The Bodhisattva Thought Training Teachings

Bodhicitta, is ‘the mind of enlightenment’, the mind of freedom, happiness, and Great Love. A person who has this great heart/mind is called a Bodhisattva – one who lives to serve others with wisdom and compassion. This leads to the Thought Training teachings, that come from dedicated teachers in the past. These are ways to develop in everyday life…


If what are expressed in Mahayana Buddhism as the inclusive, Universal ideals of the Bodhisattva, and the Bodhisattva Vow are well understood, then the door opens up to using the Bodhisattva Thought Training Teachings’. They all work.

For Buddhists, then, it should be said, the ideal is different in some ways from what the average person on the street would think of as ‘a developed person’, or a good person. A Bodhisattva is something more than that.

For one, from his first talk, the Buddha spoke of the possibility of freedom from the suffering that comes from delusion, from not understanding ourselves or each other. As Buddhists, we all hold this ideal, of a liberated person, as something we can each achieve. It’s what we aim for in our life and practice, as well as the basis for helping others.

In addition, can we aspire to all the qualities that we see most clearly in our teachers, of kindness, insight and strength that come from their realization of the path.

Look at all the Tibetan Buddhist thankas, and statues – artistic representations of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, as well as photographs of monks and nuns, and our teachers. Search your recollection of the teachings you’ve studied, and think of the teachers you have met and received teachings from. Think of what they offer, and embody: These are all qualities we can develop – the stable peace, dignity, wisdom, strength, gentleness, joy and love.

Even if we just hold this aim, to go in this direction of developing our Wisdom and Compassion and ability, just as our teachers have done, so we can help others as much as possible, it is a very great thing, the guiding principle in our lives, however far we get with it.

What’s called The Bodhisattva Vow is traditionally described as the vow to become a Buddha in order to benefit all sentient beings. To me, this can sometimes seem abstract, and such a far goal as to feel – not so helpful. Add to it that we, as ordinary beings, may not have much of an idea of what a fully enlightened Buddha is, and it can all kind of wash out into some vague, high minded idea, but it needn’t be this way.

It’s true that vows shouldn’t come easily, but after much reflection, what we can actually connect with ourselves are those qualities of wisdom and compassion we see and remember, and intuit, in the Buddha, in our teachers, and in ourselves in our best moments.

We recognize the need for such wisdom and compassion and health in the world, and in the lives of those we love, and so this is what we vow to develop as much as we can. We vow to just go in this direction as much as we can, and in that way we make a gift of our life.

Thinking that way makes more sense to me. It is approachable. That, to me is bodhicitta, the thought of enlightenment. That, to me, is the Bodhisattva Vow. Others may disagree with me if they like, that’s alright – I’m just saying what works for me, to think this way.

I sometimes wonder what a person would think of the thought training teachings, if they hadn’t taken up the Bodhisattva vow. If someone was living a totally self centered life, they would probably wouldn’t make much sense. In fact, they’d probably seem crazy! But when living our lives to benefit others makes the most sense to us, then these ideas, called Thought Training, are a real treasure. These practices helped me so much while I was in the City. Together with Thich Nhat Hanh’s eminently sane teachings on taking care of ourselves wisely, they can make living with others in a city really fruitful. It can be our bodhisattva training ground.

The most famous thought training texts, and the ones most often commented on by teachers, are The Eight Verses on Training the Mind, The Seven Point Mind Training Teaching, and one called Transforming Suffering and Happiness into the Path.

If you are interested in this subject, Lama Zopa has a couple of books that I know of on thought training – Transforming Problems into Happiness, and The Door to Satisfaction; and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Enlightened Courage, and The Great Path of Awakening, by Jamgon Kongtrul, are commentaries on the Seven Point Mind Training. There are others, but these are a good place to start.

