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A Short Commentary on
Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices

(rGyal-sras lag-len so-bdun-ma)
by Togmey-zangpo (Thogs-med bzang-po)

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
translated and condensed by Alexander Berzin, 1983
revised second edition, March 2006

First edition published in
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Four Essential Buddhist Commentaries.
Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1983.

Order directly from Paljor Publications.

Day Two: Verses 1 to 7

Taking Advantage of Being in a Holy Place

As I explained yesterday, we are at a special place here where the Buddha manifested his enlightenment and where many enlightened beings have been. Nagarjuna and his two spiritual sons, for instance, and many Tibetans as well, have lived here in Bodh Gaya. For example, Sanggyay-yeshey came here long ago from Kham and became the abbot of its monastery. Many others arrived also from all different lands and, due to the inspiration of this place, received many insights. This is a special characteristic of this holy spot. So if we, being here too, have a strong, proper motivation, and if we pray hard, then with much joyful perseverance and proper practice, we can build up much positive force also.

Especially for those of you who have come here from Tibet, although the conditions there are so difficult, you need to take full advantage of being in such a holy place now to gain much positive strength. All of us here are very fortunate. At such a time, with such rampant delusions in the world and so much desire and hatred, it is extremely precious to have the opportunity to follow the Buddha’s teachings of compassion, love and so on. Although there is so much wealth in the world, there is no way that money can buy freedom from death, old age, and other basic problems. Since sufferings come from the side of the mind, then external circumstances, such as wealth, cannot eliminate that mental suffering. Thus, it is very important to follow spiritual methods, and of all the various traditions, it is very wonderful that you have this interest in Buddhism.

Look at the many Westerners who are here among us. They have come because of their sincere interest in Buddhism. They meditate, recite prayers, do practice, and know quite a lot. Their interest in Buddhism is due to their having thought about it with logic and reasoning. In order to accept the Buddhist teachings, they analyzed them first. Seeing their examples, we can see that this is a very precious and important opportunity to be in such a holy place as this, Bodh Gaya. Here we become mindful of all the great acts, deeds and qualities of the Enlightened Beings. As being in such a place so conducive for constructive behavior and thought is really quite rare, we need to try to build up as much positive force here as possible. The more constructive things we do here, the greater the positive force we build up, even more than elsewhere, simply because of our being in this special place. Do you understand?

Practical Advice to the Visitors from Tibet

While you are here, although selling goods is not forbidden, you need to be honest. Although it is all right to receive some profit from your sales, do not be greedy or dishonest. Also, when you circumambulate, do not gossip or daydream, but be attentive and respectful. And don’t throw paper all around on the ground and go to the toilet everywhere. I realize that if you wait in line just to use the toilet, you may have to wait for hours, so you have to go elsewhere; but be as clean as possible. Tibet is a cold country, whereas here in India, at a low elevation, the conditions are different. So don’t just dirty the place everywhere. Be careful and be responsible.

Also, it is very good to make prostrations, either bent or outstretched, but do so correctly. Keep your hands flat on the ground and have your palms facing downward. Offer candles, do things like this. This is very good; it is excellent. Say prayers, meditate and even if it is not with single-minded concentration, it sets very good instincts. The most important thing is to have a pure motivation. Therefore, we need to examine our minds and motivation for everything we do. This is very important. We need to try to diminish the power of our disturbing emotions and attitudes as much as possible.

The best thing to do is to develop an attitude of considering others more important and ourselves as unimportant. This is the essence of Mahayana. Have a kind and warm heart. Being constructive in our actions and being kind, warm and loving at heart are the real points. If we engage in external Dharma actions out of pride, competition, or envy, it only leads to negative karmic force. Therefore, what we do and why we do it is important and crucial. We need always to examine and correct our motivation.

Setting the Motivation

Being here in such a holy and special place, we need to try to have as enlightening a motive as possible. Remaining ever mindful of Buddha’s examples of developing a bodhichitta resolve, we need to try as much as we can to emulate them. If we develop a kind heart and great motivation in such a place as this, it is very beneficial. Do you understand?

As it says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, try never to become angry. As is explained there, nothing destroys positive force like anger. So, try never to lose your tempers or become angry with anyone. Try to tame and discipline your minds not to be crude or rough. Instead of being envious of others’ actions and achievements, rejoice in the positive force of everyone here. Recite the Seven-limb Prayer and think well of all its points. Try to build up as much positive force as you can. Understand? And if we can build up together a little bit here, it will make our lives much better, won’t it?

