Where can you train in compassion?

Welcome to the first excerpt from Medicine and Compassion!

Where Can You Train in Compassion?

Western culture is oriented particularly around the kind of intelligence that can produce increasingly sophisticated material goods.  But what about the other aspect of human minds—the capacity for being compassionate and the qualities that go along with that?  There appears to be less interest in these qualities and fewer facilities set up to promote human compassion. [Medicine and Compassion page 7]

If you decide that you would like to be more compassionate either because your work requires it or because you can see the benefits in your personal life, where do you go? Where can you sign up for compassion training? How long is the course? Who is the teacher? What kind of degree do you acquire? What would a facility set up to promote human compassion look like?

Searching for a place to train in compassion. (Nubri Valley, Nepal)

In actual fact, there are not many options for compassion training. As Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche points out, our modern culture is oriented around a different kind of learning—based on science, math, history, and language. Young people are rarely steered toward education in how to be kind, and how to cultivate positive feelings toward themselves and others. This is not all bad; the focus on technical education has led to great advances in our lives. The technology that we enjoy has benefitted beings in many ways. However, it has also led to great harm, through incredibly destructive weapons, pollution, and destruction of the natural environment.  

The helpful, positive developments in human civilization are a product of creative human intelligence.  Likewise, destructive inventions also come from the human mind.  If we examine any person’s character closely, we can always find something kind and positive.  If we look even more closely, we will discover that these compassionate qualities are intrinsic—they are inherently present in the mind of every person.  In some people such feelings may be just a tiny seed, but they are still present. At the same time, there is also an aggressive and potentially nasty side to most any human being.  If we ask, “What is the nature of a given person?” the answer would be that each person is a mixture of positive and negative qualities.  We sometimes experience spontaneous feelings of compassion toward others, while at other times we feel selfish and angry.  [Medicine and Compassion page 5]


As human beings, we are not born with all the knowledge we need to live. We need to receive an education. The kind of education we receive depends mainly on the culture into which we are born. Often we learn skills that allow us to function productively within our society. We can’t achieve any of those things without a teacher and an education.  

We have few examples of institutions in the West that focus on training in compassion. This raises the question: What would a facility set up to promote human compassion look like? Are there any examples in the world?  

Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is of course aware of the thousands of monasteries and nunneries that existed in Tibet for a thousand years. What was the purpose of these institutions? Based on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the purpose of the training within the monasteries and nunneries was to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion.

The goal of the individuals within these places of learning was to help steer their individual mind stream towards complete enlightenment. What is the goal of enlightenment? To transcend suffering within oneself, and to help all sentient beings go beyond suffering by awakening to their own true nature. Whatever effort an individual makes towards training one’s own mind is accompanied by the wish that others could achieve this same benefit as well. In other words, these were institutions set up to train people in compassion.

A facility set up to promote compassion. (Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan)

Understanding that traveling to places like Tibet and Bhutan is not always easy, The Medicine and Compassion Project is designed to introduce the ways in which one can train in compassion. As the project develops, we hope to create more and more learning opportunities through online courses, medical school teaching modules, and in-person retreats.  

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