Advice from a Spiritual Friend - Selections



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The Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva

Homage to great compassion.
Homage to all spiritual masters.
Homage to the deities of devotion.

Abandon all doubts and cherish
exertion for accomplishing the practice.
Abandon sleepiness, dullness, and laziness
and always exert enthusiastic effort.
With recollection, alertness, and watchfulness     
always guard every door of the senses.
Three times during the day and night, again and again,
investigate your mental continuum.
Proclaim your own faults
and seek not mistakes in others
Hide your own good qualities
but proclaim the good qualities of others.
Reject acquisitions and honors
and always reject desire for fame.
Desire little, be content,
and repay acts of kindness.
Meditate on love and compassion
and stabilize the awakening mind.
Avoid the ten unwholesome actions
and always stabilize your faith.
Conquer anger and arrogance
and possess a humble mind.
Avoid wrong livelihoods
and live a life of truth.
Abandon all worldly possessions
and be adorned by the gems of superiors.
Abandon all ffrivolities
and abide in solitude.
Abandon all senseless talk
and always control your speech.
When seeing your master or teacher,
perform services with respect.
Toward a person having the eye of the doctrine
and toward sentient beings who are beginners
develop the recognition of them as teachers.
When seeing any sentient beings, develop
the recognition of them as parents and children.
Abandon misleading friends
and rely on virtuous spiritual companions.
Abandon minds of anger and unhappiness,
and wherever you go be happy.
Abandon attachment to everything
and abide free from attachment.
Attachment will never procure you a happy rebirth;
it kills the life of liberation.
Wherever you see practices leading to happiness,
always exert effort in them.
Whatever you have started to do,
accomplish that very thing first.
Do everything well in this way,
otherwise nothing will be achieved.
Always be apart from liking evil.
Whenever a pompous mind arises,
flatten such arrogance.
Recall the teachings of your master.
When a cowardly mind arises,
praise the sublimity of the mind.
Whenever objects of attraction or aversion arise,
meditate on the emptiness of both;
view them as illusions and emanations.
When hearing any offensive words,
view them as an echo.
When your body is afflicted by harm,       
view this as your previous actions.
Abide well in solitude, beyond town limits,
like the corpses of wild game.
Be by yourself, conceal yourself,
and dwell without attachment.
Always stabilize awareness of your yidam and,
whenever laziness or lassitude arise,
enumerate these faults to yourself
and feel remorse from your heart.
If you see others,
speak calmly and sincerely.
Avoid a wrathful and frowning expression
and always remain cheerful.
When seeing others, continuously
be pleased to give without being miserly.
Discard all jealousy.
To protect the mind of another,
avoid all conflict
and always have patience.
Do not be fickle or a flatterer,
but always be capable of remaining steadfast.
Avoid belittling others and
remain respectful in your manners.
When giving advice to others,
have compassion and thoughts for their benefit.
Do not disparage spiritual doctrines
and be intent on whichever you admire.
Through the door of the ten Dharma practices,
exert effort throughout both day and night.
Whatever virtues are collected during the three times, dedicate them for the unsurpassable great awakening.
Distribute your merit for all sentient beings.
Always offer the seven-limbed prayer
and great aspirations for the path.
If you act in this way, the two accumulations of merit and wisdom will be accomplished.
Also, with the eradication of the two obscurations, thus fulfilling the purpose of having gained a human form, unsurpassable full awakening will be achieved.
The gem of faith, the gem of ethics,
the gem of generosity, the gem of hearing,
the gem of consideration,
the gem of shame, and the gem of intelligence:
these are the seven supreme gems.
These seven gems are never exhausted.
Do not tell this to nonhumans.
Examine your speech when amid many people.
Examine your mind when living alone.

This has been composed by the Indian master
Dipamkara Shrijñana, the Glorious Illuminator,
the Essence of Primordial Awareness.

Translated from the Tibetan by
Sharpa Tulku and Brian Beresford.

The commentary to The Jewel Rosary of a Bodhisattva

Homage to great compassion.
Homage to all spiritual masters.
Homage to the deities of devotion.

