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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session One: Homage Verse and Verse One

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)

This weekend we’re going to study a text, written by the great Indian master Atisha, called A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems. Atisha lived in the tenth century in India and he was a great master at the Vikramashila Monastery. And he was very, very concerned about the bodhichitta teachings.

Actually, there were three lineages of the Mahayana sutra teachings which came down from Buddha: one were the widespread teachings concerning bodhichitta, the other was the profound teachings concerning voidness, but there was a practice lineage of bodhichitta, and this was what to study with the great master Dharmarakshita. Dharmarakshita was the author of the first great lojong text, this attitude-training or mind-training text called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons.

And Atisha studied this and various other texts in that general genre of the attitude-training, or lojong. And then he was invited to Tibet, where there had been a decline of the Dharma in Tibet, and he wanted to revive it – there was a lot of misunderstanding and he was invited to Tibet. He made a very difficult journey to Tibet, and there he began the new transmission of the Dharma, bringing these type of teachings to Tibet as well. He is also noted as the author of the first lam-rim, the graded stages of the path.

And tracing from Atisha you get the Kadam tradition – people who follow it are called the Kadampas. And Gampopa, in the Kagyu tradition, combined the lineages from the Kadam tradition with the mahamudra teachings and you get this very strongly in the Kagyu tradition. And then this Kadam tradition had various aspects of it split – there were three lineages. Tsongkhapa brought them back together again and started the Gelug tradition, which continues this Kadam tradition, which combines sutra and tantra.

Atisha was also a tantra master as well, although he kept his practices extremely hidden and private. Also, I should say, these lojong teachings, attitude-training, was adopted by all the traditions, Sakya and Nyingma as well, so he had a very central role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. We can see this combination of sutra and tantra – although the tantra is kept very “underground,” in a sense – in the verses of homage with which Atisha begins the text. He starts:

I make prostration to great compassion.
I make prostration to the sublime teachers.
I make prostration to the Buddha-figures,
Those in whom to have belief.

Compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes for suffering, and great compassion is great in the sense that it’s aimed at not just, “may they be free from the suffering of pain and the suffering of change” – the ordinary, worldly type of happiness that doesn’t last, and you never know what’s going to come next – but also it’s the wish for others to be free from the all-pervasive type of suffering, which is that the aggregate factors of our experience – in other words, our aggregates, what we experience all the time – comes from confusion, is mixed with confusion, and perpetuates more confusion and more suffering.

So it’s the compassion that wishes for others to be free from all of this, in other words, to gain liberation – and even further – to reach enlightenment. And it’s also great in the sense that it extends to absolutely every limited being equally. So that’s great compassion – really an extraordinary state of mind to have directed at absolutely everybody, and on such a far-reaching and deep level.

Then prostration to the sublime teachers, or the gurus – these are the ones who embody this quality, so they’re really proper teachers, fully qualified teachers, and they have equal compassion toward everybody and are striving to help everybody – all the students, anybody that they meet – to reach liberation and enlightenment. So not just ordinary teachers, and not just ordinary Dharma teachers either for that matter. We can see perhaps the greatest example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama – not just teaching on a very simple level, but teaching really to try to help everybody throughout the world, if not the universe, really to reach liberation and enlightenment, without ever getting tired. Even if he gets tired, just pushing on. That’s a sublime teacher, that’s a lama.

Also Atisha says, “I make prostration to the Buddha-figures.” This is referring specifically to Avalokiteshvara, or in Tibetan Chenrezig, that is the embodiment of compassion on the enlightened level and embodies the compassion of a Buddha fully. It’s quite significant that Atisha mentions the gurus first, before the Buddha-figures, or yidams, because, as is always said, it’s through the teachers that one is able to have contact with these Buddha-figures.

When we talk about seeing the teacher as a Buddha, what that’s referring to is seeing the Buddha-nature within the teacher, and seeing them as an example, focusing on the Buddha-nature, and focusing on how that Buddha-nature can be fully realized as represented with the guru. Whether the guru is actually enlightened or not is irrelevant, that’s not the point. The point is to focus on that Buddha-nature to inspire us to awaken our own Buddha-natures.

That Buddha-nature of full compassion of the guru is the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara. That’s why you always have the Buddha-figures in their heart, and in our own heart, for that matter, and why we have the guru in our heart as well. So for that reason the Buddha-figure Avalokiteshvara is mentioned after the guru.

