Bodhisattvas are people who, day and night, have the spontaneous, heartfelt aspiration to become fully enlightened buddhas in order to benefit all sentient beings. Their motivation, which is an altruistic intention or bodhicitta, is a noble one which produces happiness in the world. Bodhisattvas cherish others more than themselves and thus wish to take the suffering of others upon themselves and give others their own happiness. To us ordinary people this seems to be an almost inconceivable wish, but when we appreciate it and ascertain that it is possible to develop it ourselves, we can engage in the step-by-step method to train our minds in order to develop it.
Developing the wish to take others’ suffering and give them our happiness
Much has already been written about how to develop bodhicitta, so only a brief summary will be given here. First, we must develop equanimity—an equal openness to all sentient beings—by freeing our minds from attachment to friends and relatives; hostility towards people whom we dislike, fear or disapprove of; and apathy towards strangers. To do this we must recognize that our mind creates the categories of friend, disagreeable person, and stranger by evaluating people according to how they relate to us. If someone shows his good qualities to us, we think he is a good person and develop attachment. If he shows those same good qualities to someone we don’t like, then we are suspicious of his character. If he harms us, we believe he is a horrible, untrustworthy person and are hostile towards him. If he harms someone whom we don’t like, we think he’s someone intelligent and helpful. If someone does not affect us one way or the other, we are indifferent, treating that person almost like an object, not a living being. Recognizing how arbitrary and biased our categories of friend, disagreeable person, and stranger are, we begin not to take them so seriously and to eventually give up the corresponding attachment, hostility, and apathy all together.
When developing equanimity, it is also helpful to remember that a person’s relationship to us is not fixed. When we were born, everyone was a stranger. Later, some people became friends, others enemies. As time went on, we lost touch with some of those friends and they later became strangers while we quarreled with other friends whom we then considered disagreeable. Similarly, people who at one time we thought of as harmful, under different circumstances became dear friends whom we trust, while other enemies later became strangers. Thus, there is no reason to think our relationships as friends, enemies, or strangers are fixed and unchanging, and to generate attachment, hostility, and apathy towards them.
In this way we develop equanimity towards all beings. Equanimity does not mean disengagement from or lack of involvement with others. Rather, it is an open-hearted concern for all beings equally.
The next step is to equalize self and others. Here we contemplate that all beings, ourselves and others, equally want to be happy and to avoid suffering. We let this understanding sink into our hearts so that whenever we look at anyone, what appears to us is a person who is the same as us, a person who is seeking happiness and wishing to avoid pain. Although we may derive happiness from different sources and fear different things, the underlying wish in the hearts of all beings is only to have happiness and avoid suffering. Thus we train to look deeper into ourselves and others so that we understand this fundamental equality.
Next, we consider the kindness that others have shown us. Our friends support us, encourage us when we’re down, help us, give us gifts, and protect us and our property. Instead of becoming attached to friends when considering their kindness, we stop taking them for granted.
Our parents have also been kind to us. They gave us this body, kept us alive when we were helpless infants, taught us to speak, and encouraged us to learn. They had the undesirable chore of disciplining us when we were bratty or unruly. Although some people may have some negative memories of their childhood, it is important to remember the help and kindness that we did receive and be grateful for that.
Strangers have also been kind. We don’t know the people who grew our food, made our clothes, built our car, constructed our home, or even made this book. Nevertheless, our entire existence depends on them, for without their efforts, we would not have all these things to use.
Even people who have harmed us can be considered kind. They propelled us to grow and to discover our inner resources. Although interactions with them may have been difficult, without them we wouldn’t have the experience and strength that we now have. In addition, for people on a spiritual path, the development of patience is of prime importance, and to do that we need people who cause us problems!
Sometimes we may question others’ motives and doubt that they have been kind to us. However, in assessing their kindness, we are not looking at their motives but at their deeds. The fact is that if they hadn’t done what they did, we wouldn’t have the talents, possessions or qualities that we do. As we contemplate others’ kindness, our heart experiences a warm feeling of gratitude, and we recognize that we are close to others in a very important way. This causes our perception of them to change, and instead of being on our guard, we see others as kind and worthy of affection.
