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Equanimity: The foundation of bodhicitta

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.

  • Benefits of the equanimity mediation
  • Recognize our biases and unrealistic emotions towards others
  • Developing bodhicitta

Bodhicitta 03: Equanimity, the foundation of bodhicitta (download)

That’s a little bit about the benefits of bodhicitta and the causes for bodhicitta, now how to develop it, the actual method. There are two methods that are taught in the scriptures. One method is called the Seven-Point Instruction of Cause and Effect and the second method is called Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others. The seven points, actually both of these methods, I should say, have as their foundation the practice of equanimity—the idea being that before we can cultivate love and compassion, we have to be able to get rid of the very gross emotions that block these positive emotions. Those gross emotions are clinging to other people with attachment, having hostility and anger towards them or being apathetic. The equanimity mediation comes before either of these two methods. Let’s look a little bit at equanimity.

Equanimity meditation

Are you ready to do a little meditation? We’ll do a little meditation to explore our feelings towards others and see if we know what lies behind out partiality. I want you to think about three specific people in front of you. One is somebody for whom you have a lot of attachment. You really love that person, want to be with them. Think of the particular person. Then think of somebody whom you have a lot of hostility towards, maybe you feel threatened by them or they harmed you in some way. And the third is somebody for whom you feel apathetic. It could be a stranger of some sort. Now go back to the person you are very attached to and just ask yourself, “Why am I so attached to them?” and listen to what your mind says. Don’t judge, don’t try and come up with the right answer, just investigate. “Why am I so attached to that person?” Then think of the person who you have hostility towards and ask yourself, “Why am I hostile towards that person?” Again, just listen to what your minds responds. And then think of somebody who you are feeling apathetic towards and again ask yourself, “Why this feeling of apathy?” Okay, open your eyes. What did your mind come up with? Why are you attached to the people you are attached to?

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): For example what?

Audience: They love me. They support me. They are interested in me.

VTC: Okay, and the people who you feel hostile towards?

Audience: They don’t like me, they don’t listen to me, and they criticize me.

VTC: And the people that you feel apathetic towards?

Audience: They don’t notice me. They don’t notice me.

VTC: [laughter] Whoa! Does there seem to be some guiding principle here for how we discriminate friends, enemies and strangers? Is there some guiding principle?

You know, it’s funny isn’t it? Because when we look at people, the people who are our friends, it seems like from their own side—unrelated to us—they’re wonderful people, doesn’t it? Is it really that they are unrelated to us? No. It’s because they do things for us that they become wonderful, isn’t it? The person who is obnoxious, in our ordinary view, it looks like it’s inside “them.” We think, “I’m just this neutral person coming by and this guy is obnoxious.” Is that the way it is? No. We give them the label obnoxious because they don’t treat us right, they don’t agree with our ideas and they get in our way. The people that we’re apathetic towards, again, why? Is it that they are inherently uninteresting? No. It’s because they don’t affect us one way or another. They don’t notice us. They don’t give us this or that.

We go through our life and we think that we’re seeing everybody objectively and we think that our emotions toward everybody are valid. Like they’re the only possible emotions that we can have towards this person because this is who this person is and how I feel is right and it’s justified. It’s the only possible way I can feel. But then are we happy? We’re not happy with our emotions are we? When we do this kind of reflection we begin to see that our mind is what makes somebody into a friend or an enemy or a stranger. It’s not how they are from their side. It’s our mind and what we make them into. We make them into somebody desirable because they’re fulfilling the first qualification of a desirable person, which is they think I’m wonderful. Do you think there’s anybody who’s wonderful who can’t stand you? Of course not, anybody who can’t stand us is a jerk. Aren’t they? We don’t think of somebody who we can’t stand and say, “Oh, that person’s so attractive and so wonderful,” unless you were in love with them five minutes ago and they just broke up with you. That’s the only time that happens.

