Emotion and Compassion (Part II), by Geshe Tashi Tsering

AvalokiteshvaraWe have already looked at emotion—the great role it plays in our daily lives, the importance of the calm, clear mind (shamatha) for learning about it, the causes and conditions which bring it about, and its consequences. [See part one of Emotion and Compassion]

Now I would like to go further and look at how it’s possible to deal with emotion. As said, the foundation for looking into these things is the calm, clear, concentrated mind. But how do we get this mind? It isn’t just a matter of giving time and trying to meditate, meditate, meditate. Just meditating, alone won’t bring it about. This is a complex matter; the mind is complex. The fact is we need to look at our entire lifestyle, the way we live.

Buddhism talks about ethical living (shila) as an important factor. Without that, it is very difficult to get a calm mind, no matter how much we try, and no matter how much time we spend in the process. When I use the term ‘ethical’ here, I’m not referring to the monastic rules, I’m talking about those basic things which cause pain and difficulty for oneself and others, directly or indirectly—that is the sort of thing that needs to be consciously observed.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, the last of which is The Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering, or the Noble Eightfold Path. This is eight practices which can be divided into three categories—ethical living, meditation, and insight or wisdom. Our minds are connected to many things, not just to particular issues. An issue can be the ignition key which brings up or weakens an emotion, but mind itself works in a complex way. In the Tibetan tradition this teaching is illustrated by the dharma wheel, but sometimes I find it helpful to look at it as a pyramid. We could say that the base of the pyramid is the ethical dimension on which the two sides rest. And one side is meditation or concentration, while the other is insight or wisdom. These two—meditation and wisdom—can only stand if there is that base, that ethical foundation.

Now, ethical behaviour or morality involves others. Without others, it would be very difficult to talk about such a thing, wouldn’t it? If there is only ‘me’, there isn’t much to talk about as regards ethical behaviour. The five lay precepts, for example, are all connected with others. And monks and nuns have more precepts. But all of them are connected with others—others’ lives and others’ feelings. Of course, whatever emotion is going on here in me is something I am experiencing, but it isn’t really here only, it is also connected with others, whether talking in terms of wholesome emotions which bring me happiness, joy, and peace, or other kinds of emotion which bring unhappiness. It is me who is experiencing these things, and they are my emotions—but they are also connected with others. In order to learn how our emotions operate, therefore, we need to take others’ thoughts and feelings into account. Just looking inside ourselves alone can makes us very rigid.

It isn’t only the Buddha who taught the moral life. Nonharming is universally expected behaviour. There are those who do want to harm, of course, but if we sit down with even them and go deeply into their hearts, we find they don’t really want to hurt others. Such desire is very superficial. When we talk about ethics, therefore, we are talking about universally accepted standards. We need to observe that sort of thing. If we do, it will definitely help to develop concentration—there’s no doubt about it. Taking a very basic example, we can see that if we purposely, consciously, deceive someone, and then try to sit down and concentrate or meditate, it is very difficult indeed. Deep down there is an unhappiness, some kind of strange feeling . . ! Superficially there might be happiness, ‘Oh, I’ve got what I want from him,’ but deep down there is a certain feeling  . . . ? ‘I’ve got what I want, yes, but something isn’t quite right.’ As long as we have that kind of sense, then it is very difficult to meditate.

We need to see for ourselves how important the ethical life is. It isn’t difficult to live a moral life, avoiding the basic things which cause pain and difficulty for others, simply avoiding them and developing a fundamental morality; it’s just a matter of mindfulness. If we pay enough attention, we can live like that. Westerners particularly have a highly developed, well educated culture. If one pays attention to living a basically moral life in this environment, I don’t think it is that difficult—quite simple, in fact.

Tree and skyMorality, then, is the base of the pyramid. And the two sides—insight or wisdom, and meditation or concentration—stand upon it. But these two sides also depend upon each other. Without wisdom, meditation can’t stand; it would simply fall down. In my own experience, I have found that simply reminding myself that everything is changeable, really helps. In this way, understanding or wisdom or insight—whatever you care to call it—is important in supporting meditation so that it becomes rich, I could say. If we have wisdom, concentration will become rich concentration, rich in that when we are faced with difficulties, the concentration will not disappear. Just concentration alone isn’t enough for dealing with emotions which cause us pain and difficulty; we need the wisdom, wisdom with concentration. Then, when we are facing difficulties, our concentration will help.

