For practitioners of great scope, the main point is the method of meditating on or practicing bodhicitta—the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. What does this mean? Bodhicitta is a primary mind associated with two aspirations— the first, its cause, is what we practice to generate bodhicitta, the aspiration to benefit all sentient beings; the second, which accompanies and is similar to bodhicitta, is the aspiration to achieve enlightenment.
So, bodhicitta is a primary mind accompanied by the aspiration for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. There are three kinds of enlightenment—those of the hearer, solitary realizer and bodhisattva. Bodhicitta aspires to the highest form of enlightenment, that of the bodhisattva—the great, or Mahayana, enlightenment. When we understand that bodhicitta is the aspiration to attain the highest kind of enlightenment and that hearers and solitary realizers do not have it, we should feel strongly motivated to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings because of the many unbearable sufferings they experience within cyclic existence.
We should also recognize that we are impermanent, changing from moment to moment, and must eventually leave this life, as we cannot stay here forever. Furthermore, when we do leave this life, even though we might have accumulated enough wealth and possessions to completely fill the whole Earth, we can take absolutely nothing with us and have to leave it all behind. Even if we have a huge family with hundreds of thousands of relatives, we will have to relinquish them all; not one can accompany us. Even this body, which we have inhabited since we entered our mother’s womb and have taken so much care of all our life, will not help us but will be left behind. Understanding all this should encourage us to practice and try to generate bodhicitta right away.
Of course, generating bodhicitta will not protect us from death, but if we do generate this attitude—or even if we simply practice it—we will not die a normal death; we will die with joy. That’s the difference bodhicitta makes. Normally, as we age, we find it difficult to stand up—we have to haul ourselves up on a stick or push against something solid—and when we sit down we just flop down into the chair. It’s difficult to do anything. But if we have developed bodhicitta, we’ll at least know that death is going to bring us a nice new body and will feel very positive about dying.
I speak from personal experience about the suffering of old age. I tell you, if you went to bed one night and woke up the next morning old, with all its attendant sufferings, you’d find it totally unbearable. However, the special sufferings of old age creep up on us gradually, and those who have had plenty of positive experiences from practicing bodhicitta are quite happy to die because it’s a chance to get rid of their rubbishy old body and move into one in which it will be much easier to practice. People who die without having practiced Dharma feel very afraid.
There are two kinds of bodhicitta—conventional and ultimate. Certain earlier presentations of how to generate it explained how to develop ultimate bodhicitta first and then moved on to conventional bodhicitta, but some recent masters have said that this is incorrect and that instead we should begin with conventional bodhicitta and then practice the ultimate. This is the order of the version presented here; the tradition that put ultimate bodhicitta first was taught for practitioners of extremely sharp intellect.
The training in conventional bodhicitta is explained here principally by way of the technique of equalizing and exchanging self and others. The other method, the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, is partly relevant, but equalizing and exchanging self and others is what is mainly explained. In his Compendium of Training, Shantideva says that our bodhicitta will be much firmer if we develop it by practicing equalizing and exchanging self and others from the outset.
Equalizing self and others
What exactly does equalizing self and others mean? Specifically, what is it that is supposed to be equalized? For example, is it that self and others are equal in being selfless, lacking in self-existence? Although this is true, it’s not what is meant here. Is it that self and others are equal in suffering in cyclic existence? Again, although this is true as well, neither is that our focus here. Perhaps the meaning is that self and others are equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering? The answer here is yes, self and others are indeed the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, and this is what we are talking about here.
When we talk about equalizing self and others in order to generate bodhicitta, what we mean by the equality of self and others is that we all want happiness and none of us wants suffering.
Since time without beginning we have harbored the selfish attitude that continually makes us afraid of getting cold, hungry, thirsty and so forth or suffering in other ways. We always worry about what will happen to us. This continual worry is the selfishness that’s called the self-cherishing mind—the tendency to focus on our own happiness while neglecting the welfare and needs of others—and we have been under its influence since beginningless time.
Exchanging self and others means switching these two so that instead of being primarily concerned about our own happiness we become more concerned for that of others, and instead of neglecting others we neglect ourselves and strive for enlightenment for their benefit.
There is a connection between the self-cherishing mind and self-grasping, or grasping at true existence. The self-grasping mind is the actual root, or fundamental cause, of all samsaric suffering but it is very closely followed by the self-cherishing mind, which arises on the basis of self-grasping and itself serves as the basis for all the other delusions.
There are said to be 84,000 delusions, each of which arises as a result of the self-cherishing mind. Motivated by these delusions, we engage in harmful actions such as the ten non-virtuous actions, 9 the five immediate negativities 10 and other kinds of negative activity and, as a karmic consequence of doing so, have to undergo all kinds of unbearable suffering.
Thus the very root, the fundamental cause, of all our delusions, negative minds and suffering is self-grasping, the mind that thinks we are completely self-existent, inherently-existent; that we exist in a way that is totally independent of any causes or conditions, utterly independent of anything.
And if self-grasping is the king, then self-cherishing is his most powerful minister, the one who tries to achieve all kinds of objectives on his behalf. Selfishness itself does not conceive of or believe in the self as existing from its own side because that is not its job. However, the selfish mind does act as a protector or helper for the self that is conceived of by self-grasping as existing from its own side.
In order to get nice things for the self, self-cherishing causes us to develop attachment; to protect the self from harm, self-cherishing causes us to generate anger; in other situations it stimulates jealousy, pride and other delusions. Then, by following these negative minds, we engage in negative actions, create negative karma and suffer. Thus selfishness is just like a minister that the king can order around to get whatever he wants done.
