Explanation of Eight-Verse Attitude-Training
Session Six: Tonglen – Giving and Taking; Verse Seven Continued and Verse Eight
In the practice of tonglen, as we do in our ordinary practice, we can do it in different ways, depending on what’s actually going on. If we have met somebody, or one of our friends has a very serious problem, say they have a sickness, or they’re suffering from a very strong disturbing emotion, then we can take that on ourselves, practice like that. We also think in terms of, as I’ve said, that we ourselves have that same problem as well. And when we give good qualities to others, having dissolved this negative aspect, we can think, “It’s not that they don’t have any good qualities either; it’s just enhancing, making stronger the good qualities that they have.” It’s not that we’r e taking on good qualities from them, certainly not.
And if we can tie it into the practice that is described in the earlier verses – if somebody whom we have been kind to and raised like a child says very cruel things to us and so on, that we take that on ourselves as well, taking on whatever disturbing emotion and so on that has caused it in them, and give them the solution to that. Or if somebody, in the earlier verse, out of envy says horrible things to us and so on, we can take that on. So we can work in that way, and in these cases we should work with specific persons, or we can also do it with animals, and there are also practices you can do with the six realms and so on. But I find it far more effective if we do it with actual specific beings.
But when we ourselves have a serious problem, we ourselves are experiencing the sadness of, let’s say a sickness or the sadness of old age or the sadness of a relationship ending, or a strong jealousy is going on or anger or something like that, then we can imagine taking on the similar type of problem from everybody, not from specific beings. So it all depends on the circumstance. I think it’s important in any type of meditation, particularly in analytical meditation, or a meditation like this, that it doesn’t become stale by always doing exactly the same thing with the exact same disturbing emotion and the exact same person every day. Then it looses its effectiveness. We need to apply it to situations as they arise in our life. And it’s very helpful when there’s somebody that, as I said, upsets us. Rather than getting upset, do the tonglen practice with them. Because then, when we’re upset, obviously the self-cherishing is even stronger.
Now, there isn’t usually very much description – I’ve not heard – of what we visualize in terms of what we give to others. What is usually described is just on a material level. If they want a house or money or something like this, we imagine that in the white light that goes out to them these various things that we give to them, and they are presented to them as such. But it can be many other things as well, and here, as I said, I don’t know. I don’t have specific instructions of how to visualize it, because they say also you give them good qualities, and you give them insights, and eventually you give them Buddhahood – liberation and enlightenment – as well. So I think we can be a little bit creative here. If we just do it in terms of white light, then the white light gives them and they’re filled with insight into their problems and the sources of them and how to get rid of them, and so on, or further it gives the blissful attainment of the omniscient state of a Buddha. So, one can work that way.
Also, I think, when we’re dealing with our own problems, let’s say the problem of a sickness, or the problem of old age, that we accept it. You really have to accept yourself, that “I have my own problem.” Geshe Chaykawa says we start with ourselves in the tonglen practice in accepting our own problems. Rather than denying them and not wanting to deal with them, deal with the problems. We have now the problems that we’ll have in the future: the problem of old age, the problem of how am I going to deal with my parents dying, how am I going to deal with my own death, my own future sicknesses, these sort of things. And work with it now, so that we don’t get just completely shocked and unprepared when these things happen. That’s very, very helpful – also the sufferings that we might have in future lives as well.
In terms of how we deal with sickness and old age, we can also think in terms of give to others, show to others the dignity of how to deal with old age and sickness, while keeping one’s self-dignity, while not complaining all the time, while not feeling sorry for ourselves. This type of thing is very helpful to give to others as well. Not only that they’re able to act like that, but we show everybody and demonstrate to everybody how we can deal in a proper healthy way with respect to this. So there are many ways in which we can practice this tonglen.
Any further question on tonglen?
Alex: OK, the question is how is this tonglen practice different from some Christian monks beating themselves with a whip or whatever, with the thought that “I’m taking on the sufferings of others.”
I think that the main difference here is, in tonglen, we’re doing it with our minds. We’r e not doing this in a physical type of way, because it would be like when I explained about your taking on the stupidity of others. Do we try to be more stupid? Taking on the sufferings of old age. “Ah, I fell younger, don’t you feel younger?” As I was explaining, when we take on the stupidity of others, it’s not that we purposely make ourselves more stupid and try to be more stupid. I think the main difference here – now I don’t want to criticize a practice in another religion, because I don’t know what understanding they have of what they’re doing, but – in the Buddhist practice, what we would be emphasizing in doing this whole practice is the understanding of voidness. It’s not that we’re concretely taking on a concrete suffering of somebody else, and a concrete “me” is concretely experiencing it.
