What does Compassion look like?

Best wishes for 2018.

This blog is by nature of its topic – in the wake of revelations of abuse in Rigpa – tied to what happens in Rigpa and how those affected are processing the revelations, so I don’t know where the journey will lead us. However, the moderators remain committed to a balanced and reformist approach to the issues raised by the letter written by the 8 students of Sogyal Rinpoche in July 2017.

I thought to start the new year on a contemplative note that might be of benefit to us all no matter what our opinion on the issue of abuse in Rigpa. Hopefully it will help us to see each other with eyes of compassion.

Concern for others helps to break down the barriers that separate us and soften our obsession with ourselves, thus opening our heart and mind so that we are more able to see things as they truly are.

Compassion in Buddhism

In the Buddhist Mahayana teachings, which include Vajrayana and therefore Tibetan Buddhism, genuine compassion of the highest level is not separate from wisdom. Wisdom here doesn’t mean knowledge; it means a realisation of the nature of reality itself, an understanding of the way things are, the way appearances are empty of inherent existence, and yet nevertheless do appear. This realisation of the nature of reality is absolute great compassion (or absolute bodhicitta) because in that state of awareness, compassion arises naturally. Compassion dwells at the heart of wisdom. It is simply part of the realisation, inseparable from it.

On the other hand, the practices of relative compassion help to open us so we are more able to realise the nature of reality. The very essence of great compassion is wisdom. In this way, the two aspects of relative compassion and absolute compassion or wisdom go hand and hand on the spiritual path. Someone with true realisation cannot act in a way that is not compassionate, and great compassion is an indication of one’s level of realisation.

This great compassion or bodhicitta may seem like a very lofty ideal, but we can all bring whatever glimpses of wisdom we’ve had into our relationships with others, and we can all practice relative compassion. The teachings abound in instructions for ways in which we can do that.

Checking ourselves

What is particularly relevant to us here, though, in light of the topic of abuse by a Buddhist teacher and its effect on the Rigpa sangha, is to notice how easy it is to evaluate others’ level of compassion and forget to check ourselves. Certainly when one is publically calling out an organisation for its apparent lack of compassion, it can appear that one has forgotten to turn one’s mind in and evaluate one’s own heart and mind. That those speaking out here have forgotten to do so is an assumption, of course, since we can’t know what anyone else has in their mind or heart. Since I’m pretty sure that no one would be interested in hearing my evaluation of my own failings, it is not the topic of blog posts; that doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t regularly check myself with uncompromising honesty. It also does not mean that I have no compassion for those I appear to malign. My aim is to be of benefit, and yet, I am fully aware of how that was also Sogyal Rinpoche’s aim, and look how that turned out!

Delusion is an insidious beast, and that’s why wisdom is so vital. Wisdom is what gives us the insight to see more widely than the view that comes from our own emotional pain, it allows us to respond rather than react. Wisdom allows us to see the myriad of interdependent causes and conditions that contribute to any single situation, and that view allows us to go beyond ideas of blame. We see that we are all victims of our circumstances, victims of our habits, our karma, our beliefs, and our emotions. We are all in the same boat, all rocking on the ocean of samsara. Once we see that, compassion for all flows naturally.

Such a view doesn’t excuse any of us from any negative actions we engaged in, of course—we still need to take responsibility for our actions—but it does ease our emotional turmoil and help us to act in a wise and compassionate way. And why should we aim to act in a wise and compassionate way? Not because Buddhism says that’s what we should do, but simply because it makes the most effective action.

When we do need to check others

Judging is not the same as discerning. Judgement includes a value judgement of something being better or worse than something else. Discernment, however, simply discerns what is what and how this is different to that. We don’t need judgement because it keeps our hearts and minds small and tends to lead to harm, but we do need discernment. We need to discern whether it is safe to cross the road, whether that food is healthy for us, whether that person is someone we should risk accompanying on a date and so on. And we need to discern whether or not a spiritual teacher is someone we can trust, whether his words constitute the truth and when a spiritual community is a healthy one.

The single most important quality that a spiritual teacher should have is compassion, and the same goes for the community of practitioners around the teacher. It is vital not only for our spiritual path but also for our mental health that we discern whether or not a likely candidate for spiritual teacher and community have this quality or not.

