Thought Transformation in Daily Life

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Geneva, Switzerland (Archive #876)

A public talk by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Geneva, Switzerland, on July 31, 1990. Rinpoche explains the essential practice of mind training (lo-jong), including advice on how to use our problems to destroy the self-cherishing thought. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Chenrezig Institute, Australia, 1991. Photo: Thubten Yeshe

The subject I want to speak on a little today is thought transformation—thought transformation and body transformation. I’m joking! No, only on thought transformation, after that body transformation slowly comes.

First we will say some prayers to develop our natural potential, so that we can pacify all our mistakes, the cause of all undesirable things, and develop the cause of all desirable things, such as happiness and peace of mind. We will then be able to achieve the perfect state, purified of all faults and perfected in all qualities.

First of all I’d like to explain a little on thought transformation in daily life, how we should live our life in order to stop obstacles and receive everything desirable. Then, if there’s time, I’ll give the oral transmission and a little explanation on some thought transformation teachings of which I have received the lineage.

Do not commit any unwholesome actions,
Enjoy creating perfect virtue,
Subdue one’s own mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

Problems in life arise because we look at things in a way that is opposite to reality, to the way things actually exist. This itself is the problem. Our view, in which we believe, is a projection that is not the reality. We create our own view of everything: subject, action, object; friend, enemy, stranger; possessions, friends, our body. Our view is the opposite to reality, and this is our basic problem. Our way of looking at everything is the fundamental problem, and this then brings many other problems and much confusion into our life.

Looking at everything in the wrong way, not being aware of the way in which things actually exist, is the basic cause of confusion in life. On the basis of this, all our many problems are built up, such as relationship problems—or, even if you live alone, you then have problems of loneliness and depression. Meditation is the real psychological method to stop wrong conceptions and to bring the correct way of thinking that leads to peace, happiness, and harmony. Meditation is a profound psychological technique. Meditating on lam-rim—on bodhicitta or emptiness, for example—is like destroying the root of a poisonous plant so that it cannot produce seeds and grow again and again, and cause a lot of harm. Or like eradicating the HIV-virus before it manifests as AIDS, in the form of more and more infections. Meditating on the path in order to achieve the fully awakened state of enlightenment is a profound psychological method.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche at Lawudo Retreat Center, Nepal, 1990. Photo: Merry Colony.Meditation sounds like some kind of religious term, but actually it is the deepest practice of psychology. Meditation protects the mind from wrong ways of thinking and keeps it aware of reality. Meditation keeps the mind in method and wisdom. Method means loving kindness, compassion, and so forth. You keep your mind in a state of loving kindness by being aware of how others are kind and in a state of compassion by being aware of how others are suffering. Wisdom means being aware of reality. The practice of meditation is actually the best psychology.

In reality subject, action, object, friend, enemy, stranger, and all the sense objects are changing in every second under the control of causes and conditions. Not only that, but they can all cease at any time. Therefore, there is no reason to have the dissatisfied mind of desire. The nature of the desirous mind is unhappy. When you look at the reality, you see no point in having an unhappy, dissatisfied mind.

If you give up desire, it looks as if you are giving up your happiness. The reason you feel like this is that you have not meditated on and analyzed well the fact that temporary pleasures, which are dependent on substantial, external objects, are false pleasures. You have not realized that even though such things appear to be pleasures, there is no pleasure there.

Also, you haven’t experienced the great peace that comes with the absence of desire. When desire is renounced, there is deep peace in the mind. Because you have no experience of this, the only happiness you know comes from your ordinary pleasurable experiences. This could be part of the reason that you feel you are giving up your happiness when you give up desire.

Cutting off desire, however, doesn’t mean that you lose your happiness. You actually gain happiness and real peace of mind because you don’t have endless experiences of anger and of desire. This great peace of having contentment in your life doesn’t allow these other obstacles to arise. Whether you are alone or with a friend, you are content. Anger, desire, and other distracting thoughts don’t allow any space in your mind for this inner peace.

