How to Open Your Heart Further

Pema Khandro Rinpoche on a bodhisattva’s love.

Pema Khandro Rinpoche
31 January 2023
Gandharan Terracotta Buddha, 3rd-4th century C.E. Private Collection. Montreal. Photo by Christine Guest.

Don’t give up on love. When love is hard or painful, open your heart even further.

That’s the advice given by the great nineteenth-century Buddhist master Patrul Rinpoche. He tells the story of a golden bee who lived happily with his lover in a lotus garden. From the moment these two bees met, they had an immediate connection. They laughed and smiled together and shared their deepest thoughts. But then a storm came. The golden bee’s lover passed away. In an instant, his bliss turned to suffering. Despite his consort’s virtue and how much he loved her, her life had ended.

Overcome with sorrow, the golden bee requested advice. This is what he was told: “Sentient beings were your kind mothers and fathers in previous lives. They are now wandering in conditioned existence. Even though they too want bliss, they experience suffering. They too may have no friend. Bring to mind great love and compassion while remembering others in this way. Remembering them will awaken your courage. With great love, cultivate the wish to clear the suffering of all beings away.”

When our love is tired or has hit its limits, Buddhism suggests we open our hearts further and tap into a more expansive love.

This advice to cultivate boundless love for all sentient beings when we are parted from those we love is a teaching for us all. When our love is tired or has hit its limits, Buddhism suggests we open our hearts further and tap into a more expansive love. This opening is the first step toward awakening our natural heroism known as the bodhisattva’s love. We can open up to greater love in moments of sorrow because our vulnerability and our compassion are intertwined.

Like the golden bee, we can begin to open our hearts by feeling compassion toward ourselves, and then bring to mind others who are in the same situation. This practice goes against our usual self-protective instinct. Yet it turns out that when we contemplate the suffering of others and open our hearts further, it actually gives us more strength. It gives us purpose and endurance. Opening our hearts awakens our intrinsic courage because our compassion and natural heroism are connected.

But our wish to live a life of loving-kindness is often eclipsed by our habitual neuroses. We may start out with loving intentions, but we get so easily co-opted by grasping at expectations or getting lost in fluffy artifice. So how can we cultivate boundless love in a way that is grounded in wisdom?

The great Tibetan master Longchenpa advised in his text, The Great Chariot, that boundless love should be developed “one by one.” We start from our own immediate experience. We remember the love we received from one person, or that we feel for one person. Then we expand it to include another, and another, until our love includes all beings as limitless as the sky.

Boundless love extends out from the love we know firsthand. This is why Buddhism reminds us to remember the love we have received from our mothers and fathers (or caregivers), and then build on that. Maybe our relationship with our parents was not an easy love, maybe even thinking in this way brings up heartache. But that is part of the practice too, as cultivating love puts us in touch with the whole experience of life—both the beauty of the world and its pain.

Where is our love when we can’t feel it?

Remembering the experience of love and kindness that we have received urges us onward beyond the separation we feel. It helps melt the walls we build between ourselves and others. Discovering our natural tenderness, we realize that the path of loving-kindness is a more authentic way of life because our authenticity and the tender heart of compassion are tied together.

The practice of love is hard at times, even outrageously painful. One day we resolve to be loving and kind and maybe the next day we can’t connect with love at all. What is missing? Where is our love when we can’t feel it?

It is inevitable that life will have dramas and uncertainty, but we can meet these with a single-minded sense of our calling to cultivate further loving-kindness.

The Indian Buddhist sage Vimalakirti was once asked, “How can we find the inexhaustible bodhisattva’s love?” He replied, “We must know selflessness and emptiness.” When love is exhausted, we have to look to our fundamental openness and abandon the struggle of ego. Opening further makes tremendous resources available spontaneously. This is why they say the bodhisattva’s love is like moonlight shining on a hundred bowls of water. Every bowl is filled with moonlight, but not because the moon is making it happen through aggressive efforts. There is abundant light because the moon is relaxing as it is, giving itself over to its innate luminosity.

Connecting with boundless love offers us equanimity. When we meet our circumstances with an attitude of loving-kindness, it offers a way of living that is stable regardless of others’ behavior. It is inevitable that life will have dramas and uncertainty, but we can meet these with a single-minded sense of our calling to cultivate further loving-kindness.

Buddhism says that because of impermanence, the people who were once our friends could be our enemies now, and people who are our friends now may one day be enemies. Our friends may unwittingly do harm to us. Therefore, we will be unstable if we rely on how other people relate to us to decide if we will have loving-kindness. We will be caught in reactions rather than living in the equanimity that arises from the resolve to meet life with gentleness and warmth. Thus the cultivation of boundless love and the realization of equanimity are tied together. When there is drama in the lotus garden, we are steadied by expanding to meet whatever comes with a further open heart.

Pema Khandro Rinpoche

Pema Khandro Rinpoche

Pema Khandro is a teacher and scholar of Buddhist philosophy, as well as a lineage holder in the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. She founded the nonprofit organization Ngakpa International and its three projects, the Buddhist Studies Institute, Dakini Mountain, and the Yogic Medicine Institute. She is completing a doctorate specializing in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia.