Tsewa is a Tibetan word that we explored in WJ Entries 009 & 010 with the guidance of Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Tsewa can be most simply described as the warmth and tenderness we feel toward others. Rinpoche encourages us to see Tsewa as an experience we should cherish and one we should learn to trust as the skill most responsible for assuring our own happiness and the happiness of others. Kongtrul Rinpoche’s thoughts and instructions on the topic are far from simplistic, but rather deeply reasoned and profoundly potent in the face of the polarity, conflict, distrust and meanness that many of us perceive in today’s social interaction.
Rinpoche’s book on the subject of tsewa, Training in Tenderness (Shambhala Publications, 2018) is both friendly and powerful…It understands and remedies the pitfalls of modern life and how we often confuse cynicism and survival instincts as somehow being a necessary force behind our personal defenses. The book’s sub-title, The Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change The World, is the title we’ve taken for this Journal Entry, and is a particularly appropriate description of the book’s concluding chapter, The World and the Future, which we have excerpted here.
We hope you find it as inspiring and personally empowering as we do.
The Radical Openness Of Heart That Can Change The World
Conclusion: The World and the Future
We are at a critical juncture in world history. The elements of our environment are going through a rapid process of change, which threatens the future of our planet. Relations among countries have reached dangerous levels of disharmony. We are seeing widespread violence based on race, religion, and social and economic inequality. The well-being of this world and everyone living in it is in jeopardy. How we respond at this time will make an immense difference to the prospect of happiness for countless sentient beings. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
There are so many ways we can try to benefit the world and the beings in it. We can become doctors, nurses, activists, teachers, scientists, organizers, diplomats, writers, artists, political leaders, religious leaders, community leaders, Peace Corps volunteers, environmentalists, philanthropists. We can simply be good people who behave thoughtfully and altruistically to the people and animals around us. We can even spend most of our time alone, engaged in spiritual practice. There is no one particular role that anyone must play in order to respond well to our current situation.
But whatever you do, if it is to be truly beneficial to the world, it must begin with your tender heart. There is no positive action that is separate from tsewa. All the imbalance and disharmony we are seeing has come from the opposite of tsewa—a closed heart and a self-centered mind. If your intention is to promote balance and harmony—among human beings, with animals, with trees, rivers, mountains, and the earth itself—you must put tsewa at the center. You must make opening your heart your highest priority in life. From there, all positive outer results will naturally follow, as flowers naturally arise in the springtime.
Any community, movement, or educational endeavor—if it is to have any value—must be founded on tenderness. It must be based on the principle that all sentient beings want to be happy and free from suffering, and that the happiness and suffering of others is as important as our own. Without tsewa, every religion, every spiritual group, every attempt to reform government, address injustice, overcome terrorism, or resolve conflicts will be meaningless. And if these groups and endeavors have anti-tsewa elements—such as if they are one-sided, or full of deep-seated motives to promote certain groups at the expense of others—they will only add to the negativity and suffering of the world.
Our future will depend on how much we put our trust in the goodness and effectiveness of tsewa. It will depend on how much we make the most of our innate tenderness, and how much we foster that tenderness in others. It will depend on how much we honor tsewa for what it is: the source of all well-being, the ultimate wish-fulfilling jewel.
Tsewa is the only thing that can give us the strength and resilience to pacify the obstacles and overcome the challenges that the world presents. Even though we all have this tender heart, there are always certain individuals, who because of their intense confusion and their ability to influence people, spread pain and chaos to many others. But when people develop the strength of tsewa, they act as buffers to protect others from such harm and influence. When many people collectively put their trust in the good heart, it is like erecting a wall that prevents the fire of confusion from spreading.
Seen in this light, opening the heart is much more than just a spiritual practice. It is a way we can all enhance our relations with the world and with each other. It has social, economic, political, and environmental benefits. It is a way of navigating the world. It is a survival skill.
What the world needs most is education in tsewa. We need more people to learn how to look into their own hearts and see the vast difference in their well-being when their heart is open and when it is closed. We need more people to see for themselves how tsewa is the source of all happiness and goodness in the world. In particular, people in a position of power, influence, or responsibility—such as people in government, the military, the police force—need to fill their hearts with tenderness. Otherwise, it is likely that they will enact their duties from a basis of power hunger, blind ideology, fear, or some other self-serving agenda.
Therefore, my request to you is that you not only cultivate your own tenderness of heart, but that you promote tsewa in the world. Please educate your children, your students, and others about tsewa—in whatever way, with whatever words, and to whatever degree you think it will be most effective. This is not an encouragement to spread Buddhist ideas. It is an encouragement to help people make the most of their own birthright, their most precious inheritance.
