A teaching on practices to generate bodhichitta by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
From one point of view, personal liberation without freeing others is selfish and unfair, because all sentient beings also have the natural right and desire to be free of suffering. Therefore, it is important for practitioners to engage in the practice of the stages of the path of the highest scope, starting with the generation of bodhichitta, the altruistic aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Once one has cultivated bodhichitta, all the meritorious actions that are supported by and complemented with this altruism—even the slightest form of positive action—become causes for the achievement of omniscience.
Omniscience is a wisdom that is able to perceive directly all phenomena, both the ultimate and the conventional natures, simultaneously. It is a state where all the potentials of one’s wisdom are developed fully and where there is also a total freedom from all the obstructions to knowledge. It can be achieved only by purifying all the faults of one’s mind, and only by complementing the practice of wisdom with the practices of method: bodhichitta, compassion and so forth. Without bodhichitta, even though one might have great wisdom realizing emptiness, one will not be able to achieve the omniscient state.
In order to cultivate a genuine bodhichitta, you have to depend upon the proper methods and the instructions outlining these. There are two major systems of instructions, one the seven-point cause and effect method, the other the equalizing and exchanging oneself with others. The different methods will suit the various mental dispositions of the different practitioners; some might find one more effective than the other. The tradition is that these methods are combined and practiced together.
The Seven-Point Cause and Effect Method
The Preliminary Step of Cultivating Equanimity
The foundation for practicing the seven-point cause and effect method is cultivating a mind of equanimity. Without this foundation you will not be able to have an impartial altruistic view, because without equanimity you will always have partiality towards your relatives and friends. Realize that you should not have prejudice, hatred or desire towards enemies, friends or neutral persons, and thus lay a very firm foundation of equanimity.
To do this, first visualize a neutral person whom you do not know at all. When you clearly visualize that person, you will find that you don’t feel any fluctuations of emotion, no desire or hatred—you are indifferent. Then visualize an enemy; when you visualize the enemy clearly you will have a natural reaction of hatred, feeling all sorts of ill will. Next, clearly visualize a friend or relative to whom you feel very close. With that visualization, the natural reaction will be a feeling of affection and attachment. With the visualization of your enemies, you will feel somewhat distant and will have hatred and a sense of repulsion. Reflect upon your justification in reacting so negatively to them. Although it is true that they have meted out much harm in this life, have they always done such things and been like this? You will find that they have not: in the past they must have engaged in actions beneficial to you and many others. Right now, because of being under the influence of ignorance, hatred and so forth, they have these faults; it is not their essential nature.
Reflect that delusions are within your own mind also. Although there might be a difference in the force of these delusions, in terms of being delusions they are delusions equally. You should decide that there is not much point in emotionally reacting to the people you have categorized as enemies.
Then examine how you react, on the other hand, to your relatives and friends. Although it is true that they have been kind to you in this life, in the past they might have been your enemies, and even gone to the extent of taking your life. Therefore, there is no point in being absolutely or permanently attached to such people, categorizing them as your friends and relatives.
Thus, there is not much difference between enemies and friends as far as yourself is concerned. They have both had times of benefiting you and they have both had times of harming you. Your having partiality towards them is groundless. Therefore, develop the mind of equanimity directed towards all sentient beings. This mind cannot be brought about by meditating just once or twice, but rather through repeated meditations over months or years.
1. Recognizing Sentient Beings as Having Been One’s Mother
The first step of the seven-point cause and effect method is to cultivate the recognition of all sentient beings as having been one’s mother. To do this, it is first necessary to reflect on your beginningless lives in this cycle of existence and that through many of your lives you have had to depend on your mothers. There is not a single living being that you can definitely point to as not having been your mother in the past. Perceive all sentient beings as having been your own kind mothers. If you are able to understand the beginninglessness of your lives, you will be able to understand that you have taken many forms of life that require a mother. You will find that there is not a single sentient being that has not been your mother in the past.
Next, examine whether you stand to gain or lose by cultivating this recognition of others as mothers. Since you are concerned with cultivating bodhichitta, the altruistic aspiration, you should recognize that if you do not have this basic factor of recognition of others as having been your mothers, you will not have success in its cultivation. So by not developing this recognition you stand to lose.
