Friday, July 1, 2011

Traveling the Path of Compassion: A Commentary on the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva

Book Review: Traveling the Path of Compassion: A Commentary on – The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Ngulchu Thogme  - by His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje – translations by Ringu Tulku and Michele Martin (Densal and KTD Publications 2009)

This is a commentary on a much loved and much venerated text in Tibetan Buddhism as a concise summary of the Mahayana path. This commentary by the wise Karmapa is sharp and to the point. This is the first full length commentary of a text by the young Karmapa. Karmapa acknowledges his primary role of transmitting the blessings of the Kagyu lineage – the lineage of ear-whispered teachings, which includes many famed meditation masters. In the first section called – Preparing the Ground – he talks about the transference and assimilation of dharma teachings which he says is a gradual process of turning our very minds to new ways of thinking and being. The process, he says, is akin to gradually removing impurities from our innate purity – the refining of gold ore being the analogy given. As many Tibetan Buddhist teachers say – our motivation in seeking to assimilate these teachings is extremely important – and the best of motivations is the motivation to benefit others and the whole world.

He mentions that one can divide spiritual systems into two types: those with a philosophical system and those based on beliefs. Buddhism, of course, has philosophical tenets. He further divides Buddhism into two types: those that place emphasis on devotion to the teachings and words of the Buddha and those that emphasize reasoning and analysis. He says Tibetan Buddhism is of the latter type based on a gradual path of investigation. He places the text of the Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva in the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) tradition and classifies it into the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school of philosophy. Madhyamaka favors philosophical and logical analysis to arrive at understanding and embraces the practices of the six perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and “deeper knowing or superior intelligence,” or wisdom. He further subdivides the teachings into their traditional vehicles and notes that all are valid and they are not in contradiction. The method of interacting with dharma teachings is to practice the ‘three activities’ of hearing (often in a formal teaching), reflecting or pondering what the teaching means, and meditating on the teaching to integrate it into our lives. He says that when one decides to cultivate bodhicitta, the mind of awakening, it becomes more necessary to integrate the teachings and to go beyond mere intellectual understandings:

“We have to experience what bodhicitta means so clearly and so strongly that it becomes one with our mind and blends with our way of being.”

He notes that the teaching of the 37 practices is also a teaching on Mind Training (Lojong) from the Kadampa tradition – which is a forerunner of both the Gelug and Kagyu schools of Tibet. He notes that this teaching is important to study because it is both concise and comprehensive.

Next he gives a bio of the author Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo (1295-1369). Raised by an uncle after his mother and grandmother died he became a monk at age 14. He was taught in the Sakya tradition and Dzogchen as well He studied all the schools and lineages. He became a great scholar and during a debate was able to answer the question, How are freedom from affliction and suffering similar? He noted that arhats may have attained freedom from afflictions but some still suffer due to the impelling force of their karma.
In one story once when secretly feeding a beggar infested with lice he traded garments with the beggar and took on the lice and became very sick and for many days let the lice feed on him until they apparently died satiated. Then he picked them off and made tsa tsas with them (clay statue mixed with ashes and debris). When asked where he would take birth after his impending death he stated that he wanted to be reborn in a place wherre he would be able to help sentient beings.

In a section about how to view emptiness Karmapa notes the Madhyamaka that emptiness and dependent arising arise together and are inseparable. He says their unity is the ultimate view of Buddhist philosophy. He takes the first line from the homage of the text: “Seeing that all phenomena neither come nor go,” and notes that this refers to freedom from mental constructs, or freedom from concepts. “All of these ways of grasping are often summarized into eight types: arising and cessation, extinction and permanence, coming and going, separate and the same.” All these mental constructs, he says, are empty of true existence. He also says that, “the experience of a phenomenon and its nature – are the same thing, even though we may define it in two different ways.” So the way things appear and the way they really are only seem to be different. This is how the enlightened mind knows – appearance and nature as the same. Knowing this way is said to engender compassion for those who are deluded and do not know in this way.

The first of the 37 practices is to listen, reflect, and meditate – to hear the instructions, consider well their meaning, and attempt to practice them authentically. He gives a story about a Kadampa Master explaining that the practice of Dharma is nothing other than cutting through one’s attachment. Karmapa makes the note that one might review one’s actions of the day just before one falls asleep – determining which actions were virtuous and which unvirtuous – committing to practice more virtue the next day and keeping a positive mind-state upon falling asleep.

