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General advice paraphrased by Lama Zopa Rinpoche

by Kadam Geshe Karag Gomchung

This teaching was paraphrased by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, written down by Ven. Lhundup Damchö and edited by Nicholas Ribush in August 2003. Geshe Karag Gomchung is quoted several times in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand.

Even a small, present suffering causes previously created negative karma to finish and brings happiness in future lives. Don’t look at suffering as negative or an obstacle. Rejoice. Be happy to be suffering.

If somebody praises you, it’s bad; if somebody criticizes you, it’s good. Praise causes pride and arrogance to arise; criticism causes you change your bad qualities into good. Criticism is good—it makes you a better person and allows you to practice Dharma. In this way you can benefit others and bring peace and happiness to yourself, both now and in the future.

If you are wealthy, you have the great suffering of accumulating and protecting. If you are a beggar, you have freedom from desire for this life, which results in the inner wealth of peace and happiness.

Comfort and pleasure are no good; discomfort and suffering are better. Comfort and pleasure exhaust your merit; discomfort and suffering exhaust your negative karma.

Any suffering you experience, like illness, is a blessing from your guru. It purifies your defilements. It is also a manifestation of emptiness. Suffering is merely imputed by your mind and therefore devoid of a real self. There is no real suffering existing from its own side; no real illness existing from its own side; no real pain existing from its own side; no real problem existing from its own side. Problems that appear to be real are like problems in a dream. The experience of them is totally empty—they do not exist at all in the way they appear and you believe.

Statements from Sutra Relating to Eating Meat
This text by Geshe Thubten Soepa presents a detailed discussion in support of vegetarianism and animal welfare. Geshe Soepa composed the first of these two texts on animal rights, The Udamwara Lotus Flower in 1995, and the second, Compassion is the Root of the Teachings in 2005. They were published together in a book in 2007 by Sera Je Monastery in India.

This publication is now available in ebook format and as a pdf file. LYWA Members can download the ebook for free from the Members Area.

Protecting the Lives of Helpless Beings
Udamwara: Statements from Sutra
Question and Answer
Compassion is the Root of the Teachings

Namo Maha Karunikaya

I bow to Great Compassion, the seed, the refuge which eliminates all suffering of the six kinds of beings and whence all happiness and benefit springs. For those who take joy in the exercise of compassion I shall express a few thoughts on eating meat.

Does eating meat go against the practice of compassion? If one eats the meat of a creature that has died a natural death—for health reasons and without any desire—this is not a harmful action. On the other hand, if someone kills living beings for the sake of money or purchases and eats the meat out of a desire to indulge, this goes against the practice of compassion. Both these actions are harmful.

In the Kalachakra tantra and its elaborate commentary it says that if we consider the harmful actions committed by the butcher and the meat eater, those committed by the meat eater are worse. Some people hold that while the butcher acts harmfully, the meat eater does not. However, in the Lankavatara Sutra it says:

He who murders beings for money's sake and he who buys their meat for money—both have the genuine link between doer and deed.

If the buyer were without vice, then no merit would be accrued by the sponsor of stupas, scriptures or holy images either, as they are also produced by someone else.

A sponsor of stupas accumulates great merit, although he does not actually build them with his own hands. Likewise, a meat eater accumulates great negativity, although he does not normally slaughter the animals he eats. In fact, there are hardly any snuff sellers left in Europe, because hardly anyone takes snuff these days. Similarly, there would be no meat trade if there were no meat eaters.

With regard to Buddhist teachings, three principles are of utmost importance: 1) exploring reasons and reaching valid conclusions through correct logical analysis, 2) establishing the true nature of reality, and 3) making sure not to go against the practice of great compassion. These three principles are the corner stones of Buddhist theory and practice.

Now, what are the characteristics of so-called great compassion? It views its object—all the living beings of the six types, humans, gods, demigods, animals, ghosts and hell beings—without classifying them as friends, enemies or those to whom one is indifferent. Its particularity consists in seeing how they all suffer and wishing to eliminate this suffering or protect them from it. This special attitude, the persistent urge to eliminate suffering and protect others from it is called "great compassion". The suffering to be eliminated is manifest suffering, the suffering of change as well as the suffering pervading all cyclic existence. Great compassion is what wishes to protect beings from these three kinds of suffering. It is very important to be clear about those three kinds of suffering. Rather than repeating their names in a superficial manner, we should try and come to a thorough understanding of what they signify.

From the Buddhist point of view we ourselves desire happiness and we do not want the least suffering. Incapable of patience in the face of adversity like pain, we accept as fact that others, whether human or animal are the same in that respect. Our own sensations of happiness and suffering are what we can understand directly. The happiness and suffering of other humans and animals may be known from signs. For example when other beings, humans or animals, undergo terrible suffering they squeal with pain, tremble and moan. From signs like these we can clearly know that they undergo unbearable suffering.

As Buddhists we say: “this is the reality of the situation.” That is something we can know from an analysis based on signs. For that reason we meditate on the fact that the wish for happiness is the same in ourselves and others, whoever they may be. We also need to recognize and meditate on the fact that we ourselves and others, whoever they may be, are the same in not wanting the least suffering. We must realize that it is necessary and equally important to eliminate suffering, regardless of whose it may be, our own or that of others.

This way of looking at things is fundamental for the development of great compassion. It is the perspective of a truthful path, an honest path. Nobody, be they gods or scholars or other humans will be able to demonstrate that this perspective is untrue or dishonest. It is necessary to develop great compassion by training the mind in this perspective.

However, it is not enough simply to meditate on great compassion. It is also necessary to put it into practice by actually applying it. It is of utmost benefit to see, hear and consider how cows, buffalos, goats, sheep, chicken, fish, yaks, horses and other animals undergo unbearable suffering while being slaughtered for human consumption and thereupon to avoid eating slaughtered meat out of compassion. As compassion is actually being applied, this application is of the greatest benefit for the purification of negativities accumulated previously. This can be understood from the story of Noble Asanga and other reports.

Compassion may also be put into practice directly by purchasing animals meant for slaughter and saving their lives. The effect of this action will help extend one's own life span and increasingly bring about happiness as well as purify negativities. It is also taught that nursing the sick, giving medicine and the like, too, are actions resulting in a long life span.

Beautiful animals such as parrots and other birds are not killed but locked up in cages. You can observe that some will kill themselves trying to get out of their prisons. Therefore it is also an act of compassion to buy them and release them. Such an action will result in the attainment of lasting freedom and a happy life. Even as a human you thus accumulate the karma for miraculous powers such as flying and so forth. There are even reports of cases where miraculous powers were achieved in this very life.

Incidentally, castrating horses, cattle, goats, sheep, dogs or cats—cutting their male or female energy channels is also clearly presented as a negative action in Buddhist scriptures. If you save the animals out of compassion, the effect of that wholesome action may ripen in this life. In this regard the commentary on chapter four of the Treasury of Knowledge relates the following story from a sutra concerning a eunuch, the body guard of some King Kanika's spouse. At the time it was customary to pay eunuchs a big salary for guarding the queen while the king was away at war. This eunuch had thus grown rich guarding the queen over many years. At some point his eye-sight deteriorated, he turned blind, could not guard the queen anymore and returned to his native town, a rich man. One day, when out walking he heard the loud lowing of a buffalo. "What are they doing to the buffalo?" he asked. His assistant told him that they were castrating it. The blind man felt such strong compassion imagining how the buffalo was now to undergo the same suffering he had undergone—for he obviously knew it from experience—that he bought some 500 buffalos to save them from this misfortune. This action undid his castration and also had the effect that he could see again with both eyes as before. This story is quoted in the commentary on the Treasury of Knowledge to illustrate the accumulation of karma ripening in the same life. The action described in it is also a way of applying compassion.

To deprive beings of their male or female organs is a cruel negative action. Its effect ripens in the form of healthy energy channels, energies and body essences lacking in this life or a future one. In one of the tantras, Buddha says:

As you yourself do not want to be harmed, likewise, others do not want to suffer harm. Therefore, don't harm others.

All sentient beings cherish life more than anything. They all consider their own limbs, vital organs, sense organs and, last not least, sexual organs most important. I am well aware of Western arguments to the effect that animal populations need to be controlled, that there may be a shortage of food or space and that, therefore, it may be necessary to castrate animals. However, from a Buddhist point of view castrating animals is not good at all. I think this position also makes sense in the context of religions that hinge on a creator god and condemn as sins acts going against His creation. After all, the sexual organs would also be seen as God's creation allowing His creatures to multiply. In the context of religions teaching the law of karma castration is definitely not considered good.

Some people think that attachment and desire may be eliminated by removing the sexual organs. However, this is a misconception. Attachment cannot be overcome by destroying the objects of attachment or the organs associated with it. It takes practice in wisdom and concentration rather than a surgical intervention to overcome it. Attachment and desire, which are deluded states of mind, need to be eliminated by wisdom and concentration.

Apart from that, in Buddhist monasticism it is a requirement for obtaining monk's or nun's vows that one’s male or female organs are healthy and intact. It is taught in the Vinaya that otherwise the vows cannot be effective. For the attainment of the concentration of calm abiding and special insight it is also necessary that the organs, energies and channels are fully functional. The reason for this is that the achievement of stability and clarity of mind is intimately linked with the energies, channels and (reproductive) organs.

In the two texts Treasury of Knowledge and Compendium of Abhidharma it is set out that if someone has committed extremely negative actions such as killing his own mother and the like they will be unable to achieve meditative stability until the karmic obscuration is purified and that no meditative concentration arises in hermaphrodites and eunuchs due to their unstable minds and dominant mental afflictions. It is clear that healthy channels, energies and body essences are all the more indispensable for attainment of the completion stage in highest yoga tantra.

After the loss of one's male or female organs it is impossible to overcome desirous attachment. In Buddhist texts it is explained clearly that for giving up desirous attachment it is necessary to develop the union of wisdom and meditative concentration as an antidote. Does that mean beings whose male or female organs have been removed, eunuchs and hermaphrodites cannot apply the teachings? Nobody should lose courage—there are lots of things one can do, e.g. train in love and compassion, generosity, patience and wisdom, observe the ten types of religious activity46 as well as carrying out fasting meditations (nyung-nä). The question of whether or not those whose male or female organs have been damaged can practice the completion stage is hard to settle. The teachings say: "For a human being to be definitely able to reach buddhahood within one life through the application of the paths of highest yoga tantra, he or she has to be endowed with the so-called six constituent elements of a being born from a womb. These six elements comprise the components of bone, marrow and reproductive substances obtained from the father and flesh, skin and blood obtained from the mother.

According to the presentation in the Treasury of Knowledge, the human beings of the first eon who descended from some kind of light gods, arose through supernatural birth like gods and are referred to as children of Manusha—i.e. the mind. Therefore they were not meat eaters by origin47. The texts explain how their behaviour degenerated gradually. According to the scientific manner of explanation, humans have evolved gradually from apes. I believe that those early humans may not have been meat eaters. Anyway, there are many accounts of the origin of humans, that of the Treasury, that of scientists, that of Bön shamans etc.

However, what indications are there to suggest that it is not the inborn nature of humans to eat meat? The human body has neither teeth nor claws like lions or tigers. Just like monkeys it can be sustained on a diet of fruit and grains, which is well suited to its physical requirements. I think this is easy to see, however, still we should examine it.

In Western countries there are hundreds of thousands of people with a natural aversion to eating meat. There are numerous advantages resulting from not eating meat: it is beneficial for one's health and prevents negative actions. From the Buddhist point of view, however, the wholesome effect is stronger if eating meat is abandoned with the motivation that compassion for the painful experiences of the slaughtered animals has arisen.

In India there are millions of vegetarians such as Mahatma Gandhi and meals without meat may be found everywhere—in thousands of vegetarian restaurants. This is one of the best signs for the fact that the Dharma exists in India. All these vegetarian restaurants are run by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. All the Tibetan restaurants serve meat. All the Tibetans say: we are Buddhists. These restaurants with their meat cuisine go against the Buddhist teachings. They disregard the teachings on the link between actions and their effects and are in stark opposition to taking refuge,48 compassion, equanimity, and non-violence, the Mahayana and Hinayana sutras as well as the four classes of tantra. Apparently, some of those restaurants are run by monasteries. They do damage to the Buddhist teachings.

Obviously, this is not nice to look at and undermines the devotion others have to Buddhism. In fact one may well ask why such restaurants serving meat exist in monasteries. Their existence is being justified by saying that it generates a lot of money. "This so-called money sucks the blood from our bodies", said Mahatma Gandhi. To be bitten by money is worse than to be bitten by a snake, he goes on to say in his advice. This statement is certainly especially meaningful. To be sure your own life becomes a money making machine, if you are overcome by the disease of discontentment with regard to money. It is as though you had sold your human life for money. Examine that for yourself!

In the English language it is called "money". In Tibetan one word used is gyu nor—an ambiguous word, gyu meaning "cause" and nor signifying "wealth" but also "error". So you could also understand it in terms of causing rebirth in lower realms—those of hungry ghosts, animals and hell beings—rather than becoming a cause for higher existences such as birth in the human or divine realms and therefore it could be considered an "erroneous cause".

If the love of money is too strong, a country will be lost, cultural and religious values deteriorate and individual human values and abilities degenerate. For instance when the Chinese communists first came to Tibet they distributed a lot of money among Tibetans and those Tibetans with a predilection for money sang songs with lyrics like: "Chinese communists are like benevolent parents, they cause a rain of coins to fall". The Tibetans were cheated at the time, in any case they ended up losing their country to the Chinese and wholesome values, the precious Buddhist religion and culture deteriorated—an experience that Tibetans of future generations will not forget.

If the desire for money is excessive, disadvantages will ensue. Even today a lot of people do not finish their education but rather chase after money. For the sake of earning money some do not even care whether they act harmfully. As a means to an end meals with the meat of countless chicken, cattle and sheep are sold every day in restaurants. When the people responsible for this die, in particular, they will have caused themselves serious problems: Someone with lots of money will be attached to it even on the threshold of death and die in a corresponding state of mind.

Nowadays most people consider money to be the source of happiness and well-being. That is a misconception. One's well-being, a pleasant physique, a long life, health and a happy mind are the results of wholesome actions born from compassion and the desire to help in former lives. There is evidently no guarantee for people with lots of money to be happier. If we go on analyzing we can see that people with a lot of money often suffer all the more and that the situation in rich countries is often more difficult.

As regards the root of happiness and well-being it is therefore taught in the sutras that the various types of wholesome actions as causes give rise to the various types of happiness as effects. For example the act of saving animals meant for slaughter out of a compassionate motivation is a cause for living a long life, nursing the sick and giving them medicine for having a healthy body and mind, the development of patience for having a pleasant physique and being well liked by everyone, trying to save humans and animals from imprisonment for always enjoying freedom, giving up castrating animals for not being born as a hermaphrodite or becoming a eunuch, and compassion along with wholesome actions the root of happiness and well-being in general. The root of suffering is harmful action. In highest yoga tantra it is set out that the most harmful thing is to give up compassion for all beings.

From the Buddhist perspective India is a blessed country where many buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats have wandered and which the Buddha himself prophesied to be an important place where the Buddha Maitreya and some thousand other future buddhas as well as many bodhisattvas and arhats would wander. Unfortunately, in some old religious rites it is still customary to make blood sacrifices on special Indian and Nepalese holidays. That goes against the practice of compassion and non-violence. Those offering ceremonies do more harm than good. Great gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and Sarasvati—by virtue of being gods—do not accept blood sacrifices. Gods are not beings feeding on impure substances like meat and blood, but rather care for utmost purity. Foreigners also find these blood sacrifices repulsive and Buddhists do not take pleasure in them at all.

Sakya Pandita gives an account of the earlier Hindu sage Eta who rejected blood sacrifices. There are also stories about the Buddhist siddha Birvapa visiting many temples were these customs were practiced and putting and end to them. He did this by manifesting signs of his attainments and encouraging the devotees to sacrifice so-called white offerings.

The Dalai Lama put an end to meat offerings in 1973 on the occasion of the Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya telling his disciples from the Himalayas: "From now on abandon the custom of making red offerings. If the spirits accustomed to it cause you trouble tell them: the Dalai Lama has told us to stop it and if you want to cause problems because of this you should turn to the Dalai Lama."

The great texts of the Buddhist tenet systems explain that in the Hindu system, Buddha Shakyamuni is revered as the ninth emanation of Vishnu. It is taught quite clearly that the development and attainment of calm abiding, special insight, the four levels of worldly meditative stabilization and the worldly concentrations of form and formless realms are practices shared by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.

Specifically, Buddhist practices are associated with the four noble truths, the two truths, renunciation, great compassion, the attitude of conventional and ultimate bodhicitta and the practice of the ten perfections. The attainment of the five paths and the ten levels as well as the ability to achieve arhatship and buddhahood are their special effects. All of this is made clear in the great Buddhist texts.

The eight great powers common to Hindu and Buddhist tantra such as the ability to fly, to move about at supernatural speed, to cause a rain of grain to fall, to be able to tell the future through prophecies, to display various miraculous powers and similar abilities are taught as worldly attainments.

Special attainments in Buddhism concern healing, extending life spans up to a thousand years, increasing wisdom and purifying negativities and many other achievements brought about by the power of mantra recitation combined with Buddhist deity yoga—kriya, charya and yoga tantra—as well as the attainment of buddhahood in the same body within a single lifetime through developing the generation and completion stages of highest yoga tantra.

The root of all those methods is great compassion. All wholesome actions performed with the motivation of compassion can ripen as wholesome effects. If the motivation of compassion is lacking, even the highest practices will come under the influence of selfishness and thus their wholesome effect cannot ripen. The spiritual master Padmasambhava said:

With kleshas49 exhausted - no reason for Dharma practice.
Without compassion the root of Dharma rots.
Consider samsara's sufferings again and again!
Lord and subjects, do not postpone the Dharma!

The protector Nagarjuna taught:

The fact that nothing is ever born—
if it is deeply known by the mind,
compassion arises easily
towards those sunk in the bog of samsara.

The siddha Saraha said:

Whoever engages in emptiness lacking compassion
will never discover the highest most excellent path.

However, the root of Buddhist teachings is unbiased great compassion. Thus the main rule of vows for laypeople, novices, monks and nuns in the vehicle of hearers consists in giving up harming anyone. This giving up of harmful action occurs motivated by compassion. If compassion is lacking, the ethical discipline of giving up harmful actions towards others does not come about. For those belonging to the Mahayana path compassion is even more important. In the Mahayana the main thing being taught is that over and above giving up harmful actions it is necessary to benefit others–"perfect enlightenment is born from the attitude of benefiting others", as it says in the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.50 In the Commentary on Valid Cognition it says: "That which enables it51 is to develop compassion."

When applying the Buddhist teachings, from among faith and compassion, the latter is more important. Engaging in Bodhisattva Behaviour gives the reason:

Between the Jinas52 and sentient beings
if you respect the Jinas, but not
sentient beings–how would you
accomplish something like Buddha Dharma?

In his Explanation of Bodhicitta Nagarjuna also describes the connection: From benefiting beings happiness arises as a result. From causing harm to beings, suffering arises as a result. The state of buddhahood can also be attained only in dependence on living beings.

Geshe Chengawa, a scholar of the Kadam tradition, said: "In order to attain the state of buddhahood, one has to learn something that is unusual in the world. Among their own interests and the interests of others worldly beings put their own first and consider it more important to honour buddhas than living beings. We have to do it the other way round."

Buddha Shakyamuni states in the Stream of Mineral Nutriments Sutra:

To benefit sentient beings is the highest offering you can make me,
to harm sentient beings is the greatest harm you cause me.

In his Essence of Good Explanations on the Interpretable and Ultimate Meaning the great spiritual master Tsongkhapa describes how the three types of striving–regarding compassion for beings, faith in the Buddha and the wish that his teachings may last for a long time–reinforce each other.

Dromtonpa said: "Compassion is the root of a helpful attitude. All the characteristics of bodhicitta come about in dependence on compassion."

And the spiritual master Atisha: "If you feel unbearable compassion for living beings, you'll abandon everything and undertake anything that is of benefit to beings."

In the Sutra Requested by Sagaramati it says: "The one teaching for bodhisattvas is this: great compassion that does not crave for one's own happiness."

The Sakya master Jetsun Dragyen said:

Abandon alcohol because, if you drink alcohol, your presence of mind will deteriorate.
Meat should be abandoned because, if you eat meat, your compassion will deteriorate.

In his Explanation on the Three Types of Vows Kedrub Je, a great pundit of the Gelug tradition, writes: "We certainly do not say that the rules of ordination permit eating meat under the power of attachment to the taste of meat. We would not even dream of saying that something like that isn't a fault."

Chankya Rimpoche, a great Gelug master, also said:

Into piles of flesh, blood, bones of beings
you dig your knives and drool in a rush to devour them—
as if about to subdue hostile troops and foes
compassionate beings behold this sham of a Sangha!53

I should like to turn to the members of the Sangha, persons training in the asceticism of pure conduct, with a little remark. How come people capable of resisting the temptation of what seems like the greatest happiness to the conventional worldly mistaken consciousness—the happiness of being with a woman—are incapable of resisting the enjoyment of eating meat from murdered animals? I wonder. But how could I possibly capture everyone's interest making statements about the harmful effects of eating meat ? Even if one said that meat is poison—the persistent habit of indifference would continue to exist and they would go on eating meat.

The teaching that it is harmful to eat meat does not apply to monks only. It was given to laypeople and monks equally. The ten negative actions like killing, stealing, sexual misconduct etc. as well as negative actions relevant here—eating meat and the like—are not harmful for monks only, but for all the beings of the six realms as well. The rules that apply specifically to monks are those they have vowed to abide by before the Sangha represented by their abbot and master: not to enter into intimate relations with women, not to drink alcohol, not to eat in the evenings, not to hoard possessions and many other particularities. If they transgress any of those rules, this constitutes a negative action in the sense of a breach of the promise they have made as monks. These kind of negative actions do not exist for laypeople.

In the edicts of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen it says:

In line with the rules of the ordination masters
act as explained in the three collections of teachings:
Drink tea and what is proper for Sangha members,
for food take grains, molasses and creamy cheese,
for clothing wear plain saffron-coloured robes,
for lodging live together in a temple.
Do not indulge in drink, meat, rotten food.

People wishing to make offerings are not allowed to offer the ordained meat nor alcohol—such offerings are also mentioned explicitly in the sutras among the 32 impure offerings. Venerable Milarepa said:

This way of eating meat food—famished, without thinking of future lives for even a second... When I see these people I get frightened. Rechungpa, are you mindful of the holy Dharma?54

If you do not just pay lip service to the existence of future lives and karmic causes and effects but rather consider, from the bottom of your heart, how these hold together, you may develop enthusiasm about giving up meat. If you are not convinced that future lives exist, it will be even more difficult to gain conviction about the karmic effects of actions. However, if you examine whether or not there are former and future lives the reasons in favour weigh more heavily and there is only little negative evidence. Not only Buddhists accept the reality of former and future lives. Hindu yogis who have attained the concentration of calm abiding and thereby achieved supernormal cognitive powers also accept them.

In addition to that the Hindu tenet systems posit a permanent self, holding that this self exists in all former and future lives. They also accept cyclic existence and liberation as well as wholesome and unwholesome actions. We must not disparage the Hindu religion saying: this is a non-Buddhist system. In the tantra Vairocana's Perfect Enlightenment it says:

Do not disparage the tirthikas.55
If you disparage the tirthikas,
you'll distance yourself from Vairocana.56

With this in mind a famous scholar from Arig57 said: "I have faith in non-Buddhists58, too."

However, Buddhists do not accept a permanent self but rather an uninterrupted impermanent continuum of self. Although the self accepted by Buddhists is an uninterrupted impermanent continuum, there is no true self such as it is conceived by our inborn grasping for an "I": the Buddhist view is that it does not exist by its own nature.

Among those who are convinced that there are former and future lives, again, there are various attitudes. For example some feel undivided compassion for all living beings. They may be fully committed to finding ways and means to eliminate their own and others' difficulties in this life.

