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

Alexander Berzin
Kostino, Russia, October 2009

Session Eight: Exceptional Resolve and Bodhichitta

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:40 hours)

We are going through our discussion for the methods for developing bodhichitta, and we just described the practice of tonglen. Although we have not gone into any detail in terms of how we develop love and compassion here, they are an integral part of the tonglen practice in taking on the suffering of others. That is, with a strong feeling of compassion, “May they be free of that suffering and the causes for the suffering.” And the giving of happiness is with love: “May they be happy and have the causes for happiness.” And when we spoke about what all of the Mahayana bodhichitta practices rely upon, we mentioned that one of the essential factors is renunciation, which means the determination to be free, and that is a strong wish for ourselves to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering and our striving for the happiness of liberation. And so we have already developed these attitudes directed toward ourselves, and so when we practice exchanging the attitudes about self with others, then we shift that wish for being free of suffering and to have happiness from ourselves to others. And so in this way we apply and develop love and compassion. Okay? Very good. 

Are there any questions about this tonglen practice? 

Question: When we visualize that the suffering of others comes into us and enters us, there is one explanation that I have read: that we visualize our selfishness inside our heart, and these sufferings come inside us and they destroy this selfishness. Which visualization is the best? And at which stage is there transforming this unhappiness into something else? 

Alex: One thing before I answer that, that I wanted to add about this development of love and compassion in tonglen, is that it’s all based on what we had in these points concerning equalizing our attitude. In other words, it is based on this understanding that everybody equally wants to be happy and not to have suffering and unhappiness, and everybody has the equal right to be happy and the equal right to be free from suffering. It’s on that basis that we can change our attitudes – exchange our attitudes. 

Now, in answer to your question, there are many variations of the visualizations that are used. And when we think in terms of taking in these various substances, a further elaboration is that when they come into us they destroy or smash the self-cherishing attitude, which is imagined as a very tight lump of sort of, usually, blackness at our heart – that smashes that. “Lump” just means a clump, like… 

Participant: A shell made of armor. 

Alex: Not necessarily like a – well, I mean we can use our imagination and be creative how we imagine it. It doesn’t really matter. What is this really representing? We’re not just making a cartoon here. But if you examine and analyze when we have resistance to taking on dirty substances, to getting ourselves dirty, or dealing with some very messy problem that somebody has – whether it’s a legal problem, or health problem, or emotional problem – “it’s messy and I just don’t want to have to deal with it,” then there is a tight feeling in your heart, that I want to keep this out from me. And this is what we’re trying to relax with this visualization of the substance coming in and smashing that lump of darkness in our heart, because in order to access (at least in our imagination) this more subtle level of mind that I was referring to with the mahamudra practice, it is totally essential to be able to relax all the tightness, not just of the body but of the mind and the emotions. In the Kagyu mahamudra texts, they always talk about relaxing and calming down to the natural state of the mind. So that’s represented with this relaxing and smashing this clump. 

Question: How can I replace these objects, these substances that you mentioned (oil and ink and these creatures like spiders or snakes), if they don’t seem unpleasant to me? 

Alex: Well, again, what I was saying is that we use our creativity and imagination to imagine whatever it is that we find unpleasant and we have resistance to dealing with. Try to use progressively stronger visualizations in order to overcome our resistance. And of course when we imagine these things coming into us and they smash this clump of darkness within us, they disappear, they dissolve; we don’t just keep spiders or rats walking around inside us. If there is nothing that we have resistance to and nothing that we find difficult to deal with, then we are probably very advanced already on the bodhisattva path. I mean if we’re completely free of fear… There must be something that most of us are afraid of – when it’s not an object, it might be loneliness, it might be rejection, it might be whatever – which we can then represent as some sort of demon or whatever. 

Question: Some feelings. It could be fear, or any feeling? 

Alex: Right, exactly. Whatever it is that we have resistance to facing and dealing with. The point is to develop courage to deal with the suffering of others. 

Question: Will it not strengthen the feeling of fear? 

Alex: Will it not strengthen the feeling of fear? 

Participant: Let’s say I’m scared of water, not of spiders. 