A recognition of others as being your dearest ones need not be confined to recognizing them as mothers alone. As Maitreya recommends in his Abhisamayalankara, you can also view them as having been your best friends or closest relatives. For example, you can view all sentient beings as having been your fathers, if you relate better to your father than to your mother, or as children to whom you feel closest and for whom you have the deepest affection. The point is to bring about an effect within your mind and to develop a state of mind that will enable you to perceive all living beings as the closest objects of affection and kindness. That is how you cultivate the recognition of sentient beings as having been one’s mother.
2. Recollection of All Beings’ Kindness
The next meditation is on the recollection of the kindness of all beings. For this, you should visualize the person to whom you feel closest—be it your mother or father—when she or he is quite old. Clearly visualize the person at an age when she or he depends upon others’ cooperation and assistance. Doing this has a special significance, for it will make your meditation more powerful and effective.
Then think that your mother, for example, has been your mother not only in this lifetime, but also in past lives. Particularly in this life her kindness was boundless at the time of your birth, and before that during gestation she had to undergo all sorts of hardships, and even after birth her affection was such that she was able to surrender her own happiness and pleasure for the sake of the happiness and pleasure of her child. At the time of your birth she felt as joyful as if she had found a treasure, and according to her own capacities she has protected you. You were thus protected until you could stand on your own feet.
After reflecting upon the kindness of mothers, particularly of this lifetime, you should visualize other beings whom you find quite distant and repulsive, even animals, and take them as your object of visualization. Think that although these enemies are harmful to you and are your adversaries in this life, in past lives they must have been your most dear parents and must have even protected and saved your life countless times. Therefore their kindness is boundless. In such a manner you should train your mind.
3. Repaying Kindness
The meditation on the recollection of kindness should be followed by meditation upon repaying that kindness. The thought to repay the kindness of mothers will come about naturally when you have been successful in recollecting this kindness—it should come from the depths of your heart. Not to repay their kindness would be unfair and ungrateful of you. Therefore, you should work according to your own capacity for the benefit of others; doing this repays their kindness.
Having cultivated equanimity and the recognition of all sentient beings as having been one’s mother, you will see all sentient beings as objects of affection and endearment. And the more forceful your feeling of affection towards them, the stronger will be your aspiration that they be free from suffering and enjoy happiness. So the recognition of others as having been one’s mother is the foundation for the subsequent meditations. Having laid that proper foundation, recollected their kindness and developed the genuine wish to repay it, you gain a state wherein you feel close to and affectionate towards all living beings. Now reflect that all these sentient beings, although they naturally desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering, are tormented by unimaginable sufferings. Reflect upon the fact that they are just like yourself in desiring happiness, but they lack this happiness. By such reflection, cultivate loving-kindness.
5. Great Compassion
When you do the meditation on compassion, reflect upon the manner in which sentient beings undergo the experience of suffering. First, in order to have a very strong force of compassion, visualize a person undergoing active sufferings. You can visualize any situation that you find unbearable. Doing so will enable you to have a strong force of compassion and make it easier to develop a genuine universal compassion.
Then think about the sentient beings in other categories; they may not be undergoing manifest sufferings right now, but due to indulging in negative actions that will definitely produce undesirable consequences in the future, they are certain to face such experiences.
The wish that all sentient beings who lack happiness be endowed with happiness is the state of mind called universal love, and the wish that sentient beings be free of suffering is called compassion. These two meditations can be undertaken in combination, until there is some kind of effect or change in your mind.
6. The Unusual Attitude
Your cultivation of love and great compassion should not be left in a state of mere imagination or wish alone; rather, a sense of responsibility, a genuine intention to engage in the task of relieving sentient beings of their suffering and providing them with happiness, should be developed. It is important for a practitioner to work for and take upon himself or herself the responsibility of fulfilling this intention. The stronger your cultivation of compassion is, the more committed you will feel to taking this responsibility. Because of their ignorance, sentient beings do not know the right methods by which they can fulfill their aims. It is the responsibility of those who are equipped with this knowledge to fulfill the intention of working for their benefit.
