Prostration and Buddha-Nature
We have been discussing the first verse of Bodhisattva’s Garland of Gems, which has to do with how to meditate in general and, more specifically, how to meditate on bodhichitta.
The topic was introduced by the prostration or homage verses – making prostration to great compassion, to the sublime teachers, the gurus who embody that great compassion, and to the Buddha-figures, who are inseparable from the teachers, namely the yidams that represent the Buddha-natures of the teachers. When we make prostrations, we do so having belief in the fact of the inseparability of these three.
When we make prostration, for instance in the beginning of our classes, we’re offering prostration to the Buddhas and to the later masters who’ve achieved enlightenment; to our own future enlightenment that we’re aiming to achieve – which is the aim of bodhichitta; and to the Buddha-nature factors within ourselves that will allow us, as well as everybody else, to achieve enlightenment. We therefore make prostration not just to our own, individual future enlightenment but also to the future enlightenments of everybody else and to the Buddha-nature factors within them.
How we make prostration in class, then, is quite similar to what we have here in this homage verse, in that we can also think in terms of everybody being various Buddha-figures (as one does in tantra: seeing everybody as Avalokiteshvara and so on) and so having Buddha-nature qualities – all of which are very much connected with great compassion and bodhichitta. It’s very important when striving for enlightenment to be convinced that it’s possible not only for us to achieve enlightenment ourselves but that it’s also possible for everybody else to achieve enlightenment. After all, why would we work to bring them to enlightenment if we didn’t think it was possible?
Also, if we can prostrate and show respect to the drunken person lying on the street – paying homage to the future enlightenment and Buddha-nature of this drunk – or, going even further, if we can prostrate to the future enlightenment and Buddha-nature of the cockroach.
You might ask, well, what about amoebas, do they too have Buddha-natures? But then, when we talk about amoebas and so on, we need to examine, are we talking about something sentient? It’s very difficult to know where to draw the line between what is sentient and what isn’t. That’s a very difficult question because, on the one hand, we consider ghosts and hell creatures to be sentient, and on the other hand, we don’t consider plants or the fungus on our feet to be sentient. So it’s not so easy to determine what life forms are actually sentient in the sense that they have some kind of awareness and are able to experience pleasure and pain as the result of their karmic actions in previous lives.
In any case, the point is that if we can make prostration to the enlightenment and Buddha-nature of the cockroach with confidence in the cockroach’s ability to reach enlightenment, how can we get discouraged about the possibility of reaching enlightenment ourselves? Shantideva says that very nicely:
(VII.17) Never get discouraged by thinking, “How can there be enlightenment for me?” For the Speaker of Truth, the Thusly Gone (Buddha), has pronounced this truth, like this,
(VII.18) “Even those who’ve become gnats, mosquitoes, hornets, and worms likewise too, shall attain unsurpassable enlightenment, so hard to attain, by generating the force of zestful vigor.”
(VII.19) (How much more so for) someone like me, having (Buddha) nature and born as a human, able to perceive what’s of benefit or harm! Why shouldn’t I reach enlightenment, so long as I don’t quit bodhisattva behavior?
If we really have bodhichitta, then we are armed with the strongest type of opponent – together with the understanding of voidness, of course. But even by itself, bodhichitta is a very powerful opponent for overcoming such things as the laziness of thinking, “I can’t do it; I’m too stupid,” or “It’s too much for me.” It’s very important to overcome that kind of thinking. Otherwise, there’s no hope of really working with bodhichitta. Voidness can help us to overcome such obstacles by teaching us that, “That’s not my nature from my own side – being inherently incapable. Reaching enlightenment is just a matter of building up the causes and having the right conditions, influence and inspiration.”
The State of Mind Needed to Meditate on Bodhichitta
Concerning how to meditate on bodhichitta, Atisha first says that we need to get rid of indecisive wavering. That not only has to do with indecisiveness about what bodhichitta is, how to meditate on it, and what methods are valid ones; it also has to do with indecisiveness about whether we can develop bodhichitta ourselves and especially, whether we can reach enlightenment ourselves and whether everybody else can reach it. If we have any doubts about our ability to attain these goals, we won’t be able to put our hearts fully into single-minded concentration and focus on bodhichitta.
