|Kindness & Compassion|
Kindness & Compassion
Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen
interviewed by Naljorma Jig’mèd Khyungtsal Pamo
You have to address your own level of fear, and that is called compassion – simply being with ‘what is there’. Accepting the whole texture of what you feel without having to act out, or lash out in some primitive bid for self-preservation. We have to trust the texture of what is happening and relax with the ‘rip-tides’ of what we feel. If there’s some space, then that becomes possible. It’s a ride though... but if we reject ‘the ride’... we get ridden... and the spurs bite deep!
Questioner Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Khandro Déchen, how can one work with oneself when one finds oneself not acting with kindness, when one sees patterns of no-kindness? How can one bring about a change in that?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche Lack of kindness is linked to situations in which we feel threatened; not necessarily threatened in a physical sense, but threatened in the sense of identity. However... maybe we should make this a practical discussion?
Yes. Let’s take some ordinary situations. One can be unkind, for example,
because one finds someone boring:
Q There will be an answer to that as part of one’s own system of sense-making?
do not think it is possible to be kind just because it is ‘kosher’ to be kind.
You can certainly try. It is certainly worthwhile to say:
KD However, it is better to know you have resistance than to have to force something too much.
Yes, there’ll be a set of parameters that you’ll have to look into. For
Q Can one trust the answers that arise in response?
R Not necessarily (laughs). It is more that one is
asking the questions – that one is in a questioning frame of mind. One wishes
to discover something. One is not merely writing one’s situation off by
KD The process of asking the question; that is more important than the specific answers you get. Just keep asking the question in the situation.
Q How would you ‘word’ that? Is there a special way you’d ask that question?
way it is asked does not have to be particularly worded; just confront your own
KD Knowing the pattern – or beginning to know the pattern doesn’t stop you from acting without kindness; but in the future, you are going to have to act in an unkind way whilst knowing what the pattern is. It is simply that which begins to undermine the lack of kindness.
R One gradually becomes suspicious of one’s pattern, because one begins to see it increasingly. It is much easier to act in an obnoxious way when one cannot see the pattern, when one cannot distinguish the mechanics of the pattern. Part of the process of unenlightenment is to hide from our patterns. The last thing we want to do is see our patterns. If we see them, then we know there’s something artificial going on. The way in which we’re acting starts to look pre-recorded. I become a walking answer-phone (answering-machine) message (laughs). This becomes vaguely horrible after a while – I know I’m following a pattern, but the need to act it out is still there. But the more I see it, the more ambivalent I feel about acting it out. And yet... I have to act it out.
Q And yet, I’m starting to hate acting it out.
R Well... maybe. Or maybe you’re just outnumbered.
RI think I want to do ‘this’... But my sense fields have other ideas: my eyes want to see cowboy movies; my ears want to listen to Delta Blues and cello sonatas; my nose wants to be smelling espresso; my tongue wants to be tasting lox & bagels; and my fingers want to be feeling my 1886 Smith & Wesson Schofield break-top with the 8 inch target barrel and the slicked action. So whatever it is I thought I wanted to ‘be’, loses out five to one.
KDBad odds (laughs).
R Right. (laughs) But as Daryl Van Horn pointed point out: ‘We don’t deal the deck, we just play the percentages.’ (ed – reference to the movie ‘the Witches of Eastwick’)
Q So (laughs) how...
is one of the reasons that, for a practitioner, it is very important to enter
into ambivalence. You have to see what you are doing, and say to yourself:
is better to evolve a sense of humour about the condition where,
Q Right – but you don’t break his nose.
R That’s right.
KD Unless it’s ‘him’!
R [laughs] Right... but even then [laughs] not even then.
KD Sorry, just being naughty.
most timely and perfect naughtiness too. So... You have there those two
ideas – that cognitive dissonance or emotional dissonance:
RYou have to experience those two perspectives simultaneously. Kindness comes out of the ambivalence of simply acknowledging everything that is going on within you. It’s allowing the moment to be whatever it contains without self validation or censure.
KD That can be very real and immediate.
