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Setting the Stage
The Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas is a short text, but it covers vast topics, It contains the essential points and summarizes the meanings of such great texts as The Supreme Tantra, Ornament of the Scriptures of the Universal Vehicle, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, and The Bodhisattva Stages. It also contains all the topics from the Gradual Path, explaining the practices of the three levels of practitioners as well as thought transformation. All of these are practices of a Bodhisattva, a person who has generated the altruistic intention (bodhichitta) aspiring to become a Buddha in order to benefit sentient beings most effectively.
Before beginning the text, it is helpful to understand how the spiritual mentor should teach, how the student should listen, and what both need to do at the conclusion of the teaching.
At the start, it is important for both the teacher and the student to cultivate a good motivation. Without this, we may think we are great spiritual practitioners, but our actions may in fact be far from pure Dharma. Looking back, many yogis and scholars discovered that although they had studied and meditated for a long time, in the beginning their motivation was not that good, and as a result all that they had done was not really Dharma. Seeing that, they felt great sadness and anguish.
If we do a spiritual practice thinking, "I want to gain spiritual powers, then others will respect me and I will lead a group with many appreciative followers. They will give methings and provide for me well. Others will hear of me, invite me to conferences, and want to interview me for their publications," then our action has very little to do with Dharma. Our motivation is ordinarywishing for wealth, praise, and reputation for ourselves. Although we may outwardly look like we are doing a spiritual practice, in fact we are not.
An initial-level practitioner studies and meditates motivated by the thought, "How wonderful it would be if I could be reborn as a human being or a god in my next life." Such a motivation is a step up from the previous one in which we were focused solely on our own present egotistical happiness. Nevertheless, this motivation is not vast, and actions done for this reason will ripen in a good rebirth, but nothing more.
A middle-level practitioner is motivated by the thought, "Even if I attain a good birth as a human or god, I will still be in cyclic existence, with a life characterized by problems. Whatever pleasures I may experience in that life will be without essence and at the time of death, I will not be any better off than I am now. How wonderful if I could be free of cyclic existence and attain the peace of liberation!" All actions motivated in this way are the Dharma and will result in liberation.
If we recollect the kindness of sentient beings when they were our parents in previous lives and even when they were not, it seems so limited to want to attain liberation for our own benefit alone. How could we be satisfied with securing just our own happiness and leaving others to the wind? Thus, an advanced-level practitioner is motivated by the thought, "I definitely want to work for the welfare of all sentient beings. Not doing so would be awful. But at the moment I do not have the full ability to do so because I lack the necessary qualities and I am limited by my faults. The Bodhisattvas have not yet fully purified and enhanced their mindstreams, nor have the hearer and solitary realizer arhats. If I became a Buddha, free from all faults and possessing all good qualities, I would be able to use methods suitable to the dispositions, thoughts, and interests of sentient beings. Therefore, for the sake of all sentient beings I must attain the state of Buddhahood." All actions done with this motivation are the Dharma. These actions may not necessarily look like spiritual practice, as does the study of scriptures, recitation of prayers, and meditation on the Dharma. They could be actions that benefit our community or others in general. They could also be daily activities such as washing, cooking, cleaning, going to work, talking with people, and so forth. The value of any action is determined primarily by the motivation propelling it, and for this reason it is very important to check our motivation before engaging in any action and to deliberately cultivate a Dharma motivation.
It is difficult, even during teachings, for the person teaching and the people listening to have this kind of pure motivation all the time. But we should persist, being careful and mindful of the fact that if our motivation is not good, it is disastrous. As Lama Tsong Khapa said, "If our motivation is good, our path and our level of practice will be good. If our motivation is bad, our path and level of practice will be bad. Everything depends on our motivation." In other words, to know whether our actions of body, speech, and mind are beneficial or not, we should examine our motivation.
