It turns out that our old friend from the 14th century, Togme Zangpo, the author of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, had something to say about how to deal with fear of coronavirus (and all other illnesses) in the 21st century:
If it is better for me to be sick,
May I be blessed with sickness.
If it is better for me to recover,
May I be blessed with health.
If it is better for me to die,
May I be blessed with death.
Ken McLeod begins his commentary on the 37 practices, Reflections on Silver River, with these words. Ken says that when he first encountered this prayer in the 1970s, “It was the strangest prayer I had ever seen and it made no sense to me. Why would you pray to be ill? Why would you pray to die?”
It’s March 2020 and coronavirus, along with its associated illness, covid-19 (corona virus disease of 2019, has appeared on the scene in the last few weeks, overtaking headlines in the midst of a volatile presidential primary season; and inspiring widespread alarm, toilet paper hoarding, and precautionary measures — as other illnesses have done in the past (bird flu, SARS, Ebola, etc.). It might turn out to be a devastating pandemic like the Spanish flu of the early 20th century. Or it might not.
Update March 17, 2020: Last week the World Health Organization classified covid-19 as a global pandemic, a lot of people are sick (though it’s mild in most), and many people have died in Asia and Europe, though still fortunately not on the scale of the Spanish flu. A number of people have died the US, though we’re behind other parts of the word in covid-19 transmission. To try to contain it, as of this week many events have been canceled (Mingyur Rinpoche’s annual retreat in Minnesota, that I was registered for; major league basketball and March Madness, concerts, political rallies, etc.) and venues closed (Disneyland, the Metropolitain and other museums, colleges, restaurants, churches and dharma centers — including Richmond’s Ekoji Buddhist Sangha) and we are being urged to stay home as much as possible. San Francisco shut down yesterday. We don’t know yet how it will continue to develop, and if public health efforts to contain it succeed, we may never know if we contained it successfully or if it was over-hyped in the first place. That would be a good result. Meanwhile, there are ways to work with this in our practice and use it as an opportunity to prepare for whatever may befall us.
Bringing fear to the path: As dharma practitioners, we are encouraged to use all adverse circumstances — up to and including deadly illness and imminent death — to wake ourselves up by applying the practices we train in, rather than giving in to fear and panic. I’ll be adding more practices in the next week or so, but a good place to start is simply to contemplate the classic Buddhist teaching known as “the four ends”:
The end of accumulation is dispersion.
The end of building is ruin.
The end of meeting is parting.
The end of birth is death.
The four ends serve as a reminder of the inevitability that all things that exist relatively, through the coming together of causes and conditions, are destined to end. There is no way to escape it. In our culture, we tend to cope with this through denial, but behind denial lurks fear, and we can become paralyzed by our efforts to keep the things that scare us out of our conscious awareness.
I’ve also added a page for audio of guided meditations we’re doing this month as part of our abbreviated “37 practices summer camp” program, meeting Thursdays from 1:00-1:45 pm via Zoom until we begin our next class, Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation, in the fall. More info on this in the 37 practices wrap-up post. We hope to see you there.
Mindfulness, vigilance and … a loophole! Each and every verse resonates with me, but I feel that in particular verses 35 and 36 are the heart of the 37 practices. As I said in the post on these verses, linked above, each of the preceding practices in fact depends on mindfulness and vigilance. To review: mindfulness knows what will help us awaken and what will dig us deeper into samsara; and vigilance knows which one we are doing.
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:
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.
In order to dispel the suffering / of beings numberless as space is vast,
To dedicate the merit of my practice / to everyone’s complete awakening,
With wisdom purified of three domains: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 37 audio above.
Exactly a year after we began our study of the 37 practices, we have arrived at the end, which is the same as the end of all our practices: dedication of any virtue, merit, and benefit to the enlightenment of all sentient beings. It is taught that no practice is complete until we have dedicated the merit. In fact, dedication is one of the three aspects that make any practice we do authentic or genuine: refuge and bodhicitta at the beginning, the main practice in the middle, and dedication at the end.
Many years ago I asked Lama Norlha Rinpoche if he could recommend a practice for me to do while falling asleep. He instructed me to do taking and sending meditation (verse 11) but said I must always remember to dedicate the merit before falling asleep. Since I was hoping for a practice that would seamlessly take me through the transition from wakefulness to sleeping and not give me a chance to get lost in thinking, staying awake to dedicate the merit at the end seemed to defeat the purpose of my request. But that’s how important it is to never do any practice without dedication.
From the commentaries: In his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, reveals the neat trick Togme Zangpo accomplishes with verse 37:
35. To use mindfulness and vigilance to crush emotional reactions
Once reactivity becomes a habit / it’s hard to turn its energy around.