Here is my own working version of the Eight Verses:

Eight Verses On Training The Mind

1. May I always cherish all living beings
with the determination to accomplish for them the highest good,
that is more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel

2. When among others,
I will think of myself as lowest among all,
and will hold others to be supreme,
from the very depths of my heart

3. I will learn to search into my mind,
and as soon as an afflictive emotion arises,
endangering both self and others,
I will firmly face and avert it.

4. When meeting with those who have especially strong sins and suffering,
I will learn to cherish them as if I had found a precious treasure,
very difficult to find

5. When others treat me badly,
with slander, abuse, and so on,
I will accept all loss
and offer the victory to them

6. When one I have benefited hurts me,
I will learn to view that one as my own Supreme Guru

7. In short, I will learn to offer all help and happiness
to all beings,
both directly and indirectly,
and I will remove as much suffering
as these beings may have

8. I will keep these practices undiminished
by the usual worldly preoccupations,
and by knowing appearances to be like illusions,
I will be without the limitations
that accompany ego-grasping

As you can see, this is a very complete teaching.

One verse from A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that I’ve been thinking of goes as follows:

Unlike myself, these beings are not capable,
therefore, I shall do it for them

Relating this to practice, and to our whole lives, we can get strength, courage, determination, and clear sightedness from seeing the needs that exist.

When I think of what I saw over the years around where I worked, at 16th St. in the Mission in San Francisco – the struggle and addiction, the violence, the hard-heartedness of people (among other things that were great and uplifting too) then, how could it be any other way?

Of course, there’s a limit to how much we can be around, which I can personally attest to. At some point we will want and need to step back from all that, for the sake of balance. This dynamic, more than anything else, points up to me the difference between what they call Aspirational and Engaging Bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta is this intention to develop ourselves, our wisdom, compassion and ability in order to benefit others. This kind of- motivation leading to action- was what was demonstrated, for example, when a person takes up the study and practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

In Buddhism, at some point, the motivation tips over into action, which, as they’ve said it in the Mahayana, translates into the Six Perfections – Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Joyful Effort, Meditation, and Wisdom.

The good hearted motivations we make, based on what we see in the world, are so important. They are the power behind any practice we do, to get free ourselves, and giving to all others we love! But aspiration alone doesn’t ‘cook the rice’, if you know what I mean. At some point, naturally, we need to practice in such a way that we improve along the lines we intend. We will need to find and develop what works for us to accomplish our ends.

We can’t force it, nor should we. When the time is right, the whole arc of study and practice is like water flowing down a mountain. When our motivation is strong enough, without a doubt, we’ll find a way.

I recently mentioned to my sister that what’s great about the thought training teachings is that they take the very things we usually try to avoid – unpleasant situations, our own limitations, fears, and so on, and uses them to progress on the path.

I remember thinking, when I first came across these teachings, that the only thing ‘wrong’ with them is that they are not better known, and made use of.

I think that this especially true about one part of the Seven Point Mind Training teaching. Everything else I felt I’d heard before, but when I came to the part called ‘transforming adverse circumstances into the path’, I knew I had found something special. This is the heart of the Thought Training Teachings, I think.

I was intrigued, relieved, and excited all at once! Relieved, and glad, that such a teaching actually exists, and naturally the door opened. I could see the point – that once we have a determination to use our life to help others, and if we’re Buddhist, and have had at least some glimpse of the possibility of the end of confusion and suffering, as proposed from the outset by the Buddha in the Third Noble Truth, then it’s natural that seeing suffering and the great needs that exist will make us only more determined to practice, and to share the result of that with others.

Towards the end of The Great Path of Awakening, there are some additional verses I remember that compare knowing suffering in ourselves and in the world to being like the wind blowing when there’s a fire – it just makes that fire greatly spread and increase. So it is with Thought Training.

