Having Proper Friends and Cherishing Spiritual Teachers

Verses 5 through 8

When we recite the refuge prayer, we have the line, “By the force of my giving and so on…” It’s good to know that we can change this line to suit the occasion. So, if we are prostrating, we can say, “By the positive force of prostrating to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.” If we are listening to Dharma teachings, we can say, “By the positive force of listening to the Dharma teachings…” It is good to make it as precise as possible. Please try to remember this. Ok, now let’s recite the refuge prayer.

I take refuge, till my enlightenment, in the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Highest Assembly. By the positive force of my giving and so on, may I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.

Let’s quickly recap the previous verses and try to recall the most important parts. Every day, try and look at your actions. Are they positive or negative? If we notice something positive, check to see whether it is included in these verses taught by Gyalse Togme Zangpo. If it is included, then it’s wonderful! If it doesn’t seem to be included, well, we can’t just add in whatever we want. So, check the action again. Maybe the action is related to something in the verses. It is really good to review our actions like this. It’s not that “Oh, Gyalse Togme Zangpo said it and His Holiness said it, so we have to do this.” That’s not a bad motivation but it’s not enough. It has to come from within us. Even something as simple as going to a picnic – that seems like normal life, as we call it. Of course, we have to hang our with friends, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are so many distractions like this. And so many really stupid distractions, too. How can you make the picnic more positive? Try to think about what is constructive and what is destructive in our actions.

The Importance of Having Proper Friends

(5) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rid ourselves of bad friends with whom, when we associate, our three poisonous emotions come to increase; our actions of listening, thinking, and meditating come to decrease; and our love and compassion turn to nil.

Gyalse Togme Zangpo wants us to have good friends, and in this verse here, he provides a definition of what are good friends. Most of us live quite a social life, and much of the information we get, we get from our friends. So, we are actually influenced by our friends a lot. A great master in Tibet said that bad friends don’t appear with a horns, but they will come with a smile and try to help us. We ourselves are the ones who have to see whether their “help” is right or wrong. We make the decision.

We can look into our own lives for examples. Have we been positively influenced by friends? Have we been negatively influenced? How? It is important to note that, when we say destructive friends, don’t take it in very solid way as though the friend is only a destructive friend. Not like this. There are good and bad parts to everyone, and we just need to take the good parts. And when we get down to it, where is that “badness” actually? Where is the “goodness?” It is a similar to the way of thinking when we practice analytical meditation on voidness. It gives us the opportunity to cool down and think, “Where is that good friend of ours? Where is that destructive friend of ours?” Ultimately, there is no such thing as a good friend or bad friend. If there were, then good friends would always be good and bad friends always bad. This is how we want to think when we’re very attached or very angry. This is why we say, “I will never talk to them again!” And if something good happens, we say, “They are my dearest friend.” This is our way of thinking. 

Our feelings can change in a matter of minutes. Our best friend, all of a sudden, turns into our worst enemy. Maybe it was just a single way of saying something, just a few words. There might not have been anything intentional in it, but we take it the wrong way. It can be that simple. It’s really funny how quickly we come to label people as good friends or enemies, without much research or analysis. But in reality, there is nothing to cling to and nothing to feel hatred for. 

When Gyalse Togme Zangpo talks of destructive friends, he is not necessarily pointing to something or someone solid. So, what is the definition of a destructive friend? He says: 

when we associate [with them], our three poisonous emotions come to increase;

This is actually inside of us. We engage less and less in studying, reflection and meditation. It’s a kind of laziness or wrong view. We already have this kind of laziness and wrong view within us, so when we hang out with someone who has the same feelings and doesn’t work to overcome them, it’s like an encouragement for our lazy, ignorance. The gap between the Dharma and our own practice grows bigger and bigger. Even if we study for 50 years and practice as our guru advises, there is no big change. Actually, we often get worse! We might read all of the sutras and tantras, but our way of thinking and living worsens. We say, “I have spent my life studying Buddhism, but it hasn’t changed me.” It’s nonsense! So many people say this, though. And the reason is not having proper friends. 

