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 you don’t go into your own confusion,
You may just be a materialist in practitioner’s clothing.
Constantly go into your own confusion
And put an end to it — this is the practice of a bodhisattva
This is a practice of looking deep within ourselves. Once we reach a certain point in the practice, we can’t keep lying to ourselves about who we are anymore. We have to face ourselves with complete honesty. Only then can we see things as they really are.
We need to look within to see if we’re doing what we need to do, instead of just looking outward to see what others are doing. If we’re not really paying attentino to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, then we probably aren’t trying very hard.
You undermine yourself when you react emotionally and
Grumble about the imperfections of other bodhisattvas.
Of the imperfections of those who have entered the Great Way,
Don’t say anything — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
When we talk about the faults of others we are reinforcing duality. We are suggesting that we are better than them. You’re moving away from a good practice of the Dharma if you’re always finding fault in other people practicing.
I think there’s a cliche of people going to church and judging the clothes that other families are wearing, as in “we need to wear our Sunday best so we look better than them.” That’s the kind of view we’re talking about here.
We can’t pull ourselves up by tearing others down.
This doesn’t mean we can’t make suggestions for how someone could be doing better, as long as those suggestions are constructive and helpful. This verse isn’t about trying to help. It’s just about destructive criticism.
When you squabble with others about status and rewards,
You undermine learning, reflection, and meditation.
Let go of any investment in your family circle
Or the circle of those who support you — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Don’t get attached to titles and status.
If we think too much about being the number one student or having the best reputation at the temple, that isn’t helpful to us. I’m reminded of the story of Shantideva.
Shantideva was a monk that lived alongside many many other monks in a big monastery. He developed a kind of reputation. The other monks thought he wasn’t trying very hard. That he was just using life in the monastery as an excuse to not go into the world and work. They thought he didn’t really care about the Dharma at all.
So they played a trick on him. They set him up for failure by asking that he give a teaching. And Shantideva agreed to do it. He went before all of the assembled monks and preached The Way of the Bodhisattva, a text that is now revered throughout Buddhism. They were all blown away by his great insight. And then he left the monastery, never to return.
The point of this story is this: Shantideva didn’t care about his bad reputation. He wasn’t squabbling about status and rewards. He was just living in the monastery and practicing.
Abusive language upsets others
And undermines the ethics of a bodhisattva.
So, don’t upset people or
Speak abusively — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Just be nice with your words. This is Right Speech.
Right Speech can sometimes be the most difficult part of the Eightfold Path.
In its simplest form, Right Speech can be defined as not using language to harm ourselves or others. Easier said than done. How often do we say things that hurt people’s feelings? How often do we gossip or tell little white lies?
And this doesn’t just apply to Buddhist practice. All religious traditions seem to emphasize honest and positive communication. So, this is a case where talking about a fundamental part of Buddhist practice can be of benefit to everyone.
So, here are some guidelines to keep us on track.
1) Tell the truth.
Don’t tell a falsehood. Just as importantly, don’t tell lies by omission. There is far too much dishonesty in the world. If we were all just honest with one another the world would be a very different place. Dishonesty is an attack on trust between individuals.
2) Be compassionate in your speech.
Like we were told as kids. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. We should use our voices to bring kindness into the world.
3) Encourage others.
Sometimes just an encouraging word can bring endless joy to someone. If you see the opportunity to encourage someone, do it.
4) Be helpful.
Our words can help others in many ways. We can explain things they want to learn or just spread positivity and kindness.
Too often we use communication to tear each other down. Verbal attacks are much too common. We can just use our words for kindness.
When reactive emotions acquire momentum, it’s hard to make remedies work.
A person in attention wields remedies like weapons,
Crushing reactive emotions such as craving
As soon as they arise — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is using mindfulness and alertness to avoid getting ourselves into trouble. It’s seeing something we really want, but realizing in the moment that we shouldn’t go after it. Mindfulness and alertness are usually thought of as passive things that we’re cultivating. Here they are described like weapons that crush our weaknesses.
In short, in everything you do,
Know what is happening in your mind.
By being constantly present and aware
You bring about what helps others — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
If we can just be here now, we can suffer less and help others more. That’s the fundamental teaching here.
Just be here.
To dispel the suffering of beings without limit,
With wisdom freed from the three spheres
Direct all the goodness generated by these efforts
To awakening — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
This is a dedication of merit. It’s purpose is to remind us that we aren’t doing this practice for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings.
Thank you for going through this text with me.
It ends with the following very humble verse:
Following the teachings of the holy ones
On what is written in the sutras, tantras, and commentaries,
I set out these thirty-seven practices of a bodhisattva
For those who intend to train in this path.
Because I have limited intelligence and little education,
These verses are not the kind of poetry that delights the learned.
But because I relied on the teachings of the sutras and the revered
I am confident that The Practices of a Bodhisattva is sound.
However, because it’s hard for a person with limited intelligence like me
To fathom the depths of the great waves of the activity of bodhisattvas,
I ask the revered to tolerate
Any mistakes — contradictions, non sequiturs, and such.
From the goodness of this work, may all beings,
Through the supreme mind that is awake to what is ultimately and apparently true,
Not rest in any limiting position — existence or peace:
May they be like Lord All Seeing.
Tokmé, the monk, a teacher of scripture and logic, composed this text in a cave near the town of Ngülchu Rinchen for his own and others’ benefit.