Setting the Motivation
First of all, we need to have very good motivation for studying about the behavior of bodhisattvas. When we have a strong motivation, it is interesting how our minds work. If I were to say, “Let’s all go to the Dalai Lama’s temple!” and we agree on that and start to make our way, then suddenly I change my mind and say, “Let’s go to Norbulingka!” people would not agree. They would say, “But Norbulingka is 10 km away!” But if I said that we could go for a lovely walk to Norbulingka after dinner, we react differently: “Maybe we should do it. Let’s put some sunscreen on and go.” So, our motivation is very important.
Also, in terms of our motivation, let’s not think only about this life. We also need to consider our next life. If we were destined for the lower realms, then we should be very worried, even if we have the chance to come back as a human being. But of course, to have such thoughts as our motivation, we need to accept that there are future lives.
In general, we believe in science a lot, but scientists are usually only focused on the brain and things to do with this life. But when we die, what will happen to all the feelings and emotions we have? And what about the heart-to-heart connections we create, where will they go?
There are so many examples of people who remember their past life. Are they crazy? I don’t think so. What they say is often very accurate. Scientists don’t have any explanation for that. And I’m sure it will carry on unexplained for thousands of years, because scientists are only focused on the brain. If we want to talk about past and future lives, we really have to think about consciousness. How does it exist, is it continuous, and if it is, what to do about our future lives?
The way we spend our lives, what we spend our time doing, shouldn’t be small and narrow-minded but broad and far-sighted. Whether there is a next life or not, and whether cause and effect work or not in terms of future lives, we can still act with sincerity. It all depends on our actions, and our actions are dependent on our motivation.
As I’m a Buddhist, for reaffirming my motivation, I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Maybe there are some beginners here, so you can just listen to me as I recite the refuge prayer. Think about it in your minds for now, and, later on, I will explain more about it.
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 to for the benefit of all beings.
Reciting this is how I motivate myself. The most inspiring part is the last sentence: “May I attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings.” This is also the most difficult part! Sometimes it even feels impossible to feel this just for our own family, for our husband or wife or children. But it is possible. If our heart is only open for ourselves, then yes, we probably don’t even have enough space for our own family. So, we need to open our hearts fully. This takes compassion, seeing the suffering of others. A great master in India said that there is a great difference between attachment and love. Love is pure, but attachment is mixed up with delusion. When somebody falls in love, they say, “I love you so very much!” They say this, but it’s probably not correct to say that, because that kind of love is attachment. If it’s true love, we would say, “I want you to be very happy.”
I have a very good example of opening the heart. Whenever I go to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, I also go to Sarnath, where he gave his first teachings on the four noble truths. It is a very interesting place. I normally go there and do prayers and recite texts. After I finish, I go for a cup of tea. There’s this man who makes the best chai in the world. In a clay pot, very delicious. There are a few tea stalls around and he, in particular, has many customers, but the other people don’t seem jealous. It’s him and his wife and his kids, and only local people come, not many tourists. I went there and told him that his tea is so delicious, and we became friendly. I asked him how he makes his delicious chai. What’s the secret behind it? He smiled and said, “You stay here and watch everything I do. How I measure.”
He said he makes a commitment when he opens every morning and lights the fire. He said, “Whether a stranger or a friend comes for a cup of tea, may I have the power to make the same delicious tea.” This secret recipe is inside him! It wasn’t really to do with the tea, but the beautiful mental environment he creates and all the other people enjoying it. It is a great teaching. He has an open heart. This is how we should open our hearts.
One popular Chinese film star, Jet Lee, said that he found Tibetan Buddhism very interesting because the prayers include all sentient beings, and not just humans. This is how Tibetan Buddhism touched his heart.
It is beautiful, but it is also very tricky. When we say, “sentient beings,” we need to know what the meaning is. People and animals both have feelings and react to things in ways that show that they want to be happy. They don’t want to be tortured – our reaction to torture is that we definitely don’t want that. If there is a reaction, then it is a sentient being.
