Practicing the Good Heart

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Tenzin Palmo

Many years ago, His Holiness the Dalai  Lama came to the remote Lahaul Valley in India where I was living. He was there for about one week, giving Dharma talks and empowerments. After one of his talks, which had lasted for several hours, I turned to one of the Lahauli women and asked, “Do you know what he was talking about?”

She said, “I didn’t catch much. But I understood that if we have a good heart, that’s excellent.” And that is basically it, isn’t it? But let’s explore just what we mean by a good heart.

In the West, we have so many material things. But for many of us there is still a profound sense of lack, an emptiness inside, which we are unable to fill. Though we may strive to fill that void with televisions, cars, or houses, the problem is not one of how much or how little we have. Rather it is a matter of whether we believe material possessions will really bring us deep-seated satisfaction. This is actually an advantage for the West: if we can get over our sense of wonder at material possessions, we can begin to see that there is something beyond them. We have this untold wealth within us, and this is what the spiritual path is all about.

There is a need, an urgency now, that we become spiritually mature. Opening to our human potential, believing in it—we have to stand together and support each other. It is not the time to be paranoid and parochial, fearful and insular; it is not the time to close our borders within and without. Fearfulness expresses immaturity. A genuinely adult person is fearless. As was said earlier, bodhisattva means a being who strives for enlightenment out of compassion for the world; in Tibetan, literally a spiritual hero. And we do have to be very courageous to stand up to what is happening around us. We have to support and respect each other’s integrity as human beings,  and we have to use our lives in a way which is genuinely meaningful. Rather than wander around as spiritual beggars, as we normally do, we have to learn how to come back into the spiritual wealth that is within us.

I remember when I lived in Nepal, every morning on my way to visit a lama I would pass an old beggar woman on the worn steps of Swayambhunath Stupa. She was destitute and skinny. I never saw anybody  take care of her, or even come near her, and yet inwardly she seemed very joyful. Smiling, she always greeted me. One morning she looked especially radiant, and I thought, “She is going to die.” And in fact, the next day she was gone. We might well ask, what did she have to be so happy about? Why did she have this inner joy bubbling up?

photo by Juan Antonio Segal

photo by Juan Antonio Segal

During the Cultural Revolution in Tibet, many lamas were sent to prisons and hard labor camps for ten or twenty years or more. They were continu­ally abused, tortured, and interrogated. And by rights, if they had survived, they would have come out completely traumatized, broken, and bitter. No doubt there were Tibetans who went through this experience and came out traumatized. But one can meet with lamas who went through these terrible experiences, and far from being crushed, they are joyful and welling over with an inner happiness. I met a great master of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, the late H.E. Adeu Rinpoche, and said, “Your twenty years in prison must have been very difficult.”

“Oh, no, no. It was just like a retreat!” he said laughing. “Do you know, they even fed us?”

Another lama said to  me, “I am so grateful for that opportunity. I really learned compassion. Before, compassion was a word debated in philosophi­cal schools. But when you’re faced with someone who only wants to harm you, then there is this question of  whether  you fall into  resentment  and fear, or surmount that and have tremendous love and compassion for your tormentor.”

Whatever our external circumstances, in the end happiness or unhappiness depends on the mind. Consider that the one companion whom we stay with, continually, day and night, is our mind. Would you really want to travel with someone who endlessly complains and tells you how useless you are, how hopeless you are; someone who reminds you of all the awful things that you have done? And yet for many of us, this is how we live—with this difficult-to-please, always-pulling-us-around, tireless critic that is our mind. It entirely overlooks our good points, and is genuinely a very dreary compan­ion. No wonder depression is so prevalent in the West!

We have to befriend and encourage ourselves. We have to remind our­ selves of our goodness as well as consider what may need improvement. We have to remember, especially, our essential nature. It is covered over, but wisdom and compassion are ever present. In the West, we so often undercut ourselves because we don’t believe in ourselves. The first time I met His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, in Calcutta in 1965, he said to me within the first ten minutes, “Your problem is that you have no confidence. You don’t believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, who will believe in you?” And  that is true.

