Virtue and Reality

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Decatur, IL, August 1997 (Archive #1082)

This book contains methods for transforming everyday actions into the cause of enlightenment, anger into patience, and the ordinary view of phenomena as inherently existent into the wisdom realizing emptiness.

Listen to the original recordings of these teachings by clicking on the audio icon for each chapter.

Chapter Five: Practicing the Good Heart

The practice of compassion, the good heart, is incredibly important. We really need compassion. Compassion is the source of all our happiness.

Every single happiness that you experience in your life, every single comfort and enjoyment of your daily life, as well as the everlasting happiness of liberation and the bliss of highest enlightenment, comes from bodhicitta. The root of bodhicitta is great compassion. Thus, whatever happiness you experience derives from great compassion. Then, your bringing happiness to all sentient beings—the happiness of this life, the happiness of future lives, the everlasting happiness of liberation and enlightenment—all depends upon your having compassion for yourself. It all has to come from your own compassion. Therefore, compassion is the most important human quality in which you can educate your mind.

When do we need compassion?

In every life situation, you need compassion. When you live with your family, you need compassion. Without compassion, your family life is full of problems and suffering. When you do business, you need compassion. Otherwise you experience so much frustration, unhappiness and dissatisfaction. If you’re a doctor or a nurse working in a hospital you need compassion. If you don’t have compassion, your job becomes boring, tiring, exhausting and uninteresting—because you are motivated by only the wish for your own happiness. You’re trying to do something for others but it becomes just a job.

When teaching in school, you need compassion. When studying, the best way to learn is with compassion. In that way, your study becomes meaningful; beneficial for other sentient beings. Your life becomes beneficial for others; your study becomes service for other sentient beings. Whatever your lifestyle—singing, dancing, acting, theater—what makes it meaningful is having compassion for others. That transforms it into service for others. Even in the army you need compassion. In that way you can make your actions transcendent, special, out of the ordinary. With compassion for others, instead of being negative, your actions can become virtuous, the cause of enlightenment, a means of purifying negative karma and gathering merit. Even an action such as killing, if done with very strong compassion, strong bodhicitta, can become a cause for enlightenment; not just a cause for enlightenment but a powerful, rapid cause for enlightenment—if done with strong bodhicitta, totally renouncing yourself to suffer for the sake of others.

Even if you’re a prostitute, if you are motivated by compassion, by bodhicitta, your life is not ordinary. Your life becomes transcendent; your deeds those of a bodhisattva. No matter what you do, if your motivation is out of the ordinary, great compassion, bodhicitta, your life becomes meaningful, beneficial for others. There’s no risk, no danger.

Similarly, if you are in retreat, what makes your retreat most beneficial, extremely effective and highly meaningful is if you do it with compassion for others, and the stronger your compassion, the more powerful a purification it becomes.

And not only in retreat. Even if in your everyday life you do your prayers and sadhanas—even a rosary of mantras—with compassion for others, each mantra you recite becomes highly meaningful, beneficial for all beings. The stronger your compassion, the more powerful each mantra. Each little mantra can have the power of an atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons are so small but they can destroy so much. Like that, even short mantras, when done with strong compassion, can purify the karma of having killed human beings. One repetition of the mantra om mani padme hum motivated by strong compassion can purify the negative karma of the ten non-virtuous actions. One repetition of this mantra can purify a fully ordained monk’s having committed all four defeats, the violation of his four root vows—killing a human being, lying about realizations he doesn’t have, engaging in sexual intercourse and stealing something that was not given—even one of which is extremely heavy.

Even if you are trying to work for others by doing social service, if you have no compassion many problems can arise, such as personality clashes with your colleagues because of strong egos, anger and so forth. Even offering service to others can cause problems if you don’t have a good heart, compassion. That’s because you are motivated by ego, the self-centered mind. This inevitably causes problems to arise, creates obstacles to the work going smoothly and prevents you from enjoying your work or your colleagues. Eventually you have to leave because you can’t stand it any longer.

