Ready it slowly, digest its content carefully, apply the
Reflections on Silver River – While Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva has been translated into English many times, in this translation, Ken McLeod takes pains to use plain and simple English to reflect the simplicity and directness of the original Tibetan. His commentary is full of striking images, provocative questions and inspiring descriptions of what it means to be awake and present in your life.
Practical instruction, brief and to the point, is found in each of the verse commentaries, providing straightforward responses to the question, “How do I practice this?”
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…Thirty-Seven Practices is about the bodhisattva path. What, then, is a bodhisattva? One answer is that a bodhisattva is a person who lives and breathes compassion. Compassion is ordinarily understood as an emotion, but the compassion of a bodhisattva is not a sentiment. It is not pity. It is a quality of awareness itself, the knowing that is the core of our humanity. Most of us have had experiences of this kind of compassion, moments when mind and heart are crystal clear, and we just respond to the needs of the moment.
Such experiences often arise when a friend or family member is faced with a great loss—the death of a child, the end of a relationship, a natural disaster that destroys a home or a life. In such moments we are right there with our friend. We may sit in silence with her, but it is the silence of connection. When we speak, we do not know where the words come from, but they come. In retrospect we remember such moments as moments of magical intimacy, an intimacy in which we are completely with the other person, with a compassion that knows the pain yet is free from any pity, judgment, sentimentality or despair. In such moments, we don’t have a sense of “I” and “other.” We are just there, completely aware and present.
A person might be said to be awake when he or she can move into this awareness, this way of experiencing life, at will. The word bodhi means “awakening” and sattva means “being.” Thus, a bodhisattva is a person who is or aspires to be awake. When this awareness is present, you simply respond to the pain and struggles of others in whatever way is possible in your life. In other words, a bodhisattva lives and breathes compassion.
This is an ideal, of course, and, like any ideal, it is impossible to achieve. Inevitably we fail, and we fail over and over again. Through those repeated efforts, however, we forge a path in life, a path that leads to a profound acceptance of the human condition. The point here is that, in striving for an ideal, we inevitably ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼run into our own limitations. The real challenges we face in life are in our limitations, and through those, we find our way…
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.
- Verse 9
The pursuit of happiness for its own sake is a fool’s errand. As a goal it is frivolous and unrealistic—frivolous because happiness is a transient state dependent on many conditions, and unrealistic because life is unpredictable and pain may arise at anytime.
The happiness you feel when you get something you have always wanted typically lasts no longer than three days. Bliss states in meditation are similar, whether they arise as physical or emotional bliss or the bliss of infinite space, infinite consciousness or infinite nothingness. These states soon dissipate once you re-engage the messiness of life. A dewdrop on a blade of grass, indeed!
The quest for happiness is a continuation of the traditional view of spiritual practice—a way to transcend the vicissitudes of the human condition. Valhalla, paradise, heaven, nirvana all hold out a promise of eternity, bliss, purity or union with an ultimate reality. These four spiritual longings are all escapist reactions to the challenges everyone encounters in life.
Take a moment and think about what you are seeking in your practice. Is it a kind of transcendence, if not in God, then in a god-surrogate such as timeless awareness, pure bliss or infinite light?
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Are you looking for an awareness so deep and powerful that your frustration and difficulties with life vanish in the presence of your understanding and wisdom? Are you not looking for a ticket out of the messiness of life?
If you think of freedom as a state, you are in effect looking for a kind of heaven. Instead, think of freedom as a way of experiencing life itself—a continuous flow in which you meet what arises in your experience, open to it, do what needs to be done to the best of your ability and then receive the result. And you do this over and over again. A freedom that never changes then becomes the constant exercise of everything you know and understand. It is the way you engage life. It is not something that sets you apart from life…
Every being has cared for you as your mother.
If they all suffer for time without end, how can you be happy?
To free beings without limit,
Give rise to awakening mind—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
- Verse 10
What is awakening mind?
Take a moment and consider all the beings in the world—people in every walk of life, animals, even insects—billions upon billions. Each and every being is just like you—struggling with life in different ways, struggling to survive, struggling with change or struggling to make sense of it all.
Imagine you have the ability to free all these beings from their struggles and from the pain those struggles cause them. Now imagine you do free them, one by one, over the course of count- less eons, no matter how long it takes.
While you embrace the possibility of freeing countless beings over countless eons, recall that there are no beings. All those beings and all your efforts are just your experience of life, nothing more and nothing less.
Everything drops away. Rest right there—in that open clarity. Nothing at all, but what a nothing!
This is awakening mind…
…In the Tibetan tradition, you cultivate that intention by con- sidering every being to be your mother—infinite mothers caring for you over the course of infinite lifetimes, a poetic expression of the vast and intricate web of relationships that make up our lives.
