37 Practices of a Bodhisattva (Part Two of Three)
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

2. In my native land waves of attachment to friends and kin surge,
Hatred for enemies rages like fire,
The darkness of stupidity, not caring what to adopt or avoid, thickens –
To abandon my native land is the practice of a bodhisattva.

We continue with what was said previously about attachment, so another problem is that if we are in our ordinary environment, it’s very easy to still cultivate antipathies and conflicts, maybe from childhood. We like this person but we don’t like that one. It is easy to feel long term hostility towards our neighbours or even our siblings, which we have not examined. It is hard to see people that we know well, like our family, as they really are and not as our projection.

So it is helpful sometimes to just step back and look at people who are very familiar to us as though we had never seen them before. Just try to drop all our preconceptions, all our ideas, all our opinions and judgments. Just see them, without any kind of judgment at all. Just look at them as they are. Listen to them. Hear them as if for the first time. See them as if for the first time. Afresh. Because we get locked into our habitual reactions and judgments, with usually too much attachment or with antipathy. Even people who love each other are often locked into a quite hostile way of reaction, which they don’t examine. They’re sparring off each other the whole time and they’re not hearing each other. It is like one of those soap operas which are endlessly being rerun. So why not change the channel?

So this is what it means by leaving one’s homeland. It doesn’t just mean physically removing ourselves, but much more importantly, it means inwardly shifting to a different space. This is so important, and this is why this advice comes near the beginning of the practice. To really start seeing things from a different angle as if we were in a new place, meeting new people for the first time, and seeing them with affection and the wish for their happiness. So basically just seeing people with no pre-judgments.

Another helpful practice is to step back and just hear oneself speak. Not judging, just listening. The tone of voice. The kind of language we use. The way we speak and what we say. So often we’re not even conscious anymore. It’s so automatic. How we speak to one person compared with how we speak to another. Just listen. We don’t hear ourselves. Often if someone plays back a recording, the person speaking doesn’t recognise themselves. They don’t know their own voice. “Oh goodness, do I sound like that?!”

We can try to see things anew. So it’s important to look at our mind and to start clearing out a lot of the junk and debris, which we carry around with us, as if we were in an old attic. We sort through all the junk and think, “Why on earth did I keep all that?” So we can start throwing stuff out and cleaning up a bit. Especially concerning our habitual responses. Because the Lojong teaching is all about how to cultivate skillful responses in place of our habitual unskillful responses. We need to look and question and see without pretending. We need to cultivate inner change. Where we see something in our responses which is not helpful, which is negative, that is our path. That is our practice. To change and transform. Everything can be changed.

So, “the darkness of stupidity,” because the whole problem is that we just don’t see. Why do we get so obsessively attached to other people? Why do we get angry with people who don’t do what we want them to do? Why do we keep doing and saying the wrong things when we know that was stupid? Why do we not do the things which we know would be helpful? Ultimately because of this darkness of our own unknowing, but also one might say because of our habitual inertia. It’s so much easier to go along with the way we’ve always done things. It takes such a lot of consciousness and effort to change.

Even though we know that going along the way we have been going doesn’t lead to anything that we want and just creates more problems. Still there’s this heaviness when it comes to actually making the efforts to change. This is like a thick fog which comes into the mind and prevents us from seeing with clarity, what is to be done, what would be skillful and what is unskillful. Even if we’ve read about it a thousand times, we still find ourselves caught up in the same old habitual responses.

To change physical habits is a challenge, but to change mental and emotional habits is so much more of a challenge. However the good thing is that it’s possible. As we all know, nowadays neuroscientists are very busy mapping out the brain and the good news is that they say that we can indeed create new neural pathways. We can also slowly close down old neural pathways. So, it’s not that we’re set in stone. The brain is quite pliable. It can change. It’s like a river that flows in a certain direction but it can be diverted somewhere else.

Likewise we can make new channels. We can create new pathways. Imagine a forest with a familiar path that we always use. After a while this path becomes well worn, compacted and clear so we know just where we are going. But now we don’t want to travel on that road anymore. For instance somebody says something unkind and we get all upset, angry and hurt — which is just the ego being sad that people don’t love it.

So we don’t want to go on that unprofitable road. That doesn’t lead anywhere. We want to go on this new road of skilful responses, but there isn’t yet a road. We have never before tried this new road of thinking, “Well, thank you, I’m glad that you’re so horrible because now I can practice patience.” We don’t have a road in our brain for that one. So we have to start. We start to go along this new road but then the grass springs back and it doesn’t look like we ever went that way before. But if we keep going along this same path every day, eventually we create a road.

Then that other pathway which seemed so set in cement, gradually the grass and flowers start pushing up through it and after some time, we don’t see a pathway anymore. This new way has become the pathway. But this comes from repeated and repeated effort. It just doesn’t happen overnight. It just doesn’t. Anyone who promises that it’s all effortless is just deceiving you, because these habits are very deep inside our psyche, like thick, deep roots. It takes a lot of conscious awareness and effort and determination to transform. But the good news is we can all change. Of course we can. As the Buddha said, “Yes we can change. If we could not change, I would not tell you to do so, but because you can, I say for goodness sake get on with it …” or words to that effect.

So, nobody can do it for us. That is important to remember. Even if we met with the Buddha himself, he could not do it for us. It is up to us and each one of us is responsible. Teachers can help, they can guide, they can encourage but they cannot do it for us: if they could, they would. We must accept that we are responsible for our own heart-mind, even though other people are there to help us. They are there to help us either by being very kind and encouraging or by being absolutely awful and obnoxious! Either way, they are genuine spiritual friends, as the text will explain.

We recognise that these three poisons inside our heart – our attachment, our hatred and our basic unknowing or ignorance – are the cause of our sufferings in Samsara. That is what’s causing the problems. It’s not just out there. It’s inside us and so we can do something about it. This is the whole message. We don’t need to discard anything thinking that is an obstacle to my practice. In fact this is a help to my practice. Everything is a help to the practice if we have the right attitude. So it’s a matter of changing our responses. That’s all.

3. When unfavourable places are abandoned, disturbing emotions gradually fade;
When there are no distractions, positive activities naturally increase;
As awareness becomes clearer, confidence in the Dharma grows –
To rely on solitude is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Of course these texts were written for monks and hermits. But we can also understand this in a deeper way. It doesn’t just mean outer solitude. It also means an inner solitude. “Unfavourable places are abandoned, disturbing emotions gradually fade.” The point is that – what are unfavourable places?

Of course the foundation of Buddhism is renunciation. In Tibetan, the word for renunciation is Nge jung which signifies to really get out of something. If we are serious about becoming the masters of our minds, instead of the slaves of our emotions; if we are dedicated to leading a life which will be of benefit for ourselves and others, then we have to be selective. We cannot do everything in this lifetime. We cannot spend all our nights in discos and then get up at five in the morning to do our practice. Well we could, but it wouldn’t work very well. We have to decide in our lives what is really of importance to us and what is not. Then simplify. So this is renunciation.