When I say that you should give up desire, it might sound as if I’m telling you to give up your happiness, but that is because of your lack of understanding of the four noble truths, especially of true suffering and true cause of suffering. You don’t understand problems and their causes, or happiness and its causes. When you haven’t done the practices and don’t have the experiences, it looks as if your life becomes nothing when you give up your desire. Feeling like this shows your lack of understanding of real happiness, real peace of mind. Real inner peace has nothing to do with superficial excitement and pleasure. You experience this real happiness by sacrificing something—your self-cherishing thought, the dissatisfied mind of desire, and other wrong conceptions. By sacrificing these distracting thoughts, you gain all temporary and ultimate happiness, up to the complete happiness and highest peace of mind of full enlightenment. You experience this great happiness only through meditation.

You can see that you can gain infinite benefit by understanding and practicing meditation. You can enjoy life without what you usually regard as pleasures. Without understanding and practicing meditation, you have a limited experience of what happiness means. You see happiness as only cherishing yourself and following the distracted, dissatisfied mind of desire. You think, “How could I live without this? There would be no happiness!” Your view is very limited.

People who have never taken LSD or any other hallucinogenic drug have no idea what the experience of feeling high is like. In the same way, those who have never practiced renouncing the selfish attitude or the dissatisfied mind of desire have no idea what the experience of real peace of mind and happiness is like. They don’t know its infinite benefits, that through this they can experience ultimate peace and happiness.

Since self, action, object, one’s own body, possessions, and companions can be stopped at any time, there’s no point in allowing anger or desire to arise in relation to these objects. And there’s no point in having the wrong conception of them as permanent, unchangeable, and likely to last for a long time. Remembering the reality of these things, that they are transitory and can be stopped at any time, is the psychological method, or the meditation, to control anger, desire, and other distracted minds.

On top of this, it is most important to practice awareness of and realize the ultimate nature of subject, action, object, and these other things. Take the example of someone who does the job of cleaning. In dependence upon the work the person does, he is labeled “cleaner.” When the person stops his job as a cleaner and does secretarial work in an office, he is labeled “secretary” because he performs the particular functions of writing letters and so forth. When he then becomes the director and performs the functions of making decisions and directing the people in the office, at that time he is labeled “director.”

When someone does the action of stealing, he is labeled “thief.” When that same person then gives money to charity, he is labeled “generous person” not “thief.” When a person makes decisions in court, he is called “judge.” When the same person becomes the head of his country, he is called “president” or “prime minister.” So, a person is labeled in dependence upon what they do. Various labels are imputed to a person in dependence upon what they do.

In the first example, when the person stopped doing the job of a cleaner and started to do secretarial work in an office, at that time he was no longer called “cleaner”; instead “secretary” was merely imputed to him. If cleaner were unlabeled, existing from its own side, when the person began to do secretarial work, he would still be a cleaner. He would be a cleaner forever. A real cleaner existing from its own side, an unlabeled cleaner, appears to us, but if this were true, when he later became a secretary and then the director, he would still be a cleaner. Even if he later became the president or prime minister, he would still be a cleaner.

A person is merely labeled this or that in dependence upon their activities. You can see that all these things do not exist at all from their own side, so they are all completely empty. Cleaner, secretary, director, prime minister—they are all empty. They all exist in mere name, being merely imputed by the mind to the base, the person. From cleaner up to prime minister, there is nothing real from its own side.

It is the same with the I, which we cherish so much. Simply look at the I and analyze it well. Think of the body—the body is not the I. Now think of the mind—the mind also is not the I. Even the association of the body and the mind is not the I. Nothing of this is the I. So, where is the I?

The I is nowhere. It exists neither inside the body nor outside it. Imagine that you have illuminated the inside of your body so that you can see everything clearly, just like when you switch on a light in a room. Now search for the I. Look inside your brain—there’s no I there. Nor is the I inside your chest, your heart, your lungs, your intestines, your bones, your marrow.

It is good to meditate like this. Just as a scientist cuts an animal’s body into pieces in search of reality, search for the I. It is neither inside nor outside your body.

