The Six Perfections and Daily Practice

Verses 25 through 37 and Concluding Verses

Togme Zangpo then discusses the six far-reaching attitudes or the so-called “perfections” or “paramitas,” which are a very important basis for our bodhisattva behavior. The bodhisattva vows, particularly the secondary vows, are a way to help us practice these six.

(25) A bodhisattva’s practice is to give generously, without hope for anything in return or something karmic to ripen, because, if those who would wish enlightenment must give away even their bodies, what need to mention external possessions?

The first of the far-reaching attitudes is generosity. “Far-reaching attitudes,” is quite a literal translation of the Sanskrit term, in the sense that when we develop these states of mind, they are far-reaching. They bring us very far; actually, they bring us all the way to enlightenment.

To be more precise, they can bring us either to liberation, or both liberation and enlightenment. In the Hinayana schools of Buddhism, we also have these far-reaching attitudes, but there the aim of practicing them is to reach liberation, and of course to help others along the way. What makes the attitudes distinctly Mahayana is when the motivation is bodhichitta. Therefore, if we’re going to practice these far-reaching attitudes in the Mahayana context, it’s very important that they’re securely based on this primary aim in our life, bodhichitta, to reach enlightenment and to be able to help others along the way, and also as fully as possible when we finally reach enlightenment.

Shantideva makes a very important point when he says that the six far-reaching attitudes are just that – attitudes and states of mind. They are not the actual actions based on them. As he says in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior:

(V.9) (After all,) if the perfection of giving were that the poverty of wandering beings was all gone; then how could the Guardians of old have perfected it, since wandering beings have hunger still now?
(V.10) The perfection of giving is said to be through the mind that would give away to everyone all that is mine, together with its results; thus, it’s the mind itself.

Since it’s the attitude of wishing and being willing to give everybody everything that is important, then even if we have nothing, we can still develop this far-reaching attitude. For example, we could imagine, “May everybody be able to enjoy this beautiful sunset,” or whatever it may be that we enjoy. We can also imagine giving others whatever they need. But if we do have actual things that we can give to others to help them, then it’s not sufficient just to visualize and imagine giving things to others. We do need to actually give as well!

When we actually give things to others generously, it’s important to do it, as Togme Zangpo says, without hope for anything in return. It’s not a business transaction. We’re not trading something, or giving something to receive something back. This is not referring to only wanting to have something material back, but also wanting the other person to like us, love us, or to even thank us. There should be no hope or expectation for that at all. It’s not why we’re giving to somebody. When our hand gives food to our mouth, does the hand expect a thank you, or congratulations, or anything in return? We give simply because somebody needs something. If we have that ability to give what they need and it’s not going to cause harm or anything like that, then we give. It’s like seeing the dirty dishes in the sink; it doesn’t matter whether it’s our dishes or somebody else’s dishes, the dishes need to be washed and so we do it.

Similarly, when we give, we shouldn’t expect something karmic to ripen. The fact is that the result of generosity is that, in future lives particularly, we’ll be wealthy. If we approached being generous, for example, by giving donations to Dharma centers and things like that as a good investment, thinking that in the future we’re going to get a good return for our investment and we’ll be wealthy in our future lives, that’s also inappropriate. In addition, it’s important not to be attached to objects that we give away, or insist that the other person use them in the way that we want them to use them. Once we’ve given a gift, who does it belong to, the other person or to us?

Therefore, as Togme Zangpo says, If those who would wish enlightenment must give away even their bodies, like the example of Buddha Shakyamuni who as a very advanced bodhisattva in some previous lifetime gave pieces of his body to feed a hungry tigress, then what need to mention external possessions? Not only do we need to have no attachment to our external possessions, but not even to our body, in terms of giving it for the service of others.

If we’re not an advanced bodhisattva, then, as it says in the teachings, “A fox doesn’t jump where a lion jumps.” When we’re not ready to give away our body or life to others, then we shouldn’t do it. To attempt such behavior when we’re not ready would undoubtedly develop a very negative state of mind, which isn’t helpful at all. Actually, it’s interesting as a test to see how advanced we actually are in terms of generosity: how willing are we to feed a mosquito when it lands on our arm and bites? Most people are not willing to let the mosquito take anything. As His Holiness says, “They only take a little drop of blood. It’s not a lot.”

If we’re willing to give away something that we don’t need, or that we don’t particularly like, or is left over, “I’m tired of these clothes and so I’ll give these old clothes to some poor person,” that’s no great achievement. The point is to be willing to give to others things that we really covet, like our “precious time.”

(26) A bodhisattva’s practice is to safeguard ethical self-discipline without worldly intents, because, if we can’t fulfill our own purposes without ethical discipline, the wish to fulfill the purposes of others is a joke.

Ethical self-discipline is the next far-reaching attitude. It’s a state of mind that refrains from acting destructively and also is the strength of mind to engage in something constructive to help others. When we think of this self-discipline, we need to think in a broad sense, just as when we think of generosity we need to not just give material things, but also give help, time, our attention and love, teachings and so on.

Togme Zangpo points out that safeguarding ethical self-discipline, in other words guarding to make sure that we act in an appropriate way and not inappropriately, is something we need to do without worldly intents. What is meant by worldly intent? Why are we developing discipline? An athlete develops discipline and a musician develops discipline. There are many different types of discipline that we can develop. But what is our intention in developing this discipline? Is it just for some worldly purpose, to be a good athlete and win a medal, or to be a virtuoso musician? What we need to do here is to develop the ethical self-discipline to be able to reach liberation and enlightenment, and to help others, both along the way and more so once we’ve achieved enlightenment.

There are many ways in which we can develop ethical self-discipline that are very worldly, for instance building up our body as a muscle builder. We train all the time just to look very strong. Or we refrain from eating fattening food, or food that we like, because we want to be on a diet and attract a partner. This involves great vanity. These are not the types of self-discipline that we’re speaking about here. This is why I add here, in the translation of the term, “ethical” self-discipline, but even ethical self-discipline can be done with worldly intents. For example, we want to be a good practitioner, and don’t want to be a bad Buddhist, because we want our teacher to like us. That’s a worldly intent, isn’t it? Remember, we need to practice these far-reaching attitudes with bodhichitta, and not only conventional bodhichitta, but the deepest bodhichitta, the understanding of voidness. Therefore, we are not implementing discipline for our own selfish aims.

Togme Zangpo states if we can’t fulfill our own purposes without ethical self-discipline, referring to fulfilling the spiritual aims of the initial and intermediate scope. For our own purposes we want to have a better rebirth, a precious human life, and we want to gain liberation. If we can’t achieve those without ethical self-discipline, how can we even think to fulfill the purposes of others in terms of reaching enlightenment, without this ethical self-discipline?

(27) A bodhisattva’s practice is to build up as a habit patience, without hostility or repulsion toward anyone, because, for a bodhisattva wishing for a wealth of positive force, all who cause harm are equal to treasures of gems.

Patience is the state of mind with which we do not get angry at those who do harm to us; we don’t get upset with all the difficulties that we’re going to have to endure to reach enlightenment; and we don’t get fed up with all the difficulties that are involved in helping others. It’s not so easy to help others, and so we need to build up patience as a habit. That’s what is meant by the word “meditate,” but we need to understand that its actual meaning is to build up a beneficial habit. So by practicing over and over again, we need to make patience a habit. The way we develop the habit of patience is not to have hostility or repulsion toward anyone. No matter how difficult they may be to help, no matter how destructive they may be toward us, we refrain from getting angry.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, patience and tolerance aren’t a sign of weakness, they’re actually a sign of incredible strength. To have patience doesn’t mean that we let others act destructively or step all over us, and we don’t do anything. What it means is that we differentiate the person from their actions and don’t get angry with the person. As Shantideva says, if there were a difficult situation in which we could do something to change it, then why get angry? Just change it. Just do it. But, if it were a situation in which there’s nothing we could do, why get angry? It’s not going to help.

