The great Tibetan lama Patrul Rinpoche was a widely revered and much respected teacher, and people gathered around him to receive his wisdom and insight. His teachings were simple, direct, and profound, and in one way or another the essence of his discourse always led to the practice of compassion.

Related: Six Lessons from Patrul Rinpoche

One day he said to a small group of his students: “The purpose of life is to help all sentient beings to be free from suffering. In order to do this, you need to cultivate unconditional, unlimited, and pure compassion toward all, without any exception.”

Patrul Rinpoche always encouraged discussion, debate, and dialogue, so after making this all-encompassing statement, he asked, “Do you understand?”

One of the students had some questions. “Are there not three ways to seek enlightenment? Should I first attain enlightenment for myself and then help others to enlightenment? Or should I work on my own enlightenment at the same time as helping others to enlightenment? Or should I assist others first and then work on my own enlightenment? Which is the best way? Please, Lama, would you explain it to us in a way we can’t possibly misunderstand?”

Patrul Rinpoche smiled. “Now, those are very good questions indeed,” he replied, “and it depends on your own natural inclination. One way is similar to the way of a king, queen, or great ruler. People in that position wish to acquire and accumulate power and wealth before helping and providing prosperity to everyone else. Like kings and queens, there are people who wish to become enlightened, to accomplish total purity of heart for themselves, and then go out in the world and help others to undertake the practice of compassion and kindness. They think to themselves, ‘Unless I am kind and compassionate myself, how can I help others achieve enlightenment?’ So they work on themselves first, and then they help others.

That, I call the way of the kings and queens.”

Related: Treasury of Lives: Patrul Rinpoche

The lama paused and looked around at his students to make sure they had understood, then he continued: “The second way is similar to the way of ship captains. Before they can start on their voyage, they must have everyone on board with them. Everyone makes the journey together,  sailing across the sea and arriving at the other shore together and at the same time. Like sea captains, there are people who act collectively. Their own enlightenment and practice of compassion go hand-in-hand with helping other people on their journey toward compassion.

That, I call the way of the sea captain.”

Patrul Rinpoche took a few deep breaths and surveyed his students again. They were all listening attentively. “There is a third way,” he went on, “the way of shepherds and cowherds. These people gather their animals and take them to green pastures in the summer. As you know, in wintertime sheep, cows, and yaks are kept indoors because of the snow, but in the summer farmers take their animals to the mountains. These herders of horses, mules, donkeys, yaks, cows, sheep, and goats make sure that their animals graze happily on lush fields. The fields are full of wild flowers, nourishing herbs, and cool streams where the animals can drink. When the keepers see that their flocks are well settled and enjoying their grazing, safe from predators, then and only then do they relax, put up their yurts [tents], cook their meals, and rest in comfort. Similarly, there are seekers of enlightenment and compassion who help and assist other living beings to find fulfilment, contentment, and wisdom. They care for others first, before seeking their own salvation.

That, I call the way of the shepherds.”

Then Patrul Rinpoche left his students for a while to discuss the matter among themselves. They were soon in hot dispute.

“Surely the way of the kings and queens is best. How can we help others without being compassionate ourselves?” one asked.

“No, no, no, I think the way of the sea captain is much better. We all have to work together. Then everyone is enlightened at the same time,” said another.

“I don’t agree. In my view, the way of the shepherds is best. We have to help others before we help ourselves,” said a third.

When the lama returned, one student asked him, “Rinpoche, please will you tell us which is the best way? We can’t agree, and we want to know for certain.”

“My dear students,” replied Rinpoche, “there is no one way that suits everybody. As I said before, it depends on your character, your personality, your makeup. Whichever way you follow, as long as you follow a way, you will get there. Putting one way higher or better is a mark of discrimination and even arrogance. The way of the kings and queens, the way of the sea captain, and the way of the shepherd are simply metaphors. They are like labels. There’s no need to get stuck with labels. As long as you’re cultivating compassion, you are on the right path. Thinking that one way is better than another, or that my way is better than your way, is a sign of ego. While seekers of truth pursue their own ways, they should always respect the ways of others.

The way of wisdom and compassion makes you humble. Be like a stalk of barley with a head full of ripe grain, bending low with its weight. Bending low is a sign of fullness and maturity. A stalk without grain stands up, stiff and erect. It may appear strong and upright, but it has no grain, it gives little nourishment to anyone. Therefore, practice compassion with humility, be wise without arrogance. One can be arrogant in the name of religion, nationality, color, or gender. We need to free ourselves from these negative attitudes that divide us from each other and instead practice the way of compassion.

“So follow whichever way comes naturally to you. It is not the external form of practice that matters, it is the inner spirit, the pure mind, that we need to pay attention to.”

From Ten Tales from Tibet: Cultivating Compassion by Lama Lhakpa Yeshe © 2017. Reprinted with permission courtesy Leaping Hare Press.