General Explanation of Seven-Point Attitude-Training
Katowice Poland, December 1999
Part Two: Points Five and Six
Point number five is the measure of having cleansed and trained our attitudes.
If all my Dharma practice gathers into one intention;
That intention is to eliminate self-cherishing. All the various aspects of this entire literature on the seven points for cleansing and training our attitudes and all the other Lojong texts are really aiming at overcoming selfishness and self-preoccupation. We know that we are going in the right direction and our practice is successful if all our Dharma practice goes toward that one intention: lessening our self-cherishing. This is a sign that we are making some progress and it is going well.
But first we have to understand what is meant by "progress." This, I think, is extremely important to understand, namely, that when we talk about progress on the path, we are not talking about something that is linear. We are organic beings living in an organic world and things don’t happen in a linear fashion. A linear way would be that we do our practices and every day it gets better and better. Since we have the systematic presentation with the stages of the path, the five paths, the ten bodhisattva stages and so on, there is the impression that it will be linear. Of course, we do progress from one stage to the other, but this process is not one of steady, day-by-day progress. Some days our practice goes well and some days it doesn’t. This is normal, so it is very important to avoid discouragement and unrealistic expectations. This is emphasized in all meditation instructions. What we are looking at is long-term trends. The long-term trend is that whatever practice we are doing will lessen our selfishness, even though day to day it may go up and down. That is a sign that we are doing our practice correctly.
Our main aspiration when doing our regular practice needs to be to overcome self-centered concern and selfishness. In fact, all practices have this intention, not just the ones we’re presenting here. So for example, if we are doing zhinay (shamatha) practice to develop a stilled and settled state of mind, this needs to be for the purpose of developing concentration and mindfulness so as not to be selfish. Just to focus on the breath and to have perfect concentration on the breath itself is not the aim. Non-Buddhists practice zhinay like that. It is an exercise that has many benefits, but here the benefit is to be mindful of our attention so that if we wander off into thoughts of "me, me, me," we return to focusing on others.
This is quite clear from the structure of Shantideva’s text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Bodhisattvacharya-avatara). There, he presents these teachings on changing our attitudes about self and other in the chapter on meditative concentration. That is not the best translation; really it means a stable state of mind, that is, a mind that is stable in bodhichitta and cherishing others. That’s what we need concentration for; that’s what we need to be mindful of. We will know that we are doing the practice of zhinay properly if we are actually applying it to our lives so that we are increasingly mindful of others. The same principle applies no matter what our main practice is – we are doing it successfully if it helps us to be less selfish. This means that it is very important to know how to apply the various teachings and practices to daily life. We need to clear our minds of all conceptual thoughts, particularly conceptual thoughts about "me, me, me." If the self-transformation in these practices helps us to be less ego-centered and more focused on helping others, then we are doing them correctly.
Then the text continues,
If, from the two witnesses, I take the main;
Here the two witnesses that we can turn to in order to know whether or not we actually are making progress are other people and ourselves. The main of the two witnesses, however, is us. We don’t need to ask our teachers or the people around us if we doing our practice correctly. We know ourselves because we can see from the internal signs. This is what this point is about. So the commentaries talk about being a witness ourselves to see if we have achieved the five signs of greatness.
The first sign of greatness is being a great-hearted one. This is usually translated as "great mind," but actually it’s referring to heart. This means, are we somebody who thinks of others as our main focus and not ourselves? That is someone with a great heart. The word in Sanskrit, here, is "mahasattva," which we find, for example, in The Heart Sutra. We know ourselves; other people can’t really tell what’s going on inside us. We ourselves know if we’re thinking primarily of others or primarily of ourselves. If there is a nice cake for desert, are we thinking how wonderful it would be for the other people in the room to enjoy this cake, or are we thinking "Great! I love this kind of cake. I hope no one else likes it." When there is a long line in the store or the movie, are we hoping the people in front get good seats or do we want to get to the front of the line to get a good seat for ourselves? To reach this great-hearted stage is not easy at all! It is important, of course, not to fool ourselves. Let’s be honest about where we are.
It’s important to realize that the approach here is one without guilt or judgment. We don’t think "I am still acting selfishly, therefore I am a bad person," or "I am not doing it correctly." There is no moral judgment, like saying we should think of others and not think of ourselves. There is no concept of "should" in Buddhism. It is simply more beneficial to think of others: it causes less problems and suffering.
