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

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session Seven: The Last Two of the Five Decisions and Tonglen

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:29 hours)

We have been going through the five decisions. First, “I definitely will equalize my attitude toward self and others, and toward all others in general.” Or, phrased differently, “I shall stop being partisan.” And then the second one is that “I shall definitely rid myself of self-cherishing.” And the third was “I shall make cherishing others my main practice.” 

In our discussion the word “affection” came up, that everybody appreciates kindness and affection; and I understood that in your language, Russian, the word “affection” is sometimes misunderstood. It is more than just love. Love is (in the Buddhist definition) the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness. And of course that love, in its pure form, is not mixed with a disturbing emotion of attachment or clinging or lust and desire; and it’s not mixed with the wish to get something back in return for our love. So in the impure form it’s mixed with these disturbing emotions; in its pure form it’s not. And affection is a display or a demonstration or an action that’s involved in showing our love. And so this can be anything from a smile – you can smile at the person, to show a kindly expression on our face – it would include any other ways of being kind to the person, like helping them in one way or another as a show of affection. Like making a nice meal for somebody, that’s a show of affection. Or keeping a house nice and neat and beautiful – that can also be a show of affection to the others who live in the house. It also includes speaking kindly if the person is upset, giving words of comfort and encouragement; and it can also include physical signs, like helping an old person get up; and sometimes patting somebody on the shoulder, or hugging them, or giving some type of comfort with a hug when somebody is crying or upset or frightened; and even just petting the dog is a show of affection. 

And all these various signs of affection likewise can be in either an impure way (mixed with disturbing emotions) or not. Mixed with disturbing emotions, then: it can be with, again, attachment, desire, lust, sexual overtones – that you’re doing it in order to get sexual pleasure – and it can also be mixed with wanting to get something back in return. Or it can be simply in a pure form, to give to the other, to help the other. And of course we need to have discriminating awareness to see what the other person would feel comfortable with. But, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes, everybody needs affection. It is helpful, even on a physical level, for health; and, particularly, not only helpful but absolutely necessary and essential for the development of a small baby – to have affectionate physical contact. So if there’s not a simple way of saying that in Russian, you need to at least try to understand what is meant by the term. 

Now the next of the five decisions, the fourth one, is: “I definitely am capable of exchanging my attitude regarding self and others.” In other words, we might have this objection that, “Well, how can I possibly cherish others and take care of others with the same strength as I would myself?” One point that’s always mentioned is that Buddha himself started out as an ordinary being like ourselves and he was able to change his focus from self-cherishing to cherishing others, and look what he accomplished. And we have not exchanged our attitudes, and look what we’ve accomplished in life. 

I think it was in Shantideva, but I don’t remember exactly where the quotation comes from, but to paraphrase it: “I’ve never done anything to benefit others, or of help to others; all I’ve done is cause pain to my mother when she gave birth to me.” So we need to use our precious human rebirth to do more than just give pain to our mother when she gave birth to us. But the argument that Shantideva uses, also in his text, about our ability to change our attitude is a very strong one. He says that if we examine this body, actually it derives from parts of other people’s bodies – so it grew from the sperm and egg of our mother and father, it didn’t grow from our own sperm and egg – so actually it’s not our body at all, it’s somebody else’s body. So if we have come to cherish and take care of this body that we have, and consider it as our own, we’re capable of doing that with any body that comes from the sperm and egg of parents. So if we think about that, what is the difference between wiping our nose, wiping the nose of our baby, or wiping the nose of the drunk on the street? It’s just a nose, isn’t it? The same thing with wiping ourselves after we go to the toilet – what is the difference between doing it for ourselves and doing it for another body? It’s just a body. It’s not that because it’s mine, it’s clean; and because it’s somebody else’s, it’s dirty. So, just as we can clean ourselves, we can clean anybody else. Just as we can feed ourselves, we can feed anybody else. So we are perfectly capable of exchanging our attitude about self-cherishing and cherishing others. 

