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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session Four: Verses Seven through Ten

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)
(7) Let me rid myself of all material burdens
And adorn myself with an arya’s gems.
So, let me rid myself of all bustling activities
And live in seclusion.

This is speaking very much like Shantideva speaks in his eighth chapter on constancy of mind, or concentration – that it’s important, when we want to do meditation, to live a very simple life and preferably to live in seclusion.

[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 8.]

Living in seclusion is important when our minds are very, very attached to the people around us. As it says in the Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, we need to move far away, from particularly our homeland, when there are people that get us very angry and people that we’re very attached to and these type of things. If we can get some distance, even if it’s only for a year, like often people go to India or something like that, it helps us to be a little bit more removed from these causes that disturb us, disturb our meditation, disturb our practice.

[See: Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices, 2006 Literal Translation.]

Obviously, when we are well-trained, then one goes back to very busy places, because then it’s very challenging. So the great bodhisattvas go back and “meditate in the crossroads,” they say, so where there’s a lot of traffic and these type of things, because then you want to perfect your concentration and perfect your practice of being able to continue your practice, even in very chaotic or challenging situations. So, everything has to be adjusted according to our own needs.

So the verse begins, “Let me rid myself of all material burdens.” A material burden is defined as objects which are difficult to get, difficult to keep and protect – that they could be lost or robbed and we would be very upset about them, and we might even lose our lives, because of a thief trying to steal them. These are called material burdens: it’s a burden to have such type of objects. So it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have any type of material possessions, but the best type of possession is something which is easy to get – it’s not rare or anything like that – and we wouldn’t be upset if it gets lost or stolen or anything like that.

It’s like when you go to India you don’t take your best clothes, or when you’re traveling on an Indian train you don’t wear your best clothes. You wear something that you don’t care if it gets dirty and it gets torn or anything like that. So these are the best type of material possessions that especially would make us not be miserly about or cling to, so that we don’t want anybody else to use it, “Oh, my precious computer, I don’t want anybody else to touch it,” this type of thing.

So that’s actually a very helpful discussion, I find, of what’s a material burden. It’s like, when people have houses and they keep them so fancy and so nice, and then they have to put plastic over everything, because they don’t want anybody to get it dirty. And if somebody comes with a baby or a child, they absolutely freak out, because they make a whole mess of the place; they’re going to get it dirty. And you don’t want to hold the baby, because the baby might spit up on your beautiful nice shirt, so you hold the baby to feed away from you.

And also something that doesn’t require a tremendous amount of care, that’s easy. You don’t want to get some super-difficult garden or something like that, that then you can’t leave the house, because it requires so much care and you can’t get anybody to take care of it – that’s a material burden, it ties you down – and that you constantly have to get somebody come in and take care of it, and it takes all your time, you become a slave to the garden – or a slave to one’s hairdo, that it always has to be so complicated that you have to give it so much time to get it just right.

Instead of having this type of possessions, we can adorn ourselves with the arya gems. This is discussed later on in verse twenty-six. These are – just to list them, we’ll discuss them further later – are the gems of belief in fact, and ethical self-discipline, generosity, listening, care for how my actions reflect on others, moral self-dignity, and discriminating awareness. These are things that we can build up more and more and more – have a great wealth of discipline, a great wealth of teachings, power of listening, a great wealth of generosity, and belief and so on.

As Geshe Dhargyey explained, we can’t wear all our jewelry. If we have a huge collection of jewelry, you can’t wear all the jewelry at once; you look absolutely ridiculous. But you can wear all of these at once. And even if you go to prison or a concentration camp, you can bring these with you and you’re rich. You have a great wealth while there. And when you fly in an airplane you don’t have to worry about being overweight.

So these are the best things to build up a wealth of, rather than material objects that are so difficult to take care of and cause so much worries and problems. If you think about it, if you go off into a meditation retreat and you’re constantly worrying about “my plants,” and “my house,” and “what’s happening,” and stuff like that, it’s a big distraction.

Atisha writes, “Let me rid myself of all bustling activities.” These are again great distractions. Examples of bustling activities are meeting our friends all the time and chatting with them in chat rooms and the telephone, and these type of things, which are a tremendous waste of time. To do it once in a while, this is fine; but if we spend all our time with that, then we’re not going to be able to really have time for practice, for meditation, for studying, for learning and so on.

