By Dr. Reggie Ray, Spiritual Director at Dharma Ocean, author of The Practice of Pure Awareness, available from Shambhala Publications.

Dharma Ocean Explains Love and Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist meditative journey unfolds in several major developmental stages, called “yanas” or vehicles. Each contains its own distinctive perspectives, practices, and realizations. In the early stages, the meditator focuses on personal, individual meditation practice as the foundation of the entire spiritual journey. At a certain point, however, one’s perspective begins to broaden with a growing awareness of the nature and the suffering of others and the inspiration to somehow be of benefit to them. This marks the moment when one would enter the Mahayana, the Yana, or “vehicle,” of Love and Compassion.

In an entirely natural way, as we practice meditation, and open up, slow down, and become more grounded, we find ourselves increasingly aware of “the others;” we realize that we are deeply, deeply connected with everything. We see that we are already in a relationship with other people, animals, nature, and the whole world, and the rest of the journey will be discovering and deepening that sense of connection and learning how best to respond to it. You and quasar billions of light-years away — you’re on the same journey. Everything is alive, everything is always changing and evolving, including the entire universe itself. We’re all in this thing we call “being” together. You and a black hole, you and an exploding star, not to mention you and everything in this world or you and an atom or a subatomic particle — we’re making the same incredible voyage toward fulfilling who and what we are.

The Mahayana begins to expand this vast sense of how connected we are with all these living others; it opens up the tenderness of the heart, and the sense of sympathy for everyone and everything that suffers, which is everything that is — “All our relations,” as the Lakota say. It’s very beautiful, and we have a whole set of practices around awakening to this reality.

When we enter the Mahayana, we are committing ourselves to see, experience, and feel things from the viewpoint of an open heart. This is what the Bodhisattva vow means. It sounds very simple, but it requires a lot of work. It’s not some kind of romantic idea of compassion or loving people. When you do the challenging work of truly opening your heart, you enter a space of tenderness and vulnerability. Then you see others as they are, and by seeing them, you cannot help but love. You feel a sense of warmth, kindness, understanding, and empathy toward them — and in fact, as the Mahayana path unfolds, you might almost feel a sense of identity, in the sense that you know exactly what’s going on with them because you sense and feel it quite directly.

Over time, we develop our capacity not simply to feel with our heart but to come into proximity with what we call the knowledge of the heart, which is completely embodied. It’s physical, it’s emotional, and in a very deep way, it’s cognitive.

The heart knows what the thinking mind can’t know. This is a capacity that has largely atrophied in most modern people. We need to learn how to see and sense and feel and know through the heart, and this begins in earnest with the bodhicitta practices. It’s a gradual waking-up of the capacities of the heart. What makes the heart’s way of knowing not just superior, but ultimate is this — in the heart, there is no disconnection and no abstraction. The heart knows the “other,” each specific, particular “other,” in its fully embodied completeness, its utterly intense livingness, and its unfathomable journey.

We need to overcome the ideas of sentimentality and romanticism that people in Western culture often associate with the heart as if the heart is a sort of purely feeling organ. In fact, that’s not accurate. The heart is our deeper knowledge. The heart knows in a way that’s entirely objective and operates independently of the ego. The heart is the highly sensitive and attuned dimension of our overall body as the Buddha-nature. When we talk about experiencing the world within the big space, we’re talking about the heart. It’s the heart that is the organ of knowledge — of seeing and comprehending — of the big space.

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About Dharma Ocean

Dharma Ocean is a global educational foundation in the lineage of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, focusing on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, who are genuinely pursuing their spiritual awakening. Dharma Ocean provides online courses, study resources, guided meditation practice, and residential retreats at Blazing Mountain Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.