Tsewa is a Tibetan word that we explored in Windhorse Journal entries 009, 010, 024 and 025—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. He compares Tsewa to oxygen—as something fundamental and essential to our well being: “. . . our lungs always yearn for oxygen, our heart always yearns to be open, to give and receive tsewa.”
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. This Journal entry is the excerpt of the book’s first chapter, “Like Oxygen.” These teachings are enormously beneficial for those working as therapists, and for anyone who is working with their mind, emotions, relationships, or recovery.
We hope you find it as inspiring and personally empowering as we do.
Michael and Stephanie Velasco
From Training in Tenderness by Dzigar Kongtrul
© 2018 by Dzigar Kongtrul. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
1. LIKE OXYGEN
We human beings are not like weeds in an untended garden that grow up and survive without any care. We depend on having affection in our lives. As soon as your mother became aware of your existence in her womb, she began pouring all her love and tenderness into you. Then, once you emerged into the world, you wouldn’t have survived a day without her love. As you grew up, you continually received her warmth, or at least the warmth of some family member or loving human being. Thanks to receiving tsewa, you have become an adult capable of standing on your own two feet. Thanks to tsewa, you can now look after yourself and your family and contribute something to society. If you hadn’t received so much love throughout your life, you would not feel any security or strength inside. You would not have a sound mind.
Our well-being also depends on our expressing tsewa to others. From early childhood, we have been learning to open our heart to parents, siblings, friends, and pets. If our heart had never developed the ability to feel warmth toward others, if there were no one toward whom we felt tenderness, close-ness, and trust, we would now be in a state of painful isolation. Our mind would be imprisoned in a miserable state of narcissism.
Of course, the happiness and sound mind we enjoy are only relative. We can acknowledge that our mind isn’t totally blissful and free from confusion, like the Buddha or the great sages of the past and present. We have a long way to go. Still, there are so many fortunate aspects to our lives and minds that we have to appreciate. And when we appreciate them, we should examine where they come from. What is their source?
By contemplating this question deeply, we will discover the indispensable role that giving and receiving tsewa has always had in our lives. We will come to see that tsewa is like oxygen. There’s no question that we need oxygen to survive. Whether we breathe in oxygen is not up for debate or negotiation. If we’re in a place without oxygen, or if we can’t breathe, then our lives are in grave danger. Or if the amount we can take in is less than the full amount we need—perhaps because of a medical condition—our life will be a continual struggle. Just as our lungs always yearn for oxygen, our heart always yearns to be open, to give and receive tsewa. So when we shut down our hearts, whether intentionally or not, we suffer. We feel mentally and emotionally disturbed.
All sentient beings down to the tiniest insect want to be happy and free from suffering. Although we can only directly experience our own longing, we can infer this common desire by observing the behavior of others. In the same way, others can infer our own desire by observing our behavior. For all beings, this longing is continuous; we feel it day and night, week after week, month after month, year after year. But what really is this happiness we seek, other than the exuberant openness and warmth of our own heart? Without tsewa, is there any other source of happiness? Can we find happiness in physical comfort and sensory pleasures? In relationships? The perfect job? The ideal house? A bank balance with many digits? The American dream? Now I’m not saying these things have nothing to do with being happy. In the short term, they may well contribute to happiness. But they are not its ever-flowing, inexhaustible source. Accompanied by tsewa, all of these—and many other things as well—can complement our happiness. But without tsewa, each is just a shell of happiness—an empty, lifeless shell.
Human beings are endowed with a potential for a certain kind of intelligence that other species lack. What is the essence of this intelligence? Is it the mental ability to learn and do complex things? A
young woman can set an intention to become a brain surgeon. She can take difficult classes in biology and organic chemistry, go to medical school, memorize every process that happens in the body, acquire more specialized training in neurology and surgery, spend years as an intern, and then eventually be able to operate on the human brain. A dog or a turtle can’t do any of those things. Yet in their own way, animals are able to perform great feats of ingenuity. If you watch any of the nature shows, you’ll see countless examples of animal intelligence. Animals that have never been given enough credit for their intelligence—crabs, rodents, fish, spiders—are capable of complex strategizing, judgment, communication, and problem solving. In this way, they may have more in common with human beings than we tend to think.
But animals don’t appear to self-reflect. Even though, like human beings, they all want to be happy, they can’t ponder the causes of happiness or trace happiness back to its source. Their actions, which are externally oriented, have no long-term conscious vision behind them. Although these beings seek happiness continuously, they have no aspirations to achieve a happiness that lasts. And they have no way of tapping into their own hearts and discovering an inexhaustible wealth of happiness within.
We human beings are blessed with all these abilities. So the question is, how well do we take advantage of them? How well do we look at cause and effect and connect the dots of our lives? How well do we distinguish what fulfills our intention to be happy from what sabotages our well-being? And if we do see that we’re acting against our intentions, how do we change course? If our way of going about being happy isn’t working— or is even adding to our suffering—how willing and able are we to try a different approach?
Of course, another key part of exercising our human intelligence is to confirm for ourselves the validity of the teachings we receive. Even though the Buddha and many other sages have identified the tender heart as the source of all goodness in the world, we have to ponder this matter for ourselves until we’re convinced. We have to examine and reflect on our own lives and the lives of others. I can say to you that tsewa is like oxygen, but do you see this in your own experience? I would be very surprised if you or anyone else could be happy without tsewa, but I am not in your mind. It’s up to you to look into this for yourself.
For example, say that today you fulfill one of your desires. Maybe you receive some recognition or a big promotion. Maybe you finally manage to get the perfect car or the perfect pair of shoes. Now check in with your heart. Does it feel open? If your heart feels tightly focused on me, me, me, ask yourself honestly, “Is this a happy state of mind?” If, instead, your heart still feels warm and tender toward others, ask yourself, “Is the fulfilled desire the cause of my well-being? Or is it the tsewa?”