As Shantideva writes, “If we spend our time with infantile people, then inevitably destructive behavior arises, such as criticizing others, telling bad stories about others, praising ourselves, and just prattling on” – which just means blabbing on and on and on – “about the pleasures of samsara.” That doesn’t mean that we ignore these people, but we don’t spend all our time with running from one to another and chatting with one to another.

Or pottering around the house. It’s very easy to spend the entire day just doing tiny little things in the house, which... in the end we haven’t done anything, and which don’t really matter. Running from one entertainment to another, changing the TV stations all the time, this type of thing. There are many, many examples of these type of bustling activities.

Aside from entertainment, you could do the same thing with books. There’s people that go and buy so many books and are addicted to buying books, but never have time to read any of them. Or if they read any of them, they just look a little bit here, a little bit there; and it just becomes a huge burden, and with the amount of books that they have they can never move, or go anywhere; and if they do, then they’re carrying – like a prisoner carrying a huge load of rocks on their back – a whole pack of books with them everywhere they go.

I had a wonderful experience with that. I had probably over a thousand books by the end of my college education, and I went to India and I left them in my mother’s attic. And my mother retired and moved to Florida, and she had them all put into my aunt’s garage, where they just sat in cardboard boxes on the ground. And then there was a flood once, and the garage was flooded, and all the books turned into soup. That cured me of buying books. So in India I had very few books and some of the books that I had, I gave away when I left India, because one realizes that there are libraries for things like that. You don’t have to own absolutely everything and then you’re worried and upset when they turn into soup by a flood.

And so ridding ourselves of all of these things – Atisha follows the advice that Shantideva gives – to live in seclusion. Seclusion is – we need to, as Shantideva says – “isolate,” or “separate,” or dissociate – both our minds and our bodies from being involved so much with things that just distract us, or that turn our attention toward destructive things, or things that just waste our time.

It doesn’t mean that we have to live in solitary confinement – for some people that’s OK – but to live with people who are supporting what we’re doing, with teachers, with this type of like-minded people, then this can be very helpful. It depends on our own individual makeup.

And it’s not sufficient to just isolate your body. If your mind is still attached and thinking of the people back home, so that you’re constantly on the Internet with them, that’s no use.

In the secondary bodhisattva vows, it says not to spend more than seven days and nights in a home of a Hinayana person. What that’s referring to has nothing to do with whether somebody is practicing Theravada or Hinayana or not. What it’s referring to is somebody that we’re living with who would make fun of our practice, would say, “It’s stupid what you’re doing, this Mahayana practice, trying to help others,” and so on, and is constantly trying to discourage us and lead us away from our spiritual path. If we’re weak-minded and weak in our motivation and intention, then these people can have a very strong influence on us and really be very damaging to our practice.

Question: Why then did they say “Hinayana?”

Alex: It’s a terrible term, but they’re using it to refer to somebody who is just working for their own sake, not for the sake of others.

Question (cont’d): But that sounds so disparaging.

Alex: It is disparaging, there’s no denying that.

Question: It can be helpful, spending some time with Hinayana.

Alex: We’re not talking about Hinayana, let’s talk about Theravada. With Theravada practitioners, if they’re telling us that, “Oh, what you’re doing is stupid, all these Mahayana practices and so on, you should just sit quietly and focus on your breath,” and they try to discourage us and make fun of what we’re doing, then that’s damaging.

Question: So it should state there “you should not spend time with people who discourage you.”

Alex: That’s how we need to understand it, yes. That, of course, is very difficult, if you have to go into the army and stay in a room with all soldiers who are going to be drunk and really harass you very badly if you’re doing practice, or if you’re in prison with others. That’s why it’s important to have all your practices in your mind by heart, like these jewels of the aryas, you can take it anywhere and it doesn’t matter who’s around you.

