As I mentioned before, you should know the meaning of your life, the reason you are alive, the purpose of having taken this precious human body at this time, especially this perfect human rebirth, which has eight freedoms and ten richnesses—you should know this, not just intellectually but deeply, so that you transform your attitude accordingly and live your life in harmony with that purpose. What is the purpose of your life? It is to live for the benefit of others.
Therefore, compassion is the most important meditation, or practice, you can do. Even though the Buddha’s teachings talk about billions of different meditations, or practices, that you could spend your whole life doing, this is the most important—benefiting others; living your life with an attitude of compassion for others. This is the real purpose of life, the real meaning of your life.
If even you have only an hour to live, a minute to live, the purpose of life is still to live for the benefit of others, with a good heart, with compassion for others. Even if you have only a minute to live, only a minute of this precious human body left, the most important thing you can practice is compassion; nothing else.
The same thing would be true were you to have a hundred years to live, a thousand years to live, even an eon to live. To fulfill your life’s purpose, you would still have to live with compassion for others, for the benefit of others.
If you are enjoying a happy life, experiencing pleasure, in order for your life not to be empty, to be beneficial, useful, for others, you should practice compassion, live your life for the benefit of others.
If your life is unhappy, if you are experiencing relationship problems, if you have cancer or AIDS, if you are depressed, if your life is uncomfortable, even if you are encountering so many hundreds and hundreds of problems—health, relationship, job-related problems—that it seems as if you are drowning in a quagmire of problems, you should also practice compassion for others. If you can practice compassion at times like this, you will still be making your life meaningful, beneficial for others, useful for others, and therefore—by benefiting others—you will be constantly making your life beneficial for yourself. Cherishing others is the best way of cherishing yourself.
Cherishing others brings enlightenment
Cherishing others means that you don’t harm others, and not harming others is not harming yourself. Even in terms of protection, this is the best way to protect your life. Similarly, when you cause others to be happy, you bring happiness to yourself. The karma created by making others happy causes you to experience happiness too; that’s the kind of karma that results in happiness. Even if you don’t want happiness, once you have created its cause, that’s what results.
If you plant a seed in the ground and all the right conditions are present, such as perfect soil, water, and heat—every thing is together and there are no obstacles—then no matter how much you pray for the plant not to grow, it will grow. It will definitely grow because the seed planted in the ground has met all the conditions necessary for growth; the cause and conditions have met. Since it is a dependent arising, it is inevitable that that flower or fruit will grow, no matter how much you pray for it not to.
Similarly, if you lead your everyday life with compassion, bringing as much happiness to others as you possibly can, the natural result will be for you yourself to experience happiness, both now and in the future—there’s the immediate effect of peace of mind in this life and the long-term effect of happiness in all your future lives. All this is the definite result of bringing happiness and benefit to others.
Therefore, there is much to be gained by cherishing others, taking care of other living beings as you do yourself. Whether they are insects or humans, they are living beings just like you—wanting happiness; not wanting suffering. Just as you need the help of others to eliminate problems, so do they. Just as your happiness depends on others, so does theirs. Not only humans but also insects need your help. Their freedom from problems depends on you; their happiness depends on you.
Why is cherishing others, taking care of others as you do yourself, not harming but benefiting them, the best way of looking after yourself, taking care of yourself? Because it is through having a good heart, cherishing others, benefiting others, that all your own wishes get fulfilled.
In general, in the world, when others see a person who has a compassionate, loving nature, who is good-hearted, they get good vibrations, a positive feeling from that person. Even when strangers meet that person on the road, in airplanes, in offices or shops, just the sight of that person makes them happy, smile, want to chat. Because of your good heart, good vibrations, positive feeling, you make others happy. Even their facial expressions change to reflect their happy minds. Even if you aren’t experiencing any problems, others keep offering you help.
When you have a good heart towards others, all your wishes for your own happiness get fulfilled by the way. Even though your motivation, like that of a bodhisattva, is only the happiness of others and you have not a single expectation of happiness for yourself, even if everything you do, twenty-four hours a day, is exclusively dedicated to the happiness of others with not a thought for your own, you yourself will experience all happiness.
Because of their realization of bodhicitta, the attitude of those holy beings, the bodhisattvas, is such that they totally renounce themselves for others; they have no thought for their own happiness but instead spend every moment seeking the happiness of others. So what happens? With bodhicitta, they are able to develop the ultimate wisdom realizing the very nature of the I—the self and the aggregates, the association of body and mind that is the base that is labeled I—and all other phenomena. Because of their bodhicitta and the ultimate wisdom they develop, they are able to eradicate all errors of mind, the cause of all suffering—both the gross defilements, the delusions of ignorance, attachment and aversion, and the subtle defilements, which are in the nature of imprints left on the mental continuum by the delusions.