Verse 2 is about giving up the familiarity of one’s home situations. The real practice is to give up attachment for those and that which one likes and to give up aversion to those and that which one dislikes – seeing the faults of friends and the virtues of enemies. The familiarity of home can be a bad influence if one is not mindful of habits. Distraction and confusion can be the results of indulging in overly familiar situations. 

Verses 3 and 4 are about letting go of worldly concerns. Verse 3 recommends solitude as a support to practice. Karmapa talks about inner solitude versus outer solitude. He says that though it is more difficult, it is much better to develop inner solitude since all disturbances really come from within. Verse 4 is the practice of giving up concern for this life. That, he says, is the measure of the effectiveness of dharma practice. Concern with life is equivalent to the eight worldly concerns: loss and gain, pleasure and pain, infamy and fame, praise and blame. Basically we should examine to see if these things motivate us and if so we should seek to lessen their influence through reflecting and meditating on the teachings. He talks also about life beyond this life – about the possibility of an afterlife – not from a religious perspective – but from a perspective of intuitive logic.

“Death ....., it is the time when we transfer our light to another way of being. With this understanding, we can see that it is possible to dedicate our lives toward bringing light into the world for future generations as well as for our own future.”

Verses 5 and 6 are respectively about casting off the influence of bad companions and relying on the influence of good companions (spiritual friends or dharma teachers). Specifically, the verses say to give up negative friends and rely on positive friends but Karmapa notes that giving up or allowing their influence on us is the deeper practice. The practice is to not allow negative people to increase one’s own negativity and to allow the tamed mind of the teacher to influence one’s own training. Regarding the choosing of a spiritual teacher he says that we should first examine the potential teacher then decide. Once one has decided on a teacher one should follow the teacher’s instructions wholeheartedly, intuitively, and joyfully.

Verse 7 is about taking refuge not in worldly gods, but in those beyond the influence of worldliness. Here he talks a little about animism and notes that it can be beneficial but also that it is limited. He notes that animistic nature beliefs can have great benefit to the environment as people develop respect and a reciprocal relationship to nature. In Buddhism the ultimate refuge is in one’s own enlightened mind. But before enlightenment the refuge is in others who have discovered it and the mechanisms for doing so. The three jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are the traditional Buddhist refuge. Buddha is doctor. Dharma is medicine. Sangha is nurse. He says there are four reasons to take refuge: 1) to free oneself from samsara, 2) to free others from fear, 3) to develop a universal unbiased spontaneous compassion that is free from attachment, and 4) to grow and extend that compassion to all sentient beings. Buddha refers to those who have succeeded in becoming enlightened so we try to emulate them. Dharma is the techniques for becoming Buddha so for this reason dharma is said to be the most important refuge. Sangha are those who aspire to virtue and so are best situated to help us. He notes the deeper sangha as those on the bodhisattva levels but also our fellow meditators can be sangha as well. He mentions war buddies, having seen the intensity of battle together, often make strong bonds – but says that may only be slightly comparable. He also re-iterates that ultimately – we are our own refuge.

Verses 8, 9, and 10 are about the karma of happiness and suffering. He says we should make a concerted effort to refrain from the traditional negative actions like killing, stealing, lying, etc. – simply because they tend to bring on worse situations not only for ourselves but to our children and future generations. Regarding happiness, he says that we should be aware that all conditioned states are impermanent so seeking to keep them is rather pointless. Verse 10 says:

- From time beyond time, our mothers have cared for us;
  If they suffer, what good is our own happiness?
  Thus, to liberate living beings beyond number,
  To engender bodhicitta is the practice of a bodhisattva. –

Karmapa says that, “ The chance to give people something that truly benefits them does bring the greatest satisfaction.”

Verse 11 is about exchanging self for other:

- All suffering comes from wanting happiness for ourselves;
Perfect buddhas arise from the intention to benefit others.
Therefore, to truly exchange our happiness
For the suffering of others is the practice of a bodhisattva. –

Karmapa says that when we hold back from giving we cannot receive. He says that as living beings we all depend on one another and that our habit of self-cherishing blocks from our view the true extent that we are interdependent on one another. He notes that the practice of tong len, or sending and receiving, is a means to reverse self-cherishing. If we make a habit to wish for the happiness of others and for reduction of their suffering then we may reverse our tendencies to be self-absorbed and greedy for our own happiness alone. What we are doing in the practice is reducing ego-fixation. Since “I” does not exist without “not I” – it is not independent – and others as well as us wish to be happy – so since we wish for our own happiness as a matter of habit – why not make the new habit of wishing for the happiness of others as well? Although the practice is mainly for ourselves – to reduce our selfishness – it can also positively affect others as a secondary effect – as well as a positive bond.

