Tonglen (Giving and Taking) in the Context of Equalizing and Exchanging One's Attitudes about Self and Others
Munich, Germany, March 2005
Session One: Mere Equanimity
This weekend I’ve been asked to speak about the tonglen practice, which is usually translated as “giving and taking.” The practice is removing the sufferings from others and taking it onto ourselves, and then giving them happiness. This is a very, very advanced practice and a very difficult practice, because to actually seriously think to take on other people’s sufferings and problems and experience them ourselves is something, which for most of us is very frightening, so of course we have a great deal of resistance to do that. Unless we actually are willing to really experience their suffering, and not just take it away and throw it in the garbage and not experience it ourselves, we’re not really able to do the practice on the actual level that is intended.
The practice is a very, very deep one, because it is really based on helping us to get rid of our self-cherishing attitude, with which we really don’t want to experience... we have enough experiences of difficulties ourselves, we certainly don’t want to experience other people’s difficulties. So this is a practice that we need to have a great deal of preparation to be able to do; otherwise when we do it we’re doing it on a very trivialized level. So we need to see the context within which these teachings and this practice comes. We practice it at a certain stage in a whole series of meditation practices – it’s not what we start with, we don’t begin with it – and this is a series of meditations, which is intended to help us to develop bodhichitta.
Bodhichitta is of course one of the most central themes for our practice of Mahayana Buddhism, so it’s important to really have a clear idea of what bodhichitta is. When we speak of bodhichitta we speak of what’s called “conventional” bodhichitta and “deepest” bodhichitta. Conventional bodhichitta is a mind or a heart that first of all is aimed at the welfare or benefit of everyone. Now, when we say about being aimed at the welfare of everybody, that really means everybody, all the beings of the entire universe, all the insects, everybody.
That’s very, very far-reaching and for most of us quite inconceivable. We can maybe conceive of working for the benefit of all human beings, and maybe for some of the forest animals, but most of us aren’t really terribly interested in the welfare of all the mosquitoes, for example. To be able to work for the benefit of everyone, we need to understand beginningless rebirth, because beings aren’t simply a mosquito and that’s their true identity, or they’re a human being and that’s their true identity.
When we speak of beginningless rebirth or beginningless mind, then we have individual mental continuums, many, many, many individuals’ mental continuums, or “mind-streams” often it’s called. According to the various type of karma that is built up from the previous types of actions, these mental continuums are going to manifest in one life form or another – one lifetime as a mosquito, one as a human being, one as a ghost. From this perspective, all mental continuums are basically equal. It’s only on that basis that we can start to think in terms of working for the welfare of everyone.
I make a distinction in my writing and teaching between what I call “Dharma-Lite” and “The Real Thing Dharma,” sort of like Coca-Cola Lite and Real Thing Coca-Cola. Dharma-Lite is a Dharma without rebirth; it’s a little bit easier for a lot of people to swallow, whereas The Real Thing Dharma includes rebirth. And as I say, for many Western people who are not familiar with rebirth, or haven’t grown up with that, as Tibetans and other Asian cultures have, it’s very difficult to accept.
If we approach this tonglen practice on the basis of Dharma-Lite, then we’re thinking really only of mosquitoes, that they really are only mosquitoes, and then that becomes really very difficult, actually more difficult than doing it in terms of beginningless mind. That’s an additional reason why really to do tonglen on a sincere level is quite advanced. So, as I said, tonglen practice falls within the domain of bodhichitta practice, and bodhichitta, the first aim is the welfare of all beings, the second aim of it is the aim of our own individual enlightenment.
It’s not that we’re focusing on enlightenment in general. It’s not that we’re focusing on Buddha’s enlightenment. We’re focusing on our own future enlightenments, our own individual future enlightenments that we are then aiming to achieve. That is something which is possible to achieve on the basis of our Buddha-nature now, because our actual future enlightenment doesn’t really exist now – does it? – it’s not happening now. So to aim for that future enlightenment, which we’re going to use in order to benefit others, we have to be convinced that it’s possible to achieve it. If we don’t believe that we can achieve it, it’s a little bit strange to aim for achieving it, isn’t it?
And that’s not a very easy one to understand either, that actually it is possible to achieve enlightenment. And that requires having some fairly accurate idea of what enlightenment is, otherwise we might say that we’re aiming to get to India and what we’re thinking of actually is Turkey, we’re not thinking of India. These are some of the basic issues that we need to deal with before we can really develop bodhichitta. And just as we need to be convinced that we can achieve enlightenment, we need to be convinced that everybody else can achieve enlightenment too. Otherwise, when we’re thinking of benefiting them, how can we really aim to help them to gain enlightenment, if we don’t think it’s possible for them to be enlightened?