This, then, is the special feature of bodhicitta, because with its support you can develop not only the wisdom realizing emptiness but can also stop the subtle defilements and thus become fully awakened, attaining the state of omniscience, the fully enlightened mind, knowing directly and without a single mistake, not only the gross karma but also every single subtle karma of each of the numberless sentient beings; seeing all their different characteristics, wishes and levels of intelligence; knowing every single method that suits the minds of all these different sentient beings at different times; and revealing the appropriate method that suits the mind of each individual sentient being at different times in order to guide that being from happiness to happiness, all the way up to enlightenment.
Thus, bodhicitta allows your wisdom to function such that it can overcome even the subtle defilements, making your mind fully enlightened. In this way, bodhicitta allows you to become a fully qualified guide, a perfectly enlightened being, and therefore to liberate numberless other sentient beings from samsara, the ocean of suffering, and bring them into the peerless happiness of full enlightenment.
So from where does this achievement of all those infinite enlightened qualities arise? Even the bodhisattvas on the ten levels [Skt: bhumis] have incredible, inconceivable qualities. Just a first level bodhisattva is able to meditate in hundreds of different concentrations, go to hundreds of different pure lands, reveal hundreds of different teachings to sentient beings. I don’t recall exactly, but there are about eleven different things of which they can do hundreds. Then a second level bodhisattva can do a thousand different concentrations, go to a thousand pure lands, reveal a thousand different teachings to sentient beings, and so forth. Like this, as they progress higher and higher through the levels, they achieve more and more inconceivable qualities with which they can benefit other sentient beings. The bodhisattvas on the ninth and tenth levels possess inconceivable numbers of such qualities.
All these incredible qualities of the bodhisattva path, all the infinite qualities of the buddha’s holy body, holy speech and holy mind, come from the root, renunciation of ego and the thought that seeks the happiness of oneself alone, and generation of the good heart, the thought that seeks the happiness of only other sentient beings. All those qualities come from this. All the infinite good qualities of Buddha, Dharma, the bodhisattvas’ path, and Sangha, those arya and even ordinary bodhisattvas, come from the incredibly precious thought, the wish-fulfilling bodhicitta—renunciation of ego and self-centered mind and development of cherishing only others. They all come from this.
Those who can do this realize the best possible achievement. They renounce the self, they renounce the I , but they gain the best achievement, the greatest success. Not only do they find liberation forever from the cycle of death and rebirth and all the problems it brings, such as rebirth, old age, sickness, emotional problems and all other difficulties of life we experience, but they also attain everlasting liberation, everlasting freedom, everlasting happiness for themselves, and are able to bring skies of happiness to numberless other sentient beings. All this comes from the root, bodhicitta, that most precious holy mind, renouncing I, cherishing others.
Cherishing others overcomes suffering
We can understand how this is true from reading texts that tell the stories of Buddha’s previous lives and the lives of other bodhisattvas, but we can also understand how a good heart is wish-fulfilling for your happiness from simple examples from the ordinary lives of common people in the world—how those whose minds are more compassionate in nature, who are good hearted, have much easier lives.
For example, if you are experiencing serious health problems, like cancer and so forth, but you have a good heart, your mind will be happy and peaceful because your main concern is not for yourself but for others; your concern is for other sentient beings. Therefore, your mind is peaceful. Even if you are dying, your mind is not disturbed because your concern is for others, not yourself. Even at the end of your life, at the very end of your human life, your experience of death is a happy one because your attitude is one of concern for others, not for I, not the self-cherishing, self-centered mind.
Even though things don’t work out for you, you encounter many obstacles, your life is going wrong, none of this bothers you, your mind is undisturbed, always happy and peaceful, because the first priority in your life is the happiness of others. What concerns you most is others, not yourself. That’s your goal. This attitude brings so much peace and happiness into your daily life, gives you so much satisfaction. Even if other people are causing you problems, hassling you, it doesn’t bother your mind; your mind remains peaceful and happy.
In particular, with a good heart, compassion for others, whenever a problem arises, you experience it for others, on behalf of other sentient beings. If you experience happiness, you experience it for others. If you enjoy a luxury life, comfort, you dedicate it to others. And if you experience a problem, you experience it for others—for others to be free of problems and to have all happiness up to enlightenment, complete perfect peace and bliss. Wishing others to have all happiness, you experience problems on their behalf.
