Four Preparatory Thoughts for Tonglen: Giving & Taking

Background on the Text: Seven Point Mind Training

We’re going to start the seminar with a very important and essential text that is found in all the Tibetan traditions from India, called Seven Point Mind Training, which I received teachings on primarily from two of my main teachers: Serkong Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. I’ll follow primarily Serkong Rinpoche’s way of explaining, especially since he was absolutely an expert in this type of practice, in particular in tonglen (gtong-len), “taking and giving.” He was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

The type of literature that this comes from is usually called “lojong” in Tibetan, and that is usually translated as “mind training,” but that’s a rather misleading translation, as Serkong Rinpoche pointed out. Especially when I explain the connotation, the reason for this will be clearer. “Training the mind” sounds as though we’re training the intellect, but that’s not really what’s it’s all about. The word “lo” (blo), which people usually translate as “mind,” actually means “attitudes.” And the word “jong” (sbyong) has two meanings. One is to cleanse, purify out; we are purifying out our negative attitudes. It also has the connotation of – once we have done that – training, learning, and developing more positive attitudes. That’s why I call it “cleansing of attitudes.” 

If we ask where these teachings come from, particularly teachings on changing our attitudes toward self and others, which is really what these teachings are all about, they come from two chapters of the Avatamsaka Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra. One is called the Gandavyuha SutraA Sutra Spread Out Like a Tree Trunk – a tree trunk of a huge tree that sends out branches everywhere. This describes the spiritual journey of Sudhana to 53 teachers and bodhisattvas in search of the ultimate truth and ends with the Aspiration Prayer of Samantabhadra. The other one is the Vajradhvaja Parinamana Sutra, Vajradhvaja's Transferences Sutra or, more fully, (The Bodhisattva) Vajradhvaja's (Ten) Transferences (of Positive Potential) Sutra. It describes the ten situations where beings were suffering greatly that the bodhisattva Vajradhvaja went to and transferred to the beings there the positive potential from his constructive deeds. 

The two great Indian masters who spread the Mahayana teachings, who actually made them accessible to everyone, were Asanga and Nagarjuna. They also had the lineages and the teachings of these sutras, so those come through them. Eventually, these teachings came down, after some centuries, to the great Indian master Shantideva, who wrote Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, which speaks even more about these teachings. These great Mahayana teachings, these lineages, were spread outside of India as well, and they went to Indonesia – the island of Sumatra, called the Golden Isle, “Serlingpa” in Tibetan. 

A few centuries later, at the time of Atisha, there were some difficult times in India, and many of the more specific Mahayana teachings were no longer available there. Atisha heard that the lineages and the teachings were available from a great master in Sumatra, so he undertook a very long and difficult journey by sea from India to Sumatra. There, after many difficulties and not rushing to this teacher, but taking a lot of time to examine about him and ask other disciples there, he studied with the great master Dharmakirti or Dharmapala, more frequently referred to as “Serlingpa.” 

Serlingpa held these lineages of Nagarjuna, Asanga and Shantideva, and Atisha brought them back to India, which really teaches us a very great lesson that the authentic teachings are really the most absolutely precious thing in the world. If they’re not available in our country or in our situation, we don’t just sit around and say, “Well, I’ll take whatever is available” – the second or the third best – but we really check to see who has the authentic teachings and who has the authentic realizations. No matter how difficult it is, no matter how much time it takes and effort to accumulate the money and get the resources and everything needed to go and get the authentic teachings, if we really are serious about our practice, we’ll go to the authentic sources. 

Atisha didn’t just keep these teachings for himself; he also taught them. He was invited to come to Tibet, which was a very difficult journey in those days. The monks in his monastery in India weren’t terribly pleased that he was going, but he again undertook an incredibly difficult journey. There, in Tibet, he gave these teachings – primarily on bodhichitta – mostly to one of his main disciples, Dromtonpa, and Dromtonpa gave them to another one of his disciples, Geshe Potowa. 

This is the Kadam tradition, and when we hear about these Kadampa Geshes, “Geshe” doesn’t mean what it came to mean later in the Gelug tradition, somebody who has gone through the full monastic training. It doesn’t mean that, but what it means, and is sometimes translated as, is “spiritual friend” – a friend or a relative, a brother, someone who is very close to us, with a very loving relationship, who then inspires and leads us, through their example, to be constructive and to act in constructive ways. 

