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Home > Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism > Level 3: Lojong (Mind Training) Material > Explanation of Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices > Session Two: Proper Friends, Safe Direction, Ethics, and Liberation

Explanation of Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices

Alexander Berzin
Xalapa, Mexico, May 2006

Session Two: Proper Friends, Safe Direction, Ethics, and Liberation

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:51 hours)

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices by Togmey-zangpo and we saw that he starts his discussion with a presentation of the main points that we find in lam-rim, graded stages of the path. After making the homage and also the promise to compose, then he starts with the precious human life and how important that precious human life is. Then we need to take advantage of that precious human life and so he explains the circumstances that would be most conducive for that, namely leaving our homelands and relying on seclusion. Since this precious human life is not going to last very long, there is a great urgency to take advantage of it. And to help us realize that urgency, he explains about death and impermanence.

The Importance of Having Proper Friends

Now we’re up to verse five and this introduces the topic of the importance of having proper friends. It’s very important to have proper support in our Dharma practice, so we need to recognize what types of friends are misleading – the so-called “bad friends” – and which types of friends can really help us on our spiritual path.

(5) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of bad friends
With whom, when we associate,
our three poisonous emotions come to increase;
Our actions of listening, thinking, and mediating come to decrease;
And our love and compassion turn to nil.

Bad friends, or misleading friends, are those who basically, in all good faith, lead us away from our Dharma practice and say, “Come, have a good time,” “Why waste your time doing prostration, doing meditation, going to Dharma lectures and so on?” They’re not basically evil people – I don’t think that’s intended here – but they are those who really don’t value or appreciate what we’re doing with the spiritual path, and make fun of it, and basically try to draw us away from it.

As Togmey-zangpo says, when we’re with them, “When we associate with them, our three poisonous emotions come to increase.” So being with them, they encourage our (1) desire and attachment to going out, and getting drunk, taking drugs, going to meaningless type of entertainment and so on. Sometimes, of course, we need to relax and have a little bit of entertainment. But somebody who is encouraging us to do that all the time, so that we don’t have any time for anything more fitting to our spiritual path – this is a misleading friend.

I have a friend, a student actually, who was very much into taking drugs and he very much tried to stop doing that, but then – he’s a college student, and he shared an apartment with somebody else who was very much into taking drugs. And as much as he wanted to stop, nevertheless, under the influence of his roommate who was smoking all the time and saying, “Come on, take a puff, take a puff,” and then, not wanting to reject that roommate, then he went back into smoking drugs.

So it’s very important which friends we choose, especially if we’re going to spend a great deal of time with them. When they go out and get angry and so on, (2) we get angry too, and they also cause us to (3) become naive, because we forget about what would be the effect of our behavior. Consequently, as Togmey-zangpo says, “our actions of listening, thinking, and meditating come to decrease.” So we have less and less time to go to teachings, to study, to contemplate them, to meditate, and “our love and compassion turn to nil,” Togmey-zangpo says.

Often there’s some type of misleading friends who are very mischievous and they can lead us into going out and, “Let’s put graffiti all over the walls” of various buildings, “Let’s go scratch automobiles,” things like that. So it increases our anger and naturally our love and compassion goes down. If they are always saying terrible things about one or another group of people who might live in our city, then we can become very easily influenced by that as well. When we’re with somebody who is constantly talking about politics and how bad the government is, and getting really angry about it and all excited, then we tend to become like that as well.

Especially when we are not well-established in our Dharma practice, the types of friends that we keep are absolutely essential. If we have misleading friends like this, as the verse says, we need “to rid ourselves of them.” That doesn’t mean that we have bad thoughts about them. We still have the wish for them to be happy and not to be unhappy, but we don’t have to hang out with them.

This starts to become a very complicated issue when we’re married to a misleading friend, especially when there are children involved. That’s not very easy, that type of situation. In each situation, in each couple relationship we have to decide, is it more beneficial to continue, or more beneficial to break? But the main thing to keep in mind if we do have to break, is to try to break on good terms, not on terms of hatred. Even if our partner still has a great deal of hatred and resentment for us, at least from our side, try not to have that in return.

