Wheel of Sharp Weapons: The Four Sections of the Text

Part One: Contrasting Bodhisattvas with Ordinary Beings

Two Traditions for Developing Conventional Bodhichitta

To destroy self-grasping and self-cherishing and to attain enlightenment, all mind training texts emphasize tonglen. This is the practice of giving and taking as part of the method known as equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others for developing conventional bodhichitta. 

There are two traditions for how to develop conventional bodhichitta, the aspiration: “May I attain my not-yet-attained enlightenment in order to benefit all beings.” For this, we need to develop concern for everyone. One way can be described as an emotionally-based approach and the other is a more rationally-based approach. Both begin with equanimity, leveling out our feelings toward everyone in that we have an equal attitude toward all. We don’t want to work just with those that we like.  

The Emotional Approach to Developing Bodhichitta

After this first leveling out with equanimity as a basis, the emotionally-based method – the seven-part cause and effect meditation – is as follows: “Everybody has been my mother. They have been so kind, and I really feel so grateful and appreciate it so much that I want to repay this kindness. When I think of others it warms my heart. Therefore, I cherish others and it would be terrible if something bad happened to them. May they be happy and have the causes for happiness.” With compassion then: “May they be free of their suffering and the causes of their suffering. I’m going to bring that to them.” Then, with an exceptional resolve, we make the full decision: “I’m really going to do it, bring them all the way to enlightenment.” Then, bodhichitta: “The only way that I can actually do that is by getting rid of all my limitations and so on and becoming a Buddha.” Through that sequence, we aim, with bodhichitta, to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.

This is emotionally-based in that we think of the kindness of everybody, and that they have all been our mothers. For many of us who are more emotionally-inclined, this approach is very effective.

The Rational Approach to Developing Bodhichitta

But there are those of us who are not so emotionally inclined, and for them the more rational approach to developing bodhichitta is more effective. This is done through the practice of equalizing and exchanging self with others. Once we level out the field with equanimity toward everyone, then we see that everyone is equal in that everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. There’s nothing special about me or about anyone else in that way. We are all equal, and on that basis, if we’re thinking only of ourselves with self-cherishing, all sorts of disadvantages arise. Nobody likes us, so they’re not open to receiving our help or advice; we just cause ourselves and others problems, and so on. Whereas thinking of others, cherishing others, brings happiness.

Therefore, what follows is: “I want to change my attitude and think primarily of others. It’s possible to do this. If I look at my body that I cherish so much, it comes actually from pieces of the bodies of other people, the sperm and the egg of my parents. It’s not my body in that I didn’t produce the sperm and egg that made it. What’s the difference between wiping my nose, wiping the nose of my baby, and wiping the nose of the drunk in the street with my finger? No difference, they’re all just noses. We are all equal in that way, we’re all capable of cherishing others, and I can exchange my attitude.”

We change our attitude with tonglen. With vivid visualizations, we take on the sufferings of others with compassion: “May they be free of their suffering and the causes of their suffering.” We give others our happiness: “May they be happy, and may they have the causes for happiness.” Then in the same manner as with the emotional approach, we decide that we’re not just doing it in our imaginations. So, then there’s exceptional resolve: “I’m really going to take responsibility to do it in actuality. To really do that, I have to attain enlightenment.” Then we generate a bodhichitta aim.

Equalizing and Exchanging our Attitudes about Self and Others

This approach appeals to those who are more rationally inclined. It’s not based on the emotional feeling that “Everybody’s been so kind to me, so I want to help them.” Rather, we develop bodhichitta because we all are equal and, because we’re all interconnected, it makes absolute sense to work for the benefit of us all. So, there is nothing special about me. 

We have this more rational approach in the tonglen practice of equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. This is emphasized in the lojong teachings, the mind training teachings, starting here in Wheel of Sharp Weapons and continuing later in Tibet with the Eight Verse Mind Training (Blo-sbyong tshig-brgyad-ma) and the Seven Point Mind Training (Blo-sbyong don-bdun-ma).

