The First Step in Cultivating CompassionJeffrey Hopkins

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Buddha face Tricycle Summer 199During a lecture while I was interpreting for the Dalai Lama, he said in what seemed to me to be broken English, “Kindness is society.” I wasn’t smart enough to think he was saying kindness is society. I thought he meant kindness is important to society; kindness is vital to society; but he was saying that kindness is so important that we cannot have society without it. Society is impossible without it. Thus, kindness IS society; society IS kindness. Without concern for other people it’s impossible to have society.

The Dalai Lama is fond of saying that he feels he knows each individual just like his own brothers and sisters—even though, on lecture tours, he’s of a different religion, was brought up in a different part of the world, speaks a different language, and wears different clothes.

Actually, we all know each other quite well. We all want happiness and do not want suffering. It seems to be a platitude, not worth saying. But it is worth saying and contemplating, because we don’t remain in constant recognition that just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so you want happiness and don’t want suffering. Rather, we might think: “Oh yeah, I want happiness and don’t want suffering, and yes, these people want happiness and don’t want suffering.” But then our next thought is, “How can you serve me?”

My usual habits draw me into thinking, “How can you serve my quest for pleasure and my quest to get rid of pain?” However, if I remembered that I want happiness and don’t want suffering and that you equally have the same aspiration, I could not possibly ask you to serve me.

From noticing my unwillingness to live within constant recognition of this basic quality of a sentient being—this includes animals—I’ve tried to think about what prevents such constant recognition. We’re all so similar, yet somehow, it’s so easy to cross that line and use other people for one’s own happiness. Far from making myself available for others’ happiness, everyone should be available—from my point of view—for my happiness. If you don’t work for my happiness, watch out!

What is it about our minds that keeps us from this recognition, that makes it so easy to forget it? One factor is that we generally meet with other people through our visual consciousness, our eyes. We mainly see other people, but feel ourselves and remain primarily concerned with our own feelings of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, breathing in, breathing out, having this pleasure or that pain.

Because we are so reliant on the medium of sight, we see persons in categories such as black, white, yellow, and red. In Tibetan monastic education, one of the first things that young monastics are asked in the debating courtyards is: “Is a white horse white?” The proper answer is “No, the color of a white horse is white.” A horse, like a human, is a being, and beings are not colors. Colors are material. Persons are not material. Persons are designated in dependence upon mind and body, but they are neither mind nor body, nor a collection of mind and body.

Once I understood how much our own focus remains on ourselves, I realized why earlier, when the Dalai Lama went to Europe for the first time, he would arrive in a city and announce, “Everyone wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” In India I had attended long lectures by him—four to six hours a day, sixteen days running—on complicated philosophy and psychology; but when he came to Europe, what did he have to say? “Everyone wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering.” He would come to the airport and announce that everyone wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering. He’d have a news conference and announce that everyone wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering. In city after city after city, I thought, “What’s wrong with him?” Yet to understand that others are so much like oneself creates a different perspective, a startlingly changed worldview. When this is internalized, you are not confronting another over a divide, but meeting someone with whom you have so much in common. You feel you know the person.

One of the marvelous advantages I accrued from traveling with the Dalai Lama as his chief English translator on lecture tours for ten years was that he usually gave the first part of a talk in English, and thus I could hear his message over and over again. Though I heard it thousands of times, “Everyone wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering,” it would draw me immediately into thinking, “Yes, I need that.” I understood, that on a personal, practical level, I had to bring this orientation into moment-by-moment behavior. This requires paying attention to others’ feelings rather than to their color and shape. When you have a headache and want to get rid of it, imagine it’s the same for everyone. No one deliberately wants more headache.

