Explanation of the Seven-Part Cause and Effect Quintessence Teaching for Developing Bodhicitta
Seattle, Washington, USA, November 2007
Session Four: Love, Compassion, and the Exceptional Resolve
This morning is the fourth session of our discussion of the seven-part cause and effect meditation method for developing the bodhichitta aim. We have discussed the ground floor level, or step number zero of this process, which is to develop equanimity, and this equanimity is the state of mind that is free of disturbing emotions toward others, either attachment and attraction to those whom we like, and repulsion from others and aversion to whom we don’t like, and indifference toward others, which is based on naivety about that – the possibility that they could be a friend and so on.
The disturbing emotions that we are free of here – attachment or clinging, and aversion or repulsion, and naivety – are concerning persons. This is because we are dealing with an equanimity which is shared in common with the Hinayana teachings. The aim of the Hinayana teachings is to gain liberation and – from the point of view of what would be in common with the Hinayana tenets – in order to gain liberation, all we need to have is an understanding of the lack of an impossible self, or soul of persons.
They define this lack, or absence, or voidness in a different way from the voidness of all phenomena, according to their tenet systems. We’re talking about non-Prasangika Madhyamaka according to Gelugpa. So in order to fit into this common ground here, both Hinayana and Mahayana, and Gelug Prasangika and so on, then these disturbing emotions are aimed specifically at persons. It’s not that we’re talking here about getting angry with our computer and aversion to certain foods or attachment to certain television programs.
We need to rid our minds – to at least a certain level, a certain extent – of these various disturbing emotions directed toward others in order to gain equanimity. And we saw that this state of equanimity is not a state of nothingness, of no emotions, but it is – to use the Nyingma terminology – an open ground that can function as the foundation upon which we can build the more positive emotions that will lead to the development of a bodhichitta aim.
We also saw that on the basis of this, the first thing that we do in this particular sequence of meditation steps is to try to gain the awareness, and maintain the awareness with mindfulness as the mental glue, that “All beings have been my mother in some previous lifetime.” We saw that this is something that can be established through logic, so it’s something which is reasonable, given the Buddhist assumptions of beginningless time, and finite number of beings, and the equality of everyone – equality in the sense that in each lifetime, other than when we’re born from heat and moisture and from a lotus, we’re going to have a mother, and that everybody equally builds up causes for being both masculine and feminine.
That gets into a whole discussion of what are the causes of being masculine or feminine – obviously you have to be feminine in order to be a mother. But there aren’t terribly clear guidelines about what specifically are the causes for each of these. When we look at some of the teachings in lam-rim about the eight more fortunate… I forget the technical term for the list of eight … but within a precious human rebirth there are eight even more favorable circumstances that would allow us to have a greater influence on others, and in that listing one of the eight qualities is being reborn as a man.
Whether that is time-specific and cultural-specific or more general obviously can be debated. What I find quite interesting is – although His Holiness the Dalai Lama didn’t connect this specifically with that teaching, but in general His Holiness spoke several times in the context of this bhikshuni, this nun conference in Hamburg, which took place this summer – that if you look at the evolution of human society on this planet, then we find that in earlier periods strength, brute strength was what was needed to be able to deal with wild animals and various dangers and so on. And so in that type of circumstance, then the male form was the one that would be the most useful and necessary for sustaining the society, because you needed strong force to protect against dangers.
Then, as society evolved further, then the intellect was what was necessary in order to deal with the various problems; and in that type of situation men and women were equal for sustaining society. And in the present time, when there is so much hatred and terrorism and this sort of thing, so things are getting more and more out of control, then he thought that in this period women, the female body, and women birth was the type of birth that was the most important for sustaining society.
And he said that this was purely on the basis of biology, and he was basing all of this in terms of biology, that men physically are stronger, intellect they’re equal – men and women – and he was saying that in terms of compassion, just biologically, because women bear children in their womb, and nurse/feed children, at least in more traditional societies, that they naturally have a sense of nurturing and warmth and connectedness to the humanness of others. And that this was the quality that was most needed for solving world problems, and environmental problems and these sort of things in this current era.
From that point of view then, what is the type of rebirth that can be the most favorable for influencing others in a positive way could be – although it is not discussed in the Dharma, but His Holiness implies this – could be dependent on the age of a world and the development of the society within that world and the needs, which certainly would make sense in terms of dependent arising, that there’s nothing inherently better or worse about any particular form of gender.
In any case, if we look at the teachings in terms of what are the causes for a male rebirth that appear in that context, basically they’re saying admiration for the male form and distance from the female form – admiring the male form, “I’d like to have a male form,” so that would be a cause – although one could wonder whether or not that could be a cause for a gay rebirth, but putting that aside – then it would seem as though if one had desire for the female body, then that would lead to a female rebirth. And then as a female, if you had desire for a male body, you’d have a male rebirth.
Given that sort of situation, then I think we could argue that everybody has at some point had a female basis, because this is an objection that was raised, “Couldn’t you always have been born a man, in which case you were never my mother?” So one has to consider this sort of discussion, that there is a certain requirement in order to be our mother, and that is a female rebirth. So if the causes, the main causes for male and female rebirth are sexual desire toward a certain body, then probably that has alternated in terms of also even biological factors, if we want to look in terms of that. All these points are very important, actually, in convincing ourselves that this is a reasonable type of method to use, it’s not just brainwashing.
