Day 2: The Practice of Exchanging Oneself for Others

Day 2: The Practice of Exchanging Oneself for Others

Arya Kshema Spring Dharma Teachings: 17th Gyalwang Karmapa on the 8th Karmapa Mikyö Dorje's Autobiographical Verses

March 21, 2022

On the second day of the Arya Kshema Teachings, His Holiness the Karmapa began by wishing us good health and started to explain the tenth of the good deeds described in the autobiographical verses Good Deeds. He mentioned that one of Karmapa Mikyö Dorje’s attendants, Sangye Paldrup, wrote a commentary on the text, and he would like to teach based on its outline. He showed several slides to review the outline as presented in Day One’s teachings.

Of the final three parts mentioned in the previous day’s teachings, we have reached the meditation on relative bodhicitta. There are also two parts to this:

  1. Exchanging himself for others in meditation 
  2. Taking adversity as the path in post-meditation

He explained that today’s teaching would focus on the first of these, exchanging oneself for others in meditation. The verse for this reads:

Benefiting others depends at root on giving away
Your happiness to others and taking their pains upon yourself.
I gave without a trace of ego-clinging
My body, possessions, and virtue to wandering beings.
I think of this as one of my good deeds. (10)

As previously mentioned, there are thirty-three good deeds in total, and this is the tenth of them. “When we say that someone develops the genuine intention to achieve great enlightenment,” explained Karmapa, “they must use all of their places, bodies, and possessions, from now until space disintegrates, to create the roots of virtue that will bring all sentient beings who want the higher states and true excellence to achieve their goals. They need to have this strong feeling to do it, as if their hair were on fire.” In order to free all sentient beings from all suffering, they have to gather these virtues both through intention and action.  

He then pointed out that in the Foundation vehicle, practitioners have lesser methods and prajna to benefit other sentient beings. “For them, the Mahayana conduct is seen as being filled with suffering and hardship. But someone who has bodhicitta does not see it as all that difficult,” said Karmapa. Instead, they joyfully and willingly undergo suffering and hardships for the benefit of others. He explained that by having this attitude, they are actually able to put it into practice and carry out real actions. This is what is meant by exchanging oneself with others, or to give the profit and victory to others and take the loss and mishaps on yourself.

Checking our practice

Karmapa cautioned that some people do not really understand this crucial point. They think that just being a little generous is equal to exchanging oneself for others, or they hope that by spending the first part of their life undergoing hardship and pain, they will be regarded as good dharma practitioners in the latter part of life. Others believe that if they take defeat on themselves and give victory to others in the first part of their life, their families, friends, and students will gain even greater profits in the latter part of life. 

“If you actually think about this, they have not really given up on this life,” Karmapa explained. “They are seeing if they can get an even greater benefit than the loss they suffered earlier. They think that by bringing others to happiness in this lifetime, the karmic credit will come back to them in the next lifetime, and they will be very happy, prosperous, well-known, and so forth.” In particular, some people say they have done the mind training practices and trained in cherishing others more than themselves, but in actuality, in order to help people who take their side, they completely disregard and walk all over their enemies.

According to the way these people act, it is possible for many to think that they are exchanging themselves for others. However, Karmapa stated, they are misunderstanding this method totally. He advised, “Forget about such ways of taking others’ suffering upon oneself being the path to great enlightenment—they are nothing more than karma that mixes virtuous actions of the Desire realm with unvirtuous acts. It is not even the pure virtue of the Desire realm.” 

These days, we might say we are training in bodhicitta, or in the profound practice of the Chöd severance of Maras; we might also say we are suppressing harmful demons in a forceful way. Although we say all these impressive things, His Holiness indicated that it is doubtful that most of us actually understand the profound crucial point of how to exchange ourselves for others. “When we pretend to do it, not only are we fooling other people, we are also fooling ourselves. When you lie at first, you think you are lying. But later, as you repeat that lie over and over again, in the end you begin to think it is true,” he explained. If we were going to follow the path of the bodhisattva, we absolutely must rely on a spiritual friend who is skilled in teaching that, and then train in the vast virtue that will bring all sentient beings to the state of liberation and omniscience. 

Mikyö Dorje’s loving-kindness and compassion

In this regard, Karmapa Mikyö Dorje himself thought greatly about all sentient beings, his mothers who are bereft of refuge or protection. The way he thought about them was that they all want to be happy and not to suffer. But as it is said:

The noble ones take up or give up the causes; ordinary individuals take up or give up the results.

