37 practices: verse 13

13. To repay injury with acceptance / how to use suffering on the path

Though I’ve not done the slightest thing that’s wrong, / Without a cause someone cuts off my head.

To generate compassion in my heart / And take upon myself all their misdeeds:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 13 audio

Contemplation based on Ken McLeod‘s commentary: “Drop any concern for justice and fairness. These are ideals, ideas that your patterns easily twist and shape to their own ends. Practice goes nowhere if you follow this path. You are soon lost in interpretation, conceptual thinking, unacknowledged prejudice and bias.”

What does Ken mean by this, and do you think he is right? Should we ever intervene in situations to combat unfairness or abuse? If so, how can we do it without compromising our practice?

Homework: Be vigilant for the feeling that you are being treated unfairly. Catch it as soon as it arises, analyze the situation according to the verse 13 commentaries, and apply the remedy.

Contemplation based on Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche‘s commentary: “For example, you might find yourself suddenly face to face with someone you think wants to harm you, and a strong feeling of fear would arise. But once you realized that the person, in fact, had only good intentions toward you, your fear would disappear. It was just a thought.”

How does this relate to Ken’s observation above?

Have you ever had a strong emotional reaction based on a misinterpretation that was later cleared up? For me, it sometimes happens when I read an email or text too quickly, and develop an instant storyline about the other person’s intention, which, when I take the time to reread it or seek an explanation, turns out to be incorrect. When you look back on your initial emotional reaction, and things you may have thought, said, or done in response to your faulty assumption, how do you feel? How do you wish you had responded?

The bigger picture: This type of insight can serve as a pointer to the misconception that is at the root of all confusion and suffering in samsara: ego-clinging, ego orientation, Team I. All our emotional reactions stemming from attachment and aversion are based on the misconception that we have a fixed, permanent, free-standing self that is the same from moment to moment, year to year, situation to situation, and can be truly harmed by adversity.

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche puts it this way in Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness (translated by Shenpen Hookham, 2016 edition; older edition available online as pdf): “Clinging to the idea of self is like clinging to the idea that a piece of rope in the dark is a snake. When the light is turned on and one sees that there is no snake there, one’s fear and suffering that arose from clinging to it as real dissolve. The snake never existed in the first place, so it was simply one’s clinging to that idea that caused the suffering, and nothing else. The wisdom that realizes not-self is like the light that revealed the rope was not a snake.”

Or, as he expressed it elsewhere,”Samsara is like making a mistake, and nirvana is like when you stop making it.” (Quoted by Andy Carr in Contemplating Reality: A Practitioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.)

So one point of this verse or practice is that because we are stuck in the confusion of samsara, we don’t see things clearly and our feeling of being hurt or threatened by someone else’s words or actions is a product of our own ego-clinging, emotional reactivity, conceptuality, interpretation, and projections. We can’t fully trust our own perceptions, so if we can step back and see the situation as like a dream or illusion, or at the very least as fleeting, it won’t take us so far out of the equanimity that is closer to our true nature. Tokme Zangpo will have more to say about the ultimate bodhicitta perspective in verses 22-24.

But what if they really did mean to hurt me? That’s the relative point of view, and all the bodhisattva boot camp verses are expressed and explained in terms of relative bodhicitta: responding with love and compassion to harm that feels real to us. We can apply relative bodhicitta even while staying in touch with the ultimate bodicitta insight that there’s really no one cutting off our head, no one to be hurt, and in fact nothing has really happened at all. We can use a combination of these two methods, in whatever balance works best for us.

The commentaries: As he did for verse 12, Dilgo Khyentse reminds us that whatever happens to us is a result of our own past actions or karma. By not responding with anger, we pay off negative karma, and from that point of view, the harm inflicted actually benefits us. In fact, in Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrul Rinpoche advises us that by maintaining equanimity in the face of even one instance of anger and harm, we burn off eons of negative karma. So much benefit, for so little restraint! Even if we don’t take this literally, we know from the teachings and from our own experience that any interruption of the momentum of a habitual reaction weakens it, and if we cease to reinforce it, the karmic propensity eventually fades away. Thus, accepting the challenge of the bodhisattva path pays off for us as well as for the other person.

Dilgo Khyentse sums up this practice, “If you see someone doing something negative, think of all the suffering he is accumulating for himself and pray that, rather than his being reborn in the lower realms, the results of his negative actions may come upon you instead; and dedicate to him the results of your own positive actions.” So, to unpack that, we not only respond by 1) feeling compassion for the other person’s present and future suffering, we also 2) pray to take on all their negative karma ourselves; and 3) even take it a step further by dedicating our own merit for the benefit of the one who is harming us (similar to the advice for verse 12 to repay theft by giving everything we have to the thief). This all fits within the context of taking and sending.

Ken McLeod’s commentary is also very helpful, and includes the discussion of fairness and justice referenced in the contemplation above. He then addresses the question raised above, how to take necessary action without compromising our practice: “You can know what to do only when you are no longer disturbed by your emotional reactions and you are free from the confusion of the conceptual mind.” Thus, the first priority of a bodhisattva is to focus on taming our own emotions, so that our actions may be wise, effective, and beneficial.

Geshe Jampa Tegchok elaborates on this: “Being patient when harmed by others does not mean that we take no action to prevent harm from occurring. Rather, patience frees our mind from the fog of anger and gives us the clarity and kindness to respond to a situation in a helpful way. Free of anger, we look for ways to resolve conflict other than seeking revenge.”

Pema Chodron acknowledges that compassion may not be our initial reaction, and also mentions revenge: “You will feel these very strong emotions and have thoughts of revenge. If you can hold those things in your heart, if your nervous system can become used to holding those kinds of things and not running away but coming to know that part of yourself with kindness and compassion, and that part of humanity with kindness and compassion, holding it in compassionate open awareness, if today you can begin training in that, by the time you die you could be pretty good at it.”

The ultimate protection against being harmed by adversity: The last part of Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary is about the role of “I,” or belief in a lasting, fixed self, as the root of our confusion and suffering. Realizing the lack of such a self is the root of wisdom. Please read and study his explanation, which he sums up in this way: “This ‘I’ is just a thought, a feeling…merely a label you have given to a transient combination of concepts and attachments to your body, speech, and mind.” Make that your daily contemplation, carry it with you into every situation you encounter in life, and its truth will gradually be revealed. According to the seven points of mind training, the ultimate bodhicitta method for bringing all adversity onto the path is to remember, “Emptiness is unsurpassable protection.” To understand and experience emptiness, Dilgo Khyentse advises us, “Use any practice you do to dissolve this idea of ‘I’ and the self-oriented motivations that accompany it.” Et voila: Team Other.

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

Next practice: Verse 14: to repay slander with love (how to use disgrace on the path)

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