Advice for Developing Meaningful Tantra Practice

Sadhana Practice in Our Own Language 

Do you think it would be good to do much of our sadhana practice not in Tibetan but in the language that is easier for us to understand, like English or Norwegian?

If we look at the way that the Tibetans practice their sadhanas, they certainly don’t recite them in Sanskrit. They recite them in Tibetan. Based on that, one could say that there would be a great many benefits and advantages to doing our practices in our own language. To do them in our own language would allow us to understand more clearly what we’re actually reciting. A sadhana is like the script of an opera or something like that, in which we need to generate the states of mind and visualizations that the words describe. That is difficult enough. When we also have to figure out what the words themselves mean, that makes it even more challenging.

The difficulty, of course, is having an accurate and good translation; and not just accurate but also a beautiful translation, one that is beautiful enough to recite and comes out of our mouths in a very melodious way. It would also need to be written in such a way that it is conducive to chanting. This is very challenging and not easy to do. When we have a sadhana in our own language that is very difficult to recite because of the language, and it isn’t clearly translated either, then that makes obstacles as well. 

The argument for keeping them in Tibetan is, as the previous Kalu Rinpoche, the predecessor of the present one, had explained, is that in centers all around the world everybody doing the practice would be able to recite it together in the same language. This is very helpful for building a community. Therefore, there are benefits and disadvantages of each choice.

Personally, I must say, from my own experience, for most of my years of practice of sadhanas I did them in Tibetan, but this is because I know Tibetan. Reading the language, I knew what it meant. I really don’t have the experience of not understanding what I was reciting, except in the very beginning when I really didn’t know the language and I hadn’t received any explanations of the text. I could read the script and look up words in the dictionary, but I didn’t really know what I was reciting. Yet, at that stage it was very helpful. 

The reason was that, coming from an intellectual background, Harvard University, I was very arrogant. I had an attitude of not wanting to do something without understanding what I was doing. I recognized that it was a problem to have the attitude that I was so important and wanting others to explain it to “me.” With this kind of attitude, I found it was very good for gaining a sense of humility to just recite the sadhanas even though I didn’t understand very well what I was doing. When I would be ready, my teachers would explain to me what everything meant. 

This was before there were any translations available. I started doing these practices in 1970. That’s a long time ago. However, later, my Tibetan improved, I received the teachings, and I did the sadhanas in Tibetan. But I reached a certain point when my practice reached a plateau and it wasn’t going any further. It was becoming just saying “blah, blah, blah” without my really putting too much meaning into it. Then, I switched to doing them in English. Mind you, they were my own translations, so I knew what they were supposed to mean. Now I do them in English and I find that it has more meaning to me. So, I’ve tried doing them in these three different ways – in Tibetan, not knowing what the words mean, in Tibetan while knowing Tibetan and in English.

When we are doing these practices together in a community, there may be one style that we might do them in, especially if it’s an international community. When we do them privately or personally, there might be another. I think we need to judge for ourselves what is the most helpful. The point is, of course, to use the sadhana texts as a script and actually generate the states of mind and visualizations described with the words. 

As I mentioned before, we are doing a self-generation, a self-transformation, not just a transformation of our mouth. It’s like that. However, for chanting, nowadays the Tibetan still works the best.

Premature Involvement with Tantra

I have two points. First, in the previous question about whether to practice in Tibetan or English, I was once told that a lot can be translated, but some of the sadhanas are actually revealed as termas and then we should not translate them. I would like your comment. My second point is that it seems Westerners are particularly fascinated by tantra and Vajrayana. It goes back to interests in magic and those sorts of things. Also, the wish to be enlightened in one lifetime seems Western. Do I get from your presentation this morning that we are too quickly skipping over the Sutrayana and we should pay a lot more attention to the sutras rather than jumping directly into ngondro and dzogchen or whatever?

In terms of the second point, you did understand me correctly. I have seen from my experience that many people get involved with tantra prematurely and that it is not helpful at all. They tend to not understand what they are doing, and their practice tends to become almost like a game of playing yogi while getting involved only in all the ritual aspects, but not actually applying anything to their lives. Their practice becomes totally separate from their lives and therefore doesn’t really bring much improvement in terms of helping them to overcome anger, attachment or selfishness and these sorts of things. Therefore, I definitely feel that one needs to have the proper background and the proper qualifications.