If our motivation slips into concern for self-centered aims of this life, it will be difficult for our action to be virtuous and benefit our future lives, let alone lead to liberation or enlightenment. Thus we must be aware of whether our actions are motivated by attachment to the eight worldly concerns. Among these eight, four stem from attachment to happiness of only this life and four come from aversion for unhappiness in this life. The four pairs are:
1. Being pleased when we have money and material possessions, and displeased when we do not have these
2. Being pleased when we have a good name, reputation, and image, and displeased when we have bad ones
3. Being pleased when we have the pleasures of this lifepleasant sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objectsand displeased when we encounter unpleasant objects
4. Being pleased when we receive praise and approval, and displeased when we receive blame, criticism, or disapproval
These varying emotional states of happiness and unhappiness arise due to our attachment to money and material possessions; name, reputation and image; objects of the five senses; and praise and approval. Any action motivated by attachment to these eight worldly concerns is not Dharma. It is polluted with limited, self-centered interests that keep us bound in dissatisfaction, frustration, and suffering. When our motivation is mixed with the thought of the eight worldly concerns, even if we work very hard, sleep very little and undergo great hardships in our practices, they will not go well. There is a solution: transforming our motivation. Through understanding, our future lives become more important to us than this one. Our present life is not stable. Our lifespan decreases moment by moment and eventually we must die. Therefore it doesn't make sense to work only for the happiness of this life, which is so fleeting and brief, and neglect to prepare for future lives. Our future lives will continue for a long time and are more certain to come than old age in this life. Therefore, they are more important than this life. Having cultivated this motivation, we enter into the initial level of practice.
Some people wonder, "If we always think about future lives, then we are not living in the present." In fact, when we are concerned with future lives, we will appreciate the present more. Why? Our mind will not be disturbed by anger, attachment, pride, jealousy, and lazinessattitudes that commonly fill our mind and make us live in the past and the future. Thus, we will be more mindful of what is valuable, more aware of our actions, and more concerned about others. All of these attitudes will enhance the experience of this life and enable us to create positive karma to accomplish our spiritual aims.
Having a good motivation is extremely important for Dharma practitioners, and for all beings. It is important to remember this, and for this reason we talk a lot about motivation. If we consider our motivation to be of little consequence, we will get up in the morning in a slipshod fashion, immediately thinking how to get as much happiness as possible for ourselves during that day, regardless of the effect on others. We will live on automatic, with little or no awareness of what we are thinking, feeling, saying, or doing, and thus may deliberately or inadvertently harm others. If we reflect and develop a good motivation when we first wake up, our entire day will go better. There is an enormous difference between these two ways of starting the day.
Merely repeating the words, "I must attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, therefore I am going to do this," with no feeling is not without merit, but it is not of great benefit. We need to unite the meaning of the words with our mind, so that we feel it as much as possible. We need to encourage ourselves by determining from the depths of our hearts, "If I live my life in distraction, it will be a great loss. I must progress towards enlightenment and serve other sentient beings. Therefore I am going to do this." Prayers to this effect remind us of the attitudes we want to cultivate and feel in our hearts. Reciting prayers without thinking of their meaning is not totally without benefit, but it is not of great benefit. We need to use the words to remind us and make the attitude they describe heartfelt.
Having heard of the faults of attachment to the eight worldly concerns, we may wonder why there are Buddhist practices to attain long life and wealth. To attain Buddhahood in order to benefit sentient beings, we need to purify our negativities and complete the two accumulations of positive potential and wisdom. If we have a short life, we will not be able to do this. Doing the meditation to accomplish long life with an altruistic motivation is fine. If we wish to benefit sentient beings widely, and see that we would be more capable of doing so if we had wealth and possessions, then doing a practice to gain wealth is suitable. Of course, if our real motivation is to have these things so we will be rich and powerful, and we mask this motivation with lots of words about working for the benefit of others, then our actions are hypocritical and polluted by the eight worldly concerns. If we lack a strong positive motivation, wealth practices could still bring wealth, and long life practices could bring long life, but they would not be Dharma practices.
