The Homage Verse
The first place we see this combination of sutra and tantra is in the verses of homage with which Atisha begins the text. He starts:
I make prostration to great compassion. I make prostration to the sublime teachers. I make prostration to the Buddha-figures, those in whom to have belief.
Compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. Great compassion is “great” in the sense that it’s not just the wish for others to be free from the suffering of pain and the suffering of change – the ordinary, worldly type of happiness that doesn’t last, without ever knowing what’s going to come next; it’s also having the wish for others to be free from the all-pervasive type of suffering. This all-pervasive suffering refers to the aggregate factors of our experience – in other words, the wide variety of components that make up each moment of our experience in each uncontrollably recurring rebirth. They come from confusion, are mixed with confusion, and perpetuate more confusion and more suffering.
Great compassion, then, wishes for others to be free from all of this, in other words, to gain liberation – and even further – to reach enlightenment. This compassion is also great in the sense that it extends to absolutely every limited being equally with the same attitude a loving mother has for her only child. That’s great compassion. It is really an extraordinary state of mind. It is directed at absolutely everybody and aims for everyone to attain such a far-reaching goal.
The second line of the homage verse is: prostration to the sublime teachers, or the gurus – these are the spiritual masters who embody this quality of great compassion. Because of that quality, they are properly qualified spiritual teachers. They have equal compassion toward everybody and so strive to help everybody to reach liberation and enlightenment – not only their students. The greatest example of such a master that we can see is perhaps His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His tireless efforts in teaching are aimed at trying to help everybody throughout the world to overcome their sufferings. Even if he gets tired, he just pushes on. That’s a sublime teacher; that’s a lama.
Buddha-Nature and the Inseparability of the Guru, Avalokiteshvara and Great Compassion
Atisha also adds, I make prostration to the Buddha-figures. This is referring specifically to Avalokiteshvara, or in Tibetan “Chenrezig,” who is the embodiment of compassion on the enlightened level, the full compassion of a Buddha. It’s quite significant that Atisha mentions the gurus first, before the Buddha-figures (yidams). He does so because, as is always said, it’s through the teachers that one is able to have contact with these Buddha-figures.
When we talk about seeing the teacher as a Buddha, we are referring to seeing the Buddha-nature within the teacher. Seeing the teacher as an example, we focus on their Buddha-nature factors and distinguish the aspect of these factors that is their ability, when built up strongly enough, to give rise to a fully enlightened Buddha as represented by the guru. Whether the guru is actually enlightened or not is irrelevant. That’s not the point. The point is to focus on that Buddha-nature so as to inspire us to awaken our own Buddha-natures.
Here, the Buddha-nature factor of the teacher that is singled out is the full compassion of the Buddhas as embodied by the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara. That’s why we often visualize such Buddha-figures in the guru’s heart and in our own hearts as well, and why we also often visualize the guru in our hearts. Without the guru, we would not have access to Buddha-figures and enlightenment. For that reason, Atisha lists the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara after the guru in this verse of homage.
Regarding all three – compassion, the spiritual teacher and Avalokiteshvara – Atisha then says, those in whom to have belief. Specifically, this is belief in what is factual. Belief doesn’t mean belief in something that we can’t really know or are unsure about, like “I believe that it might rain tomorrow”; rather, it means belief in something that is a fact. Here the fact is the inseparability of compassion, the guru and Avalokiteshvara. With full belief, then, we regard these three as inseparable and make prostration to that.
This is actually a very profound verse of homage. It makes us think quite a lot about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is generally recognized by all Tibetan Buddhist followers as being an embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, an embodiment of compassion. In order to believe that as a fact, it’s important to understand what this embodiment means. Our belief can’t be based on superstition or based on “I have no idea what that actually means, but OK, I believe it.” Such a belief is not very profound and is not stable. I think it’s very important to understand what compassion is – especially, great compassion – in order to have some idea of who His Holiness is and what he does and to have a genuine appreciation of his qualities.
It is also important to have some understanding of what Buddha-nature is and what the significance of seeing Buddha-nature in the guru is. What does Avalokiteshvara actually stand for? He stands for everyone’s Buddha-nature of compassion, which means the basic nature of the mind to be warm, to take care of others, and so on. Like all the other Buddha-nature factors, compassion occurs on the basis, path, and resultant levels.