Ordinary individuals are deluded about what they should do and what they should not do. Although virtue is the cause of happiness, they abandon it as if it were poison; even though non-virtue is the cause of suffering, they use it as if it were medicine, and the result is immeasurable and inconceivable suffering without respite, without even a moment of pleasure. Mikyö Dorje understood this from the depths of his heart and knew this to be the main cause of continuous suffering. 

His Holiness pointed out that when suffering happens to others, it is common to think that whatever happens to them makes no difference to us. In contrast, for ourselves and those close to us, we think, “What can we do to live a long and healthy life? How wonderful it would be to become well-known and well-liked!” We take this attitude as if it was the essence of our practice, and we use this like a yidam meditational deity. “This is the main cause of our suffering,” he stressed.

Knowing all this, Mikyö Dorje felt unbearable affection for these inane and insubstantial beings. He thought, “There are so many types of suffering of all those beings. What would be wrong if even the suffering of one hundred or a thousand times more severe than that befell me, but I could take their place? Wouldn’t that be better?” He had this uncontrived feeling and intention in his heart.

How do we know this was so? His Holiness explained that we can understand by looking at his liberation stories, both the autobiographies and ones written by others. From the time when Mikyö Dorje was little, it seemed he naturally had unstoppable loving thoughts toward other sentient beings. There was a little dzo (mix between yak and cow) calf that he thought was going to be slaughtered. Out of love, he protected it in the daytime and slept with it at night in his room. Likewise, there was also a nanny goat that his parents were going to give to a lama as an offering. Worried that it would be butchered, young Mikyö Dorje said, “This nanny goat has been kind, so I won’t let you give it away,” and held on firmly to one of its legs until he was completely exhausted. Even before he was recognized as the Karmapa, he already had such compassion. “It is taught in the Mahayana sutras that the people belonging to the bodhicitta family naturally had such signs, such as getting goosebumps or shedding tears at the sight of others’ suffering. This was the case with Mikyö Dorje,” said Karmapa.

He then shared a saying of the Kadampa masters: If you could take the place of one sentient being, even if it meant experiencing the suffering of hell until samsara was emptied; when you have that feeling actually arising, you have developed authentic aspirational bodhicitta. When you have this intention, and you feel not even the slightest fear or discouragement about putting that thought into action with your body and speech, only then can you be said to have authentic engaged bodhicitta. Once you develop such aspirational and engaged bodhicitta, there is no difficulty in developing the vows of engaged and aspirational bodhicitta.

Likewise, in Mikyö Dorje’s mind, all sentient beings have been our fathers, mothers, friends, relatives, siblings, life partners, and so forth. “It is inconceivable when we think about all the ways they have protected us, in terms of our bodies, life, and possessions. It was not just in one place, and it was not just trillions of times; it was not just one or two beings. In sum, the number of times, places, individuals, and so forth is so great that even the buddhas cannot calculate it,” explained Karmapa. Mikyö Dorje had such strong certainty in this that he thought, “If I could take even one of the hardships they encounter or one of their sufferings; if I could take their place and experience it until samsara is emptied, I would.” He developed the courage of thinking as such as well as the diligence of actually trying to do so. Thus, Karmapa explained that he had no difficulty in actually exchanging himself and others; it just happened naturally.

From the time Lord Mikyö Dorje was little, he had few thoughts of self-interest. He did not worry about his own comfort, such as whether his stomach was going to be full or not, but he was always worrying about whether things would go badly for others. Karmapa explained, “There were probably more bad people than good ones around Mikyö Dorje. They never listened to what he had to say and did various different things, but he was not bothered at all. For the sake of others, he cast away any pleasures of his own body, speech, and mind as if they were spit. He was always thinking and wondering, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’" Likewise, many felt that an ordinary person would not be able to work as hard as he did; they would become exhausted and die if they tried. 

During that time, the earth was filled with pseudo dharma practitioners who pretended to be authentic; they were willing to sacrifice even their own lives if it meant gaining some fame or pleasure. At that time, whenever any sentient being gained the higher states of gods and humans, or the enlightenment of true excellence, Mikyö Dorje always felt incredible joy and delight for them. Karmapa compared this to the moment when someone receives one million U.S. dollars, and they feel as if they will die of happiness. Similarly, when something went well for others, Mikyö Dorje was extremely delighted; he never had feelings of jealousy or of being unable to bear it. 

"Many of us who are called dharma practitioners like it when things go well for people we like, but it is a little uncomfortable in our hearts when it happens to our enemies or opponents," explained Karmapa. "When people are unable to bear others enjoying a small bit of good fortune, it is difficult to say that they have bodhicitta." If we cannot get our minds around others having some good fortune in this lifetime, saying we are giving everyone the happiness of complete enlightenment is totally laughable. 

