Sacred West

Buddhism and Modern Life

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The Functional Power of Gentleness

October 30th, 2008 · 2 Comments · Filed under: Practice

In all my teachings received from the Shambhala lineage, one consistent refrain is the use of gentleness. Be gentle to ourselves, they say, be gentle in all our examinations of mind, in all our attitudes to ourselves, in all our dealings with others and the world. And they emphasize that great gentleness goes into this business of being a warrior in the world, which is the Shambhala role model.

A year or two of training and meditating passed before I really started to understand what the teachings were advising. Like many new Buddhists in the West, I had an overlay of moral encouragement applied to concepts such as gentleness. I didn’t realize that it has a purely functional purpose as a core practice instruction.

The great surprise for the westerner in Buddhism I think is to understand that the concepts presented are not moral injunctions in the sense we commonly think of such things. Everything is functional, based upon the nature of reality. For example, as a practice one does good deeds only because karma really does exist, and never ceases to operate. Therefore meritorious action sufficient to overwhelm unvirtuous action is the only way to supply oneself with increased advantage on the path.

When my teachers have repeated again and again the advice to be gentle with myself, it seems to me now that this has not been a way of saying, hey, you deserve a break today, so be nice because being nice is the nice thing to do. It’s more a way of saying, if you’re aggressive to yourself this is wrong action, and you move backwards a step. If you apply gentleness to yourself you allow newness to arise, and you stand a chance of moving forward.


In practice it seems easier for us to connect with our innermost sense of being with our eyes closed. I’ve heard many people after a group instruction on mindfulness meditation ask why we have to have our eyes open, when it seems easier to connect with our eyes closed. My silent answer has always been, because it’s harder with eyes open, just as life in the world on our feet is harder with our eyes open. But this is why we practice, and this is how we become present, in life, on our feet.

In the beginning I found it easier to touch my heart sometimes with my eyes closed. Or sometimes my eyes would close of themselves as I experienced an emotion that transported me. Or simply my eyes would feel tired and want to rest from being open, a purely physical thing. And I noticed every time, on opening my eyes, that a degree of intimacy with myself was lost.

Eventually I came to wonder how I could open my eyes and not break the contact. I experienced how tenderly we cherish ourselves, how intimately we love the blood and flesh of our own bodies. And how cold the world in comparison seems. And it became clear that somehow we have to bring this inside tenderness outside to all the world, and this enables us to stay connected with ourselves.

Gentleness, then, is the way to stay in one’s own being even as one regards the world of the ten thousand things that seems to exist outside our fabricated selves. And this becomes a practice one can perform as a training exercise.


The ramifications of experiencing the functional power of gentleness are large, to me.

The Buddhist understanding that compassion is our true nature; the observation of how coldly one treats a loved one as one labors to repair a wounded sense of self; the experience that caring for others removes all worries for oneself; the happy little “secret” of Buddhism that the most “selfish” thing one can do for oneself is to practice tonglen, the giving away of all one’s goodness to all beings, in exchange for taking on all their misery; the teaching that the experience of reality as emptiness comes indivisibly united with an embrace of compassion; the thought that aggression is said to be the most damaging to oneself of all the kleshas; the contemplation of the emptiness of ego, the non-existence of self except as a fabrication wrought only by exiling all other beings to a place outside one’s boundaries of trespass: all of these things combine to show me the way on the path, which dissolves in no self and all compassion, abiding in momentary reality.

Gentleness seems like the beginner’s way in, a way we can all pursue.

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Put On Shoes, Throw Freedom Away // Oct 30, 2008 at 11:40 am

    […] I’ve noticed that gentleness is the way to take my inward feeling of self-in-body out to the world outside the body. Gentleness, […]

  • 2 axel g // Nov 13, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Beautifully put!

    I find it most interesting how the West is taking on buddhism.

    Meaningful site +_+

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