Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: We are responsible for everyone’s happiness

In the last several posts, I explained what Shantideva means by exchanging self with others – namely, imputing our “self” onto others, and “others” onto our old self.  With this background, we can now start looking at the actual practice of exchanging self with others. 

(8.89) Thus, having contemplated
The good qualities of solitude,
I should completely pacify all disturbing conceptions
And meditate on bodhichitta.

(8.90) First, I should apply myself to meditation
On the equality of self and others.
Because we are all equal in wanting to experience happiness and avoid suffering,
I should cherish all beings as I do myself.

(8.91) Although there are many different parts of the body, such as the arms and the legs,
We protect all these parts as equally as we protect the body itself.
In a similar way, although there are many different living beings,
I should cherish them all as equally as I cherish myself.

Why should I cherish others, protect others from their suffering just as I cherish myself?  We are not affected by others’ suffering in the same way that we are presently affected by our own suffering.  Because we are not affected by the suffering of others, we have no strong wish to alleviate the suffering of others.  We are deeply affected by our own suffering, and at all times we have a strong wish to alleviate it.  We consider their suffering to be theirs, not our own. We can even think that the problem is their own and it is not mine. How many times, even now, do we think when someone is experiencing a problem, it is their problem?  

From a conventional perspective, this is completely true and frankly important to keep in mind.  Each being is responsible for their own experience in life, and we each need to assume responsibility for our own suffering.  Conventionally, it is correct to say their problem is not “our problem.”  Our problem is the deluded mental reaction we have to their suffering.  Perhaps we do not care.  Perhaps we are attached to them not suffering and averse to their suffering.  Attachment to others not suffering and compassion are quite similar in many respects.  But if we have the former, we will be crushed by the suffering of others; if we have the latter, we will quickly be propelled to enlightenment.  Thinking we are responsible for others well-being and it is our fault if they suffer can quickly lead to all sorts of co-dependency issues which actually disempower others to assume responsibility for themselves.  If they don’t assume responsibility for themselves and start creating the karma that will lead them to enlightenment, from their perspective, it will never come. 

But let’s set aside all of that and look at things from the perspective of emptiness.  What difference would it make anyway simply wishing to alleviate the suffering of others?  When we think of all the suffering in the world, how many people in this world suffer, what difference would it make merely wishing to alleviate the suffering of others, all others? Wishing to alleviate does not alleviate their suffering, does it?  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Venerable Geshe-la says compassion – the wish to alleviate the suffering of others – purifies our mind, and when our mind is pure, its objects also become pure.   When our mind is pure, its objects become pure. What happens then to deluded suffering beings?

From the perspective of ultimate truth, the problem is definitely ours.  We think the problem is theirs, not mine – no, the problem is mine.  If suffering living beings had no relationship with us whatsoever, then there would be nothing that we could do to help them. Nothing. Even if we possessed a pure compassion, it would make no difference. There would be nothing we could do to help.  Shantideva is explaining here that the parts of our body are not separate from or unrelated to the body itself. They have a definite relationship with the body.  So too, there is a relationship between living beings who are suffering, other living beings who are suffering, and we ourselves who are suffering.  The relationship between other living beings who are suffering and we ourselves who are suffering is clear – we are all part of the body of suffering living beings.

There exists suffering in this world. Venerable Geshe-la says again and again this is a world of suffering?  This world is a subjective world. A suffering world does not exist as an objective truth for anyone. For everyone, a suffering world is a subjective world.  It is as Geshe-la says in Eight Steps to Happiness, it is a personal world. The world in which we live is our own personal world.  Other than people’s personal world, there is no other world existing as an objective truth. Other than the personal world, there is no other world.  Our world is a world in which people suffer. Our own subjective world, our own personal world, is a world in which people suffer.  People who are part of our world suffer. Those people, those suffering living beings are part of our world, are they not? They are part of our own subjective or personal world.  From the perspective of ultimate truth, how can we say then that these people, these other suffering people, have nothing to do with me? How can we say that these people and their suffering are unrelated to me?

In truth, it is because we believe that living beings and their suffering has nothing to do with us – that their suffering is entirely unrelated – that we suffer.  Grasping at this wrong belief is why we live in a suffering world.  This is why we suffer and why we live in a world of suffering.  If we understand and gain experience of this training of equalizing and exchanging self with others, we can develop such a special profound love for others as well as wisdom of dependent relationship.

Reflections on my years in Shenyang

Hello all,

At the end of each tour of my work, I update the page “my journey so far.”

I’m now at the end of my two-year tour in Shenyang, China near the North Korean border.  What a wild two years it has been, but incredibly spiritually fruitful.  In many ways, I feel like the last two years have been a major turning point in my professional, family, and spiritual life.  These last two years marked the final chapters of a major book in my life.  I’m now ready to begin the next book, which will likely last the next ten years.

If you’d like to read more, click here. It tells my whole story, including the latest additions from the last two years.


Happy Protector Day: The nature and function of Dorje Shugden

The 29th of every month is Protector Day.  This is part 5 of a 12-part series aimed at helping us remember our Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden and increase our faith in him on these special days.

In this post, I will explain the nature and function of Dorje Shugden.  In the subsequent posts I will explain how to rely upon him outside of formal meditation and then I will explain how to rely upon him during the formal meditation session. 

What is the nature and function of Dorje Shugden?  In short, his nature is the same as our Spiritual Guide, but in particular he is by nature the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri.  Manjushri assumes two forms, Je Tsongkhapa to lead us along the path and Dorje Shugden to arrange the conditions for our practice of the path.  His function is to arrange all the outer, inner and secret conditions necessary for our swiftest possible enlightenment.

To understand this in more detail, we can consider the meaning of the invitation prayer to Dorje Shugden that we recite every day in the context of our Heart Jewel practice.  The Sadhana beings by saying,

HUM, I have the clarity of the Yidam.

With HUM we dissolve everything into the clear light Dharmakaya and recall that the definitive nature of Dorje Shugden is the Truth Body of our Spiritual Guide.  ‘I have the clarity of the Yidam’ means we engage in our Dorje Shugden practice self-generated as our personal deity.  We do this for two reasons.  First, it is more effective.  Heruka is much closer to Dorje Shugden than we are, so by requesting Dorje Shugden as Heruka we tap into their close karmic connection.  It is similar to knowing somebody who knows somebody very powerful.  We may not know the powerful person ourselves, but if we know somebody who does know them, if they ask the powerful person to fulfill our wishes on our behalf, it is far more likely we will get the response we want.  The second reason why we do this is the practice of Dorje Shugden can be engaged in for the sake of ourself or for the sake of others.  When we eventually become Buddha Heruka our work is not finished – we will still need to lead all other beings to enlightenment.  At that time, we will need powerful allies who can help living beings, such as Dorje Shugden.  Training in the practice of Dorje Shugden while maintaining divine pride of being the deity is a very powerful method for having Dorje Shugden accomplish his function for all those that we love.

Before me in the center of red and black fire and wind.

Here, we imagine that encircling all the living beings we are visualizing around us is a large proection circle of Dorje Shugden made out of five-colored wisdom fires.  It is like a giant sphere which completely envelopes all of these beings and the entire universe.  I like to imagine that all living beings are now inside of the protection circle and everything that happens to them is perfect for their swiftest possible enlightenment. 

On a lotus and sun trampeling demons and obstructors is a terrifying lion powerful and alert.

The function of Dorje Shugden’s lion is to dispel all fear.  It is a bit like in the movie Narnia, when people were in the presence of Aslan, they knew they were safe and they had nothing to fear.  If ever we are in a situation where we are afraid, we can remember the protection circle of Dorje Shugden and we can remember his lion and strongly believe that we are protected and that we receive his blessings which pacify all of our fear. 

Upon this sits the Great King Dorje Shugden, the supreme heart jewel of Dharma protectors.

Dorje Shugden is the principal deity of the visualization.  There are a couple of different analogies we can consider to get a feeling for who he is.  He is our karma manager.  Rich people give their money to money managers to manage their money in an optimal way.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is the supreme karma manager.  He will manage our karma in an optimal way for our swiftest possible enlightenment.  He is also our personal spiritual trainer.  When people want to get their bodies in shape, they go to a personal physical trainer who gives them the specific exercises they need to get in the peak of physical health.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is our personal spiritual trainer who gives us the specific exercises we need to put ourselves in the peak of spiritual health, full enlightenment.  He is our spiritual father.  Our father protects us from danger and provides us with everything we need.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is our spiritual father, who will protect us from all danger and provide for us everything we need to accomplish our spiritual goals.  He is the director of our spiritual life.  When people make movies or plays, there is a director who organizes and puts together all the appearances.  In the same way, Dorje Shugden is the director of our spiritual life, who will create a play of appearances around us for the rest of our life that are perfect for our spiritual path.  In a future post, I will explain how he has the power to help us not just in this life and right now, but in all our past and future lives as well.  Yes, we can go back within our past and transform what happened into a cause of our enlightenment!

His body is clothed in the garments of a monk.

This symbolizes his power to assist us with our practice of moral discipline.  We all have bad habits we are trying to abandon, such as smoking, getting angry at people, and so forth; and vows we are trying to keep, such as our refuge, pratimoksha, bodhisattva, and tantric vows, but we are not very successful in doing so.  Dorje Shugden can give us the strength and wisdom we need to abandon these bad habits.  Whenever we feel tempted to break our moral discipline, we can recall Dorje Shugden in front of us dressed in the garments of a monk and request his special blessings to give us the strength to keep our moral discipline. 

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: The mind that takes us to enlightenment

If we exchange self with others in the way Shantideva explains, several things will happen.  We will close the gaps between ourselves and others.  We know that is what people want in their heart, it’s what they need, actually – to remove all the gaps.  If they can give and receive love then they will come to know themselves.  Then that fear of separation will go, the attachment will go, and as the love grows, pure love grows, they will feel more and more close not just to one person, to two people, but to everybody.