If we decide to stay in such a relationship, I think it’s important to try, at least try – it might not be really possible to succeed, but at least to try – to explain and demonstrate that going and doing various Dharma activities is not a rejection of the other person. But if the time that we would spend with the other person is time spent just in very destructive types of activities – screaming and yelling at each other, or whatever – then we really have to consider what to do. But then what about the children if they come to blame the Dharma for the break-up of their parents? That could have a very negative effect on them in terms of their attitude toward the Dharma. So we have to watch out for that.

Verse five then, to review:

(5) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of bad friends
With whom, when we associate,
our three poisonous emotions come to increase;
Our actions of listening, thinking, and mediating come to decrease;
And our love and compassion turn to nil.

Just one point came to mind, if the argument is about Buddhism and our spending time with Buddhism, then I think it can be helpful, if possible, to defuse that by not putting the blame on Buddhism, but putting the blame more on having different values. In other words, don’t specify it as Buddhism, since, as I said, this could have quite a negative effect, not only on the children, but also the attitude of our partner toward the Dharma. If we provide circumstances for someone to have a very negative attitude toward the Dharma that really is very disastrous for the other person, because it really wouldn’t make any difference whether we were into Buddhism, or Hinduism, or some Western religion, or Islam, or whatever. That really isn’t the point, what the specific teachings are that we’re following, it’s basically a difference in values in terms of a spiritual life.

(6) A bodhisattva’s practice is to cherish more than our bodies
Our hallowed spiritual mentors, to whom,
By entrusting ourselves, our faults come to deplete
And our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.

The word that’s translated here as “spiritual mentors” is more literally a “spiritual friend,” so this is very much in contrast to a negative friend. And actually the word “spiritual” isn’t there; the word is a “friend for constructive behavior.” It’s the word “constructive,” or sometimes that’s translated as “virtuous,” and that means a friend with whom our constructive behavior grows and grows. The whole relationship is constructive: they are constructive, and we become more constructive and positive by associating with them.

This can usually refer to a great spiritual teacher, of course, that leads us along the way, and instructs us and inspires us to act in a constructive Dharma manner, but I think that also we need to include in this topic here our regular Dharma friends. That doesn’t mean just somebody who comes to the center, and then we go to a class together, and then afterwards we go out and have a beer, but rather somebody who, when we’re with, says “Hey, let’s meditate together,” “Let’s discuss this or that topic in Dharma,” somebody who encourages us to go out and volunteer, do some help at a hospital, or something like that.

Now in any type of friendship, there has to be some sort of karmic connection, I think, so that one feels comfortable with the person. There can be people that come up to us and say, “Hey, let’s sit down and meditate,” or “Let’s do prostrations,” and somehow it doesn’t feel right, because we get the feeling that they think of themselves as holy, holy and it just makes us feel very uncomfortable. The real spiritual friend is someone with whom we feel totally comfortable and relaxed, and it’s just natural and flows very, very beautifully that we do constructive things together.

Now, of course, the main emphasis is on the spiritual mentor, the spiritual teacher. In terms of that teacher, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama always points out, don’t rely just on the name of a teacher. There are many teachers with big titles, and big followings, and so on, and that doesn’t necessarily mean in the slightest that they are qualified teachers. We always need to look at the qualifications of the teacher. His Holiness is referring primarily here to the tulkus, the reincarnate lamas, the ones that carry the title “Rinpoche.” There are many of them, of course, who have a very famous name from their predecessors, but don’t do very much in this lifetime in terms of study, practice, etc.

Even if the teacher is very qualified, that doesn’t mean that necessarily this teacher suits us. Again, we have to look to the type of karmic relationship that we have with the teacher. Do we feel comfortable with them or not? Although a spiritual teacher gives us information about the Dharma, we can also get that from books; and although they can answer our questions, which a book can’t, the main thing that the spiritual teacher gives us is inspiration – because in reality most of the great spiritual teachers travel a lot – especially these days – have very many students, and it’s quite difficult to get very much personal attention. So even if we don’t have that type of contact with a great teacher; nevertheless we can gain great inspiration from them.

Also we have to put effort into trying to establish that close relationship. Just to wait for the guru to fall from the sky – it is quite unlikely that such a guru will show up and say, “Ah, come, my dear, I have been waiting for you. Come with me.”