Renunciation is looking at our life and our activities and recognising what is counterproductive to our spiritual path, what is a distraction, what encourages the growth of the negative emotions and does not encourage the growth of positive emotions. Then we can decide, “I am not interested in going along with that anymore.” In English the word ‘renunciation’ has a sense of gritting our teeth and giving up something that we really want but know we shouldn’t have. When I was eighteen and became a Buddhist, I gave up Elvis Presley. I gave away all my records and magazines and it was a renunciation. But really renunciation doesn’t mean that.

When we are a small child and we have favorite toys like a teddy bear, we take that teddy bear around with us everywhere and we really love teddy. So if someone tries to take teddy away from us — even though he’s dirty and scruffy and he’s lost an eye — we love him. It hurts. Something in our heart is torn out. We are not ready to give up teddy. But as we get older our interest in our children’s toys fades away. We’re just not interested anymore. We’ve replaced them with computer games, or whatever. But we’ve shifted our object of desire. We’ve got different interests. So now if we lose our teddy bear, so what? We’ve outgrown him.

So as the wonder of the Dharma takes over our life more and more, we lose interest in other things which previously had seemed so important to us. It’s like in the spring and the summer when the trees are in full bloom, if we try to pull the leaves of a tree, there’s a resistance because the leaves are firmly attached. But in the autumn, they naturally just fall. They naturally fall because they are getting ready for new growth.

So therefore, as our interest and involvement in the Dharma deepens, then our involvement and interest in so many other worldly distractions just naturally fade away.

We are striving to grow up and become adults, in the true sense of the word. The Buddha called ordinary people caught up in worldly distractions ‘the childish’. We are trying to mature. Often the path is called Mindrol. The word minpa means to ripen, to mature and drol means to be liberated, to be free. So we have to ripen or mature our mindstream in order to be liberated.

So therefore, when it says, “unfavourable places are abandoned, disturbing emotions gradually fade,” it doesn’t just mean moving to a different country, but it could also mean outer circumstances, like where people are endlessly watching television, or drinking and partying, or just talking a lot of useless gossip and worldly talk. Those situations create a lot of disturbance in the mind. Therefore it is beneficial to avoid those kinds of places and instead frequent places where people are interested in more spiritual topics — such as going to Dharma centers or anywhere that has a good atmosphere. We should associate with people who are kind and have good values and then talk about subjects which have some genuine meaning. These are good places so one’s negative emotions begin to subside.

As much as possible, we should look for an environment where the afflictive emotions such as our anger, aggression, jealously and attachment begin to grow less. At the same time, our good qualities are given a chance to increase because everybody else is trying to be kind and friendly and so naturally one wants to be kind and friendly too. It becomes natural when we are in an environment where these qualities are admired and appreciated.

It’s also important that we should be selective with the company that we keep. Later on in the text it talks about avoiding bad company. What it means is that as ordinary sentient beings we are very influenced by the society around us, usually much more than we would like to admit. Unless we’re very careful, we often take on the values of the people with whom we habitually associate. So therefore if we’re with people who are only thinking about worldly distractions and worldly aims, then gradually, bit by bit, our interest in the Dharma could begin to subside and our fascination with outer things begin to increase. Even though we don’t intend it, it just naturally happens like that.

So we have to be very selective. This doesn’t mean that we’re rude to people who don’t want to meditate for six hours a day. But it does mean we should closely associate with people who basically have the same kind of values and appreciation for the Dharma life. Even if they’re not Buddhists, they should at least be genuinely good people. As they say, if we put even an ordinary piece of wood in a sandalwood box then it will take on the smell of sandalwood. But if we bury it in a dung heap, then we know what it will smell like. So we should be very careful.

As we begin to practice and our minds begin to calm down and our innate virtue begins to appear, so our appreciation of the Dharma deepens. Nobody adores the Dharma in the way that the great realised masters do. Just one word of Dharma and their eyes fill with tears, even though they’ve heard the same thing a million times. Because they know how precious the Dharma is: they have not just studied, they have not just thought about it, but they have become it. Their appreciation and devotion is genuine so they are deeply grateful.

Gradually our minds begin to see more clearly, with less delusion, less judgment and more clarity, and all our upsets, anger and ego defenses begin to quieten down. Then our incredible gratitude to the Buddhas — and all the masters who came later and have preserved this precious lineage — just spontaneously arises in the heart. Our faith is uncontrived. Imagine a world without the Dharma. Imagine our lives without the Dharma. Then we feel deeply grateful. Deeply grateful.

The text is going through the Four Thoughts which turn the mind away from ordinary worldly activity. The first is the precious human body, how lucky we are to be here with all the endowments which we carry with us. Now we consider impermanence.

4. Close friends who have long been together will separate,
Wealth and possessions gained with much effort will be left behind,
Consciousness, a guest, will leave the hotel of the body –
To give up the concerns of this life is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Of course this goes completely against the mentality of our modern consumer society, which is so completely centered on this life and how happiness depends on close relationships, success, money, possessions — the more you have the more you are. The text points out that our consciousness is just a guest in a hotel. This body is only here for a short time. However long life lasts, in cosmic time it’s less than a finger snap. Then the guest has to leave and find another hotel. All the stuff that we’ve accumulated has to be left behind for somebody else, even if our whole life was spent in gathering and accumulating. At the end, no matter who we are, we don’t take one single coin with us, nothing. However many loved ones and friends, disciples or groupies you have around you, not one of them can go with you. You’re all alone. Naked. The only thing we carry with us is our karmic imprints. And what have we done about that?

Recently I read an article which was written by a woman who had spent many years taking care of hospice patients and people who had drawn-out terminal illnesses. She made a number of observations which were fairly common with all of them. One is the tremendous transformation as they accepted that they were going to die, which most people don’t ever want to think about. That they acknowledged that death was there. Of course we’re all going to die. We don’t have to be a cancer patient to know that. But normally people don’t want to think about it. Now these patients had to think about it.

This transformed their lives because they began to recognise what is important and what is not important. One of the major regrets was that they had spent so much of their life working so hard to accumulate all their possessions — big houses, more cars, an important position in their company and so forth — instead of giving more time and energy to what was really important, like spending more time with their children and with their partners and concentrating more on spiritual issues. Also doing things which have real importance in this world. They had been lulled into believing that what really mattered was getting on in life. That was the primary regret of everybody. Which is interesting.

Many of them also felt happy that they had some time to say sorry to people that they had hurt and to tell their loved ones that they really loved them. They just re-evaluated their whole life and it was more what they had done for the world than what the world had ever done for them that was important.

One of the good things in Buddhism is that it talks a lot about death. This is important because by talking about death, it reminds us that we’re alive and to assess what we are doing with our life because we’re not going to have it forever. We can appreciate something if we know we’re going to lose it. If we think we’ve got it forever, then we don’t value it anymore.

When I was a little girl, I used to think that we were all on a train journey but the train was going to crash, only we didn’t know when. So why were we wasting our time just gazing out the window and going to sleep? Why weren’t we doing something more important with the short time we had before the train crashed? I can’t remember if I did anything about that, but that’s how I used to think.

It’s very important to recognise that even the closest people who have been together with us since the beginning, are one day going to separate and we don’t know when. Just because we love somebody doesn’t mean that we can stay with them forever. It is not possible. People for whom in our last lifetime we would have given our life because we loved them so much, now where are they? And next lifetime it’s going to be a whole new cast.

