In August 2023, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day retreat on the Buddhist teachings on being in deep and harmonious service with others. A teaching poem by the 13th century Tibetan teacher Tokmé Zongpo serves as a guidebook to deeply mindful, ethical, and compassionate living. As enthusiastic Buddhist writing it makes some very strong claims and recommendations which Tim does his best to unpack and provide context for.

Here’s is a link to the poem these teachings are based on:

Tokmé Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva


Talk 1: Introduction, verses 1-6


Talk Notes

Good morning everyone, welcome again. We begin something this morning which in way doesn’t really have a beginning or an ending. The fundamental idea of a mindfulness retreat is to pay attention to what arises, moment after moment. But it’s not like none of us were paying any attention to this before you arrived here. yesterday. And it’s not like there weren’t moments rising and falling away before either. And it’s not like we’ll stop paying attention to the moments that will continue arising and falling away after we leave on Wednesday afternoon.

So we aren’t really starting a retreat. We are just continuing our lives. Only with some special supports like living for these days in a different place than usual, not surrounded by all of our things and to-dos, like having many of the choices we make every day just drift away as we follow the schedule day after day, eat the food that’s offered, accept and appreciate our few options and choices: should I take a walk or a nap this break?

In a way it looks like a very different life from usual but actually we see that it’s just a continuation of the adventure of being ourselves. Very familiar in some deep ways, but also changing, evolving. Life really is a journey. Sometimes we say there’s a path – like in my talks this week I’m going to talk quite specifically about Buddhism and you hear expressions like “the Buddhist path” maybe people talk about a “mindful path” too, I’m not sure, if there’s a path I’m not sure it’s always entirely visible. We don’t know what we’re doing really, but we do our best and somehow living together in this kind of situation can be surprisingly revealing and healing.

And the best approach is right back to the beginning again: just pay attention, be here, be present. And notice your attitude towards what arises – accept that that is, it’s part of what’s here too – and also see if you can’t practice being a bit kinder to yourself about this whole crazy thing of being a person. A person on a journey: the journey of life. And maybe there’s some kind of path. We’ll see if what I want to share this week offers some kind of sign posts at least. Maybe it’s more like when the woods are covered in snow, you know there’s a path down there, but you can’t see it. Maybe some kind people have put some long poles into the snow to help you stay oriented, or maybe there are footprints to follow.

Another thing I was to say before launching into the Buddhist texts I’ve selected for us to focus on in these talks: be a bit careful not to overestimate the importance of these talks. You might enjoy them, you might not, you might find some inspiration and new ideas here, you might find things that you disagree with or bother you, you might snooze through whole sections of these talks. The talk is just an hour from our 8 or so hours of focused time together. I hope it’s helpful, encouraging, or at least entertaining to hear these reflections and to bring up something from the Buddhist tradition but I don’t know that in the end it’s any more or less important than our other hours of mindfulness practice. And those 8 hours are just half of how long most of are awake in a day: I think those hours are equally important too.

Pay attention, be present, accept what comes, try to be kind. That’s really all we need this week.

That said here is a teaching poem from the Indo-Tibetan tradition. And it’s kind of extra wonderful that Kerry is here as a serious student in that tradition. People can and do devote their lives to studying and practicing with these kinds of texts – and this one is very simple compared to much of what Kerry studies in Nepal with her teacher Mingyur Rinpoche I’m sure.

The author of our teaching poem is a Tibetan monk named Tokmé Zongpo he lived from 1295 to 1369 – not a lot is known about his life but in the tradition he’s considered a fairly important teacher from that time. This poem Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas is one of 3 surviving texts that are attributed to him. And like so much in the distance past and in another culture too we really don’t know a lot for sure. This poem is part of a larger genre called lam-rim which means it describes that hidden path under the snow. Lam-rim texts are summaries of the vast Buddhist traditions they are a part of. Like a lot of Buddhist writing they are then studied by later teachers who lecture on them and write their own commentaries on them. All traditional texts are kind of like notes left behind for us to discover now and see what we can make of them. So this little poem has a lot to say to us now.

The translation I’m using and also the commentary I’m referring to is by a contemporary American teacher named Ken McLeod. I think it’s a relatively creative and interpretive translation. Another great challenge for us is that of course none of these Buddhist materials were written in English and languages like Tibetan, Chinese, Pali emerge from different cultural understandings and way of looking at the world. Translation is always more of a complex matter than just “this word in Tibetan means that word in English” and you string them all together and you have clear English. The translator is always inevitably doing some interpretation. And how they do that varies.

Anyway I want to share from the introduction how Ken McLeod met this text originally. Think of those times when you somehow found just the right book. We go on journeys sometimes with texts and this has that quality for him. Perhaps for a few of us it will also.

[McLeod p. 1-9, stop where he starts talking about the different verses].

So a warning: there are traditional Buddhism materials. It’s a different way of expression from our mindfulness teachings and even from the writings of modern Western Buddhist teachers. This is not going to sound like Jon Kabat Zinn or Tara Brach or Jack Kornfield. Especially around compassion itself you might find some of what Tokme Zongpo recommends doubtful or even objectionable. There’s one section where probably most of us will think, “wow that’s a really bad idea!” I can only encourage you to keep an open mind and stay curious and to remember that this is one of the world’s great traditions for developing compassionate beings and the proof’s in the pudding. Long time practitioners of this way often seem to be cheerful, compassionate beings who at the same time are incredibly resilient and wise, to there’s something to this stuff for sure.

As is the tradition he opens with a statement of dedication and enthusiasm:

Namo Lokesvaraya!

You who see that experience has no coming or going,
Yet pour your energy solely into helping beings,
My excellent teachers and Lord All Seeing,
I humbly and constantly honor with my body, speech, and mind.

The fully awake, the buddhas, source of joy and well-being,
All come from integrating the noble Way.
Because integration depends on your knowing how to practice,
I will explain the practice of all bodhisattvas.

Namo means homage, or respect, and Lokesvaraya is one of many names of the great Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion: you may have heard of her as Guan yin or Kuan yin or Avalokitesvara.

Then these two lines are really interesting:

You who see that experience has no coming or going,
Yet pour your energy solely into helping beings,

The first line is referring to a kind of wisdom insight that there’s something deeper going on here than all of this running around. The “no” there doesn’t mean there isn’t coming and going it means the true nature of the coming and going isn’t what you think it is. It’s a seeing into the deeper patterns of life. And when you see deeply into it in this way there’s a natural quality of rest and ease. You see that it’s okay. There’s craziness, there’s joy, there’s suffering, there’s striving, there’s success and failure sure, but it’s not that big of a deal really. It’s like the weather swirling and we can feel the quiet and still of the vast blue sky behind it all. So having that kind of settled insight into the nature of reality might lead you to conclude: I’m good. Nothing to do here. I’ll just live quietly in my hut.

But the people he respects have this kind of transcendent vision and know there is no real problem here but at the same time they see that people are caught up in their suffering, they need help anyway so we roll up our lives and pour our energy into helping beings anyway. In a traditional and strange sounding way of talking we’d say, “even though there are not really any beings to save I vow to save all beings.”

