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Developing Bodhichitta through Equalizing and Exchanging One’s Attitudes about Self and Others

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session One: Developing Mere Equanimity

Unedited Transcript
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Today, we’re going to begin our discussion of bodhichitta and one of the methods for being able to generate it, which means to work ourselves up to the actual state of mind and heart of bodhichitta, and then how to actually focus on bodhichitta in our meditation. Now this is a quite extensive practice – not only is bodhichitta itself a very extensive state of mind, but the practices that lead to it are very extensive. 

Bodhichitta itself is based on and accompanied by quite a few constructive states of mind or mental factors. And therefore in the process of working ourselves up to being able to focus on bodhichitta – which means to focus on our own individual enlightenments, which have not yet happened, which nevertheless can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature (which is referring to the various factors of our mental continuum that will enable us to achieve the various bodies of a Buddha) – while we’re focusing on that not-yet-happened enlightenment, we have the intention to achieve it based on our understanding and confidence that it is possible, and the intention to benefit all others equally, on the basis of that enlightenment. 

In order to have that intention to benefit all others equally, then we need to have, first of all, a general state of equanimity. This is the state of mind with which we have neither attraction nor repulsion nor indifference toward anyone, because not only is the goal of bodhichitta (in other words, enlightenment) extremely vast, but the scope of it (in other words, aiming it to benefit all limited beings) is likewise extremely vast. The goal is vast and so the scope of how many others we’re going to benefit is vast. So in other words, the enlightened state is very vast and the number of beings that we’re going to help is very vast. And the type of happiness that we want to bring to others and the amount of suffering that we want to eliminate from them is also vast – it’s the largest amounts possible. Because of that, we label this whole state of mind that’s involved with the process of achieving enlightenment, we label that “Mahayana. “Maha” means vast. So, vast in all these ways that I just mentioned. And “yana” is a vehicle of mind, in other words a state of mind that acts as a vehicle to bring us to a goal. And then of course we have the practices and the texts which describe the process and are involved with the process of reaching that goal. 

So we need to have this state of basic equanimity as a foundation for bodhichitta, and this is a state of equanimity that is developed in common with the Hinayana practices. In other words, “Hinayana” means a more modest vehicle of mind that is aiming for a more modest goal, which is just our own liberation. Because this is an equanimity that is, as I say, free of attraction, repulsion, and indifference – or the three poisons, so-called poisonous states of mind. Attraction is a longing desire and attachment to others; repulsion is a rejection, which is an aspect of anger toward others; and indifference (meaning ignoring others) is an aspect of naivety – we don’t realize that they are beings who have suffering, want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy, just as we are. 

And then we need a further type of equanimity, which is an even stronger state of equanimity that we develop specifically in the Mahayana practices – which is when we are actually involved in helping others, not to have favorites. And then we need to have an attitude in which we see the equality of not only all others among themselves, but the equality of ourselves with others, so that we can think to work for eliminating everybody’s unhappiness. And in order to reinforce that attitude and form a basis for the further constructive states of mind that we need, we need to develop what’s called renunciation (nges-’byung), which is the determination to be free from our own sufferings, which means all three types of suffering – suffering of pain and unhappiness; suffering of change (which refers to our ordinary type of happiness which never lasts and never satisfies); then the uncontrollably recurring rebirth that is the basis for the first two types of suffering, which is generated by our unawareness (ma-rig-pa), disturbing emotions (nyon-mongs), and karma (las). 

And then when we have this attitude of seeing that ourselves and others are in the same type of situation, then we need to see the disadvantages of working just for my own welfare. That’s called the self-cherishing attitude (rang bces-par ’dzin-pa) with which we work only for ourselves and ignore helping others. And we see the advantages of cherishing others, with which our primary focus is on helping them and ignoring our own selfish wishes and needs. Although obviously if we’re working for the welfare of everyone, we are part of everyone, so we need to understand this cherishing others and ignoring our own selfish needs properly. 

