Transforming the Mind

By Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche
Adelaide, Australia (Archive #858)

A talk given by Lama Zopa Rinpoche in Adelaide, Australia, in July 1991. Rinpoche advises how we can transform problems into happiness by defeating the self-cherishing thought and cherishing others. He also discusses how Dharma practice in everyday life can help us at the time of death. Edited by Ven. Ailsa Cameron.  

Lama Zopa Rinpoche visiting Chenrezig Institute with Osel, 1991. Photo by Thubten Yeshe.

Yesterday I spent too much time on Jampa's question about low self-esteem. Tonight we are going to continue with high self-esteem, which means I am going to explain a little bit more about buddha nature. In Uttaratantra, Maitreya Buddha used many examples to give a very extensive explanation of the nature of the mental continuum, the buddha nature or essence of the Buddha. The potential to be a buddha, or buddha nature, is the clear light nature of the mind. Buddha nature is introduced with nine examples, and the obscurations that obscure the buddha nature are also introduced with nine examples. Some of you might have heard about this already and when you study Uttaratantra, you will hear extensive explanations of these subjects.

When you have low self-esteem, the very first thing to remember is your buddha nature. The second thing to stop your own mental picture of yourself as hopeless is thought transformation. As I mentioned yesterday, there's no use in thinking that you are the worst person in the world, feeling sad about it and just living with that sadness in the belief that life is sad, without looking for and trying any methods to overcome the problem. That is not a wise way to live your life. You should do something. You should look for a method and attempt to practice it as much as possible, then you will have no regret. It is very important to first try some methods.

Thought transformation, which involves transforming undesirable conditions into happiness, is very important. You eliminate depression by transforming it into happiness; you transform every problem, every undesirable thing that happens, into happiness. By thinking of the positive aspects of undesirable conditions, you establish the mind that likes the problem, that enjoys the problem. You establish the thought of liking rather than disliking the problem. With one interpretation of a situation you can establish the thought of disliking it, which leads to an unhappy mind, an unhappy life.

Last night I explained more about buddha nature as part of the answer to the question on how to deal with feelings of low self-esteem. I tried to give you inspiration by showing you how you have every hope, every opportunity. The first thing you should remember is buddha nature, the clear light nature of the mind, which is pure, not mixed with mistakes. The nature of your mind, which is buddha nature, is not oneness with the mistakes, not oneness with the obscurations, not oneness with the ignorance, not oneness with the attachment, not oneness with the anger, not oneness with the selfishness, not oneness with negative karma, not oneness with suffering. So, because of that, it is pure.

It is good to think of this nature of the mind, even when we die. No matter what religion a person is, or even if they don't have a religion, you can give them advice about the nature of their mind. It is suitable for everyone. When someone is dying, just tell them to concentrate on the nature of their mind, which is pure. The nature of their mind is not oneness with mistakes, not oneness with suffering, not oneness with guilt. It is pure. In reality, in that pure nature, there is no guilt. Just introduce the person who is dying to the nature of their mind, which is pure; it doesn't have mistakes or guilt. It helps the person to die without worry, with some peace.

If the person who is dying has faith in Christianity and the term fully enlightened is difficult for them to understand, tell them to concentrate on their mind as the completely pure holy mind of God, with the nature of great compassion for every being. It is most important not to let the person cling to their own body, their possessions or wealth, family, and so forth. That attachment makes death terrifying. The stronger the attachment to these things in this life, the more frightening and undesirable death becomes. The less attachment there is, the less frightening death is. The whole thing has do with the person's way of thinking. With one way of thinking, death becomes very frightening; with another way of thinking, death is not frightening.

[Part of the discourse missing]

It's a challenge; it's like gambling. It's a competition where you compete with the another group and try to win over them. People get so excited about defeating someone. You win; you defeat someone else, who loses, and you get so excited. You spend your whole life training so that you can do that.