R Yes, exactly – kindness can simply be allowing space for confusion to play without having to act anything out.
Q You have often spoken of awareness and kindness as the two most fundamental damtsigs, or vows. Until now, I’d thought of awareness as it would apply to seeing others. It sounds as if awareness is mainly about seeing what’s inside yourself.
R You could say that – particularly from this perspective.
Q Then one of the things that we’re aware of is our own resistance?
resistance is the reaction to anything that we find threatening:
RThe resistance is not accepting where I am.
the other hand, I could say:
Q Sometimes it seems that there’s very little to communicate about, little that we have in common.
R Maybe you’re trying to do too much.
Q What would too much look like?
R Well – you cannot move entirely into the experiential area of another person who is not attempting to communicate with you. For example, if someone is hooked into a certain type of conversation – say, they are talking about themselves a great deal, and there is no space for you in that.
Q And there would be nowhere to go from there?
R Well... it depends how adventurous you might be. If it didn’t feel too threatening you might just try to talk to them about themselves. You might decide to feed their self-absorption to see whether they could climb out of it.
QYou ask them questions and become interested?
KD Why not? Everyone is interesting, or can be interesting under the right circumstances.
Q So... then... after a while when it seems appropriate, you might make a move into talking about something that concerns you?
RYou could... but not as a premeditated strategy – otherwise you’re into some sort of Dale Carnegie number.
KD (laughs) ‘How to Make Friends and Inconvenience People’...
(laughs) So, if the other person is always taking the conversation back to
themselves, is it also okay to say:
KDYes... you could say that...
if they say:
R... then you could possibly say:
(laughs) But what if they reply:
Well, then I guess you could be honest, and say:
KDOne’s commitment to being kind is not simply a matter of ‘being kind whatever’. You can’t merely become a kindness machine.
R Quite, that is not even really that helpful to the other person. There is no humour in that. If you lose humour you’re out of the human realm, and immersed in animal realm of heavy handed gelatinous pragmatism...
Q [laughs] Yes, you mentioned the importance of humour when you look inside yourself. It’s hard to see one’s resistance and one’s ambivalence from a vantage point of humour.
R Yes – it is hard.
KDBut life’s either hard or it’s hard. The choice is always yours.
Q Right... I should have known [laughs]
RYou see... one’s resistance and ambivalences are innately humorous. It’s a matter of coming from that space of humour in terms of openness.
KD You have to encourage a humorous view of yourself. We are all humorous. If you relax with your own ambivalence, it cannot help but be humorous. This is why people can laugh at themselves sometimes, if they are open enough. That is quite a natural and healthy response – but it will only arise if you relax with your ambivalence.
R If you’re too uncomfortable with ambivalence, then there can be no humour. If you always try too vociferously to escape from that ambivalence it is impossible to see the humour of the fact that there is no escape. We can only escape into ambivalence – not out of it. You see... we have to discover that the ambivalence is linked with compassion and with kindness.
QIs there a difference between kindness and compassion?
R Kindness is where we start. Compassion means so much more, in a certain sense, than simply being kind. Compassion means kindness, but it also means communication – fierce, florid, and fecund communication. Compassion is openness to infinite pattern and to embodying any aspect of that pattern for the benefit of everyone, and everything, everywhere.
Q Infinite pattern?
R Absolutely. You cannot really feel kindness towards somebody unless you understand and appreciate their array of patterns.
What would the approach be to someone who might have a drug habit? One might
have no sympathy whatsoever. If I said:
R Quite. It’s very hard to have compassion if you have no comprehension whatsoever of someone else’s situation.
one person growing old is an utter horror. For another person it is just what
is happening. To somebody, not having very much money is atrocious; while
another might say, ‘Well, I’m getting enough to live on’ so I’m happy.
Everything is just how you see it. When apprentices tell us that they cannot
comprehend another’s distress, we always point out that it because they don’t
comprehend that person’s mind-set. It requires that one understands the
mind-set of another person in order to respond:
can be sympathetic with someone who is unable to buy new clothes when they
already have shoals of them. We can say:
Q (laughs) That sure makes it all relative, but you’d still be appreciating their inability to expand their wardrobe as genuine suffering?
