Going From Renunciation to Compassion
Morelia, Mexico, October 2008
This evening we’re going to speak about renunciation and compassion. These are two important states of mind that we need to try to cultivate as part of our motivation as we proceed on the Buddhist spiritual path. What I’d like to speak about this evening are some of the issues that are involved with these two states of mind, particularly because the two are very closely related to each other. In fact, they are very much the same state of mind, just that what they’re aimed at is slightly different. As you probably know very well, the Buddhist teachings are all aimed at helping us to get rid of suffering and problems. And the method that is used to get rid of problems is to discover their true causes and to get rid of those causes so that they no longer produce suffering. And it’s based on the conviction that it’s possible to remove those causes in such a way that they never recur again. To do that we need to develop a pathway of mind: a way of understanding that will completely counter and eliminate the cause for our problems, which is basically our lack of understanding, our unawareness.
So, this is the teachings of the four noble truths. This is the first teaching, the most basic teaching that Buddha gave. And so when we look at renunciation and compassion, both of those are aimed at suffering, with the wish for that suffering to be gone. The main difference here is that with renunciation our mind is focused on our own suffering, and with compassion it’s focused on the suffering of others. And the state of mind, then, is very similar, isn’t it? But then the question is, is the emotion quite the same and how do we make the transition from one to the other?
Now, this term “renunciation” that’s used not only in English, but in practically all the other languages that Buddhism is presented in in the West, one starts to question, really, is that the proper translation of the term. One wonders if the term might have be coined by the missionaries who had a different conceptual framework. Somehow, that word renunciation seems to have just the connotation of giving up everything, because it’s bad to be involved in that, and go and live in a monastery or cave; and that’s not really the connotation of the term in Sanskrit or Tibetan. The term, particularly if we look at the Tibetan, means a determination; it means to become certain. And it is referring specifically to the determination to be free from sufferings that it’s focused on.
Now, of course to have that determination to be free from sufferings requires the willingness to give up that suffering and its cause. So, it does have that connotation of giving up something or turning away from something, because one recognizes that what we’re focused on is actually suffering or a cause of suffering; it’s not just aimed at anything. And by recognizing this is the suffering or cause of suffering, and that I don’t want to experience this anymore, then I want to get out of that, so I want to give that up. “I want it to be gone,” I suppose, could be a more neutral way of expressing this. So, this is the case whether it’s focused at our own suffering or, in the case of compassion, focused on the suffering of others. We wish for it to be gone.
So, we can see that one aspect that’s very important here is to actually recognize what it is that we’re focusing on, so, what is suffering and what are the causes of suffering, and then to recognize the various mental factors that are involved here. Tsongkhapa, in his Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra, explains very very clearly what is necessary for being able to meditate. So, meditation means to familiarize and habituate our minds with a certain state of mind, or with an object; here we’re talking about a state of mind. And to know how to familiarize ourselves with it, we need to know all the specifics of that state of mind; we need to know what it is focused on. So, in this case it’s focused on suffering and its causes. And we have to know how that mind relates to that object. The technical term is “how it takes that object.” And so, the way that it takes that object is with the wish for it to be gone. Alright? It’s not just focusing on it and paying attention to it; the way in which it relates to it is, “Be gone!”
Then, there are always, in any state of mind, many different mental factors that are present, that accompany it. And so, if we know all of these factors, then it helps us to actually generate the type of state of mind that is being specified here. Tsongkhapa also specifies many other things that we need. I don’t know if we’ll have time to go into all of them. We need to know what that state of mind relies upon, in other words, what are the states of mind that we have to have prior to this, that will help us to build up and then support that state of mind, What states of mind will help the state of mind that we want to generate and which ones will harm it, like for instance, love will help this, whether it’s love for ourselves or for others; and hatred, whether it is self-hatred or hatred of others, will be detrimental to it. And also we need to know what will be the benefit and use of that state of mind once we generate it. And, on one hand, renunciation will help us to actually get free of our suffering, and compassion will help us to be able to help others get free of their suffering; that there’s a function for that state of mind. And going back to the first one – I didn’t give an example that will support this state of mind – it’s having really thought about and identified these sufferings, seen it in myself and in others.
