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All beings have been our mother

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given in Boise, Idaho.

  • Two methods for generating bodhicitta
  • Seven-Point instruction on cause and effect
  • Benefits of transforming difficult relationship with our parents

Bodhicitta 04: Recognizing that all beings have been our mother (download)

We’ve been talking about methods for developing bodhicitta. We spent some time talking about the benefits of bodhicitta, yes? Did you review your notes this time? Good. Last week we started talking about equanimity, which is the foundation for the two different methods for generating bodhicitta. What are the two methods for generating bodhicitta? First one?

Audience: Seven-Point Cause and Effect.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The Seven-Point Instruction on Cause and Effect. Second?

Audience: Exchanging Self and Others.

VTC: Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others. Those are the two different systems of generating bodhicitta—and equanimity is a preliminary to both of those. When we meditated on equanimity, what was it that we were trying to counteract and what was it that we were trying to develop? What is the purpose of the equanimity mediation?

Audience: Self pity.

VTC: Not just self pity.

Audience:The ego?

VTC: Yes, but in particular. Get a little more specific. What kind of dynamics of ego?

Audience: Attachment?

VTC: Attachment is one of the things we’re trying to counteract; attachment to friends. What else?

Audience: Aversion.

VTC: Aversion to people we don’t like, and? You didn’t review your notes because if you did you would remember this: an indifference to strangers. So remember this, because if you can’t remember this, you can’t do the meditation. I’m teaching you this so you can do the meditation and transform your minds, not so you can exercise your fingers just taking notes and forgetting about it. The purpose of the meditation is to overcome attachment to friends, hostility to people we don’t like (we call them enemies), and indifference or apathy towards strangers. What are we trying to do develop? What kind of feeling or conclusion do you want to have at the end of the equanimity meditation?

Audience: Isn’t that what we want to give everyone, the same attention and love across the board? Nobody should get special treatment.

VTC: Right. Everybody is worthy of attention. And it is not that just nobody should get special treatment, so that I equally ignore everybody else. [laughter] It’s an equal-hearted open concern for everybody else; like he said, “Across the board.” So that our mind isn’t always making this differentiation like, this person is worthwhile and that one is not.

Audience: Is it like stopping profiling?

VTC: Right, stopping profiling. That is a very good way to put it and update our terminology. We have our own little profiling that we do according to who we like and who we don’t like. Last time we talked a lot about how our feelings towards other people come from evaluating or putting them into classifications according to how they relate to us, remember? It is a very short-term view, the people who are nice to us in the short term we call friends. The people who are mean to us in the short term are enemies. And the people who don’t affect us in one way or another are strangers. And then once we classify them that way, we have attachment to friends. We cling onto them. We have hostility towards the enemies and we don’t care about anybody else. So you can see in our daily life, wouldn’t you say most of your reactions towards people are one of these three? You know?

Friend, enemy, stranger

We were talking about how this is an unrealistic way to live; first of all because our mind is putting people in those three categories. Our mind is creating friends, our mind creates enemies, our mind creates strangers. Those people are not part of those three categories from their own side, but our mind is creating them that way because we’re seeing them through the center of the universe, Me.

And then a second reason why those categories aren’t reliable is because they change. Yes? And you know when the person who is nice to us today is mean to us tomorrow and vice versa, it becomes very difficult to find anybody that you can just sign off on because they’re awful or you can completely latch onto because they are inherently wonderful. I really love the example, I mean this is a stark example but I’m sure we can find things in our own life. This person here gives me a thousand dollars today, so they’re my friend. And this person on this side criticizes me, so they are my enemy and then tomorrow, this person that criticizes me and that one gives me a thousand dollars. And we have this happen, don’t we? No? You don’t have that happen?

Audience: I don’t have anybody who gives me a thousand dollars.

VTC: Your employer gives you a thousand dollars. Look, somebody gives us a present, they are wonderful and the next day they criticize us so they are terrible, so they go from the friend camp to the enemy camp. You know somebody else at work criticizes us one day in a meeting, we put them in the enemy camp and the next day they say something nice about us and they go to the friend camp. And if you look at our life, these relationships are constantly changing. How many of you have been divorced at one time or another? The person that you were madly in love with after a while you weren’t madly in love with, right? And your feeling toward them totally changed. Or you don’t get along with your parents one year but you get along with them the next, you know it is all changing isn’t it.

