Question: If one is from a different religious background, follow the basic vows and believe in the concepts behind Kalachakra but are concerned about maintaining the daily ritual, should one take the initiation?
Answer: For such a person during the ceremony of Kalachakra empowerment there are two parts. One part is up to the entry into the mandala, which includes the preparatory empowerment ceremony and then the second part is the actual empowerment, once one is inside the mandala. Such a person can participate in the first part of the ceremony up to entry into the mandala.
While performing the ceremony I will actually point to the members of the audience those who are willing to take the entire empowerment can perform all of the visualizations. Those who wish to only participate up to the entry into the mandala can perform all of the visualizations up to that point and then after that point they can simply be present here as a witness, as an observer. Anyway I will point this out during the actual ceremony.
Question: When I am confronted by others’ sufferings, I am saddened by it. Is this sadness the same as compassion or does true compassion have a different quality to it?
Answer: Certainly it is a basis for generating compassion but true compassion needs to be based on the recognition of suffering of all three levels that I spoke of earlier [suffering of suffering, suffering of change, pervasive suffering of conditioned existence].
Question: Please clarify the distinctions between that aspect of ourselves we call “I” or self that is illusory and that part of the individual’s consciousness which is not illusory, absorbing karmic imprints and transcends impermanence and so on?
Answer: I think a discussion of this may come up later while I comment on Shantideva’s chapter.
Question: You have written that you have sighted a passage from a sutra that those who see dependent origination sees the Dharma; those who see the Dharma sees the Tathagata. In this context I would like to ask, is there any difference between seeing the Buddhanature and the attainment of wisdom?
Answer: I feel that if the realization arising from the experience of seeing the Buddhanature or whether it be the experience of the attainment of wisdom as the Chinese scriptures describe, if these realizations are genuine realizations derived through such practices I think they must converge ultimately on the same point. This is also the same for example if one looks at some of the meditative practices of Dzogchen or Mahamudra, there are methods by which the essence of the practices are distilled and then presented in a very concise manner.
However I do believe there is a difference in terms of the presentation. For example if one looks at the works of Nagarjuna and other Indian pundits there are extensive and elaborate discussions on how one can cultivate an understanding of the Buddhanature. However if one compares these writings to other Indian writings such as the Dohas, the experiential songs of the great Mahasiddhas then one will also find a different perspective, a different way of approaching the same issue from an experiential point of view. But ultimately I feel that all of these must converge on the same point.
Of course it is difficult for me to give a full explanation without completely being aware of what exactly you have in mind when you asked this question. There is otherwise the danger that if the question is asked with a fuzzy mind then the teacher might also give a response with a fuzzy mind leading to unnecessary complications and headache.
Question: You said only a perfectly enlightened being knows what teachings will help and which teachings will harm but I need teachings to stay on track with my practice. All of the lamas say they are not enlightened. Also I teach ethics and spiritual healing and I seem to help people. Is this correct? Can I teach my perceptions of the truth? How much harm am I doing?
Answer: For example in my own case here in this setting, I am giving explanations of the Buddha’s teachings and the Buddhist path. When I do so I am doing this on the basis of texts which were written by great masters and also by grounding my explanations on the basis of the great Indian masters. All of these have their roots in the Buddha’s own sutras so when I give teachings here I have no illusion that in some sense I am presenting you something that I myself have come up with, some new perspective based on my own intellectual views. Rather I see myself as a medium for what has already been written and what has already been taught.
In fact as is said in the Tibetan tradition, the authenticity of a teaching must have its roots so that it can be traced back to the Buddha himself. Just as the purity of a stream of water can be judged by tracing it back to its source, in the same manner what I present here as explanations are grounded within the parameters of the insights and knowledge that were presented by the past great masters. Some of these masters wrote texts out of their personal experience and some who had the knowledge to present these views.
Similarly if you are teaching ethics to others and then if your teaching helps people then of course it is commendable. But perhaps on your own part the most important thing is to insure that your own motivation is unpolluted, it is pure and altruistic.
Question: In taking the vows during the Kalachakra initiation does one also satisfy taking the basic Buddhist vow of refuge?
Answer: Of course. In fact right from the point where one participated in the ceremony of generating the mind for enlightenment and when you recited “I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha” in that itself one has taken refuge. I think it is important however to understand how an individual becomes a Buddhist. One should not have the idea that only by participating in a ceremony of taking refuge in the presence of someone else that it makes one a Buddhist. This is certainly not the case.
One becomes a Buddhist even without participating in a ceremony once one has developed a deep conviction in the efficacy of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, the Three Jewels as one’s ultimate source of refuge. Out of this recognition if one then entrusts one’s spiritual wellbeing to the Three Jewels, from that point onward one has become a Buddhist whether or not one participated in a ceremony. Similarly if there comes a day when one loses one’s faith in the efficacy of the Three Jewels as the ultimate source of refuge, at that point one is no longer a Buddhist. So do not have the notion that somehow there needs to be a public ceremony that admits one into the Buddhist order or that there is a ceremony where people are expelled from the Buddhist community. Do not have that kind of notion.
