Building Courage and Compassion
by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron©
Hi Ven. Chodron,
Recently, I've been in somewhat of a dilemma
about my spiritual life. I've learned quite a lot about the majority
of people in this country and have come to the conclusion that many
people are very exclusive; they make friends with people based on
superficial traits, such as good looks and a good sense of humor.
They don't really care if someone is kind, compassionate, or intelligent.
Friendliness has little effect on them. They are insensitive: I
heard one guy joke about the men who were beheaded in Iraq.
This kind of thing makes me sick to my stomach.
This has made me very disheartened. I harbor a strong dislike
for such people and that has made me discouraged about keeping my
bodhisattva vows. I can't really connect with people like this,
since they just want to party and have fun. Many of them cheat on
their significant others just because they have the chance to. This
has really affected my spiritual progress, because so much aversion
has risen and clouded my mind.
My problem is that I think I became a practitioner
of the middle scope-someone who aims for their own liberation from
cyclic existence. I seem to have lost my will to help others or
to attain enlightenment for their benefit. Since I began practicing
Buddhism, there have been a few times when there was a chance for
me to help other people by giving them advice. I didn't call the
advice "Buddhism," but just told them things that could
help them in life. But they ignored my advice and didn't even try
it out. This has made me doubt whether or not I can actually help
Currently, I no longer believe it's possible
to reach out to any of these people during this lifetime. However,
sometimes I am grateful to those who supported my Dharma practice.
So my altruism at the present moment is only towards those who are
kind or who have been generous to me. I have no desire to extend
my altruism to those who are hateful, exclude other people, and
are arrogant. My plan now is just to practice and act as a good
example in hopes that I can influence people through my example.
Should I force myself to do meditations on love, compassion, and
altruism? I don't really feel like it. My plan is to gain more wisdom.
Then, when I eventually realize the true nature of suffering and
break away from it, I will understand the real situation that all
sentient beings are in. Perhaps then compassion will arise.
What do you think?
Thanks for writing
to me about this. It's an important issue that many people come
up against in trying to live with compassion and altruism.
It's true that many
people choose friends for very superficial reasons and many don't
treat their friends or partners very well. It's sad, because through
this behavior they create a lot of problems in others' lives as
well as in their own, and they also create a lot of negative karma
that will ripen in their experiencing suffering in the future. So
even though they want happiness, due to their minds being under
the control of ignorance, anger, and attachment, they create so
much suffering and causes for suffering for themselves and others.
It's precisely for this reason that feeling compassion for them
makes sense. They're ignorant and harming themselves, even though
they have precious human lives that can be used to create happiness
and its causes. It's sad, isn't it? It's a situation worthy of compassion.
It's also a situation
that we fall into as well. How many times have we excluded or ignored
others? Or chosen friends for foolish reasons? Or been unappreciative
of those who have tried to help us? When we look at our own lives,
we can find many times when our ignorance, anger, and attachment
have obscured our minds so that we've made dumb decisions or done
harmful actions. We understand the person we were that did these
things. We can have compassion for him or her. We see that we still
have Buddha potential and good qualities. If we can have compassion
and patience for ourselves, then we can give up judging others who
do the same things and have some compassion for them.
in others often comes because our expectations are too high. We'd
really like others to be perfect (whatever "perfect" means).
And if they can't be perfect, we expect them at least to listen
to our sage advice and change their lives, ideas, and behaviors
so that they do what we think is best for them.
When we examine these
expectations, we see that they are pretty ridiculous. Our own ability
to give wise advice is limited by our own ignorance. Sometimes we
give good advice but at an inappropriate time. Sometimes the way
in which we give advice isn't very skillful and it sounds more like
we're ordering someone around, judging them, or trying to run their
lives for them. Other times we give advice when it hasn't been requested.
Part of our own process of growing in the Dharma is learning how
and when to make suggestions.