Then we go on to investigate the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the advantages of cherishing others. Although our selfish attitude pretends to be our friend—it tells us, “You better take care of yourself, otherwise who will take care of you? You have to look out for your own happiness because no one else will”—in actual fact, this self-centeredness is the root of all our problems. Under its influence we become overly sensitive and easily offended; we become obsessed with our own problems in a way that makes us completely miserable. We act in ways that harm others, thus leaving negative karmic imprints on our own minds. These imprints then cause us to experience suffering later on. In addition, we don’t feel good about ourselves when, under the influence of self-preoccupation, we harm others. Thus self-centeredness becomes a cause for our self-hatred, lack of self-respect, and guilt. Self-centeredness also interferes with our practicing the Dharma, for it invents 5,382 excuses why we can’t practice, why there are so many other, more important things (like watching TV!) that we could be doing. By recognizing the disadvantages of self-centeredness, we can then see it—and not sentient beings who have been kind to us—as our real enemy. It’s important not to hate ourselves because we are selfish. We need to recognize this attitude is not an inherent part of ourselves and work to release it.
We then consider the enormous benefits of cherishing others. When others care for us, we are happy. Likewise, when we care for them, they are happy. Cherishing others doesn’t mean we try to fix all of their problems or meddle in their lives. Rather, it means that our heart has genuine affection for all beings and wants them to be happy. When we cherish others, our heart is relaxed and open, and relating to others constructively becomes joyful and easy. This thought is a chief motivating factor for our attaining enlightenment. It also enables us to accumulate great positive potential and to purify negative karma quickly. Thus the attitude that cherishes others is the root of happiness for ourselves and others, both now and in the future.
Now we exchange self with others in the sense that the ones we cherish now become others. This does not mean that we neglect ourselves in an unhealthy or self-deprecating way, but simply that our attention shifts from self to others. In this way, we spontaneously take delight in working for the happiness and well-being of others. Our love—the wish for sentient beings to have happiness and its causes—and our compassion—the wish that they be free from suffering and its causes—become powerful and genuine. This love is impartial and extends equally to all beings because we have freed our minds from attachment, hostility, and apathy by developing equanimity. With this love, we are able to reach out to others easily because we perceive all beings as lovable and capable of kindness. Thus, love has no strings attached and lacks expectations of receiving benefit in return.
Compassion is not pity or condescension, both of which hold the self to be supreme and the other as lacking in ability. Here compassion is an attitude that reaches out to help others as automatically as our hand reaches out to pull a thorn from our foot. There is no power differential or status concerned. Suffering is to be eliminated simply because it hurts; it doesn’t matter whose suffering it is.
Through meditating on and gradually developing equanimity, equalizing self and others, seeing others as kind and worthy of affection, considering the disadvantages of self-centeredness and the advantages of cherishing others, and exchanging self and others, we generate love and compassion which extend impartially to all beings. It is on the basis of such genuine love and compassion that the meditation on taking and giving is done.
The purpose of the taking-and-giving meditation
This meditation is designed to increase our love and compassion, making them powerful and thus eliminating obstacles to our working for others’ benefit. In this way, the taking and giving meditation acts as the cause for us to develop the great resolve, which takes responsibility for others’ welfare, and bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain full enlightenment so that we will have the compassion, wisdom, and skill to serve others most effectively.
The taking-and-giving meditation challenges our self-centeredness. Usually, if there is happiness to be had, we wish it for ourselves, and if there are problems we slide them off onto others. And yet, this very preoccupation with our own happiness is what causes our heart to constrict so that we feel isolated and miserable. Although we shun difficulties and try to arrange for others to take care of the problems, we end up living in an environment with others who are unhappy and stressed. This, in turn, makes us miserable.
It’s curious that although we desire only pleasure and no problems, our lives are filled with problems and often feel unloved and alienated. Although we try so hard to avoid difficulties, our lives are filled with them. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, cherish others more than self. They take on the problems and give away their own happiness, and they have real joy! This indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with our approach, for the very happiness we seek eludes us, while the happiness that bodhisattvas give away to others returns to them amplified millions of times. If we reversed this process, taking on problems and difficulties and giving away happiness and good opportunities, we may actually find happiness. This comes about because we release painful self-preoccupation, and because we create enormous positive potential, which ripens in our future happiness and spiritual progress.
