The Foundation and Deepest Bodhichitta

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Sources of the Text

I’d like to explain a very important text in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called The Seven Point Mind Training by a great master from the Kadam tradition, Geshe Chekawa. This teaching is primarily based on the practice of changing the viewpoint of self and others. It aims to reverse the tendency that we have to always think about and cherish ourselves, often ignoring others. Through this practice we learn how to cherish and think of others first, as well as find ways to benefit them.

There are two sutra sources of this text. One is the Gandavyuha Sutra, A Sutra Spread Out Like a Tree Trunk, which is the last chapter of a much larger text called the Avatamsaka Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra. The Gandavyuha Sutra is about a young pilgrim seeking enlightenment. He goes to fifty-three different bodhisattvas, and each of them teaches him a different type of bodhisattva practice. This text and the larger one, the Avatamsaka Sutra, are among the few texts that were translated into Tibetan from the Chinese translation, primarily because the original Sanskrit had been lost by the time it was transmitted to Tibet. Tsongkhapa said that if it weren’t for this literature, Tibet wouldn’t really have the full teachings of the bodhisattva path.

The second sutra that our text is based on is another chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Vajradvajaparinamana Sutra, Vajradvaja’s Transferences (of Positive Potential) Sutra. Many people question the sutra sources of these mind training teachings, so Serkong Rinpoche explained where they came from. These teachings were also explained quite extensively by Shantideva in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Bodhisattvacharyavatara.

Atisha received this lineage of teachings from Lama Serlingpa. He had made an arduous journey to Sumatra to receive them from him, probably having heard about them from his teacher Dharmarakshita, the author of Wheel of Sharp Weapons. Then Atisha brought them to Tibet, transmitting them along with his Kadam tradition that followed. The teachings then went to Atisha’s main disciple Dromtonpa, and from him to Geshe Potowa, who had two main disciples. The older disciple, Langri Tangpa, wrote the Eight Verses of Mind Training and the younger one was Geshe Chekawa, the author of this text.

One day, Geshe Chekawa came across the Eight Verses of Mind Training at the home of Geshe Chagshinpa. Chekawa was really drawn to the line, “Give the victory to others and accept the fault on yourself.” He asked who wrote it, and when he was told it was by Langri Tangpa, he went to Lhasa to find him. Langri Tangpa, however, had already passed away. Chekawa was told that he could also get these teachings from another disciple, Geshe Sharawa, and so he went to Sharawa.

It’s a long story, but eventually Chekawa convinced Geshe Sharawa to teach him. Geshe Sharawa informed him that the line he was interested in actually came from Nagarjuna’s text, Ratnavali, The Precious Garland, another well-known Indian text. Geshe Chekawa spent six years studying these teachings with Geshe Sharawa, and then went on to write the text we now have.

The teachings were later passed on to Lhadingpa, and from him come two lineages. One went to his disciple Togme Zangpo, the author of 37 Bodhisattva Practices. It is the one followed by the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. Togme Zangpo also wrote a very popular and well-known commentary to Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. I don’t have a list of the disciples to whom the second lineage from Lhadingpa passed, but, after about two centuries, this second lineage reached Tsongkhapa, who passed it on to his disciple Namkapel, the author of the Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun. From him it passed further in what became the Gelug tradition. As we can see, all these mind training texts fit together in lineages deriving from Serlingpa and Atisha.

Various Versions and Editions

One thing that is quite noticeable with The Seven Point Mind Training is that there are many different versions and editions of it. There are two main textual divisions: one deriving from Togme Zangpo and the other from Tsongkhapa. These two main versions differ from each other in that a few lines are either added, left out or arranged in a different order. Within each of the two lineages as well there are several versions also with small differences. This can sometimes lead to confusion, because the commentaries given by different teachers and translated into European languages are often based on different versions of the text.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was asked about how to deal with all these versions. He answered that a variety of editions sometimes happens with the transmission of texts, such as from this lojong tradition, but it doesn’t really make a significant difference. The main intention of all the editions is the same. It’s just that a few things have been added from the oral tradition or taken away, and lines can always be rearranged in one way or another. That’s quite usual. His Holiness said that was OK; otherwise, we have a big hassle of trying to identify “which is the correct version.”

