7-Part Bodhichitta: Mother Awareness, Kindness & Gratitude


This morning, we discussed the ground floor level of, or basis for, the seven-part cause and effect meditation for generating a bodhichitta aim. We saw that this is equanimity, the type of equanimity with which we are free of attachment or attraction to some, aversion or repulsion toward others, and indifference to yet others. As it says here, in the four immeasurables, it is the equanimity that is free of “bias, attachment, and anger.” Actually, it’s a little bit more elaborate than that: it’s free of attachment, anger, and naivety – ignoring others.

We saw that a basis for that equanimity is renunciation of samsara ­– renunciation in the sense of giving up these disturbing emotions that we have toward various beings. We need to be willing to give those up – to at least seek liberation. Renunciation is the foundation upon which we develop bodhichitta. Here, in this verse of an inner mandala offering, it says exactly that:

The objects of attachment, aversion, and ignorance, friends, enemies, and strangers, my body, wealth and enjoyments, I offer these without any sense of loss.

That’s what we were talking about this morning – offering these without a sense of loss, without a sense of “oh, I don’t want to give up samsara. I don’t want to give up being really close to friends or avoiding people that I don’t like,” and so on.

Please accept them with pleasure,

How is that? Renouncing these things should bring a sense of joy, a sense of freedom.

And inspire me and others to be free from the three poisonous attitudes.

It’s not that we are giving all our friends to the Buddhas – they don’t need our friends as such. Nor are we giving them the people that annoy us, like our noisy neighbors or the difficult people at work. Rather, we’re offering them to liberation. We’re offering them to the Three Jewels of Refuge. That’s what we discussed yesterday – the true stopping of problems and the true minds, or pathway minds that lead to that stopping. We’re offering them to this safe direction. “May they be able to go in that direction.” So, we’re affirming not only our own renunciation and willingness to achieve these stoppings and true pathway minds ourselves; we’re affirming our wish to bring others to that state as well.

Just as an aside, I thought I’d mention something about the general mandala offering, since I don’t know how evident it is to you. It says:

This ground, anointed with perfume, flowers strewn, Mount Meru, four lands, sun and moon, imagined as a Buddha-land and offered to you, may all beings enjoy this pure land.

Do you know what that’s referring to? That’s referring to Sambhogakaya. Sambhogakaya teaches all arya bodhisattvas in a pure land, and it teaches them Mahayana till the end of samsara. So what are we offering to others? We are offering them this state of a pure land in which everything is conducive. In other words, we’re requesting: “Teach me” – after all, this is a mandala offering to receive teachings – “in a way that is going to be perfectly conducive, as in a pure land, for receiving teachings from Sambhogakaya.” We imagine our whole environment to be like that. So, now we’re in a perfect realm conducive for receiving teachings and thinking, “May everybody have that type of situation,” and “I offer this.” Then, with this second verse, we think, “I offer it to everybody, without excluding some people from this pure land and only including my friends.” So these mandala-offering verses are really very meaningful.

Equanimity Meditation

It might be helpful to do a little bit of meditation here, especially since I was asked to include a little bit of that. It’s very helpful to do that in any case. As I said, to do just a little bit of meditation on equanimity is fine, but it’s not something we can do just for five minutes and then go on to the next stages. It would be unbelievably remarkable if we actually could achieve real equanimity. In any case, let us try it. We don’t have so much time, so I don’t want to do it for too long. We can try it for five or ten minutes. We could go through all the stages that I explained, visualizing each of the three individual persons that we choose – the one that we really, really like, the one that we really can’t stand, and the one that we ignore and never really consider as a person.

How do we choose people? We could choose people from our lives. It’s very interesting to notice how, when we are in crowded places and looking at people – whether it’s the airport, the supermarket, or wherever – we like to look at people that we find pretty. When it comes to people that we find a little bit repulsive, we make sure not to look at them. Then others, we totally ignore. That’s indicative of how affected our minds are by these three poisonous attitudes, these three disturbing attitudes.

We can choose more dramatic examples from our lives, but we can also choose less dramatic examples – for example, choosing people that just catch our eye. Why do they catch our eye? “Well, it gives me a little bit of pleasure to see this pretty looking person.” There doesn’t necessarily have to be a sexual dimension to it. Some people like looking at little children. They find them so cute. Whatever it is that we like doesn’t really matter – same, same. Try to get to the point in the meditation that is the most challenging, which is, as I said, to consider all three persons simultaneously.

I would recommend that we try to do this meditation in light of the explanation I gave of mental continuums – that the basis for labeling a person, an individual is the whole thing, the whole mental continuum. It’s not based just on where they are now in their mental continuums or just on their good or bad qualities or on what we might see as a lack of qualities. That’s really what is happening when we are attracted to some, repulsed by others, and indifferent to others: we’re limiting the basis for labeling the person. See if having a little bit of understanding of the fact of the mental continuum being beginningless and endless – because it is a fact; at least it’s true according to the Buddhist assertions concerning mental continuums – helps to deal with this emotionally challenging meditation.


What is the state of mind that we are left with if we are successful with this practice? If we’re doing the equanimity meditation of equalizing our attitudes toward everybody, which is the Mahayana way of doing it, we are left with a willingness to help everybody equally – so, it’s not that we want to help this one first or that one first because we like them more than another. When we’re doing the equanimity meditation of getting rid of the disturbing emotions, which is the equanimity we’re practicing here, we’re left with something more fundamental than that. It’s not that we are left with just feeling nothing – that’s not the point, although one might imagine that that’s what we’re left with in the end. Rather, it’s that we are left with a state of peace. That’s what is usually associated with the so-called Hinayana path, which includes Theravada and many other forms of the eighteen Nikaya schools of early Buddhism (“nikaya” is the Pali term) – Theravada being one of them that the Mahayana calls Hinayana. We’re left with a state of peace – peace in a positive sense of being open to everybody; it’s not just being indifferent to everybody.

I think that one of the things we can look at to gauge the state of our minds is our energy. When we imagine the person that we like so much and want to be with, and the one that we really dislike and don’t want to spend any time with, and the one that we totally ignore because they mean nothing to us, we might not feel some gross type of energy – “I’m going to run over to this one,” or “I’m going to run away from that one.” Still, we might notice, if we are quiet enough, that there’s a tension there. There’s some sort of tension in our energy when we are looking at these three people. Our states of mind are not quite peaceful. That indicates that we have further work to do.

