Emotion and Compassion (Part I) by Geshe Tashi Tsering

Buddha Offering ProtectionSri Lanka, mid-15th–16th century. © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtIn regard to our wellbeing, in regard to being happy, we know how important the mind is. It is vital therefore to look after the mind if we want to be happy. And by this I mean understanding how the mind operates, how emotion arises, what causes and conditions bring it into our daily lives, and what the consequences are of different types of emotion. Compassion is a quality we all have, but it is not very well developed or not completely discovered. In our everyday lives we look after our physical bodies very conscientiously, but if we really want to enjoy ourselves, whatever kind of life we have, then it is very important to look after the mind and to discover the qualities our minds possess in some areas.

Our minds operate twenty-four hours a day, even during sleep; it never stops. While we are awake, there are things happening on the conscious level, but when we are asleep or not thinking, our minds are still operating subconsciously on an emotional and rational level. And our lives are affected because of this. This is why it is so important to learn about our minds.

We are in the kind of world which has all these sensory objects—form, smell, taste, and so forth. We therefore have sensory consciousness. This sensory consciousness is heavily dependent on sensory objects. It is also heavily dependent on the body. When our bodies start to change, sensory consciousness also starts to change; they are interconnected—that is very obvious. But according to Buddhism these are not the only types of consciousness that we have. We also have emotional states of mind which are not sensory. We have positive emotions, such as loving kindness, or a sense of sympathy when we see certain things happening. These are nothing to do with sensory consciousness; they are related to what we usually call `mental consciousness’. These types of consciousness are also dependent on the body, but not as heavily as in the case of sensory consciousness.

And, again, sensory consciousness and mental consciousness are interconnected. Sensory consciousness gives signals to mental consciousness, and mental consciousness follows with signals to sensory consciousness. But for us the most powerful mind is mental consciousness. It is powerful in terms of being able to make the right decisions, the right judgements, of being able to develop the positive side of our mental qualities. I, therefore, find that contemplating the emotional side of the mind is important.

Now, we all sometimes experience being very loving towards oneself or towards other beings, and sometimes the opposite—of wanting to be more distant. Part of our lives, therefore, has this positive side of emotion and part has the unpleasant side. But when I say it is part of our lives, I don’t mean we can’t do anything about it. There is the possibility of changing. Everything is subject to change, as we all know. So, although at present we experience two sides to our emotions in our everyday lives and it may seem we can’t do anything about it, that isn’t really the case. These things can be changed if we apply the right solution. We can reduce undesirable emotions and increase emotions which we would like to be more active.

Ceremonial musical instruments from Tibet and Mongolia @bl_eap collection glassplate negs from #Mongolia online by #endangeredarchives When I was thirteen, I was put into a monastery. And whatever my teacher said I should do, I did it. But later, when I began to study properly and to think and debate with others I was really struck by the point that the Buddha and other great masters have raised, that is that everything is subject to change. It really helped me, particularly when I was facing difficult situations in the monastery. As you know, monasteries are not places of paradise. They have their share of problems and difficulties. So when facing difficulties, sometimes just thinking of the phrase `everything is subject to change’ will give strength to my mind.

This can apply also to certain types of emotion operating in our lives. It seems there is no end to them, and we might think, `There is no existence without these emotions,’ particularly those we don’t like. But when we feel like that, the phrase `subject to change’ can help. How? Everything is subject to change, but it changes only when particular causes and conditions come together, doesn’t it? That’s the point. Everything is subject to change, but do they change accidentally? Will somebody change them for me? According to Buddhism, it is only when the right causes and conditions come together that a change will occur. I think that’s an important point to bear in mind.

So how can we change undesirable emotions? What are the causes and conditions which can bring about that change? There are many different undesirable emotions in our lives, of course, which operate in totally different ways, such as anger and attachment. Attachment operates as wanting something or wanting more. And anger is also wanting—wanting to reject, wanting to put off. So, according to Buddhism, both of these two emotions are undesirable, undesirable in terms of consequences. They aren’t naturally undesirable, but they’re undesirable in terms of inevitably bringing some kind of unpleasant feeling, unpleasant experience and result to oneself, as well as to those who live around us. That is why we say they are undesirable. And because anger and attachment operate in different ways, we need different solutions for them. There are many emotions, of course, but I’m just taking these two as examples.

