Short Commentary THE 37 PRACTICES OF A BODHISATTVA, Part 1


THE 37 PRACTICES OF A BODHISATTVA By Ngulchu Thogme (Commentary by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche)

Commentary by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche ISBN 09710523-0-1
Copyright, Marpa Foundation 2001 Ashland, OR 97520

Commentary based on an oral translation by Suzanne Schefczky, Taiwan 1993. Special thanks to Ari Goldfield for his careful review of the root texts, and to Pema Clark and Yeshe Parke for proofreading the Commentary with care and devotion.


The basic structure of the text illustrates the complete path of the Bodhisattva in 43 verses, which include a verse for each of the 37 Practices with an additional 2 verses in the beginning and 4 at the end. The first 2 verses are the traditional ones which express homage to a deity, the embodiement of enlightened qualites and then state the purpose for writing the text and the author’s commitment to do so.

The main body of the text is divided into 3 parts, the first which deals with the causes that give rise to bodhichitta (the mind of awakening). The mind training of a superior individual is discussed in the second part of the text, where the central topic is how to engender supreme Bodhichitta. In this section there are 5 main divisions that give advice on how to develop Bodhichitta and how to keep it from degenerating. First one should realize the equality of self and other and learn how to exchange one’s own happiness for another’s suffering. Secondly the text shows how to bring all situations of worldy life, including obscuring emotions and mistaken views onto the path, or how to integrate them into one’s practice. The third is how to practice the six perfections. The fourth describes how to work with one’s negatice side and failures, and finally, there is a summary and dedication. The third main section is the conclusion, which contains a recapitulation of the purpose of the text, the reasons that establish its integrty in relation to the tradition of the teachings, an aplogy for any errors that might be found and a dedication. In summary, Ngulchu Thogme has given is the entire structure of a Bodhisattva’s path: from first engenerding bodhichitta in one’s mindstream, to maintaining, and then further developing this bodhichitta up to the level of enlightenment.

(When reciting the 37 Practices, as a Dharma practice it is recommended to read the Prostration (before Practice #1) and all Epilogues A-E also (after Practice #37). The commentaries for each stanza should be read enough to familiarize understand each Practice).

Aspiration of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
May the virtue that arises from working with this text
Contribute to the liberation and happiness of all beings.

Let us begin by developing the enlightened attitude- that we want to attain the perfect state of Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings, in number as vast as the sky. To accomplish this state, we must diligently engage in listening, reflecting, and meditating upon the genuine teachings. In general, the tradition of the Mahayana contains two types of practices: one purifies obscurations of the mind; the other develops a sound motivation, a good attitude. The former practice, in which we purify our mind of mental obscurations and stains, is the “progressive stages of meditation on emptiness,” about which I wrote a book of that name. These progressive stages progressively lead the meditator from the relative to the ultimate. This text fits into the latter category. Its title in Tibetan is The Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva: a Summary of the Heart Essence of a Bodhisattva's Conduct. This full title indicates two points: first that the text condenses all the Mahayana sutras, which teach the conduct of a Bodhisattva; and second, that it summarizes the heart essence of a Bodhisattva's conduct, of which there are thirty-seven main practices. In Tibetan, the word for "practice" literally translates as "to bring into experience." So, 37 practices can actually be brought into experience.

While The Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva contains a few stanzas on the progressive stages of meditation on emptiness, the text deals primarily with meditation on the relative.

Its purpose is to help us with our motivation!
Beginning of Text

(The Practices themselves are in bold italics, the commentary is in normal font following each stanza).


Namo Lokeshvaraya.
You see that all phenomena neither come nor go.
Still you strive solely for the benefit of beings.
Supreme Guru and Protector Chenrezig,
to you I continually bow with body, speech, and mind.