Alex: This is a very good reason for why this type of practice, tonglen practice, is very advanced. We need to already to be quite emotionally mature to be able to do this; otherwise this practice will just increase our fear. And also in the instructions in the lojong texts (the attitude training) it always says that this is a practice which is “ secret,” it’s called, which means to be done in a hidden, private way – the word “secret” can also be translated as hidden or private. So there are two points here. One is that we don’t make a display of this – that I’m doing this, sitting there taking on your problem – because most of the time it doesn’t work, so you make a complete fool out of yourself: that you build up the hope of the other person and then you disappoint them. So this is not at all to be done that way. And the other point is that you keep it hidden – in the sense of don’t teach it to those who are emotionally immature and not ready to practice it – because it will just be emotionally damaging for them or psychologically damaging to try to do this. That’s true of many of the tantra practices as well, that one needs to be extremely mature and stable already before attempting them. 

So the next step after tonglen (giving and taking) is developing the exceptional resolve (lhag-bsam), which is the even stronger wish to be able to eliminate all the suffering of others and bring them the happiness of liberation and enlightenment. What is exceptional about it is the intention that even if I have to do it all by myself, I will do it and never give up. And obviously this exceptional resolve is based on having even stronger compassion: I can’t wait for other people to be able to do this; I’m going to do it myself. 

So then the next step after the exceptional resolve is bodhichitta itself. And so we examine ourselves and see: “Am I really able to do all of this myself? Can I really bring everyone to liberation and enlightenment?” And we see that, “No, in my present situation I can’t even help myself terribly well, and the only way that I will really be able to benefit others is if I attain not only liberation but the full enlightenment of a Buddha.” 

And so with bodhichitta, we focus on enlightenment; and here we’re not talking about enlightenment in general, and we’re not talking about the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, and we are referring then, instead, to our own individual enlightenment. But that individual enlightenment of ours is not presently happening; it is not yet happening. Like now we’re in the year 2009 and the year 2010 is not presently happening – it’s something that is not yet happening. There is such a thing as the year 2010, but it’s just not happening now. So that is a type of existent phenomenon, something that is not yet happening. And we can think about it, we can focus on it, like we can think about the year 2010, so we can validly know it or cognize it. So when we focus on this enlightenment which is not yet happening, we have the intention to achieve it – in other words, to achieve a presently-happening enlightenment – by understanding all the work that is involved with that. So the wishing state of bodhichitta (smon-sems) is just to attain it. And the engaged state (’jug-sems) is that I will put in all the work to attain it, and the full intention to benefit all others as much as is possible by means of that attainment, and benefit them as much as is possible all along the way as much as we are capable. 

So we have already, in the background, love and compassion and this exceptional resolve. And so we have a realistic understanding as well of what enlightenment entails and what we are capable of doing as an enlightened being. The famous line from a sutra is that “Buddha is not able to pull out others’ suffering like pulling a thorn out of a foot; all that a Buddha can do is to show the way to others and inspire them how to do it.” So we don’t imagine that we can become an all-powerful god that just with a snap of the fingers – or you don’t even have to snap your fingers – you can eliminate all the suffering of others. From a Buddhist point of view, that is impossible for anybody to do. 

In the development of bodhichitta, then, usually we have two phases. One is we focus on all beings with the intention to benefit them and eliminate these sufferings – so this strengthens our love and compassion. And then we focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment with the intention to achieve it and benefit others. So the question is, “What are we actually focusing on?” And “How do you focus on the not-yet-happening enlightenment?” And if we speak just in a very general way, we need to understand that it is possible for us to achieve enlightenment on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. And so we have two types of Buddha-nature factors. 

By the way, this word “Buddha-nature” is not actually technically the word that is used; there’s several terms, but the most common term is a “family-trait” or “characteristic” – it is the characteristic of all those who belong to the Buddha-family, which means the family of those who are able to become a Buddha, which means everybody. Anyway, in our Western languages we have adopted the convention of calling this “Buddha-nature,” but we must understand that we’re not talking about some singular nature. We’re talking about many different factors which are somehow connected with our individual mental continuum. And there are different assertions of this according to the different Indian tenet systems, and this is referring specifically to the Mahayana tenet systems, not in the Hinayana ones. So we’re talking about Chittamatra and Madhyamaka; and within Madhyamaka there’s a different assertion by Svatantrika and Prasangika; and the various Tibetan traditions will have their own explanation of what these various Indian tenet systems assert. So there are many, many variant assertions here. 