Sometimes, when one sees a person suffering, it generates happiness: “He’s getting what he deserves!” In order to change your attitude—that is, if you decide that compassion is worth cultivating—you first have to find out how to change it. For most of us it is obvious that when a friend suffers, we’re unhappy; if an enemy suffers, we’re happy. And toward those who are neutral, we’re indifferent. If we read that someone we don’t know is in the hospital or has died, we pass on to the next topic. If we are to generate great compassion, equal compassion for every being, it will be necessary to see all beings as close and dear as our own best friend. To do this, it is necessary to see that, in certain respects, all beings are equal. Living in a big city, sometimes we feel that we don’t know our neighbors but actually we know them well. They want pleasure and don’t want pain. This realization of similarity is not superficial; to know that each of us has hairs in the nose means we can always know something about others by reflecting on that fact. Everybody has hairs in the nose, has eyes, a mouth, and so forth. These may be meaningful reflections; but they are not central, as is the fact that we all want happiness and don’t want suffering. When we cultivate this reflection through meditation, the way we interact with other people changes.

The first step in cultivating compassion is to contemplate people whom you know; start with neutral people, then friends, and gradually work with enemies. Recognize: “Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so this person wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” This preparatory meditation is called equanimity, or even-mindedness.

It’s important to stress the equality between oneself and others. It isn’t sufficient to think superficially: “Just as I want happiness, don’t want suffering, this person wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering.” This does not bring home the point that there is equality between one person and another.

It’s necessary to meditate specifically, person by person. It takes time. Also a sense of humor, a delight, in watching how hard this can be. “Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so the woman sitting next to me on the airplane wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering”—the woman who kept waking me up! Go through all the people in the plane, one by one—”The pilot wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” People at work you don’t really know, people in the pharmacy—it’s shocking to recognize their humanity.

As you cultivate this attitude, it can become more and more shocking even with respect to neutral people. “All those neutral people want happiness, don’t want suffering? All those people on the street?” Meditate wherever you are. All persons, this person, that person, want happiness, etc. It’s easy to turn what could be highly evocative emotions into just words. Nevertheless, keep repeating the whole message: “Just as I want happiness, don’t want suffering, so Francis wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering. So, my neighbor, Bruce, wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering.” And so on.

Don’t shy away from reflecting on strangers. “This person pulling the weight-machine bars down wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering.” Interesting! “The guy leaning against the windows at the gym wants happiness, doesn’t want suffering.” Getting used to this process and passing through the shock again and again is provocative, transforming. It is no longer a truism at all.

Having experienced this equality with respect to a few neutral people, and then friends, only then carry the practice over to enemies. Don’t start with your very worst enemies; “Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so does so-and-so, that son-of-a-bitch, want happiness and doesn’t want suffering.” The resistance that you feel . . . no, no, no, no, no!

Who are the favorite politicians to hate? Who are some of the worst enemies? Joe Stalin? Pol Pot? Heavy characters. Do you know that the United States supported Pol Pot because the Russians supported the other side? Just as I want happiness and don’t want suffering, so did Pol Pot, who was out there in the woods in Cambodia, had his own idea of what happiness is and so forth, and was plotting to come back and again destroy his country, empty out cities, murder all sorts of people. Just as I want happiness, don’t want suffering, so Pol Pot wanted happiness, didn’t want suffering. That’s too hard to start with. One might think it but not feel it. But when you’ve cultivated this realization with respect to friends and neutral people, having experienced the shock of discovering this closeness, then you can work on developing this with lesser enemies and finally to great enemies.

Consider drug pushers hooking young people. Once the experience of equality is cultivated, there is no way to separate them out of the class of humans by calling them scum. Without such a perspective, that’s just what we’re prone to do. Or we don’t fund needle exchanges and other programs for drug users because they are sub-people, not within the count of humans.

Understanding that we all want happiness and don’t want suffering is the basis for love, compassion, kindness. The appeal of these exercises is to feeling—heart—not to abstract principles or a legalistic concept of justice. Nor is there an appeal to “Buddha said so.” It’s merely our nature that we want pleasure and do not want pain; no other validation is needed.

In the Buddhist perspective, it’s not somebody else or some other being who made us this way—wanting happiness, not wanting suffering—that’s how we are. Fire is hot and burning, that’s the way fire is. Who made it that way? It’s the way it is. This is called “the reasoning of nature.” It’s just the nature of things. It’s our nature to want happiness and not want suffering. Thus, Buddhists do not ask that one give up the pursuit of happiness, but merely suggest that one become more intelligent about how happiness is pursued.