To overpower it without delay, / by wielding mindfulness and vigilance,
The moment a reaction first begins — / attachment or another poison:
This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 35 audio above
36. To use mindfulness and vigilance to benefit others
To sum it up, whatever I am doing, / in all my conduct and my practices,
Through constant mindfulness and vigilance / to monitor the state of mind I’m in,
Directing it to others’ benefit: / This is the way a bodhisattva trains.
Verse 36 audio above. Note that the audio places “constant” in a different position in line 3. The written translation is the updated version.
In these two verses, Tokme Zangpo sums up the bodhisattva path into the partnership of mindfulness and vigilance, and shows us two ways to work with these two qualities to achieve a bodhisattva’s aims. If we reflect on the preceding 34 practices, each and every one of them depends on mindfulness and vigilance, and we develop each practice by stabilizing our mindfulness and vigilance more and more so that they become more and more continuous.
What is meant by mindfulness and vigilance? Last week, Lama Jinzang shared with us the definitions given by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, in his recent teachings on the 37 practices in New York City. I haven’t listened to session 5 yet, in which he teaches these verses, so I will pass along his definition based on my notes from Lama Jinzang’s summary: mindfulness is remembering what is right and what is wrong, and vigilance (aka, alertness) is remaining conscious of what our body, speech, and mind are actually doing, i.e., being aware of whether we are practicing according to our understanding of the dharma — or not.
In his indispensable online Tibetan-English dictionary The Illuminator, Lama Tony Duff defines mindfulness as follows: “In the context of calm abiding, mindfulness holds the mind in place and alertness keeps watch over the situation to ensure that mindfulness is operative.” Off the cushion, mindfulness can be applied in any situation, and vigilance or alertness is also on the job to monitor whether we are being mindful — or distracted, e.g., under the influence of a negative emotion — in any given moment. Lama Tony describes mindfulness and alertness as “necessary co-partners.”
So, then, what are the specific applications of mindfulness and alertness on the bodhisattva path? That is what verses 35 and 36 are here to tell us.
Verses 31-34: the four instructions from the sutra
For the first time since this class began a year ago in June 2017, we are going to attempt the feat of discussing four verses at once. This is both because they go together, and because they are all pretty straightforward. They are called the four instructions from the sutra because they were all included in TheSutra That Encourages Noble Superior Intention, a teaching on the proper conduct of bodhisattvas given by Buddha Shakyamuni to the bodhisattva Maitreya and others. This is explained in endnote 96 of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary.
His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, addresses them, in his book Traveling the Path of Compassion, as potential pitfalls we should avoid on the path. They are basically actions we should avoid or abandon in order to keep our practice true. Though the first one (31) is expressed as a positive, “to examine and give up my own confusion,” the point is that we can’t consider ourselves authentic practitioners if we don’t examine our own confusion first and foremost. The other three are expressed as actions to avoid: talking about the faults and mistakes of others on the bodhisattva path (32), getting involved with worldly rewards and concerns related to benefactors, relatives, and friends (33), and speaking harshly to others (34).
Here are the verses:
31. To examine and give up my own confusion
If I don’t look into my own confusion, / I could be just a Buddhist counterfeit —
A person who has all the outer trappings / but doesn’t act the way the Buddha taught.
To always analyze my own confusion / and then take measures to abandon it:
I’ll come back as time permits and share some of my notes from these wonderful teachings, given in five sessions May 29-31, 2018, at the awe-inspiring Riverside Church in New York City. Not only did they provide an excellent, concise review as our class approaches the end of the text (7 verses to go!), but His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the head of our Karma Kagyu Lineage, also shared some insights not seen in other commentaries we have been studying. I was especially struck by His Holiness’s presentation of the six paramitas (verses 25-30) and the clarity of his explanation of ultimate bodhicitta (verses 22-24), aided by the precise translations of Lama Yeshe Gyamtso. Both of these topics are found in session 3, but please listen to all the teachings in sequence if you possibly can (link below).
Two participants in this class mentioned that in listening to these teachings, it became clear for the first time that the point is not just to know about the 37 practices but to actually put them into practice. This is the blessing of His Holiness Karmapa! And I hope that through these teachings everyone comes to understand the importance of engaging in all three aspects of transcendent wisdom: study, contemplation, and meditation, the very first of the 37 practices.
In fact, His Holiness advised us in session 4, “Sometimes people engage in the first two [study and contemplation], but without the third [meditation]. This can sometimes create an artificial understanding, somewhat outward-directed. Such a person understands a great deal, but it is not mixed with their mind because they have not actually applied it to their own mind. It is present in the brain but has not penetrated the heart. So we need to remember that the primary focus or intention is the examination of our own mind, learning how to look at our own mind.”
More later, and meanwhile, here’s the link to session 1 of 5: