18 Close-Bonding Practices

Point 6

The sixth point consists of 18 practices that will bond us closely to this attitude training. The seventh point contains twenty-two points for cleansing and training our attitudes. These are long lists, but they’re also wonderful guidelines for how to be less selfish and more concerned for others. I’ll go into a little detail about each point, which is helpful and necessary, because the Tibetan expressions are quite obscure. Unless we get a clear explanation, it can be really hard to know what’s going on.

The Sanskrit word samaya (dam-tshig in Tibetan) refers to practices that will form a close bond, that will keep us closely connected to training our attitudes. Some are things that we need to avoid, while others are actions we need to do.

1–3. Train always in the three general points

The first of the three general points is, (1) Don’t contradict what I’ve promised. One way of interpreting this is, for instance, when we’re training our attitudes, we must be careful not to ignore things like refraining from the 10 destructive actions. People might feel, “I’m practicing as a bodhisattva, and so I can do whatever I want,” but this is not appropriate. 

This is a difficult, but interesting point. A controversial example could be that of avoiding alcohol, which is one of the layperson’s vows for individual liberation (pratimoksha vows). We could say, “I’m a bodhisattva, and I’m trying to help others. It’s a social custom in my country to drink, so if I don’t drink with my friends they’re not going to be open or receptive to me. So I’m going to ignore this teaching on avoiding alcohol because I want to help others.” Of course there can be circumstances in which this might be an appropriate way of thinking, but we need to be careful not to use it as an excuse to drink alcohol, simply because we like drinking it. On top of this, we need to be very careful that this attitude doesn’t disguise a feeling that Buddha’s teaching about alcohol is stupid, and we don’t agree with it. 

In general, there are things that are naturally destructive that everyone needs to avoid. Then we have things that Buddha advised us to avoid, if we’re aiming for certain goals. Killing is something that is naturally destructive, and everyone should avoid this. Drinking alcohol could fall into one or the other category, but regardless, if we want to overcome the influence of disturbing emotions such as anger, greed, attachment, naivety and so on, then we need to avoid alcohol. Why? Simply because it makes us more susceptible to being under the control of these disturbing emotions. Basically, it’s our choice! It depends on what we want to do with our lives. If our main aim is to overcome these disturbing emotions, so that we can benefit others more, then we need to avoid alcohol. If we really don’t care, then we can do whatever we want.

We need to be honest with ourselves always, and examine our motivation for social drinking. Do we really understand what Buddha said about alcohol, and why? Is drinking with our friends really the best way to help them? Are there other ways we could become equally relaxed, without the side effects? If our motivation is to help our friends relax, then surely we can find other ways that don’t include drinking with them. If we have taken various vows, like promising not to drink alcohol, then it’s important not to break them. 

When we train ourselves to benefit others, it has to be on both the mental and physical level. A lot of people think they can make water bowl offerings and imagine giving things to others, but then not have to do anything on the physical level. Some people like to do everything mentally and just meditate; they feel that they don’t need to do physical practices like prostrations or mandala offering. This imbalance is also addressed with this first point. We need to work out how prostrations and mandala offerings actually relate to daily life. It’s not enough to just make a mandala offering; we should also offer whatever we can to others, and that includes our interest, time and energy. It’s the same for prostrations: it’s poor practice to show respect to a Buddha statue but not our parents, friends, and other people. All of this stuff also needs to be applied to daily life. 

The second of the three points is (2) Don’t get into outrageous behavior. Outrageous behavior would be doing something absolutely ridiculous. It’s like going to a high lama’s teaching dressed in a tiny mini-skirt, with everything showing. That would be outrageous, and beyond the level of propriety. If we’re working on the Mahayana practice of training our attitudes, then we shouldn’t think we can do outrageous things like littering or polluting the environment. We also shouldn’t think we’ll be impervious to harm because we can transform harmful situations into positive ones. Another outrageous thing is to be a hypocrite in our practice. We’re nice on the outside when we’re with other people, but at home we hunt mosquitoes as if we were on safari in Africa. That’s outrageous!

The third general point is (3) Don’t fall to partiality, which means to practice only with our friends and relatives, and to ignore the people that we actually have difficulties with. If we’re going to change our attitudes, we need to work with difficult situations and people. An example of partiality often used by Tibetans is that if someone in a superior position scolds us, we can accept it gratefully, but if an inferior does so, we get angry and upset. We usually practice patience with our boss, because otherwise we might lose out jobs, but not with somebody in a lower position. 

