Editors Note: After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, many
students requested some words of advice from Khenpo Rinpoche
about what has happened. In response, Rinpoche directed the
transcription of this teaching about developing unbearable
compassion in the face of extraordinary suffering.
Teaching by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso
September 18, 2001
Shambhala Center, Paris,
your incredible wisdom and compassion,
You taught the genuine
To help us dispel all views.
I prostrate before you,
This is a prostration offered to
the Teacher who is the one who out of his great love for all
sentient beings, teaches us the Shravakayana, the vehicle of the
hearers, the Pratyekabuddha-yana, the vehicle of the solitary
buddhas, and the Mahayana, the great vehicle. It is a verse of
prostration that describes the reason why we prostrate.
Khenpo Rinpoche atop the World Trade
Center in 1995. (Excerpted from a larger photo by Lynne Conrad
The glorious Chandrakirti begins his text, Entering
the Middle Way, by offering homage to compassion. The
first type of compassion focuses on sentient beings
themselves. Chandrakirti's homage to this first compassion
thinking "me," they fixate on "self,"
Then, thinking "this is
mine," attachment to things develops.
Sentient beings are
powerless, like a rambling water mill-
I bow to compassion for
verse teaches us is how important it is to have compassion for
sentient beings who suffer because they cling to the belief in a
self. Because it is so important, Chandrakirti offers this
compassion his prostration.
also teaches us that the belief in self is the cause of all
suffering; it is the cause of all the problems there are. This
is why we need to continuously cultivate compassion for all the
sentient beings in this universe who suffer as a result of believing
in the existence of self.
Chandrakirti then writes,
the second type of compassion—compassion that focuses on the quality
of sentient beings that is their impermanence. Sentient beings
change moment by moment—nothing stays the same for them or their
experience from one moment to the next. Everything is
completely impermanent, and yet, they don't realize that, and taking
things to be permanent causes them to suffer.
sentient beings are like this moon constantly moving on this pool of
water, then all of their difficulty, all of their suffering as well
is completely impermanent. Yet, they don't realize that, so
they take their suffering and difficulty to be permanent, and that
is what causes their suffering after all.
You can have
an experience of suffering, but if you know it's impermanent, it
won't be that big of a deal because you know it will change, that
the situation will improve. It's only when we suffer and we
think the suffering is permanent, that it's not going to go away,
that it's always going to be there—it's when we have that attitude
that it becomes really bad.
This is why
when we meditate on impermanence, the main thing to meditate on as
being impermanent is our suffering.
If it were
the case that happiness never turned into suffering; if it were the
case that happiness didn't produce suffering, then we wouldn't have
to meditate on impermanence at all. But since it is the case
that happiness does turn into suffering; that happiness does produce
suffering, then we have to meditate on the impermanence of happiness
beings are like watermoons not only from the perspective of their
impermanence, but also from the perspective that even the moon that
appears to be moving there is not really a moon at all. It is
a mere appearance that is empty of inherent nature. Similarly,
not only are sentient beings impermanent, they aren't real.
They are just like the sentient beings that appear in dreams.
This is an expression of the third type of compassion:
non-referential compassion. It is called this because its
focus is the emptiness of sentient beings. The nature of
sentient beings is that they have no nature, they have no inherent
essence, but they don't know that, and as a result of believing in
their own true existence they suffer. And we feel compassion
for them for this reason.
suffering someone might experience in a dream, no matter how bad it
might seem, both that suffering and what causes it do not truly
exist. They do not have the slightest inherent nature.
If however, the person doesn't know that they are dreaming, then
they will believe that suffering to be truly existent, and that is
what will cause them pain-that mistake. Similarly, we need to
know that the suffering sentient beings experience is not real, but
they suffer because they don't know that, and we feel compassion for
them because they don't realize their suffering is not truly
existent. They take it to be real, and that is what causes
them to suffer. This is the third type of compassion.
sentient beings suffer as a result of clinging to the belief in
self, they suffer as a result of believing that things are
permanent, and they suffer as a result of believing that things
truly exist. We cultivate the three types of compassion for
sentient beings-and we need all of these three kinds-because there
are these three causes of suffering.
In his song, The Ten
Things It's Like, the Lord of Yogis Milarepa sings,
compassion wells up from within the depths of my heart
the three realms' beings like they're burning in a pit of
We had a
vivid example last week in the events in America when the two towers
were burning, and how much did compassion arise within us for the
people who had to suffer inside the burning buildings, for the
people who tried to escape by hanging out of the windows? This
is an example for the compassion that Milarepa feels for all
Prayer for Mahamudra, the Third Karmapa Rangjung
Beings by nature have always been Buddhas,
not realizing this, they wander endlessly in samsara.
unbearable compassion arise within us
For sentient beings whose
suffering knows no bounds.
"Beings by nature have always been Buddhas"—this
describes how it is that the true nature of mind of every single
sentient being is the enlightened essence of the buddha
nature. It is the buddha of perfect purity, the actual genuine
buddha—the real buddha is the true nature of mind of every
being. But, sentient beings don't know that, and as a result
of not realizing their own nature of mind, they suffer endlessly,
without interruption, in samsara. So this is an aspiration
that compassion that is so strong, you can't take it—that this type
of powerful compassion, will arise within us for sentient beings who
suffer because they don't realize their own enlightened
The prayer continues,
This unbearable compassion radiates unceasing
And as it does, its emptiness of essence nakedly
May we never leave this supreme and unerring path of
May we meditate upon it all day and all night.
