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

The Enemy—Ego-Clinging

Although I have not done him the slightest harm,
My enemy, ego-clinging,
Has entrenched itself in my heart since beginningless time
And confined me to the appalling prison of existence.

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?

Though it may not be the most sensible response, when someone harms our belongings, relatives or us, we consider them an enemy and want to retaliate. Likewise, when we have done someone else harm, an adversarial relationship is likely to develop. Yet, though we have done nothing to harm the ego, it has been causing us continual harm since beginningless time.

Ego-clinging is a unique kind of enemy. For example, there are many ways that we can try to change our relationship with a normal adversary. Not only can we destroy them, but we can also win them over and make them into a friend. We can resolve the situation through dialogue. We can offer presents, come to a compromise and they will probably cease to harm us. Naturally things also change with time; someone who was once your enemy can become your friend and someone who has always been your friend can become your enemy. A normal enemy however cannot continually attack twenty-four hours a day, if only because they must sleep.

Ego-clinging, on the other hand, is unrelenting nor can we make it into a friend or convince it to stop harming us. We can offer it no presents either; we cannot seduce, bribe or come to fair terms with it. Ego-clinging will never give us respite. It attacks us twenty-four hours a day; it always has and will continue to do so. Enemies usually stay outside our immediate circle of friends, so we can avoid them or protect ourselves by putting ourselves out of harm's way; but ego-clinging is at the very heart of our being, within our mind. Although ego-clinging has consistently harmed us, we have never turned it away. The only way to deal with it is to utterly annihilate it.

It has inflicted hundreds of tortures upon me;
Yet, instead of resenting it,
I have put my trust in it and fallen under its power.
Is there any catastrophe, any delusion
Worse than this?

There are three ways to get rid of this enemy of ego-clinging. The first is to attack the notion of self and the afflicting mental states it engenders; the second is to transform these destructive emotions through mindfulness and awareness; and the third is to look at the actual nature of these emotions, so that they can be used on the path.

Misplaced patience is contemptible.
Taking the Three Jewels as my support,
Mounting the horse of irrevocable renunciation,
Donning the armor of the four boundless ones
And rallying the armies of the six paramitas,
Today, with the sharp weapons of emptiness and compassion,
I shall slay my foe!

The first method, subduing the afflictive mental states by attacking them, is described by the metaphor of people going to war because they can no longer tolerate their enemy. Similarly, in the case of ego clinging, it is time to take action. To attack the enemy, first you need allies and, of course, your strongest allies are the Three Jewels: the Buddha as the guide, the Dharma as the path and the Sangha as your fellow warriors. If you trust these three allies, you will be invincible.

To go into battle you will also need the strong "horse of irrevocable renunciation." Renunciation is the profound wish to escape samsara and leave it behind forever. You will also need armor to protect you from weapons and shield you from the enemy of negative emotions. The finest armor is the four boundless meditations: boundless loving kindness, the wish that all sentient beings may have happiness and the causes of happiness; boundless compassion, the wish that all sentient beings may be free of suffering and the causes of suffering; boundless joy, the wish that any happiness sentient beings may already have will increase further and further; and boundless equanimity, the aim to apply the first three meditations equally and impartially to both friends and enemies.

Your troops will be the six paramitas (transcendent perfections). Each of the paramitas is trained to defeat a particular enemy: generosity will defeat miserliness, discipline -- erratic conduct, patience—anger, diligence—aziness, concentration—distraction, and wisdom will defeat ignorance and confusion. These troops must also have weapons and the sharpest of all weapons is emptiness imbued with compassion. Armed and confident you will surely slay your foe.

If I do not destroy ego-clinging,
It will continue to generate the endless torments
Of the hell "Without Respite" and others.
What sane being would fail to take action?

Though the risk is great, you must win this battle. For if you fail to destroy ego-clinging, it will "continue to generate the never-ending torments" of the hell realms. If you do not win the battle you will suffer endlessly in samsara. It is completely mindless to ignore the danger, which is so apparent every day of our lives.

Examine where the nature of the "self"
Remains and goes to;
You discover that it does not possess the slightest shred of existence.
It is an enemy, which, once subdued,
Will never rise again.

