Meditating on Universal Responsibility


In last week’s post Chanting the Chenrezig Mantra, Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche advised us to “meditate on universal responsibility and just keep our mind (stabilized) upon it.” The essential meditation instructions  are now given.




In terms of a meditational sequence, you might start not with hell beings but humans. [1]  With every human being try to feel as follows:


Yes, I have responsibility to cause their happiness, not just in this but all future coming lives. Also I must bring them to liberation and full enlightenment. For this reason I shall develop compassion because, if I don’t, all this happiness will be lost. Numberless sentient beings will not obtain it.


In this way feel universal responsibility.




Now shift to contemplating universal responsibility to animals in the same way. Who is responsible? I am. Use the same reasons: if I generate this compassion they receive all this happiness and if I don’t, they don’t.




Now contemplate on the hungry ghosts and use the same reasoning. Then move to feeling universal responsibility toward numberless hell beings. Recall that by developing compassion you are able to generate also the wisdom directly perceiving emptiness. On that basis you are able to lead countless hell beings from the entire sufferings of saṃsāra and to full enlightenment, by oneself alone!




Now feel universal responsibility toward the suras (gods) and again use the reasonings until you feel universal responsibility toward them all. Do the same with the asuras (demi-gods). On the basis of compassion you develop Dharma wisdom, particularly the ultimate wisdom directly perceiving emptiness. Then, you are able to reveal the path to them, liberate them from oceans of asura sufferings and the whole entire suffering of saṃsāra. Through ending its cause—delusion and karma—they are brought to full enlightenment.




Finish your meditation with intermediate state beings.[2]




In order to fulfil the wishes of all sentient beings and lead them to full enlightenment in this way you need first to achieve full enlightenment yourself. To reveal all the methods and perform perfect works for them you need to be a perfect guide endowed with all the qualities such as omniscience and perfect power. As this doesn’t occur without causes and conditions you need to generate compassion which also depends on causes and conditions. Therefore you need also to have preliminary realizations such as those contained in the path of the middle capable being in general. These in turn are dependent upon realizing the path of the lower capable being in general. So what makes all these paths, from initial recognition of this precious human rebirth up to the end—full enlightenment—successful? The answer is guru devotion.




All necessary conditions to practice Dharma have been received at this time. We have met the virtuous friend who reveals the whole unmistaken path to enlightenment, the whole unmistaken path to liberation and the whole unmistaken path to avoiding lower rebirths. Nothing is missing. In this world, to find such a perfectly qualified teacher is so rare. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the embodiment of Chenrezig, the buddha of compassion, is one such teacher. Without leaving anything out he is able to show the whole path. But there are many others who are also fully qualified and whom, if we have not already, we will have opportunities to meet. Then, having met the Buddhadharma we have assembled all the necessary conditions to achieve any great meaning, such as the happiness of future lives and birth in the pure land in which we will become enlightened. By achieving a perfect human rebirth in the next life we will be able to continue practicing the path to liberation and enlightenment and gain realizations enabling us to give deep benefit to sentient beings. And because, right now, we have this precious human rebirth we can achieve all of these goals in each day, every minute and second. The reason: the causes of the

wse goals can themselves be created every day, every minute, every second. We can achieve every personal happiness as well as cause any happiness for all sentient beings during this time. Our situation is therefore like a wish-fulfilling jewel.


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Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography


[1] In a personal instruction many years ago Kyabje Zopa Rinpoche similarly advised me to lead the group meditation (it was during a course) on the sufferings of sentient beings in the six realms in the same sequence. The reason for starting with humans (and not hell beings in which the sufferings are indescribably intense) he elaborated, was “so that the students do not become scared and therefore unable to meditate purely on compassion for others.” (Personal recollection). This advice invokes many subtle and intriguing points, not least of which is the sheer force of our habitual identification of reality as “our” reality i.e. one cast into the shapes and forms of our own personal egotistical concerns.

Might it be also that by skillfully eliciting an element of self-interest–I don’t know how others suffer but I sure do understand my own suffering as a human and therefore I naturally wish to cease that, not just first but immediately–we can then gradually and increasingly shift and expand that impulsive self-concern to embrace others starting with other humans, friends, partners, family, neighbours and so forth? Over time, and through creatively repeated familiarization we then can transform this immediate bias into a genuine empathetic concern for the plight of others, even those seemingly most alien or peculiar to ourselves i.e. those not in human realms?