How we discriminate among friends, enemies and strangers

We only think people are wonderful because they pay attention to us and they give our ego all it wants, then when they stop giving our ego what it wants, we stop finding them so attractive, don’t we? Take them into the “used husband shop” and get a new one. We are very fickle in our feelings towards other people and we don’t even notice it. We don’t see how biased we are and how unrealistic our emotions are. Of course, it’s necessary to act differently towards different people, I’m not saying we act the same way towards everybody. Equanimity doesn’t mean you treat everybody the same because clearly you treat a two-year old differently than you treat an adult. Clearly you treat your child differently than you treat your parent or the school teacher of your child. You treat people differently according to the roles that we’re in in society and according to what that person needs. We don’t treat everybody the same but we treat them in terms of our gut feeling about people. Is there any valid reason for having this sticky mind of attachment towards some and this mind of aversion and hostility towards others and then total indifference and lack of care towards the third group? Is there any good reason that can support why we have those feelings besides the reason of, “I’m the center of the universe,” which is our present reason why we feel this way towards others? If we look at people, everybody has some good qualities, and everybody has some faults, right? Everybody is equal in that way, if we look at it. Everybody has some good qualities; everybody can be in a bad mood at some time or another. Everybody’s really equal in that way. Now, if somebody shows their bad mood to us then we say, “That guy’s a jerk” and we feel hostile, but if they show their bad mood to somebody else and they show their good mood to us, we say, “I love you, you are wonderful.” If they are not showing either mood to us we say, “Naah, who cares? You’re just somebody walking down the street.” We react totally on what they show to us, not what they have. Everybody has some attachment or some anger. It just depends on whether they show it to us or not and what they show to other people. If somebody shows their anger to us they become an enemy, if they show their anger to somebody we don’t like, “That guy’s smart,” because he sees that guy is a real jerk and he’s going to be on my side. It’s totally arbitrary, completely arbitrary.

This can really be rather shocking when you think about it and you look at your relationships, and why you feel the way you do about different people. Just watch our reactions towards people. Watch at work if somebody comes in and criticizes your colleague or that person says the same words but looks at you. You’re going to feel two different ways aren’t you? They criticize your colleague, “I’m staying out of it, and it’s none of my business.” My colleague gets bummed out, “Don’t worry about it because the boss is in a bad mood.” But the boss says that to me, “Boy, how dare he.” It’s the same words. We react totally different whether it involves me or doesn’t involve me.

There’s a water shortage in the city. Well it’s halfway around the world, it’s not a big problem. It’s too bad those people don’t have water. They can wait a few weeks. How would you feel if you don’t have water when you go to the tap and you turn the water on and nothing comes out? Are you going to sit patiently while the government figures out what it’s trying to do? Are you going to welcome with open arms the people who turned your water off? I think when we do a little bit of analysis here about our emotions, we really see how subjective they are and how they really don’t have much of a valid basis.

Questions and answers

Audience: I’ve got a question about how you decide you like somebody. I understand that a lot of it is related to how they treat me but are you also attracted to people when you see how they treat others? They are generous and they treat the waitress nice. They are honest. If you look at how they treat others in general, it isn’t always connected to you, when you’re trying to have a relationship with them. What if equanimity falls into the opposite, if somebody is cruel to an animal? That’s not me they are being cruel to, but still I think that’s despicable.

VTC: You’re asking, what about how this person treats other people and then we evaluate them on how they treat other people not just according to our self. They help an animal or they harm an animal, you think that harming the animal is despicable. But other people think that harming that animal might be good. I remember a time when somebody was killing the fleas on their cat and I was a bit alarmed about that. That person then got very mad at me because I was caring about the fleas on the cat, “How dare you care about fleas on the cat. Those fleas are harming our cat.” If we look sometimes, it also relates to what we value as important. You look at any government policy and some people can say, “Look, the US government is so magnanimous, it’s going out to liberate these people who are under this horrible dictatorship. The US government is filled with love and compassion and care and consideration and wanting to liberate these people and they are so much better off now than they were before.” Some people see it like that. Now other people don’t see it like that. It depends on which side you’re standing on and what you’re looking at. You look at one person who helps somebody else, sometimes if they give money to somebody who you don’t think is deserving of that money, you think less of them. It’s not just their generosity, it’s who their generosity is directed towards. The same way if sometimes they are aggressive towards somebody who you think they need to be aggressive towards, you support them. But if they are aggressive towards somebody who you don’t think they need to be aggressive towards, then you think that same behavior has become something that you don’t like. Different behaviors: we can label one behavior assertive or aggressive depending upon if it’s related to somebody we favor or we don’t favor. We can label something generous depending upon if the gift is given to somebody we favor or don’t favor. So many things like this, it often comes back to our values and how we think. Definitely being generous on the whole is a quality you want to look for in other people but we also need to be careful. They’re good if a person is generous to my parents, to my family, my children, to the causes that I think are good, but if they’re generous to the NRA I don’t see that as generosity anymore. I have a different value and I don’t want them to be generous.

