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Developing equanimity

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • How equanimity is essential in developing bodhicitta
  • Having great compassion for every single living being
  • How we identify friends, enemies, and strangers

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: Developing equanimity (download)

We were talking about the third line,

The best excellence is to have great altruism.

We talked a little bit last time about some of the benefits of bodhicitta, the altruistic intention. In thinking about bodhicitta, and the more I try and cultivate it, it becomes completely clear that without equanimity bodhicitta is impossible. And equanimity is the first prelude, it’s not even included in the seven-point-cause-and-effect instructions, or in equalizing and exchanging self with others, which are the two primary methods to develop bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta requires that we have acceptance and great compassion for each and every living being, no matter who they are, how they treat us, what their political views are, and of this stuff that we usually use to discern who’s on my side and who do I have to be suspicious and afraid of. With bodhicitta you can’t have suspicion and fear of sentient beings, and you can’t play favorites. It just doesn’t work. I’m not even talking practically, when you’re trying to teach people. Clearly that doesn’t work. But in your own mind you can’t develop love and compassion with partiality. The two don’t go together, they don’t compute.

I think it’s very important that we put a lot of attention on developing equanimity. Love (especially) makes people feel good. Compassion is a little bit harder because you have to look at their suffering. Love, ahhh, it goes with love, light, and bliss, which we all want, quick, cheap, and easy. But to even have equal-hearted love for people we’ve got to get rid of the partial mind that is attached to the people we like, who are friends, maybe relatives, get rid of the anger at the people who are enemies, and maybe relatives [laughter], and the apathy towards strangers. And yet when we look at our experience all day long, every year, we’re constantly evaluating people and putting them in one of those three categories, and then being attached to the friends, having aversion and dislike for the enemies, and not caring at all about the strangers.

Now some people say that even if you’ve developed equanimity you may still have enemies, but you aren’t partial against them. Having enemies in the sense that there may be people who try and harm you or get in your way, or things like that. In one way people say, “Well you just have enemies but you have a totally different emotional reaction to them.” On the other hand, people can say, well, actually, you cease to have enemies because when you really are looking at the fact that everybody equally wants happiness, and that everybody’s been kind to you before, and everybody has been everything to you before, then putting them in a category of temporary enemy in this life makes no sense. And if you listen to His Holiness, when he talks about going worldwide and meeting so many people, he always says, “I have friends everywhere.” He doesn’t say, “I have friends everywhere and I have enemies but I have compassion for them.”

I think the meaning kind of boils down to the same thing. I would think if you developed real, genuine equanimity you would see everybody as a friend but know that some people at this moment don’t reciprocate that feeling towards you. From your side you wouldn’t call them an enemy, you just know they don’t reciprocate that right now. But from your side you still see them as a friend.

And that happens in normal life, too, doesn’t it? We have friends, people who we see as friends, who may be stopped liking us a long time ago, but from our side we still have that, “Oh, it’s a friend, it’s just something’s happened temporarily.”

Then the thing is, well how do you get rid of the attachment, and aversion, and apathy? The usual method they prescribe is by seeing that, if you take a very broad perspective of many lifetimes, everybody’s been our friend before, everybody’s been our enemy before, everybody’s been a stranger before. They give the example of, if the person on the this side gives you a thousand dollars today he’s a friend, and if a person on the this side steals money from you he’s your enemy. That’s today. Then tomorrow if the person on the right changes his mind and gives you a thousand dollars, and the person on the left steals your money, then the one on the right has become your friend, and the one on the left has become an enemy. So it really doesn’t make any sense to have friends and enemies because these categories change all the time. And that’s really true, they change totally.

Even with people that we may feel “this is my long-term friend,” there’s always days on which they become an enemy. You may love them dearly, and there are some days when they’re in the enemy box.

The usual way they explain it is just that things are so transient and way too flexible, so these categories just don’t make sense, let alone having attachment for the people in the friend category, aversion or anger or hostility in the enemy category, and apathy towards the third.

Here when we say “enemy” it doesn’t mean we’re fighting in a war. It just means somebody you don’t along with. Somebody that you feel threatened by, that you just don’t get along with very well. You don’t have to have war declared against them or anything like that.

I think that’s a very good method to generate equanimity, but what I found is more potent for me is to look more closely at how the criteria I use to put people in the attachment category, in the aversion category, or the apathy category to start with. And when I really look deeply, who do I have attachment for? It’s always the people who are nice to ME. They’re nice to ME, they agree with MY ideas, they think I’M great, when other people criticize ME they support ME, when I suffer loss they comfort ME, they remember MY birthday, (or they don’t remember my birthday, according to what I feel like that year)…. They’re the people who do what I like, and they think well of ME, they agree with MY ideas, they don’t criticize ME in public. In fact they praise me in public and tell other people all my good qualities. Even if I’m in a bad mood they still care about me. These people are terrific, from their own side. I’m impartial. That’s the way it looks. Like these are the qualities these people have from their own side. I’m just impartial and happen to meet these people that are so wonderful. But it also happens that they’re so wonderful in relation to ME, because they do all these things for me.

