37 practices: mindfulness, vigilance and integrity (35 and 36, part 2)

Mindfulness, vigilance and … a loophole!  Each and every verse resonates with me, but I feel that in particular verses 35 and 36 are the heart of the 37 practices. As I said in the post on these verses, linked above, each of the preceding practices in fact depends on mindfulness and vigilance. To review: mindfulness knows what will help us awaken and what will dig us deeper into samsara; and vigilance knows which one we are doing.

We’ll get to the loophole in a bit.

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37 practices: the wrap-up

Last week, almost exactly a year after we began, we finished the text of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. by Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo, whose name translates as “the bodhisattva of Silver River, Excellent Asanga,” a venerable 14th-century Tibetan monk and hermit who wrote the verses as a reminder to himself. More about Togme Zangpo can be found in the first post of the series, prelude.

By my count, fourteen people attended virtually all of our 41 sessions over the entire year, and another eight attended occasionally or for a particular period of time. We were fortunate to have Lama Jinzang from KTC with us for the last half-dozen classes. I’ve been told that a few other people who weren’t able to attend on Thursday afternoons have been following the class just via the website and recordings. I wanted to keep it small enough that it would feel like a family and everyone could be an active participant, but we may have a few slots open when we continue in the fall for the next topic (see below). Let me know if you’d like to join us (those already in the class need not reply — you are automatically included).

Several class participants have shared their thoughts briefly on what this year of study has meant to them:

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37 practices: concluding verses

I haven’t translated the concluding verses yet. For now, please refer to the translation in Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s The Heart of Compassion, by the Padmakara Translation Committee, or any other translation in any of other commentaries.

The final four verses and colophon of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva consist of standard explanations and disclaimers that conclude many of the classic texts in one form or another. Togme Zangpo is quite thorough about following this tradition. But just because they are standard doesn’t mean they’re not worth studying. In fact, they contain a number of important points we should pay close attention to.

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37 practices: verse 37

37. To dedicate all merit

In order to dispel the suffering / of beings numberless as space is vast,

To dedicate the merit of my practice / to everyone’s complete awakening,

With wisdom purified of three domains: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 37 audio above.

Exactly a year after we began our study of the 37 practices, we have arrived at the end, which is the same as the end of all our practices: dedication of any virtue, merit, and benefit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. It is taught that no practice is complete until we have dedicated the merit. In fact, dedication is one of the three aspects that make any practice we do authentic or genuine: refuge and bodhicitta at the beginning, the main practice in the middle, and dedication at the end.

Many years ago I asked Lama Norlha Rinpoche if he could recommend a practice for me to do while falling asleep. He instructed me to do taking and sending meditation (verse 11) but said I must always remember to dedicate the merit before falling asleep. Since I was hoping for a practice that would seamlessly take me through the transition from wakefulness to sleeping and not give me a chance to get lost in thinking, staying awake to dedicate the merit at the end seemed to defeat the purpose of my request. But that’s how important it is to never do any practice without dedication.

From the commentaries: In his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, reveals the neat trick Togme Zangpo accomplishes with verse 37:

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37 practices: verses 35 and 36

35. To use mindfulness and vigilance to crush emotional reactions

Once reactivity becomes a habit / it’s hard to turn its energy around.

To overpower it without delay, / by wielding mindfulness and vigilance,

The moment a reaction first begins — / attachment or another poison:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 35 audio above

36. To use mindfulness and vigilance to benefit others

To sum it up, whatever I am doing, / in all my conduct and my practices,

Through constant mindfulness and vigilance / to monitor the state of mind I’m in,

Directing it to others’ benefit: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 36 audio above. Note that the audio places “constant”  in a different position in line 3. The written translation is the updated version.

In these two verses, Tokme Zangpo sums up the bodhisattva path into the partnership of mindfulness and vigilance, and shows us two ways to work with these two qualities to achieve a bodhisattva’s aims. If we reflect on the preceding 34 practices, each and every one of them depends on mindfulness and vigilance, and we develop each practice by stabilizing our mindfulness and vigilance more and more so that they become more and more continuous.

