Meditation on Emptiness and Tong-len (Taking and Giving)

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Florence, Italy 1990 (Archive #678)

Teachings by Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche, given in Florence, Italy, on July 20, 1990. Rinpoche begins with an explanation of emptiness, then teaches tong-len, or taking and giving—the meditation practice of generating bodhicitta by taking on the suffering of others and giving them happiness.

Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron. Second edit by Sandra Smith.

Giving Your Body to Others

Maybe we'll do a short meditation, then we'll stop. This is a particular thought transformation practice to do with the four elements.

It is only with the achievement of full enlightenment, the state free from all the mistakes of obscurations and complete in all qualities, that you can perfectly guide all sentient beings to enlightenment. Enlightenment comes about only through changing your attitude, through renouncing self-cherishing thought and developing bodhicitta, the thought cherishing other sentient beings. Without bodhicitta, there is no way to achieve all the Mahayana realizations, all the tantric realizations, which means there is no way to achieve enlightenment and no way to perfectly guide all other sentient beings to enlightenment.

There are numberless other sentient beings who have become enlightened because they changed their attitude from cherishing the self to cherishing others. Why are we still suffering in samsara? Why aren't we enlightened? After beginningless rebirths, we are still suffering in samsara, still experiencing problems over and over again, and still our mind is completely empty, without any realizations. This is because all the time we have been following self-cherishing thought, and if we continue to follow self-cherishing thought, we will continuously experience the suffering of samsara and our mind will still be empty, without realizations. This is all because so far we haven't generated bodhicitta, we haven't changed our attitude.

From cherishing yourself, you experience so many problems. Just as many branches can come from one seed, you experience many problems—relationship problems, family problems. Wherever you go, you always find problems. Problems inside the home, problems outside. There is no happiness at any time: no happiness during the day, no happiness at night. There is no peace of mind. Even if you meet a lama and listen to teachings, as long as you follow self-cherishing thought, the teaching does not benefit your mind. Even if you are able to see all the buddhas, all the enlightened beings, they can't do anything as long as you follow the self-cherishing thought, as long as from your side you don't change your own mind.

Because of self-cherishing thought, instead of everybody becoming your friend, everybody becomes your enemy. Whether you stay at home or go traveling, wherever you go, it is like this. When you have the thought of cherishing others, everyone becomes your friend, even violent people and animals. Even vicious animals become subdued when they are near you; they don't harm you and even become your friend. With the self-cherishing thought, you find so many things disturbing. There are so many people to whom you show a black, tight face; so many people you don't want to see. Your mind is always tense. Your face is very tight and your mind is very tight.

The more you cherish yourself, the more enemies you find, the more people you find disturbing. You spend your life in impatience and anger. With people who are higher than you, you feel jealous; when you meet people of the same level, you feel competitive; and when you see lower people, you feel proud. No matter whom you meet, there is always a problem. Self-cherishing thought always creates problems. There is no happiness.

Self-cherishing thought always makes you take the profit and give the loss to others. This means that self-cherishing makes you create the cause of obstacles, of loss. Self-cherishing thought makes you take all the profit, all the good things, for yourself and give all the loss, all the bad things to others. Therefore self-cherishing thought makes you create the cause of failure, of problems, spiritually and even temporally.

Even if we hear the entire Buddhadharma, everything taught by all the buddhas, as long as from our side we don't change our attitude, it will not help us to generate realizations in our mind. That's why, even though there are so many holy beings—numberless buddhas and bodhisattvas—there are still so many sentient beings’ sufferings. It's not because the holy beings are not helping; it's because from our side we haven't attempted to change our mind, our attitude. That is why we are still suffering.

If it were only in the hands of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, if it were only in the hands of God, there wouldn't be any sentient beings suffering now. So, it is dependent upon both. For example, you may have an excellent doctor who knows all about your disease, who has all the treatments and can definitely cure you, but if you don't listen to him and follow his advice, you won't recover from your illness. It's not the doctor's fault. This point is very important to understand and to remember. If you won't listen to the doctor when you are sick or dying, what can the doctor do? When the problem has already happened, what can the doctor do? Nothing! There's no solution.

This is why there are so many sentient beings still suffering in the hell, preta and animal realms. It’s because from our side we have not attempted to change our attitude. We haven't done what the buddhas advised. According to the wishes of the enlightened beings, because of their compassion for all sentient beings, they wouldn't let sentient beings suffer even for one second.

Now, think like this, "Previously I have only practiced self-cherishing thought. If I had generated bodhicitta in the past, I would have become enlightened, and I would have already enlightened numberless sentient beings—hell beings, pretas, animals, humans, gods. If I had changed my attitude and become enlightened, I would have enlightened numberless sentient beings by now. Because I didn't do that, numberless beings are still suffering."

