The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Explanation of the Seven-Part Cause and Effect Quintessence Teaching for Developing Bodhichitta

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, USA, November 2007

Session Two: Equanimity

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:30 hours)

Review

Today is our second session on the seven-part cause and effect meditation for generating bodhichitta. Yesterday, as an introduction, we were looking at some of the factors that are involved in generating this bodhichitta aim. We were focusing primarily on the conventional bodhichitta or relative bodhichitta, which is aimed at our own individual enlightenments, which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors.

We looked at some of the features that would make this so profound and so important and therefore something that is praised so much by the great masters as something which is the most rare gem. There’s no need to repeat all of what I said yesterday, but it is very important to have proper respect for what bodhichitta is and not trivialize it, and to understand that in order to really develop it deeply and sincerely, we need a tremendous amount of work before that. That’s why it comes in the advanced level of motivation and not as something that we begin with.

Even though one might get the impression from the organization of many of the lam-rims, where they have the preliminary or preparatory practices – at the very beginning you have refuge and bodhichitta, which assumes that you have that already, obviously – the context of these lam-rim teachings in the great texts is for people who already have gone through all this material and are just reviewing it in preparation for receiving some tantric initiations, which is actually the context of Lam-rim chen-mo and Pabongka’s presentation and so on.

In terms of the organization of lam-rim, the way that it has the relationship with the spiritual teacher, relying on the spiritual teacher, as the root of the path – I always emphasize when I teach the relationship with the spiritual teacher that a root is not the seed of a path; the root is when the plant is already grown and it is that through which you receive sustenance. So the spiritual teacher is the one that gives us inspiration, but it’s not where you actually start.

It was interesting, I was looking at an old Kadampa presentation of the graded stages that was a forerunner of Tsongkhapa, what Tsongkhapa actually based his Lam-rim chen-mo on, by a Kadampa master called Sangwayjin, and in that he makes it a little bit more clear, which I was very happy to see. He says that the foundation, where the path begins, is confident belief in the Three Jewels and the value of practice, and these sort of things. That’s where you start, having some confidence – first of all the wish to improve, and some knowledge of the Dharma, and confidence that this is going to be a helpful and valid path. That’s where you start, so that’s the basis of the path, and then the root, through which you gain sustenance, is the spiritual teacher.

In any case, we have the bodhichitta teachings coming at a very advanced level, actually, in the lam-rim. So if we wish to practice the various methods – and there are two methods which are indicated for developing this bodhichitta aim: this seven-part cause and effect process, and the equalizing and exchanging of our attitudes concerning self and others – then we need to appreciate the fact that we have to gain stability in the initial level teachings and intermediate level teachings and trainings.

Equanimity

The seven-part cause and effect meditation is arranged in an interesting way. When we look at the stories of a building, the way they are numbered in America, the United States, you start with floor number one. Well, that’s not the way that it’s done here. It’s done in the European style, you have a ground floor, and then above that starts floor number one, two, three, etc. The teachings of the seven-part cause and effect are arranged in that way, so you have the ground floor first, before you get step number one, and the ground floor is equanimity.

The equanimity discussed here is the equanimity which is developed in common with so-called Hinayana practitioners, which means that it would be in common with the initial and intermediate levels of motivation. That point needs to be taken seriously, because what is the aim of this equanimity practice? It is to overcome having attraction to some people, repulsion or aversion from other people, and indifference to yet others. This is, first of all, not exclusively toward people, but we’re talking about all sentient beings.

“Sentient,” by the way, I don’t how good a term that is, I prefer “limited beings,” which, unfortunately, comes out as “handicapped beings” when you translate that into other languages. It’s not an easy term; but it’s referring to two terms here, one is “semchen” (sems-can), and the other is “luchen” (lus-can). “Semchen” is one who has a “sem” (sems), which is a limited mind; a Buddha doesn’t have a “sem.” It is a limited mind, so it’s beings with limited minds. Often people think of Buddha as still a sentient being, but a Buddha isn’t included in that group. Beings with limited minds, those are the ones we want to help reach enlightenment or gain liberation. And then “luchen” is those with limited bodies. A Buddha doesn’t have that kind of “lu” (lus); it’s a different word for a body of a Buddha.

We want to overcome, basically favoritism – attraction, repulsion, and indifference – to all limited beings in all the different life forms, which then of course gets into the whole problem of do we really accept these other realms of existence? That’s not an easy one. Perhaps I should mention something about that, but to conclude or finish the line of thinking that I was wanting to present, if we want to gain this equanimity, the main context of it is to overcome disturbing emotions toward others.

That’s the main context, because there’s another type of equanimity, which is involved with equalizing our attitude toward others – a more Mahayana thing, which is not to have any favoritism when we actually are directing our love and compassion toward others. But here, the focus is to overcome the disturbing emotions toward others, which means that we really need to emphasize the intermediate level of motivation, the wish to get rid of samsara ourselves. So we want to get rid of these disturbing emotions – but I’ll come back to that.

Acceptance of Other Realms of Existence

Let me just say a few words about these different realms, because I think a lot of people have difficulty with that. The way that I think of it, and I haven’t heard this from others, from my teachers, but in analyzing it myself, then I think in terms of happiness and unhappiness. That’s what we’re talking about when we speak about the ripening of karma. Karma ripens in, among other things, happiness and unhappiness; that’s the most general thing. When we talk about happiness, we’re talking about our samsaric happiness that doesn’t last etc, and that could be physical, it could be mental, and can accompany all sorts of different sensations.

When we look at the range of, let’s say sense perception, then we find that human beings, because of our limited hardware, our bodily apparatus, that we are able to experience only, for instance, some limited range in the visual spectrum. We can’t see ultraviolet; we can’t see infrared, etc. We can’t see in the dark; some animals can see far better than we can in the dark. And with sound, dogs can hear higher frequency sounds than we can, and they certainly can detect smells far better than we can with our apparatus, and so on. Based on that line of thinking, then just because the human apparatus can’t experience certain portions of the spectrum of these types of sense information doesn’t mean that they can’t be known by mental activity.