So, now set a bodhichitta motivation to listen to these teachings. It is The Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices by Togmey-zangpo and is divided into three parts: the beginning, the actual discussion, and the end. The actual discussion is divided into the three levels of motivation, as explained in Lam-rim, the “Graded Path.” First comes the initial scope motivation.

The Precious Human Life

(1) A bodhisattva’s practice is,
   at this time when we have obtained
The great ship (of a human rebirth)
   with respites and enrichments, difficult to find,
To listen, think, and meditate unwaveringly,
   day and night,
In order to free ourselves and others from the ocean
   of uncontrollably recurring samsara.

Dharma is a system of methods to make an unpeaceful mind peaceful and an untamed one tamed. All of us are equal in wanting happiness and not any suffering, and Dharma is what brings this about. But people do not know how to practice it. If we look at our human bodies, although we might think of them merely in terms of their being in the category or lineage of our parents, if we look more profoundly, we see that they are in the category of having respites and enrichments. Respites means liberties or freedom to practice Dharma, and look at us here. We do have the freedom to come here and to practice Dharma, don’t we? We are not deaf: we are not missing various faculties that would prevent us from hearing the teachings and so on. We have all the conditions conducive for practice, and whatever is nonconducive is not here. We have, in fact, eight respites and ten enriching factors.

Many people in the world have a human birth, but few have the independence and freedom to practice the Dharma. We are very fortunate, therefore, to have such a rare opportunity. Also, there are spiritual teachers available and present in the world, following the example of the Buddha and carrying on his deeds. These beneficial effects we are experiencing now have resulted from causes similar to them in the past. In other words, our good fortune now must be from constructive causes we have previously enacted. Therefore, to obtain such opportunities and such a working basis again in the future, we need to build up the constructive causes for this now.

If we act without attachment, aversion, or naivety, it will not be difficult to build up constructive causes for a precious human rebirth in the future. But, in fact, as we rarely act in this way, we need to take as much advantage of the present opportunity as we can. Never be discouraged or feel inadequate. Try to act as constructively as possible.

A constructive or tamed mind is not something that we can buy in a store, plant in a field or obtain from a bank. It comes from the actual practice of taming our minds. We need to practice in order to gain meditation experiences and stable realizations. Thus, we need to follow the examples of the great teachers of the past.

In Tibet, first there were the great Nyingma lamas; then afterward there were Atisha and the Kadam lineage, the Sakya lamas, and Marpa, Milarepa and Gampopa of the Kagyu lineage, and so on. All of them underwent great difficulties and, by exerting tremendous efforts, they became enlightened. It is just up to us to follow their examples. We need to examine ourselves and ask, “What progress have I made in the last five years, the last ten, the last fifteen years in taming my mind?” If we can see that we have indeed made a little improvement, then this can encourage us. Don’t be proud, or anything like that, but if we realize that over five or ten years we can progress a little, then we will not be discouraged over short periods of time.

The actual practice is to listen, think, and meditate on the teachings. However, when we hear teachings or study them, we need always to check our attitudes about them. Whatever we hear, we need immediately to put into practice. We need to have our practice of listening, thinking, and meditating never be separate from each other or have any of them missing.

The Circumstances Most Conducive for Taking Advantage of a Precious Human Life

(2) A bodhisattva’s practice is to leave our homelands,
Where attachment to the side of friends
   tosses us like water;
Anger toward the side of enemies burns us like fire;
And naivety so that we forget what’s to be adopted
   and abandoned cloaks us in darkness.

Best is to leave our homelands. But even if we do not or cannot, we need to avoid attachment or aversion because of it. Do not think, “This is my country, my family,” as though there were a findable, inherently existent country for which we could have attachment or for which we could have hatred of its enemies. Attachment and aversion bring destructive behavior and create much negative force and suffering. These two troublemakers are the chief among all our disturbing emotions and attitudes, and both come from unawareness (ignorance).

