Advice from a Spiritual Friendby Rabten, Dhargyey, Stephen Batchelor (Introduction), Brian Beresford (Editor), Gonsar Tulku (Editor)
"Do not wish for gratitude.
Never strike at the heart.
Now if you die, you will have no regrets."
- The Seven-Point Thought Transformation
Like wise old friends, two Tibetan masters offer down-to-earth advice for cultivating compassion, wisdom, and happiness in every situation. Based on practical Buddhist verses on "thought training" (lojong/i>
"Do not wish for gratitude.
Never strike at the heart.
Now if you die, you will have no regrets."
- The Seven-Point Thought Transformation
Like wise old friends, two Tibetan masters offer down-to-earth advice for cultivating compassion, wisdom, and happiness in every situation. Based on practical Buddhist verses on "thought training" (lojong), Advice from a Spiritual Friend teaches how to develop the inner skills that lead to contentment by responding to everyday difficulties with patience and joy.
Following Stephen Batchelor's introduction to the Kadamapa tradition that gave rise to these earthy, pithy instructions, Part One is a commentary by Geshe Dhargyey to Atisha's (982-1054) Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva. Part Two includes a commentary by Geshe Rabten to the famous Seven-Point Thought Transformation.
First published in 1977, Advice from a Spiritual Friend is a Wisdom classic that has enriched readers in many editions over the years. As Batchelor says in his introduction, "These teachings are as applicable today as they were when Atisha first introduced them to Tibet."
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Advice from a Spiritual Friend
The commentary to The Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva
Homage to great compassion.
Homage to all spiritual masters.
Homage to the deities of devotion.
This short text by Atisha contains one hundred and eleven lines of advice in connection with the practice of thought transformation. It begins with obeisance to great compassion because this is the source of the many manifestations of a fully awakened being. The next obeisance to the spiritual masters implies that all inner development and experience is based upon devotion and confidence in the teachers of the path. This is the foundation for all successful spiritual practice. Both Naropa and his teacher Tilopa have said that without spiritual guidance there could be no fully awakened state. Lastly, obeisance is made to the deities of devotion (yidam). These are reflections of specific aspects of the awakened mind and are called upon when we wish to bring out these aspects in ourselves. For instance, when meditating to generate the conventional awakening mind, we should devote ourselves to Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, and when meditating on emptiness, to Manjushri, the embodiment of intelligent awareness, or wisdom.
Abandon all doubts and cherish exertion for
accomplishing the practice.
Whatever our object of meditation may be, we must learn about it thoroughly beforehand and eliminate any doubts we may have concerning the procedures. If our teacher says merely, "Meditate on emptiness," and we leave without studying what was meant, we shall not know what to do. We may meditate by thinking about an empty room, having no clear idea what is being negated by emptiness. Thus, we must first learn about the meditation we wish to do and gain a precise intellectual understanding of it. Based on this, we shall eventually be able to transcend the intellectual level and meditate nonconceptually.
This line further implies that we should not become distracted, but meditate single-pointedly without any mental wandering. Moreover, the method we choose must be valid, and we must be convinced of its validity. Then, free from all doubts, we shall be able to meditate with strict concentration, confident that the path we have chosen is nondeceptive. We should not be like water on a tabletop, which can be led by the finger in any direction, easily swayed back and forth by the various opinions of others. We should know how to differentiate between valid and invalid spiritual teachings and be certain about what is right, leaving no room for doubts. If we apply the forces of hearing, or study, and contemplation, or examination, we shall be able to eliminate all indecisiveness.
Yet this is not enough. If we acquire sufficient intellectual knowledge about the meditation but never practice it, we are like a person who stores away food but never eats it. Such food will either rot or be eaten by rats, or the person will die without having ever tasted it. Tsongkhapa said that the purpose of hearing and acquiring intellectual knowledge is to meditate upon it. Therefore, according to our different levels of ability, we should hear and study the teachings as much as we can in order to meditate on or actualize them.
Because each person has different idiosyncrasies and abilities, everyone will not become enlightened as if stamped from the same mold. Bearing this in mind, we should practice in the way best suited to each of us. Without practicing what we have learned, we are like museum guides who know much but for whom the objects on display have no special significance. When we practice, it is important not to pattern ourselves on others; instead we each should examine our own abilities and meditate accordingly. To do otherwise leads only to frustration.
Abandon sleepiness, dullness, and laziness
and always exert enthusiastic effort.
