by Tsultrim Allione
We all have a soft spot, a tender heart, somewhere. That soft spot is the door to our true essence, intrinsic awareness. It is this naked tender heart that leads us to enlightenment. If we didn’t already have it in us, we couldn’t activate it. If we don’t have the seed we can’t grow the flower.
Mostly our compassion is partial. We have it for our own loved ones and select groups, but not for every single being. When we generate it for every being our hearts get huge, this is what is called ‘the vast attitude’ impartial compassion. Then we have the same compassion and tolerance for Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews and every other tradition. We have compassion for spiders, rats, and mosquitoes as well as our own pet gerbils, ferrets, dogs and cats.
When we have impartial compassion we have it for those who do us harm and for those who love us, every being! When we generate loving kindness we activate the tender heart that longs for the happiness of all beings. The essence of the path to awakening could be summed up in one word with two parts: ‘changchub’. ‘Chang’ means to clear or purify the veils that obscure our true nature. These are the veils that shroud our naturally liberated state, a limitless expanse of luminosity. The veils are the conflicted emotions of anger, grasping, pride, jealousy, and ignorance, as well as deluded beliefs about the nature of reality. They are stains on a perfect mirror. These stains create and are created by tendencies carried from life to life. The denser our accumulated stains become, the harder it is to recognize the state of the perfect mirror, but it is always there. ‘Chub’ means ‘to be endowed with’ or ‘to develop’. What we develop is our potential, all the enlightened qualities. We live in a state of trance. We are conditioned by and addicted to our somnambulant state. Yet we always have the possibility to develop our innate capacity. Again the perfect mirror is under the habitual patterns of perceiving and feeling.
So ‘changchub’ is the two-fold process of first clearing, and then developing our innate capacities. The beginning of the path is clearing away and the end is discovering and stabilizing the enlightened state. When all our defects have been cleared, and all enlightened qualities developed, this is buddhahood.
At the beginning of any practice, we consciously generate the intention to do our meditation practice in order to awaken for the benefit of all beings. Setting our intention based on this is the key to awakening. Without this intention we are operating as normal, confused people who try to gain happiness for themselves. We utilize the spontaneous feeling of gentleness as the ground of our lives. Once we can feel it in our hearts, we can gradually extend it to others, even to challenging people. Becoming deeply compassionate is the greatest fulfillment of human potential. This is called Bodhicitta, literally, awakening mind.
Bodhicitta is, on the relative plane, the wish to attain buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, together with the practices to accomplish this. On the absolute level Bodhicitta is the ultimate nature of mind, primordial wisdom, understanding the true state of all phenomena.
We can also develop the tender heart by remembering the kindness of someone else. Appreciating the kindness of others opens our hearts. Traditionally the example for selfless dedication is our mother. She gave us her body during gestation, stayed up at night with us in infancy, fed us when we were helpless, taught us to live and protected us. She was thinking of our happiness above her own, and was always thinking of our welfare.
Even if our mothers weren’t perfect, they almost always tried their best to care for us. At the very least, they gave us the gift of our body, which is very precious. If thinking of your mother really doesn’t stimulate a feeling of open heartedness, there may be a friend, loved one or someone else who opens our hearts. We can begin by remembering them. Appreciation and gratitude are a key toward generating the motivation to be like a mother to all beings, and to care for them with motherly love. I remember one of my Tibetan teachers used to call everyone he met ‘mother’ and look at everyone with the gaze of a mother looking at her only child.
Because we have already been born so many infinite times we have had all beings as our parent at some point. So we think about that and we spread that gratitude to everyone. Sometimes I try, as a practice, to treat each person I meet as though they were actually someone who had been a dedicated mother for me, who gave birth to me and cared for me lovingly. It’s amazing to see people in the grocery store, gas station, bank, restaurants in this way. Suddenly they aren’t ‘other’ they are ‘us’. In this way Bodhicitta can spread from a single access point and become huge, immeasurable, and our hearts can open and encompass all beings with love.
When we are engaged in this process we make the effort to change our motivation to serve others, to relieve the suffering of all beings everywhere. Buddha, Christ, and all the enlightened ones arose from this intention. If you look at their teachings you will find love and compassion at the core. The turning away from self-orientation to compassionate response is the key to turning from suffering to happiness. This deep inner turning changes the motivation for everything we do and say, and even what we think. Changing our intention from egocentricity to compassion is the key to reversing cycles of suffering. We do this with compassion for ourselves as well as for others. As Shantideva says in his Bodhicharyaavatara:
“Those who wish to overcome the sorrows of their lives,
And put to flight the pain and sufferings of beings,
Those who wish to win great beatitude,
Should never turn their backs on Bodhicitta.”
