The Awakening Mind - Selections
CHAPTER 1: AWAKENING FROM THE SLEEP OF SELFISHNESS
The Essence of the Buddha’s Teachings
Bodhichitta is the essence of all Buddhist practice. The word bodhichitta itself explains so much: bodhi is Sanskrit for “awake” or “awakening,” and chitta for “mind.” As enlightenment is the state of being fully awakened, this precious mind of bodhichitta is the mind that is starting to become completely awakened in order to benefit all other beings. There are two aspects to this mind: the aspiration to benefit others and the wish to attain complete enlightenment in order to do that most skillfully.
In the Mahayana tradition, teachings of the Buddha are divided into three groups, or three “turnings of the wheel of the Dharma.” The teachings on the awakening mind come from the second turning of the wheel of the Dharma, from the huge group of sutras called the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras. Although the explicit subject of these sutras is the nature of emptiness, or shunyata in Sanskrit, their strong implicit focus is on bodhichitta, or how to cultivate it initially, how to keep it, and how to strengthen it once it is cultivated.
To understand the implicit meaning of the Prajnaparamita sutras, Maitreya wrote a commentary entitled The Ornament of Clear Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara). Other commentaries on Maitreya’s work soon followed, including Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland (Ratnavala) and Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). These commentaries further show us how crucial it is to develop the mind of enlightenment and enhance it by engaging in the bodhisattva’s deeds.
Everything the Buddha taught is for the sake of developing this inestimable mind. As the great eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva says in A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:
It is the great sun that finally removes
The misty ignorance of the world.
It is the quintessential butter
From the churning of the milk of Dharma.
For me, this really sums up bodhichitta: just as fresh butter is the essence of milk when we churn it, so bodhichitta is the very essence of Dharma practice. Whatever practice we do on the Buddhist path, if we channel it toward achieving bodhichitta, then we are endeavoring to achieve the essence of all of the Buddha’s teachings.
Shantideva’s quote has particular resonance for me, as I well remember having to churn milk as a child. It was my daily task to milk the 150 goats my family owned and help my mother make butter. We lived in South India where it was incredibly hot, so this had to be done before daybreak. Being the oldest child, it was my responsibility to make sure we had fresh butter for all of our meals. And so I came to know the butter-making process very well.
Churning milk makes many different substances, such as cream, curds, and whey, but the essence is always the butter. Shantideva is asking us to look at our practice as the butter in “the milk of the Dharma,” to understand that through understanding and practicing the Buddha’s teachings we can gain many benefits; still, within them all, the essence is bodhichitta. It must be the core of everything we do.
There are many ways of studying and developing bodhichitta— reading, listening, meditating, and working with it in our environment. Ideally, we will diligently practice all methods with enthusiasm and vigor. But this is often much harder than we initially realize.
Many of us who have been following the Mahayana path for a long time will have already received teachings and initiations where bodhichitta has played a big part. From my own side, however, I can see how so often the mind of bodhichitta remains a superficial mind, a mind simply wishing to help others in the most general way. This is of course a wonderful mind, but it will not lead that far. It is like dreaming of traveling to India but in reality never doing anything to act upon our wish.
We need to find a way to go beyond that simple wish, and so we will be looking at two traditional and very effective step-by-step methods (and their synthesis) for developing the awakening mind. It is quite important—and very productive—to examine the procedure closely: the starting point of the process, what comes next, where that will lead us, and so on. By doing this, our meditation will not just be a wishing state of mind, but will become part of the process of actually achieving bodhichitta. The most precious mind of all, that which cherishes all beings, can become a genuine part of our life, a real gut feeling that motivates us in everything we do, and not just a vague wish.
What follows is like a manual: useless unless used as a practical guide to achieving your goal, the precious mind of bodhichitta. The words on these pages are simply lines of black ink unless they are somehow effective in stimulating the reader to take action, to begin contemplating bodhichitta in a systemic, vigorous way.
My hope is that by the end of this book you will feel that bodhichitta is the most important thing in your spiritual development, and that you will make a firm decision to actually develop it in a step-by-step way, taking your attitude beyond the mere wishing stage to the actualization of the mind intent on the well-being of all beings.
The Benefits of Bodhichitta
A boat delivers one to the other bank.
A needle stitches up one’s clothes.
A horse takes one where one wants to go.
Bodhichitta brings one to buddhahood.
The elixir called the philosopher’s stone
turns the element iron into gold.
Bodhichitta turns this unclean body
into the body of a buddha.