There are various issues involved with this problem. First of all, the practice of Vajrayana, or any Buddhist practice in traditional Tibet, was intended for the monastic community. In the monastic community, people entered the monastery at seven or eight years old and they received an entire sutra education before they would get involved in anything more advanced. They would have that background. The lay population for the most part was illiterate, and they would do mantras, recite simple prayers, circumambulate, etc. But it was rare that the lay people would become involved in more complex, advanced practices. 

This is something that is quite general in Buddhism. It was only in Burma in the early twentieth century that they started teaching meditation to the widespread lay population. That is one thing. Teaching Vajrayana meditation to lay people, the vast majority by far of whom are Westerners, is a very different situation. We haven’t been exposed to this basic sutra education, thinking and working on it since we were eight years old. All of sudden, with no background, we are taught these tantric practices. That is premature.

Secondly, and perhaps this is not very nice to explain, but the circumstances of being refugees has changed things very much for the situation of Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet before 1959, the society was supportive of the monastic community. There was never really a worry about feeding and housing all the monks and nuns. The facilities and support were there; society functioned. Now, with the Tibetans that are in exile in India and Nepal; it’s no joke to feed, let’s say, four thousand monks every day, or where to house them and so on. This is no joke at all. Therefore, these lamas, Khenpos, Geshes and Rinpoches, especially the Rinpoches who travel around, have an unbelievable amount of pressure from the monasteries to bring back money to help feed and house all the monks and nuns. That pressure is there.

If they come and teach about very basic topics, then how many people are going to come to listen to something about refuge, let alone something about the hell realms? Very few are going to come. If one gives an initiation, everybody comes because we think it’s special and exotic, etc. This is a pressure that exists especially for the Rinpoches that have responsibility for their monasteries.

Another factor that is involved is that the Tibetan population has rebirth as part of the cultural package they’re born with. It is accepted that there is such a thing as rebirth. When lamas give initiations to lay Tibetans, only a small percentage of those who attend are actually going to practice. The main idea is planting seeds for future lives. Many lay Tibetans will come with no intention of doing the practice. Maybe they will do a mantra, but they have no intention of going further. So, they are planting seeds for future lives; for example, “In the next lifetime, I will understand.” We hear this even among monks and nuns, “Now, I’m just planting seeds.” 

Therefore, especially the older generation of Tibetan lamas think that Westerners also have the same mentality and are coming to plant seeds for future lives. They think this is wonderful and great: people have a perfect motivation – to benefit future lives – and everything is going fine, except that Westerners don’t believe in future lives and planting seeds and they want to do something now. Take, for instance, the people who receive the Kalachakra initiation. No lay Tibetan would ever be so presumptuous as to think that they could practice Kalachakra. It’s the most complicated tantric practice, and yet now there is this huge Kalachakra network in the West and a certain very dedicated group of lay Westerners who want to practice Kalachakra. Usually, such practice would be restricted to only a very few special monasteries because it is so complicated. Therefore, like this, we often get into advanced practices in a premature type of way.

Also, another problem is that the great lamas come to some city in the West and only stay for a very short while. They come and give the initiation and then they leave without giving any instructions; nothing. People then go on some weird spiritual trips with all of this. They expect that after doing 100,000 this and 100,000 that, all their troubles will be gone. 

Some very advanced practice might be advertised as the easy or quick path and all one needs to do is just relax into the natural state of the mind and so on. His Holiness calls that Buddhist propaganda. Come on, folks, this is difficult stuff. Yes, we can go very far very quickly but we have to be really well prepared and put in an unbelievable amount of effort. How about having really good concentration, let alone having discipline and all these other things? Oh, and by the way, there is the ngondro as well. It’s not so easy.

My point is about dependent arising. The circumstance that so many of us are in now of getting involved with tantra prematurely has arisen for many causes and conditions. We can’t say it’s just because of this or that and put all the blame on one thing or another. This is the situation that we are in. That’s why what I am trying to explain and have people think about is to accept the situation and find out how to make the best of it. The situation we’re in is that we are from a culture that does not believe in future lives, and we are super-busy and not able to take off three years from our lives to do an intense meditation retreat. Even if we are able to do a long-term retreat and perhaps experience a profound change, when we come back, we aren’t able to just fit right back into the way it was with our old job and family and all of that. How can we make the best of the situation? 

Realistic Development of Tantra Practice

What is the reality of what we can do and expect realistically so that we are not disappointed? I plan to explain this a bit. We have these tantric practices; they are very helpful for discipline and for humility if we do them in Tibetan. Over time, we build up the pieces more and more so that they become meaningful, and we fill in the structure of the sadhana. If in the sadhana it says, “I take refuge and now I develop bodhichitta and now I develop the four immeasurables,” just saying that doesn’t do very much to transform our minds, does it? We need to have worked on them beforehand so that when we recite this, we actually generate those states of mind, and we are able to generate them quickly. 

This is not something that we can do all of a sudden. It requires a lot of practice. However, if we have a lot of familiarity, then we don’t have to go through all the steps, let’s say for bodhichitta, like everybody is equal, everybody has been my mother and has been so kind, gratitude for mother’s kindness, and so on. We can just almost instantly generate a bodhichitta aim.

Serkong Rinpoche was a wonderful teacher, especially in the way he used to teach lam-rim, the graded stages of the path. All the sutra teachings can be presented in several different styles of structure. There are the three scopes of lam-rim. There are the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. There is the way that it is organized in Jewel Ornament of Liberation. There is the parting from the four clingings that we have in Sakya. There are the four Dharmas of Gampopa. There are also many different ways of mixing and matching all these styles. 

Once, Serkong Rinpoche taught the whole lam-rim over a long weekend and also presented a Chenrezig practice. At the end, he said, “Now let’s do meditation. Go through the entire lam-rim and then do the Chenrezig practice. Let’s do all this for two minutes.” People asked how could they possibly go through all of this in two minutes? Serkong Rinpoche then said, “Okay, three minutes.”

Then he explained that when we are very well trained, then, in the time from when we put one foot in the stirrup of a saddle until we put the other foot over the horse, we should be able to go through the entire lam-rim and generate it just like that. This is what we are aiming for. 

Improving Visualization

Likewise, when we do a sadhana, we need to be able to generate at each point what we are actually saying. But, of course, we start out slowly, building up each point one at a time. Once we have some familiarity with the whole structure of the sadhana, then we can follow the advice that Tsongkhapa gave in terms of how to do a visualization. He said that there are two ways of doing a complex visualization. One is to focus on one little thing, like the third eye, and then gradually add detail after detail. The main way that is most common and the most helpful for the largest number of people, however, is first to try to visualize the entire mandala and the entire form of the deity, the whole thing, very roughly with no details, with just the sense of the thing that we are supposed to be visualizing being present. Then, slowly within that larger structure, fill in more and more details. The more focused and concentrated we are, the more the details will come into focus. 

Therefore, like that, if we are doing a sadhana practice, we first need to gain some familiarity with the structure of the whole thing and then, based on our further sutra meditation, we can fill in more detail to each of the parts as we do with the visualization. I think that this is the only way that we can do it now if we are already committed to doing a daily practice. This is a very important question and issue for all of us. 

There is another point that I want to mention from Serkong Rinpoche. He was very down-to-earth and compassionate. He said if we find that we have received an initiation and taken a practice commitment prematurely and we aren’t able to keep it, then, in our minds, put it up on a high shelf with respect. Acknowledge that now we are really not ready to do this, but we fully intend to come back to it when we are ready. If we do that, it is a very different way of dealing with it than saying, “I was such an idiot for doing this; this was stupid,” and just forgetting about it. This, I find, is very helpful advice if we find ourselves in that situation.

Having Many Different Practices

I have done a ngondro, finishing about ten years ago. I do guru yoga, mantra and dzogchen and do not want to learn new sadhanas because I think it takes too much energy and time. What do you think about that?

