For True Happiness to Arise, Compassion Is Necessary

This world has gone through quite a lot lately, and there have been a lot of changes in the world. These changes are inevitable––it’s a natural process. And at the same time our human culture and civilization has continually changed and evolved so much throughout the centuries. If you think back, from the time of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, to the Age of Enlightenment and so on, the world has changed so much. And it is still changing.

All of these changes we experience in our culture are driven by our basic heart of desire, isn’t that right? We have the desire to make our little world a little better, to make our little world a little more peaceful and prosperous. Based on that desire we have started and executed all kinds of changes. If someone from the Middle Ages came here today they wouldn’t recognize this world, they wouldn’t know what to do. Even from the 1980s and 90s up until now, it has changed so much.

The outer world has changed so much, but one thing hasn’t changed––our mind, our desire to be happy, our desire to be free, our desire to be peaceful and prosperous. That hasn’t changed, from the Middle Ages until now. If someone arrived here from that time period, they would recognize this desire right away. Because it’s still exactly the same as it has always been throughout history. The desire to be happy.

There is one thread that has remained constant throughout the centuries. One thing. The one thread that continues is the mind. This mind that is seeking happiness, love and joy. This mind that is seeking some kind of comfort and enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with that from the mundane point of view. And from the spiritual point of view there is also nothing wrong with that––it’s absolutely fine. We each have the right to seek happiness.

When the search for happiness becomes an obsession

We do everything for happiness, don’t we? For happiness we engage in all kinds of scientific developments. All of them are seeking some kind of truth that will free us, some truth that will make our lives happier.

I went to New York City in the 80s. Some friends told me something called a “personal computer” was going to be coming out soon. They said that this computer would do so many things for us, that it would give us a lot more free time. “It’s much faster!” they said. “It will take over so many boring tasks so that we won’t have to do those things, and we’ll have more time. It’ll be great!”

It would have been nice, wouldn’t it, if that had actually happened?

We do so many things like this. We develop different technologies, we draft new business plans. We create various corporations. The original motivation is always the same. The original form of trade was very nice, you know. It was only intended to bring happiness. For example, in Tibet the farmers had barley flour, and the nomads had cheese. The farmers said to the nomads, “I will give you some barley flour, tsampa,” and the nomads said, “OK, I will give you some cheese.” Now we have a big global economy, and it’s growing bigger and bigger all the time.

Even someone who has a golden parachute is doing things for the sake of happiness. If you think about it, they are not such bad people. They are just doing things to be happy, but with a distorted view. In the same way, all of military science is also intended to bring about some kind of happiness. But they didn’t really think carefully about it. Sometimes what we do to seek happiness causes suffering for others. A person may put so much more importance on their own underlying wish to be happy, that they end up completely disregarding others’ happiness and safety.

So what’s missing here? Knowledge. The knowledge that everything we do is part of the desire to be happy. We’ll do anything for happiness––even get married. Or we may even become celibate for the sake of happiness.

But here’s where the trouble starts. In that process of seeking, we become completely obsessed with that search for happiness, or search for truth. We become so consumed with it, that our desire for happiness becomes wrong action. And with that wrong action comes suffering. In this way, so much suffering in the world is perpetrated by humankind.

Humanity––we––are creating suffering. But again, that’s not our original intention. We must remember that. Our original intention is only to create happiness. But of course, now we can see that we’ve gone too far. We’ve crossed the line by bringing happiness only to a certain group of people at the cost of bringing suffering and pain to others.

We want to change this world, but where do we start?

These days our world situation presents us with a great many challenges that are not easily resolved. But at the same time, if we don’t try––if we don’t start somewhere––these challenges will never be resolved. For example, on my first visit to a city on the East Coast in Canada, the bay was very polluted. Sewage and all kinds of materials were going into the bay and causing so much damage to the beings living there.

They started cleaning the bay, and I wondered, “The pollution is so extensive––is it really possible to clean it up?” But I went back a few years later, and now that area is clean. But if you look at India where I was born, we’ve been trying to clean the Ganges River for probably the last 2500 years. Everyone’s talking about how we need to clean it up but no one is really doing any cleaning. Or it isn’t happening in a systematic way.