Namo Lokeshvaraya is a Sanskrit phrase that we use in prostrating to the Tibetan deity, Chenrezig, the Lord of the World. Chenrezig ("you") is the Noble One who dwells on the bhumis. Chenrezig has seen that on an absolute level no phenomena of samsara and nirvana exist in their own essence. Therefore, he realizes that phenomena neither arise nor cease, neither come nor go. Though realizing that phenomena have no self- nature, Chenrezig still works diligently on behalf of others. He has abandoned self-interest and strives only to benefit beings.
Ngulchu Thogme, the author of this text, addresses his own lama as "Supreme Guru,” whom he knows to be inseparable from the Protector Chenrezig. He acknowledges their union in one breath by prostrating continuously to his Supreme Guru and Protector Chenrezig. By "continuously," Ngulchu Thogme indicates that from now until he has reached enlightenment, with the three doors of his body, speech, and mind he will always respectfully bow down.
The Bodhisattva Ngulchu Thogme, who composed this text, was an amazing being. His life contains wonderful stories of great loving kindness and compassion. I cannot recount all the marvelous episodes here, but will choose a particularly significant one.
When just a small boy in Tibet, on an especially frigid day Thogme's parents dressed him warmly and sent him out to play. Not long after, they saw their son outside completely naked. When questioned, Thogme explained that he had come upon a hill of freezing ants; wanting to keep them warm, he had sheltered them with his own clothes. Clearly, even as a child Thogme's loving kindness and compassion were extensive, signaling that in a previous life he had meditated on bodhichitta. Similarly, if we meditate strongly on loving kindness and compassion in this life, in a future life we, too, may display Thogme's remarkable qualities in our early youth.

Author's intention

The perfect Buddhas, sources of benefit and happiness,
Arise from accomplishing the genuine Dharma.
Since that in turn depends on knowing how to practice,
The practices of a Bodhisattva shall be explained.

The Buddhas are the source of benefit and happiness. Benefit refers to a temporary state within samsara. Practicing the genuine Dharma benefits us temporarily by preventing us from being reborn in the lower realms- in the hell realms, the animal realm, and so on. By practicing the Dharma, we can gain a precious human rebirth in which we again practice the Dharma.

While benefit is a temporary condition within samsara, happiness refers to the ultimate state of liberation and omniscience. The Buddhas are the origin of both, namely temporary benefit and ultimate happiness.
How did the Perfect Buddhas, the source of all happiness and benefit, themselves arise? From having practiced the genuine Dharma. To help us accomplish this aim, Thogme intends to describe the practices of male and female Bodhisattvas.

Practice 1

Now that you have obtained a precious human body,
the great boat so difficult to find,
In order to free yourself and others from the ocean of samsara,
To listen, reflect, and meditate with diligence day and night
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

This precious human body with its eight freedoms and ten endowments is rare and difficult to obtain. Not all human bodies are precious because not all people study the Dharma. A precious human body indicates an individual with great faith in the Dharma, the wisdom with which to analyze and comprehend its teachings, and the diligence and joyful effort with which to practice it. The body is compared to a great boat able to carry us across the ocean of samsara, across the suffering of this existence. With this body, we can attain peace for ourselves and, more important, for others. Our motivation is to carry all sentient beings across the ocean of the three realms of existence.
Thus, we promise that day and night, without laziness or distraction, we will listen, reflect, and meditate on the genuine Dharma. First, we listen. Then we use our intelligence to analyze what we have heard-we reflect. Finally, we meditate upon what we have heard and analyzed. This is how a Bodhisattva practices.
The Tibetan phrase for precious human body actually says "the freedoms and the endowments," a reference to the eight freedoms and the ten endowments that compose it. This is not the time or place to explain these factors, but Jamgon Kongtru Lodro Thaye's The Torch of Certainty summarizes them; and Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation presents an extensive explanation.

Practice 2
Detaching from passion, aggression, and hatred

Passion towards friends churns like water.
Hatred towards enemies burns like fire.
Through dark ignorance, one forgets what to adopt and what to reject.
To abandon one's homeland is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Like one wave of water following hard upon the other, the more one is drawn towards friends, the more one's passions increase. The basis for this attachment is taking friends to be truly existent. When fire burns, it consumes all the fuel that feeds it. In the same way, hatred towards enemies is like a fire that consumes one's mind. In the grasp of attachment and aversion, passion and hatred, one forgets what to adopt and what to reject. This forgetfulness is described as the darkness of ignorance. There are two ways to give up one's homeland. One is by directly abandoning it, just packing up and departing. The other is to relinquish one's attachment to home by not taking it to be truly existent. The latter is the more important. The homeland in some places is called the fatherland, in others the motherland. It is the land of our birth or any country to which we are attached. We are bound not by the country itself, but by taking it as real. Therefore, it is very important to know that the fatherland, motherland, or homeland does not truly exist.