Always there is a huge emphasis, of course, in these teachings on voidness and other topics as well, but there is a super emphasis on bodhichitta. What we have to remember is that, historically at that time in Tibet, things were pretty chaotic and difficult, and the teachings on this attitude training or cleansing were really what people needed. 

Geshe Potowa had two main disciples, called the sun-like and moon-like disciples. One of them was Langri Tangpa, the other was Geshe Sharawa. Langri Tangpa was always very serious. It’s quite interesting, the stories about him – I won’t go into details since we don’t have very much time – but he was the one (you might have heard stories) that only ever laughed three times. He was not serious as in stern, but most of the time he was always thinking of others and filled with sadness at their suffering and compassion to be able to help them. “I didn’t have time to joke around.” He wrote the Eight Verse Mind Training, a text of this genre that is very famous. 

Geshe Chekawa came across a copy of Eight Verse Mind Training at some other great Geshe’s house and was especially drawn to one line in it. It is the line, “Give the victory to others and accept the defeat on oneself.” This really struck him very deeply; so much so, that the rest of his life was influenced by this line. He asked, “Who wrote it?” This Geshe, whose house he was at, said, “It was Geshe Langri Tangpa.” Then, Geshe Chekawa undertook a long journey to Lhasa to try to find him and get teachings on this, but when he got there, he found out that Geshe Langri Tangpa had already passed away. 

Again, it’s a good example here, that he wasn’t just thinking, “Oh, this is interesting. I’d like to study it,” but then didn’t do anything. He had to try to find these teachings. He took a big, long journey, he got there, and the teacher was no longer alive, so he asked, “Who can I get these teachings from?” He was told Geshe Sharawa, another Kadampa Geshe, would be a source. Then, Geshe Chekawa went and found Geshe Sharawa, but Geshe Sharawa didn’t want to teach him at first – a long story that we don’t have time to go into – but eventually, Geshe Sharawa told him where the teachings came from, the lineage. Geshe Chekawa wanted to not just think, “Maybe somebody just made it up. But that doesn’t matter, it sounds nice,” but he wanted to know that it was authentic. So Geshe Sharawa showed him in a text by Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland, that that was where this teaching of “Give the victory to others and accept the defeat on oneself” came from. 

Geshe Chekawa was then convinced that this was an authentic teaching going back to India and back to the Buddha. Again, this teaches us a very important lesson, that there may be teachings available that sound very attractive and somebody is advertising them as teachings of the Buddha, but unless we are really sure that they are authentic – the actual teachings of the Buddha and found in the great texts – we need to be careful. Don’t just go for something because it’s attractive. 

This shows us the preciousness of the bodhichitta teachings and the teachings on changing our attitudes about self and others, and cleansing these attitudes, how these great masters considered it so incredibly precious that they underwent so many hardships to actually get these teachings. Nowadays, things are very easily available. Sometimes, because of that, we tend to trivialize the teachings, and that really causes us not to take them seriously, not to respect them and so not to really apply ourselves. It’s for this reason that the texts are often written in a style that is very cryptic, with only a few words, and really difficult to understand from just reading the texts. They’re filled with words like “this” and “that,” and most of us have no idea really what they are referring to. 

I have trained and worked for nine years as a translator for my main teacher, Serkong Rinpoche. He saw my rather arrogant attitude that I was a bit critical of the style of these texts, that the authors did not write them clearly, and they wrote with so many this’s and that’s. He scolded me, saying, “Don’t be so arrogant to think that these great masters like Nagarjuna couldn’t write clearly and that they were stupid, bad writers, and so on. That’s really arrogant. If they wanted to write clearly, they would have. Obviously, they wrote this way on purpose.” 

Serkong Rinpoche explained that the great masters wrote the texts like that so that, if we wanted to understand them and practice, we had to put in a tremendous amount of work and effort to get the explanation for them. Furthermore, it weeded out disciples who weren’t so serious, and even when we’re explaining it, he said, the first time we explain, we don’t explain very clearly. Because again, then many people will leave and say, “That’s enough!” However, those who are really serious will ask for more and go deeper and put in all the work and effort. 