There is a saying − I forget which Tibetan master said it long ago − that the Indian masters practiced only one deity and, by means of that, accomplished or realized all of them, while the Tibetans try to practice all of them and realize none. We have to really see what our own capacity is. For most of us, one tantra practice is more than enough. Again, I always rely on the advice of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which is that when we are ready to put twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week into our intensive practice, then we have to choose just one deity and one practice, and this is what we focus on. Now, before this, each of the deity practices has an emphasis, or more detail on one part of a practice than another part. We get one aspect with more elaboration and more steps in one deity practice and another aspect with more steps in another deity practice. If we have the capacity, then we can do more than one of these deity practices in order to get a little bit more detail and familiarity with this or that aspect of tantra. 

These aspects of tantra practice that are emphasized might be generating different emanations, working on the chakras and channels, or accessing the clear-light mind, and such things. Practicing like this is just to get a firm basis; but then when we are really serious, we should have just one deity practice. It is not a matter of competition of which tantra practice is the best. We have this even in Mahayana sutras. They all say that it is the best and the most wonderful one and if we recite it all our problems will go away, and we will purify 72,000 eons of negative potential and so on. Many of the Mahayana sutras praise themselves like this. This has to be understood within a certain context. All the Mahayana teachings are intended to bring us to enlightenment. They all will equally bring us to enlightenment; we don’t need to worry about that. 

Just as an aside, let me mention something about these Mahayana sutras. I don’t know how familiar you are with reading these sutras, but they are filled with praises for themselves. In the early days when the Mahayana sutras first became widespread, there were hardly any written copies. To recite these sutras required memorizing them from hearing them recited out loud, which took tremendous effort as these sutras were long. 

If we think about this, my own thought is that if we have built up negative potential from beginningless time – that’s an awful lot of negative potential. For countless eons we have built up negative potentials. It says in the sutras that we have to spend three countless eons, which means three zillion eons of building up positive force to overcome all of this. If a sutra says that if we recite it, we can purify 72,000 eons of that negative potential, then actually that is just a drop in the bucket; nevertheless, it gives us some hope that we are going a little bit further. I think this is the intention that is there.

It is just like the intention in the Mahayana sutras that when the Buddha taught, it was to these huge numbers: 720,000 devas were there and 42,500 gandharvas and so on. We might wonder about all of this; however, again, this is Mahayana, the vast vehicle. We want to open up our minds and hearts to the vastness of countless beings. We need to try to picture Buddha on Vulture’s Peak, for example, delivering these sutras. If we have ever been to Vulture’s Peak, it is a fantastic scene − there is this mountain and this ledge on top that sticks out from the mountain and, from there is a view of this enormous valley. If we go and sit there, which we can do, and imagine this entire valley filled with beings, then we start to get a sense of Mahayana. When we talk about all sentient beings, it is a very large number. These large numbers that they describe in the sutras are actually very helpful for starting to think in terms of “all sentient beings.”

One shouldn’t get worried or upset about how they came up with these numbers. Why is it that it’s 36,000,000 and not 37,000,000? I don’t think that is the point. The point is to give some encouragement and get our minds open to thinking in a Mahayana sense of vastness. This is just an aside, but I find it a very helpful point. Otherwise, it is very easy to break the bodhisattva vows by putting down the Mahayana sutras and being a bit ashamed of them as if they have weird stuff going on in them. Instead, we can see that Buddha always used skillful methods to help us to expand our minds, especially in this Mahayana sense. We need to take it seriously that we are working to help all sentient beings and, because of beginningless time, how much effort it takes to overcome the inertia of beginningless ignorance.

Clarifying Sambhogakaya

I wonder if you could say something about the three Kayas (the Three Buddha Bodies), especially about the Sambhogakaya, because many of us, including myself, have a problem understanding what this indicates. You said, for example, that in the Mahayana sutras there are countless beings and gandharvas and these are definitely not human beings. They are kind of spiritual beings on a different plane. Has this anything to do with the Sambhogakaya level of reality? 

No, not really. For Sambhogakaya, there is a sutra presentation and a tantra presentation, specifically anuttarayoga tantra, the highest level of tantra. 