That said, we’re never going to be able to decide which version is correct because this whole lojong tradition is based on practice and on its practical application to life. When, as students of the Dharma, we study such a text, we don’t approach it in the way a scholar or an academic would. Our aim is to understand how to apply its teachings, figuring out what makes the most sense when trying to fit it all together.

My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, taught the older version, the Togme Zangpo version. That’s the one that I’ll follow here, although I’ve also received teachings on other versions of the text from His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, my other main teachers.

The First Point: Training in the Preliminaries

First, we need to understand the term “lojong.” It’s usually translated as “mind training,” but “lo” does not only mean “the mind” or “the emotions.” It also means our “mental attitude,” our “emotional attitude” toward life and toward dealing with situations – particularly, difficult situations that we come across. “Jong” has two meanings. One meaning is “to cleanse.” This doesn’t mean to clean like to wash; it means to clear out dirt so that it’s no longer there. Likewise, we clean out the mind of negative attitudes. “Jong” also has the meaning “to train” – to build up, learn, develop and train in positive attitudes. Overall, the meaning of lojong is to cleanse out negative attitudes and train in positive ones. However, it’s not a term that is very easy to translate in just two words, in any European language.

This teaching, by the way, is quite advanced. It assumes that we’re already following the bodhisattva path and so have a strong emphasis on developing bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a mind and heart aimed at our own future enlightenment. What’s most important about bodhichitta is our intention to achieve that enlightenment so that we can benefit all beings as best as is possible. Since this teaching assumes that we have already developed bodhichitta to a certain extent, it doesn’t go into much detail about the preliminaries for it or the actual way to develop it. Because of this fact, I won’t give a detailed explanation of all the preliminaries or methods for developing bodhichitta. I’ll just mention briefly some key points about them.

The text starts with:

Prostration to great compassion.

Compassion is the foundation for all bodhisattva practices. In general, compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering, problems and their causes. Great compassion is aimed at everybody, not just a few people. It is the wish for everybody in the universe to be free, from liberated arhats down to insects and hell beings. It also assumes that everybody, including us, is equal. It’s this conviction that makes us willing to take action to actually try to help others with as much urgency as we would help ourselves. So with great compassion, we gain the willingness, courage and exceptional resolve to work to attain enlightenment as the only way that we’ll be able to help others the best.

The first of these seven points is the preliminaries, reflected in this one line:

Train first in the preliminaries.

This refers to the preliminary practices shared in common by sutra and tantra that we find in all traditions. These are also the preliminaries for developing bodhichitta. For example, in the lam-rim graded path teachings these preliminaries cover the initial and intermediate scope trainings. They start with meditation on the precious human life, and then on impermanence and death. We need to understand that this life is not going to last forever, so we take safe direction, or refuge. We then think about karmic cause and effect and resolve to act in positive ways, avoiding negative actions. We do all of this in order to improve our future lives. Finally, when thinking about the disadvantages of uncontrollable rebirth in samsara, we develop renunciation in order to gain liberation from it. These are the preliminaries.

What’s significant is that here we are not starting to practice these preliminaries as beginners, without any background at all. This first of the seven points refers to going back to these preliminary meditations when we already have a bodhichitta aim. It’s important to remember that we don’t go through the graded stages of lam-rim just once. We always go through the preliminaries again and again so that we get an ever deeper understanding, furthering what we’ve understood before.

What makes this precious human life so precious? It’s precious because we have all the freedoms from situations that would prevent us from practicing and developing ourselves further. Not only that, we also have all the favorable opportunities that allow us to practice and develop. What’s so precious is that with bodhichitta, we can use this precious human life to work toward enlightenment and to help others as much as is possible. After all, we can’t help others so much if we’re an animal, or if we’re starving to death!

