Exchanging Our Happiness for Others' Suffering

We have been discussing the Eight Verses of Mind Training and we’ve seen that it is coming from a long tradition, first Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, and then the teacher Atisha went to get these teachings from Dharmarakshita, who wrote Wheel of Sharp Weapons. Atisha himself wrote A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, and then this text. Following from it we get the Seven Point Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa, and also then the 37 Bodhisattva Practices by Togme Zangpo. They all speak about this same theme, which is basically equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others, the giving and taking practice, tonglen, and also how we can change negative circumstances into positive ones, particularly by practicing patience.

This is very important, because often we meet people who are very negative, who are filled with disturbing emotions. Even people that we have been very kind to sometimes say cruel things that hurt us, and do things that are not very nice, or are not very grateful. It’s very important not to get thrown by that, or depressed by that, but to be able to use that; see these as golden opportunities to practice patience, to see this is the ripening of our own karma and to develop more compassion for others.

And so, in this text we’ve seen how we can look at others who are acting in this way as a great treasure, like finding a treasure for us to be able to practice with, or like our teachers, to be teachers of patience, or at least to see them as children who are sick with these disturbing emotions. Therefore, there’s no reason to get angry with them, but to be even more kind and understanding. And it’s really the only alternative that makes any sense in dealing with such situations; otherwise the only other way of dealing with it is to get depressed and unhappy, and to suffer.

These practices, of course, are very difficult. They’re very, very challenging, because it challenges our whole instinctive way of reacting to such situations. Instinctively, we get upset, we get depressed, and we get angry, and feel sorry for ourselves, and a lot of attachment comes up, attachment to ourselves, our own self-interest. And if it’s someone that we’ve been very kind and friendly to, of course, attachment to them comes up and disappointment.

And so as we were explaining, when we try to meditate on these points, although we might intellectually understand them, there’s a great deal of emotional resistance. And the only way really to try to break through that barrier between an intellectual understanding and emotional digestion of this and feeling it, is to just stick with it, with the focusing on the healthier attitude, so that eventually we can quiet down, because – we were using the image of the dog tied to a chain barking and trying to get away – the ego rebels against this way of looking at things. But if we can just relax enough with it, then eventually we start to feel something, because we come into contact with the natural Buddha-nature qualities of understanding, warmth, acceptance, openness of heart, and so on. But that takes an awful lot of practice and effort and determination – renunciation, basically, that “I’m not going to suffer. I’m not going to let myself go down and down with depression and being upset.”

We’re up to verse seven of the eight verses:

(7) In short, may I offer to all my mothers, both actually and indirectly, whatever will benefit and bring them joy; and may I hiddenly accept on myself all my mothers’ troubles and woes.

This is the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. We want to both do this giving in terms of actually, which means doing it with actually giving other people material help, material aid, giving them Dharma teachings, giving them whatever actual help we actually can do with our body and speech and so on, and, indirectly, is doing this through the tonglen practice with our minds.

This is very much a way of also dealing with others who are very cruel, who – under the influence of their disturbing emotions – act in a very self-cherishing way, in a very nasty way toward us and toward others: to actually think to take that on ourselves, to remove it from them and to take it on ourselves, and then to give them whatever solution would be for that particular type of problem or disturbing emotion they might have.

This of course reminds us of many different aspects of the teachings that we’ve had so far. One is to think in terms of when we see faults – there was one quote here that said, when we read the Mahayana scriptures, think of all mistakes as being our own, and all good qualities as others’ – and so by taking on the negative qualities, the disturbing emotions. Let’s say somebody is acting very self-cherishing, just thinking of themselves, then we take that on. In other words, we think in terms of our own self-cherishing as well, that we have this also, so we take on theirs’ as well, remove it from them, and apply whatever opponent there would be to overcoming that. So, in doing that, we overcome not only our own self-cherishing as well, but then we wish it for the other and give it to them.

So, if we look at the tonglen practice from that point of view, we are building on what we’ve practiced already in this Eight-Verse Lojong, and dealing not only with their problems and disturbing emotions, but also with ours. That’s why another aspect of this type of practice of tonglen is when we have a very strong problem, or any type of problem – physical suffering or mental suffering or disturbing emotion that’s happening – this is not specifically with another person, but in general – may the disturbing emotion or the sickness or whatever of everybody come on me. We are working to solve that problem in ourselves, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of everybody else, because we’re taking it on from everybody else as well, and giving the solution not just to me, but giving the solution to everybody else. So it becomes very much a Mahayana practice, a way of dealing with our disturbing emotions. Not just dealing with my own personal disturbing emotions, but dealing with everybody’s disturbing emotions, realizing that we’re all equal, we all have the same type of problems.

Shantideva echoes this point that it’s taking care of not only others’ problems and suffering, but our own as well:

(VIII.136) Therefore, for the sake of quelling my own suffering and for quelling the sufferings of others as well, I shall give myself over to others, and take (others) on as myself.

(VIII.120) Thus, anyone who wishes to give safe direction swiftly to himself and others needs to practice the most sacred secret: the exchange of self with others.

And by calling it “the most sacred secret,” this is the same word “secret” as I’m translating in the verse here – so Shantideva is using the same term here as Geshe Chaykawa does in the eight verses. When he says “the most sacred secret,” I’m translating it here as “hiddenly accept on myself,” so secretly. This means that when we practice tonglen, it should be done privately, not making a big show out of it. One doesn’t go around waving hands in front of the other person and telling them, “I’m doing tonglen” and go “whoo” with your hands and take on the problems and give happiness to others with hand gestures. Because on the one hand, it can be a big ego trip, that we’re putting on a big show, and on the other hand if it doesn’t work, which in most cases it won’t work, then we just make a fool of ourselves, and cause the other person to be really very disappointed and to lose faith in us. And so it’s best, when we do this tonglen practice, not to tell the other person at all, let alone doing it in front of them.

Now, we could ask, “But aren’t there a lot of Tibetan lamas who blow their breath on other people? What’s going on with that?” And that’s slightly different. That’s not practice of tonglen, giving and taking. That has to do with the power of mantras. As Serkong Rinpoche often used to say, “There are three most powerful things in the world. There’s medicine, there’s technology, and there’s mantras.” And I always found that a little bit difficult to understand, but he said the power of mantra is extremely, extremely strong. And the more that I thought of it – I mean it doesn’t mean it in terms of magic words, but rather what is the purpose of a mantra? The purpose of the mantra is to protect the mind – that’s literally the meaning of the Sanskrit word – by helping the mind to not go in a negative type of direction, putting it in a positive direction with the mantra and with the thought that goes with the mantra.

But mantra really is a shaping of the breath, and shaping of the breath is shaping of the energy. Now, on a deeper tantra level, one wants the shape the breath in order to be able to gain control of it, so that the breath and the energy – same word – the subtle energy can be dissolved into the heart chakra in order to get to the clear light level of mind for the most efficient understanding of voidness.

But in shaping the breath and, through that, shaping the energies, somebody who’s done an unbelievable amount of mantras with a really pure motivation and pure concentration and so on, then that energy that they have can be transmitted out. I mean you’re always doing in tantra visualizations, visualizations of light and nectars and so on going out from you and helping others; so similarly the breath, the energy. Because what are the light and nectar symbolizing? They’re symbolizing the illusory body, the type of forms that one can make out of the subtlest energy. So if you can shape that subtle energy and send it forth, then it can have an “uplifting effect” – it’s usually translated as “blessing.” And so it can uplift other people and so on to help act as a circumstance or a condition for their own positive karma to ripen – if they have the positive karma. If they don’t, nothing is going to happen.

And so one sees the uplifting or blessing of a place, by just the presence of someone, or it can in this case be, as I’m explaining here, when they blow their breath on other people or blow their breath into water, and then this is given to other people to drink, which can help in difficult situations. We also have what’s called “hand-blessing” – this uplifting by means of touching the other person with the hand. That’s also not giving and taking, that’s not tonglen.

And of course, it depends very much on the attitude of the person that’s being touched, but also this is like the vibration of the energy that somebody has been able to shape with a tremendous amount of practice of mantra. So although these things are very difficult to understand in the Tibetan tradition, I think that this is a way in which we can understand it. And in any case, a lot of lamas will keep this quite private. Some of course do it a lot, and others will only do it when it’s absolutely necessary. It’s the same thing, like sometimes the lamas will take their rosary and touch it to the top of somebody’s head, and also they’ve done a tremendous amount of mantras with the rosary.