Then, having recognized everybody as having been our mother, then reminding ourselves, being mindful, that means the mental glue holding on to the kindness of everyone toward us as a mother – and that is in terms of minimum that they didn’t abort us – we needed to have all these various types of rebirths that we’ve had in the past in order to be where we are now. We can appreciate if we have a precious human rebirth now, that even in the animal and other lower realm rebirths that we had in the past, the mothers that we had in those rebirths were very kind to us, because it gave us the opportunity to burn off the negative karma that would allow positive karma now to ripen in my precious human rebirth.
So that mother turtle, and mother spider and stuff like that, was very kind to us. But of course there were some times that we were aborted, and if we weren’t aborted we might’ve been eaten by our mother, like sometimes spiders eat the young, so it’s sort of a postnatal abortion, in a sense, that took place. There are all these objections that were raised in discussions after class concerning recognizing everybody as a mother, “And what about the mother that ate us as a baby?”
But in general, if we look at the larger trend, somehow we got here – in this precious human rebirth – and that is the product of all the previous rebirths which took place. Just simply on that ground, everybody has been very kind to us as a mother to give us the opportunity to get where we are now and deal with the various karmic stuff that we have built up over beginningless time. It is very good to do analytical meditation, to think about all of this, work it out, what objections we have to it.
And then we would start with the mother of this lifetime – there’s always this method – and you think of how kind she might have been, working through five-year periods of our life, in terms of the kindness we’ve been shown. And if we want to expand this into other methods of practice for bodhichitta, we can also think of the kindness we’ve received from various other people in our life over these five-year periods in order to appreciate – which is the next step – the kindness that we have received and to feel very, very grateful. That was as far as we got yesterday.
Also, a very important question was asked yesterday, which perhaps I can elaborate a little bit more on, which concerns, “What about those of us who have blocked feelings?” And “I don’t actually feel anything when doing these types of meditations.” I would bring in here something that I elaborated upon in one of the exercises in my sensitivity training that I had developed – that’s outlined in this book Developing Balanced Sensitivity – for unblocking feelings: that’s the point here.
What seems to me to be necessary for unblocking feelings is suggested straight from the teachings: we need to gain some sense of serenity and calmness, and then this equanimity. In other words, if we can somehow quiet down our mental agitation – our mind flying off to various things – and worries, and concerns – I don’t mean concern in a positive sense, but I mean worrisome type of concerns – and also rid the mind, to at least a certain level, of dullness and being spaced out, which is another way of not paying attention to others, a block – if we can calm all of that down, we get to an open state in terms of the cognitive abilities of the mind and heart.
Similarly, with these equanimity meditations, clear out to at least some extent the disturbing emotions and the nervous energy which is associated with these disturbing emotions toward others, and add on top of that – when we get into the intermediate level of motivation – a certain understanding of the lack of an impossible way of existing of “me” as a person, so that we’re not so self-conscious and, in a sense, we don’t have the big walls of solid existence, imagined solid existence around us. Then I think this is the basis for emotional feelings to be able to float, to be unblocked.
Even if we try to accomplish this type of state just in our imagination, it’s helpful. I’ve found from working with people that it is helpful for unblocking feelings. So these seem to be the main... because if we’re going to look at what blocks the feelings, that’s the only way to unblock them. Somehow we need to relax enough to be able to have the feelings flow without impediment, and we’re not talking about neurotic disturbing feelings here, using “feelings” now in the Western sense of “emotions.”
So we want to get rid of all the distraction, and the worries, and the fears – all this sort of stuff – the mental wandering, and the dullness, and the attachment, and the hostility, and naivety, and self-consciousness, and these imagined walls around us and so on. And if we just, in a sense, in our imagination try to let go of these step-by-step, then you quiet down enough to be able to feel something.
Another thing that I use in that training is the analogy of physical sensation. Sometimes people are afraid of feeling something in terms of love and compassion, because “It’s too much.” They feel that it’s going to overwhelm them. I think of the example of my aunt, one of my aunts. She was very, very close to her mother, my grandmother, and when my grandmother entered the nursing home, and she had terminal cancer, and she was not in a very good state at all, my aunt never went to visit her. She never went to visit her, and the reason that she gave for not visiting her mother was that it was too much; it would devastate her emotionally to see her mother in this situation.
And so she was so self-centered that she never went to see her again in the nursing home – I don’t know if it was never, but as far as I understand she didn’t go. And this is interesting, because I saw her a couple of years ago – my grandmother died many years ago – and she said that she thinks of her mother every day. And so it wasn’t that she didn’t have love for the mother, but she was afraid of the emotions, that it would overwhelm her.
For people like that, then the type of training that I have used is to simply have people tickle the palm of their hand, and then scratch it or pinch it very, very hard, and then just hold their hand, and to say, “What’s the difference?” in terms of just a sensation, a physical sensation. “It’s just a physical sensation, there is nothing more to that.” It’s a little more difficult when you have somebody else tickle your hand, and pinch it, and hold it, that’s more challenging, but if you do it by yourself, in the end you’re left with, “Well, so what? It’s just a physical sensation, nothing more.” And then – by inference, because it’s the same thing – with an emotional feeling, “It’s just a feeling,” sad, or happy, or warm, or plain, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a feeling, no big deal, nothing special. That helps to unblock the feelings, especially the fears about the feelings.
