7-Part Bodhichitta: Love, Compassion & Exceptional Resolve


This morning is the fourth session of our discussion of the seven-part cause and effect meditation method for developing the bodhichitta aim. We have discussed the ground floor level, or step number zero, of this process, which is to develop equanimity. This equanimity is the state of mind that is free of disturbing emotions toward others, namely attachment and attraction to those whom we like, repulsion and aversion toward those whom we don’t like, and indifference toward those whom we consider strangers – which is based on naivety, being unaware of the possibility that they could be friends and so on.

The disturbing emotions that we are free of here – attachment or clinging, and aversion or repulsion, and naivety – are those concerning persons. This is because we are dealing with an equanimity that is shared in common with the Hinayana teachings. The aim of the Hinayana teachings is to gain liberation, and from the point of view of those teachings, all we need for gaining liberation is to have an understanding of the lack of the impossible self, or soul, of persons. According to their tenet systems – so, here we’re talking about non-Prasangika Madhyamaka according to Gelugpa – this lack, or absence, or voidness of persons is defined differently from the voidness of all phenomena. So, in order for this equanimity to be in common with both Hinayana and Mahayana, and Gelug Prasangika and so on, it needs to be one that deals with the disturbing emotions that are aimed specifically at persons. So, we’re not talking here about getting angry at our computers or having aversion to certain foods or feeling attachment to certain television programs.

In order to gain equanimity, we need to rid our minds – to at least a certain extent – of these various disturbing emotions that are directed toward others. We saw that this state of equanimity is not a state of nothingness, of emotionlessness. Rather, it is – to use the Nyingma terminology – an “openness.” It is like an open ground that can then function as the foundation upon which to build the positive emotions that lead to the development of the bodhichitta aim.

We also saw that once we have that basis of equanimity, the first thing that we do in this particular sequence of meditation steps is to try to gain the awareness and then maintain that awareness with mindfulness – mindfulness being the mental glue – that all beings have been our mothers in some previous lifetime. We saw that the possibility of all beings having been our mothers at some point is one that can be established through logic. It’s something that is reasonable given the Buddhist assumptions, namely beginningless time, finite number of beings, and the equality of everyone – equality in the sense that in every lifetime, other than when born from heat and moisture and from a lotus, every being has a mother and that everybody equally builds up causes to have male and female rebirths. That gets into a whole discussion of what the causes for being reborn as one or the other are. Obviously, one has to be a female in order to be a mother.

The causes for being reborn as a male or a female are not made terribly clear in the texts. The teachings in lam-rim list eight favorable circumstances within the precious human rebirth itself that allow one to have greater influence on others than one would otherwise have. One of those eight is being reborn as a man. Whether that view is time-specific and cultural-specific can obviously be debated.

What I found quite interesting was something that His Holiness the Dalai Lama said at the bhikshuni, the nun conference, which took place in Hamburg this summer – although his comments were more general in nature and not specifically connected to the lam-rim teaching on male and female rebirths. He said that when we look at the evolution of human society on this planet, we find that in earlier periods, when there were wild animals and other physical dangers to contend with, strength, brute strength was what was necessary for sustaining the society. In that type of circumstance, the male rebirth was the most favorable. In later periods, when the intellect was what was necessary for sustaining the society. In that type of situation, neither the male nor female rebirth was more favorable. In the present time, when there is so much hatred and terrorism and things are getting more and more out of control, he thought that compassion was what was most necessary for sustaining the society. In that situation, he thought that, due to the instincts women innately have, the female rebirth was the most favorable.

He said that he was basing all of this purely on biology. When it comes to physical strength, men have the advantage. When it comes to intelligence, neither men nor women have the advantage; intellectually, they’re equal. When it comes to compassion, women have the advantage, just biologically, because women bear children in their wombs, they breastfeed them – at least in more traditional societies – so, they naturally have nurturing feelings, feelings of warmth and a sense of connectedness to the humanness of others. This compassionate quality, he said, was what was most needed for solving the world problems and the environmental problems that we have in this current era.

The implication here – though this is not something that’s discussed in the Dharma – is that the type of rebirth that would be the most favorable for influencing others in positive ways could be dependent on the age of a world and the stage of development of the society. That would certainly make sense in terms of dependent arising – that there’s nothing inherently better or worse about any particular gender.

In any case, the teachings concerning the causes for a male rebirth basically say that admiring the male form and disparaging the female form is a cause to have a male birth. One might wonder, however, whether that could also be a cause for a gay rebirth. But putting that aside, it would seem that desire for the female body is what leads to a female rebirth. Then, if, as a female, one had desire for a male body, one would have a male rebirth. If that is the case, we could then argue that everybody has, at some point, had a female basis.

Whether or not everybody has at some point been born a female is an important point to establish because the objection to everybody having been our mother could be – and was – raised, “Couldn’t you always have been born a man, in which case you were never my mother?” So, one has to analyze – to consider that there is a certain requirement for being our mother, which is a female rebirth. So, if the main cause for male and female rebirths is sexual desire toward a certain type of body, then probably that desire has alternated in terms of also even biological factors, if we want to look in terms of that. All these points are very important, actually, for convincing ourselves that this is a reasonable method to use – to know that it’s not just brainwashing.