Far beyond our level, similar principles apply. Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta, became a bodhisattva, much earlier than Guru Shakyamuni Buddha did, yet Guru Shakyamuni Buddha became enlightened before Maitreya. Before becoming a buddha, you have to become a bodhisattva. First you have to realize renunciation of samsara, your own samsara. Then you generate compassion for the samsaric suffering of others using your own suffering as an example. Your compassion for other sentient beings—wishing them to be free of all suffering and to have all happiness, including that of enlightenment—leads you to the decision to bring about all sentient beings’ enlightenment by yourself.

How to enlighten all sentient beings

At the moment, you can’t guide even one sentient being to enlightenment. In order to be able to work perfectly on behalf of them all—to free them from all suffering and bring them to full enlightenment—you have to complete your own mind training in compassion. You also have to develop perfect power, so that you can reveal to all sentient beings the appropriate methods according to their level of mind. Finally, you must become omniscient, having the ability to read every single thought of the numberless sentient beings and know all their characteristics, such as their level of intelligence and the details of their karma, and what methods suit each one at any given time. You have to know all these things directly. In other words, without first attaining enlightenment yourself, without becoming a buddha yourself, you cannot do perfect, unmistaken work for sentient beings.

Even arhats, who have completed the five paths, cannot work perfectly for sentient beings because they lack omniscient mind. They can still make mistakes when guiding others. To attain enlightenment according to sutra, you pass through five paths and ten bhumis. Even a tenth level bodhisattva, someone on the brink of enlightenment, can make a mistake when it comes to helping others, because his or her mind is not omniscient. Therefore, to best help others, you must first become omniscient; you must first become a buddha.

The root of enlightenment, omniscience, and all the realizations of the Mahayana path is bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the gat way to the Mahayana path to enlightenment. In order to realize bodhicitta, you need its root, great compassion. Therefore, it is essential that you achieve this realization, and to do so, you must live your life with compassion.

Now, as I said before, Maitreya Buddha generated bodhicitta long before Guru Shakyamuni Buddha did, but Guru Shakyamuni Buddha got enlightened first. How did this happen? Because Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s bodhicitta, his great compassion, was much stronger than Maitreya Buddha’s. The story of this goes back many, many lifetimes, when in a previous life they were brothers living in Nepal. One day, the two brothers came across a family of five tigers who were dying of starvation. They both felt compassion, of course, but Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s must have been much stronger, because later he came back to the tigers alone and offered them his body, sacrificing his life in order to save theirs. Later, after Guru Shakyamuni Buddha had attained enlightenment, because of the karmic connection made with the tigers when he was a bodhisattva, they were reborn human and became his first disciples. He taught them Dharma and they achieved realizations of the path.

While Maitreya Buddha and Guru Shakyamuni Buddha both saw the tigers and felt compassion, Maitreya Buddha did not make charity of his body as did Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. This shows that Shakyamuni’s bodhicitta was much stronger. Thus, he was able to sacrifice himself for others that much more, and as a result, attained enlightenment first.

We should be guided by Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s example in our daily lives and understand that the stronger our compassion, the more we can sacrifice our lives for others, the greater the amount of negative karma we can purify and the more merit we can accumulate. With strong compassion, we can purify unbelievably vast amounts of negative karma and generate merit as vast as space itself. Like Guru Shakyamuni Buddha, the more we can dedicate our daily lives to others with compassion, the sooner we will attain enlightenment. This is the way to benefit from the life histories of the great bodhisattvas and yogis. We should learn from and follow their example. In that way we’ll become enlightened sooner and be able to enlighten all sentient beings more quickly. Thus, those who need our help, those who are depending on us to alleviate their suffering, won’t have to wait so long, won’t have to suffer so much. The sooner, the more strongly, we can develop compassion and bodhicitta, the sooner we’ll achieve the other realizations of the path and the sooner we’ll reach enlightenment. Thus, we’ll be able to reach our actual goal—the liberation from suffering and the enlightenment of all sentient beings—more quickly, thus realizing the real meaning of our lives and fulfilling our actual purpose.

However, generating compassion in your daily life has more immediate benefits as well. If you have compassion, you have fewer problems. With compassion, the problems you do experience are experienced for the sake of others, and thus become the path to enlightenment. Experiencing problems becomes a means for happiness for both yourself and others. In this way, with compassion, you transform problems into happiness.

