Practice between Sessions

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The text continues with what we do between sessions in this giving and taking practice for developing relative bodhichitta, and it says:

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

This is referring to the type of situation – well, it could actually refer to both situations, whether we’re talking about just the other person having the problem, or ourselves having the problem. Usually the way that it’s explained is in terms of when we ourselves have this problem. The problem here is the three objects. The three objects are those that we find attractive, those that we find repulsive, and those that we find neutral and uninteresting. Those are the three objects and take the three poisonous attitudes is the attachment, or the repulsion, or the naivety, which is indifference. What we would do is, and give the three roots of what’s constructive, which would be the opposite of them – detachment, imperturbability, so that we don’t get angry, and lack of naivety. That’s the basis for understanding that we’re all equal.

This can be in terms of when we ourselves are experiencing this, walking along the street, or somebody calls, or whatever, and we have this type of problem. Rather than giving in to it – in our daily life when this happens – we imagine, “Not only am I going to deal with it myself, and get rid of it myself, but may everybody’s attachment and attraction to beautiful looking people,” or whatever, “ripen on me and may I deal with all of that, and get rid of all of that. In dealing with it for myself, may nobody have to suffer this,” although obviously other people will continue to suffer this. We can’t take on all the suffering of the world. We’re not talking about a Jesus Christ type of situation.

It’s when the line, which is in this edition, As for the order of taking, start from myself, when that’s put before this line, (In regard to) the three objects, then it can be explained that with regard to myself, when I’m experiencing this in daily life, take it in and give out to others. But if it’s at the end here, then we can understand it in both ways, that, even when we’re not experiencing it ourselves, but we know somebody who is just totally obsessed with sex, or with anger, or whatever, that we can do that practice directed at them.

While we’re doing this, or even when we’re not doing this, at other times as well, between sessions, in any situation, we can train with this giving and taking with words, which means that if we verbalize it – same thing like a mantra – that keeps us mindful of the practice. “May the suffering come on me, may my happiness go to them.” Even not in connection with tonglen, we can with words in our mouths, we walk into a building, “May I and all sentient beings enter into liberation and enlightenment.” When we walk out of a room, “May I and all beings come out of samsara.” When we eat, “May everybody be able to enjoy such wonderful food.” This type of thing. If we verbalize it, then often it helps us to be more mindful of it, although of course it doesn’t make it more real, but this is usually the way that we experience it.

This is one of the reasons why, when Tibetans read texts, or do their practices, they always do it out loud, not necessarily screaming out loud, but they do it out loud. They do that even when they just read a book. The reason – if they’re mindful of the reason, if it’s not just by habit and custom – is that you imagine that there is an infinite number of beings around you listening to this and benefiting from it. That’s why they do it like that. Or when we’re making prostration or circumambulating or whatever positive things, we imagine that everybody is doing that with us and we try to verbalize that, “May everybody be involved in such positive acts, and may the positive force from that ripen on everyone.”

This is what we do between sessions. While doing this, then, in addition, as we had at the start of the verse on deepest bodhichitta – ponder that phenomena are like a dream – we also have the instruction

Between sessions, act like an illusory person,

We need to keep mindful of the fact that in spite of nothing having true findable existence, nevertheless everything functions, including myself.” So, without having grasping to true findable existence of “me” or “what I’m doing,” or “the person that I’m helping,” act like an illusory person.

This section concludes in this edition:

As for the order of taking, start from myself.

I think that this is very clear, that we have to deal with our own problems as well as the problems of others. It also indicates the teaching that renunciation needs to come first, before we can sincerely develop compassion.

I think what can be a helpful way of doing it is the way that we have in the sensitivity training – developing balanced sensitivity– which is to first do it with a mirror, or if it’s not a mirror, to visualize ourselves in front of ourselves, and take on whatever problem might be our problem of the moment, and actually think to deal with it, dissolve all the fear that’s involved with it, and give calm, wisdom, and whatever it is that we might need – because that fits in very well with this whole thing that we’re all equal. “I have feelings just like anybody else. I suffer from problems just like anybody else,” and so we see ourself like just anybody else.

The next step in our tonglen meditation is to just sit there, and we take on the problem ourselves – I mean always when we are doing tonglen, we imagine that with the breath it goes to our heart, and dissolves at our heart, and comes out, even if we’re not thinking in terms of the clear-light mind – and so we imagine just sitting here that the problem and the suffering goes from the skin level, it all sort of comes to the heart, and dissolves as we breathe in and breathe out.

Then what I find is very helpful – I added this in the sensitivity training – is to deal with our past, either with photos or thinking of our past. There are certainly periods in the lives of most of us when we’ve really had a tremendous amount of pain and a tremendous amount of difficulty. And often we didn’t really resolve it, and we would rather not think about that time, or we’re ashamed of ourselves at that time, and so on – and to deal with it, and to resolve it, to take on that suffering, that problem now, and to give to that “me of the past” – this type of thing.

Also we can think in terms of future problems – like the death of my parents, my own death; perhaps I start to become senile, I can’t walk any longer, I can’t hear or see any longer – we might experience in old age, and start to deal with it now, to take on that suffering. These, I think, could be very, very helpful steps in terms of doing tonglen with relation to ourselves. Otherwise we’re caught completely by surprise when all of a sudden, we realize that we are older, and we can’t do the type of things that we wanted to do any more, and that we really like doing any more, like eating certain foods, or as much sexual activity, or whatever, that we need to deal with that and start to deal with it now.