And now the instructions begin:

Right now, you have a good boat, fully equipped and available — hard to find.
To free others and you from the sea of samsara,
Day and night, fully alert and present,
Study, reflect, and meditate — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

We’re lucky, we found this boat called mindfulness. And it’s kind of amazing that we each did. Think of the many other ways your life could have gone. The sea of samsara: samsara is the mixed up busy crazy world full of chaos and stress. The word literally has to do with squeaking wheels. So don’t waste time, get in the boat and row steadily.

Attraction to those close to you catches you in its currents;
Aversion to those who oppose you burns inside;
Indifference that ignores what needs to be done is a black hole.
Leave your homeland — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

And verse 2 says feel the pulls in your heart as you row. Feel how wanting something from someone pulls you this way. Feel how being annoyed by someone pushes your boat another way. And just not caring is no help either (although, Ken McLeod I don’t think Tokme Zongpo wrote about black holes so here’s an example where they must have been some difficult underlying Tibetan word we don’t have an equivalent of in English that means something like that).

And the last line “leave your homeland’ is about commitment. To really transform through these practices we have to be deeply committed, even if that means giving things up. Like leaving home which is a reference to monastic life but we did all leave home for 5 days so we’re in it. We’re fully in it.

And the last word there is the Buddhist term Ken McLeod was explaining in his introduction. Someone who fully commits to goodness. To helping others. In the Buddhist frame it’s helping others “awaken” which is an easily misunderstood term. We can think of a bodhisattva as an upright person, a caring person. People who study mindfulness and compassion tend to be bodhisattvas whether they know it or not I think!

Don’t engage disturbances and reactive emotions gradually fade away;
Don’t engage distractions and spiritual practice naturally grows;
Keep awareness clear and vivid and confidence in the way arises.
Rely on silence — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

These opening verses are pretty clear and so relevant to what we’re doing here at Samish. We can practice this first line very directly here. Something comes up in your mind that’s disturbing. A conflict with another? Something you don’t like about yourself? A grouchy mood? Something arises – there it is: it’s there in your mind. What next?

Do you immediately start rehearsing an email you’ll send to that troublesome person? To you beat yourself up? Do you think about whether you should re-up your gym membership or start going to yoga classes again? Do you try to cheer yourself up or get into doubt about whether you should have come to this retreat? These are examples of engaging with the disturbance.

This is a big thing to work with because it seems pretty natural to want to solve problems right? A disturbance in the mind is a problem, we don’t like it, we want it gone, so who to get rid of it? And it can all get pretty subtle in there too: do you use meditation techniques to try to fix it? That’s another kind of engagement.

The instruction here is to leave it. Don’t engage. Letting it come is also letting it go. This line feels like plenty for all of us to work with this week actually. Don’t engage disturbances and reactive emotions gradually fade away. This takes courage too. The disturbances can be upsetting, frightening even. It’s a brave act to just leave them. It’s an act of deep trust in this process.

And there is of course a time and place to do something about things. Buddhism and mindfulness aren’t anti problem solving. But it’s like I was saying about thinking about the future: it’s only really productive in small doses. The rest of the time is about living into it, following through with our good choices.

But the time for problem solving isn’t now. A disturbance arises, leave it be. Don’t engage. Breathe, be. Appreciate the silence and the space as he goes on to say in the rest of this verse.

You will separate from long-time friends and relatives;
You will leave behind the wealth you worked to build up;
The guest, your consciousness, will move from the inn, your body.
Forget the conventional concerns — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Our first 3 verses were quite in harmony with everything you’ve learned about mindfulness probably. With this verse we’re challenged to do a little deeper.

“You will separate from long-time friends and relatives;” on one level this often happens naturally. As you change and grow through the practice you may start to feel like you just have less in common with your old buddies. This can be painful and confusing. As Catherine was saying last night your new friends through the practice can be pretty wonderful too.

But the rest of this verse makes it’s clear he’s pointing to something deeper than accepting change in this life. Leaving behind all of our wealth and possessions, this odd line about our consciousness being a guest in the body, forgetting about conventional concerns. This is pointing to how temporary this life and all of our stuff and issues truly are. In the Buddhist frame practice doesn’t make a lot of sense outside of the fundamental question of death. The great matter of birth and death is a phrase pointing to this in the Zen tradition. The great matter of birth and death.

We don’t talk about death much in MBSR or MSC class. But in Buddhism there’s not much point to any of this if you don’t hold in the context of how brief and ephemeral this life is. There’s a reminder that “Death is certain; only the time of death is uncertain.” This can be very uncomfortable to consider to say the least.

And yet when someone close to you dies, as upsetting and even traumatic as that can be, it’s often a deep deep reminder. Often there’s a kind of reset in your own life. A renewal of intentions: wow, what am I doing? How do I really want to be living? Am I living in accord with my values? Am I putting my life energy to the most important things? A question I try to remember to ask myself regularly is “what’s the best use of me?” And that includes considering what’s nurturing for me myself as well as how can I serve others.

Here’s another translation of this verse that might be a little more clear:

The practice of all the bodhisattvas is to renounce this life’s concerns,
For friends and relatives, long acquainted, must all go their separate ways;
Wealth and prized possessions, painstakingly acquired, must all be left behind;
And consciousness, the guest who lodges in the body, must in time depart.

So this is putting things on a whole different level than stress reduction or becoming a kinder towards ourselves isn’t it? There can be a kind of urgency that arises from remembering that you truly don’t know how many days you have left in this life. One of us could die today, we really can’t know. There are a lot of things that have to happening just so for a body to stay alive – it’s actually quiet incredible that it all works isn’t it? And any one of those many systems can, and sometimes does, just stop working right and we’re gone from this life. I don’t mean to be depressing or frightening here but it’s true right? So very true. And I know more an more people who’ve had someone very close to them go out to check the mail or something and drop dead of one cause or another. It happens. Regularly. And may we all stay happy and health through Wednesday and for many years to come!

And this verse doesn’t mean not to attend to practical matters while we’re alive. We do need a certain amount of wealth to stay healthy and safe. Retirement planning is included in this path. We do need friends. Just notice how you hold it all: it’s something you might need for now, although the mind of lack might think you need ever more, and it’d be nice to leave something to your children and so on. And at the same time it’ll soon be gone. As we say, “you can’t take it with you.”

What he’s getting at, at the root, is how we hold it all. Is there that fearfulness? That sense of lack, that there’s never going to enough. And practically of course in his day and context he did live more meal to meal, living fully on the generosity of others.

Two more verses and we’ll call it good.

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.

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.

Back to friends. Who do you surround yourself with? Do they encourage your best self?

And how wonderful when you hang around with people who do inspire your best self.

You can also put “teachers” into verse 5 – some teachers are not good for us.

And you can put “friends” into verse 6 too.