However my personal view is that at the initial stage, I think it is possible for one individual to have deep admiration, faith and conviction in Jesus Christ, what he represents. Similarly at the same time one can have equally strong faith, admiration and devotion to the Buddha. So this is not a question of half-hearted faith in the Buddha or in the Christ. As far as the individual is concerned their faith and admiration is single-pointed in both Buddha and Christ.
However as the practitioner deepens their spiritual practice, embarking on the spiritual path further then the understanding dimension, particularly understanding based on philosophical contemplations play a tremendously important role. So one reaches a point where one needs to pursue a single path, like someone doing research exclusively in one field. For example if someone’s spiritual inclination is more strongly theistic where the belief in a creator is a foundation then one needs to pursue that path. Pursuing that path deeper comes into conflict with the Buddhist idea of dependent origination.
Similarly within the Buddhist tradition itself, it is possible that at the initial stage someone may be practicing at the level of skillful means or method aspects of the path such as compassion and the cultivation of bodhicitta. At this level such a practitioner may not have any particular inclination towards any particular philosophical standpoint. However as that practitioner proceeds more deeply into the path then the insight dimension based on philosophical contemplation becomes crucial. At that point the practitioner needs to follow their inclination and choose one of the philosophical paths whether it be the Lesser Vehicle or the Greater Vehicle. Even within the Greater Vehicle there are subdivisions such as Mind-Only or Madhyamika.
Now back to Shantideva’s text. From verse ninety the main instructions for cultivating the practice of bodhicitta through the method of Exchanging Self and Other begins. I think it is ver beneficial if one combines the contemplations presented in the chapter on patience with the contemplations and practices presented in this chapter on meditation. If one combines them together it is very beneficial.
The practice begins with the following verse:
First of all I should make an effort
To meditate upon the equality between myself and others:
I should protect all beings as I do myself
Because we are all equal in (wanting) pleasure and (not wanting) pain.
This verse points out the practice that I spoke about earlier which is the practice of cultivating equality towards by recognizing the fundamental equality of self and others. Just as oneself, others also are fundamentally equal in having the aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering. Therefore one needs to cultivate the thought that in terms of one’s willingness to be of service to others both through one’s thoughts and actions, one will not make any discrimination between self and others. One needs to relate with others equally.
Although there are many different parts and aspects such as the hand,
As a body that is to be protected they are one.
Likewise all the different sentient beings in their pleasure and their pain
Have a wish to be happy that is the same as mine.
Shantideva said that just as there are many different parts of the body but are all part of a single body. Similarly when one speaks of sentient beings or others although there might be a great diversity and multiplicity but all of them are equal, are one in sharing the fundamental aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering.
The suffering that I experience
Does not cause any harm to others.
But that suffering (is mine) because of my conceiving of (myself as) “I”;
Thereby it becomes unbearable.
Likewise the misery of others
Does not befall me.
Nevertheless, by conceiving of (others as) “I” their suffering becomes mine;
Therefore it too should be hard to bear.
In the next two lines Shantideva says that although one’s own suffering does not cause any harm to others but because one’s suffering is part of the thought “I am”, therefore it feels unbearable when one experiences it. Similarly others too, although their suffering may not materially be experienced by one, but because others’ sufferings are also objects of the thought “I am” of other sentient beings, one should also, if one cultivates the thought, be able to get to the point where one also feels it as unbearable seeing others suffer.
Hence I should dispel the misery of others
Because it is suffering, just like my own,
And I should benefit others
Because they are sentient beings, just like myself.
The rationale for this is that one should work to dispel that suffering simply because it is just like one’s own suffering, it is suffering and therefore one should strive to dispel it. One should benefit others because they are sentient beings just like oneself. The fact that others are sentient beings is enough justification for one to be of benefit to others.
When both myself and others
Are similar in that we wish to be happy,
What is so special about me?
Why do I strive for my happiness alone?
Shantideva goes on to explain that oneself and others are equal in having the wish to be happy. Not only are both fundamentally equal in having this aspiration to be happy but also both have the same right to fulfill this basic aspiration to be happy. Also oneself and others both have the opportunity to be happy and fulfill this aspiration. If this is the case that both oneself and others are fundamentally equal in having the aspiration, same right to fulfill that aspiration and the same opportunities then what is so special about oneself? One’s own suffering and one’s own wellbeing that one cherishes so much instead of others is not special.
Shantideva makes the same observation with regards to the basic aspiration to avoid suffering. He writes:
And when both myself and others
Are similar in that we do not wish to suffer,
What so special about me?
Why do I protect myself and not others?
-But why should I protect them
If their suffering does not cause me any harm? –
Then why protect myself against future suffering
If it causes me no harm now?
