Try our new website New materials, revised articles, guided meditations, new design

The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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

General Explanation of Seven-Point Attitude-Training

Alexander Berzin
Katowice Poland, December 1999

Part One: The First Four Points

Today I was asked to teach about a Lojong text consisting of seven points. Most people translate "Lojong" as "mind-training." This is not a terribly good translation because for most people "mind- training" sounds like an exclusively intellectual activity. Lo actually means "attitude" and jong is both "to cleanse and to train," in the sense of purifying or getting rid of negative and destructive attitudes and building up more positive ones. So the essential purpose of Lojong practices is cleaning our minds and hearts out of negative attitudes and training in positive ones to replace them. In contrast to previous occasions when I have emphasized the first several points more than the later ones, here I shall devote more time to explaining the last three points. Of course it’s not appropriate to begin in the middle of the text, so I shall just go quickly over the first several points. In reviewing them, I shall focus on some of their more difficult aspects.

The Lojong practices came from India into Tibet with Atisha in the Kadam tradition and were incorporated into all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, this is one of the basic teachings that bind all of these traditions together. The only significant difference in the commentaries of the different schools is in the explanation of voidness. Each school explains the voidness lines in the text it according to its own approach.

Atisha received the Lojong tradition from his teacher Dharmarakshita. Dharmarakshita is the author of Wheel of Sharp Weapons. The Seven-Point Attitude-Training was written by the Kadam Geshe Chaykawa about a century later. Two lineages of the teachings derive from his disciple, Geshe Lhadingpa. One went to Togmey-zangpo, the author of Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices. It is followed by the Kagyu, Sakya and Nyingma schools. The other reached Tsongkhapa almost three centuries later and is followed by his Gelug school. The two lineages differ in their arrangement of several lines in the verses and the inclusion of several lines not found in the other lineage. Even within each lineage, many editions or versions of the text exist, also differing in these same ways. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained that such things occasionally occur, particularly concerning such topics as Lojong, and the differences in the editions are not significant. The intended meaning is the same in all of them. The edition that I follow here is the Togmey-zangpo version and follows the explanation I received of it from Serkong Rinpoche, supplemented with some points from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

Point One: The Preliminaries

Prostration to great compassion.
Train first in the preliminaries. 

The first of the seven points is the preliminary teachings. These are the general common preliminaries that are the basis for all Mahayana teachings. They are: precious human life, impermanence and death, and then what is usually called "refuge" – but I find that term a little too passive. We don’t just look at the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and say, "Oh, save me!" Instead, "refuge" is an active state of mind of moving our lives in the safe and positive direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Then there are the teachings on karma, behavioral cause and effect. Finally, there are the disadvantages of samsara, which refer to the uncontrollably recurring situations of life, specifically in terms of rebirth. Being under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes, which lead to impulsive behavior, or karma, we create problems for ourselves over and again in this life and in future lives.

[See: The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to the Dharma.]

The important thing about the preliminaries is that they nurture a very special attitude toward life that serves as a foundation for all the teachings that follow. We appreciate the precious opportunities that we have in this life, and we realize that they will not last forever. Therefore we need to take advantage of our current favorable situation by working to get rid of all our problems and their causes, and the resulting confusion and suffering. To go in that direction, we need to work with behavioral cause and effect, not just pray that we get to some goal without actually doing something. We are not just trying to make samsara a little bit better for ourselves – which is, if we are honest, what most of us are really interested in. Actually, we have a much higher goal: improving future lives as a step on the way toward complete liberation from all our shortcomings, difficulties and confusion – no matter how many lives that takes.

For most of us, that is really quite difficult. For one thing, most of us don’t really think in terms of future lives, let alone liberation from rebirth. If we don’t believe in rebirth, how can we aim for liberation from it? And if we don’t believe in rebirth, how can we possibly want to become enlightened so that we can help everybody else to get out of uncontrollably recurring rebirth? It is not easy if we don’t have a deep conviction in rebirth.

If we ask what we can do about this as Westerners, I would say first of all try to understand what is meant by the Buddhist explanation of rebirth. Even if our motivations are actually focused on improving this life, we can at least be open to the idea of rebirth and think in terms of rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and helping others to overcome rebirth. We need to acknowledge the sophistication of the Buddhist explanation, the difficulty and importance of understanding it, and take interest in studying and meditating enough on the subject until we gain a correct understanding.

I say all of this because Lojong teachings are very advanced. They are not at all beginner teachings! For instance, there is a teaching that at the time of death, we need to pray to be reborn in one of the hells; that is quite difficult to relate to, isn’t it? In any approach to Dharma teachings, it is important to be quite honest about our current level of development, and to have a very good idea of what the actual path is and not to pretend to be more advanced than we are. This text teaches the attitude of really wanting to bring all cockroaches to enlightenment. Most of us are certainly not at this level. Whatever our levels of understanding, we must really try to realize that the practice of Lojong goes very deep and very far. It is a very long-term practice. We can start with it now and get some benefit from it. But since the practice is progressive, we want to keep the perspective that as we go further with it, we want to come back again and again to certain points and go deeper into them.

