Suffering sentient beings are more precious than a million dollars

Feb 8, 2024


There are two methods for achieving bodhichitta, as we know: “the six causes and one effect” and “exchanging self for others.” This second one is the more radical one, the more dramatic one, the more powerful one, and is from this whole genre of practices and teachings called lojong, or mind training, and a favorite of our great Tibetan lamas, and certainly their expertise.


The essence of this whole practice is expressed in Eight Verses of Mind Training, a series of steps that culminate in exchanging oneself for others, which leads to bodhichitta. The words are seemingly simple, but the approach is radical. We always think about emptiness being much more difficult than bodhichitta, but my sense is bodhichitta is more difficult than emptiness. 


Why? Because the instinct to put me first is utterly primordial, the most natural thing – and that, of course, is because we grasp at an inherent self. So to even contemplate the idea that we need to put others first, to think only of others, “exchange self for others” does not make sense to us.


The verses are by the Tibetan Langri Tangpa. We can track the teachings back to Atisha, who received teachings on bodhichitta from Serlingpa, his lama in Sumatra, in Indonesia, where the Vajrayana was flourishing back then in the ten hundreds and eleven hundreds. 


Initially, the teachings in the Eight Verses were kept secret. It’s not just tantra that was kept secret; it was these teachings on how to transform your mind because they’re so opposite to the world. As Milarepa said, “Whatever the world does, Dharma is opposite.” 


The Eight Verses are at the most dramatic level, and, as Pabongka Rinpoche says, in order to practice this approach, we have to be “suitable vessels.” Unless we have some comprehension, even theoretically, of the Four Noble Truths, and what suffering is, and renunciation, we won’t understand the advice.


The very first verse of these Eight Verses already is shocking; we’ve got to analyze it. The words are very curious to us. It begins: “In order to get the benefit from all sentient beings . . .” 


We would tend to think it should say, “for all sentient beings.” No. It’s got a very particular meaning. The fact of the matter is if you want to cultivate compassion, what do you need? You need to have contact with suffering sentient beings. You need to see suffering. 


Compassion is a thought: “Oh no, look at that suffering! This is unbearable.” So if you never meet suffering people, how is it possible to have this thought? It’s not. In other words, to use suffering sentient beings as the grist for my mill to help me develop compassion, I need contact with suffering sentient beings. It’s the starting point for developing bodhichitta. 


“In order to get the benefit from all sentient beings,” and then the next line says, and this is just ridiculous – they’re crazy – “Who are more precious than a wish-fulfilling jewel . . .” 


First of all, a wish-fulfilling jewel sounds like science fiction, as far as we’re concerned – though there used to be such a thing in previous lifetimes. So we could put there instead “a million dollars”: “. . . these sentient beings, who are more precious to me than a million dollars . . .” 


We’ll wonder, “What is this man talking about?” What is he talking about? What does he mean by that? 


This is the point. You hear this when you hear the lamas talk. When you hear Lama Zopa teaching, you hear His Holiness teaching, you hear the great yogis teaching – it’s too hard to imagine. These words are real for them.


The only time you hear such compassion is a mother for her child. A mother would happily choose her baby over a million dollars, but to think that you’re trying to have this view for all sentient beings is hard to imagine. Because the next line says, “I will hold them as most dear.” 


When you hear these holy beings teach, it’s as if every being on the planet is their precious child. 


This is only the first verse, and each verse gets more intense.


The first two lines – “In order to make the most of all these suffering sentient beings, who are more precious to me than a million dollars” – mean without these suffering sentient beings it is not possible for me to accomplish bodhichitta. It’s not possible. 


These beings who are trying to get bodhichitta, it’s like they’re fanatics! They’re so heartfelt. It’s almost impossible to comprehend this: “In order to make the most of all these suffering sentient beings, who are more precious to me than a million dollars, I will hold them all – allall – as most dear.” I think it even says “all the time.” 


It’s, like, ridiculous, but at least we can start with the thought!

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