In order to deal with them, the first thing is to lay down the foundation, and the foundation is shamatha. I usually refer to this as the fertile mind—the ground which is very rich. The shamatha mind is calm and clear. It isn’t just calmness—there’s no energy in that. Shamatha also has energy in it, and that is the clarity. That is also the really fertile ground, the ground which is very rich. And this foundation will serve to grow the good side of our minds. Also, that good side of the mind will deal with those emotions we don’t want, such as anger and attachment. Without that kind of mind, without that fertile ground, shamatha or whatever technique we use, will not be very effective. It might work for a while, but then things would revert back.

Japan, After Kenkō Shokei, Muromachi period (1392–1573) © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtSome time ago I was watching a nature programme on the television. It showed a really beautiful bird—in Africa, I think. This small bird was making a nest, and I was struck with the amazing attention and care it paid to doing it. It occurred to me then that shamatha was like that nest which was being so carefully made and which was capable of holding eggs and later the chicks. And at the same time it looked so beautiful. This is exactly shamatha. If we have that nest, that shamatha, then raising the mental qualities such as compassion, loving kindness, and all such mental qualities, is very easy because the foundation is there, the nest is there which has been so nicely made. So the initial causes and conditions needed for dealing with the unpleasant side of the emotional mind, is shamatha, the foundation of calm and concentrated clarity.

Quite often people say they are meditating, but what they are really doing is thinking of nothing, and the mind is completely dull. This doesn’t only happen in the west, it also occurs in the east. I don’t think that is right meditation. It’s just increasing the dullness of the mind. It is quite peaceful, isn’t it?—particularly when you are very stressed out. It’s quite nice. But that’s not meditation. Not at all. In meditation we need to at least some kind of clarity. There is calm also, but with clarity. If there isn’t any clarity, then it is more like relaxation.

It is very helpful to experience the neutral side of the mind, shamatha. And it isn’t that difficult to experience. It’s all a question of putting effort into it. Shamatha is already there, but we need to discover it. If we develop this calm, clear and concentrated mind, then other qualities will increase quite quickly and easily. Shamatha is the ground, the foundation. When we have that calmness and clarity, then it will be easy to concentrate. And just this itself, even without employing any other technique, will help to deal with emotion. It will help with all types of emotion.

Now, it may seem as if emotions come up nonstop. In reality, however, that is not the case. No matter how strong anger may be, for example, it doesn’t last for a week, two weeks, three or four weeks. It doesn’t even last for twenty-four hours. In fact, anger comes and goes. So that point, in itself, proves that it is not continuously operating in our minds. We may feel that because we’re angry, we’re angry all the time. But we’re not. No particular emotion operates for all twenty-four hours of a day; they all come and go. This is an indication that emotions can cease even without using any means to make them do so. Even though the influence of anger might be present, therefore, we can see by looking at the mind that it will not stay forever. It hasn’t got the power to do so because it is impermanent; it will change through its own nature. That is something we need to understand. This knowledge will help us when we’re feeling hopeless with a particular emotion. It isn’t really helpful to say, `I’m hopeless in dealing with emotions.’ What we need is an optimistic attitude. Without employing any method or technique for dealing with an emotion, therefore, simply looking at its nature—the fact that it isn’t permanent, that it comes and goes—will tell us it can stop.

As to the reasons that emotions come up, there really isn’t just one particular cause. It’s more like a spider’s web. All the emotions that arise within us are linked, so that when one string is pulled, the whole web shakes. When we think about the cause for any particular emotion, therefore, we need to think of the bigger picture—not just that `this caused me to become angry and so I must deal with it’. That won’t work. We need to look at the whole thing—not only outside, not only blaming `my relatives, my parents, my enemies, my things, my car’, but also inside. How do we respond to what happens? If we look at the bigger picture, the solution will be very effective.

Anger, then, or whatever emotion arises within us, is the result of a variety of causes and conditions coming together. This being the case, just one thing will ignite the flame and everything will come up. The thing which triggers it is only the immediate cause. The actual cause is very broad, and that is what we need to look at—not only external objects but also how we respond to them. At this stage I’m talking about the emotions which bring pain and discomfort, those we don’t like—anger, jealousy, attachment—those sorts of emotions. And any of these results will always be unpleasant. That will always be the case. When we talk about results, of course, it is the future we are talking about, some kind of unknown, but still we can predict that the result of those emotions will always be unpleasant. This is quite clear. It is quite obvious from our own experiences with emotions like anger, attachment and jealousy. Sometimes anger may give some kind of immediate support, some kind of strength and power, but in the long run it doesn’t. There’s always some fear behind it.