Since beginningless time we have been utterly pure and perfect. According to the Buddhist view, our original mind is like the sky. It has no center and no limit. The mind is infinitely vast. It is not composed of “me” and “mine.” It is what interconnects us with all beings—it is our true nature. Unfortunately, it has become obscured by clouds, and we identify with these clouds rather than with the deep blue eternal sky. And because we identify with the clouds, we have very limited ideas regarding who we really are. If we truly understood that from the very beginning we have been perfect, but that somehow confusion arose and covered our true nature, then there would be no question of feeling oneself unworthy. The potential for enlightenment is always here, for each one of us, if we could but recognize it.

Once we acknowledge this, then our words about having a good heart can truly make sense. Because then we are expressing our essential nature through kindness, compassion, and understanding. It is not a matter of trying to develop something that we do not already have. Seeing this through the lens of another  metaphor,  we may feel that opening to our essential nature is as coming back to a pure spring. Inside us, we have a spring of everlasting wisdom and love. It is ever-present and yet it has become blocked, and we feel dry within ourselves,  as dry as the earth can be. Clinging to all  these terribly false identifications, we do not recognize the pure fathomless spring underneath.

photo by Albert Nio

photo by Albert Nio

The point is that when our mind is filled  with generosity and thoughts of kindness, compassion, and contentment, the mind  feels  well. When our mind is full of anger, irritation, self-pity, greed, and grasping, the mind feels sick. And if we really inquire into the matter, we can see that we have the choice: we can decide to a large extent what sort of thoughts  and feelings will occupy our mind. When negative thoughts come up, we can recognize them, accept them, and let them go. We can choose not to follow them, which would only add more fuel to the fire. And when good thoughts come to mind-thoughts  of kindness, caring, generosity, and contentment,  and a sense of not holding on so tightly to things any more, we can accept and encourage that, more and more. We can do this. We are the guardian of the precious treasure that is our own mind.

When the Buddha spoke of the practice of loving-kindness, he said there were two ways in which to engage it. We could send out thoughts of love in all directions–north, south, east, west, up and down and everywhere. Directionless, we radiate loving-kindness to all beings in the world. Or, the Buddha said, we could begin our practice with the people we like–our family, partner, children, friends–over time extending our range to people we feel indifferent toward and then to people we dislike. Eventually our practice of loving-kindness reaches out still further to embrace all beings everywhere. But before doing any of this, the Buddha said that we are to begin our prac­tice by radiating loving-kindness to ourselves. We start by thinking, “May I be well and happy. May I be peaceful and at my ease.”

If we do not first feel that sense of kindness toward ourselves, how are we ever going to be kind to others? We are opening to love and compassion for all sentient beings—humans, animals, insects, fish, birds—beings both  seen and unseen, beings in the higher realms and in the lower realms, beings throughout the universe. All sentient beings are the object of our love and our compassion. So how is it then that we omit the being right here, the one who is opening to this endless love? Practicing like this would be like radiating light while standing in the dark. And that is not right. We must first extend our loving-kindness toward the being who is also in need: oneself. This is very much part of what it means to develop a good heart.

When I was with my own lama, Khamtrul  Rinpoche, I would think he was like a mountain. I mean, he was a big man. But he was like a mountain because he was so unshakable, and I would think, “Even if the sky fell down, Rinpoche could deal with it.” He gave the impression of being completely capable in all situations; nothing could ruffle him. There was a tremendous sense of quiet power. Another student once said to me, “Why is it that when Rinpoche just drinks a cup of coffee it has so much significance, but when we drink it doesn’t  mean  anything?” And it was true!

Once, in a dream, I was in a theatre in the wings. On the stage was a very high throne, and on it was sitting His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. All the spotlights were shining on him. The audience was there.  And  before their eyes he was transforming himself into all the various peaceful and wrathful deities. I remember thinking, “Well, that’s pretty  wonderful,  but it’s a bit ostentatious.” And then I turned, and saw that my lama Khamtrul Rinpoche was also standing in the wings, watching His Holiness. And then as I looked at Khamtrul Rinpoche I saw that inside him were all the deities, while on the outside, he just looked like a lama. He gave me that look which said, “Do understand!” I realized then that it was His Holiness the Karmapa’s activity to show all these wonders. But I also realized that it was Khamtrul Rinpoche’s activity to keep it all hidden. And both were really the same. Each was manifesting his Buddha activity in a different way. So, some lamas are more forthright. Others are very hidden. But it is the quality of their inner realization that counts.

A genuinely good heart is based on understanding the situation as it really is. It is not a matter of sentimentality.