We may also wonder, "If the highest aim is to become fully enlightened, isn't it selfish to be motivated simply by the desire for a good rebirth?" In one way it is, because we are operating from self-concern. On the other hand, this motivation is definitely better than that of seeking our personal happiness of only this life. In addition, we could aspire to become a Buddha and still wish for a good rebirth, because if we do not attain enlightenment in this life, we need good rebirths to continue practicing the path in the future. Certainly, even a precious human life with the freedom and fortune to practice the Dharma is still a birth in cyclic existence, characterized by suffering, and therefore is ultimately to be abandoned. Nonetheless, it is a necessary aid to accomplish the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Lama Tsong Khapa said if we have a precious human life with all the freedoms and fortunes, we will be able to quickly develop the enlightened qualities of a Buddha. Without such a birth we will not be able to progress quickly.
If we ask ourselves or if someone else ask us, "Why do you want to attain enlightenment?" we should know the answer. From deep inside ourselves, we should know the reasons. Of course, as newcomers to the Dharma, it will take us a while to understand the path, but we should know what direction we are going in and what qualities we want to develop.
There is no need to be discouraged when cultivating a good motivation, and think, "How can I possibly be enlightened? How can I ever benefit all sentient beings?" The great practitioners say that in our motivation at the beginning and our dedication at the end we need to be assertivealmost arrogant. This means that our motivation and dedication must be vast. It may seem arrogant to say, "I will make all sentient beings have happiness and its causes. I will make them free from suffering and its causes," for we are promising to do something that we are not in a position to do. However, generating these wishes helps us to develop a very vast motivation and dedication. If we do not have the motivation to do something, we will never even approach that. A vast motivation and dedication will encourage us to go in that direction and give us the courage and fearlessness to do that. Without a courageous attitude, we will have difficulty accomplishing even something easy that we are fully capable of doing.
The Kadam lamas say, "There are two actions, one at the beginning and one at the end." This applies to the motivation and dedication. At the beginning of whatever action you domeditating, listening to teachings, going to work, and so forthtake time to reflect and generate a good motivation as described above. Then do the action, and at the end, dedicate, sharing the positive potential you have created with all sentient beings. Even though the motivation and actual practice might go well, if we do not make good dedication prayers, anger can destroy whatever virtue we have created or impede it from ripening. Therefore, we should dedicate, "May all positive potential I have created act as a cause for all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood. May the Buddha's teachings last for a long time. May sentient beings live together in peace and help each other along the path." We can add other prayers and dedications as we wish.
Our commentary explains this text in three parts, called "the three virtues":
Part I: the virtue at the beginning, the preliminaries to the text
Part II: the virtue in the middle, the core of the text
Part III: the virtue at the end, the concluding practices
Part I: The Virtue at the Beginning
Part I covers three points: stating the name of the text, offering of praise, and the author's promise to compose.
The Title of This Text
This text is entitled The Thirty-seven Practices of Bodhisattvas.
Offering of Praise
There is a brief praise and a long praise. The brief praise is: "Namo Lokeshvaraya." "Namo" literally means "I prostrate." "Lokeshvaraya" means "to the protector of the world" and refers to Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. Together, the two words mean, "I prostrate to the guru, who is inseparable from Avalokiteshvara."
The long praise is:
I pay constant homage through my three doors, To my supreme teacher and protector Chenrezig, Who while seeing all phenomena lack coming and going, Makes single-minded effort for the good of living beings.
"Going or coming" refers to the eight extremes of ultimately existing going and coming, and so forth. Thus, Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) is praised, "Your wisdom, Avalokiteshvara, sees that the multiplicity of phenomena are free of the fabrications of the eight extremes, and thus sees phenomena as they are." A phenomenon is anything that exists, and "multiplicity of phenomena" refers to conventional phenomena. The fabrications of the eight extremes are: ultimately existing cessation and creation, nihilism and absolutism, coming and going, and unity and plurality. In general, these eight do exist, in that there certainly is coming and going and so on, but there is no ultimately existing coming and going. We need to understand "no coming" to mean no ultimately existing coming, that is, no coming that is independent from all other phenomena. For example, coming depends on someone who is coming, the destination, the action of moving, and so on. Thus coming exists in dependence on other factors; it does not exist on its own, independently of other things. Coming does not ultimately exist. By holding a belief in ultimately existing coming we fall to the extreme of absolutism. Seeing that conventional phenomena are devoid of these extremes is seeing emptiness. The extreme of nihilism occurs if we think that because these eight extremes are empty of ultimate existence, they do not exist at all. This denies the conventional functioning of things and contradicts our experience that coming and so forth do, in fact, exist.
