The Compassionate Heart of Bodhichitta
Singapore, August 10, 1988
Revised excerpt from Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.
I have been asked to speak on bodhichitta this evening. This is a vast subject, which deals with our motivation – specifically why we want to follow a spiritual path. It is a motivation that we build up gradually within ourselves; it is difficult to generate it immediately. Bodhichitta refers to a heart set on becoming a Buddha, a heart that has a firm determination: “I have to overcome all my limitations and realize all my potentials in order to be able to benefit everyone.” We are striving for enlightenment not just because it is the best and the highest, but in order to help everyone by attaining it. Although we may often verbally say that we are working to become a Buddha in order to benefit all sentient beings, it is very hard to feel that continuously and sincerely in our hearts. However, by repeatedly building up this aspiration, we can reach a stage in which it arises within us spontaneously. A bodhisattva is someone with genuine bodhichitta as his or her primary motivation day and night.
Since you have probably had teachings and explanations on the ways to develop bodhichitta, I shall not emphasize that now. Instead, I shall talk about the importance of going through all the stages that lead up to this motivation. It is quite easy to skip over these stages and try to go straight to this highest Mahayana motivation. We may say, “I practice because I want to help others. It is my social responsibility.” Because this is something obviously beneficial to do, we immediately try to do it. However, if we have not gone through the earlier stages, we get into trouble. I would like to discuss how to avoid these difficulties when we are developing a motivation of love and compassion to help others.
With the lam-rim, or gradual path to enlightenment, we work through graduated paths to the highest level of spiritual development. The initial spiritual motivation involves working for the happiness of our future lives. Striving just for the happiness of this life is what everybody does. Even animals do that. They are concerned about the food they eat and about taking care of their young. Although this is an essential concern, it does not necessarily involve spiritual practice.
Taking care of this life is important, however. Some people do not take themselves and their situations seriously, and never want to look at what happens in their lives. Thus, they do not even want to improve their current situation. They just accept what is going on and never aim for anything better. Therefore, it is important at least to start on the level of being concerned about ourselves, our families, and our situations – even if this is not a particularly spiritual motivation. When we have problems, we actually admit them; we examine our lives to see what difficulties we are having. “Am I happy? Am I unhappy? Are there difficulties that I am facing that make my life unpleasant?”
The boundary indicating that we have actually entered spiritual practice is when we are interested and concerned primarily about our future lives. All texts agree on this. When we are concerned with future lives, we want to avoid having worse problems than the ones we have now. We look at the situations that could follow in the future from what we are doing now. We think about our precious human lives: “How fortunate I am! I am not starving to death. I am not in a concentration camp. I am not mentally handicapped. I am not in a barbaric situation in which everyone is attacking each other. I am very fortunate that I am free from all these things and have the opportunity to develop myself spiritually. Nevertheless, this will not last forever. Death is going to come for sure. It comes to everybody, and there is no certainty when it will happen. A truck could hit me at any time. I do not have to be old to die; I could die young.” Then, we think about what could happen after we die. We go either to a better situation or to a worse situation. Looking at these worse situations – for example, being an insect or hungry ghost – we develop a great sense of dread. Not fear, but dread.
We do not try to cultivate fear in Buddhism. Saying that we fear rebirth in the lower realms is a mistaken translation. To say that we dread a lower rebirth conveys the meaning better. Fear is a crippling state of mind in which we put a big solid line around the situation we dislike and make it into something monstrous and horrible. Then we freeze. We are not able to handle it. This is not what is meant in Buddhism. What is discussed is dread: not wanting a terrible situation to happen to us. The difference between dread and fear is like the situation of having to spend an afternoon with an obnoxious and horrible person who makes the afternoon very unpleasant. We do not fear that, but we dread it. Dread is a strong wish for something not to happen.
Dreading these worse situations in the future, we then look for a direction to take in order to get out of them. The direction out of them is taking refuge. Refuge is a safe direction that we take in our life. We go in the direction of the Dharma. The complete Dharma is the state in which all of our limitations and problems have been eliminated and all our potentials have been realized.
Dharma means preventive measures, things we do in order to avoid problems. The greatest and ultimate thing that we could do to avoid all our problems is to rid ourselves of the limitations that cause them. “If I get angry, or upset, or nervous, or worried, that is going to cause me a lot of problems. However, if I could realize all my potentials, I would be able to handle all situations, I would be able to help everyone in the best way possible.” When we see that, then we want to go in that direction.
Going in that direction is positive and beneficial. It is the direction that the Buddhas have taken and is the direction toward which the Sangha community is working. The Sangha is the community of highly realized beings who have beheld reality straightforwardly and nonconceptually. The monastic community of monks and nuns represent them for us. Putting that safe and positive direction into our lives is the solution to avoid going in a worse direction in future lives.
Specifically, we need to think of behavioral cause and effect. We need to see that if we act destructively, that results in harm and problems. We create a lot of negative energy and then experience that negative energy ourselves. We are stuck with it. Whereas if we restrain ourselves from acting in destructive ways and act in constructive manners instead, we build positive potential and, consequently, things go better in the future. In this way, we work to improve future lives.
No matter what type of future life we obtain, there are still going to be uncontrollably recurring problems – frustrations, confrontations and conflicts with people, not getting what we want, getting what we do not want, and so on. These are inevitable. They come about because of our lack of awareness of who we are, how we exist, and how other people exist. Because we are unaware of this, we become very confused; because we are confused, we feel insecure; and feeling insecure, we grasp at an identity to give us some form of security. We grasp at some aspect of ourselves, either true or imaginary, and we identify with it: “That is ME.”
We could identify ourselves with certain social roles or occupations: “I am a BUSINESSMAN; that is who I am.” Or, “I am a MOTHER.” Or, “I am a FATHER.” We base our entire identities on that, and still feeling insecure, we try either to defend those identities or to assert them. In doing that, we act in a very impulsive and compulsive way. We bully people around. “I am a FATHER and I must be respected!” Of course, our child has difficulty with that, and there is a big conflict. The child says. “I am an independent person. I know what I want to do!” The child bases his or her identity on being an independent person as a teenager. Then the father has to maintain his own identity and says, “No, you MUST obey me!” Everybody is insecure and grasps more and more at his or her social role. This produces uncontrollably recurring arguments, fights, resentments, and so on. This is what is known as samsara -- uncontrollably recurring problems.
We need to develop a determination to be free from this cycle of constantly recurring problems. This is often translated as renunciation, but this is a misleading translation. It gives the connotation in English that we are supposed to give up everything and go live in a cave. Buddha did not say that. We get this idea because we read about people like Milarepa, who left his family and village to live in a cave. We think that we have to do that too. That is not the meaning of renunciation. Obviously, we have to give up our gross attachments and our clinging to what we have, but it does not mean that we have to throw everything out the window.
Rather, the idea translated as “renunciation” actually means “the determination to be free.” Our mind is made up and determined: “All the problems that I have, all these confrontations with my family, difficulties with my work – enough already! I am fed up! I am disgusted! I have to get out!” Based on that, we try to develop the discriminating awareness that sees reality and understands how we exist, for, in fact, we do not exist locked inside these solid identities. Things are much more open than that. We do not exist in these strange, fantasized, impossible ways. We are not only parents; we are also friends and children of our own parents. We are many things in relation to others. Thus, we want to develop this determination to be free, which will propel us to follow a spiritual practice and gain wisdom.
After that, we think, “I am not the only one who exists in this universe. There is everybody else. What about them? Do I have some responsibility toward them?” We may say, “No, who cares about them? I am not really connected to them. I can just work for myself alone.” But, this is being very unrealistic. The great Indian master, Shantideva, used the example of the hand and the foot. If we have a thorn in our foot and if our hand were to say to our foot, “Tough luck, foot! That is your problem, I am okay up here,” that would be very silly. The hand has to help the foot because they are interconnected. Likewise, we cannot work for ourselves alone because we are very much interconnected with everybody else.
We can easily see this if we think about everything we use or enjoy during the course of a day. Take, for instance, what we had for breakfast this morning. We may have had a bowl of hot cereal. Where did that bowl of cereal come from? There were very many people involved in growing the wheat; there were people who harvested it and those who brought it to the mill where it was made into flour; some people made it into cereal, and others packaged it. All these people were involved in preparing the cereal for us. Then the box of cereal had to be transported here by airplane, ship, or road. Who built the roads? Who built the airplanes? Where did the materials that made the trucks or the airplanes come from? What about the fuel? Think about all the dinosaurs whose bodies decomposed in order to make the gasoline! There are so many people and animals involved in making this one box of cereal.
How did we cook the cereal? There must have been electricity in the kitchen and gas for the stove. These are due to the people working at the electric plants and those who drill for and pump the gas. There are so many people, involved in all these activities – and we are just considering one little bowl of cereal! What about everything else we eat? And the clothes we wear? How about all the objects in the house? Where did the bowl from which I ate the cereal come from? There was also a piece of plastic or cardboard containing the cereal. Where did that come from? Think of all the people in the lumber industry, the paper or plastic industry, and the printing industry who were involved in making the wrapper.
Hundreds of thousands of people are involved in making our lives possible everyday. To work for ourselves alone does not make any sense, because we are so interconnected with everybody else. If everyone else is in a terrible situation and we are okay, it is not going to work. Similarly, it is not going to work if we are the only survivors of a nuclear war, alone by ourselves down in the bomb shelter with a gas mask on when everybody else is dead. How long can we last like that? Not very long. Also, it is not going to be very much fun.
In this way, we start to think of others. We remember their kindness and want to repay it. We develop love, wishing them to be happy, and compassion, a genuine wish for them to be free from their problems. In addition, we take on the responsibility to actually do something about it. It is not enough to stand by the side of the pool while we watch our child drown, and say, “Tsk tsk! What a shame! I wish that would not happen.” Compassion is not enough. We actually have to do something. We have to jump in and help our child; we take the responsibility to save him or her. This is an exceptional resolve, the resolve: “I am going to do something to help others.”
