Cultivating Compassion: A Buddhist Prespective

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What compels some people to act compassionately without giving it a second thought, while for others it almost seems against their nature? And what will become of our society if compassion dwindles?
According to Buddhist thought, compassion is society, and esteemed Buddhist scholar-practitioner Jeffrey Hopkins knows that by learning to live from a more compassionate viewpoint, we can create a better life not only for ourselves but for others. In Cultivating Compassion, Hopkins ...
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Overview

What compels some people to act compassionately without giving it a second thought, while for others it almost seems against their nature? And what will become of our society if compassion dwindles?
According to Buddhist thought, compassion is society, and esteemed Buddhist scholar-practitioner Jeffrey Hopkins knows that by learning to live from a more compassionate viewpoint, we can create a better life not only for ourselves but for others. In Cultivating Compassion, Hopkins uses Buddhist meditations (including the Dalai Lama’s favorite), visualizations, and entertaining recollections from his personal journey to guide us in developing an awareness of the capacity for love inside us and in learning to project that love into the world around us.
Delivering a potent message with the power to change our relationships and improve the quality of our lives, Cultivating Compassion is the ideal book for an age in which our dealings with each other seem increasingly impersonal–and even violent and aggressive. Anyone seeking release from negative emotions, such as anger, or simply wanting to increase the love and caring among us, will welcome this timely vision for humanity.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780767905008
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.57 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D., served as the interpreter to the Dalai Lama for a decade. A Buddhist scholar and the author of more than twenty books and translations, he is Professor of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia, where he founded the largest academic program of Tibetan Buddhism studies in the West. He lives in Charlottesville.
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Read an Excerpt

chapter 1
meditation
Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to keep track of your thoughts? The mind wanders so easily from the topic we want to keep it on. It even may seem that the mind is, in its own nature, like bubbles on a river or a ball floating in a stream. Actually, the nature of the mind is like the water--not the bubbles or ripples on the surface or the movement but just the water itself. Nevertheless, because of our addiction to the superficial appearances of things, we feel that the mind naturally goes from one thing to another. It is as though we are in a bus and the driver takes us wherever she wants, at which point we decide that wherever we have arrived is a nice place to be. This is what makes it difficult to engage in practice like unbiased compassion that opposes the conditioned flow of the mind.
Since an attitude such as unbiased compassion, which runs against the grain of our usual outlook, is not easy, it has to be cultivated in meditation. Gradually, feeling develops, and then the felt attitude comes with only slight effort, and eventually it arises naturally and spontaneously. You practice in this way until compassion and altruism seem to form even the very stuff of your body.
It takes long meditation over months and years for new attitudes such as profoundly felt compassion to be sufficiently strong to remain of their own accord. Therefore, in the initial stages, the test of success is incremental progress, slight changes in daily behavior. Even with effective meditation, in which strong experience is gained during the session, it is easy--outside of the session--to fall back into old attitudes in the midst of daily activities.
Unskilled meditators, based on what is indeed an overpoweringly deep experience during a session of meditation, sometimes cannot face that they so easily fall back into old habits. Some even make the outrageous claim that the desire or the hatred that arises outside of or even during meditation is spiritually driven, somehow consistent with their new insights. However, the reversion to familiar patterns needs to be recognized as just what it is: we're used to our old ways and slip back into them, perhaps even more powerfully now that we have, through meditation, gained a more focused mind. Such reversion shows only that we need a sense of humor and more meditation.
The Tibetan word for meditation is sgom pa (pronounced "gom pa"). In a play on words, it's said that meditation (sgom pa) means familiarization (goms pa), both s's being unpronounced. Thus, meditation means familiarize with, get used to, become a habit. You are seeking to regularize the practice so that it has a chance to affect everyday behavior, and to accomplish this, short periods of meditation are much better than long ones. The reason is that an intensity of purpose can be retained throughout a short session. When you do a long period of meditation without intensity, you're getting accustomed to--habituating yourself to--dullness. So, frequent short periods of cultivation are best.