Because a person’s worst suffering is a person’s worst suffering. It is
relative. I think this is important: the worst thing in your life, has been
the worst thing you have experienced. To compare it with something in somebody
else’s life which is worse, is both useful and useless. It is useless because
being cruel to yourself is to lack compassion. You cannot just undermine your
own greatest suffering just by saying:
KDIt is a matter of having the two things there at once – which again is ambivalence.
QIs it a personal / transpersonal balance you have to find?
R No. Not balance [laughs]. ‘Balance’ is about seeking comfort – seeking some sort of assurance that things won’t get out of hand. If you were able to find the illusive ‘balance’ you’d find it was empty.
Q So when we find ourselves with someone that we’re having trouble being with, that we’d like to get away from... Or when we find that we’re not really communicating with someone... then in part it’s because we haven’t really looked at what suffering is in their world, in their pattern?
KD Yes. This is why we say to our apprentices that whatever difficulties they might have in getting on with each other, they have to remember that I get along with all of them. I like all of them, and I have to relate to them all as different human beings; which means that I am different with all of them. I tend to lock in to their mind-set when I am with them, in terms of what makes them laugh, what amuses them, or how they see things.
Q And it would only be through that, that one would actually then experience compassion for them and communication with them?
KD Yes. Otherwise, you see, compassion becomes an act of will: ‘I will be kind and good because that is what you have to be’. Actually, if you understand somebody, then you also like them. If you do not understand them... I think it is possible to like somebody you do not understand, but it is hit-or-miss.
Q Rinpoche, you have previously mentioned, in relation to compassion, the concept of ‘shifting experiential norms’. Would you explain how that functions?
R That comes out of a discussion of the importance of compassion and motivation. Your motivation is what pushes you, or projects you, in a certain direction. Whatever your motivation is, you start creating a directional line for yourself, a trajectory that is going somewhere. For example, if you start exercising you get fitter; the more you do it the fitter you get. The fitter you get, the more you have concepts around that. Perhaps you start out thinking, ‘I just want to lose some weight’. You lose the weight, and having exercised and dieted in order to do so, you then look at yourself and think, ‘Oh! I look quite interesting; look at that muscle there. I could maybe get some weights; I could work on this one a bit’. Now that new consideration only exists at that point because you have done everything else you have done. It was never your idea at the onset, ‘Right, I’m going to lose this weight and I’m going to get this amazing looking body out of it’. You can see what happens to some people who follow that line. They become more and more obsessed, so they spend great parts of their days doing this. Then they start looking carefully at their diet; they buy certain products. That is about creating a line, where every step along the way makes the next step possible. Like going to take a walk: every step you make makes the next step possible. In terms of a shifting experiential norm, wherever you are at the moment, there is an experiential circle around you. It is not a particularly crisp circle; it is a woolly circle; it is a vague circle. If you can imagine that you occupy a circle of what is normal and possible for you – within that circle you can be in a bad mood, you can be happy, you can be kind to people, you can be unkind to people. You have the full spectrum, the parameters of what it is you do. You know other people in the world will do other things that you do not do, because you consider them to be immoral, too dangerous, boring, or whatever category it is that is outside your circle. At any point on the perimeter of your circle lies entry into any of these other areas; and it is part of the norm of your circle to go to its border and just look across occasionally. Or maybe, because that is what life circumstances do for you, they take you to the perimeter; and you get a chance of maybe stepping over. People do that; it is normal to step over. That is why the edge of your circle is amorphous. It is not a very crisp barrier, so you can find yourself having moved outside your circle. Then you can either become terrified and run back into it, or you can say, ‘Well, this is interesting here!’ When you move outside your circle and you find it interesting, then something outside your circle or reference becomes normal. When something new becomes normal, it acts as a reference point for you in terms of your reality; then your experiential norm shifts to include that. It becomes normal even though it was never normal before; it doesn’t remain an abnormal activity that you do. From that position, something else can become an activity in which you engage, that is ‘not quite normal’; but you will do it anyway, because that has now become a possibility. That next possibility would have been impossible to consider from the ‘normal’ a few steps earlier, because your norm has drifted. Imagine this as a circle with a centre. You keep drawing lines, and you see what direction you are going in. You can end up anywhere. This is why it is frightening to hear people talking about Hitler as some kind of a ‘monster’ or ‘evil’ person: ‘I’m not like Hitler, I couldn’t be like Hitler, Hitler is an evil person’. When I ask, ‘So, you think you could never be like Hitler?’ they say, ‘Absolutely sure.’ I respond, ‘That is really frightening that you can say that’. What is frightening is that he exists in some other category of being. This is what is so appalling about this God-and-the-Devil idea. The idea of evil is dangerous because it makes evil people ‘different’: that ‘I could not become evil’. I think that is dangerous, because all one requires is the right circumstances.