Especially if we think of pleasure and pain, which is not the same as happiness and unhappiness, because those are physical sensations, and the happy and unhappy can go with that, but if we think in terms of that – because usually, when we talk about these different realms, we talk about the pleasure and pain, although actually it’s talking about the happiness and unhappiness, but nevertheless – if we look at pleasure and pain, then the human apparatus, the physical body, can only experience a certain amount within that range. When the pain becomes too strong, you pass out. You get unconscious; the body turns down; you go into shock perhaps before that, and then you turn off.

The same thing with pleasure, if pleasure is too intense then there is an automatic, almost involuntary mechanism to destroy that happiness, to end that happiness. This can be illustrated by sexual pleasure: you rush to have the orgasm, which will bring it a little bit down – in the case of men, bring it all the way down. And in the case of, I love this example, an itch – did you ever think of an itch? – an itch is intense pleasure, that’s what it is. It’s not painful, it’s pleasurable. However, it’s too pleasurable and therefore you are compelled to scratch it, to end it.

That, by the way, is the key to dealing with chronic rashes, chronic itches. I had one a few years ago, which lasted for four or five years, and it itched intensely on my neck and my scalp. It still sometimes itches and the only way to deal with that – because all the skin tests and doctors, nobody could figure out what it was, or any sort of treatment – so the only way to deal with that was to relax and enjoy the pleasure of the itch. It’s the only way, which is not very easy to do. But when one looks at the essential nature of what is an itch, that is what it is: it’s pleasure.

Given that our apparatus is limited – it’s a limited body, that’s what it’s called, the limited body – the limited body can only experience a certain range of that spectrum of pain and pleasure and therefore, associated with it, happiness and unhappiness. If we get too unhappy, we kill ourselves. In many ways, if you get too happy you also kill yourself, because it’s completely boring. But there’s no logical reason why there couldn’t be a physical basis that could experience more of that range. Anybody’s mental activity would have the possibility – we speak of mental activity in general – to experience the whole range, the whole spectrum of all the different senses, and therefore pain and pleasure and the associated happiness and unhappiness with that.

It’s thinking in this way that, at least for myself, it gets me a little bit more comfortable with these other life forms, because we’re speaking about our own individual mental continuum and what it is capable of experiencing, and one would need an appropriate hardware, an appropriate body with appropriate sensors, to be able to experience more on this side or more on that side of the spectrum of a particular sense. So like that, I think, it can be helpful to feel a little bit comfortable with these different life forms.

I think it is totally unfair to the tradition to reduce these different life forms to psychological states within the human realm; that’s completely unfair to the tradition. From the teachings on karma you can say that there are some leftovers from previous lives in each of the different realms and so we see little traces of that, but that is not equivalent to the whole teachings on these other realms. I think this is particularly relevant in our discussion of equanimity, our discussion of compassion, our discussion of wanting to help everybody to achieve enlightenment and so on.

We don’t want this to be an exclusive type of view. We’re thinking of mental continuums, basically, individual mental continuums that are finite in number, but an awful lot of these, with no beginning and no end, a countless number of them, but finite. It’s not that new ones are being created, then you have to get into the whole problem of who creates it, where is it coming from, etc.; that is not accepted in Buddhism.

Developing Renunciation

So, we think of all individual beings, limited mind, limited mental activity, and limited bodies that are going to support that, and we want to develop equanimity. There is a standard method – I don’t want to just jump to the standard method, then we’ll finish in five minutes – for this method to work, which means not to have attachment, aversion, or indifference toward any individual being. Then, as I said, this needs to be understood in the context of the intermediate level of training. The intermediate level of training is emphasizing renunciation. So what’s renunciation?

Renunciation, the word for it when translated literally is a “determination,” that’s literally the word (nges-'byung), “to become certain (nges),” so “determined.” So, what are we determined about? We’re determined about getting rid of samsara, being rid of samsara, that’s what we’re determined about. We’re determined to gain liberation and we’re determined to get out of samsara. So there’s two directions here, isn’t there? There’s one, which is to attain something, which would be liberation, and the other is to eliminate something else, which is samsara.

That means, to put it in nasty words, giving up certain things. We’re not talking about giving up objects, these sort of things, but rather we’re talking about giving up our experience, the way in which we experience things – after all that’s what Buddhism is all about, isn’t it? That we experience things in such a way that it creates suffering, and there’s a cause for that, and so we want to be able to experience things without suffering, which means without the causes of suffering. So we want to experience it with understanding, which then leads to compassion etc.

Now that doesn’t mean that things exist objectively out there, totally independently, but then again, as we – maybe I mentioned it here, I don’t remember if it was here or another lecture that I gave very recently – we’re talking about how you establish something exists, not the way it actually exists just in general, but let’s not go there for the moment. How do I experience things? That’s what I want to give up: I experience things with attachment, and aversion, and naivety. These are the three poisonous attitudes or emotions.

Desire is for something that we don’t have and we want to get it, and attachment is to not let go of what you do have. So there’s these two faces of that disturbing emotion; it’s defined differently in different Indian texts from that point of view. What is relevant here is that we understand that when we experience things with one of these poisonous emotions, or attitudes, that generates suffering, problems.

And renunciation is… when we talk about any motivation, there is an aim and then there is sort of an emotional component to it. The aim is for liberation, and the emotional component to it is disgust. We’re totally fed up with this suffering situation, which just recurs over and over again. And we’re not talking about being annoyed with it or angry with that, “I’m so stupid for being like that.” That is not a state of mind conducive for getting out, because it’s still disturbing, we’re annoyed with ourselves for being so foolish. But rather, you have to get to a state – and “disgust” I think is a good word, but I think there’s also a connotation here – which is “we’re bored with it.”