We work to clear up any doubts and to get rid of any indecisive wavering concerning these points during the process of hearing and thinking about the teachings. Then we can be wholeheartedly earnest in my practice, Atisha says, meaning that we can put our whole hearts into the practice. There, he is referring specifically to the meditation on bodhichitta. We’ve understood what bodhichitta is; we’ve become convinced that we can develop it and that we can reach enlightenment. So, now we can focus on it fully and really build it up as a beneficial habit of mind and heart – which is what the word “meditation” means.
One point I’d like to add is that we also need to be clear about not being indecisive regarding the way in which we would be able to help others reach enlightenment. It wouldn’t be like an almighty God – that all we have to do is just to touch somebody with a finger and then, instantly, they’re enlightened. That’s another thing we can’t be indecisive about. We need to have a clear idea about how we would actually be able to help others to enlightenment and be convinced that the ways in which we’d go about it would work. There’s an old joke, “If you were almighty God, why would you have to touch a person with a finger in order to bring them enlightenment? So that it looks convincing?”
Then we need to get rid of the obstacles that come up in the meditation itself. Regarding the obstacle of dullness, Atisha says that we need to get rid of being sleepy, foggy minded, and lazy. Once we are rid of these different types of laziness, we are able to make full effort with perseverance. Perseverance is the heroic courage of never giving up, putting all our energy into something constructive, doing so steadfastly and with pride, and taking joy in that. That energy is an energy that goes out to the universe.
In many texts, “perseverance” is described as “joyful” and even often translated as “joyful perseverance.” The way this word “joyful” has been translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan is a little bit strange. The Tibetan term, spro-ba, has two meanings. The meaning that is usually stressed is “joyful,” but the other meaning, which is closer to the Sanskrit utsaha, is that of “energy going out.” It’s the same word as “to emanate.” So, the energy is going out in a joyful type of way – like a Buddha: the play of the Buddha’s mind is to effortlessly radiate emanations and enlightening influence. That is the meaning of the word that’s being used here. It is the very opposite of being lazy.
So, when we come across the translation “joyful perseverance,” remember it's not just this simple, “whistle while you work,” and “I’m so happy” kind of feeling. “I’m so happy to jump into the lowest hell in order to help you” – it’s not quite like that.
Verse 2: Mental Factors Needed for Overcoming Flightiness of Mind
Let me always safeguard the gateway of my senses with mindfulness, alertness, and care. So, let me check repeatedly the flow of my mind, three times each day and each night.
This verse continues to deal with the question of how we concentrate and how we meditate on bodhichitta. We need to always safeguard the gateway of the senses. That’s dealing with flightiness of mind. Flightiness is when our minds are attracted to pleasant things that we either are attached to or have desire for. The previous verse took care of mental dullness. This verse deals with flightiness of mind. These are the two main obstacles in attaining single-minded concentration.
Mindfulness, Alertness and a Caring Attitude
The way that we do this is using the powers of mindfulness, alertness, and care. This also is something that Shantideva discusses a great deal. He has two chapters on it. Remember the chapters in which he says – referring to when we find ourselves starting to do something that is negative or distracting – to “remain like a block of wood.” Remember the titles of chapters four and five: “Taking Care (about Bodhichitta)” and “Safeguarding with Alertness.” He uses the same words. Those are the two chapters dealing with the far-reaching attitude of ethical discipline – which we first need to have applied to our behavior. Once we have learned to refrain from speaking and acting in destructive ways, we can then apply that ethical self-discipline to our minds in meditation.
Then safeguard – “safeguard” has the connotation of “to protect,” “to guard against” the type of mental wandering caused by our minds being distracted by desirable objects of the senses. We protect the mind; we guard against any harm. It has the connotation of “to save”: we rescue our attention when it’s gone off and then bring it back. All those meanings are in this word “safeguard.”
Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche always used to say that every word in the texts is pregnant with a tremendous amount of meaning. So, we have to milk it like a cow to get out all the meaning – the “wish-granting cow,” as they would say in the Indian way of thinking.
What we’re dealing with here is attention. Attention is what we put on an object in order to stay focused on it. We need mindfulness, which is like a mental glue, to hold that attention to the object so that it doesn’t let go. It’s the same word as “to remember.” Alertness is what watches. It watches the quality control of the mindfulness, the mental glue, to see that it’s not too tight or too loose or that it doesn’t get lost altogether.
All of that is based on the caring attitude – we care. It matters to us how we’re concentrating and how the meditation is going because we really want to develop bodhichitta: we really want to be able to reach enlightenment and to help others. So, all of this is based on the caring attitude.