There are stages that we need to go through to reach this tonglen practice of changing our attitudes about self and others. The stage before tonglen is contemplating the disadvantages of cherishing ourselves and the advantages of cherishing others. It is based on the realization that acting selfishly is just going to cause more problems for us. For example, if we’re depressed and feel sorry for ourselves as a result, then our suffering is magnified. On the other hand, if when we are depressed we call somebody on the phone, or try to do something to help others, it makes us feel much better. It is simply a matter of seeing the advantages and disadvantages and deciding which one we want. So when we are cleansing our attitudes, one thing we need to get rid of is guilt and moral judgment. That is quite important. Otherwise this whole training becomes quite distorted. That is the first sign of greatness.
The second sign of greatness is being trained in constructive behavior. This, again, we can see for ourselves: am I acting in any of the destructive ways? It is quite important to be rather broad-minded in our understanding of the ten destructive actions. It’s not limited to just thinking about going out and murdering people, but even thinking in any way of being physically destructive toward someone. Even being physically rough with an elderly person, such as walking too quickly so that they can’t keep up with us, is a destructive action based on thinking just of ourselves and not the other person. We act destructively because we are thinking just of ourselves, so if we act constructively, basically restraining from harming others, then this is a sign of progress. We ourselves are the best witnesses for that.
The third type of greatness is being able to endure difficulties. Here the difficulties referred to are those involved in trying to overcome our disturbing emotions and attitudes. Again, we ourselves know best how we are doing at this. Am I really working hard and going through all the difficulties that are there and not acting under the influence of anger and greed? When we act under the influence of these mental poisons, we are thinking of ourselves instead of others. If we really are thinking of others, then we really do the hard work necessary to overcome our disturbing attitudes.
The fourth type of greatness is the great holder of discipline. "Discipline" means keeping our vows. There are the various pratimoksha vows (the vows for individual liberation) that can be taken either as a monastic or as a lay person. These vows include not taking the lives of others, not stealing, not lying, not indulging in inappropriate sexual behavior, and not taking alcohol and other intoxicants. Then there are the bodhisattava vows, which are basically to restrain from different behaviors and attitudes that prevent us from being able to help others. Finally, there are tantric vows to refrain from behaviors that create obstacles for achieving enlightenment through the tantric path. The intention of all of these types of discipline is to refrain from destructive actions that hinder us from helping others and from reaching enlightenment. It is really quite important to understand this intention. It is not like God saying, "Thou Shalt Not Do This," and we must obey without asking any questions. That is not Buddhism. There is no obligation to take any vows. But if we want to reach enlightenment to be able to benefit others in the best way possible, there are constructive actions that can help us achieve that. That means that we have to really think about these destructive actions and try to understand how they would prevent us from helping others. Again, we are the best witnesses as to whether we are really keeping our vows.
The fifth type of great being is the great yogi, somebody who is joined to bodhichitta. Our minds, hearts, behavior and everything are completely joined with bodhichitta. Here again, we are the best witnesses. We particularly need to be very careful not to be proud as we train, like thinking, "Oh, I am helping others; I am spending so much time at the hospital. What a bodhisattva I am." Thinking that helping others is due to how great we are is a clear sign that we are not doing it properly. It is really due to the inspiration of our teachers and the great lineage figures – but this devotion needs to be approached in a balanced way, not with the sense that "I am a nothing, I am a worm and everything is due to your greatness." Striving in such a balanced manner, without pride, is a sign that we are making progress.
There are many other signs of progress. One comes from the contemplation of our precious human life: feeling that it would be a disaster to waste this opportunity to help others. Likewise, not being attracted to the pursuit of wealth and possessions in this life, but rather seeking circumstances in future lives conducive to helping others is a good sign. Of course we need a certain level of material welfare and favorable circumstances in this life to be able to help others, but it is important not to see these as ends in themselves. We need to take a long-term view and think in terms of all the lifetimes leading to enlightenment. We need proper circumstances throughout all of them to help others. Our aim needs to be tempered with thinking of others, for instance the aim to have enough money to be able to help others, or a house that is big enough so that if people need a place to stay, I can give them one.
Also, if we are turned off by material pursuits and our main goal is to gain liberation from disturbing emotions and attitudes, that is a sign. So what does that mean? It means, for instance, that we are not really attached to living in a certain place or being with certain people, because we see that anywhere we are in this life, whomever we might be with, is the same in terms of having advantages and disadvantages. Wherever we are and whomever we might be with, there is a danger that we will get caught in attachment or repulsion, and this will prevent us from really helping others. This doesn’t mean that we have no connection with the people in our environment. We do have some connection, of course, but it is just in terms of being able to help, and not in terms of what we can get out of it.