In sutra, there are five factors that are certain about Sambhogakayas: 

  • They teach to an arya bodhisattva audience. These are bodhisattvas who have had non-conceptual cognition of voidness or emptiness. This is not the usual devas, gandharvas and deities and so on that are the audience of the Mahayana sutras. 
  • They teach in Buddha fields, these pure lands. 
  • They are always teaching Mahayana. 
  • They have all the major and minor physical signs of a Buddha. 
  • They go on forever, with no cessation.

If we speak in terms of mahamudra, there is the void nature of the mind and the omniscient nature of the mind and this is the Dharmakaya. Dharmakaya naturally communicates outward to benefit others. It communicates out in subtle forms. That’s Sambhogakaya. Sambhogakaya emanates grosser appearances, those are Nirmanakaya. Nirmanakaya appearances are for teaching ordinary beings, while the Sambhogakaya ones are to teach arya bodhisattvas. This is why there are these two different levels of appearances. They’re for teaching two specific types of audiences.

In tantra, Sambhogakaya is identified with the enlightening speech of a Buddha, which again is a subtle way of communicating, going out. Nirmanakaya are the physical appearances. Kalachakra explains Sambhogakaya as both enlightening speech and subtle physical appearances.

Bringing in the issue of languages, Sambhogakaya is usually translated as the “enjoyment body,” but that is not really the meaning. That is one meaning of the Sanskrit word, sambhoga, if we look in the dictionary. Among its various meanings, it also means to eat. Tibetans translate it with the word that means to “make use of.” This is usually the way that it is described. It is the body of a Buddha that can make full use of the Mahayana teachings by teaching it in pure lands to arya bodhisattvas. This is the meaning of sambhoga in Sambhogakaya. It’s not for enjoyment, as if here is a body for entertainment. It’s not the entertainment body.

The Pacing of Tantra Practice

Could you say something about speed and how fast to go in the meditation to generate the right state of mind or to counter distractions and so on. Is this a personal issue or can there be something generalized about this?

Serkong Rinpoche said it very nicely. He said that when the Lord of Death comes, he doesn’t wait for us to sit up straight, set our motivation and generate everything slowly. When the Lord of Death comes, we have to generate the proper state of mind in an instant; we need to get our acts together instantly. This is the aim, to be able to generate the whole appropriate state of mind in a moment. The question is how do we get to this point? How do we train ourselves to get there? In the beginning, we need to go slowly and if we have the leisure and the time to be able to do practices slowly, that is wonderful. 

If we look in the monasteries, some will chant unbelievably slowly. In Serkong Rinpoche’s monastery, the one that I am familiar with and have spent time in, at certain times of the year the monastery would get together and recite the Guhyasamaja tantra, chanting it in a very special way. They could spend one minute on each syllable throughout the whole chant. It could take the entire day to get through one chapter. If we want to go to an extreme, that is one style. The other, for instance, is at His Holiness’s monastery, Namgyal Dratsang, where they do everything at super speed. When His Holiness does the Kalachakra initiation, they have to do the self-initiation in the morning beforehand and this is about four times longer than the initiation ceremony itself.

They do that at top speed, and it still takes five hours to do it. I have sat with them while they were doing that, and it was hard for my eyes to even follow the text that quickly. For any initiation that His Holiness does on the big stage and so on, he comes and does the self-initiation before. You can’t believe how quickly His Holiness is able to recite and do all of this. That is the other extreme. 

I think the most important criterion is to do it at a speed at which it still has meaning. This is not easy. It is described very well in cognition theory in Buddhism. We recite the words, fitting them into audio categories. No matter how we say any word, it fits into the category of being the sound of that same word. But we also need to fit the word into a meaning category, so that they have a meaning as well. It’s very easy to just have the words and no meaning. These are two quite separate things. We can have the words on automatic pilot and our minds can be thinking about all sorts of other things. It’s very interesting that this is described in cognition theory, how there are two separate factors involved: audio categories and meaning categories. 

