Talk Categories Compassion | Talk Locations Harvard University

Empathetic Visualization and Practice of the Bodhisattva Path

It is amazing that such a short and brief talk can contain nearly all the essence and primary parts of Bodhicitta teaching. Having empathy for all other living beings to help them to achieve enlightenment, is a key aspect of Buddhism. Developing the altruistic mind, or the practice of Bodhicitta, as it is known in Buddhism, is one of the fundamental Buddhist practices. No matter what you’d like to know: the way of learning Bodhicitta, or the benefit of practicing, or the relation between this Empathetic practice and other aspects of your life…here you’ll easily find the answer.


“Given the current situation of the global village, we are becoming closer and closer to one another by virtue of technology, so we can reach spiritual unification and equality among us. I believe that in this world, any religious or non-religious people should not be self-centered and blindly exclude other religions, and especially those whose teachings are logically reasonable. It is essential that we learn from one another.”

Speech by Khenpo Sodargye

Tibetan Culture: a Treasury of World Culture

Speech from the Host

Good evening. Welcome everybody! On behalf of the Harvard Buddhist Community and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC), I’d like to thank everybody for coming out for this event that has been co-promoted by those two entities here on the Cambridge site. My name is John Winter. I am one of the co-leaders of Harvard Buddhist Community. We’re really excited to have Khenpo Sodargye join us today.

I was thinking maybe to start, pretty much everyone in this room is aware that we’ve already had a couple of pretty horrendous events that just struck Boston. Two explosions went off on the finish line at the Boston Marathon. I thought maybe we could take a moment of silence for some prayer and meditation to send our hearts out to the victims, their families and the people who are grieving.


Thank you. I was thinking we could put forth our intention to the work that we are doing here and also the work that we are doing in our lives. This talk tonight will be adding a drop in a bucket of water that is helping to bridge the kinds of divides that cause this sort of violence in the first place.

Tonight we have Khenpo Sodargye visiting us from Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sertar County of Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province. Khenpo Sodargye, a native of Drango in Kham, is a leading Buddhist teacher, a writer, a public intellectual and a live ethicist. As one of the original disciples of the late Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, he continues to transmit the teachings of the Nyingmapa beyond Tibet. Currently in the Chinese language speaking world, Khenpo Sodargye has over one million followers.

The body of his teachings is a modern Tibetan Buddhism in the making. While Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Neten Chokling Rinpoche and the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche are the icons of modern Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Khenpo Sodargye’s students see him as playing a similar role in China.

He’s imparting what he calls the Tibetan Code of Happiness to the Chinese society in his latest best-selling book, Living through Suffering. According to him, the system of this coded message of happiness is nothing mysterious but a science of spirituality, a neologism he uses to represent the teachings of the Buddha with a contemporary flavor.

Tonight, Khenpo will be speaking to us about the empathetic visualization of other as self on the Bodhisattva path. The dialectic of self and other is a philosophical proposition throughout human societies. Both the objective and subjective distances between self and other complicate the relational but puzzling identity, as the individual perceives simultaneously as the self and the other. This leads to the question, is self the same as the other when the individual embodies both? Tibetan Buddhism has a long philosophical tradition addressing this ancient human puzzle.

And now, without any further delay to help enlighten us on this ancient human puzzle, I would like to turn it over to Khenpo Sodargye. So please help me welcome Khenpo!

My Story with Harvard Dates Back 20 Years

I am given the opportunity by Professor Jenny Gyatso from the Harvard Buddhist Community to give a speech here today. I am deeply grateful for this and would like to say Tashi Delek to everyone present. This is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to visit this university. However, it is my second visit to Boston. In 1993, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche came to Boston and gave lectures in the Shambhala Buddhist Center of Trungpa Rinpoche and the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. At that time, I accompanied my guru here and I was quite young.

I have experienced so many feelings since I arrived here yesterday afternoon. The clothes which I am wearing today were given to me by Khenpo Namdrol from India. When we were in Hong Kong on the way back home, we purchased this shirt there; it was roughly twenty years ago. These clothes are still with me and I always wear them. Yet my guru, His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, has already passed away ten years ago. As a result, I continue to experience different kinds of feelings.