Others who do not accept former and previous lives have a biased kind of love and compassion. They may benefit a lot of beings while also harming many. One example for this would be a person taking pity on a hungry dog and feeding it a fish killed for that purpose. The action may be motivated by compassion for one animal, but it causes great harm to another one.

Yet others are not convinced about former and future lives nor about the fact that happiness is the result of wholesome actions and that suffering is the effect of harmful actions. These kind of people who are very self-centred and unfamiliar with love and compassion may well be endowed with worldly knowledge and skills. If they obtain power and high positions they can do great damage to world peace—please check for yourselves!

The Buddhist teachings explain rebirth, i.e. the reality of former and future lives and the fact that wholesome actions bring about happiness and harmful actions bring about suffering. As all beings are the same in wanting happiness rather than suffering, there are the teachings on great compassion—the desire to protect all the beings of the six realms from the temporary suffering of this life and ultimately from all the suffering of cyclic existence—as well as the teachings on the six perfections, patience etc., and the view of emptiness as an antidote to ignorance, attachment, anger, wrong views, concepts and misconceptions. Through study involving listening and contemplating as well as the development of this wisdom realizing the view of emptiness combined with great compassion, through combining the concentration of calm abiding and special insight into one union, through recognizing the ignorance associated with mental afflictions, concepts and misconceptions will decrease more and more, and the nature of mind will gradually become clearer and clearer. The mind will achieve liberation and the state of buddhahood. The profound and vast path leading there is taught in authentic scriptures.

Author of this text is the ordained Geshe Thubten Soepa of Sera monastery. He composed this advocacy of animal rights in Germany after about 2550 years had passed since the birth of Buddha Shakyamuni and about 648 years after the birth of Lama Tsongkhapa in the year 2005 according to the Western calendar. May this text be like a cloud of offerings gladdening the buddhas, bodhisattvas and all those possessed of compassion. May it also further the wishes for health and a long life of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso so that his wholesome activities for the benefit of living beings may continue for hundreds of eons. Also, may all masters of the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana have a long life. May all their wishes come true. May the holy masters of religions believing in a creator god and religions with faith in the law of karma interact in harmony and continue to develop mutually beneficial relations now that this is of vital importance. May all their shared practices of non-violence, compassion and love be allowed to increase and deepen more and more.

Sarva mangalam

Scriptural References

Arya-Lankavatara-Sutra Q775 ngu 165a7-ngu 172b6
Arya-Angulimala-Sutra Q879 tsu 133b2-tsu 214b8
Vinaya-Vastu Q 1030 khe 260a4-nge 47b6


The Tibetan original of this book was initially translated into German by Conni Krause. The first English version by Philip Quarcoo was based on her German text. For a second English version Philip retranslated—from Tibetan—my poems as well as the versified quotations I had used, and made various changes that proof-readers had suggested.
I discussed this second version with my current interpreter, Karina Reitbauer, who made numerous insightful comments causing me to add various explanations, clarifications and notes. They have now resulted in this third version by Philip and Karina.

I dedicate all the merit accumulated through the publication of these two texts to the liberation of living beings. May all living beings be free from the suffering of being killed.


46. Writing down the teachings, making offerings, practising generosity, hearing the teachings, retaining and understanding them, teaching others, reciting sacred texts, contemplating and meditating. [Return to text]

47. The point being made here is that early humans were very much like the gods they descended from who only subsist on mental activity rather than impure physical food. [Return to text]

48. As you take refuge to the Three Jewels, one of the practice instructions you commit yourself to is to give up causing harm to any living beings. That is why it would go against the practice of refuge to harm living beings. [Return to text]

49. Delusions, afflictions. [Return to text]

50. By Togme Sangpo. [Return to text]

51. I.e. the attainment of Buddhahood. [Return to text]

52. "Victors"–designation of the buddhas. [Return to text]

53. In other words: "Monks, rather than taking delight in killing and eating animals, please think about what you are doing and develop compassion!" [Return to text]

54. The question might be paraphrased in these terms: "Rechungpa, do you keep thinking of death, impermanence and your future lives while others fail to do so?" [Return to text]

55. Tirthika (Tib. mu stegs can) literally means "one belonging to a tirtha or holy place", i.e. a worthy and holy man, a Brahmana. However, the word came to take on a pejorative meaning and was used by Buddhists, Jainas etc. to signify a "heretical" adherent of a religion or philosophy other than one's own. [Return to text]

56. I.e. along the path, you will find yourself further removed from the goal of becoming Vairocana. [Return to text]

57. Area in North-Eastern Tibet. [Return to text]

58. The Tibetan reads phyi rol pa–apparently, what he meant are followers of other religions who nevertheless share certain essential tenets with Buddhists. [Return to text]

Teachings about the four noble truths, bodhicitta, the five paths and ten levels, and the six perfections
The Graduated Path to Liberation is a rendering in English of teachings given by Geshe Rabten Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, in 1969. It follows the traditional lam-rim (graduated path) format, which originated with the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and has been passed down through an unbroken succession of Indian and Tibetan masters.

Four Noble Truths
The Five Paths and the Ten Levels
The Six Perfections
Conclusion and Notes

Religion (Dharma) is a means to leave suffering and attain happiness.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught four noble truths 1: The truths of suffering and the cause of suffering, and the truths of cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering. We must recognize and remove the first two and realize through practice the second two.

We can understand this deep subject by considering the simple example of physical illness. When we are sick, we suffer, and look for the underlying cause—a disease or other disorder. When we realize that the illness is curable we see that our suffering can cease and seek treatment—the path to the cessation of this suffering.

The following text is an expanded explanation of these four noble truths, and of how we can follow a path that leads us out of suffering to the attainment of happiness, not only for ourselves, but for all beings.


The countless kinds of suffering can be divided into three:

  1. Suffering caused by suffering 2This type of suffering includes the pain, sadness and everyday suffering recognized by all beings. Even the smallest insect can recognize it. No creatures want this suffering. The reason why all creatures are so busy and active is that they are trying to avoid this type of suffering. Ants, for instance, are busy all day and night to avoid suffering from hunger; countries fight each other for fear of suffering from domination (even though this method creates more suffering).
  2. Suffering caused by change 3This type starts as happiness and then changes into suffering. Most beings do not recognize this as suffering. Worldly happiness looks like happiness, but in time it too changes into suffering. If we are hot and immerse ourselves in cold water it is very pleasant to start with, but after a while it becomes painfully cold. If we are cold and stay in the sun to get warm we will, after some time, suffer from being burnt. When friends meet after a long time they are delighted, but if they then remain continually together they may quarrel and grow tired of each other.This type of suffering includes anything that appears to be happiness and changes into suffering. If a person wants to become wealthy, works very hard and becomes rich, suffering is produced from the need for maintaining the wealth, fear of losing it, and desire for more. If one country wants to take over another, the oppressed country reacts, and mutual suffering is caused.The first of these two types of suffering is easily removable. The second is not, because it is not easily recognized. Thus, it is more deeply harmful. Even small insects can stop the suffering caused by suffering, and so can human beings, who, when they are ill, for example, can get treatment. But most people and animals think that the suffering caused by change is real happiness and spend their whole lives trying to achieve it; for example, people in business who devote their lives to making money and people who fight each other in wars, all in search of happiness.
  3. All-embracing suffering caused by mental formations 4This type is even more difficult to recognize than the suffering caused by change. It is the suffering inherent in samsara (the whole round of existence) and the cause of the previous two kinds of suffering. It covers, or embraces, all beings in samsara. As the earth is the foundation of our life, so this type of suffering is the foundation of the other two. If someone cuts us we automatically feel pain simply because we have bodies; our very existence is the root cause of this suffering.Because all beings exist in a state of causality, all are liable to suffering. This kind of suffering (duhkha) is produced from a harmful cause and all other suffering comes from it. All beings recognize the first kind of suffering; some recognize the second. But this third kind of suffering is very, very difficult to recognize. Without recognizing it, escape from samsara is impossible. This suffering is like a wound that does not give pain until it is touched. It is the ground containing all sufferings. When we remove this suffering we attain nirvana, or liberation.

To practise Dharma, understanding suffering is the first essential. Without this understanding, the will to get out of suffering does not arise. We are like people in prison who don't recognize where we are or how bad it is, and therefore have no wish to escape. If we are ill but do not recognize it, we have no wish to be cured.

If the first type of suffering is not recognized we can have no wish to escape from suffering. If the second is not recognized we will try to escape from it in the wrong way, only to return to suffering again. If the third type is not recognized, then even if our method is good, we cannot get to the root of all suffering.

Therefore, it is very important to recognize all three kinds of suffering. This recognition is the first door to practising Dharma and also the reason for practising. This is the reason that the Buddha taught suffering as the first noble truth. We can observe suffering directly by looking around us. The suffering caused by suffering is evident in everybody. The suffering caused by change, unreal happiness, is also quite obvious. We can see also that all other sufferings derive from the all-embracing suffering caused by mental formations. Although it is difficult to know what causes these sufferings, we must experience them and see them for what they are; from our experience our belief will be strong and steady. That is why the Buddha said it was important to judge and test his teachings for ourselves, giving the example of assaying gold. When we see that reality is as the Buddha said, our faith in the Buddha will be strong and not be destroyed by what others tell us.

All suffering has a beginning and an end. Things are undergoing change all the time. There are two types of change: coarse, obvious change—as when a table is being made and the changes are plain—and subtle change, such as the molecular changes going on continually inside the table.

The changes in human life are obvious—people start small, grow larger, and age. But it is not so obvious that in the time it takes to snap your fingers everything has changed. If you pour water from a pot, the stream appears to be one unit, but in fact, at each moment, the stream has moved and become something else.

Not only sentient beings but also the whole environment—trees and so on—are undergoing change. All beings in samsara are suffering all the time. If we do not recognize suffering fully we will not practise what is necessary to get out of it.

The Cause of Suffering

All suffering has a cause. If the cause is not removed, escape from suffering is impossible. If rain is coming in through a hole in the roof, there is no use sweeping the water out of the house without blocking the hole as well. If we are sick and take medicine for the symptoms alone, we may be able to stop them for a time, but we cannot be sure they will not recur. If, however, we eradicate the cause of suffering we can prevent its recurrence forever.

Although we can do nothing about the suffering of the past, we must close the door of future suffering. If a thorn tree outside our house pricks us every time we pass, it is no real solution to cut off odd branches; we must uproot the tree completely. We need to find the real cause, not an illusory one. If we make a mistake about the cause of suffering, real progress will be impossible. So we must know the second noble truth, the cause of suffering.

The cause of suffering has two divisions: karma (action) 5 and klesha (mental defilements). 6

At this time we are experiencing much suffering, whose cause we ourselves created in past existences. Therefore we ourselves have to do the work to escape from it. A teaching about the cause of and escape from suffering is useless if we do not practise it. If we are sick and go to the doctor, who gives treatment, we must follow the doctor's instructions in order to be cured. In school a student needs the teacher's instruction, but the most important thing is the student's own work. Up to now we have never practised the path, so we are still in samsara. Those beings who have practised it, such as Milarepa, have passed out of samsara. This passing was not easy. Milarepa's buttocks were covered in sores from sitting for so long in meditation. When Lorepa was meditating in the mountains, no-one brought him food, so he lived by gradually eating his shoes. Lama Tsongkhapa meditated in the high mountains, always offering mandalas 7 on a stone slab. The skin on his right forearm was rubbed away from polishing the stone. Escape from samsara depends on ourselves alone; if it depended on only the Buddha, there would be no one in samsara, because that was his great wish. As a good mother loves her children, he has equal love for all beings. In one sutra the Buddha taught:

  • The Buddha cannot wash away the delusion of beings with holy water;
    Neither can he take away the suffering of beings with his hand.

He can not give wisdom to beings if they do not practise. The Buddha's responsibility is to show the true path. In another sutra it says:

  • I am my own lord and my own enemy.

"Lord" because if we practise Dharma, we can look after ourselves and bring ourselves much happiness; "enemy" because if we do not practise properly, we build up more and more suffering for ourselves.

The Buddha teaches the way; we practise it. This combination brings happiness.

Karma (action)

There are many kinds of karma, but all are included within the categories of karma of body, karma of speech and karma of mind. Each of these categories includes actions of that particular faculty. Generally, karma is divided into skilful and unskilful, but here we are concerned only with unskilful karma—the karma that produces suffering. That which gives us real happiness and takes us to the goal is quite different.

Unskilful karma of body

  • KillingKilling is the action that destroys the life of any being. It is the greatest malpractice of the present time. No one wants suffering, but by fighting to avoid it people create it. This action has the opposite effect to that which is desired. The action need not be done by physical attack with sword, gun, etc.; the person who gives the orders (the president or the general) also acquires the karma-fruit. When a person orders a bomb to be dropped and a thousand people die, though their deaths have roots in their own past karma, the person giving the order is the immediate cause. That person acquires worse karma-fruit than those who actually drop the bomb. If a hundred people are killed by a hundred soldiers, each soldier may receive the karma-fruit of one death, but the person who gave the order receives the fruit of the one hundred deaths. Such people may think themselves very great, but they do not realize the suffering that they are bringing upon themselves.When the world is in peace, deep as well as immediate benefits result. But to be really peaceful we must decide by ourselves to be peaceful by practising Dharma. Even if a person does not actually kill anyone or order anyone to be killed, if one approves of killing as a good thing or rejoices in it, the karma-fruit is also acquired.Stealing

    Stealing is taking anything belonging to someone else that has not been given. It can be done secretly, by force, by cunning words, by cheating, and so forth. It includes laying claim to something that does not really belong to one, as when a country lays claim to another. If the stealing is done indirectly through someone else, it has the same karma-fruit. Its object can be any property, any people, and so forth, taken by any means. If we mistakenly take something that belongs to someone else, it is not stealing. Stealing requires not only the action but also the intention to take something that is not our own. Our mind must be aware that we are stealing.

    Sexual misconduct

    This action occurs when a married person goes after another sexual partner, or has intercourse even with the right partner at inappropriate times such as on full moon or new moon days or in the daytime, in unsuitable places (such as holy places), or with inappropriate organs. This action includes having intercourse with monks or nuns. Whereas killing and stealing, even when performed indirectly, have the same karma-fruit, this is not the case with sexual misconduct. The first two actions harm others who are innocent; sexual misconduct concerns the people involved. For bhiksus and bhiksunis (Buddhist monks and nuns) any kind of sexual indulgence is forbidden.

    Beating other people, attempting unsuccessfully to steal, putting people in prison for the wrong reasons, improper behavior on holy days, and any other bodily deeds that are harmful or provoke mental defilements are also unskilful karma of body.

Unskilful karma of speech

  • LyingLying includes anything spoken with the intention of deceiving others, with selfish motivation.SlanderSpeech that creates enmity between friends, out of some motive such as jealousy of their relationship, is slander. The speech may be either true or false, but for it to be slanderous the desire to bring discord must be in the speaker's mind. Slander can take place between countries as well as between individuals. If a person says something false in order to break up a friendship, this is both lying and slander.

    Harsh words

    This includes angry words against another, or swearing by the name of some holy person or object for evil ends such as the reinforcement of a lie, or the use of words to make people sad or angry. The Tibetan for this is zig.tsup meaning "rough word." Just as a rough stone rubbed against the body creates pain, so harsh words hurt the mind.

    Irresponsible talk

    Any kind of talk that provokes delusion—talk of violence, pornography and so forth—is considered irresponsible or gossip.

Unskilful karma of mind

  • GreedThis term refers not to desire for beneficial things such as knowledge or wisdom, but to the insatiable desire for illusory possessions and sensory experiences. Greed is seen in the poor person who sees big, shiny cars and expensive possessions, and is always running after them, or in the rich person who is surrounded by possessions yet wants even more. Greed is born from desire. Other unskilful actions of body and speech, such as stealing, cheating, and so forth result from the mental action of greed.MaliceThis wish to harm others includes taking pleasure in their misfortunes. It can apply to all categories of life, from nations to small insects. At first glance this action of mind may appear more harmful than greed, but in fact greed is more harmful because it does not apply to just a single situation; greed is persistent and brings no satisfaction.

    Wrong views

    Any kind of thinking that denies the truth of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, rebirth, the law of karma, nirvana and so forth constitutes wrong views.

Unskilful karma of mind is the worst kind of karma because actions of body and speech arise from mind. For instance, to kill an animal, first the wish to do so must arise in our mind. After so wishing, we may do the action on our own (body), or tell someone else to do it (speech). All actions of the body and speech must be preceded by the wish of mind. The mind forces body and speech to follow it; if we can control the mind, then other kinds of bad action can be avoided. Mind is very difficult to control, because its actions are so quick—many unskilful actions of mind are possible in one minute. For instance, if we want to harm someone else we can think of many different ways of doing so in one brief moment. Unskilful actions of mind happen so quickly that they cannot be counted; unskilful actions of speech are slower, and unskilful actions of body are the slowest of all. The first essential is to practise control of the mind If we don't control our minds and just follow desires and instincts, we will not lead a good life.

All the sufferings of all beings in samsara are produced by mind. Beings out of samsara, in permanent bliss, are in that state because they developed their minds. Body and speech are only servants of the mind.

Fruition of karma

Many different kinds of fruit are possible from one deed. If in this life we were to kill someone, our immediate rebirth would probably be in a hot hell. Life in hell is much longer than on earth, and there is constant suffering from heat or cold. Hell beings and humans are completely different kinds of creature, and the particular properties of one existence are limited to that existence. Even in this world there are many kinds of spirit not normally visible to humans (although sometimes we may be aware of them), and they too have their own special properties.

Between one life and the next we experience the bardo. 8 We cannot see most bardos, but at a certain high stage of development, through special practices and meditations, we can. In order to strengthen all our qualities and not just one isolated faculty, we should practise both Dharma and those techniques that lead to special powers.

Some beings have the karma to be reborn in a state of such continual suffering that humans would not be able to survive. In some hells, for instance, there is no distinction between the fire itself and the beings living in the midst of it. Those who have killed in their past lives, even if reborn human, exist in a state of uninterrupted suffering from afflictions such as chronic illness. Treatment that preserves life and health cannot help them. When we suffer sickness, pain, and trouble, there is always an immediate cause, but the underlying reason is our karma. Two people may have the same disease and receive the same treatment, but one will progress better than the other because of different karma. If we attribute the difference to luck, we have only a superficial understanding of the situation.

Some people have bad tendencies from childhood; these are also karma-fruit. Parents may raise their children in the same way, yet they develop differently because of karma. Past lives produce inborn tendencies. The actions of past lives determine all factors such as the place of birth and type of death of future lives. One is born in a dangerous or strife-torn place because of one's past karma. If a person murders another in this life, in the next life the victim may become the murderer and the murderer the victim. Each of our actions is a link in a chain with no beginning, for samsara has no beginning; it can, however, have an end.

To understand this chain, it is necessary to understand the relation of mind to body. Mind is like a river passing through different countries (bodies). A river takes different names (forms) according to the different countries. In this way the mind passes on, carrying the accumulated karma with it. When a being dies, the body decays and the mind passes on, to continue in another bodily form, according to the type of body that it inhabits in that life.

Because they do not distinguish between mind and body, people think that both arise together from the parents and disappear together after death. After death the body does remain in a decaying state, but if the body and mind were the same, the mind should also remain in this state. In a living being, body and mind do have an immediate relationship, but when the being dies, this relationship becomes more and more remote. As the mind becomes further detached from the body, bodily feelings and functions gradually fade out until they finally cease. Some people think that the functions of the mind are dependent on breathing, but advanced yogis are able to live and concentrate for years without breathing. Because the mind and body are absolutely different, their causes must be absolutely different. The cause of the human body is the sperm-ovum union of the parents; thus children are physically similar to their parents. This immediate physical cause cannot produce the mind of the child, and could only do so if there were no difference between mind and body.

There are also some mental states that can be passed from parent to child. Some forms of madness, for instance, are caused by imbalance in the elements of the body, which can be passed on genetically. Mind usually follows the incoming and outgoing air; therefore imbalance in these airs can create mental disturbances.

Doctors can alter the temperament of a person by operating on the brain. Because the brain is the centre of the nerves carrying the airs that influence the mental processes, all the airs themselves are centralized in the brain. This is why we sometimes develop a headache when we concentrate too strongly; this overly strong concentration puts pressure on the brain. Although the mind is influenced by the nerves localized there, the mind itself is formless, not physical, and its cause must be of the same nature. Each mind- within-a-body causes the next. Bodies have a beginning; mind does not. Karma continues along with the mind.

The minds of beings in samsara are always covered with delusion. If, through the practice of Dharma, delusions can be removed and a high spiritual level reached, the mind can occupy more than one body; incarnate lamas (tulkus) can take several bodily forms simultaneously. When a person attains the high spiritual level of arhatship, he or she is then completely out of samsara. An arhat (foe destroyer) is not necessarily a bodhisattva, but the highest arhat is a buddha. Before buddhahood there are different levels of mind, but the minds of all buddhas are equal.

If a person steals, the immediate fruit is rebirth in a cold hell. Such beings are born in ice and their bodies are indistinguishable from the ice itself. The cracking of the ice produces much suffering. After birth in a cold hell, these beings may be reborn as animals living in very bad conditions, such as the pariah dogs of India. Even when finally reborn into human form, those who have stolen find themselves in conditions of extreme poverty. People with this type of karmic background may become children with a persistent tendency to steal, or may be born in a place where it never rains and there is famine. Whatever the fruit produced, it is related to the previous deeds. Any difficulties connected with property, lack of food and so forth are the fruit of stealing. Karma affects the environment as well as the body and mind.

The heaviest fruit produced by sexual misconduct is rebirth in a hell. More usual is rebirth as an animal. A being cannot practise sexual misconduct in hell. If the being is reborn human, he or she will experience such marital trouble as adultery. Sometimes even small children like perverse sexual acts; this tendency is the result of past misconduct. Because of these types of past action, the person may be reborn in a very dirty environment.

If a person tells a harmful lie, rebirth can also be in a hell. If the being is reborn human, then he or she will have neither faithful friends nor enjoy the good faith of others. Such a person, from childhood, will have the tendency to lie. The environment itself may be a very deceptive one.

A person who slanders with murderous intention may be reborn in a hell. If reborn human, friends will be lost through slander, and from childhood there will be a tendency to slander others. Rebirth may be in a dangerous place, with earthquakes and so on.

If a person uses harsh words, rebirth in a hell may result. If reborn human, the person will be a slave, beggar, or someone who is always being scolded. The person may be born as an ill treated dog. There will be the tendency to abuse others. This karma can also produce a bad environment. For instance, some people in Tibet always live in places where the conditions are unpleasant, the ground is covered with thorns, and so on. These people realize how bad the place is, but for some reason cannot separate themselves from it, saying, "This is my country, I cannot leave it." If by irresponsible talk people produce sufficient delusion, their rebirth may be in a hell. If human, they might be surrounded by friends with scattered minds much given to chatter. Even if they want to break free of this superficiality and delusion, the environment will prevent it. From childhood there will be a fondness for idle talk. Rebirth may be in a place where many useless weeds but no crops grow. Idle talk does not appear to be very harmful, but it can be the worst kind of unskilful action of speech because if we encourage the tendency toward it, it occurs again and again, wasting our lives.

Greed, if it has extreme ill effects, may produce rebirth in a hell. If the person is born human, the fruit that results may be of the same sort as that resulting from stealing—a constant lack of property. Even if no unskilful physical action was performed in the past life, the bad fruit will be produced because of the person's actions of mind. The person will have just the opposite of what was wanted. Greed causes other unskilful acts, such as stealing, lying, slander, etc. Greed itself is also produced in the next life.

If wishing to harm others leads to killing, or if the mind-action is strong and harmful enough, rebirth in a hell can result. Mental action is the strongest and most persistent kind. If someone kills an animal, this involves only one unskilful action of body, but many unskilful actions of mind. A person can be sitting in a meditation posture, appearing to be very pure, but performing many unskilful actions of mind. If someone who in the past has wished others much harm takes birth as a human, that person becomes the recipient of harmful intentions and has only treacherous friends. A person who in the past entertained harmful thoughts toward others will have that same tendency even from childhood in a later birth. It is ironic but the fruit of greed is that the person does not receive what is desired, and the fruit of wishing to harm others is that the person receives what is not desired.