In the context of this text, we don’t go through the basic preliminaries just once. They are not something to be done just once and then we go on to more interesting stuff. The text is written from the point of view of people who really have bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is a heart that is aimed at our own individual enlightenment that we have not yet attained, but for which we have the Buddha-nature qualities that will allow us to attain it, and it aims at it with two intentions. The first intention is to reach that enlightenment and the second is to be able to benefit all beings by means of this. Although that order of the two intentions is how it is presented in the texts from the oral teachings, this is the opposite order of them in practice. The main intention is to help beings, and because we are so moved by compassion and concern for others, we must help them overcome their suffering. So, although we may try to help them as best as we can now, to really help we need to eliminate all our shortcomings and realize all of our potentials. We must become Buddhas in order to be able to help as fully as is possible. So the aspiration to Buddhahood comes second – it comes from the first aspiration, to help all beings.

It is fantastic to have a precious human life, to have the opportunity to help others. But it is impermanent! We’re going to die and we never know when. That is horrible! That motivates us to try to help people as much as possible now, before we get Alzheimer’s and can’t even use our minds and then we die. So to help others, we have to take genuine safe direction or refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and avoid destructive behavior. And because of its disadvantages, we must also avoid the lure of samsaric rebirth in general, in the sense of not getting attached to its ephemeral pleasures, or getting upset by difficulties. It is very straightforward: we are trying to help people and not get caught up in our disturbing emotions. So the preliminaries here are to be understood in the context of bodhichitta.

Point Two: The Actual Training in Bodhichitta

The second point is the actual training in bodhichitta. The discussion of this is divided into deepest bodhichitta and conventional bodhichitta.

Ponder that phenomena are like a dream.
Discern the basic nature of awareness that has no arising.
The opponent itself liberates itself in its own place.
The essential nature of the path is to settle
    within a state of the all-encompassing basis.
Between sessions, act like an illusory person.

Deepest bodhichitta is a mind that is aimed at voidness or reality. In order to achieve enlightenment, we need to understand reality in order to remove the confusion that is caused by shortcomings and problems and the habits of that confusion. Voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. And the different Indian theories and the different Tibetan Buddhist schools all define "an impossible way of existing" slightly differently. But regardless of how the verse in the text is explained in the different commentaries, it is important not to project impossible ways of existing in the process of helping others. It is particularly important, when we are trying to help others, not to think of a solid me over here who is so wonderful, since I am doing this type of practice, and there is poor, wretched, solid you over there that I am helping. Or, there is poor me over here solidly existent, and how can I possibly help you with your suffering over there? That also is an impossible way of existing. We are interrelated; we don’t exist as isolated beings in a vacuum. We interact with each other – we can help each other.

Another impossible way of existing is feeling that we can just cure everybody’s problems in an instant because we are all-powerful. That is also impossible. In order for others to overcome their problems, they need to overcome the cause of their problems, which is confusion. To eliminate confusion, we need to understand reality, and no one can understand reality for somebody else. We can show the way and try to make life a little bit easier for others, but they have to understand reality themselves. The point here with deepest bodhichitta is that, in trying to help others, we need a realistic attitude.

Then the second part of the second point is conventional or relative bodhichitta.

Train in both giving and taking in alternation,
Mounting those two on the breath.

This line deals with our meditation session, which is primarily the practice of tonglen, giving and taking. We do not have time here to go into detail, but tonglen is an incredibly advanced practice and difficult to do sincerely. It is quite easy to play at doing it, but to actually be sincere in taking on the sufferings of others and to actually experience that suffering is very, very advanced. It requires a genuine understanding of the nature of pain. If we don’t really understand the nature of pain and suffering and its relation to the mind, we would be terrified to actually take on somebody’s cancer or the pain of their cancer. I think that is why understanding the nature of reality and the nature of the mind is so important. When we have the compassion of wishing others to be free from their problems and we are willing to take on those problems, that means that we are willing to experience suffering ourselves.

This doesn’t just mean that we’ll take that suffering away from them and throw it away – we have to actually have it pass through us. We need to experience it ourselves. On the first level, it means not to be afraid of being sad at other peoples’ suffering. It is sad that somebody has cancer or that somebody has Alzheimer’s. It is very sad! To do this type of practice, but then to just put armor around our feelings because it is a bit much is not the point at all. We need to feel the sadness and the pain of the other person, and see that at the level of the basic nature of mind, the pain and the sadness are just waves. The basic level of the mind is pure experience and has joy and happiness as its natural qualities. It is on that basis that we are able to project happiness to other beings. But without the actual realization of voidness and a lot of practice in mahamudra, it is very difficult to do tonglen sincerely. This is not meant to discourage people from practicing tonglen, because even at earlier levels of development it is very helpful. But to be able to take in, experience, and dissolve suffering into the natural happiness of the mind and send that happiness out is a very advanced practice. That is really how it works. If we look at it this way, it is actually a practice of mahamudra for, in a sense, our own benefit.

[See: Developing Balanced Sensitivity, chapter 15.]

