For True Happiness to Arise, Compassion Is Necessary

This world has gone through quite a lot lately, and there have been a lot of changes in the world. These changes are inevitable––it’s a natural process. And at the same time our human culture and civilization has continually changed and evolved so much throughout the centuries. If you think back, from the time of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, to the Age of Enlightenment and so on, the world has changed so much. And it is still changing.

All of these changes we experience in our culture are driven by our basic heart of desire, isn’t that right? We have the desire to make our little world a little better, to make our little world a little more peaceful and prosperous. Based on that desire we have started and executed all kinds of changes. If someone from the Middle Ages came here today they wouldn’t recognize this world, they wouldn’t know what to do. Even from the 1980s and 90s up until now, it has changed so much.

The outer world has changed so much, but one thing hasn’t changed––our mind, our desire to be happy, our desire to be free, our desire to be peaceful and prosperous. That hasn’t changed, from the Middle Ages until now. If someone arrived here from that time period, they would recognize this desire right away. Because it’s still exactly the same as it has always been throughout history. The desire to be happy.

There is one thread that has remained constant throughout the centuries. One thing. The one thread that continues is the mind. This mind that is seeking happiness, love and joy. This mind that is seeking some kind of comfort and enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with that from the mundane point of view. And from the spiritual point of view there is also nothing wrong with that––it’s absolutely fine. We each have the right to seek happiness.

When the search for happiness becomes an obsession

We do everything for happiness, don’t we? For happiness we engage in all kinds of scientific developments. All of them are seeking some kind of truth that will free us, some truth that will make our lives happier.

I went to New York City in the 80s. Some friends told me something called a “personal computer” was going to be coming out soon. They said that this computer would do so many things for us, that it would give us a lot more free time. “It’s much faster!” they said. “It will take over so many boring tasks so that we won’t have to do those things, and we’ll have more time. It’ll be great!”

It would have been nice, wouldn’t it, if that had actually happened?

We do so many things like this. We develop different technologies, we draft new business plans. We create various corporations. The original motivation is always the same. The original form of trade was very nice, you know. It was only intended to bring happiness. For example, in Tibet the farmers had barley flour, and the nomads had cheese. The farmers said to the nomads, “I will give you some barley flour, tsampa,” and the nomads said, “OK, I will give you some cheese.” Now we have a big global economy, and it’s growing bigger and bigger all the time.

Even someone who has a golden parachute is doing things for the sake of happiness. If you think about it, they are not such bad people. They are just doing things to be happy, but with a distorted view. In the same way, all of military science is also intended to bring about some kind of happiness. But they didn’t really think carefully about it. Sometimes what we do to seek happiness causes suffering for others. A person may put so much more importance on their own underlying wish to be happy, that they end up completely disregarding others’ happiness and safety.

So what’s missing here? Knowledge. The knowledge that everything we do is part of the desire to be happy. We’ll do anything for happiness––even get married. Or we may even become celibate for the sake of happiness.

But here’s where the trouble starts. In that process of seeking, we become completely obsessed with that search for happiness, or search for truth. We become so consumed with it, that our desire for happiness becomes wrong action. And with that wrong action comes suffering. In this way, so much suffering in the world is perpetrated by humankind.

Humanity––we––are creating suffering. But again, that’s not our original intention. We must remember that. Our original intention is only to create happiness. But of course, now we can see that we’ve gone too far. We’ve crossed the line by bringing happiness only to a certain group of people at the cost of bringing suffering and pain to others.

We want to change this world, but where do we start?

These days our world situation presents us with a great many challenges that are not easily resolved. But at the same time, if we don’t try––if we don’t start somewhere––these challenges will never be resolved. For example, on my first visit to a city on the East Coast in Canada, the bay was very polluted. Sewage and all kinds of materials were going into the bay and causing so much damage to the beings living there.

They started cleaning the bay, and I wondered, “The pollution is so extensive––is it really possible to clean it up?” But I went back a few years later, and now that area is clean. But if you look at India where I was born, we’ve been trying to clean the Ganges River for probably the last 2500 years. Everyone’s talking about how we need to clean it up but no one is really doing any cleaning. Or it isn’t happening in a systematic way.

