Ultimate Bodhicitta – Chapter Five: The Third Point – Transforming Adverse Circumstances into the Path
Now let’s look at the next section of the root text.
When stability has been attained, impart the secret teaching:
Stability refers to the method side.22 When we have gained stability in the practices of conventional bodhicitta our teacher can give us the highly secret teaching on ultimate bodhicitta.
Ultimate bodhicitta refers to the direct realization of emptiness, so explaining it means explaining emptiness, which here means that everything is empty of true, or inherent, existence. Nothing is truly existent; everything is empty of true existence. That is the emptiness that we must realize.
Generally speaking, all phenomena that exist can be classified as either mind, which knows objects, or objects, which are known by the mind.
The next line of the text says,
Consider all phenomena as like dreams
When external objects appear to our mind, even though they appear to be truly existent, self-existent, existing from their own side, this is not at all the case. Therefore they are likened to dreams, which also seem to be real at the time but are seen to be unreal on awakening.
Both outer and inner objects are actually empty, but still, everything appears to be truly existent. However, if something were truly existent, if it truly existed the way in which it appears, it would have to be completely independent of anything.
For example, external objects like mountains, trees and forests are simply combinations of different particles or atoms; periods of time, such as years, months, weeks and so forth, are likewise combinations of moments. Therefore, none of these things—external objects, time or anything else—is independent of its constituent particles, periods of time and other factors. To be truly existent they would have to be completely independent of everything else.
When we talk about something being truly existent that means it’s independent of everything else. But since there’s nothing like that, there’s nothing that’s truly existent. The reason that there’s nothing completely independent, or truly existent, is because everything exists in dependence upon other factors.
Take a glass of water, for example. When we think about it, of course we know that it is dependent upon this and that, such as the various causes and conditions that have gone into producing it. If, however, instead of thinking about it we examine how it looks when it first appears to us, we’ll see that it has this vivid appearance, an appearance as if it were totally independent of any causes, conditions or, indeed, anything at all. That is how the glass of water appears—truly existent; completely independent of everything else; totally self-existent (which are just different ways of saying the same thing).
If the glass of water were truly existent the way it appears to be, it would have to be completely independent, but when we think about it we know that it depends on many different factors and is therefore not truly existent, independent or self-existent—and neither is anything else we can think of. Since this applies to everything that exists, all existent phenomena are empty of true existence.
Examine the nature of unborn awareness.
This next line refers to the fact that not only its objects but also the mind itself is empty of true existence. Mind, here, refers to the six kinds of primary consciousness—visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental; all completely lack any true existence.
Where it says “unborn awareness,” awareness refers to consciousness. Consciousness itself is produced in dependence upon causes and conditions and is therefore not truly existent. That means a truly existent consciousness is not produced, so a truly existent consciousness is unborn.
You can understand this by examining its very nature of being completely empty of independent existence. This shows that it is neither truly existent nor produced by or dependent upon truly existent causes and conditions. Thus we have only to examine the nature of the six consciousnesses to understand that they’re unborn.
The remedy itself is released in its own place
This line refers to the fact that the wisdom understanding everything to be empty of true, independent or self-existence is the remedy to all of cyclic existence and everything that produces it.
Place the essence of the path on the nature of the basis of all
This means that because everything is empty of true existence, things are produced only from particular causes and conditions and come into existence depending upon specific factors. If things were not empty—in other words, if everything were truly existent—phenomena could not possibly come into being in dependence upon certain specific causes and conditions.
Moreover, because we can see and explain how each event is produced dependent upon its own specific causes and conditions, we can see that it is also impossible to assert that any event is truly existent.
Therefore, “essence of the path” refers to an understanding of the relationship between emptiness and dependent arising, the knowledge that because everything is empty, the various manifestations of dependent arising—things arising dependent upon various causes and conditions—are possible, and because such arisings occur, everything must be empty.
In the period between sessions, be a creator of illusions.
A creator of illusions is a conjuror who can make illusory objects appear due to a special arrangement of sticks and stones together with mantras and various other substances. When he makes things appear to his audience he also sees them but since he knows that he himself has simply conjured them up he knows that they’re illusory. In the same way, even when we have directly realized emptiness, when we come out of meditation, despite our knowing that nothing exists truly, everything will still appear to be truly existent. We’ll see things as truly existent but will know that in reality, they’re not; due to the force of our experience in meditation we’ll have the certainty in the post-meditation period that nothing exists truly, the way it appears.
I mentioned earlier that the self-cherishing mind completely depends upon the self-grasping mind—the consciousness that conceives or apprehends that everything is truly existent and therefore completely independent.