Audience: The practice of equanimity, somehow you have to look at your own values in that light?

VTC: We can still have our own values. We can still prefer that money doesn’t go to the NRA. We can still value keeping animals safe. What I’m getting at is, instead of thinking that the person who acts one way or another in a situation is inherently good or inherently flawed, we need to be able to step back and see that some people have some good qualities and some people have some bad qualities. It may be a pity that this person’s generosity is going towards a terrorist organization, we don’t want that. But we don’t just label this other person as evil and throw them in the garbage. We see that they are misdirected. We see that they don’t understand really what generosity is about, but we don’t just give them a label and ignore them after that.

Audience:Someone who has realized emptiness is someone who doesn’t label? Or are they just totally seeing things …

VTC: No. Somebody who’s realized emptiness, I think they are still using labels because things exist by being merely labeled but that person understands that things exist by being merely labeled. They don’t see it as an inherent quality. For example in the world situation, I’m sure the Dalai Lama sees the Beijing government as somebody in opposition because conventionally that government is in opposition to the freedom of Tibet. Does His Holiness hate the people in the Beijing government? No. And he’s constantly telling the Tibetans not to have animosity towards them.

Audience: If we’re seeing people as friend, enemy or stranger, then somebody who has realized emptiness, to them, they just appear as a person?

VTC: Yes, they still see that they’re closer to some people than to others in this life, with all that’s going on, but they also have the bigger picture. Somebody who has realized emptiness, maybe they have students that they see every day, who they’re closer to than somebody who lives on the opposite side of the world. They relate different to those students and they take care of them in a way that they don’t do to others, but they also don’t just say, “Ooh, these students are so wonderful, they are the best ones in the world because they’re mine and everybody else is ridiculous.” The person who realizes emptiness just sees that things exist conventionally in this way but that’s not their ultimate mode of existence.

Regarding this, there was an incident I noticed. I bring up student/teacher relationships because sometimes people’s emotions can get very flared up, because of all of our authority issues. All sorts of stuff comes up. I was with the reincarnation of my teacher, Serkong Rinpoche in India and he had one other sponsor who comes sometimes to help. This sponsor in my opinion sometimes acts in ways that are really inappropriate. He called one day and Rinpoche’s house was all full and this guy says “I’m coming tonight. My girlfriend and I are coming tonight and we want to stay X number of days.” Rinpoche says, “”Sure.” And I’m going, “What? Why don’t you tell him to go stay somewhere else. He can’t call at the last moment, it’s so inconvenient on everybody in your household, the cook and everything like this. This guy is always doing this.” I mean I was nice in the way I said it. But you know, in my mind, I was like “Mmmmm.” Anyway Rinpoche just said, “It’s okay.” So this guy came with his wife and they stayed all these days and everybody was squished in. It didn’t influence me so much as it influenced other people in the household who had to do more work. I just noticed Rinpoche treated these people so well. He was just nice to them. He was sweet to them. He didn’t get all bent out of shape and I realized, “Wow, this really shows me his spiritual development because if he can treat someone who acts like this in a very kind way, then even when I’m obnoxious, he’ll treat me in a kind way too!” So instead of being jealous, “How come he’s being so nice to this guy who’s so obnoxious and not nice to me because I’m better.” It was just like, “Whoa, I’m really glad he had this kind of equanimity because this will spread to everybody that he comes in contact with.” I really saw that his way of treating the situation actually prevented a lot of bad feelings from coming up. My way of treating it might have stirred up a lot of bad feelings so actually it’s very good I kept my mouth shut. His example made me kind of extend myself and try to be nice to these people.