Regardless of whether we recite the text out loud or do it in our minds, being conscious of the meaning of the words is an issue, even if the words are in our own language. Each of us has to decide, are we going to recite out loud or under our breath so that we at least mouth the words – because it takes much longer to actually say them out loud – or recite them in our minds? When we do it in our minds, although it is much faster, we have more danger that there is no meaning to it. 

However, there are these styles in terms of how we recite mantra. It is clear that there is mental recitation and verbal recitation. We have to judge for ourselves, but the main thing is for our practice to have meaning and not just words.

Characteristics of a Healthy Western Sangha

Lama Changchub always encourages us to do our best approximation of being the noble Sangha. Even though we are not arya bodhisattvas, we should create our best approximation. Since you are both a scholar and a practitioner, I would love to hear what are some of the common features of a healthy mundane sangha and some of your personal observations while traveling and see if there are some features to aspire to or that you have noticed being displayed in a healthy sangha. 

That is a very good question. One of the tantric vows is never to get angry at our vajra brothers and sisters. A vajra brother and sister is defined as anybody who has received an initiation from the same Lama that we have received an initiation from. It doesn’t have to be the same initiation or at the same time. This is because, as part of the initiation, we imagine becoming a child, in that we are born through the tantric master. 

It’s quite difficult, within our community, to be patient with each other and not get angry with each other. In most communities, there is usually some person that is really annoying and challenging, someone we all need to be patient with. There are many guidelines from the various monastic, bodhisattva and tantric vows for helping to build a community. In fact, most of the vows for monastics were intended to help create that community. 

What I find sad is that, in some Buddhist communities, people come and just do their practice together, but everybody is quiet, they don’t interact with each other and then everybody leaves. If someone gets sick or something like that, nobody goes to help or anything. I think we can learn very much from our Christian communities that if we are going to be a community as in the monasteries, then if someone is sick, we take care of them. If someone is in need, we help them. People stay in communication. I think this is essential if you are going to be a community and if you want to benefit from the advantages of being a community. It should be a community that cares about each other and knows about each other. 

To get to know each other requires communication. There are certain circumstances where being silent and not talking has its benefits. However, if that leads to nobody knowing each other and everybody being in their own individual world, then you need to use keep silence only at the appropriate time and situation. In other situations, the community has to know about each other, learn about each other and be friendly with each other. 

Also, the community needs to be open to newcomers by making newcomers feel welcome. That’s very important. Don’t give up love; that is one of the bodhisattva vows and tantra vows as well. Don’t give up love for anyone. This is the wish for them to be happy and have the causes for being happy. What does that mean? It means welcoming them and not excluding them; not feeling “don’t bother me.” 

What is also very sad in some communities is that children aren’t welcome. This excludes families and, so often, there are just older people without young children or single people. There was one group that I went to once, and somebody brought their two-year-old to the session. The two-year-old ran around wildly during the teaching. I was just a guest there and someone else was the teacher. He pointed out that the little boy was our teacher of patience; this was the lesson for the day to not be upset by this little boy running around. After all, if we think in terms of rebirth, we will be a little kid again. Be welcoming and, if there are children, make childcare available. These sorts of things are very important.

If there is someone who is sick or in the hospital, go visit them; help out and give each other support. There are certain aspects of the practice that we want to just keep private between ourselves and the teacher. That’s fine that one keeps these private in that sense. However, there are other things, for instance in my group in Berlin, most of us go out to a restaurant after the teaching together. It’s a small group. I purposely keep it small. I have the teaching just in my apartment, five to twelve people at the most and I don’t advertise. People can always listen to it on podcast, etc. That is fine; I am not there for the money or anything like that.

In the group, everybody knows each other, and we have sessions in which we talk about how we have been applying the teachings to our lives that week. That is what it is all about. It’s not just a hobby that we do on the side, like rather than going to the movies we do a sadhana or something like that. We ask, how do we apply the teachings in our lives? Did it help us and, if so, how did it help us? If we are facing a certain problem, then we bring it to the group. It’s not quite Alcoholics Anonymous or something like that, but we bring it to the group and try to figure out what would be a Dharma way of dealing with this. How can we help each other? 

