Generally speaking, from the smallest insect on up to the most intelligent human being, there is agreement that all sentient beings want happiness and all of them also wish to avoid suffering. The majority of human beings do not understand what the cause of suffering is, or what the cause of happiness is, but in the teachings of the Buddha and in their practice you will find answers to these questions.
What are the causes of suffering and happiness?
The Ratnavali of Nagarjuna says, “Every action arising from desire, aversion and ignorance produces suffering; every action arising from the absence of desire, aversion and ignorance produces happiness.”
Now, there are three kinds of people: lower persons, middling persons, and higher persons. Like all other beings, the lowest person wants happiness and wants neither suffering nor rebirth in the lower realms of existence, so he practices Buddhism to create the causes of rebirth in the human realm or in the heavenly realms of the gods. He does not have the power or the courage to leave worldly existence completely. He only wants the best parts of worldly existence, and he wants to avoid the worst ones, and that is why he practices the Buddhist religion: in order to get a higher rebirth.
Now the middling sort of person understands that the whole of worldly existence, no matter where one is born, is suffering by nature, just as fire is hot by nature. He wants to get out of it altogether and attain Nirvana, the state that is entirely away from suffering.
The highest person realizes that, just as he himself or her herself does not want to suffer, and wants happiness, so also do all living beings have the same fears and wishes. He knows that, since we have been born again and again from beginning less time into worldly existence, there is not a single sentient being who has not been our mother and father at one time or another. Since we are that close to all sentient beings, the best person is the one who practices Buddhism in order to remove all these countless beings from suffering.
How should we practice?
At the beginning of all Buddhist practice comes two very important things: Meditation of the Four Recollections and Taking Refuge. The Four Recollections are: (1) of the difficulty of getting a human birth, (2) of the impermanence of all samsaric things, (3) of the suffering of worldly existence and (4) of the law of karma (cause and result).
Generally speaking, it is very difficult to be born as a human being. We think that there are many human beings, but if we compare our numbers to those other beings, we realize how few we are. (For instance, in each of our own bodies there are million of germs, microbes, viruses and so on). So statistically the chances of our attaining a human life are very poor.
In any case, there are many places of rebirth which are unfavorable and of no use to a being: the realms of hell, of hungry ghosts and of animals, of barbarians, places where religious teachings are incorrect, places where there is no Buddha, certain Gods realms and the realm of people. Yet even if we get a human rebirth, there are ten necessary preconditions to attain. It is necessary to be born in a place where the Buddha has come, a place in which the Buddha actually taught the religion, a place where the teaching is still alive, where the teachers are kind enough to teach, and where there are still Buddhist followers such as monks and lay followers. There are also five external circumstances required of oneself: one must not have committed any of the five limitless downfalls, as this would create a great obstruction.
This difficulty is explained in other ways also. The cause of human birth is the performance of virtuous acts and keeping correct moral conduct, and since very few people are aware of this, human birth is rare by its cause. By nature, it is much easier to be born elsewhere. The difficulty is illustrated by an example: imagine a blind tortoise living in the ocean. Floating on the surface of the ocean is a yoke. The tortoise comes to the surface only once a century, yet he stands a better chance of putting his head in that yoke that we do of being born in human form!
The Buddha said, “The three realms of existence are like clouds in the autumn; the birth and death of beings is like a dancer’s movement; a beings life is like a waterfall or like a flash of lightning in the sky; it never stops even for a single moment and, once it starts, it inevitably continues until its conclusion.” Everything is changing: the seasons change; spring gives way to summer, and autumn to winter. Children grown into adults, adults become old; hair turns brown, black to white, the skin shrivels and life fades. Isn’t that so? Everything is changing constantly. There is not one single place where one can escape this impermanence. Since everything changes constantly, one never knows tomorrow. We only know two things of death: it is certain to come and we have no idea when it will come. It could come at any moment and there are many things, internal and external, that can cause it. Thus, if you want to practice Buddhism, you must realize that it is necessary to start immediately. You can never be sure of a tomorrow to do anything.
What are the principle practices of Mahayana?
There are three main practices: Love, Compassion and Enlightenment-mind. Love means that you wish every sentient being in all the six realms of existence to be happy, and compassion is the wish that all beings in suffering should part from suffering. The enlightenment-mind means the wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. These three are very important. Without love and compassion, the enlightenment mind will not arise and, without the enlightenment mind, you cannot attain enlightenment, so therefore love and compassion are necessary. But of these, compassion is of particular importance. It is said to be the seed of the
How should we practice these?
First, study is required and then mediation. Visualize those who are dear to you and wish them to be happy and be free from suffering; then pray that you may have the power to accomplish this for them, that you will be able to do this. Then gradually meditate on those who are not near to you and finally on all sentient beings. In fact, you should start by thinking of the Four Recollections, then taking refuge, visualizing your mother and thinking very clearly on the most elaborate details of her kindness to you and the care she had for you. Then realize that she is still suffering and creating the causes of suffering: at this, the wish to help her will arise and, when you want to help her out of suffering, the enlightenment mind will arise. Finally, pray to the Guru and Triple Gem that she may be happy and without suffering. Then think of your father, think of other beings and think of your worst enemy, too. If this is difficult, remember that hatred is your real enemy as it will create states of great suffering. Then meditate upon all beings in the six realms until natural love for them arises without a single reservation. Finally, wish that any merit accumulated through this benefit all sentient beings equally: thus sharing of merit concludes every meditation.
Compassion is of the greatest importance and should be practiced as much as possible. It should be completely instinctive. Avalokiteshvara, the Lord of Compassion, said in a Sutra, “One who wishes to gain Enlightenment should not practice many things, but just one, and that one is compassion.” The practice of Compassion is of three kinds.
Compassion to beings is the wish that, firstly your mother and then all other limitless sentient beings should be free from suffering, and the wish that you may be able to help them. Compassion to Dharma (conditioned phenomena) is the wish that sentient beings should abandon the root of suffering, for the root of suffering is ignorance. The third practice is called objectless compassion, nevertheless, through ignorance of the Real, they are very much tied to the ego and this causes them suffering.
Love and compassion are good, but doesn’t there come a point when it is better to be angry with people? Is anger ever justified?
Maybe, if the intention is “good,” even though the action is “bad.” Even if you are angry, but with the wish or thought of benefiting a being, then your anger arises from compassion, and whatever arises out of compassion is good. If the root of a plant is medicinal, even though the fruit appears bad, it will still be medicinal.
Buddhism is often thought of as leading to negative and passive behavior.
This is true if you enter and abide in Liberation. But if you enter the
So is compassion for all living beings just a matter of feeling sorry for them?
No. compassion is a thought, the wish for beings to be free from suffering.
The meditation for arousing compassion is based upon reflection of the kindness of our mother. What should we do if our mother was not kind?
Every mother can be considered as kind. It is a great kindness that she gave you a human body. That is enough for you to consider her to be kind. If the meditation is difficult, you should always try to think of her kind actions and good qualities until the feeling of love arises.