A state of peace – “nirvana is peace” – would result in being able to confront these people without any tension. We’d just be totally relaxed and open. There would be no tension, no conflict of feelings or emotions. That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s a tough thing to attain. In any case, we can gauge how successful we are with this practice by looking at our energy. I think that’s the useful gauge here: the tension.

Step One: Mother Awareness

Then we go on to the first step of the seven-part cause and effect meditation. This step is not an easy one. It’s extremely difficult to do if we aren’t thinking in terms of past lifetimes, beginningless lives, beginningless and endless mental continuums and so on. This step is usually translated as “recognizing everybody as having been our mother.” This is literally “mother-awareness.” This step involves distinguishing this aspect, this characteristic of having had this particular relationship with me, within everyone’s mental continuums.

It’s helpful to prove logically that everybody has been our mother at one time or another. We challenged a few people in my class in Berlin, and we came up with a logical proof for everybody having been our mother in some previous lifetime. We checked it with a distinguished geshe. The geshe said that this wasn’t something that they try to prove, but that, in fact, the proof was convincing. Before I give you the proof, I’d like to ask if any of you have any idea of how in the world we would prove that everybody has been our mother in some previous lifetime? It’s a bit nonsensical to try to see everybody as having been our mother if there’s no logical basis for it. How would you go about proving it?

Maybe it’s because everybody has had infinite lifetimes and there are infinite beings. If so, how can it not be the case that everyone has been our mother?

No, the parameters are wrong, the parameters of the system are wrong. One has to get the parameters right. The parameters are: infinite time, finite number of beings – there’s not an infinite number of beings; otherwise, one could never reach the limit of “everybody” – and everybody is equal. Given those three parameters of the system – one has to approach it mathematically – prove that everybody has been your mother.

What does “equal” mean in this sense?

That’s a good one. Everybody is equal in the sense that we have all been wandering in samsara and interacting with each other. It isn’t that some have been isolated over in a corner and have interacted with only each other. We could also give the scenario of “one person has been my mother almost every lifetime,” although we’d probably have to factor in a few mothers because we could die while that mother was still alive and be reborn to a different mother. We could, however, conceivably be reborn to the same mother if she were not too old. So, we’d have to posit at least more than one. But why is that not the case – that we’ve had only one or only a few mothers?

This is crazy, isn’t it – that everybody has been my mother? That’s pretty weird.

You’d have to think that we have a mother in each of these lifetimes.

Well, given infinite time, we could have been born from heat and moisture some of the times. We could have popped out of a lotus some of the times as well.

I think you also have to add that lifespan is indefinite, because if it’s not, then you have the problem of one mother possibly always having been your mother.

Lifespan is indefinite? That’s not necessarily the case. I think we’d have to say that it is impossible for the lifespan to be infinite. In the Northern Continent, for instance, it is definite that the lifespan will be a thousand years. So, a definite but a less than infinite lifespan is permitted.

It is possible that everyone has been your mother, but it’s not necessarily true.

Oh! It’s possible that everybody has been our mother, but it’s not necessarily true. Is that satisfactory for developing bodhichitta? That gives us a big “maybe.”

Could it be that it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen?

I think beginningless time takes care of that, so we wouldn’t need to postulate that. Time is beginningless – that’s a pretty long time. So, there’s been enough time for everybody to have been our mother.

Even if you were to go with the premise that everybody has only possibly – but not necessarily – been your mother, you still might be able to develop bodhichitta because you wouldn’t know who has and who hasn’t been your mother, and you wouldn’t want to take the chance of leaving someone out – someone who perhaps has been your mother.

That’s an interesting point. The point was that, even if we deal with just everybody only possibly having been our mother, we could still develop bodhichitta because we wouldn’t know who has or hasn’t been our mother – there wouldn’t be a little checkmark next to each one who has – and we wouldn’t want to take the chance of leaving anyone out.

Is this assuming that we’re going to base bodhichitta on everyone having been our mother?


Even if they haven’t been our mothers, they’ve still been all these other things, and they’ve still all been kind to us.

What she’s saying is that to develop bodhichitta, it isn’t necessary to have this recognition or awareness of everybody as having been our mother – “recognition” implies that we remember; so, it’s awareness – because we have other methods. In other methods for developing bodhichitta, we think of the kindness of others, even when they’ve not been our mothers.

Well, here is a meditation system – the seven-part cause and effect meditation – that is proclaimed as being a system that’s complete in itself and effective for developing bodhichitta. So, we assume that we don’t have to bring in any other methods for developing bodhichitta. We assume that this one will work.

As I pointed out yesterday, there are some dangers that we have to be careful of – namely, that we think in terms of “they’ve been kind to me,” which tends to reinforce the “me” a bit. Aside from that, though, we’re giving this method the benefit of the doubt and considering it to be an effective method, an effective sequence of development.

I’ve heard it translated as “kind like a mother.” So, it’s recognizing kindness as a characteristic of which the mother is a prototypical source.

I think that goes in the direction of Dharma-Lite. We could do that. As I’ve said, the real Dharma-Lite version, which I’ve taught as well, is to think, “Anybody could take us home and give us a meal and be nice to us.”

It is interesting, some of my students in Germany where I live are old enough to have parents who were Nazi SS officers and, as such, had been involved in horrible things. Yet, these students were fed and clothed and taken care of by this kind of father. So, OK, many of them have a lot of problems, but we’ll put that aside.

I think that recognizing everyone as having been our mother is to be taken quite literally. We tend to make exceptions to the recommended method when it comes to those who have been neglected or abused by their mothers or who have had particularly difficult relationships with them and who, because of that, have emotional blocks to this meditation. However, as I said before, this isn’t a meditation for beginners. Surely, by this point in the Dharma training, we have dealt with whatever issues we’ve had with our mothers. If we haven’t dealt with those issues by now… Hello! Aren’t we trying to practice Dharma? It is true, though, that often that can be one of the most challenging relationships – the one with our parents.