So “when we entrust ourselves,” as Togmey-zangpo says, “to a hallowed” – hallowed means very respected – “spiritual mentor, “our faults come to deplete.” This word “entrusting” is an important word and not an easy word to understand. Often it’s translated as “devotion,” as in guru devotion, but I find that term extremely misleading, because at least in English it implies basically worshiping the teacher mindlessly. But this term is used – it’s a verb – it’s used not only with spiritual teachers, but it’s also used with a doctor, in other words, we entrust ourselves to their care. It implies that we trust them, based on having examined their qualifications and feeling that they are qualified and that they can help us. So when we’re sick and we trust the doctor, then we entrust ourselves to his care. In other words, we’ll do what the doctor tells us to do in order to get better. So the same type of attitude with the spiritual teacher – just as we don’t worship the doctor, we don’t worship the teacher either.

That becomes a delicate situation, because often many emotions come up with a spiritual teacher and although, of course, we have great love for the spiritual teacher, that doesn’t mean that we’re falling in love with the teacher. When we have a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, the emotions are very, very uplifting. One type of confident belief in the teacher is the one that makes our mind clear of disturbing emotions. It’s a very interesting point. In many ways we can say that our emotions are more clear. The way it’s described is that our emotional state is such that the disturbing emotions settle down, like muddy water settling down, so that our emotional state is clear. But we’re not attached to the teacher: we don’t have longing desire that “Oh! I have to be with him.” We don’t have jealously of the other students. We don’t have anger and disappointment when the teacher doesn’t have time for us. We don’t have naivety that the teacher is some sort of god and doesn’t sometimes require rest or comfort or things like that.

As it says here in the text, “our faults come to deplete.” Our disturbing emotions quiet down and by following the teachings of our spiritual mentor, then likewise we’re able to slowly eliminate the faults that we have. All of this implies of course that we’re very mature when we get into a relationship with a spiritual teacher. We shouldn’t imagine that being very emotionally mature, and then we get into this relationship, and then the teacher all of a sudden does some magic and our disturbing emotions quiet down. That’s why I say we ourselves have to put effort into this relationship and on being mature enough to establish a healthy relationship with the spiritual teacher. An unhealthy relationship can have many negative consequences.

The last line “our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.” Being with the teacher, our good qualities, such as developing our personalities, these type of things, if we actually spend time with the teacher, being generous, helping the teacher, these sort of things come to grow more and more. And naturally, the more we follow their teachings, the more our love, and compassion, and understanding, and these things will grow as well.

To review the verse:

(6) A bodhisattva’s practice is to cherish more than our bodies
Our hallowed spiritual mentors, to whom,
By entrusting ourselves, our faults come to deplete
And our own good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.

Cherish them more than our bodies.” What does that mean? I think one level of what that means is that we think more of their comfort than we think of our own physical comfort for our own bodies. We are willing to help them and particularly help them to be able to help others, even if we’re very tired and even if it is very inconvenient for us to do so. Like for my own teacher Serkong Rinpoche, the old one, I used to have to go down from Dharamsala to Delhi very frequently to get all the visas for his travels, which was a very unpleasant task to do. But nevertheless I was happy to do that, because it helped him to be able to help others. So one disregards one’s own physical discomfort in doing such things.

Safe Direction (Refuge)

In verse seven Togmey-zangpo goes into how do we take advantage of that precious human life. This is in the context of the initial scope of motivation in lam-rim, but it is a foundation for all the levels of our Buddhist practice. And this is, first of all, taking a safe direction in life, or refuge.

(7) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take safe direction
from the Supreme Gems,
By seeking protection from whom we are never deceived –
Since whom can worldly gods protect
When they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara?

I use the term “safe direction” rather than “refuge,” because refuge is a little bit too passive here. When we take refuge, to use the usual terminology, that sounds as though we’re taking something from somebody else, whereas actually what we’re doing is putting a safe direction in our life – we’re doing something very active – and that safe direction is indicated by the Three Supreme Gems. When we think of the Three Jewels, the Three Rare and Supreme Gems, we think of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The Dharma is the main thing that we’re aiming for. The actual Dharma Jewel are the third and fourth noble truths on the mental continuum of any highly realized being, arya and up to a Buddha. This is what is really giving us this direction, this state that exists in their mental continuums of some of the obscurations – the disturbing emotions, unawareness etc. – being removed. That’s the true stopping, being removed forever. The fourth noble truth are the true paths, the true minds that act like a pathway to lead us to liberation and enlightenment. These states of mind are the understanding of the four noble truths in general, or voidness specifically, and they bring about true stoppings, and they are the result of true stoppings as well. This is the direction that we want to go in: we want to achieve those true stoppings, and those true paths, that’s the direction. And the Buddhas are those who have achieved that fully, those true stoppings and true pathway minds.

