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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session Six: Verses Fifteen and Sixteen

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:29 hours)

In Atisha’s text, A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, the text is speaking about how to meditate and put into practice bodhichitta.

(15a) And when a feeling of discouragement arises,
Let me praise the glories of the mind.

This is speaking about a major problem that comes up when we want to meditate on bodhichitta and this is discouragement and feeling that “It’s too much,” and “I can’t do it.” The advice here is to praise the glories of the mind. “The glories of the mind” is referring to the wonderful aspects of the mind, referring specifically to the various aspects of Buddha-nature. If we can focus on the Buddha-nature aspects, and we have some idea of what Buddha-nature means, then that can help us to overcome our discouragement.

How do we actually deal with this on a practical level? This is a very important question if we’re going to be able to somehow approach our bodhichitta meditation now. And I think, from my own experience, my own way of dealing with this, and a little bit of discussion I’ve had with others, that Tsongkhapa’s general advice in terms of how you do a visualization is very helpful here. What he says is that first you get a general picture of a visualization, so you have some sort of object of focus, and then, as you gain better and better concentration, the details will come. But don’t worry about the details in the beginning, because if you do, you’re going to get very frustrated.

[See: A Letter of Practical Advice on Sutra and Tantra.]

I think that this also is a very helpful piece of advice with respect to how to meditate on bodhichitta. When we’re doing a visualization of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, the main thing then to focus on is the feeling, it’s called the “pride of the deity,” in which we have a feeling of actually being the Buddha-figure with just a vague object to focus on in terms of the clarity. So the same thing with bodhichitta.

I think that a general feeling of it, the pride of having bodhichitta – this is pride in a positive sense – is very helpful, and that’s the thing to focus on, rather than the details of what enlightenment actually means, and each individual being, and all these little details, which are not so little, but which are just going to get us very, very frustrated, because then we think, “How could I possibly... in speaking, in one word, everybody understands it in a different language, and I can speak every language,” and “How can I multiply into a million, billion forms,” and stuff like that. If we think like that, we’re going to get very discouraged, if we think in terms of, “How could I possibly multiply my body into billions of forms.” So I don’t think it’s helpful in the beginning at all. It’s the feeling that we need to focus on.

In the beginning, we need to build ourselves up to actually feeling this feeling of bodhichitta, this state of mind. It’s much further on the path that it’s going to come automatically. So we build it up either with the seven-part cause and effect meditation or the equalizing and exchanging of self with others. It’s not the time for me to go through all the details of how to do that, but the main point of it, I think – in terms of the feeling that we want to start to generate – is a huge, huge openness and extending out the boundaries of our concern.

[See: Seven-Part Cause and Effect Quintessence Teaching for Developing Bodhichitta. See also: Equalizing and Exchanging One's Attitudes about Self and Others.]

Whether that feeling of concern is so strong or not, that’s going to grow with time; that’s like the visualization, it comes more and more in focus. But to open up to this scope of “everyone is equal, and so I have equal concern for everyone,” and don’t get caught up in the details of “What about the cockroach?” and “What about the mosquito?” and “What about the hell creature?” and stuff like that – that’s detail. The point is to open up to the scope, just this openness, this wideness.

And then add to it a feeling quality of, “I want to be happy, so does everybody else. I don’t want to suffer, so does everybody else. We’re all equal,” and have that general feeling of the wish to be happy and the wish not to be unhappy. Let that likewise expand out beyond the boundaries of just little “me,” and just open up, let that radiate out. And then add to that this feeling, “Well, really to be able to do that fully, I need to reach enlightenment, everybody needs to reach enlightenment, and so I really want to do that, so that means doing it for everybody.”

So it’s like we have this sun of love and compassion and concern for others and to bring everyone to enlightenment – and don’t just have it enclosed in the house of our body and limited in terms of its concern for just ourselves. What you want to do is get rid of that boundary and just try to imagine that sun shining infinitely. Don’t worry about how far – is it a thousand kilometers, a million kilometers, twenty million light years? – it doesn’t matter. The point is to try to have a feeling of infinity, in a sense, of just: it goes out limitlessly, this concern – this is the whole point, to get a vast, vast heart, a vast, vast mind.

Then we think in terms of, “Enlightenment, this is what I need to reach,” and that enlightenment is – likewise, you don’t have to have all the details, just the general feeling of it – is the highest state possible of evolution with all the limitations removed. Just try to have that feeling of expansion out to that. And it doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take, so there’s also an expansion in terms of a feeling of time. And so this is this vast, vast feeling area going out in all dimensions, not just spatial, but temporal dimensions, and dimensions of development, and qualities and stuff like that – without the detail. Don’t worry about the detail, just have that feeling of vastness. That’s what Mahayana means: vastness of this warmth.

