Developing a Bodhichitta Aim through Exchanging Self for Others

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Foundation for Development of Equanimity

In order to generate the enlightening aim of bodhichitta with which we wish to attain enlightenment in order to benefit all living beings, it is first necessary to develop a sense of equanimity and an equal attitude toward everyone. If we have great hostility and anger toward enemies and great attachment and favoritism toward friends, then we will not have an equal attitude toward everyone. Therefore, it is important to first work on overcoming these attitudes. The methods for developing such a state of equanimity were discussed in the previous session. It is not sufficient to have an attitude of equanimity just toward those toward whom we have hostility and attachment. As a foundation, it is also necessary to build on this with the recognition that everyone has in fact been very kind to us in the past, and that in past lifetimes everyone has been our mother. This is something necessary to recognize. 


How can we establish or prove that everybody has been our mother? We have taken rebirth for an infinite amount of time. There is no beginning to the number of past lifetimes that we have had. It is not reasonable to think that we have always had the same mother in every lifetime. It is not one single being who is our mother for all our lifetimes. In fact, over beginningless lifetimes, everybody at some point has been our mother. Just as our mother in this lifetime has been very kind to us, likewise everybody, when they have been our mother, has also been kind to us. If we don’t attain enlightenment in this lifetime, then in our next lifetimes, we are going to need to have a mother. We are going to have to be born and have a mother all the way until we attain enlightenment. Except for the few occasions when we might appear by a miraculous transformation, we must be born from a mother. This is certain: we are going to have mothers. 

Confident Belief in Past and Future Lives

It is very important for us to have confident belief in the existence of past and future lives. If we had a past life immediately prior to our present life, logically it follows that there should have been a lifetime before that, and one before that. It becomes an infinite regress, going back without beginning. There are some special people who are able to remember their previous lifetimes. For instance, some of those born in certain hells often know what their life was immediately prior to that. Furthermore, we can take the examples of high lamas. For instance, His Holiness the Karmapa, for sixteen incarnations has taken incarnation with full intention and full knowledge of his past rebirth and where he will be reborn in the future. Furthermore, concerning the lineage of the Dalai Lamas, it is now the fourteenth incarnation. When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died and they were searching for the next incarnation, there was a special lake in Tibet where you could see certain letters appearing in it, indicating the place where he would be born. Certain letters indicated the house and various other types of information concerning the rebirth, and sure enough, that is where he was found. We need to have this confident belief in the existence of past and future lives. 

Even if we can’t gain confident belief in the existence of past and future rebirths, we nevertheless can’t prove decisively that they do not exist. Therefore, we need to think very carefully about the existence of past and future rebirths. Once we have become convinced of their existence, we need to think that if we have had infinite numbers of rebirths, without beginning in the past, then every living being must have been our mother in at least one of these previous lifetimes. 

Brief Review of Being Mindful of the Kindness of Our Mothers and All Others 

The next step that we need to think about, after having recognized that everybody at some time has been our mother, is to recall their kindness when they were our mother. Just as this life’s mother has been kind to us, likewise when others have been our mother, they too were very kind to us. And not only have others been kind to us when they have been our mothers, they have also been kind to us at many other times. Actually, there is no one kinder to us than other beings. The clothing we wear, the things that we eat and drink, such as milk, yogurt and meat, all these things come from other living beings. It is due to the kindness of their existence that we are able to have things to eat and wear. Even our enemies have been extremely helpful to us, because on the basis of having enemies we can practice patience. By practicing patience, we are able to perfect what is known as “the perfection of patience,” which is essential for attaining enlightenment. Therefore, our enemies have been very kind to us as well in helping us to perfect patience. 

We can see from the biography of Jetsun Milarepa that when he was young, he had two older relatives who were very cruel to him and his mother, causing them a great deal of hardship. As a result, Milarepa turned himself to the Dharma and studied with the great translator Marpa and attained enlightenment. We can learn from the biography of Milarepa that in fact, those who cause us hardship afford us an opportunity to improve ourselves. 

Points Leading to Heartwarming Love and Repaying the Kindness of Others

By being mindful of the kindness of others, we develop the attitude of cherishing others and feeling very upset if anything goes wrong for them. This attitude is referred to as “heartwarming love.” 