Just remember how Guru Shakyamuni Buddha has already enlightened numberless sentient beings. After that remember that each of the pandits, the yogis, have enlightened numberless sentient beings. After that think of Marpa, Milarepa, Lama Tsongkhapa, and even his disciples; each of them has already enlightened numberless sentient beings. Even the many present high lamas or gurus, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, have also led so many sentient beings to the path, to enlightenment.

Because I have followed only the self-cherishing thought, numberless sentient beings are now experiencing the suffering of hell. One hell being's suffering of hot and cold is the heaviest suffering. They are suffering so much because I followed self-cherishing thought. Because one hell being suffers so much, I must eliminate my self-cherishing thought right now. Numberless hell beings are suffering so much, so I must eliminate my self-cherishing thought right now. It is so unbearable.

The hunger and thirst of one preta being is so unbearable for me, I must eliminate my self-cherishing thought right now. Numberless pretas are suffering, so I must eliminate my self-cherishing thought immediately.

The suffering of one animal being is so unbearable for me. To think of those who are in the butcher's hand, those who are being killed by another animal, is so unbearable. I must eliminate the self-cherishing thought right now. There are numberless animals who are suffering, so I must eliminate the self-cherishing thought without delay of even a second.

It is the same with one human being, all the human beings; one god, all the gods.

One human being, besides experiencing the fundamental suffering of pervasive suffering, being under the control of karma and delusions, which means having samsara, the aggregates caused by karma and delusions, contaminated by the seed of delusion; experiences the suffering of change, the temporary pleasures dependent on external conditions which in reality are suffering but appear as pleasure; and also the suffering of suffering, which includes many things —death, rebirth, old age, sickness and all problems, such as relationship problems and so forth. On top of this, they again create the cause to be born in the lower realms, to suffer continuously in samsara. They again create the cause for the same problem over and over, for example by performing the ten non-virtuous actions. It is so unbearable for me that one human being is suffering like this, therefore I must eliminate self-cherishing thought. And human beings are numberless.

It is the same with the gods—I must eliminate my self-cherishing thought without delay of even a second.

Like this, numberless sentient beings are suffering because I have not changed my attitude but have followed only self-cherishing thought. Therefore, I must eliminate this self-cherishing thought without delay of even a second. It is so harmful, unbelievably harmful. Since all the sufferings, all the problems, come from what is called I, the I is the object to be renounced forever.

If I had generated bodhicitta, if I had bodhicitta in my heart, I could lead this one hell being who is suffering so much to enlightenment. If I had generated bodhicitta I would have been enlightened by now. How wonderful that would be. Even for the sake of one sentient being, to have bodhicitta in my heart is unbelievably important, unbelievably beneficial.

And not only that, I would have led numberless hell beings to enlightenment. Therefore, I  must generate bodhicitta. It is crucial to have bodhicitta in my heart.

If I had generated bodhicitta, I would have enlightened that one preta being; all those preta beings who are now suffering would be enlightened. How wonderful that would be. How incredibly important it is to have bodhicitta in my heart. I would have enlightened numberless preta beings to enlightenment. It is essential that I have bodhicitta in my heart.

In the same way, that one animal would have been enlightened now. How wonderful that would be. And numberless animals would have been enlightened. So it is crucial to have bodhicitta in my heart.

How wonderful it would be if I had enlightened that one human being; if I had freed them from all their sufferings. Therefore I must generate bodhicitta. I would have already enlightened numberless human beings, therefore, it is so important to have bodhicitta in my heart.

The source of all my happiness, all my success, is my good karma. My good karma is the action of the enlightened beings, and enlightened beings come from bodhicitta. Without bodhicitta there are no enlightened beings, and bodhicitta comes from sentient beings. So, I receive all my three times' happiness from all sentient beings, including the person whom I dislike.

I have already explained taking the sufferings of other sentient beings, but we are not going to do that now as it would take too long. We are just going to do the meditation of giving, not taking. For those who don't know, I've already explained how to do the taking. What I explained before also involves meditating on emptiness, combined with this bodhicitta meditation.

So now, what we are going to do is dedicate our own four elements to all sentient beings, for their happiness. There are many different methods of thought transformation; I recently received this particular thought training practice from Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche.

So that is putting it into action, putting it into practice. As our kind guru, Lama Yeshe, often said, "Act! Act!" This is doing that. The action is renouncing oneself and cherishing others. With this motivation you renounce the work for self, and work for others.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama often quotes this verse from A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life:

Just like space
And the great elements such as earth,
[And water, fire and air],
May I always support the life
Of all the boundless creatures.