Sometimes one may have the opinion that since others happiness or pain has no direct bearing on one’s own personal experience, why should one care for others? Why should one care about others’ happiness or suffering? One may think that one should only care about someone else’s wellbeing only if that person has some relation to one. If that person has been kind to me or if one is indebted to that person then one will care about them. If that is the underlying motivation for sense of caring and concern for others’ wellbeing then one can also raise questions as to whether the motivation for caring about one’s own wellbeing as far as future suffering is concerned. Future suffering does not cause one harm in the present.
One could respond to this by saying that although future suffering is not experienced now, it is valid for one to protect oneself against potential suffering. This is because when future suffering does occur it is oneself, the same person who will undergo that painful experience. Shantideva questions this motive behind such thinking in the next verse where he says:
It is a mistaken concept to think
That I shall experience (the sufferings of my next life).
For it is another person who dies
And another who is reborn.
If one examines this carefully underlying such a motivation is a belief in a permanent, enduring self. In fact if one analyzes this in detail then the person who is currently committing the act and the person who experiences the result in the future are not exactly the same. One can refer to the sameness in an individual in terms of its continuum but the self of today is contingent upon particular circumstances and conditions as well as particular mental and physical characteristics. Whereas the self of tomorrow or the next life is another self that is contingent upon a different set of particular circumstances and conditions. The underlying belief that there is some kind of enduring entity is false. Still this does not undermine the validity of one preparing so that one protects oneself against potential future suffering, as there is a relationship between the current person and future suffering.
If this is the case then one could say that even though one’s own experience of others’ suffering may not be a direct link between the two but if one reflects carefully there is a sense of interrelation. Indirectly there is a connection between others’ wellbeing and one’s own wellbeing. If others suffer one also suffers as a result. Furthermore individuals live in societies in relation with other beings and so if the collective society suffers then of course the individual members of that collection also suffer. From these points of view one realizes that in fact there is a relationship between one’s own interests and others’ interests so that caring for others’ interests is also in the interest of individual themselves.
One cannot say that one is kind to oneself or that one owes something to oneself. Still without question one pursues the task of fulfilling one’s own aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering. One cares about one’s own wellbeing simply by virtue of the fact that one has the basic aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering. If this is the case then others too regardless of whether they have extended any kindness towards one or not simply by virtue of the fact that they are a sentient being. There is enough rationale for one to be concerned about others’ wellbeing, their happiness or suffering.
Especially when one thinks about enemies who one feels no grounds for caring about, because from the point of view of that person as being an enemy because of certain acts committed against one. However from another point of view by the simple virtue of the fact that the enemy too is a sentient being, one has sufficient grounds to be concerned about their welfare. This is because an enemy, like all others has the basic aspiration to be happy and overcome suffering.
-Surely whenever there is suffering
The (sufferer) must protect himself from it-
But the suffering of the foot is not that of the hand,
Why then does it protect it?
Shantideva also challenges the very idea of a need for any direct relationship between two individuals in order for one of them to take concern for the other’s wellbeing. He wrote that if that is the case if there has to be a direct connection between the two for one to assist the other according to this kind of logic then it be illogical for the hand to come to the help a pain in the leg. This is because the hand and the leg, although they are part of one body there is no direct relation between the two. In fact however when there is a pain in the leg the hand comes down to rub the leg. One does so because the hand and leg are part of a whole body. Similarly when one cultivates the thought of self and others, within the category of sentient beings one can appreciate the oneness at a level where as oneself wishes to be happy so do all other sentient beings. From this point of view of the basic aspiration there is no difference only a fundamental equality.
In verse one hundred Shantideva pursues further this issue by stating:
-Although this may not be justified,
It is done because of grasping at a self-
But surely whatever is not justified for myself or others
Should at all costs be rejected.
In fact when one examines carefully the rationale upon which one discriminates between one’s own interest and that of others and take care only for one’s own, is because underlying all of one’s conduct is the strong belief is some kind of enduring self. There is the belief in some kind of substantially real, independent self and once one has this kind of belief in a substantial self then because of grasping to the self one feels that whatever appears to be in the interest of this self is of great importance. The suffering of this self needs to be discarded and the happiness of this self needs to be attained. So there is a degree of intensity because of this strong grasping to a substantial self.
Shantideva states that if this is the rationale for clinging on to one’s own interests then such a sense of self is false. In fact instead of strengthening the rationale for being concerned only about one’s own wellbeing, it undermines it, as it is a false conception that one needs to discard.
I think there is an internal dialogue going on here. On the one hand one imagines an objective self that is capable of weighing the pros and cons of being concerned about only one’s own interest. On the other hand is concern for others’ wellbeing as well. In a corner of one’s mind one can imagine this sort of objective perspective but at the same time one can view one’s normal mode of thinking where one tends to regard one’s own interest as most important ignoring the interests and happiness of other sentient beings. When one engages in this kind of internal dialogue then as a result of seeing the perspective of the more objective part of oneself, one may at the level of the intellect feel convinced of the rationality of that kind of perspective. But because of one’s strong grasping at a self along with its accompanying strong emotions, if one feels unable to actually integrate that knowledge, that awareness, this indicates one’s reluctance to accept this perspective. It is more of an emotional reaction.