So our world situation definitely can be changed over time, even if that change is not easy to accomplish. Of course, it’s important to remember that it is not just up to you as an individual. It is a group effort. With everyone helping it is possible to change this world for the better. And then we can have a more peaceful mind.

What do we usually do when we hear about all of the challenges in the world? Usually we feel a certain anxiety or fear. We feel, “Somebody must take action to change this!” It’s not working––the political system or the economic system is not working––and we feel it must change.

I saw a cartoon where someone is giving a motivational speech, saying, “If you think we need to change, raise your hand,” and the whole audience’s hands are up in the air. Then in the next frame of the cartoon that person says, “Everyone who’s willing to change, please raise your hand.” No hands are up!

This shows why we cannot change. We just keep looking around at each other saying, “Something must be changed. Somebody has to do something.”

On the other hand, when these challenges or hardships become personal to us––when they begin to directly affect our lifestyle or our neighborhood––we become more ready and willing to contribute to a solution. Until it affects us directly we can become complacent and a little bit lazy.

How can we pay attention to the world’s suffering in a way that helps?

So therefore, we need to pay attention to the situation of our world today, even when it’s not something that’s happening in your neighborhood. And we do pay attention. But sometimes the way we pay attention becomes a bit misleading for us. Because when we see people undergoing hardship, suffering and pain, we usually only focus on the material aspects of that suffering. And when you focus too much on that material suffering, you can get depressed.

We can get emotional, we can get very upset when focusing only on the material world. But our upset doesn’t actually help solve anything. In fact, when we get so upset we risk becoming one more element contributing to the world’s turbulence.

We miss the opportunity to pay attention in a helpful way when we focus only on the material aspects of someone’s suffering. Maybe they lack food or clothing, housing, and other such things. Or when a tragic shooting takes place, we focus on these guns and bullets and so on. We focus on material objects.

But the real focus here, in my opinion, and from my understanding of dharma, needs to be on the person, not on the materials involved. There is a person there––someone is suffering, or someone was hurt or killed. Of course the material elements do play a part in this world of pain, but simply focusing on that is not very beneficial in the end. I’ll tell you why.

Staying awake to our human connection with others

When we focus only on the material world, we end up focusing only on the labels we have for each other. Then we are not really able to connect with each other simply, as two human beings. We look at each other and see only a religious label, or a socio-economic label. We see the label of pain or deficiency, but in the end there’s no basic human-to-human contact and connection. And this is a bit of a problem.

All of our electronic gadgets seem to make the problem worse. Doesn’t that make it quicker and easier to send someone a nasty email, rather than say something a little more calmly by snail mail? I heard of someone who broke up with their partner on Facebook. They just changed their Facebook profile to say “I’m single.” There’s something really missing there, you know. Basic human connection, the basic human heart, is missing there.

This is similar to when you send a nasty email––you don’t even think that someone is on the other end receiving that email. You just type it out and then send it without much thought. But if you really want to do it that way, could you please do it through video chat? It’s more humane. At least then you can see the other person crying. We forget, don’t we, that there’s a person there. There’s a sentient being there, receiving our nasty message and feeling pain while reading those words.

It’s important for us not to lose this perspective. There’s a person there, someone who is suffering. There’s a person who is hurt, a living being. When we connect with someone human to human, heart to heart, seeing each other as two vulnerable beings––then we can see that we have more similarities than differences. We have more in common than we thought.

Heaven and hell

There may be two people whose religious backgrounds are completely opposed to each other. But when you look at each person individually, they actually share more common objectives than opposing objectives. For example, all religions––I’m not really religious, but all religion talks about heaven. And all religious people want to go to heaven, right? I don‘t know why, but every religious person wants to go there. Even if two people’s religions oppose each other, both of those two beings want to go to heaven. Neither one wants to go down to the other place.

But here’s the really nice thing about it. Each person’s heaven is quite different from every other person’s heaven. The general concept may be the same, but what that heaven looks like comes from your cultural background, your social and socio-economic background. And that’s what determining the kind of heaven you are attracted to.