So it doesn’t make any sense to put people into those rigid categories and believe our emotions towards them because those emotions are totally transient, okay? Especially if we look over a period of time, and Buddhism is very good about this because we talk about beginningless time, rebirth and stuff like that, then we really see that everybody has been everything to us. Yes? And so there’s no reason to just say, “Oh, that person is a stranger; I’ve got to be afraid of them,” because we have been related to them in the past. And then there is no reason to say, “Oh, somebody else is always going to be with me they’re my soul mate!” You know that New Age thing? Because you know, in the past they also killed us. [laughter] I mean it’s samsara, cyclic existence is beginningless, so you know, as they say, “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” Every place in samsara that you can be born in, everything that you can be born as, we’ve been and done. I mean we’ve done everything in samsara except practice the Dharma and liberate ourselves.

Everything else we’ve done, not just one time, but we’re good little mice pecking on the thing hoping to get our grain. We’ve done it many times.

Talk about dysfunction. Samsara is the ultimate dysfunctional attitude, yes? Because we just keep doing the same stupid things again and again thinking we’re going to be happy. Trying to see things from a broad view like this helps us drop all those crazy emotions and this meditation is very, very practical. I mean in your daily life, if you put in some energy and contemplate this repeatedly you will find, I guarantee, you will find that your attitudes and feelings about other people will change. People will appear kinder to you and you won’t have as many walls, if you put in the energy. If you just write it in your notebook or if you don’t even do that and it goes in one ear and out the other you will not get the results, but if you do the work, it changes, it really does.

I think one of the things that inspire us on the path is when we see the examples of our teachers. Look at Khensur Rinpoche who’s been here, Alex Berzin, or His Holiness the Dalai Lama or whoever and you see that there is a different attitude that they have and how did they get that way? Well, they’re telling us when they teach how they got that way.

Seven-Point Instruction on Cause and Effect

Equanimity is the basis, then we go into the Seven-Point Instruction on Cause and Effect. Let me just outline the seven points and then we’ll go back and talk about them.

  1. Seeing all beings as our mother or as the dearest person to us, when we were young.
  2. Remembering the kindness of our mother or the kindness of whomever it was that took care of us when we were young.
  3. Wanting to repay that kindness.
  4. Heart-warming love.
  5. Great compassion.
  6. Great resolve. Those are the six causes and then the seventh, the effect, is:
  7. Bodhicitta—that altruistic intention.

Let’s go back. We’ll go over the six causes and then show how contemplating them leads us to generate the result, the altruistic intention. Seeing all sentient beings as our mother or as whoever it was who was very dear to us when we were little, in the teachings they go back to the example of a very primary relationship; the one with our parents. Now in ancient societies, pre-Freud, people had a much kinder attitude towards their parents. I think since Freud we have all been encouraged to pick at our parents and find fault with them and rebel against them and everything else.

Remembering the kindness of our parents

A mother holding her baby.

No matter what else they did in their lives, our parents gave us this body and took care of us when we were infants. (Photo by Diganta Talukdar)

But, prior to that, the teachings are turning us back to look at that very primary relationship, especially with our mother, or if our mother died when we were young or wasn’t available in the family, then our father, our aunt, our grandmother, the baby-sitter, whoever it was that really took care of us when we were little. I might continue to say “mother” but when you’re applying it to your life, you don’t necessarily have to think of your mother because I know that sometimes in the West, people can have very negative feelings about their parents. But also, I must say that even if you have some difficulties in your relationship with your parents, this meditation helps you to get over them if you really stick with it, okay? Because it is throwing us back to that very primary relationship and the fact that our parents, no matter what else they did in their lives, gave us this body and took care of us and prevented us from getting killed when we were infants.

Even if our birth parents couldn’t take care of us, they may have given us up for adoption, that is very kind, isn’t it? They realized they couldn’t care, but they wanted the best for us. Maybe they were a single mother, teenage parents, or they were impoverished, or whatever, they gave their child up because they cared about their child not because they didn’t care. Okay? Then the mother, who brought you up, took over from there and cared about you.