So if we do have blocked emotions and feelings, it’s important to try to dissolve these blocks – first identify them, and then use some sort of method to dissolve them. Also, another thing that is suggested – here the emotional blocks could be in place as well – is for instance with the meditations on compassion, that first we think of our own suffering and we develop renunciation – the feeling of “How awful that is and how much I really want to be rid of that” – and then transfer that to other people.
This would assume not only an understanding that we’re all equal – everybody has the same wish to be happy and to be free from their unhappiness – but also possibly we can generate some emotional feeling with ourself, with our own situation a little bit more easily than toward others. This is not always necessarily the case, there are many people in societies that can feel much more for others, but not for themselves, and they neglect themselves. For some people this might help with the unblocking of feelings, with other people it might not.
OK, perhaps you have something to contribute concerning this issue of blocked feelings. I think that is a very important issue to direct when we are working with these meditations on love and compassion and bodhichitta etc., because although having some of the wisdom side together with this method side – this compassion side – helps very much to make the steps more stable, nevertheless without the warmth of the emotional side it doesn’t communicate to others very nicely. Anybody have anything to contribute or ask about this?
Question: I’m kind of wondering if there’s different personalities having different ways of showing emotions.
Alex: OK, what she says is that it seems to be part of her personality that the emotions aren’t blocked, she just doesn’t show them externally – bringing up that variable of control versus block. I think what you say is indicative of one of the important factors here, which is that there’s a difference between feeling something and expressing something. You could feel a great deal of positive emotion, but the situation is such that you don’t demonstrate it to the other person.
Somebody might have a great aversion to physical contact, and so although they might be sick and although with other people – I’m thinking of elderly people in the nursing home, lying in bed – that with certain people they might really appreciate holding their hand, and other people don’t like that, so you could have equal warmth toward both people, but you exercise some control not to hold this person’s hand, because they would feel uncomfortable. So there there’s a certain control that’s in place that doesn’t necessarily block the feeling.
Other times, there may be control based on what I was saying before, fear of the feelings, that they would be overwhelming. Another type of control could be in terms of respect for the society, that’s a little bit similar to what I was saying before just now with the example of the person in the nursing home. The example that comes to my mind is a woman from Colombia, South America, who’s my student in Germany, and she certainly has to control the expression of her emotions toward her in-laws. She’s married to a German man, and the parents of the German man are just so totally reserved emotionally, and she really has to exercise control when she goes with her husband to visit them. That is a conscious control, again, out of consideration for another type of culture.
One has to analyze, “Why would I control my emotions?” I might control my emotions also as a nurse, when you’re taking care of somebody, but you have to keep a level head. You can’t start crying and getting really upset at how awful the injury is of this other person. Then you control the emotions, and do you control only the expression of them, or you control the feeling of them? It’s like for instance – this isn’t a very nice Dharma example – if you are in a battle in war and your best buddy gets killed right next to you, you can’t just stop and start to cry and be upset, you have to control that, put it in another container, as it were, in your heart, and continue to deal with the emergency situation. I think there are many different situations here.
Question: Society calls us to control things, but isn’t that kind of the point of this meditation to unleash it?
Alex: Yes, that’s a very good point. In meditation... because society, particularly in the United States, restricts our expression of emotion, because we might get sued thinking that we are abusive toward others, making sexist remarks, this sort of thing, just when we compliment somebody for, “It’s a nice dress you’re wearing.” But in any case, don’t meditations such as this offer us an avenue for being able to let our emotions out?
In a sense that is true, but what I find from my own and other people’s experience is that often – although perhaps these positive emotions can come out in this type of meditation practice – one finds that when you relax enough in meditation, that you’ve opened the door to not only positive emotions, but a lot of negative emotions. This is the phenomenon that most people experience: when you do a long retreat, also this emotional garbage comes up and you have the opportunity to try to deal with it. But you opened the emotional doors and you can’t really predict what’s going to come up. So this is something that we have to be aware of before, and particularly when considering to go into a retreat, and particularly when considering to go into a long retreat, we have to be prepared that a lot of stuff is going to come up. And if we don’t have the maturity to deal with that, it’s not a good idea to go into retreat.
Participant: It seems to me, in my experience, it’s much more natural, much easier, to cultivate compassion for everybody else but myself.
Alex: He says that for him it’s much easier to develop compassion for others than for himself. And again, I don’t have a specific method within the Dharma, but it’s suggested by the Dharma, and again I have used this in the Balanced Sensitivity Training, which is to develop the “caring attitude” it’s called. It’s a Tibetan word that is used as the preliminary step for ethical discipline. Shantideva has a whole chapter on this. He has two chapters on ethical discipline, the first one is this particular mental factor, which I call the “caring attitude.”
Other people sometimes translate it as “carefulness” or “conscientiousness,” I think that misses the point. It is basically “taking seriously cause and effect,” that “If I act like this, this is going to happen, so I care about the results of my behavior,” and “I care about myself.” On the basis of that, then you exercise ethical self-discipline. Without caring, if you don’t give a damn about what happens or the effect of your behavior, why would you ever exercise self-discipline? So Shantideva very wisely devotes a whole chapter to that, how we cultivate that caring attitude.