First, we must recognize that we have the enemy inside of us. When we choose a friend who has the same thinking as we do, our own way of thinking gets some logical support. Our human brain is very intelligent. We can come up with so many reasons why our thinking is right. The issue is that we don’t have the power to fight back, and then we sort of give up. We think, “This guy gives such a good explanation saying there is no next life, this sounds more interesting!” And so, we follow this path. It’s sad. Because you never think about the results of these ways of thinking. No matter how beautiful the Dharma and our practice is, we lose everything thanks to our “good” friend. We all have these kinds of friends. First, we have to identify these tendencies within ourselves, and then see them in our friends.

Most of us don’t recognize how our emotions work inside of us. If somebody says, “You said something wrong,” before getting irrationally angry toward our friend, we should be thankful to them for pointing out that we did something wrong. It is like a teacher directing us. We should think in a positive way and be thankful for the opportunity they’ve given us. And then we can give it some thought as to whether our friend is right or wrong about us. If it’s not true, you can say, “OK, this is his or her way of thinking, I have not done anything wrong.” When we hang out with friends who are drinking alcohol and gossiping, we should think about whether this is having a bad effect on our practice or not. What can we learn from each situation we find ourselves in? 

Compassion Without Boundaries

In the West, I find there to be a wrong way of thinking about compassion. Of course, Westerners will say that compassion is beautiful, but many will also say that there is a limit to compassion. In 2015, when there was the big earthquake in Nepal, I was living in Canada. My teacher had been listening to the radio on the way to class, hearing about the tragedy, and so we discussed it a bit in class. We talked about it for a while and then after five or ten minutes, she said, “OK, wrap it up! It is upsetting but this happens everywhere in the world, there is nothing I can do about it. Personally, I have so many problems myself, and keeping this sort of garbage in my mind makes me go crazy.” This is an example of how limited compassion can be! If we are a practicing bodhisattva, then ultimately this is very shocking. Otherwise, what she said is kind of true, isn’t it? 

For instance, we might see some people fighting. Should we go and get involved? Probably not, because we might get seriously hurt. So, we just stay and watch. Sometimes, that’s all we do. It’s not always easy to act compassionately in practice.

So, when we are with our friends, we need to listen to them, but we should have our own answers too. Because I’m a fan of the bodhisattvas, I thought, even if what she says sounds quite true, I still don’t think it’s the right way to think. So, I called my teacher and told her about my thoughts, and she said that her feelings are true from her side. But in my opinion, as practitioners of bodhichitta, we have to think immeasurably. It doesn’t mean that we personally will go to Nepal and feed everybody and bring them blankets. Our mind doesn’t need a visa to go to Nepal. What we do is feel a connection with everybody in our mind. That is how we reach out our heart and make our compassion or bodhichitta grow stronger. 

In Tibetan, we have the term “sem-kye.” “Sem” is the Tibetan word for the Sanskrit word “chitta,” which means mind, and “kye” means to generate and make bigger. We also use the term “sem-kye” to describe bodhichitta. All of us have a mind, a chitta, and all of us have some kind of compassion. But we need to make it grow. All of us also have obstacles. Why do obstacles grow? All because of self-cherishing. When we have a good job, are making good money, and are busy every day, we can become quite narrow-minded. Or we only focus on our own things. We might even hear of a friend who is need of urgent help but then we think, “Well, I don’t know them so well; it’s not really my problem.” Nothing clicks inside our heart because our connection to others can be so limited. 

That is why when, we recite the refuge prayer, we don’t just include our own family, good friends, teachers and so on. It should not be like this. We need to include every single sentient being, all of whom have the right to be happy and get out of suffering. All of them need help. This even includes all the bodhisattvas, too. Our heart is so compassionate and our aim so big, that we even include a tenth-level bodhisattva who is a million times better than us. And we include a totally ignorant, heavily destructive person in our prayers, too. But it’s also very important, even if we give small change to a beggar we encounter, not to think at the same time, “Oh, he is just a lowly beggar, he doesn’t have anything to eat.” This kind of compassion is not great compassion. I don’t even call it compassion. It’s more like looking down on the person, and then we feel sort of good about ourselves that we’re able to give something. 

