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Practicing with adversity

Practicing with adversity

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.

  • How to use adversity in transforming the mind
  • Practices that can be used to transform adverse circumstances into the path

MTRS 40: Transforming adversity into the path, part 2 (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation and remember that our life is precious, that death can stop it at any time. Just for a moment, imagine if your life ended tonight, how would you feel? Is there any clinging? Are there some regrets? Are there apologies to be made that haven’t been made? Is there forgiveness that hasn’t been extended? Are you ready to let go of everything you consider I and mine and go into a new rebirth where everything is totally unknown? If we have some concerns about how we’re going to die, let’s use that to motivate us to practice while we’re alive.

By practicing well now—by reducing our clinging, hatred, and ignorance now—then at the time of death, those regrets and that insecurity and fear won’t be there. The chief way of eliminating the fear is to realize emptiness, and the best way to make meaning of that realization is to have the bodhicitta that wants to attain full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Let’s generate that aspiration now and see the teachings that we’re about to listen to as one step going in that direction.

Using fear to motivate our practice

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): When you think of letting go of everything you consider I and mine—suddenly, right now—what do you feel like? Do you think it’s going to be easy to change gears?

Audience: It’s scary.

VTC: Yes, it’s scary, isn’t it? We’ve put all our eggs in the basket of an inherently-existent I and mine, and we’re holding onto it as inherently-existent. When it suddenly disintegrates, it’s as if we’ve lost everything that we’re familiar with. Milarepa said that he used the fear of death to conquer the fear of death. So, when we look at it like this and it’s scary, let’s use that fear to motivate us to practice. Then, through practicing and gaining realizations, the fear of death is conquered.

I do this many times in my own practice, thinking, “Okay, can I change gears like that?” Sometimes I fool myself into thinking, “I’ll just relax into dying.” And then I say, “What’s your next life going to be like? How do you feel about going into a whole new hallucination where you have no idea who the main characters are and what your role is and what’s going on around you?” You can see why infants and animals are quite frightened, not understanding what’s going on around them. Let’s use this to really motivate us to practice.

People taking advantage of us

Now, in light of this meditation we did on death, when people take advantage of you, does it seem like a big deal? It doesn’t at all, does it? It seems so insignificant: “Why in the world would I make such a big deal about people taking advantage of me? It’s so meaningless because when I die, I’m not going to be thinking about that. I’m not going to care about it.” When you have some understanding of death, then these kinds of things seem miniscule. But when we’re in our ordinary state of mind, it feels like we’re quite permanent, so the idea of people taking advantage of us really aggravates us, doesn’t it?

We think, “I don’t want anybody taking advantage of me. No way! This is important, and nobody’s going to take advantage of me.” And it’s so interesting how in the matter of a couple of minutes, by changing what the mind’s focusing on, that fades away and is gone, isn’t it? But, when we don’t have that memory of death, boy, is that important. So, when you look at the idea of people taking advantage of you and how much we dislike it, what have you found in your own mind, in your own practice? What is going on behind that kind of thought? How does it arise?

Audience: I usually have very strong self-centered thinking, and lots of times I may not have been taking care of myself very well. Then I project all of that onto another—that they are or they’re going to take advantage of me. I put all of that on another instead of focusing on what I need to do so I can feel balanced.

VTC: Okay, you’re saying when there’s very strong self-centeredness, you’re not taking care of yourself, so you’ve become out of balance. But instead of seeing that as your responsibility, you project it onto somebody else. You think that they’re going to take advantage of you when what you really need to do is come back, rebalance and re-center yourself. What have other people found out?

Audience: I was thinking about times when I didn’t set clear boundaries, so then it’s easy to fall into this sort of victim mentality. Really, it’s my responsibility to set those boundaries. And sometimes, that can just be a miscommunication where if those people are doing it and I’m doing the same thing, we are just pointing fingers at each other.

Audience: I didn’t fear people taking advantage of me as much as I was afraid that people would take more than I could give. It’s the sort of energy from phrases like “feeling sucked dry.” That is clearly being afraid to say “no” or being afraid to say “that’s enough” out of not wanting people to dislike me if I don’t give them what they want. So, it was all tied up in me wanting to be praised and not setting my own boundaries out of fear of being rejected.