We’re so bored and disgusted with this – “This is pathetic!” – that finally you decide to do something about it. And I think – at least from my own experience of overcoming certain things that I was very involved with in my youth – that that’s the way that you actually stop drinking, or stop smoking, or whatever it might be. “This is ridiculous already, this is pathetic.” It’s not that “I want to be the super policeman, and I’m angry with myself.” That doesn’t work, but “This is just no longer interesting.” When it’s no longer interesting, and boring, and you’re fed up with it, and “I’ve had enough,” then you want to stop, and you have a better chance of being able to stop.

So that renunciation has to be a state of mind that’s not disturbing. That’s not so easy. Often we associate renunciation with guilt and depriving myself and, “I have to police myself,” and so on. That’s not renunciation, that’s a neurotic effort to stop something. That has to be given up. You have to get tired of that, of being the police. We need to develop this being fed up with this attraction to some people and aversion to others and indifference to others, and all the problems that come from that. We need to recognize the problems that come from that, the suffering that comes from that. Otherwise why would we want to give that up and get out of that, and develop equanimity toward everybody?

That is a big discussion, and we don’t have to go into that, of all the problems that come up when we are so attached to somebody, or we’re so upset about somebody else, or we totally ignore somebody, and then they resent it, and all these sort of things that happen. I am sure we all have experienced the problems that arise from each of these three attitudes toward others.

The Three Higher Trainings

Training in the intermediate level of practice indicates how to do that, and before we go on to the advanced level with bodhichitta, we need to have a little bit of training in the intermediate level. It’s the three higher trainings: ethical discipline, concentration, and what I call discriminating awareness.

I don’t like the term “wisdom,” because it’s used by many translators to translate many different terms in Buddhism, and all these different terms don’t mean the same thing. So “wisdom” as a translation just sort of mixes everything together and makes it trivial. It’s “discriminating awareness,” in this case, that is the awareness or understanding to be able to discriminate between what is correct and what’s incorrect, between what is reality, what is fantasy, what’s helpful, what’s harmful. There are many different areas that it can be focused on.

Discriminating awareness – if you look at the definition of it – is the mental factor that adds certainty to distinguishing. “Distinguishing” is the way that I prefer to translate the mental factor called “recognition.” It’s not recognition at all! Come on, recognition implies that you knew it before, and you remember it, and then you apply the name again or the concept again. That’s not this mental factor; it’s distinguishing. You distinguish a certain characteristic feature of something and distinguish it from the background, basically.

If I look at a colored shape – which is all that I see actually, I look at a colored shape – of this person’s face, I have to be able to distinguish it from the colored shapes of the wall and from the people around, in order to be able to deal in any way whatsoever with this information that is coming in. That’s what distinguishing is talking about. You distinguish one object from the background, and then discriminating awareness adds certainty to that, “So it’s this and not that.”

We discriminate between what’s helpful, what’s harmful, what’s correct, what’s incorrect etc. It’s always important to go back to the definitions, otherwise we really don’t understand what any of these terms are referring to, and then we get all sorts of misleading ideas based on simply, in our case, the English words that are used to translate these terms. Tibetans have the same problem. If they don’t know the definition they also can be confused about what a term means.

These three higher trainings – ethical discipline, concentration, discriminating awareness – the general explanation of that is that in order to cut the root of the problem you need discriminating awareness. That’s like a sharp axe. In order to be able to actually cut it, you need to be able to always hit the mark. That’s concentration. And in order to have the strength to pick up the axe, you have ethical discipline. We need all three. And that’s the analogy which is used and it’s a good analogy.

We need the discipline not to be drawn into attraction, repulsion, and indifference. For instance, when we are in a group of people and our best friend or a loved one comes into the room, then we have to have the discipline not just to run over to that person and ignore everybody who is there. I had a very good example of that. Once I was translating for the old Serkong Rinpoche and it was in the West somewhere and one of my cousins, whom I hadn’t seen in many, many years came in late. It was in the city where she lived, and I hadn’t seen her in many years, and here I am translating. And I can’t get up and go over and greet her or anything like that, even though she was a little bit upset that I didn’t just run over or acknowledge her, and she’s making all the facial type of things that I should somehow pay attention to her.

In these sort of situations you need discipline, obviously, to not get up. That’s discipline. And then concentration to stay focused on translating and not have your mind wander over to a cousin, a close relative whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years. That is very much needed for this equanimity, to at least have that self-control not to ignore somebody; we have that all the time, don’t you? I have this. People come up and they ask questions, and I need to go to the toilet, or I need to go on to the next appointment, or there are other people, or whatever. What is coming up is the tendency to want to ignore this person, to cut them short. You might get a little bit annoyed with them, especially if they’re talking on and on and on, and not getting to the point of what they’re asking. So we need, of course, patience. But here relevant to our discussion is discipline not to ignore this person, and not to look at your watch and tell them, “Please. Leave,” or stronger words than that, at least this is what we say in our head – discipline.

Concentration – pay equal attention to everybody, whether you’re really interested in what they say or not, because after all they’re asking a question. To them it’s important; otherwise why would they be asking it? Maybe they’re asking it just to show off; that’s something else. But in any case, to take everybody seriously, this I think is where equanimity is going toward. Before we think in terms of love and compassion for everybody, take them seriously.

This is what I emphasize so much in my sensitivity training that I developed, Developing Balanced Sensitivity, which is, “You are a human being” – I’m talking here about human beings, but the dog could be included as well – “and you have feelings just as I have feelings. Just as the way that you treat me and speak to me affects my feelings, likewise the way I treat you and speak to you is going to affect your feelings.” Therefore, “Just as I would want you to respect me as a human being, and respect my feelings, and take them seriously, I respect you, and I respect your feelings, and I care about you and not to hurt you,” and so on, and we develop what I call the caring attitude.