This short text by Atisha contains one hundred and eleven lines of advice in connection with the practice of thought transformation. It begins with obeisance to great compassion because this is the source of the many manifestations of a fully awakened being. The next obeisance to the spiritual masters implies that all inner development and experience is based upon devotion and confidence in the teachers of the path. This is the foundation for all successful spiritual practice. Both Naropa and his teacher Tilopa have said that without spiritual guidance there could be no fully awakened state. Lastly, obeisance is made to the deities of devotion (yidam). These are reflections of specific aspects of the awakened mind and are called upon when we wish to bring out these aspects in ourselves. For instance, when meditating to generate the conventional awakening mind, we should devote ourselves to Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, and when meditating on emptiness, to Manjushri, the embodiment of intelligent awareness, or wisdom.

Abandon all doubts and cherish exertion for
accomplishing the practice.

Whatever our object of meditation may be, we must learn about it thoroughly beforehand and eliminate any doubts we may have concerning the procedures. If our teacher says merely, “Meditate on emptiness,” and we leave without studying what was meant, we shall not know what to do. We may meditate by thinking about an empty room, having no clear idea what is being negated by emptiness. Thus, we must first learn about the meditation we wish to do and gain a precise intellectual understanding of it. Based on this, we shall eventually be able to transcend the intellectual level and meditate nonconceptually.

This line further implies that we should not become distracted, but meditate single-pointedly without any mental wandering. Moreover, the method we choose must be valid, and we must be convinced of its validity. Then, free from all doubts, we shall be able to meditate with strict concentration, confident that the path we have chosen is nondeceptive. We should not be like water on a tabletop, which can be led by the finger in any direction, easily swayed back and forth by the various opinions of others. We should know how to differentiate between valid and invalid spiritual teachings and be certain about what is right, leaving no room for doubts. If we apply the forces of hearing, or study, and contemplation, or examination, we shall be able to eliminate all indecisiveness.           

Yet this is not enough. If we acquire sufficient intellectual knowledge about the meditation but never practice it, we are like a person who stores away food but never eats it. Such food will either rot or be eaten by rats, or the person will die without having ever tasted it. Tsongkhapa said that the purpose of hearing and acquiring intellectual knowledge is to meditate upon it. Therefore, according to our different levels of ability, we should hear and study the teachings as much as we can in order to meditate on or actualize them.

Because each person has different idiosyncrasies and abilities, everyone will not become enlightened as if stamped from the same mold. Bearing this in mind, we should practice in the way best suited to each of us. Without practicing what we have learned, we are like museum guides who know much but for whom the objects on display have no special significance. When we practice, it is important not to pattern ourselves on others; instead we each should examine our own abilities and meditate accordingly. To do otherwise leads only to frustration.

Abandon sleepiness, dullness, and laziness
and always exert enthusiastic effort.

We should eliminate laziness, mental wandering, mental dullness, and other such hindrances to our meditation, otherwise we may begin meditating with our head held erect, but later we will find it slouched against the middle of our body with our meditation turned to sleep. This line in the tettt is not belixling us but is a warning to arouse our energy for venturing into the practices. Even if we guard against all these obstacles, we must still have strong perseverance and diligence so that our meditation will be successful. As Tsongkhapa has said, “Wear the protective armor of enthusiastic perseverance and increase it like the waxing moon.”

Also, Chandrakirti said, “All profound and superficial goals follow from enthusiastic perseverance; with it anything can be accomplished.”

With recollection, alertness, and watchfulness always guard every door of the senses. We should post recollection, alertness, and watchfulness as guards at the gateways of our body, speech, and mind and have them restrain us from committing unwholesome actions through these three doors. To safeguard the treasure of realizations stored within us, we should lock these doors from both inside and out.

We can liken the mental faculty of recollection, or mindfulness, to an iron hook. When the mind wanders to nonvirtue, recollection hooks it and brings it back to a wholesome position.

Three times during the day and night, again and again,
investigate your mental continuum.

At all times we must analyze our stream of thoughts to see whether the actions we are doing will benefit our future lives or if they are just for momentary pleasure.

            Proclaim your own faults and seek not mistakes in others.

To hide our shortcomings and harbor them inside only increases our guilt and discomfort. It is far better to reveal them to others: this lessens their effect. It is especially important to do so when generating the awakening mind. However, we should be discreet and careful with regard to whom we give such information since it may easily be misunderstood or misrepresented.  