The source of this comes from – we mentioned before – the two sutras, Gandavyuha Sutra and the Vajradvaja Paripriccha Sutra, The Sutra Requested by Vajradvaja; and then Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, where he says, “May their negative force ripen on me and may all my positive force ripen on them.”

Shantideva goes on:

(VIII.131) For those who haven't exchanged their happiness for the sufferings of others, Buddhahood'll be impossible to attain and there'll be no happiness even in samsara.

Shantideva makes a very strong point that this is very necessary to practice in order to gain both our happiness in this world – in other words, as I was explaining, otherwise you get very depressed with everybody being so caught up in problems and suffering – and it’s what will bring us to enlightenment. And so, in the prayer, in the last chapter of Shantideva’s text, he says:

(X.56) Whatever sufferings wandering beings might have, may all of them ripen on me, and through the bodhisattva assembly, may wandering beings enjoy happiness.

So through not only my giving them happiness, but through all bodhisattvas working for the sake of everybody, may they enjoy happiness.

We have Togme Zangpo, in 37 Bodhisattva Practices, saying as well:

(11) A bodhisattva’s practice is to purely exchange our personal happiness for the sufferings of others, because (all) our sufferings, without an exception, come from desiring our personal happiness, while a fully enlightened Buddha is born from the attitude of wishing others well.

This again is saying that from exchanging self and others we will be able to achieve enlightenment.

And also, another reference to how we need to practice this in private, or secretly, or in a hidden fashion. Geshe Chekawa in the Seven Point Mind Training, in the fourth of the eighteen closely bonding practices says:

Transform my intentions, but remain normal.

In other words, on the outside just remain perfectly normal. Don’t go on a big trip when we’re doing this kind of practice.

Now, in terms of how we actually do this, Geshe Chekawa says in the Seven Point Mind Training:

Train in both giving and taking in alternation, mounting these two on the breath.

The way that we practice this is, we do the taking first. We imagine taking on the suffering of others as we breathe in, and we do that with an attitude of compassion, “May they be free from their problems, the causes of their problems” and so on. And then, as we breathe out, we imagine with love, “May they be happy and have the causes for happiness” and we breathe out what will be of benefit to them. And we do this in terms of breathing in through the right nostril, and all their sufferings and problems and so on will be visualized in certain forms, and these go down to our heart, and dissolve there – I’ll explain a little bit further in a moment. And then, as we breathe out, again, the visualization of the happiness and other things that we’re giving them leaves us with our out-breath, as we breathe out our left nostril. You don’t have to hold your nose while you do that, but just imagining like that. When we become proficient at it you can do with it each in- and out-breath, but in the beginning that’s a bit too complicated and difficult to do. So we would do a period of the breathing in – obviously you have to breath out, but – focusing on the taking aspect and dissolving it, and then the aspect of giving.

Now, first of all, in doing this practice, in almost all cases it’s not going to work, unless we have an unbelievably pure motivation, unbelievably perfect concentration, and bodhichitta and these type of things, and a really strong karmic connection with the other person, and really have overcome self-cherishing and ego-grasping, and all these sort of things. Unless we have all that, it’s not going to work. But what is very important, of course, are two things: One is the strong wish to be able to reach the point where it would work, but with the understanding that of course all we can do is provide circumstances. As Buddha said in one of his sutras, a Buddha can’t remove the suffering from others like pulling a thorn out of somebody’s foot; all a Buddha can do is show the way to enlightenment.

So here what we’re doing is providing circumstances for somebody else’s positive karma to ripen… or actually providing a circumstance for that negative karma that would ripen, or is continuing to ripen – I mean if they’re blind you can’t take their blindness away, but if they’re sick they would continue their sickness, so they would not get better – for that to become weaker. Because you can affect the ripening other people’s karma – like you do in bardo, for example, when somebody is in the bardo – and also provide a circumstance for their positive karmic potentials to be able to ripen, so that in a sense they have more happiness. It’s not that we are taking some piece of their karmic situation and throwing it into ourselves, like catching a ball or something like that, and that we’re actually giving something from our own side, like that. But as I said, in most cases it’s not going to work. So we want to develop a strong wish, “May I be able to benefit others like this.”