Since this notion of self has been with you for such a long time, it is about time you began to analyze it. But upon investigating this, you find that the self is just a concept in your mind. But where does it come from? Does it come from somewhere? And now that it is present in your mind, where does it dwell? When it leaves, does it go somewhere? When a past thought has gone and the future thought has not yet occurred, can it dwell between two things that do not exist? How can the present thought of a self exist as something?

In the past, the sublime heroic bodhisattvas
Achieved bliss by conquering this very enemy.
Knowing the risks and benefits that are at stake,
One who does not let this enemy escape
Is the wisest of the wise,
The bravest of the brave.
Who can equal such a one?

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.

To defeat the enemy of ego-clinging you must realize, not just intellectually but in actuality, that it does not truly exist. Your physical enemies can regroup after defeat and attack you, but this is a different kind of battle. Once you have realized that the self never truly existed in the first place, it will never rise again. The great bodhisattvas of the past, who attained bliss by dissolving this grasping to the notion of self, are proof of this. If you can walk in their footsteps and do it yourself, you have won the ultimate battle against ignorance and suffering.

Defeating the Enemy

The wise victorious ones
Expounded eighty-four thousand teachings
To subdue ego-clinging,
Tailored to the faculties of every being to be taught.

All are for the single purpose of taming self-clinging.
Depending on the level of one's intelligence,
The obscuring emotions can be eradicated, transformed or utilized.
Yet, in essence the root of all these
Is the supreme training: bodhichitta.

There are three ways to deal with the conflicting emotions and ego-clinging: eradicating, transforming and utilizing them. You should use whichever method is most effective for you personally, depending on your own nature and capacities. The safest method is to discard them by using direct antidotes for each afflictive emotion. Such a method works for everyone. Practitioners with some experience can transform their emotions rather than counteract them with antidotes. While those with higher acumen and prowess can actually use the afflictive emotions as the path. But remember, in each case the goal is always the same: to get rid of ego-clinging.

How is one to practice?
Not allowing free rein to ordinary thoughts
Which fabricate samsara,
Master them with mindfulness.
Recollect all your past anger
And completely crush it with the army of the antidotes:
This is giving up the obscuring emotions.

We have never achieved a sense of inner calm. We have been constantly disturbed and upset by our thoughts and mental fabrications. Like strong winds in a storm they have scattered our attention. Like thick clouds on a dark night, they have obscured our true nature. We are tormented day and night. None of our thoughts have brought us peace, but only ensnared us in further suffering; so some other method appears to be necessary.

The first method Shechen Gyaltsap recommends is to use an antidote. To do this, the emotions should be directly counteracted as soon as they arise. Usually the mind is invaded by various emotions, like desire, anger, etc.; until now we have just let them take over and perpetuate samsara. Allowing "free rein" to our thoughts, we let them build up force. So the first thing we need to do is to study our enemies and discover how they operate. Just as you would do with your ordinary enemies, you should bring to mind all the harm that they have dealt you in the past, so that it shall give rise to anger. This will lead you to go out and defeat them. You should try, with mindfulness, to be aware of all these negative thoughts, develop some discomfort about them and gather the proper antidotes as listed above. That is how to get rid of negative mental factors by eradicating them.

Then, to completely purify the entire field of your action,
Like turning iron into gold,
With relative bodhichitta, transform the three objects, the three poisons and the three root merits.

Secondly, those of average capability should transform emotions as they arise. If we are able to generate bodhichitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment, we can apply this to all kinds of afflicting emotions. When a strong sense of anger arises, we should identify it with our mindfulness and think, "Now that I am experiencing this animosity, which has caused me a lot of suffering in the past, may the animosity of all sentient beings be purified through my experience." In exactly the same way when a strong desire arises you can transform it.