Then we ask: Am I really capable of doing the best job to help others? Honestly speaking, no. I can hardly help myself. So how can I help others? The only way is by becoming a Buddha myself. To become a Buddha, I need to overcome all my limitations and realize all my potentials. Then I can really help everybody in the best way possible.” We generate bodhichitta: we set our hearts on becoming Buddhas in order to benefit everyone. Developing bodhichitta refers to expanding our hearts increasingly more toward others, expanding our hearts to the goal of reaching our fullest potentials and overcoming all our limitations so that we can help others in the best way possible.
This is the graduated path by which we develop ourselves. First, we want to ensure that we have good future lives. Then, we develop the determination to be free from all our problems altogether. Finally, we dedicate our hearts to becoming Buddhas in order to be able to help everyone. We take on this responsibility based on love and compassion, caring for the happiness of all others and not wanting them to be unhappy.
What happens if we try to jump to that final stage of aspiring to become Buddhas without going through the initial stages? We have problems. For example, the first important step is to think about future lives and to take them seriously. We may not have given much thought to that. Or maybe we have accepted it in a very vague way, without taking it to heart. If we have not thought about the fact that we have infinite lives, we may think, “Well, things are not going well in my relationship with a particular person. So why not give this person up and get involved with someone else?” We may have this attitude toward people that we do not know well, or friends with whom things are going sour – we just want to leave them. When we get tired of our partners or we have difficulties with them, we simply get a new husband or a new wife. In some countries, as many as 50% of all marriages end in divorce. It is really shocking! And very sad too.
What is behind this? It is the idea that we do not have connections with others, so we can throw them away like old cabbages. “Well, I am not going to help this person any more. I can just leave him or her aside. It does not matter.” However, if we have thought about future lives and infinite lives, then we realize that we cannot avoid a relationship with somebody. If the relationship is not working well, we cannot get out of it by ignoring that person and never seeing him or her again. If we do not resolve this relationship now in this life, then, in future lives, similar situations will recur. If we have problems with this person now and we just walk out, in future lives, we are going to meet somebody very similar – the continuity of this same person – and again we will have the same difficulties and problems. We cannot escape from it.
If we have difficulties with somebody, it does not mean that we always have to stay with that person. Sometimes, that might be difficult. But, at least we try to improve the situation, or to part on good terms. We try to improve the quality a little because in future lives, it is going to continue. Maybe we are not fully prepared to deal with these situations now, but, hopefully, in future lives we shall be.
When we are trying to expand our hearts out to everybody and to reach Buddhahood in order to help them, it is very helpful if we have thought of future lives. If we have not, then we can have the problem of “I am expanding my heart out to everybody, but I really do not like that person so I shall forget about that one and work with some other people.” It helps us to expand our hearts out to everybody when we realize that we cannot escape from anyone, that in future lives, we shall continue to encounter these people. Therefore, we have to deal with them. We need to be able to develop more love, more warmth, and more kindness toward everybody. That is an important point.
Another aspect is that very often we identify with our own small groups. We identify with just Americans, or Chinese, or Buddhists, or our families, or our own genders or our age groups – teenagers, adults, or seniors – and we feel, “I can only relate to people from my own group. I can only understand their problems. Therefore, I can only help them. I can only help other American people. How can I understand people in Africa?” “I can only help other Buddhists, because it is impossible to understand people from other religious backgrounds.” “I can only help other men, because how can I possibly understand women?” “I can only help women because all men are chauvinists and are pushing me around. How can I possibly relate to them?” “I can only understand and help other teenagers, because parents have no idea of what is going on. They do not understand.” “I can only help mature adults, because all kids are rotten and you cannot say anything to them.”
Thus, we limit ourselves when we think of just this life and the particular situations that we are in now in terms of our age, gender, family, country, and so on. If we think of infinite lives -- future lives and past lives -- we realize, “I have been every age. I have been young; I have been middle-aged; and I have been old. I can relate to people of all different ages because I have been them myself. I can appreciate them. I have been every race and every nationality. I have come from every type of cultural background.” This realization allows us to be able to relate to all groups and feel some connection with them.
We can extend this and remember that in past lives we have also been animals. “How did I feel when someone kicked me or smashed me?” In this way, we remember that animals too experience pain and pleasure, and we are more careful in the way we treat them.
Thinking of past and future lives is therefore very helpful in giving us a feeling of connection with everybody. We can also relate to everybody of both sexes: “I have been both a man and a woman in the past.” We can appreciate, empathize with, and understand the problems and situations of all groups. This is very helpful for expanding our hearts to help everyone, and wanting to reach Buddhahood in order to do so in the best way possible. These are some important points that follow from thinking about future lives. Without them, the way that we expand our hearts becomes very limited.