In Tibetan society, people generally find it’s easier to practice with friends and relatives than with strangers. Many people in the West, however, find it the other way round. We often find it much more difficult to practice with relatives, because they annoy us far more than a stranger or our friends would. In terms of not being partial, of course we need to apply it in both ways and practice equally with the two sets of people.

4. Transform my intentions, but remain normal

This means that we need to remain normal in our behavior. Although we might be trying to develop compassion for everyone, if we make a big show of our sympathy by crying in front of others, it might come across as pretentious. Obviously, it’s ridiculous if a suffering person has to comfort us, rather than us comforting them! The point here is not to be self-indulgent with our strong emotions, not to show them off when it would be inappropriate. 

I think we need to clarify this for a Western context. When we’re with others who tell us a sad story, we need to make some sort of sign that we feel something and not just sit with a blank expression on our faces. When showing physical signs of sympathy, like putting our arm around them, obviously it’s good to be sensitive to what they’re comfortable with. Some people might want a shoulder to cry on, but others might get defensive with people feeling sorry for them. This is why tonglen practice should always be done privately, without the other person or anyone else knowing what we’re doing.

A lot of people get involved with Buddhism and start walking about with a rosary around their arms or necks as if it’s a piece of jewellery. They might see someone with problems and say, “Let’s get together and say OM MANI PADME HUM!” But that can be annoying to people, or they’ll think we’ve gone crazy. It’s so important that we remain normal. We can do mantras in our heads, we don’t need to say it out loud and we certainly don’t need a rosary in our hand when we’re with other people. 

Then there’s the whole healing business, where people make a dramatic show of laying on hands and so on. Tibetans say that this invites interferences, because when it doesn’t work, like in many cases, then we make an absolute fool of ourselves. In Buddhism, the main healing practice is tonglen, which as just mentioned we never talk about to others. If it works, we don’t say, “Oh, I did that for you! Please pay me or thank me!” or whatever. And if it doesn’t work, then we haven’t made fools out of ourselves. 

Remain normal so nobody knows what we’re doing. Even in terms of the prayers we do before eating and so on, it’s better to do them silently in our heads. If we’re with other Buddhists, that’s one thing, but if we start saying, “Om Ah Hum,” when we’re with our non-Buddhist families, it might create bad feelings.

5. Don’t speak of others’ deficient or deteriorated sides

Tibetans always say, don’t call a blind person blind to their face. If someone isn’t very intelligent, you don’t call them stupid. The person knows they’re not intelligent, so we don’t have to rub it in. This is interesting because we venture into the topic of humor and sarcasm. We could be very sarcastic toward others and we might find it really funny, but we might actually be hurting their feelings quite a lot. Some people even feel that being sarcastic with each other is a sign of friendship, but here we have to examine the culture we’re in, and what the intention is. 

In the U.S., people are very sarcastic, making fun of each other’s big noses or ugly wives. There’s slapstick comedy, where people fall down the stairs and everybody laughs. Pies get thrown in faces and everyone laughs. Then we’ve got violent cartoons, with cats being smashed by big hammers and so on. That’s for children! It’s quite odd when we think about it.

Anyhow, while we might think that speaking of others’ deficient aspects, sarcasm and so forth are innocent and funny, it does in fact hurt other people’s feelings.

6. Don’t think anything about others’ faults

This means that we shouldn’t look for faults in others, or when we see faults, to constantly criticize them. Our relationship with our spiritual teacher, for example, needs to be focused on the teacher’s good qualities, because those are what will inspire us. We don’t deny the teacher’s weaknesses, but we don’t fixate on them because that will just lead to depression. If we see shortcomings in the teacher, we are instructed to see if they are our own projections. For example, if our parents didn’t pay enough attention to us, we might think that the teacher doesn’t either, even though it’s just because he’s busy and travels a lot. If we clear out our projected faults and find there are still some real faults, then, without blindly denying them, we focus on the positive qualities rather than these.

Generally however, this approach is applicable to our relations with everyone. If we’re trying to help others, focusing on their shortcomings to help them overcome something is one thing, but normally we’re annoyed by other people’s faults. If we focus on their good qualities, it will motivate us to think positively about them. We want to develop an attitude where we cherish others, so complaining about other people’s shortcomings is not helpful.