We spend so much time trying to cultivate relationships which are very precious while we have them, but we should make them as harmonious as possible because they will not last forever. Also worldly possessions will definitely be left behind. We have to recognise that whatever we have gathered we leave behind. Only the karmic seeds, our samskaras, our habitual mental patterning, that we take with us. But we are usually very careless about the karmic imprints in our substratum consciousness. And yet, that’s our wealth. That’s what we can take with us.

Right now our whole future, not just this lifetime but future lifetimes, is being decided. It’s in what we do with our mind, with our speech, with our body. Moment to moment to moment we are creating our future. Nobody else can do it for us. So therefore:

5. In bad company, the three poisons grow stronger,
Listening, reflection, and meditation decline,
And loving-kindness and compassion vanish –
To avoid unsuitable friends is the practice of a bodhisattva.

So again we come back to the fact that we are so easily influenced and if we hang out with the wrong set of people, we start to take on their attitudes and we want to be part of the group. We begin to imitate them and get into bad habits. We know very well that among young people one of the reasons that so many get into drinking binges, drugs and promiscuous sex and so forth is not necessarily because they are really that interested. It’s because they want to be part of the gang. They want to belong. So therefore they get in with the wrong crowd and down they go. It’s very hard then to pull out. Sometimes they end up addicted or in serious trouble. So we have to be very careful. The Buddha himself said that good companionship was essential on the path.

As much as possible we try to be with people who inspire us, whose example we want to follow since this will increase our virtues and help decrease our negative emotions. Otherwise it’s difficult. Obviously if our family are not particularly spiritually minded it doesn’t mean we have to ignore our whole family, but it does mean that we don’t have to take up their values. For example, if our family are all heavy meat eaters and we want to be vegetarian, we become vegetarian. We don’t have to eat meat just because they’re eating meat.

When I was in Italy at one time I was in a large hospital and I said I was a vegetarian and they had never heard of such a thing! So then the head chef came up to see me. What to cook? So he said, “Well why are you a vegetarian?” Since my Italian is not good, I said the simplest thing I could say. I quoted Bernard Shaw, who was a vegetarian: “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.” So the chef said, “Ah! Si, certo, certo,” and he cooked me delicious vegetarian food. The rest of the ward was so jealous…..

The point is that we don’t have to adopt the values of others if we think their values are wrong. In fact, often if we just carry on acting from our point of view and can explain in simple language why we’re doing so, people get interested. They might even follow. For example, being a vegetarian, then people start to think about it and recognise that actually they are eating animals who want to live as much as anybody else wants to live. Slowly maybe others in the family will become vegetarian or at least cut down on their meat eating. It doesn’t hurt them.

If we cannot be an example, then what? Even though we are not Buddhas radiating light, still if one tries to be a person of integrity, honesty, kindness — people are attracted. We don’t even have to say a word. People are drawn. So this question of how easily we are influenced by the company we keep, is very important. As much as possible we try to associate with friends whose values and way of life we truly appreciate and that we honour. They don’t have to be Buddhists or even on any particular spiritual path, but they are good people. Then we begin to emulate that.

We should be careful because nowadays people could be nice and friendly but their values might be all wrong — we’re very easily influenced. People who are only thinking about money, about physical comfort, about food or intimate relationships — they might be very charming but we have to be careful. We’re like tiny saplings that still need protection. Otherwise strong winds or anything can come along and destroy it. We’re not great big Bodhi trees. Only very little saplings, just starting to push up a few very tentative sprouts. This has to be nurtured, protected, fertilised. If we start spraying it with noxious chemicals, then it’s finished. These negative ideas and thoughts are like poison..

Sometimes it might look like the fruit is big and beautiful, but actually it has no taste and it’s lifeless inside. At the Nunnery we were testing our food with a pendulum. Of course coffee and sugar and so on were negative but we also tested the apples and oranges and carrots: big beautiful looking carrots…. no movement or even slightly negative. Then when we tried some organic products — the pendulum swung around enthusiastically in a big Yes.

So even some things which look outwardly fine, actually they have no essence. They have no value. Outer beauty but inwardly nothing. Like roses nowadays. They look beautiful but have no smell. Those carrots look beautiful but they have no taste and no nutrition. Likewise we should be discriminating with the company we habitually keep because we can be in a group where people look very good and prosperous, everything going okay on the outside, but then actually inside there is nothing. Of course we should be friendly to everybody, not heavily judgmental, but at the same time discerning. So as we are easily influenced, then we should strive to be influenced by what is good and worthwhile.

Tenzin Palmo 41.

The framework of Buddha’s teachings is the truth. The essence of Buddha’s teachings is the truth. The purpose of practicing Buddha’s teachings is to understand the truth. Therefore, the TRUTH is what Buddhism is all about.

— Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche











Mind is not mind, since mind’s nature is luminosity.

— Bhāvaviveka

37 Practices of a Bodhisattva (Part One of Three)
by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

In the next few editions of Gatsal we will go through a very important text on Lojong or mind training called the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. This was written in the 14th century by a monk named Thogmé Sangpo who was born in 1296 near to Sakya in western Tibet. From a very early age he exhibited great qualities of compassion and caring for others. There is a story from when he was just a toddler: children wore a fleece-lined chuba – kind of long jacket tied at the waist – and one time he went outside in winter and when he came back inside he was naked. His parents said to him, “What have you done with your chuba?” and he said, “Oh there is a being out there who was very cold”. So they went and looked outside and there was a bush which was covered in frost and so Thogmé had put his chuba over it to keep the bush warm.

His biography is full of these charming stories of how even as he grew older he went to immense trouble for the sake of others – especially those who were in difficult circumstances such as beggars, poor people and so forth. Thogmé became very learned and the Abbot of several monasteries. He was extremely well known and beloved in his day. He died in his sixties which was a good age by Tibetan standards since at that time people didn’t live long. He wrote many books but the one which has become a classic in Tibetan literature is known as Gyalse Lalen. Gyalse means literally sons of the victorious one, meaning Bodhisattvas and Lalen means a way of practising. So it is usually translated as The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva.

Our nuns at the DGL Nunnery also study this text because it is accessible to anyone – monks, nuns, lay people whether Buddhist or non-Buddhist – because it deals, as all Lojong texts do, with how to make use of the difficult circumstances in our life, especially our own mental defilements which give us so much trouble, as well as the problems caused by others. Lojong texts show us how to make use of those difficulties by transforming them and taking them on the path. So it is a very practical text.

At first it might not sound very realistic for us ordinary people but actually the advice is highly practical since taking adverse circumstances and using them as our practice is very important for everybody.

I received a commentary on this text from the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, and also a short explanation by the Dalai Lama himself and also from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. But most of the verses are pretty obvious.

So as in most traditional texts the text starts with the invocation explaining for whom this text was composed. So he starts by saying Namo Lokeshvaraya. Lokesvara means Lord of the Worlds which is another name for Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig or Kuan Yin.

Chenrezig is the bodhisattva of compassion so an appropriate object of obeisance for a text dealing with the Bodhisattva’s way of compassion. Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and he is invoked in those texts dealing with philosophy, logic and so forth, but those texts which are dealing with the heart and how to incorporate compassion into our daily lives invoke Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig.

