The Preliminaries and Bodhichitta Training

Points 1 and 2

Lojong” is the Tibetan word usually translated as “mind training,” but I don’t find this translation terribly appropriate, because it seems to imply an exclusively intellectual activity to most people. “Lo” means “attitude” while “jong” means both “to cleanse” and “to train,” in the sense of removing negative attitudes and building up more positive ones. The essential purpose of lojong practices is to cleanse our minds and hearts of negative attitudes, and to train in positive ones to replace them.

The lojong practices came to Tibet from India in the early 11th century with Atisha, integrated into the Kadam tradition and then incorporated into all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, these teachings are one of the basic teachings that bind all of the traditions together, with the only significant difference in the various commentaries being each school’s interpretation and explanation of voidness.

Atisha received the lojong tradition from his teacher Dharmarakshita, the author of Wheel of Sharp Weapons. The Seven Point Mind Training text was written about a century later by the Kadam Geshe Chekawa, with two lineages of the teachings deriving from his disciple, Geshe Lhadingpa. One went to Togme Zangpo, the author of 37 Bodhisattva Practices, and is followed by the Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma schools. The other reached Tsongkhapa almost three centuries later, and is followed by the Gelug school.

The two lineages differ in their arrangement of several lines in the verses, and the inclusion of some lines not found in the other. Even within each lineage, several versions of the texts exist, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained that these differences are not significant, because the intended meaning is the same in all of them. Here, we’ll be looking at the Togme Zangpo edition, following the explanation of it I received from Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, supplemented with some points from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

First Point: The Preliminaries

Prostration to great compassion. Train first in the preliminaries.

The first of the seven points covers the preliminary teachings, which are the common basis for all Mahayana teachings. These are: precious human life, impermanence and death, and then what’s usually called “refuge,” but what I call “safe direction.” We don’t look to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and say, “Oh, save me!” Rather, we ourselves move our lives in the safe and positive direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. After this, we have the teachings on karma, or behavioral cause and effect. Finally, there are the disadvantages of samsara, referring to the uncontrollably recurring situations of life, specifically rebirth. Under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes, we act impulsively, creating problems for ourselves over and over again in this life, and future lives.

The preliminaries are important because they nurture a very special attitude toward life that serves as a foundation for all the teachings that follow. We come to appreciate the precious opportunities that we have in this life, and realize that they will not last forever. This motivates us to take advantage of our present favorable situation, by working to get rid of all our problems and their causes, and the resulting confusion and suffering. To do this, we need to work with behavioral cause and effect, not just pray that we can achieve some goal without actually doing something. Most of us are probably looking to make our present samsara a little bit better for ourselves, but here the goal is higher. We want to improve future lives as a step on the way toward complete liberation from all our shortcomings, difficulties and confusion – no matter how many lives that takes.

For most of us, this is really difficult. We usually don’t really think in terms of future lives, let alone liberation from rebirth. If we don’t believe in rebirth, then how can we aim for liberation from it? How could we possibly want to become enlightened in order to help everybody else also get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth? None of this is easy if we don’t have a deep conviction in rebirth.

As Westerners, the first step we have to understand is what the Buddhist explanation of rebirth means. Even if our motivations are concerned primarily with improving this life, we can still be open to the idea of rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and helping others to overcome rebirth. The Buddhist explanation of rebirth is very sophisticated, making it quite difficult to understand. But it’s important that we take an interest in studying and meditating on the subject until we gain a correct understanding.

I’m saying this because the lojong teachings are actually very advanced. They’re not for beginners at all! For instance, there is one teaching that at the time of death, we need to pray to be reborn in one of the hells; that’s quite difficult to relate to, isn’t it? In any approach to Dharma teachings, we need to be honest and realistic about our level of development and have a good idea of what the actual path is. It’s never good to pretend to be more advanced than we are. This text teaches us the attitude of genuinely wanting to bring every single cockroach to enlightenment. How many of us can say we’re at that level?! So we need to know that lojong practices go very deep, very far, and are long-term practices. We can get some benefit from them if we start now, but since the practices are progressive, we should keep the perspective that as we go further with them, we’ll want to come back again and again to go deeper into certain points.

