General Explanation of Seven-Point Attitude-Training
Katowice Poland, December 1999
Part Three: Point Seven
Point seven, the last point, consists of twenty-two points to train in for cleansing our attitudes. Let’s go through them. I’ll try not to just go through the list mechanically, because actually these are very helpful.
This means whatever we are doing, do it in order to be able to help others. One example often used is the aspiration, "When I eat, may I nourish all of the microorganisms in my body." This is often used in India, where the people frequently have worms. Even if we can’t sustain this type of motivation throughout the meal, we start off like that. This is why the dedication verse that Nagarjuna wrote is always very helpful: "I take this food not out of attachment and greed, but as a medicine to help others."
This can also be explained in several ways. One is that to get rid of all the disturbing emotions and attitudes that we have, we can use one practice, tonglen – taking on the disturbing emotions and sufferings of others. It doesn’t mean that when we take on all of the anger or confusion of others, that we get more angry and confused ourselves. Rather, as in all of the tonglen teachings, we do not hold what we take from others solidly inside ourselves, but we use our ability to overcome these things – to actually overcome them.
Another helpful way of looking at this is that when our disturbing emotions and attitudes arise, this is a good sign, because to get rid of hidden disturbing feelings they need to come to the surface first. So we want all of our repressed anger and the hidden things inside of us to the surface so that we can get rid of them. It is also like in the practice of zhinay; when we first try to quiet down, we notice more and more mental wandering. It is not that there is more discursiveness actually present in our minds, it is just that we never noticed it before. Likewise, when we are practicing to cleanse and train our attitudes and we quiet down and start to really observe our minds, we discover a lot of anger and attachment that we never really noticed before. It is the same thing: it is just that we weren’t paying very close attention. This is a very good sign.
The two actions are the intention to help others in the beginning and then at the end to dedicate the positive force. This again can be illustrated with Geshe Ben Kungyal and his white and black stones. The minute we wake up in the morning or before we do something difficult, we need to set the strong intention to always cherish others and not be selfish. Then at the end of the day we check on how we did, then dedicate the positive potential from our constructive actions, and regret and try to purify ourselves of the negative ones.
This is referring to whether happiness or unhappiness and suffering occur, fortunate or unfortunate circumstances occur, act patiently and be consistent in wishing to give happiness to others and take on their problems. So if things are going well, it is important not to become so proud or arrogant and self-satisfied that we don’t do anything to help others. Or if we are experiencing hard times, it is important not to get depressed and feel we can’t do anything. If we have wealth, we can use it to actually help others in a material way. And if we don’t have anything, we can at least use our imaginations so that in both circumstances, we can practice tonglen, giving and taking.
This refers to the general commitments that we take on, specifically the close bonding practices and trainings from cleansing our attitudes. We need to safeguard this very strongly – it says even at the cost of our lives. It is very important to always check out the various Buddhist vows to make sure that we actually can keep them before we take them. A lot of people jump into advanced practices and take initiations without getting a clear idea of what the commitments are, and honestly checking themselves to see if they can keep them. They just want to do it because everybody else is, and they want to be an "advanced" practitioner.
Before we ask the masters for advanced practices, we need to ask ourselves about our own morality. Can we actually keep self-discipline? Are we actually able to keep commitments? If not, then we definitely should not ask for advanced practices. For example, many people do the Chenrezig puja once a week and they find this a real pain and are not enthusiastic at all about continuing to do it. But if there is a high lama coming with a big initiation, they are anxious to take it, even if the commitment is to do a big long sadhana practice every day for the rest of our lives. If we find doing something once a week burdensome, how can we possibly do it every day?
When disturbing emotions and selfish thoughts arise, the first thing that is difficult is to be mindful of the opponents, that is, to recognize the disturbing emotions and remember what the opponent forces are to get rid of them. The second difficult thing is to actually apply the opponents. The third difficult thing is to maintain mindfulness of these opponents so that the disturbing emotions don’t continue to arise; in other words, we need to break the continuity of the disturbing emotions and attitudes. Examples of disturbing emotions are anger and greed; whereas selfishness is a disturbing attitude.