Here in Wheel of Sharp Weapons, with tonglen, giving and taking, we need specifically to take on from all others, with compassion, the poisonous disturbing emotions as the causes of our sufferings as well as the sufferings that come from them. This is repeated later in the Seven Point Mind Training.

Peacocks and Crows

In Wheel of Sharp Weapons as well as in his second text, Peacocks’ Destruction of Poison, Dharmarakshita uses the image of a peacock thriving on poisonous plants as the image for taking on the five poisonous or toxic emotional states of longing desire, anger, naivety, jealousy and arrogance.

Why the peacock? I think this perhaps goes back to the imagery of Amitabha. Amitabha is on a throne supported by peacocks, either one or eight peacocks on the various corners. Amitabha represents the purification of longing desire. Clearly, there is already this association of peacocks with the purification and transformation of desire, through the imagery of Amitabha.

We avoid taking on the disturbing emotions of others because of our selfish desires for ordinary pleasures. If we are still addicted to these ordinary pleasures, then like crows trying to eat poisonous plants, it would destroy us. This emphasizes how advanced this type of practice is. If we are not at such a mature level and we try to do this, all that will happen is that it will increase our disturbing emotions and that poison will destroy us. Dharmarakshita then points out that these desires for ordinary pleasures come from grasping for a false impossible self and lead to our acting destructively.

The peacock is the image of the bodhisattva and, like peacocks, as bodhisattvas we need to take on the sufferings of everyone that come from the five poisons. We transform the poisons into nutrition, by using them to gain the understanding of voidness. We focus on the voidness of the person who’s experiencing these disturbing emotions and by doing this, we destroy our grasping for a true self, and then can give happiness to others.

Who Is It Experiencing the Four Noble Truths?

This emphasis on destroying this misconception that it is the false self that experiences the sufferings and the causes of suffering is extremely essential in the general Buddhist teachings. This is the main focus on what are called the “five paths.” These paths or “pathway minds” are usually translated as the paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, and so on; and what we’re focusing on with these pathway minds are the Four Noble Truths. This focus can be with many levels of understanding, but the most commonly shared one is with the understanding of the voidness of the self that is experiencing the Four Noble Truths. In Mahayana, we also focus on the voidness of the Four Truths themselves. 

What is important is understanding who is it that is experiencing suffering and making such a big deal out of it? Who is it that is experiencing the causes of it? It is not a truly established, self-established self that experiences it, but only the mere conventional “me.” It’s from grasping for a truly established self that these poisonous emotions arise. Who is it that will be able to have a true stopping of that? Who is it that’s going to be meditating on the opponents – the true path – to overcome that? If we think dualistically in terms of a solid self, separate from all of this, as in “Poor me, I’m suffering” – it’s not that type of “me.” Thinking like that, applying the opponents doesn’t work. Also, thinking, “I’m so stupid because I didn’t understand reality,” is likewise not the way to follow the Buddhist path.

What we need to really focus on as we progress through the stages of ridding ourselves of the obscurations is the understanding of the actual nature of the self experiencing the Four Noble Truths. The obscurations are the junk that prevents us from seeing reality and which causes all our problems. To get rid of the poisonous effects of these disturbing emotions, we have to understand and refute the enemy, this grasping for a truly established self, the false, so-called “true self.” We imagine that it truly exists, but it doesn’t. The false self is what we are focusing on refuting and what is being referred to as the “enemy.”

There is no false self that is experiencing these things. Cause and effect don’t work on the basis of a solid “me” that can’t be affected by anything, and that tries to be in control. That doesn’t work and that’s not the one that is actually experiencing cause and effect.