Audience:  I create more fear about what might happen than anything that might really come to pass. So, it’s more that sense of I misapprehending the intention of other people, and it’s my own fear, that self-centered part, that makes it out to be much bigger than it really turns out to be.

VTC: Are you afraid I’m going to take advantage of you? [laughter] There seems to be some consensus here that when we are concerned that other people are going to take advantage of us, there’s a very strong self-centered element there. The I feels threatened in some way—that people are going to want more than we can give or more than we want to give. So, our stinginess is there, but then we feel guilty because we should be more generous, but we don’t want to be or maybe we can’t be. So then we feel guilty again, and then we worry about if they’re going to like us or they’re not going to like us and what our reputation is going to be. And we just spin, spin, spin, spin—the whole time being angry at the other person because it’s their fault.

Keeping a clear motivation

This comes up for me when my own mind isn’t very clear about my motivation for giving. When my motivation for giving is clear, then this thing of being taken advantage of doesn’t enter into the picture. But when my motivation isn’t very clear, I’m thinking about what they think of me or what I think of me. If I think I’m being stingy because they want more and I don’t want to give it, that’s my own guilty mind. I’m very concerned with all of that, and then there’s very little giving to start with, is there? Because the motivation is so totally unclear. And there’s very strong self-centeredness.

Some people use the language of “setting boundaries,” but that’s language that I have some difficulty with. It’s not very appealing to me because I get the idea of, “There’s the boundary, and don’t you dare put your little finger beyond that! I’ve established it, and it’s concrete, and you can’t put your little finger beyond it because then I’m going to beat you.” So, it doesn’t have a good feeling in my own heart when I set boundaries. I’m setting boundaries so the other person doesn’t impinge. I’m still in some way thinking it’s the other person’s fault, and I’m setting a boundary so that they can’t do naughty things to me. For me, that language, the conception I get, feels very uncomfortable.

What I prefer more is that my motivations and my intentions are clear, and then I am aware of what’s happening in the situation. When I’m clear, somehow there’s no need to set boundaries against the other person because it’s really not the other person’s problem. It’s my problem. It’s my lack of clarity that makes me feel I have to say, “You can’t go beyond this.” But when I’m clear, even if they go beyond that, I don’t get confused. I don’t get angry. I just understand what’s happening, and I can respond in a way that’s going to function well.

It seems to me that if I set a boundary then I have to enforce it with the other person, and that gets really sticky. I’m putting myself in a predicament. Whereas if I have clarity and I know what I can do and what I can’t—what I’m willing to do and what I’m not, what is appropriate for me to do and what isn’t appropriate—then the other person can do this, that, the other thing, and I don’t get flustered and knocked off balance. I know how to respond to that.

Audience: I just wanted to say that you’re giving your power away.

VTC: What is giving your power away?

Audience: When I have a feeling of being taken advantage of, I’m not clear. In a way, I’m giving the power of having a clear mind and all of the things that would entail to someone else.

VTC: So, you’re saying that when you feel like somebody’s taking advantage of you, what you’ve essentially done is given them your own power. You’ve adopted a victim mentality and given the other person the power when it’s in fact your own lack of clarity.

I was reading something last week about this triangle of victim, persecutor and rescuer, and I was thinking about this in terms of getting taken advantage of. When I feel somebody’s taking advantage of me, I put myself in the victim role, and I put them in the perpetrator/persecutor role. Then I want somebody to come and rescue me from the other person taking advantage of me. Like you said, I put myself in a powerless position. And then there’s the thought, “I’m going to set boundaries. You can’t do this.” So, I’m switching from the victim role to the perpetrator role, and I’m going to rub it in your face and make you into the victim. None of it works very well, does it? We can really see that self-centered thought making a mess as usual.

Also, when it comes to thinking somebody is taking advantage of me, who has created that boundary in the first place? Who has defined when it’s okay for them to ask for something, and when it’s not okay for them to ask? Me. So, I set that up and then I have to defend it and react to it. And my dear reputation is at stake, ay-yay-yay!

The four practices

We’re at the point now of

Taking adverse circumstances into the path by relying on the excellent practices of accumulation and purification.