So how does it actually benefit anybody else? Everybody has their own karma, so how can we take on somebody else’s karma with tonglen? For karma to ripen requires circumstances, and what we can do is provide certain circumstances for other people that will help the ripening of their karma occur more quickly and in different forms. If someone has an illness, the karma to have that illness has already ripened as the illness. But if it is an illness that can be cured, people will only be cured if they have the karmic cause to be cured. So what we can do is to provide some circumstances that allow for the ripening of their positive potentials.

For example, how does the Medicine Buddha practice work? Medicine Buddha isn’t God; he can’t cure us from disease just from his own power. But by making the offerings and doing the practice, it creates a condition for the negative karma that is perpetuating our illness to ripen in a much smaller way. Inspiration from Medicine Buddha is actually inspiration from our own individual clear light minds, which helps bring these deeper potentials to the surface and ripen. This inspiration is what is usually translated as "blessing": "Oh, Medicine Buddha bless me to get better!" Our strong motivation to be healed to be able to help everybody provides a circumstance for the negative karma within us to ripen in a much smaller way and for the positive karma then to come up to the surface and ripen. The energy of inspiration from the individual clear light mind within us, represented by Medicine Buddha, is what allows that whole process to happen.

It is the same thing with tonglen practice. This provides a circumstance for the other person’s negative karma to ripen in a much smaller way and for their positive karma to ripen much sooner. Our own clear light mind is inspiring and the recipients don’t have to know about it – in fact, it is best if they don’t know about it. To be able to take in and feel the suffering, and to let it naturally dissolve into the pure foundation of clear light mind, requires the immense energy of bodhichitta, as in any Mahayana Buddhist practice, and inspiration from our own teachers. So before doing the tonglen practice, of course we need to have all the stages for developing bodhichitta very strongly. This is very important. Of course we need to have some love and compassion to even consider taking on other people’s problems. But on a deeper level, we need that loving compassion not just to be willing to take on the problems, but to be able to get to the clear light level of mind. As I say, this is a very, very deep practice.

One further thing about tonglen is that it is based on the understanding of voidness, the deepest bodhichitta. If we think in terms of a solid me, then we will be too scared to take on someone else’s suffering. It is very important to dissolve that very strong sense of "me" that prevents us from really wanting to do the practice on a sincere level. So we take on the suffering of others, we actually do experience it, but we are able to handle it. That is the point. We have the understanding of voidness; we have some basic ability with mahamudra practice to dissolve the suffering into the clear light mind. We do not just hold on to that suffering and keep it inside us. And having the actual source of happiness from the clear light mind, we give it to others.

How can we actually experience someone else’s suffering? It is basically the strong wish to take on the suffering and experience it that acts as a circumstance for our own negative karma to ripen into suffering. We want that to happen in order to burn that negative karma off. That is yet another level that we need to work with in the practice of tonglen. It is not that we are going to take in someone else’s suffering like taking their sandwich and eating it ourselves. It is much more subtle. It all works in terms of circumstances and conditions.

My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, always used an example that made everybody uncomfortable. He used the example of a great lama who did this practice and took on some terrible injury or sickness of somebody else and died from it. He would go into detail about this every single time that he taught tonglen. The point was that we need to be so sincere and willing to take on the suffering of somebody else that we would be willing to die. So we would ask him if somebody like you were to do that, Rinpoche, wouldn’t that be a shame, to take on the suffering of a dog and to die from it. He used an example in response. He said that if an astronaut gets killed in space, the astronaut becomes a hero and everyone, the people and the government, will take care of the astronaut’s family. So he said, likewise, if a great teacher were to do tonglen and die, in the process the teacher either would attain or nearly attain enlightenment by the strength of his compassion and bodhichitta, and by so doing the teacher would take care of the disciples through his inspiration.

What was really very extraordinary was that having taught this so many times, my teacher actually did it. He died through a practice of tonglen. There was a serious obstacle to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s life, which Serkong Rinpoche saw. He told one of his more senior Tibetan disciples that it would be very good if he himself, Serkong Rinpoche, could take on this obstacle to His Holiness’ life.

I had taken Serkong Rinpoche for a physical examination just a few weeks before and he was in perfectly good health. But on a particular day, Rinpoche ended a teaching that he was giving, up in a remote area of the Himalaya mountains in Spiti, India, and went to a specific person’s house. He stopped at a monastery on the way to make offerings. The monks said, "Please stay" and he said, "No, if you want to see me again, you’ll have to come to this house where I am going." At the house he did his usual very intensive evening practice. He told his senior disciple that he could come into the room. Rinpoche sat in a certain posture that was not the way that he would usually go to sleep, and started doing a practice that was obviously tonglen and just died.

