The Eleven-Round Bodhichitta Meditation


In our discussion of the Seven Point Mind Training, we’ve discussed the first of these points, the training in the preliminaries, which prepare us to follow the Mahayana training, and the second point, the actual training in bodhichitta. We’ve discussed the training in deepest bodhichitta − the understanding of voidness − and started the discussion of relative bodhichitta. We’ve seen, in many ways, how important the understanding of voidness is − at least some level of it − for not only tonglen but also the steps that come before it as well. 

In developing bodhichitta, we are trying to develop our hearts and minds to sincerely wish to benefit everyone, and to take on the responsibility to do that, aiming for enlightenment to do that as fully as is possible. To do this successfully, we need the conviction that it’s possible to attain enlightenment and some understanding, based on reason, of why it’s possible, and why it’s possible to relate to everybody and deal with everybody. We saw that the understanding of voidness helps us very much with that. 

Two Types of Love and Compassion

His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that there are two different types of love and compassion. There are the love and compassion that are based on unawareness of reality and, because of that unawareness, based on other disturbing types of emotions, such as attachment. These could, in many cases, automatically come up based on previous attachment and so on. This is an emotional type of love and compassion that is very disturbing. It is not stable, not dependable, because there’s quite a lot of ego involved. Part of it is being dramatic. Like a peacock displaying its tail feathers, to show off we put out this emotional display of “Oh, I love you!” 

I’m sure many of us have experienced this, that when we are in love with someone, we feel compelled to express our love and repeatedly say to them, “I love you.” It’s really quite interesting when we start to analyze that. Why do we have to express our love in words? Why do we have to tell the other person? Of course, sometimes it’s beneficial to tell the other person if they are insecure and need reinforcement or if they have low self-esteem. But often we compulsively do that, not because of a need from the other person, but from a need within ourselves. It’s almost as if saying it makes our love more real. 

I’m sure most of us can recognize that. Voidness helps us, of course, to understand that saying it certainly doesn’t make it more real. Not only does saying it not make the love real, but it also doesn’t make us real either. Like Descartes’ declaration, “I think, therefore I am,” it’s almost as if, “I love, therefore I am.” We think that saying it somehow affirms our true existence and if we love somebody, we’re real. This really gets far out when we start to analyze it, because then if we’re not in a loving relationship with somebody, we feel we don’t really exist. We can only feel fulfilled, in terms of being an existent being, if we love somebody, and, of course, if we’re loved back by someone as well, and if they express it. It’s very subtle. It’s very helpful when we start to realize that. 

Sometimes I like to make up a new Zen koan, and we have of course the Zen koan in the West: “I think, therefore I am.” Another Zen koan, a voidness Zen koan, would be: “I think, therefore I’m not.” Likewise, “I love, therefore I’m not.” This is the same principle as if we were encased in solid plastic, we couldn’t move. If there were walls around us, we couldn’t walk through them, but because there are no walls, we can walk freely. It’s exactly the same in terms of “I love, therefore I’m not.” “I think, therefore I am not.” 

If we try to develop love and compassion in a stable way based on unawareness of reality, then it’s not going to work. We’ll get a little bit of something, but it’s not really going to be stable if it’s on the basis of “I love you, therefore I am.” “I’ll help you in order to establish and prove my own existence, my being worthwhile.” “I’ll help you in order to prove my being a worthwhile person.” That’s Sautrantika, where what establishes that something is truly existent is that it functions. 

His Holiness explains that this type of love and compassion is unstable. This is because they are connected with the eight transitory things in life, the eight worldly dharmas. When somebody is actually helped by us, we get all excited and feel wonderful, and if they’re not helped, or they don’t say “thank you,” or they criticize what we’re trying to do, then we get all depressed. Our emotions go up and down, and so our samsara goes up and down. This is especially true if our grasping for a solid “me” is reinforced by a culture that emphasizes guilt; for instance, if we try to help somebody and it doesn’t work, or things still go badly with the person, we feel guilty, which is again a very heavy self-centered trip. 

In this cleansing of our attitudes, one reason why this teaching on deepest bodhichitta comes so early in the text is to develop our hearts emotionally. To do that in a stable way, we need to cleanse our attitudes and get rid of unconscious beliefs like, “I love, therefore I am,” and “I help, therefore I am.” 

His Holiness always emphasizes that the second type of love and compassion, which is based on reason, is far more stable. When we understand, through reason, that nobody is special, especially ourselves – that we are all equal in that everyone wants to be happy and not to suffer, and that ego and ego-gratification are based on total unawareness and projection, which do not correspond to anything real – when our love and compassion are based on this type of understanding, then it develops and grows in a very stable way. We shouldn’t be prejudiced into thinking that love and compassion based upon reason is just dry and intellectual, that we don’t really feel anything or feel any emotion. That’s a false preconception. 