We can proceed with “everybody’s been my best friend,” or “everybody’s been my father,” or whomever it is that we want to deal with. That’s not so relevant. However, the mother is a particularly meaningful image because at minimum, “my mother didn’t abort me as a fetus.” That’s the minimal level. And that’s very kind. It of course makes one think about abortion and so on, but we won’t discuss that.

Isn’t this like a tool – that it doesn’t really matter whether we can prove it or not? If we believed that everyone we saw – every ant we saw, every being we saw – has been our mother, what would happen? How would it change us? It’s a tool.

This is a very good point. Wouldn’t it be sufficient to use this view just as a tool – to give it the benefit of the doubt and to see what would follow if we were to think that everybody had been our mother?

In the beginning, I certainly used this type of tool when dealing with the topic of rebirth. I didn’t know about rebirth. As I said, I think we have to understand the Buddhist teachings on the self that takes rebirth before we can really have confidence in the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. Nonetheless, we give it the benefit of the doubt and then see what follows from that. I certainly followed that policy. We do the same thing when it comes to thinking of everybody having been our mother. But then we face the criticism, from either­ others or ourselves, that we’re just brainwashing ourselves with propaganda. It might be beneficial propaganda, but then a lot of people think that their propaganda and what they are brainwashed with is beneficial, and it might not be. So, I think that having some logical proof would be helpful.

There are an awful lot of things I can’t pretend to have logical proofs for. There are all these enigmatic things in Buddhism, things that are really, really tough to swallow – for instance, lineage. Where do these Mahayana teachings come from? Nagarjuna went under the ocean and recovered the Prajnaparamita teachings from the nagas who had been keeping them beneath the ocean. Really? And Asanga went to Tushita heaven and got certain teachings from Maitreya in Tushita heaven. He memorized them and brought them down to earth. He had spent only one morning in Tushita heaven, but on earth, fifty years had passed – it sounds as though he had been traveling in a spaceship at the speed of light. How do we deal with things like that? How do we accept them and then be critical of people who say they got teachings from all sorts of unusual sources, people like Madame Blavatsky who claimed to have received teachings from the Mahatmas in the Himalayas who sent her letters? How do we deal with that? “These are legitimate teachings” – that’s not an easy one to accept, not at all.

At a nuns’ conference that I attended in Hamburg this summer, one of the Western scholars pointed out that people make such a big deal about lineage – that the lineage be proper and unbroken and so on. He said, “If you look at the number of names of people in the ordination lineage from the time of Buddha to the time when Buddhism was brought to Tibet, you see that each person would’ve had to have lived, on average, two hundred and twenty years in order for that lineage to be unbroken.” So then you say, “Huh? Wait a minute, but what’s lineage?”

So, there are a lot of things that, when we start to dig into them, make us wonder, “Am I really basing my whole spiritual practice on irrational beliefs? What am I doing?” So, it would be good to have some rational proof for at least some of the things that we’re doing – to know that we’re not crazy. Just to say, “Well, but it is effective, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fairytale or not,” I think is okay. However, I feel a little bit more comfortable when at least some of it is on so-called logically solid ground. In the beginning, though, we certainly proceed on the basis of giving things the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, let me give you the proof that we came up with: infinite time, finite number of beings, everybody is equal. “If one being has been my mother, then everybody has been my mother because they’re all equal. And if one being has not been my mother, then nobody’s ever been my mother because they’re all equal.” At least the Tibetan geshe, who was one of the teachers at the debate school in Dharamsala, felt that that was an OK proof. It was one of my brilliant students who came up with that.

It seems that the requirement to consider all beings as equal is a little sketchy.

Perhaps. I’m certainly not a mathematical person, so I don’t know. If we were to shake up a container of particles over an infinite amount of time, wouldn’t each one hit another one at some point over infinite time? I think this is what we mean by “equal” here.

There’s another way of saying that. I remember that there’s a finite number of oxygen molecules. So, the probability of you having just breathed the same oxygen molecule that Plato breathed is high.

OK. Why not? However, that gets into a very complicated discussion of time. I don’t want to get diverted into talking about that because it’s a complicated topic, but one of the things that Prasangika disproves is the existence of a common locus object that passes through the three times. “Common locus” means the same object, a common thing that was present in the past, continues to be present now, and will continue to be present in the future. What you’re saying is that there is an objectively existing oxygen molecule that, in a sense, is permanent and moves through time. Plato breathed it, and now I’m breathing the same one. This type of common locus object is asserted by one sub-branch of Vaibhashika. Prasangika refutes that. So, we have to be a little bit careful using that analogy because it would mean that the same substantially existing person who functioned as my mother in the past is now functioning as someone who’s not my mother. It doesn’t take the fact of impermanence into account – that things are continually changing.

OK, enough of our logical proof. But I, at least, feel a little bit more comfortable having some sort of a reasonable basis for viewing everybody as having been our mother and for developing the awareness of that.

Viewing others as having been our mother follows from viewing everybody as beginningless and endless mental continuums and seeing that where they are now represents only a tiny portion of those continuums. I was playing around with some images while we were doing this equanimity meditation, and the image that came to my mind was a sine curve, a little curve like a rollercoaster that goes up and down and up and down. We can picture the mental continuum in this graphic way as being an infinitely long line that is continually going up and down and up and down. Up, let’s say, is someone we like, down is someone we dislike, and the middle is someone we ignore. Each person, each mental continuum is a sine curve, and it just happens to be that what we see right now is either an upward portion of the curve or a downward portion of the curve of the sine function. That might be a helpful image, at least for those who are more image-oriented. Given that, then at some point on this infinitely long curve, they’ve all been our mothers.

I just said we shouldn’t bring in teachings from other methods, but one little thing that we can bring in that is relevant is that it’s just a question of time when somebody has been our mother – whether now or before. The teaching that’s associated with that point is: “If I haven’t seen my mother for ten years, is she still my mother? Yes, she’s still my mother. If I haven’t seen her for ten lifetimes, is she still my mother? Yes, she is still my mother.” It’s just a question of time. Just because we haven’t seen her for a while doesn’t mean she is less our mother. However, this doesn’t mean that this person has a solid, permanent identity as “our mother” – this person is not our mother now. Let’s not forget voidness teachings here. All we’re doing is looking at a particular characteristic.