However,  in this case, it is different. What is normally regarded in the world as a victory is when you win and others lose. Normally for us victory means that we take the profit and other people take the loss. In reality, if you give the loss to others and take the victory upon yourself, which is what is normally done in the world, you lose. However, if you take the loss upon yourself and offer the victory to others, in reality you are the one who wins. If there's a choice between victory and loss, if you offer the victory to others and take the loss upon yourself, in reality you are winning because you are able to destroy your selfish mind, you are able to win over your selfish mind. That itself develops your mind. You are able to defeat the self-cherishing thought, which constantly harms you and interferes with your happiness, especially with your obtaining the highest happiness of full enlightenment. Your selfish mind never gives you any rest or any freedom, not even for one second. It constantly harms you.

So, you are able to defeat your selfish mind, which harms you and every sentient being, directly or indirectly, and which doesn't allow you to develop your mind so that you are able to benefit others more. Since your selfish mind interferes with the generation and development of altruism, of method and wisdom, it interferes with your ability to offer more and more extensive benefits to other sentient beings. It brings all the obstacles, all the undesirable things in your life.

By offering the victory to others and taking the loss upon yourself, you are able to defeat every single unpleasant thing that you experience, from a bad dream up to the greatest obstacles that don't allow you to have all the realizations and to achieve the peerless happiness of full enlightenment in order to enlighten all sentient beings. By offering the victory to others and taking the loss, you are able to defeat the real demon, the chronic mental disease of self-cherishing thought, which brings all the obstacles: criticism, bad reputation, failure. Defeating selfishness is the best kind of winning. This inner winning is the real winning. Then through this you are able to generate the altruistic thought of bodhicitta toward all sentient beings, which makes it possible for you not only to realize your buddha nature but to enlighten all sentient beings, freeing everyone from all suffering and bringing them to the peerless happiness of full enlightenment. Since it enables you to develop your mind, in reality you win.

So, the best competition in life is between you and your delusions. The best achievement is to defeat your delusions, especially your self-cherishing thought. This is the best, most profitable thing to do; this is the way to make your life most meaningful. The more you defeat your selfish mind, the more open your heart is to other sentient beings and the more useful you become to them. The more you are able to free yourself from your self-cherishing thought, the more you are able to open your heart to the Guru-Triple Gem and all the kind, precious sentient beings, who are the source of all your own past, present, and future happiness. You are able to open your heart to everybody and to sincerely offer your own life for the happiness of others, temporary and ultimate.

What you should really compete against in your life is the delusions, the creator of your sufferings and death. What is Dharma practice? Dharma practice is your own mind becoming the remedy for disturbing thoughts. When your actions of body, speech, and mind become a remedy for your delusions, at that time they become Dharma. Your actions of body, speech, and mind (which means your attitudes) in your everyday life need to become beneficial for death. This means you will have no need to worry when death comes. Of course, the highest achievement is not to have to experience death, so you don't have to experience the death or rebirth caused by karma and delusions. For that to happen, you need to realize the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness; you have to become an arya being, an arya bodhisattva.

An arya bodhisattva, who has achieved the right-seeing path of the Great Vehicle, doesn't have to experience death. Such a bodhisattva practitioner who has achieved the right-seeing path through realizing the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness has a spiritual body and doesn't experience old age, sickness or death caused by karma and delusion. And not having to experience death means they don't have to experience rebirth, so they are free from this cycle of death and rebirth.

There are five paths to the lower nirvana, the lower liberation, which means liberation just from samsara, from true suffering and true cause of suffering. And in order to achieve full enlightenment, there are also five Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, paths. The first one is the Mahayana path of merit, which has three divisions: the lower, middle, and great paths of merit.

To enter the Mahayana paths, on the basis of actualizing renunciation, the thought that is determined to be completely free from our own circling suffering realm, or samsara, you then generate bodhicitta. At that time we enter the Mahayana path. The first path, the path of merit, has lower, middle, and great paths of merit. On the great path of merit, we are able to see even statues as actual buddhas in nirmanakaya form. No matter where we go, we see so many buddhas in nirmanakaya form.

