Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Underlying all our discursiveness and dramas, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, are inherent qualities of peacefulness, compassion, and clarity that we can access through meditation practice.
People in the West have been meditating for a long time. But even though we’ve learned to sit still, when things come at us in life we don’t always know how to respond. We don’t know how to react to the news on TV, or when somebody blows up at us. The easiest thing is to get mad and blame another. We’re even proud of how pissed off we can get.
If aggression and blame brought happiness, the world would be a very happy place. But in these dark times, what we really need to do is learn to respond with compassion. Where is compassion going to come from? Even though we often act as if it’s a million miles away, it is always right here, a renewable resource. In contemplative meditation, we can learn to access it directly and generate it.
In peaceful-abiding meditation, the point of following the breath is to enter the peace of the present moment and rest there. As we stabilize our mind, emotions and thoughts still come up, but we’re not so easily dragged away by them. We begin to get a glimpse of the vast tranquillity, clarity, and steadiness that underlies all the mental drama. In Tibetan, these qualities are called sempa zangpo, “good mind.” In a moment where we don’t particularly feel self-conscious or aggressive, where we’re not blaming somebody else, the mind feels clean and free. We feel optimistic, as if we can do anything. That’s sempa zangpo developed. Good mind is clean and clear, a fertile garden in which we can plant whatever we want.
Traveling in Tibet, I have met so many people who were tortured as their culture was destroyed. If their response were bitterness, I would understand. But in every case, they express appreciation for what they have now and compassion for those who harmed them. Through everything they endured, they maintained their connection to good mind. I feel the same good clean mind when I’m with my teachers. When they hear sad news, they cry. When they hear something funny, they laugh. But whatever it is, their mind is very light; it doesn’t get them down. The news lands, they understand it, and they move on to the next thing. They’re not depressed for days.
There’s an innate instinct for the mind to want to feel good. The technique of meditation provides direct access to how it can feel good. Contemplation moves us forward to the place where we can learn to ground ourselves in the reality of good mind and experience how it feels. That is how we develop a mind that is able to generate compassion as a response to any situation. If we know what good mind is, we always have a place to be.
We may think we don’t know how to contemplate, but we’re always contemplating something. Many of our contemplations are neutral; some make life harder by leading to acts that harm others and ourselves. For example, if we contemplate what we don’t have, we feel tight and claustrophobic, as if we’ll never have enough. This contemplation leads us into the small mind of ambition and jealousy. Then we can’t even enjoy ice cream, because the mind is trapped by negativity.
The great meditators say that it is better to have good mind, because good mind takes us to wisdom, which leads to freedom. In contemplative meditation we become familiar with good mind and ride it to the meaning of reality by focusing on a thought that is useful and beneficial. For example, in a basic contemplation, we focus on the preciousness of our life. There are some very difficult situations in the world, yet we find ourselves free and well-favored in our ability to generate compassion and cultivate wisdom.
Resting our minds on the thought “free and well-favored,” we let its meaning penetrate us. We feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation. We think about that and draw a conclusion: “I will use my time well.” As the meaning comes and goes, we use the words to bring our mind back to it, just as we use the breath to bring us to the moment.
In contemplative meditation we’re changing our attitude. The point isn’t to contemplate for a long time, but to get to the meaning quickly and bring it into experience. If you’re contemplating that “Death is real; it comes without warning” when a car almost hits you, your contemplation becomes very short. Your whole life is condensed into a few seconds and from that, you have instant meaning. There was so much you wanted before that moment, and now you’re happy just to be able to walk. Your mind is totally appreciating it. You’ve realized the meaning quickly, and you’ve brought it into experience.
When we contemplate love and compassion, we practice contemplating the happiness of others rather than our own. We visualize our mother, our child, or someone else we love, and we start to feel a little bit of caring. We want that person to be happy, which is love. We want them to be free of suffering, which is compassion. That initial feeling is considered to be the source of a limitless love that is in us. As we make it larger, eventually we might be able to say, “May that driver in front of me enjoy happiness,” instead of honking our car horn. We can also wish others the root of happiness: the wisdom of knowing good mind.
Even though love and compassion are limitless, at first your capacity to generate them may be limited. With skill, you can be realistic about your practice: “That’s about as much love as I’m going to feel today, and that’s fine.” Then stay with the feeling. When it disappears, bring it back to the meditation by repeating the word or sentence you are contemplating.
When we’re contemplating love and compassion, we may feel them in just the heart or mind, but this practice is transforming our whole body, putting us in tune with the nature of things. The nature of things is selflessness. We are selfless, but when we’re trying to make what we are into a “self,” we continually butt our head against reality. This tension stirs the prana in our channels, which creates discursiveness, which inflames the emotions, which leads to suffering. Without awareness, we habitually use our mind in this way.
When we use compassion as a response, the wisdom that arises is prajna, a sword that cuts through our habitual thought patterns. Our infatuation with ourselves becomes a little less compelling. When we’re off the cushion we can connect to the piece of our mind that is strong. We’re able to see that a friend is having a difficult time and we know how to respond. We’re able to generate compassion throughout the day by accessing the feeling that we had in our morning contemplation. Even when we’re swamped, we can take a breath, come back, and reground ourselves in good mind.
If we stick with our practice of cultivating compassion, our good mind will automatically expand, and our ability to bring peace to the world will grow. We’ll still have issues, but through practice we’ll begin to see that we can keep part of our mind dedicated to appreciating our good fortune and generating compassion. Compassion is a practical response. It opens our heart like a flower responding to the sun. In this simple practice, we’re bringing our mind to what it inherently wants—to be of benefit.