Seeing that nobody is special then allows us to see that everybody is special – nobody is better than anybody else. That allows us to have an even attitude – that is, equanimity – so that wherever we are and whomever we are with, we can put our full energies into helping that person or that situation. We can see with some of the greatest lamas that whomever is with them becomes like their best friend in that moment; they treat them with a full heart and yet no one is uniquely special. This is yet another sign that the teachings are taking hold in us.
If we feel that we don’t have anything to be ashamed of in front of our lamas when they see us, then that is a good sign. This means that we are being sincere and so we are relaxed inside.
In general, if our mood is good all the time and we don’t go up and down, this also a very good sign. That doesn’t mean that we don’t respond to others. If we need to respond in a certain emotional way, don’t just be stone-faced and silent. I always remember an incident with my sister, who is always a good help to me. When I had been India for just the first few years, I came back to the U.S. and spent some time with her. After a while, her comment was, "You are so calm I could vomit." Being just calm and not really responding is not the proper way to practice. We need to have enthusiasm, to be there in a live way and not just be a statue. Calmness is inside.
The text continues,
If I can continually rely on my mind being only happy;
That means that even if we have difficult situations, instead of getting depressed by them, we are able to transform our attitudes about them to one in which we will have peace of mind and mental happiness. If we can do that – and we ourselves can see if we are doing that or not – then we are practicing correctly. The Tibetans love down-to-earth examples. For example, if we don’t get tea, be happy that we won’t have to get up to pee in the middle of the night, rather than being depressed that we didn’t get any tea. We can use these various tricks, as it were, to look at things from the good side rather than from the negative side so in fact we don’t get upset when things don’t go our way. It is a good sign for our practice when we can do that just naturally.
Then the final point in this section is
And if even distracted I’m still able;
Then I’ve become trained.
For example, it is very easy to drive a car when we are concentrating, but if we can drive while we are completely distracted, then we are well trained. Likewise, it might be easy to not be so self-cherishing and to think of others when we are concentrating and the situation is quite calm and easy. When getting on a train, to help people get on when there are no crowds and there is plenty of time is easy. But what if the whistle blows and the train is about to leave and there are still five or six people needing to get on? Are we still interested in making sure that everybody else gets on the train, or are we just pushing and shoving past everyone to make sure that we get on? Even in these distracting situations, can we still have our main concern be others and not ourselves? If so, then we really have changed our attitudes. That is the fifth point.
For the sixth and seventh points, there are long lists. The sixth point consists of eighteen practices that will bond us closely to this attitude-training. The seventh point contains twenty-two points to train in for cleansing and training our attitudes. These are very wonderful guidelines for how to be less selfish and more concerned for others. It will be better to not just present these as a long list, but to go into some detail about each of them. I think it can be quite helpful to do this, because the Tibetan expressions for them are really quite obscure and difficult, so unless we get a good explanation it is hard to know really what it is being talked about.
In Sanskrit and Tibetan, the word samaya (dam-tshig) means practices that will make a close bond or a close connection. These are different types of practices or things that will keep us closely connected to cleansing and training our attitudes. Some are different actions that we need to avoid, while others are different actions that we need to do.
The first of these three general points is, (1) Don’t contradict what I’ve promised. This has many levels of meaning and interpretation. One way of explaining it is when we are doing this practice of cleansing our attitudes, we must be careful not to feel that we can ignore things like the ten constructive actions. People may feel, "I am practicing as a bodhisattva and so I can do anything," but that is not really appropriate.
If we start to look into this, it becomes a difficult and interesting point. Let’s take a controversial example. One of the pratimoksha vows of a lay person is to avoid drinking alcohol, so one might say, "I am a bodhisattva. I am trying to practice helping others. It is a social custom in my country to drink and if I don’t drink with my friends, then they are not going to be open and receptive to me. So I can ignore this teaching on destructive behavior and drink alcohol because I am a bodhisattva trying to help others." There can, of course, be circumstances in which this might be an appropriate way of thinking, but we need to be very careful not to use this as an excuse for drinking alcohol because we like drinking it. And we need to be very careful that this attitude doesn’t disguise a feeling that Buddha’s teaching about alcohol is stupid and we don’t agree with it.
