19. To maintain focus and humility when everything goes right / how to use prosperity on the path
Though I’ve a-chieved the pin-na-cle of fame / And the whole world bows down to me in awe,
I’m rich be-yond my ver-y wild-est dreams, / What-ev-er mo-ney buys I have it all.
To see that there’s no es-sence in suc-cess / And nev-er think I’m bet-ter than the rest:
This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
verse 19 audio above
“Positive obstacles: raise your hand if you’re having these.” That line elicited laughter when Pema Chodron was teaching this text at Omega Institute in 2016. She and our other teachers will have some advice for us should we ever be in this situation, but first: a word about the translation.
(If you’re not interested in the reasoning behind this translation, please feel free to skip to “From the commentaries” below.) The Tibetan literally says, “Though I have gained wealth similar to that of Nam-to-bu.” Who is Nam-to-bu (Sanskrit Vaishravana)? He is one of the Four Great Kings of the four directions (his direction is north), and he’s associated with wealth and prosperity. We are more likely to know and perhaps supplicate him in his form of Dzambhala (or Jambhala).
When I reached this line, I felt “rich as Vaishravana” wouldn’t resonate very directly with contemporary Western practitioners, though that is the choice of Thubten Chodron, translator for Geshe Jampa Tegchok. Dilgo Khyentse’s and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso’s translators, along with Ken McLeod, opted for “god of wealth.”
I felt that “god of wealth” wouldn’t resonate very deeply for most of us in the contemporary West either, so I cast about for a phrase that might be equally evocative without being literal. I originally tried out “I’m rich as Croesus, Oprah, Jeffrey Bezos,” who I felt might stand in for gods of wealth in our culture, but that met with objections from the class for various understandable reasons, not the least of which is that it’s challenging to chant. It also wouldn’t stand the test of time, as we could have very different gods of wealth in our culture any minute now.
So I opted for a non-literal translation, suggested by Deidre, that is in common usage to represent inconceivably vast wealth in our time and place, and has been around for generations.
Alternative, more literal, translation options: If you prefer a more literal translation, please feel free to substitute “I’m rich as Vai-shra-va-na, god of wealth” or “I’m just as rich as any god of wealth,” for the first phrase of line 2 above. Or come up with a better line and let me know!
From the commentaries: Pema Chodron advises us, “The bottom line is not to let [good fortune] lull you into staying in your comfort zone, thinking other people don’t matter.” She suggests that we use our good fortune to help others in less fortunate situations “without condescension, because you have also had pain yourself and know that you can lose fame or wealth, because these are very transitory.” The changeable nature of our situation is in itself a good reason not to get puffed up and arrogant, not to think we are better than others, just because things happen to be going well for us at a particular moment or in a particular lifetime. As the Bible says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” We Buddhists are not the only ones who know how quickly our fortunes can turn.
Pema Chodron also suggests, as we have similarly been advised to do with all the negative, painful situations described in bodhisattva boot camp, that we use our good fortune as a basis for taking and sending: “In positive circumstances of any kind, even a spring weekend retreat at Omega with no allergies, we can use these positive aspects of our life as an outbreath, wishing for others to have it.”
What does it mean to say that worldly success has no essence? Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche explains: “Fame is impermanent, it changes, it vanishes. Therefore, Togme Zangpo says, fame has no essence. Wealth also has no essence. Even wealth like Vaishravana’s lacks essence.” He also points out that there is suffering even in the midst of wealth and fame, because those who have these things “do not recognize that wealth and fame are groundless, impermanent, and empty of true essence . . . . While the rich suffer from fear of poverty, the famous suffer from fear of becoming has-beens.” (In fact, right now, we see this happening quite suddenly — rightly and/or wrongly — to some very successful men in Hollywood and other walks of life.)
Beware of good fortune: As we’ve discussed in relation to previous verses, it can be hardest to wake up when things are going well for us, like gods in the celestial realms. Ken McLeod reinforces this point: “According to Nietzche, what does not kill you strengthens you. It is true. Adversity does wake you up . . . . Good fortune, however, can put you to sleep.” He then reminds us of verse 9, the intermediate level of motivation to practice dharma, the realization that samsaric happiness, while undeniably more pleasant than the suffering of suffering, is completely unreliable: “Like drops of dew upon each blade of grass, / The three world’s happiness evaporates . . .”
Ken suggests we can use our good fortune not only for taking and sending, but also as a basis for insight meditation (Sanskrit vipashana), to help us connect directly with the nature of mind: “From time to time ask, “Who experiences this good fortune?” . . . Look and look again at what experiences good fortune. Do not try to figure it out. Just look.” We’ll use his instructions as a meditation in this week’s class.
We’ll wrap up our survey of commentaries with advice from Geshe Jampa Tegchok: “Whatever marvels we may come to possess, we should not feel superior, but think, ‘May all sentient beings have happiness like this.'”
Contemplation on the impermanence of fame: SNL 2018
The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.
Next practice: Verses 20 and 21: to tame my own anger and desire
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)