This verse is requesting: “Like space, the great elements such as earth and so forth, may I become the basis of the many, many different means of living for all the inconceivable numbers of sentient beings—and not just for some time, but forever."

It is up to sentient beings to decide how to use earth, water, fire, air and space for their happiness; it's not up to earth, water, fire, air and space. Like this you should dedicate your own life to sentient beings, for them to use for their happiness in any way they wish.

Whatever you are involved with, whether you work in a Dharma center or in a family, this should be your attitude. You are there for other sentient beings to use. When you don't sacrifice yourself for others, you are doing the same work but your attitude is different. When you don't have this attitude, the work becomes a suffering, a problem. Even though the work is the same, when your attitude is one of sacrificing yourself for others, the work becomes a pleasure. You are there for other sentient beings, for the happiness of other sentient beings. The other way, you are working but your attitude is that sentient beings are there for your happiness. That then becomes a problem. When you are the lord and sentient beings are your servants, that becomes the problem. When you change your attitude so that sentient beings are lord and you are their servant, there for their happiness, the problem is stopped and there is only enjoyment. No matter how hard the work is and even if you don't succeed, you enjoy it.

Think, “I must achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, therefore I'm going to meditate on thought transformation in dependence upon the four elements.” During the meditation imagine that your own body, which is formed from the four elements, absorbs into the four external elements of earth, water, fire and air.

Your flesh and bones absorb into the external earth element. Think that your body becomes the stable earth and is used by sentient beings for their survival and happiness. Meditate that you are used by sentient beings in whatever way they wish.

Meditate as elaborately as possible. Imagine that your body is used as fields and crops, beautiful parks, roads and vehicles; that your body is used by sentient beings to obtain gold, diamonds and other precious jewels; to build houses and cities; to make tunnels for their enjoyment. Think that your body becomes the entire earth; that the earth used by all the sentient beings is your body. And not only in this world, but in all other worlds.

The blood, water and other liquids of your body then absorb into the external water element, which is used by sentient beings for their survival and happiness. In a similar way, think of the many different ways in which the water, which is your body fluids, is used by sentient beings for their happiness. Try to meditate as extensively as possible, thinking of the many different uses of water.

The internal heat of our body absorbs into the external fire element, which is used by sentient beings for their happiness. Think of how heat and the ability to burn benefits sentient beings. Again, meditate extensively on how fire and heat are used in many different ways for the survival and happiness of sentient beings. Think of how fire works for sentient beings, of how it is used for cooking and many things.

Your breath absorbs into the external air, or wind, element, which is used by sentient beings for their survival through breathing and moving. The wind is very light in nature and enables movement, and in that way works for sentient beings. Your breath becomes wind, the air that is breathed for survival, and brings many enjoyments.

Your two eyes then become the sun and moon and work in that way for sentient beings. 

Your flesh becomes food for sentient beings. Your flesh becomes whatever food they like—all the food in supermarkets. Meditate that sentient beings are eating you. Think that your flesh absorbs into all the food in the world and that sentient beings are eating whatever they like. You become pizzas, mozzarella cheese, macaroni, hamburgers, momos, and many other things. And it is important not to think of just this world, but of all sentient beings.

Next you give your skin to the sentient beings and it becomes their clothes; sentient beings are wearing your skin as clothes. Even one person may have a hundred different dresses and many hundreds of shoes to wear on different occasions.

Your blood then becomes various drinks for them. Sentient beings are drinking you as juice, Coca-Cola, alcohol, olive oil and many other things.

As I mentioned before, think that all the sufferings and negative karmas of all sentient beings ripen upon you. For each suffering realm, think that the undesirable place and all the suffering and its causes absorbs to your own self-cherishing thought. Meditate as I explained before. Destroy the self-cherishing thought and the object it cherishes, the real I. Even the real I, which appears to exist from its own side, becomes empty. What is left is only the merely imputed I, and this one now dedicates all your happiness and merit to all sentient beings. All sentient beings receive and experience your happiness and past, present and future merit. You dedicate all this to the beings of each realm: the hell beings, pretas, animals and so forth. You also dedicate all the merit of the buddhas and bodhisattvas to sentient beings. Think that these are received and experienced by sentient beings. All sentient beings become free from all suffering and its causes, the negative karmas and obscurations. They generate bodhicitta, complete the two merits, purify the two obscurations and achieve enlightenment. Think that they all become enlightened in the aspect of Chenrezig, the Compassion Buddha, Guru Shakyamuni Buddha or whichever deity you wish.