Therefore, we should think repeatedly about how self-cherishing creates all our suffering and problems until we see it as our main enemy. Then, instead of allowing selfishness, whose main aim is our own happiness, to lead us around by the nose, we should switch everything around and start thinking about how we can benefit others, how their happiness is more important than our own.
If we think about it correctly we can easily understand how important others are and how all our happiness and fortune definitely and completely depend on them.
I mentioned before that one way of developing bodhicitta is through the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, which, based on equanimity, is as follows:
(a) recognizing that all beings have been our mother,
(b) recollecting their kindness as mother,
(c) thinking how to repay their kindness,
(d) developing love,
(e) developing compassion,
(f) generating the special intention of benefiting all beings by oneself alone, and then
(g) generating bodhicitta itself.
The only way we can gain these realizations is by depending on others.
Likewise, the only way we can develop the six perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm, concentration and wisdom is by depending on others. Take, for example, the practice of generosity, the mind wanting to give away all our possessions and even our body in order to benefit others. Obviously we can do this only in dependence upon others; it is only thanks to them that we can develop a generous mind.
Then there’s morality, which means abandoning the ten non-virtuous actions—killing, stealing, lying and so forth. Abandoning killing means giving up taking the lives of others; we can do this only by depending upon others; again, it is only thanks to them that we can do it. Similarly, we abandon stealing by regarding others as important and therefore not taking their possessions; it is only thanks to others that we can do this, too. The same applies to all other beneficial qualities of mind—we can develop them only through the kindness of others.
We should think, therefore, that we must definitely attain the state of complete enlightenment as soon as possible for the sake of all sentient beings, and for that reason determine to spend all our time from now on working towards that goal without wasting even a moment. We must resolve to practice like this in particular for whatever remains of this life—studying, thinking, meditating and practicing as well as we can—especially this year, this month, this week and particularly this day. We must generate the strong determination to not waste time but spend every moment practicing whatever we have to do to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible.
Meditation on equalizing self and others is done by way of nine reasons, of which six work on the conventional level and three on the ultimate. With respect to the six conventional ones, three relate to self and three to others. This is how we should meditate on the equality of self and others.11
The shortcomings of self-cherishing
The fourth paragraph of the text says,
Banish the one to blame for everything,
Meditate on the great kindness of all beings.
The first line means that we should blame the self-cherishing mind for all our negative experiences. Why? Because every problem and fault we experience is a result of our own selfishness. Therefore we should blame ourselves for every unpleasant experience that befalls us, no matter how bad it is; we should grab hold of our own selfish mind and view it as the culprit.
As the great Shantideva wrote in his Guide,
All the suffering in the world
Comes from the desire for one’s own happiness.12
Every problem we experience comes from wanting and thinking of only our own happiness; all our suffering—everything that goes wrong, every kind of fault, everything fearful or unpleasant and all violence—comes from this selfish mind. Furthermore, it all comes equally from the self-grasping mind that conceives everything to exist from its own side.
Shantideva then compares selfishness to an extremely harmful spirit that continuously harms us.
If all the harm, fear and suffering in the world
Occur due to grasping onto the self,
What use is that great demon to me?13
Thus we’re encouraged to ask ourselves, “Why do I hang on to this selfish mind, which is such a harmful entity?”
As the Indian master Padampa Sangye told the people of Tingri, where he had decided to stay because he felt he could help them, whenever things go wrong we always blame others but we should instead point the finger of blame at ourselves, where the root of all problems lies.14
And, as the mind training text The Wheel-Weapon Mind Training says, if we develop this understanding it is marvelous, because by so doing we identify the real enemy that continuously gives us harm—beginning, middle and end. It says, “So now I’ve identified you, you thief.”15
But self-cherishing is not the ordinary kind of thief, who robs people by beating them up and forcibly taking their possessions. Self-cherishing is the type of thief that sneaks in surreptitiously at night and steals on the sly.
The Wheel-Weapon also says, “So now I’ve understood you for what you are, you unfaithful friend!”16 From the point of view of our own selfishness it seems to be our greatest friend, but in practice it does nothing but trick and deceive us. The selfish mind creates all the suffering we experience in this life, such as people being horrible to us, hitting and attacking us with weapons, but more especially, it is the cause of all the unbearable sufferings we’re going to experience in the lower realms in our future lives.
As Shantideva also said, look at the difference between the buddhas and ordinary worldly people like ourselves.17 Because we have not yet discarded our selfishness, we are still suffering here in cyclic existence, not even free from rebirth in the lower realms. Even arhats, who have completely transcended the suffering of cyclic existence, have reached only a limited degree of perfection because they have not relinquished their selfishness. They have not devoted themselves to benefiting others; therefore they have not been able to achieve the state of full enlightenment.
The Buddha, on the other hand, gave up all selfishness and totally devoted himself to benefiting others. As a result, he reached a state of complete freedom from suffering and to this day remains incredibly beneficial to and highly regarded by many beings. By seeing the difference between him and us, we will understand how important it is also to renounce the selfish mind and totally devote ourselves to benefiting others.
Originally, the Buddha was exactly the same as us. When water is boiling, the water on the top goes to the bottom and the water on the bottom comes up to the top, and it keeps on going round like that. Similarly, in many previous lives we were together with the Buddha—sometimes as best friends, sometimes as worst enemies, all the time changing, changing, changing. Then, unlike us, at a certain point he decided to enter the path by renouncing selfishness and devoting himself to others, and kept on developing spiritually until he attained enlightenment.
