Is there any possibility of developing more compassion? By the Dalai Lama

Rock carving, Cambodia, possibly Bodhisattva. © Lisa DaixAlthough all the Buddhist teachings are techniques for transforming and training one’s mind, in the Tibetan tradition we have a group of teachings which are actually categorised as ‘thought transformation’ or ‘training the mind’ teachings. This refers to certain types of practice or meditation in which the emphasis is placed on overcoming selfishness — the thought that cherishes one’s own welfare while being indifferent to that of others. So these types of teachings are called ‘teachings of thought transformation’. The Bodhisattvacharyavatara, or A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, is like the root and source of all texts belonging to this category.

I received the oral transmission of this teaching from my teacher Khunu Lama Rinpoche and I try to undertake the practice as much as possible. I also try to explain it to others.

First I will explain the merits of cultivating the good heart and altruism. Not only in terms of religion, but also in terms of our day-to-day lives, we find that the good heart is the source and root of all happiness. It is the nature of human beings in particular — being social animals — to survive by the cooperation and kindness of fellow human beings. This is quite clear and simple if we think of it properly. Shelter, food, companionship, friendship, fame, wealth, power — none of these things come from oneself; they depend on many other factors.

Suppose a person stays in an empty, remote place — just a person alone — very healthy, highly educated, very wise, and physically very strong. As that person lives alone, there’s no possibility of his becoming wealthy or famous; there’s no possibility of his producing good food or building good shelter; he cannot become a hero. All benefits of this worldly life are entirely dependent upon other factors, mainly on other human beings. If one lives somewhere in Africa in one of those animal sanctuaries — a single human being living with the animals — then one may be king of the animals, but nothing else! So we need other human beings, that’s quite clear.

Comfort, happiness, satisfaction within this life (not talking about the next life), all the good things, even those things derived from selfish motivation, are entirely dependent upon other things — that is the fact! Things depend on other things. Unless the other factor becomes favourable to you, you simply cannot achieve those good things. Even when cheating, there must be someone to cheat!

These days, fame — good name or bad name — comes through the media. What happens if a person is alone in a remote place and were to shout out in an attempt to bring fame? Nothing would happen! If you shout, eventually an echo will come, but nothing else!

Deep within this human flesh and bones, there are some kinds of instincts. As human beings, we have a natural tendency to appreciate the cooperation and kindness of others. In the period when the unborn child is within the mother’s womb — according to some biologists — the mother’s peaceful mind, rest, and relaxation, are crucial to the body of the child. Then, just after birth, within the first few weeks and months, touching is crucially important for the rapid development of the child’s body and brain, for the multiplying of cells. If a child is simply put down and neglected, mentally it may not know, but physically it is seriously harmed. That is human nature. When the child is conscious of someone smiling, of someone showing a compassionate attitude, it feels very happy. If someone is going to hurt a child, however, then the child becomes afraid and discouraged. And this is very harmful which will stop development.

Now, when we are healthy, young, physically capable, we may feel we have become completely independent and there is no need of other companions. But, in reality, that is not the case. During this period we also need friends.

Then we become old. Now the Dalai Lama is fifty-three or something. So, more white hair and sometimes troublesome knees when getting up and sitting down — signs of old age! This is also human nature. We rely more and more on the help of others, and so friends are very important in achieving happiness and satisfaction.

Photo © Lisa DaixNow, the big question is: How do we develop good friends? Not with wealth! Yes, of course, on a very superficial level you can sometimes buy friends, but these are money friends, friends of money, friends of wealth. As long as you have money or wealth, these artificial friends will surround you. As soon as your fortune declines, however, they are very ready to say, ‘Goodbye! Bye, bye!’, aren’t they? These friends disappear, I think, to go to someone else who has more wealth.

When we are passing through a difficult period, that is the time when a reliable friend is highly necessary. The friend who, at that moment, is nowhere, who has disappeared, that friend is of no use, is he? When we’re passing through a difficult period, the people who remain friends, supporters, helpers — they are real friends.

If you fight with people and hate them, you cannot develop good friends. Good friends only come through an open minded, warm-hearted and sincere approach. Now, in this modern age with our economic system, there’s no national boundary, or family boundary. Everything in the field of world economics is now linked. Countries are wholly dependent on one another. In order for a country to develop its own economy, it has to consider the economy of other countries. In our personal situation, if other things improve, then automatically, we ultimately benefit. From the point of view of the economy, from the point of view of human nature, and from the point of view of many different perspectives, the answer is that we need to have some kind of universal responsibility on the basis of a genuine sense of brotherhood and sisterhood—that is clear! This is nothing holy, this is no moral teaching or religious thing; it is the reality of humanity. It becomes obvious, if we think deeply about it, that we need more altruism. If you look at the economic systems, if you look at illness and disease, if you look at political or military troubles, everywhere the indications are the same — we need more altruism.

DandelionThe climate is now changing. Due to such change, we human beings are getting more trouble — somewhere too much rain — floods; somewhere else too little rain — drought. There has not really been much concern in the past about the environment, about ecological things, but because of self-interest, we now have to respect our environment and have some concern for our companions, neighbours, friends.

Compassion, love, kindness, a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood, a sense of altruism — these are key areas for human development in the future as well as today. Compassion, love — these positive thoughts give us hope, courage, determination, inner strength. Whether we are successful in the future, or not, depends entirely on the determination of the present generation. If we do not act with will or intelligence, then our future cannot be guaranteed for the next generation or for the generation after that. We cannot blame politicians, or people who make problems, but we can blame ourselves. We must ourselves take some kind of initiative. Without shouting that there is not enough, we should develop something within ourselves, and then, as an example to others, try to make some contribution to humanity. Altruism is no religious business; it is the business of humanity.

So now, the next question is: Is there any possibility of developing more compassion, more altruism? And is there any possibility of reducing anger, hatred, and jealousy? The answer is: Yes! Whether we believe it or not, let us try to implement this, let us carry out some experiments, then we’ll find the answer. Within my own little experience, through training the mind, the answer has become quite clear.

For more teachings by the Dalai Lama click here.

First published in the February 1989 Buddhism Now
from a talk given in London in 1988.
Published by kind permission of The Office of Tibet.

Dalai Lama

Categories: Beginners, Buddhist meditation, Dalai Lama, Metta, Tibetan

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2 replies

  1. Can this be done on a large scale? Must it only be done on the individual scale? Can we work on altruism both at the individual and the social levels? ..[Edited]

  2. Thank you for posting this warm thoughtful and passionate discussion on the nature of being human. The Dalai Lama is such a powerful source of understanding of the nature of the practice of compassion. At the Compassion Movement we work to teach people how to apply the practice of compassion in their every day lives, within each of their relationships. For more about the compassion movement, go to


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