Let’s use the example of a table. One leg of a table is not the table; that one piece is part of the table, which means it is not the table. Any part of the table is not the table. Even the collection of all the parts is not the table; it’s the basis of the table. The basis of the table is not the table. “Table” is merely imputed to the collection of all the parts of a table. Table exists in dependence upon the base, the collection of all its parts. You can see clearly the difference between the table and its base. Table is merely imputed by the mind; table exists in mere name in dependence upon its base. Therefore, there is no concrete table, no real table from its own side. You can see that the table is completely empty of being a table that exists from its own side.

So, what is the table? To make it simple, the table is merely imputed in dependence upon the collection of its parts, the base. It is nothing other than this. The table is completely empty of being a real table existing from its own side. This emptiness is the ultimate nature of the table. Now, there is a table. The table is not nonexistent; it exists in mere name, being merely imputed. The table is a dependent arising, dependent on its base, and at the same time it is empty of existing from its own side. Dependent arising and emptiness are unified.

If you analyze like this, you discover that table is actually not what you previously believed it to be; it is completely something else. There is a big difference between reality and the projections that appear to us in our everyday life. This is the basis of all our other problems.

In a similar way, you can see that the mind is not the I. The mind is part of the base of the I, the aggregates. It’s a part of the base to which the I is merely imputed. If the mind were the I, since there are five consciousnesses, there would be five I’s. And there are so many thoughts, both positive and negative. If they were all one with the I, if some negative thought were eliminated, for example, there would be no continuation of that I. This mistake would arise.

Since there are fifty-one mental factors, would there then be fifty-one I’s? If that were the case, when you wanted to fly to another country, you might have to buy many tickets. You might have to buy billions of tickets! When you had a child, if so many I’s are involved, you might actually have hundreds of thousands of children—or billions!

If the mind is not the I, why can’t the body be the I? However, the same mistake would arise: there would be many, many I’s. And this is not our experience.

Since the association of the body and the mind is the base to which the I is merely imputed, the I is completely empty of being a real I existing from its own side. When the body is sitting, one merely imputes “I am sitting.” When the body stands up, one merely imputes “I am standing.” When the aggregates perform the function of speaking, one labels on this “I am speaking.” When the mind is listening, one merely imputes “I am listening.” At the time when the aggregates are sleeping, with the gross sense consciousnesses absorbed, one merely imputes “I am sleeping.” To the different functions of the body or mind, one constantly imputes “I am doing this,” “I am doing that.” From morning until night, we are imputing labels, one after another. From birth until death, we merely impute different labels to this base. The I is completely empty of being a real I existing from its own side.

Our belief in our projection of a real I existing from its own side is extremely strong, but when we precisely analyze the I in this way, the I seems nonexistent. In dependence upon its base, the I exists, but at the same time it seems kind of nonexistent. The I exists but it’s empty, so we feel it’s as if it is nonexistent. In reality the I exists in dependence upon its base, but it is completely empty of being a real I existing from its own side. This is the ultimate nature of the I.

The I exists being merely imputed to its base, the aggregates. Like this, the general aggregates exist being merely imputed to their base: the aggregates of form, feeling, recognition, compounding aggregates, and consciousness. The general aggregates exist being merely imputed to this group. And each aggregate again is merely imputed to the collection of its own parts.

Analyzing in this way down to even the atoms, you discover that each atom exists being merely imputed to its base, the atomic particles. The Prasangika- Madhyamaka view is that atoms have parts, though the other Buddhist schools say that atoms don’t have parts. However, Western scientists also say that atoms are composed of particles. When you check the base of an atom, you again find that it is merely imputed to another base. So, it goes on and on like this. And it is the same with consciousness. Each second of consciousness also depends on its parts, the split-seconds of consciousness.

From the I down to the atoms, everything is completely empty, existing in mere name. Nothing exists from its own side. Everything—subject, action, object; friend, enemy, stranger—is merely imputed by the mind. Everything exists in mere name, being merely imputed. On one label, another label is put; on that label, another label is put. In reality, since everything exists in mere name, everything is completely empty of existing from its own side.