In the sensitivity training, what I do in terms of oneself is, there’s this whole line [of reasoning] for developing the caring attitude which is directed toward others: “You are a human being, you have feelings just as I do,” “The way in which I treat you and speak to you is going to affect your feelings, just as the way that you treat me and speak to me affects my feelings,” “So just as I hope that you will respect me and take me seriously in terms of my feelings, I take you seriously and respect and care about you, and I care about your feelings,” this type of thing.
And so then we work with ourselves, and we start with the mirror, and with the mirror you look at yourself, “I’m a human being just like everybody else, and I have feelings just as everybody else does,” and “The way that I treat myself and speak to myself in my head” – a lot of us abuse ourselves verbally in our heads, “You’re such an idiot!” like that – “affects my feelings, just as the way that other people treat me and speak to me affects my feelings.” And so, “Just as I would like others to treat me with respect and sensitivity to my feelings, I’m going to treat myself that way,” “I care about myself,” “I care about my feelings,” and so we work with that.
Then the next step is without a mirror, because we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror so often, but the mirror is helpful for giving some sort of stronger sense of ourselves, and then without it, “I’m a human being and I have feelings,” etc. And then, what is the most emotionally moving part of this exercise is to have a series of photos of ourselves over our lifetime, and particularly a photo – although we could work with the memory, but a photo is a little bit better – of a difficult period in our lives, when we were going through some emotional upheaval, whether it was a divorce, whether it was whatever, and to look at that me of the past, and to say:
“I was a human being then and I had feelings then,” “The way that others treat me and speak about me affected those feelings,” and so “Just as now I wouldn’t like the me of ten years in the future to look back at me now and feel ashamed of me, likewise I’m not going to look back and feel ashamed, because that me of the past wouldn’t want me of the future to be ashamed, because I was a human being then, I had feelings and I tried my best,” and that brings the whole audience to tears… That moves your heart…. So that I don’t start crying, let’s go on. You work with that in terms of unblocking your feelings about yourself.
Question: You mentioned in the beginning that there was a Tibetan word, what is that term?
Alex: The Tibetan term for this caring attitude that I am translating is “bag-yo” (bag-yod), and the negative one of that is “bag-mey” (bag-med), you just don’t care, which is a very unfortunate state of mind, isn’t it? You just don’t care what happens.
Now, why don’t we take a moment to let this settle.
Now, when we have gone through this sequence in terms of equanimity, so quieting down, and I would add to the standard aspect of the equanimity meditation also trying to quiet down mental agitation and dullness and so on, which of course would be part of any meditation, in any case, but not to forget about that; and also to add a little bit understanding of a lack of a solid me, so that the walls are open to feel something; then the basis of equanimity, “Everybody’s been my mother, the kindness of others when they’ve been my mother,” first thinking in terms of our own mother, and then extending that to others and having the awareness of them in terms of that kindness, and then naturally we feel gratitude, we feel appreciation.
The instructions say you don’t have to do anything special to develop this sense of gratitude or appreciation, and if there’s an aspect to it of wanting to pay back that kindness, as I said, I have my doubts about how strongly that’s emphasized here. I don’t really think it is so much the emphasis, and particularly for us, who are grown up in a culture that thinks in terms of guilt, we don’t want our meditation to go off in that direction which, as I said yesterday, leads to becoming the martyr in terms of helping others.
The next step in this sequence is – it’s wonderful the way that the Buddhists number things, it’s not in the number numbering system, so we had a zero and now we have sort of a step number three and a half – and that step is what’s called “heartwarming love.” This is what we develop prior to the actual meditation on love. Heartwarming love is a cherishing concern type of love, with which we cherish someone and are concerned about his or her welfare, and we would feel sad if anything bad happened to this person. When we would meet this person, we would be very joyous and happy to meet with this person, and we would automatically have a feeling of closeness.
These are the descriptions of this state of mind or heart, however you want to refer to it. And again, it says that you don’t have to do anything special to develop this, it comes automatically from the step before. This is why I think the emphasis in the step before isn’t that you want to repay the kindness, but you feel so grateful and so appreciative of the kindness of others that automatically you feel heartwarming love. You would feel concerned about this person’s welfare, and feel sad if anything bad happened, and feel happy to meet this person and automatically feel close. It makes sense to me that this is the way that it develops.
So you can see that in terms of this issue of feeling something, that the sequence is suggesting that if we haven’t felt anything yet, you’re certainly going to feel something here. So we have this heartwarming love, the literal term is that it’s the love with which this person comes to our mind, comes close to the mind, close to the heart. You feel close to the person.
Then we go into the meditation on love. Love is defined as the wish for others to be happy and to have the causes of happiness, and obviously from the start of this sequence we’re directing this to everybody. In the Theravada method for developing love, what is suggested is that we start with ourselves and then extend it to those that are close to us, and the neighbors, and the people in our family, and city, and you extend it further and further, step by step like that. There are also meditations, like in Chenrezig meditation, in which we would extend this to the different beings in the different realms, and all this sort of stuff, and to all sentient beings.
This is a tough one, I must say, not this particular love, but this whole issue of all sentient beings. What I always thought – and perhaps this is from a Western bias, that we tend to like to use personal relationships as examples for what we’re trying to develop in the Dharma. And so, for instance: “I can be warm and loving, and have love and compassion, and be generous to a particular person that I’m in love with, my partner, or whatever, my children, whatever, and then if I can learn to be like that with this person, then I can extend it to others.”