Let’s review briefly and recount the various points that have been mentioned thus far. The first is to develop an attitude of equanimity toward everyone; the second is to recognize that everybody has been our mother at some time; the third is to remember the kindness of others. This third point has two aspects: remembering the kindness when they have been our mothers and also the special way of remembering their kindness at all other times when they were not our mother. The fourth point is the wish to repay that kindness.

If we give others something to eat or drink, or a little bit of money, basically this is a little bit of help; however, it is not really of great significant benefit to them. If we ask, “How can we really repay the kindness that others have shown us?” It is by practicing the Dharma very intensively and attaining enlightenment. By attaining enlightenment, we will truly be able to fulfill the wishes of all others and bring them benefit. This is the best way of repaying the kindness of others. As Jetsun Milarepa said concerning his fatherly guru Marpa, “I don’t have any wealth or material possessions to repay you, my fatherly guru; the best way that I can repay your kindness is by practicing and realizing the teachings myself.”

There was a disciple of Jetsun Milarepa known as Dagpo Lhaje or Gampopa. Gampopa stayed for many years with Milarepa wanting to receive all of the instructions and guideline teachings. After studying for many years, Gampopa moved away and, on the journey, Milarepa accompanied him part of the way as was the custom. At the point where Gampopa was to continue alone, he asked for any special type of guideline instruction from Milarepa, anything that he felt that he hadn’t received. As Gampopa headed down the road alone, Milarepa was aware that there was one instruction that he had not given. He called to Gampopa, telling him to turn around and come back. Gampopa came back to Milarepa. When he was close enough, Milarepa turned around and lifted up his robe and showed him his backside. Because Milarepa had practiced so intensively and sat for so long in intensive practice, his backside had become extremely callused and hard, like the floor. Showing this to Gampopa, he said, “You should practice as hard as this. This is the final piece of guideline instruction that you are missing.” 

We can see by this example that the best way to repay the kindness of others is to practice the Dharma intensively in order to attain enlightenment. It is just a matter of doing it. 

When we look at animals, we need to understand that they have become animals because of the destructive actions that they did for our sake, perhaps stealing in order to get food to feed us, when they were our mothers and fathers. Because they did these actions, in order to help us, they were reborn as animals. They have all this intensive suffering as animals because of the negative things they did for our sake when they were our parents. Clearly, it is not proper to just sit around now, have picnics, enjoy ourselves, and go for walks without thinking to practice very intensively in order to help them. 

If we carefully think and meditate on these points, it is not necessary for us to meditate separately on developing the attitude with which we cherish others and feel upset if anything bad happened to them. Heartwarming love will arise automatically as a result of remembering the kindness of others. Eventually, it will reach a point that whenever we see any other being, we will have the same feeling of heartwarming love toward that person as a mother would have toward her only child. We will cherish them very much and be very upset if anything went wrong for them.

Exchanging Self and Others 

Up until now we have only been working selfishly, for our own sake, thinking primarily of ourselves, and we’ve completely ignored everybody else. This won’t do. What we need to do is exchange this attitude between self and others. 

Exchanging self for others doesn’t mean to say that now you are me and I am you. That’s impossible! Instead of only cherishing ourselves and wanting to work only for our own sake, we have to change that around. We need to consider everybody else, to cherish all others and intend to work for their sake, rather than just our own. This is an exchange of our attitude concerning ourselves and others. It’s something that we have to do with our thoughts and with our mind. It is not something we do just by taking hold of someone and bringing them close to us. It is not a physical act; it is a mental act. 

Points to Practice for Changing Our Attitudes

How can we change our attitudes? First, we need to think, “Just as I want to be happy and don’t wish to be unhappy or suffer, everybody else wants to be happy and everybody else doesn’t want to suffer. It is as simple as that. 

Second, we need to think, for instance, that if there were ten hungry people who came begging for food at the door, all ten would have an equal wish for food to relieve their hunger. It would be completely unfair for us to give food to only one or two of them and not give food to the rest of them. 

Third, if there were ten people who were sick, all of them would have an equal necessity to be cured. It wouldn’t be fair for us to give medicine to a few and not cure everybody. All ten of these people have an equal right and need to be cured of their sickness. 