I think we can get a bit of a glimpse of the difference, although it might not be exactly the same, by analogy. The difference between when we fall in love with somebody, and we’re so sexually attracted, and we become partners or a married couple, and then when that love fades. This falling-in-love type of love is very exciting, but it’s not very stable and, eventually, because it’s usually based on not really accepting the reality of the other person – that they’re not the most fantastic, beautiful being in the world, Prince or Princess Charming, but we find out that they snore, or whatever – we are hit with the reality of both the positive and the negative qualities of the person. Then after that initial period, what we call “romance” in the West − it’s interesting, there’s absolutely no word for that in Tibetan – wears off, then if the people are mature – it doesn’t always happen – there’s a much, much more stable, long-lasting love, based on understanding the reality of the other person: their shortcomings, our shortcomings, and so on. It’s emotional, but it’s a different type of emotion; it’s a stable type of emotion. And although it’s not as exciting, it’s far more satisfying. 

When we have this fantasy of Prince or Princess Charming that we project onto the other person, although it may be exciting and make us feel good, we also need to recognize that it is a very disturbing state of mind that can also cause us terrible pain. Nobody can hurt us more and cause us more pain than somebody that we’re in love with who, for example, ignores us or does something that we don’t like, criticizes us, and so on. Our mind is distracted; we can’t really concentrate and do other things, because we’re always thinking of the other person. Although we think and we label this, “True happiness. I’m in love,” we need to be a little bit more objective about it. 

If we analyze this state, what we discover is that the reason we feel so bad and it hurts so much when this person ignores us, doesn’t call, or doesn’t kiss us in the morning when we wake up, is because we’re insecure. Again, it’s a very strong example of “I love, therefore I am.” You love me and show your love to me, therefore I am.” That’s the eternalist extreme.

The other extreme, the nihilist extreme is that if you don’t show me that “I love you” and if I’m not in love, I totally do not exist at all. That really freaks us out, that really disturbs us, this nihilist extreme of not existing at all. It’s very important to analyze this state of mind of being in love that we’re so attracted to it and spend so much effort trying to find. It’s like people who have this mid-life crisis when they feel, “If I don’t do it again, it’s my last chance,” which is yet another manifestation of insecurity and “I love, therefore I am.” Those who are older among us recognize that, I’m sure. We feel that nobody will love us anymore because we’ll be fat, ugly and old. 

However, if our love is more stable, not for ego-gratification, and is based on understanding reality, then our mind isn’t disturbed; we can feel more secure, and that gives us a basis for being more productive, more creative, really doing constructive things in life. Otherwise, we’re so distracted that we can’t do anything. 

The Main Points in the Eleven-Round Bodhichitta Meditation Practice

Cherishing Others

Although I’ve actually jumped ahead a little bit here, what I’m discussing is some of the later points in the eleven-round bodhichitta meditation – the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others. “Cherishing others” means having this type of love for others that is based on reason, not on ego-gratification. “Cherish” means to feel very close to someone. We consider them very precious, and so we really want to benefit and help them. This one we cherish and want to help could be just us, or it could be others. This is the connotation of the word “cherish.” 

Having this cherishing of others based on stable love and compassion, and based on reason and so on, means that the benefits are greater, not only for the other person, because we don’t frighten and overwhelm them or make demands on them, asking for something in return, but for us as well. The benefits of such a mature type of love and compassion, cherishing the other, are that we just love them for their reality, with no projections. We are far more stable, not disturbed by the relationship, being able to help so many others and so on, and not just being so focused on one person that when that person doesn’t thank us, we’re in a complete depression. 

When trying to help others – I introduced this image yesterday − don’t be like this huge, hideous, frightening-looking mother spider, “Raargh! I’m going to help you! Love me back.” This type of thing. It’s very helpful to bring that image up when we catch ourselves starting to act like that, and then to act in a different way. Shantideva gives the very beautiful image for this in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Bodhicaryavatara. He says, “In helping others, be like a honeybee.” A honeybee flies to beautiful flowers all the time and has a very close loving relation with each of the flowers but doesn’t get attached. It then goes on to the next beautiful one. This is a very helpful image. 

Let’s go back a little bit here to the eleven-round meditation, one by one. I don’t want to go into detail about these, as you can study them elsewhere. However, what I wanted to emphasize is how to develop these in a stable way, not on the basis of a disturbing emotion, such as an ego-gratification type of love and compassion. That’s not the bodhisattva path. 

(1) Equanimity

We start with the equanimity with which we are neither attracted nor repelled, nor indifferent to anyone, to any sentient being. A sentient being is a being that experiences the consequences of their compulsive actions, and that means everybody, including all the insects. Compulsive actions are those that are based on compelling urges driven by disturbing emotions and attitudes. They are what build up karmic potentials and tendencies, and sentient beings are those beings that commit such actions and experience their karmic results. 