Now, although this might sound like a lot of technical detail, actually it is extremely, extremely helpful, because if we approach Buddhist training or any type of spiritual training, and our aim is to develop, let’s say, love or compassion or whatever, how do you do that? We don’t know exactly what it is that is meant by love or compassion, and so very often you just sort of sit there. And we maybe have our own idea of what love or compassion might be, but even our own idea is usually something that’s very very vague. And so if we’re trying to generate something which is vague, the best that we can hope for is to only to have a vague feeling of it at the end, and it’s probably a vague feeling of something that is not what Buddhism is asking us to develop. And so, although in the Buddhist training we’re working with what might be called spiritual values, states of mind, and so on, the way that it is approached is in a very scientific precise way. If we know with precision what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do with our minds, it’s very precise. So if we have precision in how we work with it and what we’re trying to do with it, and we mean not just our minds but our hearts, our emotions and so on, then we can actually cultivate it and develop it. Otherwise it’s just very very vague. Some of us may be not very scientifically or rationally oriented. Some of us may be very intuitive people and we work more with emotions, but if we look at intuition very closely, we find that the best type of intuition is the intuition that is very precise. Intuition that is vague also doesn’t get us quite very far. So, regardless of what type of personalities we have, precision is very very helpful.
Now, what are the mental factors that accompany renunciation and compassion? In other words, what I’d like to do here is paint the picture – and a precise picture – more precise picture of what are these mental states that are discussed so prominently in the Buddhist teachings. Then the question of course is even if I can describe this state of mind and emotion precisely, how am I going to feel it? How can I know that what I feel is the real thing? Well, if we have an idea of what this state of mind needs to contain, in order to be the real thing, then we can compare what we have now with what the real thing is. And then we can look at our feeling, try to deconstruct it, see all the pieces that go into it, and discover which parts of that state of mind are weak or deficient. And so we know what we need to work on in order to get our state of mind more precise. Analyzing and understanding our feelings is not a process that destroys the feelings; but it’s a process that’s followed in psychotherapy as well, to help us to heal our feelings, to get them more beneficial for us and for others.
What is the dominating emotion that is present with renunciation and compassion? It is a word, which – not the easiest thing to translate – but it’s a state of being fed up with something: “I’ve had enough of something.” Sometimes it’s translated a little bit more strongly – and I have done that as well – as disgust; disgusted with our suffering, disgusted with the suffering of others. But on further reflection, I think that that’s too strong a word, because disgust can easily go off into a disturbing emotion. So, I think it’s a little bit more neutral. “Enough of this suffering, it’s got to end” – whether it’s our own or somebody else’s. So, it has a certain component into it of really being decisive. “That’s it, enough!” And I think we can understand this actually, actually, in our ordinary experience. We could be suffering, have a problem, and I’d really like to get out of it, but we don’t actually do anything to get out of it even though we want to get out of it and we’re quite sure we’d like to get out of it. Until we really firmly make up our mind and reach that point where we say, “That’s it, enough.” So, that’s one component, that’s the major emotional tone here.
Then, also, what accompanies this state of mind is a mental factor called belief in a fact. Sometimes it’s translated as faith, but I think that’s a totally inappropriate translation. It is aimed at something that is true, and it believes that it’s true. And there are three types of it. So we’re not talking about believing in the Easter bunny or something like that. Now, first is the belief in a fact which is based on reason. So, we’re focused on suffering, and we have a firm belief in the fact that this really is suffering and this really is the cause of the suffering. And in addition it’s the confident belief that that suffering can be removed, and it can be removed forever.
Now, that’s a very important component here. If that’s missing, the whole emotional tone is completely different. Well, for example, I recognize that I have a problem in life, whatever that might be, and I can understand a little bit about the cause, and I’d really like to get out of that, and I’ve even reached the point at which I have had enough. I really want to do something about it, but I think it’s hopeless, that there’s no way really of getting out of it and that I just have to sort of shut up and learn to live with it. Or I’m condemned to have this forever. And that’s a very different state of mind, isn’t it? Because in that state of mind in which we feel it’s hopeless, then it’s very easy to just get very depressed about the whole situation and frustrated, because although I would really like to get out of this, it’s really only wishful thinking and there’s not much that can be done.
And our conviction here that we can get rid of the problem forever has to be based on reason. I understand how I get rid of the problem and I’m convinced that it would work. So, this gives us hope, and hope gives us strength, and strength is very important for being able to actually do something to get rid of the problem. So that’s belief in a fact that’s based on reason.
