How to Live a Life Dedicated to Practice

Verses 17 through 28

Verse 17: Living in Solitude

Let me step up to living in a sequestered place, outside the limits (of any town), and, like the corpse of a dead game animal, hide myself in solitude and live without attachments.

This is very similar to what Shantideva explains in the eighth chapter of his text:

(VIII.37) So, let me live in solitude in lovely, delightful forests, with little trouble, happiness and well being, quieting all distractions.
(VIII.35) Let this body stay there in isolation, alone, making neither intimate friends nor conflicts. If I'm already counted as if I were dead, there'll be no mourners when I actually die.

Here Atisha says that if we want to improve ourselves, to step up, and to really develop ourselves, it’s best to live in a quiet, sequestered place, outside of the limits of any town – which is what the word for monastery means in Tibetan: a place that is quiet and outside of the towns – and to be like the corpse of a dead animal. That means, as Shantideva explains, that if we’ve already been counted as dead, then there’ll be no mourners to interrupt us and to make a big scene around us when we’re dying.

We’ll be able to practice properly to help benefit our future lives if we hide ourselves away in solitude and live without any attachments. Now, of course, not all of us can do that. His Holiness often says that only a very small percentage of people will feel inclined to live in solitude and to devote their lives to meditation; for most of us, it’s better to stay in society and to be involved with helping others to the extent that we can. Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to go into a retreat for a little while – to stay in a quiet place to meditate, to work on writing Dharma things, or to do whatever constructive activity it is that we want to do. Thinking of the great masters of the past who lived like this – and some of the present as well – gives us great inspiration.

Especially for beginners, a fairly quiet situation is better because there is less distraction. However, don’t have overly romantic ideas about India and Nepal: they’re not quiet places. They’re the Lands of Sound. Tibetan monasteries are extremely noisy. Everybody does their practices out loud. And even if we’re in a quiet place by ourselves, we can, of course, have a tremendous amount of noise in our heads. There is no guarantee that if externally all is quiet, internally all will be quiet. Nonetheless, to have all be quiet externally is helpful for many people.

Verse 18: Overcoming Laziness

Having a Stable Daily Practice

(There,) let me always be stable with my Buddha-figure.

There, – that’s referring to being in solitude, in a quiet, sequestered place – let me always be stable with my Buddha-figure. Here is another hint of tantra practice that Atisha is introducing.

He says, “Let me always be stable.” What we need in order to gain stability is to have a daily meditation practice, whatever that daily meditation practice might be. Especially when we have very busy lives and are doing so many things, it is so helpful to have one steady practice that we do every day. No matter what craziness is going on in our lives, we have this stable mental state – a stable place to go to. It gives us a sense of continuity. That is very important for stability.

If we work with a Buddha-figure, a “yidam,” as we do in tantra, what we’re doing is abandoning our old self-image associated with our busy lives and adopting a new self-image – on the basis of the understanding of voidness, bodhichitta and renunciation, of course. The self-image is that of a Buddha in the form of a Buddha-figure such as Avalokiteshvara or Tara, which embodies the various qualities that we’re striving to achieve.

When we go off to a quiet place, it’s very important to “dissociate,” as Shantideva says, both our bodies and our minds from all the busyness.

(VIII.89) Having considered, with aspects such as these and more, the benefits of dissociating (myself), and thus fully quieting my rambling thoughts, I shall meditate on bodhichitta.

It’s not just our bodies that go off into a sequestered place. We also sequester our minds from all the associations, the attachments and so on. We dissociate our minds from the self-image that we have when we’re in the place that we’ve left. That’s why working with a Buddha-figure is very helpful. It helps us to replace that samsaric self-image with one that is more “nirvanic,” if we can use that word, one that doesn’t have all the old negative associations – negative in the sense of disturbing emotions. The Buddha-figure represents our future enlightenments that we aim to achieve with bodhichitta.

