Bodhicitta is the Best Medicine

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Deer Park, Madison USA (Archive #1071)

A teaching on bodhicitta, given by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Madison, USA, on July 4, 1999. Lightly edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching at Royal Holloway College, England, 1975. Photo: Dennis Heslop.

Good morning. Geshe-la advised that I should do some chatting, so today Mickey Mouse is going to do some chatting.

Everything we do in our daily life is for happiness, whether our own happiness or the happiness of others. Even though there are so many prayers to recite and so many different meditation practices, the very heart of the teaching of our kind compassionate Guru Shakyamuni Buddha is the loving, compassionate thought of bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for the sake of other sentient beings, is the best medicine, the best meditation, the best Dharma practice. Bodhicitta is the essence of Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s advice. Bodhicitta means letting go of the I and cherishing others. We have to let go of the I, from where arise all our emotional problems and all the obstacles to our own success and happiness and to our bringing success and happiness to the numberless other living beings.

From where do all the problems and difficulties in life come? From the I; from the ego cherishing the I, or in other words from the I. And from where do all the good things come? From bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is the source of all happiness, of all desirable things, from the temporary happiness of even our moment-to-moment peace of mind in our daily life up to the ultimate happiness of liberation—total liberation from the entire suffering cycle of rebirth and death and all the problems that are experienced in between and from its cause, karma, or action, and the delusions that motivate the actions—and the ultimate peerless happiness of full enlightenment, pure happiness that never degenerates, that never turns into suffering.

Bodhicitta, the altruistic mind that cherishes others and seeks to bring them happiness, is generated in dependence upon the existence of suffering sentient beings; therefore, we receive all our happiness, all the good things, through the kindness of others. Living your life with the good heart, cherishing others, is the best way to take care of your health. It’s the best way to heal AIDS, cancer, or any other disease.

For example, some years ago in Singapore when a student went to the hospital for a checkup, he was told by his doctor that he had AIDS. The student then sent a letter to his guru, Rato Rinpoche, a very high lama who lived in Dharamsala. Even though Rinpoche himself was showing the aspect of sickness at that time, Rinpoche kindly dictated a meditation on bodhicitta that involved letting go of the I and cherishing others. In this meditation, by generating compassion, you take upon yourself all the sufferings of the numberless other beings with AIDS and of those who have the karma to experience AIDS in the future and by generating loving kindness, you make charity of your body, your happiness, and your merits, the cause of all happiness, to others, who are numberless. Rinpoche kindly dictated the meditation to Ruth Sonam, the translator for Geshe Sonam Rinchen, who has been teaching for many years at the Tibetan Government Library in Dharamsala. You take the sufferings from AIDS of others upon yourself, upon your ego, and use them to destroy your ego, from where AIDS and other sicknesses come. You then send light to others and give everything—your body, happiness, and merit, the cause of happiness—to other sentient beings.

After receiving the meditation instruction, the student did the practice for four days. He then went to the hospital for another checkup and the doctor told him, “You have no AIDS.” I thought that he must have practiced for many hours each day. When I asked him, “How many hours did you practice?” and he said, “Five minutes,” I was shocked. But the five minutes that he meditated on those four days was extremely powerful. I would think that in that five minutes of meditation on bodhicitta he probably purified many more negative karmas and defilements than many months of deity retreat, reciting mantras and visualizing deities, even Vajrasattva, but without strong compassion for others, without the altruistic mind cherishing others. I think that his five minutes of meditation on bodhicitta was like some people’s months of retreat. The effect on his mental continuum, and even the benefit to his health, was much more than that from years of deity retreat done without a pure motivation.

While doing the meditation, he felt unbearable compassion for others. When he thought of the other people with AIDS, tears poured out. He felt it was unbearable that others were suffering, especially the people with AIDS. During those five minutes of meditation, he felt so much compassion for others. So, that is what he did each day.

He was healed by his own compassion, by his own healthy mind, not by medicine. Making his own mind healthy by generating this purest of attitudes affected his body; it improved his health. How does meditation heal sickness? Generally speaking, by understanding this, we can understand how meditation can heal sickness without depending on external factors such as chemical medicines and so forth. Compassion is very powerful. Generating compassion is a very powerful method of purification and of collecting good luck, or merit. Because this student generated compassion very strongly, he purified so much negative karma, the real cause of sickness. This negative karma was within him, on his mental continuum, not outside, and generating compassion purified that negative karma. With one way of thinking you can make your body and mind sick; you can make your mind sick and that can make your body sick. In a similar way, however, your positive attitude can make your mind healthy and that can make your body healthy. This is what normally happens in our daily lives. If you are aware, you can see this. It can be proved.

