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A teaching given prior to a ceremony for generating the mind of enlightenment (bodhicitta).
A teaching by His Holiness the Dalai Lama prior to a ceremony for generating the mind of enlightenment, Washington, New Jersey, May 7, 1998.

Lightly edited by Sandra Smith, February 2013.

I would like to extend my greeting to all of you.

Yesterday when I arrived here it was raining quite a lot, but today it is quite different and pleasant. Perhaps half of you have come here partly to have a good time, for a holiday, so if you wish to stay for the whole talk or if you wish to walk around and take it easy, please do so.

The teaching that is going to take place here today is preceding the ceremony for taking the generation of the mind of enlightenment and for that I will be doing some preliminary recitations including the recitation of the Heart Sutra.

In the context of giving the teachings, both on the part of the person who is giving the teaching and the people who are receiving the teachings, it is very important to ensure that you have the right motivation. Therefore, for a Buddhist teaching it is very important that you take refuge in the Three Jewels and commit to the ideals of bodhicitta.

So please recite the refuge formula.

[Refuge prayer in Tibetan.]

I have visited this place several times and also I have had the opportunity to give teachings at this place several times. When I look around here today, one thing that I notice is the change in the trees. Some of the trees have really grown; some of them have really spread their roots. So, this points out to us and reminds us of the basic principle of impermanence, the transient nature of life. This is also something that we can remember if we think about the founder of the center, the late Geshe Wangyal-la, who is no longer with us. All of these things point towards the nature of impermanence, the transient nature of life. This transient nature and the process of change that we go through, that everything goes through in time, is something that no-one and nothing can stop. This is a basic fact of reality; a basic fact of existence.

Now what we do, what control we have in our hands, is how we utilize this time, which is constantly going through change. If we utilize our time for a more beneficial and positive purpose, we give our existence some kind of purpose and meaning. If we use it for destructive purposes, we create harm for ourselves and others. If we just lead a life with no mindfulness, we just completely have no sense of direction. So, the only thing that we have in our hands is how we utilize the time. So, wouldn’t it be wonderful to utilize whatever remaining time that we have in our existence, in our life, towards something that is noble and meaningful; something that is purposeful?

However, leading our life in a purposeful and meaningful way does not necessarily mean we have to lead a religious life in the sense of a religious belief or with religious faith. The key or essence is to lead a life which is grounded in the principle of helping others, if possible. If not, at least refraining from harming others. So, that is the key.

If we wish to create a sense of purpose, we can make our existence meaningful on the basis of a religious faith. Of course, on this planet there are so many different major world religious traditions, so we can pursue these paths through different traditions. However, it is important for the followers of these religious traditions to utilize, to implement the essential teachings of whatever religious path we are following in daily life.

If we can integrate the essential teachings of the religious path that we subscribe to and follow into our day-to-day experience, then of course there will be tremendous benefit.

Today, in the context here, the religious teaching that is being given is a Buddhist teaching, because this is a Buddhist center. Although many of you may already be aware of this, the key message of the Buddhist teachings is to try to seek a path to happiness and joy through a method that involves primarily bringing about discipline of the mind. This discipline of mind really brings about a transformation of the mind, which is the key path to obtaining happiness according to the Buddhist approach.

From our own personal experience we know that the more conviction, the more convinced we are of the value of a particular goal that we are pursuing, the greater our commitment and the greater our desire to attain that. In some cases, the commitment to achieving that goal is so strong that even if we are tempted to be distracted or diverted, there is a check, so we can follow the path without distraction.

What becomes important in this context for us here is to ensure that our wish to obtain that goal is grounded in a firm conviction, not only in the value of that goal, but also that our conviction is grounded in some personal experience and some valid reasons. The stronger it’s grounded in such valid reasons and personal experience, the more firm our commitment to that goal will be. Therefore in the context of Buddhist spirituality, the Buddhist religious path, understanding the nature of reality becomes very crucial.

Given that understanding the nature of reality becomes crucial for a Buddhist religious path to achieving the goal of ultimate liberation, what becomes important for Buddhist practitioners is not to be deceived by whatever perception we have. We should not be deceived by the level of appearance. Even from our own personal experience in day-to-day living, we know that appearance does not necessarily always convey the right picture of reality. Often in our day-to-day interaction with life there is disparity or a gap between how things seem to us and how things really are. This is really the basis for the Buddhist emphasis on developing such deep understandings like the nature of the two truths. Understanding the nature of reality is crucial, and in order to arrive at such a proper understanding we need to appreciate that sometimes appearance is not the true picture of reality. Therefore, having the sensitivity to appreciate that there are different levels of reality becomes critical.

The whole purpose of trying to seek a deeper understanding of the nature of reality based on the concept of the two truths is to bring about our ultimate spiritual aspiration of attaining lasting happiness and overcoming suffering, therefore, the teachings of the two truths are directly related to the Buddhist teachings of the four noble truths.

Once we look at the Buddhist teachings from this kind of angle or perspective, then we really appreciate the principal significance of the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths at his first public ceremony. Through teaching the four noble truths, he lays down the whole foundation or framework of the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

In the second public ceremony, the Buddha’s key teaching was the two truths. Although the two truths as a philosophical concept is something that is found not just in Buddhist teachings but also in non-Buddhist schools, it is in the teachings of the second public ceremony that we find a presentation of the highest level of understanding of the two truths. This addresses the fundamental issue at the heart of our existence as individual human beings or as sentient beings.

Now that we realize that the teaching on the four noble truths presents two sets of causality—one set that deals with the causality of suffering and its origin, and the other set which deals with the causality of cessation, the cause of that cessation, which is the path—we can raise the question, “Why?”

What was the significance of the Buddha teaching the four noble truths to begin with? The significance of that is to address the fundamental issue of our existence as individual human beings or as sentient beings. At the heart of our existence is this instinctual or innate desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering. So, sentient beings who possess these natural instincts exist.

This suggests that naturally there exist sentient beings who possess this instinctual desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering, and that really is at the basis. So the question can be raised about the nature of those sentient beings. We find a reference in one of the tantras where Buddha speaks about the beginningless and endless continuum of mind, that is said to be the ever-good or eternally good. The reference to the beginningless and endless continuum of consciousness or mind is that from the Buddhist point of view, there is nothing that exists outside the bounds of causation. Every event and every thing must come into being as result of causes and conditions. This is also true of consciousness, as it is true of the external world. In the case of a material phenomenon, not only must the object have a cause, but also there must be some substance which maintains its continuum from one instance to another. Buddhists call this a substantial cause or material cause—a cause which maintains the continuum.

Similarly, in the case of consciousness—of mind or mental phenomena—there must be a continuum, and not only must there be a continuum, but also that continuum must be maintained on the basis of entities which share the same nature. A physical entity cannot become a continuum for a mental entity or mental phenomena. So it is on that basis, as far as the continuum of consciousness itself is concerned, there is nothing that can really destroy that continuum, therefore, it is also endless.

However, this is not to say that every instance of consciousness or mental event is beginningless or endless. Of course, when we talk about consciousness—mind or mental phenomena—we must appreciate that there are so many different levels of subtlety and coarseness. For example, many of the gross levels of consciousness, such as our sensory experiences and many of our thought processes, are time-bound; they are contingent on that. Many of these aspects of consciousness are contingent upon specific additions, specific organs and so on.

Within the continuum of consciousness, there must be something unique to consciousness, that makes the first instance and the second instance and so on possess that nature of being an experience, which is called the luminous nature. There must be something in the nature of mere experience or in the nature of mere awareness, and it is on that basis that we speak of the beginningless continuum and the endless continuum. That faculty, that quality of pure awareness or mere experience is not contingent upon any physical conditions and neither is it contingent upon any specific time, so it is from that point of view that consciousness or mind is said to be beginningless and endless.

In Buddhism, when we speak about the nature of self—the person or I—that self or I is something that is designated upon the basis of this continuum of consciousness. So, just as the continuum of consciousness is said to be beginningless and endless, therefore in Buddhism, the person—the self or I—that is designated upon that continuum of consciousness is also said to be beginningless and endless.

The method or means by which we can fulfill the aspirations of that self or that person which is designated upon the continuum of consciousness must come about on the basis of some transformation of that mind or consciousness.

This fact is very forcefully demonstrated in the Buddhist teachings on the twelve links in the chain of dependent origination. The teachings say very explicitly that it is our fundamental ignorance that creates the whole chain that eventually makes the cycle of the twelve links. Ignorance leads to volition, volition leads to karmic consciousness and so on and so forth, so it is the fundamental ignorance that creates the whole cycle of unenlightenment.

However, it is through the elimination of ignorance that we reverse the cycle and thus create a process towards enlightenment. When Buddha taught the twelve links of dependent origination, we were never given the impression that although fundamental ignorance lies at the root of the whole cycle, we can eliminate ignorance simply through a prayer or simply through adopting certain physical discipline or some form of physical behavior. We are taught that we can begin the process of reversing the cycle only through cultivating the right insight that sees through the delusion created by ignorance. So in brief, ignorance lead to unenlightenment and knowledge, the opposite of ignorance leads to...

[At this point, the Dalai Lama interrupts the interpreter, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, and speaks briefly with him.]

Geshe Thupten Jinpa: Sorry...Ignorance leads to suffering, unenlightenment. [The Dalai Lama laughs] The opposite of ignorance, which is knowledge, leads to happiness or enlightenment.

His Holiness is saying he realizes that it is not only him who sometimes uses the wrong word.

His Holiness: Using the wrong word, not only me alone, but some people also there.

Geshe Thupten Jinpa: If you look at some of the epistemological texts, these texts speak of different fruits of valid knowledge or valid cognition, and in these texts, attainment of liberation or enlightenment is identified as the long-term fruit of cultivating knowledge or valid cognition. So what seems to be true is that if we examine this carefully, much of our experience of suffering and confusion really comes from states of mind which are ultimately deluded, and much of our experience of joy and liberation and enlightenment really comes from stages of thought or states of mind which are not deluded, which have their roots in some kind of valid experience or valid knowledge.

What becomes evident through all of this discussion is the fact that even for our spiritual path, cultivating the right knowledge and insight seems to become really crucial and critical. In some sense, we are aware of this fact, because even conventionally speaking we all appreciate the value of education and knowledge. The higher the level of education of the person, the better informed that person will be to cope with the challenges of life. In some sense, we do appreciate this basic point.

So we can raise the question, how does cultivating the knowledge and the insight help us eliminate fundamental ignorance? Here, when we talk about opposing forces and how one expels the other, we can use the analogy of light and darkness—illumination and darkness. The moment the illumination, the light, is switched on, the darkness is dispelled, so here we have an analogy.

