An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life

An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life

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by Dalai Lama, Nicholas Vreeland

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An introduction to the core of Buddhism by its greatest teacher, "An Open Heart" is the successor to the bestselling "The Art of Happiness", the Dalai Lama's clear and simple guide to finding compassion and happiness. 25 photos. (World Religions)  See more details below


An introduction to the core of Buddhism by its greatest teacher, "An Open Heart" is the successor to the bestselling "The Art of Happiness", the Dalai Lama's clear and simple guide to finding compassion and happiness. 25 photos. (World Religions)

Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, presents a clear and simple guide to finding compassion and happiness in these often troubling and challenging times. The writings in this book are drawn from his enthusiastically received visit to America in 1999 and form a good introduction to the spiritual traditions of Buddhism.

The methods outlined in An Open Heart -- which include a series of meditations, ranging from the simplest to the most difficult -- are taken from the three most sacred texts of Buddhism: Kamalashila's Middle-Length Stages of Meditation, which "contains the essence of all Buddhism"; Togmay Sangpo's The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas; and Langri Tangpa's Eight Verses on Training the Mind. In all of these texts, the author states, the goal is the same: to seek refuge in the Buddha's doctrine (known as the Dharma) and in the spiritual community of Buddhists known as the Sangha. Indeed, the triumvirate of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are known as the Three Jewels of Refuge.

The student is instructed to meditate on such topics as: karma; "afflictive emotions," such as anger and hatred; compassion and empathy; equanimity; the enlightenment of "bodhicitta"; and the concentrated method known as "calm abiding." By doing this, one can move closer to Buddhism's ultimate goal: the Buddhahood embodied in the Three Jewels.

Those seeking a helpful guide to the basic tenets of Buddhism would be hard pressed to find a simpler or more accessible resource. (Nicholas Sinisi)

Nicholas Sinisi is the Barnes& Religion Editor.