Look at the places where you struggle in your life. In each you see some form of alienation, a painful memory, an unpleasant association, an old fear. Every one of those parts of you is based in a relationship. Whenever you encounter a situation that resonates with that relationship, it brings that part into play, and you struggle. You cannot be free until all those parts of you are free, too. All those relationships, all those beings, all those reactions!
In the Zen tradition, the longing and the intention to free and be free take expression in The Four Great Vows…
If you don’t subdue the enemy inside—your own anger—
The more enemies you subdue outside, the more that come.
Muster the forces of loving kindness and compassion,
And subdue your own mind—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
- Verse 20
Tokmé Zongpo talks about anger, yet he uses the language of war—enemy, subdue, muster, forces. Is he saying you should wage a war against anger? Or is he speaking metaphorically?
Forget metaphors for a moment. If you do not resolve your own anger, you experience the world in terms of opposition and conflict, because that is how anger presents the world to you. No matter how many people you frighten, intimidate, lay into or beat up, all it takes is another disagreement, another vexation, and you are fighting again…
…In Buddhist practice, there are basically three ways to work with anger or other strong reactive emotions: dissolve, employ or transform.
To dissolve anger, experience it. Experience it without expressing it or repressing it.
To return to the language of metaphor, your anger is a frightened, scared, hurt and lonely child having a tantrum. Hold that child tenderly in your attention. The tenderness is where the “forces” of loving kindness and compassion come in. Do not try to make her do anything. Just hold her. Let her cry. Let her rage. Do not react to her pain, distress, fear or outbursts. Hold her tenderly with loving kindness and compassion.
Loving kindness opens you to her rage. You do not reject it. You do not try to make it go away. Compassion enables you to be present with her pain. You do not try to fix it. You do not try to make it go away. You cannot make it go away, of course, but you can be there with it.
Sit there and experience all the anger, pain, hurt and confusion in you. That is your practice—to experience it without getting lost in it. Little by little, that child feels your quiet presence. Little by little, she calms down. At some point, an understanding arises, an insight into the anger, hurt and confusion you are feeling and the whole reactive cycle dissolves…
Understanding that emotional reactions are dismantled
By insight supported by stillness,
Cultivate meditative stability that passes right by
The four formless states—this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
- Verse 29
…There is a difference between the freedom of a still mind and the freedom of no mind.
The freedom of a still mind is like kayaking in still water. It is peaceful. You can direct attention wherever you choose, and it rests there because you are so still. And it is almost useless in regular life.
The freedom of no mind is like kayaking with no fixed point inside you. You are not separate from what you experience. You are not watching it.
How do you do that? You look again and again at what cannot be seen, your own mind. Stillness does help with that looking. It helps a lot. Yet stillness by itself, even the extraordinary stillness of infinite space, infinite consciousness and so on, is not enough.
You have to see. And to see, you have to look.
Look again and again at what cannot be seen. At some point you see nothing—you really see nothing. You know, through your own experience, that there is no you in you, no fixed point, nothing. That experience makes all the difference. As thoughts, feelings and sensations arise in your life, you experience them without any fixed reference point. They are not “other.” You move with them and through them, just like you move with and through the ocean waves in a kayak.
What do you do about thoughts, feelings and sensations? Nothing. They are free, completely free, to come and go on their own, just like the waves in the ocean…
If you don’t go into your own confusion,
You may be just 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.
- Verse 31
It is not enough to look like a practitioner. You may sit absolutely still in meditation, wear formal robes, perform rituals precisely and even teach and guide others. However, if you are doing any of these to build skills and capacities that make you more effective in your life, to enhance your status in the world or to establish an identity, then you cannot say that you are practicing a path of awakening.
Why? Because you are using practice to improve the situation of your life.
Suppose your boyfriend has broken up with you, your wife has died or your child was killed in an accident. You struggle with the loss and all the difficult feelings that come with it. If you try to understand your suffering, you are soon lost in thinking. Instead, each morning or whenever you practice, you rest in the experience of breathing and open to everything in your body. You do this by including the crown of your head and the soles of your feet in your attention at the same time and let any sensations you experience just be there, movements in a field of attention that embraces your whole body.
At some point, you are able to feel clearly the pain of your loss. This is grieving and it is important…
…And that is what you practice. When your relationship breaks up, you practice, not to work through the loss, but to be awake and present in what life has brought to you.
A Zen master was heartbroken when her son died. At the funeral she cried and cried. Her disciples were surprised. “Didn’t you teach us,” they asked, “that everything is illusion?” She glared at them and said, “If you don’t understand that each tear I shed saves countless sentient beings, you know nothing about Zen.”
Are you a materialist in practitioner’s clothing? It all boils down to one principle. Do you practice to improve the situation in your life, or do you use the situation of your life to practice?