The second aspect of belief in a fact is what’s called “clearheaded belief.” It clears the head, it clears your mind of disturbing emotions, without (also clearing out) the object. So, what does this mean? This means that with this confident type of belief, then it clears my mind of depression; it clears my mind of doubt about the situation; it clears my mind of a feeling of helplessness; it clears my mind of feeling afraid. When we have a lot of problems and difficulties, we live in a great deal of fear, and “Oh, it’s going to be like this forever.” “I’m afraid to do anything because maybe I’ll just make it worse.” I mean, I’m sure we all know examples of this, either of ourselves or others. You have very, very terrible relationship with somebody, very destructive, abusive relationship, but we’re afraid to get out of that relationship and end it because maybe it will be worse without this person. But here we have confident belief that we can get rid of the problem, and that in getting rid of the problem everything will be better.
Also, what we get rid of is exaggerating the negativity of suffering. We have a problem, alright? So, if we exaggerate the negativity of that problem, we make it into a horrible monster. I mean, we can even externalize it and make it into the work of the devil. And so, when we exaggerate it and make it into a monster, then, again that gives even more fear, doesn’t it? So it’s not that we are afraid and so we have to run out and escape. Again, it’s a matter of terminology, of how we translate the terms. “I want to escape from the prison of samsara.” We hear this terminology. But what really is the emotional state that these words conjure up? One has to be very, very careful here. So, it’s a strong wish that I want to get out. I mean, even if you’re in a prison, “I really want to get out.” This is the state of mind. You know, we’re not talking about being afraid of something and then I have to run away, because otherwise it’s going to get me, and hurt me. So, if our state of mind here – let’s just speak about renunciation first – if the state of mind is accompanied with clearheaded belief, then this determination to be free from our problems is with a very clear and calm mind, and emotional state. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t feel anything. And it’s not a strong feeling. So one has to really see what’s involved here. Alright? It’s not that we hate samsara, “I hate my situation and I’ve got to get out of it.” That’s not a calm, clear state of mind.
Third type of belief – so we’ve had belief in a fact based on reason, clearheaded belief – and now belief in a fact with an aspiration concerning it. So, the aspiration here is that “I will get out of this, and I’m going to do something to get out of it.” So, maybe an everyday example of this state of mind that we’re referring to would be somebody who has grown up in poverty, and they are determined to be free of that poverty, and to make something more successful in their lives. It’s not that they are filled with hate of their situation. They’re very clear, calm, what they have to do to get out, and they’re going to do it, because they’ve had enough of this situation. They know what they have to do, and they just do it, straightforwardly. I am thinking of an example of a friend of mine who grew up in a very poor family, in a very rough neighborhood. He went to school, mostly people in his class were in gangs, and fighting with each other. And he was determined to be free of that. He knew what he had to do; he worked very hard to get the money, get the opportunity, went to university, studied medicine and now he’s a very successful brain surgeon.
So, that’s what renunciation is when it’s focused on our own suffering. So when it’s focused on the suffering of others, it’s the same thing. We are focused on the suffering of others, and the way that our mind is thinking is that “this has got to go.” And the state of mind, the emotion with it is this feeling of “this is enough.” “This is enough,” and everybody has all these problems. Alright? It’s not that we are disgusted about it. That’s, again, a disturbing type of emotion. Alright? We are confident in our belief and our understanding that this is the cause of their problems and it is possible for them to get out of it as well. It’s not that we’re just wishing them well but we know that it’s hopeless. And our belief is a clearheaded type of belief, so our minds, with this compassion, is cleared of disturbing emotion. It’s very important.
I think of examples. I remember my mother used to watch the news on the television and she’d hear, with the local news, all the murders and the robberies and the rapes and so on and she’d get very angry, very indignant and angry. “How terrible this is and it shouldn’t happen,” and so on. It looks like compassion, but it’s a very disturbed state of mind. This is not the “real thing” compassion. We have a mixture, then, in this case, of compassion and concern, but anger and being upset. Compassion – the “real thing” compassion – is not an upset state of mind; it’s a very clear state of mind. And it is accompanied with a belief, with an aspiration, which is that “I’m going to try to do something about it, to help remove this suffering.” So it’s not just wishing that they do something about it, but I’m going to try to help. But, it has to be based on a realistic understanding of what it is that we can do. It’s not mixed with this idea of “I’m God Almighty and I’m going to go out and save the world,” and “if I succeed in helping this person, how wonderful I am, and if I fail, I’m guilty. This is why we need to understand so well and have confidence in the process by which suffering can be removed. And the process is one that arises dependently on many many many causes and factors, not just on my will power and my wish for the suffering to be gone.