And then on the basis of all of this, all these positive states of mind that we’ve just mentioned, then we develop love (the wish for everybody equally to be happy), and compassion (to wish for everybody to be free of their suffering and the causes for suffering), which is extending that renunciation or determination to be free to others. And then we develop what's called the exceptional resolve. And, by the way, this practice of love and compassion – wishing for others to be free from their suffering and the causes, and to have happiness and the causes for happiness – can be practiced and strengthened in terms of “tonglen practice (giving and taking). Then we need to develop what’s called the exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam) with which we take responsibility to help to bring everyone to enlightenment – so, the highest goal – and we resolve to do that by ourselves, even if we have to do it only by ourselves. Obviously that doesn’t mean the arrogant state of mind that “I’m the only one that’s capable of it and so I don’t need anybody’s help in this process”. But it just is referring to how exceptional that resolve or wish is: even if I have to do it all by myself, I will do it. 

And then, based on all of that, we have next the development of bodhichitta, because we realize that the only way that we will be able to help everybody fully to reach enlightenment is if we reach enlightenment ourselves. So in the generation of that state of focusing with bodhichitta on our own enlightenment that has not yet happened, with the intention to achieve it and to benefit everybody as much as we can – on that basis, we need to work ourselves up through all these steps in order to generate that full state of mind of bodhichitta in its full strength and very sincere. And once we have accustomed ourselves and are totally, totally familiar from repeating over and over and over again all these stages to build up to bodhichitta, then we will be able to generate that state of mind of bodhichitta just instantly with all its full characteristics. 

When we need to work ourselves up through all these stages to develop bodhichitta, that’s called labored (rtsol-bcas) bodhichitta. In other words, we have to put in labor or work to achieve it. In other words we have to construct it, like building something, which is the connotation of the Tibetan word here. But when we are able to generate it in full, automatically, that’s called the unlabored (rtsol-med) state of bodhichitta, and at that point we become technically what’s known as a bodhisattva

So we can see through this general introduction that there are many steps that are involved in our bodhichitta practice. 

Now our time is of course limited, although we have a whole weekend here, and the steps involved through this particular method for generating bodhichitta are very many in number. And also we should be aware that there is a second method for developing bodhichitta, a second sequence, and there’s also a method that combines these two. But, nevertheless, because our time is limited, it will be difficult to go through every step with time for practicing it. To gain some familiarity with all the steps we would require quite a large amount of time, but I would like to introduce at least all the steps in this particular method and with an elaboration of it that I learned from my teacher Serkong Rinpoche – an elaboration of some of the steps involved, more extensively than we might find elsewhere. But we will only really have time to do some of the meditations for some of the parts, not all of the parts. Otherwise we’ll never get through all of them. So we’ll have a little bit of more extensive practice perhaps on the first stages of this and, after that, just a general survey of what comes next in the process. 

And I’d like at the end to describe a little bit more fully how we actually focus on our enlightenment which has not yet happened. In other words, when we actually get to the point in which we are meditating with bodhichitta, what actually is going on in our minds? Since there are many people who don’t really understand this; and when they consider themselves meditating on bodhichitta in fact what they are doing is meditating on love and compassion which, although extremely beneficial, is not actually bodhichitta meditation – it’s what comes before bodhichitta meditation, its basis. 

So let us begin then with the first type of equanimity. This word equanimity (btang-snyoms) is of course quite a difficult word to translate properly (I’m referring to the Sanskrit and Tibetan terms), because the term is used in several different contexts. It has several different connotations. But here when we’re using it to mean the state of mind that is free from the disturbing emotions of attraction, repulsion, and indifference. The result of that is that our mind is “even.” So the analogy is like a flat ground in which we’ve removed all the rocks. So, in a sense, equanimity here means an even state of mind – so that, like a flat plain, we are open to everybody. If you’re in a plain, it’s open. And it doesn’t mean that we are no longer able to have any feelings, any positive feelings toward others, and that we become just like an emotionless robot; but rather the analogy is that, if we have cleared the plain of rocks, then you have a smooth surface upon which to build a good road. 