In general, there are things that are naturally destructive that everyone needs to avoid, and things that Buddha said it is better for those aiming for certain goals to avoid. These are the two categories of things that Buddha advised us to avoid. Killing is something that is naturally destructive and everyone needs to avoid that. Drinking alcohol, it could be argued, could fall into one or the other category. But, regardless of how we classify it, if we want to overcome the influence of disturbing emotions such as anger, greed, attachment, naivety, being cloudy-minded, and so on, then we need to avoid alcohol because it makes us more susceptible to being under the control of these disturbing emotions. So it is our choice! It depends on what we want to do with our lives. If our main aim is to overcome these disturbing emotions, then we need to avoid alcohol. If we don’t care, then we do whatever we want. Also, if we want to be able to benefit others and have a clear mind, it is better not to be under the influence of alcohol.
So it is quite important to be honest with ourselves and examine our motivation for social drinking. Do I really understand why Buddha said what he said about alcohol? And is drinking with my friends really the best way to help them? Does that really make them more relaxed? Does it really make me more relaxed or are there other ways that can be more effective and that won’t have so many side-effects? That, I think, is quite important. If our motivation for drinking is to have a more relaxed atmosphere with our friends, there are other ways of doing that which do not have the drawbacks of alcohol. Also, if we have taken various vows, promising not to drink alcohol, for example, it is important not to break them. I know this is a controversial point, but I think it is important to consider it seriously.
If our commitment is to train ourselves in order to be able to help others, then it is important to do things on the physical level as well as the mental level. A lot of people feel they can make offerings in water bowls and imagine giving all sorts of things to others, but then they don’t do anything on the physical level such as giving things to other people and actually helping them. Some people like to just meditate and do everything mentally, and feel that they don’t have to do physical practices like prostration and mandala offerings. That unbalanced way of practicing is addressed by this point as well. In terms of prostrations or mandala offerings, try to see how they relate to daily life. It is not enough to just make a mandala offering; we also need to offer whatever we have to others – including our interest, time, and our energy. The same thing goes for prostrations: it’s poor practice to show respect to a Buddha statue but not to our parents or to other people. Things need to be applied to daily life.
The second of the three general points is (2) Don’t get into outrageous (behavior). "Outrageous" means doing something just absolutely ridiculous. For example, if there is a teaching with a high lama and a girl comes in a mini-skirt with her legs showing – this is outrageous, beyond the level of propriety. So don’t feel that if we are working on this Mahayana practice of training and cleansing our attitudes that we can do outrageous things like going out and chopping down the trees and polluting the environment. Or don’t feel that we are going to be impervious to harm because we can transform harmful situations into positive ones. Another type of outrageous behavior is to be a hypocrite in the practice. In other words, we are nice on the outside when we are with other people, but then at home if there is a fly or a mosquito in the room, we hunt it as if we are on a safari in Africa until we actually kill the thing. That is being outrageous.
The third general point is (3) Don’t fall to partiality. "Partiality" means to practice and train only with our friends and relatives and to ignore people that we have difficulty with. If we are going to change our attitudes, we need to work with difficult situations and with difficult people as well. An example of partiality that the Tibetans often use is that if somebody in a superior position, like our boss at work, scolds us, we can accept it gracefully, but if an inferior scolds us, we get all upset. We usually practice patience with our boss, because otherwise we might lose our jobs, but not with somebody in a low position.
Tibetans say that in many ways it is easier to practice with friends and relatives than with strangers, so they always say practice equally with strangers and with friends and relatives. With many people in the West it is the other way around. It is more difficult with relatives; they annoy us far more than a stranger or our friends would. In terms of not being partial, I think we need to apply it in both ways, not just the way that the Tibetans usually explain the levels of difficulty.
This means remain normal in our behavior. So for instance, although we have tried to develop compassion for everybody and so on, if we make a big show of our sympathy by crying in front of others, then that may seem pretentious. Obviously it is ridiculous if a suffering person has to comfort us rather than us comforting them! So the teaching is not to be self-indulgent with our strong emotions, or show them off to others when it would be inappropriate. It is best to keep them to ourselves when we are emotionally moved in the presence of others who would be adversely affected by witnessing them, like crying uncontrollably in front of our children or showing them how frightened we might be.
I think this needs to be further clarified in the Western context. When we are with others and they tell us a sad story, we need to make some sort of sign that we feel something and not just sit there with a blank expression on our faces. But in showing physical signs of sympathy, such as putting our arm around the person, it’s important to be very sensitive to what the other person would feel comfortable with. Some people may want a shoulder to cry on and embrace, while others might get defensive and not want anybody to feel sorry for them. So the important thing is consideration of the other person. This is why the teachings on tonglen, giving and taking, always say to do it privately, which means without the other person, or anybody else, knowing what we are doing.