What is meant by mindfulness and vigilance? Last week, Lama Jinzang shared with us the definitions given by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, in his recent teachings on the 37 practices in New York City. I haven’t listened to session 5 yet, in which he teaches these verses, so I will pass along his definition based on my notes from Lama Jinzang’s summary: mindfulness is remembering what is right and what is wrong, and vigilance (aka, alertness) is remaining conscious of what our body, speech, and mind are actually doing, i.e., being aware of whether we are practicing according to our understanding of the dharma — or not.

In his indispensable online Tibetan-English dictionary The Illuminator, Lama Tony Duff defines mindfulness as follows: “In the context of calm abiding, mindfulness holds the mind in place and alertness keeps watch over the situation to ensure that mindfulness is operative.” Off the cushion, mindfulness can be applied in any situation, and vigilance or alertness is also on the job to monitor whether we are being mindful — or distracted, e.g., under the influence of a negative emotion — in any given moment. Lama Tony describes mindfulness and alertness as “necessary co-partners.”

So, then, what are the specific applications of mindfulness and alertness on the bodhisattva path? That is what verses 35 and 36 are here to tell us.

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37 practices: verses 31-34

Verses 31-34: the four instructions from the sutra

For the first time since this class began a year ago in June 2017, we are going to attempt the feat of discussing four verses at once. This is both because they go together, and because they are all pretty straightforward. They are called the four instructions from the sutra because they were all included in The Sutra That Encourages Noble Superior Intention, a teaching on the proper conduct of bodhisattvas given by Buddha Shakyamuni to the bodhisattva Maitreya and others. This is explained in endnote 96 of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary.

His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, addresses them, in his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, as potential pitfalls we should avoid on the path. They are basically actions we should avoid or abandon in order to keep our practice true. Though the first one (31) is expressed as a positive, “to examine and give up my own confusion,” the point is that we can’t consider ourselves authentic practitioners if we don’t examine our own confusion first and foremost. The other three are expressed as actions to avoid: talking about the faults and mistakes of others on the bodhisattva path (32), getting involved with worldly rewards and concerns related to benefactors, relatives, and friends (33), and speaking harshly to others (34).

Here are the verses:

31. To examine and give up my own confusion

If I don’t look into my own confusion, / I could be just a Buddhist counterfeit —

A person who has all the outer trappings / but doesn’t act the way the Buddha taught.

To always analyze my own confusion / and then take measures to abandon it:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 31 audio above.

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37 practices: teachings by His Holiness Karmapa May 2018

I’ll come back as time permits and share some of my notes from these wonderful teachings, given in five sessions May 29-31, 2018, at the awe-inspiring Riverside Church in New York City. Not only did they provide an excellent, concise review as our class approaches the end of the text (7 verses to go!), but His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the head of our Karma Kagyu Lineage, also shared some insights not seen in other commentaries we have been studying. I was especially struck by His Holiness’s presentation of the six paramitas (verses 25-30) and the clarity of his explanation of ultimate bodhicitta (verses 22-24), aided by the precise translations of Lama Yeshe Gyamtso. Both of these topics are found in session 3, but please listen to all the teachings in sequence if you possibly can (link below).

Two participants in this class mentioned that in listening to these teachings, it became clear for the first time that the point is not just to know about the 37 practices but to actually put them into practice. This is the blessing of His Holiness Karmapa! And I hope that through these teachings everyone comes to understand the importance of engaging in all three aspects of transcendent wisdom: study, contemplation, and meditation, the very first of the 37 practices.

In fact, His Holiness advised us in session 4, “Sometimes people engage in the first two [study and contemplation], but without the third [meditation]. This can sometimes create an artificial understanding, somewhat outward-directed. Such a person understands a great deal, but it is not mixed with their mind because they have not actually applied it to their own mind. It is present in the brain but has not penetrated the heart. So we need to remember that the primary focus or intention is the examination of our own mind, learning how to look at our own mind.”

More later, and meanwhile, here’s the link to session 1 of 5:

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37 practices: verse 30

30. To unite wisdom with skillful means

The five perfections, lacking inner wisdom, / are not enough for full awakening.