Here, the root line is,

The supreme method is accompanied by four practices.

So, the supreme method of bodhicitta as a way to transform adverse circumstances into the path is accompanied by doing four practices. The four practices are: accumulating merit, doing purification, making offerings to spirits, and making offerings to Dharma protectors. Let’s go through those.

Accumulation of Merit

The first one is accumulation of merit, and our author says,

If you dislike suffering and wish for peace, thinking that it is easy to accumulate small, medium, and large virtues in relation to the higher and lower fields of merit, do it in the company with all sentient beings.

So, if you dislike suffering and want peace, then think to accumulate small, medium, and large merit in relationship to the higher and lower fields of merit. The higher field of merit is our guru and the three jewels (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha).

The lower field of merit means sentient beings, especially those who are suffering, who are impoverished, who have been especially kind to us, and so on. It doesn’t mean that those beings are higher and lower, or that the merit created with them is higher or lower. It’s just talking in terms of realization—higher being the three jewels and our spiritual master and the lower being sentient beings. We accumulate merit in relationship to both those groups.

You’ve probably heard me say that we shouldn’t think, “I’m going to serve and be very nice to my teacher, but then with ordinary sentient beings—blah, who are these guys?” Rather, it’s important to see that taking care of sentient beings is serving our teacher. And so, we shouldn’t make a big difference between them.

I remember living at one Dharma center and everybody wanted to come into the house where the lama was staying and do his dishes and vacuum and clean, but nobody wanted to clean the rest of the center. There was this big difference between being with a lama and being with these sentient beings. We shouldn’t see it like that, because the whole thing that our teacher is concentrated on or focused on is the benefit of sentient beings. If we benefit sentient beings, we’re benefitting our teacher and serving our teacher.

“The Prayers of the Meditator” says,

Whatever is meant for my purpose, happiness or suffering, good or bad, may I accept it.

And there’s a little bit of explanation needed here. For “the accumulation of merit,” we want to make offerings, prostrations, meditate on the two bodhicittas—the ultimate bodhicitta and conventional bodhicitta—and we also want to make request prayers to the three jewels, like what I just read. The request prayer is something with the feeling of, “If it’s better for other sentient beings, may I overcome sickness and have a long life, but if it’s better for other sentient beings, may I be sick and have a short life. If it’s beneficial for me and my self-centered mind to have a short life, may I die soon, but if it’s more beneficial for me to have a long life, so that I can benefit others, may that happen.”

We make these kinds of aspirations and prayers that are completely separate from what the self-centered thought wants to do. In other words, instead of looking at what the self-centered thought wants to do, what pleases the self-centered thought and what benefits the self-centered thought, we leave it completely up to what is the greatest benefit for sentient beings.

It’s like in Lama Zopa’s “Prayer for a Meaningful Life” where he says that the purpose of my life isn’t to be rich, famous, happy, or things like that. Rather, the purpose of my life is to benefit others. So, if it’s more beneficial for sentient beings that we live, may we live. If it’s more beneficial that we die, may we die. If it’s more beneficial that we’re sick, may we be sick. If it’s more beneficial that we’re well, may we be well. In other words, we’re completely letting go of the self-centered mind that says, “But I want, I want—what about me? I don’t want to suffer!”

I find this way of making aspirations to be very helpful. When my mind’s getting very very tight about something, then I just drop it and say, “If it’s more beneficial for sentient beings, may this happen. If it’s more beneficial, may that happen.” In that way, I let go of my opinions; I let go of my favoritism for one result over another result. I just accept the situation.

 Do you think you can do that ever? When you’re sick: “If it’s more beneficial for sentient beings, may I be sick.” When you have a headache: “If it’s more beneficial for sentient beings, may I have this headache.” And can we do that and be happy about it? Can we really say that? Forget living and dying, let’s just talk about having a headache.

Let’s talk about some small thing, like getting our way about something we’re always advocating for, and just, saying, “Well, if it’s better for me to get my way on this, good. If it’s better for sentient beings for me not to get my way, that’s good also. If it’s good for me to sit in this traffic jam, may it be. If it’s not good, may that also be.” And then to be really okay with that. For homework this week, let’s try that. Instead of going, “No, I don’t want to think like that; it’s too scary,” just try it. Let’s just try it this week. “If it’s better for sentient beings, can I lose the fight? If it’s better for sentient beings, can I take out the garbage?”