Jeffrey Hopkinsis Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1973. He has published twenty-two books. Seven are collaborations with the Dalai Lama, for whom he served as chief interpreter on lecture tours from 1979 to 1989. His latest book is Emptiness in the Mind-Only School of Buddhism (Berkeley: University of California, 1999). This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, “Cultivating Compassion.”

Image: Budhha Statue at Swayambunath Stupa, Kathmandu, Photo © Dominic Sansoni.

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mike k's picture

Amazing how a simple droplet of mutual identity entering the lake of daily dharma readers results in an explosion of greatly differing responses!

candor's picture

Rather than going from neutral humans to enemy humans, why not go to nonhuman (not subhuman!!) animals, about whom we're generally indifferent? If ever there was a yawning void in our compassion, kindness, and sympathetic joy, it is in our indifference toward the animals who are exploited unnecessarily for human preferences in food, clothing, entertainment, and tools. Cultivate the four immeasurables enough, and you'll inevitably and joyfully be vegan for the rest of your life. Being vegan is a natural and practical result and application of mindfulness and compassion, and there are seemingly endless research sources on the Web for learning more!

Cook for Good's picture

Agreed that this is an essential step. You can even go from you own dog or cat to a particular pig and singular salmon to individual rats and sharks. I'm glad this inspiring essay included this: "From noticing my unwillingness to live within constant recognition of this basic quality of a sentient being—this includes animals—I’ve tried to think about what prevents such constant recognition. We’re all so similar, yet somehow, it’s so easy to cross that line and use other people for one’s own happiness."

njefferis's picture

An Accessory to War and Violence

"The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has cultivated an image of himself as a follower of Ghandian non-violence, and yet in reality since coming to power he has repeatedly organised violence against those he has regarded as his enemies. Through his government and his personal representatives he has ordered assassinations and war. In his efforts to maintain his status and power, the Dalai Lama ignores the pacifist principles of Buddhism to accomplish his short term political objectives."


If you are afraid to look or this statement makes you angry, you need to question.

What do you know about the Dalai Lama?

"A Great Deception"

A courageous revelation of the truth about the Dalai Lamas, past and present.

So much for Shangri-la and a “holy” political leader. A Great Deception is a compelling account of Tibetan history and the activities of the current 14th Dalai Lama that stand in shocking contrast to popular perceptions.

The aims of this book are religious – to end the Dalai Lama’s illegal ban on a mainstream Buddhist practice. However, to get to the heart of this human rights issue and to gain the support of those who can help resolve it, A Great Deception follows knotted threads of political ambitions, hypocrisy, subterfuge and betrayal to unravel the popular mythology that surrounds the iconic Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Read the book. Check the facts. Stop being fooled.

melcher's picture

I went to the Shugden site. Read the quotes and the allegations. Ironically, a site that bills itself as dedicated to "freeing Buddhism from politics" appears to be founded in a political struggle. The accusations and allegations are based on second hand accounts, hearsay and extrapolations by people who see themselves as victims of political and cultural conflicts. Sounds like the accusations and conspiracy theories that dominate the fringes of American politics.

mattbard's picture

... if a door is broken, do you tear down a house? ...the dalai lama isn't always perfect. For centuries the various sects have been sniping at one another, usually over "not much". Lord Buddha could be stern at times- in modern venacular , the phrase, "get a life!" applies here. The good far out weights the wrong..... stop being foolish, whoops- a tad harsh, sorry. The fact I didn't ignore your rant, means I have a long way to go......... matt

Shae's picture

Very much enjoyed this wisdom this morning, from the article right down to everyone's comments. Great to see everyone's point of view. I like the idea somebody suggested, "confused ignorance". I feel many suffer from that in our society, just because there are so many means of conditioning that pull people in one area or another, or into one solid mind of thought.

mahakala's picture

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.