The kindness of all sentient beings
Furthermore, Shantideva pointed out that everything good—every form of happiness, all positive qualities and so forth—comes through the kindness of others. Therefore, the mind devoted to their welfare is like a wish-fulfilling jewel, the source of all happiness and everything good and useful in the world. Just as a farmer who possesses an extremely fertile field, where everything he plants always grows, is very happy to have it and cherishes and takes great care of it, we should feel the same way about other sentient beings—that they are extremely valuable, and cherish and take care of them.
It is interesting that, whether we are Buddhist or not, if we think about the great kindness of all beings it will be evident that all our happiness does indeed depend upon them.
It is also said that the buddhas and sentient beings are equally kind. The buddhas’ kindness is obvious—through following their teachings and advice we can attain enlightenment. However, we do so only by meditating on love, compassion, bodhicitta, the six perfections, the four means of taking care of disciples and so forth, and doing these practices obviously depends upon others. Therefore, they and the buddhas are equally kind and it is wrong to dismiss sentient beings while holding the buddhas in great esteem.
This does not mean that we should make prostrations, offerings, prayers and requests to sentient beings to be able to generate realizations and so forth but that they and the buddhas are equally important and kind in the genesis of our happiness and we should therefore appreciate and respect them both equally.
Having understood that all happiness, especially the many qualities we are trying to develop on the Mahayana path to enlightenment, results from the kindness of not just the buddhas but also all sentient beings, from this point on we should always remember how all beings are kind. This is what “meditate on the great kindness of all beings” means.
When we think about self and others, self refers to just the one person whereas others are utterly uncountable. Nevertheless, we normally take tremendous care of that one self and basically ignore most of the others. If we think about the difference in numbers here, it seems disgraceful to ignore the numberless in favor of just the one whereas neglecting the one in favor of the countless others doesn’t seem so bad.
As soon as we start meditating on all beings as most kind, even though we can concentrate on love and compassion—wanting all beings to be happy and free from suffering—for only a very short time, it is still a very powerful way of building up an extraordinary amount of merit. That’s why meditation on qualities such as love and compassion is so valuable.
Of course, it is inevitable and to be expected that we beginners meditating on the kindness of all sentient beings will occasionally create negative karma by getting angry at some of them, therefore we also need to know how to purify immediately any negativity we create.
According to the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, above, when we meditate on the four immeasurables, which include love—wishing all beings to be happy—and compassion—wishing them to be free from suffering—and on bodhicitta—the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings—we start by recognizing all beings as having been our mother, recollecting their kindness and resolving to repay this kindness, and then go on to meditate on love, compassion, the special intention and finally the mind of bodhicitta itself. All these recognitions and qualities arise through the kindness of others because it is only by meditating on others that we can generate them.
Once we have entered the path to enlightenment we develop it further by practicing the six perfections and so forth. Again, each of these depends on the kindness of others. When we finally achieve enlightenment we spend all our time benefiting others because of the strength of our compassion, which cannot bear to see or ignore others’ suffering. So again, even when we become buddha, all our enlightened activity depends upon others and their kindness.
A mother’s kindness
Simply by looking at our present life we can see the kindness of others. From conception we were completely reliant on our mother’s kindness for survival. For the nine months we were in her womb she underwent many difficulties carrying us and then faced the hardships of giving us birth. Then, when we were very small, there was no way we could look after ourselves—we were always in danger of falling or getting hurt in various other ways, and when we got a bit bigger we were again in danger of running into traffic, falling from high places and so forth.
Parents constantly have to think about their children, protect them from danger and work to feed and educate them and so forth. Thus when we were small we completely depended on the kindness of our parents for everything.
This is also true for animals. We can see how ducks and geese, for example, look after their young—and while there is actually very little they can do to protect them from predators they will nevertheless defend them with their lives.
As we get older and go to school, our education depends upon the kindness of our teachers and our fun depends upon the kindness of the other children we play with. Later on, when we get married, start a family, live together and so forth, our enjoyment of all this going smoothly and happily depends upon our partner and the other members of our family. And when we become old and find it difficult to sit or stand and can’t cook or take care of ourselves properly, we again need somebody to look after us.
Thus, it’s clear that from the beginning of our life to its end, even our mundane happiness depends entirely upon the kindness of others, and not only the kindness of other human beings—we use animals’ bodies for food, shoes and clothing and so forth and they keep us company, protect us and help us in our work. Therefore we should also appreciate the kindness of animals.
With respect to other kinds of food, consider how grain used for food starts off in dependence on the kindness of others. Somebody plants the seeds in a field; somebody tills the earth; somebody removes the weeds; many people harvest the crop and make it ready to cook; others mill the flour and make bread; somebody else prepares our rice. Thus everything we eat depends on the kindness of the many others who bring it to us. Furthermore, the roads that bring us our food and help us get from place to place were built by the hard work of many people.
We might think that we paid for all this, but where did we get the money? It came from our job, but we only got that because somebody gave it to us.
Therefore, all we have comes from the kindness of others. We came into this world completely naked, without a stitch of clothing or anything in our hands. All we have accumulated since then has come from others.