In the following verses Shantideva continues to undermine the very basis for making the extreme discrimination between one’s own interests and others’ interests by getting at the root. The mind clings on to one’s own interests on the grounds that it is in the interest of an enduring self, a substantially existing self with a real existence. In this internal dialogue the objective self tells that mind saying that if you continue to cling on in this way then you have no real logical grounds for doing this. In fact the very basis upon which one built this clinging self-interest is unstable because this kind of enduring self as one perceives it to exist is only a false perception. In reality the self is nothing but a construct in dependence upon many factors and therefore this kind of clinging on to an enduring, objective, independent self must be rejected.
Shantideva goes on to give the example of other constructs such as the idea of a continuum or the idea of an aggregation. The very idea of a continuum or aggregation gives the notion that this is something that is constructed upon many parts or instances. The examples that are given are a rosary and a forest. If one examines the nature or identity of a rosary, one finds that it is made of beads, a hundred and eight beads in a Tibetan rosary. If one were to try to deconstruct the identity of the rosary, one will find a hundred and eight beads and a string. However none of these beads by themselves individually can be said to constitute the rosary. So it is only on the basis of the collection of the beads structured in a particular way that one can talk about a rosary. So a rosary is not identical to the beads which are its constituents nor does the rosary exist independent of the beads that constitute the rosary. One can still validly talk about the concept of a rosary, which is dependent upon, which is labeled on the basis of a hundred and eight beads.
Similarly in the case of a forest, one can talk of a forest only in relation to a collection of trees whereas the individual trees themselves cannot be identified as a forest. These give the idea of a construct. In the same manner the self is seen to exist as enduring, having some kind of real existence is also a false illusion. Shantideva writes:
Such things as a continuum and an aggregation
Are false in the same way as a rosary and an army.
There is no (real) owner of suffering,
Therefore who has control over it?
Although in actual fact the self or the person exists only in dependence upon the aggregates that constitute the individual such as the body, feeling, perception, consciousness and volition, however when one has the idea of self or a person one tends to feel as if a self really lies at the core, that it is the real basis. All of the other aggregates such as the body, perception, feelings, volition and consciousness are in some sense characteristics of this self, something that which belongs to the self. One feels as if the self is the basis and all of the aggregates are in some sense qualities or characteristics of the self. So therefore one tends to use the possessive pronouns like my body, my consciousness, my thoughts, my perceptions, my feelings and so on.
However one tends to feel as if underlying all of these aggregates, body, mind and so on there is a real owner to which these physical and mental aggregates belong. But in reality the self is a construct that is dependent upon the aggregates of body, mind, feelings and so on.
Now it becomes crucial for the practitioner to raise the question as to whether or not this self that one tends to believe possesses some kind of substantial reality, an enduring nature. Whether or not such a self exists that lies at the root of one’s clinging and grasping to the self’s interests is a question that one needs to raise as it is a critical question. To examine this question it is helpful to reflect upon the arguments one finds in Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhymikakarika or the Fundamentals of the Middle Way where Nagarjuna says that if the aggregates are the self then just as the aggregates go through a process of change, coming and going, then the self too must undergo such change. So just as one can talk about the body being cut or injured, one should also be able to describe these characteristics in terms of the self. This becomes problematic.
So the self cannot be identified with the aggregates in that they are not identical. Nagarjuna raised a second possibility that perhaps the self may exist independently of the physical and mental aggregates. But then he stated that if the self exists independent of the mental and physical aggregates then many of the conventions concerning the self again become untenable. One cannot talk about an individual person becoming sick or healthy as many of the characteristics ascribed to the self are also ascribed to the aggregates. But if the self exists totally independently of the aggregates then this becomes untenable. Nagarjuna then concludes that the self does not exist either as identical to the aggregates nor does the self exist independently of the aggregates.
If the self were the aggregates,
It would have arising and ceasing (as properties).
If it were different from the aggregates,
It would not have the characteristics of the aggregates.
- Mulamadhyamikakarika, Chap. XVIII
Once having rejected the existence of an enduring and substantial self then Nagarjuna said that if that is the case how can the mind that is a possession of such a self exist? Again in the Fundamentals of the Middle Way Nagarjuna points out that if the enduring, substantial self does not exist then there are no grounds for having such strong clinging to the things that supposedly belong to this self as being “mine”, my body, my thoughts and so on. This clinging as such is so powerful and intense that it gives rise to the negative emotions. All of this has no grounding.
If there were no self,
Where would the self’s (properties) be?
From the pacification of the self and what belongs to it,
One abstains from grasping onto “I” and “mine.”