Wrong views prevent spiritual progress. A person who believes that actions such as killing, stealing, etc. are not wrong and practices these actions may be reborn in hell. Even though the person believes that such actions are morally right, bad results are produced. Consider the following for example: There is some fruit to eat on top of a mountain; a man is looking for the fruit and three people deceive him. One sends him round by a very long way, the second sends him or, a very dangerous route, and the third tells him that there is no fruit to be had at all. By following the advice of the first two, it may take him a long time, but he will reach the fruit. However, the third has deceived him worst of all; if he believes from the start that there is no fruit, he will have no chance of obtaining it. Holding wrong views closes the door to happiness. If it does not cause birth in hell, it can cause birth as an animal (a state of ignorance) or as a human in a place where Dharma is unknown or forbidden. Wrong faith also opens the door to all unskilful deeds.

This is a simplification into ten general categories of unskilful karma and the respective fruits. If we sow wheat there will be many different results—stalk, leaves, grain, etc. Similarly, one deed has many different kinds of fruit—types of birth, environment, tendencies, and so on. This is why Buddhists say that everything comes from karma; karma structures all things that happen in the world. All events have two causes—an immediate cause and a deep karma-cause.

Klesha (mental defilement)

Karma results from klesha—mental defilement. Karma and klesha are both considered avarana. Avarana literally means "covering"—an avarana covers the mind, obscuring the realization of nirvana. Karma and klesha together make up kleshavararna. There is also another kind of avarana, which remains even in the arhat stage after karma and klesha have disappeared. This is called jneyavarana, "the covering of what can be known," or obscuration to omniscience.

Klesha is the immediate cause of karma; karma causes suffering. If we can remove klesha, we can stop the flow of karma, prevent suffering from arising, and reach nirvana—though not the ultimate nirvana. Jneyavarana still remains in varying degrees in both arhats and bodhisattvas, and is finally removed only when the buddha stage is attained.

In the scriptures, kleshavarana is said to have eighty-four thousand different forms. They can be simplified into three main categories, from which the others come or in which the others are included: desire, aversion, and ignorance. 9


  • Desire is easily distinguishable from aversion. Desire must have an object and it makes the object seem more beautiful and attractive than it really is. Desire causes unskilful karma in any of the following ways. If we desire to eat meat, we kill animals; if we desire property, we are inclined to steal it; if we desire intercourse, we may commit, sexual misconduct. In the desire to create a false impression, we may lie; to obtain a desired object or goal, we may slander others; although aversion is more usually the cause, desire too may cause us to speak harsh words; in the grip of attraction to foolish things, we waste ourselves in irresponsible talk. Desire is the direct cause of greed; desire for the possessions of others can produce harmful thoughts. In brief, then, if any being, from a human down to the smallest insect, desires something and this desire produces an unskilful action, that action has arisen from the klesha of desire.


  • Aversion is the opposite of desire: it makes its object seem worse than it is. Aversion can easily produce killing, and out of spite or the wish to deprive someone, it can cause stealing or sexual misconduct. Lying and slander are commonly caused by aversion, and harsh words usually arise from it. Irresponsible talk too can be the result of aversion, as when a person talks at length in a derogatory manner about another. Although greed is not produced by aversion, malice usually is.When we have desire it is not as painful as aversion. It can bring temporary happiness with it, and this makes us want to be very close to the object. Aversion always produces pain immediately; we want to be very far from its object. In the scriptures, desire is likened to a flower, which is very beautiful at first but soon changes and becomes ugly, while aversion is likened to a wasp, which only stings. The face of a person filled with desire is bright and shining; the face of a person filled with aversion is grim and dark.


  • All unskilful actions except wrong views, which are always produced by ignorance, can result from desire and aversion. Although we can be misled by the ignorance of our teachers, wrong views are, fundamentally, the result of our own ignorance. Desire and aversion are active, making things seem better or worse than they are; ignorance is the failure to realize the nature of things. If we kill, not out of aversion or desire, but because we don't think it wrong or perhaps even think it good, this is the direct result of ignorance. Any unskilful act that arises from not knowing that it is unskilful is partly rooted in ignorance. For instance, people who make animal sacrifices think that they are doing something good—they have no ill-will toward or desire for the animal; they simply believe that killing the animal will please their god.

Fear can be good, bad or indifferent. If we have done a bad deed and repent out of fear of the karma-fruit, the fear is reasonable and wholesome in its effects. That very fear can lead us to practise Dharma and thence toward enlightenment. If we are afraid to practise Dharma because we are afraid that the practice will prove harmful in some way, this fear is the fruit of ignorance. When children are afraid of the dark, fearing ghosts and so on, this is neither good nor bad. Similarly, while the fear of death is produced by our desire of clinging to life, the fear itself is neither good nor bad.

Desire and aversion are both produced by ignorance. We experience them because we do not know the real nature of things.

The reason for practising meditation is to overcome suffering; to overcome suffering we must overcome karma; to overcome karma we must overcome desire and aversion; to overcome desire and aversion we must overcome ignorance. Meditation overcomes ignorance.

Ignorance >> desire or aversion >> unskilful karma >> three sufferings

No beings want suffering; they all want to remove it. Most do not know how to, and some even create suffering in their efforts to remove it. People take medicines that cure sickness temporarily but cannot remove it forever. To remove suffering permanently, we must find its cause—karma; we must remove the cause of the cause —desire and aversion; we must remove the cause of these—ignorance. Ignorance is the deepest root of all suffering. If ignorance is removed, all that stems from it will automatically disappear. Escape from samsara is impossible unless ignorance is removed. If we sit in meditation without understanding the real reason for doing so we will achieve only limited results.

If we want to remove ignorance, we must first discover its nature and that of its opposite, shunzyata (emptiness). Then, through meditation on emptiness, we have to remove ignorance.

There are two different kinds of ignorance: ignorance regarding the ego and ignorance regarding external phenomena. 10

Ignorance regarding the ego

From devas to the smallest insects, all beings in samsara are subject to this kind of ignorance, from which the other mental defilements arise. This ignorance causes us to perceive our own nature the wrong way. To remove it, we must realize the true way we exist.

What we call "ego," or "self," can be divided into either the body (caused by the parents) and mind (caused by past existences), or the five skandhas (aggregates). These skandhas are the five elements of sensory existence:

  1. Physical form (rupaskandha). This includes air, blood, semen, bone—anything material, composed of atoms. The sound of the voice is included in this skandha, because sound is form.
  2. Feelings (vedanaskandha). These arise from bodily contacts and mental contacts (with ideas, concepts, and so on), and can be pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent.
  3. Cognition, perception, differentiation (samjnaskandha). This skandha is the mind that recognizes objects through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking.
  4. Volitional formations (samskaraskandha). Samskaras are the qualities or tendencies of mind, produced by karma, that control the various kinds of conditioned mental factors, or "caitta." (Caitta are in an inseparable relationship with the essential mind, "citta." These factors can be beneficial—for example, concentration, intelligence, wisdom, confidence, energy, tranquillity, friendliness and sympathetic joy at the success of others—or harmful—ignorance, desire, anger, greed and all that is unprofitable in the spiritual sense. Caitta are mental karma; karma of body and speech arise from caitta; most caitta are included in samskaraskandha. The sequence of time and the changing nature of things are included in this skandha.
  5. Consciousness (vijnanaskandha). The function of this skandha is the awareness of an object. It allows the other skandhas to operate.

The five skandhas together support the concept of ego. This concept cannot be supported by any of the skandhas in isolation; it depends on all of them, just as the wheels, windows, steering wheel, engine, and other parts together make up the concept of "car." Any of these parts in isolation is not the car. If all the parts are piled together in a heap, it is still not a car. Those parts arranged in a certain order comprise what people recognize and think of as a car. If people did not give it this name and did not recognize it as such it would not be a car.

The collection known as a particular human is built in the same way as is a car. A child is born composed of five skandhas and with all the usual qualities; his parents call him "Tashi." Then this collection of skandhas and qualities becomes generally known and recognized as Tashi.

In samsara there are three planes of existence: the desire realm (kamadhatu), the form realm (rupatdhatu), and the formless realm (arupadhatu). In the first two realms no being can exist without all five skandhas. In the formless realm, beings have no physical form – rupaskandha—but do have the other four skandhas. Without these there is no ego.

All beings exist as a combination of skandhas and cannot exist without them. Buddha is also a combination of these skandhas, but ones that have been purified and transformed.

There are two ways of looking at the ego:

  1. Through ignorance, negative understanding of the ego. This produces aversion and desire, unskilful karma, and suffering.
  2. Through realization of shunyata, understanding the emptiness of the ego. This is positive understanding of the ego. Meditation on shunyata removes ignorance and thus ail the other mental defilements and their results.

As soon as we think of "I" as an entity existing independently, our ignorance has apprehended the ego in the wrong way. When we are aware that the ego does not exist independently, we can find right understanding. Without this understanding, our ignorance persists. This is the main point about shunyata, or emptiness: that the ego does not exist independently. This emptiness is the emptiness of the ego as an entity existing independently. Ego exists only as a combination of the skandhas.

Ignorance regarding outer phenomena

Ignorance about the five elements, mountains, seas, and so forth constitutes ignorance regarding outer phenomena. If we consider a biscuit, for example, it is a combination of various things—wheat, water, oil, fire and the activity of the baker. We recognize it as "biscuit," but really it is a combination of forces and qualities. This analysis applies to all external phenomena; ultimately we will understand that there is no difference between the ego and outer phenomena. But when we look at either of them without thinking carefully about what they really are, we see them as existing independently. Everything changes subtly in a split second of time. Scientists can see very subtle changes in things with instruments such as microscopes (though not the most subtle changes), but when they are not studying these changes, these same scientists see things as existing independently.

This twofold ignorance about the ego and outer phenomena is the root of all defilements, karma and suffering. To remove suffering we must remove this ignorance completely. The only way to do this is to meditate on emptiness. There are many other objects of meditation, but emptiness is the most important.

A commentary on the emptiness section of the Seven Point Mind Training text

Mirror of Wisdom includes commentaries on the emptiness section of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun and The Heart Sutra.

Mirror of Wisdom
Part One: Introduction
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Bodhicitta
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Emptiness
Part One: Learning to Become a Buddha
Part Two: Commentary on the Heart Sutra


We should always begin our study and practice at the basic level and slowly ascend the ladder of practice. First of all, we should learn about going for refuge in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and put that into practice. Then we should study and follow the law of karmic actions and their results. Next, we should meditate on the preciousness of our human life, our great spiritual potential and upon our own death and the impermanence of our body. After that we should develop an awareness of our own state of mind and notice what it is really doing. If we are thinking of harming anyone, even the smallest insect, then we must let go of that thought, but if our mind is thinking of something positive, such as wishing to help and cherish others, then we must try to enhance that quality. As we progress, we slowly train our mind in bodhicitta and go on to study the perfect view of emptiness. This is the proper way to approach Buddhist study and practice.

As we engage in our practice of Dharma there will be definite signs of improvement. Of course, these signs should come from within. The great Kadampa master, Geshe Chekawa, states, "Change or transform your attitude and leave your external conduct as it is." What he is telling us is that we should direct our attention towards bringing about positive transformation within, but in terms of our external conduct we should still behave without pretense, like a normal person. We should not be showy about any realization we have gained or think that we have license to conduct ourselves in any way we like. As we look into our own mind, if we find that delusions such as anger, attachment, arrogance and jealousy are diminishing and feel more intent on helping others, that is a sign that positive change is taking place.

Lama Tsongkhapa stated that in order to get rid of our confusion with regard to any subject, we must develop the three wisdoms that arise through contemplation. We have to listen to the relevant teaching, which develops the "wisdom through hearing." Then we contemplate the meaning of the teaching, which gives rise to the "wisdom of contemplation." Finally, we meditate on the ascertained meaning of the teaching, which gives rise to the "wisdom of meditation." By applying these three kinds of wisdom, we will be able to get beyond our doubts, misconceptions and confusion.


The text advises that we should apply ourselves to gross analysis (conceptual investigation) and subtle analysis (analytical investigation) to find out if we are performing proper actions with our body, speech and mind. If we are, then there is nothing more to do. However, if we find that certain actions of our body, speech and mind are improper, we should correct ourselves.

Every action that we perform has a motivation at its beginning. We have to investigate and analyze whether this motivation is positive or negative. If we discover that we have a negative motivation, we have to let go of that and adopt a positive one. Then, while we're actually performing the action, we have to investigate whether our action is correct or not. Finally, once we have completed the action, we have to end it with a dedication and again, analyze the correctness of our dedication. In this way, we observe the three phases of our every action of body, speech and mind, letting go of the incorrect actions and adopting the correct ones.

We should do this as often as we can, but we should try to do it at least three times a day. First thing in the morning, when we get up from our beds, we should analyze our mind and set up the right motivation for the day. During the day we should again apply this mindfulness to our actions and activities. Then in the evening, before we go to bed, we should review our actions of the daytime. If we find that we did something that we shouldn't have, we should regret the wrong action and develop contrition for having engaged in it and determine not to engage in that action again. It is essential that we purify our negativities, or wrong actions, in this way. However, if we find that we have committed good actions, we should feel happy. We should appreciate our own positive actions and draw inspiration from them, determining that tomorrow we should try to do the same or even better.

Buddha said, "Taking your own body as an example, do not harm others." So, taking ourselves as an example, what do we want? We want real peace, happiness and the best of everything. What do we not want? We don't want any kind of pain, problem or difficulty. Everyone else has the same wish-so, with that kind of understanding we should stop harming others, including those who we see as our enemies. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often advises that if we can't help others, then we should at least not harm them, either through our speech or our physical actions. In fact, we shouldn't even think harmful thoughts.


The text states that we should not be boastful. Instead, we should appreciate the good actions we've performed. If you go up to people and say, "Haven't I been kind to you?" nobody will appreciate what you've done. In the Eight Verses of Mind Training, we read that even if people turn out to be ungrateful to us and say or do nasty things when we have been kind and helpful to them, we should make all the more effort to appreciate the great opportunity they have provided us to develop our patience. The stanza ends beautifully, "Bless me to be able to see them as if they were my true teachers of patience." After all, they are providing us with a real chance to practice patience, not just a hypothetical one. That is exactly what mind training is. When we find ourselves in that kind of difficult situation, we should just stay cool and realize that we have a great opportunity to practice kshantiparamita, the "perfection of patience."

In the same vein, the text also advises us not to be short-tempered. We shouldn't let ourselves be shaken by difficult circumstances or situations. Generally, when people say nice things to us or bring us gifts, we feel happy. On the other hand, if someone says the smallest thing that we don't want to hear, we get upset. Don't be like that. We need to remain firm in our practice and maintain our peace of mind.


The text reminds us to practice our mind training with consistency. We shouldn't practice for a few days and then give it up because we've decided it's not working. At first, we may apply ourselves very diligently to study and practice out of a sense of novelty or because we've heard so much about the benefits of meditation. Then, in a day or two, we stop because we don't think we're making any progress. Or, for a while we may come to the teachings before everyone else but then we just give up and disappear, making all kinds of reasons and excuses for our behavior. That won't help.

If we keep in mind that our ultimate goal is to become completely enlightened, then we can begin to comprehend the length of time we'll need for practice. The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don't have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock-it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river. Another example compares consistency to a strong bowstring. If a bowstring is straight and strong, we can shoot the arrow further. We read in a text called The Praise of the Praiseworthy, "For you to prove your superiority, show neither flexibility nor rigidity." The point being made here is that we should be moderate in applying ourselves to our practice. We should not rigidly overexert ourselves for a short duration and then stop completely, but neither should we be too flexible and relaxed, because then we become too lethargic.


The next advice given in the text is that we should not anticipate some reward as soon as we do something nice. When we practice giving, or generosity, the best way to give is selflessly and unconditionally. That is great giving. In Buddhist scriptures we find it stated that as a result of our own giving and generosity, we acquire the possessions and resources we need. When we give without expecting anything in return, our giving will certainly bring its result, but when we give with the gaining of resources as our motivation, our giving becomes somewhat impure. Intellectualizing, thinking, "I must give because giving will bring something back to me," contaminates our practice of generosity.

When we give we should do so out of compassion and understanding. We have compassion for the poor and needy, for example, because we can clearly see their need. Sometimes people stop giving to the homeless because they think that they might go to a bar and get drunk or otherwise use the gift unwisely. We should remember that when we give to others, we never have any control over how the recipient uses our gift. Once we have given something, it has become the property of the other person. It's up to them to decide what they will do with it.


Another cardinal point of Buddhism concerns karmic actions. Sometimes we go through good times in our lives and sometimes we go through bad; but we should understand that all these situations are related to our own personal karmic actions of body, speech and mind. Shakyamuni Buddha taught numerous things intended to benefit three kinds of disciples-those who are inclined to the Hearers' Vehicle, those who are inclined to the Solitary Realizers' Vehicle and those who are inclined to the Greater Vehicle. Buddha said to all three kinds of prospective disciples, "You are your own protector." In other words, if you want to be free from any kind of suffering, it is your own responsibility to find the way and to follow it. Others cannot do it for you. No one can present the way to liberation as if it were a gift. You are totally responsible for yourself.

"You are your own protector." That statement is very profound and carries a deep message for us. It also implicitly speaks about the law of karmic actions and results. You are responsible for your karmic actions-if you do good, you will have good; if you do bad, you will have bad. It's as simple as that. If you don't create and accumulate a karmic action, you will never meet its results. Also, the karmic actions that you have already created and accumulated are not simply going to disappear. It is just a matter of time and the coming together of certain conditions for these karmic actions to bring forth their results. When we directly, or non-conceptually, fully realize emptiness, from that moment on we will never create any new karmic seeds to be reborn in cyclic existence. It is true that transcendent bodhisattvas return to samsara, but they don't come back under the influence of contaminated karmic actions or delusions. They return out of their will power, their aspirational prayers and their great compassion.


Without the sincere desire to be free from cyclic existence, it is impossible to become liberated from it. In order to practice with enthusiasm, we must cultivate the determined wish to be liberated from the miseries of cyclic existence. We can develop this enthusiastic wish by contemplating the suffering nature of samsara, this cycle of compulsive rebirths in which we find ourselves. As Lama Tsongkhapa states in his beautifully concise text, theThree Principal Paths, without the pure, determined wish to be liberated, one will not be able to let go of the prosperity and goodness of cyclic existence. What he is saying-and our own experience will confirm this-is that we tend to focus mostly, and perhaps most sincerely, on the temporary pleasures and happiness of this lifetime. As we do this, we get more and more entrenched in cyclic existence.

In order to break this bond to samsara, it is imperative that we cultivate the determined wish for liberation, and to do that we have to follow certain steps. First, we must try to sever our attachment and clinging to the temporary marvels and prosperity of this lifetime. Then we need to do the same thing with regard to our future lives. No matter whether we are seeking personal liberation or complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, we must first cultivate this attitude of renunciation. Having done that, if we want to find our own personal liberation, or nirvana, then we can follow the path of hearers or solitary realizers, but if we want to work for the betterment of all sentient beings, we should at that point follow Greater Vehicle Buddhism-the path of the bodhisattvas-which leads to the highest state of enlightenment.

The determined wish to be liberated is the first path of Lama Tsongkhapa's Three Principal Paths, which presents the complete path to enlightenment. Tsongkhapa said that this human life, with its freedoms and enriching factors, is more precious than a wish-fulfilling gem. He also tells us that, however valuable and filled with potential our life is, it is as transient as lightning. We must understand that worldly activities are as frivolous and meaningless as husks of grain. Discarding them, we should engage instead in spiritual practice to derive the essence of this wonderful human existence. We need to realize the preciousness and rarity of this human life and our great spiritual potential as well as our life's temporary nature and the impermanence of all things. However, we should not interpret this teaching as meaning that we should devalue ourselves. It simply means that we should release our attachment and clinging to this life because they are the main source of our problems and difficulties. We also need to release our attachment and clinging to our future lives and their particular marvels and pleasures. As a way of dealing with this attachment, we need to contemplate and develop conviction in the infallibility of the law of karmic actions and their results and then contemplate the suffering nature of cyclic existence.

How do we know when we have developed the determined wish to be liberated? Lama Tsongkhapa says that if we do not aspire to the pleasures of cyclic existence for even a moment but instead, day in and day out, find ourselves naturally seeking liberation, then we can say that we have developed the determined wish to be liberated. If we were to fall into a blazing fire pit, we wouldn't find even one moment that we wanted to be there. There'd be nothing enjoyable about it at all and we would want to get out immediately. If we develop that kind of determination regarding cyclic existence, then that is a profound realization. Without even the aspiration to develop renunciation, we will never begin to seek enlightenment and therefore will not engage in the practices that lead us towards it.


There are three kinds of motivation we can have for aspiring to attain freedom from the sufferings of cyclic existence. The lowest motivation seeks a favorable rebirth in our next life, such as the one we have right now. With this motivation we will be able to derive the smallest essence from our human life.

The intermediate level of motivation desires complete liberation from samsara and is generating by reflecting upon the suffering nature of cyclic existence and becoming frightened of all its pains and problems. The method that can help us attain this state of liberation is the study of the common paths of the Tripitaka, the Three Baskets of teachings, and the practice and cultivation of the common paths of the three higher trainings-ethics, concentration and wisdom. This involves meditating on emptiness and developing the wisdom that realizes emptiness as the ultimate nature of all phenomena. As a result of these practices, we are then able to counteract and get rid of all 84,000 delusions and reach the state of liberation. With this intermediate motivation we achieve the state of lasting peace and happiness for ourselves alone. Our spiritual destination is personal nirvana. The highest level of motivation is the altruistic motivation of bodhicitta -seeking complete enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. With this kind of motivation, we are affirming the connections we have made with all sentient beings over many lifetimes. All sentient beings are recognized as having once been our mothers, fathers and closest friends. We appreciate how kind they have been to us and we develop the responsibility of helping them to become free from all their suffering and to experience lasting peace and happiness. When we consider our present situation we see that at the moment, we don't actually have the power to do this but once we have become fully enlightened beings, we will have all kinds of abilities to help sentient beings get rid of their pains and problems and find peace and happiness.


If we reflect on the situation in which we find ourselves, we will realize that with so much unbearable pain and suffering, it is as though we were in a giant prison. This is the prison of cyclic existence. However, because of our distorted perception, we often see this prison as a very beautiful place; as if it were, in fact, a wonderful garden of joy. We don't really see what the disadvantages of samsara are, and because of this we find ourselves clinging to this existence. With this attachment, we continue creating karmic actions that precipitate our rebirth in it over and over again and thus keep us stuck in samsara. If we look deep within ourselves, we find that it is the innate grasping at self that distorts our perception and makes us see cyclic existence as a pleasure land. All of us who are trapped in samsara share that kind of distorted perception, and as a result, we find ourselves creating all sorts of karmic actions. Even our good karmic actions are somewhat geared towards keeping us imprisoned within cyclic existence.

We should try to understand that being in cyclic existence is like being in a fire pit, with all the pain that such a situation would bring. When we understand this, we will start to change the nature of our karmic actions. Buddha said this in the sutras and Indian masters have carried this teaching over into the commentaries, or shastras. No matter where we live in samsara, we are bound to experience suffering. It doesn't matter with whom we live-our friends, family and companions all bring problems and suffering. Nor does it matter what kind of resources we have available to us; they too ultimately bring us pain and difficulty.