In many Tibetan Buddhist traditions we have a great deal of emphasis on mahamudra meditation, for instance in the Kagyu lines. This is meditation on the nature of the mind, and that’s very, very relevant here, because if we can really identify and understand the nature of the mind, then we can start to become convinced that enlightenment actually is possible. When we study and practice Tibetan Buddhism and we receive many, many different types of teachings, it really is very important to see how they fit together; otherwise it becomes almost schizophrenic.
So, this is conventional or relative bodhichitta, that we aim to, first of all, be of benefit to others, and then our own future enlightenment with the intention to achieve it, and the intention once we achieve it to be able to actually fulfil the benefit of everyone. It implies working as much as possible now to benefit others, but aiming for the highest state of development that we can reach, so that we can benefit them as fully as is possible. That requires of course having a clear understanding as well of what help is possible that we can give to others.
That’s very relevant to the tonglen practice. Can we actually take away other people’s suffering by just doing some meditation practice, or not? If it were possible through a practice such as this to take away, remove everybody’s suffering, surely Buddha would have done it already, because he had that motivation and was the most highly developed being, or I should say he reached the highest stage of development that’s possible. So if Buddha couldn’t remove everybody’s suffering by doing a practice such as this, how can we?
Whether or not somebody is able to benefit from this type of practice depends very much on the karma of the other individual. The way it works is very similar to doing a long-life puja, or a medicine puja. Buddha is not an almighty god that just is all powerful and can do anything, but doing let’s say a long-life or a Medicine Buddha practice, what it can do is provide circumstances, circumstances for somebody’s positive karma to ripen more quickly than it normally would. It’s like providing a wonderful field with fertilizer and sun and so on for someone else, but if there’s no seed in the field, nothing is going to grow.
Likewise, if the other person doesn’t have the positive karmic potential to get well or to live a long life, nothing is going to happen. Similarly, for this tonglen practice to be effective, the other person needs to likewise have the karmic potential to be rid of whatever it is that they’re suffering from. And we also need to have a strong karmic connection with the other person; otherwise the connection isn’t there for us to be able to provide the circumstances. For this reason, when we practice in general, we always imagine, in any type of practice, that there are millions and millions of beings around us and that we are benefiting them and so on.
We do a Mahayana practice, because what we want to do is to try to build up the karmic connections with as many beings as possible. This is why a Tibetan custom is to chant and do the practices out loud. Even when a Tibetan reads a book, almost every Tibetan will read it out loud. They don’t read it to themselves the way that we do in the West. This is because, in theory at least, they are visualizing a tremendous amount of beings around them listening to what they’re reciting or what they’re reading. Whether or not they actually do visualize that is something else, but they do have this custom of doing everything out loud. So this is for a certain aim or certain purpose.
So whatever level we can do it, it’s helpful to try to make as many connections with others as is possible. So that then you look in the future of what we might be able to achieve and you see the difference between somebody who gives a Dharma lecture and just a few people come and somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives a Dharma lecture and tens of thousands, if not a hundred thousand people in Bodh Gaya come. There has to be a reason for that. So that’s something that we need to have with the other person, the karmic connection, for this tonglen practice to actually work, for us to actually provide that circumstance for their positive karma to ripen.
When we are imagining that we are taking on the suffering of others and actually experiencing it, then that acts as a circumstance for negative karma within ourselves to ripen, so that we actually do experience suffering with a problem that’s similar to what the other person has. And so we have to be totally willing for that to happen, and not be afraid of it, because if we put up resistance, then again the whole practice is not going to work on a very sincere or deep level.
We have to also be able to deal with that suffering and not just sit there and accumulate more and more suffering like a martyr and in the end become completely devastated by it. We need to be able to know how to deal with it. When we are doing that and taking on – it’s called taking on the suffering of others – it’s not actually taking... a football from someone – they have this football, there is their suffering, and then they give it to us and now we have that football. It’s not like that. It’s not the exact same suffering. It’s not that we are actually removing it and taking it literally on ourselves.
Similarly, when we think of giving happiness to others, we need to be able to tap into the basic happiness, the basic bliss of the mind, to be able to give it to them; otherwise where is that happiness coming from? Especially if we’ve just taken on their suffering and we’re sitting there in terrible pain and suffering, how can we then in the next moment give them blissful happiness if we really don’t know the nature of the mind and aren’t able to get down to the deepest nature of the mind. So there’s a very close connection here with mahamudra practice.