Whereas I could imagine that one could make that mistake with doing it in the Buddhist context and then, “I just can’t take it, because all the suffering of others is all inside me.” Many psychiatrists feel like that; many nurses and doctors as well feel like that. “All these horrible problems of other people, I’m just taking it on and keeping it inside me.” So you can do it like that, and that would be an incorrect way. And similarly, in this way of actually beating ourselves and imagining that we’re taking on the suffering of others, that also would be making it too concrete. And, Buddha rejected these physically ascetic type of practices as not really being the way.
Participant: A really vivid mental image…
Alex: The really vivid mental image doesn’t damage ourselves the way that somebody else had a car accident, so “I’ll go out and stand in front of the car as well, in order to take on the suffering of others,” I mean to use a silly example.
Participant: But if you do it without the understanding of voidness, I think it can damage you…
Alex: If you do it without the understanding of voidness, it certainly can damage you. But I think it will damage you less than a physical type of thing. Also, one doesn’t want to do this with the mentality of being a martyr. A martyr is somebody that does this practice really in terms of – if one looks at it critically – “I am the martyr.” So there is a bit of grasping to a “ self” to that, with a pity looking down on others. It doesn’t mean that all martyrs are like that, but there is that association that one has with martyrdom, and we’re certainly not practicing being a martyr with this. The main thing you’re working on is the willingness to experience it.
We’re practicing for the suffering to get less, but you think of an example like the old Serkong Rinpoche did, he died with tonglen. He took on this obstacle from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he always taught it with the example that you should be willing to die in doing the practice. He always said that, whenever he taught it, which I always found a bit strange, and he always quoted Kunu Lama Rinpoche for that. Then we asked him when he taught that, “Wouldn’t that be terrible, if a great master were to die like that, and leave all the disciples and everybody else behind?” And Serkong Rinpoche said “No,” that "first of all, by doing that type of practice one builds up an unbelievable positive force that can take you to a much higher level of realization."
And also he said, “It’s like if an astronaut” – he loved examples like that – he said, “If an astronaut were to be killed in an accident like that, then that astronaut would become a hero, and the government and everybody would support the family of the astronaut. And so,” he said, “ likewise, if a great master were to do that, that attainment of the master would take care of the disciples, would inspire them and teach them even more.” And of course, the understanding is in terms of rebirth, they come back and continue anyway. But that doesn’t mean that you go purposely out and beat yourself, and he wasn’t taking on the negative karma of a fly to be eaten by a spider and dying. This was a very important thing in terms of major obstacle to His Holiness’s life. And he had that connection with His Holiness, which very few people do, and that level of closeness, and that level of attainment to be able for it to actually work.
So, just an example of practicing like sometimes I do, is let’s say your computer crashes, and then you go into the kitchen and a glass breaks, and then the light bulb burns out. And instead of getting upset about it and depressed, you say, “More, give me more. May more come. Let’s see what’s going to come next.” And in a sense you welcome it, taking on from others. But that doesn’t mean that I then walk into the living room and smash my television on the floor and break all my windows, which would be the analogy of beating myself on the back, to use an absurd example. This is a level of tonglen, I mean that’s a level that I sometimes practice. I can’t say that I’m a great practitioner of tonglen; I’m not. That is a beginner’s level of it, certainly. And it’s helpful. And in a sense, you almost laugh at it, you laugh in the face of this type of problems. It doesn’t mean that you don’t take it seriously, but you don’t get upset about it. “What else can go wrong today?”
So, let’s try to do the last verse. Verse eight:
(8) Through a mind untarnished by stains of conceptions
Concerning the eight passing things, throughout all of this,
“ Throughout all of this” is referring to throughout all these practices that are seven verses before.
And that knows all phenomena as an illusion,
May I break free from my bondage, without any clinging.
This is referring to the eight transitory things in life, or the eight worldly dharmas, which are praise or criticism, hearing good news or hearing bad news, receiving gains or having losses, or things going well or things going poorly. With a mind that’s “ untarnished by the stains of conceptions” about these. In other words, not feeling overly excited, and “How wonderful” and “ How wonderful I am” and so on, when we’re praised or hear good news or we’re given something, we have a gain or things go well; and not with conceptions of “ Poor me” and getting all depressed and upset when we hear criticism or bad news or we suffer losses or things go poorly. And the way that we get free of this is by knowing all phenomena to be like an illusion, so our understanding of voidness. And in that way we can get free of our “ bondage,” it’s the bondage to samsara, “ without any clinging.” The clinging is to the “me,” and the eight worldly feelings.
So, there are many quotations here from Shantideva that express the same type of thought. Coming from chapter eight, the one on mental stability, verse three and four:
(3) Worldly concerns (it’s these eight worldly dharmas) are not discarded
Because of sticky attachments
and thirst for material gain and the like;
Therefore, to set these things aside,
Someone with knowledge would discern like this:
(4) An exceptionally perceptive state of mind, (that’s
joined onto a stilled and settled state, (that’s shamata)
Completely destroys the disturbing emotions.