- Mulamadhyamikakarika, Chap. XVIII
These sorts of reflections attack the idea of an enduring self, the substantial and enduring self by examining in what way such a self can be said to exist. When one tries to integrate all of this rational analysis perhaps the summation in the Ratnavali or Precious Garland is the most effective. In it Nagarjuna writes that the person is neither the earth, water, fire, wind or space element and yet the person does not exist outside and independent of the elements. Nagarjuna does not proceed to say that the person therefore does not exist. Rather Nagarjuna says that since the person exists only in dependence upon an aggregation of the elements therefore the person as possessing some kind of objective, substantial reality is false.
A person is not earth, not water,
Not fire, not wind, not space,
Not consciousness and not all of them;
What person is there other than these?
Just as the person is not an ultimate
But as a composite of the six constituents,
They like the self are false.
This realization I think is critical. In this passage Nagarjuna is pointing out that the true understanding of the non-substantial existence of the person is not constituted purely from a negative point of view. In this understanding there must also be an element of appreciation for the self’s dependently-originated nature. So although the understanding of the negation of intrinsic existence is in terms of a negation and there is no apparent association with dependent origination but in one’s understanding of emptiness there must be some potential for the appreciation of the dependent nature. In essence what is being pointed out here is that the self that one tends to believe in as existing possessing some sort of enduring nature, some kind of objective, intrinsic reality is a false perception. The self does not exist in that way; the self exists only in relation to the aggregates. Therefore Nagarjuna concludes again in the Fundamentals of the Middle Way that whatever is dependently originated that is to be known as empty. This is the middle way and this is also accepted as being dependently designated. It is in this way that one should try to undermine one’s grasping to an enduring, substantial self.
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way.
- Mulamadhyamikakarika, Chap. XXIV
Nagarjuna writes further that there isn’t anything that is not dependently originated therefore there isn’t anything that is not empty. When one uses the logic of dependent origination as a proof for the emptiness of intrinsic reality then when one thinks about emptiness, in the very idea of emptiness there is a kind of a fullness. It does not suggest total nonexistence or nothingness but rather it suggests some sort of existence. It suggests origination.
Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
- Mulamadhyamikakarika, Chap. XXIV
The emptiness of intrinsic existence is not being presented only by saying that when one subjects things and events to critical analysis they are not found, they are unfindable. Rather the proof really is that things and events are devoid of intrinsic existence because things and events are dependently originated.
Of course one’s understanding of reality should be such that one has the ability to distinguish between the reality of a real person and that of a dream person. Also one must be able to differentiate between the animals in one’s dreams and the animals seen in real life.
So by using the reasoning of dependent origination what is being rejected, what is being negated is the kind of self that one tends to believe in as possessing some kind of independent, objective, substantial intrinsic reality. However this does not negate what is still left, the mere self that is a mere designation, the mere name and mere existence. Once one has this deeper kind of understanding of emptiness then one will be able to have a better appreciation of what is meant by self and others. This distinction between self and others will be recognized purely at the level of designation and purely at the level of convention.
In fact there is a way of understanding the Tibetan expression of the world of appearance and existence. Here one can read this expression is such a way that the appearance refers to the level of perception where one relates to things and events as if they existed purely on the conventional level. Existence then refers to their ultimate nature. So this expression, the world of appearance and existence can together be read as suggesting a union of emptiness…
This also responds to the question that was raised earlier about what aspects of the self, what degree of the perception of self is illusory and what degree of the perception of the self is valid. As I discussed earlier what one is to understand here is that the perception of self, the conception of self where there is a belief in some kind of objective, inherently existent self that element of the self perception is false and illusory. However one’s sense of self that is based purely upon the recognition of the phenomenal reality, the conventional reality of the self which is not grounded in a belief in some kind of objective reality of the self, this degree of the perception of self can be said to be valid. This is how one can distinguish…
However it is said that in the perception of ordinary beings like ourselves there is no perception, which is not effect, by this assumption of some kind of enduring, objective and intrinsically existence of things and events. All of one’s perceptions are influenced by this assumption. Therefore purely at the level of one’s perceptions it is very difficult, almost impossible to be able to determine to what extent this perception is valid and to what extent it is affected by a conception of intrinsic reality.
However as one deepens one’s understanding of emptiness and once one begins to have the experience of the absence of any intrinsic reality then in the aftermath of this insight when one relates to the empirical or conventional world then although one may be using the same terms like self and others but when one hears the word self it has a different effect on one’s mind. The word is the same and refers to the same person and also when one uses the word others it is the same word referring to the same objects but because of one’s prior meditative experience of the negation of intrinsic reality, it has a different effect, has a different meaning. It has a certain freshness to one and in this way one will also have a new perspective not only of the self but towards others as well, in fact with the entire universe, Buddhahood, cause and effect and so on. All of these, one perceives in a new light.
So one can say that or imagine that if this is the case that a person with such an insight has a different perspective when relating to the world can have a different impact because certainly they will have a lesser degree of projection on the world. Given that they have a lesser degree of projection then they will have a lesser potential for giving rise to powerful, negative emotional reactions such as extreme attachment, anger, hostility and so on in relation to others and the world.
Shantideva concludes by the next two lines. In verse 101 he writes:
There is no (real) owner of suffering,
Therefore who has control over it?