The three major causes are those for being able to practice this training of our attitudes. The first cause is meeting a spiritual teacher who can give us the teachings and inspire us to follow them; the second cause is to actually practice the teachings; the third cause is to have the favorable circumstances for practicing them. Favorable circumstances are basically being satisfied with modest food, modest housing and so on and not just being preoccupied with how can I get more for me. If we are earning a sufficient amount of money, for example, we need to be satisfied with that so that we can use our energies to help others rather than just thinking that we need more and more. To think the latter is just basically thinking in terms of me.
The first undeclining thing is conviction in our teacher’s good qualities and appreciation of his or her kindness. That is usually translated as "undeclining faith in the guru," but that really gives the incorrect connotation. What it means is to see the actual good qualities of our teachers and to be firmly convinced of this fact, and then to appreciate the kindness of the teacher. If we have that, then we transfer it to everybody else. We can recognize the good qualities of other people that they actually possess and have firm conviction in that, so that we have respect for them. Also we can appreciate the kindness of others, even if they don’t do anything directly to help us. They help us just in the fact of being available for us to help them.
One thing that hinders us from being able to develop bodhichitta is that often we look down on others. We see only their bad qualities and feel that we are better than they are. For example, if a great scholar or great professor is very learned but also is arrogant, then this person’s knowledge doesn’t benefit anybody – not even themselves, let alone others. Everybody is turned off by the scholar’s pride and arrogance, and they won’t even listen to the person. When with pride we reject other people’s thoughts and opinions, we are not open to learning from anybody else. We impose our ideas on others even if we are wrong, and we reject everyone’s advice. But if we are humble and listen to others, then we can learn even from people with very little learning, like children. If we look at the good qualities of another person, even a child, if the child says something that makes a lot of sense, then we appreciate this. Looking at good qualities and appreciating kindness opens us up to learning from everyone. The opposite of this is ignoring or rejecting other people’s words and just wanting to protect and defend our own positions.
Then the second undeclining thing is the willingness to practice, so it is important not to feel that the training in cherishing others is being forced on us, in other words, "I should do this to be good, if I don’t do it I am bad!" When people are forced to do something, they rebel and act in the opposite way. But if we reflect on the advantages of cherishing others and the disadvantages of selfishness, then naturally we will have great enthusiasm for the practice and be willing to do it quite happily.
The third undeclining thing is to have our commitments and the practices that bond us closely to this type of training undeclining – stable and steady.
This is to have our body, speech and mind be conscientious and devoted to practice, namely the practice of helping and thinking of others. The example that is used for the body is to not sit fidgeting all the time, but to be mindful and collected. Don’t allow our speech to just babble on all day long about nonsense, but have it directed toward helping others. And the mind needs to be filled with thoughts of helping others rather than with all sorts of crazy silly thoughts. No matter what activity we are engaged in, whether of body or speech or mind, it is important for there to be some connection with something positive and constructive.
As you know, Tibetans love examples from the animal world and so they say when we go to sleep, we must try not to just go to sleep like an ox, which just drops down on the ground and then that is it. Instead, before going to sleep, do three prostrations with the reaffirmation of going in the safe direction of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and reaffirmation of our bodhichitta aim. If we hold the aspiration, "May I sleep to be refreshed in order to continue in this direction," then even going to sleep at night can be an extraordinary act. Even if we are in the habit of doing three prostrations at night before going to sleep and again as soon as we get out of bed – which is very strongly recommended as a daily practice – it is important to do it with an appropriate attitude and to not just do it mechanically.
This is similar to what was said earlier concerning the third close bonding practice in point six, which is to train with everybody and not just with one group of friends or relatives. This not only applies to people, but also to animals. Some people can be very nice to cats and dogs and they have such a wonderful loving attitude, but then they don’t carry that attitude over to insects. That again is being partial; we are only nice to the animals that we like and dismissive or actively hostile to the ones that we don’t like. That is being partial.
This is of course very advanced and difficult, but when we think in terms of bringing all beings to enlightenment, it is very important to realize that beings do not have an inherent, permanent identity in terms of the particular rebirth state they are in right now. Nobody is inherently a human being, a cockroach, a woman or a man. We all have mental continuums, mind-streams, with no beginning and we all have taken innumerable different rebirth states depending on our karma. So although we need to relate to others on the conventional level in terms of what they are now – a human, a dog, a cockroach – nevertheless, on the deeper level, we see that they all have Buddha-nature. This being could have been our mother in the last lifetime and could be anything in the next life as well. In this way, we start to extend this practice to all beings.