And of all these, Atisha says, “those in whom to have belief” – belief in fact. Belief doesn’t mean belief in something which you can’t really know, or which, “Maybe it’s going to rain tomorrow; I believe it’s going to rain tomorrow,” but belief in a fact. And a fact is this combination – this inseparability of compassion, the guru and Avalokiteshvara – that we are seeing these together as one and we make prostration to that.

This is actually a very profound verse of homage here, and it makes us think quite a lot about His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is generally recognized by all Buddhist followers as being an embodiment of Chenrezig, an embodiment of compassion. So when we think of that, I think that it’s very important to really understand what it is, because if it says to believe in this as fact, it can’t be based on superstition or based on, “Well, I have no idea what in the world that really means, but OK, I believe.” That’s not very deep-reaching and not very stable.

So I think it’s very important to understand what is compassion, what’s great compassion – to have some idea of who His Holiness is and what he does, so appreciation of that, and to also have some understanding of what Buddha-nature is talking about and what the whole relationship is, seeing the guru with the Buddha-nature. What does Avalokiteshvara actually stand for? It stands for Buddha-nature of compassion, the basic nature of the mind to be warm and so on, to take care of others, and that on the basis, path, and result. We can see that in terms of the guru; the guru helps us through that process.

So if we can understand that, then we can have some firm belief, some firm conviction, and make prostration like this to compassion, the guru, and the yidam – Chenrezig – as inseparable. It’s here that Atisha brings in a little bit the tantra level, but as you see, in a very subtle way, not so obvious. And that’s the way it should be. My own teacher from whom I received this teaching, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, always used to emphasize that we can see a great deal in the verse of homage and we shouldn’t just think that it’s adornment in the beginning of a text and pass through it quickly and not pay attention to it.

The explanation of this text that I’ll give this weekend is based on Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s teachings. And it’s interesting, this text, it’s published in a collection of lojongs – of the attitude-training or mind-training texts – and it appears as number one, the first one in a text of a hundred of these lojong texts in Tibetan. So in many ways this is one of the forerunners of this genre.

And when you look at it carefully, you can see how it’s coming out of basically Shantideva’s teachings, Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, and how the later lojong teachings – particularly the Seven-Point and the Eight-Verse Lojong, many of the things – are based on what we find here. Atisha is speaking here primarily about how we meditate on bodhichitta and how we put it into practice. And so he starts:

(1) Let me rid myself of all indecisive wavering
And cherish being wholeheartedly earnest in my practice.
So, let me rid myself fully of being sleepy, foggyminded, and lazy,
And always make effort with joyful perseverance.

That’s the first verse. In order to be able to meditate on bodhichitta, we need to first of all hear the teachings about it, listen carefully and properly, and then think about them to understand them correctly. The point of doing all of that is to get rid of indecisive wavering about what the teachings are and what bodhichitta is.

We need to know very precisely that bodhichitta is a mind which is focused on enlightenment – not the enlightenment of Buddha, and not just enlightenment in general up in the sky, but it’s focused on my own future enlightenment, which I haven’t yet attained, but which is possible for me to attain on the basis of Buddha-nature. And it is focused on that with the intention to achieve it. And what is motivating us to get there is love and compassion, the wish to benefit all beings, help them to get rid of their suffering, and that’s what we intend to do once we have achieved that enlightenment.

We have to get rid of all indecisive wavering about what actually the topic of the meditation is – bodhichitta – and how to meditate on it – what’s the state of mind that we need to generate. So we have to hear that, think about it, and understand it. That’s obviously very important; otherwise, how could we possibly meditate?

To meditate on bodhichitta and develop bodhichitta is not so simple. It’s not so obvious what we actually do in meditation and what we focus on, not obvious at all, and not easy at all. How do you focus on your own future enlightenment? You need to have something that represents that. It can be represented by a Buddha, focusing on a Buddha, it can be represented by focusing on the guru, or on the tree of assembled gurus, on the yidam, the Buddha-figure. It could be represented by many different things.

And this is why, although we might think, “Debating and bodhichitta meditation, how do they possibly go together?” but actually the whole purpose of debate is to clear up indecisive wavering. To meditate properly you have to know what is the mind focused on and how does it take it, what are the mental factors that accompany it – love, compassion, intention, motivation, these sort of things – and you have to know how to generate it. And so one debates in order to clear up this indecisiveness.

A lot of people confuse bodhichitta with compassion, and they think they’re doing bodhichitta meditation, whereas in fact they’re just sitting there meditating on love and compassion for everybody. That’s not bodhichitta – a part of it, but that’s not bodhichitta at all. Or they meditate on compassion, but it’s not great compassion. Therefore it’s important to try to get rid of this indecisive wavering. Because when we have indecisive wavering, or we’re not sure of what we’re doing in meditation, then we get this obstacle of mental wandering; because then we’re thinking about, “Well, do I understand it? Do I not understand it? What’s going on?” You’re still questioning it.