Instead of “sentient being,” I prefer the term “limited being,” because a Buddha is not a sentient being. A limited being is someone with a limited mind and limited body, but not in the sense of being disabled or crippled with disease. Sentient beings are limited in what they can understand – they are not omniscient – and limited in what they can do – they cannot multiply into millions of forms, for instance. They are limited by their own experiencing of karmic consequences, their own disturbing emotions and so on. That’s what a sentient being is. 

As limited beings that are under the influence of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, sometimes they are friendly with us, sometimes unfriendly and sometimes indifferent to us. But this is always changing. This helps us to develop equanimity toward them because their relationship with us is always changing. We also saw the importance of the understanding of voidness for clearing out attraction, repulsion and indifference toward anyone. With those disturbing emotions curbed, we are now open to everyone. This levels the ground so that we can build on it positive emotions equally toward everyone. 

We shouldn’t trivialize this step at all. It’s unbelievably difficult to achieve because, obviously, we have attraction based on desire and attachment, and we have repulsion based on anger, and we have indifference based on naivety. We’re not arhats yet; we haven’t gotten rid of all of that. To be able to have this equanimity perfectly, we have to be liberated beings, arhats. But what we can do at our stage now is to not act on these disturbing emotions, not be uncontrollably compelled by them so that we’re biased toward one or the other being. This first step of bodhichitta meditation is already extremely advanced. 

The standard way of developing this type of equanimity is to think of past lives, that everybody’s position has changed. Since there’s infinite, beginningless time, then everybody sometimes has been our friend, our enemy, and a stranger. We contemplate that every friend that we ever had started out as a stranger, and so, like this, we gain equanimity. 

There are, of course, many Dharma ways to deal with these three poisonous, disturbing emotions. We’ll find one here in the tonglen practice, where we take on these three from all others and give them the antidotes to them. I think it’s most appropriate that we try to apply every Dharma method that we know to deal with this issue of equanimity, and don’t just follow the one that is the standard meditation. Of course, we can practice the standard meditation, but it’s much better, much more effective, to try to apply as many different opponents as we can to deal with these types of issues, whether looking at the ugliness of what’s inside the body of someone we find so attractive or seeing the underlying type of deep awareness where we recognize that we’re so attracted to someone, and it’s just the individualizing awareness that specifies one person. It’s like if we have HIV, we don’t just take one medication, we really need a combination, a cocktail of many medications. Whatever we can learn from the Dharma, we need to apply in every difficult situation and step of development. 

On a practical level, however, who can we actually try to help, especially when now we’re limited? We don’t have the capacity to help everyone simultaneously. Of course, we would choose the ones that we feel some sort of connection with and who feel some connection with us, so that they’re open and receptive to us. I mean, sure, that’s where we start because this is where we can be the most effective. However, we have to watch out not to be attached to them and not to be indifferent to others. We need to watch out for the dangers of the disturbing emotions there. 

It is true that when there is somebody who is really aggressive and hostile toward us, it’s very difficult for them to be open to anything that we could try to do to help them. In such cases, we can have wishes: “I hope that I can be able to help you in the future; I’m not repelled by you, but my time and my capacity are limited.” We can practice tonglen focused on taking on from them their aggressive, closed-minded attitude toward us. 

We need to always be open to more and more and more people, like being open to more people coming to join our class. No matter how old we are, how much we are involved in our family and so on, it’s very important to have our hearts open to new people coming into our lives, but not on the basis of ignoring those who are close to us. Also, we have to be practical in terms of the amount of time that we have, the number of things that we can do. Even if the other person or the new people make tremendous demands on us that are impossible to fulfill, still, if we are free of these disturbing emotions − or at least not compulsively under their influence − we can set limits with the other person in such a way that they don’t feel rejected by us. That’s the only way to set limits. Give them a little bit of our time, but make it clear that we cannot give them everything they want.  

Furthermore, when we’re on the other side of this type of relationship, we have to also work really hard to accept the limitations that the other person has, in terms of their time, their availability, their emotional maturity, and not make demands beyond what is realistic. That also requires a tremendous amount of emotional maturity. It’s necessary not only when we are on the receiving end of help from somebody, but also in terms of how that person responds back to us. Don’t expect anything in return; it says that here in the training. 

One image that is perhaps helpful in terms of helping those that are receptive and around us, even though we have the wish to be able to help everybody and have equanimity, is the image of putting a bird feeder in the garden. Well, it would be very nice to be able to feed all the birds on this planet, but we don’t have that capacity now. So, we put out what we can for the birds that are near us, but it doesn’t matter which birds come. It’s not only for our favorite birds; it’s open to any bird that comes. That’s a very nice image. We don’t expect anything back from the birds. I mean unless, of course, we’re attached to having them around so we can spy on them and watch them. I’m talking about doing this with a pure motive of giving. 