Similarly, when we think about the different forms of mutual exclusivity, for example, in the case of our thoughts, if we know that something is a tree or that something is not a tree. If we know that something is not a tree, then so far as our thoughts relate to that particular object of concern, we can at that very instant never have the possibility of thinking, “That is a tree.” One thought, by the simple fact of its occurrence, by definition excludes the possibility of other.

There is a similar kind of relationship between ignorance on the one hand and wisdom or insight on the other. Ignorance here is not a case of mere unknowing, but rather it is an active case of perceiving things in a way that they do not exist. So when we cultivate the opposing thought, which is true knowledge or insight, given that these two thoughts oppose each other, the only difference is that insight is grounded in valid cognition. Just as we have insight that things and events do not possess some kind of independent existence, this also corresponds to the actual reality, because things do not possess an independent existence.

On the other hand, fundamental ignorance misperceives things as possessing an independent existence, but this does not have any validity—it does not have any ground or any support. So, when we compare two opposing thoughts which are directly opposed to each other, whichever has the validity and whichever has the support grounded in our experience is going to be more powerful. So, it is in this way that ignorance will have to be eliminated.

These reasons make it very important in Buddhism to cultivate an understanding of emptiness, and this is why emptiness becomes important in the Buddhist path. Of course, depending upon different interpretations, there are different ways of understanding what emptiness really means according to the Buddhist teachings. We understand that the emptiness as taught by Nagarjuna—where in the final analysis, emptiness is understood in terms of dependent origination—that is the highest level of understanding of the teachings on emptiness.

[Missing text]

Dependent by nature suggests that things are devoid of independent reality, or intrinsic reality. They are devoid of inner existence and identity, and this is what is meant by the Buddhist teachings on emptiness. It doesn’t mean that things do not exist. It simply means that things do not exist with some kind of independent identity or existence. So the nature of dependent origination is used as the final proof that things are empty, in the final analysis.

The thought which believes in the independent, intrinsic reality of things and events is known in Buddhism as the self-grasping thought or attitude. This we know is one source of much of our confusion and much of our ignorance. We also know that there is another element which is also one of the major origins of much of our suffering and problems. We are not only grasping at some kind of true existence of things and events and also at oneself, but we also have an attachment to the self which the Buddhists call the self-cherishing thought. This is a thought which cherishes one’s own self-interest and is completely oblivious to the well-being of others.

However, this is not to say that any form of self-regard is a source of suffering, because we do need a sense of self and also we do need our thoughts to have an element of self-regard. It is on the basis of a strong sense of self that we can proceed with many of the methods for attaining liberation: salvation, helping others and so on.

Now there is a problem when this form of self-regard becomes extreme to the point where we are prepared to exploit others; we are prepared to totally sacrifice others’ well-being in pursuit of that self-interest. In that form of extreme self-regard, a sense of self is a powerful problem.

His Holiness is making the point that if you don’t have any experience of caring for yourself, how can you even begin to care for others, because there is no real basis from which you can engage with others.

How do we overcome this excessive form of self-cherishing, that is prepared to sacrifice and exploit others’ well-being? The effective way to overcome this is through cultivating thoughts that cherish the well-being of others.

We can say that these two forces—the certain grasping at the self-existence of things and the self on the one hand, and also this excessive form of self-cherishing attitude —these two are said to be like two poisons that pollute from within. We could almost say that these two are poisonous trees that are growing in us.

Through this we can appreciate that the essence of our spiritual path should be the practice of cultivating compassion and love, which counteracts the self-cherishing, and also the practice cultivating correct insight into emptiness—the knowledge of emptiness which counteracts the other force. These two should not only be the essence of the teaching, but the key elements of our individual practice.

The day before yesterday I participated in a symposium on neuro-science and Buddhist meditation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. One of the speakers made a presentation where he showed an empirical study that was done, which seems to suggest quite conclusively that those people who have a tendency to use more self-reference terms, such as “I”, “me” and “mine” in a much higher proportion than the average person, have a much higher degree of self-involvement. Those people tend to have more health problems and also have much more hyper- kind of personality, and they are more prone to aggression and so on, including a much higher possibility of an earlier death.

This seems to suggest that not only Buddhist meditation on selflessness and counteracting the self-cherishing thoughts through cultivation of thoughts cherishing others’ well-being; not only do these kinds of practices have the benefit of leading to Buddhist liberation, nirvana, but even within this lifetime, even in immediate terms, there seem to be visible, beneficial effects. Because of this, just before the teaching, I told one of my friends, that if this is true then maybe many of the ritual practices that are aimed toward longevity—visualizations and meditations which involves prolonging one’s life, through focusing on one’s life—perhaps these may be counterproductive because the focus is on oneself whereas the focus should be on the others.

If we think carefully, it seems that the more self-involved we are, the more self-absorbed we are, thinking, “Oh yes, me, my problem, my this and my that,” it seems to have an immediate effect of narrowing our focus down to some tiny spot and reducing everything to that. It’s almost as if our vision is blurred, even to the point of being burdened, being pressed down by some heavy load. If we shift our focus from ourselves to others and think more about others’ well-being and welfare, immediately it has a liberating effect, because of that shift of focus. It gives rise to some kind of strength and also it makes us feel more expansive. Even if we are facing problems and we are aware of our own problems, somehow that very shift in the focus provides the space so the problem that seemed enormous earlier, now seems to be much more manageable. It seems to be less significant than it was before. This is the truth.

Since the main actual teaching here is the generation of the mind for enlightenment you should cultivate the right attitude, which is to put the focus on others, not on oneself and spread it out, extending it to all sentient beings, if possible. For the benefit of all sentient beings, make a strong commitment that you will ensure that this altruistic mind never degenerates.

As usual, for the ceremony of generating the mind of enlightenment, you should visualize here in your presence, the Buddha, the teacher, and all the bodhisattvas of the past and also the great masters of India and Tibet, such as Nagarjuna, Asanga and so on, and focus on them. Cultivate strong faith and admiration in them and then imagine that you are surrounded by all sentient beings and then focus on them. You should reinforce within you a strong sense of empathy and compassion towards their suffering and their problems, and then cultivate the thought, “For the benefit of all these sentient beings, I shall generate the mind of enlightenment in the presence of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the great masters of the past. As a preliminary to that generation of the mind of enlightenment, I need to overcome all obstacles, therefore I shall engage in the preliminary practices, such as the purification of negativities, accumulation of merits and so on.”

This will be performed through the recitation of the preliminary practices, which will be done in Tibetan. When the recitation is being done, on your part, you should imagine that you are going through these practices of purification and accumulation of merits.

[His Holiness recites prayer in Tibetan.]

I believe that a small sheet has been distributed to all of you with three verses in English. The first verse deals with taking refuge and the second verse deals with the generation of the mind of enlightenment. I believe that they are citations from one of the tantras.

The first verse basically states that, motivated by the wish to free all beings, “I will go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha, until I attain full enlightenment.”

The second verse states that this is reinforced with compassion and is grounded in true insight or wisdom, “I shall generate the mind for enlightenment in the presence of all the buddhas here today.”

The wisdom of emptiness, the insight of emptiness, reinforces compassion because through the cultivation of the right insight, the wisdom of emptiness, we will gain the awareness or the knowledge that grasping at true existence is a form of delusion. Because it is a form of delusion it is something that can be corrected—it is something that can be removed or eliminated. Once you gain the conviction of the possibility of eliminating that delusion from within, then your compassion toward sentient beings who continue to be deluded, who continue to be deceived by such forms of delusion will increase ever more, because you know that there is a way out. Sentient beings continue to be chained in the cycle, so of course this true insight into emptiness will reinforce your compassion towards other sentient beings.

The mind for enlightenment, or bodhicitta, is a state of mind that is altruistic and is derived on the basis of true aspirations. One aspiration is to fulfill the welfare of all other sentient beings, and the other aspiration is to seek full enlightenment for the sake of fulfilling the objective of helping others. So it is on the basis of these two wishes that we cultivate the mind that seeks full enlightenment. This is called bodhicitta or the mind of awakening.

The third verse is really a verse of dedication and also an aspirational prayer. This is from Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, the Bodhicaryavatara.

When you recite these three verses, you should dwell on their meaning. In the first verse, you are taking refuge in the Three Jewels; in the second verse, you are cultivating generating the mind for enlightenment; and in the third verse, you should have a strong sense that, “Now that I have generated the mind of enlightenment, I shall follow in the footsteps of the great bodhisattvas, and share in the powerful sentiments expressed in this verse, as long as space remains.”

We will do the recitation in Tibetan and while the Tibetan recitation is being done, you should read it all together in English.

With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.

Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
Today in the Buddha’s presence
I generate the Mind for Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.

As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

I think whenever you have spare time, it would be very effective and beneficial to recite these three verses and reflect on their meaning. In that way you can experience the benefit. There is a Tibetan expression which states that the mind follows familiarity. So it is through constant familiarization and constant practice that something becomes more natural, easier and more applicable. So with that, today’s teaching is over. I would like to ask all of you to be happy.

His Holiness [in English]: Of course I believe the ultimate source of happiness is within ourselves. I think it is very important that our mental state remains calm, peaceful, then the external disturbances will not much disturb our internal peace. So therefore while we are earning money or some other things, I think it is equally important to pay more attention to our inner values, to be somewhat balanced. We should not be a slave of money. So, I think a happy balance. Of course, money is very important, hmm? [Laughter.]

Geshe Thupten Jinpa: You may be interested to know that Tibetans have a nickname for money; it is called, “that which by which all the wishes are fulfilled.” [Laughter.] So, the Tibetan expression translates as, “that which makes everybody happy and that which makes all the wishes fulfilled”.

His Holiness [in English]: So, as I mentioned before in the beginning, I think it is very, very important to be a warm-hearted person, a good-natured person, with more sense of caring for others. Ultimately, you get more happiness.

So, as I think—our old friends, I think you often heard before, I’m always telling people—I myself feel that if you are going to be selfish, you should be wise-selfish rather than foolish-selfish. So I think that’s very important. If you take care more of others, ultimately you get the benefit. That’s all. Thank you very much.

[Recitation of dedication prayers in Tibetan.]

Teaching on how to gain happiness and the path to liberation from suffering
With kind permission of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala. From Second Dharma Celebration, November 5th-8th 1982, New Delhi, India. Translated by Alex Berzin, clarified by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, edited by Nicholas Ribush. First published by Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre, New Delhi, 1982

Many billions of years elapsed between the origin of this world and the first appearance of living beings upon its surface. Thereafter it took an immense time for living creatures to become mature in thought and —in the development and perfection of their intellectual faculties; and even from the time men attained maturity up to the present many thousands of years have passed. Through all these vast periods of time the world has undergone constant changes, for it is in a continual state of flux. Even now, many comparatively recent occurrences which appeared for a little while to remain static are seen to have been undergoing changes from moment to moment.

