37 practices: infrastructure

A recording of each class (except the first one) is linked at the bottom of each post, and also via the 37 practices link in the blogroll (right column of this page). I sometimes forget I’m being recorded.  🙂 Any errors are all mine. The classes are taught by Zoom so there may be imperfections in some recordings due to technical glitches or temporary noise from a participant’s surroundings. Just like life.

Overall structure of the 37 practices: I mentioned in the prelude that the 37 practices both serve as a lam rim (step-by-step guide to the path) and fall within the traditional class of instructions known as mind training (lo jong). The root text, by Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo, is very concise: 37 verses with a couple of extras at the beginning and end, fitting entirely within 11 pages in Dilgo Khyentse‘s commentary, The Heart of Compassion. (The rest of the book consists of Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary on each verse plus some introductory chapters and quite useful appendices, notes, and index.)

Translation and editing were expertly accomplished by the Padmakara Translation Group, and amongst the introductory chapters they have included an extremely helpful textual outline (pp 39-42). This illuminates the infrastructure of the practices and how they serve as a guide to the path and also relate to mind training teachings such as Jamgon Kongtrul’s Great Path of Awakening (translated by Ken McLeod, whose commentary on the 37 practices, Reflections on Silver River, we are using as a supplementary text).

Ken McLeod also discusses the infrastructure of the 37 practices in his excellent introduction. His outline doesn’t match up 100% with the one in The Heart of Compassion, but it’s very close, and as with all things Tibetan Buddhist and in life, there can be more than one valid interpretation, so it never pays to get fixated on one explanation as exclusively correct. The differences, in fact, enrich our understanding.

A note on Togme Zangpo’s name, which also explains the name of Ken’s commentary: Togme Zangpo is known by four names, Gyalse Ngulchu Togme Zangpo, which he can be referred to in various combinations and spellings: Gyalse (“son, daughter, heir of the Victor/Buddha”, i.e., a bodhisattva–and in fact this is the word used for “bodhisattva” throughout the 37 practices, rather than the more common jang chub sem pa); Ngulchu (Silver River, where he spent much of his life); Togme (Tibetan for Asanga, meaning “without hindrance,” i.e., not impeded by any obstacle); and Zangpo (“excellent”). He was dubbed “Excellent Asanga” at age 19 and this is the name we will refer to him by: Togme Zangpo (or perhaps sometimes the variant Tokme, if I forget which spelling I’m using).

Dilgo Khyentse calls him Gyalse Thogme, and Ken refers to him as Tokmé Zongpo. Don’t worry about different names and spellings–it’s all the same 14th-century Tibetan monk who wrote the 37 practices as a reminder to himself of his aspiration to reject all worldly concerns and use every single situation in his life to wake up.

The first seven verses are the preliminaries: I’ll leave you to study the textual outline in Dilgo Khyentse’s book to whatever extent you find helpful. It’s enough to know for now that the first 7 practices are considered the preparation or preliminaries for setting out on the bodhisattva path of awakening. Pema Chodron notes that these first few verses are “advice on how to become less entangled.” They have the same purpose as the four reminders, aka the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma: if we don’t first identify and begin to disengage from our samsaric misconceptions and preoccupations, we won’t find the time or energy to pursue the path and wake up to our true nature.

Next post: Verse 1, the first practice of a bodhisattva.

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