The Measure of Having Trained

Point 5

Point five is the measure of having cleansed and trained our attitudes:

If all my Dharma practice gathers into one intention;

This intention is to eliminate self-cherishing. All of the various aspects of this entire literature on the seven points, as well as all other lojong texts, aim at overcoming selfishness and self-preoccupation. We know if we’re heading in the right direction and whether our practice is successful with this one intention: lessening our self-cherishing. If it’s getting less, then we’re making progress.

But what do we mean by progress? When we’re talking about progress on the path, we have to understand that it’s not linear. We’re organic beings living in an organic world, and things don’t happen in a linear fashion, as in, things always get better and better every day. We have a systematic presentation with the stages of the path, the five paths, the ten bodhisattva stages and so on, so we might get the impression that our progress will likewise be like this. Of course, we do progress from one stage to the next, but it’s not as if we’ll have steady, day-to-day progress. Some days our practice will go well, and sometimes it won’t. It’s good to know that this is completely normal, so we shouldn’t be discouraged, nor have unrealistic expectations. This is emphasized in all meditation instructions. We’re looking for long-term trends, which is that over time, whatever practice we’re doing will lessen our selfishness, even if it might go up and down from day to day. This is a sign that we’re doing our practice correctly.

So, our main aspirations when doing our regular practice need to be to overcome self-centered concern and selfishness. If we’re doing shamatha practice to develop a settled state of mind, it needs to be with the purpose of gaining concentration and mindfulness so as not to be selfish. Just to focus on the breath and have perfect concentration is not the aim. Non-Buddhists generally practice shamatha like that, and while it does have many extra benefits, the main one is so we’re able to be mindful of our attention so when we wander into thoughts of “me, me, me,” we return to focusing on others.

This is clear from the structure of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhisattvacharya-avatara), where the teachings on changing out attitudes about self and other are included in the chapter on meditative concentration. Meditative concentration would be better translated as “mind that is stable in bodhichitta and cherishing others,” because that’s what we need concentration for. We’ll know if we’re doing our shamatha practice properly if we’re applying it to our daily lives – in others words, that we’re increasingly mindful of others. We can apply this principle to all of our practices. If the self-transformation in these practices is one towards us being less ego-centred and more focused on helping others, then we’re doing great.

The text continues:

If, from the two witnesses, I take the main;

The two witnesses we have, to know whether we’re making progress or not, are other people and ourselves. The main one we use is ourselves. Actually, we don’t need to ask our teachers or the people around us if we’re practicing properly. We know ourselves because we can tell from the internal signs, and so the commentaries talk of being a witness ourselves to see if we’ve achieved the five signs of greatness.

The first sign of greatness is being a great-hearted one, which is usually translated as having a “great mind,” but it refers to the heart. The Sanskrit word is mahasattva, which we find in The Heart Sutra. Are we someone who thinks of others as our main focus, and not ourselves? That is someone with a great heart. Other people can’t really tell what’s going on inside of us, so we have to look ourselves to see if we think primarily of others or not. If there’s a nice cake for dessert, are we thinking how wonderful it would be for the other people in the room to enjoy it, or are we thinking of how much we love that cake, hoping that no one else likes it. When there’s a long queue in the store or the cinema, are we hoping that the people in front of us get good seats, or do we want to get to the front so we can get them for ourselves? To reach this great-hearted stage isn’t easy at all! We mustn’t fool ourselves, but be honest about where we are.

The approach here is without guilt or judgment. We don’t think, “I’m acting selfishly, so I’m a bad person,” or, “I’m not doing this right, I’m so stupid.” There’s no moral judgment, or anyone saying that we should think of others and not ourselves. There’s no concept of “should” in Buddhist. It’s simply more beneficial to think of others; it causes less problems and suffering, simple as that.

In the stages we go through before we get to tonglen practice, we have contemplation of the disadvantages of cherishing oneself, and the advantages of cherishing others. It is based on the realization that acting selfishly is just going to cause more problems for us. When we’re depressed and feeling extra sorry for ourselves, it just magnifies our suffering. On the other hand, if we were to call someone or try to help others, it would definitely make us feel better. It’s a simple matter of seeing the advantages and disadvantages and deciding which one we want. When we’re training our attitudes, one thing we need to get rid of is guilt and moral judgment, otherwise the whole process can become quite distorted. This is the first sign of greatness.

The second sign of greatness is being trained in constructive behavior. Again, we can tell ourselves whether we’re acting in any of the destructive ways. We need to be quite broad-minded in our understanding of the ten destructive actions. It’s not just about going out and murdering people; even thinking in any way of being physically or verbally rough with other people is destructive. Walking too quickly with an old person so they can’t keep up is a destructive action based on thinking just of ourselves and not the other person. If we act constructively, and refrain from harming others, this is a sign of progress.

The third greatness is being able to endure difficulties, especially those that arise when we’re trying to overcoming our disturbing emotions. We ourselves know best how we are doing at this. Are we really working hard and going through all the difficulties and not acting under the influence of anger and greed? When we act under the influence of these mental poisons, we’re thinking of ourselves and not others. If we really want to think of others, then we do really need to work hard to overcome disturbing attitudes.