With some friends, your shortcomings fade away and
Abilities grow like the waxing moon.
Hold such friends dear to you,
Dearer than your own body — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

I do love that line about the waxing moon. We don’t have to make the moon get bigger each night when its waxing. It just does – it’s natural. And wonderfully we are in a waxing moon right now and it’ll be full on Wednesday – the last day of our retreat. Let’s enjoy the moon each evening and watch is slowly grow towards full. Maybe we can match that gentle gradual change in our own hearts too. Letting our hearts gradually open to their fullness.

Talk 2: verses 7-11


Talk Notes

I have a wonderful mindfulness practice to suggest. In some of your breaks go into the woods. There are nice stands of woods at each end of the property. The lower end has a path down to the water right at the eastern point of Samish Island, and the upper end has a loop trail. It’s wonderful to walk in the woods of course but what I want to recommend is stopping. Stop and listen and look. Look up. There’s a whole world in the tree canopy filled with birds living their lives. You won’t see them close enough to make much out, it’s true, you’ll see shapes flitting around. And you’ll hear their voices. Don’t worry about being a birder or not. And if you are into birds already, see if you can unhook from expectations about being able to identify them. Just watch, listen, and appreciate that if you pay attention you are granted a doorway into a whole ‘nother world right there. Right about our heads. A world where other creatures live out their lives.

And for the bird nerds among us here a few possibilities are robins, northern flickers, cedar waxwings, ruby crowned kinglets, house finches, gold finches, varied thrush, spotted towhee, western wood peewee, the doves are Eurasian collared doves but they seem to be somewhere else this time of year, and lots more species. A skilled birder probably could find 30 or 40 species on this property today.

It’s a rich world and it’s wonderful how mindfulness and also nature awareness practices help us to experience that and, boy, when I’m in touch with the wider richer world, even with the sorrows of knowing the damage that’s happened and will likely happen, I feel better. I feel more spacious, more open, more in touch with myself. More able to show up in this life and do what I can.

In this introduction to our teaching poem, Ken McLeod, shares what we think we know about our author Tokmé Zongpo.

[McLeod, middly of p 3 – top of p 5]

His note at the end about the Tibetan teacher Garchen Rinpoche is a sadly common one. As you know China invaded Tibet in the 1950’s and has been doing their best ever since to wipe out Tibetan culture. That included locking monks up in so-called re-education camps where they are tortured. And there are many stories of monks surviving these horrible conditions largely through their Buddhist practice. Often they say something like, “my only fear was losing my compassion for my jailers, the karmic effects of what they did will cause them great suffering and I feel so sorry for them.” A kind of horrible experiment, I guess, that speaks to the power of practice and of compassion.

Yesterday we studied verses 1-6. The verse I was bringing up throughout the day was the very practical verse 3:

Don’t engage disturbances and reactive emotions gradually fade away;
Don’t engage distractions and spiritual practice naturally grows;
Keep awareness clear and vivid and confidence in the way arises.
Rely on silence — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

To which as one point we added that there can be more to this dance than just moving attention away – “don’t engage” – although that seemingly simple act is extremely powerful and important. We can also invite compassion and kindness for those parts of ourselves that are disturbed, distracted, needy. And I bet those parts did pay a few visits.

I’d also add that “don’t engage” doesn’t mean to block or ignore. The don’t engage is just not adding the extra stickiness of trying to figure it out, solve it, or get rid of it. What’s here is here and our first step is acceptance.

We can include here the spirit of this often quoted version of Rumi’s teaching: The Guest House poem.

Rumi – The Guest House
This being human is like a guest house,
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I’m not sure if Tokmé Zongpo would support that last line about “each has been sent by a guide from beyond”. As we’ll see in the upcoming verses some of the difficult guests may come from past bad choices, and as moderns we are also increasingly aware of the repercussions from past trauma and systemic oppression, but perhaps that’s always something we can learn from what knocks at our door. A reminder to practice at the least. And to practice this non-interference with it all that “don’t engage” suggests.

Continuing on with verse 7:

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.

Habit patterns are strong aren’t they: the prison of our patterning. The wondrous thing about practice is we start to see – “oh, that’s not really who I am” – it’s a pattern. It’s deep conditioning. It’s something I received somehow and keep reinforcing. But it’s not permanent and we don’t have to identify with our patterns. They don’t define us, but it can certainly seem that way.

It’s quite incredible that we can change! We really can. Since we’re in the middle of our own lives we can’t always see those changes clearly. Sometimes you discover how you’ve changed from a trusted loved one telling you, “you seem happier!” or “you seem more peaceful, you used to always be so agitated.” Whereas we just kinda feel the way we always do from our own subjective point of view. I had that very experience on Friday and I’ve learned to try to really let that in. Okay, cool, maybe I AM happier. And to invite and allow myself to be happier. That not just wishful thinking, but a kind of opening to it, allowing it in.

Or more evidence of how we can change is when we surprise ourselves in an interpersonal situation by being more open or vulnerable than usual. Other times we see our changing in what we don’t react to like we used to; or healthy choices we make without too much trouble. Or we notice ourselves abstaining from unhealthy choices – sometimes without even noticing that we did – oh look at that I haven’t been tempted to….(fill in the blank)…. in a while. We can notice sometimes we are less caught by those desires that masquerade as needs. Addiction is in this territory too but has it’s own extra challenges to say the least.

A minor example: I had a moment last night as I walked to my room at the end of the day of, “boy, a chocolate bar would be nice about now” – and instantly I could see my mind trying to figure out how I could have chocolate bars here next time I’m here. “Oh I should add chocolate to my packing list.” It didn’t have much of a hold on me though: I could see: oh, that’s just a stay desire, and part of a kind of endless chain: first I need to bring chocolate, then what else would I want to have? And I could tune back into how wonderful it is to just get to be here. And remind myself that a big part of that is simplifying my life when I’m here. I don’t need to start packing up treats. (And if you did bring some chocolate: no shame implied here! Enjoy it!).

Patterning is for sure very powerful but it we aren’t permanent victims. We can change. That makes me think of another often quoted little poem in mindfulness circles. Probably many of you have heard this many times:

Portia Nelson – Autobiography in Five Chapters

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am hopeless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

I think Tokmé Zongpo would appreciate that very much. Becoming more aware of our patterns and learning to take responsibility for them. Learning to make better choices. Cleaning up our karma as it were. And that it all takes a LOT of patience. We don’t love those middle chapters very much.

Back to the verse:

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.

The question in the last 3 lines is what helps us when we’re stuck. Ordinary gods seems to mean the conventional pleasures in samsara like material possessions and entertainments. That these don’t really help us in this fundamental way. And in traditional Buddhism, here’s a big difference from theistic traditions like Christianity, the gods are actually kind of stuck too – they live these blissed out lives full of pleasure but they don’t know how to really practice and wake up. And they’re mortal too – eventually they do pass away and a life full of pleasures turns out, in the end, not be any more happy once basic needs and security are there. So don’t look to the gods for help.

What should we look to? No surprise: the practice.