Now, you might think, "Well, that doesn't seem to be altogether true. In this world there are many wonderful places to visit-magnificent waterfalls, lovely wildernesses and so on. It doesn't seem as if samsara is such a bad place to be. Also, I have many wonderful friends who really care for me. It doesn't seem true that those in cyclic existence to whom I am close bring me problems and sufferings. Moreover, I have delicious food to eat and beautiful things to wear, so neither does it seem that everything I use in cyclic existence is suffering in nature." If such are our thoughts and feelings, then we have not realized the true nature of samsara, which is actually nothing but misery. Let me explain more about how things really are in samsara. The first thing the Buddha spoke about after his enlightenment was the truth of suffering. There are three kinds of pains and problems in cyclic existence-the "suffering of misery," the "suffering of change" and "pervasive suffering." We can easily relate to the suffering of misery, as this includes directly manifested pain and problems, such as the pain we experience if we cut ourselves or get a headache. However, our understanding of suffering is usually limited to that. We don't generally perceive the misery of change, which is a subtler kind of suffering. Even when we experience some temporary pleasures and comforts in cyclic existence, we must understand that these things also change into pains and problems. Pervasive, or extensive, suffering is even more subtle and hence even more difficult for us to understand. Suffering is simply the nature of samsara. When we have a headache we take medicine for the pain or when there is a cut on our body we go to the doctor for treatment, but we generally don't seek treatment for the other two kinds of suffering.

Buddhas and bodhisattvas feel infinite compassion for those of us who are trapped within cyclic existence because we don't realize that our pain and suffering are our own creation. It is as though we are engaged in self-torture. Our suffering is due to our own negative karmic actions, which in turn are motivated by all sorts of deluded thoughts and afflictive emotions. Just as we would feel compassion for a close friend who had gone insane, so are the buddhas and bodhisattvas constantly looking for ways in which to help us free ourselves from these problematic situations. With their infinite love and compassion, they are always looking for ways to assist us in getting out of this messy existence.

None of us would like to be a slave. Slaves go through all kinds of altercations, restrictions and difficulties and try with all their might to find freedom from their oppressors. Likewise, we have become slaves to the oppressors of our own delusions and afflictive emotions. These masters have enslaved us not only in this lifetime but for innumerable lifetimes past. As a result, we have gone through countless pains and sufferings in cyclic existence. Obviously, if we don't want to suffer such bondage any longer, we need to make an effort at the first given opportunity to try to free ourselves. In order to do this, we need to cultivate the wisdom realizing selflessness, or emptiness. In Sanskrit, the word is shunyata, ortathata, which is translated as "emptiness," or "suchness." This wisdom is the only tool that can help us to destroy the master of delusions-our self-grasping ignorance. Emptiness is the ultimate nature of all that exists. As such it is the antidote with which we can counteract all forms of delusion, including the root delusions of ignorance, attachment and anger.


Buddha has stated that for Mahayana practitioners, the self-cherishing attitude is like poison, whereas the altruistic, other-cherishing attitude is like a wish-fulfilling gem. Self-centeredness is akin to a toxic substance that we have to get out of our system in order to find the jewel-like thought of cherishing other beings. When we ingest poison it contaminates our body and threatens our very existence. In the same way, the self-cherishing attitude ruins our chance to improve our mind. With it, we destroy the possibility for enlightenment and become harmful to others. By contrast, if we have the mental attitude of cherishing other beings, not only will we be able to find happiness and the best of everything we are seeking, but we will also be able to bring goodness to others.

In order to cultivate the altruistic attitude, we should reflect on the kindness of all other beings. As we learn to appreciate their kindness we also learn to care for them. We might accept the general notion that sentient beings must be cherished, but when we come down to it we find ourselves thinking, "Well, so and so doesn't count because they have been mean or unpleasant to me, so I'll take them off the list and just help the rest." If we do that we are missing the whole point and are limiting our thinking. We need all other beings in order to follow the path that Buddha has shown us.

It is others who provide us with the real opportunities to grow spiritually. In fact, in terms of providing us with the actual opportunities to follow the path leading to enlightenment, sentient beings are just as kind to us as are the buddhas. To use a previous example in a different context, in order to grow any kind of fruit tree we need its seed. However, it's not enough just to have the seed-we also need good fertile soil, otherwise the seed won't germinate. So, although Buddha has given us the seed-the path to enlightenment-sentient beings constitute the field of our growth-the opportunities to actually engage in activities leading to the state of enlightenment.


There are two methods of instruction for developing bodhicitta. The first is the "six causes and one result," which has come down to us through a line of transmission from Shakyamuni Buddha to Maitreya and Asanga and his disciples. The second is called "equalizing and exchanging self for others," an instruction that has come down to us from Shakyamuni Buddha to Manjushri and Arya Nagarjuna and his disciples. It doesn't matter which of these two core instructions for developing bodhicitta we put into practice. The focal object of great compassion is all sentient beings and its aspect is wishing them to be free from every kind of pain and suffering.

We start at a very basic level. We try to cultivate compassion towards our family members and friends, then slowly extend our compassion to include people in our neighborhood, in the same country, on the same continent and throughout the whole world. Ultimately, we include within the scope of our compassion not only all people but all other beings throughout the universe. We find that we cannot cause harm to any sentient being because this goes against our compassion.

Before generating such compassion, however, we need to cultivate even-mindedness-a sense of equanimity towards others-because our compassion has to extend equally towards all sentient beings, without discrimination. Usually, we divide people mentally into different categories. We have enemies on one side, friends and relatives on another and strangers somewhere else. We react differently towards each group. We have very strong negative feelings towards our enemies-we put them way away from us and if anything bad happens to them we feel a certain satisfaction. We have an indifferent attitude towards those who are strangers-we don't care if bad or good things happen to them because to us, they don't count. But if anything happens to those near and dear to us, we are immediately affected and experience all kinds of feelings in response.

In order to balance our attitude towards people and other beings, we should understand that there is nothing fixed in terms of relationships between ourselves and others. Someone we now see as a very dear friend could become our worst enemy later on in this life or the next. Similarly, someone we regard as an enemy could become our best friend. When we take rebirth our relationships change. We may become someone of a different race or some kind of animal. There is so much uncertainty in this changing pattern of lives and futures. As we take this into consideration, we begin to realize that there's no sense in discriminating between friends and enemies. In the light of all this change we should understand that all beings should be treated equally.

As we train our minds in this way, the time will come when we feel as close to all sentient beings as we currently feel to our dearest relatives and friends. After balancing our attitude in regard to people and other beings, we will easily be able to cultivate great compassion. However, we should not confuse compassion with attachment. Some people, motivated by attachment to their own skill in helping or to the outcome of their assistance, become very close and helpful to others and think that this is compassion, but it is not. Great compassion is a quality that someone who hasn't yet entered the path of Mahayana could have. So, after cultivating compassion and bodhicitta, you should combine it with cultivating the wisdom that understands emptiness. This is known as "integrating method and wisdom" and is essential to reach the state of highest enlightenment.

I always qualify personal nirvana to differentiate it from enlightenment. In the higher practices, Theravadins cultivate a path that brings them to the state of nirvana, or liberation. These are people who are seeking personal freedom from cyclic existence. They talk about "liberation with remainder"-liberation that is attained while one still has the aggregates, the contaminated body and mind. "Liberation without remainder" means that one discards the body and then achieves the state of liberation. To attain the highest goal within the tradition of Theravada Buddhism, one has to observe pure ethics, study or listen to teachings on the practice, contemplate the teachings and then meditate on them. For those of us who are following the Mahayana tradition, however, our intention should be to do this work of enlightenment for the benefit and sake of all other sentient beings. In Mahayana Buddhist practice we also need to follow the same four steps, but we are not so much seeking our own personal goal as we are aspiring to become enlightened beings in order to be in a position to help others.


Mahayana Buddhism consists of two major categories or vehicles. The first is the Sutrayana, the Perfection Vehicle; the second is the Tantrayana, the Vajra Vehicle. In order for anyone to practice tantric Buddhism, he or she should be well prepared and should have become a suitable vessel for such teachings and practices. Sutrayana is more like an open teaching for everyone. However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Even within the Sutra Vehicle, the emptiness teachings should not be given to just anyone who asks but to only suitable recipients- those who have trained their minds to a certain point of maturity. Then, when the teachings on emptiness are given, they become truly beneficial to that person. Let's say that we have the seed of a very beautiful flower that we wish to grow. If we simply dump the seed into dry soil it is not going to germinate. This doesn't mean that there is something wrong with the seed. It's just that it requires other causes and conditions, such as fertile soil, depth and moisture in order to develop into a flower. In the same way, if a teaching on emptiness is given to someone whose mind is not matured or well-enough trained, instead of benefiting that person it could actually give them harm.

There was once a great Indian master named Drubchen Langkopa. The king of the region where he lived heard about this master and invited him to his court to give spiritual teachings. When Drubchen Langkopa responded to the king's request and gave a teaching on emptiness, the king went berserk. Although the master didn't say anything that was incorrect, the king completely misunderstood what was being taught because he wasn't spiritually prepared for it. He thought that the master was telling him that nothing existed at all. In his confusion, he decided that Drubchen Langkopa was a misleading guide and had him executed. Later on, another master was invited to the court. He gradually prepared the king for teachings on emptiness by first talking about the infallibility of the workings of the law of karmic actions and results, impermanence and so on. Finally, the king was ready to learn about emptiness as the ultimate reality and at last understood what it meant. Then he realized what a great mistake he had made in ordering the execution of the previous master.

This story tells us two things. Firstly, the teacher has to be very skillful and possess profound insight in order to teach emptiness to others. He or she needs two qualities known as "skillful means" and "wisdom." Secondly, the student needs to be ready to receive this teaching. The view of emptiness is extremely profound and is therefore hard to grasp. There are two aspects of emptiness, or selflessness -the emptiness, or selflessness, of the person and the emptiness, or selflessness, of phenomena.

People who are unprepared get scared that the teachings are actually denying the existence of everything. It sounds to them as if the teachings are rejecting the entire existence of phenomena. They don't understand that the term "emptiness" refers to the emptiness of inherent, or true, existence. They then take this misunderstanding and apply it to their own actions. They come to the conclusion that karmic actions and their results don't really exist at all and become wild and crazy, thinking that whatever makes their lives pleasurable or humorous is okay because their actions have no consequences.

Additionally, the listener's sense of ego can also become an obstacle, as the idea of emptiness can really frighten those who are not ready for it to the extent that they abandon their meditation on emptiness altogether. Buddha's teaching on emptiness is a core, or inner essence, teaching, and if for some reason we abandon it, this becomes a huge obstacle to our spiritual development. It is very important to remember that discovering the emptiness of any phenomenon is not the same as concluding that that phenomenon does not exist at all.

In his Supplement to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti describes indicative signs by which one can judge when someone is ready to learn about emptiness. He explains that just as we can assume that there is a fire because we can see smoke or that there is water because we can see water birds hovering above the land, in the same way, through certain external signs, we can infer that someone is ready to receive teachings on emptiness. Chandrakirti goes on to tell us, "When an ordinary being, on hearing about emptiness, feels great joy arising repeatedly within him and due to such joy, tears moisten his eye and the hair on his body stands up, that person has in his mind the seed for understanding emptiness and is a fit vessel to receive teachings on it."

If we feel an affinity for the teachings and are drawn towards them, it shows that we are ready. Of the external and internal signs, the internal are more important. However, if we don't have these signs, we should make strong efforts to make ourselves suitable vessels for teachings on emptiness. To do so, we need to do two things- accumulate positive energy and wisdom and purify our deluded, negative states of mind. For the sake of simplicity, we refer to these as the practices of accumulationand purification.

In order to achieve the two types of accumulation-the accumulation of merit, or positive energy, and the accumulation of insight, or wisdom -we can engage in the practice of the six perfections of generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration and wisdom. Through such practices we will be able to accumulate the merit and wisdom required for spiritual progress.

We can talk about three kinds of generosity (dana, in Sanskrit)- the giving of material things, the giving of Dharma and the giving of protection, or freedom from fear. The giving of material help is easily understood. In the Lam-rim chen-mo, Lama Tsongkhapa's great lam-rim text, we read that even if you have only a mouthful of food, you can practice material giving by sharing it with a really needy person. When we see homeless people on the streets, we often get irritated or frustrated by their presence. That is not a good attitude. Even if we can't give anything, we can at least wish that someday we will be in a position to help.

The giving of Dharma can be practiced by anyone, not just a lama. For example, when you do your daily practice with the wish to benefit others, there might be some divine beings or other invisible beings around you who are listening. So, when you dedicate your prayers to others, that is giving of Dharma, or spirituality. Somebody out there is listening; remember that. An example of giving protection would be saving somebody's life.

In his Supplement, Chandrakirti says, "They will always adopt pure ethics and observe them. They will give out of generosity, will cultivate compassion and will meditate on patience. Dedicating such virtue entirely to full awakening for the liberation of wandering beings, they pay respect to accomplished bodhisattvas." In Tibetan, ethics, or moral discipline, is called tsul-tim, which means "the mind of protection." Ethics is a state of mind that protects us from negativity and delusion. For example, when we vow not to kill any sentient being, we develop the state of mind that protects us from the negativity of killing.

In Buddhism, we find different kinds of ethics. On the highest level there are the tantric ethics-tantric vows and commitments. At the level below these are the bodhisattva's ethics, and below these are the ethics for individual emancipation-pratimoksha, in Sanskrit. If we want to practice Buddhism, then even if we have not taken the tantric or bodhisattva vows, there are still the ethics of the lay practitioner. And if we have not taken the lay vows, we must still observe the basic ethics of abandoning the ten negativities of body, speech and mind. Avoiding these ten negativities is the most basic practice of ethics. If anyone performs these ten actions, whether they are a Buddhist or not, they are committing a negativity.

There are three negativities of body-killing, stealing and indulging in sexual misconduct. There are four negativities of speech-lying, causing disharmony, using harsh language and indulging in idle gossip. There are three negativities of mind-harmful intent, covetousness and wrong, or distorted, views. When we develop the state of mind to protect ourselves from these negativities and thus cease to engage in them, we are practicing ethics. Furthermore, we must always try to keep purely any vows, ethics and commitments we have promised to keep.

In addition to these ten negativities there are also the five "boundless negativities," or heinous crimes. These are killing one's father, killing one's mother, killing an arhat, shedding the blood of an enlightened being-we use the term "shedding the blood" here because an enlightened being cannot be killed-and causing a schism in the spiritual community. These negativities are called "boundless" because after the death of anyone who has committed any of them, there is a very brief intermediate state followed immediately by rebirth directly into a bad migration such as the hell, hungry ghost or animal realms.

We have discussed generosity, ethics, patience and the need for enthusiasm and consistency in our practice. Regarding the remaining perfections of concentration and wisdom, even though we may not at present have a very high level of concentration, we do need to gain a certain amount of mental stability so that we don't indulge in negativities. We must also cultivate the perfection of wisdom, which understands the reality of emptiness. We may not yet have developed the wisdom that perceives emptiness as the ultimate nature of all phenomena, but we should begin by developing our "wisdom of discernment" so that we can differentiate between right and wrong actions and apply ourselves accordingly. All these things constitute the actual practice that can help us to attain good rebirths in future.


We know that if we create any kind of karmic action-good, bad or neutral-we will experience its results. However, this does not mean that we cannot do anything to avoid the results of actions that we have already committed. If we engage in the practice of purification we can avoid having to experience the result of an earlier negative action. Some people believe that they have created too many negative actions to be able to transform themselves, but that's not true. The Buddha said that there isn't any negativity, however serious or profound, that cannot be changed through the practice of purification. Experienced masters say that the one good thing about negativities is that they can be purified. If we don't purify our mind, we cannot really experience the altruistic mind of enlightenment or the wisdom realizing emptiness.

As we look within ourselves, we find that we are rich with delusions. There are three fundamental delusions-the "three poisons" of ignorance, attachment and anger-which give rise to innumerable other delusions; as many as 84,000 of them. So, we have a lot of work to do to purify all these delusions as well as the negative karmic actions that we have created through acting under the influence of deluded motivation.

Let me tell you a true story from the life of Lama Tsongkhapa, who is believed to have been an emanation of Manjushri, the deity of wisdom. When Lama Tsongkhapa meditated on emptiness in the assembly of monks, he would become totally absorbed and simply rest in a non-dual state as if his mind and emptiness were one. After all the other monks had left the hall, Lama Tsongkhapa would still be sitting there in meditation. At times he would check his understanding of emptiness with Manjushri through the help of a mediator, a great master called Lama Umapa. Through this master, Lama Tsongkhapa once asked Manjushri, "Have I understood the view of emptiness exactly as presented by the great Indian Master, Nagarjuna?" The answer he received was "No." Manjushri advised Lama Tsongkhapa to go with a few disciples into intensive retreat and engage in purification and accumulation practices in order to deepen his understanding of emptiness.

In accordance with Manjushri's advice, Lama Tsongkhapa took eight close students, called the "eight pure disciples," and went to a place called Wölka, more than one hundred miles east of Lhasa. There, he and his students engaged in intensive purification and accumulation practices, including many preliminary practices such as full-length prostrations and recitation of the Sutra of Confession to the Thirty-five Buddhas. Lama Tsongkhapa did as many as 350,000 prostrations and made many more mandala offerings. When making this kind of offering, you rub the base of your mandala set with your forearm. Today, mandala sets are made of silver, gold or some other metal and are very smooth, but Lama Tsongkhapa used a piece of slate as his mandala base, and as a result of all his offerings wore the skin of his forearm raw.

We have a beautiful saying in Tibet: "The life-stories of past teachers are practices for posterity." So, when we hear about the lives of our lineage masters, they are not just stories but messages and lessons for us. The masters are telling us, "This is the way I practiced and went to the state beyond suffering."

During his retreat, Lama Tsongkhapa also read the great commentary to Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamaka called Root Wisdom. Two lines of this text stood out for him-that everything that exists is characterized by emptiness and that there is no phenomenon that is not empty of inherent, or true, existence. It is said that at that very moment, Lama Tsongkhapa finally experienced direct insight into emptiness.

Some people think that emptiness isn't that difficult an insight to gain, but maybe now you can understand that it is not so easy. It is hard for many of us to sit for half an hour, even with a comfortable cushion. Those who are trained can sit for maybe forty minutes and if we manage to sit for a whole hour, we feel that it's marvelous. The great yogi Milarepa, on the other hand, did not have a cushion and sat so long that he developed calluses. This is a great teaching for us. If masters or holy beings have created any negative karmic actions, they also have to experience their results unless those actions have been purified. Even those who are nearing enlightenment still have some things to purify and need to accumulate positive energy and wisdom. If this is true even for great masters and holy beings, then it must also be true for us. We have created innumerable negative karmic actions, so we should try to purify them as much as possible. All of us-old students, new students, and myself included-need to make as much effort as we can to purify our negativities, stop creating new ones and create more positive actions. This should be our practice. Many people might be doing their best to purify the negativities they have already accumulated but feel that they are not yet ready to completely stop creating more. As a result, they naturally get involved in negativities again. This is not good. You must do your best to both purify past negativities and not create any new ones.

The practice of purification, or confession, must include the "four opponent powers," or the "four powerful antidotes." The first opponent power is the "power of contrition," or regret. If we happen to accidentally drink some poison then we really regret it because we feel so terrible. This feeling motivates us to go for treatment to detoxify our body, but we also make a kind of commitment or determination not to make that same mistake again. So, we also need to generate what is known as the "power of resolution"-the firm determination not to repeat the negativity.

The other two opponent powers are the "power of the object of reliance" and the "power of the application of antidotes." Taking refuge in the Three Jewels and generating the altruistic mind of enlightenment constitutes the power of reliance. Cultivating any general or specific meditation practice (such as meditation on the equality of self and others) constitutes the power of the application of the antidote. There is no negativity that can stand up to these four opponent powers.

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.


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


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 Four: The Second Point - The Actual Practice,Training in Bodhicitta

For practitioners of great scope, the main point is the method of meditating on or practicing bodhicitta—the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. What does this mean? Bodhicitta is a primary mind associated with two aspirations— the first, its cause, is what we practice to generate bodhicitta, the aspiration to benefit all sentient beings; the second, which accompanies and is similar to bodhicitta, is the aspiration to achieve enlightenment.

So, bodhicitta is a primary mind accompanied by the aspiration for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. There are three kinds of enlightenment—those of the hearer, solitary realizer and bodhisattva. Bodhicitta aspires to the highest form of enlightenment, that of the bodhisattva—the great, or Mahayana, enlightenment. When we understand that bodhicitta is the aspiration to attain the highest kind of enlightenment and that hearers and solitary realizers do not have it, we should feel strongly motivated to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings because of the many unbearable sufferings they experience within cyclic existence.

We should also recognize that we are impermanent, changing from moment to moment, and must eventually leave this life, as we cannot stay here forever. Furthermore, when we do leave this life, even though we might have accumulated enough wealth and possessions to completely fill the whole Earth, we can take absolutely nothing with us and have to leave it all behind. Even if we have a huge family with hundreds of thousands of relatives, we will have to relinquish them all; not one can accompany us. Even this body, which we have inhabited since we entered our mother’s womb and have taken so much care of all our life, will not help us but will be left behind. Understanding all this should encourage us to practice and try to generate bodhicitta right away.

Of course, generating bodhicitta will not protect us from death, but if we do generate this attitude—or even if we simply practice it—we will not die a normal death; we will die with joy. That’s the difference bodhicitta makes. Normally, as we age, we find it difficult to stand up—we have to haul ourselves up on a stick or push against something solid—and when we sit down we just flop down into the chair. It’s difficult to do anything. But if we have developed bodhicitta, we’ll at least know that death is going to bring us a nice new body and will feel very positive about dying.

I speak from personal experience about the suffering of old age. I tell you, if you went to bed one night and woke up the next morning old, with all its attendant sufferings, you’d find it totally unbearable. However, the special sufferings of old age creep up on us gradually, and those who have had plenty of positive experiences from practicing bodhicitta are quite happy to die because it’s a chance to get rid of their rubbishy old body and move into one in which it will be much easier to practice. People who die without having practiced Dharma feel very afraid.

There are two kinds of bodhicitta—conventional and ultimate. Certain earlier presentations of how to generate it explained how to develop ultimate bodhicitta first and then moved on to conventional bodhicitta, but some recent masters have said that this is incorrect and that instead we should begin with conventional bodhicitta and then practice the ultimate. This is the order of the version presented here; the tradition that put ultimate bodhicitta first was taught for practitioners of extremely sharp intellect.

The training in conventional bodhicitta is explained here principally by way of the technique of equalizing and exchanging self and others. The other method, the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, is partly relevant, but equalizing and exchanging self and others is what is mainly explained. In his Compendium of Training, Shantideva says that our bodhicitta will be much firmer if we develop it by practicing equalizing and exchanging self and others from the outset.

Equalizing self and others

What exactly does equalizing self and others mean? Specifically, what is it that is supposed to be equalized? For example, is it that self and others are equal in being selfless, lacking in self-existence? Although this is true, it’s not what is meant here. Is it that self and others are equal in suffering in cyclic existence? Again, although this is true as well, neither is that our focus here. Perhaps the meaning is that self and others are equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering? The answer here is yes, self and others are indeed the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, and this is what we are talking about here.

When we talk about equalizing self and others in order to generate bodhicitta, what we mean by the equality of self and others is that we all want happiness and none of us wants suffering.

Since time without beginning we have harbored the selfish attitude that continually makes us afraid of getting cold, hungry, thirsty and so forth or suffering in other ways. We always worry about what will happen to us. This continual worry is the selfishness that’s called the self-cherishing mind—the tendency to focus on our own happiness while neglecting the welfare and needs of others—and we have been under its influence since beginningless time.

Exchanging self and others means switching these two so that instead of being primarily concerned about our own happiness we become more concerned for that of others, and instead of neglecting others we neglect ourselves and strive for enlightenment for their benefit.

There is a connection between the self-cherishing mind and self-grasping, or grasping at true existence. The self-grasping mind is the actual root, or fundamental cause, of all samsaric suffering but it is very closely followed by the self-cherishing mind, which arises on the basis of self-grasping and itself serves as the basis for all the other delusions.

