Practices for Uncommon Equanimity from Our View

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The next step is called the development of “uncommon Mahayana equanimity” (thun-mong ma-yin-pa’i btang-snyom). This is the type of equanimity that we develop in equalizing and exchanging our attitude of ourselves and others. When we talk about equalizing our attitude toward self and others here, there seems to be two aspects of that. One is having, again, an equal attitude toward all others, but here specifically when we’re trying to help them. And the second aspect is to see that we and others are equal. It’s just a matter of the emphasis here: one aspect or the other aspect. So with this first aspect – that everybody is equal when we’re helping them – the emphasis is not as in the mere equanimity (to overcome our disturbing emotions); but rather to help us, when we are trying to benefit others, not to just have favorites but to actively help everyone, or at least try.

This is divided into nine points. Six of them have to do with the relative point of view and three with the deepest point of view. And the six from a relative point of view are divided into three from our own point of view and three from the point of view of others. And so what we’re trying to develop here is when we are helping others that it’s inappropriate to feel that some are close to me and some are distant or far. It’s not appropriate to welcome some and reject others.

Everyone Has Equally Been Our Mother, It’s Just a Matter of Time When That Was

In terms of from our own point of view, first we think about how, if all limited beings have been our parents and closest friends in previous lives, then it’s inappropriate to consider some as close and some as distant, because it’s only a matter of time of when they were actually my mother, for example. If I haven’t seen my mother in ten minutes or in ten years or in ten lifetimes, she is still my mother. And so that’s the line of reasoning that we use here. So with each being, maybe it’s ten lifetimes that I haven’t seen this one as my mother, or ten thousand, or just ten minutes – still, they’re my mother. So from my point of view, it’s just relative to the amount of time since I’ve seen her, but in this sense they’re all equal.

If we’re trying to do this in meditation of course we could imagine a whole group of beings, humans – we could also include animals, insects, etc. (that’s much more difficult, but we can do it like that) – but since we’re here in a group of people, we can also do this in terms of looking at each other, without staring impolitely, and realize that everybody in this room has been our mother at some time or another, it’s just a matter of when. We can also of course do this in the metro or any place where there are a group of people, like waiting in line in a store. There are many, many opportunities in our daily life to practice such types of meditation.

By the way, this is a further step in addition to an initial step of recognizing that everybody has been my mother in a previous lifetime. The next step is, well, it’s just a matter of when they were my mother, but they all equally were my mother.

Let me just remind you that the state of mind that we’re trying to generate here is to, when we’re seeing everybody, not to have a feeling of being particularly close to this one and distant from that other one. And the reason that helps us to reach that state of mind is because everybody has been my mother, and it’s just a matter of time – of when. For those of us whose mothers have already passed away, this becomes a little bit even more relevant – or meaningful, I should say, or easier to relate to – because we wonder where is my mother now, the mother I had in this lifetime: it could be anyone of the appropriate age.

Let’s try this for a few moments.


When we are trying to regard others as our mothers, is it easier to do with women than with men? And the question is how to deal with that, how to make it easier?

Well, if you have trouble doing it with men, how are you going to be able to do it with a mosquito? We need to think about beginningless and endless mental continuums that are all individual, for each individual; and based on the karma that has been built up, sometimes that mental continuum will have rebirth with one type of physical form or another: sometimes as a human, sometimes as an animal or insect, or any other type of non-human, and either male or female. This is the case with, not only everybody else, but also with myself. Therefore it is illogical to identify the person as being inherently only one life form or one gender permanently, forever, which is established just by its own power independently of this being influenced by all the karmic behavior of this being.

Remember earlier in our discussion I mentioned that in terms of gaining an understanding and conviction in past and future lives, we need to understand voidness – specifically, or more especially, the voidness of the self and the voidness of cause and effect. So if we have difficulty in viewing men or mosquitoes as having been our mother in a previous lifetime, we need to work more on voidness, obviously, understanding of voidness. And although we could follow, let’s say, a Dharma-lite version of seeing all men as having been my father – or, since Dharma-lite is not considering past lives, that they could act with kindness and take care of me like a father – what are we going to do about our friend the mosquito? So it’s very difficult to deal with these other life forms in the Dharma-lite version. Any dog or cat could be our beloved pet, but not many of us have a pet mosquito that we feed every day our own blood. Interesting idea.

