We have precious human lives with all the respites and enrichments that allow us to follow the Buddhist path. These freedoms and opportunities, however, are not going to last forever. Therefore, we need to take full advantage of the opportunities that we have.
The best way to take advantage of our precious human life is to use it for developing a bodhichitta aim. A bodhichitta aim is a mind and heart focused on our own individual enlightenments that have not happened yet, but can be imputed later down the line on our mental continuums on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors that will enable its attainment. These factors include our networks of positive force and deep awareness, our various good qualities, and the natural purity of our minds. This bodhichitta aim is accompanied by two intentions: to achieve that enlightenment as soon as possible and to benefit all beings by means of that.
When developing bodhichitta, we develop the two intentions in the opposite order. First, we fully intend to benefit all limited beings, and not just humans. This is brought on by our love, compassion, and exceptional resolve, which we will discuss later in this lecture. Then, in order to benefit them the most effectively, we fully intend to gain enlightenment and become Buddhas. We need to gain enlightenment in order to get rid of all of our limitations and shortcomings, because we see that they prevent us from being best able to help others. For instance, if we get angry with others, how can we help them at that time? Also, we need to gain enlightenment in order to realize all our potentials. We need to realize them fully in order to be able to use them to benefit others. So, when developing a bodhichitta aim, it’s not that first we want to become Buddhas because that’s the highest state and then, like some nasty tax that we have to pay, we need to help others.
There are two main methods for developing a bodhichitta aim. One is through the seven-part cause and effect teaching, the other is by equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. Here, we’ll discuss the first of the two methods.
The seven-part cause and effect teaching has six steps that act as causes for the seventh, the actual development of a bodhichitta aim. It begins with a preliminary step, not included in the count of seven. It’s the development of the equanimity with which we overcome being attracted to or attached to some beings, repulsed from others, and indifferent to yet others. The point of this preliminary step is to be equally open to everybody.
The understanding of everyone being equal, which is required for being equally open to everyone, comes from realizing that the mental continuum or mind-stream has no beginning and no end. Therefore, everybody at some time has been our friend, everybody at some time has been our enemy, everybody at some time has been a stranger, and the status is always changing. In this sense, everybody is the same.
The main point that we need to understand behind this way of thinking is beginningless mind. This is a basic assumption in Buddhism. Rebirth concerns continuities of experience. Mental continuums are continuities of experience. They are individual and do not have inherent identities as human, animal, male or female. The life form and gender that a mental continuum manifests in any particular rebirth is dependent on previous karmic behavior and its aftermath.
This point about beginningless mind is a fundamental, necessary understanding for being able to develop bodhichitta, because based on this understanding, it becomes possible to develop loving compassion for absolutely everybody. We do not see other beings as merely a mosquito, for example. Rather, we see this being as an infinitely long individual mental continuum that in this lifetime happens to have the form of a mosquito because of its karma; it is not inherently a mosquito. This allows our hearts be as open to the mosquito as to a human being. The power of bodhichitta derives from the fact that with it, we intend to benefit absolutely everybody. Of course, it’s not easy.
Recognizing Everyone as Having Been Our Mother
Once we’re able, with equanimity, to see all beings as individual beginningless mental continuums – which does not deny their forms in this lifetime – we are ready to take the first step in the 7-part cause and effect meditation. This is to recognize that each being, at some point, has been our mother. The line of reasoning is that just as we have a mother in this lifetime, likewise in every lifetime in which we’ve been born from a womb or an egg, we have had a mother. From the logic of beginningless rebirth and the fact that there are a limited, though countless number of beings, everybody has been our mother beginningless times as well – and we have been their mothers too. They have also been our fathers, our closest friends, and so on.
In seeing everybody as having been our mother, we need to be careful not to see being our mother as anyone’s inherent identity, because that can also become a bit problematic. We must try never to lose sight of voidness (emptiness), the lack of inherent fixed identities.
Recognizing everybody as having been our mother radically changes our way of relating to others. Here, we are going beyond just having equanimity toward everybody. We are seeing that we have had – and still can have – a very close, warm, loving relationship with everyone.
Remembering the Kindness of Motherly Love
The second of the seven steps is to remember the kindness of motherly love. For many Westerners, this is a problematic step in the meditation, because the Indians and Tibetans always take the example of our mother in this lifetime. In those societies, it seems as though most people have less neurotic and less difficult relationships with their mothers than in Western societies. Whether that is true or not, of course, varies in individual cases. But I would say from my observation, having lived in Tibetan and Indian societies for 29 years, that the relationship between grown children and their mothers there does seem to be far less neurotic than in the West.
This step in the meditation is to remember how kind our mother is – or was, if she has passed away – going all the way back to her having carried us in her womb. Then, we extend this to thinking how everybody has shown us similar kindness in previous lives.
Many people, when they teach this to Westerners, say okay, if you have problems with your mother, you can think instead of your father, a close friend, or anybody who has shown you great kindness. This way, you won’t become stuck trying to do this meditation. I think that this is a helpful approach. However, I think that it is very important, if we have problems in our relationships with our mothers, to deal with it and not just pass over it. If we can’t have healthy relationships with our mothers, it will be very difficult to have healthy loving relationships with anybody else. There is always going to be a problem. Therefore, I think it is very important to look at our actual relationships with our mothers and to try to recognize her kindness, no matter how difficult that relationship might have been or might presently be.
First, we need to look at ideal motherly love. The classical texts are filled with descriptions of it: you see it in many animals, for instance. A mother bird will sit on her eggs no matter how cold and wet she becomes, and when the eggs hatch, she will catch and chew insects, but not swallow them, and give the food to her chicks. This is really quite extraordinary.
Of course, there are examples from the animal and insect world in which mothers eat their babies, but still they underwent the difficulties to give birth to them. And whether it was our biological mother or a surrogate mother, somebody carried us in her womb. Even if we were conceived in a test tube, somebody watched the test tube and kept it at the right temperature. Whether our mother liked carrying us or not is irrelevant. It was an incredible kindness to carry us around in her womb and not to abort us; it was not comfortable for her at all. She underwent a lot of pain during our actual birth. Furthermore, when we were infants, somebody had to get up in the middle of the night, feed us, and take care of us; otherwise, we would not have survived. These sorts of things are emphasized in the classical texts.
If we have had difficulties with our mothers, I think we can take a clue as to how to proceed from the guru meditations in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s lam-rim text. Many earlier texts have said that it is almost impossible to find a spiritual teacher who has only good qualities. No spiritual teacher is going to be ideal; everyone is going to have a mixture of strong and weak points. What we want to do in the meditation on the spiritual teacher is to focus on the good qualities and the kindness of the teacher in order to develop tremendous respect, inspiration, and appreciation. This will motivate us to develop these good qualities and kindnesses ourselves.
The Fifth Dalai Lama explained that in the process of doing this, we do not need to deny the shortcomings and faults of the teacher. That would be naivety. We acknowledge the shortcomings, but put them aside for the moment, because thinking about the teacher’s faults will just lead to complaining and to a negative attitude. That is not going to be inspiring at all. It is only by focusing on the good qualities and kindness that we get inspiration.
So first, we acknowledge the shortcomings. But, we need to examine honestly whether these are true shortcomings or are only projections on our parts. If the shortcomings are only projected but not true, we drop them completely. We then need to examine whether the non-imaginary shortcomings are current ones that the teacher has or are they old history that we don’t want to let go of. If the faults are no longer current, we stop dwelling upon them: they are no longer relevant. Once we are clear about what the present faults actually are, we say okay, those are his or her current faults. Then, we put them aside as well, for the moment, and focus instead on only the good qualities.
I think that a similar procedure is appropriate and can work very well when looking at the kindness of our mothers. Nobody’s mother is ideal. If we ourselves are parents, we know that it is unbelievably difficult to be an ideal parent, so we shouldn’t expect that our parents were ideal either. Then, we would look at the faults and shortcomings that our mothers have or had, and try to understand the causes and conditions that brought these shortcomings about. She is not inherently a bad person, just as no mental continuum is inherently a mosquito (which is also not inherently annoying). We make sure that we are not projecting shortcomings onto our mothers or just dwelling on ancient history, and then we put aside all imaginary faults and, for the moment, all past and present ones as well. We say okay, she has or had her faults, but she is a person like everybody else: we all have faults. Then we look at the good qualities and the kindness that she has shown us.
One Western Dharma teacher – I forget who exactly it was – has suggested a method of meditation that I think is very useful. At this point, having put aside the negative qualities of our mothers, we go through our lives in five- or ten-year units. We spend five minutes, a half hour, an hour, or however long we want, going through and trying to remember all the kind things that our mothers did for us in each five- or ten-year period. First, from the time we were in the womb until we were five, we remember that she changed our dirty diapers, fed us, bathed us, and did all these things. Then we recall from age five to ten, and so on. She took us to school – maybe she didn’t help us with homework, maybe she did, but she probably cooked for us and washed our clothes. When we were teenagers, she probably gave us spending money. No matter how terrible our mothers might have been, there were undoubtedly many kindnesses that they showed us in each period of our lives.
Then we can do the same thing with our fathers and with other relatives, friends, and so on. It is very helpful for the meditation. It is an especially strong antidote to the depression that we sometimes feel when we think, “Nobody loves me.” In this way, if we can see the kindness of our mothers in this life, it helps us to recognize that everybody has been similarly kind to us. Nobody has been an ideal mother – sure, she might have eaten us at some point in another lifetime, but she has also shown us kindness.
Repaying the Kindness of Motherly Love
The third step in the seven-part quintessence teaching is developing the wish to repay the kindness of motherly love that we have received. For this, we imagine our mothers being blind and completely confused and totally upset, standing on the edge of a cliff, about to fall over into an abyss of suffering. We also imagine that we, their sons and daughters, are standing next to them, knowing how to help them avoid their fall. If we, their children, don't help them, who will? Who can they turn to? Such thoughts help us to develop this heartfelt wish to repay their kindness by helping to liberate them from all forms of suffering.
To strengthen our wish, we can make a further adaptation from the meditation we just outlined concerning remembering the motherly kindness we’ve been shown. Again, we go through five or ten-year periods of our lives and examine in what ways have we shown kindness back to our mothers. We do the same with our fathers, our friends, relatives, and so on.
If we compare how much love and help we have received and how much we have given, most of us will see that we have received far more than we have given. The point of this is not then to feel guilty, which would be a typically neurotic Western reaction. The point is to help us with the next step of the bodhichitta meditation, which is, having recognizing the kindness we have received, to develop a deep sense of gratitude and the wish to repay that kindness.
I find that this adaptation to the meditation that I just outlined is very helpful for actually moving our hearts so that we actually feel something. I think it is very important. I have seen so many Western Buddhists who do all these meditations of love and compassion and even who go out and help others, but they have a terrible relationship with their parents and are stuck in that. I think that it is really quite helpful to work on that relationship and not to avoid it just because it’s difficult.
Suggested Method for Applying the Practice
An important thing in each of these steps is to open up and try to extend the scope of our practice to all beings. At each step, we can of course start small, but then we need gradually to expand our scope. We do this based on equanimity, seeing everybody as individual mental continuums. An effective way to do this, I’ve found, is not just to sit and meditate with our eyes closed, abstractly thinking of “all sentient beings.” More effective, I think, is to practice similar to the way that I suggest in the sensitivity training to develop balanced emotions.
In other words, try to develop these positive attitudes first toward various people while focusing on their photos – friends, people we don’t like, and strangers. Then try to develop them while looking at actual people sitting in a circle around us in a meditation group. Then try it on the subway or bus with the people there. In this way, we actually apply to others the positive attitudes we are trying to develop.
We likewise try to apply it to animals, insects, and so on – and not just theoretically in our minds, but when we actually see them. In doing that, we need to try to avoid the extreme that sometimes we see among Tibetans for example – namely, that it is easier to be kind to an insect than to a human being. If there is an ant in the middle of the temple, everybody goes to such extremes to make sure it doesn’t get hurt. Yet, often, they don’t show the same type of concern and kindness to human beings, for instance Indians or foreigners who visit their temples and would like to know something about what they see there. We have to keep a proper perspective here.
Some people might say that it is easier to help an ant than it is to help a human being. This is because the ant is not going to talk back to you and give you a hard time, whereas people often do. An ant you can just pick up and take outside, you can’t quite do that with people if they become annoying. In any case, my point is that a lot of people do these meditations in a very abstract way – “all sentient beings” – and it is never applied to real people, in “the real world.” This creates a big problem in making any progress along the path.
When we have recognized everyone as having been our mother, remembered the kindness of motherly love and, with gratitude, thought to repay that kindness, we naturally have a feeling of heartwarming love. This is an automatically arising feeling of closeness and warmth toward anyone we meet. There is no need for a separate meditation step to develop this feeling. It is also called cherishing, concerned love, the love with which we cherish someone, are concerned about his or her welfare, and would feel very sad if anything bad happened to him or her.
Based on heartwarming love, we go on to the fourth step, meditation on great love. Love is the wish for someone else to be happy, generally someone we like. Great love, however, is the wish for everyone to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. It is really very important that it be both happiness and its causes. This means that it is with our full understanding that happiness comes from causes, it is not just the favor of the gods or good luck – and the cause is not me.
The causes for happiness are given in the teachings on karma: if people act constructively, without attachment, anger, and so on, they will experience happiness. Therefore, we need to think here, “May you have happiness and the causes for happiness. May you actually act in a constructive and healthy way, so that you will experience happiness.”
It is clear already from this step that in these bodhichitta meditations we are striving to become Buddhas to help everybody, but without inflating the role that we can play in helping them. We can show others the way, but they need to build up the causes for happiness themselves.
Then comes the fifth step, great compassion: the wish for everyone to be free of suffering and the causes for suffering. This is likewise with the full understanding that their suffering comes from causes and they need to eliminate those causes in order to eliminate their suffering. Again, it is a very realistic view. Great love and great compassion are not merely emotional feelings like, “I feel so sorry that everybody is suffering.” Rather, they are accompanied with the understanding of behavioral cause and effect.
Great compassion exceeds ordinary compassion in many other ways.
- It’s aimed equally at all limited beings, not just at some.
- Like great love, it includes cherishing and concern for each being like a loving mother toward her only child, and the wish to protect and safeguard them,
- It’s the wish for each of them to be free of the all-pervasive suffering of being repeatedly and uncontrollably reborn with aggregates coming from confusion, mixed with confusion, producing more confusion, and thus perpetuating suffering. Thus, it is not simply the wish for others to be free of the suffering of pain or the suffering of change. The suffering of change is ordinary worldly happiness which never lasts and never satisfies. Great compassion is not the wish for beings to go to a paradise to escape that problem.
- It’s based on firm conviction that it is possible for all limited beings to gain liberation from their all-pervasive suffering. It’s not merely a nice wish.
Compassion is always described as an attitude similar to renunciation, the determination to be free. Renunciation is an attitude aimed at our own suffering, its causes, and the wish for us to be free of them. Based on our determination to be free from our own sufferings and their causes, we can develop empathy for others. What we do is switch the same attitude and direct it toward others, toward their suffering and the causes of their suffering, and the wish for them to be free of it, with the same intensity as we wish it for ourselves.
It is always said that it is difficult for us to empathize and truly feel compassion for others unless we have thought about our own suffering and wished ourselves to be free of it. We have to understand that others really experience pain from their suffering and their suffering hurts them just as much as our own suffering hurts us. Understanding this depends on acknowledging that our own suffering hurts. Otherwise, we don’t take others’ suffering seriously. Remember, we are wishing our mothers, who have been so kind to us, to be happy and free of suffering. We start the meditation with our mothers and so on, so that the meditation actually has some feeling to it.
Extending the Method to Help Alleviate Low Self-Esteem
Just as the texts say that compassion only develops sincerely if we first wish ourselves to be free of suffering and its causes, I think we can formulate the same principle concerning love. This is particularly relevant for those of us who suffer from low self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a particularly Western phenomenon, not so frequent among Tibetans, or among Indians for that matter. Before we can sincerely wish others to be happy and have the causes of happiness, we need sincerely to wish ourselves to be happy and have the causes of happiness. If we feel that we don’t deserve to be happy, why should anybody else deserve to be happy?
Wishing ourselves to be happy, then, is a step in the meditation that I think we can safely add if we suffer from low self-esteem. I feel this is quite important. To get into this way of thinking, that everybody deserves to be happy, it helps to remind ourselves of Buddha-nature. We are not all bad; nobody is all bad. We all have the potentials to become Buddhas, to benefit others, to be happy and so on.
Another point: Love and compassion are also developed in the Theravada and other Hinayana schools. There, however, the meditation methods don’t follow graded steps, like these seven here, that help us to build up feeling love and compassion based on reasons, such as remembering motherly kindness. We shouldn’t think, however, that love and compassion meditation are missing in the Theravada tradition. The next steps in the bodhichitta meditation, however, are not there.
Different translators render the sixth next step in various ways. Some call it “the pure selfless wish.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses the term “universal responsibility.” Although I have translated it in several different ways myself, at the moment I prefer “exceptional resolve.” With great compassion, we have the full wish and intention to help all beings. Here, we make the firm decision, we definitely are going to do it. We take the responsibility ourselves actually to do something about others’ suffering. If somebody is drowning in a lake, we don’t just stand on the shore and say, “Tsk, tsk, I wish this weren’t happening.” We need actually to jump in and try to help the person. Likewise, here in the bodhichitta meditation, we think fully decide to take universal responsibility to help all beings as much as possible.
The Bodhichitta Aim
Based on this six-step line of development as a cause, the seventh step is developing the bodhichitta aim as the result. When we examine how we can benefit others the most, with our current limitations and disturbing emotions and attitudes, we realize that we are really not going to be able to help very much. If I’m selfish, and impatient, get attracted to some people and angry with others and am lazy, if I get tired all the time, if I can’t really understand others, and if I can’t communicate properly, if I am afraid of others, afraid of being disliked or rejected – all these things are really going to prevent me from helping as much as is possible. So, because I really want to be of help, I really need to rid myself of these things. I really need to work on myself and get rid of these things so that I can actually use my talents and abilities and Buddha-nature qualities to benefit others. We always keep in mind, “as much as is possible” – we are not going to become omnipotent gods. Based on this line of thinking, we set our minds and hearts on becoming a Buddha to help everyone as fully as is possible. This is the development of the bodhichitta aim. With it, we focus on our not-yet-happening individual enlightenments with the full intention to achieve it as soon as possible and help others with this attainment.
Once we have developed bodhichitta, we try to help others now as much as we can, despite our limitations. This is because we have the exceptional resolve to take responsibility to help, built up from the previous steps in the 7-part cause and effect bodhichitta meditation.
This means that whenever we encounter others and see that they are having a problem, for instance being homeless, we don’t just see them as homeless persons. When we see them, we don’t think in terms of them being inherently poor, lazy, or whatever value judgments we might project. Rather, we realize that just in this lifetime and at this particular point in this lifetime, they are like that. However, their mental continuums are beginningless and, at some point, they have been our mothers and have taken care of us with kindness. They have carried us in their wombs, have changed our dirty diapers, and so on, and I’m really grateful and would really like to repay this kindness. We wish that they would be happy and have the causes of happiness, and that they could be free of their problems and the causes of their problems. We take responsibility to try to do something about it.
What do we need to do? It’s not that we need to go home and meditate in order to overcome our shortcomings, and not actually do anything to help such people. Of course, we need to meditate more, however what this motivates us to do in the moment is to overcome our shyness, hesitation, and stinginess, and actually give them something, at least smile at them – at least do something.
In other words, we use our exceptional resolve to move us right now to overcome our limitations as much as we can and to use our potentials as much as we can now to help. Sure, when we go home we need to work on ourselves more, but let’s not forget about the homeless persons and only go home and meditate. If our resolve is sincere, it keeps us mindful.
The strongest motivation to work on ourselves in each moment comes when we encounter other beings who need help. We see an old woman sitting on the cold ground in winter begging by the subway station and we think what if that were my mother? If she were our actual mother of this lifetime sitting there on the cold ground and begging, would we just walk by? Or what about the young man on the subway peddling the makeshift newspapers of the homeless, how would we feel if that were our own son? This boy has parents. It is very important. In India, we see lepers and other deformed people and usually we never think that these lepers have families. They do have families. Make them human.
Of course, we need discriminating awareness to distinguish the conventional situation of these homeless people. Some are just out on the streets hustling people for money to buy drugs or alcohol. In such cases, we need to employ what Buddhism calls “skillful means.” We have the wish to help, we have some idea of what the cause of their suffering might be, and what the cause for their happiness would be. Then, we try to do what would in fact be helpful for them. Maybe it’s not at all helpful to give them money, which they would use only to buy more drugs or alcohol, and so we don’t give them money. If we have some food, we can give them that. But, in any case, we can give them our caring attitude and respect by not thinking of them just as terrible, disgusting junkies or alcoholics. They are human beings, suffering human beings.
It is not easy to decide what the best way of helping someone might be. We see that we are limited now. We don’t really know what is best. We have to become Buddhas to really know, but we try our best now, realizing that sometimes we are going to make mistakes. We at least try.
When we have developed a bodhichitta aim through training ourselves with the 7-part cause and effect method, our aim to attain Buddhahood to be of best help to all others has as its support a strong emotional state that blends together many individual feelings. These include a feeling of closeness and connectedness with everyone equally, an appreciation of the kindness others have shown, deep feelings of gratitude, concern, love and compassion, plus a strong resolve to take responsibility to help everyone as much as is possible. With such type of emotion underlying it, our bodhichitta aim becomes strong, heartfelt and stable.