One may wonder what it is that remains immutable when every sort of material and mental phenomenon seems to be invariably subject to the process of change, of mutability. All of them are forever arising, developing and passing away. In the vortex of all these changes it is Truth alone which remains constant and unalterable—in other words, the truth of righteousness (Dharma) and its accompanying beneficial results, and the truth of evil action and its accompanying harmful results. A good cause produces a good result, a bad cause a bad result. Good or bad, beneficial or harmful, every result necessarily has a cause. This principle alone is abiding, immutable and constant. It was so before man entered the world, in the early period of his existence, in the present age, and it will be so in all ages to come.

All of us desire happiness and the avoidance of suffering and of everything else that is unpleasant. Pleasure and pain arise from a cause, as we all know. Whether certain consequences are due to a single cause or to a group of causes is determined by the nature of those consequences. In some cases, even if the cause factors are neither powerful nor numerous, it is still possible for the effect factors to occur. Whatever the quality of the result factors, whether they are good or bad, their magnitude and intensity directly correspond to the quantity and strength of the cause factors. Therefore, for success in avoiding unwished- for pains and in acquiring desired pleasures, which is in itself no small matter, the relinquishment of a great number of collective cause factors is required.

In analyzing the nature and state of happiness, it will he apparent that it has two aspects. One is immediate joy (temporary); the other is future joy (ultimate). Temporary pleasures comprise the comforts and enjoyments which people crave, such as good dwellings, lovely furniture, delicious food, good company, pleasant conversation and so on. In other words, temporary pleasures are what man enjoys in this life. The question as to whether the enjoyment of these pleasures and satisfactions derives purely from external factors needs to be examined in the light of clear logic. If external factors were alone responsible for giving rise to such pleasures a person would be happy when these were present and, conversely, unhappy in their absence.

However, this is not so. For, even in the absence of external conditions leading to pleasure, a man can still be happy and at peace. This demonstrates that external factors are not alone responsible for stimulating man's happiness. Were it true that external factors were solely responsible for, or that they wholly conditioned the arising of, pleasure and happiness, a person possessing an abundance of these factors would have illimitable joy, which is by no means always so. It is true that these external factors do make partial contribution to the creation of pleasure in a man's lifetime. However, to state that the external factors are all that is needed and therefore the exclusive cause of happiness in a man's span of life is an obtuse and illogical proposition. It is by no means sure that the presence of such external factors will beget joy. On the contrary, factual happenings such as the experiencing of inner beatitude and happiness despite the total absence of such pleasure-causing external factors, and the frequent absence of joy despite their presence, clearly show the cause of happiness to depend upon a different set of conditioning factors.

If one were to be misled by the argument that the above-mentioned conditioning factors constitute the sole cause of happiness to the preclusion of any other conditioning causes, that would imply that (resulting) happiness is inseparably bound to external causal factors, its presence or absence being exclusively determined by them. The fact that this is obviously not so is a sufficient proof that external causal factors are not necessarily or wholly responsible for the effect phenomena of happiness.

Now what is that other internal set of causes? How are they to be explained? As Buddhists, we all believe in the Law of Karma—- the natural law of cause and effect. Whatever external causal conditions someone comes across in subsequent lives result from the accumulation of that individual's actions in previous lives. When the karmic force of past deeds reaches maturity a person experiences pleasurable and unpleasurable mental states. They are but a natural sequence of his own previous actions. The most important thing to understand is that, when suitable (karmic) conditions resulting from the totality of past actions are there, one's external factors are bound to be favourable. The coming into contact of conditions due to (karmic) action and external causal factors will produce a pleasurable mental state. If the requisite causal conditions for experiencing interior joy are lacking there will be no opportunity for the occurrence of suitable external conditioning factors or, even if these external conditioning factors are present, it will not be possible for the person to experience the joy that would otherwise be his. This shows that inner causal conditions are essential in that these are what principally determine the realization of happiness (and its opposite). Therefore, in order to achieve the desired results it is imperative for us to accumulate both the cause-creating external factors and the cause-creating internal (karmic) conditioning factors at the same time.

To state the matter in simple terms, for the accrual of good inner (karmic) conditioning factors, what are principally needed are such qualities as having few wants, contentment, humility, simplicity and other noble qualities. Practice of these inner causal conditions will even facilitate changes in the aforementioned external conditioning factors that will convert them into characteristics conducive to the arising of happiness. The absence of suitable inner causal conditions, such as having few wants contentment, patience, forgiveness and so on, will prevent one from enjoying pleasure even if all the right external conditioning factors are present. Besides this, one must have to one's credit the force of merits and virtues accumulated in past lives. Otherwise, the seeds of happiness will not bear fruit.

The matter can be put in another way. The pleasures and frustrations, the happiness and suffering experienced by each individual are the inevitable fruits of beneficial and evil actions he has perpetrated, thus adding to his store. If at a particular moment in this present life the fruits of a person's good actions ripen he will recognize, if he is a wise man, that they are the fruits of (past) meritorious deeds. This will gratify him and encourage him to achieve more merits. Similarly, when a person happens to experience pain and dissatisfaction, he will be able to bear them calmly if he maintains an unshakable conviction that, whether he wishes it or not, he must suffer and bear the consequences of his own (past) deeds, notwithstanding the fact that normally he will often find the intensity and extent of his frustration hard to bear. Besides, the realization that they are nothing but the fruits of unskilled action in the past will make him wise enough to desist from unskilled deeds henceforth. Likewise, the satisfying thought that, with the ripening of past (evil) karma, a certain part of the evil fruit accrued by former unskilled action has been worked off will be a source of immense relief to him.

A proper appreciation of this wisdom will contribute to grasping the essentials for achieving peace of mind and body. For instance, suppose a person is suddenly afflicted with critical physical suffering due to certain external factors. If, by the force of sheer will power (based on the conviction that he is himself responsible for his present misery and sufferings), he can neutralize the extent of his suffering then his mind will be much comforted and at peace.

Now let me explain this at a rather higher level. This concerns the strivings and efforts that can be made for the systematic destruction of dissatisfaction and its causes.

As stated before, pleasure and pain, happiness and dissatisfaction are the effects of one's own good and bad, skilled and unskilled actions. Skillful and unskillful (karmic) actions are not external phenomena. They belong essentially to the realm of mind. Making strenuous efforts to build up every possible kind of skillful karma and to put every vestige of unskillful karma away from us is the path to creating happiness and avoiding the creation of pain and suffering. For it is inevitable that a happy result follows a skillful cause and that the consequence of building up unskillful causes is suffering.

Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we strive by every possible means to increase the quality and quantity of skillful actions and to make a corresponding paring down of our unskillful actions.

How is this to be accomplished? Meritorious and unmeritorious causes which result in pleasure and pain do not resemble external objects. For instance, in the human bodily system different parts such as lungs, heart and other organs can be replaced with new ones. But this is not so in the case of karmic actions, which are purely of the mind. The earning of fresh merits and the eradicating of bad causes are purely mental processes. They cannot be achieved with outside help of any kind. The only way to accomplish them is by controlling and disciplining the hitherto untamed mind. For this, we require a fuller comprehension of the element called mind.

Through the gates of the five sense organs a being sees, hears, smells, tastes and comes into contact with a host of external forms, objects and impressions. Let the form, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental events which are the relations of the six senses be shut off. When this is done the recollection of past events on which the mind tends to dwell will be completely discontinued and the flow of memory cut off. Similarly, plans for the future and contemplation of future action must not be allowed to arise. It is necessary to create a space in place of all such processes of thought if one is to empty the mind of all such processes of thought. Freed from all these processes there will remain a pure, clean, distinct and quiescent mind. Now let us examine what sort of characteristics constitute the mind when it has attained this stage. We surely do possess some thing called mind, but how are we to recognize its existence? The real and essential mind is what is to be found when the entire load of gross obstructions and aberrations (i.e. sense impressions, memories, etc.) has been cleared away. Discerning this aspect of real mind, we shall discover that, unlike external objects, its true nature is devoid of form or color; nor can we find any basis of truth for such false and deceptive notions as that mind originated from this or that, or that it will move from here to there, or that it is located in such-and-such a place. When it comes into contact with no object mind is like a vast, boundless void, or like a serene, illimitable ocean. When it encounters an object it at once has cognizance of it, like a mirror instantly reflecting a person who stands in front of it. The true nature of mind consists not only in taking clear cognizance of the object but also in communicating a concrete experience of that object to the one experiencing it.* Normally, our forms of sense cognition, such as eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc., perform their functions on external phenomena in a manner involving gross distortion. Knowledge resulting from sense cognition, being based on gross external phenomena, is also of a gross nature. When this type of gross stimulation is shut out, and when concrete experiences and clear cognizance arise from within, mind assumes the characteristics of infinite void similar to the infinitude of space. But this void is not to be taken as the true nature of mind. We have become so habituated to consciousness of the form and color of gross objects that, when we make concentrated introspection into the nature of mind, it is, as I have said, found to be a vast, limitless void free from any gross obscurity or other hindrances. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we have discerned the subtle, true nature of the mind. What has been explained above concerns the state of mind in relation to the concrete experience and clear cognizance by the mind which are its function, but it describes only the relative nature of mind.

There are in addition several other aspects and states of mind. In other words, taking mind as the supreme basis, there are many attributes related to it. Just as an onion consists of layer upon layer that can be peeled away, so does every sort of object have a number of layers; and this is no less true of the nature of mind as explained here; it, too, has layer within layer, slate within state.

All compounded things are subject to disintegration. Since experience and knowledge are impermanent and subject to disintegration, the mind, of which they are functions (nature), is not something that remains constant and eternal. From moment to moment it undergoes change and disintegration. This transience of mind is one aspect of its nature. However, as we have observed, its true nature has many aspects, including consciousness of concrete experience and cognizance of objects. Now let us make a further examination in order to grasp the meaning of the subtle essence of such a mind. Mind came into existence because of its own cause. To deny that the origination of mind is dependent on a cause, or to say that it is a designation given as a means of recognizing the nature of mind aggregates, is not correct. With our superficial observance, mind, which has concrete experience and clear cognizance as its nature, appears to be a powerful, independent, subjective, completely ruling entity. However, deeper analysis will reveal that this mind, possessing as it does the function of experience and cognizance, is not a self-created entity but Is dependent on other factors for its existence. Hence it depends on something other than itself. This non-independent quality of the mind substance is its true nature which in turn is the ultimate reality of the self.

Of these two aspects, viz. the ultimate true nature of mind and a knowledge of that ultimate true nature, the former is the base, the latter an attribute. Mind (self) is the basis and all its different states are attributes. However, the basis and its attributes have from the first pertained to the same single essence. The non-self-created (depending on a cause other than itself) mind entity (basis) and its essence, shunyata, have unceasingly existed as the one, same, inseparable essence from beginningless beginning. The nature of shunyata pervades all elements. As we are now and since we cannot grasp or comprehend the indestructible, natural, ultimate reality (shunyata) of our own minds, we continue to commit errors and our defects persist.