That’s the basis here, taking everybody equally seriously. Then you can develop love and compassion and these other things. In order to do that there needs to be equanimity toward everyone.

[See: Developing Balanced Sensitivity, chapter 2.]

Overcoming Attraction, Repulsion, and Indifference

What do we want to overcome then? With this equanimity we want to overcome attraction, repulsion, and indifference that’s based on having longing desire and attachment, or anger, hostility, or naivety – it’s because of naivety that we ignore others.

You have to look at the definition, again. What is attachment or desire? Desire, remember, is for what we don’t have, and attachment is not to let go of what we do have. This cluster of an emotion – or greed, you want more; all of that’s included here – is based on overestimating the good qualities of something, here in the case of a person. We are overestimating the good qualities and identifying the person exclusively with these good qualities, which may be there or may be not there, but in any case we exaggerate them, or maybe add more good qualities than they actually have, totally ignore the negative qualities, and then with a strong me, “I want to have it,” and “I don’t want to lose it.”

And anger or repulsion is emphasizing and exaggerating the negative qualities and, “I want to get rid of that,” “I don’t want to have it,” so again, a big strong me here. And naivety and indifference, which comes from naivety, is basically not looking at the qualities of the other person for one reason or another, either we’re too busy, or we don’t care, or whatever. We’re not interested. Or we could be afraid, that’s another reason for ignoring others, afraid of making a mistake, or afraid that they’re going to harm us, or afraid that they’re going to let us down, there could be many variations here of fear. And we are naive to that: “They’re a human being, and they have feelings just as I do, and they have good qualities and negative qualities,” and so on – so that leads to indifference.

So we have attraction, repulsion, and indifference. In order to overcome that, then we need to go to the teachings on discriminating awareness from the intermediate scope, because to just do this exercise of equanimity – of imagining a friend, someone you don’t like, an enemy, and a stranger, and think of how in previous lives the friend has hurt you, and in previous lives the enemy has helped you, and in previous lives this stranger has helped us also – that’s very nice. But it doesn’t do very much if we don’t have some understanding on a deeper level of what that really means and are convinced of this, convinced of the logic of why that would lead us to a state of equanimity.

Because please don’t trivialize equanimity, that is unbelievably difficult to have equanimity, and it’s much easier to skip over that and just develop love and compassion for the people that we like, or love and compassion for some sort of more amorphous poor, suffering beings, that “I will help them.” But “Am I really willing to wash the sores of a leper, for example?” “Do I really want to get my hands dirty with helping someone?” “I’ll give some money,” “I’ll pay someone else to do that,” but “Do I want to really do that?”

It’s not so easy, is it? Especially if you ever visit some of these Mother Theresa organizations and see what they actually do, and see the people that they’re actually working with, then one starts to reevaluate one’s own level of compassion and love and commitment and willingness to actually help somebody.

Mental Continuums

In any case, if we go back, mental continuum, that’s the key. Mental continuum, beginningless, endless – it’s not so easy to understand that and to actually have confidence that that is the case. But there are many reasons for that in terms of how cause and effect works. Can there possibly be a cause that comes from nothing, that all of a sudden starts something, or do you always have to have a prior cause? In other words, can something come from nothing? And can something go to absolutely nothing without some sort of effect?

From the Buddhist analysis point of view that’s impossible. We have these beginningless mental continuums of moments of experience, one after another after another, and we can look then at the person. This is a person or an individual, and depending on the various types of impulses that arise based on disturbing emotions – and that arises from unawareness, or ignorance, confusion, etc. – these various impulses lead to various types of behavior. But they may not lead to that. You may not act it out, that type of impulse, the impulse to yell at somebody, but we don’t actually do it. But it’s the impulse that’s the karma, and we act it in most cases, and then there are consequences from that.

That leaves a certain habit, a certain tendency, builds it up, a certain potential, positive or negative potential, or karmic force – usually translated as “merit” and “sin,” which is, as I mentioned yesterday, bringing in quite irrelevant and misleading concepts from Christianity – positive force, negative force, and that’s going to, with the proper conditions, bring about the experience of something else on this mental continuum.

Extending the Basis of Imputation

We have a mental continuum; and what about the “me,” the person, the “me” that’s involved here? On each of these individual mental continuums there is a “me,” which can be imputed on it. If we think of a very, very simple example: a movie. A movie has one moment after another moment after another moment. You don’t see all of Star Wars in one moment. It is imputed onto a whole movie, a whole sequence. Or a year is imputed on days and moments, a year doesn’t happen all at once. So “me” is imputed not just on one moment, but on that whole continuity, sort of the name of the individual movie in a sense.

So what is that “me”? We need to understand that that “me” is not something which is static, which means it doesn’t change, it’s not affected by anything. It isn’t something which is partless, a monolith that doesn’t have various different aspects. And not something which is separate, that could fly off, separate from this mental continuum, and go into another one, or something like that. This is one type of “me”: this is impossible.

And that “me,” or a person – next level – is not something which is self-sufficiently knowable, which means that you can’t know a person separately from something of the basis of imputation of the person appearing. We say this in terms of, “I want to know myself.” What do you know? It’s easier to understand first in terms of other people, “I know Barbara.” What do you know? You know Barbara. “I see Barbara.” What do I see? I can’t see Barbara without seeing a physical form. It’s on the physical form that I see Barbara; I don’t just see Barbara. “I know Barbara.” What do I know? “I know Barbara’s name.” Well, then it’s in association with the name. “I know the personality,” “I know what she looks like.” You can’t think of her just like that; it can’t be self-sufficiently known, all by itself.

But of course we get into a lot of suffering thinking in terms of the self-sufficiently knowable me. The example that I love to use is, “I want somebody to love me for myself, not for my good looks, not for my body, not for my wealth, not for my knowledge, not for all these sort of things, just love me for myself.” What in the world does that mean? How could you love somebody, or how could somebody love us separately from the basis of imputation of “me?”