And I see this very well because my sister is adopted. She told me she found out once that actually she was the product of a rape. Which I think is quite amazing and the mother went through and had the child. She had so much compassion and then gave her up for adoption because she knew she couldn’t care for her and our family really wanted another child. For many years I had been asking for a sister because I had a brother already. So you know, want one of everything. [laughter] So, I wanted a sister. I have always been very grateful to Robin’s birth mother for giving her up for adoption. And of course Robin entered the family and she is like the rest of the three siblings. In fact, I think in some ways she’s the closet to my parents because she’s the youngest. Like for her, when she did the meditation she’d probably think about both mothers. I think this can really make us look at things in our life that we may have not looked at in that way before.

Love in all circumstances

There is a very wonderful book by Jarvis Masters, who is an inmate in San Quentin on death row. It’s called Finding Freedom and I really recommend that you get it and read it. In the book, he gives little vignettes about prison life, but also he reveals a little bit about his home life. You know, his father walked out on the family, his mother was trying to keep things together, but couldn’t. She wasn’t very together herself and she had a boyfriend who would run after the kids and beat them. He and his sister always had to hide under the bed when the boyfriend went into a rage to protect themselves; the mother was often too drunk or on drugs to take care of them.

One day he got the news when he was in prison that his mother had died. He was very, very upset about it, he cared about her and another inmate said to him, “Hey man, why are you feeling that way about your mother? I thought all she did was abuse you and didn’t take care of you when you were a kid.”

And he said, “Yes, she may have abused me when I was a kid, but why should I abuse myself by not admitting that I love her?” And I found that very, very powerful, you know. That in spite of how he had been treated he was able to touch base with that basic feeling of love for his mother. He was able to look beyond all the other stuff in his family and recognize how much she did care for him. So instead of focusing on her failures, he focused on the relationship that was there. I was very touched by that remark that he made.

I know another prisoner that I write to. There are nine kids in his family. They all have different fathers, none of the kids graduated from high school. He left home at thirteen and lived on the streets in Cleveland. And when you’re a teenager living on the streets it’s very fearsome, very scary. One day after about a year of being on the streets he happened to bump into his mother and the only thing his mother said was, “Don’t tell the welfare department you’re not living at home anymore,” because that way she wouldn’t get the money.

When children are treated in this way it’s no wonder why they wind up in prison, isn’t it? He also had a lot of difficulty emotionally in terms of his mother, but once he was in prison and especially once he started practicing the Dharma, he went back and did some of these meditations and he looked back at his life. He learned about his mother’s childhood, that she had been sexually and physically abused at home and was sent away to school where they also abused her. He began to understand that that’s why his mom did what she did because she herself was emotionally crippled. He started to forgive her and now he has a good relationship with her. He calls her on the phone and they talk and he says that she apologizes to him a lot for being a bad mother and he always says, “Just forget it. I love you now and we have a good relationship now.”

So these guys in prison have done some really incredible psychological/spiritual work to come to these kinds of resolutions of difficulties. If any of you have had difficulties in your families, I’m saying this to give you some inspiration that other people have overcome and healed relationships and so it’s worthwhile to try and do so yourself.

With these meditations, you don’t have to plunge in the deep end first. If it is easier for you to think of sentient beings as the baby-sitter or the grandmother who took care of you, do that. But eventually after a while, come back to your parents and in particular your mother, when you feel ready to do that, because it can be very powerful.

Transforming difficulties with our parents

I had many difficulties with my relationship with my parents. These meditations really helped me a lot. When I started studying Buddhism in 1975, the lamas didn’t know a lot about Westerners at that time. So for them it was just the kindness of your mother, that’s it! Over the years of course they learned about Western families; people often have difficulties thinking of the kindness of their parents. So then they adapted it and said, “Yes, think of whoever was the caretaker and took care of you when you were young, because somebody obviously did it because otherwise we wouldn’t be here.” When I was studying there was no adaptation. So we went right in there and I found it helpful.

