30. To unite wisdom with skillful means
The five perfections, lacking inner wisdom, / are not enough for full awakening.
To cultivate the wisdom of true knowing, / united with the path of skillful means,
And not conceive the three parameters: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
verse 30 audio above
We are on to transcendent wisdom, the sixth and final paramita! It’s the wisdom paramita that puts the transcendence into all the preceding paramitas or transcending actions –generosity, ethical conduct, patience, diligence, and meditation. We can, of course, practice these five paramitas in an ordinary way, and if we do, we’ll be very nice, kind people with enviably calm minds. That would be a great achievement in itself. But, as all the commentaries remind us, if we don’t realize the wisdom paramita and apply it in our practice of all the others, we won’t clear away the fundamental confusion that keeps us trapped in samsara and stuck in the quicksand of emotional reactivity, ego-clinging and the three kinds of suffering.
Or, as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche puts it: “So here we have come to the very heart of the paramitas. Wisdom is not only the most important of the six — it is their very life force. To realize wisdom is the ultimate goal; it is the reason why all the branches of the teachings are explained.”
But wait …
… haven’t we learned that wisdom and compassion are equally important, like the two wings of a bird? Dilgo Khyentse explains their relationship. After first directly recognizing emptiness through our practice of study, contemplation and meditation, we begin to stabilize it on the cushion and then extend it into our daily life between meditation sessions. “Finally you may reach a point where there is no difference between meditation and postmeditation, a point at which you no longer depart from emptiness. This is called the realization of great sameness. Within that great sameness, compassion for all beings will arise spontaneously — for the more you realize emptiness, the less there will be any impediment to the arising of compassion.”
Chicken or the egg? Interestingly, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye in his classic mind-training text The Great Path of Awakening, suggests that approaching the path from the compassion side may be even more effective, with the same result: “True ultimate bodhicitta [wisdom] will not arise in the course of experience of beginners, but relative bodhicitta [love and compassion] will definitely arise if they train in it. With the development of relative bodhicitta, ultimate bodhicitta will be realized naturally.”
In fact, Togme Zangpo and Jamgon Kongrul turn out to be on exactly the same page: you may have noticed that the sequence of the 37 practices is right in line with Jamgon Kongrul’s advice: preliminary practices or preparation first (verses 1-7), setting our motivation (verses 8-10), cultivating love and compassion through tong len (verse 11) and bodhisattva boot camp (verses 12-21), followed by ultimate bodhicitta or wisdom in verses 22-24, and putting it all together in the six paramitas (verses 25-30), where the cultivation of skillful means/compassion precedes the direct cultivation of wisdom.
So, then, what exactly is wisdom and how do we approach it directly? The verse itself tells us that transcendent wisdom means that when we practice the other paramitas, we need to train in transcending the three parameters (aka, the three spheres or three-fold cycle). This means that we don’t conceptualize our actions in terms of actor, action, and recipient. The result of this, according to Gampopa, as explained by Ringu Tulku in Path to Buddhahood, is transcendent wisdom, which he defines as “the accurate discernment or appreciation of phenomena, which means that one sees clearly and vividly the true nature of things.”
Ken McLeod, using the same technique he introduced in verse 22 on ultimate bodhicitta meditation, suggests a simple way to practice this: “Bring the wisdom aspect into everything you do by looking again and again at who is acting, who is doing this, who is saying that. When you look, you see nothing. Keep looking at nothing, even as you go about the activities of your life.”
More formally, we cultivate wisdom through its three aspects, which rigpawiki calls “the three wisdom tools”: study, contemplation and meditation. Where have we heard this before? At the very beginning of our path of 37 practices, in verse 1! Our whole path, as Dilgo Khyentse advised us above, is about cultivating the wisdom of seeing things as they truly exist.
Dilgo Khyentse further advises us how to put these three aspects of wisdom into practice: “You, the practitioner, should first of all be like a bee going from flower to flower collecting nectar” by listening to and studying the teachings. “Then, you should be like a wild animal … and live in mountain solitudes where you can be free of all the busy involvement of ordinary life.” OK, most of us may not have circumstances conducive to this degree of seclusion of body and mind (see verse 29 notes on the paramita of meditation), but we can set up a mini-cave in a corner of our house or apartment where we can contemplate and train in meditation undisturbed, and maybe even go on an occasional retreat. “Finally … you should be like a peg driven into hard ground. Unshaken by thoughts during meditation, remain unwavering … and directly encounter the face of the ultimate nature of everything.”
