37 practices: verse 11, part 2 of 3

We’ve had a couple of weeks off while Chodron was traveling. Tomorrow, October 19, we’ll reconvene (live from Texas!) to complete our study of practice 11: to exchange our own happiness for others’ suffering. This is the crux of bodhisattva practice, and learning how to do this is the reason we are studying the 37 practices. All the rest of the practices follow from this. For the translation and audio of verse 11, click here.

In our first week on verse 11 (audio September 21), we reviewed Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary. Please read it at least two or three times before we move on to bodhisattva boot camp next week, and take it to heart, as it holds many keys to understanding and traveling the path of bodhisattva practice and complete awakening.

We spent most of the second class (audio September 28) sharing our personal experiences, questions, and insights. One of the observations that arose was what a great leap it is from putting ourselves first (Team I) to putting others first (Team Other). How do we bridge that gap?

Fortunately, Dilgo Khyentse has advice for us on exactly this point: “The exchange of yourself and others can be approached step by step. The first stage is to see yourself and others as equally important — others want to be happy and not suffer, just as you do. So you should wish happiness for others in the same way that you wish it for yourself.” This is the same advice often given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama (see verse 11, part 1) as the most basic foundation of the Mahayana Buddhist path. In all our relationships with others, the first stage of the path is simply to wish for them to be happy and not to suffer. Pema Chodron described a lovely practice along these lines that she often does as she goes about her daily life, described in my post OM MANI PEME HUNG from 2012.

“The second stage is the exchange of yourself and others; you wish that others may have your happiness and that you may take their suffering.” This is the foundation of taking and sending (tong len) meditation, the practice introduced in verse 11. At this stage, when we become aware of someone else’s suffering, we engage in the actual practice of breathing out to them our happiness and well being, and breathing in whatever suffering they may be experiencing, while visualizing them being freed from it. We think and aspire that this is really taking place, as vividly as we are able, though what we are really doing is training of our own mind in relative bodhicitta.

“There is a third stage, which is to cherish others more than yourself, like the great bodhisattvas who, on meeting a blind person, would have no hesitation in giving him their own eyes. At that point, all selfish preoccupation has completely disappeared and you are solely concerned with the welfare of others.” This is the stage at which we would genuinely and spontaneously rejoice if we could really free somone else from cancer by actualizing our aspiration to take it upon ourselves. Our teachers kindly assure us it is not going to happen at this stage of our practice — though Kalu Rinpoche once said that were we to somehow find ourselves in that situation, we should think, “Oh good! It works!”

While it’s wonderful to aspire to cherish others more than ourselves and to be able to give up — cheerfully and without any attachment — even our own body for their welfare, most of our actual practice at this point will be with stages 1 and 2: wishing for others to be happy, and mentally exchanging our own happiness for their suffering.

However, we can certainly practice the third stage of bodhicitta in ordinary situations where we just have to wrestle a bit with our reflexive ego-clinging. We could take a deep breath and give up our seat to someone else on public transportation even though we are really tired ourselves, or let a rude driver merge in front of us or have the parking space we were waiting for, or let someone else have the last piece of pie. We could let someone else win the argument or have the last word on some trivial matter, even when WE KNOW WE ARE RIGHT. We could give up a pleasure we were looking forward to, or watch something else on TV, in order to make our loved one happy. In all these situations, we are practicing putting the other person’s happiness before our own, and giving up something our ego feels absolutely entitled to. It’s not the easy choice, but the more we are able to put our own ego-needs on hold for someone else’s happiness or well being, the easier and more habitual it will become. In fact, it’s the only way to Carnegie Hall.

Contemplation: “Suppose you were told that, no matter what you did, you would never be happy. Never. What would you do with your life?” — from Ken McLeod, Reflections on Silver River

In other words, how much does the way we organize our life depend on the expectation that eventually, if some condition or other is met, we will finally be happy? If the pursuit of this always-receding horizon of happiness were not a factor, how would we relate to our own and other peoples’ suffering?

To take it further, how does this relate to the Buddha’s first noble truth, that within our samasaric existence based on ego-clinging and the pursuit of personal happiness, our experience is inevitably permeated with suffering? And with his explanation of the three types of suffering — that even what we perceive as pleasure (the suffering of change) is tinged with or leads to the suffering of outright suffering?

We’ll talk about this in the next class, when we discuss Ken McLeod’s commentary.

Meditation: Keep doing some taking and sending in formal meditation every day, using any method you like, and in daily life remember to apply Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s instructions for when we find ourselves caught up in emotional affliction:

Relative method for dealing with anger, desire, jealousy, anxiety, fear, etc.: When an emotional affliction arises, recognize it, think that you are taking on the suffering of all other beings who may be experiencing the same emotion, and through your own suffering free them from theirs. (This can be done as taking and sending.)

Ultimate method: Just sit quietly with the emotion and look directly at it, perceiving its lack of solid reality, its dreamlike quality, its impermanence, its emptiness of true existence.

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!

Pema Chodron’s practice of wishing happiness to others: OM MANI PEME HUNG

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)