Also through this process of debate and discussion with others we need to gain confidence that the practice is valid, and that also helps us to get rid of indecisive wavering. “Is this the right practice?” “Is it going to work?” “Is it not going to work?” and so on. All this has to be taken care of in the stages of listening to the teachings and particularly thinking about the teachings before we can actually meditate properly. As you would say in German, everything has to be clear, “Alles klar,” in order to really meditate properly on a particular topic. Otherwise you’re just sitting there and playing and don’t really know what you’re doing, and that doesn’t take you very far.

Then on the basis of listening and thinking properly and getting rid of this indecisive wavering, then we can cherish being wholeheartedly earnest in my practice. In other words, that’s referring to meditation where we actually now build up bodhichitta as a habit. We’re able to generate it again and again, reinforce it, strengthen it and so on.

And being wholeheartedly earnest means that we put our full heart into it and our effort into it very, very sincerely. And in order to put our hearts fully into it, really what that depends on is motivation. If that motivation is really sincere, if we really, really feel it, then we’ll be sincere in our practice. We won’t just do it out of a sense of duty, or guilt, or something like that, but we’ll really put our hearts into it. So it’s important to really work on the motivation. And when it’s not strong, which on many days it will not be, then we need to have learned the various methods for being able to strengthen it again.

A lot also depends on the company that we keep – other people that are also similarly engaged and are supportive, but don’t make us feel badly if we’re not doing it and so on. A friendly, warm community of people who are likewise engaged, and spiritual teachers and so on, helps us with getting that motivation. Also, being among others who are suffering intensely can strengthen our motivation very, very much. We get inspiration both from above – from the great masters – and also from below – from those who are suffering miserably. As Shantideva says, enlightenment comes equally through the kindness of the Buddhas as well as sentient beings, limited beings.

Question: I’m wondering, how exactly does bodhichitta meditation function? You were talking about concentrating on Buddhas, and gurus, and different kinds of objects, but I think there must be more.

Alex: There’s a lot more, the point is – I don’t want to go into it in too much detail, but – if we think of our mental continuum, then our enlightenment is something which can be validly labeled on that future continuum. Our future enlightenment, which has not yet happened, can be validly labeled on the future continuity of our mental continuum, based on the continuity of Buddha-nature factors.

If the various conditions and work and so on are put into it – the two networks of positive force and deep awareness and so on – if all of that’s added into the system, then that enlightened state that we can achieve definitely will happen. We have to be convinced of that. And in order to focus on that, then we can represent it, let’s say by a Buddha-figure or a Buddha. What that represents is that future enlightenment that I can reach, and which can be validly labeled on my mental continuum, based on Buddha-nature factors.

And then you accompany that with love, compassion, the intention to reach that goal and to help everybody once you’ve reached that goal. There’s all these mental factors that accompany it.

Question: So I don’t have one object in meditation, I have more?

Alex: You have one object, which is your enlightenment. Now, just as you can think and you can see and hear at the same time, we can also have underlying this, “subliminal awareness,” in which we have the love and compassion, which is aimed at sentient beings and their suffering and so on. Our mind isn’t focusing on that, but I have that as my aim. That’s something which is underlying, that’s accompanying it here.

But the intention is focusing on that future enlightenment, “I’m going to achieve it,” and the intention of, “Once I achieve it, I’m going to help others.” That’s manifest at that time; the love and compassion are subliminal, but they’re accompanying it. As I said, it takes a long time and a great deal of thinking and discussion in order to really have a clear idea, “Now I’m going to sit down and meditate on bodhichitta – well, what in the world am I doing?”

And then, of course, all the steps to work ourselves up to actually feeling it sincerely. That’s the seven-part cause and effect meditation, or the equalizing and exchanging of self and others meditation, or the eleven-part one that combines the two.

Let me just add one thing here that is important in this whole thing of “great compassion.” When we’re aiming for bodhichitta and aiming for our future enlightenment, we also need to know what is enlightenment; what in the world does that mean? The qualities and so on. That’s why a Buddha-figure or a Buddha is a very good representation of that, because then we can think about of all the qualities of a Buddha. And it has to be with the intention to help absolutely everybody, so we’re talking about countless beings; it has this unbelievable size and scope of bodhichitta.