The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Which we might translate like this:

Buddha we might read as our incredible human potential. For change. For growth. For great understanding and compassion. For amazing patience and resilience. In Buddhism they go even further into the realms of perfect enlightenment and peace, complete freedom from suffering, but that’s okay it’s plenty wonderful without worrying about such lofty ideals.

Dharma we might read as the path, the practices, the new ideas and methods we’re learning. We might also read Dharma as a much deeper understanding of the underlying causes for things. A clarity around how we got to be how we are and how to move forward.

Sangha is pretty straightforward: community. We’ve been reflecting on that a bit already. How our awareness can so easily constrict down to me-me-me and that this is often a very constricted state – definitely something we can be locked in the prison of – but it’s also possible to open up to community. Even in this interesting interpersonal situation where we aren’t talk to each other and don’t know all that much about each other. Still we are sangha – we are a community.

A long winded commentary of verse 7! Here’s a short version: feel the awesome power of conditioning and habit-patterns, and notice where you go for help. Possible the usual things you reach for don’t really help. Try the practice.

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.

This is a verse of explanation from a Buddhist frame of how those difficult patterns got entrenched in you. Here we see the central teaching of karma – cause and effect. And this is an area where there is both plenty of agreement between this ancient tradition and modern science – science is all about figuring out cause and effect right. But there’s also some friction between the way traditional Buddhism understands karma and modern psychology.

In Buddhism all of the suffering in us, the ways we get locked into those patterns, and also the difficult things that happen to us, are all results past actions, past choices. If you made unwholesome choices in the past it led to unwholesome results in the present. And the choices you make now are extra important because they will determine your future. There is allowance for the many causes and conditions beyond what you can see or know, but that’s the gist of it.

And past and future here is a bigger frame than just this one lifetime. It’s over many lives. So rebirth is in the background of all of these teachings. We want to do our best in this present life but it’s not our only life – it’s one of a long, long series.

There’s a powerful and important learning here around taking full responsibility for our actions. This leads so directly to ethical living in such a powerful way. This might be Buddhism’s great contribution to the world, even more than meditation. It teaches a wise, kind, compassionate way of living and not because you “should” but because you see through the teachings and your own experience that that’s absolutely what makes total sense.

And actions here include our thoughts. The actions that affect what will happen in the world are actions of body, speech, and mind. There are no throw-away “oh, that didn’t matter” moments. It’s a powerful encouragement to pay attention. To be fully consistent in our kindness and consideration for others. A grouchy belittling word to someone could have big consequences in our lives and throughout the universe. Even a grouchy judgmental thought has power. The teaching of karma emphasizes the awesome power of our actions.

And we have to be careful not to be totally paralyzed at the same time: “oh my goodness I’m never going to open my mouth again if it’s really true that I say one thing wrong and I’m doomed to suffer.” But we can take this as powerful encouragement towards the good. And especially towards paying attention. Sometimes Western ethics seems to have loopholes for unintentional acts: oh, sorry, I didn’t mean that. Not so much here: unwholesome action is unwholesome action.

Where the friction can be between this wonderful powerful teaching and a modern psychological view is that we would give more allowance for the powerful influence of past traumas and systemic injustices and so on that lead to bad outcomes that are beyond our control. That it’s not all our fault.

I shared with another group one of those stories of a Tibetan monk who stayed incredibly compassionate and resilient in a Chinese re-education camp. He shared just what I was saying that one of his deep concerns was for well being of his jailers and their families since they were such to face the terrible consequences from the bad karma of beating and torturing him.

But he also said the other thing that helped him was reflecting on how in his past lives he himself must have done terrible things if the karmic result was that he ended up in this hellish place. It sounded like that actually was a source of strength for him – that kind of radical taking responsibility. He met that not with guilt or what a dummy I must have been in a past life but as a challenge to himself to step up and be strong in this current life while under terrible duress in the camp. We had a clinical psychologist in the group and she objected strongly to this: it seemed to her like a toxic kind of self-victimization – blaming himself like that for something that was the doing of a totalitarian state trying to crush his culture.

But we have to be careful here too in our own cultural biases. Who are we to say that psychology is right and this aspect of traditional Asian Buddhist understanding is wrong. Sometimes our modern life does a lot of picking and choosing from ancient traditions which can for sure be a kind of cultural appropriation.

The same monk also said that he had trouble getting good help from the psychologist he was seeing for the trauma of having been imprisoned and tortured because it seemed to bother her so much that he was too cheerful when he talked about those years. He would laugh and make jokes about what happened. Not what she expected, and it threw her, and she kept trying to push him to express himself like she expected someone who’d been tortured to feel. Different cultures have different ways of understanding.

There’s a British psychologist named Paul Gilbert who’s done a lot of adapting of Tibetan Buddhist ideas into a compassionate style of psychotherapy and he ended up glossing these teachings of our past actions being the cause of our current suffering this way: whatever comes up for you now from the past is not your fault but it is your responsibility. So not to be too weighed down by regrets, if only’s and so on, BUT now it’s time to take responsibility for how it is and what we choose from here. To do our best to wake up to the great possibilities of this life. We do need support, but at the root no one else can do your inner work for you.

It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Boy there’s a lot to say about these verses.

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.

The happiness of a chocolate bar is fleeting right? And in fact if I’d had a chocolate bar last night I wonder if I would have had the restraint to eat just a row of it and really savor it which is pretty pleasurable or if I would have kept going and eaten the whole thing which actually usually feels pretty unpleasant. There are pleasurable things but sometimes we undermine the pleasure don’t we!

But this verse is going a big step further. All of these Buddhist teachings go a big step further really. In one way we could see it all as quite idealistic and maybe it is but I think in a good way really. Why not set our sights high? Why not aspire for an ideal life? Just be aware of the suffering you can then bring upon yourself if you aren’t flexible, patient and kind with yourself as you head in that direction as there are many pitfalls along the way.

Anyway the big step further here is forget about those ephemeral pleasures like chocolate. They don’t really cut the mustard and energy we put into seeking them out is energy taken away from a radically better plan.

The highest level of freedom is one that never changes – this is a similar teaching point to that opening verse that said this poem is dedicated to those who “see that experience has no coming or going.” A touching of the deep nature of things. Not being caught by the ups and downs of life. It’s a difficult concept to talk about with words since words are really for distinguishing between things and only have concepts to work with. This underlying teaching is about the a feeling for life that’s beyond concepts.

Ken McLeod in his commentary talks about the freedom that never changes as a process which is a useful way to talk about it:

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 [with complete acceptance.] 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….Life is tough, but when you see and accept what is actually happening…mind and body can relax. There is an exquisite quality that comes from just experiencing what arises completely. Some call it joy, but if is not a giddy or excited joy. It is deep and quiet. a joy that is in some sense always there, waiting for you. In this freedom you are free from the projections of thought and feeling; awake and present in your life. Reactions may come and go on their own but [they don’t stick, they are] like mist in the morning sun.

So that’s the freedom these teachings, this practice, both in mindfulness and the traditional Buddhism are pointing towards in the end. Not freedom to whatever you want; not freedom from all difficulties, but freedom in the middle of whatever happens.