So although this is a rather complicated topic, let’s just look at the Prasangika assertion, as explained by the Gelug tradition, that in all the different systems’ assertions of these factors, we have what’s known as evolving factors (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs) which will evolve and grow; and abiding factors (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs) which will always stay the same. And the evolving factors are factors that will evolve and grow into becoming the various bodies of a Buddha; and this we can understand in terms of body, speech, and mind of a Buddha; or we can understand it in terms of Form Bodies of a Buddha and the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha, which is referring to the omniscient mind of a Buddha. 

Dharmakaya has two aspects, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku) and the Nature Dharmakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku) – something like that; I forget how I exactly translate them. Often we refer to them with the Sanskrit terms, the Jnana-dharmakaya and the Svabhavakaya. And the abiding factor is referring to what is responsible for the Svabhavakaya, the Nature Body. There are many different variant assertions of what Svabhavakaya means, so it’s not an easy term to translate. But here in the Gelug Prasangika assertion, the Svabhavakaya is referring to the voidness of a Buddha’s mind; and the voidness of our individual minds or mental continuums is responsible for the fact that there is the voidness of a Buddha’s mind, the Svabhavakaya. The voidness of our ordinary mind and the voidness of our mind when it’s enlightened is exactly the same. Voidness is a static phenomenon; it doesn’t change. When we talk about voidness, we’re talking about a total absence of impossible ways of existing, so that is a fact which is unchanging and is the same whether our mind is in its ordinary aspect or as an enlightened aspect. Whether it is with mental obscurations – the emotional and cognitive ones – or free of them, the voidness of the mind stays the same. 

So the voidness of the mind is an abiding Buddha-nature factor. And if we speak about the most general assertion of the evolving Buddha-nature factors, then we would assert it as the two enlightenment-building networks – this is usually called the two “collections.” We’re talking about the network of positive force or potential (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs), that’s usually translated as “collection of merit”; and the network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs), that’s often translated as the “collection of wisdom”. 

But when we talk about this network of positive force, then there are different types of this. If that positive force is not done with a dedication to liberation or enlightenment, it is just a samsara-building network. In other words, it will act as a cause for experiencing pleasant situations in samsara, which is the suffering of change (’gyur-ba’i sdug-bsngal). If with renunciation it is dedicated just toward liberation, then these will be liberation-building networks. And if they are dedicated with the full attitude of bodhichitta, then they become enlightenment-building networks. So the dedication is very important. 

The network of deep awareness technically is built up specifically when we have nonconceptual cognition of voidness; it’s built up by that. But meditation on voidness before that (or different types of deep awareness) are similar to that and probably can be included. But the technical definition is that it’s built up from this nonconceptual cognition. So we can have a very precise explanation or we can have a more general explanation here. And the network of positive force is built up from all other constructive practice besides that nonconceptual absorption on voidness. 

Anyway, this is not the time to go into a detailed discussion of Buddha-nature or these networks, so let’s leave that discussion. What is relevant here is that when we talk about the causes for obtaining the Bodies of a Buddha which are nonstatic – “nonstatic” here means from moment to moment they change and do different things – from another point of view all the Bodies of a Buddha are eternal, so that’s translated as “permanent,” and sometimes we have a little bit of confusion here. So the Form Bodies of a Buddha are eternal but, nevertheless, in each moment they may be doing different things and appearing in different forms. 

So in the attainment of these, we have what’s known as an obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) and a simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen). And an obtaining cause is like a seed for a plant. It is that from which one obtains the result; but when the result is attained, that cause no longer exists. So we obtain the plant or the sprout from the seed, but at the time of the sprout we no longer have the seed. And the simultaneously acting conditions for the sprout would be the water, the soil, etc. So the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha is the network of positive force, and what is the simultaneously acting cause that needs to accompany it would be the network of deep awareness – and I’m referring to an enlightenment-building variant of each of these networks. 