Then, having recognized everybody as having been our mother, we remind ourselves and remain mindful of – mindfulness being the mental glue that holds on to the thought – the kindness they showed us when they were our mothers. The minimum kindness they showed was not aborting us – we needed all the types of rebirths that we had in the past in order to be where we are now. We can appreciate that, even when we had animal and other lower realm rebirths, the mothers that we had in those rebirths were very kind to us because they gave us the opportunity to burn off the negative karma we had, which then allowed the positive karma we had to ripen in the precious human rebirths we have now. So, that mother turtle and mother spider were very kind to us.

Of course, there were times when we were aborted. When we weren’t aborted, we might have been eaten by our mothers – for example, spiders sometimes eat their young. These are the kinds of objections that were raised in the discussions we had after class concerning recognizing everybody as a mother. “What about the mother that ate us when we were born?” But somehow we got here to this precious human rebirth. That is the product of all the previous rebirths that have taken place. Just simply on that ground, everybody has been very kind to us as a mother. They’ve given us the opportunity to get to where we are now and to deal with the various karmic things that we have built up over beginningless time. It is very good to do analytical meditation – to think about all of this and to work out the objections we have.

When we meditate on the kindness of the mother, we start with the mother of this lifetime. We can use the method of looking at our lives in five-year periods, thinking of the kindness we’ve been shown in each of those periods. If we want to expand the meditation and to include other methods for developing bodhichitta, we can also think of the kindness we’ve received from various other people in these five-year periods. Doing that leads us to the next step, which is to appreciate the kindness that we have received, to feel very, very grateful.

That was as far as we got yesterday.

Unblocking Blocked Feelings

Also, a very important question was asked yesterday, which, perhaps, I can elaborate on a little bit. The question was, “What about those of us who have blocked feelings and who don’t actually feel anything when doing these types of meditations?” I would bring in here one of the exercises for unblocking feelings that’s in the sensitivity training that I developed. It’s in the book Developing Balanced Sensitivity.

What seems to me to be necessary for unblocking feelings is – as suggested by the teachings themselves – to first gain some serenity and calmnesss and then this equanimity. In other words, if we quiet down our minds so that they aren’t flying off to various things and also rid them of at least a certain level of dullness so that they’re not spaced out (which is another way of not paying attention to others and which, also, is a block), we will get to a state where both the mind and heart are open. Then, with these equanimity meditations, if we, at least to some extent, get rid of the disturbing emotions we have toward others and the nervous energy that is associated with those emotions, and if we then also bring in some of the understanding that we get with the intermediate level of motivation – which is the understanding of the voidness of the “me,” of the person (that it doesn’t exist in impossible ways) – so that we’re not so self-conscious and hemmed in, in a sense, by the big walls of solid existence, imagined solid existence around us, we will then, I think, have a good basis for the emotional feelings to flow.

Even if we just imagine accomplishing this open state, it’s helpful. I’ve found from working with people that it is helpful for unblocking feelings. Actually, that’s the only way to unblock them. We need to be able to relax in order for the feelings flow without impediment. And we’re not talking about neurotic, disturbing feelings here. We’re using the word “feelings” in the Western sense of “emotions.”

So we want to get rid of all distractions, worries, fears, the mental wandering, dullness, attachment, hostility, naivety, and feelings of self-consciousness – being closed in by these imaginary walls around us. Even just imagining being able to let go of these step by step can help us to quiet down enough to be able to feel something.

[See: Balanced Sensitivity: 4 Responding with Balance, Part 2]

Another thing that I do in that training is to use physical sensations as a tool for helping people to relate to their feelings. Sometimes people are afraid of feeling love and compassion because “it’s too much.” They feel that they’ll be overwhelmed. I think of the example of one of my aunts. She was very, very close to her mother, my grandmother. But when my grandmother entered the nursing home – at that point, she had terminal cancer and so was not in a very good state at all – my aunt never went to visit her. The reason that she gave for not visiting her mother was that it was too much – it would devastate her emotionally to see her mother in this situation. She was so self-centered that she never went to see her again in the nursing home. I don’t know if it was actually never, but as far as I understand, she didn’t go. What’s interesting is that when I saw her a couple of years ago – my grandmother had died many years before – she said that she thinks of her mother every day. So, it wasn’t that she didn’t have love for her mother. It was just that she was afraid of the emotions, afraid that that they would overwhelm her.

The type of training that I have used for people like that is to have them first tickle the palms of their hands, then scratch or pinch them very, very hard, and then just hold their hands. Then I ask them, “What’s the difference?” It’s just a physical sensation. It’s nothing more than that. It’s a little more difficult when somebody else is tickling, pinching and holding our hands. That’s more challenging. But if we do it by ourselves, in the end, we’re left with “so what? It’s just a physical sensation, nothing more.” Then, by inference, we can conclude that it’s the same with emotional feeling. A feeling is just a feeling. Whether it’s sad, happy, warm, or whatever, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a feeling. It’s no big deal, nothing special. That helps to unblock feelings, especially fears about being overwhelmed by feelings.

If we do have blocked feelings, it’s important to try to dissolve the blocks – first, to identify them and, then, to use some sort of method to dissolve them.

