When things go wrong in our lives, we tend to place all the blame on something outside ourselves, which only compounds our root problem of self-importance. “Realize all faults spring from one source” is the antidote to that confused and unhelpful mentality. “Meditate upon gratitude toward all” works with another distorted way of looking at things. This slogan and the problem it addresses are the mirror image of the previous one.
We tend to think that everything good in our life comes to us because we deserve it, either thanks to our efforts or simply because of who we are. We’re entitled to our good fortune. Good things are meant to happen to us. That’s just the way things should be. But this attitude has nothing to do with reality. Our being and all the circumstances in our life are deeply interconnected with others. Anything that happens to us, good or bad, comes about because of that interconnection.
Everything positive in our lives has been a gift from other sentient beings. This is what we need to meditate upon until it is clear in our mind. First of all, without others being involved in your life, you wouldn’t even be here. You have a body that you generally identify with. You say things like “I go” and “I sit.” But this body was just an egg and a sperm that your parents donated to you, giving you a place for your consciousness to enter. It’s not inherently yours; it’s just a borrowed home. Another woman and another man, your so-called parents, gave you the gift of this seed, and all the body parts and functions that developed from it were the result of that gift. Before receiving the gift, you had nothing. There was just a homeless consciousness being driven helplessly by karma.
After conception, this kind woman, now known as your “mother,” gave you a place in which to survive and grow. She fed you with her own food. She never asked for rent. And when you were ready to be born, she went through so much pain to bring you out into the world. Then, once you were out of the womb, you wouldn’t have survived for even a few hours if you’d been left alone. But this woman held you to her body, kept you warm with her heat, and fed you with her milk. And from then on she did everything for you. At every moment, she was concerned about your well-being. Without the love and affection of your parents, you wouldn’t have developed into a functioning adult. If your parents and teachers hadn’t taught you, you wouldn’t even be able to say the most basic words, like house or table. You would have no way of communicating with the world.
By contemplating further along these lines, we can see that everything we have, everything we think of as “me” or “mine,” is actually the gift of others. All the parts of our body and brain; all our possessions, food, clothing, shelter; all our knowledge, wisdom, skill, personality traits, talents, morals, ethics, positive intentions—everything is the gift of others. Without others, we would have nothing. We wouldn’t even be able to think or feel. We can’t take any of this for granted. Let’s not think this has all appeared for us spontaneously. That would be a false story, based on self-importance and delusion. Everything in our lives comes from the kindness of others.
This is not only true in our ordinary, conventional life; it’s also true in terms of our path of awakening. We will only go beyond our confusion and become fully at ease with our lives if we receive the kindness of others. Our innermost enlightened nature is free from all flaws and rich with wisdom, compassion, and the power to benefit others. But without buddhas, bodhisattvas, and our teachers, we would have no hope of realizing this enlightened nature. We wouldn’t even have an inkling that we have such a nature to realize.
You may think, “But doesn’t all my good fortune come from my merit, the results of my own positive actions in the past?” Yes, that’s true. But where did that merit come from? It came from others. Your health, attractiveness, and good physique are the results of your patience in past lives. But without others to irritate you, how could you have practiced patience? Your wealth came from your past generosity, which required others to be poor. Your fortunate human birth came from doing positive deeds and avoiding negativity in relation to others. Without others, there is no way to accumulate merit.
Our ability to progress along the path and our prospect of enlightenment depend on cultivating bodhicitta. In order to do that, we need to develop love and compassion, which requires other sentient beings. We need to practice the exchange of self and other. We rely on enlightened beings as guides on the path. But in order to do this path, we need our fellow sentient beings. Therefore, buddhas and sentient beings are equal in terms of how much they help us.
Also, if we care about pleasing enlightened beings, we have to serve sentient beings, because the welfare of beings is their greatest concern. When we harm beings, we’re also hurting the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Because we feel deep respect and appreciation, we may wish to make offerings to the enlightened ones. But since they have gone beyond all attachment, the most welcome offering we can make to buddhas is to benefit sentient beings. We could offer an entire world full of gold to the buddhas, but they would be more touched if we offered a handful of coins to a homeless person. As Shantideva says, we shouldn’t see sentient beings merely as sentient beings. We should see them as the cause of our enlightenment.