Of course, I’m a bad disciple; I don’t do that. I like to try to make things clearer for people, at least to make understanding them a little bit easier. Nevertheless, this is necessary – to put in the work in order to actually get the teachings and get clarity on the teachings; otherwise, we don’t develop our character. Dharma study is not just a matter of getting information. 

We really do live in the age of degeneration. In many places, we have Dharma centers that need to get money from many people coming; otherwise, they can’t pay the rent and the expenses, and so on. They don’t want to scare away people. That really is a sign of an age of degeneration, isn’t it? 

Anyway, Geshe Chekawa then spent six years, according to one account, studying with Geshe Sharawa and practicing and meditating to try to actually internalize and realize these very difficult advanced teachings on cleansing our attitudes. Now, Geshe Chekawa was no beginner and no dummy when he went there, and so it took him six years – another account says fourteen years – of working on bodhichitta. Then, he wrote this text that we will be studying, and he taught it to a number of his disciples, but particularly to one master Lhadingpa, who taught it to Togme Zangpo. Togme Zangpo is the author of Thirty-Seven Bodhisattva Practices, which is taught very extensively in the West. He also wrote a very wonderful commentary on Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior

From this master Lhadingpa, there were other lineages as well, and eventually this Seven Point Mind Training text went to all the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and eventually, came down to Tsongkhapa, then down in the Gelug tradition, and its contents became incorporated into many different texts. What is very confusing is that in all these different lam-rim texts and in the Lama Chopa (The Guru Puja) and so on, there are slightly different versions of the text – these seven points. Pabongka Rinpoche, who was a master in the early half of the 20th century, looking at all the versions, made what he considered a standard text, but only taken as standard in the Gelugpa tradition, of course. I mention this because from all these various versions, there are many texts, at least the ones translated into English, and so when we look at them, a lot of them are this Pabongka edition, but there are many others as well. So, don’t be confused. Most of these versions are not adding anything that seems inappropriate. Because often what happens is that somebody gives an oral commentary, and we get a little bit confused about what’s actually in the text and what the lama is explaining from an oral tradition. Things get added or changed around in their order and so on. 

The version that I’ll follow is the one that Serkong Rinpoche always used to teach, which is one of the oldest versions of the text. It is the text that is from Togme Zangpo, actually going way, way back to – the dates of Togme Zangpo are not so terribly clear – but something like the 13th century. I’m mentioning this because I know you have the Spanish translation of the text, a Spanish translation of the Pabongka version. That is not the version that I’m going to teach, so there are slight differences. I’m sure Serkong Rinpoche had a very strong reason for why he always taught this version, but I never asked him, actually. I was never aware at that time that there were other versions. However, if he was good enough to be the teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that’s good enough, no question about that. 

I am giving all this history and detail not just to tell you stories, but because I think that all of this helps us to approach this material, because this material is actually incredibly advanced and difficult. We should definitely not trivialize these teachings and also not get discouraged by them. Because, as we listen to the teachings on cleansing our attitudes, for many of us, we’re going to think, “Come on, this is impossible to really do!” However, there are certain aspects of these teachings that are more accessible than others, and so we try to put in practice what we are ready to practice, not pretending to take on more advanced practices that we are not emotionally ready for. We need to have really digested the basic teachings, and not just know them but really feel them on an emotional level. This is saying that if we really want to train and cleanse our attitudes, there are some very drastic ways of doing this, and if we are not emotionally prepared to do them, it can be damaging if we try to do some of them before we’re emotionally mature enough to do them. 

Nevertheless, as I said, not all the points are so strong, but many of the points within this teaching are. When we receive the teachings, then what they can do, perhaps, is inspire us. This is real bodhisattva training. It’s really how we become a bodhisattva, how we develop ourselves on the bodhisattva path. If this is seriously what we really want to do, we seriously want to reach enlightenment and benefit all others, well this is what we can aspire toward, having some idea of what’s lying ahead and not being naive about it. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the path to enlightenment is so nice, and we’ll go on a nice Disneyland trip to enlightenment, thinking that “All the Buddha lands are so pretty, and everybody is so loving and kind” – like that. Let’s not be children about it. It requires great courage to follow the bodhisattva path; we will see that a little bit here. 