To me that seemed fairly reasonable that we don’t start with all sentient beings; that’s a bit too vague. But then I heard some explanation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and he said it was important to really focus on all sentient beings. Why? Because I was forgetting about the fact that all of this was based on equanimity, in which we’re open to everybody. That came many stages before the meditation on love. And so if all of a sudden we go back to “this is the person I’m really close to and I have attachment to,” because usually this type of cluster of feelings is associated with a great deal of attachment to this person, then we are violating the principle established in the very beginning of “open to everybody.”
So I must say that it’s not so easy to combine the emotional truth of those two approaches, because often, when we just do it in terms of all sentient beings, it’s just so vague that it doesn’t mean anything, and we’re not really taking seriously “all sentient beings.” What comes to my mind as a possible solution to this dilemma here – or dialectic, if we want to get into fancy terminology – is a guideline, which is given by Tsongkhapa in A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra, something I translated many years ago and which actually I’ll start to teach now in Berlin when I go back.
In that text, Tsongkhapa speaks about how to visualize in tantra practice – it’s a wonderful text of practical advice – and he says that the method is to gain a general feeling of the whole visualization, so the whole Buddha-figure, and he speaks particularly in terms of visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure. So he says, “Get the whole thing going first in a vague way,” because obviously in the beginning it’s not going to be with perfect clarity, “and then fill in the details one by one, starting with the eyes,” because we tend to identify very closely with the eyes, “and that way you don’t lose the larger scope.” And he says, “Never lose the sense of the whole thing, and within the context of the whole thing fill in the details, and then you’ll get the visualization correctly.”
Perhaps this is a guideline that we could also apply here, that we open up to all sentient beings, don’t lose the context of all beings in terms of equanimity, and then within that, bring into focus, starting with – well, it’s suggested – ourselves, and even in the lojong, the Seven-Point Lojong, Attitude-Training, it says “Start with yourself,” in terms of the practice of tonglen, taking and giving. So within the context of this larger scope of all beings, then start with ourselves and the people we’re close to, and then strangers and people we don’t like – like that.
Maybe that’s a way of resolving this dialectic between everybody and those that actually move our hearts. So we work with the meditation on love. Does anybody have any comment on that? Or can speak from their own experience in doing that type of meditation? How does it work for you “all sentient beings?”
Participant: I work with particularly troublesome life forms like cockroaches, and then I think of the cockroach as, “This is just the manifestation of the karma of this mental continuum that in this lifetime happens to be expressing itself with a cockroach rebirth,” and that helps me.
Alex: Yes, that is very helpful. That goes back to the equanimity meditation of seeing everybody in terms of beginningless and endless mental continuum, and that certainly is the way to do it, to see that it’s just this particular lifetime the karma is manifesting in this form. I remember when I first went to India, I was not very comfortable with all the insects that were there, and we have these large wolf spiders, they’re about the size of your hand, and I was a bit freaked out with them. And I mentioned this to my teacher at the time about how ugly and frightening-looking they are and he said, “Well, from their point of view, you’re the ugly one. You’re the scary one,” and that was helpful.
There’s something else I used, and this is... we’re talking about long ago and I didn’t have such familiarity with Dharma, but I’ve always been a trekky of Star Trek, and before that a science fiction fan. And so I imagined that I was on a given planet and here was the life form: it looked like that, looked like this wolf spider, and how would it do if my reaction of going to a planet and finding extraterrestrial life is that all I want to do is step on it? That would not be very diplomatic. That helped me to develop respect for this life form.
Participant: Thank-you, thank-you, because we have spiders knee-deep around our house right now, and I’ve been not killing them this year...
Alex: Very good. So you have an issue with spiders as well.
Question: It might not be so easy when we do the meditations on love and compassion for all the beings in the other realms – both worse realms and the better realms – that are invisible to us, so how do we relate to them? Maybe for the hellish type of rebirth we can look at the drawings that were produced by survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. This depicts quite horrible things that are reminiscent of hell rebirths.
Alex: I was discussing that the other day in terms of the spectrum of different sense data and physical sensations and happy and unhappy. As I had mentioned, there are leftovers from a hellish rebirth that can be manifested as a human experience. One of my friends who is a Western Buddhist teacher, in order to help his students to get some appreciation for the hell realms, he suggests that they meditate on “What is the thing that you fear the most?” and “Imagine that happening to you,” because the resistance to meditating on hell realms is usually generated from fear.
So confronting our fears is a way of getting into the whole meditations on the hell realms, because that’s really a very significant mental and emotional block that we have to overcome – is fear, fear with dealing with the sufferings of others, “It’s just too terrible and so I don’t even want to deal with that.” “I don’t even want to see it, let alone physically deal with it.” So yes, there are many methods for helping us to get into taking seriously the sufferings of a hell rebirth.
Love is a wish for others to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and so we have to recognize here what happiness we’re talking about. I must say that I haven’t received any specific instructions on that and I haven’t actually read anything about “What is the happiness we’re talking about here?” “What is the unhappiness that we’re talking about with compassion, that you wish everybody to be free of?” and “What’s going on with the exceptional resolve?” which is the next step that comes after that.
