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Cultivating conventional bodhicitta

Cultivating conventional bodhicitta

A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.

  • Questions and answers
    • Idle talk, wrong views
    • The difference between self-cherishing and self-grasping
    • The mind of meditation during the time of death
    • The ignorance of self-pity and a poor-quality view of oneself
  • Introduction to the section of the text on how to cultivate conventional bodhicitta

MTRS 19: Advantages of bodhicitta, part 1 (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation, and think of the kindness we’ve received from other beings. Just in the last week for example, since we last had class: the food we’ve eaten that’s been prepared and grown and transported by others, medicine that we’ve received due to the kindness of others, all the things that we’ve used in this last week that were created because of the efforts of others. The specific things of kindness that may have been directed towards us in particular, and the general acts of goodwill that were done by people in public office or government offices working for us. And so let’s feel deeply interconnected, interwoven, with all these other beings. And have a strong wish that they be free of suffering and not just the “ouch” kind of suffering; but may they be free of having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma. While wishing them with compassion to be free of dukkha is very good, it’s not going to get them liberated. We have to act. And so since buddhahood is a state in which we have the best tools, the most effective tools to be of benefit, we want to attain buddhahood. And so we make that determination not just to attain buddhahood as some far off thing, but to create the causes for buddhahood beginning now; and in that way, to work for the welfare of sentient beings now, as well as in the future. So let’s generate that motivation for sharing the Dharma together this evening.

Questions and answers

So we have a lot of questions this week. People were busy thinking.1

Idle talk and rebirth

So somebody says that they’ve been doing a life review, going backwards, and thinking about karma and negative actions, destructive actions that they’ve done, and so they’re asking first of all, why is idle talk…. (“Idle” is spelled i-d-o-l, [laughter] so I guess it’s idolizing sports heroes, idolizing movie stars. So whether it’s idle or idol, it’s the same thing.) But why it leads to a miserable rebirth. So, he says, “I can understand some of the disadvantages. It wastes a lot of time, but why would it lead to a bad rebirth?” [Venerable Chodron now rewording his question] Because we usually think of things that lead to bad rebirths as kind of clearly, obviously, really horrible stuff; but what’s wrong with a little bit of idle talk here and there?

Well, the thing is if we look at our idle talk, it usually involves some of the other verbal nonvirtues. Yes? Have you ever noticed that when you do a lot of idle talk, you exaggerate things very easily because you want to weave a good story because that’s what idle talk’s about. Then when you just talk idly about this and that, well, what’s one of our favorite topics? What other people do. So we put down what other people do and speak badly of them behind their back, creating disharmony. And then, what else do we do when we have idle talk? Well, sometimes we get mad at the person we’re talking to. Or we tease them in a way that’s painful; we ridicule them. Something like that. So you see how easy it is with idle talk, just when our speech is uncontrolled, that it flows into all sorts of other kind of topics. And, if you think of wasting the time of somebody who really wants to do Dharma practice by involving them in discussion about movies, and real estate market, and things like this, then you can see that it’s damaging not only to that person but to all the other people who could be influenced in a positive way by that person.

I was reading something in one of the commentaries to a Pali sutra. I don’t have it with me now, but the gist of it was the Buddha was talking about idle talk and mentioning the kind of topics: And so politics, and war, and weapons, and sex, and entertainment, and sports, and what different people are doing, and buying and selling stuff, and all this kinds of things. So he mentioned those topics. But then he really clarified that it’s the way you talk about those topics that actually becomes idle talk.

Because he was saying if you talk about those topics in the sense that they’re arising and passing away, that they’re impermanent and so nothing to hold on to as lasting happiness, that’s a fine way to talk about it. If you’re talking about sexual pleasure and doing this, but you’re talking about it in that sense that can help somebody in the Dharma. Or if you’re talking about the economy and what things are buying and selling for, but you’re talking about it in the sense of the disadvantages of being attached to those things, then that’s something useful for your Dharma practice. So the whole thing depends not so much on the topic as to how you’re talking about that topic. And, of course, that’s going to depend a lot on your motivation for talking.

Wrong view

Then, the second question: “Is wrong view as a pathway limited to cynicism about karma and rebirth and etc. What about believing that having an adventurous sex-life is happiness or doing something that you know is wrong but justifying it based on another person’s behavior, like stealing something from a job that doesn’t pay enough. Are these wrong views as pathways, or are these just ignorance, or are they both?”