I think a very good example is the example of the Buddha. Not everybody was open and receptive to Buddha when he was here on the earth. Also, Buddhas don’t appear all the time; they only appear when beings are open and receptive. It’s not that they don’t want to help beings during the so-called “dark ages” when nobody is open or receptive, it’s just that it’s in many ways a waste of time to come if nobody wants their help. That’s a good example. A line that I always remind myself of that is so helpful is “Not everybody liked Buddha, so what do I expect for myself?” It’s very helpful when somebody doesn’t like us, rejects us, criticizes us, or whatever; please try to remember that. 

(2) Distinguishing Everyone as Having Been Our Mother

Based on equanimity, we then spoke about distinguishing everyone as having been our mother. Atisha pointed out that this is one of the most difficult points possible to sincerely feel with absolutely everybody. It is by no means to be trivialized. It is based on confident belief in beginningless lives and can only be directed toward everybody on the basis of equanimity – not being attracted to some, repelled by others, or indifferent to others. 

For this point about everyone having been our mother, we saw that if we can prove with reason that it’s impossible that somebody has not been our mother, it gives us a bit more of a stable reason for trying to develop this attitude. Otherwise, it’s just based on a fiction. If it’s based on a fiction, how can we really be sincere about it? Remember the line: “If one being has been my mother in this lifetime, and everybody is equal, then everybody has been my mother, because if one was never my mother, and since everyone is equal, no one was ever my mother, and so I didn’t have a mother in this lifetime.” I haven’t seen this line of reasoning in Buddhist texts, but we worked it out. It seems to make sense. 

With this conviction, we can then distinguish everyone as having been our mother. What does “distinguishing” mean? It is one of the five aggregates; it means to specify a conventional characteristic feature of something. One of the conventional characteristic features of everyone − not that it’s a hook on their side − is that they’ve been our mother at some point or another. When we meet them, this is the distinguishing characteristic that we want to focus on. 

(3) Remembering the Kindness of Motherly Love

The third step is that we remember the kindness of motherly love: how much our mother has helped us. Even if our mother in this lifetime is quite disturbed, well, in a previous lifetime, she might have also been our mother and not been so disturbed. Also, she didn’t abort us – that’s at least something she did that was kind to us. 

If we have approached this bodhichitta meditation without having this strong egocentric type of identification with “me” and with this particular lifetime and with this particular mother that we have now, then I think that we don’t have so much of a problem in meditating on the kindness of motherly love. That’s because we don’t just localize motherly love in terms of “Well, what did my mother give me when I was a child? She was an awful mother.” 

A lot of people have problems with this point, and it’s found in some texts that we can also think of the kindness of our father, our best friend, and so on. However, I think that if we have problems with our mother, this specific mother in this lifetime, then we need to work on it. How are we going to help everybody, all our mothers, if we can’t deal with this mother? That doesn’t mean that our mother in this lifetime is receptive to us and is open and is an easy case, but at least we can try to have an attitude of equanimity toward her without resentment and repulsion. 

The classic Buddhist texts don’t speak about situations in which we have difficulty with our mother in this lifetime. I was present with His Holiness when this was discussed, and he was quite amazed that people have difficulty with their mothers or that mothers sometimes abuse or abandon their children. In traditional Asian families, maybe you had some difficulties with your father, but in the traditional Asian family, a mother’s stability is love and warmth and acceptance. Perhaps if there is abuse, no one speaks about it. I don’t know. 

If we have one of these types of mothers that is overprotective and constantly worrying about us and really being very heavy about that, we need to try to apply some of the Dharma methods. One that I’ve found most effective with that is trying to deconstruct what is behind the mother’s behavior. Underlying it is the individualizing awareness that’s focused on us, really caring about us and our welfare. Now, of course, in addition to that, there’s tremendous insecurity and ego grasping, and all of that, but try to see the positive component of the emotion that the mother is feeling and recognize that, acknowledge that. That’s not something that we want to reject. She’s not indifferent; it’s not that she doesn’t care about us at all.

What’s added here in the eleven rounds is that others have been kind to us, not just when they were our mother; they have also been kind to us even when they were not our mother. For this, we look at how everything that we have in life is dependent on the work of others: the food, the roads that bring the food, the animals that provide our milk, and so on. Our lives are sustained by an incredible network of effort and work by so many others, so we really extend our scope to absolutely everybody. One way of working with this is to look at every item in our house, in our room, and think, “Where did this come from?” 

Whether or not others intended to be kind to us or help us, it doesn’t matter. If it weren’t for what they did, we couldn’t survive, we couldn’t live. This opens our minds and hearts even more to the kindness of others and our interdependence with them all. 

(4) Wishing to Repay This Kindness

Remembering the motherly love and the kindness we’ve received from everybody, even when they’ve not been our mothers, we develop a feeling of gratitude and, based on that feeling of gratitude and connection with everybody, we wish to repay that motherly love. This is the fourth step of this eleven-round meditation. 

Now it’s quite obvious that we need some clear understanding of voidness here. Otherwise, it’s quite easy for this step to translate into guilt: “Everybody has been so kind to me, and I’ve been such a terrible person; I haven’t done anything to help them back. I’m guilty, I’m no good, and so I’d better do something.” This is acting out of guilt, holding on to this strong identity of “I’ve been such a terrible son or daughter.” This we absolutely have to clear out, as this step can’t at all be on the basis of guilt. This is really essential. 

It’s really quite interesting when this step is described in the teachings. All that is said is that it naturally will arise. I think that is because, although the texts don’t explicitly mention it, it is based on having appreciation and gratitude for all the kindness we have received. When we think of how much kindness that we’ve received, then, feeling grateful, we would naturally want to be kind in return. 

If we have an emotional block to this step, we need to examine the source of this block. I think one of the aspects of the problem or blockage is guilt and, even if we acknowledge the kindness we have received, feeling that we didn’t deserve it. But if we have developed these first steps in a stable, non-ego way, with which we don’t feel insecure, and if we’re already at some level of emotional maturity, I think this blockage will not come up. 

It’s very interesting when we look at young children. Often, they want to help in the house and many little children like to take care of a baby doll. Where’s that coming from? That’s sort of naturally there. But if it’s constantly put down, “You’re going to break it!” or “I’ll do it for you” – this sort of control-freak type of parent that doesn’t let the child do anything – that reinforces this sort of low self-esteem, which can then become a big block to this step. We would then feel, “I can’t do anything to repay this kindness; I’m no good. Anything that I do will not be good enough,” and so on. I think that has to be dealt with before getting to this step of wanting to repay the kindness we have received. 

It’s not just my idea. In fact, it’s often recommended by psychologists and psychiatrists that one of the best ways to help somebody who has low self-esteem is to let them be generous by doing something for us. It’s often the case with very difficult teenagers. Let them do something for us, and it doesn’t matter how poorly they do it; it really doesn’t matter. If they can actually give, in some form or another, that helps to build up their self-esteem and unconsciously helps them to pay back some of the kindness that they’ve received without this feeling that, “I can never do anything good enough.” If we can actually give and pay back, then there’s this feeling that – even if it’s an ego-based thing – “I’m worthwhile; I can do something.” 

It’s very important to let other people help us, because often we have this control-freak mentality of “Don’t touch my personal computer; you’re going to break it.” We don’t let people do things for us when they offer. That’s really being very unkind to the other person, let alone the standard Dharma advice to let them build up the merit, the positive force of being generous. Just on a psychological level, it’s very important to help the other person by letting them help us. 

It’s quite interesting, if we analyze and think these things out; we realize that perhaps one of the reasons why this wish to repay kindness arises naturally in Indian or Tibetan families, or in Asian families in general – and it probably was the case in medieval times as well in the West – is that, for survival purposes, the children had to help. They helped take care of the animals, or the farm, or the shop. For example, little kids of four years old are already helping out in India in their parents’ shop. In doing so, they develop a feeling of self-confidence that they’re actually able to do things. We always think child labor is terrible, but, actually, from a psychological point of view, I think that it can be very helpful. Obviously, we don’t want to exploit a child, but we need to nourish the natural wish that children have, to give. What are these traditional Asian families doing that Western families are not doing, in the way that they raise children, so that traditional Asians don’t have a block at this step? If we look at such families, a six-year-old girl is taking care of a two-year-old brother or sister. 

Heart-Warming Love

In the seven-part cause and effect practice for developing bodhichitta, what we have mentioned as the first step, equanimity, is not counted as one of the seven parts. It is like step zero. Also not counted is what comes after the wish to repay the kindness of others. It is the type of love that I call “heart-warming love.” This is the step in the seven-part practice right before developing the type of love with which we wish everybody to be happy and have the causes for happiness. 

Heart-warming love is the type of love with which we feel close and cherish everybody equally and would be really upset if anything went wrong with them. It’s like that feeling that we have – if we can subtract the ego-gratification aspect of it – when our closest loved friend comes into the room. That, “Ohhhh,” our heart just really feels warm and lightens and opens, and we feel so happy to see this person. I mean, not the baby that’s come home to the mother spider. Nevertheless, this is what we want to cultivate as a result of all of this practice, to feel that when we meet anybody. 

