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The Great Medicine Which Conquers
Clinging To the Notion of Reality

Steps in meditation on the enlightened mind

Root text by Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal
Explained by by Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche

Part four of a monthly series (Click here for part one.)


So far these reflections have only dealt with our own situation and how to get ourselves out of samsara. But, is it not a rather limited goal to seek liberation only for ourselves? Wishing that one particular person among so many sentient beings be freed from suffering? Certainly such a purpose is not worth devoting all one’s life and energy to. So, rather than just thinking of ourselves, we should realize that all sentient beings aspire to be happy just as we do, for:

Who is more shameless in this world,
Than one who abandons to samsara’s ocean of suffering
All the mothers who have tenderly cared for him since beginningless time,
And instead strives toward the peace of a solitary nirvana?

Concern for the happiness of all sentient beings arises naturally if you show them the same affection and gratitude that you have for the person who gave you this present life. Your mother bore you in her body for nine months and took care of you when you were a helpless baby. She gave you food, education, and protection from fear and great affection. Nothing is “more shameless” than to be indifferent to the suffering of your own mother.

But why only be concerned for your present mother? If you look at all beings living here on earth and acknowledge that they have all been your parent at one time or another, and deserve the kindness due our mother, and if you look at the broader picture of the countless existences you have lived, there is not a single being that has not been your mother at one time or another. So, there is no real reason why you should discriminate among them. The same debt of gratitude that you owe to your present mother should be extended to all other sentient beings.

We take refuge not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of all sentient beings. This is bodhichitta or the altruistic mind that is aimed at the enlightenment of all sentient beings. Acknowledge your own wish for happiness, your deep wish to avoid suffering, and that all sentient beings want to avoid suffering as you earnestly as you do. You should be as concerned about others’ wishes as you are about your own. You should endeavor to achieve enlightenment in order to free all beings from suffering and bring them all to happiness. This bodhichitta is so powerful and crucial to the path that:

For countless kalpas,
Those with sublime intelligence and their heirs
Have investigated and seen with their mighty wisdom
That precious bodhichitta alone is of major benefit.

Those who have achieved enlightenment, the supreme buddhas who have omniscient wisdom, “and their heirs,” all the great male and female bodhisattvas who have followed in the Buddha's footsteps saw, in their perfect wisdom, how to travel the path to enlightenment. They realized that this altruistic attitude is the sole cause for progressing to enlightenment. So we should strive to follow in their footsteps and develop the precious enlightened mind just as they did.

There are two aspects to the actual training in bodhichitta: the relative and the absolute. Relative bodhichitta is the determination to follow the bodhisattva path. Once we have generated this aspiration we should train in it and put it into action, for:

If, among all the paths to the ultimate goal,
You tread this one and open
The treasury of the twofold aim,
What other witness will you need?

If you “open the treasury of the twofold aim” it will indubitably fulfill both your own aspirations as well as the aspirations of others. To generate such a wish you should receive the transmission of the bodhisattva vows. The two main traditions for this are the “vast” and the “profound.” The profound tradition came through the great Nagarjuna and the vast through Asanga. In both traditions however one vows to not only generate the thought of bodhichitta, but also to put it into practice at all times. Just like undertaking any endeavor, first one forms the resolve and then one sets about actually accomplishing the task. When taking the bodhisattva vows one should learn all the precepts, both general and specific, and begin to honestly put them into practice.

Consider the difference between the buddhas,
Who accomplish the benefit for others,
And we ordinary beings whose goal is our own benefit.
Even at the cost of your life, don’t give up bodhichitta.

The benefits of bodhichitta can clearly be seen in the difference between those who have developed it and those who have not. Those who became buddhas put others before themselves, giving more importance to others’ needs. This is the secret to their success on the path to enlightenment. We however are mainly concerned with our own self-centered motivations and obsessed with all that happens to us personally. Our main preoccupation is securing our own welfare, usually at others’ expense. We expect that by taking care of ourselves we will be content but such is not the case, we still swing erratically between happiness and suffering.

Since bodhichitta is the very root
Of the ocean-like activity of the bodhisattvas,
Know it to be the crux of all trainings,
The root of the Mahayana path.

If you have bodhichitta, you will go on the right path;
All that you do, even neutral actions,
Will turn into virtue
And you will never stray from the path of total liberation.

