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.
If all your mothers, who love you,
Suffer for time without beginning, how can you be happy?
To free limitless sentient beings,
Give rise to awakening mind — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is the justification for the Bodhisattva’s wish to save all beings. If we believe that we all have the same true nature, then it just stands to reason that helping others on the path is important. All beings are connected to us. Zangpo is saying we should regard them all as our mothers. So, we aren’t on the path for selfish reasons. We want to help others.
The awakening mind is called Bodhicitta. It’s a state of mind that’s cultivated with love and compassion. Love is the wish for everyone to be happy. This doesn’t just apply to people we like. No one is left out. Compassion is the wish for everyone to be free from suffering. And this includes taking responsibility to help others get out of suffering.
Relative Bodhicitta is engaging the world with compassion in a normal way. Being kind, giving to charity, helping others, teaching the dharma. It’s the manifestation of our basic goodness.
Ultimate Bodhicitta is based on engaging the world without a self. This is helping in a way that isn’t dependent on a giver or receiver. It’s foundation is Emptiness, based on dissolving the boundaries between self and other.
Bodhicitta combines emptiness, compassion, and wisdom. To engage wisdom we have to work out overcoming our attachment to ourselves. To engage compassion we have to work on overcoming our possessiveness and aggression. To engage emptiness we have to learn to relate to our basic goodness in a way that is direct and complete.
Bodhicitta is central to Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is the basis of being awake and freeing our minds.
We don’t really cultivate the awakened state as something separate from ourselves or as something new. We are trying to realize that we already have this basic goodness as part of our being. It has always been there. Dwelling in Bodhicitta brings us greater vision and potential. It brings us to boundless compassion for ourselves and others.
When we engage Bodhicitta we stop being so afraid of and controlled by our suffering. We gain new levels of patience and diligence. We also develop a kind of bravery. We are like spiritual warriors, willing to see the suffering of the world and face it in order to save ourselves and others.
This is the way of the bodhisattva.
All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness.
Complete awakening arises from the intention to help others.
So, exchange completely your happiness
For the suffering of others — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Shantideva said, “When happiness is something equally liked, both by myself and others, what’s so special about me that I strive after happiness for myself alone?”
It’s difficult to think of the happiness of others as equally important to our own, indeed more important. That’s what Zangpo is asking us to do.
He’s talking about those things that arise out of pure self-centeredness; jealousy, hatred, etc. These things don’t make us happy. We awaken ourselves by loosening our attachment to our egos a bit. Obsessing about what we want, constantly engaging that state of mind that says I-Me-Mine doesn’t serve us very well. We should try to expand our compassion instead.
If we can expand our hearts in a way that sees others as not separate from us, then we can bring them happiness whenever possible and also share in that happiness. When we help others we’re making the world a better place for everyone, including ourselves. No one is left out.
Even if someone, driven by desperate want,
Steals, or makes someone else steal, everything you own,
Dedicate to him your body, your wealth, and
All the good you’ve ever done or will do — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Give, give, and keep giving. This is hard to put into practice, I’m sure. These verses are really about responding with kindness, even when we’re harmed. As bodhisattvas we don’t want to get angry when people wrong us. Anger is the opposite of what we’re trying to do. Anger is like wishing someone harm and we’re trying not to do that. We want to cultivate patience instead and try to face such situations with understanding.
Even if you have done nothing wrong at all
And someone still tries to take your head off,
Spurred by compassion,
Take all his or her evil into you — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is a little extreme, isn’t it? The message is to face everything with patience. I’m going to tell you a zen story that illustrates this exact idea. It’s called the story of the Zen master and the general.
During a civil war in Japan, armies often invaded little villages. In one village everyone heard an army was coming and fled. When the soldiers arrived the village was empty…almost. One zen master had stayed to take care of the temple. The general of the army went to the temple to see what this master was like. When he arrived the master didn’t bow or grovel. He didn’t even speak to the general at all. This made the general angry. He drew his sword and yelled out, “You fool. Don’t you realize I could run you through without blinking an eye?”
The master calmly replied, “Do you realize I could be run through without blinking an eye?” Surprised and awed by the master, the general simply left.
The point is that the master can face anything, even death, with equanimity.
As Ikkyu said, “The world is but a fleeting dream. Why be alarmed at it’s evanescence?”
Forgive, even at the risk of your life.
Even if someone broadcasts to the whole universe
Slanderous and ugly rumors about you,
In return, with an open and caring heart,
Praise his or her abilities — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
In the “Eight Verses of Training the Mind”, Langri Tangpa said, “When others, out of envy, treat me unfairly with scolding, insults, and more, may I accept the loss upon myself and offer the victory to others.”
When people say bad things about us, it’s important not to say bad things back. When we do that, it really only makes us look worse, doesn’t it?