He began with two warnings. Most scientists these days maintain that everyone has the capacity for empathy and they describe compassion as hard-wired into human beings. However, it seems that caring for others is something we can turn on and off, so that our empathy decreases and our compassion becomes latent rather than manifest.
Secondly, the development of our potential for compassion depends heavily on our environment. Using language acquisition as an analogy, His Holiness spoke of children abandoned in the jungle: though they have the innate human capacity to develop language, without exposure to a language, they never learn to speak. Similarly, the home environment is crucial in the development of a child’s capacity to love and care for others. Frequently hearing the word love leaves a powerful imprint on the child.
His Holiness went on to explain that whereas the term love may refer to many different forms of love, such as the love of parents for their children, the love between friends, or the love one has for one’s teacher, in contrast, the term compassion in the Buddhist context usually refers specifically to great compassion, the impartial wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering.
For many people, the everyday experience of love is accompanied by pain and suffering, His Holiness reflected. How then can the quality of our love be transformed? The answer lies in the difference between worldly love, which is possessive, and binds people with fixation and attachment, and the love taught in Dharma, which frees you from fixation and attachment.
“Love is a huge topic for study and practice,” he said. “We can gradually increase our level and deepen our capacity for love within ourselves.” Love cannot exist in isolation, he emphasised, and it has to be expressed within a social context, for it only exists in our mutual connections with others. Consequently, if people are not prepared to study or change, it is very difficult for them to develop love and goodness.
In order to develop this latter type of love, we must diminish our fixations, he advised. In the Vajrayana tradition, the metaphor used for relative bodhicitta, which is the actual bodhicitta, is the full moon. Our limited love, on the other hand, is characterised by a crescent moon, because we have only partially developed the potential of the love we possess. It is biased and limited, restricted to family and friends. Meditating on bodhicitta as a full moon serves as an inspiration for us to develop impartial love completely.
The root of these two types of love is also different. The Buddhist view of love and compassion is based on the common ground shared by all sentient beings. Others are just like us, they experience pleasure and pain, they want to avoid suffering and be happy, and this is the fundamental reason which motivates us to develop love and compassion. When we know how to practice correctly, no one is excluded from our love and compassion. Though there may be people we feel particularly close to, such as our parents or teachers, our love and compassion will also include those we perceive to be our enemies. Ultimately, we need to practice equanimity for all sentient beings, while recognising that special karmic connections exist too, and that these two aspects are not exclusive. Shakyamuni Buddha had a special connection with his wife Yasodhara, which extended over many lifetimes. We pray that we will never be separated from our guru. In the same way, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara maintained his special relationship with his teacher, Buddha Amitabha, who is the lord of his Buddha family.
“It’s important for us to train our minds and practice love,” His Holiness emphasised. ”Putting it into practice is very difficult… For as long as we have friends and enemies, we will naturally feel great attachment to some and hatred towards others. The more we feel protective of our friends, the more we automatically feel hatred towards our enemies.” The Karmapa continued, “It is especially difficult to feel love if we haven’t trained. If we train our minds and are able to practice loving kindness, it will turn out well. If not, that love tinged with attachment will lead to suffering.”
Returning to the theme of compassion, His Holiness made it clear that compassion goes beyond feeling sympathy or affection for others. When a person has compassion, there is no sense of separation from the object of that compassion, but rather a direct experience of the problems and suffering of that other sentient being. “In comparison with love, compassion takes much more courage, is more involved, more active and direct,” the Karmapa explained.
As the power of our compassion increases to the point that there is no difference between self and other, we are able to experience the sufferings of others physically as well as mentally. In Tibetan history, there were many stories of bodhisattvas and people who had trained in tong-len (the practice of exchanging self with others) and who were able to do this. Particularly famous were the Kadampa masters. In one story a renowned Kadampa master was teaching when someone in the vicinity threw a stone at a dog. When the stone hit the dog, the master flinched and clutched his side, and was forced to take a break from the teaching. Later it was revealed that the master’s side had actually been bruised but the dog had not been hurt at all.
Thus, we should always bear in mind the true power and nature of compassion.
Finally, the Karmapa cautioned against complacency. There is always the danger that we will fool ourselves into believing that we are Buddhist practitioners when we are not.
The difference between the Foundational Vehicle and the Mahayana is not a question of lesser or greater value between the two, he explained, but rather a question of our own capacity to practice the Dharma, and how much responsibility we are able to assume. If we are unable to carry all the responsibility of the Mahayana, we should practice the Foundational Vehicle. And even that is too difficult for many people.
Dharma practice is not about external appearances but about what is happening in our minds. Referring to a popular Chinese text, the Diamond Cutter Sutra, His Holiness pointed out that though this is classified as a Mahayana sutra, whether it becomes a Mahayana practice or not will depend on the state of mind of the individual.
“Whether we are Hinayana, Mahayana or even Buddhist, depends on the state of our mind when we practice and not on the texts we use,” he commented. ”We need to continually correct and revise our minds and examine ourselves.”
With these final words of advice, His Holiness concluded his teaching for the morning.