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Explanation of A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2004

Session Five: Verses Eleven through Fourteen

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:23 hours)
(11a) Let me rid myself of hostility and uneasy mental states,
And go happily everywhere.

This is continuing this discussion about how, when we are with other people – even if we’re trying to live in seclusion, nevertheless we are going to meet people – and so when we’re with people, then it’s very important to be able to not get hostile toward them, “Oh, you’re interrupting my practice; why did you come bother me,” or any type of uneasy mental state that we would have.

If we have this uneasy mental state with other people, then we’re never going to be happy. And so often what happens, why this uneasiness comes, is because we don’t see everybody as equal, which is what was being discussed in the previous verse, the necessity to see everybody as equal. We’re attached to some, but we’re repulsed from others, and we want to ignore yet others. So if somebody comes to us, then if we find them attractive or whatever, we’re attached to, “Oh, I’m so happy that you came.” But if we don’t want to see them, then we repel them and reject them, or we just want to ignore them and we resent that they’ve come or they’ve asked for our help.

I think it’s also from Shantideva, I’m not quite sure, I don’t recall the verse in Shantideva, but one great master said, “Nothing delights a bodhisattva more than when somebody wants his or her help.” I think it’s from one of the lojongs, I don’t remember where the line comes. It’s like if you’ve trained to be a nurse, then when actually it’s time for you, when you can use your skills to help others, then you’re very happy. Similarly, if you’ve been training as a bodhisattva and then there’s somebody that we can actually help and that we’re capable of helping, this is a great opportunity for rejoicing and not feeling annoyed, so let me rid myself of hostility and uneasy mental states...

...And go happily everywhere. This way we’ll be able to go happily. Of course, if too many people are bothering us and interrupting us, particularly with very little things, then sometimes we need to isolate ourselves again. Tsongkhapa himself moved all the time – until finally he established his monasteries, when people were much more receptive. When too many people started coming with offerings and these sort of things, then he moved to a different place. When he got older and he established his monasteries and so on, then he stayed at the monasteries, because then he was able to help others and establish something that would continue for a long time. But while he was training – he was very famous, he was the most outstanding one of his time – and when constantly...

...he was like Serkong Rinpoche, he’d go to a place and then you had all these people coming all day long, presenting a kata, and making sure that they prostrated directly in front of him, so that he saw them prostrate, and then sitting there, and him having to bless them, give them a string or something like that... that could take up all of your time and you’re not really benefiting people on a profound level, the same as if you were teaching someone. And so if that was happening with Tsongkhapa – coming and giving the equivalent of one rupee, and like that, coming with offerings and so on, the five hundred and seventy-fifth box of incense that you don’t need – then better to move. Becoming too famous, too many people are being attracted for little things, taking up all of your time.

How that would refer to our own situation here in the West, that’s a little bit difficult to see. It’s like for instance, I know from my experience of traveling as a teacher that it’s very different from being in a place all the time. If you travel as a teacher, Serkong Rinpoche always used to say, don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t stay more than a certain number of days. If you’re there for a few days, then people find it a special event, and they’ll come to teachings and so on. But if you stay for too long, then on the one hand you become a burden for the people who are taking care of you. And on the other hand, especially if you live in a place, this is what I’ve seen, people take you for granted and don’t come, “Well, I can always go next week,” “Oh, I have a birthday party,” or “Oh, I have a movie that I want to see,” or something like that and they don’t come.

So in that type of situation it’s best to move on to a place where you can be of more use or benefit. But obviously, we always have to check our own personal situation. On the one hand, if people need our help, then being willing to help. On the other hand, if nobody really needs our help, or they’re just coming and bothering us all the time and not really being in a real position for being helped, then we move on. One looks at the life of a monastic. A “monastic” – the term is “somebody who’s left their home,” who is “homeless.” Again it depends on our level in our practice.

(11b) So, let me rid myself of whatever I’m attached to
And live without attachments.

And so if – particularly, this is referring to possessions – if there are things that we’re very attached to, the advice is to give it away or to put it in a box, put it in the closet, so that we don’t see it all the time and get too preoccupied with it.

They say it’s very helpful to make our homes as simple as possible, like in a cave. If you just live in a cave, then you’re not so attached to the rock wall of the cave. But if you spend all your time decorating your house and having all sorts of precious things around – mind you, it’s nice to have a nice environment if it helps our mind, but if we get too carried away – then we get very much attached to these things.

If you go into the great lamas’ houses in India, their place is decorated with pictures of their teachers, not decorated with artwork or pictures of the Buddha-figures, the yidams. That helps to stay mindful of the practice. But again, if you’re doing it in terms of making your place into an art collection and getting the finest artwork, then that again is objects of attachment; it depends on your attitude.