The next point is that we need to think, as discussed, about how kind everybody has been to us and how everybody has helped us a great deal. When we think about this, sometimes we might also think that, well, there are also many times when they have harmed us. We need to realize that the times when they have hurt us are very rare in comparison to the kindness they have offered. For the most part, they have, in fact, helped and benefited us. The help that they have given us far outweighs the small amount of harm that they have done to us.

Furthermore, we need to think that if someone hurts us, it is completely improper for us to hurt them back. If it were the case that everybody lived for a tremendously long time, we might think that it would be proper to hurt them back. However, in fact, there is no necessity because everybody is going to die. It is just a matter of time. If someone was going to die tomorrow, to hurt that person today would be completely inappropriate. There would be no point at all. Likewise, if we were going to die tomorrow, there would be no point in hurting people today. The thing to think about here is the fact that everyone is impermanent. 

Thus far, we have had six points, two sets of three. The next point to think about is whether or not an enemy is actually an enemy, and a friend is actually a friend. If an enemy truly existed as an enemy, then the Buddha should have seen it this way as well; but, in fact, the Buddha didn’t see certain people as enemies and certain people as friends. It didn’t appear that way to the Buddha. 

We can see this in the example of Buddha’s cousin Devadatta, who often tried to kill the Buddha by throwing rocks at him and using various other devious means. When Devadatta became very sick, the Buddha was able to cure him by the power of the truth of his words. In fact, he had no favoritism and didn’t feel any differently toward Devadatta despite the fact that he always tried to kill him. No one appears as an enemy in the way that the Buddha sees things. Because the Buddha did not see certain individuals as enemies, there is no need for us to see people as enemies. Because the Buddha did not regard any other people as enemies, he was able to attain enlightenment. We need to try to follow his example. 

The next point is to consider that no one permanently remains as an enemy. The position or status is always changing. It is not definite. For instance, there could be somebody who was our enemy last year, but this year has become such a close friend that we can’t stand to be parted from them for even a minute. There are many examples to demonstrate to us that no one remains an enemy forever. Status can change. 

This whole differentiation that we make between self and others is merely a function of labeling. From our own position, we are “self” and the person over there is “other.” If we look at it from the other person’s position, that person is the “self” and we are the “other.” When we start to analyze exactly what is the position of self and the position of other, we find that it all falls apart. It is only a matter of relative labeling that we have the positions of self and other. 

Self-Cherishing Is the Cause of Trouble and Problems  

If we think about it, we find that our own self-cherishing attitude has brought us all our troubles and problems. Everything that is wrong has come from this attitude of self-cherishing. If we are going to consider anything an enemy, the chief enemy that we have is our own self-cherishing attitude. 

For instance, if we have a thief who has stolen many things, gets caught by the law, and is about to be severely punished, all these difficulties have come to him due to his self-cherishing attitude. That attitude drove him to steal in the first place. Concerning people who speed on the highway, the fact that they have an accident and harm themselves and others is all due to a self-cherishing attitude. They only think of themselves. 

People who climb up on the roofs of their house to repair it, if they fall off and die, their death can be attributed to the self-cherishing attitude that sent them up to the roof. If people are very poor, then the reason for this is that in the past they have stolen things from others. As a result of stealing, they themselves are bereft of wealth and are born in a poor situation. They have stolen from others due to their self-cherishing attitude. Therefore, their current state of poverty can be attributed to their self-cherishing attitude in the past. Anything that doesn’t work out for us, anything that we try to accomplish and are not able to, is all due to our self-cherishing attitude. Thus, we need to see that all faults come from this attitude of self-cherishing and selfishness. We all regard someone who is very selfish as a horrible person. Nobody considers them to be very nice. We need to try to eliminate this attitude by whatever means possible. 

Conversely, everything that is good or beneficial comes from the attitude of cherishing others. For instance, the attainment of a human body that we have now is due to the fact that in the past we followed the ethical self-discipline of not taking the lives of others. Because we cherished others, we refrained from killing. As a result, we attained our human rebirth now. Even in this world, we can see that if there is someone who is always thinking of others and always working to benefit others, everybody considers this person to be a really excellent person. If this person were to die, everybody would be very sad and feel that there was a great loss. We can see this directly in this world. 

In short, we need to see that everything beneficial and all good qualities come from having cherished others, and we need to decide with great certitude that we want to develop this attitude of cherishing others. 