On the other hand, we should not be constantly on the lookout for faults in others. If we see their mistakes but never our own, we are like a mirror, which reflects only what is outside it but never itself. The faults we criticize in others are only our own projected onto them; if they were not, they would not bother us, and we would not even notice them. Furthermore, we should realize that whatever laws appear to stand out in others are perceptions no different from our usual mistaken view of all things as truly independent. The faults we see are, in fact, dependent on many circumstances, such as the person’s previous actions and emotional afflictions and our view of the situation. We cannot find a truly independent and substantially existing possessor of shortcomings. By looking at things in this way, we can use this opportunity to make an ultimate analysis of the situation and reflect on the emptiness of our own projections.

Hide your own good qualities but
proclaim the good qualities of others.

There is no need to boast about our own knowledge and accomplishments. Tsongkhapa has said, “Your own attainments and insight should be like a butter lamp burning inside a vase: it illuminates the interior but is not displayed outwardly.”

It is especially important never to boast about or exhibit extraphysical powers such as heightened awareness or clairvoyance. To demonstrate them with an impure motive serves no beneficial purpose. Dromtönpa, Atisha’s closest Tibetan disciple, said, “If you can see your own faults and never look for those of others, then even though you may have no other good qualities, you are very wise.”

Therefore, not seeking faults in others is in itself a very great Dharma practice. Dromtönpa and others like him were all very humble although they had great spiritual attainments. Atisha has also said, “My compassion is due to the kindness of my teachers of the awakening mind; my realization of emptiness is due to the kindness of my teacher of emptiness. Nothing is my own.”

Once, Dromtönpa was requested to give his biography and an initiation but refused out of humility. Pressed by Atisha, he finally consented and gave the empowerment of one of the most complicated practices, the Sixteen Essences of the Kadam, which has sixteen mandalas within one another. With a similar lack of pride we each should keep quiet about our attainments and good qualities yet make known the excellences of others. However, be careful that your praise does not simply arouse others’ pride in themselves.

Dwelling on the laws of others is a vain attempt to hide our own. When our conversation is only the criticism of others, the person to whom we are speaking tends not to listen and forms a poor impression of us. Thus, to speak in this manner produces the opposite of our purpose of protecting our ego and making others like us; others will speak as poorly of us as we do of them. This is the law of cause and effect—that our actions bring about like results.

             Reject acquisitions and honors and always reject desire for fame.

If in approaching spiritual teachings we give up all desire for respect, fame, reputation, and personal gain, then whatever we study and practice will be beneficial. However, should we have studied two hundred volumes only for intellectual stimulation and gain, they will never be of ultimate benefit to us. The assimilation of two pages of essential instructions with pure

motivation is more valuable than years of studying texts for selfish reasons.

Desire little, be content, and repay acts of kindness.

Full contentment with what we have will bring us peace of mind, whether we practice Dharma or not. If we are satisfied with what we have, we shall not strive to acquire superfluous objects and shall avoid suffering both the hardships involved in trying to obtain things and the ffrustration of being unable to acquire them. Having little desire and being content go together. Without these two inner qualities we become competitive. In his Friendly Letter, Nagarjuna said,

If you have contentment, then even though you may be robbed of everything, consider yourself the richest man; but should you lack contentment, then no matter how rich you may be, you are a servant of your wealth.

If we have no contentment, we can never live like Milarepa on nettles in a cave. He said, “For salt, I use nettles; for spice, now I add in nettles.”

At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni there lived a merchant who returned to his homeland, bringing an extremely rare and valuable object with the intention of giving it to the poorest person there. When he arrived, he gave it to the king! He explained that this was because, even though the king was the richest in material possessions, he was the poorest in his mind since he lacked contentment. It makes no sense to become extravagantly rich because we cannot wear double or triple clothes or eat ten times the normal amount of food. Both kings and beggars can only eat and drink enough to satisfy their hunger and thirst, and they require merely sufficient clothing to protect their bodies from the elements.