Buddhist masters claim that self-centeredness is behind all our suffering. Although we try to blame our suffering on factors that exist outside ourselves, such as our jobs, our families, and even global warming, Buddhism looks beyond this notion and ascribes it to the self-centered mind. If that is so, the solution must be the opposite, the mind that no longer focuses solely on the self.
Cultivating the awakening mind is the work of many lifetimes, and the goal might seem so far in the distance that we lose sight of it and strive for lesser ones instead. Therefore, from the very beginning, we need to establish the benefits of bodhichitta as clearly and strongly as possible in our minds. This is the motivation for everything we do, nothing less.
I recommend that in order to keep your motivation strong, you should habitually reacquaint yourself with the writings on the bodhichitta practice. In a sense, you should brainwash yourself into seeing that bodhichitta is the only worthwhile mind, and propagandize yourself into becoming a bodhichitta fanatic. We are all subjected to brainwashing and propaganda every day—literally millions of images bombard us, all to do with parting us from our money or bending our minds to another’s way of thinking. But in this way, we are enforcing a kind of positive brainwashing, a deprogramming of the imbedded assumptions that are dominating our lives.
For this reason, guides such as Khunu Rinpoche’s Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea and Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life are particularly helpful in allowing us to refresh our practice and aspiration.
Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is the most beloved book in Tibet. I have seen over thirty commentaries written about it, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama often quotes from it when he is teaching. Reflection on the individual verses stimulates and encourages the mind on its journey, like a key in a car’s ignition.
The Tibetan Dzogchen master Khunu Rinpoche says:
If you start something, start it with bodhichitta.
If you think of something, let the thought be of bodhichitta.
If you analyze something, analyze it in the light of bodhichitta.
If you investigate something, investigate it in the light of bodhichitta.
Lama Tsongkhapa also made this point in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim Chenmo). He said that whenever he asked somebody what their main practice was they would mention some powerful deity, but he rarely met anyone who said, “My practice is bodhichitta.” He thought that was very sad because it indicated the decline of the practice of Buddhadharma. There is certainly nothing wrong with having a tantric deity practice, but to concentrate on Tara, Chenrezig, or another tantric deity at the expense of developing bodhichitta is contradictory, as such deities are founded on bodhichitta. Without the motivation of bodhichitta, our entire practice becomes just another aspect of samsara, and there is no real benefit. With bodhichitta as your motivation, the benefits are infinite.
The Immediate Benefits
At first the mere thought of an immeasurable mind that defies all superlatives is too daunting to conceive, and so it may be helpful to begin by thinking about the many benefits of developing bodhichitta, even on a very mundane level. By reducing our selfishness by even a little, we increase our happiness. So while we are striving for this vast and unimaginable mind that is our ultimate goal, we are at the same time effortlessly fulfilling our natural need to be happy.
The primary concern of bodhichitta is to develop a caring attitude toward others, and by doing so we will also reduce our attachment, aversion, and ignorance, the “three poisons” that are at the heart of all our suffering. At present our mind is ruled by partiality—liking one, disliking another, ignoring a third—but as we develop concern for others and our attachment, aversion, and apathy decrease, we will naturally become more content and happy. The selfish mind is a tight, unhappy mind, whereas the selfless mind is a light, joyful one. It is as if there is a continuum and we are somewhere in the middle, neither totally selfish nor totally selfless. Working toward eliminating our selfishness can only lead to greater degrees of happiness. While this may seem obvious, we have conditioned ourselves to seek happiness through external objects, such as a new car, a fun holiday, or an intense relationship.
The joy and lightness that we feel when we are doing something selfless is the exact opposite of the fear we feel when we are involved in selfish pursuits. The self-centered mind invariably exaggerates things. Objects of its desire become more attractive and objects of its aversion become more repulsive, and in both instances fear plays a big part—fear of losing the object of desire, or fear of the unwanted happening. It is a very simple equation if we consider it: selfishness equals fear and selflessness equals freedom from fear. The more we develop a mind that sincerely cares for others, the more that exaggeration will fall away, and the lighter and easier our life will become. There will definitely be less worry in our life.
There used to be a program on British television called 999, which showed reenactments of dangerous rescues people had performed. It was very popular because when we watch the bravery of people saving lives, we naturally feel an extreme sense of joy and pleasure. And this was just a reenactment on television of somebody else doing something good for others! If we ourselves managed to do something as altruistic, there is no doubt that we would feel real joy. And yet there is no way to compare that temporary accidental state of mind with genuine bodhichitta. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says:
If even the thought to relieve
Living creatures of merely a headache
Is a beneficial intention
Endowed with infinite goodness,
Then what need is there to mention
The wish to dispel their inconceivable misery,
Wishing every single one of them
To realize boundless good qualities?