The Buddha Shakyamuni himself completely gave up the attitude of self-cherishing and selfishness and, as a result, was able to attain enlightenment. Therefore, enlightenment itself comes from the attitude of cherishing others. The fact that we are all suffering now in uncontrollably recurring existence is due to the fact that we have not been able to develop an attitude of cherishing others. 

For instance, there are the great arhats of the pratyekabuddha and shravaka classes who have become liberated from uncontrollably recurring existence and have completely overcome suffering and delusion. However, they have not been able to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha due to the self-cherishing that they had. Therefore, it is extremely important to exchange the attitude of self for others. We need to try to develop this change of attitude in our mental contnuum. Just as we cherished ourselves in the past, from now on we need to cherish all others with the same intensity. 

Development of Compassion

If we think about these previous points carefully, then we will have a very good development of the next attitudes that follow, the attitudes of love and compassion. 

What is compassion? It is the attitude with which we wish absolutely everybody, not making differentiations of friends or enemies, to be free from suffering. It is the attitude with which we wish very strongly, “How wonderful it would be if absolutely everybody were free from suffering.”

We need to give a great deal of thought to all these points that come in the stages before developing compassion. If these points haven’t developed very strongly in our minds, just meditating on compassion alone and feeling, “Now I have great compassion,” is like putting a spoonful of flour on top of a glass of water. The flour is just going to stay on the top of the water and not mix completely. If, on the other hand, we have thought very carefully about the preceding stages, we will develop a very well-integrated and stable compassion. 

How can we develop this attitude of compassion? We need to think of some living being in a very horrible state of suffering. For instance, we can visualize before us a sheep that is being slaughtered by having its chest slit with a knife. Somebody reaches in and grabs out the heart. They die like this. Or we could think about the way that water buffaloes are killed in Asia. They get a big wooden club and smash the buffalo over the head maybe a dozen times before the animal dies. We can also imagine how pigs are killed in some places. The pig is trapped, encircled by people with sharp spears stabbing the pig so that the guts and everything spill out. Then, while the pig is still alive, they take it and throw it on top of the hot coals of a fire. We should consider the way large tortoises are killed in some places. While the turtle is still alive, they start slicing pieces of its flesh off until it finally dies. We need to think of such horrible examples. In some places, they take small sea creatures that are still alive and put them into boiling oil or boiling water and cook them. They are boiled alive. Think about how much suffering these poor creatures must experience. By thinking of very awful examples like these, of utterly pathetic and horrible suffering, we will be able to develop compassion.

Not only do we think of the suffering of others, but we too have built up all the negative karmic potential to be reborn and to experience these types of suffering ourselves. We need to think how horrible it would be to experience the suffering that these creatures suffer. We should think, “I have all the karmic potential to be reborn like that. If after I die, I am born in the condition of one of these animals and I have to experience the type of suffering and the horrible fate that they have, how absolutely awful that would be!” We need to think very strongly of what it would be like to experience this. 

Next, we need to think of our own mother; she also has built up a tremendous amount of negative karmic potential to be reborn in one of these conditions. Imagine what it would be like if our mother had to experience this awful type of suffering. In this way, develop a sense of compassion for her. Then, we need to think about our father; he too has built up this type of negative karmic potential. Imagine how awful it would be if he had to experience this type of suffering. Start to try to feel something like that. 

Next, we need to think about our enemy, someone that we can’t stand. Except for the fact that this person has maybe done a little bit of harm to us, if they were to experience this awful type of suffering, how terrible that would be. Try to develop some compassion for this enemy. 

After we have practiced and trained ourselves in this way, we need to think of all living beings and of how awful it would be if any being, anybody at all, would have to suffer. Try to develop a strong wish that everybody be separated from experiencing such an awful fate. If we develop this wish, this attitude of being mindful of all the sufferings that others might have and wishing them to be parted from it, when we develop this type of compassion very strongly in our mental continuum, then the attainment of Buddhahood is not far away.

Development of Love

We continue with meditation on the development of love. Love and compassion, although two different things, are connected to each other. If we meditate directly on either one of them, indirectly we get the other one. Love is a general term that is used quite a lot. In this context, there is a differentiation from the heartwarming love that we were speaking about earlier. In this framework, love is defined as the attitude with which we wish everybody to be happy, because just like us, everybody wants to be happy. Even though they want to be happy, most people don’t know the methods for becoming happy. In pursuit of happiness, some people might go out and steal, and others might take a job as someone who slaughters animals. While they might gain a little bit of happiness, they really don’t know the actual method for lasting happiness. 

