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Open Heart, Clear Mind
»» 4. Nurturing altruism

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Rộng mở tâm hồn và phát triển trí tuệ - 4. Nuôi dưỡng lòng vị tha

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The open heart of love and compassion

The second principal realization of the path is the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. In Sanskrit it is called “bodhicitta,” which has several English translations: awakening mind, Bodhi mind, dedicated heart and thought of enlightenment. People who have this motivation-bodhisattvas-have such unselfish, impartial and intense love and compassion for others that they seek to attain enlightenment in order to be most capable of benefiting them.

We live in a universe full of other beings. Despite the fact that we have different bodies and different experiences, we’re very similar. All of us have problems and disturbing attitudes. We’re all reborn and die again and again. Each of us has the same deeply-rooted wish only to have happiness and to avoid all difficulties.

Realizing we’re all in the same boat, how could we possibly justify working only for our own benefit? Others’ pain and problems make them as unhappy as our pain and problems make us. How can we say we’re more important than other people? What logic or rationale is there to our constant cherishing of ourselves more than others?

If we think democratically we see that there’s one of me while there’s an infinite number of other beings. If we compare the happiness of one person to the happiness of all beings, it no longer seems fair to be concerned only with our own welfare. We can’t follow a spiritual path seeking only our own happiness. We’ve got to help others find happiness too.

It’s difficult to help all others when our own minds are partial. We tend to like some people more than others and go out of our way to help them. We’re unkind to people we consider obnoxious and don’t like. As long as we perceive and categorize others as friends, enemies or strangers, and respectively grenerate attachment, aversion or apathetic indifference towards them, it will be difficult for us to help them. First we need to have impartial love and compassion for all of them.

The foundation of love is realizing that others aren’t inherently our friends, enemies or strangers. A friend can become a stranger or an enemy. Someone we don’t like can become a friend or a stranger. A stranger can become a friend or an enemy. These relationships change according to time and circumstances. If we look in our own lives, we’ll find many examples of this. Because our relationships with others are changing, it makes no sense to put others into hard and fast categories and to have strong feelings of attachment, aversion or indifference towards them.

If we had a larger perspective we would see how arbitrary it is to label people as friends, enemies and strangers. Someone gives us a thousand dollars today and becomes our friend. Tomorrow he slaps us and thus becomes our enemy. Another person slaps us today and gives us a thousand dollars tomorrow. Which one is the friend and which is the enemy?

Friend and enemy are arbitrary distinctions, depending on time and circumstances, and on our labeling a person “friend” or “enemy.” If we could remember the relationships we’ve had with all beings - including those in previous lives - we would see that all of them have at different times been our friend, our enemy and a stranger.

Generally, we consider someone who is kind to us and agrees with our opinions as a good person and real friend. We think of someone we don’t get along with as a bad person and a real enemy. But both people have good and bad qualities. We’re just seeing a few of each person’s qualities, emphasizing them and thinking that’s the person’s character.

Our view of others is very subjective. When we look at a certain person she appears wonderful, while to another person she appears obnoxious. Why? This occurs because we’re looking at her from one point of view, while the other person is regarding her from another. Actually, she has both good qualities and weaknesses.

If we train ourselves to have a more complete view of others, then we’ll cease to be disappointed when our dear ones don’t conform to our expectations. We’ll recognize and accept their weaknesses. Also, our intolerance and disrespect for people we previously judged as unlikeable will decrease because we’ll be aware of their good qualities. Although their kindness may not be directed towards us at this moment, they are kind to many others. When we consider all aspects of others’ personalities and are aware of the changeable and subjective nature of relationships, we’ll be much more balanced in our feelings for others.

Without the thorns of attachment, aversion and apathetic indifference, our hearts will open more to others.

The kindness of others

On the basis of equanimity for all beings, we can then cultivate love and compassion. The first step in generating love and compassion is to remember the kindness of others.

Everything we have depends on the kindness of others. Our food is grown, transported and often cooked by others. Our clothes are made by others. Our home depends on the kind efforts of many others: architects, engineers, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters. If we look closely, everything we enjoy comes from the labor of others.

Some people say, “But sometimes these people don’t do their work well. They are irresponsible and pollute the environment. Even if they do their job well, they’re working for money, not because they want to help us.”