The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation says:
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.
When, with love, we wish others to have happiness and its causes, and with compassion wish them to be free of suffering and its causes, we will want to help them in whatever ways we are able to. In some situations, we can help directly: we take an injured person to the hospital, donate our time or material resources to a charity, visit a sick relative, or console someone who has lost a dear one. We can help a friend who has lost her job to find another one, pick up the neighbor’s child from school, and guide people who are quarreling to reconcile.
However, in some situations, we are unable to offer direct help. Perhaps we are not the right person to intercede. For example, in some cases teenagers have a hard time listening to their parents’ advice, while a sympathetic relative or other older adult may be the best person to offer guidance. Sometimes we may not know what to do. For example, a friend is severely depressed and we don’t know how to help. Other times, we may know what to do but lack the ability to do it. For example, we may know that someone needs surgery but not being surgeons ourselves, it’s better that we don’t try! Or we may not speak the same language as the other person and thus be unable to communicate. In such situations, we may feel helpless or hopeless. Doing the taking-and-giving meditation enables us to stay involved and to help indirectly.
The taking-and-giving meditation is done “secretly.” That is, we don’t make a public display of it, or boast that we are compassionate and holy because we’re meditating in this way. In that way we prevent any egotistical motivations from sneaking into our meditation, and we abandon any thought for recognition and reputation due to our practice.
Taking and giving is rehearsing so that in the future we will be able to do the activities of a buddha. We imagine having the compassion, wisdom, skill, and resources necessary to help others as a buddha does. Taking and giving also heals our emotional wounds, eliminates our fear, and gives meaning to our own problems and pain. This meditation is especially good to do when we are unhappy, fearful, or sick, for it helps us to look beyond the confines of our own suffering and to open our hearts to others.
Sometimes people wonder if it isn’t unnatural to want to take suffering and give away our own happiness. From the perspective of our self-centeredness, it is unnatural; but from the perspective of the love and compassion within us, it is very natural. For example, those of you who are parents know that when your child is sick, you spontaneously wish to take her suffering away. If you could experience it rather than your child, you would do so happily. When your infant wakes up in the middle of the night hungry, you feed him without any regrets or complaints for the inconvenience it causes you. We do have the ability within us to cherish others more than ourselves and to be joyful doing so.
Many people ask if we can actually take on others’ suffering. Each person creates his or her own actions or karma and experiences the results themselves. It is not possible to take on others’ karma or to give them ours. Karma—positive, negative or neutral—isn’t like money in a bank account that can be withdrawn from one person’s account and transferred to another. Although there may be some stories to indicate that this meditation can work directly, its principal purpose is to increase our love and compassion. Before we are able to reach out to someone, we have to be able to imagine ourselves being able to do it. Through this meditation, we develop the internal aspiration so that when we encounter situations in our lives in which we can help, we will have the motivation to do so. This motivation must be developed repeatedly through practice, especially when impartial love and compassion run counter to our entrenched self-concern. By enhancing our positive attitudes in meditation, they will arise more readily in real-life situations.
How to do the taking-and-giving meditation
Before beginning the taking-and-giving meditation, it is helpful to do some preliminary prayers: taking refuge, generating the altruistic intention, the four immeasurables, the seven-limb prayer, mandala offering, requesting inspiration from the lineage gurus, and the mantra of one of the Buddhas (Buddha Shakyamuni or Chenresig, for example). Just before reciting the mantra, it is also helpful to contemplate this verse from the Guru Puja:
Thus, venerable and compassionate spiritual masters, inspire me so that all negativities, obscurations, and sufferings of mother sentient beings without exception ripen upon me right now, and that I may give my happiness and virtue to others, thereby investing all beings in bliss.
As you request the lineage gurus and chant the mantra, imagine radiant light from the gurus and buddhas flowing into you, purifying your self-centeredness, fear, and afflictions, and enriching you with their compassion, love, generosity, courage, and wisdom. After chanting the mantra, imagine the Buddha comes to the top of your head, dissolves into light and melts into you. Your mind and the Buddha’s mind of wisdom and compassion merge. Feel inspired and blessed. With that peaceful and confident state of mind, begin the actual meditation.