The mind itself, or emotion itself, works like a spider’s web. Ethical behaviour, wisdom, and concentration—it is these three together which affect our spiritual life. It’s a question of looking at the broader picture, the nature of emotion itself—how it operates, how it arises, and how it disappears. We need to discover, or recover, the helpful emotional side, such as compassion and love. These things are already here, but they need bringing to life, or making active. So how do we bring these emotions into our daily lives? By looking at morality, wisdom, and concentration together, not just one at a time. It isn’t a question of waiting until we get one aspect of our lives perfect before moving on to the next. Yet there is a sequence, like the pyramid—first the base, then the two sides.

Now, wisdom or insight is particularly helpful for dealing with our emotions. Emotion, of course, is spontaneous—it can come up, apparently without reason, or as a result of some small thing. Sometimes emotion can be so great, we can’t control it. Wisdom, on the other hand, is a slow process based on rational analysis, the thinking process, listening, and contemplating. So, there are these two minds: emotion, which is spontaneous, continually fluctuating, and unpredictable, and wisdom which is predictable, doesn’t fluctuate, and isn’t spontaneous. They are almost complete opposites. Yet, wisdom will help emotion. Wisdom can do nothing in the middle of it. While we are very angry, for example, the mind is overwhelmed, and there is no room for wisdom to come in and say, ‘Don’t do that.’ Only when there is no anger can wisdom help. Then we can give time to thinking about the disadvantages of it, just in a very simply way: What does anger do? It causes us to lose our beautiful expressions, to become red and ugly. We say things we normally wouldn’t, and so on. At the time of anger, there is no embarrassment because everything is taken up by it. We say anything, do anything. But later, after few hours or days, we may find we can’t show our faces in certain places; we feel ashamed, embarrassed . . ! But we don’t really need anyone to tell us what happens when we get angry; we know the disadvantages; we’ve all experienced it. Considering these things in advance, with understanding—that’s how to use wisdom, and that will definitely help.

We all know these emotions, but we have them in different degrees. Some people are hot tempered, but aren’t particularly troubled by other emotions. While other people don’t get angry that easily, yet have problems with something else. But whatever, if we want to deal with the emotion which causes us the most pain, we need to examine it while in a calm state. And we need to give time to looking at the results of it. This is the way to use wisdom. And that wisdom will definitely help when the emotion comes up. At the very least it will reduce the intensity of it. Even if we do get angry, therefore, there won’t be the strength behind it; the anger won’t be as great. While the anger is there, deep down there will be the feeling, ‘Mmmm . . .  This is going to bring an unpleasant result. While it is true, I lost my temper because of these particular circumstances, still it will bring unpleasant consequences.’ So the intensity of anger won’t be there. Wisdom, will be helping to deal with it.

The same with positive emotions. If we want to encourage a stronger attitude of caring, for example, or of loving kindness, or any emotion which involves concern for others, and if we want to have some kind of stability, then wisdom is needed.

Now, as I said, the moral life, the ethical life, is always connected with others. And our emotions are also connected with others—mainly with other beings, but occasionally with other objects. So the ‘other’ is very important. That doesn’t mean one’s own feelings, thoughts and needs should be neglected. What I mean is that without taking others into account, it is very difficult to talk about one’s own happiness. One’s own happiness is, therefore, absolutely bound up with others. It could even be said that there is almost no happiness for us without having regard for the feelings of other beings. And out of that comes compassion. So now our topic is emotion and compassion.

Dharmapalas, defenders of the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. Tibet, 16th century. © The Metropolitan Museum of ArtAgain, compassion isn’t for others alone, it’s a matter of having compassion for one’s own wellbeing as well. We all have compassion, but it might be quite weak, and sometimes quite partial and discriminative. It is, therefore, a question of bringing compassion to life, and making it impartial. Why? Because we all want happiness, peace and contentment. This is not a philosophical statement, it’s a fact—we all want it. We may find, however, that we can’t actually bring ourselves to be compassionate towards ourselves. In the west, especially, there is a problem of self-denial and self-neglect. But underneath it all, deep down, there is definitely still a sense of wanting happiness and contentment.

