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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > The Importance of Love, Compassion and Bodhichitta > The Importance of Love, Compassion, and Bodhichitta

The Importance of Love, Compassion, and Bodhichitta

Alexander Berzin
Elista, Kalmykia, Russia, April 2011

Unedited Transcript
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Homage to Geshe Wangyal

Thank you very much for your very kind introduction. I’m always very happy to return to Kalmykia, the land of the great Kalmyk, Geshe Wangyal, who was the first to introduce me to the living tradition of Buddhism, and who played, probably, the most major role in the development of Buddhism in my country, the United States.

He always emphasized that his students need to not only practice Buddhism, but that the foundation for practicing Buddhism is deep knowledge of the Buddhist teachings, because many people wish to practice but don’t know really very deeply what the teachings are, so their practice tends to be a bit superficial.

And he also encouraged all his students to go further – get academic degrees as well in Buddhism, and study the languages. And so it’s due to his kindness and his efforts that nowadays there are so many Buddhist faculties in different universities in the United States. So, because of that, it’s always very nice to come to his homeland and visit with his people and share a little bit of his wisdom with you.

We All Have the Basic Working Materials for Developing Bodhichitta

Today’s topic that I’ve been asked to speak about is the development of bodhichitta. And “bodhichitta” is a Sanskrit word. Not very easy to translate. “Chitta,” the second word, means a “mind.” But when we talk about mind in Buddhism, we speak about both the mind and the heart. We don’t make a difference in Buddhism between these two as we tend to make the difference in our Western way of thinking. So we don’t just aim to develop our intellect – the rational side of our minds – with concentration, and understanding, etc., but in addition, we need to develop our hearts, which means our whole emotional side as well, so that we can all reach the first word in bodhichitta: “bodhi.”

And “bodhi” is a word which signifies a state of highest growth and purification. So purification means to get rid of all the obstacles and blocks that we might have, both mental blocks and emotional blocks, and also that means getting rid of confusion, lack of understanding, lack of concentration. And also it means purification on the emotional side, to get rid of our disturbing emotions. Disturbing emotions include anger, greed, attachment, selfishness, arrogance, jealousy, naivety… There’s a huge, long list; we can go on and on. These are the real troublemakers in our life. And so what we are aiming for is, with our mind and our hearts, a state of getting rid of all of these troublemakers.

The other aspect of this word “bodhi” means “growth.” And this means that we have basic working materials – all of us – within us: We all have a body. We have an ability to communicate. With our bodies, we have the ability to act, to do things. And we all have minds (the ability to understand things) and heart (feelings, the ability to feel warmth toward others) and intellect (the ability to differentiate between what’s helpful, what’s harmful).

So we have all these factors, all these good qualities, and it’s up to us what we do with them. We can use them for causing problems to ourselves and to others by the way we act, the way we speak, the way we think. Or we can use them to bring benefit and more happiness to ourselves and to others. If the ways that we act and communicate and think are under the influence of confusion and disturbing emotions, then of course this produces problems. When we act under the influence of anger, we often do things that later we regret, don’t we? When we act selfishly, often that produces big problems. Nobody likes somebody who’s selfish.

So that’s one side. The other side is if we act and communicate and think based on positive qualities – like love, compassion, consideration for others – then we can see that this brings us more happiness, more satisfaction in life: others like us; it brings better benefit to others. We can see this very clearly in our relationships with our friends, for example. If we’re always criticizing them and getting angry with them, nobody really likes to be with us. But if we’re kind toward them and treat them nicely, of course they enjoy our company. We can see this even in the way that we treat our pet cat and dog: even they don’t like to be yelled at and scolded all the time; they like to be treated nicely. So these basic working materials that we have can grow. We can develop them more and more in a positive way.

So bodhichitta is a state of – a situation, a condition – of our minds and our hearts which are aimed at this state of bodhi. It’s aimed at this state in which all these shortcomings, all these troublemakers that we have within us, are completely removed forever, and all our positive qualities are developed to the fullest state that is possible. So this is quite an extraordinary thing – a state of mind and heart – to have.

