It helps to know something about where you're going before you go there, right? With that in mind, let me offer a couple of general observations about the 7-Point Mind Training that are more concerned with the nature of the overall trip than they are with the individual hardships and pleasures you might encounter along the way. I've got seven points to make.
- This is a life-time practice, and you ought to approach it in that spirit. Keep your expectations in check, and focus on doing a little bit on a daily basis over the long haul. The seven points have been designed so that, day-by-day, they reveal new facets, deeper insights, and ongoing challenges. But to appreciate the depth and breadth of these teachings you'll need patience, the third of the six paramitas. Cultivate patience, and these teachings will blossom.
- The seven points are basically seven thematic categories under which a number of instructional statements appear. While it is important to understand the purpose of each of the seven categories, they aren't difficult. The supporting slogans for each of the seven points will challenge you enough; don't get hung up on the seven points.
- Don't be intimidated by the seven points. Here's a summary of them; have a look at them, and you'll see that they are really nothing more than a kind of cosmic common sense.
- The Preliminaries—The first point encourages you to appreciate the immense opportunity you have now for spiritual progress. It is always important to remember this, but particularly when your motivation is low.
- Training in the Two Bodhichittas—Simple enough, right? Go get yourself a direct perception of emptiness and then learn how to stop self-cherishing (which that direct perception of emptiness will facilitate) and start considering others' welfare more important than your own. Here's the point: the ideas are not complex at all; but the realization of them is difficult. And if you look at the statements that are organized under this second point, you'll see that they are basically training tips to help you fully develop the two bodhichittas. That's all they are, training tips, and they're good for a lifetime (or two . . . or three . . . )
- Using Unfavorable Circumstances as Aids to Awakening—From my perspective, this is the big one. Because one of the main tasks of lojong is to flush out and eliminate self-cherishing, you have to identify the circumstances or conditions in which self-cheerishing is most obvious before you can accurately take aim at it. There's a paradox at work here. As long as we are healthy, prosperous, and satisfied, self-cherishing is often camouflaged behind all that health, prosperity, and satisfaction, and for the life of you, you can't really see it. Everything is going along swimmingly for you, so your concern for others, while still present, is probably dependent upon having first made yourself comfortable, even though you don't know it. So your concern for others depends upon an initial concern for your own well being, which means your concern for others is available only on a part-time basis. Because none of us is happy and satisfied all the time, and part-time compassion is not the Bodhichitta ideal, right? But suffer a loss are two, get an ear-ache, have a friend insult you, and all of a sudden self-cherishing steps right out of the brambles and demands to be assuaged. It is at this moment, if you can lift yourself from your own internal dramas, and just for a moment, that you have an unrivaled view of self-cherishing, and so you have an unrivaled opportunity to take it apart. If we practice long enough this kind of mindfulness-while-suffering, we will understand what His Holiness means when he says, 'My enemy, my teacher!'
- A Synthesis of Practice for One Life—You have here five qualities or practices that are central to making progress on this path. I can't resist the athletic analogy. If jumping, running, passing, dribbling, and rebounding are five skills essential to master to become better at basketball, then resolution, familiarization, the white seed, abandonment, and prayer are going to help you improve at taking apart self-cherishing, understanding emptiness, and developing concern for others. It's that simple. And that demanding!
- The Measure of Having Trained the Mind—Having gotten this far, having undertaken what you've undertaken, you need to know how you're doing, right? Problem is there's no exam you can take, and finally, no master, no teacher, no guru can undertake the assessment that you want. You have to do it yourself, and this section tells you how to do it, what to look out for, and what to avoid. You need to do this regularly, but you need not—must not!—become obsessed with it.
- The Pledges of Mind Training—Wallace urges us to think of the sayings or principles gathered here as prescriptions given to us by a compassionate doctor, and that works well enough. But I've always thought of them as a set of qualities that you will find in those who are devoted to this path. One of the greatest teachers I see in India, Geshe Wangchen, embodies all of these characteristics—he is very natural in his speech, never maligns anything, seems utterly satisfied wherever he is, looks no further than the massive enjoyments folded into the present moment, seems always focused on those who are currently in his company, and most of all, seems completely comfortable at all times with who he is in the world—a highly accomplished practitioner living in relative obscurity in south India! These pledges, then, to me, are rather characteristics that will manifest if we've undertaken Points 1-5 with seriousness and integrity.
- The Practices of Mind Training—So many points, so little time to master them! Not to worry. This is the final grouping of things to keep in mind, and I use them as a kind of refresher course for lojong in general. But remember: everything returns to three things: 1) developing absolute bodhichitta (understanding emptiness as best we can); 2) practicing relative bodhichitta (understanding the place of compassion in our own lives); 3) and slowly, gradually, steadily, and as a result of becoming familiar with the first two, dismantling self-cherishing, the root of every single hardship that we encounter.
- You have to take control of your own practice, your own lo-jong. Remember this: Atisha was not dealing with a text; he was dealing with a set of oral recommendations that he had received in Sumatra from a revered master, and his students later codified them, set them down in language, which gave them a sense of fixity and inflexibility they probably did not originally possess. The take-home message? You need to figure out where you need the most work, and you do this by considering these teachings honestly, and over time, against your own spirit, and make the right call about the ideas and practices that are the most difficult for you, or the ones that you most need. And then work on those.
- Always return to the two bodhichittas, and to the notion of self-cherishing. How are these realities unfolding for you?
- For every single moment of your day, there is a relevant point under one of the seven categories of lojong that will open that moment and turn it toward your general understanding of reality—take that rather lofty statement on faith until you have grounds to accept it or reject it.
- Always remember how fortunate you are to have stumbled on this set of instructions. If you do this on a daily basis, you will find yourself protecting these instructions by embodying them and acting on them in a responsible fashion so that future generations will have access to a worthy representation of them. This is how they move; this is how they grow; this is how they prosper. You will seek help in understanding these teachings when the need arises, but finally you do this alone, point by point, in your own time, and according to your own, examined talents and capabilities.