But also one of the main emphases here is to enable us to be able to overcome our self-cherishing, and that ego-grasping and self-cherishing, grasping to a self, which says, “I don’t want to get involved; I don’t want to get my hands dirty. It’s too much bother, I’m too busy; it’s too much of a mess. I have difficulty enough with my own problems.” And so to develop the courage of the bodhisattva to overcome that. That’s what we’re trying to do, and the visualizations are very much involved with that, as we’ll get to in a moment.

And in imagining that we take on the sufferings of others and give them our happiness, we also need to be fully prepared to accept their suffering on ourselves, in other words, “May it ripen on me.” So, “By doing this, may this act as a circumstance for my own negative karma that’s similar to this, to ripen.” You have to be totally willing to suffer the same thing that the other person is suffering, to take on their problem.

So on the one hand you can look at it in terms of, “Well, I accept their problem as if it were my own problem.” Let’s say they’re unemployed or they’re lonely or they’re sick and then, “I will deal with it the same as I would my own problem.” This is why Shantideva says, “Label the ‘me’ onto the body of somebody else, just as I’ve labeled the me onto a body that was actually the sperm and egg of my parents.” That’s also not my own body, so I can have the same regard for them as I would for myself. So you solve it as if it were my own problem. But we need to fully be willing to experience that ourselves. Otherwise it won’t work. So that builds up this tremendous amount of courage.

Now, in taking it on ourselves, then when you bring it into yourself, it’s not that you hold on to the suffering. You’re willing to experience that suffering, but you dissolve it in your heart in terms of the understanding of voidness, into the clear light mind, the subtlest level of mind, with that understanding of the voidness. So, in a sense, it passes through you; but you experience it. It comes to the heart and dissolves in the heart, but we’re willing to experience it.

And it’s only from this subtlest level of mind, because otherwise you might think, “Oh, you know, I’m really so unhappy; I’m experiencing the suffering and so on. So how can I give them happiness?” It’s by dissolving the winds of that suffering, of that disturbance, into the subtlest mind, to calm them down, dissolving into the subtlest mind, that then you can access and bring out the Buddha-nature qualities that are there in the subtlest mind. And it’s on the basis of that that you give the happiness to others.

It’s not that, “Oh, I’m so sad you have cancer,” and then, “Oh, I’m so happy. They have cancer and here is happiness.” That’s very difficult to do. The only way to work with it is to think in terms of voidness, accessing the clear light mind. The disturbed wind dissolves, and then from that calm state filled with all qualities, that from that you’re able to give the happiness. Then, it makes much more sense.

So, you would start with actually thinking of the particular suffering that they have, the disturbing emotion, and then add on top of this the visualizations. You get stronger and stronger and stronger to attack the resistance, the ego-resistance that you have of really dealing with it, to build up the courage of a bodhisattva.

Question: Do you also take on the shortcomings or the mistakes or faults of others, thinking in terms of our own faults?

Alex: Yes, suffering is a much larger category. It includes the faults and mistakes, because what would be a fault or a mistake? Being selfish, being self-cherishing – this type things, the disturbing emotions. These are forms of suffering. So when you do tonglen, it’s not just taking on the sickness of somebody else, but taking on their disturbing emotions, the mistakes that they make. It’s the same process.

Question: But then you’re busy with applying antidotes against it…

Alex: Right, so that’s why I said, it’s an incredibly advanced practice, not at all a beginner practice, not at all a beginner-Mahayana practice even. It’s a very, very advanced practice, and one has to do it quite slowly. When you think in terms of applying the opponents, well first you have to calm down – take on this mistake or this disturbing emotion, and calm it down. Then the antidote comes out of this more calm, subtler level of mind.

One has to be a little bit delicate here. When we take on the stupidity of others, for example, it’s not that then we sit there and imagine that we’re more and more and more stupid, or try to generate more stupidity. It’s not quite like that, but to try to have a feeling or understanding of the suffering that’s involved in being stupid.

Participant: It’s not that one sees also oneself as stupid…

Alex: Well, I said there are many ways of looking at the practice, there are many levels of looking at the practice. So one is in terms of, “Yes, I have this same thing as well,” or if that other person has cancer, “Yes, from beginningless time, I must have the karmic potentials also to have cancer.” So you can think in terms of, “It’s not that I’m totally unrelated to this person. So of course I can understand it, because I have a similar type of thing.” So there’s that aspect. Then there is the aspect when we have something, “May this aspect in everybody who has it come on me.” But also there’s the aspect of when we’re working with our own problem, by taking on others’, what we want to do is to smash our own self-cherishing. And even when we don’t have that manifest problem, “May I take on the problems of others to smash my self-cherishing.”