We want to destroy that belief in the false self and eventually stop our minds from producing an appearance as if it actually existed. Then, on the basis of having destroyed that false belief, we want to be able to give happiness to others. We will need to discuss how to do all that in more detail because it is very difficult to do. One of the difficulties is that when we take on the sufferings of others, thinking how terrible it is that everybody is suffering, we can feel pretty sad about that. The difficulty here is that from that basis of feeling pretty sad, how can we suddenly switch gears and give others happiness? How do we switch from being so sad to being happy? It’s not that we are happy that others are suffering. This is the real trick in being able to do this tonglen practice. We’ll discuss that when we go into more detailed commentary on the first part of the text.

Part Two: Karmic Cause and Effect Relationships

The second part of the text is about what prevents us from being able to take on the poisonous emotions of others, give them happiness, and like the peacock, not be destroyed by it. In India, where many peacocks live, there is a certain bush that has very beautiful red and yellow petaled flowers. The animals like cows, sheep and goats somehow know that this is poisonous, and they won’t eat it. I don’t know if peacocks eat it, but this is the type of thing that perhaps the text is referencing. In other contexts, peacocks are also known for eating poisonous snakes, but not in this text.

Obstructions to Taking on the Sufferings of Others

The five poisonous emotions, often condensed into three main ones: longing desire, anger and naivety, are supported by our negative attitudes and negative habits of acting solely with self-interest. Our enemy, this grasping for a false and impossible self brings on these three poisons, which are mechanisms that we think will make us secure: “If I can just get something and hold onto it, it will make me secure.” “If I can get away from what I feel is threatening, it will make me secure.” “If I can put up the walls and pretend that it doesn’t exist, it will make me secure.” None of that works. But, under their influence, we trigger destructive impulses and that is karma. We compulsively commit destructive acts, and that brings on suffering.

Like crows, we are harmed by those three poisons, rather than being like peacocks, able to transform them. It is because we are stuck in negative patterns of destructive behavior, we cannot practice tonglen. We need to get rid of that destructive behavior and the obstacles it brings in order to be brave enough to take on suffering and its causes. This is the connection with tonglen. What prevents us is our destructive behavior brought on by the poisons. To get rid of the poisons, we first have to get rid of the bad behavior that stems from them, and then go deeper and get rid of the disturbing emotions, the poisons, themselves.

Negative Karma

This second section of the text identifies suffering as the sharp weapon of negative karma circling back on us. This is instead of using the image of the wheel of sharp weapons to represent the understanding of voidness. That understanding will destroy the grasping for a true self that brings on these three poisonous emotions, destructive behavior and suffering; however, here Dharmarakshita uses the image of a sharp weapon to represent the mechanism of karma, whereby our compulsive destructive behavior based on the three poisons brings on suffering. This is what harms our conventional self and prevents us from acting like a bodhisattva, taking on these poisons, and transforming them.

This image of a wheel is being used in multiple ways to represent not just what’s going to destroy our self-grasping, not just as the wheel of Dharma that we will turn after that, as in the rounds of transmissions, but also in terms of the uncontrollably recurring patterns that come from karma. This is very much like the wheel of samsara.

The Mantra of Manjushri

Going back to Manjushri, if we look at Manjushri’s mantra – OM ARAPACANA DHIH – arapacana is a Sanskrit compound word in which ara means “wheel,” referring to the wheel of samsara, and pacana means “the one that will ripen.” This is the ripening of others off of that wheel; they fall off the wheel like pieces of fruit falling off a tree when ripe. This is what Manjushri does. The discriminating awareness of voidness will cause beings who are suffering on this wheel of samsara to ripen; and, with correct understanding and wisdom, like a piece of ripe fruit that falls off the tree, they will fall off the wheel of samsara. We get this within the mantra of Manjushri, who embodies that understanding of voidness, and Dharmarakshita uses that image here in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons.