Now, remember the first component that we needed for generating either renunciation or compassion was that it needs to be focused on suffering, either our suffering or others’ suffering. So, what kind of suffering is the first question. So, the Buddha specified three types of true suffering. Without going into tremendous detail here, we can be focused on pain and unhappiness. That’s not so difficult to want that to be gone. I’m sure we have all experienced that in the dentist’s chair. That’s a very interesting question, actually. When I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair and I’m experiencing the pain of, let’s say, something that the dentist is doing, do I have renunciation of that? It that my state of mind? What actually is my state of mind? It’s a very interesting question, actually. What are we feeling in that chair? Fear, I think most of us. We make the pain that we feel, we usually exaggerate it, and we make it into a monster, and we certainly aren’t calm, at all. So here, if we think in terms of renunciation, we’re focused on the pain of the drilling. We would like it to be finished already. Alright? We’d like our suffering from that pain to be finished. We’ve had enough of it and we are confident that we can get rid of it.
Now, here we have an interesting complication. We can understand that we can get rid of it simply by waiting it out. We are not going to be sitting in the dentist chair, this dentist is not going to be drilling for the rest of my life. Impermanence is there and it will end, I just have to bear with it. And with that we can be calm and we can be confident that if I remain calm – don’t freak in the chair and don’t tense up – that it will be finished and be gone. Or we can be confident that we can be rid of the suffering of this pain by changing our attitude toward it. We’re talking about changing adverse circumstances into positive ones, so if I think of the suffering of all the people who are being tortured in Tibet or in other places of the world, and what I’m experiencing is nothing compared to that, then I can be quite confident if I can think like that I will remain calm, and I will not suffer so much from the pain. The pain will be there, but it no longer is a big deal. So, here we have renunciation. What are we renouncing? Well, the pain, the pain is going to be there and I understand that it is going to end after a short period of time, it’s impermanent, but what I’m really renouncing then is the fear and the mental suffering and all these things that are accompanying my experience of being in the dentist chair and making it into a torture. And that’s really, what we would be – if we’re going to practice renunciation here – that we would renounce. So it changes the whole situation very much.
We see this, I’m thinking of examples of great lamas who have died in Western hospitals, whether it’s of cancer, whether it’s of whatever. And sure, they must be experiencing some pain, but they certainly have renounced being afraid of that and so on. And instead, they change that whole situation into which they are really thinking of the suffering of others and the sadness, and particularly the doctor and the doctor feels bad, and so showing so much concern for how the doctor feels in treating them and then all the people that come and so on. And so, what is behind, or underlying I should say, the way that they’re dealing with sickness is renunciation. So, they have renounced, actually, the tension and mental pain of the entire situation, with regard to both themselves and to everybody else who’s involved. And it’s not something which is just pretending, you know, “Well, yeah, it’s okay, I’m okay,” but inside it’s not okay. If that’s the case we’re missing this clearheaded belief, the type of confident belief that clears away the fear and discomfort. Because we know that this is the way to diffuse the situation, if we apply this opponent “this” and “that.” And of course the more familiar we are with the whole practice of renunciation and compassion, this just comes automatically. It’s not an artificial thing that we have to generate.
All right, a difficult situation, we lost our job or we lost our savings, or whatever it is, and there’s discomfort in me, but then there’s discomfort in everybody else as well, so we want that discomfort to be gone, both in ourselves and others. So it’s not that you stop…. you know, going from renunciation to compassion doesn’t mean that you stop having renunciation and stop thinking in terms of yourself. But now we extend it to be both ourselves and everybody else.
Now, that’s renunciation and compassion being aimed at just the suffering of pain and unhappiness. Now, we also pointed out that our ordinary happiness is a form of suffering. So, this is referring to the fact that our ordinary happiness never lasts; it’s never satisfying; we never have enough. It changes into pain and unhappiness. So for instance if eating ice cream is a true cause of happiness, then the more we eat, the happier we should become. And obviously we reach a certain point that the more you eat, the more sick you feel. So, we’re frustrated, we don’t continue to be happy, you don’t know when your mood is going to change, and we’re never satisfied. So, we can also renounce this. Alright? “I am determined to be free of this.”
