The First Step in Cultivating Compassion
During 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.