Verses 12 through 19 are about dealing with adverse situations. These verses teach that we should not allow ourselves to become too affected by difficult circumstances such as loss of property, reputation, and even loss of life. We should not let these situations make us give up our love and compassion. We can see adversity as an opportunity to practice love and compassion. Indeed this is very difficult at times but we can at least aspire to such behavior before it happens. We should also not become discouraged if we have bad luck and not arrogant or proud if we have good luck. These conditions too will likely pass.

Verses 20 through 24 are about taming the mind. Karmapa says that anger is our real enemy and that taming it is our real practice. Tibetans are fond of saying that all sentient beings were once our kind mothers so we should be kind to all of our past mothers. Karmapa makes the interesting observation that all sentient beings were also once our enemy. Since all beings are equally our friends and enemies – then liking some and not liking others really makes no sense. He says that compassion should arise from a mind that sees this equality of beings.

Since attachment to sense objects is an affliction we should give it up when we notice it – so says verse 21. Verse 22 is about analyzing how we tend to grasp onto attributes or characteristics of subjects and objects. Through analysis, he says, we can bring an end to this habitual conceptualizing. This verse is a bit difficult for me to understand but I think it is warning not to get caught up in these characteristics or attributes that we tend to like or dislike. Verses 23 and 24 are about the illusory nature of pleasing objects/situations and painful ones. In both verses is the admonition to see them as fleeting and dream-like.

Verses 25 through 30 are about the six perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and discriminating wisdom. Generosity is a means to counteract attachment and giving with focus and mindfulness is said to be especially effective. Regarding discipline he notes that there can be a darker side to it – the demon of austerity – where one may undertake discipline with great struggle and suffering. One is much better off practicing discipline with joy and intelligence. He says we should feel a connection with the practice, or discipline, be very clear about how to do it and its effects, and let it become inspiring for us. The obstacle to patience is called – the demon of too much struggling, or too much forbearance. – Better that we practice patience as freely arising with our understanding and without engaging in extreme behavior. Similarly, the demon of diligence is struggling too hard. He suggests joyfulness and doing practices in a spontaneous and natural way. “True diligence happens with a lively interest and a joyful spontaneity. We do something because we see clearly that it is important and essential.” The demon of meditation is called – attachment to experience – the good and bad experiences that occur in meditation are not what is important. What is important is the extent to which our meditation serves as an antidote to our afflictions. The obstacle to wisdom is called – the demon of increasing poison. – This seems to refer to taking a very conceptual view of the relationship between subject, object, and action – one may become convinced of the superiority of one’s views. He notes that those with closed minds and rigid views are affected by this way of thinking:

“As we move along the path, inferior views are gradually surpassed by superior ones, until finally there is no view at all, nothing to be seized upon. Therefore, we should not go to an extreme and cling to one position as the truth. Our view of how things are is not something to grasp with a tight fist,”

Verses 31 through 35 are about avoiding pitfalls. The practice of dharma is taming our mind by constantly examining our own confusion. Karmapa says it is like learning to dance. First we watch ourselves in a mirror discovering and correcting our faults. Being very careful and attentive with our actions we can continually scan for mental afflictions and correct them. This is verse 31. Verse 32 is an admonition to avoid fault-finding, particularly of other Mahayana practitioners – but also to all says Karmapa. He says that this rarely helps and can make things worse. Verse 34 is about disputes arising from desires for honor and gain. Here he says to be careful and intelligent and try to make sure the practice or teacher you are following is genuine and has compassionate motivations. Verse 34 is about avoiding harsh words out of anger. He says that sometime harsh words can be beneficial if given out of compassion or care rather than anger but generally they are problematic. He says that before we say something we should consider how we would feel if those words were said to us. Verse 35 is about the difficulty of remedying our habitual reactions to afflictions. The verse says that with alert attention one should seize the weapon of the antidote and apply it. Karmapa gives one of his own methods of thinking of a particular teacher when he is about to indulge an affliction. He recalls the teachers warning: “Don’t be influenced by the afflictions. Be careful!”

Verse 36 is about being constantly alert and aware of the state of our mind. If we can apply this awareness while benefiting others we are engaging in a bodhisattva practice. The last of the 37 practices is the dedication of merit. Any merit we accumulate through our practices is dedicated to the awakening of all beings. Concluding the text is Thogme Zangpo’s own dedication and aspiration that all sentient beings become similar to Chenrezik:

- By virtue arising from these verses
Through ultimate and relative bodhicitta,
May all beings become equal to the Protector Chenrezik,
Who dwells in neither extreme of existence or peace. –

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