Try a Little Tenderness

In Hermetic Kabbalah the sefira of Gevurah is associated with the planet Mars and its weapon is the sword.

The sword is an instrument of protection used in offense and defence. A person declares “this is my turf, step on it and I will attack you”. The sword is a symbol of whatever we employ for our of self-protection, whether it be harsh words, locked doors, barbed wire, tear-gas, or bullets. Of all the feelings associated with self-protection, anger and fear are the most important. When we have marked out our turf, we feel anger when it is stepped on, and we fear that our turf will be damaged or lost. Our sense of a self that should be protected extends into the sphere of property, neighbourhood, family, abstract concepts, intellectual property, lifestyle and social propriety. We fear the erosion of these things, and feel we have a right to take up the sword to defend them.

A practical Kabbalist is likely at some point to possess an actual sword for ritual use. A piece of tradition I was given is that one does not win the right to own a sword until one chooses not to use it. It is easy to understand this superficially: one should be discriminating in the use of a sword, and not attempt to hit every nail with the same hammer.

The reason I am posting this comes from a complex personal issue I will not describe, but one where I felt my survival at every level – emotional, ethical, and physical – was at stake. I was at the end of my tether. I felt that using the sword was the only remaining option. When the dust settled, I understood that something important had happened. On the same day someone sent me this quotation via a Tibetan Buddhist mailing list:

“The ground of fearlessness and the basis of overcoming doubt and wrong belief is to develop renunciation. Renunciation here means overcoming that very hard, tough, aggressive mentality which wards off any gentleness that might come into our hearts.

Fear does not allow fundamental tenderness to enter into us. When tenderness tinged by sadness touches our heart, we know that we are in contact with reality. We feel it. That contact is genuine, fresh, and quite raw.

That sensitivity is the basic experience of warriorship, and it is the key to developing fearless renunciation.”

The quotation is from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion and was responsible for establishing many important teaching lineages in several countries. He learned to teach and write in English, and his prose has an astonishing clarity and precision.

Let me explain what I think he means. Fear and anger are dual responses to a threat. A threat is something we must protect ourselves from. We cannot be fearless so long as we experience a world of threat and self-protection. We cannot be gentle when our chosen power is that of the sword.

It is only by giving up the sword – that is, renouncing our instinctive feelings of self-protection – that we can lose our fear and encounter reality as it  is. It is then that we experience the ubiquity of pain and suffering, and see how much pain is caused by competition and self-protection. This is true not only in human beings, but throughout the animal kingdom. What one then feels is sometimes called ‘compassion’, but words can be overused and lose their freshness. Trungpa uses ‘tenderness’ instead. That tenderness is an authentic encounter with a new level of reality. In Kabbalah it is called Chesed, Loving-Kindness.

The Loving-Kindness of Chesed, the tenderness Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche describes, is not like the occasional warm feelings we have from time-to-time. It is like being stripped naked and beaten with sticks and rubbed raw. One can see the plight of every sentient being, trapped in fear and the consequent readiness to fight, and what one feels is an overwhelming pity. And tenderness.