All of this is in the area of relative or conventional bodhichitta, and deepest bodhichitta is the mind that is aimed at the deepest truth, so voidness, the nature of the mind and so on, many different ways of describing it.
This is the general context within which these tonglen practices are found. Then we might say, “Well, this is really too advanced,” but there are also other aspects of the practice that can be approached a little bit earlier to this stage of actually taking on suffering of others. This is, basically in our imagination, imagining that we take on suffering, basically in order to smash our self-cherishing, which puts up the resistance and says, “No, I don’t want to experience this. I don’t want to get involved, it’s too horrible.” So what we try to do is to smash through, or break through that resistance, because, as I say, to do this practice and think that we’re not going to get our hands dirty – we’re not going to suffer – is not really doing the practice.
So we have to work on that resistance that we have, that self-centered resistance that says, “I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to experience other people’s problems.” This is the level at which most of us will practice tonglen, because in fact in almost all cases it really won’t be possible to actually help the other person with this practice. This is why, when it is mentioned in the Eight-Verse Lojong, the mind-training, or attitude-training teaching, it refers to this practice as a practice which is to be kept secret or private. You don’t tell other people that you’re doing this, because then you make a fool of yourself when you’ve announced that you’re doing it and no results come.
In order to practice these teachings as a method for overcoming self-cherishing, then we need to again look at it within the sequence of practices that we do for developing the bodhichitta aim, the relative bodhichitta aim. That’s what I would propose to do this weekend, is go through the steps that lead up to the tonglen practice, and then introduce the tonglen practice, so that we can try to avoid doing tonglen on just a completely trivialized, superficial level. OK?
Before we then start on these series of meditations, are there any questions so far?
Question: Did I understand it correctly that through tonglen practice our own negative karma could be activated similar to Vajrasattva practice?
Answer: Well, Vajrasattva practice is basically to purify our negative karma, so that it isn’t activated and that we get rid of it. In doing Vajrasattva practice – although there may be other explanations – I haven’t heard that actually you activate negative karma. But here the tonglen practice, how do you account for the fact that you experience suffering when actually doing this practice? Then we would have to say that a certain amount of negative karma has been activated.
So it’s similar to certain protector practices. There are two ways in which protector practices can work; and again, doing a protector practice provides circumstances for karma to ripen. The stable way of doing that is by doing a protector practice it provides the circumstances for your negative karma to ripen. So you’re doing a protector practice before going on a journey, so the negative karma that would ripen, that would make an obstacle, now it will ripen in a very minor, trivial form, so that you’ve gotten rid of it. Then your own positive karma doesn’t have any obstacles for ripening.
For example, I went on several world tours with my teacher as his interpreter and in going down to Delhi by train, there was some mix-up with the train reservations, and we didn’t get the proper train reservation, and we could just get two places to sleep right by the toilet in a third-class train, and the attendants had to sit on the floor all night. In this way the obstacle ripened in something which was uncomfortable, but basically trivial and no big deal, and then after that the whole trip went very, very easily, no problems.
That’s a clear example of how protector pujas work, whereas the other way that unreliable protector practices work is that it acts as a circumstance for your positive karma to ripen. This you don’t want, because if it acts only as a circumstance for that, you’re still left with all the negative potentials, and once the positive karma is used up, then you’re just left with a lot of negative, rather than having the negative ripen in something small and then you’re finished with it.
Even if we haven’t done a protector practice – this is a piece of advice that comes from the lojong, the mind-training, or attitude-training practices of turning negative circumstances into positive ones – when a negative circumstance comes – you miss the train or you miss... whatever – you say, “Wonderful. Great. I’m so happy, because now the negative karmic potentials are finished.” So you change the negative circumstance into a positive one, regardless of whether you’ve done some protector puja, and it’s very helpful in terms of not being so upset. In that way we don’t suffer so much when we miss our train. The tonglen practice is a little bit similar to that.
But we shouldn’t think that negative karma is only going to ripen in something trivial. We should be prepared for the negative karma to ripen in something major, for instance that we die, and we need to be perfectly prepared for that. My own teacher Serkong Rinpoche, when he taught this – and the way that I’m teaching it comes from his teachings – mentioned that Kunu Lama Rinpoche, who was probably the only Tibetan that actually all the Tibetans recognized as a bodhisattva, he’s the one who taught His Holiness the Dalai Lama Bodhicharyavatara, the Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, that when he used to teach it, he used to really emphasize that you must be willing to die.
