37 practices: verses 20 and 21

20. To conquer my own aggression / How to use objects of hatred on the path

If I don’t tame my in-ner en-e-my, / The poi-son of ag-gres-sion, an-ger, hate,

Then out-er en-e-mies just mul-ti-ply / No mat-ter how, to van-quish them, I fight.

To tame my own mind with an ar-my of / The for-ces of com-pas-sion, kind-ness, love:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 20 audio above

21. To abandon attachment right away / How to use objects of desire on the path

Sense plea-sures and de-sire are like salt wa-ter: / The more I drink them in, the more I crave.

There-fore, the mo-ment that at-tach-ment stirs / To drop it right a-way with-out a pause:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 21 audio above

Verses 20 and 21 are the final practices of bodhisattva boot camp, where we have learned how to bring specific situations that challenge our bodhicitta directly onto the path of practice. We’re going to study these two verses as a pair, because they are two sides of the same coin: how to tame our mind in the face of feeling anger and feeling desire. They are also a bridge to the next set of verses. You may recognize aggression/anger and attachment/desire as two of the three root mental poisons. The third, and most primal, poison — ignorance, aka obliviousness to our true nature — is the topic of verses 22-24, on cultivating ultimate bodhicitta.

Silent pop quiz /contemplation: What is the most basic principle of mind training, i.e., of bodhicitta, in two words? How does it apply to verses 20 and 21?

Hint: I’ve shared this principle several times as expressed by Lama Karma Samten of New Zealand, who taught mind training at KTC in 2016. The answer is here, in the first post on verse 11.

More to come, as we resume class Thursday after a break for the flu.

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37 practices: verse 19

19. To maintain focus and humility when everything goes right / how to use prosperity on the path

Though I’ve a-chieved the pin-na-cle of fame / And the whole world bows down to me in awe,

I’m rich be-yond my ver-y wild-est dreams, / What-ev-er mo-ney buys I have it all.

To see that there’s no es-sence in suc-cess / And nev-er think I’m bet-ter than the rest:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 19 audio above

“Positive obstacles: raise your hand if you’re having these.” That line elicited laughter when Pema Chodron was teaching this text at Omega Institute in 2016. She and our other teachers will have some advice for us should we ever be in this situation, but first: a word about the translation.

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37 practices: verse 18

18. To maintain resolve when everything goes wrong / How to use ruin on the path

When I’ve lost ev-ery-thing; and ev-ery-one / A-bus-es me and treats me with con-tempt,

I’m strick-en by dis-ease and ver-y sick; / On top of that, a de-mon’s in my head,

To take on all the suf-fer-ing of beings, / Com-plete-ly free of all dis-cour-age-ment:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 18 audio above

With verse 18 we move into a new phase of bodhisattva boot camp. Verses 12-17 were about specific, limited situations brought on us by other people, and we trained to respond with taking and sending toward those individuals who harm us through theft, pain, slander, humiliation, ingratitude, and disrespect.

In verse 18 everything in our life goes wrong at once, suffering upon suffering, and there’s no one to blame or forgive. It’s just adversity, pure and simple, and it’s coming at us from every direction. What do we do now?

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37 practices: verse 17

17. To repay disrespect with reverence / how to use humiliation on the path

If someone, my in-fer-i-or or peer, / Through pride dis-par-a-ges and puts me down,

To hon-or them as I would my teach-er / And place them rev-er-ent-ly on my crown:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 17 audio

Contemplation: Think back to a time when someone built themselves up by tearing you down, in a big or trivial way. It’s happened to all of us. Ken McLeod starts his commentary on this verse by having us imagine a scenario in a work situation. “You put forward an idea that you think will work for everyone. A colleague dismisses your suggestion with a witty comment at your expense . . . . You are left looking stupid, incompetent, and out of touch.” Or maybe you hear a rumor that someone has put in a private word suggesting that you’re not as competent/kind/honest as you might appear. Maybe it’s true, or maybe it’s not true. Either way, how did it feel at the time? How, if at all, did you respond? How does it feel now?

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Weather, stoplights, and equanimity

The beloved Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh originated the idea of “mindfulness bells,” things that crop up naturally in our lives that we can set as reminders to bring ourselves back to the present moment, such as the ringing of a phone. In my three-year retreat, I wrote about a potentially deadly mindfulness bell that was hard to avoid within the retreat compound, and thus really got our attention.

