Lekshey Chodron’s Gagye eve Talk on the 37 Practices of A Bodhisattva

We are delighted to share with you the transcriptions of two of our Gagye Eve talks. These brief talks are given by our monastic community at the conclusion of our winter retreat as a means to share what the community has contemplating during our period of silence and practice. The first of these talks are from Upasika Lekshey Chodron who has been here for about a year and half and was studying the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva:

My talk is going to be on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva and one line of one verse in particular: “All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness.” I will also touch upon what it is to work with an ideal that you have no hope of meeting and the importance and place of mistakes on the spiritual path. If I have time I am going to share a tale or two about the Buddha’s own mistakes, as they were told in the Jataka tales. I may not have time. But there were mistakes – many (laughter).

I’m going to say a little bit about Tokmé Zangpo (the author of the 37 practices of a bodhisattva) for those of you who are not familiar with him. Tokmé Zangpo was a fourteenth century monk. He had a pretty hard time in life. He lost his mother at three and his father at five. At which point he went to live with his grandmother and she died when he was nine. He lived with his uncle from then until he was 14, at which point he entered the monastery.

It is hard to know what about him is legend and what is fact. There is a story of wolves and sheep playing peaceably in front of him –which I find a bit suspect . But there are many more –  it is also said that beggars would not take food from him because they knew he would give them his last cup of barley and that sounds plausible. He was famous for his compassion.

It is clear that he was brilliant. He was recognized as a master scholar by his early twenties and was abbot of the monastery by his early thirties. He wrote the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva when somebody suggested that – he was very poor and most people in the monastery had parental support financially to by any extras – he should give empowerments for money. He wrote it to inspire himself to stay true to the path he’d chosen. It’s a wonderful text which presents compassion at the center of spiritual development. This was just one of over a 100 texts that he wrote.

I’ve been working with:

“All suffering comes from wanting your own happiness.

Complete awakening arises with the intention to help others.

For that reason exchange completely your happiness

For the suffering of others- This is the practice of a bodhisattva.”


Why would wanting your own happiness be a cause of your suffering? Because as long as you want happiness, anything that’s not happiness is a disaster. Discomfort is a disaster. Not getting the piece of cake you want is a disaster. You’re very vulnerable as long as your happiness is your main priority, because your happiness is continually being threatened.

Since we look for happiness changeable and fleeting conditions, attempting to secure it is also often a futile endeavor.  Ironically, needeing to secure our happiness stops us ever being able to relax with what we have.  Even when I have gotten something I wanted or the praise I long for (or whatever), I then have to try and make sure I never loose that, and since we cannot avoid loosing things, being criticized or any of the other conditions that don’t make us happy, it’s a loosing battle.

It also causes suffering because as long as your happiness is what you’re most focused on, your priority, you see other people and situations as a means to the end of that happiness and not as an end in themselves. You cannot relate to situations as they are if how they are isn’t making you happy. So you are in a way separate from them, and from life itself.

For as long as my happiness is my main desire, I am enslaved because I am compelled ac in accordance with that desire. Ken McCloud proposes that if we were told and we totally believed that we would never be happy, that it was simply impossible, that our lives might improve quite a lot [laughter]. We would free up a lot of energy. Instead of thinking about how we would find that satisfaction or that comfort or that peace that we are searching for we would just be with what this is. I know that people who have worked with chronic pain, when they’ve worked with that in such a way that they’ve been able to accept it have said that it’s the best thing that has ever happened to them.

In working with this verse, I have noticed how often I want to secure my own happiness. Often this happens in the form of seeking quite basic comfort and gratification. I have to make sure I don’t check the weather report before I make the snow shoveling rota [laughter] because I know that I’ll want to put myself on when it’s not snowing and I don’t have to get up and go out at 5:30 in the morning in the cold.

Working with this verse hasn’t made me able to easily exchange my happiness for the suffering of others. It’s just shown me all the things that stop me from doing that. Holding it in mind has been like holding a mirror to my limitations – those character flaws and habitual tendencies which have a big influence on how I live, and lead me to seek comfort and security.

This brought up something about how I work with ideals, such as the ideal of the selfless bodhisattva, when we’re not there yet. I feel sure that we ought not use these ideals to measure ourselves and others, and berate the bunch of us for not measuring up. As long as we use the ideal of perfection to judge ourselves for our limitations, we are harming ourselves.

“So this monastic life, a way of wholeness, a sacred way, an ideal, lives at the bottom of our hearts and is reflected back to us in religious experience and religious literature. But, as we know, ideals can be poison if we take them in large quantities or if we take them incorrectly; in other words, if we take them not as ideals, but as concrete realities. Ideals should inspire us to surpass ourselves, which we need to aspire to do if we are to be truly human, and which we can never actually do, exactly because we are truly human. Ideals are tools for inspiration, not realities in and of themselves. The fact that we have so often missed this point, accounts, I think, for the sorry history of religion in human civilization. When we believe in ideals too literally, we berate ourselves and others for not measuring up, but no one will ever measure up. That’s the nature of ideals and their beauty. So at their best, and if rightly understood, ideals ought to make us pretty lighthearted: they give a sense of direction, which is comforting, and since they are by nature impossibilities, why worry? Just keep trying. “

It’s often said that it’s through trying and failing that we find our path.  Not an abstract path out there, but a path that’s right here and real to us. In really working with these ideals and making mistakes that we are able to step beyond what we would normally do. And we’re able to see what is stopping us in our tracks.

If you want to read more about the mistakes of the Buddha, I can recommend Before Buddha was Buddha by Rafe Martin.

One thought on “Lekshey Chodron’s Gagye eve Talk on the 37 Practices of A Bodhisattva

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this, it is rich with personal meaning and reflection for me.