Bodhichitta and Bodhisattva Behavior

Verses 10 through 17

Brief Review

After beginning with the homage and the promise to compose, Togme Zangpo goes through the graded stages of motivation, the lam-rim, starting with the precious human life and the circumstances that are most conducive to taking advantage of it. We learn that it’s good to leave our homelands and stay in seclusion.

We then remember death and impermanence, and how this precious human life is not going to last forever, meaning that we have no time to lose in terms of taking advantage of it. This doesn’t mean that we become fanatics, with one of my favorite Zen koans making a lot of sense, “Death can come at any time. Relax.” In order to take full advantage of this life, we need some distance from misleading friends, and we should rely on spiritual friends and fully qualified spiritual masters.

We see that safe direction or refuge is the basis for the entire Buddhist path. We put a direction that is indicated by the Dharma into our lives, which takes us toward the true stoppings and the true pathway minds that the Arya Sangha have in part, and the Buddhas have achieved in full. This is the direction we want to go.

In terms of the initial level of motivation, we aim to have a rebirth in one of the better states, but in particular a precious human rebirth. This is the stepping-stone indicated by the Three Jewels, which helps us to further aim for liberation and enlightenment. In order to ensure that we don’t have a worse rebirth in our future lives, we need to refrain from destructive behavior.

With the intermediate scope of motivation, we work for liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. No matter what type of rebirth we have, if it’s under the control of karma and disturbing emotions, and if every moment of it is filled with unawareness and compulsive karmic actions, then it’ll only produce further forms of suffering. This is what we’ve covered so far.

Developing a Bodhichitta Aim

Now we continue on with the advanced level of motivation, which is to aim with bodhichitta for full enlightenment.

(10) A bodhisattva’s practice is to develop a bodhichitta aim to liberate limitless beings, because, if our mothers, who have been kind to us from beginningless time, are suffering, what can we do with (just) our own happiness?

What exactly is bodhichitta? Bodhichitta is a state of mind that is brought on by love, compassion, and an exceptional resolve. Love is the wish for everybody – and this means absolutely everybody, not just those we like or are close to – to be happy and have the causes for happiness. Compassion is the wish for everybody to be free from suffering and not just ordinary suffering, but the all-pervasive suffering of samsara and its causes. This also includes taking some responsibility to actually help others overcome their suffering, but for this we need the next step, the exceptional resolve. Exceptional resolve means that we make the firm decision to actually take full responsibility to help them not just on some temporary basis, but all the way to enlightenment. We have bodhichitta based on all of this.

In the first phase of bodhichitta, we focus on all beings with the intention to reach enlightenment so as to help them, in turn, reach enlightenment as well. Subsequently, the main phase of bodhichitta is focused on our own individual enlightenments that have not yet happened. We can impute or infer our not-yet-happening individual enlightenments on the basis of their presently-happening causes, like we can impute the not-yet-happening flower on the basis of the presently-happening seed. If all the causes and conditions to develop it were there, the flower will be presently happening. We would have a presently-happening flower, and no longer have a not-yet-happening flower. Similarly, if we put in an unbelievable amount of work and effort, and, in addition, conditions are there for reaching enlightenment, our not-yet-happening enlightenment will no longer be imputable on our mental continuums. We would have there instead our presently-happening enlightenment.

Of course what I just explained is rather complicated and subtle, so we have to be 100% precise with the terminology. Otherwise, it’s very difficult to actually know what in the world we are supposed to be doing when we’re focusing on bodhichitta. What are we focusing on? What appears in our mind? It’s our own, individual future enlightenment. But that’s not yet happening, so does that mean it’s nonexistent and so we’re focusing on something that doesn’t exist? This becomes a very tricky question and unless we know what to focus on, then it’s very difficult to actually generate bodhichitta. Like tomorrow, our not-yet-happening enlightenment hasn’t happened yet, but it can happen and we can focus our attention on it and make plans. Why can it happen? It can happen because we have Buddha-nature factors.

A key point here is that we’re not aiming for the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, because that was his enlightenment. We’re not aiming for enlightenment in general as though it’s some big balloon up in the sky and we’re all aiming for the same thing out there. It’s not like that. It’s our own individual enlightenment. We focus on our Buddha-nature factors, and on that basis, we can impute that not-yet-happening of our own individual enlightenment.

We can represent this with an image of a Buddha, but we have to know what that image actually represents. Our focus on our own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment is accompanied by two intentions. These are the intention to achieve it and the intention to help everybody else achieve it by means of achieving it ourselves. I translate it these days as a “bodhichitta aim,” because it’s what we’re always aiming for. That is our aim in life, to reach enlightenment to be able to benefit everybody in the most meaningful way, by helping them to also reach enlightenment.

When we have bodhichitta in its fullest sense, it becomes what’s called “unlabored,” which means we don’t have to work through all the steps to build it up or generate it. In other words, just in a snap of the fingers, we have full, definitional bodhichitta and we have it day and night. It doesn’t matter whether we’re conscious of that aim or not. Everything in our life, everything that we’re doing, even when we are sleeping, is aimed at achieving that enlightenment.

Our intention is to work for the sake of everybody, every single limited being, and it’s aiming to bring them to the highest, most fully developed, omniscient state possible. This is an enormous, and incredibly extensive, unbelievable state of mind. That’s what we mean by Mahayana, a great vehicle of mind. It’s the mind that will act as a vehicle to bring us to the greatest goal. What we’re aiming for is to have this ideal so central in our lives, in our mental continuums, that whether we’re conscious of it or not, that is our aim in life.

Togme Zangpo gives some indication in this verse of the way to build up that bodhichitta aim. He refers to liberating limitless beings, who are our mothers. He says: because, if our mothers, who have been kind to us from beginningless time, are suffering, what can we do with (just) our own happiness? This is indicating the seven-part cause and effect method for generating bodhichitta.

First we need to develop equanimity so that we don’t have attraction to some people, repulsion from others, and indifference toward everyone else. We’re open to everybody, and that’s very important when we think in terms of love and compassion in the Mahayana sense. Remember that we’re not talking about love and compassion for just people that we like, because that’s not Mahayana love and compassion. We need to have “great love” and “great compassion.” In the Mahayana sense, when we speak about great love and great compassion, it’s equal for everybody. Obviously it’s quite difficult to have this, especially since some limited beings are presently in a rebirth as mosquitoes. That requires us understanding rebirth. Nobody exists as just truly in the life form that they are currently manifesting. Everybody is an individual mental continuum that is going through countless rebirths on the basis of the karma it builds up.

Each of these mental continuums, or rather each of these beings, have in some lifetime or another been our mother, which is why Togme Zangpo calls them “our mothers.” This is because there’s infinite time and there is a finite number of beings. If one thinks about that mathematically, one can demonstrate that this is so.

My students in Germany came up with a wonderful Prasangika proof of this. Prasangika argues by absurd conclusions. Everybody has been my mother, not only because of beginningless time and a finite number of beings, but the main reason is because everybody is equal. If one being has been my mother, namely in this lifetime, then it follows that everybody has been my mother in some specific lifetime, because everybody is equal. If that were not the case, then if one person has never been my mother, then nobody has ever been my mother, because everybody is equal, including my mother of this lifetime. That’s a perfect Prasangika proof, even if Tibetans don’t actually go through such a proof. But they easily accept it. I gave this proof to the teacher of the debate school in Dharamsala and he agreed that it was a valid proof.

This is actually very important as the first step in the seven-part cause and effect training to develop bodhichitta:

(1) Recognizing everyone as having actually been our mother – we need to become convinced of that. Otherwise, we’re just accepting it without really understanding it, which isn’t stable. If one being has not been my mother, then nobody has ever been my mother, because they’re all equal. So if one person has been my mother, then everybody has been my mother, because they’re all equal. It’s interesting, isn’t it?

Then the next points are:

(2) Remembering the kindness of motherly love – the utter minimum level of kindness is that our mother did not abort us when she was pregnant. Therefore, no matter how difficult our relation with our mother might be, at least there is that kindness. For most of us, as newborns, we wouldn’t have been able to survive without our mother’s help.

(3) Appreciating that kindness – usually that’s phrased “repay that kindness,” but I think that’s a bit heavy in terms of feelings of guilt that many Westerners carry. The term actually means “to appreciate that kindness,” or “to be grateful.” When we really appreciate the kindness that we’ve been shown by everybody, and really feel grateful for that, then naturally we’ll have what’s called “heart-warming love.” Whenever we meet any being, it makes our hearts fill with joy and happiness, just like meeting our only child, and we would feel terrible if anything bad happened to them.

(4) Developing love – based on heart-warming love for everyone, the wish for all of them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness.

(5) Developing compassion – also based on heart-warming love for everyone, wishing for them all to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, and being willing to do something to bring that about.

(6) Developing the exceptional resolve – making the definite decision to take responsibility to bring them all the way to enlightenment.

Based on these six causes, then the seventh step, the result:

(7) Developing bodhichitta.

As Togme Zangpo says, if our mothers are suffering, then since we’re interconnected and related to absolutely everybody, what can we do with just our own happiness? We need to use the everlasting happiness of liberation and enlightenment that we achieve by becoming a Buddha to benefit others, not just to relax by the side of a swimming pool and have a nice cool drink.

Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others

In the next verse Togme Zangpo indicates the other major method for developing bodhichitta, which is to equalize and then exchange our attitudes about self and others.

(11) A bodhisattva’s practice is to purely exchange our personal happiness for the suffering of others, because (all) our sufferings, without an exception, come from desiring our personal happiness, while a fully enlightened Buddha is born from the attitude of wishing others well.

Again, firstly we need to equalize our attitude toward everyone. This is based on the same type of equanimity we had in the first method for developing bodhichitta, where we don’t have attraction to some, and repulsion or indifference to others. However here, on the basis of this, we go a step further, which is to equalize self and others. This means that we and everybody else are equal in wanting to be happy and not wanting to be unhappy. Furthermore, we all have the right to have that happiness and not to be unhappy, regardless of what we do. So why do we look after only our own happiness? In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva makes this point like this:

(VIII.95) When happiness is something equally liked, both by myself and others, what’s so special about me that I strive after happiness for myself alone?

(VIII.96) And when suffering is something equally disliked, both by myself and others, what’s so special about me that I take care of myself and not others?

When we equalize everybody like that, as Shantideva explains very nicely, in a sense we all come to form a body of life, like all the parts of our own physical body form a whole body. He wrote:

(VIII.91) Just as, despite its many parts, with divisions into hands and so on, the body’s to be cared for as a whole; similarly, despite the differences among wandering beings, yet in regard to happiness and pain, they’re all equal to myself in wishing to be happy, and (thus form) a whole.

We can’t say that one part of that body is in more need of care than another, or that it’s more important that one part of our body doesn’t have pain rather than another. They’re all equal. Therefore we can’t say that one part of the body, like a hand, would only take care of a hand. If the foot were in pain from a thorn, the hand would, immediately and without thinking, help it by taking the thorn out. The same logic applies to why we would take care of others. Shantideva framed it this way:

(VIII.99) If whatever suffering anyone has must be taken care of by that one himself, then since the foot’s suffering is not the hand’s, why is that to be taken care of by it?

(VIII.100) If it’s the case that (ignoring) it would be illogical and so here it’s undertaken from a sense of a (whole) self; well then, surely what’s illogical regarding (the whole formed by) myself and others is something to be dismissed, as much as I can.

The whole issue here is actually about the basis for labeling “me.” Do we label “me” just on the basis of our hand, or on the basis of our whole body? Are we labeling “me” just on the basis of our person, or can we label it on the basis of anybody and everybody? As Shantideva said:

(VIII.92) Although my own pain doesn’t hurt the bodies of others, yet being, like that, the pain of a “me,” it’s unbearable, because of clinging to a “me.”

(VIII.93) Likewise, though the pain of others doesn’t befall me, yet being, like that, the pain of a “me,” it’s (also) difficult to bear, because of clinging to a “me.”

As Shantideva explains, at the moment we’re basing our concept of “me” on the basis of pieces from other bodies, something that has grown from the sperm and the egg of two other people. It’s not from our own sperm or egg, is it?! Basically, we’re taking care of something that came from other people’s bodies, so what’s the difference between that and taking care of anybody’s body that has come from other people’s bodies? What is the difference between wiping our own running nose with our finger and wiping the running nose of our baby with our finger? We’re willing to do both if necessary. How is that different from wiping the nose of the drunk lying on the street? Shantideva put it this way:

(VIII.111) Just as, out of familiarity, there’s an understanding of a “me” regarding drops of semen and blood belonging to others, despite it’s not existing as some “thing,”

(VIII.112) Why couldn’t I likewise take as “me” a body that belongs to someone else? (After all,) it’s not difficult to set it, in the same way, as something other than a body that’s “mine.”

As Shantideva says, suffering is to be removed, not because it’s my suffering, or your suffering. Suffering is to be removed simply because it’s suffering and it hurts. Shantideva says suffering has no owner. Just as we can take care of “me” on the basis of this singular body, we can also similarly take care of “me” on the basis of everybody’s bodies.

(VIII.102) In their being without an owner, all sufferings lack a distinction: so it’s (simply) because they’re suffering that they’re to be averted. Why are there fixed (limitations) made here?

(VIII.94) Thus, the pain of others is something to be eliminated by me, because of its (nature as) pain, like the pain of a “me”; and others are beings to be helped by me, because of their (natures as) limited beings, like the body of a “me.”

When we do the practice of tonglen, giving and taking, indicated in the text in the phrase exchanging our personal happiness for the suffering of others, this means we take on their sufferings as if they were ours, and give our happiness as if we were giving ourselves happiness. If we don’t understand voidness (emptiness) and the mental labeling of a conventional “me” in the context of this practice, then we get into big trouble. What is the trouble that we get into? It is the trouble of basing this whole practice on a misconception that we are a solid, independent, truly established “me.” If we do that, then we get this whole martyr complex of having to be the one to take on the suffering of the whole universe, as in, “I’m going to save everybody,” and this can create tremendous fear, because we also think, “I certainly don’t want to feel the pain that you feel as you’re dying from cancer.” In this case, we’re thinking of a very solid “me” separate from everybody else, and we certainly don’t want the suffering of someone dying. But, if we were to understand the voidness of the “me,” and think in terms of the expanded conventional “me” on the basis of everyone, then this whole exchange of self for others becomes fairly straightforward and very reasonable. It’s only frightening when we think of a solid “me.” This is a very important point about this practice of equalizing and exchanging self with others.

Why do we want to think in terms of everybody else and their happiness, and not just ourselves and our own happiness? Togme Zangpo states that it is because (all) our sufferings, without an exception, come from desiring our personal happiness. When we act destructively, we’re actually doing that because we just want our own personal happiness. For example: “I don’t like this beetle flying around me. I’m afraid of it and I want to be happy without it being here. It is an unacceptable life form.” Therefore we decide to kill it, based on thinking selfishly about our own benefit. Another example of thinking only of our own personal happiness: “I want to have what somebody else has,” and therefore, we steal it. We want our own personal happiness, so we would have a sexual affair with somebody else’s partner. We want to get our own way and so we lie. Like this, we can go through each of the ten destructive actions. It’s not so difficult to identify how they arise based on wishing for just our own personal happiness and not caring at all about anybody else’s.

Even when we act constructively, if we’re doing it based on thinking of our own personal happiness, it also just perpetuates our samsara. “I’m kind to you,” for instance, “because I want you to like me,” “I want to feel necessary, useful,” and so on. That’s also simply thinking of our own personal happiness. In Buddhist terminology, we call this the “self-cherishing attitude.”

The line explains that a fully enlightened Buddha is born from the attitude of wishing others well. If we were to refrain from acting destructively, like killing that beetle, it’s because we’re thinking of the happiness of the beetle. If we were to refrain from stealing something from someone else, again it’s because we’re thinking of their happiness, not our own. Likewise we can go through the ten constructive actions. They’re all based on thinking of the happiness of others, not our own, and from that, we progress all the way up to bodhichitta. How does somebody become a Buddha? It’s because of bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is based on thinking of others.

To review briefly the two methods for generating bodhichitta, the seven-part cause and effect system works in terms of seeing everybody as our mother, and then we have the practice of equalizing and exchanging self with others. Once we have developed bodhichitta on the basis of these two methods for generating it, then that is the attainment of the aspiring state of bodhichitta. We aspire to reach enlightenment to benefit everybody. In addition, we go on to the engaged state of bodhichitta, with which we take the bodhisattva vows and actually engage in the behavior that will bring us to enlightenment.

Bodhisattva Behavior: Dealing with Harms

Bodhisattva behavior encompasses many different aspects, but one of the most important is how we deal with harm done to us. The basic way described by Togme Zangpo for dealing with harms and difficulties is tonglen, giving and taking. This is one of the most basic ways of transforming negative circumstances into positive ones and is a topic discussed widely in the various mind training texts (lojong). Remember, Togme Zangpo wrote a commentary on Geshe Chekawa’s Seven Point Mind Training and consequently, we find many points here that are similar not only to that text, but also to the Eight Verses of Mind Training text by Langri Tangpa, on which those seven points are based.

(12) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if someone under the power of great desire steals or causes others to steal all our wealth, to dedicate to him our bodies, resources, and constructive actions of the three times.

If we’re really aiming with bodhichitta to bring everybody to enlightenment, the highest state possible, and we have a total willingness to give them all that happiness, then in a sense, we’ve given it to them. We might not have actually, physically, given it to them now, but in our minds we’ve given them everything that could possibly be given. Therefore, if they were to steal something from us, take something from us, or cause somebody else to steal, as Togme Zangpo states, while under the power of great desire, then they’ve just taken what belongs to them already.

Shantideva says something quite similar when he says:

(III.12ab) Having given this body to all those with limited bodies to do with as they like,

(III.14ab) Let them do whatever to (my) body, so long as it doesn’t cause them harm;

So, if they were to take something of ours, it’s fine as mentally we’ve already offered it to them. We dedicate everything else to them as well. Of course, we dedicate to him, as Togme Zangpo says, our bodies, resources and constructive actions of the three times. Here, “dedicate” means, for example, that we think, “You’ve stolen my money or you’ve stolen my computer,” whatever, “I hope you enjoy it. I want you to have happiness, and so I hope you gain happiness from this.” We take on from you whatever suffering consequences might come from the action and give only happiness in return.

Again we’re reminded of what Togme Zangpo said previously, that all unhappiness and suffering comes from thinking just of oneself, and that all happiness comes from thinking of the happiness of others. When I was living in Dharamsala, India, I had a flower garden and one day the local children came and picked all the flowers. Being a samsaric being, I got a bit angry and wanted to go out and yell at them to chase them away. But then I tried to remember this type of advice, that if I’m doing all my meditations and practices, “May everybody be happy, may everybody gain enlightenment,” and at the same time begrudge them taking just some flowers, that it was absolutely absurd. Being upset and unhappy about them picking the flowers was based totally on thinking just of me. They were my flowers and I wanted to enjoy seeing them myself. But when I thought in terms of “may you enjoy these flowers,” then that was thinking of the happiness of others and actually brought peace of mind.

Remember the point of equalizing and exchanging self with others: what’s the difference between me enjoying them and them enjoying them? So we dedicate to them even more happiness from our bodies, our resources, and our constructive actions of the three times, past, present, and future.

All of these verses dealing with harms are intended to help us to not get angry. A bodhisattva would not get angry with anybody, because anger is basically wishing that the other person be unhappy. We want to get rid of them and to stop whatever they’re doing. Clearly, wanting someone to be unhappy is the opposite of wanting them to be happy, isn’t it? Like this, anger devastates, as they say, the positive force built up by all our various constructive actions. “Devastate” means it makes our positive force very weak, so that it takes longer to ripen and the result it gives rise to will be smaller. We need to develop patience. With patience we don’t get angry, and one of the best ways of doing this is through tonglen, giving and taking.

(13) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if, while we haven’t the slightest faults ourselves, someone were to chop off our heads, to accept on ourselves his negative consequences, through the power of compassion.

This speaks of the very extreme example of someone chopping off our heads, but the point to take away from this example is that if somebody were to harm us severely and even if it’s not our fault, we still don’t get angry. Rather we try to practice tonglen, thinking of all the negative consequences and suffering that this person is going to experience as a result of chopping off our heads or whatever harm they do to us. We do the tonglen practice of taking those consequences on ourselves through the power of compassion, our wish for them to be totally free from suffering.

It’s very interesting to look at the teachings on karma, in terms of the factors that make the ripening of it stronger. There’s a whole list that we find in the teachings of things that make the consequences heavier. “Heavier” is the term literally and one of these listed items refers to how much suffering our destructive behavior causes to the object of that destructive action. If it were to cause a tremendous amount of suffering, then the consequences are heavier. If it were not to cause so much suffering, the consequences are lighter. The examples usually given are the difference between torturing somebody to death slowly and killing them instantly and quickly.

Using the example of “chopping off our heads,” if somebody is going to execute us, shoot us dead in some ethnic cleansing war or something like that, then if we get angry and really suffer from it, then the consequences for the other person are much heavier. If they were going to chop off our heads, then we would actually die quite quickly. But, going back to the previous verse in which somebody steals something from us, becoming really angry and holding a grudge, we suffer and think about it for a really long time. We might plan how to get back at the person and with all this disturbing emotion, the result is that we will not only suffer more now and in the future, but the karmic consequences for the other person are going to be heavier too. What if we were to not get angry? Instead, if we were to think of this other person with compassion, we would want the consequences of their action to be as light as possible. Because of our compassion for them, then the whole situation changes, not only for us, but for the other person as well.

This is why it’s very important that when somebody does something negative to us, we let it go. For example, somebody might borrow money from us and not pay it back; okay, there are some situations when a person is just never going to pay us back. Just let go! This is quite different from our Western concept of forgiveness, which often implies a type of aloof superiority, a type of attitude that, “Well, I will forgive you, you poor thing.” It’s based on the whole concept of guilt, that the other person is guilty and we will pardon them. That’s giving quite a true identity to this other person as “the guilty one,” whom, in our graciousness, we will pardon. Whereas here, simply on the basis of compassion, we see that the angrier we are, the more upset we become, the more suffering this other person is going to experience. Because we want them to be happy, we’re not going to be angry. We’re going to wish them even more happiness.

Even if we’re not yet bodhisattvas, these are very helpful guidelines to try to put into practice as much as we can.

(14) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if someone were to publicize throughout the thousand, million, billion worlds all kinds of unpleasant things about us, to speak in return about his good qualities, with an attitude of love.

When others say unpleasant things to us, yell at us, insult us and so on, it’s important not to say nasty things back. If we constantly criticize and say nasty things about others, people would have a very low opinion of us, and they wouldn’t trust us in terms of helping them, because they would wonder what we might also say about them. Thus, Langri Tangpa wrote in Eight Verses of Mind Training:

(5) When others, out of envy, treat me unfairly with scolding, insults, and more, may I accept the loss upon myself and offer the victory to others.

Furthermore, Shantideva points out that everybody has some good qualities. He wrote many verses pointing out that if we want others to be happy about our good qualities, why don’t we want to be happy about others’ good qualities? Everybody feels the same in this aspect. He wrote:

(VI.79) When your own good qualities are being extolled, you wish others, as well, to take pleasure; but when others’ good qualities are being extolled, you don’t wish yourself to take pleasure too.

(VI.80) Having developed a bodhichitta aim through wishing for happiness for all limited beings, then why do you become angry instead at the happiness that limited beings have found by themselves?

If we rejoiced in others’ happiness and good qualities, we would actually gain more happiness. If we are very negative toward them and deny any of their good qualities, what’s the result? We just end up unhappy. When we criticize others, what state of mind is that? It’s a very unhappy state of mind. Rejoicing in the good qualities of others, no matter how small they might be, is certainly a happier state of mind. Others gain much from this as well: they gain more confidence and respect for us, which allows us to be able to help them. Others trust us more, and they’re much more open to us.

If you think about the negative publicity from the Chinese concerning His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he is the greatest example of this. They say so many negative things and spread it throughout the world. Even though what they say is not true at all, nevertheless His Holiness doesn’t criticize, and doesn’t say nasty things about how horrible the Chinese government is. Instead, he speaks of the positive things that China can offer to Tibet, and doesn’t deny them. In this way he is open to negotiating with them. That’s a very different attitude than one of a terrorist type of infraction or an insurgent movement that finds the government to be horrible and seeks only to destroy them.

The point here is to not speak about the negative qualities of others, even if they say very negative things about us, but rather to emphasize their good qualities and do this with the attitude of love, the wish for them to be happy. Everybody has good qualities, and therefore we rejoice in the happiness that they have from their good qualities. If we can’t endure one person saying negative things about us to others, how could we ever endure what His Holiness does in having a whole nation saying negative things about us? That really sums up a lot of the bodhisattva behavior of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, doesn’t it?

(15) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if someone exposes our faults or says foul words (about us) in the midst of a gathering of many wandering beings, to bow to him respectfully, distinguishing that (he’s our) spiritual teacher.

Langri Tangpa used the analogy of a teacher in a similar fashion:

(6) Even if someone whom I have helped and from whom I harbor great expectations were to harm me completely unfairly, may I view him or her as a hallowed teacher.

When others criticize us, or expose our faults and so on, they’re actually being very helpful in showing us our mistakes so that we can correct them. After all, if we think what a good friend really is, it’s one who will tell us that we’re acting like an idiot when we actually are acting like an idiot. In school, if a teacher didn’t point out the mistakes or the faults that we made, always just saying, “Oh, it’s so great what you wrote,” then we would never learn anything or improve. In this way, anybody who exposes our faults is really like our spiritual teacher helping us to discover and correct our shortcomings.

When what others accuse us of is false, it gives us an opportunity to check up and see if it is true or not. Even if they expose our faults in the midst of a gathering of many wandering beings, Togme Zangpo says, still we should regard them as our teacher. If we really want to be able to help others, a crucial point is not to hide our faults and shortcomings or pretend that we have good qualities when we don’t. Somebody who points out our mistakes in a group of many people gives us an opportunity to be honest with them.

For example, if we’re a teacher and someone in the class corrects us, rather than feeling embarrassed, we can thank them for pointing that out. There’s no need to think, “Oh, it’s so terrible. What are the people going to think of me?” Instead, one might simply say, “Thank you. That was a slip of the tongue or that was a mistake.” On that basis, people in the class would have more respect for us. Sometimes when His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, he will have a slip of the tongue and say something incorrect. He’ll recognize it and laughs about it, saying, “I just said something incorrect.” He doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He doesn’t feel, “Oh, I’m so terrible.”

When we talk about distinguishing that this person is our spiritual teacher, “to distinguish,” is often translated as “to recognize.” But, “to distinguish” means to see a certain characteristic or feature of someone or something, and to specify that distinguishing characteristic. The person may have many types of characteristics that make them all sorts of things, but one of the things that we can distinguish is that they’re acting as our teacher in that moment by pointing out our mistakes. Therefore that’s a correct distinguishing, because they do have the characteristic feature of helping us to learn.

(16) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if a person whom we’ve taken care of, cherishing him like our own child, were to regard us as his enemy, to have special affection for him, like a mother toward her child stricken with an illness.

Imagine that it’s late at night, and we tell our toddler that it’s bed time, but they get very upset and scream, “I hate you!” Do we believe the child and get really upset as well? Do we think, “Oh, my child doesn’t love me anymore!” No, instead we have affection, and we continue to think of the welfare of the child. We turn off the television and send the child to bed. Or, if our baby were sick and crying all night long, do we get angry with the baby, and consider the baby our enemy for disturbing our sleep? No, we have even more affection and love toward the baby.

The same thing is true with anybody we’ve taken care of and helped a great deal, but then who begins to treat us badly, gets very angry at us, and regards us as their enemy. At that point, it’s very helpful to look at them in the same way as our sick child, because, in fact, they are sick with some sort of emotional disturbance.

(17) A bodhisattva’s practice is, even if an individual, our equal or inferior, were to treat (us) insultingly out of the power of his arrogance, to receive him on the crown of our heads respectfully, like a guru.

When others, out of arrogance, treat us insultingly, especially if they’re our equal or inferior in one way or another, it’s important not to be arrogant as well and yell back at them. This brings up all the teachings that Shantideva wrote about overcoming arrogance and jealousy. When we feel arrogant toward somebody, he suggests that we look at it from the point of view of the person that is inferior to us. From their point of view, who do we think we are? We have all the good conditions in life, yet we don’t share anything with them, and on top of that we look down on them. Naturally they’re going to feel very badly about it:

(VIII.141) “This one’s shown respect, but I’m not; I don’t have wealth like this one has. This one’s praised, but I’m belittled; this one has happiness, but I have suffering;

(VIII.142) “I do all the work, while this one lives (a life of) ease. This one’s renowned in the world as superior, while I as inferior, without any good qualities.

(VIII.143) “But how could (any work) be done by someone having no good qualities? Thus, all of us possess good qualities! (And, after all,) there are those among whom this one is inferior and there are those among whom I’m in fact superior.

(VIII.144) “Such things as the decline of my ethical discipline and outlook are due to disturbing emotions, and not from their being under my control. I need to be healed to the best of his ability: I even readily accept the pain (involved).

(VIII.145) “But (not only) does this one not treat me as someone to be healed, why does he look down on me?

This is the type of teaching that Shantideva gives in terms of exchanging the viewpoint of self with others. Even if someone in an inferior position were to insult us and be arrogant toward us, it’s very important to remember these types of teachings, and not act that way in return. Instead, we should receive this person on the crown of our heads, respectfully like a guru. In other words, rather than looking down on them with arrogance, we respect them, as we would our gurus, because again, they’re teaching us something; they are teaching us not to be arrogant.