There are so many teachings given by Lama Rinpoche, such as those related to Tibetan culture, morality and the Dharma, which are always on my mind. On the one hand, as Buddhism teaches us, everything is impermanent. Whether pertaining to our outer material world or to the inner realm of sentient beings, nothing is permanent. For example, although all of you here today are full of vigor and all the aspects of your life are satisfactory, all things coming together will end in separation. This form of impermanence shadows all of you, as well as me. Hence, studying and reflecting on the Dharma is of the utmost importance.

On the other hand, Harvard University is a famous world class learning institution. The professors and students here are building a formidable foundation of lasting intellect. So I am humbled to teach to such an honored audience. Having said that, I have prepared a lecture covering the nuances of altruistic Bodhicitta in Buddhism. I firmly believe that it includes the foremost thought oriented practices in this world. I have every confidence in it. So I’m very happy to be able to discuss this topic with everyone. I’m really pleased.

Tibetan Culture: a Treasury of World Culture

I’ve been studying since my childhood and have faithfully paid extensive attention and devotion to Tibetan culture and Buddhism. It is not because I am a Tibetan that I praise Tibetan culture and religion. Now the Tibetan population is very small in the world, around 6 million, just comparable to the population of a big city. However, throughout history, as stated by many wise scholars, if we gathered all the great books from previous Tibetan masters, comparing the ratio between the number of the writings and the populations of other nations around the world, such a proportionately great number of books would have only existed among Tibetans. This is admitted by the scholars at Harvard University as well as other noted intellectuals around the world. We consider this something of a marvel.

An outstanding number of books on Tibetan Buddhism and culture have been collected by scholars here at Harvard and many other universities in the US. Currently the quantity of these books number about 17,000 in the TBRC alone, which has become a treasury of world culture. Nowadays, many teachers and scholars here have collected many shastras from Tibetan wise men and have broadly propagated these books through the internet and other convenient communication technologies. I hereby highly appreciate all of you in that regard.

Ultimately I believe that Tibetan culture not only belongs to the Tibetan people, but also to all humanity. I visited the University of Gottingen a few days ago. Although that city is very small, forty or fifty people there have won the Nobel Prize. At that institute during a lecture, I stated that, although the area of Tibet is very small, we have an abundance of Tibetan wise men whose wisdom may be comparable to that of any noted wise man in the world.

Summing up the fundamental teaching of Buddhism, it is the sublime mind of compassion that matters most. The essence of Buddhism is the sublime compassionate mind. For anyone who possesses such a mind, he or she has reached a high-level state of realization. If one always thinks about helping others first, this person must possess great wisdom and morality. If one is never thinking about benefiting others, regardless of one’s fame or wealth, his or her life would be meaningless.

Bodhicitta: the Essence of Buddhism

Buddhism in Academia: What to Improve?

Whether considering Tibetan Buddhism or Buddhism in general, it is very vast and profound. Insofar as the practice is concerned, I’d like to talk about one of the practices of Bodhicitta, which is the exchange of self and others.

Today when talking with professors and students here, I have found that there are many important Buddhist texts here, such as The Words of My Perfect Teacher, The Way of the Bodhisattva, The Life of Milarepa, the collected works of Jigme Lingpa and so on. So many professors and students have paid great attention to and studied these books.

I am not sure about your research methods here. However, I can safely say that the research methods in universities are different from the Tibetan traditional way of listening, reflecting and meditating. According to Tibetan tradition, when we study dharma, such as learning The Way of the Bodhisattva, firstly, we should know the contents of the text; afterwards, we should be cultivating the altruistic mind and let it infuse in our mind; finally, we should apply the concepts in our daily life.

Presently, some scholars in the East and the West have only focused on theoretical study. Relevant topics involve the equality of men and women, the artistic features and purposes of texts, which century an author is from, the differences between one author and others, what his writing style is, and so on. The research in western academia mostly compares the contents of texts by judging whether these mesh with science or not. This is the prevalent way of doing research.