But as we check the following aspects of what compassion looks like, let’s not forget to check ourselves as well.

What does compassion look like?

Absolute compassion is practiced and realised through meditation, in particular meditation on the true nature of reality. Relative compassion is practiced in two ways: in aspiration and in action. Someone practicing compassion aspires to treat all beings with love and compassion. They aspire to see everyone as a friend, and not see some as enemies and others as friends, not see some as worthy of their love and compassion and others as not. They aspire to bring happiness and the causes of happiness to all beings, to help them all be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and to rejoice in any happiness that anyone has. Aspiration is not easy to see in others, but it’s easy to check in ourselves. The first thing to ask ourselves is do we see everyone as equally worthy of our love and compassion? If our love and compassion are limited only to some, it’s better than having no compassion at all, but it’s expanding our love and compassion to all beings equally that will bring us closer to wisdom. It’s not easy to do in practice, of course, but we can at least aspire to treat everyone with the same love and compassion.

Aspiration is only a start, though. It’s easy to sit back on your cushion after a session of meditation on love and compassion and think that’s enough, to think that you don’t need to do anything other than feel compassionate, but the way to grow compassion and the way to see it in others is in action, in putting ourselves on the line for others – like the 8 authors of the July letter did – in actually putting yourself out for others.  Compassion in action in Buddhism consists of generosity, patience, ethical discipline, joyful diligence, meditative concentration and insight or discriminating awareness wisdom. Once again, we see the importance of wisdom, of actually using our discriminating awareness in our action so that we make the best choices in terms of action.

These 6 perfections as they are known can be broken down into subsections and examined at length. They can also be simplified into one word – kindness. A kindness that genuinely cares for the well-being of others.

Remember the boat

Everyone, unless they are a fully realised Buddha, fail to live up to these ideals all the time, which is why humility is also considered an important quality for spiritual teachers and practitioners alike. If one has true humility, admitting one’s failings is not an issue, and seeing the failings in others is a reason for compassion not hatred, because you recognise your shared humanity; you recognise that you are in the same boat on the same ocean, subjected to the same swells, troughs and storms. When someone falls overboard in danger of drowning in the ocean of samsara, compassion isn’t just praying they’ll be safe, it’s reaching out over the waves, putting yourself in danger to try to pull them back on board.

At least that’s my understanding. I might be wrong, of course. What do you think?

Post by Tahlia. 


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56 thoughts on “What does Compassion look like?

  1. It would seem that in the end, you bring it back round to something called, “the well-being of others”, which would appear to be dependent on various other considerations such as perception, experience, discernment.

    It would seem more obvious what this means in terms of the body, but maybe less clear in regard to speech and mind. There would also appear to be a danger of a type of ‘fascism’ if we insist upon one single common good rather than taking each individual as we find them.

    I was always taught that “Mother knows best”, which of course I always resented as a child. As an adult I can clearly that she was acting selflessly in a way that she thought was best for me, I still hate being mothered though!

    Once complaining about being mothered by female sangha members, a friend suggested that I was “asking for it” – blame the ‘victim’!!! – so, on a more serious note, I think we should be aware of some basic transactional analysis – how we tend to play the various roles of parent, adult, or child, and can be overbearing, patronising, critical, and fail to respect the self-determination and choices of each person as an individual in their own right.

    Certainly in regard to the dynamic at Rigpa, there would seem to be a very strong need to see Sogyal as a sort of ‘primal father’ – an all knowing, absolute authority, whose cruel justice is justified by an idea of impartiality – and of course it is a truism that attention starved children will prefer negative attention to none at all.

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    1. …”how we tend to play the various roles of parent, adult, or child, and can be overbearing, patronising, critical, and fail to respect the self-determination and choices of each person as an individual in their own right….”

      That’s really a crucial aspect, as I sometimes find myself having tendencies of feeling “appealed” to help someone who might need help, but apparently could also help him- or herself.
      Then intervening without having been asked for it could sometimes hinder the action that necessarily has to be taken by the person itself in order to strengthen their boundaries and not get dependant from their helper.

      In the case of seeing someone drown or passing someone who needs first aid after an accident I think I would follow the instinct to help instantly.