Reminding Ourselves of Our Shortcomings So as to Rise Above Laziness

And whenever a feeling of laziness or exhaustion arises, let me enumerate my own shortcomings

As I’ve often said, until we become arhats, samsara will continue to go up and down. That’s the nature of samsara. Sometimes we will feel like meditating; sometimes we won’t. Sometimes it’ll go well; sometimes it won’t. Sometimes we feel lazy and exhausted; other times we don’t. The important thing is just to continue anyway. As is stated in an earlier verse, we regard these things as being like illusions. Don’t make a big deal out of the ups and downs. Just continue.

To help us to get past that laziness and exhaustion, Atisha says to enumerate our own shortcomings. In other words, we remind ourselves that laziness and exhaustion are shortcomings. They are obstacles, things that we want to overcome. So, we remind ourselves of our motivation for meditating: we want to overcome things like laziness, discouragement, exhaustion, and self-pity and to train our minds not to be completely distracted by attachment, anger, and so on.

By reminding ourselves that “hey, that’s exactly why I’m sitting here. That’s exactly why I want to meditate – it’s because I do feel lazy and I don’t want to do anything constructive,” we reaffirm our motivation, and that gives us strength to push on. That’s part of the perseverance – we accept that samsara is going to go up and down; we accept that difficulty. We don’t have any illusions about it. We just push forward; we make the effort.

Once we have reminded ourselves of our motivation to overcome these shortcomings, then:

Correcting Ourselves with Self-Discipline

And remind myself of the essential points of taming behavior.

That’s referring to ethical discipline, the discipline to correct our faults. What’s being explained here is that we need to recognize our faults, our shortcomings, when they arise and then to remember to correct them – ourselves. That’s what is often referred to as “the inner guru.” We don’t need an external guru to correct us. We don’t need a policeman or a Mommy or a Daddy. We ourselves can recognize when we’re acting in a way that is not in accord with what we’re striving to achieve, when we’re acting in a way that is not constructive.

Then we just correct it. And we don’t dither about. We just do it, as my mother would say, “straight up and down.” Just do it. It’s like wanting to take a shower but the water is a bit cold – “Well, just do it; just get into the water. Either take a shower or don’t take a shower. If you’re going to do it, just do it!”

Verse 19: Being Kind and Friendly If We Happen to Meet Others

But if I happen to see others, let me speak calmly, gently, and sincerely, rid myself of any frowns or closed-off expressions, and always keep a smile.

This is, again, very reminiscent of Shantideva’s text.

(V.71) Thus I shall have self-control and always present a smiling face. I'll stop frowning and grimacing (in disapproval), I'll be friendly with wandering beings, and be honest.

Even when living and practicing in seclusion, we are undoubtedly going to meet people. When we have interactions with them, it’s important that we behave calmly and gently. If we’re stable in our practice, we will be calm, and that will put others at ease.

It’s important, however, not to become stiff when we’ve become calm. After I went back to America after my first few years of being in India, for example, I spent some time with my sister. Her remark to me was, “You’re so calm I could vomit.” I was just like a zombie, staying calm all the time and not showing any kind of emotional excitement – my sister is a very emotional person. So, being calm and gentle doesn’t mean that we have no expression on our faces and that we walk around like zombies. We need to have facial expressions and to respond, to react.

Speaking of our facial expressions, it says to rid ourselves of frowns or closed-off expressions. This is especially so if they’re coming from conceit – we’re thinking how wonderful we are because “I’m following a spiritual life.” We look down on others with disapproving frowns on our faces – “Oh, you’re involved in business?” or some other type of samsaric thing. “You still drink beer?” “You still drink wine?” And we have this very disapproving look that’s belittling of others.

So, we need to always keep a smile. That doesn’t mean a smile with lots of teeth showing as one might see in an advertisement, one that’s just totally false. Rather, we need, as Atisha says here, to be sincere, to speak from our hearts and not to be pretentious, not to put on airs and not to be disapproving or anything like that. As His Holiness always says, it’s just a joy to meet another human being, human to human.

