7-Part Bodhichitta: Equanimity


Today is our second session of the seven-part cause and effect meditation for generating bodhichitta. Yesterday, as an introduction, we looked at some of the factors that are involved in generating the bodhichitta aim. We focused primarily on the conventional bodhichitta or relative bodhichitta, which is aimed at our own individual enlightenments that have not yet happened but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. 

We looked at some of the features that make bodhichitta so profound and so important and, therefore, something that is praised so much by the great masters as being the most rare gem. There’s no need to repeat all of what I said yesterday, but it is very important to have a good understanding of what bodhichitta is, to respect it and not to trivialize it. It’s also important to understand that if we really want to develop it deeply and sincerely, we need to do a tremendous amount of work. That’s why it comes in the advanced level of motivation. It’s not something that we begin with.

Bodhichitta is not part of the initial level of motivation, even though one might get that impression from the organization of many of the lam-rims, where refuge and bodhichitta are found at the very beginning as part of the preliminary or preparatory practices. Finding it at the beginning obviously assumes that we have these things already. We need to understand the context in which these lam-rim teachings found in the great texts are given. These teachings are for people who already have gone through all this material and are just reviewing it in preparation for receiving some kind of tantric initiation. That is the actual context of Lam-rim chen-mo, Pabongka’s presentation and so on.

To bring up another point concerning the organization of lam-rim – that of presenting early on in the text the relationship with the spiritual teacher, relying on the spiritual teacher as the root of the path – I always emphasize when I teach about the relationship with the spiritual teacher, that the root is not the seed of a path. The root is there when a plant is already grown; it is that through which one receives sustenance. So, the spiritual teacher is the one who gives us inspiration, but it’s not where we actually start.

It was interesting, I was looking at an old Kadampa presentation of the graded stages by a Kadampa master called Sangwejin, which was a forerunner of Tsongkhapa’s lam-rim and what Tsongkhapa actually based his Lam-rim chen-mo on. In that presentation, he makes that topic a little bit clearer, which I was very happy to see. He says that the foundation – where the path begins – is having confident belief in the Three Jewels, confidence in the value of practice, and these sorts of things. That’s where we start – first of all, having the wish to improve, then having some knowledge of the Dharma and some confidence that the path is going to be a helpful and valid one. That’s where we start. That’s the basis of the path. Then the root – that through which we gain sustenance – is the spiritual teacher.

In any case, the bodhichitta teachings are introduced at a very advanced level in the lam-rim. So, if we wish to practice the various methods – and there are two methods that are indicated for developing the bodhichitta aim: the seven-part cause and effect meditation and the one of equalizing and exchanging of our attitudes concerning self and others – we need to appreciate the fact that we have to gain stability in the initial and intermediate level teachings and trainings.


The seven-part cause and effect meditation is arranged in an interesting way. The way the stories of a building are numbered in the United States is to start with floor number one. Well, that’s not the way that it’s done here in Seattle. It’s done in the European style where there’s a ground floor, and then, above that, there are the numbered floors – floor number one, two, three, etc. The teachings of the seven-part cause and effect are arranged in that way: there is a ground level that precedes step number one. That ground floor is equanimity.

The equanimity discussed here is the equanimity that is developed in common with so-called Hinayana practitioners, which means that it is an equanimity that is in common with the initial and intermediate levels of motivation. That point needs to be understood and taken seriously. What is the aim of this equanimity practice? It is to overcome attraction to some people, repulsion or aversion to other people, and indifference to yet others. “Others,” first of all, doesn’t mean exclusively people: we’re talking about all sentient beings.

I don’t how good a term “sentient being” is. I prefer “limited beings,” which, unfortunately, comes out as “handicapped beings” when translated into other languages. It’s not an easy term to translate. There are two terms here. One is “semchen” (sems-can), and the other is “luchen” (lus-can). “Semchen” is one who has a “sem” (sems), which is a limited mind. A Buddha doesn’t have a “sem,” a limited mind. Often people think of Buddhas as sentient beings, but Buddhas aren’t included in that group. Beings with limited minds are the ones we want to help gain enlightenment or liberation. “Luchen” is a being with a limited body. A Buddha doesn’t have that kind of “lu” (lus), or body. There’s a different word for a body of a Buddha.

Basically, what we want to overcome is favoritism – feeling attracted to some, repulsed by others, and indifferent to others. That includes all limited beings in all the different life forms. That, of course, gets into the problem of whether or not these other realms actually exist. That’s not an easy one. Perhaps I should mention something about that. But to conclude or finish the line of thinking that I wanted to present – the main context within which we gain equanimity is that of overcoming the disturbing emotions toward others. That’s the main context for this type of equanimity. There’s another type of equanimity, which involves equalizing our attitudes toward others. That’s the Mahayana way of developing equanimity. It has to do with not having any favoritism when we are actually directing our love and compassion toward others – not feeling that some are close and others far.

Here, however, the focus is on overcoming having disturbing emotions toward others. That means that we really need to emphasize the intermediate level of motivation – wishing to get rid of samsara ourselves.

So, we want to get rid of these disturbing emotions – but I’ll come back to that.

Acceptance of Other Realms of Existence

Let me just say a few words about these different realms because I think a lot of people have difficulty believing that these realms exist. The way that I think of it – and I haven’t heard this from my teachers or others; this is just my own analysis – is in terms of happiness and unhappiness. That’s what we’re talking about when we speak about the ripening of karma. Karma ripens in, among other things, happiness and unhappiness. That’s the most general thing. When we talk about happiness, we’re talking about our samsaric happiness that doesn’t last, etc. It could be a physical feeling of happiness or a mental feeling, and it can accompany all sorts of different sensations.

When we look at the range of sense perception, for example, we find that we human beings, because of our limited hardware, our bodily apparatus, are able to experience only limited ranges. Take the visual spectrum: We can’t see ultraviolet, we can’t see infrared, we can’t see in the dark. Some animals can see far better than we can in the dark. Dogs can hear higher frequency sounds than we can, and they certainly can detect smells far better than we can. Based on that line of thinking, one can conclude that just because certain portions of the spectrum of sensory perception can’t be experienced by the human apparatus doesn’t mean that they can’t be known by mental activity at all.

