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Guided Meditation: 7 Steps to Compassion with Ven. Gyalten Lekden

Ven. Gyalten Lekden in monk robes reading a Buddhist text

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Buddhist monk Ven. Gyalten Lekden guides a Seven-Fold Cause and Effect Meditation to develop compassion and Bodhicitta (the mind of awakening)

Ven. Gyalten Lekden: Thank you for joining me today in this meditation. The meditation that we’re going to do together today is one to help develop Bodhicitta in our minds or in our mental continuums. Bodhicitta, also called the mind of awakening or the mind of enlightenment, is the aspiration or wish to achieve perfect, complete enlightenment for the benefit of all other sentient beings.

It’s the wish that every action we do of body, speech, and mind is done with the benefit of others as the primary motivation. Now, there are a number of different meditations to help develop this mind and the one we’re going to do today comes from Chandrakirti who was a seventh-century Indian master. It’s called the Seven-Fold Cause and Effect Meditation to develop Bodhicitta.

It’s called that because it goes through six different causes and then an effect or a result, which is Bodhicitta. There’s a preliminary step that isn’t included in the seven. The preliminary step is developing equanimity. It’s equalizing all sentient beings. And then the first step is recognizing sentient beings as your mother. This step is difficult for people who have a secular approach to Buddhist meditation practice.

Because in order to understand this, you have to accept past and future lives. So the understanding is, since we’ve been circling in this cycle of Samsara or of suffering for countless lives, that at some point, all other sentient beings have actually been our mother. They simply aren’t our mother in this life.

But in past lives, they definitely have been our mother. And therefore we should not view them as any different than our mother in this life. Now this is obviously not something you can accept from a secular point of view. And even for Buddhists, it’s difficult. Contemporary teachers say that of the Seven-Fold Cause and Effect Meditation steps, this step is the most difficult, is the hardest to actually realize. And so what we’ll do in our meditation today, for those of you who do believe in past and future lives, you’re welcome to do the meditation in that way, seeing all sentient beings as your mother.

But what we’ll do is see sentient beings as if they were our mother. So it’s a process of imagination. And, in this way, this practice can be useful, even if you don’t believe in past and future lives. And even if you don’t ascribe to the belief that all sentient beings have at some point been your mother.

I know it can be useful even in this imaginary way, because this is the way the practice was taught to me. And before I had fully accepted laws of karma, of cause and effect and of past and future lives. And even in this way, the practice is beneficial. 

And then the second thing to bring up on this first point is that, especially in the west, many people may have emotional issues with their mother. And they may not have a healthy relationship or a happy relationship with their mother. And so in that case, you’re welcome to substitute in any other person in your life who’s meaningful and who has this unconditional care for you.

If you’ve heard the term mother sentient beings, you hear it a lot in Buddhist circles or communities, that’s where this comes from: the belief that all sentient beings are our mother, simply not in this life, but in past lives they have been.

So that’s the first step, is recognizing all sentient beings as our mother. Second step is recognizing the kindness of our mother. The third is wishing to repay that kindness. The fourth is generating love. The fifth is generating great compassion. The sixth is generating the exceptional attitude. And then the seventh step, which is the result, is actually generating Bodhicitta.

So as we practice, we’ll go through first the preliminary step of generating equanimity and all of the seven steps of the causes with the effect of Bodhicitta. Now I won’t spend too long on each step, but you should recognize that in your own practice, you can extend this meditation out for as long as you want. You can make it more elaborate and you can spend more time on every step to make the meditation or the practice take deeper roots in your mind.

Now to begin the practice, first assume a comfortable seat or position. If you know the seven point posture of Vairochana, which is taught in many meditation classes, you’re welcome to adopt that. The most important point is to have a firm and stable foundation. So you don’t feel like you might fall over, whether you’re sitting cross-legged or you’re sitting in a chair.

And then, having your spine nice and straight, allowing your breath to be natural and not compressed or tightened in any way. And of all the points, the other one to keep in mind is to try to keep your eyes half open, if possible. If that’s too distracting, then you can close them. But endeavor to keep them open, at least partially, if possible.

Now just take a moment to allow your mind to focus on your breath, breathing in and out to calm your mind as you prepare to engage in this practice.

The preliminary stage of this meditation is to develop a mind equanimity regarding all sentient beings, a mind that does not discriminate. And so to do this, I first want you to bring to mind space in front, visualize someone you might designate as an enemy, someone who might have harmed you or who has insulted you. Someone who, when you think of them, negative minds instantly arise.

Visualizing this person in front, recognize that if the circumstances were different, this person might be your friend. The only thing that designates them as an enemy is your own anger toward them.

