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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session Two: Verses Two and Three

Unedited Transcript
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...text of Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, and we discussed the first verse which has to do with how we meditate in general and also, more specifically, how to meditate on bodhichitta.

The topic was introduced with the prostration or homage verses, with which we made prostration to great compassion and the sublime teachers, so the gurus who embody that and the Buddha-figures, who are inseparable from the teachers, in other words, the yidams which represent their Buddha-nature. And we make prostrations having belief in the fact of the inseparability of these and we discussed that.

When we make prostration, for instance in the beginning of our classes, we’re offering prostration to the Buddhas and the masters who’ve achieved enlightenment, and to our own future enlightenment that we’re aiming to achieve – that’s the aim of bodhichitta – and the Buddha-nature factors within ourselves that will allow us, and also allow everybody else, to achieve enlightenment – we’re making prostration not just to our own future enlightenment, but to the future enlightenment of everybody and their Buddha-nature factors.

This is quite similar to what we have here, because also we can think in terms of everybody being various Buddha-figures, as one does in tantra, seeing everybody as Chenrezig and so on. This is also in terms of seeing their Buddha-nature qualities; and all of this is connected very much with great compassion toward everybody and bodhichitta. That’s very important when one strives for enlightenment, to be convinced that it’s possible to not only achieve enlightenment ourselves, but that it’s actually possible for everybody else to achieve enlightenment. Otherwise why would we be working to try to bring them to enlightenment, if we don’t think it’s possible?

And if we are prostrating and showing respect and homage to the drunken person lying on the street in terms of the future enlightenment that this drunk will achieve and also the Buddha-nature of this drunk, and we go even further and we’re make prostration to the future enlightenment of the cockroach and the Buddha-nature of the cockroach –

Question: And the amoebas?

Alex: or the amoebas. But when we start to talk about amoebas it’s very difficult to know where we draw the line of what is a sentient being and what isn’t. That’s very, very difficult, because on the one hand we include ghosts and hell creatures, and on the other hand we don’t include plants or the fungus on your foot. So it’s not so simple in terms of who actually is a sentient being, what are the life forms, but in any case, the point being that if we make prostration to the enlightenment of the cockroach and the Buddha-nature of the cockroach with confidence that the cockroach can make it to enlightenment, then how can we get discouraged in terms of thinking that I can’t reach enlightenment? Shantideva says that in a very nice verse that, if even flies and mosquitoes and so on, worms can achieve enlightenment, why can’t I?

If we really have bodhichitta, that’s the strongest type of opponent – together with voidness, of course – but it itself is a very, very powerful opponent for overcoming such things as laziness because of thinking, “I can’t do it, I’m too stupid,” or “I’m too lazy, it’s too much for me.” It’s very, very important to overcome that, otherwise there’s no hope of really working with bodhichitta. Voidness teaches us in terms of, “That’s not my nature from my own side, that I’m inherently incapable; it’s just a matter of building up the causes and having the right conditions,” and influence and inspiration.

So, as for how to meditate on bodhichitta, first Atisha says, we have to “get rid of indecisive wavering.” So that is being indecisive, not only about what bodhichitta is, and how to meditate on it, and that the methods are valid; but also, especially, that it is possible for me to not only develop bodhichitta, but it is possible for me to reach enlightenment and for everybody to reach enlightenment. Because if we have doubts about that, then how can we really put our hearts fully into single-minded concentration and focus with bodhichitta.

In the process of hearing the teachings and thinking about them, we have to work with all these points to get rid of indecisive wavering, and then we can be wholeheartedly earnest, he says, put our whole hearts into the practice, which is referring to specifically the meditation when we already understand what bodhichitta is, we’re convinced of bodhichitta and enlightenment, and then we can focus on it fully and really build it up as a beneficial habit of mind and heart, which is what the word “meditation” means.

One point to add is that we also have to be clear, and not indecisive, about what role we could play in terms of helping others to enlightenment. We’re not an almighty God that just can touch somebody with a finger and then they’re enlightened. For that, we also have to have a clear idea; we have to be convinced also, and not have indecisiveness, about how actually we can help others to enlightenment. There’s an old joke, “If we were almighty God, why would you have to touch a person with a finger in order to bring them enlightenment?” “So it looks convincing.”