Training in Love and Compassion to Take on the Suffering of Others

We have to train ourselves to develop this attitude of wishing for everybody to have happiness. Once we have developed the attitude of compassion, wishing everybody to be parted from suffering, and the attitude of love, wishing everybody to be happy, then, since in addition we already have this heartwarming love – we cherish everybody and feel upset if anything goes wrong with them – what we need to do is to train ourselves further.

Again, we need to imagine various beings in front of us who have a great deal of suffering. For instance, hell-creatures or human beings suffering from great pain, illness, or dying, and we need to imagine that we take this suffering away from them by taking it upon ourselves. This is the type of visualization that we need to do to train ourselves. We need to take upon ourselves the suffering of others in order to free them from their suffering. 

If we develop this attitude of wishing others to be parted from suffering, then we have to, in fact, actively do that. We must train ourselves in an actual practice of freeing them from their suffering. Therefore, we visualize these suffering beings in front of us and take the suffering away from them by accepting it into ourselves. We can imagine that their suffering leaves them and, when we breath in, we imagine when we breathe it in through our left nostril. In this way, we take in all of their sufferings and problems into ourselves. When we have taken all the suffering of others into ourselves, others are in a state of not having any suffering. However, they need more than that. What we need to do, with the breath coming out of our right nostril, is to imagine that we give them everything that they need. In other words, we imagine that all of the karmic results from all the constructive actions that we have done, whatever positive things we have done in the past, comes out of us and ripens on this other being in front of us.

If there is someone without a home, we imagine that the result of all our positive potentials ripen on this person and gives them a nice home. If they don’t have anything in the house, or no furniture, we imagine that we give them furniture. We imagine that we give them clothing and food to eat and things like this. Once we have taken care of their material well-being, we need to imagine that we give them the teachings of the Dharma and that they, too, can develop love and compassion in their mental continuums. In this way, we go through an entire process of removing their suffering and then giving them all our happiness by means of our “roots of virtue” or positive potentials ripening upon them. 

There was a great master, Maitriyogi, who was one of the teachers of Atisha. He did these practices. There is a famous example of once when he was giving a discourse, and someone hit a dog with a stick. Maitriyogi saw this and immediately did this practice of taking on the suffering from another being. On his arm, corresponding with the place on the dog’s leg, he developed a large bruise.

There is a very great recent lama known as Khunu Lama Rinpoche who came from the district of India in the mountains known as Khunu. He related the story of a man in Khunu who did this practice. He went to someone who had a very bad head injury and did this practice of taking on the suffering and sickness of others. The man developed this head pain, and the other person was cured. 

The Wrong Way to Practice

There were two people and one was very sick and lying down in bed. The other person sat next to him and said, “May your sickness come on me. May I die in your place.” It was dark and they couldn’t see very well. A donkey had a feed bag over its head and started to walk through the door of the house. Although the person was sitting there and saying, “May I die in your place, may the sickness come on me,” when he saw this dark figure of the donkey with a bag over its head coming through the door, he imagined that it was the ghost or evil spirit causing the sickness of his friend. He immediately cried out, “Oh! Get him, him! Not me! Him!” 

We shouldn’t practice like that. We need to be very sincere about the suffering of somebody else actually coming upon us. This is very difficult to actually be able to practice immediately. It is not something that comes all at once. On the other hand, it is not something that is impossible to develop. By steadily training ourselves with these methods, we will be able to develop these attitudes. We can come to a state in which we have great happiness through these practices. 

To develop further, we need to imagine that all the sicknesses in the world come upon us and that everybody is freed from all sicknesses. When we are actually sick, we can imagine that all the sicknesses of everybody else have come on us. When we are sick, we have physical suffering from the sickness, but there is also mental suffering in addition to this. For example, we might get upset and depressed, and feel, “Why me?” It is quite possible to get rid of these thoughts, and even if we are sick, to be in a very happy state of mind. The way to do this is to think, “May all the suffering of others, of everybody else that is sick, may all of that sickness fall upon me.” In this way, rather than having all the mental suffering and self-pity, instead we feel very happy about taking on the suffering of everybody else. 

