Cultivating Compassion

An interview with Tibetan scholar Jeffrey Hopkins and an excerpt from his new book.

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An Excerpt from:

© Broadway BooksCultivating Compassion:
A Buddhist Perspective
by Jeffrey Hopkins
Broadway Books: New York, 2001
176 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

Shantideva, the eighth-century Indian master ... says, "Though beings want happiness, they rush to suffering." Our rush to suffering comes from deciding that we don't need to think about the fact that others want happiness and don't want suffering-that it's all right to look on others as things to be used in the process of gaining happiness. Usually, what we're trying to win is more happiness through money, friendship, fame, material goods, social status, and power, but the way we do it often undermines our chances for achievement in the short term. Furthermore, those attitudes double back on us later—we start complaining about others' having the very same attitudes toward us we had earlier toward them. We also gravely err when we mistake those things that were initially seen as means to happiness as happiness itself—more money in the bank becomes the goal.

Are we really this brutal? Sometimes greed is even a conscious credo. More often it is not raised to that level but is still our basic orientation, and if we dig deep enough, we find that it is our basic idea. It certainly is the way we act, and in this Buddhist system the way we act doesn't just come from instinct, but from fundamental ideas, such as "I'm first," which itself is built on the shaky foundation of failing to realize that others want happiness and don't want suffering. Ideas, not raw instinct, are at the basis of most behavior.

Joy is the wish that sentient beings retain whatever happiness they have, that they have happiness and liberation and never lose it. In meditation, imagine people retaining their happiness, their wealth, their good looks, and so forth. Think of someone who is rich, and take delight in her or his having so much wealth. Or, apply the meditation to other situations—to people who have compassion, people who have various abilities—wishing that they retain these treasures.

We often get caught up in competitiveness with others. Even if it's not our creed that we want others to fall behind or that we have to step over people, that is—in effect—what is happening. We're competing, and we want to win. In graduate school when I was learning Sanskrit, most in our class took it as a game, since the grammar is complicated, like chess. We would nudge each other: "Ah! You missed that," and carry on like that. We had a good relationship, and if someone else got the answer, we were quite pleased, but there was one student named Johnson who got ninety-nine or one hundred on a few tests, and the rest of us would wither in his presence. We began to feel, "May Johnson not do well! May he not figure this out!" We would think, "Poor old Johnson," unconsciously imagining that he would be sitting there stupidly; in our imagination the professor would ask, "What is the accusative dual of such and such?" and Johnson wouldn't know. This is what we were mixing our minds with; we were mixing our minds with stupidity ... Eventually, I realized this and made an effort to take joy in Johnson's fortune of doing particularly well. When he was asked a question in class, I consciously wished that he would know the answer immediately-in my imagination Johnson would out-Johnson Johnson. Wow, he was quick! After the final exam, I asked the professor how I had done and how Johnson had done. I was shocked to learn that I had done better than Johnson and immediately expressed genuine sympathy for him, but my previous karma had been so bad that the professor looked me in the eye and said, "Don't try to fool me." ▼

Reprinted with permission from Broadway Books.

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