Thirty Seven Actions of a Bodhisattva 1
The first thing we should do is check our motivation and develop the mind of bodhicitta. Think you want to save all beings that are suffering the three kinds of suffering. In this life we have attained the precious human body, which we can use as the basis for the liberation of ourselves and others. The more we meditate on bodhictta the less selfish we will become. And the less selfish we become the happier we will be, because we are less caught up in attachment and aversion. If we are selfish, we should be wisely selfish and seek for our liberation. This kind of selfishness is the antidote to unwise selfishness. If we take the idea of selflessness unwisely it will lead remaining in samsara, as we will think there is no self to liberate. So accumulating merit with self grasping is a skilful means that eventually will lead to selflessness. It’s only because of our fear of samsara that we take refuge in the three jewels sincerely. Why do we have to liberate all beings from samsara? Think about that. The difference between samsara and nirvana is our mental state. Enlightened beings are free of self grasping and afflictive emotions. If we are controlled by afflictive emotions, we will experience suffering. For that reason we need liberation. How do we liberate ourselves? Shantideva said that it’s not hard to figure out. Buddha became a buddha by working for the benefit of others. And we have remained in samsara because we have acted selfishly. Buddha generated bodhicitta with renunciation. When we also practice with this attitude, our practice becomes very profound. Virtue done from a selfish motivation is samsaric and will not have much benefit. Action performed from bodhicitta will remain until we are enlightened. When you act from attachment aversion will easily arise.
The main purpose of practice is to attain freedom from suffering. The Buddha taught 84,000 heaps of scripture. Even if you only tried to read the 108 volumes of scripture in Tibetan, it would take a long time. It is hard to understand the key points from the sutras. Only two great masters have the qualities needed to summarize the sutras, Nagarjuna and Asanga. So most Tibetans study their explanations. The 84,000 heaps are summarized in the three baskets of Sutra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. They are the antidotes for the three root passions: Vinaya for passion, sutra for aversion, and abhidharma for ignorance. When the Buddha first taught, his monks kept their morality flawlessly, so there was no need for the precepts. But then monks behaved improperly and the Buddha introduced the Vinaya as this happened. Moral law is universal. No culture will say breaking the first five precepts is good. So this is not just Buddhism’s law. Buddha taught in a simple way, in accordance with reality. The chief reason for the precepts is restraint of the body, to live a peaceful life.
The second training is samadhi, or calm abiding practice. This is also not just a Buddhist practice, many religions practice it. But without wisdom, there is no liberation. Emptiness is the antidote for all afflictive emotions. So it is the most important. But without training in restraining the afflictive emotions, we cannot cannot practice samadhi. And without practicing samadhi, we cannot realize wisdom. Our wisdom is already present, but it is covered over, like a blanket covering a lamp. The more we practice samadhi, the more our wisdom becomes clear. So if you train in virtue, samadhi is not hard. And if practice samadhi, liberation is not hard. The three trainings are practiced in the Mahayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. They use different methods, but all three practice them.
This text was written by Thogmay Zangpo. His mother died when he was very young. He was raised by his father, but his father also died. So he was raised by his relatives. This is similar to the life of Jigten Sumgon. Thogmay Zangpo was very compassionate. He exchanged his clothes for the lice ridden clothes of a beggar. Even though he got sick, he continued to wear them until the lice died naturally. Thogmay Zangpo wrote this text from his own experience, it was not written as a theory. He got the name Thogmay (Asanga) because of his brilliance in answering questions when he was a student. It often happens that a great teacher has a parent die when they are young. So when negative things happen to us, we shouldn’t think the dharma is not working. It is the purification of your karma, your victory over Mara. So bad luck is a good sign. A sinful person, ready to go to hell, will have good fortune in this life. This is the ripening of their remaining good karma. In contrast, a good person will exhaust their negative karma in this life. If Milarepa had not encountered difficulties, he would not have accomplished enlightenment. His uncle and aunt were a cause of his enlightenment.
The text starts with a homage to Lokeshvara. Lokeshvara is another name for Avalokiteshvara. We pay homage to Lokeshvara through our three gates. To pay homage with the body means to lower the body. To pay homage with the speech is to recite verses of praise. To pay homage with the mind is to have the three kinds of faith: vivid faith, longing faith, and trusting faith. Vivid faith is freedom from conflicting emotions and doubt. Longing faith is the wish to attain the good qualities of the object of faith. In buddhahood, all the qualities of the buddhas are the same. But while following the path, they make different aspiration prayers. This leads them to have different activities after enlightenment. So we should recite aspiration prayers at all times. The difference between aspiration and dedication is the time when the merit is present. In dedication, we already have gained the merit, in aspiration, we have yet to gain the merit. Avalokiteshvara is called the protector here. He realizes that beings neither come nor go, but he works continuously for their benefit and joy. Once suchness is seen, there is no coming and going. This is because objects are empty and have no substantial existence. They do not come from anywhere. To act without conception requires that one is on the eighth bhumi or higher. Today we cannot do this, but someday we will be able to.
The buddhas are the source of temporary benefit and permanent happiness, ultimate liberation. Both come from practicing the dharma. The buddhas do not directly give us good things, but they tells us how we can achieve them. Before practicing meditation we should study, otherwise our meditation will be a source of ignorance. We should only go to retreat when we have no questions about our practice, and only lack experience.
Now comes the explanation of each of the thirty seven verses.
Now that you have obtained a precious human body,the great boat so difficult to find,
In order to free yourself and others from the ocean of samsara,
To listen, reflect, and meditate with diligence day and night
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
It is difficult to achieve human birth because its cause, keeping the precepts purely, is difficult. By analogy, it is as difficult as a blind turtle that only comes to the surface every hundred years to put its head through a yoke floating on the surface of the ocean. This is because afflictive emotions in the lower realms are strong and there is nothing to restrain them. In the human realm, afflictive emotions are stronger, but there are methods to restrain them. One example of how afflictive emotions are stronger in the human realm is is that humans will collect things they don’t use, which animals won’t do.