Developing Great Compassion and Training in the Preliminaries

Now, the text begins: 

Prostration to great compassion. 

Great compassion is not just, “May some beings be free from their suffering and the causes of suffering,” and it’s certainly not, “Oh, you poor thing!” It’s a larger scope. The word “great” here is very important. First of all, it’s not just limited to some beings; it’s for all beings, including arhats who, although liberated from samsara, still have the cognitive obscurations preventing them from being of best help to others. 

Often, we say “all sentient beings,” but that doesn’t mean anything to us. It’s very easy to say, but how many of us are seriously thinking about the suffering of every insect in the universe, and that we really want to work to help every single insect in the universe not only to get over the suffering of this life but to achieve liberation and enlightenment? This is not kid’s stuff. When they say “everybody,” they mean everybody. 

That type of compassion, in which we sincerely feel this for everybody equally, that’s one aspect of great compassion. Another aspect is being convinced that it’s actually possible for all sentient beings to get out of their suffering. If we didn’t think this was possible and just wished it were possible or, worse, felt sorry for them, that’s not much help. 

Gaining this conviction that liberation and enlightenment are possible really requires understanding voidness and the nature of the mind: that the mind isn’t stained by confusion and disturbing emotions, and so on. Also, that it’s really possible to get rid of all of these so-called “fleeting stains” forever, so that they never recur, and it’s possible for everybody to achieve that because everyone has the Buddha-nature factors making that possible. Also, we don’t just sit in our cave or in our room, having this great compassion, but we also take some responsibility to somehow do something to help others and actually do that as much as we can.

In some versions, not in the original version, it says the text is like a vajra diamond, as it helps us to cut through all our disturbing emotions; it’s like the sun, so it eliminates the darkness of self-cherishing and selfishness of just working for ourselves; it’s also like a potent medicine, a medicine tree or medicine herbs to cure, again, our self-cherishing. So, much of this cleansing of attitudes is to get rid of self-cherishing, and that would be through the exchange of our attitudes about self and others. 

Then the text continues: 

First train in the preliminaries.

When we hear “preliminaries,” it is important to not trivialize them. “Preliminaries” means something we do that has to go before doing something else – “goes before” is the literal translation. “Preparation” is perhaps closer to what the term actually means. If we think of these practices with the following image, I think it’s helpful. For example, if we’re going on a caravan – let’s talk about being Tibetans – if we’re going on a caravan to some distant place and there’s going to be a long and difficult journey, we have to pack all our bags. We can’t just get on our yaks and go. It’s not like we can go on a journey, and well, there’s going to be a pharmacy everywhere and a store on every corner, and we can buy whatever we need. It’s not like that. These preliminaries are preparation that we have to do first before our spiritual journey. Practicing them are like packing our bags with everything we’re going to need on the journey, because we can’t make the journey without them. 

These preliminaries are absolutely essential, and they are explained here as the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. Mind you, this text came before the Gelugpa tradition and its emphasis on the three levels of lam-rim motivation. These four thoughts are the four common preparatory practices. So, we get teachings here on the realization of having a precious human rebirth, thinking about how it’s not going to last, about impermanence and death, and therefore, putting a safe direction in our life of refuge; then thinking of karma, the laws of cause and effect, changing our behavior, and then the disadvantages of samsara. 

The Gelugpa lam-rim arranges these four thoughts into the structure of the three levels of motivation. The first three thoughts – a precious human life, impermanence and death, and karma – fit into the initial scope of aiming for a more fortunate rebirth, and then the disadvantages of samsara are addressed on the intermediate level of aiming for liberation. We might ask, well, where is the advanced level in these four thoughts? They’re preparing us for that; they are the preliminaries to that. Afterall, the four thoughts are common not only to sutra and tantra, but to Hinayana and Mahayana as well. 