And also, coincidentally, the people who are the enemies, that I don’t like, they’re the ones who criticize ME, who blame ME when I didn’t do anything wrong, who blame me even if I do something wrong, but they’re not supposed to blame me when I make a mistake, they’re supposed to be patient and tolerant and forgiving, but they aren’t. And they criticize me in public. And they talk about me behind my back. And they steal my stuff. And they don’t support me. And they let it be known to the world. And they’re mean. And I walk into the room and they turn away. And they’re rude. Sometimes they might even punch me in the nose, that’s how I got such a big nose. (You’d think it would be flatter from all the punches, but it got bigger.) [laughter] These are the people… But I don’t…. Like I said, “coincidentally” it’s the people who are mean to me. But when I look at them I think I’m seeing them as objective, this is who they really are. That’s why I cannot understand why in the world somebody else would like that person. Or why in the world somebody else would not like somebody who I am very attached to and i think is the cream of the crop.

And then everybody else? They’re just obstacles that I have to navigate around. You know when you’re driving on the highway, they aren’t real people in cars who have emotions and needs. They’re just people who are in your way that you have to get around to get where you’re going. When you get on a plane everybody else is a competitor for the seat you want. Those people are just strangers, they don’t count. The people we call when we have to do something by calling a company or something, they’re strangers, who cares? People at the gas station, who cares? All the people who do the electric power, and the sewer system, and all that, we don’t know them. The garbage collectors, we don’t know, we don’t care.

When I look at how I get into this thing of friend, enemy, and stranger, attachment, aversion, apathy, it isn’t that these people have those qualities from their own side. It’s I’m judging and evaluating everybody in terms of how they relate to ME at this very moment, and I see that as inherently existent, permanent, concrete, and the way who they are from their side. So everybody should see people the way I see them.

That’s why it’s so amazing that—I won’t mention names because I’m growing up—some candidates for president in one of the parties we can’t imagine why people in their right minds would support them. Because we’re interested in everything that concerns us and people who agree with our values are good, and people who don’t agree with our values are downright stupid. From their own side. We’re impartial. We’re objective. [laughter]

This goes on our entire lives. Even from the time we’re infants, some babies they see somebody they start crying, there’s a sense of fear and suspicion right away. So always putting people in these categories.

For me, really understanding how my mind does that, and how ludicrous it is. It really is ludicrous, isn’t it? Isn’t that like the optimum of self-centered thought? You’re not even seeing people as human beings with emotional needs. Or physical needs. We’re not seeing them as living creatures who are exactly like us. We’re just seeing them, objectifying them, into who benefits me, who potentially harms me (or has harmed me), and who just get in the way, and I don’t care about.

When I really think of that, and that that’s the mentality behind these emotions and these categories, it’s like … I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to be that kind of person. That’s too awful. It’s too awful to be like that.

That, I find, very helpful, personally, for breaking down these categories and these feelings.

Also, to remember—and this goes with the first method that is usually employed, regarding that these things change all the time—is that when you consider past lives everybody’s been everything in relationship to us. Whoever it is that we cherish and we’re so attached to this life, in a hundred years we’re not going to know, we might be born in totally different universes. Or even if we know, we’re going to be in different bodily forms and we’re not going to recognize them.

Similarly the people who I think are very dear now, they’re going to become strangers or enemies in the future. And people who I think of as enemies now, they may be the people that I think are fantastic in my next life.

I really saw this kind of changeability when I was traveling in Asia, because all the Westerners… Actually, all the foreigners. it doesn’t matter what country you’re from, a long as you’re not Indian. You kind of stick together, you bond together. Or if you’re living in the Tibetan community everybody who’s not Tibetan in some way bonds together. So if you’re traveling somewhere, because it’s dangerous and people rip off your stuff in train stations very easily, then you always try and travel with somebody else, so you wind up traveling with people who you normally, by just looking at them it’s like “that’s not somebody I want to get to know.” But you wind up traveling with them simply because they’re another foreigner and you kind of need each other. And then in the process, because you’re traveling together, you get to know them and they become a very nice person. You see that they’re a very nice person after all, and that all your judgments about the color of their hair and the kind of jewelry they got in McLeod Ganj, and everything else that you were judging them on, is off the wall.

So even in this life you can see it very clearly how relationships change.

I think it’s really good if we spend some time thinking about this very, very deeply, all these different arguments, all these different ways of approaching it, to help us cut off this judging, discriminating mind, and instead to see, at the end of the day (and also at the beginning of the day, and the middle of the day), we’re all exactly the same in wanting happiness and not suffering. And if we look at that in each and every living being (including the ants and the cockroaches and the skunks, and whoever else is around) then it really helps to open our minds quite a bit, because we’re seeing something very, very important…. Actually the most important thing in each living being, which is their wish to be happy and to be free of suffering. You train yourself so when you look at people you look at that, you look in their hearts and you see that, and you stop looking at all the superficial stuff.

I think that’s why His Holiness can say that he has friends everywhere he goes. But if we’re bodhisattva wanna-bes we have to work at this one first. Quite important.

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.