But just thinking about it, it seems to me reasonable that this sequence here – and each step is not talking about the same thing, that wouldn’t make terribly much sense to me, and so just my own idea, so don’t take this as scriptural authority, but my own idea with it is that here – with love and wishing for others to be happy, that we’re thinking in terms of regular worldly happiness.
Because in the tonglen practice of giving and taking, first you want to take away their suffering in order for them to be to be able to enjoy happiness, but here the order is reversed. Why is the order reversed? It seemed to me logical that first we want them to be happy, in other words, we don’t want them to have the suffering of suffering, and then with compassion we want them to be free of that worldly happiness, which is the suffering of change. So it’s not just the suffering of suffering that we want them to be free of, but even that worldly happiness that we wish them to have, to go beyond that, and then the exceptional resolve to help them to overcome the all-pervasive suffering of samsara.
In that way, at least to me, it makes sense that we have a sequence of three steps. Maybe that’s true, I never actually checked with any of my teachers to see if that is correct or not, but I always feel that if we have a long enough experience with the Dharma, that we need to put different pieces of the puzzle together and try to see what makes sense in terms of the presentation of the Dharma teachings without going outside of the scope of the Dharma. So, this is my own idea.
So we would want everybody to have happiness, which is like an initial scope, the happiness of better rebirths and so on, and to have the causes of happiness, which would be ethical discipline, refraining from destructive behavior, this type of thing, in other words, we don’t have it to be so vague.
Question: In terms of the four immeasurables, whether equanimity comes first or not, happiness comes before suffering. Are you saying that the happiness in the four immeasurables also is happiness of samsaric life?
Alex: The question is, in terms of the four immeasurables, whether we have equanimity or we have equanimity last, then in the presentation of them would what I just said also make sense? Well, in a sense it would – if you look at the Mahayana presentation of the four. The Theravada presentation is different, because in the Mahayana presentation, joy is the wish for others to have the blissful joy of enlightenment. In the Theravada presentation, joy is rejoicing, rejoicing in the positive things that others have done, it’s the opponent to jealousy. So it’s explained quite differently in the four immeasurables in Theravada.
But in any case, I think that in the Mahayana presentation it does make sense what I was saying, because love is the wish for them to have the ordinary happiness, compassion to be free of that as well, that type of suffering, and then joy, to have complete liberation and enlightenment. So also we have a sequence here, otherwise joy in this Mahayana sense – this has always puzzled me – wouldn’t that be included in love? If you want them to be happy, you want them to have joy. So perhaps that makes sense.
And then equanimity in the beginning is the basis for this, equanimity at the end is usually explained in terms of “May they be free,” others be free of attachment, and aversion etc., which is explained in terms of “But why aren’t they there yet with enlightenment?” “It’s because they have these problems,” and therefore “May they be free from that.” But one could also think of it in another way, which is that “And I wish it for everybody without attachment, aversion and so on,” or “May they spread the happiness of enlightenment to everybody.”
So there are many, many different ways of interpreting and practicing these four immeasurable attitudes. But I think that the fact that one does them in a sequence, that sequence should make some sort of sense, otherwise the order just becomes arbitrary. And one might find the order arbitrary, because many different traditions order them differently, and phrase them differently even. I have an article on that on my website, where I survey the different presentations of the four immeasurables.
I think that there is a very good guideline for how to do love meditation from the four immeasurables that one could apply here, which is the four-part process for each of these four immeasurable attitudes, and that is:
- “How wonderful it would be if everybody had happiness and the causes for happiness.”
- “May they have happiness and the causes for happiness.”
- “May I be able to bring them happiness and the causes for happiness.” That’s why His Holiness always adds a sense of responsibility already with love and compassion. It’s not just limited to the exceptional resolve, the step afterwards.
- And then, “All gurus, inspire me to be able to do this.” This is one of the reasons why I indicated, I think it was yesterday, that where is the source of actually feeling something, if you don’t feel something, “Gurus, inspire me to be able to do this,” so that’s indicative that the inspiration from the guru is very important here.
This is what I was indicating just now, that if you have enough exposure to all the Dharma method… the Dharma is presented to us like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and you have to fit them together and put them together, because they form a network of Dharma practices, as in “everything is interrelated.” In that way we can make our practice more full by drawing in many different complementary aspects, and that’s helpful
So we have love, “May everybody be happy,” at least let’s start with “...free of gross pain, gross suffering, and have the happiness of that.” I think obviously we can also practice it with all the other levels of happiness that one could have, the happiness that you get with shamatha – stilled and settled state of mind – in which you have the happiness, basically, of being free from dullness, and agitation, and nervousness and all of that, and the happiness which is an “untainted happiness.” Sometimes people translate that as “uncontaminated,” which sounds absolutely awful as a choice of words, “contaminated happiness” and “uncontaminated happiness,” it brings us back to Hiroshima, so “tainted” or “untainted,” it’s tainted with confusion or untainted with confusion, basically.
When you’re actually free of grasping for impossible ways of existence, it’s such an enormous relief. It’s like the happiness of taking off tight shoes, if we can use a simple-minded example, that it’s the happiness of being free from all of that. Sure, we could wish them all of that, but as I said, that seems to me to tread over the boundaries of these other attitudes that you develop later on in the sequence, and with the four immeasurables as well.