Gampopa was born in a place called Dhagpo, where the circumstances for practice were so favorable that he stayed there, obtained high realization, and even came to be called Dhagpo Rinpoche, so closely associated was he with that place. Though Gampopa remained where he was born because it benefited his Dharma practice, he stayed without attachment. But if one's homeland does not provide suitable conditions for practicing Dharma, if it is a place of disputes and fights, then it is advisable to physically leave it.

Practice 3
Relying on solitude

Giving up negative places, Mental afflictions gradually decrease.
With no distractions, virtuous activities naturally increase.
When mind becomes clear, Certainty in the Dharma is born.
To rely on solitude is the practice of a Bodhisattva

Negative places are those where one cannot practice the Dharma at all, or where unfavorable conditions make one neglect practice. In giving up such places, afflictions will subside. They will not be eliminated all at once, but will gradually diminish-first the coarse and then, one after the other, the subtle ones as well. When you are alone in an isolated place, distractions caused by outside objects wane, while virtuous activities of practicing the genuine Dharma naturally grow. Solitude clears the mind and sharpens awareness. From this mental clarity, certainty and deep trust in the Dharma are born. Male and female Bodhisattvas do well to occasionally seek solitude.
To reduce mental afflictions, abandoning negative places benefits both the beginning practitioner and the Bodhisattva who is an ordinary being. But if one is an Arya Bodhisattva who dwells on a bhumi, then there is no need to abandon places of negativity. It is actually preferable for Bodhisattvas who know how to take negative places to the path remain where they are.
Some Bodhisattvas take birth in countries where conditions for Dharma practice are not very good. For the benefit of bringing the Dharma there, they do not abandon their fatherland. For example, Marpa the Translator traveled to India three times. The first time, he studied in India for twelve years, the second time for six years, and the third time for three years-twenty-one years in all. He did this to bring Buddhism to his homeland, an activity in accord with Naropa's prediction that Marpa would return to Lhodrak, the land of his birth, in order to spread the Dharma. That is exactly what he did: Through Marpa, the Dharma was heard, analyzed, and meditated on in his own country. Other Bodhisattvas give up their country to benefit beings elsewhere. For instance, Milarepa's student, Rechungpa, was born far from Lhasa. But as Jetsun Milarepa predicted, Rechungpa went to Yarlung, near Lhasa, and built a monastery called Lharo Dolgyi Gompa, where many beings studied and practiced Dharma. Rechungpa's path was the opposite of Marpa's in that he left his own land to benefit people. Some Bodhisattvas are able to practice the Dharma precisely because they have lost their country and all their possessions to enemies. In such a way the Lord of Yogins, Milarepa, was deprived of everything. His painful circumstances brought him to the Dharma. Therefore, he attributed great acts of kindness to his enemies, because through them he became a Dharma practitioner.
On the ultimate level, Milarepa realized the equality of friends and enemies. On the relative level, he developed pure love and compassion for all sentient beings, friends, and enemies alike. As a result of his bodhichitta, even Milarepa's worst enemies became his disciples. We, too, must meditate on loving kindness and compassion for all sentient beings, without distinction. Maybe we can develop bodhichitta in this life, maybe not. If not, there is a good chance it will arise in a future life.