The Sangha is referring not to members of the Dharma center, that’s a Western invention of how to use that word. Sangha Jewel is referring to all aryas, these are those who have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, who have started to get some true stoppings and true pathway minds, and it doesn’t matter whether they are a monastic or a layperson.

The causal Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha as we have explained here – it’s those who have achieved these true stoppings and true pathway minds – so that acts as a cause to inspire us to go in this direction. But also we can take what’s called the resultant direction, which is safe direction from the Three Jewels that we ourselves will attain, when we become an arya and go on to become a Buddha.

As Togmey-zangpo says, “by seeking protection from whom,” that is from them, “we are never deceived.” Well, how do they protect us? Again, I don’t think that the emphasis here is on some almighty being protecting us, and all we have to do is open up to their protection, and then we’re saved. But rather, when we work toward and achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds, we will be protected from suffering, in other words, we protect ourselves. “We will never be deceived,” because if we do achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds, like the Buddhas have achieved and the aryas have achieved, they will protect us from suffering, because we get rid of the causes of suffering forever.

By way of contrast, the worldly gods can’t really offer us that type of help. As it says, “Since whom can worldly gods protect when they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara?” If we think of worldly gods, if we think of our modern-day god being Money, these sort of things can’t really protect us from anything. We find that people who are very rich have more suffering the more money that they have. They’re worried about, “How do I invest that money? How do I avoid having to pay a lot of tax on it?” They’re always worried that other people will steal it; and they always suspect that people like them only for their money, not for themselves. It’s really amazing how many very rich people are very unhappy. So these worldly gods can’t protect us. “They are still bound in the prison of samsara.” They’re still bound and connected with all sorts of disturbing emotions and cause our disturbing emotions to increase.

We review that verse:

(7) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take safe direction
from the Supreme Gems,
By seeking protection from whom we are never deceived –
Since whom can worldly gods protect
When they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara?

The main aim of the initial scope of motivation is to work to improve our future lives, and the main emphasis there really is not to go to heaven, or anything like that, but to continue to have a precious human rebirth. We want a precious human rebirth in all our lifetimes until we gain liberation, and then on to enlightenment. The dividing line, as is always said, between someone who is really a spiritual person and someone who is not, is whether or not they’re working for their future lives. That’s the dividing line in terms of Dharma, but many religions teach working for the afterlife to be reborn in heaven, so this isn’t very specifically Buddhist. To make it Buddhist, we need to think in terms of future lives within the context of this safe direction.

What are we actually aiming for? What we’re aiming for is liberation and enlightenment. In other words – to be a little bit more precise – the direction of these true stoppings and true pathway minds. So we want to have a precious human life and want to continue having a precious human life as a stepping stone for being able to achieve these true stoppings and true pathway minds, and then eventually gain liberation and enlightenment. That’s the important point here and not just to go to heaven. We can’t really be sincere in our wish for liberation and our wish for enlightenment unless we have this initial motivation, this initial aim, because it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to gain liberation or enlightenment in this lifetime. It’s going to take a long time and so we need a lot of precious human rebirths.

In order to work for a precious human rebirth in our next lifetime we need to, of course, believe in rebirth. If we don’t believe in rebirth and we have difficulties with that, then how can we aim for liberation from rebirth, which is what liberation is all about. It’s liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Therefore it’s very important to really work hard to try to understand the Buddhist teachings on rebirth. They are not simple; they’re very, very sophisticated and difficult. It all depends on our understanding of how the self exists and how cause and effect works. Without understanding, at least to some level, the voidness of a person, namely “me,” and the voidness of cause and effect, it’s very difficult to really understand what the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are all about.

Refraining from Destructive Behavior

When we want to work to ensure that our future lives are going to be with a precious human rebirth, then we really need to pay attention to cause and effect, specifically in terms of our behavior. So next Togmey-zangpo speaks about refraining from destructive behavior:

(8) A bodhisattva’s practice is never to commit any negative actions,
Even at the cost of our lives, because the Able Sage has declared
That the extremely difficult to endure sufferings
of the worse states of rebirth
Are the results of negative actions.

