Verse 7: Ridding Ourselves of Distractions to Our Meditation
Let me rid myself of all material burdens and adorn myself with an arya’s gems. So, let me rid myself of all bustling activities and live in seclusion.
Living in Seclusion to Avoid Becoming Upset with Others
Here, Atisha is speaking very much like Shantideva speaks in his eighth chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior concerning constancy of mind, or concentration – saying that it’s important, when we want to do meditation, to live a very simple life and, preferably, to live in seclusion.
Living in seclusion is important when our minds are very attached to the people around us. As Togme Zango says in the 37 Bodhisattva Practices:
(2) A bodhisattva’s practice is to leave our homelands, where attachment to the side of friends tosses us like water; anger toward the side of enemies burns us like fire; and naivety so that we forget what’s to be adopted and abandoned cloaks us in darkness.
(3) A bodhisattva’s practice is to rely on seclusion where, by having rid ourselves of detrimental objects, our disturbing emotions and attitudes gradually become stymied; by lacking distractions, our constructive practices naturally increase; and by clearing our awareness, our certainty grows in the Dharma.
Getting some distance, even if it’s only for a year – for instance, people often go to India or something like that – helps us to be a little bit more removed from these causes that disturb us, our meditation and our practice. Obviously, when we are well-trained, we go back to very busy places because of the challenge. The great bodhisattvas go back and “meditate in the crossroads,” they say. They go to where there’s a lot of traffic and these types of disturbances in order to perfect their concentration. They want to be able to practice even in very chaotic or challenging situations. So, everything has to be according to our own needs and level.
Getting Rid of Material Burdens That Require Much Care
The verse begins, “Let me rid myself of all material burdens.” A material burden is defined as an object that is difficult to get, difficult to keep and difficult to protect. If such objects were lost or stolen, we would be very upset. We could even lose our lives because of a thief trying to steal them. These are called material burdens: it’s a burden to have such objects. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have any material possessions. However, the best types of possessions are those that are easy to get, that are not rare or priceless or anything like that, and that wouldn’t cause us to be upset if something were to happen to them, like getting lost, stolen, or damaged.
For instance, if we’re traveling by train in India, we don’t wear our best clothes. We wear something that we don’t care about; we don’t care if they get dirty or torn. These are the best types of material possessions, especially as they would not cause us to be miserly and stingy with our things: “Oh, my precious computer, I don’t want anybody else to touch it” – this type of thing.
I find that definition of a material burden to be very helpful. It’s like when people keep their houses so fancy and so nice, and then they have to put plastic over everything because they don’t want anybody to get anything dirty. If somebody comes with a baby or a child, they freak out because the baby or child will make a mess of the place and get it dirty. And they don’t want to hold the baby because the baby might spit up on their nice shirt, so they hold the baby two feet away from them.
What also is a material burden is something that requires a tremendous amount of care – for example, a large, fancy garden. We can’t leave the house because it requires so much care. We have to get somebody to come in all the time to take care of it. It ties us down and takes up all our time. We become slaves to the garden. Or slaves to our hairdos – having such complicated hairdos that take so much time to get just right.
The Arya Gems: States of Mind That Can Be Taken Everywhere
Instead of having these types of possessions, we can adorn ourselves with the arya gems. This is discussed later on in verse 26, so we’ll just list them here. These gems are (1) belief in fact, (2) ethical self-discipline, (3) generosity, (4) listening, (5) care for how our actions reflect on others, (6) moral self-dignity, and (7) discriminating awareness. These are things that we can build up more and more, thereby gaining a great wealth of discipline, a great wealth of teachings, power of listening, a great wealth of generosity, belief and so on.
As Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey explained, we can’t wear all our jewelry at once. If we have a huge collection of jewelry, we can only wear a few pieces at a time. If we were to wear all our jewelry at the same time, we’d look absolutely ridiculous. But we can wear all of these arya gems at the same time. Even if we were to go to prison or to a concentration camp, we’d be able to bring them with us – and be rich. We would have great wealth, even while there. And when we fly in an airplane, we wouldn’t have to worry about overweight.
