a mind capable of being aware of the body. Appreciating these gifts plants the seeds for happiness and relief from suffering. There is such relief in simply knowing you're alive and aware.

Rest in that simple appreciation for a moment, and then gently introduce the thought, “How nice it would be if I were always able to enjoy this sense of basic aliveness. How nice it would be if I could always enjoy this sense of well-being and all the causes that lead to feeling contented, open to all possibilities.” The words you choose may vary according to your own temperament, of course. In traditional Buddhist terms these thoughts are expressed as a prayer or aspiration:

“May I achieve happiness and the causes of happiness. May I be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”

But the meaning is essentially the same. Choose the words that work for you.

Then just allow your mind to rest, open and relaxed.

Don't try to maintain this practice for more than a couple of minutes if you’ve practicing formally or for more than a few seconds if you're practicing informally. You can marvel at being alive and aware just walking through the grocery store, finding yourself caught in a traffic jam, or in the midst of washing dishes. It's very important to practice in short sessions and then allow your mind to rest—otherwise this preciousness can become a concept rather than an experience. Over time, as you gradually repeat the exercise, a realm of possibility begins to open up.

Ordinary Loving-Kindness/Compassion: Focusing on Those Close to Us

Once you've become somewhat familiar with your own experience of relief you can extend that possibility to others. In fact, recognizing the suffering of others can transform your own experience. A friend of mine from Nepal moved to New York City in hopes of finding a better job and earning more money. In Nepal, he'd held a high position in a carpet weaving factory. But upon arriving in New York, the best job he could find was working in a garage—a humiliating comedown from his old job in Nepal. Sometimes, he'd be so upset that he'd start to cry, until one of his managers told him, “What are you doing crying? You can't do that! What would our customers think?”

One day, he noticed someone new working around the garage— a man in a big hat. Taking a closer look, he realized that the man in the hat was the owner of the carpet factory in Nepal. He'd given up his business and traveled to New York in the same hopes of earning more money, but he ended up in the same position working as an unskilled laborer in a job that paid less than what he'd made back in Nepal.

All at once, he recognized that he wasn't the only person who had experienced a reversal of fortune. He was not alone.

This is the second stage of ordinary loving-kindness/compassion- acknowledging that whatever is going on inside someone else's mind is probably very similar to what's going on in yours. When we remember this, we gradually come to realize that there's no reason to be frightened of anyone or anything. We're frightened, in most cases, because we don't recognize that whomever or whatever we're facing is just like us: a creature that only wants to flourish.

The classic Buddhist texts teach that we should focus first on our mothers, who have shown the ultimate kindness toward us by carrying us in their bodies and bringing us into the world. Most cultures, Eastern and Western, have traditionally encouraged respect, if not affection, toward one's mother and father both, in return for the sacrifices they've made on our behalf. But this traditional approach has changed a great deal over the past couple of generations. Quite a number of people I've spoken with in recent years don't necessarily enjoy tender and affectionate relationships with their parents, especially in cases where parents have been verbally or physically abusive. In such cases, using one's mother or father as an object of loving-kindness/compassion practice wouldn't be very useful. It's perfectly okay to focus on another object: a kind relative, a supportive teacher, a close friend, spouse, partner, or child. Some people choose to focus on their cats, dogs, or other pets. The object of your meditation doesn't really matter. The important thing is to rest your attention lightly on someone or something toward which you feel a bond of warmth or tenderness.

The practice of ordinary loving-kindness/compassion toward others differs little from the practice of loving-kindness/compassion toward oneself. Begin by assuming either the seven-point posture or at the very least straightening your spine while allowing the rest of your body to rest naturally.

Now, rest for a few moments in objectless attention. Relax in your seat as you would after accomplishing a big task and just observe your mind and all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations passing through it.

After resting a few moments lightly bring your attention to someone or something toward whom you feel some tenderness, affection, or concern. Don't be surprised if the image of someone or something you didn't deliberately choose appears more strongly than the object you may have decided to work with. This happens, often quite spontaneously. One of my students began formal practice intending to focus on his aunt, who had been very kind to him when he was young; but the image that kept appearing to him was a puppy he'd owned as a child. This is just an example of the mind's natural wisdom asserting itself. He actually had a lot of warm memories associated with the puppy, and when he finally surrendered to his memories of the puppy, rather than trying to focus on his aunt, his practice became quite easy.

