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.
Even beyond diamonds and rubies, the most valuable gem is the compassionate, loving nature of your own being. Sakyong Mipham on uncovering this treasure.
One of my favorite texts is an ancient instruction given by a high lama to the prince of Dege, a kingdom in eastern Tibet. The lama told the prince, who was about to become ruler of the huge kingdom, “In order to become successful in this world, you need three qualities: wisdom, compassion, and courage. These three will lead to a successful, happy, and fulfilled life.”
The first quality, wisdom, means knowing what brings true happiness. Most of us go through life being fooled. The Tibetan word for “fool” means someone who keeps doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different result each time. Because fools don’t know how happiness really comes about, they’re always chasing after happiness thinking that it depends on other people or things like food and clothing. A wise individual, in contrast, knows how to move forward instead of in circles, because he or she knows the true source of happiness: the mind.
In one of the most beautiful Buddhist poems, the great Indian teacher Shantideva compares the true nature of our mind to an incredibly large jewel lying in a heap of garbage we walk past every day. This is the jewel of bodhichitta— the compassionate and loving nature of our own being. It is called the wish-fulfilling jewel because it leads to happiness and success. Garbage is a metaphor for our discursive mind, which lacks trust and confidence in the source of true happiness, loving-kindness and compassion.
When we first get a glimpse of the wish-fulfilling jewel, we might not believe that it is with us all along, so we embark on a spiritual journey in search of it. Some people feel that they can find the wish-fulfilling jewel only by going into some kind of deep meditation retreat; others think they can find it by going to India or Tibet. But when they get there—in addition to getting a stomach ache, jetlag, and everything else—they wake up to the fact that they could have just as easily found the jewel back home.
It isn’t necessary to travel to exotic places in order to find our true heart. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing—walking down the street or washing dishes—our precious jewel of a mind is there to be discovered. When we know our own compassion, we can rely on it to accomplish our wishes. We have the wisdom to remember the source of true happiness and live our lives accordingly.
Compassion is the best way to lead life fully, not just in terms of the spiritual, but also the mundane. Yet some of us seem to think that we can’t practice compassion between Monday and Friday, or that acting compassionately just doesn’t accord with reality. Maybe we have thoughts of compassion, but we’re not able to live up to them. So another necessary element is courage.
To have courage is to remember that we can gradually change our mind with quite a simple technique. If we can stop thinking constantly about ourselves, we’ll be free to ask, “What about others? What do they need?”
With courage, we think about what we are willing to give before looking at how much we are going to get.
What we can always give is compassion. I’ve noticed that when I am worried about something, I can flip my attitude by generating a mind of compassion, thinking about others instead of giving in to my own frustration. In doing this, I am offering myself compassion as well. Flipping our thoughts toward people in need relaxes the mind, which allows delight to arise. The mind becomes light, because it is no longer burdened by the concept of “me.” That’s why we have a nimble feeling when we do something nice for someone else, like fixing dinner for a friend. Likewise, if someone does something nice for us, we remember it all day. We recognize the courage of compassion when we see it.
When I think about the lightness that comes from acting with compassion, I often recall my teachers. As they grow older, they become more and more cheerful. If you ask them, “How do you manage to have that level of happiness?” they reply that it comes from turning the mind toward others. The sense of delight is a reflection of the power of compassion. What’s astonishing is that we never quite believe that happiness is so available. We want to think some more about ourselves, and others maybe later.
Turning the mind toward others might sound like a lot of work, but it requires much more effort and energy to think about ourselves. That’s truly high maintenance. When we think only about ourselves, we get serious, uptight, and heavy. Fewer things make us happy, and we become very territorial about the ones that do.
Suffering and pain arise because we separate ourselves from other beings. When we meditate on compassion, we begin to realize that we aren’t separated from others at all: they are having the same experiences that we are, because all beings want happiness and we wish for them to have it. It is a very simple practice, but it is also a transforming practice, because as we continue, the conceptual boundary between “us” and “them” begins to melt. That gives us more energy to think about the needs of others, develop kind thoughts and intentions, and lead our life based on those principles.
The thought of helping others is compassion, knowing how to do it is wisdom, and doing something about it is courage. No matter who we are—practitioners of meditation or not—we all want a level of happiness and contentment. What is the cause of happiness and contentment? A compassionate mind. The mind of compassion is the source of lasting joy.
When I was talking with His Holiness the Dalai Lama about compassion as the basis of a meaningful life, we both wondered why so many people mistakenly think that aggression is the way to make things work out well in a conventional sense. Why do we continuously try to solve our problems with anger, jealousy, and other unfriendly reactions? Everything is interdependent. Because aggression is unstable, it perpetuates instability. It’s a short-range solution that’s difficult to handle and painful for the aggressor and everyone else. When we try to accomplish something with aggression, we literally get in our own way.
Many people assume that living compassionately is a spiritual matter, but living compassionately is actually the most effective way to succeed at anything. Practicing compassion may take more time than engaging in aggression, but the results of compassion are much more stable and lasting. Compassion is a long-range solution that has a positive influence on our society and our economy. It stabilizes our lives and the lives of others. When we have the courage to cultivate wisdom and compassion, the weeds of anger, jealousy, and self-involvement have less room to grow.
Bringing the wish-fulfilling jewel into experience is how we activate the true source of happiness, which uplifts our minds and increases our life-force energy.