Once we have internalized the insights of these four points in terms of the initial and intermediate levels of motivation, that’s not sufficient. We have to go back and work on them further, but now, as we’re trying to follow the bodhisattva path, we do that with an advanced level of motivation, with compassion and bodhichitta. 

A Precious Human Life

The first preliminary is to meditate on this precious human life that we have – this precious human life to be able to develop and practice with bodhichitta to help others at whatever level we’re capable of now. With a precious human rebirth, we can certainly be of help to others. How much can we really help others in a lifetime as a cockroach? Not very much. But with a precious human life with the ability to learn, study, meditate, not having such gross suffering or too much happiness, we can really work not only on ourselves but specifically work to reach enlightenment and be of best help to all others. 

This precious human life is not going to last: it’s impermanent, it’s changing all the time, and we are going to die. We want to use the time that we have to progress as strongly as possible because we’re going to get sick, we’re going to grow old, we’re going to die; these are things that are undoubtedly going to happen to us. We want to learn the methods, which are taught here, of how to transform and use those difficult situations to further our practice, to further help others, to further advance on the bodhisattva path toward enlightenment. As a human with a precious human life, we can actually transform and use difficult circumstances to further ourselves on the path – unlike a sick dog. If we don’t take seriously that these things are going to happen to us, we wouldn’t seriously train now, when we have the ability, when we’re not sick and senile or dying, to be able to use these types of situations and cleanse our minds of fear, and of feeling sorry for ourselves, and of all the self-cherishing that usually goes together with when we’re sick or old or dying. 


With the second preliminary, we want very strongly to go in the safe direction of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the direction of working on ourselves. The Buddhas and the arya Sangha, those who have actually achieved true stoppings of the true sufferings and their true causes, are the sources indicating that safe direction. With confidence in their abilities to guide us, we entrust ourselves to their guidance. We want to go in the direction they indicate to reach enlightenment to benefit others. Every moment of our life, no matter how difficult it is, we want to always be going in that safe direction. That is why we have to transform difficult situations into situations that can help us go further on the path and help others, which is what this cleansing of attitudes is all about. 

We need to be very secure and stable in our direction in life. Otherwise, if we’re not really so stable in our safe direction, then when difficult things come, we might turn to something else for refuge: we freak out; we feel sorry for ourselves; and we take refuge in food, chocolate, friends, whatever. 


The third preliminary is thinking about karma, behavioral cause and effect. It’s very important to really understand that when difficult things are happening to us, this is the ripening of the karmic aftermath of destructive actions that we have done in the past, and that we really need to cleanse and get rid of that aftermath. For that to happen, we want for them to ripen now and be over with. The amount of positive force that we have from our constructive actions is quite limited now. We don’t want all of that to ripen and be depleted, with everything going nicely, and so on, because then what? We’re just left with negative karmic potentials. 

So, when these negative potentials are ripening, we want to transform them into conducive circumstances for practice. Instead of just building up more negative potentials by thinking, “Oh, how terrible! Poor me,” we can use the difficult situations that ripen from them to build up more positive potential so that we can help others. 

The whole point is to be able to help others. Shantideva speaks about this a lot in the second chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, that when these negative potentials ripen, what usually happens is we’re filled with fear and terror, “Oh, poor me! What’s going to happen to me?” We really, really want to avoid that. 

By having a safe and sound direction in our life – and, here, transforming that life into something positive, because we realize that otherwise, we’re lost – if our motivation is that we want to do this to be able to help others in the process of making this transformation, then it gives us very strong motivation to do it. This requires a really good understanding of karma, which is based on the understanding of voidness. Without that, it’s hopeless. That’s because what happens is that when we say, “Well, whatever happens to me, this is the ripening of my karma,” then if we’re grasping onto a solid “me,” thinking, “I deserve this suffering” and “I’m a bad person,” and all of that, that totally destroys this type of cleansing process. 

When we’ve gone through these preparatory practices the first time, and then we advance to Mahayana, we develop an initial level of bodhichitta and understanding of voidness. Then we need to go back and apply them to each of these steps in the preparatory preliminary practices so that we have a firm foundation and basis for truly getting into bodhisattva practice. In other words, without some understanding of voidness, we really can’t understand that it is possible to transform our attitudes and these circumstances. 