We all know how grateful we feel when someone offers us even temporary, minor help, such as a pill for a headache, or advice on a computer virus. We should therefore feel so much more grateful to someone trying to develop altruism in order to lead us to the complete cessation of all our suffering.
And as we open ourselves up to the awakening mind, we become lighter and happier, less obsessed with our own personal problems, and have more space for others. Think about the people around us: our friends, co-workers, the men and women we see on the way to work. By cultivating bodhichitta, we are opening ourselves to bringing peace and benefit to all those we encounter. Our joy attracts them to us, and they feel a sense of calm and happiness in our presence, just as one smile can light up many other faces. This can spread to our community, our environment, and to the whole world.
So, no matter how immense the awakening mind of bodhichitta is, from this very moment it can start to change our lives, both positively and radically.
The Long-Term Benefits
If the immediate benefits of developing the awakening mind are wonderful, the long-term benefits are inconceivable. Shantideva says:
All the buddhas who have contemplated for many eons
Have seen it to be beneficial;
For by it the limitless masses of beings
Will quickly attain the supreme state of bliss.
With bodhichitta our life becomes truly meaningful. Our present human body is the result of afflictive emotions and negative karma, and as such is a vessel for suffering, full of the potential for worries and difficulties. But if we can develop bodhichitta in this life, and become what is called a bodhisattva, this human body can become a buddha’s body. Shantideva says:
It is the supreme gold-making elixir,
For it transforms the unclean body we have taken
Into a priceless jewel of a Buddha-Form.
Therefore firmly seize this Awakening Mind.
If we manage to do something good for others spontaneously, even for a few seconds, we ultimately experience a feeling of great joy. This is not an abstract theory or a piece of random advice given to show us a state we can reach far in the future, but instead it is a simple statement of fact that I think we have all experienced at one time or another.
To put it simply, Lama Zopa Rinpoche often says that real happiness in life starts when we begin to cherish others. Bodhichitta will not only reduce our negative emotions, it will finally eliminate them completely because it is the main antidote to the self-centered mind. If all of our fears are caused by the self-centered mind, then cessation of that mind is key to our happiness. By cultivating this mind, every one of our actions is made worthwhile.
Without bodhichitta, even if we gain a direct realization of emptiness, it will not lead us to full enlightenment. We might achieve nirvana, we might become an arhat, but we can go no further than this. That is why it is so important at the very beginning to set our motivations as high as we can, to determine that everything we do is for the purpose of attaining full enlightenment. And the sole reason we want to attain full enlightenment is to benefit all sentient beings.
There is no need to get as far as full enlightenment. The moment we generate bodhichitta in our mindstream, it is as if we are the daughter or son of the Buddha. Shantideva says:
Today my life has (borne) fruit;
(Having) well obtained this human existence,
I’ve been born into the family of Buddha
And now am one of Buddha’s sons.
That’s really amazing, isn’t it? To be born in the Buddha’s family— how nice! How wonderful! Only then can we truly say our life is fruitful.
People claim that they are Mahayana practitioners because they study Tibetan Buddhism and do long sadhanas every day, but if they don’t have a mind set on developing bodhichitta, they cannot be honest in their direction.
Lama Tsongkhapa says in his Lamrim Chenmo that whether or not our practice becomes a Buddhist practice on the bodhisattva path depends on our state of mind. If our mind is the awakening mind of bodhichitta, then even just reciting the mantra to bring temporary wealth will become a practice of the bodhisattva vehicle.
Imagine a life where all of the petty and not so petty concerns of self-interest no longer exist; where you are totally free from fear, worry, and indecision; where the wish to help others arises continually and spontaneously, and causes not heaviness and dread, but the most incredible joy, enabling you to have the energy and ability to make a profound difference.
Perhaps we can’t really imagine what having such a mind would be like, but if we are lucky enough to have met the most accomplished Buddhist teachers, then we can easily see this in operation. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hahn, Ajahn Sumedho—wonderful beings such as these—are living examples of what an awakening mind can be like. Utterly free of self-interest, they are invariably light, happy, humble, humorous, and above all totally compassionate and loving. They are the role models we should use when thinking about bodhichitta.