Often, we’re most critical of those we’re closest to. For instance, many people expect their children or their parents to be perfect, and if this ideal isn’t lived up to, they become very critical. Since nobody can ever be perfect, it’s a far better policy to focus on their good qualities, rather than pick on their weaknesses. All we need to have is a realistic view of the other person.

7. Cleanse myself first of whichever disturbing emotion is greatest

Whether it’s anger, attachment, or jealousy, first we should try to overcome our most difficult emotional problem. Our various disturbing emotions hinder us from helping others, so we need to honestly examine ourselves to see what our biggest problem actually is. Rather than being afraid to face it, as it says in the tonglen instructions, we need to tackle the problem head-on. For this, we can learn many methods, some of which will work some of the time, and some of which will work other times. It’s important that we have a variety of methods that we can use.

We’re repeatedly told to turn to ourselves as the main witness, because we know ourselves best. This means that we need to be very introspective, which many people, of course, aren’t. They need someone to tell them that they’re acting selfishly or being stupid, because they don’t realize it on their own. However, getting this type of honest feedback from others is very difficult, because it requires a really trusting relationship between the people. If we ask someone to help us learn to be more sensitive about what’s going on with ourselves, we can’t get angry or defensive with what they tell us, even if it’s something we’d really rather not hear. Still, even if we turn to our best friend to evaluate us, they are not the main witness. They might give us the clue, but we need to check ourselves to see if what they say is true or not.

8. Rid myself of hopes for fruits

Hoping for fruits refers to wanting something in return for helping others. This is very difficult, as so often behind us helping others lie very subtle disturbing emotions. It might not be as gross as, “I’m helping you because I want you to help me later,” but often we want to be appreciated, thanked, or loved in return. Sometimes we just want to feel needed and useful, especially if we’re a parent with a grownup child. We need to check to see if our motivation is mixed with some self-cherishing, because if it is and the other person says, “I don’t need your help,” or doesn’t appreciate us, then we get upset.

Certain images can be helpful. For example, it’s interesting to see how we sometimes act like dogs. We come home and our dog is waiting for us to pat them on the head. Is that what we’re like after we’ve done something for someone? We’re waiting for them to say, “That was really nice what you did for me, thank you so much!” Even if we’re thanked, what does this accomplish? If we notice ourselves waiting to be thanked, then we can bring to mind this image of a dog waiting to be patted on the head, to see that we’re being silly. If we’re going to do things for others, we really should do it simply for the benefit of the other person. 

This can be a bit delicate. It’s like parents who do everything for the child – clothes, room, food, and so on – and then what happens? Often, the child doesn’t notice or appreciate it at all, and just takes advantage, especially during teenage years. As a parent what do we want? Do we want our child to always thank us every time we wash their clothes? That’s totally unrealistic! In many ways, if the child takes some responsibility and acts in a mature and considerate way, then we can feel that they are appreciative. Although we want to help others, we shouldn’t do it in such a way that they become dependent on us, or that they constantly take advantage of us. If our help makes others dependent on us, then it’s not so beneficial.

9. Give up poisoned food

This refers to our practice being poisoned with self-cherishing. Even if we have constructive thoughts or are involved in constructive actions, if we sense that it’s mixed with self-cherishing, the advice is to drop it, correct our motivation, and start afresh. If we’re doing something for someone else so that we feel needed and appreciated, the positive action is poisoned with self-cherishing because we’re looking for an affirmation of ourselves out of it. So it’s good to step back and correct our motivation – again, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves.

One of the signs to watch out for is actually in the definition of “disturbing emotion,” which is something that when it arises, it causes us to feel uncomfortable (hence “disturbing”) and to lose our peace of mind. It may also cause other people who are with us to be uncomfortable too. It also causes us to lose control.

This sense of being uncomfortable or upset inside can be very subtle, and so “upset” might be too strong a word. Shantideva says that when our hand takes a splinter out of our foot, we don’t expect the foot to thank the hand, because they’re both connected. Likewise, when we help others, there’s no point in making a big deal out of it or complaining. If there are dirty dishes to wash, they just need to be washed. We can do it with peace inside. If we wash them with resentment, thinking, “You’re so messy, why do I always have to clean up after you? But, I’m training to be a bodhisattva so I better do it,” that’s a poisonous attitude to have.