Pleasure and pain are not the same as happiness and unhappiness; they are physical sensations. Happiness and unhappiness are mental factors that can accompany those sensations. Usually, when we talk about these different realms, we talk about the pleasure and pain that is experienced there – although it is, in fact, the happiness and unhappiness experienced in these realms that are the main results of karma. Nevertheless, if we look at pleasure and pain, we can see that the human apparatus, the physical body, can experience only a certain amount of pleasure and pain. When pain becomes too strong, we pass out; we become unconscious. We go into shock, perhaps, before that, and then the body shuts down.

It’s the same thing with pleasure. If pleasure is too intense, an automatic, almost involuntary mechanism kicks in to destroy that happiness, to end that happiness. This can be illustrated by sexual pleasure: We rush to have the orgasm, which brings the level of intensity of the pleasure down – in the case of men, brings it all the way down. Then there’s the case of – I love this example – an itch. Have you ever though about what an itch is? An itch is intense pleasure. That’s what it is. It’s not painful: it’s pleasurable. However, it’s too pleasurable; therefore, we are compelled to scratch it, to end it.

That, by the way, is the key to dealing with chronic rashes, chronic itches. I had one a few years ago, which lasted for four or five years. It itched intensely on my neck and my scalp. It still sometimes itches. The only way to deal with it – because no doctor was able to figure out what it was and to prescribe any sort of treatment – was to relax and enjoy the pleasure of the itch. It was the only way, which was not very easy to do. However, that’s the essential nature of an itch: pleasure.

Given that our apparatus is limited, we can experience only a certain range within the spectrum of pain and pleasure and, therefore, happiness and unhappiness. If we become too unhappy, we kill ourselves. In many ways, we also kill ourselves when we’re too happy because everything is completely boring. In any case, there’s no logical reason why there couldn’t be a physical basis that could experience more of those ranges. Anybody’s mental activity has the possibility – speaking of mental activity in general – of experiencing the whole range or spectrum of sensations to which all the different types of sensory apparatus respond and, therefore, the full range or spectrum of pain and pleasure and the associated happiness and unhappiness. Thinking in this way helps me to feel a little bit more comfortable with the idea that these other life forms exist.

We’re speaking about our own individual mental continuums and what they are capable of experiencing. One would need appropriate hardware, an appropriate body with appropriate sensors, to be able to experience more on one side or the other of the various spectrums associated with the various senses. So, thinking like that, I think, can be helpful to feel a little bit comfortable with these different life forms.

I think it is totally unfair to the tradition to reduce these different life forms to psychological states within the human realm. That’s completely unfair to the tradition. From the teachings on karma, we can say that there are some leftovers from previous lives that we’ve had in each of the different realms and so we see little traces of them in this life. But that is not equivalent to the whole teachings on these other realms.

I think this point is particularly relevant in our discussion of equanimity, our discussion of compassion, our discussion of wanting to help everybody to achieve enlightenment and so on. We don’t want our view of all beings to be an exclusive type of view. We’re thinking of mental continuums, basically individual mental continuums – which are finite in number, but of which there are an awful lot – with no beginning and no end. They are countless in number, but they are finite. It’s not that new ones are being created. If we were to think that, then we’d have to get into the whole problem of who creates them, where do they come from, etc. That – the concept of a creator – is not accepted in Buddhism.

Developing Renunciation

So, we are thinking of all individual beings – limited beings with limited minds, limited mental activities, and limited bodies that support that activity – and we want to develop equanimity toward them. There is a standard method for doing that. I don’t want to just jump to the standard method because then we’ll finish in five minutes. For this method to work – which means not having attachment, aversion, or indifference in regard to any individual being – it needs, as I said, to be understood in the context of the intermediate level of training. The intermediate level of training emphasizes renunciation. So what’s renunciation?

The literal translation of the word for “renunciation” is “determination.” It’s the word “nge-jung” (nges-’byung), to become “certain” (nges)” – so, determined. What are we determined about? We’re determined about getting rid of samsara. We’re determined to gain liberation, and we’re determined to get out of samsara. So, there are two directions here. One is to attain something, which is liberation, and the other is to eliminate something else, which is samsara.

That means – to put it in nasty words – giving up certain things. We’re not talking about giving up objects, giving up things. Rather, we’re talking about giving up the way in which we experience things. After all that’s what Buddhism is all about – that there is suffering due to the way in which we experience things and that there are causes for that. So, we want to be able to experience things without suffering, which means without creating the causes of suffering. We want, instead, to experience things with understanding, which then leads to compassion, etc.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the things that we experience exist objectively out there, totally independently. But then, again, as I maybe mentioned before, we’re talking about how we establish that something exists, not about the way it exists just in general. But let’s not go there for the moment. How do we experience things? That’s what we want to give up: experiencing things with attachment, aversion, and naivety. These are the three poisonous attitudes or emotions.

When we have attachment, for example, we don’t want to let go of what we have. When we have desire, which is another face of that disturbing emotion – it’s defined differently in different Indian texts from that point of view – we want to get what we don’t have. What is relevant here is that these poisonous emotions or attitudes cause us to experience things with suffering – they generate problems.

With renunciation, as with any motivation, there is both an aim and an emotional component. The aim is liberation, and the emotional component is disgust. We’re totally fed up with this situation of suffering that continues to occur over and over again. We’re not talking about being annoyed or angry about that: “I’m so stupid for being like that.” That is not a state of mind that is conducive for getting out of suffering because it’s still a disturbing state of mind – being annoyed with ourselves for being so foolish. Rather, we’re just disgusted.