If we look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it’s incredible. No matter whom he meets, he’s just so happy to meet somebody, anybody. He just lights up completely to absolutely everybody that he meets. For some, especially these very serious uptight politicians or leaders from other religions, it’s really very shocking. His Holiness takes their hand and, from a Western point of view, it’s outrageous, but it puts people at ease because it’s so sincere. 

We have a good living example of this with His Holiness. That’s rare. There obviously are others as well, but, with His Holiness, it’s so strong, this warmth that he feels for absolutely everybody. When he gives a public talk, for instance last year in Berlin, 22,000 people came, and he comes on stage, waves to the audience and everybody instantly loves him. It’s extraordinary. How does that happen? What is the secret? It’s this heart-warming love toward everyone, which everyone feels radiating from him. To be like him, how many times do the texts have to say, “Develop bodhichitta.” 

(5) Equalizing Our Attitude toward Everyone

It’s at this point in the eleven rounds that the stages from the other method, the second method of developing bodhichitta, the equalizing and exchanging of self and others, come in. All the points up to here give us the basis for equalizing and exchanging self with others. They are based on having this heart-warming love. Normally, with this second method, we start with step number zero – equanimity without attachment, repulsion or indifference – then we jump to this first step of equalizing our attitude toward everyone. However, it’s much more stable when these other stages are added in between from the seven-part method. 

The equanimity that’s discussed in step zero, or step one in the eleven rounds, is a method common to both Hinayana and Mahayana since it is focused on not having a disturbing emotion toward others. Having an equal attitude toward everyone is the special Mahayana type of equal attitude. It’s the equal attitude of closeness, this heart-warming love, equally toward everybody. The reasons why everyone is equal are, for instance, everybody wants to be happy; nobody wants to be unhappy; therefore, if we have food for people, it’s not right to just give it to the ones that we like, as everybody is equally hungry, and so on. There are many reasons to reinforce this view of everybody being equal. It also has this emotional component to it of heart-warming love, a feeling of closeness for everybody and warmth. 

Now in the classical presentation, when we speak about seeing the equality of self and others, it is on the basis that everyone has the same wishes as we do. Everybody wants to be happy and not to be unhappy just as we do. Again, what is quite interesting is that the classical presentation doesn’t speak of directing this heart-warming love toward ourselves but speaks of it only in terms of everybody being equal. That doesn’t mean, however, “I love everybody else, but I hate myself, because I’m a sinner, I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve to be happy,” this type of thing. Again, I was there when His Holiness was first confronted with this Western low self-esteem, how people hate themselves, and His Holiness was shocked. This was a meeting with scientists and His Holiness went around the room and asked each of us individually, “Do you really hate yourself? I mean, do you really not like yourself?” Everybody had to admit, “Yes.” His Holiness was shocked at this. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s within the spirit of the teachings that we extend this equal warmth and happiness to ourselves so that we are comfortable to be alone and don’t feel, “Oh, my God, now I’m alone. I don’t want to be alone! I can’t possibly be alone!” You know, people that constantly have to have, from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to sleep, the radio or the TV on, so that they’re not by themselves. Or they constantly have music on. God forbid that they have to be alone with their thoughts. 

(6) The Disadvantages of Self-Cherishing Attitude and (7) the Benefits of Cherishing Others

We’ve spoken about these already, so I won’t repeat. 

(8) Compassion and (9) Love with the Practice of Tonglen

It’s at this point where we get the tonglen, which is combined now with the next two steps that we find in the first tradition, the seven-part cause and effect. Although in the seven-part cause and effect, love comes first − wishing everybody to be happy and to have the causes of happiness − and then comes compassion − wishing for them to be free of their suffering and the causes of their suffering − here, the order is reversed. Here, we first imagine taking on the suffering of others – so imagining removing it from them – so that we can then give them happiness. With compassion, we take on the suffering, and with love, we give them happiness. 

It’s like if a pail, a bucket, is full of dirty water, not only is there no room to put clean water in it, but even if we could put clean water in, it would just get dirty. We couldn’t get it filled with clean water. That’s not a precise example because we can’t empty out all the suffering of all others just by our own power alone, but at least we can imagine that we do, so that then they’re relaxed enough and not in such intense pain, so they can really benefit more from the happiness we give them. If somebody is hit by a car and is in terrible pain, we don’t first give them a kiss and a meal and stuff like that. Obviously, if they are in intense pain, we have to take care of that first. 

It’s very important to actually apply this in our interaction with others. If somebody comes to visit us and is very tired or upset about something, we need to address that first. If somebody has had a long journey and we want to immediately sit them at the table to eat a huge meal after they’ve come from the airplane on which they’ve eaten all sorts of junk for hours and hours, that’s not what this person needs at that time. They need a little rest, to lie down for a while. 