The second path, the preparatory path, has four divisions. The first one is heat. The flame that burns garbage or wood cannot burn it immediately; first it produces heat and after it becomes hot, the garbage can be burned. Like this, the meditator on the preparatory path of heat is close to realizing the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness, which actually becomes the direct remedy that burns the obscurations, the mental stains. This is why this path is called heat.

The next stage of the preparatory path after heat is point. It is called point because beyond this point we never rise heresy to karma or to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. This is the end of heresy; beyond the preparatory path of point, no more heresy arises. Before this, even if we have very strong faith in the four noble truths, reincarnation, and such things, because we haven't achieved the stability by actualizing the path, it's possible for heresy to arise because heresy in past lives has left imprints on our mind. It's possible even in the same life or in another life for heresy to arise to these things. However, after we have actualized the second stage of the preparatory path, point, heresy cannot be experienced. We are beyond heresy. Once we have reached this second stage of the preparatory path, it is impossible for heresy to arise.

Then the third stage is patience. When we achieve this path of patience, we will definitely not reincarnate in the lower realms: in the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms. By achieving this mental state, we will definitely not be reborn in the lower realms.

The last stage is sublime Dharma, but I don't remember the details about it. Anyway, the preparatory path has four stages, then we achieve the third Mahayana path, the right-seeing path. As I mentioned before, the bodhisattva who achieves this path has a spiritual body and doesn't experience old age, sickness, and so forth.

In terms of the concept of true existence, there are two: one is simultaneously born and the other is artificial, or belief in true existence acquired through philosophy or reasoning. The simultaneously born concept of true existence is instinctive, not acquired through reasoning. We are born with this concept. Since beginningless rebirths, this concept has been there. Because of the imprint of the past concept of true existence, it constantly arises.

Before becoming completely free from disturbing-thought obscurations and their seeds, we have to actualize the ten bhumis of the arya path. When we reach the eighth bhumi, we become completely free from all the disturbing thought-obscurations. Before that, when we achieve the third Mahayana path, the right-seeing path, we are beyond death and rebirth. When we achieve the third level of the preparatory path, patience, we will never again have to be reborn in the lower realms. So, rather than death riding us, we ride death. Rather than being under the control of death, death is under our control.

The Dharma that we practice in our everyday life is the attitudes and actions that become beneficial at the death time. The incomparably kind Lama Yeshe and many high lamas, geshes, and meditators, not only monks but also lay, actualize the three principles of the path—renunciation, bodhicitta, and shunyata—then with bodhicitta, Highest Yoga Tantra.

Highest Yoga Tantra has two stages, generation and completion. With completion stage practices such as the Six Yogas of Naropa, by meditating on the chakras, channels, winds, and drops, you concentrate on the winds entering the central channel, abiding, and absorbing there in the heart; you absorb all the gross consciousnesses and actualize the extremely subtle consciousness, which is what is called the clear light.

Even in ordinary view, Lama Yeshe and many of my teachers have actualized these things, so they are free from death. When we have actualized these, we are tantric practitioners and death is not on us or above us; death is under us. Death is under our control; we are free from death. By actualizing this, we make it possible to achieve enlightenment in that life. Even now there are many practitioners who are actualizing this tantric path and experiencing these things, in the East and in the West.

For the best Dharma practitioners, death is like returning home or like going for a picnic. Death is like going to the beach when the sun is shining and the waves are very high. We are so happy and excited to be going to such a beautiful place for a holiday. The mind is extremely happy. This is the best way to die, free from death. When death happens, these practitioners are so happy because they definitely prepared for and are able to go to a pure realm of the Buddha. In that way they are soon able to achieve enlightenment.

Next comes the middle Dharma practitioner's way of dying. Their mind is happy and confident because they know that they won't be reborn in the lower realms, but will reincarnate as a human being and again be able to continue to practice.