We must reflect from our own experience on all the other ways in which others have been kind to us. The more we think about this, the more embarrassed we’ll be at thinking of ourselves as important and precious, and the more we’ll realize that in fact it is others who are important and precious. If we don’t think deeply about all this, it won’t make much sense, but if we want to follow the spiritual path we must develop this awareness. Meditating on the kindness of others is priceless.
Giving and taking
The next line of the text says,
Practice a combination of giving and taking.
This means that we should alternate giving and taking [Tib: tong-len]. I’ve been talking about the kindness of others—the more we think about this the more we’ll realize the extent of their suffering and will come to think that it’s so terrible that we must do something about it. Eventually we’ll feel compelled to take their suffering on ourselves and give them our happiness. This is what giving and taking means—giving happiness to all beings and taking on all their suffering—and we practice it in an attempt to destroy our self-cherishing mind.
We might think that since the suffering of others does not hurt us, why even consider taking it on? In response, the commentary reminds us that even in their dreams all beings want happiness and do not want suffering.
We might also think that while it is true that we all want happiness and freedom from suffering, nevertheless, the best thing is simply to take care of our own happiness and eliminate our own suffering. Moreover, we might wonder whether it is even possible to give happiness to others and alleviate their suffering, arguing that, since each of us has our own individual mind stream, we can of course create happiness in and remove suffering from our own mind, but how can we possibly do this for others? After all, their minds are completely separate from ours; surely they must be responsible for creating their own happiness and eliminating their own suffering?
While it is true that our minds are separate, it still makes sense that one person can help another find happiness and freedom from suffering. For example, a mother and her child are responsible for helping each other find happiness and eliminate problems. Now, we might argue that even though mother and child have different mindstreams, because they are so close and have great affection for one another it’s possible to talk of their doing this but not other sentient beings. The answer is that although it is true that in this life we have only one mother and father and don’t have that special connection with other sentient beings, before this life there was a previous one, and before that there was another, and before that another and so on—in fact, there is no beginning to the lives we have had in cyclic existence.
Furthermore, in many of those lives we were born from a womb, just as we were in this one, and if we think deeply about this we will see that every single living being has been our mother and father and has therefore been extremely kind to us. Through reflecting on the kindness of our present mother and father we should understand that in past lives, when other beings were our parents, they were similarly kind and affectionate towards us. Perhaps they were even kinder, sometimes even giving up their very life for our sake.
Thus all sentient beings have helped us in countless ways and saved us from innumerable harms and have even given their life for us on numberless occasions. However, the selfish mind says that while all this might be true, it happened so long ago that it’s all forgotten by now. Moreover, it also says that many of these beings have actually done their best to harm us as much as they can, so caring for all beings is out of the question.
However, the commentary points out that it is only our own selfishness that is raising these objections and denying the need to think so much about others and describes this way of thinking as a debate between selfishness and the altruistic mind dedicated to benefiting others. It’s like a dramatization, which is actually how to reflect and meditate. It discusses potential objections our mind might raise when we think about these issues, several of which will ring true to our experience. When the selfish mind comes up with these objections we have to find a way to respond.
For instance, when the selfish mind asserts that many other people are intent on harming us, the altruistic mind retorts that this is unreasonable because since beginningless time, over countless lifetimes in cyclic existence, others have been extremely kind to us. We cannot possibly measure how kind they have all been or count how many times they have protected and helped us. They have shown us this kindness since beginningless time and now, because of some minor problem, we’re branding certain people worst enemies undeserving of help. This is completely unreasonable and we should be ashamed of ourselves for even thinking it. Don’t we feel even a little embarrassed by our reaction?
Our ways of thinking and behaving are profoundly ignorant and particularly unpleasant because they completely disregard the untold help we have received and merely remember the little harm. It’s as if our parents, having taken care of us all our life, have become old and sick and gone into hospital and then said just one unpleasant thing to us, and we have reacted with anger and attacked them. If our family and friends would come to know how we have completely forgotten our parents’ kindness and reacted with hatred just because of this one comment they would be disgusted at our behavior.
Moreover, we may wonder why we meditate on the kindness of others and take on their suffering because neither we nor they seem to be affected by this practice. To this we can reply that of course no immediately visible, direct effects arise from such practice, any more than they do when we make offerings, prostrations and so forth to the buddhas, which also bring no immediate result. It is different when we give food or drink to those who are hungry or thirsty because such actions bring immediate benefit. But when we do this, do we really experience no benefit? Do we ourselves derive no benefit at all? We might feel that we do not benefit personally from giving to others in this way, at least not directly or immediately, but that doesn’t mean there’s no result at all. Likewise, if we see no immediate, visible result from practicing morality, does that mean that moral conduct has no benefit at all?
With respect to the karma created by various actions, some actions bring results in this life, some in the next and certain others in a more distant future life. Therefore, the altruistic mind has to respond to the selfish mind’s objection above by saying, “You are rather stupid in failing to recognize that the good you do might not bring immediate results. For example, farmers plant various kinds of seed, some of which ripen that very year, others the following year and some only several years later. The fact that they don’t all bring immediate results doesn’t stop the farmer from planting them.”
Likewise, when we try to generate, meditate on and practice bodhicitta, we don’t necessarily experience immediate, visible results like those of eating when we’re hungry, but nevertheless, the future good results that will eventually ripen are endless.
Just as when we see a high quality crop we can infer that its seeds must have been excellent, in the same way, when we see any good result we can confidently infer that it must have had a good cause. The principle that good results must be preceded by good causes applies to the state of enlightenment itself.
The exalted state of enlightenment—in which all good qualities are fully developed and from which all faults and obscurations are totally absent—is a good result. We can therefore infer that it must have been preceded by many good causes, such as the practice of the six perfections and the four means of taking care of disciples and so forth, and we can speak of all such practices along the path, over an extremely long period of time, as the good causes that bring the great result of enlightenment.
Thus we can see that by using our wisdom and intelligence to understand the difference between right and wrong and gradually working at eliminating wrong, harmful states of mind and actions and developing correct, beneficial ones, over time, we can attain enlightenment. Once we have done so we will be able to benefit many, many beings extensively—ripen on the path those not yet ripened, liberate those not liberated and completely free from all obscurations those not yet free. How will we be able to do that? How do enlightened beings do that? While on the path they gradually develop the mind wanting to benefit others, practice actions beneficial to others and abandon all thoughts and actions harmful to others, thereby gradually acquiring the power to attain the omniscient mind of a buddha.
That is the ultimate result, but the benefits of the actions that bring it are not seen immediately, unlike those of eating and drinking to get rid of hunger and thirst. In response to this, the selfish mind might reply, “That’s OK, ultimately there might be such a result, but for the time being I’m not interested in trying to benefit all sentient beings because it’s evident that however much I look at it, I see little benefit to either my body or my mind.”
However, this thought is also a mistake because, even in the short term, there are many benefits from helping others and not harming them. When we live trying to be as helpful to others as we can and avoiding aggressive, negative mental attitudes and actions towards them, our companions and the people with whom we live really appreciate us because our behavior makes them happy and we in turn enjoy being appreciated, popular and well-liked.
Although the selfish mind does not understand and appreciate all this, the buddhas, bodhisattvas and other holy beings do. Similarly, those of us who are trying to develop, practice and meditate on love, compassion and so forth also understand and appreciate it, as do the people with whom we spend our lives, as I’ve just said. Even strangers with whom we’ve just come into contact will appreciate and take a liking to us. They feel something right away, just as we immediately feel uncomfortable and afraid the moment we encounter a vicious, violent person, even somebody we’ve never seen before, or a scorpion or poisonous snake.
The selfish mind might further object that there’s no point in meditating on love or compassion because there’s no direct personal physical or mental benefit. The reply to this is, “Normally you, the selfish mind, say all sorts of unpleasant things to people—perhaps you should give up doing this because it harms neither their bodies nor their minds; so why bother? Moreover, you are normally so full of malevolent thoughts and covetousness towards others—perhaps you should give these thoughts up as well; since they neither help nor harm anybody directly, physically or mentally, just forget them.” It’s only when you take action on the basis of your ill will or covetousness that you actually harm others physically, so since those attitudes themselves neither harm nor help others directly, why not just drop them?
Such objections can arise when we think deeply about the various disadvantages of the selfish mind and begin to gain experience in this area. One lama explored this issue in his writings and, although it wasn’t in relation to the text we’re studying here, I’ll use what he said to illustrate the following point. Debating with the selfish mind about these things until it has nothing left to say is extremely helpful.
To continue the argument, then, the selfish mind objects: “I don’t want to practice altruism or give up selfishness because doing so has no direct benefit.” The reply to this is that we readily accept the benefits of saving money and other things for our old age but since doing so has no direct or immediate benefit us, why bother? Similarly, if we get a thorn in our foot, our hand removes it; since this does not benefit our hand in any way, why should it bother to help the foot?
If we do not abandon selfishness and devote ourselves to the happiness and welfare of others we will never achieve the perfect happiness of enlightenment and will forever be stuck with changeable, unreliable kinds of happiness.
How to practice giving and taking
The text then goes on to say,
Giving and taking should be practiced alternately.
First we were told to practice a combination of giving and taking; now we’re being told to practice them alternately. Finally,
And you should begin by taking from yourself.
Thus these two lines tell us how to practice giving and taking, the second being for those of us who lack the courage to practice taking in its fullest form—taking on all suffering of all beings—straight away. We build up to it gradually by taking on our own suffering first. How do we do this?
We can start by meditating each morning on taking on, in advance, the suffering we’re going to experience that day. On that basis we gradually build up to taking on the suffering of the next day as well, then the day after that, and so on until we’re able to take on all the suffering of this life and finally, the suffering of all our future lives.
Once we can do this we extend the taking to all our friends and relatives, then gradually build up to include all the people to whom we feel neutral, those who are neither friends nor enemies, and when we’ve mastered that we add in our enemies, those who harm us, thus extending our practice to include all sentient beings. Of course, if we have the courage and strength of mind to practice this most difficult technique from the outset we don’t need to train our mind in the gradual method that begins with taking on our own suffering first.
Briefly, in a simplified way, the meditation on taking is as follows.
Reflect on the six realms of cyclic existence: the hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, demigod and god realms.18
Within the hell realm lie the hot and cold hells. The hot hells have eight levels with progressively increasing suffering, as do the cold hells. After the first level, the second has more suffering, the third still more, and so on. Then there are the surrounding hells like the hell of the shalmali tree, the swamps of rotting corpses and so forth, and then the temporary hells as well. However, the main sufferings that we take from the hell beings are those of the intense heat and cold they endure.
The worst sufferings in all of cyclic existence are those of the hell beings. The hungry ghosts experience slightly less and the animals’ sufferings are somewhat less again. The principal sufferings that the hungry ghosts undergo are those of hunger and thirst; they can go millions of years without finding even a gob of spit to eat.