Another consideration is that if we start with those so immersed in pain that they appear indistinguishable from it, we might forget to meditatively “experience” that state because we see it as an intellectually-contrived exercise employed just in meditation and hence manage to remain aloof and remote? I am sure we have all noticed ourselves having this disassociated or ‘split’ experience watching images of natural disasters or war on our various media devices, even while reaching for another delicious morsel of food. If, perhaps over-zealously, we go to the other extreme and deliberately immerse ourselves in the most acute and ‘distressing’ images over and over again with not even a slight interlude between them, we might stage an even unconscious revolt and get a severe headache, giddy nausea or by flooded by waves of anxiety, or depression. So, although the steps of this meditation are very simple their import is vast and their navigation will involve encountering psychic defensive and other stumbling blocks such as jelly fish don’t have feelings or hell beings don’t exist because I can’t see them. Hence we approach them with discretion and respect while also looking after ourselves as the meditator for we–although only one person–are nonetheless a legitimate concern. Without sensibly protecting ourselves, how are we to protect others? His Holiness the Dalai Lama frequently says:

We all have the same common human needs and concerns. We all seek happiness and try to avoid suffering regardless of our race, religion, sex or political status. Human beings, indeed, all sentient beings, have the right to pursue happiness and live in peace and freedom. As free human beings we can use our unique intelligence to try to understand ourselves and our world.

See His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Infinite Compassion for an Imperfect World, 46.

[2] Vasubhandu’s Treasury of Knowledge explains that an intermediate state (bar do) being takes on the bodily aspect or shape of the form into which it will be reborn. See Lati Rinbochay and Hopkins, Death, Intermediate State, 56. In his commentary on the First Paṇchen Lama’s poem “Wishes for Release from the Perilous Straits of the Intermediate State, Hero Releasing from Fright,” the Dalai Lama develops the description from the perspective of someone who is an ordinary person (in the sense of having no yogic realizations) dying:

Just as when you go to sleep you re-emerge with a dream-body, so in the intermediate state you suddenly have a body shaped like that in which you will be reborn. This body is often like your future body at around age five or six. Like a dream-body, it is made from a wind-mind combination. The wind on which the mind of clear light rides is the substantial cause of that body, but it also is a cooperative condition contributing to the mind of the intermediate state. The mind of clear light, conversely, is the substantial cause of the mind of the intermediate state and the cooperative condition contribution to the body of the intermediate state being….because your body is fashioned from wind and mind, you have all five senses, but your body is clear like a rainbow, casting no shadow, and you do not leave footprints. By the magical force of karma you are naturally endowed with the ability to travel in a very short time around or through this world system unimpeded by earth, rock, mountains, and buildings; nevertheless, once you have entered your new mother’s womb, you cannot leave. Although you speak to your relatives, friends, and others, they do not hear you and thus do not answer in return. You do not see sun, moon, or stars. Despite your not having had clairvoyance previously, you have limited clairvoyance now.

 Advice on Dying, 190–92.

“A dying man” must “travel the perilous road of the bardo alone,” says Pabongka, Liberation, 316. “Where,” he continues, “you will be unimaginably frightened and will have hallucinations of duststorms and firestorms, of being buried under avalanches or mounds of earth, of being surrounded by whirling firebrands, of being swept away by water or winds, and so forth” (ibid., 319). Moreover, despite any aspirations or plans to the contrary, “There are only two places in which [your consciousness] can take rebirth, the upper or the lower realms” (ibid., 323). As we “cannot be confident of not going to the lower realms until we have achieved the patience level of the path of preparation” and because “we are more familiar with nonvirtue than with virtue, the only possibility is that we shall go to the lower realms in our next rebirth” (ibid., 324). Even if we somehow temporarily escape a lower rebirth, there is no consolation as “even gaining a higher rebirth is nothing but suffering” (ibid., 440).

These topics are sequentially detailed in classic presentations on the twelve links of dependent origination. See for example, Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages, Volume One, 315-25. See also earlier posts How We Enter Into Samsara and What It Means To Cycle. Therefore there is every reason to generate compassion toward bardo beings who, like all others propelled by karma and delusion, remain prisoners of the uninterrupted torment of suffering, at least until being rescued by defeating the causes of saṃsāra. As Aryādeva says in Four Hundred Verses,

The high have mental suffering,
The ordinary have physical suffering.
These two sufferings conquer the world
Every single day.

See Pabongka, Liberation, 449.



Chanting the Chenrezig Mantra





Chanting the Chenrezig mantra, oṃ mani padme hūṃ, will help us develop such compassion leading to enlightenment. This is because Chenrezig is the deity embodying all the buddhas’ compassion. For this reason it is the wish-fulfilling mantra. Without any sense of discrimination we recite it for all sentient beings’ temporal and ultimate happiness including their attainment of full enlightenment. We do this toward them. Each is equally the object of our compassion and we work for every single one. Not only are our own personal problems solved and personal happiness achieved but, in the longer term, we are able to liberate numberless sentient beings from the oceans of saṃsāric suffering. More immediately, we cause them to have happiness now.