In the sensitivity training, in one part of it, we try to observe our facial expressions. We try to notice if we’re frowning or if we’re wrinkling our foreheads or our mouths. If we notice that our facial muscles are tense in any way, we to try to relax the face, relax the expression. This is very important as often our faces automatically go into a frown or have some sort of expression of disapproval. That communicates. We don’t see it, but the other person sees it.

On the other hand, our facial expression could go to the other extreme that it’s too much. We can notice that extreme in others when, for instance, we say something and the other person overreacts with their facial expression and it makes you feel really very uncomfortable, “This person is more upset about what I said than I am.”

Verse 20: Being Generous and Not Competing with Those We Live and Practice With

And when I’m continually seeing others, let me not be miserly, but take joy in giving, and rid myself of all envy.

Sometimes we’re living with other people, whether in a retreat type of situation with like-minded people or in a situation with others who have completely different interests. When we’re continually seeing them, it’s important not to be miserly with our possessions. “This is mine; you can’t use it,” “This is my food in the refrigerator,” and “This is my chair” – it sounds like The Three Little Bears: “This is my chair; somebody’s been sitting in my chair; somebody’s been sleeping in my bed!” That causes a tremendous amount of uneasiness and affects the relationships of the people we are living with.

But take joy in giving – we take joy in sharing with others. We also rid ourselves of envy. This refers to being envious of others’ possessions: “I want to use all of your things because they’re better than mine” – this type of thing. This advice, of course, is not very easy to put into practice because very often there are people who want to exploit us, who always want use our things rather than their own things and so on. This requires a great deal of patience.

It’s really very interesting: With people whom we really, really like and to whom we feel really close, we’re willing to share everything, even our toothbrushes. However, with other people, people to whom we don’t feel so close, we’re not willing to share. We don’t even want to sit at the same table with them. So, our ability to put this into practice will depend a lot on equalizing our attitudes toward others.

When we do have to set limits, we try to do so based on understanding what’s constructive and what’s destructive. For example, we don’t share our computers with very young children, as they’re almost certainly going to break them, nor do we share them with irresponsible people who are likewise going to break them. However, within the bounds of what’s not destructive, it’s important to share. As I say, it’s not at all easy to put this into practice.

But take joy in giving – that’s the key. It makes us happy to share. Most of us know what that feels like because most of us have experienced that. When we really love somebody, we’re just so happy to give them something. We’re so happy when they accept and find what we’ve given them to be useful. So, we try to extend that feeling of wanting to share to those to whom we don’t feel close. In this way – not being miserly, not being envious of what the other people have, and being happy to give – we are very friendly.

On the other hand, we have to be as strong and as stubborn as a bull when it comes to keeping to our practice. If somebody wants all our time, causing us not to be able to do our daily practice, we have to set boundaries. Or if they want to use our offering bowls as ashtrays, we don’t let them; we don’t share like that. So, we have to be stubborn in terms of our practice and not let others cross certain boundaries.

Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey quoted a Tibetan expression that speaks to this: “Don’t give the rope in your nose ring to somebody else. Keep it in your own hands.” A bull or a water buffalo has a ring through its nose. There’s a rope that goes through the ring, and the bull has to go wherever somebody leads it. So the expression is, “Don’t give that rope into somebody else’s hands. Hold that rope in your own hands.” In other words, “You be the master of what you’re doing.” In connection with that, Atisha says:

Verse 21: Patience with Others

In order to safeguard the minds of others, let me rid myself of all contention and always have patient tolerance.

We try to please others, to make them happy and to not contradict them. That’s what contention means – to contradict somebody and to argue with them. Tsongkhapa said it very nicely: “If you agree with the other person – that ends the argument.” We just agree. “I agree with you. I’m not going to argue with you.” Then it’s finished. Again, it depends on what the issue is. In general, though, especially if the other person isn’t willing to listen and is totally closed-minded – and even if they’re saying something totally outrageous – we just say, “Yeah, yeah.” There’s no point in arguing.