The Exceptional Resolve

There is a further phase after practicing like this, beyond our efforts to develop this attitude of compassion, wishing everybody to be free from their suffering, and the attitude of love, wishing everybody to be happy. As these attitudes grow stronger and stronger, the next stage is to think, “I myself am going to free everybody from suffering. I myself alone am going to make everybody happy.” This attitude with which we take this upon ourselves is known as “the exceptional resolve.”

Even though we might have this noble and extraordinary resolve to do it ourselves, we are not able to really help even one being, let alone all living beings. If we ask if there is someone able to work for the benefit of all and fulfill the wishes of everyone, yes, there is. What is the name of the one who is able to work to accomplish the purposes of everyone? The name of such a person is a Buddha. Can we achieve the state of a Buddha ourselves? Yes, we can. Are there methods for being able to achieve that state? Yes, there are methods. We should feel that we absolutely must follow these methods and that we absolutely have to attain enlightenment ourselves in order to truly be able to fulfill all the purposes of others. 

Such a state of mind that wishes to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha in order to help others is known as the enlightening aim of bodhichitta. To generate such an attitude in our mental continuum, we need to practice. We must train ourselves, slowly and steadily, in all of the previous attitudes and states of mind that we have been discussing. Generating these attitudes is by no means impossible. If we practice very hard and generate these thoughts very sincerely, then slowly we actually will be able to develop such attitudes. 

Aspiring and Engaged Stages of Bodhichitta

This enlightening aim of bodhichitta has two different stages. The first is the aspiring state and the second is when we actually engage in the practice. Everything that we have addressed up to now refers to the aspiring state of bodhichitta. 

The material that we’ve just covered is discussed in the following lines of verse nine:  

(9) With supreme belief in the Three Supreme Gems, with bent knee touching the ground and palms pressed together, firstly, take safe direction three times.

These lines describe how we start with taking refuge in order to develop the enlightening aim of bodhichitta. 

The next two verses express the way to develop love and compassion. As mentioned, love and compassion both take as their object all living beings. The aspect of compassion is the wish that they be free of suffering; for love, it is the wish that they be happy. 

(10) Next, with a mind of love toward all limited beings, as a start, look to all wandering beings, barring none, suffering from birth and so forth in the three worse realms, and from death, transference, and so on.
(11) Then, with the wish that all wandering beings be liberated from the suffering of pain, from suffering, and from the causes of suffering, generate pledged bodhichitta with which you will never turn back.

The line in verse eleven, generate pledged bodhichitta with which you will never turn back, means that on the basis of the previous practices, we develop the enlightening aim of merely aspiring to attain enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. In addition, we need to make a strong promise that we are not going to turn back from this great aspiration until we actually do attain enlightenment. That is the pledged state of aspiring bodhichitta.

There are many great benefits to be derived from generating such attitudes. This is referred to in the text in the next verse:

(12) The benefits of generating aspiring minds like this have been thoroughly explained by Maitreya in The Sutra Spread out Like a Tree Trunk.

There are more than two hundred examples provided in the scriptural texts concerning the benefits of developing such an enlightening aim. More specifically, there are examples for how to understand the benefits of developing an enlightening aim of bodhichitta. For instance, briefly, there is the example of a seed. The enlightening aim of bodhichitta is like a seed that brings as its result, or fruit, the enlightened state of a buddha. Another example is a field within which we plant a seed. 

Yet another example is a spear. With a spear we can overcome all unconducive conditions, such as enemies or obstacles. We can overcome these with a spear by piercing through them. The same is true with bodhichitta; we can spear through all unconducive conditions and obstacles for attaining enlightenment. 

Out of all precious substances, for instance gold, silver and jewels, the most precious is considered to be the diamond. Similarly, another example is that bodhichitta is like a diamond. 

We need to think about these analogies of the importance of developing this enlightening aim of bodhichitta. In fact, three times each morning and three times each evening, we need to think of the benefits and try to generate this attitude over and again. This will make our generation of the enlightening aim stronger and stronger. Concerning this point, the text reads:

(13) When you have read this sutra or heard from your guru concerning this and have become aware of the boundless benefits of full bodhichitta, then as a cause for making it stable, generate this mind over and again.