by Joe Loizzo

Over the years since I first encountered Seven Steps for Transforming the Mind, the crown jewel of Tibet’s unique and timeless tradition of compassion training (lo-jong), it has been an unfailing source of guidance and inspiration on my own personal path, a real companion through good times and bad. Given the challenging times in which we live, I’m happy to be able to share some of its vital precepts, formulated by the Nalanda abbot Atisha Dimpamkara Shrijnana (982–1054) and recorded by Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175), along with my own personal reflections. It’s my hope that the pointers I’ve selected from this text will help you go deeper in your practice of radical openness and life-transforming kindness, whether for yourself or others, close, neutral and far.

Precepts in italics, my comments in regular text.

“(This compassion practice) resembles the sun, a diamond, and a medicinal tree—
(It shines on all, cuts the hardest suffering, and is useful in every part).”

Within the Nalanda tradition, compassion is prized and practiced as the ground on which all human progress towards personal freedom and communal happiness stands. Compassion practice is not just for the high minded or troubled. Like the sun it brings vital warmth and light to everyone. Since it is the safest, most powerful tool for facing life’s inevitable hardship and negativity, it is like a diamond blade that cuts through the hardest blocks. And since it is entirely wholesome and endlessly beneficial, any part of this all-inclusive practice, even one precept, can be of life-giving value and life-saving help. So as far as the Tibetan masters like His Holiness the Dalai Lama are concerned, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this simple practice holds the key to all good things for all beings.

“(First) drive all blame into one: (your traumatic self-habit),
(Then) contemplate the kindness of all beings (near and far).”

This punchy opener helps pull a Kung-fu move on the social self-protective reflex to blame others for our inner suffering or obstacles. This precept is powerful medicine and as such it should only be applied when we feel strong enough to take more responsibility for our own suffering and happiness. It does not mean we are to blame for our suffering or the ills of the world, but that by underestimating our own powers of resilience and learning, we add a second arrow to those ills and disempower ourselves by seeing ourselves as helpless victims. Once we feel strong enough to realize that we have the power to choose how we respond to/learn from any hurt or harm we experience, we no longer live in fear of pain and suffering and can begin to open our hearts to the good in all life so we can cultivate unconditional acceptance and love.

“Practice alternating both giving (love) and taking (care).
Start gradually by taking on your own (suffering,
Next give yourself love, then take care and give love to others, one at a time).”

Like the Kung-fu masters, we don’t suddenly jump to the level of self-confidence, discipline and compassionate art all at once, but must rather work up to it slowly, like the apprentice, gradually taking on more and more of our common human suffering with nurturing love and compassionate skill with ourselves and others.

“After reaching (emotional) stability, discover the secret (of radical openness).
Consider the dream-like (nature) of (all) things.
Examine the uncreated (symbol-free) nature of mind.”

The strong emotional force of love and compassion may make the world go round, but it doesn’t become the fusion power that is the source of all human healing and goodness until it’s catalyzed by the wisdom that realizes how literally inseparable our life and well-being are from all other lives, near and far. The radical non-dualistic wisdom of emptiness which I call openness means seeing through the apparent separateness and exaggerated differences that trigger our self-protective fears and close our hearts to the common humanity we share with all.

“The actuality of the path rests in the fundamental realm (of sheer openness).
Between sessions, act as a virtual being: (the most caring version of you).”

By grounding ourselves and our lives on the mind-expanding intuition of our inseparability from all other life and the earth we share, we can unleash the heart-opening flow of unconditional warmth and care that sustains any truly free individual and all really happy communities.

“When the environment is wholly poisoned by vice,
Turn adversity into the path to (shared) enlightenment.
Apply meditation to whatever (eventuality) comes.”

Sound familiar? The Nalanda masters and all our ancestral sages foresaw that the time would come when the untamed demons of the human heart and mind would poison our social and natural environments to the point where we would need an industrial strength practice of self-transformation and a chain-reaction linking with others to start to clean up our minds, lives and world. Through the time capsule of Tibetan civilization, fortunately for us all, we have that practice ready at hand in the form of these precepts and the living masters who embody them.

“All teachings coalesce in a single intentionality (compassionate openness).
Always rely exclusively on the happy mind.
When adept despite distractions, you have (finally) learned.”

Over time, the incremental practice of compassion transforms into a new normal or default state—an intuitive embodied sensibility or intentionality of more or less unwavering care—directed equally towards any and all life that enters its field, whether it be our own or the lives of others, close, neutral and far, through good times and bad. In other words it becomes our new way of being. We can check if we’re living that way by seeing if we’re in a more consistently happy state of mind, a result of the fact now validated by science, that positive emotions like love and compassion are the solar energy that fuels sustainable, lasting happiness. The longer we can stay in the flow of that loving energy with minimal turbulence from the violent cross winds of daily life in the world, the more we know we’re making real headway on the path.

“Transform your intent but stay as you are.
Don’t even think about the limitations of others.
Purify your worst addiction first.
Give up any expectation of results.”

