Relative Bodhichitta and Tonglen

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Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others

We’ve been discussing the Seven Point Mind Training by the Kadam Geshe Chekawa who lived in the twelfth century. So far, we’ve covered the first two points: the preliminaries and the actual training in deepest bodhichitta. Now, we’re ready to discuss the training in relative bodhichitta.

The verse in the text starts with the giving and taking practice called “tonglen” in Tibetan:

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

This section of the text deals with what we would do both in formal meditation and afrewards. The first line here refers to what we would do in formal meditation. As I’ve previously said, this text is quite advanced, as is the practice of tonglen. It assumes that we have already worked on the stages needed to be able to do this practice. Tonglen also fits in well with the practices for developing the bodhichitta aim – the desire to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all, and to try to help others as much as possible along the way.

There are two general methods for developing bodhichitta. The one that the practice of tonglen usually is part of is equalizing and exchanging self with others. It starts with developing equanimity, the type developed in common with Hinayana training. This kind of equanimity is the one in which we clear our minds and hearts of any type of disturbing emotions toward any being. What we try to do is rid ourselves of attraction and attachment to some, repulsion, rejection, or anger toward others, as well as the naivety and closed-mindedness with which we ignore yet others.

Overall, the way that we develop equanimity is to recognize that over beginningless rebirths, which is sort of taken in Buddhism as a given axiom, everybody has changed relationships with us. Sometimes we’ve been friends, sometimes we’ve been enemies, and sometimes we’ve been strangers with everyone. So, there’s never been a fixed type of relationship with anyone. Changes in relationships occur all the time. By developing equanimity, we can clear ourselves of being attracted, repelled, or indifferent toward anyone. Equanimity is the foundation, the basis for bodhichitta, yet it’s also a practice that is shared in common with Hinayana.

The next step is to develop the Mahayana type of equanimity, which is called having an equal attitude toward everyone or equalizing our attitude toward everyone, including, of course, ourselves. In this practice, we don’t just try to recognize that everyone is equal, but we also think of the reasons why we’re all equal. If we contemplate this quite extensively, there are many reasons. Actually, there are nine, but we don’t have time to go through all of them individually. The basic thing, however, is to understand that everyone wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. In this sense, we’re all equal.

[See: Equalizing and Exchanging Self with Others]

Equanimity forms the foundation for not just the first step, which is ridding our minds of the disturbing emotions that prevent us from really getting involved with others. It’s also a practice that focuses on developing the positive emotions that help us to actually do something helpful for others. That’s why this approach is called the special Mahayana way of developing equanimity.

We begin by thinking of the disadvantages of cherishing ourselves. For example, we think about all of the problems and difficulties that occur when we are totally preoccupied with ourselves. It’s like when we are depressed and think, “poor me.” Or we go somewhere, and somebody prepares a meal for us that we don’t particularly like and, as a result, we get very unhappy. We tend not to think in terms of the intention of the other person, which was not to make something that we would dislike. There is a very extensive discussion of this approach, but we really don’t have so much time to go into it. It’s a very profound point that is important to consider when we are feeling miserable and unhappy: to identify what is the source of this misery and unhappiness. Usually, we will find that it can be traced to thinking about “poor me” and having a self-cherishing attitude.

The next stage is to think of the benefits of cherishing others, who are actually the source of all our happiness. In other words, when we’re feeling depressed, if we can think of others, or get involved in helping them, it takes our thoughts away from our own problems. We’re actually receiving something from them, in the sense that doing something for others increases our sense of self-worth. This method is even acknowledged in Western psychology. Obviously, other people are going to dislike us if we’re selfish, and like us much more if we think about them. For instance, if we speak with someone on the phone and talk only about ourselves and don’t even ask them how they are, the other person will feel very uncomfortable. But if we sincerely – and not just being polite – are concerned about what’s going on with them, then other people will not only feel happier, but they will like us as well.

There are, again, much deeper and more profound points that can be brought up in terms of cherishing others as the source of happiness. We see this very clearly with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example. He said recently in an interview that he has never felt depressed, and he feels a bit sad that it’s difficult for him to empathize with people about this, because he has never ever experienced that emotion. When you look at him – especially if you’re able to spend a lot of time with him – he’s always happy.