This way we make a real Buddhist community. This, I think, is very helpful. Of course, if there is a very large number of people, that is not so easy, but we can break into smaller groups. These are helpful guidelines from my own experience. In our lives, especially in our modern world, we are so isolated, and social media doesn’t quite help either. It gives the appearance of being connected, but we are sitting in our rooms looking at something on a screen watching people have such a good time. We are watching people have a good time and that can make us feel even more isolated.

When we come together face-to-face in our weekly class, we put our digital devices aside or don’t even have them with us, and simply apply the teachings. This is especially the case when I teach meditations such as the ones that I developed called Developing Balanced Sensitivity. It is a training program for overcoming being oversensitive or insensitive to the effects of our behavior on ourselves and others, as well as to our own situation and the situation of others. The whole training is based on the Dharma. I extend the methods we use there to the more standard Buddhist meditations that we do in a group. 

For example, rather than sit feeling love for a visualized audience of beings – which doesn’t challenge us in the same way as dealing with actual people – we meditate in a circle and look at each other. If we just visualize people, they are not going to look us back in the eye. Of course, visualizing others and extending love to them has its benefit, especially when we are alone. However, if we are going to meditate on the point that everybody has been our mother in a previous life and has been kind to us, it is far more powerful to look at each person in the circle and think, “You have been a mother to me, you have been a mother to me, and you have been a mother to me.” We actually try to generate that feeling with another human being. “May you be happy, may you be happy, and may you be happy.” We try to feel it and direct it to each person in the group. 

If we do that, then the practice becomes much more powerful and starts to have an emotional component, which is very difficult to generate with a visualization. It becomes real. Then, it becomes easier to practice this when we are sitting on a bus, on the subway, or when stuck in traffic. Look at all the people who are also stuck in traffic and realize that nobody wants to be stuck in this traffic. We are not the only ones that want to get home or to get to where we want to be. Then, rather than cursing the person in the car next to us, generate a feeling of love toward that person. This is the application. Otherwise, we are miserable in the traffic jam. Use it as a perfect opportunity to practice.

This helps to build a community when we actually practice with each other in this way, not just everybody sitting isolated and visualizing. Instead, try to put these positive states of mind into actuality with each other and help each other. If someone is having difficulty, then implement something from the Dharma. It’s very helpful. Someone from the group might come in one day, for example, and wants to talk about some person at work who is so difficult and blah, blah, blah. Okay, how do we deal with this? It is very helpful for the community and very helpful for each person to try to come up with a Dharma strategy to deal with this real-life problem.

Thank you for inspiring us with what you just talked about now about community and the group not being too big. I wonder if such a group that sounds very down-to-earth or down-to-real life, how long does a group like that stay together? If I go to a course in our community, it is maybe for the spring or for the autumn. However, at least in what I heard you talk about, it would be very nice to keep on for some time to get to know each other and follow up. Can you comment on that please?

There is a difference between having a weekend seminar, where people come from all over, and having a regular weekly class. I am talking about my weekly class, and, in that class, there are people who have been coming for years. There are, from time to time, new people who join, and they are made to feel welcome. Not everybody comes every week – definitely not. This is a big difference from the traditional situation in a monastery, for instance, where everyone comes to every session and there is no excuse for missing one. The reality is that we are very busy and can’t always come. Attendance in class is flexible like that.

However, when I teach this sensitivity training, for instance, just in a weekend, still we can do it in a circle and if there are lots of people, we do it in two or three circles. It doesn’t matter. Then, we don’t actually get to know all the people in the circle personally. That’s okay; we don’t get to know all the people on the bus or in the traffic jam personally either. Still, we can generate this feeling of “may you be happy, and I am not going to judge you.” This is a very important aspect – no judgments. We just want to help. This is an amazing gift that we can give. It is the gift of equanimity. 

There are many forms of generosity, but one form is the generosity of equanimity. What does that mean? “I’m not going to cling to you, I’m not going to reject you, and I am not going to ignore you.” These are the three poisons, if we want to put it into the Buddhist terminology. We don’t cling, reject, or ignore. It is a wonderful gift that we can give to somebody and we can also give it to strangers. If we want to develop personal friendships in a community that takes care of each other, though, then obviously it needs to have people who come regularly.