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

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session Five: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
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So, what questions might you have about what we’ve been discussing? And please try to keep your questions relevant to the bodhichitta practices. 

Question: You said that when our hand takes out a thorn from our foot, it is natural and it is true. And it is natural because there is a body and our mind-stream on which we label our “me”; and so this “me” experiences pain, and that is why our hand will not think that it shouldn’t help the foot. But if we will continue this analogy and look at the situation with the parts and the whole when we have us as a people who are parts of the living world, so what will be there? 

Alex: First of all, in Buddhism we never assert a universal mind that we’re all part of, and so we all have individual mental continuums, that’s true. But in terms of “experiencing” (I know that this is a difficult word in Russian), and if we ask what it means to experience something, it doesn’t mean just to register data or information, because a computer does that as well; or to record it and then to be able to bring it back up, a computer does that as well. So a computer does not experience the data. To “experience” something means to be conscious of it with some level of feeling of happiness or unhappiness. And that happiness or unhappiness with which we experience or cognize a piece of information, whether it’s in one of the senses or just mental information, is the result of karma. It is defined – the feeling of happiness or unhappiness – the definition is “it’s the way in which we experience the ripening of our karma,” experience it with happiness or unhappiness. It is also what ripens from karma. We encounter some type of sensory information, of seeing something, or pain – that’s a physical sensation, that also is coming from karma, but that comes together with a feeling of happiness or unhappiness which would ripen actually from a different karmic tendency, usually a potential. 

Anyway, I don’t want to go into a big discussion of karma; that’s not answering specifically your question. The point is can we experience the unhappiness in terms of someone else’s pain? And this is something which we can, but Shantideva has a number of different verses in which he treats this topic. We referred to that briefly before. He says that whether it’s my suffering – the suffering that I have – that’s a pain, or the pain of somebody else, it is a pain that arises because of a clinging to a “me,” and it’s to be removed because of the clinging to “me.” I want it removed. And when we act in terms of that, we are acting in terms of a clinging to a truly established, truly existent “me,” which is a false “me” which doesn’t exist at all. And so in that sense there’s no difference in terms of this false “me,” whether it’s a projection in terms of conventional “me” of myself or a conventional “me” of somebody else. And so because of that we would want to work to remove the pain and the unhappiness simply because it’s based on a false “me.” 

Now of course we have the conventional “me” that does exist, but what is being labeled (namely, “me”) is not identical to the basis; and so the basis would be, as you said, the body, but “me” is not the body. And so Shantideva says that there’s the body and, even within this lifetime, the body of the baby and the body of the old man, or the old woman, is not the same body. So if we can work to remove the unhappiness of all these different types of bodies during one lifetime – and then he brings in bodies of another lifetime as well – none of them are “me.” And the pain that is in any of these bodies, we would work to eliminate. Then we could also work to eliminate pain that is associated with any other body, and we could experience unhappiness in relation to that pain of a body that’s not “me.” In relation to the pain of any body, the body of anyone – either the body of a baby within our own mental continuum; body as an old man or old woman; body of a future life; body of a past life; or body in another, associated with another mental continuum. The hand doesn’t experience the pain of the foot, but they form a whole; and on the basis of the whole, we work to eliminate the pain. So one part helps the other part of a whole, and “me” is labeled on the whole thing. 

So we can have a larger whole of all of humanity, or all of life, and although we don’t label “me” in the sense of a truly existent “me,” that I am everything – that’s more of a Hindu view – but nevertheless I am part of this whole, and therefore one part can help another part. There’s a difference between saying “I am a human” and “I am all of humanity”; “I am a Tibetan” or “I am all Tibetans.” This is obviously a difficult topic, a difficult question, in terms of the false “me,” the conventional “me,” what it means to experience something, and so on. 

What other questions? 

Question: When we meditate on equanimity and we need to take three types of persons – persons to whom we have positive feelings, negative feelings, then to whom we have neutral feelings – is it appropriate to use our teachers, our spiritual teachers, when we are dealing with the first category: people to whom we feel attraction or positive feelings? 

Alex: Well that’s usually not recommended. But if we have attachment and clinging to the teacher, that’s a disturbing emotion and so it indicates not the proper type of relation with a spiritual teacher. It can lead to jealousy when the teacher is with someone else or elsewhere, not in our city, and even anger at the teacher for not being available to me all the time. And rather than listening purely to what the teacher teaches, we might have more worldly desires. We want to be praised; we want to be liked by the teacher. We might even have sexual desires toward the teacher, and so these are certainly things we would want to eliminate. But if we are going to be attached to somebody, it is certainly more beneficial to be attached to the teacher rather than attached to someone with lesser qualities, that’s true. But in this equanimity meditation it’s probably best not to choose the teacher; otherwise it can get a little bit complicated. 

When we talk about the different types of confidence or belief in a teacher, there is one type which is called, I think, “clear-minded” or “clear-hearted belief” (I forget how I translate it). It’s the type of belief in which we believe that it really is a fact that the teacher has all these positive qualities; and as a result of being fully convinced of this, believing that this fact is true, it clears our mind of all disturbing emotions toward the teacher. So we no longer have doubts about it, and we are confident that the teacher will take care of us and guide us, so we don’t have to cling and demand more and more and more, or be upset if they are with somebody else. So if we put this in ordinary language, it’s the type of confidence with which we, as a result, feel secure in the relationship. When we’re insecure in the relationship, then we have all these disturbing emotions associated with it. If the teacher does in fact have all these good qualities, the teacher is never going to abandon me or neglect me. 