It was extraordinary because exactly at that hour, at that time, His Holiness was in an airplane flying to Geneva. Yasir Arafat was also flying into Geneva at the same time. The authorities there were worried about terrorist problems and they said that they couldn’t guarantee the safety of His Holiness. When Rinpoche did this practice, Arafat was in the air flying to Geneva and he just changed his mind; they turned the airplane around and didn’t land in Geneva. By what Serkong Rinpoche did, this huge obstacle in His Holiness’ life ripened, but just in a trivial way. When he landed, there was confusion at the airport; the car he was driving in got lost and there was some problem with the car. But that was the only obstacle that happened to His Holiness. That negative karma ripened into something very small for His Holiness and what Serkong Rinpoche did acted as a circumstance for his own karma to die to come to the surface and so he died. He was 69 – not terribly old. But he thought that the greatest contribution that he could make was providing a circumstance for His Holiness to live longer. By that example, he has inspired disciples enormously. I always wonder if in fact he knew for many years that this was going to happen, because I know that he did have extrasensory perception. I witnessed that several times in my interaction with him.

[See: A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche.]

Tonglen only works like this if we have a strong karmic connection. Obviously we do with many of our family members and closest friends. Serkong Rinpoche had such a connection with His Holiness, as he had been one of his teachers from childhood. The important thing is to have the courage to feel that even if we experience our relative’s sickness, may this be a circumstance for his or her sickness to become less.

Often we do this tonglen practice when we ourselves are sick. We then think to take on the sickness of everyone suffering from the same disorder. Afterwards, while we are still experiencing our sickness and the suffering it causes, the sickness of others may not go away. But we can work with our own pain and the mental anguish with basic mahamudra methods, having a feeling of being the entire ocean, and visualizing the pain and suffering as just a wave on the surface of the ocean that doesn’t disturb the ocean’s depths.

If we practice tonglen with the aim of taking on everybody’s cold in order to be cured of our cold, it won’t work. Even if just unconsciously we think that, it is a major obstacle to it ever working. It really has to be on the basis of pure compassion. In most cases the practice doesn’t work, because we don’t have a strong enough karmic connection with people. That is why the prayer, "May I be able to eliminate the sufferings of all beings in all lifetimes," is important – because it will establish the connection for this type of practice to work.

What is the aim of the practice? The aim of the practice on one level is to help others, for sure. But in most cases it won’t work. So a secondary aim is that it will help us achieve enlightenment. How? It involves bodhichitta, so it must be a method for achieving enlightenment. What will help us reach enlightenment is developing the courage to overcome self-cherishing – "I don’t want to deal with your problem!" – and the willingness to deal with everybody’s problems. As a bodhisattva and as a Buddha, we will have to be willing to actually be involved with everyone’s most horrible, terrible problems. It is to help us overcome the self-cherishing attitude: "I don’t want to get involved; I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I don’t want to go to the old age hospital and deal with all of those Alzheimer’s patients, because it is just too depressing and sad. I can’t deal with it." We have to overcome the feeling of a big, strong, solid me that underlies the self-cherishing attitude.

I don’t know what visualizations you’ve learned for tonglen, but the ones that Serkong Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama teach are absolutely horrible and are very, very powerful. All traditions of the practice explain doing it in connection with the breath. With compassion – the wish for others to be free of their problems and the causes of their problems – we imagine these coming into us in some graphic form when we breath in. With love – the wish for them to be happy and to have the causes for happiness – we send out to them, in visualized forms, whatever they might need. But with these more advanced methods that Rinpoche and His Holiness teach, we don’t just visualize black light coming into us; we visualize dirty substances, thick car oil, grease, filth coming into us so that we can work on overcoming our feeling of not wanting to get ourselves dirty. That is the first step. Next, we imagine that the actual suffering comes in the form of urine, diarrhea, vomit, and blood and guts. This helps to overcome feelings of indifference, like, "Oh no, there is somebody who was just hit by a car lying in the road. I don’t even want to look at it, it’s so gruesome and horrible."

To overcome that, we start by being willing to deal with less terrifying things, like diarrhea and vomit. This sort of practice is very strong, very powerful. Then we imagine the suffering to come in the form of what we are most afraid of: spiders, scorpions, cockroaches, snakes, rats, or whatever it is. We imagine that we breathe them in and they come down to our hearts. So we are really working very strongly with the solid ego inside which says "No way do I want to deal with this!" That is why I say the practice of tonglen is incredibly advanced and deep. To really get down to this clear light level, we have to be able to let go of and dissolve all our fears, all our ego defenses, in addition to the actual pain and the fears of others that we don’t want to experience.

Even on earlier levels, the practice can be very beneficial, because it helps us take the person’s problems seriously. That is the first step: taking them seriously. By taking on the problem, our attitude is that we will deal with it as though it were our problem. For example, consider a homeless person on the street in the winter who is hungry and cold, has no work and no home, and is in pain and sick. We try to imagine what it would be like to be like that, so we feel the suffering. We try to come up with some sort of solution of how to deal with it. When our friends tell us about their problems and so on, we take it seriously. Just practicing on that level is very beneficial, but don’t think that that is the only level. There are many, many deeper levels.

