Relative Bodhichitta and Tonglen

Other languages

We are discussing the Seven Point Mind Training by the Kadam Geshe Chekawa who lived in the 12th century. We’ve covered the first point, which is the preliminaries, and in the second point, the actual training in bodhichitta, we’ve discussed the training in deepest bodhichitta. Now we are ready to discuss the training in relative bodhichitta.

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

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

This section is discussed in terms of what we would do in actual meditation sessions and what we would do in between. This first line here is what we would do in the meditation.

Now, as I said, this text is quite advanced and the practice of tonglen is quite advanced. It assumes that we have already worked on the stages for being able to do this practice, and it fits in with the practices for developing this bodhichitta intent – to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all, and to try to help others as much as possible on the way – it’s the way to reach enlightenment.

There are two general methods for developing bodhichitta. The one that the practice of tonglen usually is put into is this practice of equalizing and exchanging self with others. We spoke about the origin of that yesterday. It starts with developing equanimity, and this is first of all the equanimity which is developed in common with the Hinayana training. This type of equanimity is the equanimity in which we clear our minds and hearts of any type of disturbing emotion toward different beings. So what we try to do is clear ourselves of attraction to some, attachment, and repulsion or rejection, anger toward others, and the third one is naivety, which would cause us to ignore yet others.

The way that we develop that, just very much in brief, is to see that in terms of beginningless rebirth, which is sort of taken in Buddhism as a given axiom, that over time and many, many rebirths everybody has changed positions. Sometimes they’ve been friends, sometimes they’ve been enemies, sometimes they’ve been strangers, and this type of position changes all the time. In this sense, we can clear ourselves of being attracted, repelled, or indifferent toward anyone, and that forms the foundation or basis for bodhichitta. But it also is a practice that is very much done also in Hinayana training.

The next step is to develop the Mahayana type of equanimity, which is also called having an equal attitude toward everyone, equalizing our attitude toward everyone, which includes, of course, ourselves. It’s not just that we and everyone are equal, but we think on reasons for why we’re all equal. If we do this in an extensive way, there are many reasons – nine, which we don’t have time to go through – but the basic thing is that everyone wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy. In this sense, we’re all equal. Everybody wants to be helped, nobody wants to be not helped. Everybody equally feels the pain of their suffering.

This forms the foundation for not just the first step, which is ridding our minds of these disturbing emotions that would prevent us from really getting involved. This is developing the foundation for the positive emotion to actually do something. That’s why it’s called the special Mahayana way of developing this equanimity.

Then we go on to thinking of the disadvantages of cherishing ourselves. This in terms of thinking of all the sources of our problems and difficulties, as when we are just totally preoccupied with ourselves, like when we are depressed and we think “poor me.” Or we go somewhere and somebody prepares a meal for us or something like that, and we don’t particularly like it, and so we get very unhappy. We don’t think in terms of the intention of the other person, which was not to make something that we would dislike, but to make something that we would like. There is a very extensive discussion of this, but we don’t really have so much time to go into it. It’s a very profound point that is very important when we actually are feeling miserable and unhappy: to identify what is the source of it. It can always be traced to just thinking about “poor me,” this self-cherishing attitude.

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

There are, again, much deeper and more profound points that can be brought up in terms of cherishing others as the source of happiness. You see that with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, it’s very clear. He said recently in an interview that he has never felt depressed, and he feels a little bit sad that it’s difficult for him to empathize with people about that, because he has never ever experienced that emotion. And you look at him, and – especially if you’re able to spend a lot of time with him – he is always happy. And you think of all the problems that he has, with the Chinese, and internally within the Tibetan community, and so on, and the unbelievable schedule that he leads traveling around the world, and he’s never depressed, never feels “Oh, I don’t want to go and meet a million people today,” but he’s always very happy. What gives him the greatest joy is just meeting another person. You see that, when he 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 – 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 – by making others happy.