This is very much what Dharmarakshita in Wheel of Sharp Weapons emphasizes, this aspect of the smashing of the resistance that we have:

(94) With all of the sufferings that others experience, smother completely our selfish concern. The sufferings of others arise from five poisons; thus whichever delusion afflicts other beings take it to smother delusions of self.

(95) Though we have not a doubt, for we recognize fully the cause and the root of mistakes we all make, if there is still left a part of our minds that would tend to support this delusion of self that we have, then destroy the firm hold of this part of our minds that, against our true wishes, makes fools of us still.

(96) As all that is wrong can be traced to one source our concern for ourselves whom we cherish the most, we must meditate now on the kindness of others. Accepting the suffering that they never wished for, we must dedicate fully our virtues to all.

(97) Thus accepting ourselves all deluded nonvirtuous actions that others have done in the past, in the present and future with mind, speech and body, may delusions of others as well as our own be the favored conditions to gain our enlightenment, just as the peacocks eat poison and thrive.

(98) As crows may be cured after swallowing poison by a powerful antidote given in time, let’s direct to all others our virtuous merit, that this may replenish their chances for freedom. May all sentient beings reach Buddhahood soon!

This is the whole emphasis in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, to trample, step on the life of this ego-grasping, this self-cherishing. And how do you do it? By taking on the sufferings of others and giving our happiness to others. You have to do it in a very forceful way, and this forceful way is with the visualizations that accompany this practice. The visualizations are very, very strong here. The simple visualization that people do, sort of a light version of tonglen is to just to imagine that the suffering and problems of others come on us in the form of black light, which of course is a contradiction, because light can’t be black. But in any case “black light,” and then the happiness goes out to others in the form of white light. OK, so that’s a very beginner, light version of this.

The way that His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains this, Serkong Rinpoche as well, but His Holiness even stronger, is in terms of three stages. And we can apply the three stages in various ways, but it’s the visualizations that are important, not so much what they represent. The first level is to imagine, let’s say if we’re talking about the sufferings or the disturbing emotions, sicknesses and so on, to imagine that these come in in the form of really dirty substances like oil, and grease, and ink, and all these sort of dirty type of things. And that these come into us, which naturally we have resistance for, “I don’t want to get myself dirty.” Soot and coal, mixed with water, I mean just really dirty stuff, “I don’t want to get myself dirty,” and so there’s this resistance. The self-cherishing comes up strongly. So you imagine that coming in.

Then you think of the tendencies – the tendencies or the seeds of the disturbing emotions, or the tendencies or potentials for the negative karmic potentials – and that this now comes in in the form of diarrhea, vomit, urine, pus and blood, these type of things, which we would have even more resistance to wanting to take on and actually have inside us and deal with it. So it’s a stronger visualization.

And the third level, which would be habits that are supporting the disturbing emotions and the karma, we imagine that this comes in in the form of whatever it is that we’re the most afraid of. So whether it’s spiders, snakes, scorpions, fire, whatever it is that we’re the most, most afraid of, you imagine that this comes in, and we deal with that.

Question: Where do you leave that?

Alex: Where do you leave it? As I said, it comes to the heart and dissolves in the heart, but we are willing to experience it. You don’t just keep it inside you. This is why I explained it has to be done with the understanding of voidness, and dissolving it like going down the drain in the bathtub. However, we have to be willing to experience it. It’s a big mistake to just hold on to this truly existent “me” and this truly existent dirty substance and then I’m keeping it inside me. It has to be done with some understanding of voidness, because it’s the understanding of voidness plus this type of visualization that together smashes through the ego-grasping, the self-cherishing, based on thinking of all the disadvantages of self-cherishing that come before doing this meditation.

So we can see, this is a very, very strong meditation and very, very advanced, because obviously this is not for the light-hearted or the beginner who would freak out with something like this. But that’s the “real-thing” practice as His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches it, and as obviously he practices.