Again, it’s important to understand that this life is not going to last forever; death can come at any time. It’s because death can come at any time that we don’t want to waste our life. Everybody experiences difficult circumstances and situations in life, so we need to be able to transform them so that we don’t lose time. A strong bodhichitta motivation gives us the strong energy to apply the mind training practices with focus and clarity of why we’re doing them. This is the reason why we take safe direction or refuge. It’s not only because we’re afraid of worse rebirths and have confidence that this direction will enable us to improve, but it’s also because of our compassion for others that we want to head in the direction of enlightenment without wasting time. This is what the Buddha attained, what the Dharma teaches, and what the Arya Sangha has realized in part.

It’s going to take many, many lifetimes for us to reach enlightenment, so we really need to make sure that we continue to have all the opportunities to make further progress in all our future lives. We cannot just leave our plans vague. We must make very careful preparations, such as by developing strong connections with teachers, with study, with the practice, with meditation, and with actually helping others. We do all of these so that instinctively as a child in our next life we’ll be drawn to being kind by nature. We’ll naturally be kind, want to help others and want to develop ourselves in a spiritual way, rather than being instinctively cruel, selfish, and so on even if we’re reborn as a human.

But no matter what type of rebirth we have, it’s always going to be filled with samsaric problems, with ups and downs. Any situation, even the most ideal, is going to have problems. For example, we have to find some way to make a living and then in the end we grow old, get sick and die. There’ll always be these kinds of problems. It’s this fact of repeatedly dying and being reborn that is really the hindrance to being able to help everybody fully. For example, in each life we have to start over as a baby; we can’t do terribly much to help others when we’re an infant or a baby, can we? Nor can we help much when we’re very old and become senile or sick. Again, we’ve got to overcome all of these uncontrollably recurring syndromes in order to gain liberation and enlightenment.

To summarize, going through the preliminaries is the first point of this Seven Point Mind Training. But as we can see, we need to go through them from the point of view of bodhichitta, which really strengthens our bodhisattva practice. This is important because so many of us have studied these graded stages of lam-rim. We have to avoid thinking, “Now I’ve gone through lam-rim, and I’ve reached the advanced level, so I’ll just stick with the Mahayana training. No need to work further on the preliminary stages that support it.”

The Second Point: The Two Types of Bodhichitta

The second point is the actual training in the two bodhichittas, relative and deepest. Relative or conventional bodhichitta is a mind aimed at our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, with the intention to achieve it and thereby to help everybody as much as is possible. It is aimed at the nonstatic aspects of our not-yet-happening enlightenment – a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, namely the omniscient mind of a Buddha that knows how to help everyone attain enlightenment, and a Rupakaya or Body of Forms, with which to help them attain it. Deepest bodhichitta is aimed at the static aspect of our not-yet-happening enlightenment – a Svabhavakaya, an Essential Nature Body, namely the voidness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the true stoppings on it. We could go into a big discussion about these two bodhichittas, but basically, we need the joint development of both in order to attain each of these Buddha Bodies.

There are two orders for developing the two bodhichittas. One, which we find in the lam-rim, is that even though we need the understanding of voidness to gain liberation and enlightenment, we don’t emphasize it first. It’s more important first to have a bodhichitta motivation and then to develop the understanding of voidness. This is because bodhichitta provides strong energy to the understanding of voidness so that it will break through all our obscurations – not just the obscurations preventing liberation, but also the obscurations preventing omniscient enlightenment. This is one order for developing the two bodhichittas and is especially suited for emotional types of practitioners.

