Thirty Five Verses of Advice: Part One
Please listen to these teachings considering all beings who have been our mothers and with the purpose of liberating them from samsara.
This text is the heart advice of all the bodhisattvas and the great path of all the Buddhas. It is divided into three parts: the introduction, the main body, and dedication. The introduction begins with the expression of homage, “To the one who has previously perfected the two accumulations.” This refers to the accumulation of merit, which is with reference and the accumulation of wisdom, which is without reference. It continues, “And who sees the suffering of all beings in samsara and carries the burden of love and compassion for them.” This one not only sees beings with compassion and love but has the ability of enlightened activity. So it say, “The one who is endowed with the enlightened activity of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, to my root teacher who is indivisible with Vajradhara, I bow down with my body, with this verse of respectful speech and with my devoted mind.”
These first lines are the expression of homage to the lama and the Buddhas. It is important to have devotion and faith in the Buddhas. The purpose of these verses is to show this faith in the Buddhas. To make a connection with their enlightened activity, we need to be connected with faith and devotion. To make a fire from the sun we need a magnifying glass. This is like our faith and devotion. As Shantideva wrote, many Buddhas have come in the past but because my lack of faith and devotion I and those like me have not been been within the sphere of their enlightened activity.
Due to the power of the delusion of not knowing, we wander in samsara. Not knowing means we don’t know the ten virtues to be adopted and ten non-virtues to be rejected. We see the impermanent as permanent, suffering as pleasure, and that which has no self as possessing one. Because of this we wander in samsara. Through the force of being blown about by the wind of overpowering emotions, we do not connect with the path of virtue.
The text says, “In the way that a blind turtle puts its head through a wooden yoke floating on the surface of the ocean.” This refers to a being not knowing virtue cycling through the three lower realms and that being’s chance of taking a human birth. The turtle rises to the surface of the ocean every hundred years. The chance of the turtle sticking its head through the yoke is similar to the chance that a being taking rebirth as a human. There are other ways to show how rare the chance of taking a human life are. If you pick up a rock, you will see many bugs under it. In comparison the number of humans is very small. You don’t need to teach a person to be unvirtuous. But it’s rare for a person to practice virtue so they can be reborn as a human. By the force of merit we now have the fortune of a human body. Our body doesn’t result from our courage, but solely from our previous merit.
This human body has its eight freedoms and ten advantages. Jigten Sumgon said the main practice is profound but the preliminaries are even more profound. The discussion of human birth and its freedoms and advantages is in the preliminaries. If we take the preliminaries to heart, our practice will be authentic. If we don’t, it will be inauthentic. These days people want to fly in the space of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, but they don’t want to touch the ground by practicing the preliminaries. The freedoms or leisures mean that you are free from the eight states with no opportunities for practicing dharma. The first is the state of a hell being, who because of their suffering, can’t practice the dharma. Similarly a hungry ghost suffers from thirst and hunger and can’t practice. The third state is an animal who is ignorant and can’t understand the dharma. The fourth unfree state is being born as a god. The gods in the formless realm can’t practice. These four are the non-human non-free states.
The four human non-free states are humans born in a barbarian land, where there is no dharma. These people don’t know the difference between virtue and non-virtue. Those born with wrong view in conflict with the dharma. They don’t believe in karma. The third is being born in a time when the dharma is not available. The fourth is being mentally or physically impaired, which prevents you from understanding the dharma. These are the eight non-free states.
The ten advantages have five advantages from one’s own side and five from the other’s side. The first of the fide from one’s own side is to be born a human. The second is possessing all the physical and mental faculties. The third is being born in a land where the dharma is taught. At first the dharma was taught in India, but because of persecution it died out. The three great kings and the translators brought the dharma to Tibet. In our tradition the translator Marpa brought the dharma which passed down through his disciples Milarepa, Gampopa, Phagmodrupa and Jigten Sumgon. Although the dharma at times was persecuted it still prevails there and now it has been brought to America, so it now is now also a land of the dharma. There are two more advantages. The fourth is not having a wrong livelihood which prevents you from practicing virtue. The fifth is having faith in the teachings. Without faith you can’t practice them. These days there are many spiritual teachers who trick people and take their money, even leading their followers to commit suicide. So these are the five advantages from one’s own side.