These points are well-taken. But it’s very curious how, on one hand, we want to regard others as kind and have warm feelings towards them, yet whenever we start to consider what they’ve done for us, another part of our minds recoils and says, “Yes, but. .. ,” and then lists others’ faults.

Still, to reply to the above doubts: yes, some people make mistakes and do harmful actions either intentionally or unintentionally. But they’re doing the best they can, given their mental and physical circumstances. If people are harming others or making serious mistakes, we should try to remedy the situation. However, we can do that without being angry at them.

One of my teachers, Lama Yeshe, used to tell us, “They mean well, dear.” Even people who harm others or who work recklessly are just trying to be happy. Given their own ignorance and confusion, they’re doing what they think is right.

People may work for money, without intending to be kind to us. But, the point isn’t why they work, it’s that we benefit from their efforts. Regardless of whether they are working for money or reputation, the fact is that if they didn’t do their job, we would be worse off.

Someone may say, “I pay people for their work, so they’re only doing what they’re employed to do. How is that kindness?” Even when we pay people to do a job, we still benefit from their efforts. In addition, the money that we pay them isn’t ours. We weren’t born with handfuls of money! The money we have came because others gave it to us. If it weren’t for the kindness of our employer or our customers, how would we have money?

When we were born we had nothing. We couldn’t even feed ourselves or protect ourselves from cold or heat. It is solely due to the kindness of our parents that we didn’t die when we were infants.

We may feel we’re intelligent and knowledgeable, but where did these qualities come from? Our parents taught us to speak, and our teachers instructed us in many skills and subjects. Although as children we may not have appreciated what our parents and teachers did for us, if we now look back at it, we’ll see that they helped us greatly.

Some people have been abused as children or have experienced horrible situations as refugees or war victims. How can they begin to consider others as kind when the harm they received was so devastating?

First, we can think deeply about the people who have been kind to us. Whether it’s from a refugee worker, a teacher, a companion or a stranger whose smile conveyed understanding and care, all of us have received kindness. It’s helpful to recall even small instances of others’ kindness, for that softens our hurt and opens our heart to return affection.

Then we can examine whether or not the person or people who have harmed us did so perpetually. Perhaps we had some neutral experiences or even some positive ones with them. Remembering these helps us to see that those who have harmed us aren’t thoroughly corrupt personalities.

In addition we can think that those who harmed us acted out of their own confusion and ignorance. Although they simply wanted to be happy, they employed the wrong means and harmed both themselves and others. Thinking in this way we can slowly begin to forgive them and to heal our emotional wounds.

Open heart

Buddhists believe that the kindness of others becomes even more apparent when we consider that we have had many lives. In each of our lives, others have been kind to us. We haven’t always been with the people we’re close to now. In past lives we have had every kind of relationship with every other being. We’ve been each other’s parents and children many times in the past, even though we can’t remember it now.

This may seem strange at first, but when we consider the significance of beginningless lives, we can understand that we’ve known everyone else before. In those previous lives when others were our parents, they were generally very kind to us. Even when they weren’t our parents, they helped us.

When we consider this deeply, we’ll feel overwhelming appreciation and gratitude towards others. Then, when we think of others, they’ll appear inexpressibly kind in our eyes. We’ll sincerely want to repay their kindness. From our hearts, we’ll want them to be happy. This is love.

This open heart of love makes us feel joyful. But how do we feel when we’re selfish? Our hearts are fearful, tight and uncomfortable. Does selfishness help? Our self-cherishing attitude pretends to care for us by saying, “If I don’t take care of myself first, who will? In this world, I’ve got to look out for my own welfare before anyone else’s.”

In actual fact, this attitude destroys us. If we examine our experiences, we’ll notice that every time we’re in agitated conflict with others, selfishness is involved. Every time we act destructively, thus creating the cause for our own future misery, the self-cherishing mind is behind it. Whenever we are lazy, demanding or ungrateful, we are under the influence of the selfish attitude. Why do countries go to war? Why are there conflicts in families? Why do some people abuse drugs and alcohol, power and wealth? The answer always comes down to selfishness, caring more for oneself than for others.

A very effective technique to lessen the selfish attitude when it arises is to imagine ourselves surrounded by many people. This reminds us that we share the world with others. Then, instead of identifying with ourselves, we identify with the others and look back at our old selves. How do we appear in the eyes of others? Are we as important as we previously thought?