Generally speaking, in Tibetan tradition, the methods of observation and analysis are also very important. However, they are not the only thing being focused on. Currently some scholars only focus on picking others’ faults while not observing themselves. For example, they only analyze whether an article meets a particular standard. However, when it relates to their own mind, such as the concept of the altruistic mind, they might only analyze whether others have an altruistic mind and what status it plays in traditional culture, yet they themselves likely never practice altruism. Also some teachers and students in some universities have traditionally paid less attention to practice. This is a noteworthy phenomenon. Personally, I believe that just relying on theoretical study and research is not sufficient to understand the meanings of sutras and even the history.

Bodhicitta: the Essence of Buddhism

It is essential to have faith and practice in Buddhism. If we summarize the Buddhist teachings, wisdom and compassion are the main two aspects. I will not discuss wisdom today due to lack of time. One thing to be noted is that, since there is a concept of emptiness in Buddhism, some Westerners believe Buddhists are not active but negative in their lives, as they believe everything is empty. This is entirely untrue. Through scientific research, such as quantum physics, we know that, just as the famous scientist Einstein once said, no matter how science develops and to what extent, it may need to correspond to Buddhist wisdom. You may investigate it further. Nevertheless, I firmly believe it holds true.

Regarding the concepts of emptiness in relation to science, such as brain science, neurobiology and psychology, I have been studying them for a long time. During an extensive period of translating and writing, I realize that the Buddhist teachings indeed elaborate on these issues in a very perceptive manner. This is true for Buddhist Logic, the Middle Way as well as the knowledge of mental phenomena. If you deeply study them, you will surely gain a new understanding and insight.

Now, I would like to talk about how to practice the exchange of self and others in Bodhicitta teaching. In The Ornament of Clear Realization, it is said that generating Bodhicitta is to seek for complete perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is an extremely profound teaching in Buddhism. Today, we’ll mainly talk about the practice of giving one’s own happiness to others and alternately absorbing the suffering of others as best you can. If you are unable to contemplate this process, then try alternative ways to relieve others’ suffering as best you can. That’s the main topic we are talking about today.

As the old Tibetan saying goes, “Put others where you are and put yourself where others are.” Although it sounds like an ordinary and simple saying, the complexity is that we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes, since ultimately what we want is also desired by others and what others want is desired by us. Such a manner of thought is quite meaningful.

Summing up the fundamental teaching of Buddhism, it is the sublime mind of compassion that matters most. The essence of Buddhism is the sublime compassionate mind. For anyone who possesses such a mind, he or she has reached a high-level state of realization. If one always thinks about helping others first, this person must possess great wisdom and morality. If one is never thinking about benefiting others, regardless of one’s fame or wealth, his or her life would be meaningless.

Even as monks wearing traditional robes, if we don’t have altruistic intentions, then we just appear to be monks on the outside. We might be respected by onlookers, but it would be all superficial and ultimately meaningless due to lack of sublime authenticity. For professors and students in universities, if you are altruistic, you are truly noble. Otherwise, without compassion or altruistic intentions and only thinking of your own interests, then no matter how prestigious your school is, or how high your status is, it is still meaningless. Without an altruistic mind, whether you’re the Secretary General of the UN or a nation’s president, ultimately, no matter how powerful you are, with a lack of compassion, any great political successes you have achieved will still not bring fundamental benefits to people. Without compassion, even if you were to make great inventions in the field of science or develop great machines and high-tech products, it is likely your lack of compassion would lead to the detriment of human beings.

Between Democracy and Altruism

On the other hand, with an altruistic intention, all your behaviors would naturally and eventually harvest benefits for yourself. I have a short story I would like to share. There was a Korean consortium which sponsored the University of Cambridge in the UK with a 2-million-dollar grant that was tasked with figuring out how American democracy was originally formed. In the process of research, they noticed when George Washington was 14, he planted an apple tree in his backyard in the shade, where there was insufficient sunlight. So his father told him that with a lack of sunlight, the tree wouldn’t grow up healthily and that sunlight was very important to it. This story enlightened him; as long as one tries to fulfill the wishes of others, his own aspirations can also be naturally achieved. As a result, the Korean consortium understood the principle of American democracy. Being government officials, they must understand the needs of people. With the intention of satisfying the public desire, they will be befitting the goals of the government. So it is an historical allegory to be learned here. Although this might be a legend, I feel that this story is very meaningful.