The fourth type of greatness is the great holder of discipline, which refers to keeping our vows. There are the various individual liberation or pratimoksha vows, taken as either a monastic or lay person, which ask us to refrain from taking the lives of others, stealing, lying, indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and taking alcohol and other intoxicants. Then we have the bodhisattva vows, which make us refrain from different behaviors that prevent us from helping others. Finally, we’ve got the tantric vows to refrain from behaviors that create obstacles for achieving enlightenment through the tantric path. It’s important to understand this intention, because there is no God saying, “Thou shalt not do this,” and we just have to obey it without asking questions. That’s not Buddhism. There is no obligation to take any vows. But, if we want to be able to reach enlightenment to benefit others, then we have these constructive actions that can help us do so. It means we need to think of these destructive actions and how they would prevent us from helping others. Then, if we take vows, we need to be our own witnesses to see whether we’re keeping them.

The fifth type of greatness is the great yogi, or someone who is totally joined to bodhichitta. It’s someone whose minds, hearts and behavior are completely joined with bodhichitta. Only we can know if we’re like this. We need to be particularly careful not to become proud as we train, thinking, “I’m helping others. I’m spending so much time at the hospital. I’m such a bodhisattva!” Thinking that helping others is due to how great we are, is a clear sign that we’re not doing it right. Really, it’s due to the inspiration of our teachers and the great lineage figures, but still that doesn’t mean we think, “Well, I’m nothing, just a worm,” either. We need to be balanced. Striving in a balanced manner, without pride, is a sign of progress.

There are many other signs of progress, too. One comes from the contemplation of our precious human life, and feeling that it would be a disaster to waste this opportunity to help others. Likewise, when we’re not so attracted to the pursuit of wealth and possessions in this life, but rather seek circumstances to make our future lives conducive to helping others, then that’s a good sign. Of course, we need a certain level of material welfare and favourable circumstances in this life to be able to help others, but we mustn’t ever see these as ends in themselves. We need to have a long-term view, looking at all of the lifetimes leading to enlightenment. Throughout all of them, we’ll need proper circumstances if we want to be able to help others. Our aim should be intertwined with the thought of helping others, like having enough money to help poor people, or having a house big enough to offer places to stay for people who need it.

If we’re actually turned off by material pursuits and our main goal is to gain liberation from disturbing emotions, that for sure is a good sign. It means that we’re not really attached to living in a certain place or being with certain people, because we see that wherever we are or whoever we’re with, it’s all the same in terms of having advantages and disadvantages. It doesn’t matter where we are or who we’re with, because there is always the danger of getting caught up in attachment and repulsion, which prevent us from really helping others. This is not to say that we have no connection with people or our environment, it just means that our connection is based around how we can help them, rather than what we can get out of them.

Seeing that nobody is special actually allows us to see that everybody is special – nobody is better than anybody else. This helps us to have an even attitude, equanimity, so that wherever we are or whoever we’re with, we can put our full energies into helping that person. We can see with some of the great lamas how the person they’re with seems to become their best friend in that moment; they treat others with a full, open heart, and yet no one is uniquely special. This is yet another sign that the teachings are taking hold in us.

If we feel that we don’t have anything to be ashamed of in front of our lamas when they see us, that’s a good sign. It means we’re sincere and relaxed inside. In general, if our mood is good and doesn’t always go up and down, it’s a very good sign. This doesn’t mean that we don’t respond to others. If we need to respond in a certain emotional way, then of course we should not sit stone-faced and silent. I always remember an incident with my sister, who’s always been a lot of help to me. I’d been in India for a few years, I went back to the U.S. and spent some time with her. After a while, her comment was, “You’re so calm, I could vomit.” Being just calm and not really responsive is not the proper way to practice. We should be enthusiastic and alive with others, and not just be like a statue. Calmness is inside.

The text continues:

If I can continually rely on my mind being only happy;

This line means that even if we encounter difficult situations, instead of getting depressed, we can transform our attitude to one where we have peace of mind and mental happiness. If we can do this – with ourselves as the witness to know if we can or not – then we’re practicing correctly.

Tibetans love down-to-earth examples, so they say that when you don’t get tea in the evening, rather than being upset, just be happy that you won’t have to get up to pee in the middle of the night! We can use these tricks to look at things from the good side, rather than the negative side. Then we won’t be so upset when things don’t go our way. It’s a good sign when we’re able to do this just naturally.

Then, the final point in this section is:

And if even distracted I’m still able; then I’ve become trained.

An example of this, is that it’s easy to drive a car when we’re concentrating, but if we can drive while we’re completely distracted, then we are well trained. Likewise, it might be easy to abandon self-cherishing and to think of others when we’re focused and the situation is calm and easy. When we’re helping someone get on a train when there are no crowds and there’s plenty of time is one thing, but what if the whistle blows and the train is about to leave, and there are still a bunch of people who need to get on? Are we still interested in making sure that everybody gets on the train, or are we just shoving past everyone to make sure we get on? Even in these distracting situations, can our main concern still be others and not ourselves? If so, then we really have changed our attitudes. That’s the fifth point.