Why do people seem naturally drawn to people such as Lama Zopa Rinpoche? It isn’t because he is from Nepal, or because he has a different face, or because he wears different robes. I think it is because he has that kind of mind. It is clear he totally cares for others, and so we love him and enjoy being around him. Because of his truly kind heart, his presence brings us so much joy. Our aspirations follow his guidance.
If this mind is so desirable, what can prevent us from seeking and eventually finding it? The answer is simply habit and conditioning. The habit of considering ourselves first has been with us for countless lifetimes and it has made us petty and weak, easily confused and easily manipulated. We see advertisements on the television for products such as fast cars, new clothes, and loud electronics, and we immediately are persuaded to think that we want, and need, these things. It seems so easy to manipulate our minds toward meaningless things and yet so difficult to point them toward spiritual things.
Even if a heavy smoker knows smoking will kill him, the habit is still hard to break. It is the same with the habit of self-centeredness. The habit is so strong because it is an addiction we have had for countless lifetimes. If we could truly understand our situation in samsara, we would see with shocking clarity how crucial it is to break that bad habit of ours, to stop being so easily manipulated by samsaric things and to start following the spiritual path. From my own side, I can see the huge gap between the logical understanding of the suffering nature of cyclic existence and the intuitive wish for comfort and pleasure. I cannot, at a heart level, see the fragility of the “happiness” I am now experiencing, and so my motivation to break free of the self-centered mind is still weak.
If a mountain climber halfway up a very steep rock face loses concentration, it is very dangerous. That is the situation we are all in at present: we are human beings and reasonably well off, especially from the material point of view of the West. At present, because of these transient material things supporting us, we seem quite safe and comfortable. But, even though it is certain that our support is going to disappear, we lack awareness of this. If we could really understand how unaware we are, that might be the shock we need to break the bad habit of relying on such things, and it could be the thing needed to encourage us to develop spiritually.
What is very clear is that we can train to have this mind called bodhichitta. It is possible. And if we have this kind of mind, there is no doubt it will be the source of true happiness for ourselves and for others. Ultimately it will lead us to full enlightenment, but more immediately the awakening mind can bring huge benefits to ourselves and others, as well as so much joy.
Chapter 2: Steps on the Path
For many of us, a critical part of our Buddhist identity involves a spiritual pilgrimage to Bodhgaya. Such a journey requires months of preparation. We must consult with our Dharma teachers, chart out the pilgrimage, save our money and create a budget, arrange for transportation and lodging, and do all the necessary paperwork. All of this takes an incredible amount of energy and determination before even stepping foot on a plane.
In this sense, we know how to prepare for the task at hand. We may not know, however, that there are also clearly defined steps along the road to bodhichitta, aiding us in our personal, mental journey to the awakened mind.
Like going on a pilgrimage, we must also rearrange our lives through preparation and practice. There are three set stages for developing the awakening mind necessary for all individuals, and they have been formalized into three methods traditionally taught in Tibetan monasteries. The first involves the seven points of cause and effect, which allows us to contemplate compassion for others in order to generate the awakening mind. The second stage involves equalizing and exchanging ourselves with others, pushing us to contemplate samsara outside of our own beings and sensations. And finally, the third stage is a method that combines the first and second stages through a rigorous and disciplined approach. But in the same way that we must initially prepare to go on a pilgrimage, we have a great amount of work to do before taking on the responsibility of freeing all beings from suffering and leading them to ultimate peace. Developing the awakening mind takes time, skill, and determination, and there are preliminaries to prepare first: renunciation, stability, and equanimity.
Renunciation and Stability
As we discussed in the previous chapter, we can never think about cultivating the awakening mind until we have a clear, strong motivation to overcome all of the difficulties we will face. This involves rearranging our lives and renouncing those things that hinder our paths (the petty, ego-related concerns) and developing those that help us (the clear, concentrated mind that has the strength to transform itself).
Our first step in this direction involves developing a strong understanding of the true nature of cyclic existence—how we are governed by mental afflictions that condition everything we do and trap us in the ever-repeating series of causes and results called samsara. Life after life we go through this process, endlessly enduring suffering both major and minor, physical and mental. To understand this is not to adopt a fatalistic philosophy or dogma aimed at developing meekness and morality. We simply push our minds to understand the reality of our situations and then strive to overcome it. It is only when we clearly see the truth of our conditioned existence that we will have the desire to be free of it, able to actively do something about the situation, and wish to help all others who are in the same position.
