The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva and the Four Seals of the Dharma

Ngulchu Thogme Sangpo's  
37 Practices of a Bodhisattva

The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva (Tib. Rgyal sras lag len so bdun ma) is a short Buddhist text authored by the Tibetan master Ngulchu Thogme Sangpo (1295–1369).  It enjoys enormous popularity throughout all the different Buddhist traditions in Tibet and is also one of my favorites. 

This is also one of the reasons why I decided to take up the text here on this blog. Another is that it sums up the Buddhist path in a very condensed way, but still does so in a very complete way. Simply reading the root verses alone is already very touching. With the hope to inspire myself and others who also do not have that much time to engage in extensive studies at the moment, I will start to explain the work here little by little. 

While doing so, I will rely on different explanations I received over the years, and on existing Tibetan commentaries. Nevertheless, I will also try to relate the verses to our present time and see what we can learn from them for our daily life.
37 practices of a bodhisattva - Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo - the pictures shows a field close to where I live

Being aware of the fact that its author, Ngulchu Thogme Sangpo, lived in Tibet during the early 14th century, one may of course wonder whether the teachings therein are of any relevance for us today. It is well-known that Buddhism was able to easily adapt very quickly to different cultural surroundings throughout its long history of approximately 2500 years. Different Buddhist traditions found in Sri Lanka, Japan, Tibet and elsewhere are a witness of this fact. 

One of the reasons that Buddhism worked in such different environments is that the teachings themselves are not focused so much on the outer world. The outer world is of course not neglected, but it is not seen as that important.

The Buddha taught that all the things we see in the world are produced by causes and conditions. As such, they come into being, remain for some time, and then they disintegrate. They are impermanent. This characteristic of things is the same, whether we live on fast-track in the hi-tech world or as a peasant in a remote backward area. 

Problems are of course slightly different, but they are still comparable. Whether the battery of our mobile phone dies or our horse is slowly getting old and won’t be so useful anymore as before – it is both experienced as suffering. Sufferings such as birth, sickness, old-age and death are the same everywhere.
Buddhism generally regards the trio of ignorance, attachment and aversion, as the main causes for our suffering. They are therefore referred to as the three poisons. Hence, in case of our mobile phone, suffering is said to originate not from the phone, but from our lack of understanding that it is simply the nature of phenomena to be impermanent. In combination with attachment to the phone, sufferings is inevitable. 

If we think about it for a moment, we can easily understand that things don’t last. Still, we generally don’t do this. When we buy a new thing, we take it for granted that it will last for some time. After all, it is a new and expensive phone. So it should last. But once it finally breaks, even if this will happen only after some years, it will still come as a surprise for us. We have completely neglected the fact that all things are impermanent and we will therefore feel a sense of loss. We did not understand that all phenomena do not possess a truly existing, permanent self. 

This does not only apply to things in the outer world, but also to ourselves. We came into existence, abide for some time on this planet, and then we have to go on. It is just the way things are. Our physical body is impermanent, and our mind, even though there is an ongoing stream of knowing moments, is impermanent as well. 

One moment of consciousness comes, abides for some time and fades away. Hopes and fears, joy and happiness, come and go. At best, they will remain as memories. There is not any truly existing permanent self that would exist. Even our ongoing mind-stream which takes rebirth again and again is undergoing a constant process of change.

The better we understand the nature of all phenomena, the nature of our own mind, the more we will be at peace. We do not have to change the outer world. That would not only be very difficult to do, but also really exhausting. In fact, the only thing we can change relatively easy is our own mind.One needs to add relatively here, because it still requires some work, but it's doable. 

What do we have to do? We need to learn about our mind and our inherent potential for wisdom and compassion and habituate ourselves with these inherent qualities. The true origin for happiness lies within ourselves, not in the world out there. It has thus been compared to a treasure hidden under a poor man's house. We just need to discover what has always been there.

The Four Seals of the Dharma:

What has been said until here is more or less what has been formulated by the Buddha in the Four Seals of the Dharma. It is often said that the four seals are what specifies whether any given teaching is Buddhist or not. If a teaching is in accord with the four seals, it is considered to be in accord with the Buddha's teachings whether it is called Buddhist or not.

The Four Seals of the Dharma are:
  1. All compounded phenomena are impermanent.
  2. All contaminated phenomena are suffering. 
  3. All dharmas are without self.  
  4. Nirvana is peace.

They have been taught among others by the Buddha in the Sāgaranāgarājaparipṛcchāsūtra
“To fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all compounded phenomena are impermanent; to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all contaminated phenomena are suffering; to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that all phenomena are without self; to fully engage in understanding the inexhaustible doctrine of the bodhisattva mahāsattvas that nirvāṇa is peace.”
(Source: 84000)

So, whether a Buddhist teaching is new, 600 or even 2500 years old, does not make that much of a difference. It can easily be adapted to our present situation since the basic problems of humanity - even if they may have changed a lot in appearance - have not changed much in essence.

The teaching by Ngulchu Thogme Sangpo commonly known as the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva is a truly wonderful and inspiring text. Throughout centuries it has been cherished by Tibetan masters from all traditions. It is based on extensive texts like the Bodhicarya Avatara by Shantideva, but shortly summarizes their most essential points. Nevertheless, it still contains a complete set of instructions for the Buddhist path. I am really looking forward to go through these verses in more detail here on this blog in the near future.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the Four Seals of the Dharma, you can find a very interesting series of videos with teachings on the subject here

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