I also heard that four people in Spain had recovered from AIDS by doing meditation practice, but I don’t know the details. This was mentioned to me by the lead singer from the famous group called Meccano, who recorded a song about His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s life. (I call the group “Nangcho,” which means inner offering, because their name sounds like “nangcho.”)

Generally, our health depends on our attitude to life. I think that anything happening in the body is an expression of the mind. The body is an expression of the mind; how the body appears is an expression of the quality of the mind. This is what I think. So, how much you take care of your mind determines how much you are able to take care of your health. This is the best way to take care of yourself. This is the best protection for your life, the best way to keep healthy, because it is the correct evolution. Even though external factors such as pollution do affect the body and the mind, there is a reason that they do so; it doesn’t happen without cause and conditions. What happens is a result, or an effect, so the cause has to exist prior to that. Since that result is a causative phenomenon, its cause has to exist beforehand. So, there is a reason for it. Things do not happen without a reason, which is the same as saying that things do not happen without cause and conditions.

So, what makes things affect you, whether it is a positive or a negative effect? From where does the reason, or cause, come? From outside or from inside your mind? Again, it comes from your own mind. Whether the effect is negative or positive, it comes from your own mind. If it is a negative effect, it is a creation of your own negative mind; if it is a positive effect, if it is pleasurable, the cause is created by your own positive mind. But as ordinary people without realizations we are not aware of this, either because we don’t know about karma or we intellectually know about karma but don’t practice mindfulness of it. Many people don’t know about karma, about how our whole life comes from our mind, about how all our happiness and suffering are constantly coming from our mind; others know about karma, but aren’t mindful of it.

Buddha taught that you are your own guide and your own enemy. When you create good karma, the cause of happiness, you are your own guide; when you create the cause of the problems for yourself through generating non-virtuous thoughts, you are your own enemy. You are the creator of all your own happiness and suffering. You are the creator of your own life. It is not that somebody external with a mental continuum separate from yours creates your life, creates your happiness or suffering. That isn’t logical and that isn’t the actual experience in life.

The reason that we have so much freedom in our life is because we are the creator of both our own suffering and happiness. We have incredible freedom. Our life is full of freedom, full of hope, because it is not that some other being is creating our life. Therefore, we have so much freedom to make our life better. We can create the cause to achieve whatever happiness we wish and we can eliminate our sufferings by stopping or reducing the cause. Understanding Buddha’s teachings on karma only gives us more free will, more freedom. By understanding karma more, you see that you have more free will. It’s not up to somebody else. Your aim is to achieve happiness and not to suffer. By knowing about karma, you know the causes of happiness and how to create them. You can take that opportunity to prevent suffering and to experience happiness. Therefore, you have free will. Understanding more about karma gives you free will. Understanding karma does not put you into a prison; instead it liberates you from the prison of samsara, the prison of suffering, the prison of delusions. Rather than being caught in the prison of negative emotions, understanding karma enables you to know how to get out of that.

Since I have brought up this subject, I would also like to mention one other point. The Buddha’s fundamental philosophy is that we are the creator of our own happiness, our own liberation, and the creator of our own suffering, our own problems. So, when we use this Buddhist philosophy, we accept that there is no external creator whose mind is separate from our mental continuum. Everything we do, including coming here to this teaching, is our own decision, our own wish; it is not decided by somebody else. Everything we experience in every moment of every day is the creation of our own mind. Everything comes from our own mind. We should remember this basic philosophy in our daily life, especially in circumstances when there is the danger of generating heavy negative emotions, such as anger. Anger destroys your life; it destroys your own peace of mind, health, and well-being and harms others. Anger even makes the environment around you negative and terrifying, causing others to become unhappy and fearful. Your anger also causes others to get angry and to engage in negative karma. Besides your engaging in negative karma, your anger also causes others to engage in negative karma. Not only does your mind engage in negative karma through generating anger and so forth, but also your speech and body engage in negative karma. In this way, others receive so much harm from your anger. This is just one example. Your anger makes the world negative, your own world and the world of others.