“Disgust,” I think, is a good word. But I think there’s also another connotation here, which is that we’re bored with it. We’re so bored and disgusted with this situation – “This is pathetic!” – that we finally decide to do something about it. Given my own experience of overcoming certain things that I was very involved with in my youth, I think that that’s the way that we are actually able to stop drinking or smoking or whatever it might be. “This is ridiculous! This is pathetic!” It’s not “I want to be the super policeman,” and “I’m angry with myself.” That doesn’t work. It’s just that “this is no longer interesting.” When it’s boring and no longer interesting, we get fed up. We’ve had enough, so we want to stop, and we have a better chance of being able to stop.

So, renunciation has to be a state of mind that’s not disturbing. That’s not so easy. Often we associate renunciation with feeling guilty and having to deprive ourselves. We think, “I have to police myself,” and so on. That’s not renunciation. That’s a neurotic effort to stop something. That has to be given up. We have to get tired of that – being the police. We need to develop being fed up with having feelings of attraction to some, aversion toward others, and indifference toward others and being fed up with all the problems that come from that. We need to recognize the problems that come from that, the suffering that comes from that. Otherwise, why would we want to give that up? Why would we want to get out of that and develop equanimity toward everybody?

We don’t have to go into all the problems that come up when we are so attached to somebody or so upset about somebody or totally indifferent toward somebody… which then they resent, and so all sorts of things ensue. I am sure we all have experienced the problems that arise from each of these three attitudes toward others.

The Three Higher Trainings

Training in the intermediate level of practice indicates how to overcome the three poisonous attitudes. So, before going on to the advanced level with bodhichitta, we need to have a little bit of training in the intermediate level. It involves the three higher trainings: ethical discipline, concentration, and what I call “discriminating awareness.”

I don’t like the term “wisdom.” It’s used by many translators to translate many different terms in Buddhism, and all these different terms don’t mean the same thing. So, “wisdom,” as a translation, just sort of mixes everything together and makes the term trivial. It’s “discriminating awareness,” in this case, which is the awareness or understanding that discriminates between what is correct and what’s incorrect, between what’s reality and what’s fantasy, what’s helpful and what’s harmful. There are many different areas that it can be focused on.

Discriminating awareness – to look at the definition of it – is the mental factor that adds certainty to distinguishing. “Distinguishing” is the way that I prefer to translate the mental factor often called “recognition.” It’s not recognition at all. Recognition implies that we knew an object before and that we are now remembering it and applying whatever name or concept we had applied to it before. That’s not the mental factor we’re talking about here. It’s distinguishing. We distinguish a certain characteristic feature of something – distinguishing it from the background, basically.

If I look at the colored shape of a person’s face – which is all that I see, actually: a colored shape – I have to be able to distinguish it from the colored shapes of the wall and the people around in order to be able to deal in any way whatsoever with the information that is coming in. That’s what distinguishing is talking about. We distinguish an object from the background. Then discriminating awareness adds certainty to that: “It’s this and not that.” We therefore discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, what’s correct and what’s incorrect etc.

It’s always important to go back to the definitions; otherwise, we don’t really understand what any of these terms actually refer to. Then we get all sorts of misleading ideas based simply on, in our case, the English words that are used to translate these terms. Tibetans have the same problem. If they don’t know the definition, they also can be confused about what a term means.

The importance of the three higher trainings – ethical discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness – is generally explained metaphorically: In order to cut the root of something, we need a sharp axe – that’s discriminating awareness; in order to be able to actually cut it, we need to be able to always hit the mark – that’s concentration; and in order to pick the axe up, we need strength – that’s ethical discipline. We need all three. That’s the metaphor that is used. And it’s a good one.

We need discipline so as not to allow ourselves to come under the sway of attraction, repulsion, and indifference. For instance, when we are with a group of people and our best friend or a loved one comes into the room, we have to have the discipline to not just to run over to that person and ignore everybody else. I had a very good example of that. I was translating for the old Serkong Rinpoche somewhere in the West, and one of my cousins, who happened to live in the city where we were and whom I hadn’t seen in many, many years, came in late. There I was, translating. I couldn’t get up and go over to greet her or anything like that – even though she was a little bit upset that I didn’t just run over to her. So, in these sorts of situations, we need discipline to not get up and then concentration to stay focused on what we’re doing. I needed to concentrate on translating and not allow my mind to wander over to this cousin whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years.

That discipline is very much needed for equanimity. We at least need to have the self-control not to ignore others. That’s something that comes up all the time, doesn’t it? I experience this: People come up and ask questions, and I need to go to the toilet, or I need to go on to the next appointment, or I need to speak with other people, or whatever. What comes up is the tendency to ignore the person, to cut them short. We might even get a little bit annoyed with them, especially if they’re talking on and on and not getting to the point. So, we need, of course, patience. But more relevant to our discussion here is the discipline not to ignore this person and not to look at our watch and tell them, “Please. Leave,” or use even stronger words – words we might say in our heads.

So, we need to have discipline and concentration, and we need to pay equal attention to everybody, whether we’re really interested in what they say or not. After all, they’re asking a question. To them it’s important. Otherwise, why would they be asking it? Maybe they’re asking just to show off, but that’s something else. In any case, we need to take everybody seriously. This, I think, is what this equanimity is getting at – that before we can think about having love and compassion for everybody, we have to take them seriously.

This is an attitude that I emphasize so much in the sensitivity training that I developed, Developing Balanced Sensitivity. “You are a human being,” – I’m talking here about human beings, but the dog could be included as well, – “And you have feelings just as I have feelings. Just as the way that you treat me and speak to me affects my feelings, the way that I treat you and speak to you affects your feelings.” Therefore, “Just as I would want you to respect me as a human being, to respect my feelings and to take them seriously, I would want to respect you and your feelings, to care about you and not to hurt you,” and so on. We develop what I call the “caring attitude.”

That’s the basis here: taking everybody equally seriously. Then we can develop love and compassion and these other things. In order to do that there needs to be equanimity toward everyone.