There are several different ways to visual during the actual taking-and giving meditation. They are all equally effective. The visualization can be done in varying depths of detail. We can start simply and gradually expand our ability.
Having prepared your mind by reviewing the steps to generate love and compassion, begin by visualizing others who are suffering in front of us. Spend some time thinking about the various difficulties they have and develop a strong wish for them to be free of them. Then imagine that their problems and the causes of their problems leave them in the form of pollution or thick smoke. With compassion, inhale this pollution and feel glad that they are free from the suffering afflicting them. The pollution doesn’t stay within you and contaminate you. Rather, once inhaled, it transforms into a lightening bolt which then strikes at the solid lump at your heart—the lump of your own self-centeredness and afflictions. When we feel strong fear or anxiety—two examples of how our self-centeredness and ignorance manifest—we often feel it at our heart, like a heavy weight. It is this which the lightning bolt strikes and obliterates so that it no longer exists. Thus take what others don’t want—their suffering and its causes—and use it to destroy what you don’t want—your self-preoccupation and afflictions. In short, taking others’ suffering destroys the cause of your own.
Some people prefer to imagine others’ sufferings appearing in the form of black rays of light or dreadful smelling fumes. Others prefer to imagine the rays, fumes, smoke, or pollution absorbing directly into the lump of self-centeredness and afflictions, causing it to atrophy and vanish. Some people visualize others’ suffering as ugly, terrifying creatures that completely devour the self-centered lump. Or you can think of the self-centeredness as a flame and the suffering of others as a stream of water that extinguishes it. These alternative visualizations are fine. What is important is the feeling that accompanies the visualizations.
Once you have taken their suffering, imagine all beings being freed from their suffering and its causes. Feel happy about this, and feel especially glad that it occurred because you took on their suffering. In other words, instead of focusing on “Poor me, I’m so miserable” or arrogantly thinking, “I’m so great because I’ve taken on their pain,” think of others’ situations and how wonderful it is that they are free from difficulties.
Once the lump at your heart has been destroyed, rest your mind in emptiness, in clear, open, and pristine pure space. Let go of all self-centeredness, all concepts of yourself, all cravings, anxiety, and fear. Rest the mind in the lack of inherent existence of the “I,” the afflictions, and your own and others’ suffering.
When the mind wavers from this emptiness, visualize a beautiful light—the light of love—at your heart. Light radiates effortlessly from it to all corners of the universe, and especially to the people from whom you have taken the suffering. Imagine giving them your body, possessions, and positive potential, transported to them on these light rays.
First, think of your body as a wish-fulfilling body, that is, one that can transform into what others need and multiply into many emanations. Become doctors, baby-sitters, plumbers, friends, workers, or bankers for whoever needs them. Imagine your body transforming into whomever others need, and these emanations go out to help, bringing others the happiness they desire.
Second, imagine your possessions transforming and multiplying so they become whatever others need: food, medicine, shelter, clothes, computers, snow plows, flowers, washing machines, and so forth. As you send these out to others, they receive them and are happy and satisfied.
Third, multiply and transform your positive potential—the good karma or merit which will bring you happiness in the future—and without stinginess give even that. This transforms into the conducive conditions that others need to practice the Dharma: spiritual mentors, books, Dharma friends, places to study and do retreat, and so forth. Others receive these and, using them to practice Dharma, they attain the realizations of the entire path to enlightenment. Imagine others gaining these realizations and becoming arhats, bodhisattvas, and buddhas. As they free themselves from cyclic existence and attain lasting happiness, feel great joy and pleasure.
In summary, by giving your body, think that others now have a precious human life. By giving your possessions, think that they have conducive conditions to practice the Dharma. By giving your positive potential, think that they have gained all the realizations of the gradual path to enlightenment and have become buddhas. When giving to arhats and aryas, think that their last remaining obscurations to enlightenment have been eliminated, and when giving to buddhas, think that your body, possessions, and positive potential transform into magnificent offerings that bring great bliss to their minds.
Refining the meditation
There are several ways to do this meditation. We can begin taking and giving with ourselves, imagining taking the problems we will have in the rest of our lives and giving ourselves happiness. It is important to have love and compassion for ourselves. This is not selfish, for we too are part of “all sentient beings” so wishing ourselves well is appropriate. We can’t neglect ourselves and expect all beings to be happy. Then we expand and do taking and giving for our friends and dear ones. From there, we do it with strangers.