It was very interesting, at the first meeting of the Network of Western Buddhist Teachers, someone asked His Holiness, “What do we do when we have this feeling of wanting to just take time off and time out,” that, “It’s really quite difficult to always be the teacher, and always be in that situation.” And there was a whole discussion of how we deal with that issue of sort of taking time off and lead a so-called normal life. And His Holiness was saying that bodhisattvas would never want time out or time off. That’s impossible, that’s a contradiction that you would want time off from being a bodhisattva. If it’s sincere, then you would take joy in that always. That’s the thing of self-cherishing versus cherishing others. Self-cherishing: “I want time off to myself.”

Of course, we need some balance in our lives, if we haven’t reached the point where we’re able to just take joy in helping others. Because sometimes when we are involved in trying help others, because we are thinking at that time just of “me,” then we resent it and we get very frustrated and so on. So there is certainly a need for a balance. Even Shantideva pointed out that if we’re striving to be a bodhisattva and trying to act like a bodhisattva, we certainly need to take care of our own needs. Like you would feed a servant or somebody who works for you, you likewise need to take care of yourself, so that you’re able to continue working for others, and not just drive yourself to the point where you’re no longer able to deal with the situation. That’s not based on self-cherishing, that’s based on being able to help others more. You have to get enough sleep or whatever.

Then this leads to, in this sequence, to having the practice of tonglen, giving and taking, which is done in conjunction with compassion and love. Normally we think of the order in terms of first love, and then compassion – the wish for others to be happy and then to remove their suffering and to be free of suffering. But in practice it’s the other way around, because people won’t be able to appreciate or enjoy happiness or anything that they need, if you don’t relieve them first of their suffering. So, with compassion, the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering, we imagine taking it on ourselves, removing it from them. And not just removing it from them and throwing it away in the garbage without dealing with it, but experiencing it ourselves.

Then, with love – the wish for them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness – we imagine giving them whatever they require that would make them happy, and not just in the tiny short term, but in the long term. And if we have the ability, then actually giving it to them, not just imagining giving it to them.

Then we get what’s called the “exceptional resolve” or the “extraordinary wish,” which is the resolve to try to benefit not just the people in our immediate vicinity, or the ones that we’re trying to do this tonglen practice with, even if we’re trying to imagine doing that on a very extensive scale, but the real resolve to take – His Holiness calls this “universal responsibility” – really try to benefit absolutely everybody, all beings, and try to benefit them to the ultimate level.

That’s the exceptional resolve, and that leads to bodhichitta, which is the bodhichitta aim, that because of this wish and this very strong resolve, “I’m going to do it,” then we aim for enlightenment – because that’s the way that we’re going to be able to benefit others as much as possible – with the intention that we’ve been developing all along here, which is to do that to be of best benefit to everyone.

That’s this first sequence of equalizing and exchanging self with others, and it’s in that context that tonglen is taught.

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 that sequence, there is what’s known as the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation, which combines the two methods, and there tonglen appears. So, we can bring in that seven-part cause and effect meditation into our practice of tonglen.

It starts off with the equanimity that’s in common with Hinayana – to clear away attraction, repulsion and indifference. That’s the first step, because it’s in common for both practices, both methods. And then [as the second round] we have the first one from this seven-part. It’s on the basis, then, that we’ve all been friends, enemies and strangers to each other, then recognizing that everybody at some point has been our mother.

In our Shantideva class we came up with a proof of that, because the Tibetans never think to prove it, they take that as a given. But given that the premise here is beginningless time, finite number of sentient beings, and everybody is equal, then prove that everybody has been your mother. So, we came up with a proof: 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 that were not the case, then if one sentient being was not our mother, was never our mother, then no sentient being was ever our mother, because everybody is equal. Therefore we didn’t have a mother in this lifetime.

This is a perfect Prasangika proof, using an absurd conclusion, and why I’m bringing this up is that when I was in Toronto I met a Geshe who was one of the teachers at the debating school in Dharamsala. And so I told him the proof and asked him whether or not, from an expert’s point of view, this would be an acceptable proof to the Tibetans, and he was very pleased. He said yes, he thought that was a very good proof. So, when I was in Mexico there was a mathematician there, and he said that he would work out the mathematical logic for the proof. He thought also that, given those things of infinite time, finite number of beings and everyone equal, that he could prove mathematically that everybody at one point had been your mother. I anxiously await that proof, although I’m sure I won’t be able to understand it.