Compassion also helps you prepare for death. The best way to die is with bodhicitta, feeling great compassion for other sentient beings. That’s a high quality death—dying with compassion for others. By dying with compassion, you have no fear or worry. You’re experiencing death for others. It becomes simply a change of body, like trading old clothes for new. When you die with compassion you’re simply trading your old body for a new one.

Thus, living with compassion completely changes your life. It transforms an ordinary life into a transcendent one. It elevates everything you do. Your entire life becomes totally different; highly meaningful; your heart is full. Your heart is not empty and neither is your life.

Therefore, you must think, “Compassion is the source of not only all my happiness but that of all sentient beings as well. It is the source of all happiness, including that of enlightenment. In order to offer all this happiness to others, I need to generate compassion myself.”

Developing compassion

However, merely saying, “I need compassion” is not enough. You have to understand the teachings on how to develop compassion. That means that first you have to study, and then practice, meditate. In that way you can achieve realizations. Thus, you need to listen to teachings.

In order to develop compassion, to realize compassion for other sentient beings, so that you can realize bodhicitta, the gateway to the Mahayana path to enlightenment, you need the preliminary realization of renunciation. Renunciation is the determination to be free from your own samsara, which you must realize to be totally in the nature of suffering. You must feel your own samsara to be a blazing fire, with yourself in the middle of it, such that you can’t bear to remain in it for a moment longer. You need to generate such strong aversion to samsara that the wish to be rid of it arises spontaneously, day and night, just as a prisoner wishes constantly, day and night, to be released from jail. As a prisoner finds not even a second’s attraction to prison, that’s how you should feel about your own samsara. You should feel it to be as desirable as a pit of rattlesnakes—a place that you have not the slightest wish to be in, even for a second, and if you are in it, not the slightest wish to remain for a moment longer. This is how you must feel about your own samsara. This is renunciation.

In order to renounce your own samsara, first you have to feel detached from this life. Only with detachment from this life can you practice Dharma purely. Renunciation of this life is the preliminary understanding you need before you can develop renunciation from the whole of your samsara. In order to develop great compassion for all sentient beings, you need these preliminary realizations. Compassion doesn’t just drop into your brain from the sky or appear in your mind the moment you read about it. Compassion and bodhicitta have to be developed in a step-by-step manner by gradually developing the preliminary realizations in their logical order.

The importance of the meditation center

So now you can see the necessity of the meditation center, a place where people can study teachings on how to develop compassion; an organization established for the purpose of offering instructions in the development of the good heart. Compassion, the good heart, is extremely important, but you have to learn how to acquire it. You have to study the whole path. Therefore, it is essential that there be places that give people the opportunity to study all of the Buddha’s teachings—not just the part about compassion but the entire path to enlightenment; every aspect of method and wisdom.

The essence of Buddhism is compassion for all without discrimination, and on that basis, not giving harm. Not harming others, and as well as that, benefiting all. Compassion for not only your friends but your enemies too. Compassion for all without exception: friends, enemies and strangers. This is what Buddhism is all about.

Therefore, every person who comes to a Dharma center to study the teachings of the Buddha and to learn to meditate will be taught how to develop compassion for others. That means each of these people will stop harming sentient beings, stop giving harm to the world. In other words, numberless other sentient beings, people in the world, people in each country, will not be harmed by each person who comes to the center to study the Dharma and practice compassion. Thus, numberless other sentient beings receive much peace and happiness from each of these people.

By hearing the teachings of the Buddha, especially the lam-rim—teachings on subduing the mind, taking care of the mind, protecting your mind and the minds of others—the steps of the path to enlightenment, whether it’s a one-week course, a weekend course, a one-day teaching or even a single lecture, the emphasis is usually on karma or compassion. The essence of the subject is usually not to harm others and on that basis, to benefit them as much as possible. So usually people will come away from even a few hours of teaching with the understanding that they should at least not harm others.

Therefore, even though such people may not be able to do all those traditional practices—many sadhanas, mantra recitation, preliminary practices, lam-rim meditation—at least when they see ants or other insects on the floor they won’t step on them. Even if they don’t do any of those other practices, at least they’ll have the thought in their minds not to kill insects, worms and so forth. At least that one minimum practice will be there. That itself is a great benefit. Even if they can’t do anything else, at least they’re thinking, “It is really wrong to kill, to harm another’s life.”

