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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session Three: Verses Four through Six

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:30 hours)
(4) Let me rid myself of (desire for) material gain and honor
And always rid myself of (desire for) profit and fame.
So, let me have few desires, be content,
And show appreciation for the kind acts that have been done.

One of the biggest obstacles in meditation is this flightiness of mind, with which we seek after not just desirable sense objects, but also things like material gain and honor and profit and fame, and these type of things. And so it’s very important, in general, to rid ourselves of these strong desires. But particularly when we’re doing meditation, we’re never going to be able to go off into seclusion and meditate single-pointedly if we’re still thinking of these type of things.

In general in our lives, when we think in terms of what to study, what to put our effort into, it’s always emphasized that we need to give the top priority to studying and practicing what’s going to bring benefit to our minds, not what’s going to bring benefit to our bank account. The bank account, we can’t take with us in future lives, but the beneficial habits that we build up with our minds, these are things that will continue. So it’s important what priorities we give.

Of course we need to be able to live; we need to be able to support ourselves. But for that, the next line, “Let me have few desires and be content,” otherwise it’s never enough. And also, on the other hand, if we have enough material wealth and we’re well known enough, we can do a lot of positive things in the world. So if that’s something which comes fairly easily or we’re born with from our family, then we can use it; but to set that as our main goal is not the case.

It’s like for instance, as one of my friends pointed out, with Tsongkhapa. When Tsongkhapa wrote his great works, he wasn’t thinking about how many copies are going to be sold and the royalties that he was going to receive from them, and he wasn’t caring about how many people read his works. The thing is that history will be the judge as to whether or not the works are of benefit. So you write it simply to be able to benefit others, and if other people come to it, very good.

It’s like when you put out feed for birds in your garden. If birds come and take of it, very good; but you don’t put up a big sign, advertising, and try to sell your bird feed. This I find very helpful advice. You make an offering to the world of your positive things. If people partake of it, very nice. If they don’t, “I tried.” Buddha didn’t put advertisements in the newspaper of his lectures.

All these things like fame and a lot of material possessions can be great, great obstacles. The more that we own, often the more possessiveness we have about it. We’re stingy with it, worried about it, and it becomes very difficult to move anywhere, because we have too many things. It’s important to have very few things; this is emphasized in the monks’ vows. We don’t have to go to that extreme, but it is as Milarepa said, “There’s nothing in my cave to steal. I don’t have anything, so I’m not worried about thieves.”

And the same thing with fame and honor. The more famous we are, the more bothered we are by people. We can’t walk anywhere without people asking us for our autograph; we have to go in disguise; people are constantly sending us e-mails and asking us questions and to do this and that, and then we are in the very awkward position of having to say “no.” That’s very difficult for someone who’s striving to be Chenrezig and to help everybody, to say “no.” You have to hire a secretary to say “no” for you.

Then the last line of this verse is, “And show appreciation for the kind acts that have been done.” If we’re able to practice the Dharma – and here we’re talking about doing meditation on bodhichitta, both conventional and deepest bodhichitta is discussed here – then it is also very important to have this appreciation for the kindness that we’ve received. We’ve received a great deal of kindness to be able to receive instructions, to have the conditions to be able to meditate and to practice. There are people who perhaps are supporting us financially, or with food, or whatever.

And if we have those opportunities, then we don’t reject them. We need to make the best use of it, without exploiting it. And the way that we can do that without exploiting is to show our appreciation for all this kindness that we’ve received, to be grateful; and if we’re able to help back in whatever way that we can, to do that without feeling that “I have a debt and I have to pay it back,” or “I’m obligated to do it,” or a duty, or “If I don’t do it, I’m guilty,” and so on. But rather it’s out of a sense of great joy and appreciation and respect for the other that has helped us so much.

This also makes our heart much lighter when we’re trying to meditate, “I feel very positive about the kindness that I’ve received,” otherwise you couldn’t possibly have the circumstances to meditate and practice. “And I appreciate it.” “I don’t feel guilty about it, I don’t feel I have conflicts with it,” and so on, “And if I can repay it in some way, even if my way of repaying it is to really meditate well and to practice well...” As Milarepa said to Marpa, “I have nothing to pay you back with, except my practice. I have no material possessions.”

So this is also going to be very helpful in terms of being able to meditate with a light heart – nothing heavy on our minds – and in a joyful state of mind. It’s very important for bodhichitta, compassion meditation, to feel joy toward others, not guilty, or obliged, or indebted to others. For those who have helped us, we have joy and appreciation, not guilt; those who are suffering, we think in terms of them being happy and trying to bring them happiness. So it’s always with a happy state of mind.

How can we meditate on love, wishing others to be happy, if we’re miserable? It has to be on the basis of a happy state of mind that we want to share with others. That’s the whole basis for this giving and taking meditation. To give, we have to have something to give. To give happiness to others, we need to think and be aware of the basic blissful nature of the mind, if we want to look at it on the deepest level. This connects with the next verse, of which the first half is:

(5a) Let me meditate on love and compassion
And stabilize my bodhichitta aim.

As I was saying, how can we have love for others and wish them to be happy, if we ourselves don’t have a happy state of mind? And even from a selfish point of view, how can we expect others to love us if we don’t love them? And when we speak about stabilizing the bodhichitta aim, what stabilizes it is having very strong love – the wish for others to be happy and have the causes for happiness – and compassion – the wish for others to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering – and to have that on the level of great compassion.

And then this strong exceptional intent, or exceptional wish, which is to take the responsibility, not only to bring them ordinary happiness and eliminate their ordinary suffering, but this wish to lead everybody all the way to enlightenment, and to take responsibility to do that ourselves. This is what’s going to stabilize our bodhichitta aim, and it’s important to reaffirm that and strengthen that all the time, because it’s very easy to get discouraged.

Like the example of Buddha’s disciple Shariputra: somebody came, some sort of Mara came and asked him to give him his right hand. And so he cut off his right hand and offered it with his left hand, which is considered dirty and impolite in the Indian culture. And the person refused it, because he offered it with his left hand, and then Shariputra got very discouraged about bodhichitta and trying to help others. So we need to avoid this type of discouragement by constantly reaffirming our motivation, this love and compassion.

Another wonderful account is with Dignaga. Dignaga was the great Buddhist master who wrote about logic, and he went into a cave to write this text Pramana-samuccaya, the Compendium of Logic, Ways of Knowing. And while he was out from the cave for who knows what – gathering food or whatever – somebody came in and erased what he had written, like deleted your file from the computer – and this happened twice – and he was writing again and again the same thing.

That happened to Marpa as well. He had done all of these translations in India, and he was crossing the Ganges rives on his way back to Tibet, and the boat overturned and he lost all his translations in the river, and he had to go back and do them all again, not get discouraged. So when we have our files deleted by mistake or whatever, we need to not get discouraged.

So, this person with Dignaga had erased what he had written twice, so Dignaga left a note and said, “Please, if you want to debate me, come and face me in person, if you don’t like what I’m writing.” And so the person came and debated, but it was the type of person who refused to accept logic, and no matter what Dignaga said, he wouldn’t accept any type of logical argument. Instead, he had this power to breathe fire from his mouth and he breathed fire and he destroyed everything in Dignaga’s cave.

And so Dignaga got very discouraged, and he threw up his slate that he was writing on. He threw it up in the air and he said, “If it falls to the ground, I’m going to give up bodhichitta.” And so he threw the slate up in the air and Manjushri caught it, so that it wouldn’t fall to the earth, and he said, “Dignaga, you’re making a big mistake. Don’t ever give up bodhichitta, and don’t ever give up writing these things for the benefit of others,” and so he wrote this great text.

In Tibet, they say that they have this slate that Dignaga used for writing this, and it was kept in this place outside of Lhasa, and every year the monks from the major Gelug monasteries go to this one place for two months in the winter to study this text, the Pramana-samuccaya, a commentary to this Compendium of Logic, and they debate there for two months.

So this is very important that we don’t get discouraged when you lose your files, when somebody asks you to do something big, and you spend a tremendous amount of time doing it with the thought to help them, and then in the end, “I don’t want that, I don’t like what you did.” And so it’s important not to get discouraged. The main thing is the wish to help others, whether or not it actually helps others is very dependent on their karma. Even Buddha couldn’t help everybody, even though he had the wish and intention to help everybody.

It’s very easy to get discouraged on the bodhisattva path. That’s why we need to stabilize our bodhichitta aim, always reaffirming our motivation.

The second half of this verse:

(5b) So, let me rid myself of the ten destructive actions
And make myself stable, always, with belief in fact.

This has to do with – if we’re going to be stable in our bodhichitta aim to help others, we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force from actually helping others. And in order to do that, we need to restrain from acting negatively, from acting destructively. And so to make sure that our bodhichitta aim stays stable and we have more and more positive force, we rid ourselves of the ten destructive actions.

These are, without going into tremendous detail, the three destructive actions of body: taking the life of others, taking what is not given to us, and inappropriate sexual behavior. Then there’s four of speech: saying what is untrue, and speaking divisively, which is saying bad things about others in order to cause them to part from each other, and using harsh and abusive language, saying things that hurt others’ feelings, and then idle chatter, which just wastes an unbelievable amount of time, and interrupting others when they’re doing something positive with our meaningless talk.

And then there’s the three of mind: the destructive action of covetous thinking, which is always planning and plotting, “How can I get more and more things for myself what other people have.” It’s mixed with a lot of jealousy. And then there is thinking with ill-will, with malicious intent, which is basically thinking, “How can I hurt somebody else,” and plotting how to do it, “How can I get back at them for what they’ve done negative to me?”

And then the third one is distorted, antagonistic thinking, which is not just thinking contrary to what is true and correct, like saying, “There’s no use in following a spiritual path,” “There’s no use in trying to help others,” and so on, but being contentious about it, in other words, that you’re going to argue with the other person and really put them down in a very aggressive type of way. That’s why I call it distorted, antagonistic thinking.

So these are the ten types of destructive actions, and we need to rid ourselves of these, so that we can build up more and more positive force that’s going to help us with not only gaining liberation, but achieving enlightenment. And to do that, we have to make ourselves stable, always, with belief in fact. In other words, that’s referring to belief in the laws of karmic cause and effect so that we keep our ethical discipline.

Question: What is “covetous?”

Alex: “Covetous” means to desire very strongly, because of jealousy, what other people have – not only to get a similar thing what the other person has, you have to get a better one, so there’s competition there as well. What the destructive action is, is to think about it all the time, so that that’s constantly on your mind, and plotting how to do it. That’s what it’s talking about. All of these are talking about ways of thinking. It’s an act that we’re talking about, sitting and plotting, “How can I get a better car than the other person has,” or “This person hurt me, what am I going to say next time that I see them that’s really going to be the worst thing that I could say to them?”

Or, “This other person is going to Dharma teachings when I want them to be home with me, and so what am I going to say to them that’s going to really tell them how ridiculous it is what they’re doing and they should stay by me.” Sitting and thinking, “How stupid it is that my partner or my friend is going to these teachings, why don’t they stay here with me?” And then just dwelling on this thought about how terrible it is what the other person is doing, getting very... if the person came you’d want to punch them for having abandoned me to go to the Dharma teachings. “What they’re doing is stupid,” “A new Mercedes,” and “I’ve got to get one too.”

(6a) Let me overcome rage and pride
And come to have an attitude of humility.

In order to be able to actually help others on the basis of bodhichitta, we need to avoid pushing others away. And if we are always getting angry with them, always getting in a rage, then others are afraid to be with us, because we’re going to make a big scene and get angry with them. Or if we’re very proud and arrogant, then people also don’t like to be with us. If we’re always insulting others, because we’re angry, and treating them very badly, who would want to be with us? And how can we help others out of anger and pride?

So it’s important to overcome them in order to help others – let alone the suffering that it causes us – and as we have discussed already, to have an attitude of humility, which basically is involved with showing respect for others and treating them nicely. It’s the same thing if we complain all the time, who wants to be with us? It’s unpleasant, isn’t it? If we’re humble and we accept, for instance as we get older, that of course we have pains and we’re not able to do what we did before. But if we stay humble about that and not complain all the time, we won’t chase people away from us.

The whole aspect of sensitivity training also comes up here, that if we’re oversensitive for instance, and anything that anybody says, our feelings get hurt so quickly and so easily, again nobody wants to be with us, because they’re afraid we’re going to get upset and cry and make a scene, all of these sort of things. So when we really think in terms of bodhichitta and helping others, it’s important to be aware of what we do in our behavior and our attitudes that would repel others from us and make them unreceptive to wanting our help. That has to do with our appearance as well.

If we’re always dirty and look in a way that would repel people in a certain society, then you try to avoid that. There are other instructions – not set here, but as part of the secondary bodhisattva vows – that as long as it’s not something destructive or negative, we need to go along with what are the customs that the other people want to do and that they follow. So if women in India don’t walk around with miniskirts, we don’t walk around in a miniskirt, because then nobody would want to come near us, and the ones who would want to come near us wouldn’t necessarily be coming to get Dharma teachings.

(6b) So, let me rid myself of dishonest ways of living
And make my living with a livelihood that accords with the Dharma.

That’s sometimes translated as “wrong livelihood,” and this has two aspects to it. The first is using some dishonest means for making a livelihood.

It was very interesting, I was translating for a great lama, Ugyen Tseten Rinpoche, who sometimes comes here to Berlin – the former abbot of Lower Tantric College and the teacher of my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. I was translating for him in Australia and the people asked him about this point and said, “We live in the countryside in Australia and the only industry there is raising sheep for meat. And what do we do? Because there is no other work to be able to do that. Is this a wrong livelihood, is this a dishonest livelihood?”

And he explained that the main point of it is not to cheat others with the livelihood. You can’t say per se that raising sheep is a totally negative type of thing. If you’re slaughtering them, that’s something else, but raising them – or if you’re making weapons, that’s something else – but as long as you’re kind to the sheep, and try to make their lives as least miserable as possible, and you’re not cheating the people who are buying, and you’re not making false advertising and things like that, that if you can’t find any other means of livelihood – of course, it’s best to try to find some other means of livelihood – but if it’s absolutely impossible in your situation, then the main thing is to think in terms of your motivation and not be dishonest.

He said this was the main point of avoiding these “wrong livelihoods” – that’s why I translated it as a dishonest way of making a living. I found that incredibly open-minded of him. Also it’s a skillful means; you don’t come on with the heaviest alternative that the other people can’t possibly follow and would just make everybody feel guilty in this area – that what they’re doing is wrong, and that everybody should move – which would make everybody feel very bad and very unreceptive. So as a skillful means also, one starts to say, “Well, the main point is not to be dishonest.”

Again that comes back to this thing of not causing other people to totally reject you. If you’re going to help them, you suggest ways that they can actually follow in terms of Dharma teachings. If you present something that really is almost impossible, they’re going to just not even try. They’ll just think you’re an idealist totally out of touch with reality. That’s a very important piece of advice to remember, especially when we’re young in the Dharma and we tend to be self-righteous and give people advice as if we’re the holy, holy being, and we give them the most high type of ethics or high type of behavior. Again it comes back to being humble and practical.

The other aspect of inappropriate ways of living, or dishonest ways of making a living, is in terms of a list of five different dishonest ways.

The first is flattery, this is usually described in terms of getting alms from others for the monks, that you flatter somebody, you say, “Oh, you’re so wonderful and you’re so kind,” in order to get them to give us something. The second is pressuring them, constantly pushing, “Why don’t you give? Why don’t you give?” and constantly bothering them and so on. The third one is extortion, extortion is when you say, “Well, you gave last time and look at all the starving monks,” and all of this and that, and make them feel guilty in order to get something from them. The fourth is bribery, “If you give a certain amount of money, then we’ll give you a toaster oven,” or something like that to bribe them, give them something little in order to get something big in return. And the fifth way is pretense, pretending that we’re so holy and so wonderful, in order to impress them, so that they’ll give us something.

If we live on income and offerings that are obtained in this type of way, it’s said that our insights in Dharma practice will deteriorate.

It’s very interesting – in this discussion of inappropriate or dishonest ways of making a living, it doesn’t actually list or say “killing others,” and “making weapons,” and “hunting” and so on, although one can understand it in that way. But that’s not the main point. The main point is this “not being dishonest.” And particularly if we make some sort of product – whether we’re a farmer or a sculptor or whatever – not to try to sell it with these type of things, pressuring somebody to get it, or pretending that we’re so great, and false advertising, all this type of thing, flattery, “If you want to be really smart, you’ll buy my product.” “If you want to attract all the women, or all the men, you’ll buy my product.” Advertising is all like this; advertising is based on this and, as I said, elections in the West are based on, “I’m so wonderful and the other person is so bad, so vote for me!”

All of this is based on having belief in fact in terms of behavioral cause and effect, karmic cause and effect – just one last point before our lunch break – and when we talk about this belief in fact, it’s belief in something which is existent and knowable, and to consider it a fact. This is of three kinds:

(1) The “clearheaded belief in a fact,” in other words, we think about this and it clears our heads and hearts of disturbing emotions – like feeling guilty, or greed, or these sort of things – that would cause us to act in an inappropriate way and with the ten destructive actions or these inappropriate ways of making a living. When we think about cause and effect, it clears away this type of greed that “I’ve got to make more and more, even with a dishonest way of making a living.”

Then there’s (2) “belief in fact based on reason.” We think in terms of does it make sense that if we want to help others, that we cheat them in order to make more money? And then (3) “belief in fact with an aspiration,” in which on the basis of belief in this fact of behavioral cause and effect, then we have the aspiration to always act in a constructive way, to always avoid inappropriate ways of making a livelihood.

Let’s end here with a small dedication. We think whatever positive force comes from this, may it act as a cause for really developing bodhichitta and really being able to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.

I remember one piece of advice. I think it was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey who said, when you ask a lama to say prayers for us, then you don’t ask the lama to say prayers, “Please, may my student be able to get a job,” or get this or that worldly thing. You ask the lama to say prayers “that I might be able to develop bodhichitta” – that’s the best request to make to the teacher.