We can't control others
(at present, we can't even control our own mind!), so when we give
advice, it's best to also give the person space to think for themselves
and make their own decisions. Sometimes someone will reject suggestions
at first. Still a seed has been planted and later on they may remember
our suggestions and be open to them. After all, may people have
given us advice that we've disregarded. We've even gotten angry
at them for giving advice. Yet, later on, we'll re-think the situation
and realize that their advice was sound and adopt it at that time.
It's helpful to remember
that the few people who we don't seem to connect with well aren't
representative of all sentient beings. The karma may not be there
at that moment to help those particular people, but the karmic connection
to help many others may be present. Thus there's no reason to think
that it's impossible to reach out to sentient beings.
We can use the fact
that people are stubborn and suffer from disturbing emotions and
detrimental values to increase our compassion for them. It's easy
to love and be compassionate towards people who are nice to us,
who agree with our opinions, and who do things our way. Even animals
love others who are like that. Dogs love the people who feed them
and growl at strangers who come into their territory. If we have
compassion for friends and ignore or hate others who don't appreciate
us, ignore us, or don't do things the way we do, we're not so different
from animals. It's important to recall that we have precious human
lives as well as the incredible fortune to meet the Buddhadharma,
so we can do better than animals. Sure, it takes perseverance and
patience on our part to develop stable love and compassion, but
we have the potential to do so. These qualities are so valuable
to ourselves and others that it's worth the effort on our part to
If we can develop qualities
like those of the bodhisattvas, then the people that we have a hard
time with now will have an example in their lives of the benefits
of cultivating a compassionate heart. That could make them re-think
their values and actions. In that way we would benefit them greatly.
Even though others
may be superficial and stubborn now, they will not always be that
way. People grow and change. In the meantime, we can make prayers
for them and do metta meditation for them, thinking, "May they
be well and happy. May they be free from all wrong conceptions.
May their inner potential blossom so that they value people who
are kind, and may they treat their friends respectfully. May their
lives become meaningful by meeting the Buddha's teachings. In their
lives may they solve more problems than they create and bring joy
to others. May they cultivate altruism and become fully enlightened
Clearly it's our own
selfishness that causes our altruistic motivation to decrease and
makes our mind think only of our own spiritual advancement and forget
about others. That same self-centeredness is our enemy--it is what
makes us lie, cheat, and talk behind others' back. Following the
desires of our self-centered attitude isn't very wise. So just because
it may be easier for us to think just of benefiting ourselves and
those who are nice to us, letting self-preoccupation having a foothold
in our mind is dangerous.
We are dependent on
others in every aspect of our lives, and because of this, we say
that others have been so kind to us. For example, we need classmates
in order for the school to exist. A school with good teachers won't
be built just for us. If we want to study in a school, we depend
on others going there as well. The roads we drive on were built
by others, so was the place we live. Our food came from others.
Sentient beings have been so kind to us in so many ways. Even if
we don't see any direct benefit received from someone this life,
we still know they've been kind to us in previous lives.
would we be if the Buddhas and bodhisattvas gave up on us and said,
"Oh Frank and Chodron, they're just too ignorant. We've been
trying to lead them to enlightenment since beginningless time and
they still use harsh speech and engage in idle talk, not to mention
the fact that they are so attached to having things their own
way. We're fed up with them. We're going to go into parinirvana
and let them fend for themselves in samsara." Where would we
be if the holy beings did that?
Seeing that they have
great compassion and don't give up on us even though we've done
and continue to make unwise decisions and do foolish things, then
let's not give up our bodhi resolve towards other beings. Sure,
at present our bodhicitta isn't as strong as that of the holy beings,
but slowly, slowly we can strengthen it so we become like them.
If they can bear hardship for our benefit, we can develop the courage
inside of ourselves to bear hardship for the benefit of others.
Once we do, those hardships won't appear so difficult to us. We'll
be able to act compassionately and kindly in a way that we can't
even imagine at present.
Please think about
this. The strength to follow the bodhisattva path exists inside
of you. Tap into it.