Based on everyone having been our mothers, we remember the kindness that we’ve received from everybody when they’ve been our mothers, or closest friends, or however you want to do it; and also that, even when they’ve not been our mothers, they’ve been very kind to us, because everything that we make use of – that we eat, or use in our homes – comes from the work of others. So, everybody has been kind to us, and then naturally what comes from that, is the wish to repay that kindness.

“Repaying the kindness of others” is the way that I’ve always translated the term for the step and the way other people have translated it as well. But, the idea of “repayment” comes with a lot of cultural luggage – that you’re in debt, and if you repay it, then you don’t have to deal with the person anymore. You sort of paid off your debt and now you’re free. I think that that’s certainly not the connotation here. 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 actually “repaying” it “until we’ve paid enough.” “Reciprocate” means to make it mutual, “You thank me, I thank you,” “I scratch your back, you scratch my back.”

In the seven-part cause and effect meditation we go immediately from this to the development of love and then compassion, but here we insert some steps from the equalizing and exchanging self and others method.

But before that there is a step, which is part of developing love for others – the wish for others to be happy and not to be unhappy – which is not ever counted as a separate step. This is called “the development of heart-warming love,” I translate it. Heart-warming love is based on this feeling of, “Everybody has been our mother, and kind, and wanting to repay them,” then whenever we meet anybody, as we’re equal to everybody, it warms our heart. We feel very happy, we feel very warm, we feel especially close to everybody.

It’s on the basis of that, 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 one we put in, on the basis of this heart-warming love, then the equalizing attitude – everybody wants to be happy and nobody wants to be unhappy – this equal attitude toward everybody. Then the disadvantages of self-cherishing, the advantages of cherishing others, and then the tonglen, which we normally reverse the sequence – we take on their suffering with compassion and give them happiness with love – and then we go on as before – this exceptional resolve and then the bodhichitta aim.

That’s the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation, which is much fuller obviously.

In this context, we have here the practice that is mentioned in the text, of doing tonglen, mounting it on the breath. As I said, tonglen is incredibly advanced and not at all a trivial topic. There are two ways of applying it. One is just thinking in terms of others suffering, and the other is when we ourselves are suffering.

When we imagine taking on the suffering from others, we need to be totally willing to experience it ourselves and to deal with it. On the simplest level, “I’m going to deal with your problems, and I’m going to try to find a solution for you,” on the basis of equality of self and others, “as if it were my own problem.”

This is why when we speak about renunciation and compassion, that they’re the same. Renunciation is based on wishing to be free from our own problems and then compassion is just switching it to others with that same intensity. And so if we ourselves have actually experienced that type of problem, we have much more empathy, we’re able to understand and appreciate the other person’s pain. So, in doing this practice we really need to be willing to take on that suffering – catch the other person’s cold, if we’re helping them, not put up these defenses, which usually just make you catch the cold much more easily – and not be afraid of it.

Now of course if we’ve never experienced, you know, as a man, the pain involved with giving birth to a child, then obviously that’s very hard for us to imagine that, but we try our best. We try our best as obviously certain things are going to be very difficult to empathize with.

Naturally in most cases it’s not going to work that we remove the suffering from others, but obviously if we’re thinking in terms of others, we think in terms of your child who is sick, that energy behind it, to want to free them from their suffering is much stronger than if it were just with ourselves. But, as I say, in most cases you’re not able to actually take on the suffering of others, because obviously it’s coming from karma. But what you can do is provide the circumstances for more positive karma, let’s say the karma to be healed or something like that, for them to ripen. This is like doing prayers for long life, or for Medicine Buddha, or these sort of things. What it does, is build up the circumstances that can act as conditions for more positive karma to ripen.