As we contemplate cyclic existence and suffering, we find ourselves becoming frustrated with the petty, ego-driven desires and aversions that dominate and trap us in a cycle of neediness. Understanding the true nature of samsara, we begin to rise above it, generating a desire that is wholly aimed at benefiting and helping others. This is referred to as renunciation, although it has nothing to do with denying ourselves pleasure, the usual Western connotation, but instead involves lifting ourselves slowly out of the quagmire of conditioned existence, based wholly on an understanding of samsara.
The nineteenth-century Tibetan practitioner and scholar Gungthang Jampelyang left powerful advice for monks in various stages of their education. He said that life’s activities are like ripples in water: as soon as one experience passes us, another is beginning, eventually multiplying infinitely around us. He then asked monks whether or not this is not the best time to immediately cut the cycle of unfinished activities and begin simplifying their already simple lives.
Many of us have dependents, families, and responsibilities that keep us from walking away from it all, but we all need to take the time to analyze our activities and see which are necessary and which are superfluous for survival. Not only do we not need these extravagances and add-ons, but we can easily see how they are binding us with attachment and aversion, entangling us in desire for short-term material wealth and gain. With inspection, we see that we can create a mind determined to free us and others from the power of delusion, anger, and attachment, bringing long-term benefits for ourselves and others.
Preparation is not a new concept for the Western student. We are constantly preparing for our lives, taking placement exams, applying to colleges, interviewing for careers, and finally striving to provide a comfortable life for our families. But at some point we begin to sense that there is something else we need to prepare for, something just beyond our grasp. There comes a time when we realize that a bigger house, a better promotion, or a faster car won’t make us truly happy. There is always another step on the ladder, but we have no idea where it is leading us.
We realize how little of our hard work has been aimed toward the fulfillment of pure, true happiness when we see how unhappy and unfulfilled we really are. We see the flaws in our strategy, and decide to change ourselves at the mental level. By eliminating what is superfluous and time-wasting, we are giving ourselves the space to see the mind’s real potential, leading us to a strong desire to develop ourselves. By concentrating on what has meaning, we renounce the worthless aspects of the life we have worked so hard to build.
This concentration and clarity provides the groundwork for our introspective meditation practice. This second preliminary, stability, is the ability of the mind to abide on one object without interference from mental distractions. Meditation, a term so many use but so few understand, means to habituate the mind to positive states, stabilizing the mind in calmness and clarity. This is in particular called the mind of calm abiding (Skt. shamatha, Tib. shine), and we will consider it in the next section, when we look at the equanimity of application.
Before moving forward into our practice of compassionate meditation, we need to develop a sense of equanimity in our minds. Our goal is to train ourselves in the seven points of cause and effect technique, recognizing that all sentient beings have been our mother, and feeling at the deepest level that there is no difference between ourselves and all other beings.
The term equanimity has different meanings, both culturally and contextually. Even Buddhist scholars cite three different types of equanimity
- equanimity of feeling
- equanimity of application
- immeasurable equanimity
The Equanimity of Feeling
Equanimity of feeling is, strangely enough, not a factor in developing bodhichitta. Feeling is in essence one of the mental factors that must always be present as long as the mind functions, so if we are experiencing neither pleasure nor displeasure, there will arise a neutral feeling, or a feeling of indifference. As our aim is to cease the functions of a mind tied to the cyclic existence, this isolated and introverted mind disconnects us from others and as such does nothing to move us toward bodhichitta.
The Equanimity of Application
While the equanimity of feeling aids us in understanding the body and mind we inhabit, the equanimity of application enables us to more fully develop spiritually, giving us the stability necessary to develop the third preliminary, immeasurable equanimity. It is a very advanced mind, the last of the nine stages of developing calm abiding, in which context it is called the equal-setting mind. By concentrating on the strongest distractions we face in meditation, we reduce the dull, sinking mind and the excited, scattered mind. The practicing Buddhist knows that this busy-ness is in fact a kind of laziness, a way of letting the mind escape the true business at hand.
By developing this equanimity of application, we come to see that we can use the mind as a foundation for developing the most critical form of equanimity. This third form can be cultivated within ourselves by one of two ways, based on either our wish for others’ wellbeing, or on our relationship with others. In one sense, we contemplate the fact that all sentient beings around us are tangled in a web of self-induced affliction and hostility, and we develop a strong wish for all living beings to be free of samsara and its causes. In a second sense, we cultivate a mind that is truly impartial toward all beings, holding each relationship with the same regard and affection as the next. In effect, we treat all beings with equanimity and develop a mind indiscriminate of affection and aversion.