Atisha further mentions that we should always remember the kindness others have shown us and return it when they are in need. To accept the kindness and favors of another and then later be indifferent when that same person is in need is extremely callous. Buddha Shakyamuni said in a sutra:

Those sentient beings who, after becoming rich through receiving help from others ignore those who helped them when they were poor — they are worse than animals. Even dogs gratefully acknowledge those who have given them food.

Meditate on love and compassion and stabilize the awakening mind.

We should combine wishing to repay the kindness that others have shown us with meditating on pure love for them. To develop a loving heart is very important for our own happiness. We cannot expect friendliness from others if we, in turn, are not appreciative of them. These are totally interdependent. Nagarjuna has emphasized that meditating on pure love and giving love to others is better than giving them material comforts; it gives more lasting pleasure. Buddha Shakyamuni has said in many discourses that even one instant of pure love or benevolence is better than giving something tangible. This does not mean that we should not be generous, but rather that the results of pure love are more powerful than giving material objects. Pure love is the intense wish that all beings be happy.

Because compassion is the essence of Dharma, meditation on compassion was also greatly emphasized by Buddha Shakyamuni. If we pick up the handle, we pick up the pot. Similarly, if we meditate on and develop compassion—the wish that all others be without suffering—we hold within us the essence of all other Dharma practices.      

We confirm and stabilize the awakening mind by means of love and compassion. This mind continues to develop until it is completely pure and the consummate fulfillment of buddhahood is reached. Atisha urges us to stabilize the awakening mind because, even though we may meditate on love and compassion for others, we may become discouraged when we are treated maliciously. We may think, “With people like this how can I possibly maintain the altruistic aspiration to gain complete realization for the sake of all others, including them?” Because discouragement only weakens the awakening mind, we should not allow ourselves to be affected by what others say or do, no matter how cruel it may be.

Shariputra, one of the main disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, did not have the Mahayana motivation to liberate all beings, but it is said that he almost developed the awakening mind. However, just as he was about to stabilize it, a man who was actually a malevolent being, a mara, approached him and demanded that he cut of his right hand and give it to him. This Shariputra did and offered it to the man with his let hand. However, because presenting anything with the let hand is highly improper according to Indian custom, the man refused to accept it. He said, “You should present me your right hand with your right hand.” At this, Shariputra became completely discouraged and thought, “If there are such evil beings as this, how can I ever work for their benefit and develop bodhichitta?”

Thus he reverted back to the lesser motivation of the Hinayana, working to gain liberation from cyclic existence for himself alone. While we are trying to generate the pure awakening mind, we should always expect to meet such difficult people; then they will never overwhelm us. If we naively expect everyone else to be pleasant, we shall only be disappointed.

Dignaga, one of the great Indian logicians, was once meditating in a cave, preparing to write a text on logic. After composing the first pages, he let his cave for a moment. While he was gone, an opponent came and erased the work he had done. This happened again, and on the third occasion Dignaga let a note saying, “Such action is pointless. If you want to oppose me, come and debate openly.” The opponent did this and lost. He was so angry that through his miraculous powers, he produced fire from his mouth and, out of spite, burned everything in the cave. Dignaga became so disheartened that he said, “If there are such people as this who do not even accept logic, I shall throw my writing slate up into the air; if it falls down again, I shall give up working for others.” He threw the slate up, but it did not fall back. He looked up and saw Manjushri holding it. Manjushri said to him, “My spiritual son, you are about to make a grave mistake.” With such encouragement Dignaga maintained his awakening mind and composed the Pramanasamuccaya, or The Compendium of Valid Reasoning.

Just as great beings like Shariputra and Dignaga were faced with such problems, we too must expect similar obstacles to our development. Adverse circumstances test our courage, our strength of mind, and the depth of our conviction in the Dharma. There is nothing exceptional about practicing Dharma in a good environment and atmosphere. The true test is if we can maintain our practice in adverse conditions.

             Avoid the ten unwholesome actions and always stabilize your faith.

We should guard our ethical discipline. Not letting it disintegrate, we should maintain the integrity of our actions through our body, speech, and mind. The ten unwholesome actions are killing, stealing, adultery, lying, slandering, speaking divisively, talking pointlessly, covetousness, maliciousness, and holding such wrong views as disbelief in buddhahood and in the law of actions and their consequences.