This is a verse which is speaking now about karma. Karma is, of course, a very complex topic, but we can generalize here that if we act in a destructive type of way, it brings unhappiness; if we act in a constructive type of way, it brings happiness. Specifically, what we want to do, to ensure that we aren’t reborn in worse rebirth states, is to refrain from acting in a destructive manner. Acting destructively builds up a great deal of negative force on our mental continuum and that negative force leads us to worse and worse rebirth situations.

What do we mean here by a negative action, or a destructive action? Or put it the other way around, what would be the opposite of that? What would be constructive? The way that constructive behavior is explained here is, it’s constructive to refrain from destructive behavior. Now, we have to understand that very well. We might not go out hunting or fishing, for example, “I never liked hunting” “I never wanted to go fishing.” So just to not go hunting or fishing in that way, that’s not really refraining from a destructive type of action, although it’s not committing it. But rather, what it’s referring to here is that a mosquito is buzzing around our head and we want to kill it, and we refrain from doing so, because we think of the negative force that would be built up by responding to something that is annoying with just wanting to destroy it. And so we find a more peaceful way of removing the mosquito from our room.

I think we all can understand that this type of constructive behavior is far more difficult than the other – like, for instance, if we don’t like cake at all, or somebody serves a cake that we really find not appealing, not to eat it is not such a big deal, because we don’t want to eat it anyway. But if they serve a cake which we find absolutely delicious, our favorite cake, then to refrain from eating it, because we’re on a diet, that’s much more difficult and much more constructive if we can do that.

So the constructive behavior is to refrain from acting negatively when we want to act negatively, when that is our habit, that’s the tendency that we have. We don’t do it, because we think of the negative consequences in terms of karma, our future experiences, not just because “I want to be a good Buddhist,” but because we think in terms of the consequences that we ourselves would have to experience in the future.

Now we always see this type of phraseology here, which is “never to commit any negative actions, even at the cost our lives.” I must say that’s a difficult one to really accept. If we think about it, how would we really deal with such a situation? I’m thinking of my friends in Germany. I live in Germany and sometimes I discuss among my German friends, “What would you have done, if you were the age of going into the army at the time of Hitler, and if you didn’t go into the army they shot you. What would you do?” Take that as a serious thing, it’s not like the United States and Vietnam, where you could run off to Canada. In Germany, they shot you if you didn’t go into the army. What would you do? I think that we really need to think about something like that seriously when it says “at the cost of our lives.” That’s a wonderful ideal, but could we really do that? I don’t know.

Now some people, of course, were very fortunate and they went into the Nazi army and were cooks. Somebody had to be the cook, somebody had to be the person who washed the clothes and stuff like that. Of course, when shooting at the enemy, you don’t have to aim very well, you could miss, but, of course, you are running the risk that the person that you’re shooting at is not going to be of similar mind and will aim very well. So although these are great ideals, I think we need to evaluate ourselves quite seriously in terms of this. If we are able to avoid heavy negative actions even at the cost of our lives, if we’re willing to sacrifice our lives, that’s really quite an achievement, I must say.

We certainly see people who are willing to die and willing to be tortured for their principles. I am thinking now of many of the monks and nuns in Tibet that are willing to endure twenty or thirty years in a concentration camp and lots of torture, but they will not denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is sort of what they’re referring to here. So do we have that strength of principles to be like that? This is a question for what we call in the West “soul searching.”

So the verse was:

(8) A bodhisattva’s practice is never to commit any negative actions,
Even at the cost of our lives, because the Able Sage has declared
That the extremely difficult to endure sufferings
of the worse states of rebirth
Are the results of negative actions.

Working for Liberation

Verse nine brings us to the stage of the intermediate level of motivation in lam-rim, which is working toward liberation. This is the following verse:

(9) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take keen interest
In the supreme never-changing state of liberation,
As the pleasures of the three planes of compulsive existence
Are phenomena that perish in a mere instant,
like dew on the tips of grass.