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 verse is again about taking responsibility and now we bring compassion back up. The path to happiness is through service to others. Here too the modern self-compassion movement has some additions and modifiers which we’ll get to later. There’s also a suggestion in this verse that the great fuel of our practice commitment is gratitude. Not desiring our own well being but gratitude for everyone who’s supported us. The reference to mothers is a truly wonderful idea from Tibetan Buddhism. Since there are many, many lives it stands to reason that we’ve had and have many, many mothers. Not just each mother we had in each of our lives as a kind of figure from the past but all of those mothers themselves are being reborn all around us so probably in this very room there is at least one person who was your mother. Hi mom, thank you so much. I know you worked hard to take care of me and it can be a thankless job.

We’ll end today with verse 11:

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.

This is a radical statement. Buddhism doesn’t aim low or middle: it aims so high and encourages us to stretch beyond what we think is possible!

Trying to get your own happiness doesn’t work, that matches psychological research on happiness just fine. Happiness is most supported, as I understand the science by gratitude, meaning and a bigger than self view of our role and purpose.

Tokmé Zongpo speaking for this tradition then takes that to it’s ultimate conclusion: all suffering comes from self-centeredness. All happiness comes form completely letting go of yourself and serving others. You won’t see ideas like “self-care” in this tradition. So that’s a bit challenging for us, I think. You won’t see the phrase “self-compassion” either although it is understood that compassion moves in many different directions and there are practices for cultivating compassion within ourselves.

There’s a famous story from one of those dialogs where groups of scientists and western Dharma teachers met with HH Dalai Lama to exchange understandings about the midn where someone asked him, “what do you do about the lack of self-compassion in people? how do you help them with that.” And he was just confused by the question. How could there be a lack of self-compassion? It didn’t make sense to him. Is that evidence of a big cultural difference between Tibetans and other cultures? Or does that mean that the Buddhism that’s embedded in Tibetan culture really really works in this regard?

I guess I’m just going to have to leave this confusing juxtaposition hanging as that’s all the time we have today: could it really be true that the path to happiness is really just radical service of others? Then how come all of those doctors and therapists are burning out all the time? What about self-care, self-compassion, what about the damaging cultural messages given most especially to women about how you should take care of everyone else first. And what happened to the fathers in verse 10 anyway?

AND in the relative safety of our retreat space we can experiment. Experiment with letting go of ourselves and just being present and curious about all of this: these teachings, our experience doing the practice, that we have these 5 days where we don’t have to defend ourselves from anything or anyone. What happens when we let go a little more of our own agenda, and at the root what happens if we let go of our ideas of who we are?

And there was plenty of practical advice for us in verses 7-11 too.
7 – study your habit patterns, practice seeing them and letting go
8 – woah, those patterns can be powerful, don’t make them worse
9 – freedom and happiness in wisely flowing and accepting and working with things as they are
10 – tune in gratefulness, you’ve received so much, let gratitude fuel you on with your practice
11 – don’t get hooked by self-centeredness, it’s gonna make you miserable, feel the joy of supporting others.

We can practice all this right here at Samish. We really can.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Note on interviews: check ins with Tim. Focused conversations about life and practice, no brilliant questions needed, no way to get it wrong (or right), an invitation and truly optional. I’ll come invite you and no thanks really is a fine answer.

Talk 3: Verses 12-20

Talk Notes

Back to gratitude. Sometimes gratitude just emerges, a kind of natural result of our quiet practice somehow, other times it’s helpful to deliberately bring it up which is how it works in the psychological research on gratitude. People keep gratitude journals and write gratitude letters and deliberately focus the mind on what they feel grateful for. That’s also wonderful. Probably all aspects of practice have these two aspects of naturally arising and deliberately cultivated.

And actually the Sanskrit word that has the closest parallel to our English word meditation is “bhavana” which means to develop, to cultivate, to produce. So for all my talk about the wonderful value of uselessness there is also a role to play in meditative development for practices that do seem to have utility, that do produce some effect. I’d marry the two concepts by suggesting that the practices that are about inviting something forward like gratitude work best with the open, accepting curious attitude that we have more access to when we let go of the world of usefulness and production.

Anyway I was feel deep gratitude this morning for getting to be here at this beautiful place with you practicing in this way. I do know, and know very well, that we all have our moments and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have times when you were sick of this and didn’t want to be here. Maybe that’s active right now and you’re kind of like “blah blah blah, Tim’s so idealistic, maybe he doesn’t feel stuff like normal people anymore” – well believe me I do. I have resistance to these practices regularly.

Left to my own devices I tend to screw around a lot more. I’d usually rather listen to a great recorded book or noodle on my guitar or go on a bike ride than sit around and meditate. It’s true. That part of me that’s about preferences does not usually prefer this. It’s hard to do! It’s often uncomfortable. Once I’m in it I’m usually (but not always) happy but sitting down to do it vs. doing any number of other things? Naw!

But what I’ve somehow done is to create structures in my life that encourage me to practice. A lot of my daily practice is with other members of the Zen sangha (a mix of over zoom in person) for one thing. And I’ve made it part of my livelihood for another thing! I’m signed up to teach the retreat so I show up. And it wouldn’t be right to kind of just waltz in here and give the talks and go screw around while you’re sitting here pouring energy into the practice so I come too. And over the course of a day of practice – I really enjoyed Saturday actually – I re-member the benefits and deep feeling. You’d think that’d be in my bones by now, and maybe it is, but we all have these layers you know?

“re-member” is interesting word. “re” means again. So it’s something that can happen again and again, remembering. According to the official etymology “member” refers to the Latin word memoriar which means, wait for it, to be mindful of. So remembering is re-mindful-ing. But also a “member” is part of our body. So re-member also means re-embodying.

And remembering in my head, okay there’s a retreat coming up – usually isn’t too inspiring actually. At that point it’s in the one more thing to do category and it’s a project being away from home and my administrative roles for 5 days. I’m not dreading coming here at all, I do look forward to it, but before I actually get here and return to practice with you it’s a bit more like “ok ok, gotta get ready, gotta pack up, did we do all the preparation we need as an organization? hmm am I overscheduled?” it’s in the busy realm of doing.

And then when I get here and sit down with you there’s a different, deeper, remembering. The re-mindful-ing, the re-embodying. Wow, very different feeling. And with that feeling: gratitude often arises.

And I’m grateful for the structure of giving these daily talks to encourage me to study and ponder the teachings more deeply. I do study most mornings but the depth goes WAY up if I’m teaching something. So thank you, really thank you, for listening and helping me study this text. I hope these talks are helpful to you.

Back to our text and warning: we have some challenging seas to sail through next in our little boats. Verses 12-18 are all variations on the same theme. The tradition Tokmé Zongpo is speaking from has a radical message for us around how we respond to the suffering, greed, confusion, and even violence that we experience from others. It’s a radical vision of loving acceptance no matter what. It’s offering an example, maybe an extreme example, of humility and patience beyond what we can quite imagine in a conventional way. There is also an inner psychological goal implied here of releasing completely from the need for self-protection.

