37 practices: the first 7 verses

  1. To study, contemplate and meditate
  2. To leave your homeland
  3. To rely on solitude
  4. To let go of attachment to this lifetime
  5. To give up negative friends
  6. To rely on spiritual friends
  7. To take refuge in the Three Jewels

Preparation for the path: We’re halfway through the first 7 practices of a bodhisattva, and this seems like a good time to take another look at the structure of the book.

Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary, The Heart of Compassion, includes a handy dandy textual outline (page 39), which categorizes the first seven verses as the preparation, or preliminary practices, for embarking upon the path of awakening. Verses 8-10, which then describe the three types of practitioners or levels of motivation for practice, form a bridge between the preliminary practices and the path of actual practice, which begins with verse 11. The Heart of Compassion lists these 3 verses (8-10) within the main practice, while Ken McLeod includes verses 8 and 9 in the foundation (or preliminary) practices, and considers verse 10 the beginning of main practice. Both interpretations work for me.

Pema Chodron, in her 37 practices retreat at Omega Institute in 2016, pointed out that the first few practices are “advice on how to become less entangled, how to help ourselves when we are lost in the dark.” I would classify the first practice as the overview of why and how we travel the path, and practices 2-5 as disentanglement, aka renunciation of samsara, i.e., what we need to give up, what is continuing to trap us in the samsaric cycle of habitual patterns despite our wish to practice the dharma. In verses 6 and 7, having begun to disentangle ourselves, we are now ready to look ahead toward what will help us set out on our journey — relying on spiritual friends and taking refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha.

For those interested in correspondences between the 37 practices and Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation, the complete lam rim or guidebook to the stages of the path (skip this paragraph if it’s TMI):  I would consider the first 8 chapters of OPL to be preliminaries or foundations of the path. In the first 3 chapters of OPL, Gampopa describes the 3 things we need in order to set out on the path: Buddha nature (OPL chapter 1), a precious human existence ( 37P verse 1, OPL chapter 2), and a spiritual mentor (37P verse 6, OPL chapter 3). He then addresses the work we need to do in order to overcome the 4 obstacles to waking up. To overcome the first obstacle, being too busy, we need to understand impermanence (37P verses 4 and 9, OPL chapter 4). To overcome the second obstacle, indulging in too much distraction, we need to understand the suffering of samsara (37P verse 8, OPL chapter 5) and karma (37P verse 8, OPL chapter 6). To overcome the third obstacle, focusing too tightly on our own benefit, we need to develop love and compassion (37P verses 10, OPL chapter 7). To overcome the fourth and final obstacle, not knowing how to enter the path and cultivate bodhicitta, we need to begin by taking refuge (37P verse 7, OPL chapter 8). Whichever guidebook we are relying on, once we have taken refuge (37P verse 7, OPL chapter 8), we are ready to set out on the path by developing aspiration and action bodhicitta: verses 10-37 of the 37 practices, and chapters 9-19 of Ornament of Precious Liberation.

How the preliminaries themselves unfold as a path:

1) We resolve to make the most of the freedoms and resources of our precious human existence, this boat that is so hard to find, by applying ourselves to study, contemplation, and meditation. The practice of these three ways of knowing or wisdom tools is how we travel the path, all the way to Buddhahood.

2) Through familiarizing ourselves with the dharma, we begin to see the nature of our emotional afflictions and how they trap us in confusion and suffering, and we resolve to leave this “homeland” and set out in our boat toward freedom for ourselves and all beings.

3) The first step toward leaving our literal or metaphorical homeland, toward getting in the boat, as Ken McLeod puts it, is to create a space* in our lives for solitude, i.e., meditation, in which our mind can settle and quiet. In this space of solitude we begin to connect with a silence that allows glimpses of our mind’s nature — the other shore — which is usually hidden behind a thicket of thoughts, emotions, addictions, opinions, and judgments.

4) Within this solitude and silence, we see more clearly what is holding us in samsara and catalyzing our emotional reactions: attachment to loved ones, possessions, and this very life; and we resolve to let go.

5) The final step in disentanglement is to reject the influence of friends and associates who hold our boat back by reinforcing the impulses and behaviors that tether us more tightly to the samsaric shore, and instead:

6) We turn to spiritual friends: teachers and dharma companions who reinforce constructive states of mind and are a support for the journey we have chosen to undertake.

7) Having placed ourselves under the guidance of a spiritual mentor and community, we then take refuge in the Three Jewels as our compass: Buddha as the destination, dharma as the path, and the sangha as our guides toward the shore of complete freedom and awakening.

Verses 8-10 then offer a spectrum of motivations for practice. If we choose the all-encompassing motivation of a bodhisattva (verse 10) — to attain full awakening for the benefit of not just ourself but all other beings as well — we are ready to begin learning the actual practices that will wake us up. And that is the rest of the book.

In the 2017 class, we discussed this in the July 13 class on verse 3, part 2.

*I put this phrase in for you — you know who you are!

The study guide begins here.

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