37 practices: verse 4

4. To let go of attachment to this lifetime

Old friends I’ve known as long as I remember, / One day we’ll have to go our separate ways.

Material possessions I’ve worked hard for / Will be enjoyed by someone else one day.

This consciousness, a guest, will leave my body, / The guest house where for all my life it’s stayed.

To let go of attachment to this lifetime: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.

verse 4 chanted 3x

verses 1-4 chanted 1x

Alternate second line, offered by Kathi Rogers:

“Material possessions I’ve worked hard for / Will end up in the dumpster anyway.” 🙂

The fourth preparation for the path of awakening is to study, contemplate, and meditate on impermanence. We are all very familiar with the idea of impermanence by now. Truly understood, it is the single most powerful motivator to seek a place of solitude and engage in practice without delay. Why it often doesn’t work that way, according to a Western teacher I studied Tibetan with in the 1980s, is that understanding impermanence intellectually isn’t enough to stop us from continuing to relate to everything in our life as solid and permanent. We still get upset over passing trivialities, and/or waste our entire precious human existence on busyness and distraction.

Flickering stars and candle flames,

Illusions, water bubbles, dreams,

Dewdrops, clouds, a lightning flash:

View all composite things like this.

The Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra that it is more valuable to recite, study, memorize, and explain this short verse than to fill the universe with treasure as an offering. This verse points to the true nature of all appearances, and can help us view our experience through the lens of impermanence and non-solidity. The very beautiful classic translation by Kenneth Saunders is here. My translation above (with audio) is less elegant but allows it to be chanted to more or less the same tune used in the morning service at PTC.

Another traditional expression of impermanence is the “four ends,” which Dilgo Khyentse includes in his commentary. Below is the version I’m more familiar with:

The end of accumulation is scattering.

The end of construction is ruin.

The end of meeting is parting.

The end of birth is death.

We can also forget impermanence by “wishing our life away,” as my relatives used to say when I was a child overeager for an anticipated event. Jigme Lingpa captures this in a verse we can all relate to in this relentless July heat, quoted in The Heart of Compassion (page 71), pointing out that we are quick to wish for autumn in the summer heat, not realizing we are willing to give away three months of our precious human existence.

There is much more in Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary that will help us internalize impermanence, and I urge you to study it again and again — perhaps right before a meditation session, or first thing in the morning.

Ken McLeod suggests that we contemplate this way: “Consider for a moment that you could die at any moment – in the next minute, today, tomorrow….Does your body tense or relax, or does something else happen? What feelings arise?”

Pema Chodron shares a teaching by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche from a retreat in the 1970s called “Death in Everyday Life” that we can use to meditate on awareness of impermanence:  “Every breath is a life and a death.” Pema Chodron says, “I think he was trying to convey the message that you can prepare for this big event, the death of this body, but it’s actually happening all the time and you could get used to it and enjoy the ride….Every breath disappears, never to be seen again…You could open to that feeling.”

In verse 4 of the 37 Practices, Togme Zangpo instructs us to let go of attachment to this life. In The Great Path of Awakening by Jamgon Kongtrul, point 4 of the 7 points of mind training describes how we should practice both during our lifetime and after we enter the process of dying. The first practice we are instructed to do when we learn that death is imminent is to give away everything we own.  Of course we can enjoy our loved ones and possessions while we have them, but if we can simultaneously remember their impermanence, it will lessen our suffering when we eventually lose them. Or, as Toni Bernhard advises in How to Be Sick, when we find ourselves becoming attached to a treasured object, we can anticipate the future and let go now by thinking, “It’s already broken.” It inevitably will be some day.

This week’s study, contemplation, and meditation:

Verse 4: above (bold text)

Verse 5: To give up negative friends. As you read the commentary for verse 5, examine whether you have friends and acquaintances who disrespect your dharma practice, distract you from it, or reinforce habitual patterns that keep you stuck. How might you respond to them? Is it necessary to end such a friendship, or is it possible to maintain it without giving in to negative influences? (The answer may vary from friend to friend.)

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

Next practice: Verse 5

More on impermanence:  “In a Nutshell.”