Other lojong texts advise us not to have hopes or expectations that someone we help will do anything nice in return. If we become sensitive to what’s going on inside our minds, there can be a slight uneasiness inside, which indicates we’re acting under the influence of self-cherishing or some other disturbing emotion. This might make us announce to the other person, “I washed your dishes!” But why do we need to say this? But if we’re sensitive, we might notice a bit of nervousness in our gut before we speak. It might be really subtle, but with practice we can notice the unconscious self-cherishing that is there. It’s not an easy practice, but it is essential.

Constructive behavior has two types: one that is mixed with confusion (namely self-cherishing) and one that is not. Constructive behavior mixed with self-cherishing is a cause for a fortunate rebirth, but it still perpetuates samsara. On the other hand, constructive action not mixed with confusion builds up the positive potential to achieve liberation and enlightenment. We already have the networks of positive potential from previous constructive behavior, and we need to strengthen these. Positive potential ripens as happiness, but if it’s mixed with confusion, then it leads to the suffering of change – happiness that doesn’t last or that leads to frustration. We’re aiming to strengthen our network of positive potential without confusion.

10. Don’t rely on disturbing thoughts as my excellent mainstay

This means that we don’t devote the major highway in our minds to disturbing thoughts rather than to positive thoughts and cherishing others. As soon as anger, attachment or self-cherishing arises, don’t play with it – just shut it down immediately. If we think, “Well, let’s take it easy on ourselves, it’s not so bad that I’m getting angry,” it means we’re allowing disturbing emotions to drive in the main lane. Then, they’ll get stronger and stronger until they take over and we lose control. We’ve got to be kind to others, and really unkind to our disturbing emotions.

As a daily practice, it can be helpful to go through the lists given in this text and to recite our bodhisattva and tantric vows if we’ve taken them. It will help us to remember them and stay mindful of the advice given as guidance for life. We shouldn’t just read them, actually we could spend time contemplating one or two of them, to see if we’re really doing it or not. There’s no need to go too quickly. 

We can do this in the morning and the evening. In the morning, we can set a strong intention as we go through the list, to try and follow them. At night, we can review how successful we’ve been during the day. There’s the story of Geshe Ben Gungyal, who kept a pile of white pebbles and a pile of black pebbles. He would put a white pebble in a separate pile every time he followed the advice, and a black one when he didn’t. In this way, he had a clear picture of what he was doing all day long.

The point is not to feel proud of how many white pebbles we get, or guilty if all we have are black pebbles, but to just rejoice if we’ve been doing well. There’s no need to go overboard with self-evaluation, but if we see that we have been acting negatively, then we can feel regret and resolve to improve. Remember that progress is non-linear – some days are better than others. Still, we can try our best to act in a positive, less selfish way each day.

11. Don’t fly off into bad play

Bad play refers to retaliating when someone calls us bad names or hits us or does anything unpleasant to us. If someone abuses us and says nasty words, we don’t search for worse things to say back, but just let it pass. There are a few ways to let is pass. If someone says something really nasty to us, we can realize that the words are just sounds, vibrations through the air. Hearing the words is simply another experience of the mind. The arising and hearing of sounds is no big deal. Only when we overlay a notion of a dualistic you, a horrible person, who said something to me, the perfect one, do we get upset and feel the need to retaliate. If we fight back because we feel insulted, then we’re only thinking of ourselves.

In these kinds of situations, the bodhisattva vows are very clear. The motivation for not getting back at someone who insulted us is to avoid causing them harm and to try and help them instead. We should try and use peaceful means as much as possible, but if they don’t work, even after we’ve given them a good chance, then we can stop violence and so on in a more forceful way. That would not be a violation of our bodhisattva vows. One needs to be realistic.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often been asked about using violence in Tibet, and he has stated that although it seems as if peaceful means are not working, using violence and terrorism would get them absolutely nowhere. They could kill 100 Chinese soldiers, but then the Chinese will send 200 more. There are 1.3 billion Chinese people, so the little violence the Tibetans could do would accomplish nothing. We need to be intelligent and not retaliate just because we don’t want to look weak or bad.