There are also five advantages from the other’s side. The first is being born during an eon when a Buddha teaches. These are called bright eons. Those without Buddhas are called dark eons. During dark eons there are no opportunities for practice. The second is being born during a time when the Buddha teaches. The third is being born while the Buddha’s teaching remains. The fourth is when the lineage of teachers endures. The fifth is when there is kindness for others. Gampopa says this refers to benefactors that allow practitioners to practice. But Patrul Rinpoche says this refers to the kindness of teachers who are willing to teach us.
Today’s teaching is instruction. For instruction we shouldn’t be so concerned with the words but with the meaning. So we should consider if we have these eight freedoms and opportunities. If we see that we do, we should rejoice. Beings who are born in hell through the force of the three poisons suffer intensely. Their bodies are huge and very sensitive. The landscape is glowing red hot. The suffering is intense. So we should reflect what it is like to be born in hell. We might wonder whether hell is an actual place. Recently there was a show on where heaven is on television. When we reflect on hell we should reflect on it. Shantideva said that hell is the product of our evil minds. Heaven is the reverse and is the result of our virtuous minds. Not squandering this genuine life to take advantage of this genuine life is Chokyi Drakpa’s heartfelt advice. Genuine refers to the eight freedoms and ten opportunities. The means by which we take to heart this purpose is to strive in the practice of virtue and rejecting non-virtue and to apply whatever dharma practice we are doing.
There are different motivations. The lesser motivation is to practice with a motivation to avoid rebirth in the lower realms. This is good but still falls in samsara. Middling beings practice for the sake of their own liberation. The motivation of greater beings is to practice so that all being may be liberated. When we find we have a precious life we should realize that it is impermanent. This world is changing and everything is in flux, so life will not last. So we should acknowledge this. All conditioned phenomena constantly change. The nature of things in samsara is suffering. We suffer when we work to make money. We suffer when we strive to keep and get more money. The ways of the world are futile. It is important to recognize this and turn to the dharma. This is why the first of the four dharmas of Gampopa says bless me so my mind may turn to the dharma. Even after having attained a human body, hearing Buddha’s name is difficult. Hearing Buddha’s teaching is difficult and when you have the opportunity to hear the teaching, having the motivation to practice it diligently is difficult.
The next second line of Gampopa’s advice is bless me so mind may turn to the path. It is difficult to find a qualified lama, who has the perfect qualities of a teacher. And the student should be skilled in examining the teacher, following the teacher, and assimilating the teacher’s realization. There’s a lot to be said about the qualities of a qualified teacher. The lama should keep the precepts in the Vinaya purely. They should have the altruistic intention of bodhicitta. And they should know the ten suchnesses of the Vajrayana. Atisha said it is difficult in degenerate times to find a teacher with all these qualities, so he said to follow a teacher with some of these qualities. But in terms of investigating a teacher, you should do this before entering the teacher’s teachings. Afterwards you should not scrutinize their qualities It is difficult to know if a lama is qualified by their external actions. Tilopa killed fish. Another Indian mahasiddha drank a lot of alcohol. So you should simply ascertain if their mind is filled with bodhicitta. When you investigate a teacher and find that they have bodhicitta, this is rare and difficult, so you should please them through the three actions of serving them, making offerings to them, and practicing. There’s not a lot of time to go into the details of how to follow a teacher, So you should read the Fifty Stanzas of Guru Devotion and The Words of my Perfect Teacher.
The text says, “Through serving a teacher through the three activities, to cherish the supreme taste of the nectar of the peerless instructions of the teacher is my heartfelt advice.” It’s important to cherish the teachings of the lama. Dromtonpa asked Atisha whether it was more important to study the words of the Buddha or the quintessential instructions of the teacher. Atisha replied that studying the instructions of the teacher is more important. One may know all the sutras and commentaries, but without the instructions of the teacher, one will not actualize the practice and unify their meaning with one’s mind. Dromtonpa asked a follow up question of Atisha whether it is okay to practice with body, speech, and mind fulfilling the three vows to practice the teachings of the lama. Atisha replied that’s good but not quite the point. So Dromtonpa asked, then what? Atisha said if you don’t turn away from samsara even if you uphold the discipline of the three vows it will not go beyond the aims of this world. Without renunciation, any activity is only for the sake of worldly advantage. Even though you endeavor in virtue with body, speech, and mind, if you don’t dedicate the virtue the merit will be lost through perverse thought. For that reason, the instruction to turn away from samsara and dedicate ourselves to awakening for the sake of others, is the most important. point of Gampopa’s instruction to bless me so that my dharma progresses along the path.