In such cases, immediately remember the basic Buddhist philosophy that you are the creator, that this problem came from you; it came from your negative karma, created with your negative attitudes, so it came from you. So, you are the creator. By remembering this, your mind will then suddenly cool down, like pouring cold water into boiling hot water. Boiling water makes a lot of noise, blub, blub, blub, blub, but suddenly becomes very peaceful when you add cold water to it. Like this, your mind suddenly cools down, becoming calm and peaceful. You have nothing to blame on that other person, that other sentient being, who is the source of all your past, present, and future happiness, all the good things. Suddenly there’s nothing to blame. The only thing to do is to change yourself, to make your mind and your life better, by thinking of the basic philosophy of Buddhism. It only persuades you to do that.

Also, applying this basic philosophy in your daily life, especially in such situations, only makes compassion arise for that other person. As the great bodhisattva, the great saint, Shantideva mentions in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Because my karma persuaded this person, I receive this harm. By this, I make this person to be lost in the hole of the hell realms.

This means that in the first place you harmed this person, and because of this the person is causing harm to you at this time. This person is now in the human realm, and who obliged them to harm you? It was your past action, your past negative karma created in that way with that person. At this time the person has created negative karma through harming you. This will cause the person not to be in the human realm, in the realm of the happy transmigrators; it will cause their consciousness to be transferred from the human realm to reincarnate in the hell realm. So, didn’t you make the person to be lost in the hole of the hell realm?

Now here, by remembering the basic philosophy of Buddhism, you have no reason to blame that other person. We should remember this in our daily life, especially in the circumstances where there is a danger that we will engage in some heavy negative karma. Remembering this stops our anger and our other negative disturbing, obscuring thoughts. “Disturbing, obscuring thoughts” is a translation of “delusions.” I have added the word “obscuring” because these emotional thoughts not only disturb but also obscure your mind, your mental continuum. Remembering this basic Buddhist philosophy that there is no one to blame not only stops anger and the other disturbing, obscuring emotional thoughts, but becomes the practice of patience, because you don’t see any purpose in generating anger and harming the other person. On top of this, it gives you space in your mind to generate compassion for that person as Shantideva explained. For example, if someone is sexually abusing you, you can think, “This person is doing this to me because I treated them in this way in past lives, because in the past I committed sexual misconduct and abused others.” This person then becomes only an object of compassion. You only want the help the person, to protect them from creating negative karma and from their delusions. You feel unbearable compassion for that person and only want to help them. You do whatever you can to help them, to guide them.

As I was saying, bodhicitta, the compassionate, loving thought to benefit others, is the best Dharma practice, is the best medicine for the mind and the body. These days in the West, through research many highly intelligent doctors and psychologists have discovered that health has very much to do with a person’s attitude in their daily life, with how much they are able to keep their mind healthy, positive. In one book—I don’t remember its name—a person interviewed many educated people on this subject. One doctor and psychologist explained how cancer came from the impure mind, from negative thoughts, and then also emphasized that the way to heal cancer is through having pure attitudes.

There was one student in Australia who had AIDS. Every time he came to Chenrezig Institute, a meditation center in Queensland, Australia, he did a lot of retreat and practice, with Medicine Buddha as the main one and others. Doing all this practice and meditation would give him a lot of strength. These deities are very powerful. The purpose of their manifestation is only out of compassion embracing all sentient beings; no matter how much negative karma sentient beings create, a Buddha’s compassion never gives up sentient beings for even one second. Of course, their mantras are also very powerful and very blessed, so they have a lot of effect. Anyway, after all this practice, he would get better; he would become so radiant that he looked as if he had no sickness at all. He could then help in various activities around the center.

When he got better, the thought would always come to go back to the city to help other people with AIDS. However, whenever he went to the city, he was unable to continue his practice and his health would then deteriorate. He was busy, but I think that his health suffered not so much because he was busy, but because he was unable to continue his practice. I think that was the main reason.

He would then come back to the center and again do the practices. His health would again improve. Because he go better, he would then again go back to the city. He went through this cycle a few times.

When his condition was very bad, he came to see me when I was in Brisbane. He was so weak that he had to be supported by two friends. He sat in a chair and listened as I talked to him about how it is good to have AIDS, how it is positive to have AIDS. I’m was not talking about positive-negative in relation to AIDS, but about how positive it can be to have a sickness. I talked to him about all the benefits of having AIDS. I told him that he was very lucky, very fortunate, because he could use the AIDS to develop bodhicitta, to develop compassion for all sentient beings. Having AIDS can be a quick and powerful way to develop compassion, because having the problem yourself makes it easy for you to feel compassion for others, for those with similar problems, as well as for those with other general sufferings.