I would say that they are wrong views as a mental factor, which is a part of ignorance and that they’re also wrong view as a pathway, as a karmic pathway. While wrong view is usually described as not believing in karmic cause and effect, not believing in enlightenment and rebirth, things like that. But His Holiness has recently been saying that that makes it sound like wrong view is only limited to people who have philosophical views. And he said actually just having the thought, “Oh, what I do doesn’t have any effect on anybody else,” that that actually is a wrong view. Or just having the view, “What I do doesn’t matter, who cares,” that that’s kind of a wrong view. So if those are wrong views, then I would say views that see happiness in what isn’t happiness is also a kind of wrong view because it really takes you away from proper action, and it functions in the same way as wrong views. To the example here of stealing from a job that doesn’t pay enough; is it helps you, it acts as a basis, for creating other kinds of nonvirtuous actions.

I’m very happy with questions like these because it means people have been thinking about the Dharma.

So last week we had that whole discussion about our afflictions, mental states of anger, their being caused by karma. So this person who asked the question said that she understands the basic confusion now because we’re talking about causally concordant actions that are similar to the experience and that are similar to the habit of what you’re doing. And so she was saying, “I ‘experience’ afflictions so I saw that as an experience that was being caused by karma but understanding now that the causally concordant result that’s like the experience means certain situations that you’re put into.” So that’s to clarify that.

Karma: too literal or not literal enough

And then they said that last week I was talking about not taking some of the statements on karma literally. For example, that one example that if you call somebody a duck, you’re going to be born as a duck five hundred times. Seeing that as just that one action without any other kind of karma involved is not going to be what it takes to make you be born as a duck five hundred times. Certainly there’s going to have to be other nonvirtuous actions involved in that. Then they were saying, well, does that mean we shouldn’t take all the other stuff here on karma literally?

No, let’s be really clear here. I was talking about statements that sounded really far out, like that kind of one. Or like reciting om mani padme hum once, and you won’t be born in the lower realm. Statements like that, that if you use reason and logic, it’s clear to understand that they’re made as a moral injunction or made as a way to inspire somebody to practice. They’re not said in a way to be [taken] literally. But when we hear things like, if you cheat on your partner, it’s going to cause you to have disharmonious relationships. That one you can take literally because that’s the karmic repercussion for that. So don’t get me wrong when I talk about not taking some things literally. I’m talking about the things that you can actively use reason and logic, to say that those shouldn’t be taken literally. But the things that clearly if you do, if you create something, if you do something under the influence of ignorance, anger, and attachment, and it’s a complete action, it’s going to bring a harmful result. That’s one of the four qualities of karma, isn’t it? So that: you take as it’s said. So I just want to get that very clear with people because our mind says, “Well, if I understand that that applies to me, and my ego doesn’t like it, so she must have included that in the things not to take literally.” Mmmmm. No. Be careful about that one.

And, she also mentioned a passage from the scriptures here, and which is because you were saying that some of the things should be taken literally. And so, here the Buddha was talking about his experience right before he attained enlightenment where with the divine eyes—the divine eye is one kind of psychic power where you can see things in different universes and in different time periods and specifically, one way to use it is to see how beings are dying and getting reborn. And so, the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment was able to exercise this divine eye. And what he saw, he said [no textual citation is given],

I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. I understood how beings pass on according to their actions, thus these worthy beings…

“These worthy beings?” Let’s check another sutra and see if it says that too. But let’s just say, these beings who were,

…ill-conducted in body, speech and mind, revilers of noble ones, wrong in their views, giving effect to wrong view in their actions, on the dissolution of their body after death have reappeared in a state of deprivation, in a bad destination, in perdition, even hell. But these worthy beings, who were well-conducted in their body, speech, and mind, not revilers of noble ones, right in their actions, giving effect to right view in their actions, on the dissolution of the body after death have reappeared in a good destination, even in the heavenly worlds.

So, there the Buddha is saying that through his own experience, he saw that. So the statement is also a clear indication that the Buddha talks about rebirth in the sutras. It’s very clear and obvious. And very clear and obvious too, kind of what’s the cause for unhappy rebirths, what’s the cause of happy rebirths.