If we think in terms of “my suffering” and “your suffering,” and that it has nothing to do with “me” because I’m a solid “me” and you’re a solid “you” that is totally separate from me, then how can we really deal with other people’s suffering? We can’t take on others’ suffering with tonglen if we think that it truly belongs to them and not to us. Of course, everybody’s suffering is due to the ripening of their own karmic potentials, but we must also recognize that this suffering does not belong to a solid “me” of someone who’s built up this potential. Understanding this is very important; otherwise, it’s very difficult to emotionally feel comfortable with these practices and not be frightened or feel really artificial. 

The Importance of Understanding Karmic Cause and Effect

When studying karma – the law of cause and effect – with this bodhichitta aim and really internalizing it, we become even more concerned about how we can use the difficult situations that ripen from karmic potentials in order to reach enlightenment and not be overwhelmed by them. This is because, at our present level of development, we’re going to be constantly experiencing this ripening of our negative karmic potentials, so we have to deal with it. 

We also realize that everybody else is also experiencing the sufferings that ripen from their karmic potentials. We are all in the same predicament. The more people that we know, the more we come to realize that everybody has their samsaric horror show going on. Some are more dramatic shows than others, but everybody has a horror show going on. Rather than the self-cherishing “poor me” attitude, “I don’t want to deal with your horror show; my horror show is bad enough,” we need to – by understanding karmic cause and effect – accept our situation. “Okay, this is my samsaric karmic situation, for whatever reasons, and so now how can I take the best advantage of it, because I have a precious human life and the ability to transform that situation. No matter how much of a horror show I’m going through, I still have a precious human life to reach enlightenment to benefit others.” 

But we don’t simply want to take advantage of our precious human life. That’s not enough. We want to take advantage of our samsaric horror show in order to use that, like we would use a precious human life, to reach enlightenment to benefit others. But how can we transform it? How can we use it? That’s what we learn here with the training in cleansing our attitudes. 

Understanding karmic cause and effect is very important as a preparation. Where is this horror show coming from, and is it possible to actually cleanse our minds of it? Is it possible for others to cleanse themselves of it? This is very important. When others are acting horribly toward us, and horribly toward everybody else, we need to understand that they didn’t have any control over it. It’s just from the ripening of their negative karmic potentials that they compulsively act like that. We don’t say, “You’re a bad person,” or something like that; but given the samsaric horror that is going on all around us, how can we transform that into a path that will actually not just help ourselves, but help everybody? 

The Disadvantages of Samsara

The fourth and last preliminary is thinking about the disadvantages of samsara. We need to also realize that in order to help everybody and reach enlightenment, we have to not just think in terms of our own difficult samsaric situations and that we want to get out of all of that ourselves. It’s very easy to be attracted to other people’s samsaric situations, but when we do so, we are not really looking closely enough. We’re envious of that rich person over there, or this person who has a nice partner. However, when we look closely, we see the horror show that’s there with everybody in one form or another.

So, we think of the disadvantages of everybody’s samsaric trip. Just as we want to get out of our samsaric horror show, so does everybody else. The more that we work with the disadvantages of our own samsara, and take them really, really seriously, the more we are able to understand and appreciate other people’s horror shows. This acts as the cause for developing sincere compassion for them. 

This is the first of the seven points, to train in the preliminaries. 

Two Kinds of Bodhichitta

The second point of the Seven Point Mind Training is the actual way to develop the two kinds of bodhichitta. Let me just give a very brief introduction, and then, tomorrow morning, we will deal with this point in more detail. 

Bodhichitta is a mind and a heart – both of these are included in one word – that is aimed at enlightenment. Not enlightenment in general; it’s aimed at our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of all the potentials that we have now. Our intention – what we are going to do once we’ve attained enlightenment – is to benefit everybody as much as is possible. 

Attaining enlightenment means attaining the four Buddha Bodies. There are two sets of Form Bodies, or Corpuses of Enlightening Bodies, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya, each with many different appearances that we could arise with in order to benefit others. There are also two sets of Dharmakayas: a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, which is the omniscient, all-loving mind of a Buddha, and an Essential Nature Dharmakaya, a Svabhavakaya, namely the voidness realized by such a mind – specifically, the voidness of the omniscient mind itself – and the true stoppings on that mind attained by such realization. According to the Gelug Jetsunpa textbooks, the voidness of the omniscient mind and the true stoppings on it are equivalent. The Gelug Panchen textbooks do not assert such an equivalency, but let’s leave aside that debate.

