This text “the 37 practices of a Bodhisattva” is a concise text written by a Tibetan teacher in the 14th century named Togme Zangpo who was a member of the Sakya lineage. It’s a summary of how we should behave as we are on the path to awakening. It’s a Tibetan Mahayana teaching.
With some friends, the three poisons keep growing,
Study, reflection, and meditation weaken,
And loving kindness and compassion fall away.
Give up bad friends — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This brings us to the topic of having good friends, friends who are a good influence on us. This is what Sangha, or spiritual community, is all about. It’s important to have the right kind of support in our practice.
Friends who lead us away from the Dharma, or away from a virtuous life, are friends we need to limit our time with. Not to say that we should only be friends with Buddhists but, it’s important that we not let the people we associate with lead us away from the Dharma. In a very real way we become similar to the people that we spend the most time with.
With some teachers, your shortcomings fade away and
Abilities grow like the waxing moon.
Hold such teachers dear to you,
Dearer than your own body — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Teacher can also be used to mean ‘spiritual friend’. It’s someone who is in contrast to the friends who have a bad influence on us. When we have a good spiritual friend, their impact on us is positive.
Although this often refers to spiritual teachers, who teach and inspire us, it does include regular Dharma friends as well. Not just the friends who go to the same temple with us, but friends who we can get together with to meditate or to study and discuss the Dharma with, someone who encourages and motivates us in our practice.
But the main emphasis is on having a teacher or spiritual mentor. If we spend time with a good teacher we will not only learn a lot, but also develop good qualities. Our love and understanding will grow.
To hold them dear to us is to be devoted to our teachers. There are many bad teachers and many mediocre ones too. If we find a good one, we should really appreciate them.
Locked up in the prison of their own patterning
Whom can ordinary gods protect?
Who can you count on for refuge?
Go for refuge in the Three Jewels — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is about refuge vows, our initiation into Buddhist practice. The prison we are in is the world of suffering. The “ordinary gods” references that there is no one to save us. We have to save ourselves.
To take refuge is to strive for freedom.
We take refuge in the Buddha as our example.
We take refuge in the Dharma as our journey.
We take refuge in the Sangha as our companionship.
Our goal is to develop as people on the Buddhist path, dharmic people. We want to realize the illness of our suffering and to try to attain the health of the other shore, enlightenment. We can develop wisdom and discipline in order to overcome our delusions and habitual patterns. Through study and practice the path can become clear to us.
Taking refuge is committing ourselves to the Buddhist path. To take this kind of initiation is to realize our Buddha Nature and to strive to avoid harming others. We should try to exemplify equanimity and tranquility whenever we can. In taking refuge we are liberating ourselves.Taking refuge is about transformation. We want to transform into the best possible versions of ourselves. We want to renounce the suffering and delusion that is present in our lives. Through our meditation practice we can see how suffering can be transcended.
Taking refuge is seeking shelter.
Buddha: the Buddha is our example. We can realize our Buddha nature, as he did, and find inner peace. He realized the middle way and abandoned extremes. He worked on himself in a way that we can emulate. We are worthy and we can do the same thing. We are capable of becoming awake.
Dharma: The Buddhist path becomes our journey. This is where we are dedicated to understanding and trusting the path that we are on. We want to reverse the course of ordinary suffering and attain freedom from it.
Sangha: friendship with brothers and sisters in the dharma. Sitting and practicing together is the best friendship. These are true friends. We want to enter the community without reservation and to be harmonious.
This is what taking refuge means.
The suffering in the lower realms is really hard to endure.
The Sage says it is the result of destructive actions.
For that reason, even if your life is at risk,
Don’t engage in destructive actions — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
A lot of our suffering is caused by our own destructive actions. Destructive actions are those things we do that harm others. When we cause harm, it often comes back on us in all sorts of ways. It’s best to do good, not just to make ourselves feel better, but also to make the world a better place. When we do good we make the world a little bit better for everyone, including ourselves.
The happiness of the three worlds disappears in a moment,
Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass.
The highest level of freedom is one that never changes.
Aim for this — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is about equanimity. Equanimity is learning to weather the storm of life, learning how to accept loss and gain, success and failure. It’s certainly hard to keep an even mind when things aren’t going well. It can be so easy to get overwhelmed and discouraged.
Whatever measure of happiness we find in life is fleeting. It can be gone at any moment, like a dewdrop.
Equanimity is the highest level of freedom, it’s what allows us to really get through life with an even mind.