- The basis level – what we all naturally have, as indicated by the parent instinct
- The path level – what we have while nurturing this basis level of compassion through the Buddhist training
- The resultant level – that of a Buddha.
We can gain insight into these three levels in terms of the guru’s qualities. The guru helps us through the process of developing compassion through these three levels ourselves. If we can understand that, then we can make prostration to compassion, the guru, and the yidam Avalokiteshvara with firm belief and conviction in their inseparability.
It’s here, then, that Atisha brings in a little bit of the tantra level, though in a subtle and veiled way – which is the way it should be. My own teacher from whom I received this teaching, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, always used to emphasize that there is a great deal to be seen in the verse of homage. We shouldn’t just think of it as mere adornment in the beginning of a text and pass through it quickly without paying attention to it.
Verse 1: States of Mind Needed for Meditation on Bodhichitta
When we look carefully, we can see how the main points of this text derive basically from Shantideva’s teachings in his Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicharyavatara). We can also see how many of the points in the later mind training teachings – particularly the Eight Verses of Mind Training and the Seven Point Mind Training – are based on what we find here, in Atisha’s text. Thus, Atisha speaks primarily about how to meditate on bodhichitta and how to put it into practice.
Let me rid myself of all indecisive wavering and cherish being wholeheartedly earnest in my practice. So, let me rid myself fully of being sleepy, foggy-minded, and lazy, and always make effort with perseverance.
Ridding Ourselves of Indecisive Wavering about What Bodhichitta Is and How to Meditate on It
In order to be able to meditate on bodhichitta, we first of all need to hear the teachings about it. We first need to rid ourselves of any indecisive wavering about where to find these teachings: they derive from The Three Baskets (Skt. Tripitaka) of Buddha’s words. We then need to listen to or to read Buddha’s words carefully and properly and then think about them in order to understand them correctly. The point of doing all of that is to get rid of indecisive wavering about which teachings to rely upon, what those teachings are and what bodhichitta is.
We need to know very precisely that bodhichitta is a mind that is focused on our own individual enlightenment – not the enlightenment of a Buddha and not some general, amorphous type of enlightenment up in the sky. Bodhichitta is a mind focused specifically on our own future enlightenment, which has not yet happened but which can be attained and which can happen on the basis of its causes, namely our Buddha-nature factors. Bodhichitta, then, is focused on our not-yet-happening enlightenment with the intention to achieve it. What motivates us to attain it is love and compassion – the wish to benefit all beings and to help them to get rid of their suffering. Benefiting others is the second intention that accompanies our bodhichitta. It is what we intend to do once we have achieved that enlightenment, although of course we try to help others to the best of our ability all the way to enlightenment.
Thus, we need to rid ourselves of all indecisive wavering about what the topic of the meditation – bodhichitta – actually is, how to meditate on it, and what the state of mind that we need to generate actually is. We therefore need to hear the teachings on it, think about it, and understand it. That’s obviously very important. Otherwise, how could we possibly meditate on bodhichitta?
To meditate on bodhichitta and to actually develop it is not so simple. It’s not so obvious what we actually do in meditation and what we focus on. It’s not obvious at all and not easy at all. How do we focus on our own future, not-yet-happening enlightenment? We need to have something that represents that. It can be represented by a Buddha, by the guru, by the tree of assembled gurus, or by the yidam, the Buddha-figure. It can be represented by many different things.
We might wonder how debating and bodhichitta meditation go together, but actually, the whole purpose of debate is to clear up indecisive wavering. To meditate properly, we need to know what the mind is focused on, how it takes that object of focus, and what the accompanying mental factors are – love, compassion, intention, motivation, and these sort of things. Then we need to know how to generate that state of mind. Through the process of debate, we are able to clear up any indecisiveness about these points.
Many people confuse bodhichitta with compassion. They think they’re meditating on bodhichitta, whereas, in fact, they’re meditating on love and compassion for all beings. Meditating on the wish for all beings to be happy and to have the causes for happiness and for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering are part of the basis for bodhichitta. They accompany bodhichitta, but they are not the same as bodhichitta. There is a similar confusion with compassion: many people meditate on compassion, but not on great compassion. So, again, it’s important to try to rid ourselves of any indecisive wavering and uncertainty about these points.
