The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

The Dalai Lama on the benefits of compassion

by The Dalai Lama
September 3, 2014
Wed, 09/03/2014 - 09:22 -- The Dalai Lama

CHAPTER 1: The Benefits of Compassion

My experiences are nothing special, just ordinary human ones. Through my Buddhist training, however, I have learned something about compassion and developing a good heart, and that experience has proved very helpful in my day-to-day life. For example, the region of Tibet I come from is called Amdo, and people usually regard people who come from Amdo as short-tempered. So in Tibet, when someone would lose his or her temper, people would often take it as a sign that the person was from Amdo! However, when I compare my temperament now to the way it was when I was between the ages of fifteen and twenty, I see a noticeable difference. These days, I hardly find myself being irritated at all, and even when I am, it doesn’t last long. This is a marvelous benefit of my own practice and training— now I am always quite cheerful!

In my lifetime, I have lost my country and have been reduced to being totally dependent on the goodwill of others. I have also lost my mother, and most of my tutors and lamas have passed away. Of course, these are tragic incidents, and I feel sad when I think about them. However, I don’t feel overwhelmed by sadness. Old, familiar faces disappear and new faces appear, but I still maintain my happiness and peace of mind. This capacity to relate to events from a broader perspective is, for me, one of the marvels of human nature, and I believe it is rooted in our capacity for compassion and kindness toward others.

Our Fundamental Nature

Some of my friends have told me that while love and compassion are marvelous and good, they are not really very relevant. Our world, they say, is not a place where such virtues have much influence or power. They claim that anger and hatred are so much a part of human nature that humanity will always be dominated by them. I do not agree.

We humans have existed in our present form for about a hundred thousand years. I believe that if during this time the human mind had been primarily controlled by anger and hatred, our population would have decreased. But today, despite all our wars, we find that the human population is greater than ever. This clearly indicates to me that while anger and aggression are surely present, love and compassion predominate in the world. This is why what we call “news” is composed of mostly unpleasant or tragic events; compassionate activities are so much a part of daily life that they are taken for granted and therefore are largely ignored.

If we look at basic human nature, we can see that it is more gentle than aggressive. For example, if we examine various animals, we notice that animals of a more peaceful nature have a corresponding body structure, whereas predatory animals have a body structure that has developed according to their nature. Compare the tiger and the deer: there are great differences in their physical structures. When we compare our own body structure to theirs, we see that we resemble deer and rabbits more than tigers. Even our teeth are more like a rabbit’s, are they not? They are not like a tiger’s. Our fingernails are another good example—I cannot even harm a rat with a swipe of my fingernails alone. Of course, because of human intelligence, we are able to devise and use various tools and methods to accomplish things that would be difficult to accomplish without them. But because of our physical situation we belong to the gentle-animal category.

We are, after all, social animals. Without human friendship, without the human smile, our lives become miserable. The loneliness becomes unbearable. Such human interdependence is a natural law— that is to say, according to natural law, we depend on others to live. If, under certain circumstances, because something is wrong inside us, our attitude toward our fellow human beings on whom we depend becomes hostile, how can we hope to attain peace of mind or a happy life? According to basic human nature or natural law, interdependence—giving and receiving affection—is the key to happiness.

This fact may become more evident if we reflect on the basic pattern of our existence. In order to do more than just barely survive, we need shelter, food, companions, friends, the esteem of others, resources, and so on; these things do not come about from ourselves alone but are all dependent on others. Suppose one single person were to live alone in a remote and uninhabited place. No matter how strong, healthy, or educated this person were, there would be no possibility of his or her leading a happy and fulfilling existence. If a person is living, for example, somewhere deep in the African jungle and is the only human being in an animal sanctuary, given that person’s intelligence and cunning, the best he or she can do is to become, perhaps, king of the jungle. Can such a person have friends? Acquire renown? Can this person become a hero if he or she wishes to become one? I think the answer to all these questions is a definite no, for all these factors come about only in relation to other fellow humans.

When you are young, healthy, and strong, you sometimes can get the feeling that you are totally independent and do not need anyone else. But this is an illusion. Even at that prime age of your life, simply because your are a human being, you need friends, don’t you? This is especially true when we become old. For example, in my own case, the Dalai Lama, who is now in his sixties, is beginning to show various signs of approaching old age. I can see the appearance of more white hair on my head, and I am also starting to experience problems sometimes with the knees when getting up or sitting down. As we grow old, we need to rely more and more on the help of others: this is the nature of our lives as human beings.

In at least one sense, we can say that other people are really the principal source of all our experiences of joy, happiness, and prosperity, and not only in terms of our day-to-day dealings with people. We can see that all the desirable experiences that we cherish or aspire to attain are dependent upon cooperation and interaction with others. It is an obvious fact. Similarly, from the point of view of a Buddhist practitioner, many of the high levels of realization that you gain and the progress that you make on your spiritual journey are dependent upon cooperation and interaction with others. Furthermore, at the stage of complete enlightenment, the compassionate activities of a buddha can come about spontaneously only in relation to other beings, for those beings are the recipients and beneficiaries of those enlightened activities.

Even from a totally selfish perspective—wanting only our own happiness, comfort, and satisfaction in life, with no consideration of others’ welfare—I would still argue that the fulfillment of our aspirations depends upon others. Even the committing of harmful actions depends on the existence of others. For example, in order to cheat, you need someone as the object of your act.

All events and incidents in life are so intimately linked with the fate of others that a single person on his or her own cannot even begin to act. Many ordinary human activities, both positive and negative, cannot even be conceived of apart from the existence of other people. Because of others, we have the opportunity to earn money if that is what we desire in life. Similarly, in reliance upon the existence of others it becomes possible for the media to create fame or disrepute for someone. On your own you cannot create any fame or disrepute no matter how loud you might shout. The closest you can get is to create an echo of your own voice.

Thus interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law, or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. All phenomena, from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests, and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.


Image by Olivier Adam of Dharma Eye

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