Audience: Did they pull their weight, these people when they came, were they generous with their time?

VTC: You mean the people who called up?

Audience: Were they a problem or a burden?

VTC: Some of the monks in one room had to move out into the room outside to make room for them to come. They had to do two shifts of cooking for the visitors instead of one shift, so it was inconvenient. But people handled it so well and the people who were cooking and cleaning they didn’t complain. Me, who wasn’t cooking and cleaning was the one who was saying “What’s going on here?” But the people who were actually trained and subdued their mind and were happy to do the work without getting bent out of shape, they were okay with it.

Audience: I was listening yesterday to a lecture that the Dalai Lama was giving in Australia and somebody asked him precisely the question about how he was feeling about the Beijing government, and he has really good sense of humor. He said, “They are an uninvited guest, they just don’t know yet.”

VTC: Yes.

Audience: The exercise we did where we envisioned the person that we care for and the person that we dislike and the person that we were apathetic with. The third one I don’t understand. What was the intent?

VTC: You do not understand part of the exercise where we are thinking about somebody we feel apathetic towards. What was the purpose of that? When we were born everybody was a stranger and we were kind of apathetic towards everybody, weren’t we? We didn’t care much about anybody. When some people started to help us we labeled them friends and got attached. When other people started to not give us what we wanted we labeled them enemies and develop hostility. But they all started out the same and when they are the same in being strangers we don’t care much for them, do we? I mean some guy who is walking down the street outside right now, nobody thinks about him very much but if you notice that he parked in front of you and you can’t get out, then “It’s influencing me!” And you would begin to have some thoughts about this person. Or if he stops and lets you pull out in front of him you begin to have other thoughts. It’s a thing of noticing how sometimes we tune people out because they don’t affect us one way or another. Yet everybody has feelings, everybody wants to be happy, everybody wants to be free of suffering. We’re all exactly the same in that way. If we look over a long period of time including previous lives, everybody’s helped us in some way, even in this life everybody’s helped us in some way. The guy who is the stranger, who we ignore, could be the trash collector who is actually very important in our life because if the trash collectors go on strike we have big problems. They are very kind to collect our trash. It’s recognizing that everybody has feelings and everybody contributes in one way or another.

Audience: In reality we shouldn’t be apathetic to anyone?

VTC: Yes. What we are aiming for in this meditation is to have an open-hearted concern for everybody. A feeling of being able to value and be concerned about every living being instead of just tuning out most of them. This is quite a nice exercise to do when we start into the seven points of cause and effect. We start by contemplating how beings have been our relatives in the past and how they’ve been kind. So we train our minds to just see others like this, all these kind people around us who’ve been related to us. It transforms our attitude because first of all, feeling apathetic isn’t very realistic. Second of all, it is not very pleasant, is it? When you’re “Blaaah,” you don’t care about anybody. It’s a miserable state of mind for us to be in.

Audience: The thing I think about, in relationship to these questions, and again somebody asked this question last week, is the difference between taking action and not taking action. Things can get very confusing for me. I’m making a judgment about somebody because of the way they’re treating somebody else. Should I be showing something or should I not be showing something? I think that there is one time in my life that comes up, that still confuses me, that was when I was in the field of Brazil. I was faced with lots of violence on one hand, a German camera crew trying to record violence, while others were trying to do kindness and I’m being dragged through a field by somebody I’m terrified of, who ends up being a street kid assigned to help me. And the world didn’t make sense in the context of everyday life. In that moment, I had something that I just wasn’t able to connect to. But otherwise if I would have just “Whooom” left my being and saw the world as this huge cauldron filled with muck and horror and beauty and all alongside on the side of the cauldron people were jumping in, some people were crawling out and some were going, “Whee!” and others were saying, “What was that?” and others were saying, “I don’t know but I want more.” At that moment there was something exquisitely beautiful about every event that was happening and I couldn’t judge the camera crew. I couldn’t judge the kid. I couldn’t judge the women trying to do good. I couldn’t judge myself. I couldn’t make sense out of it, but I knew it was extraordinary. So that’s kind of what I see. Yet everyday life doesn’t usually give me that perspective. It’s almost like a struggle, like people who have near death experiences. How do you go back to this? All of the questions really remind me of my struggle everyday to try to see without all the deadening words that are always there and you’re right, it’s always going to be about me.