There are said to be 84,000 delusions, each of which arises as a result of the self-cherishing mind. Motivated by these delusions, we engage in harmful actions such as the ten non-virtuous actions, 9  the five immediate negativities 10 and other kinds of negative activity and, as a karmic consequence of doing so, have to undergo all kinds of unbearable suffering.

Thus the very root, the fundamental cause, of all our delusions, negative minds and suffering is self-grasping, the mind that thinks we are completely self-existent, inherently-existent; that we exist in a way that is totally independent of any causes or conditions, utterly independent of anything.

And if self-grasping is the king, then self-cherishing is his most powerful minister, the one who tries to achieve all kinds of objectives on his behalf. Selfishness itself does not conceive of or believe in the self as existing from its own side because that is not its job. However, the selfish mind does act as a protector or helper for the self that is conceived of by self-grasping as existing from its own side.

In order to get nice things for the self, self-cherishing causes us to develop attachment; to protect the self from harm, self-cherishing causes us to generate anger; in other situations it stimulates jealousy, pride and other delusions. Then, by following these negative minds, we engage in negative actions, create negative karma and suffer. Thus selfishness is just like a minister that the king can order around to get whatever he wants done.

Therefore, we should think repeatedly about how self-cherishing creates all our suffering and problems until we see it as our main enemy. Then, instead of allowing selfishness, whose main aim is our own happiness, to lead us around by the nose, we should switch everything around and start thinking about how we can benefit others, how their happiness is more important than our own.

If we think about it correctly we can easily understand how important others are and how all our happiness and fortune definitely and completely depend on them.

I mentioned before that one way of developing bodhicitta is through the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, which, based on equanimity, is as follows:

(a) recognizing that all beings have been our mother,

(b) recollecting their kindness as mother,

(c) thinking how to repay their kindness,

(d) developing love,

(e) developing compassion,

(f) generating the special intention of benefiting all beings by oneself alone, and then

(g) generating bodhicitta itself.

The only way we can gain these realizations is by depending on others.

Likewise, the only way we can develop the six perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm, concentration and wisdom is by depending on others. Take, for example, the practice of generosity, the mind wanting to give away all our possessions and even our body in order to benefit others. Obviously we can do this only in dependence upon others; it is only thanks to them that we can develop a generous mind.

Then there’s morality, which means abandoning the ten non-virtuous actions—killing, stealing, lying and so forth. Abandoning killing means giving up taking the lives of others; we can do this only by depending upon others; again, it is only thanks to them that we can do it. Similarly, we abandon stealing by regarding others as important and therefore not taking their possessions; it is only thanks to others that we can do this, too. The same applies to all other beneficial qualities of mind—we can develop them only through the kindness of others.

We should think, therefore, that we must definitely attain the state of complete enlightenment as soon as possible for the sake of all sentient beings, and for that reason determine to spend all our time from now on working towards that goal without wasting even a moment. We must resolve to practice like this in particular for whatever remains of this life—studying, thinking, meditating and practicing as well as we can—especially this year, this month, this week and particularly this day. We must generate the strong determination to not waste time but spend every moment practicing whatever we have to do to attain enlightenment as quickly as possible.

Meditation on equalizing self and others is done by way of nine reasons, of which six work on the conventional level and three on the ultimate. With respect to the six conventional ones, three relate to self and three to others. This is how we should meditate on the equality of self and others.11

The shortcomings of self-cherishing

The fourth paragraph of the text says,

Banish the one to blame for everything,
Meditate on the great kindness of all beings.

The first line means that we should blame the self-cherishing mind for all our negative experiences. Why? Because every problem and fault we experience is a result of our own selfishness. Therefore we should blame ourselves for every unpleasant experience that befalls us, no matter how bad it is; we should grab hold of our own selfish mind and view it as the culprit.

As the great Shantideva wrote in his Guide,

All the suffering in the world
Comes from the desire for one’s own happiness.12

Every problem we experience comes from wanting and thinking of only our own happiness; all our suffering—everything that goes wrong, every kind of fault, everything fearful or unpleasant and all violence—comes from this selfish mind. Furthermore, it all comes equally from the self-grasping mind that conceives everything to exist from its own side.

Shantideva then compares selfishness to an extremely harmful spirit that continuously harms us.

If all the harm, fear and suffering in the world
Occur due to grasping onto the self,
What use is that great demon to me?13

Thus we’re encouraged to ask ourselves, “Why do I hang on to this selfish mind, which is such a harmful entity?”

As the Indian master Padampa Sangye told the people of Tingri, where he had decided to stay because he felt he could help them, whenever things go wrong we always blame others but we should instead point the finger of blame at ourselves, where the root of all problems lies.14

And, as the mind training text The Wheel-Weapon Mind Training says, if we develop this understanding it is marvelous, because by so doing we identify the real enemy that continuously gives us harm—beginning, middle and end. It says, “So now I’ve identified you, you thief.”15

But self-cherishing is not the ordinary kind of thief, who robs people by beating them up and forcibly taking their possessions. Self-cherishing is the type of thief that sneaks in surreptitiously at night and steals on the sly.

The Wheel-Weapon also says, “So now I’ve understood you for what you are, you unfaithful friend!”16 From the point of view of our own selfishness it seems to be our greatest friend, but in practice it does nothing but trick and deceive us. The selfish mind creates all the suffering we experience in this life, such as people being horrible to us, hitting and attacking us with weapons, but more especially, it is the cause of all the unbearable sufferings we’re going to experience in the lower realms in our future lives.

As Shantideva also said, look at the difference between the buddhas and ordinary worldly people like ourselves.17 Because we have not yet discarded our selfishness, we are still suffering here in cyclic existence, not even free from rebirth in the lower realms. Even arhats, who have completely transcended the suffering of cyclic existence, have reached only a limited degree of perfection because they have not relinquished their selfishness. They have not devoted themselves to benefiting others; therefore they have not been able to achieve the state of full enlightenment.

The Buddha, on the other hand, gave up all selfishness and totally devoted himself to benefiting others. As a result, he reached a state of complete freedom from suffering and to this day remains incredibly beneficial to and highly regarded by many beings. By seeing the difference between him and us, we will understand how important it is also to renounce the selfish mind and totally devote ourselves to benefiting others.

Originally, the Buddha was exactly the same as us. When water is boiling, the water on the top goes to the bottom and the water on the bottom comes up to the top, and it keeps on going round like that. Similarly, in many previous lives we were together with the Buddha—sometimes as best friends, sometimes as worst enemies, all the time changing, changing, changing. Then, unlike us, at a certain point he decided to enter the path by renouncing selfishness and devoting himself to others, and kept on developing spiritually until he attained enlightenment.

The kindness of all sentient beings

Furthermore, Shantideva pointed out that everything good—every form of happiness, all positive qualities and so forth—comes through the kindness of others. Therefore, the mind devoted to their welfare is like a wish-fulfilling jewel, the source of all happiness and everything good and useful in the world. Just as a farmer who possesses an extremely fertile field, where everything he plants always grows, is very happy to have it and cherishes and takes great care of it, we should feel the same way about other sentient beings—that they are extremely valuable, and cherish and take care of them.

It is interesting that, whether we are Buddhist or not, if we think about the great kindness of all beings it will be evident that all our happiness does indeed depend upon them.

It is also said that the buddhas and sentient beings are equally kind. The buddhas’ kindness is obvious—through following their teachings and advice we can attain enlightenment. However, we do so only by meditating on love, compassion, bodhicitta, the six perfections, the four means of taking care of disciples and so forth, and doing these practices obviously depends upon others. Therefore, they and the buddhas are equally kind and it is wrong to dismiss sentient beings while holding the buddhas in great esteem.

This does not mean that we should make prostrations, offerings, prayers and requests to sentient beings to be able to generate realizations and so forth but that they and the buddhas are equally important and kind in the genesis of our happiness and we should therefore appreciate and respect them both equally.

Having understood that all happiness, especially the many qualities we are trying to develop on the Mahayana path to enlightenment, results from the kindness of not just the buddhas but also all sentient beings, from this point on we should always remember how all beings are kind. This is what “meditate on the great kindness of all beings” means.

When we think about self and others, self refers to just the one person whereas others are utterly uncountable. Nevertheless, we normally take tremendous care of that one self and basically ignore most of the others. If we think about the difference in numbers here, it seems disgraceful to ignore the numberless in favor of just the one whereas neglecting the one in favor of the countless others doesn’t seem so bad.

As soon as we start meditating on all beings as most kind, even though we can concentrate on love and compassion—wanting all beings to be happy and free from suffering—for only a very short time, it is still a very powerful way of building up an extraordinary amount of merit. That’s why meditation on qualities such as love and compassion is so valuable.

Of course, it is inevitable and to be expected that we beginners meditating on the kindness of all sentient beings will occasionally create negative karma by getting angry at some of them, therefore we also need to know how to purify immediately any negativity we create.

According to the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, above, when we meditate on the four immeasurables, which include love—wishing all beings to be happy—and compassion—wishing them to be free from suffering—and on bodhicitta—the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings—we start by recognizing all beings as having been our mother, recollecting their kindness and resolving to repay this kindness, and then go on to meditate on love, compassion, the special intention and finally the mind of bodhicitta itself. All these recognitions and qualities arise through the kindness of others because it is only by meditating on others that we can generate them.

Once we have entered the path to enlightenment we develop it further by practicing the six perfections and so forth. Again, each of these depends on the kindness of others. When we finally achieve enlightenment we spend all our time benefiting others because of the strength of our compassion, which cannot bear to see or ignore others’ suffering. So again, even when we become buddha, all our enlightened activity depends upon others and their kindness.

A mother’s kindness

Simply by looking at our present life we can see the kindness of others. From conception we were completely reliant on our mother’s kindness for survival. For the nine months we were in her womb she underwent many difficulties carrying us and then faced the hardships of giving us birth. Then, when we were very small, there was no way we could look after ourselves—we were always in danger of falling or getting hurt in various other ways, and when we got a bit bigger we were again in danger of running into traffic, falling from high places and so forth.

Parents constantly have to think about their children, protect them from danger and work to feed and educate them and so forth. Thus when we were small we completely depended on the kindness of our parents for everything.

This is also true for animals. We can see how ducks and geese, for example, look after their young—and while there is actually very little they can do to protect them from predators they will nevertheless defend them with their lives.

As we get older and go to school, our education depends upon the kindness of our teachers and our fun depends upon the kindness of the other children we play with. Later on, when we get married, start a family, live together and so forth, our enjoyment of all this going smoothly and happily depends upon our partner and the other members of our family. And when we become old and find it difficult to sit or stand and can’t cook or take care of ourselves properly, we again need somebody to look after us.

Thus, it’s clear that from the beginning of our life to its end, even our mundane happiness depends entirely upon the kindness of others, and not only the kindness of other human beings—we use animals’ bodies for food, shoes and clothing and so forth and they keep us company, protect us and help us in our work. Therefore we should also appreciate the kindness of animals.

With respect to other kinds of food, consider how grain used for food starts off in dependence on the kindness of others. Somebody plants the seeds in a field; somebody tills the earth; somebody removes the weeds; many people harvest the crop and make it ready to cook; others mill the flour and make bread; somebody else prepares our rice. Thus everything we eat depends on the kindness of the many others who bring it to us. Furthermore, the roads that bring us our food and help us get from place to place were built by the hard work of many people.

We might think that we paid for all this, but where did we get the money? It came from our job, but we only got that because somebody gave it to us.

Therefore, all we have comes from the kindness of others. We came into this world completely naked, without a stitch of clothing or anything in our hands. All we have accumulated since then has come from others.

We must reflect from our own experience on all the other ways in which others have been kind to us. The more we think about this, the more embarrassed we’ll be at thinking of ourselves as important and precious, and the more we’ll realize that in fact it is others who are important and precious. If we don’t think deeply about all this, it won’t make much sense, but if we want to follow the spiritual path we must develop this awareness. Meditating on the kindness of others is priceless.

Giving and taking

The next line of the text says,

Practice a combination of giving and taking.

This means that we should alternate giving and taking [Tib: tong-len]. I’ve been talking about the kindness of others—the more we think about this the more we’ll realize the extent of their suffering and will come to think that it’s so terrible that we must do something about it. Eventually we’ll feel compelled to take their suffering on ourselves and give them our happiness. This is what giving and taking means—giving happiness to all beings and taking on all their suffering—and we practice it in an attempt to destroy our self-cherishing mind.

We might think that since the suffering of others does not hurt us, why even consider taking it on? In response, the commentary reminds us that even in their dreams all beings want happiness and do not want suffering.

We might also think that while it is true that we all want happiness and freedom from suffering, nevertheless, the best thing is simply to take care of our own happiness and eliminate our own suffering. Moreover, we might wonder whether it is even possible to give happiness to others and alleviate their suffering, arguing that, since each of us has our own individual mind stream, we can of course create happiness in and remove suffering from our own mind, but how can we possibly do this for others? After all, their minds are completely separate from ours; surely they must be responsible for creating their own happiness and eliminating their own suffering?

While it is true that our minds are separate, it still makes sense that one person can help another find happiness and freedom from suffering. For example, a mother and her child are responsible for helping each other find happiness and eliminate problems. Now, we might argue that even though mother and child have different mindstreams, because they are so close and have great affection for one another it’s possible to talk of their doing this but not other sentient beings. The answer is that although it is true that in this life we have only one mother and father and don’t have that special connection with other sentient beings, before this life there was a previous one, and before that there was another, and before that another and so on—in fact, there is no beginning to the lives we have had in cyclic existence.

Furthermore, in many of those lives we were born from a womb, just as we were in this one, and if we think deeply about this we will see that every single living being has been our mother and father and has therefore been extremely kind to us. Through reflecting on the kindness of our present mother and father we should understand that in past lives, when other beings were our parents, they were similarly kind and affectionate towards us. Perhaps they were even kinder, sometimes even giving up their very life for our sake.

Thus all sentient beings have helped us in countless ways and saved us from innumerable harms and have even given their life for us on numberless occasions. However, the selfish mind says that while all this might be true, it happened so long ago that it’s all forgotten by now. Moreover, it also says that many of these beings have actually done their best to harm us as much as they can, so caring for all beings is out of the question.

However, the commentary points out that it is only our own selfishness that is raising these objections and denying the need to think so much about others and describes this way of thinking as a debate between selfishness and the altruistic mind dedicated to benefiting others. It’s like a dramatization, which is actually how to reflect and meditate. It discusses potential objections our mind might raise when we think about these issues, several of which will ring true to our experience. When the selfish mind comes up with these objections we have to find a way to respond.

For instance, when the selfish mind asserts that many other people are intent on harming us, the altruistic mind retorts that this is unreasonable because since beginningless time, over countless lifetimes in cyclic existence, others have been extremely kind to us. We cannot possibly measure how kind they have all been or count how many times they have protected and helped us. They have shown us this kindness since beginningless time and now, because of some minor problem, we’re branding certain people worst enemies undeserving of help. This is completely unreasonable and we should be ashamed of ourselves for even thinking it. Don’t we feel even a little embarrassed by our reaction?

Our ways of thinking and behaving are profoundly ignorant and particularly unpleasant because they completely disregard the untold help we have received and merely remember the little harm. It’s as if our parents, having taken care of us all our life, have become old and sick and gone into hospital and then said just one unpleasant thing to us, and we have reacted with anger and attacked them. If our family and friends would come to know how we have completely forgotten our parents’ kindness and reacted with hatred just because of this one comment they would be disgusted at our behavior.

Moreover, we may wonder why we meditate on the kindness of others and take on their suffering because neither we nor they seem to be affected by this practice. To this we can reply that of course no immediately visible, direct effects arise from such practice, any more than they do when we make offerings, prostrations and so forth to the buddhas, which also bring no immediate result. It is different when we give food or drink to those who are hungry or thirsty because such actions bring immediate benefit. But when we do this, do we really experience no benefit? Do we ourselves derive no benefit at all? We might feel that we do not benefit personally from giving to others in this way, at least not directly or immediately, but that doesn’t mean there’s no result at all. Likewise, if we see no immediate, visible result from practicing morality, does that mean that moral conduct has no benefit at all?

With respect to the karma created by various actions, some actions bring results in this life, some in the next and certain others in a more distant future life. Therefore, the altruistic mind has to respond to the selfish mind’s objection above by saying, “You are rather stupid in failing to recognize that the good you do might not bring immediate results. For example, farmers plant various kinds of seed, some of which ripen that very year, others the following year and some only several years later. The fact that they don’t all bring immediate results doesn’t stop the farmer from planting them.”

Likewise, when we try to generate, meditate on and practice bodhicitta, we don’t necessarily experience immediate, visible results like those of eating when we’re hungry, but nevertheless, the future good results that will eventually ripen are endless.

Just as when we see a high quality crop we can infer that its seeds must have been excellent, in the same way, when we see any good result we can confidently infer that it must have had a good cause. The principle that good results must be preceded by good causes applies to the state of enlightenment itself.

The exalted state of enlightenment—in which all good qualities are fully developed and from which all faults and obscurations are totally absent—is a good result. We can therefore infer that it must have been preceded by many good causes, such as the practice of the six perfections and the four means of taking care of disciples and so forth, and we can speak of all such practices along the path, over an extremely long period of time, as the good causes that bring the great result of enlightenment.

Thus we can see that by using our wisdom and intelligence to understand the difference between right and wrong and gradually working at eliminating wrong, harmful states of mind and actions and developing correct, beneficial ones, over time, we can attain enlightenment. Once we have done so we will be able to benefit many, many beings extensively—ripen on the path those not yet ripened, liberate those not liberated and completely free from all obscurations those not yet free. How will we be able to do that? How do enlightened beings do that? While on the path they gradually develop the mind wanting to benefit others, practice actions beneficial to others and abandon all thoughts and actions harmful to others, thereby gradually acquiring the power to attain the omniscient mind of a buddha.

That is the ultimate result, but the benefits of the actions that bring it are not seen immediately, unlike those of eating and drinking to get rid of hunger and thirst. In response to this, the selfish mind might reply, “That’s OK, ultimately there might be such a result, but for the time being I’m not interested in trying to benefit all sentient beings because it’s evident that however much I look at it, I see little benefit to either my body or my mind.”

However, this thought is also a mistake because, even in the short term, there are many benefits from helping others and not harming them. When we live trying to be as helpful to others as we can and avoiding aggressive, negative mental attitudes and actions towards them, our companions and the people with whom we live really appreciate us because our behavior makes them happy and we in turn enjoy being appreciated, popular and well-liked.

Although the selfish mind does not understand and appreciate all this, the buddhas, bodhisattvas and other holy beings do. Similarly, those of us who are trying to develop, practice and meditate on love, compassion and so forth also understand and appreciate it, as do the people with whom we spend our lives, as I’ve just said. Even strangers with whom we’ve just come into contact will appreciate and take a liking to us. They feel something right away, just as we immediately feel uncomfortable and afraid the moment we encounter a vicious, violent person, even somebody we’ve never seen before, or a scorpion or poisonous snake.

The selfish mind might further object that there’s no point in meditating on love or compassion because there’s no direct personal physical or mental benefit. The reply to this is, “Normally you, the selfish mind, say all sorts of unpleasant things to people—perhaps you should give up doing this because it harms neither their bodies nor their minds; so why bother? Moreover, you are normally so full of malevolent thoughts and covetousness towards others—perhaps you should give these thoughts up as well; since they neither help nor harm anybody directly, physically or mentally, just forget them.” It’s only when you take action on the basis of your ill will or covetousness that you actually harm others physically, so since those attitudes themselves neither harm nor help others directly, why not just drop them?

Such objections can arise when we think deeply about the various disadvantages of the selfish mind and begin to gain experience in this area. One lama explored this issue in his writings and, although it wasn’t in relation to the text we’re studying here, I’ll use what he said to illustrate the following point. Debating with the selfish mind about these things until it has nothing left to say is extremely helpful.

To continue the argument, then, the selfish mind objects: “I don’t want to practice altruism or give up selfishness because doing so has no direct benefit.” The reply to this is that we readily accept the benefits of saving money and other things for our old age but since doing so has no direct or immediate benefit us, why bother? Similarly, if we get a thorn in our foot, our hand removes it; since this does not benefit our hand in any way, why should it bother to help the foot?

If we do not abandon selfishness and devote ourselves to the happiness and welfare of others we will never achieve the perfect happiness of enlightenment and will forever be stuck with changeable, unreliable kinds of happiness.

How to practice giving and taking

The text then goes on to say,

Giving and taking should be practiced alternately.

First we were told to practice a combination of giving and taking; now we’re being told to practice them alternately. Finally,

And you should begin by taking from yourself.

Thus these two lines tell us how to practice giving and taking, the second being for those of us who lack the courage to practice taking in its fullest form—taking on all suffering of all beings—straight away. We build up to it gradually by taking on our own suffering first. How do we do this?

We can start by meditating each morning on taking on, in advance, the suffering we’re going to experience that day. On that basis we gradually build up to taking on the suffering of the next day as well, then the day after that, and so on until we’re able to take on all the suffering of this life and finally, the suffering of all our future lives.

Once we can do this we extend the taking to all our friends and relatives, then gradually build up to include all the people to whom we feel neutral, those who are neither friends nor enemies, and when we’ve mastered that we add in our enemies, those who harm us, thus extending our practice to include all sentient beings. Of course, if we have the courage and strength of mind to practice this most difficult technique from the outset we don’t need to train our mind in the gradual method that begins with taking on our own suffering first.

Briefly, in a simplified way, the meditation on taking is as follows.

Reflect on the six realms of cyclic existence: the hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, demigod and god realms.18

Within the hell realm lie the hot and cold hells. The hot hells have eight levels with progressively increasing suffering, as do the cold hells. After the first level, the second has more suffering, the third still more, and so on. Then there are the surrounding hells like the hell of the shalmali tree, the swamps of rotting corpses and so forth, and then the temporary hells as well. However, the main sufferings that we take from the hell beings are those of the intense heat and cold they endure.

The worst sufferings in all of cyclic existence are those of the hell beings. The hungry ghosts experience slightly less and the animals’ sufferings are somewhat less again. The principal sufferings that the hungry ghosts undergo are those of hunger and thirst; they can go millions of years without finding even a gob of spit to eat.

With respect to the animals, if we look at those who live among us, especially in the West compared to Asia, they seem quite well cared for. Sometimes it can look as if pet dogs and cats, and even livestock, have an enjoyable life. They get a pleasant place to sleep and their food is prepared for them; it’s often better than that of humans in many parts of the world. The animals that live among us—pets, livestock and so forth—are referred to as “scattered animals” and compared to other animals actually suffer less than the majority, who live in the oceans.

Nowadays films give us a glimpse of how sea creatures live in water teeming with different species of fish; thousands, even millions, of different creatures living there together. They have more suffering than most land animals.

The general suffering of animals is that of not being aware and of eating and being eaten by each other. The big ones prey on the smaller ones or sometimes the smaller ones gang up on the big ones and kill and eat them instead. This goes on all the time and causes great suffering.

When taking suffering from humans, think about the three, six or eight sufferings. For example, the eight include the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness, and death; of not being able to get what we want; of being separated from things and people we love; of all sorts of unwanted unpleasant things happening to us; and of our physical and mental aggregates, which are under the control of delusion and karma.

The main suffering of the demigods is that of fighting. Out of jealousy, they constantly fight with the gods, who eat the fruit of a tree whose roots are in the realm of the demigods but ripens in the realm of the gods.

The gods live for millions and millions of years, enjoying themselves greatly, experiencing extraordinary pleasure with their divine friends, but at the end of their lives, a week before they die, they hear a sound like an announcement in space, telling them that they will die on such and such a day. From that point on their splendor fades, they start to smell and their friends no longer want to come anywhere near them. Furthermore, they become aware that they have exhausted their merit and will soon be reborn in the lower realms.

Therefore, in that final week of their lives, they experience dreadful suffering, which is made more intense by seeing that all their pleasure is coming to an end and that they are about to experience great suffering. Moreover, even though a week might not sound like much, a week in the life of a god is like billions of years in the human realm.

The three lower realms are called bad realms because their inhabitants create nothing but bad actions and experience only bad results, while the three upper realms are called good realms because their inhabitants experience good results of good actions.19

When we practice tong-len 20 we begin by imagining the hell realms, thinking about the terrible sufferings the hell beings experience, and visualize taking it all on, completely relieving them of it all. Once we have done this we imagine giving the hell beings all our possessions, happiness and merit, the receipt of which brings each hell being to complete enlightenment. We then gradually work our way up in a similar manner through the other realms.

The way to practice taking is to concentrate on our breath and imagine that the sufferings of the beings in the particular realm we’re focusing on leave through their right nostril and enter us through our right. Visualizing our selfish-cherishing mind as a dense blackness at our heart chakra in the center of our chest, the sufferings we inhale descend dissolve into it, completely destroying this selfish mind.

The way to practice giving is to imagine sending out through our left nostril our entire body and all our possessions, happiness and merit from the past, present and future to each and every sentient being in the realm we’re focusing on. All this enters their left nostril, as a result of which they develop all the realizations on the path and become fully enlightened.

After taking on all the sufferings of the hell beings and using them to harm our selfish mind and then giving them all our happiness and so forth, bringing them to complete enlightenment, we move on to the hungry ghosts. We likewise take all their suffering from their right nostril into our right nostril; it too dissolves into and destroys our self-cherishing mind. We then send out all our happiness, merit and so forth through our left nostril; it enters their left nostril and brings them to enlightenment.

When giving, we should feel as if we’re turning on a light in a dark place. It might have been dark for thousands or even millions of years, but no matter how long the darkness has been there, as soon as we turn on the light it’s immediately dispelled. In the same way, when we send our happiness and merit from our left nostril into the beings in the realm we’re focusing on, even though all their obscurations and so forth might have been there for a long time, they are totally eliminated and those beings are established in the state of complete enlightenment.

Thus, we gradually go through this process with all six types of sentient beings up to the gods, taking on their suffering, using it to destroy our selfish mind.

We can sometimes add another visualization to this practice: after bringing all beings to enlightenment we receive back through our left nostril the blessings of their enlightened body, speech and mind. These blessings completely eliminate our self-grasping mind—which resides in our heart and has always believed that everything exists from its own side, independent of all causes and conditions—like switching on a light instantly dispels darkness from a room or a powerful jet of water immediately sweeps away a pile of dirt.

Meditating like this is a way of taking action. Instead of merely generating the aspirational love that wishes all beings to be happy and the compassion that wishes them all to be free from suffering, by practicing tong-len we’re actively doing something that creates an extremely powerful, positive force within us.

Again, the selfish mind will raise arguments against this practice: “It’s just too tiring and difficult,” “What’s the point? It benefits neither others nor myself” and so forth. The objection that it does not benefit us is easily refuted: it clearly strengthens our love and compassion and when we engage in this practice we can see that it creates a tremendous positive force in our mind.

With respect to the objection that this practice does not help others in any way either, once more the selfish mind is considering that the only way to help others is directly; for example, by giving them food or drink when they are hungry or thirsty. It’s true that tong-len does not benefit others in that way but there are many ways in which we do benefit beings through this meditation, albeit neither directly nor immediately.

Anyway, although helpful, the benefits of giving food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty are very limited. Tong-len, by contrast, is incredibly beneficial because it is only through practicing it and similar meditations that we can become enlightened, and when we do we’ll be able to benefit numberless beings in a single moment. So, looking further ahead, the practice of this meditation offers enormous benefits to both ourselves and others.

With respect to alternating taking and giving, if meditating on taking makes you feel uncomfortable and you can’t handle the idea of taking on the evil actions, bad karma and negativities of others, you can leave that part out and just do the giving. Imagine all your merit, good qualities and so forth leaving you in the form of white light, going to all sentient beings, entering them and purifying them of all their delusions and negative karma. Imagine that all this is completely purified, washed out and cleansed, leaving their body in the form of frogs, scorpions, all kinds of other insects and dirty liquid and completely disappearing into the ground.

Actually, when taking, there’s no reason to feel that you’re being polluted because all the negativity, bad karma and obscurations you take is poured onto your selfish mind, thereby reducing its power. So you shouldn’t feel that it’s polluting you. It’s like peacocks eating poison— it doesn’t harm them but actually enhances the brilliance of the colors in their feathers.

The text continues,

These two should be made to ride on the breath.

The two referred to here are taking and giving. Although the text says “giving [tong] and taking [len],” the actual order in which we practice is taking and giving. We first take on their suffering and then give them happiness because while sentient beings are suffering, happiness is of little immediate use to them. Therefore we take away their suffering first and then give them happiness.

When we have had some experience in this meditation we combine it with our breath. Since we are always breathing, when we breathe in we imagine we’re inhaling all others’ suffering and when we exhale we imagine that we’re sending them all our happiness and so forth on our breath, as described above.

When Khädrub-je, one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s main disciples, praised him for being so helpful to others that even his breath helped them, he was referring to this practice, where high level practitioners can combine even their normal breathing with taking and giving.

Concerning the three objects, three poisons and three virtues,

The three objects are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral objects, the three poisons are attachment, aversion and ignorance and the three virtues are the opposites of the three poisons.

For example, when we come into contact with pleasant objects we experience pleasure and as a result generate attachment to those objects. When we come into contact with unpleasant objects we generate hatred, anger or aversion. And when we come into contact with neutral objects we generate a kind of neutral mental stupidity in relation to them.

It’s the same in our relationships with people. We feel attached to our friends, hatred for our enemies and, towards neutral people, “strangers,” our normal ignorance simply continues unabated. If whenever we notice these delusions arising in our mind we can think to ourselves, “May all the attachment, hatred and ignorance that sentient beings experience ripen on me,” we generate the three virtues.

The instruction to be followed, in short,
Is to be mindful of the practice in general,
By taking these words to heart in all activities.

In brief, the way to practice is to constantly remind ourselves of these instructions in all activities, which we can do by always remembering and reciting the words of Nagarjuna mentioned before,21

May the negativity and suffering of others ripen on me
And may all my virtue and happiness ripen on them.

Just as an old person needs to lean on a stick to move around, similarly, reciting words such as these helps remind us of the main points of the Mahayana mind training and keeps us going. By leaning on these words we can remember to practice taking and giving in all our daily activities.

So far this has been a commentary on the section of the text that explains how to meditate on conventional bodhicitta—how to generate the determination to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. There are two methods for developing bodhicitta: the sevenfold cause and effect instruction and equalizing and exchanging self and others. This has been a brief explanation of the latter, making some basic points about equalizing and exchanging self and others.

Ultimate Bodhicitta

Now let’s look at the next section of the root text.

When stability has been attained, impart the secret teaching:

Stability refers to the method side.22 When we have gained stability in the practices of conventional bodhicitta our teacher can give us the highly secret teaching on ultimate bodhicitta.

Ultimate bodhicitta refers to the direct realization of emptiness, so explaining it means explaining emptiness, which here means that everything is empty of true, or inherent, existence. Nothing is truly existent; everything is empty of true existence. That is the emptiness that we must realize.

Generally speaking, all phenomena that exist can be classified as either mind, which knows objects, or objects, which are known by the mind.

The next line of the text says,

Consider all phenomena as like dreams

When external objects appear to our mind, even though they appear to be truly existent, self-existent, existing from their own side, this is not at all the case. Therefore they are likened to dreams, which also seem to be real at the time but are seen to be unreal on awakening.

Both outer and inner objects are actually empty, but still, everything appears to be truly existent. However, if something were truly existent, if it truly existed the way in which it appears, it would have to be completely independent of anything.

For example, external objects like mountains, trees and forests are simply combinations of different particles or atoms; periods of time, such as years, months, weeks and so forth, are likewise combinations of moments. Therefore, none of these things—external objects, time or anything else—is independent of its constituent particles, periods of time and other factors. To be truly existent they would have to be completely independent of everything else.

When we talk about something being truly existent that means it’s independent of everything else. But since there’s nothing like that, there’s nothing that’s truly existent. The reason that there’s nothing completely independent, or truly existent, is because everything exists in dependence upon other factors.

Take a glass of water, for example. When we think about it, of course we know that it is dependent upon this and that, such as the various causes and conditions that have gone into producing it. If, however, instead of thinking about it we examine how it looks when it first appears to us, we’ll see that it has this vivid appearance, an appearance as if it were totally independent of any causes, conditions or, indeed, anything at all. That is how the glass of water appears—truly existent; completely independent of everything else; totally self-existent (which are just different ways of saying the same thing).

If the glass of water were truly existent the way it appears to be, it would have to be completely independent, but when we think about it we know that it depends on many different factors and is therefore not truly existent, independent or self-existent—and neither is anything else we can think of. Since this applies to everything that exists, all existent phenomena are empty of true existence.

Examine the nature of unborn awareness.

This next line refers to the fact that not only its objects but also the mind itself is empty of true existence. Mind, here, refers to the six kinds of primary consciousness—visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental; all completely lack any true existence.

Where it says “unborn awareness,” awareness refers to consciousness. Consciousness itself is produced in dependence upon causes and conditions and is therefore not truly existent. That means a truly existent consciousness is not produced, so a truly existent consciousness is unborn.

You can understand this by examining its very nature of being completely empty of independent existence. This shows that it is neither truly existent nor produced by or dependent upon truly existent causes and conditions. Thus we have only to examine the nature of the six consciousnesses to understand that they’re unborn.

The remedy itself is released in its own place

This line refers to the fact that the wisdom understanding everything to be empty of true, independent or self-existence is the remedy to all of cyclic existence and everything that produces it.

Place the essence of the path on the nature of the basis of all

This means that because everything is empty of true existence, things are produced only from particular causes and conditions and come into existence depending upon specific factors. If things were not empty—in other words, if everything were truly existent—phenomena could not possibly come into being in dependence upon certain specific causes and conditions.

Moreover, because we can see and explain how each event is produced dependent upon its own specific causes and conditions, we can see that it is also impossible to assert that any event is truly existent.

Therefore, “essence of the path” refers to an understanding of the relationship between emptiness and dependent arising, the knowledge that because everything is empty, the various manifestations of dependent arising—things arising dependent upon various causes and conditions—are possible, and because such arisings occur, everything must be empty.

In the period between sessions, be a creator of illusions.

A creator of illusions is a conjuror who can make illusory objects appear due to a special arrangement of sticks and stones together with mantras and various other substances. When he makes things appear to his audience he also sees them but since he knows that he himself has simply conjured them up he knows that they’re illusory. In the same way, even when we have directly realized emptiness, when we come out of meditation, despite our knowing that nothing exists truly, everything will still appear to be truly existent. We’ll see things as truly existent but will know that in reality, they’re not; due to the force of our experience in meditation we’ll have the certainty in the post-meditation period that nothing exists truly, the way it appears.

I mentioned earlier that the self-cherishing mind completely depends upon the self-grasping mind—the consciousness that conceives or apprehends that everything is truly existent and therefore completely independent.

For example, we can figure out that a cake is not truly existent because we know it cannot be made without ingredients—fruit, butter, flour and so forth—but still, the self-grasping mind sees the cake, like everything else, to be completely truly existent and independent of any causes and conditions. This is in total conflict with the knowledge that everything exists depending upon causes and conditions and in this way, the self-grasping mind completely prevents the arising of any awareness of cause and effect, such as happiness resulting from virtue and suffering from non-virtue.

All the problems we experience in life and, indeed, all our beginningless suffering in cyclic existence, can be traced back to our self-cherishing mind and if we delve even deeper we’ll find that beneath this lies the very root of all our problems, the self-grasping mind.

Those with less experience of Buddhist teachings should try hard to understand this important point—the self-grasping mind that conceives everything as being completely independent is the support for the self-cherishing mind, which produces the various delusions that cause us to create negative actions, which, in turn, lead to our experiencing suffering in cyclic existence.

An alternative translation has

In between meditation sessions, be like a conjuror.

This refers to the period subsequent to the meditation session—how to practice in between meditation sessions—and how even though things are empty, they still appear.

An example of how everything is empty yet still appears is the way our face appears in a mirror. When we see our face in a mirror we know that there’s no actual face in the mirror even though there appears to be one there. There’s a reflection that exists there and it appears to be a face, but we know that the reflection is empty of being a real face. However, despite the fact that it is empty of real face, at the same time all the various features of a face appear.


9 Three of body (killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), four of speech (lying, slandering, speaking harshly and gossiping) and three of mind (covetousness, ill-will and wrong views).[Return to text]

10 Killing father, mother or an arhat, drawing blood from a buddha and creating a schism in the Sangha community. They are called immediate because those who create such actions are reborn in hell in their very next life. [Return to text]

11 Transforming Adversity Into Joy And Courage, pp. 167–171. This entire book, especially chapters 10–12, augments Geshe Tegchok’s thoughts on the development and practice of bodhicitta. [Return to text]

12 A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Chapter 8, verse 129 (p. 106, note 297). [Return to text]

13 Ibid. Chapter 8, verse 134 (p. 106, note 300). [Return to text]

14 “You say such clever things to people, but don’t apply them to yourself; People of Tingri, the faults within you are the ones to be exposed.” Dilgo Khyentse. The Hundred Verses of Advice of Padampa Sangye. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002, verse 89. [Return to text]

15 Peacock in the Poison Grove, p. 83, verse 49: “I seize the thief who ambushed and deceived me.” [Return to text]

16 Ibid. Same verse: “The hypocrite who deceived me disguised as myself.” [Return to text]

17 Op. cit. Chapter 8, verse 130: “Enough of much talk! Note the difference between the fool who seeks his own benefit and the sage who works for the benefit of others.” [Return to text]

18 See the relevant sections of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand for details of all these.[Return to text]

19 The three upper realms are still fraught with all kinds of samsaric suffering (like the three, six and eight) but are relatively happier than the lower realms, therefore they are called “good.” [Return to text]

20 For a highly detailed description of this practice see Meditation Seven in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun on the LYWA website. [Return to text]

21 See note 6 above. [Return to text]

22 There are two streams of practice in the Mahayana: method—the development of bodhicitta—and wisdom—the development of the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. Like a bird needs two wings to fly, we need both method and wisdom to reach enlightenment. [Return to text]


A commentary on Lama Tsongkhapa's text which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.
A teaching on The Three Principal Aspects of the Path by Ven. Denma Lochö Rinpoche at  Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London, in early October 2001.

The Three Principal Aspects of the Path is a text by Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) which covers the entire Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Part 1: Renunciation
Part 2: Renunciation
Part 3: Bodhicitta
Part 4: Correct View of Emptiness

Part 2: Renunciation

So to begin the teaching, let us correct our attitude, and contemplate - as far as space extends are existing countless sentient beings in a state of dissatisfaction or suffering. In order to separate or liberate each and every one of those sentient beings, I myself must achieve the highest unsurpassable enlightenment and in order to do that I am now going to receive the commentary on the unmistaken path in the form of The Three Principles of the Path.

The Benefits of Hearing the Teaching

So again to reflect upon the benefits of listening to the teaching - if we use a quotation from a text called 'Wisdom', then the first line of this reads that 'listening is the lamp which dispels the darkness of ignorance'. So here the example is quite clear - in a worldly sense, if we walk into a dark room holding an oil lamp, or if we just turn the light on, through having light in that room we are able to see what previously we couldn't see because the room was dark. So in the same way, if we think about the things which are to be taken up, the things which are to be abandoned, or the karmic law of cause and effect, or the view of suchness (that is to say the correct view of reality) as the objects to be seen in a room, then the light which will dispel the darkness of ignorance with regard to those particular objects which are to be seen in the room is the hearing of the teaching. So through hearing then we are able to dispel ignorance about what objects are to be known (for example, the karmic law of cause and effect), and what is to be taken up and what is to be abandoned with regard to our behaviour. Then when we reflect upon this practice of hearing, it's not just hearing the teaching; the way we make the lamp blaze forth is through hearing the teaching and then contemplating the meaning of that and then meditating upon that in a single-pointed fashion. For example if we take thusness, then through initially hearing the teaching on that, contemplating the meaning of that and then single-pointedly meditating upon that, we are able to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. Again then the root of this liberation is hearing the teaching. It is like wanting to do something within a room and then carrying in an oil lamp to then be able to see what forms, what objects, are in that room and then getting to grips with those objects, or working with those objects. So hearing the teaching initially then is something very important as it is like the lamp which dispels the ignorance with regard what is to be taken up and what is to be abandoned ie the karmic law which for us as practitioners is something that is extremely important and something that we should become very familiar with; and then with regard to suchness, or the ultimate mode of phenomena, if we don't understand this correctly then there is no liberation. So if we talk about two kinds of darkness, or two kinds of ignorance, both of which because their nature is darkness, are removed by the lamp of hearing the teaching. So then the 'hearing is the lamp which dispels the darkness of ignorance'.

The second line of the stanza from the text 'Wisdom' reads 'hearing is like the weapon which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions'. So here then if we think in ancient India what was meant by weapons, it was like throwing-stars, daggers, swords and so forth. However in these modern times there are various other kinds of weapons but whatever the weapon is, it is an object which is used to destroy something else. In this case, the weapon of listening is used to destroy the enemy of the destructive emotions. For example, if we are a person who has a lot of anger, through meditating on its antidote, love, we are able to overcome that enemy of anger and thoroughly destroy it so it is no longer any burden upon our being. In the same way, if we are a person who has a lot of attachment, either for our own physical form or for another's physical form or for some other object like a precious jewel, then we can reverse that attachment by thinking about the repulsiveness of that particular object. Through this meditation we can lessen and then thoroughly remove and destroy this enemy of the destructive emotions which one has in one's mental continuum, or mind. Initially then one must come to recognise what is actually meant by an enemy, what an enemy is, then after having that recognition we must apply the antidote or the weapon. The weapon here which we are going to apply is something that we can only have gained through engaging in the practice of hearing the teaching. So thus in the second line, the actual thing which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions is like a weapon, and this weapon is brought about, or manufactured, through hearing the teaching. So hearing then is like a 'weapon which destroys the enemy of the destructive emotions'.

The third line says that 'hearing the teaching is the best of all possessions'. What we usually mean by possessions are various things which we might have in our house and which cause us a great amount of anxiety, or worry. That is to say, the more possessions we seem to gain, they just seem to add to our burden of anxiety, that is to say, we worry that they might be carried away by thieves, or we worry about fire in the house, or these days, flooding in the house, destroying the wealth or possessions which we have striven so hard to gain. So in the same way, when we think about the possession of hearing the teaching and the wisdom which arises through that - if we have that in our mindstream it is not something which can be destroyed by the four elements - water, fire and so forth; it is not something that can be carried off by thieves and bandits; it is rather something that is continually with us and which there is no danger of losing. So the third line of this stanza from the text 'Wisdom' instructs us that wisdom is the best of all possessions for those very reasons.

So the last line of this stanza then describes hearing as 'the best of associates or friends'. So we can understand this from our own experience - when fortune is with us then we seem to have a lot of friends or associates around us. However when circumstances change for the worse, we do seem to find that these close, or seemingly close, friends or associates seem to go farther and farther away from us, abandoning us in our time or hour of need. With regard then to the practice of hearing and the knowledge we have gained through that, then in difficult situations or in positive situations, that friend continually remains with us in all circumstances. In a worldly sense then when circumstances are good, we seem to have a lot of friends and then when circumstances are bad, our friends seem to keep a distance and then finally disappear from sight. So actually if we compare ourselves - a person who has heard the Dharma teaching and has contemplated the Dharma teaching and has that kind of friend, with somebody who doesn't have that kind of friend, then during the good times there is not really that much difference between us. However in the difficult times when circumstances change for the worse, we find that through contacting this friend, that is to say bringing to mind the teachings we have heard - like if we lose wealth for example, we can contemplate on the changing nature of the cycle of existence; if we have various sicknesses or illnesses befall us or bereavements and so forth, we can again contemplate on the suffering nature of the cycle of existence; if we are harmed by other human beings or perhaps various snake spirits and so forth - whatever the harmer - we can reflect upon how we might have harmed that particular individual in a previous existence, thus we can contemplate on the karmic law; we can also then expand our view to include others, thinking that this is just a small difficulty when compared with the difficulties of all other sentient beings which are around me and in the world system. Thus we can utilise this friend, we can chat with this friend which is the friend of initially hearing the teaching - this excellent associate which doesn’t abandon us during our hour of need but is continually there for us. Thus hearing the teaching and the knowledge gained therefrom is like the 'best of friends or associates'.

Contemplation on Suffering

So now we come to the text which we are going through. Initially then let us contemplate on dissatisfaction or suffering; the reason for this is that we have to know what suffering is in order to turn away from dissatisfaction or suffering. Through trying to achieve liberation we need to remove this grasping attachment so we have to understand the faults of what we are attached to, and then through understanding those faults, we can turn away from them. At present our mind is infatuated and continually holding on to, or stuck to, the cycle of existence. Through thinking of the faults then of the cycle of existence, we can turn our minds away from the cycle of existence, or the cycle of pain. So this is mentioned by Lama Tsongkhapa in his writings when he says that the more we are able to contemplate on the faults of the cycle of existence, or dissatisfaction, then the stronger our yearning for liberation will become. So this we can see from an example: If we are a prisoner in a prison and we just sit in our room thinking 'well, they give us food, there's good lighting here, I think I'll just stay here' - then for that individual there is no hope, there is no way that that person is going to even take a step outside of his or her prison cell. So in the same way, if an individual is in a prison cell and he or she thinks 'I must get out of this predicament' - through thinking about the benefits of being released from jail - thinking about being able to work in various places, being able to travel to various countries, being able to enjoy various kinds of scenes and enjoyments and so forth; and then thinking about how bound one is in the prison cell - thinking that 'I can't move, I have no freedom to do what I want, I have no enjoyment through staying here' - through thinking thus, the faults of staying in the prison and the benefits of leaving the prison kind of naturally increase. So like this, if we think about the faults of the cycle of existence, the difficulties therein, our yearning for liberation from this cycle of existence will increase naturally; and the stronger our yearning for freedom from the cycle of existence, the stronger our Dharma practice and so our practice of turning away from the cycle of existence, or renunciation (the first of these three points) will become.

The Four Noble Truths

So this reflection on dissatisfaction or suffering cannot be over-emphasised. For example (I forgot to translate from before), when the Buddha first taught the Four Noble Truths in Varanasi, at that time, the first thing he said to his five disciples was 'this is the truth of dissatisfaction' (or 'this is the truth of suffering'). So the reason for saying that initially was to get his disciples to recognise the truth of suffering, or the fact that everything within contaminated existence, that is to say, within the cycle of existence is in and of itself or by its own nature -

[end of side - tape breaks here] …existence and our experience, and through that, through contemplating the Four Noble Truths we can turn away from the cycle of existence. So this is why the teaching of the Four Noble Truths was given initially - in order to jar the disciples into recognising the dissatisfaction inherent in the cycle of existence. So if we then have a quick look at the Four Noble Truths (that is the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation and then the path leading to the cessation); if we emphasise or go a little bit vaster in our explanation of the first truth, that is to say, the truth of suffering, then we will just whizz through the latter three. Through the understanding of the first, this will imply the understanding of the latter three - this can be seen in an example from the text known as 'The Uttaratantra of Maitreya'. In this text it says that the truth of suffering is like the crop, and the cause of suffering is like the seed of that crop, then the cessation is the non-existence of that crop and the path leading to that cessation is the fire which burns the seed which renders it barren and unable to produce its crop. So that is very clear, isn’t it - if we have a crop which we do not want, we need to uproot or prevent the seed of that crop from producing its fruit or its crop, so the way to do that is to make the seed barren and through that it cannot produce or give rise to its fruition, that is to say, the crop. So in the same way then, through recognising the lot, or the 'crop' of dissatisfaction which we have, we can set about burning or removing the causes for that, and the way to do that is through contemplating the cause which will eliminate that result, that is to say, the truth of dissatisfaction, and naturally bring about the truth of cessation.