In the Lamrim Chenmo, Tsongkhapa advises us that:
In this context, your meditation is on the distinction between friend and enemy. You do not have to eliminate the concept of friend or enemy, but the partiality arising from your attachment and aversion, based on the view that some people are your friends and some are your enemies.
We can cultivate this immeasurable equanimity using a series of meditations, including examining the need of all living beings to gain happiness and avoid suffering, analyzing our own partiality, and seeing how harmful our actions can potentially be for ourselves and others. We become aware of the fact that in order to secure our own happiness, we can often block others from their own goals and joys. We realize that in grasping for objects and individuals, we make erroneous distinctions between friends and enemies, the partiality obscuring our clarity and causing harm. But by meditating on this partial mind, we bring ourselves closer to immeasurable equanimity.
The Buddhist scriptures state that we should feel equally close to all sentient beings, so often it may feel as if we are meant to distance ourselves from our good friends in order to cultivate this kind of equanimity. While we need to reevaluate our strongest relationships, we should see that it is most worthwhile for us to find ways of overcoming the attachment that is usually the reason for this closeness.
Attachment and closeness are two separate things, but often attachment brings about closeness. We know that we can never find equanimity if we are ruled by attachment, so we should therefore ask ourselves how much our relationships are ruled by love, and how much by self-interest.
Self-interest plays a very large part in many of our personal relationships. A person helps me in some way—perhaps by stroking my ego, by being my friend and making me feel worthwhile, or by helping me get something I want—and so I feel “close” to him or her. While the help this person may bring is real, the process is wrong: this person is special because she has helped me, that person is not special because she has not helped me. The mind exaggerates the quality of a person based on a very superficial criterion of help or harm. When we are honest with ourselves, we can see how illogically partial we are about other people, simply based upon how they treat us. This is true even of our spiritual teachers: we need to separate the closeness we feel for them from any attachment we might have developed. Any attachment, even to someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is destructive.
In the same way, and using the same logic, we need to reduce the aversion we feel for the other class of beings, those who have harmed us in some way. Just as attachment to friends is unrealistic and narrowing, so too is aversion toward other beings. If we truly want to develop the mind of enlightenment, we need to include compassion for those who antagonize us in some way or another. It doesn’t help to seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings except your ex-girlfriend or your landlord.
When my teacher gave teachings on this topic, he used the example of a nomad looking after a great flock of sheep. The sheep are all nameless and look exactly alike, but the nomad is concerned for all of them equally. There is no particular sheep he feels closer to, no lamb he particularly wishes to punish. It is our goal and mission to develop that mind for all sentient beings, going beyond the actual or imagined harm we perceive others to have done to us and instead seek the long-term happiness for ourselves and all others. With little reflection, we know that by obsessing on the short-term, superficial problems, we are destroying any chance we have to develop spiritually.
The Changeable Nature of Relationships
When we are finally able to see how we are continually pigeonholing people as “friend,” “enemy,” and “stranger,” we can begin to understand the ultimate error in our categorizing mind. The implications of this error cause major damage in not only our present life, but in the life cycle that precedes and follows us from life to life.
Nagarjuna, in his Letter to a Friend, states:
One’s father becomes one’s son and one’s mother, one’s wife. And the person who was an enemy becomes a beloved friend. Thus there is no certainty in cyclic existence.
The meditation on equanimity is a method of breaking down this process of categorization.
Even the tiniest reasons will cause us to change our feelings entirely for a person. If a stranger gives me a big smile while riding on the bus to work, I like him just for that reason. But if he is in a bad mood the next day and ignores me, I feel shunned and hurt, as if I always knew he was a nasty person! We know that people who were once considered avowed enemies are close friends now. This is most definitely a factor of the constantly fluid, changing nature of our mind.
Through further meditation and contemplation, we also come to realize that even our attractions and aversions are not as simple and concrete as we initially suspected. Even those people to whom we have a strong aversion are people we also have a strong closeness with, even though this closeness exists only in a negative form at this stage. But with merely a small change, we may come to realize that this aversion can transform into a friendship given the right conditions. How often do we complain about our boss, that he is unfairly treating us? But perhaps were we to spend some social time with our boss, we would come to realize that his home life is a mess, and a kind word from us might turn his attitude around entirely, and change our initial aversion into sincere affection.