Usually, thoughts follow one upon another without intermission. When we playfully throw a stone for a dog, the dog will chase after it every time. But if we were to do the same with a lion, he wouldn't go after the stone but would turn back and look at the one who threw it. Then we'd be really scared and wouldn't throw any more stones! In the same way, we usually chase after our thoughts like a dog. One gives birth to two, and two to three, and soon they multiply and completely invade our mind. But if we instead look at the source of the thoughts like the lion, we see that they arise from the absolute nature of mind, and so when one thought comes, it just dissolves into that, and doesn't multiply or proliferate. Without clinging, whatever arises is naturally freed.

The "three objects" are the concepts of an actor, the object of the action and the action itself. The "three poisons" are hatred; desire and mental confusion and the "three root merits" are ordinary merits tainted with afflictive mental factors, those that are free from such afflictions and undetermined merits.

Finally, practicing absolute bodhichitta,
Realize that whatever arises is the display of dharmakaya,
The primordial nature, unbroken simplicity.
Without clinging, whatever arises is naturally freed.
In the great equal taste without rejecting or accepting,
Continue on.

The meaning, the primordial indivisibility of wisdom and skilful means,
Emptiness with compassion as its very essence,
Must be carried onto the path.

The third method, utilizing, uses what is called "great equal taste." If we have equal taste we do not need to accept or reject anything. If we know how to liberate thoughts by recognizing their true nature as they arise, then there is no need to reject each thought with a specific antidote. As we would no longer be slaves to thoughts, we would not have to reject them, but could simply carry on the practice, come what may. This is what primordially indivisible wisdom of emptiness, intrinsic awareness, and seeing everything as a dream or illusion all mean.

We must employ the skilful means of emptiness and compassion, so that whatever occurs can be utilized, without employing an antidote or transforming it. The goal is to reach a realization where we can unite the wisdom of emptiness with the spontaneously present skilful means of compassion. That's why we say "emptiness with compassion as its very essence." This is what we must carry on to the path and practice our whole life.

However, to gradually gain steadiness of mind,
Beginners must first practice relative bodhichitta.

An effective method for developing relative bodhichitta is to first consider others as equal to you, then put yourself in others' place and vice versa. When you have developed sufficient strength and courage then put the happiness of others above your own.

To do this, know that all sentient beings have been your mother,
Ponder their kindness and think of a way to repay it,

Another way to cultivate relative bodhichitta is to perceive all sentient beings as your own mother. By doing so, it is easier to recognize our profound interdependence. Through countless existences we have been related to each and every being and so not a single one has not been our own mother at one time or another. Just as you owe a great debt of gratitude to your present mother, you should have the same gratitude and respect for all sentient beings, no matter what your current relationship with them is.

Next, regardless of how you may now view her, try to acknowledge the generosity of your present mother. She invested so much kindness and patience in this tiny stranger she carried in her stomach for nine months! It was very kind of her to nurture you for so long, to give you life. The mere fact that you are alive is due to your mother; it is an inescapable fact—you can at least rejoice in that. Of course, she did much more: she fed you, clothed you, cared for you, loved you and taught you how to survive in the world. You should then extend this gratitude to all sentient beings without limits, as they deserve the same recognition.

Even the wildest animal will take care of her baby in a similar manner, therefore it makes sense to think first about the care and love that your own mother showed you, and then, expand it further until perceiving your connection with all beings. There is no reason to limit your compassion. If you are acutely aware of your personal connection to all other beings through many lifetimes, then naturally this vast sense of interdependence will make your practice of loving kindness universal.

When someone has been very kind to us, we feel grateful and want to repay them; the best way to do this is to:

Develop gentle love and the rest of the four boundless qualities,
Especially the miraculous great compassion.

Meditating stage by stage upon the objects
Towards which these four arise very easily,
Relatively easily and with difficulty,
Train yourself in these four immeasurables through various methods.

Since one cannot make absolute judgments,
You and all beings are equal in wanting happiness,
You and all beings are equal in wanting to avoid suffering.

It is best to begin with someone very close to you, who has shown you great affection and for whom you can easily feel great compassion, and then to expand upon your feeling of loving kindness. It is much more difficult to feel love and compassion for people we do not know or like, so we have to develop such feelings step-by-step.