And it is brought on by very positive emotions. What are these emotions? Basically, we are not aiming for this state just because it’s the highest and I want to be the highest. It’s not just because I want to be the happiest and this is the happiest that I can be. But rather we are thinking of everybody else, all the innumerable beings in the world: humans, animals, whatever. And we understand that we’re all the same in the sense that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. That’s true even of the animals, isn’t it? And everybody tries in their own way to bring about happiness for themselves and their loved ones. But, unfortunately, most of us don’t really know what will bring about happiness. And we try various things, and often it just produces more problems than happiness. We buy something nice for somebody else – a gift – and they don’t like it. So, very simple. Difficult to please everybody, isn’t it? But, in any case, we need to try.

Aiming for Enlightenment with the Intention to Be of Best Benefit to Others

And what is most important, of course, is our intention; we want to help others: How wonderful it would be if everybody could have freedom from their problems and the causes of these problems. That’s what compassion is all about. Compassion is the wish for others to be free from their suffering and the causes of suffering.

And how wonderful it would be if everybody could be happy and have the causes for happiness. That’s the definition of love in Buddhism. Love is not based on wanting something back, for them to – “I’ll love you if you love me.” Not like that. It’s not based on how the other person behaves – “I’ll love you if you’re a good boy or a good girl. If you’re naughty, then I don’t love you anymore.” It doesn’t matter how others behave. That’s not the point. The point is that it would be great if everybody could be happy. So that’s love.

And how great it would be if I could do something significant to bring about this happiness for everyone and help them to get rid of their unhappiness and problems. Now I’m very limited: I have confusion, I have disturbing emotions, I am often lazy, and there’s problems in dealing with finding a job, finding a partner… all sorts of difficulties that we all face in life. But if I could achieve this state in which all these shortcomings, all these difficulties, are removed forever in me, and if I could reach my fullest potentials, then I would be in the best position to be of help to everyone.

So the intention here, with bodhichitta, is that we are aimed at our future state of what we call “enlightenment,” with the intention to try our hardest with all our effort to try to reach that state, with the intention to be of best benefit to everyone as much as we can all along the path to this enlightened state, and to the fullest state that’s possible once we attain it.

Now, none of us can become an all-powerful god; that’s not possible. If that were possible, then nobody would be suffering anymore. But all we can do is try our best. But others have to be receptive and open to help. And although we can explain things clearly to others, others have to understand it themselves; we can’t understand it for them, can we? We can give good advice, but others have to take it.

So that’s what we’re aiming for, is to be in the best position to help others, but with the realistic idea that – and understanding – that whether or not they actually are helped is up to their efforts. But if we reach this state in which all our confusion is removed, then we will have the best possibility of understanding what would be the most effective way of helping others; we would understand what are all the factors that are involved in the way that somebody is now.

We all are affected by so many things – by our family, by our friends, by the society that we live in, and by the times that we live in: sometimes there are wars, sometimes there are economic difficulties, sometimes there’s prosperity. All of that affects us. Buddhism speaks about previous lives, future lives. And from that point of view, we’re all affected by our previous lives as well. So if we really want to help somebody, if we really want to give them good advice, we have to know them, we have to understand them – understand all the things that are affecting their behavior, their way of acting, their way of feeling – which means really taking interest in them, and paying attention, and being sensitive to the way they are.

I think you can understand that quite easily in terms of just your relationships with each other. If you’re with a friend and you’re not really interested in them, you’re only talking about yourself, then actually you know very little about them. And if you’re not paying attention to your friend – for instance, while you’re with somebody else, you are doing text messages to yet other people on your cell phone, then you’re not even paying attention to your friend – you don’t even notice that perhaps they are a little bit impatient and unhappy with you because you’re not paying attention to them. So if we really want to help anybody, you have to pay attention to them, you have to take interest in them, notice what’s going on and respond accordingly, just like we would like others to take us seriously and pay attention to us.

Understanding the Equality of Ourselves and Others

You see, all of this is based on understanding the equality of ourselves and others. Everybody has feelings, just as I have feelings. Everybody wants to be taken seriously, just as I want to be taken seriously. If I ignore others or treat them badly they feel bad, just as I feel bad when people ignore me or are inconsiderate. Everybody wants to be liked, just like I want to be liked. Nobody wants to be rejected and ignored, just as I wouldn’t like that. And we’re interconnected; we’re all here together.