This goes back to the line – which comes originally from the Precious Garland (Skt. Ratnavali) of Nagarjuna – “accept the defeat on oneself and give the victory to others.” This is one of the central lines in the 8-Verse Mind Training.

(5) When others, out of envy, treat me unfairly with scolding, insults, and more, may I accept the loss upon myself and offer the victory to others.

This is a very important and helpful piece of advice. We accept the defeat on ourselves: “OK, I’m wrong. You’re right.” What difference does it make? We don’t always have to get in the last word. This is the point of the last line in the previous verse.

There are certain limits, though. If a person is going to do something destructive, we have to set limits. If somebody says, “Let’s go out and shoot kangaroos,” we set a limit. We say, “No.” We don’t agree to that. However, if they say, “The sky is green,” and we say, “No, it’s blue,” there’s no point going on arguing. Who cares? This is relevant especially when there is a political or religious argument and the other person absolutely will not listen to anything we say. What’s the point? Then it becomes idle chatter to just go on and on. So, we just say, “OK. Let’s talk about something else.” Then it’s finished.

Even when somebody criticizes us or points out some mistakes or faults that we have, we don’t argue. We say, “Thank you. Thank you for pointing that out,” no matter whether what they say is true or not. There’s no point in getting defensive. And often, what they say is true. We especially don’t get defensive if they point something out just to hurt us, to be aggressive, or things like that. If our reply is, “Thank you for pointing that out,” it absolutely dissolves all the antagonism. It’s the end of the argument.

However, if somebody accuses us of having done something, we don’t say thank you without examining whether or not what they’re accusing us of is true. Obviously, we need to examine these things, to use discrimination. If somebody says, “You took my pen,” and we didn’t take the pen, we don’t just say thank you. Then they’ll say, “Well, give it back,” and we won’t have it. What we’re talking about here is people criticizing our faults or mistakes, calling us greedy or something like that. Then we say, “I’m sorry. Thank you for pointing it out. I’ll work on it.” Don’t get defensive.

Verse 22: Being a Good Friend and Teacher

Not Being Fickle in Our Friendship

Let me not be fawning, nor fickle in friendship, but rather always stay faithful.

This is important in a friendship. In English, we talk about “fair weather friends,” friends that are friendly when things are going nicely and when we’re in good situations but who, when we’re in trouble and are not terribly pleasant to be with, dump us – they leave us. So, when other people say bad things, make mistakes, or hurt us in some kind of way, it’s important to wish them to be happy.

However, neither should we be fawning. “To fawn” means to excessively flatter. We are all over the person, especially when they’re nice – but then we leave them when they’re not nice.

To be fickle in friendship means to be continually changing our friends. We abandon friends and go on to the next ones. It’s like making a new conquest, especially when sexuality is involved.

These kinds of things indicate that our friendships are not stable. Either we are not convinced that the person is our friend, or we are not sincere. So, in that sense, we need to remain faithful – not just in good weather but in bad weather as well, and not just when they act nicely but also when they make mistakes.

Having Respect for Our Friends

Let me rid myself of insulting others, and keep a respectful manner.

Some people are friendly only with people who are rich and powerful, people they can get something from. Then, when they find out that they can’t get anything from them – recommendations, money, opportunities, sex, or whatever – they drop them. They insult and look down on those they can’t get anything from, and they don’t want to be friendly with such people.

Here, Atisha has the caste system in mind. Don’t classify people into castes: “I can only be friendly with somebody of my own caste,” “I can only be friendly with somebody who’s my own age or who’s in my own social class” – whatever it might be. Instead, keep a respectful manner toward everyone. Anybody could be our close friend.

What do we do when people come to us just to exploit us – people who just want to get something from us and who, when they no longer find us useful, go away? First of all, if we’re practicing as bodhisattvas, we are happy if they come to us. We are happy if we can help them. If they go away – that’s their loss. That’s their loss. And it’s sad that they are no longer open to our help.