We should eliminate laziness, mental wandering, mental dullness, and other such hindrances to our meditation, otherwise we may begin meditating with our head held erect, but later we will find it slouched against the middle of our body with our meditation turned to sleep. This line in the tettt is not belixling us but is a warning to arouse our energy for venturing into the practices. Even if we guard against all these obstacles, we must still have strong perseverance and diligence so that our meditation will be successful. As Tsongkhapa has said, "Wear the protective armor of enthusiastic perseverance and increase it like the waxing moon."
Also, Chandrakirti said, "All profound and superficial goals follow from enthusiastic perseverance; with it anything can be accomplished."
With recollection, alertness, and watchfulness always guard every door of the senses. We should post recollection, alertness, and watchfulness as guards at the gateways of our body, speech, and mind and have them restrain us from committing unwholesome actions through these three doors. To safeguard the treasure of realizations stored within us, we should lock these doors from both inside and out.
We can liken the mental faculty of recollection, or mindfulness, to an iron hook. When the mind wanders to nonvirtue, recollection hooks it and brings it back to a wholesome position.
Three times during the day and night, again and again,
investigate your mental continuum.
At all times we must analyze our stream of thoughts to see whether the actions we are doing will benefit our future lives or if they are just for momentary pleasure.
Proclaim your own faults and seek not mistakes in others.
To hide our shortcomings and harbor them inside only increases our guilt and discomfort. It is far better to reveal them to others: this lessens their effect. It is especially important to do so when generating the awakening mind. However, we should be discreet and careful with regard to whom we give such information since it may easily be misunderstood or misrepresented.
On the other hand, we should not be constantly on the lookout for faults in others. If we see their mistakes but never our own, we are like a mirror, which reflects only what is outside it but never itself. The faults we criticize in others are only our own projected onto them; if they were not, they would not bother us, and we would not even notice them. Furthermore, we should realize that whatever laws appear to stand out in others are perceptions no different from our usual mistaken view of all things as truly independent. The faults we see are, in fact, dependent on many circumstances, such as the person's previous actions and emotional afflictions and our view of the situation. We cannot find a truly independent and substantially existing possessor of shortcomings. By looking at things in this way, we can use this opportunity to make an ultimate analysis of the situation and reflect on the emptiness of our own projections.
Hide your own good qualities but
proclaim the good qualities of others.
There is no need to boast about our own knowledge and accomplishments. Tsongkhapa has said, "Your own attainments and insight should be like a butter lamp burning inside a vase: it illuminates the interior but is not displayed outwardly."
It is especially important never to boast about or exhibit extraphysical powers such as heightened awareness or clairvoyance. To demonstrate them with an impure motive serves no beneficial purpose. Dromtonpa, Atisha's closest Tibetan disciple, said, "If you can see your own faults and never look for those of others, then even though you may have no other good qualities, you are very wise."
Therefore, not seeking faults in others is in itself a very great Dharma practice. Dromtonpa and others like him were all very humble although they had great spiritual attainments. Atisha has also said, "My compassion is due to the kindness of my teachers of the awakening mind; my realization of emptiness is due to the kindness of my teacher of emptiness. Nothing is my own."
Once, Dromtonpa was requested to give his biography and an initiation but refused out of humility. Pressed by Atisha, he finally consented and gave the empowerment of one of the most complicated practices, the Sixteen Essences of the Kadam, which has sixteen mandalas within one another. With a similar lack of pride we each should keep quiet about our attainments and good qualities yet make known the excellences of others. However, be careful that your praise does not simply arouse others' pride in themselves.
Dwelling on the laws of others is a vain attempt to hide our own. When our conversation is only the criticism of others, the person to whom we are speaking tends not to listen and forms a poor impression of us. Thus, to speak in this manner produces the opposite of our purpose of protecting our ego and making others like us; others will speak as poorly of us as we do of them. This is the law of cause and effectthat our actions bring about like results.
Reject acquisitions and honors and always reject desire for fame.
If in approaching spiritual teachings we give up all desire for respect, fame, reputation, and personal gain, then whatever we study and practice will be beneficial. However, should we have studied two hundred volumes only for intellectual stimulation and gain, they will never be of ultimate benefit to us. The assimilation of two pages of essential instructions with pure motivation is more valuable than years of studying texts for selfish reasons.
Desire little, be content, and repay acts of kindness.
Full contentment with what we have will bring us peace of mind, whether we practice Dharma or not. If we are satisfied with what we have, we shall not strive to acquire superfluous objects and shall avoid suffering both the hardships involved in trying to obtain things and the ffrustration of being unable to acquire them. Having little desire and being content go together. Without these two inner qualities we become competitive. In his Friendly Letter, Nagarjuna said,
If you have contentment, then even though you may be robbed of everything, consider yourself the richest man; but should you lack contentment, then no matter how rich you may be, you are a servant of your wealth.