This is actually a very important piece of advice. A lot of people get involved with Tibetan Buddhism and walk around with a rosary around their arms or necks like it is a piece of jewelry. If they are with someone who’s having difficulty, they sit in a corner and say "Om mani padme hum" with their rosaries and the other person thinks that they’ve gone crazy. They even get annoyed. So it is quite important to just remain normal. We can do the "Om mani peme hum" in our heads; we don’t need to say it out loud or with a rosary in our hand.
There is also the whole business of healing, which is always a very interesting topic. When people do healing practices and they make a whole dramatic show of laying on hands and this sort of thing, the Tibetans say that that invites interference. Because if it doesn’t work, which in many cases it doesn’t, then we make absolute fools out of ourselves. In Buddhism, the main healing practice is tonglen and we don’t tell people what we are doing. If it works, we don’t say, "I did that for you, please pay me or thank me or pat me on the head or love me," or whatever. If it doesn’t work, then we haven’t made fools out of ourselves.
So this is good advice which keeps us close to the practice. Remain normal so that nobody knows what we are doing. That is even in terms of doing the prayers before eating and those sorts of things: it is always better to do them silently in our heads. If we are with other Buddhists, that is one thing, but if we are with our families and we start with the "Om Ah Hum" and do these sorts of things out loud in front of them, again, it just creates bad feeling.
The example that the Tibetans use is, don’t call a blind person blind to their face. Or if someone is not very intelligent, don’t call them stupid. The person knows that they are not so intelligent, we don’t have to rub it in. This is quite interesting because it gets into the whole topic of sarcasm and humor. We can be very sarcastic toward people and think that it is quite funny, when in fact it really hurts their feelings. Some people even feel that being sarcastic with each other is a sign of friendship. Again, I think that one has to really investigate more deeply what the intention really is.
In the United States, people are very sarcastic; they make fun of each other. There are jokes about how big your nose is, how ugly your wife is, and so on. It’s like slapstick comedy as well: somebody falls down the stairs and everybody laughs. You get a pie thrown in your face and everybody laughs. And violent cartoons: a big rock falls on the cat and next the cat does something else and gets smashed with a hammer and this sort of thing. For children! What is the thinking behind that? That is really strange thinking.
Anyway, speaking of others’ deficient aspects is making fun of people, sarcasm and these sorts of things. Although we might think it is quite innocent and funny, it in fact does hurt other people’s feelings.
This basically means to not look for faults in others or constantly criticize them. In terms of our relation with a spiritual teacher for example, we need to focus only on the teacher’s good qualities, because that is what can inspire us. We don’t deny the teacher’s negative qualities, but we don’t fixate on them because that will only lead to complaining and depression. In looking at the shortcomings of the teacher, the instructions are to make sure that they are not our own projections. For example, if our parents didn’t pay enough attention to us, then we may think the teacher doesn’t either, even though this is because he is busy and does a lot of traveling. Even if we clear out these projected faults and we find that there are still some real faults, the instruction is to focus on the positive qualities rather than the faults.
More generally, this approach is applicable to our relations with everybody. If we are trying to help others, focusing on their shortcomings to help them to overcome them is one thing, but in general we are annoyed by other peoples’ shortcomings. If we focus on the person’s good qualities, then even if they don’t spend as much time with us as we would like, we can still maintain a very positive attitude toward them. If our main practice is to try to develop this cherishing attitude toward others and to help them, it isn’t helpful to always complain about their shortcomings. Seeing people’s good qualities will motivate us to think positively about them.
The critical attitude is very interesting. Often, we are the most critical of the people that we are closest to. Some people, for example, expect their children or their parents to be perfect, and if they don’t live up to this ideal then they are very critical. Since nobody can be perfect, it is a far better policy to focus on their good qualities rather than pick on their shortcomings. This comes from having a realistic view of the other person.
Whatever is our most difficult emotional problem, whether it is anger or attachment or jealousy, we try to overcome or at least weaken that one first. We want to be able to help others and our various disturbing emotions hinder us from doing that. It is very important to be honest with ourselves and really examine ourselves to find out what our biggest emotional problem is. Rather than being afraid to face it, as it says in the instructions for tonglen, we need to take on this problem first from ourselves. For that, we need to try to learn many methods that we can apply not just one method. Some days we may be able to practice a particular method successfully and other days we won’t, and so it is very important to have a variety of methods that we can use.