Also, another thing that is suggested when doing the meditations on compassion is, first, to think of our own suffering (here, the emotional blocks could be in place as well), feeling how awful it is and how much I really want to be rid of it, and to develop renunciation. Once we have that wish to be free of suffering ourselves, we then direct it toward other people. This assumes not only that we understand that we’re all equal – equal in the sense that everybody has the same wish to be happy and not to be unhappy – but, also, that we can generate emotional feelings toward ourselves more easily than we can toward others. This is not necessarily the case. There are many people who feel much more for others and tend to neglect themselves. So, for some people, this method might help to unblock the feelings; for other people, it might not.

OK, perhaps you have something to contribute concerning this issue of blocked feelings. I think that this is a very important issue, one that needs to be addressed in order to work with these meditations on love, compassion, bodhichitta etc., because, although having some of the wisdom side together with this method, or compassion, side helps very much to make the steps more stable, without the warmth of the emotional side, we will not be able to generate that compassion – wishing others to be free from suffering and its causes – in a heartfelt way.

Does anybody have anything to contribute to this or anything they’d like to ask?

I’m wondering if different personalities have different ways of showing emotions.

So, that brings up the variable of control – controlling the emotions versus blocking them. I think what you say brings up an important point, which is that there’s a difference between feeling something and expressing something. Somebody could be feeling a great deal of positive emotion, but the situation could be such that they don’t demonstrate it.

For example, if we are visiting people who are sick and lying in bed in a nursing home, we might want to show our concern by holding their hands. Some of the people would really appreciate that; others, however, wouldn’t. Some people have an aversion to physical contact. And though we could feel equal warmth toward all of them, we would exercise control and not hold the hand of the person who doesn’t want to be touched because they would feel uncomfortable. So there, a certain control is being exercised that doesn’t necessarily involve blocking the feelings.

Other times, control could be based on what I was saying before – fear of the feelings being overwhelming. Another type of control could be based on respect for the mores of the society. That’s a little bit similar to what I was saying with the example of the person in the nursing home.

An example that comes to my mind is that of a woman who’s my student in Germany. She’s from Colombia, South America, where people are very expressive of their emotions. She’s married to a German man whose parents are just so totally reserved emotionally. She has to really exercise control the expression of her emotions when she goes with her husband to visit them. That is exerting conscious control – again, based on consideration for another type of culture.

Again, we have to analyze: Why would we control our emotions? Someone like a nurse would have to control their emotions when taking care of other people. They’d have to keep a level head. They couldn’t cry and get really upset when seeing the awful injuries that people had. In such situations, we control the emotions. Do we control only the expression of them, or do we control the feelings themselves? For instance – although this isn’t a very nice Dharma example – if we were in a battle in war and our best buddy got killed right next to us, we couldn’t just start crying and getting upset. We’d have to control our emotions, put them in another container in our hearts, as it were, and continue to deal with the emergency situation.

So, I think there are many different situations here.

Society calls on us to control our emotions, but isn’t the point of this meditation to unleash them?

That’s a very good point. Society, particularly in the United States, calls on us to restrict the expression of our emotions because others might sue us thinking that we had been abusive toward them or had made sexist remarks, even when all we had done was to compliment them by saying, “It’s a nice dress you’re wearing.” But in any case, don’t meditations such as this offer us an avenue for letting our emotions out?

In a sense, that is true. However, what I and others have experienced is that when we relax enough in meditation, we open the door not only to positive emotions but to a lot of negative emotions as well. This is the phenomenon that most people experience when they do a long retreat. All sorts of emotional garbage comes up – which, then, we have the opportunity to try to deal with. But when we open the emotional doors, we can’t really predict what’s going to come up. This is something that we have to be aware of, particularly when considering going into a retreat – even more particularly when considering going into a long retreat. We have to be prepared for the fact that a lot of different kinds of emotions are going to come up. If we don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with that, it’s not a good idea to go into retreat.

In my experience, it’s much more natural and much easier to cultivate compassion for everybody else than to cultivate it for myself.

Again, I have a method that, though it’s not specific to the Dharma, is suggested by the Dharma – and again, it is one I have used in the Balanced Sensitivity Training – which is to develop what’s called the “caring attitude.” That’s how I translate the Tibetan word for the preliminary step to developing ethical discipline. Shantideva has a whole chapter on it. He has two chapters on ethical discipline. The first one deals with this particular mental factor, the caring attitude.

Other people sometimes translate “caring attitude” as “carefulness” or “conscientiousness.” I think that misses the point. It basically has to do with taking cause and effect seriously, appreciating that “if I act like this, this is going to happen” and caring about the results, caring about ourselves. It’s on the basis of that that we exercise ethical self-discipline. If we don’t care, if we don’t give a damn about the effects of our behavior, why would we ever exercise self-discipline? So, Shantideva very wisely devotes a whole chapter to that, to cultivating that caring attitude.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 4: Taking Care about Bodhichitta]

In the sensitivity training, there’s a whole line of reasoning for developing the caring attitude toward others that, when we work with ourselves, we direct toward ourselves: “You are a human being. You have feelings just as I do. The way in which I treat you and speak to you is going to affect your feelings, just as the way that you treat me and speak to me affects my feelings. So, just as I would want you to take me seriously, to respect me and to care about my feelings, I am going to take you seriously, respect you and care about your feelings.”