That gives you incredible satisfaction and fulfillment, but not only that. If you have that attitude, no matter how many problems you experience, when you encounter each one you feel like you have discovered a precious treasure. You see it as an incredible opportunity to dedicate yourself to others; a great chance to experience the sufferings of others, like bodhisattvas do, like Buddha did, like Jesus Christ did; to take upon yourself the suffering of others.
Even though others might find that problem unbearable, for you, who has this attitude, it’s not a big bother, you don’t find it particularly difficult, you’re pretty easy about it—because of your good heart, that pure attitude of life. This makes your entire life very easy, very happy. Your heart is not hollow, not empty, but over owing with fulfillment, brimming with joy. In this way, even should you encounter many problems, you live your life with joy. You enjoy your problems; you even enjoy your death.
No matter what happens, you enjoy it with bodhicitta, the thought that cherishes others. What ordinary people might find undesirable, the person with the good heart, the attitude of cherishing others, finds desirable because that person can make problems beneficial for other sentient beings. The person with a good heart, a compassionate mind, the thought of cherishing others, the bodhicitta attitude, makes the problem useful, beneficial for others. In this way, this person’s experience of problems becomes a cause for the happiness of all sentient beings—not just temporary happiness but that of the highest, full enlightenment. Bodhicitta makes the person’s experience of problems a cause for the happiness of all living beings. How? By transforming problems into the path to enlightenment.
Gen Jampa Wangdu
I often tell stories about Gen Jampa Wangdu, who was one of the most senior Tibetan meditators in India and meditated around Dharamsala and Dalhousie, guided by the ascetic lama, Dewo Gyüpe Rinpoche. After completing all his philosophical sutra studies and then completing the study of tantra, passing all his examinations and becoming a lharampa geshe, a geshe of the highest rank, Gen Jampa Wangdu went into solitude up in the mountains to actualize the path that he had been studying in the monastery from the time of his youth for so many years. He was a highly attained yogi and bodhisattva who had accomplished the highest tantra path, which has five stages—isolation of body, isolation of speech, isolation of mind, clear light and illusory body, and unification. So he had reached the highest levels of tantra and attained the illusory body.
In 1982, after the FPMT’s first Dharma Celebration,6 many of our sangha members took teachings from him on how to do the “pill” retreat—“Taking the Essence” [chu-len], a method of being able to retreat in very isolated places, far from everything, where food and drink are hard to find.7 Instead of living on ordinary food, you live on special blessed pills, which gives you more time for your meditation practice and makes your mind clear and is an easy way to achieve the perfect concentration of calm abiding [Skt: shamatha; Tib: shiné]. Gen Jampa Wangdu was one of my gurus and I took the lineage of the chu-len teaching from him.
Once I was in Dharamsala, staying at Geshe Rabten Rinpoche’s house, which was below the house of His Holiness Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe Rabten Rinpoche was my first teacher of philosophical texts, the debating text, du-ra; he was the one who started me off on those. These lamas’ houses were near our center, Tushita. One night Gen Jampa Wangdu came back late after teachings and found that his house had been burgled. Of course, there was hardly anything worth stealing, but he found that the thief had taken his clock. That was it! But he was so happy that the thief had gotten himself a clock; he was so happy!
There’s a similar story about the Serkong Dorje Chang, who lived in Nepal—the incarnation of the Serkong Dorje Chang who lived in Tibet at the beginning of the twentieth century and was also a lharampa geshe. A lharampa geshe is like the most highly qualified professor, a great scholar, but in this case not merely a scholar of words but also in experience of the path. Later he became one of the few lamas to be officially recognized by His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to have attained high enough levels of the tantric path to be allowed to practice with a wisdom mother consort. The incarnation who lived in Nepal passed away some years ago and has been reborn and is now studying at Ganden Monastery in south India.
Normally my mind is full of doubt and superstition, but every time I would go to see him I would have no doubt that when I was in his presence, I was in the presence of Yamantaka. Not a single hesitation that Serkong Dorje Chang was Yamantaka, an enlightened being, the most wrathful aspect of Manjushri, the buddha of wisdom. I was always one hundred percent certain that he was Yamantaka.
Serkong Dorje Chang was exactly the same as those ancient Indian yogis like Tilopa and Naropa, the forerunners of the lineage continued by Marpa and Milarepa, but living in the present time. Actually, one day, he himself told a monk that he was the embodiment of Marpa. That would happen, sometimes. On a good day—I don’t mean weather-wise—when the time was right, Rinpoche would say many interesting things. At the end of the monks’ annual summer retreat, yar-né, as part of the traditional vinaya practice, the monks from his monastery would go for gag-yé, release from the retreat. Usually it would be a picnic, where Rinpoche would tell the monks many interesting stories.
