Compassion v. attachment to the status quo

This article is part of the series: Is Compassion Happy or Sad?

We are not aiming impossibly high even when we aim for great or universal compassion — the wish to protect all living beings without exception from their suffering — because we already have all the ingredients within us. Compassion is our so-called Buddha seed or Buddha nature, the birthright of every living being. Have you ever felt overwhelming love for someone who is very sick, and the strong wish to scoop them up from suffering? For example a sick child, parent or pet? If you have, this is your Buddha seed at work. Even animals have it — there are umpteen inspiring stories on the Internet about animals unselfishly caring for human beings and each other.

With some understanding of samsara, we can deepen that compassion so that we wish to scoop them our dear friend up not just from this particular sickness, but from samsara in general. Then we can imagine feeling that for everyone, and this gives a wonderful glimpse of what a Buddha feels like, such as the Buddha of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara, with his 1000 arms reaching out to everyone.

However, there is some stuff in the way of our universal compassion at the moment, obstructing its growth. Geshe Kelsang says in Ocean of Nectar (p. 20):

“We all have some compassion, but the compassion we have for our friends and relatives is often mixed with attachment and so is not pure. The scriptures warn us not to mistake attachment for compassion. Pure compassion is unmixed with attachment.”

Compassion is necessarily a virtuous or positive mind, a peaceful, happy mind, and, when we gain Tantric realizations our compassion actually becomes bliss! If our compassion for others doesn’t feel very pleasant at the moment, let alone blissful, the chances are that some sort of attachment is at work. We need to see how the attachment is functioning so that we can root it out.

Attachment is an ignorant, self-centered mind that does not understand where happiness actually comes from and thinks that it is to be found outside the mind, in people or in objects, and so it desires or needs these things to make us happy.

Why do we worry so much more about our own cat or child than other people’s? Yes, love and a sense of responsibility are in the mix, but the worry is not coming from the love (or the compassion) but from the attachment. I think this is worth thinking about.

Attached to the status quo

In her youth, my friend and animal-lover Mal had a Hindu Guru and spent some time in India. The plight of the stray dogs broke her heart and she couldn’t stop worrying about them. One day her Guru told her: “You have too much attachment to those dogs; if you’re not careful you will come back as one.” He was a loving person, and she didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. However, the meaning dawned on her over time, especially, she said, when she met Geshe Kelsang and his teachings.

This comment got me thinking too – what does it mean to be too attached to the animals or human beings we love and care about? How does that obstruct our ability to really help them, let alone cause us to worry unduly and uselessly?

I think part of it is that we are attached to that person in their current form. For example, today I went to the vet with Rousseau, who has inflamed third eyelids, and Dr Smith said: “He may be getting these infections due to having leukemia, caught from your other cat.” I waited ten agonizing minutes for the results, during which time I realized that I still want Rousseau to be beautiful Rousseau, just without inflamed third eyelids and leukemia. And when it comes to beloved children?!….  Parents sometimes say things like “I wish they could stay small forever!” — of course they don’t really mean it, but it perhaps indicates that we do have a wish for the things we like to stay the same.

Are we just wishing people more samsara?!

This attachment to permanence and to impure, or samsaric, bodies results in our being attached to far too small and inferior results for our loved ones at the expense of seeing the larger picture. Spending all our mental energy in preoccupation with each individual suffering as it arises is a distraction if we are not seeing these in the grander scheme of things — as part of a pattern of samsaric suffering that they have been experiencing since begininngless time and will continue to experience if they don’t get out of their samsaric bodies. As I have often heard Geshe Kelsang Gyatso say:

“Temporary liberation from particular sufferings is not good enough”.

It seems to me that we have to want far more for them than just the alleviation of the individual sufferings of this samsaric life as they arise – these sufferings are just some of the never-ending waves on the ocean of samsara. We want the whole ocean of suffering to dry up. We have to desire so strongly for our loved ones to have lasting liberation from all sufferings that each individual suffering motivates us to become a better person, even an enlightened being, so that we can bring this about. We have to keep an eye on their potential for lasting freedom and happiness at all times, even if they are just a small feral cat or a stray Indian dog.

Buddhist compassion works very well as it has within it the solution – even if this solution is big and radical. In fact it has huge implications as we basically want NONE OF IT. All solutions in samsara have to be seen as temporary.

Also, with attachment to samsara we try to patch it up, make it work. Samsara can never be made to work – we’ve been trying to improve it for countless lifetimes and still the waves of the seven sufferings roll in upon us without cease.

Bandaids are useful but they are also just temporary solutions for someone with a constantly erupting skin disease. We need to go deeper and uncover the causes of our loved ones’ suffering – delusions and karma – so we can really help them destroy these causes to bring an end to their suffering. As Kelsang Tsondru said on Facebook, “Hopeless compassion (i.e., which does not see an end to suffering) is a sad mind, whereas hopeful compassion (i.e., which understands the end of suffering) is a happy mind.”

(The same reasoning also goes for dwelling upon our own individual problems one by one, as opposed to using these as a motivator to escape entirely from this prison of samsara while we have the chance.)

Compassion and love are not the same as worry and relief
Click here for Daily Lamrim article on changing suffering

I know I feel relieved when I see, for example, that my cat’s eyelids have slightly improved. But relief comes from tension in the mind, and that is also what has got me thinking — actual compassion is free from tension etc, and love is therefore not that feeling of relief that comes from tension being released. There is nothing wrong at all, of course, with being happy to see others’ free from suffering, quite the opposite, but we can check to see what that happiness consists of and so improve on it. The happy feeling that Rousseau’s eyelids are slowly going back to normal may be partly due to my love wishing him happiness, but also due to changing suffering (arising from attachment) – that brief respite between anxiety about the swollen eyelids and relief about the non-swollen eyelids. This brief respite is only brief – to be replaced with some other worry sooner or later.