Of course I had very good parents. The squabbles I had with my parents were nothing like the examples that I gave you of those two prisoners. I just had the regular middle-class things. Sometimes we can get into such big “to-dos” about nothing in relationship to our parents.

Ego will find something to say, “Poor me!” about

I remember once, this was a few years ago, I went to one of these big conferences in Seattle about addiction and dysfunctional relationships, that’s when “dysfunctional” was the buzz word, now it is a new buzz word. I’m not quite sure what it is, I’m not caught up yet. [laughter] One of the speakers was some big, big somebody who they invited from out of town to speak and he was telling the story of his own childhood and how he wanted so much to go to a baseball game with his father but his father never took him. Finally, when he was 32 years old he went to a baseball game with his father and he said, “All those years when I was a kid I was so miserable because I wanted to go to a baseball game with you and you never took me and now I’m so glad and it feels so good.”

For this guy it was real pain. But when I compare that middle-class pain with what these guys in prison have gone through, or what Iraqi children are going through, or I lived in India for a number of years and what Indian kids go through. You can see how American middle classes are; we will find something to be painful about. [laughter] You know? This is the way ego works. Ego will find something to say “poor me” about. And if it is not “Poor me” because I was a refugee and my parents got killed it would be “Poor me” because my mother didn’t take me to the mother-daughter luncheons or “Poor me” because my father didn’t play ball with me. You know? Our ego will find something to do. “Pobre de mi.” (Spanish) Okay? So to look at the pain we feel and our mind’s role in creating that pain.

We may have never ever realized that our mind played a role in creating the pain we feel because our usual view is that pain, our pain, is somebody else’s fault. It came from outside and if only they had been different, I would be happy. But, we never look at the good things we have in life and whenever we have happiness we never say, “Why me?”

Pain or happiness, it depends on our intention

When we look at the lives of these prisoners, these people in prison, do we ever say, “I wasn’t on the streets at age thirteen, why me?” Have you ever thought that? You know, probably not so often. We always think, “At age thirteen I wanted a new this and that and my parents told me I couldn’t have it.” [laughter] We say,” Why me? And my parents won’t give me what I want.” But we never say, “Why me? They gave me a home, food and an education.” You know, we never think that. Or even if we got beaten at one point or another as a kid, we always say, “Why me?” because of that. But we never say, “Why me? They fed me?” Or, “Why me? They gave me a body so that I can practice the Dharma?”

So we can see so clearly whatever we experience, pain or happiness, it depends on what we put our intention on, what we make a big deal out of, you know? And ego’s expertise is finding a way to complain. (Venerable laughs). What these meditations are designed to do is to help us see how much kindness we’ve received in our life and to overcome that habit of complaining, okay?

Teach your kids by example

So that was a long diversion, now we can go back to the first of the seven points, but I think this is something very important, don’t you? Yes. And I think especially if you are a parent it’s important to heal your relationship with your parents, to be a good parent to your kids. Because you teach by example and if all your kids hear you do is complain about your mother and father and talk about their faults, they’ll grow up thinking, this is what you do with your mother and father because that’s what you’ve taught them by your example. You know? And if you can, in front of your kids, or even privately, if you can talk about the good qualities of your parents and show patience with whatever faults they had, then you are teaching your kids by your example, to care about their parents. How you relate to your parents is how you’re teaching your kids to care about you. So, it is very important, very, very important.

Seeing all sentient beings as our mother

The first point is seeing all sentient beings as our mother. This brings us into the whole topic of rebirth and the continuity of mind. So just in brief, what we call “I” is something labeled in dependence upon a body and a mind. When our body and mind have a relationship with each other, we call that being alive. When they cease having that close relationship, we call that death, that’s all.

Body and mind

The body and the mind have different natures. The body’s nature is physical. The mind’s nature is formless it is non-physical. We can trace the continuity of the body physically. Prior to this body, there were the genes of our parents and of our ancestors going back, so there is the genetic physical continuity. Our body is also a continuity of all the broccoli and chocolate chip cookies you’ve eaten in your whole life, you know. Isn’t it? Isn’t our body just a transformation of everything we’ve eaten in our whole life? It is very interesting when you sit down to eat. Look at that food on your plate and say, “That food is going to be my body.” Because it is, isn’t it? That’s what our body’s made out of is that stuff. So the body has a physical continuity before it.