Having patience is, as Togme Zangpo says, a great cause for building up a tremendous amount of positive force. He says, for a bodhisattva wishing for a wealth of positive force, that’s usually translated as “merit,” all who cause harm are equal to treasures of gems. Why? Well, how could we develop patience if there weren’t others who are annoying and difficult? We find a similar thought in other mind training texts. Those with whom we can practice patience are great treasures, because through that we can build up a wealth of positive force, with which we can reach enlightenment.

(28) A bodhisattva’s practice is to exert perseverance, the source of good qualities for the purposes of all wandering beings, since we can see that even shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, who would accomplish only their own purposes, have such perseverance that they would turn from a fire that has broken out on their heads.

Perseverance is the fourth far-reaching attitude. The Sanskrit word for this attitude, “virya,” is related to the Sanskrit word “vira” meaning “hero,” the Latin word “vir” meaning “man” and the English word “virile.” Thus it connotes heroic courage and vigor to energetically engage in and accomplish a positive goal that is difficult to attain. With this attitude, we endure and go on and on with our spiritual work, regardless of how difficult it is, without ever getting discouraged, without being lazy, without feelings of inadequacy, as in “I can’t do it,” and without putting things off until tomorrow. We take joy in what we’re doing, specifically persevering in constructive activity. This is the source of good qualities, in other words reaching enlightenment for the purpose of benefiting everyone.

If Hinayana practitioners, the shravakas and pratyekabuddhas, who work only for their own sakes to gain liberation, have incredible heroic courage, perseverance and effort to attain their goal, then we, who are working as bodhisattvas for the benefits of others, need even more. Shravakas are those who have the opportunity to listen to the Buddha’s teachings; while pratyekabuddhas practice on the basis of instincts during the dark ages when the Buddha’s teachings are unavailable. The example that’s given here, which comes from earlier texts as well, of demonstrating the type of perseverance and courage that these shravakas and pratyekabuddhas have, is the perseverance and courage to continue with their meditation or whatever spiritual practices they’re doing, even if a fire has broken out on their heads. Even if their head is on fire, they would ignore it, and not just freak out and stop to put it out. Instead, they would turn away from that, ignore it, and continue with their meditation practice. If they have such heroic perseverance that they won’t be distracted by their own individual worldly needs, then we would need even more as a bodhisattva.

To turn away from a fire that has broken out on their heads is basically referring to renunciation. They renounce this worldly concern about the fire on their head. The term literally means to turn away from it. Of course, some people would interpret this as “turn away the fire,” or “put out the fire,” but that’s not the meaning. The meaning here is renunciation.

(29) A bodhisattva’s practice is to build up as a habit a mental stability that purely surpasses the four formless (absorptions), by realizing that an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, fully endowed with a stilled and settled state, can totally vanquish the disturbing emotions and attitudes.

This verse is filled with a lot of jargon and technical terms. It refers to the far-reaching attitude of mental stability, sometimes referred to as “concentration,” but it doesn’t mean just simply concentration. It’s a stable state of mind that is not moved or swayed by flightiness of mind, mental wandering, distraction or dullness. It also is not swayed or moved by disturbing emotions, so it’s stable. That’s the actual connotation of this term.

With this mental stability, of course we can do almost anything, can’t we? The type of mental stability that we want to achieve is one that purely surpasses the four formless absorptions. The four formless absorptions are very deep meditative trances that, if we became attached to them, would cause our rebirth in the four different realms of the plane of formless beings, the formless realm. This mental stability purely surpasses that. The term purely is used in the sense that these four formless absorptions are tainted with unawareness, with ignorance and are thereby impure. We want to get a type of mental stability that is pure, that goes beyond that, that’s not mixed with unawareness or confusion.

What do we want to be able to focus that mental stability on? What is the state of mind that we want to achieve that will have this mental stability? It is one that is a combination, or joined state of vipashyana and shamatha, to use the Sanskrit terms. A stilled and settled state is shamatha and an exceptionally perceptive state of mind is vipashyana. What is a stilled and settled state? It is stilled of all mental wandering, flightiness of mind and dullness, and it is settled single-pointedly on a constructive object. It has a sense of fitness, a very exhilarating physical and mental state of fitness that the mind can focus on anything and stay there for as long as you want.

As my teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to say, it’s like having a huge jumbo jet. If you put it on the ground, it stays there, but when it’s flying in the air, it just goes. This is the sense of fitness that the mind can concentrate and do anything that we want it to do, and stay in that state in a stable manner. It’s a bit similar to the sense of fitness of a well-trained athlete. For example, the body is so fit that it’s a super feeling that they can do anything; they can run forever.

On that basis, one can go further and join it with vipashyana, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. This is a state of mind, which already has shamatha. It’s already stilled and settled, able to focus on anything, and has in addition to this first sense of fitness, a second sense of fitness, that it’s able to perceive or understand anything. Not just voidness, it can understand anything. It’s totally fit, and can understand and perceive in any detail, in all profundity, anything. We need to realize that it’s only if we have this exceptionally perceptive state of vipashyana, of course fully conjoined with shamatha, that we’ll be able to totally vanquish, as Togme Zangpo says, the disturbing emotions and attitudes. When we realize that, then we’ll strive to develop mental stability with that joined state of vipashyana and shamatha. This will, of course, surpass the four formless absorptions, which only keep us locked in samsara.

(30) A bodhisattva’s practice is to build up as a habit the discriminating awareness that’s together with methods and which has no conceptions about the three spheres, because without discriminating awareness, the five far-reaching attitudes cannot bring about the attainment of complete enlightenment.

Discriminating awareness is usually translated as “wisdom,” but I find this much too imprecise and vague a word. We’re talking about being able to discriminate between how things actually exist and how they don’t exist.

We need discriminating awareness that’s together with methods. The word methods” refers to bodhichitta, and bodhichitta is based on love and compassion. Discriminating awareness of voidness can bring us liberation. It can get rid of the emotional obscurations that prevent liberation – namely unawareness (ignorance), the disturbing emotions and the tendencies of both. But, it’s only when it’s together with bodhichitta that it has enough force to be able to cut through the second set of obscurations, which are the cognitive obscurations that prevent omniscience and enlightenment – namely the constant habits of grasping for truly established existence that cause the mind to make appearances of truly established existence. Therefore bodhichitta with love and compassion are the methods mentioned here.

This type of discriminating awareness needs to be without conceptions about the three spheres. The three spheres refer to the person who is meditating, what one is meditating on, and the meditation itself, and the conceptions are about truly established existence. We want to rid ourselves of that conception of the truly established existence of the three spheres, and moreover, we want to have this whole understanding be non-conceptual. When we have a conceptual cognition of anything, it projects an appearance of truly established existence and until we become liberated, we believe that it corresponds to how things exist. In other words, we have grasping for truly established existence, and so from many points of view we really have to gain a non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

Why do we need to develop this far-reaching discriminating awareness? Togme Zangpo says it is because without discriminating awareness the five far-reaching attitudes cannot bring about the attainment of complete enlightenment. Even with conventional bodhichitta, the wish to reach enlightenment to benefit everybody, just practicing the first five far-reaching attitudes is not enough. They all need to be accompanied by far-reaching discriminating awareness of voidness.

Also, what is significant here is that we need to have that discriminating awareness about the three spheres, and not just about the person, “me.” According to Hinayana, we just need to understand that a person, “me,” doesn’t exist in an impossible way with an impossible soul. According to Mahayana, discriminating awareness of the voidness of “me” is not sufficient for gaining enlightenment. We need to gain the discriminating awareness of the voidness of all phenomena, as signified by not only “me,” the one who is meditating, but also what we’re meditating on, and the action of meditation itself. According to the Prasangika view as asserted in the Gelug tradition, we need this discriminating awareness of the voidness of the three spheres even to attain liberation.

A Bodhisattva’s Daily Practice

The next verses deal with the bodhisattva’s daily practice.

(31) A bodhisattva’s practice is continually to examine our self-deception and then rid ourselves of it, because, if we do not examine our self-deception ourselves, it’s possible that with a Dharmic (external) form we can commit something non-Dharmic.