Finally, we focus on the people whom we fear, don’t like, disagree with, or disapprove of. Like everyone else, they want to be happy and free from suffering, and because they lack happiness, they engage in actions that we consider objectionable. If we could take their discontent and confusion from them and give them peaceful minds and the things they need, they would cease their harm.
Visualizing specific people in each group makes the meditation more personal and enables us to generate deeper feeling. We can specify subgroups in each group, for example, among strangers, we do taking and giving for people who are ill, people who are impoverished, those living in war zones, trauma survivors, and rich people. Each group has their own specific kinds of suffering, but all are equally trapped by afflictions and contaminated karma.
One way to do the taking and giving, is to begin with ourselves, and then extend our scope gradually to include friends, strangers, and people whom we don’t like. Another way is to begin taking and giving with human beings, and extend it gradually to those in the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods, gods, arhats, and bodhisattvas up to the tenth level. In this case, we contemplate the suffering specific to each realm. From the beings in the hells, we take the suffering of extreme cold or heat; from the hungry ghosts, we take on their hunger, thirst, and constant frustration. From animals we take the misery of being exploited for labor and killed for food. From human beings we take the suffering of not getting what one wants, encountering unwanted difficulties, and being disillusioned and anxious. From demi-gods we take the pain of jealousy, rivalry, and of consistently being on the losing end. From gods, we take the horrible visions they experience at death. From all these ordinary beings, we take the suffering of being under the influence of afflictions and karma.
The arhats and bodhisattvas on the path of seeing and above have no suffering, but their minds still have subtle obscurations that we imagine taking. Although we cannot take suffering from the buddhas, we can imagine giving them our body, possessions, and positive potential to help them accomplish their beneficial projects for sentient beings.
Meditating in this way makes our mind strong enough to bear suffering. It also increases our compassion and frees us from narrow self-absorption. By contemplating the sufferings of various sentient beings, our determination to be free from cyclic existence will increase.
Another way of doing taking and giving is to begin with the sentient beings near us—those in the same room or building—and gradually extend it to those in the same city, state, country, planet, solar system, universe, and outwards to include all beings throughout infinite space.
To expand the meditation on taking, we contemplate taking three obstructions to happiness:
- The physical misery of each realm as described above
- Obstacles to the long life and successful deeds of spiritual masters, buddhas and bodhisattvas
- Hindrances to the existence and diffusion of Buddha’s teachings in the world
As we become more proficient in this meditation, we can imagine taking the suffering of all beings each time we inhale and giving them our happiness each time we exhale. However, in the beginning, it is important to meditate slowly and to visualize clearly so that we develop feeling from the meditation. If we do it too quickly, it will become simply an intellectual exercise.
The taking-and-giving meditation expands our notion of the meaning of happiness and suffering. Of course it is wonderful to take on others’ hunger, for example, but unless their afflictions and karma are also removed, they will suffer from hunger again later on. Therefore, take not only the various gross physical and mental sufferings sentient beings experience in cyclic existence, but also the more subtle suffering of having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma. Similarly, when giving them happiness, give not only life-sustaining and pleasurable conditions within cyclic existence—food, clothing, medicine, shelter, companionship—but also conditions which will lead them to generate the realizations of the entire path to enlightenment and those realizations themselves.
Sometimes people become afraid, “What happens if I imagine taking on others’ suffering and then get sick myself?” One Buddhist master responded to such a query, “You should be happy because you prayed to be able to take on sentient beings’ misery!” When such fear arises in us, it is important to recognize that this is the self-centered thought saying, “It’s okay to pretend to take suffering and give happiness, but I don’t want it to happen in reality. As long as I’m safe, this meditation is fine, but the moment I am threatened, that’s enough.” When such thoughts arise, we must recognize them for what they are and retrace our steps to concentrate on the kindness of others, the disadvantages of self-preoccupation, and the advantages of cherishing others. When our courage is renewed, we can return to taking and giving.