In this way, we are able to show the inner aspects of being a Kadampa.  It is our inner aspect of pure love that draws others to us.  Then, people will be drawn very much into the Buddhadharma so that they too can learn to give love and to receive love without any sense of separation with others.  It is so unusual for people to be able to receive pure love from somebody else.  A genuine selfless, unconditional, inseparable love is so unusual in this world, but actually receiving such love is even more rare still.  We can do that.  We can be that beacon of love in the life of others.  And then really things can take off for them, can’t they?  If they feel that they can receive our unconditional love.

Kadam Bjorn said the way we really feel the love of our spiritual guide for us is by turning around and loving others as he loves us.  Then, his love not only pours into us, but through us to others.  We become a conduit for his love into our own karmic world.  Once people get pulled into the orbit of this, they never want to leave.  Indeed, they want to learn how to do it themselves.  On the basis of such a foundation, we can really then set an example that inspires others to enter the Buddhadharma. And that attraction comes from how we are.  Geshe-la describes in Eight Steps to Happiness that we transform ourselves into a magic crystal that has the power to gradually purify the whole world, indeed the entire universe. Finally, that separation between themselves and the whole universe will disappear, and they will experience the purest, the purest kind of happiness imaginable. Wonderful.

The mind that wants to be with all beings all the time will take us to enlightenment.  This wish to be with and cherish others all the time is a mind that will take us all the way to enlightenment.  The wish to be with others all the time is a mind that wishes to be with them so we can love and care for them.  For us, we find our happiness in the action of loving them.  The more we love them, the more our mind is virtuous and the happier we are.  Our goal is to love them more and more, deeper and deeper, until our love is brought to full fruition.  This wish to be with others all the time is informed by a wisdom of how it is possible.  As Venerable Tharchin explains, when we see how the path is doable, effort becomes effortless.  This joyful mind of love will take us all the way to enlightenment. 

Very often when we are busy and feeling overwhelmed and over-worked, when people come to us asking for help, we think “oh no, not another demand on my time.”  We wish they wouldn’t ask.  We wish they could take care of themselves.  They are just adding one more burden onto us, and we wish we didn’t have to help.  This is exactly wrong, and a missed opportunity.  The correct mind should be, “I would want to help you, I would want to be there for you, but unfortunately I can’t right now.”  But inside we think the reason why we can’t is because we are not yet a Buddha.  This wanting to be there for others combined with a realization of why we can’t be there with them then is just a whisker away from the precious mind of bodhichitta.  We then think, I must become a Buddha so that I can be with you all the time, so that I can love you all the time.  Therefore, I will train in the stages of the path to be able to do so.

Shantideva’s explanation of exchanging self with others in Chapter 8 of his Guide is not just to help us generate the precious mind of bodhichitta, but because this explanation creates the perfect mental environment for being able to meditate on emptiness in Chapter 9.  His presentation of exchanging self with others completely breaks down our conception of self, and helps lay the foundation for viewing everything validly as part of ourselves.  This is like shattering the concrete of our ignorance before removing it completely with the wisdom realizing emptiness. 

Happy Tsog Day: The benefits of cherishing others

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 30 of a 44-part series.

Seeing that the mind that cherishes mother beings and would secure their happiness
Is the gateway that leads to infinite good qualities,
I seek your blessings to cherish these beings more than my life,
Even if they rise up against me as my enemies.

Just as self-cherishing is the root cause of all our suffering, the mind that cherishes others is the root cause of all our happiness. The logic is exactly the same. All our happiness comes from virtuous actions, and all virtuous actions come from the mind that cherishes other living beings and considers their happiness to be important. All virtuous actions begin by considering that others’ happiness and well-being matters, and therefore works to secure it.

Just as we need to gather all blame into one, so two we need to give all credit to one – namely the mind of cherishing others. Geshe-la explains in Eight Steps to Happiness that the path to enlightenment is very simple: all we need to do is change the object of our cherishing from ourselves to others, and all the other stages of the path to enlightenment will naturally flow from this. Enlightenment depends upon the mind of bodhicitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the sake of others. Bodhicitta depends upon the mind of great compassion, which wishes to protect all living beings from all forms of suffering for all their lives. The mind of great compassion only arises when we consider the suffering of those we love. If we do not love somebody, and we consider their suffering, we do not feel any compassion and we may even feel delight. But when we love somebody, and we see that they are suffering, the mind of compassion naturally arises. There are three types of love: affectionate love, cherishing love, and wishing love. Affectionate love is delighted merely to think or see other living beings, like a loving grandmother seeing her grandchildren. Cherishing love considers the happiness and well-being of others to be important to us, something worth working towards. Wishing love aims to give others happiness. The mind of great compassion depends upon having cherishing love for all living beings. Thus, enlightenment naturally follows simply from the mind that cherishes others.