When dedicating our hearts to benefiting others, another major and important aspect is the determination to be free. When we are involved in helping others, often we are doing it for certain neurotic reasons. We are helping others because we want to feel loved. “I shall help you in order to become very popular.” “Everybody likes me because I am helping that person. I am doing it in order to be loved and appreciated.” “I am doing it because everybody else is going to think what a good person I am. Then I shall have a good reputation.” “I am doing it because if I do not, I shall lose face and people will think badly of me; I feel obligated to do it.” Or, we want to feel needed: “I shall help you so that I will feel important. I will be loved in return for the help I am giving.” Parents sometimes have this attitude: “Even if my children are thirty or forty years old, I still have to tell them what to wear and what to eat because then I feel needed. I feel that I have some function, that I am important in my children’s lives.” To help others so that we feel needed is to exploit them.
If we have the determination to be free, we look at all these uncontrollably recurring situations and all these neurotic relationships, and we see the problems that they bring about. Then we develop a determination to be free. “Enough already! I have to get out of this. This is just ridiculous! This is causing so much aggravation, so much anxiety, so much tension!”
When we have that determination to be free, we are also determined to be free from any type of neurotic interaction with the people we are helping. “I help so that everybody will think that I am a wonderful person. I worry about what this person thinks, what that person thinks. I only help others when someone else is around to witness it, so that they can tell other people. I do it in order to impress people. I give to charities, but I certainly do not do it anonymously. I do it so that everybody knows that I have given. In fact, I shall put up a plaque with my name to show that I gave this amount!” With the determination to be free, we see the disadvantage of thinking, “I am helping others so that they will be dependent on me and I will feel important.” If we have a strong determination to be free from these problems, we abandon all these ulterior motives for helping others.
Although we may not be able to stop it immediately, at least we see that helping others for neurotic reasons will create problems. The other person is eventually going to resent it. They are going to realize what we are doing and possibly confront us with it. This may undermine our efforst to benefit others. Questioning not only our neurotic motives, but all our activities to help others, we may give up even trying to help.
We need to clear away whatever neurotic motivations we have. The way we do this is through the determination to be free from all the aggravation and pretension that occur when we are acting with an impure motivation. To develop this determination to be free so that our interaction with others will not be so strongly tainted by neurotic motivations is very important. Although it is important, we tend to skip over it.
The major purpose of the Dharma is to recognize our shortcomings, correct them, and develop our good qualities. In working on improving ourselves, we progress through a graded series of methods and use our personal experiences to learn about ourselves. For example, suppose we have a habit of nagging our partners or children. “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that? Why didn’t you come home on time? Why didn’t you call? Why don’t you take out the garbage?” etc. We know that this is very destructive. It creates a lot of tension in the relationship. It is probably going to result in our partners or children being colder and more distant and saying, “Leave me alone.” Or, if they are not so vocal, they will just ignore us and be completely cold. Then we say, “Why don’t you talk to me? Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” and they become even quieter, more withdrawn, and do not come home at all. This produces so much unhappiness. What do we usually do to stop this?
First, we try to use self-control: “I know I shouldn’t say that, so I am not going to say it.” We control ourselves tightly, but that is often difficult to do and we find that we start to nag anyway. “I know intellectually that I shouldn’t nag, but I cannot help myself. I do not have the strength to be able to stop it.” Then we get angry with ourselves, “That’s terrible! I tried to hold my tongue but I couldn’t.” In that state of anger, it is very difficult for us to change or to improve ourselves because we are so upset.
The anger quickly changes into guilt. “I blew it! I feel so guilty! I am terrible! I shouldn’t have nagged. I have caused another confrontation.” Guilt is a very unfortunate and unhappy state of mind, in which we strongly identify ourselves with being a naughty child: “I am so naughty. Look at what I have done! Mummy and Daddy are not going to like me anymore.” We feel bad. The guiltier we feel, the more we identify with being a naughty child; the more we identify with being a naughty child, the guiltier we feel. It is a vicious circle. Again, it is difficult for us to change the situation when we are feeling such guilt.
Then, we go to the step beyond guilt, which is boredom. “I am so tired of all these arguments. I am so tired of all these scenes that happen when I nag and when, in response, my partner or child closes up with resentment and tells me to stop nagging. I am sick and tired of it! I am bored with it! ENOUGH! I have to get out.”
Those are the steps that we go through to develop the determination to be free. We do not change when we are angry with ourselves. We do not change when we feel guilty. We change in a state of boredom “This is stupid!” That is when we try to get out of it.
If we have not gone through all these stages of working on ourselves, then when we try to help others, we tend to project all these destructive emotions onto them. That becomes very unfair. For instance, I am trying to help somebody and the first thing that I do is bully the person into it: “I want to use self-control with myself, so you, too, HAVE to change, you HAVE to stop doing that.”
Very often, we act like that with our children. It is easy to bully them and to try to impose our will and control on them. Nobody likes to be treated like a child, especially if they are not our child.
Nobody likes to be bullied into changing or improving himself or herself. When we push others, “You have to change. You have to go to school. You have to get a job. You have to do this. You have to do that,” we are coming on too strongly. We are getting into a power trip. What happens is that he or she does not follow our advice or accept the help we want to give. So, just as we would have gotten angry with ourselves, now we get angry with the other person, “You terrible person! I told you to do this and you did not do it. Look at all the trouble that you have caused for yourself!” That is not the ideal interaction to have with somebody whom we are trying to help. To get angry when he or she does not take our advice just causes a lot of resentment.