Sometimes a little, funny example is used to illustrate this: Imagine that you are in an elevator with about ten other people, and the elevator gets stuck. And you’re stuck there, trapped in this elevator for a whole day with these other people. How are you going to get along with everybody else? If you’re only thinking about me, me, me, and don’t think about these other people in this small space, there’s going to be a lot of conflict and arguments and it’s going to be an extremely unpleasant time. But if some way you realize that: “We’re all stuck together in the same situation and we have to be considerate of each other and think how we can cooperate with each other in order to survive and get out of this predicament,” then, although it certainly isn’t pleasant being stuck in the elevator, nevertheless we can manage the situation.

So if we extend this example: if we’re all stuck on this planet, like being stuck in a very large elevator, and if we don’t cooperate with each other, it’s going to be a miserable time because everybody’s in the same situation. And the way that we act with each other, whether it’s just ten people in an elevator or everybody on this planet, still it affects everybody else. Because of that it just makes sense to try to cooperate with everyone. And rather than thinking just in terms of: “How can I get out of this terrible situation of being stuck in the elevator?” we think in terms of: “How can all of us get out of this terrible situation?” So same thing with life, not just the elevator.

How can I think just in terms of dealing with my own problems (because there’s really nothing special about me; I’m just one of the people stuck in the elevator)? And actually the problem is not just my personal problem: the problem is everybody’s problem. Remember, we’re talking about the problems of anger, selfishness, greed, ignorance… these sorts of problems. These are everyone’s problems; nobody owns them individually themselves.

Expanding Our Minds and Hearts to Include All Beings, All of Life

It’s because of this that when we talk about bodhichitta, we’re talking about a universal type of mind and heart. We’re thinking about everybody, without any favorites, and without any beings that we leave out. So this is an enormous, enormous attitude, state of mind. When we talk about expanding our minds, this is the biggest that we could expand it. We’re thinking about everybody, and not just the human beings on this planet, for example, but all of life on the planet, all of life in the universe. If we think about, for example, the degradation of the environment – that affects not just the people who live in the environment; it certainly affects all the animal life as well, doesn’t it?

So we have this vast scope of whom it is that we’re concerned about. We have a vast scope in terms of thinking of the long, long-term solutions, not just a quick fix that will only help for a little while. And when we think in terms of our own potentials, we’re thinking of the largest scope of realization of our potential; it’s not just a little bit, but as much as is actually possible.

And, as I said, it is based on respect for ourselves. We realize that we all have the working materials to actually be able to achieve this state, and so does everybody else. So we take ourselves seriously, we take others seriously, and we respect ourselves and others – we’re all human beings, we all want to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. And it all lies in terms of what we do, how we lead our lives.

Developing Beneficial States of Mind and Habits through Meditation

Buddhism is very rich in offering many different methods for developing these states of mind. It doesn’t just say, “Love everybody,” and nothing further. That’s very nice, to just say we need to love everybody, but how do we actually do that? For this we have meditation. And meditation means to build up a beneficial habit. Like if we want to play a sport, or we want to play a musical instrument, we have to practice. We do it over and over again until we become good at it. And with practice we learn, so that after a while we don’t even have to think about it; we can just play a sport very well or play music very easily.

Likewise, we do the same thing in terms of training our attitudes. This is what we do with meditation. We try to generate a certain feeling, a certain state of mind, by working ourselves up to it. Like when you train for a sport: first you have to do some warm-up exercises, and then you actually can practice the sport. So we do some warm-up exercises with our state of mind.

In order to be able to generate a positive state of mind, we need first to calm down, quiet our minds and our emotions, if our thoughts are all over the place or our feelings are all mixed up. We usually do that by just focusing quietly on our breath. Our breath is there all the time, and if we focus on it, then it helps us to calm down to the steady rhythm of our breathing, and it connects us with our body in case our thoughts are “up in the clouds.” This is the basic warm-up exercise.