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Chapter 1
The Desire for Happiness
It is my hope that the reader of this small book will take away a basic understanding of Buddhism and some of the key methods by which Buddhist practitioners have cultivated compassion and wisdom in their lives. The methods discussed in the following chapters have been taken from three sacred texts of Buddhism. Kamalashila was an Indian who helped develop and clarify the practice of Buddhism in Tibet. His work, Middle-Length Stages of Meditation, contains the essence of all Buddhism. Togmay Sangpo's The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas and Langri Tangpa's Eight Verses on Training the Mind have also been drawn upon in the preparation of this book. I would like to stress at the outset that one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to make use of these meditation techniques. In fact, the techniques themselves do not lead to enlightenment or a compassionate and open heart. That is up to you, and the effort and motivation you bring to your spiritual practice.
The purpose of spiritual practice is to fulfill our desire for happiness. We are all equal in wishing to be happy and to overcome our suffering, and I believe that we all share the right to fulfill this aspiration.
When we look at the happiness we seek and the suffering we wish to avoid, most evident are the pleasant and unpleasant feelings we have as a result of our sensory experience of the tastes, smells, textures, sounds, and forms that we perceive around us. There is, however, another level of experience. True happiness must be pursued on the mental level as well.
If we compare the mental and physical levels of happiness, we find that the experiences of pain and pleasure that take place mentally are actually more powerful. For example, though we may find ourselves in a very pleasant environment, if we are mentally depressed or if something is causing us profound concern, we will hardly notice our surroundings. On the other hand, if we have inner, mental happiness, we find it easier to face our challenges or other adversity. This suggests that our experiences of pain and pleasure at the level of our thoughts and emotions are more powerful than those felt on a physical level.
As we analyze our mental experiences, we recognize that the powerful emotions we possess (such as desire, hatred, and anger) tend not to bring us very profound or long-lasting happiness. Fulfilled desire may provide a sense of temporary satisfaction; however, the pleasure we experience upon acquiring a new car or home, for example, is usually short-lived. When we indulge our desires, they tend to increase in intensity and multiply in number. We become more demanding and less content, finding it more difficult to satisfy our needs. In the Buddhist view, hatred, anger, and desire are afflictive emotions, which simply means they tend to cause us discomfort. The discomfort arises from the mental unease that follows the expression of these emotions. A constant state of mental unsettledness can even cause us physical harm.
Where do these emotions come from? According to the Buddhist worldview, they have their roots in habits cultivated in the past. They are said to have accompanied us into this life from past lives, when we experienced and indulged in similar emotions. If we continue to accommodate them, they will grow stronger, exerting greater and greater influence over us. Spiritual practice, then, is a process of taming these emotions and diminishing their force. For ultimate happiness to be attained, they must be removed totally.
We also possess a web of mental response patterns that have been cultivated deliberately, established by means of reason or as a result of cultural conditioning. Ethics, laws, and religious beliefs are all examples of how our behavior can be channeled by external strictures. Initially, the positive emotions derived from cultivating our higher natures may be weak, but we can enhance them through constant familiarity, making our experience of happiness and inner contentment far more powerful than a life abandoned to purely impulsive emotions.
Ethical Discipline and the Understanding of the Way Things Are
As we further examine our more impulsive emotions and thoughts, we find that on top of disturbing our mental peace, they tend to involve "mental projections." What does this mean, exactly? Projections bring about the powerful emotional interaction between ourselves and external objects: people or things we desire. For example, when we are attracted to something, we tend to exaggerate its qualities, seeing it as 100 percent good or 100 percent desirable, and we are filled with a longing for that object or person. An exaggerated projection, for example, might lead us to feel that a newer, more up-to-date computer could fulfill all our needs and solve all our problems.
Similarly, if we find something undesirable, we tend to distort its qualities in the other direction. Once we have our heart set on a new computer, the old one that has served us so well for so many years suddenly begins to take on objectionable qualities, acquiring more and more deficiencies. Our interactions with this computer become more and more tainted by these projections. Again, this is as true for people as for material possessions. A troublesome boss or difficult associate is seen as possessing a naturally flawed character. We make similar aesthetic judgments of objects that do not meet our fancy, even if they are perfectly acceptable to others.
As we contemplate the way in which we project our judgments – whether positive or negative – upon people as well as objects and situations, we can begin to appreciate that more reasoned emotions and thoughts are more grounded in reality. This is because a more rational thought process is less likely to be influenced by projections. Such a mental state more closely reflects the way things actually are – the reality of the situation. I therefore believe that cultivating a correct understanding of the way things are is critical to our quest for happiness.
Let us explore how this can be applied to our spiritual practice. As we work at developing ethical discipline, for example, we must first understand the value of engaging in moral conduct. For Buddhists, ethical behavior means avoiding the ten nonvirtuous actions. There are three kinds of nonvirtuous actions: acts done by the body, actions expressed by speech, and nonvirtuous thoughts of the mind. We refrain from the three nonvirtuous actions of body: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; the four nonvirtuous actions of speech: lying and divisive, offensive, and senseless speech; and the three nonvirtuous actions of mind: covetousness, malice, and wrong views.
We can appreciate that developing such restraint is only possible once we have recognized the consequences of these actions. For example, what is wrong with senseless speech? What are the consequences of indulging in it? We must first reflect upon the way idle gossip leads us to speak badly of others, wastes a lot of time, and leaves us unfulfilled. We then consider the attitude we have toward people who gossip, how we don't really trust them and would not feel confident asking their advice or confiding in them. Perhaps you can think of other aspects of senseless speech that are unpleasant. Such reflection helps us restrain ourselves when we are tempted to gossip. It is these seemingly elementary meditation practices that are, I believe, the most effective way of bringing about the fundamental changes necessary in our quest for happiness.
The Three Jewels of Refuge
