37 practices: verse 12

12. To repay theft with generosity / how to use loss on the path

If someone driven by intense desire / Steals all my wealth or instigates the theft,

To dedicate to them from all three times / My wealth, good deeds, and merit, everything:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

audio of verse 12

Bodhisattva Boot Camp begins!

For an overview of this section of the 37 practices, verses 12-19, read this. And with verse 12, we wade right into the quicksand.

Contemplation: Can you recall an instance where someone stole something from you, large or small, material or metaphorical? Perhaps your home was broken into and completely cleaned out, as in the verse. Perhaps it was a smaller or less concrete loss: your car or bicycle, your wallet or credit card, a precious object, a financial scam, someone cutting in front of you in traffic or stealing the parking space you were waiting for, someone else got the promotion or award you felt you deserved, someone used your idea and didn’t give you credit. What was your reaction at the time? How does it feel now?

Let’s begin to apply taking and sending to this type of loss, whether it is past, present or anticipated: taking on all the suffering and negative karma of the thief, and sending them all our happiness, wealth, and merit. For most of us, this is not easy to do; in fact, it may seem impossible.

The path of the warrior: “The practice of Dharma is a constant battle within, replacing previous negative conditioning or habituation with new positive conditioning.” This is how His Holiness the Dalai Lama describes the process of waking up, in his book The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. And Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche often spoke of the bodhisattva (Sanskrit) or jang chub sempa (Tibetan) as a warrior or hero.

As we ride, each new day, into battle with our own habitual patterns (our homeland), here’s some encouragement: “You Can Do It!”

From the commentaries: So, our first impulse when someone takes something that feels precious to us, even if it’s a parking space, is probably not gratitude, compassion, or a feeling that our load has just been lightened. However, Dilgo Khyentse makes the case in several ways that these would in fact be the appropriate reactions.

  • The work of a thief frees us from attachment to wealth and property (material or abstract), which is an obstacle on the spiritual path. So the thief actually serves as our liberator, our wake-up call.
  • Everything that happens to us comes about through our own karma, our past actions in this and previous lifetimes. Back around 1980, when PTC Monastery was just being built, Lama Norlha Rinpoche resided primarily at the original New York City center, Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab, established by Kalu Rinpoche in New York City. It was in a decrepit fifth-floor walk-up loft in an an old industrial building on West 19th Street. One day some of his students returned to the center to find that someone had broken in and stolen all the money the center had: $40. They were very upset, but Rinpoche’s immediate reaction was “Oh, good!” A karmic debt had been paid off with no injury or serious consequences. He was genuinely happy about it. Geshe Jampa Tegchok also makes this same point: “In past lives we accumulated so much karma to suffer, and this is stored in our mindstream like money in a secure bank. By stealing our things, this thief has made some of that karma ripen so that now we are free of it. How kind he is to have robbed us of our bad karma!”
  • As bodhisattvas, we need practice to cultivate compassion in all circumstances. Our habit, developed over many lifetimes, and thus our natural reaction in this life, is to be angry and bear ill will toward someone who has done us harm. We need a lot of practice if we are ever going to turn that reaction around. Thus, we should be grateful whenever we have an opportunity to practice replacing anger with compassion, and we need to make that effort each time, no matter how hard it is or how justified our anger may seem to be. The Buddha taught that there is no benefit to anger, ever. And he lived this himself: his own cousin, Devadatta, continually tried to harm and even kill him out of jealousy, and the Buddha never lost his compassion or stopped trying to help Devadatta.

Dilgo Khyentse advises us: “Take all the suffering of the person harming you into your heart, and send him your own happiness, with great compassion.” This practice applies not only to theft, but to all the types of harm we will encounter in the upcoming verses, and is embodied in practice 11, tong len: to exchange my happiness for others’ suffering. No matter what. No exceptions.

The four limitless aspirations: Dilgo Khyentse also suggests that we study, contemplate and meditate on the four limitless aspirations, aka the four immeasurables: limitless love, limitless compassion, limitless joy, and limitless equanimity. The traditional presentation of these may be found in many dharma practices:

“May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness. May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they never lose touch with true happiness, which harbors no suffering. May they come to rest in vast, impartial equanimity, free from attachment and aversion.”

A daily practice upon waking up: Finally, Dilgo Khyentse instructs us that every morning, when we first wake up, our first thought should be to renew our commitment to help others throughout the day in whatever ways we can, in relative ways and also by helping them reach the ultimate happiness of awakening. This includes anyone who takes something we own or want, and anyone, even an insect, who harms us in any other way. This is a real practice he is giving us, not just a nice idea. Can we put this into words that resonate with us, find a way to remember it every morning, and actually follow through?

In the end, it’s just a dream. Ken McLeod cautions us: “This is not a feel-good practice. Don’t try to make it one. Just do it.” That is great advice for all our internal battles on the field of waking up. Our practice is not a way to bypass or short-circuit our own suffering. Things will still hurt, and it will still be hard to do these practices. And yet, Ken continues, if we engage consistently over time, we will begin to see how all our experience, all our thoughts, judgments, and storylines, are like a dream, and we will naturally develop compassion for others who are still caught in the dream we are waking up from. In Ken’s words, “Nothing you own is truly yours…. you just have the use of it,” for a limited time.

Once again, it all comes back to the basic truth of impermanence, that we treat things as if they are lasting, when in reality all things, including ourselves, are constantly in flux — which in turn points to the basic truth of emptiness: nothing we experience is limited to being the way we perceive it. Right now, through our habitual karmic patterns, we see things in a very distorted way, which gives rise to emotional disturbances, harmful actions, and the three types of suffering. By persevering through the initially painful practices of the awakening warrior, we begin to open up our perspective and bring our view closer and closer to the way things really are, and in this way we can truly, progressively free ourselves — and others — from suffering.

Posts from three-year retreat: “You Can Do It!” and “We Are All Superheroes

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

Next practice: Verse 13: to repay harm with compassion

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