In verse 102 he extends this analysis of the non-substantial and unreality of self onto others. He goes on to say:
Being no (inherent) owner of suffering
There can be no distinction at all between (that of myself and others).
So just as there is no real enduring, substantial self there also is no real enduring, substantial others. Similarly there is no real, enduring, objective or substantial happiness nor suffering.
He goes on to say:
Thus I shall dispel it [suffering] because it hurts:
Why am I so certain (that I shouldn’t eliminate the suffering of others)?
One can justify dispelling suffering only on the grounds that it is painful, that it is undesirable. Therefore he questions why be so certain that one cannot eliminate the suffering of others. There is no certainty as any certainty has been undermined by negating any enduring and objective self.
-But (since neither the suffering nor the sufferer truly exist), why should I turn away the misery of all?-
There is no ground for argument,
For if I prevent my own (sufferings), surely I should prevent the (sufferings) of all.
If not, since I am just like (other) sentient beings, (I should not prevent my own suffering either).
The next verse reads:
-But since this compassion will bring me much misery,
Why should I exert myself to develop it?-
Should I contemplate the suffering of living creatures,
How could the misery of compassion be more?
In the following verses, 107 through to the end of 110, Shantideva underlines the essential point that through the training of the mind, through cultivating constant familiarity one can develop compassion. One can also develop the thought that cherishes the wellbeing of all other sentient beings.
As I often share with others that in my own personal case when I was in my thirties I took particular interest in deepening my understanding of emptiness. There was a time that whenever I thought about the truth of cessation I actually felt that I had a sense of at least what it meant from reading a great deal and meditating. My aspiration for the attainment of cessation was so strong that I had a feeling that once I attained true cessation only then could I afford to take a long respite and take a rest. Around that time I use to think about the ideals of altruism, thinking about the wellbeing of all other sentient beings.
Although I had deep reverence and admiration but in my mind those ideals remained so far away and so impossible to attain. However as I began to put in more effort into these practices, familiarizing my own thoughts with the ideals of altruism, bodhicitta and so on then gradually I felt that my own mind was getting closer. My affinity for these practices was also getting stronger and stronger so that later when I thought about altruism and its ideals of working for the benefit of other sentient beings then it no longer seemed impossible or distant.
One can see that there was a process of change occurring in myself. So just as I myself, all of you gathered here have exactly the same potential. There is nothing special about me; I do not posses any special capabilities or any unique potential. The potential that I have for inner transformation is exactly the same that all of you have.
Therefore if you also undertake the practices you will also go through this transformation. You will also benefit, gain the fruits of your practices. If one is able to do this then although at this point when one thinks about the ideals of cherishing the wellbeing of other sentient beings and regarding others’ welfare as more important than one’s own, such notions may seem impossible. They may seem impractical, beyond one’s understanding and experience.
Gradually as one train one’s mind and develop constant familiarity with these ideals and practices then one will get to a point where they no longer seem inconceivable but in fact one will joyful embrace them. One will joyful dedicate one’s life to the ideals of serving others and cherishing the wellbeing of other sentient beings. This will be so much so that service to others will be seen as one’s very purpose for life. When this happens then one’s service to others is totally unconditional and one’s caring for others is also totally unconditional with no consideration for any reward or recognition from others. One’s motivation will be completely altruistic and unconditional.
Shantideva goes on to state in verse 111 that if through constant familiarity and also habituation one can shift one’s attitudes and perceptions.
Although the basis is quite impersonal,
Through (constant) familiarity
I have come to regard
The drops of sperm and blood of others as “I”.
This contemplation goes on through the end of verse 119.
In verse 120 Shantideva writes:
Thus whoever wishes to quickly afford protection
To both himself and other beings
Should practice that holy secret:
The exchanging of self for others.
The protection that Shantideva is speaking about here refers to a level of stability gained through spiritual cultivation. The person has a basic steadfastness and stability within the mind so that external circumstances or the environment does not have an effect to undermine that stability. Such a person who is wise and has the intelligence faculty should engage in the holy secret. The reason it is called secret is because it is a practice that is appropriate and effective for those of higher faculties, even among the bodhisattvas. This practice is the exchange of self with others.
From verse 121 to the end of verse 124, Shantideva pays special attention on how to overcome attachment to the body. From verse 125 Shantideva explains in great detail contemplations on the pros and cons of the thought cherishing one’s own wellbeing versus the thought cherishing others’ wellbeing. So the disadvantages of self-cherishing and the advantages of cherishing others welfare is discussed.
In essence the four aspects of practice has been suggested in Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya, the Compendium of Deeds, which I think is very relevant here in relation to one’s body, resources and so on. Shantideva recommends that in one’s practice, one must not only be able to mentally give it but also have an appreciation to protect the body and guard it. One must also purify the body and then enhance it. This kind of four-fold approach is important. One also finds in Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way where after having explained the impure nature and the uncleanliness of the body, he then goes on to say that although this is the case it is important to appreciate at the same time the opportunities accorded by such a bodily existence.