Everyone Has Equally Helped Us More Than Caused Us Harm

The next point here in developing this Mahayana type of equanimity is that we could have an objection here. We could say that, “Okay, just as these beings maybe have helped me, haven’t they also harmed me?” With that line of reasoning, we can say, “Everybody has harmed me and hated me, therefore it’s appropriate to view everybody as an enemy.” So if we raise that objection then we need to follow the next line of reasoning, which is that although it is true that everybody at some point must have harmed us as well; but, nevertheless, the amount of help that they have given to us far outweighs the amount of harm that they have given to us. Because if we consider the kindness of others – which is a specific meditation that we do which focuses on how others are kind to us even when they’ve not been our mother – we see that so many others are involved in just making it possible for us to live, whether directly or indirectly: the people who grow our food, the people who build the roads and the transports to be able to get the food to where we could buy it, and the people who package it and make the material to package it, and the whole oil industry to be able to allow the transports to go, and the steel industry to build the trucks.

What about the objection that we have more often been reborn in the worse states of rebirth, especially the hell realms, and and in the hell realms other hell beings would be harming us more than they would be helping us. Therefore overall beings would be hurting us more than helping us. 

Those harming us in the hells are projections from our negative karmic potentials, not actual sentient beings. As Shantideva explained in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (V.7-8):

Who intentionally created all the weapons for the beings in the joyless realms? Who created the burning iron ground? Where did all the siren-maids come from?

The Sage has said that all such things as that are (what come from) a mind having negative karmic force. Therefore, in the threefold world, there's nothing to fear except the mind.

Based on that, we can conclude that others have helped us more than harmed us.

One meditation exercise is to just look at everything in the room around us, or everything that we make any use of during the course of a day, and to consider how many beings are involved in actually making that possible. And especially nowadays, in the age of globalization, everything that we make use of during a day is made by people from all over the world. And although they might not have consciously done this in order to benefit me, personally – some worker in a shoe factory in China, for example – but nevertheless it is dependent on their work that I’m able to live and survive. And although their motivation might not have been kindness; nevertheless it’s very kind that they have done all of this work. So if we think in terms of all beings and all lifetimes, the amount of help that they’ve given to us, either directly or indirectly, far outweighs the amount of harm that they’ve given us.

So in the meditation we just try to think about that and digest that. We could look at others in the room or on the metro with this understanding; but specifically with the attitude that there’s no reason to welcome some as being close – and I’ll help just you – and feel distant to others. So here we’re much more open, actively, to help everybody, not favorites. And the reason for it is this line of reasoning: that the amount of help that everyone has given is far more than the amount of harm.


One thing I think is also important to remember is that each particular meditation that we have which is involved with regarding others from one point of view or another point of view, distinguishing one aspect of them in one meditation… Like, for instance, for someone that we’re very attached to, distinguishing that at some point they have been our enemy and hurt us. But in another meditation, directed at the same person, we distinguish that they have been our mother in a previous lifetime. And in another meditation, with the same person, we distinguish that they’ve helped us far more than they’ve ever hurt us. We might get very confused if we think, “Well, how am I supposed to regard this person? Because now you say they’ve hurt me, and now you say they’ve helped me.”

Again the understanding of voidness here is essential. We’re not just talking about one aspect of the person and this is their solid permanent identity independent of everything else. But distinguishing all these different aspects – which are all valid, correct – is for a specific purpose; and they’re emphasized relative to a different context: the context of overcoming attachment or the context of equalizing our attitude when we’re trying to help everybody. So we focus on one aspect or another relative to the purpose for it, which is to help us overcome some type of disturbing emotion or to generate some type of constructive state of mind toward the person. This is why it’s very important to have a very large understanding of the Dharma. This is why it’s always said we need a huge storehouse of listening to the teachings – having heard many teachings and then thought about them and digested them – so that in any type of situation that we encounter in life, when some sort of disturbing emotion arises or some sort of problematic aspect arises, we know exactly what antidote to apply. And we have great flexibility to be able to apply one opponent or another, even if they require regarding the person in a completely different way each time.