The people of this modern world are interconnected and intermingled like never before. In this way, modern society enjoys an unprecedented richness. In the past, there were not many places where you could be among people whose ancestors came from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America; who were male, female, transgender, gay, and straight; who grew up with so many different religious and non-religious ideas and beliefs. The world was much more segregated. But now such diversity and mixture are common.
Some people find such diversity to be threatening. There will always be those who want to go back to how things were before. Some may even think that turning back the tide would actually reduce conflict. But there is no way to go back in time. Any attempts to impose a more segregated society will damage that society severely. On the other hand, this is not about ignoring the differences among people, the details that make every person unique. We are not talking about becoming “color blind” and failing to notice what is in front of us. Variety is part of what makes our world so rich. It is something to honor, rather than a problem to solve.
The only way forward is for people to bind themselves closer together than ever before. The glue that will bind us has to be our common tenderness of heart. If we learn how to cultivate tsewa, we can see each other as members of a large, wonderful extended family. With that view, our diversity will only be an advantage, an aid to our individual and collective growth. It will give us more to embrace, more occasions for opening our heart.
But is this vision of tsewa spreading throughout the world just a fantasy? To me, it is not. In fact, it is already underway. There are so many noble people doing noble things in the world. Look at what Doctors without Borders is doing. Look at the Red Cross nurses, the social workers, the journalists, the teachers. Look at the movements taking place across the globe on behalf of peace, the environment, gender equality, social justice, conscious living, and animal rights. There has never been a time when so many people have joined together to make positive things happen, all over the world. The world is full of good citizens, and that includes you. Look at yourself and all the good things you are doing to help others, to open your heart, to follow your innate desire to make a difference in the world. What we are doing already, despite our current limitations, is beautiful. We must acknowledge all of this and let ourselves be touched by the goodness that surrounds us.
The majority of people aspire to contribute to the world and to each others’ lives. The majority understand that the greatest joy and meaning in our lives comes from what we give to others, not what we take. Most of us also understand that going against someone else’s welfare will undermine our own welfare. This kind of logic makes sense to people. That is why it will prevail over confusion and ignorance.
From this point of view, we are not living in a dark age. We are living in the dawn of light. Even though there could be more goodness and altruism, even though greed, injustice, and aggression cause tremendous suffering every day, we must take some time to reflect on what is going right. Those who inflict pain on others out of their confusion and ignorance are a small minority of this world’s seven billion plus people. If we lose perspective and overestimate their prevalence, then our inspiration will be hijacked by skepticism and negative thinking. There are those—especially in extreme religious groups and some portions of the media and politics—who attempt to serve their own agendas by promoting negative, polarizing thinking. And there are others who have no agenda, but are habitually negative. But if our aim is to open our heart and let its natural, exuberant warmth spread to others, we must not let this kind of thinking infiltrate our mind.
The more our heart is open, the more we feel others’ suffering as our own suffering. But that doesn’t mean we feel depressed and despondent. The suffering of others doesn’t weigh us down because we are buoyed by the warmth of our tenderness toward others. For one who is guided by bodhicitta, the wish to benefit all beings by attaining enlightenment, living in samsara is a joyful experience. Every minute that your heart is open is a minute to cherish. There is no sense of heaviness, and no bewilderment about what you should be doing. Every moment, there is something you can do to benefit sentient beings. Even if you are alone, you can warm your heart toward others, you can make aspirations and prayers on their behalf, and you can dedicate your merit to their well-being and their eventual enlightenment. The ability to perform altruistic activities throughout the day—day in and day out, year after year, life after life—is what keeps the bodhisattva feeling so light. It is what brings the perpetual smile to the face of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and others like him.
The future of the world depends on tsewa. This is fortunate because tsewa is something we are all born with. We all have a heart that can open, and we can feel the difference between an open heart and a closed heart. Out of habit or ignorance, we may choose to keep our heart closed, or we may not realize we have a choice. But when we begin to understand the power of tsewa and how we can cultivate it, our innate wisdom will guide us toward greater and greater warmth and tenderness, until there is no difference between our heart and the heart of the Buddha, the perfect compassionate guide. We all have this infinite potential, and we will realize it sooner than later. Thanks to tsewa—the wish-fulfilling jewel that you and I and all sentient beings possess—the future is in good hands.
Click here to buy the book “Training in Tenderness – Buddhist Teachings on Tsewa, the Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change 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.