Actually, in this kind of situation where someone needs help, we should think, “If I don’t do it, who will?” In the mornings, we recite our prayers and talk about the merits of generosity, and the beggar is giving us a chance to actually practice. So, we need to be very thankful and give to others with respect. We should be very happy that others give us the chance to practice generosity and develop bodhichitta. Then, the act of giving will be very pure. Otherwise, it’s like when we Tibetans see some street dogs, with no fur and lots of infections, we go, “Oh, that poor dog.” But that’s it! It’s not really compassion; it is more like looking down. 

Really practicing compassion would mean we would go the dog and give it whatever it needs. We would feel deeply how long this dog has suffered, and how long it will take rebirth as a dog and what kind of future rebirth it might have, and even how it’s possible that we ourselves can take this kind of rebirth and how terrible that would be. We would strongly want to know, is there any way to eliminate this kind of rebirth? Yes – it’s called “moksha,” or liberation in English. We are able to attain liberation. Liberation is not only for us, though. This dog, too, is able to attain liberation in the future. If we can bring liberation to everyone, wouldn’t that be the most wonderful thing? When our thinking is like that, then it becomes bodhichitta.

The Right Advice at the Right Time

So, back to the verse. We need good friends. Actually, the best friends we can have are the Sangha, one of the Three Jewels. If we truly listen to their advice, we will automatically know when our behavior is destructive or constructive. We will know whether our other friends are good or bad friends. And we’ll also see the good qualities of our bad friends and the bad qualities of our good friends. When we’re with our friends, we can listen to them and try to advise them in the right direction. If we can help them to change, then great. If not, then it’s OK. Sometimes, it’s more about timing. The timing has to be right, so we have to be careful with our advice.

It’s like my friend Alex, who was my translator in my past life. He loves me very much. When I was very young, I really didn’t care about studying. I just wanted to play violent video games all day long. Sometimes he was very strict, and he would say to me, “That’s very bad, you shouldn’t play these games, it’s a bad influence.” I felt like, “Oh, Come on!” I just wanted to tell him to go away. Haha! Of course, now I see that what he said is quite true. So, it depends a lot on the right timing. We need to know the right time to teach or advise our friends. We should be very skillful. That’s why the Buddha felt that liberation by itself is not going to help others. We need full enlightenment, with full omniscience. Without omniscience, we can’t help others 100%. Maybe we can help 40–60%. But with omniscience, we can see everything and feel the timing is right, and everything works perfectly.

Rechungpa and the Precious Stone

The great master Milarepa’s student, Rechungpa, was very handsome. Milarepa was not very good-looking though. This is all described in the texts. Rechungpa wasn’t very satisfied with Milarepa as a teacher. He felt that Milarepa didn’t have any education and was not a geshe but just a simple layperson, a simple practitioner. He asked Milarepa, “What are the six perfections?” And Milarepa smiled and replied very briefly, “To go from where you are now, to a better place, that is a perfection.” Actually, it’s a short answer but a very strong one! But for Rechungpa, it wasn’t enough. He told Milarepa that he wanted to go and study with very learned geshes. Milarepa said, “OK, you can go.” Milarepa knew from his omniscient mind that he had to let him go off and study with other teachers.

But, through his omniscience, Milarepa also knew that he was the only perfect teacher for Rechungpa. They had a karmic connection that Rechungpa was not able to see. So, Milarepa let him go. At that time, there were no taxis, so Rechungpa had to walk for many days and weeks. On his journey, he needed somewhere to stay and, one night, he knocked on the door of a house and a beautiful girl came out. Rechungpa asked if he could stay the night and if he could get something to eat for dinner. She said OK, and her family welcomed him in. There was some sort of eye contact between Rechungpa and this girl, who knows what happened!

Rechungpa decided to stay an extra day. This girl took her necklace, which had a precious stone in it, and gave it to Rechungpa, saying, “It is a sign of my love for you. Please take care of it.” Rechungpa nodded and took it and continued his journey. On the way, he met many people talking about Milarepa, a not so good-looking teacher, but one who gives solid teachings and a great practitioner. 