When we think in terms of wishing to help others and cherishing them, it is really quite important to also couple that with always thinking about beginningless mind, Buddha-nature and so on. These things go together. That is why this practice of cherishing others and overcoming selfishness starts with the process of building up bodhichitta, equanimity, seeing everybody as our mother. This brings us back to the basis of beginningless mind and everybody being equal from that perspective.
This is an important piece of advice for cleansing our attitudes. Training or cleansing our attitudes extensively means toward everything, not only toward beings, but also toward inanimate objects. That means don’t just avoid getting angry at people, but also at the car when it doesn’t start and the bus if it is late. Avoid getting attached not only to people, but also to ice cream and money. Cleansing our attitudes deeply means from the depth of our heart, not just superficially.
This means to try to apply all of these practices in our homes toward our parents and the people we live with. That is very important. Often people do meditation practice and generate feelings of love for all beings, but then can’t get along with their parents! This is where we need to put the most effort: toward those with whom we have a close connection. Also, we need to practice with people for whom we feel immediate attraction or dislike at first sight because we have some strong karmic connection.
We need to work on our attitudes no matter what happens. If we wait until we get perfect conditions to practice, we may wait forever. One great Tibetan master said that people show a spiritual face when everything is going well, but they show their true faces in bad circumstances. Everything is nice and easy when things go smoothly, but when things go poorly, rather than turning to our practices, we get all depressed and go out and get drunk. This not a good way to practice! Regardless of how things are going, we need to be steady.
As Nagarjuna said, we can’t be taken out of samsara like a fish being taken out of water by a fisherman, so likewise the great lamas can’t pull us out of our difficult situations like fish out of water. They can only help and inspire us. Lamas can’t perform some sort of magic and all of a sudden we are free of our selfishness; the responsibility lies with us. We have to stand on our own two feet and put the effort into changing our attitudes ourselves. If we do nothing to change our attitudes and just expect that the guru is going to do everything for us, nothing much will happen.
This means, as one lama said, don’t become a professional tourist of samsara and think we have time to go around and experience everything. Don’t put things off, but try to work on our attitudesnow and resolve to put all of our efforts into cleansing and training our attitudes, developing bodhichitta, and attaining enlightenment.
Often they say that it is quite helpful to consider ourselves on just a temporary leave of absence from the lower realms – we just have a temporary respite from being a cockroach or a dog and we need to use it. It is interesting to think about that. That means to have our primary interest be the Dharma and working to overcome our selfishness rather than being involved with worldly aims that increase our selfishness. And an important aim needs to be for future lives, which means to make sure that we are going to be able to continue in this direction in all future lives and not just in very limited ways in this life.
That is an interesting point because often we don’t think of future lives; most of us don’t even believe in future lives. If we are practicing in this life and find that we are not really making very good progress, we get very discouraged. When we get drawn to tantra and are told that we can achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, we like that because we don’t want to think in terms of future lives. But the mass majority of people involved with tantra are not going to attain enlightenment in this lifetime; that is very rare. So although we strive to gain enlightenment in this lifetime, we need to avoid thinking that if we don’t get it in this lifetime then our chance is lost forever. It is important to think, "Well, I am going to try as hard as I can to attain enlightenment in this lifetime," but if it doesn’t happen, which probably it won’t, then think in terms of continuing long-term, lifetime after lifetime. It is not just all or nothing: if we don’t get enlightened in this lifetime, that is it. Even if we don’t have a firm belief in future lives, try to get a correct understanding of what Buddhism means by "future lives." It is certainly not a simplistic idea at all. And try to at least be open to the idea of future lives so that we can start to approach this notion in a more realistic manner. We also try to have our primary interest be on others rather than on ourselves.