      So I think it requires clear discernment and perception of the situation. And sometimes it might be okay to follow the impulse to help – no matter what, the person concerned can surely use their right and ability to let me know when my “help” is annoying and not useful. And I might also be able to notice that myself. But for me the choice of taking some action (in an unclear situation) has at least sometimes turned out to be the right decision.

      Although it’s said that elderly people were accompanied across the road by a caring helper and when they were reaching the sidewald safely, the old person said that they didn’t want to cross the road at all. That’s part of the scene, no problem, it did them no harm. You can bring them back to where they started or even bring them back home safely. If you did nothing at all, that would also have been no problem at all.

      But in the case of somebody being in danger of drowning, starving or being injured it might be a nice move to step into the “superman” role. It’s not even a superman role, it’s just the impulse to help. For some people it’s a natural kind of human instinct. I admit that I would think twice, before putting myself in danger, too.
      It recently happened that someone drowned who wanted to save someone else and a young men who stepped in to defend some female who were attacked got beaten up very badly.

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      1. @ Adrian C.
        After reading your comment again I am aware that I am using some drastic metaphors and hope they are in any way adaptable to your thoughts of differentiation between “body and mind” in regards of compassion and (inter-)action at all !! …

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  2. It is reported in the French press that 125 members of Rigpa’s Lerab Ling Centre are beginning the New Year by taking legal action against a lawyer who is investigating Sogyal Rinpoche and Rigpa. The report says that the 125 Lerab Ling members have instructed their lawyer, Jean-Robert Phung, to take action against Jean-Baptiste Cesbron. M. Cesbron is a lawyer from Montpellier who has been collecting testimonies from Ripga and ex-Rigpa students. The 125 Rigpa Lerab Ling members have accused him of defamation.

    http://www.liberation.fr/france/2018/01/02/les-bouddhistes-de-l-herault-de-la-quietude-a-l-inquietude_1620015

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    1. the 125 members are defending their castle, in some way comprehensible. the last sentences in the news from the link (newspaper liberation.fr) are quoting three of the responsible managers in Lerab Ling “our life is here and our heart is here”. … makes the reader feel like crying…

      all that (the temple, the organisation, the affiliates, the members, the meditations, the donations) has been challenged by some whistleblowers telling the truth about what has been going on in secrecy and in denial (Don’t Even Notice I Am Lying to myself). of course they are defending themselves!

      we hope that M.Cesbron can dispose of the financial and personal, professional and social network to withstand that potentially overwhelming attack.

      It’s 125 against 1 (+ his.clients).

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  3. “what does compassion look like ?” – – – good question…
    compassion could also be offering a space like this, room (even if it’s only virtually) for people to exchange, express themselves, their feelings, opinions and thoughts. even some passive aggressiveness, hostility and anger…and for others to come here and just read… or browse, without having to contribute anything or leave any trace….it might reduce confusion or ease the impression of being alone with one’s thoughts and fears…
    yes, I think that offering such space is pure compassion.

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  4. For me, compassion is remembering that everyone is another me, that in the same circumstances I might behave in the very same way as the person who has wronged me the most. It reminds me that the only way to overcome confusion, anger, and doubt is through love, not small love that needs affirmation or that has conditions on it, but love that recognizes that I am still breathing, that each moment in this body is a gift, that the root of all harm is confusion, fear, delusion, that everyone wants to be loved.

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      1. I don’t understand what you’re saying, everyone means everyone, there isn’t anyone excluded from that…

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        1. The point is that you don’t need to remember they are just like you – you don’t need to identify with them – just allow them to be completely different to you and still respect that

          The Buddha taught that identity is not the baseline for compassion, it is the opposite. You need no image of any similarity or need for sameness. If spirit is to be all encompassing, then it must include that which is totally different.

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          1. There is nothing wrong with seeing other people as another “oneself.” In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh taught about “my other myself” as a way to see others with more compassion. The Dalai Lama talks about this too. It may not be the only way to see it, but it works for a lot of people, so why criticize it and say it isn’t “Buddhist” to teach it that way?

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            1. You didn’t say it isn’t “Buddhist” in actual words, Adrian, but that’s what your comment implies. So give it a rest and let other people use whatever method works for them. If you prefer to think of people as different, fine. But there is a common humanity that helps people relate to each other. It’s just recognizing that we are all similar in our way of being human. That is what is being referred to here. No need to turn this into a complicated philosophical debate.