Also, when we’re not sure of what we’re doing in meditation, we experience the obstacle of mental wandering. We mentally wander, wondering, “Is bodhichitta this, or is it that?” “Am I meditating correctly, or do I have it wrong?” We’re always questioning what we’re supposed to be doing. So, not only do we need to gain confidence about what bodhichitta is and how to meditate on it, we also need to gain confidence that the practice we are doing is valid. We need to rid ourselves of the indecisive wavering of wondering, “Is this the right practice?” “Is it going to work?” “Is it not going to work?” and so on. All this has to be taken care of in the stage of listening to the teachings and, particularly, the stage of thinking about them – which, again, debate can help us to do – before we can actually meditate properly. As we would say in German, everything has to be clear, “Alles klar,” in order to really meditate properly on a particular topic. Otherwise, we’re just pretending to meditate. We’re just sitting there playing; we don’t really know what we’re doing. That doesn’t take us very far.
Being Wholeheartedly Earnest in the Practice of Bodhichitta Depends on Having a Sincere Motivation
Then, on the basis of having properly listened to and thought about the teachings and having rid ourselves of indecisive wavering, we can cherish being wholeheartedly earnest in my practice. That’s referring to the meditation where we now actually build up bodhichitta as a habit. We generate that state of mind again and again, making it stronger and stronger. And being wholeheartedly earnest means that our efforts to generate bodhichitta are utterly sincere and that we put our whole hearts into it.
What putting our hearts fully into it really depends on is motivation. If we are really sincere in our motivation, then we’ll be sincere in our practice. We won’t do it just out of a sense of duty, or guilt, or something like that. So, it’s really important to work on the motivation. For the times when it’s not strong, which on many days it will not be, we will need to have learned the various methods for building it back up again.
A lot also depends on the company that we keep – whether the people around us are supportive of our practice. Having a friendly, warm community of people who are likewise engaged, having spiritual teachers nearby and so on helps us to keep our motivation strong. Also, being among others who are suffering intensely can greatly strengthen our motivation. We can gain inspiration both from above, from the great masters, and from below, from those who suffer miserably. As Shantideva says, enlightenment comes equally through the kindness of the Buddhas and sentient beings, limited beings.
(VI.113) When the acquisition of a Buddha’s Dharma (attainments) is equally due to (both) limited beings and the Triumphant (Buddhas), what kind of order is it that the respect shown to limited beings is not like that to the Triumphant?
Clarification of How to Meditate on Bodhichitta
Focusing on Our Individual Enlightenments That Have Not Yet Happened
Meditating on bodhichitta focuses on our own individual future enlightenment. I don’t want to go into it in too much detail, but if we think of our mental continuum, then our enlightenment is something that can be validly labeled on that future continuum. Our future enlightenment, which has not yet happened, can be validly labeled on the future continuity of our mental continuum, based on the continuity of Buddha-nature factors. If the various causes have been built up, namely the two networks of positive force and deep awareness and so on, then that enlightened state, which can happen, definitely will happen. And one has to be convinced of that.
In order to focus on that enlightenment, we use something to represent it, let’s say a Buddha-figure or a Buddha. What that Buddha-figure or Buddha represents is that future enlightenment that can be validly labeled on the mental continuum, and which can be attained based on the Buddha-nature factors. That’s what our minds are focused on. That awareness is then accompanied by love, compassion, and the intentions to reach that goal and to help everybody else once we’ve reached that goal. There are a number of accompanying mental factors, but this is a bit complicated.
Just as we can think, see and hear at the same time, we can be aware of several things as our objects of cognition at the same time – though not all with the same amount of attention. Love and compassion are each aimed at sentient beings. The way in which love focuses on them is with the wish for them to be happy; whereas compassion focuses on their suffering and with the wish that their suffering be gone. We generate these two, one at a time, since they have different ways of taking their objects. When we then generate the bodhichitta aim based on this love and compassion, our focus is on our not-yet-happening enlightenment, with the way of cognitively taking it being with the wish to attain it. Also focused on our not-yet-happening enlightenment are the two intentions: to attain that enlightenment and benefit others by means of that attainment. Our major attention is on bodhichitta, whereas although love and compassion are still present, they are not our main focus. In a sense, they flavor our bodhichitta aim, but their focal objects, all limited beings, do not appear in our minds.
As I said, it takes a long time and a great deal of thought and discussion in order to really have a clear idea of what it means to meditate on bodhichitta. “Now I’m going to sit down and meditate on bodhichitta” – well, what in the world are we doing?
Then, of course, there are all the steps by which we work ourselves up to actually feeling bodhichitta sincerely, which means building up the feelings of love and compassion. There are a number of methods we can use: the seven-part cause and effect meditation, the equalizing and exchanging of self and others meditation, or the eleven-part one that combines the two.
Let me just add one thing here, which is important for understanding what it means to have great compassion. When we’re aiming for bodhichitta and aiming for our future enlightenment, we also need to know what enlightenment is. We need to know what it means and what the qualities of that state are. That’s why a Buddha-figure or a Buddha is a very good representation. When we visualize a Buddha-figure or a Buddha, we can think about all the qualities that an enlightened being has. And of course, with great compassion, we do so with the intention to help absolutely everybody. We’re talking about countless beings here, so the scope is unbelievably huge.
Once we start to appreciate what the bodhichitta state of mind really is – how inconceivably vast – we can start to appreciate Shantideva’s first chapter, in which he praises bodhichitta. Otherwise, it’s just pretty poetry.
(I.25) This extraordinary jewel of the mind (bodhichitta) – a mind for the sake of limited beings, which in others doesn’t arise for even their own sakes – crystallizes as something of unprecedented wonder.
(I.26) How can the positive force of a jewel-like mind, which is the cause of happiness for all wandering beings and the elixir for the sufferings of limited beings, be something whose measure can be taken?
How Is It Possible to Focus on Something That Has Not Yet Happened?
You may wonder how do we focus on something that has not yet happened. Let me give you an example, since this is important for understanding what bodhichitta is. Our future enlightenment is something that hasn’t happened yet, like tomorrow. Tomorrow has not yet happened, but does tomorrow exist? Is there a tomorrow? How do we focus on tomorrow and plan our day if tomorrow does not in some way exist? What are we focusing on when we think of tomorrow? We’re not focusing on nothing. These are points to think about and debate.
Something Not Yet Happening Is a Negation Phenomena
In order to answer this question of how we focus on something that has not yet happened, it’s very important to understand the Buddhist philosophical presentation of validly knowable phenomena and the presentation of affirmation and negation phenomena. This is because our Western categories for things that do exist and do not exist are irrelevant to the discussion here. According to the Buddhist presentation, if something exists, it can be validly known, either conceptually or non-conceptually; and if it doesn’t exist, it can’t be validly known.
Within what can be validly known are affirmation and negation phenomena. Our future enlightenment is an affirmation phenomenon. Just as we can see a mongoose without ever having seen one before, we can focus on enlightenment without having to have focused on it before. When we focus on this enlightenment, we’re focusing, then, on an affirmation phenomenon. This affirmation phenomenon is imputed on an aspect of its causes, namely our networks of positive force and deep awareness. This aspect is their ability to give rise to enlightenment as their result when all the causes and conditions are complete. This enlightenment imputed on its causes can be validly cognized, just like tomorrow imputed on today can be validly cognized. Further, what can be imputed on that future enlightenment is the not-yet-happening of it. That not-yet-happening is a negation phenomenon; it negates its presently happening. To validly know its not-yet-happening, we need to know what is presently happening in order to negate it. For example, we need to know that it is still today in order to know that tomorrow has not yet happened.
We can represent our not-yet-happening enlightenment by a Buddha-figure and validly impute “me” on that figure, but only when we also validly cognize the not-yet-happening of ourselves being a Buddha. Otherwise, if we think that our being a Buddha is presently happening, we are deluding ourselves.
Focusing in Bodhichitta Meditation on Something That Has Not Yet Happened Is Not Focusing on Something That Does Not Exist
It’s because of these points that I’m saying one has to get rid of indecisive wavering. Otherwise, after a while, we say, “I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m sitting here trying to do bodhichitta meditation. Am I focusing on something that doesn’t exist at all?” Then it gets crazy.
