37 practices: verses 35 and 36

35. To use mindfulness and vigilance to crush emotional reactions

Once reactivity becomes a habit / it’s hard to turn its energy around.

To overpower it without delay, / by wielding mindfulness and vigilance,

The moment a reaction first begins — / attachment or another poison:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 35 audio above

36. To use mindfulness and vigilance to benefit others

To sum it up, whatever I am doing, / in all my conduct and my practices,

Through constant mindfulness and vigilance / to monitor the state of mind I’m in,

Directing it to others’ benefit: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 36 audio above. Note that the audio places “constant”  in a different position in line 3. The written translation is the updated version.

In these two verses, Tokme Zangpo sums up the bodhisattva path into the partnership of mindfulness and vigilance, and shows us two ways to work with these two qualities to achieve a bodhisattva’s aims. If we reflect on the preceding 34 practices, each and every one of them depends on mindfulness and vigilance, and we develop each practice by stabilizing our mindfulness and vigilance more and more so that they become more and more continuous.

What is meant by mindfulness and vigilance? Last week, Lama Jinzang shared with us the definitions given by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, in his recent teachings on the 37 practices in New York City. I haven’t listened to session 5 yet, in which he teaches these verses, so I will pass along his definition based on my notes from Lama Jinzang’s summary: mindfulness is remembering what is right and what is wrong, and vigilance (aka, alertness) is remaining conscious of what our body, speech, and mind are actually doing, i.e., being aware of whether we are practicing according to our understanding of the dharma — or not.

In his indispensable online Tibetan-English dictionary The Illuminator, Lama Tony Duff defines mindfulness as follows: “In the context of calm abiding, mindfulness holds the mind in place and alertness keeps watch over the situation to ensure that mindfulness is operative.” Off the cushion, mindfulness can be applied in any situation, and vigilance or alertness is also on the job to monitor whether we are being mindful — or distracted, e.g., under the influence of a negative emotion — in any given moment. Lama Tony describes mindfulness and alertness as “necessary co-partners.”

So, then, what are the specific applications of mindfulness and alertness on the bodhisattva path? That is what verses 35 and 36 are here to tell us.

Tokme Zangpo is describing two complementary roles of mindfulness and vigilance. In verse 35, through their operation we overcome our own emotional reactivity, which comes out of our ego-clinging or self-orientation. Through vigilance we notice an emotional reaction as soon as it arises, so we can take care of it right away before it has a chance to reinforce negative habitual patterning and dig us deeper into samsara. In an earlier chapter of The Heart of Compassion, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche mentions an old Tibetan saying that when a pig invades your garden, if it has a chance to start munching you’ll never get it out. Likewise, as the verse advises, once an emotional reaction overwhelms our attention, it will be very hard to turn it around. But if we catch it when it’s still a mere impulse, we can overpower it with our mindfulness in that moment.

Different metaphors have been used by different teachers, but the message is the same: Kathi often quotes His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a teaching on mind training as saying that when an emotion arises, we need to “face and avert it.” In Training the Mind, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche instructs us to “stamp on the [negative emotions]… Whenever any bad circumstance comes up that might put you off [your practice] — stamp on it. In this slogan you are deliberately, immediately, and very abruptly suppressing [emotional reactions].” The verse itself refers to mindfulness and vigilance as “weapons” with which we “destroy, crush, slay” emotional reactions (depending on the translator).

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche uses “awareness” in place of alertness or vigilance, and illuminates the warlike terminology of the verse: “Mindfulness is remembering at all times what conduct to abandon and what conduct to adopt. Awareness means being constantly alert to afflictions the moment they arise in our mind. Mindfulness and awareness are the weapons that cut afflictions and work as antidotes to habit.”

One of the slogans in the seven points of mind training makes exactly the same point as verse 35: “Train in the three difficult practices (slogan 44).” Trungpa Rinpoche explains, “The first difficulty is to realize the point at which you are tricked by your own emotions, or kleshas … The second difficulty is to dispel or exorcise our emotionalism. And the third difficulty is to cut the continuity of that emotionalism.” In other words, we need to be alert (vigilant) to recognize the emotional reaction as it comes up, then we have to immediately and forcefully (through the mindfulness of remembering the teachings) apply the antidote, and finally, through cultivating continuous mindfulness and vigilance together, we tame and eventually uproot our emotional reactivity altogether so it is never a problem again.

In another metaphor for the same process, Pema Chodron and her teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche talk about getting hooked by destructive emotions. Once you’re hooked, it’s very hard to keep an emotional reaction from playing out. So the trick is to catch it before it fully hooks you. Or, to drive the pig out of the garden before he gets a bite. With mindfulness and vigilance, we can eventually keep the pig from getting in in the first place! Which brings us to verse 36.

Verse 36 is a summary of all the preceding verses, including verse 35, and embodies the third difficult practice cited above. The culmination of our work with all the individual practices of a bodhisattva, if we really apply ourselves over time,  is a continuous state of  mindfulness and vigilance, which prevents us from falling prey to any type of negative influence and thus allows us to direct our attention to the bodhisattva’s basic mission: others first.

In closing: Dilgo Khyentse says of verse 35, ” There is no emotion that you cannot be rid of, because emotions are simply thoughts, and thoughts are just like the wind moving through an empty sky. There is nothing to them … Be aware of whatever negative tendency may be contained in your thoughts as they arise, and apply the appropriate antidote.”

Pema Chodron makes an interesting point based on a discussion with the Tibetan teacher Anam Thubten, who pointed out to her that even though the language of this verse is warlike (weapons, crush, overpower), in Tibetan it does not actually convey aggression. “It’s about being able to witness the arising of emotional reactivity without falling prey to it … witnessing it with kindness or a sense of humor or open-mindedness. The word ‘crush’ in Tibetan maybe has more the notion of letting it dissolve, realizing the transparency of the whole thing.” And in fact, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s translation takes a different tack from all the others: ” … with the remedies of mindfulness and introspection, the moment that disturbing emotions arise, to smooth them out is the practice of a bodhisattva.” This translation uses a different sense of the phrase bur.joms, taking bur literally to mean a protuberance, something sticking up, and joms as the way we level it out.

His Holiness Karmapa, in his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, offers a helpful suggestion for reconnecting with mindfulness when we have lost it or are about to: “One way I have found effective is to recall a particular lama whom I trust and like … Whenever I sense that anger is about to arise, I just remember that lama and his instructions. When I do this, it helps me not to be overpowered by the negative emotion.” He also suggests we might bring to mind a passage from a dharma book that we have particularly connected with. May I suggest Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s words above, and also that we memorize verse 35!

Of verse 36, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche says, “The essence of the practice of a bodhisattva is to transcend self-clinging and dedicate yourself completely to serving others.” In other words, this is the intention of all the individual practices.

Pema Chodron sums up verse 36, and the 37 practices, as follows: “What [Togme Zangpo] is saying here is the pith of it: when you know what’s happening in your mind moment by moment, or even occasionally, that’s what helps others. When you’re awake and aware and not escalating your emotions, that’s what helps others. It isn’t selfish to be working with one’s own mind. To the degree we make friends with ourselves, to that degree we help others. I think that is really worth pondering. You hear it, you contemplate it, and then you meditate on it.” And that closes the loop, back to verse 1!

Next week, the final practice of a bodhisattva — to dedicate the merit of all the practices.

Related posts: “Some Buddhist ways to work with with emotional overwhelm”

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

Next practice: verse 37, dedication; and concluding verses

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

Complete list of verses to date: “37 practices translation” at top of screen, or click on link