So, the text reads:

Though he sees that in phenomena there is no coming and going,
He strives solely for the sake of beings:

Phenomena here is the word dharmas, meaning ordinary things, just outer things. As we all know in Buddhism there is a great emphasis on impermanence and the momentary nature of all outer and inner phenomena, that everything arises and disappears momentarily like a flowing river. It looks like the same river but moment to moment the water is changing, moving, moving, moving. So everything is like that, everything comes into being and disappears again, instantaneously, although in our perception it looks like a continuity.

So since impermanence is a very fundamental axiom of Buddhist thought we might ask why it says he sees that in phenomena there is no coming and going? Here it is dealing with ultimate reality. In our ordinary, relative way of seeing, things come and they go, things are up, they are down, things last forever or they disappear. But in ultimate reality all these dualities no longer pertain. So there is no coming and going, there is no higher and lower, there is no annihilation or endless existence. All these opposites, all these dualities are transcended in a state of how things truly are. So although Avalokitesvara is the Bodhisattva who represents compassion, his compassion is naturally from the point of view of his perfect wisdom.

The images of the 1000 armed Avalokitesvara which represent his endless compassionate activities on behalf of all beings, in each hand there is an eye which symbolises that he sees the situation accurately, both from an ordinary and from a transcendental level. So he knows how to act, or how not to act, because sometimes it is better to leave matters alone, even though we would like them changed. So he sees things with the total clarity of an enlightened mind therefore he sees that on an ultimate level there is no coming and going, that all dharmas are in a state of suchness which is beyond the temporal idea of the constant flow of phenomena.

The first line praises Avalokiteshvara’s wisdom, the second line relates to his compassion. So because he sees the transcendent, the ultimate, then on a relative level with compassion he constantly strives for the sake of others. It’s very important that wisdom and compassion come together, otherwise we can be very compassionate but if we don’t see things clearly, we often can mess things up. We have a good motivation but we don’t understand the situation because we see things very narrowly. But Chenrezig sees things vastly and just how they truly are. So from that infinite perspective he is able to spontaneously act in a way which is of ultimate and relative benefit for beings. He combines ultimate and relative truth.

Therefore, this is Chenrezig who is also the sublime teacher, meaning our root guru. Or you could think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama or the Gyalwang Karmapa who are also Chenrezig.

To the sublime teacher inseparable from Avalokiteshvara,
the Protector of Beings,
I pay constant homage with respectful body, speech, and mind.

In Buddhism we have the three doors meaning the body, the speech and the mind. So, we pay homage, why? To our teacher, who is inseparable from Chenrezig. The buddhas and bodhisattvas such as Chenrezig and Tara are not separate from us, they are our true nature. This is who we really are, if only we could see clearly. We think we are ordinary sentient beings but we are not. This is our tragedy.

But the teacher, a genuine realised being, Lama, understands that. It’s not that they are inherently different from us and so in Buddhist meditations we absorb either the deity or the Lama or both together into ourselves, thinking that our minds and their minds are mixed together like water with water so that we recognise that there is no distinction. The distinction comes from our side. We think we are ordinary and they are special but that’s part of our delusion and so we have to work away, cleaning and polishing. It’s like a beautiful silver pot which is so thickly tarnished that it looks black. So we have to keep polishing until we get back to the silver which has never, in it’s essential nature been tarnished. However much outer guck there might be around it, if we diligently clean then there it is, shining. This silver pot has been there all the time, it hasn’t gone away and come back when we clean it, it is always there but we don’t recognise it. All we see is the black covering. Whereas the great Mahabodhisattvas and the Lamas, the true genuinely realised Lamas, they are very much in contact with their silver base and they do not have tarnish in the way that we do. But the essential nature is the same, their silver is not better than our silver. This is very important to remember.

The perfect buddhas – source of happiness and ultimate peace –
Exist through having accomplished the sacred Dharma,
And that, in turn, depends on knowing how to practice it;

The buddhas like Shakyamuni Buddhas, on a relative level, had to strive for countless aeons in order to clear away the tarnish and come back to their true metal and how did they do that? All the buddhas of the universe, how did they become Buddhas? They became buddhas by actually practicing the Dharma. It is very important that we practice all this, that is why this text is so important.

We have to practice it, we can take it with us and use it, it’s not high philosophy that we need to go away and think about, that is all up there somewhere in the sky. This text is absolutely down to earth, which we can all use, all day with whomever we meet, in fact we need to meet people because then we can practice.

1. Now that I have this great ship, a precious human life, so hard to obtain,
I must carry myself and others across the ocean of samsara.
To that end, to listen, reflect, and meditate
Day and night, without distraction, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Samsara is sometimes described as a wheel but it is also very often likened to an ocean because just as an ocean has big waves so in samsara we are tossed up and down endlessly. Sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down and then we’re up again and we’re down again. It’s just endless and the problem is that we’re caught in the waves and we’re thrown up and we’re thrown down and so we get very battered by life. Let us remember that all these waves going up and down are on the surface. If we go down into the depths of the ocean we come upon whole realms of calm and quiet, all the way down to the ocean bottom, with all sorts of fascinating fish and marine animals and monsters of the deep as we meditate. But mostly we are living our lives on the surface, tossed up and down by our thoughts and emotions, so in that circumstance, what do we need?

So we need a boat because even though the boat also goes up and down, we are not completely drenched and gradually the boat moves to the other shore. The Buddha himself many times talks about this shore and the other shore, the other shore being liberation. So to get to the other shore we need a boat, we can’t just swim because it’s too far and we get tossed up and down too much all by ourselves.

So therefore we need a boat to carry myself and others across the ocean of samsara. Now we have this great boat, which is the Dharma, but it is also this precious human life so hard to obtain. Every single one of us has a precious human birth. Now we might think, ‘well billions of people have a precious human birth, so what?’ But it’s not true. A precious human birth does not mean just being born as a human. There are many categories which make a precious human birth – like being born in a Buddhist country, having all our faculties, having faith in the Dharma and finding a teacher and so forth. We are not born in the higher realms where everything is too pleasant that there is no incentive to practice and we are not born in the lower realms where there is so much misery and suffering that we are completely caught up in our own paranoia. Nor among the animals who, lovable as so many of them are, do not have the ability to really practice the spiritual path in this lifetime.

What makes a human birth precious? Think how unique we all are. For a start we can read, that’s very rare in this world! But what is even more rare is that we can read and comprehend. Do you know how rare that is? Even among the Tibetan population, there are many monks who can read all the texts but they don’t know what they mean. However we can pick up a book on Dharma and providing it’s not too obtuse, we can get something out of it: the words have meaning. Certainly if we pick up an ordinary book on basic Dharma practices or biographies of Lamas or other great teachers, we can understand them easily, you can curl up with them.