Spontaneous rebirth

[Reads question] So thinking of those juniper berries, Lama Tsongkhapa mentioned that we are born from mothers as humans, animals, and hungry ghosts. How are gods and hell beings born? Because it’s usually said that they’re spontaneous birth. This person says, “That clashes with my new practice of trying to see everything as a product of causes.”

Spontaneous birth does not mean uncaused rebirth. Spontaneous birth means that you die and then you get reborn. You don’t have to wait to have parents. That’s what spontaneous means. It’s just you die and the rebirth comes spontaneously, very quickly, because you don’t need to wait for parents. So you’re not born from a womb; you’re not born from an egg. There’s no kind of gestation time or things like that. So beings in hell and some of the god realms, I think most of the god realms, and then, definitely the beings in the formless realm and the form realm; then the beings who’re going to be born in those situations then when they die of their previous life, because their karma is ripe there and that karma is the cause for that new rebirth, then they just spontaneously appear in the next moment in those realms. Got it? That’s the meaning of spontaneous.

In the formless realm there’s no body. In the form realm, we have a subtle kind of body. I don’t know, maybe the karma just makes all the material come together like that. Shhuu! [i.e. whoosh; gesturing] Maybe the atoms come together; [it] must be something like that—that the mind because of that, just manifests in some kind of body and the material accords with it. Of course, you can be a bodhisattva and then manifest in the hell realm and watch how the beings there are born as you’re trying to help them and they’re resisting you. It takes great courage to be born in the hell realm. Can you imagine? You’re desperately trying to help beings, and they’re going, “Look, I have too many problems; I can’t pay attention to you.” Or they see you as an enemy, trying to kill them, instead of as a bodhisattva trying to help them.

Third of eight sufferings—how it is worded

Now this person is saying last week in the verse on the eight sufferings, I gave the third one differently than they’ve heard it before. Because in some cases, you hear the third one as “Being parted from what you like,” and I described it as “Getting what you like and being dissatisfied with it.” Well, you can hear it different ways. There are different ways of presenting these. In my mind, not getting what you want and being parted from what you like are very similar, aren’t they? So if one of them is already not getting what you want, then you are parted from what you like—aren’t you. Yes? So I see them as very similar and so, in another way of describing it, it’s you get it and then it’s unsatisfactory.

Often too, when you look sometimes at different lists, sometimes the emphasis is on one way or another way. Just by the way the point is spoken of, it emphasizes one aspect or the other aspect. So don’t get alarmed sometimes when things aren’t word for word exactly the same.

The root of the afflictions: self-grasping or self-centeredness?

[Reading question] “Sometimes it seems the teachings say that the afflictions arise as a result of self-cherishing, self-centeredness….”

I don’t like to use the term self-cherishing because we should cherish ourselves, shouldn’t we. Don’t you think so? I think self-cherishing’s a very poor translation because the opposite of self-cherishing is self-hatred, and we already have enough of that and that’s very self-centered. So I think we need to cherish ourselves because we are a human being with the potential to become a Buddha. But what we don’t want to be is self-preoccupied and self-centered. So let’s use that term, I think it’s much more accurate. So the whole question is like about fifteen questions in a few sentences.

[Question continues] “Sometimes it seems like the teachings say the afflictions arise as a result of self-centeredness, which is not affliction but is based on afflictive ignorance.”

Not, necessarily so.

[Question continues] “Sometimes they seem to say that they come from self-grasping ignorance….”

So, I guess that’s the first question.

[Question continues] “Since the hearer and solitary realizer vehicles don’t deal with self-centeredness, it must be ignorance is the source, and self-centeredness is the amplifier or modifier or something like that. Then why do we say so much that all suffering comes from the wish for your own happiness?”

So there are several questions in that. So, we have the verse in the Lama Chopa about how all suffering comes from seeking your own happiness. I remember once being with somebody who asked a geshe about that. Because the thing is, “Well, wait a minute, I thought self-grasping ignorance is the source of all dukkha. What is it now saying that’s self-centeredness is?”