From the outset of the Buddhist path, the connection between our understanding of the way things are and our spiritual behavior is important. It is through this relationship that we establish that we are followers of the Buddha. A Buddhist is defined as one who seeks ultimate refuge in the Buddha, in his doctrine known as the Dharma, and in the Sangha, the spiritual community that practices according to that doctrine. These are known as the Three Jewels of Refuge. For us to have the will to seek ultimate refuge in the Three Jewels, we must initially acknowledge a dissatisfaction with our present predicament in life; we must recognize its miserable nature. Based on a true, profound recognition of this, we naturally wish to change our condition and end our suffering. We are then motivated to seek a method for bringing this about. Upon finding such a method, we view it as a haven or shelter from the misery we wish to escape. The Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are seen to offer such shelter and are therefore apt providers of refuge from our suffering. It is in this spirit that a Buddhist seeks refuge in the Three Jewels.
Before we seek refuge from suffering, we must first deepen our understanding of its nature and causes. Doing so intensifies our wish to find protection from suffering. Such a mental process, which incorporates study and contemplation, must also be applied to develop our appreciation of the Buddha's qualities. This leads us to value the method by which he attained these qualities: his doctrine, the Dharma. From this ensues our respect for the Sangha, the spiritual practitioners engaged in applying the Dharma. Our sense of respect for this refuge is strengthened by such contemplation, as is our determination to engage in a daily spiritual practice.
As Buddhists, when we take refuge in the Buddha's doctrine, the second of the Three Jewels, we are actually taking refuge in both the prospect of an eventual state of freedom from suffering and in the path or method by which we attain such a state. This path, the process of applying this doctrine through conscious spiritual practice, is referred to as the Dharma. The state of being free of suffering can also be referred to as the Dharma, as it results from our application of the Buddha's doctrine.
As our understanding and faith in the Dharma grows, we develop an appreciation for the Sangha, the individuals, both past and present, who have attained such states of freedom from suffering. We can then conceive of the possibility of a being who has attained total freedom from the negative aspects of mind: a Buddha. And as our recognition of the miserable nature of life develops, so does our appreciation of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – the Three Jewels in which we seek shelter. This intensifies our quest for their protection.
At the outset of the Buddhist path, our need for the protection of the Three Jewels can, at most, be grasped intellectually. This is especially so for those not raised inside a faith. Because the Three Jewels have their equivalent in other traditions, it is often easier for those who have been raised inside such a tradition to recognize their value.
Leaving Cyclic Existence
Once we finally recognize the suffering state we are in, the all-pervasive suffering that the afflictive emotions such as attachment and anger inflict upon us, we develop a sense of frustration and disgust with our present predicament. This, in turn, nurtures the desire to free ourselves from our present state of mind, the endless cycles of misery and disappointment. When our focus is on others, on our wish to free them from their misery – this is compassion. However, only once we have acknowledged our own state of suffering and developed the wish to free ourselves from it can we have a truly meaningful wish to free others from their misery. Our commitment to liberating ourselves from this mire of cyclic existence must happen before true compassion is possible.
Before we can renounce cyclic existence, we must first recognize that we shall all inevitably die. We are born with the seed of our own death. From the moment of birth, we are approaching this inevitable demise. Then we must also contemplate that the time of our death is uncertain. Death does not wait for us to tidy up our lives. It strikes unannounced. At the time of our death, friends and family, the precious possessions we have so meticulously collected throughout our lives, are of no value. Not even this precious body, the vehicle of this lifetime, is of any use. Such thoughts help us diminish our preoccupation with the concerns of our present lives. They also begin to provide the groundwork for a compassionate understanding of how others find it difficult to let go of their self-centered concerns.
However, it is crucial that we realize the great value of human existence, the opportunity and the potential that our brief lives afford us. It is only as humans that we have the possibility of implementing changes in our lives. Animals may be taught sophisticated tricks and are of undeniable assistance to society. But their limited mental capacity prevents them from consciously engaging in virtue and experiencing real spiritual change in their lives. Such thoughts inspire us to make our human existence purposeful.
Spiritual Friends / Spiritual Guidance
In addition to our meditation, it is important to lead our lives responsibly. We must avoid the influences of bad companions, unsavory friends who can lead us astray. It isn't always easy to judge others, but we can see that certain lifestyles lead to less righteous ways. A kind and gentle person can easily become influenced by dubious friends to follow a less moral path. We must be careful to avoid such negative influences and must cultivate loyal friends who help make our human existence spiritually meaningful and purposeful.
Regarding friendship, our spiritual teacher is of the utmost importance. It is crucial that the person we learn from be qualified. Conventionally speaking, we seek a teacher who has the qualifications to teach the subject we wish to study. Though someone might be a brilliant physics teacher, the same person may not necessarily be qualified to teach philosophy. A spiritual teacher must have the qualifications to teach what we seek to learn. Fame, wealth, and power are not qualifications for a spiritual teacher! It is spiritual knowledge we must be sure the teacher possesses, knowledge of the doctrine he or she is to teach as well as experiential knowledge derived from practice and life led.
I wish to stress that it is our own responsibility to ensure that the person we learn from is properly qualified. We cannot depend upon the word of others or upon what people may say about themselves. In order to properly investigate the qualifications of our potential teacher, we must have some knowledge of the central tenets of Buddhism and must know what qualifications a teacher would need. We should listen objectively as the person teaches and watch the way he or she behaves over time. Through these means we can determine whether the person is qualified to lead us along our spiritual path.
It is said that one should be willing to scrutinize a teacher for as long as twelve years to ensure that he or she is qualified. I don't think that this is time wasted. On the contrary, the more clearly we come to see the qualities of a teacher, the more valuable he or she is to us. If we are hasty and devote ourselves to someone unqualified, the results are often disastrous. So, take time to scrutinize your potential teachers, be they Buddhist or of some other faith.