The experience of death of the last Dharma practitioner is that they at least have no worry and fear about being reborn in the lower realms. So when our attitudes and actions in everyday life become beneficial for death, they become Dharma. Anything that is not Dharma does not benefit us at the time of death; it becomes an obstacle, before the death time and after it. Dharma is beneficial before death, and especially at death, that most crucial point of life, and then after death, from life to life it brings happiness.

We have to attempt to make our everyday attitudes and actions beneficial for our mind when death comes. I have just mentioned the different categories of death experiences, of the positive ways of dying or of a happy death. This conversation just happened—maybe I'll erase all this part, go back, and start again—anyway, I'm joking!

All this happened because I was talking about helping others at the time of death. I was talking about how to advise someone who is dying, even if they are Catholic or some other religion, how to advise them what to meditate on, how to guide that dying person.

I spoke for two days on what it is that makes death so difficult: the thought of the worldly dharmas. Attachment clinging to this life is what makes death difficult to accept, even though we have to go through it. What makes it difficult to even hear about death is this thought of the worldly dharmas. For those who haven't met Dharma, the right path, and don't have any methods, death is going to come and what can we do? Not knowing any methods to deal with it, is one thing that makes death frightening. Those who haven't met Dharma don't have any solutions; they don't know what to do about death. That is what makes death so terrifying that they don't even want to think, hear, or talk about it.

The other general thing is that whether we have met Dharma or not, what makes death terrifying is attachment clinging to this life. The stronger this attachment, the more undesirable death becomes. It is very much related to attachment to this life. What makes us so unhappy when near to death is attachment. Attachment clinging to our own body, wealth and property, family, this life's happiness and comfort creates so much worry and fear. Also, if we die with this thought, we are born in the lower realms.

When we die, if our very last thought is one of attachment, which is non-virtuous, it creates the lower realms; it creates an animal rebirth, a hungry ghost rebirth or a hell rebirth. There are so many stories about spirits. Even in the West you hear about spirits entering through some medium's body and saying how their husband treated them badly or the possessions that belonged to them in the past have been given away to other people; the spirits may even harm the people their possessions have been given to. Through the medium, they talk about their past when they were human and tell all the stories of their life to their family. Many things like this happen.

If rebirth happens out of attachment, anger, or other negative minds, if it's a heavy negative mind, we are reborn in hell; if it's middle, hungry ghost; if it's light, animal.

So, the most important help we can give the dying person is to advise them not to cling to these things. Direct explanation of this may not be suitable for their mind, so if the person is a Catholic, tell them to concentrate as much as possible on the nature of their mind, that this is the completely pure holy mind of God, which has the nature of great compassion for all beings. Advise them to think only about that and not to think about anything else. If the mind is occupied by this thought, other thoughts such as attachment, anger, and other delusions do not arise. Also if the dying person feels compassion for others and dies with this positive or virtuous thought, it leads them to deva or human realm, or possible to a pure realm...where there's no suffering. It depends on the connections and level of mind of the meditator who does powa, the transference of consciousness. It is not easy.

The best thing you can do is protect their mind. Distract their mind and transform it into the positive. For example, you get the person to think of some positive object, which distracts them from their attachment. It may not be suitable to explain to the dying person that they should not cling and so forth because they have never heard of and do not practice such a concept.

This is just one example—there are different ways of doing this, according to your own understanding and the capacity of the other person. The main point is that you should try as much as possible to let the person die thinking of a positive object, which transforms their mind into a positive attitude of devotion, compassion, or loving kindness for sentient beings. Or you can explain that there is no solid I, that the I is dependent arising; that there's no real I from its own side to cling to. Meditating on how the I is a dependent arising becomes a remedy for the concept of true existence. Weakening the thought of true existence also helps. Also, during that time, the delusions don't arise so it protects the person from the lower realms.