Sometimes Rinpoche and some monks would go to do pujas at benefactors’ houses in Kathmandu. When it was over they would return to their monastery on Swayambhunath mountain, which tourists call the “monkey temple” because there are so many monkeys on it. One of his monks was from our college, Sera-je. He was an assistant umdze, assistant leader of prayers—usually there are a few other monks who support the chant leader; he was one of those. So one day when they were all walking back to the monastery, Serkong Dorje Chang said to this monk, “In reality, I’m actually Marpa.”
Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, who lived in Dharamsala and was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s gurus—he gave His Holiness a commentary on Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment and some other teachings as well—is also one of my gurus and has been exceptionally kind to me. Even though from my side I am very lazy and lacking in ability, from Rinpoche’s side he would always teach me anything I asked for. He always looked after me, guided me and was really so very kind.
Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche’s father was the Serkong Dorje Chang who lived in Tibet—the one who after becoming a lharampa geshe attained the highest levels of tantra and practiced with a wisdom mother consort. Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche was his son, and later, when Serkong Dorje Chang was reborn, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche became his teacher, the teacher of his father’s incarnation. Serkong Dorje Chang also told the Sera-je monk that Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche was Marpa’s son, Tarma Dodé, and another incarnate lama, Tse-chog Ling Rinpoche, was Milarepa. So Serkong Dorje Chang said, “In reality, we are like this.”
His Holiness Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche always used to say, “Oh, Serkong Dorje Chang—those ancient yogis were something like that.” He wouldn’t say many words, didn’t tell any stories, but would just kind of label, like that. Once Serkong Dorje Chang was traveling to Bodh Gaya—perhaps on pilgrimage or for teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama—and his monks’ robes, the required yellow ones, were left in a taxi in Patna. Later, when his attendant told Rinpoche that they had been lost, stolen, he said, “Oh, that’s very good,” meaning that he was happy that the thieves might get some use out of them, that it was worthwhile that they’d been stolen.
Even though I never received any initiations or oral transmissions of texts from beginning to end from Serkong Dorje Chang, I regard him as one of my gurus. Basically, that’s what he is. When Lama Yeshe and I arrived in Nepal, we stayed outside Kathmandu at the Gelug monastery at Boudhanath, near the precious great stupa. It was the only Gelug monastery at Boudhanath and at that time might have been the only Tibetan monastery with monks. We stayed upstairs there for about a year.
Every year during the fourth Tibetan month, at Saka Dawa, they would do nyung-nä. The year we were there it was sponsored by a benefactor who had a connection with another lama from Swayambhunath, Drubtob Rinpoche, not Serkong Dorje Chang. According to his devotion, the benefactor wanted Drubtob Rinpoche to give the ordination of the eight Mahayana precepts. But the Gelug monks weren’t so interested in him. They wanted Serkong Dorje Chang because Drubtob Rinpoche practiced the Most Secret Hayagriva deity that our Sera-je College practices and they didn’t—they thought it was a Nyingma deity or something like that. So for this kind of reason there was some conflict.
The monks prevailed, and Serkong Dorje Chang was invited to give the ordination of the eight Mahayana precepts in the early morning. So Rinpoche came in carrying the precepts text, opened it, and said, “If your guru tells you to lick fresh, hot kaka, get down on the ground immediately and lick it!” Then with his tongue outstretched and making a slurping sound, he imitated a dog licking up excrement. “That’s how to practice Dharma,” he said. Then he left. That was the motivation he gave us before giving precepts. But he didn’t actually give us precepts. He just gave that advice and left. It was like an atomic explosion—a very powerful teaching. It really moved the mind. Just on the basis of that instruction, I took him as a guru. That’s all he taught that morning. But he’s somebody who knows everything; a great yogi, as Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche said.
Serkong Dorje Chang would often circumambulate the precious stupa at Swayambhunath, the main, original holy object in Kathmandu. To people who didn’t know who he was or the qualities he embodied, he would appear as a very simple monk. They’d think he knew nothing—a simple monk, mala in hand, circumambulating the stupa. That’s how he appeared to ordinary people. He might have appeared like he knew nothing, but in reality, he knew everything.
Sometimes he’d be circumambulating with all the other people and if the time was right, if it was their lucky day, he’d suddenly turn to a complete stranger and say, “You don’t have much longer to live,” or “You’re going to die in a month”; “Better do prostrations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.” Something like that. Rinpoche would make predictions and advise the people what to do. But if the time wasn’t right, if it was not the day of your good fortune, even if you asked him something directly, he would say, “Oh, I know nothing. I’m completely ignorant.”