In addition, a-ra-pa-ca-na are the first five letters of the Gandhari alphabet. Gandhara was an area that spanned present-day northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, and was one of the earliest regions to which Buddhism first spread. Many Buddhist scriptures were translated into its language, Gandhari, and they are among the earliest Buddhist texts to appear in written form. The use of the first letters of its alphabet could indicate not only Manjushri first appearing in written form in Gandhari, but also the association of Manjushri with the enlightening speech of the Buddhas. 

Behavioral Cause and Effect

Most of the second part of the text lists the many types of suffering we experience, which prevent us from helping others; the destructive behavior, based on self-cherishing, that’s the karmic cause; and the type of constructive behavior, based on cherishing others, that counters this. It’s a wonderful teaching because it helps us to identify the karmic causes for some types of suffering that are happening to us. We get into these different situations and we need to try to understand their karmic cause and what we need to do to counter that. We not only need to stop acting in that way, but we also need to act in an almost opposite way that will counter that behavior. This is so helpful because when we have the teachings on karma, we don’t usually get all the detail of examples that we find in this text. Basically, we have to figure it out ourselves.

For example, let’s analyze slander: if we’re always saying bad things about others, this is the cause of our friendships not lasting. We get into relationships with others, but they end all the time. People leave us, and all of that. Learning about the karmic mechanism involved makes us start to examine our own behavior. What might we be doing that causes that? We investigate: “If I’m experiencing this ripening from that pattern of behavior, I would also be experiencing compulsively repeating the pattern or the cause of it. Am I saying negative things about other people, and other people’s friends?” If we examine ourselves, we might find that we are doing that. We criticize others and so on, and that’s the cause for experiencing our own friends parting from us. 

That gives us a clue that we shouldn’t just stop negative behavior, we need to do something positive instead to counteract it. We need to note that there are two levels of constructive behavior. On the first level, when a feeling comes up to say something critical, really harmful and nasty to someone about their friend, with the motivation to part them and get that person to be only our friend, then we just don’t do it. We exercise self-control. This is different than, for example, our son is hanging out with people who are shooting up heroin and we want him to stop associating with these kinds of friends. That’s something else; we have a different motivation. But if our motivation is “I don’t want you to be a friend of this person, I want you to be my friend,” this type of thing, just don’t say anything. That’s the first level of avoiding destructive behavior. The second level is doing something positive instead, like praising the positive qualities of others. 

The teachings on karmic cause and effect are very helpful, and this second part of the text points out so many of these syndromes. The emphasis then is on changing our behavior, and through the positive actions that we do instead of the negative ones, building up our so-called “roots of virtue,” the roots of our constructive acts. We build up positive force and, as a root, it anchors us. To continue the image, we want our positive force to gain stability in order to be able to give the plant that grows from it to others so as to bring them benefit.

Part Three: Identifying the Real Enemy and Calling on Yamantaka to Destroy Self-Grasping

In the third section, Dharmarakshita identifies the real enemy that’s causing us to act in these destructive ways that bring on such suffering. It is our grasping for a true self, a self that doesn’t exist at all. We call on Yamantaka, this forceful discriminating awareness of voidness, to destroy this demon of our grasping for such a self, our self-grasping. In many verses, Dharmarakshita goes through all the troubles that our self-cherishing and self-grasping have caused us. We find this in the equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others: the presentations of this teaching always include a long section on the disadvantages and harms that come from self-cherishing. 

Here, Dharmarakshita elaborates on these disadvantages, and we invoke Yamantaka with the phrase:

Crash, really crash down right on the head of this ruinous concept. Deal the death blow to the heart of this butcher, the true self, our foe.

This is said in a very poetic way, which is quite Tibetan in its style. It’s these types of refrains that we find are more typically Tibetan and that lead us to think the text wasn’t actually composed in Sanskrit, but just transmitted orally from India and then adapted and put into Tibetan verse.

