37 practices: verse 11, part 3 of 3

In our third and final class on verse 11, we began with Ken McLeod’s commentary in Reflections on Silver River and discussed a contemplation he suggests: “Suppose you were told that, no matter what you did, you would never be happy. Never. What would you do with your life?” (More on this in verse 11, part 2. Translation and audio for verse 11, exchanging my happiness for others’ suffering, are here.)

Ken suggests we might pay more attention to others, and accept them as they are rather than trying to change them to suit our preferences. We might also relate to life directly and engage with it as it is, rather than continually try to manipulate our circumstances. Answer from a class member: we could relax!

The question arose: if we don’t pursue our own happiness, how can we give it away to others in taking and sending?

That led to a discussion of what true happiness is, versus the fleeting pleasures, comforts, and triumphs that we think of as happiness but, according to the Buddha, are really suffering in disguise, aka the suffering of change. (See verse 9 for more on this.) The happiness we give away in tong len is the limitless happiness of our buddha nature, which doesn’t depend on outer circumstances, and is what we are cultivating through study, contemplation and meditation. This may be a challenging distinction to understand until we begin to experience our buddha nature directly through practice, and we decided it would make a good koan to contemplate as we go through the ups and downs of our daily lives. Meanwhile, when we send happiness to other beings, if we are experiencing happiness in the moment or remember happiness from the past, we can send that, and we can always send the ultimate happiness of the nature of mind, which we always possess in the depths of our awareness, even when we may not be feeling it.

Koan/contemplation: In moments when we feel happy, ask, is what I’m experiencing in this moment true happiness? In moments of dissatisfaction or discomfort, ask, is true happiness what will result if I get what I want right now? If this is not true happiness, is there a way I can connect with a deeper, unchanging happiness in this moment, even if what I am experiencing is sadness, discomfort, or pain?

“The core teachings on bodhicitta”: This is Dilgo Khyentse’s characterization of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. He adds, “When the great yogi Patrul Rinpoche was studying it, he did not learn more than two or three verses a day, because he was meditating on them and integrating their meaning thoroughly. He was constantly struck by how wonderful and profound a teaching it was, and felt sad each time he reached the end of the text. He always had it with him, till the end of his life.”

We read verses 18-27 from Shantideva’s third chapter, “Fully Adopting Bodhicitta.” (Lotsawa House translation is linked here.) Our resource for this chapter was Pema Chodron’s commentary, No Time to Lose. She calls this chapter “Transcending Hesitation.” There are numerous translations available, including Stephen Batchelor’s pioneering translation, here in pdf form.

In verses 18-22, Shantideva captures the essence of bodhicitta, the awakening mind of “others first,” through a spectrum of examples of the ways in which a bodhisattva might aspire to benefit beings. For example, in verse 18, as translated by the Padmakara Translation Committee:

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

Summing up his aspirations in verse 22, Shantideva wrote:

Thus for every thing that lives,

As far as are the limits of the sky,

May I provide their livelihood and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.

For those practicing the Kagyu ngondro (preliminary practices), verses 23 and 24 are the first two verses of the bodhisattva vow we take right after prostrations. In fact, you will find verses from Shantideva included in many practice texts and aspiration prayers — without attribution, as dharma teachings were shared freely without copyright in olden times.

Another perspective: We ended the class and our dedicated study of verse 11 with an example from the Christian New Testament, Matthew 25: 31-46. I feel that these verses, “The Final Judgment,” capture something of the bodhisattva ideal and illustrate that the Buddhist path is not the only way to wisdom and compassion.

From the New Living Translation: 36: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37: “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38: Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?

39: When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40: “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.'”

More on bodhisattvas: “We Are All Superheroes!” (written in year 1 of 3-year retreat)

The index of the study guide and recordings of the classes are here.

Next practice: Verse 12: to repay theft with generosity

The complete study guide: click here (see “about the 37 practices study guide” at top of page for orientation if needed)