37 practices: verse 11, part 1 of 3

11. To exchange my happiness for others’ suffering 

The source of every single suf-fer-ing / Is wishing for my happiness alone,

While focusing on others’ benefit / Gives rise to buddhahood, awakening.

Because of this to genuinely trade / My happiness for others’ suf-fer-ing:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 11 audio above.

For an overview of action bodhicitta, verses 11-30, visit here.

Meanwhile, you are here: Now that we have generated aspiration bodhicitta (verse 10), the wish to bring all beings to happiness and liberation, Togme Zangpo directs us to the specific practices of the Mahayana path, beginning in verse 11 with training in the basic underlying transaction that informs all the activities of body, speech, and mind of a bodhisattva: exchanging our happiness for others’ suffering through the practice of tong len, taking and sending. This will be the main tool in our bodhisattva toolbox, applicable to everything that arises in our experience from now on, and we need to hone it daily on the cushion (or chair) so it will be handy and sharp when we need it. (More on that in verses 12-19.)

We will spend two weeks on this verse.

Meditation: In our daily meditation session on the chair or cushion, we will now work specifically with tong len. If you need a refresher on how to isolate the body and mind in meditation — and why it’s essential — the chapter on “The Perfection of Meditative Concentration” in Ornament of Precious Liberation (or the corresponding section in Ringu Tulku’s Path to Buddhahood, page 99) lays it all out.

If you’re still working up to spending time on the cushion, 10 to 15 minutes of meditation every day would be a good goal now, though 5 minutes will continue to fulfill the minimum requirement for engaging our precious human existence as explained in the first practice of a bodhisattva. You can meditate using any calm abiding technique you wish, but from now on please spend some of that time on taking and sending. The “Two Wings of Awakening” sheet includes the four thoughts, meditation on the breath, and both ultimate and relative bodhicitta (tong len) practice, so it makes a complete practice. Or you can use any tong len instructions you’re familiar with.

The commentaries: This week we’ll look at Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary, The Heart of Compassion. It is a very rich chapter that bears reading more than once.

He begins by pointing out that our habitual tendency is to seek our own happiness and satisfaction, while considering other people’s unhappiness their problem. Certainly we sometimes rise above this basic tendency, and we see, and perhaps ourselves engage in, deeply compassionate acts on a daily basis ; but the fact that we still experience suffering is a sign that we still have ego-clinging, which is the reflex to think of ourselves separately and first, even if we are able sometimes to override it. Lama Karma Samten from New Zealand, when he taught the seven points of mind training at PTC in 2016, said mind training (which the 37 practices embody) can be summed up in two words: “Others first.” That’s all we need to remember. We could make that our mind training motto.

We also have the idea of exchanging self for other in our culture, in the Christian instruction to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the traditional admonition not to judge someone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. From a Buddhist perspective, His Holiness the Dalai Lama often explains that the basis of kindness and compassion, and thus the basis of relative bodhicitta, is to recognize that all other beings want to be happy and want to avoid suffering exactly as we do. If we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, so to speak, we naturally rejoice in their happiness and want to alleviate their suffering. But at this point in our spiritual development, we may need to make a conscious effort to do so.

On pages 108-110, beginning with, “There are some extraordinary pith instructions…”, Dilgo Khyentse leads us through a lovely and intense guided meditation on exchanging self for other via taking and sending. We used this as the basis for our meditation at the beginning of the September 21 class on verse 11 (audio link here). There are many ways to do taking and sending, and you will find what works best for you as your practice develops. For basic instructions in addition to Dilgo Khyentse’s,  Jamgon Kongrul’s The Great Path of Awakening and Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are are both excellent resources.

Next week, in verse 11 part 2, we will discuss the rest of Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary and also bring in some other resources, including Ken McLeod’s Reflections on Silver River, Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (chapter 3, verses 18-27), and, if we have time, the Bible (Matthew 25: 31-46).

I can’t overemphasize the importance of remembering the simple instruction “others first” as a simple guideline for exchanging self for other in the midst of daily life, and of spending time daily on the cushion or chair practicing taking and sending as vividly as we can. This will help prepare us to apply it on the spot to send whatever happiness we experience to others, and to take on whatever suffering we encounter, even when it belongs to the person who is tormenting us in the moment.

With regard to the latter, here’s your reminder: Dropping our resistance and judgment and wishing for the other person not to suffer doesn’t mean that we don’t draw boundaries in specific situations where they are needed, or intervene to prevent harm or abuse from occurring. It does not seem to be about being a doormat for others or letting everyone else have free reign to do whatever they want, including harm to us or others. That kind of passivity would probably fall under the heading of “idiot compassion.” In one of her talks some years back, Pema Chodron advised a questioner, “I think Buddha would like boundaries.”

This practice is about training our own mind, learning to maintain emotional equanimity (NOT indifference, but impartial love, compassion, and joy) and peace of mind in the midst of the most difficult situations, and striving in all our interactions toward the freedom expressed in the ultimate definition of patience, “the mind is not disturbed by anything.” It is about recognizing when it’s just our own ego-clinging wanting to have the last word that prevents us from putting others first and from whole-heartedly giving victory to others and accepting defeat for ourselves (in the familiar words of Langri Thangpa). We have to practice again and again to try to get the balance right, and be patient when we feel we fall short, knowing that refinement comes with practice.

Speaking of which, here is a preview of what’s in store after we finish verse 11:

Bodhisattva boot camp: Beginning with verse 12, Togme Zangpo will train us to apply the Mahayana intention and tong len practice in some of the worst situations that can befall us, those that most threaten to overwhelm our resolve to put others first and send us right back to our homeland, the shore of samsaric confusion, habitual patterns, and suffering. By completing this boot camp along with the subsequent introduction to ultimate bodhicitta, the true empty or open nature of all phenomena (verses 22-24), we will have a much stronger basis for cultivating the paramitas in verses 25-30, the six types of action that will guide our boat to the other shore of full awakening.

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

More on ego-clinging: 18 ways to catch ego-clinging in the act!

Next practice: Verse 12: to repay theft with generosity

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)