To understand in depth the emptiness which is free from the eight extremes of absolutism and nihilism involves studying the entirety of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way. An extensive explanation would cover all of the points in the three Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures (Prajna Paramita), known as the Concise, Middling, and Vast Mothers.
Phenomena can be classified into two categories: conventional truths and ultimate truths. The former includes all the objects and people in our world. The latter is the deeper way in which they exist. The third line of this verse indicates the spiritual guide's deep understanding and insight into ultimate truths. It also shows his or her quality of wisdom, from among the two, wisdom and method. Wisdom and method are the two aspects of the path that we develop to become enlightened. Method is the aspect of the path emphasizing the accumulation of positive potential through practices such as generosity, ethical discipline, and patience motivated by compassion. Wisdom is the aspect of the path that understands the nature of existence. Thus the third line praises the spiritual mentor, who is unified with Avalokiteshvara, for his or her insight into ultimate truth and wisdom.
The next line indicates that, although Guru Avalokiteshvara has such wisdom, he or she works one-pointedly for the welfare of sentient beings inspired by merciful compassion. This praises the spiritual mentor's qualities of understanding conventional truth and method. Having merciful compassion, which is the root from which other good qualities grow, Guru Avalokiteshvara works for all sentient beings according to their thoughts, wishes, and dispositions. While there are many beings to whom the author could pay homage, here he does so to Avalokiteshvara. The Thirty-seven Practices is a text of the Mahayana (Universal Vehicle). In this context, "vehicle" refers to a body of teachings or an attitude of mind that transports us somewhere. "Universal," connotes a vehicle that embraces the concerns and needs of all beings. The root of the Universal Vehicle is compassion, and because Avalokiteshvara is the Buddha of compassion and embodies the compassion of all the Buddhas, homage is paid to him.
Thus this verse indicates "I pay homage physically, verbally, and mentally to the supreme root guru, who possesses both method and wisdom, and who is inseparable from Avalokiteshvara." The root guruone's principal spiritual mentoris called supreme because he or she is the teacher explaining the Universal Vehicle. Here the Bodhisattva Togme Sangpo respectfully pays homage with his body, speech, and mind to the guru who is inseparable from Avalokiteshvara. He does this by expressing the guru's knowledge of method and wisdom and understanding of the two truths.
Why is this praise offered? There are two purposes: first, so that the author may accumulate positive potential in his own mindstream; secondly, to be in accordance with the custom of the sages, which is to begin a text with homage to a holy object.
The Author's Promise to Compose
Perfect Buddhas, source of all well-being and happiness,
Arise from accomplishing the excellent teachings,
And this depends on knowing the practices.
So I will explain the practices of Bodhisattvas.
For sentient beings the source of help, referring to temporary well-being, and happiness, referring to the ultimate happiness of liberation and enlightenment, is the Buddhas. The second line indicates that the Buddhas arise from correctly practicing the doctrine of the Universal Vehicle, thus developing the spiritual paths leading to enlightenment. Before becoming Buddhas, they first generated compassion, the root of the Universal Vehicle. Then they developed the altruistic intention, and motivated by that, they practiced the six far-reaching attitudes. In this way, they gradually completed the accumulations of positive potential and wisdom, and became enlightened. For those of us who wish to practice the Universal Vehicle, we must know how the Buddhas practiced when they were Bodhisattvas. What did they do? How did they think and meditate? Since those practices are important to know, Togme Sangpo now gives his word that he will explain them.
Excerpted from Transforming the Heart by Geshe Jampa Tegchok. Copyright © 1999 by Jampa Tegchok. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.