This is because it is a fundamental tenet of Buddhism that wholesome actions will result in a happy and beneficial rebirth and vice-versa. Thus it is said that the whole practice of ethics is based on understanding that future results will arise from present actions. Dharma practice is not what we do outwardly, like remaining in a room and chanting, but depends on whether we observe carefully and with full awareness the law of cause and effect, even if we do no formal meditation.

Furthermore, Atisha advises us to stabilize our faith and confidence. In the Buddhist context, faith does not arise from fear, but is based on reason. Confidence in the teachings arises when we experience for ourselves how nondeceptive they are. It is said that such conviction is the mother of firm understanding.

Conquer anger and arrogance and possess a humble mind.

Anger and arrogance are the worst of all psychological afflictions. Anger is more serious than the worst attachment because although the latter is unwholesome, by its nature it does not necessarily affect others adversely. Anger, on the other hand, directly and negatively affects not only the one who is angry but others as well. To have anger and arrogance reduces the force of the awakening mind considerably.

People with strong conceit imagine themselves to be superior and thus never heed the advice of others. Never listening, they never assimilate anything. Since they feel they are so knowledgeable, they must always defend their own position. Just as a high plateau is the last area to turn green with grass in the summer, a proud person will be the last to really know anything.

The person who has at least conquered anger and pride, and is humble in all actions, will everywhere be happy and accepted by others.

             Avoid wrong livelihoods and live a life of truth.

We should not rob, steal, or acquire our living by any means that are deceitful. Even merely eating food that others have gained by wrong methods is an obstacle to insight. There are five wrong livelihoods: flattery, pressuring someone into giving us something by saying that this is what was done previously, obtaining something by telling someone it is a penalty for an imaginary offense, bribery, and deceit. To live on what has been stolen is an especially unjustified means of existence; living in this way causes harm to others because we consume what is rightfully theirs. However, when we refuse to accept stolen articles, we should do so without offending the other person’s feelings. Even if a person is desperate and poor, it is better for that person to beg than to steal in order to live, because the consequence of stealing is increased poverty. If you are the one who has to beg, then accept with gratitude whatever you are given.

Luipa, one of the Indian mahasiddhas, was very poor and went to the banks of the river Ganges to obtain food. He noticed that the fishermen let behind the fish entrails, so he thought, “Since no one owns them, these would be the best to eat.” He lived in this way and through tantric practices obtained the full realization of Heruka in his very lifetime.

            Abandon all worldly possessions and be adorned by the gems of superiors.

Atisha does not imply that we should literally discard all our possessions. Rather, we should renounce and not feel great attachment to those things that in the first place are difficult to obtain and, once obtained, are difficult to protect, involve the danger of being lost, and may cost us our life should we try to preserve them. Our possessions should not arouse feelings of miserliness in us, nor cause us concern if they are lost.

It is inappropriate to be miserly about a religious object since we should not regard it as part of our wealth. If we simply regard it as symbolic of our refuge and, through our veneration for it, as a source of merit, we shall not be concerned by its loss. A true religious object should be considered priceless, but not for its monetary value.

Thus we should abandon attachment for external ornaments while retaining within us the gems of a superior person. There are seven of these inner gems to adorn our mind, named and explained at the conclusion of this text.

            Abandon all frivolities and abide in solitude. 

This does not necessarily imply that we should be fanatical and live completely alone in a cave. Yet we should not regularly waste time in frivolous activities or seek diversions in irrelevant gatherings. Such pastimes serve only to reduce the intensity of our practice. One great lama in Lhasa gave the following advice to those who had come from the outer provinces of Tibet to hear a discourse:

Do not meet each other too regularly, but gather together only once in a while, otherwise you defeat the purpose of having come here. If you really wish to meet and have parties all the time, why do you not go home?

This advice applies to anyone who sincerely wishes to study and practice Dharma. To meet others occasionally is necessary to refresh our understanding, but to do so too often is a distraction. Whenever two or more people meet, it is inevitable that there will be idle gossip and talk that may arouse anger or attachment. A great meditator once said,

As a beginner I find this life in the mountains enjoyable. Birds and animals come to visit me, and I can freely talk with them without it giving rise to anger, attachment, and a host of other delusions.