According to history, considering the inner character of human beings, the altruistic intention shows greater value for the good of humankind in an unmistakable way. What is significant is this fundamental altruistic notion has never become outdated as time goes by and I don’t expect it ever will. For the professors and students here today, all of you may have a faith in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism or any other religion, or you may have no faith to speak of and are merely research-oriented theologians. Nevertheless, given the current situation of the global village, we are becoming closer and closer to one another by virtue of technology, so we can reach spiritual unification and equality among us. I believe that in this world, any religious or non-religious people should not be self-centered and blindly exclude other religions, and especially those whose teachings are logically reasonable. This is not rational. Indeed, we should learn from each other. For instance, the practice of compassion is taught by every religion in its own unique way. So it is essential that we learn from one another.

There are many methods of the exchange of self and others. To sum up my point, when an animal is being killed, visualize it as if you were being killed; when the animal’s head is being cut off, visualize it as if your head was being cut off. So visualize in this way and try to see how you feel if suffering like this and try to familiarize the practice. This is the best method to practice Bodhicitta and also the essence of altruism.

Bodhicitta and Its Best Way of Practicing

Compassion Should Extend Even to Animals

Speaking of the practice of compassion, while every religion advocates compassion and charity, the concept of compassion in Buddhism is not limited to mankind but rather includes all sentient beings who have feelings of happiness and sadness. Benefiting all beings is the unique feature of Buddhism. For those who are interested in Buddhism, it is of great importance to carry on research, and to analyze and study this aspect.

As we human beings can express sadness and happiness, animals such as yaks and sheep, although not able to speak to us, if they are injured or slaughtered, they do express the same emotions as we do. They have the same sense of happiness and suffering. In the history of the US, there used to be black and white discrimination. Now, however, each enjoys equal rights. Likewise, although human beings and animals are now treated unequally, I believe eventually one day, people will be concerned for the feelings of animals. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, the moral progress of a nation and its greatness should be judged by the way it treats its animals.

Last year, in 2012, I read some news from Germany. It described a person who was driving home and saw a hedgehog on the road. In order to save it, he made a sharp turn and the car crashed and he had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to repair it. Later, the newspaper interviewed him and he said that even a small hedgehog deserves a chance at life and the damage done to his car was not a big deal. This story touched me very deeply.

Bodhicitta and Its Best Way of Practicing

There are many methods of the exchange of self and others. To sum up my point, when an animal is being killed, visualize it as if you were being killed; when the animal’s head is being cut off, visualize it as if your head was being cut off. So visualize in this way and try to see how you feel if suffering like this and try to familiarize the practice. This is the best method to practice Bodhicitta and also the essence of altruism.

Compassion and meditation are regarded as some of the primary characteristics of Buddhism. Nowadays in the US, some famous universities have been doing research on meditation and the practice of compassion. They examined the physical and mental condition of certain people before and after such practice. The experimental study demonstrated that through compassionate practice and meditation, their mental condition improved immensely and they had great benefits to themselves. The research also proved that such practices bring great benefits to the people around them. We can gradually realize this. The practice of compassion can first benefit the practitioner him or herself.

I have read the book called Deadly Emotions, which stated that if a person holds too much anger, his blood will become poisonous. If the blood was injected into other animals, it would cause them to get poisoned. So we should cultivate warm-heartedness in our minds. This notion is not just based on Buddhist teaching, but has also been proven scientifically. Altruism generates incredible merits and is not merely a theoretical Buddhist doctrine.

In our daily life, either in the East or the West, we all need to cultivate the altruistic mind. The practice of an altruistic mind cannot be easily accomplished in a short time. Although someone with keen capacity could accomplish it, ordinary beings probably could not do this.

