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The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva

The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva

by Dilgo Khyentse, Matthieu Ricard, The Padmakara Translation Group

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What would be the practical implications of caring more about others than about yourself? This is the radical theme of this extraordinary set of instructions, a training manual composed in the fourteenth century by the Buddhist hermit Ngulchu Thogme, here explained in detail by one of the great Tibetan Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, Dilgo Khyentse. In


What would be the practical implications of caring more about others than about yourself? This is the radical theme of this extraordinary set of instructions, a training manual composed in the fourteenth century by the Buddhist hermit Ngulchu Thogme, here explained in detail by one of the great Tibetan Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, Dilgo Khyentse. In the Mahayana tradition, those who have the courage to undertake the profound change of attitude required to develop true compassion are called bodhisattvas. Their great resolve—to consider others’ needs as paramount, and thus to attain enlightenment for the sake of all living creatures—carries them beyond the limits imposed by the illusions of "I" and "mine," culminating in the direct realization of reality, transcending dualistic notions of self and other. This classic text presents ways that we can work with our own hearts and minds, starting wherever we find ourselves now, to unravel our small-minded preoccupations and discover our own potential for compassion, love, and wisdom. Many generations of Buddhist practitioners have been inspired by these teachings, and the great masters of all traditions have written numerous commentaries. Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary is probably his most extensive recorded teaching on Mahayana practice.

For more information about the author, Dilgo Khyentse, visit his website at www.shechen.org.

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From The Commentary: Part Two: The Main Teachings, Illuminating the Path

After the seven topics of the preparation comes the second section, the main teachings, which explain the paths for beings of lesser, medium, and superior capacity.

First, the path for beings of lesser capacity

This consists of rejecting negative actions out of fear of the suffering that permeates the three lower realms of existence.


The Buddha taught that the unendurable suffering of the lower realms
Is the fruit of unvirtuous actions.
Therefore, to never act unvirtuously,
Even at the cost of one’s life, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Once you have taken refuge in the Three Jewels, it is important to behave in accordance with their teachings. Whatever happens, keep trying to do more and more positive, beneficial actions, and always avoid doing anything negative. Actively engage in the ten virtues; and abstain from the ten non-virtues. This means not only, for instance, to abstain from killing, but also to protect life, to ransom the lives of animals about to be butchered, to set captive fish free, and so on.

There are four black dharmas to avoid, and four white dharmas to keep to. The four black dharmas are (1) to deceive those worthy of respect, (2) to cause sadness by bringing doubt into someone’s mind about the value of his virtuous actions, (3) to criticize and denigrate holy beings, and (4) to be dishonest about your faults and qualities and to cheat others.

The four white dharmas are (1) not to tell a lie, even at the risk of your life; (2) to respect and praise the bodhisattvas; (3) to be free of deceit, and benevolent toward all beings; and (4) to lead all beings on the path to enlightenment.

Confess every negative action you commit, even in a dream. Do not be confused about how to act in everyday situations.Try to keep your actions in accordance with the instructions given by your teachers. It is said that Lord Atisha never let a day go by without confessing whatever negative actions he may have committed. Once confessed, a negative action is relatively easy to purify.

Someone who has done many negative actions, even if rich and powerful, will inevitably sink into the lower realms of samsara. Someone who has done many positive actions, even the humblest of beggars, will be led by all the buddhas from the bardo to the Western Buddhafield of Bliss, or be reborn in the higher realms. As it is said:

Good and evil actions
Bring their results without fail.
What happens at death
Accords with what you have done.
If your actions have been wholesome and virtuous,
There will be happiness and birth in higher realms.
If your actions have been unwholesome and negative,
There will be suffering and birth in lower realms.
Right now, while you can choose
To be happy or to suffer,
Do not indulge yourself in negative actions
But strive as best you can
To do good and virtuous deeds, both great and small.