It is much easier for human beings living in this particular human world, the southern continent, to develop compassion than human beings living in the other continents: the eastern, western, and northern continents. Of course, there is no question that it is much easier for us to develop compassion than the worldly gods, but it is easier for us than even human beings living in those other worlds. It is easier for human beings living in this southern continent to develop compassion because we can see many sufferings in our own lives and in the lives of other human beings in this world. Because we can see and experience these sufferings, it is easy to understand others’ suffering and develop compassion. This means that we can develop bodhicitta more easily and more quickly, and thus can achieve enlightenment. Human beings in this world can more quickly achieve the great liberation, non-abiding in the sorrowless state, or full enlightenment, which is the cessation of all the faults of the mind and completion of all the realizations. But that is still not the final goal. Achieving enlightenment means that we can liberate other sentient beings from all their sufferings and the cause of their sufferings and bring them more quickly to full enlightenment. This is the main goal of life, the main objective, and we can accomplish this more quickly.

I told this student that having his sickness gave him an incredible opportunity to develop his mind in the spiritual path, in the path to enlightenment. His sickness opened the door to enlightenment and all other happiness. Using it to generate loving kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta for other sentient beings brings very powerful purification. As I mentioned before, many hundreds of thousands of eons of negative karma get purified. I don’t remember every single word that I said to him, but the conclusion was that his illness could bring him to enlightenment more quickly. We should use our life problems—whether AIDS or another problem—to develop the realization of bodhicitta by doing tong-len practice, taking other sentient beings’ suffering and its cause within ourselves to destroy the ego, the source of all our problems, and then, with loving kindness, giving everything to other sentient beings. I told him that each time he did the meditation of taking upon himself the suffering of numberless other beings he collected skies of merit, skies of good karma, or good luck. And each time he gives his body to all sentient beings, he collects good karma, the cause of all happiness, including enlightenment; he collects the cause of all the temporary happiness of this life and of all future lives, up to enlightenment. He creates skies of merit by giving his body to all sentient beings. Then, by giving all his merit, the cause of his happiness, to all sentient beings, he again collects skies of merit. And by giving all his happiness, the result of his merit, to others, he again collects merit like the sky. So, it is just unbelievable!

When you want to do this meditation of taking others’ suffering and giving others your own merit, happiness, and so forth, I normally advise that in the times between your meditation sessions, while you are working or busy doing something else, whenever the thought arises, “Oh, I have this problem,” immediately think, “I’m experiencing this problem on behalf of the numberless other living beings.” Whether you have AIDS, cancer, a relationship problem, or a job problem, think that you are experiencing the problem on behalf of the numberless other beings who have that problem and who have the karma to experience that problem in the future, and then on behalf of the rest of the sentient beings. Either one thinks, I’m experiencing this for all sentient beings. When the thought comes, “Oh, I have this problem,” before fear, worry, and other negative emotional thoughts arise, immediately think, “I’m experiencing this problem on behalf of all sentient beings.” Think this, then try to keep your mind in that state. Each time you think this you collect merit as limitless as the sky; you collect skies of merit, of good karma, because those for whom you are experiencing the problem are numberless.

Keeping your mind continuously in this state is keeping your mind continuously in the state of happiness. While the problem is there, you will be able to keep your mind continuously in a state of peace and happiness, and because of that, no other negative thoughts will arise. With this thought, you won’t create negative karma. This thought is an incredible protection. Those other disturbing, obscuring thoughts will not arise, so you won’t engage in negative karma, which not only harms you but also harms others. Keeping your mind in a state of happiness helps so much. Also, when you are able to keep your mind continuously in a state of happiness in this way, you feel very free and joyful, and you then have so much space to communicate with and to help others. There are no personality clashes because your mind is in this very open, very joyful, state. You can then communicate better with others and can better help them. There is also continual inspiration to practice; it gives you the energy to do various practices in your daily life. When your mind is too upset or too depressed, you can’t even do your daily practices. Also, when your mind is so depressed, so discouraged, you don’t want to communicate with or to help others. There is no space to help others.