If we have no contentment, we can never live like Milarepa on nettles in a cave. He said, "For salt, I use nettles; for spice, now I add in nettles."
At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni there lived a merchant who returned to his homeland, bringing an extremely rare and valuable object with the intention of giving it to the poorest person there. When he arrived, he gave it to the king! He explained that this was because, even though the king was the richest in material possessions, he was the poorest in his mind since he lacked contentment. It makes no sense to become extravagantly rich because we cannot wear double or triple clothes or eat ten times the normal amount of food. Both kings and beggars can only eat and drink enough to satisfy their hunger and thirst, and they require merely sufficient clothing to protect their bodies from the elements.
Atisha further mentions that we should always remember the kindness others have shown us and return it when they are in need. To accept the kindness and favors of another and then later be indifferent when that same person is in need is extremely callous. Buddha Shakyamuni said in a sutra:
Those sentient beings who, after becoming rich through receiving help from others ignore those who helped them when they were poor they are worse than animals. Even dogs gratefully acknowledge those who have given them food.
Meditate on love and compassion and stabilize the awakening mind.
We should combine wishing to repay the kindness that others have shown us with meditating on pure love for them. To develop a loving heart is very important for our own happiness. We cannot expect friendliness from others if we, in turn, are not appreciative of them. These are totally interdependent. Nagarjuna has emphasized that meditating on pure love and giving love to others is better than giving them material comforts; it gives more lasting pleasure. Buddha Shakyamuni has said in many discourses that even one instant of pure love or benevolence is better than giving something tangible. This does not mean that we should not be generous, but rather that the results of pure love are more powerful than giving material objects. Pure love is the intense wish that all beings be happy.
Because compassion is the essence of Dharma, meditation on compassion was also greatly emphasized by Buddha Shakyamuni. If we pick up the handle, we pick up the pot. Similarly, if we meditate on and develop compassionthe wish that all others be without sufferingwe hold within us the essence of all other Dharma practices.
We confirm and stabilize the awakening mind by means of love and compassion. This mind continues to develop until it is completely pure and the consummate fulfillment of buddhahood is reached. Atisha urges us to stabilize the awakening mind because, even though we may meditate on love and compassion for others, we may become discouraged when we are treated maliciously. We may think, "With people like this how can I possibly maintain the altruistic aspiration to gain complete realization for the sake of all others, including them?" Because discouragement only weakens the awakening mind, we should not allow ourselves to be affected by what others say or do, no matter how cruel it may be.
Shariputra, one of the main disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, did not have the Mahayana motivation to liberate all beings, but it is said that he almost developed the awakening mind. However, just as he was about to stabilize it, a man who was actually a malevolent being, a mara, approached him and demanded that he cut of his right hand and give it to him. This Shariputra did and offered it to the man with his let hand. However, because presenting anything with the let hand is highly improper according to Indian custom, the man refused to accept it. He said, "You should present me your right hand with your right hand." At this, Shariputra became completely discouraged and thought, "If there are such evil beings as this, how can I ever work for their benefit and develop bodhichitta?"
Thus he reverted back to the lesser motivation of the Hinayana, working to gain liberation from cyclic existence for himself alone. While we are trying to generate the pure awakening mind, we should always expect to meet such difficult people; then they will never overwhelm us. If we naively expect everyone else to be pleasant, we shall only be disappointed.
Dignaga, one of the great Indian logicians, was once meditating in a cave, preparing to write a text on logic. After composing the first pages, he let his cave for a moment. While he was gone, an opponent came and erased the work he had done. This happened again, and on the third occasion Dignaga let a note saying, "Such action is pointless. If you want to oppose me, come and debate openly." The opponent did this and lost. He was so angry that through his miraculous powers, he produced fire from his mouth and, out of spite, burned everything in the cave. Dignaga became so disheartened that he said, "If there are such people as this who do not even accept logic, I shall throw my writing slate up into the air; if it falls down again, I shall give up working for others." He threw the slate up, but it did not fall back. He looked up and saw Manjushri holding it. Manjushri said to him, "My spiritual son, you are about to make a grave mistake." With such encouragement Dignaga maintained his awakening mind and composed the Pramanasamuccaya, or The Compendium of Valid Reasoning.
Just as great beings like Shariputra and Dignaga were faced with such problems, we too must expect similar obstacles to our development. Adverse circumstances test our courage, our strength of mind, and the depth of our conviction in the Dharma. There is nothing exceptional about practicing Dharma in a good environment and atmosphere. The true test is if we can maintain our practice in adverse conditions.