But just like you, this person wants to be happy. They don’t want to suffer. And as a result of their own ignorance, they engage in actions that cause not only the suffering of others, but their own suffering. And it is through this ignorance they’ve acted in some way to harm you. So since our experience or relationship with them is based only on our own anger, how is there any benefit in seeing them this way, since it is merely a product of circumstance that we have designated them as an enemy?

There’s no reason to have anger toward them. And there’s no reason to want anything other than their own happiness and their freedom from suffering. 

And now next to this person, visualize someone who you would designate as a friend. Someone who, when you see them they make you feel happy. In general, we say this type of relationship is one that is based upon our own attachment. It’s based upon the compliments this person gives us, the things they give us, or just the happiness we experience when we’re around them. This too is simply the result of the circumstances.

This person simply wants to have happiness and they want to be free from suffering. In that way they’re no different from us, no different from our enemy. Only due to our circumstances, which are constantly changing, do we designate them as a friend. So this designation should not make them any higher or lower than any other sentient being.

Lastly, next to the person designated an enemy and the one designated friend, visualize someone who you might designate as a stranger or acquaintance,  someone who you might know, or you’re indifferent toward; you’ve seen them around, but you have no feeling one way or the other toward them. Now this is a relationship that is based in ignorance. Just like us, this person wishes to be happy. They don’t wish to suffer.

It’s only due to our circumstances that we don’t have a relationship of friendliness or relationship of enmity with them.

Circumstances are constantly changing. And so therefore those mere designations of enemy, friend, stranger have no real basis at all. Any basis they might have is temporary. It’s unstable. And therefore it’s not a valid reason to treat any of those beings differently from one another. A simple conversation can transform a stranger to a friend in a moment. One wrong word can transform a friend to an enemy just as quickly. And an enemy can become a stranger through a simple act of forgiveness or by putting them out of your mind, or by not paying attention to them. 

The designations that we give to all of our relationships, enemy, friend, stranger, have no substance at all. And therefore there’s no reasonable explanation as to why we would treat those people differently. All of them have the same wish to be free of suffering. To experience happiness. And that wish is no different than our own. 

Therefore we develop this equanimity that sees that all sentient beings are the same and that the mere designations of enemy, friend and stranger that we impute have no basis in reality.

So for the next moment, focus on the recognition that all sentient beings are exactly the same and their wish for happiness and their wish to be free from suffering. It is only our temporary circumstances that allow us to designate them as enemy, friend, or stranger. 

Since these circumstances are subject to change, they have no valid basis. And therefore there’s no reason for us to distinguish between all sentient beings, but instead to consider them all equally. All sentient beings equally deserve to be happy and all sentient beings equally deserve to be free from suffering.

Now visualize behind those three people are all sentient beings; all insects, animals, humans, any other type of sentient being that exists. They’re there. They take the form of human bodies for the purpose of our visualization. So as far as you can see in your mind’s eye, there are countless sentient beings filling all of the space in front of you. And recognize that throughout our entire lives we’ve had relationships of either hatred, attachment, or ignorance with all of these sentient beings. Due to our circumstances, we’ve labeled them as either an enemy, a friend, or a stranger.

Now visualize that every sentient being that exists there, filling infinite space in front of you, is absorbed into those three people that you first visualized. Now those three people that you had previously designated as enemy, friend and stranger are actual representations of all sentient beings that exist, that you have ever designated as enemy, friend, or stranger.

Take just a moment to develop this belief that those three beings in front of you are representations all sentient beings and the relationships that I have had with all sentient beings.

Now clearly visualizing these three people, visualize each of them as if they were your mother. So they take the outward shape and appearance of your own mother in this life: your mother enemy, your mother friend, your mother stranger. Because truly in this life, we may have had those types of relationships with our own mothers, not simultaneously, but throughout our lives.

So all sentient beings, you view them as if they were our own mother. Sometimes our mother stranger, sometimes our mother friend, sometimes our mother enemy, but always our mother; these three beings who are equal in their deservingness of happiness and their wish to be free from suffering.

As we visualize all sentient beings as our mother in the space in front of us, bring to mind the great kindness our mother has shown us in this life.

Not only did she undergo great suffering by carrying us in her womb and giving birth to us. She gave us nourishment, fed us, clothed us. As we got older, she educated us, gave us opportunities to learn about ourselves, learn about the world.

Think of all of the times our dear mother has sacrificed her own happiness so that we might be happy.

Think of all those occasions where our dear mother has willingly accepted suffering so that we might not have suffering.

What incredible kindness our mother has shown us in this life.

And so for the next moment, really bring to mind this incredible kindness that our mother has given us and still gives us. Putting our needs before her own, our happiness before her own.