I strongly encourage you to study Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s full commentary on verse 30 again and again.
The “demon” of transcendent wisdom: Meanwhile, in case you were wondering, His Holiness Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa, instructs us that the way we can misapply the paramita of wisdom is called “the demon of increasing poison.” In this case, instead of decreasing conceptuality and self-orientation, as the teachings are intended to help us do, we may find ourselves developing rigid conceptual views, such as thinking our way is better than anyone else’s. I think what His Holiness Karmapa is talking about here is similar to Chogyam Trungpa’s warnings about falling prey to spiritual materialism, in which we intentionally or unwittingly use the dharma to reinforce our ego-clinging and comfy habitual patterns.
“We should not relate to others in such a way that we put them down and raise ourselves up,” His Holiness advises. “Rather, we focus on developing our wisdom through listening, reflecting, and meditating. If [our practice] causes our afflictions to increase, wisdom turns into a demon. When our view or practice harms others, it runs contrary to Buddhist teachings, for their very basis is to cherish all living beings in our heart.”
In appreciation of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche: I’m going to end with a brief practical suggestion from Pema Chodron’s 2016 retreat at Omega Institute, but first I wanted to share a passage from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, and express gratitude for his pioneering teachings on the 37 practices. I had the excellent fortune to participate in a two-week seminar he gave at KTC on the 37 practices in the 1980s, in which he introduced the Tibetan text and its translation to Western students for perhaps the first time. In fact, it is his text I am currently relying on for my verse translation.
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche summarizes the meaning of verse 30: “Superior knowledge [aka, transcendent wisdom] recognizes the selflessness of the individual and of phenomena, and it is united with the skillful means of loving kindness and compassion. For knowledge to be superior it must transcend conceptualization of the three spheres, that is, of there being someone performing an action, an action itself, and an object of the action. If we have perfected the first five paramitas but lack nonconceptual wisdom united with bodhicitta, it will be impossible to attain enlightenment.”
For me, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is one of the great teachers of his generation, trained in Tibet before the diaspora, who most embodies the great sameness, or equality, referenced above. In his presence it was apparent that he was never out of touch for a moment with ultimate bodhicitta, the nature of mind, transcendent wisdom, the way things really are; and that he was modeling for all of us what that might look like, without any overt display or fanfare, but just in the way he was. A young friend of mine who had never met Rinpoche was in Nepal last fall and was unexpectedly granted a much-hoped-for brief interview with him. He said that Rinpoche, who is in his 80s and has been increasingly ill in recent years, didn’t speak, but that just being in his presence, it was completely clear that his realization, his wisdom and compassion, were profound.
In closing, Pema Chodron offers us an example of how to cultivate wisdom directly through its three aspects by using verse 30 itself as an example: “You begin by hearing that mind is free of conceptual limitations, that we could experience life free of overlays, just as it is. We could hear a sound just as it is. First you hear about it, then if it piques your interest you take it into your daily life and actually work with it, mixing what you’ve heard and read and thought about with your life itself … Then you take it even deeper by sitting with it in meditation, without expectation of any conceptual answers.”
But wait … I was going to end with Pema Chodron, but I remembered that Geshe Jampa Tegchok has some encouraging advice for those of us who may feel stuck in a conceptual approximation of emptiness or are even still wrestling with the basic idea of it (see verse 27, part 2, on the third kind of patience). “Even if we haven’t realized emptiness yet, we can still contemplate in this way so that our practice of method [the first five paramitas] is held by an echo or a reflection of the real wisdom. This is of great benefit.”
But wait … In class we discussed the last paragraph of Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary, where he says, “This [perfection of wisdom] is the ultimate fruit of all the different teachings of the Mahayana and Mantrayana, of Madhyamika, Mahamudra and Dzogchen.” I promised to find the verse in the Aspiration Prayer of Mahamudra by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, that expresses the same thing. Here it is in my chantable translation, with audio below. A translation of the full prayer from Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s website is linked here.
Free from mental activity, it’s / known as the Great Seal, Mahamudra.
Free from extremes, it’s also known as / Madhaymika, the Middle Pathway.
Since it is all-encompassing, it’s / also Dzogchen, the Great Completion.
May we have certainty that knowing / one is the real-i-za-tion of all.”
The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.
Next practice: Verses 31-34: the four instructions (yep, four verses!)
The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)