We have “placed all the blame on this one thing,” which is a line from the text that’s repeated later on in the Seven Point Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. Place all the blame on one thing, our self-cherishing. For example, if we ask somebody else to do something for us, and they make a mistake and do it wrongly, we place all the blame on one thing: “I was selfish and lazy. I didn’t want to do it myself, and so I asked somebody else. Therefore, it’s actually my fault that things didn’t turn out the way that I wanted them to. I can’t really blame the other person.” If we ask somebody else to do something, expect that something’s going to go wrong. If they do it right, that’s a great bonus, but it’s really our own selfishness and laziness that is to blame if they mess it up. Maybe we are too busy, we have more important things to do, and that’s something else; but, if our attitude is “I don’t want to do it; you do it,” that’s selfishness.

Part Four: Dedicating the Roots of Our Positive Actions to Others

Once we have destroyed our self-grasping and self-cherishing and have placed all the blame on this one thing, in the fourth section of the text, we can dedicate the roots of our constructive actions to others. 

The rest of this final section is what we give to others, especially our understanding of voidness and dependent arising. This is what we want to give to others so that they can likewise overcome their self-grasping. Therefore, we then advise all beings to gain that understanding of voidness like we have, especially the voidness of karmic cause and effect.

Voidness of Cause and Effect

The voidness of cause and effect is very important. Although karmic cause and effect seems like an illusion, nevertheless it functions and it works, and we need to understand that. Although we understand that suffering and the whole process of causality is like an illusion, several verses end with the line:

Yet, while being mere appearances, hey, I tell you, “We must accept and reject (the appropriate actions).”

Although things appear to exist self-established, as though they were, like the image I sometimes use, encapsulated in plastic, all by themselves, independent of everything else; nevertheless, they function. Even though cause and effect appear in this ridiculous way as each being self-established and unrelated to each other; nevertheless, causes bring about effects. They appear to be unrelated and self-established because our samsaric minds are limited and make them appear that way.

Conclusion of the Text

Finally, the text concludes that if we practice conventional and deepest bodhichitta like this, we’ll attain enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Summary of the Teaching and Practice

This is the general structure of the text. First, we want to practice like peacocks, bodhisattvas taking on these poisonous attitudes of longing desire, anger and naivety. We transform them so that we can dissolve them and they don’t harm us; thereafter we are able to give happiness to others.

What prevents us from doing that is the suffering that we experience as a result of our destructive behavior that comes from the three poisons. We’re like crows in that we take in the three poisons and it causes us so much suffering. We want to be able to stop that, because if we take on even more poisonous attitudes, it’ll surely destroy us completely.

To begin, we have to stop this destructive behavior. To be able to give happiness to others, we need to build up some positive force that we can give to others. Once we stop the destructive behavior at this level and engage in constructive behavior, then we have to go deeper and get rid of self-grasping. This is the real enemy causing us to have these poisonous attitudes and to act in compulsive destructive ways. 

When we’ve gotten rid of that, through our understanding of voidness (or emptiness), then we can give others the same antidote that will neutralize this poison and bring them happiness. The antidote is the understanding of voidness and dependent arising – that despite things not existing in the way that they appear to exist, nevertheless everything functions, and cause and effect still works. We want to give the understanding of these two true facts to others, and with this antidote they will not be harmed by the poisonous attitudes and they will be able to practice this tonglen as well as bodhisattvas do.

That’s the general structure of the text. Why don’t we first quiet down and try to digest this structure and what this text is all about. The text is all about being able to transform the poisonous emotions, something very difficult to do. What prevents us from doing that is the attitude: “I don’t want to take on this horrible stuff from others. I don’t want to get my hands dirty, I have enough of my own problems.” It’s all because of “me, me, me.” 

What we want to work on first is the problems that we experience because of our compulsive karmic behavior. We want to stop acting in these destructive ways and act in constructive ways instead. We start to build up change, forge new, more positive neural pathways concerning how we look at things. Then, we go deeper, to get rid of the self-grasping that’s causing all of this. 

