Buddhism With An Attitude

The following article is from the Spring, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.











by B. Alan Wallace

ISBN: 9781559392006

...an extraordinary book. Howard Cutler, co-author of The Art of Happiness


All of us have attitudes. Some of them accord with reality and serve us well throughout the course of our lives. Others are out of alignment with reality, and cause us problems.

Tibetan Buddhist practice isn't just sitting in silent meditation, it's developing fresh attitudes that align our minds with reality. Attitudes need adjusting, just like a spinal column that has been knocked out of alignment. B. Alan Wallace explains a fundamental type of Buddhist mental training called lojong, which can literally be translated as attitudinal training. It is designed to shift our attitudes so that our minds become pure well-springs of joy instead of murky pools of problems, anxieties, fleeting pleasures, hopes and frustrations.

The author draws on his thirty-year training in Buddhism, physics, the cognitive sciences, and comparative religion to challenge readers to reappraise many of their assumptions about the nature of the mind and physical world.

The following is an excerpt from the Preface of the book.

In this book I will explain a type of mental training Tibetans call lojong. The Tibetan word lojong is made up of two parts: lo means attitude, mind, intelligence, and perspective; and jong means to train, purify, remedy, and clear away. So the word lojong could literally be translated as attitudinal training, but I'll stick with the more common translation of mind-training.

Over the past millennium, Tibetan lamas have devised many lojongs, but the most widely taught and practiced of all lojongs in the Tibetan language was one based on the teachings of an Indian Buddhist sage named Atisha (982-1054), whose life spanned the end of the first millennium of the common era and the beginning of the second. Atisha brought to Tibet an oral tradition of lojong teachings that was based on instructions that had been passed down to him through the lineage of the Indian Buddhist teachers Maitriyogin, Dhamiarakshita, and Serlingpa. This oral tradition may represent the earliest such practice that was explicitly called a lojong, and it is probably the most widely practiced in the whole of Tibetan Buddhism. This training was initially given only as an oral instruction for those students who were deemed sufficiently intelligent and highly enough motivated to make good use of it. Only about a century after Atisha's death was this secret training written down and made more widely available in monasteries and hermitages, Tibet's unique kinds of attitudinal correction facility. This delay probably accounts for the minor variations in the different versions of the text we have today.

For centuries we in the West have wondered whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. If there are highly advanced, intelligent beings out there, what might they have to teach us? What have they learned that we have not? Along similar lines we can ask: is there intelligent life on our planet outside of our Euro-American civilization? Of course that sounds like a dumb question, but it's still worth asking, since there still persists an attitude in our society that we know more about everything than any previous generation and more than any other, less developed society today. It takes quite an ethnocentric leap of faith to swallow that, but many people seem to manage it. Indian civilization a thousand years ago, during the time of Atisha, had evolved with very little influence from European civilization; and Tibetan civilization, tracing back more than two millennia, was hardly influenced by the West until the mid-twentieth century. Ironically, Tibetans' first major encounter with Western thought occurred due to the invasion of their homeland by the Chinese Communists in 1949, who forced upon them the economic doctrine of Marxism and scientific materialism.

...lo means attitude, mind, intelligence, and perspective; and jong means to train, purify, remedy, and clear away. So the word lojong could literally be translated as attitudinal training.

Have Indian and Tibetan civilizations made any great discoveries of their own that we have not, and might they have anything to teach us? I will be tackling these questions throughout this book, drawing on a thousand-year-old set of aphorisms that embody much of the wisdom of ancient India and Tibet. If these aphorisms strike a chord of wisdom for us living today, whose lives span the end of the second millennium and the beginning of the third, that wisdom will be something that is not uniquely Eastern or Western, and not ancient or modern. It will be a type of wisdom that cuts across such cultural divides and eras, something universal that speaks deeply to and from the hearts and minds of humanity.

Over the past millennium, Tibetan Buddhism has maintained its vitality from generation to generation by teachers passing on oral commentaries to traditional root texts such as the Seven-Point Mind-Training. Root texts preserve the depth and wisdom of the teachings, and the oral commentaries link these texts with the experiences and views of practitioners of each generation. In the explanation of the text I offer here, I draw upon the earliest Tibetan commentary I have been able to find, composed by Sechil Buwa, who was a direct disciple of Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101-1175), who first wrote down this mind-training. Chekawa Yeshe Dorje had received the transmission of this teaching from Sharawa Yönten Drak, and the lineage before him goes back to Langri Thangpa, Potowa, Dromtonpa, and Atisha. I also draw on a very recent commentary entitled Enlightened Courage: An Explanation of Atisha's Seven Point Mind Training by the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the greatest Tibetan meditation masters of the twentieth century.

The teacher from whom I received the oral commentary on this training was a learned, humble, and compassionate Tibetan named Kungo Barshi. I was living in Dharamsala, India, at the time, in 1973, and there were many erudite lamas from whom I could have sought this instruction. But I was particularly drawn to Kungo Barshi for various reasons. At that time, he was the chief instructor in Tibetan medicine at the Tibetan Astro-Medical Institute, and he was renowned for his mastery of many of the fields of traditional Tibetan knowledge. But he was not only an outstanding scholar. As a member of the nobility in Tibet, he had owned several estates and devoted himself to the life of a gentleman scholar, while his wife largely took over the practical affairs of running their estates. But when the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet and especially targeted the aristocracy for imprisonment and torture, he, his wife, and one of his sons fled to India. Others of his children remained behind, only to be killed by the Chinese, and the son who fled with him into exile also met a tragic end. Adversity mounted upon adversity in Kungo Barshi's life, and yet when he was passing on this teaching to me, he told me, Personally, I have found the Chinese invasion of Tibet to be a blessing. In Tibet before this cataclysm, I took much for granted, and my spiritual practice was casual. Now that I have been forced into exile and have lost so much, my dedication to practice has grown enormously, and I have found greater contentment than ever before. Rarely have I met anyone whose presence exuded such serenity, quiet good cheer, and wisdom as he did. He was for me a living embodiment of the efficacy of this mind-training, and his inspiration has been with me ever since.

As I pass on my own commentary to this text, I address many practical and theoretical issues that uniquely face us in the modern world. This book is based on a series of public lectures I gave in Santa Barbara, California, during the years 1997-1998. I have tried at all times to be faithful to the original teachings I received, while making them thoroughly contemporary to people living in a world so different from that of traditional Tibet. If even a fraction of the wisdom and inspiration of Atisha, Sechil Buwa, Kungo Barshi, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is conveyed to the readers of this book, our efforts will have born good fruit.

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