In the situation where you are trying to steer people towards the Mahayana path, then you can present it as “All dukkha comes from self-centeredness,” but that’s specific to that context. It doesn’t mean literally that all dukkha comes from self-centeredness because the root of self-centeredness is self-grasping ignorance. So, not the root of self-centeredness; the root of the afflictions, the root of dukkha is the self-grasping ignorance. So in our level, when we have both self-grasping ignorance and self-centeredness they manifest together. So if we say, “Oh, I trashed somebody and told them off,” well yes, that was due to ignorance, which gave rise to anger, which gave rise to harsh speech. It was also due to thinking my happiness is more important than anybody else’s, and so I don’t need to control my speech. I’ll just dump on them because it makes me feel good. But, if you’re going to trace it in a technical way, it comes from the self-grasping ignorance that misconceives reality and thinks that things are truly existent.

So in our gross state, sometimes these two, it’s easy to conflate them—especially looking in our daily life because they’re both active. When you get to the point where let’s say somebody is a hearer or solitary realizer arhat, they have eliminated all the self-grasping. They’ve also eliminated a lot of self-centeredness because they keep good ethical conduct. So this gross kind of self-centeredness that we have—like, “Who cares”—that they’ve definitely eliminated. But there’s another kind of self-centeredness that says, “My enlightenment, my liberation, is more important than others.” That’s the kind of self-centeredness they haven’t eliminated. That kind of self-centeredness, it is not an afflictive obscuration because the hearer and solitary realizer arhats have eliminated all the afflictive obscurations yet they still have that. It also is not a cognitive obscuration because cognitive obscurations—and there is some debate about it—but people tend to see that cognitive obscuration are not consciousnesses. They’re the appearance of true existence and the latencies that cause the appearance of true existence, neither of those are consciousnesses. Self-centeredness is a consciousness. So then you’re saying, “Well, wait a minute, I thought all obscurations have to either be afflictive obscurations or cognitive obscurations.”And a geshe will say, “Yes, that’s true.” And then you say, “What about self-centeredness?” And they say, “It’s an obscuration to the Mahayana path.” But it’s not an afflictive obscuration and it’s not a cognitive obscuration. It’s preventing you from entering the Mahayana path. It prevents you because if you don’t enter the path, you can’t get the fruit. It prevents you from entering the Mahayana path.

So then this person is saying: “By the time you’re on the bodhisattva bhumis, your self-centeredness is just a stain, a habit of viewing inherent existence, right?”

Wrong. Self-centeredness does not view inherent existence, and it’s not the imprint of the latency of inherent existence, and it’s not the appearance of inherent existence. Those things are all cognitive obscurations.

Then there’s also some confusion here: “So the union of bodhicitta and emptiness is what propels you over or through the dualistic view which arhats and solitary realizers still have.”

They don’t have dualistic view when they’re in meditative equipoise on emptiness; none of the Aryas have dualistic view when they’re in meditative equipoise on emptiness. Dualistic view does not mean, “Me and you.” Dualistic view means inherent existence. Or dualism [better said] means inherent existence. It means seeing a subject and an object that are inherently different and unrelated to each other. So dual view isn’t just, “I’m me and you’re you,” because on a conventional thing [or level] there is me and you. So don’t confuse dual view with thinking my happiness is more important than others’ happiness because they’re different. When we talk about dualism, it’s talking about subject and object inherently separate or inherent existence. Things like that.

Dualistic appearance

[Reads question] “Can it be said then that self-centeredness is the cause of dualistic appearance?”

No. What causes dualistic appearance is you’ve had ignorance in the mindstream for a long time. The latencies left over from that ignorance are what make the dualistic appearance. So you can remove the ignorance, but the latencies are there. So like arhats, they’ve removed grasping at true existence. But the latencies of grasping at true existence are there, and those latencies are what create the dualistic appearance. And, what dualistic appearance means is that when they arise from meditation on emptiness, when they’re not perceiving emptiness directly, there’s still the appearance of things as inherently existent. But they don’t grasp things to be inherently existent. They recognize that that’s a wrong appearance. So Aryas who have direct perception of emptiness, when they’re out of that direct perception of emptiness, have the appearance but they don’t grasp at it as an accurate appearance. But all of that is separate form self-centeredness.

Now you could say, why haven’t the arhats eliminated this dualistic appearance? Well, because there’s still some self-centeredness in their continuum and that self-centeredness prevents them from wanting to attain the full enlightenment of a Buddha. And without that motivation to attain the full enlightenment of a Buddha, then you’re not going to spend your time and energy cleansing the cognitive obscurations from your mindstream in order to get an omniscient mind so you can be of the greatest benefit to others—because you’ve already liberated yourself, and you’ve done your own work, and you’ve met your own goal. So that’s how self-centeredness impedes enlightenment; is that you don’t have the aspiration to completely cleanse the mind of all these latencies that cause the dual appearance.

