9. To strive for unchanging freedom
Like drops of dew upon each blade of grass / The three realms’ happiness evaporates.
In contrast, the supreme and highest state / Of liberation doesn’t ever change.
To strive in all my efforts just for that: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 8 audio above. Audio for verses 8-10 is here.
So…. in verse 8 we begin to practice the dharma in order to become free from the intense, outright sufferings of the three lower realms, which result from harmful actions motivated by the corresponding poisons of anger (hell realms), desire (hungry ghost realm) and ignorance (animal realm).
The motivation of verse 8 is the essential foundation for any progress on the path, and it’s important not to gloss over it. But the point of verse 9 is that as we begin to progress along the path, we realize that freedom from outright suffering isn’t enough — the kind of happiness, pleasure, and comfort samsara has to offer even in the higher realms of humans, gods, and not-quite-gods is in fact the three types of suffering in disguise. At the very least, the highs of samsaric happiness don’t last very long (this is the all-pervasive suffering of conditioned existence, that it is deteriorating moment by moment). At worst, they turn at some point from pleasure to pain (the suffering of change — our old friend, outright suffering, e.g., Hurricane Harvey, August 2017).
With this realization comes the second, middle level of motivation: to attain freedom not only from suffering but also from the entire cycle of confusion that is samsara —the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this verse, Togme Zangpo instructs himself (and us) to direct all efforts in this life toward “the supreme and highest state of liberation.” Yep, he said all!
Contemplation: Where do I direct my time and energy now, on a daily basis? What short- and long-term goals am I prioritizing? How do I decide what to do when I get up in the morning or have some free time? This brings us back to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche‘s commentary (page 66) on verse 3: “If you wish to concentrate entirely on the dharma instead of being tossed hither and thither by the waves of attachment and aversion, give them up and go to a solitary place.” For us, that would be our regular meditation spot at our regular meditation time, plus any other time we can spare for practice.
This is the second level of motivation — to redirect our priorities from samsaric happiness and achievement to dharma practice and liberation. We may not be in a position, or even wish, to devote all our time to attaining freedom from confusion and suffering — but if we truly understand the futility of samsaric happiness, we will be motivated to re-examine our elective priorities and find some time every day for study, contemplation and meditation.
“You won’t accomplish
Both the dharma and the aims of this ordinary life —
If that’s your wish,
You’re definitely deceiving yourself.”
“There is no greater obstacle to dharma practice
Than to be obsessed by the achievements of this life.”
Again, it doesn’t mean we have to give up all our mundane activities and go live in a cave (though that was the gold standard in Togme Zangpo’s time and place). Dilgo Khyentse offers this encouragement: “If you turn your mind to dharma and practice genuinely, even for as little as an hour a day, through life after life you will gradually purify your defilements and free yourself from samsara. This is meaningful.” And he reminds us, echoing Gampopa in the introductory chapter of Ornament of Precious Liberation, “Samsara will never just disappear on its own. You have to want to get rid of it actively yourself.”
Pema Chodron identifies verse 9 as her favorite. (Do you have a favorite so far?) She gives us a way to work directly with this instruction: “That which never changes, the highest level of freedom — like open space, like the pause, like the gap — to the degree that we need something to hold onto…that we resist and dig in our heels… that we need to seek resolution…is experienced as groundless and scary and very unpleasant. As we become able to hold “unpleasant” in our open, compassionate awareness, we begin to become familiar with the highest level of freedom, that which never changes…. This is a pep talk: it’s worth hanging out with a little uneasiness every day of your life.” So, next time we encounter something that makes us uncomfortable or feels unpleasant (a smell, a sound, a person, boredom, uncertainty, anxiety, even pain), maybe we could try staying with it for a bit instead of immediately looking for an exit, and see if our reflexive aversion might begin to dissolve into something more like equanimity.
Ken McLeod has a similar take on verse 9: “Life is tough, but when you see and accept what is actually happening, even if it is very difficult or painful, mind and body relax. There is an exquisite quality that comes from just experiencing what arises, completely, with no separation between awareness and experience.” One class member shared with me that she recalled these words the day after class, when everything that could go wrong was going wrong, one thing after another. Remembering that “there is no separation between awareness and experience,” she burst into laughter and the bubble of stress she had been caught up in dissolved on the spot.
From the class discussion: Class members shared some mindfulness bells they have found, based on our discussion of verse 7. One class member keeps his prayer beads hanging by his bed, where he sees them first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and this reminds him to begin and end the day with a few minutes of meditation or mantras. Another shared that he replaced the home screen on his phone with an image of the Buddha, and each time he opens his phone, he is reminded to take refuge. (I have the Kagyu refuge tree as my home screen.)
Another participant addressed the question of whether we can literally strive for freedom in all our efforts, as Togme Zangpo suggests. She felt, and others agreed, that all our activities can be directed toward freedom by striving simply to maintain awareness in everything we do, in addition to setting some time aside for formal practice every day.
The question arose, what is meant by “freedom”? What exactly are we striving to be free from? Turning again to Ken McLeod: “In this freedom you are free from the projections of thought and feeling, and you are awake and present in your life. Reactions may still arise, but they come and go on their own, like snowflakes alighting on a hot stone, like mist in the morning sun, or like a thief in an empty house.” These are classic examples from the literature of Mahamudra, describing what happens when we don’t fixate on or get caught up in our thoughts and experiences. Imagine if someone pushed your (previously) hottest button and it didn’t trigger anger, you weren’t compelled to say or do something in retaliation, your mind remained calm. The definition of the paramita of patience, according to Gampopa, is “to be undisturbed by anything.” Imagine what that might feel like.
From the three-year retreat archives: The quest for the wish-fulfilling gem!
Silent pop quiz: Take a moment and see if you can list the four noble truths before clicking on the link. Could you explain them if asked? (The Heart of Compassion, page 61). Once you have those, how about the three types of suffering?
The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.
Next practice: Verse 10: to liberate all beings
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)