First arouse feelings of tenderness and loving kindness for those close to you, and then let those feelings become more vivid and present in your mind. Over time these feelings will grow, until overflowing to complete strangers. Once you have mastered that, then you will be able to extend these feelings to people you may feel animosity towards. Why exclude anyone? Being your enemy is not an intrinsic quality of anyone. Someone who was once a friend can become an enemy and someone who was once an enemy can become a friend. In fact, someone you may have thought to be your enemy for this entire lifetime might have been your best friend or close relative in a past life. So, how can we ascribe such notions as "enemy" or "friend" to anyone when the situation is constantly changing? If the aim of loving-kindness is for all beings to find happiness, no one should be excluded. We should wish everyone happiness.

You must persevere in this practice, repeating it again and again, step-by-step, for each of "the four boundless qualities:" loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Beginning with whichever quality arises most naturally in your mind, again start with those people you care most about and then expand it to those you think of as more difficult, a multitude of strangers or even enemies. Feeling love and compassion for your enemies is difficult, but there are many ways to change your attitude. First remember that everyone, friend and enemy alike, strive for happiness and want to avoid suffering. When you see people busy with their daily affairs, you should recognize that it all stems from a striving to find fulfillment or happiness in life. No one goes to all this trouble just to suffer! If you can understand that your enemies want exactly the same happiness as you do, that they are only temporarily enemies due to various causes and circumstances, then you can also acknowledge that those circumstances may change. If others have a negative attitude towards you, even if they wrongly harm you out of ignorance, it should not prevent you from wishing them their own happiness. If you comprehend that all sentient beings have this same wish, and accept that they have exactly the same rights to happiness as you do, you can then approach them with a sense of equality and realize that there is no reason why your happiness should come before anyone else's. If you continue practicing with this in mind, then it is only a matter of time before you will be able to put yourself in another's place.

Once you have opened your eyes to the equality of all sentient beings and erased the line dividing them from you, sacrificing others' happiness for your own is out of the question. For example, if one of your fingers becomes infected and needs to be amputated, it does not make sense to cling to that one finger at the risk of losing your whole hand. But then why are people so doubtful when it comes to themselves and others? In the case of one's hand, one distinctly feels the sense of interdependence and unity; one sees the hand as a whole and understands that a part is less important than the whole itself: the barrier of self-centredness has been broken. When we can genuinely feel the same equality toward others, it will become much easier to put their needs ahead of our own.

In order to develop this sense of equality, you should skillfully train in developing the four boundless attitudes. You must however be careful not to stray. For example, when you focus on loving kindness, it might drift towards grasping and attachment. If this happens you should shift to compassion and focus on the intense suffering of all sentient beings. But then so much suffering might overwhelm you, creating a sense of powerlessness and making you depressed. If that happens you should look at others' happiness or good qualities and rejoice in them. You should wish that their happiness may increase even further, and that all unhappiness and despair be dispelled. But then you may get carried away by rejoicing and happiness, and develop an unrealistic assessment of the true condition of beings. Then it is time to switch to equanimity, or impartiality, by developing a feeling of love and compassion for all. So by shifting from one quality to another you will progress without becoming trapped in deviations of any kind.

In order to become used to caring for others more than yourself,
You should bring to mind the essential points and integrate in your being
The visualizations for exchanging self and others,
While riding the horse of the breath.

To help instill the four boundless qualities in our very nature, there is a wondrous method of exchanging one's self for others using a breathing technique. Nothing is more natural and constant than breathing. As long as we are alive we breathe. So connecting the practice to your breath is a powerful way to make it constant in your mind.

In this particular case, when you breathe out, think, "May all of my good qualities, happiness, merit and realization go out with my breath and benefit all beings." When you breathe in imagine that you inhale all of their suffering and its causes, their negative thoughts, etc. attracting it all like a magnet. Then while briefly holding your breath transform all this suffering and negativity into joy and happiness. By repeating this again and again, it will become natural to wish others happiness and to take their suffering upon yourself. Maintaining this in all circumstances is a very powerful means of developing the four boundless qualities.

Do not count this practice,
Nor measure it in terms of days, months, or years.
Ask whether true experience has been born within or not,
And be sincere in making bodhichitta an all-embracing,
Profound, integral part of yourself.