Finally, he met a great teacher with many students. He listened to this teacher and at the end of the teachings, the teacher folded his hands at his heart and said that, while he hadn’t met Milarepa directly, he had learned so much from him. Tears fell from the eyes of this great master. Rechungpa was really amazed, thinking, “Maybe l should go back and stay with Milarepa. I couldn’t get anything being so close to him, but all these masters are gaining so much from far away.” 

So, Rechungpa made his way back to Milarepa. On the way, the beautiful girl came to his mind, and he thought to visit her. Before he arrived, he encountered a destitute beggar, really in need of something to eat and to wear. Great compassion arose inside of Rechungpa, and he wondered what he might offer to this beggar. He remembered the precious stone that the girl had given him. He thought that the beggar would be very happy and would be able to buy many things to eat and wear. So, he gave it to the beggar. Then he went on to the girl’s place. She asked how everything had gone and also asked where the precious stone was. Rechungpa said, “There was a beggar who needed it more than me, and so I gave it to them.” She shouted and cried and lost her temper. He saw her ugly side and any affection he’d had toward her automatically disappeared. 

The next day he left and came back to Milarepa, made three prostrations, and shared some of the stories and education he had received from the great master. Before he could continue, Milarepa stopped him and said, “The girl gave you a precious stone. You gave it to one beggar. Once you returned, you found the ugly side of this woman.” Rechungpa said, “Yes.” Milarepa smiled, “You think that great master is so much better than me but, in the end, you come back and praise me. All these things that happened to you, I made them all happen. If you leave again, you will not find anything!”

This is the wonderful magic of how the Buddhas can help us. The moral of the story is that with, the Buddha’s blessing, even if the Buddha or a great master is not with us physically, we can learn something from all the bad and good things that happen to us. The teachings of the Buddhas and our masters are learned from within us. But we always forget this. Milarepa’s great teaching to Rechungpa is all the things he made Rechungpa go through. 

Cherishing Our Spiritual Teachers

(6) A bodhisattva’s practice is to cherish more than our bodies our hallowed spiritual mentors, to whom, by entrusting ourselves, our faults come to deplete and our good qualities come to expand like the waxing moon.

This verse is very true. When I have some problems, I go to my teacher. No questions are asked, but just by sitting next to him, positive things come out. When some destructive thoughts come, straight away and automatically, “No, I can’t think this way!” The most stupid thing, though, is that I will listen to my teacher and think, “Yes, this is the right thing!” but then after 20 or 30 minutes, it is the same old me. We listen about great compassion from our teacher and feel so inspired, and maybe afterwards we reflect on the most important points, but then the inspiration quickly fades. It’s like we’ve lost something precious. Actually, we should feel like we’ve lost a precious diamond and think “I need to get it back now!” Then we can listen to our teacher again and gain more and more strength. This is the way. 

If somebody asks you how much you respect His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for sure you will say, “Very much.” How precious is His Holiness? “Very precious.” Can you give your life to him? “What?!” But if you fall deeply in love, no doubt you will do anything to protect your loved one. You will be by their side to protect them whenever you have to. When you think about teachers and their precious knowledge, and how it helps you and brings you to enlightenment, you should feel, “If I lose this, what will happen to me? I want to keep it.” This is very important. 

Putting a Safe Direction in Our Life

(7) A bodhisattva’s practice is to take safe direction from the Supreme Gems, by seeking protection from whom we are never deceived – since whom can worldly gods protect when they themselves are still bound in the prison of samsara? 

Something related to this paragraph got His Holiness embroiled in a controversy. These days, His Holiness does not talk much about the worship of a particular figure, but His Holiness has made very strong statements on it, and for good reason. He was worried about our refuge. If our refuge is not pure, then we are not in the direction of being a Buddhist. He was very worried. What kind of refuge do we need? We need to take refuge in something that is much stronger than ourselves. This strength is not meant physically but mentally, for example, the Buddha, the omniscient one, his love toward us, the power, his way of knowing how we feel. He knows everything completely. When we talk about the Buddha’s power to help us, it is his teachings, the Dharma. The Dharma is not just speech or some beautiful texts. It’s Buddha’s own experience. He checked it himself and found that it is the only way to enlightenment, and so he delivered the teachings to us. That’s the Dharma and that is cessation itself. 