Once we have a firm understanding of voidness, and we have built up more positive force, we are able to actually practice tonglen properly. We can give happiness to others because we have built up the causes to be able to have something to give to them. This is the structure that we find in this text.

Guided Meditation

What we want to do, when we begin thinking about the text, is to consider does this make sense? Is this how we would want to be able to go about being able to help others? Perhaps some guidance would help in how to practice this contemplation:

  • In order to help others, I have to stop acting destructively. When I act destructively, I get into all sorts of horrible situations and I can’t help anybody if all my friendships fall apart, and nobody wants to stay with me. How can I help others if they don’t want to be around me?
  • I have to change my behavior. Once I’ve changed my behavior and acted in more positive ways, I have to get rid of my self-grasping. Even if I’m acting in positive ways, it could be very neurotic, as in “I am a savior, the martyr. I’m going to help everybody. To do that, I have to be perfect. I’m so holy.” All of that can lead to a lot of arrogance and put off a lot of people.
  • I have to get rid of self-grasping. Only when I am rid of that self-grasping, the attitude of not wanting to get my hands dirty, can I actually be involved in the difficulties of others, without worrying about “me, me, me.”  

Mother Theresa said it very clearly when people wanted to volunteer to work with her in Calcutta with the lepers. She said, “If you’re afraid that you’re going to get leprosy, you can’t work here.” If we’re just thinking about “me” and “I don’t want to catch leprosy,” then of course we won’t want to touch anybody, and so on. We have to be free of that attitude to actually help.

Once we’re free of that attitude, how do we help others? We help them by helping them to gain understanding. We want to give them the understanding that we’ve developed.

Does that make sense? We continue the contemplation:

  • This is what I need first to understand, and then to be convinced that it’s correct.
  •  I want to do that and I’m convinced that I’m able to do that.
  • Then I need to properly build up these ways of thinking and behaving as beneficial habits – that’s meditation.
  • To familiarize myself with them, I need to rehearse over and over imagining taking on the sufferings of others and giving them correct understanding and happiness.
  • Then I need to actually get up off my meditation seat and do something to help others. This is what it’s all about.

Think about that.

  • Perhaps at the end of this contemplation, come to the conclusion, and the decision: “I’m going to try my best not to act under the influence of greed, anger and naivety.”

This means, of course, being able to recognize and identify when we are acting under the influence of these poisonous emotions, these toxic states of mind.

The Definition of Disturbing Emotions

For this, I think it’s very helpful to remember the definition of a disturbing emotion, or disturbing state of mind. It’s hard to say that they are all emotions as we don’t really have an equivalent word for emotions in Asian languages.

A disturbing emotion is a state of mind, that when it arises, makes us lose peace of mind and lose self-control.

It’s a very good definition. When we are so attached to somebody or something, and so greedy for more, and just long for it and think about it all the time, our mind is disturbed. We don’t have peace of mind and we lose control. We say things and do things that afterwards we might regret. 

This is especially true with naivety when we think that what we do doesn’t matter, as in “I can come late, it doesn’t matter. It’s not going to have any effect on you.” We don’t take the reality of somebody else and their feelings seriously. Others don’t like to be ignored and they don’t like to be kept waiting. It’s naive to not take that seriously. That’s a disturbing state of mind. We lose self-control and just act without thinking.

Recognize Disturbing Emotions as They Arise

What we want to do is to try to recognize when we feel a little bit nervous or uneasy. Perhaps we say something but feel a little bit uneasy saying it. We can recognize these things if we become a little bit sensitive to our energy. If we can notice that uneasiness, it’s a good indication that there’s some disturbing emotion behind it. If we can slow things down enough – not necessarily acting in slow motion ­– but in terms of processing it in our minds, this will allow us to recognize that a disturbing emotion is arising before we actually say something stupid or something cruel. We recognize that we’re feeling a little bit uptight inside, and then don’t say anything. As Shantideva recommended, “Remain like a block of wood.” We could also use this strong Yamantaka image: “Stop it! Don’t do it!”