The goal here is hold up an ideal: the ideal of the bodhisattva. A being so dedicated to the well being of others that they’ll give everything up, including their own bodies, if that might help other beings.

And from a conventional psychological point of view or a social justice point of view you may find much to object to here.

So let’s see what we can appreciate.

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.
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.
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.
Even if someone humiliates you and denounces you
In front of a crowd of people,
Think of this person as your teacher
And humbly honor him — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Even if a person you have cared for as your own child
Treats you as his or her worst enemy,
Lavish him or her with loving attention
Like a mother caring for her ill child — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Even if your peers or subordinates,
Put you down to make themselves look better,
Treat them respectfully as you would your teacher:
Put them above you — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
When you are down and out, held in contempt,
Desperately ill, and emotionally crazed,
Don’t lose heart. Take into you
The suffering and negativity of all beings — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Wow, radical stuff, no?

One Tibetan teacher, Lama Yeshe, talking about verse 12 shares a story about Tokmé Zongpo:

He was in Sakya, and had just left a monastery where he had received offerings. On the road he was stopped by thieves who took everything from him and ran away. Very peacefully he called out after them, “Wait!” They stopped and he explained that he had asked them to do so because he had not had time to dedicate their spoil to them properly. He then made a very slow and complete dedication. They returned the property and, after receiving his teaching, became his disciples.

There’s also a famous Zen master and poet in Japan named Ryokan who’s famous in the same way around letting go of possessions:

Ryokan lived a life of simplicity in his hut near the mountains. When he was away one night, a thief broke in only to find nothing worth stealing.

Just then, Ryokan returned. “You have travelled far to visit me,” he told the burglar. “I cannot let you return empty handed. Here are my clothes, please accept them as my gift.”

The baffled thief took the clothes and vanished.

Naked now, the master gazed at the moon. “Poor man,” he sighed, “How I wish I could give him this glorious moon.”

Wonderful stories. And yet reflect a moment on your life. Have you ever had something stolen from you? Most of us had at one time or another. How did that feel? I guess for me it’s depended. Once my garage was broken into and a bunch of tools and my bike were taken, it wasn’t a great bike but it was the bike I’d had since high school and had ridden for so many miles. I felt sad. I felt violated. I reinforced the door they came in. There was not this generosity. But another time I accidentally left the car unlocked. Since I usually don’t carry cash anymore I keep an envelope with maybe $50 in small bills for cash only things like campgrounds or fruit stands. One time I got into my car, noticed my lumbar support cushion wasn’t there and the glove box was open. The cash gone. But nothing else was taken and nothing was trashed or thrown around. And I guess I was able to be a little closer to these ideals: it must’ve been someone experiencing homelessness who really needs some cash I thought, I’m privileged to have a car and a home I can certainly spare some cash. But that said, unlike Ryokan, I have been careful to lock the car ever since!

Someone yesterday was telling me how much she appreciates the poem we read each evening. That reminder to remember your true self and assert herself, not just living according to the expectations of others or maybe some confused expectations from herself that she’s been examining anew during retreat. And then she said, BUT what about how the teachings are saying to let everything go including yourself? (I guess she was reading ahead!) What gives here, that seems so contradictory!

And I agreed: YES.

I’m was tempted then, and now to leave it at that actually: YES, it does seem contradictory doesn’t it?

So this is our deep question as people who care. How do we serve others – giving them all that they need – and take care of ourselves at the same time? Within the same life? What is the role for boundaries? What is the role for letting go of boundaries and being there for people unconditionally and completely? What is a love that’s deep and unconditional but also wise and not self-destructive?

I don’t want to assume anything but it seems like we’re all more or less privileged people living in a wealthy country with our basic needs all met. We do try to keep these retreats as accessible as possible but still many many people wouldn’t be able to afford to be here even on scholarship (and thank you very much, by the way, if you were able to go higher on our sliding scale to help fund those scholarships). Here’s another perspective, again from the Tibetan teacher Lama Yeshe who is part of the generation of Tibetans born before the Chinese invasion who escaped to India. This is his comment to verse 18

When you are down and out, held in contempt,
Desperately ill, and emotionally crazed,
Don’t lose heart. Take into you
The suffering and negativity of all beings — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

This is like the situation of the Tibetans losing their country, getting criticism from Indians, getting TB and feeling very despondent. “How can I practice Dharma under these conditions? I shall give up my robe, renounce my vows, go and get a lay job.” It is very easy for this kind of thought to come, and very easy to lose the Dharma this way. Although poor, while there is someone to help us, there is still hope. But let us assume there is no help forthcoming, and we are subject to abuse. Well, if your body is in good health, things are not bad. But let us assume that we are ill. If our mind is at peace, then this can be borne too. But let us assume our mind is troubled as well. In such a situation the practice of the bodhisattva will, if we are not careful, be lost. So we should in such times take upon us all the suffering of sentient beings, wish all suffering upon ourselves, and dedicate our efforts to them – this is a practice of the bodhisattva.

So this is an interesting thing to consider, and maybe an uncomfortable thing, am I too much playing it safe in my privilege? Can I give more, maybe much more, to the world, to the practice? To the poor people I see on the streets? To the wise well-run service organizations I know of? When someone is awful to me can I meet them with more kindness and humility knowing I’ll be okay actually. Maybe there’s the outside chance my kind patient humble response will help them wake up to their own suffering – that’s the idea here.

And then we’re back to the contradiction: don’t people who behave badly also need to experience boundaries? Don’t they learn from that? Maybe. And anyway isn’t it urgent that we protect other people from abuse too?

And anyway giving up some of your possessions, or even all of them, feels like a different level than thanking people for abusing us or humiliating us, or feeling grateful when they try to destroy our reputations, treat us like enemies, or even harm us physically, right? How does a compassionate wise being – a bodhisattva is the term used here because we don’t have a word for this in English exactly – how does such a one meet aggression with integrity?

I actually did have an enemy who abused me at work one time. Maybe you’ve had this experience also. I was teaching elementary school and as a newish teacher, and a perfectionist, I was really vulnerable. Trying so hard to do right by my students, the parents, and live up to expectations in the school culture as a member of the faculty. I’d also inherited a program with a lot of team teaching and exchanges of students with the teacher next door, Pat was her name. Pat ended up belittling me, insulting me, undermining me – including in front of the kids – and ultimately, I’m pretty sure, pulling strings with the union and administration to get rid of me. And boy did I learn a lot from this experience. I started that job 25 year ago and I’m still learning more lessons from it. From her, from the ways I responded to her and the ineffectual school principal. And actually, yes I think it’s made me a kinder and more grounded person partly because the situation cracked open a lot of blocks I had to feeling emotions – especially difficult ones like anger. I have no idea to this day what motivated Pat to do all of this to me, I can only assume I reminded her of someone who abused or threatened her, but she pretty much slipped dynamite into inner walls I’d developed to not feel bad things and always stay steady and level no matter what.