I first heard about Serkong Dorje Chang when I was in Buxa—stories about his suddenly disappearing and reappearing somewhere else and his attendants having to go look for him; many stories like that. Therefore, soon after we arrived in Nepal we went very anxiously to Swa-yambhunath to meet him. He was staying at a benefactor’s house because he didn’t have his own monastery at that time and had been kicked out of the monastery where he was staying due to some political problem. It was a Nepalese house and he was staying upstairs. When we arrived, this very simple monk came down the steps and we asked him, “Where’s Serkong Dorje Chang?” He told us to wait and went back inside the house through another door, not the one he’d come out of. Then we went upstairs to Rinpoche’s room and the simple monk we’d seen downstairs was sitting on the bed. It was Serkong Dorje Chang.
Our first Western disciple, who had already been ordained a nun, Princess Zina Rachevsky—she was descended from Russian nobility—was with us at the time. Serkong Dorje Chang had a big pile of texts next to his bed, so she just blurted out, “Please read us something from those.” Normally you don’t ask like that! In fact, usually when we took her to see high lamas we’d help her prepare the Dharma questions she was going to ask. Anyway, that’s what she said, and Serkong Dorje Chang replied, “No, no, no. I know nothing, I know nothing.” But then Rinpoche gave some unbelievably profound teachings.
I can’t remember what they were! But they were unbelievably profound; really deep. All I can remember is the essence, which was, “If your guru is sitting there on the floor, you must think that it is Guru Shakyamuni Buddha who is sitting there.” I can’t remember the exact words, which were much more than that, but that was the essence of Rinpoche’s advice to her.
One of Rinpoche’s supporters was a Tibetan from Amdo. He was the monastery’s biggest benefactor. Every year he would invite Rinpoche and his monks to his house to recite the Praises to the Twenty-one Taras 100,000 times and they would stay there for however many weeks it took to do that. Serkong Dorje Chang would be there for the duration. This major benefactor built all the monks’ rooms at the monastery; something significant like that. One day he came to the monastery to see Rinpoche and Rinpoche said, “And who are you?” pretending not to know him. Then Rinpoche’s attendant explained who he was, but Rinpoche still didn’t show any signs of recognition. This man was a big businessman and used to sell buddha statues in order to support his family. He must have done something really negative just before coming to see Rinpoche, so perhaps as a sign of that obscuration, Rinpoche manifested the aspect of not knowing who he was. There’s no way he could have forgotten him.
The monastery used to have this really big pot for making tea and food for all the monks. One day it was stolen, but when the monks told Rinpoche about it, he said, “Invite the thieves here and offer them a khatag to thank them for taking it.” But I’m not sure that the monastery followed through on that!
Once the bodhisattva Togme Zangpo, author of The Thirty-seven Practice of Bodhisattvas, was invited to a monastery to give teachings or attend a puja and received many offerings. Soon after leaving the monastery he and his party were held up by robbers, who tied them up and stole all the offerings. I don’t know if they beat them as well, but they certainly took everything. Before they could leave, the bodhisattva Togme Zangpo asked them to wait so that he could dedicate to them everything they had taken. Of course, they’d already taken everything physically, but he insisted on making prayers for their well-being. Then he advised them to avoid going near the monastery when they left, otherwise the monks would see that they’d stolen the offerings and would beat them up!
The healing power of compassion
The conclusion of all this is as I mentioned before. Compassion for other sentient beings is the best method, the best antidote for eliminating life obstacles; the best puja to eliminate obstacles to the success of both your Dharma practice—your gaining realizations—and your worldly work—such as your business affairs.
Once in Tibet there was a very wealthy family whose daughter was possessed by spirits. She’d gone completely wild and crazy. They invited many local lay lamas who normally did pujas and prayers for people in that area, but nothing helped. One day a simple monk came by begging for alms, so they invited him upstairs to see if he could do anything for their daughter. Maybe the monk was a geshe, I don’t know, but anyway, he tried the tantric ritual of the geg-tor—giving a torma to the interferers, like when we offer those three tormas at the beginning of initiations. But when he recited the mantra namo sarva tathagata beu mega... soha and lifted up the torma, offering it to the interferers, she just imitated his actions and recited the same mantra back. So he realized that what he was doing wasn’t helping!
Therefore he stopped performing the ritual and instead wrapped his zen [monk’s upper robe] around his head and meditated on compassion—for the suffering of the spirit and the suffering of the girl. At that point the spirit spoke to him through the girl, saying, “Please let me go. I will leave her,” and she was released. The girl who had been completely wild and crazy through spirit possession was finally freed by compassion. That was the only thing that could heal her. This is just one example of how compassion is one of the best, most powerful ways of eliminating obstacles.