It was really terrible. I was traveling with my teacher Serkong Rinpoche in the West, and we were moving from place to place all the time, and once I forgot my attaché case, which had all my recitation practices in it, and couldn’t get it till the next day. And Serkong Rinpoche really... he always scolded me, he used to scold me all the time, but he would scold in a very gentle type of way, or at least I perceived it as a gentle type of way. And he pointed that out that this is ridiculous that I’m so dependent on these pieces of paper and that he, of course, doesn’t have to depend on any of this kind of stuff. And then he very kindly wrote out in his own hand the most important practices that I needed to recite, so that I wouldn’t completely break my commitments, which really made me embarrassed – so incredibly kind – it made me very embarrassed that such a great lama would sit there and write out by hand my prayers for me, that I had forgotten these things.

(8a) Let me rid myself of idle words
And always restrain my speech.

Not only do we need to isolate or dissociate our bodies and minds from all these attachments and so on, but even if we go with like-minded friends into a practice situation, then we certainly have to rid ourselves of just idle words. Just chatting on and on about nothing, it wastes all our time. This, of course, is always the case, also when we’re outside of this type of a practice situation. As the teachers say, “We’re always eager and awake for idle chatter, but if we start to meditate, or listen to a lecture, we immediately fall asleep.”

Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness, always used to say, “If you don’t feel like doing any Dharma practice or anything constructive, it’s better to take a nap – at least it’s better than gossip and chatting – because then you wake up refreshed, you haven’t wasted your time completely.” There’s no end to worldly chatter, so rid ourselves of idle speech.

If we’re going to speak with others, it doesn’t have to be deep, meaningful, and intense all the time. That can also be a bit much, but keep it primarily about things that are constructive, and restrain our speech when it is getting into just blabbing on and on about nothing, and when it’s just gossiping about others or complaining and so on.

(8b) So, when I see a sublime teacher or learned master,

Let me extend my service with respect.

In other words, rather than spending our time just chatting on and on with infantile people, which will inevitably lead to some sort of destructive behavior, if there’s your teacher, or if a great master or a learned person is there, then we can try to be of help to them. In other words, if we’re going to use our time with other people, then rather than using it as a waste of time, use it in doing something constructive. And the most constructive thing is particularly helping our own teachers to help others more and more.

One of Shantideva’s wonderful lines is a prayer, “May anybody who has any contact with me, may it be meaningful,” not just a waste of time – a wonderful thought. And in terms of relating to teachers:

(9) As for persons with the eye of the Dharma
And limited beings who are beginners,
Let me expand my discernment
Of them as my teachers.

So we can learn from many people, not only those with the eye of the Dharma, which is referring to the great masters, but also in limited beings who are beginners, beginners on the spiritual path, because we can rejoice in their interest. We gain ourselves a great deal of encouragement from them. And anybody who gains anything in terms of practice, or a teaching, or this type of thing, then we can rejoice, we can learn from them cause and effect, we see them working.

Actually we can gain a tremendous amount from beginners in terms of inspiration if we’re on the path – inspiration not only from our teachers, but from those beginners who are really, really interested and really sincere. It’s very, very inspiring, very uplifting in terms of the future and so on. And we can learn from their mistakes. We learn patience, the best objects for giving both those who are above – great teachers – and those who are less advanced or younger in the Dharma than we are. These are worthwhile to spend time with.

And especially if we think in terms of future lives, then these young beginners in the Dharma, these are the ones who, they might not be our teachers in the sense of the great masters – although, as it says here, they can teach us many things – but also in future lives we’re going to be the young ones and they’re going to be the older ones, and so this is also working in terms of cause and effect. So passing things on from generation to generation is very important.

And I forget which of the Kadam Geshes said it, but he was saying that a disciple who comes to you who is arrogant and who thinks that they know everything – then even if they’re very intelligent, you should avoid such a disciple – one that is very stubborn, you give advice and they don’t listen to you, they don’t want to hear it, these type of things – that’s not a proper disciple.

But a disciple who comes, who really wants to learn, and who is open, and who takes the advice to heart – then even if they’re not intelligent, they have this type of good character. This is the best type of disciple to take, because then whether they learn a lot or not is up to the skill and patience of the teacher. The quality that one looks for is not the intelligence; one looks for the sincerity and the openness. “Open-minded” is the willingness to learn, the willingness to work and try to correct one’s faults, not getting defensive and so on. This is the best disciple.