It is unbelievable how incredibly kind our dear mother has been to us. And in fact, how kind all mother sentient beings are. And so as we see the three figures in front, our three dear mothers, you can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate we are to have experienced their unending kindness.

And now, thinking of their kindness, we develop the wish to repay their kindness.

We develop the aspiration that we might bring them every happiness: all worldly happiness and other-worldly happiness.

We develop the wish that we might remove all suffering from their mind and bodies. It’s the least we can do to repay the great kindness they’ve shown us.

So we take a few moments to develop the wish to repay the great kindness of our dear mothers.

The three mothers we have visualized in front have been infinitely kind to us. And therefore we have a strong wish to repay their kindness.

As that wish to repay their kindness becomes more firm in our mind, next we develop love for our kind mothers. Love is the wish for them to have every happiness and to have all of the causes of happiness.

May all of my mother sentient beings have every cause of happiness, both worldly happiness and the unending, permanent happiness of enlightenment.

May all sentient beings have every happiness and the causes of happiness. And as we focus on this thought, we can actually visualize this love as a bright white light at our heart, pulsing and growing as our love deepens and becomes more firm. 

We can even recite to ourselves as we breathe in, May all of my mother sentient beings have every happiness. And as we breathe out, May all of my mother sentient beings have every cause of happiness. And with each breath, this glowing white light of love just becomes stronger at our heart.

When I look upon all sentient beings, I see them as if they were my own mother. They’ve been unceasingly kind to me in this life. Therefore, I wish to repay their kindness. And I develop this aspiration of love, the wish for them to have every happiness and the cause of every happiness.

Now the natural development after love is we meditate on great compassion for all of our kind mother sentient beings who are embodied in the three mothers in front of us; compassion being the wish that they be free from all suffering and free from all the causes of suffering.

And so as you visualize three mothers in front, you can, as you breathe in, say, May all of my mothers be free from every type of suffering. And as you breathe out, May they be free from every cause of suffering. 

As you focus on this compassion, the ball of white light and your heart grows, begins to fill your body from the inside out. And with every breath, with every wish, it simply grows brighter and stronger, more powerful.

There’s no distinction between all sentient beings and my dear kind mother; they’ve been unceasingly kind to me and therefore I wish to repay their kindness. I first develop the wish for them to have every happiness and the cause of happiness. And now I develop the wish for them to be entirely free from every cause of suffering.

Now, the natural progression after developing great compassion, is we develop what’s called the exceptional attitude or the universal responsibility. So not only do I wish that my dear kind mother sentient beings have happiness and have freedom from suffering, but I recognize it as my own responsibility to bring them happiness. And it is my responsibility to free them from suffering.

As we focus on this exceptional attitude with our in-breath, we can say to ourselves: It is my responsibility to free every one of my mother sentient beings from all types of suffering.

On the out-breath: It is my responsibility to give every one of my mother sentient beings every type of happiness.

As we develop this deep conviction, with each breath, the bright white light at our heart grows even larger. So it’s filling our entire body from the inside. We can feel it buzzing at all of our pores; so powerful, so bright, brilliant.

The deeper our conviction in this responsibility we have to sentient beings to place them in happiness and free them from suffering, the stronger this brilliant white light becomes.

There is no distinction between every sentient being and my dear kind mother who has been unceasingly kind to me in this life, my wish to repay her kindness. So I develop the wish for her to be free from every suffering, to be placed in every happiness. 

I develop the conviction that it is my responsibility to place every one of my mother sentient beings in the perfect, complete, and unchanging happiness of enlightenment. And to free them from every suffering, be it the coarse sufferings of sickness or illness or hunger, or the more subtle sufferings of both body and mind. This is my responsibility.

The natural result of our developing conviction in this exceptional attitude and this responsibility is, in fact, Bodhicitta. It is the recognition that I will save all of my mother sentient beings from all types of suffering and I will place them in every type of happiness.

Not only do I wish to do this, not only do I see this as my responsibility, but I have the confidence that I will engage in this behavior.

And so, as we breathe in, we can remind ourselves. I will place everyone of my mother sentient beings, in perfect, complete happiness.

And as we breathe out, I will eliminate every type of suffering from all of my mother sentient beings.

And along with our breath, this brilliant white light that has been building from our heart center and has been filling our body this light of love, of great compassion. the exceptional attitude, it shines forth out of our heart center. It perfectly illuminates and fills our three mothers visualized in front: our enemy mother, our friend mother, our stranger mother.