We are seduced by and addicted to suffering and perpetrate our own suffering through our actions. Even if we could completely wake up at this very moment, would we want to? Why do abused women when given the opportunity to leave, go back to their abusive husbands? Why do abused children become abusers even though they suffered so much from it? Why do soldiers coming back from war kill their wives and children? Why do smokers keep smoking? Why do we get so caught in our fears, our hopes, our habitual thoughts and judgments, even when we know better? Because there are karmic pathways, these are not so easy to change. Like the gullies here at Tara Mandala where the water rushes after a rain storm, causing more erosion, getting deeper with each storm, these pathways are predetermined and take great efforts to change. This is grossly obvious in the case of soldiers taught to kill in war and who are then unable to stop when they get home. They have developed a pattern, a habit. It’s subtler to see the patterns of our own selfish delusion brought from childhood or ingrained tendencies from previous lives. Whether gross or subtle, the root of all our obscurations is the egoistic attitude.
To move out of selfishness toward working for the happiness of others requires effort. We start with glimmers of open heartedness that we already have. But not everyone can find it that way, because they may have no reference point from childhood.
I remember a young man who came to Tara Mandala. He was damaged from a terrible, loveless childhood. We were talking about compassion one day and he said that he couldn’t conceive of love because he’d never had it. It was difficult to find a way to begin to open his heart. Then an occasion arose which provided him with an touchstone to develop compassion. That summer we had a lot of little rabbits that were around the land. They weren’t very afraid of people, so you could go right up to them and watch them eat tender blades of grass under the gambol oak trees. They were small, furry with little white tails and big soft ears, terribly cute. One day I saw him looking at a baby bunny with a soft smile on his face. So then when we met again, when he told me he couldn’t remember the feeling of love, I suggested he remember his feeling when looking at the baby rabbit. Then he could use that as a way to generate compassion for himself and others. So even though he had no memory of love, he still had the compassionate heart. Everybody has it, even hardened criminals. We just have to want to begin, to make that inner turning.
There are stories of great meditators in Tibet, who had such great compassion they could change even the most ingrained karmic propensities. For example Milarepa, the great yogi who was known for his melodious songs of realization, was once meditating in his cave when he heard a dog barking. He went outside to see what was happening and shortly a badly frightened deer ran up to him.
Unbearable compassion arose within him and he sang to the deer:
“If escape is what you want,
Hide within mind essence.
If you want to run away,
Flee to the place of bodhi.
There is no other place of safe refuge.
Uprooting all confusion from your mind,
Stay with me here in rest and quiet.
At this very moment the fear of death is full upon you,
You are thinking ‘Safety lies on the far side of the hill;
If I stay here I shall be caught!’
This fear and hope is why you wander in Samsara.”
The deer understood Milarepa, because his compassion was so vast, came near to him and lay down on his left side. Then a fierce red dog arrived. Again Milarepa felt great pity, and sang to this dog with compassion. The dog’s anger subsided and it began to wag its tail and make whining noises. And then it lay down with the deer.
Before long the hunter appeared, looking haughty and violent. He ran up carrying a bow and arrow in one hand and a lasso for catching game in the other. He was furious when he saw his dog and the deer. Screaming insults about the laziness and corruption of yogis, he shot an arrow at Milarepa. But the arrow missed. He was shocked because he was a good shot and was at close range.
Then Milarepa sang to him as well. The hunter’s expression changed, but he wasn’t convinced. He rushed into the cave and found nothing but inedible herbs. Suddenly his mind turned and great faith arose in him.
So with his vast compassion Milarepa was able to change the minds of all three of these beings who each had different kinds of ingrained karmic patterns. This ability did not come from intellectual compassion, but years and years of retreat in mountain caves where he worked on clearing emotional obscurations and generating ‘the vast attitude.’ This is what is meant by the motivation to benefit all beings. If we deeply change ourselves we can truly benefit the world.
Even if we only make small steps in the development of a compassionate mind, it can be important. If before we do something we check our motivation and then try to develop an altruistic intention drawing on our tender heart, that will gradually increase it. If we focus on negativity, negativity will grow. If we focus on the positive, that is what will develop. In the same way we can develop Bodhicitta. This is the meaning of training in Bodhicitta. This is called ‘lojyong’, or mind training, and it is the essence of the Mahayana path.
The Tibetans have a saying, “if the intention is good, then all levels of the path will be good. If the intention is bad, then all levels will be bad.” So at every moment we should check up on ourselves, asking “What is my intention?” Then we can know what the results will be. We ourselves are the only ones who can know our deep inner intention and we are the only ones who can generate a change.