Sometimes fear arises, “If I give my body, possessions, and positive potential, I won’t have these. How then will I be happy?” When such concerns arise, we must once again recognize self-centeredness at work and remind ourselves that it is the cause of our suffering. All our difficulties come from afflictions and self-centeredness, not from other sentient beings or from such noble actions as generosity. We must recognize the real enemy within: the self-preoccupation and afflictions, under whose influence we have created negative karma and brought about our own misery since beginningless. Therefore it is fitting to destroy these, particularly the attachment and miserliness that don’t allow us to be generous to others. On the other hand, other sentient beings have been kind to us. Due to their efforts we have all the things that we enjoy and use to stay alive. Thus it is fitting to give to others in return.
If fear arises, thinking, “I don’t want to suffer!” look at the “I” that is afraid. How does that “I” appear to exist? If we observe closely, we’ll see the negated object in the meditation on emptiness. Skillfully, we may then meditate on emptiness, searching to see if such an inherently existent “I” in fact exists as it appears to.
In sum, when our mind experience resistance to this meditation, instead of following the fear, we must recognize it as a manifestation of the real enemy, self-preoccupation. Then we review the preceding meditations to make our mind more courageous and our love and compassion stronger. In other words, when hindrances arise, welcome them as opportunities to learn and to release your limitations. Self-centeredness and afflictions are well entrenched. It will take time to let go of them, but if we make continuous effort, we will succeed.
Using this meditation in daily life
It is very helpful to do this meditation when we want to help others but are unable to. We can also do it when we are suffering, physically or emotionally. For example, when you have a headache, think of all others who suffer from headaches and with compassion take on their pain and give them tranquility. When your mind is tortured with unfulfilled desires, recall that others are similarly in anguish. Take their desires and frustration upon yourself and give them balanced, satisfied minds. When grieving, remember all those who are suffering in similar ways, take on their pain, and give them inner strength.
This meditation is especially beneficial to do when we have life-threatening diseases. Think, “As long as I am experiencing this disease with the uncertainty and loss that accompany it, may it suffice for the mental and physical torment of all those who suffer from similar illnesses.” Then imagine taking on others’ illnesses and anxiety, obliterating the lump of self-preoccupation and afflictions at your heart. Transform, multiply, and give them your body, possessions, and positive potential. When we are very ill, fear, dread or blame can easily overwhelm our minds, creating layers of mental, emotional, and spiritual suffering on top on the already existing physical pain. This meditation redirects our energy away from those tortuous emotions and into positive ones. In this way, it eliminates the present mental discomfort and creates positive karma that will ripen in future happiness.
Likewise, if you go through a divorce, lose your job, or receive unjust criticism, think, “This is the result of my own negative karma. As long as I am experiencing this, may it suffice for the distress of all those undergoing similar experiences.” Because we experience the pain of these circumstances, our compassion for others who are also undergoing them is especially strong. Since we know what could alleviate our difficult situation, we can easily imagine giving that to others.
Taking and giving is also good to when we’re in a bad mood or depressed. Think, “As long as I’m miserable, may it suffice for the depression and bad mood of all other beings throughout the universe.” Think of all the other people and beings who are experiencing what you feel or even worse and take that from them. As long as we’re already miserable, we might as well use our misery to benefit someone else.
Then, when the lightning bolt strikes the lump of your self-centeredness, what happens to your depression or bad mood? When self-centeredness has been obliterated, there’s no place for mental misery to rest. It has evaporated. Let yourself feel that spaciousness.
This meditation can be done anywhere, at any time, because it is done “in secret.” We do not need to sit cross-legged and close our eyes. When our friend tells us his problems, we can do taking and giving while we’re listening. When we are stuck in a traffic jam, we can do it. When we visit a sick relative, this meditation is effective. In all circumstances, taking and giving helps us to develop courage, mental strength to face problems, as well as love and compassion for those with whom we share this universe. No one needs to know we are doing this practice, but as we do it, our attitude changes and thus how we relate to others also changes. In this way, our meditation will influence those around us. And through the great positive potential created by doing this meditation, we will progress on the path and reach Buddhahood more quickly. As fully enlightened beings, we’ll then have no obstruction to the benefit we can give.
In previous times the taking-and-giving meditation was taught only to select, well-qualified students. We are extremely fortunate to have these teachings and be able to practice this meditation which can enhance our spiritual growth and enable to us be of long-term benefit to others.