When you think of all the problems His Holiness has with the Chinese, internally within the Tibetan community, and the unbelievable schedule of traveling around the world, it’s amazing that he’s never depressed, never feels, “I don’t want to go and meet a million people today. I just want to have time and space for myself.” What gives him the greatest joy is just meeting another person. You see when His Holiness meets people, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. He’s so happy to see you and he’s like that with absolutely everybody – always thinking of others.

Once, His Holiness said that bodhisattvas are the best egoists because they know the methods for making themselves the happiest all the time – simply making others happy. There was a very interesting discussion at the first meeting of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers, back in 1993. Someone asked His Holiness, “What do we do when we have this feeling of wanting to just take time off and time out,” and when, “It’s really quite difficult to always be the teacher, to always be in that situation.” There was a whole discussion of how we deal with the issue of taking time off and leading a so-called ‘normal’ life. His Holiness said that bodhisattvas would never want time out or time off. This feeling would be impossible, a contradiction, that we would want time off from being a bodhisattva. If we were really sincere, we would take joy in being a bodhisattva all the time. That’s the thing about self-cherishing versus cherishing others. Self-cherishing thinks: “I want time off to myself.”

Of course, we need some balance in our lives, especially if we haven’t reached the point where we’re able to just take joy in helping others. Sometimes when we are involved in trying to help others, and thinking only about “me,” we resent it and get very frustrated. So, there is certainly a need for balance. Even Shantideva pointed out that if we’re striving to be a bodhisattva and trying to act like one, we certainly need to take care of our own needs. It’s like just as we need to feed a servant or somebody who works for us, we likewise also need to take care of ourselves so that we’re able to continue working for others. We cannot just drive ourselves to the point where we’re no longer able to deal with people or situations. Taking care of ourselves, like taking a break when we need one to “recharge our batteries” as we would say, is not a form of self-cherishing. It actually helps us to support others more.

Continuing with this sequence, we next have the actual practice of tonglen, giving and taking, which is done in conjunction with compassion and love. Normally, we think that the order is first love and then compassion – the wish for others to be happy, and then followed by the wish and desire to remove others’ suffering. But in practice it’s the other way around. People won’t be able to appreciate or enjoy happiness or anything that they need if we don’t first relieve them of their suffering. So, with compassion, the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering, we imagine taking them on ourselves, removing them from others. And it’s not just about removing their suffering and its causes from them without dealing with them, but tonglen practice also involves empathetically experiencing their suffering. Then, with love – the wish for them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness – we imagine giving them whatever would make them happy, both in the short and long term. Further, if we have the ability, we actually give them what they need – not simply imagine giving it to them.

Finally, we get to what’s called the “exceptional resolve” or “extraordinary wish,” which is the resolve definitely to try to benefit everyone, not only the people in our immediate vicinity. Yet, even if we’re imagining doing this on a very extensive scale, it’s about developing the real resolve, which His Holiness calls “universal responsibility.” By taking our sense of responsibility seriously, we really try to benefit absolutely everybody, all beings. We try our best to benefit them to the ultimate level. It’s this kind of exceptional resolve that actually leads to bodhichitta, and it’s because of this very strong resolve that we aim for enlightenment in the first place. We recognize that attaining enlightenment is truly the only way that we’re going to be able to benefit others as much as possible.

We have now covered the first sequence for developing bodhichitta, equalizing and exchanging self with others, and it’s in this context that tonglen is taught.

The Seven-Part Cause and Effect

The other sequence for developing bodhichitta is called the seven-part cause and effect. Six are causes and the seventh is the development of bodhichitta. Although tonglen doesn’t appear in this sequence, there is what’s known as the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation, which combines the two methods of equalizing and exchanging self and others and the seven-part cause and effect, and it’s there that tonglen appears. So, it’s possible to bring in that seven-part cause and effect meditation into our practice of tonglen.

The practice begins with equanimity, the kind that’s in common with Hinayana. The first stage is to clear away attraction, repulsion and indifference. It’s the first round of practice and is shared in common with both methods for developing bodhichitta. Then, as the second round, we have the first one from the seven-part set. Based on the understanding that we’ve all been friends, enemies and strangers, we then further recognize that everybody at some point has been our mother.

In my Shantideva class we came up with proof that everybody has been our mother. We did this exercise because the Tibetans never think to prove it – they simply take it as a given. The main premises here are that time is beginningless, the number of sentient beings is finite, and everybody is equal. The line of reasoning is that if one being has been our mother within this lifetime, then everybody has been our mother at some time or another, because everybody is equal. If this were not the case, then if one sentient being was never our mother, the absurd conclusion would follow that no sentient being was ever our mother, because everybody is equal. And therefore, it would absurdly follow that we didn’t have a mother in this lifetime.