Appearance of true existence and the grasping at true existence

And then there was [in your questions] the thing with the appearance of a truly existent person and the appearance of a truly existent person grasped as real. You asked about the difference between those.

Audience: That’s really not a Manjushri sadhana question, but if you want to answer it, what is the difference between the appearance and the grasped?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The difference between the appearance of true existence and the grasping at true existence is that the appearance of true existence is an appearance. The grasping at true existence is assenting to that appearance and grasping things as, “They really exist that way.” It’s like you look at a TV, and there’s the appearance of people on the screen. You can leave it as the appearance of people on the screen or you can grasp it as there’s real people in that box. That’s the difference.

The appearance is there but then if you’ve realized emptiness, you don’t grasp the appearance as true. The other one, you grasp the appearance as true and that kind of fortifies the appearance because then everything’s completely merged. I mean in these kinds of things, sometimes when we study them, it’s like we divide them into these different things, and we think that they’re all divided into these nice fixed categories. First, there’s the appearance, and then there’s the grasping, and they’re different things. One’s an afflictive obscuration and this one’s a cognitive obscuration, and you can draw a line right in the middle between them to differentiate them. But I think in terms of our experience, it’s kind of hard because, especially when you’re at our level, we just assent to the appearance most of the time. To actually differentiate what’s the appearance and what’s the grasping—especially when we can’t even differentiate the grasping to start with. How many times are we even aware that we’re grasping at true existence? As you go through the day, we can say, “Oh, I’m angry.” “Oh, I’m jealous.” We can identify those things. But do you ever say, “I’m grasping at true existence right now?” Do we even train ourselves to recognize that? Even when we’re angry and we’ve been taught that when we’re angry, we’re grasping at true existence; even then when we’re angry, do we say to ourselves, “I’m angry and I’m grasping at true existence?”

Audience: I’m still trying to accept that it’s an afflicted mind state.

VTC: Yes, right. We’re still trying to accept that it’s an affliction, and it’s not, “I’m right and they’re wrong!”

Audience: Just being aware that it’s there!

VTC: Yes. Just being aware that it’s there and that it’s an affliction. So you see there are many levels to trying to tease this apart and understand it and really pick it out in our experience. So maybe we should help each other because we do help each other sometimes. If somebody’s angry or somebody has a lot of attachment, we’ll kind of comment on that to them. Maybe we should also add, “Are you grasping at true existence right now?” [laughter] Well, it’ll stop them in their tracks. Nobody ever told me that when I was angry before. Am I grasping at true existence? Well, let’s see.

Object of meditation at death time

[Reads question] “In developing better concentration on the breath and also meditating on death and the moment of death, because we went through the whole topic of death in a previous class, it suddenly occurred to me….”

Suddenly? Spontaneously? How did that happen? There was no cause?

[Continues question] “…it suddenly occurred to me that when you’re dying, using the breath as your object of meditation has some serious dangers since your object of meditation is about to cease.” [laughter]

Good point! But that’s fine if you stay focused on the breath, and you’re watching as it slows down, and you’re watching as it ceased, you’re present with it. That’s fine—carrying that into the intermediate state.

“It seems that your meditation of yourself as a deity or on an externally visualized Buddha would have to be very, very stable to know that you could hold it steady while dying.”

Good point. Actually having any Dharma thought steady in our mind when we’re dying is a challenge, isn’t it? It’s hard to have a Dharma thought steady in our mind when we’re living, let alone when we’re dying. Isn’t it?

“So, for us, if we want to consciously prepare for our death, in practice what’s the best object with which to cultivate our familiarity and concentration?”