Atisha’s point is that if we want to be able to do the meditation single-pointedly and to do it correctly, we need to rid ourselves of indecisive wavering – our not being quite sure of what it is, how to do it and so on. Otherwise, what happens is that, as the commentary says, we get mental wandering: “Am I doing it right? What’s going on here? Maybe it doesn’t exist.” Mental wandering also comes up when we’re not convinced that we can actually achieve it. So, here, in very few words, Atisha’s giving very profound instructions on how to meditate.
This discussion of bodhichitta that we’re having is very important. We need to be clear about what bodhichitta meditation is. If we don’t have at least some degree of clarity, then the whole thing is a bit strange.
Ridding Ourselves of Other Obstacles to Meditation
So, we are wholeheartedly earnest in the practice. Once we know how to actually generate bodhichitta and are able to stay focused in this state of mind, we then need to get rid of obstacles that come up in the meditation itself. The second half of the verse reads: so, let me rid myself fully of being sleepy, foggy-minded, and lazy. We’ve already dealt with mental wandering due to indecisive wavering; now we have all the obstacles due to dullness.
Sleepiness and Foggy-Mindedness
The grossest type of dullness is being sleepy, falling asleep – which is an obvious obstacle to meditation. With that type of dullness, the consciousness withdraws from the senses. That’s basically what sleep is. Being foggy-minded is a subtler type of dullness. We are foggy-minded when our minds and bodies feel very heavy. The third type, which is subtler still, is being lazy. Although laziness is not actually a form of mental dullness, it underlies it. When we work on getting rid of mental obstacles, we always work on the grossest ones first and then the subtler ones. So, here we have laziness as the subtlest one.
Three Kinds of Laziness
Shantideva describes laziness in the seventh chapter, “Perseverance,” of his text in great detail. There are three kinds of laziness.
The first kind is lethargy. Lethargy means having a lack of energy and enthusiasm – we don’t feel like doing anything and so we procrastinate. There are three causes for that. Shantideva explains:
- Being apathetic about our recurring problems – a lack of interest and concern. When we’re apathetic, we don’t care, so we get lethargic; we don’t want to do anything.
- Relishing a taste of pleasure from being idle – taking pleasure in just sitting around doing nothing. That makes us lethargic, so again, we don’t want to do anything.
- Craving sleep as a haven – we can’t deal with what’s going on, and we just want to escape to our nice, warm beds.
The second type of laziness is clinging to what is petty. Examples of that would be just chatting away all the time about insignificant things and being attached to all sorts of busywork around the house or wherever – which is actually an excuse for not doing anything constructive. Connected with that is procrastination, putting things off until later because we’re clinging to something petty now.
The third form of laziness is being discouraged and, therefore, being disparaging of oneself. We think, “I can’t do it. I’m not capable,” so we don’t even try. That’s a form of laziness.
Perseverance as the Opponent to Laziness
The opponent of laziness is perseverance, another name for which is “zestful vigor” or “heroic courage.” So, the last line is, and always make effort with perseverance. As Shantideva explains very well, perseverance is based on several factors.
- Strong intention – exuberance and energy, based on firm conviction in the benefits of doing something positive. With a strong intention, we deeply feel: “I’m going to do it and not give up!”
- Steadfastness and self-pride – steadfastness is the quality of staying steady, of being unwavering. It is based on self-confidence from taking pride in ourselves – we know that we will be able to do it and we don’t think badly about ourselves.
- Delight – taking joy in what we’re doing. And especially since what we’re doing is constructive, we take ever greater joy as we continue to do it.
- Letting go – in other words, being able to let go when we’re tired and need to take a rest. If we push too hard, if we’re too much of a fanatic, we will eventually burn out. There’s also being able to let go when we’re finished with a certain stage. We have to know to let go and go on to the next stage. These are the two aspects of letting go.
There are two further aspects that Shantideva mentions.
- Readily accepting – we have to accept the fact that the path is going to be difficult. We have to accept the reality of that and not have any fantasies about it, thinking it’s going to be so easy and lovely. We have to accept that hardships are going to be there. In other words, we have to have a realistic attitude.
- Taking control – we take control of ourselves: “I’m going to do it.”