Then, there is the tonglen practice. I won’t go into any detail now, but what’s quite interesting here is that this step of love and compassion already includes taking some level of responsibility to do something to help others and then actually helping them. His Holiness always says that compassion has an element in it of not just, “I wish somebody else would help you,” but it has a sense of responsibility, as well, to help as much as we can with this particular suffering situation now. 

(10) Exceptional Resolve

The next step is developing the exceptional resolve, which is to take the responsibility − sometimes His Holiness says “universal responsibility” − to actually remove the suffering from everybody and help everybody, which is already included in the great compassion we had in the homage. We are firmly resolved to help lead them all the way to enlightenment, which could also, of course, be included in the tonglen practice, but here it’s made a separate step because that really is quite extraordinary. The extraordinary resolve is, “I’m going to take responsibility to not just feed everybody but also bring everybody to liberation and enlightenment.” 

(11) Bodhichitta

Finally, we get to the development of bodhichitta. When we examine to see, “Well, am I able to bring everybody to enlightenment? Obviously not, so the only way that I can do that is to reach enlightenment myself.” The emotions that we have with bodhichitta are based on all these previous steps: the heart-warming connection with everybody, love and compassion, and the responsibility to help everybody to enlightenment. As I emphasize very much, bodhichitta must be based on the conviction that it is possible for us to reach enlightenment and that it is possible for everybody else to reach enlightenment too.

This conviction is based on understanding that our individual not-yet-happening enlightenment is a valid imputation phenomenon on the basis of our mental continuum and the Buddha-nature factors on it. With bodhichitta, we focus on that not-yet-happening enlightenment with the intention to achieve it and the intention to benefit all beings by means of attaining it. Actually, though, we can formulate it the other way around: we intend to benefit all beings and so we intend to reach enlightenment in order to be able to do that. That’s bodhichitta. It’s not just, “I love everybody!” 

I just want to mention another point as an aside because I know a few of you have been studying here about negation phenomena. When Buddhism speaks about the future, it is speaking about a negation phenomenon – the not-yet-happening of something; here, the not-yet-happening of our individual enlightenment. Although it is something that is not happening now, like tomorrow, and is not happening somewhere else, it nevertheless is something that exists and can be an object of valid cognition, although for us, only conceptually. To meditate on it, we need to have some idea of the state we have not yet attained so that we know what we are focusing on with bodhichitta. What’s the object of focus? It’s the negation phenomenon, the not-yet-happening of our individual enlightenment. 

But how to focus on that? That’s not a simple question, and most of us, I think, have no idea what in the world to do. We sit and just meditate on loving everybody, but that’s not bodhichitta. There needs to be some appearance that arises, representing our individual not-yet-happening enlightenment, to serve as the object of focus. This can be a visualized figure of a Buddha, or, in tantra, ourselves as a Buddha-figure. We cognize that conceptually through the category of our not-yet-happened enlightenment, which it represents. 

If we are focusing on a Buddha in front of us, and we think of the great qualities of a Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, and entrust ourselves to going in the safe direction Buddha indicates − this is refuge, not bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is not focused on the enlightenment of somebody else. It’s focused on our own enlightenment, which has not yet happened. We can’t achieve Buddha’s enlightenment; we can only achieve our own enlightenment. It’s individual. We’re not focusing, either, on just a general category of enlightenment. It’s an individual item, an individual enlightenment – our own – that has not yet happened. We’re also not talking about the enlightenment of an impossible soul, of the impossible “me,” but the not-yet-happening enlightenment of the conventional “me.” That’s why this distinction about who is the “me” who is not yet a Buddha has to be quite clear; otherwise, working for enlightenment to be a Buddha becomes a big ego trip. 

When, with taking resultant refuge, we focus on our own individual not-yet-happening attainment of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we entrust ourselves to going in the safe direction indicated by that. Although this is the special taking of refuge unique to Mahayana, this is still not the same as bodhichitta. It does not have behind it the full force of the steps we have been discussing in this eleven-round development of bodhichitta, nor does it have the commitments and trainings that follow from it. 


The proper development of bodhichitta is not something that can be oversimplified and trivialized. It’s a very sophisticated advanced step. As Shantideva and Tsongkhapa and everybody say, it’s incredible; bodhichitta is the most incredible wish-granting gem. It can fulfill everyone’s wishes if we can develop it properly and really be sincere about it. As some texts recommend, if we’re going to ask the great masters to say prayers for us, don’t ask them to say prayers like, “May we have worldly success, may our business succeed, may our daughter find a good husband,” these sorts of things. The most wonderful prayers that we can ask a lama to make for us is, “May I be able to develop authentic bodhichitta.” 