So we can see in this way, like Dharmarakshita emphasizes, this practice is really aimed to develop the courage of a bodhisattva and to smash the self-cherishing, that “I don’t want to be involved with helping others. It’s too messy. It’s too frightening.” And by making the visualizations more and more terrible, terrifying as we go deeper, that also counters the tendency that we might have of just doing a superficial job in helping others, and not going deeply enough. “Well, let’s just get rid of the superficial symptoms of your sickness, but not really go down to the root of the sickness. I can’t be bothered to go deeper.” By giving just some money to the young homeless beggar who’s run away from their parents, just dealing with their problem in that way, as opposed to really helping the person to overcome the psychological and emotional reasons why they left the parents’ home, why they’re just living on the street, and so on. That’s a much deeper involvement with the person that just giving them money for a meal.

So in applying these visualizations, to go into a deeper and deeper level of the causes – that really builds up the courage to go all the way in terms of helping others. So, although on can do a lighter version of tonglen, I think it’s important not to trivialize tonglen. This I think is very sad, when, “Oh, it’s so easy, and any beginner can do it, just black light in and white light out and everybody be happy.” That really not only trivialized it but makes us not have the interest to go deeper.

In the practice of tonglen, as we do in our ordinary practice, we can do it in different ways, depending on what’s actually going on. If we have met somebody, or one of our friends has a very serious problem, say they have a sickness, or they’re suffering from a very strong disturbing emotion, then we can take that on ourselves, practice like that. We also think in terms of, as I’ve said, that we ourselves have that same problem as well. And when we give good qualities to others, having dissolved this negative aspect, we can think, “It’s not that they don’t have any good qualities either; it’s just enhancing, making stronger the good qualities that they have.” It’s not that we’r e taking on good qualities from them, certainly not.

And if we can tie it into the practice that is described in the earlier verses – if somebody whom we have been kind to and raised like a child says very cruel things to us and so on, that we take that on ourselves as well, taking on whatever disturbing emotion and so on that has caused it in them, and give them the solution to that. Or if somebody, in the earlier verse, out of envy says horrible things to us and so on, we can take that on. So we can work in that way, and in these cases we should work with specific persons, or we can also do it with animals, and there are also practices you can do with the six realms and so on. But I find it far more effective if we do it with actual specific beings.

But when we ourselves have a serious problem, we ourselves are experiencing the sadness of, let’s say a sickness or the sadness of old age or the sadness of a relationship ending, or a strong jealousy is going on or anger or something like that, then we can imagine taking on the similar type of problem from everybody, not from specific beings. So it all depends on the circumstance. I think it’s important in any type of meditation, particularly in analytical meditation, or a meditation like this, that it doesn’t become stale by always doing exactly the same thing with the exact same disturbing emotion and the exact same person every day. Then it looses its effectiveness. We need to apply it to situations as they arise in our life. And it’s very helpful when there’s somebody that, as I said, upsets us. Rather than getting upset, do the tonglen practice with them. Because then, when we’re upset, obviously the self-cherishing is even stronger.

Now, there isn’t usually very much description – I’ve not heard – of what we visualize in terms of what we give to others. What is usually described is just on a material level. If they want a house or money or something like this, we imagine that in the white light that goes out to them these various things that we give to them, and they are presented to them as such. But it can be many other things as well, and here, as I said, I don’t know. I don’t have specific instructions of how to visualize it, because they say also you give them good qualities, and you give them insights, and eventually you give them Buddhahood – liberation and enlightenment – as well. So I think we can be a little bit creative here. If we just do it in terms of white light, then the white light gives them and they’re filled with insight into their problems and the sources of them and how to get rid of them, and so on, or further it gives the blissful attainment of the omniscient state of a Buddha. So, one can work that way.

Also, I think, when we’re dealing with our own problems, let’s say the problem of a sickness, or the problem of old age, that we accept it. You really have to accept yourself, that “I have my own problem.” Geshe Chekawa says we start with ourselves in the tonglen practice in accepting our own problems. Rather than denying them and not wanting to deal with them, deal with the problems. We have now the problems that we’ll have in the future: the problem of old age, the problem of how am I going to deal with my parents dying, how am I going to deal with my own death, my own future sicknesses, these sort of things. And work with it now, so that we don’t get just completely shocked and unprepared when these things happen. That’s very, very helpful – also the sufferings that we might have in future lives as well.