It is interesting that in this teaching, we are repeatedly told to turn to ourselves as the witness, that we know ourselves best. That means that we need to be very introspective. Many people, of course, aren’t. They need someone to tell them that they are acting in a selfish way, because they don’t realize it on their own. But getting that type of honest feedback from others is really quite difficult. It requires a very honest and trusting relationship. If we ask someone to help us to be a little bit more sensitive about what is going on with ourselves, we must do so with the intention of not getting angry or defensive with them, even if they tell us something we’d rather not hear. But even if we do turn to a really trusted friend to help us evaluate ourselves, nevertheless that person is not the main witness. Once they give us a clue, we really need to check: is what they say true or not?
This refers to wanting something in return for helping others. This of course is not easy, because so often we help others for very subtle disturbing reasons. It might not be so gross as "I am helping you because I want you to help me later," but often we want to be appreciated, we want to be loved, and we want to be thanked. Sometimes we help just because we want to feel needed and useful, especially when we are a parent with a grownup child. Sometimes the parent doesn’t feel needed or wanted anymore. So the motivation is mixed with some self-cherishing and, of course, when we have that type of motivation and the other person doesn’t appreciate us, or says "I don’t need your help," we get very upset.
I find that certain images are very helpful. There are different schools of Indian Buddhist philosophy and one of these schools is called the Prasangika school. A Prasangika is somebody who argues with a prasanga, which is a technical term in Buddhist logic meaning an absurd conclusion. Often it is helpful to take our attitude or behavior to its extreme absurd conclusion and see how we are acting. Images of animals are often helpful here.
For example, it is interesting to see how sometimes we act like a dog. We come home and our dog is waiting to be patted on the head. Is that the way that we are after we have done something for somebody? Do we just stand there like a dog waiting for the person to pat us on the head and say, "Thank you, that was really nice what you did for me"? Even if they do pat us on the head, what are we going to do, wag our tails? What does getting patted on the head accomplish? If we notice ourselves waiting to be appreciated and thanked, then bringing to mind that image of the dog waiting to be patted on the head can help us see that we are really being silly. If we are actually going to do things for others, it is very important to do them simply for the benefit of the other person.
This gets very delicate. Think, for example, of children: the parents do everything for the child – clothes, room, food shopping and so on – and then what happens? Often, the child doesn’t appreciate it at all and just takes advantage, especially during teenage years. As a parent what do we want? Do we want our child to always thank us every time we wash their clothes? That is pretty unrealistic. In many ways, if the child takes some sort of responsibility and acts in a mature and considerate way, then we feel that the child is appreciative. In doing things for others, although we are not doing that for a thank you, it is also important not to act in such a way that the other person becomes dependent on us or constantly takes advantage of us. This goes back to examining whether we are helping the person because we want to feel needed and useful or is it because we want to really benefit the person. If it makes them dependent on us, it is not beneficial.
This refers to having our practice poisoned with self-cherishing. Even if we have a constructive thought or are involved in a constructive action, if we sense that it is mixed with self-cherishing, the advice is to drop it, correct our motivation, and then start fresh. If we want to do something for someone so that we will feel needed and appreciated, that poisons the positive action with self-cherishing because we are looking for an affirmation of ourselves out of it. It is best to step back and correct our motivation. Go back again to the notion of being very honest with ourselves.
So how do we know that we are basing our positive actions on a self-cherishing attitude? I think one of the signs of it is in the definition of a disturbing emotion or attitude. A disturbing emotion or attitude is one that, when it arises, causes us to be uncomfortable (hence "disturbing") and to lose our peace of mind. It may also cause other people who are with us to be uncomfortable too. It also causes us to lose control.
Being uncomfortable or upset inside can be very, very subtle. "Upset" may be too strong a word. As Shantideva said in his text, if the hand helps the foot, such as when we have a splinter in our foot and the hand removes it, we don’t expect the foot to thank the hand. The hand helps the foot because they are connected. Likewise, when helping others, say washing their dishes, there’s no need to make a big deal of it or complain. There are dirty dishes and they need to be washed. Then we can be perfectly calm inside. But if we wash them with resentment, with the thought , "You are so messy, why do I have to always wash your dishes. But I’m training to be a bodhisattva, so I’d better do it," this is a poisonous attitude.
Some of the other Lojong texts say not to have hopes or expectations that someone we have helped will do anything nice in return. This is playing games. There is a slight uneasiness inside, which we can sense when we really start to become sensitive to ourselves, that indicates that we are acting under the influence of self-cherishing or some other disturbing emotion. This may cause us to announce to the other person, "I washed your dishes." Why do we have to say that to them? And then we notice a little bit of nervousness in our gut just before we say it. It can be very subtle, but with practice we can notice the unconscious self-cherishing that is there. This what we need to train to be able to detect. It is not an easy practice, but it is really very essential to try to do.
