37 practices: concluding verses

I haven’t translated the concluding verses yet. For now, please refer to the translation in Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s The Heart of Compassion, by the Padmakara Translation Committee, or any other translation in any of other commentaries.

The final four verses and colophon of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva consist of standard explanations and disclaimers that conclude many of the classic texts in one form or another. Togme Zangpo is quite thorough about following this tradition. But just because they are standard doesn’t mean they’re not worth studying. In fact, they contain a number of important points we should pay close attention to.

I’ll use the heading for each verse from Ken McLeod’s commentary followed by the heading from the one in Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary, to give a flavor of the content of each one in lieu of the actual verse. The explanations we’ll discuss are primarily from Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso’s commentary, which is the one quoted unless otherwise identified.

Source / How and for whom this text was composed: “In this verse, Ngulchu Thogme [see prelude for an explanation of Togme Zangpo’s various names and spellings] explains what he has composed and why he has composed it … It is a traditional requirement to mention these precedents so that everyone understands Thogme did not personally make up the practices. He has based them on the teachings of the great masters who have preceded him. ”

This is pretty much the definition of lineage and thus the insurance that the teachings we’re receiving are authentic and will lead us to awakening and not to some isolated waystation or just an “improved” version of samsara. Beware of anyone who claims to have a better idea, or who doesn’t take care to distinguish their own thoughts from the teachings of the authenticated, realized masters. Yes, Buddhism always needs to evolve and adapt to new cultures, but this is a slow and careful process, not a wholesale redesign, and not to be undertaken by just anyone who thinks they have enough realization to know better. Guru Vajradhara Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa, aka Situ Rinpoche, one of the greatest living Kagyu lineage holders, is known for always identifying his own ideas when he shares them in his teachings, by calling them “my own rubbish.” If his personal ideas are “rubbish,” the rest of us had better be really careful!

“His purpose has been to summarize the vast number of bodhisattva practices into a manageable thirty-seven, to benefit those who have entered the Mahayana path and wish to train in it. Thus, Thogme has made the practices easy for everyone to apply.”

As we discussed in prelude and infrastructure, the entire path as well as the mind-training teachings have been concisely summarized in just 37 short and easily memorized verses, which apply just as directly to our 20th-century Western lives as they did to the lives of Togme Zangpo and his contemporaries in 14th-century Tibet.

Authority / The unerring basis of these practices: “These lines are included because Tibetan tradition requires a verse in which the author, to counteract pride, belittles himself. Here, Thogme minimizes his intelligence and learning and states that his verses cannot possibly please scholars. Nevertheless, because he has based his work on authentic teachings, he has confidence that the verses are free of mistakes and confusion.”

Again, the mention of reliance on the authentic, verified lineage teachings that have led centuries of practitioners to awakening — not some new idea Togme Zangpo has come up with.

For a contemporary example of this, in her May 2018 weekend seminar at Omega Institute (on the six realms of samsara), Pema Chodron — who typically tells stories on herself in just such a spirit — said that she herself was most concerned about developing pride, the emotional affliction that leads to the gods’ realm, because people treat her with such reverence. “You applaud when I sneeze.” She said that when she visits her adult daughter, she too falls into habitual reactive patterns, and it’s quite easy to forget she’s a renowned and respected Buddhist teacher.

For me, this kind of sharing demonstrates the humble attitude that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche lists in his book The Guru Drinks Bourbon? as one of the essential qualities to look for in seeking an authentic guru. When, in constrast, a  teacher demands respect by playing up their qualifications and title, that’s the one I tend to steer clear of.

Shortcomings / A humble prayer for forgiveness: “Thogme has previously stated that because he has relied on unmistaken sources, he is confident his practices are also unmistaken. Now he acknowledges that contradictions and incoherence still may have crept in due to his limited intellecutal capacities. If he has made mistakes like these, he prays the genuine masters will be patient with them.”

Dedication / Dedicating the merit of having composed this text: “Chenrezig does not abide in cyclic existence, nor is he attached to the state of peace. Why? Since he has realized the emptiness that cuts the root of existence, he does not dwell in samsara. And because great compassion has uprooted Chenrezig’s wish for nirvana to benefit himself alone, he is not attached to peace. Therefore, Thogme prays that all beings become equal to Chenrezig, and he dedicates to them the merit of having composed these practices.”

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche adds here a description of Chenrezig that I found to be a helpful clarification, since he is referred to variously as both a bodhisattva and a buddha. “On the absolute level, [Chenrezig] … possesses the five bodies and wisdoms of a fully enlightened buddha. On the relative level, he appears as a tenth-bhumi bodhisattva to beings within the realm of his compassionate activity.” Take note, Kagyu-DC! (We recently completed the chapter in Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation on the bodhisattva bhumis and are now studying the chapter of buddhahood.)

I would also note for anyone who has studied Gampopa that this is also a good explanation of what it means to be attached to peace, which Gampopa identifies as one of the four obstacles to the full awakening of a buddha.

Colophon / Place of composition: Ken McLeod does not comment on this final line of the 37 practices. It’s called a colophon in Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary, and “place of composition” in Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche’s. Here’s the translation from Padmakara Translation Committee: “For his own benefit and that of others, Thogme, a teacher of scripture and logic, composed this text at Rinchen Phug [Jewel Cave], in Ngulchu [Silver River].”

And that is the end of the text of the 37 practices of a bodhisattva. Hopefully, we will all continue to study, reflect, and meditate on them throughout the rest of our lives. We certainly have plenty of raw material to work with, every single day! And no better or more applicable instructions than Togme Zangpo’s humble notes to himself, composed in his practice cave on the Silver River in 14th-century Tibet.

Sarva mangalam!

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

Next post: mindfulness and vigilance, part 2 of 2

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