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Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

Eight Verses of Thought Transformation

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These verses tell us how Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, views life, what Chenrezig thinks and feels. Thought training is about the two bodhicittas, which are Chenrezig’s nature. The more we meditate on thought training, the closer we come to Chenrezig; the more we become like Chenrezig.

A huge Chenrezig statue in Nepal.

The more we meditate on thought training, the closer we come to Chenrezig; the more we become like Chenrezig. (Photo by Wonderlane)

To meditate on these verses, we can say each verse and pause to contemplate its meaning, applying it to situations in our life. Doing this is extremely effective for bringing home the purpose of the verses to us. These verses are to be practiced, not just to be recited or prayed.Then we can recite a few mantras, imagining light coming from Chenrezig into us. The light purifies our internal obstacles—the tangled emotions that prevent us from actualizing the meaning of that verse. The light also inspires our mind to develop the receptivity, compassion, and love to actualize it. We can visualize purifying obstacles and receiving inspiration as we recite a few om mani padme hum after each verse.

1. With the thought of attaining enlightenment
For the welfare of all beings,
Who are more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel,
I will constantly practice holding them dear.

“With the thought of attaining enlightenment for the welfare of all beings” refers to bodhicitta, wanting to attain enlightenment to benefit all beings. “Who are more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel.” A wish-fulfilling jewel in ancient Indian culture is a mythic gem that could grant whatever one wished for. Here, sentient beings are more precious than this jewel because, through caring for sentient beings, we attain enlightenment. An ordinary wish-fulfilling jewel could supposedly bring fame, wealth, power, love, family, beauty, athletic ability, and so forth. But those things don’t provide ultimate happiness. They fade with time, and even while we have them, they bring us a lot of new problems. Enlightenment, on the other hand, doesn’t have such drawbacks.

When we are motivated by non-contrived bodhicitta, our actions become extremely powerful because they are done for the benefit of each and every sentient being. If we do something to benefit one sentient being, it’s that powerful. If we do something to benefit ten sentient beings, it’s more powerful. If we do something to benefit all sentient beings, it’s super powerful, especially because our wish is to lead them to the highest happiness, enlightenment. Any action we do with bodhicitta makes a powerful imprint on our mindstream. It counteracts our self-centeredness and the actions we have done motivated by it. It accumulates potent positive potential because we wish the best for each and every sentient being and we commit ourselves to bringing that about. Because bodhicitta depends on every single sentient being, those sentient beings become more precious to us than a wish-fulfilling jewel. If we leave one sentient being out of our bodhicitta, we lack bodhicitta and our highest spiritual aspirations are thwarted.

When you look at each sentient being—for example, when you look at a fly buzzing around—train yourself to think, “My enlightenment depends on that fly.” This isn’t fanciful thinking, because in fact, our enlightenment does depend on that fly. If that fly isn’t included in our bodhicitta, then we don’t have bodhicitta, and we won’t receive the wonderful results of generating bodhicitta—the tremendous purification and creation of positive potential. We should train our mind to look at every single living being and think, “My enlightenment depends on that being. That drunk who just got on the bus, my enlightenment depends on him. That soldier in Serbia, my enlightenment depends on him. The teller at the bank, the janitor at my workplace, the president of the United States, the suicide bombers in the Middle East, the slug in my garden, my eighth grade boyfriend, the baby-sitter when I was a kid—my enlightenment depends on each of them.” All sentient beings are actually that precious to us.

Also, the fact that we’re even alive and have the possibility to practice the Dharma is due to the kindness of each and every sentient being. Everything we enjoy—clothes, food, teachings—everything we use is created by or dependent on sentient beings. The forests we love to stroll in exist due to the ecosystem that consists of zillions of sentient beings. We are unimaginably indebted to sentient beings. When we think about it deeply, something inside of us shakes. We stop feeling like isolated units who deserve a better rap. We realize that we’re incredibly fortunate; we open to the fact that we’ve been the recipient of unbelievable kindness.