Audience: So, it’s about acceptance and how we feel good when we do? 

VTC: It’s true that when we get to acceptance, immediately we feel good, don’t we? But sometimes it is very hard to get to acceptance of the situation. We just fight it. We fight reality, and fighting reality is really a losing situation, isn’t it? Because what is, is. We’re not going to change it. We can change the future, but what is, is. Let’s practice making this kind of prayer this coming week.


The second of the four preparations is to purify. The author says,

For the purification of negativities, all the misdeeds you have committed or caused to be committed over beginningless time, due to the disturbing emotions, must be confessed repeatedly through the four powers.

So, it includes all the misdeeds that we’ve done ourself, that we’ve encouraged or caused other people to do, or rejoiced at doing. We don’t even need to have done them ourselves, just rejoicing at it. We told somebody else to do the dirty work for us. We need to purify all these things that we’ve done since beginningless time, and how do we do that?  By means of the four opponent powers.

Let’s just review them. First of all is regretting the negative action, which is different than feeling guilty about it. Second is what I call restoring the relationship. It’s technically called the power of reliance, because you’re relying on whomever it was you committed the negativity in relationship to. That means taking refuge in the holy beings instead of them being the objects that we’ve harmed, and having love, compassion, and bodhicitta towards sentient beings instead of leaving them as the objects that we’ve harmed. So, internally, we’ve restored a good relationship with them. Third, is making a determination not to do the action again. And then fourth is to do some kind of remedial behavior—to get our tush off the cush and do something.

Or the tush could be on the cush, because sometimes the remedial behavior is doing Vajrasattva, reciting sutras, reciting the names of the buddhas, meditating on bodhicitta, all these kinds of things. But the point is to actively do the four opponent powers to purify our negativities. I think it’s also psychologically healthy, because to purify we have to be very honest with ourselves and really admit our own faults. When we admit our own faults, we have so much more energy because we’re not wasting our energy justifying, denying, rationalizing, suppressing and repressing, blaming, and everything else.

We can just say, “I made this mistake. I regret it, and I’m going to purify.” When we can do that in an honest way, then our heart is very clear. It takes so much energy when we’re always thinking, “I’m a victim, and I’ve got to find somebody to blame. I’ve got to explain myself again and again, why what I did was really okay, and it was really right, and . . .”

It’s much easier to say, “You know, I made a mistake. Boy, I wasn’t thinking very clearly, and I’m going to be more careful in the future.” It’s easier than shoving everything under the table, watching your table get higher and higher and higher [laughter] because you keep putting so much stuff under it. Finally, you can’t look out over it.

Making offerings to evil spirits

The third preparation is making offerings to evil spirits. As explained earlier,

In the context of thinking about the kindness of hostile forces, acquaint yourself with love, compassion and patience specifically towards them.

Before, we were talking about the kindness of people who have harmed us and how they help us to purify negativities, how they help us to find resources within ourselves that we never would have discovered, how they help us grow and learn to handle situations that we’ve never handled before and that we would like to run away from. These people really do help us to grow in a very special way that our friends can’t, and so it’s important to see that kindness and to make offerings.

It’s talking a lot about evil spirits because in Tibetan society, rocks and stones and trees have spirits in them, and there are many different kinds of spirits all over the place that did things. In our culture, we don’t think so much in that direction. We might think of bad energy, but we don’t necessarily think so much of spirits harming us.

The way I think of it is that this one doesn’t have to relate specifically to evil spirits. What about people who harm us? Why are we so focused on spirits that we can’t see, being afraid of them harming us? People who we can see also harm us, and those are the ones that we often get the angriest at. So, it’s learning to make offerings to those people who harm us. That’s the last thing we want to do because it feels like we’re giving in and capitulating and setting the stage for them to take advantage of us!

But actually, making offerings with a good motivation is what I mean by our own mind being clear. When we offer and our own mind is clear, and we’re really being genuine about wanting them to be happy, then it can actually clear the air. When we make an offering, but our motivation is to placate or manipulate them, then they sense it, and it often becomes even more sticky.