[See: Balanced Sensitivity: 1 Dealing with Sensitivity Issues, Part 2: Quieting the Mind and Generating Care]

Overcoming Attraction, Repulsion, and Indifference

What do we want to overcome, then, with this equanimity? We want to overcome attraction, repulsion, and indifference. Those are based on having longing desire and attachment, or anger and hostility, or naivety. It’s because of naivety that we ignore others.

Again, we have to look at the definitions.

What is attachment or desire? With desire, remember, we want what we don’t have. With attachment, we don’t want to let go of what we do have. With greed, we want more. All of these are aspects of this disturbing emotion. Attachment is based on overestimating the good qualities of something. Here, in the case of a person, we are overestimating the good qualities and then identifying the person exclusively with these good qualities. Those qualities may or may not be there, but in any case, we exaggerate the good qualities or maybe add more good qualities than they actually have, and we totally ignore the negative qualities. Then, with a strong sense of “me,” we think, “I want to have it,” and “I don’t want to lose it.”

Anger or repulsion emphasizes and exaggerates the negative qualities. We then think, “I want to get rid of that,” or “I don’t want to have it.” So, again, there’s a big strong “me” here.

With naivety and indifference, which comes from naivety, we are basically not looking at the qualities of the other person for one reason or another, either we’re too busy, or we don’t care, or we’re not interested. Or we could be afraid. That’s another reason for ignoring others. We could be afraid of making a mistake or afraid that the person is going to harm us or afraid that they’re going to let us down. There could be many variations of fear. And we are naive about the fact that “they’re a human being; they have feelings just as I do, and they have good qualities and negative qualities,” and so on, which leads to indifference.

So, we have attraction, repulsion, and indifference. In order to overcome those, we need to go to the teachings on discriminating awareness from the intermediate scope. Just to do this exercise of equanimity – imagining a friend, an enemy, and a stranger, thinking of how, in previous lives, the friend has hurt us, and how, in previous lives, the enemy has helped us, and how, in previous lives, the stranger has helped us also – is very nice, but it doesn’t do very much if we don’t have a deeper level of understanding of what that really means and aren’t convinced of the logic for why that would lead us to a state of equanimity.

Please don’t trivialize equanimity. It is unbelievably difficult to have equanimity. It’s much easier to skip over it and to just develop love and compassion for the people that we like or for some sort of amorphous “poor, suffering beings” and to think, “I will help them.” But are we really willing to wash the sores of a leper, for example? Do we really want to get our hands dirty helping someone? “I’ll give some money,” “I’ll pay someone else to do that,” but “Do I really want to do that?”

It’s not so easy, is it? If one ever visits some of these Mother Theresa organizations and sees what they actually do and the people that they’re actually working with, one starts to reevaluate one’s own level of compassion, love and commitment and one’s willingness to actually help somebody.

Mental Continuums

In any case, to go back, the mental continuum – that’s the key. The mental continuum is beginningless and endless. It’s not so easy to understand that and to actually have confidence that that is the case. However, there are many reasons for that given how cause and effect works. Can there possibly be a cause that comes from nothing, a cause that all of a sudden starts something, or does there always have to be a prior cause? In other words, can something come from nothing? And can something go to absolutely nothing without some sort of effect? From the Buddhist point of view, that’s impossible.

So, we have these beginningless mental continuums of moments of experience happening one after another after another. We can look, then, at the person – this is a person, an individual. Arising on the mental continuum are the various types of impulses that arise based on disturbing emotions, which themselves arise from unawareness, or ignorance, confusion, etc. These various impulses then lead to various impulsive types of behavior. But they may not. We may not act on all the impulses that arise. For instance, we might have the impulse to yell at somebody, but we don’t actually act on it. But it’s the impulse that arises that is the karma, and in most cases, we act on those impulses.

Acting on those impulses leads to certain consequences. Certain habits and certain tendencies are built up as well as certain positive and negative potentials (or karmic force). Positive and negative potentials are usually translated as “merit” and “sin,” which are terms that, as I mentioned yesterday, bring in quite irrelevant and misleading concepts from Christianity. It’s the positive force and negative force that will, with the proper conditions, bring about the experience of something else on this mental continuum.

Extending the Basis of Imputation

We have mental continuums. What about the “me,” the person that’s involved here? On each of these individual mental continuums there is a “me” as an imputation. The “me” is an imputation on the mental continuum. We can use a very, very simple example: a movie. A movie has one moment after another moment after another moment. We don’t see all of Star Wars in one moment. It is an imputation on a whole movie, on a whole sequence of frames. Or a year – a year is an imputation on days and moments. A year doesn’t happen all at once. Like that, the “me” is an imputation not just on one moment but on that whole continuity of moments. It’s sort of like the name of the individual movie.

What, then, is that “me”? We need to understand that that “me” is not something that is static – “static,” meaning that it doesn’t change and isn’t affected by anything. It isn’t something that is partless; it’s not a monolith that doesn’t have various different aspects to it. It’s also not something that is separate from the mental continuum, something that could fly off and go into another mental continuum or something like that. This type or level of “me” is impossible.

Nor is that “me,” or person – to look at the next, subtler level – something that is self-sufficiently knowable. In other words, we can’t know a person separately from knowing something of the basis of imputation of the person that appears. We say things like, “I want to know myself.” What do we know? Actually, it’s easier to understand this in terms of other people: “I know Barbara.” What do we know? “I see Barbara.” What do we see? We can’t see Barbara without seeing a physical form. It’s on the basis of a physical form that we see Barbara: we don’t just see “Barbara.” “I know Barbara.” What do we know? “I know Barbara’s name.” In that case, then, we know Barbara in association with a name. “I know the personality,” “I know what she looks like.” We can’t think of her just like that – namely, without knowing something of the basis on which she is an imputation. A person can’t be self-sufficiently known, can’t be known all by itself.

We create a lot of suffering for ourselves by thinking in terms of the self-sufficiently knowable “me.” The example that I love to use is, “I want somebody to love me for myself, not for my looks, not for my body, not for my wealth, not for my knowledge, not for any of these sorts of things. I want them just to love me for myself.” What in the world does that mean? How could somebody love us separately from the basis of imputation of “me?”