We are not trying to accumulate numbers as if paying taxes, nor merely practicing this for a few months or years before moving on to something else and forgetting all about it. It is not like studying for a certificate. Instead, we are trying to achieve a true experience by repetition, familiarization, cultivation and meditation.

True experience is not limited to our formal meditation sessions, when we feel great about developing compassion and are even able to love our enemies. If anything upsets you when you get up from the cushion and you are just as angry and impatient as before you started meditating, then you know you still have work to do. You must get to a point where there is no longer any difference between your meditation and your daily life. Compassion and bodhichitta must become second nature. You should strive to be like an accomplished horse rider who even when the horse is galloping at full speed and leaping over obstacles is able to maintain his balance without thinking. He will never fall. If you can be like this in your meditations on the four boundless qualities, then they will have become second nature.

In order to weaken whatever contradicts this practice
And to strengthen whatever assists it,
You should, to the utmost of your ability,
Purify your obscurations, perfect the accumulations,
And pray repeatedly to the guru and the Three Jewels,
Putting all your hopes in them.

We often encounter hindrances when trying to develop good qualities. Our own attitudes and habits often contradict our practice, and need to be overcome. To strengthen our practice and quicken our journey we can use skilful means to transform even ordinary activities into opportunities for developing bodhichitta. Whenever you make offerings, prostrate, perform circumambulations, recite mantras or the like, rather than using such practices solely for your own limited selfish purposes, you should apply the benefits of these positive practices for a much vaster goal. You should always dedicate the merit with such thoughts as, "May I dedicate this practice for the benefit of others. May all beings develop bodhichitta, the vast enlightened mind." In this way, all of your actions are put into a much broader perspective.

In order to progress you need to have confidence in those who are worthy of confidence. You must put your trust not in ordinary confused people but in those who have already developed the qualities you are seeking. This is why one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Buddha symbolizes enlightenment, the Dharma is his teachings and the Sangha is the community of all those who follow in his footsteps. In addition, it is important to perceive one's own guru as a buddha in person.

When your own happiness increases,
Or when you simply have desire for it,
You must understand that virtuous deeds lead to happiness.

Therefore at all times gather your energy
And generously dedicate it to all sentient beings,
Praying that your happiness and virtuous deeds
May nurture all beings.

You should not think only of yourself, fulfilling your own immediate wishes or needs. A true aspiration should nourish you in all circumstances, whether difficult or pleasant. Your confidence should be so strong that you can accept both life and death with equanimity. All that you do and experience, all your happiness and suffering, should lead to the development of bodhichitta with the help of the Three Jewels.

Happiness and suffering are not gifts or curses that just fall upon us, but simply the manifestations of the law of cause and effect. Virtue and non-virtue are the causes of happiness and suffering not because actions are inherently good or bad, but due to how they affect us. In a nutshell, virtue is that which brings about happiness and non-virtue is that which brings about suffering.

When you experience happiness, you should think about how it came about, instead of feeling arrogant and getting carried away by it. You should rejoice that it has come about as a result of the accumulation of virtuous deeds. Instead of being complacent, you should further your understanding. If the opposite comes about then you should know that suffering is purely a result of your own actions. When enjoying happiness, you should dedicate it to all sentient beings, wishing that whatever you have gained from virtuous actions will help nurture and serve all beings.

When you see others acting virtuously,
Rejoice from your heart
Without animosity or jealousy,
And pray that everyone may act likewise.

When seeing others enjoying happiness, engaging in spiritual practice, performing acts of generosity or other virtuous deeds, you can react in two ways: you can rejoice or be disturbed by it. Accordingly, it will either turn into a simple and easy way to partake of virtue or to accumulate more non-virtue. If you fully rejoice and appreciate what another has been doing, then suddenly with very little effort, you share in the vast merit they have been engaging in. If, on the other hand, you are jealous of or upset by another's happiness, you are merely creating negative feelings and the seeds for further suffering. Therefore it is very important to appreciate the happiness and virtue of others.

To be continued next month

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

Continue with part six.

back to Teachings

Translated by Ani Jinba Palmo.

back to Teachings