This is, again, relevant for developing a certain way of looking at things that is helpful for developing bodhichitta. Remember our discussion yesterday about how bodhichitta is aimed at our own individual enlightenment, which has not happened yet but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature. So, we’re focusing on something very positive. Remember, also, that I mentioned that seeing the guru as a Buddha is very helpful for that because we’re focusing on the good qualities of the teacher – without, however, denying any shortcomings the person might have. But by focusing on the good qualities – which are true – and seeing the result on the basis of the cause, etc., we see the guru is a Buddha.

Also, the point you brought up is relevant here: Is this an unrealistic view that is nonetheless useful, or is it a reasonable one? There are different levels. The first is that the guru is like a Buddha. This is what’s called the Hinayana level – we recognize that the person has Buddha qualities. The second level is that the person is representative of a Buddha. This is the Mahayana level. Then the tantra level is that the guru is a Buddha.

Just to bring in an aside, the only satisfactory explanation that I’ve found – satisfactory to me at least – for seeing the guru is a Buddha comes from the Sakya teachings of inseparable samsara and nirvana. It’s like different quantum levels of something. According to quantum physics, particles are in several locations or states simultaneously. It’s only when they are observed that we can specify whether a particle is in this state or location or in that state and location.

So, we could say that in terms of the energy – the subtlest energy and the subtlest mind – that there are these two possibilities, inseparable (that’s the inseparability of samsara and nirvana; there’s a whole teaching on that) and that depending on what you’re perceiving, what you’re mental labeling and what you’re perceiving, then that’s what you get. So if we deal with and perceive a samsaric aspect of not only the teacher but of everything, then there we are, with ignorance and so on. If, with correct understanding, we perceive this nirvanic possibility or aspect – we can’t really speak in terms of “possibility”; then we get into the whole ontological discussion of how these two exist, but in any case – then we get the nirvanic one. So, from this point of view, the guru is a Buddha. And it’s not like labeling the dog as a table. That’s screwy.

[See: Seeing the Spiritual Teacher as a Buddha]

In any case, my point is that when we focus on bodhichitta, we’re focusing on good qualities, on Buddha-nature. That doesn’t mean that we’re denying that we also have anger, unawareness, and confusion. Those we’ve had since beginningless time just as we’ve had Buddha-nature since beginningless time. At least, most aspects of Buddha-nature we’ve had since beginningless time. Some aspects, like bodhichitta, we gain for the first time at some point. So, there’s a first time when somebody develops bodhichitta. Other things, though, such as the nature of the mind, are beginningless.

So, we don’t deny the beginningless negative things, but we focus on the positive things, on Buddha-nature. It’s on the basis of that – Budhha-nature – that we focus on our not-yet-happening enlightenment that we’re aiming to achieve. We want to think of everybody else in those same terms as well. Going through the steps of recognizing all beings as having been our mothers, thinking how kind they’ve been, feeling grateful to them, and wanting them to be happy and to be free of suffering gives us a mental framework with which to focus on others in a very positive way – without being rosy-minded and naive. That’s an important point.

As I was suggesting yesterday, we could also demonstrate that everybody has murdered us at one time. If everybody’s been my mother, everybody has also been my murderer at one time – given the same parameters of infinite time, finite number of beings, the equality of everybody’s equal, and given the fact that ignorance, anger and so on have been part of everybody’s mental continuums since beginningless time. However, the positive qualities have also been there since beginningless time. There is, for instance, the natural aspect of the mind, of mental activity to take care, to nurture, whether it’s to selfishly nurture ourselves, as with the self-preservation instinct, or whether it’s to take care of one’s young, as with the preservation-of-the-species instinct. That kind of thing is what we’re focusing on here. Having this very positive view of everybody – having that as our mental framework – is very helpful for being able to focus with bodhichitta.

So, everybody has been our mother. We could use our best friend or whomever, but the mother is the point because, as I said, we in fact owe our lives to our mother. She’s the one who could have aborted us. She is the one who actually gave birth to us – regardless of how she might have treated us afterwards. Or she is the one who laid the egg from which we were hatched. His Holiness’s favorite example is that of the sea turtle that lays the egg and then goes back into the ocean and never has anything to do with the child after that. But she at least laid the egg and made sure that the egg was in the sand and in a place where it could hatch. That was very kind. She didn’t just lay it in the ocean.

Do you want to try the meditation for a moment? I think what is very helpful with this type of meditation, as with all these meditations, is not just to do it using pictures of people or visualizing them but using people who are actually in the room. This is what I do with my sensitivity training. We can include animals as well. It’s always helpful to have some animals in the room. And bring in a couple of flies too. See if we can develop equanimity when actually confronting these different beings.

Often, I’ll have people sit around in a circle and look at each other – “each has been my mother.” This is something we can do when taking public transportation or waiting in the line at the supermarket or driving in traffic. Try to actively distinguish this aspect. This is the mental factor of “distinguishing,” what’s called “recognition.” We distinguish that characteristic feature of the person – that, at some point, this person has been our mother.


I’ve been troubled by this one sentence. You said that even if we haven’t seen our mother for many lifetimes, she’s still our mother. I think of the mind-stream as not carrying along the conventional mother as this person; it’s more that this person was our mother, but when they were our mother, it wasn’t the conventional person. For example somebody in a bus – if that person has been my mother, it’s not that that person has been my mother; it was their mind-stream in somebody else’s body, be it a turtle or whatever. So, the mind-stream doesn’t carry along the conventional side of it, right?

Your question underlines the importance of understanding the past and the future. Now we have to get into the voidness of the person. It’s neither the same person nor a totally different. It’s a continuum. The past, as it is understood from a Buddhist point of view, is the “no-longer-happening” of something. So there is a no-longer-happening of that person being my mother. So, now we can take it a different way, which is “the mother, which is no longer happening.” The mother, which is no longer happening, is an existent phenomenon. It’s not happening now, but that doesn’t mean that it is nonexistent and, therefore, that we can’t know it. An existent phenomenon is something that we can know. We can know it as happening now, not happening now or not happening yet. There is a very subtle distinction being made here, one that we miss if we don’t know the definitions. The definitions are very crucial for understanding the past and the future. It’s not that things in the past don’t exist at all; it’s just that they’re not happening now.

There is also the aftermath of what’s no longer happening. There’s the no-longer-happening of my childhood. Does my childhood exist? Can I know my childhood? Yes. Is it happening now? No. Is there some effect of my childhood on the way I am now? Well, yes. The way I am now – to use the technical jargon – is “indicative” of the way I was as a child. It’s like that. Even though that person is not our mother now, we can know the no-longer-happening of that person being our mother, and we can even know the mother, which is no longer happening. We would know it by inference, by using the logic that we just used.

And what would actually be appearing in the mind… now we have to get into cognition theory. What is actually going on in that cognition? What is going on in that cognition is the appearing object – in other words, what’s right in front of the mind – which is the category “mother.” The category “mother” doesn’t have a form or a shape. What then represents that appearance is – if you look at abhidharma and at the different types of forms – what’s called a “totally imaginary form.” So, there’s a totally imaginary form that represents the category “mother.”

A Buddha would know that totally imaginary form nonconceptually – so, not through the category of “mother” – and what he knows would be accurate. For us, it’s not accurate. For a bodhisattva on the first bhumi, it would be accurate up to having been your mother a hundred eons ago. For the next bhumi, it would be up to a thousand eons ago. For a Buddha, it would be beginningless.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here. Does a Buddha actually see the mother at that time, or is it a totally imaginary form that he is seeing? It’s a totally imaginary form. It’s not the actual, external form of the past or the future – because it’s not happening now. We have to bring in a lot of information in order to really make sense of what a Buddha knows when a Buddha know the past and the future. What does a Buddha actually see?

This all becomes very relevant in terms of bodhichitta meditation. What in the world do we focus on when we’re sitting there trying to meditate on bodhichitta? It’s not just compassion, which, for a lot of people, is what bodhichitta meditation devolves into. They meditate on compassion, and they call it bodhichitta. It’s not bodhichitta. We will get to that tomorrow. That’s where all this is leading – to the grand finale: How do we actually meditate on bodhichitta single-pointedly, single-mindedly? What are we focusing on when we’re focusing on our own, individual enlightenment, which is not-yet-happening? I’ll give the punch line. I’ll be Tibetan and give the punch line first: We’re focusing on a representation of it. It’s totally imaginary. We visualize a Buddha and generate refuge and bodhichitta. In front of us are the Buddha and the tree of assembled gurus. That visualization is what represents it. That’s what appears in our minds – although there are much more elaborate things that have to be added to that.

If we’re going to sit there and meditate on bodhichitta, it’s very important to know what in the world is supposed to be going on in our minds, especially if we’re supposed to be doing that single-mindedly. So, where this seven-part cause and effect meditation is leading is to the final step. We’ll get to that.

Anyway, here, we have mother-awareness. We’re focusing on the positive aspect of everyone having been our mother and distinguishing this aspect of everybody’s mental continuums from all the other aspects. We try to do that with whomever we see. This eventually needs to be “unlabored” – that’s the term. In other words, we don’t have to think about it; we don’t have to go through some sort of reasoning process in order to be able to do that. It comes automatically, so we don’t have to work on it. That’s what this term “unlabored” means.

Sometimes people translate “unlabored” as “uncontrived.” It’s not that when that awareness is labored, it is a contrivance. The point is that we don’t have to build it up anymore. We’re now so deeply convinced of the fact that all beings have been our mothers and so familiar with the process of developing that awareness. For instance, when I look at this being in front of me, I am aware that it is a woman, and when I look at that being, I’m aware that it is a man. I’m also aware that these two beings are human beings. I do not have to go through a line of reasoning: “Because this being has this shape of body” and so on, “I can tell that is a man or a woman” – although, obviously, in some cases, we can’t tell very clearly. This is what I mean by unlabored. We don’t have to think about it. It’s obvious.

Step Two: Kindness of Mother

The next point is the kindness of everybody. Here, too, we can think that everybody has equally been unkind to us. However, that’s not beneficial. Just as in the guru meditation, it’s not beneficial to focus on the shortcomings and to complain – which is what focusing on the shortcomings degenerates into: criticizing and complaining. That’s not going to get us anywhere on the spiritual path. It’s just going to bring us down.

So, without being in a state of denial, we focus on the good qualities. That’s what’s inspiring. We focus on the positive things, rather than on the fact that they have let us down, disappointed us, etc. Focusing on that – on the disappointments – is helpful for not becoming dependent on others and having the expectation that our friends are going to be our refuge and thinking that we can always count on them. People let us down. We are all in samsara, so people are going to let us down. That’s why we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – they’re not going to let us down.

In any case, everybody has been kind to us when they’ve been our mothers. So, we focus on that aspect. Sure, we can think about how they’ve been kind to us even when they’ve not been our mothers, but here, in this particular step, we think of when they’ve been kind to us as mothers.

There are all sorts of meditations that we can do here. One meditation, one process – it’s not really a meditation; it’s more of a thinking process – is to review our lives in five-year chunks. We look at all the various forms of kindness that our mothers showed us in the first years of our lives, such as helping to teach us how to walk, how to talk; feeding us, changing our diapers; also undergoing the birth of us – which is not a fun thing, but our mothers were totally willing to undergo that, to put up with all the discomfort of carrying us in the womb, etc. That’s incredible. Then, when we went to school, our mothers might have made meals for us. Even if our mothers were negligent, they might have done some things for us.

We can also do this type of meditation focusing on other people – fathers, relatives, or friends. It’s a very, very powerful meditation for overcoming “nobody loves me.” We really get caught in a downward spiral when we get into the frame of “nobody loves me. Poor me.” We’ve been shown an unbelievable amount of love and kindness in our lifetimes.

Here, though, we focus on the mother. So, as I say, one method is to go through our lives and to think about what our mothers have taught us, what they have done for us, how they’ve taken care of us – almost like servants – and how we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for what our mothers have done. So, that’s kindness of the mother.