In the context of this text, it means that we don’t just go through the basic preliminaries once. They’re not something to get out of the way before we can go on to the more interesting stuff. The text is written from the point of view of people who have bodhichitta, which is a heart aimed at our not-yet-attained individual enlightenment, which is attainable due to us having all of the Buddha-nature qualities necessary. Bodhichitta has two intentions, the first of which is to attain enlightenment, and the second of which is to be able to benefit all beings by means of this. They are presented in this order in the texts from the oral teachings, but in practice, we have the opposite order. First, our main intention is to help others, because we are so incredibly moved by compassion and concern for them that we feel we simply must help them overcome their suffering. We see that although we can try to help them now, to really help them we need to eliminate all our shortcomings and realize all of our potentials. We must become Buddhas in order to help them as fully as possible. This aspiration to Buddhahood comes second, from the first aspiration to help all others.

Simply put, it’s fantastic that we have a precious human life and an opportunity to help others. But it’s impermanent! We’re definitely going to die, and we never know when. That’s so horrible! This motivates us to help people as much as possible now, before we get Alzheimer’s and can’t even use our minds, and then we die. To help others, we have to take genuine safe direction or refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and avoid destructive behavior. Because of the disadvantages, we should also avoid the lure of samsaric rebirth in general, with attachment to ephemeral pleasures and frustration from problem after problem. It’s quite straightforward: we are going to try and help people and not get caught up in our own disturbing emotions. So, the preliminaries are to be understood in the context of bodhichitta.

Point Two: The Actual Training in Bodhichitta

The second point covers the actual training in bodhichitta, divided into two parts: deepest bodhichitta and relative or conventional bodhichitta. First, deepest bodhichitta:

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream. Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising. The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place. The essential nature of the path is to settle within a state of the all-encompassing basis. Between sessions, act like an illusory person.

Deepest bodhichitta is a mind aimed at voidness (emptiness) or how everything actually exists. To achieve enlightenment, we need to first understand the reality of how we, others and everything exist, so that we can remove the problems and habits caused by our confusion about it.

What is voidness? Simply put, voidness, or emptiness, refers to an absence of impossible ways of existing. Different Indian Buddhist theories and the various Tibetan Buddhist schools all define an “impossible way of existing” slightly differently, but regardless of this, we need to stop projecting impossible ways of existing onto the process of trying to help others. We have to rid ourselves of any thought that there is a solid “me” sitting here, who is so wonderful doing this type of practice, trying to help a poor, wretched, solid “you” over there. Nor should we think that there is this solidly existent poor little “me,” so how could I possibly help that other person with their suffering over there? All of these are impossible ways of existing. Although we might imagine that these ways correspond to reality and it may even feel like that, we need to stay mindful that what we think is true is actually like a dream or an illusion. The fact is, we’re all interrelated; we don’t exist as isolated beings in a vacuum. We interact with each other, and so we can help each other.

Another impossible way of existing is to think that we’re all-powerful and can instantly cure everybody’s problems. That’s obviously impossible. In order for others to overcome their problems, they need to eliminate the cause of them, which is confusion. We need to understand reality, and everyone else needs to understand reality, too. No one else can do it for us. We can show the way and try to make life a bit easier for others, but in the end they have to understand reality themselves.

The second part of this second point looks at relative or conventional bodhichitta:

Train in both giving and taking in alternation, mounting those two on the breath.

This line deals with our meditation session, the primary practice of which is “tonglen,” “giving and taking.” In this practice, we imagine compassionately removing everyone’s suffering and problems and taking them on ourselves to deal with. Applying the antidotes, then, with love, we imagine giving them the solutions to their problems and all happiness.