Even after attaining enlightenment, you still need the presence of sentient beings. Without them, enlightenment would be very boring. What would you do? With all your understanding, your compassion, and your ability to work skillfully with others, what would you do without sentient beings? Most of the point of becoming enlightened would be gone. So even once you’re enlightened, no one is kinder than sentient beings.
We should contemplate sentient beings in these ways and develop genuine gratitude and love for them, never forgetting that we’re walking the path to enlightenment in order to free them from suffering. Our expressions of gratitude should be more than eloquent words spoken without feeling. To say, “I appreciate this, I’m grateful for that, thank you for this, thank you for that,” without any feeling is just hypocrisy. So we have to work on stripping away this hypocrisy until we really start to feel things in the heart. The great masters have so much care in their hearts that they can give anything, even their very lives, to others without hesitation.
Meditating upon being grateful to everyone also radically alters our ideas of what is helpful and harmful in our lives. For those who have been obviously helpful, such as our parents, we develop greater appreciation. We stop taking credit for everything positive that has happened to us. This lessens our self-importance, which is the main point of practicing lojong (mind training slogans). But if liberating ourselves from the prison of ego-clinging is important to us, then the so-called harm doers in our lives may help us even more.
In the nineteenth century, the enlightened teacher and wandering yogi Patrul Rinpoche traveled all over eastern Tibet, spreading Shantideva’s teachings far and wide. One of his favorite sayings was that the outcome of suffering is better than the outcome of happiness. In happy times, we become forgetful and indulge more in our self-centered emotions. But in painful times, we develop renunciation toward suffering and its causes and conditions. We appreciate the spiritual path and our opportunity to work with our mind internally. Therefore Patrul Rinpoche’s preference was for suffering. The irony is that for people like him who have completely rid their minds of self-importance, suffering doesn’t occur even when it’s wished for! But for people like us, other beings will continue to bring us harm, and as lojong practitioners we can make good use of it.
We can start by changing the habitual story of harm to a more helpful one. Rather than lament all the harm that beings are doing to us, we should consider all the harm we’ve done to them. The only reason these beings are harming us now is because of what we’ve done to them in the past. It’s a simple boomerang effect. When you throw a boomerang, it comes back to you, not to someone else, right? And not only have we harmed them in the past, we’re still causing them harm by inciting their negativity. Everything they do to hurt us creates negative karma, which will bring them suffering in the future. Following this improved story enables us to convert resentment into compassion.
We can also reflect on how our relationships with these harm doers have been entirely different in the past. In past lives, everyone of them has been a parent to us. Everyone has loved us, cherished us, delivered us so much joy, protected us from so much pain. The intensity of our present experience blinds us to these truths, but when we take the time to contemplate, we can see things in this more productive way. We should contemplate these beings’ past kindness to us until we feel so much affection that we could swallow them up and bring them into our hearts.
Once we’ve cultivated love and compassion for our “enemies,” we should practice tonglen. This pacifies much of the tension that both parties feel. If you consider someone an enemy, they will consider you an enemy, and treat you as such. If you consider someone a friend, they will consider you a friend. If you consider someone to be your mother, they will consider you to be their child. This is how karma and interdependence work. When the Buddha was about to attain enlightenment under the bodhi tree, the demonic forces known as maras came and threw weapons at him. These didn’t distract the Buddha; through the power of his compassion, he turned the weapons into flowers. When Gandhi used nonviolence to achieve independence, even most of the British people eventually supported him. There are similar stories about Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Being grateful to our “enemies” and practicing tonglen go against our habits. In our daily interactions with others, we have to be continually alert to our tendencies. But if we do give way to habit, we should look at ourselves honestly and confess our mistake. Until our minds are completely transformed, we will keep falling down. The choice is between getting up and starting to walk again or giving up and staying on the ground. If we keep lying down, nothing will result but greater depression and hopelessness. As Shantideva says, a powerful cobra can’t be harmed by large birds of prey, but if it’s lying on the ground as if dead, even crows will peck at it.