So this is the subtle impossible self of a person, and it leads us into a more Madhyamaka understanding, Prasangika understanding, that there is an intimate relationship here between “me” and the basis of imputation. The basis of imputation is this mental continuum of moment to moment to moment to moment, no beginning, no end. What is relevant here is that the obstacle to equanimity is that we identify each person with just what you see now, this moment, or this phase – it might not necessarily just be a moment – this phase of their mental continuum – that they are a friend, they are an enemy, they are a stranger, or, even further, they’re a human being, or they are a mosquito. It’s just one phase.

What is happening here is that we are limiting the basis of imputation of the person and not looking at the whole basis of imputation. And even within that limited phase of the mental continuum of just a certain short period of time, we are limiting even further by limiting it to good qualities and exaggerating them, and maybe adding some more that aren’t even there, or bad qualities and exaggerating them, or adding ones that aren’t there, or ignoring the qualities that are there, and identifying the person, labeling the person on that.

The key to equanimity is understanding. It’s not just some sort of discipline, “Well, I’m going to sit here and not go over and greet my cousin and not ignore these people.” And it’s not sufficient just, “Well, I’m not going to do that because they’re all human beings and want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy.” That’s not deep enough, actually. It may work, but you need something a little bit deeper to really, really understand what’s going on and for this equanimity meditation to work, because it’s bringing in past lives and different bases of imputing the person, “Well this friend must have hurt you in the past.”

So that’s extending the basis of imputation, and if we understand that in terms of labeling and basis of labeling or basis of imputation and voidness of the person existing separately from the basis or being known separate from the basis, or all of that, then it becomes a little bit easier to actually work with this equanimity and see that this is a reasonable thing to develop. It’s not just this superhuman Buddhist thing, but actually it is correct – although we need to respect the conventional truth.

Respecting Conventional Truth

This is very important when one understands voidness and, “OK, I’m going to label each person on the entire mental continuum and not just a little piece of it. I’m going to view everybody in terms of all these mental continuums,” but not to lose sight of the conventional level, that “This individual happens to be my baby now and I need to pay more attention to my baby than to the ants that are in my kitchen.” Don’t lose sight of the conventional truth of where they are now in terms of our relation with them.

Equanimity can often lead to – if we ignore the conventional level – hurting the people who are very close to us, and you have to watch out for that, actually. I know people who have children, but they are very socially engaged, and they spend all their time helping the poor of whatever they’re interested in, and ignore their children. And their children feel ignored, because, “My mother or my father is out there helping these other people, so what about me?”

One has to not ignore or dismiss this conventional truth. That’s why in the teachings it says that, of course, we develop equanimity toward everybody and the willingness to help everybody equally, and this equanimity is that we’re not emotionally upset – “Aaah! Just like a magnet I’m drawn to some and I’m repulsed from others,” and the magnet doesn’t deal with a rock or plants, so it’s neither attracted nor repelled, so there’s not this disturbing thing – but still we help those that we’re able to help, that we have some sort of stronger connection with now.

If somebody is totally closed to us, if they’re not receptive, there’s not much we can do. That was the case for Buddha himself, so what can we expect to be able to do? It’s always very sobering to think in terms of Buddha as the example, “Not everybody liked Buddha, so why should I expect everybody’s going to like me?” It’s a good one. It really is a sobering one when people don’t like us, and we’re trying so hard to be a bodhisattva and someone thinks we’re an idiot and criticizes us.

Equanimity Based on Reason

The key then for developing this equanimity is some sort of understanding. When we look at the texts, it says that there are two methods that we can develop. Firstly, the method side, so love and compassion, and then “I want to become a Buddha and help everybody,” and then “I need this understanding to be able to do that, to become a Buddha.” So that’s one method. In the other method, which is for those of sharper senses, sharper mentality, more intellectually inclined, then understanding comes first, and based on that understanding then it’s obvious that one would have compassion and love for everybody.

His Holiness always says that if we’re capable of this second manner, it’s more stable. Although we can proceed on an emotional level and be successful in that, it’s a little bit unstable. We could be thrown off emotionally. When there’s understanding, at least some basic understanding, that helps very much to ground us. And as I said, the key is mental continuums, and not lose sight of a whole mental continuum and therefore that connects very well with renunciation.

We’re thinking of ourselves in terms of a mental continuum with no beginning and no end, and how boring it is that it’s going up and down and up and down, and with unhappiness and then this worldly happiness, which never satisfies and goes up and down and up and down. And we want to get rid of the all-pervasive suffering, which is perpetuating the basis for this up and down. So that’s samsaric rebirth.

And if we think in terms of our own mental continuum, and we want to have that liberation from a really awful movie just repeating over and over and over again with this mental continuum, with us, then we think in terms of others as well. So the love and compassion etc. that we develop for others to bring them liberation has to be based on viewing others in terms of a whole mental continuum, an individual mental continuum. So we start already with equanimity of thinking of them as a mental continuum, and not just identifying them with what we see now.

Questions and Answers

Now, perhaps you have some questions about that before we get into the actual method, which perhaps many of you know already, it’s very readily available in so many books.

Question: Can you go back and just describe very briefly the less stable method?

Alex: The less stable method? The less stable method is one which is just based on emotion. The question was, could I describe a little bit more about the less stable method for developing love and compassion. It is just going through the whole sequence of “Everybody has been my mother, and everybody has been so kind...” not really getting this equanimity down in a strong way, because that’s quite difficult, actually, on an emotional level to just say, “Well I’m not going to be attracted to some and repulsed by others and ignore others.” On an emotional level that’s very tough to not do that.

I don’t see any way of doing that without understanding, other than just being the police, using discipline. And it’s because of that, I think, that the basis is unstable for developing what’s called great love and great compassion, which means that it’s directed to everybody, regardless of what they do to us now, because they’ve done everything to us – if you think in terms of the mental continuum – so what’s the big deal of what they’ve done just recently? With that shaky foundation of equanimity, then you proceed emotionally with “everybody has been my mother,” and that’s hard to actually believe if one doesn’t think of a mental continuum and no beginning.