I was once working on a project with another nun, and we had our moments. She had her moments with other people, too. As it happened, in our ordination we sat next to each other. So, everywhere I went, there she was! There was no way I could ignore her. I could either sit there and be very angry, or I could change the situation. So, when somebody gave me a chocolate bar, I gave her the chocolate bar. And I think she was so surprised at me giving her the chocolate bar that it kind of disarmed her, and it really changed our relationship in a way.

I also read a story about some other people whose neighbor was a holocaust survivor. Their car had been scratched, and they could see that the color left behind matched their neighbor’s car. But when they went to say, “Hey, you scratched my car,” he got very upset and said, “No, I didn’t. Why are you people bothering me?” So, they just went and fixed their car and just swallowed the cost at that point. Then, a few weeks later, the car was scratched again with the same color. They could see it was the same car that had done it.

At this point, they sat down and thought, “Okay, what would Lama Zopa do? In this kind of situation, what would Rinpoche do?” And they said, “Rinpoche would give the guy a present.” This guy played golf, so they went out and got him some golf balls, wrapped them up in a nice package, went over, and rang the doorbell. He came to the door, and they just said, “We want to give you a present,” and handed it to him. He just said, “Bye” and slammed the door, so they went back and they thought, “We did what we could.”

After a few days, the old man comes to their house and rings the bell and says, “Thank you very much. That was very kind of you.” It completely dissolved all that tension they were feeling. So, in many ways, if we sincerely care about somebody and make an offering, they sense that, and it really does improve the relationship. But if we’re just doing it to get them off our back and to manipulate or placate them, they sense that as well, and the hostility will continue.

What this is also saying is when we receive harm, don’t get paranoid. Whether it’s from spirits or from people, make offerings. Instead of thinking, “Oh, somebody’s harming me” and getting really scared, chill out and make some kind of offering to them. If you’re really practicing thought training sincerely, you think, “Please continue to harm me and create suffering; it helps my practice. It helps me to purify.” [laughter]

You do this because you see that taking revenge just creates endless suffering, doesn’t it? Somebody harms us, so we take revenge and harm them, and then they harm us back, and then we harm them. This is what’s going on between many ethnic groups, between many regions, and between many countries in the world—it’s just revenge and endless suffering.

If we’re patient, it gives the opportunity for the other person also to calm down. So, you think to yourself, “Please continue to harm me and create suffering. It helps my practice; it helps me to purify.” When somebody’s bugging you or somebody’s on your case all the time, you just think, “Please continue to do this. This is very helpful to my practice. It shows me my ego; it shows me my self-centered thought. By accepting this suffering, it’s purifying karma that could have manifested in horrendous suffering later on. So please continue to harm me.” That’s hard to think, isn’t it?

We don’t want even the smallest, teeny-weeniest harm. And we think that if we say, “Please continue to harm me,” it seems like we’re making ourselves into a victim, doesn’t it? When we initially hear this, we misunderstand the thought-training practices, and we think they’re saying to become a doormat. They’re saying to capitulate all the time. Buddha’s saying, “Just give the other person what they want. Let them step all over you. Let them take advantage of you—because you’re not supposed to be angry, so just handle it.”  No, that is not the meaning of the thought training practice. If you give somebody something like that, if you capitulate with that kind of motivation, that’s wrong.

Rather, the thought training practice is about dealing with that feeling of ego coming up, that feeling of, “Who do they think they are to treat me like this? I’m going to win this. They can’t do this to me. I’m going to put them in their place. They harmed me, so I’m going to harm them even more and then they’ll stop harming me.” The thought training practice is learning to calm down that mind.

The way we calm it down is not by giving away our power and capitulating. It’s by seeing that the self-centered thought is the cause of all of our trouble and that this person is helping us by damaging the self-centered thought. And this person is helping us by enabling us to purify our negative karma. We really have faith in the law of cause and effect at this point. It’s very important when you do this that you really understand it correctly because thought training does not mean making ourselves into a doormat. That doesn’t help anybody. If we become a doormat and just say, “Okay, harm me, beat me up, you have more power,” that’s cruelty to the other person because they create so much negative karma. But if we want revenge and we want to harm them, that’s also cruel to them because that harms them. So, one way to handle it is through thought training.