Because of this, “I will constantly practice holding them dear.” Instead of being jealous because others are better than us, instead of competing with them because we want to be better than them, instead of being arrogant because we’re better than them, instead of being attached to them and drawing them into our trips, instead of being angry at them and causing them lots of problems, instead of being spiteful and criticizing them behind their backs, instead of being rebellious and uncooperative, we’re going to practice holding them dear. We’ve got our work cut out for us, don’t we?

2. Whenever I am with others
I will practice seeing myself as the lowest of all,
And from the very depth of my heart
I will respectfully hold others as supreme.

This verse is not a prescription for low self-esteem. Holding ourselves as lowest of all doesn’t mean we hate ourselves or think we’re worthless. It doesn’t mean we don’t respect ourselves. Generally, when we’re with others, who do we care most about? ME! “I want all the nice things to happen to me. I want to be first in line, I want the most food. I want to be appreciated. I work so hard, and the least that sentient beings could do is thank me for all I do for them. I want to be acknowledged for my talents, deeds, and achievements. I want to be right. I want people to know how accomplished I am. I want people to love me and approve of me. I want others to listen to me and follow my instructions.” So, it’s always me, me, me! According to ego—self-grasping ignorance—“I” and “me” are the center of the universe.

When we feel, “I am the lowest of all,” suddenly there is some space. If we pop the bubble of “I,” then there’s space to see beauty, space to feel connected with others, space to be satisfied. But, when we’re preoccupied with “me,” we become overly sensitive and react to everything and everyone. Somebody looks at us, and instead of being able to greet them with a smile, we wonder, “What does their look mean? Do they think they’re better than me? Do they respect me enough? Do they appreciate me enough? Do they love me enough? Do they realize who I am?” In every interaction with another human being, we’re so reactive. “They don’t like women. They don’t like men. They don’t like Americans. They don’t like vegetarians. They’re jealous of people who are successful.” Whatever we are, they don’t like it, we’re sure! We become paranoid and uptight and think we have to fight for our rights during every interaction with others. We project on them all sorts of negative qualities and then hate them for being what we’ve projected. Self-defeating, isn’t it?

Someone might say, “But sometimes people really are nasty to us!” I do prison work, and prison is not a pleasant or a safe place to live. One man told me that he realized soon after he went in that he had two choices, either be understanding of those around him, let things go, and keep a happy mind, or take everything personally, get depressed, and lash out at those around him. There was no third choice. So he chose the first one and made it through his sentence okay.

Another inmate said to me, “As much as you may think fire is water, it’s still going to burn you, so trying to change the way you look at things isn’t going to help.” I replied, “But what if you think a rope is a snake?” He sat up straight. He’d understood.

When we see ourselves as the lowest of all, we drop this self-preoccupation. We open our eyes and realize that the universe is populated with other living beings and from the depths of our hearts, we respectfully hold them as supreme. We cherish them. Instead of thinking, “Here I am. Everyone should learn from me! Everyone should do things my way because my way is best. They should follow my instructions because I have the best idea.” It just means dropping all of that self-centeredness! When we drop that, our minds are so much more peaceful, aren’t they? When we stop interacting with everyone in terms of, “Where do I stand in relationship to you and what do you think of me?” then we may be able to connect with them. And that’s what we all long for, isn’t it? None of us likes remaining isolated in our own self-created hell.

That’s what “seeing ourselves as the lowest of all” involves. We don’t have to be acknowledged. We don’t have to be respected. We don’t have to be approved of. This doesn’t mean we put ourselves in a position to be stomped on. It just means that we drop our self-preoccupation and the ego-based needs to be loved, respected, acknowledged, and appreciated, and the ego-propelled wishes to win and to have our way. We’re dropping all this. It’s so liberating. We can breathe a sigh of relief and finally relax when we let go of the unhealthy focus on “I.”

What do we do with our emotional needs? We can’t just pretend they don’t exist. Mother Theresa told us what she does:

When I am hungry, give me someone that I can feed.
And when I am thirsty, give me someone who needs a drink.
When I’m cold, give me someone to keep warm.
And when I grieve, give me someone to console.

Similarly, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recommends compassion as an antidote to low self-esteem. At first I didn’t understand why he said this because it seemed to me that when we don’t like ourselves we need to heal ourselves first. Then I realized that cherishing others takes the unhealthy, ego-centric emphasis off ourselves and heals us.