But you can do a Dharma-Lite version of it, of “Everybody could take me home and give me a meal and take care of me like a mother.” But that’s very hard to apply to the mosquito or the ant. We tend to limit ourselves to people with that, so it’s very limited, “I want everybody to be happy and not to be unhappy and so on,” and it tends to be focused just on those that we like. Maybe we could extend it a little bit, but it’s not stable; it’s not so stable, because in order to really have bodhichitta – you can’t even speak about bodhichitta yet – to really have great love and great compassion, it has to be toward everybody, which means without attraction, repulsion, or indifference.

This leads to all the lojong material, the attitude-training, that we don’t expect anything in return, we’re not expecting a thank-you. And if someone like my beloved child that I’ve helped so much ignores me and treats me terribly, I’m going to regard them as a teacher... all these things in the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices and the lojong attitude-training material. That’s serious stuff, and that happens in real life. You help people and they don’t appreciate it, and they ignore you in return. And we were expecting at least some sort of thank-you, an acknowledgement, “...but be nice to me in return.”

There’s a disturbing emotion behind that and that undermines our compassion, our helping others and so on, and then we start helping them in order to feel good about ourselves or to feel that “I am useful,” to feel that “My life is meaningful.” So we become like almost, pardon the extreme example, a vampire toward others, drawing our sense of worth from helping them. That’s vampire activity, exploitation in a subtle way. Again it comes down to the understanding of voidness, “What establishes my existence?” “Do I exist because I am meaningful to somebody else? Does that make me exist? Does that establish my existence, that I can help others, therefore I exist?” Think about that.

Many elderly people die from irrelevance, it’s been documented. If their life is irrelevant, and nobody visits them in the nursing home, and it’s just a big nothing going on, and all that they have is to watch daytime television, they die of irrelevance. There’s nothing. And here’s the fallacy, that, “What makes me exist is that I’m relevant to others, that I’m meaningful to others, that others care about me.” Of course that’s necessary biologically, but scuza, excuse me, biology is samsara. So it is true from a samsaric point of view that we need attention, and particularly babies and elderly people, and we need some interaction with others, and we’re totally dependent on that. However, that doesn’t establish our existence.

These are very profound points to think about, very profound. That’s why, what I was alluding to before, when we talk about “impossible ways of existing,” that’s not a correct translation to just think in terms of ways of existing, it’s referring to ways of establishing or proving existence.

What establishes that there is such a thing as love? What establishes that there is such a thing? There’s this whole spectrum of emotions that not only arise on my mental continuum, but everybody’s mental continuum. In that vast sea of emotions, is there a box encapsulated in plastic that is love, and I feel it, and you feel it, and I have to generate it, or whatever? No. What establishes that there is love? There is the word or concept “love” that somebody made up a definition for, and made up the word from meaningless sounds, and that establishes that there is love. There’s nothing else that establishes it; it’s just a convention. That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing. That convention refers to something, but there is nothing on the side of the emotional spectrum that corresponds to that word – to correspond to the word would be a box – nothing like that. The box “love” doesn’t establish that love exists, because there is no such thing. That’s impossible.

This is mental labeling, the Prasangika view. What establishes that things exist, it’s merely what words refer to on the basis of some basis for labeling, and you can’t find on the side of the object a referent thing in a box that would correspond to the word. That, in a nutshell, is Prasangika, Gelug Prasangika. The other Tibetan traditions define Prasangika differently and you need to be aware of that. Tsongkhapa was a very radical reformer; he changed and modified the understanding of almost everything of what came before. He was very revolutionary.

Question: I find that as I strive to be more equanimical, I get sort of lazy. When I try to think of everybody as the same, I think, “OK, I don’t have to strive to be part of their life because I can see them in any possibilities of the future in their own life.” Where does that place me in social responsibility, such as outfits like the Buddhist peace culture? They are doing things concretely, where they are not necessarily thinking of their surroundings as equanimible, it seems.

Alex: The question is, when we try to develop equanimity, does that somehow take away from our social responsibility, because we feel that we can be anything to anybody and they can be anything to us – if I get the gist of your question in one sentence.

My reply comes back to what I was saying before, that we have to not lose sight of the conventional truth of where everybody is now and what I am capable of doing now. There’s a difference between willingness to help everybody equally, which is not really this equanimity, that’s a Mahayana equanimity. Here it’s the equanimity of not being emotionally disturbed because of attraction, repulsion, and indifference. That’s the focus here – but respect the conventional truth and “What can I do?” “Who do I have connections with?” “Who’s receptive?” “Who’s open to me?” “Where can I make the best contribution?” And you do that.

I got that personal advice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When I said, “I’m involved with so many different projects and so many different things,” and “What to do?” He said, “Well look to see what you can do that hardly anybody else is doing and what you’re really good at doing, and do that – but obviously where there is a need for it – and other things do a little bit. Put your emphasis on where can you make a contribution that is rare and that you’re good at doing.”

This is respecting conventional truth. Who’s receptive to us? Anybody who’s in a helping position, there’s so many people that ask for help, so how do you choose on the basis of equanimity? And here’s the challenge of equanimity. You choose, and this equanimity is free from disturbing emotions, so you don’t get pissed off when you get thirty e-mails with everybody saying, “Please explain to me this or that,” which would take five pages of explanation – you don’t get annoyed, that’s where equanimity gets applied – and your closest friend sends an e-mail and you’re willing to sit there and go into a chatroom and write a lot for this person.

So you see where you can be of best help, where the person is receptive, what am I capable of doing, give a little bit of an answer, this is what His Holiness said, you can give them a little bit of an answer and direct them to other sources, or if there are no other sources, then you pay more attention to the answer, these sort of things, but not ignore your close friends who are also wanting our attention. It becomes a great balancing act. It’s not easy to be an aspiring bodhisattva and want to help everybody. We have time limitations, energy limitations. That’s why you want to become a Buddha.

