2 H.H. Dalai Lama: “The Eight Verses of Thought Transformation”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: We ourselves want happiness and do not want suffering and can see that all other beings feel the same. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: We ourselves want happiness and do not want suffering and can see that all other beings feel the same.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

No matter who we are with, we often think things like, “I am stronger than him,” “I am more beautiful than her,” “I am more intelligent,” “I am wealthier,” “I am much better qualified” and so forth—we generate much pride. This is not good. Instead, we should always remain humble. Even when we are helping others and are engaged in charity work we should not regard ourselves in a haughty way as great protectors benefiting the weak. This, too, is pride. Rather, we should engage in such activities very humbly and think that we are offering our services up to the people.

When we compare ourselves with animals, for instance, we might think, “I have a human body” or “I’m an ordained person” and feel much higher than them. From one point of view we can say that we have human bodies and are practicing the Buddha’s teachings and are thus much better than insects. But from another, we can say that insects are very innocent and free from guile, whereas we often lie and misrepresent ourselves in devious ways in order to achieve our ends or better ourselves. From this point of view we have to say that we are much worse than insects, which just go about their business without pretending to be anything. This is one method of training in humility.

3. Vigilant, the moment a delusion appears in my mind, endangering myself and others, I shall confront and avert it without delay.

If we investigate our minds at times when we are very selfish and preoccupied with ourselves to the exclusion of others, we shall find that the disturbing negative minds are the root of this behavior. Since they greatly disturb our minds, the moment we notice that we are coming under their influence, we should apply some antidote to them. The general opponent to all the disturbing negative minds is meditation on emptiness, but there are also antidotes to specific ones that we, as beginners, can apply. Thus, for attachment, we meditate on ugliness; for anger, on love; for closed-minded ignorance, on dependent arising; for many disturbing thoughts, on the breath and energy winds.

Q. Which dependent arising?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The twelve links of dependent arising, or interdependent origination. They start from ignorance and go through to aging and death.2 On a more subtle level you can use dependent arising as a cause for establishing that things are empty of true existence.

Q. Why should we meditate on ugliness to overcome attachment?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We develop attachment to things because we see them as very attractive. Trying to view them as unattractive, or ugly, counteracts that. For example, we might develop attachment to another person’s body, seeing his or her figure as something very attractive. When you start to analyze this attachment you find that it is based on viewing merely the skin. However, the nature of this body that appears to us as beautiful is that of the flesh, blood, bones, skin and so forth, of which it is composed. Now let’s analyze human skin: take your own, for example. If a piece of it comes off and you put it on your shelf for a few days it becomes really repulsive. This is the nature of skin. All parts of the body are the same. There is no beauty in a piece of human flesh; when you see blood you might feel afraid, not attached. Even a beautiful face: if it gets scratched there is nothing nice about it; wash off the paint—there is nothing left! Ugliness is the nature of the physical body. Human bones, the skeleton, are also repulsive; a skull-and-crossed-bones has a very negative connotation.

So that is the way to analyze something towards which you feel attachment, or love—using this word in the negative sense of desirous attachment. Think more of the object’s ugly side; analyze the nature of the person or thing from that point of view. Even if this does not control your attachment completely, at least it will help subdue it a little. This is the purpose of meditating on or building up the habit of looking at the ugly aspect of things.

The other kind of love, or kindness, is not based on the reasoning that “such and such a person is beautiful, therefore, I shall show respect and kindness.” The basis for pure love is, “This is a living being that wants happiness, does not want suffering and has the right to be happy. Therefore, I should feel love and compassion.” This kind of love is entirely different from the first, which is based on ignorance and therefore totally unsound. The reasons for loving-kindness are sound. With the love that is simply attachment, the slightest change in the object, such as a tiny change of attitude, immediately causes you to change. This is because your emotion is based on something very superficial. Take, for example, a new marriage. Often after a few weeks, months or years the couple become enemies and finish up getting divorced. They married deeply in love—nobody chooses to marry with hatred—but after a short time everything changed. Why? Because of the superficial basis of the relationship; a small change in one person causes a complete change of attitude in the other.

We should think, “The other person is a human being like me. Certainly I want happiness; therefore, she must want happiness, too. As a sentient being I have the right to happiness; for the same reason she, too, has the right to happiness.” This kind of sound reasoning gives rise to pure love and compassion. Then no matter how our view of that person changes—from good to bad to ugly—she is basically the same sentient being. Thus, since the main reason for showing loving-kindness is always there, our feelings towards the other are perfectly stable.

The antidote to anger is meditation on love, because anger is a very rough, coarse mind that needs to be softened with love.

When we enjoy the objects to which we are attached, we do experience a certain pleasure but, as Nagarjuna has said, it is like having an itch and scratching it; it gives us some pleasure but we would be far better off if we did not have the itch in the first place.3 Similarly, when we get the things with which we are obsessed we feel happy, but we’d be far better off if we were free from the attachment that causes us to become obsessed with things.

4. Whenever I see beings that are wicked in nature4 and overwhelmed by violent negative actions and suffering, I shall hold such rare ones dear, as if I had found a precious treasure.

If we run into somebody who is by nature very cruel, rough, nasty and unpleasant, our usual reaction is to avoid him. In such situations our loving concern for others is liable to decrease. Instead of allowing our love for others to weaken by thinking what an evil person he is, we should see him as a special object of love and compassion and cherish that person as though we had come across a precious treasure, difficult to find.

5. When, out of envy, others mistreat me with abuse, insults or the like, I shall accept defeat and offer the victory to others.