Nor is a good heart just a matter of going around in a kind of euphoria of fake love, denying suffering, and say­ing that all is bliss and joy. It is not like that. A genuinely good heart is a heart that is open and alight with understanding. It listens to the sorrows of the world. Our society is wrong to think that happiness depends on fulfilling one’s own wants and desires. That is why our society is so miserable. We are a society of individuals, all obsessed with trying to obtain our own happiness. We are cut off from our sense of interconnection with others; we are cut off from reality. Because in reality, we are all interconnected.

Let us start from where we are. And let us start with who we are. It’s no good wanting to be somebody else; it’s no good fantasizing about what it would be like if we were this or that. We have to start from here and now, in the situation that we are in. We have to deal with our family and friends and all whom we meet. That is the challenge. Sometimes we avoid our present circumstances and think that surely we will meet with the perfect situation somewhere. But that will never happen. There will never be an  ideal  time and place because we take the same mind with us everywhere. The problem isn’t out there; the problem is usually within us. And so we need to cultivate our inner transformation. Once we have developed our inner change, we can deal with whatever happens.

The Buddha spoke of the truth of suffering  and the cause of suffering. The cause of suffering is grasping. We hold on to things so tightly because we do not know how to hold them lightly. But everything is impermanent. Everything is flowing. Nothing is static or solid. We cannot hold to anything. Holding on causes us so much fear and pain. It is not an expression of love. Love opens the heart. A loving heart expresses, very simply, “May you be well and happy.” It does not say, “May you make me well and happy.” The term “heaven” implies that in the end, all our problems will be forever resolved. But in the Mahayana ideal, our motivation is to perfect ourselves solely that we may become the servant of others throughout eternity. In this light, we may imagine: If there were no great masters in the world, what would beings do? There would be no hope.

I once had a dream in which I was escaping from a very frightening totali­tarian state. Just as I was about to cross the border to a safe and beautiful country, I thought, “How is it that I am able to escape? From my side, I have really done nothing—so what is it that is allowing me to escape like this?” As I looked toward the customs point at the barrier, I saw a man standing there, watching me, and I thought, “It’s him! What is he doing here? He doesn’t even belong to this horrible country. He belongs to that beautiful, free country. He doesn’t have to live here. But if he didn’t, people like me could never get out! It’s because of him that I am free.” I woke up crying and recollected that the man in the dream was my lama, Khamtrul Rinpoche. He was wearing lay clothes, but it was certainly him. I was so overwhelmed by the dream, by the understanding of his incredible kindness and compassion and of what he had to suffer, when he didn’t need to at all. He simply suffered out of com­passion for beings like me who could not manage without him. That is what a high bodhisattva is. They do not need to be in this world—they could just groove it out in some wonderful Buddha Pure Land, but yet they come back here. Bodhisattvas come back to help us out of pure unconditional compas­sion. And this is what we open to within ourselves.

The bodhisattva aspiration leads us to enlightenment, to the fullness of wisdom and compassion, so that we may be of eternal benefit to others. It is a most profound aspiration. One aspires to be a bodhisattva not in order to reach out for the bliss of paradise, heaven, or any kind of pure land, but rather to come back, again and again, in whatever form that will be of benefit to others—wherever there is need. Bodhichitta is the generation of great compassion, which is all-encompassing. It extends to all beings everywhere. Such compassion cannot rest for even one moment in idle bliss and pleasure—it is ever-present for the sake of others. Bodhichitta is expressive of the intercon­nection of all beings. And we are all interconnected.

Our exploration of compassion may seem a bit heavy, but if we look at Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, we can see that he is smiling. All the bodhisattvas are smiling. There are none that are weeping or in anguish. When we meet great lamas and teachers from other traditions, we may note not only their inner tranquility but their radiance! When we are in their presence, we feel peaceful and happy. Although the task of liberating all beings may seem difficult, we learn through our spiritual practice to see the situation as it truly is. As we open to the wisdom and compassion within us, as we open to our inherently empty spacious nature, we find that everything lightens up. Perceiving at a very deep level that it is all just a dream from which we can wake up, we can truly smile.


Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo was one of the first western women to ordain as a nun in the Tibetan tradition. She is an author, teacher, and the founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India.

From Into the Heart of Life, Copyright 2011 by Tenzin Palmo. Reprinted by permission of Snow Lion Publications.

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