Devotion and Compassion
by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche from Repeating the Words of the Buddha
The play of
overwhelming compassion being unobstructed,
Lord Karmapa Rangjung Dorje
The most perfect circumstance for realizing the correct view of emptiness is upwardly to generate devotion to all the enlightened ones and downwardly to cultivate compassion for all sentient beings. This is mentioned in The Aspiration of Mahamudra by the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje. This incredibly profound song of realization expounds teachings on the ground, path, and fruition, as well as all the key points for Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamika. One of the lines is: ‘In the moment of love the empty essence nakedly dawns.’ ‘Love’ here is to be understood as both devotion and compassion. In the moment of devotion we bring to mind the eminence of our master and lineage gurus, doing this sincerely, not just superficially. One thinks of their great qualities with such genuine admiration and devotion that the hairs of one’s body stand on end and one’s eyes are filled with tears. This heart-felt appreciation should be genuine, because it is only through the kindness of the guru that the mind essence can possibly be understood. From this gratitude, strong devotion is felt, stripping our minds bare. That very moment, we unmistakenly and unerringly recognize the natural face of rigpa.
It is the same way when thinking with compassion of all sentient beings. Although they possess self-existing wisdom they are unaware of it, remaining completely deluded life after life. Chasing after samsara’s illusory experiences, they undergo tremendous suffering. It is not like we, as Buddhist practitioners, have an enlightened essence of rigpa and they don’t. Everybody is totally equal; yet, not knowing their own nature, sentient beings suffer incessantly. Thinking in this way, one is overcome with great pity and compassion. At that instant of true compassion, as in the moment of true devotion, the empty essence dawns nakedly.
In the Kagyü and Nyingma traditions it is said that devotion is the universal panacea, the medicine that can cure all sicknesses. If one just focuses on devotion one does not need to spend years studying debate, philosophy, grammar, art and so forth. In the past, thousands of practitioners attained accomplishment through the path of devotion combined with the paths of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. To ignore compassion, devotion, and renunciation is like a bird trying to fly without wings: it’s not possible. One should remember the famous statement: ‘Devotion is the head of meditation, revulsion is the foot of meditation and nondistraction is the heart of meditation.’ To take a similar example, consider a person: if we call the view of emptiness the heart, devotion the head, and compassion the feet, how can he travel anywhere using only the heart of emptiness? How can he walk without legs?
Devotion and compassion are not mentioned here simply because we ought to feel them, there is a direct reason for cultivating them. The teachings mention that compassion and devotion should be unfabricated, but this doesn’t happen automatically in the beginning. We need to cultivate them, to use some effort to produce these feelings. In other words, in the beginning, we must rely on conceptual thought to make it possible to have compassion and devotion.
Think of it this way: we wouldn’t know any Dharma teachings or how to attain liberation if it weren’t for the buddhas, their teachings, and their perfect followers. The buddhas are not like oneself; they have great qualities. Bringing this to mind naturally and unavoidably generates devotion. Similarly, to generate compassion, think of how it is a fact that all sentient beings have been our own parents. In that sense they are closely related to us. If we really think of how other beings suffer, what they go through, we cannot help but feel compassion. When we think of their suffering there is a real reason for pity.
Having slowly cultivated devotion and compassion, we can use them as an aid to genuinely recognize rigpa. Gradually, the sequence is reversed. The natural quality of recognizing the naked state of rigpa is an unfabricated devotion and compassion that doesn’t need to be mustered.
Devotion and compassion are enhancements to the practice of emptiness, of the view. Once all misdeeds and obscurations are purified through conditioned virtue, the unconditioned virtue increases. At first devotion and compassion are necessary to create. They are important stepping stones to recognizing rigpa. Unfabricated and natural devotion and compassion are the expression of rigpa, but not for a beginner. In the context of Dzogchen, it is said that compassion and devotion naturally occur, without any effort. But frankly speaking, for a beginner it doesn’t happen like that. At first we have to cultivate devotion and compassion, to put some effort into developing them. Later on, as we become more stable in awareness, they become effortless and unfabricated. It is this way in Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamika.
The main practice of devotion is taking refuge and the main practice of compassion is to generate bodhichitta. If we investigate, we will not find a single Vajrayana practice without those two, taking refuge and generating bodhichitta. Look at it this way: once we have a heavy investment in taking refuge and generating bodhichitta, we have the capital to be able to do the business of the higher practices and gain the profit of the development stage, the completion stage, and the three great practices — Mahamudra, Dzogchen, and Madhyamika. Without the capital, we won’t be able to do any business at all. Devotion and compassion are the basic capital for Buddhist practice.
Unless we connect with the two types of precious bodhichitta, we will not approach enlightenment even in the slightest; this is certain. The two types of bodhichitta are relative bodhichitta, compassion, and ultimate bodhichitta, the insight into emptiness. Without these two, there is absolutely no way to take even one step closer towards buddhahood. Any Dharma practice devoid of these two kinds of bodhichitta will not bring the practitioner even one step towards enlightenment — I will swear to that.
If we want to quickly awaken to buddhahood, it is essential to unite means and knowledge. Whatever conceptual practice we do should ideally be combined with the recognition of mind essence. Devotion and compassion are the heart of conceptual Dharma practice.
The great masters of the Kagyü lineage state that it is delusion to count on any method for recognizing mind essence other than purifying obscurations, gathering the accumulations, and relying on the blessings of a realized master. This means that no matter how smart or strong we are, if we don’t follow a master and instead stubbornly push ourselves through years of meditation training without developing compassion and devotion, purifying obscurations, and gathering the accumulations, we will remain deluded.
The essence of both devotion and compassion is actually the same: it is a kind of love. Whether that feeling is directed towards enlightened pure beings or ordinary impure beings, whether it is devotion or compassion, the essence remains the same: the mind is laid bare of thoughts at the moment the empty essence dawns nakedly, and can be directly perceived. In the Kagyü lineage, devotion is always said to be the main quality to focus on, and so the Kagyü lineage is called the lineage of devotion. But compassion or devotion are the same in facilitating the realization of mind essence.
To reiterate, our training in devotion, compassion, purifying the obscurations, and gathering the accumulations should be combined with recognizing our mind essence. Otherwise, to reach enlightenment using means without knowledge takes a tremendously long time — three aeons, according to the Sutra path. The Vajrayana path is much more swift.