Q . . . and pushing oneself a little farther beyond the circle...
R You get to be evil, or what is called evil, step by step, and by circumstances allowing you to keep taking steps. What makes people think that they could never become evil is that they could not, in their present mind-set, entertain the concept of being Hitler. Maybe Gœbbels could think about it [laughter], being closer. The further you move away from that mind-set the less you could be like that, or the less you could conceptualise being like that. But... all one has to do is start walking in that direction. If you are walking down the road, you cannot already be at the bottom of the road. Only if you walk step by step – and what makes this step possible is having made that step. That is exactly the same with one’s experience. That is why it is so important to have compassionate motivation; because if you do not, you can end up anywhere – anywhere at all. It is the only motivation that makes sure that you gain Liberation. Without compassionate motivation, you either go in circles or you can end up with any kind of situation, having become some kind of monster. We all have that capacity to drift, where things become normal; and whatever is normal is justified.
Q You spoke earlier of compassion as communication... Is the motivation to really be there with someone, and to communicate with them, the same motivation you are referring to now?
R Yes. One has to also have compassion for Hitler, for Stalin, for Mussolini, for whomever. One has to understand their very terrible situation. If one starts by hating such people, that is a real problem.
Q Can one use the concept of shifting experiential norms to help oneself move in a direction one would like to go?... Say, towards compassion or...
R Certainly. Whatever it is you are doing has to become normal. Being kind has to be what you normally do; then you can become kinder. You cannot become a saint overnight – in a couple of years you could! [laughs] It is just a matter of moving in that direction. Mother Theresa did not get like that overnight; it is a step by step thing. It is the same as whatever is normal is normal; then whatever is normal gives you the opportunity to move further in whatever you have set up. That could be a perverse direction or that could be a really exciting direction; it could be any direction. Rather than casting around for any direction, one has compassion as one’s direction. Then whatever else happens, it is included within compassion – in terms of being an artist or musician or whatever.
Q To go back to where we started: If one’s in a situation where one’s really uncomfortable with this person who’s in front of them. If one finds them boring or unacceptable or whatever; and then one says, ‘I would like to really be aware of why I find this uncomfortable’...
R ...and if you keep doing that, it becomes normal for you to do that. Whereas, if you cut this person off and you think, ‘Well, I’m glad I did that, this person was getting right up my nose’, then that becomes normal and okay for you to do that. So you create your mind-set all the time with how you act, how you respond. So it is a matter of always being aware of that and saying, ‘Is this what I want to be? Is this what I want to become?’
Q I was wondering... is the visualisation practice in Tantra a shortcut of what you were just describing... that instead of working step by step – seeing the pattern, the trend one is moving towards – one just identifies with a goal farther along the way?
Q And that works?
R Ultimately, yes. I think this is something that people do not really understand about Tantra very much – this whole process of what I describe as wearing the body of visions. For example, you want to feel better about yourself, so you buy some clothes and you put them on. When people admire what you are wearing, you feel better about yourself – this is a kind of process. If you look at visualisation in that context, you can say that you ‘wear’ the body of Yeshé Tsogyel or Padmasambhava. Then, in terms of how you feel about the world in which you live, you have the opportunity, at least momentarily, to relate to it in a certain way – like having compassion for all beings. You ‘try on’ what that is like through becoming Yeshé Tsogyel. Then you have a new sense of yourself – it is that you do not have to be limited; that you do not have to be constricted by some self-concept.