Tibetans usually don’t, apart from an advanced Geshe, a Geshe Lharampa or a good Khenpo, he wouldn’t just sit down with a book, read it and enjoy it, only if he had already studied it. So we’re all educated, we can understand concepts which we have not met with before, the mind can grapple with, can think about it. Here it says:

To that end, to listen, reflect, and meditate
Day and night, without distraction, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Well, day and night without distraction might be a bit much, but first we have to study. So back to this precious human birth. What makes this human birth so precious? We are all born in countries where we are allowed to think what we want. How many countries in the world we would not be allowed to think what we want. Where we could not just go and change our religion if we felt like it or read books on every kind of religion or go to Dharma Centres if we want to. In many countries of this world, either there are no Dharma Centres and even the word Buddha is never heard or even if there are Dharma Centres you are not permitted to go there because you belong to another religion. That’s much more common than normally we are conscious of while living in India or America, Europe or Australia. But those are not the only countries in the world.

So we have our human birth and we are probably relatively healthy and anyway we can think, our minds are clear. We have the freedom to think what we want, to read what we want and above all, we have the interest in the Dharma. That is the most important of all. Do you realise how rare that is? I mean here we are in India, which is supposed to be a spiritual country. How many people are really interested in any Dharma? In the sense of really wanting to transform themselves, not just get the gods to make their children healthy and pass their exams and get more money and a better job, which is mostly what people pray to the gods for?

How many people go to the temple to pray for enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings? How many people even go to the temple to pray for the wellbeing and happiness of others outside of their family circle? So even to have some aspiration outside of our own self-interest is rare, very rare.

I was brought up as a Spiritualist and every week we had séances at our house. At that time I was around 7 or 8 years old. Even at that young age I noticed everyone was asking these spirit guides, “My Aunt Edith is having an operation next week, is she going to be alright?” or all the time wanting to get in contact with someone who had died and I thought “Here we’ve got these people on the Other Side, let’s ask them something of meaning. They might know or they might have a different angle on it.” So I asked them “Well is there a God?” I thought they might know. The spirit guides replied “Well of course we don’t really know, but what’s going round in the spirit realms is that God isn’t a person, but ultimately there is light and love and intelligence.” So I thought, “Yeah I’ll buy that.”

Ultimately there is light and love and intelligence in this universe. And we are it, we carry that within us, its not just something out there, it is within us. This is what we are trying to re-connect with, our original light and love and intelligence, which is who we really are. So it is important not to get so distracted by extraneous things, but to really remember what we are here on this planet for. Why having this precious human body is so precious because if we waste our life again. Otherwise we are living basically like a well-trained animal – what do animals want to do? For instance our dogs at the DGL Nunnery, they want to be fed, they want to be comfortable, when it’s cold they snuggle up in the sheltered places, when it’s warm they go lie in the sun, when it gets too hot they go and lie in the shade again, they want to be comfortable. They want to eat nice food, and if they’ve not been neutered, then they want to mate. If a strange dog comes by who looks threatening, they will fight them to preserve their territory, but if it’s a doggy friend, then they will play around together.

Well, if we lead our lives basically on that level, we might as well have come back as a pet dog. In fact, in New York there are more pet shops than there are beauty parlours! Pets have become like children really, all these pets with their little bows, their little tiaras and their little jackets. Anyway, the point is, if all we want is to be comfortable and petted, loved and admired, then we might as well come back as a poodle because we have wasted our human birth. It is very hard to get a well endowed human birth which has the freedoms and the endowments and if we waste this opportunity now, it will be difficult to regain that in the future.

All the causes and conditions have come together because of our past efforts in other lifetimes, so if we don’t make efforts in this lifetime it’s going to get lost again, because we are not making the right causes and conditions. So now is the time because in the future, we don’t know.

Now, the Dharma is here, the teachers are still here, the books are still here, we have the freedom to listen and practice, nobody is stopping us. So if we don’t make full use of this opportunity, then next time, who knows and even later in our life, who knows. The only time we can be certain of in our lives is right now, so this is very important.

What we have to do is listen, reflect and meditate. First, we have to accumulate the knowledge, we have to listen. Traditionally in the Buddha’s time, things were not written down, so therefore in the sutras they always talked about listening because they didn’t have books. So first of all is to listen, this includes reading, studying, downloading off the internet, all of that, any acquisition of knowledge is considered listening. So it means to study the dharma. We take it in, we read about it, we hear about it, then we have to think about it. It’s not enough that we just take it in. It’s like food, we take a bite but then we have to chew it in order to digest, we don’t just swallow it in great big lumps! So we have to think about what we have read, what we have heard and really try to understand. If we have doubts, that’s fine, no problem, we do not have to believe blindly, it says that we have to believe because we understand. So if you don’t believe something then put it aside for a while, or go and study more.

Almost every year when I was staying in Lahaul I would go and see my Lama, the former Khamtrul Rinpoche, and I always had a long list of questions from my retreat. I used to keep a piece of paper beside me and when a thought, a question would come up then I could write it down and forget about it, I didn’t have to keep it going in my mind. So when I went to see my Lama he would lean back and say, “Where’s your list?” and I would bring out the pages with all my questions. I think Rinpoche kind of enjoyed it because the questions went up and down and all over the place and occasionally he said “Oh nobody ever asked that before, I have to think, hmmm.”

But some things I just really didn’t believe and he would say “It doesn’t matter, just put that to the side for now” and sometimes he would laugh and say “Everything you read in the books isn’t true” and he even said, “Well we just write like that to frighten people into being good!” But the point is that one doesn’t have to just believe everything because otherwise we’re frightened that a thunderbolt from heaven is going to come down and hit us! It’s not that, it’s an intelligent believe, a belief based on our own reasoning.

Sometimes I call Buddhism enlightened common sense because once we hear it, we think, ‘yes, that makes sense’. But if we hear and think, “hmm that doesn’t sound right”, then put it aside or maybe study more about it. Maybe we didn’t understand it or maybe it was just a provisional truth which isn’t ultimate truth anyway. Perhaps it was just what people believed in society at that time. We don’t all have to believe that the world is flat with Mount Meru and the four continents but that is the kind of cosmology that was current in those days. Nowadays nobody gets burnt at the stake for believing that the world is round. The world is round, the world is flat, in any case it’s all empty!

So think things through, really try to understand, and if we don’t understand, then read more about it, think more about it, ask questions. Reflection is a very crucial part of the Dharma. Then, most important of all it says meditate. But actually the word Gompa literally means to become accustomed to or familiar with something. So what we have to do then is practice it, put our ideas into action. One of my Lamas said: first you hear and study, then you think about it, then you become it. And that’s the point. It goes from the head down into the heart and we transform. Then spontaneously what we say, what we think and what we do comes naturally from our understanding.

This is very important, because otherwise mere learning is not going to help us. One time I went to see Trijang Rinpoche, who was the Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his first question of course was ‘Who is your Lama?” and I said Khamtrul Rinpoche and he replied, “Ah, Kagyu! Well the thing with the Kagyupas is that they practice, that’s the emphasis with the Kagyus” and he turned to his secretary and he said “At the time of death what is going to help us – a head full of book knowledge or genuine understanding and realisation in the heart? You know, we don’t need to study so much, what we need is to study, understand what we have read and then really practice it and put it into our heart, that is what is going to help us.” Otherwise it is just endlessly learning, learning, learning while nothing inside is transforming. Someone says something nasty to us and we get all upset and defensive and think “How can they do this to me?” Then what is the use of all this learning? We haven’t learned anything.