Then, in meditating, we have to get rid of the obstacles, and so Atisha says, in the area of dullness, that we need to get rid of being sleepy, foggy minded, and lazy. And once we are rid of these different types of laziness, then we are able to make full effort with joyful perseverance. Joyful perseverance is never giving up, putting all our energy into something constructive, taking joy with that, our energy goes out.

This word “joyful” is a little bit strange in terms of how it’s translated in the Sanskrit term. The Tibetan term has two meanings: one is “joyful,” and that’s usually what’s stressed, but actually the Sanskrit word that this is translating is also the word – and the Tibetan word has this connotation as well – of the “energy going out.” It’s the same word “to emanate,” and so it’s this energy going out in a joyful type of way, like a Buddha – the play of the Buddha’s mind is to give all emanations and so on. It’s that word that’s used, and it is the opposite of being lazy.

So it’s not just this simple, “Whistle while you work,” and “I’m so happy,” not that simple. “I’m so happy jumping into the lowest hell in order to help you,” it’s not quite that.

(2) Let me always safeguard the gateway of my senses
With mindfulness, alertness, and care.
So, let me check repeatedly the flow of my mind,
Three times each day and each night.

This is continuing then, “How do we concentrate; how do we meditate on bodhichitta?” We have to always safeguard the gateway of the senses. That’s dealing with flightiness of mind, when our mind is attracted to pleasant things that we are attached to, or we have desire for. So, the previous verse took care of mental dullness; this line is referring to flightiness of mind – the two main obstacles in getting single-minded concentration.

The way that we do this is using the powers of mindfulness, alertness, and care. This also Shantideva discusses a great deal; he has two chapters on it. Remember the chapters which said, when we find ourselves starting to do this or that, which is negative or distracting, then “remain like a block of wood?” Remember the titles of the two chapters, “The Caring Attitude” and then “Safeguarding with Alertness?” Same words. Those are the two chapters dealing with the far-reaching attitude of ethical discipline, which we have to apply first in terms of our gross behavior, and then we can apply it in meditation.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5.]

So when we talk about safeguarding, “safeguard” has the connotation of “to protect,” “to guard against” this type of mental wandering after desirable things of the senses. We protect the mind; we guard against it, and then we – it also it has the connotation of – “save” it, we rescue our attention when it’s gone off; we bring it back. All those meaning are in this word “safeguard.”

Serkong Rinpoche always used to say that every word in the texts is pregnant and full with a tremendous amount of meaning. And so you have to milk it like a cow to get out all the meaning – the “wish-granting cow,” as they say in Indian thinking.

What we’re dealing with here is our attention. Attention is what you put on an object to stay focused with it. And so you need mindfulness, which is like a mental glue, to hold it to the object, so that you don’t let go; it’s the same word as “to constantly remember” it. And alertness is what watches, to watch the quality control of the mindfulness, of the mental glue, so that it’s not too tight, or too loose, or it hasn’t gone away, or these type of things.

All of that is based on the caring attitude, that we care. It matters to us how we’re concentrating; it matters to us how the meditation is going, because we really want to develop bodhichitta, because we really want to be able to reach enlightenment and help others. So all of it is based on the caring attitude. And not only during meditation practice, but throughout the day and night, we need to use alertness to check what’s going on with our mental state. Are we being selfish? Are we acting under the influence of disturbing emotions and so on? And when we are...

Question: You said “throughout the day and night,” how do we stay alert during the night?

Alex: During the night? Well, you don’t sleep for twelve hours, so during the evening... well, it’s just, half of the twenty-four hours is called “day,” and half of it is called “night.” So, we don’t need to take it so deeply.

But in sleep as well, sometimes people sleep fairly lightly and are aware of their dreams, for example. And so one can also check, if you wake up and were dreaming, if you’re mindful – not “mindful,” sorry, that’s the English use of the word – if you are aware of the content of your dream and it was a negative type of dream, then you can, rather than being frightened, try to set the intention of it being positive and roll over and try to fall back asleep thinking of your teacher or thinking of something more positive.