Abandon all senseless talk and always control your speech.

The result of idle gossip and unnecessary talk is time wasted. Such pastimes are indeed relaxing and enjoyable and are often carried on until the small hours of the morning; yet were we to spend that time meditating, we would be snoring long before midnight! The Junior Tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the late Trijang Rinpoche, said,

            If you find your mind in a state not conducive to performing virtuous actions, do not go and talk idly with someone. Instead, go to sleep. You might not accumulate much virtue but at least you will not accumulate nonvirtue. The indifferent state of sleep is much more relaxing than idle talk with friends.

The great Nyingma dzogchen master, Patrul Rinpoche, said,

Now that I am ready to go into retreat, I shall stop talking altogether. I shall cease sending my mind out to seek the faults in others, and instead I shall spend my time looking within. Life is too short to waste in mental wandering and limitless gossip.

            When seeing your master or teacher, perform services with respect.

When we meet and see our own teachers, we should always act respectfully and assist them by whatever means we can.

            Toward a person having the eye of the doctrine and toward sentient beings who are beginners develop the recognition of them as teachers.

We should regard as our teacher both those who have insight into the meaning of the Dharma and those who are just beginning to practice. We should rejoice in any accomplishment of someone following the Dharma, whether the person is advanced or a mere beginner.

            Abandon misleading friends and rely on virtuous spiritual companions.

Buddha Shakyamuni said in one of his discourses,

            Fear not a rogue elephant, but have fear of misleading friends, who can destroy both your body and your mind.

Misleading companions may not appear as obvious threats to our quest for inner happiness, but since they may divert our energy, we should not cultivate such friendships. The Kadam Geshe Potowa said,

Misleading friends do not have horns on their heads or
wear black cloaks, but they throw you
further into samsara.

In this sense even parents may sometimes be misleading and, if this is so, we must avoid their adverse influence. If we are always in the company of misleading friends, then, like the coal miner whose face and hands are blackened by his actions, we shall be influenced by their negativities. Associating with people whose actions are wholesome is like whitewashing a wall: we become covered in the whiteness of their virtue.

Much of our personal development depends on the influence of our friends. If they set a bad example, then in our present state of weakness their influence can adversely affect our behavior and state of mind. Hence, we must temporarily avoid negative friends. Only when our practice has strength and stability can such people benefit us, and we them. One Nyingma lama said,

If you live with someone who is generous, you too become generous; if you live with someone who has strong ethics, you also become an ethical person. However, if you are with someone of disreputable character, you will become lax, and your whole practice will degenerate.

When we are with spiritual companions, we remain conscious of our motives and feel a desire to improve ourselves and follow their example. Bodhisattvas who are very firm in their practice are virtuous friends to everyone and cannot be influenced by unwholesome company; with the strength of their realization they transcend distinctions of good and bad, yet their actions are spontaneously positive.

If we find companions an annoyance and a hindrance, we should not necessarily disregard them; the problem may be within us. Buddha Shakyamuni said, “Judge not others; judge only yourself.”

What appear to be faults in others may actually be reflections of our own emotional afflictions.

             Abandon minds of anger and unhappiness, and wherever you go be happy.

If we are angry and aggressive, happiness will always elude us. Happiness and contentment are dependent entirely on our attitudes toward daily situations and life in general. Full of anger and aggression, we cannot even enjoy the good fortune of wealth or delicious food, yet with peace of mind we shall be content with the most basic diet and simple dwellings. To carry a burden of heavy attachments and commitments will always be a disturbance; even our dreams will be uneasy. A true practitioner of Dharma should be like a bee that is never attracted to just one lower, but lies from one to another. Unlike most people who are fastidious and critical, a spiritual person should have no preferences. To insist upon specific foods or to be dependent upon luxuries is only a further commitment to ego-centered preferences and, as such, is an unnecessary discipline. We should be able to adapt to whatever circumstances we find. By remaining in one place too long we make friends, as well as enemies, and soon we become attached to the familiarity of our environment. Tsongkhapa was called “The Wanderer” because as soon as people heard that he was in one place and came to him presenting offerings, he would move on. He acted in this way until he achieved full realization. After that he remained in one place and, speaking from his own experience, gave discourses, founded monasteries, and performed other beneficial activities.