So it’s very important, these three things. First we have to study to know what we are trying to do, then to really think it through so that we really understand it and then incorporate it in our lives and become it. So we’ve got work ahead.

Day and night, without distraction, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

That means whatever happens, even if we are watching a movie, try to see it from a Dharma point of view. It’s quite terrifying, how much people act out their emotional defilements and negativities and without anyone ever thinking there’s a problem here. It’s supposed to be a romantic drama so there is all the attachment, all the jealousy and all the anger. The point is, whatever situation we find ourselves in we should at the same time be observing it with clarity of mind and openness of heart and in this way, day and night we are constantly practicing the way of a bodhisattva. There are not times off if you are a bodhisattva . It’s 24 hours, seven days a week – what can I say?

We shouldn’t be too frightened by these verses.

2. In my native land waves of attachment to friends and kin surge,
Hatred for enemies rages like fire,
The darkness of stupidity, not caring what to adopt or avoid, thickens –
To abandon my native land is the practice of a bodhisattva.

This verse does not just refer to our outer native land. It doesn’t just mean that we all have to go across the world in order to practise, because we take our mind with us and it’s our mind which has all this attachment and hatred and the darkness of our unknowing.

On the one hand, people get locked into habitual relationships. How often people are reacting to each other due to old habits without even really thinking about it any more. So many negativities come up because it’s just the way they act and talk to each other nowadays since it’s much easier to do that with people with whom we are familiar. Maybe in childhood we had already started up the patterns and so these continue on and on.

In that way it’s good to be able to get away and maybe get some new perspective through being in a different environment where we can try to incorporate better ways of dealing with people. But the problem really is, our ‘native land’ means our ordinary habitual responses, this is what we have to leave behind. So the way to leave them behind is first to be conscious of them.

The waves of attachment that surge within and around us: we are lost floundering in this huge ocean of caring about people and worrying about them and fearing they are going to leave us and then happy again when they tell us that they love us…. Parents with their children, couples in relationships, all of this, there’s so much going on that it’s very rare to relax in a calm quiet lake. Mostly the waves of our hopes and fears send us surging up and down It is all our attachment. Attachment doesn’t mean love, there’s a huge difference between love and attachment. The Buddha said the cause of our suffering, of our Duhkha is attachment, clinging and grasping. But love and compassion which are essential qualities on the path are very different, actually the opposite of attachment and grasping. It’s one of the most difficult points for us as ordinary sentient beings to really be able to understand and make that distinction because in our society we believe that the more we are attached the more loving we are. But it is simply not true. Attachment is a tricky one but basically attachment means I want you to make me happy and to feel good and love says I want you to be happy and feel good. It doesn’t say anything about me. If being with me makes you feel happy and good, wonderful, if not then so be it. The important thing is that love allows us to hold things very gently instead of grasping tightly. It’s an important difference, really it’s a very important difference.

Therefore I tell again and again the story of my mother. My father died when I was two, so he was out of the picture and my mother brought up my brother and me by herself, Then my brother was in the Royal Air Force in Malaysia, so there was only me left at home and my mother and I got along very well. She also was interested in Buddhism and happy to entertain whatever Lamas or monks that were in London at that time. We would go to Dharma meetings together. Then when I was nineteen I got a letter from India telling me that there was work for me and to come. I remember running through the streets to meet my mother who was coming from work, and saying to her “Oh, I am going to India!” And she replied “Oh yes dear. And when are you leaving?” She didn’t gasp “You’re going to India! How can you leave me, your own poor mother! I’ll be all by myself with no-one to take care of me and look after me as I’m getting old!” Nothing of that – she never said that ever. That’s not because she didn’t love me but because she did love me and she wanted what was right for me, even if it did not include her. And afterwards when I was in India, every ten years she would write, “If I send you a return ticket, will you come back for a month?” and so every ten years, I went back for a month, saw my mother and came back again. She also came to India for one year, she loved India – it was very different from now. She loved it, she loved the Indians, loved the Tibetans, but she got sick from the food so she had to go home to England. But that was love.

There’s an Australian cartoonist called Leunig and he did a series on how to respect and show love for others and one of his examples was holding a day old chick in your hands that you hold very carefully, very gently because if you grasp it – no more chick! So it’s like that.

Love is this outpouring of caring and wishing well, wishing the other to be happy, but not with yourself stuck right in the middle of it. Not grasping: I want you to be happy but that’s only if it includes me.

So therefore because we get so caught up especially with our families and it is very hard to be unattached to family, then it is given as the example for leaving the homeland. However it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to leave home. What it does mean is that we have to start thinking in a different way about our loved ones. In a way that genuinely cherishes them and wishes them well but allows them to be who they are without trying to manipulate them or make them say and do what we want them to do because that would make me happy. Just allowing them to be who they are, giving them the freedom to have their life, whether or not that includes us.

So we start with those we are close to, this is who we practice on. We practice on those that we love and those that we are close to, how to love them without grasping, how to genuinely love them, as they are, whatever they are. I remember when I was 15 or 16 my mother one day out of the blue, she just said to me ‘I want you to know that there is nothing you could ever do that would cause me not to love you.’ That’s love. I wasn’t doing anything but I appreciated the thought and I knew it was true. Whatever we do, our mother is there for us but without trying to manipulate, just allowing us to be who we are and loving that.

Tenzin Palmo 38.

True love is the sincere wish for others to have happiness and the conditions necessary for complete and enduring happiness.

— Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche

人生不会太圆满 摆正心态对苦甜









Ananda, the nature of the Absolute is that it is total enlightenment. It is beyond name and form and beyond the world and all its living beings. Ignorance creates an illusion of birth and death, but when ignorance is dispelled, the supreme and shining Absolute is there. Then, suffering is changed into insight, and death is transmuted into nirvana.

— The Buddha, Surangama Sutra

Entering the Jhanas
by Leigh Brasington

Perhaps no aspect of the Buddha’s teaching has been both more misunderstood and neglected than right concentration. Yet right concentration is obviously an integral part of the Buddha’s path to awakening: the final item of the noble eightfold path, it is exemplified by, and sometimes even defined as, the jhanas. Before his awakening, the Buddha remembered an incident from his childhood when he had experienced the first jhana; upon further reflection, he concluded, “That is indeed the path to awakening.”

The word “jhana” literally means “meditation”; it comes from the verb jhayati, which means “to meditate.” Many times, the Buddha would give a dhamma talk and close it by saying, “There are these roots of trees, these empty huts — go meditate (jhayati).” From this usage of jhayati, it seems certain that what the Buddha meant by meditation was jhana practice.

The Buddha’s teachings can be divided into three parts: sila, samadhi, and panna (ethical conduct, concentration, and wisdom). Or to put it into the vernacular: clean up your act, concentrate your mind, and use your concentrated mind to investigate reality. Each practice the Buddha taught fits neatly into one of the three categories. The precepts and the brahmavihara practices of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity are ethical practices. The brahmavihara practices, especially loving-kindness (metta) practice, can also generate concentration, as do mantra and visualisation practices. But most everything else you think of when you hear the word meditation is a wisdom practice, intended to help you “see the way things are” (or, perhaps more accurately, “what’s actually happening”). The Buddha makes it clear that this examination of reality should be done with a concentrated mind. And the jhanas are the method he taught, over and over again.