When we work with ourselves, we start with the mirror. We look in the mirror and say to ourselves, “I’m a human being just like everybody else. I have feelings just as everybody else does. The way that I treat myself and speak to myself in my head affects my feelings, just as the way that other people treat me and speak to me affects my feelings” – a lot of us abuse ourselves verbally in our heads, thinking, “You’re such an idiot!” and things like that – “So, just as I would want others to treat me with respect and to be sensitive to my feelings, I’m going to treat myself with respect and be sensitive to my feelings. I care about myself. I care about my feelings.”

The next step is without a mirror. We don’t look at ourselves in the mirror so often, but using a mirror is helpful for getting a stronger sense of ourselves. Then, without it, we think, “I’m a human being. I have feelings,” etc.

What is the most emotionally moving part of the whole exercise is to have a series of photos of ourselves at different stages of our lives. What is particularly helpful is to have a photo of ourselves – although we could work from memory, a photo is a little bit better – taken during a period when we were going through some emotional upheaval, whether it was a divorce or whatever. We then look at that “me” of the past, and say:

“I was a human being then. I had feelings then. The way that others treated me and spoke to me affected those feelings. So, just as I wouldn’t want the ‘me’ of the future to look back at me now and feel ashamed, I’m not going to look back at the ‘me’ of the past and feel ashamed because that ‘me’ of the past wouldn’t have wanted the ‘me’ of the future to be ashamed. I was a human being then. I had feelings then, and I tried my best” – which brings the whole audience to tears! That moves your heart.

So, that’s what we work with to unblock the feelings we have toward ourselves.

[See: Balanced Sensitivity: 1 Dealing with Sensitivity Issues, Part 2]

You mentioned in the beginning that there was a Tibetan word. What was that term?

The Tibetan term for what I am translating as “caring attitude” is “bag-yo” (bag-yod). The negative form of that word is “bag-mey” (bag-med), which means not to care – which is a very unfortunate state of mind, isn’t it? We just don’t care what happens.

Why don’t we take a moment to let this settle.


I would suggest that we also add to the standard equanimity meditation the part about quieting down mental agitation, getting rid of dullness and so on – which is part of any meditation in any case, but sometimes we forget that – and to add, as well, a little bit of understanding of the lack of a solid “me” so that the walls aren’t there preventing us from feeling something. Then, on the basis of equanimity, we think how everybody’s been our mother. We think of the kindness they showed us when they were our mothers – first, recognizing the kindness our own mothers have shown us and, then, recognizing the kindness all beings have shown us. Then, just naturally, we develop feelings of gratitude; we feel appreciation for all the things they’ve done and the opportunities they’ve provided.

The instructions say we don’t have to do anything special to develop this sense of gratitude or appreciation. And whether there’s an aspect of wanting to pay back that kindness – paying back in the sense of paying back a loan – as I said, seems doubtful to me. I don’t think that’s the emphasis. It’s important, particularly for those of us who have grown up in a guilt culture, not to let the meditation go off in that direction because that, as I said yesterday, leads to playing the role of the martyr.

Step Three and a Half: Heartwarming Love

It’s wonderful the way that the Buddhists number things in a way that has nothing to do with the numbering system! First, we had a zero. Now we have a half number, step number three and a half. Anyway, that step is what’s called “heartwarming love.” It is what we develop prior to the actual meditation on love. Heartwarming love is cherishing concern. We cherish someone and feel concern for his or her welfare – we would feel sad if anything bad were to happen to this person. When we meet with this person, we are very joyous and happy, and we automatically have a feeling of closeness. These are the descriptions of this state of mind or heart – however you want to refer to it.

Again, it says that we don’t have to do anything special to develop this heartwarming love; it comes automatically from the step before. This is why I think the emphasis in the step before isn’t on wanting to repay the kindness; rather, it’s feeling so grateful and so appreciative of this person’s kindness that, automatically, we feel heartwarming love. We feel concern for this person’s welfare, and we are sad when anything bad happens to them. We are happy to meet with this person, and we automatically feel close to them. It makes sense to me that this is the way that this heartwarming love develops. And we can see that – referring back to this issue of feeling something – the way in which the sequence is presented suggests that if we haven’t felt anything yet, we’re certainly going to feel something here.

So we have this heartwarming love. The literal term is that it’s the love “with which one has a feeling of closeness and warmth toward another.” The person comes close to the mind, close to the heart.

Step Four: Love

Then we go into the meditation on love. Love is defined as “the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness." Obviously, from the start of this meditation, we’re directing this love to everybody. However, in the Theravada method for developing love, what is suggested is that we start with ourselves, developing love for ourselves. We then extend that love to those who are close to us, then to the neighbors, then to the people in our city, and so on, extending it further and further, step by step. There are also meditations, like in the Chenrezig meditation, in which we extend this love to the different beings in the different realms and so on and to all sentient beings.

All Sentient Beings

This is a tough one, I must say – not this love, but this issue of all sentient beings. What I had always thought was that we could use personal relationships as examples in our meditations to help us develop what we were trying to develop in the Dharma – for instance: “If I can be warm, loving, compassionate and generous toward a particular person” – the person that we’re in love with, our partner, our children or whomever – “then I can learn to extend those feelings to others.” To me, that seemed fairly reasonable – that we don’t start with “all sentient beings.” That’s a bit too vague.