Q Would the follow-up to that still require the step by step shifting of one’s experiential norms?
R Yes. The two go hand in hand, really. To use some kind of analogy: If you want to see where you are going, you can occasionally climb up a tree and see a bit further; but then you have to get down again and continue walking. Maybe it is inspiring to get this view from the treetop and say, ‘Yes, I can see the ocean from here, and it’s wonderful. I can even feel the breeze here up on top of this tree’. Then you are down and you are walking again. It is always both ultimate and relative, being able to enter into Yeshé Tsogyel or Padmasambhava. It is a practice, a practice that exists at the level of visualisation. It also exists at the level of having that vajra pride in everyday life, of approaching everyday life as Yeshé Tsogyel or Padmasambhava. That is not so very different from the concept of being a good... whatever. Was it McCarthy that had this thing about ‘un-American activities’?
R There was obviously an idea about what an ‘American activity’ was, and what they were not. If you wanted to be a good American, you knew what the ‘deal’ was: This is what you did, and this is what you did not do. Now, when you are being Yeshé Tsogyel, there is also a commission for un-Yeshé Tsogyel activities [laughs] to which you are accountable. Being snide or creepy is an un-Yeshé Tsogyel activity. You are aware of that and you think, ‘Now really, in my true nature I’m no different from Yeshé Tsogyel’. Then again you have this ambivalence about being Yeshé Tsogyel and not being Yeshé Tsogyel, and you just let that interrelate. Yet you keep the concept that ‘essentially I’m Yeshé Tsogyel – I just forget that from time to time, and I want to break somebody’s nose or steal their wallet...’ or whatever it is that you feel you are doing.
Q But Rinpoche, instead of doing that, I often say, ‘Some nerve I had identifying with Yeshé Tsogyel! Here I am acting in this creepy manner again. That was just a pretence; that couldn’t have been real.’ Rather than, ‘Ah, but I know my basic nature is that of Yeshé Tsogyel’.
R That is a very complicated way of looking at that; I would say that you do not need to be that complicated about it. Guilt doesn’t have to come into it. You can say, ‘Ah, hmm, well, right, this is not Yeshé Tsogyel that I am now. I can return to that’. It is not that, ‘That other moment was not real. I am really a piece of slime and that I just had the audacity for one moment to think that I wasn’t a piece of slime!’ [laughter] That is not helpful at all – it is really not helpful.
Q There’s a matter of trust or faith that’s necessary to hold the other?
R Yes. One has to evolve that confidence. The confidence comes out of the experience of emptiness. When you actually arise as Yeshé Tsogyel from that experience of emptiness, then you do have the sensation of being Yeshé Tsogyel at that point. Then in your everyday life you can refer back to that as being your intrinsic experience. At some other level of practice, you just have to decide that that is how it is.
Q At some other level of practice?
Yes. When you have not realised emptiness, you have to work at the level of
devotion and say:
Q I’m slime.
R Right. [laughs] How has that fact eluded me for so long? [laughs]. You see... It is a choice that you make there.
Q Rinpoche, could you add more on how devotion functions in making this decision?
R Well... it’s really not so very, very, very, different from some remote sense of... dare I say it? ‘Having faith’. But; it is more of a choice which is based on experience. Devotion is actually a whole realm of interactive possibilities. Devotion has to be based on something – and ‘that something’ is one’s knowledge of the Lama and the teachings. When that sense of devotion exists, it is always quite highly informed. It’s not a dumb devotion. It’s not the ‘gopi’ ideal [interrupted]
Q... the Hindu thing of going gozzy about ‘The Master’?