The jhanas are eight altered states of consciousness, brought on via concentration, each yielding more concentration than the previous. As you pass through the jhanas, you stair-step your way to deeper and deeper levels of concentration — that is, you become less and less likely to become distracted. Upon emerging from the jhanas — preferably the fourth or higher — you begin doing an insight practice with your jhanically concentrated, indistractable mind. This is the heart of the method the Buddha discovered. These states are not an end in and of themselves, unlike what the Buddha’s two teachers had taught him shortly after he’d left home to begin his spiritual quest. They are simply a way of preparing your mind so you can more effectively examine reality and discover the deeper truths that lead to liberation.

The path to entering the jhanas begins with what is called access concentration: being fully with the object of meditation and not becoming distracted even if there are wispy background thoughts. If your practice is anapanasati — mindfulness of breathing — you may recognise access concentration when the breath becomes very subtle; instead of a normal breath, you notice your breath has become very shallow. It may even seem that you’ve stopped breathing altogether. These are signs that you’ve likely arrived at access concentration. If the breath gets very shallow, and particularly if it feels like you’ve stopped breathing, the natural thing to do is to take a nice deep breath and get it going again. Wrong! This will tend to weaken your concentration. By taking that nice deep breath, you decrease the strength of your concentration. Just stay with that shallow breathing. It’s okay. You don’t need a lot of oxygen when you are very quiet both physically and mentally.

If the breath gets very, very subtle, instead of taking a deep breath, shift your attention away from the breath to a pleasant sensation. This is key. You notice the breath until you arrive at and sustain access concentration, then you let go of the breath and shift your attention to a pleasant sensation, preferably a physical one. There is not much point in trying to notice the breath that has gotten extremely subtle or has disappeared completely — there’s nothing left to notice.

The first question that may arise when I say, “Shift your attention to a pleasant sensation” may be “What pleasant sensation?” Well, it turns out that when you get to access concentration, the odds are quite strong that, someplace in your physical being, there will be a pleasant sensation. Look at most any statue of the Buddha — he has a faint smile on his face. That is not just for artistic purposes; it is there for teaching purposes. Smile when you meditate, because once you reach access concentration, you only have to shift your attention one inch to find a pleasant sensation.

Pleasant sensations can occur pretty much anywhere. The most common place that people find pleasant sensations when they’ve established access concentration is in the hands. When you meditate, you want to put your hands in a comfortable position in which you can just leave them. The traditional posture is one hand holding the other, with the thumbs lightly touching. But you can also put your hands in all sorts of other positions — just place them however it appeals to you. After you’ve been in access concentration “long enough,” if you notice that there’s a pleasant feeling in the hands, drop the attention on the breath and focus entirely on the pleasantness of that sensation.

Another common place where people find a pleasant sensation is in the heart center, particularly if they’re using metta, or loving-kindness, meditation as the access method. Just shift your attention to the pleasantness of that sensation. Other places people find pleasant sensations could include the third eye, the top of the head, or the shoulders. It does not matter where the pleasant sensation manifests; what matters is that there is a pleasant sensation and you’re able to put your attention on it and — now here comes the really hard part — do nothing else.

It’s important to let go of the breath when you make the shift to the pleasant sensation. The breath (or other meditation object) is the key to get you in — ”in” being synonymous with establishing strong enough access concentration. When you come home from work, you pull out your key, you open the door to your home, and you go in. You don’t then wander around with the key still in your hand — you put it back in your pocket or purse or on some table. You’re not cooking dinner or watching TV with the key still in your hand. The key has done its job, and you let it go. It’s exactly the same with the breath or other meditation object. Totally let go of it, and focus entirely on the pleasant sensation. Of course, this is easier said than done — you’ve struggled for a long time to stay locked onto the breath, and now that you’ve finally managed to do so, the first thing you are told is to stop doing that. But that’s the way it is. If you want to experience jhanas, it’s going to be necessary to give yourself to fully enjoying the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation.

Once you’ve found the pleasant sensation, you fully shift your attention to it. If you can do that, the sensation will begin to grow in intensity; it will become stronger. This will not happen in a linear way. At first, nothing happens. Then it’ll grow a little bit and then hang out and grow a little bit more. And then eventually, it will suddenly take off and take you into what is obviously an altered state of consciousness.

In this altered state of consciousness, you will be overcome with rapture, euphoria, ecstasy, delight. These are all English words that are used to translate the Pali word piti. Perhaps the best English word for piti is “glee.” Piti is a primarily physical sensation that sweeps you powerfully into an altered state. But piti is not solely physical; as the suttas say, “On account of the presence of piti, there is mental exhilaration.” In addition to the physical energy and mental exhilaration, the piti will be accompanied by an emotional sensation of joy and happiness. The Pali word for this joy/happiness is sukha, the opposite of dukkha (pain, suffering). And if you can remain undistractedly focused on this experience of piti and sukha, that is the first jhana.

So to summarise the method for entering the first jhana: You sit in a comfortable upright position and generate access concentration by placing, and eventually maintaining, your attention on a single meditation object. When access concentration is firmly established, then you shift your attention from the breath (or whatever your meditation object is) to a pleasant sensation, preferably a physical sensation. You put your attention on that sensation, maintain your attention on it, and do nothing else.

The hard part is the “do nothing else” part. You put your attention on the pleasant sensation and nothing happens, so you might think to yourself, “He said something was supposed to happen.” No, I did not say to make comments about experiencing the pleasant sensation. Or you might put your attention on the pleasant sensation and it starts to increase, so you think, “Oh! Oh! Something’s happening!” No, don’t do that — that will only make it go away. Or it comes up just a little bit, and then it stops, and you sort of try and help it. Nope, none of this works. Just simply observe the pleasant sensation.

You must become totally immersed in the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation. By this I mean the quality of the sensation that enables you to determine that it is pleasant, rather than unpleasant or neither. It’s not about the location of the pleasant sensation nor its intensity or duration. It’s not about whether the pleasant sensation is increasing or decreasing or staying the same. Just focus entirely on the pleasant aspect of the pleasant sensation, and the jhana will arise on its own. Now, admittedly, the sensation will be located in a particular area, and your attention will be aimed at that area. That’s fine. Just don’t get caught up in the location; stay with just enjoying the pleasantness of the pleasant sensation.

All you can do is set up the conditions for the jhana to arise by cultivating a calm and quiet mind focused on pleasantness. And then just let go — be that calm, quiet mind focused on pleasantness and enjoy it — and the jhana will appear. Any attempt to do anything more does not work. You actually have to become a human being, as opposed to a human doing. You have to become a being that is simply focused on a pleasant sensation, and then the jhana comes all on its own.

Imagine that your mind is like a still pool — still because of the access concentration. Now drop in a pebble of pleasure. The ripples go out to the sides of your skull, bounce off, and come back together. When they come together they reinforce each other, generating taller waves. But because this is not a real, physical system, if you don’t disturb the system, the ripples stay taller and don’t die out; they keep bouncing off the sides and reinforcing each other more and more. This is what we are after. But it requires that you not stir the water in the pool; doing so would spoil the bouncing and reinforcing effect, and the system would not keep generating higher waves.