Such a state of mind is called the extraordinary attitude or special, unusual attitude. It is called unusual or extraordinary because such a force of compassion, committing oneself to taking on such a responsibility, is not to be found in the trainees of lower capacity. As the oral traditions explain, with this extraordinary attitude there is a commitment that one will take upon oneself the responsibility of fulfilling this aim. It is like striking a deal in business and signing a contract.
After generating the extraordinary attitude, ask yourself whether or not, although you have developed the strong courage and the determination to work for the benefit of other sentient beings, you really possess the capacity and capability to bring them genuine happiness. It is only by your showing living beings the right path leading towards omniscience, and by living beings on their part eliminating the ignorance within themselves, that they will be able to gain lasting happiness. Although you may be able to work for other sentient beings to bring them temporary happiness, bringing about their ultimate aims is possible only when these beings take upon themselves the initiative to eliminate the ignorance within themselves. The same is true of yourself: if you desire the attainment of liberation, it is your responsibility to take the initiative to eliminate the ignorance within yourself.
As I just mentioned, you must also show the right path to living beings—and for that, first of all, you must possess the knowledge yourself. So long as you yourself are not completely enlightened there will always be an inner obstruction. Therefore, it is very important that you work for your own achievement of the completely enlightened state. By thinking in such terms, you will be able to develop the strong belief that without attaining the omniscient state you will not be able to fulfill what you set out to do and truly benefit others.
Based on the foundation of love and compassion, you should generate from the depths of your heart the aspiration to achieve the completely enlightened state for the benefit of all sentient beings. The cultivation of such a mind constitutes the realization of bodhichitta.
After the meditation on generating bodhichitta you should engage in the practice of cultivating bodhichitta that takes the result into the path. Visualizing the spiritual guru at your crown, imagine that the guru expresses delight, saying that it is very admirable and you are very fortunate that you have generated bodhichitta and have engaged in the path of cultivating it, and that he shall take you under his care. Imagine that, as a result of the guru’s delight, he dissolves through your crown and into your heart. Then you dissolve into emptiness and from emptiness arise in the aspect of Buddha Shakyamuni. See yourself becoming inseparable from him, and rejoice. At your heart visualize all your virtues accumulated through the practice of bodhichitta. These emanate, in the form of light rays, toward all living beings and actively work for their benefit, relieving them of their suffering, placing them in the state of liberation and favorable rebirth and eventually leading them to the omniscient state.
Equalizing and Exchanging Oneself with Others
Next follows the instruction on the cultivation of bodhichitta according to the method of equalizing and exchanging oneself with others. This meditation has five sections: 1) equalizing oneself with others; 2) reflecting on the disadvantages of the self-cherishing attitude from many perspectives; 3) reflecting on the advantages of the thought cherishing the welfare of others from many perspectives; 4) the actual exchange of oneself and others and 5) taking and giving.
1. Equalizing Oneself with Others
This phrase refers to the practice of reflecting upon the equality of oneself and others in having the natural and spontaneous wish to enjoy happiness and avoid suffering. For the generation of this type of equanimity, the instruction by the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche on the nine-round meditation is very powerful and effective.
Meditation on Equanimity
The nine-round meditation is comprised of training the mind in equanimity with a mental outlook based on the dual nature of things and events: the conventional and the ultimate. Based on different perspectives, the first in turn is divided into two sections, one from the viewpoint of others and the second from the viewpoint of oneself.
The rounds of visualization on cultivating equanimity from the viewpoint of others are divided into three:
- Develop the thought that all sentient beings are equal insofar as the natural wish to avoid suffering is concerned and that therefore there is no point in being partial or discriminatory.
- Reflect that all sentient beings equally desire happiness and therefore there is no ground for discriminating between them when working for their benefit. The situation is analogous to one where you encounter ten equally wretched beggars who are desperately asking you to relieve their hunger. In such circumstances it is senseless to have any feeling of preference.
- Develop an equanimity based on the reflection that all sentient beings are equal in lacking genuine happiness although they have the innate desire to possess it. Likewise all sentient beings are the same in having suffering and the wish to avoid it.
With the above three types of practice you train your mind in the attitude expressed as follows: “I shall never discriminate between beings and will always work equally to help them overcome suffering and gain happiness.”