We need to use alertness not only during meditation practice but also throughout the day and night. We need it to check what’s going on with our mental state. Are we being selfish? Are we acting under the influence of disturbing emotions?
Even in sleep, it is possible to be aware. Sometimes people sleep fairly lightly and are aware of their dreams. If we wake up in the middle of the night and can remember what we were dreaming, we can check. If it was a negative type of dream, we can, rather than be disturbed by it, try to set the intention to something positive. So, we try to fall back asleep thinking of our teacher or some other positive type of thing.
The Need for Introspection
The main thing is to have awareness, to check what’s going on in our minds. When it’s negative, we need either to correct it or to “remain like a block of wood,” which means not to act on the thought. If we’re starting to get angry or greedy, or we’re starting to act selfishly or to say something really stupid or nasty, we try to catch it. Also, if we notice ourselves starting to become depressed and discouraged, we stop it. This is what it means.
Three times doesn’t mean, “Ah, it’s three o’clock, so now I will check for thirty seconds,” and then four hours later, another alarm goes off for us to check again. It’s not like that. The main Dharma practice is to constantly check, though not in a paranoid, policeman type of way, because then we get uptight and can get a lot of problems – especially if we bring in the Western guilt trip, which is irrelevant here.
The point is to be aware of how we’re acting, to have this inner introspection, and to safeguard, or protect, ourselves from acting on negative states of mind. This is what the word “Dharma” means. It’s a “preventive measure,” something that prevents us from creating more suffering for ourselves. It’s a measure, something that we do to prevent suffering. That’s the etymology of the word “Dharma.” It comes from the Sanskrit word dhr, “to hold oneself back.”
If there’s any hope of our being able to make progress in Dharma, we need to be able to apply it to our lives on an everyday level. To be able to do that, we need to be aware of what’s going on in our minds and, obviously, what we’re doing with our bodies and our speech. They are affected by what’s going on in our minds. But, again, we do it without being the policeman, the punisher, and the judge – all of that comes from Western mythology.
As we study and learn more and more Dharma, we learn more and more opponents – methods for dealing with the negative or useless states of mind that come up. It’s very helpful to have a large repertoire of methods, because sometimes one method is more effective or more convenient to use than another. In life in general, it’s very good to have more than one solution available. If one doesn’t work, we can try another one. This is specifically the case in our Dharma practice.
Verse 3: Avoiding Causes for Mental Wandering
Let me make my own failings be known and seek not mistakes in others. So, let me keep my own good qualities hidden and make the good qualities of others be known.
Avoiding Mental Wandering about Our Own Misdeeds and the Mistakes of Others
This verse also deals with causes for the mental wandering that we might have in our meditation – although this one can also affect us during the periods when we’re not meditating. If we hide our own failings, our own shortcomings, we often feel guilty about it. It gnaws away at our insides. However, if we make known our mistakes, we apologize or whatever, our hearts are much lighter, and we don’t feel guilty about it. In English, we say it’s “off our chest.” That helps to lessen the mental wandering that comes about when we are hiding our own shortcomings.
And seek not the mistakes in others. That also is a big cause of mental wandering. We sit there thinking, “Oh, this person is no good,” and “Look at what that one did,” criticizing them and so on. This can cause a tremendous amount of mental wandering.
Also, what is often the case just in general is that we see our own faults mirrored in others. For instance, if there’s one last piece of cake left on the plate and someone else takes it, we accuse this person of being greedy, “You greedy pig, you took the last piece of cake!” The only reason why that would disturb us is because we are greedy; we wanted that piece of cake. If we didn’t want the piece of cake, what would it matter who took the last piece? Often, when we focus on all the mistakes and faults of others, we’re seeing our own faults mirrored in them. So, it’s better to use that energy to work on ourselves.
Also, what is generally the case is that when we’re always criticizing others, others get a very bad impression of us. If we’re always finding fault and thinking that nobody else is any good and so on, people start to be suspicious of us and wonder about our own qualities. This is why the first bodhisattva vow is to refrain from belittling others and praising ourselves. Sadly, this is often what some candidates do in an election in the West because they want to gain for themselves some advantage or some position of power. That makes some discriminating people suspicious of their motives. But here, in meditation specifically, this can be a great obstacle.
Dromtonpa, Atisha’s main disciple in Tibet said, “If you can see your own faults and not seek the faults in others, you are wise, even if you have no other good qualities.” That gives us a lot to think about, actually. Sometimes we think that being wise is something that is so unattainable and requiring of tremendous intelligence. However, that’s not really what is meant by being wise. Someone can be very uneducated and yet be a very wise person, even if they’re not super-intelligent and can’t learn ten languages. “Wise” means to have discriminating awareness, which means to be able to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, what’s beneficial and what’s not beneficial. If we can do that, then we’re wise.