So our world situation definitely can be changed over time, even if that change is not easy to accomplish. Of course, it’s important to remember that it is not just up to you as an individual. It is a group effort. With everyone helping it is possible to change this world for the better. And then we can have a more peaceful mind.

What do we usually do when we hear about all of the challenges in the world? Usually we feel a certain anxiety or fear. We feel, “Somebody must take action to change this!” It’s not working––the political system or the economic system is not working––and we feel it must change.

I saw a cartoon where someone is giving a motivational speech, saying, “If you think we need to change, raise your hand,” and the whole audience’s hands are up in the air. Then in the next frame of the cartoon that person says, “Everyone who’s willing to change, please raise your hand.” No hands are up!

This shows why we cannot change. We just keep looking around at each other saying, “Something must be changed. Somebody has to do something.”

On the other hand, when these challenges or hardships become personal to us––when they begin to directly affect our lifestyle or our neighborhood––we become more ready and willing to contribute to a solution. Until it affects us directly we can become complacent and a little bit lazy.

Paying Attention to Suffering in a Way That Helps

So therefore, we need to pay attention to the situation of our world today, even when it’s not something that’s happening in your neighborhood. And we do pay attention. But sometimes the way we pay attention becomes a bit misleading for us. Because when we see people undergoing hardship, suffering and pain, we usually only focus on the material aspects of that suffering. And when you focus too much on that material suffering, you can get depressed.

We can get emotional, we can get very upset when focusing only on the material world. But our upset doesn’t actually help solve anything. In fact, when we get so upset we risk becoming one more element contributing to the world’s turbulence.

We miss the opportunity to pay attention in a helpful way when we focus only on the material aspects of someone’s suffering. Maybe they lack food or clothing, housing, and other such things. Or when a tragic shooting takes place, we focus on these guns and bullets and so on. We focus on material objects.

But the real focus here, in my opinion, and from my understanding of dharma, needs to be on the person, not on the materials involved. There is a person there––someone is suffering, or someone was hurt or killed. Of course the material elements do play a part in this world of pain, but simply focusing on that is not very beneficial in the end. I’ll tell you why.

Remembering Our Human Connection with Others

When we focus only on the material world, we end up focusing only on the labels we have for each other. Then we are not really able to connect with each other simply, as two human beings. We look at each other and see only a religious label, or a socio-economic label. We see the label of pain or deficiency, but in the end there’s no basic human-to-human contact and connection. And this is a bit of a problem.

All of our electronic gadgets seem to make the problem worse. Doesn’t that make it quicker and easier to send someone a nasty email, rather than say something a little more calmly by snail mail? I heard of someone who broke up with their partner on Facebook. They just changed their Facebook profile to say “I’m single.” There’s something really missing there, you know. Basic human connection, the basic human heart, is missing there.

This is similar to when you send a nasty email––you don’t even think that someone is on the other end receiving that email. You just type it out and then send it without much thought. But if you really want to do it that way, could you please do it through video chat? It’s more humane. At least then you can see the other person crying. We forget, don’t we, that there’s a person there. There’s a sentient being there, receiving our nasty message and feeling pain while reading those words.

It’s important for us not to lose this perspective. There’s a person there, someone who is suffering. There’s a person who is hurt, a living being. When we connect with someone human to human, heart to heart, seeing each other as two vulnerable beings––then we can see that we have more similarities than differences. We have more in common than we thought.

Restoring Our Human Connection: An Exercise

The next time you hear about a disturbing event or tragedy, try this:

1. Pause a moment to remember that every being wants to be happy and is striving for that. Even the most unskillful or destructive actions are simply bad strategies cooked up to fulfill this desire for happiness.

2. Consider your first reaction to hearing the bad news. Did your mind get started creating a story about it? What labels did you place on the situation or the people involved? You may want to write these down to get a good look at them.

3. Think of the people involved, whether victim or perpetrator or bystander. Consider the suffering of each point of view. Hold each point of view in your mind for a moment. Do this as objectively as you can, without referring to any favored storyline or label.

4. What happens when you do this? Write or sketch whatever you noticed.


This article includes teachings given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in a public talk in Rotterdam, Netherlands on October 19, 2017.