But then I heard an explanation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He said that, really, it was important to focus on all sentient beings. Why? Well, you see, in using personal relationships as examples, I had been forgetting about the fact that all of this was based on equanimity – being open to everybody – which came many stages before the meditation on love. So, if, all of a sudden, we go back to “this is the person I feel really close to” – a feeling that is usually associated with a great deal of attachment – then we violate the principle established in the very beginning of being open to everybody.

I must say that it’s not so easy to combine the emotional truths of those two approaches because, often, when the meditation is done in terms of all sentient beings, it’s just so vague and doesn’t mean anything. We’re not really taking “all sentient beings” seriously. What comes to my mind as a possible way to resolve this dilemma here – or dialectic, if we want to get into fancy terminology – is to use a guideline that Tsongkhapa gives in A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra, which is a text I translated many years ago and which I’ll actually be starting to teach when I go back to Berlin.

In that text, which is a wonderful text of practical advice, Tsongkhapa speaks about how to visualize in tantra practice. He says that the method for visualizing ourselves as Buddha-figures is, first, to gain a general picture of the whole visualization – so, the whole Buddha-figure. He says to get the whole thing going, first, in a vague way – because, obviously, in the beginning, we’re not going to be visualizing with perfect clarity. Then, when we have a general picture, we fill in the details one by one, starting with the eyes – because we tend to identify very closely with the eyes. That way, we don’t lose the sense of the whole thing, which he says we must never do. So, it’s within the context of the whole thing that we fill in the details. If we do it like that, then we’ll be able to do the visualization correctly.

Perhaps this is a guideline that we could also apply, here. First, we open up to all sentient beings. Then, without losing the context of all beings, we bring into focus particular people, starting with – as suggested – ourselves. Even in the Seven-Point Lojong, the attitude-training, it says to start with ourselves when doing the practice of tonglen, taking and giving. So, within the context of this larger scope of all beings, we develop love toward individual beings – first, toward ourselves, then toward people we’re close to, then toward strangers, then toward people we don’t like and so on. Maybe that’s a way of resolving this dialectic between loving everybody equally and loving those who actually move our hearts.

Does anybody have any comment on that? Can anyone speak from their own experience in doing that type of meditation? How does it work for you to work with “all sentient beings”?


When working with particularly troublesome life forms – cockroaches, for example – I find it helpful to think, “This is just the result of the karma of this mental continuum – that it’s just in this lifetime that this mental continuum is manifesting as a cockroach”

Yes, that is very helpful. That goes back to the equanimity meditation of seeing everybody in terms of beginningless and endless mental continuums. That certainly is the way to do it – to see that it’s just in this particular lifetime that this being is, due to karma, manifesting as this form.

I remember when I first went to India, I was not very comfortable with all the insects that were there. There were these large wolf spiders, which are about the size of your hand. I was a bit freaked out by them. I mentioned this to my teacher at the time and commented on how ugly and frightening-looking they were. He said, “Well, from their point of view, you’re the ugly one. You’re the scary one.” That was helpful.

There’s also another technique I used. Now I’m talking about long ago when I didn’t have such familiarity with Dharma. I’ve always been a trekky (a fan of Star Trek) and before that, a science fiction fan, so I imagined that I was on a different planet. And here was the life form on that planet – it looked like that, like this wolf spider. So, how would it do for my only reaction to the life form on this planet to be one of wanting to step on it? That would not be very diplomatic. That helped me to develop respect for this life form.

Thank you, thank you! It’s spider season around our house right now. I’ve not been killing them this year.

Very good. So you have an issue with spiders as well.

It’s not easy to do the meditations on love and compassion for all the beings in the other realms, both the worse realms and the better realms, because they are invisible to us. So how do we relate to them?

That’s what I was discussing the other day – that we can think about them in terms of the spectrums of different sense data, such as physical sensations, feelings of happiness and unhappiness, and so on.

I find it helpful when meditating on the hellish type of rebirth, for example, to look at pictures, like the drawings done by survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. They depict quite horrible things that are reminiscent of hell rebirths.

As I had mentioned, there can be leftovers from previous rebirths that manifest as a human experience. Certainly, these survivors could have been experiencing leftovers from hell rebirths.

One of my friends, who is a Western Buddhist teacher, helps his students to get some appreciation for the suffering of the hell realms by suggesting that they meditate on the thing that they fear the most and imagine that it’s happening to them. He does that because, usually, there’s resistance to doing that meditation and, usually, that resistance is generated from fear. So, confronting our fears is a way of getting into the meditations on the hell realms.

Fear – fear of dealing with the suffering of others – is a very significant mental and emotional block that we have to overcome. “It’s just too terrible. I can’t deal with it.” So, we don’t even want to see it, let alone physically deal with it.

So, yes, there are many methods for helping us to imagine the sufferings of hell rebirths and to take them seriously.

Love (continued)

Love is a wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. That means that we have to recognize the type of happiness we’re talking about. What is the happiness that, with love, we wish everybody to have? What is the unhappiness that, with compassion, we wish everybody to be free of? And what is the happiness that, with the exceptional resolve, we wish everybody to have – the exceptional resolve being one of the steps that comes next in the sequence of development? Each step of the sequence is not talking about the same type of happiness. That wouldn’t make terribly much sense to me.