It depends on what level of practice you’re at. If you have good concentration and you have a good understanding of emptiness, then doing the practice of transforming death, intermediate state, and rebirth into the three bodies of the Buddha. That’s an excellent practice if you can master that because then in the process of dying, intermediate state, and rebirth, you can use any of those three times to actualize the dharmakaya, the sambogakaya, and the nirmanakaya—the truth body, the resource body, and the emanation body. If you’re not at that level, then we’re going to be coming to a practice in the mind training that is called the five powers or the five forces at the time of death. That’s a really excellent practice because it talks about having the view of emptiness at the time of death and having bodhicitta at the time of death. And so if we can have those two in our mind, that’s excellent when we’re dying. If we’re not familiar enough with those, then refuge. Just taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and making strong aspiration prayers to be born either in a pure land where we can be enlightened in the pure land or to have a precious human rebirth with all the necessary conducive conditions to practice.

Audience: Isn’t the first practice of the three kayas, isn’t that only in highest yoga tantra?

VTC: Yes.

Ordinary view vs. pure view; what is it counteracting?

[Reads question] “What part of ignorance or what type of ignorance is responsible for our self-pity, ordinary view? Are we counteracting self-grasping, self-centeredness, both, or neither?”

Okay, in other words when you’re trying to practice pure view, for example, people who are doing the retreat on Manjushri and you’re trying to practice pure view seeing others as Manjushri and the environment as Manjushri’s pure land; are we counteracting self-grasping, self-centeredness, both, or neither? [restating the question:] “Are we counteracting self-grasping, self-centeredness, both, or neither?” Ah, you’ve been studying some debate there. So what part of ignorance, what type of ignorance is responsible for our self-pity, ordinary view? They say that ordinary view has two meanings. One is truly existent—seeing things as truly existent. And the second is seeing things as ordinary. In other words as ordinary living beings who were produced under affliction and karma, an ordinary environment that is a true suffering—instead of seeing these things as a pure land. So that’s what’s meant by ordinary view in Tantra, those two meanings. So what you’re trying to do when you cultivate pure view is counteract both the grasping at true existence and the appearance of things as ordinary. And you’re trying to do this on the level of your mental consciousness. It’s not like you’re trying to, with your eye consciousness, make everything appear as Manjushri. It’s with your mental consciousness, seeing things: it appears this why but you’re trying to see it in another way.

So in terms of our self-pity, ordinary person, I would say that both self-grasping ignorance and self-centeredness are involved in that. First of all, self-grasping ignorance is involved because when we’re stuck in, you know, “Poor me, nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I’ll eat some worms. [Whine, whimper, whine]” Definitely there is some self-grasping ignorance. So that’s a good time actually, when we get into that to say, to ask ourselves, “Am I grasping at true existence right now?” Yes? Or, when you see a Dharma practitioner in the middle of that, “Are you grasping at true existence? Is that a truly existent “I” that you’re feeling sorry for?” “Yeeessss. And I feel sorry for myself because I grasp at true existence; poor me, because I grasp at true existence.” So there’s the self-grasping ignorance. And then certainly when we fall into our pity parties there’s the self-centeredness too. Because, you know, we’ve blocked out the existence of the rest of the planet: everything revolves around me and how unhappy I am. So I would say that they’re both present at that point.

Okay, now that we have 13 minutes left, we’ll get onto the teachings. But very good questions, people have been thinking, so that’s quite good. You’re thinking about the teachings. Very good.

The text: Four preliminaries to generating bodhicitta

Okay, so last time we finished talking about the four preliminaries. What are the four preliminaries? First of all, what are they preliminary to? They’re preliminary to generating bodhicitta. What are the four? First, precious human rebirth. Death and impermanence. Karma and its results. The disadvantages of cyclic existence. Okay. Then within the disadvantages of cyclic existence we talked about six of them in the book. What are they? First one is there’s no certainty or stability. Second one? There’s no satisfaction. Third? You die over and over again. Fourth? You’re born over and over again. Fifth? You go up and down in status. And sixth? You suffer alone. So we talked about those six. So notice them in your own experience. Okay?

And understanding those is a prelude to generating bodhicitta because those will help us generate the determination to be free from samsara with respect to ourselves, which is compassion for ourselves. And then if we see those same six, or if you’re talking about the eight kinds of dukkha, or the three kinds of dukkha, when you see those same things in terms of other sentient beings, that’s a very good way to cultivate compassion for them. So as a way to cultivate compassion for other people takes those same six. Yes? And then start with one person and then expand it from there and then see how, “Oh yes, nothing’s certain in that person’s life,” and what a disadvantage it is for them. And they don’t have any satisfaction, and how does that manifest in that life? In their life? And how do they continually create more negative karma seeking for satisfaction? And how do they die again and again, how do they get reborn again and again.