With respect to the animals, if we look at those who live among us, especially in the West compared to Asia, they seem quite well cared for. Sometimes it can look as if pet dogs and cats, and even livestock, have an enjoyable life. They get a pleasant place to sleep and their food is prepared for them; it’s often better than that of humans in many parts of the world. The animals that live among us—pets, livestock and so forth—are referred to as “scattered animals” and compared to other animals actually suffer less than the majority, who live in the oceans.
Nowadays films give us a glimpse of how sea creatures live in water teeming with different species of fish; thousands, even millions, of different creatures living there together. They have more suffering than most land animals.
The general suffering of animals is that of not being aware and of eating and being eaten by each other. The big ones prey on the smaller ones or sometimes the smaller ones gang up on the big ones and kill and eat them instead. This goes on all the time and causes great suffering.
When taking suffering from humans, think about the three, six or eight sufferings. For example, the eight include the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death; of not being able to get what we want; of being separated from things and people we love; of all sorts of unwanted unpleasant things happening to us; and of our physical and mental aggregates, which are under the control of delusion and karma.
The main suffering of the demigods is that of fighting. Out of jealousy, they constantly fight with the gods, who eat the fruit of a tree whose roots are in the realm of the demigods but ripens in the realm of the gods.
The gods live for millions and millions of years, enjoying themselves greatly, experiencing extraordinary pleasure with their divine friends, but at the end of their lives, a week before they die, they hear a sound like an announcement in space, telling them that they will die on such and such a day. From that point on their splendor fades, they start to smell and their friends no longer want to come anywhere near them. Furthermore, they become aware that they have exhausted their merit and will soon be reborn in the lower realms.
Therefore, in that final week of their lives, they experience dreadful suffering, which is made more intense by seeing that all their pleasure is coming to an end and that they are about to experience great suffering. Moreover, even though a week might not sound like much, a week in the life of a god is like billions of years in the human realm.
The three lower realms are called bad realms because their inhabitants create nothing but bad actions and experience only bad results, while the three upper realms are called good realms because their inhabitants experience good results of good actions.19
When we practice tong-len 20 we begin by imagining the hell realms, thinking about the terrible sufferings the hell beings experience, and visualize taking it all on, completely relieving them of it all. Once we have done this we imagine giving the hell beings all our possessions, happiness and merit, the receipt of which brings each hell being to complete enlightenment. We then gradually work our way up in a similar manner through the other realms.
The way to practice taking is to concentrate on our breath and imagine that the sufferings of the beings in the particular realm we’re focusing on leave through their right nostril and enter us through our right. Visualizing our selfish-cherishing mind as a dense blackness at our heart chakra in the center of our chest, the sufferings we inhale descend dissolve into it, completely destroying this selfish mind.
The way to practice giving is to imagine sending out through our left nostril our entire body and all our possessions, happiness and merit from the past, present and future to each and every sentient being in the realm we’re focusing on. All this enters their left nostril, as a result of which they develop all the realizations on the path and become fully enlightened.
After taking on all the sufferings of the hell beings and using them to harm our selfish mind and then giving them all our happiness and so forth, bringing them to complete enlightenment, we move on to the hungry ghosts. We likewise take all their suffering from their right nostril into our right nostril; it too dissolves into and destroys our self-cherishing mind. We then send out all our happiness, merit and so forth through our left nostril; it enters their left nostril and brings them to enlightenment.
When giving, we should feel as if we’re turning on a light in a dark place. It might have been dark for thousands or even millions of years, but no matter how long the darkness has been there, as soon as we turn on the light it’s immediately dispelled. In the same way, when we send our happiness and merit from our left nostril into the beings in the realm we’re focusing on, even though all their obscurations and so forth might have been there for a long time, they are totally eliminated and those beings are established in the state of complete enlightenment.
Thus, we gradually go through this process with all six types of sentient beings up to the gods, taking on their suffering, using it to destroy our selfish mind.
We can sometimes add another visualization to this practice: after bringing all beings to enlightenment we receive back through our left nostril the blessings of their enlightened body, speech and mind. These blessings completely eliminate our self-grasping mind—which resides in our heart and has always believed that everything exists from its own side, independent of all causes and conditions—like switching on a light instantly dispels darkness from a room or a powerful jet of water immediately sweeps away a pile of dirt.
Meditating like this is a way of taking action. Instead of merely generating the aspirational love that wishes all beings to be happy and the compassion that wishes them all to be free from suffering, by practicing tong-len we’re actively doing something that creates an extremely powerful, positive force within us.
Again, the selfish mind will raise arguments against this practice: “It’s just too tiring and difficult,” “What’s the point? It benefits neither others nor myself” and so forth. The objection that it does not benefit us is easily refuted: it clearly strengthens our love and compassion and when we engage in this practice we can see that it creates a tremendous positive force in our mind.
With respect to the objection that this practice does not help others in any way either, once more the selfish mind is considering that the only way to help others is directly; for example, by giving them food or drink when they are hungry or thirsty. It’s true that tong-len does not benefit others in that way but there are many ways in which we do benefit beings through this meditation, albeit neither directly nor immediately.
Anyway, although helpful, the benefits of giving food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty are very limited. Tong-len, by contrast, is incredibly beneficial because it is only through practicing it and similar meditations that we can become enlightened, and when we do we’ll be able to benefit numberless beings in a single moment. So, looking further ahead, the practice of this meditation offers enormous benefits to both ourselves and others.