Avoid the ten unwholesome actions and always stabilize your faith.
We should guard our ethical discipline. Not letting it disintegrate, we should maintain the integrity of our actions through our body, speech, and mind. The ten unwholesome actions are killing, stealing, adultery, lying, slandering, speaking divisively, talking pointlessly, covetousness, maliciousness, and holding such wrong views as disbelief in buddhahood and in the law of actions and their consequences.
This is because it is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that wholesome actions will result in a happy and beneficial rebirth and vice-versa. Thus it is said that the whole practice of ethics is based on understanding that future results will arise from present actions. Dharma practice is not what we do outwardly, like remaining in a room and chanting, but depends on whether we observe carefully and with full awareness the law of cause and effect, even if we do no formal meditation.
Furthermore, Atisha advises us to stabilize our faith and confidence. In the Buddhist context, faith does not arise from fear, but is based on reason. Confidence in the teachings arises when we experience for ourselves how nondeceptive they are. It is said that such conviction is the mother of firm understanding.
Conquer anger and arrogance and possess a humble mind.
Anger and arrogance are the worst of all psychological afflictions. Anger is more serious than the worst attachment because although the latter is unwholesome, by its nature it does not necessarily affect others adversely. Anger, on the other hand, directly and negatively affects not only the one who is angry but others as well. To have anger and arrogance reduces the force of the awakening mind considerably.
People with strong conceit imagine themselves to be superior and thus never heed the advice of others. Never listening, they never assimilate anything. Since they feel they are so knowledgeable, they must always defend their own position. Just as a high plateau is the last area to turn green with grass in the summer, a proud person will be the last to really know anything.
The person who has at least conquered anger and pride, and is humble in all actions, will everywhere be happy and accepted by others.
Avoid wrong livelihoods and live a life of truth.
We should not rob, steal, or acquire our living by any means that are deceitful. Even merely eating food that others have gained by wrong methods is an obstacle to insight. There are five wrong livelihoods: flattery, pressuring someone into giving us something by saying that this is what was done previously, obtaining something by telling someone it is a penalty for an imaginary offense, bribery, and deceit. To live on what has been stolen is an especially unjustified means of existence; living in this way causes harm to others because we consume what is rightfully theirs. However, when we refuse to accept stolen articles, we should do so without offending the other person's feelings. Even if a person is desperate and poor, it is better for that person to beg than to steal in order to live, because the consequence of stealing is increased poverty. If you are the one who has to beg, then accept with gratitude whatever you are given.
Luipa, one of the Indian mahasiddhas, was very poor and went to the banks of the river Ganges to obtain food. He noticed that the fishermen let behind the fish entrails, so he thought, "Since no one owns them, these would be the best to eat." He lived in this way and through tantric practices obtained the full realization of Heruka in his very lifetime.
Meet the Author
Geshe Rabten (1921-86) was born in Dargye in eastern Tibet. He studied at Sera Monastery in Lhasa, where he gained renown as a great scholar, debater, and meditation master. In 1959, he escaped to India, where he became the spiritual teacher of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. In the mid 1960s Geshe Rabten was appointed as a religious assistant to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. On His Holiness's request he began teaching Dharma to Westerners in Dharamsala in 1969, and he went to live and teach in Switzerland in 1974. He founded Rabten Choeling Center (originally Tharpa Choeling) in Switzerland in 1979, where he lived and worked as spiritual director until he passed away in 1986.
Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey taught Western students at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala. He moved to New Zealand in the early 1980s, where he lived until his death in 1995.
Stephen Batchelor has studied in Buddhist monasteries in India, Switzerland, and Korea. An accomplished writer and photographer, he has translated, written, and contributed to many books about Buddhism including Buddhism Without Beliefs, Verses from the Center, and The Tibet Guide. He lives in the South of France.
Brian Beresford (1948-97) was a photographer, translator, and editor. Beresford translated and edited several Tibetan Buddhist texts, including the first Wisdom title ever published, Advice from a Spiritual Friend. His photographs of Tibetan lamas and scenes of Tibetan culture have been published worldwide. He was also one of the first Westerners to travel into the remote areas of western Tibet, which he visited between 1986 and 1993. Between 1973 and 1979 he lived in Dharamsala and studied at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. He took pictures of, studied with, and translated for Geshe Rabten, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Lama Yeshe, and Lama Zopa, among other Tibetan masters. In the 1980s Beresford made his home in England, where in 1985 he helped found the Meridian Trust. At the end of his life, Brian was a student of the Dzogchen master Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and a leading figure in the Dzogchen community.
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