This is especially true when one is a teacher. This is a big problem that many Western Dharma teachers face. A lot of people come and are students of theirs for a while, but then they leave and don’t come back. Many teachers get upset about that. They wonder, “Why don’t they come anymore? What happened? Did I do something wrong?” In that case, one has to think in terms of, “well, it’s their loss. This is available, and if they don’t come, it’s because of their karma. If they only wanted to use me, that’s their shortcoming. I’m available to help them whether they want to exploit me or not.”

Now, in regard to exploitation – we give what’s appropriate. We don’t over-give, which could be harmful to them and to us. We don’t let them be a complete drain on us. We set limits. As Ringu Tulku said very nicely, so many people might ask us for things, but there are only so many requests that we can fulfill – we can’t multiply ourselves into a million forms at the same time yet; we’re not yet Buddhas. Nonetheless, we at least try to give them something, a little something, so that we’re not totally rejecting them.

When it comes to telling someone we can’t do something, I am reminded of a lovely line from Miss Manners. Miss Manners is an American newspaper’s etiquette queen of whom one asks questions about etiquette. Miss Manners, “Miss Good Manners” says that in such situations, we just say, “I’m so sorry.” We don’t give excuses. We don’t give reasons why we can’t help. We just say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I won’t be able to do that.” We don’t explain. If we were to explain, they’d give us an argument about it, and then we’d have to get defensive. We just say, “I’m so sorry.” Great guru, Miss Manners.

Giving Advice or Teachings with the Sole Motivation of Being Helpful

Then, when imparting guideline instructions to others, let me have compassion and a mind to help.

If we give advice and teachings to others – which doesn’t have to be in any kind of formal way – we do it freely; we don’t do it for money or fame. Nor do we do it because we want the other person to like us or to become dependent on us, which is an even heavier fault. Our advice will be more sincere if we avoid all of that.

Then, as for how we actually choose what type of Dharma practice to follow, Atisha says:

Verse 23: Choosing What to Practice

Let me never deny the Dharma and, setting my intention on whichever ones I fervently admire, let me make effort to split my days and nights (passing) through the gateways of the ten Dharma acts.

We need to realize that Buddha taught many different methods, many different practices; therefore, we do not deny any of them. We don’t say, “This is not the teaching of the Buddha,” or “This is not helpful,” or “This is an improper thing to practice.” We’re open to and accepting of all the Dharma teachings.

Within the whole spectrum of Buddhist practice, we choose whatever it is that suits us, whatever it is that we really admire and feel some sort of connection with – whether it is Tibetan style, Theravada style, or Zen style, or within Tibetan Buddhism itself, whether it’s this tradition or that tradition, whether it’s Guru Rinpoche or Tsongkhapa. Whatever it is doesn’t make any difference. They’re all equally able to bring us to liberation and enlightenment.

We need to find what suits us best and what we can look up to, what we can fervently admire. “Admire” is the word that also means “firm conviction.” We’re firmly convinced that this is what suits us. We’re not going to be influenced by how popular it is or whether our friends are into it and so on. We really are confident about what suits us best, and we then put our hearts into that.

The Ten Dharma Acts

To split my days and nights doing these ten Dharma acts – that doesn’t mean that every day we have to do all ten acts. “Days and nights” just means “our time.” So, we try to devote our time to the particular type of practice that suits us very well. What sorts of practices can we do? There are the ten Dharma acts:

  1. “Copying scriptures” – that doesn’t mean just photocopying them. In olden times, it meant writing out the scriptures, since there were no printed versions and making a handwritten copy made the text available to more people. Even nowadays when written versions are readily available, writing out or typing the texts can be very helpful for familiarizing us with their contents, especially of scriptures or teachings that concern the type of practice that we’re interested in.
  2. Making offerings to the Three Gems” – that’s always good to do, but we can also make offerings with the motivation of, “May I be able to practice well.”
  3. Giving to the poor and sick” – this is also general, something that, in terms of Mahayana practice, we would do in any case.
  4. “Listening to teachings” about the things we really have strong admiration for and conviction in.
  5. Reading scriptures” about the teachings that we have particular admiration for.
  6. Taking to heart the essence of the teachings through meditating” – meditate and engage in the type of practice that’s involved with the particular teaching or style that suits us.
  7. “Explaining the teachings”– if we are able to explain a teaching, or if we’re able to share it and to discuss it with others who might also be interested in the type of teaching that we’re interested in, we do that.
  8. “Reciting sutras” – that’s also very inspiring. Reciting out loud the texts that deal with the topic we’re interested in – whether it’s pujas, praises, sutras, or whatever – is very inspiring, particularly when we do it with a group of people.
  9. “Thinking about the meaning of the texts” that deal with the topic that we’re interested in, thinking about it during the day, whenever the opportunity arises.
  10. “Meditating single-pointedly on the meaning of the teachings,” trying to really focus on them.

This is how we would spend our time studying and practicing a particular type of teaching that we feel attracted to within Buddhism. And we do that without denying or putting down the other types of teachings that Buddha gave.

There are many things that can be included in this list: transcribing teachings, writing up the teachings we have received, making them available to others, etc. Those too are Dharma acts. The best way to familiarize ourselves with a teaching is to write it up after a class.

Verse 24: Dedication of Our Positive Force

Dedication of Positive Force to Enlightenment and Others

Let me dedicate to great peerless enlightenment as many constructive acts as I’ve amassed throughout the three times, and extend out to limited beings my positive force.

If we don’t dedicate the positive acts we do to enlightenment, we are just going to build up positive karma for improving our samsaric situations. Therefore, it’s important to actually dedicate those actions – what we’ve done in the past, what we’re doing now, what we’re going to do in the future – to enlightenment and to extend out that positive force to all others. So, we dedicate not just to our own enlightenment, but to everybody’s enlightenment as well.

Also, whatever positive force we have, we share with others. If we have learned something and so have gained some positive force from that, we share it. If we have connections in India, let’s say, and we know how to go about getting the right conditions to study there and so on, we make that information and those connections available to others. That’s sharing our positive force, sharing the good fortune that we have, so that others can likewise benefit from it.

In order to build up this positive force, Atisha says,

Offering the Seven-Limb Prayer to Build Up Positive Force

So, let me always offer the great prayer of the seven-limb practice.

This is what Shantideva also emphasizes. The seven-limb practice consists of (1) prostration, (2) offerings, (3) openly admitting the negative things we’ve done and applying opponents, (4) rejoicing in positive qualities, (5) requesting the teachings, (6) requesting the teachers not to go away, and (7) the dedication.

Verse 25: Attaining Enlightenment through Completing the Two Networks

Doing like that, let me complete my two networks of positive force and deep awareness, and deplete my two obscurations as well.

In doing this type of practice – the seven-part practice, further meditation on and practice of the ten Dharmic acts, and so on – we build up these two networks of positive force and deep awareness, the so-called “collections of merit and wisdom”; we strengthen them. In the process, we also deplete, get rid of, the two obscurations, the emotional ones preventing liberation and the cognitive ones preventing enlightenment.

Thus, making my attainment of a human body meaningful, let me attain a peerless enlightenment.

Verse 26 and 27: The Seven Arya Gems

Then, in verse 26, Atisha speaks of the seven arya gems, the seven gems that bring us to an arya state, the state of straightforward cognition of voidness. These are the gems that he mentioned earlier:

The List of Seven

The gem of belief in fact, the gem of ethical self-discipline, the gem of generosity, the gem of listening, the gems of care for how my actions reflect on others and of moral self-dignity, and the gem of discriminating awareness make seven.

These sacred gems are the seven gems that will never deplete,

They’ll never run out. When we talk about a gem, we shouldn’t just think of a jewel, rather we should think of a treasure that we build up more and more.