R Well, I’m not sure about how that applies in Hinduism throughout its many different forms – but yes. Devotion as it is spoken of in Vajrayana Buddhism is definitely not a non-intellectual stance. One really has to research one’s relationship with the Lama in terms of study and practice before one’s devotion can be said to be authentic. Otherwise one is always feeling guilty about not being devoted enough. If you actually have devotion, it’s not a big battle. So when you have devotion then you can make decisions about your life on the basis of that devotion. It becomes your yardstick. It becomes the point by which everything else is measured. Once that principle is in place, everything else in one’s life naturally falls into place. Not that everything becomes easy [laughs] things might be quite tough at times – but everything becomes simple. Even complexity becomes simple, because one doesn’t have to make a complex ‘thing’ of it. Everything is simply where it is. We see everything as part of our landscape, and we make decisions about how we travel in that landscape.
in terms of how you see yourself – you can say:
RIt actually does not matter if it is true or not true, on one level. It is a choice as to what you want to do with your life: whether you want to buy into one option or buy into another option – especially at the level of Tantra.
can either say:
...during this period of absorption in Tantra, its terminology, premises, and concepts should be taken to heart. In this semantic game of enlightenment, it is expedient first to clarify meanings and then to approach Tantric formulæ as if they represented absolute truths. There is little joy in the mere intellectual exercise of comparative meta-psychological systems, but a great deal to be gained by bathing the mind in a sublime vision...
So it’s really about not having time for the other view. I
think you have to be able to say:
QI suppose that slime just stays where it is; there is no effort involved with that, so it is relaxing.
RYes... but it is also torture – because you do not really want to be a piece of slime – nobody does.
Buddhism gets you both ways. [laughs] The unenlightened perspective is one which
tries to create comfort, but it is not really comfortable. If you reverse that
KDIt’s not as mysterious as it sounds.
can use the analogy of exercising. I could say:
KDThe only difference is whether you are in charge of it or not, whether you have your hands on the steering wheel. That is what makes the difference.
Q When you’re in a situation where you’re experiencing ambivalence or resistance... you said earlier that one should recognise that ambivalence as humorous... Is the humorous quality there because essentially one knows one is Yeshé Tsogyel or Padmasambhava? So there’s some trust that the resistance isn’t the whole package?
KD Yes. That is extremely important. The main point is to come to that understanding. Then you will be kind to yourself, too – because you will have your situation: with its ambivalences; with its wanting to be like this, yet wanting to do that... and ‘that’ is the very thing that undermines ‘this’.
R [sings] The very thing that, makes you rich, makes me po’.
[laughs] If you can be relaxed about it, then you can say:
RIf you are relaxed about that it should be amusing; which then makes you free to actually be like this rather than doing that.
gives you the freedom to slip, too. It does not have to be a case of:
KDYou can trust that you’re not actually out of control. You can realise that being in control does not have to be punishment. Being in control can be accepting that you’re not always in control; but that when you get out of control, you can get back into control again.
Q So vajra pride allows for the relaxation? And that means it allows for the slipping?
KD Yes, because Yeshé Tsogyel is not judging you for slipping; Yeshé Tsogyel understands why people slip.
Otherwise you are always into this ‘good person / bad person’ thing, where I
when you are a ‘bad person’ and have this ‘bad person concept’, you can totally
indulge in being ‘a bad person’, or an ‘unworthy person’, or whatever. But you
really want to be a good person, so you say:
Q We seem so comfortable with good and evil. Is it because we’re avoiding ambivalence?
that’s very probable. That is why people like feeling guilt. It enables them to
When one says:
KD Yes. But having that kind of conviction, however, comes out of practice.
R And that knowing is only really allowed by the not-knowing which preceded the knowing, as the space in which you could remember that you forgot.
[laughs] It is from that position that you can see unkindness as a defence
mechanism. You can say:
RYou have to address your own level of fear, and that is called compassion – simply being with what is there. Accepting the whole texture of what you feel without having to act out, or lash out in some primitive bid for self-preservation. We have to trust to the texture of what is happening and relax with the ‘rip-tides’ of what we feel. If there’s some space, then that becomes possible. It’s a ride though... but if we reject ‘the ride’... we get ridden [laughs] and the spurs bite deep!
Q [laughs] Thank you very much, Khandro Déchen, Rinpoche – that was very helpful.
KD Thank you for your interest.
R It’s been fun. Thank you.