So, then, we examine like this: “Am I capable of cherishing others; of exchanging who it is that I consider most important, to exchange it from being me to being others?” And thinking in these ways, we come to the understanding and conviction that, “Yes, I am capable of doing that.” And therefore we ask for inspiration from our spiritual mentor, and this is our fourth stanza here from the Lama Chopa, and it reads: 

In brief, inspire us to develop the minds that understand the distinctions between the faults of infantile beings slaving for their selfish ends alone and the virtues of the Kings of Sages working solely for the sake of others, and thus to be able to equalize and exchange our attitudes concerning others and ourselves. 

So the decision here is that we definitely are able to exchange our attitudes, and so we will do that. So let us focus in this way with this decision. 


The fifth decision is a final reconfirmation that we definitely will exchange our attitudes regarding self and others. And for this we would go through the ten destructive actions and alternate it with the corresponding ten constructive actions. Oh, I remember: I left out, when we were discussing all happiness comes from cherishing others and acting constructively, there was the form of avoiding destructive behavior – in other words, acting constructively which is shared in common with the Hinayana and Mahayana – which is to refrain from acting destructively; so, to avoid killing when we have the urge to kill. But then there is the special constructive behavior which is, instead of taking or damaging the life of others, to do something that would support the life of others. So that’s not only to save the life of someone that’s drowning, for example, or an animal or an insect that’s drowning – which means even taking the fly out from the dirty toilet when the fly is drowning, taking it out with our hand (after all, we can wash our hand). [It is also taking care of someone so as to support their life.] And instead of stealing from others, to give to others. All these opposite actions of the destructive actions: instead of lying, saying the truth; instead of idle chatter, always speaking what’s meaningful, etc. 

And so here we go through, one by one, the destructive actions – let’s say taking the life of others – and we see that this is done because of self-cherishing, and it produces all sorts of suffering. And then we look at the corresponding constructive action, which is to refrain from taking the life of others, or to actually do something to support their life: take care of them if they’re sick, etc., give food to the hungry – I mean, all things that would support life – giving medicine, etc. And that brings about happiness and that is due to cherishing others. 

So with each of these ten pairs of actions, the destructive and constructive side, we are contrasting that the negative consequences are from self-cherishing and the positive consequences (our happiness) are from cherishing others. So for this to be full, we need to study the more extensive teachings on karma – in other words, the results of each of the ten destructive actions and the results of each of the ten constructive. We don’t have time to go into all the details, but we can find this in the extensive lam-rim text. And so after going through these ten pairs of actions in this way, then we reach this fifth decision: that I really, really definitely am going to exchange my attitude regarding self and others. And the verse for this is: 

Since cherishing ourselves is the doorway to all torment, while cherishing our mothers is the foundation for everything good, inspire us to make our core practice the yoga of exchanging others for ourselves. 

Now this is actually a complicated meditation. I haven’t had time to explain each of these points with regards to these ten sets of destructive and constructive actions, so let’s do this in just a very abbreviated form with just one or two of these pairs. From killing, taking the life of others, our own life is shortened. We’ll have many sicknesses, and even if we take medicine it won’t be effective. All this is from weakening the life force of others, so our own life force gets weakened. And we may suffer from hunger, our crops may fail, etc. And if this doesn’t occur in this lifetime, it will occur in some future lifetime – most karma ripens in future lifetimes. Whereas refraining from taking the life of others or damaging their life force, and doing things to help support their life, results in our own having a long life free from sickness; and if we do become sick, medicine will be very effective for us; and we’ll have all the facilities (enough food etc.) to support our life. 

So, like that, we think of this pair in terms of how taking the life of others and all the disadvantages that come from it come from self-cherishing, and vice versa: all the advantages from the constructive side here come from cherishing others. And then that final decision: “I definitely am going to exchange my attitude about self and others and make this my core practice,” the First Panchen Lama writes here in the Lama Chopa


Any questions on this before we go on? 

Question: Here in this verse, it says about the yoga of exchanging others for ourselves, and also we’re speaking about exchanging our attitude to ourselves and our attitude to others. Is there any difference between these ways of saying it? 