The more our understanding of the Dharma and the Dharma teachings grows, the more our conviction in the facts taught in the teachings – (1) the gem of belief in fact – grows and the more of a treasure it becomes.

Then (2) ethical self-discipline – to refrain more and more from doing negative things and to engage more and more in positive, constructive activities such as meditating and helping others – builds up more and more, like a treasure.

(3) The gem of generosity – to give others material things, to give them our time and energy, to give them teachings and advice, to give them protection from fear. Protection from fear doesn’t only mean saving them if they’re drowning; it also means assuring them that they have nothing to fear from us. They don’t have to be afraid that we want to get something from them or that we will either reject or ignore them. We have equanimity, so we give them equanimity. We also give them our love, wishing them to be happy. This generosity we can build up more and more, extending it out in an ever-wider-ranging way to include more and more people.

(4) The gem of listening. The more teachings that we hear – and that we study, because, obviously, we need to think about and meditate upon them – and the more of them we actually remember, the more of a great treasure listening becomes.

Then (5) the gems of care for how my actions reflect on others and (6) of moral self-dignity. These are the two factors – two gems – that form the basis for ethical self-discipline. These are the ones that are always present in a constructive state of mind.

First of all, we have moral self-dignity. We respect ourselves, we respect our Buddha-nature, and we therefore care about how our behavior reflects back on us: “I have such respect for myself and for my Buddha-nature that I wouldn’t act like an idiot; I wouldn’t act destructively.” Very often when people have no self-esteem, when it’s robbed from them – which often happens in regional conflicts around the world – they don’t care what they do. They become suicide bombers or whatever. They have no self-respect, no feeling of self-worth, and so they think they might as well be suicide bombers. On the other hand, when we have a feeling of self-worth, this moral self-dignity, then we restrain ourselves from acting negatively. We think, “I’m not going to lower myself by acting in this way.”

Then the other factor is care for how our actions reflect on others. We have so much respect for our parents, our teachers, our friends, our religion, our gender, our country, or whatever it might be that we think, “If I act negatively, what are people going to think of my family?” “What are they are going to think of Buddhism – I’m supposed to be a Buddhist practitioner?” “What are they going to think of people who come from my country?” and so on.

These two factors form the basis for ethical discipline, and they can grow stronger and stronger.

Then (7) the gem of discriminating awareness is to be able to discriminate not only between how things exist and how they don’t exist, but also to discriminate between what’s helpful and what’s harmful, what’s beneficial and what’s destructive, what’s a good use of time and what’s a waste of time.

These are the seven gems that will never deplete. They’re never going to run out. Nor can they be stolen.

Keeping Our Practice Private

They must not be mentioned to quasi-humans.

Quasi-humans” is referring to ghosts, harmful ghosts that can cause interference. Basically, what this is saying is that we shouldn’t go around boasting, “I’ve studied so much,” or “I have so much discipline,” or “I have so much faith,” because that just invites interference. We respectfully keep these gems on the inside. We don’t boast or brag. We don’t have to wear them around our necks like jewelry to impress somebody. We just have them internally.

The final verse is undoubtedly the most famous verse from the text, and it is very often quoted:

Verse 28: The Most Important Points for When with Others and When Alone

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

This is a most wonderful piece of advice. What are the things that we have to watch out for and to correct if they start to go in a destructive direction?

When we’re with others, it’s our speech. Are we saying something stupid? Are we saying something that’s going to hurt the other person’s feelings? Are we saying something that’s false? Are we boasting? Are we bragging? Are we complaining? What are we doing? So, we keep a watch on our speech. If we’re about to say something really stupid, we either correct what we are about to say or we keep our mouths shut.

When we’re by ourselves, it’s our minds. We keep a watch on what we’re thinking and feeling. So, it’s not that we limit our watchfulness just to what we’re discursively thinking; we also keep a watch on the moods that we’re in and the emotions that arise. Then, when we notice something that is destructive, something that’s disturbing, we try to apply the opponents.