The next three rounds of meditation enforce the thought that there is no justification for discrimination between sentient beings from the point of view of oneself or from the viewpoint of others. This training is divided into three sections:
- You might have the thought that although reflection upon the equality of others is fairly persuasive regarding the futility of your being discriminatory towards other beings, surely when viewed from your own side the situation will look quite different. After all, some people are friends and help you, whereas many others harm you. To counter this thought which attempts to give false grounds for being partial towards others, reflect that all sentient beings are equally kind to you: they have all been at one time or other your closest friends and relatives. Hence there is no rational basis at all for being biased towards or against any.
- Perhaps you have the idea that although people have been your friends in the past, they have equally been your enemies and have caused harm as well. Such notions should be countered by reflecting that sentient beings’ kindness to you is not confined to when they are friends and relatives alone; their kindness when they are your enemies is boundless. The enemy provides you with the precious opportunity to train yourself in the noble ideals of patience and tolerance, traits vital for the perfection of your generation of universal compassion and bodhichitta. For a bodhisattva who emphasizes the practice of bodhichitta, the training in patience is indispensable. Contemplating upon such lines of reasoning will persuade you that there are no grounds for neglecting the welfare of even a single sentient being.
- Reflect that, as Shantideva wrote in Bodhisattvacaryavatara, there is no sense in someone who is himself subject to suffering and impermanence being selfish and discriminatory towards others who are also tormented by the same fate.
The next three rounds of meditation deal with the cultivation of equanimity based on an insight into the ultimate nature of things and events. (This “ultimate” should not be taken to refer to the ultimate truth in terms of emptiness—rather, it means that the outlook adopted in these visualizations is deeper and hence relatively ultimate in comparison to the earlier meditations.)
- Consider whether or not there are any “true” enemies in the real sense of the word. If there are, then the fully enlightened buddhas should perceive them as such, which is definitely not the case. For a buddha, all sentient beings are equally dear. Also, when you examine deeply, you will find that it is in fact the delusions within the enemies and not the enemies themselves that actually cause harm. Aryadeva said in his Chatu-shataka Shastra:
Buddhas see the delusion as the enemy;
And not the childish who possess it.
Therefore, there is no justification at all for you to hold grudges against those who cause harm, and neglect the welfare of such beings.
- Secondly, ask yourself whether these so-called enemies are permanent and will always remain as enemies or whether they are changeable. Concluding that they are not permanent will enable you to overcome your disinterest in their welfare.
- The last meditation is a reflection upon the relative nature of “enemy” and “friend,” and touches upon the ultimate nature of phenomena. Concepts of enemy, friend and so forth are relative and exist only at the conventional level. They are mutually dependent, as are the concepts of long and short. A person may be an enemy in relation to one person while at the same time being a dear friend to another. It is your misapprehension of friends, relatives and enemies as inherently existent that gives rise to your fluctuating emotions towards them. Therefore, by realizing that there is no such inherently existent enemy and friend, you will be able to overcome your biased feelings towards all beings.
2. Reflection on the Disadvantages of the Self-Cherishing Attitude
The next step is the contemplation—from many different perspectives—upon the disadvantages and faults of the self-cherishing attitude. As Geshe Chekawa said in his Lojong dhon dun ma (“Seven Points on Thought Transformation”): “Banish the one object of all blame.” It is the self-cherishing attitude that is the source of all miseries and therefore is the only object to be blamed for all misfortune.
Since the self-cherishing and self-grasping attitudes abide strongly fortified within our minds, we have never been able to shake them in the least. We have so far not been able to disturb them even as much as a small pebble in a shoe would disturb a person.
If we remain with our present outlook and way of thinking, we will still be under the influence and command of these two factors. We should reflect that these factors have always caused our downfall in the past, and that they will do so in the future if we remain under their influence.
In deeper terms, we will find that all the sufferings and problems and anxieties of not finding what we seek, of being separated from our loved ones, of physical illnesses, of suffering from want, lack of contentment, quarrels and so forth, come about because of our underlying attachment to the self and the self-cherishing attitude that tries to protect such a self within ourselves. The more selfish a person is, the more sufferings and anxieties he or she will have. This self-cherishing attitude manifests in all sorts of ways, which results in problems and anxieties. Yet we never recognize the truth—that these are all the doings of the self-cherishing attitude. Rather, we have the tendency to blame others and external factors: “He did it, and if he had done something else, it wouldn’t have happened.”
