37 practices: verse 1

1: To study, contemplate, and meditate

This precious human life’s so hard to find, / Its freedoms and resources like a boat

To navigate samsara’s endless sea / And set myself and other beings free.

For that, without distraction, day and night / To study, contemplate, and meditate:

This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

Verse 1 chanted 3x. (Click where the “play” button should be.)

This verse is about making maximum use of our precious human existence through study, contemplation, and meditation, aka, hearing, reflecting, meditating: the three ways of knowing (the title of this blog). These are also sometimes referred to as the three wisdoms. Rikpa wiki (a very helpful online dictionary of Buddhist terms) calls them the three wisdom tools. The word wisdom can be confusing in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, because we sometimes translate very different Tibetan words into English as wisdom. Rikpa wiki also has a helpful explanation of the different types of wisdom, with the three wisdom tools or three ways of knowing placed in context.

“Hearing” is the literal meaning in Tibetan, meaning one’s intial contact with a teaching through hearing it taught. You could also say listening, and in our culture you could also say studying, as we often encounter teachings first by reading them in books, not literally through hearing.

Then, in the second way of knowing — comtemplation or reflection — we deepen our understanding of what we have heard or read by going over it, memorizing it, analyzing it, comparing it with our own experience, discussing it with others, asking questions.

Finally, we meditate, letting go of intellectual activity and concepts and just resting the mind, to allow internalization of the meaning of what we have studied and contemplated. This really works, and to whatever extent this course has any requirements, to meditate for at least a few minutes every day is a requirement. (See below.) Note that in this very verse, the foundation for all the other practices, Togme Zangpo says meditation is one of the three necessary components for training as a bodhisattva. We won’t get off the launching pad without it.

In The Heart of Compassion, Dilgo Khyentse reviews the components of a precious human existence, which is the basis (according to the Ornament of Precious Liberation) through which we have the opportunity to study, contemplate, and meditate. It’s worth becoming very familiar with these components: the eight freedoms, the ten resources, and the 16 ways in which we may be too caught in samsara’s quicksand to make use of our opportunity (which doesn’t bode well for getting it again in our next life). If we don’t fully appreciate the preciousness of our opportunity, we will not be inspired to actually engage with the teachings we’ve heard.

“What stops you?” Ken McLeod asks in Reflections on Silver River. “What will it take for you to step into the boat?” Pema Chodron, in her 2016 seminar at Omega Institute, said, “Our life is so short and such an opportunity to awaken, but we can spend it falling deeper and deeper asleep….What are we going to do with this day? The next month? Wake up or go more to sleep?”

We may have years of listening to teachings and reading books under our belt, but if we haven’t yet committed ourselves to wholehearted engagement in our practice, this verse is meant to inspire us to step into the boat and use our life to wake up to our full potential of wisdom and compassion. It is the same as the first of the four reminders: the precious human existence. And we all know what the second reminder is: impermanence and death. This fabulous opportunity is a limited-time offer.

In class we discussed whether Togme Zangpo meant this instruction literally. Is it really possible to practice the dharma without distraction 24/7? The consensus was yes, because study, contemplation, and meditation can be applied in different ways throughout daily life, not just in formal practice. We can remember the dharma in everything we do, or “see everything through dharma eyes,” as one student put it. Even when we are going to sleep, we can make aspirations, review our day’s practice, and even engage in practice as we fall asleep, such as tong len; resting in open awareness; or visualizing the Buddha, a deity, or a teacher in our heart radiating light to illuminate the room.  In this way, we can get the most out of our precious human existence, not wasting even a moment, and by the end of this lifetime whenever that may come, the other shore may be in sight.

Study: Review verse 1 and its commentary. Become very familiar with the components of a precious human existence. Can you name the eight freedoms and ten resources? Look ahead to verse 2. (Optional supplementary reading: the first chapter of The Torch of True Meaning by Jamgon Kongtrul and/or the second chapter of Ornament of Precious Liberation.)

Contemplation: Continue to look for ways to maintain study, contemplation and meditation without distraction day and night. Looking ahead to verse 2, does it ring true? What does it feel like when we are overwhelmed by attachment/love or aversion/hate? How does indifference get us into trouble? Does Togme Zangpo mean this one literally as well, that we should just pack up and leave? In our culture, moving and starting over happens a lot. Does it solve the problem? What is the problem that needs to be solved?

Meditation: Find some time to meditate every day. Even five minutes counts, if you do it every day, and gradually you may find you want to extend your time frame. It really helps to have a specific place always set up (or easily set up)  where you won’t be interrupted. You can use some of your meditation time to chant the verse if you wish, and then just let the mind rest, using whatever meditation technique you prefer (open awareness, following or counting the breath, being receptive to sensory input such as sound, etc.). Do not underestimate the importance of actually engaging in daily meditation practice.

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

Next practice: Verse 2.

More on setting up a daily meditation practice: “Location, location, location!

About the 37 practices study guide: click here.

About this blog: click here.

Resources: click here.