That’s not so easy, especially when we have an addiction­ – for instance, constantly checking our smartphone for another post or message­ – something like that. First, we can feel it: “I want to look at my phone.” Then compulsively, without even thinking, we do it. When we have that feeling of wanting to look at our phone, wanting to check if something has come in, not wanting to miss anything, when we have that going on, we’re uneasy. We don’t have peace of mind, and we do lose self-control. 

What’s behind it is this self-grasping, this solid “me”: “I don’t want to miss anything, I don’t want to miss an important message or miss what’s going on in the world.” We become a news junkie and look at the news over and over again. It all comes from this grasping for a false “me,” “I’m so important, I have to know. I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to be left out.”

It’s very interesting to start to analyze what’s behind the attitude of “I don’t want to miss anything.”

For example, “I want to see how many people liked that picture that I posted. It’s as if, somehow, it’s going to make us feel secure if we get enough “likes.” But, of course, it never does, does it? We want more. It’s really stupid if we think about it. It doesn’t work, but we think that if we have more people looking at it, maybe it’ll work and maybe we’ll feel better. But then somebody tells us that in Russia, for very little money, you can buy “likes” and you can get a whole bunch of “likes” for whatever you put up on your social media. Then the whole thing starts to become quite ridiculous.

I think it’s a good example for understanding how self-grasping is behind this compulsive addiction to wanting to have “likes” or wanting to get the latest messages and how compelling that is. We get some sort of sound on our phone or computer, or our phone vibrates when a text message comes in, and it’s very hard not to look at it, isn’t it?

It’s very important to try to find everyday examples to see how we completely lose self-control, and it certainly prevents us from helping somebody. If we think about it, perhaps somebody comes to us for help and they’re starting to tell us their problems. But then there’s the sound or vibration from our phone and we compulsively take out our phone and look at it. That really prevents us from helping the other person, doesn’t it?

It is very helpful to bring it down to everyday examples.


Judgment is a Misunderstanding of Karma

You said that much of the problem with not helping others is this attitude of “I don’t want to get involved,” or “I’m too busy.” I don’t really relate to that much because I’ve always been inclined to try to help the world and not take care of myself as I should. What I feel is the biggest obstacle is myself and others getting caught in trying to figure out who deserves or doesn’t deserve help based on their behavior. I feel like I’m missing the point. I heard that the term “to sin” in religion is from archery, meaning it is to “miss the point” literally. I feel like this, missing the point, spending my mental energy and so much time having the correct opinions about everything – like it’s really important to have the correct political opinion. Is this something others can relate?

Self-grasping can lead to many different paths or manifestations. One direction can be: “I’m too busy; what I’m doing is more important than you.” “I don’t want to get my hands dirty; it’s too messy” – these types of attitudes. There’s also: “It’s too much for me; I can’t handle it.” For that, we have to be realistic because there are some things that we can’t handle and some things that we can. That requires discrimination.

But here you’re talking about judgment. Judgment is a misunderstanding of karma, basically. There is no judge in Buddhism. There is no “me,” separate from the whole thing, judging whether you deserve my help or you don’t deserve my help. This is a very dualistic way of looking at things. That’s just another form of self-grasping: that there’s this “me” separate from the whole thing and “I” will judge what is good and what is bad. 

We don’t put this value judgment on things in terms of what is good or bad, although sometimes those words will appear. But they don’t have that heavy judgmental aspect to it. We need to be realistic, evaluate and take everybody seriously. When somebody is complaining and suffering from something that we think is totally trivial, nevertheless for them, that’s suffering.

This example came up the other day. Someone complained, “I don’t have a private toilet in my room. I have to share a toilet with other people.” This lady made it into a horrible problem. To somebody who doesn’t have a toilet at all and has to use a field, this is a ridiculous problem that the lady has. Nevertheless, for that woman wanting a room with her own private toilet, it’s a real suffering if she has to share a toilet with others. 