Hell beings are as numerous as dust particles on the earth. Hungry ghosts as numerous as sand grains in the Ganges. Animals are much nor numerous than humans. Among humans, those doing bad deeds are more numerous than those doing good deeds. To have precious human birth means that we can use our life for a good purpose and benefit. It is better than a wish fulfilling jewel, as it can lead to liberation. Even though our life is precious, we might not make good use of it. The Jewel Ornament mentions beings of the three capacities, those who practice for temporary benefit, those who practice for individual liberation, and those who practice for the liberation of all. To practice in any of these three ways is to use you human life well. We practice through the three wisdoms: hearing, contemplation, and meditation. Contemplation is conceptual and meditation is non-conceptual. Cultivation may be a better word than mediation. By seeing the faults of samsara and qualities of enlightenment, we will practice ceaselessly. Samsara is like an ocean, deep and wide, seemingly without limit. We are trapped like a fly in a bottle. The twelve links of dependent origination form a continuous chain. When we can break that continuum, we are liberated. The glue that binds us is attachment. When we realize emptiness, we break the chain of attachment and aversion. According to the Sutralamkara of Maitreya, achieving emptiness has three causes. One must meditate on phenomena free of elaboration, please the enlightened beings by helping others, and practice virtue. According to the Saraha, the causes of enlightenment are the accumulation of merit and the blessing of the guru.If you have a precious vase and use it as a trash can, people will think you are stupid. But misusing this birth is even stupider.
Passion towards friends churns like water.
Hatred towards enemies burns like fire.
Through dark ignorance, one forgets what to adopt and what to reject.
To abandon one’s homeland is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Today it’s impossible to abandon your fatherland, because communication has made the world small. But in the past people left their home to break attachment. Even if you have no enemies, your loved ones will have enemies and they will be your enemies. Attachment to friends and aversion to enemies is endless, like waves on the ocean. Attachment knows no limit. Anger is like fire, it destroys everything. Whatever we build is done for the sake of “me”. Even monasteries can be a source of attachment. I think this is why Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche has no monastery. But it is attachment that is the problem, not ownership. We need to cut attachment. Even lay persons can attain liberation if they have no attachment. For example, Marpa attained enlightenment.
Giving up negative places, Mental afflictions gradually decrease.
With no distractions, virtuous activities naturally increase.
When mind becomes clear, Certainty in the Dharma is born.
To rely on solitude is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Most great bodhisattvas first practice in secluded places. In these places they are not physically distracted by noise or mentally distracted by emotional disturbances. After completing retreat, they go from town to town. But before helping others, you must be able to help yourself. Even a small sound can easily distract an untrained mind. You should not practice in places where negative actions are being performed, because these will increase your afflictive emotions. When we are free of these disturbances, our dharma practices improve. Beginners have to practice where practice is easy. When their practice is stabilized, they can practice anywhere. Even bodhisattvas who feel compassion for others must practice this way.
Old friends and relatives will separate.
Possessions gained with effort will be left behind.
Consciousness, the guest, will leave the guesthouse of the body.
To let go of this life is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Don’t do everything for this life’s benefit. Focus more on future lives. This life lasts at most 115 years. But future lives are endless. The next life should be your aim, but for the next life you need this life. By studying impermanence, we can understand emptiness better. Without understanding impermanence, everything seems solid. When you have a bad day, you can meditate on impermanence. And the same is true when you have a good day. So meditating on impermanence keeps your mind in balance. What we need is diligence. When we should do good things, we become lazy. So it helps to consider impermanence to increase our diligence. The better your understanding of impermanence, the more profound your view in mahamudra or dzogchen will be.
When friendship with someone
Causes the three poisons to increase,
Degrades the activities of listening, reflecting, and meditating,
And destroys loving kindness and compassion,
To give up such a friendship
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
We should not abandon our compassion for bad people, but we must avoid them, so we don’t also become a slave of negative emotions. If a person with good habits associates with a person with bad habits, it’s much more likely that the person with good habits changes their behavior. We should treasure our enemy more than our parents. But until we stabilize our minds, we should stay away from them.
When in reliance on someone, your defects wane
And your positive qualities grow like the waxing moon,
To cherish such a spiritual friend even more than your own body
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
Sometimes people ask me what qualities a teacher should have. If that person changes your attitude for the good, they are a good teacher for you. If they make your attitude more negative, then they are not. If you become less interested in this life’s benefit and more in the next life, they are a good teacher.
Themselves captives in the prison of samsara,
Whom can the worldly gods protect?
Therefore, to seek refuge in those who do not deceive,
the Three Jewels, Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
In Buddha’s time people worshipped lots of local gods. Buddha taught that you cannot take refuge in these because they cannot liberate you, because they are not liberated themselves. They are still subject to karma. So we need to take refuge in the undeceiving one who can truly protect us. This is the triple gem, the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is the fully liberated one. The Dharma is the two truths, relative and ultimate. Some people say they only want the ultimate truth. But without understanding the relative, there is no ultimate truth. Each of the six paramitas depends on the previous one. You cannot renounce without first having generosity. All the great teachers have said that wisdom depends upon the first five paramitas. If your preliminary practice is profound, your subsequent practice will be profound. The Tibetan word for Sangha means those inclined to virtue. Sangha includes both the monastic and lay sangha, all those who keep their respective vows. So those are the three jewels. Jigten Sumgon said that if you have taken refuge, even if you are stupid as a sheep, you are on the path to buddhahood. But if you are a great pandita and have not taken refuge you are not on the path to enlightenment.