Then, we go on to the next step. Just as we felt guilty ourselves, now we try to make the other person feel guilty. “You don’t appreciate what I am trying to do for you. Look at all the hardship that I have gone through! The least you could do is to appreciate it, the least you could do is to try.” We become the “parent” and try to make him or her feel guilty.
After that, we go to the next stage. “I am so tired myself, so tired of having all these problems and difficulties. I have to get out of them.” In the same way, we look at the other person and think, “We have to get out of this. This is really too much!” In that way, we work to help him or her. Just as we felt this determination to be free from problems ourselves, likewise we have this determination to help the other person to be free from his or her problems as well. This is very important. If we have not worked through the stages on our own, through our own experiences, then when we try to help others, we tend to project all our problems on the other person; we try to change him or her by bullying, getting angry, or making the person feel guilty. These are big obstacles to helping others.
Another aspect to be aware of when helping others is the situation that occurs when somebody comes to us with a problem, tells us their story, and, after a while, we get tired of it. It is like a bad television program, and we want to change the station and put on a different show because this is a very unpleasant, uninteresting program. This occurs because we are not taking the other person seriously. He or she is talking about a problem and we are thinking, “This television program is lasting too long! I am hungry. Let me press the button and switch off the TV.” We are not taking that person seriously, even though those problems are real for him or her and they do hurt. Often we do not take others seriously because in the earlier stages of the path we have not taken ourselves seriously.
Taking ourselves seriously, by looking at our problems and trying to deal with them, is very important. If we cannot take ourselves and our problems seriously, how can we take anybody else and their difficulties seriously? If we do not care about ourselves being happy, how can we develop the mind that wants all others to be happy?
Caring about ourselves does not mean being selfish, it does not mean, “I have to get a million dollars and buy this and that.” Rather, we respect ourselves as a living being.
Many people have negative ideas and attitudes about themselves, feeling, “I am no good; I do not deserve to be happy; I do not deserve to be loved.” If that is how we feel about ourselves, then the thought easily follows, “If I do not deserve to be happy, why should you deserve to be happy?” However, if we look at ourselves and think, “I have Buddha-nature. I have all the factors within me that allow me to be able to develop and grow to become a Buddha, to be able to help everyone: I have a mind, I have energy, I have the ability to communicate, I have some level of good heart. All of these things can be developed. So, of course I deserve to be happy. I deserve to have a better life.”
In this way, we take ourselves seriously and have respect for ourselves. We acknowledge, “I do deserve to be happy and to get out of my problems.” With this as a basis, we can transfer this respect to others. We see that they also have the ability to improve, they have Buddha-nature; they have all the potentials. On that basis, they too deserve to be happy and to be free from all of their problems. We take them seriously.
These are some of the major points that are important when we are developing a bodhichitta motivation to help others and to reach enlightenment in order to benefit them in the best way possible. That is not saying that we do not help others in the beginning, that we should just work on ourselves and only when we have reached an advanced level, do we help others. From the Mahayana point of view, we help others from the beginning. However, we do not do it thinking, “I can skip over all the earlier stages and just involve myself with helping others.” We help to the best of our abilities along the path. That is essential to the Buddhist path.
Nevertheless, while helping others as much as we can now, we need to be sure to put a fair amount of time in developing the earlier fundamental or foundation-building motivations and experiences. This is because if we do not, we are likely to have problems when helping others. We may think that when we are having trouble with others, we can ignore them. We cannot. We have infinite lives and we are always going to meet them again. Or, we may feel that we can only help people of our own ages and from our own cultural backgrounds. That is not so. We have been everything. We have been all ages, all cultures, and both genders. So, we can relate to everybody.
Also, we do not want to help others only to be loved, to feel important, or to feel needed. We have a determination to be free from such neurotic interactions because we see that they bring about uncontrollably recurring problems. We are not going to get into power trips with others when we are helping them or try to bully them into taking our advice. We are not going to get angry with them or make them feel guilty when they do not take our advice. This is because we have gone through the whole process of working on ourselves: we tried self-control, we became angry with ourselves, we felt guilty, but then we became so fed up, that we were determined to be free. We set our decision firmly to get out of it. Having gone through that, we are not going to project it onto others.
Throughout the whole process, we have also taken ourselves seriously. We acknowledge our Buddha-nature and know that we have the ability and all the factors that allow us to grow and become enlightened and to help everyone. Having taken ourselves seriously, we have respect for ourselves. In Buddhism, respecting someone does not mean fearing him or her; respect means, “I take myself seriously and look positively upon myself. I deserve to be happy.” We can then sincerely have the same attitude toward others: “I respect you as well. I respect that you have Buddha-nature. Even if you are acting like an idiot now; nevertheless, I see that you do have the potential to become a compassionate and wise person. Just as I take my own problems seriously, I take your problems seriously. Just as I saw how my own problems hurt, likewise I can appreciate that your problems hurt you as well.” Such an attitude allows us to benefit and help others in a much more sincere manner.