So, what does that mean? Does that mean I don’t ever want to be happy again? I’m giving up my happiness because it is unsatisfying? So, to think like that would obviously be a misunderstanding of the Buddhist position. Ordinary happiness is going to end so we accept that, we don’t exaggerate it, and how do we overcome the suffering from this situation from our ordinary happiness? A very interesting question. To say that “well, I will enjoy it for what it is,” what it is is ordinary happiness and it’s not going to last. So, I’m not frustrated because I know it’s going to end, so I don’t expect it to last forever. Now, it’s not satisfying, it’s not enough. Well, what actually, if we think about it, would eliminate that problem would be, well, “what do I expect it to do,” you know, in terms of satisfaction?
I’ll give an example. Being with a friend, a loved one, you know, we’re not always with the friend, the friend goes away after visiting with us, and we’re not satisfied. We wanted that person to be there longer. Well, what did we expect to get from that visit that we feel unsatisfied? That somehow being with this person is going to make me ultimately happy, get rid of my loneliness and my insecurity forever? You see, we’re unsatisfied because what we expected is not being fulfilled. But what we expected is impossible. So, if I don’t expect anything miraculous is going to happen, then, I’m satisfied with whatever did happen. This is accepting reality. You know, I enjoy this visit; I enjoy this meal; I enjoy the intimacy that we have now. It’s not going to eliminate my unhappiness forever, my loneliness, or my hunger, etc; I don’t expect it to. I’m not exaggerating and I’m clearheaded about it. It’s not that I am upset about that and disappointed. And that’s it. We enjoy it for what it is and when it’s finished, it’s finished.
So, we have renounced the problems that we face with our ordinary happiness, and obviously when we’re focused on somebody else’s problems with ordinary happiness, then again this clear-minded state is very important. Certainly not that we’re jealous that the other person is happy and I’m not, even though we realize that their happiness is not going to satisfy them. We recognize that, you know, this person is expecting too much from, let’s say this relationship with a friend, or they’re always going to be frustrated and dissatisfied, and so you recognize that as the problem. It’s not that we don’t want them to be happy. What we’re focusing on is the unhappiness or the problem that comes from their way of experiencing happiness. So, by making that differentiation here between the happiness and the problem with the happiness, then that allows us to rejoice at the happiness that the other person is feeling, which is emphasized very much in the Buddhist teachings. We rejoice in their happiness; however, we understand realistically the shortcomings and we have compassion for the problems that they have with that happiness. Nevertheless, even if it’s worldly happiness, ordinary happiness; nevertheless we’re able to rejoice in that happiness.
Now, the deepest form of suffering which Buddha pointed out is the really true suffering, is what’s known as the “all-encompassing affecting suffering.” This is referring to an uncontrollably recurring rebirth that we all have, which is the basis for experiencing the first two types of problems. We’re going to continue to have a body that in one form or another is going to have to go through the whole process of being born, being a baby, have to learn everything all over again, getting sick, the body gets sick, it gets injured very easily, it gets old and it dies. And we’re going to continue to have a mind that in one way or another is going to be confused, is going to make a lot of projections, all sorts of strange thoughts, and is always going to be going up and down with moods. And we’re always going to be in relationships that are never going to be satisfying and are always going to have lots of complications. We’re not going to get what we want, what we like; in fact, we’re going to be parted from that. We’re going to meet what we don’t like, acting this way or that way, we don’t like it, we can’t get our way. We get frustrated, we don’t get what we want even though we try very hard to get it; like a good job, a good partner, or whatever. There’s no certainty, not only about our future lives; there’s no certainty about what we are going to feel like in the next moment. And we’re going to have to always forsake this type of body and the current life that we’re leading, and fit into a whole new one, and have to learn everything all over again, and make friends all over again. The whole bit. And with renunciation we’ve had enough of this.
In fact, it’s quite interesting, if we look really at the state of mind that’s involved here, I think there’s also an element of being bored; we’re no longer fascinated because we don’t exaggerate what life is like. Then in a sense we’re not fascinated with it and if we’re not fascinated with it, in fact we’re bored with the ever-repeating problems that we have to face. And we understand the cause of the problems that we have are our disturbing emotions, our disturbing attitudes, the impulsive behavior that’s driven by those. And the unawareness and confusion that’s behind it and that we’re determined to be free of. And that’s the real thing, the deepest level of renunciation. We’re confident that we can get out of it; our mind is not disturbed when we’re in this state, it’s clear, and we’re going to do something about it.