So, to get back to the point I am trying to make. I don’t remember what I told him word for word, but the essence of the whole talk was to get him to look at his having AIDS as positive, as beneficial. I wanted him to see the incredible benefit he could get from having his sickness by using it to develop bodhicitta. At the beginning, he was slumped back in the chair, but after I had talked to him in this way, he was able to lift his body and get up. He waved his arms in the air, saying: “Oh, look! Look, now I can stand by myself.” You can see now how it has very much to do with the attitude, with the mind. This applies generally to everything, but I think that particularly in the case of AIDS, if you are able to make your mind strong and healthy, you can live longer. Even though the AIDS doesn’t go away, the person can live longer and also have a stronger, healthier body by making their mind healthy. The immediate change was an improvement in his health, but of course he had to keep his mind continuously in that state. It was not enough just to have his mind in that state at that time; he had to continue to keep his mind in that state. This would help him to stay healthy longer.

As I was saying before, loving kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta, the good heart, provide the best protection, even concerning protection of the life. Bodhicitta is also the best friend. External friends can change, but your bodhicitta is always the same. It doesn’t change; it doesn’t cheat you. It doesn’t harm you, but always benefits you and other sentient beings. It’s the best, most reliable friend. Your good heart, your bodhicitta, is also the best means to gain success. Bodhicitta is the best method to have success in any of the works of this life, success in the happiness of future lives, success in the everlasting happiness of liberation from the entire suffering and its causes, and the greatest success of achieving full enlightenment. Even for success, bodhicitta is the best. Again, the logic is the same. Success is a causative phenomenon. Success is a dependent arising; it depends on cause and conditions. Therefore, success in finding happiness—I don’t know about success in finding problems—has to come from a particular cause, virtue, good karma, or positive action; positive action, or karma, has to come from positive intention, or sempa in Tibetan, which is a mental factor. It has to come from positive intention. With bodhicitta, this thought of benefiting sentient beings, one collects the most extensive merit, or good karma. This is the logical reasoning. As you will remember, it is said in the teachings and in Bodhicaryavatara, even without engaging in an actual action to benefit others, just by thinking to benefit others, you collect merit like the sky. Since merely thinking to benefit others collects skies of merit, bodhicitta is the best means to have success in finding happiness. The same applies to finding wealth.

By having bodhicitta, you become a friend to all sentient beings. Having this good heart, this thought to benefit other sentient beings, breaks down the wall between you and others. If you feel distant from other sentient beings, as if there is a wall between you and others, bodhicitta will break it down, so that you feel close to all sentient beings. There is no distance between you and others. By having this realization, you hold all sentient beings in your heart. Bodhicitta is the source of all your happiness and success and of all the happiness and success of all other sentient beings. Your loving kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta are also the source of happiness and success for all the numberless other living beings.

The last point I want to mention is universal responsibility. If you have the good heart, the thought to benefit others, numberless other sentient beings do not receive harm from you, which means they receive peace and happiness from you. On top of that, they receive help, benefit, from you. Besides the peace and happiness that is the absence of harm, they receive so much peace and happiness from you. Therefore, all this peace and happiness they receive from you is in your hands. Whether or not you want cause others this peace and happiness is up to you; it depends on what you do with your mind, on whether or not you generate this good heart, this bodhicitta, the thought to benefit. Therefore, every one of us here holds the responsibility for the happiness of numberless other sentient beings. If we live our daily life with this attitude, everything—all those many hours of working, studying, eating, sleeping, walking—will naturally become work for others, work to cause happiness to others. In this way, all those actions will become virtue and the best Dharma because they are unstained by self-cherishing thought. They will become the best cause of happiness for you and for all sentient beings. In this way the twenty-four hours of each day will become beneficial, useful. No matter what lifestyle you have—whether you are healthy, with no cancer or AIDS, or whether you have one of those sicknesses, whether you are at home, in an office, or even in prison—with this thought your life will always be beneficial for sentient beings. Whatever you do, it will always be beneficial for sentient beings. Your life becomes useful all the time, because it is always for sentient beings. In this way the purpose of your living is achieved.

So, I think I will stop here. I thought today to read you Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo’s very powerful instruction on impermanence, but anyway whatever happens, happens....

Due to all the past, present, and future merits collected by me, the merits of the three times collected by the buddhas, bodhisattvas, and all the rest of the sentient beings, which are totally non-existent from their own side, may the I, who is totally non-existent from its own side, achieve Guru Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, which is also totally non-existent from its own side, and lead all sentient beings, who are also totally non-existent from their own side, to that enlightenment, which is also totally non-existent from its own side, by myself alone, who is also totally non-existent from its own side.

Thank you. Thank you so much.