Q: What does mean to say that heaven and hell are the result of the mind? That seems ambiguous to me.
A: There’s a verse of Shantideva that says that the blazing floors of hell and its demons are the result of your evil mind. I applied this same reason to heaven and concluded heaven is the product of your virtuous mind. It is like a dream, which is the result of habits. When in Tibet, I dreamt the Chinese military would come to my door to arrest me and felt anxious. In a dream, it seems real, but we only know it isn’t when we wake. Buddha said our experience in samsara is unreal, like a dream. It is only the result of our habitual patterns.
This morning we discussed the verses which relate to the first two dharmas of Gampopa. Now I will discuss the verses relating to the third verse of Gampopa, grant your blessings that the path may clarify confusion, “The root of all good qualities and the foundation of the trainings.” This is taking the Three Jewels as refuge. The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The cause of refuge is wishing to be protected from the fears of samsara. This is more than the fear of sickness and suffering. It’s fear of all the six realms. But this alone is not the Mahayana refuge. The Mahayana refuge requires knowing the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. It is not just blind faith. It also must be done with a compassionate aspiration to benefit beings. The place of refuge is the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is the three kayas, the Dharma is the three baskets of teachings, and the Sangha is the bodhisattvas who have obtained the high bhumis. The duration of Mahayana refuge is not until you die or attain personal liberation, but instead until you attain complete enlightenment. The manner of taking refuge is to take refuge for the sake of all sentient beings, regarding Buddha as teacher, dharma as path, and sangha as companions on the path. We should take refuge so that both ourselves and all beings are liberated from samsara. So we must take refuge in that which can free us. So we can’t take refuge from someone who is still in samsara. The Buddha has liberated himself from samsara, so he is able to provide refuge.. But Buddha cannot throw beings from samsara to nirvana like a stone. Instead he taught the path to liberation. He said I teach the path of liberation, but whether you follow it is up to you. It’s not that when you die you go to heaven and get to sit next to Buddha, as in some religions. Nirvana is beyond rejecting and accepting.
So we should investigate how Buddha attained enlightenment. Did he do it by training his body, or did he talk his way into nirvana? No, he did so by purifying the mind. Purifying the mind means removing the two obscurations. He did this by practicing through countless eons. After purifying the two obscurations he taught others the method to do this. By purifying his mind, the Buddha’s body naturally became clean and pure, possessing the thirty two major and eighty minor marks. Other practitioners attained the rainbow body by purifying the mind. But we shouldn’t take refuge with the aim of becoming good looking. Hold the trainings of refuge without exception as dearly as one’s own life. This is Chokyi Drakpa’s heart’s advice
Once you go to refuge in the Buddha, you shouldn’t take refuge to another deity. Once going to refuge in the Dharma you shouldn’t do anything that conflicts with the Dharma. And taking refuge with the Sangha you shouldn’t follow after any outside teachers. But we shouldn’t think we’re better than others because we’re Buddhists. Just as different flowering trees bear different flowers, the different religions are ornaments of their respective countries. When you take refuge you should evoke the Buddha as the embodiment of all qualities and as the teacher of the path that develops these qualities. Similarly you should take refuge with heartfelt devotion to the Buddhas and teachers that show the path. When you take refuge in the Dharma, you should contemplate the meaning of the Dharma and have a heartfelt application of the teachings. You should show respect to different representations of the Buddhas and likewise to Dharma texts.
So this is the common refuge. But there is also the uncommon refuge of the secret mantra in the three roots of the guru, yidam, and dakini. Taking refuge in the guru frees you from the bonds of dualistic fixation. It removes the ignorance and stupidity of not knowing. It is the condition for attaining calm abiding and special insight. Going to refuge in the yidam is a condition for dispelling the delusion that the body is ordinary flesh and blood and transforms that perception. Taking refuge in the yidam perfects the self existing wisdom that sees things are empty appearances. Through this you will attain the accomplishment of Mahamudra. Taking refuge in the dakinis removes the fear of obstacles and removes grasping and grants the great bliss of the sambhogakaya.