And for the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya of a Buddha – in other words, the omniscient mind of a Buddha – which, although eternal, in each moment would be aware of different things as it is benefiting each being over a time, the obtaining cause is the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, and the simultaneously acting cause is the enlightenment-building network of positive force. So these two networks in general are things that we all have from – beginninglessly. It’s part of any mental continuum, because there is a basis level of deep awareness when we speak about the five types of deep awareness (mirror-like, equalizing, and so on). And there’s no beginning to a network of positive force, because we have all done, endlessly, some constructive types of actions and some destructive types of actions. And there are some Buddha-nature aspects that can be attained for the first time; like in any individual mental continuum there will be a first time when bodhichitta is generated, and that will transform (if it’s applied) the samsara-building networks into enlightenment-building networks, or start the beginning of that process – because you can dedicate the positive force from all your actions of the past, as well as the present and future. 

When we develop bodhichitta for the first time – bodhichitta is also a Buddha-nature factor, and what it does is it transforms, when it’s applied with dedication, the samsara-building networks into enlightenment-building networks. And obviously any further meditation that we do on bodhichitta when we really become a bodhisattva, when we have unlabored bodhichitta (rtsol-med byang-sems), is going to continue to build up more enlightenment-building positive force. Now what are we focusing on with bodhichitta meditation? Remember in general we were saying that we’re focusing on a not-yet-happening enlightenment which nevertheless can happen on the basis of these Buddha-nature factors. 

So now we need to understand imputation. When we talk about nonstatic phenomena (things that change from moment to moment), then we have forms of physical phenomena, like sights, sounds, smells, etc. We have ways of being aware of things, so visual consciousness, audio consciousness, all the mental factors, the emotions, concentration, etc. These change from moment to moment. And then we have certain phenomena that change from moment to moment, but are in neither of these two categories like, for instance, motion. We have a sequence of moments: my hand is here, and then the next moment it is in a slightly different position, and then the next moment yet another slightly different position – and what is imputed on that is motion. So what establishes that there is motion is an imputation of a mind that obviously observes this, that observes the hand in sequentially different places; so that establishes that there is motion, but I don’t have to actively impute motion in order for a motion to exist. The motion exists, but it is established by imputation. It’s very important to understand that. 

Now in each moment we have five aggregate factors that are occurring. In this moment there’s the visual sight of a table, there’s visual consciousness, and I’m distinguishing the table from the floor (the colored shape of the table), and I’m cognizing it with some level of happiness (a very low level of happiness), and there are other mental factors of attention and interest etc. So all of that is changing every moment. Imputed on that sequence of changing moments of five aggregates, of presently-happening five aggregates, imputed on that is a presently-happening mental continuum – an individual one, right? Like motion is imputed on something being in different positions in space over time. Now on that presently-happening mental continuum is imputed a presently-happening mere “ me” or conventional “me”; and imputed on that presently-happening mere “me” would be the presently-happening karmic force or potential. 

When we commit a constructive action there is a karmic force or merit – we’re talking about the constructive form of this. This is Gelug Prasangika, by the way. One aspect of the karmic force is the karmic energy of the action itself during the time of the physical, verbal, or mental action. So that constructive action itself acts as a positive force because it is positive energy. And then after that, after the action is completed, there’s what’s known as a karmic force that takes on or has the essential nature of a karmic tendency (sa-bon). You do a positive action, there is a karmic tendency from that – that’s the word that’s usually translated as a “seed” – and then there’s the karmic force or merit which has the same type of essential nature as a karmic tendency (this seed). The difference between the two is that the karmic tendency is an ethically neutral phenomenon (lung ma-bstan), “unspecified” is the technical term – Buddha didn’t specify it as constructive (dge-ba) or destructive (mi-dge-ba) – and the karmic force is constructive. So there’s a difference there and that is necessary because of certain technical details about the different types of causes and effects. 