This is a perfect example of a Prasangika proof, which uses an absurd conclusion. I’m bringing this up because when I was recently at the Kalachakra initiation in Toronto, I met a Geshe who was one of the teachers at the School of Dialectics in Dharamsala. I told him about the proof we came up with and asked him whether or not, from an expert’s point of view, this would be acceptable to the Tibetans. He was very pleased and said, “Yes, this was a very good proof.” Then when I was teaching in Mexico, I spoke with a mathematician there, and he said that he would work out the mathematical logic for the proof. He also thought that, given the premise of infinite time, a finite number of beings and everyone being equal, that he could prove mathematically that everybody at one point has been your mother. But he never sent me his proof.

To continue the progression of meditation steps based on the premise that everyone has been our mother, we then remember the kindness that we’ve received from everybody when they’ve been our mothers, or closest friends. We also remember that even when they’ve not been our mothers, they’ve been very kind to us. Furthermore, we feel a great amount of appreciation and gratitude for the kindness they’ve shown us and so want to repay that kindness. We feel that way because, in addition, we appreciate that everything that we make use of – what we eat or use in our homes – comes from the work of others.

“Repaying the kindness of others” is the way that I, and many others, have always translated the term for this step. But, the idea of “repayment” comes with a lot of cultural luggage – it implies that we’re in debt, and if we repay it, then we won’t have to deal with the person anymore. We’ve sort of paid off our debt and now we’re free. We don’t need to feel guilty any more for not repaying it. I think that that’s certainly not the connotation here. Instead, we can imagine the practice as a temporary replacement, like a temporary filling at the dentist, before we put the proper filling in. I think it can be more helpful to think of “reciprocating” that kindness, rather than “repaying” it until we’ve paid back enough. “Reciprocate” means to make it mutual, “You thank me, I thank you.”

In the seven-part cause and effect meditation we go immediately from reciprocating kindness to the development of love and compassion, but here in the eleven-round practice we insert some steps from the equalizing and exchanging self and others method. Before this, however, there is another step from the seven-part cause and effect sequence, which is part of developing love for others. It’s never counted as a separate step. As I translate it, this step is called “the development of heart-warming love.” It’s based on this feeling of knowing that everybody has been our mother and kind to us, and thus we want to repay them because we feel such strong gratitude. Then, since we’re all equal, whenever we meet anybody, we feel so grateful to them for their kindness, it warms our heart. We feel close to everybody and would feel terrible if anything bad happened to any of them. It’s on this basis that, in this seven-part practice, we would then develop love – the wish for them to be happy and not to be unhappy.

But here in the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation, on the basis of this heart-warming love, we then put in the sequence equalizing our attitude toward everyone. We do this by focusing on the fact that everybody is equal in wanting to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. We then focus on the disadvantages of self-cherishing, followed by meditating on the advantages of cherishing others. This leads to the practice of tonglen, in which we reverse the sequence found in the seven-part practice by first taking on the suffering of others with compassion and then giving them happiness with love. We then resume the sequence from the seven-part practice with developing an exceptional resolve, followed by generating a bodhichitta aim. That’s the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation.

The Practice of Tonglen

Within the context of what we’ve been discussing so far, we have the practice that is mentioned in the text, of doing tonglen, mounting it on the breath. As I’ve said before, tonglen is incredibly advanced and not at all a trivial topic. There are actually two ways of applying it. One is focusing on others’ suffering, and the other is working with our own suffering. It’s important to state that when we imagine taking on the suffering of others, we need to be totally willing to experience it directly. On the simplest level we think, “I’m going to deal with your problems, and I’m going to try to find a solution for you.” We do this on the basis of the equality of self and others, truly feeling as if it were our own problem.

Further, this is why, when we speak about renunciation and compassion, we treat them as basically the same emotion. Renunciation is based on the wish to be free from our own problems, and compassion is having that same intensity for others to also be free. If we ourselves have actually experienced the types of sufferings others have, we have much more empathy and are much better able to understand and appreciate other people’s pain. As I’ve said, in doing this practice we really need to be willing to take on others’ suffering. It’s like we’re helping somebody who has a cold. Instead of putting up defenses, which usually just makes us catch the cold more easily, we try not to be afraid of it. Now, of course, if we’ve never experienced, you know, as a man, the pain involved with childbirth, then obviously that’s very hard for us to imagine, but we try our best. Obviously, there are certain things that are going to be very difficult to empathize with.