Allow the sense of warmth or affection to settle in your mind, alternating for a few minutes between these feelings and allowing your mind to simply rest in objectless attention. As you alternate between these two states, allow yourself to wish that the object of your meditation might experience the same sense of openness and warmth you feel toward him or her. After a few moments of alternating between objectless attention and attention to the object of your meditation, you can proceed in a couple of ways.

One way is to imagine the object you've chosen in a very sad or painful state. Of course, if the object you've chosen is already in deep pain or sorrow, you can simply bring to mind his or her present condition. Either way, the image you call to mind naturally produces a profound sense of tenderness and connection, and a deep desire to relieve the pain.

Another approach is to rest your attention lightly on whomever or whatever you've chosen while asking yourself, “How much do I want to be happy? How much do I want to avoid pain or suffering?” Let your thoughts on these points be as specific as possible. For example, if you're stuck somewhere very hot, would you rather move to a cooler and more open place? If you feel some sort of physical pain, would you like the pain to be lifted? As you think about your own answers, gradually turn your attention to the object you've chosen and imagine how he or she would feel in the same situation.

Practicing in this way not only opens your heart to other beings, but also dissolves your own identification with whatever pain or discomfort you may be experiencing at the moment. As my friend from Nepal discovered seeing his former boss working in the same garage in New York, hiding his face under a big hat, we're not alone. People, puppies, and other creatures may seek to flourish and to avoid pain in their own ways, but their basic motivations are quite similar.

Ordinary Loving-Kindness/Compassion-. Focusing on Who or What We Don't Like

Cultivating loving-kindness and compassion toward those you know and care about already isn't so hard because even when you want to strangle them for being stupid or obstinate, the bottom line is that you still love them. Its a little bit harder to extend the same sense of warmth and relatedness toward people with whom you may be having personal or professional problems, or toward those whom, for some other reason, you actively dislike.

One student of mine, for example, had a terrible fear of spiders. He dreaded seeing a spider in a corner of a room, or on a windowsill, or worse, according to him, above his bathtub. The spider was just doing what it was doing, spinning a web, hoping to attract a fly or other insect (which probably also had some fear of the spider), but the student would try to anxiously get rid of it, smashing it with a broom or sweeping it up in a vacuum cleaner.

After a few months of looking at his own desire to flourish and his own fear of pain and suffering, he began to develop a somewhat different relationship to spiders. Tentatively, he began to approach each encounter differently. Instead of smashing the spider or sweeping it up in a vacuum cleaner, he gathered the courage to capture the spider in a jar and release it outside. Eventually, he even began to say, “Good-bye, little friend. Find your food, find your happiness . . . just not in my house, okay?”

Of course, that didn't stop spiders from showing up in his windows or bathtub, but instead of treating them like enemies he began to recognize them as creatures very much like himself.

Now, capturing spiders in a jar and letting them loose outside may not be a typical route toward developing the second level of ordinary loving-kindness/compassion. But it's a start.

As an exercise, imagine piercing your cheeks with two very sharp needles, one in the left cheek and one in the right. Is the pain you experience in the right cheek any different from the pain you experience in the left? The pain in your right cheek represents the unhappiness and suffering you experience. The pain in the left cheek represents the pain and unhappiness experienced by someone or something you don't like. Is one less painful than the other? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe you've become so used to the needle stuck in the right cheek for so long that you don't notice it much anymore - it’s a dull pain. But the needle stuck in your left cheek is a fresh pain - you’re acutely aware of it. You could pull the needle from your right check by working with practicing loving-kindness/compassion with yourself or those toward whom you already feel some tenderness. But the needle in your left cheek remains stuck until you actually begin to extend that aspiration for happiness and relief from suffering to those you don't like. You want them to suffer or to be unhappy. Maybe you feel a jealousy toward them or resentment. But who is feeling the pain of this resentment, jealousy, or dislike?


There's an additional benefit to approaching people you dislike with loving-kindness and compassion. Suppose that person is treating you or someone else unkindly. Now you could approach that person angrily or defensively or even—if your own mood is fairly stable—through reason. But loving-kindness/compassion provides a bit of insight into why that person may be saying or doing things that hurt other people. That person is in pain, confused, and is desperately seeking a sense of comfort and stability.

For example, one student of mine had just begun working in the marketing department of a large manufacturing firm and was called into a meeting with a woman who was the head of the accounting department. The meeting started out very badly. The woman was very argumentative, talked nonstop, and if anyone interrupted her or proposed a different point of view, she would grow red in the face and assert her point of view even more strongly.