There are two aspects of an enlightening aim of bodhichitta. With the relative, or conventional aspect of bodhichitta, we aim at the aspects of enlightenment with which we are actually able to help everybody – namely, with all our appearances and forms that we take and our omniscient awareness of the extent of all phenomena, especially of behavioral cause and effect, enabling us to know how to benefit each being individually while appearing in these forms. With deepest bodhichitta, we aim at the aspects of enlightenment with which we fulfill our own purposes – namely voidness, as non-conceptually cognized by our omniscient awareness of how all things exist, including voidness, and the true stoppings that are achieved with that non-conceptual cognition.

Of course, with enlightenment, our omniscient mind non-conceptually cognizes inseparably both the full extent of what exists and how all things exist. Also, we can’t separate the voidness cognized by an omniscient mind from the omniscient mind that cognizes it. Whether we include the attainment of a Deep Awareness Dharmakaya as the aspect of enlightenment that we emphasize attaining with relative bodhichitta or attaining with deepest bodhichitta, or with both is a topic for debate. If we explain relative bodhichitta as being aimed at the relative or superficial truth of our enlightenment and deepest bodhichitta as aimed at the deepest truth of our enlightenment, the debate hinges on whether we consider the mind of deep awareness of voidness a relative truth or a deepest truth. Let’s leave that debate aside and just treat deepest bodhichitta as focusing on the voidness of the omniscient mind, and implicit is focusing on attaining this voidness with an omniscient mind. 

Which one do we work with first? Deepest bodhichitta or relative, conventional bodhichitta? There are two traditions concerning which we work on first. In this text, we work on deepest bodhichitta first – the understanding of voidness – and then conventional bodhichitta to reach enlightenment and help everybody. But in other texts, like lam-rim, we work on relative bodhichitta first and then deepest bodhichitta, and obviously, there are reasons for each of these two ways. 

Nagarjuna explained that having deepest bodhichitta first is for more intellectually oriented disciples who need to be convinced that enlightenment is possible before they can put their hearts into working to attain it. Working on conventional bodhichitta first is for more emotionally inclined disciples who need to first develop the wish to attain enlightenment in order to best help others, and then need to become convinced that it is possible to attain it. What I’ll explain here is the order in which the two are presented in the original text, with deepest bodhichitta first. 


In summary, the important point is to really appreciate the preciousness of these teachings, how seriously the great masters who actually achieved enlightenment took them, and to see how well we really need to be prepared to sincerely put them into practice. Cleansing our attitudes is not something to just play around with.

Remember Geshe Langri Tangpa, who wrote the eight stanzas; he didn’t joke around, didn’t make light of things and entertain his disciples by telling jokes and laughing. He took the teachings totally seriously. It was not that he was grim. Although we might like entertainment and jokes and laughing, and sometimes they can be useful for relaxing and calming down, but that’s not the purpose of coming to teachings – to be entertained. Serkong Rinpoche said, “If you want entertainment, go to the circus.” That’s not what the Dharma teachings are about. If you see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he’ll smile, and if things strike him funny, he laughs; he’s not uptight. However, when he teaches, he is very serious.


Let’s end with a dedication: We think that whatever understanding we have gained, whatever positive force we’ve built up, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

This dedication is very important because some positive force that we build up without dedicating it, what does it do? It just acts as positive karmic force. It will ripen in being able to have an entertaining conversation around a coffee table about Dharma. That’s not the point. We don’t want it to just ripen in some samsaric positive way, and everybody thinks we’re so clever. That’s why we have to dedicate the positive force built up very consciously, so it acts as a cause not just for samsaric happiness, which it would automatically do, but as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. May it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment to bring everybody else also to enlightenment. 

Actually, it’s best to put the dedication in our own words, with our own feelings, and not just recite some formula that eventually just becomes empty words.