I remember one time doing this, it was many years ago, and I was really angry with somebody who was really just being a total jerk, and, you know, of course. It’s clear. And other people agreed with me, too, so I must be right. Yes, I must be right. [laughter] So, she’s being a big jerk. And I remember Lama Zopa was teaching. And so I sat there during one of the teachings. And I was thinking of this person who I was quite ticked off at, and thinking, “Oh, she’s going to die, and then she’s going to get reborn.” And it’s like, just thinking about those two things, and after, you know, just thinking about that was enough to cancel out my anger towards her. Because how can I get angry at somebody who’s going to die an uncontrolled death and who’s going to have an uncontrolled rebirth? How can I get angry? And isn’t it fortunate that she met the Dharma? Yes? I should be happy about that. So thinking of these things not only in terms or our own life but other people’s life is a very good way to cultivate compassion.

Cultivating the conventional awakening mind

Now we’re going to move into the chapter on cultivating the conventional awakening mind. So we’re going to read from our book first.

There are two approaches to the basic practice of developing the precious awakening mind:

By the way, “awakening mind” is a translation for “bodhicitta.” You can also translate bodhicitta as “altruistic intention,” so don’t get confused just by different translation terms. Okay, so there are two approaches to developing the precious awakening mind:

that dealing with the process of training in the conventional awakening mind and that involving the process of cultivating the ultimate awakening mind. The former includes an explanation of how we are able to enter the great vehicle only by activating the altruistic mind of enlightenment and is followed by a description of the actual techniques for cultivating the precious awakening mind. (The latter, [in other words the ultimate bodhicitta2] dealing with the development of the view of emptiness, will be dealt with later [in the book].)

So when we talk about the two bodhicittas, the conventional bodhicitta is what we mean by the altruistic intention. The ultimate bodhicitta is the wisdom realizing emptiness. The ultimate bodhicitta isn’t really bodhicitta. You’ve got to get used to this, yes? That, the way they do categories in some of these things: just because something is listed under a category doesn’t mean it is that category. It could be a description of that category, it could be a cause of that category, it could be a characteristic of that category, it could be something that is just similar to that thing. So the ultimate bodhicitta is the wisdom realizing emptiness, but it’s not the bodhicitta that we’re generating that’s the aspiration to attain enlightenment. That’s the conventional bodhicitta.

Conventional bodhicitta

So we’re going to be talking about the conventional bodhicitta first. The first topic there is appreciating the value of the awakening mind—which is the entrance to the Great Vehicle, to the Mahayana. Now the Great Vehicle, it doesn’t mean a new truck with a big snow plow. [laughter] That would be a great vehicle. Or a tractor with a snow blower, that would be a great vehicle. But that’s not what we mean here by Great Vehicle. A vehicle is a path. And a path is a consciousness. Specifically it’s a consciousness with an understanding of emptiness to some extent. It’s called a vehicle because if you have a consciousness, a certain kind of consciousness, it will take you to a certain spiritual destination. So the Great Vehicle, the great mental state like that, will take us to the destination of enlightenment.

Now first we need to appreciate enlightenment and we need to appreciate the conventional bodhicitta. So this section here is what you could call advertising or publicity. And, you know, they do this very often in the teachings, they point out the benefits of something. Now advertising in our conventional world, first of all is for objects of desire; and second of all it’s usually exaggerated if not downright lies. But here, this kind of advertising and publicity is something that’s telling the truth and is leading to a beneficial goal. But there is definitely something to training the mind to seeing the advantages of something. Because when we see the advantages of something, then our mind gets more eager and inspired and enthusiastic about it. So,

Since it is necessary to embark upon the great vehicle, as pointed out above, [Why is it necessary? Because we want to benefit all sentient beings.] You many wonder what is the entrance to such activity. In stating that there are two aspects to the great vehicle, the practices of the transcending perfections and those of secret mantra, Buddha, the Conqueror, has made it clear that there is no great vehicle practice other than these two.