Then, within that, like an illusion, there is a form of a Buddha. Whether it’s ourself as a Buddha-figure if we’re doing tantra, or a figure in front of us, or if you want to do it mahamudra style, it’s just the state of the mind of itself, the clarity of the mind itself, which represents what we’re trying to achieve. That is a focus, you have a dual focus – this huge vastness, and some representation of it – and then it’s like a magnet, just drawing toward that, drawing to that representation and also drawing toward this huge scope as well, to help others.

That’s what you focus on with bodhichitta; so it’s not just simple compassion, “Oh, you poor person on the street, I want to help you.” It’s not that at all; it’s much, much more vast. That’s the state of mind that you want to develop, and it brings tears to your eyes, your heart is just so full, it’s just so overwhelming, and you don’t worry about the detail. That truly is an extraordinary state of mind.

Now, the whole question “is enlightenment possible?” that’s a very, very difficult question, a very difficult one to become fully convinced by logic. And so what one does – like how you approach the whole question of rebirth, particularly as a Western person – is that you give it the benefit of the doubt. In other words, you say, “Well, let’s suppose that it is possible, and then let’s work with that and see where it leads. And I will be patient, because I realize that it’s really difficult to understand, really difficult to be convinced of and it’s going to take years and years and years and years and years till I reach that level. And it’s never going to be ‘Hallelujah, now I believe,’ in any case.”

So work with it, accustom my mind to that. And so what do you work with? You work with Buddha-nature, as it says here. Buddha-nature, so what are we talking about? These are all the factors that will allow this endless development to happen. We have various factors that can be grown, that can develop – the natural warmth of the mind, the natural instinct you’re feeling to take care of someone, the natural quality of the mind for the energy to go out, the ability of the mind to understand, the ability to communicate, the ability to feel, the positive force that is there – all these things are qualities that can be developed further and further, but the basic thing is there.

And then also the abiding Buddha-nature. This is the voidness of the mind, and the voidness of the mind, it allows for change, it allows for a development – it’s also a Buddha-nature factor. Then the third type of Buddha-nature factor is the fact that the mind can be inspired to develop and to grow; we’re not like a piece of rock. When we focus on these things, these three types of Buddha-nature factors, then it gives us encouragement, and it can grow and grow further, and we have a little bit of an idea of the qualities of the Buddha that we’re aiming for – but don’t get hung up on that, then you get discouraged – just this feeling that it is possible to grow, these factors are there, and the mind is in this scope of this great vastness. Then you start to be able to actually meditate on bodhichitta.

Working with this basis of Buddha-nature, we don’t get discouraged, if our mind is open to this vastness. It will come later that it’s clear what really does Buddhahood mean and really becoming more and more convinced that it is possible to reach it. The main thing is this vastness, the feeling that’s part of it, and the basic confidence that the working materials are there.

Don’t get into this whole trip of “I can’t do it,” “It’s too much,” “This is impossible,” because then we’re identifying with the limited me. Rather than the pride of the deity, we have the pride of the samsaric me. That doesn’t help. Especially if we can, remind ourselves in terms of voidness that, “This is bullshit; this is not the way that I am.” And to have this focus on the not-yet-happening of that future enlightenment: we know that we’re not there, so we’re not fooling ourselves.

(15b) And meditate on the voidness of both (states).

Also for avoiding discouragement, we meditate on the voidness of the inadequate samsaric state, that “I can’t really help everybody now,” and the voidness of the enlightened state that we’re aiming for. So it’s not that this is one ping-pong ball now – as we’ve been using this image – “poor limited me, I can’t possibly help anybody, or I can only help them in a very trivial way,” and this ping-pong ball – this enlightenment – that’s up in the sky and impossible to reach.

Both of them are going to arise according to causes and conditions. We have the conditions there, which are the Buddha-nature factors; and so it’s a matter of building up positive force, building up deep awareness, practicing and so on with the understanding of voidness that things are going to arise dependently in terms of cause and effect and the effort that we put into it. That helps us to overcome discouragement, that it’s impossible, that and – as we said earlier in terms of joyful perseverance – a realistic attitude. Accept that it’s going to be difficult. We’re not fooling ourselves. Accept that it’s going to be difficult. But is there anything else that’s worthwhile to do in life?

Everything else is trivial compared to that. Shantideva says it very, very well in his first chapter, the praises to bodhichitta, the benefits of it.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 1.]

Even if it’s not possible to reach enlightenment – which is where we would be working now, because we still are a little bit... you know, indecisive wavering, “Is it possible or not; it just sounds too fantastic” – even if it’s not, it doesn’t matter. And whether or not there are actually enlightened beings now, or there ever have been in the past, it doesn’t matter. Because certainly we can appreciate that we can develop and evolve more and more. And so we just represent all of this in terms of, “Well, the furthest limit that we could evolve to, let’s call that Buddhahood.”