In this way, there’s much peace for many animals and insects and for that person as well. The person creates less negative karma and therefore does not have to experience the suffering results that would otherwise have ripened in life after life. So, the absence of that is peace. That numberless other sentient beings—animals, insects, other humans—don’t receive harm from each of these people who stop killing after they have come to the center, is just one of the extensive benefits that the center offers. On top of that, of course, are all the teachings and meditation on the lam-rim, emptiness, bodhicitta, the preliminary practices and so forth. But just stopping killing itself is highly beneficial; it brings much happiness to many others.

Before the Kalachakra initiation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Australia in 1996, I spent a month in retreat at a student’s house near the ocean. Every day I went to the beach to do a practice where you make charity of water to the pretas. You recite a special mantra, which blesses the water, and then offer them the water, which the pretas receive as nectar. The entire expanse of water appears to them as nectar, which purifies their minds and they get liberated from the lower realms and receive a good rebirth. When I was there I would see many people fishing. It wasn’t that they were hungry; they did it out of enjoyment. They would either go out in boats or stand at the water’s edge with their lines in the water for hours at a time. So many fish would lose their lives. However, if one person who likes to fish comes to a teaching at the center and as a result of hearing about karma and compassion stops killing, the lives of so many fish are saved, not to mention those of all the other animals and insects that the person refrains from harming.

If a person does not change his mind, change his actions, so many sentient beings will have to suffer during the course of his life, as will he, in many future lives, from the horrible karma he creates. But if this person comes to the center and stops killing, for as many more months and years as he continues to live, others receive that much more peace and happiness. From the opposite point of view, the person who dies not having had the opportunity to hear the Buddha-dharma or to change his mind, the longer he lives, the more harm he gives to others and himself.

In order to develop compassion, bodhicitta, meditation is not enough. You need to receive the blessing of the special deity of compassion, Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara). Then your meditation on the path will be more effective in bringing you to the realization of compassion. In Tibet and other Himalayan countries, many people recite om mani padme hum, the mantra of Chenrezig. Many of them are simple people who have very limited intellectual understanding of the teachings or can’t even read, but wherever they go—while working, traveling, at home—they constantly recite this mantra. Just because of this and their devotion and prayers to the Compassionate Buddha, Chenrezig, they tend to be naturally very compassionate, very warm-hearted, always more concerned for others than themselves, wanting to help others and give them things.

For example, my mother passed away aged 84 a few years ago. She reincarnated as a boy in Nepal, near where she had lived, with a very clear memory of people and things from his previous life. One reason she was able to reincarnate as a human being with a clear mind and the ability to remember so much was because she used to recite 50,000 om mani padme hum mantras every day, almost up until the time she died. She was also a nun for the last seventeen years of her life, living in the pure morality of her ordination. Because of all this, she was able to reincarnate as a human being with the opportunity to practice Dharma once again.

Dharma centers are of utmost importance in the world today. They give people the opportunity to learn about karma and compassion. World peace depends upon people having loving kindness and compassion. If people don’t have compassion, life becomes very dangerous. Therefore, we need places where the methods for developing compassion are taught. This is where you learn; this is where you give others the chance to learn as well. Peace through weapons is extremely unreliable, but peace without force, through people changing their minds by generating compassion, by choice, with freedom, is of benefit to the country, to the world, to all sentient beings. Therefore, even for peace in the country itself, meditation centers, where the essential practice is that of compassion and people are taught how to bring peace, are indispensable.

Therefore, members of Dharma organizations ought to know all these benefits that I have just explained, from the minimum—people stop killing—all the way up to enlightenment. Everybody who contributes to the center in any way is giving enlightenment to others, helping them find liberation from suffering and giving them good rebirths by helping them understand karma. In short, offering peace and happiness to many. However many members a center has, that many people are making this incredible contribution to the world. All these benefits come from every person who helps the center exist, develop and do its work. So it’s good to be aware of and remember this and to enjoy the benefits. Therefore, I would like to request everyone to continue with their own practice and to continue helping their center for the sake of other sentient beings.

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