Thought transformation is extremely beneficial, particularly when you're being criticized, you've lost the person you love, or you've failed in your work or business—even if you've lost a million dollars! Whatever problem happens, immediately remember that this problem is given to you by the self-cherishing thought. How is this problem given to you by the self-cherishing thought? In the past, because of self-cherishing thought you did negative actions to other sentient beings, and now you are experiencing the result of those negative actions. Therefore these problems are given to you by the self-cherishing thought; they came from the self-cherishing thought. Immediately recognize that these problems are the shortcomings of the self-cherishing thought that is within your heart. Just recognizing that these problems are the shortcomings of the self-cherishing thought, that they are given to you by the self-cherishing thought, immediately makes you feel better and less emotional: less upset, sad, depressed, or whatever.

And why should you accept these problems. There's no point in taking upon yourself the problems given to you by the self- cherishing thought. Give them back to the self-cherishing thought. Let him have it! There's no reason why you should take them upon yourself. Rather than thinking, “I have this problem,” think that you give the problem to the self-cherishing thought. Use the problem as a weapon to destroy the self-cherishing thought. By giving the problem right back on top of the self- cherishing thought, you use it as a weapon, a bomb, to destroy the demon that is living in your heart: the self-cherishing thought that has been harming you from beginningless rebirths until now, and which will continuously harm you as long as you follow it. By giving your problem back, you eliminate the self- cherishing thought, which brings all your problems. In this way you are destroying the cause of your problems.

Before that, you thought the one experiencing the problem was you, but now you are giving the problem back to the self-cherishing thought. When you do this, immediately there is release in your heart, in your mind and body. There is no tension. Immediately you become free from the problem because you are not taking the problem upon yourself; you have given it to the self-cherishing thought. Immediately you are free. You are released from all your emotional feelings of depression, upsetness, anger. With this way of thinking, you have no problem.

There is no problem between you and the other person who criticizes you or gives you trouble. Between you and this other person there is no problem. Not only is there no wall between you, but you open your heart toward the other person. You only see that person as extremely kind rather than seeing them as someone who doesn't love you and treats you badly. Before, when you were following the self-cherishing thought, that person was not needed. Now, when you give your problem to the self-cherishing thought to destroy this inner enemy that is the creator of all your problems, you need this other person who has such an attitude and who does such actions. You need this person  for your own development of mind; you need him to eliminate your self-cherishing thought. This person become extremely important, precious, and necessary—and so kind.

The other thing is that this way helps you to communicate with an open heart. The third thing is this: there are so many other sentient beings who have similar problems to you and numberless sentient beings who have many more problems than you. No matter how happy you are, you are one person. Even if you achieve ultimate happiness, free from the whole of samsara, from true suffering and its causes, it's nothing to be excited about because you are just one person. The other sentient beings who want happiness and do not want suffering are numberless. Therefore, even if you are born in hell, you are only one person, so there’s nothing much to be depressed about. But there are numberless sentient beings who are suffering with these problems and who have much more suffering than this.

Think, “How wonderful it would be, if I, this one person, could receive all their suffering. Anyway, since I have to go through this problem, why don't I make it worthwhile? Why don't I make it beneficial for all sentient beings? How wonderful it would be if I could receive all their suffering and its causes upon myself and experience my problem on their behalf so that they could be free from all these sufferings and their causes. How wonderful it would be!”

By generating the great compassion wishing to free all sentient beings from all sufferings and their causes by yourself, you can do the meditation of taking upon yourself all the sufferings and obscurations and the causes of other beings' problems. You can also think that you are taking any undesirable places they are experiencing, any place that causes problems; for example, a desert with a lot of drought or heat, whatever. All these melt to become like smog, pollution or black light, which is then absorbed into your own self-cherishing thought. You can relate this to your breathing: as you breathe in, you take in all that smog and use it as a weapon to destroy the self-cherishing thought. Then there's the meditation technique of giving, in which you give your own body, happiness, and merits to other sentient beings.