Now, when we looked at this whole presentation of renunciation and compassion, we find this within the context of the three scopes of motivation of lam-rim, the graded stages. The initial scope motivation is to work to improve future lives, so that we continue to have precious human rebirth and all the opportunities to be able to continue on the spiritual path. And the problem with that – the danger I should say – when we develop this state of mind is that we develop attachment to it; attachment to the precious human rebirth. “I want to be reborn and continue to be with my friends and my loved ones and have wealth and have comfort” and things like that. So it can be mixed with a great deal of attachment. So, what is happening there is that we’re exaggerating the good qualities of the precious human life. This is what attachment and desire are based on is an exaggeration of the good qualities of something. “I have to have it”, or “I don’t want to let go of it,” if I have it already.
So, what’s the problem with renunciation? The problem with renunciation is similar to this but in the dimension of repulsion. So, rather then attraction, what happens is that we exaggerate the negative qualities of our samsaric existence and we feel repulsion for it and it goes into that area of disgust that we were speaking of before – disgust, repulsion, they’re rather related. So, we’re working with renunciation, we’re working very hard to try to become someone of this intermediate scope of motivation, which is really not easy, because what we’re focusing on now are the drawbacks or shortcomings of samsara and those are one of the major things that we try to develop in what is called the four thoughts that turn the mind to the dharma, etc. Think of the drawbacks and the disadvantages of samsara. So, if you’re really doing that, then everything that you experience in life, you’re looking at the drawbacks of it. That colors your emotions very strongly, and your experience of life very strongly.
So, any situation that we’re in, the first thought that would come to our mind is suffering. So we see somebody, and we might feel a little bit of attraction, and then you think “suffering.” And you get into a new job and you think, “Suffering, this is going to be terrible.” No matter what happens, “suffering,” the telephone rings, “suffering.” Anything. You get into the shower, “Ah, suffering, it’s gonna end, I’m gonna be frustrated.” All of that. So, it is very easy for us to develop a very negative attitude toward life, in general; toward everything and especially toward people. We buy a new computer, “suffering,” it’s going to break; a virus is going to come in. We can’t enjoy anything.
So, how do we deal with this? Does this mean that we say, “Well, but nevertheless we should enjoy the beauty of life” and all of this? Well, we have to be very careful here. To just see the joy in life and take joy in life – is this being naive about the suffering nature of life? Is it contradictory to renunciation? Transfer this to compassion; we’re thinking, “Oh, so sad, everybody’s suffering and how horrible that is.” Well, what do we want to do, go to the other extreme and say, “Oh, I’m so delighted and happy to see you” in the sense that “I’m happy with your suffering?” No, it’s not quite that either. How do we mix or combine a sense of joy and happiness with renunciation or compassion?
So, when we are trying to take joy and to find joy in life, in our own life, and joy in meeting everyone in their lives, we’re focusing on something different from what we’re focusing on when we are having the state of mind of renunciation and compassion. We’re focusing on the potentials, Buddha-nature potentials and so on of ourselves, of life and so on, and of others. That is the source of joy: it’s different. So, if with renunciation – let’s say we’re looking at ourselves – and with renunciation I’m confident that I can get rid of the suffering, and I’m going to do something about it, and it is possible to be rid of it, then that would make us happy, wouldn’t it? But, as I say, it’s a very delicate thing to try to combine these two states of mind. They happen simultaneously, there’s one underlying another, they alternate. How actually do we put them together? This, I think we each have to work with individually. Alright? Are we are just looking at different levels of a situation with ourselves and with others. This I think is more like it.
You know, one of the biggest problems is that when we are working with renunciation, and we actually succeed and we’re not attracted to things in our ordinary existence, and even if we say, “Well, you know, any type of relationship, I just see suffering is going to come in this type of relationship and so I’m going to go off to a monastery and become a monk or a nun” ….we have to be very careful that we don’t get disgusted in terms of people in general, because that becomes a big block to feeling compassion for them. “You’re just trouble!” So it builds up a habit of not really wanting to get involved with anybody, and if we’re going to have compassion, we have to be involved with somebody, try to help them.
So, with renunciation there’s the feeling that “Well, it’s just gonna be trouble, this is going to be suffering and problems, dealing with this person, they’re not going to take my advice, they are going to give a hard time,” etc. This is something we have to work on. So, just as we needed to look at two levels in terms of suffering, but the basic Buddha-nature – the basic potentials that everybody has to be free of all of this, and become liberated and a Buddha and so on – in order to be able to not negate feeling joy in life and joy with others, while at the same time feeling determination for me to be free of my problems and for them to be free of their problems, similarly we need to look at two levels in terms of the problems in suffering and the person. So, we want the suffering to go away, but we don’t want the person who’s experiencing the suffering to go away.