In taking on the suffering of others, we have to be careful not to go to the extreme of being a martyr: "I am going to take on everybody’s suffering for the glory of Buddha." This is not at all the way to practice. Also it is important not to feel that taking on all suffering is the path to enlightenment. That is also not the Buddhist way. Also one has to be very, very careful not to take on the suffering of others because of a feeling of low self-esteem: "I am such a terrible person, so I need to suffer by taking on other people’s suffering. I deserve it"

This practice may remind us of the image of Jesus taking on the suffering of humanity: Jesus certainly was willing to experience the suffering and the fear of that suffering. But from the Buddhist point of view, nobody can prevent all the suffering of the universe. Although we cultivate the aspiration that by our experiencing the suffering, may others be free of it, it is very important not to inflate ourselves into feeling that we can perform miracles and solve everybody’s problems. The best that we can do is to provide circumstances for their negative potentials to ripen in very small ways and for their positive potentials to ripen more quickly. The goal is certainly not to punish ourselves by taking on suffering. The main point is to develop the courage to help others even in the most difficult situations – the Kosovos, Bosnias and Rwandas of the world.

Next is what we do in between sessions, in our daily lives.

(In regard to) the three objects,
   (take) the three poisonous attitudes
And (give) the three roots of what is constructive,
(While) training with words in all paths of behavior.

The three objects are those whom we find attractive, unattractive, and neutral, and the three poisonous attitudes are longing desire, repulsion, and naivety. When we are experiencing longing desire for someone whom we find attractive, repulsion from someone we find unattractive, and naivety toward someone we find neutral so that we ignore the person, we imagine taking on these three poisonous attitudes from everyone who suffers them. We then give them the three roots of what is constructive, namely detachment, imperturbability, and lack of naivety. In so doing, we deal with our own problems with such objects. We may supplement our practice with words, such as, "May all the sufferings of others ripen on me and may all my happiness ripen on them."

As for the order of taking, start from myself.

If we are suffering from a certain problem, we need first to be able to accept and deal with it, before we can apply the method of taking on the same problem from everyone. For this reason, the order of practice is to start with ourselves. Otherwise, if we cannot face our own problems, we might be dealing with others’ problems as an escape.

Point Three: Transforming Adverse Circumstances into a Path to Enlightenment

The third point is transforming adverse circumstances into a path to enlightenment. This is divided into several parts: one concerns our thoughts and the other our actions.

Transforming our thoughts concerns the thinking behind our behavior and then our view or outlook on reality. First, the thinking behind our behavior:

When the environment and its dwellers
   are full of negative forces,
Transform adverse conditions
   into a path to enlightenment,
By banishing one thing as (bearing) all blame
And meditating with great kindness toward everyone.

I won’t go into tremendous detail about behavior, but the main emphasis is to see that our difficulties come from cherishing ourselves and that all positive qualities come from cherishing others. Thus, we banish or rid ourselves of one thing, self-cherishing, as bearing all blame for our suffering. And, having realized the benefits of cherishing others, we meditate with great kindness toward everyone. Thus, when suffering occurs, we try to see it as the fault of self-cherishing – egoism. What do we actually mean by self-cherishing or egoism? Let’s give an example, because it is quite important to identify what is making so much trouble for us.

Say we are invited for a meal to somebody’s house and they make something that we don’t like. We suffer; we are unhappy. So here is a negative situation. How do we change this into a positive situation to help further us along the path to enlightenment? That is what we are talking about. What is the fault here? Why are we suffering? If we start thinking of this terrible person who made something that we don’t like, and putting all the blame on that person, the problem is that we are thinking only of ourselves. We are not thinking about the other person who really wanted to make a meal that pleased us. Our host or hostess didn’t have the intention of making something that we didn’t like, and so it is only because we are thinking only of me and "what I like" and "what I want" that we suffer and are unhappy. So in this situation what we try to do is to use the circumstance to attack this strong preoccupation with me and what I want.

We can see that the structure is really quite similar to tonglen here. Remember in tonglen, in the stronger visualizations, most of us naturally resist taking diarrhea and vomit into ourselves. This is because of strong self-cherishing. We don’t want to get dirty; and so we need to overcome that unwillingness to deal with the dirtiness and the sufferings, and let it pass through us. Likewise, don’t make a big fuss over the fact that we don’t like what the person is serving us for dinner. Because of our wish to bring happiness to the other person, we take on the suffering of eating something that doesn’t taste very nice to us. There are certainly exceptions, for example if we are allergic to a food that will make us sick. We don’t have to be fanatics. Still, there are ways of excusing ourselves that are more considerate of the other person rather than just thinking in terms of me, me, me and getting angry, thinking: "Are you trying to poison me! Are you trying to make me sick!"

Another way to change a negative situation into a positive one is to see it as a way of burning off our negative karmic potentials. In order to achieve enlightenment, we need to get rid of our negative potentials, so let’s get it over with. It’s like going to the dentist: rather than having the dentist do a little bit of drilling for five different sessions, get it over with all at once and then it is finished. Do the whole thing now and then it is out of the way.