So we have love, and if we think in terms of all beings and with equanimity and then within that context start with ourselves and others and so on, step by step, then it can be filled in. This I think is what His Holiness was indicating: don’t have it based on a strong bias and attachment for the one that we love, that we would like to be happy; the foundation isn’t stable if it’s based on that, biased.
Then we have compassion, and compassion is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering; and it’s great compassion, which means that it’s aimed equally at everyone. If we want to follow in a sequence of development, we can think here that the suffering we want them to be free of is not just the suffering of suffering, but the suffering of change as well, so the suffering of this unsatisfactory worldly happiness, which never lasts and gives us no security.
There are many different kinds of compassion. There’s great compassion, so all beings, and then fill it in with specific ones. There is, like in Chandrakirti’s presentation, the Indian master, we can think of, “What are the causes of their suffering?” “That they don’t understand cause and effect,” that would be what brings them the suffering of suffering, “They don’t understand voidness,” so that would bring them both the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change, and it would also include here the all-pervasive suffering.
And then we can have unaimed compassion, and “unaimed” is not aimed at any specific being in terms of true existence, of solid existence of anybody. So then we’re just sort of like a sun, radiating love and compassion, and anybody who comes within the sphere of our sunrays... and this is in fact how a Buddha operates, the enlightening influence of a Buddha, a Buddha doesn’t have to do anything, just – the “enlightening influence” of a Buddha is this term “trinlay” (‘phrin-las), translated as “Buddha-activity,” but a Buddha doesn’t have to do anything – it’s just this enlightening influence radiates from a Buddha and anybody who comes into this sunshine is affected by it, if they are receptive. Similarly, this unaimed love and compassion is like that.
We can also understand Chandrakirti’s presentation in terms of we develop, “These people, these beings are suffering, because they don’t understand cause and effect and they don’t understand impermanence,” these sort of things, and it’s not so much that they don’t understand it, but we, in terms of thinking of impermanence and cause and effect, that we develop compassion for them.
This would fit very well with your example of compassion for the cockroaches, that they’re not permanently a cockroach, and they’re manifesting a cockroach rebirth as a result of certain negative karmic force, and so that helps us to develop compassion for the cockroach. And similarly, in terms of understanding the voidness of the cockroach, that helps us to develop compassion for the cockroach, that it is not inherently, from its own side, a cockroach, as its true identity, but that it has arisen dependently on many, many factors and there is no inherent life form whatsoever in terms of a mental continuum.
So there are many different aspects and approaches to compassion that we can use. And certainly it needs to be based on respect. We’re not talking about pitying, looking down, “I’m so much better,” “Poor you,” etc., these things are obviously not part of our development of compassion. And if we have any of that, we should have dealt with it already on the intermediate level of lam-rim practice, in which we were working to overcome disturbing emotions, which would be pride and these sort of things.
Also what comes to mind in terms of watching out for disturbing emotions is something that Shantideva addresses in Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, which is that we need to make sure that we don’t have jealousy in terms of compassion. It is an interesting one. This is in his discussion of rejoicing, overcoming jealousy. If somebody else can take care of this person who is suffering – we need to rejoice in that and not feel jealous that, “I have to be the savior,” “I have to be the teacher.”
This is often the case with Dharma teachers who get jealous and upset if their students go to another teacher. Or it could be with your children, “I want to be able to always take care of my children” and not their marriage partner taking care of them. This type of disturbing emotion can be quite a hindrance to developing compassion. It’s not that “I have to be the savior of the world.” That is an interesting thing that we have to consider, particularly in terms of the next step, which is the exceptional resolve.
The exceptional resolve is not just that “I’m going to take responsibility,” because that was part of love and compassion that there’s a certain courage, that “I’m going to do something to help you to overcome gross suffering,” “I’m going to do something to help you to overcome the suffering of change,” this sort of thing, but now this exceptional resolve is that “I’m going to help you reach liberation and enlightenment.” So it’s much more, this is what’s quite extraordinary here, quite exceptional – “exceptional” is the first syllable of the word [lhag-bsam] that’s used here, in Tibetan.
“So I’m going to take responsibility to try to bring you all the way to liberation and enlightenment.” Now, it’s at this point that the danger really can manifest that, “Me, I’m the savior of the world,” “I have to be the one that actually saves everybody.” Although we have the teaching in Shantideva, where he mentions that this is for joyous perseverance, one of the factors there is that “I alone will do this,” “I don’t care if nobody else does it,” “Even if nobody else is going to do it, I’m going to do it,” but that has to be not an ego-trip, and if somebody else is also doing it – rejoice.
Shantideva gives us tremendously helpful advice concerning so many different aspects of our Dharma practice, this is really a text that we need to really, really familiarize ourselves with as part of daily meditation. A lot of people do as their daily practice these various Buddha-figure or deity practices, and mantra, and sadhanas and all this sort of stuff. Sure, it can be helpful, but what I find is very, very helpful, more helpful in many ways, if we are sincere and honest with ourselves about “what I need and what is actually beneficial to me,” is to make as part of our daily practice – reading.