If somebody insults, abuses or criticizes us, saying that we are incompetent and don’t know how to do anything and so forth, we are likely to get very angry and contradict what the person has said. We should not react in this way; instead, with humility and tolerance, we should accept what has been said.

Where it says that we should accept defeat and offer the victory to others, we have to differentiate two kinds of situation. If, on the one hand, we are obsessed with our own welfare and very selfishly motivated, we should accept defeat and offer victory to the other, even if our life is at stake. But if, on the other hand, the situation is such that the welfare of others is at stake, we have to work very hard and fight for the rights of others, and not accept the loss at all.

One of the forty-six secondary vows of a bodhisattva refers to a situation in which somebody is doing something very harmful and you have to use forceful methods or whatever else is necessary to stop that person’s actions immediately—if you don’t, you have transgressed that commitment.5 It might appear that this bodhisattva vow and the fifth stanza, which says that one must accept defeat and give the victory to the other, are contradictory but they are not. The bodhisattva precept deals with a situation in which one’s prime concern is the welfare of others: if somebody is doing something extremely harmful and dangerous it is wrong not to take strong measures to stop it if necessary.

Nowadays, in very competitive societies, strong defensive or similar actions are often required. The motivation for these should not be selfish concern but extensive feelings of kindness and compassion towards others. If we act out of such feelings to save others from creating negative karma this is entirely correct.

Q. It may sometimes be necessary to take strong action when we see something wrong, but whose judgment do we trust for such decisions? Can we rely on our own perception of the world?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. That’s complicated. When you consider taking the loss upon yourself you have to see whether giving the victory to the others is going to benefit them ultimately or only temporarily. You also have to consider the effect that taking the loss upon yourself will have on your power or ability to help others in the future. It is also possible that by doing something that is harmful to others now you create a great deal of merit that will enable you to do things vastly beneficial for others in the long run; this is another factor you have to take into account.

As it says in the Bodhicaryavatara, you have to examine, both superficially and deeply, whether the benefits of doing a prohibited action outweigh the shortcomings. At times when it is difficult to tell, you should check your motivation. In the Shiksa-Samuccaya, Shantideva says that the benefits of an action done with bodhicitta outweigh the negativities of doing it without such motivation. Although it is extremely important, it can sometimes be very difficult to see the dividing line between what to do and what not to do, therefore you should study the texts that explain about such things. In lower texts it will say that certain actions are prohibited while higher ones tell you that those same actions are allowed. The more you know about all of this the easier it will be to decide what to do in any situation.6

6. When somebody whom I have benefited and in whom I have great hopes gives me terrible harm, I shall regard that person as my holy guru.

Usually we expect people whom we have helped a great deal to be very grateful and if they react to us with ingratitude we are likely to get angry. In such situations we should not get upset but practice patience instead. Moreover, we should see such people as teachers testing our patience and therefore treat them with respect. This verse contains all the Bodhicaryavatara teachings on patience.7

7. In short, both directly and indirectly, I offer every happiness and benefit to all my mothers. I shall secretly take upon myself all their harmful actions and suffering.

This refers to the practice of taking upon ourselves all the sufferings of others and giving away to them all our happiness, motivated by strong compassion and love. We ourselves want happiness and do not want suffering and can see that all other beings feel the same. We can see, too, that other beings are overwhelmed by suffering but do not know how to get rid of it. Thus, we should generate the intention of taking on all their suffering and negative karma and pray for it to ripen upon ourselves immediately. Likewise it is obvious that other beings are devoid of the happiness they seek and do not know how to find it. Thus, without a trace of miserliness, we should offer them all our happiness—our body, wealth and merits—and pray for it to ripen on them immediately.

Of course, it is most unlikely that we shall actually be able to take on the sufferings of others and give them our happiness. When such transference between beings does occur, it is the result of some very strong unbroken karmic connection from the past. However, this meditation is a very powerful means of building up courage in our minds and is, therefore, a highly beneficial practice.

In the Seven Point Thought Transformation it says that we should alternate the practices of taking and giving and mount them on the breath.8 And here, Langri Tangpa says these should be done secretly. As it is explained in the Bodhicaryavatara, this practice does not suit the minds of beginner bodhisattvas—it is something for a select few practitioners. Therefore, it is called secret.

Q. In the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says: “…if for the sake of others I cause harm to myself, I shall acquire all that is magnificent.”9 On the other hand, Nagarjuna says that one should not mortify the body. So, in what way does Shantideva mean one should harm oneself?
His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This does not mean that you have to hit yourself on the head or something like that. Shantideva is saying that at times when strong, self-cherishing thoughts arise you have to argue very strongly with yourself and use forceful means to subdue them; in other words, you have to harm your self-cherishing mind. You have to distinguish clearly between the I that is completely obsessed with its own welfare and the I that is going to become enlightened: there is a big difference. And you have to see this verse of the Bodhicaryavatara in the context of the verses that precede and follow it. There are many different ways the I is discussed: the grasping at a true identity for the I, the self-cherishing I, the I that we join with in looking at things from the viewpoint of others and so forth. You have to see the discussion of the self in these different contexts.

If it really benefits others, if it benefits even one sentient being, it is appropriate for us to take upon ourselves the suffering of the three realms of existence or to go to one of the hells, and we should have the courage to do this. In order to reach enlightenment for the sake of sentient beings we should be happy and willing to spend countless eons in the lowest hell, Avici. This is what is meant by taking the harms that afflict others upon ourselves.