And remember what is so vast, one of the factors that makes this Mahayana practice so vast, is that it’s aimed at everybody. And this is not very easy; this is extremely difficult to have that state of mind aimed at the welfare of everybody, equally. And so first we need to do the type of work on ourselves which is done in common with the Hinayana practices, which is to try to eliminate as much as possible our disturbing emotions. And the disturbing emotions are behind attraction, repulsion, and indifference. Disturbing emotions are the causes for attraction, repulsion, and indifference, as I explained before: attraction is based on longing desire and attachment, etc.

Now of course what can be a little bit difficult for us Westerners is that all of the practices which are described here in Mahayana are based on a firm conviction in beginningless rebirth – past and future lives. The mental continuum has no beginning and no end, it continues even into liberation and enlightenment. And this is of course necessary, not only in terms of how we relate to everybody else, but also how we relate to our own future enlightenment. And although we could have what I call a “Dharma-lite version of all these Mahayana practices, with which we develop love and compassion etc. thinking just in terms of this lifetime – and this is of course very beneficial – nevertheless, it’s not the “real-thing Dharma. If we practice on the basis of Dharma-lite and think that that is all that Dharma is talking about, then that is not being fair to the actual tradition. But, on the other hand, if we see this Dharma-lite version as a preparation for being able eventually to practice the real-thing Dharma, then this is perfectly all right and actually quite helpful. But the way that I’ll explain here is in terms of the real-thing Dharma, with the assumption that we have already dealt with the issue of past and future lives. And even if we haven’t understood beginningless and endless mind fully, which would require the understanding of voidness (stong-pa-nyid) – voidness of the self, voidness of cause and effect – nevertheless, we at least would provisionally or temporarily accept beginningless and endless mind, because it really is not very easy to get a hundred percent conviction in past and future lives without this understanding of voidness. 

In terms of this first type of equanimity, how we practice this – this is called, by the way, mere equanimity (btang-snyoms tsam) – is to visualize three types of persons. By the way, I should mention that this development of “mere equanimity,” which means only the very basic type of equanimity, is practiced in common with both methods for developing bodhichitta as a foundation. And so we focus on three persons. We chose somebody that we find very unpleasant and we don’t like; and someone that we are very attracted to and attached to, like a very close friend that we love; and a stranger, somebody that we ignore – like here in Moscow we have these escalators in the metro and there’s usually a lady at the bottom or the top who is watching a television screen to make sure that nobody has any difficulties on the escalator. And although we might pass her every day as we go to work and come home, we probably ignore her. Perhaps we can’t even remember what she looks like. 

So we choose these three people. And the one that we dislike, we shouldn’t chose somebody who has severely abused us or something like that – this is much, much too difficult to work with in the beginning – but just somebody that we would really prefer not to be with. It could be somebody from our work. It could be a noisy neighbor. It could be a relative that we find quite annoying. And if we have difficulty with visualization, we can always chose pictures of such people. And for the stranger you can just chose a picture from a magazine of a stranger. But don’t choose from a magazine the picture of some model in an advertisement with an artificial smile on the face – that is just a little bit too strange, although, obviously, this is also is a human being who wants to be happy and not to be unhappy. Although we want to eventually in this process work with all three at the same time, we can focus on just one at a time, and when we’re doing that don’t bother about trying to visualize the other two. 

And with this person that we dislike – that we would find repulsive, in a sense – we let this feeling of unpleasantness and repulsion arise within us. In other words, we don’t try to counter it initially, and we let that feeling get a bit stronger – that if I saw them on the street I would probably try to go in the other direction or make sure that they don’t see me. And in some cases, we might even have the negative thought about how nice it would be if something bad happened to them. And then, at that point, we stop and we examine why do I have these bad feelings towards this person. Please understand that we are not practicing to have these bad feelings, but what we need to do is to be able to identify the object of refutation – in other words, what we’re trying to get rid of. So it’s important to have some sort of emotional feeling here that then we can see this is what I have to work on. And there are always some people that object and say, “I don’t have negative feelings like that toward anyone.” But then there’s usually some political figure or figure from recent political history that we would have such negative feelings toward, and we’d choose them. 