So, we first apply this to ourselves. Alright? “I want my suffering to go away, but it’s not that I want to destroy myself; it’s not that I have a negative attitude toward me as a person, it’s just the suffering.” It’s very easy to confuse the two and then think, “Well, you know I’ll kill myself, to get rid of my suffering.”
So similarly “I want your suffering to go away – this is with compassion – but I don’t want you to go away.” Now, that’s not a very easy differentiation to make, and it’s not a very easy thing to get rid of, this faulty generation of renunciation, which causes us to feel repulsed by people, and being involved with anybody and “Just leave me alone and I’m gonna go in my cave a meditate or in my monastery and that’s it.”
Now, how then do we avoid this problem? And I think that one of the ways of doing this is in terms of when we talk about “real-thing” Dharma. “Real-thing” Dharma is dealing with everybody is an individual mental continuum, no beginning and no end, and what is imputed on that; I don’t want to go into technical detail here. But in terms of everybody, myself included, there’s a beginningless and endless mental continuum. And so we are focusing on the all-encompassing suffering, we’re focusing in terms of this whole mental continuum. So, when we see that with “me,” a person – whether myself or somebody else – is what is imputed on the whole continuum, beginningless and endless. Then we don’t identify “me” or the other person with any specific suffering situation that we observe. Alright? We don’t identify with the specific suffering of now, and confuse it with “me,” and then, when we want that suffering to be gone, you confuse the two and identify the two, and when you want the suffering to be gone, you want the “me” to be gone as well.
So, in that way we have a much, much broader view of the “me” and we see that well, this is suffering, that’s suffering and that’s suffering, but the “me” continues. And if we understand the purity of the mental continuum and the possibility of getting rid of all the emotional obscurations and cognitive obscurations and all this stuff that becomes very detailed if we go into it, but it’s possible to get rid of these causes of suffering, then that gives us the opportunity to also see… you know, it’s not that we are identifying the “me” with that either. In which case we become naive about the suffering, but we see everything in a much larger perspective. There’s the “me.” there’s the suffering, there’s the joy, and all the possibilities and so on, and the emotions that we feel toward all of these don’t get confused.
There’s one further point that we need to discuss. Is there any sort of positive emotion that we would feel together with compassion, or is compassion just this “May their suffering be free.” “I don’t quite,” you know, you might wonder, “I don’t quite see some positive emotion there, it’s sort of a feeling of something to be gone!” “Positive” isn’t quite the word, but maybe you understand what I’m trying to refer to here. Because after all, when we think of the suffering of others, or the suffering of ourselves, it’s sad. You certainly don’t feel happy that I ‘m suffering or happy that you’re suffering, you feel sorry. Well, in the teachings on tonglen, giving and taking, we take on the suffering of others, so we accept it, and you do feel sad, but then we give them love, which is the wish for them to be happy, and so then we feel happy. So, this has always been a stumbling block for a lot of people in practicing tonglen. How do you balance here, and all of a sudden change from feeling sad to feeling happy? It’s the same issue that we had in terms of feeling, “It’s terrible that there’s all of this suffering,” and trying to balance that with a feeling of joy in life. It’s the same type of issue here. But we know that this is very important to be able to somehow balance sadness with happiness. Like for instance we visit a very sick relative or a friend, and we feel sad that there’s suffering and that they’re sick. But if you just stay with the person and feel very sad and unhappy that doesn’t help the person at all. And so how do you feel happy? Is it artificial? I mean, you just go in there with a big smile on your face or what?
So here we have to apply fairly advanced teachings of mahamudra, actually. The sadness is like a wave on the top of the ocean of the mind, and we let that settle down, and if we can settle it or have it naturally settle down, then what one accesses is the natural joy of the mind, and that shines out. That’s the happiness we give to others, not “Oh, I’m so happy you’re suffering.” So, this natural joy of the mind is something which is much more relaxed, and not filled with our ordinary type of, you know, “I’m so happy that you’re sick.” I’m happy with my life; tough luck that you’re sick. And it’s not that “I’m happy with my life,” and so that’s the type of happiness, “Oh, I got a good job, and made a lot of money this week, and bla bla bla, I’m so happy.” And, you know, “What a shame that you’re sick, but I’m happy.” It’s not that. “I feel sorry for you, I feel bad for you, but I’m okay.”