In our seminar, we obviously have not gotten terribly far in the text. We haven’t even gotten to the discussion of tonglen, but I think that this is quite okay. Practicing tonglen correctly is very advanced, but if we have some idea of what to work on to prepare for that, then it can be effective. Practicing tonglen properly and sincerely, with all the horrific visualizations that go with it, is not a game to play around with or be undertaken lightly because it can really freak us out. We shouldn’t push ourselves to do this practice before we are emotionally ready.

It’s like, these days, I’m going to a chiropractor, trying to loosen up something in my lower back. I’m very stiff, and he can’t push too hard because if he pushes too hard to make the bones and muscles crack and move, he can do a tremendous amount of damage. He has to be very gentle and work up to it gradually so that I get that flexibility. It’s the same thing with practicing tonglen. Our minds and our hearts are incredibly stiff; we can’t just push it: “Stop being selfish and think of everybody!” Otherwise, it can do some emotional damage here. Tonglen needs proper preparation in order to practice it. 


We talked about the mind being beginningless and also ignorance being beginningless. So why is the nature of the mind pure and clear since beginningless time? 

Mental activity − mind − and unawareness both have no beginning, that’s true, but unawareness is a fleeting stain; it’s not the nature of the mind, in the sense that it’s not an essential part of or the nature of the mind, because it can be removed. Why? Because unawareness can be totally opposed with awareness. We can’t have unawareness and awareness simultaneously; they’re mutually contradictory, because if we understand a little bit, but we still don’t really know, that understanding is not correct understanding. We still have a little bit less confused unawareness, but it’s still just unawareness. When we have absolutely correct and decisive understanding, we can’t have unawareness or ignorance simultaneously. 

Because of that and because of the fact that although now, the habit of unawareness is stronger than the habit of correct understanding, there’s no “support” behind the habit of unawareness. This is the word that is used in Tibetan – there’s no back-up support behind the unawareness that would make it valid. Whereas there’s a great deal of supporting evidence for valid understanding. Because of that, valid understanding can – if we think of the Tibetan word “support” – hold its position. It doesn’t fall apart when the unawareness starts to come again; it doesn’t shatter our valid understanding, although we might not remember it for a while. If we can reach the stage where that unawareness is totally replaced by awareness, then it’s not going to come again, so it can be removed. 

Now, what’s really important here is that all the disturbing emotions and attitudes are also fleeting and can also be removed forever because they all rely on unawareness. Whereas all the good qualities – love, compassion, and so on – can’t be removed because what is underlying and validating them, what supports them, is valid correct understanding of reality. Although the negative qualities can be removed forever, the positive qualities can’t be removed. The more understanding we have, the more they’re reinforced. This is very important to understand. 

Unawareness and disturbing emotions are the obscurations preventing liberation. Just as we can remove these, it is likewise possible to get rid of the obscurations preventing omniscience. What are those? They’re the appearance-making of truly established existence due to the habits of grasping for truly established existence. Because of these habits, the mind makes mental holograms in which it appears as though everything has a line around it. We may not believe that these correspond to reality, we know that’s just garbage, but it still appears like that. That prevents us from being able to know everything: all the interrelations of cause and effect. It’s like we have periscope vision; we only see a little bit. Our minds are limited because everything appears to have these solid lines around them, isolating them from each other.

That appearance-making can be removed. When we have the non-conceptual cognition of voidness, even as an arya, at that moment, there is no appearance-making of truly established existence. If we can sustain that forever, without any break, and also perceive conventional truth simultaneously, without conventional truth appearing to be self-established, which only a Buddha can do, then that periscope vision will never return. Then, we’re aware of everything; there’s no limitation in terms of seeing the interconnectedness of everything, which is what omniscience is all about. This is part of the proof of omniscience that it is actually possible to attain. Again, that reinforces our aim of bodhichitta, that it is possible to achieve enlightenment. 

One last point: when the unawareness, the habits of unawareness, are removed forever from the mental continuum, the mental activity on the mental continuum still retains its essential nature as mental activity. In other words, the ignorance, the unawareness and the deceptive appearance-making are not defining characteristics of mental activity. They can be removed. Whereas the essential nature − the defining characteristic of the mental activity of a mental continuum, which is, in simple words, mere clarity and awareness, the mere arising of appearances and cognizing them – that can’t be removed. If that were removable, then the mental activity on a mental continuum would no longer retain its essential nature as mental activity. We need to think about that. Because of that, a mental continuum never ends. There’s nothing we can do to make it end. 

I’ll just put it in a very simple way, and then we’ll end. If there were a mutually exclusive state of mere arising and cognizing – making appearances and cognizing them – if there were a mutually exclusive state of that, of not making mental holograms and not cognizing them, how could we ever know that? With that koan to think about, let’s end with a dedication: 

We think that whatever understanding and whatever positive force has come from all this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all. 

Read and listen to the original text “Seven Point Mind Training” by Geshe Chekawa.