You’re in for a real treat with this week’s offering. What follows is a selection from the Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s new book, Training In Tenderness. This is one of those rare dharma gems that speaks from the deepest roots of human sanity and intelligence, while being accessible and immediately applicable to our day-to-day lives. Considering the difficulty of finding reference points of clarity amidst the powerful and often conflicting torrents of our daily experiences, not to mention within our social and political environments, these teachings could not be more timely.
Please note that today’s offering is a prelude for part one of a podcast that Rinpoche recorded with us, which will be published on July 20th…
Thank you for joining us, and we hope you find Rinpoche’s words as uplifting and beneficial as we do.
If you are interested in reading this book—or any book of spiritual teachings—chances are that two things are very important to you. One is the development of your own mind and heart. You may think of yourself as on a path toward a fully awakened state, or you may simply want more happiness and peace of mind. Whatever your motivation, it is an honorable one and it gives meaning to your life. Second, beyond your aspirations for yourself, you are also concerned about the world and the beings living in it. Naturally, you care more about some people than others, but in general you want things to go well for all who share this world, and for the surrounding environment.
These two concerns—for self and other—are not competing; in fact, they are intertwined harmoniously. Our individual progress benefits the world and others, and our care for the world and others opens our own mind and heart. This connection between individual spiritual growth and wider benefit is important to emphasize, especially in these times, when people across the globe are struggling with so much conflict and confusion and don’t know what to do or where to turn. Humanity has made tremendous progress in the last few centuries—in science, technology, health, literacy, and many other areas. Great achievements have improved the lives of many. In some countries, the average person today lives like a king or queen compared to the average person of a few hundred years ago. But the effects of humanity’s achievements have also been very limited. They haven’t helped reduce conflict among human beings. They haven’t curbed our tendency to exploit those who are weaker than us, such as helpless animals. They haven’t discouraged us from exploiting the Earth itself, to the point where our planet now stands in a precarious situation. If we ever expected that material progress would increase harmony in the world, among people, and within our own minds, by now we must be very disappointed.
There is no simple solution to the world’s problems. We can’t impose from the outside an improved structure for society. We can’t remedy greed, aggression, and confusion with a pill. I believe that there is only one way to bring about greater harmony in society and the environment, both locally and globally. This is for individuals like ourselves to work on our own minds and hearts so that we can change from within.
We all have what it takes to do this. Why? Because every one of us is born with a profound quality that is like a wish-fulfilling jewel. This quality has served us throughout our lives, and it will continue to serve us. However, we haven’t scratched the surface of making the most of it. We’ve enjoyed some of its benefits, but we haven’t learned how to apply it to all situations in our life. We appreciate it, but we haven’t fathomed its significance. We’ve relied on it, but we could rely on it a lot more.
What is this profound quality that we all have? It is the innate tenderness of our own heart. Every sentient being is endowed with a heart that is capable of having warm, tender feelings toward others. Even in a vicious creature like a snake, we can see evidence of this quality in its tender behavior toward its young. No one is unfortunate enough to be born without such a heart.
When it is warm with tenderness and affection toward others, our own heart can give us the most pure and profound happiness that exists, and enable us to radiate that happiness to others. This potential for happiness is right here within us. It is not something on the outside that we need to search and strive for. We don’t need to get several university degrees, work hard, and save up a lot of money to buy it. We don’t need special opportunities or amazing luck. We only need this heart, which is right here within us, accessible at all times.
This may sound too simple—even simplistic. If happiness is so accessible, then why are so many of us unhappy? And even if we do experience periods of happiness, why is our happiness so unreliable and so difficult to maintain? The reason is that although this joyous warm heart is part of our nature, most of the time its glow is hidden from us. The Uttaratantra Shastra, a classical Buddhist text that describes the ultimate, enlightened nature of all sentient beings, uses this example: Each of us is like a hungry, homeless person who doesn’t realize there’s an enormous treasure buried under the ground where he sleeps. The warmth of our heart is that buried treasure, but we can’t enjoy it because we lack the wisdom and skillful means to recognize it, appreciate it, and harness its power.