I think that that is the way to begin. I’m not saying that that’s the final understanding, not by any means, but that’s the way to begin. Then you get off the ground; otherwise you’re always stuck in the little house of “I can’t do it,” and “poor me.” And we can’t relate to a Buddha anyway, it’s beyond our imagination. That’s why they say the gurus are so important, like a magnifying glass – Sakya Pandita uses this example – to bring the heat of the sun to make a fire on the kindling wood of ourselves.

With the gurus – His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or somebody less developed than His Holiness the Dalai Lama – we get some feeling of what a human being can evolve to, and that inspires us. So we relate to the next higher stage that we could relate to and in that way we develop more and more, because, of course, we can’t possibly relate to a Buddha and all the qualities of Shakyamuni Buddha. It’s much too much; so don’t worry about it, OK?

If we have conventional bodhichitta, in which our mind and the scope is going out infinitely, as much as possible, then you combine that with the understanding of voidness. That also is extending equally to that extent. This is the way you start to try to bring the two together. Because when we think of voidness, nothing exists as a ping-pong ball; everything is interrelated, interdependent, affecting each other, in all dimensions, space and time and qualities. So this Mahayana scope is very important, while having a focus.

That’s why a Buddha-figure, or something like that, is helpful for a focus. Because it’s also quite easy to get a bit spaced out, if the mind is too broad; so you try to have a balance there. Because also what one adds to that is a blissful feeling – because it’s very blissful as well – so it’s easy to – if we use the colloquial expression – to bliss out, to be so blissful that you’re sort of like the puppy dog lying on the back with the feet up in the air, your belly being rubbed.

Question: The main problem that I have with all of this is that the belief in future lives doesn’t come naturally. So before I focus on something beyond this life, I need to know that at the end of this life not everything will be finished.

Alex: The question is that for us Westerners, most of whom don’t have a conviction – or understanding or anything like that – of past lives and future lives and beginningless and endless mind, that all this is very difficult to do.

That’s absolutely correct. Therefore bodhichitta meditation is the advanced scope in the lam-rim. It’s not the beginning scope. So we need to work on these things earlier. That’s true. But again, it’s the same process. You give it the benefit of the doubt and say, “I have enough respect that people like His Holiness the Dalai Lama is not a fool believing in some sort of garbage propaganda and neither are the great lamas, because I’ve seen the type of people that it produces who think this way, and I don’t think that Buddha, or Shantideva, or any of these people were idiots. So I have that level of respect that I’m going to say, ‘OK, let’s suppose that it is true. What happens then? What state of mind comes from that.’”

That’s why I say, you have to be flexible, your mind has to be loose to allow for these things. And if it’s not, that is the thing that we need to work on – how to loosen up the mind to be flexible. And it is dealing with imagination, it really is, that, “OK, I’ll imagine. I’ll say ‘OK, I’m not going to be so uptight, I’m not going to be so precise,’ this type of thing, and use my imagination and imagine. OK, I don’t really understand rebirth, I don’t really understand these sort of things. I have a little bit of an idea, but to be honest, I don’t really understand.”

You’re not going to understand it until we understand the voidness of the self, and voidness of the process of cause and effect. Without that, you can’t really be convinced of this whole thing, and without being able to identify what mind is, which is also incredibly difficult. So, “OK, I understand what is involved here, and I think it’s very worthwhile to be able to try to understand it and meantime, now, provisionally I will give it the benefit of the doubt and suppose that it is true and then see where that leads me in terms of the practice.” So you have to work with that first, before you can expand further in terms of bodhichitta.

That’s why we have the lam-rim. Atisha himself wrote the first lam-rim, the graded stages of, step by step, how we develop. And what’s always very important, which I can’t repeat enough, is to not trivialize the earlier steps. What we often do in the West is that we go through the whole thing, so you have a general idea. But then you have to go back over and over again, deepen it, deepen it, put things together; and it takes years. And that’s OK. It takes lifetimes, so what’s the big deal about it taking years?

Question: You talk about effort, the joyful effort. And when is the time when the effort becomes a hindrance?

Alex: A hindrance in the sense that you can’t develop it? Well, then you take a rest. That’s one of the aspects of it, to let go. You know when to take a rest, when you feel yourself very stressed and you feel that it’s counterproductive to... you’re sitting and you’re trying to meditate, and you’re falling asleep all the time, and you’re constantly having to wake yourself up, and you’re nodding and nodding and nodding. Forget it. Go to sleep. Lie down for ten minutes or twenty minutes.