Having taken refuge in the yidam, abide in the training and practices of the deity and offer one’s meals to the deity. You should hold the major and minor refuge vows without exception. To hold these dear as one’s own life is Chokyi Drakpa’s heartfelt advice.
The verse continue the root of all dharmas is loving kindness and compassion. Loving others more than oneself is the collective vow of aspiration and action bodhicitta. There’s a lot to be said about bodhicitta. The first practice is to recognize all beings as one’s mother. Then remember their kindness and wish to repay it. Then one develops loving kindness and compassion and the wish to benefit beings. These are the six causes of bodhicitta. Everyone thinks they know their mother well. But she cared for us since we were in her womb, cleaning us and clothing us and getting us an education. There has not been a single being who has not been our mother in a previous life. When we acknowledge this kindness that all beings have been our mothers, we should recall the kindness of all sentient beings toward us. When we acknowledge the kindness of all sentient beings we develop the wish to repay it. When we see them suffer we should feel compassion towards them and have the wish that they have happiness. The wish that beings be happy is love and the wish that they be free of suffering is compassion. When we feel love and compassion to those kind to us, we shouldn’t leave it to just our present mother, but extend it to all sentient beings. And we shouldn’t just wish them a small happiness, but vow to bring them to complete enlightenment. Through training in this supreme intention to bring all beings to enlightenment, we can develop a state of mind that equalizes ourselves and others. And with further training we can exchange ourselves for others, wishing to take on their sufferings. Then we can regard others as more important than ourselves and develop bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is more than compassion. All religions teach compassion. A Hindu teacher once visited Tibet and was freezing. So the god Brahma created a small hut with only room for one and with a dog inside. Rather than make the dog go outside he didn’t enter, because of his compassion. Brahma then appeared and said he was testing him. The bodhicitta of aspiration is to wish to bring others to enlightenment. And the bodhicitta of engagement is to perform the practice to bring this about. This has been an explanation of relative bodhicitta. There are trainings for aspiration bodhicitta: practicing compassion for others and the four immeasurables. For engaged bodhicitta the training is practicing the six perfections. But the condensed training is twofold: to never separate one’s awareness from concern for sentient beings and to uphold the aspiration to attain awakening at any cost.
The text continues, “The Vajrayana path enables one to attain enlightenment. Whatever is taught is the essence of the path of ripening and liberation.” Ripening refers to empowerments and liberation refers to the teacher’s instructions. “At all times the three vows, which contain each other.” These are the vows of personal liberation, the bodhisattva vow, and the Tantric vows. The Tantric vow is to regard whatever exists as in essence the dharmakaya, its display as the mandala, and its activity as the activity of the lama. The higher vows encompass and do not contradict the lower.
The next verse says “The root of siddhis is the vajra master. With reverence and respect guard your samaya.” The vajra master is the source of all accomplishments The mandala is the emanation of the vajra master. So it is important to maintain the commitments to the vajra master. There are fourteen root downfalls that break the samayas. The first is to disparage or disrespect the vajra master. The second is not to transgress the Buddha’s word. The third is to get angry and fight with your vajra brothers and sisters, those who you take empowerment with. Another is not to disparage women. There’s a lot to be said about these downfalls. In short, whatever root and branch downfalls are taught, you should make keeping these samayas the basis of your practice.
The eighth stanza goes, “Because of the source of all good qualities is heedfulness.” Heedfulness is the basis of all good qualities. It’s important to be heedful, like we were driving on a narrow road, so we don’t drive off a cliff. We act to protect ourselves so that we don’t die. That’s just one life. But our actions can lead to lifetimes of suffering in the lower realms. So it’s important to be heedful, Since the source of all good qualities is heedfulness, we should give up distractions because they cause us to fall under the power of disturbing emotions. Rather than wasting your time trying to make everyone happy, it’s better to go to a secluded place where there is less commotion. In that place you will be less distracted.