And we think in terms of our motivation. Why do I want to meditate? That’s also part of the warm-up. Just like if we’re practicing a sport or we’re learning to play music, it’s very important to really understand and reexamine: “Why am I doing this?” Even if we’re doing it just because we enjoy it and it’s fun, we need to remind ourselves of it because, obviously, training is a lot of hard work. So we reaffirm why I want to build up a positive habit through meditation. And the reason is because it will help me to deal with the problems of life in a better way – if, for instance, I don’t get angry so easily. And if I’m angry all the time, I can’t possibly be of any help to anybody else. If I’m emotionally upset, I’m no help to anybody.

So we do all these warm-up exercises. And then the actual meditation: we use some sort of line of thinking in order to generate the desired state of mind. And it’s very important when we do this to connect this with our personal lives. We’re not just thinking abstract theory: we’re thinking of steps that I can take to help me in my own life.

An Example

Let’s say one of our friends has acted in a very unpleasant way toward us – they’ve said something cruel, or they didn’t call us, they ignored us, or people have made fun of us. These are terrible things that happen to everybody. And we have been responding to that by feeling really terrible and becoming very annoyed with these people, especially if we thought they were our friend.

So we examine that in meditation, when our minds are a little bit more calm after focusing on the breath. And we reaffirm that our friends, our classmates – they’re people just like me: they want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy. And something must be really upsetting them that caused them to treat me in an unpleasant way, or they just were confused about me – they didn’t really appreciate my good qualities – so they made fun of me. Getting angry with them, becoming depressed – that’s not going to help at all. Instead, I wish that they could be free of whatever it is that’s upsetting them, so that they would treat me nicely, because then all of us will be happy, me and them.

So rather than feeling anger toward them, we feel love and compassion: “It would be great if they were free of whatever it is that’s upsetting them. May they be happy. If they were happy, they wouldn’t behave in a very unpleasant way.” In this way we build ourselves up to feeling love toward them rather than anger. That helps us to be more patient with their situation. And if we act in a more calm and loving and forgiving way, this helps them to calm down too, and the situation becomes much easier to handle.

Not Taking Personally the Garbage Others Throw at Us

Buddha once asked a disciple, “If someone tries to give you something and you don’t accept it, who does it belong to?” Obviously, it belongs to the person that’s trying to give it to you if you don’t accept it. So if somebody is trying to give you bad vibrations, and negative feelings, and so on, criticism, etc., it’s important not to accept it and take it personally – in other words, to see it [instead] as something that really is upsetting the other person. Of course, if somebody criticizes us it can be helpful to examine ourselves to see maybe they’re pointing out something that I need to work on. So we don’t ignore it, but it’s important not to go around like a catcher in a game of ball in which we’re always ready to catch whatever ball of garbage and nasty thoughts somebody throws at us.

Sometimes we act like that, don’t we, that we’re just anxious to catch whatever garbage people throw at us – nasty words, dirty looks, whatever it might be. Although it’s not easy to do, we try not to take all of these things that happen to us so personally, as a rejection of me, but rather as a problem that this other person has. In other words, rather than having the attitude with which we view this other person as horrible, we view them as: “Ooh, something’s upsetting them. Something’s wrong with them.”

It’s like if we’re taking up care of a two- or three-year-old child, and the child is very overtired and doesn’t want to go to sleep. And we say, “Well, it’s time to go to sleep,” and the child says, “I hate you!” Do we really take it personally? The child is overtired, and so we don’t take these nasty words that the child throws at us personally, but rather we have more patience and more love to the child and try to calm the child down.

In meditation we try to view the other person who’s been causing us problems in this more constructive way, and practice having more patience, more love, more positive attitude toward this person in this difficult situation, so that when we encounter such things in actual life, we’re better able to handle it. In short, then, this incredible state of mind of bodhichitta is something that we need to work ourselves up to attaining and achieving, with which we take responsibility to help others as best as we can by working, through meditation and other methods, to get rid of all my shortcomings as much as is possible and realize all my potentials. Because if I work to help everybody to gain happiness, then of course I will be the happiest as well. But if I work only for my own happiness, and do that ignoring others or at the expense of others, we’ll all suffer.