A few weeks ago, one friend told me that he hugs a tree a lot and asked me if the tree has a life. I said that we need to know what the definition of life is. When we say it grows and dies, then we can say the tree does have a life. But when we talk about feelings, well, I don’t know whether trees have feelings or not. When I said this, another person said that trees do have feelings, and he knows this because when he was meditating, the trees talked to him in his thoughts. So, I came to the conclusion that it is not really important to wonder if trees have a life or not, but we can see in our world that humans, and animals too do have lives and feelings, and this should be our priority. And if we want to save trees, we need to train people because it is people who chop them all down!
Homage and Prostration
Now we should go to the text. The title of the text is 37 Bodhisattva Practices.
Homage to Lokeshvara.
The text starts with an homage to Lokeshvara, also known as Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. He is actually our compassionate self. We have compassion within. We don’t need to make or generate it outside of us, because we already have it within us. In a movie, when we see someone being tortured, we think, “Oh, this is not right, the poor guy, he is getting tortured!” We automatically feel that the torturer is a bad person. And then, when we see the hero punishing the bad guy, automatically we say “Yeh, that’s right!” So, we automatically have compassion and aversion to others suffering. We already have these in us.
I said that Avalokiteshvara is our compassion. Even if we don’t have a lot of compassion, the small compassion we naturally have inside of us is like a seed to become like the Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, or Tara. In the beginning, the homage is not for something out there, but for something in here. We make homage to our own compassion. Whether we want to help others or not, this is about the qualities we do have.
I prostrate always respectfully, through my three gateways, to the supreme gurus and the Guardian Avalokiteshvara who, seeing that all phenomena have no coming or going, make efforts singly for the benefit of wandering beings.
This first verse already mentions bodhichitta and voidness together. It’s very profound. We see all things are coming and going, but in fact all things are beyond coming and going. That means that their coming and going have no true existence. On a relative level, we can say that there is coming and going, but not on the ultimate level.
Of course, before deciding who is coming and who is going, we have to decide who are “they?” Let’s take Yoko here as an example: “What is your name?” “Yoko.” Actually, we can say that there is no Yoko. This has nothing to do with Buddhist theory, but if we search, from head to toe, we cannot find Yoko. What do you think? We see Yoko sitting here, but then we say, “From head to toe, we cannot find Yoko.”
This is the greatest teaching the Buddha has given us. There is no such thing as Serkong Rinpoche. You cannot pinpoint Serkong Rinpoche. The Buddha says that this – the lack of an inherent existence as Serkong Rinpoche, or anything for that matter – is the ultimate truth.
What is the benefit of this teaching? That nothing should be grasped and clung to. If there is nothing to grasp, then our mind can be very relaxed, and once we get something good, we won’t be too excited and if we don’t get it, there is not much regret or anguish. From the moment we realize this ultimate truth, we can have control over our mind. That is the power of knowing the ultimate truth.
Gyalse Togme Zangpo, the author of this text, pays homage to the fact that there is no such thing as coming and going. Yet, when we think about the possibility that there is no such existence there, how do we feel? Where are my friends? Have I gone insane? We might become a little disheartened. But for the Buddha, who has taught us this, when he understands that there is no coming and going, his connection with and intention to benefit other sentient beings becomes even stronger.
This is a great quality of the Buddha. For us, if we say there is no such thing as “I,” we feel like, “Well, then what?” But when the Buddha experiences this, automatically and simultaneously he understands ultimate reality, relative truth, and interdependence. That’s why this is also a praise for the Buddha.
…through my three gateways…
The three gateways are our body, speech, and mind. Our body, speech, and mind bring us so many problems. With our body, we can hit someone or make faces. With our speech, we can utter harsh words and gossip. And then we have the mind, which is the source of everything. Of these three, it is sometimes said that the worst is speech. With body language, we might think, “She does not look so happy with me,” but, later on, we find out that it is just her personality, and she is like that with everyone. Speech, on the other hand, delivers the message of the body and mind. That’s why Atisha and the great Kadampa practitioners said, “If you are with friends, have awareness of your speech, and when you’re alone, have awareness of your mind.”