That is what is the most colossal drag, that I’m limited now, I have limited hardware, I get tired, I’m growing old, memory is going, energy is going, health is going – how boring – and it took so long to get to this stage where I can help at the level that I’m helping. I don’t want to go all the way back to Go and start again, and then again the game is up when you reach a point where you have all the skills to make some effective contribution, then you have to start all over again. This is colossally boring, isn’t it? That’s what you want to get rid of.

That’s what you want to get rid of, not just the manifestations that come along from this, but the basis of it, and that’s not easy. This is what I was trying to say before, because we are attached to friends, and we are attached to our comfort, which means rejecting people that make annoying requests and all sorts of things like that, and we get upset when we’re too busy, and we get stressed – it’s awful, and that’s what you have to develop, a feeling of “This is awful,” even before you can develop equanimity.

That’s what I’m saying, if you start jumping immediately, “Well I’m not thinking of just myself,” and “Here’s the advanced teachings, I’m advanced,” and “Let’s all sit and meditate on love and compassion, because it makes us feel good,” it’s not going to be stable. It may help a little bit, but it’s not going to be stable, and we want something stable – unless you’re just interested in drinking Dharma-Lite, and Dharma-Lite is perfectly fine if that’s your drink, but acknowledge it as Dharma-Lite.

The Actual Equanimity Meditation

The actual meditation is you think of three people – we’ll just leave it to humans, we’re not going to bring in the cockroach, although that would be a much more radical level of doing equanimity meditation, really radical, but let’s leave it to people – someone we like very, very much. And if they came into the room, we would want to run over to them and ignore everybody else, and hug them, and kiss them, and give them all our attention, and say “Sorry!” and go off with this person.

And somebody else, if they came into the room we’d say, “Oh, no!” Someone that we would really like to avoid for one reason or another, that we find really annoying. And someone that is a total stranger. Usually you pick people out of a magazine, pictures from a magazine, but not a model who’s putting on a look, but just somebody, somebody in the street, a person who collects the tickets at the movie theatre, someone who you really don’t even consider as a person – although here in this country everybody is friendly and has these little chats with each other, even if they’re total strangers. In Germany where I live, people don’t do that. In any case, one could imagine someone that we totally ignore as a human being.

Here, a visualization is used, but for those that find visualization difficult, I see no reason not to use photographs. There are two situations: one is thinking about people and the other is when you’re actually confronting them, so that we see them or hear them on the telephone. Somebody really annoying, like people that try to sell you something on the telephone, telemarketers. What is the difference in our attitude between the telemarketer and our best friend who calls us on the phone? That’s a good example. Is the telemarketer someone who’s been our mother in a previous lifetime and wants to be happy and doesn’t want to be unhappy and doesn’t want – that you reply with a very strong swear word and slam down the phone. How do they feel?

We think of each of these persons individually, one by one, after we’ve chosen them, and we look at a photo if that’s easier, or just think of them, or visualize them, or whatever. For that person that we like – if we start with that – and are so attracted to, you let the feeling rise. “You’re really a fantastic person, and I really would like to be with them,” and you feel that strong attraction, you want to go toward this person and be with them, and not lose them. And then you stop for a moment and you say, “Why do I feel like that? “Do I feel like that because they’ve been nice to me or my loved ones?” Or “They make me feel good to be with them,” “They pay attention to me,” “I get this and that from them.” Whatever. What are the reasons?

This is what I was saying before in terms of basis of labeling, I’m labeling the person on that. We could evaluate it, is it correct or incorrect? That’s of course a variation here, to see, “Am I exaggerating it? Am I making something up?” “This is the most wonderful person in the world!” It probably isn’t the most wonderful person in the world. It’s really interesting, “I want this one to love me.” Somebody else? “That doesn’t count, but I want this one to love me and pay attention to me.”

I find what’s very helpful, did you ever see, I forget the name of the documentary about the penguins in Antarctica, and you have this massive ground with a hundred thousand penguins, which all look alike. And then you think, “But I want that particular one to love me: that penguin and not any of the other penguins.” That sort of puts it in a little bit of perspective about our selectivity and that they’re all the same, basically. A helpful image, at least I find it helpful.

What we do is then expand – to use the terminology that I was using before – the basis for labeling and think, “In a previous lifetime” – if you want to do it in terms of previous lifetimes, which is the way the meditation is presented – “In the past lifetime they have hurt me so much, and drunk my blood” – and all these sort of lovely images, mosquitoes drink our blood, not just vampires – “and in future lives they can also be terrible to me.”

If we want to do a Dharma-Lite version, we can do: “Before I knew them they were a stranger,” and “They could hurt me very much.” In fact, those that we are most attached to and most in love with, those are the ones that can hurt us the most, because if they ignore us, if they reject us, that hurts far more than a total stranger ignoring us. So this person is actually a potential source of unbelievable unhappiness. We don’t think of that when we fall in love with somebody, but that is a severe imbalance, being in love with somebody. It feels good, that’s the deceptive part of it, but it very easily leads to feeling very, very hurt if that person ignores us, or leaves us, or doesn’t live up to our expectations, doesn’t pay enough attention to us.

So we think in terms of a larger basis for labeling. “If I just run to this person and put all my hopes in this person it could let me down very badly and hurt me very much. I’m really just running to the proverbial siren, that cannibal spirit that when I get there they’re going to eat me,” this sort of thing, use these sort of images. So we resolve to have equanimity toward this person, no attraction – this is very, very difficult if it’s just based on emotion – that “I’m going to regard this person” – in your visualization, or looking at the photo – “try to regard them without attachment.”