Our life’s purpose is not just to have wealth or be well known or even famous. Nor is it just to have a good education and be a scholar. If we approach Buddhism as just an intellectual understanding, or an isolated study pursuit, it does not make our life meaningful. What articulates the essence of Buddhism is the commitment to have compassion for each and every single sentient being, irrespective of religion, color, nationality, race and so forth, and without leaving out a single sentient being of any kind. Wherever we find a sentient being who is obscured and suffering, there is our compassion. Only this makes our life meaningful. It is just as the great bodhisattva Śāntideva mentioned—just reading a medical prescription does not cure a sickness.[1] Nor does carrying a huge load of medicines on your back, or storing them in your house without actually taking them. You have to take it. The essence is putting it into active practice. Even in the case of a great scholar able to explain the entire teachings of the Buddha including the huge collections of the Kangyur and Tengyur[2] as well as commentaries to them by the great pandits and lamas of the four traditions, and even in the case of someone who can recite everything by heart, without actual practice, there will still be suffering. Emotional problems will arise. Pride, anger and attachment present in you before you learnt and memorized everything will still be there after you have achieved that feat. Problems will not have undergone any change or maybe, due to pride, they will even have become even bigger and worse.


Avalokiteśvara Padmapåni (Tib.: Phyag na padmo) Tibetan Brass Traditions; 12th/13th century. Published: von Schroeder, Ulrich. 2009. The Jokhang Bronzes, in Jokhang –Tibet’s Most Sacred Buddhist Temple, edited by Gyurme Dorje; Part 4, Pl. 2D.

Without meditation, without Dharma, no matter how much wealth one achieves, even if one becomes a millionaire, a billionaire, trillionaire or zillionaire, then only more dissatisfaction arrives. More mental suffering develops. One’s heart is always hollow. Empty. There is always something missing no matter how much is externally gained. You may take refuge in alcohol but due to your reliance you can’t even eat food because so many bottles are being drunk each day. This is how living with alcohol leads to depression. With no other means realized, or relied upon, alcohol becomes the sole prop. Spent entirely like that, our life is totally without benefit to ourselves. Nor does it have benefit for others in the world. We destroy our life while others are harmed.

While on a plane I watched a film about a very wealthy man in London who had a huge property. He could never find satisfaction. So miserable. So unhappy. Thinking that the cars he had been selling were not just the root of his business wealth but also the source of his problems, he ordered his bodyguard to buy many small model toy cars.

toy bin cars cropped

Putting them into a concrete birdbath in the garden, he poured kerosene over them and burnt them! Maybe this was an antidote to his problems! Apparently he moved to a different room of his house each night. Never did he stay in the same room two nights in a row. His suffering is the same as the man of the year on the cover of Time magazine. Despite being on the cover, the article inside talks not only about his success but also his inner problems and how his life is filled with fear and worry. Without Dharma and meditation practice in our life this is what happens. Without developing a good heart and compassion this is what happens. Even if everybody in the world, due to your reputation and appearances on TV, knows your name, it is the same. Singers and actors commit suicide for this reason. This is also why so many educated people kill themselves. If wealth and fame were sources of happiness then the more extensive they are, that much wider and wider should be their happiness. Instead, when in this situation there is fear that you will lose your position.

But in our daily life the meaning and purpose of our life is achieved whether we are able to benefit many sentient beings, or just one. Why? Because compassion does not allow you to harm others. Its effect is opposite: you stop harming them. Numberless sentient beings come to only receive peace and happiness from you. However, more than just nonharming is gained. Due to developing compassion your wisdom is developed. In dependence upon this you can guide them toward not just liberation from saṃsāra, but full enlightenment. From you they receive the cessation of all mistakes and all the qualities of realization. All this depends on your compassion. So the entire situation depends upon you. Each of us has full responsibility for each and every hell being, hungry ghost, animal, human being, sura, asura and intermediate state being. Their happiness, up to enlightenment, depends upon us. How? Because if you—as one person—do not generate compassion toward others who are numberless, then numberless hell beings, hungry hosts, human beings, suras, asuras and intermediate beings don’t receive from you this happiness, extending from right now up to full enlightenment. Universal responsibility means each of us taking on responsibility for the happiness of all beings. Therefore we should meditate on universal responsibility and just keep our mind (stabilized) upon it.


Full publication details of cited texts are found in the bibliography

[1] Writes Śāntideva,

Therefore, having thought about this well,
I should try to put these precepts into practice just as they have been explained.
If the doctor’s instructions are ignored,
How will a patient in need of cure be healed by his medicines?

Guide, ch. 4, v. 48.

[2] The Kangyur (Bka’’gyur), or translated sacred scriptures, consists of 108 volumes of the spoken word of the Buddha; the Tengyur (Bstan ’gyur), or translated treatises, consists of 224 volumes and covers a wide range of assembled commentarial material, including that of the great Nalanda masters.

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