The main thing is to have awareness, to check what’s going on in our minds, and when it’s really negative, either correct it or “remain like a block of wood,” which means not to continue acting it out. If “I’m starting to get angry,” if “I’m starting to get greedy,” if “I’m starting to act selfishly,” if “I’m starting to say something really stupid,” try to catch it. Also, when we notice ourselves starting to become depressed and discouraged, stop it. This is what it means.

It doesn’t mean just three times, “Ah, it’s three o’clock, and so now I will check for thirty seconds,” and then we have another alarm going off in another four hours. It’s not like that. But this is really main Dharma practice, it is to constantly [check], not in a paranoid, policeman type of way, because then you really get uptight and you get a lot of problems, especially if you bring in the whole Western thing of guilt and so on, which is irrelevant here.

The point is to be aware of how we’re acting, to have this inner introspection, and to safeguard, in other words, protect ourselves against acting it out. This is what the word “Dharma” means, it’s a “preventive measure,” something that prevents us from bringing about more suffering to ourselves. It’s a measure, it’s something that we do in order to prevent suffering. That’s the etymology of the word Dharma; it comes from the Sanskrit word dhr, to hold one back.

If we have any hope of making progress in Dharma, we need to be able to apply it during our lives, on a practical level. And to do that, we have to be aware of what’s going on in our minds and, obviously, what we’re doing with our bodies and our speech, which is affected by what’s going on in our minds – but without being the policeman, and the punisher, and the judge; all of that’s coming from Western mythology.

As we study and learn more and more Dharma, we learn more methods that we can use as opponents to deal with these negative or useless states of mind that come up. And it’s very helpful to have a large repertoire of methods that we can use, because sometimes one is more effective than another, sometimes one is more convenient to apply than others. So it’s always very good, in general in life, to have more than one solution available to any problem that comes up, so that if one doesn’t work, we can try another one. This is also specifically in our Dharma practice.

(3) Let me make my own failings be known
And seek not mistakes in others.
So, let me keep my own good qualities hidden
And make the good qualities of others be known.

This is also dealing with various causes for mental wandering that we might have in our meditation, although this can also affect us during our periods when we’re not meditating. But if we hide our own failings, our own shortcomings, then often we feel guilty about it. It’s gnawing away, eating away inside ourselves, whereas if we make known our mistakes, we apologize or whatever, it makes our heart much lighter and we don’t have guilt about it. In English, we say it’s off your chest. And in this way that helps to lessen our mental wandering about it.

And seek not the mistakes in others. That also is a big cause of mental wandering, when we’re sitting and we’re thinking, “Oh, this one was no good,” and “What that one did,” and so on and criticizing them, this can occupy a tremendous amount of mental wandering.

Also, in general, often what happens is that we see our own faults mirrored in others, like for instance, if there’s one last piece of cake left on the table and someone else takes it, then we accuse this person of being greedy, “You greedy pig, you took the last piece of cake.” And the only reason why that would disturb us is because we’re greedy; we wanted that piece of cake. If we didn’t want the piece of cake, then what does it matter who took the last piece? Often when we are focusing on all the mistakes of others and the faults of others, it’s actually we’re seeing our own faults mirrored in them. So better to use that energy to work on ourselves.

And also, in general, when we’re always criticizing others, it gives others a very bad impression of us; if we’re always finding fault and nobody else is any good and so on, then people start to be suspicious of us and our qualities. This is why the first bodhisattva vow is to restrain from belittling and putting down others and praising ourselves – what you do in an election in the West – because you want to gain some position of power or advantage and so on for yourself. That makes people very suspicious what are your motives. But here specifically, this can be a great obstacle in meditation.

Dromtonpa, Atisha’s main disciple in Tibet said, “If you can see your own faults and not seek the faults in others, you’re wise, even if you have no other good qualities.” That gives us a lot to think about, actually. Sometimes we think of being wise as something so unattainable and requiring such tremendous intelligence, but that’s not really the meaning which is meant. Someone can be very uneducated and yet a very wise person, even if they’re not super-intelligent and can’t learn ten languages. “Wise” means to have discriminating awareness, which means to be able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, what’s beneficial and what’s not beneficial. If we can do that, then we’re a wise person.

