The Discipline of Benefitting Sentient Beings

The Discipline of Benefitting Sentient Beings

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa’s Teachings on Gampopa’s Ornament of Precious Liberation
Day Three
Tergar Monastery, Bodh Gaya, India
February 16, 2020

His Holiness began the morning’s teachings by explaining his choice of the name ‘Arya Kshema’ for the nuns’ winter dharma gathering:

The reason we call it the ‘Arya Kshema Winter Dharma Gathering’ is that during the time of the Buddha, Arya Kshema was a primary disciple among the Bhagavan Buddha’s retinue of male and female monastics and male and female laypeople.  Among the male and female monastics, there was seniority in terms of the precepts and ranking in terms of their different realizations… among the ranks of the greatest female monastic disciples of the Bhagavan Buddha, the greatest in confidence and prajna was the Bhikshuni Arya Kshema…Naming the gathering for the greatest bhikshuni in confidence and prajna would not only be appropriate in historical terms, but also for our current day since the reason for having this gathering is to increase the nuns’ learning and understanding of the five great texts through listening and contemplating…

Arya Kshema was also known for her confidence, and for the nuns to gain in confidence, he emphasized, is really important.  “We have to increase our own mental determination and be able to take whatever steps we need ourselves to be able to dare to do this,” he asserted.

Continuation of the Commentary on Chapter Eleven in Ornament of Precious Liberation

His Holiness then elaborated in depth on Chapter Eleven, in particular the aspect of the discipline of benefitting sentient beings.

He reiterated from the previous days’ teachings that the precepts of engaged bodhicitta are three fold: the superior training in discipline, in concentration, and in wisdom. In this respect, Lamp for the Path to Awakening says:

Those who abide within the vow of engaged bodhicitta,
Having correctly trained in the three aspects of moral discipline,
will greatly deepen their appreciation of those three trainings.

This passage is about the trainings, their essence, and characteristics. In particular, he noted, it is about keeping the discipline of a bodhisattva which includes the discipline of benefitting sentient beings of which he wanted to elaborate more fully. Before elaborating, he reminded us of the three types of discipline of the bodhisattva: 1) the discipline of refraining from harmful action, 2) the discipline of gathering virtuous action, and 3) the discipline of benefitting beings.

His Holiness then expanded on how these three disciplines are presented in a variety of texts. The Sutra of Unraveling the Thought (Samdhinirmocana Sutra), one of the most important sutras of the Yogācāra School, delineates this list as,

“the discipline of turning away from non-virtue, the discipline of engaging in virtue, and the discipline of benefitting beings.”

It teaches these three types of discipline as does the Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras (Mahayanasutralamkara) which says that effort is the three disciplines.  Vasubandhu’s commentary on this topic says, “The discipline of refraining, the discipline of gathering of virtuous qualities, and the discipline of the benefitting beings.”  Having expanded on the different presentations of these disciplines for the bodhisattva, His Holiness that these three trainings include everything that a bodhisattva needs to train in: “In order to ripen one’s own being, you need to refrain from harmful action and gather virtuous qualities. In order to ripen other sentient beings, you need to benefit beings. And for that reason, there is nothing that is incomplete or not included in these three types of discipline.”

There is a progression in their order:

Regarding the first, if you do not refrain from harmful action, then it is difficult to later develop the other two types of discipline. Likewise, this discipline of refraining from harmful action is primarily practiced on the path of joining and the path of accumulation. The second is the discipline of the gathering of virtuous qualities. Without it, you cannot have the discipline of benefitting others. So, the second type of discipline is primarily practiced during the seven inferior bodhisattva levels. The third is the discipline of the benefitting of beings. If we do not benefit other beings, we cannot ripen and liberate them. Also, it is the practice that is on the three pure bodhisattva levels.

Then, His Holiness turned to address the meaning behind these specific disciplines. When we talk about the discipline of refraining from harmful action, an easy explanation is that it means we must not commit faults or cause harm to others. Furthermore, we must make efforts to stop our faulty actions.

When we talk about the discipline of gathering of virtuous qualities, if we can only make one prostration or light a single lamp, no matter what virtue we do, no matter what size, we need to do as much as we can to the best of our abilities. Whatever virtuous actions we gather, we must immediately dedicate them to achieving the state of Buddhahood. That is the discipline of the gathering of virtuous qualities.