This leads to the whole issue of priorities, and who do we help first, and how do we help? This is a difficult question, and for that, various guidelines that I’ve heard and received are:

  • Look at what are you most qualified to do and that there are not so many people doing.
  • Are there people who actually have a connection to you who would be receptive to your help?
  • A little bit of a selfish aspect to it would be: what do you enjoy doing?

These are the criteria that you use to choose how and whom you help; otherwise there’s just so much that can be done in the world, it would be difficult to choose. There are so many people who need help, how do we choose them? What kind of help? What am I best qualified to do? There are not so many other people doing it, so they really need it; and would these people be receptive to my help? Obviously, do I have the qualifications is the first one. Also, if we’re not enjoying doing it, and it’s a big burden, if we don’t put our heart into it, people can sense that.

But this is without being judgmental. There’s a difference between being judgmental and using our discriminating awareness to discriminate what’s helpful and what we can and can’t do. Sometimes discriminating awareness is translated as “wisdom,” but that doesn’t give us a clear idea of what it’s talking about. We want to discriminate in a nonjudgmental type of way between what is realistic and what isn’t and just deal with reality.

Conventional and Deepest Truth and Relative and Absolute Truth

You use the terms conventional and deepest; is that the same that what in other texts is said as relative and absolute? I find your translation helpful because I understand that within the realm of conventional comes training, where we are still using our conceptual mind. Is this correct? But then does it mean that this text is mainly dealing with conventional bodhichitta, not so-called “absolute bodhichitta”? At the same time, the text refers to Manjushri, where wisdom comes in, which is related to absolute. Please can you comment?

First of all, I prefer the term “conventional truth” to the term “relative truth,” and “deepest truth to “absolute truth.” “Absolute truth” or “ultimate truth” give the wrong idea that it is some sort of transcendent thing over there, totally fixed and unrelated to anything else. In fact, it’s the deepest truth of everything. It is how things exist, which is with the absence of these impossible ways that we think establishes the existence of anything.

Convention has to do with the world of appearances. We’re dealing with the world of appearances when we deal with conventional bodhichitta. This is because we want to attain enlightenment and appear in various forms to help others and benefit them. How do we establish that all these appearances exist and function? They conventionally exist, in the sense that we have terms for them, we have concepts, we have ideas of them, and they refer to something. That’s convention; people agree.

There is the convention of “me,” the “self.” “Me” refers to something; it refers to me, although there’s nothing on the side of my body, inside my brain, inside my emotions or anything like that, that corresponds to a solid “me.” That’s the deepest truth about it. There’s no such thing. Nevertheless, how do we establish or know that there is such a thing? It’s that there’s that concept of “me”; but, although there is that concept of “me,” it isn’t just a concept. That concept of “me” refers to something on the basis of all these parts that are changing at a different rate at every moment. Therefore, there’s nothing fixed that’s staying there all the time. We can’t locate the defining characteristic of “me” anywhere; but, there’s that convention.

With conventional bodhichitta, we’re dealing with the world of appearances. There’s the convention of “you,” there’s the convention of “me,” there’s the convention of  “help.” If I go over to help you get up, there is the first step, the second step, and extending my hand, and so on. Which one is “help?” We can’t say that any individual part of that is the only thing that’s “help.” “Help” isn’t just to lift a foot and put it down to go in the direction of you. 

That’s why I use the image of a whole, as opposed to parts. There is such a thing as a whole and we call that “helping you get up.” It refers to something, to actually doing something. But you can’t find that “helping” in any of the tiny microsecond movements of going there, can we? It’s convention, that’s conventional truth. Conventional bodhichitta is dealing with that. 

We want to appear in various ways that will help others, so I prefer to use these terms that make it clearer.