3. In all actions I will examine my mind
And the moment a disturbing attitude arises,
Endangering myself and others,
I will firmly confront and avert it.

I will be aware of what’s going on in my mind—what I’m thinking and feeling—and by extension, I’ll be aware of what I’m saying and doing. Every time a negative emotion arises, instead of saying, “Anger. Welcome! You’re my friend. You’re going to stick up for me so that other people don’t take advantage of me,” we’re going to say, “Anger, you’re a thief. You steal my happiness. You steal my peace of mind! Get out of here!”

It’s similar with attachment. Attachment comes into the mind and instead of saying, “Oh, attachment, you’re going to make me happy,” we recognize, “Attachment, you’re a set up for suffering. I’m not going to listen to your story!” These negative emotions endanger us because they make us create negative karma, leading to future suffering. They also make us miserable right now. Are you happy when you’re angry? No! They endanger others because when we speak and act under their influence, we harm others.

When doubt comes into the mind, we often welcome it, “Doubt, come in. I’m so bored. Go ahead and amuse me. Let’s doubt this. Let’s challenge that. Let’s be suspicious of this.” Instead of welcoming doubt, we recognize it. “Doubt, you just play around and make my mind a mess! You make my mind race with all sorts of useless thoughts that tangle me up. Get out of here!”

This is confronting the negative emotion or disturbing attitude. Then we must also avert it, that is, to apply the antidote. For attachment, we meditate on impermanence and the ugly aspect of whatever we’re attached to. For anger, we meditate on patience and love. For jealousy, we meditate on rejoicing. For doubt, we meditate on the breath to calm our mind. Verse three means, “I’m going to be a doctor to my own mind!”

4. Whenever I meet a person of bad nature
Who is overwhelmed by negative energy and intense suffering,
I will hold such a rare one dear,
As if I had found a precious treasure.

People of bad nature are people who are cross and difficult to get along with, who challenge our authority or grumble about what we do. Of course, those people may not consider themselves bad-natured, but we do, simply because they don’t like us or disagree with our ideas (which are always right). They tune us out, don’t pay attention to us, and don’t cater to our whims. What uncooperative stupid people!

People who are overwhelmed by negative energy are those who have a lot of anger, jealousy, bitterness, or attachment. Sometimes when we’re around other people we can feel the confusion, restlessness, and disturbance in their minds. We want to turn away from those people. It may be your father-in-law who criticizes everyone, the teenage boys down the street who are so rowdy, or your ex-wife.

People with intense suffering could be those who are injured, deformed, very ill, or grieving a loss. For example, we don’t like going into hospitals. Seeing sick people reminds us of our own mortality. When we encounter people who are disfigured or who have severe emotional problems, we shirk away. “I don’t want to talk to that person. All they do is complain!” or “I have to wait on them!” or “They smell bad!” We have so many adverse reactions to other sentient beings. The iron gate in our mind slams shut and excludes them.

I was noticing this once when I was riding the bus. A very large and unattractive man sat next to me. He was listening to his CD player with earphones, but he had turned up the volume so loud that the rest of us could still hear the music. He took up most of the bench and I was squished in the corner. Initially, my heart closed to this person. I wished he would sit somewhere else. Noticing my reaction, I tried to look at him differently. Then I saw a sentient being who’s trying to be happy by listening to music and relaxing on the bus. He didn’t choose to have a body like that. His body was created by his karma. I realized I didn’t have to shut my heart towards him.

People with negative energy, intense suffering, or a bad nature can be relatives, strangers, or enemies. The last thing we want to do is to hold them dear as if they were precious treasures. But, this is the thing we really need to do. With thought transformation, we cease blocking them out as if they didn’t have feelings. Instead, we see their humanity. We recognize that they want to be happy and avoid suffering just like we do. We are exactly the same. We open our hearts and recognize that this person is a product of causes and conditions. He’s a karmic bubble. He didn’t choose to be the way he is.

In Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Shantideva says that anger doesn’t choose to generate itself. Nor does a person choose to get angry. Someone doesn’t think, “I’m going to get angry and send myself to the lower realms.” These emotions arise due to causes and conditions. So, instead of hating another person, we practice seeing him as a karmic bubble, that is, as something created by causes and conditions. He hasn’t always been who he is now. At one time, he has also been our parent, our lover, our best friend. He’s taken care of us and rescued us from danger in previous lives.