So these are the best kinds of wealth to build up. They’re better than material objects, which are so difficult to take care of and are the cause of so many worries and problems. Just imagine going off to a meditation retreat and constantly worrying about “my plants” and “my house,” always thinking of all the things that could be going wrong. It would be a big distraction.
Ridding Ourselves of Bustling Activity, Which Causes Us to Lose Our Time
Atisha writes, “Let me rid myself of all bustling activities.” These are, again, great distractions. Examples of bustling activities are meeting our friends all the time or always chatting with them in chat rooms, on the telephone, on Facebook, etc. – all of which is a tremendous waste of time. If we do it once in a while, this is fine; but if we spend all our time doing that, then we will not have time for practice, for meditating and studying and so on.
As Shantideva writes,
(VIII.13) If I associate with infantile people, then destructive behavior inevitably arises, such as praising myself and belittling others, and prattling on about the pleasures of samsara.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore these people. It just means that we don’t spend all our time running from one to the other and “prattling,” which means chatting away about inconsequential things.
Or pottering around the house – it’s very easy to spend the entire day just doing little things around the house, things that don’t really matter. In the end, we haven’t really done anything. It could also be running from one entertainment to another, changing the TV stations all the time, endlessly surfing the Internet – this type of thing. There are many, many examples of bustling activities.
We could be the same way with books. There are people who are addicted to buying books, but who never have time to read any of them – or if they do read any of them, they just look at a little bit here, a little bit there. And the number of books that they have just becomes a burden. They can never move or go anywhere. If they do, then they have to carry – like a prisoner carrying a huge load of rocks on their back – a whole pack of books with them.
I had a wonderful experience with that. I had probably over a thousand books by the end of my university education. When I went to India, I left them in my mother’s attic. Then when my mother retired and moved to Florida, she had them all put into my aunt’s garage, where they just sat in cardboard boxes on the ground. Then there was a flood. The garage was flooded, and all the books turned into soup. That cured me of buying books. So, in India I had very few books, and some of the books that I had, I gave away when I left. One comes to realize that there are libraries for things like that. We don’t have to own absolutely everything – and then getting worried and upset when it’s turned into soup by a flood.
Avoiding Becoming Discouraged Because of Others
So, I want to rid myself of all of these things and – following the advice that Shantideva gives, Atisha then says – to live in seclusion. To live in seclusion is, as Shantideva says, to live in “isolation.” We want to separate or dissociate both our minds and our bodies from the things that distract us or that turn our attention toward destructive things or that just waste our time. It doesn’t mean that we have to live in solitary confinement – which for some people is OK. Instead, it means to live with people who are supportive of what we’re doing, such as teachers and people who are like-minded. Living in seclusion like that can be very helpful. It depends on our own, individual makeup.
Also, it’s not sufficient to isolate just our bodies. If our minds are still attached – we’re always thinking of the people back home and constantly going on the Internet to connect with them – that’s no use.
In the secondary bodhisattva vows, it says not to spend more than seven days and nights in the home of a Hinayana person. What that’s referring to has nothing to do with whether somebody is practicing Theravada or Hinayana or not. What it’s referring to is living with somebody who would make fun of our practice and who would say, “What you’re doing is stupid – this Mahayana practice of trying to help others,” somebody who would constantly try to discourage us and to lead us away from our spiritual path. If we’re weak-minded and weak in our motivation and intention, these people can have a very strong influence on us and be very damaging to our practice.
Following this advice, however, can be very difficult. Imagine having to go into the army and to be in a room with all the soldiers who get drunk and rowdy and who will want to harass you when you’re trying to do your practice. Or being in prison with others – a very difficult situation in which to do your practice. That’s why it’s important to know all our practices by heart, to have them in our mind, like these jewels of the aryas. Then we can take our practice with us anywhere, and it won’t matter who’s around us.
Years ago I was traveling in the West with my teacher Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, moving from place to place all the time. Once I forgot my attaché case, which had all my recitation practices in it, and couldn’t get it back till the next day. Serkong Rinpoche – who always scolded me, though always in a very gentle way; or at least I perceived it as a gentle way – pointed out that it was ridiculous for me to be so dependent on these pieces of paper and that he, of course, didn’t have to depend on any of this kind of stuff. Then he very kindly wrote out in his own hand the most important practices that I needed to recite so that I wouldn’t completely break my commitments – which really made me embarrassed. It was so incredibly kind. It made me very embarrassed that such a great lama would sit there and write out my prayers by hand because I had forgotten to bring them with me.