- Charles Darwin

jackelope65's picture

Charles Darwin was advanced for his era and using his words in present tense is actually inappropriate because he did not have the benefit of modern evolution theory including both horizontal and linear evolution. Ironically Australia was settled by white convicts and, although the Australian Aborigine was unfairly displaced, Australia was far advanced of many " civilized " Western countries in both law and order as well as labor laws. White Australians have begun to see that the Aborigine wants happiness as well, and have passed laws to begin to reconcile the years of deprivation.

sharmila2's picture

Problem with this statement is that "weakness" is relative. I was born very shortsighted, and in savage times would certainly have never survived to adulthood. However the invention of eyeglasses and 'civilized" society allow me to be a very successful surgeon, teacher and researcher, resulting in a significant (and hopefully mostly beneficial!) impact on society. Evolution itself constantly alters which traits will be most beneficial, and since there is never a point of "standing still' in the fabricated universe and change is the only constant (both for the Buddha and Darwin, though to varying degrees of subtlety), it is unwise to assume that our human minds are infallible arbiters of what is best for society.

marginal person's picture

`Kindness is society.` You could also say `Violence is society.`
The organized violence of the state allowed (and allows) non violent communities to survive. It also allows some( individuals and nations) to have much and others to have little.
You may become a nun or a monk and abhor violence but some poor soul is `guarding the border` for you.

celticpassage's picture

I don't think one can say violence is society in the same way that one can say kindness is society.
I would say that societies can only flourish where cooperative benevolence (kindness) is the norm, and they don't flourish where violence is the norm.
But the DL is just stating the obvious, nothing profound about it.

kentc33's picture

What you say seems valid, but I think it's stretching the meaning of the term "society". This from Wikipedia: "The term "society" came from the Latin word societas, which in turn was derived from the noun socius ("comrade, friend, ally"; adjectival form socialis) used to describe a bond or interaction among parties that are friendly, or at least civil."

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Thanks for this! I'm a sucker for etymology. A more appropriate, and accurate, signifier to relate violence and social structures is "community," which means common ("com") defense ("munis"), or "shared arms." It is cognate with "munitions." And to have "communion" is to be fortified on all sides.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Shared arms also implies many limbs and hands making light work, as in rowing a great vessel.

marginal person's picture

Ecosystems require violence to maintain equilibrium. This also applies to human social systems. "Civil" society breaks down without the organized violence of the state.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

The idea of equilibrium in ecosystems was discredited long ago, though I believe it was the dominant theory in ecology at some point. The naturalization of this idea of equilibrium not only justifies state-organized violence, as you have done here, but also laissez-faire capitalism. In addition, it supports recent ideology that seeks to render social, political, and economic reform not only impossible but unimaginable, even though the people have enacted great reform throughout the history of civilization. This is not to say that violence has no place, only that its rightful place is surely not state-organized violence against the people in order to keep society "civil."

marginal person's picture

Interesting comment. Equilibrium in ecosystems discredited. Any citation? Link? Thanks
The point still is that violence is built into the fabric of nature. If we eat, we kill.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Here's a wikipedia article that gives a little background. BBC documentarian Adam Curtis did an hour-long special called "The Abuse of Vegetational Concepts," which you could find on vimeo or youtube. Also, a search revealed this article from Adam Curtis in The Guardian, which would probably be a good jump off point.



Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

Sorry, "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts"

Dominic Gomez's picture

A sticking point as well is to which society one belongs, as illustrated in the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case.

sds's picture

I don't have a problem with recognizing and truly appreciating that all sentient beings want happiness. I really do get that. Similarly I believe that the harmful actions of others are performed basically because the individual is suffering in confused ignorance. So when I see the suffering of even those who have harmed me, I do not have trouble wishing them metta. BUT, at the same time there is a part of me that hopes the one who has harmed me will see the error of her/his ways and stop doing things to harm me. So I guess I struggle with my attachment to wishing things to be other than they are.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The American criminal justice system provides a means for those who've caused harm to others to see the error of their ways and stop doing harmful things. It's called incarceration.

bigfathappiness's picture

Sometimes when we see others suffering and we feel happy it is because we know that there is the possibility that learning through the suffering will allow for the giving up of attachments and control. This celebration of suffering needs to be understood as a force for love rather than ego. All suffering within ourselves and others can always be the potential doorway which allows us to give up attachment and control. In this way there is good in the arrival of suffering that breaks down the ego.