Compassion in action
Thus far we’ve discussed new approaches to life and to our relations with other people. For these to be valuable, they must relate to our daily lives. This book hasn’t been written for the sake of intellectual knowledge, but to offer some ideas that could be helpful in making our lives richer.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says repeatedly, the key element in a happy life and in a harmonious society is compassion. Compassion, the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, is also encouraged by all of the world’s religions.
Compassion is honest and direct communication with others. It’s the ability to understand others and to spontaneously help them the same way as we help ourselves. Because the sense of “I” and “other” is reduced, compassion is imbued with humility. Because the wish to free others from unsatisfactory conditions is strong, compassion is courageous.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama exemplifies these qualities. During a conference with psychologists and others in the helping professions in 1989, he astonished everyone with his humility. He sometimes responded to difficult questions with “I don’t know. What do you think?” In a world where the famous often portray themselves as authorities, His Holiness’ respect for others’ opinions and his openness to learn from them indicates a bright alternative.
Similarly, he lives courageous compassion... His Holiness constantly advises the Tibetans, “Do not be angry at those who destroyed our homeland. They are living beings who want to be happy just as we do. Violent opposition to them doesn’t remedy the situation.”
While being compassionate towards those who have occupied Tibet, His Holiness is nevertheless courageous in working to remedy the plight of his people. He is actively seeking a peaceful solution that would be satisfactory to the Chinese and the Tibetans. Thus, we see in his life the harmonious blend of compassion, humility and courage.
We can apply the Dalai Lama’s example to our own lives. Each situation we encounter provides an opportunity to practice compassionate action. We start with the people around us - our family and friends, colleagues and classmates, people in the grocery store and on the road - and spread our care and concern to all.
When someone cuts us off on the highway, instead of swearing in anger, we can put ourselves in that person’s shoes. We’ve been inconsiderate drivers sometimes, usually because we’ve been preoccupied with something important. The other person is similar. Just as we want others to excuse our mistakes, so too can we forgive theirs.
We can learn to apply the affection we feel for our family and friends to others. We want our children and parents to be happy. Others may not be our relatives, but they are someone’s parents and children. They are the same in being parents and children, only the possessive pronoun describing them is different: “their” instead of “our.” Once we recognize the arbitrariness of these labels “mine” and “others;’ our love and compassion can spread to everyone impartially. In this way, feelings of alienation and barriers between people fall away.
How can we love people who are considered “evil” by society? No person is inherently and thoroughly evil. Everyone has the potential to become a Buddha. The clouds of their confusion and violent anger and desire obscure their basic goodness.
Loving a criminal, for example, doesn’t mean we let him continue harming others. Compassion for both the victims and perpetrators of harmful actions is needed. Not wanting the perpetrators to create destructive actions that cause their own future suffering, we should stop them. Thus, without hatred or vengeance, we can compassionately extend help to all parties in a bad situation.
Having compassion for all beings equally doesn’t mean we neglect our family and friends. Some people become so involved in improving society that their own children develop problems due to lack of parental guidance. It’s easy to take those with whom we live for granted. However, we mustn’t forget that our family and friends are beings whom we can benefit too.
Helping our compassion to grow daily
Just telling ourselves to be patient or compassionate doesn’t make those attitudes arise in our minds. They need to be deliberately cultivated. Therefore, it’s important to keep aside some “quiet time” each day to work on our inner well-being.
A few minutes of quiet time in the morning allows us to set the motivation not to harm others and to help them as much as possible during the day. Quiet time in the evening gives us the opportunity to review and “digest” the day’s events. Observing our reactions to what happened during the day helps us to get to know ourselves. We may observe that we’re very sensitive to criticism or feel imposed upon when others ask for our help. We then can ask ourselves if we want to continue having those attitudes and feelings. If we don’t, we can apply the techniques suggested in this book to change them.
There needn’t be a dualistic split between our quiet self cultivation and our activities with others. Alone, we can reflect on our lives and actions and determine how we want to act with others. At work, we’ll integrate and practice that. Later we’ll reflect on what happened at work, learn from our experiences and make new determinations for the future. In this way, our quiet time for Dharma practice and our daily activities complement each other. We grow from and in each of them.
Consistency is important in self-cultivation. It’s far better to set aside ten minutes every day than to meditate for five hours once a month. However, if we’re able to, spending a few days or weeks each year doing meditation retreat is valuable. At that time, we’re able to go deeper into the process of personal development.
People in modem societies have very busy lives, and it’s easy to be distracted from self-cultivation. However, if we establish our priorities clearly, keeping time for internal reflection becomes easier. For example, we consider all the activities we could become involved in and list them in order of their importance to us. By this, we gain the clarity and the strength needed to arrange our daily schedule in a more manageable way.
It’s important to set realistic goals for our spiritual practice and not expect ourselves to change immediately. External conditions in modem societies may change quickly, but our attitudes and habits don’t. Patience with ourselves as well as with others is necessary. If we are judgmental and hard on ourselves, we surely will be that way with others. But such an attitude doesn’t help ourselves or others to change. If we love and are patient with ourselves, we’ll gradually improve. Similarly, if we have those attitudes towards others, we won’t be demanding or impatient.
Balance is essential. Sometimes we need to stretch our limits. Other times we need to be quiet and absorb what we’ve learned. We have to be sensitive to our needs at any particular moment and act accordingly. Finding a middle way between the extremes of pushing ourselves to do more than we’re capable of and being self-indulgent and lazy is a constant challenge.
As we become more skillful in balancing our activities, we’ll be able to avoid “burn-out.” People in the helping professions and people with busy lives face the danger of over-extending themselves. Sometimes it’s hard to say, “No, I’m sorry. Although that project is very valuable, I can’t help you with it right now.” We may feel guilty or lazy, as if we’re letting others down.
However, taking on more than we’re capable of helps neither ourselves nor others. We need to assess our abilities accurately. Sometimes we may be able to engage in many projects. Other times, more quiet reflection and study are needed. If we take this time, we’ll be refreshed and then will be able to spend more quality time with others. As one of my teachers, Lama Yeshe, advised:
“It is important to understand that true practice is something we do from moment to moment, from day to day. We do whatever we can, with whatever wisdom we have, and dedicate it all to the benefit of others. We just live our life simply, to the best of our ability. This in itself will be of enormous benefit to others; we don’t need to wait until we become Buddhas before we can begin to act.”
MayOpen Heart, Clear Mind benefit many living beings. May loving-kindness, compassion and a good heart grow within everyone who merely sees, touches or talks about this book. In turn, may they cause many others to devel-op a kind heart. In this way may everyone enjoy com-plete satisfaction and peace, and may they ultimately attain enlightenment. Ven. Thubten Zopa Rinpoche