12. Don’t lie in ambush

Ambush means that we want to get even, so we wait until the other person is vulnerable and then we hurt them somehow. It means that when someone hurts us, we do nothing if we’re not in a strong position now, but holding a grudge we wait until they are vulnerable to take revenge. This point is also about not retaliating. His Holiness puts it very nicely: if we don’t strike back, we’re often afraid that other people will see it as a sign of weakness, but actually it’s a sign of great strength. It’s weak to give in to anger, just acting like a small child or animal that instantly fights back. It takes much more strength to use our compassion and intelligence and have patience!

13. Don’t put (someone) down about a sensitive point

We must never point out somebody’s faults in a crowd to purposely embarrass them; there are many ways to teach people in an effective manner without embarrassing them in front of others. I was once in Bodh Gaya translating His Holiness’ commentary on Shantideva’s Engagng in Bodhisattva Behavior, and at that time Serkong Rinpoche had been in Nepal so I hadn’t seen him for a few months. When we met, he opened up the text and pointed to three words in the text and asked me if I knew the meaning. They were actually really difficult words, and I didn’t have the correct understanding of the meaning, so he explained them to me. In fact, the three words he pointed to were referring to exactly the disturbing attitudes I was having difficulty with at the time. This indirect manner was a really effective way to make a point. Some of the commentaries also say that this point means we should use extraphysical powers like black magic and so on, if we have them – I guess this is not relevant for most of us!

14. Don’t shift the load of a dzo to an ox

There’s an animal in Tibet called a dzo, which is the offspring of a yak and a cow. It’s really large and strong, and much stronger than an ox. This saying means that we don’t give work that is fitting for a much stronger person to a weaker person who is not capable of it.

This has several meanings. One is that we need to accept the blame for our own mistakes, rather than blaming others. Another is not to leave our dirty work for others to do. Or, if there’s a choice of seats, we don’t give the worst seats to others and keep the best for ourselves.

15. Don’t make a race

This refers to running to get the best seat in the theater, or rushing to get the best portion of food for ourselves. We always want to get the best for ourselves and we don’t want others to get it. It’s much better if we let others go first, and then we can get the last or worst portion, but not pretentiously. We certainly shouldn’t say, “Oh, you take the good piece, I’ll take the bad piece, I don’t mind!” It needs to be natural, the way a parent lets the child have the best portion of food, not minding at all to take the burnt bits of leftovers. 

There’s another nice story here, again with Geshe Ben Gungyal. Once he went with some other monks to a meal that a patron was giving. The patron was dishing out the food, in this case yoghurt, and Geshe Ben was sitting right at the back. As he was dishing out the yoghurt, one of his favorite foods, he was getting more and more worried and upset, thinking, “He’s giving out too large portions, and there won’t be enough left for me.” Then he realized what his attitude was and when the patron finally got to him, he turned his bowl upside down and said, “I’ve already had my portion.” This is a great example of this point. Instead of worrying whether there’ll be enough left for me, we should be much more worried about whether there’ll be enough left for others.

16. Don’t reverse the amulet

Amulets are used to chase away harmful spirits, a metaphor for training our minds to cherish others. If we do these practices just for our own self-importance, then it’s as if we’re holding the amulet backwards. 

For instance, if we accept a temporary loss, knowing that it will impress others and eventually we’ll get some bigger gain, this is using the teachings backwards. Acting humbly and being very considerate to someone we want to impress, because we hope they’ll help us in the future, is also using this training in a reverse way. Another example is to do the practices simply because we want people to like us. All it does, in the end, is to actually strengthen our self-cherishing.

17. Don’t make a god fall to a demon

This again refers to mixing our practices with self-cherishing, and doing Dharma practices to allow us to feel self-righteous and arrogant, with a “holier-than-thou” attitude. It’s like doing a retreat and putting a sign outside that says, “Don’t disturb! Great meditator inside!”

Tibetans use the example of doing a three-year retreat, so that at the end people will consider us a lama and we’ll get disciples, fame and offerings. It’s so important to be humble. As one practitioner said, “When I read in the texts about the various faults and shortcomings, I recognize them all in myself, and when I read about the good qualities, I recognize them all in others.” This is certainly in keeping with the practice of training our attitudes.

18. Don’t seek suffering (for others) as an adjunct for (my) happiness

Examples of this include hoping that our competitors in business will fail so that we get ahead, or that people in our office will retire so we can get a promotion, or that our rich relatives die quickly so we can inherit their money and property. We should never wish others misfortune that we can take advantage of, but instead rejoice and wish other people to live long and enjoy their money and positions.

This concludes the 18 close bonding practices of point 6.