Taking mind as the subject and mind's ultimate reality as its object, one will arrive at a proper comprehension of the true essence of mind, i.e. its ultimate reality. And when, after prolonged patient meditation, one comes to perceive and grasp at the knowledge of mind's ultimate reality which is devoid of dual characteristics, one will gradually be able to exhaust the delusions and defects of the central and secondary minds such as wrath, love of ostentation, jealousy, envy and so on.

Failure to identify the true nature of mind will be overcome through acquisition of the power to comprehend its ultimate reality. This will in turn eradicate lust and hatred and all other secondary delusions emanating from the basic ones. Consequently, there will be no occasion for accumulating demeritorious karma. By this means the creation of (evil) karma affecting future lives will be eliminated; one will be able to increase the quality and quantity of meritorious causal conditioning and to eradicate the creation of harmful causal conditioning affecting future lives—apart from the bad karma accumulated earlier.

In the practice of gaining a perfect knowledge of the true nature of mind, strenuous and concentrated mental efforts are required for comprehending the object. In our normal condition as it is at present, when our mind comes into contact with something it is immediately drawn to it. This makes comprehension impossible. Therefore. in order to acquire great dynamic mental power, the very maximum exertion is the first imperative. For example, a big river flowing over a wide expanse of shallows will have very little force, but when it passes through a steep gorge all the water is concentrated in a narrow space and therefore flows with great force. For a similar reason all the mental distractions which draw the mind away from the object of contemplation are to be avoided and the mind kept steadily fixed upon it. Unless this is done, the practice for gaining a proper understanding of the true nature of mind will be a total failure.

To make the mind docile, it is essential for us to discipline and control it well. Speech and bodily activities which accompany mental processes, must not be allowed to run on in an indiscreet, unbridled, random way. Just as a trainer disciplines and calms a wild and willful steed by subjecting it to skillful and prolonged training, so must the wild, wandering, random activities of body and speech be tamed to make them docile, righteous and skillful. Therefore the Teachings of the Lord Buddha comprise three graded categories, that is sila (training in higher conduct), samadhi (training in higher meditation) and prajna (training in higher wisdom), all of them for disciplining the mind.

By studying, meditating and practising the three grades of trisiksa in this way, one accomplishes progressive realization. A person so trained will be endowed with the wonderful quality of being able to bear patiently the miseries and suffering which are the fruit of his past karma. He will regard his misfortunes as blessings in disguise, for they will enlighten him as to the meaning of nemesis (karma) and convince him of the need to concentrate on performing only meritorious deeds. If his past (evil) karma has not as yet borne fruit, it will still be possible for him to obliterate this unripe karma by utilizing the strength of the four powers, namely: determination to attain the status of Buddhahood; determination to eschew demeritorious deeds, even at the cost of one's life; the performance of meritorious deeds; repentance.

Such is the way to attain immediate happiness, to pave the way for attaining liberation in future and to help avoid the accumulation of further demerits.

 

* These two aspects, 'taking cognition' and 'communicating experience' refer to knowing what the object is and how it feels, tastes, looks, etc.

A compilation of advice about Dharma studies and practice
Advice from Khen Rinpoche Geshe Thubten Chonyi, resident teacher at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore. These teachings offer valuable advice related to our Dharma studies and practice: how to check whether our practices are Dharma, the need for study and constant reflection on the Buddha's teachings, and how to overcome our afflictions and problems so that we can truly benefit others. Transcribed, edited and prepared for publication by the editorial team at ABC, Singapore.

Daily Reflections is available as an ebook from online vendors.

CHAPTERS
Daily Reflections
i. Introduction and Biography
1. What is Dharma?
2. Studying the Dharma
3. Need for Reflection and Analysis
4. Overcoming Negative Emotions
5. Practising Pure Perception
6. Faith
7. Advice on Practice
8. Precious Human Rebirth
9. Death and Impermanence
10. Overcoming Attachment to the Body
11. Joyous Effort
12. Subduing Anger
13. Generating Bodhicitta
14. Wisdom Realizing Emptiness

What is more important - the happiness of this life or future lives?

“What am I looking for - the happiness of this life alone or the happiness of my future lives?” This is a very important question that we must ask ourselves every day. When we are more concerned with the happiness of this life, whatever Dharma practices we engage in become impure because the mind is controlled by the three mental poisons of anger, attachment and ignorance.

If we are more concerned about our future happiness, then we have to think: “What can I do now that will definitely benefit me in my future lives?”

If we are honest with ourselves, we will find that instinctively, we are looking for the happiness of this life alone. As this is our main motivation for everything we do - whether we are reciting our daily prayers, listening to teachings, receiving initiations or consulting our gurus -all our actions are motivated by the afflictions and are only expressions of our desire to achieve the happiness of this life.

Because of this attitude, the Dharma practices we engage in may look like Dharma but in reality do not become Dharma and they will not benefit us in our future lives.

We need to shift our emphasis from focussing on the happiness of this life alone to placing greater importance on the happiness of our future lives. As Buddhists, we should accept the law of karma. Consider our lifespan. Maybe we can live till we are 60 years old, but compared to the duration of our future lives, we have to take rebirths for many eons to come. Based on this comparison alone, the happiness of our future lives is clearly far more important.

Whether we end up with good or bad rebirths depends on what we do in this life. If we end up with bad rebirths in our future lives, we will have to suffer for eons. Compared to the suffering we will have to endure then, this life’s suffering no longer seems so unbearable. Happiness in our future lives is definite, provided we create the causes now.

When our goal is the happiness of our future lives, then our actions will all become Dharma. Once they become Dharma, these activities will definitely benefit us in our future lives. Therefore, it is very important that we consider this very carefully: “Am I doing this for this life or for my future lives?” Whatever our answer may be, we then have to ask, “Why am I doing this for this life/my future lives? Which is more important - this life or my future lives?”

We should have the confident attitude: “What I am looking for is the happiness of my future lives.” What is the benefit of having this attitude? Because we place more importance on our future happiness, the three mental poisons will naturally weaken and we will experience more mental peace and happiness. Otherwise, when our motivation is focussed on the happiness of this life alone, the afflictions only become stronger, leading to more unhappiness, problems and suffering.

From my side, it is my responsibility to tell you this. But whether this advice benefits you depends on you. Just listening to the advice does not help. You need to think about it, not just once but every day until you have some feeling or experience in your heart.

The purpose of the Buddhadharma  

There are only two goals for studying and practising the Buddhadharma - either the temporal goal of higher rebirth or the ultimate goal of liberation and full enlightenment.

There are no other reasons for studying and practising the Dharma. It is not for improving one’s business, removing health obstacles or solving other worldly problems. The main reason is either to achieve a good rebirth or ultimate happiness, since we want happiness and not suffering. Obviously we also want the best form of happiness, which is liberation and full enlightenment.

It is so important to remember this and to remind and ask ourselves all the time, “Why am I engaging in these studies and practices?” We should not be mistaken and confused about our goal. When people come to the Buddhadharma with the expectation that it will solve their worldly problems and things do not turn out according to their wishes, they become disappointed and lose faith in the Buddhadharma, abandoning and criticising the teachings. This happens because of the lack of clarity about what one is working for, and being too short-sighted with regards to what one wants to achieve.

Working for a good rebirth as a human being or a god is a bigger goal than just being concerned about this life.  When we work at cultivating the causes for such a rebirth, this means avoiding negative actions and engaging positive actions. Such behaviour will naturally bring us fewer problems in our daily lives.

What is Dharma practice?

This is very important - we must ensure that whatever practice we do becomes Dharma practice. Often, we seem to be practising Dharma, but most of the time, that practice does not actually become Dharma.

There is a historical account of a conversation between Dromtönpa - Lama Atisha’s heart disciple - and a practitioner. One day, Dromtönpa saw this practitioner circumambulating a stupa and he said to him, “It is good that you are circumambulating the stupa, but would it not be better for you to practise the Dharma?”

Upon hearing this, this practitioner thought that he should do something else. So, the next time Dromtönpa saw him, he was reciting a sutra.  Dromtönpa said, “It is good that you are reciting this sutra, but would it not be better for you to practise the Dharma?’

This practitioner then thought that maybe Dromtönpa was referring to meditation. He decided to go to his room and began to meditate. When Dromtönpa saw this, he said to him, “It is good that you are meditating, but would it not be better for you to practise the Dharma?”

This practitioner was now thoroughly confused. He could not think of any other  Dharma practices to do, so he went to Dromtönpa and asked him, “What should I do? What is Dharma practice?” Dromtönpa replied, “You have to give up this life.”

What is the significance of Dromtönpa’s reply?

  1. It shows that Dharma practice is primarily done with the mind and not with the body or speech.
  2. It shows that, in order to practise the Dharma, we have to give up our preoccupation with the happiness of this life, i.e., giving up the eight worldly dharmas because failing to do so means that our actions may look like Dharma but are not Dharma.

How do we give up our preoccupation with the happiness of this life? We have to reflect on how this human life of leisure and opportunity that we have is finite and will not last forever. Death will come. By reflecting on this repeatedly, we will be able to reverse the attraction to the preoccupations of this life.

Lessons from Lama Yeshe 

I was twelve years old when I went to Kopan monastery. Lama Thubten Yeshe was still alive then and he taught us by making us memorise questions and answers he had written and pasted on the wall.

There were many questions but one I can still remember was, “Why do we need to practise the Dharma?” The questions were in Tibetan, and at that time, I was more familiar with my native dialect, Sherpa. Still, I memorised the question even though I did not understand its meaning. The answer was: “We all desire happiness and do not want suffering. The only way to abandon all suffering is the practice of the Dharma. Therefore, we have to practise the Dharma.”

Another question was, “Just beating the drum, ringing the bell and performing the rituals – are these actions Dharma?” The answer to that was, “Beating the drum, ringing the bell and reciting mantras alone are not necessarily Dharma. Why? Because you can also teach animals to do these things.”

At that age, the young monks were all preoccupied with games and playing, but since we had to pass our examinations and memorisation tests, we had to memorise the questions and their answers even though we did not fully understand their content.

I am telling you this story to emphasise that Dharma practice is performed primarily with our minds and not our bodies or speech. Reciting mantras, doing our daily commitments and prayers, knowing how to do some rituals - these things are not necessarily Dharma.

Practising the Dharma means improving our minds and weakening our afflictions, the nature of which is to disturb our minds, leading to suffering and unhappiness. Until the afflictions are eliminated, we will continue to experience problems and difficulties. The Dharma is the only way to eliminate afflictions.