This is the best advice. It sums up the whole path. As I say, this is a very famous verse and it concludes the text.

How to Integrate These Points into Our Daily Lives

As for where to start to integrate these points into our daily lives, I think that what can be helpful, especially since the text is not terribly long, is to read it every day, every other day, or something like that, in order to familiarize ourselves with these various points. If we do like that, then when we are in a situation in our daily lives that is like what is referred to in these verses, we remember the point – because we’ve read it over and again; we’ve familiarized ourselves with it.

We can’t say that one point in the text is more important than another. All these points have to do with learning how to develop bodhichitta – learning what things are helpful and, particularly, what things are not helpful. When we can recognize what things are not helpful, then we try to apply the advice that’s here. So, when we’re feeling very lonely and attached to other people, for instance, we think about how spending a lot of time with them distracts us from and interferes with our practice. On the other hand, when there are a lot of people around, we think about how we can help them. Each aspect of this teaching pertains to a different situation. So, whenever one arises where we can apply one of these points, we apply it.

It’s good to read something like this each day. It doesn’t have to be this particular text, but if this is a text that we find particularly helpful, we read this one. Then, according to how the day has been going, one point or another will strike us as being more relevant, at which point we stop and think about it. That’s the way to do it. It’s like making a round of mantras on a rosary. We can make a round through the verses and through the points. In that way, we are constantly reminding ourselves of these points. That, I think is what will build up the greatest familiarity with them.

And then we work on them. There are many ways of doing that. My own personal way was translating. If we translate or write out the teachings or something like that, we’re forced to think about them. If we take notes during class, then, when we’re home, we can write them out more nicely. Doing that gives us more opportunity to think about them, especially if we’re thinking in terms of how they might be of help to other people. Whether or not they can be of help doesn’t matter; the important thing is that the motivation is there. It’s actually quite difficult to just sit and think in meditation and to be able to sustain interest and attention. However, writing the teachings out or translating them really gives us the opportunity to think about them more deeply.

I find translating to be extremely helpful for this. I’ve been working on a new translation of Shantideva’s text, working from both the Sanskrit and the Tibetan. Even though I taught it, and taught it so slowly and carefully some years ago, now I’m going through it again. I’m looking at absolutely every single word, both in the Sanskrit and the Tibetan, and really struggling trying to decide what the best way of translating it is and to understand how the Tibetans understand it, what the differences between the two language versions are and so on. It has become so much more familiar to me that now I remember a lot of these verses. So, reading a text every day or a portion of it every day and going through it over and over again like that is very helpful. It becomes much more familiar.

There are many little tricks like that. Ugyen Tseten Rinpoche gave one very, very good example. He said that when he does these recitation practices, which all the Tibetans do, he recites each line or each phrase three times in a row. If we do our recitation practices like that, then we actually think about each point. We can go through our recitation practices very quickly, especially if we’ve been doing them every single day for years. But the danger is that we go through them at super speed without thinking about any of it. But if we take each phrase or each line and recite it three times before going on to the next one, then we do take the time to actually think about it or to visualize what it’s talking about and so on. It’s a very helpful piece of advice from a great lama, Ugyen Tseten Rinpoche, who is about 90 years old now, speaking from his experience in his life.

So, when reading a text like this, the same piece of advice applies. If we have time, we can recite each line three times so that we actually think about each of them. We don’t have to read the whole thing if it’s too difficult; we can read just a couple of verses. As Shantideva said in his first couple of verses, “I write this to familiarize my mind, and if somebody else finds it helpful, well, very nice.” So, in our practice, it’s not the quantity that is the important thing: it’s the quality.


I’m really very delighted to have had this opportunity to share these teachings and this explanation from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey. It was many years ago – 1973 – when I received these teachings. Fortunately, I took notes. And if you’ve taken notes, then thirty years from now, you likewise will be able to explain it to other people, to future generations. These are very precious teachings and very, very helpful.

Read and listen to the original text "A Bodhisattva's Garland of Gems" by Atisha.