Overcoming Discouragement

Verses 15 and 16

Verse 15: Not Becoming Discouraged When Meditating on Bodhichitta

Remembering Buddha-Nature for Overcoming Becoming Discouraged

And when a feeling of discouragement arises, let me praise the glories of the mind.

This is speaking about a major problem that comes up when we want to meditate on bodhichitta, which is discouragement and the feeling that “it’s too much; I can’t do it.” The advice here is to praise the glories of the mind. “The glories of the mind” refer to the wonderful aspects of the mind, specifically the various aspects of Buddha-nature. Focusing on the Buddha-nature aspects of the mind, which I will explain shortly, can help us to overcome our discouragement.

How can we actually deal with discouragement? This is a very important question. In order to be able to meditate on bodhichitta, we need to know how to deal with the challenge. Given my own and others’ experience of working with this, I have found that the general advice that Tsongkhapa’s gives on how to do a visualization to be very helpful. What he says is that, first, we need to get a general mental picture of something so that we have some sort of object of focus. Then, as we gain better and better concentration, the details will automatically come. But we shouldn’t worry about the details in the beginning; otherwise, we’re going to get very frustrated.

I think that this also is a very helpful piece of advice with respect to how we meditate on bodhichitta. In tantra, when we’re visualizing ourselves as Buddha-figures, the main thing to focus on is the feeling of what’s called the “pride of the deity,” which is the self-pride of feeling that we actually are the Buddha-figure – that’s “me” – although we are fully aware that we are merely calling “me” the Buddha-figure that we can become on the basis of all its causes in our mental continuums. The Buddha-figure itself is just vaguely in focus; the details are not clear, but the confidence that we are the Buddha-figure is strong. We can do something similar with bodhichitta. With bodhichitta, we focus on our individual enlightenment that has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of its causes, the Buddha-nature factors of our mental continuums. Our enlightened state that we are aiming to attain is just vaguely in focus, the details are not clear. But our confidence that we will attain it in order to benefit all others is strong.

In the beginning, we’re going to get very frustrated, if we try to think in terms of what enlightenment actually means and what it means to have all the qualities of a Buddha – being able to benefit each individual being according to his or her needs, being able to speak in a language that everybody understands, being able to multiply into a million, billion forms, and things like that. If we try to do like that, we’re likely to get very discouraged. I don’t think it’s at all helpful in the beginning to try to imagine in detail all the qualities of a Buddha that we are aiming to attain.. It’s the general idea of what enlightenment is that we need to focus on, together with the feeling that this actually is our own future enlightenment.

In the beginning, we need to build ourselves up to the actual state of mind and heart of bodhichitta. It’s only when we’re much further along on the path that that state of mind comes automatically. How we build it up is either with the seven-part cause and effect meditation or the meditation on equalizing and exchanging of self with others. It’s not the time for me to go into detail about how to do those, but the main point of them – in terms of the feeling that we want to generate – is to have a huge, huge feeling of openness, to greatly extend the boundaries of our concern.

Whether that feeling of concern is strong at the beginning is not so important. That will grow with time. It’s like the visualization: it comes more and more into focus the more we do it. We just want to open up the scope of our minds: “Everyone is equal, and so I have equal concern for everyone.” Don’t get caught up in the details of “What about the cockroach?” and “What about the mosquito?” and “What about the hell creature?” Those are details. The point is to open up the scope, to have this openness, this wideness of scope.

Then, we add to that openness the feeling quality of “I want to be happy and so does everybody else. I don’t want to suffer and neither does anybody else. We’re all equal in that regard.” We likewise let that feeling of wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy to expand out beyond the boundaries of our usual sense of “me.” We just open up and let that feeling radiate out. Then we add to that the thought, “To really be able to bring happiness to me and to all others, I need to reach enlightenment, and everybody needs to reach enlightenment,” feeling very strongly that “I really want to do that, for me and for everybody.”

It’s as if there were a sun of love, compassion and concern for others inside us, wanting to shine on everyone and bring them to enlightenment. What we want to do is to get rid of the boundary that limits our concerns to just ourselves and to imagine that sun shining out infinitely. Don’t worry about how far – “Is it a thousand kilometers, a million kilometers, or twenty million light years?” That doesn’t matter. The point is to try to have a feeling of infinity, in a sense, of going out limitlessly – limitless immeasurable love, immeasurable compassion, immeasurable concern. This is the whole point – to get a vast, vast heart, a vast, vast mind.

Then we think, “Enlightenment – this is what I need to reach.” And, again, we don’t have to have all the details, just a general feeling of it. The general feeling of it is that “this is the highest state possible, the highest state of evolution with all my limitations removed.” Just try to have that feeling of expanding out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take to reach that enlightenment. So, there’s also the feeling of expansion in terms of time as well. So, there’s this vast, vast area encompassing all dimensions – spatial dimensions, temporal dimensions, dimensions of development, dimensions of qualities. Again, don’t worry about the details. Just have that feeling of vastness, a vastness of warmth. That’s what “maha” in Mahayana means: vast.

Then, within that, there is – like an illusion – a form of a Buddha. Whether we visualize ourselves as Buddha-figures, as we do in tantra, or we visualize a figure in front of us doesn’t matter. We could also do it mahamudra style in which it’s just the nature of the mind itself, the clarity of the mind itself, that represents what we’re trying to achieve. That, too, is a focus. So, we have a dual focus – this huge vastness and some representation of it. It’s like a magnet; we’re just drawn to that representation and to that huge scope. That is what we focus on with bodhichitta.

So, bodhichitta is not just simple compassion: “Oh, you poor person on the street, I want to help you.” It’s not that at all; it’s much, much vaster. That is the state of mind that we want to develop. It brings tears to our eyes. Our hearts are so full; it’s just so overwhelming. That truly is an extraordinary state of mind.

Now, the whole question of whether or not enlightenment is possible is a very difficult one. It’s very difficult to become fully convinced of it through logic alone. So, what one does is to give it the benefit of the doubt, which is how we, particularly as Westerners, tend to approach the whole question of rebirth. In other words, we say, “Well, let’s suppose that it is possible. So, let’s work with it and see where it leads. I will be patient because I realize that it’s really difficult to understand and really difficult to be convinced of. And it’s going to take years and years to reach that level. And it’s never going to be ‘Hallelujah, now I believe!’ in any case.” So, we work with it. We accustom our minds to that.

What do we work with? We work with Buddha-nature, as it says here. So what are we talking about? Buddha-nature is a factor, or more precisely, a network of factors, that allows this endless development to happen.

  • We have various factors that can be stimulated to grow and that can be developed. For instance, there’s the natural warmth of the mind; the instinct to take care of someone; the natural quality of the mind for energy to go out – the ability of the mind to understand, to communicate, to feel; the network of positive force and deep awareness that are imputed on our mental continuums. All these qualities, which are there already, can be developed further and further.
  • There is also the abiding Buddha-nature. This is the voidness of the mind. It also is a Buddha-nature factor. The voidness of the mind allows for change, for development.
  • The third type of Buddha-nature factor is the mind’s ability to be inspired to develop and to grow: we’re not like pieces of rock.

Focusing on these three types of Buddha-nature factors, gives us encouragement. We know that, based on these factors, we can attain enlightenment.

In short, we have a little bit of an idea of the qualities of a Buddha that we’re aiming to develop ourselves, but we don’t get hung up on that because then we’ll get discouraged. We just have this feeling that it is possible to grow, that these causal factors for attaining enlightenment are there. So, when we have that feeling and our minds have this scope of great vastness, then we start to be able to actually meditate on bodhichitta.

If we are working with this basis of Buddha-nature and our minds are open to this vastness, we won’t get discouraged. Understanding what Buddhahood really means and gaining conviction that it actually is possible to achieve it will come later. The main thing is this sense of vastness, the feeling of warmth that’s part of it, and the basic confidence that the working materials are there.

Don’t get into the state of mind of “I can’t do it; it’s too much. It’s impossible.” Then we’re identifying with the limited “me.” Then, rather than having the pride of the deity, we have the pride of the samsaric “me” – which doesn’t help, especially if we can remind ourselves of the voidness of that, that “this is rubbish. This is not the way that I am.” Our focus is on the not-yet-happening of that future enlightenment – we know that we’re not there yet. So, it’s not that we’re fooling ourselves.

Avoiding Discouragement by Meditating on Voidness (Emptiness)

And meditate on the voidness of both (states).

To avoid discouragement, we also need to meditate on the voidness of the inadequate samsaric state of not really being able to help everybody now and the voidness of the enlightened state that we’re aiming for. Voidness, often called “emptiness,” means a total absence of impossible ways of existing. It’s not that either of these two states of ourselves, samsaric or enlightened, are like self-encapsulated ping-pong balls – one ping-pong ball being the poor, limited “me” that can’t possibly help anybody or that can only help them in a very trivial way, and the other ping-pong ball being this enlightenment that’s up in the sky and impossible to reach. Both of these states arise according to causes and conditions.

The conditions for enlightenment are there, which are the Buddha-nature factors. Attaining it is just a matter of building up enough positive force and deep awareness. We do this by actually helping others and familiarizing ourselves with the correct understanding of voidness, namely by realizing that things are going to arise dependently in terms of cause and effect and the efforts that we make.

Having that understanding helps us to overcome discouragement, thinking that it’s impossible, and to have instead – as we said earlier, when speaking about perseverance – a realistic attitude. We accept that it’s going to be difficult. We’re not fooling ourselves: it’s going to be difficult. But is there anything else in life that’s worthwhile to do? Everything else is trivial compared to developing the bodhichitta aim. Shantideva says it very, very well in his first chapter, “The Benefits of Bodhichitta.”

(I.12) Everything else that’s constructive resembles the plantain tree: having given birth to its fruit, it’s depleted. But the tree of bodhichitta forever bears fruit and, never depleted, it grows ever more.