Alex: Well, no. I mean when we say “exchange others for ourselves” here in the verse, that doesn’t mean that now I’m you and you are me. But it just means to exchange our viewpoint of whom we consider to be the most important and whom we pay the most attention to helping. In Shantideva’s text he explains a further application of this exchanging others for ourselves in which he basically is changing our viewpoint from self to the other. So he does this in terms of the three disturbing emotions – of feeling pride or arrogance over somebody, and competing with somebody else, and feeling jealous of someone – and in this practice, as we say in English, we put ourselves into the other person’s shoes and look back at ourselves acting in this type of arrogant or competitive or jealous way, and try to feel what it is like to be the object of such a disturbing emotion – in other words, the one at whom it is aimed – and in a sense report back to our old self how terrible it is, and “instead of looking down on me,” for instance, “why don’t you help me?” In the case of arrogance and pride, that “I’m so much better than you,” [saying back,] “I have to do all of the dirty work and you think you’re so wonderful. Why don’t you help me?” Okay? 

Question: What to do in a situation when I wish to help some other person, but this person doesn’t want me to help; he rejects my help? 

Alex: Well, even if we are a Buddha, we can only help others who are receptive to us. The analogy is used that the sun can only warm those that come out into the sun. [If they don’t come out in the sun,] not much that we can do. Wish them well; but if they’re not receptive, they are not receptive. Indirectly, perhaps, we can help provide the circumstances that would allow them to be able to help themselves. 

Often we have the case of older parents who want to be very, very independent and won’t accept our help. So you can try to make their house easier in terms of access to the bathroom, to the shower, or whatever, that will allow them an easier way of taking care of themselves. But some people can be very difficult to help. That’s one of the types of patience that we need to develop: patience with the difficulties involved with trying to help others. Because they object, they give us a hard time, they argue back with us when we try to give them advice, etc. So we need skillful means, which actually means we need to be skillful in our application of methods for helping. 

Question: It is said that we should make this practice our core practice. What does this “core” mean? 

Alex: “Core” means our central main practice, and it’s referring to what comes next in the text (and in this sequence, as well) – to the practice of tonglen, giving and taking

And that leads us into our discussion of tonglen and the understanding of how important it is and why then it can be our core practice. “Tonglen” is giving and taking, and is an extremely, extremely advanced and difficult practice to do, and it’s important not to trivialize it. I mean the main idea of it is that we are, with a feeling of compassion, wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes. We imagine taking it away from them and taking it on ourselves; and with love, the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, that we imagine giving them happiness. Also it is done with a visualization. So to make it into a very, very simple type of visualization with black light and white light – although obviously light can’t be black but, nevertheless, we can refer to it like that – that we imagine black light comes in from others, white light goes out, and we don’t really feel anything and the whole thing is just absolutely trivialized. That’s not at all what is intended here. What we are actually imagining and wishing to happen, sincerely, is that instead of this person suffering this, that I suffer it – with the full courage and willingness to experience that suffering myself. Which implies a huge development of courage and strength that we need as a bodhisattva to deal with everybody’s problems. In other words, I make your problem my problem. And I will deal with it as my problem. And when we give happiness to others, we give them what will not only solve their problem, but counteract it – what they actually need. 

Now in most cases this is not going to work – we will not be able to remove the problem from the other – but the main point is to build up the courage, the willingness to take on their problem and experience it. And in some very rare cases, when there’s an especially strong karmic connection with the other person and your practice is totally sincere, then your practice may act as a circumstance for a more positive karma to ripen on the side of that other person so that it counteracts their suffering situation, or karma ripens in them to end their suffering situation. And it will act as a circumstance for a similar type of negative karma within ourselves to ripen so that we experience something similar. In other words, we can’t actually have a transference of karma from one person to another, otherwise Buddha would have done that with everyone. But, as Serkong Rinpoche used to say, we should be willing to even die in this process – and he actually did pass away in the context of doing this practice with His Holiness the Dalai Lama; and you can read the details of that on my website (, which is available in Russian as well. 