Actually, if we look around, people whom we don’t like and people who harm us are in the minority. For example, we are now sitting in a room with about thirty people. How many of them do we really dislike? We may have problems with a few people here and there, but we manage to stay in a room together, don’t we? It’s not like we hate their guts and they hate ours. The number of people we can’t stand in this world is actually very small. These people are rare. To practice patience, we need the people that we don’t like. We can’t practice patience with our friends or with people who are kind to us. Finding people that we don’t like or who give us the creeps is not so easy. So, when we finally find them, they are a precious treasure! They are rare to find. When we meet them, we can think, “Oh good, I get to practice patience now.”

They say that high-level bodhisattvas pray to meet disgusting, uncooperative people because they want to practice patience. And, of course, when you really want to meet obnoxious people, they don’t show up! Why don’t they turn up for high-level bodhisattvas? Because high-level bodhisattvas don’t have any anger. We could be sitting in a room with many people whom we consider unbearable, but high-level bodhisattvas don’t see them that way at all. To them, these people appear so close, so lovable. Bodhisattvas have such a hard time finding detestable people, whereas we come across them so easily! So, when we find people whom we don’t like, feel threatened by, or find despicable, we should recognize that there aren’t so many of them around. Therefore, we should cherish them and take the opportunity to practice patience with them.

Also, we can meditate on emptiness and see that there’s no solidly existing repulsive person there. What we’re seeing is just a karmic bubble appearing due to causes and conditions. That’s it. How can we hate a karmic bubble? How can we be disturbed by someone who doesn’t really exist in the way she appears to us?

5. When others, out of jealousy,
Mistreat me with abuse, slander and so on,
I will practice accepting defeat
And offering the victory to them.

This verse is unpatriotic! No upright citizen would ever accept defeat and offer the victory to others! We’ve been taught since we were children to stick up for ourselves, fight back, and win the fight. People who don’t are considered spineless cowards.

Although the verse specifies people who harm us out of jealousy or who abuse or slander us, it can include those who hurt us in other ways too. Accepting defeat and offering the victory to them doesn’t mean that when somebody kicks us, we say, “Sure, go ahead. Kick me. It’s fine. No problem. Beat me to a pulp.” We can protect ourselves and thereby prevent somebody from creating suffering, but we try to do so without anger. We protect ourselves using the minimum amount of force possible.

When we accept defeat, we don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to prove our case. We don’t have to make sure that everybody understands that we are right and the other person is wrong. It means letting go of ego’s need to prove itself and be the conqueror.

People can be jealous for a variety of reasons, not just because we have a nicer looking car or a bigger house. They can be jealous because we sit in meditation position longer. Or because we go on more retreats. Or because they think we are closer to the teacher than they are. Or because we have a pink book cover and they have a red one. Our mind can be jealous of anything. You name it! Somebody else has striped socks and we have plain old maroon ones. I’m jealous! Look at what our mind gets jealous about. It’s amazing!

So, of course others get jealous too. If they abuse us to our face, say mean things to us, talk about us behind our back, try to ruin our reputation, gossip, spread rumors about us to other people, instead of going on a crusade to rectify the situation and prove that person is wrong and I am right, we drop the issue. Somebody’s gossiping, “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” just drop it. Because, the more we start gossiping about them and try to prove our case, the more fuel we add to the fire.

There are situations when somebody spreads false stories about us and generates a lot of negativity and misunderstanding in others. In those situations, we need to go to the person and explain what actually happened. We do this not out of attachment to our own reputation, but with care for the person spreading the false stories and concern for the harmony of the group. We don’t just sit there and ignore it whenever someone spreads bad stories about us, because sometimes it can harm others to hear them. There are times when we have to explain things, but we do so without blaming the other person.

In other words, if somebody spreads false stories or even true ones about us, and we become angry, upset, or condescending, then mentally we need to “accept defeat,” because it is just our ego that dislikes having a bad reputation or getting blamed. We need to let go of our attachment to reputation and need for approval, and think, “It’s okay if not everyone likes me. I’m okay with it. There’s no rule saying that everybody in the world has to like me.”