As is said in the Seven Point Mind Training, we need to have the mirror of the Dharma facing inwards, not outwards. We examine ourselves to see if we are actually practicing the Dharma properly, and not just have it facing outwards to see if we think others are practicing properly.

The same text also says that we need to take ourselves “as the main witness,” to witness whether or not we’re practicing purely. Only we are the best judges of our actual motivation, of what is really going on in our minds. It’s very easy to have self-deception. We deceive ourselves into thinking “I really am following the Buddhist path,” or “I really have overcome selfishness,” and all these different types of self-deception. But we need to examine this very carefully, as Togme Zangpo says, and rid ourselves of it.

Because if we don’t examine it ourselves, then it’s quite possible that just externally we’re following the Dharma; for instance, we might do lots of prostrations as just an external form, but actually, internally it’s not Dharma at all. We might as well be doing a hundred thousand push-ups. Often we meditate or do various Dharmic practices, not because our hearts are in it, but because we would feel guilty if we didn’t do them. This is a good example of having a Dharmic external form, but actually doing something non-Dharmic.

(32) A bodhisattva’s practice is not to speak about the faults of a person who has entered Mahayana, because, if under the power of disturbing emotions and attitudes, we talk about the faults of others who are bodhisattvas, we ourselves will degenerate.

A person who has entered Mahayana refers to somebody who is actually practicing the bodhisattva path. Finding fault with somebody who is actually a bodhisattva is a state of mind in which we’re putting down and finding fault with bodhichitta and bodhisattva behavior. That makes our own bodhisattva behavior degenerate, because we have a negative attitude toward bodhisattva behavior.

What’s noteworthy is the point made of being under the power of disturbing emotions and attitudes we talk about the faults of others who are bodhisattvas. It is significant that Togme Zangpo states this quite specifically. There may be bodhisattvas who are not terribly skilful in their methods and so that in a sense is a fault and we can, of course, give constructive criticism, and suggestions on how to be more skilful. But, this is a different circumstance than talking about finding fault because of our own disturbing emotions and attitudes.

With disturbing emotions, it can be because we’re jealous of what they’re doing or we’re thinking just in terms of “me” as in, “I disapprove of what they’re doing, because I would do it differently.” It could be arrogance, as in “I could do a better job than this person is doing.” It could be naivety, in which we simply don’t understand the method and the far-reaching intention of the bodhisattva and we’re thinking in a very limited way. It could be attachment and anger, as in “I wanted to do that, and now this bodhisattva did it first,” and we’re angry with them. It is in this context, as Togme Zangpo says, if under the power of disturbing emotions and attitudes we talk about the faults of others who are bodhisattvas, we ourselves will degenerate.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t make constructive suggestions to somebody who is trying as a bodhisattva to help everybody, if we think that maybe there’s something further that they can do. Of course, in general it’s not helpful to offer destructive criticism and speak only about the faults of others. But, this section can be misunderstood as meaning that we never try to correct somebody or help somebody if they’re making a mistake. In other words, if we are going to make critical suggestions, it needs to be done with great respect, and with the motivation to help the other person to help others even more. This requires humility, not arrogance. In addition, we need to offer our suggestions at the right time and in the right circumstances, otherwise others who hear us may become confused.

(33) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of attachment to homes of relatives and friends and homes of patrons, because under the power of (wanting) gain and respect, we will quarrel with each other and our activities of listening, thinking, and meditating will decline.

We may notice that this is the third verse in which Togme Zangpo speaks about this similar theme. It’s very difficult when we stay in the homes of relatives and friends, or patrons, in other words, those who support us financially and so on, if we have a lot of disturbing emotions. Here, the specific disturbing emotion that he’s referring to is wanting or having great desire for gain. In this instance, it is getting a lot of money or respect from the patron.

If, for example, we’re trying to follow the bodhisattva path while living with our family, and they didn’t respect what we’re doing, or even disapproved of what we’re doing, then if we were attached to receiving their respect and approval, what’s going to happen? As Togme Zangpo says, we’re going to quarrel with each other and our activities of listening, thinking, and meditating will decline. Because we’re so concerned about their approval, we’re going to get very upset.