The body

Our present body has the genes and all the food we’ve eaten. It has a continuity after this life. You know, it becomes a corpse and then it gets burnt and becomes ashes or it gets buried and the worms have a good meal. But, what is it, “From dust to dust?” Yes, that’s it. This body that we cherish so much and love so much and protect so much, is an accumulation of broccoli and genes and it becomes the worms’ lunch. Isn’t it? I mean I’m not saying anything false. It’s just we kind of have all these trips we do about our body. So, the body has this physical continuity. The mind has a different continuity, okay? Do you remember when Alex Berzin talked about the definition of mind? He talked about two qualities. Do you remember what they were? Come on!

Audience: Beginningless?

VTC: Yes, but that is one quality, there are two words in the definition of mind—clarity and awareness. Yes? He might have said clarity and knowing. Sometimes they say luminosity and awareness. These are all different translation terms; clarity and awareness, mere clarity and awareness. Okay? Remember the mere. So it is nothing physical, it just has the ability to reflect objects and to engage with objects.

The mind

Just as the body has its continuity which is physical in both directions, in terms of its causes and in terms of its results, so the mind too has a continuity in terms of its causes and its results. The continuity of today’s mind comes from yesterday’s mind and the day before’s mind and we trace the continuity of consciousness back. We probably can’t remember when we were a month old, but does that mean we didn’t have consciousness or mind when we were an infant just because we can’t remember it? No. Because we can see that babies have minds, don’t we? Yes. We had a mind also when we were an infant even though we can’t remember what was going on in it. And then the continuity of the infant’s mind is the continuity of the fetus’s consciousness and the embryo’s consciousness and it goes back and back and back to the time of conception.

Conception is when you had the sperm, the egg and the consciousness coming together. The sperm and the egg, you know, the physical continuity from our parents, the consciousness came from a previous moment of consciousness because we can see when we trace it back that each moment of mind came from a previous moment of mind. So too at that first moment of mind in this life it came from that mind of previous lives and so on back and back and back. Similarly when we die, you know the body and mind separate; the body has its continuity but our mind also continues. There’s this continuity of clarity and awareness that never goes out of existence. It never ceases because there’s no cause for it to cease and there’s always a cause for it to continue.


If we think about this and have some sense of rebirth it can really expand our whole take on life because then we realize, “I haven’t always been me,” you know, because we identify so strongly with who we are this life; and to see, “Hey! I haven’t always been me.” Sometimes I have been other people. If you’re a woman or a man, sometimes you’ve been the opposite gender. If we’re human beings, sometimes we’ve been animals, or gods, or any of the other different kinds of life forms. We haven’t always been this image, this solid image of who we are right now.

I think one of the things that makes understanding rebirth difficult for us is that we so much identify with our present body and our present ego that we can’t imagine ever being different. But think about being a baby. Can you even think about your mind being a baby’s mind? What it would be like to have a baby’s mind? You know, it seems out of sight doesn’t it? I mean, can you imagine just having your body be this big, totally out of control … you pee and poo everywhere. You can’t even roll yourself over. I mean, we were once like that in this body, weren’t we? Can you even imagine having a body like that? Not being able to take care of yourself, not being able to talk and say, “Feed me.”

But being totally trapped inside this body, hoping that somebody feeds you or you’re too hot and you don’t even have the conceptual mind, “Come take my sweater off, I’m too hot.” All you do is, you’re in this body and you’re hot so you go, “Waaaaaa.” [laughter] Okay? The original complaint. [laughter] So it is hard even to match, I mean think about it sometime. Try and imagine not having all the verbal conceptual understanding you have now and being in a baby’s body. It’s hard.

Try and imagine being 85 years old. I mean, imagine looking in the mirror and you see an 85 year old person with an 85 year old body. You know and if you think you have aches and pains now, imagine what that is going to be like then. I mean, can we even imagine having a body that old? When you look in the mirror and you see somebody who is 85. You don’t see this healthy young face, because however old we are we are always young aren’t we? Yes? Do you remember when 20 was old and then when 30 was old and then when 40 was old and how our definition of old changes a lot, Yes? We can’t even imagine being other than who we are now, even though in this one body we have been. Okay?