Now, when you’re young, you’re students, this is a perfect time to really learn to respect your potentials, your abilities, and to realize that you have all the working materials with which to develop, and to develop in a positive direction rather than a negative direction, or no direction at all. We’re not alone in the world; in this age of information, social media, etc., we’re all connected. And we can develop in more and more positive ways that are going to affect everyone in a constructive manner.

That’s a little bit about bodhichitta. Now we have time for questions.

Question about Geshe Wangyal

Question: Thank you very much, Dr. Berzin. And my question is about Geshe Wangyal, since you met him. The first question is whether he told you about other high Kalmyk lamas. And the other question is about his next rebirth. Maybe he mentioned to you who is he going to be reborn as.

Alex: Actually, I never heard him speak about other great Kalmyk lamas. Actually, I did not have that much contact with him. There were a few Western students who lived with him for a few years, like Robert Thurman and Jeffrey Hopkins. They dropped out of university for a few years to live with Geshe Wangyal and then, after a while, returned to university and became doctorates and then became professors. But I only visited Geshe Wangyal during my vacations from university; I never left university to live with him. Then I moved to India, and I only met Geshe Wangyal when he came to visit in India. So maybe he spoke to others about different Kalmyk lamas, but I never heard anything personally.

The same thing in terms of his reincarnations. He died in 1983. And like everybody, of course, after forty-nine days, he was reborn, but I don’t think he ever encouraged anybody to go looking for him. So I’m sure that he is now… must be twenty-seven, almost twenty-eight. And because of all his wonderful work in his last lifetime, I’m sure that he’s continuing on this path. And whether he’s recognized as the reincarnation of Geshe Wangyal or not doesn’t really make a difference in terms of the good works that he can do.

Anybody? Please don’t be shy. Or any requests for what you would like me to tell you about? Anything that you’re curious about?

What is Love from the Buddhist Point of View?

Question: I think that at that age you are more interested in what is love. And maybe you can tell us about what, from a Buddhist point of view or from your point of view, is the relationship between men and women.

Alex: Well, when we talk about love from a Buddhist point of view, love is, as I mentioned in our discussion, the wish for somebody to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. This means totally accepting the other person, both their strong points and their weak points. And my wish for them to be happy is not dependent on how they treat me or how they behave. Regardless of anything, I want them to be happy, even if that means giving them some space.

Often, love is mixed with desire (desire is when we don’t have something and we’ve got to get it). It could be mixed with attachment (which even if we have something, we don’t want to let go) and greed (even if we have somebody as our friend, somebody that we love, we want more and more and more of them). All of this is based on looking only at their good qualities and exaggerating them, making a big deal out of it, and ignoring any shortcomings that they might have. And the good qualities that they have might be just that they like me, it makes me feel good when I’m with this person, they’re good looking, they’re sexy, whatever. So we’re only looking at a very small part of the person, which we make more important than anything else. So this is not a very realistic attitude. And it is very dependent on how this person treats me: If they treat me nicely, then I love them; if they don’t treat me nicely, then I don’t love them anymore. This is not a stable type of love.

Fairy Tales and Unrealistic Expectations

As I said, the stable type of love – what we speak about in Buddhism – is one in which we acknowledge both the good side and the negative sides of somebody, because everybody has strong points and weak points; nobody is ideal or perfect. You see, the problem is that many of us are still believing in fairy tales. In the fairy tale there’s Prince Charming or Princess Charming on the white horse who’s going to be absolutely perfect. And we are always looking for the prince or princess, and we project prince or princess onto the various people that we fall in love with. But unfortunately that’s just a fairy tale and, like Father Christmas, doesn’t refer to anything real.

That’s not a very pleasant thing to realize; it’s very hard to accept. And we never give up: “This one didn’t turn out to be the prince or princess, but maybe the next one will be.” As long as we keep projecting and looking for the prince or princess on the white horse, our relationships, our loving relationships with others, are going to have problems, because nobody can live up to that ideal of the perfect partner for us. We get angry when they don’t act like the prince or princess. Well, that means that we’re not accepting the reality that they’re a human being like I am and have strong points and weak points. So real love, stable love, is based on accepting the reality of the other person.