The suttas describe the first jhana as being “accompanied by thinking and examining” and “filled with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion.” These four qualities are often identified as factors of the first jhana: thinking and examining, rapture and happiness. The thinking and examining are translations of the Pali words vitakka and vicara. The commentaries interpret these words to mean initial and sustained attention on the meditation object. Now, it’s true that in order to do any sort of concentrated meditation, you need initial and sustained attention on the meditation object. However, this doesn’t appear to be what the Buddha is talking about: in the suttas, vitakka and vicara always and only refer to thinking. When you generate access concentration and sustain it, there may still be a bit of thinking in the background, which can basically be ignored. This background thinking persists in the first jhana and is what is being referred to by the words vitakka and vicara.

As stated earlier, when you move from access concentration to the first jhana, you’re shifting your attention to a pleasant sensation and staying with that as your object of attention, ignoring any background thinking. If you can stay with your undistracted attention on the pleasant sensation, then piti will arise. The piti, being the physical release of pleasant, exhilarating energy, could be anywhere from mild to quite intense. It can be finger-in-the-electrical-socket intense; it can be so intense that it’s not even pleasurable. And hopefully the piti is accompanied by sukha, which is an emotional state of joy and happiness. Both piti and sukha are required in order for the experience to be classified as the first jhana. And most likely, the experience brings a big grin to your face. The first jhana is enough of an altered state that if you think some experience might be the first jhana, it probably isn’t; there’s an unmistakable quality to the arising of piti and sukha that lets you know for certain that something quite different is happening.

At first, it’s really not easy to tell the piti and sukha apart. This experience, this energy, this state comes over you and grabs your full attention. It is not readily apparent that there is an emotional component apart from the physical component, nor is it necessary to do so yet. The experience may be much more one of pervasive piti-sukha than one composed of intermingled distinct piti and distinct sukha. As mentioned above, you may also find that there is a bit of thinking going on in the background. That’s okay — it’s the vitakka and vicara, the thinking and examining, which are still lurking in the background of the first jhana. Don’t get distracted by the background thinking; stay focused on the experience of piti-sukha. Maintaining this piti-sukha experience and the focus on it constitutes the first jhana.

For each of the first four jhanas, we have a simile. For this first one we find:

Suppose a skilled bath attendant or his apprentice were to pour soap flakes into a metal basin, sprinkle them with water and knead them into a ball, so that the ball of soap flakes would be pervaded by moisture, encompassed by moisture, suffused by moisture inside and out and yet would not trickle. In the same way, one drenches, steeps, saturates, and suffuses one’s body with the rapture and happiness born of seclusion, so that there is no part of one’s body that is not suffused by rapture and happiness. (DN 2.78)

This picture matches quite well the frenetic energy of the first jhana. The first jhana is not a calm, peaceful state. Its energy is pretty intense, and this simile gives a fairly good idea of the lack of calm and of the frenetic energy that is present. There’s an effervescent quality to the first jhana that can also be gleaned from the simile. The particulars of the simile are that the soap flakes are like your body, and the water is like the piti and sukha, which go throughout the body so that they are fully everywhere; this occurs as you become more skilled. Your first goal should be to get the piti and sukha going, and then sustain them.

The length of time you’ll want to stay in the first jhana is inversely proportional to the intensity of the piti. In other words, if the piti is very strong, you probably won’t want to stay there very long. Half a minute or so might be sufficient, maybe even less than that if the piti is seriously intense. If the piti is not so strong, you might want to stay there five to ten minutes. The timing depends on the strength of the piti.

Piti comes in a number of “grades.” It can show up as momentary piti, which is like a shiver and then it’s gone. It can be minor piti, which is a little tingly feeling that’s sustaining but not very strong and is more or less in the background. Minor piti can also show up as gentle, involuntary rocking as you meditate. You might experience showering piti, which is when you get a burst of piti and then it’s gone, another burst and then that’s gone — the piti is arising but not sustaining. It can be uplifting piti that makes your hair stand on end. It can give you a sense that you are levitating when it’s really strong. I have had several students report opening their eyes to see whether they were indeed levitating. I’m afraid no one has ever reported getting off the ground. However, uplifting piti can make you sit up very straight. The fifth kind of piti is what I usually refer to as full-blown piti. The correct translation is “all-pervasive piti.” This is the piti that is everywhere. It’s present, it’s sustained, and you experience it throughout your body. It’s the piti necessary for the first jhana; the other four types are pre-jhana piti, and they may or may not show up as you progress toward access concentration and then to the arising of the first jhana.

Piti can manifest as rocking or swaying, or it can be intense so that you are actually vibrating to the point where it is visible to others. It can manifest as heat and get very, very warm. Hopefully it has a pleasant aspect to it. Most often, it manifests as an upward rush of energy, often centered up the spine. I’ve talked with people who practice kundalini yoga, and it seems that piti is the same energy. I’ve talked with people who practice tummo, the Tibetan practice of generating heat, and I was told that this practice also involves generating the same sort of energy. It’s a known, widespread phenomenon that is used in different ways. Here, it is used to grab your attention and take you into a concentrated state. The arising of piti also has the nice side effect (for most people) of generating sukha, and, as one comes to see, sukha is the principal component of the second and third jhanas.

So, you hang out in the first jhana for a bit, depending on how strong the piti is: if it is very strong, a half minute or so; if it is weaker, then maybe up to five or ten minutes. It should also be mentioned that when piti first arrives, you may not have any control over the strength of it. It may come on ridiculously strong, or it may come on weak. Just go with whatever shows up. The reason it can come on very strong the first time is somewhat like a can of soda pop. If you shake it for four or five days and then pop the top, it goes all over. The good news is that the next time piti comes on, it won’t have built up so much pressure. If the first time you experience piti is in the evening before going to bed, you will probably have trouble getting to sleep. It will wire you up. That’s okay. You’re learning, and missing a little bit of sleep is worth figuring out how to work with these valuable mental states.

These are the instructions for entering the first jhana. But don’t expect the necessary concentration to show up anytime soon. In fact, don’t expect anything! Expectations are the absolute worst things you can bring on a retreat, and they are equally detrimental when practicing while not on retreat. Simply do the meditation method. And when access concentration arises, recognise it, sustain it “long enough,” and then shift your attention to a pleasant sensation. Don’t try to do the jhanas. You can’t. All you can do is generate the conditions out of which the jhanas can arise. Recognise when you’ve established these conditions, then patiently wait for the jhana to come find you.

Lotus 147.

And so, from now until the scouring of samsara,
My stream of emanations, primary and secondary,
Will flow unceasing.
Especially to those who in the future meditate
Upon the subtle veins and energies,
I’ll show myself — at best directly,
Else in visions, or at least in dreams,
Appearing as a common person, or as the secret consort.
I shall clear the obstacles of those who keep samaya,
Bringing progress to their practice,
Helping to attain with speed the blissful warmth and thence accomplishment.

— Yeshe Tsogyal