It is the same when we believe we have a problem. If you do not label “problem” on a particular situation, there is no problem. If you don’t label “problem,” the problem doesn’t exist. If you label a situation a problem and believe in your own label, as a result a problem appears to you. If you don’t interpret the situation as a problem or you don’t believe in your own label of “problem,” no problem appears to you. For example, even though you might label your house as gold, you don’t believe in that label.

You may label someone who hates you as “bad” and another person who loves you as “good.” You can interpret in this way and apply these labels. Applying labels is not the problem. The problem comes when you start to believe in your label. The situation then becomes a problem; you then discover a problem in your life. Believing in your own labels is what makes life difficult. When you believe in your label—“This is a problem” or “I have a problem”—you then have a problem.

When you label something a problem and then believe in your own label, your mind has made up the whole problem. You can see how the problem comes only from your own mind. The problem doesn’t come from outside, but from your mind. First you have to see very clearly how the problem is your creation, your movie. This is the basic thought transformation.

By understanding the evolution of your movie, you see that the problem is complete nonsense. The real problem from its own side, in which you believe, doesn’t exist. Your mind made the problem up. When you looked at the situation as a problem, it appeared to you as a problem. There is no external problem.

The mind is a TV with many channels. On one channel all you see are problems, problems, problems. But if you turn to another channel, you will see everything as empty. On some other channel you’ll see only fighting and killing. There are many different programs! It is very important to remember that life appears to you according to your interpretation, according to your channel. If you change to the tantric channel, you can see everything as pure: yourself as Buddha and the place as a mandala. And there’s another channel where everything looks hopeless.

It is actually very good to understand this, because you then know that the mind-channel you want is in your hands. How you want your life to be—full of problems or full of happiness—is completely in your hands. It all depends on what you do with your mind. Everything—samsara or liberation, hell or enlightenment—depends on what you do with your mind. And even in everyday life, everything—harmony or disharmony, happiness or unhappiness—has to do with the channel you choose.

So, we have incredible freedom. Not only because the nature of mind is pure in the sense of being clear and knowing and not being one with delusions, but especially because at this time we have received a perfect human rebirth, which gives us every opportunity to develop our mind. We can cease all faults and sufferings and achieve the highest happiness, the complete peace of mind of full enlightenment. We have all these opportunities. By having this perfect human rebirth and developing our mind in the graduated path to enlightenment, in method and wisdom, we can also free every sentient being from all suffering and obscurations and lead them to enlightenment, the greatest peace of mind.

It is extremely important not to waste our life. As much as possible, we should apply all our effort so that we don’t have any regret later when we die.

Thought transformation means looking at problems as positive rather than seeing them as negative. Thought transformation is setting your mind on the positive channel. Even thinking of the evolution of problems, of how they come from your own mind and not from outside, immediately stops anger, desire, jealousy, ill will, and so forth. Simply remembering this subdues the mind and brings great peace. This is thought transformation.

The Seven-Point Thought Transformation says, “Put all the blame on one.” This means putting all the blame on self-cherishing thought. Since everything undesirable comes from self-cherishing thought, no matter what problem happens—your friend suddenly leaves you, you lose your job, you find out that you have cancer or AIDS, or even that you are about to die—the most important meditation is to put all the blame on your self-cherishing. This is very important, because if you don’t do this practice, the situation becomes a problem. Simply putting the blame inside on your self-cherishing thought and not outside solves the problem. Suddenly there is no problem. No matter what undesirable thing happens, “put all the blame on one.” This is very important even for peace of mind in daily life, without talking about enlightenment.

The next line in The Seven-Point Thought Transformation is “Meditate on the kindness of all.” This means you have to meditate on the kindness of every sentient being, even your enemy. When you meditate on the kindness of others, loving kindness arises, then also compassion.

These two lines are very, very important for happiness and success now in your daily life and in the future. These two are the fundamental thought transformation, or lo-jong.