The other order is working to attain deepest bodhichitta, the understanding of voidness, first and then to develop relative bodhichitta. His Holiness explains this very nicely. With the understanding of voidness, we become convinced of the void nature of the mind and of all the disturbing emotions and attitudes that obscure it. This conviction gives us further conviction that it is possible to actually get rid of them forever and to achieve liberation and enlightenment. Unless we have that confidence that enlightenment is possible, gained from the understanding of voidness, it’s very difficult to really put our hearts into working to achieve it with relative bodhichitta.

So, for the more intelligent disciples, rather than the more emotional types, it’s recommended to develop deepest bodhichitta first to at least some level of accuracy and decisiveness. Once we become confident from that level of understanding that it is possible to achieve liberation and enlightenment because of the voidness of the mind and the voidness of cause and effect, we then work to develop the strong motivation to achieve that enlightenment for the benefit of others. When that bodhichitta motivation becomes firm, we have built up enough positive force to be able to attain the final, full understanding of voidness.

The order of the older version of the text, the Togme Zangpo version, is to have voidness, the deepest bodhichitta, explained first, and then relative bodhichitta. However, Tsongkhapa, emphasizing the lam-rim graded path, put the order the other way around. He said that, according to the oral tradition that he followed, we should work on developing relative bodhichitta first. Thus, his disciple, Namkapel, who wrote the Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun, which is basically a commentary on our text here, puts the deepest bodhichitta verses at the end of the text, after all seven points. Pabongka, who lived in the first half of the last century, made his own edition of this text, which he edited from all the different versions. He decided to make a compromise between Togme Zangpo and Namkapel’s versions by putting within the second of the seven points first the verse of relative bodhichitta and then the verse of deepest bodhichitta.

To summarize, there are three variations of the placement of the verses concerning relative and deepest bodhichitta. Serkong Rinpoche, following the Togme Zangpo version, explained the deepest bodhichitta verse first as do the Sakyas, Nyingmas and Kagyus, so we’ll do that as well.

Understanding the Fundamental Nature of Awareness

Togme Zangpo was from the Sakya tradition and so he explained this verse according to the Sakya way of meditating on voidness:

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream. Discern the fundamental 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 the state of the all-encompassing basis.

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream corresponds to the Chittamatra Mind-Only level of analysis, which is where the Sakya meditation on voidness begins. It reflects the assertion that all objects are appearances that come from the same natal source as the consciousness of them. That natal source is a karmic seed, or tendency, which is an imputation on the mind. That means that the appearances that the mind perceives all come from the mind, like mental holograms in a dream. According to the Sakya interpretation of Chittamatra, a person or self, as a whole object that extends over all the aggregates and lasts over time, is a synthesis of all its parts, mentally constructed by the conceptual mind. As such, it is also an imputation on the mind. So, a person as a whole object that also perceives these appearances also derives from the mind. Because of that, both the phenomena that appear and the person perceiving them come, non-dually, from the mind, as does a dream. More precisely, both the objects that are perceived and the consciousness and person that do the perceiving are the non-dual play of the clarity of the mind, the play of the mind’s appearance-making function. This is the Sakya Chittamatra view.

Discern the fundamental nature of awareness that has no arising means that the mind itself, this appearance-making function, can’t be found. It has no true arising, no true abiding, no true ceasing, and lacks true findable existence. This realization is the basic Madhyamaka conceptual understanding of the voidness (emptiness) of the mind, which is the second step in the Sakya way of meditating on voidness. All things are appearances of the mind and come from karmic tendencies that are imputations on the mind, but the mind itself has no true arising; it has no true findable existence. The total absence of any true findable existence of the mind is the voidness of the mind.

All of this is very important to understand for the proper development of relative bodhichitta. If we want to help others, we need to realize that the appearances of what “they” are doing, what “I” am doing, and of “me” as a person and of “all of you” as persons – all of these appearances are coming from the mind, through karma and mental syntheses. But, in fact, the mind that’s producing the appearance of “me” helping “them”, the appearance of “them” being helped, and so on is the mind that doesn’t have any true findable existence. As a result of having this understanding, when we help others, we don’t have clinging and grasping. This is very relevant to the proper practice of the bodhisattva path.