I must say that I haven’t received any specific instructions about this nor have I actually read anything about it, but what seems reasonable to me – this is just my own idea, so don’t take this as scriptural authority – is that with love, wishing for others to be happy, we’re thinking in terms of regular worldly happiness. In the tonglen practice of giving and taking, we first want to take away their suffering in order for them to be to be able to enjoy happiness, but here the order is reversed. Why is the order reversed? It seems logical to me that, first, we want them to be happy – in other words, we don’t want them to have the suffering of suffering. Then, with compassion, we want them to be free of worldly happiness, which is the suffering of change. So, it’s not just the suffering of suffering that we want them to be free of; we want them to be free of even the worldly happiness that, with love, we wish them to have. Then, with the exceptional resolve, we want to help them to overcome the all-pervasive suffering of samsara. In that way, it makes sense, at least to me, that these three steps form a sequence.

Maybe that’s true. I’ve never actually checked with any of my teachers to see if that is correct. However, I feel that if we’ve had a long enough experience with the Dharma, we need to put the different pieces of the puzzle together in different ways and try to see what makes sense in terms of the presentation of the Dharma teachings without going outside the scope of the Dharma. This is my own idea.

So, first, we think, “May everybody have happiness,” which would be like the happiness one aims for on the initial scope, the happiness of better rebirths and so on, and then “the causes of happiness,” which would be ethical discipline, refraining from destructive behavior – this type of thing. In other words, don’t have the meditation be so vague.

In terms of the four immeasurables, whether equanimity comes first or not, happiness comes before suffering. Are you saying that the happiness in the four immeasurables also is happiness of samsaric life?

Well, in a way it would make sense – that is, if we look at the Mahayana presentation of the four, not the Theravada presentation. In the Mahayana presentation, joy is the wish for others to have the blissful joy of enlightenment. In the Theravada presentation, joy is rejoicing, rejoicing in the positive things that others have done. It’s the opponent to jealousy. So, joy means something different in the Theravada presentation of the four immeasurables.

But in any case, I think that it would make sense to apply what I was saying to the Mahayana presentation of the four immeasurables because love is the wish for others to have ordinary happiness, compassion is the wish for them to be free of that type of suffering, and joy is the wish for them to have complete liberation and enlightenment. So, here, also, we have a sequence. If they weren’t part of a sequence, joy, in this Mahayana sense, would already be included in love. This had always puzzled me – wouldn’t joy be already included in love? If we want them to have happiness, we also want them to have joy. So, that makes sense – that they’re developed sequentially.

When equanimity comes at the beginning of the sequence, it is explained as being the wish for us to be free of attachment, aversion and naivety ourselves. So, it is the basis for the love, compassion and joy that come next. When equanimity comes at the end, it is usually explained as the wish for others to have equanimity: “May they be free of attachment, aversion,” etc. So, here, we are reflecting on why they have not yet reached enlightenment – namely, because they have these problems. So, we wish, “May they be free from that.” But one could also think of it in another way, which is to think, “I wish it for everybody, without attachment, aversion” and so on, or “May they be able to spread the happiness of enlightenment to everybody.”

There are many different ways of interpreting and practicing these four immeasurable attitudes. But I think that the fact that one does them in a sequence means that the order in which they’re done is not arbitrary – although one might find the order arbitrary. Many different traditions order them differently and even phrase them differently. I have an article on that on my website, in which I survey the different presentations of the four immeasurables.

[See: The Four Immeasurables in Hinayana, Mahayana and Bon]

There is a very good guideline for meditating on the immeasurable attitude of love that one could apply here. It is a four-part process that is applied to each of the four immeasurable attitudes. For the attitude of love, it is to think:

  1. “How wonderful it would be if everybody had happiness and the causes for happiness.”
  2. “May they have happiness and the causes for happiness.”
  3. “May I be able to bring them happiness and the causes for happiness.”

    That’s why His Holiness always adds having a sense of responsibility already, here, along with love and compassion. Responsibility is not limited just to the exceptional resolve, which is the step after compassion.
  4. Then, “Oh, gurus, inspire me to be able to do this.”

This is one of the reasons why I indicated, I think it was yesterday, that if we don’t feel anything, we can go to the guru for inspiration: “Gurus, inspire me to be able to do this.” So, this just indicates how important the inspiration from the guru is.

This is what I was saying just now about having enough exposure to all the Dharma methods. The Dharma is presented to us like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, which we then have to fit together. They form a network of Dharma practices – “network” in the sense of everything being interrelated. So, by drawing in the many different complementary aspects and putting them together in different ways, we can make our practice fuller.

So we have love – “May everybody be happy.” At the very least, we start with wishing them to have the happiness that comes from being free of gross pain, gross suffering. Obviously, we could also wish others other levels of happiness. For instance, there’s the happiness that we get with shamatha, the stilled and settled state of mind, which basically is the happiness of being free of dullness, agitation, nervousness and all of that. There’s the happiness that is an “untainted happiness.” Sometimes people translate that as “uncontaminated,” which sounds absolutely awful. “Contaminated” happiness and “uncontaminated” happiness – it brings us back to Hiroshima. It’s “tainted” or “untainted.” It’s tainted with confusion or untainted with confusion, basically. When we’re actually free of confusion and grasping for impossible ways of existing, we experience an enormous relief. It’s like the happiness of taking off tight shoes, if we can use a somewhat simplistic example. So, there’s that type of happiness.