When I was in one of the prisons in Ohio last summer, the guys were talking to me about a bully coming and accosting them right after they had received their stuff from commissary. When you’re an inmate, it’s a really big deal when you have a little bit of money to go to the commissary and get some stamps and some ramen noodles, maybe some peanut butter. And when you’re coming home from the commissary, your mind is already focusing on how you’re going to enjoy all these things. If somebody comes up and accosts you and demands them, this is a big deal.

I tried to explain to the guys about giving them a present, but they wouldn’t accept it. They couldn’t go there. They said, “If I give them a present, he’s just going to take advantage of me. He’s going to accost me every week after the commissary.” I tried to explain that there’s giving a present when you’re afraid, and there’s giving a present from a feeling of genuine compassion for somebody, that they’re very different and how you do it is the energy the other person’s going to pick up on. What do you think?

Audience: I think you’re quite right that they’re going to pick up on the energy, but it’s also hard to do that in such a tense situation without having the energy of fear. It’s hard to be able to actually do it purely without giving that energy off so that the person doesn’t pick up on it and feel like they are actually taking advantage of you and taking what they want.

VTC: This is a good response because you’re saying that actually it’s true. If you are able to give with compassion, the other person will sense your power in giving with compassion and will respond to that. But in a tense moment like that, it’s very difficult for us ordinary beings to instantly transform our mind into a state that genuinely cares about the other. Usually, what is prominent in our mind at that moment is fear. The fear arises, and we’re just completely paralyzed by it, which is exactly what the other person wanted. They feed off that fear. But, if you could get yourself to a calm place, it would probably work.

Audience: I think the better approach would be to do whatever you need to do at that moment to get through the situation, and then to come back to the person on your own terms.

VTC: What do you mean by that?

Audience: Without being accosted by somebody, walking back to that same person—really going to them and initiating a situation and giving a gift. Then, in the future, if that happened again, there would be less fear and anger.

VTC: Okay, but what do you mean when you say, “Doing what you need to do to get through the situation?”

Audience: I think I would have to stand up for myself, at least to some degree, and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t give you this,” and then try to come back and do the right thing. 

VTC: So, knowing yourself and your own ability, you would stand up for yourself and say, “No, I’m not going to give you anything.” But then, maybe, come back to the person at a later time and give them a gift when your mind is calm and when you’re actually feeling compassion towards them. Those situations are quite difficult, especially when we didn’t have them planned in our calendar, you know? You were just walking down the corridor thinking of something else and then—wham! There’s somebody in our face, and we have to deal with it. It’s very hard to switch the mind at that point. But if we can, it’s something good to do.

Audience: I talked to an inmate at Monroe who had a situation where someone came up and accosted him. He saw him coming toward him in an angry way, and the fellow just visualized pouring light from his heart to the person. He was able to speak with that person and keep his compassion while also being clear and firm that the guy was accusing him of something he didn’t do. He stated his truth, but he kept that visualization of the light, and the guy backed down. The fellow said that he was scared inside because he didn’t know if it would work, but he thought it was worth a try. He was quite astounded with how well it worked.

Making offerings to religious protectors

The fourth one is offering ritual cakes to religious protectors and seeking their help. Religious cakes are what they call tormas. Tibetans make them out of barley flour and decorate them. We can actually use cookies or canned fruit or something that we consider quite delicious. We don’t have to make things exactly in that shape.

It says,

Arrange as many clean ritual cakes as you can afford and visualizing them as the most magnificent and extensive offerings, offer them to the Dharma protectors you have invoked through the prescribed rituals.

There are different sadanas and rituals you do to invite the Dharma protectors to come, and then you make offerings to them.

Very often when people do this practice, what they pray to the protectors for is something like, “May nobody harm me. May I have the wealth I need to do my Dharma practice. May people like me. May my position in the monastery be well. May my family be well.” They invoke the protector, make an offering and then ask for all these things that are actually quite worldly. Or they might ask, “May I have the circumstances I need to practice the Dharma, and a good retreat place, and enough money to do retreat, and a teacher to teach me,” and so on and so forth. So, sometimes people pray for those kind of Dharma circumstances as well.

