As human beings, we all try our best to bring about a world based on kindness and compassion. What seems to go wrong, however, is that what I want, what I personally would like, becomes more important than the benefit of the whole community.
Whether we look at religion, philosophy, science, development, or politics, wherever there has been human society it has manifested wisdom and compassion. But because of our tendency to be involved with our own selfishness, our own likes and dislikes, we develop walls and isolate ourselves from others.
We do not allow the openness that can be felt between human beings to express itself because of two fundamental things: hope and fear. All of us want some happiness and no one wants to suffer, so every action we take is motivated by the thought of how can I be happy, how can I avoid pain. In a world already divided in so many ways, we create a world of our own. A very selfish attitude develops.
All philosophies and religions in the world aim to break through this wall of self-isolation, so that we can work with one another with real care and compassion. From a Buddhist point of view, we examine ourselves carefully—not as a way of blaming ourselves for having created this division, but as a way of working with the root cause of the problem.
The problem is not with the world, or with other people, but with ourselves. Wisdom is innate in us; it is not something that can be bought, heard, or received from outside. But our involvement with the external environment and the distraction of our own emotions causes a kind of layering or veiling that prevents us from observing ourselves carefully. We do not give ourselves enough time and space to use our innate wisdom to observe ourselves before we act.
However, through meditation, examination, or analysis, there exists the possibility for wisdom to arise within every human being. Meditation is the process of looking inward, of refraining from our dualistic tendency to pay more attention to external issues than to the internal issues we don’t want to work on.
A society based upon peace, harmony, wisdom, and compassion is not going to come about unless each person begins with themselves. Through our ignorance, our failure to use our innate wisdom, we make many excuses for not starting with ourselves. The biggest excuse we use is that we require the other person to change before we do. So if I get up in the morning and things don’t happen the way that I want, everything gets blamed on my external world. On days when everything goes right, people look good to us and appear kinder.
If we reflect on it, we realize that our perception of the external world has much to do with our internal attitude. Our mind makes excuses based on external circumstances that reflect what we feel inside. When we see a person and he does something we like, then he is a good person. But if this same person does something we don’t like, then he is a bad person. So transforming the external environment must begin with transforming the inner self, because only when the self is tamed and a fair amount of awareness exists within us will we have the strength to relate properly with others.
The human heart is basically very good, very generous, and very compassionate. But it may not always work together with wisdom. The result is that we have many people ready to go out and change the world for the better, but who still view philosophy, religion, and politics according to what they like, according to what they want.
Even in matters of spirituality—where we struggle to attain some selflessness and to let go of attachment, ignorance, and selfishness—even there we assert that what we think is wisdom is correct. We assert that what we think is compassion is the correct compassion. Even at the very peak of meditation, we may still have these same opinions, but we use the excuse that it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings. The endless struggle with the self creates this same problem over and over again.
Realizing the innate wisdom in every human being must begin with training the self. To break through ignorance requires breaking through ignorance in all of its forms.
Ignorance is not something that comes from others. Ignorance is something that comes from the projection of the self. In Buddhist philosophy, we speak a lot about illusion, which refers to how human ignorance, or the human mind, creates a lot of external phenomena, and how once that illusion is created, we see it as very solid and permanent.
In meditation, we break through that illusion of external phenomena by analyzing its dream-like nature. The first step is to understand how we create our own illusion—to see how this human mind works to create and solidify the world. If then we can let go of our attachment to that illusion, we will be free from pain, free from our own expectations, and free from our own hope and fear.
Until that level of awareness is achieved, however, every moment of your life, everything you use or consume, comes about from dependence on others. You sit on chairs which were made by other people. You wear clothes which were made by other people. You eat food cooked by other people, which in turn was grown by other people. As much as you would like to believe that you are your own person and have achieved things through your own efforts, the truth is that you are linked with all other beings.
This awareness of our interdependence leads directly to a sense of responsibility, and letting go of our self-grasping. Until we have achieved true selflessness, completely free from ignorance, we can begin in a smaller way by giving back to others what we have received in order to benefit others the best way we can.
Whether we call it compassion, love, caring or a Buddhist term such as bodhicitta, it means the same thing: that in your actions, speech, and thought you put others before yourself. Some of us practice meditation to achieve this understanding; others are able to understand this without formal meditation. But no matter how good compassion sounds when you talk about it, it really comes down to practicing it. And no one understands you as well as you do. You need the wisdom to look inward to see what kind of a person you are.