The remedy of compassion is also the best medicine for healing sickness, the best antidote to disease. There are many stories of people who have recovered from illness by doing the compassionate practice of tong-len, where by taking others’ suffering onto yourself you cure your own disease.
There was a Dharma student in Singapore who had AIDS. His first guru was Rato Rinpoche, a very high lama living in Dharamsala, who himself had taken the aspect of having Parkinson’s disease. Through the lady who translates at the Tibetan Library for Geshe Sonam Rinchen [Ruth Sonam], Rinpoche dictated the tong-len practice for this student—taking other sentient beings suffering onto himself and giving his own happiness, merit, body and so forth to others—and had her send it to him in Singapore.
The student practiced tong-len for four days and then went to the hospital for a check-up, where they could find no trace of AIDS. When he told me about this I thought he must have done many hours of meditation during those four days, so I asked him how much he’d done. “Five minutes a day,” he said. Five minutes a day!
So what happened? While he was meditating, he felt unbearable compassion for all the other people who were suffering from sickness, especially AIDS, and felt no concern whatsoever for his own problems. He felt unbelievable compassion; he could not bear the suffering of AIDS that others were experiencing. During those five minutes tears of compassion poured down his cheeks. So even though he practiced for only five minutes a day, he practiced very, very strongly. The compassion he generated was very strong, and that strong compassion for only five minutes a day for four days, that special bodhicitta practice of taking other sentient beings’ suffering onto himself and giving them his own happiness and merit and so forth, was enough to overcome his AIDS.
How does compassion heal illness? How does it work? Sicknesses come from negative karma—non-virtuous actions, actions done with attachment, with an impure mind—and the most powerful purifier of such negative karma is compassion, bodhicitta—the altruistic mind cherishing others and seeking enlightenment.
As Shantideva said in the chapter on the benefits of bodhicitta in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life—and I’ll translate this a little loosely so that the meaning of the verse becomes clear—“By relying on a hero you can free yourself from great danger.”8
This means that if, for example, you are going to be executed or there’s some other danger to your life, sometimes the only way you can free yourself is by taking refuge in a very powerful person. The danger we face is the practically inexhaustible, powerful, negative karma, as heavy as a mountain, that we have created in this life and collected throughout our hundreds of thousands, in fact beginningless, previous lives. The hero who can save us from this is bodhicitta, the practice of which can purify these mountains of powerful, heavy negative karma in a moment. By relying on the heroic mind of bodhicitta—the attitude that renounces the I and cherishes others—we can purify all this heavy negative karma in the time it takes to snap our fingers.
Shantideva continues, “So, why don’t conscientious beings rely on this?”
In other words, he’s saying, if you’re a careful person, why don’t you practice bodhicitta? Bodhicitta has such incredible purifying power; if you’re intelligent, careful, conscientious and mindful, why don’t you practice bodhicitta? Compassion is such a powerful, positive mind that when the man from Singapore generated it so strongly, he purified so much negative karma that he purified the karma that caused him to have AIDS. Because compassion purifies negative karma, after four days he was free of AIDS. That’s just one example.
Therefore, compassion is not only the best puja, like in the story of the girl possessed by a spirit, not only the best method of eliminating life obstacles, but also the best, sublime medicine for healing sickness. What is the best way of overcoming cancer and all other illnesses through meditation, with your own mind? It is by developing compassion, by generating compassion for the suffering of others.
Whenever you experience pain in your eye or anywhere else, as soon as it starts, the immediate cure is the practice of the special bodhicitta meditation, taking other sentient beings’ suffering on yourself and giving them all your happiness, merit, body and possessions. With compassion take their suffering on yourself and with loving kindness give your happiness, merit, body, possessions and so forth to others. As soon as the pain starts, however painful it is, the immediate cure, the immediate antidote, the best, most powerful method of dealing with it is tong-len, taking and giving, the special practice of bodhicitta. Even though normally I am very lazy about practicing Dharma, through the kindness of pain I reminded to practice.
This meditation is so powerful that even before you start the actual practice, the moment you start preparing your mind to take on the suffering of others, the pain stops. This shows that even the slightest thought of exchanging yourself for others, just thinking of taking on the suffering of others, just preparing your mind to do that, is powerful enough to stop the pain. Therefore, if one day you go to the doctor and suddenly he says, “Oh, you have cancer,” or something like that, or you begin to have pain, what I recommend you do is immediately start meditating on bodhicitta. That’s the immediate medicine you should take.