How do we generate the mind of cherishing others? In this verse and in Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la explains it is sufficient to simply contemplate the benefits of cherishing others and then make the firm determination to do so. We can likewise consider the analogy of viewing all living beings as the body of life. Of course we should cherish every part of our body because it is part of our body; in the same way, of course we should cherish all living beings because they are all part of the body of life. Atisha explains in Advice from Atisha’s Heart that the actual root of cherishing others is learning to appreciate their good qualities and to stop inappropriate attention on their faults. Because we focus on others’ faults, we generate aversion and even hatred towards others, and with such a focus it is impossible to generate the mind that considers what happens to them to be important. But when we focus our attention on the good qualities of others and choose to not pay attention to their faults, then we naturally start to see them as precious and, on this basis, it is easy to then cherish them.

We might object, “but if I do not see their faults then I am not seeing things objectively and they could even harm me.” This is a wrong conclusion. First, there is a difference between not seeing others’ faults and having inappropriate attention towards their faults. Inappropriate attention exaggerates the appearance of faults, and therefore is a mind that is not objective. Second, we need to make a distinction between the person and their delusions. The person is not their delusions, rather their delusions are like clouds in the sky of their mind. Because we make a distinction between the person and their faults, we are able to see the faults for what they are, but not see them as faults of the person and therefore still be able to cherish them. Third, when we see others’ faults and relate to them as faulty, it functions to draw out their worst aspects and it creates self-fulfilling prophecies. Every teacher and every parent can confirm whatever we pay attention to is what we draw out in others. Thus, even if they have faults, it is better for us to focus on their good qualities to help draw them out. Fourth, Venerable Tharchin explains that any fault we see in others is in fact a reflection of that same fault within our own mind. It is only because we have that fault in our mind that we can perceive it in others. This is true because others are fundamentally empty – they are mere projections or reflections of our own mind. Thus, when we see faults in others, we should see them as a mirror reflecting back to us faults that we have within ourselves. He goes on to explain that if we eliminate the fault within our self, it will begin to disappear in others almost like magic. Finally, we can view the appearance of faults in others as a supremely skillful teaching of an emanation of our spiritual guide. Buddhas can emanate all sorts of forms to reveal to us the truth of Dharma. People behaving in faulty ways teaches us to not act in those ways, and therefore they provide us with powerful teachings. Who is to say they are not emanations of Buddha teaching us these lessons? Even if that is not in fact the case, it is still a beneficial way of viewing things, and so we can still perceive the fault, defend ourselves against it, and nonetheless not see any fault in others.

In the sadhana it says that we should cherish others even if they rise up against us as our enemies. There are several reasons for this. First, by cherishing them despite them harming us we are able to purify the negative karma associated with them harming us in some way. If instead we retaliated, we would create once again new negative karma ensuring that others harm us again in the future. Cherishing those who harm us is therefore a way of ending the karmic cycles that we have been trapped in since beginning last time. This is not different than what Jesus advised to turn the other cheek.

Second, Geshe-la once famously explained in Toronto that love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies. If we cherish our enemies, they will come to view us as their friends, and therefore no longer view us as their enemy. Yes, this process may take time before we bring about a change in their perspective of us, but if we are patient with the process and willing to accept the karmic consequences of our past behavior of viewing them as an enemy, gradually we will turn our relationship around with them. We should be careful though to not misinterpret this to mean that we should cooperate with others’ dysfunctional or abusive behavior. It does not help others for us to enable them and allow them to engage in abuse towards us. Therefore, it can be an act of cherishing others to no longer cooperate with their delusions.

Third, others are only our enemies by mere imputation. If we viewed others as emanations of our spiritual guide, for example, then they would no longer be our enemy, but instead we would see them as our kind teacher. Atisha once had a cook who was very disrespectful towards Atisha. Atisha’s other disciples wondered why Atisha keep kept this cook around when there were so many other disciples who would be more than happy to serve their spiritual guide. Atisha said this disrespectful assistant was in fact very kind to him because this person gave him the opportunity to train in patience, and there’s no virtue greater than patience.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Exchange self with others, then self-generate

Exchanging self with others according to Tantra follows the same logic as in our tantric practice where we change the basis of imputation of our I from the self we normally see to the self-generated deity.  Because our I is empty, we can do that.  When we fully and completely identify with the deity as ourself, we will be the deity.  In exactly the same way, when we exchange self with others according to Tantra, we learn how to impute our I onto all living beings, and then we cherish our new self fully and completely.  When all living beings are the basis of imputation of our I, there is absolutely no fault in having very strong “self”-cherishing, because at that time, our self is all living beings.  In this way, we don’t really have to reduce or even eliminate the mind that wishes for ourself to be happy and considers our own happiness and well-being to be important, rather we simply need to change who we think we are.  If we are identifying with all living beings as our self, we can – and should – have very strong “self”-cherishing.  But this is completely different from the self-cherishing we abandon.  That self-cherishing takes as our self the self that we normally see.