The distinction between Dharma and non-Dharma

The way to make our practice Dharma is to reflect on lam-rim topics such as the difficulty of obtaining a precious human rebirth and the nine-point meditation on death. These contemplations will gradually weaken our attachment to this life and also help us set a larger, more far-sighted goal. Gradually, all our actions will become Dharma.

Dromtönpa was once asked, “What separates Dharma from non-Dharma?” His answer: “When the activity you are engaged in becomes an antidote to your negative emotions and afflictions, that activity is Dharma. When your activities are not an antidote to your afflictions, then it is not Dharma.”

We need to remember and reflect on these special instructions of the great Kadampa masters, especially the advice on the distinction between what is Dharma and what is non-Dharma. Whatever we do in our daily lives – our daily commitments, coming to class to listen to teachings and so forth – we must check to see whether these activities are Dharma or not.

If we find that we have been practising for years but are not getting anywhere, it is because our practice has not been Dharma. They have not been antidotes to our afflictions and the result is that we are stuck and unable to make any progress.

Beginning to overcome our afflictions 

The advice of the great Kadampa masters, especially the advice pertaining to the differentiation between what is real Dharma practice and what is not Dharma, is extremely important. In a nutshell, Dharma is any action that is an antidote to our negative emotions. You must keep this in mind.

From the moment you consider yourself to be a Dharma practitioner, you should always relate the teachings to the state of your mind and check if you are working to defeat your afflictions. Whatever you do – be it listening to the teachings, doing your daily commitments, practising generosity and so forth -you should check: “Will doing this help to weaken or even destroy my negative emotions?” and set the motivation, “I am doing this so that I can subdue my afflictions.” By sincerely setting such a motivation, the process of destroying our afflictions has already begun. Overcoming our negative emotions does not happen overnight. Although the realisation of emptiness is the direct antidote to them, we can start fighting them now with our determination and motivation.

When you listen to the teachings and find the advice useful or inspiring, try to put it into practice. Even if you are unable to apply the advice immediately, at the very least, think, “May I be able to do so in the very near future.”

Integrating the Dharma with our minds 

Gyalsab Je’s message is: “If you are someone who seeks liberation or enlightenment, you need to exert joyous effort especially when you have this human life of leisure and endowments; your faculties are complete; you are free of obstacles to your Dharma practice and you have the necessary conditions for your spiritual development. Having found this opportunity, you should not waste it but use it to engage in something beneficial for your future lives.”

Our problem is that we do not integrate the Dharma with our minds. For example, we have heard countless teachings on the precious human rebirth but our minds remain unmoved. Instead of reflecting on the topic, we feel bored, thinking “I have heard this so many times.” There is no feeling for and little interest in this subject. We should not allow ourselves to end up in this state.

It is important that we do not simply look like a practitioner from the outside – doing our commitments, prayers and practices – but feeling empty inside. If our minds don’t change, we will encounter many problems and much suffering at the time of death. It would be ridiculous if we finally ended up in the lower realms.

Therefore, whatever Dharma we engage in, make sure it becomes Dharma. Whatever virtuous actions we do, make sure they are virtue. We should check our minds all the time.

Transforming our minds for the better 

The Kadampa masters said: “The purpose of all the Buddha’s teachings, the great treatises and commentaries that clarify the meaning of those teachings is to help us transform our minds for the better. When the mind does not improve, then even if we strive for eons to accumulate virtue with our bodies and speech, it is very difficult for those practices to become causes for liberation.”

This advice reminds us of the purpose of attending class and listening to the teachings, that is, to improve the quality of our minds. Regardless of the nature of our virtuous activities, we should always ask ourselves, “How does doing this help to improve my mind?”

Relying on mindfulness and vigilance when we engage in our Dharma practice, we should check to see if the practice is beneficial for our minds. If the mind does not change, it is like immersing a stone in water. No matter how long it stays there, the stone doesn’t change.

It is important to generate a pure and correct motivation for attending these classes. We should always remind ourselves why we are here, that we are here to learn how to improve our minds. The purpose of studying the Dharma is not to use it to check the minds and actions of others. Using the Dharma against other people is a mistake. That is not why we study the Dharma.

A Commentary on the Seven-Point Mind Training
In this book, Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok explains how we can train our mind away from self-cherishing, the cause of all suffering, and develop compassion, the cause of everything that is good. He bases his explanation on Kadampa Geshe Chekawa’s classic text, The Seven Point Mind Training, which, amongst other things, teaches us how to transform problems into happiness.

You can read this book here or order a print copy or ebook version of the book from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive.

The Kindness of Others
The Kindness of Others: Editor's Introduction
Chapter One: Motivation
Chapter Two: The Seven-Point Mind Training
Chapter Three: The First Point - The Preliminaries as a Basis for the Practice, Training in Bodhicitta
Chapter Four: The Second Point - The Actual Practice,Training in Bodhicitta
Chapter Five: The Third Point - Transforming Adverse Circumstances into the Path
Chapter Six: The Fourth Point - The Integrated Practice of a Single Lifetime
Chapter Seven: The Fifth Point - The Measure of Having Trained the Mind
Chapter Eight: The Sixth Point - The Commitments of Mind Training
Chapter Nine: The Seventh Point - The Precepts of Mind Training
Chapter Ten: Conclusion
Appendix: The Seven-Point Mind Training
Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Chapter Five: The Third Point - Transforming Adverse Circumstances into the Path

The text now returns to the training in conventional bodhicitta.

The general meaning of bodhicitta is the determination to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings—we want to benefit others in the highest way, we see we have to attain enlightenment in order to do so, and therefore we generate bodhicitta. However, in order to make progress on the path we have to combine our bodhicitta with the realization of emptiness, and when we engage in these profound practices we often encounter hindrances. Therefore we need a method for dealing with them.

By hindrances I mean adverse circumstances or difficult conditions such as getting sick, being in pain or having other things go wrong in ways that harm our mind and stop us practicing. So the discussion of hindrances on the path concerns not only how to prevent them from harming us but also how to transform and use them to enhance our progress.

Insights from this particular explanation on transforming difficult situations into the path are obviously useful for the Buddhist practitioner but even a non-Buddhist can find many ideas here that will be helpful in daily life.

There is a brief explanation followed by an extensive one. The brief explanation is in the next two lines:

When the environment and its inhabitants overflow with unwholesomeness,
Transform adverse circumstances into the path to enlightenment.

When our world is full of pollution and negativity and we, the inhabitants, are also full of negativities and faults, we should transform all this into the path. This means transforming difficult situations into helpful ones, turning hindrances into sources of help, and thinking that those who seem to be harming us are actually helping us achieve enlightenment— seeing them as very kind, as helping us in our practice, particularly that of patience.

Atisha’s teacher, Lama Serlingpa, said that difficult situations encourage us to practice because they trigger thoughts of virtue within us and provide us with the best conditions for practicing it.

For example, if we discover that we have a terminal illness and have only two or three more years to live it can encourage us to do better in the short time that we have left. It can make us kinder, more generous and friendlier to our parents and family and people in general—in other words, make us practice Dharma that much more.

Thus, when things go badly for us in any way, through the practice of transforming adverse circumstances into the path we can view any misfortune as a kind of miracle, like a gift from the Buddha to help us in our practice, or as a broom sweeping away our negative karma.

Sometimes when people get sick they ask a lama for a divination to see what practices they should do and then they do them. In other words, their illness gets them to practice. It’s also said that suffering is a way of waking us up to reality—for example, sickness, pain or any other kind of suffering brings home to us that we are living in the first noble truth, true suffering.

The second noble truth is the true origin of suffering; suffering comes from its true cause—afflictive thoughts and emotions and karma; specifically, suffering comes from the karma we create under the control of afflictive thoughts and emotions. The root of all these afflictions is the self-grasping mind, which is fundamentally mistaken with respect to its objects. It is completely wrong because the way it apprehends things to exist is the complete opposite of their reality. It apprehends objects to exist truly; the actual reality is that everything is completely empty of true existence. In this way our suffering encourages us to reflect on and develop insight into reality.

It is also helpful to think that whatever suffering we’re experiencing is the result of karma we have created in the past—in a previous life, perhaps—and that that karma is ripening here, right now. It had to ripen at some time but if it had ripened in a future life it might have made things more difficult for us. For example, at the moment we have the means—money, doctors, medicine and so forth—for dealing with any illness from which we suffer; in future lives that may not be the case, so we should be happy to experience it now, under these favorable conditions.

Moreover, it’s helpful to recognize that when we’re experiencing suffering we’re purifying our negative karma because once that result has ripened we won’t have to experience it again.

And the best part is that this is how things actually work. We’re not just playing a trick on our mind, distracting ourselves from what’s really happening. On the contrary, it makes sense—if we’re experiencing suffering we must have created its cause and will eventually have to experience the result. Therefore it’s completely valid to think that any suffering we’re experiencing is the result of causes we created ourselves.

When we engage in purifying practices such as circumambulation, offering, prostration or meditation we should not think that by doing so we’re going to avoid every little problem in this life. However, we should understand that these practices will help us to purify much of our negative karma—just not all of it.

For example, it’s extremely important to meditate on love and compassion because doing so, even briefly, is a very powerful way of purifying our negative karma. But even though this is true, we can’t expect it to stop every little problem. On the contrary, we should expect to experience suffering in this life and understand that when we do we’re purifying negative karma. In other words, we purify negative karma by doing certain practices and also by experiencing suffering.

Therefore, for the above reasons, it’s good to be ill. But it’s also good not to be ill, because when we’re well we’re happy and have lots of energy for practice. This is particularly important at the moment, while we have this precious human life with all its potential; when we’re well we have the energy to fully exploit it. When we’re healthy there’s little we cannot do. We can do all the physical practices, such as prostration, verbal practices, such as mantra recitation, and mental practices, such as meditation on love and compassion. There’s essentially nothing we can’t do when we’re well.

Another thing that can discourage us is being poor but the commentary says that poverty should be a source of happiness. The way to realize this is to reflect on the many difficulties that rich people experience in working hard to accumulate their wealth; worrying about protecting, investing, increasing and profiting from it; and being concerned about its being stolen, losing value, diminishing and so forth. Poor people have none of these problems.

If we look closely at all the fights and arguments we see around us we’ll find that they’re often over money; sometimes we see big fights over little money. Money can cause many problems.

However, if we’re wealthy, we should be happy about that too. From the Dharma point of view there’s no problem in being rich because we can then make all the offerings we want—or go wherever we want on vacation! So we should also be happy to be wealthy because of the many options it gives us. We can give money to the poor, donate it to schools, hospitals, poor countries and so forth.

However, the best way to use wealth is to accumulate merit because merit allows us to achieve anything. All happiness, whether short term—such as that we experience from time to time in this life—or long term—liberation and enlightenment—results from merit. Once we’ve created enough merit, there’s no happiness we can’t experience. Wealth is useful because it allows us to create such merit.