There are very few people who have cultivated compassion so strongly in former lives that, when they sit down to cultivate it in this life, the meditation flows like a stream, with no obstruction at all. Even if we are drawn to the meditation, we extend compassion to our friends easily and to people toward whom we are neutral not so easily, but when we get to the people we dislike, the meditation becomes knotty. Essentially, we fake it. The only way it can become genuine and spontaneous is through training--through getting used to it. Part of developing familiarity is learning to realize as consciously as possible how the attitude we are cultivating seems to disagree with the present drift of our minds. If we merely placed a superficial overlay of thought on top of our actual feelings, we would not transform them but repress them. Repression doesn't work. What we avoid comes out in some other way and becomes the very thing that ruins the chance to make the perspective we are cultivating spontaneous. We have to face what we dislike. Often, however, we practice our dislikes so strongly that we cannot set them aside even for a moment. Many of us have a strained relationship with our parents, but there was a time when Mommy and Daddy were the greatest things in the whole universe. What keeps us from remembering them like that even for a few moments? The continual destructive thoughts that we habitually direct toward them.
Thus, it's important to keep in mind that developing compassion takes a tremendous amount of training of the mind with incremental progress. Although in meditation there are often sudden leaps to truly grand feelings, they are temporary. What is important over the long run is a steady progression. A good way to facilitate this progress is through discussing and sharing obstacles and successes with others. I often conduct group sessions in which I lead people through the series of meditations starting with equanimity and culminating in generating compassion. We do a particular exercise and then I'll ask, "What new feelings did you have?" From someone else's description of success, you may intuit how to break through a blockage about a person toward whom you can't even think, "That person wants happiness and doesn't want suffering." By hearing about and thus imagining another's success, it increases your own progress. If you are bored with trying to cultivate compassion toward people who are neutral to you--who have neither helped nor harmed you--it can be most helpful and inspiring to hear from another person who is having just the opposite experience: "Wow! It was amazing to extend the recognition of wanting happiness and not wanting suffering to so-and-so at work." Furthermore, when you, as a participant, talk about your own blocks, the very fact that you bring up a block as a difficult situation opens your mind to moving toward a solution. Talking out the obstacles usually doesn't remove them, but it does start a movement toward amelioration.
Occasionally you might even get stuck in a stupor and wonder, "What am I doing here? What is it I was doing?" It might take time for you to remember, "Oh, I was supposed to be cultivating compassion." Whenever you find that your mind has wandered, bring it gently back to the topic. Don't be ashamed, but also don't react with pride or fancy that somehow your mind decided that the meditation was not worthwhile and deliberately wandered either to another topic or into blankness. Just turn your mind back to the topic.
If you are worried about adding a regular practice to your already hectic routine, rest assured that meditating on compassion need not take up hours of your day. When I first went to Dharamsala, India, in 1972, the Dalai Lama was teaching the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, and in the midst of the series of lectures he conducted a refuge ceremony that subsequently required all of us to take refuge in Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community six times a day through thoughtful repetition of a formula: "I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings." Initially I thought, "How can I possibly take refuge six times a day? I don't have enough time." However, refuge is very fast; it's ridiculous to think I wouldn't have time for it. Of course I had time for it. It's just that I wasn't used to it. It takes all of fifteen seconds. And six times--you could even do six in a row, and it would still only take a minute and a half! Anyone can find three minutes here and there throughout the day to practice compassion.
posture
Meditation does not have to be done in a particular posture; it can and should be done in a variety of positions--standing, sitting, walking, riding on the bus, flying in a plane, wherever and whenever, provided you won't cause an accident. A change of position now and then helps to bring the force of the reflections into everyday life and deepen their impact. However, there is a particular sitting posture that, over the long run, can give a boost to the focus and staying power of meditative sessions.
This posture has seven features:
1. Sit on a comfortable cushion in either the lotus or the half-lotus posture, as they are sometimes called. In Tibet, they are called the vajra posture and the half-vajra posture. Vajra is a Sanskrit word meaning diamond, or diamond scepter, something unbreakable; the vajra posture is solid, indestructible. Though one can meditate in any posture at all, this specific sitting posture is recommended because of the heaviness of our afflictive emotions, including our tendency toward drowsiness; it is hard for the mind to be fully present when one is lying down, for example.