             Abandon attachment to everything and abide free from attachment.

If we feel strongly attached to an object, we should give it away, sell it, or at least put it out of sight. In this way we shall lessen our attachment. For people who wish to meditate intensively, it is recommended that they abandon gross sensory stimuli.

Thus, one should live in a simple but pleasant room; it should not be elaborate. For this reason caves are more suitable for deep meditation. They are not places that have been made attractive by human effort, and a meditator will develop less attachment for rocks and earth than for a comfortable room.

A great Tibetan meditator, Togme Zangpo, who composed the Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, went to live in a cave in his late twenties and remained there until he was sixty, making friends with birds and animals. He said,

For me to go into a cave for meditation is very useful. If I look above, there are no authorities or relatives; if I look below, there are no servants.
I am let alone with my mind, without worldly distractions or extraneous activities.

We should realize that we must utilize our mind and do something constructive with it. If we are continually distracted in divisive activities, we shall never gain insight into the true nature of reality.

            Attachment will never procure you a happy rebirth;
            it kills the life of liberation.

Atisha is very emphatic about abandoning attachment because not only can it deprive us of happiness in this life, it can also deny us the opportunity of a better rebirth, liberation from cyclic existence, or freedom of mind. As the opponent to the attachments of lust and passion, we should have strong ethics.

Wherever you see practices leading to happiness,
always exert effort in them.

Whatever activities we do should be weighed on the scale of our intelligence to determine whether or not the outcome will be beneficial. If an action will yield only confusion and dissatisfaction for ourselves and others, do not perform it. When acting impetuously, we forget to take into consideration the consequences of our actions. Elderly people are often looked upon as conservative, since they tend to consider a variety of possibilities before they act, and then do things slowly.

Human beings are endowed with a fundamental intelligence that if utilized wisely can bring everlasting peace and happiness. If we neglect to use it, we have defeated the purpose of having achieved such a precious incarnation. To act only for the pleasure of this life, without consideration for others, is to behave no better than an animal and is not in keeping with our human potential.

We should also think earnestly before taking vows or making spiritual commitments. Shantideva, in the Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, says,

Do not take vows in haste. Consider first if you can keep them. If you can, then let them remain unbroken; keep your vows steadily.
Whatever you have started to do, accomplish that very thing first. Do everything well in this way, otherwise nothing will be achieved.

There are too many things in this world to be learned, and life is too short to learn everything, so we should complete that which we have begun rather than dabbling in many things. It is best to find one thing that is suited to our taste and then taste it fully. In following spiritual practices, if we act like a dilettante, always tasting a little of many things, such as trying out many personal deities and the meditation practices of many different traditions, we shall never be able to accomplish any of them. Also, if we sample many religions, picking up a bit of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or whatever, we shall only be let with confusion. Since we cannot know everything and become an all-knowing master of samsara, it is better to learn one thing and learn it thoroughly.

For instance, some students try to learn many languages but often end up not knowing even one well. If they were to learn one language well, they would be able to delve into many aspects of the culture and religion associated with it. Not to learn one thing thoroughly is like trying to sew with a needle pointed at both ends: we shall never be able to make any progress. Doing too many things divides our attention and disperses single-pointedness. Some monks in Tibet would come to a monastery and first do a short retreat, then leave and return again later to study another subject, only to end up without any realizations whatsoever.

If there were two masons building two walls, and one built up layer after layer steadily while the other worked in sporadic bursts, the laxer would never complete the task. We should, therefore, be like the first mason and build the walls of our spiritual mansion by working steadily all the time. We should always make allowances for things to take time and should not expect realization or “instant bliss” to follow from practices of a few weeks, months, or even a year. Insight and increased awareness in every life situation can only come about over several years. In fact, if we have begun generating the awakening mind, for instance, we should set as our aim the intention to maintain it over the whole of this present lifetime as well as throughout all future lives. If we extend the scope of our vision beyond the limited context of this one life and begin to view things in a far greater perspective, it is certain that we shall develop insight in accordance with our efforts. Even if we do not fully develop the awakening mind, because of its altruistic and all-pervasive frame of reference, we shall certainly become a kinder human being.