In Tibet, there are many teachings on Bodhicitta. Whether you have a belief or not, the practice of Bodhicitta is very crucial. No matter what kind of knowledge or skills you learn, without Bodhicitta, it won’t bring benefits to yourself or society. So the practice of Bodhicitta is of great importance.

Without a doubt, everyone in this room is very intelligent, and I hope you can continuously study Buddhism. The Buddha has taught us that every living being, including small creatures such as ants, needs our love. When we reflect on this idea deeply, we have this question of how we can really benefit them. It’s the necessary thinking and question we must tackle in this present day and age.

In Tibetan Buddhism, relying on spiritual masters is very important. A spiritual master should be qualified with noble virtues and high wisdom. Among these attributes, an altruistic mind is the most important criteria. Although Bodhicitta practice has numerous methods, I’ll stop here and conclude my talk with a stanza of Shantideva:


Sublime and precious Bodhicitta,

May it arise in those in whom it has not arisen;

May it never decline where it has arisen,

But go on increasing further and further.


Bodhicitta is like a wish-fulfilling jewel, may it arise in whom it has not arisen and go on increasing in whom it already has. With this stanza, I aspire for you all to arouse Bodhicitta. Last but not least, thank you for spending your precious time listening to this talk and exchanging ideas. May it benefit everyone. Thank you all.

Question & Answer Session

Why Should We Care About Our Enemies?


So we still have a few minutes left, if you want to engage a little bit of question and answer with the Khenpo. One thought that I just want to offer back to Khenpo is, myself personally, as a second year student now in this really newly-burst Buddhist ministry program to the Harvard Buddhist Ministry Initiative, which right now is led by Janet Gyatso; we definitely have the seeds of a Buddhist ministry growing and this emphasis is on practicing and developing compassion, and study is being taken as a way to supplement or complement that emphasis to not fall on deaf ears here.

So at this point, if there are any questions from the audience, maybe just give a word of introduction and your name and then ask your questions.


Why Should We Care About Our Enemies?

Question #1:

My question is why should I care about my enemies?

Khenpo Sodargye:

According to the Bodhicitta teaching, our enemies are controlled by their negative karmas and are forced involuntarily to harm others. So we should treat them as our parents, relatives and friends and cultivate compassion towards them. This of course is a high level state of awareness and is very difficult for most ordinary people. Nevertheless, we should practice according to the Chapter of Patience in the Bodhicaryavatara and treat our enemies according to those instructions. Eventually one day, we will be able to regard them exactly as our parents. Everyone is able to reach this state.

Does the Object of Your Compassion Include Plants?

Question #2:

I am an interested neighbor and I’ve been curious for a while of where do you draw the line? Do you extend that kind of compassion to plants? Because plants have their own sentiency as well.

Khenpo Sodargye:

The life of plants is different from that of animals. The life of plants is not the formation of five aggregates as Buddha said clearly in the Surangama Sutra. According to scientists, water, nutrition, temperature and other elements form the life activity of plants. So the form of plant life is completely different from that of animals. Although they both are called life, indeed there is a huge distinction between them.

Without Wisdom, Can Genuine Compassion Arise?

Question #3:

I am trying to sort out the relation between wisdom and compassion. I was wondering when all is said and done, whether you can have true compassion without wisdom. Unless wisdom is co-born, the true compassion would somehow be hard to distinguish from the good works?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Speaking of Bodhicitta, it has two aspects as explained in the related stanzas of Bodhicitta, such as the one I just cited. One is the wisdom of enlightenment and the other is the compassion for benefiting others. As the Buddha said, both of them are indispensable.

Today’s talk is mainly about compassion, so we didn’t discuss much about the concept of wisdom. This, however, doesn’t mean we don’t require wisdom. In fact, wisdom is equally important. Given the time we have today however, we will mainly focus on compassion.

