It’s natural to be disappointed that you haven’t been able to vanquish your own worst faults. But do you have to continue feeling that way? The teachings of lojong say: No, you don’t have to continue feeling that way! In fact, you can use the mistakes you make to propel yourself further along the path.
Lojong, which means “mind training” in Tibetan, is the term for a set of meditations and daily life disciplines that tame and transform our mental afflictions, simultaneously uprooting the source of our suffering—our ego-fixation. The practice set consists of 59 aphorisms written by the 12th-century Tibetan saint Chekhawa Yeshe Dorje; they’re also known as the Seven Points of Mind Training.
Every one of us has ego-fixation. The Buddha’s teaching about this goes all the way back to the second of his four noble truths—that the cause of suffering is clinging and fixation, and the greatest of these is fixation on our concept of self. Once we conceive of it, seeing it as a solid and separate entity, we spend all of our time trying to protect and gratify it. Fixation is the engine that makes it “go.”
But beyond the self, we can cling to anything— people, possessions, situations, ideas—and sometimes we may feel as though we’ll never gain control over ourselves. When we make a mistake as a result of attachment, we often beat ourselves up about it. Oh, there I go again, we may think. I can’t believe I lost my temper. That’s what I do, anyway. But then I remember something my teacher, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, taught me—my favorite lojong slogan:
Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue.
In a 19th-century commentary on the lojong teachings, the Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–1899) explains that the three poisons are attachment, aversion, and ignorance, which are always arising in the mind in response to the three objects: things you like, things you don’t like, and things you’re indifferent toward.
To take control of these poisons, Kongtrul says, we should notice them “as soon as they arise.” We may not actually be able to notice them as soon as they arise, but perhaps we can catch them after five minutes, or even two weeks down the road. Whenever it occurs, the moment you notice it, take hold of that mental affliction with your attention and purposefully turn it into an aspiration. It’s as though you see the mental affliction as raw material, the way a potter would view clay. You don’t see clay as a problem; you see it as an opportunity to create something.
It’s as though you see the mental affliction as a raw material, the way a potter would view clay.
So if your emotional state is upsetting, try to step outside of it— even if it’s just for an instant—and say, “I am angry,” “I am jealous,” “I am competitive,” or “I am attached.” Whatever it is that you’re feeling, recognize it. In that instant of separation and acknowledgment, you can use a formula Kongtrul offered and say, “May my mental affliction contain the mental affliction of all sentient beings.” You use your imagination to recognize that there are other people on the planet at this very moment feeling just like you feel. You are no longer alone.
Furthermore, you’re no longer feeding the engine of the mental affliction with words like, “I am angry. I am bad,” or “That person is bad.” You’ve taken the energy away from those stories, allowing that energy to turn into something else—an aspiration for positive change.
You do that by moving to the next step in Kongtrul’s formula, paraphrased here for brevity:
By my working with this moment of mental affliction, may I and all sentient beings be freed from this mental affliction.
That’s powerful stuff. We aspire—just by stepping outside our affliction, engaging it, and working with it—to accrue for ourselves (and all beings!) the seed of virtue to be free from this mental affliction.
The final part of Kongtrul’s formula takes our aspiration higher:
Through this, may we all become buddhas, the complete freedom from mental affliction.
The whole process may seem cumbersome at first, but with practice it will become second nature and give us a new way to view what we think of as faults and failings.
Kongtrul’s technique allows us to take the energy away from our mental afflictions and transform that energy into an aspiration for goodness: May I be good, may all things be good, and may all beings be free.
We’ve made a conscious turn away from feeding our mental affliction and taken ourselves somewhere else. We’ve taken that thing that was dark and unworkable and turned it into something light and workable. That moment is my favorite moment. Even in my own feelings of disappointment with myself, I know that Kongtrul’s method will work. I know it will work. I’ve used it again and again. Of course, there are days when I’m so upset about something I don’t want to use it. But I have to. Because that’s the way to sanity.
You can even use this method without full sincerity, through gritted teeth. Any way you use it will create a momentum of change within you.
This technique can also be used to generate compassion for yourself. “May my mistake, this thing I just goofed up on, contain the mistakes of all sentient beings, and by working through this feeling of mistake, may I and all sentient beings be free of it. May we all become buddhas.”
For me, this unhooks the feeling of “I’ve been practicing for so many years but I can’t get on top of my anger.” If you have anger, it’s not the end of everything. You don’t have to stop practicing because you’re angry. Use the formula, take hold of the anger, and turn it into an aspiration. Don’t sit there and feel bad that you’re not further along in your practice. Do something with that feeling instead.
Watch Lama Kathy Wesley’s January 2019 Dharma Talk series, “Buddhism’s Alchemy of Emotion,” at tricycle.org/dharmatalks.
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