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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37 practices: verse 14

14. To repay slander with love / how to use disgrace on the path

If someone slanders me and spreads the word, / Maligning me throughout the universe,

To pay them back I fill my heart with love, / Extolling their good traits and character:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 14 audio (click where the “play” button should be)

Once again, as in verses 12 and 13, Dilgo Khyentse begins his commentary by reminding us of the law of karma. “If someone defames and disgraces you, that is simply the result of having criticized and dishonored others in the past, especially bodhisattvas. Instead of feeling angry with such people you should feel grateful to them for giving you the opportunity to purify your past misdeeds.” This is a go-to remedy for the impulse to anger and retaliation when any kind of adversity strikes.

This verse corresponds to the worldly concern of fame versus disgrace. As long as we care what others think of us, we will be sensitive about our reputation and reflexively defend ourselves. Dilgo Khyentse tells two stories of practitioners who, rather than defend themselves publicly, took blame for negative actions they didn’t commit. In both cases the situation was eventually resolved, though we may not be able to count on that; the practitioners remained calm and matter of fact without knowing the outcome.

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37 practices: verse 13

13. To repay injury with acceptance / how to use suffering on the path

Though I’ve not done the slightest thing that’s wrong, / Without a cause someone cuts off my head.

To generate compassion in my heart / And take upon myself all their misdeeds:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 13 audio

Contemplation based on Ken McLeod‘s commentary: “Drop any concern for justice and fairness. These are ideals, ideas that your patterns easily twist and shape to their own ends. Practice goes nowhere if you follow this path. You are soon lost in interpretation, conceptual thinking, unacknowledged prejudice and bias.”

What does Ken mean by this, and do you think he is right? Should we ever intervene in situations to combat unfairness or abuse? If so, how can we do it without compromising our practice?

Homework: Be vigilant for the feeling that you are being treated unfairly. Catch it as soon as it arises, analyze the situation according to the verse 13 commentaries, and apply the remedy.

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37 practices: verse 12

12. To repay theft with generosity / how to use loss on the path

If someone driven by intense desire / Steals all my wealth or instigates the theft,

To dedicate to them from all three times / My wealth, good deeds, and merit, everything:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

audio of verse 12

Bodhisattva Boot Camp begins!

For an overview of this section of the 37 practices, verses 12-19, read this. And with verse 12, we wade right into the quicksand.

Contemplation: Can you recall an instance where someone stole something from you, large or small, material or metaphorical? Perhaps your home was broken into and completely cleaned out, as in the verse. Perhaps it was a smaller or less concrete loss: your car or bicycle, your wallet or credit card, a precious object, a financial scam, someone cutting in front of you in traffic or stealing the parking space you were waiting for, someone else got the promotion or award you felt you deserved, someone used your idea and didn’t give you credit. What was your reaction at the time? How does it feel now?

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37 practices: overview of bodhisattva boot camp (12-19)

In the bodhisattva boot camp verses, Togme Zangpo places us directly in dire situations designed to elicit our deepest habitual reactivity. Fortunately, he also provides the key in each situation to liberate ourselves from the corresponding habitual pattern and from the confusion and suffering of the karma that results from reinforcing it. According to Dilgo Khyentse, this set of verses is divided into several specific subsets.

Four things you do not want to happen (verses 12-15):

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