From @bl_eap collection glassplate negs from #Mongolia online by #endangeredarchives We need to know that the result is always unpleasant. This knowledge in itself is very powerful. But it has to come from our own experience. Not from the teachings of the Buddha, not from what others say, but from our own experience. Certainly, we can’t predict everything, but as far as the emotions are concerned—those which normally operate in our lives—we can tell ourselves, `If I have this emotion, the result will be this.‘ Because I have the same emotions—not necessarily towards the same person, but the same emotions, the same feelings—the result will be the same. I find this knowledge very helpful, bringing the result into my mind.

Although we may not be angry, just thinking about the consequences of it, just bringing it to mind, will help. After about fifteen minutes, say, of meditating on the results of anger, we may go out and experience something disastrous, but that meditation will still help. Even if we become quite angry, it won’t be as bad, it won’t be real distress. If, whenever we have the time, we make a point of doing this, bringing to mind the consequences of emotions which result in unhappiness and pain, the causes and the consequences, then we shall be able to deal with them more skilfully.

I am talking here, of course, in very general terms. First we need to lay down the foundations, and then we need to look at the causes in a very broad sense—how emotion arises and all the connections. After that we need to look at the future results—the consequences of having those emotions. This is all very helpful. However, just understanding what the causes and conditions are and what the result will be, will not be enough to deal with them. These emotions are very deep rooted. They are part of our lives, and we might feel that we can’t survive without them, particularly if we don’t have a centred mind. Because they are so deep-seated, therefore, just knowing how they arise and what their results will be, will not be enough. We need to do something more. Tibetans have an expression: `You can see the momos inside the glass cabinet, but they can never fill your belly.’ Momos are a favourite Tibetan food. We can see the momos in the cabinet. They look delicious. We may even be able to smell them. But they will never help to relieve our hunger. The only way is to eat them. It’s no good just leaving them in the cabinet there. Simply looking at causes and conditions is really only seeing them behind the glass. We need to eat them. That eating is the only antidote, the only way of dealing with those emotions which we don’t like to have.

When we come to this stage, then there are different methods to use, depending on the type of emotion we want to deal with. I have mentioned just two—anger and attachment. These two operate quite differently in our minds. So they need entirely different methods for dealing with them. That is eating the momo in the glass cabinet.

[Part II soon on Buddhism Now.]

Geshe Tashi Tsering Buddhist Chaplain at London 2012 Olympics.Geshe Tashi Tsering is the resident monk at Jamyang Meditation Centre, London. He was also a regular speaker at the Buddhist Publishing Group Leicester Buddhist summer schools. This article is from a talk given at this year’s summer school.

Geshe Tashi Tsering as the
Buddhist Chaplain at the
London 2012 Olympics.

Categories: Buddhism, Geshe Tashi Tsering, Tibetan Buddhism


6 replies

  1. It is so important to meditate on the emotions and establish a non-reactive state of mind toward the emotion, like anger. This is the essence of shamatha meditation in my opinion – cultivating calm abiding in relationship to the emotions and thoughts and other content of the mind. This is what promotes healing and the resolution of dukkha more than any amount of trying to figure things out and trying to avoid the emotions.

    • I like the idea of establishing a non-reactive attitude towards destructive emotions, and thank you for sharing it. I find that when I experience a negative emotion, a sense of guilt follows in its wake. I am beginning to understand that what I am doing is reacting to the negative emotion, and identifying with it. I think if I can fully appreciate that the this emotion is a temporary, fleeting phenomenon that will disappear in much the same way as does a sound, then I may find more mental peace. Easy to say, but more difficult to do. Will have to practise!

  2. Very great article, thank you for taking the time to spread such great information!

  3. Thank you for your suggestions on ways of dealing with anger. I think that reflecting on the possible consequences of anger is very useful indeed. I have seen how anger has caused family relations to break down, and, aware of this result, I have tried to avert anger in some of my own family relationships. Short term anger can produce negative long term consequences, so we need to control this destructive emotion.


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