And he gave a very nice example. He used the example of – and he said, “Don’t be like this example – there was an old woman who was standing over her sick husband and doing this practice, “May this suffering come on me. May this suffering come on me…” and then a donkey, which had a feedbag over its snout, stuck its head through the window, and she thought it was really some demon, and so she shouted to it, “Get him! Get him, not me!” So don’t be like that.
Serkong Rinpoche himself actually died through this practice of tonglen, and he practiced with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama and was probably the one that was most close to him. Not only did he teach him, but his position was to go to every teaching that His Holiness received, so that His Holiness had somebody to share the complete breadth of his education with and discuss and debate and make sure that he understood.
So, His Holiness was travelling to Geneva – this is back in 1983 – and at the same time Yasser Arafat was going to be landing in Geneva airport, and the Swiss authorities said that they couldn’t guarantee His Holiness’s safety. Serkong Rinpoche with his extrasensory abilities – which I certainly saw demonstrated at various times, he did have them – knew this danger and knew that there was a danger to His Holiness’s life. And he was up in the mountains of Spiti – this is on the border of Tibet – and he went to a certain person’s home that he had a connection with and asked if he was busy, if it was OK for him to stay, and he brought with him an old monk that he told what he was going to do.
And that night he was very affectionate with the attendant, which normally he wasn’t, patting him on the shoulder and these type of things, and then when he went to sleep, he did this tonglen practice. And he slept in a certain position – normally he slept how the Buddha passed away – but he laid down with his arms crossed in more a tantra position, and did this practice and just passed away, just died. I had taken him for a medical examination only about maybe two weeks before. He was perfectly healthy. And just at that same time as he passed away, His Holiness was in the air, Yasser Arafat was in the air, and all of a sudden Yasser Arafat decided not to go to Geneva. The plane turned around and went somewhere else.
And His Holiness landed in Geneva and his motorcade got lost, it wasn’t the proper police protection and so on, so it was some minor inconvenience to His Holiness, but nothing terrible happened to His Holiness. Serkong Rinpoche took that possibility of the death of His Holiness on and actually died – this is The Real Thing, this isn’t Dharma-Lite, this is The Real Thing. And he was reborn exactly nine months to the day after he had passed away – no hanging out in the bardo, or anything like that – he just immediately took rebirth, and he was born in the same area in Spiti, again with somebody that was known to him.
And when he was old enough to talk – his picture was in the house, he was very well-known in that area, he helped to revive Buddhism there – as soon as he was old enough to talk, he would point to the picture and say, “That’s me.” So it was very, very easy to find him. His Holiness also had a dream of where he was, so it was simple, so it was very easy to find him, and he continues, very close to His Holiness.
Question: Could you explain this continuity? You said that there are countless living beings, and at the same time each of them has a mind which is continuing. Could you elaborate on this? How is this possible?
Answer: When we speak about mind, what we’re speaking about in Buddhism is actually mental activity. We’re not talking about something physical; we’re talking about what the physical basis does, the brain, the nervous system. We can describe the activity from a chemical and electrical point of view, a physical point of view; that’s not what we’re talking about. We can also describe it from the point of view of experience, subjective experience, and that’s what mind is speaking about, the subjective experience as a way of describing the mental activity, And this is quite clear that when two people experience a movie for example, they could have the same chemical activity going on in the two brains of perception, but their experience of it is going to be quite different: one will like it, one won’t like it.
Now, when we speak of continuities, what we’re speaking of is the relation of cause and effect. So if one moment of experience is going to generate the next moment of experience and so on, then it doesn’t make any sense that there’s a first moment that has no cause prior to it, or that there’s a final moment that doesn’t have any result from it. And you can’t say that the physical basis is the cause for the mental activity – that it comes from the parents – because that doesn’t make any sense either. And there are many arguments and discussions for that, but that would take a long time to go through the logic of it, because what’s the difference between a live brain and the dead brain? From a physical point of view that’s quite difficult to say.
Also it doesn’t make any sense that subjective mental activity is created by an almighty god, and there are many arguments for that, but if the god created something, there has to be a circumstance that caused him or her to create at that particular moment, a whim or something like that, “OK, I’ll create.” And that means that god is not almighty, but was under the influence of some other circumstance, so it’s self-contradictory. For that reason you’d have to say that there’s no beginning. It’s similar to what we say in physics, that matter and energy have neither a beginning nor an end, only can be transformed. It’s the same thing with mental activity.