(10a) Whenever I see any limited beings,
Let me expand my discernment of them as my father,
my mother, my child or grandchild.

This is part of the whole teaching that in terms of thinking to help others, to benefit others, we need to see everybody as equal, with heartwarming love. This heartwarming love is that when we see somebody – like seeing our most beloved friend, or our most beloved family member – that it warms our heart, that we really feel, “How wonderful it is to see this person.”

You see this with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. No matter who he meets, it’s like he’s seeing his long-lost best friend. He’s just absolutely delighted to meet another human being, or another animal, or anything. This is a wonderful quality and the way that we can do this most easily – and this is thinking in terms of traditional Indian and Tibetan families, where the family relations are quite good – is when there is an older person, to think of them in terms of our father or mother.

We’re not talking here about transference in the Freudian, psychological sense and projecting all sorts of father and mother trips on them, but just in terms of the feeling of closeness. And likewise with a younger person, to think of them as our child or grandchild; or somebody of the same age, to think of them as the brother or sister – to feel this sense of closeness, that’s the point, without a sense of grasping, or rejecting, or ignoring. All of this, as I said, is based on a fairly ideal image of a healthy family.

Obviously we’re very advanced if we can do that with a fly or a mosquito that comes into our room and we welcome it, “How wonderful to see you,” delighted that it’s coming to our room. Then you’re really advanced. “Welcome, thank you for coming and visiting me.” There was a story of somebody who was in prison, living in solitary confinement, completely isolated, and then there was a spider that came into his prison cell and this was his best companion. It was a spider, because there was no anybody else. “Spiders are OK, but flies are an unacceptable life form – alien invaders.”

Question: Only if they’re good-looking.

Alex: ...if they’re wearing fashionable clothes. Now, that’s an interesting point – what looks beautiful. I remember when I was first in India, I was not a great fan of insects, and India is the land of insects, and so where I was living we had these large wolf spiders, which are the size of your hand. And I remarked once, foolishly, to my teacher how horrible they looked – this was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – and he scolded me, saying, “From their point of view, you look like a monster. So who’s correct?”

(10b) So, let me rid myself of misleading friends
And entrust myself to spiritual friends.

This brings up this wonderful definition that we have in Buddhism of what’s a misleading friend and what’s a spiritual friend or a good friend. A misleading friend is somebody who leads us into destructive behavior. When we’re with them, they just encourage us to act in a negative type of way: go out and drink and waste our time and do things that might not necessarily be super-destructive, “Let’s go out and rob a store,” or go hunting or fishing or this type of thing, but “Let’s go out and party” all the time. “Let’s take drugs.” “Let’s drink,” and so on, or just sit and talk about football, or talk about politics, or talk about the movie stars. This is a misleading type of friend, who leads us away from positive practice.

What is usually translated as spiritual friend is this kalyana-mitra in Sanskrit, which is translated as Geshe (dge-bshes). So this is a friend – the word isn’t “spiritual,” the word is “constructive,” or “virtuous” – so it’s a friend who, through their influence, leads us into doing constructive things. Rather than saying, “Let’s go out and get drunk together,” “Let’s meditate together,” “Let’s do something positive together.” “Let’s study together,” these type of things. This is the spiritual friend; this is the constructive friend, who encourages us, that helps us to go further in our practice.

It could even be something constructive like, “Let’s get some physical exercise to give you more strength to be able to practice” – not that you’re going to do that as your primary activity all the time, that’s something else. This doesn’t have to be so heavy, “Oh, we’re only going to sit and pray together,” but something that is going to either be directly constructive or help support our constructive behavior. Especially when we’re weak in our practice and we’re very easily influenced, then it’s important to try to avoid as much as possible these misleading friends. If we’re with a misleading friend, then we’ll emulate and start to act like them. If we’re with spiritual friends, positive friends, then we’ll start to emulate and be positively influenced by them. So this is very important.

Gradually we learn to have more and more strength, so that we’re – to use the Tibetan example – not like a dog that, when all the other dogs in the neighborhood start to bark, we start to bark too. Or when the other person starts to complain about the government and all sorts of things, then we join in and we get even more worked up and excited about it. “If you can do something, do it; if you can’t do anything, don’t complain, it just makes you feel worse.”