There is no such thing as even a single act that vanishes, leaving nothing behind. The imprint created by a negative action, such as killing, will never disappear until you either experience its inevitable result or counteract it with a positive antidote. While, on the one hand, even offering a single flower to the Three Jewels, or reciting a single Mani mantra, brings inconceivable merit, so too, on the other hand, even the most seemingly insignificant negative action has a negative result—and should thus be purified straight away.

All the teachings of the Buddha say that every action has a result. This is the infallible law of karmic cause and result.

Some people hold the opinion that actions bring no karmic result, even for a murderer who has killed thousands of people. The hell realms cannot really exist, they would argue, because no one has ever returned from there to tell us about it. They dismiss the infallibility of the cause and effect of actions as just an invention, and deny that there can be any such thing as past and future lives. But they are simply wrong. For the moment, surely, instead of believing in your own limited perceptions, why not rely on the Buddha’s wisdom? The Buddha sees the past, present, and future lives of all beings.You can have confidence in the Buddha’s words. For example, the buddhas have praised the benefits of reciting a single Mani mantra; but if you nevertheless feel doubt about those benefits, or think that the results will take aeons to appear, you are only making your own realization that much more distant.

Doubt and hesitation is the main obstacle to achieving the common and supreme accomplishments. If you doubt the teacher, you will not be able to receive his blessings. If you doubt the teachings, no matter how much time you spend studying and meditating, your efforts will remain mostly sterile.

Always try to accomplish even the smallest beneficial action without any reservation or hesitation, and avoid even the most insignificant negative actions. As the great master Padmasambhava said:

Although my view is higher than the sky,
My attention to actions and their effects is finer than flour.

When your realization of emptiness becomes as vast as the sky, you will gain an even greater conviction about the law of cause and effect, and you will see just how important your conduct really is. Relative truth functions inexorably within absolute truth. A thorough realization of the empty nature of all phenomena has never led anyone to think that positive actions do not bring happiness, or that negative actions do not bring suffering.

All phenomena appear from within emptiness as a result of the coming together of illusory causes and conditions. The infinite display of phenomena can arise only because everything is empty in nature. As Nagarjuna said:

Only by things being empty
Can things be possible at all.

The presence of space makes it possible for the whole universe to be set out within it, and yet this does not alter or condition space in any way. Although rainbows appear in the sky, they do not make any difference to the sky; it is simply that the sky makes the appearance of rainbows possible. Phenomena adorn emptiness, but never corrupt it. If you have a thorough understanding of the way phenomena appear through dependent arising, it will not be difficult for you to understand the view of emptiness while remaining in meditation. On arising from such a meditation and entering the path of action, you will recognize clearly the direct relationship between actions and their results.

This will enable you to discriminate easily between positive and negative actions.

Your view can, and should be, as high as possible—there is no danger in this, since enlightenment is the total realization of the absolute view. But at the same time your behavior should be as grounded as possible in an awareness of cause and effect. If you lose this basic attitude regarding actions, if you forget all common sense and use the loftiness of the view as an excuse for putting into action whatever comes into your mind, you are engaging in mundane activities contrary to the Dharma, just like ordinary worldly people. And if you let your emotions lead your practice astray in that way, you are likely to sink in the swamp of samsara.

A spacious view and a thorough, careful attitude regarding your activities are never contradictory. The more careful you are in whatever you do, the easier it is to realize emptiness; the more profound your view, the clearer your understanding will be of the relationship between cause and effect.

Never confusing, nor inverting, what should be done with what should be avoided is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Meet the Author

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–1991) was a highly accomplished meditation master, scholar, and poet, and a principal holder of the Nyingma lineage. His extraordinary depth of realization enabled him to be, for all who met him, a foundation of loving-kindness, wisdom, and compassion. A dedicated exponent of the nonsectarian Rime movement, Khyentse Rinpoche was respected by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and taught many eminent teachers, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He tirelessly worked to uphold the Dharma through the publication of texts, the building of monasteries and stupas, and by offering instruction to thousands of people throughout the world. His writings in Tibetan fill twenty-five volumes.

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