VTC: I’m going to summarize that. The mike does pick it up, great. Good, I’m glad the mike picks it up. Basically what you’re saying you had was an experience that was fairly chaotic and what you found is that you were able to step back and have the big picture of what was going on and stop your immediate reactions to everybody’s immediate role in that situation. See that in some way everybody is wanting happiness and everyone is having suffering. People are pushed by their own causes and conditions to play whatever role, or to do whatever they are going to do in a situation, but it’s not really who they are. These things change all the time. The person who you think is harming you if you look at it differently they are helping you or even if you don’t look at it differently, five minutes later they are helping you. The person who you think is helping you, you find out later was trying to harm you or even if they were helping you at that moment their motivation changes and they’re harming you. Somebody gives us a thousand dollars today and they’re our friend. Then they steal our stuff tomorrow and they become an enemy. The idea is that when we step back from all of this, we have a bigger picture. We see there is no use in getting so bent out of shape and so involved with these temporary actions and roles that people are in for that period of time. We begin to see that they’re all suffering in one way or another, aren’t they? Whether they are the German camera crew who comes from a wealthy country, they still are involved in suffering just as the street kid in Brazil was involved in suffering. It’s this ability to have a bigger mind about the bigger picture that enables us to generate actual compassion for people, because we begin to see that everybody is under the influence of their own ignorance, anger and attachment. At one particular moment they’re acting one particular way but from their side they are still tangled up in all these turbulent emotions. They are not free and so we have compassion. Is that it?

Audience: Yes. I think about it all the time. To find this place, the bigger picture and more comprehensive connection to all life. I did feel at that moment after that event which was so timeless, that I was very rooted and connected to all life. It was an extraordinary feeling but it doesn’t stay.

VTC: Right, right, and that’s what these meditations do, they help us learn how to cultivate that feeling.

Audience: I had it at one time. I had the ability to hear you speak and to be with others who could help guide that. I can turn that experience into something as a practice.

VTC: You still can. Any experience that we have is not permanent. You can’t make yourself recapture something that you experience. Knowing that, having that kind of view of the world, it is possible that it gives you some perspective that, “If I cultivate the causes then I can have that kind of way of viewing things more, steadily in my mind. I won’t get derailed so easily.”

Audience: Do you get glimpses into emptiness, in those kind of circumstances or in the practices, as you mature in your practice? Does it all come at once? Do you all of a sudden realize emptiness or do you gradually get it, like learning to talk or think, mentally.

VTC: Most things happen gradually, don’t they? The question is, do we all of a sudden, “wham, bang” realize emptiness or get little glimpses. I think you kind of get little glimpses and at a certain point something really goes “Woow.” There is this whole debate in Buddhism. There is the gradual school and the sudden enlightenment school and some people say you suddenly realize emptiness “wham, bang” and others say no, it’s gradual. Well, the way His Holiness explains is that there might be a certain point on the path where it looks, “Wow, you got it,” but you get that because you spent eons cultivating the causes beforehand. So it’s like anything in our life; there is one moment where the water boils but if you never started heating up the water before, there’s never going to be that moment that the water boils.

Audience: Good analogy.

VTC: Last question.

Audience: Real quick, could you please repeat the two ways of developing bodhicitta?

VTC: One is the Seven-Point Instruction of Cause and Effect and the other is Equalizing and Exchanging Self and Others.

Audience: Equalizing and …

VTC: And Exchanging Self and Others. We’ll begin next week with the Seven Points of Cause and Effect. If you want, a good reading source for this is Geshe Jampa Tekchog’s book called Transforming the Heart: The Buddha’s Path to Joy and Courage, or The Buddhist Way to Joy and Courage. It’s published by Snow Lion. [It is now released with the title Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage.] It’s excellent. He has really good descriptions in there.

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.