(12a) With attachment, I won’t attain even a happy rebirth
And I’ll cut off the life of my liberation, in fact.

If we’re attached to things, then that often leads us to destructive behavior. We have to, in the worst case, steal to get more and we’re very attached and we have covetous thinking about “how I can get more,” and “how I get a better art collection than my neighbor,” and so on, an even more elaborate altar than the next one. In this way, not only will we not be able to get a happy rebirth, but in fact, our whole chances for liberation are very much negatively affected, because of just increased and increased attachment to samsara.

So sometimes His Holiness says, not exactly in these words, but “if we’re going to be attached to something, be attached to positive things rather than negative things.” This refers also to lust that we have for other people – sexual lust and so on – that is also a tremendous attachment. Then you always have to have a better and better and more beautiful partner and so on. That certainly causes tremendous difficulties in terms of future lives and liberation. There’s a calypso song, an old calypso song, “If you want to live happy for the rest of your life, take an ugly woman as your wife.”

(12b) So wherever I see a Dharma measure (for bringing) happiness,
Let me exert effort always in that.

The Dharma measures that bring happiness are ethics. By restraining from destructive behavior, which means acting on the basis of our disturbing emotions, and by engaging in positive things, then we’re going to bring about happiness. So ethics is the opponent here to lust, and attachment, and greed, so we don’t go around stealing, we don’t go around in inappropriate sexual behavior with other people’s partners and so on.

And so when I see a Dharma measure of ethics that will bring happiness – restrain from this or that negative act – let me exert effort always in that. And that refers to bodhisattva vows as well – to restrain from praising myself and putting down others. It’s going to bring happiness and allow me to bring more happiness to others.

(13) Whatever I’ve undertaken to start with,
Let me accomplish that very thing first.
Everything, this way, will get accomplished well;
Otherwise, neither will come about.

We might recognize these lines – they’re taken from Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He’s putting together verses forty-three and forty-four from chapter five.

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

This is stating that first we have to think very well before we undertake something – whether it’s an education or whatever it might be, some sort of activity – and think about the benefits of it, and not just the benefits in this lifetime, but what type of benefits are going to be there in terms of future lives as well. And then think in terms of our ability to actually do it. And then think in terms of our time – how many years is it going to take to do this and so on – and in that way we decide what to undertake or what not to undertake; what’s going to bring the most benefit to myself and to others.

So it’s important not to rush into things, and particularly this refers to taking vows. Don’t be in a rush to take it, but really examine very well whether or not one can keep these. And if we’re going to do it, do it well. But again, not be a fanatic, whether it’s with the vows, whether it’s... fanatic means that we’re not in the slightest bit flexible. Even in the vinaya it talks about certain situations where there are exceptions that we need to be flexible in. A monk is not supposed to touch a woman, but if a woman is drowning you don’t say, “Sorry, I can’t give you a hand, because I’m not allowed to touch a woman,” that’s absurd.

Likewise, if we’re undertaking some task or some education, really think about it well before doing it in terms of the benefits, and if we’re going to do it, do it; do it properly, do it well, but without being a fanatic, and know when to let go when it’s finished, don’t get attached. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey used to say, “Life is too short to taste everything, so don’t become a professional tourist of samsara, that you have to go and taste and see everything of samsara; that’s not going to get you anywhere.” A very helpful piece of advice.

So in terms of choosing what to do – how to spend our time, people to spend it with and so on – we need to think of the benefits, as I said, and do that according to our talent, according to what’s going to be the best use of what we can do, that not so many other people are doing, and what would be of the greatest benefit to the largest number of people, benefit not just to “me,” and benefit not just in this lifetime.

And also, as Ringu Tulku reaffirmed, when he was visiting here a little while ago, also in choosing how we spend our time, and who we help, and what we do, also one factor is what do we personally gain a little bit from ourselves. Because until we’re a very, very high bodhisattva, there’s always going to be some selfish component to our motivation. And so in terms of choosing what to do, there are some things that give us a lot of energy, or certain people that we might help or spend our time with, it gives us a lot of positive energy and inspiration. Others are just a drain on our energy and make us feel very, very exhausted after being with them. So, that also can be a factor in choosing how we spend our time and who we help and these sort of things.

And in terms of what to choose to work on, the advice is always, “meditation on bodhichitta is the best.” That’s the biggest source of energy.

(14) While still acting always negatively and parted from joy,
When a feeling of superiority arises about anything,
Let me cut off my pride and remember
My sublime teacher’s guideline instructions.