The commentary then says that when we approach the time of death, instead of shaking with fear, worrying and feeling very unhappy about having to die, we should feel, “It’s OK to die now because I haven’t created any extreme negative actions, such as the five immediate negativities or the ten non-virtuous actions in a heavy way. I haven’t done anything too bad, so it’s OK to die.”

Thinking like this at the time of death gives us a better chance of following a path created by merit and being reborn where we can again meet a qualified master who teaches the path to enlightenment and in that way continue following the path.

Of course, if we’re ill it’s better to regain our health so that we can keep on practicing and strengthening and nourishing the imprints we’ve already created during this life. Just as seeds gradually develop when we keep adding water and nutrients to the soil in which they’re planted and will stop growing if we don’t, similarly we need to keep nurturing our karmic potential. Doing so gives us a better chance of getting the results we seek from our practice not to mention a good rebirth.

On top of all that, when we experience difficulties, suffering, pain and the like, we should recall the verse in the Guru Puja that says,

I seek your blessings that all karmic debts, obstacles and sufferings of mother beings
May without exception ripen upon me right now,
And that I may give my happiness and virtue to others
And, thereby, invest all beings in bliss.23

I mentioned before how it can be helpful to think that when something bad happens it’s the result of karma, that this is a good way of keeping our mind happy and allowing us to cope when things go wrong. We need to understand that we cannot have everything go the way we want just because we want it or stop unpleasant things from happening just because we don’t want them to. Things don’t happen the way we want. Rather, they happen according to our karma.

Furthermore, when we do face misfortune and think how this is the result of our karma we should also remember that other sentient beings similarly experience a great deal of suffering and use that recollection to inspire us to meditate on compassion. We should also think how much more suffering others are experiencing than we are.

The next part is about transforming our attitude through bodhicitta in order to purify our mind and accumulate merit. The root text says,

Apply meditation at every opportunity.

This means that in all situations and locations, whether we’re experiencing happiness or unhappiness, we should bring that experience into our meditation and not allow it to distract us from the meditation we’re doing.

When things are going well and we’re feeling happy we should think, “May all beings be happy and may I be able to benefit them and bring them happiness”; when we’re experiencing problems we should think, “Through my experiencing this problem, may no sentient being ever have to experience a single problem again. May I experience all beings’ suffering and as a result may the ocean of samsara dry up and completely empty of sentient beings!”

As well as this we can also think that any happiness or suffering we’re experiencing is a teaching from our guru on how to practice.

Whenever people criticize us, even without reason, we should think how useful it is because it subdues our mind and prevents us from getting arrogant. Moreover, it helps us identify our faults. If nobody were to ever point them out to us we’d continue to think that we were perfect. When somebody points out our faults it encourages us to rectify them.

We should also be careful when things are going well—we’re making money, our relationships are working out, life is good—because at such times we’re in danger of our delusions causing us to do things that we should not.

Next, the commentary says that suffering is the path to happiness, which we can relate to the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths—suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering. What this means is that the experience of suffering can make us investigate its nature, see where it comes from, realize it can be ended and follow the path to its cessation and everlasting happiness.

The idea that happiness is an obstacle to spiritual progress and suffering is useful may be found in the small, middle and great scopes of the lam-rim and is also found here in the mind training teachings.

On the small scope we reflect that the usual happiness we experience is not genuine happiness but simply the appearance of happiness. When one type of suffering diminishes we have the impression, or mental appearance, of happiness, but it is not actual happiness, merely a reduction of one manifestation of suffering. By thinking about this, we gradually begin to practice refuge and so forth.

On the middle scope we recognize that even were we to achieve the aim of the small scope—rebirth as a human or a god—the happiness we’d experience would also not be satisfactory or reliable because sooner or later it would come to an end. By thinking about this, we gradually work towards the happiness that completely transcends cyclic existence.

The commentary then explains how on the great scope, for the sake of others, we willingly practice taking their suffering onto ourselves. It also says that if we don’t renounce our own personal happiness we’ll never be able to generate the mind dedicated to the benefit of others and if we can’t willingly accept difficulties we’ll never complete the practice of the six perfections.

The supreme method is accompanied by the four practices.

These four practices are:

(a) Accumulating merit in order to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings;

(b) Purifying the negativities that hinder our practicing the path;

(c) Offering tormas to spirits and other harmful beings by thinking of their kindness and feeling compassion for them; and

(d Requesting the Dharma protectors to provide conditions conducive for our mind training practice to improve.

Notes

23Lama Chöpa, verse 95. This verse is so important that it is recited three times. [Return to text]

 

By Ribur Rinpoche in Watsonville, CA

This is an excerpt from a teaching by Ribur Rinpoche at Watsonville, CA in June, 2002, translated by Fabrizio Palloti. Listen to this teaching online at Lam Rim Radio.

Just like me, others don’t want even the slightest suffering and they want to experience happiness, but that happiness is never enough. Therefore, myself and others are just the same.

However, the way we think of ourselves and the way we think of others is actually quite different. We think of ourselves as extremely important, and we are constantly concerned about ourselves. We are the very focal object of our own concern. For instance, we think, “I’m hot, I’m cold, I’m not very comfortable, I need this, I don’t need that, I wish for this, I wish for that, my health, and this and that.” We are the main focus of our mind, and our thoughts revolve around ourselves, and whether we are well and happy or not.

If we compare the strength of the thoughts we have about ourselves with the thoughts we have about others, others fall into a dismissible category. We think, “I myself am very important, I need to get this and that,” but others are dismissible and we’re not very concentrated on them. Is this true or not? We are not very concentrated on others, right? We are the main focus of our life. This is a clear indication that we don’t have the thought that equalizes ourselves with others. This is the difference between equalizing ourselves with others and not equalizing ourselves with others. This is the main focus of our meditation.

How we are the same as others

The main reason why we are so obsessed with our own lives is because we have not equalized ourselves with others. We think we are different from others, but in reality we are the same, and everybody else is exactly like us. Just like us, everybody wants to be happy and does not want to suffer. Yet, we keep everybody else in a non-referential state that we don’t need to enquire about, and we are obsessed with ourselves. We need to do well, and we think, “I need to do this, I need to do that, I need to be happy, I need to get rid of this problem or that problem.” Others are totally incidental in this situation. This is the mistaken perception of the obsession that we have with ourselves. We have not realized the equality that is the actual reality for ourselves and others—that we are all the same.

This is not an easy subject to grasp, and we need to work on it really hard. This is the thought process that we must apply in our meditation session. We need to analyze, “Why do I always want to be free from suffering?” The bottom line and the basic reason why we don’t want to suffer is just that —because we don’t like to suffer. It’s just that. We don’t like suffering and we try to avoid suffering.

Just as we try to avoid suffering, so does everyone else. If we check everyone else, they are just the same as us. They don’t want to suffer, and the reason is because nobody likes to suffer. So, just as we don’t like to suffer, everybody else doesn’t like to suffer. Therefore, just as we should not suffer, in the same way, everybody else should not suffer. Why? Because they don’t like it. Do you understand?

Therefore, why should we feel that we are more important than others? Why should we keep the focus on ourselves, as if we are more important, in a situation where we are all just the same? This is the reality.

How we are different from others

What is the difference between ourselves and others? There is a difference between ourselves and others—I am just one, and others are so many. There are six billion humans on this planet, and there are so many bugs, birds and other sentient beings. Like us, they don’t like to suffer and they just want to be happy. The big difference between ourselves and others is that they are much more important from the point of view of numbers. The quantity, the amount and the weight of the suffering of others is much bigger than the weight of the suffering that lies on ourselves alone, because we are one and others are limitless. This is another reason why it is totally meaningless to be constantly obsessed with ourselves as being the most important of all, when we are actually not. This is one way of thinking and meditating in order to equalize ourselves with others.

On top of this, if we think from the point of view of nature, there is no difference. We are all sentient beings, in the nature of suffering and impermanence. We are all born and we are all going to die. We all go through struggles and suffering. From this point of view alone, we are equal and there is not the slightest reason to consider ourselves more important than others. But we should consider ourselves as the object of compassion and love, because we all have the same impermanent nature and we all have the same suffering. Our minds are contaminated with ignorance and delusions, without the slightest difference between any of us.

We should debate this within ourselves over and over again, until we grasp the situation. Suddenly, we see, “For all this time, I’ve seen myself as more important, but it’s totally baseless for these reasons.” If we can grasp this and concentrate on this, and bring it to mind again and again until our mind is imbued with it, there is a transformation.

it is entirely up to us

Following the self-cherishing mind is the source of all our suffering. We need to identify that self-cherishing mind as a demon taking over our mind and make a strong determination with very strong mindfulness, thinking, “I’m going to get rid of it.” With this determination, make a request to the guru to bless us and help us get rid of egoism, self-cherishing, and the obsession with self and with me-first.

Who has been leading us to all the trouble and suffering that we don’t want? Who has led us there? The self-cherishing mind, the self-centered thought that’s taken possession of our mind.

The bottom line is, what is this attitude of self-cherishing? It is an attitude of considering ourselves as more important and better than everybody else, or needing to achieve more than everybody else—whether it is a possession, happiness or getting rid of problems, or whatever. It is that kind of attitude that leads us and is the very cause of all our problems.

All goodness and happiness arises from wishing for others to be happy. Everything that runs smoothly and well in our lives comes from cherishing others. Whatever exists, requires causes and conditions—it doesn’t happen randomly. The same goes for our happiness. When we cherish others, we are generous and we don’t get angry with others—we practice patience, morality and non-harming.

It is entirely up to us. If we don’t want to suffer, we have to cherish others.

By Geshe Lhundub Sopa in New Delhi, India July 1980

Geshe Lhundub Sopa (1923-2014), a great scholar from Sera Monastery renowned for his insight into the emptiness, was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's debate examiners in Tibet, 1959, just before fleeing the Chinese occupation of Tibet for India. He went to the USA in 1962 and joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1967, where he remained until his recent retirement. He was the spiritual head of Madison's Deer Park Buddhist Center.

Geshe Sopa gave this teaching at Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre on July 30, 1980. It was first published in Teachings at Tushita, edited by Nicholas Ribush with Glenn H. Mullin, Mahayana Publications, New Delhi, 1981. Published in 2005 in the LYWA publication Teachings From Tibet.

Searching for happiness

The great eleventh century Indian master Atisha said,

Human life is short,
Objects of knowledge are many.
Be like a swan,
Which can separate milk from water.1

Our lives will not last long and there are many directions in which we can channel them. Just as swans extract the essence from milk and spit out the water, so should we extract the essence from our lives by practicing discriminating wisdom and engaging in activities that benefit both ourselves and others in this and future lives.