Another aspect of the reality of the person that we fall in love with, that we often forget, is that we are not the only thing in their lives. Often, we lose sight of the fact that they have a life besides just being with me – they have other friends, they have family, they have other responsibilities. Other things that are part of their lives; I’m not the only one. So it’s very unreasonable for us to get jealous and upset when they spend time with other people, other things in their lives. And when they are in a bad mood, for example, or don’t feel like being with us, it’s not only because of me. I am not the cause of everything that this other person feels and does. If they’re in a bad mood, it could be affected by what’s going on in their family; it could be affected by other friends that they have; it could be affected by being sick, not feeling very well; it could be affected by so many things. Why should I think that I am the only cause for everything that this other person feels?

Likewise, if I have a long-term relationship with this person then many, many things happen day to day to day in our interaction. Often, what happens is, “They didn’t call me today. They didn’t answer my text message,” and we exaggerate the importance of this one event; we don’t see it in the long-term context of our whole relationship over time. And because of this one incident, we conclude they don’t love me anymore. But this is being very, very shortsighted – only looking at one little thing and taking it in isolation from the whole relationship.

The reality is that everybody’s life, and moods, and so on, goes up and down. That’s true about us; it’s true about everyone. So it’s just natural that sometimes this person that I’m in love with feels like being with me; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re in a good mood; sometimes they’re in a bad mood. And if they’re in a bad mood – or if they’re too busy with other things to be able to answer my text message, or whatever, instantly – that doesn’t automatically mean they don’t love me anymore; it’s just part of life.

These are some of the things that are very important to learn and to understand if we want to make our loving relationships stable; otherwise, a lot of emotional turmoil.

Letting Go and Letting Be

There’s a very good example that is given by a great Indian Buddhist master, which is that our relationships with others are like the example of leaves blowing in the wind, coming off of the tree in autumn. Sometimes the leaves will fly in the wind together; sometimes they fly apart. That’s just part of life. And so any relationship with somebody – maybe it’ll last for our whole lives, but maybe it won’t.

It is important to try to look at the other person like a wild bird that has come to our window. A beautiful wild bird comes to our window, and how wonderful it is. How beautiful, how happy it is, to have this wild bird with me for a while. But of course the bird is going to fly away: the bird is free. And if the bird comes again to my window, how wonderful that is, how fortunate I am. But if I try to capture the bird and put it in a cage, then the bird will be very unhappy and might even die.

So the same thing with somebody who comes into our lives and whom we love. They’re like this beautiful wild bird. They come into our lives, bring a great deal of joy and beauty. But they are free, like the wild bird. But if we try to grasp onto them and hold them as if they are our possession, and we constantly are nagging them – “Why didn’t you call me? Why didn’t you come to see me? Why don’t you spend more time with me?” – it’s like trying to put the wild bird into a cage. That wild bird will try to escape as much as he can. And if the wild bird stays with us, like this person staying with us out of a sense of guilt, they will be very unhappy.

This is a very, very helpful thought – to regard anyone that we fall in love with, who comes into our life, to regard them like this beautiful wild bird. The more relaxed we are – the less grasping we are – the more the wild bird will like to come to our window.

Okay. Anything else?

How to Deal with Others’ Rude Behavior?

Question: Good afternoon. I want to ask you one question about… What can you say about a situation when a person is always rude with you, when he always interrupts you? And should I ignore him, or should I do something to correct that behavior?

Alex: When somebody is always interrupting us and being rude toward us, then I don’t think it’s very helpful to just accept their rude behavior; this doesn’t help them at all. And getting angry with them isn’t going to help either because we could just cause a big conflict. What is helpful is to see that this person has a problem. The problem is that they’re only thinking about themselves, and they only think that what they have to say is important. So we have to tell them in a very calm way that, “Hey, I have something to say too. And if you want to be with me, then you have to give me some time as well to say what’s on my mind” – like saying, “Excuse me, I’m not finished saying what I wanted to say” – but doing this without getting angry, just keeping calm. And hopefully they will eventually get the message.

Anything else?

Participant: No.

Translator: They’re tired.

Alex: Well then, perhaps we can draw our session to an end.