These are not easy questions to answer and I think it’s very wise to develop a healthy degree of skepticism towards anyone, including ourselves, who thinks there’s a simple helpful way to respond to bad behavior. As individuals. And as a society. Gandhi’s famous statement, “an eye for an eye only leaves the world blind” comes up for me.

Oh man, sidebar, when I give quotations in talks I usually double check their veracity. And it turns out Gandhi DIDN’T say the “eye or an eye” line! It was most likely connected to his memory by his biographer, Louis Fischer, and Fischer was probably paraphrasing the bible. The King James, Exodus [21:24], says “An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.” Oh well it’s like the quote about stimulus and response and finding the space which is attributed to Victor Frankl which was probably created by Steven Covey who was reading Frankl as he formulated his own philosophy around leadership. Both are great quotes and their creators put them into some wise mouths so let’s just go with it.

Let’s appreciate two more verses from Tokmé Zongpo today. I think we can all get behind these two more comfortably.

Even when you are famous, honored by all,
And as rich as the god of wealth himself,
Don’t be pompous. Know that the magnificence of existence
Has no substance — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Understand the nature of fame and wealth: they are temporary and unsubstantial. Be humble. And this implies being generous. Not attached to wealth. No hoarding. Having just enough and giving the rest away.

And the social justice point here might be that, yes, wise to hold it lightly, that money without substance also creates and alleviates suffer – to understand that our society is a rigged game where wealthy mostly white people are the ones who pass on their wealth to their offspring perpetuating inequality. And may our learning about this help us understand our obligations towards generosity and correcting injustice even more strongly.

One example: look up about how federal mortgage loan guarantees starting in the New Deal 1930’s helped make sure white American families got to own homes while black and brown families were excluded – “red lining” is a good term to find that history. It was eye opening for me to learn about that.

If you don’t subdue the opponent inside, your own anger,
Although you subdue opponents outside, they just keep coming.
Muster the forces of loving kindness and compassion
And subdue your own mind — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

So our actual enemies, like my school colleague, may actually help us see and understand our own anger. But to be truly of service, he’s saying, we need to have a good handle on how to work with our own anger. We might again object a little to “subdue” here. Sometimes anger gives us some very important information that needs to be acted on, right? Pat helped me find my anger and it helped fuel a lot of important change in me. But there’s also a toxic being lost in anger so that’s assume he’s saying to learn how feel anger, use anger wisely, but not be caught and confused by anger. Not to indulge in anger but to understand anger.

But before we go, I want to go back briefly to this challenging difference between traditional Buddhism encouraging us to radically let go and modern ideas of self-care and self-compassion we were talking about yesterday.

Thanks to our brilliant friend Google I found the first hand account of the story I mentioned yesterday about HH being confused by the idea of a lack of self-compassion.

Turns out the actual phrase in question of “self-hatred” and it was the American meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg who asked his holiness the question. Here’s a remembrance of that from an article she wrote:

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

All of us gathered at that 1990 conference in Dharmsala, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators-were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood. That this man, whom we all recognized as having a profound psychological and spiritual grasp of the human mind, found the concept of self-hatred incomprehensible made us aware of how many of us found it all but unavoidable. During the remainder of the session, the Dalai Lama repeatedly attempted to explore the contours of self-hatred with us. At the end he said, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”

We always have more to learn it seems, even HH the Dalai Lama!

[FYI neat 5 day course she’s offering for $10 Sept 13-17:]

Let’s close with this poem:

John O’Donohue – For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

Talk 4: Verses 21-37

Talk Notes

First a story of a man in Brazil named Jair Candor. To my thinking here is a powerful example of a modern day bodhisattva.

Selfless action for the well being of others. And how joyful he finds it. And – nothing is simple in this world his family barely sees him.

Let’s look at verses 21 – 23 together.

Sensual pleasures are like salty water:
The deeper you drink, the thirstier you become.
Any object that you attach to,
Right away, let it go — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
Whatever arises in experience is your own mind.
Mind itself is free of any conceptual limitations.
Know that and don’t generate
Subject-object fixations — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
When you come across something you enjoy,
Though beautiful to experience, like a summer rainbow,
Don’t take it as real.
Let go of attachment — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The first and last of those 3 are quite clear I think. Pleasurable things can be quite nice but there is some risk there of being distracted and obsessed by them. Classic kind of Buddhist dogma not to get attached to things. This “don’t get attached” is easily misunderstood though.

One time a man came to see me who had had some kind of awakening experience and said he could see clearly everything is temporary and there is nothing to be attached to. So he told his daughter that she was no more important to him than anyone else – it just seemed logical to him. It was a bit hard to tell if something had really changed in how he felt about her or he was trying to live out some kind of ideal he’d interpreted from the somewhat cosmic experience he’d had (people do have such experiences, but they aren’t necessary I don’t think). Anyway you can imagine how that went over when he told her this. He was confused and wanted my help: isn’t it wonderful to be unattached? Isn’t that the goal?

Yes these teachings do say “let go of attachment” but that doesn’t mean to suppress love. As we see more clearly how temporary everything is we love even more fiercely. And we’re even more willing to feel the pain that love requires. This letting go of attachment is also letting go of separation. Letting of attachment to self-protection. Choyang’s teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, put out a really wonderful book about what he learned going on a solo pilgrimage into the streets of India called “In love with the world” – once he really got out there and applied these teachings in the messy world he could only love it more. It’s loving with letting go completely woven together.

And the middle verse of these three, 22, is about studying the truth that everything we experience, think about, and perceive comes through our minds. This is kind of huge the more you consider it. The process of practice is a process of softening and opening our minds so that we can see more and more clearly what’s going on. Fewer conceptual limitations as it says. Less separation between ourselves and others. And ultimately: remember how enthusiastic and high bar these teachings are: no conceptual or perceptual confusion in the mind, no sense of separation. A kind of merging with everything. And what does that offer us? Being fully in love with the world: it’s joy and wonder, it’s pain and confusion, all of it. Or you could say being fully in the world. Not holding ourselves separate at all.

One of the beautiful things you often experience with teachers and experienced practitioners is a kind of incredible emotional flexibility – that’s a sign of all of this working. I remember hearing from someone who was with HH Dalai Lama in his reception room. One minute he’s talking animatedly with a colleague about some point of dharma, really lit up, happy, next minute a new Tibetan refugee is shown in and he’s totally engaged with her, touching foreheads, a tear rolling down his cheeks as he tunes into the hardship she and her family had just been to, next minute after she leaves he’s settled into a moment of silence. And then turns back to his colleague and continues that conversation with delight. In love with the world. No separation. My own teacher is like this too.

Verse 24 is quite powerful.

All forms of suffering are like dreaming that your child has died.
Taking confusion as real wears you out.
When you run into misfortune,
Look at it as confusion — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

It’s hard to think of a more powerful form of suffering than a child dying. I watched my stepmother go through that when my step brother died in a plane crash at the age of 22. I’m sure others here have seen this kind of suffering and maybe one or two have experienced it themselves. I remember one of the times I offered the Tonglen practice here at Samish one of the participants shared with me she’d been suffering from the incredible pain of losing her child and that although that practice was very very difficult, she had to breathe in the suffering of losing her boy, something shifted and she felt like healing was happening. And I think she said she’d also been in therapy and receiving lots of other supports as well which is good – please don’t lean to hard on these practices. That kind of suffering is so powerful and to be deeply respected.