Remember the story I told before, about Getsul Tsimbulwa and the awful-looking, dirty woman whose body was covered with leprosy sores? How did it happen that at first she appeared ordinary, disease-ridden, untouchable, and moments later in the pure aspect of the deity? At first, the monk’s mind was obscured by negative karma and because of that impure mind he could see her only as an ordinary suffering woman and not as the enlightened being that she was. But because he felt such unbearable compassion for her suffering and completely gave himself up to offer her service, all his heavy negative karma was purified then and there, in the middle of the river, and immediately his view of her changed completely and he could see her as an enlightened being. His view became totally pure and she took him to her pure land, where he himself became enlightened. Thus you can see how powerful compassion is for purifying negative karma, purifying the mind.
Now I’d like to say a few words about the benefits of retreat.
Why do we do retreats?
We retreat in order to develop compassion. The purpose of retreat is to make our lives more beneficial, more useful for others. How? By developing the good heart. The main reason for doing retreat is to develop compassion, to realize bodhicitta, the root of the path to enlightenment, the door of the Mahayana path to enlightenment.
Even if we are reciting one mala of om mani padme hum, it is for bodhicitta, to realize bodhicitta, to develop compassion. That’s what we’re reciting for. Whatever other practices we do—prostrations, making offerings to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha or to statues, stupas and scriptures, or making holy objects ourselves—we do them to develop compassion, to realize bodhicitta, to be able to benefit other sentient beings. It’s all for that; that’s all it’s for. Whatever practices we do—taking refuge, reciting the refuge prayer—the whole point is for that.
Even if we do the minimum practice of reciting one mala of om mani padme hum or we do a three year retreat or study Dharma philosophy for many years, it is all to develop compassion, to gain realizations, especially that of bodhicitta. Therefore, every single thing we do is for us to stop harming others and to benefit them. The main goal of our practice is that. If we don’t stop harming others, we can’t benefit them.
If you do many retreats, recite many sadhanas and chant many mantras but then in daily life retaliate the moment somebody criticizes or bothers you in some other way and try to harm that person in return, it shows that real practice is not happening. You may spend much time retreating, reciting and praying, but when it comes to dealing with other beings, the real practice, the actual practice—whose purpose is the development of patience, tolerance, compassion and loving kindness—is missing. You have not fulfilled the purpose of all the retreats, sadhanas, prayers or even that one mala of om mani padm e hum that you have done. The whole, entire purpose of such practices is to help you in your daily life when dealing with other sentient beings—to not harm but benefit them. How? By developing in your mind loving kindness, compassion and bodhicitta; to develop patience, tolerance and the rest.
Therefore, especially when you are driving your car and somebody cuts you off, swerves in front of you or doesn’t follow the law, when another driver honks his horn or gets angry at you, it is good to think, “If I get angry or upset, what’s the point of all the practice I’ve been doing? If I can’t practice patience, why have I recited all these mantras? What’s been the purpose of my having met the Buddhadharma? What have all my retreats and prayers been for?” It’s very useful to think like this. If you haven’t changed your mind, your practice has had no meaning. If you think about it deeply, this is how you’ll feel.
If you ask yourself, “If I don’t practice patience, why am I doing all this? What for? What have I been doing all these years? What’s been the purpose of reciting even one mala of om mani padme hum?” it will help calm your mind, especially on such occasions. Then, when you’re able to remember that all your practices are mainly to protect your mind in everyday life, to subdue your mind so that you don’t harm but only benefit others—when you can reflect in this way and practice tolerance in a situation where normally you’d get angry—when in place of anger you can arouse strong compassion for others, that’s a day for great celebration.
The day you feel compassion instead of anger is truly your birthday—your great birthday for liberation, for enlightenment, for benefiting and not harming other sentient beings; a day for great celebration. Such moments are very important occasions as far as your enlightenment is concerned; very, very precious opportunities to meet the challenge of practicing Dharma.
Similarly, if somebody abuses you or does something else that normally you would find hard to deal with, couldn’t stand, would make you angry and upset, and you are able to overcome your delusion of anger, you have won; you have defeated your enemy.
From the point of view of ordinary people in the mundane world, you should get angry; you have a right to get angry. Anger is regarded as positive. In the same way, they regard being selfish as the right way to be, something you must do. However, the only selfishness you should allow yourself is the selfishness of caring for other sentient beings, of benefiting other sentient beings. That is the right way to be; that is good selfishness. Being selfish for your own benefit opens the door to all problems; being selfish for the sake of others, caring for others, opens the door to all happiness.
Also, if you have compassion, a good heart, even if you have no external wealth, your life is rich; you are a really wealthy person. No matter how much external wealth you have, if your heart is empty of goodness, if you do not have a warm heart, if there’s no compassion for others, you’re poor; inner poverty makes you a real beggar.