That’s when one starts to appreciate what in the world that state of mind is. Then you can appreciate Shantideva’s first chapter, in which he praises it; otherwise it’s just pretty poetry – the inconceivably vast state of mind.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 1.]

I’ll give you an example, since this is important for understanding what bodhichitta is. Our future enlightenment – that hasn’t happened yet, so it doesn’t exist. How do you focus on it? Can you focus on something that doesn’t exist yet? Just to give you an example of why you would need to debate about it in order to be able to understand it.

Tashi, do you have the answer?

Tashi: I can concentrate on when I get old and will get money from the government. This has not yet happened, but I can focus on it.

Question: It’s a concept that you’re focusing on, it’s not the actual thing.

Alex: Is it the concept or the actual thing?

Tashi: You can also focus on your childhood, when this or that happened...

Question (cont’d): These are all concepts. You’re not focusing on the actual thing.

Alex: Yes, but now we’re talking about a difference between just conceptual and nonconceptual focus. What is the reason why before Buddhahood, you can only have conceptual bodhichitta? Is it because our future enlightenment hasn’t happened yet? Or what?

Question: We do this with everything: if you’re young and you want to become a teacher or you want to become a doctor, you focus on “I want to become this.”

Alex: Right, but is it focusing on something that doesn’t exist? This is the question.

Question (cont’d): Well, you have an idea and you know somebody who is famous.

Alex: So you’re focusing on Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, not on our own future enlightenment.

Question (cont’d): You focus on the qualities, you know?

Alex: The qualities in general, so that’s just the general enlightenment. Are you going to achieve general enlightenment, or are you going to achieve your own enlightenment?

Question (cont’d): No, you focus on the qualities...

Alex: But you haven’t achieved those qualities yet. So do those qualities exist? Where do they exist?

Question (cont’d): For instance, then you have figures, the teacher and so on, then you see them, the example.

Alex: A teacher, that’s very good. Karsten?

Karsten: At this moment, I wouldn’t say that I’m absolutely nothing. Also at this moment I wouldn’t say that I’m a Buddha, but still there are some kind of qualities at which I can look and then with a kind of logical way of thinking I could say, “OK, if this kind of stuff will develop in the future more and more, then probably it could become really a perfect quality.” At the moment it’s really clouded and dark.

Alex: Well, you’re talking about Buddha-nature, and this is what I said, the continuity of Buddha-nature, on the basis of that our not-yet-happened enlightenment can be validly mentally labeled.

In order to answer this question, it’s very important to understand the whole Buddhist philosophical presentation of what can we validly know, what can we not validly know, and affirmation and negation phenomena, because our Western categories of focusing on something that doesn’t exist and so on are irrelevant to the discussion. Something exists if it can be validly known; if it can’t be validly known, it doesn’t exist.

Within what can be validly known, we have affirmation and negation phenomena. Our future enlightenment is an affirmation phenomenon – we don’t have to have known something before that in order to know it. So we’re focusing on that. That can be validly known. And what can be imputed on it is it’s not-yet-happening. The not-yet-happening, that’s the negation phenomenon. You have to have known the enlightenment first in order to know the not-yet-happening of the enlightenment.

So we’re aware of the enlightenment that we will attain, or that we can attain, and indirectly you know the not-yet-happening of that. Then you have to understand how the mind is aware of those two things. It’s the same thing when you imagine yourself as a Buddha-figure. You know that you’re not there yet, so you know the not-yet-happening of it, but that still doesn’t negate being able to focus on it as an affirmation phenomenon.

[See: What Does a Buddha Know in Knowing the Past, Present, and Future, Part 1.]

So these points are why I’m saying one has to get rid of indecisive wavering about this. Otherwise after a while you say, “What am I doing?” And, “I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m sitting here trying to do bodhichitta meditation,” and, “Am I focusing on something that doesn’t exist at all? Then that’s crazy.”

Question: But all the learning is done by doing as if...

Alex: Right, you do as if. That’s in thinking of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, but we’re talking here about bodhichitta meditation.

Atisha’s point is that if you really want to be able to do it single-pointedly and really do it, you have to get rid of all this indecisive wavering – that you’re not quite sure what, and how it is and so on. Because what’s going to happen is, as the commentary to this says, you get mental wandering about it, “Am I doing it right?” And, “Oh, what’s going on here?” “Maybe it doesn’t exist.” And if you’re not convinced that you can actually achieve it, then also mental wandering comes up. So in very few words here, he’s giving very deep instructions, very profound instructions about how to meditate.

Question: But that isn’t explicit in the text.