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  5. You’re reading way to much into my statement…I don’t want to debate with you…one does not preclude the other, the whole point of the just like me statement is to remember the inherent value of all beings, it does not imply that they are just like me in any way other than their inherent value just the way they are.

    I don’t understand the preachy lecturing tone in this blog, it’s like a competition, always finding fault with each other…give it a rest.

    Peace out…

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    1. On the contrary I read only your statement, and responded to that. You seem to have become a little frustrated that I didn’t agree with you – which was exactly the point I was making.

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    2. @not so Hopeful anymore…

      I don’t blame you a bit for being sick of debating with people over intellectual arguments. It’s as if people are trying to prove how smart they are by showing off their so-called “Dharma” knowledge.

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  6. There wasn’t actually anything to agree or disagree with:) I’m sorry you feel that you need to ‘make a point’ about someone else’s heartfelt reply to Tahlia’s question…

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      1. @ Adrian C I understand what Not so Hopeful Anymore is saying here. She or he is referring to the tendency of some people commenting here (of which this exchange is a good example) to take everyone to task on anything they say. All that does is stop people who might have something to contribute from commenting because they don’t want to get into a debate. Please just let people have their say without always looking for something to take them to task on. And I don’t want to get into a debate over this either.

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        1. There’s no debate here because we are clearly talking at cross purposes. Whether someone chooses to make that into a cause for annoyance is entirely down to them. The only person being asked to stop contributing here is me.

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            1. no, I understand that in the general sense. I only meant in terms of this particular conversation, that the lack of agreement or even understanding was problematic, and yet no such guarantee can be provided in any discourse that there will be any understanding there. So the original point, that one requires identification – some idea of commonality rather than absolute difference – as a condition of compassion is highlighted as problematic.

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              1. I will have to think about that one. If I get the meaning right, you say that before discussing about compassion people would need a basic understanding about that “term” which is impossible as long as one is identified with their ego…

                No, I think this is not what you mean. Do you mean we have to refrain from commonalities and identification in order to understand the essence of compassion?

                Again, I think I would have to consider this,
                Compassion from the perspective of absolute difference sounds interesting to me.

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                1. In terms of the paramitas, it is explained that there are three levels; subject-object, inter-relational, and absolute. It would seem clear that the meaning of the term “compassion” changes according to the contextual frame used.

                  By formulating the idea of compassion as conditional on identity, one not only blocks the progress to absolute and unconditional compassion, but also limits the idea to an essentially narcissistic framework where “they must be like me” in order to qualify – and as a result there needs to be a “reminder to oneself” of some kind of “oneness”, which reinforces a kind of syncretism and leaves you practicing Advaita instead of Buddhism.

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                  1. I see. My approach is rather generally philosophical than buddhist (philosophical), but thanks for explaining the paramitas.

                    The narcissistic framework, as you call it, where “they must be like me in order to qualify” for compassion is an interesting idea. I never thought of it before, actually.

                    If they have to “qualify” for being worth of my compassion, it’s rather relative and limited compassion. I agree on that.

                    But even compassion for someone that does not fulfil “my individual criteria” could be possible, although difficult to generate. For a god or buddha it might be easier…

                    Such abstract absolute compassion would not save the “unqualified” sinner (unqualified for relative, personal compassion) from the consequences of their actions and from being held accountable. Or would it?

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                    1. My thinking is that in regard to the Sogyal issue we are talking about the level of the body, which does present itself as a subject-object relationship, in other words, individuals do have boundaries which should be respected.

                      I suspect that DZKR and the other Lamas who appear to support Sogyal do not have such an interpretation, and have, by my way of thinking, conflated the various levels, possibly dismissing the level of the body as mere illusion.

                      Clearly, if one has achieved unconditional compassion, then it is not difficult to respect another’s personal boundaries. Holding someone accountable for their actions is, within such a wider view, actually the most compassionate thing you can do for them.