During the rest of the day, while you are working it is very important from time to time to think, “I am experiencing this problem on behalf of all sentient beings.” Rather than remembering your problem and being disturbed by anger, depression, upsetness or whatever, think  you are experiencing this problem on behalf of all sentient beings. Whatever your problem is—cancer or AIDS, a relationship problem, not having a job—each time the thought of the problem comes, think that you are experiencing it on behalf of all sentient beings.

In this way, whether you have arthritis or a life-threatening illness, experiencing the disease itself becomes purification. Experiencing the problem itself becomes the path to enlightenment. It becomes a very powerful method of purification and a method of accumulating infinite merit because you are experiencing the problem on behalf of all sentient beings. There are numberless sentient beings, so you accumulate infinite merit. The problem becomes even more powerful than a Vajrasattva retreat. With this meditation, experience the problem, whether it is AIDS, cancer, or whatever, on behalf of all sentient beings. No matter how many months or years the problem lasts, because you completely renounce yourself and cherish other sentient beings, experiencing the problem becomes much more powerful purification than doing a Vajrasattva retreat, particularly doing many years of Vajrasattva retreat with the self-cherishing thought.

There are many stories that illustrate this. Asanga saw Maitreya Buddha after sacrificing himself and cutting flesh from his leg as food for the worms he was planning to take from the body of a wounded dog. Even though he had meditated for twelve years trying to achieve Maitreya Buddha, he did not see him, but after sacrificing himself for that wounded dog, he was able to see Maitreya Buddha.

By sacrificing himself completely for that one being, he purified so many obscurations that what had appeared to him before as a dog he could now see was Maitreya Buddha. There are many stories like this that show how sacrificing one's life even for one sentient being develops the mind incredibly because it is unbelievable purification and accumulates merit.

Therefore, even one sentient being is so precious. If you cherish yourself, there is no enlightenment; cherishing yourself only becomes an obstacle to achieving bodhicitta and all the realizations of the Mahayana path, up to the enlightenment. But cherishing this one sentient being brings enlightenment. It purifies all the obstacles. Therefore, what is called "I" is to renounced and even that one sentient being is an object always to be cherished. Even that one sentient being is unbelievably precious, much more precious than the whole sky filled with diamonds or dollars, much more precious than a pile of jewels the size of this whole earth. That much wealth is nothing.

Without depending on the kindness of this one sentient being, even if you have all that wealth, that alone cannot help you to stop your rebirth in the lower realms; that alone cannot cause you to receive the body of a deva or human in your next life; that alone cannot cause you to receive liberation; that alone cannot cause you to receive enlightenment. However, if you don't have even one jewel, by depending on this one sentient being, you can stop rebirth in the lower realms; you can receive a deva or human body; you can receive liberation from samsara; you can achieve full enlightenment. Therefore, this one sentient being is so much more precious than all that wealth. The sky filled with jewels is nothing! It's completely insignificant when compared to the value of this one sentient being. How kind and how precious they are to you.

The conclusion is that every sentient being is an object to be cherished. Every sentient being is so precious. What we call "enemy," "friend," "stranger"—everyone is unbelievably kind and precious, an object to be cherished forever. With bodhicitta, we are able to complete the works for self, which means achieving enlightenment, and we are able to complete the works for others, which means bringing everyone to full enlightenment, freeing them from all their sufferings and obscurations.

So, yesterday the subject should have been karma and today's subject should have been compassion. I did prepare to talk on karma yesterday, and today there was a plan in my mind. In order to feel compassion for every sentient being, you need to know all the different types of sentient beings and their sufferings. You need to understand and feel the sufferings of the lower realms. Then you can generate compassion for everyone, not just those who are sick or starving, but even those who are wealthy people, devas and human beings. Then you can use the seven techniques of Mahayana cause and effect to generate compassion.

So, there was thought transformation practice to stop the thought of low self-esteem and deal with problems. Then came the importance of Dharma practice. Dharma is the only thing that helps at the time of death. It is crucial that Dharma we practice becomes beneficial for the time of death. And then bodhicitta, how we should cherish even one sentient being. So that contains compassion.

Anyway, it happened in this way. I'll stop here.