This is a list of the six different types of reversed understandings that we need to avoid. The first is reversed compassion, where instead of having compassion for well-dressed people who are acting destructively, we have compassion for poorly-dressed practitioners who are really doing constructive things: "Oh, these poor meditators who live in caves, they have nothing to eat." Of course it is very helpful to try to give them something to eat. But the people who really have problems are the wealthy businessmen who go around cheating everybody. They are the ones who are acting in a way that will bring them more and more suffering; the meditator is doing things that will bring him more happiness, and ultimately liberation. There’s a story about three wealthy sisters who saw Milarepa and said, "Oh, we feel so sorry for you!" and Milarepa said, "No, actually I am the one who feels sorry for you; you are the real objects of compassion, not me."
Reversed patience and tolerance is having patience and tolerance for our disturbing attitudes and selfishness instead of for others who get angry with us. Many people have no patience to sit for a Dharma lecture or to do meditation practice, but they have great patience to stand in a freezing cold river for hours fishing. Or they have patience for standing in line for hours and hours to get into a rock concert. This is reversed patience.
Reversed intention would be, for instance, where our main intention is for worldly gain – money, pleasures and so on – instead of being to gain inner happiness.
Reversed taste is wanting a taste of exotic drugs, exotic sex, exotic places on the planet instead of wanting to get a taste of spiritual experience from listening to the teachings and thinking about them and meditating.
Reversed interest is instead of encouraging others to take interest in spiritual practices, we encourage them to be interested in make more money in business, and so on.
Finally, with reversed rejoicing, rather than rejoicing in our own and others’ positive actions, we rejoice if our enemy or someone we don’t like gets into trouble or has difficulties.
"Intermittent" means to practice one day and not the next. Rather we need to be consistent. Very importantly, this means if we aren’t strong in one practice, don’t go on to another one, but be steady like a large river.
If we are going to work on overcoming our selfishness, just do it straightforwardly. My mother used to say, "Do it straight up and down; don’t do it sideways." Just do it. It is also quite important not to be in the state of mind of half wanting to practice and half not wanting to practice. We need to go straight to the heart of the matter of changing our attitudes, and not just fool around.
That means to really investigate carefully, both on the rough level and the minute level, to see if we have really changed our attitudes. So check and see, are we just repressing selfishness or have we really rooted it out? Another meaning of this training is to investigate the teachings in a nonsuperficial way. If we look in both a general and in a careful way, we will have a clear idea of what needs to be done. Then, do it without hesitation.
If in our practice we have mentally given everything away, but in real life, when people come to receive it, we hold back, this is practicing with a sense of loss. When we give things away, we need to feel that what we are giving people has actually become theirs and is no longer ours. When I was living in India, I had a flower garden and, in meditation, I would make flower offerings to everybody. But when the local children would come and pick the flowers and take them back to their own houses, I noticed that I would get very uptight. This is what a "sense of loss" refers to.
Also included in this training are things like not reminding others of favors that we have done for them, or talking about how much we have sacrificed to help them. That is meditation with a sense of loss. Also, very importantly, don’t boast about our own practice, such as telling people that we did 100,000 prostrations. We build up positive force and potential from actually doing the prostrations, but we certainly don’t build up any further positive potential from telling people we did them. If we go and do some long retreat and then after we come out from retreat, if we look down on our old friends as "poor pitiable creatures of samsara," that is really improper. Just practice sincerely without feeling sorry for ourselves or getting puffed up.
This means that we need to try not to get angry at the slightest provocation. We need to be able to take abuse, even in public. Shantideva gave a good piece of advice: even if someone is yelling at us, just remain quiet, like a log. He said that eventually the other person will run out of nasty things to say to us or will get bored and stop. But this has to be with a pure motivation, not thinking about how we are going to get revenge later.
This means don’t be fickle, always changing – the slightest praise makes us happy, but somebody looking at us with a frown makes us depressed. If we act like this, others will regard us as unstable and unbalanced, and it will hinder our abilities to help them. Shantideva gives the best advice for all of this: be easygoing with people, and don’t spend the whole day in gossip and idle chatter, but don’t be completely silent either. If we don’t talk with other members of the family or the people that we live with and just ignore them, that can be far more disturbing than playing loud music. It is important to be flexible and in this way we’ll be able to practice for our entire lives and not just for a short time.