When we look at “compulsive existence,” – that’s referring to samsara – it is uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and existence that just goes on and on and on compulsively. And there are “three planes” of that, in which we could be reborn: (1) the plane of desirable sensory objects, (2) the plane of ethereal forms, those are very subtle forms, and (3) the plane of formless beings, these are beings who don’t have a gross body and were sunk in very deep meditative trances.

Many of us, of course, find it quite difficult to think of all these planes of existence and the different type of rebirths – the trapped beings in the joyless realms, in other words the hell creatures; the clutching ghosts; and the creeping creatures, the animals, this type of thing; the divine beings, or celestial beings, these gods; and then the would-be divine, the ones that are jealous of them, and are always fighting, and want to be like them. But I think one way that makes it a little bit more understandable is to think of the spectrum of the experiences that we can have.

In terms of vision – as human beings we can only see a certain part of the spectrum of light, whereas ultraviolet, infrared and so on we can’t see, but maybe other life forms can see, like many animals can see in the dark. We can’t see in the dark. And hearing, we can only hear a certain range of sound; a dog can hear much higher than we can. So by analogy, if we look at the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, pain and pleasure, then we find that as human beings, when the pain or suffering reaches a certain level, we become unconscious, and when the pleasure reaches a certain maximum peak, we destroy it. It’s like when you are approaching the supreme pleasure of orgasm, you just rush to have that, which is basically destroying it; or if you look at an itch – an itch is actually pleasure. It’s not pain if you really analyze it objectively. It is a very intense pleasure; but it’s too much pleasure and so we scratch it, we have to destroy it.

If there are life forms that can experience other parts of the spectrum of light and sound, why can’t there also be life forms that can experience further down the spectrum of pain and further up the spectrum of pleasure? The mind-stream, the mind, everybody’s mind, my mind, your mind, is perfectly capable then of experiencing the entire spectrum of happiness, unhappiness, pleasure and pain. It’s just a matter of which life form we’re going to be reborn in will determine which part of that spectrum we will experience in that lifetime. I think the point then with these other life forms is not so much where are they located and what do they look like. That really is quite secondary, quite trivial. The important point is, first of all, not to reduce it just to a human psychological state, but to realize that the mind is capable of experiencing far more on that scale of pleasure and pain than our human apparatus will allow.

The point here is that we want to get liberated from all of that, because regardless of what portion of that spectrum of pleasure and pain, of happiness and unhappiness we experience, all of that is coming from confusion and associated with confusion and – unless we’re an arhat – is going to continue to bring more confusion. Because of that self-perpetuating nature of samsara, then our experience of this pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness is going up and down, up and down all the time with no security, no certainty at all. What we want to aim for is the “never-changing state of liberation,” in which it’s not going to change. It’s always going to be a type of happiness that is not mixed with confusion. It’s not going to go up and down.

It helps us to aim for that, when we realize that these pleasures that we find in any of these three planes of compulsive existence are, as Togmey-zangpo says, “phenomena that perish in a mere instant, like dew on the tips of grass.” They never last, and we never know what’s going to come next, and they never satisfy. In order to gain liberation, we need to then get rid of this unawareness that we have all the time, this confusion. If we get rid of that, then we’ll get rid of the disturbing emotions and attitudes that arise from that, and we will no longer activate our karmic tendencies and potentials. So we will no longer build up any further karma by acting compulsively or impulsively, and we will no longer experience this so-called tainted happiness and unhappiness that ripen from karma.

In order to do that – to get rid of that unawareness – and gain liberation, we need to follow the three higher trainings. The first is training in higher ethical self-discipline. If we can restrain our bodies and our speech specifically – restraining the mind is a little more difficult – but if we can at least restrain our bodies and speech from acting destructively, that gives us the strength to be able, then, to restrain our minds with higher concentration to not wander, or not to get dull, and so on.

Naturally, we also need to try to restrain from destructive mental behavior of thinking with great covetousness, “I’ve got to get what everybody else has,” and plotting how to get it, and plotting how to get revenge. Of course, if we can refrain from that, then that also helps us to refrain from any type of mental wandering. But as I said, the mental one is far more difficult than the physical and verbal. Then, on the basis of that training in higher concentration, we can apply that concentration to higher discriminating awareness, in other words, focusing on voidness, which is what will actually get rid of this unawareness forever.