When we talk about the discipline of benefitting others, we should always think about what we can do to benefit sentient beings. We should ask ourselves, ‘How am I going to benefit sentient beings?’ Both when we think about it and engage in the practice, we need to directly or indirectly benefit sentient beings as much as we can. We need to encourage others to do it and rejoice in everyone who is bringing benefit to sentient beings. We need to praise them. So, even if we can only benefit others by our words, we need to do whatever we can to benefit beings.

Some scholars think that the discipline of benefitting sentient beings means only directly benefitting them, rather than indirectly. His Holiness wondered if that really is the case and whether we can indirectly benefit beings as well. He noted that this is something to continue to investigate. Moreover, he explained, even if we are not able to immediately help, we should at least have the mental motivation and aspiration of thinking, ‘May I be able to help.’

But why are they called disciplines? His Holiness explained that when we talk about discipline, we are saying, ‘I am promising and committing to give up offences. I promise and commit to accumulate virtue and gather the qualities.’ Discipline, His Holiness emphasized, is a promise to do that. For example, with the Mahayana sojong vows, even without a lama present, you can imagine the buddhas and bodhisattvas in front of you and take them. However, if you follow the ritual of the vow without correct motivation, even in the presence of a lama, you have not taken the vow. To think consciously ‘I am not going to do this, I am going to do that,’ is of utmost importance. Refraining from harmful action includes actions such as the ten non-virtuous actions, the prohibited unwholesome actions included in the seven types of pratimoksha vows, and the eighteen or four root downfalls of the bodhisattva vow.  Of course there are different traditions: there is Nagarjuna’s tradition, which we call the Middle Way systems of tenets; and Asanga’s tradition of the Mind Only system of tenets. But all of these are included in the discipline of refraining from harmful actions. If the bodhisattva, enters the mandala of the mantra, receives the empowerment of the tantra, and receives a tantric vow, this is also in discipline of refraining from harmful action.

Now, during the context of gathering the virtuous qualities, it is said that there are thirty-four adverse conditions to generosity and so forth. There are seven adverse conditions for generosity and nine for discipline, four for patience, three for diligence, three for dhyana, and eight for prajna. Each of these has their own minor offences which are all included in the discipline of gathering virtues.

Now for the discipline of benefitting sentient beings, there are twelve offences of adverse conditions. So all put together, there are forty-six different disciplines for the later types of discipline. There is no practice of the bodhisattva that is not included in these three types of discipline. They are all very important.

The Eleven Ways of Benefitting Beings

Some note there are eleven ways of benefitting beings and others list twelve different ways of benefitting beings.

 Asanga in his Bodhisattva Levels (Bodhisattvabhumi) lists eleven:

1) benefitting those who must be helped;
2) benefitting those ignorant of the means;
3) benefitting those who have helped you;
4) benefitting those imperiled by danger;
5) benefitting those stricken by grief;
6) benefitting those deprived of things;
7) benefitting those who wish to settle somewhere;
8) benefitting those who wish to come into harmony;
9) benefitting those who act properly;
10) benefitting those who are misguided in behavior;
11) benefitting those tamed by miracles.

Lists are also found in Chandragomin’s The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows (Bodhisattvasamvaravimsaka), and in Acharya Bodhibhadra’s The Commentary on the Difficult Points. If we combine these two, basically in The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows, it enumerates twelve downfalls:

1) not helping others in need;
2) giving up nursing the sick;
3) not dispelling suffering;
4) not teaching what is proper to the careless;
5) not helping those who have done something to help you;
6) not dispelling others' sorrow;
7) not giving to those who want wealth;
8) not benefitting your disciples;
9) not engaging in a way that accords with others minds;
10) not speaking in praise of qualities,
11) not stopping wrong appropriately;
12) not threatening with miracles.

After the tea break, His Holiness began by reviewing the three types of discipline of the bodhisattva.

First is refraining from harmful action: “There is the discipline of refraining from the ten non-virtuous activities. It includes the pratimoksha vows, the root downfalls of the bodhisattva; and, in addition to that, if you have taken the tantric vows, then it includes the root downfalls of tantra.”

Though it is vast, His Holiness suggested, this is also easier than benefitting beings, because when you are practicing the discipline of giving up harmful actions the root downfalls for all the vows are very clear and also in the Vinaya.

