Buddhism with an Attitude
The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind-Training
B. Alan Wallace
Snow Lion Press 2001,
The Tibetan Seven-Point Mind Training (Lo Jong) was composed by the 12th-century Tibetan monk Geshe Chekawa and is based on the oral teachings of the Indian sage, Atisha. It consists of a number of aphorisms that form a quintessential guide to the spiritual path. Several commentaries have been published in recent years, suggesting the growing interest in this set of teachings. With Wallace's commentary, which addresses many practical and theoretical issues that arise for modern readers, the Lo Jong arrives firmly in the 21st century.
As Wallace's title suggests, Lo-Jong can be translated as 'attitudinal' training. The 'objective' world is a given, and therefore, in a sense neutral to us. To effect positive change in our lives we need to alter our inner attitude to experience. According to Wallace, the Seven-Point Mind Training is 'the essence of Dharma, a concise array of methods to achieve genuine happiness no matter what our circumstances'. It guides the practitioner in how to transform adverse conditions and everyday experience into the path itself. Wallace is well qualified to comment, having studied and practised Tibetan Buddhism for more than 30 years. He also holds a doctorate in religious studies and teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The first point is to 'Train in the Preliminaries', also known as preliminary reflections. Before an individual can hope to practise the spiritual life he or she must first see through the limitations of their subjective experience, and these reflections open up a perspective that challenges our habitual self-preoccupation. Firstly the practitioner reflects on 'the rareness and preciousness of the human life of leisure and opportunity'. They consider that as a human they possess the faculties necessary for developing wisdom and have a precious opportunity to do so. Secondly they reflect on 'death and impermanence', an important spur to effort and an acknowledgement that everything including oneself is in a state of flux.
Thirdly they reflect on 'the unsatisfactory nature of the cycle of existence', which is to say, life in general. Fourthly they reflect on 'Karma', the principle that actions have consequences and how we live now has a direct relationship with what we will become. These 'discursive meditations' turn the heart towards the spiritual life. Wallace is uncompromisingly frank. He questions many commonly held beliefs, for example, that there is no existence after death, which, he argues, is just a belief and can be no more verified scientifically than rebirth.
The second point, 'Cultivating the Bodhichitta', forms the longest chapter in the book and is the heart of all Mahayana Buddhist practice. The Bodhichitta, or awakened heart, has two aspects - the Absolute and the Relative. The Absolute Bodhicitta relates to the Wisdom aspect of practice and the development of Insight into Reality. The Relative Bodhicitta is the compassionate and altruistic dimension of practice. In this chapter Wallace introduces practical instruction - the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Development of Loving-kindness (Metta Bhavana) meditation practices. He makes the important point that without a calm mind it is hard to develop any lasting insight. A calm mind that contemplates Reality is able to sustain a penetrative understanding into the nature of existence. He also introduces Tonglen, giving and taking, a practice of taking all the sufferings of living beings into oneself and then giving out loving-kindness, and thereby transforming negative emotions into compassion.
Wallace's treatment of the third and fourth points makes up the pivotal chapters, 'Transforming adversity into an aid for spiritual awakening', and 'A synthesis of practice for one life'. For Wallace 'The goal of the seven-point mind-training is to integrate Dharma into life, all of life, not just the good parts'. When we start practising we can be so inspired that we may even think we are Enlightened already! When adverse conditions and negative emotions arise we often flounder, and sometimes blame Buddhism for our problems. The problem is that we do not have the tools to deal with these conditions. It is important to develop a mental attitude that enables the mind to be a 'good friend' to us whether the conditions are adverse or conducive. The seven-point mind training provides an arsenal that we will need to be able to practise consistently regardless of the conditions.
The next point, 'The criterion for proficiency' offers a guide that helps us to recognise when we have made progress on the path. This is important, because if we cannot recognise progress the spiritual endeavour may become so daunting that we feel disillusioned. The last two points are the pledges and precepts of mind training, which give ethical guidance in developing strength of purpose and purity.
Wallace's commentary is written in an accessible and readable style that makes it both inspirational for practitioners and instructive for beginners. He is not just a theoretician but also a deeply experienced practitioner, and Buddhism with an Attitude has an edge of authenticity.
Dharmamati teaches at the Sydney Buddhist Centre, Australia