Regardless of whether our inferiors or equals insult us or not, it’s very important to have an attitude of respect toward them. After all, it’s in dependence on them that we will achieve enlightenment, and that we’ll be able to help so many others. We need to think, “It’s because of my compassion toward them, because of my love toward them, and because of my help toward them, that I’ll be able to reach enlightenment and benefit others. So they’re definitely very worthy of respect.”

When we talk about gaining inspiration for achieving enlightenment, inspiration comes from two directions, both from above and below. Above, it comes from the Three Jewels and our spiritual masters, as they inspire us by their example. But equally we gain inspiration from limited beings – so-called “sentient beings” – who are suffering, because it’s through viewing them that we become inspired with love and compassion to achieve enlightenment to help them.

Shantideva says that all limited beings and the Buddhas are equal in that based on the kindness of both of them, we are able to achieve enlightenment. Therefore, Shantideva says, why show respect only to the gurus and the Buddhas, and not to all the suffering, limited beings? He wrote:

(VI.113) When the acquisition of a Buddha’s Dharma (attainments) is equally due to (both) limited beings and the Triumphant, what kind of order is it that the respect shown to limited beings is not like that to the Triumphant?


Is the first step toward working with anger when we notice that it’s arising, to walk away from the situation in order to calm down, and then later work with it to eventually get rid of it?

Yes, that’s actually a good step, and it fits in with what Togme Zangpo says, that a bodhisattva should leave their homeland, where anger, attachment and naivety disturb us so much. Walking away from a situation where we won’t be able to handle the anger decently is similar to this. It’s good for us to calm down and regain our composure. Similarly, it’s likely that the other person will also be upset and angry, so they’re unlikely to be receptive to calming down and making peace. We need to wait until they also calm down and we’re both in a state of mind that’s more conducive for resolving the conflict.

I’m confused about reference in verse 17 to inferior people, because we’ve been talking about everyone being totally equal. What does it mean for someone to be inferior?

It is true that everybody is equal, in that everybody wants to be happy, and nobody wants to be unhappy. On top of this, everyone has an equal right to realize this. Everybody has been equally kind to us, when they’ve been our mothers for example. As Shantideva says, Buddhas and all limited beings are equally kind to us, and so they are deserving of equal respect. However, limited beings, Shantideva states very explicitly, are not equal in all respects. In terms of the good qualities of love, compassion, wisdom and so on, those of the Buddhas are beyond imagination. Shantideva says they’re equal only in regard to the fact that based equally on both of them – on Buddhas’ setting the example of what we are aiming to achieve and limited beings as those for whom we are aiming to achieve this – we will all achieve enlightenment.

However, in Shantideva’s eighth chapter, on mental stability, where he speaks of exchanging self and others, he does speak in terms of those who are superior, those who are equal, and those who are inferior. We need to overcome arrogance toward those who are our inferior, for instance those who have less money than we have. We have to overcome aggressive competitiveness with those who are our equal. Again we can use the example of money, as we might feel we have to compete with our equals to make more money than they do. In addition, we need to overcome jealousy toward those who are superior than us, or have more money than we have. Actually, this whole idea of superior, equal and inferior is on a very conventional level, usually regarding qualities such as wealth, power, status, physical strength, beauty and so on.

In verse 12 about stealing, is this dealing only with the karma of the other person who is stealing from us, or also our own karma when we react in one way or another to what they’re doing?

Shantideva says that it’s on the basis of me that the person is building up negative consequences, because they’re stealing from me. When we develop patience toward them, that is, on the basis of them, we’re developing happiness. They’re generating their own suffering on the basis of me, and we are generating happiness on the basis of them, so why give them even more suffering by being angry with them? On the basis of me, they’re going to have a worse rebirth, and on the basis of them, we’re going to attain enlightenment. Clearly, it’s quite strange isn’t it?! So, why get angry with them?

We can look at the situation in another way, as found in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, another mind training text. In this method, we realize that it is we who have committed negative actions in the past of stealing from others, and now this is returning to us. That’s another way of transforming the situation. So, to repeat, when someone steals from us, we can think in terms of our own negative karmic potentials ripening, or we can think in terms of building positive karmic potentials based on not getting angry with them.