When we think of taking on others’ suffering, it takes the focus away from just thinking about "poor me," which is again self-cherishing and self-indulgence. What we strive for instead is a little bit like the example of a mother, whose baby has a cold, thinking, "I wish that I could have the cold instead of my baby, because I am much better able to handle a cold than my baby is." If we are taking care of someone with a cold, we need to be willing to catch the cold ourselves. If we are very uptight about it, it doesn’t work. Mother Theresa used to say this to people who would come to work with her. She said that to work with the lepers, we have to be totally willing to catch leprosy. If we are afraid of catching leprosy, forget it. In fact, the more afraid we are of catching leprosy, the greater the chances are that we will catch it, which is a bit ironic. If we are afraid that something is going to go wrong and we are very tense about it, then things very often do go wrong.

Voidness, from meditating on deceptive appearances
As the four Buddha-bodies, is the peerless protector.

We can also transform difficult circumstances into positive ones with our view or outlook, namely our view of voidness or reality. Again, there are many ways of explaining this line, depending on how the different Tibetan Buddhist schools teach voidness. But I don’t think that any school teaches that suffering doesn’t exist. Rather, we need to see that suffering arises from causes and conditions. It is an experience of the mind like any other experience – it is no big deal. Of course, it requires a great deal of understanding to be able to apply voidness.

That is how we transform difficult circumstances with our thoughts.

The supreme method entails four actions to use,
(So) instantly apply to meditation
   whatever I might happen to meet.

Transforming adverse circumstance with our actions entails four actions or methods to use. The first is often called "collecting merit," which is a bit of a misleading translation. We are not collecting merit points, like collecting stamps, and if we get enough, we win a prize. The term actually means to strengthen our networks of positive potential or positive force. In other words, by acting in a constructive way and using our positive qualities, we can change negative circumstances into positive ones. When a negative circumstance arises, such as an accident, rather than getting depressed or frightened, we can use it as an opportunity to help the people who are hurt. So it builds up more positive force within us and changes the whole situation.

The second method is purifying our negative karmic potentials or force. For example, if we have acted in a negative way and hurt somebody, we may feel guilty afterwards. We can change that circumstance into a positive one by doing more purification practices. Rather than feeling guilty, we acknowledge that what we did was a mistake. It doesn’t mean that I am a "bad person," but I regret having acted in this way. I will try my best not to repeat it, reaffirm my safe and positive direction in life and do some constructive things to counteract it.

The third and fourth methods are a bit difficult for us Westerners to understand. The third is making offerings to harmful spirits to bring us more suffering. Often it is explained as: "Harmful spirits, please do me even more harm." Then the fourth one is requesting the help of the Dharma protectors.

Let’s look first at the practice of making offerings to the harmful spirits. There is a very lovely practice that can be done here, which a Western Dharma teacher friend of mine, Tsultrim Allione, developed based on the Buddhist practice of chod (cutting). She calls it "feeding the demon." Let’s say we are really miserable, unhappy and depressed – things aren’t going well. Imagine that this problem is being caused by a harmful spirit, a demon. Try to feel that there is a demon inside us, and visualize that it has some form or shape – whatever form seems fitting to us. Then the demon comes out and sits on a cushion in front of us. Ask the demon, "What do you want?" Then the demon tells us what it wants – "I want people to pay attention to me; I want people to love me." Whatever it is that is haunting us: "I want good health; I want to be young again" and all of these things – these are the harmful spirits that haunt us. And then feed the demon, give the harmful spirit what it wants. "You want love, so I’ll love you. You want energy, you want youth; I’ll give them to you." This is a very, very powerful and helpful practice. When the demon has had its fill, most people find that it goes away. I think that although in many of the texts we pray for the harmful spirits to give us even more harm, this way of feeding the harmful spirits is also extremely effective. It shows us that we have inside us the things we feel we are lacking and need. We can draw on our own inner strength to provide them for ourselves.

With any practice, the way that we enter it and the way that we exit is very important. As with entering and exiting a computer program, we have to do it properly, otherwise the computer crashes. Likewise, when doing meditation practices that deal with powerful emotions, we have to enter and exit gently or else we may also crash. So the way to enter and exit is to focus on the breath, just focusing on the sensation of the breath coming in out of the nose or the sensation of the abdomen going in and out as we breathe. That connects us more with the body and the earth, and that is extremely helpful if we are dealing with really negative or terrifying emotions. If doing this practice is a particularly strong emotional experience, it is best to focus on the abdomen going in and out. That’s because that is the vicinity of the navel chakra, which is the earth center, what we call in the West the center of gravity of the body, so it grounds us more.

This is really a very interesting exercise. I think it is always important to try to go deeper into these various teachings. Although on the surface some of them may sound strange, if in fact we do take safe direction or refuge from the Dharma, we can have confidence that there is something that makes sense here. It is not just some weird superstitious Tibetan trip. It is something we can do when we are feeling haunted by feelings like: "I want to be accepted, successful; I want to be loved" – it is something that we can use very effectively to change it.

The fourth action to use is requesting the enlightening activity or enlightening influence of the Dharma protectors to bring more suffering and destroy our self-cherishing. A less skillful way of working with protectors is that we make offerings to help our positive potentials to ripen and things to go very well. This is not the best way of working with a Dharma protector, because then the positive potential is finished and we crash and are left with the negative potential. The better way to work with Dharma protectors is making various pujas and offerings to help our negative potentials to ripen, but in a minor way – so that obstacles that might have come in a bigger form get burned off in a more trivial way. Then we are left with our positive potentials, so things go well.

