Technology seems to be shrinking the globe. Trans-Atlantic journeys that once took weeks can now be traveled in a handful of hours. Friends who live in different countries used to need to wait weeks to get a letter from the other person. Now, an email or text is considered slow to bridge that divide if it takes more than a few seconds.One of the effects of the world getting ever smaller is that cultures and religions that were once separated by thousands of miles are now rubbing elbows. In today’s world, all five world religions may exist in one neighborhood alongside adherents of any number of smaller religions. As a result of this, people are now coming into contact with ideas and beliefs that they never considered. In some cases, those unfamiliar beliefs may not be easily explained in another language. People who want to understand their neighbors end up learning about concepts that cannot be explained in their own language by a single word. Such is the case with the Buddhist concept of tsewa, or radical tenderness.
Tsewa is a Tibetan word that translates roughly to “tenderness” and is used to describe a common Buddhist ideal. The ideal has occasionally also been translated as “warmth” or “compassion,” but such words fall short of describing tsewa, just like many other attempts at finding a one-word translations for a complex idea.
As a religious concept, tsewa can be loosely defined as the state of being open hearted toward others in a way that allows people to experience and spread positive emotions such as love and compassion that are the fundamental nature of the human heart. The more open one person’s heart is, the more they benefit and help others. The more that a person helps others, the happier they feel. The happier they feel the more open they become, and they are even more likely to help others. This makes them feel even happier still, and so the tsewa forms an upward spiral for everyone. The flip side of tsewa is a heart that is closed and cold. This leaves a person without an answer or escape from anxiety and discontent.
From a Buddhists theoretical standpoint, tsewa is the answer to everyone’s problems. Buddhists recognize that in practice, however, it is not easy or simple to truly open ones heart to everyone. This is what makes tsewa one of the greatest challenges for a Buddhist. How can they exercise unconditional love and tenderness for those who hurt them or their loved ones? How can they open themselves to those who would use their kind heart to take advantage of them? When a heart is full of warmth and love, such emotions as greed, anger, confusion, anxiety or sadness cannot take hold, but those emotions are stirred in everyone on a daily basis. Often, each of those emotions is roused in someone multiple times a day.
Buddhists are urged to discover for themselves how they can best practice tsewa while dealing with the complexity and confusion found in everyone’s daily life. Buddhists should, however, make sure that they use the sutras and teachings of the Buddha as a guide and retain trust in the teachings of the Buddha, even as they find their own way.
Tsewa expresses itself in many ways. It can be felt as kindness, compassion, generosity, tolerance, courage, resilience, mental clarity and a wide variety of other positive emotions. To Buddhists, true tsewa is seen as the source of all goodness in the world. When people lose their natural connection to tsewa, they become cold-hearted, greedy, cynical and skeptical about love. This, of course, can make a person even less likely to be open hearted which causes them to fall even more out of touch with tsewa. Thankfully, one can rekindle their natural connection with tsewa and return to a state of being open hearted and happy instead of discontent, anxious, skeptical or any other unpleasant state of being.
When talking about tsewa and living with an open heart, Buddhists are not speaking solely of being open hearted with one’s fellow human beings. Tsewa requires practicing tenderness and extending love toward all beings, including animals. Given how modern life is structured, however, most of the time people will be practicing tsewa with regard to other human beings and with their own life. This requires them to live with an outward focus on others instead of an inward focus on how they can make things go well for themselves and themselves alone. Tsewa is about “them” or “us” not about “me.” According to Buddhist teachings, living with a focus on oneself will lead one to become fearful and closed hearted. “Me” focused thinking means that a person is forever chasing another goal or problem, but they are never really satisfied. Succeeding in one aim brings a temporary satisfaction, but then the person wants or needs something else. Living with tsewa, however, is focused on doing the most good possible for others. This does bring fulfilment to each individual, but it also improves the world around them and helps others. Their kindness then encourages others to practice tenderness as well. In this way, the whole world begins to grow and become warmer.
Tsewa does not have a good English word that meshes with the concept this Tibetan phrase conveys, but everyone has experienced the feeling of tsewa at some point. It could be the warmth that stays with someone when they are having a bad day and their loved ones have expressed sympathy and support. It could be the happiness that comes after helping a child or elderly person. Tsewa may not translate well into a different verbal language, but that is because it is a concept that comes from the most universal language of all: the language of love.