37 practices: prelude

Interspersed with other topics, you will now find, in progress, starting in June 2017, a study guide for a class I’m teaching on the classic text 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva by Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo. I’m posting materials here for those who miss a class and for anyone else who is interested.

Why study a text written centuries ago in a culture that had very little in common with the sophisticated, technologically-oriented lifestyle of 21st-century Westerners? 1) Frankly, human nature doesn’t seem to have evolved all that much, if any. We still face all the same problems Togme Zangpo did. 2) This very concise root text is a complete guide to the step-by-step path of awakening to our full potential as human beings, aka a lamrim, like The Jewel Ornament of Liberation; PLUS a mind training text like the Seven Points of Mind Training (see Jamgon Kongtrul’s Great Path of Awakening) and Shantideva’s A Bodhisattva’s Way of Life–ALL THIS in just 37 short verses plus a couple of extras at the beginning and end. But wait–there’s more!

The author of the 37 Practices was a quite extraordinary human being: Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo, a 14th-century Tibetan monk (1295-1369) who entered monastic life at age 14 after losing his parents and then his grandparents at an early age. Always very poor in material assets, he was a completely sincere practitioner of the buddhadharma. When he was young and had no means of material support, he was urged by colleagues to perform practices and rituals publicly in order to earn a living. His response was to compose the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva in order to remind himself of his aspirations. He gave up the abbotcy of his monastery to devote the last 20 years of his life exclusively to Dharma practice, sometimes without a grain of barley to his name, and was known for giving away anything that passed through his hands. He really lived his understanding of the Dharma, so he is an excellent mentor for those of us who wish to follow the bodhisattva path. His teachings remain vividly applicable to modern life in the West. In fact, I revisited this book after a period of intense adversity in my own life reminded me how far I still have to go to learn to live up to its ideals, and how wonderful it might have been had I been able to.

The various commentaries refer to the author by different components of his name. We shall call him Togme Zangpo, “Excellent Asanga,” the name he was given at age 19 in honor of his considerable intelligence and accomplishments, which were considered equivalent to those of the great 4th-century Indian scholar.

Just for reference, in the 14th century Europe was emerging from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. It was a century known for the Black Death, among other things. Roughly contemporary with Togme Zangpo were the Western literary giants Chaucer and Dante, and the Italian painter Giotto. Almost 200 years would pass between Togme Zangpo’s birth in 1295 and the invasion of the Americas by Christopher Columbus and other European explorers.

There are a number of contemporary commentaries on the 37 Practices, and from among those we are relying mainly on Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s The Heart of Compassion, supplemented by Ken McLeod’s Reflections on Silver River from a Western perspective, and personal notes from a wonderful seminar by Pema Chodron that I livestreamed in 2016 from Omega Institute.

As the class progresses I’m translating the 37 Practices into verses that can be chanted and easily memorized. There are already several excellent translations of the 37 practices in circulation, each with its own merits. The purpose of retranslating it yet again is just for the verse format (it has been done before, in the 1970s, but mine’s a bit more streamlined).

The next post will cover the structure and introductory materials of the 37 Practices and commentary, and then we will be on to verse 1.

2017 class June 8 (no recording).

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