Awakening Compassion
Writings | Training


“At the core is compassion and emptiness.” This key phrase from the Tibetan mahayana tradition says that compassion is as fundamental to our being as the indefinability of being itself and that the open, fluid, and inexpressible quality of being is itself compassion. We could paraphrase the Heart Sutra to read:

Compassion is emptiness, emptiness is compassion; other than emptiness there is no compassion, other than compassion there is no emptiness.

In the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, we find the fundamental relationship of compassion and our own mind explained in terms of essence, nature, and expression: mind is empty, this emptiness is brilliant clarity, and the clarity/emptiness expresses itself as compassion.


However most of us are painfully reminded on a daily basis how limited our actual expression of compassion is. The confusion of limited awareness, dualistic thinking, emotional turbulence and conditioned behavior prevents our fundamental awareness from expressing itself. We have no choice but to work hard to penetrate these layers of confusion.

Among the many Buddhist approaches to compassion, one method stands out as special: taking and sending. Originating in Buddhist India it came to Tibet via Indonesia in the eleventh century. Preserved and practiced there for almost a thousand years, it came to America in the early 1970s and has since spread from the Tibetan tradition into the work of other teachers such as Joanna Macy, Jack Kornfield, and in the writings of Ken Wilber and others. Books in English which describe the practice are The Great Path of Awakening (Shambhala), Advice from a Spiritual Friend (Wisdom) and The Wisdom of No Escape (Shambhala).

The principle is as simple as it is counter-intuitive: take the pain of others and give our own happiness in exchange. Suicide?! Ironically, it cuts through, wears away, and undermines the four levels of confusion mentioned above. Conditioned behavior and perceptions are radically altered through an appreciation of what we have and what we can give to others. Emotional turbulence is reduced as we find ourselves capable of being present non-reactively with pain and unpleasantness. Dualistic thinking is derailed and we find ourselves simply present with others. And, strangest of all, we find our understanding of mind becoming clearer and clearer.

As the great nineteenth century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul says in words which are strikingly relevant for our own times:

While the methods found in other teachings may not be effective in disturbing times, for the practitioner of this form of mind-training the practice grows in power as adverse conditions increase, just as the flames of a fire become stronger and stronger as more and more wood is piled on.

As taking and sending takes hold within us, we find ourselves deeply committed to waking up completely in order to help others, a commitment which is formalized in the Bodhisattva Vow, the vow of an awakening being. This vow, to use a traditional phrase, is wonderful in the beginning, in the middle and in the end: in the beginning because such a positive attitude is a tremendous impetus in our practice; in the middle, because the effect of the vow is to show us how to cut deeper and deeper into conditioned and confused mental patterns; and in the end, because we become an instrument of reality and help others by being simply what we are.


As compassion deepens, we find ourselves developing a nobility of the heart. Increasingly, and often to our surprise, we respond to difficult situations with calmness, clarity and directness. A quiet fearlessness or confidence is present as we no longer fear that we will compromise our own integrity. We find, too, a joy, a joy which arises from the knowledge that our every act is meaningful and helpful to the world.