This is the subtle impossible self of a person. It leads us into a more Prasangika-Madhyamaka understanding – that there is an intimate relationship between the “me” and the basis of imputation. The basis of imputation is the mental continuum of moment to moment to moment mental activity – no beginning, no end. What is relevant here, because it is the obstacle to equanimity, is that we identify each person just with what we see now, what we see this moment or this phase – it might not necessarily be just a moment. We see them as a friend, an enemy, or a stranger or – going beyond even those labels ­– as a human being or a mosquito. These are just phases of the person, of the mental continuum.

What is happening here is that we are limiting the basis of imputation of the person. We’re not looking at the whole basis of imputation. And even within that limited phase of the mental continuum, of looking just at a certain, short period of time, we limit the basis even further by looking only at the good qualities, exaggerating them and maybe adding some that aren’t even there, or by looking only at the bad qualities, exaggerating them and maybe adding ones that aren’t there, or by ignoring altogether what qualities are there, and then labeling the person on those even more limited bases.

The key to equanimity is understanding. It’s not about enforcing some sort of discipline on ourselves: “Well, I’m just going to sit here. I’m not going to go over and greet my cousin and thereby ignore these other people.” Also, it’s not sufficient just to think, “Well, I’m not going to do that because they’re all human beings; they want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy.” That’s not deep enough, actually. It may work, but we need something a little bit deeper to really, really understand what’s going on and to make this equanimity meditation work. Why? Because it involves bringing in past lives and therefore different bases on which to impute the person – for example: “This friend must have hurt me in a past life.” That’s a way of extending the basis of imputation.

If we understand extending the basis like that in terms of labeling and the basis of labeling or the basis of imputation and the voidness of the person – that the person doesn’t exist separately from the basis or isn’t known separately from the basis – it becomes a little bit easier to actually work with this equanimity and to see that it is a reasonable thing to develop. It’s not just some superhuman, Buddhist thing. It is actually correct – although we need to respect the conventional truth.

Respecting Conventional Truth

It is very important when one has this understanding of voidness – “OK, I’m going to label each person on the entirety of their mental continuums, rather than on just little pieces of it. I’m going to view everybody in terms of all these mental continuums that are beginningless and endless” – not to lose sight of the conventional level: “This individual happens to be my baby now, and I need to pay more attention to my baby than to the ants that are in my kitchen.” Don’t lose sight of the conventional truth of where they are now with respect to our relationships with them.

Equanimity can – if we ignore the conventional level – lead to hurting the people who are very close to us. That’s something that we actually have to watch out for. I know people who have children and who are very socially engaged and who spend all their time helping the poor or whatever they’re interested in but who ignore their children. Their children feel ignored. They say, “My mother” or “my father is out there helping these other people – but what about me?”

It’s important not to ignore or to dismiss the conventional truth. That’s why, in the teachings, it says that, of course, we develop equanimity toward everybody and the willingness to help everybody equally – and the equanimity that we’re talking about here has to do with not being emotionally upset and being drawn to some, as if by a magnet, and repulsed by others (the magnet doesn’t deal with rocks or plants; so, we’re neither attracted nor repelled – there’s no disturbing emotion there) – but, still, we help those whom we’re most able to help and with whom we have stronger connections.

If somebody is totally closed to us, if they’re not receptive, there’s not much we can do. That was the case for Buddha himself, so what can we expect to be able to do? It’s always very sobering to think of the example of Buddha. “Not everybody liked Buddha, so why should I expect that everybody’s going to like me?” It’s a good one. It really is sobering think of when people don’t like us. We’re trying so hard to be bodhisattvas, and they think we’re idiots and criticize us.

Equanimity Based on Reason

The key then for developing this equanimity is having some sort of understanding. In the texts, we find two methods for developing equanimity. The first one is the method side. With that one, we develop love and compassion first. Then, based on that, we develop the wish, “I want to become a Buddha so that I can help everybody,” which then leads to, “I need the understanding of voidness to be able to do that. I need to become a Buddha.” That’s one method. With the other method, which is for those who are more intellectually inclined, the understanding of voidness comes first. Then, based on that understanding, it becomes obvious that one would have compassion and love for everybody.

His Holiness always says that this second manner of developing equanimity is more stable. Although we can proceed on an emotional level and be successful in that, it’s a little bit unstable. We could be thrown off emotionally. When there’s at least some basic understanding, it helps very much to ground us. And as I said, the key is mental continuums – not to lose sight of the whole of the mental continuum.

That connects very well with renunciation. We’re thinking of ourselves when we’re thinking in terms of mental continuums having no beginning and no end. How boring it is that our mental continuums are continually going up and down with unhappiness and with this worldly happiness, which never satisfies and goes up and down and up and down. We want to get rid of the all-pervasive suffering that perpetuates the basis for this up and down – samsaric rebirth.

If we’re thinking of our own mental continuums in that way and are determined to be liberated from this really awful movie that just keep repeating over and over again, then we think in terms of others as well. So the love and compassion etc. that we develop for others and the wish to bring them liberation has to be based on viewing others in terms of whole mental continuums, whole individual mental continuums. So, with equanimity, we are already starting to think of others as mental continuums, rather than identifying them just with what we see now.


Perhaps you have some questions about that before we get into the actual method – which, perhaps, many of you know already. It’s very readily available in so many books.

Can you go back and describe very briefly the less stable method?

The less stable method for developing love and compassion is the one that is based just on emotion. It involves going through the whole sequence of “everybody has been my mother; they have all been so kind,” etc., which doesn’t really get this equanimity down in a strong way. It’s quite difficult, actually, on an emotional level to say, “Well, I’m not going to be attracted to some and repulsed by others, nor am I going to ignore others,” and to resolve not to behave in those ways. To do that purely on an emotional basis is very tough. Without understanding, I don’t see any way of doing that other than just being like a policeman and using discipline.