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                  2. Adrian, both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh talk about finding commonalities rather than differences in each other. It’s human nature to be able to relate to those with whom we share commonalities and shared humanity. That doesn’t mean we can’t respect or realize other people’s differences, but the shared humanity is what we ALL have in common. So why can’t people look for that if it helps them to relate and feel closer to others? Stop confusing people by telling them it isn’t “Buddhist” to look for what we share in common. I think you are misunderstanding what people are trying to say. It isn’t that they are saying the basis of compassion is having someone else exactly like me. I think they are just talking about our shared humanity, the desire to want happiness and not want suffering, etc.

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                    1. @ Catlover – “why can’t people look for that if it helps them to relate and feel closer to others?”

                      The question I was answering was at the bottom of the article which asked what we thought about the idea of compassion. It does seem confusing when the question you are answering is about what the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have said about helping people to relate to other people.

                      Can you maybe clarify what you are saying here about the connection between the issue of compassion and the need to feel closer to others in their relationships by finding commonalities rather than differences?

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                    2. We all want happiness. That is what we all share and what we all have in common, and the Buddhist teachings do direct us to recognise this common ground. HHDL says it often. Anyone saying that Buddhism does not encourage us to see our commonality with others has got it wrong.

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                    3. @ Moonfire, “We all want happiness.” if I recall was a phrase used very often by Sogyal. To me at least, it would seem to risk prioritising at least one of the eight worldly concerns, resulting in the practice of spiritual materialism, they are;

                      hope for happiness and fear of suffering,
                      hope for fame and fear of insignificance,
                      hope for praise and fear of blame,
                      hope for gain and fear of loss;

                      basically, attachment and aversion, this list almost reads as a description of exactly the sort of behaviour we are being critical of in regard to Sogyal’s status as a ‘realised’ Lama.

                      The claim being made here is not that, “…Buddhism does not encourage us to see our commonality with others…” but rather about what happens when you make commonality, or happiness, into a condition for compassion.

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                    4. @Adrian C.

                      What you’re talking about is the Eight Worldly Concerns, which is a related, but separate topic. What I was addressing was simply feeling empathy with others and their wish to be happy and not want suffering. It’s not a precondition for compassion. It’s just being able to empathize with others who want happiness and don’t want to suffer. What’s so hard to grasp about that? If you haven’t heard this discussed in the teachings, then I wonder what sort of teachings you have been listening to.

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                    5. @ Catlover – I have been listening to teachings about dealing with the eight classes of beings and those from all six lokas. That means that when you are dealing with nagas, gyalpos, pretas, etc. it is not so easy to empathise, especially when you feel they are victimising you.

                      Of course one strategy is to consciously remind yourself that they too want happiness and don’t want to suffer, no one is excluding that or saying it is “wrong”, but then once you’ve reminded yourself of that, the next step is to enter into some form of dialogue in order to discover what the issue is, which again is not so easy when dealing with something you have pushed into your shadow side in order to form a sense of identity in the first place.

                      The issue here is circular, as Carl Jung’s explanation of how a shadow self is formed – I push out the shadow side and deny it in order to become ‘me’ in the first place, so by definition, it is a lack of empathy which originally created that division, and which I cling to in order to maintain a sense of identity.

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                    6. @Adrian C.,

                      You are waaaaay over thinking this. I would rather not discuss this any further because it’s just turning into a big philosophical discussion.

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                    7. well, it was quite a small discussion, but people keep asking me to give more details 😀

                      …and of course it is philosophical, due to Buddhism being a philosophy. You should blame the Buddha for that! 😀

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                    8. Actually, it’s gone way outside of just Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. I was trying to be polite and not just say to stop and shut you down, but I have reached the end now. I’m really sorry I posted a comment about this side track because it just doesn’t end. You keep posting things and I keep responding. I no longer wish to continue arguing pseudo philosophy with you. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but I ask you to please respect my wishes and stop. I think we should get back on topic.

