Four Point Mind Training

19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva

A reader asked for an explanation of “Exchanging of Self with Others,” the fourth component of Shantideva’s formula for generating bodhicitta mentioned in yesterday’s post. I thought I might as well discuss all four.

As I mentioned yesterday, Shantideva’s four points are found in the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, specifically in the Eighth chapter, “The Practice of Meditation,” and are said to be based on a work by Nagarjuna, Exchanging Self with Others. They are not clearly enumerated, so evidently someone organized them from the verses. How they came to be called the Four Point Mind Training and exactly what historical relationship it has with the better known Seven Point Mind Training of Atisha is not clear to me.

“Mind Training” is a rather specific sort of practice within the Tibetan tradition. It is spelled “blosbyong” and pronounced as “lojong.” Atisha ((982–1054 CE), an Indian meditation master, is credited with originating this practice, which is actually based on contemplating 59 “slogans” composed by Geshe Chekhawa (1101–1175 CE).

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Joyful Path of Good Fortune: The Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenment says that traditionally there are two methods for generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening: 1) training the mind in the sevenfold cause and effect, which was taught by the Buddha and “passed down through Maitreya to Masters such as Asanga,” and 2) training the mind in equalizing and exchanging self with others, this one also taught by the Buddha and “passed down Manjushri to Masters such as Shantideva.” These two lineages are, of course, fictional; however, the point here is that perhaps at one time this exchanging self with others was a stand-alone practice, similar to tonglen.

The Equality of Self and Others

Buddhism teaches that we are all equal. There is no one person, race of people, class or gender that is superior to any others. We are interconnected to one another through a variety of factors, such as interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), the fact that we all possess the 3 poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, that we all experience sufferings, we all want happiness, and so on.

Shantideva says,

At first, one should earnestly meditate
on the equality of oneself and others as follows:
“All equally experience suffering and happiness.
I should look after them as I do myself.

The Fault of Self Cherishing

Self-cherishing, self-centeredness, egoism, greed, etc., all stem from grasping after non-existent self existence or self-being. This is not to suggest that we should engage in self-loathing or anything like that, but rather that we ratchet down quite severely any unwholesome sense of self-importance or superiority over others.

Shantideva:

When happiness is so dear
to others and me equally,
what is so special about me
that I strive after happiness for myself alone?

The Importance of Others and Cherishing of Others

Others are just as important as we are, and since we are all interdependent, our welfare and that of others is inextricably linked together. We should also bear in mind the many benefits derived from cherishing others, benefits that enrich the quality of our own lives.

Shantideva:

Acknowledging the faults of cherishing oneself
and seeing others as oceans of virtues,
one should renounce self-cherishing
and become acquainted with cherishing others.

The Exchange of Self with others

This reverses the tendency toward self-cherishing. “Exchanging self with others” is a tool for really engraving bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, in our mind. In this way, when we see the sufferings of others, it becomes as intolerable and agonizing as though they were our own sufferings.

Shantideva:

One who fails to exchange his own happiness
for the sufferings of others will find it impossible to attain Buddhahood.
How then could there even be happiness
in the cycle of birth and death?

Placing your own identity in others
and placing the identity of others in your own self,
imagining envy and pride with a mind
free of discursive thoughts.

Lama Thubten Yeshe explains,

Exchanging oneself with others . . . means that you exchange the mind which cherishes oneself and ignores others with the mind which cherishes others and ignores oneself. You need to meditate on this again and again, continuously, and in this way train your mind in exchanging yourself with others.

The fourfold mind training is a rather long and involved meditative process, which is too much to detail here. But as far as “exchanging self with others” is concerned, this is very similar (some say identical) to the Tibetan practice of tonglen, “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.” Briefly, in this meditation, you visualize taking into your own body the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath you send out happiness and warm thoughts of loving-kindness. This is usually done by visualizing the sufferings you take in as black smoke, and the happiness you send out as white light, which you visualize as expanding until it fills the entire universe.

Shantideva:

Countless eons have passed
while you sought your own well-being.
This great effort of yours
has only resulted in suffering.

At my request, exert yourself
in this way right now without hesitation.
Later you will see the virtue of this,
for the words of the Sage are true.

This current state, without happiness,
success or Buddhahood,
would not have occurred
had you done this before.

Therefore, just as you formed
the sense of ‘I’ with regard to
the drops of blood and semen of others,
so accustom yourself with others.