It’s because of that, I think, that the basis is unstable for developing what’s called great love and great compassion, which means that it’s directed at everybody, regardless of what they do to us now. If we’re thinking in terms of the mental continuum, we understand that they’ve done everything to us. So, what’s the big deal about what they’ve done just recently?

So, it’s with that shaky foundation of equanimity that one then proceeds emotionally with “everybody has been my mother,” etc. It’s hard to actually believe that if one isn’t thinking in terms of the mental continuum and of there being no beginning.

We can, however, do a Dharma-Lite version of it: “Everybody could take me home and give me a meal and take care of me like a mother,” thinking of others only in terms of this lifetime. But that’s very hard to apply to the mosquito or the ant. With that version, we tend to limit our focus just to people. So, it’s very limited. “I want everybody to be happy and not to be unhappy,” and so on tends to be focused just on those whom we like. Maybe we are able to extend it a little bit, but, still, it’s not stable. It’s not so stable because in order to really have great love and compassion – we can’t even speak about bodhichitta yet – we have to direct it toward everybody, which means without attraction, repulsion, or indifference.

This, of course, leads to all the lojong material, the attitude-training – not expecting anything in return, not expecting a thank-you. If someone like my beloved child that I’ve helped so much ignores me and treats me terribly, I’m going to regard that person as a teacher. We find all these sorts of things in the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices and the lojong, the attitude-training, material. That’s serious stuff. That kind of thing happens in real life: We help people, and they don’t appreciate the help; they ignore us in return. We expect at least some sort of thank-you, some sort of acknowledgement… “be nice to me in return.” There’s a disturbing emotion behind that.

That kind of thing undermines our compassion, our wish to help others and so on. Then we start helping them in order to feel good about ourselves or to feel that we’re useful, to feel that our lives are meaningful. We become almost like – pardon the extreme example – vampires toward others, drawing our sense of worth from helping them. That’s vampire activity. It’s exploitation in a subtle way. Again, it comes down to the understanding of voidness. “What establishes my existence?” “Do I exist because I am meaningful to somebody else? Does that make me exist? Does that establish my existence? I can help others; therefore, I exist?” Think about that.

Many elderly people die of irrelevance. It’s been documented. If their lives are irrelevant, and nobody visits them in the nursing home – it’s just a big nothing that’s going on, and all that they have is to watch daytime television – they die of irrelevance. There’s nothing. Here’s the fallacy: “What makes me exist is that I’m relevant to others, that I’m meaningful to others and that others care about me.” Of course that’s necessary biologically, but excuse me, biology is samsara. It is true from a samsaric point of view that we need attention – particularly babies and elderly people – and that we need some interaction with others. We’re totally dependent on that. However, that doesn’t establish our existence.

These are very profound points to think about, very profound. That’s why – going back to what I was alluding to before – it’s incorrect to talk about impossible ways of existing as referring to ways of existing. That’s not a correct translation of the term. It refers to ways of establishing or proving existence.

What establishes that there is such a thing as love? There’s a whole spectrum of emotions that arises not only on my mental continuum but also on everybody’s mental continuums. In that vast sea of emotions, is there a box encapsulated in plastic that is love – I feel this “thing,” and you feel it, and I have to generate it or whatever? No. What establishes that there is love? There is the word or concept “love.” Somebody made up the word from meaningless sounds and made up a definition for it. That establishes that there is love. There’s nothing else that establishes it; it’s just a convention. That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing; that convention refers to something. However, there is nothing on the side of the emotional spectrum that corresponds to that word. If there were something there that the word corresponded to, it would be a box. Nothing exists like that. The box “love” doesn’t establish that love exists because there is no such thing. That’s impossible.

This is mental labeling, the Prasangika view. What establishes that things exist? It’s merely what words refer to on the basis of some basis for labeling. There is no referent “thing,” no thing in a box, on the side of the object that would correspond to the word. That, in a nutshell, is Prasangika, Gelug Prasangika. The other Tibetan traditions define Prasangika differently. We need to be aware of that. Tsongkhapa was a very radical reformer. He changed and modified the understanding of almost everything that came before. He was very revolutionary.

I find that as I strive to have more equanimity, I get sort of lazy. When I try to think of everybody as being the same, I think, “OK, I don’t have to strive to be part of their lives because I can see them in any possibilities of the future in their own lives.” Where does that place me on the scale of social responsibility and in relation to groups like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship that are doing concrete things to help others but are not necessarily thinking about their surroundings in terms of equanimity.

My reply goes back to what I was saying before: We have to not lose sight of the conventional truth of where everybody is now and what we ourselves are capable of doing now. There’s a difference between having the willingness to help everybody equally based on the equanimity with which we regard all others equally – that’s the Mahayana equanimity – and what we’re focusing on here, which is the equanimity of not being emotionally disturbed because of attraction, repulsion, and indifference to others. That’s the focus here. Even so, we respect the conventional truth. We ask ourselves, “What can I do?” “Whom do I have connections with?” “Who’s receptive?” “Who’s open to me?” “Where can I make the best contribution?” Then we do that.

I got that personal advice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When I said, “I’m involved with so many different projects and so many different things. What to do?” He said, “Look to see what you can do that hardly anybody else is doing, what you’re really good at doing, and where there is a need for that, and do that. Other things, you do a little bit. Put the emphasis on where can you make a contribution that is rare and on what you’re good at doing.” This is respecting conventional truth. We see who’s receptive to us and so on.

If we’re in a position to help others, many people might come to us asking for our help. How do we choose on the basis of equanimity? This is the challenge of equanimity. This equanimity is free from disturbing emotions. That means that we don’t get pissed off when we get thirty e-mails with everybody asking, “Please explain this or that to me,” which would take five pages of explanation to do – yet, when our closest friend sends an e-mail, we’re willing to sit there and to go into a chat room and to write a lot for this person. That’s where this equanimity gets applied.