             Always be apart from liking evil.

We should reject the pleasures that stem from wrong actions since the enjoyment derived from indulging in emotional afflictions soon leads to pain. Letting ourselves be blown about by the winds of our negativities indicates that we have a completely misguided approach to life. Instead, we should savor the lasting delight that arises from skillful behavior and meditation.

Whenever a pompous mind arises, flatten such arrogance.
Recall the teachings of your master.

Pride, or conceit, is one of the worst emotional afflictions. If we feel that by having developed the awakening mind we are superior to others, then everyone will disparage us. If we are supercilious and pompous, no one will find us compatible. As an opponent to arrogance we should meditate on impermanence and death.

Very few people have a steady or stable experience of life. For most, their emotions ebb and low like the tides. Sometimes we may feel proud of signs of accomplishment, and yet at other times we may be depressed when our defilements and habitual propensities overwhelm us. All such feelings are relative to one another because discouragement exists only in relation to elation; neither one is independent. It is beneficial if our life lows with little major change, like a wide river. Therefore, we should not become too excited when we accomplish a great deal, or depressed when we fail to do so. If we feel self-pity, we should contemplate on our good fortune at having a fully endowed precious human form.

             When a cowardly mind arises, praise the sublimity of the mind.

We should try to develop the courage of a warrior and the strength of mind to exert enthusiastic effort in the practices. If we are not brave in our approach, we shall become bored with meditation. If a bucket can be filled by drops of water, why cannot the mind be liberated by progressive inner development? If the mind can be directed onto the correct path, then since it does not have a static existence, it is certainly capable of gaining complete release from confusion. This potential to become fully awakened is the sublime nature of the mind itself.

             Whenever objects of attraction or aversion arise, meditate on the emptiness of both; view them as illusions and emanations.

If we develop strong attachment or aggression toward anyone or anything, it is especially effective to regard them as we would regard dreams, illusions, or emanations. A dream arises and passes, yet has no substantial existence, like a hallucination or an illusion. Anything that causes emotional defilements to arise should likewise be seen as illusory.

             When hearing any offensive words, view them as an echo.

Whenever we hear discordant and abusive words that we do not like, we should regard them as the echo of a sound we ourselves have made. Unpleasant sounds are echoes of our own unpleasantness, and praises are echoes of pleasing sounds we have uttered.

              When your body is afflicted by harm, view this as your previous actions.

It is a skillful practice to blame all that goes wrong and any injury or harm that comes to us as the ripening of our past unskillful actions. We should think that we have commixed worse actions in the past and that our present difficulties stem from this. To do so quickly ends any internal conflict. Accumulation of unwholesome acts leads to our own suffering. We do not have to lift up a pick and shovel and work hard to collect negative actions and troubles; we can do so quietly just by generating dark thoughts. It is not true that our problems come from outside us; all are created by ourselves. If we search inwardly, we can reach a lasting state of happiness, but to look outwardly for the cause of confusion and frustration will never uncover the solution.

              Abide well in solitude, beyond town limits, like the corpses of wild game.

Since we should dedicate all our efforts in the beginning stages of practice toward self-observation and taming and pacifying the mind, it is beneficial to live in solitude. The more distractions there are outside, the more there will be inside. The quieter it is outside, the quieter the mind will become. Therefore, Atisha suggests that we hide like the corpses of wild game. For instance, cats do not generally die in their master’s home, but leave and die alone. In a similar fashion, we should retreat to places of isolation in order to engage in intensive meditation.

This requires strength and courage in addition to enthusiastic effort. Milarepa has said,

If my relatives do not hear of my happiness, my enemies do not learn of my suffering, and I die alone without any mourners, then all my wishes as a yogi will have been fulfilled.

In mentioning the optimum circumstances for serious meditation, it is not expected that everyone must do the same when following Buddhist teachings. It shows us how great masters of the past have engaged in such practices and succeeded in gaining full realization. To bear such things in mind can give us further courage and perhaps a few people may be prepared to gain ultimate benefit for themselves and others through undertaking such practices.


How to cite this document:
© Geshe Rabten and Geshe Dhargyey, authors. Advice From a Spiritual Friend (Wisdom Publications, 1996)

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