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4. The Soft Spot

One of the dichotomies in Trungpa Rinpoche’s life was his dogs. He had a large dog, a mastiff named Ganesh, and a small dog, a Lhasa Apso named Yumtso, or Yummie. Ganesh intimidated and Yummie ingratiated. Hard and soft. When Yummie toddled along behind Rinpoche on his way into the shrine room to teach, you couldn’t help but laugh and when she jumped onto his lap while he was teaching, it touched your heart—not in some big spiritual way but in the ordinary way we’re all familiar with. Trungpa Rinpoche called that the “soft spot.” We all have it. It can be as simple as a love of ice cream, some way in which we’re human, passionate, vulnerable.

Our soft spot represents embryonic buddhanature. Each of us in our essential nature is a complete, perfect buddha. It may require some uncovering, but as a result of this basic nature, we have a big open heart, or bodhichitta, which he often translated as “awakened heart.”

Trungpa Rinpoche used the soft spot as a jumping off point for teaching Mahayana Buddhism, the path of the bodhisattva. In the mid-seventies, he began to devote considerable attention to these teachings. The foundational path of mindfulness and awareness, in the system he followed, is known as the narrow path, focused on liberating oneself from suffering. The Mahayana is the wide path, focused on liberating others. The Vajrayana is the path of totality that lets one dance with all the energies of the phenomenal world. While they have distinct methodologies, the paths intertwine, and in Rinpoche’s tradition all three are implied at once.

At a certain point on the path, we reach the limitation of working solely on ourselves. We’re holding out hope of a final resting place with our name on it. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it, we want to witness our own enlightenment, or more pointedly, ego would like to be present at its own funeral. At this point, it’s necessary to go bigger, to put others before ourselves. We’re now stepping onto the path of compassion, the wide path of the Mahayana, but this brings its own dangers. If compassion becomes a display concocted by ego for its own aggrandizement, we will be back in the trap of spiritual materialism.

Following the classical Buddhist teachings, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that the only way for real compassion to emerge of its own accord is in concert with wisdom. Wisdom in this case means realizing shunyata. This term has long fascinated and confounded philosophically minded students of Buddhism. Western scholars initially described it as the void, as nothingness. The newer term “emptiness” was an improvement, but it could still leave you puzzled. Once again, Rinpoche taught about it experientially:

Shunyata literally means “openness” or “emptiness.” Shunyata is basically understanding nonexistence. When you begin realizing nonexistence, you can afford to be more compassionate, more giving. We realize we are actually nonexistent ourselves. Then we can give. We have lots to gain and nothing to lose at that point.

To present these teachings most thoroughly, Trungpa Rinpoche gave extensive commentary on a classic Mahayana text built around a series of sayings, which he referred to as slogans. (These commentaries are published as the book Training the Mind.) A slogan such as “Be grateful to everyone,” when memorized, can emerge in your mind at an opportune moment—not as some rule you’re struggling to follow but as a sudden catalyst for your soft spot. You find the possibility of putting others before yourself—without having to strategize it.

A key practice to cultivate bodhichitta is tonglen, literally “sending and taking.” You send out warmth and openness to others and you take in their pain and difficulty. This practice, similar to the Theravadan metta practice, became the focus of the books of Pema Chödrön, who learned it from Trungpa Rinpoche. This great switch, where the first thought is of others, is the essence of genuine compassion and a key to real liberation.

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