We see where we can be of best help, where the person is receptive, what we are capable of doing, and give a little bit of an answer. This is what His Holiness said. We can give them a little bit of an answer and direct them to other sources. If there are no other sources, then we pay more attention to the answer. At the same time, we don’t ignore our close friends who also want our attention. It becomes a great balancing act. It’s not easy to be an aspiring bodhisattva and to want to help everybody. We have time limitations, energy limitations. That’s why we want to become Buddhas.

That is what is the most colossal drag – that I’m limited now. I have limited hardware. I get tired, I’m growing old, memory is going, energy is going, health is going. How boring! Plus, it took so long to get to this stage of being able to help at the level that I’m helping. I don’t want to go all the way back to go and start again. Then, again, the game is up – all over again. When we reach a point where we have all the necessary skills to make some kind of effective contribution, we have to start all over again. This is colossally boring, isn’t it? 

That’s what we want to get rid of. It’s not just the manifestations that come along with this: we want to get rid the basis for them. And that’s not easy – this is what I was trying to say before – because we are attached to our friends, and we are attached to our comfort, which means we reject people who make annoying requests and things like that. And we get upset when we’re too busy; we get stressed. It’s awful. That’s what we have to develop: a feeling of “this is awful” – even before we can develop equanimity.

That’s what I’m saying. If we jump immediately into “I’m not thinking just of myself,” and “Here are the advanced teachings. I’m advanced,” and “Let’s all sit and meditate on love and compassion” – because it makes us feel good – our equanimity is not going to be stable. It may help a little bit, but it’s not going to be stable. We want something stable – unless we’re just interested in drinking Dharma-Lite. Dharma-Lite is perfectly fine if that’s our drink, but acknowledge it as Dharma-Lite.

The Actual Equanimity Meditation

The actual meditation is to think of three people. We’ll just stick to humans. We won’t bring in the cockroach. That would be a much more radical level of doing equanimity meditation, really radical.

First, we think of someone we like very, very much. If they were to come into the room, we would want to run over to them, to hug and kiss them, to give them all our attention and to ignore everybody else. We’d just want to say “Sorry!” and go off with this person.

Then we think of somebody else who, if they were to come into the room, would make us want to say, “Oh, no!” – someone whom we would really like to avoid for one reason or another or whom we find really annoying.

Then we think of someone who is a total stranger. Usually, we pick pictures of people out of a magazine – not a model, though, who’s putting on a “look.” We pick just somebody. It could be somebody in the street, somebody who collects the tickets at the movie theatre – in other words, someone whom we don’t even consider to be a person. Here, in this country, though, everybody is friendly and has these little chats with each other, even if they’re total strangers. In Germany, where I live, people don’t do that. In any case, one could imagine someone whom we would totally ignore as a human being.

There are two situations. One is when we’re thinking about people. The other is when we’re actually confronting them – for example, when somebody really annoying, like a telemarketer, calls us on the phone. What is the difference in our attitude toward the telemarketer who calls and our attitude toward our best friend who calls? That’s a good example. Is the telemarketer someone who’s been our mother in a previous lifetime and who wants to be happy and doesn’t want to be unhappy and who doesn’t want that we reply with a very strong swear word and slam down the phone? How do they feel?

We think of each of these persons individually, one by one, after we’ve chosen them. We can look at a photo if that’s easier. Otherwise, we can just think of them, visualize them, or whatever.

When we focus on the person that we like and are so attracted to, we let that feeling of strong attraction arise. “You’re really a fantastic person, and I really would like to be with you.” We want to go toward this person and to be with them. We don’t want to lose them. Then, we stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “Why do I feel like that? Do I feel like that because they’ve been nice to me?” or “It makes me feel good to be with them,” or “They pay attention to me,” or “I get this and that from them.” What are the reasons?

This is what I was saying before about the basis of labeling – that we label the person on those things. We could evaluate whether those things are correct or incorrect. That is, of course, a variation here – to see whether we are exaggerating the qualities or making something up. “This is the most wonderful person in the world!” It probably isn’t the most wonderful person in the world. It’s really interesting, we think, “I want this one to love me. Somebody else? Somebody else doesn’t count. I want this one to love me and to pay attention to me.”

Did you ever see the documentary – I forget the name of it – about the penguins in Antarctica? There is this massive ground with a hundred thousand penguins, all of which look alike. Then we think, “I want that particular one to love me – that penguin and not any of the other penguins.” That sort of puts our selectivity into a little bit of perspective and helps us to see that they’re all the same, basically. It’s a helpful image. At least, I find it helpful.

What we do is to then expand – to use the terminology that I was using before – the basis for labeling. So, we think of them in terms of a previous lifetime – if we want to do it in terms of previous lifetimes, which is the way the meditation is presented. “In a past lifetime, they have hurt me so much. They’ve drunk my blood” – so, we think of all these sorts of lovely images (mosquitoes drink our blood, not just vampires) – “and in future lives they can also be terrible to me.”

If we want to do a Dharma-Lite version, we can think, “Before I knew them, they were strangers,” and “They could hurt me very much.” In fact, those that we are most attached to and most in love with are the ones that can hurt us the most. If they ignore or reject us, it hurts far more than a total stranger ignoring or rejecting us. Therefore, this person is actually a potential source of unbelievable unhappiness. We don’t think of that when we fall in love with somebody. Being in love with somebody causes a severe imbalance. It feels good – that’s the deceptive part of it – but if that person ignores us or leaves us, doesn’t live up to our expectations or doesn’t pay enough attention to us, feeling good very easily leads to feeling very, very hurt.

So, we think in terms of a larger basis for labeling. “If I just run to this person and put all my hopes in this person, I could be let down very badly and be hurt very much. I’m really just running to the proverbial siren, that cannibal spirit that is going to eat me when I reach it.” We use these sorts of images. Then we resolve to have equanimity toward this person – no attraction. This is very, very difficult if our equanimity is based just on emotion. It is very difficult when visualizing this person or looking at their photo to really feel, “I’m going to regard this person without attachment.”