When we become aware of some need, instead of being overwhelmed or depressed by that, it can really empower us to work, diligently, and for however long it takes, no matter what it costs, to solve the problem. What can I say? Such is love… Such is knowing our deep nature in response to the needs of the world…

A few years after first encountering the Thought Training teachings, I read with some surprise a text called ‘Transforming Happiness and Suffering into the Path’, by the Third Dodrupchen, Tenpe Nyima. There’s an online version now, on the website called Lotsawa House.

I was surprised because, well, we all know that suffering needs transformation, but happiness too? We usually never think of this as something that needs to be brought onto the path, but, for the sake of opposing laziness, and so we don’t get distracted by whatever good circumstances we are currently enjoying, such as health, friends, good weather, wealth, or learning, we do need this kind of teaching. Here is a quote from the text I mentioned:

Whatever happiness and the various things that cause happiness appear, if we slip under their power, then we will grow increasingly conceited, smug and lazy, which will block our spiritual path and progress.

Now, here is a view on practice that is comprehensive, and one that can keep us on an even keel. It says: whatever our circumstances, this is the best time to practice.

Especially regarding our own happiness, we should recognize our great good fortune compared to so many others in this world of ours, and use it to practice Dharma for the benefit of both ourselves and others.

This term ‘transforming happiness’ reminds me of the story of the farmer with a hole in the roof of his house. When it was sunny he thought, ‘There’s no need to fix the roof today – it’s sunny!’, and when it was raining he thought, ‘I can’t fit the roof – it’s raining!’, and so it never got done.

This idea, of using whatever circumstances we’re in to practice, helps to make the most of wherever we are now.

The signs of successful practice is that we will have more peace, joy, patience, kindness towards ourselves and others, and glimpses of the ultimate nature of the mind. It’s said that we can also learn to feel spontaneously happy when some difficult situation appears in our life, because of the opportunity it gives us to practice.

Of course, if these methods don’t work, what can I say, try something else. Really. If you’re not satisfied, try something else…

There is a branch from the Eastern and South Eastern Buddhist Schools, that although it wasn’t presented in this form in the Thought Training teachings, still fits into that category, as encouragement and inspiration to practice. This is what is called ‘The Five Recollections’. They are, of aging, sickness, death, separation from loved ones, and karma. The phrasing of them begins, ‘I am of the nature to age, I cannot escape aging…’ and then goes on from there, through the five.

Recollecting impermanence especially is a spur to remove laziness and procrastination, a lack of focus and low energy. We never think, when things are going well, of morality. Why spoil the party, right?, but in this way we are setting ourselves up, and we don’t really live fully awake to that aspect of our life while we are here together on earth, and the preciousness of each day we have with those we love. I’ve taken to calling, for my own purpose, the reflections on impermanence, ‘a midwife for love’, because they help for all of our love to be born fully into this world.

This is one part of the Teachings of Don Juan, those writings by Carlos Castaneda, that I have remembered and made good use of over the years. He called it, ‘Having death as an advisor’. I use it like this: if I’m ever in doubt about whether I should do something or not do it, I look at it in light of the fact of my impermanence here, in this body, and the uncertainty of the time of my death.

We only get one go round, here, like this. If I can touch that truth, it usually straightens me out right away. Whether it’s ‘should I get this book’, or write this, or, ‘should I give this away’, or hold onto, or let go of these thoughts, the effect is almost always immediate. This cuts all doubts… Now, I may not know much, but I can plainly tell what I would rather have done, or tried to do than have left undone.

To me, in the end, loving fully is the only thing that makes it all alright, actually, whatever this life brings. If I can love fully, in fact, there is no place I’d rather be.