When we talk about constructive behavior, there are two types: one that is mixed with confusion, namely self-cherishing, and one that is not mixed with confusion. Constructive behavior mixed with self-cherishing – the attitude of "I am doing this in order for you to like and appreciate me" – may be a cause for a better or fortunate rebirth, but it still perpetuates samsara. On the other hand, constructive action not mixed with confusion builds up positive force or potential to achieve liberation and enlightenment. We all have networks of positive potential from constructive behavior and we want to strengthen these networks. But how does positive potential ripen? It ripens as happiness. If that positive potential is mixed with confusion, then it leads to the suffering of change – happiness that doesn’t last or that leads to frustration. What we are really ultimately aiming for is strengthening our network of positive potential without confusion.
What this means is, don’t devote the major super-highway in our minds to our disturbing thoughts, but rather devote it to positive thoughts of cherishing others. As soon as anger or attachment or jealousy or self-cherishing arises, don’t play around with it. Try to eliminate it immediately. If we play around with it and think "Let’s take it easy on ourselves" or "It’s not so bad that I’m getting annoyed," that is giving the main highway in our minds to the disturbing emotion. It will just get stronger and stronger so we lose control and then it takes over. As the saying goes, don’t be kind to the disturbing emotions in our minds; be kind to other beings.
It is very helpful as a daily practice to go through the lists of practices given in points six and seven just as a reminder. Likewise, it is a very good daily practice to recite our bodhisattva and tantric vows, if we have taken these, so that we remember them. This helps us to be mindful of this advice which is very good guidance for life. And part of our daily practice could be not just reading the guidelines, but also contemplating one or two of them: am I really doing this, am I not doing this, and seeing the advantages of following it. Very helpful. But it is important not to do it too quickly. It is easy to go mechanically through a list like this without really paying attention to the meaning.
It is good to do this twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. In the morning, go through the list and set the strong intention to try to follow them during the day. Then at night review how successful we were at following the guidelines during the day. There is a story about Geshe Ben Gung-gyel, who kept a pile of white rocks and a pile of black ones. He would put a white rock in a separate pile for each time that he actually followed the advice and a black one for when he didn’t. All day long, he had a very clear picture of how he was doing.
The point, of course, is not to feel proud if we’ve done well or guilty if we have not, but to rejoice if we’ve been doing well. Don’t go overboard with this kind of self-evaluation, but if we’ve been acting more negatively, it’s appropriate to feel regret about it and resolve to improve. Progress is nonlinear; some days are going to be better than others. That doesn’t mean that we remain indifferent. It is important to try as best as possible to act in a positive, less selfish way each day. Just don’t go overboard in terms of expectation and depression, because obviously some days are going to be better than others.
"Bad play" is retaliating when others call us bad names or strike us or do anything unpleasant to us. If somebody abuses us and says nasty words, don’t search for worse things to say back, but just let it pass. There are many ways of doing that. Certainly we don’t want to just stay angry inside and repress it. Realize that if somebody says something nasty to us, it is just sounds, just vibrations of air, and our hearing of these words is just another experience of mind. The arising of the sound and the hearing of it is no big deal. It is only when we overlay on top of that a dualistic notion of you, a horrible person, who just said that to me, that we get upset and feel the need to retaliate. Likewise, if somebody starts a fight with us, if we get into a fight back with them, in many ways that damages all the things that we are trying to do for others. If we fight back because we’ve been insulted, then we are only thinking of ourselves.
In those sorts of situations, the bodhisattva vows are quite clear. The motivation for not getting back at someone who insulted us is to avoid causing them harm and to try to help them instead. In those sorts of situations, we certainly try to use peaceful means as much as possible. But if peaceful means don’t work, even after we give them a good chance, then if we have the ability to stop violence in a more forceful way, then not to do that is also a violation of bodhisattva vows. One has to be realistic.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is often asked about using violence in Tibet and he says that in that particular situation, although it seems that peaceful means are not working, nevertheless using violence and terrorism would get us absolutely nowhere. If we kill a hundred Chinese soldiers, they will send two hundred more. There are 1.2 billion Chinese; what little violence the Tibetans could do to them would accomplish absolutely nothing. So even in terms of wanting to prevent violence from harming others, one has to be intelligent and not just retaliate because we don’t want to look weak or bad.
Ambush means we want to get even, so we wait until the other person is vulnerable and then we hurt them in some way. This means that when somebody hurts us, we do nothing if we are not in a strong position now, but we hold a grudge inside and wait until they are vulnerable to take revenge. This point is about not retaliating. His Holiness says it very nicely: if we don’t strike back then we might be afraid that other people will consider this a sign of weakness, but actually it is a sign of great strength. It is weak to give in to anger and just act like a small child or animal that instantly fights back. If we have patience and use compassion and intelligence, that is a sign of great strength.