Therefore, whether you are ordained or lay, doing lots of retreat or none, finding lots of time to study Dharma or none, the most important way to live your life is with compassion. Living with compassion is the very essence of life, the best life to lead, the most important thing you can do. Even if you are able to study Dharma your entire life—all the scriptures, sutra, tantra, everything—if your heart is empty, like an empty vessel, empty of good qualities, your whole life is empty. Even though you might have a vast intellectual understanding of Buddhism and can explain or recite the entire canon of the Buddha’s sutras and tantras, if there’s no compassion in your heart, your life is empty of meaning.
Even if you do one retreat after another, live in a cave without coming out or seeing other people for fifty, sixty, seventy years, even if you spend your entire life in retreat, if your heart is empty of the satisfaction that comes from cutting the thought of the eight worldly dharmas, empty of compassion for others, your life is not meaningful. Even if you put yourself in a cave without windows or doors and chant mantras for fifty or a hundred years, if your heart is empty of compassion for others, your life has no meaning.
For example, if you do prostrations with the attitude that you are prostrating for others, if in your heart you feel that you are prostrating for the hell beings, the hungry ghosts, the animals, other humans, the suras and asuras, if you feel in your heart that you’re prostrating for others, even if you do only three prostrations, you feel so happy, so satisfied, that it’s so worthwhile. Even though you do only three prostrations, at least they’re for others. In your mind there’s no tension; you feel free. In your heart, you enjoy them; your attitude is relaxed, peaceful and happy.
If, on the other hand, your attitude is that you are doing these prostrations for yourself—for you not to be reborn in hell and so forth—that is not so enjoyable. If you compare it with the other attitude—doing just three prostrations for others—you are not really happy. There’s a big difference in the nature of your mental attitude; you are not as happy and relaxed as when you prostrate for others.
There’s also a great difference from the aspect of motivation. When you dedicate each prostration to others, with each one you collect merit, good karma, like the limitless sky. When the attitude in your heart is, “I’m doing this for me not to be born in hell, for me not to suffer in the lower realms,” your purpose is very limited, mean. Your purpose—for yourself not to be born in the lower realms—is so tiny, so limited, and therefore the benefits of the prostrations you do are correspondingly tiny, limited.
Hence there’s a big difference between those two attitudes. Even though your motivation is still Dharma—because you are working for the happiness of your next life—the difference is huge. In other words, when you recite one Vajrasattva mantra or one mala of om mani padme hum, you should feel in your heart that it is all for the benefit of other sentient beings. The purpose behind it is that. In that way, when, with bodhicitta in your heart, you feel that each Vajrasattva mantra is for others, each one becomes 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras.
If each mantra you recite is done just for yourself to achieve the everlasting happiness of liberation from samsara or to have better future lives, happiness in future lives for yourself alone, it does not bring skies of merit. You lose out on that. Because you fail to generate bodhicitta motivation, you miss out on each mantra’s becoming 100,000. Even though your recitation becomes a Dharma action because your motivation is virtuous—thinking of yourself not suffering in the lower realms, working for the happiness of your future lives—no matter how many Vajrasattva or om mani padme hum mantras you recite, when you compare their benefits to those you would have gained had you recited the mantras with bodhicitta, they are still kind of meaningless, wasted.
The purpose of emphasizing bodhicitta motivation at the beginning of every retreat session, repeating it again and again, is to remind you to generate bodhicitta so that you don’t waste the Vajrasattva mantras you recite. It’s extremely important. Constant repetition helps you understand how important bodhicitta motivation is and to remember to generate it every session.
Of course, at this point my mind has degenerated completely, but in the past, if I found that I had recited one mala of mantras without bodhicitta, I would feel that I had wasted that whole mala and would repeat it with the proper motivation.
When you have a compassionate attitude, you have peace and happiness in your life right now. No matter with whom you find yourself, you are happy and comfortable. When you have compassion for others, you are happy to be with any sentient being. Even if you live alone, you are happy. There is happiness and comfort now, and this attitude has the best future. Not only that, but you also die in the best way. If you die with compassion, your mind will be happy and peaceful and you’ll die with no regret or guilt. The best way to die is with compassion for others.
Also, if you want to be reborn in a pure land, dying with compassion is the best way of making it happen. If you die with compassion, not only will your death be peaceful and happy but you will also receive good rebirths in all your coming future lives, liberation from samsara and full enlightenment—all the infinite good qualities of the buddha’s holy body, speech and mind will be yours, and you will be able to enlighten numberless sentient beings.
With compassion, both your present and your future lives are happy.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave this teaching 6 March 1999.
6. Or, as it was called at the time, the Enlightened Experience Celebration. [Return to text]
7. See Taking the Essence [Return to text]
8. Chapter 1, verse 13 [Return to text]