Therefore, for someone like Karmapa Mikyö Dorje, his heart and his words were aligned. For him, the most profound method for bringing ordinary beings to the supreme state depended on the wish of exchanging oneself for others. Not only did he not feel jealous when others experienced happiness , but when others experienced suffering, he wished for that suffering to happen upon himself instead, and he was delighted if that actually happened. 

The Great Encampment was very vast at that time, so when certain things did not go according to plan, or when there were unfounded accusations, Mikyö Dorje never placed the blame on anyone else but himself. When certain things did turn out well, he never boasted of it or took the credit. Karmapa explained that it was impossible for him to be deceptive or blame others for his own duplicitous acts.

As far as actually exchanging others' suffering with himself, he occasionally mentioned to some of his receptive students that, he would think about the people who were ill or suffered misfortunes and, without them knowing, take it upon himself with his mind. As a result, he would experience discomfort and unease. Karmapa added that he did this secretly; if he told everyone, it would become one of the eight worldly dharmas. 

Likewise, he was always very modest and assumed a low position, never asserting that he was the Karmapa or a dharma practitioner. He would never speak of his qualities; he only shared some of them when the need arose. He treated others as equals and made no difference between rank or station; he neither praised the Kagyu lineage nor criticized other lineages and masters. Because of all this, His Holiness shared that there were many Kagyupas who complained, "Mikyö Dorje is letting everyone else stomp all over his own wisdom, merit, and majesty. He has no appearance of a great lama; he is just like a kid. This is really harmful to the Karmapa's teachings because no one is looking up to him." No matter what they said, Mikyö Dorje was never swayed, and devoted his body, speech, mind, and merit for the sake of the teachings and sentient beings. "This was not just speaking from faith and pure perception," explained Karmapa. "It was something that receptive students saw in their shared perceptions. His deeds and examples are what we should understand as the practice of exchanging self for others."

Langri Tangpa, a genuine spiritual teacher 

Resuming after the intermission, Karmapa noted that there was a historical person we absolutely must know when speaking about the practice of exchanging oneself for others. This was the great Kadampa spiritual friend Langri Tangpa, whose actual name was Dorje Senge. Born in the year 1054 in the region of Penpo Lhundrup Dzong, he was the one who first popularized the instructions of exchanging self for others in Tibet. Along with Shang Sharawa, they were great students of Potowa, and the pair was often compared to the sun and moon.

The transmission of the instructions on exchanging oneself for others was passed down particularly to Langri Tangpa, who became the most important practitioner of this practice, explained Karmapa. Later, he founded a monastery in the Penpo region, which had over two thousand monastics at that time. His Holiness then showed pictures of the Langtang Monastery. It was originally a Kadampa monastery, and later became a Sakya monastery. He indicated that in the main shrine room, there was a statue of Langri Tangpa, wearing a hat that we do not usually see. He likened it to the Gampopa hat. Since Gampopa was originally a Kadampa, His Holiness deduced that there was a connection, and this was possibly the origin of the Gampopa hat. 

The instructions on exchanging oneself for others was initially a secret practice. Langri Tangpa arranged the mind-training visualizations into eight verses and made it his primary practice. He later taught these in public, particularly to the monastic communities. With regards to exchanging oneself for others and the tonglen meditation, Langri Tangpa himself had said, "I have never taken an ordinary breath." Karmapa explained this meant he was doing the practice continuously; he combined each inhalation and exhalation with exchanging his happiness for others' suffering. Each breath he took was for the sake of bringing benefit and happiness to other sentient beings. 

The author of the Seven Points of Mind Training, Geshe Chekawa, said he first developed faith in the Kadampa because he heard these eight verses taught by Langri Tangpa. Karmapa noted that there are two versions of the Eight Verses of Mind Training— the verses that are well-known today and a prose version. In his opinion, the original Eight Verses might be the prose version. "In Tibetan, the term tsig refers to a phrase or a line of verse, but it's impossible to count the verse version as only having eight lines or phrases, while the prose version can.Likewise, the commentary by Ja Chekawa is clearly based on the prose version, so there are several reasons for thinking in this way. But I'm not saying that the version in verse is not by Langri Tangpa," explained Karmapa. 

Some scholars hold that the version by Langri Tangpa originally read:

Thinking that all sentient beings
Surpass a wish-fulfilling jewel
For accomplishing the highest good,
I'll always train in cherishing beings.

The last verse of each line read "I will train in it," but Sangchenpa Darma Sönam later changed it to read "May I", turning it into an aspiration.