Even if it’s not possible to reach enlightenment – which is where we are now in our thinking: having indecisive wavering, wondering, “Is it possible or not? It just sounds too fantastic” – it doesn’t matter. And whether or not there actually are enlightened beings now or ever have been in the past doesn’t matter. Certainly, we can appreciate that we can develop and evolve more and more. So, we just represent all of this in terms of, “Well, the furthest limit to which we can go in our evolution – let’s call that Buddhahood.”

The Importance of Inspiration from the Spiritual Teacher for Not Becoming Discouraged

I think that that is the way to begin. I’m not saying that that’s the final understanding, not by any means, but that that’s the way to begin. Then we can get off the ground; otherwise, we will just stay stuck in the little house of “I can’t do it” and “poor me.” We can’t relate to a Buddha anyway; it’s beyond our imaginations. That’s why they say the gurus are so important. To use Sakya Pandita’s example, the guru is like a magnifying glass that focuses the rays of the sun to make a fire on the kindling wood of our minds. The sun, in this analogy, is of course the Buddha.

With the gurus, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama or even ones who are less developed than His Holiness, we get some feeling of what a human being can evolve into. That inspires us. So, we relate to the next higher stage that we are able to relate to and aspire to reach that. In that way, we develop more and more. Of course we can’t possibly relate to a Buddha and all the qualities of Shakyamuni Buddha. It’s much too much. So, don’t worry about it, OK?

When we are meditating and we have conventional bodhichitta – our minds are going out infinitely – we then combine that scope of vastness with the understanding of voidness, which also is going out infinitely. This is the way we start to bring the two together. Thinking in terms of voidness, we understand that nothing exists as a ping-pong ball; everything is interrelated, interdependent, and affected in their qualities by everything else in all dimensions of space and time. So this Mahayana scope is very important – while having a focus.

That’s why having a Buddha-figure or something like that is helpful: it gives the mind something to focus on. When the mind is wide open and broad, it’s easy to get spaced out. So, we try to have a balance of vastness and the focus on a Buddha-figure – especially because what one adds to the meditation is a feeling of bliss. Without having something to focus on, it’s too easy to “bliss out,” to use the colloquial expression – to be so blissful that one is sort of like a puppy dog lying on its back, feet up in the air, having its belly being rubbed.

Verse 16: Avoiding Discouragement by Applying Voidness to Whatever We Experience

Regarding Everything to Be Like an Illusion

Whenever an object of attachment or hostility arises in any situation, let me regard it like an illusion or a projection;

This is after we’ve absorbed ourselves in meditation on the understanding of voidness. When we are dealing with any situation that disturbs our minds, it’s important to regard it as an illusion so that we don’t get discouraged. When we’re having difficulties and obstacles come up, we see them as being like an illusion, as being like a dream. When we awake from a dream, the dream is gone; the dream is finished, although it did occur. We might remember it, perhaps, but it’s not something that’s happening now. So, whenever a discouraging state of mind or mood or situation arises, we realize it’s not something solid. It has arisen from causes and conditions, and it will pass, like a dream.

This gives us courage. Seeing everything as being like an illusion or like a projection gives us courage not to get fooled by it. It’s like watching a horror movie. If we are watching a horror movie, we might get scared. But if we realize it’s only a movie – only actors in make-up are up on the screen – we can have courage and not be so frightened. This is a very helpful piece of advice. Things happen – a discouragement or a difficult situation. So, we say, “OK. It’s no big deal. It has arisen from causes and conditions. It appears to be solid, but that’s like an illusion,” and then we just apply the opponent to deal with it.

It’s like being in India and finding a scorpion in your shoe. You don’t freak out; you don’t make a big deal out of it: “OK, so there’s a scorpion in my shoe.” It’s like an illusion in the sense that it’s not some sort of horrible monster. You pick up your shoe, you go outside, and you empty your shoe and put the scorpion outside. You go back inside and put on your shoe. It’s finished. What’s the big deal?

That’s how to deal with discouragement and how to deal with difficult situations. “OK, it has arisen. It’s like a scorpion in my shoe. So, OK, I need to deal with it. And if I need some time to quiet down, I take the time to quiet down. What’s the big deal?”

Regarding Unpleasant Words Like an Echo and Harm as Ripening from Past Karma

Whenever I hear unpleasant words, let me regard them like an echo; and whenever harm happens to my body, let me regard it as (coming from) my previous karma.

This is like lojong, the mind training (attitude training) text that Atisha’s teacher Dharmarakshita wrote – that when we hear unpleasant words it’s like an echo. So, the nasty words that we’ve spoken ourselves are now coming back to us and we’re hearing them again. And when harm happens to my body, well this has come from my karma. We’ve thrown the boomerang out, as it were, and now it has come back. We create all our troubles ourselves. Other people may be circumstances, but we’ve created the conditions to meet with those circumstances.

In this way, we try to deal with these situations without making them into something horrible: “You horrible person. You just did something that I dislike.” If they did something to us that we don’t like, we can simply tell the other person, “That was not acceptable. Could you please act differently, in this way or that way?” If they’re reasonable people, then they adapt. If they adapt and we adapt, it’s no big deal. If they’re not reasonable people and they won’t adapt, we adapt as much as we can from our sides – while setting limits. We set the limits of what is acceptable according to what’s not destructive.