Likewise, thinking in terms of ourselves, that “May we actually experience it,” this willingness to experience it without fear, that can act as a circumstance for bringing up negative karma on our side that would actually ripen. But because of our bodhichitta intent, the result of that, the suffering that we would experience, would be less, but we need to be willing to die. Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, always taught it in that way, and as you can read on my website with a biography, “A Portrait of Serkong Rinpoche,” he actually did practice this and died that way to give his life for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

It only actually will work if there is a very, very close special karmic relation with the other person; normally it doesn’t. That’s why you never tell anybody that you’re doing this, and never put on a big act, because in most cases it won’t work, and you not only disappoint the other person, but they think that you’re an absolute idiot, a fool. So, they’re never going to have confidence in you again. In the Eight Verses of Mind Training it says always to do this practice in secret, private.

Even if it doesn’t really help the other person, the other major purpose of doing this practice is to destroy our self-cherishing, and to develop the strong courage to be able to actually follow the bodhisattva path, and deal with everybody’s suffering, and help remove that. This is why you have some very, very strong visualizations which are done with this. As it says in the text, we do this in connection with the breath, which is, in meditation you imagine as you breathe in, taking the problems and you visualize it coming to you in a certain form, and as you breathe out you imagine that you give them not only happiness, but whatever it is that they need. And so keeping it with the breath – I mean, I’ll get to that in a moment, has a much deeper significance as well, but it – helps us to remain mindful of that.

When we take in the problems of others, the very simple, basic way in which it is described, is that we imagine the problem coming in in the form of black light, which of course from the Western physics point of view is a contradiction, light can’t be black. But in any way, we imagine very, very dark colored light coming into us and white light going out with our breath. This is the visualization that we would do on a very beginner level. And if we’re not emotionally mature, if we are unstable in any way, absolutely do not try the more advanced visualizations, because they will absolutely freak you out. But for those of you who have more of a long-term type of practice, I’ll just very briefly mention them.

The point is that we want to destroy the self-cherishing that makes us unwilling to deal with other’s difficulties, “I would rather ignore it. It’s just too horrible to deal with; it’s just too much for me.”

And so the first level, I mean after the black light level, would be to imagine that all sorts of dirty substances come into us, that their problems take this form of the dirty substances – grease, and car oil, and grime, this type of really, really dirty type of substances, which deals with this attitude that we might have, which is, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty by dealing with this situation.” We want to be able to be “hands on,” we say in English, with these situations.

The second level would be to imagine that the problems come in in the form of vomit, and diarrhea, and pus, and snot, and urine, all these types of substances that we really don’t want to get on us, and 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, and so we imagine the willingness to take on and deal with that.

The third step, the really advanced one, is to imagine that the suffering, the problems of others come in in the form of whatever it is that terrifies us the most, whether it’s cockroaches, or spiders, or snakes, or whatever it might be. Some people aren’t afraid of insects or reptiles, rats, but there must be something that we’re absolutely terrified of. So whatever is the most terrifying to us, that we really don’t want to deal with, we really want to run away from at all cost – violence, it could be whatever, that we imagine it coming in in that form. Because what you feel when you do this is this resistance, this hard, hardened resistance, and that’s what you want to fight, because to be a real bodhisattva you 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 say, it’s very important to do that only when we have emotional stability, otherwise it really is too much. But this is what His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Serkong Rinpoche always taught, not the Dharma-Lite version of this.

When we breathe out, then not just white light, but happiness, and peace of mind, and whatever it is that they might need, food or security or whatever.

It’s very important when doing this type of practice, not to hold on to the suffering inside. If you’re doing it with rats and so on, they eat away the self-cherishing but it’s not that you’re now filled with rats, or you’re now filled with vomit or you actually keep all that suffering inside. It’s very important to be able to dissolve that suffering. You’re willing to experience it, but it passes through you. The most simple version – that I mention to people who have no experience really in Buddhism – is just that it goes down the drain, like in a sink at your heart. But we really need to think in terms of the understanding of voidness, that these things arise from causes and conditions, and have no true findable existence, and so on. It’s within that understanding of voidness that the thing dissolves. That’s really the source of the solution, is through that understanding of voidness. On that basis we can give to others.