Although the body is seen like a for,
Nevertheless it should be protected.
By long sustaining a disciplined [body]
Great merit is created.
- Four Hundred
From verse 125 Shantideva explains in detail the disadvantages and the negative effects of cherishing one’s own wellbeing and the positive effects of cherishing the wellbeing of other sentient beings. He writes:
“If I give this, what shall I (have left to) enjoy?”-
Such selfish thinking is the way of [hungry] ghosts;
“ If I enjoy this, what shall I (have left to) give?”-
Such selfless thinking is a quality of the gods.
If, for my own sake, I cause harm to others,
I shall be tormented in hellish realms;
But if for the sake of others I cause harm to myself,
I shall acquire all that is magnificent.
If for the sake of oneself one causes harm to others’ lives by killing or taking their lives this leads to rebirth in the hell realms. Causing harm to other’ properties or resources such as stealing or taking their companions by sexual misconduct all are negative acts that directly harm others. These misdeeds lead to negative consequences. On the other hand if for the sake of others it is required that harm comes to oneself the result is that of magnificence.
By holding myself in high esteem
I shall find myself in unpleasant realms, ugly and stupid;
But should this (attitude) be shifted to others
I shall acquire honors in a joyful realm.
Shantideva is presenting the Kadam ideal of maintaining humility, which I think, is very important as Dromtönpa has written. He wrote that even though the entire world elevates one with high esteem so far as oneself is concerned one must maintain a deep humility. Here when speaking about humility it is important that it really come from within. It should not be a false humility, a kind of a pretense that in public one tries to act very humble but deep down one has tremendous arrogance and self-importance. This is not the type of humility that I am talking about here. The kind of humility that I am referring to here is also found in the Eight Verses of Mind Training where one reads:
Whenever I associated with others
May I think of myself as the lowest among all.
This is the kind of humility that is being suggested here.
If I employ others for my own purposes
I myself shall experience servitude,
But if I use myself for the sake of others
I shall experience only lordliness.
He summarizes all of this by writing:
Whatever joy there is in the world
All comes from desiring others to be happy,
And whatever suffering there is in the world
All comes from desiring myself to be happy.
Finally he writes:
But what need is there to say much more?
The childish work for their own benefit,
The Buddhas work for the benefit of others.
Just look at the difference between them!
If I do not actually exchange my happiness
For the suffering of others,
I shall not attain the state of Buddhahood
And even in cyclic existence shall have no joy.
Let alone what is beyond this world-
Because of my servants doing no work
And because of my masters giving me no pay,
Even the needs of this life will not be fulfilled.
So these are the effects of excessive self-cherishing even in this world. He continues:
(By rejecting the method that) establishes both foreseeable and unforeseeable joy,
I cast magnificent delight completely aside
And then, because of inflicting misery on others,
In confusion I seize hold of unbearable pain.
If all the injury,
Fear and pain in this world
Arise from grasping at a self,
Then of what use is that ghost to me?
This grasping at a self can be interpreted as referring to both at grasping at a substantial reality of self, the self-existence of the person and phenomena but it can also refer to the self-cherishing thought. In fact normally, in ordinary beings these two thoughts of self-grasping and self-cherishing are almost indistinguishable, reinforcing each other. In the case of say of Arhats who have gained liberation from samsara, although they may have eliminated self-grasping there is still a trace of self-cherishing that remains in them. So here in this verse it refers to both thoughts.
In the following verses Shantideva carries on with the contemplation of this. From verse 141 he then suggests a particular thought experiment whereby one imagines an aspect of oneself that is the embodiment of self-centeredness. This is the “former” self, the self that regards and considers one’s own wellbeing as the most important being oblivious to others’ wellbeing. One imagines one aspect of oneself as an embodiment of self-centeredness. One then imagines on the other side another aspect of oneself which has the ability to see the disadvantages of that kind of self-centeredness and that accepts the value of the thought cherishing other sentient beings.
Having imagined oneself in these two ways, one then tries to side oneself with other sentient beings particularly comparing the embodiment of self-cherishing with sentient beings who are inferior to that embodiment. One sides with inferior sentient beings going through a thought process mimicking feelings of jealousy, envy and resentment towards the embodiment of self-cherishing.
“He is honored, but I am not;
I have not found wealth such as he.
He is praised, but I am despised;
He is happy, but I suffer”.
This contemplation goes on until the end of verse 146. From verse 147 through to 150 it is a similar thought process but here one sides with sentient beings who are considered the equal of the embodied self-cherishing.
In order that I may excel
He who is regarded as equal with me,
I shall definitely strive to attain material gain and honor for myself,
Even (by such means as) verbal dispute.
One tries to go through this thought process mimicking a sense of competitiveness towards the embodiment of self-cherishing.
From verse 151 through 154 one sides with sentient beings who can be considered superior to the embodiment of self-cherishing. One goes through thought processes mimicking feelings of self-importance or conceit in relation to the self-cherishing self.