Even if we leave our countries and go to another, make new friends and then develop attachments and aversions there, this will not do. This is no good. The main point is to rid ourselves of attachment and aversion, and replace them with an attitude of wishing for the benefit of others. If there are people to whom we feel attracted and for whom we have attachment, then with just a slight change in their behavior all of a sudden we hate them. But if, instead, we have an attitude of love and compassion to help these persons, then even if they behave badly, we will still wish them to be happy. Thus, we need to replace our attachment with an attitude of wishing for the benefit of others.

Most of us here have left our countries, but there is nothing wonderful or extraordinary about that if we still have attachment and aversion. We need to rid ourselves of them.

(3) A bodhisattva’s practice
   is to rely on seclusion where,
By having rid ourselves of detrimental objects,
   our disturbing emotions and attitudes
   gradually become stymied;
By lacking distractions, our constructive practices
   naturally increase;
And by clearing our awareness,
   our certainty grows in the Dharma.

If we are away from those who disturb us and we do not have a head full of busy work, then automatically we turn to constructive activities more easily. Therefore, it is most helpful to live in seclusion and quietude. But to be able to meditate in solitude, we need the full force of having heard and thought about the teachings, and this without any attachment or aversion.

Thus, we have attained a precious human rebirth and now we need to use it properly and not lose this opportunity, because it is impermanent. We need to turn away, then, from our obsessive concern with mainly this life, as it says in The Three Principal Aspects of the Paths. If we put our main emphasis on future lives, then things will go well in this life also. But if all our emphasis is on this life, it will not help our future lives at all. Therefore, we need to turn from being only involved with the affairs of this life and work to improve our future ones. To do this, we need to think about impermanence.

Impermanence

(4) A bodhisattva’s practice is to give up concern
   being totally with this lifetime,
In which friends and relations a long time together
   must part their own ways;
Wealth and possessions gathered with effort
   must be left behind;
And our consciousness, the guest,
   must depart from our bodies, its guest house.

If we look at world history, no one in the three realms of compulsive rebirth has lived forever. Look at the great places of the past, Nalanda, where great Atisha and others flourished. Now only its ruins are left. This helps to show us impermanence. Look at the customs and so forth of Tibet of the past. These circumstances are past; they are impermanent and have finished. A hundred years from now it is certain that none of us here will be alive. Our mental continuums of mere awareness and clarity will have gone on; the existence of past and future lifetimes is for certain. But, what we experience now will not – our wealth, our prosperity, all of these things that have come from causes in past lifetimes. No matter how close we are with others, our families and so on, we will all have to part and go our own ways. Those who have built up positive force will experience happiness; those who haven’t, will not. The continuity of the mere “I” labeled on the subtle energy and consciousness goes on for sure, thus we shall experience the fruits of the actions we commit now. Therefore, what we do now is crucial.

When we die, we all go alone. Even the Dalai Lama, when he dies, has to go alone. When Mao Zedong died, he went alone. His wife, Jiang Qing, did not accompany him, nor did his masses. All his fame while alive did not help him at all. We can see what happened afterwards. Even such a great man as Mahatma Gandhi went alone. He had to leave his staff, his sandals, his round wire glasses behind. We can see them in his memorial; he has taken nothing along. External material possessions, friends, relatives, nothing helps, not even the bodies we have received from our parents. As Gungtang Rinpoche explained, we all have to go alone.

Look at us Tibetans, look at yourselves. Even if we are in such difficult times, we are still human and when we die there is no certainty that we will be human again. If we do not make some progress now while we are human, what can we do later in another lifetime not as a human. Now, of course, we have to eat. Except for great beings who live on single-minded concentration, all of us have to eat solid meals. So, obviously, we have to plant food and do things for this lifetime. But, we need to not have this be our total obsession. We need to devote maybe 30% of our time to this lifetime and 70% to the future, or better 50\50. The main point is not to be totally involved with this life alone.

The Importance of Having Proper Friends

(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 meditating come to decrease;

And our love and compassion turn to nil.

We need to think then mostly of our future lives and, to do so, we need good friends. They are important because they influence us very much. Even if our own listening to the teachings and thinking about them are quite meager, the examples of good friends can influence us to do more.

It is important then to have friends of the same dispositions as we have. Why? Because as it says in the verse, bad friends or misleading ones can harm us by their company, therefore we need to dissociate ourselves from them. But, of course, this means that we need still to have love for them – the wish for them to be happy; just stay away from their negative influence.

(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.