Now, as in Vajrayogini practice, recite OM AH HUM seven times. Your body, which is composed of the four elements, becomes nectar. All the substantial part, the gross body, becomes nectar. From the hearts of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, transcendental wisdom nectar falls down into this nectar. From the deva realm, the Thirty-three Realm, and the Northern Continent and so forth, all the essence of the world is absorbed into this nectar.

Now you offer this ocean-like nectar first to the guru and deities. You can visualize the Vajrayogini merit field when you offer the nectar or, if you are not familiar with that, visualize the Lama Chöpa merit field. Offer nectar first to the guru-yidam and think that they generate infinite bliss in their holy mind.

Then offer nectar to all the deities of the four classes of tantra. Then to all the buddhas—the one thousand buddhas of this fortunate eon, the Medicine Buddha, the Thirty-five Confessional Buddhas—and all the bodhisattvas. They generate infinite bliss.

You then offer nectar to all the sentient beings of the six realms. It purifies all their negative karmas and obscurations. They all achieve the non-conceptual, transcendental wisdom of dharmakaya.

Since you have offered your body to the guru, deities, buddhas, bodhisattvas and the sentient beings of the six realms, it doesn't exist. What is left now is the mind. The mind doesn't have natural existence. Concentrate on the nature of the mind. We normally think of the nature of the mind as a real one from its own side, but the mind doesn't have this real nature, it doesn't exist from its own side. Focus on its real nature, emptiness. Concentrate there. In other words concentrate on the fact that the mind is empty. The mind doesn't have the slightest existence from its own side. It's completely empty.

Now, those who have received a tantric initiation can manifest as the deity, as in the usual meditation. With the wisdom realizing emptiness, you can generate as the deity. Those who haven't received an initiation can generate as Guru Shakyamuni Buddha. Visualizing the mantra at your heart, recite the deity's mantra. If it is Shakyamuni Buddha, recite TADYATHA OM MUNÉ MUNÉ MAHAMUNAYÉ SOHA. Next you dedicate the merit, “Due to all the three times' merits accumulated by me and by other beings, may bodhicitta, the source of all the happiness of myself and all other sentient beings, be generated without delay of even a second, and may that which has been generated be developed.”

Also dedicate the merits in this way, “Due to all the merely imputed three times' merits accumulated by me and others, may the merely imputed I achieve the merely imputed enlightenment and lead the merely imputed sentient beings to merely imputed enlightenment.” Specifically concentrating like this on the meaning of mere imputation is very important. If you seal the dedication with emptiness, the merit cannot be destroyed later when heresy or anger arises. Since there is this great benefit, it is very important.

Look at everything—subject, action, object—as illusory. Everything appears to us as truly existent, unlabeled, but if we remember the reality, there is not the slightest true existence in reality. When you see a mirage, there is an appearance of water, but you understand that there's not the slightest water there on the sand. There is the appearance of water but there is an understanding that there is no water. Like this, everything—you as the deity, action, object—appears to have existence from its own side, but you understand that all these are hallucinations, false. In reality all these are empty. With this understanding things appear as illusory.

Is this the same one that Gen Jampa Wangdu gave? Someone asked me to do the oral transmission of the chu-len, so I'll do it just quickly.

[Lung of chu-len]

So I would like to say thank you very much, and I hope to meet you again. Now while qualified teachers exist we can receive plenty of teachings. If we are intelligent and are able to dedicate our time to it, from our side we can learn everything, whatever we want. It's like having a wish-granting jewel. While we have qualified teachers very near to us, we should take the opportunity to study, to leave as much imprint of the Buddhadharma as possible. This means that even if we don't become enlightened in this life, we can become enlightened quickly, within a few lifetimes. On the basis of lam-rim practice, we will be able to actualize the path.

Also, I mentioned to the general people last night that it is very important to recite a lam-rim prayer every day and to do purification, such as the Vajrasattva practice. On top of that, you should do a little lam-rim meditation and try to apply it when problems come in your life. As I've mentioned just now, there are many lam-rim practices of bodhicitta which transform all actions into causes of enlightenment, like turning iron into gold. In this way the whole life becomes meaningful.

Those who are lay people, if they are able to, should take the lay precepts for life. If not, then try to take the one-day precepts, the eight Mahayana precepts, as often as possible. This gives you hope of a good rebirth in the future.

Also dedicate all the three times' merits of yourself and others, that all the centers, including the Ewam Center in Florence, are able to spread Lama Tsongkapa's teachings in the minds of all sentient beings and that all the necessary conditions to do this are received immediately. Also dedicate that all the members of the centers here and in all the rest of the centers, and all sentient beings, be able to actualize the lam-rim in this life and achieve enlightenment as quickly as possible. May they all be healthy and have long life, and may all their wishes that accord with Dharma succeed.

Thank you so much. I hope to see you soon.