Now, I don’t think there is anything wrong in wanting to fulfil that deep yearning. Not only do I think there’s nothing wrong with it, I actually think we have a right to happiness. So how do we get that? By taking other beings into account. This is crucial. It is very difficult to realise happiness within ourselves without having concern for others. Why? Because, as said, ethical behaviour is always connected with others, and the rational mind, the emotional mind, all states of mind, operate with an object. Without an object, mind alone cannot operate. And the object is usually beings. We experience objects, of course—see them, touch and feel them—but mainly our minds operate in relation to beings. At this stage I’m not talking about compassion from the position of looking at the difficulties of others, I’m referring to it only in terms of fulfilling one’s own deep feelings. Without sorting things out within oneself, it is very difficult to understand what is going on for anyone else. It’s impossible in fact. The Buddha said, ‘Whoever loves oneself, never harms others.’ If we don’t know how to love ourselves, then it’s difficult to love others. Those who know exactly what causes pain or brings happiness for themselves—not intellectually but from the heart—they will definitely pause for a moment when the occasion arises to consider, ‘Can I do this to this person?’

When Buddha talked of the First Noble Truth, dukkha, he wasn’t just talking about hitting oneself over the head with a stick—Pain! This is dukkha! No, he was referring to something much deeper than that. And so with love. When he said, ‘Whoever loves oneself, never harms others,’ he was referring to a love with understanding. This is a kind of love which is deep down; there’s nothing superficial about it.

But, now, when we think in terms of being compassionate towards ourselves, there is a ‘me’ involved, an ‘I’. We need to understand this ‘I’. And this requires wisdom, insight. To love oneself, deep down, needs great understanding. In Sanskrit the word for this kind of love is ‘maitri’, in Pali it is ‘metta’. That kind of genuine love is not emotional in any way; it is based on understanding. In order to engender that feeling, that love towards oneself, therefore, one needs to have a good understanding of the nature of one’s life, of how one’s life is constituted. Otherwise it is very difficult to know that real love, maitri. Instead, we will probably simply have strong attachment. So, understanding is needed. And in order to develop that understanding, morality, wisdom, and concentration are required.

It is quite clear, as Buddha said, life—my life, your life, the lives of all the beings in this world—is unsatisfactory (dukkha), impermanent, and free of self, or soul. The understanding of these three, again, is very important in the development of genuine love. Dukkha is there all the time, no matter what kind of lifestyle we lead, no matter how rich or famous we are, or how well educated we are, whatever, there is a nudging feeling, deep down, isn’t there? Something is not right. Even though you might be making very good profits in the company, even though business is good, still, deep down, in bed at night, there is the sense that something is not right. I was talking with a friend a little while ago about the American computer entrepreneur, Bill Gates. As you probably know, he was ordered by law to split his company in two. But he fought it in court. Here he is, one of the richest men in the world, and he couldn’t accept the government’s ruling of splitting his company in two. I’m not saying he was wrong to want to fight, I’m not really blaming him—maybe if I were in his position I would do the same—but it indicates that deep down within him there is an emptiness. He’s got all those millions and yet he still isn’t full. So when is he going to be? But that is the nature of the mind. Therefore, we must love ourselves. We are in that kind of state. It’s real understanding to realise that no matter what kind of lifestyle we lead, deep down there is something which doesn’t feel right. That feeling is shared by me, you, everybody here, I think, unless you are an Arhat, in which case I beg your pardon. Otherwise we all share the same feeling. According to Buddhism this is a universal feeling among all sentient beings. And in this context there is no difference between the rich and poor, the healthy and unhealthy, the old and young, east and west—it’s all the same. How nice to be really free from that nudging feeling. That is love, real love. It isn’t attachment.

Question: This is really an irrelevant question, but if there were no others, then presumably we’d be perfectly moral?

Geshe Tashi: If there are no others, then where is the ‘we’?

First published in the February 2001 Buddhism Now.

Click to read Part one of Emotion and Compassion by Geshe Tashi Tsering

[Geshe Tashi Tsering is the resident monk at Jamyang Meditation Centre, London. He is also a regular speaker at the BPG Leicester Buddhist summer schools. This article is from a talk given by him at the August 2000 summer school.]

More teachings by Geshe Tashi Tsering.

Categories: Buddhism, Geshe Tashi Tsering, Tibetan Buddhism



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