If we have positive-minded friends and keep the good company of gurus or spiritual mentors, they exert the best influence on us. Of course, we need a guru who suits us, but even if such a person is pleasing to our minds, he or she needs to be fully qualified. We Tibetans have tulkus or incarnate lamas with famous names, but they need to be fully qualified, otherwise it is meaningless. Therefore, we need to put aside the person’s title as a tulku and check his or her own personal qualifications. If he or she is fully qualified, only then is he or she a guru or a lama.

But, many tulkus in fact are not lamas. They have no qualifications, although they might have a very large estate and a great deal of wealth. Money, a big name and fame, however, do not make someone a lama. Therefore, we need to check their actual qualifications, their studies and so forth. Such careful scrutiny is extremely important. Buddha emphasized it, as did Tsongkhapa.

A healthy relation between disciples and their spiritual mentors is extremely crucial. If the gurus are fully qualified, we can fully entrust ourselves to them and do whatever they say, as was the case with Naropa and Tilopa. If Tilopa told him to jump, Naropa did so without hesitation. But, if our gurus are not on the level of someone like Tilopa, we must not go off and do just anything that just anyone tells us to do. We do not go out and jump off this stupa monument simply because some fool tells us to do that, do we?

The main point is for us beginners to have a firm basis or foundation in ethical self-discipline upon which we can build. The way we Tibetans practice is excellent. We have a basis of ethical discipline, on top of which we have the Mahayana practice of love and compassion. Then, at the peak, we have the practice of tantra, and this is of all four of its classes. In fact, we Tibetans are the only Buddhists who practice the entire path of the Buddha’s teachings and this on the basis of one person practicing it all.

In Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, for instance, they have only the ethical discipline part and lack the Mahayana as well as the tantras. In Japan, Korea, and some other places where there is Mahayana, they have the tantras, but only the first three classes: kriya, charya and yoga. They have nothing of anuttarayoga tantra, the fourth class. Some places have a view of voidness, but only that of the Chittamatra system or that of the Yogachara-Svatantrika system of Madhyamaka and not the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view. Some places seem to have Mahayana with no basis of discipline and others even try to have Tantrayana with both of the other two missing. It is only among us Tibetans that we have the full, entire path and practice incorporated into one person. And this person needs to be each of us ourselves.

Safe Direction (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?

This brings us to taking safe direction or refuge, and when we do so, we need to be mindful of the good qualities of the Three Gems. The word for Buddha in Tibetan is Sanggyay (sangs-rgyas). “Sang” means to eliminate everything that is to be gotten rid of, to eliminate all faults, and “gyay” means to realize and achieve all good qualities. The Sanskrit word “Dharma” means to hold, to hold someone back from what is nonconducive. In other words, following the Dharma holds us back from suffering.

Actually, the Dharma Gem refers to the noble truths of true stoppings and true pathway minds. The true stopping of the fleeting stains from our minds, their dissolution into the pure sphere of voidness, is a true stopping. The pathway minds that have nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness are true pathway minds leading to liberation and enlightenment. These two are the Dharma Gem.

The Sangha Gem refers to the Aryas or Noble Ones, those who have nonconceptual straightforward cognition of voidness. Thus, these are the Three Gems of Safe Direction. Buddha is like a doctor; Dharma is like medicine, or more precisely, the path of the cure and the state of being cured are like the true pathway minds and true stoppings; and the Sangha are like nurses to help.

We all dislike suffering, from the slightest discomfort upward, and we wish liberation from it. Its state of elimination and the methods to eliminate it forever are like the Dharma Gem. We need a teacher of this process and this is the Buddha Gem, and friends to help, which is the Sangha Gem. Furthermore, we need to be confident in the ability of the objects showing us a safe direction to give us protection; plus, we need to have a dread of suffering and the desire for relief. These act as the causes for putting a safe direction of refuge in our lives.

As Buddha has taught ways to eliminate the true cause of true suffering such that its true stopping will come about, he is worthy of being an object of safe direction. We have met with the teachings of such a Buddha and thus we need to take his safe direction in life. We take safe direction in our future resultant state of our attainment of a true stopping of all our suffering and our future attainment of enlightenment. We also take causal safe direction in that which is offered now by the Three Gems that will bring us to this state. Therefore, all of you please take a safe direction in life.