So we have individual karmic forces that are imputable on the mere “me”; imputed on that would be a network of karmic force, positive force. And here we’re talking specifically about the enlightenment-building network, and there are two facets of that network – “facet” (cha) means like a face or aspect. One is its ability to give rise to its result which is not yet happening, the result is not yet happening. It has an ability to give rise to a result, but the result is not yet happening – but that ability is presently happening. All right? That’s important to understand. If we aren’t aware that there is an ability of this network to give rise to a result, we wouldn’t think that we can achieve enlightenment. You have to be convinced that we are able to. So how am I able to? It’s on the basis of this network. So one aspect of these networks is the ability to give rise to a result, but that result is not yet happening. And the other facet that is relevant here is its temporarily not giving rise to that result (re-zhig-gis ma-skye-pa’i cha); and on the basis of the temporarily not giving rise to a result, we can impute a not-yet-happening of the result. So that is the not-yet-happening (ma-’ong-pa) of our enlightenment. 

Okay. So that is what we are focusing on with bodhichitta: the not-yet-happening of our enlightenment, which can happen on the basis of the ability of these networks to give rise to it. So what do we focus on in the meditation? So we have to somehow represent this, so what we would focus on is the result – the enlightenment which has not yet happened. These are two different things here: there’s the not-yet-happening of the enlightenment, and there’s the enlightenment which has not yet happened. 

Question: Excuse me. The first was? 

Alex: The not-yet-happening. A not-yet-happening of what? Of the enlightenment. 

Question: So first this process? 

Alex: Not the process, the thing. The not-yet-happening. 

Question: The fact? 

Alex: The fact. Right. That’s a negation phenomenon. But we represent it with an affirmation phenomenon, an enlightenment which has not yet happened, and that is a type of form that we can focus on. It is what is known as a totally conceptual form (kun-brtags-pa’i gzugs) – another translation for that is a totally imaginary form – but that doesn’t mean that it can only be known conceptually, and so on, but it’s just a translation of the term. But it is a form that can only be known by the mind, like a dream form (rmi-lam-gyi gzugs). For us, because we’re not enlightened beings, we can only have a conceptual cognition of this type of mental form, and it represents the enlightenment which has not yet happened. So that can be either a visualized image of a Buddha, or a visualized image of a Buddha-figure like Chenrezig, or a great spiritual master (either from the lineage or presently living). There are many variants. 

So this represents my enlightenment, which is not yet happening, based on my understanding of the not-yet-happening of that enlightenment – I don’t fool myself into thinking that it’s happening[now]. But that not-yet-happening of the enlightenment is imputed on the temporarily not-giving-rise to enlightenment of those networks. But that network has the ability to give rise to the effect – enlightenment. And that network is imputed on all the individual karmic potentials or forces. Those individual moments of karmic force are imputed on the mere “me,” and the mere “me” is imputed on the mental continuum, and the mental continuum is imputed on all the moments of my experience made up of five aggregate factors that are changing all the time. 

So if we understand all these different levels of imputation then, while I’m sitting here, or at any time whatsoever – either sitting in meditation or any time whatsoever – and I am experiencing the five aggregates changing every moment, then we can see through all these levels of imputation that, on the basis of that, there’s the not-yet-happening of my enlightenment. And I can represent it by this visualization and focus on that figure with the full intention to achieve it, to have a presently-happening enlightenment. It’s not that we want to become this visualization – obviously not – but we have a presently-happening enlightenment. The visualization is just representing it, what is possible to achieve. And since we know about the ability of these networks to give rise to this result – although temporarily it’s not giving rise to that result – we have the intention to achieve that result, on the basis of putting in all the causes that will bring about the attainment of that result. And all of that is accompanied by love and compassion.

So that is a highly technical description of what we are actually doing in bodhichitta meditation. However, if we can understand technically what is going on, then it becomes much easier to be able to generate that state of mind in meditation and know what we are doing. Otherwise, what often happens for most people is that they think they’re doing bodhichitta meditation but in fact all they’re doing is meditation on love and compassion which, although very beneficial, is not bodhichitta meditation. 

