37 practices: the wrap-up

Last week, almost exactly a year after we began, we finished the text of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. by Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo, whose name translates as “the bodhisattva of Silver River, Excellent Asanga,” a venerable 14th-century Tibetan monk and hermit who wrote the verses as a reminder to himself. More about Togme Zangpo can be found in the first post of the series, prelude.

By my count, fourteen people attended virtually all of our 41 sessions over the entire year, and another eight attended occasionally or for a particular period of time. We were fortunate to have Lama Jinzang from PTC with us for the last half-dozen classes. I’ve been told that a few other people who weren’t able to attend on Thursday afternoons have been following the class just via the website and recordings. I wanted to keep it small enough that it would feel like a family and everyone could be an active participant, but we may have a few slots open when we continue in the fall for the next topic (see below). Let me know if you’d like to join us (those already in the class need not reply — you are automatically included).

Several class participants have shared their thoughts briefly on what this year of study has meant to them:

“The take away for me is that our conditioning to consider ourselves as most important is so dense and deep that it takes a profound practice to help pivot towards altruism and to awaken the practice of putting others first. This teaching, I believe, covers many of the ordinary and extraordinary practices and is truly the complete package. If I was stranded and given one book to practice from, this would be it, a complete toolbox with all the right tools to repair the defects of self-absorption, ignorance. I could do it all again. It’s so great that we’re meeting from so many different parts of the country, and I feel so happy to see everybody, and so connected to the practice through each other.” ~ Deidre

“The class and support of fellow sangha members online has been profoundly helpful to my dharma motivation and diligence.” ~ Anne

“altho I was only able to make a few classes, I had already been reading The 37 everyday. They work great as reminders during daily life, they are short enuf to memorize and carry with you. they help me see my rough edges and work with them.” ~ Andy

“Gyalse Ngulchu Thogme’s Thirty-Seven Verses on the practice of a Bodhisattva are like seeds of awakening to be cultivated in the fertile ground of inner spiritual growth. With study, contemplation, and meditation, compassion and wisdom gradually take root to become the core of our existence “inseparable” from one’s own body, speech, and mind. Our precious human existence is enlivened with a loving, compassionate, and joyful openness of spontaneous and responsive equanimity to all beings. Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary in The Heart of Compassion “aroused” the attitude of Bodhicitta in a profound way, indeed.” ~JoAnn

And from Marilyn, who got the ball rolling in an earlier class on sharing what this year of study has meant to us:

“I cannot separate completely the results of the teachings I’ve had with our Thursday sangha and the KDC study of Ornament of Precious Liberation; they complement each other so thoroughly. The most profound consequences of our classes for me have been ‘off the cushion.’

“From the first time I met Lama Norlha Rinpoche, it was the practice of compassion that drew me in and inspired me. I’d come home from our monthly retreats at Lama’s former retreat house outside of Charlottesville telling Patrick how wonderful it was for me to be with people who were trying their best to practice Buddhism. For 19 years I’ve been chanting the sadhana of Chenrezig, and the visualization has had a great effect on my life.

“Studying and contemplating The Thirty-Seven Practices has expanded and deepened my understanding of both the actual practice and the philosophy behind compassion. Working through Ornament of Precious Liberation has supported both, as well. Now I’m coming to understand how much more vast bodhicitta is and what I am aiming for when I recite the Refuge and Bodhicitta every day. Bit by bit, I’ve been reworking how I think. Bit by bit, I’m working on changing my ‘habits and reactions.’ And in small ways I’m becoming more what I want to be.

“These classes give me a new sangha, people who are sharing the goals which we study, contemplate, and meditate upon. The more support, the better.

“We’ve been asked not to talk about you, Lama Chodron, but without your explanations and your examples, I really wouldn’t have understood these books to the extent that I do. I am so grateful, especially since Lama Norlha Rinpoche is no longer with us. You give me the link to his teachings, as well as all the others who have taught you.” ~Marilyn

[And Lama Chodron replies: I hope my “explanations and examples” have not led anyone astray! And that my intention to pass along the teachings I have received from Lama Norlha Rinpoche and other teachers has been fulfilled with as little static as possible. I’m sure mistakes were made, and may they all be purified and corrected for all of us as we continue along the path.]

The verses that resonated the most: In class this week, participants were invited to share which verses resonated the most with them personally, and to talk about how we plan to continue to integrate the 37 practices into our lives now that the class is over. I would suggest that everyone take a few minutes to do this after finishing the text, whether you are participating in the class or not.

For the record, both Lama Jinzang and Marilyn chose the closely connected set of verse 2 and verse 35 as the ones that most resonated with them over the course of the year. JoAnn nominated verse 4, and read it in such a way that some of us were moved nearly to tears, though we’ve chanted it so many times together in class. Dan mentioned verses 22-24, the ultimate bodhicitta verses, and especially verse 24. I offered verse 7, and though we didn’t have time to discuss them in class, you can read my additional thoughts on verses 35 and 36 as the core or heart of the 37 practices in a separate post (in case I don’t come back to link it here, it’s called “mindfulness and vigilance revisited”).

Chet emailed his thoughts after the class:

“The first 3 practices are my keystone. The first one woke me up to the fact that I can practice anytime anywhere. And that my practice includes my study (readings) and contemplation in addition to my meditation.

“The second one inspired me to change my life. The practices are a path to leave those self-absorbed and self-centered parts of myself behind so that I could use the practices to strive to live like a bodhisattva.

“The third one resonated with me when I realized that all the ‘noise’ and ‘action’ of my world distracted me from practice. If I took the risk and stepped in the silence and solitude waiting for me in my life then I could practice anytime and anywhere and change my life.” ~Chet

The 37 practices club: As for how we plan to continue to integrate the 37 practices into our lives, we spontaneously decided to continue meeting weekly via Zoom from 1:00-1:30pm Thursdays through the summer to do a guided meditation together and chant all the verses. So we’ll be supporting each other in this enterprise up until we embark on our next course of study.

Next up: After taking the rest of the summer off from classes (not from practice, hopefully), we plan to reconvene in September, same time, same cyberspace, to study Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation, a more detailed step-by-step guide to the path of full awakening that predates Togme Zangpo’s 37 practices by two centuries, is revered by practitioners of all lineages, and, like the 37 practices, remains as accessible and vividly applicable to life and practice now as when it was originally written.

We also considered exploring the topic of death and dying next, perhaps using Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s Journey of the Mind as a basis. The class consensus was overwhelmingly to go with Gampopa for the next course of study, and in fact I consider his complete guide to the path to be also the best possible guide to death and dying (along with the 37 practices and any of the mind training books), since the best preparation really is to study, contemplate and meditate consistently during our lifetime.

Learning powa is of course also excellent preparation for death, but as Lama Jinzang pointed out in class, to be effective it has to be applied at exactly the right moment, and unless we have diligently cultivated stable awareness that can take us right through the process of dying, we’ll miss the opportunity even if we know the practice. At the actual moment of death, if we can just bring to mind our lama or the Buddha, or even Gampopa or Togme Zangpo, that is the simplest form of powa and probably for most of us the one we can most effectively hope to practice as we leave this life.

With that, we are officially finished with our study of the 37 practices. May we all continue practicing these instructions with mindfulness, vigilance, and integrity until we reach full awakening for the benefit of all beings. Best wishes and good luck to all of us! Sarva mangalam!

As long as sky and space exist, / and beings are still wandering,

For just as long may I remain / dispelling all their suffering.

~ Shantideva

Related posts:

“18 ways to catch ego-clinging in the act!”

“Some Buddhist ways to work with emotional overwhelm”

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

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