Practice 4
Abandoning attachment to this life

Old friends and relatives will separate.
Possessions gained with effort will be left behind.
Consciousness, the guest, will leave the guesthouse of the body.
To let go of this life is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Death will separate us from all our friends and relatives, no matter how long we have been connected, no matter how deep our bond may be. Should someone ask why it is necessary to relinquish attachment to this life, the inevitability of death is the first reason. The second is that at the time of death, regardless of the extent of our riches or how hard we have worked to accumulate them, all material possessions, all wealth- everything- will be relinquished. The third reason is that the body is a kind of hotel in which mental consciousness, the mind, temporarily resides. When we die, the consciousness departs, and the body is put in a coffin, then buried or burned. Therefore, there is no benefit in clinging to this body.
For these three reasons, the practice of a Bodhisattva is to mentally discard this life. This attitude does not mean actually giving it up. It suggests developing an attitude of renunciation. By realizing that this life is just like a dream and an illusion, you can abandon attachment to it.
In Tibet, human corpses were discarded in four ways. The first accorded with the Vajrayana. The body was cremated and a fire puja, or ceremony, performed to clear away negative obscurations. The second tradition was to throw the corpse into the water and offer it to the fish as an act of generosity. The third tradition, which originated in China, was to bury the body as quickly as possible in order to purify the place of death, so that afterwards it would not harm those who lived there. According to this tradition, when someone died, a burial expert was immediately summoned to determine the most auspicious burial site. By consulting this specialist and precisely carrying out his or her instructions, the family believed that benefit instead of harm would descend upon them. The fourth method was to feed the corpse to vultures.
This act was performed to benefit the vultures because these birds do not kill to eat; they depend on carrion for their survival. Offering corpses to the vultures was also regarded as an act of generosity.
One of the largest charnel grounds in Tibet was at Sera Gompa, close to Lhasa. So busy was this charnel ground that the vultures there fed on corpses every day. It is still like that. If you have the opportunity to visit Tibet, go to Sera Gompa, watch how the bodies are chopped into parts and how the vultures come to eat. It is a good opportunity to meditate on impermanence.
A charnel ground in Drikung was so famous that Tibetans brought their dead from afar to have them consumed by the Drikung vultures. Before roads were built, the bereaved would place the corpse on a yak and travel as long as fifteen days, sometimes longer, to reach Drikung. Regardless of the difficulties, offspring considered they had disposed of their parent's body auspiciously by offering it to the vultures of Drikung. Nowadays, a road and the availability of cars make the journey much easier.

Practice 5
Giving up negative friendships

When friendship with someone
Causes the three poisons to increase,
Degrades the activities of listening, reflecting, and meditating,
And destroys loving kindness and compassion,
To give up such a friendship
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

If you are a special being who possesses skillful means, you can carry all mental poisons and afflictions onto the path. That is, you can use them as a basis for practice. But if you are an ordinary person, then associating with negative friends will cause your three poisons to increase. This is the first reason to give up negative friendships. The second reason is to prevent the activities of listening, reflecting, and meditating from degenerating. And the third reason is that even if you have already developed loving kindness and compassion, the influence of a negative friend will impair these positive qualities and will hinder you from practicing them. These are the three reasons to give up negative friendships.
To clarify the respective meaning of "ordinary being" and "special being," let us use an analogy: Consider the vast amount of waste eliminated by the inhabitants of a large city. Ordinary beings are disgusted by sewage and want to be rid of it. It is dirty, it smells, it breeds disease. But the farmer is a special being grateful to obtain what everyone else rejects. His skill allows him to use this "waste" to fertilize his fields and make them more productive so that he can reap an abundant harvest. So you see there are two attitudes toward waste products and what to do with them.

It is the same way with the five afflictions. While ordinary beings must rid themselves of afflictions, the skillful individual can carry them onto the path and transform them into the five wisdoms. For example, the Vajrayana teaches a practice called "Clear Light Meditation" that transforms the affliction of mental dullness into clarity while one sleeps. Using this practice, an Indian mahasiddha named Lawapa realized Mahamudra by meditating in his sleep for twelve years by the side of a busy road. This is how to take mental dullness onto the path. If you're a skillful sleeper, then Clear Light Meditation is the ideal practice for you.