Question: But then where is the discipline?

Alex: The discipline is to get back up after you’ve taken a rest; and to not treat yourself like a baby and take a rest when you really don’t need it. So you learn to judge yourself what is the balance. But it comes from a great respect for ourselves as a human being, “I’m a human being. I’m not a machine that can run twenty-four hours a day, and so I respect my samsaric humanity. And I know that sometimes I need a rest; sometimes I need the company of warm friends; sometimes I need a little bit of entertainment; sometimes I need a hot bath.”

As Shantideva says, it’s like if you have a servant: if the servant is working, then of course you feed the servant and you give the servant clothes and so on. So, you’re servicing the body, as in servicing your car, so that it will run better, so without attachment and like that. That doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy it when you relax. Enjoy it, but without making a big deal out of it, and not getting attached to it.

Question: In Zen they say that the harder you strive for satori, the further it is.

Alex: Right. In Zen there is this paradox that if you strive too hard for enlightenment, then it becomes more and more distant, and you need to be able to relax. Especially if you’re striving toward it and taking it as a ping-pong ball, existing all on its own, like some sort of solid entity that you could find and point to. So this is a Zen koan that I repeat to people very frequently: “Death can come at any time: relax.”

That’s very true, if you’re pushing and pushing, then you just get stressed and what the Tibetans call lung, a disorder of the energy. You become a fanatic and fanatic is counterproductive. And usually that fanaticism is associated with guilt, “I have to be perfect and I’m not perfect, and therefore I’m guilty, and I’m going to disappoint Mommy and Daddy, and disappoint my guru” – who’s just a Mommy and Daddy substitute – “and they’re not going to love me anymore” – I mean... all this junk – “and they’re going to reject me, and abandon me, and poor me”… not helpful.

(16a) Whenever an object of attachment or hostility
arises in any situation,
Let me regard it like an illusion or a projection;

So this is after we’ve absorbed ourselves in the understanding of voidness, then, when we are dealing with any situation, it’s important to regard it as an illusion, so that we don’t get discouraged. When we’re having difficulties and so on and obstacles come up, see it as an illusion, like a dream. When we awake, the dream is gone, the dream is finished. We can remember it perhaps, but it’s not happening now. So, whatever discouraging state of mind or mood or a situation arises – it’s happening, but it’s not something solid, and it has arisen from causes and conditions, and it will pass, like a dream.

This gives us courage. When we can see everything like an illusion or like a projection, it gives us courage not to get fooled by it. It’s like a horror movie. If you watch a horror movie, maybe you get scared, but if you realize it’s only a movie, then there’s just actors there and make-up, it helps to not be so frightened – a very, very helpful piece of advice. Things happen, a discouragement, or a difficult situation, and, “OK, so it’s no big deal. It has arisen from causes and conditions. It appears solidly, that’s like an illusion,” and then you just apply the opponent to deal with it.

It’s like you find a scorpion in your shoe in India, and you don’t freak out at it, you don’t make a big deal out of it, “There’s a scorpion in my shoe. OK, so there’s a scorpion in my shoe.” So it’s like an illusion in the sense that it’s not some sort of horrible monster. And you pick up your shoe, and you go outside, and you empty your shoe, and the scorpion is outside, and you go back in, and you put on your shoe. You’re finished. What’s the big deal?

That’s how to deal with discouragement and how to deal with difficult situations, “OK, it’s arisen, it’s like a scorpion in my shoe. OK, so I deal with it, and if I need some time to quiet down, I take the time to quiet down. What’s the big deal?”

(16b) Whenever I hear unpleasant words,
Let me regard them like an echo;
And whenever harm happens to my body,
Let me regard it as (coming from) my previous karma.

This is like the lojong, the attitude-training text, that Atisha’s teacher Dharmarakshita wrote, that when we hear unpleasant words it’s like an echo – “the nasty sounds that I’ve made myself and now it’s coming back to me and I’m hearing it again.” And when harm happens to my body, well this has come from my karma. “I’ve thrown the boomerang out, as it were, and now it’s come back.” And so we create all our troubles ourselves. Other people may be circumstances, but we’ve created the conditions to meet those circumstances as well.

[See: The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, 2006 Literal Translation.]

This way we just try to deal with it without making it into this horrible... “You horrible person, you just did something that I don’t like.” If they did something that we don’t like, and we’re dealing with it on our side, then we can also tell the other person, “That was not acceptable. Could you please act in this way or that way.” And if they’re a reasonable person, they adapt and we adapt, and no big deal. And if they’re not reasonable people and they won’t adapt, we adapt as much as we can on our side, while setting the limits. The limit is set in terms of what’s destructive.