Ra Lotsawa, a great Tibetan translator, once said, “The type of Dharma practice that I’m doing is something that my teacher has instructed me to do, and so even if nobody likes me for what I’m doing, I don’t care.” In other words, we’re not doing Dharma practice in order to get other people’s approval. When we know that we’re following the Buddhist path according to the instructions of our fully qualified teacher, then it doesn’t matter. We don’t need anybody else’s approval. We really need to be unattached to that.

The account is told of Geshe Ben Gungyal, who was meditating up in the mountains in a cave, and his patron sponsor was coming to visit him. He set up his altar properly, cleaned up his meditation room, and made himself look very clean, so that he would impress the patron and gain his continued support. Then he realized that what he was doing was mixed with worldly concern about himself gaining fame and respect, and so he took some dirt and threw it all over his offerings. There was another great master living far away who saw this with his extrasensory perception and said, “Geshe Ben Gungyal has just made the purest offering in all of Tibet.” This is referring to the same type of point as made in the verse here.

(34) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of harsh language displeasing to the minds of others, because harsh words disturb others’ minds and cause our bodhisattva ways of behavior to decline.

If we yell at people or call them bad names and so on, this certainly is displeasing to others. Nobody likes that and it certainly disturbs others’ minds. If, as a bodhisattva, we’re trying to make others happy and help them to gain peace of mind, to disturb their minds with harsh words is the opposite, so it makes our bodhisattva behavior decline.

When we talk about harsh language, this is always with the intention of malice; we want to hurt somebody with these words. Sometimes we, of course, have to speak forcefully and loudly. For instance, if a child is about to run into the street where there’s a lot of traffic, if you can’t just grab the child, then you have to shout very loudly to try and stop them.

Sometimes we need to speak in a strong way to others in order to benefit them. For example my own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche – his name for me was always “Idiot,” or “Dummy.” When he accepted me as his personal student, what I asked him was, “Please train me, who is such a donkey, to be more skillful in helping others.” This was my request to him. When I was younger I was very arrogant, coming from a Harvard University background and so on. Serkong Rinpoche took my request very seriously and never missed an opportunity to point out when I was acting like an idiot, which was a great deal of the time. For example, he never refrained from doing that even in a large group of people if I was translating and I made a mistake. Although one could regard that language of calling me “Idiot” or “Dummy” as harsh language, he was doing this with great love and compassion to help me, and I never got angry.

This is quite a different situation than when the verse speaks of harsh language displeasing to the minds of others as this is with an intention to hurt the other persons’ feelings.

(35) A bodhisattva’s practice is to have the servicemen of mindfulness and alertness hold the opponent weapons and forcefully to destroy disturbing emotions and attitudes, like attachment and so forth, as soon as they first arise, because when we are habituated to disturbing emotions and attitudes, it is difficult for opponents to make them retreat.

This verse is very much in keeping with Shantideva’s teachings. Usually we think of mindfulness and alertness as mental factors that we use for developing concentration, but Shantideva explains them in terms of developing ethical self-discipline. They’re in his chapters on that topic and again we have the imagery of the military fighting a battle. Actually, we are fighting a battle against the disturbing emotions and attitudes, which cause us to act destructively. Anger and attachment cause us to act in very destructive ways, so we have to use the soldiers or the servicemen of mindfulness and alertness.

Mindfulness is the mental glue that holds on to our discipline and doesn’t let go. Alertness is the mental factor that oversees this mindfulness to make sure that it doesn’t lose its grip or hold on too tightly. They are holding the opponent weapons. In general, we can think of ethical discipline as the opponent, but there are other opponents as well. For example, the opponent to anger would be love, or if we’re attached to the body beautiful, thinking about the impurity of the body and the substances inside the stomach and intestines. Alertness is like the alarm system that goes off when there is something wrong with the hold of the mindfulness, this mental glue. Then actually, it’s attention that comes in and re-establishes the mindfulness. It’s attention that re-establishes a more beneficial way of looking at someone. We pay attention in a different way to the object. In other words, instead of paying attention to it with anger, we pay attention to it with love.

