When we make the effort to be kind we find it becomes increasingly effortless. It flows naturally. It makes us glad, and we experience the warmth and openness of bodhicitta.4 A truly kind act is an act of nondual appropriateness – and so, whenever we are kind, there will be a reflection of the nondual state in what we are doing. Life will seem more infused with energy and there will appear to be fewer obstructions in our way. Kindness smooths and simplifies situations, and this puts us more conspicuously in the present moment.
An act of kindness enables us to side-step our attachment to the past and future. It is a moment out; a day off; a holiday from me-centred concerns – and, as such, it can be lived vividly moment by moment.
In Buddhism, the practice of cultivating kindness is important. It’s so important—in fact—that it would be wonderful if we all felt inspired to attempt it. I would be overjoyed if that were possible, and of course it is possible, so tantalisingly possible.
There are practices which are designed to cultivate our fallow fields of kindness. These practices exist in order that we can enter into the development of innate kindness whenever possible. These practices are of great value when we are alone or removed from everyday situations – but practice within everyday life is of primary importance.
In everyday life we have the ideal opportunity to develop our practice of kindness, because we are constantly brought into contact with others. Every day in our world, we are presented with opportunities to expand our hearts and disinhibit our innate kindness. Not only is our everyday life the perfect place to practise and actualise kindness, but it is also the perfect place to observe how we are, because life teaches us moment by moment – whatever we feel in response to anything shows us the pattern of our perception. In this way, if we are open enough and are honest with ourselves, we can learn a great deal about the way our energies are constricted.
The life of monks and nuns is different from ours. Life in Tibet was also different. I think there may have been a little more breathing space – specifically for monks and nuns who had more time to devote to formal practice.
Family relationships and relationships with children were minimal for monastics – and so practices developed to cultivate kindness through directed thinking and imagination.
Practices of exchange such as tong-len—in which we imagine giving our benefits to others, whilst taking on their sufferings—are useful as a complement to the cultivation of kindness in our everyday lives.
This is especially true when we experience the powerlessness I spoke of earlier. This practice of exchange is to visualise white light streaming from our nostrils as we breathe out. We then visualise this light pervading the world and relieving everyone of their pain and sorrow. The light melts everyone’s problems and leaves them joyful and clear. Then we breathe in the acrid smoke of the world’s misery and accept it as our own. As it reaches and fills our lungs we transform it and breathe it out again as the pure white light.
Some people worry about this – almost as if they were going to contract a terminal disease. All that is required is to feel it. You are not going to get instant lung cancer. Well … maybe if you really did remove everyone’s pain … you might … in which case you’d probably implode and become a black hole. I’m not being entirely serious of course – but the power of Mind is enormous and shouldn’t be underestimated. Mind has limitless potential. Every kind thought helps everyone. This internal practice is extremely valuable. We should all remember however that if kindness exists only as a mental game, then we might as well not bother. We can sit and imagine our lives away – but if we come out of our practice of exchange and cannot be bothered to talk to a newcomer at the meditation centre, because we would rather be prattling about the latest initiation with the dharma in-set … then we would be better off taking up a more socially worthwhile hobby.
Dharma is supposed to make a difference to our lives. The idea is that we become better—kinder—people.
In Tibet—and now in this country—many people study texts and attend teachings on the subject of the path of the chang-chub sem-pa,5 and there must be many who have become knowledgeable – even erudite. Many people now know a whole string of impressive Sanskrit terms. Many know the names of Indian masters such as: Asangha, Ashvagosha, Aryadeva, Bhavaviveka, Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, Dharmakirti, Dignana, Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, Vimalamitra, Vimalakirti, et cetera.
Tibetan Buddhism can be seductive to people who like to collect information. It is a fantastically rich Tradition – and it is impossible to study more than a fraction of it. Within each school the particular commentaries are vast – and for anyone who wants to devote their lives to study and the assimilation of information the scope is endless.
What is important however … is kindness. Kindness has to be what you are and how you are—not—what you’ve read and what you can discuss eloquently. I am not saying that intellectual study is useless. Neither am I saying that the intellect is of little value. I am simply stating that whatever it is we do in terms of dharma – must be reflected in our lives. I have seen a few too many people with fixed grins—sitting and listening to discourses on bodhicitta—whose smiles were rapidly pocketed when the teaching was concluded. These smiles are often pulled out of people’s pockets and stuck on only when the Lama appears – then, when the Lama has gone, the back-biting recommences. The smiles are forgotten and people slander those whose spirituality falls short in some way according to the frozen ideas they cherish.
It’s a kind of schoolroom scenario. When the teacher leaves the classroom – then the erasers start flying and the boy in the next row is receiving a wad of ink-soaked blotting paper in his ear.