Tonglen is an incredibly advanced practice and is very difficult to do sincerely. It’s easy to play at doing it, but to be sincere in taking on the sufferings of others and to actually experience that suffering is very, very advanced. It requires a genuine understanding of the nature of pain. If we don’t understand pain and suffering in relation to the mind, then we’re terrified to actually take on someone’s cancer or the pain of their cancer. This is why understanding the nature of reality and the nature of the mind is so important. When we have the compassion of wishing others to be free from their problems and are willing to take them on, that means we are willing to experiencing suffering ourselves.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll take their suffering from them and then just throw it away, but that it’ll actually have to pass through us. We need to experience it ourselves. On the initial level, it means that we can’t be afraid of being sad at other peoples’ suffering. It is sad that somebody has cancer or Alzheimers’. It is very sad! So to do this practice, but then put up armor around our feelings because it gets too much is not the point at all. We need to feel the sadness and pain of the other person, and see that at the level of the basic nature of the mind, sadness and pain are just waves. The basic level of the mind is pure experience and has joy and happiness as its natural qualities. It is on this basis that we’re able to project happiness to other beings. However, without the actual realization of voidness and a lot of practice in mahamudra, it’s very difficult to do tonglen sincerely. This is not meant to discourage anyone from practicing it, because even at the earlier levels of development it is very helpful. But actually taking in, experiencing, and dissolving suffering into the natural happiness of the mind, and to send this happiness out is a very advanced practice. It’s actually a practice of mahamudra for, in a sense, our own benefit. This is because in practicing it, we need to destroy our self-cherishing attitude of not wishing to get involved with others’ problems – in a sense, our resistance to “getting our hands dirty” with having to deal with them.

So how does it actually benefit anybody else? Everyone has their own individual karma, so how can we take this on with tonglen? Karma needs certain circumstances in order for it to ripen, so what we can do is provide certain circumstances that will help the ripening of others’ karma ripen more quickly and in different forms. If someone has an illness, then the karma for that illness has already ripened as the illness. However, if it is an illness that can be cured, people will only be cured if they have the karmic cause to be cured. What we can do is provide a circumstance that allows for the ripening of their positive potentials.

For example, how does the Medicine Buddha practice work? Medicine Buddha isn’t God; he can’t cure us from disease just through his own power. But, by making offerings and doing the practice, it creates conditions for the negative karma that is perpetuating our illness to ripen in a much smaller way. Inspiration from Medicine Buddha is actually inspiration from our own individual clear light minds, which helps to bring the deeper potentials to the surface to ripen. This inspiration is usually translated as “blessing,” as in, “Oh Medicine Buddha! Bless me to get better!” Our strong motivation to be healed to be able to help everybody provides a circumstance for the negative karma within us to ripen in a much smaller way, and for the positive karma to come up and ripen. The energy of inspiration from the individual clear light mind within us, represented by Medicine Buddha, is what allows that whole process to happen.

It’s the same thing with tonglen practice, which provides circumstances for the other person’s negative karma to ripen in a much smaller way and for their positive karma to ripen much sooner. The recipients don’t have to know about it – in fact, it’s best if they don’t. To take in and feel the suffering of others, and to let it dissolve into the pure nature of our minds, requires the immense energy of bodhichitta and inspiration from our own teachers, as with any Mahayana practice. Before practicing tonglen, then, we need to have gone through all the stages for developing bodhichitta. Naturally we need to have some level of compassion and love to even consider taking on other people’s problems. On a deeper level, we need loving compassion not just to be willing to take on problems, but to be able to get to the clear light level of mind. It’s a very deep practice!

One further point about tonglen is that it’s based on an understanding of deepest bodhichitta, voidness. If we think in terms of a solid me, then we’ll be way too scared to take on someone else’s suffering. We have to dissolve this strong sense of “me” that prevents us from practicing on a sincere level, where we take on the suffering of others and actually experience it, but are able to handle it. To do this, we need an understanding of voidness and a basic ability with mahamudra practice on the nature of the mind to be able to dissolve the suffering into the natural purity of the mind. We don’t just hold on to the suffering and keep it inside us. Then, having the actual source of happiness from the subtler nature of the mind, we give it to others.

How can we actually experience someone else’s something? Basically, it’s the strong wish to take on the suffering and experience it that acts as a circumstance for our own negative karma to ripen into suffering. We want this to happen, so we can burn off our negative karma – another level we need to work with in tonglen practice. It’s not that we’re taking suffering as if we’re taking someone’s sandwich and eating it ourselves. It’s much subtler than this, working in terms of circumstances and conditions.