This refers to what was mentioned before in terms of not expecting a thank you or any appreciation or recognition for helping others. Also, we need to try to avoid the eight transitory things in life, sometimes called the eight worldly Dharmas or eight childish feelings. The eight consist of four pairs of opposites: wanting pleasure and not wanting pain, wanting praise and not wanting criticism, wanting fame and not wanting disgrace, and wanting gain and not wanting loss.
That concludes the seventh point.
Geshe Chekawa, the author of the text, finishes it with the following lines,
(Like this,) transform into a path to enlightenment
This (time when) the five deteriorations are rampant.
The first of the five deteriorations is the life span is getting shorter and shorter. This can be explained in several ways, but one thing it could be referring to is that many people are dying at a younger age, of heroin overdoses and accidents and AIDS and so on. We can see that the children now don’t have much of a childhood. By the time that they are thirteen most of them have already experimented with drugs and sex, and done all sorts of things that previous generations didn’t do until they were much older. In that sense, the life span is getting shorter, there is not very much of a childhood left.
Then there is the deterioration of disturbing attitudes. Even those who become monks and nuns still have very strong anger, desire, attachment and naivety. Deteriorated outlook refers to householders have no respect for monks and nuns. It is very true that people don’t have much respect for anything anymore. Even people in the highest political and spiritual positions are involved in all sorts of scandals.
Deteriorated beings means that we are less capable of taking care of ourselves than in the past. We can see that we are so dependent on electricity, machines and computers that if there is the slightest little failure we can’t cope. Fifty years ago, we did perfectly well without computers, now everybody is freaked out that with the year 2000 bug, civilization will just collapse because our computers won’t work.
Fifthly, there is the deterioration of the times, meaning that there are more and more natural disasters. We can see that with the Greenhouse Effect, and with all the huge hurricanes and natural disasters that are occurring. So this is a time when we really need this type of practice to transform difficult situations into ones conducive for enlightenment.
The text continues,
This essence of nectar of quintessence teachings
Is in lineage from Serlingpa.
Quintessence teachings refer to these teachings on bodhichitta and so on. It is a nectar in the sense that it gives immortality, in the sense that it leads to Buddhahood. This is in the lineage from Serlingpa, a teacher of Atisha from Sumatra from whom he got these teachings and brought them to Tibet.
Then the author concludes,
From the awakening of karmic remainders
From having previously trained,
My admiration (for this practice) abounded.
And due to that cause,
Ignoring suffering and insult,
I requested the guideline instructions
To tame my self-grasping.
Now even if I die, I have no regrets.
If we have really trained ourselves and cleansed our attitudes of selfishness and self-preoccupation, then we can die happily, because we have built up causes to be able to continue in future lives to help others. On an immediate level, we will be able to die in a relaxed state of mind, or at least with no regrets. In this way, in whatever situation we might be, it is quite important to try to overcome self-cherishing and develop bodhichitta. If we have a realistic attitude and know what the difficulties are on the path, then we will be careful to deal with them in the various ways that are described here. This way we’ll be able to make steady progress over the long term.
That is the teaching on Seven Points for Attitude-Training which I received many times from my various teachers: from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from his teacher Serkong Rinpoche and from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. So I am very happy to have had this opportunity to explain this to you.
What questions do you have?
Participant: How do these practices fit with tantra?
Alex: It is very important not to practice tantra without the proper motivation. Atisha, who is the one who brought these teachings to Tibet, spoke about this. He said that if we practice various yidams without bodhichitta, the wish to really benefit others fully, and without an understanding of voidness or reality so that we are very attached to it, then this is a cause for being born as a ghost in the form of the yidam.
I always thought that that was a little bit odd and didn’t quite understand it. Then I visited Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, areas where Atisha studied and got these teachings from. These are places where tantra did flourish many centuries ago, but many people didn’t practice it in the purest way. Today, one of the prominent practices among the Buddhists there is channeling. There are whole groups that get together and go into trance where they will channel Laughing Buddha or Maitreya Buddha, and the spirit, which is obviously a ghost in the form of a yidam, comes through them and speaks. This is one of the major Buddhist activities in this part of the world! So Atisha’s advice makes sense of this very widespread phenomenon in Southeast Asia. Especially since these spirits are very involved in trying to help people – people go to these channelers much like people in the West might go to a psychotherapist, for advice and so on. So these ancient tantric practitioners didn’t have the proper motivation, although they did have some motivation to help others. It is very interesting. So not being attached to the yidam means not doing it as an ego trip, but having proper motivation and understanding of reality.