All the mental continuums, when we speak in Buddhism, they are all individual. It’s not that there’s a universal mind, or a universal Brahma, like in some forms of Hinduism, that all the minds are actually one. Buddhism doesn’t say that we are all one, because in general there’s a problem with that in terms of responsibility. If we’re all one big undifferentiated soup, then there’s no reason to take responsibility for helping anybody.
So, they’re individual continuums and, depending on the type of behavior that one does, that builds up certain potentials that are going to then influence the type of physical basis that the mental activity is going to work with. And so there’s nothing inherent on the side of the mental activity that determines it as this life form or that life form, or this gender or that gender, or this nationality or that nationality. So like that we have what is called a countless number of these. Countless is the highest finite number, but it is finite, it’s not infinite, because there are no more beings being created. There is a certain fixed number, but it is too large to be able to count. That’s why it’s called countless.
Question: The number of beings forms a totality, so that it is a contained system?
Answer: This is correct, and countless can be taken literally, but it’s not really to be taken literally, it’s to be taken as a name for the largest finite number; it’s a name, like you have million, billion, trillion and so on, in Indian mathematics it’s ten raised to the sixtieth power. Now, obviusly we could imagine ten raised the the sixty-first power, but it’s just that they have numbers all the way up to that. So it’s the largest number.
You asked, are each of the individual continuities then only on the basis of mental activity or consciousness? We have to be a little bit careful with the word “consciousness,” because then you get into “an unconscious,” and so on, and we don’t want to go there in this discussion. But no, we can also describe the continuity as of the most subtle level of mental activity, which can also be described from the point of view of the subtlest energy; so there’s an energy component to it as well.
But this point of the number of beings being finite, but rebirth being infinite is a very important point in terms of the later practices and meditations that come from that, such as “all beings have been my mother in some lifetime.” That then becomes a very interesting proof. How do you prove that everybody has been our mother? Giving it to a mathematician, he can only prove it on the basis of the number of beings being finite and the rebirths being infinite. On that basis you can prove it; if both were infinite you couldn’t prove it.
There is a very good proof that we came up with for this. Tibetans don’t bother to try to prove it, but I put it to a very learned Tibetan Geshe and he agreed that it proved it. “If one being has been my mother, then all beings have been my mother, because all beings are equal. If that were not the case and if one being was not my mother, then nobody has ever been my mother, because all beings are equal.” Think about that. That’s a perfect Prasangika argument, the absurd conclusion. If the number of beings is finite, time is infinite, and all beings are equal, then this proof proves it.
Question: And it never stops?
Answer: And it never stops, except when...well, even if you are a Buddha, you could manifest being born from somebody, like Buddha Shakyamuni did. It’s very important when we come across these statements, which are just sort of thrown out to us in Buddhism, “all beings have been your mother.” To just believe that and actually work with it is quite difficult. At one point you sort of say, “Hey, does this make any sense?” But if you can actually prove it... now this is a very nice little proof: if everybody is equal, then if one person has never been your mother, nobody has been your mother, including your mother of this lifetime, because they’re equal.
Question: If I have been mother to all beings and all beings have been mother to me, then we’re at zero.
Answer: Not that it’s zero, but nobody is special and everybody is special. Nobody is more special than anybody else. That’s a very important basis for this tonglen practice; otherwise we just want to do it with people we like.
Question: But if we look at this planet, this earth, if we look at it from a historical point of view, the number of beings on the planet has increased.
Answer: Certainly, but Buddhism doesn’t limit life to this planet. It says that there’s life throughout the universe – and there are many other universes besides this universe – even if we think in terms of this universe that is known to science, with a Big Bang and a Big Crunch, or however you want to conceive of it. Well, first of all, the scientists are starting to get to a theory in which that wasn’t the totality, that there could have been something prior to that. But Buddhism also says that there are many other universes like that, and they go through their cycles not in synchronicity with each other. There’s always some place for beings to incarnate, and there are many different forms besides what we can see just with our eyes.
If we think of all these other life forms – the hell beings and the gods and so on – then likewise we need to think in a more rational type of way about it and not in a Dharma-Lite way, which says, “Well, they’re just really just human states that they’re talking about.” It is understandable, and the way that... at least I find it helpful to understand it – from my own way of thinking, I haven’t heard this from someone else – is that we need to look at pleasure and pain as a spectrum, just as we would look at light and sound as a spectrum. As a human being, with this type of apparatus, there is only a certain area in the light spectrum that we can perceive with this hardware. We can’t perceive x-rays, we can’t perceive infrared and so on, but there are beings that can see better in the dark than we can and so on.