Step Three: Gratitude and Appreciation

The next point is usually translated as “wanting to repay that kindness.” I’ve always been a little bit puzzled by that term. It sounds like a business deal. It’s as though I owe her something, and if I don’t pay her back, I’m guilty, I’m a rotten kid. So, I’m very suspicious of that translation because of the connotation that it has. I think this step is going more in the direction of gratitude and appreciation – that I’m really grateful for this kindness. “I really appreciate what she did. It’s incredible.” Nor is it just remembering what she did and being indifferent toward that; rather, it’s having a sincere, deep feeling of gratitude and appreciation. That, naturally, will lead to some sort of action, at least to a change of attitude. I think it also leads to having a little bit of respect for what this person has done. She might not have been the perfect mother, but who is?

So, we have this type of gratitude. That’s this third step. Whether or not it really is involved with wanting to pay the kindness back… as I said, we don’t really want this third step to degenerate into a business deal, which given our business mentality, could happen – thinking that “now I have to pay back the loan.” I don’t think that’s helpful, do you? I think it can really lead to guilt. We go through the checklist of everything that she’s done for us and then the checklist of everything we’ve done for her and see that they don’t quite match – that she’s done so much more. For us Westerners, the next step is guilt, isn’t it? So, let’s try not to go there in this meditation. We don’t want to help everybody because we feel guilty. Then we’re playing the role of the martyr. That’s what that leads to: “I’m the martyr. I will help everybody and ignore myself.” Then it’s the exchange of self with others on the basis of being a martyr. That’s very neurotic. That’s not really what we want here.

This gratitude is a very positive state of mind: “I really appreciate what she’s done. This is incredible what she’s done – and what everybody has done. I couldn’t be where I am now, doing this practice, if it weren’t for every mother that I’ve ever had. That’s so even just in terms of allowing the continuity of my mental continuum.” Even on this totally fundamental level, we can appreciate what our mothers have done. I think that’s why the mother is brought in here. It’s just totally basic.

Maybe that’s enough for presenting these steps. We have to save some for the next sessions. Here, we can do a meditation on these three steps: the awareness of the mother, the kindness of the mother, and the feeling of gratitude and appreciation for that kindness. All the steps that follow are based on having that very positive state of mind toward everybody. We’ll do that for five or ten minutes, and then we can have some questions.

Remember that when we do this, we start with equanimity. That’s the basis. When we are not regarding everybody with this tension that we talked about, then we are able to have this mother-awareness. If there’s still tension there, it’s very difficult to do this next step.


In doing these meditations, one question often comes up. So, let me ask it, first, before one of you asks it: “I don’t feel anything when I do this meditation. Isn’t it pretty artificial?” I think that that’s OK when we’re dealing with these types of practices, particularly ones that entail overcoming self-cherishing, selfishness, self-centeredness, and overcoming really heavy emotional baggage, if we can put it that way. Come on, unless we are arhats, we’re not going to be rid of the disturbing emotions, the self-cherishing, the selfishness and so on, so of course it’s going to be artificial, of course it’s going to be difficult, and of course we’re not going to really feel it. Actually, that becomes a difficult question: What does it mean to really feel it? How much does one have to feel in order to really feel it? Where is the border? Obviously, this is a very subjective point.

In any case, according to what I’ve experienced and what I’ve gathered from some of my teachers, we just do it. Here comes your point of giving it the benefit of the doubt: “This is going to be beneficial. Whether I feel like helping somebody or not, I’m going to do it because I believe that it is beneficial and I want to build up a beneficial habit” – which is what meditation is; it’s building up a beneficial habit. “So, when somebody is annoying me or there is a fly buzzing around my face, I’ll try to think in terms of the mother. I may not feel it, and it may seem silly, but I will try that.”

We can do this on all sorts of levels. What I used to do in India was to give names to the insects, generic names. It was Molly Mosquito, Freddy Fly, Larry the Lizard, Waldo the Wolf Spider, and these types of things. It made them almost into cartoon characters, which made it easier to deal with them. India, after all, is the land of insects. I always used to joke that the travel blurb for India is, “If you like insects, you’ll love India.” It gets a lot of business that way.

So, it is artificial. That’s okay. Eventually it will be sincere. When it is sincere, I don’t think that it is something that is necessarily so emotionally exciting. On the other hand, in the texts, there are descriptions of how one is so moved that the hairs on one’s body stand on end. So, I guess for some people, these meditations are emotionally quite intense. But I don’t think it has to be that way. There are some of us who feel… well, we don’t even know what that means yet – to feel emotions, to feel them strongly. That’s a very strange concept – to feel emotions. “I don’t feel my emotions. I have them, but I don’t feel them.” What in the world does that mean?

In any case, I think that we just do it. And we try to have this feeling of equanimity. As I said, it all comes down to having equanimity as the basis. Without that basis, it’s quite difficult.


I think you were trying to emphasize the basic point that the mother sustains us in the womb. Then you said, “She didn’t cease our continuum,” or something like that.

She didn’t abort us.

But continuums can’t be ceased.

No. She didn’t have an abortion. Obviously, if she’d had an abortion, we’d continue anyway.

In other words, she wasn’t our murderer.

She wasn’t our murderer.

A little related to the “I don’t feel anything” question would be the question about how this process works. Is it just the familiarity or the repetitiveness of seeing everybody as having been our mother that causes that recognition to somehow seep into the mind-stream, and that, then, you start remembering it in an unlabored way? Or is there something else going on with the meditation?

That’s a very interesting question. How does it work that we can have an unlabored awareness of everybody having been our mother? Is it just through repetition that it becomes just part of us, like brainwashing? Or is there something different from brainwashing going on here? Or is it like the conditioning of the rat in the maze?

I don’t know. I think it is conditioning: we are consciously building up a beneficial habit. But we could be brainwashed in a positive way or a negative way. I think “brainwashed” is a heavy term. Usually, it implies being forced to believe something that’s not true. That’s why, as I was saying before, it’s helpful to think of the logical basis for this – to know that it is logical that everybody has been our mother, that it is logical that, at that point in time, they’ve been kind to us and so on. Then it’s not that we’re being brainwashed with a belief system that is false and that is being forced on us for the purpose of manipulation. But as far as conditioning goes – it is conditioning. Is it autosuggestion?

But what is any self-discipline?

That’s true. It’s like brainwashing myself to drive on a certain side of the road and to stop when the light turns red – how Pavlovian can you get? The light turns red, and you stop. The light turns green, and you continue going after the cheese.