Practice 6
Relying on a spiritual friend

When in reliance on someone, your defects wane
And your positive qualities grow like the waxing moon,
To cherish such a spiritual friend even more than your own body
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

The "someone" mentioned is the spiritual friend. If, by relying on a spiritual friend whom you deeply respect, your defects, and afflictions, negative karma, suffering, and so, on diminish, then this is a sign to continue your reliance. "Positive qualities" refer to the qualities of the bhumis and of the paths. They also refer to qualities that develop from listening, reflecting, and meditating. If such virtues increase like the waxing moon, these are also signs to rely on such a person.
Because your relationship with the genuine spiritual friend decreases your afflictions and increases your good qualities, you should consider this friend as even more precious than your own body. Examples of how to rely on a spiritual friend are the way Tilopa relied on Naropa, and the way the great yogi Milarepa relied on Marpa. Naropa had to surmount twenty-four hardships, twelve small and twelve great. For examples of how Milarepa relied on his teacher, read his life story.

Practice 7
Seeking refuge

Themselves captives in the prison of samsara,
Whom can the worldly gods protect?
Therefore, to seek refuge in those who do not deceive,
the Three Jewels, Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Worldy gods like Brahma, Ishvara, and Vishnu are themselves prisoners of samsara, bound by afflictions, karma, and suffering. Thus, they have no ability to protect other beings. For refuge, one must go to true protectors. Only the three Rare and Supreme Ones-the Rare and Supreme Buddha, the Rare and Supreme Dharma, and the Rare and Supreme Sangha-are able to offer refuge. They are rare because they are difficult to find in this worldly realm. They are supreme because there is no higher protection to be found. The protection offered by the three Rare and Supreme Ones does not deceive. This is not a case where one believes they protect, but in the end they do not; or where they assure you they protect, but in the end cannot. Since only the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha offer unfailing protection, the practice of a Bodhisattva is to take refuge in these Three Jewels.
Throughout Buddhist texts, the qualities of the three Rare and Supreme Ones are explained repeatedly in great detail. In one text called The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra (published by Snow Lion under the title Buddha Nature), of the seven vajra points, the first three concern the qualities of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I propose that you read this text again and again in order to understand it well. In brief, what are the qualities of the three Rare and Supreme Ones? The qualities of the Buddha are mainly two- the perfection of abandonment and the perfection of realization. The quality of the Dharma is that it is a remedy against affliction, suffering, and confused appearances. The quality of the Sangha is friendship. Sangha is a community of practitioners who help us practice the Dharma and the friends who accompany us on the Dharma path. This is a brief explanation of all the qualities. If we think Dharma is books, something outside ourselves, we are mistaken. Genuine Dharma is the process of actualizing within our minds the wisdom that realizes emptiness and selflessness. Such wisdom overcomes all confused appearances and afflictions. This is real Dharma. It is like recognizing a dream for what it is, so that in the dream state we do not suffer from being burned by fire or drowned in water. Dharma is the remedy to overcome our actual afflictions and actual suffering because it enables us to realize emptiness and selflessness.

Refuge is of two kinds, relative and absolute. Relative refuge arises when we see that samsara has the nature of suffering and we develop complete trust in that recognition. We come to fear samsara and seek refuge from it. And who is able to protect us? Only the three Rare and Supreme Ones have this capacity. However, if we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in such a way, this is relative refuge. Why? It is refuge based on concepts; it involves thoughts. Ultimate refuge, by contrast, is the realization of emptiness, the selflessness of persons and of phenomena. If we realize emptiness, we actualize ultimate refuge. When ultimate refuge arises, all our afflictions and suffering are self-liberated.

Practice 8
Relinquishing negative actions

The suffering of the lower realms, so difficult to bear,
Is the fruit of wrong deeds, so the Buddha taught.
Therefore, even at the cost of your life,
Never to commit negative actions
Is the conduct of a Bodhisattva.

Beings in the hell realms suffer from extreme heat and cold. Hungry ghosts suffer from hunger and thirst. Animals suffer from stupidity. Suffering is not the creation of gods or devils, nor does it arise without causes or conditions. Suffering is the inevitable consequence of negative actions. Therefore, it is better to die than to commit them. At a deeper level, the suffering of the lower realms is just confused appearance that arises from habitual tendencies. It is the same as the example of the suffering in a dream. This is why the Mahayana and the Vajrayana assert that suffering does not truly exist.