3. Reflection on the Advantages of the Thought Cherishing The Welfare of Others
Having realized the enormous disadvantages of holding on to a selfish thought cherishing your welfare alone, you should now reflect upon the kindness of all mother sentient beings, as discussed earlier. The kindness of other beings towards us is boundless while we revolve in this cycle of existence. This is particularly true when we first embark upon a spiritual path and thus begin the process of untying the chains that bind us to this cyclic existence.
We find that if a person lives a very selfish life and is never concerned about the welfare of others, he will have few friends, and people will not take much notice of him. At the time of his death, there will not be many people who will regret his passing. Some deceptive and negative persons may be very powerful and wealthy, and therefore some people—for economic reasons and so forth—might portray themselves as friends, but they will speak against such persons behind their backs. When these negative persons die, these very same “friends” may rejoice at their death.
On the other hand, many people mourn and regret the death of a person who is very kind and always altruistic and who works for the benefit of others. We find that altruism, as well as the person who possesses it, is regarded as the friend of all, and it becomes the object of veneration and respect by others.
I often remark, partly in jest, that if one really wants to be selfish, one should be “wisely selfish” by working for others. By helping others, one will receive help and assistance in return, particularly when one is in a hard situation—the time when one needs assistance from others the most. But if one tries to be very selfish, then when one is in difficult circumstances, one will find fewer people who are willing to help and one will be left to resolve the situation and difficulty on one’s own. It is the nature of human beings to depend upon the cooperation and assistance of others, particularly when facing difficult times; during such times and during hardship it is only true friends who will be beneficial and helpful. By living an unselfish life, one will be able to earn genuine friends, whereas selfish thoughts and a selfish life will never gain one genuine and true friends.
The essence of Mahayana practice is really to teach us the methods by which we will be able to succeed not only in this life but also in the future. Such instruction is, in fact, very practical and relevant to all—believers and nonbelievers alike. If we are able to derive practical benefits within this lifetime by living a virtuous life, we will be able to fulfill the wishes of future lifetimes as well.
4. The Actual Exchange of Oneself with Others
To exchange oneself with others is to reverse a former attitude: the thought of endearment and cherishing of oneself with its feeling of indifference towards others should now be reversed as follows. One should feel indifferent to oneself, reduce the force of clinging to oneself, and rather hold the welfare of other sentient beings as precious. That is the meaning of exchanging oneself with others. The degree of high value one feels towards oneself should now be turned towards others.
For this practice, one should also be knowledgeable about the commitments and precepts of thought transformation practices. If one undertakes such a practice one will be able to transform any adverse circumstances into favorable conditions of the path. In this age of degeneration when one meets with all sorts of problems and adverse circumstances, the practice of thought transformation is very effective. If someone lacks the practice of thought transformation, even though that person might be a very serious meditator he or she will meet with many hardships and hurdles.
5. Giving and Taking
The practice of the actual exchange of oneself with others should be followed by the practice of giving and taking. The latter is begun by reflecting that although all mother sentient beings desire happiness, they lack it, and that although they do not desire suffering, they undergo it. Think that it is the ignorance of sentient beings that impels them to work for the fulfillment of their selfish aims.
You should develop the unusual, extraordinary attitude of wishing that all their sufferings ripen upon yourself. Induced by the strong sense of compassion for other sentient beings, visualize taking all their sufferings upon yourself; and then, induced by the strong wish of love, visualize giving away from the depths of your heart all your virtuous collections, happiness, wealth, possessions, even your body, to other sentient beings. If you can conjoin such practices with the breathing process—that is, imagining taking when inhaling and giving when exhaling—you will be able to engage in a powerful practice, leading you to the strong commitment that you will engage in the bodhisattva deeds. If you are able to engage in such a powerful practice, then due to the strong determination and commitment that you make as a result of cultivating bodhichitta, you will be able to alleviate the forces of the powerful and vast stores of negative actions committed in past lives, and also accumulate great stores of merit.
This is how you should undertake the practice of bodhichitta.
Adapted from The Path to Bliss by Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, and translated by Thupten Jinpa (Snow Lion Publications, 2003).