Seeing as the other person,
remove from this body
everything that is useful to it,
and use it to benefit others.

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We Need Inspiration

I finally saw Invictus last night. Clint Eastwood’s film about Nelson Mandela and how South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I thought it was good.  Much of what makes the film work is Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela. I was moved by nearly every scene he was in. I have no idea how much dramatic license was taken with the events, but I felt as though I had a window into the soul of a great man.

The film is also about inspiration. Invictus means “unconquered” and is the title of a famous Victorian poem that inspired Mandela during his 27 years in prison. After becoming president of South Africa, Mandela wisely saw that his country was in desperate need of inspiration. After attending a game of the Springboks, the country’s rugby team, he thought that if the team could win the Rugby World Cup (in one year’s time), it would help unite the country and South Africans would be inspired “to be better than they think they can be.”

We all need inspiration. Some of the best sources of inspiration come from things that on the surface would seem to be rather trivial, like sports. Most of us are all for inspiration when it is the creative kind. When it comes to inspirational words or stories, however, sometimes I think we are too jaded or think ourselves too sophisticated to be able to appreciate these small gems of wisdom. Often, we’ll look down our noses at inspirational quotes, for example, and dismiss them as just some feel-good fluff.

Here’s an  inspirational quote that’s a perfect example of what I mean:

Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

True, but sounds pretty hokey, right? Maybe that isn’t the right word, because it’s not really sentimental, although it may be a bit corny, like one of those phony Buddha quotes. Only this is a line spoken by Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Maybe it’s something he actually said, I don’t know. I think it ceases to sound hokey when put in the context of another quote from the film, spoken by a character reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s spirit: “I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.” For me, that raises it to another level.

Quotes like that one, and mottos, maxims, sayings, proverbs, etc. distill great wisdom in a few words. They convey sometimes complicated truths simply. That’s the part that catches us up. Because they are simple, they can be easily dismissed.

Nearly every successful businessperson I have ever met, particularly in sales, has had some simple motto or inspirational quote that they lived by. When you try to look past the surface and engrave the truth of these sayings into your life, they are no longer merely a string of words designed to make you feel good (and what’s wrong with that?), they are small bits of wisdom that serve as reminders of what we are striving for in life, and when faced with challenges they can help us keep up the momentum and not give up. It’s very easy to give up or become resigned to falling short of our own expectations.

In Tibetan Buddhism there is the practice of Lojong or “mind training” based on a set of sayings or proverbs, like inspirational quotes, concocted in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa. Here’s a few:

When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.

Be grateful to everyone.

Always maintain only a joyful mind.

Change your attitude, but remain natural.

Don’t try to be the fastest.

Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.

There’s 59 all together. But I think they left out a few. Like “Silence is golden” and “Happiness is a warm Buddha.”

These are the kind of inspirational words that some people love to poke fun at, yet a number of today’s prominent teachers promote lojong practice, including Pema Chodron, Ken McLeod, Alan Wallace, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the Dalai Lama. They’re not too proud to be hokey. What do they know that we don’t?

They know that a simple truth can be profound, and that it can be a springboard into even deeper truths, if you let it. Even the uber-cerebral Ken Wilber recognizes the profundity of simple truths. In the foreword to The Practice of Lojong, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he writes:

It is Rinpoche’s belief, which I heartily second, that not only are the secrets of Lojong an antidote to much of today’s emotional pain and suffering, they contain the very practices that can fully awaken the mind and liberate awareness. And not just in a passing, self-help kind of fashion, a “Gosh-I-feel-better” kind of way, but by striking right at the heart of suffering itself, while simultaneously pointing to the enlightened or fully liberated mind.

Lojong practice requires seeing these little mottos differently.

So, to wrap this thing up, the next time you are tempted to look down upon someone’s inspiration quote, inwardly smirk at some proverb, or criticize someone for using them, think twice. Maybe they’re on to something you haven’t figured out yet. Maybe they’re the smarties.

We need inspiration. It’s hard enough to come by, so I don’t think it’s such a good idea to just dismiss inspiration out of hand because it’s too cute, comes from a source we think is silly, or doesn’t measure up to our standards. The inspirational words that might be too sweet for your tea, may be a lifeline to someone else, and to you, too, once you get past your preferences and prejudices.

Always keep in mind these inspirational words from the immortal Chinese detective, Charlie Chan:

Any powder that kills flea is good powder.

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