19th Century Tibetan Tangka of Shantideva

A reader asked for an explanation of “Exchanging of Self with Others,” the fourth component of Shantideva’s formula for generating bodhicitta mentioned in yesterday’s post. I thought I might as well discuss all four.

As I mentioned yesterday, Shantideva’s four points are found in the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, specifically in the Eighth chapter, “The Practice of Meditation,” and are said to be based on a work by Nagarjuna, Exchanging Self with Others. They are not clearly enumerated, so evidently someone organized them from the verses. How they came to be called the Four Point Mind Training and exactly what historical relationship it has with the better known Seven Point Mind Training of Atisha is not clear to me.

“Mind Training” is a rather specific sort of practice within the Tibetan tradition. It is spelled “blosbyong” and pronounced as “lojong.” Atisha ((982–1054 CE), an Indian meditation master, is credited with originating this practice, which is actually based on contemplating 59 “slogans” composed by Geshe Chekhawa (1101–1175 CE).

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Joyful Path of Good Fortune: The Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenment says that traditionally there are two methods for generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening: 1) training the mind in the sevenfold cause and effect, which was taught by the Buddha and “passed down through Maitreya to Masters such as Asanga,” and 2) training the mind in equalizing and exchanging self with others, this one also taught by the Buddha and “passed down Manjushri to Masters such as Shantideva.” These two lineages are, of course, fictional; however, the point here is that perhaps at one time this exchanging self with others was a stand-alone practice, similar to tonglen.

The Equality of Self and Others

Buddhism teaches that we are all equal. There is no one person, race of people, class or gender that is superior to any others. We are interconnected to one another through a variety of factors, such as interdependency (pratitya-samutpada), the fact that we all possess the 3 poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, that we all experience sufferings, we all want happiness, and so on.

Shantideva says,

At first, one should earnestly meditate
on the equality of oneself and others as follows:
“All equally experience suffering and happiness.
I should look after them as I do myself.

The Fault of Self Cherishing

Self-cherishing, self-centeredness, egoism, greed, etc., all stem from grasping after non-existent self existence or self-being. This is not to suggest that we should engage in self-loathing or anything like that, but rather that we ratchet down quite severely any unwholesome sense of self-importance or superiority over others.


When happiness is so dear
to others and me equally,
what is so special about me
that I strive after happiness for myself alone?

The Importance of Others and Cherishing of Others

Others are just as important as we are, and since we are all interdependent, our welfare and that of others is inextricably linked together. We should also bear in mind the many benefits derived from cherishing others, benefits that enrich the quality of our own lives.


Acknowledging the faults of cherishing oneself
and seeing others as oceans of virtues,
one should renounce self-cherishing
and become acquainted with cherishing others.

The Exchange of Self with others

This reverses the tendency toward self-cherishing. “Exchanging self with others” is a tool for really engraving bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, in our mind. In this way, when we see the sufferings of others, it becomes as intolerable and agonizing as though they were our own sufferings.


One who fails to exchange his own happiness
for the sufferings of others will find it impossible to attain Buddhahood.
How then could there even be happiness
in the cycle of birth and death?

Placing your own identity in others
and placing the identity of others in your own self,
imagining envy and pride with a mind
free of discursive thoughts.

Lama Thubten Yeshe explains,

Exchanging oneself with others . . . means that you exchange the mind which cherishes oneself and ignores others with the mind which cherishes others and ignores oneself. You need to meditate on this again and again, continuously, and in this way train your mind in exchanging yourself with others.

The fourfold mind training is a rather long and involved meditative process, which is too much to detail here. But as far as “exchanging self with others” is concerned, this is very similar (some say identical) to the Tibetan practice of tonglen, “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.” Briefly, in this meditation, you visualize taking into your own body the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath you send out happiness and warm thoughts of loving-kindness. This is usually done by visualizing the sufferings you take in as black smoke, and the happiness you send out as white light, which you visualize as expanding until it fills the entire universe.


Countless eons have passed
while you sought your own well-being.
This great effort of yours
has only resulted in suffering.

At my request, exert yourself
in this way right now without hesitation.
Later you will see the virtue of this,
for the words of the Sage are true.

This current state, without happiness,
success or Buddhahood,
would not have occurred
had you done this before.

Therefore, just as you formed
the sense of ‘I’ with regard to
the drops of blood and semen of others,
so accustom yourself with others.

Seeing as the other person,
remove from this body
everything that is useful to it,
and use it to benefit others.

Nagarjuna’s Twenty Verses, presented as part of Wednesday’s post, contained the line “may all sentient beings aspire to realize the highest bodhicitta.”

What he’s really saying is “may all beings aspire to aspire,” for bodhicitta, “the thought of awakening,” is itself an aspiration – the wish or desire to realize awakening for the sake of all beings. Generating the thought of awakening is an essential step on the bodhisattva path and Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacaryavatara, better known as “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” is one of the most important Mahayana texts dealing with that path. The first four chapters were used as a liturgy:

To acquire the jewel that is this thought,
I offer salutations to the buddhas,
the pure treasure of the true dharma,
and the children of the awakened, fields of virtue.