When we think about things in this way, we discover something amazing about Heruka, Vajrayogini, and indeed all of the Buddhas.  We can be certain that every Buddha has completed the exchange of self with others in the way Shantideva describes – actually changing the basis of imputation of our their I to all living beings.  And then, “as all living beings” they attained enlightenment.  Thus, to identify with Heruka directly is necessarily to indirectly identify with all living beings.  Because they have exchanged self with others, and we then identify with them, we too are exchanging self with others according to Tantra.  This means when we engage in our self-generation practice, make offerings, request prayers, etc., we don’t do so “as Ryan, the aspiring disciple trying to practice Tantra,” but we do so “as all living beings.”  This one change in recognition massively multiples the power of our tantric practices, where everything we do we feel we are doing it as all living beings, thus multiplying the karma of our virtues as if we were engaging in these practices countless times ourselves.  We get the karma multiplying benefits of bodhichitta at the exchanging self with others stage, not just when we attain bodhichitta.

We need to cultivate an intention certainly to love others purely, and then we realize over time that to remove any separation entirely so that we can literally be one with others, and with the whole universe.  With this desire, we strive to realize emptiness.  Normally we believe we are here and others are there, and that there is an intrinsic difference between ourselves and others.  When we realize emptiness, we understand that our self is just a projection of our mind, an idea.  We also understand that others are likewise just projections of our own mind.  Both are equally projections of our mind, so both are equally us.  Here we have a valid reason for the view of exchanging self with others.  We go further to realize that others are karmic appearances.  Others are the beings of our own dream that arise from our karma.  They suffer because we have karmically constructed them to suffer.  We can set them free by karmically reconstructing them to be free.

We go even further by realizing that these karmic appearances are the very nature of our own mind.  They are our own mind in the aspect of these beings.  Since we naturally impute our I on our mind, when we feel all of these beings to be the nature of our mind, we experience ourselves as inseparably one with everyone.  All gaps have been removed.  With this view, we come to love others as a good God would.  We realize that we are responsible for the experiences of every living being because they are all our creation.    We view others as the creation of our own mind, and so we care for others and lead them to attain union with us.  We love as a God would who realizes his creation is inseparably one with the creator – the gap between creator and creation falls away.  Everything is united in inseparably purity. 

When we understand the emptiness of others, we realize we have the power to purify all beings with Tantra.  We strive to realize emptiness, and then we understand, in order to gain that direct realization of emptiness, we must generate a blissful mind through the force of Tantric practice.  But then in order to free ourselves completely, entirely, from any separation whatsoever, then with that loving mind, even with that blissful mind from our Tantric practice, we try to gain a direct realization of emptiness. Then, all separation is removed.  Practicing in this way, our training in Tantra is coming out of a love, a wish, a wish actually, to be so close to others that we’re inseparable. Inseparable, therefore I must engage in Tantric practice and realize emptiness directly. Then separation ends. 

A Pure Life: Please Don’t Kill

This is part five of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

The first precept is to abandon killing.  Geshe-la explains the object of killing is any other being from the smallest insect to a Buddha.  In the chapter on karma in Joyful Path, four factors must be present for the action to be complete.  First, for our intention, we must have the correct identification of the person we intend to kill.  We also need a determination to kill the person we have correctly identified.  Killing by accident is not a complete action, though this doesn’t mean there are not negative consequences of accidental killing.  Our mind must also be influenced by delusion, specifically anger, attachment, or ignorance.  It is possible to kill out of compassion to save the lives of others, but this requires great wisdom and courage.  Killing out of compassion is not a downfall since compassion is not a delusion.  The action also requires preparation, namely we prepare the means to engage in the action.  This includes having others do the action for us or engaging in the action as a group.  Finally, it requires the completion – the action must be completed, the person actually is killed and dies before we do.

The reality is we are killing all of the time.  Every time we scratch our arm, we are no doubt killing thousands of tiny bacteria or microbes.  Even if we do not eat meat, we are indirectly killing thousands of insects who died in the rice paddies or to the pesticides sprayed on our food.  Samsara is a slaughterhouse, and everything we do essentially kills.  This doesn’t mean we are doomed and it also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying to not kill because it is unavoidable.  What it means is we need to do our best to lead as low impact of a life as we can.  We should work gradually to kill less and less while working within our capacity and the karmic conditions we find ourselves in.

There are also many forms of negative actions that are adjacent to kill it that we should also try avoiding. For example, rejoicing in negative actions is karmically similar to engaging in those actions ourselves. Virtually every day on the news there are reports of people being killed in some form of military conflict. The United States, for example, has been at war nonstop for essentially the last 25 years. Our soldiers are killing people on an almost daily basis and the news is typically reported as a success story of having killed some “terrorists” or some other perceived enemy. These reports are designed to generate a mind of rejoicing in such killing. While this is not us killing ourselves, when we rejoice in such activities, we create karma similar to killing others.