Three Kinds of Suffering

So with regard to the first noble truth, that is the truth of dissatisfaction, or suffering, with this there are various ways we can divide it - a division into three is presented, four, six, seven and so forth. However as we are only giving an abbreviated commentary, let us just dwell upon the division of suffering into three. Through dwelling upon these three and contemplating them in relation to our experience, we can derive great benefit. So let us go through the division of the truth of suffering into three: that is then the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the all-pervasive suffering. So with regard the first of this threefold division (the suffering of suffering), this is what everybody understands to be dissatisfaction - whether it be a physical ailment, or whether it be that one is feeling a little bit depressed or a bit tired or a bit run down - these feelings of dissatisfaction, be they physical or mental, are what everybody understands as dissatisfaction or suffering, whether they be a practitioner or not.

The Suffering of Change

The second then is the suffering of change; this is what the majority of people in the world do not want to recognise as dissatisfaction or suffering. The reason for this is because of the way we view pleasurable experiences in the world - we view them as being nothing other than pleasurable experiences, that is to say, only bringing about pleasure, not bringing about the slightest discomfort or dissatisfaction. So if we contemplate this - what is meant by the truth of the suffering of change, we will come to understand how all experiences, when brought about in a contaminated way, that is to say, under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma are all in this nature of dissatisfaction, they do not give any lasting satisfaction. For example if we are in a cold place and we go out into the sunshine - for the first moments we are sitting or lying there in the sun, it seems only to bring bliss and joy to the mind. However, the longer we stay in the sun, what we find is that this joy, this bliss which we achieve from going out of the cold room into the sun, suddenly changes. What happens is that we get very hot, very bothered or flustered, we might get sunburn, and then through this our whole perception of being in a warm place changes - far from being something which has brought us this seemingly inherently existing bliss or joy, it is rather something which has brought us a feeling of dissatisfaction, or a feeling of suffering. So then we might want to reverse this - so we go back into an air-conditioned room, a cool room. When we arrive there, again this feeling of great joy arises in the first moment of entering such a room and it appears as nothing but bliss and joy coming from going into that room or being under that fan. But as time goes on, then we get really, really cold, we start to freeze, and then again, we have to move on to a different place, we have to get out of that room, or turn the fan off, and relieve ourselves of what appeared previously as a self-existing joyful object. We find that we need to remove ourselves from such an object in that it is not producing the joy and happiness which we previously achieved from that.

So then this is what is meant by the suffering of change; momentarily bringing bliss - this is not being denied, however it is not an everlasting bliss which is being brought about through change. The first moment is blissful because you've moved from a cold area into a warm one or from a warm area into a cold one - so it does bring about a kind of happiness, but that happiness is only the happiness of moving from one state into another - it's not a kind of self-existent or autonomously-existent joy that comes from contact with that object; rather it has the nature of change because it is brought about through contaminated action and karma. It is therefore what we call a 'contaminated' experience - contaminated through being brought about by these destructive emotions and karma. So the second moment then, or later on in one's experience of that either warmth or cold, this changes into something other than what it initially was, and through that change, brings about dissatisfaction. So it is this changing nature - changing from a momentary pleasure into something which is quite the opposite of that - which one needs to recognise in all of one's experiences, through which we will come to understand that all of our experience, whether grossly unpleasant or seemingly pleasant, have this nature of dissatisfaction, or not really delivering in the long run.

Another example we could use is if we sit down for a long time it seems very pleasant and then perhaps we get a little bit uncomfortable and we want to move around. When we get up - we stand up and stretch perhaps - we feel great joy at having stood up; but again, this is only the joy which comes about through ending the sitting down, through changing our position. Moving a little bit brings joy to the mind - we perhaps go for a walk and this movement of going for a walk again seems to be self-existing joy that is coming through the object, that is to say, walking. However, the more we walk, the more tired we become, and then eventually we want to sit down - if we are old, perhaps we have bad knees, but even if we are young, we cannot go on walking forever, eventually we become tired and we want to sit down or we want to lay down. So when we sit or when we lay down, again this brings great joy to the mind but this is a joy that is coming from engaging in that particular object, that is to say, sitting down, rather it is just a joy which comes about through plain and simply sitting down - it is not something the contact with which is going to bring everlasting joy. So this is the important point with the suffering of change - to recognise that no experience in and of itself is going to bring about everlasting joy; rather, it is in the nature of contamination, therefore it is eventually going to change into something that is quite the opposite of what we initially perceived it to be.

All-Pervasive Suffering

So then we come to the third of this threefold division, that is the all-pervasive suffering. What is meant by this the all-pervasive suffering? If we talk about the three realms of existence (that is to say, the desire, the form and the formless realm), within the desire realm (within which we find the division of the six different types of individuals), we find that there is the gross suffering of suffering. However through the form and the formless realms we find that there is not this gross suffering but up to and inclusive of the third concentration, we find that there is the suffering or the dissatisfaction, of change, but not in the fourth state of concentration. But without going too deeply into what is meant by these various states of concentration - if we just take the desire, the form and the formless realm - if one is born under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, that is to say, in a contaminated way, within any of these three realms, then one is bound into the state dissatisfaction and suffering. So what we can understand here then by 'all-pervasive' - 'all' refers to the three realms, and 'pervasive' means that if one is born into these three realms under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, then one is in the predicament of a contaminated existence, and then through that very nature one's lot is just that of dissatisfaction.

With regard then to this all-pervasive dissatisfaction or suffering - this is brought about through not particularly positive or negative actions but rather through neutral actions, or equanimitous actions. So what is meant here then is that this is not a gross feeling like the feeling of joy or the feeling of dissatisfaction in a manifest way, but rather is a very subtle or latent tendency to undergo such difficulties which is brought about through these karmic seeds of equanimity. So then through having been born under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma in any one of these three realms, one doesn't have any freedom to do what one wishes, that is to say, one is bound by the destructive emotions and karma. As the great master Sakya Pandita said 'freedom is joy, whereas being bound is suffering' (or 'dissatisfaction'). So if we contemplate these words by Sakya Pandita, although few in number, there is a great deal of understanding to be gained. For example we all like the word 'freedom' - if one has freedom, one can do exactly what one wants - one can go where one wants, one can eat what one wants and so forth. If one is under the influence of another, that is to say, bound by another, we have no freedom, we cannot do what we would like - we cannot go where we like, we cannot sit where we would like. This being the case then, it is not a pleasant situation to be in. Through contemplating this, we see that through being bound by the destructive emotions and karma, we do not have the freedom to do exactly what we want. Surely then we should turn our attention towards removing these fetters, or bonds, and then giving ourselves the freedom to do exactly what we would like to do. So it's good to contemplate those words of that particular master with regard to the various different kinds of suffering which we've gone through.

Four Wrong Views

So as practitioners, we should strive to understand this all-pervasive suffering. In essence we can say that the all-pervasive suffering comes about just through having contaminated aggregates ('contaminated' here referring to being under the control of the destructive emotions and under the control of the karma issuing therefrom). With regard then to the first of the Four Noble Truths of suffering, there are what is known as four aspects, or four different parts to that particular truth of suffering. With regard to the whole of the Four Noble Truths and with regard to each of the truths, they each have four different aspects; here we are just going to go through the four aspects with regard to the truth of suffering. So within this truth of suffering, we find that there are four wrong views which ordinary beings perceive and then through this perception we undergo various forms of dissatisfaction, or suffering. These four wrong views are - perceiving dissatisfaction as satisfaction; grasping onto what is impermanent as permanent; grasping onto something of a dirty nature as being clean; and then grasping onto an inherently existent self or I where such a self-existent self or I does not exist. Then through contemplating these four aspects of this first truth, we can reverse our attachment towards the truth of suffering, that is to say, we can turn our mind away from the cycle of existence.

So then if we put these four into syllogisms, then we can really clearly see how our aggregates, that is to say, our body and mind in this contaminated state are in the nature of dissatisfaction or suffering, and through this we can come to understand that wherever we are born in this state (ie a contaminated state) within any of the realms of existence, we are going to have dissatisfaction, and nothing other than that, as our lot. So with regard to the second one if we go through this first, we can say that the subject, which is our aggregates, are not something which is permanent ie they are something which is impermanent because they come about through relying upon causes and conditions; in an ordinary sense, as they rely on something else to come into existence, they cannot exist permanently, therefore they must be something other than that and the only opposite of that is something that is impermanent. Therefore our aggregates, our contaminated mind, are something that is impermanent because of being brought about through causes and conditions. Then with regard to the first of these four aspects, the subject - again, our aggregates, contaminated body and mind - are something which is in the nature of dissatisfaction because they have no freedom. And so again we can see - we are under the influence of the destructive emotions and karma, and through being bound by destructive emotions and karma, we have no freedom to do what we would like to do in our existence. Therefore the second syllogism is the subject - one's aggregates - is in the nature of dissatisfaction through being under the influence and control of the destructive emotions and karma. Then with regard to the third, again the subject is the same - viewing our contaminated aggregates - then seeing them in the nature of something which is undesirable or dirty. Then through contemplating the nature of those particular objects, we can come to this realisation and understanding. And then lastly (this is the most important one) the subject - again, the contaminated objects of body and mind - are something which is empty of a self-existence or autonomous existence because a naturally existing, or existing from its own side, self is not something which exists, ie it is completely fictitious.

So here then through this contemplation, what we come to find is that within all the different schools there are presentations of this selflessness, or this lack of an inherently existing self. So through all the different schools we can gain a greater picture of what is meant by an inherently existent self, and what the lack of that means; but in essence, and what every philosophical school agrees upon, is that this self-existent self or this autonomous I is something which cannot exist in and of itself, therefore the subject (our contaminated body and mind) lacks an inherently existing self because such an inherently or autonomously existing self is not something which exists. So these then are the four aspects of this first truth (that is the truth of suffering) and by contemplating the faults of grasping onto something as joyful which is in the nature of suffering, grasping at something as permanent which is actually in the nature of impermanence, grasping at something as clean which is actually in the nature of being dirty, and grasping at something as inherently existent, when in actual fact, it doesn't exist in such a way - through contemplating the faults of those four false views, we can reverse them and through reversing them we can put a stop to the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering.

Fully Qualified Renunciation

So going back to our root text we read:

Leisure and opportunity are difficult to find,
there is no time to waste.
Reverse attraction to this life, reverse attraction to future lives,
think repeatedly of the infallible effects of karma and the misery of this world.

So we have just gone through the misery of this world (this can also be translated as 'samsara', or 'the cycle of contaminated existence'), and then through the contemplations we have just gone through we can slowly begin to turn our minds away from this life and put them towards thinking about future lives, and then finally, turn our attention away from our future lives and think more of achieving liberation from the cycle of existence. So through our contemplations on the misery of the world (as it is translated here) what is the sign that we have actually generated the mind striving for liberation? So we read the next stanza:

Contemplating this,
when you do not for an instant wish for the pleasures of samsara,
and day and night remain intent on liberation,
you have then produced renunciation.

So here then through contemplating the truth of suffering, and then 'when you do not wish for an instant the pleasures of samsara'. So here it's important to understand what is meant by 'do not for an instant wish for the pleasures of samsara'. What we can undergo is a strong feeling of renunciation and wishing to be free from the cycle of existence, and then in the next moment we want to do something which is very much within the cycle of existence, or very much concerned with the pleasure of cyclic existence, or samsara. So this is a sign that we haven't gained the fully qualified wish to achieve renunciation, or the fully qualified wish to achieve liberation from the cycle of existence. The next two lines read 'and day and night remain intent on liberation, you have then produced renunciation'. So when we are continually thinking of achieving liberation from the cycle of existence, it is at that moment that we have generated the fully qualified renunciation; at any time during a twenty-four period, we are always concerned with liberation from the cycle of existence - it's at that point we have generated the fully qualified renunciation. As is mentioned in the Letter to a Friend, we should be like a person whose hair has caught fire; if a person's hair has caught alight, whatever they are doing - whether it be important work or some kind of hobby - that all gets thrown to one side, and one's whole attention and one's whole time and action is concerned only with one thing, that is putting out the fire on one's head. So in the same way, we should have renunciation like that, within which all other work apart from work which is going to lead us out of the cycle of existence can be easily left aside, and we remain single-pointed and steadfast in our attitude of striving for liberation from the vicious cycle of existence. So it is at that point that the fully qualified mind - wishing to go forth from the cycle of existence, or renunciation, has been developed in our being, or mind.


The next stanza then reads:

Renunciation without the pure bodhi-mind does not bring forth
the perfect bliss of unsurpassed enlightenment.
Therefore the wise generate the excellent bodhi-mind.

So here, even if one has generated the fully qualified renunciation (that is to say, wishing to escape from the vicious cycle of existence), if one doesn't contemplate the dissatisfaction of others, one's kind mother sentient beings, then no matter how much renunciation one has, this is not going to bring about the state of having abandoned the most subtle abandonments, and having gathered together all the most excellent qualities, that is to say, the state of buddhahood, or unsurpassed enlightenment. Therefore the wise, seeing that being without the bodhi mind (that is to say, bodhicitta) is not going to bring about this state of unsurpassed or highest enlightenment, strive to generate within their existence, or within their mind, this wish to achieve buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, this mind of bodhicitta.

So then in order to achieve the state of buddhahood, or unsurpassed enlightenment, one needs two factors - method and wisdom. So as is quoted in the sutras, method without wisdom is bondage and wisdom without message is again, bondage. So what this tells is that we cannot achieve buddhahood through just one, either wisdom or method - we need both of them in union to achieve unsurpassed enlightenment. This is also echoed in Chandrakirti's book The Entrance to the Middle Way where he gives the analogy of the crane - so when a crane flies through the sky, he does so in dependence on both wings; if there is a fault with either of the wings, then the crane will not be able to fly from the east to the west or wherever. So in the same way, in order for the crane-like individual to 'fly' to the state of omniscience, one needs both 'wings' of method and wisdom unified together in one practice.

This is again mentioned in the Abhisaymamalankara where it says that the final, or ultimate, peace is brought about not through just contemplation on the nature of existence (that is to say, on selflessness), but rather is brought about through a dual practice of wisdom and method. We can here see a fault in those foe-destroyers of the hearer lineage in that they practise fully qualified renunciation and in addition to that meditate single-pointedly upon selflessness or suchness, and through that they achieve a lesser state of emancipation, or lesser nirvana. So then as we are not striving for this lesser nirvana but rather for a higher nirvana, we need to add something else to our practice, and this additional practice which we need to utilise is this mind of great compassion or 'the great lord of the minds'. This practice, in dependence upon which the welfare for all sentient beings is brought about, can thus take us to the end of the path of peace, that is to say, to the highest state of enlightenment. And if we look at the resultant state, then the various emanation bodies which come forth through the Buddha's activities, again, these solely come about through familiarisation with this mind striving to bring about benefit for others, the great mind which strives to remove others' pain or this great mind of bodhicitta. In this resultant stage, the Buddha can emanate various emanations for the benefit of others; so this is a result of training oneself in the bodhi mind.

So then we need to generate this bodhi mind. So there is a quote from the Mahayana sutra Alankara which says: ...[end of side - tape breaks here]

…colours and lights going here and there, we think 'oh, that is a nice, magical being, I want to become just like that magical individual'. So this is not the bodhi mind, the correct attitude for achieving full enlightenment, rather, this is just a selfish wish to become something rather odd! However, as individuals striving for buddhahood we need to have two qualities. The first quality is viewing all sentient beings with a mind of great compassion, wishing to free them from the predicament of suffering in which they find themselves, and it is said that the stronger one's compassion, the easier it is to bring about this bodhi mind. So the first cause, or first necessity, is bringing about this bodhi mind. The second one is a mind which is bent on achieving full enlightenment to be of maximum use to other sentient beings. So one needs to have these two contemplations together in order to achieve buddahood, these are the two crucial points which one must have - the mind wishing to liberate sentient beings from their suffering, and then a mind which is determined to achieve full enlightenment in order to bring this about in the best possible way.

The Predicament of Sentient Beings

In order to bring about this feeling of wishing to liberate sentient beings from their predicament, or their lot, of suffering, then we need to understand what is meant by their dissatisfaction or suffering. Then the next line of our root text reads:

Swept by the current of the four powerful rivers,
tied by strong bonds of karma so hard to undo,
caught in the iron net of self-grasping,
completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance.

So here then if we use the first analogy 'swept by the current of the four powerful rivers'. So if we use this imagery of four really strong rivers flowing very fast, then caught within the combination of those four rivers. Here the 'four rivers' are four factors which hold sentient beings in the state of dissatisfaction, or suffering. So these are desire, views (wrong views), existence in and of itself, and then ignorance. So if we look at these four - ignorance is the initial cause of all the other destructive emotions. So it is said the first moment is ignorance - conceiving something in a wrong way - and that confusion brings about all the other destructive emotions and thereafter all the actions that are entered into through the force of those wrong thoughts and then thereafter the various karmic results of those actions. As for desire then, there are various kinds of desire - there is the strong desire which makes one's mind change from something peaceful to something which is completely intent on one object, there is the desire of carefully planning how to gain an object which one wants and so forth. Then with regard to the various views, what is meant here by 'view' is wrong view. Wrong view here can be divided into five, such as the general wrong mind, or wrong consciousness, and so forth. Then with regard the third, existence in and of itself - here, what is meant by existence can also refer to the cycle of existence, or samsara, and can also refer to karmic actions in the dormant and also in their fully ripened states. So those four rivers combined as one are what is carrying our kind mother sentient beings along. So if we imagine somebody who has fallen into a fast-flowing river or fallen into the rapids - if they are able to shout for help then that is one thing, and if they are able to swim then there is every possibility that they will be able to reach the banks of the river and get out of this fast moving current.

However, this is not the case because as the next line of the root text tells us - 'tied by strong bonds of karma so hard to undo'. So not only are these kind mother sentient beings swept along in this rapid, but in addition, their hands and feet are tied up, they are completely bound up with very tough ropes and cannot possibly move. And you would think then that even if this is the case they might be able to get out of these bonds by contortion or suchlike, but this again is not the case because in addition to being bound, (as the third line reads) they are 'caught in the iron net of self-grasping'. So here 'iron net' can also be translated as 'cage'. So not only is one bobbing along completely bound by the strong bonds of karma, but one is also wrapped in this chain-mail of self-grasping. And you would think then that as this is the case, if one was fortunate enough to come into contact with a fisherman sitting on the riverbank, by calling out to him, if he is a kind-hearted individual, he might throw us a line or try to hook us out. However, this is again not the case because as the fourth line reads - 'completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance'. So if we look at this example - someone has been throw into a rapid, is being swept along by this powerfully moving water, not only are they bound up but they are wrapped in chain-mail and it is the middle of the night, so there is no chance even to come into contact with somebody on the riverbank who one could call to and request assistance because it's in the middle of the night, it's very dark, and nobody goes to the riverbank at that time. So in the same way there are the four powerful rivers which we have just gone through (the four causes of the cycle of existence), then fettered by bonds of karma, wrapped in this chain-mail of self-grasping, completely enveloped in the darkness of ignorance - that is the pitiful state of one's kind mother / father sentient beings.

Physical and Mental Suffering

So as is mentioned in Aryadeva's book The Four Hundred Verses, the aristocrats are beset with mental suffering whereas the ordinary person is beset with physical suffering. Whatever kind of suffering one is engaged in, one should daily try to put an end to such suffering. So here then we can divide dissatisfaction grossly into two, that is to say, dissatisfaction, or suffering which is physical and then that which is mental. Then those kind of aristocrats, those who have very fine jobs, they are individuals who do not suffer so much physically - they have nice places to live, nice food to eat and so forth; however they have a lot of mental torment - thinking about the various businesses which they are involved in, the various meetings they have to go to and so forth - that is their lot of suffering. Whereas for an ordinary working person there is not so much mental worry about rushing to meetings, buying and selling stocks and so forth, but there is physical suffering in that one has to work for one's living so therefore one engages in various strenuous activities. This is not something which is easily seen in the West, but in India if you look around building sites there are no cranes or lifting devices - bricks are carried by the local people stacked high on the head and the cement is carried on the back by the coolies and so forth. So if you see the very low-paid, low caste people in India you will see that they go through immense physical difficulty, but when they sit down there is not so much mental dissatisfaction or suffering, but rather their lot is that of physical difficulty. Then as the text goes on to say, whatever kind of suffering it is - whether mental or physical, one should daily engage in a practice which is going to bring about the thorough removal of that dissatisfaction.

So using that quote from The Four Hundred Verses then, a person who has wealth when viewing how poorer people live might think 'living such an aristocratic life is not all it's cracked up to be - living in the open, living a pauper's life is something that is quite delightful. I think I'm going to give up everything and go and live as a pauper!' And then the paupers, or the working people, when viewing the aristocrats, or the wealthy individuals, think 'oh, we have such a hard time - all this work we have to do but those guys are just sitting around, they have nice food to eat, servants to wait upon them, nice comfortable beds and so forth. How great it would be to achieve such a status!' However, if we look at that with a vaster view, we see that both kinds of individuals are undergoing dissatisfaction, and the dissatisfaction which they are undergoing is same in essence but different in aspect; different in aspect in the sense that for a poorer individual it is physical but for a wealthy individual it's mental. But the contaminated actions which have brought about their very existence are ones within which one can never find any permanent peace; rather as we mentioned earlier, the first moment can be somewhat peaceful or joyful, but then as soon as that is over with, the experience changes into something other than what it initially was. So viewing the cycle of existence, or samsara, as the product of contaminated actions, contaminated destructive emotions and so forth, then we should strive to put an end to all dissatisfaction and the causes of that dissatisfaction, not just one particular kind of those various kinds of dissatisfaction. We should strive to abandon the whole of the cycle of existence, and this is echoed in the prayer to the lineage gurus of the Lam-rim genre of teachings by Tsongkhapa when he says that one should strive to abandon the cycle of its existence through seeing its faults, through seeing how it is impermanent and through seeing how it is not something that is very stable.

By Geshe Lama Konchog in Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore

Geshe Lama Konchog discusses the application of right effort to our practice. This teaching covers a range of topics including suffering in this life, generosity, the fasting retreat, the hungry ghost realm and bodhisattvas in cyclic existence.

The teaching was given by Geshe Lama Konchog at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore in 1995. Transcribed and edited by Ven. Thubten Konchog, who accepts responsibility for all errors and omissions. Second edit by Sandra Smith, February 2013.

This teaching is also available for download as a free e-book from Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore.

Suffering in this Life

Lama Tsongkhapa has said the superior thought, or bodhicitta, is like a sail to a ship. If the sail is not blown by the wind, the boat cannot move or travel anywhere. So, although we may have this superior thought or bodhicitta, if it is not blown by the wind of effort, the ship of hearing and contemplation cannot move. Therefore, without right effort, sentient beings cannot cross the ocean of cyclic existence and reach the city of liberation or enlightenment.

Effort is the best amongst all the friends and listlessness is the worst of all the enemies. If the force of effort is applied, even the tiniest insects and animals can attain the state of full enlightenment. We are human beings, so we have the power of wisdom to be able to discriminate between what is to be abandoned and what is to be practiced. We know the benefits of virtuous actions and the faults of non-virtuous actions.

We have discussed this kind of power, this potential, so we should never become discouraged by thinking, “I won’t be able to reach enlightenment.” Instead we should think, “I can definitely attain enlightenment. I have the power, I have that potential.” By thinking this way, we can generate the courage to be able to work in a better way towards the attainment of enlightenment.

Even the smallest insect can attain enlightenment if it generates the force of effort. While we are human beings, we should not think that we can’t gain enlightenment or generate that force. We should always think, “I can gain enlightenment and I can generate the force of effort. I can then have a mind that delights in the performance of virtuous deeds.”

We may think that this is just too difficult, but it is possible to reach enlightenment. However, there are many hardships to overcome along the way. This could mean that we have to make sacrifices, even of our body. If we are afraid to do this, it will be most difficult to attain enlightenment, because we are unable to discriminate between heavy and light sufferings.

From beginningless lifetimes we have taken many types of form. We have taken a life where we were tortured daily, or where our limbs were cut and injured or maybe even sliced into many pieces. However, compared to the sufferings that we have experienced in the hell realms, the sufferings or problems we are encountering now on the way to the state of enlightenment are nothing, or perhaps they are only very small.