On the other hand, let’s say nothing is going especially well for you today, yet your heart is aglow with warm wishes for others. Do you feel content or discontent, fulfilled or unfulfilled? How does your feeling compare to being tightly focused on me, me, me? How does the expansive feeling of being connected to others compare to the contracted feeling of holing up in your small, separate self?
Contrasting these alternating experiences of open and closed heart heightens our awareness. Without this kind of investigation, we could feel uneasy all the time without really noticing. We could assume that our good external conditions must be making us happy, without realizing how anxious or insecure we feel inside.
We create or adopt so many stories about happiness, and we tend to believe in them despite massive evidence that proves them to be false. Another version of this happens when tsewa is flowing from our heart, but we overlook how well we feel. Without checking in, we assume that we must be lacking something because our outer conditions are less than American Dream–like. But if our heart is filled with a reliable source of well-being, what are we really missing?
Until you’re able to discriminate clearly between what promotes and what disturbs your well-being, I urge you to keep observing your heart in this way. When you see for yourself what goes on in your own heart, you’ll be newly empowered by your own critical intelligence. On the other hand, if you
accept the teachings on tsewa too uncritically, you’ll be relying overly on hearsay. It is always helpful to be open-minded about the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. But to swallow them without any examination will not bring the optimal results. Only direct experience and self-reflection will profoundly affect the course of your life and mind.
Having done my own research on this subject, I really see how two little birds can live very happily in a small nest or how two puppies can happily share a corner of a room. Just having that warmth in their hearts—a warmth that they both give and receive—is enough to make them happy. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine most modern human beings feeling that kind of contentment in such minimal situations. Two harmoniously married people living in a tiny house with simple jobs would probably spend a lot of their time thinking, “I need this to be happy, I need that to be happy.” But if they did go out and realize all their dreams, they might well discover that they had already possessed the happiness they were searching for. Maybe their quest led them to a few novel pleasures or helped make some aspect of their lives a bit smoother, but how many years of harmonious tenderness did they have to sacrifice? Whatever they have accomplished shows itself to be a mere shadow of accomplishment because it fails to bring them the joy they had hoped for. After all this time, the couple may end up reminiscing about their formerly simple life, when they had so much space to enjoy the flow of warmth in their hearts!
The kind of external happiness with which most of us are obsessed can never be sustained. If you depend on someone praising you, someone giving you a gift, someone making you into a big deal, you are investing in unsustainable happiness. If you feel elated when these things appear in your life and depressed when they’re absent, that is a form of addiction. It’s not that we should reject these things when they do come around, but if we hold on to them tightly, mistaking them for the source of our well-being, we are setting ourselves up for pain. So when they do come to us, it’s wise to take them with a grain of salt. We should think twice before allowing ourselves to become emotionally dependent on fulfilling our external desires.
Even the happiness that people seek from religion doesn’t amount to much in the absence of tsewa. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists are equally in need of tsewa. For all members of these groups, the experience of the tender heart is the same. For all of them, this warm heart is the source of everything positive in the world. Tsewa predates the world’s religions; it is part of nature’s design. There is nothing religious about keeping one’s heart open and giving and receiving love. Any religion that fails to cherish and promote tsewa becomes an artificial religion, a dogmatic religion. Its purpose is something other than the welfare of beings. Fortunately, none of the major religions are like this. Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, and the other great religions of this world all honor and foster tsewa. Of course, in every group, there are people who miss the point of the religion. They fail to connect their religion to the universal quest for happiness and freedom from suffering. This kind of attitude, as we often see, can become anti-tsewa, sabotaging rather than promoting the warm heart that is as important to our well-being as oxygen.
However we may look different or seem to be wired differently, deep down we are all vulnerable in terms of needing tsewa. I think of the movie Lonesome Dove, where Tommy Lee Jones plays a character named Captain Woodrow F. Call. Though he’s a cowboy and a very tough character, it’s obvious how vulnerable he is on the inside. There’s no reason for him to pretend to be so tough and to act as if he doesn’t need love and affection. No one really believes that a person can survive without these things. Because of their culture, their background, or their upbringing, some people may act as if they’re immune to their emotions, but in reality, Captain Call and every other tough guy needs love as much as a newborn baby or kitten. This kind of softness is a positive quality. It’s a strength, rather than a weakness, to feel vulnerable and to embrace that vulnerability. It puts us in touch with our own heart. When we feel vulnerable, we intuitively know the importance of tsewa in our lives.
Appreciating tsewa helps us make wise choices in how we direct our intentions, and in how we invest our time and energy. Essentially, it comes down to choosing which of two primary experiences we want to set our sights on. Whichever experience we direct our intention toward will come to dominate our life. The first experience is that of being fixated on our own agendas. Continually engaged in various forms of struggle to accomplish those agendas, we become tighter and more fearful in our heart. We develop a strong sense of like and dislike, friend and foe, which in turn makes us susceptible to painful emotions and constantly poised to react on behalf of the small-minded self.
The other primary experience we could move toward is that of an open heart continually emanating good wishes on behalf of others and receiving their warmth with grace and ease. Free from strong prejudices and biases, we gain the confidence of being able to love others unconditionally. We are in harmony with the world, with other beings, and with ourselves.
The first option is the way of conventional modern life—the pursuit of external happiness, which never lasts or fulfills.
The second option is the way of the great sages—the total reliance on tsewa. In its simplest form, we can state our choice in this way: Do we want to have an open heart or a closed heart?
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.