There are also many subtle forms of killing that we may not even be aware of nor our role in perpetuating the systems that engage in such killing. Social scientists have coined the term structural violence to refer to societal structures that function to shorten the lives of particular groups of people. For example, due to structural racism in the United states, people of color tend to have worse access to health care, higher rates of poverty, lower rates of education, suffer from higher rates of crime, and so forth all of which contribute to shortened life spans compared to most white people. One study estimates that 8,000,000 African Americans are missing compared to what should be if structural racism did not exist. These are the victims of a form of unintentional slow-motion genocide.

Once we are aware that such structures exist and inflict violence, even if a subtle form of violence, against certain populations and then we do nothing to correct for it or we even seek to rationalize away such effects by denying it is occurring or it is justified based upon some arbitrary criteria, then we are participating in or enabling a subtle form of killing.  We may even be voting for such policies.  Even simply benefiting from such structures and not using our surplus privilege associated with being at the top of such structures to dismantle them, is a form of perpetuating them. These things would not be a violation of our Mahayana precepts per se, but they do move in a direction similar to the action of killing.  As Mahayana practitioners, we should be striving to move in the direction of not killing. And we should cast the net wide to avoid even subtle forms.

Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Exchanging Self with Others According to Tantra

When attachment is in our mind, we try to pull things towards us which leads to suffering.  The more we grasp at things being separate, the more we suffer.  The stronger our attachment, the more we actually create a separation because we grasp at this gap or distance.   But then, of course, we try find someone who we can feel safe to be close to because we are so desperate to remove that separation.  What happens, generally, is that there is an attachment arising in our mind because people appear to exist from their own side.  Our attachment does not draw us close actually because the stronger our attachment, the stronger our self-grasping, then the greater distance, and that is so frustrating. It is a suffering state.

We then try to push things away from us, which also leads to suffering.  Sometimes there are people who when we are around them it hurts, so we want to separate ourselves from them.  We feel so overwhelmed that when others put demands on our time, we want to push them away.  Also, we are convinced that they are causes of our suffering.  When we are with them, we suffer, so we think they are the cause of our suffering.  When in reality, the problem is they are at that time an object of delusion for us, so when they are present it gives rise to delusions in our mind which causes us to suffer.  The problem is not them, it is the delusion within our own mind.  But when we push others away, we create even greater separation, and we suffer even more.  We go further from the natural state, but are unable to, so just become more frustrated, etc.

What can we do to address this?  We can exchange self with others, which is the next topic in Shantideva’s guide.  Out of a wish to remove that separation we feel with others, out of a wish to no longer be separated, or no longer feel separated from others, from the whole world, actually, we cultivate the mind of exchanging self with others.  In order to reduce to a great extent the distance, the gap, we must exchange self with others.  We must develop a pure love, a pure love for others. That pure love will enable us to draw close to others – even identifying with them as ourselves.  When we impute our I onto others, there is no longer any separation, no gap, but there is also no self-cherishing and attachment.  Then, we can be inseparably one with others, but without the delusion.

Because this practice is so related to wisdom, our self-grasping itself will reduce, and then we will sense over time that distance will reduce, until finally it will feel like there’s no gap between ourselves and others.   According to Sutra, exchanging self with others is exchanging the object of our cherishing from self to only others.  According to Tantra, which is Shantideva’s explanation, to exchange self with others means to exchange the basis of imputation of our I to all others.  We literally identify with others as ourselves.  We come to view each being as an aspect or part of ourselves.  Just as our hand removes the thorn from our foot because it is part of the same living whole, so too we care for all others because they are part of the same living whole.  When we see others, we see part of ourselves.  If they are suffering, part of ourself is suffering.  If they are happy, part of ourselves is happy.  If they are not enlightened, part of ourselves is not enlightened.  With this sort of view, we can love others from the inside, as opposed to from the outside. 

Ultimately, our ability to complete this exchange of self with others according to Tantra, we need to realize the emptiness of both ourself and others.  When we grasp at ourselves and others as being some inherently independent from one another, it is impossible to complete the exchange.  We need to realize our I is just a label that we can impute onto anything.  It does not adhere to the self we normally see.  Only habit keeps it there.  Likewise, when we look at all living beings, they are not inherently “other,” that too is just a label.  We can take the basis of all living beings, and impute our I.  We can change the basis of imputation of our I from the self we normally see to all living beings.  Then, we will have completed the exchange of self with others. 

Happy Tsog Day: Destroying our Greatest Inner Demon

In order to remember and mark our tsog days, holy days on the Kadampa calendar, I am sharing my understanding of the practice of Offering to the Spiritual Guide with tsog.  This is part 29 of a 44-part series.

Equalizing self and others

In that no one wishes for even the slightest suffering,
Or is ever content with the happiness they have,
There is no difference between myself and others;
Realizing this, I seek your blessings joyfully to make others happy.