I wrote a poem on this subject a while back. Here it is with a short note introducing it. I usually don’t try to explain a poem, but in this case a few words of how it came to be might add something to it:

I went on a short retreat a couple of months ago (in 2011), and when I came back here to San Francisco, on the first night back I had this dream, of a teenaged girl who went to join her parents in a concentration camp. Her father said to her, ‘Why are you here? You could have escaped and saved yourself!’ and the girl said, No! If I am here I can offer you some joy, for as long as we are together. I can make the suffering less! There is no place I would rather be…’

I tried to catch what was said and put it in a poem, but I don’t know how successful I was… in any case, I had to try… you know the feeling…

No place I’d rather be

In good times,
hard times,
and the worst of times,
there is no place I’d rather be
than right there

If you ask me why,
it is because,
by the power of love,
I can share the joy with you, and make it more
I can help to make the pain less,
and I can offer happiness

That is why,
through it all,
and when things get tough,
and even,
or especially in the worst of times
in the worst of worlds,
there is no place that I would rather be

If this were the only world
where there is both happiness and suffering,
still, I would choose just this one
to be with you

By being here together,
we can make the way better for one another
Don’t you see?
That means more than anything else to me

For this very reason,
it’s worth every effort

whatever we need to go through,
it is, all of it, then,
completely worthwhile

Giving of ourselves,
Measured next to this world’s
pleasures –
there is no comparison, really

People don’t know of this, or else they don’t feel capable,
and so they hide
or run to small pleasures
that disappear even in the moment and are gone

But because we can be light for one another,
make each other’s trials that much less,
and offer food, and shelter
even for future times,
through love,
there is no place that I would rather be
than right here

This thought
strengthens me in hundreds of ways

If we only get one song,
and that song is our life,
then let this be my song

Let everything else be done, or left undone,
no matter –

but just this, to aim to care for you
in the best of ways –
this brings life,
freshness that does not fade

Every other gain and loss,
no matter –
but just this
of all worlds, of all paths,
to be with you,
and to offer you my hand,
for your whole life
oh, the joy of this!

Tonglen – A quintessential symbol

To sum up this precious Bodhisattva Thought Training of ours, that is a response to this world we live in, to our own limitations and difficulties, and to those of others, and the way to fulfillment in the midst of it all, here are a few words on Tonglen, as a quintessential symbol.

The Bodhisattva practice of what’s called tonglen is traditionally set out in a sequence of images, but, just as a story unfolding can carry one message, just so, with this practice. It is a symbol of the great dedicated heart that people know everywhere. This, most simply, represents the essential enlightened activity of removing suffering and giving happiness.

In the traditional sequence of images, we imagine that we breathe in the suffering of ourself or others, and dissolve it completely into our heart, so that nothing of it remains whatsoever, and then we breathe out, from our heart sending happiness, and absolutely whatever is needed.

We can imagine that there is a brilliant jewel at our heart, sending out light like this. We all have this nature in us that is always bright and shining, without ego, and always loving. This is called Ultimate Bodhicitta.

We can speak of these things sequentially, but when one arrives, the other departs, like light dispelling shadow, health displacing discomfort, and wisdom dawning in the mind removing confusion.

It’s like the appearance of a friend in times of need, that immediately removes loneliness and brings joy. The very presence of our love and compassion can do the same.

With this in mind, here are a few examples of how tonglen can be practiced:

Again I notice how that characteristic of all thought training practice is there – of not moving away from limitation or difficulty, but of using it to progress…

If I’m feeling restless, I can imagine that I’m taking in all restlessness, of myself and others, developing compassion, and I send out peace. This is love. The same with sleepiness or dullness or discomfort or pain in meditation or in life. Instead of just lamenting my own inability, of being stuck in a rut or an unproductive state, I can choose to breathe in and out, contemplating how it is this way for so many people, and how it holds us all back.

This way I can generate a greater resolve than if I felt like I was just practicing for myself alone, or just for this one moment’s peace and clarity and well being. I can bring to mind light, and fill myself with it, and then send this out to others on the out breath.

There are as many applications of love and compassion as there are needs in our lives, the lives of others, and in this world.

So often when we feel separate, or limited, a practice like this can help us to reconnect with others, and to tap into the resources of our deeper nature. One way or another, however we approach it, this is what we all need to do.


From A Practice That Thrives in Difficulty