An individual who practices exchanging oneself for others must be able to take the lowest position for themselves and carry everyone, whether greater or lesser, above the crown of their head. Another crucial point, Karmapa added, was that Langri Tangpa said that no matter what profound text he might read, none could be understood any differently than saying that all faults are his own; all positive qualities belong to other sentient beings. Due to this, we must give all profit and victory to others, and take all losses and mishaps on ourselves. He believed that was how we should understand the dharma.

Another quality of Langri Tangpa was that he was always scowling, His Holiness remarked. The reason he never smiled was because he was always meditating solely on the problems of samsara. Once, one of his attendants said to him, "People are all calling you scowling Langtangpa. You should smile sometimes," to which he replied, "When you think of these sufferings in the three realms of samsara, how can you have a happy expression on your face?" 

"We don't really understand the suffering of samsara," explained Karmapa. "We just say, 'Oh, it's the idea of suffering,' but in the depths of our mind, we don't feel it. But he felt it deeply, and it actually showed in his body language." 

It is said that Langri Tangpa only ever smiled three times in his life. One time, while he was meditating, he had a mandala in front of him with a piece of turquoise on it. A mouse came and really liked it, but the gem did not move when the mouse pushed, so it called a friend for help. One mouse pushed from behind, while the other pulled the gem. Langri Tangpa started to smile a little when he saw this. 

Karmapa then gave a further illustration of how Langri Tangpa practiced exchanging himself for others. One day when he was giving a dharma talk, a woman came and put a newborn baby on his lap. She simply said, "This is your son; I can't raise him," and left. Everyone was amazed, but Langri Tanpa accepted the baby without any change in his facial expression. He looked for someone to provide milk, and he raised the child. When the boy had grown up, his parents came back for him and apologized, "We had many children before and they all died. According to the divinations and astrology, we had to give him to a lama to prevent him from dying young too. Please forgive us and return our son to us." Langri Tangpa then returned the child to them. Even when people criticized or deprecated him, he would never explain but took all the loss and defeat upon himself. 

Langri Tangpa had many excellent students, including Geshe Shapo Gangpa, Gya Chakriwa, and Ra Lotsawa. Khyungpo Naljor, the founder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, was also a student of his. When Khyungpo Naljor went to India, he requested bhikshu vows from Lama Bodhgaya, who replied, "As an Indian, I cannot be your khenpo. Go back to Tibet and there there is an emanation of the Buddha Amitabha in Langri. Take full ordination from him." Following his instructions, Khyungpo Naljor went back and took full ordination from Langri Tangpa, who was forty years old at that time. Another of his students, Geshe Shapo Gangpa, said, "Langtangpa had incredible bodhicitta. For someone like me, I can sacrifice myself for those who help me but not those who have harmed me. He can do so for both."

Due to Langri Tangpa’s great loving-kindness and compassion, even the animals within the area of Langtang Monastery would not harm each other. On the day of his passing, an elderly woman was circumambulating Langtang. "What is going on?" she said. "In the past here at Langtang, wolves did not kill sheep and falcons did not harm birds. But this morning, I saw a falcon carry away a bird. It seems Langri Tangpa is not here anymore; he must have left his body." 

Karmapa elaborated that Langri Tangpa made the prayer, "May I be reborn in hell to help sentient beings," before he passed away, but it seemed that this was not fulfilled. Langri Tangpa said, "I’m only seeing pure visions,” and became very worried. His Holiness pointed out that most of us are worried we will be born in hell, but Langri Tangpa was the opposite. He passed away at the age of 70 in the year 1123.

Langri Tangpa’s reliquary stupa is still at Langtang Monastery, and people and gods circumambulate it all day and night. His Holiness explained that if a human shadow fell on a god, the person’s life would be shortened, so Geshe Shangshung made a rule that humans could circumambulate until noon, and then gods and spirits could circumambulate until nightfall. This rule is still being upheld, according to a sign in a picture of the stupa. Karmapa encouraged any who could to go there on pilgrimage. “He was someone who really had bodhicitta, so I think it would be very beneficial for developing bodhicitta if we made supplications there,” he explained.

An extraordinary tale about Gya Chakriwa

Karmapa continued by sharing with us a miraculous story about Gya Chakriwa, one of Langri Tangpa’s main students. He was also an important Kadampa lama whom Gampopa followed. His Holiness emphasized that since we say that the Dhakpo Kagyu is the confluence of the Kadampa and Mahamudra, we need to be able to remember the name of the person who passed down the Kadampa teachings. 

According to most Kadampa masters, Gya Chakriwa was born in Kham, but Ra Lotsawa’s liberation story said he was born in Penpo. In any case, his father died when he was young, as  had all six of his elder siblings. In such situations, Karmapa explained, Tibetans tended to think that perhaps the mother was a witch or a monster. 