So I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to actually do or try to do this meditation now, because that is rather complicated, what I explained. Making a chart of this is quite helpful. Again, on my website, although I didn’t make a chart like this for bodhichitta meditation, there is a chart like this in relation to the article that deals with what does a Buddha know when a Buddha knows the past, present, and future – because it’s exactly the same mechanism of how you focus on something that is not yet happening.

So we can try doing this meditation if you have the courage to do that. 

Participant: Let’s try. 

Alex: So, remember, first we focus on all beings and try to bring back up that feeling of love and compassion, and then go into the focus on our individual enlightenment that is not yet happening. As Tsongkhapa emphasizes very much, in order to do any meditation practice we have to know what it is that we are focusing on in that meditation (in other words, what appears in our mind) and how our mind is relating or taking that object – and here it’s with the intention to achieve it in order to benefit everyone. 


I think that we can start to appreciate now the absolute necessity for having bodhichitta to do any type of tantra practice. In tantra practice we’re visualizing ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure, on the basis of knowing that we have the ability to achieve it with these networks and so on. And we understand that it’s not yet happening, so we don’t fool ourselves; but we imagine that it is happening now, and then visualize ourselves actually helping others – with lights going out and alleviating everybody’s suffering, and so on – with the bodhichitta motivation that eventually we actually will be able to do this. But by practicing now similar to what we want to achieve as a result, it becomes a more efficient speedy method. 

But without all the bodhichitta foundation behind this visualization process, and renunciation (which is turning away from our ordinary samsaric aspects because it’s filled with suffering), and the understanding of voidness which is responsible for this whole transformation – without these three principle aspects of the path (Tsongkhapa calls renunciation, bodhichitta, and voidness), then the whole practice of tantra is just craziness. So tantra practice is not at all a beginning level of practice. And it’s very important not to trivialize it or to practice it prematurely at a stage at which we just will get very confused and there will be more damage than benefit. 

Okay. Any final questions before we end? 

Question: What is going on with the individual mental continuum after we reach enlightenment? Yesterday you said that there is no universal mind continuum. So does the individual continuum of mind begin something else after enlightenment, or does it remain individual? 

Alex: It remains individual, with a different quality of course: it’s no longer unenlightened, so it is no longer limited. In Nyingma terminology we have two different names. We have the word “sem” (sems), which I translate as a “limited mind,” which means not an omniscient mind. And what is usually translated as sentient being is “semchen (sems-can), someone with a limited mind. Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind; a Buddha is not a sentient being. That’s why I don’t like to use the term “sentient being,” because that’s confusing. A Buddha doesn’t have a limited mind or a limited body, so a Buddha’s not a limited being. Unfortunately, in many languages when you translate “limited being,” it sounds as though it’s a handicapped person, which is not what we mean here; although in a sense it’s disabled in terms of [not] being able to know everything and help everyone. And in the Nyingma terminology, we have the term “rigpa” (rig-pa) which is “pure awareness,” which is the type of mind that a Buddha has, which is unlimited and which is the basis underlying our limited minds as well. 

It is in certain types of Hindu philosophies that we have the idea that all rivers, all streams go into the ocean, and so with liberation all mental continuums become one; but that’s certainly not the Buddhist position. A mental continuum of Maitreya Buddha is not the same mental continuum or enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha. The level of attainment is the same: they are both equally omniscient and know everything. However, certain beings have built up the karma to be benefited by Shakyamuni Buddha, some beings have built up the karma to be benefited by Maitreya Buddha, and so they are individual in terms of their experience of helping others. They retain that individuality. And so in many of our Buddhist practices, we acknowledge that we have not built up the karma to actually meet and study directly with Buddha Shakyamuni, and so we have these Maitreya prayers which are recited certainly daily by all Tibetan monks and nuns to be able to build up that karmic connection to be able to actually study in the presence of Maitreya Buddha. 

So perhaps that’s a nice place to end. And if you want to read more about this, there are various articles that are already translated into Russian about these bodhichitta practices on my website And you can read those for free. 

So let’s end with the dedication. We think 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. 

Thank you.