The same thing with sound, we can only hear a certain part of the spectrum, dogs can hear a different part of the spectrum that we can’t hear. The same thing must be true with pleasure and pain. If you look at pain, as a human being there is a threshold at which, when the pain becomes too intense, you become unconscious, you can’t experience it. It’s part of the hardware; the hardware can’t sustain that level of pain, so it shuts down. The same with pleasure, if the pleasure becomes too intense, then we automatically destroy it.
Like for instance an itch. If you look at an itch, an itch is actually pleasure, it’s in the category of pleasure, pure pleasure. But you can’t stand it, it’s too intense, and so you destroy it. The same thing in sex, you have an orgasm – the pleasure is too intense, so it has to end. That’s a limitation of the hardware of the human body. So, the spectrum of pleasure and pain is there. So it is theoretically possible to have a life form with the hardware that would be able to experience much, much further on the pain side of the spectrum and much more on the pleasure side of the spectrum.
In this way we can understand the six realms as being quite logical. Like that you can have these mental continuums being able to experience different aspects of the sense spectrums for each of the senses in different lifetimes.
Question: Why do you differentiate mental activity from consciousness when you speak of this continuity?
Answer: Because the continuity has to include what we would... consciousness in one sense is used in the Buddhist sense for eye consciousness, ear consciousness, mind consciousness and so on. But if you look at it from a Western point of view, then we speak about being conscious and being unconscious, and being unconscious is still a form of mental activity; it’s a very low level of mental activity. And even when you’re dead there’s mental activity, there is the death level of mental activity that’s providing the continuity, and so mental activity is just a much more general word. We’re talking about the mental continuum, a type of continuum of mental activity.
We have to always be careful about the terminology, and if the terminology is confusing, ask for an explanation of what they’re talking about. OK, let’s go on.
There are two general methods for developing bodhichitta or – once we have already developed bodhichitta – to reaffirm it and restrengthen it each day. The first of these methods is known as the seven-part cause and effect meditation, which starts with (1) recognising all beings as having been our mother in some lifetime, and then (2) remembering motherly kindness, and then (3) appreciating that kindness, wanting to naturally repay it, although the emphasis is more on appreciating. It’s not that we owe them something; that can get a little bit neurotic.
When we really appreciate and value that kindness that we’ve been shown, then we develop what’s called (3.5) a “heartwarming love,” that we feel really warm and close to everyone, and then (4) love – the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness – and (5) compassion, wishing them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Already in compassion, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, there’s a sense of responsibility, but the next step, which is called (6) the “exceptional resolve,” is that “I’m going to actually do it.”
This is what His Holiness refers to as “universal responsibility,” and that “I’m going to not just try to eliminate the gross suffering, but bring them to enlightenment,” a much larger sense of responsibility. And then, in order to actually bring them to enlightenment, then (7) bodhichitta, focusing on the welfare of everyone and then enlightenment and the aim to achieve it. So that’s one way of developing bodhichitta.
The second way is called the equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others. It is within this second set of teachings, which derives from Shantideva, Bodhisattvacharyavatara, that the tonglen practice is found. Both methods of developing bodhichitta, however, start with a prior step. I often think of the example of Tegel Airport in Berlin, which is a marvellous airport, because it has gate number zero – I’ve never seen in any airport in the world – it has gate number zero, which is great because that’s like “there’s the seven-step method,” but there’s also gate number zero for that, which is a step before, and that’s the development of equanimity.
That comes as a step before the seven and as the step before the equalizing and exchanging self with others. There are two types of equanimity which are explained in the Tibetan tradition. We can see this in the line within the four immeasurable attitudes, where it says “the equanimity that is free from attachment and repulsion,” and the other one is “free from concepts of close and far.” Those are two different forms of equanimity. The first one is what is called the Hinayana method for developing equanimity.
In the Hinayana, the main emphasis is on getting rid of the disturbing emotions, and so this equanimity is the state of mind that is free of attachment to some beings, repulsion from others, and indifference to yet others. We need an equanimity that is free of all of these, so that we are equal to everyone. So it’s basically getting rid of these disturbing emotions, so that we are tranquil and open to everybody. Tibetans describe it as, if you’re going to make a road, first you have to smooth out the pebbles and the rocks. This is called in Tibetan “mere” equanimity.
Then the second one is the equanimity which is free of concepts of close and far, which is when we are actually involved with helping others, then at that time not to consider some people closer to me, so, “I’m going to help them first or help them more,” and others are distant, “I don’t want to help them so much.” That is called the Mahayana aspect of equanimity. Both ways of developing bodhichitta begin with the Hinayana level of equanimity, so that’s where we need to begin. That’s the basis, because as we were discussing, one wants to be able to benefit everybody.