In Atisha and Chekawa’s day, as in ours, much of what passes for spiritual practice or progress is actually still only our best simulation of fully embodied realization. And we all too often get seduced by that simulation, confusing it for the real thing, the way a child may get fooled by a mirror or we all get addicted to the Instagram version of our lives these days. These powerful precepts serve as wake up bells and sobering mirrors, challenging us to focus on our internal transformation rather than the outward fashion of spiritual practice. And of course the most accurate mirrors of our progress are whether we have any moments of real inner freedom from judging, blaming or competing with others, any real degree of sober responsibility for our own ethical footprint in a world addicted to negativity, and any genuine capacity to live for the humbling process of growth rather than fetishizing pride in spiritual achievements.

“Don’t indulge self-righteousness.
Don’t react to insults.
Don’t wait in ambush.
Don’t go for the jugular.
Don’t put your burden on others.
Don’t aim for the top of the heap.”

Wow, I just love these simple injunctions—as refreshing as so many splashes of cold water on the face flushed with shame or neck hot under the collar. When we try so hard for so long to practice and grow while others seem to stay stuck in their afflictions, it’s easy enough to get caught in the insidious mental traps of righteous indignation, vindictiveness, resentment or pride. This cold shower of precepts may be hard to take, but it’s just what we need to wake up on some days!

“Practice all yogas as one: (the art of compassionate openness).
Subdue all resistance with one (art: taking care and giving love on the breath).”

This practice of unconditional care and love is the Nalanda masters’ quintessential Kung-fu. As my mentor Gelek Rinpoche used to say, “If you’re eating, eat for the sake of all beings; if you’re showering, shower for the sake of all beings; if you’re breathing in, breathe in for the sake of all beings; if you’re breathing out, breathe out for the sake of all beings. This not only guarantees your own happiness, but multiplies it by adding to the happiness of limitless others.”

“At the start and end (of each day, do) both the two actions:
(Initial positive motivation, and final correction/dedication).
Tolerate both (good and bad), whatever comes.
Guard both (these and your other) pledges as your life.”

The daily rhythm of this compassion-building way of life has its cycles—morning and evening, good times and bad, practice commitments and life commitments—and the art of bending these cycles into the upwards spiral of wise compassion is the art of balance, also known as equanimity. By starting and ending each day as positively as we can, counterbalancing our normal tendency towards reactive extremes, and coming back day after day to what we know matters most, our lives gradually accumulate positivity and gain compassion-momentum.

“Meditate constantly on special cases: (intimates, enemies, and the disagreeable).
Don’t depend on external conditions.
Take up the principal (practice) right now.”

Any path of practice, however grounded and clear, will inevitably include potholes, speed bumps, road blocks and detours, even occasional dead-ends. It’s vital that we remember not to let these throw us off our game or off course by allowing ourselves to be triggered into frustration or despair, but instead move through them with eyes wide open and with renewed positive intent in our hearts. If we wait for ideal conditions, we are handing our power for change to the vagaries of life’s endless causes and conditions, the very things over which we have so little control. Our real leverage lies in our ability to put one foot in front of the other, and to stay focused in the here and now, regardless of how auspicious or adverse the day-to-day conditions of our lives seem. 

“Don’t be wrong-headed.
Don’t be erratic.
Learn decisively.
Break free with both investigation and analysis.”

Although compassion is first and foremost a heart practice, it also requires us to use our heads. In fact, following the great seventh century Nalanda master Shantideva, all my closest teachers echoed the view that wisdom is the third eye of all transcendent virtues, including compassion. If we let our minds stay clouded by bias or locked in preconception, we are effectively vision impaired people trying to find our way in the dark. If we let ourselves get blinded by every shiny new spiritual idea or trend, we wind up wandering aimlessly, without seeing the path right in front of us. Spiritual practice, compassion practice, is all about learning. And in order to learn what we do not know, we must be willing to give up all that we think we know for sure, to open our minds and hearts to what seems uncertain or unclear, and keep trying to clear our heads and look deeply at the challenges staring us in the face. This may be the most challenging thing about the non-dual way of wise compassion: we can’t expect the insight to dawn suddenly, intuitively, as if by magic. We must use all our faculties, including our discursive powers of patient study, logical analysis, and practical experience to “learn decisively”—to cut through our blinders and discover what we need to see our way forward. In my experience, these seemingly mundane learning powers—rather than divine flashes of enlightenment or inspiration—are what gradually open our spiritual eye, so that eventually we can see with clear intuition—with the eyes of a warm heart and open mind.

“Don’t boast about practice.
Don’t indulge frustration.
Don’t be temperamental.
Don’t expect thanks.”

It’s no accident that this classic guide closes with these deceptively simple precepts. Spiritual progress, marked by the embodiment of compassion, is not a luxury but a vital necessity for our future, individually and communally. Yet the key to spiritual practice is not some lofty gift, revelation, or blessing. Once we have the necessary strength of mind to learn and we begin to see our way forward, progress depends on nothing so much as patient, persistent effort. So these final precepts aim straight at the greatest obstacles to effort—arrogance, self-indulgence, and entitlement. In this way, Atisha, Chekawa and their heirs reinforced for me a message I also saw embodied in my immigrant parents—real progress depends not on being special, chosen or gifted, but on the common human qualities that determine success in any field of endeavor: humility, resilience, and finding satisfaction in the work that needs to be done.

Editor’s note: Joe was invited to participate in Embodied Philosophy’s Instagram new year event, Meditation Resolution. For 14 days, Joe along with 13 other participants presented a meditation for those taking the challenge. This post represents the full version of Joe’s offering. See also other teachers and participants responses: #meditationresolution