Songs & Poems



Unbearable Compassion

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 Rinpoche
September 18, 2001
Shambhala Center, Paris, France

    Out of your incredible wisdom and compassion,
    You taught the genuine Dharma
    To help us dispel all views.
    I prostrate before you, Gautama.


Khenpo Rinpoche atop the World Trade Center in 1995. (Excerpted from a larger photo by Lynne Conrad Marvet)

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.

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 reads:


    First, 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 these wanderers.

What this 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. 

This verse 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,

    Beings are like the moon on the surface of rippling water

This teaches 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.

Since 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 as well.

    They move and are empty of any self-nature.

Sentient 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.

Whatever 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.

In short, 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,

    When compassion wells up from within the depths of my heart
    I see the three realms' beings like they're burning in a pit of fire

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 sentient beings.

In his Aspiration Prayer for Mahamudra, the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje prays,

    Beings by nature have always been Buddhas,
    Yet not realizing this, they wander endlessly in samsara.
    May 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 nature. 

The prayer continues,

    This unbearable compassion radiates unceasing love,
    And as it does, its emptiness of essence nakedly shines.
    May we never leave this supreme and unerring path of union,
    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,

    Practice sending and taking alternately
    Let the two ride the breath

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 Prayer reads,

    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 sentient beings'
    Completely pure 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 fulfilled. 

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 compassion.

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 oneself?

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 that?

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 sentient beings'
    Completely pure aspiration prayers be perfectly fulfilled!


Dedication of merit.

Translated by Ari Goldfield.

Copyright 2001, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.

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