We can do so many bad things with our body, speech, and mind. But all good things come from these three as well. They are like a door. Once the door is open, everything comes out or goes in.
The Promise of What He Will Explain
Now let’s look at the second verse.
Fully enlightened Buddhas, the sources of benefit and happiness, have come about from (their) having actualized the hallowed Dharma. Moreover, since that depended on (their) having known what its practices are, I shall explain a bodhisattva’s practice.
If you want to understand Buddhism well, you need to depend on a person who has some experience of it. If you want to know about bodhichitta, then you need to learn from a bodhisattva. We talk about the Three Jewels – the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. To know the Dharma – the teachings – you need the help of the first and the third. To know if the Buddha is speaking the truth or if his teachings really help, you need a friend that can share whether it is helping them or not.
It’s like when you want to go to a restaurant, so you go on Tripadvisor to check the ratings. Similarly, if you want to check the Buddha and Dharma, and whether they’re helpful or not, you have to ask around to find someone with experience of the Buddha and Dharma. And this is the Sangha. Through the Sangha, we have the Buddhist teachings delivered to us. There are so many followers of the Buddha, such as the bodhisattvas, those who practice bodhichitta and they are the Sangha.
Bodhichitta is actually a separate, secret practice. It is not taught in public. When I talk about past and future lives, people are not very interested. It seems like most people don’t really care about past and future lives. I sometimes feel that too. But if I say that there are meditations that I do that make my anger and aversion go down and give me new energy, then people are interested, because for most of us, our main focus is only this life. Even so, this is what bodhichitta meditation can do.
Buddha was very wise and skillful. When he gives a teaching about bodhichitta, he talks about benefiting all sentient beings. But for us, we can’t help all of them, especially not just working only in this life to help them. This is not a job for this one life alone. We need to think, “I will work on helping as many as I can and as much as I can all the way till I get full enlightenment. That’s what I will do.”
Why do we need to think like that? Once we reach full enlightenment, we’ll be able to benefit everyone, and we’ll be able to do that effortlessly. We won’t be doing that like a job, because being someone who helps all sentient beings is who we are as a Buddha. Until we reach that stage, we need to make effort. It’s like once you have a job, you have to get up early morning and go to work, even if you don’t like it, otherwise you don’t get a salary.
As I said, Buddha was very wise and skillful. He won’t speak about past and future lives. If you go to other Buddhist countries like Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, all those monks also won’t speak about past and future lives. They will talk more about shamatha, vipassana, and mindfulness. But in Tibetan Buddhism, we talk more about sentient beings and bodhichitta. We should think more about how to reach all sentient beings and how to benefit them, whether in reality you can do it or not. But once you feel, “Yes I can do it,” sincerely, that means you think there is full enlightenment and that you can get rid of suffering, you can attain a true cessation, the fourth noble truth, the main one.
Buddha said, he achieved that and that all of us can do that too. Once you get it, there is no more suffering. If you attain this and give this teaching to all sentient beings, you can help all of them, including your family. It is the best gift you can give to your loved ones.
But it takes education to be able to do that. Studying is therefore very important. If you really want to research something, research cessation. This is what Buddhism has to offer.
A Precious Human Life
(1) A bodhisattva’s practice is, at this time when we have obtained the great ship (of a human rebirth) with respites and enrichments, difficult to find, to listen, think, and meditate unwaveringly, day and night, in order to free ourselves and others from the ocean of uncontrollably recurring samsara.
This is similar to what I said earlier – that we need to study, reflect, and meditate. If there is such a thing as cessation, where we eliminate all negative emotions and, from our heart, only have positive thoughts for others, then we will be perfect. If we can actually achieve this, then it is absolutely worth putting effort into.
Bodhisattvas study and meditate day and night. But us? Don’t you think that we love laziness? We’re lazy to help others, lazy to enlighten ourselves, lazy to become better people. We don’t see much benefit in all this study and meditation. We see more benefit staying in bed and watching movies. That seems much more interesting to us. But for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it is the total opposite. Even if he is now almost 85 years old, he is still studying and meditating tirelessly, in order to free others from the ocean of samsara.