If you think about it, there are opponent forces for overcoming the disturbing emotions. Here we’re working specifically with the disturbing emotion of attraction, attachment, desire and greed: we want more of this person’s time than they’re able or willing to give us. We’re very greedy with the people that we are infatuated with. Just to say, “OK, now I’m going to regard them without that” is not easy, is it? We have a very, very strong internal resistance to that, very strong resistance. That’s why some understanding of voidness, thinking in terms of mental labeling, the mental continuum and these sorts of things is going to help here. “Who is it that I’m attached to? What is it that I’m attached to?” In this way, we try to regard the person without attachment, desire and greed.

Then we look at the person whom we dislike. To call them our enemy is a bit strong for many of us. We might not know somebody we would actually label “enemy,” but we certainly know people that we don’t like and don’t want to hang out with, people we would really prefer to avoid. So, we have aversion to this person. “Repulsion” is also a helpful term. We really don’t want to be with this person; we don’t like them. And again, we do the same sort of thing. We let that feeling of repulsion or aversion arise. We have to recognize that we have this disturbing emotion toward this person. That’s why we let it arise. It’s not that we’re training ourselves to feel this disturbing emotion; it’s that we want to recognize and acknowledge it.

Then, without letting that emotion getting out of hand, we halt. We put the pause button on and ask, “Why do I feel like that?” Again, it’s because “they’ve done something that I don’t like,” or “they’ve hurt me,” or “they do things in a different way from the way I do them.” It could really be quite innocent. “This person is really annoying because they peel the grapefruit and eat it like an orange rather than eating it with a spoon.” This is stupid. But how often do we get annoyed with people who do things differently from the way that we do them? “They leave the dishes overnight and wash them in the morning. That’s no good.” We get angry with the person. “They have to be washed immediately.” In fact, even before the meal is finished, we start clearing the table and washing the dishes.

We, again, look at the same things: We’re exaggerating some negative quality, and we’re ignoring the good qualities. Also, in previous lives, in previous times, they have been nice to us, and in the future, they could be nice to us. Someone we dislike could, given different circumstances, become a very good friend and could help us. So, again, we regard them without this aversion, without this repulsion. It doesn’t have to be strong anger; it could just be aversion or repulsion.

We do the same thing with the person whom we regard as a stranger, a person we might meet and not remember anything about. Who remembers the person that sold us the ticket at the movie theater? Who remembers what they looked like, let alone anything about them? Again, we ask, “Why do I ignore this person?” “Well, they didn’t do anything to me that was particularly outstanding, anything particularly nice or unkind. They’re just a nothing, basically. It could have been a machine that gave me the ticket.” What are we doing here? We are ignoring all the qualities of this person. So, we think, “In the past, they could have been very nice to us. In the future, they could turn out to be our best friend. Every best friend that we have started out as a stranger, so this one, too, could be a precious gem.” This is the type of imagery that is used. And again, we try to look at them without indifference, without ignoring them.

The way that we are looking at each of these three persons is not the Mahayana thing of equalizing our attitudes – thinking, “They all want to be happy and they don’t want to be unhappy, and they’re equal in that regard.” We are not looking at positive aspects of them in order to equalize our attitudes with equanimity – not having feelings of close and far. We are looking at them without the disturbing emotions. We’re sort of leveling the ground – that’s the imagery that is used. These are two different types of equanimity. One is free from the disturbing emotions. The other is having an equal attitude toward everyone, acknowledging that all are equal in wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy – so, no favoritism. That’s the Mahayana method.

After this, we imagine all three persons together. What I often recommend is to imagine the three of them at the dinner table with us. Now we’re having dinner with these three people – the one that we’re absolutely in love with and infatuated with, the one that we absolutely can’t stand and who’s really obnoxious and annoying, and the garbage man, the one who collects the trash. How would we deal with that? If we are really able to imagine that, we see how conflicted our emotions are. Here are these three people together – how do we deal with that?

It’s very, very challenging – if we take it seriously – to imagine ourselves at the dinner table with these three people. We could, if we wanted to make it a little bit more colorful, include a dog yapping… and a mosquito. To take it to the level of the mosquito and my best friend, having equanimity toward those two, is really advanced, super-advanced and beyond the imagination of most of us. But that’s what we’re really being asked to develop here. It’s no easy thing.

So then we imagine these three persons and have equanimity. Then we apply the line of reasoning: “Here is somebody who has helped me today and hurt me yesterday, and somebody who has hurt me today and helped me yesterday – what’s the difference?” And there is no difference, it’s just a matter of when they helped us and when they hurt us. But everybody – given beginningless time and mental continuums with no beginning – has hurt us and helped us innumerable times. To use the Indian idiom: “same, same.” Nonetheless, we don’t lose sight of the conventional level, the conventional truth of what’s going on now in terms of how we spend our time given our limitations.

This is the meditation. To do it just for a couple of minutes doesn’t really do it justice. It’s something that requires quite a bit of work – emotional work. It is, emotionally, very difficult work. That’s why I was recommending that we try, if we are able, to have some understanding of voidness and mental labeling beforehand. It will help to make this meditation not so overwhelmingly emotionally challenging.

If we do this meditation seriously and we choose the right people – someone that we’re just crazy about and someone that we really, really can’t stand and the nobody – very strong emotions come up. We don’t want to choose light examples here. If we want to get somewhere with this meditation, we choose powerful examples. And it’s going to be very emotionally challenging, something that will be very easy to give up on. “I can’t possibly develop equanimity. I love this person, and I don’t want to give up loving this person. Why would I want to give up being in love with this person? It feels so nice to be with them. It makes me so happy to be with them. Why should I have the same attitude toward the mosquito, or the annoying person at work, or the loud neighbor, or the person trying to pass me on the road as this person whom I love?”

Without some understanding underlying this meditation, I think that, emotionally it’s going to be very, very difficult to develop equanimity. Therefore, it’s an advanced meditation. It’s on the advanced scope, not the beginning scope. It’s not to be taken lightly that it is built on the basis of some training on the initial and intermediate levels.

That brings us to the end of our session. Let’s end here, and we’ll continue after lunch.