So we’re not stiff and rigid. We’re very flexible in the way that we deal with people because we have so many, what we would call “skillful means” (thabs-mkhas) that we can use. And for any particular disturbing emotion, it’s very good if we have several ways of dealing with it, because in some situations one method might not be as effective as another. So we need always to have an alternative Plan B and Plan C, not just Plan A. And this is a piece of advice that my teacher Serkong Rinpoche gave in terms of dealing with any situation in life – that we should always have alternative plans, so that if the primary plan doesn’t work, we’re not left completely with nothing and we freak out. So don’t have just one parachute in the plane, have a few of them.

Since Everyone, Including Ourselves, Equally Could Die Today, What Use Is There in Causing Harm?

The third point which is relative to our own point of view for helping us to develop the Mahayana equanimity – with which we don’t feel close to some and far from others when we are involved in trying to help – is to think about death. Death will come for sure, we will definitely die. And the time of our death is completely uncertain: we never know when it will happen. And, for example, if we were a prisoner and we were condemned to be executed tomorrow or after an hour, what point would there be in spending the last moments of our life being angry and plotting how to hurt somebody? This would be an extremely trivial usage of our last moments. But, rather, what would be much more beneficial would be to have positive thoughts toward everyone and to die in a positive state of mind. And the same thing in terms of others – they could die at any moment; everyone is equal in that respect. And the example is, why kick a dying dog? There’s a dog that’s dying – what point is there in kicking it? And so if everybody can die at any time, what’s the point of kicking them or trying to do something harmful to them? Whether this is our last hour alive in this lifetime or not, this is true. So from that point of view of death, then, it also doesn’t make any sense to consider some as especially close and some especially far. Here the emphasis is on being especially far and wanting to hurt someone.

In our Buddhist practice we have many meditations that focus on death, and here’s another example of one of them. Thinking realistically about death puts everything into a much more relative point of view in terms of what’s important. Here we wouldn’t spend our last hour: I’m going to help this one, I’m going to hurt that one, and do this and that. Just try to develop an open warm attitude toward everyone and die in that state of mind, and “May I in my future lives be able to help everyone equally.” That’s much more beneficial than in my next life I will just help this one and I’ll hurt that one – because I didn’t have enough time to hurt him in this lifetime, so next lifetime I’ll hurt them. This is ridiculous. So let’s work with this line of reasoning about death: that we could die at any time, and if this were our last hour what is the point in plotting to hurt some and only to help others, and having favorites. And the same thing: if it were somebody else’s last hour, what’s the point of trying to hurt them?


If I thought that I will die in an hour, it is quite logical and reasonable not to harm others. But how to deal with the thoughts that then I also don’t need to help others? We can think that we don’t need to help others at all because we can die at any moment, we can die at any time. So that could lead us to the conclusion that we don’t need to help others at all.

Well I think that here we need to bring in another point, which is “what do we want to happen in our future lives.” Do I want to be able to help others in future lives, which is obviously part of our bodhichitta motivation here. Or do I want to be able to harm others in future lives, which probably would also mean that we are harmed as well. And so in our last moments if we can’t actually help others in an active type of way, we at least pray to be able to continue helping others. And as long as we’re alive we try to build up a beneficial habit of always trying to help others.

Now I was also thinking in a similar way in this meditation, again from Shantideva’s text, how important it is at the time of our death to die alone, without people around us disturbing our peace of mind by either causing us to be very attached to them and not want to leave, or their crying and being upset. Or I was thinking of one schizophrenic student of mine who was a tremendous disturbance and how I certainly would not want her by the side of my bed while I was dying, acting in a completely crazy way. And certainly far more beneficial is to die in a very peaceful atmosphere, by ourselves, and we’re not disturbed, so we can just purely focus on positive thoughts as we die. But even if we have these other people around us, disturbing us in one way (attraction) or another way (repulsion) – please leave the room – we would try to compose ourselves and just die peacefully with thoughts to benefit others in future lives as well.