If you think about it, there are opponent forces for overcoming the disturbing emotions. Here we’re working specifically with the disturbing emotion of attraction, attachment, desire and greed: we want more of this person’s time than they’re able or willing to give us. We’re very greedy with the people that we are infatuated with, and to just say, “OK, now I’m going to regard them without that,” that’s not easy, is it? We have this very, very strong resistance to that internally, very strong resistance. That’s why some understanding of voidness is going to help here, if we think in terms of mental labeling and mental continuum and these sort of things, “Who is it that I’m attached to? What is it that I’m attached to?” In this way we try to regard the person free from attachment, desire and greed.

Then we look at the person who we dislike. To call them our enemy, that’s a bit strong for many of us. We might not have somebody, we wouldn’t use that label of “enemy,” but we certainly have people that we don’t like and people that we certainly don’t like to hang out with that we would really prefer to avoid. We have aversion to this person; repulsion is also a helpful term. We really don’t want to be with this person; we don’t like them. And again, we do the same sort of thing, we let that feeling of repulsion or aversion arise, because you have to recognize that, “I have this disturbing emotion toward this person.” That’s why you let it arise. It’s not that we’re training ourselves to feel this disturbing emotion, but we want to recognize it, acknowledge it, and without it getting out of hand then we halt, put the pause button on, and “Why do I feel like that?”

And again, it’s because “They’ve done something that I don’t like, or hurt me,” or “They do things in a different way from the way I do it.” It could really be quite innocent. “This person is really annoying, because they peel the grapefruit and eat it like an orange rather than eating it with a spoon.” This is stupid, but how often do we get annoyed with people who do things differently from the way that we do them? “They leave the dishes overnight and wash them in the morning. That’s no good.” You get angry with the person, “It has to be washed immediately.” In fact, even before you finish the meal, you start washing and clearing the table.

We look at again the same thing. We’re exaggerating some negative quality; we’re ignoring the good qualities. And in previous lives, in previous times they have been nice to us, and in the future they could be nice to us. Someone we dislike could, with different circumstances, become a very good friend and help us. So again, we regard them without this aversion, without this repulsion. It doesn’t have to be strong anger, but just aversion or repulsion.

And then with the person who is a stranger, whom we regard as a stranger, the same thing, the people that you meet and you don’t even remember what they look like. Who remembers the person that sold you the ticket at the movie theatre, what they look like, let alone anything about them. “Why do I ignore this person?” “They didn’t do anything particularly outstanding, nice, or negative to me, they’re just a nothing.” Basically, it could have been a machine that gave us the ticket. What are we doing here? We are ignoring all the qualities of this person. In the past, they could have been very nice to us. In the future, they could turn out to be our best friend. Every best friend that we have started out as a stranger, so this one could be a precious gem – this type of imagery is used. And again, we try to look at them without indifference, without ignoring them.

The way that we are looking at each of these three persons is not the Mahayana thing of equalizing our attitude, that “They all want to be happy and they don’t want to be unhappy and they’re equal in that.” We are not looking at a positive aspect of them to equalize our attitude with equanimity. We are looking at them without the disturbing emotion, sort of leveling the ground – that’s the imagery that is used. These are two types of equanimity that are distinguished, the one that is free from the disturbing emotions and the other which acknowledges that they’re all equal in wanting to be happy and not unhappy, so no favoritism – that’s the Mahayana method.

After this we imagine all three of them together, and what I often recommend is to imagine the three of them at the dinner table with you. And now you’re having dinner with these three people, the one that you’re absolutely in love with and infatuated with, the one that you absolutely can’t stand, really obnoxious and annoying, and the garbage man, the one who collects the trash. How would you deal with that? If you could really imagine that, then you see how conflicted your emotions are, because here are these three people together, and how do you deal with that?

That’s very, very challenging, if you take it seriously, imagining yourself at the dinner table with these three people. And maybe, if you want to make it a little bit more colorful, you could have the dog yapping and these sort of things. And a mosquito, orchestrate it nicely. To take it to the level of the mosquito and my best friend, and to have equanimity toward those two, that’s really advanced, super-advanced, beyond the imagination of most of us. But that’s what we’re really being asked to develop here. No easy thing. So then we imagine these three persons and have equanimity, and then the line of reasoning is, “Somebody who has helped us today and hurt us yesterday, and somebody who has hurt us today and helped us yesterday – what’s the difference?”

And there is no difference, it’s just a matter of when they helped us and when they hurt us. But everybody – given beginningless time and mental continuums with no beginning – has hurt us and helped us innumerable times, to use the Indian idiom, “same, same.” But we don’t lose sight of the conventional level, the conventional truth of what’s going on now in terms of how we spend our time given our limitations.

So this is the meditation. It’s something that to just do for a couple of minutes doesn’t really give it justice. It’s something that requires quite a bit of work, and it is emotional work and emotionally very difficult work. That’s why I was recommending, if we are capable, some understanding of voidness and mental labeling beforehand will help to make this meditation not so overwhelmingly emotionally challenging. Because if you really do this meditation seriously, very strong emotions come up if you choose the right people, someone that you’re just crazy about, and someone that you really, really can’t stand, and the nobody. And you want to choose somebody. You don’t want to choose light examples here. If you want to get somewhere with this meditation, you choose the strong examples.

And it’s going to be very emotionally challenging and something that is very easy to give up on, “I can’t possibly develop equanimity, I love this person,” and “I don’t want to give up loving this person. Why would I want to give up being in love with this person. It feels so nice to be with them. It makes me so happy to be with them, so why should I have the same attitude toward the mosquito as toward this person, or the annoying person at work, or the loud neighbor, the person trying to pass me on the road?” Without some understanding underlying this, I think that emotionally it’s going to be very, very difficult to develop equanimity. Therefore it’s an advanced meditation, on the advanced scope, not the beginning. And it’s serious that it is built on the basis of some training on the initial and intermediate levels.

So that brings us to the end of our session. Let’s end here and we’ll continue after lunch.