There is an Indian mahasiddha who stayed in a mountain retreat doing meditation. This mahasiddha left his retreat to see what was going on. He saw a woman who had made plans to meet a man, but he never showed up, so she left after waiting all night and went to sleep. The mahasiddha thought it’s not good to have expectations and hopes because they disturb your mind and can’t sleep at night, Then he went and saw the ocean. A seagull caught a fish and the other seagulls fought him, trying to take it away. When he saw the birds fighting he saw that when one bird accomplishes something the others fight over it. So he saw all worldly activities are distractions and should be abandoned. He understood that relying on solitary retreat, where you are beyond strife and distraction, allows you to develop meditative stabilization and wisdom. But if you stay in a solitary place and don’t practice, there’s no point. Like wild animals, if you don’t practice there’s no point in being in seclusion. His heartfelt advice is to dwell alone like a wounded animal. When an animal is wounded, it goes to a solitary place and hides.
The next verse was previously explained. If you don’t practice, there’s no point in staying in seclusion. “You should exert yourself without sparing a moment, as if you would die tomorrow. This is my heartfelt advice.”
The next verse says that whomever you associate with, you shouldn’t disparage them, or make idle talk or gossip. One must not reject or accept other traditions, but simply practice what our lama has taught with equanimity. We shouldn’t try to argue our tradition is better than others.
The next stanza says if experience has not risen within, it will not come from the path of logic and examples. Unless we take the teachings to heart, they will not be effective. Milarepa lived in seclusion and one of his disciples asked which bodhisattva are you an emanation of. He said I am an emanation of a being in the lower realm. Because I know the law of cause and effect is infallible, I have striven to practice. You do not heed the Buddha’s teaching because you do not have this confidence. Insight doesn’t come simply from reading scripture. So his heartfelt advice is to meditate constantly.
There’s another story about this mahasiddha. He saw an arrow maker who was very one pointedly concentrated on making his arrows and didn’t see the king with his entourage passing by. So he learned the importance of one pointed concentration. Meditation is important for Gampopa’s third dharma, that the path clarify confusion.
Q: Is our happiness as we know it the same thing as the elimination of suffering?
A: The feeling of happiness we have is only partial. There is another happiness which is great bliss, which is freedom from all suffering. Happiness which is a feeling is a contaminated happiness.
Q: Is there a text that explains the fourteen root downfalls that we could read?
A: There are a lot of books written on these. I have composed a short text on this. Ask here which one is available in English. One text which has been translated is Ascertaining the Three Vows. The vows of the five Buddha families are particular to each empowerment and will be explained with the empowerment.
Q: Should you think that you have a Tantric commitment if you have taken an empowerment or if you have received Mahamudra instruction from a teacher?
A: There are different types of empowerments. Often permission empowerments are given. An extensive empowerment of the highest yoga tantra requires samayas. You should regard as your root teacher the teacher that introduces you to Mahamudra realization. Mahamudra is the essence of the fourth vow, so it is important to maintain your commitments to that teacher. It’s important to have the attitude that you will uphold the samayas and abandon the faults and transform your experience so that all appearances, sounds, and thoughts are transformed. But it is difficult to do this because we are distracted and cannot maintain this understanding constantly. Particularly with Dzogchen and Mahamudra the commitments are all contained in not wavering from the state of awareness.
Q: Is it a good idea to go into retreat?
A: it’s recommended that a person of limited capacity go into seclusion to meditate. But this doesn’t have to be a far off retreat, it can just be some place that’s quiet. But if someone has no idea on how to practice at all, they won’t benefit by going into seclusion. There’s another story about this mahasiddha Avadhuti. On one occasion he came upon a hunter who lived in the wilderness hunting and eating animals. He did this for a reason similar to a friend of mine who went to fight in a war and couldn’t stand living in the city because of the commotion. One time the hunter saw a mendicant sitting in meditation and imitated him. By simply imitating over and over, the hunter attained realization. So it’s important to practice in accord with one’s capacity and practice in seclusion if one can.
Q: Did the mendicant teach the hunter or did he simply imitate his practice?
A: I’m not sure, because we weren’t both there. It’s like Guru Rinpoche did a dance and we don’t know what it was because we weren’t there. But simply being close to a great sage can cause our minds to be tranquil.
December 28, 2005
Tibetan Meditation Center