What else? 

Question: How, technically, should we practice this meditation? Should we set some period of time when we do these meditations, short meditations, like we did today? 

Alex: Well it is always highly recommended to have a daily meditation practice, and this helps us to maintain continuity in our practice. If we have a commitment to practice each day, it helps us to develop perseverance and patience, because of course the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down, so sometimes our meditation will go better and other times it will go worse. Sometimes we feel like meditating, sometimes we don’t, but nevertheless we do it anyway because we’re doing it every day. And it’s important not to make it too long, especially in the beginning. The meditation should not be an ordeal in which we feel uneasy because we don’t have enough time and we can’t wait until it’s over because I have other things I need to do. We need to be flexible so that sometimes it can be longer, sometimes it can be shorter, but at least we do something each day. That’s why it’s very helpful to set a very small basic minimum of what we’ll do each day, not something which is a large minimum. 

And in terms of these bodhichitta meditations, what’s always recommended is that we have a preliminary aspect in our meditation. And “preliminary” is probably not a very good word, “preparation” is better; like if we’re about to go on a journey, you need to prepare to go on the journey. If you call that my “preliminary” things that I do before I go on the journey, we don’t really understand the necessity. But if we look at it as a preparation, well of course you have to prepare. So what we normally translate as the “preliminary practices” are really “preparatory practices.” We are preparing the positive force, and preparing (diminishing) the negative potentials, so that we’ll have more success on the journey (the main part of the practice). 

And so as a preparation, we always start with quieting down, motivation, then refuge and safe direction, and the more general bodhichitta motivation – in general, without going through all the specifics. And then the seven-part practice, which we get in Shantideva’s text very nicely, which is prostration; offerings; openly admitting our shortcomings and mistakes (that we very much regret) and applying the opponents; rejoicing in the positive things that others and we ourselves have done; requesting the teachers to teach; requesting them not to pass away, but to continue teaching; and then dedication. And then we are in the proper state of mind for going into one or another of these bodhichitta meditations. So we can focus on one aspect in a particular session, but with some sort of review so we have an idea of where it fits into the path, and then a final dedication. 

So all of that could be done easily within five minutes or ten minutes. It doesn’t have to be an hour doing that. The important thing is to actually generate some sort of feeling with each step. And what we’re aiming for is to be able to generate these things instantly, not slowly, when death comes, as we have in so many of our death meditations. Death doesn’t wait for us to get in the proper seating position and to light some incense and light a candle and do things very slowly. If you die – like my very close friend Alan died earlier this year of a massive heart attack and just dropped dead in the shower – then perhaps you have only a few seconds to be able to get your mind in the proper state for dying, and then it’s over. As it says in the text: death doesn’t wait. 

And so that’s what we’re aiming to do, to just generate these states of mind. So although in the beginning it might take us longer to generate these states of mind, don’t get into the habit of having to do them slowly. Aim to be able to generate them more and more quickly without losing the sincerity. This is very important, not only in terms of death, but in terms of our encounters with other people. When we need to be able to have patience, or perseverance, or being more generous in our time and so on, with others, we need to be able to do that instantly, not say, “Hey, wait a minute” and then we go through this whole meditation process. That’s especially important in terms of overcoming getting angry or getting jealous or any sort of disturbing emotion coming up in the interaction. We need to be able to counter it instantly as soon as we recognize it. 

Any other questions? 

Question: We probably could do this practice in our daily life in some real situations. For instance, when we use public transport and we have some time to do that, but probably we need some sort of mindfulness to do that. And the question is what really do we need in order to use this practice in our daily life? 

Alex: We need to have a great deal of familiarity with it so that we remember what the practice is. We don’t have to look up in our notes or anything like that. And mindfulness means to remember it and keep our attention like mental glue on it. So we need to have a motivation for that. We need to set a strong intention, before we set out in the morning, that we are going to try to do this. And at the end of the day, review what we have done. “Have I actually been able to do this practice during the day?” If so then we rejoice; and if we haven’t been able to practice it, or we forgot, or we were unsuccessful, then we feel regret about that and resolve that tomorrow we’re going to try better. So motivation and intention based on familiarity and remembering are the keys to help us to overcome the obstacles of laziness or forgetfulness. 

Anyone else? Nothing? 

Question: When we have our nine points, when we’re doing the last three of them we don’t work with people to whom we have neutral feelings. But probably, with the first stages, we have to work with this sort of people. Is it true? And, if yes, why? 

Alex: That is not necessarily true. The last points were in terms of: a Buddha wouldn’t regard anybody as a stranger. So a stranger would be included. Nobody is established from their own side, permanently, as a stranger; they could change and become somebody that we know and have a close relation with. And being a stranger is relative to the point of view: this person might be a stranger to me, but they’re not a stranger to their parents, or their partner, or to their dog. So a stranger is relative to the relationship of the person that’s labeling them as that. So, although we might not have mentioned a stranger explicitly in connection with the last three points, it certainly covers strangers as well – toward whom we would feel indifference and ignore. 

When we speak in terms of others, we want to avoid partiality of some being close and some being distant, then in that distant category we would include probably both strangers and those we dislike. It’s hard to say. Do we consider a stranger closer than somebody that we dislike? We might know that person that we dislike very, very well. Usually that’s the case. 

What else? 

Well, if there’s nothing else, let us end here with the final dedication for the day. Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from all of this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.