Every sentient being aspires to the highest state of happiness and complete freedom from every kind of suffering, but human aims should be higher than those of animals, insects and so forth because we have much greater potential; with our special intellectual capacity we can accomplish many things. As spiritual practitioners, we should strive for happiness and freedom from misery not for ourselves alone but for all sentient beings. We have the intelligence and the ability to practice the methods for realizing these goals. We can start from where we are and gradually attain higher levels of being until we attain final perfection. Some people can even attain the highest goal, enlightenment, in a single lifetime.

In the Bodhicaryavatara, the great yogi and bodhisattva Shantideva wrote,

Although we want all happiness,
We ignorantly destroy it, like an enemy.
Although we want no misery,
We rush to create its cause.2

What we want and what we do are totally contradictory. The things we do to bring happiness actually cause suffering, misery and trouble. Shantideva says that even though we desire happiness, out of ignorance we destroy its cause as if it were our worst enemy.

According to the Buddha’s teachings, first we must learn, or study. By asking if it’s possible to escape from suffering and find perfect happiness, we open the doors of spiritual inquiry and discover that by putting our effort and wisdom in the right direction, we can indeed experience such goals. This leads us to seek out the path to enlightenment. The Buddha set forth many different levels of teachings. As humans, we can learn these, not just for the sake of learning but in order to put the methods into practice.

The real enemy

What is the cause of happiness? What is the cause of misery? These are important questions in Buddhism. The Buddha pointed out that the fundamental source of all our problems is the wrong conception of the self. We always hold on to some kind of “I,” some sort of egocentric thought, or attitude, and everything we do is based on this wrong conception of the nature of the self. This self-grasping gives rise to attachment to the “I” and self-centeredness, the cherishing of ourselves over all others, all worldly thoughts, and samsara itself. All sentient beings’ problems start here.

This ignorant self-grasping creates all of our attachment to the “I.” From “me” comes “mine”—my property, my body, my mind, my family, my friends, my house, my country, my work and so forth.

From attachment come aversion, anger and hatred for the things that threaten our objects of attachment. Buddhism calls these three—ignorance, attachment and aversion—the three poisons. These delusions are the cause of all our problems; they are our real enemies.

We usually look for enemies outside but Buddhist yogis realize that there are no external enemies; the real enemies are within. Once we have removed ignorance, attachment and aversion we have vanquished our inner enemies. Correct understanding replaces ignorance, pure mind remains, and we see the true nature of the self and all phenomena. The workings of the illusory world no longer occur.

When ignorance has gone, we no longer create mistaken actions. When we act without mistake, we no longer experience the various sufferings—the forces of karma are not engaged. Karma—the actions of the body, speech and mind of sentient beings, together with the seeds they leave on the mind—is brought under control. Since the causes of these actions—ignorance, attachment and aversion—have been destroyed, the actions to which they give rise therefore cease.

Ignorance, attachment and aversion, together with their branches of conceit, jealousy, envy and so forth, are very strong forces. Once they arise, they immediately dominate our mind; we quickly fall under the power of these inner enemies and no longer have any freedom or control. Our inner enemies even cause us to fight with and harm the people we love; they can even cause us to kill our own parents, children and so forth. All conflicts—from those between individual members of a family to international wars between countries—arise from these negative thoughts.

Shantideva said, “There is one cause of all problems.” This is the ignorance that mistakes the actual nature of the self. All sentient beings are similar in that they are all overpowered by this ego-grasping ignorance; however, each of us is also capable of engaging in the yogic practices that refine the mind to the point where it is able to see directly the way things exist.

How the Buddha practiced and taught Dharma

Buddha himself first studied, then practiced, and finally realized Dharma, achieving enlightenment. He saw the principles of the causes and effects of thought and action and then taught people how to work with these laws in such a way as to gain freedom.

His first teaching was on the four truths as seen by a liberated being: suffering, its cause, liberation and the path to liberation.3 First we must learn to recognize the sufferings and frustrations that pervade our lives. Then we must know their cause. Thirdly we should know that it is possible to get rid of them, to be completely free. Lastly we must know the truth of the path—the means by which we can gain freedom, the methods of practice that destroy the seeds of suffering from their very root.

There are many elaborate ways of presenting the path, which has led to the development of many schools of Buddhism, such as the Hinayana and Mahayana, but the teachings of the four truths are fundamental to all Buddhist schools; each has its own special methods, but all are based on the four truths. Without the four truths there is neither Hinayana nor Mahayana. All Buddhist schools see suffering as the main problem of existence and ignorance as the main cause of suffering. Without removing ignorance there is no way of achieving liberation from samsara and no way of attaining the perfect enlightenment of buddhahood.

Utilizing the four truths

Buddhism talks a lot about non-self or the empty nature of all things. This is a key teaching. The realization of emptiness was first taught by the Buddha and then widely disseminated by the great teacher Nagarjuna and his successors, who explained the philosophy of the Middle Way—a system of thought free from all extremes. Madhyamikas, as the followers of this system are called, hold that the way things actually exist is free from the extremes of absolute being and non-being; the things we see do not exist in the way that we perceive them.

As for the “I,” our understanding of its nature is also mistaken. This doesn’t mean that there is neither person nor desire. When the Buddha rejected the existence of a self he meant that the self we normally conceive does not exist. Yogis who, through meditation, have developed higher insight have realized the true nature of the self and seen that the “I” exists totally in another way. They have realized the emptiness of the self, which is the key teaching of the Buddha; they have developed the sharp weapon of wisdom that cuts down the poisonous tree of delusion and mental distortion.

To do the same, we must study the teachings, contemplate them carefully and finally investigate our conclusions through meditation. In that way we can realize the true nature of the self. The wisdom realizing emptiness cuts the very root of all delusion and puts an end to all suffering; it directly opposes the ignorance that misconceives reality.

Sometimes we can apply more specific antidotes—for example, when anger arises we meditate on compassion; when lust arises we meditate on the impurity of the human body; when attachment to situations arises we meditate on impermanence; and so forth. But even though these antidotes counteract particular delusions they cannot cut their root—for that, we need to realize emptiness.

Combining wisdom and method

However, wisdom alone is not enough. No matter how sharp an axe is, it requires a handle and a person to swing it. In the same way, while meditation on emptiness is the key practice, it must be supported and given direction by method. Many Indian masters, including Dharmakirti and Shantideva, have asserted this to be so. For example, meditation upon the four noble truths includes contemplation of sixteen aspects of these truths, such as impermanence, suffering, and so forth. Then, because we must share our world with others there are the meditations on love, compassion and the bodhicitta, the enlightened attitude of wishing for enlightenment in order to be of greatest benefit to others. This introduces the six perfections, or the means of accomplishing enlightenment—generosity, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom. The first five of these must act as supportive methods in order for the sixth, wisdom, to become stable.

Removing the obstacles to liberation and omniscience

To attain buddhahood the obstacles to the goal have to be completely removed. These obstacles are of two main types: obstacles to liberation, which include the delusions such as attachment, and obstacles to omniscience. When the various delusions have been removed, one becomes an arhat. In Tibetan, arhat [dra-chom-pa] means one who has destroyed [chom] the inner enemy [dra] and has thus gained liberation from all delusions. However, such liberation is not buddhahood.

An arhat is free from samsara, from all misery and suffering, and no longer forced to take a rebirth conditioned by karma and delusion. At present we are strongly under the power of these two forces, being reborn again and again, sometimes higher, sometimes lower. We have little choice or independence in our birth, life, death and rebirth. Negative karma and delusion combine and overpower us again and again. Our freedom is thus greatly limited. It is a circle: occasionally rebirth in a high realm, then in a low world; sometimes an animal, sometimes a human or a god. This is what samsara means. Arhats have achieved complete liberation from this circle; they have broken the circle and gone beyond it. Their lives have become totally pure, totally free. The forces that controlled them have gone and they dwell in a state of emancipation from compulsive experience. Their realization of shunyata is complete.

On the method side, the arhat has cultivated a path combining meditation on emptiness with meditation on the impermanence of life, karma and its results, the suffering nature of the whole circle of samsara and so forth, but arhatship does not have the perfection of buddhahood.

Compared to our ordinary samsaric life, arhatship is a great attainment, but arhats still have subtle obstacles. Gross mental obstacles such as desire, hatred, ignorance and so forth may have gone but, because they have been active forces within the mind for so long, they leave behind subtle hindrances—subtle habits, or predispositions.

For example, although arhats will not have anger, old habits, such as using harsh words, may persist. They also have a very subtle self-centeredness. Similarly, although arhats will not have ignorance or wrong views, they will not see certain aspects of cause and effect as clearly as a buddha does. Such subtle limitations are called the obstacles to omniscience. In buddhahood, these have been completely removed; not a single obstacle remains. There is both perfect freedom and perfect knowledge.

The wisdom and form bodies of a buddha

A buddha has a cause. The cause is a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva trainings are vast: generosity, where we try to help others in various ways; patience, which keeps our mind in a state of calm; diligent perseverance, with which, in order to help other sentient beings, we joyfully undergo the many hardships without hesitation; and many others.

Before attaining buddhahood we have to train as a bodhisattva and cultivate a path uniting method with wisdom. The function of wisdom is to eliminate ignorance; the function of method is to produce the physical and environmental perfections of being.

Buddhahood is endowed with many qualities—perfect body and mind, omniscient knowledge, power and so forth—and from the perfection of the inner qualities a buddha manifests a perfect environment, a “pure land.”

With the ripening of wisdom and method comes the fruit: the wisdom and form bodies of a buddha. The form body, or rupakaya, has two dimensions—sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya—which, with the wisdom body of dharmakaya, constitute the three kayas. The form bodies are not ordinary form; they are purely mental, a reflection or manifestation of the dharmakaya wisdom. From perfect wisdom emerges perfect form.

Cherishing others

As we can see from the above examples, the bodhisattva’s activities are based on a motivation very unlike our ordinary attitudes, which are usually selfish and self-centered. In order to attain buddhahood we have to change our mundane thoughts into thoughts of love and compassion for other sentient beings. We have to learn to care, all of the time, on a universal level. Our normal self-centered attitude should be seen as an enemy and a loving and compassionate attitude as the cause of the highest happiness, a real friend of both ourselves and others.

The Mahayana contains a very special practice called “exchanging self for others.” Of course, I can’t change into you or you can’t change into me; that’s not what it means. What we have to change is the attitude of “me first” into the thought of cherishing of others: “Whatever bad things have to happen let them happen to me.” Through meditation we learn to regard self-centeredness as our worst enemy and to transform self-cherishing into love and compassion, until eventually our entire life is dominated by these positive forces. Then everything we do will become beneficial to others; all our actions will naturally become meritorious. This is the influence and power of the bodhisattva’s thought—the bodhi mind, the ultimate flowering of love and compassion into the inspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other sentient beings.

