In the many lineages of the buddhadharma, there are thousands of expositions articulating the inseparability of emptiness, selfless compassion, and skillful action. Why is this teaching important? Because bodhicitta—the mind of compassion–emptiness—is the driving force that brings us to the path of awakening.
Bodhicitta is sometimes called our “way-seeking mind.” It is the motivation to awaken for the benefit of others, to liberate all beings drowning in the ocean of samsara. It is the basis of all Mahayana Buddhist practices. It arises as the aspiration to engage in generous, patient, wise, and effective activity, as defined by the paramitas. Walking the path to complete realization fulfills this deep desire for universal liberation, what Suzuki Roshi called our “inmost request.”
Two Paths to the Dharma
Traditionally, taking refuge in the path of dharma includes two aspects: “what has been said” and “what has been realized.”
Engaging the first aspect, what has been said, means gratefully receiving what has been handed down to us through oral teachings and texts. This includes sutras, commentaries, wise sayings, and practice instructions. The second aspect, what has been realized, arises from taking the teachings to heart—drawing them into our direct experience and realizing the loving-kindness and luminous wisdom found beyond mere words.
Sometimes this unspoken realization is said to be the true dharma, the essence teaching, as when Shakyamuni Buddha silently held up a flower and Mahakashyapa smiled. Yet these two aspects of dharma walk hand in hand. As the great eighteenth-century Tibetan teacher Jigme Lingpa said, “If you understand the meaning of a single verse, that constitutes the dharma of scripture or transmission, and if you give rise to a virtuous mind for just an instant, that is the dharma of realization.”
Our ultimate nature is always here. It does not arrive or depart based on causes and conditions.
If we begin by contemplating the words of the teaching, we reflect again and again on their relevance to our actual lives. “Is this really true?” we ask ourselves. “What does it have to do with being in this world, this society, my community, my family, me?” Then, when we contemplate a teaching like impermanence, it moves from a neat, doctrinal concept, a reasonable idea, to a direct realization: “Death is real. It can come suddenly. This teaching includes me and everyone I know and love.”
This is when we move from the verbal level, what we have been told, to personally glimpsing the truth of ceaseless change. Through studying the view—that everything is marked by impermanence—we arrive at direct experience of that truth. Or is it that, like an unexpected delivery, experience arrives at our front door?
If, on the other hand, we begin with spiritual practices—with what has been realized—we are guided by our own experience. Even in the midst of confusion, we trust the basic intelligence of our unfolding journey to show us the way. We trust the basic goodness of our way-seeking mind and heart. We find that the answers to all the questions of our life and practice cannot be found in ancient, justly venerated, texts. We have to find the next steps on our own. There isn’t some helpful retreat leader standing next to us, whispering the perfect thing to do in this tense situation. We live through heartbreak and grief and celebrations; we feel inspiration, frustration, and joy. Our practice is settled and content one day, restless and bored the next, but we continue with the understanding that this is our path.
The Lojong Lineage
Practitioners and scholars classify the dharma lineages of Tibet in several different ways. Sometimes the newer lineages of Sarma are compared to the oldest lineage of Nyingma, the “ancient ones.” A second system names the four great lineages of Geluk, Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma, and nowadays the indigenous Bön tradition is often added as a fifth.
Yet another classification system describes the eight great “chariots,” or practice lineages, which carried the dharma from India to Tibet. One of these, the Kadam lineage, began in the eleventh century with a Tibetan disciple of the Bengali teacher Atisha Dipankara Srijnana (982–1054). This lineage is famous for teachings and practices that uncover and cultivate bodhicitta.
This system of simple, direct training to awaken the heart is called lojong. Lo means “mind” or “attitude,” and jong means “training.” Lojong offers us a means for transforming ingrained habits of “me first” into altruism and expansive kindness.
I want to linger here for a moment to appreciate the compassionate exertion of those who handed these practices down to us, the masters of the magnificent mind-training lineage. These are our spiritual ancestors, human beings just like ourselves who engaged, practiced, and transmitted this revolutionary approach over a thousand years.
Atisha traveled to Sumatra to receive these teachings and then brought them to Tibet. The twelfth-century Kadampa teacher Chekawa Yeshe Dorje originated the famous 7 Points of Mind-training. Centuries later, Jamgön Kongtrül (1813–1899) commented on these seven in his text The Great Path of Awakening. These ancient practices are now being taught by contemporary Buddhist teachers from the Insight, Zen, and Tibetan traditions, ranging from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Zoketsu Norman Fischer to Tara Brach, and many others.
59 Slogans to Turn Your Mind Around
The lojong method of training works because it accords with our underlying “compassionate instinct” (a helpful term from researchers at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley). The traditional lojong practices are based on confidence in our original nature as compassionate—even if years of ego-centered habits sometimes cover and distort this innate impulse. The suggestion is that any one of us, if we are willing to genuinely engage in these contemplations, can gradually unlearn egocentric habits and clear away their cloudy overlays, allowing the warmth and brilliance of natural wakefulness to shine.
The mind-training system comprises fifty-nine pithy slogans arranged in seven key points. These contemplative sayings guide practitioners in realizing the inseparable ultimate and relative aspects of wisdom–compassion.
We hear, read, contemplate, and memorize these words as daily reminders of awakened heart. Nowadays, the lojong slogans often appear on small cards posted in homes and offices to support integrating compassion practice and everyday life. Some people choose a slogan to explore for the day or the week.