My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, always used an example that made everybody uncomfortable, of a great lama who did tonglen and took on some terrible sickness from someone else, and died from it. He would go into every single detail every time that he taught tonglen. The point is that we need to be so sincere in our willingness to take on suffering, that we’re ready to die. We would ask him, “If someone like you, Rinpoche, were to take the suffering of a dog and die from it, wouldn’t it be a shame?” He’d provide an answer, that “When an astronaut gets killed in space, the astronaut becomes a hero and the government and everyone else will take care of the astronaut’s family. Likewise, if a great teacher dies from tonglen practice, he’ll attain or nearly attain enlightenment from the strength of his compassion and bodhichitta, and by doing so, would be taking care of his disciples through his inspiration.”

What was really extraordinary, having taught this so many times, my teacher actually did it, dying through the practice of tonglen. Serkong Rinpoche saw that there was a serious obstacle to the life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and that it would be good if he himself took on this obstacle.

I had taken Serkong Rinpoche for a physical examination just a few weeks before, and he was in perfectly good health. On a particular day, Rinpoche ended a teaching he was giving in the remote area of Spiti, in the Indian Himalayas, and went to a specific person’s house. He stopped at a monastery on the way to make offerings, and the monks said, “Please stay,” but he replied, “No, if you want to see me again, you’ll have to come to this house where I am going.” At the house he did his usual, very intensive evening practices. He told his senior disciple that he could come into the room, and Rinpoche was sitting in a certain posture that wasn’t the way he’d normally go to sleep. He started doing a practice that was obviously tonglen, and just died.

It was extraordinary because exactly at that hour, at that time, His Holiness was in an airplane headed to Geneva, and Yasir Arafat was also flying into Geneva at the same time. The authorities were worried about terrorist problems and said they couldn’t guarantee the safety of His Holiness. When Rinpoche did the practice, Arafat was in the air and changed his mind, turning the airplane around and not landing in Geneva. By what Serkong Rinpoche did, this huge obstacle to His Holiness’ life ripened, but just in a trivial way. When he landed, there was some confusion at the airport and the car he was driving in got lost, but that was basically it. The negative karma ripened into something very small for His Holiness, and what Serkong Rinpoche did acted as a circumstance for his own karma to die to come to the surface, and so he died. He was only 69 – not terribly old – but he thought that the greatest contribution he could make was to provide a circumstance for His Holiness to live longer. By his example, he has inspired his disciples enormously. I always wonder if in fact he knew for many years in advance that this was going to happen, as I’d witnessed several times in my interactions with him, that he had extrasensory perception.

Tonglen only works like this if we have a very strong karmic connection, like we do with our family members and closest friends. Serkong Rinpoche had such a connection with His Holiness, as he had been one of his teachers from childhood. The important thing is to have the courage to feel that even if we have to experience our relative’s sickness, may it be a circumstance for their sickness to become less.

We often do this tonglen practice when we’re sick ourselves, thinking to take on the sickness of everyone suffering from the same disorder as us. Afterwards, while we’re still experiencing our sickness and the suffering it causes, the sickness of others may not go away. But we can work with our own pain and mental anguish with basic mahamudra methods, having a feeling of being the entire ocean, and visualizing the pain and suffering as just a wave on the surface of the ocean that doesn’t disturb the ocean’s depths.

If we practice tonglen with the aim of taking on everybody’s cold in order to cure our own cold, then it won’t work. Even if we unconsciously think that, it’ll be a major obstacle to it ever working, because it has to be on the basis of pure compassion. In most cases the practice doesn’t work because we don’t have a strong enough connection with people, which is why we have the prayer, “May I be able to eliminate the sufferings of all beings in all lifetimes.” This prayer is important because it establishes the connection for this type of practice to work.

What is the aim of the practice? On one level, it is to help others, that’s for sure. But in most cases it won’t actually work. So a secondary aim is that it will help us achieve enlightenment. How? It involves bodhichitta, and so it must be a method for achieving enlightenment. What helps us to reach enlightenment is developing the courage to overcome self-cherishing, and the willingness to deal with everybody’s problems. As a bodhisattva and as a Buddha, we’ll have to be willing to be involved with everyone’s most horrible, terrible problems. It is to help us overcome the self-cherishing attitude: “I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I don’t want to go to the old age hospital and deal with all of those Alzheimer’s patients, because it’s just too depressing and sad. I can’t deal with it.” We have to overcome the feeling of a big, strong, solid me that underlies this self-cherishing attitude.