Another source of trouble is that sometimes we try to help somebody and it does not work. Then we become discouraged. A drastic example is trying to help someone in our family and the person commits suicide. That is a horrible situation and it is easy to blame ourselves: “If I had only done this or that, then this person would not have killed himself or herself.” We can become very discouraged in the process of trying to act like a bodhisattva. When it seems like we have failed, we feel so guilty and horrible that it could become a big obstacle in our paths.
The problem here is that we think in terms of inappropriate models. We think that we are God, or that we should have been God, and we should have been able to stop something from happening to someone else. In Buddhism, we say, “That is not possible. No one is omnipotent. There is only a certain amount of energy in the universe.” Scientists agree to this as well. One aspect of the energy in the universe is the force of Buddha-activity, which is the enlightening influence that a Buddha can exert on anybody. The other is the energy of the impulses that come into people’s minds, in other words karma. Karma refers to the impulses that come to our minds based on previous habits of doing things. Because there is only a certain amount of energy in the universe, one cannot override the other. All that a Buddha or a bodhisattva can do is to try to influence someone in a positive way. He or she cannot stop anyone from doing something. If the impulse to commit suicide is so strong in someone’s mind, the person is going to do it anyway.
A very interesting example happened one day when I was in Dharamsala in India. In front of the library where I worked was a mouse drowning in a drain. One of my friends rescued the mouse and put it on the ground to recover. As soon as he walked away, a large hawk swooped down and took the mouse.
We need not think, from that example, that we cannot help anybody because it is his or her karma what will happen. Do not think that karma is fate. “It is the fate of the mouse that it is going to die. There is no reason for me to help because it is the mouse's karma to die.” We try our best. If the person we are trying to help has some seed or potential from his or her side to be helped, then our helping will connect with that and we shall be able to benefit the person. If there were no seed, it would be like the example of this mouse: we rescue it, but it dies anyway.
It is the same thing when we try to help others. Aspiring to be bodhisattvas, we try our best to help them. If it works, fine. We do not congratulate ourselves or go around telling others how compassionate and wonderful we are. If it does not work, we need not feel guilty. We need not emotionally whip ourselves or punish ourselves. We tried our best and if that person had been receptive, it would have worked. They were not, so there is nothing that we could have done. Nobody is an omnipotent God. Certainly, we are not. Nobody can stop somebody from doing something if the impulses in that person’s mind are so strong.
It is important to be realistic when we are trying to help others and to realize that we cannot eliminate everybody’s problems. We develop the wish to be able to do that. We sincerely care and genuinely take the responsibility to help them. If it works, it works; if it does not work, we have tried our best. We do not get discouraged.
His Supreme Presence, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has said that when we recite, “May I reach enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings,” there is a bit of danger in the order of the aspirations here. Often, for us, the main emphasis seems to be “may I reach enlightenment.” Why? Because it is the highest, it is the greatest; it is the most blissful. After all, we have to have the highest rank, the highest title. But, “may I reach enlightenment” is followed by “to benefit all sentient beings,” which seems like some nasty tax that we have to pay afterwards. It is not really what we want to do, but if we want to become a Buddha, that is what we are obligated to do. We have to benefit all sentient beings. His Holiness has said that the emphasis needs to be the other way around: “I want to help all sentient beings as much as is possible, and in order to do that, I have to become a Buddha.” The major emphasis needs to be “I want to help everybody.”
Sometimes, when we think of benefiting others, we may face the obstacle of not being sincere in our practice. We say, “I am going to help all sentient beings, and I love all sentient beings,” but when our parents or our children ask us to do something, we snap at them, “Stop bothering me! I am trying to help all sentient beings!” As it says in the lojong teachings of cleansing our attitudes (training the mind), we need to start helping ourselves first; then, expand our help to our families; next, to people around us; and so on. In other words, we need to help those who are close to us. We do not ignore them. Often, people involved in social work have resentful children because they are so involved in helping others that they never have any time for their own families. That is very unfair. If we follow Buddha’s advice, then we would start with our families first and take care of them.
Developing equanimity does not mean, “Now I am going to ignore my own children and just work for everybody else,” it means, “Just as I have an intense loving attitude toward my own children, I am going to expand it to include more and more people. Instead of having two children, now I have five, ten, a hundred, a thousand!” We are expanding the range of our loving concern. We do not take care and love away from one area and transfer it to another. It is important to take care of those who are close to us and then extend it to others: our friends, strangers, and people we do not like, animals, spirits, and beings in all the different realms.
To develop bodhichitta means to expand our heart. Expanding our heart does not mean we can go from being selfish to cherishing all sentient beings in one jump. We have to work up to it gradually. In that way, we will be more sincere. We cannot be sincere when we say, “I am working to benefit all sentient beings,” but we do not take care of our parents or our children. Bodhichitta is not at all contradictory to our usual cultural values of the importance of the family, parents and children. It builds on that basis and extends it further and further.
