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Equanimity: Introduction to the
The generation of bodhicitta is the entrance into and the unique mainstay of the Mahayana. Widely celebrated, it is the very quintessence of all Buddhist scriptural systems, a fabulous ambrosia of Dharma. The mere thought of it can banish all mental woes. Since it is one of the qualities that Bodhisattvas hold dearest to their hearts, those of us who really want to engage in the Mahayana path should train meticulously in the cultivation of this mind. If, however, we fail to give it the required amount of attention, none of our practices can truly be considered Mahayana in scope.
In general, there are a wide variety of practices employed for training in the mind of enlightenment, but if we speak in terms of graduated and comprehensive methods then there are two systems of mental training: the sevenfold cause and effect instruction, and the equalizing and exchanging of self and others. Both of these systems originated with Shakyamuni Buddha and have been passed down to us in unbroken traditions. As their practice continues to yield innumerable Bodhisattvas, our sincere aspiration toward the Mahayana should inspire us to perform them to the best of our abilities.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught the sevenfold cause and effect instructions directly to Maitreya. The instructions were then transmitted through what is referred to as close lineage to Asanga and his successors. The instructions for equalizing and exchanging self with others were initially taught by the Buddha to Manjushri, and were subsequentlytransmitted to Nagarjuna and the others of that close lineage.
These lineages of instruction survived in various different forms. In the works of Nagarjuna and his spiritual sons we find that the system of equalizing and exchanging self and others is singled out for special emphasis, while the sevenfold cause and effect instruction is not given such prominence. Conversely, in the texts by Asanga and Vasubandhu the sevenfold instruction is dealt with separately and broadly whereas the second method is not explained at length.
Prior to the time of Atisha, it seems that these two traditions took separate courses, with no one person holding both lineages simultaneously. But Atisha, having received both, was able to unite them and disseminate them in a combined form. In Tibet, Atisha's inheritance came to be known as "the merging of the three great rivers," these being "the profound-view lineage" (that lineage passed from Manjushri to Nagarjuna), "the lineage of far-reaching deeds" (that lineage passed from Maitreya to Asanga), and "the practice-blessing lineage." The third lineage was given by the Conqueror Vajradhara to Tilopa, then to Naropa and his successors, and is described as a cascade of experience within which all of the elaborations with respect to listening and contemplation have been discarded.
From the point of view of generating genuine realizations, the sevenfold cause and effect method is said to be primarily for those of weaker faculties and those unable to train extensively in the Cittamatra or Madhyamaka philosophical views. For those of higher faculties, who have gained a certain self-reliance in terms of their discernment of these views, the equalizing and exchanging of self and others is more suitable and fulfilling. Despite this, in order to gain a mind of enlightenment which is tenacious and which unites the practices of method and wisdom, it is necessary to utilize both systems. Those who assert that the practitioners of the two systems must be completely different individuals are drawing a rash conclusion.
The stages of training of the sevenfold cause and effect system are:
(1) Recognizing beings as having been our mothers
(2) Recalling their kindness
(3) Resolving to repay their kindness
(4) Generating affectionate love
(5) Generating compassion
(6) Developing the superior intention
Then in dependence on these causes arises the effect:
(7) The mind directed toward supreme enlightenment
By concentrating solely on the sevenfold method you will avoid the troubles that come with pursuing multiple techniques, but you will not sacrifice the basic goal of training in the mind of enlightenment. It is a complete, relatively simple method that can be effective for any practitioner, regardless of his or her individual capacity. For this reason it is called an upadesha or "personal instruction."
Practice of the individual steps of this method should be preceded by meditation on equanimity, which is actually the essential prerequisite for the practice of any of the three vehicles.
Generally speaking, equanimity has three varieties: equanimity of feeling, equanimity of compositional factors, and immeasurable equanimity. The first kind of equanimity concerns our neutral feelings, that is, feelings which are neither of pleasure nor of displeasure. Since these arise naturally as responses to certain stimuli they do not need to be developed through meditation. The second kind of equanimity is a particular mental state that is used in meditation to prevent the arising of mental lethargy and excitement, which are the two main obstructions to concentration.
The third type of equanimity has two varieties: the first is a type of meditative equanimity in which you envision that all other beings are freed from attachment and aversion. The second is the equanimity with which we are concerned here. There are many levels of this type of equanimity, but essentially it is a state in which all attitudes of attachment and anger toward any sentient being, irrespective of who they are, are overcome. As such it is the supreme form of equanimity.
Nagarjuna discusses the point of this meditation in his "Letter to a Friend" (Suhrl-lekha):
One's father becomes one's son, and one's mother one's
And the person who was an enemy becomes a beloved
Thus there is no certainty in cyclic existence.
The verse refers to the uncertainty of our relations with others in this existence of ours. If you realize that there has been no starting point to the continuous cycle of your births, then instilling a sense of equanimity will not prove difficult. Without this realization, however, you will encounter great problems. Furthermore, failure to meditate on this point will not only condemn whatever Dharma practice you perform to eventual failure, it will also expose your attempts to the risk of becoming non-virtuous. In this specific context it is insufficient merely to perform cursory meditation on equanimity; rather it is necessary to use a number of contemplative techniques to induce it, reflecting on the points mentioned here, as well as on the shortcomings of attachment and aversion.
When contemplating the uncertainty of friend and enemy we should begin by thinking of our relationships in this life, and then extrapolate to the experiences of our series of lifetimes. Within the realm of just a single existence who we count as friends and who we count as enemies is seen to change dramatically. In society at large we can also observe the shifting allegiances of groups and nations—even in the space of a single day there can be a realignment of loyalties. Such constant change brings to mind the random movements of a flag blown by the wind in one direction then another. We ourselves are direct witnesses to turbulent transformations of associations which are due merely to a few unpleasant words.
It would be advisable to reflect upon these facts continuously and not grasp at or assent unquestioningly to the appearances of friends and enemies of this life. Instead we should cultivate a state in which we can fully discern the uncertainties of cyclic existence. This would be very helpful for our social interactions, guaranteeing that we remain honest, while at the same time opening the way for our spiritual practice. Besides the considerations of just this life, in terms of the succession of former and future lives, the constancy of friend and foe is a quality which we will never find. There are cases where the killer of someone's father has been reborn as that person's son, and where those who had once been protectors of the lives of certain individuals have become their enemies in a later life. In fact the frequency of such cases cannot be easily determined, but this observation by Shariputra illustrates the grotesque nature of the situations that occur:
He eats the flesh of his father and beats his mother,
While she sports with the sworn enemy upon her lap.
Thorough consideration of such circumstances can lead to a profound transformation in your attitudes, where you will feel that it is pointless to develop prejudices and act under the sway of attachment and hatred toward friend and enemy. It is in such a manner that you can overcome the manifest forms of those undesirable responses and, free from their influence, gain some equilibrium of mind. At that point you will have met the criteria for the development of the type of equanimity referred to here. When you are able to remain in this state of equanimity for sustained periods, responses of attachment and aversion, or attitudes of closeness and distance with respect to various individuals, do not develop. Within such a state any Dharma practice you perform will prove successful. So on such occasions meditation on, for example, the initial stages of the sevenfold cause and effect instruction will course in a natural, unhindered fashion, like a river descending into a valley.
Thus if in the fertile ground of equanimity you plant the seed of recognition of your mothers and nourish it with the water of reflecting upon and resolving to repay their kindness, the sprout of affectionate love and compassion will flourish like a crop in season.