Naturally, in most cases it’s not going to work that we actually remove the suffering of others. Yet if we think in terms of the example of our own child being sick, obviously the energy behind the desire to free them from suffering is much stronger than if it were just sick ourselves. But, as I said, in most cases we’re not able to actually take on the suffering of others, because obviously it’s coming from their own karmic causes. But what we can do is provide the circumstances for more positive karmic potentials of theirs to ripen, let’s say for them to be recover from the cold more quickly or something like that. It’s like doing prayers for long life or to Medicine Buddha. These sorts of practices build up the circumstances that can act as conditions for more positive karmic potential to ripen.

Likewise, in terms of ourselves, when we think, “May we actually experience others’ suffering,” it’s this willingness to experience suffering without fear that can activate and cause negative karmic potentials from our side to ripen. However, because of our bodhichitta intent, the suffering that we would experience would be less than if it ripened without such intent. Even so, we still need to be willing to die. Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, always taught this practice in this way. As you can read on this website, his biography, “A Portrait of Serkong Rinpoche,” he actually did this practice and died to give his life to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

[See: Serkong Rinpche’s Death and Rebirth]

That said, this kind of advanced practice only actually works if there is a very close and special karmic relation with the other person; normally it doesn’t work. That’s why we never tell anybody that we’re doing this, and we never put on a big act of doing it, because in most cases it won’t work. We not only disappoint the other person, but they think that we’re an absolute idiot. They’re never going to have confidence in us again. In fact, in the Eight Verses of Mind Training it says to always do this practice in secret. Even if it doesn’t really help the other person, the other major purpose of doing it is to destroy our self-cherishing, to develop strong courage to be able to actually follow the bodhisattva path, and to deal with and try to help relieve everybody’s suffering. This is why there are some very strong visualizations that are done alongside this practice.

Advanced Tonglen Visualizations

As it says in the text, we do tonglen in connection with the breath. In meditation, we imagine, as we breathe in, taking on the problems of others by visualizing them leaving them and coming into us in certain forms. As we breathe out, we imagine that we give the other person not only happiness, but also whatever it is that they need. Practicing this in conjunction with the breath helps us to remain mindful of the visualizations. When we take in the problems of others, we simply imagine the problems coming in the form of black light, which of course from the Western physics point of view is a contradiction, as light can’t be black. But any way, we imagine very dark colored light coming into us and then white light going out with our breath.

This is the kind of visualization that we would do on a very beginner level. However, if we’re not emotionally mature, if we are unstable in any way, we should absolutely not try to practice the more advanced visualizations, because they will absolutely freak us out. But for those who have more stable and have a long-term practice, I’ll just briefly mention them. The main point is that we want to destroy the self-cherishing that makes us unwilling to deal with other’s difficulties – for example, the thought, “I would rather ignore it. It’s just too horrible to deal with; it’s just too much for me.”

The first level visualization is to imagine that that the other person’s problems come into us in the form of filthy substances, like grease, car oil, and grime, for example. It’s these types of really dirty substances that will affect the attitude that we might have that, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty by dealing with this situation.” But we want to be able to be “hands on,” as we say in English, with these situations.

The second level involves imagining that the problems come in the form of vomit, diarrhea, pus, snot, or urine – all the types of substances that we really don’t want to get on us – particularly from other people. We don’t want to have to deal with their excrement, clean up their vomit or this type of thing, or have them vomit all over us. So, in our imaginations, we imagine willingly taking on and dealing with others’ problems, no matter how repulsive we might find them.

The third step, the really advanced one, is to imagine that the suffering, the problems of others, come into us in the form of whatever it is that terrifies us the most, whether it’s cockroaches, spiders, snakes, or whatever it might be. Some people aren’t afraid of insects or reptiles, but there must be something that we’re absolutely terrified of. So, we focus on whatever is the most terrifying to us, something that we really want to run away from at all cost, such as violence. What we feel when we do this is most likely resistance, this hardened resistance, and that’s what we actually want to fight. Because to be a real bodhisattva, we have to have the courage to deal with the most horrible problems of the world.

These are the more advanced visualizations for taking on the suffering and problems of others, and as I’ve said, it’s very important to only do these when we have emotional stability, otherwise it really is too much. But this is the way His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Serkong Rinpoche always taught, not the ‘Dharma-Lite’ version. Finally, at the last stage, when we breathe out, we visualize not just white light, but happiness, peace of mind, or whatever it is that the other person might need at the moment, such as food or security.