(The disturbing emotions are attachment to gain and so on and repulsion, and anger with when we have losses.)
Having understood this, first I shall seek
a stilled and settled mind;
And that’s achieved through delight in detachment
from worldly concerns.
And then in verse twenty and twenty-one of chapter eight:
(20) There’ve been many people with material wealth
And there’ve been many with fame and reputation.
But it’s never been known that they’ve passed on to some place
Where their amassed wealth and fame have come with.
(21) If there are others who belittle me,
What pleasure is there when I’m being praised?
And if there are others who praise me,
What displeasure is there when I’m being belittled?
So we need a combination of shamata, so the mind that’s stilled and can focus on this, and exceptionally perceptive state of mind that can understand these things, in order to break through this up and down of the eight worldly feelings; and as it says here, to see everything like an illusion. That also Shantideva says in terms of seeing things like a dream. Chapter six, verse fifty-seven through fifty-nine:
(57) Someone who wakes up after having experienced
A hundred years of happiness in a dream
And another who wakes up after having experienced
Just a moment of happiness:
(58) Once they’ve awakened, that happiness
Doesn’t return, after all, to either of the two.
(Similarly,) it comes down to exactly the same
For someone who’s lived for long and someone who’s lived
for a short while.
(59) Though I may have obtained great material gain
And even have enjoyed many pleasures for long,
I shall still go forth empty-handed and naked,
Like having been robbed by a thief.
Again we see it like an illusion, like a dream. If we are praised and things go well for a short time, for a long time, in the end what deep significance does it bring? And we also think in terms of is there any benefit, is there any essence to praise and fame?
Shantideva says in chapter six, verse ninety to ninety-three:
(90) Praise and fame, (these) shows of respect,
Won’t bring positive force, won’t bring a long life,
Won’t bring bodily strength, nor freedom from sickness;
They won’t bring physical pleasure either.
(91) If I were aware of what’s in my self-interest,
What in my self-interest would there be in them?
If just mental happiness were what I wanted,
I should devote myself to gambling and so on, and to alcohol too.
(92) For the sake of fame, (people) would give away wealth
Or would get themselves killed;
But what use is there with words (of fame)?
One they’ve died, to whom will they bring pleasure?
(93) At the collapse of his sand castle,
A child wails in despair;
Similarly, at the loss of praise and fame,
My mind shows the face of a child.
A relationship breaks up and something goes bad in our life and we lose a job and so on – it’s like our sand castle has collapsed. We were making it into a big thing and being all excited about it, and then, when it collapses, we get all upset. The point is not to make a big deal out of either things going well or things not going well, to see it like a dream or like an illusion. For that we can do the voidness meditation, that’s the deepest thing. At the end of chapter nine of Shantideva’s text, verses one fifty-one and one fifty-two, he analyzes these eight worldly phenomena, the eight transitory things:
(151) With all phenomena devoid in that way,
What is there that would’ve been received;
What is there that would’ve been taken away?
Who is there who’ll become shown respect or contempt,
and by whom?
(152) What is there, from which there’s pleasure or pain?
What is there, to be disliked or liked?
What craving is there, that’s searching
for an actual (findable) nature,
And what is it for, that there’s craving?
So, seeing things like an illusion follows from the voidness analysis of what is it that you get so excited about, that you’re liking, and what is it that you dislike; and who is it that’s liking it, and who is it that’s disliking it, and so on. So in this way “ I break free from my bondage, without any clinging.” Geshe Chaykawa summarizes it as well in the Seven-Point Cleansing of Attitudes: “Think of all phenomena as in a dream.”
Also, this discussion about the eight transitory things in life, the so called eight worldly dharmas, ties in very well with what has been discussed in the earlier part of the text. That’s why he says seeing this “ throughout all,” throughout all of what’s come before, because “ accepting the loss on ourselves and giving the victory to others” is taking loss and then giving gain to others. The giving and taking practice is also taking on the bad news or the criticism or these sort of things of others, and giving them what they might like, praise and so on.
So, in order to practice the tonglen, in order to practice taking on the loss ourselves and giving the victory to others, it’s very important to understand that these negative things that we’re taking on and the positive things that we’re giving, all are like an illusion. That’s why I kept on referring to the fact that the understanding of voidness is very important for all of these practices.
That concludes the discussion of the Eight-Verse Attitude-Training. It’s a very helpful thing to add to our daily practice, to read or recite these eight verses each day, to think a little bit about them, and to try to incorporate them into our lives. Because, as we’ve seen from all these references to these other texts from which these teachings come and which develop out of these teachings, these eight verses summarize very well all of this type of bodhisattva practice. And it’s not very long to read or recite eight verses.
Then we end with a dedication. We think, whatever positive force has come from this, whatever understanding has come from this, may this truly act as a cause for reaching enlightenment, for the benefit of all.
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