For example, we can figure out that a cake is not truly existent because we know it cannot be made without ingredients—fruit, butter, flour and so forth—but still, the self-grasping mind sees the cake, like everything else, to be completely truly existent and independent of any causes and conditions. This is in total conflict with the knowledge that everything exists depending upon causes and conditions and in this way, the self-grasping mind completely prevents the arising of any awareness of cause and effect, such as happiness resulting from virtue and suffering from non-virtue.
All the problems we experience in life and, indeed, all our beginningless suffering in cyclic existence, can be traced back to our self-cherishing mind and if we delve even deeper we’ll find that beneath this lies the very root of all our problems, the self-grasping mind.
Those with less experience of Buddhist teachings should try hard to understand this important point—the self-grasping mind that conceives everything as being completely independent is the support for the self-cherishing mind, which produces the various delusions that cause us to create negative actions, which, in turn, lead to our experiencing suffering in cyclic existence.
An alternative translation has
In between meditation sessions, be like a conjuror.
This refers to the period subsequent to the meditation session—how to practice in between meditation sessions—and how even though things are empty, they still appear.
An example of how everything is empty yet still appears is the way our face appears in a mirror. When we see our face in a mirror we know that there’s no actual face in the mirror even though there appears to be one there. There’s a reflection that exists there and it appears to be a face, but we know that the reflection is empty of being a real face. However, despite the fact that it is empty of real face, at the same time all the various features of a face appear.
9 Three of body (killing, stealing and sexual misconduct), four of speech (lying, slandering, speaking harshly and gossiping) and three of mind (covetousness, ill-will and wrong views).
10 Killing father, mother or an arhat, drawing blood from a buddha and creating a schism in the Sangha community. They are called immediate because those who create such actions are reborn in hell in their very next life.
11 Transforming Adversity Into Joy And Courage, pp. 167–171. This entire book, especially chapters 10–12, augments Geshe Tegchok’s thoughts on the development and practice of bodhicitta.
12 A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Chapter 8, verse 129 (p. 106, note 297).
13 Ibid. Chapter 8, verse 134 (p. 106, note 300).
14 “You say such clever things to people, but don’t apply them to yourself; People of Tingri, the faults within you are the ones to be exposed.” Dilgo Khyentse. The Hundred Verses of Advice of Padampa Sangye. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002, verse 89. [Return to text]
15 Peacock in the Poison Grove, p. 83, verse 49: “I seize the thief who ambushed and deceived me.” [Return to text]
16 Ibid. Same verse: “The hypocrite who deceived me disguised as myself.” [Return to text]
17 Op. cit. Chapter 8, verse 130: “Enough of much talk! Note the difference between the fool who seeks his own benefit and the sage who works for the benefit of others.” [Return to text]
18 See the relevant sections of Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand for details of all these.[Return to text]
19 The three upper realms are still fraught with all kinds of samsaric suffering (like the three, six and eight) but are relatively happier than the lower realms, therefore they are called “good.” [Return to text]
20 For a highly detailed description of this practice see Meditation Seven in Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Wish-Fulfilling Golden Sun on the LYWA website. [Return to text]
21 See note 6 above. [Return to text]
22 There are two streams of practice in the Mahayana: method—the development of bodhicitta—and wisdom—the development of the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. Like a bird needs two wings to fly, we need both method and wisdom to reach enlightenment. [Return to text]
Chapter Five: The Third Point – Transforming Adverse Circumstances into the Path
The text now returns to the training in conventional bodhicitta.
The general meaning of bodhicitta is the determination to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings—we want to benefit others in the highest way, we see we have to attain enlightenment in order to do so, and therefore we generate bodhicitta. However, in order to make progress on the path we have to combine our bodhicitta with the realization of emptiness, and when we engage in these profound practices we often encounter hindrances. Therefore we need a method for dealing with them.
By hindrances I mean adverse circumstances or difficult conditions such as getting sick, being in pain or having other things go wrong in ways that harm our mind and stop us practicing. So the discussion of hindrances on the path concerns not only how to prevent them from harming us but also how to transform and use them to enhance our progress.
Insights from this particular explanation on transforming difficult situations into the path are obviously useful for the Buddhist practitioner but even a non-Buddhist can find many ideas here that will be helpful in daily life.
There is a brief explanation followed by an extensive one. The brief explanation is in the next two lines:
When the environment and its inhabitants overflow with unwholesomeness,
Transform adverse circumstances into the path to enlightenment.