This is referring to while we’re still in a samsaric situation we’re still acting always negatively and parted from the joy of liberation and enlightenment. In such a time, when we have a feeling of superiority about anything, like our bodhichitta meditation, our practice, “Oh, I’m so holy,” and “I’m doing so well,” and so on, we need to cut off our pride and remember the teacher’s guideline instructions that we’re like the tide of the ocean that goes up and down, up and down. So sometimes we’re feeling very proud “I’m doing so well,” other times we get discouraged and, “I’m so terrible.”

So when we’re proud, then the guideline instructions are to think about death and impermanence: “Well, I’m so great, but I’m going to get sick and get old and die, and all these things are not going to last.” And also to think that “No matter how good I am, there’s always others who are much better,” and if we compare ourselves with them, then it helps to quiet down our pride. And when we get discouraged, then the guideline instruction is to think of the precious human life that we have, the opportunities that we have, and how there are others who are so much worse off than we are, and that helps us not to get so discouraged.

Do you have any comments, questions?

Question: When I read this and think about this, then I find very much to think about in it, and I find a lot of points that should be remembered and practiced. And so I’m asking myself where to actually start. Well, that one should meditate is clear to me and where my problems are is also something that’s evident to me, but still it’s a bit confusing.

Alex: Well, I think that what can be helpful, if we have time, since especially the text is not terribly long, is to read it – whether it’s every day, or every other day, or something like that – to familiarize ourselves with these various points. If we do like that, then in our daily lives, when the situations arise to which it refers, then we remember it, because we’ve read it, we’ve familiarized ourselves with it.

We can’t say that one point in the text is more important than another one, because what it’s talking about is – as we’re trying to develop bodhichitta – what are the things that are helpful, and particularly what are the things that are not helpful. When we can recognize what things are not helpful, then we try to apply the advice that’s here. So, when you’re feeling very lonely and attached to other people and so on, then you think, “If you have too much of them, then it’s a distraction, and it could be very much of an interference.” Or when there are a lot of people around, you think in terms of, “These are people that I can help.” Each aspect of this teaching pertains to a different situation, so whenever it arises then we apply it.

If we read something like this each day – I mean, if we’re already reading something, you don’t have to add it to it, but I’m saying – if this is a text that you find particularly helpful, you read it and then, according to how your day has been and so on, one point or another seems to you more relevant, and then you sort of stop there and think about it. That’s sort of the way to do it. It’s like a rosary – the Tibetans carry around these rosaries and your finger goes through the beads – and so you can make a round through the verses and through the points. I think that’s the thing that builds up the greatest familiarity, is to constantly remind ourselves of these points.

And work on it. There are many ways of doing that. My own personal way was translating. If you translate or write up the teachings or something like that, then that forces you to think about it. So if you take some notes during class, and then when you’re home you write them more nicely, doing that – especially if you think in terms of maybe it might be of some help to other people as well; whether it is or not doesn’t matter, but the motivation is there – then that gives you an opportunity to think about it. Because to just sit and think in meditation, that’s actually quite difficult to sustain your interest and your attention, but if you’re trying to write it or to translate it, then you really think about it.

I find this extremely helpful in terms of translating. I’ve been working on a new translation of Shantideva’s text from both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan, and – even though I taught it, and taught it so slowly and carefully – going through it again, looking at absolutely every single word both in the Sanskrit and the Tibetan, and really struggling with what’s the best way of translating it, and how do the Tibetans understand it, and the differences between the two language versions and so on, then it becomes much, much more familiar, so that now I remember a lot of these verses. And if you read it every day, a portion of it every day, and go through it over and over again like that, then it’s very helpful; it becomes much more familiar, much more familiar.

There are many little tricks like that. Ugyen Tseten Rinpoche gave one very, very good example. He was saying that when he does these recitation practices, which the Tibetans do, he recites each line or each phrase three times in a row, because if you do it like that, then you actually think about each thing. If you just go through it one time very quickly, you can go through it very, very quickly. Especially if you’ve been doing it for years every single day, you can go through it at super speed and not think about anything. But if you take each phrase or each line and recite it three times before you go on to the next one, then you actually do take the time to think about it or to visualize what it’s talking about and so on. It’s a very helpful piece of advice from a lama who is about ninety years old now, speaking from his experience in his life.

So when reading a text like this, the same type of thing. If we have time, we don’t have to read the whole thing if it’s too difficult, read a couple of verses, but recite each line three times. So you actually think about it. Shantideva said in his first couple of verses, “I write this to familiarize it with my mind, and if somebody else finds it helpful, well, very nice.” So in our practice the quantity is not the important thing. It’s the quality.

Let’s end here with a dedication. We think, whatever positive force has come from this, may this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all, and may we truly be able to put all of this into practice.