Every evening, his mother disappeared, and the child started wondering, “My mother is a little strange. I’ve got to see what she’s doing.” One night, he pretended to go to sleep and around midnight, two women with dark red faces came and asked the mother to go with them. The mother sat astride a large wooden trunk as if riding a horse. Then all three of them flew right through the wall. The child fell asleep a little while later, but his mother had already returned when he awoke, so he did not see where she had gone.

The next night, he decided that he wanted to see where his mother had gone, so he climbed inside the trunk and waited. Just as on the previous night, the two women arrived and held the same conversation. His mother sat on the trunk, and it made a creaking sound; as she flew, it nearly touched the ground. His mother remarked, “Tonight this horse isn’t moving well.” Eventually, they reached a charnel ground where many women were gathered.

Karmapa explained, “When we talk about dakinis, we consider them to be very good. But in India, people see them as witches who cast spells. When we Tibetans say the word ‘dakini’, everyone is like, ‘Oh, I want to be one too!’ People think they are something special, but it actually isn’t like that; they are really scary. If we don’t treat them well, they will cast spells.”

The child’s mother was the main one, the boss. The women placed her trunk in the center, and it became a throne she sat on. Then, they brought the corpse of a young man and had a party. First, they cut off the top of his head and offered it to the mother, who then exclaimed, “Oh, but I left my spoon at home!” One of the women replied, “Just stretch out your long arm,” so his mother, while still sitting on the throne, extended her arm a long way to fetch a spoon from her home. Then, she ate the brains. The son saw all this from inside the box.

When dawn approached, all the women left, and the mother also rode the trunk back home and went to bed. The son slowly got out of the box and lay down in bed without his mother sensing it.

Nothing happened for a long time,  until one day his mother dropped the wooden spindle she was using to spin yarn upstairs. It fell in front of the boy who was downstairs. The mother instructed, “Bring me my wool.” The boy could not stop himself saying, “Oh Mommy, just stretch out your long arm.” His mother realized he knew her secret and immediately got angry. She grabbed him, shook him a few times, and immediately he turned into a dog. Although his body had turned into a dog’s, his mind was still human, which tortured him immensely. He was devastated and thought to himself, “It would be better to drown myself in a river than to stay like this.” While he was on his way to do so, he heard many people talking about Langri Tangpa’s incredible qualities and powers. He decided to go to him and see if he could be freed from this body. 

According to the Kadampa histories, the boy followed some merchants to Ü-tsang. Geshe Langri Tangpa already knew that he was coming and told an attendant to make a torma and bring it to him. Just as the sun was setting, Langri Tangpa told him, “Go outside and see if anyone has come.” The attendant looked and saw that no one had come, but there was a dog running towards them. He related this to Langri Tangpa, who then put on his hat, took the torma, and went outside. He immediately threw the torma at the dog, instantly turning him back to a human body. The boy felt great faith in Langri Tangpa and stayed with him as his attendant. He was ordained and received bhikshu vows. However, Langri Tangpa warned him, “Another misfortune will happen to you, so do not make any decisions without asking me first.”

Not long after that, the boy’s mother heard that he had gone to Langri Tangpa and his body had changed back to that of a human’s. She cast a spell on a wooden box that she then gave to someone going to Penpo, saying, “My son is studying dharma with Langri Tangpa, so give this to him and tell him it is to support him.” Subsequently, the son received the small box, but it was so heavy that it almost dragged him to the ground. He wondered what his mother could have put in it that was so heavy. He was about to open it when he remembered Langri Tangpa’s warning. The boy immediately went to ask the lama, who took off his dharma robe and gave it to the boy, saying, “Put this on before you open that box.” He did as he was told. When he opened the box, nine claps of thunder and lightning exploded. The building and all his belongings caught fire, but because he was wearing the lama’s dharma robe, he was not burned at all, even as molten metal pooled on top of the dharma robe. That dharma robe is still kept privately at Langtang Monastery. After that, Langri Tangpa told the boy, “You are now free of obstacles,” and gave him instructions. He realized emptiness and compassion and became one of Langri Tangpa’s best students. 

The son we have been talking about is Gya Chakriwa, Karmapa reminded us. This story was recorded in the histories of the Kadampa lineage and the liberation story of Ra Lotsawa, but with some differences. According to Ra Lotsawa’s version, the person who changed him back to human form was Ra Lotsawa, while most accounts state that it was Langri Tangpa. His Holiness mentioned that he had decided to explain in accordance with the Kadampa tradition, since there were more sources on it. In conclusion to the Day Two teachings, he mentioned that he would teach more on the practice of exchanging oneself for others the following session.