It’s not hard to identify the tender heart in our own experience. For example, if you have a pet, you often feel strong affection in its presence. Your heart is open to your adorable little dog in a simple, clean, innocent way. You want the best for your dog, unconditionally. You do anything you can to cater to its needs and desires. And seeing how your dog responds to your affection, how it wags its tail when you enter the room, how it appreciates the connection that you have, gives you pure delight.
But such a pure, blissful experience doesn’t usually remain consistent in relation to any individual. Especially with fellow human beings, there tends to be more confusion. Sometimes our heart is open and sometimes it is closed. If we pay attention, we can feel the contrast viscerally. Sometimes we feel more negativity toward our “loved ones” than toward anyone else. But in most of our relationships, there are periods or moments when the tenderness of our heart flows out exuberantly. We can experience it with our children, our partner or spouse, our parents, with our friends and people in our community. From time to time, we may feel it with strangers, people we see or read about in the news, or even fictional characters. The context varies, but at its core the experience is the same: a warm connection to another; a simple, nonconceptual care for their well-being; a feeling that their joy is our joy, and that their suffering is our suffering.
The word in English that captures this experience best is probably love. But love comes with many ideas and expectations, which vary from person to person. Each of us interprets the word in our own way. And the same is true for other words I’ve already used, such as warmth, affection, and tenderness. These words can help point us in the right direction, but if we aren’t careful they can also take us away from the essence of this basic, visceral experience, which goes beyond human concepts. When we run with our own version of a word, we tend to add layers and layers until the simple experience is lost.
In my mother tongue of Tibetan, we use the word tsewa. This is also a human concept, but for Westerners, tsewa has the advantage of being unfamiliar, so there is less chance of it being misinterpreted or narrowed down to a small, incomplete meaning. But even the term tsewa, if we use it too much, can start to outshine the actual experience. The word can start to seem more important than its meaning. Of course, in writing a book, one must use words, but please keep these caveats in mind and try not to let the true meaning of the words drift into something abstract.
I would like to make a clear case for the tremendous benefits of tsewa and the importance of keeping our heart open, both for ourselves and for others. The tender, open heart of tsewa is an infinitely malleable resource. It expresses itself as kindness, compassion, vicarious joy, generosity, tolerance, mental clarity, courage, resilience, unshakeable cheerfulness, and in many other internal ways. And it also manifests outwardly, in our positive actions. Everything we do for the benefit of others, or for the sake of opening our own heart, comes from this fundamental quality of tsewa. In this way, tsewa is really the source of all goodness in the world.
It may seem naïve or unrealistic, especially in these challenging modern times, to rely on something as ordinary and soft as our own tender heart. Most of the world is under the spell of the capitalist mentality, which encourages us to be cynical and look out for our self-interests, first and foremost. This is even true in places like Tibet. It saddens me to see how so many people have given up on love and affection as a source of happiness and a remedy for suffering. Even people who are trying to effect positive changes in society—for example, by fighting injustice—often overlook the importance of the warm heart as the basis of all beneficial actions. This widespread lack of trust and understanding cuts so many people off from something as crucial to our well-being as oxygen.
By writing this book, I hope to encourage readers to identify and come to rely on that tender, affectionate heart we are all born with. If you have become cynical or skeptical about love, I would like to help you rekindle your natural connection to tsewa, so that you can reestablish whatever trust has been lost. Then I would like to pass down advice I have learned from my own Buddhist teachers on how to cultivate tsewa and allow it to flow more and more freely and exuberantly, for the benefit of yourself and others. Since I believe that tsewa is the most valuable resource human beings possess, I hope to help you remove whatever impediments are keeping it hidden in darkness so that you can live a life full of joy, meaning, and profound value to the world.
Dzigar Kongtrul grew up in a monastic environment and received extensive training in all aspects of Buddhist doctrine. In 1989, he moved to the United States with his family, and in 1990, he began a five-year tenure as a professor of Buddhist philosophy at Naropa University. He also founded Mangala Shri Bhuti, his own teaching organization, during this period. He has established a mountain retreat center, Longchen Jigme Samten Ling, in southern Colorado. He has a large sangha of students, including Pema Chödrön. Rinpoche travels widely throughout the world teaching and furthering his own education.
Please visit www.mangalashribhuti.org for more information.