Isn’t it also true that we have to correctly remember the teachings that we’ve listened to because that can influence how well we do the meditation and how much feeling we experience?

The word “remember,” by the way, is the same word as “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the mental glue; it keeps a mental hold on the object that we are remembering. It’s not the process of bringing it up to consciousness. That’s what attention does. Mindfulness is the mental glue that holds onto what we are remembering and doesn’t let it go.

Do we need to be mindful of all the other teachings in order to feel something emotionally? That I don’t know. What comes to the top of my head in answering the question is: What moves you to feel something? If we were to use a search engine to search through the whole of the Buddhist teachings, what we’d find coming up as number one on the results page is the relation to the spiritual teacher. The spiritual teacher is the source of all what they call – this unfortunate translation of the term – “blessings.” What does it mean? It means – literally – “waves of brightening and uplifting.” So, I call it “inspiration.” It’s not blessings from on high, laying on of hands and that type of thing – although they do do hand blessings. It is inspiration. That moves us. Presumably, that is what is going to be the basis for actually feeling something in the meditation.

[See: "Blessings" or Inspiration?]

Therefore, we have the verses in the last part of the Lama Chopa, the Guru Puja: “Inspire me to change my attitude about self and others. Inspire me to recognize that all my mothers are suffering,” and so on. It’s “inspire me” to be able to do something. So, we can take that one step further or one step deeper: “Inspire me to feel something.” Thinking of the good qualities of the guru, appreciating their kindness, developing respect and all of that suggests that by thinking of the kindness of the mother, we also develop appreciation, respect and gratitude because it’s the same terms involved with the teacher.

[See: The Guru Puja]

One has a personal relationship with the teacher – although that can also become a problem. The root guru – “root,” referring to what we draw sustenance from – is the person we get the most inspiration from. It isn’t necessarily the one we receive the most teachings from or the one we spend the most time with. It’s certainly not the one we spend the most personal, individual time with. For most people, for example, the one who’s the most inspiring is His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In any case, the teacher has to be someone who really moves our hearts. That’s what gives us strength.

I think that once our hearts are moved in that way, we can then start to feel other things. So, the relation with the teacher really is the root of the path. The teacher provides the fuel that gets us to start feeling something. Anyway, that’s the first thing that came up on my internal search engine for “how in the world could you start to feel something if you’re the type of person that has sort of anaesthetized feelings.”

During this meditation, I find that by looking at and visualizing this other person as my mother, I am projecting my experience of being a mother – that visceral experience of overpowering, unconditional love for a being. What I do is to see myself as having been the other person’s mother. So, I reverse it. That way, I can bring up that feeling of equanimity. When I see people that I have a very difficult time with, I think, “OK, I’m their mother,” because it brings up that feeling that I have for my daughter (which, as a Dharma practitioner, I try to equalize). I don’t know whether I should be doing that, but I find that to be more helpful for creating equanimity than the other method.
Having being born in this life as a mother, I can see why, perhaps, the male teachers have used the mother as an example. It is amazing to think about the qualities of a mother. When you really look at the ultimate feeling a mother has, you see how beautiful it is. It’s a beautiful thing to use for gaining equanimity. To me, it’s about equanimity, about equalizing self and others. So, what works better for me is to do what I have just explained.

What comes to my mind in response to what you said is that you’re jumping ahead to a next step in which one develops heartwarming love – loving and cherishing others as one would one’s only child. So, that comes in, but it comes in at another step. The question, then, is one of sequence. It’s not pervasive that every mother loves her child. I’ve known mothers who wished they had aborted their child. They resent the child, resent the imposition, and they really abuse the child. So, it’s not totally pervasive that a mother will really love the child. But let’s say that most do in the way that you explain. Sure, there’s nothing negative about doing the meditation like that. It works. However, we need to have a method that includes everybody, not just those who have had the experience in this lifetime of being the mother of another being. There are many women who never have children. If we have had that experience, we can draw on that, but when giving a Buddhist method, we have to give one that can be used by everybody.

Yes, I understand that that’s a Buddhist method. But as an individual… I would think that the equanimity is the basis and that we’re trying to get the equanimity.

The equanimity is the ground level. That’s the basis.

I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about this, so I can only speak about what comes to the top of my head. Look at the sequence of lam-rim: We started with the initial scope and then went on to the intermediate scope. In this intermediate scope, we focused on our suffering, our disgust with our suffering, with all the problems that we’ve had. So we looked at a pretty negative side of life, a very unsatisfactory side of life. How would we make the transition to looking at a positive side of life?

To do that, I think it would be helpful, just in terms of psychological and emotional development, to think first about what we’ve received, rather than what we’ve given. “Life has been such a drag, and I want to get out of it.” That could lead to a “poor me” mentality. So, before we get to the step of developing the caring love that’s like the love a mother has for her only child, it might be more beneficial emotionally to think about what we’ve received. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind.

That’s helpful. Thanks.

Being a mother is certainly a positive thing and something that can be used, but we also have to think about the sequence of the development.

There are people we have aversion to, people we are just bound to in this lifetime. We can’t get rid of them; we’re just inextricably involved with them. I wonder if it’s helpful to consider our karmic connections with them. It’s not that we can know what those connections are, but if we were just to contemplate the fact that we may have strong karmic connections that are playing out in this lifetime, we could generate kindness or develop a positive regard toward them.

Of course there are karmic reasons for that. And can we use lojong methods, attitude-training methods, to train ourselves to look at this in a different way? Well, there are plenty of methods that we can use: “This is the wheel of sharp weapons coming back,” and “This is the ripening of karma,” and “This person is also under the influence of so many other causes and conditions that it’s causing this person to act in that way and causing me to respond in a certain way. My relationship is not the only causal factor involved here.”

[See: Wheel of Sharp Weapons – Literal Translation]

We can use other transformation methods: “This is my teacher,” “This is like finding a precious gem for practicing patience.” There are all these methods. Sure, we can draw on them here.

