The Homelessness of Thoughts

Some years ago while participating in a campaign to raise funds for homeless people around the world, the Dalai Lama said, “On some level, I am also homeless.”

He was referring to the fact that since 1959 he has been exiled from his home, but the statement can be taken another way because on some level, we are all homeless.

07192016The Buddha and his followers were part of the Indian tradition of parivrajakas, or “homeless ones,” men who had “gone forth” from householder life.  To use an old ’60s expression, they had “dropped out,” rejecting not only homes, but kinship, class, and even their clothes, casting aside usual garments for old clothes and rags.

The bhikkhu’s homelessness, however, is symbolic of a greater homelessness, that of life itself.  As everything in this world will eventfully decay and disappear, there is no real home for anything in this life, no permanent place for anything or anyone to stand. According to the Buddha, the same applies to thoughts

In the Ratnacuda Sutra, the Buddha says,

Thought is formless, unseen, not solid, unknowable, unstable, homeless.  Thought was never seen by any of the Buddhas.  They do not see it, they will not see it; and what has never been seen by the Buddhas, what they do not see and will never see, what kind of a process can that have, unless things exist by a false conception?  Thought is like illusion, and by forming what is not comprehends all sorts of events. . . .”

Wandering through realms of consciousness like a refugee, thought looks for a home.  Thought thinks that perhaps by clinging to this or to that, it can find one.  Thought forms attachments with name and form, with concepts such as “is” and “is not,” “self” and “other,” “me” and “mine,” and with emotions like envy, pride, and desire.  Thought forms these attachments in hopes of finding a home.  Thought wants to own a home.

However, ownership has its burden.  It is easy to become a slave to things owned, and a passage from another sutra encourages us to strive to become the master of our mind, rather than let our mind master us. Moreover, since nothing can last, ownership is really an illusion.  There is nothing to be owned.

And nothing that is unreal can be a home, so in this way, there is no way to avoid being homeless.

To put an end to thought’s endless search for a home, we train our mind.  We train ourselves to think differently. This is one of the chief benefits of meditation, the way mindfulness helps us bring the mind into contentment and cease its relentless searching for itself.  Through practice, we discover the true nature of thought:

During his meditation, a [practitioner] will find that not even one of the thoughts arising in the mind stays for an instant . . . [He or she] will find that the past mind has gone, the present mind does not stay, and the future mind has not yet come. [The practitioner] will discover that it cannot be found anywhere after an exhaustive search of it in the three times. As it cannot be found, it follows that it is non-existent and that all things (dharma) are so as well.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i

We, and our thoughts, are homeless because we are searching for a home that doesn’t exist, a home that we can never own.  But when we let go of that, we realize that we’ve always been home, that home is all around us.  We might call it “abiding in the home of no-home.” When we open the front door and step in, we are home in the homelessness of Buddha-dharma.

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This is an edited version of a post published in 2012.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.