“His happiness and comfort will decline
And I shall always cause him harm,
For hundreds of times in this cycle of rebirth
He has caused harm to me”.
Starting with verse 154 lines c and d starts the rationale for why one needs to exchange self with others. The rationale is the recognition of the disadvantages and negative consequences of excessive self-cherishing.
Because of desiring to benefit yourself, O mind,
All the weariness you have gone through
Over countless past eons
Has only succeeded in achieving misery.
Contemplating the negative aspects or disadvantages of excessive self-cherishing goes on until verse 168. The main point here is to summarize all of this by reflecting upon from various angles the disadvantages and negative effects or consequences of indulging in excessive self-cherishing.
From the end of verse 168 through verse 173 Shantideva suggests a harsher method for dealing with the mind that persistently continues to its habitual self-cherishing. He writes:
However, mind, although you have been advised,
If you do not act in a like manner,
Then since all misfortunes will entrust themselves to you,
You will only be destined to destruction.
Now that one has recognized the negative consequences of self-cherishing, one needs to pledge that one will no longer allow one’s mind to be overwhelmed by this self-cherishing. These harsher methods of dealing with the mind that persistently indulges in self-cherishing even after recognizing its negative consequences is suggested until the end of verse 173.
From verse 174 Shantideva suggests a similar harsh method for dealing with excessive attachment to one’s body that can obstruct one’s pursuit of the altruistic aspiration. He writes
To whatever degree
I take great care of this body,
To that degree I shall fail
Into a state of extreme helplessness.
Shantideva goes on to point out that from the point of view of the body itself, its nature is that in the end it will turn to dust unable to move by itself, propelled by others. He is undercutting any basis for grasping or clinging to this body as mine. This thought process goes on until the end of verse 184 where he writes:
Therefore, in order to benefit all beings
I shall give up this body without any attachment,
But although it may have many faults
I should look after it while experiencing (the results of my previous) actions.
Starting with verse 185 Shantideva summarizes the whole contemplation by making the following point.
So enough of this childish behavior!
Basically Shantideva is suggesting that up until this point in all of one’s previous lives one has been guided and driven by this self-centeredness. What has been the result of this?
I shall follow in the steps of the wise,
The wise here refers to the bodhisattvas.
And having recalled the advice concerning conscientiousness,
I shall turn away sleep and mental dullness.
One thereby will seek and cultivate single-pointedness of mind which can then be used for the development and enhancing of bodhicitta through the method of Exchanging and Equalizing Self with Other.
Shantideva goes on:
Just like the compassionate Sons of the Conqueror,
I shall patiently accept what I have to do;
Patiently refers to the need for the application of continuous, concerted effort.
For if I do not make a constant effort day and night,
When will my misery ever come to an end?
Therefore, in order to dispel the obscurations
I shall withdraw my mind from mistaken ways
And constantly place it in [meditative] equipoise
Upon the perfect object.
Thus ends the chapter on meditation. So the most important thing is to practice. Of course if one is not interested that is up to the individual and one can discard all of this. But if one is interested in this practice then it is important to deepen one’s practice through constant effort. In this way one will then have the definite possibility of experiencing some change gradually.
Once one have a taste of the experience based on practice then just as one tastes a particular food dish similarly I think one will begin to get some sense of the experience, the experiential dimension of practice. For example when one reads the text now, one may have an admiration and also a kind of acceptance thinking that this is valuable and wonderful. But as the result of continued familiarity and cultivation of the practice one will get to the point where not only will one have mere admiration but one will be able to relate the text with one'’ own personal experience. In this way one will leave powerful imprints upon one's mind which will be carried over to many lifetimes in the future.
This concludes the teaching and unfortunately we do not have time for the silent meditation so you will have to do it yourself at your own place, joined with either half sleep or household chores. It is up to you. So among the members of the audience those who consider themselves to be practicing Buddhists what is important is to make a new beginning. From now on you should strive to turn a new chapter so that from now on you strive to be a better person, trying to find a new way of becoming a good human being. Also try to seek the fulfillment of your aspiration to happy in a spiritual way trying to integrate these practices on a daily basis. This is what I have to suggest and this is my appeal.
For those of you in the audience who are practitioners of other religious traditions then based on the explanations that I have given from the text here, there are many aspects of practices that I have discussed here that are common with all spiritual traditions. These can be integrated into your own practice and adopted. If there are certain forms of meditation or thought processes which are very specific to a particular Buddhist doctrinal view then these of course won’t be compatible. You can leave them but all of the other reflections that have a common value can be integrated into your own spiritual practice.
Finally thank you to all of you.
Notes on texts
1. The translation of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life is the one by Stephen Batchelor, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
2. The translation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamentals of the Middle Way is by Jay Garfield, Oxford University Press.
3. The translation of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland is by Jeffrey Hopkins, Harper & Row.
4. The translation of Aryadeva’s Four Hundred is by Geshe Sonam Rinchen & Ruth Sonam, Snow Lion