In terms of how we deal with sickness and old age, we can also think in terms of give to others, show to others the dignity of how to deal with old age and sickness, while keeping one’s self-dignity, while not complaining all the time, while not feeling sorry for ourselves. This type of thing is very helpful to give to others as well. Not only that they’re able to act like that, but we show everybody and demonstrate to everybody how we can deal in a proper healthy way with respect to this. So there are many ways in which we can practice this tonglen.

Question: How is this tonglen practice different from some Christian monks beating themselves with a whip or whatever, with the thought that “I’m taking on the sufferings of others.”

Alex: I think that the main difference here is, in tonglen, we’re doing it with our minds. We’r e not doing this in a physical type of way, because it would be like when I explained about your taking on the stupidity of others. Do we try to be more stupid? Taking on the sufferings of old age. “Ah, I fell younger, don’t you feel younger?” As I was explaining, when we take on the stupidity of others, it’s not that we purposely make ourselves more stupid and try to be more stupid. I think the main difference here – now I don’t want to criticize a practice in another religion, because I don’t know what understanding they have of what they’re doing, but – in the Buddhist practice, what we would be emphasizing in doing this whole practice is the understanding of voidness. It’s not that we’re concretely taking on a concrete suffering of somebody else, and a concrete “me” is concretely experiencing it.

Whereas I could imagine that one could make that mistake with doing it in the Buddhist context and then, “I just can’t take it, because all the suffering of others is all inside me.” Many psychiatrists feel like that; many nurses and doctors as well feel like that. “All these horrible problems of other people, I’m just taking it on and keeping it inside me.” So you can do it like that, and that would be an incorrect way. And similarly, in this way of actually beating ourselves and imagining that we’re taking on the suffering of others, that also would be making it too concrete. Buddha rejected these physically ascetic type of practices as not really being the way.

Also, you don’t want to do this with the mentality of being a martyr. A martyr is somebody that does this practice really in terms of – if one looks at it critically – “I am the martyr.” So there is a bit of grasping to a “ self” to that, with a pity looking down on others. It doesn’t mean that all martyrs are like that, but there is that association that one has with martyrdom, and we’re certainly not practicing being a martyr with this. The main thing you’re working on is the willingness to experience it.

We’re practicing for the suffering to get less, but you think of an example like the old Serkong Rinpoche did, he died with tonglen. He took on this obstacle from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he always taught it with the example that you should be willing to die in doing the practice. He always said that, whenever he taught it, which I always found a bit strange, and he always quoted Kunu Lama Rinpoche for that. Then we asked him when he taught that, “Wouldn’t that be terrible, if a great master were to die like that, and leave all the disciples and everybody else behind?” And Serkong Rinpoche said “No,” that "first of all, by doing that type of practice one builds up an unbelievable positive force that can take you to a much higher level of realization."

And also he said, “It’s like if an astronaut” – he loved examples like that – he said, “If an astronaut were to be killed in an accident like that, then that astronaut would become a hero, and the government and everybody would support the family of the astronaut. And so,” he said, “ likewise, if a great master were to do that, that attainment of the master would take care of the disciples, would inspire them and teach them even more.” And of course, the understanding is in terms of rebirth, they come back and continue anyway. But that doesn’t mean that you go purposely out and beat yourself, and he wasn’t taking on the negative karma of a fly to be eaten by a spider and dying. This was a very important thing in terms of major obstacle to His Holiness’s life. And he had that connection with His Holiness, which very few people do, and that level of closeness, and that level of attainment to be able for it to actually work.

So, just an example of practicing like sometimes I do, is let’s say your computer crashes, and then you go into the kitchen and a glass breaks, and then the light bulb burns out. And instead of getting upset about it and depressed, you say, “More, give me more. May more come. Let’s see what’s going to come next.” And in a sense you welcome it, taking on from others. But that doesn’t mean that I then walk into the living room and smash my television on the floor and break all my windows, which would be the analogy of beating myself on the back, to use an absurd example. This is a level of tonglen, I mean that’s a level that I sometimes practice. I can’t say that I’m a great practitioner of tonglen; I’m not. That is a beginner’s level of it, certainly. And it’s helpful. And in a sense, you almost laugh at it, you laugh in the face of this type of problems. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take it seriously, but you don’t get upset about it. “What else can go wrong today?”