So if you think about this a little bit, it helps loosen the concept that we have of “I” and helps us to just even imagine, well, I could have been another person in a previous life. I could have been Chinese in a previous life. I could have been Australian. I could have been born in Panama, or Venezuela, who knows where.

Okay, I haven’t always been born in America. In fact, I haven’t always been born human. Sometimes you may have been born as an animal, or all these different kinds of forms. So if you have a hard time with this, play with it a little bit. Play with it and just try and imagine and think of what this would be like and try and pull yourself out of the rigid identity with this present body and present ego. And yes, we have been all these different things in different bodies in previous lives and in so many of those bodies we’ve had parents. You know human beings have parents, animals have parents, hungry ghosts have parents; at least some of them do, and so if we’ve had infinite beginningless life times, because our mind stream is beginningless, so infinite beginningless life times and so many of them we’ve had parents, so we’ve had infinite numbers of parents. In all the limitless, countless sentient beings that there are, there have been plenty of time for all of them to be our parents yes? Think about this a little bit. Once we have that idea that, “I haven’t always been me,” we then have a little bit of feeling for infinity.

You know, I think math prepares us nowadays for thinking about infinity because I know as a kid, the number line, “Wow infinity!” The square root of two, infinity. I used to look at the sky at night and think, “Does it ever end?” Well, it can’t end because after that there would be something else, yes? Is there any end to space? Well there can’t be. There’s no brick wall at the end of space, because if there were, there would be something on the other side of it. [laughter] And I think this reflection about infinity that we get just from thinking about math and science can really aid us in understanding the Dharma here. We haven’t always been who we are. We’ve had beginningless infinite lives and all these sentient beings have been our parents in one lifetime or another and probably not just once, but many, many times.

There’s this story about Atisha, who’s one of the great Indian sages who helped bring Buddhism to Tibet. Whenever he saw somebody he would say, “Hello mother.” And there’s this story that one day he saw this donkey and he said, “Hello mother.” Yes? And just imagine that. When you see a donkey think, “This being has been my mother.” Yes? You might say, “Well, it doesn’t look like it.” I know I call my mother a lot of names [laughter] and I told her she was a “aaahhmmm,” but you know in spite of what I said, she doesn’t really look like a donkey.

Similar to us, we haven’t always been human beings, we’ve been donkeys before. And even our mother in this lifetime, have you ever seen pictures of your parents when they were young? Yes? Remember looking at your parent’s pictures when they were going out together, when they got married, or whatever? I mean, can you believe they’re still your parents? They look really different don’t they? Or, pictures of your parents when they were teenagers; your dad had this weird haircut and your mom had this … they wore such weird clothes. [laughter] And it’s hard to believe that this is the person we see in front of us, and yet it is.

My teachers always talked about the example. Let’s say you were very close to your mom when you were little and you got separated. Maybe you were refugees and you had to flee quickly and you were separated. Years later, you’re walking down the street and there’s this poor old lady begging and you walk by her and then you look again and you realize, “That’s my mother who I’ve been separated from for so long.” You know. And then instead of seeing a beggar, who you just disregard and walk past, “Wow! That’s my mother.” And you stop don’t you? And you have some care and affection for this person and she doesn’t seem like just this stranger that you can ignore because you recognize it’s your mother that you’ve been separated from since you were a child.

So in that way, it is that same kind of way that gave Atisha the ability to look at other sentient beings and say, “Hi mom. This has been my mother that I’ve been separated from for a long time that I haven’t seen.”

This is a really interesting thing. Try and play around with this in your life. If you’re sitting on the bus, standing in line, waiting in traffic, look around at the other people around you and in your mind say, “Hi mom.” Okay? And just play the idea of this person has been your parent in a previous lifetime. This person has been kind to us in our previous lifetime. It is not like they’re total strangers. So that brings us to the second of the seven points: “Seeing the kindness of our mother.”

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.