If we believe in future lives, then contemplating how relationships change from life to life is very helpful in developing equanimity. Not only does father become daughter and sister become uncle, but lover becomes enemy. Furthermore, in the context of future lives, the harm inflicted upon us now becomes quite superficial and short-term. At most it will last until we die, whereas whatever hostility we have created within our own minds because of that harm will cause us suffering into the next life and beyond.
When we are so obsessed with our own pain, we fail to consider others’ positions and feelings. While we can easily forgive ourselves for becoming angry by saying “I was not myself,” we often find it relatively impossible to reach the same conclusion when it comes to others’ actions. Like us, they are not driven by wisdom or compassion, but by their confused and deluded minds. It is their delusion that is harming us. Seeing that this is so, we can finally begin to reduce our anger and aversion toward others.
The focus of this stage of our spiritual development is on bringing our thoughts and emotions into a more neutral state of mind. From this feeling of neutrality, we will be able to later develop a mind of closeness to all beings, friends, enemies, and complete strangers. We come to realize that they, like ourselves, want happiness and do not wish for sorrow. By equalizing our relationships with all sentient beings, we lower attachment to friends, reduce aversion to enemies, and become sympathetic to those outside our awareness. But our full aim is to move toward developing neutrality, and this is the next step in our stages of meditative development.
Lessening Our Aversion
Even when we can understand that attachment to friends and aversion for enemies are destructive minds, it is not easy to overcome them. In Buddhist psychology, the term collective generality describes the way this conceptual mind can overcome a whole group and form a general opinion.
We can use a spider as a wonderful example. Even without a picture, we can all form a mental image of a spider and feel a sense of aversion rising within us. When we consider this spider image in our head, feelings of dislike come to us naturally.
For Tibetans, we struggle with an aversion toward the Chinese. We logically know that individual Chinese people are the same as us, and it is only a relatively small group of leaders with a certain ideology who give the orders. Everyone else is as powerless against them in the same way we Tibetans are. But to so many Tibetans, it is all Chinese; there is that feeling of dislike triggered by the collective generality. We are all prey to stereotypes and prejudices, even if they do not manifest as racial hatred.
It is absolutely critical that we confront and overcome this subjection to the collective generality. We need to see the distorted feeling of aversion or attraction that arises when we apply to one individual the exaggerated general characteristics of a group, or when we rely on our own personal discrimination to cloud our overall understanding.
Often, we go as far as to let one incident inflict itself upon the “big picture,” coloring our entire lives with anger and resentment, allowing us to bring negativity and blame upon further situations and experiences. We say things like “He has ruined my life by doing that particular thing,” but we have trouble understanding that we are ruining our lives further by harboring hatred in our hearts. The harm continues long after the action has ceased, in much the same way the very idea of spiders continues to cause fear in our hearts.
Buddhist texts suggest two ways of dealing with this: by looking inward and seeing how it is our continuing aversion that is harming us now rather than the initial act, and by looking at the perpetrator and examining the motives behind his actions, and thus seeing beyond the harm done to ourselves.
Shantideva also gives us wonderful verses explaining the disadvantages of aversion and the advantages of equanimity in the sixth chapter of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. He says:
There is no evil like hatred,
And no fortitude like patience.
Thus I should strive in various ways
To meditate on patience.
My mind will not experience peace
If it fosters painful thoughts of hatred.
I shall find no joy or happiness,
Unable to sleep, I shall feel unsettled.
This passage shows that we need to do more than simply recognize the fact that the mind of aversion is wrong, we need to realize that it actually harms us. This is not to say that we should act passively if we are being harmed by another individual, but we should restrain ourselves and act without anger or malice. When we counter anger with anger, a chain reaction is set in place; by countering anger with understanding, there is the potential for peace.
The Meditation on Equanimity
To begin the actual meditation on equanimity, start with a few minutes of breathing meditation, concentrating on the sensation of the air going in and out of your nostrils. This calms and focuses the mind.
Then, when you feel you are ready, visualize a good friend sitting in front of you. Bring up the feelings of warmth and joy that you usually experience when this person is near, and think about some of the things that the two of you do together, without letting yourself be distracted by any particular memories. Concentrate on the overall sense of that friendship.
Now, begin exploring your own mind in this relationship. What makes you feel so strongly attached to this person, this friendship? How is your love pure and unconditional? Or do you see some way you are benefiting in this relationship? Does this person make you feel intelligent, good, or beautiful?