We need help on this path to enlightenment. We get this from the Sangha. It’s like in the hospital, there’s the doctor, the nurse, and the medicine. The Buddha is like a doctor who prescribes medicine – the Dharma – for our sickness, which is suffering. It’s the nurses – the Sangha – who help us to take the medicine. But sometimes we forget the importance of all three. Actually, Westerners with no background in traditional Buddhism are doing better than the people from Spiti, where I’m from. They are traditionally Buddhist, and they do all the ritual things beautifully, but they don’t have much knowledge about the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Especially Dharma. They are, actually, not very interested. When a lama gives an initiation and wears beautiful robes, they automatically feel that all their obstacles are magically gone now. This kind of thinking is coming to the West too. It is dangerous. It is like a disease. It’s like with most religions, most of the Buddhist countries are losing the purity of Buddhism. 

I studied in a monastery in southern India, and many Tibetans would come for the pujas. We had thousands of monks, and we’d often do pujas and prayers. Tibetans would come and make offerings, with folded hands, to the Buddha. Well, they’d stay just a few seconds and then move on to the protector chapels. There, so many people are doing rituals! The smell in there is quite different, with butter lamps and other offerings. They stay there for a long time praying. Even if His Holiness the Dalai Lama constantly teaches us all the necessary Buddhist teachings, but still we ignore them. When we have obstacles, we quickly do protective pujas. We completely forget that the ultimate protector is the Buddha himself. In our prayers to the guru, we say, “You are my guru, my Buddha, my protector,” but still we feel there is some special protector, like Palden Lhamo, who is totally different and more powerful than His Holiness. His Holiness is only teaching us about Buddhism, that’s all, haha!

I think, of course, Gyalse Togme Zangpo taught this specifically for Tibetans, saying that the worldly gods are still sentient beings stuck in samsara. They have jealousy and aversion just like us, so how could they truly help us, and how could they be our refuge? If the defining characteristic of our taking refuge is that we want to get out of samsara, then they certainly aren’t our refuge. If our mind is narrow-minded and all we want is a good life or to get revenge on enemies, then these worldly gods could be your refuge. But that is such a waste of time. Our aim is to get full enlightenment, not just good food, nice clothes, name and fame. We’re seeking full enlightenment. Our refuge is only the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. 

When Atisha went to Tibet from India, Tibetan lamas and scholars riding horses and dressed in beautiful brocade came to welcome him. They were monks. When Atisha saw that, he ran away. He said to two of his students, “Quick, let’s run, the Tibetan masters are coming!” This is the first teaching he gave in Tibet. We shouldn’t be impressed by worldly things like this. We should be very careful. 

Refraining from Destructive Behavior

(8) A bodhisattva’s practice is never to commit any negative actions, even at the cost of our lives, because the Able Sage has declared that the extremely difficult to endure sufferings of the worse states of rebirth are the results of negative actions.

Here, Gyalse Togme Zangpo talks about the lower realms. So, first of all, we need to examine whether there are lower realms or not. Let’s not talk about past and future lives – just focus on this life. We have done so many things, good things and negative things. These actions are all causes that create effects. In Buddhism, we say that if you do good deeds then good results will come, and if you do bad, bad will happen. We call this cause and effect. 

Let’s not worry about the bad things for now. Let’s think about the good things. We’ve done a lot for others, for the Tibetan people, for instance. We support His Holiness and practice what he tells us to – many great things. When the time comes that we have to leave this world, what will happen to us, and where will all these efforts and the good things we have done go? When someone dies, their name remains for a short period, but then even that disappears. The question really is whether our consciousness continues or not? This is a big question. Scientists don’t have a good explanation about consciousness. Following dialogues with His Holiness, they are still pretty confused. They aren’t sure whether they should follow His Holiness’ Buddhist explanations on what consciousness is, or whether they should stay in their box.  