We could wish everybody to have all those types of happiness, but as I said, doing that seems to me to be treading over the boundaries of the other attitudes that we develop later on in the seven-part sequence and in the sequence of the four immeasurables as well.

So we have love. We direct that love toward all beings. Then, within that context of all beings, we focus on individual beings, starting with ourselves, then loved ones and so on, going step by step. In that way, we fill in the meditation. This, I think, is what His Holiness was indicating – that the meditation not be based on a strong attachment for the one that we love and that we would like to be happy. The foundation isn’t stable if it’s based on that. It’s biased.

Step Five: Compassion

Then we have compassion, which is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. The compassion here is great compassion, which means that it’s aimed equally at everyone. If we do this step as part of a sequence of development – so here, following the step of love – we can think that the suffering we want them to be free of is not just the suffering of suffering but the suffering of change as well, so the suffering of this unsatisfactory, worldly happiness, which never lasts and gives us no security.

There are many different kinds of compassion. Great compassion is aimed at all beings and then fill it in with specific ones. In his presentation, Chandrakirti, the Indian master, says that we can think about how the causes of their suffering are that they don’t understand cause and effect, which would be what brings them the suffering of suffering, and that they don’t understand voidness, which would be what brings them both the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change – the all-pervasive suffering could be included there as well.

Then there’s unaimed compassion. “Unaimed” means that it is not aimed at any specific being as having a solid, truly established existence. Unaimed compassion is like the sun. With it, we just radiate love and compassion. This is, in fact, how a Buddha operates. It’s the enlightening influence of a Buddha. The “enlightening influence” is the term “trinlay” (’phrin-las), which is translated as “Buddha-activity.” A Buddha doesn’t have to do anything. The enlightening influence just radiates from a Buddha, and anybody who comes into this sunshine is affected by it if they are receptive. Unaimed love and compassion are like that.

Another approach for developing compassion that is also in Chandrakirti’s presentation is to recognize that all beings are suffering because they don’t understand cause and effect, impermanence and these sorts of things. Actually, it’s not so much that they don’t understand it but that we, by thinking of impermanence and cause and effect, develop compassion for them. This would fit very well with your example of the cockroach. Understanding that it’s not permanently a cockroach, that the mental continuum is manifesting a cockroach rebirth as a result of certain negative karmic force helps us to develop compassion for the cockroach.

Similarly, understanding the voidness of the cockroach helps us to develop compassion for the cockroach. We see that it is not inherently, from its own side, a cockroach, that that is not its true identity. Instead, we see it has arisen dependently on many, many factors. Indeed, there is no life form that has an inherent identity. There is nothing inherent in a mental continuum that makes it always human, animal, male, female or anything else.

So there are many different aspects of and approaches to compassion that we can use. And certainly, compassion needs to be based on respect. We’re not talking about pitying others and looking down on them: “I’m so much better,” “Poor you,” etc. These types of attitudes are obviously not part of our development of compassion. And if we were to have any of that, we should have dealt with it already on the intermediate level of lam-rim practice where we worked to overcome disturbing emotions such as pride.

Another thing regarding the disturbing emotions that comes to mind is something that Shantideva addresses in Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, which is jealousy. We need to make sure that we don’t have jealousy when practicing compassion. This is an interesting one. It comes in, in his discussion of rejoicing. If we see that somebody else can take care of the person who is suffering, we need to rejoice in that and not feel jealous, thinking that I have to be the savior, or I have to be the teacher.

This is often the case with Dharma teachers. They get jealous and upset if their students go to another teacher. It could also be the case with parents: “I want to be the one who always takes care of the children.” They don’t like it if their marriage partner takes care of them. This type of disturbing emotion can be quite a hindrance to developing compassion. It’s not that I have to be the savior of the world. That is an interesting thing that we have to consider, particularly in terms of the next step, which is the exceptional resolve.

Step Six: Exceptional Resolve

The exceptional resolve is not just taking responsibility because that was part of love and compassion – having a certain courage, thinking that “I’m going to do something to help you to overcome gross suffering, and I’m going to do something to help you to overcome the suffering of change,” and this sort of thing. The exceptional resolve is that “I’m going to help you reach liberation and enlightenment.” So, it’s much more. This is what’s quite extraordinary here, quite exceptional. “Exceptional” is the first syllable of the Tibetan word lhag-bsam that’s used here. It’s that I’m going to take responsibility for bringing everyone all the way to liberation and enlightenment.

Now, it’s at this point that that danger can manifest – that “Me, I’m the savior of the world. I have to be the one who actually saves everybody.” Although Shantideva mentions in his chapter on joyous perseverance that one of the factors that needs to be there is the attitude that “I alone will do this. I don’t care if nobody else does it. Even if nobody else does it, I’m going to do it” – it can’t be an ego-trip. And if somebody else is also doing it – we rejoice.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 7: Perseverance]

Shantideva gives us tremendously helpful advice concerning so many different aspects of our Dharma practice. This is a text that we need to really, really familiarize ourselves with as part of daily meditation. What a lot of people do as their daily practice are these various Buddha-figure or deity practices, mantra and sadhanas recitations and all this sort of stuff. Sure, those can be helpful, but what I find to be very, very helpful, more helpful in many ways, is to read – to make reading part of our daily practice. I think that if we are sincere and honest with ourselves about what we really need, we will find that to be more beneficial. Tibetans would have these things memorized, of course, but we can read the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices or the Eight-Verse Lojong, or Attitude-Training, or the Seven-Point Attitude-Training or Bodhicharyavatara. We can read through either all or some of those things, take a few verses, think about them and make that part of our daily practice. This is excellent. This is very, very good. I personally find that far more helpful than just mumbling mantras.