Practice 9
Striving for unchanging liberation

Like dew on the tip of a blade of grass
Happiness in the three worlds evaporates in a single instant.
To strive for the supreme state of liberation that never changes
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

The reference to the three worlds can be interpreted as the subterranean world where the nagas abide, the earth where humans and animals live, and the sky that is the abode of the gods. Or, this term might be understood to encompass the three realms: desire, form, and formless. Regardless of interpretation, the nature of happiness within all these worlds is temporary. Whether that of gods or humans, happiness is as evanescent as a dewdrop on a blade of grass. One instant and it is gone. Since this happiness is impermanent and ever changing, we need to strive for an unchanging happiness, which in Buddhism is the changeless state of liberation. A Buddhist practices the Dharma to achieve a result. Were there no result, why bother to practice? The Dharma describes three types of results. The first is gaining the happy realms or the happy state. The second is achieving liberation. The last is attaining Buddhahood.
There are those who practice Dharma to avoid the suffering of rebirth in hell or as a hungry ghost or as an animal. Fear of the lower realms motivates them to strive for a favorable rebirth as a god, or in a deity realm where they can continue to practice the Dharma. The person in this category may also seek the benefit of longevity to have more time to practice or to accumulate the means to practice in ease. The motivation of practitioners who follow the Dharma for these reasons is considered inferior because the result sought is temporary.
A person motivated by desire for liberation attains his or her goal by understanding that samsara has no essence. Since it has no essence, it can be totally abandoned. Liberation is the highest state sought by the Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas- that is, by Shravakayana practitioners. A practitioner seeking liberation embodies a medium level of motivation.
One who strives for Buddhahood is endowed with supreme motivation-the desire to attain complete and perfect enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Buddhahood emerges as the result of practicing the Mahayana, wherein one cuts the root of existence through the superior intelligence that realizes emptiness. While Mahayana practice does, in fact, liberate the practitioner from samsara, the great compassion it engenders motivates the Bodhisattva to remain in existence to benefit all sentient beings. This is the attitude of the Mahayana, its supreme motivation. In his text, The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, Gampopa describes these three kinds of motivation: inferior, middling, and supreme.

Practice 10
Developing bodhichitta

From beginningless time your mothers have cherished you.
If they now suffer, what good is your own happiness?
Therefore, in order to liberate limitless sentient beings,
Giving rise to bodhichitta is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

The Mahayana speaks of all sentient beings as having once been our mother, our father, and our friend. Without exception, not a being exists who has not been related to each of us throughout all our lifetimes. The mother is most often used as an example because of her untold acts of kindness. What is the good in attaining liberation for our own sake alone if our mothers continue to weep due to their suffering in samsara?
Therefore, in certain kinds of meditation, to visualize the mother as the person who has been kindest to us, and then to meditate on all sentient beings as being our mother, is very beneficial. The male or female Bodhisattva responds by developing the enlightened attitude of the Mahayana and working to liberate all sentient beings. According to the Mahayana, one must develop the enlightened attitude, supreme bodhichitta. Before bodhichitta can arise within our minds, we must have previously meditated on it at length. The chapters in Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation on loving kindness and compassion offer guidance and help. I advise you to read these chapters again and again, to meditate on them, and to practice them so that you will give rise to the authentic attitude of the Mahayana.

Practice 11
Exchanging happiness for suffering

All suffering comes from yearning for your own happiness.
The perfect Buddhas are born from the intention to benefit others.
Therefore, to truly exchange your own happiness for the suffering of others
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.

Whether related to our body, possessions, friends, or enemies, all suffering without exception arises because we want happiness for ourselves. The root of desire for personal happiness is ego-clinging. But where do the perfect Buddhas come from? Buddhas arise from the intention to benefit others. This intention is rooted in compassion, and if one has such compassion, one can become a perfect Buddha. The intention of a Bodhisattva is to benefit others by truly exchanging his or her happiness for the suffering of other beings. The text says, " to truly exchange," which means you do not just perform lip