Verse 8: How to Behave When Practicing with Friends and Teachers
How to Behave Even Practicing with Like-Minded Friends
Let me rid myself of idle words and always restrain my speech.
Not only do we need to isolate our bodies and minds, removing them from all these attachments and so on, but even if we go into a retreat type of situation with like-minded friends, we need to rid ourselves of idle words. Just chatting on and on about nothing wastes all our time. This, of course, is always the case, even when we’re not in a situation where practice is our main focus. As the teachers say, “We’re always eager and awake for idle chatter, but if we start to meditate or to listen to a lecture, we immediately fall asleep.”
Trijang Rinpoche, the late Junior Tutor of His Holiness, always used to say, “If you don’t feel like doing any Dharma practice or anything else that’s constructive, it’s better to take a nap. At least it’s better than gossip and chatting, because then you wake up refreshed, and you won’t have made a complete waste of your time.” There’s no end to worldly chatter, so let us rid ourselves of idle speech.
What we speak about doesn’t have to be deep, meaningful, and intense all the time. That also can be a bit much. However, we do want our speech to be primarily about things that are constructive. Therefore, we restrain our speech when it is just blabbing on and on about nothing or gossiping about others, complaining and so on.
Spending Meaningful Time with Our Spiritual Teacher
So, when I see a sublime teacher or learned master, let me extend my service with respect.
In other words, rather than spend our time just chatting on and on with infantile people, which will inevitably lead to some sort of destructive behavior, we try to extend our help to our teacher, or if a great master or a learned person is there, we try to be of help to them. In other words, if we’re going to spend our time with other people, we want to use that time on something that’s constructive rather than on something that’s a waste of time. And the most constructive thing we can is helping our teachers to help others more and more.
One of Shantideva’s wonderful lines is a prayer, (III.14) “May anything focused on me never turn out to be meaningless,” not just a waste of time – a wonderful thought.
And in terms of relating to teachers:
Verse 9: Gaining Inspiration for Our Practice from Others
As for persons with the eye of the Dharma and limited beings who are beginners, let me expand my discernment of them as my teachers.
We can learn from many people, not only from those with the eye of the Dharma, which refers to the great masters. We can also learn from limited beings who are beginners, beginners on the spiritual path. We can rejoice in their interest, and we can gain a great deal of encouragement from them. When anybody gains something from doing a practice, listening to a teaching, and this type of thing, we can rejoice. We can learn more about cause and effect from them because we see them working and gaining results.
If we’re on the path ourselves, we actually can gain a tremendous amount of inspiration from beginners. We get inspiration not only from our teachers but also from those beginners who are really, really interested and really sincere. And we can learn from their mistakes. We also learn patience, which is one of the best things we can give both to those who are above us, meaning the great teachers, and to those who are less advanced or younger in the Dharma than we are. These are worthwhile people to spend time with.
These young beginners in the Dharma might not be our teachers in the way that the great masters are – although, as it says here, they can teach us many things. Still, in future lives, we will be the young ones and they will be the older ones. This is another way that cause and effect works. So, passing things on from generation to generation is very important.
The Kadampa Geshe Potowa advised that if a disciple who comes to you is arrogant and thinks that they know everything, you should avoid them, even if they’re very intelligent. If a disciple is very stubborn and doesn’t want to listen when you give advice and this type of thing – that’s not a proper disciple. But if a disciple really wants to learn, is open, and takes advice to heart, then even if they’re not intelligent, they will be good disciples because they have this type of good character. This is the best type of disciple to take. Whether they learn a lot or not is up to the skill and patience of us as the teacher.
The quality that one looks for in a disciple, then, is not intelligence; one looks for sincerity and openness. Being open-minded means having the willingness to learn, the willingness to work and to correct one’s faults, without getting defensive or arguing back. This is the best disciple.
Verse 10: How to Regard Others and Avoiding Bad Influences
Developing an Equal Sense of Closeness with Everyone
Whenever I see any limited beings, let me expand my discernment of them as my father, my mother, my child or grandchild.