Copyright © 2001 by His Holiness The Dalai Lama
Foreword copyright © 2001 by Nicholas Vreeland
Afterword copyright © 2001 by Khyongla Rato and Richard Gere

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Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An Open Heart provides a simple yet comprehensive introduction to Buddhism. Its strength, however, lies in its ability to engage those of every faith to explore the depth of compassion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a brilliant teacher and thinker-- this book (mostly pulled from a Central Park lecture) encourages the reader's quest to understand and eliminate his/her suffering.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I had to read this book for a project. I liked this book because it taught me a bit about Buddhism as well as the practices and beliefs. It also helped me realize some of the negative things I do such as provoke, be angry at others, and the cause and effect of not being angry. The steps to meditation helped make me feel enlightened and more relaxed. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he talks about different types of people regarding wealth and cultural backgrounds because of his reaction when someone says an African brain is inferior to the brain of a Caucasian because I could empathize with the teacher and how the Dalai Lama responds to this gives me hope and makes me happy. I also liked the part of the book where the Dalai Lama discusses anger directed towards a neighbor and what to do instead of fight back and let the neighbor get the satisfaction of upsetting you. Another chapter that I enjoyed was the chapter about compassion because of the teachings that helps others as well as yourself to be more happy and closer to enlightenment. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book because of how much I have learned from it and the little things we can all do to create a more peaceful world. Although I sometimes felt that he detailed some chapters too much, this book is very well written, insightful, and full of wisdom. 
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CJKilker More than 1 year ago
A fabulous addition to his other works.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an absolutely amazing book.The Dalai Lama is such an amazing person.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This latest book by the Dalai Lama is a compilation of speeches he gave in NYC in the past. It lists the main traits one should practice to fulfill a healthy lifestyle: compassion, empathy, wisdom, and so on. If you have already read 'Ethics For The New Millenium' or 'The Art of Happiness' you will find that this book repeats much of the material in those books. The main difference I see in this edition is that some basic meditation techniques are covered. Overall, it is a book that reminds us of the most important qualities one should practice to create a centered life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to learn to be more compassionate and focused on the meaning of and direction of your life, this is a perfect book. It explains the basics of buddhism and contains words of wisdom for anyone of any faith. Anyone reading this book can learn to have a more fulfilling and compassionate existence.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sometimes adding a new spiritual perspective can help deepen one¿s understanding of one¿s own spiritual tradition and beliefs. Certainly, that was my experience in reading this heart-warming book. The book is structured into a series of brief essays, based on three days of teaching that the Dalai Lama did in New York City during 1999. The essays separated in time and space some very profound thoughts, in ways that made them easier to grasp. This is a book that you will want to reread many times, especially when you find your mind troubled or your compassion at a low ebb. The Dalai Lama expresses a timeless Buddhist perspective here, but in an inclusive way. ¿We are all the same, mentally and emotionally.¿ Our other differences are minor, and unimportant. In thinking about the current war on terrorism, I was struck by his observation that ¿In harming our enemy, we are harmed.¿ ¿Dialogue is the only appropriate method [for resolving disputes].¿ What harm are we doing now in this war to innocent people, to ourselves, to unborn generations, and to the environment of the world we inhabit? The Dalai Lama explains that ¿In Buddhism compassion is . . . the wish that all beings be free of their suffering.¿ Interestingly, he points out that ¿If we have a positive mental attitude, then even when surrounded by hostility, we shall not lack inner peace.¿ Have we looked enough within in mentally and physically responding to the attacks of September 11th? The book contains many worthy thoughts about how to create a ¿better balance between material preoccupations and inner spiritual growth.¿ An Open Heart will probably be most meaningful to those who are very interested in spiritual questions (of whatever religious persuasion or philosophy) and who pray or meditate regularly. If you are externally oriented, you may not find that the words and thoughts resonate within you. As a person who prays and meditates several times a day, I found his expressions of ways to improve the benefits of conscious (or analytical) meditation and settled meditation very interesting and helpful. I especially liked his invocation for how to be more humble. ¿We can always find some quality in someone else where we are outshone.¿ And ¿reflect upon the kindness of others¿ upon which we all depend. He advises beginning with strangers as a conscious object of compassionate meditation, so that we can strengthen our empathy with those we feel most distant towards. As we get better at this empathizing, we can move on to building compassion for those we dislike or fear. I was pleased to see that we are encouraged to practice the right things, and to focus away from the speed of our progress. Whether or not you agree with the concept of reincarnation as expressed here, this book can certainly help guide you to greater spiritual peace, more ethical actions, and achieving greater wisdom. I found it particularly freeing and fulfilling to think about creating a life dedicated to ¿the sake of all sentient beings¿ as part of my focus. May your heart, mind, and spirit constantly grow in openness and caring!