I rejoice in the arising of the thought of awakening
in those who adopt the teaching,
for this thought is an ocean whose tide brings bliss,
whose depths hold the treasure of all that is beneficial to all sentient beings.”

The word bodhi means “awakening” and citta literally means “mind” or “thought.” Bodhicitta is comprised of three aspects: the simple thought or idea of awakening, the consciousness permeated with this thought, and the force of the thought to transform one’s life.

Shantideva states that he is in such awe of bodhicitta, that at first, he cannot understand how it could have possibly arisen in him. He compares himself to a blind man who finds a precious jewel in a heap of mud.

He also says that once bodhicitta has arisen, there is no reason why one should ever lose it or its force be diminished.  But this power to remain within the mind is only possible when a person has a strong determination to nurture and maintain the thought of awakening.

Shantideva writes,

Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings
and end the distress of living beings, should never surrender
this thought of awakening, for as soon as the thought arises within,
even the most miserable person is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”

Shantideva tells us that the arising of this altruistic intention marks a turning point in the life of the individual and becomes so forceful that “even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception.”

That’s overselling it a bit perhaps, and of course, the point of bodhicitta is not about amassing merit or acquiring benefit for one’s own sake. It’s a tool to train the mind. When we generate bodhicitta for the sake of others, the turning point actually occurs when we adopt a new way of thinking. Once our mind has turned, concern for others does not really require generation; it is already front and center.

Still, one must start somewhere. According to Min Bahadur Shakya, Shantideva based his formula for generating the thought of awakening (found in the Bodhisattvacaryavatara) on a work ascribed to Nagarjuna entitled, Exchanging Self with Others. Shakya presents the formula as:

a)  The Equality of Self and Others (Paratmasamata)

b)  The Fault of Self Cherishing (Atmasnehadosa)

c)  The Importance of Others and Cherishing of others (Parasneha)

d)  The Exchange of Self with others (Atmaparavartana)

These are points to contemplate on during meditation or through simple reflection, points to help turn the mind from its self-centered direction.

Nagarjuna’s mention of “highest bodhicitta” in the Twenty Verses may be a reference to the two types of bodhicitta, relative and ultimate. Relative bodhicitta is a state of mind where one naturally strives to be of benefit to others, while ultimate bodhicitta has more to do with emptiness, dissolving completely the illusion of inherent self-being.

The Dalai Lama has said,

If you have the wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.”

I feel like bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, requires a certain amount of courage. You may have heard of “active bodhicitta.” To me, this means awakening is not realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. It means putting our altruistic intentions into action. That, at times, definitely takes some courage, but perhaps the greatest challenge, the one requiring the most courage, is to conquer our self-centered natures.

When we develop this kind of motivation to be of benefit to others and then put it into play, enlightenment is no longer an abstract idea. I think it becomes something real and attainable. I think compassion is enlightenment, or at least, the very edge of something like enlightenment. The thought of awakening opens a door that offers us a glimpse of enlightenment and the more bodhicitta we generate opens the door a little wider.

Lama Govinda explains it this way,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

It’s not meaningless. It’s meaningful. When we live for more than just ourselves.

Bodhicitta or the Thought of Awakening is the aspiration to realize enlightenment for the benefit of others. Shantideva called it “the jewel that is the seed of pure happiness in the world and the remedy for the suffering of the world.”

Enlightening beings, called bodhisattvas, altruistic heroes of the mind, seek to generate the thought of awakening and then maintain the thought as they fare on the Buddha path. In Tibetan Buddhism, bodhicitta is said to have six causes.* The first: Seeing All Sentient Beings as One’s Mothers.

The idea is that since the beginningless beginning of time we had moved through the cycle of birth and death leading a countless number of lives. If our previous lives are numberless, so too are the mothers who have given us birth. Nagarjuna said, “If we divided this earth into pieces the size of juniper berries, the number of these would not be as great as the number of times that each sentient being has been our mother.”

One method to develop deep compassion is to visualize that all beings have at one time been your mother and with a boundless heart, cherish them. Osama bin Laden was your mother. Barack Obama has been your mother. All your friends have been your mother. The person who hates you or injures you has been your mother. Your present mother has been your mother numberless times . . .

In Praise of Mother Beings

mother beings: let them each and all
come into my mind’s embrace, so deserving
of respect and honor, may I be a cloud to
shower blessings down upon them, may I be
the rain that washes away their pain, the wind
that blows away their fears, homage to all
mother beings

mother beings: all beings alive and to live again,
in every form and sense, in every lonely shining world,
all realms and universes, these innumerable beings
standing walking sitting talking crying laughing,
attending to their plane of existence –  all of them
at some point in the infinite amaze of time have
been my mother

mother beings: the woman down the street,
the man on the corner, the child next door,
the thief in the hall, the killer on the news –
they all once gave me birth in a former life,
bathed me, fed me from their breast, cared
for me, comforted and healed me –  how
could I ever hurt them or hate them or wish
them the slightest ill or disgrace, these my
very own dear mothers