If we’re thinking in terms of everybody, then obviously we need to be equally open to everybody. Now, this is unbelievably difficult. One shouldn’t trivialize this, to have an equal open attitude to your most beloved friend and the political figure we dislike the most – that’s not exactly easy – let alone the mosquito. So these bodhichitta practices are things that one really has to work at for a long time and not kid ourselves into thinking, “Oh, I’ve mastered it.” We gradually, gradually extend ourselves.
The Indian master Vasubandhu – in his commentary on his abhidharma text, Text About Special Objects of Knowledge [Chos-mngon-pa'i mdzod-kyi rang-'grel, Skt. Abhidharmakosha bhashya], where he discusses this – says you start in stages for these type of practices. Like for equanimity he says you start with somebody that you don’t have any particular relation with, just naturally you don’t feel any attraction or repulsion. And then you may have to work on indifference, of course, which is not so easy.
Then you try to extend that to somebody that you really like, someone that you middle like, and someone that you like, but not so much, to then bring that together with somebody that we don’t really know. And then extend it a little bit to somebody that we don’t like, but it’s only a litle bit that we dislike, then somebody at middle level we dislike, and then somebody that we really strongly dislike, But even then within the category of people that we personally know, let alone we’re not political, that means we don’t know, and then you start to slowly extend beyond the people that we personally know. Like this you don’t just automatically, from the beginning start to put everybody together, that’s much too difficult.
But here, in this particular teaching that’s given in the Mahayana, in the bodhichitta context, we do it slightly differently, because here we are filling out how to actually do it, how do you actually develop it. And the way that’s described in Mahayana is not just “Feel it,” there’s some sort of line of reasoning of how you get yourself into this state of mind, so it’s filled out more, there’s more in it. And for this, there’s a Dharma-Lite version, just thinking in terms of this lifetime, but The Real Thing way of explaining it takes into consideration past and future lives. Now that becomes a little bit more meaningful. Otherwise, there’s a lot of problems actually in this meditation for how to include the mosquito, for example
For this meditation we need to choose three representative persons: somebody we dislike very much, somebody that we like very much, and somebody that we know, but we generally totally ignore them. They may be somebody who works in a store that we go to, or a person who sells tickets at the movie theater. We start with one at a time. We can just do it as I explain it.
OK, we choose somebody that we don’t like. Try to imagine this person, and please, this is not an exercise in visualization, so it doesn’t matter how clearly you can actually imagine the person. All we need is something to represent the person; it could just be their name. And don’t choose somebody that has abused you or some really heavy thing, because that’s much too difficult to work with, just somebody you dislike. It could be a noisy neighbour; it could be somebody at work.
And as you think of this person, then you let the dislike arise, that you find this person really unpleasant and repulsive and really annoying. And the feeling can arise even further, that you think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if something nasty happened to this person?” Like you have somebody playing loud music on the other side of the wall from our appartment and, “How wonderful it would be if their sound equipment broke and their television broke.” These types of thoughts certainly come up, don’t they? And then you stop this emotion from getting too strong. It’s not an exercise to train ourselves to have nasty thoughts about somebody, but what we want to do now is examine, “Why do I feel like this?”
And we examine, we say, “Because” – for instance, this neighbour playing the television so loudly late at night – “They are keeping me up. I want to go to sleep.” “They’re doing something that is harmful to me,” or “They’re keeping my children awake,” or “my loved ones.” “That’s why I want their television to explode,” or for them not to get what they want, which is to watch this program until two o’clock in the morning. And then we ask ourselves if that is a sufficient reason to want something terrible to happen to them.
We’d have to say “No,” because – here’s where the past lives come in – we could say that, “In past lives this person has been very kind to me innumerable times,” and “Later in this lifetime it’s not certain what will happen. They could at some time be of great help and a good friend,” such things are possible. In future lives as well, “I may be born as their child, or they may be born as my child,” and “I’ll need to depend on them being kind to me.” “Now I’ll have to depend on them” – it’s difficult if we think only in terms of this life, because it could be possible that they’re nasty to us their whole lives.
And if you think of countries that were enemies in the Second World War and now are friends, we can understand that enemies can become friends. “And so because of some small reason, like this person is keeping me awake, that I consider them my enemy and wish for them to have something terrible happen really will not do, that’s not proper.” “Looking at the larger picture, at the larger timeline, then there’s no reason to hold on to my anger and dislike for just some slight harm that they might do to me now,” or in this period of time.