We try to recognize when our hold on ethical discipline and positive states of mind are weak. We want to correct them as soon as the disturbing emotions and attitudes creep into our state of mind and try to steal it, as Shantideva says. We try to do that as quickly as possible, because, as Togme Zangpo states, if we’re habituated to disturbing emotions and attitudes, if we let them just go wild and take over our state of mind and don’t do anything about it, then we get into the habit of just thinking in these destructive ways with these disturbing emotions. Then it’s really difficult for the opponent forces to make them retreat, or to go away. Therefore we need to catch our minds quickly when they’re deviating from ethical discipline. Then we can correct it much more easily.

It’s like when we learn a language. In the beginning we may not learn how to pronounce words correctly. This often happens when people study Tibetan, for example, and then they get into the habit of pronouncing it completely incorrectly. When that becomes a strong habit, it’s very difficult to correct it. But if we can correct it from the very start, when we start to mispronounce the language, then we’ll be able to pronounce it correctly much more easily.

Verse 36 is a summary of what we need to do to follow the bodhisattva’s path. Togme Zangpo writes:

(36) In short, a bodhisattva’s practice is (to work) to fulfill the purposes of others by continually possessing mindfulness and alertness to know, no matter where or what course of behavior we’re following, how is the condition of our minds.

This is very similar to the advice that Shantideva gives in summary. How is it that we work to fulfill the purposes of others, or to help others? We need to constantly have mindfulness and alertness. Mindfulness holds on to discipline, love, compassion, and bodhichitta. Alertness, the alarm system is there so that if we lose our hold or our grip on this ethical discipline, love, and so on, that we can correct it.

In this way, we need to check, no matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing, to know what’s going on in our minds. Atisha, a great master earlier than Togme Zangpo, states in the last line in his text A Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems:

(28) When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.

This is a similar idea.

(37) A bodhisattva’s practice is, with the discriminating awareness of the complete purity of the three spheres, to dedicate for enlightenment the constructive forces realized by efforts like these, in order to eliminate the sufferings of limitless wandering beings.

This refers to the dedication. When we make the dedication of whatever constructive or positive force has come from our bodhisattva behavior, we need to do this with the discriminating awareness of voidness. Here it’s referred to as the complete purity of the three spheres. In other words, this is speaking about the voidness of the one who is building up this positive force, the action with which it was built up, and the actual positive force itself.

Togme Zangpo writes to dedicate for enlightenment, which means to dedicate all of this for enlightenment in order to eliminate the sufferings of limitless wandering beings. The proper way to make dedication is indicated very well by Shantideva in the last chapter, the dedication chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He never phrases the dedication, “May I be able to achieve enlightenment, so that I can eliminate the sufferings of all beings.” He never makes that dedication just for himself. The emphasis isn’t on “me,” as in “May I achieve enlightenment, so that I can eliminate the suffering of everybody.” That is a dedication mixed with grasping for a “me,” isn’t it?

In the dedication chapter Shantideva simply states, “May everybody achieve enlightenment,” and “May everybody’s suffering be eliminated,” “May this be a cause for everybody reaching enlightenment, so that no longer will anybody experience the sufferings of the worse states of rebirth,” and so on. So it has nothing to do with “me” personally, as the great bodhisattva becoming the great Buddha, who is going to help everybody.

There is an account told in many texts, where we’re going on a journey with some very wealthy people who have brought a tremendous amount of grain to eat during the journey. We can think of a caravan in Tibet, for example. What we want to do is, even if we have just a very little bit of grain ourselves, is to add it to the bags of grain. It mixes with the grain of everybody, and with that of the patrons, so that, in this sense, we make a little contribution to the welfare of everybody.

Similarly, we add the positive force that we’ve built up, even if it’s very small, to this great amount of positive force that all the bodhisattvas have dedicated for the enlightenment of everybody. It’s not that they have dedicated it for their own enlightenment, but they’ve dedicated it for the enlightenment of everybody. When we add our small amount of positive force to that great stock of positive force for the enlightenment of everybody by dedicating it in that way, then it will have a much greater effect.