Sitting back and watching this, my student began looking at the woman with loving-kindness and compassion, and he began to see behind the wall of anger a little girl who had never been listened to as a child. So he began nodding and agreeing with the woman, telling her how intelligent her observations were and what good ideas she had. Slowly, the woman began to relax. Her anger melted and she was able to listen to other people's ideas and actually consider them. My student and the woman didn't become best friends, but after that initial meeting he was almost always invited to meetings with her and always seemed to be able to calm her down; and whenever he had to go to the accounting office, there was a certain sigh of relief from all the other members of the department. His effect was so soothing that the woman would treat the other people in the department a little more kindly.

So it ended up as a “win-win situation” for everybody. Being listened to and appreciated for her intelligence, the woman experienced a bit of relief from her own suffering. The people who worked under her weren't subject to constant criticism, so the unpleasant feelings they experienced toward her also began to loosen.

And my student began to experience more confidence in himself as he began to see that he could handle difficult situations with the clarity and wisdom born of loving-kindness/compassion.

Immeasurable Loving-Kindness/ Compassion

Of course, developing loving-kindness and compassion toward those we know already isn't so hard after a bit of practice. It's a little bit more of a stretch to extend the same sense of warmth and relatedness toward those we don't know, and in many cases, can't even possibly know. As we hear about tragedies around the world, or even in our neighborhoods, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness may develop. There are only so many causes we can join, and sometimes our work and family lives prevent us from helping out in a direct way.

The practice of immeasurable loving-kindness/ compassion helps to relieve that sense of hopelessness. It also foster a sense of confidence that whatever situation in which we find ourselves and whomever we face, we have a basis for relating in a way that is not quite so fearful or hopeless. We can see possibilities to which we might otherwise be blind and begin to develop a greater appreciation for the possibilities within us.

A particularly useful practice for generating immeasurable loving-kindness/compassion is known in Tibetan as tonglen, which may be translated into English as “sending and taking.” Tonglen is actually quite a simple practice, requiring only a simple coordination of visualization and breathing.

The first step, as always, is to find a restful position for your body and then to rest your mind in objectless attention. Then gently bring your attention to this thought: “Just as I want to achieve happiness and avoid suffering, other beings also feel the same way.”

You don't need to visualize specific beings, although you may start out with a specific visualization if you find it helpful. Eventually, though, tonglen extends beyond anyone or anything you can imagine to include animals, insects, and all the creatures who have suffered or will suffer in any way.

The point, as I was taught, is simply to remember that the world is filled with an infinite number of beings, and to think: Just as I want happiness, all beings want happiness, just as I wish to avoid suffering, all beings wish to avoid suffering.

Just as you worked with ordinary loving-kindness/compassion, as you allow these thoughts to roll around in your mind you'll actually begin to find yourself actively engaged in wishing for others' happiness and freedom from suffering.

The next step is to focus on your breathing as a means of sending whatever happiness you may have experienced or are currently experiencing to all sentient beings and absorb their suffering.

As you exhale, imagine all the happiness and benefits you've acquired during your life pouring out of yourself in the form of clear light. This light extends out toward all beings and dissolves into them, fulfilling all their needs and eliminating their suffering.

As you inhale, imagine the pain and suffering of all sentient beings as a dark, oily smoke being absorbed through your nostrils and dissolving into your heart. As you continue this practice, imagine that all beings are freed from suffering and filled with bliss and happiness.

After practicing in this way for a few moments, simply allow your mind to rest. Then take up the practice again, alternating between periods of tonglen and resting your mind.

If it helps your visualization, you can sit with your body very straight and rest your hands in loosely closed fists on the tops of your thighs. As you breathe out, open your fingers and slide your hands down your thighs toward your knees while you imagine the light going out toward all beings. As you inhale, slide your hands back up, forming loosely closed fists as though drawing the dark light of others' suffering and dissolving it into yourself.

The world is filled with so many different kinds of creatures, it's impossible even to imagine them all, much less offer direct and immediate help to each and every one. But through the practice of tonglen, you open your mind to infinite creatures and wish for their well-being. The result is that eventually your mind becomes clearer, calmer, and more focused and aware. You develop the capacity to help others in infinite ways, both directly and indirectly.