These are some important points to be aware of when we are engaged in the Mahayana path of expanding our hearts toward others, setting our hearts on the goal of eliminating all our limitations and realizing all our potentials so that we can help everybody in the best way possible. If we keep these in mind, we shall have less difficulty on that path.
Question : Is it possible, from having gained experience in past lives, to bypass some of these steps and take a short cut in this life?
Answer: Yes, that is possible. There are two types of practitioners: those for whom everything happens all at once and those who follow a gradual path. Thus, there is the sudden path and the gradual path. One of the great Tibetan masters who wrote a commentary on this particular point, however, said that it is a very rare person for whom everything happens all at once. It is very rare to have built up all the positive habits and instincts in past lives so that in this life we are able to jump steps. Often, it is because we are lazy and do not want to go through all the stages that we make the excuse, “I am someone who has built up so much potential in my past lives. I am one of the select few for whom everything happens all at once, so I can skip some stages and jump ahead.” We need to be completely honest with ourselves. It is extremely rare that anyone has build up that much positive potential in past lives. There is no harm in going through all the steps, although we do not have to spend years and years in each one. One of the texts on the gradual path to enlightenment states that even if the instincts are there, it is good to reconfirm them by going through the steps quickly, not just skipping ahead.
Question: Can we be kind and compassionate without being taken advantage of?
Answer: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined an excellent expression that is relevant to this question: “idiot compassion.” Idiot compassion is compassion without wisdom. For instance, the baby always asks for candy. With idiot compassion, we would constantly give the baby candy just because it asks for it. Or, a maniac comes and says, “Get me a gun. I want to shoot someone.” If we say, “I am practicing generosity, so I will get a gun for him,” that is idiot compassion.
Likewise, when people take advantage of us, if we continue to give, it is not helping them. In fact, it is detrimental to their growth. Sometimes, it is important to be very firm and strict. We need to give what others need, and what they may need is discipline. They may need someone saying “No” to them; they may need someone setting limits for them. For example, an unruly child needs discipline. There is a generation in the West that was raised with the philosophy of no discipline: “Just let the children do whatever they want, let them be free.” This policy was disastrous. Many of the children felt unloved and insecure because other parents would set rules, but theirs did not. They felt that their parents did not love them and that they did not care enough to set rules. So, it’s very important sometimes to say “No,” to set limitations and not let everybody take advantage of us.
Idiot compassion is not beneficial. We need compassion with wisdom. This is fundamental in the Buddhist teachings, and is expressed in the mantra om mani padme hum. Mani is “jewel,” which represents compassion, and padme signifies “in the lotus,” which refers to wisdom. The two are together.
Sometimes, then, it is necessary to say “No.” However, this may hurt the other person because he or she does not understand. Is that good? It says in the teachings on karma, that if it is a little harmful in the short run, but very beneficial in the long run, that action should be done. Obviously, if it is beneficial both in the short and long run, that is the best. But, if I give the kids candy, for instance, so that they will stop screaming and I can go to sleep, that is beneficial in the short run but not in the long run. It harms the children because they will get sick from constantly eating candy. Also, they will get spoiled and become brats. In this case, it is better to cause a little bit of harm and unpleasantness in the short run; because in the long run, it is beneficial. It requires wisdom to see what will be beneficial and what will not be, but some of these things are common sense.
Question: If our lives end prematurely, will we again be the husbands or wives of the same persons in our next lives?
Answer: Not necessarily, although it is possible. It could happen if the connection is very strong. There are examples: a child was born to a family and died as a baby, but the individual had such a strong connection with the family that this person was born as another baby in that family. That does happen but, in general, there are many different karmic possibilities. At the time of death, different karmic imprints can be activated to propel us into different rebirths.
Also, we do not have a relationship with just one person like a wife or husband. We have had relations with many different people in many different lifetimes. These relationships change continuously. In one lifetime, certain interactions with another person occur and our relationship changes. Therefore, the continuity of that relationship may not necessarily be in the same form of husband and wife. Maybe you become two cows chewing grass together or two ants in an anthill working together. It depends on how the relationship developed before. Also, we may not meet that person in the next life or the life after that. It could be thousands of lives in the future.
It is important to combine the understanding of rebirth with the basic teachings on the lack of a truly existent, solid self or person. It is not that I am going to meet my husband, whatever his name is, or my wife, whatever her name is, in a future life. Each person is a continuity – a continuity of energy, a continuity of consciousness, a continuity of tendencies and habits. In some future lives, the continuities of the two people will meet, but it will not be you and me exactly as we are now.
We all have experienced walking into a crowded room and having one or two people attract our eye. We have a close and warm feeling about them, and we want to talk to them. On the other hand, somebody else gives us the feeling of “Ugh! I do not want to become involved with that person.” Why does this happen? This is an indication of a previous connection with that person. We have connections with millions and millions of beings. Some connections are more recent or stronger, so our experiences with these people affect us more. Other connections may be weak: we may be born in the same city but never meet.
Question: How is merit or positive potential carried to future lives?