Consider how anything less than unconditional love is dangerous in that it changes with conditions. If in this meditation on your friendship, you realize that some aspect of it relies on what that person provides for you, you must realize that it is a finite commodity, and it will eventually run out or expire. Love and attachment are two completely different things, and it is necessary to see each in our relationships with others. Our relationships are generally mixtures of love and attachment, and our goal is to decrease the attachment in order to achieve equanimity and understanding.
After you feel comfortable in this practice, move to visualize in front of you a person who is harming you in some way. While we are much too civilized to label these people “enemies,” this should be a person who upsets you to a greater extent than most. It could be the neighbor who beats his wife, the mechanic who is robbing you blind, or an ex-spouse who is still demanding things from you. If no one comes to mind, it is also beneficial to consider world figures—terrorists, politicians, representatives of something you feel is ultimately wrong in the world—and use them as your reference.
Again, as with the friendship visualization, don’t dwell on the circumstances of this individual, replaying the soap opera in your mind. Instead, explore how your mind reacts to this. You feel aversion for this person, but why? How much of this pain and suffering is caused by his actions at one point in time, and not because the person is inherently evil? You should see that the aversion you are experiencing now is far more damaging than the harm this person originally did to you. By contemplating that, we separate ourselves from our anger and find that we can, in fact, manage it.
When you have fully explored this relationship, repeat the same practice with a stranger. You have no feelings toward this person: why? He or she most likely plays no part in your life, and therefore will not be an object of attachment or aversion in your mind. But it is not because this person is inherently uninteresting. It is a simple fact that we are so absorbed in our own story, and the “friends” and “enemies” that crowd that story, that there is no time for the myriad other beings that co-inhabit this planet with us. We hear of a tragedy in South America and might think how terrible it is, but, realistically, it probably does not touch us at all deeply. By contemplating why we feel apathy for the vast majority of beings, we can start to see how limiting and destructive our partiality is.
Once you have fully visualized these three separate individuals, it is necessary to take an interesting step further. At this point, you understand that what you intuitively feel as external intrinsic condition—good, bad, neutral—is only a projection of your mind, based on how that person has affected you. Now, however, visualize all three people sitting in front of you. Look at their differences. Perhaps your good friend has a sweet smile, the overbearing boss has a sneer, and the stranger makes no real impression on you. How many of your judgments are based on surface factors? By examining all three of them together, we can come to realize their similarities.
By visualizing all three, we can come to see that there are many small joys and disappointments throughout each individual’s life. Probe deeper, perhaps creating whole histories, and begin to see the comparable experiences each one has gone through. Ultimately, they are sentient beings, their mindsets are created by delusions, and their deepest needs involve attaining happiness and avoiding suffering. The same suffering and happiness that plague us also act as the root causes of their actions, and that is why your friend tells outrageous jokes, your boss bullies you, and the stranger on the train buries her head in a book and avoids eye contact.
Our sense of equanimity grows when we come to realize how similar we are once we really contemplate ourselves with others. Common feelings at this point in the meditation involve lessened aversion for those we dislike and lessened attraction for those we enjoy. We might actually come to feel, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama often states, that “there are no more strangers, just people who haven’t become part of our lives yet.” But by repeating this meditation, either in formal situations or whenever you notice attachment, aversion, or apathy, the feelings of categorizations will eventually subside in ourselves and the intuitive feelings we have for people will lose their power in our judgment.
Once this feeling of equality becomes apparent, both in your meditative practice and in your everyday feelings, you will realize that this equalization will occur without discrimination or distinction. This is the first step—seeing them all as your dear friends can come later. At this early stage, the cost might be a slight distance from people in general, but the reward is an equanimity that can grow into boundless compassion.
While we are contemplating and comparing others, it is wholly important to remember that we must never stop observing our own behavior at all times. Watch your own behavior as you walk down the street and I’m sure you will find that you connect with certain individuals and recoil from others. This is a continuous process—we find ourselves smiling at adorable children in their strollers, but we try to stay far away from homeless men asking us for spare change. By working through this meditation, we are taking the various points of equanimity very seriously and diligently working to see the benefits of developing this mind of immeasurable equanimity. It’s necessary to take this process step by step, being creative in our visualizations and developing a method that makes sense to our own personal minds. This is not, however, a process that we take up at the beginning of our practice and abandon later in life—it is a sequence of practices that will be helpful for the rest of our lives. This is the true core of Buddhism, and from this equanimity all other great minds can develop.