If you’re really attracted to, let’s say, burgers . . . then heaven would be filled with hamburgers. And maybe the burger even gets better and tastier as you eat it. Heaven is like that, isn’t it? And hell is something that nobody wants––filthy, dark, whatever you are afraid of, a hell realm. Heaven and hell––you can decide for yourself what’s in them. It’s like having an empty apartment. You can furnish it however you want to.

You can see this in most religious culture. From the Buddhist perspective, in the Sanskrit it says that heavenly realm is like this or like that. But when you look closely at these examples, they’re referring to the life of royalty in India––even the anklets, scarves, and silks. It works, for me, you know. I was born in India.

So whatever you value that you cannot get in your own life, heaven is going to be equipped or ornamented with all those things. That’s what artists portray in their paintings of heaven. And of course the paintings of hell are filled with everything you don’t want.

I usually call them “the heavenly realm” and “the hell of a realm.” In the end these are none other than happiness and suffering. And seeking salvation in religion is nothing other than seeking freedom from suffering and wrongdoing. Basically you are looking for freedom.

Our common wish to be happy and free

So when we look at each other human to human and heart to heart––then no matter what cultural background we come from, we’re all looking for the same freedom from suffering. We can see that our worlds are actually closer to each other than we thought, if we just look a little deeper.

It seems that religion is the most difficult area for us to try to find common ground. Some years ago I went on pilgrimage to Laos. There I saw very beautiful Buddha statues that were given to the Laoation king by King Ashoka of India. When they told us the story, they said that many wars had been fought over that Buddha statue. Of course, that totally defeats the purpose of the Buddha being there!

So many religious wars are fought. And Tibet also has experienced many such wars. But if you look at things on a purely human-to-human level, there’s not much reason to hate each other.

We can develop the desire to be free of our suffering, of course. And generally when we begin to do that, we also begin to have compassion and love towards people on the “other side,” so to speak.

When we connect with each other at the deeper, heart-to-heart level, as human beings, then we can actually begin to change our world together.

To change the world: a contemplation

In order to change our world’s difficult situation, then from the Buddhist point of view there are two things that are crucial for us.

1. The heart of love and compassion

First, there is a real need for the heart of kindness, love and compassion. When we talk about compassion and loving kindness, it’s not a religious practice we’re talking about. We’re not considering an alternative––should we or shouldn’t we practice compassion? It’s actually a necessity for us human beings, for our survival. The whole thing depends on love and compassion. It’s not like, Do you want lettuce or tomato? It’s more like, Is there any meat on this hamburger?

Loving kindness and compassion is the basic necessity for our own existence, as well as for the betterment of the world. When we combine these three––love, kindness, and compassion––then a very powerful feeling experience arises in our mind. It is an intense feeling that we experience not just towards ourselves, but towards others. We need to connect with each other on the basic human level, first and foremost. So therefore, if we want to bring help to this suffering world, the first thing we need is loving kindness and compassion, that sense of caring for others.

2. An understanding of interdependence

And the second thing we need if we’re going to make this world better, is understanding the interdependent nature of things. From the Buddhist point of view, this understanding is the key to our freedom.

We all think we are free, but in reality we’re not that free, are we? We think we can just jump in our car, we’re free to do that. But as soon as we drive out of our driveway . . . we have to stop at the stop sign. So we can’t just do whatever we want to do.

For example, say I would really like to see apples growing in my apartment. We could have that desire, you know, “I really want to have an apple tree growing right here, I want to be able to eat apples whenever I wish.” But even if you manage to get an apple tree that will bear fruit in your apartment, someone may tell you, “Oh I’m sorry, you can’t actually eat that kind of apple.” This kind of thing is the root of all our problems. Just because we want it, doesn’t mean we can get the object we desire. It’s not automatically going to happen, because having an apple depends on so many different causes and conditions coming together.

As you keep looking, you can see how our lives are functioning and moving because of others. Because of others, we are able to have an apple. We are able to have a hotel ready for you to come in and hear this talk. And so when we look at our lives, nothing is really independent. Everything is interdependent. When we begin to understand the nature of things, we can easily see that the whole world and everything in it, exists interdependently. Everything that happens is dependent on something else.

When we look at the world in this light, practicing compassion becomes very practical. It’s not like we’re doing a favor for others. It’s a necessity for everyone.


From a talk given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in Rotterdam, Netherlands on October 19, 2017.