We all know the power of the mind. If we train our mind, even if we are in a very bad mood, we can change our way of thinking easily. This is why we call it “mind training.” The power of the mind is so great, really. We have also seen so many examples of people remembering their past lives. In the teachings, Buddha Shakyamuni talks so much about future and past lives. Nagarjuna, Lama Tsongkhapa, all these great masters talked about future lives. It’s explained so well what consciousness is, and how it works. This is something amazing. Our consciousness goes from life to life and comes with a package called “imprints.”

In one family, there can be two siblings who have two totally different ways of thinking.  The shape of their brains is the same, but they have completely different ways of thinking. This is very complicated to explain. They are born in the same family from the same parents and have the same thinking, so shouldn’t they have very similar ways of thinking? But, if we believe in consciousness and imprints, we can infer that it all does make sense. And actually, our hope is in the imprints we have. The positive imprints we make here in this life, from the positive actions we do, will result in some positive effects in our future lives. That is why, for some people, things are really negative and, for others, really positive. It’s not that the people experiencing negative results from previous actions like being “bad” or want to experience negative results. They did whatever they did because they liked it very much and at that time, didn’t care if the result would be good or bad. It is all about our actions. Each one of us sentient beings has done so many positive and destructive actions in our life, and the results will arise one day or another.

You can see so many people out there who are not hard-working but achieve a lot. And then there are people who are very hard-working, but they achieve hardly anything. It’s very interesting. All of this stuff is to do with our merit and imprints. 

Let’s look at the negative things we might have done. Actually, we have done so many destructive things in our past lives, and they will ripen. That’s why we face obstacles and problems in our life now. But there’s so many other imprints. Wow. It’s really something quite unthinkable! We should stop and think about it, “These destructive things I like to do, the result is an imprint taken into the next life and, at that time, I will have to face something that I really don’t want to.” And it’s not only about us. It doesn’t just affect us. We can’t help others if we are stuck in a bad situation. We can’t really fulfill our role as bodhisattvas if we are facing so many big problems ourselves. 

We love others a lot and need to help them in their critical situations. To do this, we need to not engage in destructive actions. We feel this so strongly that we won’t engage in destructive acts even at the cost of our lives. It takes very strong effort, but if we really want to, we will do it. That’s why people who are heavily addicted to drugs, they will do anything. They don’t care if they die, as long as they can get their drugs. No regrets. Here of course, a bodhisattva’s way of thinking is very different. The purpose of our life as a bodhisattva is to benefit others, to lead them in the right direction, and we’re willing to do anything to make that happen. We’re willing to stop engaging in anything negative at all, to bring ourselves to the state where we can truly help others. If we do something destructive, knowing that in the future something negative in turn will happen to us, we won’t be able to help others. This is the attitude with which bodhisattvas fight negative actions. Whatever we’ve done in the past is done, they are causes and they will have their results. But now, at this very moment, we can put a stop to this cycle. If we continue engaging in negative actions now, then for sure in the next life we will have to deal with the results, and if negative emotions take over and corrupt our mind, we won’t be able to help others. 

It’s like there is a leak in your house. One or two drops are fine, but if you leave it, it will only get worse. If you don’t stop it from the main source, you will end up in big trouble and a flooded house. So, we fix it as soon as we notice it. It’s the same thing here. We try and fix our actions straight away, so that we don’t have bigger problems later on. To do this we need to know the purpose of life. Otherwise, we will waste our life just enjoying the pleasures of samsara.


Let’s stop here for now and dedicate the positive potential we’ve all created today.

We’ve put some effort into listening to these verses of Gyalse Togme Zangpo and recalling His Holiness’ and our other gurus’ teachings. Regardless of whether we can put them all into practice now, simply listening even for a few minutes and setting our mind in that direction is a wonderful thing. Our mind listens, but it might not work so well. So, we have to have the motivation to awaken our mind. Now we know a little bit of the teachings and we can put things together ourselves. My teacher always said that the best commitment we can make is that, every day for 15 or 30 minutes, we will study and reflect on our practice. How does our practice help us in life? Think about how we want to have this kind of practice for the rest of our lives. As a dedication, we should dedicate this to our teachers, so that they may live very long, and we can listen to their teachings. So, the best commitment is to practice 15 minutes, 30 minutes, one hour. We will feel our life changing through this. With this dedication, we will accumulate a lot of positive force. Thank you!