That’s different from a situation when somebody makes malicious comments that cause other people to be unnecessarily alarmed, disharmonious, or upset. Such comments incite people to divide into quarreling factions and provoke conflict. In those situations, we need to explain in order to clear the air, but we don’t do it by trashing the other person.

6. When someone I have benefited
And in whom I have placed great trust
Hurts me very badly,
I will practice seeing that person as my supreme teacher.

This speaks about somebody we have benefited, who has been our best friend, whom we’ve trusted and told our secrets to. Then this person turns around and does exactly what hurts us. All of us have experienced this, and it can be extraordinarily painful. Of course, we’ve never done this to anyone else, have we? Because we’re really nice people. But we’ve all had it happen to us! Amazing how we’re always kind, generous people and others are always the nasty ones.

When people we’ve trusted steal our stuff, criticize us, break off a relationship, talk behind our back, stop loving us, or give us bad recommendations, we need to see them as our supreme teacher. What are they teaching us? Abandoning expectations. Compassion. Letting go of clinging to a solid image of somebody else. Patience that gives other people space to make mistakes. They are sentient beings just like we are. They are teaching us to recognize that samsara is not perfect. They are showing us our own self-centeredness.

7. In short, I will offer directly and indirectly
Every benefit and happiness to all beings, my mothers.
I will practice in secret taking upon myself
All their harmful actions and sufferings.

This verse is about tonglen, the taking and giving meditation. I recommend that you read Geshe Jampa Tegchok’s book, Transforming the Heart, for an explanation of this meditation. We offer benefit and happiness directly to others by saying and doing things that affect them positively and lead them on the path. We offer them benefit and happiness indirectly by doing the taking and giving meditation. This meditation is “in secret” in that we don’t arrogantly advertise, “I’m doing a profound meditation where I practice taking on others’ suffering. Aren’t I a wonderful, compassionate person for doing this? I’m a bodhisattva in training.” Instead of bragging about our meditation practice, we do it secretly. We think of taking not only others’ suffering, but the causes of their suffering, their disturbing attitudes, negative emotions, and negative karmic imprints. If somebody acts aggressively, we imagine taking their aggressive mind. We take their attachment, bitterness, grudges, loneliness, and guilt, and we give them happiness. We use their suffering and its causes, which is what they don’t want, to crush our own self-grasping and self-centeredness, which is the cause of our own suffering. Then we give them happiness by sharing our body, possessions, and positive potential with them. We imagine these transforming into what others need and multiplying, and then we offer them to others, satisfying their needs and bringing them well-being. The meditation opens our heart and liberates us.

8. Without these practices being defiled by the stains of the eight worldly concerns,
By perceiving all phenomena as illusory,
I will practice without grasping to release all beings
From the bondage of the disturbing unsubdued mind and karma.

This verse concerns meditating on emptiness. “Without these practices being defiled by the stains of the eight worldly concerns” means not doing the above practices with the hope that people will give us offerings, approve of us, praise us, or give us a good reputation. It’s easy to practice the Dharma with one or more of the eight worldly concerns lurking in our mind. These eight, which seek the happiness of only this life, are attachment to material possessions and money, praise and approval, good reputation, and pleasures of the six senses, and aversion to losing material possessions and money, receiving blame or disapproval, having a bad reputation, and having unpleasant experiences.

To perceive all phenomena as illusory, we meditate on their emptiness. After arising from that meditation, we recognize the appearance of true existence as a false appearance. While persons and phenomena appear to truly exist, they do not. Their appearance is deceptive or like an illusion. By seeing things as illusion-like, we practice without any grasping at an inherently existent “I” or “mine,” and we stop grasping at inherently existent phenomena as well. By doing this, we release ourselves from the bondage of the disturbing unsubdued mind and karma and thereby become more skillful in releasing others from this bondage. How do we do this? By teaching them the Dharma, guiding them on the path, inspiring them through our example, encouraging them, and being a friend. To do that, we have to practice sincerely and continuously in order to integrate the teachings with our mind.

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.