Love and compassion

Love and compassion have the same basic nature but a different reference or application. Compassion is mainly in reference to the problems of beings, the wish to free sentient beings from suffering, whereas love refers to the positive side, the aspiration that all sentient beings have happiness and its cause. Our love and compassion should be equal towards all beings and have the intensity that a loving mother feels towards her only child, taking upon ourselves full responsibility for the well-being of others. That’s how bodhisattvas regard all sentient beings.

However, the bodhi mind is not merely love and compassion. Bodhisattvas see that in order to free sentient beings from misery and give them the highest happiness, they themselves will have to be fully equipped, fully qualified—first they will have to attain perfect buddhahood, total freedom from all obstacles and limitations and complete possession of all power and knowledge. Right now we can’t do much to benefit others. Therefore, for the benefit of other sentient beings, we have to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible. Day and night, everything we do should be done in order to reach perfect enlightenment as soon as we can for the benefit of others.

Bodhicitta

The thought characterized by this aspiration is called bodhicitta, bodhi mind, the bodhisattva spirit. Unlike our usual self-centered, egotistical thoughts, which lead only to desire, hatred, jealousy, pride and so forth, the bodhisattva way is dominated by love, compassion and the bodhi mind, and if we practice the appropriate meditative techniques, we ourselves will become bodhisattvas. Then, as Shantideva has said, all our ordinary activities—sleeping, walking, eating or whatever—will naturally produce limitless goodness and fulfill the purposes of many sentient beings.

The life of a bodhisattva

A bodhisattva’s life is very precious and therefore, in order to sustain it, we sleep, eat and do whatever else is necessary to stay alive. Because this is our motivation for eating, every mouthful of food we take gives rise to great merit, equal to the number of the sentient beings in the universe.

In order to ascend the ten bodhisattva stages leading to buddhahood we engage in both method and wisdom: on the basis of bodhicitta we cultivate the realization of emptiness. Seeing the emptiness of the self, our self-grasping ignorance and attachment cease. We also see all phenomena as empty and, as a result, everything that appears to our mind is seen as illusory, like a magician’s creations.

When a magician conjures up something up, the audience believes that what they see exists. The magician, however, although sees what the audience sees, understands it differently. When he creates a beautiful woman, the men in the audience experience lust; when he creates a frightening animal, the audience gets scared. The magician sees the beautiful woman and the scary animals just as the audience does but he knows that they’re not real, he knows that they’re empty of existing in the way that they appear—their reality is not like the mode of their appearance.

Similarly, bodhisattvas who have seen emptiness see everything as illusory and things that might have caused attachment or aversion to arise in them before can no longer do so.

As Nagarjuna said,

By combining the twofold cause of method and wisdom, bodhisattvas gain the twofold effect of the mental and physical bodies [rupakaya and dharmakaya] of a buddha.

Their accumulation of meritorious energy and wisdom bring them to the first bodhisattva stage, where they directly realize emptiness and overcome the obstacles to liberation. They then use this realization to progress through the ten bodhisattva levels, eventually eradicating all obstacles to omniscience. They first eliminate the coarse level of ignorance and then, through gradual meditation on method combined with wisdom, attain the perfection of enlightenment.

The keys to the Mahayana path

The main subjects of this discourse—renunciation, emptiness and the bodhi mind—were taught by the Buddha, Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa and provide the basic texture of the Mahayana path. These three principal aspects of the path are like keys for those who want to attain enlightenment. In terms of method and wisdom, renunciation and the bodhi mind constitute method and meditation on emptiness is wisdom. Method and wisdom are like the two wings of a bird and enable us to fly high in the sky of Dharma. Just as a bird with one wing cannot fly; in order to reach the heights of buddhahood we need the two wings of method and wisdom.

Renunciation

The principal Mahayana method is the bodhi mind. To generate the bodhi mind we must first generate compassion—the aspiration to free sentient beings from suffering, which becomes the basis of our motivation to attain enlightenment. However, as Shantideva pointed out, we must begin with compassion for ourselves. We must want to be free of suffering ourselves before being truly able to want it for others. The spontaneous wish to free ourselves from suffering is renunciation.

But most of us don’t have it. We don’t see the faults of samsara. However, there’s no way to really work for the benefit of others while continuing to be entranced by the pleasures and activities of samsara. Therefore, first we have to generate personal renunciation of samsara—the constant wish to gain freedom from all misery. At the beginning, this is most important. Then we can extend this quality to others as love, compassion and the bodhi mind, which combine as method. When united with the wisdom realizing emptiness, we possess the main causes of buddhahood.

Making this life meaningful

Of course, to develop the three principal aspects of the path, we have to proceed step by step. Therefore it’s necessary to study, contemplate and meditate. We should all try to develop a daily meditation practice. Young or old, male or female, regardless of race, we all have the ability to meditate. Anybody can progress through the stages of understanding. The human life is very meaningful and precious but it can be lost to seeking temporary goals such as sensual indulgence, fame, reputation and so forth, which benefit this life alone. Then we’re like animals; we have the goals of the animal world. Even if we don’t make heroic spiritual efforts, we should at least try to get started in the practices that make human life meaningful.

Q. Could you clarify what you mean by removing the suffering of others?
Geshe Sopa: We are not talking about temporary measures, like hunger or thirst. You can do acts of charity with food, medicine and so forth, but these provide only superficial help. Giving can never fulfill the world’s needs and can itself become a cause of trouble and misery. What beings lack is some kind of perfect happiness or enjoyment. Therefore we cultivate a compassion for all sentient beings that wishes to provide them with the highest happiness, the happiness that lasts forever. Practitioners, yogis and bodhisattvas consider this to be the main goal. They do give temporary things as much as possible, but their main point is to produce a higher happiness. That’s the bodhisattva’s main function.

Q. Buddhism believes strongly in past and future lives. How is this consistent with the idea of impermanence taught by Buddha?
Geshe Sopa: Because things are impermanent they are changeable. Because impurity is impermanent, purity is possible. Relative truth can function because of the existence of ultimate truth. Impurity becomes pure; imperfect becomes perfect. Change can cause conditions to switch. By directing our life correctly we can put an end to negative patterns. If things were not impermanent there would be no way to change and evolve.

In terms of karma and rebirth, impermanence means that we can gain control over the stream of our life, which is like a great river, never the same from one moment to the next. If we let polluted tributaries flow into a river it becomes dirty. Similarly, if we let bad thoughts, distorted perceptions and wrong actions control our lives, we evolve negatively and take low rebirths.

If, on the other hand, we control the flow of our life skillfully, we’ll evolve positively, take high rebirths and perhaps even attain the highest wisdom of buddhahood—the coming and going of imperfect experiences will subside and the impermanent flow of pure perfection will come to us. When that happens we’ll have achieved the ultimate human goal.

Q. In the example of the river, its content is flowing water, sometimes muddy, sometimes clear. What is the content of the stream of life?
Geshe Sopa: Buddhism speaks of the five skandhas: one mainly physical, the other four mental. There is also a basis, which is a certain kind of propensity that is neither physical nor mental, a kind of energy. The five impure skandhas eventually become perfectly pure and then manifest as the five Dhyani Buddhas.

Q. What is the role of prayer in Buddhism? Does Buddhism believe in prayer, and if so, since Buddhists don’t believe in a God, to whom do they pray?
Geshe Sopa: In Buddhism, prayer means some kind of wish, an aspiration to have something good occur. In this sense, a prayer is a verbal wish. The prayers of buddhas and bodhisattvas are mental and have great power. Buddhas and bodhisattvas have equal love and compassion for all sentient beings and their prayers are to benefit all sentient beings. Therefore, when we pray to them for help or guidance they have the power to influence us.

As well as these considerations, prayer produces a certain kind of buddha-result. Praying does not mean that personally you don’t have to practice yourself; that you just leave everything to Buddha. It’s not like that. The buddhas have to do something and we have to do something. The buddhas cannot wash away our stains with water, like washing clothing. The root of misery and suffering cannot be extracted like a thorn from the foot—the buddhas can only show us how to pull out the thorn; the hand that pulls it out must be our own.

Also, the Buddha cannot transplant his knowledge into our being. He is like a doctor who diagnoses our illnesses and prescribes the cure that we must follow through personal responsibility. If a patient does not take the prescribed medicine or follow the advice, the doctor cannot help, no matter how strong his medicines or excellent his skill. If we take the medicine of Dharma as prescribed and follow the Buddha’s advice, we will easily cure ourselves of the diseases of ignorance, attachment and the other obstacles to liberation and omniscience. To turn to the Dharma but then not practice it is to be like a patient burdened by a huge bag of medicine while not taking any. Therefore the Buddha said, “I have provided the medicine. It is up to you to take it.”

Q. Sometimes in meditation we visualize Shakyamuni Buddha. What did he visualize when he meditated?
Geshe Sopa: What should we meditate upon? How should we meditate? Shakyamuni Buddha himself meditated in the same way as we teach: on compassion, love, bodhicitta, the four noble truths and so forth. Sometimes he also meditated on perfect forms, like that of a buddha or a particular meditational deity. These deities symbolize perfect inner qualities and through meditating on them we bring oursleves into proximity with the symbolized qualities. Both deity meditation and ordinary simple meditations tame the scattered, uncontrolled, elephant-like mind. The wild, roaming mind must be calmed in order to enter higher spiritual practices. Therefore, at the beginning, we try to stabilize our mind by focusing it on a particular subject. This is calm abiding meditation and its main aim is to keep our mind focused on a single point, abiding in perfect clarity and peace for as long as we wish without any effort, wavering or fatigue.

As for the object to be visualized in this type of meditation, there are many choices: a candle, a statue, an abstract object and so forth. Since the form of an enlightened being has many symbolic values and shares the nature of the goal we hope to accomplish, visualizing such an object has many advantages. But it is not mandatory; we can choose anything. The main thing is to focus the mind on the object and not allow it to waver. Eventually we’ll be able to meditate clearly and peacefully for as long as we like, remaining absorbed for even days at a time. This is the attainment of calm abiding. When we possess this mental instrument, every other meditation we do will become much more successful.

When we first try this kind of practice we discover that our mind is like a wild elephant, constantly running here and there, never able to focus fully on or totally engage in anything. Then, little by little, through practice and exercise, it will become calm and even concentrating on a simple object like breathing in and out while counting will demonstrate the wildness of the mind and the calming effects of meditation.


Notes

1. According to Indian legend, swans are able to extract milk from water, that is, take the essence. The quote comes from Atisha's Entering into the Two Truths. A translation, including this quote, may be found in S. J. Richard Sherburne's The Complete Works of Atisa: Sri Dipamkara Jnana, Jo-Bo-rJe; The Lamp for the Path and Commentary, together with the newly translated Twenty-five Key Texts. Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2000. [Return to text]

2. A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Chapter 1, Verse 28. [Return to text]

3. As detailed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his talk on the four noble truths. [Return to text]