Compassion means letting go of your self-identity, letting go of proving that identity all the time. Compassion means you work in the way the wind works, the sun works, or the air works. Take, for example, how the air assumes the shape of the room. The air does not say, “I will give you this breathing space provided you breathe the way I want.” Everyone enjoys the benefit of being able to breathe in the air. It is the same way with the sun: the sun does not stop shining when there are clouds in the sky.
In that same way, selflessness free from attachment, or compassion used with wisdom, means that one goes beyond the way you want to do things. If you can let go of making yourself the most important person in the world, there will be more capacity and spaciousness within you to work with others. You will find more space, time, and energy within yourself.
For example, because of your good heart and kindness, you go to work in a hospital or a hospice. But you find that there are restrictions and you can’t do things the way you want to. You find yourself fighting against the system, and you reach the point where you are exhausted by your efforts. You conclude that your compassion is not being used in the best way.
What needs to be understood at this point, by applying wisdom to your compassion, is how much solidity you are bringing to the situation. Because you are holding on to how you think things should be, your feelings of frustration have overshadowed the creativity you might apply to the situation.
When we want to generate compassion, we ultimately end up working with our own emotions. We discover that any situation which overwhelms us does so to the degree that we solidify it. So without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is what enables us to be unconditioned and unbiased in our actions. With wisdom, we are not limited to a single cause or purpose; we do our best in a given situation, and then we move on.
Without wisdom, we too often become focused on one single problem or issue, which we think is the most important thing. But we live in a world that is populated by human beings, and as long as there are billions of human beings at work, there will not be a single thing that everyone accepts. There will be many things that are not done or said exactly the way that you like. If you look at different philosophies—whether Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism—all of them arise from compassion. But I believe this one is correct, you believe that one is correct, someone else believes another is correct. Even with such a universal concept such as compassion, Buddhists feel it necessary to call it bodhicitta, Hindus feel it necessary to call it karuna, Christians feel it necessary to call it love. We stick to our own terms.
Wisdom teaches us that these differences should not cause us to pull back. They should not stop us from exercising our compassion with even greater strength and motivation. When the Buddha first gave teachings, how many people understood them? None. Because of that, he refused to give the teachings for a period of seven weeks, but then he began to teach again.
If the Buddha had refused to teach because no one listened to him, we would not have the Buddhist religion today. Similarly, if I insist that my words and my compassion have to be accepted by everyone, that really would be decadent wisdom. That would be wisdom for me and no one else. But real wisdom is letting go of the fixation on what I think is right, in order to see more clearly what is really helpful. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective, what truly needs to be practiced by all humanity. This is very necessary. This is something that we need to practice.
Wisdom requires that we work with the inner self, in order to act in accordance with the basic goodness we all have. And when we meet with obstacles or difficulties, we can use them to develop more inspiration, for if we sincerely value kindness and caring, that belief will give us the courage to overcome all obstacles. Wisdom is being able to use obstacles in this way. Otherwise, wisdom becomes some sort of museum piece, and we end up collecting philosophies, logics, and teachings just like people who collect old furniture.
The wisdom of all the world’s traditions needs to be nurtured and cared for, not collected. Our innate wisdom needs to be developed, understood, and sharpened. Each person must develop the quality of fearlessness so that wisdom can cut through their ignorance. The best wisdom is that which you have the courage to apply to yourself. Only then can you really understand human beings as they are. Then you can give yourself and others the chance to grow individually, to think as they want. All of us need space to develop.
We can all learn together to some degree, but the transformation of the world must begin within ourselves. Compassion and wisdom need to function together, combined with skillfulness, tolerance, and patience. If we give ourselves the time and space to really observe our own thoughts and actions, good can come about. Then we can give ourselves and others a lot of space in which to function properly; rather than act selfishly, we act selflessly.
Much of this is easy to say. Practice definitely begins with ourselves. When we look into a mirror, we usually know what we want to see, and so we see only what we want. To see what is really in the mirror, good or bad, and to work with what we see, is very important and very necessary. It takes some courage.
So think carefully, because times change. Every moment of life, we lose someone that we know. Time does not wait for anyone, and because there is change in every moment, frivolousness harms only ourselves. But if, in our short lives as human beings, we are able to be of some benefit to someone else, then that is the activity of an enlightened being.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche is the founder of Ngakpa International. Ordained in the Nyingma lineage, enthroned as a tulku, and trained as a scholar in Tibetan Buddhism, she makes profound traditional teachings accessible to modern day practitioners. Along with Sylvia Boorstein and Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, she will lead Lion’s Roar magazine’s annual retreat at the Garrison Institute, “Boundless Love: How to Generate Compassion for Yourself and Others” on September 8-10.