When our world is full of pollution and negativity and we, the inhabitants, are also full of negativities and faults, we should transform all this into the path. This means transforming difficult situations into helpful ones, turning hindrances into sources of help, and thinking that those who seem to be harming us are actually helping us achieve enlightenment— seeing them as very kind, as helping us in our practice, particularly that of patience.
Atisha’s teacher, Lama Serlingpa, said that difficult situations encourage us to practice because they trigger thoughts of virtue within us and provide us with the best conditions for practicing it.
For example, if we discover that we have a terminal illness and have only two or three more years to live it can encourage us to do better in the short time that we have left. It can make us kinder, more generous and friendlier to our parents and family and people in general—in other words, make us practice Dharma that much more.
Thus, when things go badly for us in any way, through the practice of transforming adverse circumstances into the path we can view any misfortune as a kind of miracle, like a gift from the Buddha to help us in our practice, or as a broom sweeping away our negative karma.
Sometimes when people get sick they ask a lama for a divination to see what practices they should do and then they do them. In other words, their illness gets them to practice. It’s also said that suffering is a way of waking us up to reality—for example, sickness, pain or any other kind of suffering brings home to us that we are living in the first noble truth, true suffering.
The second noble truth is the true origin of suffering; suffering comes from its true cause—afflictive thoughts and emotions and karma; specifically, suffering comes from the karma we create under the control of afflictive thoughts and emotions. The root of all these afflictions is the self-grasping mind, which is fundamentally mistaken with respect to its objects. It is completely wrong because the way it apprehends things to exist is the complete opposite of their reality. It apprehends objects to exist truly; the actual reality is that everything is completely empty of true existence. In this way our suffering encourages us to reflect on and develop insight into reality.
It is also helpful to think that whatever suffering we’re experiencing is the result of karma we have created in the past—in a previous life, perhaps—and that that karma is ripening here, right now. It had to ripen at some time but if it had ripened in a future life it might have made things more difficult for us. For example, at the moment we have the means—money, doctors, medicine and so forth—for dealing with any illness from which we suffer; in future lives that may not be the case, so we should be happy to experience it now, under these favorable conditions.
Moreover, it’s helpful to recognize that when we’re experiencing suffering we’re purifying our negative karma because once that result has ripened we won’t have to experience it again.
And the best part is that this is how things actually work. We’re not just playing a trick on our mind, distracting ourselves from what’s really happening. On the contrary, it makes sense—if we’re experiencing suffering we must have created its cause and will eventually have to experience the result. Therefore it’s completely valid to think that any suffering we’re experiencing is the result of causes we created ourselves.
When we engage in purifying practices such as circumambulation, offering, prostration or meditation we should not think that by doing so we’re going to avoid every little problem in this life. However, we should understand that these practices will help us to purify much of our negative karma—just not all of it.
For example, it’s extremely important to meditate on love and compassion because doing so, even briefly, is a very powerful way of purifying our negative karma. But even though this is true, we can’t expect it to stop every little problem. On the contrary, we should expect to experience suffering in this life and understand that when we do we’re purifying negative karma. In other words, we purify negative karma by doing certain practices and also by experiencing suffering.
Therefore, for the above reasons, it’s good to be ill. But it’s also good not to be ill, because when we’re well we’re happy and have lots of energy for practice. This is particularly important at the moment, while we have this precious human life with all its potential; when we’re well we have the energy to fully exploit it. When we’re healthy there’s little we cannot do. We can do all the physical practices, such as prostration, verbal practices, such as mantra recitation, and mental practices, such as meditation on love and compassion. There’s essentially nothing we can’t do when we’re well.
Another thing that can discourage us is being poor but the commentary says that poverty should be a source of happiness. The way to realize this is to reflect on the many difficulties that rich people experience in working hard to accumulate their wealth; worrying about protecting, investing, increasing and profiting from it; and being concerned about its being stolen, losing value, diminishing and so forth. Poor people have none of these problems.
If we look closely at all the fights and arguments we see around us we’ll find that they’re often over money; sometimes we see big fights over little money. Money can cause many problems.
However, if we’re wealthy, we should be happy about that too. From the Dharma point of view there’s no problem in being rich because we can then make all the offerings we want—or go wherever we want on vacation! So we should also be happy to be wealthy because of the many options it gives us. We can give money to the poor, donate it to schools, hospitals, poor countries and so forth.
However, the best way to use wealth is to accumulate merit because merit allows us to achieve anything. All happiness, whether short term—such as that we experience from time to time in this life—or long term—liberation and enlightenment—results from merit. Once we’ve created enough merit, there’s no happiness we can’t experience. Wealth is useful because it allows us to create such merit.