Neutral actions such as washing clothes or going up stairs are normally done without associating any spiritual practice to them. But if our altruistic aim is to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment, and bodhichitta, having become second nature, pervades all our thoughts and activities, then whatever we do will be pervaded and filled with that altruistic goal. Bodhichitta gives value to every single aspect of one’s life; even the most insignificant, ordinary action will contribute to the greater good and one “will never stray from the path of total liberation.” Everything one does, says or thinks will contribute to achieving one’s goal and become one step further along the path.

Without bodhichitta, whatever you do
Will keep you on the lesser path;
Even your virtuous deeds will perpetuate samsara,
Not to speak of neutral and other deeds.
Whatever you do, it will all be suffering.

Our actions are not intrinsically “good” or “bad;” it is our motivation that makes them so. You should constantly question whether your motivation is altruistic or meant to cause further suffering. Do not simply look at how your actions and those of others appear, but consider what is really behind them. If you have bodhichitta, whatever you do will turn out positive; while “without bodhichitta, whatever you do, will keep you on the lesser path.” Without bodhichitta “even your virtuous deeds will perpetuate samsara.” They may look good from the outside, but if one’s motivation is not altruistic, simply behaving virtuous will not bring any real benefit to anyone.

Therefore you must examine your mind again and again
With presence, awareness, and concern.
Never think that it is a small offence
To break the minor precepts.

Only by vigilantly questioning your attitude can you know whether your motivation is self-centered or altruistic. You must be constantly aware of your motivation and the value of bodhichitta. The precepts require behaving altruistically in all that you do. Do not think that minor transgressions do not matter; for, in fact, they will result in ever more destructive consequences. You should be very careful to maintain an altruistic attitude under all circumstances and even for the minutest aspects of your life. Of course, if you give up the principle of altruistic mind, it is like giving up the universal medicine and you will never be “cured.”

Having asked the buddhas and bodhisattvas
To give you their attention,
You donned the armor of vowing to liberate all beings,
Thus gladdening gods and men.
So if you deceive them now,
What will become of all these sentient beings?

When we take bodhisattva vows requesting all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the three times and ten directions to give us their attention and witness us taking the vow, we don the armor of courage and determination to liberate all beings. Bodhichitta will make us courageous under all circumstances. Nothing brings more joy to gods and men than dedicating oneself to benefiting others. If however after having generated such an altruistic attitude, courage and determination, you do not carry through with your promise you would be deceiving not only yourself, but also an infinite number of sentient beings to whom you had dedicated your efforts. You would be abandoning them.

It has been said that through perseverance
Even bees and flies can achieve enlightenment;
Why should you, a human being,
Lack courage?

Initially you might be daunted by the immensity of the task to be accomplished—the liberation of all sentient beings. You might feel discouraged and unable to fulfill such a promise. Upon reflection, however, becoming discouraged before even starting something is really just a form of laziness: one simply does not want to make the necessary effort to accomplish the goal. The problem is not that it is impossible, but that we feel we will have put forth too much effort. It is like giving up in a race before even getting out of the starting blocks.

To counteract this inertia you should consider that with perseverance there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. It is simply a matter of determination. We can see the innumerable beings that gradually progressed from the state of animals to human beings, and eventually over a long time, with perseverance, achieved enlightenment. As even insects like “bees and flies can achieve enlightenment,” now that we are endowed with all the necessary conditions, why should we fall short of courage? As Shechen Gyaltsap says:

With familiarity,
Everything gets easier;
Repeating your efforts over and over
You must train your mind.

Among all the obscurations the true root of samsara is clinging to the notion of self. Clinging to identity is what begins the process of samsara. As Chandrakirti said:

First we cling to the notion of “I,” then to the notion of mine.
I bow to the Great Compassionate One,
Who has compassion for all those beings who because of this clinging,
Circle up and down in samsara as in a water mill.

Samsara begins by delineating something we call “the self” and grasping at it as a truly existent entity. Obviously once we have posited an “I,” then comes the other—that which is not the “I”—and we begin differentiating things, such as objects, possessions, mine and yours, etc. Thus we create the duality of samsara and its subsequent suffering. So a great compassionate one, who has achieved perfect understanding of the non-dual nature of reality, cannot but feel compassion for those who have fallen into a dualistic frame of mind.

To be continued next month

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

Continue with part five.

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