In fact, there are many others and only one “me”. Therefore, is it fair to be concerned with my welfare alone? Is it correct to consider my happiness to be more important than that of others? Thinking this way helps us to put the situation in an accurate perspective.

This isn’t to say we’re bad people because we’re sometimes selfish. The self-cherishing attitude is one of clouds obscuring the clear sky of our minds. We shouldn’t mistakenly identify ourselves with the selfishness, for if we do, we only compound insult with injury. Here, we’re determining to counteract selfishness because it harms ourselves and others.

On the other hand, great benefit comes from cherishing others. They’ll be happy and we’ll be happy. In addition, with care and concern for others, we’ll act constructively. This bring the by-product of our own happiness in future lives. Our relationships will be more harmonious, and so will our environment. By cherishing others more than ourselves, our minds on will become noble and we’ll progress along the path to enlightenment. The great Indian sage Shantideva said:

Whatever joy there is in this world
All comes from desiring
others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in this world
All comes from (selfishly)
desiring ourselves to be happy.
But what need is there
to say much more?
The childish work
for their own benefit,
The Buddhas work
for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference
between them!

Love and compassion

Love is the wish for others to be happy, while compassion is the wish for them to be free from all suffering. Love and compassion can be impartial and extend to everyone when we have eliminated attachment to friends, anger towards enemies and indifference to strangers. Love isn’t a limited commodity that has to be parceled out sparingly. When we recognize others kindness and respect their wish to be happy and to avoid problems, our love can become limitless.

Some people may wonder, “Isn’t this a bit impractical? Am I supposed to give up my family? Or do I love everyone equally and have many wives or husbands?! Do I let thieves into my house and show them where the money is because I love them?”

Love must be combined with wisdom. It’s not stupid love. Towards our family we can cultivate love rather than attachment. We may have equal love for all beings, but still live with our family.

Love and sexual desire are different. Our equal affection for everyone doesn’t need to be expressed sexually. Similarly, encouraging criminal activity such as burglary isn’t love. However, we may use our resources to help others get a good education and a job so they needn’t resort to burglary.

Love is an internal attitude of care and concern for all. Nevertheless, we have to act appropriately in each situation, doing what is most beneficial for the greatest number of people. If we have to stop someone who is harming others, we can do so not out of anger or revenge, but out of concern for the perpetrator as well as for the others in the situation. Mentally and emotionally our reaction to all beings will be equal. However, verbally and physically we’ll still act appropriately in each situation.

In addition to love, we can develop compassion, wishing others to be free from their problems and the causes of their unsatisfactory situations. This compassion extends equally to everyone, no matter who they are or how they act.

Compassion is different from pity. Pity is a proud, condescending attitude: “I’m such a good person helping those poor, unfortunate people whose lives are falling apart.” Compassion, on the other hand, regards others as equal to ourselves, for all of us equally want happiness and don’t want problems. With respect and humility, seeking no recognition for our actions, we’ll then help in whatever way we’re able. We’ll help others with the same ease and lack of expectation as when we help ourselves.

With love and compassion we’ll go on to develop the great resolve to take upon ourselves the responsibility for the happiness of others. Without this great resolve, even if we have love and compassion, we may not be motivated to act. Like a person who watches someone else drowning, thinking “Oh, this is dreadful. This person has got to be saved,” we may never have the thought to actually jump in and help. Having fully developed the great resolve, however, we will automatically do whatever we can for others, without hesitating or feeling obliged or inconvenienced. The great resolve converts the feelings of love and compassion into action.

How can we most effectively work for the welfare of others? Although we may wish to help others, at the present our own abilities are limited. Our compassion is incomplete, we’re short action of wisdom, our skillful means are poor. Who has these qualities which are necessary to benefit others in the best way?

When we look around, we see worldly beings are short of these qualities. The holy beings - the arhats and bodhisattvas - have developed them to a great extent, but not fully. Only the Buddhas have perfectly eliminated all obscurations from their mindstreams and completely developed all qualities. Seeing this, we too will aspire to become a Buddha in order to benefit all beings. This is the altruistic intention, the second principal realization of the path.

When we have this altruistic intention spontaneously day and night, we’ll be called bodhisattvas. The next step will be to perfect the six fur-reaching attitudes (the six paramitas): generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyous effort, meditative stabilization and wisdom. This is the path to the full enlightenment of a Buddha. Two of the most important factors in attaining enlightenment, wisdom and meditation, will be explored next.

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