So, that’s actually quite an advanced practice to be able to do. The mahamudra approach; as far as I can see, it’s the only actual way of being able to make that transition when you do tonglen, the giving and taking. In other words, how do you balance this sadness with an underlying feeling of happiness. So, when we’re talking about compassion, I think that this is a part of the tone – the emotional tone – or a least the feeling thing in terms of the dimension of sad or happy that goes with it.
And also, remember, when we began our lecture, I pointed out that Tsongkhapa said, to generate a state of mind like compassion we have to know what it is built up on. So, in this case it is built up on proper renunciation. With renunciation we’re working to get rid of our disturbing emotions. So, on the basis of renunciation, then we work first with equanimity. Equanimity, we’re focusing on everybody, all beings, not just ourselves. We all have beginningless and endless mental continuums, labeled in terms of that; therefore there’s no attraction, repulsion or indifference; everybody’s the same. So, we’ve had every type of relationship with every type of being. So, there is no basis for attraction, repulsion or indifference. Now, there’s no benefit in focusing on when everybody has been my murderer, my enemy; much more beneficial to focus on when everybody has been my mother. And then we think of the kindness that everybody has shown toward us as our mother or whoever was the primary caretaker, but the mother, the one that carried us in her womb, so I mean that’s very tremendous. And even if our mother abused us and was terrible, minimum, she didn’t abort us.
The next step is usually translated as “we want to repay that kindness,” but I tend to think with this term, “repay,” is a little bit tricky here. It doesn’t quite convey it, because that implies it’s a business deal and if we don’t repay it, we’re guilty. I think more the tone of that is to appreciate that kindness. I really, really appreciate that kindness that you showed me, that everybody has showed me. So it’s on the basis of this appreciation that the next step is what’s called “heart-warming love.” Whenever we encounter somebody, because we understand the kindness and appreciate it, we feel automatically close to them, we cherish them. We’re sincerely concerned about their welfare and we would feel sad if anything happened to them. So, then it’s on the basis of that that we have love, the wish for them to be happy and the causes of happiness, and on the basis of that, compassion, the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. So, we can see that underlying – that’s why Tsongkhapa says you have to know what underlies these states of mind – what’s underlying this compassion is this feeling of equal closeness to everyone, acknowledging and appreciating the kindness of everyone, and having this heartwarming love and feeling of closeness and affection for everyone. That’s part of this whole package of compassion.
So, by extension then, if compassion is the state of mind of renunciation aimed instead of at our own suffering, the suffering of others, then the foundation of compassion should likewise be present in some sort of form with renunciation. Which means that we have first of all equanimity toward ourselves – not attraction, not repulsion, not indifference. And it’s no help to focus on the negative things that we’ve done in life, from lifetime to lifetime. We focus on the positive things. It’s parallel to seeing when others have been our mother. Focus on the positive things, and how kind we’ve been, in a sense, to ourselves, to bring about beneficial circumstances, as a result, it’s the karmic result, and we appreciate that. And we have a heart-warming love toward ourselves, not hatred of ourselves.
When working with compassion, one of the main principles that equalizes everybody is that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. Well, the same thing is true of myself. Therefore, I have the right to be happy; I have the right not to be unhappy. Therefore, I can develop this renunciation – this determination to be free – which is basically compassion for myself. So, if I wanna be kind to myself – and please I’m not encouraging a dualistic attitude toward myself, that “me,” and I’m going to be kind to myself, like that’s another person – but just as a figure of speaking, if we want to be kind to ourselves then, “I don’t want to get into this sick relationship with this person. I don’t want to get angry, I don’t want to get upset, I don’t want to get attached.” And, in that way we work with this determination to be free of our problems, and it’s another angle for how we balance together this feeling of “Well, everything is suffering, and etc.,” and a basic feeling of happiness and calmness.
OK, so we’ve covered a lot of material and we’ve taken a lot of time, I’m sorry. We’ve gone well, well over our time period, but I wanted to present a more complete picture of this very important topic in Buddhism, not just as a topic that we study, but in terms of our own development, our personal development, of how we develop compassion, and how we develop renunciation. And how in a healthy way from renunciation to compassion, and the relation of the two. So let’s end here with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (15%)