But also we can think in terms of the mahamudra type of approach, that these are waves on the ocean of the mind and it sort of settles down, or that’s not the deepest nature of the mind and the nature of the mind is happiness and good qualities and so on, so we can give that to others.

Or also we can think of this on a highest yoga tantra level, anuttarayoga tantra level, actually with the understanding of voidness and the wave on the ocean image and so on, that all this is being dissolved into the clear-light mind, the clear-light mind understanding of voidness, which is the source of appearances, and that this is the blissful understanding of voidness. It’s on that basis of that blissful understanding of voidness with the clear-light mind, that we give happiness to others – in terms of the breath as well. The breath is very much in terms of energy, and the suffering and the disturbing emotions and all these things of others, is a disturbed energy. When we take it on with the breath, and experience it, and get it down, as you do in the highest yoga tantra, you want to dissolve those breaths – those disturbed energies – into the most subtle level of mind, and then – with a very calm type of energy – make emanations to be able to benefit others.

There are many, many levels of profundity with which one can understand how you deal with the problems, dissolve them, and give happiness and the solutions to others. If we have the background, it’s helpful to keep all of these in mind. That’s how it actually works.

So when we’re actually practicing this, don’t just leave it on the level of the suffering of all the hungry ghosts and so on, which is too vague, although it has its benefits. But I find it very helpful to do it with specific people that we know who have specific problems, and have this problem of confusion, or are out of work, or whatever it is. Imagine it, try to feel that disturbance of the energy that they’re feeling, that experience, and try to quiet that down. Give them the “innate happiness” that’s theirs as part of the innate qualities of the mind. This I find is very effective, rather than doing it in an abstract way of the six realms of beings, which is hard to really relate to in everyday life, although it has its benefits, of course.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has spoken about those benefits. He explains that at the beginning it’s very important to be able to practice this giving and taking on the basis of equanimity, in other words having an equal attitude toward everyone. If at the very beginning of our practice we don’t have equanimity and we try to do this tonglen practice, then what happens is that we just do it with our friends and it tends to increase our attachment to them, because the basis for it is attachment to the particular friend and wanting them to overcome their unhappiness and wanting them to be happy. So at the beginning we tend to practice, His Holiness explains, with more general examples, like all beings or the beings of this realm or that realm in order to increase our equanimity, in other words in order to have a stable basis of equanimity. And then I think, although his Holiness doesn’t mention this, but then I think that once we’re able to practice on a basis of equanimity, then in order to go beyond the plateau that we might be at that level, then we need to practice with specific people, because, as I was explaining, when we do this with just a realm in general, a certain type of being in general, it’s hard really to develop a sincere feeling.

When we’re advanced you try to do this with much more challenging people, not just the ones that you’re familiar with from your personal acquaintances, but try doing tonglen with George Bush and the suffering that he must be experiencing, or Saddam Hussein sitting in the prison. Then you’re really quite advanced, if you can do that, because obviously they’re suffering enormously.

The other situation in which we apply this practice is – on this basis of having this experience of taking on the problems of others and giving them happiness – then when we are suffering from a specific problem, let’s say we’re sick. Then, rather than feeling, “poor me,” and getting depressed, then we imagine that, “I take on the suffering of everybody who has that same problem. May it all come to me, because I can deal with it, I can handle it,” and so we have the courage and bravery to deal with not just our own problem, which our self-cherishing would make us not to want to deal with, but “Give me everyone’s problem. I’m going to do it,” and deal with the problem that everybody experiences of this particular sickness, or a disturbing emotion, or whatever it might be. This is an extraordinary way to transform negative circumstances into positive ones, if we can do it sincerely, if we can remember to do it.

But often we don’t want to deal even with our own problem. We just feel sorry for ourselves, it’s our self-cherishing that makes the problem worse. Another good example is when we’re feeling lonely. We have the same problem that everybody else has. We’re dealing with the same problem. “May everybody else’s loneliness ripen on me.”