Also, if we die in such a positive state of mind, it indirectly helps others – by our example of dying with our concern just for others not for ourselves, and so on. I’m thinking of the accounts of the doctors who attended, for instance, the late Karmapa during his final days in hospital when he was dying, and similarly with other great lamas. And their only concern was how the doctors were feeling, how they were dealing with the situation, how the nurses were dealing with it, how the people around them were dealing with it. There was no, not even one thought or indication of self-pity and fear and thinking about themselves. And this is a tremendous inspiration to others, just by the way that we die. This is something very important to try to do, not just when we die but, for instance, when we’re at the dentist or if we are having some sort of medical treatment and so on, to be more concerned with perhaps the nervousness or emotional state of the doctor rather than our own fear.

We go through these steps of bodhichitta meditation, so when should we change the stages or steps? Should we wait until we reach some feeling, until we will really develop some state of mind, and then we should go to the next stage? Or should we just go from one to the other without waiting to have this experience?

That’s a very difficult question to answer. In the traditional approach, when you study, for instance, lam-rim (the graded stages of the path), in theory you wouldn’t even know what the next steps are. So, for instance, I had the great fortune to be able to study lam-rim like that, because I went to India and was taught that by my teacher there before any of the translations of lam-rim were available – before Gampopa’s text was translated, which I think was the first one in English. And although we had read a little bit of lam-rim, a few sentences here and there, in my Tibetan language classes before I went to India, I had no idea what was in the lam-rim. And so I had to deal with each point as it came, without knowing what came next. And that was very, very beneficial – although of course my teacher didn’t wait until I had gained some realization before giving me the next point in the teachings.

But more usual is that we know the whole scope of the teaching. So that we know each step of the way, so that we have some understanding when we are taught a certain meditation practice – we see what it’s leading to and what will be based on it. That’s part of the general way in which we examine a teaching. The teachings on what’s called the four axioms (rigs-pa bzhi), or four ways of analyzing, which is to see what does this teaching depend on, what is it resting on, what are the stages before it; and what does it lead to, what is its purpose – those are two – the third one is does it make logical sense; and the forth one is does it fit with the nature of things, in general, with the way things are. So, in that context, if we do have an idea of all the stages then we would have what’s known as “glance” or “review” type of meditation of the whole sequence, but we would put the emphasis on one or the other as we progress.

This is the same type of procedure that’s used when doing the preliminary practices. So let’s say we are engaging in doing a hundred thousand prostrations and refuge and bodhichitta and Vajrasattva and mandala and guru-yoga. Then we would do a little bit of each every day, so we have an idea of the whole scope; but that we would focus on most of our session being with one of these practices, until we have done a hundred thousand, and then we go onto the next one. But we always have in mind the whole scope of the whole “ngondro” (sngon-’gro), the whole set of preliminaries. So it’s a similar procedure [with the steps of this bodhichitta meditation.]

In review, we have the three points here in terms of our own relative point of view. Everybody has been our mother or extremely kind to us, it’s just a matter of when. And the amount of help they have given us far outweighs the amount of harm. And since we could die at any time and they can die at any time, what’s the point of having favorites – and, particularly, what’s the point of wanting to hurt anyone and feeling distant from them? And we certainly should practice each of these at least to the level at which we remember it, so that we’re able to recall this in various situations in which it would be relevant; and we are able to retain mindfulness (dran-pa) of it, which means actively holding onto it with memory. It’s remembering, that’s what mindfulness is. It’s this “mental glue” of holding onto it. In the situation, particularly, when we’re feeling very distant from somebody, this feeling of “I can’t possibly relate to this person” which, for instance, we might feel when we view somebody from a totally different culture or background or who’s a very different age from our age – let’s say it could be a little baby; or for a young person, an old person. “I can’t relate to this person” – this type of feeling.