As explained above, there are two methods for generating bodhicitta: considering how all living beings are our mother and exchanging self with others. Meditation on equalizing self with others is the first meditation of the second method. The second method for generating bodhicitta is more powerful than the first method because we cherish ourselves more than we cherish our mother. Since it is more powerful, the practice Offering to the Spiritual Guide dedicates five full verses to the practice.

When we equalize self with others our objective is to generate the same degree of cherishing for others as we have for ourselves, in other words, to cherish others as we cherish ourself. This is not that uncommon of a mind. Political leaders who view their job as serving the public interest consider the happiness and welfare of all their citizens as being equally important. If some politicians can generate this mind, then surely we can generate this mind as a would-be-bodhisattva. We likewise find this mind in many families that consider every person in the family to be equally important and make decisions based upon what is best for the family as a whole. Some teachers do the same with the students in their classroom and some employers do the same with the people who work at their company. Even in normal society, we would say a political leader, a parent, a teacher, or an employer who puts their own interest ahead of the interests of those they serve is a corrupt person.

There are several different methods we can use to reach this mind. One method for doing so is to realize that all living beings have an equal wish to be happy all the time. There is nothing about our own happiness that makes it more important than the happiness of anybody else. Since we all share an equal wish, and there’s nothing that makes us more important than anybody else, it follows that we should cherish the happiness of each and every living being equally. A particularly powerful way of generating this mind is to consider how all living beings are like cells in the body of life. Just as we would not say the hand does not care what happens to the foot, so too when we have equalized self with others, we cannot say that we do not care about what happens to other living beings because we are all part of the same body of life. The definitive way of generating this mind is to consider how all living beings, including ourselves, are all equally empty and therefore equally projections of our mind. There is no basis for cherishing one appearance in our mind over another since they are all equally appearances to our mind. Whichever line of reasoning works for us, the goal is the same, namely to generate a feeling that cherishes all living beings equally.

The dangers of self-cherishing

Seeing that this chronic disease of cherishing myself
Is the cause that gives rise to unwanted suffering,
I seek your blessings to destroy this great demon of selfishness
By resenting it as the object of blame.

In the teachings on training the mind, we are encouraged to gather all blame into one. The meaning of this practice is every time we experience any problem, or we see anybody else experiencing any sort of suffering, we blame it entirely upon the mind of self-cherishing. In the Lord of all Lineages prayer it says, “since beginningless time the root of all my suffering has been my self-cherishing mind, I must expel it from my heart, cast it afar, and cherish only other living beings.”

How can we understand self-cherishing to be the cause of all our suffering? All our suffering comes from our negative karma, and all our negative karma is committed with a mind of self-cherishing. Self-cherishing considers our own happiness to be more important than the happiness of others and is therefore willing to sacrifice the happiness of others for the sake of ourselves. All non-virtuous actions fundamentally are willing to harm others in some way for the sake of ourselves.

Further, what happens to us is only a problem because we consider our own happiness to be important. If we did not consider our own happiness to be important, then what happens to us would also not be important, and therefore not a problem. From this we can see the only reason why we have any problems is because we cherish ourselves.

Intellectually this is not difficult to understand. The practice is to develop the habit of gathering all blame into one. We need to do this again and again and again throughout our life, whenever we see ourselves or others suffer, we do the mental exercise of identifying exactly how and why it is the fault of self-cherishing. The more we do this, the more determined we will become to destroy this demon within our mind.

Mother’s Day for a Kadampa

As Kadampas who practice the Lamrim, every 21 days is Mother’s Day.  We are all quite familiar with the various contemplations of how all living beings are our mother and how kind they were to us as our mother, therefore we should develop a profound feeling of gratitude towards our mother of this life and all our mothers of our past lives.  Very often though, primarily because we make our meditations intellectual exercises of recalling certain points as opposed to exercises of the heart where we change our feelings, these contemplations on the kindness of our mother no longer really move our mind.  We might recall them, but we don’t internalize them and let them touch our heart.  On actual Mother’s Day, we should take the time to reflect deeply and sincerely upon them so that our heart moves and we genuinely feel gratitude and a wish to repay our mother’s kindness.

Have we always neglected our mothers?

I sometimes wonder if ancient Tibetan culture was the same as our modern culture.  In modern culture, particularly in modern psychology, the trend is to blame our mother for all of our problems.  We are encouraged to go back into our childhood and find all the different ways our mother made mistakes and how that is “the underlying cause” of why we are the way we are today.  We likewise completely take for granted everything our mother has done for us.  As kids, we are completely blind to it. 

We think it is “normal” that our mothers do everything for us, and we feel “justified” in getting angry with them when they don’t do it perfectly.  In truth, our mother could have just abandoned us on the street.  She owes us nothing.  Nobody owes us anything.  It is our expectation that they do that actually prevents us from appreciating all that she did for us.  It is the very nature of modern motherhood to give everything you have to your kids only to have them take your kindness for granted, blame you for all of their problems, and want to have nothing to do with you because you are such an embarrassment.  Perhaps it has always been such, which is why the meditation on the kindness of our mothers has always been taught.

