Path of Transformation» Compassion Training

The Bodhicitta of Exchanging Self and Other


Khenpo begins by asking listeners to generate pure motivation before listening to the teachings.

Exchanging self and others is a practice of mind training. It is mentioned in the Seven Verses of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. Before listening to teachings, we should stop to consider why we are making time to listen. What is our reason? If we examine our thinking, we will understand our intention. It is not to get name, fame or a better job, is it? Instead, we want to either generate or practice bodhicitta.

Khenpo first makes a request. During teaching we need to pay close attention; we should not be on our mobile phones or walking around without focusing. If we do not respect the teacher or Buddhadharma, then we can accumulate negative karma. On the other hand, if we pay attention and listen respectfully, then we will receive blessings. We are making good auspicious connections to the teaching.

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Shantideva first talks about the practice of equanimity. Without developing equanimity we cannot practice the exchange. We first need to have confidence that all beings are equal. We begin by thinking “I do not want suffering. And I want happiness.” All sentient beings have the same desires and rights. We can understand that we kill animals to eat them. Similarly, we encroach on their forests and jungle homes to have more space for humans. But all sentient beings have the right to be happy. We are not treating all as equals. Without understanding and practicing equanimity, we cannot practice bodhicitta.

Right now, we see beings in three levels. We think of our friends and loved ones first. Then we have enemies or people we don’t like. And finally, we may see other beings as neutral. With friends, our attachment exists or increases. When we encounter enemies, our aggression or anger manifests. And with neutral beings, we are dull or ignorant. Our emotions are variable and partial. We don’t have love and compassion for the enemy or the neutral beings. This is not the practice of equanimity. Our love and compassion are biased because it is mixed with attachment. We don’t yet have equanimity that is uncontrived. Uncontrived love and compassion are what allow us to develop bodhicitta. We have to gradually work on equalizing the discrepancy in how we feel toward different beings.

If we are influenced by how people behave towards us only in this life, that is contrived. We are showing bias and lack of equanimity in that situation. And we are only considering this temporary, current life. Someone who loves us in this lifetime may have harmed us many times in previous lives and vice versa. We need to look beyond the present lifetime. Khenpo asks us to think about this very carefully. It is crucial that we analyze ourselves and don’t just accept what others explain. If we wish to develop certainty, we need to investigate thoroughly.

Shantideva then says that after practicing, equanimity, we move on to the practice of exchanging. We need to give away all the good qualities, happiness, pleasure, wealth, and positive karma to all sentient beings. And in exchange, we take from them all their negativities and suffering. In the beginning, this is just a visualization. We can’t directly take others’ suffering. But we can have the motivation to do so.

We can practice the exchange of self and others in the course of our daily activities. When we are walking around, working, or resting, we can focus our minds as we inhale and exhale. As we inhale, we take away all the suffering, negativities, obstacles, and bad luck of sentient beings. And as we exhale, we give away all our happiness, virtue, wealth, and merit. Please remember that there is nothing to fear about engaging in this practice. Right now we are not capable of actually giving away all our virtue, so we should not worry about being harmed.

In the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Shantideva explains that if we don’t practice the exchange of self and other, bodhicitta will not arise in our minds. And without bodhicitta, enlightenment is not possible. We will not pass beyond samsara. In samsara, it is said that there is not enough happiness to sit on the tip of a needle. Supreme happiness is only attainable if we transcend samsara.

Nagarjuna, in the Jewel Garland, made the beautiful aspiration that all the unhappiness and suffering ripen on himself. And then he aspired that all his virtue and happiness ripen on others. Moreover, he resolved, “Until all sentient beings without exception are liberated, may I remain to benefit sentient beings”.

Ideally, we have an uncontrived, unfabricated willingness and courage to take on all the suffering of sentient beings. We have the confidence that we can gladly accept the negativity and suffering that exists. Nagarjuna says that if the amount of merit generated by such a resolve took physical form it could not be contained in the number of world systems that equal the amount of sand in the Ganga river. The mind with this resolve is so kind, excellent, and so pure.

If we engage in this practice daily, we may not immediately give rise to bodhicitta. But gradually, we will no longer feel upset or angry when we are harmed by others. We change our perspective and this brings a more relaxed, easy-going nature. Harsh words or insults won’t affect us anymore. Our minds will be peaceful and this brings us happiness.

Khenpo stresses that while we are not yet bodhisattvas ourselves, we can still adopt the aspiration to practice like them. We can use the aspirational verses from texts such as the Bodhicaryāvatāra to inspire us. We don’t need to feel overwhelmed or upset by the suffering that exists in samsara. Khenpo reminds us that our compassion needs to be embraced with the wisdom of emptiness. The suffering of sentient beings is not truly established. Beings suffer because they do not know the empty nature of suffering. We need the unity of compassion and emptiness when practicing the Mahayana path.


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