With respect to alternating taking and giving, if meditating on taking makes you feel uncomfortable and you can’t handle the idea of taking on the evil actions, bad karma and negativities of others, you can leave that part out and just do the giving. Imagine all your merit, good qualities and so forth leaving you in the form of white light, going to all sentient beings, entering them and purifying them of all their delusions and negative karma. Imagine that all this is completely purified, washed out and cleansed, leaving their body in the form of frogs, scorpions, all kinds of other insects and dirty liquid and completely disappearing into the ground.
Actually, when taking, there’s no reason to feel that you’re being polluted because all the negativity, bad karma and obscurations you take is poured onto your selfish mind, thereby reducing its power. So you shouldn’t feel that it’s polluting you. It’s like peacocks eating poison— it doesn’t harm them but actually enhances the brilliance of the colors in their feathers.
The text continues,
These two should be made to ride on the breath.
The two referred to here are taking and giving. Although the text says “giving [tong] and taking [len],” the actual order in which we practice is taking and giving. We first take on their suffering and then give them happiness because while sentient beings are suffering, happiness is of little immediate use to them. Therefore we take away their suffering first and then give them happiness.
When we have had some experience in this meditation we combine it with our breath. Since we are always breathing, when we breathe in we imagine we’re inhaling all others’ suffering and when we exhale we imagine that we’re sending them all our happiness and so forth on our breath, as described above.
When Khädrub-je, one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, praised him for being so helpful to others that even his breath helped them, he was referring to this practice, where high level practitioners can combine even their normal breathing with taking and giving.
Concerning the three objects, three poisons and three virtues,
The three objects are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral objects, the three poisons are attachment, aversion and ignorance and the three virtues are the opposites of the three poisons.
For example, when we come into contact with pleasant objects we experience pleasure and as a result generate attachment to those objects. When we come into contact with unpleasant objects we generate hatred, anger or aversion. And when we come into contact with neutral objects we generate a kind of neutral mental stupidity in relation to them.
It’s the same in our relationships with people. We feel attached to our friends, hatred for our enemies and, towards neutral people, “strangers,” our normal ignorance simply continues unabated. If whenever we notice these delusions arising in our mind we can think to ourselves, “May all the attachment, hatred and ignorance that sentient beings experience ripen on me,” we generate the three virtues.
The instruction to be followed, in short,
Is to be mindful of the practice in general,
By taking these words to heart in all activities.
In brief, the way to practice is to constantly remind ourselves of these instructions in all activities, which we can do by always remembering and reciting the words of Nagarjuna mentioned before,21
May the negativity and suffering of others ripen on me
And may all my virtue and happiness ripen on them.
Just as an old person needs to lean on a stick to move around, similarly, reciting words such as these helps remind us of the main points of the Mahayana mind training and keeps us going. By leaning on these words we can remember to practice taking and giving in all our daily activities.
So far this has been a commentary on the section of the text that explains how to meditate on conventional bodhicitta—how to generate the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. There are two methods for developing bodhicitta: the sevenfold cause and effect instruction and equalizing and exchanging self and others. This has been a brief explanation of the latter, making some basic points about equalizing and exchanging self and others.
Now let’s look at the next section of the root text.
When stability has been attained, impart the secret teaching:
Stability refers to the method side.22 When we have gained stability in the practices of conventional bodhicitta our teacher can give us the highly secret teaching on ultimate bodhicitta.
Ultimate bodhicitta refers to the direct realization of emptiness, so explaining it means explaining emptiness, which here means that everything is empty of true, or inherent, existence. Nothing is truly existent; everything is empty of true existence. That is the emptiness that we must realize.
Generally speaking, all phenomena that exist can be classified as either mind, which knows objects, or objects, which are known by the mind.
The next line of the text says,
Consider all phenomena as like dreams
When external objects appear to our mind, even though they appear to be truly existent, self-existent, existing from their own side, this is not at all the case. Therefore they are likened to dreams, which also seem to be real at the time but are seen to be unreal on awakening.
Both outer and inner objects are actually empty, but still, everything appears to be truly existent. However, if something were truly existent, if it truly existed the way in which it appears, it would have to be completely independent of anything.
For example, external objects like mountains, trees and forests are simply combinations of different particles or atoms; periods of time, such as years, months, weeks and so forth, are likewise combinations of moments. Therefore, none of these things—external objects, time or anything else—is independent of its constituent particles, periods of time and other factors. To be truly existent they would have to be completely independent of everything else.
When we talk about something being truly existent that means it’s independent of everything else. But since there’s nothing like that, there’s nothing that’s truly existent. The reason that there’s nothing completely independent, or truly existent, is because everything exists in dependence upon other factors.
Take a glass of water, for example. When we think about it, of course we know that it is dependent upon this and that, such as the various causes and conditions that have gone into producing it. If, however, instead of thinking about it we examine how it looks when it first appears to us, we’ll see that it has this vivid appearance, an appearance as if it were totally independent of any causes, conditions or, indeed, anything at all. That is how the glass of water appears—truly existent; completely independent of everything else; totally self-existent (which are just different ways of saying the same thing).
If the glass of water were truly existent the way it appears to be, it would have to be completely independent, but when we think about it we know that it depends on many different factors and is therefore not truly existent, independent or self-existent—and neither is anything else we can think of. Since this applies to everything that exists, all existent phenomena are empty of true existence.
Examine the nature of unborn awareness.
