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The Tender Armour of Compassion

It’s been a brutal week for the world – attacks and counter-attacks, death of the innocent, drought, earthquakes, fire and pollution. When people are terrified, they close down, and protect themselves and their families at the expense of others, and at the expense of the planet. I still believe, though, that ‘an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair’ (Monbiot, 2014) and that choosing where to focus our attention can help to sustain us as we engage with global challenges, in a way that is informed by wisdom. During the retreat I’ve been attending at the Tara Rokpa Centre, I heard a quote that touched me deeply:

“In order to help all living beings in their seemingly unavoidable suffering, we put on the tender armour of compassion… for all living entities, seen and unseen.” His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, from ‘Taming the Tiger’ by Akong Tulku Rinpoche

The retreat challenged us to identify and acknowledge with self compassion the afflictive emotions (or mind poisons) that all human beings experience. Whether hatred, arrogance, competitiveness, addiction, or stupidity, we all experience their crippling effect, yet try our best to hide from them or ignore their existence within us. They become an ever-present shadow, hiding behind us, out of view.

I practised saying inside my head, “I am angry, I am arrogant, I am ignorant, I am greedy, I am jealous” to see which phrase made my skin-crawl with discomfort. I often meet my anger, especially when feeling powerless in the face of bureaucracy. I know I am competitive, and have appreciated its benefits to my life along the way, as well as the humiliation of losing. I certainly know that I am stupid, and am constantly amazed by how I miss things that could have helped me act more skillfully in certain situations. Greed too carries me along from one chocolate brownie to the next.

Our teeny warrior mantis – fighting with prayers

It was arrogance where I felt the knife stick in deeply. I suddenly recognised how my pride holds me stuck in certain views about issues or about other people. So, I thought, I’d make myself an ‘arrogant’ badge, and wear it for a day, treating myself with self-compassion and taking full ownership of my prideful self. And slowly I could see that by acknowledging these unskilful aspects of myself, I could also be more understanding of others, when they revealed them too. Once I could say these things out loud, they no longer had the same power of secrecy and shame over me. We are all in this same human boat, rocked by the waves of unskilfulness, however hard we try to be perfect!

At the root of these teachings on the ‘mind poisons’ is a deep trust in our ability to transform these poisons into the energy of wisdom. There is an ounce of hope! When we can step back from an egocentric view of the world, we can act in the interests of a wider humanity. We move from our small-mindedness, to the perspective of a broad mind, and finally expand into the spaciousness of a vast mind.

When we are able to experience the energy of anger and hatred, without the contraction around our egocentric sense of self, we can use this energy to gain clarity, or ‘mirror-like wisdom’. This is a powerful force for activist work, especially for something as huge as the well-being of the planet. We need to be sustainable within ourselves, fuelled by clarity and insight, rather than burning out too soon, fuelled by anger. When we are entrenched in a particular extreme view, and believe it is the only right view, our arrogance leads us to use power over others, in snow-balling levels of unskilfulness. Once we acknowledge this pride or arrogance, it can transform into the wisdom of equality where we see we are all human (with different talents and roles maybe), yet with an equal footprint on the world. Our greediness can be revealed as the wisdom of discernment, while jealousy miraculously becomes all-accomplishing wisdom. Ignorance, of course, is the hardest to see through, as we do not know what we do not know, but with practice (lifetimes, no doubt) it too can transform into the highest form of enlightened wisdom that we see in spiritual leaders such as the Karmapa, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. They see through the short-sightedness of war, the exploitation of the planet, and invite us to connect firstly with ourselves, then with others around us, and with the living planet, with the tenderness of compassion. It may be time to fight, but not with guns and bombs, with wisdom and insight into the causes of these misunderstandings between people.

The Five Buddha Families: teachings on the mind poisons, antidotes and wisdom energies

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