So Tokmé Zongpo uses that image of the death of a child to make a challenging point. On a practical level the point is this: there is strong suffering in the world but the way we usually process it can make it much harder. We add suffering on top of the suffering. This shouldn’t have happened. And so many variations on this: rage, blame, shame. Suffering can trigger in us such deep confusion that we can’t function. This point is usually paired with the point about everything coming through the mind. And there’s also a deeper point here which is harder to contemplate: everything that happens is kind of like a dream. You know that Taoist story where sage dreams he’s a butterfly and in the dream the butterfly is dreaming he’s a person. What’s really real here? Are we so sure. That’s another point, like not getting attached, that’s easy to misunderstand though: makes it sound like pain isn’t real so just ignore it or something. Pain is real. And it’s all like a dream. It’s both.

I’m going to go through the next few verses fairly quickly as there are some themes we’ve already seen here.

If those who want to be awake have to give even their bodies,
What need is there to talk about things that you simply own.
Be generous, not looking
For any return or result — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Back to possessions and how temporary our lives and everything are. Why would we hold onto anything? Especially our time. Give generously.

If you can’t tend to your needs because you have no moral discipline,
Then intending to take care of the needs of others is simply a joke.
Observe ethical behavior without concern
For conventional existence — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Everything about bodhisattvas is about service to others and here’s a verse specifically about caregiving! If you’re a mess what kind of help are you really giving the person you’re caring for? Take care of your own heart first. And that your well being, your practice, really matters.

For bodhisattvas who want to be rich in virtue
A person who hurts you is a precious treasure.
Cultivate patience for everyone,
Completely free of irritation or resentment — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Back to that set of 6 verses about learning and growing from those who harm us. Although now he’s flagging more directly how that might help us. Great patience here is not just enduring things though. It’s a kind of deep wisdom that makes space for the bad behavior of others with love and understanding. As he says free of irritation or resentment. And this isn’t easy. Eventually with my school colleague Pat I could send her loving kindness and yesterday I was actually a bit surprised when I was able to wish her well out loud with you in a simple and felt way – that wasn’t something I’d planned to say.

Listeners and solitary buddhas, working only for their own welfare,
Are seen to practice as if their heads were on fire.
To help all beings, pour your energy into practice:
It’s the source of all abilities — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.
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.

Practice deeply. The four formless states at the end are deep meditation experiences. In traditional Buddhism there is a complex description of different levels of stillness and peace in meditation.

Without wisdom, the five perfections
Are not enough to attain full awakening.
Cultivate wisdom, endowed with skill
And free from the three domains — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

This verse points to a whole big set of teachings which Tokmé Zongpo’s audience would be familiar with. There are 6 core practices of bodhisattvas. The so-called “perfections” which isn’t the best word in English for these practices but it’s what get used. The perfection of wisdom is actually the 6th and he’s say that it’s the key to all of them. Perfection here means a deep kind of thorough understanding. Here is the whole set. One time my colleague Robin and I did a 7-day retreat here teaching on this list.

They are about generosity, ethics, patience, energy, concentration, and wisdom.

Perfection of generosity – this has been all through the text. Generosity without attachment to outcome. Giving so freely. It doesn’t occur to us that the person will return the favor or even necessarily thank us. We give because it’s what makes deep sense.

Perfection of ethics – same idea we are upright, honest, transparent, and moral because we see that any other way of being brings suffering for ourselves and others and doesn’t make any sense.

Perfection of patience – we just talked about in the verse about caregiving. Patience that has wise understanding and broad perspective in it. A patience that’s unsurprised by setbacks, delays, and trouble.

Perception of energy – actually you’ve been practicing that this whole retreat by continuing to show up again and again for practice whether you felt like it or not.

Perception of concentration – cultivating a grounded, stable mind that’s unruffled by inner and outer disturbances and distractions. We’re all working on this.

And to perfection of wisdom – seeing the deeper patterns and true nature of things. When our eyes are open to this kind of wisdom compassion is the only thing that really makes sense.

Okay let’s take a breath. We made it to #30 of 37. Well done everyone.

Just a few highlights as we so-called “finish” this text.

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.

Retreat is a both a great time to settle and renew AND a powerful practice of diving into our inner confusion isn’t it? All of that stuff that gets set aside and avoided when we’re busy busy. Tokmé Zongpo encourages us to dive into the mess. Makes me think of the great phrase in Mindful Self-Compassion that the encouragement here is to be the a compassionate mess. Obviously we can’t be melting down constantly to function in this world, but the opposite is true too: if you never melt down, never open to your own suffering, pain and confusion you can’t function in this world either. You can pass as a hyperfunctional utterly together person for quite a while – for years at a time – but eventually the stress of the unresolved issues and confusion will get to you. It’s kind of like the many examples of super stressed working people pushing, pushing, pushing until retirement and then tragically the immediately get seriously ill. Some pull through, some really don’t. There’s a cost to ignoring our issues. Sometimes it takes strong medicine, including difficult people like in my story, to help us see we’re doing this confusion avoidance.

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.

This is a really important point about being a bodhisattva: all of these teachings and ethical precepts and great ideas are for your OWN practice. To try to impose any of this on another person is a violation of the precepts and just causes trouble. In maybe one or two rare cases in live maybe you have a strong relationship with a child, a dear friend, a trusted partner, where you can find a way to kindly point something out but the whole “you should really be more mindful” or whatever is so unhelpful, usually it just makes things worse.

Do you know the great educator, Parker Palmer? He has a great phrase for this: “no fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.” Wise guidelines. We practice this way in our mindfulness classrooms too. The one to set straight is yourself. No one else. If you find yourself so very sure that you see what someone’s problem is and in your mind if you just shared your great insight they would emerge a changed and better person, practice restraint and remember that you don’t know really what makes them tick, what their history is, what they’re holding. Your prescription for them is almost certainly based on assumptions and projections from your own experience. The people around us are not actually just more copies of us in a different shape like our mind tends to assume.

The next two verses elaborate on this point:

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.
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.

And I really appreciate the respect Tokmé Zongpo gives to the power of our conditioning in verse 35:

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.

And, wow, maybe we made it, in the last two verses he is kind enough to leave us with a summary of how it works and how to orient ourselves as bodhisattvas:

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.
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.

And then the last few verses are part of the formula of this kind of text. Expressions of humilty. He acknowledges the source of these teachings, and why even though a humble monk it’s okay for him to put all of this down, but that he has plenty of shortcomings, and he ends where he began with the spirit of dedication and vision.

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.

And the wonderful continuity of this practice, even with the traumatic changes from another country invading their homeland, Tibetan monks and nuns continue to this day to go off on their own for months and years at a time and practice in caves.

Thank you all very much. Let’s continue our practice.