This next line refers to the fact that not only its objects but also the mind itself is empty of true existence. Mind, here, refers to the six kinds of primary consciousness—visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental; all completely lack any true existence.
Where it says “unborn awareness,” awareness refers to consciousness. Consciousness itself is produced in dependence upon causes and conditions and is therefore not truly existent. That means a truly existent consciousness is not produced, so a truly existent consciousness is unborn.
You can understand this by examining its very nature of being completely empty of independent existence. This shows that it is neither truly existent nor produced by or dependent upon truly existent causes and conditions. Thus we have only to examine the nature of the six consciousnesses to understand that they’re unborn.
The remedy itself is released in its own place
This line refers to the fact that the wisdom understanding everything to be empty of true, independent or self-existence is the remedy to all of cyclic existence and everything that produces it.
Place the essence of the path on the nature of the basis of all
This means that because everything is empty of true existence, things are produced only from particular causes and conditions and come into existence depending upon specific factors. If things were not empty—in other words, if everything were truly existent—phenomena could not possibly come into being in dependence upon certain specific causes and conditions.
Moreover, because we can see and explain how each event is produced dependent upon its own specific causes and conditions, we can see that it is also impossible to assert that any event is truly existent.
Therefore, “essence of the path” refers to an understanding of the relationship between emptiness and dependent arising, the knowledge that because everything is empty, the various manifestations of dependent arising—things arising dependent upon various causes and conditions—are possible, and because such arisings occur, everything must be empty.
In the period between sessions, be a creator of illusions.
A creator of illusions is a conjuror who can make illusory objects appear due to a special arrangement of sticks and stones together with mantras and various other substances. When he makes things appear to his audience he also sees them but since he knows that he himself has simply conjured them up he knows that they’re illusory. In the same way, even when we have directly realized emptiness, when we come out of meditation, despite our knowing that nothing exists truly, everything will still appear to be truly existent. We’ll see things as truly existent but will know that in reality, they’re not; due to the force of our experience in meditation we’ll have the certainty in the post-meditation period that nothing exists truly, the way it appears.
I mentioned earlier that the self-cherishing mind completely depends upon the self-grasping mind—the consciousness that conceives or apprehends that everything is truly existent and therefore completely independent.
For example, we can figure out that a cake is not truly existent because we know it cannot be made without ingredients—fruit, butter, flour and so forth—but still, the self-grasping mind sees the cake, like everything else, to be completely truly existent and independent of any causes and conditions. This is in total conflict with the knowledge that everything exists depending upon causes and conditions and in this way, the self-grasping mind completely prevents the arising of any awareness of cause and effect, such as happiness resulting from virtue and suffering from non-virtue.
All the problems we experience in life and, indeed, all our beginningless suffering in cyclic existence, can be traced back to our self-cherishing mind and if we delve even deeper we’ll find that beneath this lies the very root of all our problems, the self-grasping mind.
Those with less experience of Buddhist teachings should try hard to understand this important point—the self-grasping mind that conceives everything as being completely independent is the support for the self-cherishing mind, which produces the various delusions that cause us to create negative actions, which, in turn, lead to our experiencing suffering in cyclic existence.
An alternative translation has
In between meditation sessions, be like a conjuror.
This refers to the period subsequent to the meditation session—how to practice in between meditation sessions—and how even though things are empty, they still appear.
An example of how everything is empty yet still appears is the way our face appears in a mirror. When we see our face in a mirror we know that there’s no actual face in the mirror even though there appears to be one there. There’s a reflection that exists there and it appears to be a face, but we know that the reflection is empty of being a real face. However, despite the fact that it is empty of real face, at the same time all the various features of a face appear.
9 Three of body (killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), four of speech (lying, slandering, speaking harshly and gossiping) and three of mind (covetousness, ill-will and wrong views).[Return to text]
10 Killing father, mother or an arhat, drawing blood from a buddha and creating a schism in the Sangha community. They are called immediate because those who create such actions are reborn in hell in their very next life. [Return to text]
11 Transforming Adversity Into Joy And Courage, pp. 167–171. This entire book, especially chapters 10–12, augments Geshe Tegchok’s thoughts on the development and practice of bodhicitta. [Return to text]
12 A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Chapter 8, verse 129 (p. 106, note 297). [Return to text]
13 Ibid. Chapter 8, verse 134 (p. 106, note 300). [Return to text]
14 “You say such clever things to people, but don’t apply them to yourself; People of Tingri, the faults within you are the ones to be exposed.” Dilgo Khyentse. The Hundred Verses of Advice of Padampa Sangye. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002, verse 89. [Return to text]
15 Peacock in the Poison Grove, p. 83, verse 49: “I seize the thief who ambushed and deceived me.” [Return to text]
16 Ibid. Same verse: “The hypocrite who deceived me disguised as myself.” [Return to text]
17 Op. cit. Chapter 8, verse 130: “Enough of much talk! Note the difference between the fool who seeks his own benefit and the sage who works for the benefit of others.” [Return to text]
18 See the relevant sections of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand for details of all these.[Return to text]
19 The three upper realms are still fraught with all kinds of samsaric suffering (like the three, six and eight) but are relatively happier than the lower realms, therefore they are called “good.” [Return to text]
21 See note 6 above. [Return to text]
22 There are two streams of practice in the Mahayana: method—the development of bodhicitta—and wisdom—the development of the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. Like a bird needs two wings to fly, we need both method and wisdom to reach enlightenment. [Return to text]