Are you suggesting that that be done during a meditation session?

During a meditation session – absolutely, even if it’s just one verse. This is excellent. We can sandwich it between the seven-part prayer and the mandala offering at the beginning and the dedication at the end. That’s what I recommend to my students for their meditation when they’re setting up a daily practice.

A lot of people think of practice as meaning just tantra deity practice. I think it’s a mistake to limit practice to that. Deity practice doesn’t make any sense without this foundation. Without it, you might as well be visualizing yourself as Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse and leading everybody to Disneyland.

Is unaimed compassion the same as what is often translated as “objectless” compassion?

Yes, “objectless” compassion is the same as “unaimed” compassion. Those are two translations of the same term. The term literally means “without a focal object.” We could get into cognition theory and ask, “Can you have a cognition without a focal object?” We don’t want to get into the differences of opinion between Chittamatra and Madhyamaka, but it means a focal object having an impossible way of existing, so-called truly established existence.

This is why I like to throw “established” into the term. It’s very confusing to use the term “true existence” and then to have to clarify that true existence is actually false existence – that it doesn’t exist at all. But truly established existence, something that is truly established – there it is, this big thing.

[See: Objects of Cognition: Gelug Presentation]

With this exceptional resolve, aren’t we being a bit paternalistic or presumptuous? We’re saying, “I know what is good for you, I know what is best for you, and so I’m going to help you to accomplish that. That’s what I’m going to give you.”

She brings up a wonderful point – which leads very nicely to the next step in the meditation, actually. It is because of our limited understanding that we go from the exceptional resolve to bodhichitta. We realize that the only way that we can really know what is best for anyone is to become omniscient Buddhas. Otherwise, we’re pretty much only guessing. Why? Because we don’t know all the background, all the causes of the particular problems anyone has. We don’t see the present fully, so we don’t see the full scope of things that cause the difficulties to arise. We also don’t know what the effects of anything that we suggest that someone do are going to have on not only that person but everybody else that that person interacts with after that as well. That’s why we have to become omniscient Buddhas. However – now we have the “however” – that doesn’t mean that we have to wait until we become Buddhas to try to help anybody. We try our best – that’s all we can do – without pretending that we are omniscient.

Now, this becomes a really very difficult problem, I must say. We can look to the example of a medical doctor. If a medical doctor says to the patient, “Well, I don’t really know what’s wrong with you. I don’t really know whether this medicine is going to help or not, but why don’t you try it?” – that’s not helpful for a sick person. An important factor in the effectiveness of a doctor is his or her ability to instill confidence in to the patient. That’s how a placebo works: it’s based on confidence that something is going to be effective. So, the mind, the attitude is very much involved with the healing process.

The question is, when we are trying to help others – not as medical doctor, but just in general – what is the best approach to use? That’s a hard one, isn’t it? To say, “Well, I don’t really know, but why don’t you try this?” is probably not the most helpful thing to say. I think how we approach it depends on the person that we’re dealing with. A child or a young person needs some sort of confidence that the parent or teacher – whoever the older person is – knows what they’re talking about. With such a person, I don’t think that it’s helpful to express uncertainty. If the person is our peer or our elder, maybe the dynamic has to be a little different. Rather than saying, “I don’t know, but why don’t you try this,” we could say, “I suggest this. Maybe it will be helpful – no promises.” So, it depends. We wouldn’t say that to a child, but we would say that to an older person.

In the situation in which we really don’t know what is best, wouldn’t the proper motivation of wanting to be of benefit be a good guideline?

I’m reminded of the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I think that one has to watch out here for wrong view, distorted view. I’m sure that the motivations of the people who directed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and so on were to help the people there – that they were sincere in thinking that what they were doing was going to be of benefit. And missionaries and so on – the intervention they do is done with good motivation, with good intentions.

How do we know that acting from a Buddhist point of view and following the guidelines of the Buddha with the motivation to benefit others is going to enable us to really benefit others? How do we know that, though our motivation is good, the guidelines we’re following aren’t just part of some kind of Machiavellian scheme and that they aren’t actually going to help us benefit others? We really need to examine the Buddha’s teachings and try to have whatever advice we give be based on a great deal of experience and breadth of knowledge of the teachings. So, a good motivation is very important when it comes to deciding how best to advise others, but correct view and sufficient information are also very important.

Now we get into the whole issue of what we can do as Buddhas. Maybe we’ll leave that for this afternoon. But concerning that issue, I think it’s essential to realize that we’re not God. Being a Buddha is not like being an omnipotent God. Even a Buddha can’t just snap his or her fingers and make everything OK. That gets into the understanding of cause and effect and the voidness of cause and effect. In order to be able to help others in a clear-headed way, we have to understand the voidness of cause and effect. However, we’ll leave all of that to this afternoon when we speak about bodhichitta itself.

Let’s end with a dedication. “Whatever positive force and understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment” – that’s the significant thing: it’s for everybody to reach enlightenment, not just me – “for the benefit of all.”