Path of Transformation» Meditation

Training in Kindness


These days, in a busy and sometimes angry world, we often don’t observe a lot of kindness in our interactions. When we feel this way it can be very helpful to review some core teachings that remind us that we have alternatives. We can form healthy habits by training in kindness.

Phakchok Rinpoche here observes that all of the Buddha’s teachings revolve around developing kindness.

First, the Buddha said that to have a compassionate heart we need to build four things. We’ve probably studied or heard about these four attitudes previously.  Collectively, we refer to them as the “four immeasurables” because they are vast, and beyond boundaries. And we should remember that when we think of all sentient beings we mean absolutely every being, no matter how tiny, and no matter how annoying!

I wish all sentient beings to be happy and have the cause of happiness,
I wish all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering,
I wish all beings never to be separated from great happiness that is beyond suffering
I wish all beings to dwell in great equanimity and be free from attachment and aversion.

Rinpoche says that these four thoughts remind him of a Hollywood movie because they always have a happy ending!

The four qualities contained in this prayer are:

  1. Loving-kindness
  2. Compassion
  3. Sympathetic Joy
  4. Equanimity

When we practice sympathetic joy we wish that all beings be happy and have the cause of happiness. Rinpoche compares this feeling to the Hollywood romantic ideal of a happy ending.

Then we move to loving kindness and compassion. Of course, we wish that all beings are free from suffering and the causes of suffering. But we have to mix this with sympathetic joy and with equanimity.  Otherwise, we may become sad and depressed. Instead, we need to mix this with joy and kindness—that way we have a beautiful ending.

Often when we practice compassion we focus only on the suffering. But by doing so we become absorbed in and attached to that suffering. And then it becomes a more pessimistic view. That is actually very weak compassion.  That’s why we need to support our practice of compassion with loving kindness. We don’t only focus on the problem, but bring in the wish for happiness.

The Role of Sympathetic Joy and Happiness

Rinpoche describes an image that made a big impression on him. He saw a picture of a woman holding her starving and dying child. Despite the anguish of the situation, the mother and son were showing great love for each other. When Rinpoche first saw this, he first felt great feeling was sadness, but then the second feeling that arose was sympathetic joy. He picked up on the love shown between the mother and child and wished that they never be separated from that happiness.

This sympathetic joy is very important. When people practice compassion, if they do not also practice sympathetic joy they can become the victim of their own compassion. The pain becomes too much to bear. This is not healthy compassion, not so useful.

That’s why as we train to improve our kindness, we begin in Buddhism by training in the four immeasurables. We train gradually and use each training to support the others.

As an example, Rinpoche tells the story of the Buddha, who came across a hunter shooting an arrow at a deer. At the time all his monks were scolding the hunter and saying prayers for the deer. But the Buddha scolded his monks for not practicing compassion as he had taught them! Then he explained to the shocked monks that although the deer was being killed by the hunter the deer’s karma was being exhausted. However, the hunter was creating new negative karma—so the Buddha explained that compassion first needed to be extended toward the perpetrator. First, we should feel compassion for the perpetrator and secondly for the victim. We need to direct our compassion toward both.

This sounds counterintuitive, but directing compassion only to the victim means we are adopting judgmental compassion. Often our compassion is directed to the victim but not towards the perpetrator. Therefore, expanding our compassion should be our training. Rinpoche describes this deer hunter story as an important beacon for himself—reminding him how to genuinely train in compassion.

As we gradually train in the four immeasurables they create a whole new mindset called bodhicitta (the mind of awakening). Bodhicitta, we can say, is thus born from the four immeasurables.

Bodhicitta is the thought, “I wish that all sentient beings attain enlightenment”. This thought comes on top of the wish for happiness and freedom from suffering. So today, for that reason, I will meditate. Today I will drink water, today I will sleep, drive to dinner, etc., all to bring beings to attain enlightenment. All my actions become an act with this motivation. Our good actions will increase, and our negative actions will decrease. This motivation will transform everything we do. And that’s why bodhicitta is very important.

In summary: To develop kindness, we practice the four immeasurables. With practice, the four immeasurables produce bodhicitta.


Study Note

Reflection Exercise

During our day we can train in giving rise to loving kindness and compassion through the use of the four immeasurables. We may see or encounter pain or suffering ourselves. Or maybe we see something on the news, or hear about someone causing pain to another.

At these times, take a moment to acknowledge the situation. Then we can bring to mind the four immeasurables and try to bring them to life.

We can try to go beyond our judgments and develop loving kindness and compassion to all parties…victim and perpetrator. How well can we do this? Probably not so well. So what to do?

Keep trying……

Train with small events first, don’t try to take on too much. Slowly, steadily we can observe how our minds and hearts are changing. Are we being overwhelmed by this suffering? Or are we becoming free from our judgmental minds through the practice?

Taking our time and being compassionate to all involved (including ourselves) is the training in the four immeasurables…the training in “ baby” bodhicitta.

As with any training, we work slowly with these new habits. It may help to keep a journal where you note your own reactions and changes that you observe as you practice. Such a record can inspire you as you notice your heart and mind becoming more open, more flexible, and more forgiving to others and to yourself.

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