So how should we view sentient beings? If they have all been in every possible relationship with us from time without beginning (and time has no beginning in Buddhism), should we consider them to be enemies? Everyone has indeed been the enemy—the person who wants me to trip, fall down the stairs, break a leg. My first teacher, Geshe Wangyal, said that one problem with this outlook would be that you’d have to go out and kill everybody.

Difficult to do. Everyone has also been neutral, like the many people we pass on the streets; we may even know some faces, but we don’t have any open relationship with them. They are just people working here or there; we may see them often, but there is neither desire nor hatred. Should we consider them to be neutral? Or should we consider these people to be friends?

The answer given by popular early twentieth-century Tibetan lama Pabongka is provocative. It is not an abstract principle, but refers to common experience. To render it in my own words: If your close friend became crazed and attacked you with a knife, you would attempt to relieve him of the knife and get his mind back in its natural state; you would use the appropriate means to take the knife, but you wouldn’t then kick him in the head.

Pabongka himself uses the example of one’s own mother: If your mother became crazed and attacked you with a knife, you would relieve her of the knife. You would not then proceed to beat her up. That’s his appeal: Once there’s a profoundly close relationship, the close relationship predominates. Why is a friend acting so terribly? Why is she turning against you and attacking you? It’s due to a counterproductive attitude—a distortion—in the person’s mind.

Indeed, if your own best friend went mad and came at you with a knife to kill you, what would you do? You would seek to disarm your friend, but then you would not proceed to beat the person, would you? You would disarm the attacker in whatever way you could—you might even have to hit the person in order to disarm him, but once you had managed to disarm him, you would not go on to hurt him. Why? Because he is close to you. If you felt that everyone in the whole universe was in the same relationship to you as your very best friend, and if you saw anyone who attacked you as your best friend gone mad, you would not respond with hatred. You would respond with behavior that was appropriate, but you would not be seeking to retaliate and harm the person out of hatred.

He would be too dear to you.

Therefore, in teaching compassion, Buddhists do not choose a neutral person as the example of all sentient beings; they choose the strongest of all examples, their best friend. Your feeling for that person is the feeling you should ideally have for every sentient being. You cannot go up to the police officer on the corner and hug her. But you can, inwardly, value her, as well as all sentient beings, as your best friend.

So if everyone in the past has been close, then there is good reason that closeness should predominate. And this becomes a reason—in addition to the similarity between oneself and others—for meditatively cultivating love and compassion, rather than hatred and distance, with respect to everyone. It is not sufficient merely to see that sentient beings are suffering. You must also develop a sense of closeness with them, a sense that they are dear. With that combination—seeing that people suffer and thinking of them as dear—you can develop compassion. So, after meditatively transforming your attitude toward friends, enemies, and neutral persons such that you have gained progress in becoming even-minded toward all of them, the next step is to meditate on everyone as friends, to feel that they have been profoundly close.

In meditation, take individual persons to mind, starting with your friends. Reflect on how close your best friend is—recognize your attitude, for example, when your friend needs your concern, like when she’s ill. This is an appeal to common experience—to how we already naturally react to close friends. Then, in meditation, extend this feeling to more beings.

Related: Cultivating Compassion

First you need to recognize people as having been friend, enemy, and neutral person countless times over countless lifetimes— or at least you can’t say that there isn’t anyone who hasn’t been a friend, or you can’t say there isn’t anyone who hasn’t been an enemy, or you can’t say with surety that there’s anyone who hasn’t been neutral. Once you recognize this, it’s possible to begin to recognize everyone as friends.

To consider ourselves dear we usually do not have to enter into meditation. We cherish ourselves greatly. When we see ourselves suffering, we have no problem in wishing to escape that suffering. The problem lies in not cherishing others. The ability to cherish others has to be cultivated. In meditation:

1. Visualize someone you like very much and then superimpose the image of someone toward whom you are neutral. Alternate between the two images until you value the person toward whom you are neutral as much as the friend.

2. Then superimpose, in succession, the images of a number of people toward whom you are neutral, until you value each of them as much as the greatest of friends.

3. When you have developed facility with those two steps, it is possible to extend the meditation to enemies.

For me, it’s much more disruptive to think about my friends as having been enemies than it is to think about my enemies as having been friends. No matter how difficult it is to think of a hated enemy as having been a close friend in a recent lifetime, it’s more disruptive to think of my close friend as having been an enemy. With regard to neutral people, it’s shocking, a whole new perspective, to think, “Just two lifetimes ago, we were very close friends, and now by the force of our own actions we don’t even know each other, don’t even care about each other, we neglect each other, we’re indifferent.”

Is it convincing to base subsequent practices on this notion of cross-positioning over the course of lives? I think it is, but success in changing attitudes certainly isn’t easy to achieve, since it depends on either a belief in rebirth or a willingness to play out the rebirth perspective. Nevertheless, both of these provide a strong foundation, whereas if the appeal were to an abstract principle or because Buddha said so, it would be all right for a day or two but would not be profoundly moving.

The other approach—that doesn’t rely on rebirth—is merely that we’re all equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. And if it’s worthwhile for me to gain happiness, then it’s worthwhile for everyone else to gain happiness. Noticing this similarity makes us close. The late-fourteenth-century yogi-scholar Tsongkhapa says that in order to generate compassion, it is necessary to understand how beings suffer and to have a sense of closeness to them. He says that otherwise, when you understand how they suffer, you’ll take delight in it. For example, so-and-so enemy just got liver disease, and you think, “Good riddance. She’s getting what she deserves.”

Thus, in order to care for other beings, it’s not sufficient merely to know that they suffer, because knowledge that a person is suffering this way might make you happy, especially if that person is an enemy. “May this person be run over.” We all have such thoughts due to a lack of intimacy. Not only must we know the depths of their suffering, but they must be dear to us.

In short, for compassion to develop toward a wide range of persons, mere knowledge of how beings suffer is not sufficient; there has to be a sense of closeness with regard to every being. That intimacy is established either through merely reflecting that everyone equally wants happiness and doesn’t want suffering, or through reflecting on the implications of rebirth, or both, with the one reinforcing the other. Both techniques rely on noticing our own common experience and extending its implications to others.

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