Bodhicitta: How the Light Gets In ‘The absence of compassion is the worst danger that we face.”
The Torch of Certainty, Session 4
Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya, India
January 4, 2014
In the last session of his teaching on the Torch of Certainty, the Karmapa drew a vivid picture, in very few words, of a world without love, updating Jamgon Kongtrul’s classic commentary with a description that cracked the prison walls of samsara to let the light get in.
Normally when we talk about danger we think of the elements; we think of unforeseeable natural disasters or epidemics. But worse than any of these is the danger that we will become a species without compassion. Slowly without our noticing it, we could become transformed into a society completely without compassion. This world could become a place where there is no caring for one another. But this will not happen if we are willing to help one another, willing to love one another. We can prevent that danger.
We all have within us the seed of compassion. We’re not like burned seeds that cannot sprout. We have the natural capacity for it. Why is it so hard for us to generate great compassion? It is natural from our birth to want to alleviate the suffering of others; it is not simply a Buddhist idea. Scientists tell us that compassion is hard wired.
The bad news is that while our capacity for compassion is always there, we turn it off, like turning off the electricity, which means that practically speaking, it isn’t there. As we grow up we gradually learn to repress our natural compassion. We learn not to care, until we can say when we see someone suffering, I don’t care, this is not my responsibility. We learn to become jaded, hard and calloused.
How old is our compassion?
Following through with this analogy, the Karmapa then seemed to be posing a question to make us look inward. Why did our natural innate compassion stop? Why did we turn off the light of our love for others?
Our natural capacity for compassion generally doesn’t develop. Our compassion when very young is weak and undeveloped. We soon learn that it’s unsuccessful or ineffective. We learn that it’s a nuisance. Then we ignore it. We have no interest in it. Our compassion cannot develop because it’s mixed with our selfishness. What we need to do is remove the adverse conditions that obstruct our compassion and by overcoming them we are free to develop our compassion. It’s not the development of something new but the development of something that is innate within us.
When we ask the age someone has, we sometimes assess the age of their organs, some younger, some older. We need to make the same assessment of the age of our compassion. I am 28 but my age of compassion is only 5 years old. Is our compassion powerful and effective? How much can it bear? It may be that our compassion suffers from malnutrition. It needs to be nurtured.
Rather than remaining an emotional feeling, our compassion has to be nurtured through cultivating a broader view, developing intellectual maturity.
It is relatively easy to feel compassion when we witness the suffering of someone we like. If we witness the suffering of someone we don’t like we may feel some enjoyment at their suffering.
We make a huge distinction between friends and enemies. It is easy to feel compassion for those who please us and difficult to feel compassion for those we dislike. An identification of those who are pleasing to us is an identification of their importance to us. We need more than an emotional understanding of this. We need an intellectual understanding. We need to go beyond our present feelings and use our faculty of reason. Why do we feel the way we do for our parents and our friends? Because of a mutual connection, love, or history, but we need to use reason to extrapolate this and extend it to all beings.
The prevalent idea of compassion as ‘mere’ benevolence is not really the same as bodhicitta. We need to expand our boundaries out to the universe, and really see how pervasive the suffering is.
People think of compassion as mere benevolence. It is more than that, something absolutely necessary in our lives and for this world. If we think about this world alone and a single species, how many people lack food and clothing, suffer from illness, who are being killed by war or violence? These people need our loving protection. If we are willing to provide this, there will come a time when we can free beings from suffering
Taking the Bodhisattva vow is a landmark event
Throughout our lives there are certain landmark events:. birth, the legal age of 18 which we regard as an age of maturity, graduation from school or university, then marriage etc. These are all considered landmarks in our lives.
Taking the bodhisattva vow is the greatest of all landmarks, among all our lives. Please understand that it is a precious landmark and a passage into a new kind of maturity.
How to receive the Bodhisattva vow:
The person receiving the Bodhisattva vow, because it is primarily a matter of intention, has to have the intention to receive the vow. If the intention is not present it will not be created by the person giving the vow. To receive it you really have to have the intention to benefit all sentient beings; without that you cannot receive the bodhisattva vow.
”We are all prisoners of our self-fixation”
Working the images of his commentary into a powerful analogy with enough momentum to break the prison walls of samsara and embrace the light of bodhicitta, the Karmapa quoted Tsong Khapa in concluding the teaching.
Tsong Khapa says we are stuck in the narrow enclosure of self fixation, like a confining prison that we create for ourselves. I, me, mine. We build a prison around ourselves. We make our world very small. We create a border around ourselves, by our self fixation. Who is allowed there? Our parents, friends, not many others. We feel no connection with others; others are excluded.
We need to cast down the walls of this prison we have built around us to get to know others. We need to become aware of it and destroy it so we can meet with others. We need to burst the chains of self fixation. destroy the prison of self fixation. If you asked someone, do you want to go to prison, they would probably say no. But if we said, you don’t need to go to prison, you’re already in it. We are all prisoners of our self fixation, old prisoners throughout beginning less time. We need to become free from the prison of self fixation. We need to be free if we’re going to do anything to benefit others.
To use an analogy: There is a family, two parents and one child. The parents are very old and very sick. Their only child has broken the law and gone to prison. This causes the parents worry and hardship since at their age and frail health they need their child. But their child cannot reach them because the child is in a prison within a prison.
All beings suffering in the 3 realms of samsara are waiting for us, their only child, to come and help them. As long as we are inside and they are outside, we cannot reach them or help them. They have no support and no help. In the same way, all beings are waiting for us, their only child, to escape from our prison so we can help them and serve them.