The commentary then says that when we approach the time of death, instead of shaking with fear, worrying and feeling very unhappy about having to die, we should feel, “It’s OK to die now because I haven’t created any extreme negative actions, such as the five immediate negativities or the ten non-virtuous actions in a heavy way. I haven’t done anything too bad, so it’s OK to die.”
Thinking like this at the time of death gives us a better chance of following a path created by merit and being reborn where we can again meet a qualified master who teaches the path to enlightenment and in that way continue following the path.
Of course, if we’re ill it’s better to regain our health so that we can keep on practicing and strengthening and nourishing the imprints we’ve already created during this life. Just as seeds gradually develop when we keep adding water and nutrients to the soil in which they’re planted and will stop growing if we don’t, similarly we need to keep nurturing our karmic potential. Doing so gives us a better chance of getting the results we seek from our practice not to mention a good rebirth.
On top of all that, when we experience difficulties, suffering, pain and the like, we should recall the verse in the Guru Puja that says,
I seek your blessings that all karmic debts, obstacles and sufferings of mother beings
May without exception ripen upon me right now,
And that I may give my happiness and virtue to others
And, thereby, invest all beings in bliss.23
I mentioned before how it can be helpful to think that when something bad happens it’s the result of karma, that this is a good way of keeping our mind happy and allowing us to cope when things go wrong. We need to understand that we cannot have everything go the way we want just because we want it or stop unpleasant things from happening just because we don’t want them to. Things don’t happen the way we want. Rather, they happen according to our karma.
Furthermore, when we do face misfortune and think how this is the result of our karma we should also remember that other sentient beings similarly experience a great deal of suffering and use that recollection to inspire us to meditate on compassion. We should also think how much more suffering others are experiencing than we are.
The next part is about transforming our attitude through bodhicitta in order to purify our mind and accumulate merit. The root text says,
Apply meditation at every opportunity.
This means that in all situations and locations, whether we’re experiencing happiness or unhappiness, we should bring that experience into our meditation and not allow it to distract us from the meditation we’re doing.
When things are going well and we’re feeling happy we should think, “May all beings be happy and may I be able to benefit them and bring them happiness”; when we’re experiencing problems we should think, “Through my experiencing this problem, may no sentient being ever have to experience a single problem again. May I experience all beings’ suffering and as a result may the ocean of samsara dry up and completely empty of sentient beings!”
As well as this we can also think that any happiness or suffering we’re experiencing is a teaching from our guru on how to practice.
Whenever people criticize us, even without reason, we should think how useful it is because it subdues our mind and prevents us from getting arrogant. Moreover, it helps us identify our faults. If nobody were to ever point them out to us we’d continue to think that we were perfect. When somebody points out our faults it encourages us to rectify them.
We should also be careful when things are going well—we’re making money, our relationships are working out, life is good—because at such times we’re in danger of our delusions causing us to do things that we should not.
Next, the commentary says that suffering is the path to happiness, which we can relate to the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths—suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering. What this means is that the experience of suffering can make us investigate its nature, see where it comes from, realize it can be ended and follow the path to its cessation and everlasting happiness.
The idea that happiness is an obstacle to spiritual progress and suffering is useful may be found in the small, middle and great scopes of the lam-rim and is also found here in the mind training teachings.
On the small scope we reflect that the usual happiness we experience is not genuine happiness but simply the appearance of happiness. When one type of suffering diminishes we have the impression, or mental appearance, of happiness, but it is not actual happiness, merely a reduction of one manifestation of suffering. By thinking about this, we gradually begin to practice refuge and so forth.
On the middle scope we recognize that even were we to achieve the aim of the small scope—rebirth as a human or a god—the happiness we’d experience would also not be satisfactory or reliable because sooner or later it would come to an end. By thinking about this, we gradually work towards the happiness that completely transcends cyclic existence.
The commentary then explains how on the great scope, for the sake of others, we willingly practice taking their suffering onto ourselves. It also says that if we don’t renounce our own personal happiness we’ll never be able to generate the mind dedicated to the benefit of others and if we can’t willingly accept difficulties we’ll never complete the practice of the six perfections.
The supreme method is accompanied by the four practices.
These four practices are:
(a) Accumulating merit in order to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings;
(b) Purifying the negativities that hinder our practicing the path;
(c) Offering tormas to spirits and other harmful beings by thinking of their kindness and feeling compassion for them; and
(d Requesting the Dharma protectors to provide conditions conducive for our mind training practice to improve.
23 Lama Chöpa, verse 95. This verse is so important that it is recited three times.