To cultivate the wisdom of true knowing, / united with the path of skillful means,

And not conceive the three parameters: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 30 audio above

We are on to transcendent wisdom, the sixth and final paramita! It’s the wisdom paramita that puts the transcendence into all the preceding paramitas or transcending actions –generosity, ethical conduct, patience, diligence, and meditation. We can, of course, practice these five paramitas in an ordinary way, and if we do, we’ll be very nice, kind people with enviably calm minds. That would be a great achievement in itself. But, as all the commentaries remind us, if we don’t realize the wisdom paramita and apply it in our practice of all the others, we won’t clear away the fundamental confusion that keeps us trapped in samsara and stuck in the quicksand of emotional reactivity, ego-clinging and the three kinds of suffering.

Or, as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche puts it: “So here we have come to the very heart of the paramitas. Wisdom is not only the most important of the six — it is their very life force. To realize wisdom is the ultimate goal; it is the reason why all the branches of the teachings are explained.”

But wait …

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37 practices: verse 29

29. To attain complete and stable meditation

To vanquish my emotionality / I need insight based in tranquility.

To understand this and to cultivate / a stable, focused meditative state,

Not getting stuck in the four formless realms: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 29 audio above

This just in: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary on verse 29 consists mainly of a guided calm abiding meditation using visualization of the Buddha as its focus, which then segues right into insight meditation, thus perfectly illustrating the point of this verse. We will do this meditation in class instead of our usual “Two Wings of Awakening” meditation based on points 1 and 2 of the seven points of mind training.

Meanwhile, thanks to an email from Marilyn this morning, I now know there is a fabulous appendix in The Heart of Compassion that I had failed to notice, even though we relied on Appendix 1 in our discussion of verse 6 — quite a while ago. In Appendix 3, Dilgo Khyentse shares important instructions on meditation from Dzatrul Ngawang Tendzin Norbu‘s Vase of Amrita and from Dilgo Khyentse’s root teacher, Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal. Neither of these texts appears to be available in English translation, other than the excerpts presented here.

I am particularly happy to see Tendzin Norbu’s explanation of “the nine ways of settling the mind.” These are often presented in English as nine levels or stages of calm abiding, which may also be valid, but it sometimes leads to confusion about how the stages relate to each other and how to figure out which stage we’re “on.” The presentation here is easily understood and applied, and for that alone, this appendix is a treasure. But it also includes several other essential and very clear explanations that it is wonderful to have in one place so concisely presented.

The sole focus of calm abiding recommended here by Tendzin Norbu is visualization of the Buddha — and that explains why Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary is devoted to guiding us through that visualization and using the resulting state of calm abiding as a basis for the next stage of meditation: insight, aka vipashyana (Skt) or lhaktong (Tib). Et voila! Having distanced ourselves from the homeland of our habitual reactions way back in verse 2, now we have the method for  putting them to rest once and for all. Will we do it?

Sorry, these class notes have not been completed yet, but they are in the queue. It’s been a busy couple of months!

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37 practices: verse 28

28. To engage in dharma with diligence

If lis-ten-ers and solitary buddhas, / in striving just for their own benefit,

Are seen to focus with the same resolve / as putting out a fi-re on their head,

Since my aim is to benefit all be-ings, / and effort is the source of all good traits,

I must engage with joyful perseverance: / this is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 28 audio above

The sixth paramita, tson.dru in Tibetan, has so many translations. There is no one word in English that fully conveys the meaning. The early favorite translation was joyful enthusiasm, which sort of bypassed the hard work aspect (well, it was the ’70s!). Mingyur Rinpoche currently calls it joyful effort. Ken McLeod calls it energy. Both the Padmakara Translation Committee (Dilgo Khyentse’s translators) and Ken Holmes (Ornament of Precious Liberation) call it diligence, which is my personal favorite.

In its current definition, diligence is “earnest and persistent application to an undertaking; steady effort; assiduity,” which makes it no different from perseverance or steady effort, which can suggest a slog. Tson.dru is far from a slog!

However, if we combine the current meaning of diligence with its original Latin derivation from diligere, to love or delight in someone or something, diligence does the job perfectly, so we will go with that for present purposes. Of course, what it’s called is less important than understanding its full meaning, which we will unwrap with the help of our commentaries, so you are free to call it by whichever name resonates best with you.

The point of diligence is …

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