“Let’s go to the shopping mall, and look at all the stores, and see if we would like to buy something,” this type of misleading friend.

Are there any questions about what we’ve been discussing?

Question: Can you give some more information about “bustling activities?”

Alex: Bustling activities – “bustling” means that you’re running around and busy all the time, doing something that’s not so ultimately constructive, like moving the things in your house from this side to that side and all these little type of things, or constantly chatting about meaningless things.

If we are taking care of a Dharma center, or translating, or things like that, of course that’s something which is very constructive. But also one has to use one’s time well. Life is short; that becomes more and more apparent, the older that you get. And when you’re going to do something constructive or positive, the thing is to do it in as efficient a way as is possible. And if we don’t know how to do it efficiently, learn how to do things efficiently. There are people that can teach us how to do things efficiently. Be open-minded to that.

One of the instructions that’s very helpful for that is in one of the supports for perseverance, which is “knowing when to let go.” For instance, you could polish a surface forever, it’s never smooth enough; or you need to reach a point where you say, “Enough already.” It’s the same thing with a translation. You could polish it forever, always get one tiny little thing that’s better and so on, but then you’ll never finish anything. The same thing with the Dharma center. We had an example this morning with stapling the sheets of the translation – you just do it. As long as it is adequate and serves the purpose, and not that it’s sloppy, then that’s fine. You go on to the next.

This is very difficult, of course, because when we’re aiming for enlightenment, there is of course the tendency to be a perfectionist, “Well, I’m trying to be perfect, I’m trying to a Buddha,” and so then we can get caught up in little details and that also can be a real swamp that just drags you down, getting caught in little details. I’m not the expert in pulling oneself out of that swamp, because I get lost in details as well, but that’s something that one really has to watch out for. Otherwise, life is too short; you just don’t accomplish very much and then you die.

And then you’re a child again – if you’re lucky, as a human – and then you have to start all over again, get an education again?! And then you have to wait another thirty years before you can start doing something really constructive. That’s horrible. That’s a real drag of samsara. All of a sudden – you’ve worked so hard, forty, fifty, sixty years old, you finally get the experience; you finally know how to do something that really is worthwhile, and then it’s all over again, you have to go back to Go. You have to go back and start and get a whole education again. It’s horrible.

Question: But doesn’t it help to build up consciousness and awareness to do little things perfectly?

Alex: Well, one wants to try to avoid going to an extreme. And what is perfect? What is perfect? As Geshe Dhargyey used to say, you’re never going to make the perfect translation Look at the Tibetans. The Tibetans translated, and then a hundred years later it was edited and improved, and another hundred years later it was edited and improved. You’re never going to make the final version of it, so don’t bang your head against the wall.

I always give advice to people who are doing Ph.D. dissertations, let alone more childish school exercises of papers at university and so on. These are exercises for children that are learning. You’re not writing the definitive work that’s going to go down in history as the most brilliant thing in the world. You’re just doing it as an exercise for school. And the teacher doesn’t want to read all this stuff, doesn’t have time, so just do it. Show that you can do the work; that’s all that they care about, that you’re capable of doing research. “Finish and go on with the rest of your life.”

This is what my own professor told me, Professor Nagatomi. He was wonderful. I was doing the oral tradition of the lam-rim – and this is before any of the lam-rim was translated into Western languages – and I had prepared the initial scope and the intermediate scope, and already it was five hundred pages. And then I was saying, “And I haven’t finished the advanced scope yet,” and he said, “Forget about it. Just hand the damn thing in and get out of here. We know that you can do the work, now just finish it. It’s just an exercise for a degree. You can write the advanced scope afterwards. You don’t have to write it for the dissertation.” He was very, very wise, a great Japanese professor, a great teacher; he came from a family of Zen priests in Japan.

So when one is a student and writing a student paper, one needs to recognize that one is a child and not be arrogant and proud about your child learning. And so you just do what you need to do in order to demonstrate that you’re learning. Don’t puff yourself up into, “Now I’m the world’s expert writing a student paper.” Then you get really uptight and nervous about it and freak out. It’s no different from a child in the beginning classes of school doing a homework. It’s no different. It’s important to keep it in its proper perspective; otherwise your school years can be a torture.