It is difficult to gain a precious human life. Even if there is no past and future life, let’s just think of just this life. Animals don’t have the kind of intelligence that we do. They cannot practice patience or mindfulness. They have limited qualities, but we can still learn beautiful teachings from animals. Animals are supposed to hunt and eat their prey, but sometimes we see predators helping their prey instead. There are many documentaries showing this.
With this human life we have, we can make other people happy. It is in our hands: we can make others happy or sad. And ourselves too! There are always two possibilities, every time, even if someone puts a gun to your head.
I’ll share an example that His Holiness shared with us. He said that there was one great monk practitioner who had been in a Chinese prison for more than 30 years. That monk was telling his story to His Holiness, who then asked him, “Did you get any punishment from the Chinese army?” He answered, “We got some punishment, and we did not get much food, but there was a bigger danger.” “What?” “The danger of losing compassion toward the Chinese,” the monk replied. At this, His Holiness cried.
As bodhisattvas, we have to study, reflect, and meditate because it is worth putting effort into. We need to understand what we are doing and see the benefits.
The purpose of this text is to develop the mind of compassion and bodhicitta, not the wisdom realizing emptiness, right?
The main focus of the text is bodhisattva behavior, even though in terms of voidness, there is no action to take, like we said about no coming and going. Nevertheless, before any action, there has to be a motivation. The motivation should be bodhichitta and voidness. These two together: bodhichitta, with an understanding of voidness.
We say in Tibetan that if something bad happens to you, don’t take it negatively. There is something in your thinking that can change, so that it becomes positive. That monk could have thought, “I spent my whole life practicing and helping others, but the ending of my life is so miserable. I could have joined the Chinese army and my life would have been much better.” But he never gave up. He accepted his situation, and thought, “I will stay strong and die peacefully.” He changed.
We need strength to engage in these kinds of practices. I once saw His Holiness scolding a monk very angrily. I thought, “Oh, he is the compassionate Buddha, known as Avalokiteshvara, what happened to him?” I went over to see him, and he was friendly and laughing, so I knew it was the act of a bodhisattva to sometimes show anger. If a kid is asking for ice cream and the parent says no, they are helping the kid. The motivation is already there. For us, when we are angry, we are not only angry with our “enemy,” we get totally upset and even scold our children and make others around us unhappy. But once we have control, it is like a button we can press. It is the control. In regard to voidness, it is discussed more in the middle of the text.
Talking about studying and meditation, I have a friend who says that intellect is the most important thing. I have some aversion to this. I think about all the people who are not so intelligent. Not everyone can understand everything. What about these people?
This is a good question. However unintelligent someone might be, there is always a way to deliver the message and the teachings. Sometimes a student is too clever, and then the teacher is in big trouble! But it’s a good thing. There are different ways to reach different people. It is not only like this in Buddhism but also in school. One pupil is smarter than another, so we should be careful how we teach them. We have to spend time with them and know how their minds work. It takes patience. For example, sometimes I teach my two attendants. One is very intelligent, and with the other one, sometimes I get angry. That is my problem, with him it takes time.
A bodhisattva’s prayer is that while the universe and sentient beings are there, I too will stay around. While sentient beings are there, I too will remain. My one and only aim is to teach them how to get rid of their disturbing emotions. That is the bodhisattva’s oath. It is very powerful.
There are many students who are very intelligent, they know everything, they are smarter than the teacher, but they still need teaching. There are also many teachers who give very beautiful talks, but in their own life they never practice. They know everything, but on the practical level, they don’t do anything. That’s why we say whenever we give teachings, we should put a mirror in front and reflect. Saying and doing, is it the same? I can be very intelligent and give talks. This is my life. If I forget to look into my own behavior, I’m misusing the opportunity to become a good rinpoche. That’s why whenever we are about to study, eat, or sleep, we do prayers.