Lojong, or mind training, is a core practice in all the lineages of the Tibetan tradition. The teachings on it are more diverse than many people realize, so we thought we would lay out a map of its origins and development for our readers, with some recommendations along the way for books through which the practice can be explored.
The lojong texts present a system for putting compassion into practice according the to teachings that originate with the Buddha himself, continue in the Mahayana Sutras, and echo throughout the centuries in places such as Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, where in the eighth chapter Shantideva presents the practice of exchanging self and others, known as tonglen in Tibetan. But the practices of lojong are considerably broader than just tonglen. They can perhaps best be characterized as a method for transforming our mind by turning away from self-centeredness and cultivating instead the mental habits that generate bodhicitta, the awakened mind that puts the benefit of others above all else.
The origin of lojong as a system is generally attributed to Atisha, the eleventh-century Bengali master who came to Tibet and founded the Kadampa tradition and whose influence on all the Tibetan lineages was profound. Some teachers identify the actual origin of lojong with Atisha’s teachers—Maitriyogi, Dharmarakshita, and Serlingpa—while others attribute the teachings to Atisha’s main student, Dromtonpa (1005–64). Whatever the case, it is reasonable to think of Atisha as the anchor of these teachings.
From Atisha and the Kadampa masters who followed him, we have received a rich array of core lojong texts that form the basis for the commentaries and teachings we have today. Originally the lojong teachings—often just collections of short sayings—were considered secret and were not widely disseminated, but this changed with the works of two Kadampa masters in particular.
The first was Langri Thangpa (1054–1123), whose teacher, Geshe Potawa (1027–1105), was one of the three main disciples of Dromtonpa, and whose succinct Eight Verses on Training the Mind continues to be widely taught—recently by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to over ten thousand people in New York’s Central Park. His Holiness has taught on this text on numerous occasions and has published two works on it: the book Lighting the Way and the audio recording Eight Verses for Training the Mind. Another commentary is the late Geshe Sonam Rinchen’s, also called Eight Verses for Training the Mind.
One of the earliest commentaries on Langri Thangpa’s Eight Verses was by Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1102–76), who devoted twelve years to putting the teachings into practice. After seeing the effect of the teachings on a village of lepers who were cured by them—and on experiencing the teachings’ remarkable effect on the mind of his unsavory brother—Chekawa decided to share them widely. He became the first to break the teachings down into the now-familiar seven points. Though this model became common, when people refer to The Seven Points of Mind Training, it is almost always Chekawa’s text to which they refer (even if they call it Atisha’s Seven Points of Mind Training). His text consists of fifty-nine aphorisms or slogans that encapsulate the essence of lojong.
There are many commentaries on Chekawa’s text, of which one of the more famous is by Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo, the early fourteenth-century Kadampa master who also authored the renowned Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. In Enlightened Courage, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche teaches on Thogme Zangpo’s commentary on Chekawa’s text.
The great nineteenth-century master Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye also included a commentary on Chekawa’s text in his Treasury of Special Instructions. It is available in English as The Great Path to Awakening.
And there are many contemporary masters who teach on this text because it is so easy to put into practice and can have such a profound effect:
In The Practice of Lojong, Traleg Rinpoche calls the practices “a profound antidote to the victim mentality that has become so prevalent in our times.”
Ringu Tulku received his training in lojong from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and wrote Mind Training, which is a succinct presentation of the slogans.
B. Alan Wallace wrote two books on the text: Seven-Point Mind Training and the longer Buddhism with an Attitude.
Chögyam Trungpa based his Training the Mind on both Chekawa’s text and Jamgon Kongtul’s commentary. He said that this practice of training the mind—which follows taming the mind—is an antidote to the main obstacle for Mahayana practitioners: not having enough sympathy for others and for oneself.
While the core Kadampa lojong texts are taught throughout the Tibetan schools, some schools gave them their own unique expression. In the Sakya tradition, a core lojong teaching is Drakpa Gyaltsen’s Parting from the Four Attachments. The Nyingma and Kagyu traditions have lojong built into the Ngondro practices in the form of meditations and reflections on the “Four Thoughts” and on generating bodhicitta. Khandro Rinpoche’s This Precious Life provides a good example of this. Perhaps the most famous Ngondro commentary is Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of My Perfect Teacher, which constantly refers back to Atisha, Dromtonba, Chekawa, Drakpa Gyaltsen, and others. Khenpo Ngwang Pelzang’s Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher does the same.
The evolution and influence of lojong is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism. Zen teacher Norman Fischer has introduced it to his Zen and interfaith audiences in Training in Compassion, seeing that Zen practitioners can benefit from its explicit teachings in compassion—and that the lojong practitioners can also benefit from the Zen perspective.
And of course Pema Chödrön has brought lojong teachings to a very broad audience with her book Start Where You Are, probably the most widely read book on lojong in English.