Next time, we’ll analyze how self-cherishing fits into all this.

Your turn: do you agree? Do you have any examples?

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

16 thoughts on “Compassion v. attachment to the status quo”

  1. Thank you for this article. When I was younger, before I met Dharma, I always wanted to help living beings but every way we are given (by society) always seemed to fall short and it wasn’t what I wanted to put my time and energy into. I didn’t know why I felt that way and I had a lot of guilt and bad feelings over it. Then when I met Geshe-La I realized that the true way to help all living beings permanently was to become enlightened and I was so happy! This is truly how to help. Feeding hungry people and clothing and sheltering those in need is always a good activity to engage in but we should understand that it is just a bandaid, that for every one you feed there will be countless others that are still hungry etc. Liberate yourself, liberate the world.

  2. I was thinking about this idea prior to my morning meditation on compassion. I believe faith is a strong component in boosting our compassion. I was thinking of a quote from, Transform Your Life, “Faith is like pure eyes that enables us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara”. With faith it seems very possible to see how our Buddhist compassion is helpful in motivating us to create this pure world for the sake of all suffering living beings. This is very big!

    1. Ah, so true. It is why Tantra is also so very helpful for our compassion and bodhichitta, we can see how a pure suffering-free world is possible and even get a taste of it right now, which greatly increases our wish to create it for ourselves and others.

  3. I do agree and I think that when we make the compassion we feel big and vast, for all living beings and for lasting happiness, that helps with making it feel hopeful and sweet, rather than sad. I have a son who is quite ill, and it helps me a lot to realize that this is just one life for him; if he were not suffering in this particular way he would be suffering in another. I pray for him and all 20-something guys to attain everlasting peace, and never to be reborn in samsara again. And I pray that during this very short life he will always have Geshe-la at his heart, and Geshe-la will always watch over him.

    PS. Thank you for the lovely turtle picture! Is it true that Geshe-la once tried to get on an airplane with a tortoise under his robes??

    1. Full of wisdom and grace.

      I haven’t heard about the tortoise story. Maybe it’s the one in the picture 😉

      (I do know that one of Geshe-la’s sisters, who spoke no English, fell asleep on a plane from India and didn’t get off at her connection and ended up somewhere in Eastern Europe… Different story altogether of course, but the plane bit just reminded of it. Geshe-la rolled his eyes and smiled when he heard :-))

  4. Wow! This is a wonderful article! Thanks 🙂 I like how you talk about attachment and compassion with pets. It seems everyone who has a pet has attachment to them and also wishes them to be free from suffering. I have noticed all the physical complications of animals increasing within the past few years. All animals are suffering more within these degenerate times. When I was a child we had dogs and cats it seemed they hardly got sick. Now they have insurance for animals so they can get surgery, medications and such. In an ordinary way it seems like advancement of medical help for pets increasing has brought them good things. We fuss over our pets, giving them organic food that is best for their health yet they still suffer and far worse lately. Do they have more help in these degenerate times or are we causing more problems for them? I suppose it would be their karma. What do you think about this? We can still develop compassion for all living beings trapped in samsara and wish to help them by becoming just like Geshe-la. Then we can really help.

    In the picture of Geshe-la I bet he can see the turtle’s Buddha nature, it is so very blessed to have him holding it. He also can see every living being’s sufferings, giving us so much help every day. We are so blessed to have Geshe-la!!!! 🙂

    1. That’s a good question. When I was young, I only had a few pets because we were travelling to a new country every two or three years, so I don’t know if there is a difference or not and would be interested in hearing what others have to say about it. (I do know that I have been a little dismayed at the high cost of vet visits for even a relatively healthy cat, such that I am wondering about pet insurance myself!)

      (That turtle is like us, a precious human turtle.)

  5. I agree, we want our furry babies to remain as such, and be healthy in this life.
    While I was on retreat recently I dreamt that my fluffy dog Mu had gone to live in Keajra. But I wasn’t happy that he’d gone to a pure land; I was sad that he’d died! When I woke up I could see how short-sighted that was ~ wishing my furby to remain in a dog’s body in samsara. But I still was still worried, and called the pet sitter to check he was OK. Crazy! I wanted to make sure he was safe at home, rather that liberated with the Buddhas. My attachment sure runs deeper than my wisdom at present.

  6. Lovely article.

    I think that Kelsang Tsondru’s comment is spot on. Often we experience some compassion but see no way out of the person for whom we have compassion’s particular suffering. As a result, instead of experiencing the joyful mind of compassion, we may feel sad or depressed and blame compassion, thinking ‘compassion makes me sad, compassion makes me depressed.’ Not so! The reason that we feel sad or depressed is our lack of wisdom: when we understand that all living beings have buddha seed, and that their suffering is only illusory so it is perfectly possible for them to become free from it, our compassion will not make us sad or depressed, it will be the source of much joy, spurring us on to attain enlightenment for the sake of others to lead them to the state beyond sorrow. So if we are ever practising compassion and we don’t end up feeling happy then compassion is not to blame! The problem will probably either be our attachment or our lack of wisdom. Pure compassion conjoined with the wisdom which understands the potential for living beings to be completely freed from their suffering is always a very joyful, hopeful mind. 🙂

  7. Thank you so much for your inspiring article. I am also a catlover by the way. I have had cats almost all my life (I am 72), so there have been many cats I had to bury over the years. I can see this change in me – at first terrible suffering out of attachment when a cat got sick or died, but lately with the help of Dharma my acceptance is getting better, much better. What helped me very much was remembering emptiness.

    1. This puts things in perspective — “there have been many cats I had to bury over the years.” Everyone goes away, as George Carlin would put it.

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