Here’s an example of how this practice can work. I used to travel with the old Serkong Rinpoche as his interpreter on world tours and, before tours, he’d always have a big protector puja done. Then at the beginning of the journey, something would always go wrong, but it would be trivial. Once we took the overnight train down to Delhi from Pathankot on our way to the airport and something didn’t work out with the train reservation. The only place that we could sleep on the train were the berths that were right next to the toilet in the third-class sleeper. There were only two berths, so Rinpoche and I each had a berth and the two Tibetan attendants had to sleep on the floor. So there was a negative situation, but it wasn’t a big deal – it only smelled bad and was uncomfortable – and it burned off obstacles. The rest of the trip went very well.

With the Dharma protectors, the main thing to request is: "bring me suffering; bring on the ripening of my negative potentials. I can handle them." Our willingness to experience what ripens acts to lessen our suffering and then the obstacles are finished. If things are going badly, then bring me more, so I can get rid of the whole thing. We are not praying to God, to the Dharma protectors or to the Buddhas to give us these things, but actually our wishes and prayers help create the conditions for our own karma to ripen. It is quite practical actually.

Point Four: Condensation of the Practice in One Lifetime

The fourth point is condensation of the practice in one lifetime into five forces. This can be done in this life itself and also at the time of death, and it too is really quite practical.

In brief, the essence of the quintessence teachings
Is applying the five forces.

In this life, each day we can have, as the first force, proper intentions. When we wake up in the morning, frame the intention, "May I be able to help everyone; may I be able to achieve enlightenment to help everyone fully." This is important not only when we wake up, but anytime when we encounter a difficult situation. For example, the kids are screaming and yelling, and we are about to go into their room and quiet them down. We can set the strong intention, "May I not lose my temper and may I treat them in a loving way to stop their fighting." But this must be done in such a way that our motivation is really to benefit the children, not just that they calm down for our own peace of mind. Before going shopping, we can have the intention to buy only what we need; we won’t buy chocolate and cookies just because we are greedy at that moment.

The second force is the force of the white seed. This refers to the intention to strengthen our network of positive force and to try to weaken or get rid of our negative force and potential. Things going well are the result of our previous constructive actions and the positive force and potential from them; when things go poorly, it is due to our pervious destructive actions and the negative potential left from them. The seed of our difficulties is our destructive behavior, so we try to get rid of that seed and replace it with a seed of constructive behavior.

Third is the force of acquaintance or habituation. Whatever we are doing, try to use the situation to build up further the positive habit of concern for others. This includes any neutral action that we may be doing – if eating, eat to become strong so that we can help others; wear warm clothes so that we won’t get sick so that we will be able to help others. Even when we go to sleep early or go to a movie, have the thought that we are doing it in order to relax, to build up strength and energy to be able to help others more. So even relaxation can be turned into a very positive action in this way. Of course, we have to be sincere and not say, "I am going to stuff my face with this huge bowl of ice cream so that I can benefit others." That is just an excuse to eat all the ice cream. Anything that we do, think in terms of doing it for the benefit of others.

Fourth is the force of "eliminating all at once." This means that as soon as disturbing emotions such as greed, attachment and anger arise in our minds, try to get rid of them as soon as possible – immediately – like we would do if the cat jumped on the table and was about to eat some of our food. Chase it away at once. Tibetans love using animals to illustrate teachings in this manner, and often it is quite helpful.

The fifth force is that of prayer, namely prayer to be able to accomplish our practice. This doesn’t mean "Oh, God may I be able to do this," but that we have the strong wish to do it. There is also the implication of being so disgusted with our self-cherishing and selfishness that we can’t wait to get rid of it. It is like when a fly is buzzing around our heads: we are so annoyed by it that we make a huge effort to get it out of the room. The more that we reject our selfishness by really being disgusted with it, the weaker it becomes.

There is a prayer that we can say at the end of the day: "May I never be separated from bodhichitta." My teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, gave a very wonderful piece of advice here. He said, "Don’t ask your lama to pray that you won’t have any sickness or that your business goes well. The best request for prayers from your lama is to pray that you are able to develop bodhichitta as quickly as possible. Of course, it has to be a sincere request, not just to impress the lama." This type of prayer is really important, since we are in the habit of making prayers basically for worldly things that we want.

The quintessence teaching for the Mahayana
   transference of mind
Is the five forces themselves,
While giving importance to my path of deportment.

At the time of death, we can also apply the same five forces. Applying the five forces is considered the best type of powa, transference of consciousness, rather than doing some sort of dramatic method that doesn’t have feeling behind it – shooting our minds off into some Buddha land. If there is no understanding at all of what we are doing, then our level of motivation will be rather superficial.

