compassion empowered

The other day I had the great opportunity to present the practice of compassion to my students in middle school and high school.  We discussed the daring it takes to open the door to others, to just bring other people into our awareness.  Beginning with a sense of trust in our beings, we brought to mind other people and animals that we care about and extended a sense of love and well being to them.  Then we thought of someone who is suffering– from illness, injury, depression, loss, or just a bad mood– and we extended relief and joy to them.  We discussed how common it is for people to avoid thinking of people in suffering–how it’s often seen as depressing or morbid.  Turning it around we imagined being in a state of suffering ourselves and how we would feel if the people in our life said, “I don’t want to think about that- it’s depressing.”  It was a good session.  The students responded well and the atmosphere we created held the process so that there was engagement and respect.

The skills of the heart, kindness and compassion, are feelings, so can’t exactly be taught, but they can be suggested and hinted at.  As feelings, they are ephemeral, and can seem weak and naive. If they are to become active principals in shaping our culture, they need to be empowered.


Here is a story about that.  Padmasambhava is known as the great tantric master who established Buddhism in Tibet.  According to the story, the Tibetan King, Trisong Detsen first invited a wonderful teacher named Shantarakshita from India to establish the spiritual doctrine.  Tibet in those days was a wild place, full of fierce people, shamanic traditions, and feral spirits.  Shantarakshita, a wise and benevolent monk, supported by the King, established a monastery and taught the wisdom of Buddha, emphasizing kindness and compassion.  However, the native forces thwarted his efforts, destroying the monastery each time it was built.

Shantarakshita was no slouch. He knew his stuff and is renowned as one of the greatest masters of the tradition. But by himself, even with his extraordinary training and knowledge, he was unable to tame the negative energies he was up against.

Shantarakshita acknowledged that he needed help.  He advised the king to invite the great master, Padmasambhava to come from India.  He knew that Padmasambhava had a quality that had been missing, the element of power.  Padmasambhava wasn’t just a teacher, he was like a force of nature.  He didn’t align himself with any side. He wasn’t even “kind,” he was just real. With great wisdom and magical power he tamed the demonic forces of Tibet and enlisted them into the service of protecting and upholding the teachings.  He didn’t merely introduce an alternative possibility into Tibet, he transformed the culture itself so that it could truly embrace and express the principals of compassion.

How can we bring power to our principals, so that they can be known, trusted, and alive, even when we are surrounded by the demonic momentum of prejudice and materialism in our culture?  How do we not only teach, but transform?



noticing others

rat gabe








When we’re mired in our thoughts, revolving around self-doubt, competition, or project mentality, we don’t actually see others, though we may interact with them. Really seeing others takes turning our fixation inside out.  Considering another person and how they may feel in the context of what’s going on, we open up.  Suddenly we notice the way they’re sitting. We’ve been determined to communicate our thoughts, but suddenly we see that our tone of voice is berating.  We’ve been annoyed by their bouncy distraction, but suddenly we realize that it’s been raining for a week and today it’s sunny–they feel energized.  With a slight shift we become inquisitive.  We acknowledge that other people’s experience arises in context.  It’s made up of many ingredients and elements, many of which are invisible to us.  In addition to whatever is happening in the slice of time they are encountering us in, they are also living the whole vastness of their lives.

Project mentality is when we either don’t remember that, or when we don’t care about it because we have things to get done.  This is not to say we should always set aside our projects and just have endless process groups.  We do have things to get done, and we may decide to push ahead, even on the sunny day.  What is important is that we release our fixation and jump into the lake of others.  This inner shift may or may not change our plans, but it will dramatically change the feeling in the way we carry them out.

educating the sky

little princeChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a text on how to educate a prince, someone who would grow up to be a wise, compassionate, skilful, and joyous leader.  The text states that the prince’s education should occur in an environment free of jealousy and competition, and that those who raise the prince should not think in terms of raising a child in a conventional sense.  Rather, they should take the attitude that they are educating the sky.  Then the prince will begin to have inquisitiveness toward the world, developing wonder about the details and processes of things.

Every student is a prince or princess, an heir of the royal family of human dignity, and a potential ruler of future society.  They possess a mind that is vast as the sky, and a heart that is pure, oceanic, and delicate as a drop of rain.  These qualities of mind and heart exist within all of us.  They may have largely been forgotten, but they’ve never been lost.  A true holistic education is one that fosters the rediscovery and blossoming of these qualities as well as the teaching of knowledge and skills.

The basis for this approach is innate goodness, knowing the students to be good, worthy in themselves, holders of true dignity, and worthy of great care and attention.  This is not to say that they are entitled to special treatment, or that they should be pampered and spoiled.  Trungpa Rinpoche’s text also emphasizes great discipline.  But discipline, learning, and the entire realm of education can be practiced as an appreciation and support of goodness.  Rather than beginning from the perspective of a problem to be remedied, we take an extraordinary leap of kindness, and hold the view of confidence in the natural perfection of human beings.

It is the student’s sense of this goodness, and its manifestation as self-respect, that becomes the fertile soil for the cultivation of the full human being, what we call education.  As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, “emphasizing human dignity as an educational foundation brings to students an inherent respect for themselves.  The transfer of knowledge can then occur, and the discovery of wisdom is appreciated, which leads us to acknowledge the worthiness of others.  If we doubt our own dignity, no matter how much education we receive, we will always feel inadequate.” (Shambhala Principle, pg. 180)

In our capitalist, credential-oriented culture it is often the assumption that respect and worthiness are conditional, to be granted upon success.  The successful student learns to view their self-respect as earned, as opposed to inherent- it is the product of their choices, intelligence and hard work.  The worthiness of others is then measured by their degree of success.  Lack of success in others is simply a reflection of the level of worthiness they chose to earn.  Conversely, planting the experience of “failure” in the soil of unworthiness yields further crops of self-doubt.  In either case there is inadequacy, either of compassion or of confidence, as we have begun with a foundation of mistrust in our beings.

Teachers tend to be immensely practical, and this approach of great trust in human nature may seem naive or excessively philosophical.  However, many teachers were inspired by a teacher they had who showed great faith in them, even if they themselves had lost heart or felt unworthy.  What we see in our students and what we assume about them, not just about what they can do, but about who they are on the deepest level, determines everything that follows.  It is a matter of the greatest practicality.