What it’s talking about here in simpler English, is that in the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, there are two aspects to it. There’s the general paramita practice in which you follow the six far-reaching practices, and there’s the practice of secret mantra, which is another term for Vajrayana or Tantrayana. So this is something important; that Vajrayana is a branch of Mahayana practice. It is not something separate from Mahayana practice. This is extremely important because in the West, a lot of times now people say, “Well there are three Buddhist traditions: vipassana, Zen, and Vajrayana.” No. No. No. First of all because vipassana is a style of meditation, and all Buddhist traditions have vipassana. Tibetan Buddhism has vipassana. Vipassana is a kind of meditation; it’s not limited to one Buddhist tradition or another. Second of all, Zen, if you look at the Mahayana, there are many different kinds of general Mahayana. They’re not all Cha’an or Zen. There’s the Pure Land practice, there’s the Tendai practice, there are many different kinds of general Mahayana practices. And in the whole umbrella of the Mahayana, you also have Vajrayana. Okay? So Vajrayana’s not something done separate from Mahayana practice. It’s done on the basis of the Fundamental Vehicle practice, the general Mahayana practice, and then Vajrayana. It’s quite important, you know, in the West, the way they say it now. No. That’s not what the usual way of talking about three vehicles.

Furthermore, the entrance to each of them [whether you’re practicing the paramita vehicle—paramita, it means perfection or far-reaching, so that’s the general Mahayana practice. So whether you’re practicing that or the Tantrayana, the entrance to each of them] is only the bodhicitta.3 The moment it arises [“it” being bodhicitta, the moment bodhicitta arises] in your mental continuum, even if you have not generated any other quality, you become a follower of the great vehicle.

Now, the chances of not having generated any other quality but bodhicitta are slim, but it’s really emphasizing here the importance of bodhicitta as it being the door to the Mahayana.

On the contrary, the moment it is lost, you fall to the level of the (low vehicle) Hearers and solitary realizers,4 even though you may possess such qualities as the realization of emptiness.5 Such a falling away from the great vehicle is referred to in many great vehicle scriptures and can also be established by reason.”

So it is possible once you’ve generated bodhicitta to lose it.

Story of Sariputra

When you generate bodhicitta to the point where when you see any sentient being, your wish is, “May I become enlightened to be able to benefit them,” then you enter into the Mahayana path of accumulation. The Mahayana path of accumulation has three parts: small, medium, and great. On the small level of the Mahayana path of accumulation you can still lose your bodhicitta, especially if somebody’s really nasty to you. So the story they always use is about Sariputra. I don’t know where the source of this story came from. Sariputra had generated bodhicitta, but then he encountered some non-Buddhists, who asked him for his right hand—to make charity of his right hand. So he cut off his right hand, and he handed it to this non-Buddhist, holding it with his left hand. In Indian culture you never eat or hand things to people with your left hand because that’s the hand you use to wipe yourself after you go to the toilet because they didn’t have toilet paper in ancient India. So this non-Buddhist was very offended that he was handing him the hand with his left hand. And he got angry and just threw it away and said, “I don’t want it!” At which point Sariputra lost his bodhicitta and said, “Sentient beings are too much! Why in the world should I try getting enlightened for their benefit?” So that’s the story they usually use. I think there are other stories.

That’s a kind of extreme situation. I don’t think it’ll happen too much to us. But we could certainly lose our bodhicitta if we’ve been practicing very hard and then we finally get some kind of spontaneous bodhicitta that’s there when we see sentient beings. And then somebody’s really nasty and rude and mean to us. Yes? And we just get fed up, and we’re thinking, “I’m working for your enlightenment and you treat me like this? What did I do to deserve this?” Oh, you know that line. Oh, do I know that line. Yes? So you ask yourself that question and bye bye bodhicitta. So, we want to prevent that from happening.

That’s as far as we got tonight. Next week we’ll be going on about the other good qualities of bodhicitta. It might be good for you to think in advance what you consider are good qualities of bodhicitta. Make up your own list. If you were going to publicize bodhicitta to people—because you’ve already studied something about bodhicitta; if you were going to make people excited about generating bodhicitta, what would you talk about as being its advantages? So make up a little list and bring that next week. Okay? Good.

  1. The questions were written in and Venerable Chodron reads or paraphrases from them and responds. 

  2. Venerable Chodron’s commentary appears in square brackets [ ] within the root text. 

  3. The root text reads: “…the entrance to each of them is only by means of the awakening mind.” 

  4. Root text reads: “Hearers and so on.” 

  5. Root text reads: “…such qualities as an understanding of emptiness.” 

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.