So when we discuss compassion, it is not possible to do so without relating it to where we are. As I said before – I’ve observed things that have saddened me, and made me feel vaguely exasperated.
One problem that arises when discussing compassion is the notion of ‘wrathful compassion’ which people often seem to confuse with the idea of sometimes ‘having to be cruel to be kind.’ There would appear to be a few too many people who find it expedient to manifest ‘wrathful compassion’ whenever it suits their irritation or vanity. I cannot quite believe that there are so many people who dwell in rigpa – because to manifest wrathful compassion requires that one can dwell in rigpa. If one cannot dwell in rigpa then one cannot see the whole picture in terms of one’s acts. To manifest wrathful compassion one has to be able to guarantee a positive outcome. If this is not possible then one has to restrict oneself to kindliness.
I think that in our practice of kindness we should learn—first and foremost—to keep our noses out of other people’s motivations. Verbally assaulting others with self-righteous zeal is a grave sickness of spirit. Certainly people act in ways that are worthy of criticism – but who are we to think that we have the authority to stand in judgement? It doesn’t actually matter if we are right or wrong in our judgement. It is our motivation that is in question. Motivation and intention are primary in Buddhism. We must first look to our motivation and intention. I met a young man whose teacher had set him immediately to practice gyüd kyi ngöndro.1 But when questioned by the student of another Lama as to the nature of his practice, his response was met by an agitated diatribe which consisted of the opinion that his Lama had no right to give him permission for such a practice before he’d completed a variety of other practices. This behaviour causes a great deal of distress and has nothing to do with kindness or wrathful compassion.
It is merely the conceit of a bigoted mind. Wrathful compassion is a quality manifested by realised Lamas. Maybe none of us here qualify in those terms – I certainly don’t. Maybe one of you is a fully realised being and I’m unaware of it. If you are, then what I’ve said will not apply to you.
There are some touching, and directly pertinent words by Longchenpa on this subject. They show that bigoted behaviour is not something new. These words are called ‘Advice from the Heart’. If we therefore take them to heart we won’t go far wrong. This is what he said:
‘We may like to think we’ve no selfish motives when we tell others their defects; We may like to think it will be for their benefit; But although what we say may be true it will only cause them pain. To use only gentle words is my advice from the heart.
We may engage in argument defending our point of view. We may think that in contradicting others we preserve the purity of the teaching, But if we behave in this way we only cultivate a distorted view. To remain silent is my advice from the heart.
We may think it beneficial to uphold our Lama’s Lineage and View through our partisan activity, But through bolstering ourselves and criticising others We only ripen our attachment and distraction. To forget external differences is my advice from the heart.
We may think we’ve thoroughly examined the teachings we’ve heard, And imagine that noticing the ‘mistaken-views’ of others is a sign of discriminating wisdom, But this way of thinking merely causes further confusion. To view everything as pure is my advice from the heart.’
So what do we mean when we use this term ‘wrathful compassion’? Wrathful compassion is a course of nondual action which may seem uncompassionate to others – because they lack the clarity to see it as compassion. Some of the greatest Lamas have been wrathful – and their pupils have benefited to an extraordinary extent through the complete appropriateness of their Lama’s nondual intentionality.
There is the story of Milarépa2 and Marpa.3 Marpa nearly worked Milarépa to death as part of the teaching he gave him. Milarépa had to build and dismantle houses over and over again before Marpa would give him any formal meditation instruction. Every time Milarépa completed a new house, he’d ask Marpa to view it. Milarépa fervently hoped each of the eight times he built a house that it would prove acceptable to Marpa – and that he’d finally obtain the teachings he needed so badly.
Marpa however, would simply rage at him:
Imbecile! It’s the wrong shape,
wrong size, in the wrong place, facing the wrong direction! Pull it down and replace every stone
just exactly where you found it! Milarépa had to build those houses with his
bare hands, without even the help of a yak or donkey to carry the stones, and after a while he was
covered with sores where the stones had rubbed his back.
Now this will sound terrible to Western ears – but Milarépa had something terribly important to learn. Milarépa had committed multiple murders by the aid of the sorcery he had learned from a master of evil mantras. Milarépa had been a vengeful man. He had reasons for his vengefulness which are understandable – but the means of redress were terrible.
He had become the reverse of everything that is compassionate. He’d cultivated the worst motivation. He had left a trail of destruction behind him that was appalling. Marpa’s teaching therefore was to show Milarépa—entirely practically—that to act is infinitely easier than to undo an act.
Think about it. Try breaking an egg. Then try to reassemble the egg. Think how easily you may have had your confidence knocked in the past and exactly what it may have taken to build it up again. Think about the one harsh word that ruined the day—for you—or for somebody else. Think of the expression of an opinion that destroyed a friendship – or the refusal that has led to depression.