The cushion should be comfortable. Preferably, there should be two cushions: a large square cushion, as in Zen meditation, and on top of that, a smaller, either square or round cushion for the buttocks, which you may find more comfortable if it is quite hard; neither cushion should be very soft. The top one should be large enough so that the sides of the buttocks do not hang over but small enough so that the knees are on the bottom cushion.
In the half-vajra posture, the right leg is bent under the left; the left foot rests either near the groin, in the fold formed by the bending of the right leg, or on top of the right leg or the right thigh. Sitting in the half-vajra posture is a good technique for preparing to sit in the full-vajra posture. You can start by putting the left foot on the right thigh, not in the fold at the groin. That gets the left knee and foot used to being bent. If you can't do that, sit with the left leg bent close to the body and the right leg extended in front, slightly bent. When I started, I could hardly bend my legs at all, but Geshe Wangyal made us sit while he taught us, almost all day long, on a floor that was covered only by a thin rug. After a while, it didn't make any difference how we sat; it was just painful.
The full-vajra posture begins from the half-vajra, but the right foot goes on top of the left thigh. Many people think that it is important to put both feet as close to the groin as possible. One of my lamas told me that there was no benefit in this at all, that it is much better to sit more loosely--to bring the left leg out more and set the right foot almost at the knee. Some sit with both feet close to the groin, but if you can sit a half hour that way, you can sit an hour or two hours in this looser posture.
The lotus, or vajra, posture is solid and becomes comfortable in time. After several weeks or months, you will notice that both knees are resting on the lower cushion, but usually when starting this practice, your right knee is hanging in the air. One virtue of putting a cushion under the buttocks is that it allows both knees eventually to touch the floor. Keep in mind that this does not mean that your back is leaning forward. In contrast, if you sit on a level surface, the right knee will always tend to hang in the air.
There are various ways of dealing with discomfort in sitting. If the posture becomes painful, discontinue it. Uncross your legs immediately, massage the places that hurt, and get back into the posture at once. You'll see that this helps. I know a big man who was determined to stay in the vajra posture and broke his leg. You have to be careful and know when your body has to stop.
2. When seated on a comfortable cushion in the vajra or half-vajra posture, close your eyes, but not entirely. By closing your eyes at the start of a session, you can visualize much more easily. Your mind seems clearer, but in a short time it becomes duller than it would have been if you had faced the difficulty of keeping your eyes slightly open at the beginning--neither wide open nor closed, but aimed at the tip of the nose or, if that is uncomfortable, at the ground about a yard in front of you. The point, of course, is not to stare at the tip of your nose but to set the eyes there so that you won't be distracted by visual consciousness even though light will still come to your eyes.
3. Straighten the body and spine and keep them straight. I usually start by leaning forward a little and then straighten back up. This stretches the fat of the buttocks so that, when I straighten up again, the fat stays back and supports the body, like a cushion, making it easier to sit straight. Otherwise, that fat is rolled underneath; you haven't stretched it, and it acts as a counterforce to your staying upright.
4. Keep the shoulders level. You may need a friend to tell you whether you are succeeding. Straighten them and cultivate that feeling of straightness.
5. Keep the head even, with the nose in line with the navel. Keeping the nose in line with the navel means not turning your head. The head is not tilted back or forward, right or left, but is not held quite level. Draw the neck back and bend the head down a little, as a peacock does. You may wonder how you can straighten your chest, stretch the back of your head up, and bend the front of your head down at the same time, but try it and you'll see why the comparison with a peacock's head is made.
6. Set the teeth normally, with the tongue against the ridge behind the upper teeth. This is to keep too much saliva from flowing. Saliva is a problem in meditating. When I meditate with a group of people, I hear people swallowing a lot. Almost all systems of yoga say that it is important to breathe through your nose; therefore, keep your mouth closed and break any habit you may have of breathing through your mouth.
7. Breathe quietly and gently. It is terrible when you sit down to meditate with a group of people, and there are people in the group who feel they're supposed to breathe audibly. If you breathe audibly, you'll distract any companions you may be meditating with. It is also bad for you, because the mind is overpowered by the movement of the breath; you can even become dizzy after a while through breathing so hard. The point is to breathe so gently that you yourself do not hear it. Bear in mind that beginners should not force themselves to breathe extremely slowly or to retain the breath.
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