Avoiding Thoughts of Wanting to Boast and Show Off
Atisha goes on in this verse to say, let me keep my own good qualities hidden. This is because, otherwise, we could become very proud, arrogant and boastful of our qualities. This can create a great obstacle in our meditation as well, thinking, “How wonderful I am. I’m meditating so well,” or, “I have this or that quality.” Also, boasting about our own accomplishments and good qualities and broadcasting them to everyone can make others jealous.
We can, however, mention our good qualities if it would be inspiring for others to do so. For that, though, we need great sensitivity in order to know whether it would actually inspire them or whether it would, in fact, discourage them, make them jealous or whatever. In general, it’s best always to remain completely humble. Tsongkhapa said, “Keep the light of the butter lamp flame inside the vase; it illuminates the inside but doesn’t show on the outside.” So, keep the flame of our good qualities inside, “inside the vase”; don’t broadcast them to the world.
The emphasis on humility is very strong in this Kadam tradition. The point is to use our qualities to help others. To do that, we don’t need to boast about them, like telling others that we have this degree and that degree or putting all our degree certificates up on the wall and so on.
Being humble means having a modest or low estimate of one’s own importance, being very simple in one’s needs and so on. If you read the biography of Kunu Lama Rinpoche, you can see what it means to be very simple, very humble. He’s the best example.
Masters in the Kadam tradition are often called Kadampa Geshes and were noted as having been very humble. First of all, “geshe” is just the translation of the Sanskrit word for “spiritual friend” (kalyana-mitra). The Kadam Geshes were great but humble masters who were true spiritual friends. As spiritual friends, they helped others to be constructive and acting as constructive influences on them. They did that, though, without the big thrones, the brocade and all of that.
Some lamas, however, do dress in brocade and speak openly about their attainments. If we ask, what is the motivation of these lamas who talk about what they’ve accomplished? It could be one of two kinds of motivation. One would be the negative motivation of wanting to put oneself in a high position. The other would be needing, for instance, to instill respect in others in order to get them to listen. If we’re dealing with a very wild type of society – which the Tibetan and the Mongolian societies were in the past – we need a way to quiet people down and to cause them to develop respect. People from a violent society and from that type of culture would be very impressed by hearing these sorts of things; they’d sit and listen. Buddha himself touched the earth and said, “Let the earth be a witness that I have reached my attainments.”
As I said, there are certain cases in which, in order to inspire people to believe that it is possible to achieve enlightenment and so on, we need to say we have accomplished this or that attainment. But we need to be very careful and very sensitive to our audience because, otherwise, people might think, “Oh, that’s impossible. He’s just making that up.” The Buddha wasn’t bragging when he made that statement while touching the earth. He wasn’t saying, “How wonderful I am.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama as well sometimes says a little about what he’s attained. Most of the time, he says, “I’m just an ordinary monk,” but sometimes he says, “Well, I have had a taste of what bodhichitta and voidness actually are.” He doesn’t say, “I have a full realization,” but he does say that he’s had a real taste of them.
There are two forms of pride. There’s the pride of thinking that “I’m the best”; there’s also the inverse pride – of thinking that “I’m the worst.” There are people who put on a big show of being so humble – “Oh, I’m no good,” and so on. That’s just as disturbed an attitude as boasting how wonderful we are. So, humility has to be sincere. Other people having even just a little bit of sensitivity can tell when it’s sincere and when it’s phony. It all has to do with how much ego-grasping is involved, how much we identify with the humility.
Do you know the example that’s given about Atisha? Nobody knew that he practiced tantra until after he died. When they looked at his robes, they saw that there was a little vajra and bell hidden in a pocket. Nobody had ever seen them before or had ever seen him practice. He always practiced privately and kept humble. There was no putting on a big show with the drum and the bell so that everybody could hear.
Avoiding Thoughts of Envy
The last line of this verse is, make the good qualities of others be known, because thinking about other people’s good qualities and being envious of them could also be a big obstacle in meditation and a big cause for mental wandering. If, instead, we are able to rejoice in others’ good qualities and to open-heartedly praise them to others, we will not be troubled by either our own or others’ failings and mistakes or our own or others’ good qualities.