Alex: Of course it’s not, this is in the commentary. That’s why you study with a teacher and you get a commentary. If you just look at it, you say, “Oh, what’s this? This isn’t so interesting.” There’s a tremendous amount underneath these words in this text. The discussion of bodhichitta that you bring up is very important. We’re talking about bodhichitta meditation and if we don’t have a little bit of clarity what it is, then it’s a bit strange.

So you know two things: you know that enlightenment, and you know that “I haven’t attained it yet.” There’s two things; and it has to be conceptual, because only a Buddha could know nonconceptually enlightenment. If we’re not enlightened, we can’t know enlightenment nonconceptually.

So, when we are wholeheartedly earnest in the practice, in other words; we put our sincere hearts and effort into the meditation practice. Once we know how to actually generate that mind and focus on it, then we need to get rid of obstacles in the meditation – the second half of the verse – so, let me rid myself fully of being sleepy, foggyminded, and lazy. We already dealt with mental wandering in terms of getting rid of the indecisive wavering; now we have all the things on the side of dullness.

The heaviest type of dullness is being sleepy and falling asleep – that, obviously, we have to get rid of, if we’re going to be meditating – in which the consciousness withdraws from the senses. That’s basically what sleep is. And foggyminded is less severe. Foggyminded is when our minds and bodies feel very, very heavy, it’s a heavy feeling. The third one, which is less intense, is lazy. When we work on getting rid of mental obstacles, we always work on the grossest ones first and then to the more subtle ones, and so here we have laziness.

Laziness – Shantideva describes it in great detail. We have, first of all, three kinds of laziness. The first is lethargy. Lethargy is when we don’t feel like doing anything and that comes about from three causes, Shantideva explains, (1) “being apathetic about samsara.” With apathy we don’t care, so we get lethargic; we don’t want to do anything. The second is “relishing a taste of pleasure from being idle,” in other words, just sitting and doing nothing and feeling sort of nice, we get very lethargic and we don’t want to do anything. And then the third one is “craving sleep as a haven,” in other words, we just, “Oh, I can’t deal with what’s going on,” and we just want to escape into our nice, warm bed. These are the causes of lethargy, Shantideva explains, the first type of laziness.

The second type of laziness is “clinging to what is petty.” That would be just chatting away all the time and just being attached to all sorts of busywork around the house or wherever, and clinging to that, which is actually an excuse for not doing anything constructive. And connected with that is procrastination, putting things off till tomorrow, till later, because we’re clinging to something petty now.

The third form of laziness is “being discouraged,” and therefore disparaging oneself and saying, “I can’t do it, I’m not capable,” so we don’t even try – that’s a form of laziness.

The opponent of this is joyful perseverance, and so the last line is, “And always make effort with joyful perseverance.” Joyful perseverance – as Shantideva explains very well – is based on several factors. First of all this “perseverance” – another name for it is “zestful vigor,” we have vigor, a lot of strength, and with a lot of exuberance, and zest, and energy is there – it comes about if we have a very strong intention, a strong intention to do something, “I’m going to do it and not give up!”

Then (2) “steadfastness and pride.” Steadfastness – “I want to stay steady, be stable,” which is based on having pride in ourselves that, “I will be able to do it,” and not think badly about ourselves. And then (3) “delight,” taking joy in what we’re doing, and especially since it’s constructive, it brings us more and more joy as we do it. The fourth force is “letting go,” in other words, letting go when we’re tired, when you need to take a rest; otherwise you push too hard as a fanatic and then eventually you burn out. Or letting go when we’re finished, at a certain stage you have to know to let go, or go on to the next stage. So there’s two aspects of letting go.

There are two further aspects that Shantideva mentions. “Readily accepting” – we have to accept the fact that the path is going to be difficult, accept the reality and don’t go into some sort of spin fantasy about, “It’s going to be so easy and lovely,” but accept that the hardships are going to be there, so you have a realistic attitude. And then “taking control,” take control of ourselves, “I’m going to do it.”

Joyful perseverance – Shantideva describes all of that in great length. So, that’s the first verse. I can see that most people are tired, so perhaps we can follow these instructions for joyful perseverance, so that people don’t drop off with laziness, foggymindedness, and then fall asleep. We can end here for this evening, and we will strive to go through the whole text. There is of course the alternative of doing half and having another weekend, which is a habit that we have gotten into, but it all depends on... if you don’t want another weekend – that’s laziness. Look at that.

So let’s end with the dedication. We think, whatever understanding we’ve gained about how to meditate on bodhichitta, what obstacles we need to overcome – there’ll be more obstacles which are discussed, but – may that act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.