mother beings: I beg your forgiveness,
I confess all my little murders of you, all the
wounds I inflict so coolly and with such ease,
I regret every unkind thought word and deed –
I ask nothing for my own sake but give everything
for your sake, so that no sorrow comes to
anyone else on my foolish account –  show to me your
kindness and love once more by accepting my
apology and blessing my repentance, I who am your son
and the son of your sons

mother beings: may I always remember that we
are inseparable, that I am your blood the blood of inter-
dependence, your flesh my flesh, and may
I always protect you, respect you, be your raft
across the sorrowful sea, your bliss on the crystal
shore, the armor that protects you, the rope that
saves you, the blanket that warms you, the watcher
who watches over you, the crutch you lean upon,
a light to illuminate your way, the medicine that
heals your wounds, may I be the choir that sings
your praises, may I always see my life as
something for your service, may I remember
to love all living beings as they were my mother and
never cease to remember and honor and repay
all precious mother beings

© 2002-2011 dmriley

*1) Recognize all sentient beings as one’s mother, 2) Remembering their kindness, 3) Repaying their kindness, 4) Love, 5) Boundless compassion, and 6) Altruistic intention.

Tenju Kyoju or “transforming heavy into light” is a term used in a number of Japanese Buddhist schools. Often understood as ‘lessening the effects of negative karma’, the presence of the Chinese character “chóng” meaning “repetition” suggests another sense, that of changing repeated negative patterns of thought, word and deed.

Habits can be hard to break. Deep seated thoughts are not easily dislodged. “Transforming heavy into light” is possible by cleaning up negative tendencies, habits and addictions. From a purely Buddhist point of view it is not altogether necessary to understand why we are compelled to repeat negative patterns, so much as it is to understand that we can stop it with the adoption of opposite behavior (pratiprak-sabhavana).

The Eastern spiritual traditions have developed many practices to effect the transformation of karmic tendencies. One aspect that is central to many of these practices is the taking of vows (vrata) which is said to form tendencies opposite to those ones that binds us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits.

If karma is dependent upon intention, then the patterns that produce negative karmic tendencies can be countered with the purest of all intentions: the vow to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings.

We call this Bodhicitta or the Thought of Awakening.

You who are accustomed to dwelling abroad in the marketplaces of destiny, seize firmly that highly priced jewel, the Thought of Awakening, so well-attested by all those with immeasurable minds . . . Whoever has committed the most dreadful evil may escape at once by taking refuge in this thought . . . This Thought of Awakening is to be understood as twofold: it is the idea of dedication to Awakening [bodhipranidhiccitta) and the actual pilgrimage towards it [bodhiprasthana].

Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

It’s taught that the first instant in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Of course, that should not be taken literally. It doesn’t end there. Once the thought has been produced, it is the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration and sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive karmic tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones lessened.

The seeds of karmic potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, beginning with a new deep-seated thought pattern, bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, that we can “transform heavy into light.”

The sea of all karmic obstacles arises from illusions. If you wish to make amends for your past karma, sit upright and meditate on the true aspect of life, and all your offences will vanish like frost and dewdrops in the sunlight of enlightened wisdom.

Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue

Not everyone will want to undertake the formal practice of a bodhisattva, but that does not mean they cannot enter the bodhisattva path.

It begins with generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta is actually two aspirations: to experience awakening for oneself and then for others.  It is comprised of two elements: compassion for others and a deep understanding of suffering. To wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation. To wish others to be free is to have true compassion.

My understanding of bodhicitta comes mainly from the Tibetan tradition, as teachers I have encountered in other traditions have not dealt with it in any comprehensive way. Since the Tibetan schools are essentially Madhyamaka or Middle Way schools, their discourses on bodhicitta are largely founded on the teachings of Nagarjuna and Shantideva.

Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-caryavatara, better known as A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is probably the best and most expansive guide to the practice of bodhicitta. He writes “Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings, those who wish to end the distress of living beings  . . . should never surrender this thought of awakening . . . as soon as the thought of awakening arises within, even the most miserable person . . .  is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”

Lama Govinda explains,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

Actually, without bodhicitta or any practice, there does appear to be meaning, but often that meaning is founded on pride and self-cherishing, so it is negligible.  Bodhicitta is skillful means, a tool to combat the self-centered meanings we seize.

Shantideva praises bodhicitta, calling it “a precious jewel so seldom produced for one’s own sake, much less for others.” He says altruistic intention is so powerful that “Even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception” and that once bodhicitta arises all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

Naturally not all statements of this sort should be taken literally. It’s the spirit of the words, reflecting the essence of bodhicitta, that we want to capture.

In addition to selflessness and compassion, bodhicitta also requires courage. In this sense, I’ve heard the term “active bodhicitta.” Liberation through bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. You must put the altruistic intention into action. After reflecting deeply on the meaning of bodhicitta take active steps to help others. This is also called wisdom.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, teachings on bodhicitta have a direct relationship with emptiness. Emptiness is seen as the real ground of liberation, and it is on account of emptiness that true compassion is possible.

In teachings on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in Los Angeles in 201, the Dalai Lama said,

If you have wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.

Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term.  You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride, also powerful when you are depressed.

You can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.  To achieve this kind of liberation requires a great determination.