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Contemplating Compassion

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Generating compassion is the most effective way to put our meditation into action, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, but it isn’t an easy thing to do. By using contemplative meditation, we can turn the thought of compassion into a reality.


When students asked the Buddha, “How should I practice?” the Buddha would answer, “Bring virtue to whatever you are doing. When you sew, make garments with the thought of compassion. When you cook, make food with patience. When you play music, offer it with generosity. Let whatever you are doing become your meditation, and your path will deepen.” These days we call this kind of activity “meditation in action.”

One of the recommended ways to bring meditation into action is to wholeheartedly embrace the path of virtue. How do we determine what is virtuous? We look at the result. Being mindful, feeling compassion, and exercising patience lead to pleasure and lightness of mind. Being angry, jealous, and self-obsessed lead to pain because they constrict the mind and make our consciousness thicker. We take charge of our life by knowing which qualities we want to enhance.

Next we contemplate a quality we wish to take into action. We isolate, clarify, and cultivate a particular virtue so that its seed can take root in our being and grow throughout the day. In contemplation, we practice creating the path of wisdom by fabricating virtue through concept and letting it penetrate us. Then we transcend the concept by incorporating its meaning in our life.
Compassion is one of the most powerful thoughts we can develop in this way. The mind that is directed toward others in every activity achieves the most profound virtue. We may not necessarily feel that kind of compassion right now, so we sit and conjure up an image with words. Perhaps we say, “May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the root of suffering.” That wish would be a good definition of compassion.

At the very least, we say the words; compassion becomes our mantra.

Each language gives a slightly different flavor to this virtue. The English word compassion has a sense of empathy or sympathy; the word in Tibetan literally means “noble heart.” We have different languages getting to the same point: our wish for the suffering of beings to be eliminated.

So we contemplate the attitude of compassion. What is the logic behind our wish to relieve the suffering of others? It’s the basic truth that to relieve only our own suffering will merely perpetuate it. How can we be truly happy while others are suffering? Once the point gets across, the word drops away, and we begin to feel the meaning of compassion. We don’t want ourselves or anyone else to suffer.

Effective contemplation means being a good fire maker. We kindle a spark of feeling with a word or phrase, which eventually ignites the ember of compassion. When the fire dies down, we put on the next log—a support analogy. We embellish our conceptual creation by calling to mind the image of somebody who is close, like our mother or our child. Visualizing that person immediately brings a sense of warmth and understanding; we don’t want anything bad to happen to them. We stay with the feeling, and perhaps even try to make it bigger by visualizing someone toward whom it is not quite so easy to feel compassion. When we lose the feeling, we return to the words.

Learning to generate compassion is the most effective way to put our meditation into action, but it isn’t easy. We often become impatient: we want to go directly from the word to the meaning. When we don’t reach the meaning quickly, we drop the practice. But we need to keep pondering the word because if we hang out with the concept long enough, we will actually feel compassion. This is called skillful means, because in transforming a conceptual thought into feeling, we create a skillful way of orienting our lives. When we engage in compassion, our mind becomes lighter and happier, which benefits others.

When someone asked Shantideva, one of the great teachers of this technique, “Isn’t compassion meditation a little difficult?” he answered, “The small amount of difficulty has such astronomical benefit that it is worth its weight in gold.” In shifting our attitude with the thought “May others not suffer,” we are developing awareness of our own actions and our own suffering, as well as the suffering of other beings.

That is how compassion practice gives us nimbleness of mind. It increases our understanding of basic reality. We call that understanding prajna, a Sanskrit word meaning “best knowledge.” What’s the best thing to know about others? They want to be happy and they don’t want to suffer. There are many variations of what would make them happy, but ultimately, the best way for them to be happy is to be in a state of wisdom and freedom.

When we have a person in mind and we’re wishing that he not suffer, emotions come up, because generally speaking we divide the world between friends and enemies, between those we like and those we do not like. As our practice expands in concentric circles from those we care about to the ones toward whom we feel neutral, and then to those toward whom we feel animosity, our emotions become less pleasant. The stronger our prajna is, the more we can overcome our own emotional obstacles to understand what kind of difficulty even our enemies are experiencing. The more understanding we have, the more compassion we are able to generate.

So the point of practicing compassion is not just to feel emotional toward another being, but to bind compassion with prajna or knowledge and transcend our habitual tendencies. In the beginning we feel compassion in a very dualistic way: “I am being nice to this person.” But as our practice develops, it becomes less and less dualistic and therefore more strong and profound. That’s what differentiates true compassion from “idiot” compassion.

As we continue to expand our compassion and strengthen our prajna, we are simultaneously developing other virtuous qualities: stability of mind, the ability to focus, and sheshin, a Tibetan word that could be defined as “environmental awareness.” Simply knowing what we’re doing further enhances the qualities of sympathy and empathy, the ability to notice more consciously how someone feels—even when she’s got our number and is calling it a lot.

The ability to know how someone really feels helps sustain meditation in action, because it leads us into virtues known as the paramitas, activities that “take us to the other shore,” beyond retracting into ourselves. In offering good wishes to others, we are practicing generosity. Every time we remember to do this, we become more disciplined because we are bringing our focus back to the intention of our practice. Rather than becoming angry or irritated, we are practicing patience. And we are developing exertion in not letting the faults of another person overcome us. Therefore we are stabilizing our meditation further. Such activity keeps sharpening our prajna, which deepens our understanding of why we are on the path. This is how we strengthen our inherent wisdom.

Steeping our mind in compassion for even ten minutes every morning has the power to transform us throughout the day, no matter what we are doing. We become fearless because now we can carry virtue into action, which improves any environment. As a result, we are happier people.


Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the spiritual leader of Shambhala, an international network of Buddhist meditation and retreat centers. He is the author of
Turning the Mind into an Ally and Ruling Your World.

Contemplating Compassion, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, July 2008.



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