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                    9. @Adrian C.,

                      I didn’t mean to bite you, lol! 😀 Sorry for being unfriendly to you. If you want to talk to me about something else, that’s fine with me. I’m not mad and I don’t hate you. 🙂

                      But I don’t want to go around and around debating with people, (regardless of who they are), on philosophy. It’s really tiring for me, but maybe I am just getting old, lol! I am just a cranky, old lady who just doesn’t have the patience for debating philosophy anymore. (Or at least a feel like a cranky, old lady, lol!) You seem a lot younger than me with more energy and passion, and that’s probably a good thing. As for myself, I am very tired and soul weary. All the Buddhist and philosophical over-thinking, (which really used to excite and stimulate me), makes my head hurt these days. I am somewhat bitter and really annoyed at the whole Buddhist establishment right now as well. I feel disappointed in the lamas. It feels like I can’t trust anybody anymore, and I can’t even think about the Dharma as I used to because I associate it with lamas. So, I am not in a good place right now. I hope you can understand.

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    1. ha ha, very funny guy… i like it,— what would the internet be without such sort of people !! 😀

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  7. @Adrian C.

    I am answering your question from the post above:
    “Can you maybe clarify what you are saying here about the connection between the issue of compassion and the need to feel closer to others in their relationships by finding commonalities rather than differences?”

    I think the best way to understand it is to listen to Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh discuss the topic.

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    1. If you are able to feel more compassion for people by focusing on their differences, rather than their similarities, then that’s fine too. There is no right or wrong method of cultivating compassion. The important thing is whether it works for you.

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      1. well yes, I addressed the issue of feeling more compassion for people under the first ‘subject-object’ formulation where compassion does need to be “cultivated”. I also described my understanding of going beyond subject-object position to a point where compassion did not require cultivation.

        That was based upon Chadrakirti’s explanation in Entrance to the Middle Way, which is a commentary on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which itself is a commentary on the Prajnaparamita Sutras.

        I see you have a preference for the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh which you claim is better. It may be better for you, I chose otherwise. 🙂

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        1. Well, having compassion without having to cultivate it would of course be best! I’m sure the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh wouldn’t argue about that. 🙂 But I guess I was assuming that most people (including myself) are just baby beginners, who aren’t on that kind of advanced level yet. 😀

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          1. well, I didn’t realise when I posted, but apparently that book by Chandrakirti is actually one of the Dalai Lamas favourite texts!
            So now you have something big to aim at, hehehe 😀

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    1. @ Catlover – that’s twice now you seem to be unable to stop disagreeing with me but still insist that I be the one to stop – which strangely enough is exactly the point of what I wrote concerning people’s misrecognised boundaries with what should apparently be shared space. There seems to be a pattern emerging here.

      I’m quite happy with a simple disagreement, for some reason you are not. Please take responsibility for this instead of putting it on me.

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  8. @Adrian C.,

    I responded to you above and apologized for being cranky. If you bothered to read it, you’ll see that I am not in a good space now. I explained that already, so why isn’t that enough? I don’t care if you disagree with me. I just don’t want to get into a debate about your opinions. Moonfire is right that people should be able to come here and express an opinion without having to get into a debate with people who disagree. it’s fine to have a different opinion, but it’s tiring when the conversation goes on and on and doesn’t end. AGAIN, I tried to write a final response to you on the subject that would end it on a better note, and then instead of just accepting my apology and explanation, you respond with a defensive post that puts me on the defensive. I just want to stop arguing. Just let it go already. It’s fine with me if you have a different opinion. Why isn’t it okay with you if I just want to give it a rest now and let it go?

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    1. You are not a cranky old woman, Adrian seems to purposely miss the point of what is written and then starts arguing a point that wasn’t made. I also find that frustrating. I have read your posts with great interest and respect, please don’t let a cyber bully discourage you, perhaps a simple there he goes again will suffice.

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      1. @Not so hopeful anymore,

        Thanks for saying I’m not cranky and that you get something out of my posts. (I feel cranky though, lol!) I think the main reason I keep responding back to her, (and others who start debates), is because of exactly what you said. They start arguing about a point I didn’t even say, so in the interest of clarifying, I feel compelled to respond so that people don’t misunderstand what I actually said. It’s not that I have to win an argument, or convince people that I am right. It’s just that I feel the need to straighten out a misunderstanding. It gets tiring when each attempt to clarify leads to yet a new argument, a new debate point being raised, or an even deeper misunderstanding of what I originally said. It gets so complicated that I feel it’s a never-ending circle. That’s why I get frustrated after a while and tell people to just drop it.

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  9. What’s compassion without wisdom?

    A wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.

    But when the wiser ones always give in, the stupid run the world.

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