The more we develop the conviction that I will free my mother from suffering, I will place my mother in happiness, the stronger this white light not only is emitted from our heart, but it actually eliminates our mother’s suffering. It actually places our mother in happiness. The mothers in front absorb this white light with every one of their pores. It eliminates all of their worldly suffering, all of their coarse and subtle suffering, and it places them in perfect and unending happiness.

We continue this visualization as we develop conviction that I will bring about the happiness and the elimination of suffering for my dear kind mother.

There is no difference between any sentient being and my dear mother, who has been incredibly kind to me. Therefore I have the wish to repay that kindness. I develop the love that wishes them to have every happiness, and the great compassion that wishes to free them from every suffering, the exceptional attitude that develops conviction in my own responsibility to actually free them from suffering and place them in happiness.

And finally, the mind of awakening, the Bodhichitta, that has the conviction that I will free all of my dear mother sentient beings from every type of suffering. And I will place all of my dear mother sentient beings into the permanent and unchanging happiness that is enlightenment.

Now slowly, the three figures in front of you dissolve. But this brilliant white light of compassion and love, and the exceptional attitude that you’ve built up doesn’t dissipate. It stays inside your body, stemming from your heart, filling every inch of your body, motivating every single one of your actions of body, speech, and mind.

And slowly our awareness returns to our breathing.

And as we’re ready, our awareness now returns to the room.

Thank you so much for being part of the meditation with me today. Very briefly, before I let you go, it’s important not just to develop these ideas while we’re in our meditation room or on our cushion, but to live them in our lives. So how can we bring this meditation developing Bodhicitta into our everyday lives?

The easiest way is to become familiar with this idea that if that person was my mother, how would I act in this situation? We bring that to mind whenever we see any suffering. So when we see an unhoused person, we don’t view them as a stranger. We don’t view them as a nuisance or as a problem. But we say, if that was my mother, how would I behave? 

What would I do if my dear kind mother was unhoused, didn’t have a shelter to live in, didn’t have enough food, didn’t have appropriate clothing? If we can bring that to mind, then we act on it. If that person was my mother, these are the things I would do. Well, I can do those things now. I don’t have to wait for my mother from this life to be suffering.

There’s no difference between all sentient beings and their desire for happiness, their desire to be free from suffering. And there’s no difference in my responsibility to help eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings, because it is only through developing compassion toward others that I can ever really be free from my own suffering.

Allow yourself to bring this to mind when you see others who are suffering. Now, due to our circumstances, whatever privileges you may have, whatever means, whatever opportunities or skills we have, there may be different things we do. Just because you see an unhoused person, for instance, it doesn’t mean that the best thing to do is to give them money or to buy them food.

We don’t know. We don’t know their circumstances. We have to use wisdom to see what are the options I have available to me? And which option can I take that will do the best to eliminate their suffering. Even if it’s only eliminating the temporary or worldly suffering they’re experiencing right now. What can I do? 

When we see anyone who’s being discriminated against, whether it be due to the color of their skin or their religion, their gender expression, their sexual orientation. Even if those things have nothing to do with us, you think, what if that was my dear mother being discriminated against? What if there were other people wishing to harm her, whether it be through physical violence or emotional violence or passing laws. They wish to harm her for something that is out of her control.

What would I do? Of course I would protest. Of course I would call my local representatives. Of course I would do everything I could to help make sure that any harm that might befall her, any discrimination, any violence would be stopped. If I would do that for my mother, why wouldn’t I do it for anyone else?

Just because whatever discrimination they’re experiencing may have no direct correlation to my life that I can perceive right now, there’s no difference between them and me and our wish for happiness, our desire to be free from all suffering. There’s no difference between them and my dear mother. Why would I treat one one way and another a different way?

So whenever I see discrimination, I have to do something about it. So you can allow your mind to always see those who are suffering as if they were your mother and contemplate, what would I do if my mother was experiencing the suffering? Of course I would do something. What skills do I have? What opportunities do I have? What means do I have? How much do I understand about their suffering and what can I do to help bring about its end? 

So you bring these ideas into your everyday life, into to every experience of suffering, you see.

As you practice this meditation more, these ideas become second nature. They don’t require as much effort. Our Bodhicitta ceases to be the contrived Bodhicitta and it instead slowly develops into actual Bodhicitta, like the essence or the pith where the real flavor is.

It’s uncontrived, it takes no effort. It’s spontaneous.

So this is what we hope to achieve. These are just a few ways to bring this meditation into our everyday lives. Thank you for spending this time with me. I hope it’s been of some benefit. If it has been, may any merit we’ve accumulated together be dedicated to all sentient beings that they might be happy, that they might be free from suffering. Thank you.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Stephen Butler
Audio mastering by Christian Parry and Chris Boulton
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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