In the thought training practice, you pray, “May I be able to see adverse circumstances as the path to enlightenment, as the holy buddhas and bodhisattvas of the past have done. Just as the precious awakening mind—which is the core of the general body of the teachings of the great vehicle—was born in the mindstreams of the holy ones of the past, may I generate, maintain, and increase it in my mindstream. May I be granted your virtuous help so that I may be able to benefit sentient beings through my body, speech, and mind whenever I hear, see, think, or come into contact with them.”

You can see that here you make offerings to the protectors, and then you request their blessings or their inspiration to be able to actually do the thought training practice as it’s taught and to generate the bodhicitta just as the past holy beings have done—to generate it, maintain it, and increase it in your mindstream, to be able to benefit all sentient beings. Whoever you come in contact with, whoever you see, whoever you hear or hear about, whoever you touch or think about, or who thinks about you: may my mind be only filled with love and compassion for that person. That’s how you pray in the thought training teachings.

Usually, we request not to meet with inner and outer obstacles, and if we meet with obstacles, may they not damage or affect us seriously. But in the thought training practice we pray, “May my disease continue. Bless me to have more suffering and pain. Bless me by transforming adversity into the path.” It’s not that we’re being masochistic and praying for suffering, because that’s not very healthy, is it? Instead, we’re really seeing the benefit, karmically, that we derive from experiencing suffering and how suffering can clear our mind of obstacles and help us have more compassion for others.

Don’t you feel more compassion sometimes when you’re suffering because then you really notice for somebody else, and we’re not so complacent. So, we’re really saying, “May I have the suffering so that my compassion will increase, so that my bodhicitta will increase.” If we get sick, then we pray, “May my taking and giving practice be working. I’ve been taking on all these obstacles and the sickness of others, and now that I am sick, now that I have an obstacle, now that somebody’s mad at me—yippee, my taking and giving practice has been working!”

I’ve been taking on the obstacles of others. I’ve been taking on all their fear of people not liking them, and now somebody doesn’t like me: “Good, my practice has been working. I’ve been taking their feelings of not being liked, and now I have it, and they’re free from it, so my practice is working.” That’s what we should think instead of, “Oh no, I did this practice and now I’m suffering, and I don’t want to do this practice anymore. I already have enough suffering.” That’s the self-centered mind thinking, isn’t it?

Do you see how strong our mind gets by doing this practice of transforming adversity into the path? Can you get a sense of how it can strengthen our mind when we sincerely practice? And then we’re not afraid of other things because we know how to transform them into the path in a very sincere, genuine way. It’s not stuffing things away, not neglecting stuff, but really, genuinely transforming it so that the mind becomes so courageous, so strong. Then we’re not timid and afraid anymore.

When we do this we can bear sickness, aging, and even death with happiness, because we really feel like we’re doing it for others. So, you want to practice all these ways in your meditation session, and then in the break time practice them when you encounter actual situations. In that way, you can transform what you encounter into the path to enlightenment. It’s a beautiful practice, isn’t it?

Audience: It seems like it’s important to have a strong and clear view about multiple lives in order to really embrace this. I think it’s too scary if you accept just one life.

VTC: Because if you’re just thinking of this life and wishing yourself suffering then it’s really too scary, and there doesn’t seem to be any purpose for it. But if you’re really thinking that you’re purifying the negativity from past lives, and removing the obstacles from your present and future lives—if you’re really aspiring for Buddhahood in this way, then taking on the suffering of others and transforming your own suffering into the path makes more sense and becomes easier to do.

Audience: I don’t quite understand the role of Dharma protectors. Why would you not make that prayer to the buddhas or to a deity?

VTC: You can also pray to the other deities and to your teacher—it doesn’t matter. It’s equally as valid to request blessings in that way. I think maybe they talk about Dharma protectors here because people so often pray for things they want with the Dharma protectors, so here it’s really emphasizing how you are changing what you want. Now your whole viewpoint is protecting your mind.

Audience: Are there slogans that are associated with this prayer?

VTC: Yes: “The supreme method is accompanied by the four practices.” Another way of saying it is, “Possess the four preparations, the highest of means.” That’s the phrase in the seven-point thought training that’s being commented on. 

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.