When this compassion arises within us that is so
strong, we can't bear how powerful it is, it emits unceasing love
for all sentient beings, at that very moment, its essence is
emptiness. Here, emptiness refers to the true nature of mind,
luminous clarity. So to give rise to this unbearable
compassion and then rest in equipoise within the luminous clarity
that is its true nature is the path of love and emptiness in union,
of emptiness and compassion in union.
The Seven Points of
Mind Training states,
To practice tonglen ("sending and taking"), one
must first give rise to very powerful compassion. When we feel
unbearable compassion for others, we send out all of our happiness
to all sentient beings, and we take all their suffering on ourselves
in exchange. We let these two go with the exhalation and
inhalation of the breath.
The final verse of the Mahamudra Aspiration
By the power of the great compassion of the
Victorious Ones and their sons and daughters of the ten
And the power of all the immaculate virtue there
May my own and all sentient beings'
aspiration prayers be perfectly fulfilled!
This verse is a prayer that all our previous prayers
come true. In order to make this happen, we supplicate all the
Victorious Buddhas and all of their sons and daughters, the
bodhisattvas, in all ten directions-by the power of the great
compassion and love that all of these enlightened beings embody, as
well as the power of all of our own meritorious, positive actions,
like generosity and so forth-by the power of all of that, may my own
and all sentient beings' completely pure aspiration prayers be
perfectly fulfilled. What does it mean to make a pure
aspiration prayer? It means to pray that sentient beings be
free of suffering. It means to pray that sentient beings have
glorious happiness. May all of these prayers be perfectly
In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, one needs
compassion like that in order to attain the state of
enlightenment. But not only that, compassion is something that
is important if the world itself is to be a happy place. If we
want the world to be like that, what we need to develop is
If you start out developing love and compassion, what
happens when you perfect it, when you take it to its ultimate?
In the Buddhist tradition, that's called enlightenment.
Do you have any questions?
Q: Is it
possible that very intense compassion becomes suffering for
A: This type of suffering that we experience as a
result of experiencing unbearable compassion doesn't have the
defining characteristics of suffering, because it is a cause of
enlightenment. It is a cause of the accumulation of
merit. So giving rise to this type of compassion that produces
suffering for oneself—bodhisattvas like it! They're happy to
have that type of feeling, because that's a cause of their attaining
enlightenment. Actually, if we can experience suffering just
as a result of meditating on compassion for beings who suffer, then
think about the real suffering that they're experiencing. If
just by meditating you can make yourself suffer, then how about the
person who is actually going through it? When you think in
that way, your compassion grows even more.
When, for example, you watch the video of the World
Trade Center and you see the people and the suffering they
experience, and that makes you feel compassion that's unbearable,
then think about the people who were actually going through
it. Think about the people who the video shows climbing out
the window a hundred stories up because the fire was so strong they
couldn't stay inside. There was nothing, absolutely nothing
they could do. If that makes us feel bad, then think about the
person who actually had to experience it. Even that, though,
how terrible an ordeal it was, still, it only lasted a few minutes,
then it was over. In the hell realms, however, beings
experience the suffering of burning in flames for an incredibly long
time with no break. In this way, we have to make our
compassion expand. It's not enough to feel compassion for just
one group of beings. We have to make it expand.
Q: When you feel compassion in this way, you feel sad,
powerless, and discouraged. What can we do about
A: When you have that type of feeling, you have to
remember that suffering is fleeting, and that the true nature of
mind is unaffected by it. Since the true nature of mind of all
sentient beings is the buddha nature, then even the people who felt
that type of suffering can be reborn as human beings, practice the
Dharma, and can attain complete and perfect enlightenment.
That's the Buddhist tradition, and it's based on the understanding
of the reality of suffering, which is that it doesn't last, and it's
not present in the true nature of mind. The true nature of
mind is luminous clarity, completely without flaw.
We can see examples of how things can turn around in
our own history. We know of times when whole nations hate each
other and fight terrible wars against each other, considering
themselves the bitterest of enemies, and destroy the whole land,
with many people dying and suffering during that time. But
then, it changes, and the countries become friends, those who suffer
become happy, and the lands that were devastated become prosperous,
because the suffering is not real and the anger is not truly
existent, so it can change, and enemies can become friends.
Therefore, seeing the examples of this in our own history, we see
that we have no reason to despair.
There were some countries that when they fought wars,
their people got so angry and wrapped up in ego-clinging that their
soldiers would commit suicide themselves in order to kill the
enemy. Now, however, the countries that did that are wonderful
aid donors and they help many others in the world. So they've
gone from one end of extreme anger to being the world's
helpers. This shows that the situation can change.
Since the true nature of mind is luminous clarity,
transformation is possible. People who have a lot of anger can
meditate on love and become loving people. People who are
caught in the darkness of ignorance can learn the path and their
knowledge will grow brighter and brighter. So transformation
is possible—transformation of the whole outer environment into a
pure realm, of the sentient beings who inhabit this environment into
male and female bodhisattvas, endowed with compassion, and of one's
own mind into wisdom. This is the type of transformation that
the Mahayana describes, and this is the path—the path of the
Mahayana is the path of transformation. The more confidence
you gain in that, the more you can see that these temporary states
of suffering are just that-temporary. They are not the actual
nature of things-they are temporary and they change quickly.
In the Mahayana it is explained that the ten
directions are filled with buddha realms. What causes them to
manifest is when a sentient being purifies their own mind-makes
their own mind noble and good. Then this very world appears as
a pure realm, and that's a very nice experience!
We'll end by
reciting the final verse three times:
By the power of the great compassion of the Victorious Ones and
their sons and daughters of the ten directions,
And the power
of all the immaculate virtue there is
May my own and all
Completely pure aspiration prayers be
Dedication of merit.
by Ari Goldfield.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.