Atisha goes on in this verse, “let me keep my own good qualities hidden.” This is because otherwise we can become very proud and arrogant, boasting about our qualities. This can cause a great interruption and obstacle in our meditation as well, thinking, “How wonderful I am,” thinking of, “I’m meditating so well,” or, “I have this or that quality.” Also if we broadcast and boast about our own accomplishments and good qualities, it makes others jealous.

Sometimes one can mention one’s qualities, if it would be inspiring to others, but for that we need great sensitivity to see whether it would inspire them or discourage them or make them jealous or whatever. In general, it’s best always to remain completely humble. Tsongkhapa said, “Keep the light of the butter lamp flame inside the vase; it illuminates the inside but doesn’t show on the outside.” So keep the flame of our good qualities inside, in the vase, don’t just have it broadcasting outside.

This whole emphasis on humility is very, very strong in this Kadam tradition that comes from Atisha. The point is to use your qualities to help others, but you don’t have to boast about it and tell them, “I have this degree and that degree,” and put all your degrees up on the wall and this type of thing.

You had a question about a word?

Question: “being humble?”

Alex: Being humble? Staying low, being very simple, like if you read a little bit about the biography of Kunu Lama Rinpoche, he’s the best example – be very, very simple and so on.

Question: I may be wrong, but it seems to me that in other traditions they don’t have this big emphasis on being humble. I mean, I heard some lamas say, “I have this kind of degree,” and “I’m on the tenth bhumi level,” and so on, and they quite openly talk about it.

Alex: Right, that’s true, so I said this is a special feature that’s very prominent in the Kadam tradition, and the Gelug tradition tries to follow that, although obviously there are some who don’t follow it so strongly, but it is the tradition. When they talk about the Kadam Geshes, or Kadampa Geshes, Geshe doesn’t mean that they... Geshe is just the translation of the word “spiritual friend,” kalyana-mitra, and this is referring to these great masters who are very, very humble and who were true spiritual friends, helping others to be constructive and acting as a constructive influence on them, but without being... with the big thrones and the brocade and all of this sort of stuff.

Question: But what could be the motivation of these lamas?

Alex: The motivation of these lamas who are like that. There can be two: one is a negative motivation to put oneself in a high position, the other would be if you’re dealing with a very wild type of society, as the Tibetans and the Mongols were in the past, then you need something to quiet them down and to cause them to develop respect. A very violent type of society, in that culture, would be very, very impressed by this, and sort of keep quiet and sit and listen. Buddha himself touched the earth and said, “Let the earth be a witness that I have reached my attainments.”

But, as I said, there are certain cases in which, in order to inspire people that it is possible to achieve enlightenment and so on, you need to say this. But you have to be very careful and very sensitive to your audience, because otherwise people think, “Oh, that’s impossible.” The Buddha wasn’t bragging, “How wonderful I am.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well does this. Most of the time, “I’m just an ordinary monk,” but sometimes he says, “Well, I have had a taste of what bodhichitta and voidness actually is.” He doesn’t say, “I have a full realization,” but, “Yes, I have had a real taste of it.”

There are two forms of pride: there’s the pride in terms of being proud that “I’m the best,” there’s also the inverse pride in which being proud that “I’m the worst.” These people who put on a big show of being so humble and, “Oh, I’m no good,” and all these sort of things, that’s just as disturbed an attitude as boasting, “How wonderful I am.” So, the humility has to be sincere. And other people, even just with a little bit of sensitivity, can tell when it’s sincere and when it’s just this phony humbleness for show. All has to do with how much you ego-grasp to the humility.

You know the example with Atisha? Nobody knew that he practiced tantra until when he died and they looked at his robes and he had a little vajra and bell hidden in a pocket inside his robes. Nobody ever had seen it; nobody had ever seen him practice or use, because he always did it privately and kept humble, not putting on a big show with the drum and the bell and everybody being able to hear them.

The last line of this verse is, “make the good qualities of others be known,” because likewise, that could be a big obstacle in meditation. A big cause for mental wandering is thinking about other people’s good qualities and being jealous of it, whereas if we rejoice in other’s good qualities, and feel quite light-hearted and open-hearted to be able to actually praise them to others and so on, then likewise we’re not going to be troubled by either our own or others’ failings and mistakes, or our own or others’ good qualities.