[See: Eight Verses of Mind Training]

But these are methods that deal with the conventional truth of these things. The methods that I was suggesting earlier – namely, thinking in terms of mental labeling and basis for labeling – are ones that deal with the deepest truth aspect. So, sure, we first use conventional truth methods. Then, when we have a little bit of control over the situation – and I don’t mean this in the sense of there being a separate “me” that controls everything – when the situation is a little less dramatic, then we go to the deepest level methods.

Bodhichitta also has a conventional level and a deepest level. If we’re focusing on our not-yet-happening enlightenment that we want to achieve – referring to the third and fourth noble truths: the true stoppings and the true pathway minds that leads to those stoppings – and we’re doing that by focusing on the true pathway minds that leads to that enlightenment, then we’re dealing with the method side, which is love and compassion. If we’re focusing on the true stoppings, we’re dealing with the voidness side. So, we have conventional bodhichitta and deepest bodhichitta. So, we can sort of bring it in in this way.

We need to deal with both levels – conventional truth and deepest truth – and to apply methods that deal with the conventional truth of things and those that deal with the deepest truth of things. Conventional bodhichitta alone is not sufficient for achieving enlightenment. Nor is deepest bodhichitta alone sufficient for reaching enlightenment. We need both – because it’s the third and fourth noble truths: true stoppings and true pathway minds.

I must admit, I sort of test the validity of teachings by the warmth I find there. That’s what I’m looking for in the equanimity meditation. For example, when we’re focusing on the person we’re attracted to, we feel warmth. So, I try to open up that warmth to others as well. Can I equalize in that way?

Remember, there are two forms of equanimity. There is the equanimity that’s developed in common with Hinayana and the equanimity that’s developed exclusively in the context of Mahayana – so-called exclusive; I wouldn’t guarantee that there has been no Hinayanist who has developed it. The first one, which is the one we are working with in this particular meditation sequence, is the one that is simply free of attachment, repulsion, and indifference. The Mahayana one is the one of having an equal attitude toward everybody: “Everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy. Everybody is equal in that.” So, there’s equal concern and warmth toward everybody. That’s the one where we extend warmth to everybody equally. But this equanimity is not that.

The point of this equanimity, as I said, is to be free of the tension of being drawn in one direction or another. We want to be completely relaxed and open to everybody. We can then build on that as the foundation. That is the most basic foundation. So, first, we want to clear out the garbage, to “smooth the road,” as they say, to smooth the path. Starting with developing warmth toward everybody is like putting a coating of sugar on a rocky surface. If we haven’t leveled out that rocky surface, the sugar on top could wear off.

When doing the meditation, I think I end up with indifference. People use the word “detachment,” and I know that that’s not equanimity. But I get to a point of not feeling anything and equating that with equanimity. I know it’s not, but I don’t think I have a feeling for what is meant by it.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that. There are a lot of practices in Buddhism that, as I was saying, help us to build up a way of thinking that leads us in the direction of bodhichitta – in terms of focusing on positive qualities. That’s associated with the fourth noble truth, the true pathway mind. But there are also a lot of practices associated with the third noble truth, which has to do with an absence of something, a stopping of something. A lot of the meditations build up to that – for instance, the precious human rebirth: “Wow, there’s an absence of being born in one of the hells. There’s an absence of starving to death or being tortured. There’s an absence of being born without certain limbs or senses,” and so on. So, we focus on this absence. That helps us to get into a way of looking at things that, eventually, can lead us to realize the absence of impossible ways of existing and, eventually, to a true stopping – so, the third noble truth, which is part of our Dharma refuge and part of that future enlightenment that we’re aiming to achieve with bodhichitta.

Similarly, with this equanimity, there is an absence – an absence of attachment, aversion and indifference. So what are we left with? Remember our discussion about how we focus on voidness. We used the example of trying to find our keys: “There are no keys. The keys aren’t here.” There’s an absence of the keys. Or we’re looking for chocolate in the house: “There is no chocolate.” And it finally sinks in that “there is no chocolate.” What appears is nothing – that there is none. But the understanding is that there’s no chocolate.

Likewise – I’m just speaking off the top of my head; I haven’t really thought about this before – when we have this state of no attachment, no aversion, and no indifference, what are we left with? Are we left feeling nothing? I don’t think that we’re left with an emotional nihilism. There is an absence of these things, but there is an emotional understanding there, which is basically – here, we have to bring in Nyingma dzogchen terminology – an “openness.” Is the experience of openness an emotionally moving experience? Well, maybe for some people it is. For some people, it isn’t. I don’t think that that is a necessary component. It’s just that there isn’t this tension of feeling drawn to some, repulsed by others, and indifferent to others.

And this thing about warmth – are warmth and desire the same? I think that if we investigate our desire for someone, what we find is a lot of clinging and attachment. Is it really warmth that we’re feeling going out? Or is that we’re sort of pushing ourselves onto somebody primarily because it makes us feel so good to be with the other person? “It makes me feel so good to do things for you and to try to make you happy. I like doing that,” and “It doesn’t matter whether you want my help or not or whether you want my company or not. I don’t care.” Doesn’t that have more to do with ego than it does with feelings of warmth? I think that attachment and desire – being greedy for more and more of the other person’s time and attention – go over into clinging. And just as I feel uncomfortable when somebody clings to me and makes all sorts of demands on me, others feel uncomfortable when I cling to them.

We also look at the other side, which is when somebody is really off-putting – for example, somebody who’s always nagging. In the sensitivity training, I use the example of the mother or the father who keeps hounding us: “Do this,” “Why don’t you get a job?” “Why don’t you get married?” “Why don’t you….” That can cause a lot of people to have great aversion and hostility toward the person who’s doing the nagging. Why is that person doing that? When we analyze, we see that it’s because they care about us. Their idea of what would make us happy might be faulty, but they’re nagging us because they want us to be happy. It is a sign of love. Looking at it like that changes our outlook a little bit. “Perhaps they’re a little bit confused about what the best ways to help me are, but their intentions are good.” Whether it’s the nagging mother, whether it is the demanding father, whether it is the proselytizing missionary, the point is that, from their point of view, they are doing something that they think is beneficial for the other person. To gain tolerance – patience, also – we look at another aspect. That’s lojong, the attitude-training. We change our attitudes. We change something negative into something positive.

Anyway, these are just thoughts. Anyone else?

Let’s end here with our dedication. We think, “Whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.”