Participant: What if we are afraid to practice some of these teachings?
Alex: First of all, these teachings are very advanced, they are not for beginners. One thing that this means is that before undertaking them, it is necessary to have a healthy ego, in order to overcome low self-esteem. If we look at the order of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, he starts with Buddha-nature. In other words, gaining conviction that we really have all of the qualities and features that will allow us to achieve Buddhahood is the starting point. This helps us to overcome low self-esteem. Without that, going on to the more advanced practices is quite inadvisable.
We need to differentiate between a healthy ego and an inflated ego. In Buddhism, we try to get rid of the inflated ego, not the healthy ego. It is on the basis of the healthy ego that we take interest in our lives and our practice and we actually get up in the morning and go to work and meditate. Without a healthy ego, we wouldn’t be able to function in the world. Without that healthy ego we couldn’t practice the Dharma because we wouldn’t have any sense that we could practice and get any effect from it. But the inflated ego is a distortion of this, where we project on to the healthy ego the feeling that, "I am the most important one in the world; I always have to have my way." That is what we have to get rid of.
Buddhism is always the middle path; the most famous logo of Buddhism is the middle path. So the middle path in terms of ego is a healthy ego – not inflated to "I am the center of the universe," but not deflated, either, into "I can’t even take care of myself or do anything," where we just feel despondent and hopeless. That is just as dangerous and extreme as an inflated ego. We always speak of avoiding the two extremes of making everything into solid eternal things or totally denying and going to the viewpoint of nihilism.
Participant: How do we know whether or not we have a healthy ego?
Alex: If we don’t have a healthy ego, immediately jumping into practices is very dangerous. That can bring real psychological damage. So we need to investigate ourselves a bit first, by asking if we really care about ourselves. Not in a selfish way, but do we really care about what we experience, what we feel and so on or do we have such low self-esteem that we just don’t care? If we don’t care, then we feel that if we act destructively, it doesn’t matter. The attitude of "nothing matters" is different from an attitude of equanimity. We start to have a healthy ego when we take some responsibility for our lives, when we take ourselves seriously, take our feelings and actions seriously.
I don’t think we have to completely overcome low self-esteem in order to be able to start to practice the Dharma. To overcome it completely is a very long and difficult process. But at least we need to be able to recognize this disturbing attitude as a source of suffering. See it as suffering, a problem; try to understand its cause and have in mind trying to overcome it. And we must develop the conviction that it can be overcome. We get involved with a Buddhist practice to overcome it.
Sonam-tsemo, one of the five founders of the Sakya tradition, wrote a very important text calledEntering the Gateway of the Dharma. He was a contemporary of Gampopa and taught that, in order to really get involved with the Dharma, we need to have three things. The first is to recognize suffering and the problems in our lives; the second is to have some determination to be free; and the third is to have some basic knowledge of the Dharma. We need to know what are the basic methods and teachings that can help us to remove these things that we don’t want. With that as the basis, then we can actually get involved with the Dharma because we recognize our problems and we have the motivation to get rid of them. And we have some idea of what are the methods to use for getting rid of them, so we know what we are getting ourselves into. Otherwise, why are we getting into it?
In order to be able to recognize suffering in our lives and have the wish to be free of it, we need a healthy ego. If we don’t have that, we don’t care and we don’t look for ways to improve. So I think if we have the three prerequisites mentioned in this early Sakya text, it indicates that we do have a sufficiently healthy ego to get involved with the teachings.
We try to somehow improve our situations. This differentiation is very important because we read in the texts, "Practice without hope and expectation." That refers to avoiding the extreme of practicing Dharma with an inflated ego, for "me, me, me." But that doesn’t mean going to the other extreme and not having a healthy ego at all, otherwise we’d never do anything. We need to feel, "I am not going to get upset by things going up and down as I practice, but I still care enough that I continue to do my practice because I am aiming for enlightenment." Without a healthy ego we can’t possibly aim for any goal, liberation or enlightenment. The point is not to aim at these goals with an inflated ego, it doesn’t mean not to aim at goals, otherwise we’re not going to accomplish anything.
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