Relative bodhichitta comes from the simple and basic experience of
realizing that you could have a tender heart in any situation. - Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
There is a story about the Buddha that tells of one of his many incarnations in which he was an ox in the hell realm. In this form, he pulled a heavy cart while yoked to another ox with chains of fire. The cart was very heavy, and the chain burned and cut into him ceaselessly. He was devoured by physical pain and suffering. Then one day, he noticed the ox beside him, and became aware of how that ox also suffered terribly. In this noticing, Buddha's heart opened, and he was filled with the aspiration that his fellow ox be free of the pain and burden that he himself suffered. In that moment of noticing and opening, bodhichitta, or awakened, tender heart, blossomed and buddha nature peeked through.
All beings want to be happy and free of suffering. The more we know this in a true, felt sense, the easier it becomes to open our hearts to others and manifest with kindness in the world. Our children provide us with powerful, daily opportunities to practice this deepening and opening. In our day to day interactions with our children, we can sometimes forget that they are unique sentient beings with their own individual desires for happiness as we struggle to keep up with the demands of caring for them, keeping them safe, working to support them whether outside or inside the home and so on. We can begin to get speedy and stop seeing things from their point of view. This can lead us in turn to rush them through their days, fill up with activities any space that occurs, and slowly lose mindfulness of body, speech and mind as we relate to them. We may handle them less gently, or speak more harshly. We find it difficult to allow them the pauses they need to relax and extend outward into the world, exploring slowly while held gently in our awareness. Instead of making our hearts more tender, we begin to seek to protect our hearts and our bodhichitta goes into hiding.
A few weeks ago I came across a blog posting where the author wrote about adult privilege as it relates to the personhood of children - in other words, how challenging the world can be for a child, and how so much that we as adults take for granted is not available or doable for our children, from simple body autonomy to what they eat or where they sleep or play. The essay contains a long list of privileges denied to children. This list has given me much food for thought, and has become a bit of a touchstone for my daily parenting. I find it to be a great heart "tenderizer"! It has helped me see more clearly how my actions impact them for better or for worse in their daily experience of basic goodness and primordial confidence. By primordial confidence I mean a confidence in their own true sanity and wisdom that is not shaken by circumstances or conditions. As mindful parents, how can we build this confidence?
This list has made me more mindful of how I interact with my children in terms of body, speech and mind. It has watered the seed of bodhichitta in me as I open my heart to how challenging it is to be little. When we water the seeds of bodhichitta in ourselves, we create a relationship with our children where they are treated with compassion, respect, gentleness and understanding. They can't help but gain trust in the goodness of themselves, others and the world when this becomes part of their daily life. This cultivation of gentleness does not mean we do not set boundaries with them; it does mean we act with sanity rather than aggression when we enforce those boundaries.
Tenderizing our hearts can seem scary. Opening to other beings is a scary business. As we practice opening to our children again and again, genuinely wishing them happiness and freedom from suffering, we are able to bring that same compassionate heart out into the world and practice with more and more sentient beings. A tender heart is also a courageous heart. It is the warriorship of love that we are practicing, and our aspiration is to extend this fathomless love out to all beings.
Here is a helpful essay by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on practices to cultivate compassion.