The subject of this teaching is mind training [Tib: lo-jong],4 which has the connotation of cleansing, or purifying, our mental,verbal and physical actions. Actually, from that point of view, all the Buddha’s teachings are mind training in that they were all given for training the body, speech and mind.
The source of this teaching
This text, the Seven-Point Mind Training, is associated with Atisha, a great scholar and practitioner born in India in the tenth century. He received this teaching from Serlingpa, “The Man (or Teacher) from the Golden Isle,” which refers to Sumatra.
There are two methods for generating and practicing bodhicitta, the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, which, during Atisha’s time, was available in India, and the method of exchanging self and others, which was not. Therefore Atisha had to undertake the difficult, thirteen-month journey from India to Indonesia to receive the teachings on exchanging self and others.
The text begins5
Homage to great compassion
The term “great compassion” may be understood on two levels: interpretive and definitive. On the interpretive level, it refers to Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion; on the definitive level, it is the mind wanting to free all beings from suffering. This is the compassion that is important at the beginning, like a seed; in the middle, like the moisture and nutrition that make a plant grow; and at the end, like the ripening of the fruit.
The essence of this nectar of secret instruction
Is transmitted from the master from Sumatra, Serlingpa.
These two lines explain the great qualities of the teacher in order to generate confidence in the source of the mind training teachings. They originated with the Buddha himself and have come down to us today through an unbroken lineage of masters, including Serlingpa and Atisha.
Generally speaking, nectar means immortality—here it specifically indicates something that overpowers the various demonic forces that put an end to our life. Thus it actually indicates the Buddha, because the story of the Buddha tells how he overcame those forces. So when the text says “this nectar” it shows that this teaching has come from the Buddha.
He actually taught the method of generating bodhicitta through equalizing and exchanging self and others in a couple of sutras where he described how he had practiced it himself in previous lives. This teaching on exchanging self and others then passed down from master to master until it reached the great Nagarjuna, who wrote in his text, the Precious Garland of the Middle Way,
May the negativity and suffering of others ripen on me
And may all my virtue and happiness ripen on them.6
Buddha Maitreya also taught it in his Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras and Asanga taught it in his seven treatises on the levels, specifically in his Bodhisattva Levels. Moreover, Shantideva taught this subject very clearly in his Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, where he explained exactly what equalizing and exchanging self and others means. Thus this lineage shows that this teaching comes from an authentic source—the Buddha—and is not something newly fabricated.
The root text continues:
You should understand the significance of this instruction
As like a diamond, the sun and a medicinal tree.
This time of the five degenerations will then be transformed
Into the path to the fully awakened state.
This section, an explanation of the greatness of the text, is designed to excite our interest in it. The second line says “like a diamond, the sun and a medicinal tree,” the Tibetan word dorje [Skt: vajra] being translated as “diamond” here. Even a small fragment of diamond is more valuable than gold or other precious substances, so a diamond is said to outshine them all. Similarly, even a small, partial instruction from the Seven-Point Mind Training is exceptionally powerful and very effective for destroying our selfishness, and in that way it surpasses all other kinds of teaching.
Then it says that mind training is like the sun. Of course, when the sun is up and fully visible in the sky it completely illuminates the land, but even before it has actually arisen its light dispels much of the darkness of the night. Similarly, even when we understand or practice only a part of mind training it is already very powerful in overcoming selfishness and the other delusions.
Finally, mind training is likened to a medicinal tree, whose roots, trunk, branches, flowers and leaves are all therapeutic, making the whole tree medicinal. Therefore, while of course the whole tree can cure disease, even one of its leaves or petals is similarly effective, and in the same way, even a partial explanation of this mind training is very powerful in overcoming the negative mind.
Therefore, just as diamonds, the sun and medicinal trees are regarded as important and precious, so, too, is this mind training teaching.
The last two lines of this verse say “This time of the five degenerations will then be transformed into the path to the fully awakened state.” Without going into the time of the five degenerations in detail, it refers to a period such as the present, when people’s minds and activities have degenerated.7 For instance, even though we have used our mind to make incredible technological advances—for example, we have harnessed nuclear power with all its positive uses—we have also used that very same intelligence to create weapons of mass destruction.
Somehow, ours is a time of fear, and in that sense it is degenerate. Nuclear power stations can be very dangerous if they malfunction and nuclear weapons obviously threaten us all. There are many adverse circumstances within our external environment and our own minds and bodies that likewise cause us many problems. At such times it is very easy for practitioners to completely abandon their practice. If we fail to respond to such difficulties properly we will experience only negative consequences.
We’re liable to face many dangerous and harmful situations where not only do we risk giving up even trying to practice Dharma but sometimes things are so bad that we end up killing ourselves. Usually we’re very fond of ourselves—nobody cares for us as much as we do—but when the going gets rough some of us even kill ourselves.
Therefore, instead of just letting things be, we need to find a method that enables us to transform unfavorable conditions into a support for our practice and not let them stop us from doing it altogether.
4 Sometimes translated as thought transformation. [Return to text]
5 In this commentary, the root text is indented and italicized; quotations from other sources are indented but not italicized. [Return to text]
6 Buddhist Advice for Living and Liberation, p.162, verse 484. [Return to text]
7 The five degenerations are those of life span, view, delusion, sentient beings and time. See Advice from a Spiritual Friend, pp. 86–87, for a brief description. [Return to text]