All the sufferings that we have experienced in the past have been completely wasted. If those sufferings had been a cause for enlightenment for ourselves and others, then they would have been meaningful, but they did not help us to attain enlightenment, or even to awaken our minds, so they were completely wasted.

The sufferings that we experienced in the lower realms, such as the hells, were very intense and had to be experienced for a very long time compared to the sufferings that we are experiencing now.

By abandoning the purpose of working only for this life and instead, working for the attainment of enlightenment, the hardships and difficulties that we encounter along the way to enlightenment are nothing compared to the sufferings of the hell realms.

The sufferings that we experience now are very small and they can be endured. In fact, they are very easy to endure. An example of this is a doctor who treats his patients for serious illnesses. In order to remove the illness he might have to take blood from the body and test it. Some doctors might use a fire to burn a part of the body, or they may give injections. All of these kinds of treatments bring some form of harm or suffering, yet they will result in the relief of the severe illness in the long run. So, even though we know we are suffering now, we can endure it by thinking that we will benefit from it.

The sufferings that we encounter on the way to enlightenment are the sufferings of hardship, but they are comparatively small compared to the sufferings of the hell realms. In order to remove the sufferings of cyclic existence, we have to bear them.

If we can endure the suffering we are experiencing now—the suffering of travelling on the path to enlightenment—then we will eventually be able to eradicate the immeasurable suffering, not only of ourselves, but also of others.

Some very skillful doctors are able to treat their patients without causing them any pain. The Buddha also gives many different methods for us to be freed from suffering and from encountering many difficulties. Sometimes we encounter so many difficulties that we cannot bear another minute. Now, if you are unable to endure such hardships, I want you to stop for one minute.


If we are not familiar with the practice of giving, we should not do it right away. We should not give away things that will cause us to endure suffering. First of all, we should give away small things until we have become familiar with giving and then gradually start giving bigger and bigger things. Later, when we become comfortable with giving, we can give even of ourselves—our limbs and flesh. This will be just like giving somebody a portion of food.

In order to attain the state of enlightenment, we must apply the right methods. The Buddha said that these are not the methods used by ordinary doctors who cause pain to relieve diseases, but rather he showed us methods that free us from the sufferings of cyclic existence. These are the methods of abandoning the two extremes and abandoning the delusions, both of which cause us to wander in cyclic existence.

There are not too many hardships that we will encounter while we travel on the path to enlightenment, so there is no need to be frightened or to feel fear while travelling along that path.

In the beginning, it is a very difficult path to travel along. To engage in the deeds of the bodhisattvas we may be asked to sacrifice our limbs, our heads or our hands. To have fear of these hardships would make it very difficult for us to ever attain enlightenment.

Shantideva says that we do not have to undergo such hardships. If we are not familiar with suffering and are unable to bear it, then we should not have to do so. We can stop until we become completely familiar with a practice, then we will be able to do it easily. In this way there will be no hardships at all.

Initially, if we are unable to make big sacrifices, such as giving away big and valuable things, we should start with small things, such as a small portion of food, or things that are not held so importantly. Then very gradually we can progress to where we are totally familiarized with giving and then we can offer anything easily—even our own flesh.

Fasting Retreat

When the Buddha gave teachings on using effort, he said that when we apply right effort there is no hardship. By applying right effort, the mind is then able to do things very gently and with great delight. For example, if we apply right effort when doing the sessions in the fasting retreat, we will experience no hardship.

However, if we apply no effort and we do not have the mind that delights in performing virtuous deeds, then just doing one session will be the cause for much hardship. If there is no effort, there will be hardship, but if there is right effort, it will be very easy. For example, if while doing the session we think, “Oh, my visualization is not very good. I cannot sit straight and I feel very sleepy,” and so on, there will be many hardships during that session. If we apply right effort and try to do everything with delight, then it will not feel like a hardship.

When we do the fasting retreat, we are told we will incur the karma to be reborn in the pure realm of Amitabha. Just thinking this way should be enough to stop any difficulties from arising, for example, by remembering this, how can we feel upset about not eating any food for one day?

However, this all depends on our state of mind. It is only from our mind that we experience suffering or happiness. For instance, during the fast in the retreat we should not stretch out our legs or arms, nor should we sleep with outstretched legs or arms.

If we go back and sleep after finishing a session, we will feel hunger later on and will have difficulty sleeping that night. This can bring other problems such as headaches, fever or it can even be a cause for hepatitis. Sleeping in between sessions can bring many problems. If we really are very tired, we can lie down for awhile, but then we should stand up and walk around. If we think that we will sleep only for a very short time, then that is OK. However, if we just lie down and go to sleep after every session, then that is no good at all.

If we go to sleep during the daytime, we will feel very bad when we finish the fasting retreat and will never want to do it again. However, if we do not sleep in the daytime, at night we will have a very nice sleep and in the morning we will feel very refreshed and then we will feel quite happy about continuing on.

Hungry Ghost Realm

As I said before, the Buddha was very skillful when he taught us how to practice generosity. He taught how to give away the small things that we do not hold so much attachment to. We should do this because if we give with miserliness we can’t give delightfully and then there is no right effort, as well as no generosity .

Miserly people can be taught to practice giving, for example, even if we cannot give to others, we can give to ourselves. For instance, if we have a thing in our right hand, we can give it to our left hand and then the left hand can give it to the right hand, and so on. This creates no problems because we are not really losing that thing. Even though we are giving, we are still receiving. However, doing this causes us to feel the delight and happiness of giving and receiving; the practice of generosity.

We may very well think that it is not too difficult to give to ourselves, but for some people this is very difficult. Some people just cannot give anything at all. Some people cannot even give away the things that they cannot use themselves, they keep them at all times. There are some types of beings who find it very difficult to give even a cup of water to others.

These kinds of people will take rebirth in the hungry ghost realm. The hungry ghosts have three kinds of knots in their throats and it is very difficult for them to swallow food or water. They have been born as hungry ghosts because they could not give anything to other people and they could not even use those things for themselves either.

Some people cause trouble by telling others who are trying to give something: “Oh, you should not give so much. That is far too much!” Or even: “You should not give anything at all!” By saying these things to others, we will take rebirth in the hungry ghost realm with the three knots in our throat.

Only one drop of water can go down the throat of a hungry ghost, because of the three knots. When lamas make torma offerings to hungry ghosts, they say: “...and I give you one drop of water,” because they can only swallow one drop of water, and if they take more it will cause many problems in their stomachs.

These hungry ghosts always say: “Don’t give a lot; give a little.” They recite this every day, just as we recite mantras.
If we are not skillful in practicing the Dharma or in actualizing the path, things will become very difficult and we will have to endure many problems. However, if we practice with right effort, we will have no difficulties at all. When we know how to do the fasting retreat, we will have no problems and we will do it very happily. Therefore it is most important to know how to do it in the right way.

Bodhisattvas in Cyclic Existence

Bodhisattvas actually reside in cyclic existence, but this does not upset them. They do not feel any suffering, because they know how to live very gently. There is no rebirth for them while they reside in cyclic existence. They are not born into cyclic existence by the force of karma and delusions; they are here by the force of compassion.

Their birth is very different from ours and they do not have any regrets about being in cyclic existence, so it is for this reason that the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana path are superior to the hearers of the Hinayana path, as the hearers do not have this compassion.

Whenever the hearers take birth in cyclic existence, they do so out of karma and delusion. They have fear of undergoing the suffering of cyclic existence, so they cannot be encouraged to travel on the path of the bodhisattvas.

When bodhisattvas sacrifice their bodies out of compassion, they do not feel any form of suffering. They have abandoned all unwholesome actions of the three doors, so they have no suffering in their mind.

Bodhisattvas are those beings who have reached the higher level—they have reached the third ground of the third bhumi. They experience no suffering, even when their bodies are cut into pieces. This is true also for the high tantric practitioners. Even if somebody beats them with a stick, they do not experience any pain. This all depends on the mind.

Here I am explaining the application of right effort. Bodhisattvas make this kind of sacrifice and experience no suffering, because they do it all very happily and joyfully. The reason they experience no pain is because they do not hold the misconception of grasping at the self and they have not incurred any negative actions such as killing, etc. They do not have the concept of “my” body.

Once there was a bodhisattva called “The Always Crying Bodhisattva.” He wanted to go and receive teachings from another bodhisattva, who was his teacher. This bodhisattva was teaching on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.

The Always Crying Bodhisattva did not have any offerings to make to his teacher, so finally he decided to sell his body to collect the offerings. He shouted out in the middle of town: “Is there anybody who wants to buy my limbs or my body?” Nobody came to buy, but finally, an incarnation of Brahma came in the form of a human being and said: “I would like to buy your flesh and bones.”

When he heard that, the Always Crying Bodhisattva felt so happy and went down to the corner to start smashing his bones, for the sale. However, while he was doing this, some girls saw him and asked him why he was doing such a thing. They said: “It is very stupid to do that. Why are you torturing yourself?”

He said to them: “I am doing this so that I can sell this body and collect enough money to bring offerings to my teacher, so I can receive the teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.” Then the girls asked him: “What are you going to do with this teaching?” He said: “By receiving this teaching, I can attain the thirty-two major marks and the eighty minor marks of a buddha.”

While he was doing this, he did it with such joy and also with great compassion, by thinking it would help him attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Therefore, he did not feel any suffering or any regret because he possessed the realisation of bodhicitta and great compassion.

The Always Crying Bodhisattva always seemed to be very poor, because he did not have any material things. Actually, he was not poor; he was very rich with the realization of emptiness and bodhicitta. The reason he was always crying was because of not being able to see his teacher, not because he did not have any material things.

Milarepa also used to stay in a very poor condition. When people looked at him, they would feel most upset for him, thinking that he had a very ugly form. His condition was caused by eating too many nettles; his body had become green like the nettles. People thought that he was very skinny and very ugly and they thought he did not own anything, so they felt very sorry and upset for him. But Milarepa felt very sorry and upset for them, because they thought he was very poor and skinny.

Milarepa felt most upset for sentient beings, because he thought that sentient beings incur so much negative action just for the clothing and food of this life, and for that amount of negative action, they have to wander endlessly in cyclic existence.

Due to the power of bodhicitta, bodhisattvas can expel the non-virtues that they have incurred in the past and they can store the accumulation of merit and wisdom easily. This is why the bodhisattva path excels over the path of the hero.

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.

Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche

New Delhi, India, 1979

A teaching on renunciation, first published in Teachings at Tushita

Dharma protects us from suffering

The Sanskrit word Dharma [Tib: chö] means to hold, or uphold. What is it that Dharma upholds, or maintains? It is the elimination of suffering and the attainment of happiness. Dharma does this not only for us but for all other sentient beings as well.

The sufferings we experience are of two types: those immediately visible to us as humans and those we cannot see without psychic powers. The former include the pain involved in the birth process, the unpleasantness of occasionally becoming sick, the misery experienced by growing old and aging, and the terror of death.

The sufferings that come after death are not visible to an ordinary person. We might think that when we die we will probably be reborn as a human being. However, this is not necessarily the case. There is no logical reason for us to assume that such an evolution will occur. Nor is it the case that after we die we will not take rebirth at all.

As for the particular type of rebirth we will take, this is very difficult to predict; it’s not within our present sphere of knowledge. If we generate positive karma during this life, it will naturally follow that we will take happy forms of rebirth in the future. Conversely, if we create mostly negative karma, we will not take a happy rebirth but experience great difficulties in lower states of being. This is certain. That’s the way rebirth works. If you plant a wheat seed, a wheat plant grows; if you plant a rice seed, a rice plant is produced. Similarly, if you create negative karma, you’re planting the seeds of rebirth in one of the three lower states as a hell being, a hungry ghost or an animal.

Although the sufferings of the hell beings and hungry ghosts may be invisible to us, we can see those of the animals with our own eyes. If we wonder what it would be like if we ourselves were to be reborn as animals, we can just look at those around us and imagine what it would be like to be in their condition. Dharma is that which holds us back and protects us from experiencing the suffering of the three lower realms.

However, the entire wheel of rebirth, the whole of cyclic existence, is in the nature of suffering. Dharma safeguards us from all of it. Moreover, the Mahayana Dharma, the teachings of the great vehicle, protects not only ourselves but also all other living beings.

In Buddhism, we hear a lot about the Three Jewels of Refuge—Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The first of these includes all the fully enlightened beings who teach the Dharma. For us, Buddha Shakyamuni, who first turned the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath by teaching the four noble truths, is the most significant. The last of these four truths—the truth of the path—is the Dharma that we must practice in order to achieve liberation. This is the refuge object called the Dharma jewel.

The cause of suffering

Dharma practice entails two things: recognizing and eradicating the root of samsaric suffering. What is the root of cyclic existence? It is the grasping at a truly existent self and at truly existent phenomena. Therefore, we need to develop revulsion for this grasping that brings us all our suffering and an understanding of the antidote to it. The antidote to grasping at true existence is the wisdom realizing selflessness; a deep understanding of selflessness will liberate us from suffering.

The sufferings we experience in cyclic existence are caused by the karma created by our acting under the influence of the delusions. When we understand this, we aspire to obtain the antidote to self-grasping. Why have we not yet developed this antidote in our mind stream; why don’t we understand selflessness? One reason is that we are not sufficiently aware of impermanence and death.

Contemplating impermanence and death

The only possible outcome of birth is death. We are inevitably going to die. There has never been a sentient being whose life did not end with death. People try many methods to prevent death from occurring, but it’s impossible. No medicine can cure us of death.

But just thinking “I’m going to die” isn’t really the correct way to contemplate death. Of course, everybody is going to die, but merely recalling this fact is not very powerful. It is not the proper method. Similarly, just thinking of the fact that our body is constantly disintegrating and deteriorating and will eventually fail is also not enough. What we have to think about is how to prevent all this from happening.

If we think about the fear that we’ll experience at the time of death and how to eliminate it, our meditation on death will be effective. People who have accumulated much negative karma during their lives become very frightened at the time of death. They cry, drool, excrete into their clothing and are completely overwhelmed—clear signs of the fear and suffering that occur at death because of negative actions created during life.

Alternatively, if during our lifetime we refrain from committing negative actions, death will be very easy to face. Death can be a joyous experience, like that of a child coming home. If we have purified ourselves, we can die happily. By abstaining from creating the ten non-virtuous actions and cultivating their opposites, the ten virtues, our death will be easy and, as a result, we won’t have to experience rebirth in conditions of suffering. We will be assured of rebirth in more fortunate states.

If we plant seeds of medicinal plants, we get trees with medicinal powers; if we plant seeds of poisonous trees, we get poisonous fruit. Similarly, if we plant the seeds of virtuous actions on our consciousness, we will experience happiness in future rebirths; we will experience good fortune, both mentally and physically. This basic Dharma teaching of avoiding the ten non-virtuous deeds and cultivating the ten virtues is given not only in Buddhism but also in many other religions.

If simply thinking “I’m going to die” is not very beneficial, how then should we contemplate death and impermanence? We should think, “If I have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, when I die I will have to face great fear and suffering and will be reborn into unimaginable misery. If, on the other hand, I have created virtue, when I die I will not experience much fear or suffering and will be reborn into a fortunate state.” That is the correct way to think about death.

This meditation is not thinking gloomily and pessimistically, “I’m going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it,” but rather contemplating intelligently, “Where will I go after death? What sort of causes have I created? Can I make my death a happy one? How? Can I make my future rebirths happy? How?”

When contemplating future rebirths we should remember that there is no place in cyclic existence that is reliable. No matter what body we obtain, it must eventually pass away. We read accounts of people who have lived for a hundred or even a thousand years, but no matter how fantastic their stories, they have all had to die. All samsaric bodies are subject to death.

Moreover, there is no place to which we can run to escape death. No matter where we are, when the time comes, we’ll have to die. At that time, no amount of medicine, mantra or practice will help. Surgery can cure certain diseases, but it can’t prevent death.

No matter what type of rebirth we gain, it will be subject to death. The process is ongoing. Contemplating the long-range effects of our actions and the continuity of the process of birth, life, death and rebirth will help us generate much positive karma.

Even though we sometimes plan to practice the Dharma, we usually plan to do so tomorrow or the day after. However, we can’t tell when we’re going to die. If we were guaranteed a hundred years to live, we’d be able to plan our practice long-range, but we have not the slightest certainty of when we’re going to die. Therefore, it’s very foolish to put our practice off. Some people die in the womb before they’re even born; others die as small babies before they’ve even learned to walk. There’s no logic in thinking that we’re going to live long.

Furthermore, our body is very fragile. If it were made of stone or iron we could be excused for thinking that it was very stable, but we can easily see that it’s very weak and liable to go wrong at any moment. It’s like a delicate wrist-watch made of countless tiny, fragile parts. Our body is not to be trusted. And there are many circumstances that can cause our death: food that has become poisonous, the bite of a small insect or the prick of a tiny thorn. Such seemingly insignificant conditions can kill us. Even the food and drink we ingest to extend our life can become the circumstances that end it. There’s no certainty as to when we’ll die or what will cause our death.

Even if we feel certain that we’ll live a hundred years, many of those years have already passed and we haven’t accomplished much. We approach death like somebody asleep in a railway carriage, constantly getting closer and closer to the destination but unaware of the process. Of course, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We just constantly get ever-closer to death.

No matter how much money, jewelry, houses or clothes we accumulate in life, it makes no difference whatsoever at the time of death. When we die, we go to the next life empty-handed; we cannot take even the tiniest material object with us. Even our body must be left behind; our mind and body separate and our mind goes on alone.

If at death we have to leave our body, our friends and all our possessions, what, then, accompanies our consciousness at that time? Is there anything that can go with it to the next life? Yes, there is. When we die, the karmic imprints that we have accumulated during our life accompany our consciousness.

Creating positive and negative karma

If we have created any of the ten non-virtuous actions, a negative karmic debt accompanies our mind-stream as it evolves into the future rebirth. By killing other beings, stealing others’ possessions or indulging in sexual misconduct, we leave karmic imprints of these negative physical actions on our consciousness. By lying, slandering other people and causing disunity among them, gossiping or speaking harshly, harming others with words, we leave karmic imprints of these negative verbal actions on our consciousness. By harboring covetous thoughts, wishing to have the possessions of others; generating ill-will towards others, wishing them harm; or holding distorted views, such as “there are no past or future lives,” “there’s no such thing as cause and effect” or “there’s no such thing as refuge,” we leave karmic imprints of these negative mental actions on our consciousness. All these negative karmic debts travel with and direct our mind into future rebirths.

The reverse is also true. If we turn away from negativity and create virtuous actions of body, speech and mind, the karmic seeds of these positive actions also travel on our mind-stream and produce better circumstances in our future lives.

If we really think about the situation we’re in we’ll resolve to try to generate positive karma and eliminate its opposite in whatever way we can. In other words, we should try to create as little negativity as possible and purify the seeds of past negative actions so that not even the smallest karmic debt remains to be repaid in our future lives.

We also need to look at the kinds of result that can happen within the law of cause and effect. For example, there’s the story of a person who had many good qualities but was harsh in his speech. Once he abused another person by saying, “You talk like a dog.” As a result, he himself was reborn as a dog five hundred times. Seemingly small negative actions can bring devastating effects.

Similarly, however, small positive actions can also produce great results. For example, there’s the story of the young child who made a humble offering to the Buddha and as a result was reborn as the great king Ashoka, who built thousands of stupas and performed countless other sublime activities.

Developing renunciation

Contemplating the various non-virtues we have committed and their results is a very effective way of ensuring our welfare and happiness. When we think of the suffering we ourselves will have to bear as a result of our negativities, we’ll give birth to the strong, indestructible wish not to have to experience all this misery and will have developed what is called renunciation.

Acquainting ourselves with this type of thinking is itself a form of meditation—analytical meditation. First we develop mindfulness of our own suffering; then we extend this mindfulness to the suffering of all other sentient beings. Considering deeply how all beings want to be completely free of all suffering but are caught in a net of suffering from which they cannot escape leads to compassion.

If we don’t develop the wish to be free from all our own suffering, how can we develop the wish for others to be free from theirs? We can put an end to our own suffering, but this in itself is not ultimately beneficial. We need to extend this wish to all living beings, who also desire happiness. We can train our mind to develop the wish for all sentient beings to be completely parted from their sufferings. This is a much wider and more beneficial way of thinking.

Why should we concern ourselves with the suffering of other living beings? It’s because we receive so much from others: the milk we drink comes from the kindness of others, the warm clothing that protects us from the wind and cold, the house we live in, the money we receive, our precious human body—all these things come from the kindness of others; the list is endless. However, just these few examples should be enough to show us why we should try to find a method that can eliminate the suffering of all the kind mother sentient beings.

No matter what kind of practice we do—the recitation of mantras, any other kind of meditation, whatever it is—we should always do it with the thought, “May this benefit all living beings.” Not only will this help others; it will naturally benefit us as well. Ordinary life situations can give us an appreciation of this: somebody who is very selfish and always works for his or her own gain is never really liked by others whereas somebody who is very kind and always helping others is usually very popular.

The thought we must develop in our mind stream is, “May all beings be happy and may none of them suffer.” We should try to incorporate this thought into our own thinking by remembering it again and again. This will be extremely beneficial. Those who in the past developed this thought are now great buddhas, bodhisattvas or saints; all the truly great people of the world based their lives upon it. How wonderful it would be if we could try to generate this thought within ourselves.

Q. Are we advised not to defend ourselves when somebody tries to harm us?
Serkong Rinpoche. That question introduces a very extensive subject. If somebody hits you over the head with a stick, the best response is to meditate that you experienced this because of your own past negative actions. Think how this person is allowing that particular karmic debt to ripen now rather than at some future time. You should feel gratitude that this person has eliminated that negative karmic debt from your mind stream.

Q. What if somebody attacks my wife or child, who are under my protection? Should I not defend them? Would it be negative to do so?
Serkong Rinpoche. As it is your duty to protect your wife and child, you must try to do so as skillfully as possible. You have to be clever. The best way to protect them is without harming their attacker. In other words, you have to find a method of protecting them whereby you do not inflict any harm.

Q. He can he harm my children but I cannot harm him? Is it not our duty to defend our children against barbarous and cruel acts? Should we just lay down our lives?
Serkong Rinpoche. In order to handle this situation skillfully you need a great deal of courage. There’s a story about a previous life of the Buddha in which he was a navigator who went to sea with a group of five hundred people in search of buried treasure. One of these people had very greedy thoughts of murdering all the others and stealing the jewels for himself. The bodhisattva navigator became aware of the man’s intentions and thought it incorrect to let a situation develop where one man killed five hundred. Therefore, he developed the courageous thought of saving the five hundred by killing this one man, willingly accepting upon himself the full responsibility of killing. If you are willing to be reborn in hell in order to save others, you have a greatly courageous thought and can engage in these acts, just as the Buddha himself did.

Q. Under such circumstances, is killing still considered to be a negative action?
Serkong Rinpoche. Nagarjuna says in his Friendly Letter that if one commits negativity in the name of protecting one’s parents, children, Buddhism or the Three Jewels of Refuge, one will have to experience the consequences. The difference is in whether or not you are aware of the consequences and are willing to take them upon yourself in order to selflessly protect your wife and child. If you harm the enemy, you are going to experience a suffering rebirth. However, you should be willing to face this by thinking, “I will take that suffering on myself so that my wife and child don’t suffer.”

Q. Then according to Buddhism it would still be a non-virtuous act?
Serkong Rinpoche. Protecting your wife and child is virtuous but harming your enemy is not. You have to be willing to accept the consequences of both actions.

Q. You said that those who create negative karma will suffer in the future but those who do good will experience happiness. Can these good actions lead to complete liberation, in the sense of not having to experience rebirth?
Serkong Rinpoche. If you want to gain complete liberation from cyclic existence, you have to follow the teachings of the Buddha completely and precisely. If you do so correctly, liberation from cyclic existence is definitely possible.