How to Handle Taking on Others’ Suffering

It’s very important, when doing these types of advanced practices, not to hold on to any of this suffering inside. If we’re imagining, for example, rats coming into us and eating away our self-cherishing, it’s not that we’re now filled with rats, or we’re filled with vomit. We don’t actually keep all that suffering inside. It’s very important to be able to dissolve this suffering. Yes, we’re willing to experience it, but it passes through us.

The simplest version – the one that I mention to people who have really no experience in Buddhism – is just that whatever we’re imagining goes down the drain, like in a sink at your heart. But we also really need to have an understanding of voidness, that these problems arise from causes and conditions, and have no true findable existence, and so on. It’s within the understanding of voidness that things can truly dissolve, and it’s this understanding that makes it possible for us to give happiness and so on to others.

We can also think in terms of the mahamudra type of approach, that these problems and horrific appearances are waves on the ocean of the mind, which naturally settle down into the pure nature of the mind. Or we can reflect that we’re not experiencing the deepest nature of the mind, that the true nature of the mind is happiness, good qualities, and so on. Furthermore, we can take this approach on a highest yoga tantra level, the anuttarayoga tantra level. We can recognize that all of what we’re imagining is being dissolved into the clear-light mind – the clear-light mind and the blissful understanding of voidness, which is the source of all appearances.

It’s on the basis of this blissful understanding of voidness with the clear-light mind that we can truly give happiness to others – in terms of the breath as well. The breath is very much made up of energy. The suffering, disturbing emotions and all the problems of others are kinds of disturbed energy. When we take this energy on with the breath, and experience it directly, as we do in highest yoga tantra, we want to dissolve those breaths, those disturbed energies, into the subtlest level of the mind. It is then, with a very calm type of energy, that we can create emanations to be able to benefit others.

There are many levels of profundity with which we can understand how to deal with others’ problems in tonglen practice – how to dissolve them once we’ve taken them on and then give solutions and happiness to others. If we have the background, it’s helpful to keep all of these in mind.

If at the very beginning of our practice we don’t have equanimity and we try to do these tonglen practices, then what happens is that we only do it for our friends and this tends to increase our attachment to them. That happens because the basis for our doing it is based on attachment to a particular friend and our desire for them to overcome their unhappiness. So, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, it’s best to start our tonglen practice with more general examples, thinking of taking on the sufferings of all the beings in each of the six realms of samsaric existence, from the hell realms up to the heavens. This will help to stabilize and strengthen our equanimity as the basis for tonglen. Although His Holiness doesn’t mention this, but personally I think that once we’re able to practice on the basis of equanimity, then in order to go beyond the plateau that we might be at, we need to practice with specific people we encounter. When we practice tonglen aimed at the sufferings of all the beings in a specific realm in general, it’s hard to really develop a sincere feeling. The practice tends to be too vague.

When we’re more advanced, we try to do this practice with much more challenging people, not only the ones that we’re familiar with, but we try, for example, to do tonglen for George Bush and imagine taking on the suffering that he must be experiencing, or for Saddam Hussein. We’re really quite advanced if we can do this, because obviously they’re suffering enormously.

Once we have gained experience in taking on the problems of others and giving them happiness, we can apply tonglen to the second situation in which it is commonly practiced. When we ourselves are suffering from a specific problem, let’s say we’re sick, then rather than feeling, “poor me” and getting depressed, we can imagine taking on the suffering of everybody who has that same problem. We think, “May it all come to me, because I can deal with it, I can handle it.” We then develop the courage and bravery to deal with not just our own problems, which our self-cherishing would make us not to want to deal with. Instead we think, “Give me everyone’s problem. I’m going to do it,” and so we deal with the problems that everybody experiences, such as a particular sickness or a disturbing emotion.

Overall, this is an extraordinary way to transform negative circumstances into positive ones – however, only if we can do it sincerely, and if we can remember to do it. But often we don’t want to deal even with our own problems. We just feel sorry for ourselves, and it’s our self-cherishing that makes our problems even worse. Another good example is when we’re feeling lonely. We can take the time to simply recognize that we have the same problem that everybody else has. Once we truly realize this, we can strive to truly be of benefit to others and wish, “May everybody else’s loneliness ripen on me.”