This is part of the teaching on developing bodhichitta, namely that in order to be able to benefit others, we first need to be able to see everybody as equal and to think of them with heartwarming love. This heartwarming love is what we feel when we see our most beloved friend or our most beloved family member. To see them warms our hearts. We really feel, “How wonderful it is to see this person!”
We see this with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. No matter whom he meets, he acts as though he’s seeing his long-lost best friend. He’s just absolutely delighted to meet another human being, another animal, or anything. This is a wonderful quality.
The way that we can call up this feeling most easily is to think of the other person as someone who is really close to us. The text relates this in terms of traditional Indian and Tibetan families where the family relations are quite good. For instance, if it’s an older person that we’re with, we think of that person as our father or mother. We’re not talking here about transference in the Freudian, psychoanalytical context, with which we project all sorts of father and mother trips on them. We’re just focusing on the feeling of closeness. If it’s a younger person we’re with, we think of them as our child or grandchild. If it’s somebody who’s our own age, we think of them as a brother or sister. The point is to feel this sense of closeness, without any grasping, rejecting, or ignoring. All of this, as I said, is based on a fairly ideal image of a healthy, loving family.
Obviously, we’re very advanced if we can do that with a fly or a mosquito that comes into our room – welcoming it and being delighted that it’s come in: “Welcome! Thank you for coming and visiting me.” Then we’re really advanced. There is a story of somebody who was in prison, living in solitary confinement. He was completely isolated, except for a spider that would come into his prison cell. This was his best companion. His best companion was a spider because there wasn’t anybody else. But don’t think, “Spiders are OK, but flies are unacceptable life forms – alien invaders.”
Although I was joking with “alien invaders,” it brings up an interesting point about what looks beautiful to us. I remember when I was first in India. I was not a great fan of insects, and India is the land of insects. Where I was living, there were these large wolf spiders, which are the size of your hand. I once foolishly remarked to my teacher – at the time, this was Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – how horrible they looked. He scolded me, saying, “From their point of view, you look like a monster. So who’s correct?”
Ridding Ourselves of Misleading Friends
So, let me rid myself of misleading friends and entrust myself to spiritual friends.
This brings up the wonderful definitions that we have in Buddhism of a misleading friend and a spiritual friend or good friend. A misleading friend is somebody who leads us into destructive behavior. The destructive things they encourage us to do might not necessarily be super destructive, like robbing a store, going hunting or fishing or this type of thing. It could just be that they want us to go out and party all the time, to take drugs or to drink, or to just sit around and talk about football or politics or movie stars. This is a misleading type of friend – one who leads us away from positive practice.
The word that is usually translated as “spiritual friend” is kalyana-mitra in Sanskrit, which in Tibetan, is translated as “geshe.” Kalyana, the first part of the word, doesn’t mean “spiritual”; it means “constructive” or “virtuous.” It’s a friend who, through their influence, leads us into doing constructive things. Rather than saying, “Let’s go out and get drunk together,” they say, “Let’s meditate together,” “Let’s do something positive together,” “Let’s study together” – this kind of thing. This is a spiritual friend, a constructive friend – one who encourages us and helps us to go further in our practice.
It could even be something like, “Let’s get some physical exercise to give you more strength to practice” – not that we’re going to do that as our primary activity; that’s something else. This doesn’t have to be so heavy: “Oh, we’re only going to sit and pray together.” So, what we are encouraged to do could be something that is directly constructive, constructive in itself, or it could simply be something that helps support our constructive behavior.
When we are weak in our practice and are very easily influenced, avoiding misleading friends is especially important. If we spend most of our time with misleading friends, we’ll start to emulate them and to act like them. If we spend most of our time with spiritual friends, positive friends, on the other hand, then we’ll start to emulate them and be positively influenced by them. So this is very important.
Gradually, we learn to have more and more strength, so that we are not – to use the Tibetan example – like a dog that, when all the other dogs in the neighborhood start to bark, it starts to bark too. An example of that would be that when somebody we’re with starts to complain about the government and all sorts of things, we join in and get ourselves all worked up about it. “If you can do something, do it; if you can’t do anything, don’t complain” – it’ll just make you feel worse.