It’s time to apologize for being such a jerk

On Mother’s Day, I think it is important to not just express our gratefulness, but to sincerely apologize for what a jerk we have been to her over the years.  Explain that when you were a kid, you didn’t understand, and now it is only as an adult (and perhaps a parent yourself) that you are beginning to realize all she did for you.  Apologize for yelling, apologize for disobeying, apologize for being embarrassed by her, apologize for ignoring her, and apologize most of all for taking for granted all that she has done for you.  Explain to her that all of your good qualities now come from her. 

My father once said about his mother, “everything good in our family comes from Grandma.  That’s the truth.”  This is a perfect attitude.  It is the truth.  The truth is mother’s really struggle with the fact that everything they do is taken for granted and that they are blamed for everything.  Yes, it is good for them in terms of being able to learn how to give love unconditionally, but it is hard.  All it takes is one honest conversation where you admit you were a real butt with her, and where you express sincere gratitude for everything you previously took for granted.  Such a conversation can heal decades of grief.

No, our mothers aren’t perfect, but why should we expect them to be?

Sometimes when we encounter the meditation on the kindness of our mothers we develop all sorts of objections because it is true, our mother did make a lot of mistakes.  My mother had all sorts of serious mental health issues, we had an off and on terrible relationship until eventually she likely killed herself on my wedding day.  I had all sorts of resentments towards her for years, then I had guilt after her suicide, and now I find it difficult to think anything good about her.  All I see is her many faults and delusions.  Most of us have problems of one kind or another with our mothers.  I personally feel it is vital that we identify the delusions we have towards our parents, in particular our mother, and work through them.  We need to get to the point where our mind is completely healed of all delusions towards them.  This is not only a way of repaying the kindness of our mother, it is a way of healing our own mind.

Our mothers were not perfect, they made many mistakes, and they were full of delusions.  This is also true, and acknowledging that fact is not a denial of their kindness.  We can hold the view that they were emanations of Buddhas who appeared to make the mistakes that they did to give us a chance to grow.  Every child grows up cataloging the many mistakes their parents make and resolves when they are parents they won’t do the same thing; only to find when they do become parents they wind up making many of the same mistakes.  The power of osmosis with our parents is the most powerful force shaping our lives and shaping our mind.  It is not enough that we heal our mind of all the delusions we have towards our mother, we also need to look into our mind and identify all the delusions we received from her. 

Venerable Tharchin once told me the only reason why the people in our life appear to have delusions is because we ourselves possess the same delusions within our own mind and we therefore project beings who have the same faults.  Our task, therefore, is to identify within ourselves the delusions that appear in others and then root them out completely.  When we do so, he said, several amazing things will happen.  First, our relationship with the person will improve.  Second, we will have less delusions in our own mind.  And third, the faults we see in the other person will gradually “disappear.”  Why?  Because they were never coming from the other person in the first place.  He concluded by saying, this is how Bodhisattva’s ripen and liberate all beings.  When we attain Buddhahood, he said, it appears to us as if everybody attains Buddhahood at the same time with us.  In fact, we see that they have always been so.  If we love our mother, this is essential work.

Tara is our eternal mother

Mother’s Day, though, is about much more than just our relationship with our own mother of this life, or even recalling the kindness of all our past mothers.  I think on Mother’s Day we need to recall the kindness of our Spiritual Mother, Guru Arya Tara.  Tara promised Atisha long ago that she would care for all Kadampas in the future.  The fact that we have a spiritual life today is due to her kindness.  She gave birth to our spiritual life.  Like all mothers’ kindnesses, we don’t even see it.  She operates unseen, and we take it for granted.  But there is no doubt, it is thanks to her that we have a spiritual life.  She gave birth to it, she has nurtured it, and she cares for us now even if we never think of her.  For some, she appears herself as Vajrayogini, and therefore serves as our Highest Yoga Tantra Yidam.  Tara is one of the Buddhas who often appears early in our spiritual life.  Almost everybody has a very positive experience with encountering her.  But then, over time, we tend to forget about her as we move on to other practices.  But like any mother, she never forgets her spiritual children.  We should remember this, and generate our thanks to her for it.

Viewing all living beings as our children

Finally, I think it is worth recalling that just as all living beings have been our mother, so too we have been the mother of all living beings.  We can correctly view all living beings as our children, and love them as a good mother would.  The contemplations on the kindness a mother shows to her child are not there just to help us develop gratitude towards our mothers, they are also examples of the attitude we should have towards all of our children.  How many of us would be willing to remove the mucus from a stranger’s nose?  Our mother did that for us.  We should love others so much that we would gladly, and without hesitation do the same for others.  Of course, we shouldn’t go around offering to others to do so, but training in the mind that is willing to help any living being in any way we can is the real meaning of Mother’s Day.