So we analyze, “Why do I have such bad feelings toward this person?” And it’s usually because of something that they did to hurt us, or they did something that harmed our loved ones, or just in general caused problems for others. And that’s why we would like something bad to happen to this person or for them not to get what they want. And we consider, “Is this really a valid reason for wishing this person ill?” And then we consider, “Well, in past lives this person has been my mother or father or best friend many times, and they have undoubtedly helped me at times. And in the future also it’s uncertain what will happen – things can change and they could become a good friend. And, in any case, in an infinite number of future lives, I could very well be reborn in a situation in which I will need to rely on this person – they might be my parent – and at that point I’m going to have to place my hopes on this person that they take good care of me.” 

So what we’re doing here basically is extending the basis for labeling the person, and not just considering the small period of time (in terms of infinitely long mental continuum). We’re not considering just this small period of time when they perhaps did something nasty, but considering the whole mental continuum, and see that if because of my short-sightedness that I’m only reacting to a small period of time when they’ve been nasty, then, really, this is totally confused. And so since in the past, in the future, [there are] far more possibilities that they’re going to help me, then it’s completely improper for me to hold onto my anger for some small harm they might have done, because in the end actually all I would be doing is damaging myself because I may be reborn as a child of this person. 

And we also consider, when someone does something that I don’t like, if I just get angry and reject them, then I’m no better than a dog that when somebody pokes it, it barks and growls. That actually is very helpful to see, when we are acting in certain type of animal ways when something annoys us and we just bark and growl like a dog, and how absurd it is to act like that. This is what’s involved in this constructive state of mind called moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha shes-pa), that we think more of ourselves, have more respect for ourselves, than for us to act like a dog. 

At the end of this process then we try to focus on this person without that sense of repulsion, just with an open neutral state of mind. So that is the type of practice that we do, and let’s try to do that for a few minutes. And don’t worry about whether or not you can actually visualize in clear detail what this person looks like. The word “visualize actually just means to imagine, so to think of this person. It could just be to think of their name, if we can’t get some mental picture of them or a mental picture of the sound of their voice. 


Okay. Are there any questions on how to do this?

Question: What is more effective to visualize – this person as our mother in future lives who will take care of us, or as our child in future lives whom we will take care of?

Alex: I think both are effective. We don’t limit ourselves to just one type of imagining. But the emphasis here is of course that they will help us. Just as sometimes they’ve harmed us, they also have helped us in the past and will help us in the future. And so although imagining them as our child could cause us to develop a warm feeling toward them, so there’s nothing wrong with that; but, nevertheless, the emphasis is in terms of the help that they will give to us – so us being their child. But obviously if we want, we can actually picture that happening – of them being our mother or close friend or employer – but for many of us we don’t need to actually picture that happening, we can just think that very quickly. The point is to have both an understanding and some sort of feeling, emotional feeling. 

Anything else? 

Question: You said that at the end of the practice we need to have some sort of neutral feeling. But since we’re thinking about this person as our mother or our friend, we have quite a warm feeling, and so what should we do then at the end of the practice? 

Alex: Well, what we are aiming at is to have an even state of mind toward everyone, because after this the next step is to think of someone that we’re very attracted to. So in order to, in the end, be able to view this person in terms of, well, they might have been very helpful to us now but in past and future lives they could hurt us very much. So we don’t want to turn the object of our repulsion into an object of attraction because at the end of this whole process, when we’ve done this similarly with a stranger, we’ve seen that with a stranger they might not have had very much of a relation with us now, but in the past they’ve both helped us and harmed us (and the same in the future). So in the end we see that there’s no difference between these three people: everybody has helped me, everybody has harmed me, everybody has not affected me at the moment. And so at the conclusion, then, we have an attitude with which we view these three people equally, but without being like the magnet: attracted, repelled, or they’re not iron (so there’s nothing). The main thing is – if we can use this analogy – is to stop being the magnet, and just be open toward everyone. “Neutral” was not perhaps the best choice of words here. But just “open” I think is more descriptive. 