The antidote to such low self-esteem, as Shantideva suggests, is to bring forth a sense of positive, courageous pride. This pride, though it may have a tinge of self-importance, works effectively against our neurosis. After we have remedied our low self-esteem, we can then transcend our pride as well.
We can develop this courage by practicing tonglen, and especially by focusing on subjects that bring up strong clinging to the self. For example, we can think about illnesses that we find especially repulsive, filling us with fear and disgust. If we imagine taking these illnesses from others and bringing them into our heart, that will help lessen the self-grasping. We often think of our body as “me,” so focusing on the body in this way is powerful. Don’t worry—it won’t actually make you get the disease. All it will do is make you stronger and stronger in your practice of bodhicitta.
We have so many phobias about illnesses and other forms of suffering. Phobias are a weakness of the mind, brought about by our self-importance. If we genuinely do tonglen with all the diseases and other situations that horrify us—the very things whose names we can barely mention—it will frighten our self-centered mind. Why would we want to do this to ourselves? By deliberately frightening our ego, we bring it closer to the surface, exposing our own weakness. Ordinarily we hope and believe that protecting our small self will keep us from suffering. We can only overcome this misconception by shedding light on it with the practices of mind training.
Great practitioners like Shantideva and Patrul Rinpoche have this mental attitude toward troublemakers: “Come here and take everything away from me! If you want my flesh, go ahead and take it! If you want my blood, you can have it! If you want my bones, my skin, my organs, I give them to you gladly! Relax and enjoy the feast!” They see the arrival of harm doers in their lives as a chance to purify past negative karma. Since these acts need to reckoned with one way or another, this harm speeds up our process of purification. This is a tremendously courageous attitude, but if we are interested in letting go of the attachments that imprison us, there is nothing better. Confronting our negative karma head-on is a highly evolved practice of patience. Patience is much more than putting up with irritations. When intentionally cultivated in this way, it becomes a source of incredible power and confidence.
Every Buddhist teaching we read or listen to is ultimately about getting liberated. The path of liberation is to abandon grasping to the self and to cherish sentient beings. If you aren’t understanding this in the teachings, then you are probably misunderstanding something. We can look at our spiritual path as a battle between our selfish mind and our altruistic mind. Since our selfish mind is the greatest enemy of our own and others’ happiness, we want to do everything possible for the altruistic side to win. We need to keep the enemy always under scrutiny. We need to disempower it with our wisdom and skillful means, exposing its faults and reprimanding it. At the same time, we need to boost our altruistic mind by increasing and deepening any thoughts and emotions that are in line with bodhicitta.
Patrul Rinpoche tells the story of a Brahmin who kept track of his mind by using two piles of pebbles. For every positive thought he would add a white pebble to one pile, and for every negative thought he would add a black pebble to another pile. In the beginning, the black pile was much bigger than the white pile, but as he kept observing his mind, the white pile got bigger and bigger in relation to the black one. Eventually he stopped adding black pebbles altogether. This transformation came about through his power of observation, along with his understanding of the effects of altruism and selfishness.
Since everything that happens in our lives is our mind’s experience, if we train our flexible mind with such methods, it will get used to positive actions and naturally transform itself. When our mind is left alone to follow its habits and manifest its neurosis, it tends to be more selfish and unreasonable than the most spoiled brat. As Geshe Ben said, “There’s nothing else on my daily schedule than to be alert to the devil of self-importance inside me. When it wakes up, I have to wake up. When it is asleep, I can also be at rest.” Meditating on gratitude is one of the best practices available for getting our mind used to focusing on others and reducing our clinging to the small self.
“Realize all faults spring from one source,” and, “Meditate upon being grateful to everyone,” show the relative ways of turning difficult situations to our advantage. Jesus advised his disciples to “turn the other cheek.” A more modern saying goes, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Our resilience and our ability to rebound strictly depend on how we work with crisis. Every time we face difficult circumstances, we have a chance to increase our bodhicitta and purify much of the negativity we have created in the past.
Dzigar Kongtrul, Rinpoche has lived and taught in the west since 1987, and is founder of Mangala Shri Bhuti, an organization established to foster practice of the Longchen Nyingtik lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.