To review that verse for the intermediate level of motivation or aim:

(9) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take keen interest
In the supreme never-changing state of liberation,
As the pleasures of the three planes of compulsive existence
Are phenomena that perish in a mere instant,
like dew on the tips of grass.

I think that this is a good place to stop for today. What questions do you have?

Question: Why is it, according to Buddhism, that from one life to the next – in our case – we can’t remember what we learned in our past life in terms of spiritual studies and practice and everything in a way that our practice could be more effective?

Answer: First of all there are some people who remember certain things, but I think the main thing that we carry with us are very strong tendencies, if we’ve practiced a great deal. Because of those tendencies and strong habits, then in a future life, if we have a precious human life, we would very easily meet with the Dharma again and very quickly. And when we study, we would only basically have to be reminded. In other words, we are told something once and then we know it, we remember it, in a sense. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he told me that never, in any of the lessons that His Holiness received, did anything ever have to be repeated a second time. All you had to do was to tell him something once and then he knew it.

I think we can perhaps relate to this type of experience if we’ve studied a language as a child, or a young adult, and then we haven’t used it for most of our life. For example, I studied Chinese in my youth and I stopped studying that about forty years ago. I used to be quite fluent in Chinese, but now I can’t just generate words; I don’t remember them. But all that somebody has to do is tell me this or that word and then, “Oh, yes, I remember. I know that word.” For most of us, that’s the best that we can hope. Obviously there are some great lamas that, without being taught anything, they can remember and recite something that they had memorized in a previous life, but that’s very, very rare.

Question: For us, as Westerners, oftentimes we meet the Dharma when we’re already mature. So it would be ideal to understand first the different explanations, topics, and so on, and then maybe meditate on them. But also we have urgency to deal with the emotional turmoil and everything that’s going on in our minds and then we do it and we try to deal with it, but there is confusion and inability to do it, because we don’t really understand the different things that are being presented in the Dharma, and we oftentimes don’t have contact with the teachers that are not there all the time. How could we deal with this situation?

Answer: At present, we have so many more books that are available on the Dharma than were available, let’s say, forty or fifty years ago, that even when the teachers aren’t here and we don’t have access to them, we do have things that we could read. Also, now we have the Internet. There’s for instance the website that I do, berzinarchives.com, that has many, many teachings and audio files, and soon that will be available in Spanish as well, and there are many other websites that are starting to put up audio files that we can download and listen to.

If we don’t understand English, for example – Tibetan is really difficult – but if we don’t understand English, in which the largest amount of material is available, if we’re really serious, unfortunately you have to learn English. Although people are trying to make materials available as well in Spanish, it’s hardly likely that there will be as much in Spanish as there is in English, just as it’s highly unlikely there will be as much in English as there is in Tibetan. So if one is really serious, you have to put in a great deal of effort to become enlightened, and one of the aspects of that effort that we have to put into it is to learn another language.

A great deal of the Dharma training is a training in our personalities. One of the big things that we have to build up is perseverance to work hard. Liberation and enlightenment are not easy. They are not going to be spoon-fed to us and people who present it in a spoon-fed manner are really misleading us, I think. No matter which biography we read of which great Tibetan or Indian spiritual master, what do we learn from it? We learn from it that all of them underwent a great deal of hardship in order to study, and learn, and master the Dharma. So why should we be any different?

When dealing with Westerners, Westerners tend to have low self-esteem, they get discouraged. And because of that, then often it’s very helpful, you have to give them encouragement, “You can do it,” and “Buddha nature,” and all these things. And sure that’s helpful, but I don’t think that that’s helpful to do at the expense of minimizing the amount of hard work that it’s going to require. That’s the way it is. Our disturbing emotions, our negative habits are really strong and we all know that, if we look at ourselves honestly. There is no easy way out of that. Now we don’t need to walk all the way from Tibet to India in order to get teachings. We can just turn on the computer and connect to the Internet, so it’s much easier – so there really is no excuse.

I think one of the most inspiring stories is from the biography of Marpa, the translator. It was his first time in India. He had spent a number of years, and he’d learned the language, and he’d translated these texts. And he was on his way back to Tibet with his translations, and he was crossing the Ganges river and his boat overturned, and he lost all his translations, and he had to go back and do them all over again, and he did. So when our hard drive crashes, think of Marpa.

Let’s end here for this evening with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive forces has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.