Mindfulness is how we develop equanimity, but today we are going straight to equanimity itself, and how we can use specific situations that are not only inevitable but also tend to trigger emotional reactions that disturb our peace of mind. I’m sure you can identify others, but today we’ll just start with two: the weather, and stoplights.

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Ego: what it is, what it isn’t, and why it matters

I just wanted to share a brief explanation of ego from Traleg Rinpoche (author of a number of books, including the best explanation of karma I’ve ever encountered, Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and Why It Matters). The quote below is from a footnote in his translation of the classic Kagyu meditation manual Moonbeams of Mahamudra. This is a very technical text, so I’m not recommending that you read it unless that’s what you’re looking for. Just wanted to share this, because the question of what ego is and its role in the path to awakening comes up so frequently. [Notes in brackets are mine.]

“Buddhism does not say we must get rid of ego, it says we should overcome our mistaken notions of ego. We mistakenly think something exists over and above our psychophysical constituents [aka, the five skandhas or heaps: body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness]. That idea of ego is a myth; it does not exist.

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37 practices: verse 16

If someone I’ve cared for as my own child / Turns on me as their worst enemy,

Then, like a mother when her child is ill, / To shower them with more love than before:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 16 audio 

This verse is a perfect illustration of the meaning of taking and sending meditation (tong len), embodied in verse 11. When anyone directs negative thoughts, words and actions at us, as aspiring bodhisattvas we willingly accept and take it on, wishing them only comfort, peace, and happiness in return, because we feel deeply connected with them, we feel their suffering as our suffering, and we understand that when they lash out at us, it’s coming from their own blinding emotions.

Parenthood is great training for this, as infants, toddlers, teens and even adult children may resent or reject our attempts to care for them, not understanding the bigger picture of our intentions or the reality of a situation; yet because of our deep bond, even though we may feel hurt or frustrated in the moment, we react from spontaneous love and compassion.

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37 practices: which verse(s) to memorize?

As you may know, I’m a great fan of memorization as a way to deeply study and internalize the dharma. In fact, it is one of the traditional 10 Dharma Activities.

It’s also why I’m making a new translation of the 37 practices for this class, even though there are lots of good ones already available. Verse is just naturally easier to memorize, and that’s one reason so much of the dharma is in verse. (Not to mention Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, and Dante.) I find that it also resonates in the mind and heart in a way that prose rarely does.

Which brings me to the suggestion I have, after working with verses 1-15 during our holiday hiatus from class.

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37 practices: verse 15

15. To repay humiliation with respect / how to use disparagement on the path

If someone tells a crowd my hidden faults / And speaks of me with undisguised contempt,

To see them as my spiritual friend / And bow to them sincerely with respect:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 15 audio

Contemplation: Think of a time when this happened to you. In contrast to practices 12, 13, and 14, in this case, you are being blamed for something you actually did and/or faults you actually have. Your tormentor is just making public what you had hoped to keep hidden. How did you respond? How do you feel about it now?

Taking it to the next level, is there some behavioral pattern or shameful deed in your past (or present) that no one knows about and that you would be humiliated to acknowledge? What would you do if someone called you out for it — or posted about it on social media? Would you reflexively deny it, if you thought you could get away with it? If you deny it, what then? What would happen if you owned up to it? Would you be able to respond in the way Togme Zangpo advises? How might you increase the odds that you could respond this way were it to happen in the future?

And if no one ever knows about it but you, is there a way to deal with it constructively and diminish the karmic repercussions now through your practice? What specific practices are available for this?

Silent pop quiz: Which of the eight worldly concerns are at play in this verse? Can you name all eight? If not, Row your boat, Clementine!

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Orientation for newcomers

Welcome to the study guide for the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, one of the core texts of the Kagyu Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Though it was written by a 14th-century Tibetan monk, Togme Zangpo, we still study it centuries later and halfway across the world because it continues to speak directly to our experience.

If you’d like to explore the study guide, I recommend starting here with the brief orientation. This website is in blog format so there’s no table of contents per se, but it’s easy to navigate once you get going.

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