This means to point out somebody’s faults or weaknesses in a crowd to purposely embarrass them. There are many ways to teach people in an effective manner without actually embarrassing them in front of anyone. I remember once I was having some problems in India and I was at that time in Bodh Gaya to translate the commentary on Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharya-avatara by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I hadn’t seen my teacher Serkong Rinpoche in a couple of months – he had been in Nepal. I of course went to see him and he opened up Shantideva’s text and pointed to three words in the text and asked me if I knew what they meant. They were quite difficult words, actually. I didn’t have the correct understanding of their meaning and he explained them to me. In fact, the disturbing attitudes that these three words refer to were exactly the difficulty I was having at that time. So this indirect manner can often be a much more effective way to make a point. Also some of the commentaries say it means don’t use extra-physical powers, if we have them, to disturb other people with black magic spells and things like that – which for most of us is not so relevant!
There is a Tibetan animal called a dzo, which is the male mixed offspring of a yak and a cow. It is a very large and strong animal, much stronger than an ox. So this is saying don’t give work that is fitting for a much stronger person to a weaker person who is not as capable of it.
This has several meanings. One is that we need to accept the blame for our mistakes, instead of trying to blame others. Another is not to leave our dirty work for other people to do, like the dishes or cleaning. Or if there is a choice of seats, don’t give the worst seats to others and take the best one for ourselves. In other words, we are the dzo from all this training that we are doing. That is "shifting the load of the dzo to the ox."
This refers to running a race to get the best seat in the theater or running a race to get the best portion of food for ourselves. We want to get the best for ourselves and we don’t want others to get it. It is much better to let others go first and have ourselves get the last or the worst portion, but without doing it pretentiously, like saying "Oh, you take the good piece, I’ll take the bad piece, I don’t mind!" Certainly not like that. But in a natural way, much as a parent would let the child have the best portion of the food and not mind at all taking the part that is burned or whatever.
The traditional Tibetan story told here is quite nice. It was about Geshe Ben Gung-gyel, the one with the black and white rocks. Once he went with a group of other monks and practitioners to a meal that a patron was giving. The patron was dishing out the food, which in this case was yogurt, and Geshe Ben was sitting in the back. As he watched the patron dishing out the yogurt, one of his favorite foods, to everybody, he was getting more and more worried and upset: "He is giving out too large portions and there won’t be enough left for me." But then he realized what his attitude was and when the patron came to him, he turned his bowl upside down and said, "I’ve already had my portion." This is often pointed out as an example of this close bonding practice here. Instead of worrying that "there is not going to be enough left for me," we need to be much more worried that there is not going to be enough left for others.
An amulet is for chasing away harmful spirits, which is a metaphor for training our minds to cleanse our attitudes so that we can cherish others. But if we do the practice just for our own self-importance, then it is holding the amulet backwards.
There are a number of examples to help us understand this topic. For instance, if we accept a temporary loss because we know that this will impress other people and eventually we will get some gain, this is using the teachings backwards. Acting in a humble way and always being very considerate of someone we want to impress, because we want them to help us in the future, is also using the training in a reversed way – all this does is strengthen our self-cherishing. Another example would be doing these types of practices of helping and thinking of others simply because we want people to like us. Again, that is using the teachings in a reversed way because we are doing it basically for our own self-interest.
This would be, again, to mix our practices with self-cherishing: doing Dharma practices to allow us to feel self-righteous and arrogant, with a "holier-than-thou" attitude. Doing a meditation retreat and putting a sign outside that says, "Don’t disturb, great meditator inside," so that everybody will think that we are holy is a good example of this.
The Tibetans use the example of doing the three-year retreat so that at the end people will consider us a lama and we will get disciples, fame and offerings. It is always important to be humble. As one practitioner said, "When I read in the texts about the various faults and shortcomings, I recognize them in myself, and when I read about good qualities, I recognize them in others." That is certainly in keeping with the practice of cleansing our attitudes.
Examples of this include hoping that our competitors in business will fail so that we will get ahead, or that the people in our office will retire so that we will get a promotion, or that our rich relatives will die quickly so that we will inherit their money and property. Rather than wishing for others to have misfortune so that we can take advantage of it, the advice is, of course, always to rejoice and wish other people to live long and enjoy their money and to enjoy their positions.
This finishes the eighteen close bonding practices of point six.
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