What is the relationship between wisdom and compassion? We need wisdom even when engaging in mundane affairs. Without wisdom, we won’t know what we should and shouldn’t do. However, wisdom without compassion or without altruistic intention is of little use. For example, during WWI & WWII, those who invented bombs were intelligent people. However, without compassion, their invention of poison and bombs took away many precious lives. Therefore, having only compassion or only wisdom won’t make us enlightened beings.

How Should We Embrace Different Values?

The Separation of Study and Practice in Western Academia

Question #4:

At the beginning of your talk, you spoke about the difference between studying the teachings very intellectually in academia and real dharma practice. You pointed out the importance of practice that is grounding in the heart. I think we have a lot of historical reasons, especially in the western academy, which can trace back to the Enlightenment Period and the development of universities. That is, in order to be a well-respected professor, it’s hard to mix your belief and an investment in the tradition that you are studying.

What would be your advice to those people who invest their lives in academia, but feel uncomfortable being able to really say that they are practitioners, in presenting both of those lives?

Khenpo Sodargye:

As a Buddhist scholar, just focusing on theoretical study is not enough. Dharma practice and study should always be integrated. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, dharma practice is not the singular aspect. One could spend 20 to 30 years on the debates and analyses of sutras and shastras.

I’ve visited many universities, and I feel that the way of studying in Tibetan tradition is apparently lacking in modern universities. I am not saying in universities, scholars should give up their research and turn to just practice. Instead, we need both practice and research. Just focusing on research without any practice, even if one acquires a reputation for possessing wisdom, it is just a façade and has no real meaning to society.

Like some of today’s rich people with an over-abundance of money, they only hold concern for themselves and seldom think about the welfare of others. The same can be said of those with high ranking status as well as those with higher intelligence. So when we talk about the Bodhicitta, without any diligent and proper practice, it will merely remain as a set of attractive words and benefiting others can never be put into effect. Nor can it benefit oneself.

How Should We Embrace Different Values?

Question #5:

Everyone has different thoughts. When we communicate with each other, we encounter different ideas, so it’s hard to agree with each other. At that time, how can we still be tolerant and compassionate?

Khenpo Sodargye:

As an old Tibetan saying goes, “Thirty people have thirty ideas, just like thirty yaks have sixty horns.” Although everyone has a different thought mode, everyone enjoys the same value as a human being. As in the US, each of you may think in different ways, but you each treat the value of the USD in the same way. Likewise, given different situations, each of us has different ideas, but we mostly share the same underlying fundamental philosophies and core values.

Although we have a wide range of likes and dislikes, all of us should integrate altruism into our lives. Like Bodhicitta we’ve talked about today, it is essential to the poor, the rich, high-level officials and ordinary people. Not only human beings can arouse Bodhicitta, even animals are capable. Whoever you are, altruistic intention is of great value. Although each of us is different, we all hold the same basic value within.

To Be a Leader: Compassionate Aspiration or Greedy Desire?

Question #6:

I am from Lhasa and I study economics in the Brandeis University. My question is when I come here to study and look back to the homeland, I notice that the economy and living conditions in Tibet are really undeveloped. So I told my family half-jokingly, if I want to change it, then I have to become a leader. But sometimes I am confused that whether the desire is from compassion or from greed?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Generally speaking, our minds keep changing all the time. If you don’t possess any form of selfish thought and merely want to become a leader to benefit others and to benefit your homeland, then your motivation is altruistic and compassionate. But there are many cases where an altruistic motivation ends up with selfish deeds after one has higher social status and wealth. Thus it becomes a selfish desire.

Moreover, the wish to benefit your own nation or others can be considered as a kind of greed too, since there are broad and narrow definitions of greed. If the desire of being a leader is motivated by bringing benefits to the Tibetan people rather than to yourself, this is compassion. But since it is still blended with a thought of ego, it is also a kind of greed. So you should carefully observe your motivation from all perspectives, otherwise it’s hard to tell.




Okay, thank you everybody for coming out tonight. I think maybe we could stop there on that note. Perhaps we could just absolutely wish in our hearts that any benefit which could have come from this gathering tonight could be a benefit to the whole world. Thank you all. Thanks again to Khenpo Sodargye.

Harvard University