Answer: “Merit” is a misleading translation. We do not gain points like being in the Scouts and, when we earn enough points, we get a badge. Nobody is keeping score. “Merit” is better translated as “positive force” or “positive potential.” We build up positive potentials just as we put more and more energy into a car battery. When there is enough potential, the car will go. Likewise, we are building up a lot of positive potential for something positive to happen. We also build up habits of acting in a positive way.
There are various levels of mind and various levels of body. The gross mind or consciousness is our sense consciousnesses: seeing, hearing, tasting and so on. There is also subtle consciousness, which is a mental consciousness, and refers mostly to conceptual thinking. Then there is the subtlest level of mind, which is free from concepts.
Our gross and subtle consciousnesses function while we are awake. We see, hear, think and so on. Our dream consciousnesses are subtler. When we are asleep with no dreams, that is still more subtle. As we go through the death process, our consciousnesses become more and more subtle as our mental continuums separate from our gross bodies. The subtlest level is the bare continuity, the bare clarity and awareness of the mind that provides the continuity from one moment to another. The grosser levels are like a radio being tuned on various stations or at different volumes, and that subtlest level is just the radio being on.
Correspondingly, we have the gross body, which is the basis for the gross mind. We have eyes, ears, body, and so on, which are the bases for seeing, hearing and other sense perceptions. The subtle body is the energy (qi in Chinese) of the channels and chakras. The subtle body is the basis for the subtle mental consciousness. When the energy is disturbed in our bodies, we have strange thoughts and feelings. The subtlest energy is the support for the subtlest consciousness. It is like the electricity for that consciousness. The subtle energy and subtle mind together constitute something like the spark of life.
What goes on into future lives is not the gross body, which is cremated or buried, nor the gross consciousness. Neither is it our conceptual mental consciousness, the energy, channels and so on. What goes on into future lives is the continuity of the subtlest consciousness and the energy that supports it. There is not a solid self, like a little statue sitting on a conveyor belt, going from one life to the next. It is more analogous to a movie. A movie appears to be solid, but it is actually made up of individual frames forming a continuity, without one thing existing throughout. Likewise, this continuity of the subtlest consciousness and subtlest energy, which are both constantly changing, goes from one life to the next. This is the spark of life that continues.
Merit or positive potential is a type of energy that is built up. That positive energy is carried along with the subtlest energy, the spark of life. The potentials are a form of subtle energy that continue on into future lives.
What is a habit or instinct? Suppose we have the habit of having cereal every morning. We had cereal yesterday, the day before, and today too. What is the habit? It is not something physical. It is not a bowl of cereal that pops up in our minds. It is not something mental: “Eat cereal, eat cereal” going on in our minds. All we can say is that there is a sequence of similar events of our eating cereal on so many days. Based on that, as a manner of speaking, we say that there is a habit of eating cereal. On that basis, we can predict that we are probably going to eat cereal tomorrow morning. It is just a manner of speaking or describing. A habit is imputed onto a series of similar events. That is what we call mental labeling.
A habit is nothing concrete or even mental. Neither are instincts. Suppose we have the habit of being kind. We were kind yesterday, we were kind the day before, and we are kind today. Based on that, as a manner of speaking, there is the instinct of being kind. Later we have a future life. In the future life, the child that we become is kind. She shares things and wants to give her cookies to others. She does not want just to take from others. There is kindness there. Thus, we can say that there is a habit of kindness that has continued into future lives. Nevertheless, the habit is not something concrete. The way it continued was just on the basis of individual moments. There was the time yesterday, the time before that and the time before that.
The subtlest consciousness and energy have underlain each of those moments, because they are there all the time. The radio is always on. Based on this, we can say that the instincts are carried along. The instincts need not be something solid and concrete in order to continue on to the future. They are not physical seeds.
That is the mechanism of how things are carried into future lives. The positive potentials (“merits”) are a type of very subtle energy that goes with the energy that supports life. The instincts and habits are just a manner of speaking, based on a sequence of similar events both in this life and future lives. On the basis of there being the subtlest mind and energy that go from one life to the next, we say that there is a sequence of similar events -- a habit or an instinct.
Question: Some people here carry little Buddha statues for protection. How does this work?
Answer: Two factors are involved here. One is from the side of the object. Such statues are consecrated by very high lamas. Many masters may gather together and recite om mani padme hum ten million times and blow on the objects. One lama could also do this, or he could sit in deep and concentrated meditation. To use a scientific analogy, the recitation of mantra and concentration changes the magnetic field – the energy field – of the objects so that they have a certain spiritual magnetic quality to them.
The second factor is the faith and confidence of the people using the objects, as well as their previously created actions or karma. If people have faith and confidence that something will protect them, then their own confidence can protect them. It may not protect them from an atom bomb, but it could protect them in events where they would not have confidence to deal with a situation in a beneficial way.
If a blessed cord or image were put around the neck of a pig, I do not know if it would protect it from being slaughtered. However, if a person has the potential that will allow for this blessing to work, then it works. Both factors are needed. It is like two pieces of a puzzle fitting together.
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