And so what we are doing here in this one method or one situation in which we do tonglen is to develop this courage to take on the suffering of others, or actually trying to help them. And one situation in which we do this is when we ourselves don’t have that problem; or [the other is] the situation is when we ourselves have that problem – like I’m sick – and then we imagine that we take on a similar type of sickness from everybody else. So, rather than just thinking of “poor me,” we develop this strength and courage to take on the sickness of everyone. And even from a medical point of view, developing that strength and courage strengthens our immune system and in fact does help us to overcome the sickness. And when we imagine taking on the suffering of others, we do this with very strong visualizations, so we need to be quite mature and emotionally stable to do this, otherwise we would completely freak out. So using black light and white light in our visualization is something which is very, very beginner level. But when this is actually taught in the “real-thing Dharma” way, we have three levels of visualization. 

We imagine, first, that the problem of others comes to us in the form of dirty substances – like oil, tar, ink, dirty water, mud – all these sort of dirty substances that we really would not like to get on our hands or get on our body, because what we’re doing is “I’m going to deal with your horrible problem” – so that’s really getting my hands dirty – and try to come up with some sort of solution to it that would be helpful for everybody having that type of problem. So we have to be willing to get our hands dirty. 

And the second level of visualization is that we imagine the problems and suffering of others coming into us in the form of diarrhea, vomit, urine, etc. – these type of substances that we have even more resistance to getting all over us; and not just getting all over us, but getting inside us as well. And then the third level is we imagine the problems and suffering of others comes into us in the form of whatever it is that we are the most frightened of – so it could be rats, it could be spiders, it could be snakes, could be fire, whatever it is that we are personally the most afraid of. And we can see that in order to be able to sincerely be willing to take that into us and deal with that, it’s an incredibly strong practice to develop strength and courage and overcome my resistance and fears in order to be able to help others. Like somebody being willing to rush into a burning building in order to save a baby inside that is trapped. 

And when we take on this suffering of others, it isn’t that we just keep it inside us, but we need to be able to, in a sense, let this settle down. For this, I think the mahamudra type of teachings are very helpful, because with that we imagine that all this suffering and unhappiness and so on that we actually feel from the others, that this is like waves on the ocean of the mind and it settles down into the natural clarity of the mind. And as this calms down into the clarity of the mind, voidness of the mind, it also accesses the innate bliss or happiness of the mind. And it is this happiness that we are able to have shine out from us and give it to others in the form of whatever it is that they need, whether it is food, comfort, teachings to attain enlightenment – whatever it is that they need – it could be health, etc. 

So this is a very important aspect of the practice – that’s what I was referring to with a description from mahamudra practice – otherwise it is extremely difficult to make this switch: from feeling the suffering and unhappiness of others, to feeling happiness and giving this happiness out to others. That’s very difficult to do on a sincere emotional level without this mahamudra type of practice. But this is very important even in a very modest type of practice. When we go to visit somebody who is extremely sick, or somebody who is dying from cancer or whatever, then of course we feel sad, we feel sympathy in terms of the pain of this person, especially if it’s a loved one. Yet it doesn’t help them for us to sit there and cry and feel sad and unhappy. We need to be able to somehow cheer up the other person with a smile, with kindness and affection. So how do you do that? It’s not that I’m happy that you’re sick and suffering, is it? So this guideline from mahamudra practice is very important, very helpful, even at this very simple level of this type of practice. 

So this is the basic instruction on tonglen. This is not an occasion to do extensive practice on that (we want to get to the actual bodhichitta practice), but when we do this practice we also do it in connection with our breathing. So we imagine that we alternate. So with thoughts of compassion we imagine the suffering coming into us with the in-breath, with these visualizations, and it settles down with this remembrance or mindfulness of the clarity and bliss and voidness of the mind itself. And as we breathe out, then, with thoughts of love – may the other be happy and have the causes for happiness – we imagine that the innate happiness of the mind comes out, with a visualization of what the other person needs. And as we take on the suffering of others, we imagine it leaves them – the analogy that is used is when you shave somebody’s head, and the black hair – Tibetans have black hair, Indians as well – that this comes off, so the suffering leaves them. And when we breathe out with happiness to them, we imagine that they receive this and enjoy and generate happiness with whatever it is that we give them that they need: good health, food, teachings, etc.

So this is rather complicated to practice and so I think we will skip trying to do that practice now. So let us take a short break. And then if you have questions on this type of practice, we’ll continue.