These wise sayings are supremely practical. They can be used to transform the attitude that wishes for “profit and victory for myself, loss and defeat to others” into an altruistic approach and skillful actions placing the well-being of others first. I remember mumbling and grumbling as I walked out of what seemed a decades-long budget meeting, and then seeing a handwritten note on my officemate’s door with the slogan “Be grateful to everyone.”
One of the most famous of the lojong slogans instructs us to engage in the now widely taught “sending-and-taking” practice called tonglen. In this meditation practice, we send out our happiness and well-being to others and take in their suffering, the opposite of the way we usually operate. The purpose of the entire lojong system is to reverse the obsessive egotism that easily becomes a nuisance to ourselves and others. It’s as though we are walking around repeatedly asking ourselves: “How am I doing? How am I doing?” Cultivating compassion liberates us from this prison of ego-grasping. Then we can share the freedom of basic spaciousness and warmth with those journeying with us.
Rest in the Nature of Alaya
There are five key lojong slogans that help us set the ground for the entire approach. These are called the slogans of “ultimate, or authentic, awakened heart.” Authentic here means genuine, like pure gold that is naturally golden from the beginning.
This basic nature is always here. It does not arrive or depart based on causes and conditions. It’s not something we fabricate through our practice. It’s not produced. It is our true nature, the mind essence of natural compassion. The ultimate nature uncovered through these slogans is inseparable from the practical expressions of compassion taught in the “relative slogans,” just as waves are expressions of a vast ocean.
The main slogan for meditating on the mind of compassion is to “rest in the nature of alaya.” The Sanskrit word alaya is translated as “storehouse, repository, abode.” The name for the world’s tallest mountains, Himalaya, means “storehouse of snow.”
In the practice traditions based on the Yogacara teachings, the underlying eighth consciousness is called the “storehouse consciousness,” the alaya-vijnana. It is compared to a seedbed in which the karmic results of previous actions, all the imprints of the other seven consciousnesses, are planted. When appropriate causes and conditions come together, these karmic seeds ripen as projections.
The alaya-vijnana serves as a backdrop for all the other consciousnesses. These include our experiences of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. These highly active and reactive dualistic consciousnesses, without actually “looking back” toward the eighth, assume that there’s a real self somewhere back there, the hazy background consciousness we call “me.”
How is it that this basis of our confusion, the alaya-vijnana, can also be the basis of wisdom? Are we cultivating delusion? There is danger here, because the teaching can easily be misunderstood. In a Mahayana sutra, the Buddha warned that the alaya-vijnana can be mistaken for a truly existing self. The storehouse consciousness, he says in the Samdhinirmochana Sutra, is “profound and subtle indeed; all its seeds are like a rushing torrent. Fearing that they would imagine and cling to it as to a self, I have not revealed it to the foolish.”
Yet the lojong slogan directs us to “rest in the nature of alaya.”
Mind Before Duality Arises
Alaya can be understood in two different ways. As we have seen, the alaya-vijnana is the basis of the other dualistic consciousnesses. It is the background of our sense of separation and division (the syllable “vi” in the word “vi-jnana” signals this dividedness). On the other hand, alaya-jnana is also the fundamental nature of nondual wisdom. It is the nature of wakefulness as well as the nature of confusion. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, commenting on these slogans, said: “The basic principle of ultimate bodhicitta is to rest in the fundamental state of consciousness, before it is divided into ‘I’ and ‘other.’”
The slogan directs us to, first, appreciate basic nonduality. The meditation instruction here is to rest in awareness itself, beyond our habitual grasping and fixation on sense objects and thoughts. Rather than looking out and seeking or avoiding what’s happening “out there,” one turns “inward” toward looking itself, the awareness that knows its own nature. The instruction is to rest in true nature.
In meditation practice, the word “rest” can be used in two ways. Sometimes rest means deliberately placing something, as in the simple request: “Rest your hand on this sheet of paper so the wind doesn’t blow it away.” This is the sense of resting in shamatha or calm-abiding practice, also called the “nine techniques of resting the mind.” We place the mind on breathing and gradually train it to stay or abide there. Here, in the lojong slogans, the suggestion to rest in basic awareness means “relax any effort to attain something.” When we go for a long walk, we sometimes pause along the way to rest. We’re not doing anything. This is resting.
Here are the five relevant slogans for this meditation practice:
- Recognize sense perceptions and thoughts as dream-like, illusory, and impermanent.
- Inquire into what knows this dream-like arising and ceasing. This inner knowing is called “unborn insight.” That which sees confusion is not itself confused.
- Let go of all concepts of “emptiness,” “luminosity,” “unborn,” “insight,” or “mind.”
- Rest in the basic ground. The Tibetan translation of alaya, kunzhi, means “ground of all.” All phenomena and awareness itself arise as primordially open and free. Resting in this open dimension is the key instruction here.
- Afterward, in post-meditation, allow this experience of open spaciousness to infiltrate daily life. This basic contemplation invites lightness, a sense of humor, openness, and vulnerability. We are less guarded and enclosed, so empathy and compassionate actions based on caring arise naturally.
The encouragement to carry this spacious warmth and clarity on the challenging path of everyday life contains a further hint. The relative slogans have a down-to-earth practicality. They apply to heated arguments and other situations in which we sometimes feel the impulse to blame others. It is in such moments that feeling this open dimension is most valuable, reminding us of what is always here, beyond dualistic struggles of “for” and “against.” Compassion for ourselves and others can arise spontaneously, like the sun breaking suddenly through the clouds.