The final stage is bodhicitta, a Sanskrit term often translated as the “mind of awakening” or “awakened mind.” It's a compound word that combines the Sanskrit term bodhi (which comes from the Sanskrit root verb budh, which translates as “to become awake, to become aware, to notice, or to understand”) and the word citta (which is usually translated as “mind” or sometimes as “spirit” in the sense of “inspiration”).

Within the Buddhist tradition, we recognize two kinds of bodhicitta: absolute and relative. Absolute bodhicitta refers to the mind that has become completely pure through accomplishing all the levels of training and which, consequently, sees the nature of reality directly, without question or wavering. The seed of buddha nature latent within all sentient beings has grown into a magnificent tree. Capable of seeing and knowing everything, absolute bodhicitta includes an acute awareness of the suffering all creatures endure when they are ignorant of their own nature. It also includes a longing to release all beings from that deepest level of suffering. This is the state the Buddha attained, as well as those who followed in his footsteps to attain complete enlightenment.

Few among us are capable of experiencing absolute bodhicitta right away, however. In his own lifetime, the historical Buddha worked for six years to arrive at this fully awakened awareness. According to legend, he was only able to accomplish this in such a relatively short period because he'd spent many, many lifetimes working toward this goal.

Most of us need to train along the more gradual path of relative bodhicitta. This extends the various loving-kindness/compassion practices a bit further in terms of the cultivation of the desire for all sentient beings to realize—not in an intellectual sense, but through actual experience-the full blossoming of their buddha nature and taking the actions to accomplish that goal.

Developing relative bodhicitta always involves two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration bodhicitta involves cultivating the heartfelt desire to raise all sentient beings to the level at which they completely recognize their true nature. We begin by thinking, “I wish to attain complete awakening in order to help all sentient beings attain the same state.” Most Buddhist practices begin with some sort of prayer expressing this aspiration. Simply reciting this prayer, in whatever language or whatever terms you're familiar with, is of course very helpful in that it helps us to broaden the goal of our practice. But such prayers and aspirations remain simply words until we actually spend some time working with ordinary and immeasurable states of loving-kindness/compassion. As we've seen earlier, there's no way we can experience complete happiness and an end to suffering for ourselves without direct experience of our own and others' desire for happiness and release from suffering. Working toward our own release is like pulling the needle only out of one cheek. As long as a needle remains in our other cheek, we’ll always feel a bit of discomfort, pain, or fear.

Sounds like a big job, doesn't it? It seems hard enough to awaken ourselves, much less bring others to the same awakening. But if we look back at the story of the woman who had lost her child, we can begin to sense that in the presence of someone who is awake, it becomes possible for other people to become awake as well. Sometimes this awakening may take the form of following advice, listening to a teaching, or following the example of a teacher.

Application bodhicitta focuses on the path of attaining the goal of awakening other people. Aspiration is the desire to carry people from one “place” to another. Application is the means by which we carry out our aspiration.

There are many ways to practice application bodhicitta. For example, refraining from stealing, lying, gossiping, and speaking or acting in ways that intentionally cause pain. Also, acting generously toward others, patching up quarrels, speaking gently and calmly rather than “flying off the handle,” and rejoicing in the good things that happen to other people rather than allowing ourselves to become overwhelmed by jealousy or envy.

Conduct of this sort extends the experience of loving-kindness/ compassion in meditation into every aspect of daily life. This creates a win-win situation for everybody.

We win because we recognize that we're not alone in experiencing difficult emotions or problematic situations. As this recognition sinks in, we begin to feel a deeper sense of confidence in ourselves and are able to respond more thoughtfully and compassionately to others.

Those around us win because, having developed an intuitive sense of their suffering, we begin to act toward them in kinder, more considerate ways. And they, in turn, begin to behave more compassionately toward others.

There is no greater inspiration and no greater courage than the intention to lead all beings to the perfect freedom and complete well-being of recognizing their true nature. Whether you accomplish the goal isn't important. The intention alone has such power that as you work with it, your mind will become stronger, your mental and emotional habits will diminish, and you'll become more skillful in helping other beings. In so doing, you'll create the causes and conditions for your own well-being.

The understanding of suffering and its causes, the potential inherent within us, and the means of transforming that understanding into experience could be regarded as the Happiness Handbook we thought we'd missed at birth.

But, as many people have asked, how do we apply the lessons of understanding and experience to our own situations? What do we do when faced with anxiety, grief, jealousy, anger, or despair?

To answer these questions we have to explore a little more deeply, using our own lives as a laboratory of experience.

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