First is the intention. The best thing to keep in mind at the time of death is the aspiration, "May I be able to develop bodhichitta further and may I continue this practice in all future lives so that I may help others." It is very important to have this intention when we are about to die. Remember, what is powa? What do we want to transfer our minds to? We don’t want to go to paradise. That is not Buddhism. What we want to do is transfer our consciousness to enlightenment.

The white seed is to give everything away to others before we die so that we don’t have any attachments to money or to our possessions or even to our bodies. That is really quite important. It is very sad what happens to peoples’ possessions when they die. Very often those who are left behind fight over money and possessions and it causes a lot of trouble. Or maybe they throw all of our "precious" things into the garbage, because it is junk to them and they just want to get rid of it. It is much better to take care of these things before we die. Give them all away, to our families or to the needy – this is better than everything being thrown in the garbage after we’re gone.

It is also important to try, in a sense, to overcome the attachment to our bodies as well. That is not so easy to do. There are many intense practices that can be done for this purpose. For example, if the custom here is to be buried in the ground, then make an offering of our bodies to the worms: "You are going to have it, so enjoy. I hope you have a good meal." The Tibetans use a very horrible image: if we are too attached to our bodies, we will be reborn as one of these worms that crawl all over our decaying bodies, devouring them. That is pretty disgusting, so try not to be so attached.

Then the power of acquaintance is to try to meditate on bodhichitta over and again so that at the time of death, as our minds get subtler and subtler, we can continue to stay focused on bodhichitta and enlightenment.

We need to recognize that this is exactly the teaching of the highest class of tantra as well. Enlightenment is a fully realized Buddha-nature, a fully realized clear light mind. In highest tantra, anuttarayoga, we try to die with full awareness as our rough consciousness and conceptual minds dissolve into our subtlest clear light mind. We try to stay focused on that full dissolution that will be coming next, signaling our deaths. It is exactly the same. When we try to do tantra practices, it is very important in meditation or at the time of death to stay focused on clear light mind in such a manner that it is a bodhichitta practice. It is done with the intention to abide in and realize this mind in order to benefit others.

Then "eliminate all at once," here at the time of death, refers to our tendencies of cherishing our own bodies. It is taught that we need to die like a bird taking off from a rock, without looking back. Then with disgust about our past negative attitudes and actions, try to retake vows and self-initiations before we die. This is not so difficult: if we have a little bit of consciousness, we can at least reaffirm our bodhisattva vows.

Then the last one is prayer. This is a very difficult one, because it is a prayer to be born in a hell realm to take on the suffering of all others, and to not be separated from bodhichitta. How in the world can we be sincere about that? But just as we ask the help of Dharma protectors to give us the circumstances to burn off negative potentials, likewise we would like to burn off our negative potentials and get it over with. We need to feel that if I have the potentials to be reborn in a hell or as an animal, it would be better to get that over with so that, with bodhichitta, I can continue on the path to enlightenment.

Now this is very important. What is the wish to go to a hell? It is not to go to one because we are bad persons. The wish to be reborn in one of the hells is motivated by the desire to be able to benefit others as much as possible. To do that, we need to get rid of these karmic obstacles, so we need to get them over with. Instead of having fear and repulsion of difficult rebirth situations, welcome them because of the benefit of burning off these negative potentials.

We can also hold the aspiration, "May this suffice for everybody having to be reborn in a hell." So we are not just thinking about ourselves. And as explained before about the Dharma protectors, because of the positive motivation, the negative potential will ripen into something very minor. It is said that with a strong bodhichitta motivation, rebirth in a hell is like a ball bouncing. We bounce into a hell realm for a few moments and then bounce out. That burns the negative potential off. Of course, this only works if the motivation is sincere: "I really want to get rid of these obstacles so that I can help others more." If the motivation is that we don’t want to have a really long stay in a hell realm because we’re afraid of the suffering, then, of course, it doesn’t work.

Some people associate the idea of hells with non-Buddhist religions and because they have had difficult experiences with one of those religions, they don’t want to hear about hells in Buddhism. This is shortsighted. One way to understand the hells is to consider how, as humans, each of our sense organs is limited in its ability to perceive the full spectrum of information of its particular sense field. We can only perceive visible light, for example, not ultraviolet or infrared light. We cannot hear as many sounds or smell as finely as a dog can. Similarly, there must be levels of pleasure and pain that are beyond the threshold of what our body sensors of physical sensations can process. Beyond a certain level of pain, for instance, an automatic mechanism takes over and we pass out. A hell rebirth would be one with a body that had the sensorial ability to experience, with full consciousness, the furthest extremes of the spectrum of pain. To me, at least, that seems quite possible.

If we do fear a rebirth in a hell, however, then absolutely don’t do this practice. It is very clear in Buddha’s teachings: he said that a bodhisattva on a lower stage must not try to do the practices of a bodhisattva on a higher stage. The fox doesn’t jump where the lion can jump. These are very difficult and advanced practices. But of these five forces, we can certainly try to stay focused on bodhichitta as we die, and give away our things so that we don’t have so much attachment. We don’t need to die and leave a mess behind us. Clean the whole thing up. Die with no regrets, no unfinished business.