Central to Mahayana Buddhism is the principle of practicing for the benefit of all beings, not only oneself. Generating compassion for others, and from this compassion the motivation to practice for the universal liberation of all sentient beings, is called bodhicitta. It is sometimes likened to a drowning person who makes it to shore, and then turns to help others still in the water escape safely as well. In the bodhisattva vow, a Buddhist practitioner vows to forgo his or her own liberation to work for the liberation of all beings.
Within Tibetan Buddhism, lojong, or 'mind training', comprises the attitudes a practitioner works to develop in order to cultivate bodhicitta. Lojong is a counterpart to formal meditation practice, a form of mindfulness and inquiry practice we engage in throughout our day. One of the most well-known teaching texts on lojong is from the Kadampa tradition, called the Eight Verses of Mind Training written by Geshe Langri Thangpa who lived in Tibet at the end of the eleventh century and start of the twelfth:
Eight Verses of Mind Training
May I always cherish all beings
With the resolve to accomplish for them
The highest good that is more precious
Than any wish-fulfilling jewel.
Whenever I am in the company of others,
May I regard myself as inferior to all
And from the depths of my heart
Cherish others as supreme.
In all my actions may I watch my mind,
And as soon as disturbing emotions arise,
May I forcefully stop them at once,
Since they will hurt both me and others.
When I see ill-natured people,
Overwhelmed by wrong deeds and pain,
May I cherish them as something rare,
As though I had found a treasure-trove.
When someone out of envy does me wrong
By insulting me and the like,
May I accept defeat
And offer the victory to them.
Even if someone whom I have helped
And in whom I have placed my hopes
Does great wrong by harming me,
May I see them as an excellent spiritual friend.
In brief, directly or indirectly,
May I give all help and joy to my mothers,
And may I take all their harm and pain
Secretly upon myself.
May none of this ever be sullied
By thoughts of the eight worldly concerns.
May I see all things as illusions
And, without attachment, gain freedom from bondage.
- from Eight Verses for Training the Mind, by Geshe Sonam Rinchen, translated by Ruth Sonam
As part of lojong practice, we may recite and contemplate these verses daily (as the Dalai Lama is said to do.) However, the real practice is putting these teachings into action throughout our day. Lojong is really a full-scale overhaul of the underpinnings of our mind from self-concern to all-concern. This is not a form of self-abnegation or self-sacrifice – we do not martyr ourselves or deny ourselves happiness in order for others to be happy. We practice for ourselves as well, and self-care is essential for us to be able to truly help others. But lojong is about our motivation, and offers us another way of looking at happiness. We discover that when we make others happy, we ourselves are happy. This happiness is different from pleasure, or from the transient happiness that getting what we want brings us. It is like a mother's joy at seeing her children happy.
Some of these verses may sound extreme or unhealthy to Westerners, because many of us already suffer from low self-esteem or feelings of unworthiness. However, Buddhist teachings distinguish between self-confidence and pride or arrogance. Self-confidence is necessary for us to pursue the path, while pride or arrogance are destructive. Self-confidence fuels our ability to learn and our discipline to practice, while pride and arrogance fuel selfish thoughts and actions that ultimately are destructive to ourself and others.
Through Buddhist practices, we seek to develop self-confidence, and let go of feelings of low self-esteem or unworthiness, as well as the roots of pride or arrogance. The verse 'may I regard myself as inferior to all beings' is not encouragement to view ourself poorly or as less valuable than others. In fact, within Buddhism, we are all – all sentient beings – ultimately Buddha nature. In this, we are all equal and all equally precious. But it is the natural tendency of our mind to self-cherish. Most of our thought and emotions are purely self-interested. Lojong training is a way of countering this tendency, and of cultivating bodhicitta as our primary motivation instead.
Just as lojong is not about self-deprecation or self-sacrifice, it also is not about denying any self-concerned or destructive thoughts or emotions we may have. Repression only leads to problems later on. Instead, we meet ourselves honestly, acknowledging and accepting whatever arises within us, and seeking to transform it into open-heartedness. All of the various practices within Buddhism are tools for doing this, and lojong is an extension of these that cuts right to the root cause of our suffering – our essential self-concern. As we work to loosen the hold this self-concern has on us, our negative thoughts and emotions will subside on their own.
Lojong also provides us with a framework for dealing with challenging people and obstacles in our lives. By 'cherishing them as something rare' and as an 'excellent spiritual friend' we are acknowledging the valuable role these people and experiences play in our spiritual growth. They show us where we are still stuck, and how we can still be triggered. Only we suffer if we meet others' negativity with our own. If instead, we can skillfully see others' negative actions as a product of their own suffering, we are not pulled into their negativity ourselves.
Even the verse 'may I accept defeat' is not meant as encouragement to be masochistic. It is instead addressing the many times when we fight to be right over things that are really very inconsequential. Our ego is so defensive that we will react to the slightest criticism with anger, and who wins in that situation? Even if the other person acted out of mean-spiritedness, once we become angry, we have been pulled into suffering ourselves. If we can instead simply 'accept defeat' – let go of the inclination to defend and strike back – we will not be pulled into this cycle. Of course there are situations in which standing up for what is right or defending ourselves does matter – when it is in fact part of self-care to do so, or even a matter of boddhicitta, if we are acting out of compassion for others. This phrase is not a call to accept defeat in those cases.
The second to last verse, 'may I take all their harm and pain secretly upon myself,' refers to the Tibetan meditation practice of tonglen. In this practice we visualize the pain and suffering of others coming into our own being, and transforming into healing light that then emanates out. Really the practice of tonglen is about seeing the essential and all-pervading Buddha nature or primordial awareness that is untouched by any pain or suffering. Through this seeing, all suffering is transformed.
The final verse, 'may I see all things as illusions and, without attachment, gain freedom from bondage', shifts from the focus on relative boddhicitta to ultimate or absolute boddhicitta. It is on the relative level that we seek to help others, seeing ourselves still as separate. On the absolute level, we realize that this separation itself is an illusion, that we are one and all-pervasive, and that the suffering of others is in fact our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own. This ultimate realization is what propels us towards liberation.
For more on lojong, check out this book (which includes the translation of the verses above):