“When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi” is the first of the six slogans under point three (“Transformation of Bad Circumstances into the Path of Enlightenment”) of the Seven Points of Mind Training. As the first slogan, it’s a sort of statement of intention for all of the slogans under this point, the intention to “change the adverse conditions in which you find yourself into the path of awakening,” as Jamgon Kongtrul puts it. The three types of practice by which this might be achieved–reliance on relative bodhicitta, ultimate bodhicitta, and special practices–are the topic of the other five slogans.
To properly understand this slogan, one must explore three ideas in it: “evil” or “mishaps”; “bodhi“; and “transform.” I’ll start with “transform.” In his commentary on this point, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche offers a clue to understanding transformation in this context when he says that “this group of slogans is connected to the paramita of patience.” At first glance, this is counterintuitive. We might more reasonably expect the paramita of exertion to be connected to slogans of transformation. And elsewhere, Rinpoche has said that patience means that “you bear your existence; you hold it as it is, where you are.” He’s suggesting that we transform evil into the path of bodhi by holding the situation as it is. That certainly doesn’t sound transformative. This apparent paradox is analogous to the apparent paradox that nirvana isn’t separate from samsara. With enlightenment, reality isn’t transformed from samsara to nirvana, nor does the arhat move from samsara to nirvana–rather, the arhat comes to understand reality as nirvana instead of as samsara. By that same logic, it seems that the transformation mentioned in this slogan is not a transformation of the situation or a transformation of the practitioner. It seems instead to be a transformation of view.
Given this understanding of transformation, evil and mishaps should be understood (like their relative opposites, good and, say, boons or blessings) as dualistic and conditioned. Bodhi (generally translated as something like “wakefulness”) on the other hand should be understood as non-dual and unconditioned. Thus, this isn’t the relative transformation of something into its opposite. It’s not turning that frown upside-down, nor is it meeting the evils of the world with the determination to do good. This a transformation from a relative view to a non-dual understanding. The world can be filled with evil and we can suffer mishaps only when we hold a relative view of reality. Or, put another way, when we find the world filled with evil and we find ourselves suffering mishaps, this should serve as a reminder that we’re not taking an awakened view of the situation. Once granted that insight, we’re urged not to correct the situation, not to perfect samsara, but to work toward awakening, to strive for bodhi. This echoes Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s commentary on the second of the Seven Points of Mind Training that “ultimate bodhicitta is preparation for relative bodhicitta.” He continues, “Before we cultivate compassion, we first need to understand how to be properly.”
This is what I understand this slogan to be saying, but what does it mean in practice? The other five slogans under this point suggest answers to that question, but I’d like to try to illustrate my sense of an answer based on my own experience.
I went to Sky Lake for a weekthun over Thanksgiving week. Half way through the week, we shifted our technique from the basic shamatha meditation that I normally practice to the more open shamatha-vipashyana meditation, of which I had done very little. We went from cultivating stability of mind to using that stability of mind to cultivate awareness. On that same day, a few new participants arrived, including a man who had brought his wife, a small child, and one of the child’s grandmothers. I was surprised by this. I had understood a weekthun to be a sort of retreat during which participants committed to a small-scale renunciation of their daily habits and comforts. It was my first time away from my wife in more than five years and my first time ever away from our abandonment-sensitive dog, so it was a difficult renunciation for me. And as the child clamored about outside the shrine room (and, a few times, in it) and as the child’s father wandered in and out of our sitting periods to attend to his family and as his cell phone rang during those sitting periods, I brooded on this. I became angrier and angrier.
As I sat hour after hour, I lamented this mishap that had befallen me. I elaborated all of the ways in which this man and his child were evil, and how a world in which even Buddhist retreat centers weren’t free from this sort of suffering was indeed a world filled with evil. I had made a painful sacrifice to practice uninterrupted in a safe and conducive environment, a sacrifice I might not be able to make again for years, and the opportunity was being squandered. I cursed the fact that just as I was to be cultivating a greater awareness of my environment, that environment had become so unpleasant. I knew that the awareness I was cultivating wasn’t meant to include a judgment of the environment, or a sense of whether I approved of aspects of the environment, but I had thought that the purpose of a retreat was to develop my practice within a container before engaging in that practice in the more challenging circumstances of my daily life. Wasn’t there a reason that retreats were held in quiet settings rather than in Times Square? I knew that, approached with the proper state of mindfulness and awareness, even being mugged could lead to awakening, but I hadn’t come to Sky Lake to be mugged.
By some combination of luck, cowardice, and wisdom, I didn’t act on my anger. I couldn’t think of anything to say to this man or his child that would have been the least bit productive, and I knew that there was no question of their leaving. My choices were to leave myself (which I wouldn’t do mostly out of stubbornness) or to find the patience necessary to accept that this child was within the awareness I was cultivating. I chose the latter and resented it.
But as I sat, I found myself doing more than just nurturing my anger. I recognized that I was angry and sought to identify with whatever it was that was aware of that. Rather than simply identifying with the anger, I found that I could contemplate and consider its implications. I noticed the burning in my stomach and the tension in my shoulders that the anger fed. I counted the kalpas that I would surely be spending in some hell realm as a result of what I imagined doing to that child and his father. As I remembered the technique, dropped the epic of my anger, and brought my mind back to my breath and my environment, I found myself returning to a larger awareness within which this was all happening. I realized that no matter how much I had suffered over the past few days, no matter what I had been subject to, that awareness wasn’t harmed or diminished, and that all of my actual suffering was caused only by my belief that I was aggrieved and by the anger that I cultivated from that. I can’t claim that, having realized that, I simply let the anger go and achieved a new level of insight, but I didn’t act on my anger or cultivate it further–I didn’t make things worse by trying to fix them. I didn’t attain bodhi, but I did transform my apparent mishap into the path of bodhi, and it looks like I’ll have many kalpas (thirty-seven by my count) in a realm filled with evil where I can expect to meet mishaps beyond number to be transformed in this same way.