Many of the tonglen visualizations that Serkong Rinpoche taught and His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches are absolutely horrific, but very, very powerful. All traditions of the practice explain doing it in connection with the breath. With compassion – wishing others to be free of suffering and its causes – we imagine all of their suffering coming to us in some graphic form when we breathe in. With love – wishing others to be happy and have the causes of happiness – we send this out to them, visualizing it in whatever forms others need. With the more advanced methods that Rinpoche and His Holiness teach, we don’t just visualize black light coming into us; we imagine dirty substances like thick car oil, grease and filth coming into us, so we can work on overcoming our feeling of not wanting to get ourselves dirty. That’s the first step. Then, we visualize that the actual suffering comes in the form of urine, diarrhea, vomit, blood and guts. This helps us to overcome feelings of indifference, such as “Oh, someone was just hit by a car and they’re lying in the road; I don’t want to look at it because it’s so gruesome and horrible.”

To overcome this, we start by dealing with less terrifying things, like diarrhea and vomit, and then we go on to imagine the suffering coming in the form of what we’re really afraid of: spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, snakes, rats, or whatever it is. This sort of practice is really very strong and powerful. We imagine that we breathe all of this nasty stuff in, and that it comes down to our hearts, combating the solid ego inside which always says, “No way do I want to deal with this!” This is why the tonglen practice is incredibly advanced and deep. To really get down to this clear light level, we’ve got to be able to dissolve our fears, and all of our ego defences, as well as the pain and suffering of others that we don’t want to experience.

Even on earlier levels, the practice can be very beneficial because it helps us to take other people’s problems seriously. That’s the first step, actually. By taking on the problem, our attitude becomes one where we deal with it as if it were our problem. Consider a homeless person in winter, who’s hungry and cold, with no work or home to go to, and who’s sick and in pain. We imagine what it would be like, and feel the suffering. We try to come up with some sort of solution of how to deal with it. Just practicing on this level is very beneficial, but it’s not the only way. There are many, many deeper levels.

In taking on the suffering of others, we have to be really careful not to go to the extreme of becoming a martyr, thinking, “I’m going to take on everybody’s suffering for the glory of Buddha.” That’s not at all what we do. It’s also important not to feel that taking on all suffering is the path to enlightenment, either. Then, we also need to be careful not to take on the suffering of others because of our own low self-esteem. “I am such a terrible person, so I need to suffer, because I deserve it.”

This practice might remind us of the image of Jesus taking on the suffering of humanity. Jesus was certainly willing to experience the suffering and the fear of that suffering. However, from a Buddhist viewpoint, nobody can prevent all the suffering of the universe. Although we’re cultivating the aspiration that by our experiencing suffering, others may be free of it, we shouldn’t inflate ourselves into thinking that we can perform miracles and solve everybody’s problems. The best we can do is to provide circumstances for their negative potentials to ripen in a small way, and for their positive potentials to ripen more quickly. The goal is not at all to punish ourselves by taking on suffering. The main point is to develop the courage to help others even in the most difficult situations – the Kosovos, Bosnias and Rwandas of the world.

Next, we have what to do in between session, in our daily lives:

In regard to the three objects, take the three poisonous attitudes and give the three roots of what is constructive, while training with words in all paths of behavior.

The three objects are those whom we find attractive, unattractive, or are neutral to, and the three poisonous attitudes are longing desire, repulsion, and naivety.

When we experience longing desire for someone we find attractive, repulsion towards someone we find unattractive, and naivety in regards to someone neutral whereby we ignore them, we imagine taking on these three poisonous attitudes from everyone who suffers from them. We then give back the three roots of what is constructive, namely detachment, imperturbability, and lack of naivety. In doing so, we deal with our own problems with such objects. We may also supplement our practice with words such as, “May all the suffering of others ripen upon me, and may all of my happiness ripen upon them.”

As for the order of taking, start from myself.

If we’re suffering from a particular problem, we need to first accept it and deal with it, before we can apply the method of taking on the same problem from everyone else. For this reason, the order of the practice is to start with ourselves. Otherwise, if we can’t face our own problems, we might just focus on dealing with others’ problems as an escape.