The essence of thought transformation is as follows. First you think of the evolution of problems, that they come from your own self-cherishing thought, so that you don’t blame anything external for them. When you don’t put the blame outside, there is no problem; when you do, there is always a problem. Second, not only do you put all the blame on your self-cherishing thought, but you use every problem—cancer, AIDS, relationship problems, job problems, even failure in your Dharma practice—to destroy your self-cherishing. The problem is given to you by self-cherishing but rather then taking it upon yourself, you use it as an atomic bomb to destroy your self-cherishing. In this way the problem becomes a teaching on The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. This second point is very important. Rather than taking the problem upon yourself, you use it to destroy your self-cherishing mind, which brings all your failures: no enlightenment, no liberation, no good rebirth in your future life, and no happiness or relaxation even in your everyday life. You use all your problems to destroy self-cherishing.

In this way your experience of cancer, AIDS, or any other problem becomes purification. Experiencing the problem becomes Dharma practice, the path to enlightenment, the method to have a shorter stay in samsara. You transform your problem into medicine to cure the chronic disease of self-cherishing, which brings disease as well as all other problems from life to life.

The other thing is that with loving kindness you do the practice of giving everything—your body, possessions, friends and relatives, happiness—to other sentient beings and with compassion you take upon yourself the suffering and causes of suffering of others. You do these meditations, then from time to time you remember them when you are working in the office or doing something else. When a problem arises, think, “I have meditated many times on taking other sentient beings’ problems and also prayed many times for this to happen. Well, now I have succeeded in my prayers. How fortunate I am to be experiencing this problem on behalf of other sentient beings.” Even if you have AIDS, think that you are experiencing it on behalf of those who have AIDS now and those who will experience it in the future, and on behalf of all sentient beings. Each time you sacrifice yourself for others, experiencing suffering on their behalf, you accumulate infinite merit. Having problems becomes a retreat on bodhicitta. The more problems you have and the longer you have them, the more you do retreat on bodhicitta.

Also, remember the stories of Shakyamuni Buddha when he was still a bodhisattva. In one life, when he was a king, he gave away all his family. In many lifetimes, he gave away his possessions and even his body. For three countless great eons, he practiced the paramitas like this. Think, “Buddha practiced like this for three countless great eons in order to achieve enlightenment for sentient beings, so why can’t I do the same thing? I have the same potential, so why can’t I make the same sacrifices? Why can’t I offer charity to all sentient beings?”

In relation to your own present situation, if somebody steals something from you or a friend takes away something of yours, use the situation to practice charity. Think that the person is giving you the opportunity to practice the paramita of charity.

When you are using your problems to destroy your self-cherishing thought, one very important point is to think of the kindness of the person who doesn’t love you and harms you. Really feel their kindness from your heart. When you use the problem the person gives you as a weapon to destroy the demon of self-cherishing, real peace comes in your heart. At that time you can really appreciate how unbelievably kind the person is. Even if the person gave you a million dollars, you would not experience the deep peace inside yourself that comes through destroying the selfish mind. In this way you really feel the kindness of the person who harms you.

With these practices there is always happiness. You have no fear. Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, your mind is in a fearless state. This is called “the fearless lion yoga.” Your mind is relaxed and happy all the time; your life is clean, neat, and you also have a good future. If everything looks fine now but the future looks bad, this isn’t good. No matter what happens to you, whether you are happy or suffering, always relate to the situation with Dharma. Then, even though your body may be in an impure realm, your mind will be in a pure realm.

If your mind is not disturbed, the wind, the vehicle of the mind, is not disturbed, and the four elements are not disturbed, which means you are healthy. And if we continue the practice of thought transformation in our daily life, when death comes, we will also be able to use our death to practice Dharma.

We have reached the same conclusion as we did when we talked about emptiness. There is no point in having an unhappy, dissatisfied mind with ignorance, anger, desire, and other negative thoughts. It creates the cause of samsara and continuously makes us suffer. Practice of the two bodhicittas—emptiness and conventional bodhicitta, the altruistic wish to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings—is the fundamental thought transformation practice. With these two bodhicittas, you can achieve enlightenment and lead all sentient beings to full enlightenment.

We will now dedicate the merit. Due to all the merely imputed merits of the three times accumulated by me and by all other sentient beings, bodhisattvas, and buddhas, may the merely imputed I achieve the merely imputed enlightenment and lead all the merely imputed sentient beings to that merely imputed enlightenment.

Please dedicate like this. Thank you so much.