And then slowly extend it, and I think what is taught in the Theravada method is very helpful here, which is, you don’t start with the six realms, which is so abstract that for most of us it doesn’t mean anything, but start with our friends, acquaintances, relatives, or students, if we’re a teacher – to deal with their problems, the individual ones, one by one. This is a tremendous practice, especially if we have friends or relatives who are really suffering from – it’s usually an emotional problem, or it could be a sickness or whatever.

Then you slowly extend it to those that are more distant, usually the people in your neighborhood, and your city, and then eventually to people that you don’t like, and then you can start with the other realms. This process that is taught in the Theravada meditation on love and compassion, I think, is – in a sense – indicated here.

As you can see, this practice of tonglen is extremely advanced, and I always find it a great shame when it is taught and practiced prematurely, because then people trivialize it, and you just sit there, and you just imagine black light and white light, and from the six realms, and so on. It really is like a Disneyland thing. You don’t feel anything, and it doesn’t really mean anything on any sort of emotional level. This is very, very sad, because then, if that’s the level at which you’re practicing at, although you can, of course, be led to do it on a deeper level, you build up this habit of practicing on a trivialized level and trivializing the Dharma. This, I think, is very, very sad.

These are very precious teachings, and very difficult things to practice, and very advanced things to practice, very, very profound, and one needs to treat it and approach it with the proper respect. This, I think, is very important. If we’re not ready to do it, put it on the altar on the shelf, so to say, in our minds, “This is something that I hope that I can develop to the point, and have the emotional maturity, enough to be able to practice this, because I can see how powerful a medicine this can be,” and don’t take it now.

You might think it could be a good idea to give people a taste of the practice, even if they’re not ready to practice it in full. Personally, I don’t find that that is so helpful. There are a lot of teachers that do that, and I don’t quite agree with the skillful means in doing that, just from my own experience of the results that I’ve seen from that. Because what happens often is that people then ignore the preliminary in earlier steps, and then they think, “Oh, I’m really practicing Mahayana now!” especially with tantra. They just stay with that on a very trivialized level, and because they lack really having taken seriously and worked very hard on the earlier steps, having the foundation to do the more advanced steps properly, then they often experience serious problems in making any progress.

Now, of course there are two approaches to studying Dharma. One is to have an overview of the whole path first, and then go back and work much more deeply. The other is really not to know what follows and just work step by step. But to do that approach. I’ve had the experience of doing both, because I studied lam-rim before it was available in any Western language, and so I had no idea what was coming next. That requires a great deal of so-called faith and confidence – that “this is very worthwhile,” and “I can see” – that you get from seeing the example of people who have trained like that, seeing that, “My goodness, this is the way that they became based on this. Therefore, I have respect and confidence that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it correctly, not be impatient.” This is my experience.

I’ve seen so many people around the world doing all these more advanced practices on such a trivial level and really it having very little effect on their lives, and that’s sad. That’s sad because then they become bored with the Dharma and give it up. These teachings are unbelievably precious. Three rare and precious gems – we just call them three jewels – that’s what the words mean, it’s “rare,” and it’s “precious.” To have that deep in your heart, on a deep emotional level, conviction that this is very important, as long as you really don’t have the basis to go on with any level of depth and sincerity. As His Holiness would always say, having that [conviction] on the basis of understanding – what it is, how it works.

I’m reminded here of an insight by George Dreyfus, who was the first Western Geshe. He was top in his entire Geshe class, and really very, very outstanding, the best of all Westerners in terms of his understanding of Dharma. He wrote a book recently – The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk– in which he comments about the study of Abhisamayalamkara, which is the Ornament of Realizations. It forms five years of the program to get the Geshe degree, and it is an unbelievably detailed study of every possible thing that – the different levels you go through, that you understand, and that you practice, and that you experience, with these incredible lists of a hundred and fifty-three of this and… It’s just unbelievably detailed and complicated.

What he commented on is – because it’s interesting, some people, that we know here as well, are always saying, “Well, what’s the use of it? What’s the practical application?” George wrote that it has no practical application that he can see in terms of our actual putting it into daily practice – these things that we’re learning there, everything in it is talking about such an advanced level of attainment. But he says, the practical use of it is that it gives you real confidence in the path. “Look how well it’s been worked out, look how many people must have gone through this and experienced this to be able to have all this detail of what actually happens all the way to enlightenment at every tiny little step.”

That gives you tremendous confidence in the path, and the effectiveness of the Dharma, and it gives you unbelievable respect for the Buddha who taught all of this, put all of this together, “How could that be?” It’s the same thing with tantra, you see how unbelievable it is, these tantra texts – so many things intertwined, so many different levels of one thing. That’s the benefit of it, that’s the practical application.

Then you have this real refuge or safe direction, “Precious Dharma, rare Dharma, incredible Dharma,” and really put your full effort into it. Having studied that material a little bit – not for five years, but for one year, and just on a non-debate level – what he says makes a lot of sense.