We have to be very careful throughout our bodhisattva practice not to mix it with self-centered preoccupations as in this example of, “May I – me, me, me – be able to reach enlightenment. May I – me, me, me – be able to help everybody.” It is also not, “May my little amount of grain feed everybody.”

That’s why the understanding of voidness along with the dedication is so important, so that we can avoid the extreme of dedicating with the preoccupation of a solid “me.”

Concluding Verse

Having followed the words of the hallowed beings and the meaning of what has been declared in the sutras, tantras, and treatises, I have arranged (these) practices of bodhisattvas, thirty and seven, for the purposes of those who wish to train in the bodhisattva path.

Togme Zangpo states that he did not originate this material. He followed the words of the great teachers and the meaning of what is found in the great texts. We can see that a great deal of the material that comes here in the 37 Practices derives from Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior and Geshe Chekawa’s 7-Point Mind Training, texts that Togme Zangpo also wrote commentaries to, as well as other lojong literature.

Then he continues:

Because my intelligence is feeble and my education meager, they may not be in poetic meter that would please the erudite. But, because I’ve relied on the sutras and the words of the hallowed ones, I think that (these) bodhisattva practices are not deceived.

Togme Zangpo apologizes for his poetry as this text is written in metered verse. He basically says that it might be not the greatest, and that he’s not that intelligent or skilled, but nevertheless, because I’ve relied on the sutras and the words of the great masters like Shantideva and Geshe Chekawa, he says, I think that these bodhisattva practices are not deceived. In other words, he is not wrong about the fact that these really are the bodhisattvas’ practices.

Togme Zangpo continues:

Nevertheless, since it is difficult for someone dull-witted like myself to fathom the depth of the great waves of bodhisattva behavior, I request the hallowed ones to be patient with my mass of faults, such as contradictions, lack of connection, and the likes.

Again he is being very humble. He says, “How can somebody as dull-witted, as simple-minded as myself really understand the vast bodhisattva conduct that great bodhisattvas practice?” He requests the great beings to be patient with him, with any mistakes that he might have made, such as contradictions. In other words, in writing about the bodhisattva practices, presenting things as though they appear to be contradictory or have lack of connection, or a weakness in connecting the verses with each other, so that it is easily understood, and so on.

Then the final verse:

By the constructive force coming from this, may all wandering beings, through supreme deepest and conventional bodhichittas, become equals to the Guardian Avalokiteshvara, who never abides in the extremes of compulsive samsaric existence or nirvanic complacency.

Note that he doesn’t write, “May I become the equal of the Guardian Avalokiteshvara.” This is similar to what we discussed before, in terms of the dedication. He is saying, “May everybody become the equals of the Guardian Avalokiteshvara.” In other words, may everyone become enlightened through developing the supreme deepest and conventional bodhichittas. That state of Avalokiteshvara is one of enlightenment, which does not abide in the extremes of samsara or nirvana, as we’ve explained before.

Then the colophon:

This has been composed in Rinchen cave in Ngulchu (a district in Tibet) by the disciplined monk Togme, a teacher of scripture and logic, for the sake of his own and others’ benefit.

This completes the teaching on the 37 Bodhisattva Practices, by the great bodhisattva Togme Zangpo.

It’s really important to actually try and put all of this into practice as much as possible. It’s recommended as a helpful daily practice to read this, and not just go “blah blah blah” but to keep the actual meaning in our mind. Each day we could spend a little time focusing on one particular verse. This is a useful method for slowly integrating the material in a way where we can become really familiar with it, and be able to remember it when we’re leading our lives. In this way, we’ll be able to put it all into practice, slowly.


To become a bodhisattva, someone with unlabored bodhichitta – a heart and mind totally dedicated to reaching enlightenment so as best to help everyone overcome suffering – we need to follow a graded course of development. The lam-rim graded stages provide that course. We especially need to turn negative circumstances into positive ones by overcoming self-cherishing, and practice the six far-reaching attitudes. The 37 bodhisattva practices presented in this short text provide the guidelines for the complete bodhisattva path.

Read and listen to the original text “37 Bodhisattva Practices” by Togme Zangpo.