Furthermore, when trying to help others, if we understand these first two lines, we don’t become attached to them and then become angry if something doesn’t work. We don’t think, “All my problems and sufferings come from ‘them’ and from ‘me’ interacting with ‘them’ – poor ‘me.’” We need to recognize that any appearance of our sufferings coming from “them” out there and of poor “me” in here actually come from our mind and our mind has no true findable existence. Because of that, by cleansing our mind, it is possible to get rid of all our confusion and resultant problems and actually reach liberation and enlightenment. So, there are many ways in which progressively understanding the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka views is relevant to the bodhisattva path and very helpful. In short, these first two lines cover the basic Sakya conceptual meditation on voidness.

In the third line of the verse, The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place, the opponent refers to voidness. Voidness, as well, is an imputation by words and concepts. Through words and concepts, we can understand voidness conceptually. But we need to go beyond that conceptual understanding to gain a non-conceptual cognition of voidness. To gain that, we need to understand that voidness. The opponent liberates itself in its own place. This means that the conceptual understanding simultaneously arises, abides and ceases, which is the basic mahamudra approach found in Sakya. Voidness is actually beyond what can be conceptualized with words and concepts, and when we get to the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, that’s the actual opponent.

In short, from realizing that the conceptual understanding of voidness liberates itself in its own place, we can attain the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, which is the next step in the Sakya meditation on voidness. The understanding that voidness itself is beyond all the extremes of true existence and non-true existence leads to the non-conceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts. The equivalent step in the Gelug tradition is gaining the understanding of the voidness of voidness and this is what leads to the non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

The fourth line is The essential nature of the path is to settle within the state of the all-encompassing basis. What does this non-conceptual meditation on voidness beyond words and concepts entail? It entails settling down into the clear light mind and its voidness. In the Sakya tradition, the clear light mind – the subtlest level of mind – is called “the causal alaya,” the causal all-encompassing basis. The clear-light alaya or foundational mind is the cause of all appearances, both pure and impure. Settling down into this basis is the fourth step in the Sakya voidness meditation.

As for the Gelug explanation of these lines, Ponder that phenomena are like a dream refers to all phenomena that are known by the mind – they lack true findable existence. Discern the fundamental nature of awareness that has no arising refers to the voidness of the mind. The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place refers to the voidness of the person who is the opponent doing the meditating. These three lines together refer to analytical, or what I call “discerning” meditation. The essential nature of the path is to settle within the state of the all-encompassing basis then refers to stabilizing meditation on voidness. Voidness here is taken as the all-encompassing basis. This is the standard Gelugpa way of interpreting these lines.

This verse, then, refers to how we meditate on voidness in our meditation sessions to develop deepest bodhichitta.

Between sessions, act like an illusory person.

Even when we are not meditating on voidness, we need to keep mindful of the fact that in spite of nothing having true findable existence, nevertheless everything functions, including myself. Without grasping for the true findable existence of “me,” or “what I’m doing,” or “the person that I’m helping,” in between meditation sessions on voidness, we need to act like an illusory person.


We’ve now covered the teachings of deepest bodhichitta. What we’ve particularly learned is that besides the actual teachings on relative bodhichitta, all the other lam-rim topics, both the initial and intermediate scope teachings preceding them and the voidness teachings that come after, are very much things that we need to incorporate into our bodhisattva practice.

These voidness teachings are especially relevant. We need to become convinced that it’s possible to achieve enlightenment, which means to become convinced that it’s possible to cleanse our minds. It is possible to clear away our negative attitudes and develop positive ones. Those would be impossible if the mind didn’t have voidness as its nature and if the appearances of all these disturbing things weren’t coming from the mind. The whole bodhisattva practice only works because of the voidness of the mind. So, it’s really important that we don’t stay satisfied with just a conceptual understanding of voidness, we need to go further and attain a non-conceptual understanding as well.