Then we try to focus on this person without anger and repulsion, like when we meet this noisy neighbor in the hall. It’s also helpful to think of the example. “If I get angry at them, then I’m no better than a dog.” The master is always very kind to the dog, but if the master teases the dog and pokes it with a stick, then the dog gets angry and barks and bites. “So if I get angry over a little thing, I’m no better than this dog.” Examples from the animal realm are often used by the Tibetans and very helpful.
Then we think of the person that we like very much and let the feeling arise that if they were to walk in the room, and it doesn’t matter who we were speaking to, we would just want to rush over and be with them. We’d be quite willing to ignore everybody else that we were speaking to and just rush over to greet our friend. Now, we might even act like a puppy dog that’s so excited when its master comes home and just jumps all over. That’s also a very helpful image when we start to act like that. And then we stop that emotion from getting even stronger and we examine, “Why do I feel like that toward this person?”
“Well, because they’ve done something nice to me,” or “They’ve been kind to me,” or “There’s a hope that they will give me affection,” or something like that, “They make me feel good to be in their presence.” And again we ask ourselves, is this a sufficient reason to act like the puppy dog? In past lives they could have been our enemy, they could have hurt us, they could have been a mosquito drinking our blood. And in this life they can certainly cause us a tremendous amount of pain. In fact the people that we’re most attached to are the ones that do cause us the most pain when they don’t call. When they say something a little bit unkind, this hurts much much more than anybody else saying that. And if they leave us, my goodness, we’re in such pain. That’s really true, if you think about it.
“So why do we consider them our friend?” In future lives as well they could hurt us. And if we just rush to be with this person, then we really are no different from these insects that go to a carnivorous plant. The plant looks so beautiful and then they go inside and chomp! they’re snatched and they’re eaten. So we decide that, “Just because for some period of time this person is nice to me and they make me feel good, this is not a sufficient reason. I’m not going to just rrrrun mindlessly to this person with attachment and attraction. I’m going to try to view this person without this attachment, just calm, open” – it doesn’t mean that we’re going to ignore them – just tranquil, not like the excited puppy dog.
And then we choose the person that we don’t know at all, who is a stranger and whom we neither like nor dislike, like we used the example of the person who sells us the ticket at the movie theatre. And let yourself feel “nothing,” neither the wish to help this person nor to harm this person. We don’t want to get rid of them; we don’t want to spend time with them; just nothing. We just would ignore them; we don’t really even consider them as a human being. And maybe we’re not personally like that, but there are many people who are like that. Many people do have that sort of attitude of not considering somebody else a human being in that situation, particularly when we’re in a hurry. So then we examine, “Why do I not feel anything for this person?”
“It’s because they haven’t really done very much. They haven’t really helped me, they haven’t really hurt me, and I have no connection with this person.” Right? Like the people we see around us in the subway, and we ask ourself, “Is that reasonable?” No, because in past lives they could have been our friend, in future lives they could be our friend, and in this very life they could turn out to be our best friend. Every friend that we have started out as a stranger. And so we then try to view this person in our minds without this attitude of indifference, that “I don’t care,” we ignore the person like a tiger would ignore grass.
And now the final step, we imagine all three of these people together, like let’s say we are having dinner at the dinner table with these three persons. Sometimes that happens at family dinners – doesn’t it? – where there’s someone we like, the relative that really annoys us, and somebody brought someone that we don’t know. We imagine being at the table with them and we think about the following: what’s the difference between somebody who gave us a hundred euros yesterday and slapped us in the face today and someone who slapped us in the face yesterday and gave us a hundred euros today? What’s the difference?
There is no difference. It’s just a matter of time when everybody will be kind to us and everybody will be unkind to us, and everybody will be a stranger and everybody will be somebody that we know. In this way we try to view these three persons with an even state of mind that’s not attracted to one, repelled from another, and ignoring the third. This is the tough step.
OK, this is how we do this first basic fundamental meditation, because if we want to approach others in a kind, compassionate, loving way, if we want to do tonglen and so on, we have to be free of this attraction, repulsion, and indifference.
Join us in trying to benefit others.
Support our work!
This website relies completely on donations. Its maintenance, preparation of the remaining 70% of our planned material, and further translating is costly. Although we currently have 80 volunteers, 23 essential team members require payment. Help us raise the 100,000 euros (US $150,000) required each year
to continue providing our website free of charge.
Reaching Our Goal (30%)