Tibetans would have memorized it, of course, but we read the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices, or the Eight-Verse Lojong, Attitude-Training, or the Seven-Point Attitude-Training, or go through Bodhicharyavatara, read a portion of it, sort of like our Bible portion of the day. We don’t have to make it into that, but that’s not bad, that’s not bad to take a certain number of verses and read through that as part of our daily practice and think about it. This is excellent, either all or some of those items, very, very good. To me, I find that far more helpful than just mumbling mantras, personally.
Question: Are you suggesting that be done during a meditation session?
Alex: During a meditation session, absolutely, even if it’s just one verse. These things are excellent. Sandwich it between the seven-part prayer and mandala offering on one side and dedication on the other. That’s what I recommend to my students for their meditation, if they’re setting up a daily practice. A lot of people think of practice just as meaning tantra deity practice. I think that’s a mistake to limit it to that. Deity practice doesn’t make any sense without this foundation; otherwise you might as well be visualizing yourself as Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse and leading everybody to Disneyland.
Question: “Unaimed” compassion, is that what is often translated as “objectless” compassion?
Alex: Yes, “objectless” compassion, or “unaimed” compassion, those are two translations of the same thing. The term literally is “compassion without a focus,” without a focal object. You can get into cognition theory and, “Can you have a cognition without a focal object?” We don’t want to get into Chittamatra and Madhyamaka differences of opinion on this, but it means a focal object having an impossible way of existing, so-called “truly established existence.”
This is why I like to throw in the term “established” here, because it’s very confusing to say “true existence” and then you have to tell people, “Well, true existence is actually false existence, because it doesn’t exist at all,” but “truly established existence,” something that is truly established, there it is, big thing.
Question: With this exceptional resolve, isn’t it a bit paternalistic or presumptuous of us to say, “I know what is good for you, I know what is best for you, and so I’m going to help you to do that, to accomplish that, that’s what I’m going to give you?”
Alex: She brings up a wonderful point, which is a good way to lead us to the next step in the meditation, actually. It is because of that limitation that we go from the exceptional resolve to bodhichitta, “The only way that I can really know what is best for you is if I become a Buddha.” Otherwise, we’re pretty much only guessing. Why? Because we don’t know all your background, all the causes of why you have this particular problem. We don’t see the present fully, so we don’t see the full scope of all the things that are giving you difficulty. And we don’t know what effect anything that we tell you, that we suggest is going to have on not only you, but everybody else that you interact with after that on the basis of the effect of what I tell you, what I suggest to you.
That’s why we have to become an omniscient Buddha. However – now we have the however – however, that doesn’t mean that we wait until we become a Buddha before trying to help anybody. We try our best, that’s all we can do, and don’t pretend that we are omniscient. Now this becomes a really very difficult problem, I must say, and we can look to the example of a medical doctor. If a medical doctor says to the patient, “Well, I don’t really know what’s wrong with you, and I don’t really know whether this medicine is going to help or not, but why don’t you try it?” that’s not helpful for a sick person. The doctor.. one of the important features of effectiveness of a doctor is that the doctor gives a sense of confidence to the patient. That’s how a placebo works: it’s based on confidence that “This is going to be effective.” So the attitude is very much involved here with the healing process.
So when we are trying to help others – not as a medical doctor, but in general – what is the best? That’s a hard one, isn’t it? To say, “Well, I don’t really know, but why don’t you try this?” I don’t know that that’s always the most helpful. I think it depends on the person that we’re dealing with. If it’s a child or a young person, as a parent, or an elder, or a teacher or something, the younger person needs some sort of confidence that somebody older knows what they’re talking about, so there I don’t think that it’s helpful to express our uncertainty. If it’s someone our peer or older, maybe the dynamic has to be a little bit different. And again, it depends on rather than saying “I don’t know, but why don’t you try this,” you can say “I suggest this, maybe it will be helpful,” no promises. So I think it depends, you wouldn’t say that to a child, but you would say that to an older person.
Question: In the situation in which we really don’t know what is best, isn’t having the proper motivation to be of benefit a good guideline?
Alex: I’m reminded of the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So I think that one has to watch out for wrong view here, for a distorted view, because I’m sure that the people who have directed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and so on, in their mind, their motivation was to help these people, and that they were sincere in thinking that doing this is going to be of benefit. And missionaries and all this sort of type of intervention is done with good motivation, with good intentions.
So how do we know that acting from a Buddhist point of view and following the guidelines of the Buddha with the motivation to benefit is really going to benefit? And that it’s not just somebody with the Machiavellian scheme thinking that that’s going to benefit others and having a good motivation. We really need to examine the Buddha’s teachings and whatever advice we give, try to base it on a great deal of experience and breadth of knowledge of the teachings. So motivation is a very important component for deciding what to do, or what to advise I should say, but correct view and sufficient information is very important.
Now we get into the whole issue of “What can we do as a Buddha?” Maybe we leave that for this afternoon, but I think it’s essential to realize that we’re not God. We’re not an omnipotent god. Even a Buddha can’t just snap his or her fingers and everything is OK after that. That gets into a whole understanding of cause and effect and voidness of cause and effect. And so in terms of helping others, in order to do it in a sober way, you have to understand the voidness of cause and effect. But we’ll leave all of that to this afternoon, when we actually speak about bodhichitta itself.
Let’s end with a dedication. Whatever positive force and understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to reach enlightenment – that’s the significant thing, for everybody to reach enlightenment, it’s not just me – for the benefit of all.
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