Then without going into an extensive discussion, because of limitation of time, chose someone that we have a strong attraction to, someone that if they came into the room we would ignore everybody else who’s in the room that we were talking to and just… And we let that feeling arise and then, again, we examine why do I feel like that – that I would ignore everybody else just to be with this person. And it’s because they did something that was nice to me and helped me, or were loving and kind to me, or they were like that to my loved ones, or to others in general – they helped them, they were kind – and because of that we like them, and they make me feel good to be with them, and I just want to be with this person. 

And so then, again, we stop and we analyze, “Is this a valid reason for being so attracted to this person?” And again we see that in past lives and in future lives they could have hurt us very much or will hurt us very much. Even in this lifetime these are the people that can cause us the most pain. If somebody that I’m very attached to ignores me or says something cruel to me, this hurts more than if a stranger says something like that. So in fact they – in past, present, and future – can cause me a great deal of harm and unhappiness. And so if I just run to them because I find it so attractive, then this is really no better than a moth flying to a flame. 

Then we conclude by trying to see this person free of attraction, just as we saw the one that we don’t like (we tried to see them free of repulsion). We try to view this person free from this attraction, just open to them. You see, the main emphasis on the state of mind we’re trying to develop is one which is free of that disturbing emotion, so when I say “open” to describe this state of mind, that is describing the state when it is free of repulsion or attraction or indifference. But that isn’t what we are trying to focus on in the meditation of being open. That’s not the focus. The focus is looking at them without repulsion or without attraction. That’s the main thing to emphasize. I use the word “open” there simply to help people not have this objection to it – that then you’re just like a robot with no emotions. But please bear in mind the state of mind that we’re actually trying to achieve is one that is free of this disturbing emotion. So let’s try this practice for a few minutes – with this person that we are so attracted to. 


I think that one of the things we need to work on in this meditation is that when we go through the line of reasoning – like, in this case, “they’ve hurt us in past and future lives, they can hurt us now,” and we are able to view them without attraction – one of the things that we can notice is our internal energy. Is our energy – this is what I meant by a neutral state – is that energy just sort of staying put, in a sense, or are we starting to again feel that energy going out toward this person, like with a magnetic force? And when we’re sitting there and try to focus on that state of mind that is without that attraction, when we notice again the energy arising to be drawn to this person, I think that this is a little bit easier to recognize than the emotional feeling of being drawn to them, at least in my own case, because it’s a little more subtle than the emotional feeling. 

It sounds almost contradictory, doesn’t it? That it’s easier to recognize the disturbance of energy, even though the energy is a more subtle disturbance than the emotional disturbance. Because that movement of energy is, in a sense, the basis for the emotional feeling. As the energy moves and you feel that movement, that disturbance, if you let it go more, then you will have the emotional feeling. But the clue, the indication that we have any type of disturbing emotion is that our energy is disturbed. That’s why I translate it as “disturbing emotion.” The mind is not at ease. The energy is not at ease. And it’s usually easier to recognize that we are feeling uneasy or uncomfortable than to recognize when we are feeling a strong emotion of attraction or repulsion. Because I think, in a sense, when we’re feeling a strong emotion, then it is so overwhelming to us that we don’t get the objectivity to recognize it. Whereas if we can notice when our energy is disturbed, it’s easier to be objective and we can deal with it a little bit more easily. Because when we’re feeling the disturbing emotion, then we put up a great deal of resistance, actually, to correcting it because then, in that strong emotion, the strong grasping for a “me” is very prominent. So although it may be more difficult initially to recognize the disturbance of the energy, once we’re able to recognize it then it’s much easier to stop and correct the state of mind if we catch it there. So just a piece of advice in terms of how you put this into practice. And this I think is true – not just in this meditation, but in any of the practices to overcome disturbing emotions – in terms of “at what point do we start applying the opponent forces.” 

Okay. So let’s end here for our session, and we’ll continue later.