Second is the discipline of gathering virtuous qualities. This too is not particularly complicated. It means doing as much as you can to gather virtuous action and making efforts towards it.

The third discipline that of benefitting sentient beings, is indispensable for bodhisattvas. It is, however, very complex and extremely difficult, because it involves others not just yourself. The reason for this is that in order to direct everything you think and say to the benefit of sentient beings, you have to know how to benefit sentient beings and merely memorizing a text does not necessarily help.

In Asanga’s The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows the first of the eleven actions, benefitting those who must be helped, is taught in three lines. His Holiness commented that Asanga’s perspective is from that of the faults and actions we should avoid.  Each of the three failures to act is slightly different:  the first, not helping those in need should be understood as benefitting others in general; the second, giving up nursing the sick is considered a particular type in this text because nursing the sick is difficult; and the third, not dispelling suffering, is generally about not engaging in the ways of dispelling suffering.

Acharya Bodhibhadra’s commentary states that we should have the motivation of the wish to help others and actually do something to help them. These include offering to protect someone’s house or wealth, bringing married couples who have been separated back together, going to weddings and other such parties, aiding people in building monasteries, statues, and stupas. His Holiness added that it was important to do these activities voluntarily. Other ways of helping include: nursing the sick, showing the way to people who are blind, giving assistance to those who are deaf, or carrying a person with a disability on your back. These days, His Holiness commented, you do not have to carry someone on your back, but you can help someone with a disability by pushing their wheelchair. This text includes many more examples such as: we have to encourage all those who live in socially vulnerable and oppressed conditions.  We offer help to those who mistake their way and become lost. Or, if they do not have any food to eat, and are hungry, we give them food and drink.

On the second day of his teaching, His Holiness had talked about extenuating circumstances under which a bodhisattva might not take action. His Holiness now warned that these were exceptional circumstances and not to be used as a reason for not acting out of laziness.

Continuing with the eleven actions, the second is to benefit those ‘ignorant of the means’.  His Holiness explained that this means benefitting as appropriate to the level of that sentient being.  There are those who only think about this lifetime, in which case a bodhisattva should help them accordingly and offer advice on the aspects of this lifetime such as how to gather wealth and so on.  Someone who considers future lives needs to be taught about how the Dharma will help them in future lives and supported in that way.  If people lack faith, a bodhisattva should skillfully try to make them feel faith, and for those who lack compassion, skillfully try to get them to feel compassion. For those who have wrong views, the bodhisattva skillfully tries to bring them to the correct view.

Crucially, a bodhisattva must never give up on any sentient being, even though a person may appear to have given up on themselves. We must always try to do whatever we can to benefit them.

The third action is to work for the benefit of those who have helped you. Basically, you need to repay their kindness with a kindness that is equal to or greater than the kindness they have shown you. If someone who has been very kind to you asks for help, they are placing their hopes in you and, it goes without saying, you should do whatever you can. Even if they do not ask, you should do whatever you can to fulfill their hopes to accomplish what they want.  His Holiness quoted a Chinese saying: “If someone helps you with a single drop of water, then you should help them by giving them a house full of water.”  When someone gives you even a little help, in the future, you need to repay them at least equally.  Even if you cannot do something greater, you should not repay their kindness with something lesser.

The fourth action is benefitting those imperiled by danger. His Holiness commented that, this action is not in the root verses of The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows, but is included in Acharya Bodhibhadra’s text. The meaning is that when sentient beings have fear or danger, we have to do something to free them from that danger. For example, when there are natural disasters, predators, the dangers of war, famine, and plague, we need to do whatever we can to free them from that danger, support, and help them. The current example is the Covid-19 virus in China which has infected more than 75,000 people so far and killed more than 2,300.  Just noting the news is not sufficient, we should ask ourselves, ‘What can I do to help?’  From one perspective, the situation is truly terrible but for a bodhisattva, it is a great opportunity to benefit other sentient beings.  We have to work according to our own abilities and capacities. His Holiness emphasized that, at the very least, we can make aspirations such as, ‘May this disease come to an end,’ ‘May this epidemic be pacified,’ ‘May all sentient beings be freed from suffering, and ‘May all be cured from the illness’. The epidemic was now in the provinces of Szechuan and Qinghai, which have Tibetan populations, and had spread to Tibetan areas as well, he explained and urged everyone to recite Thangtong Gyalpo’s prayer, The Verses that Saved Sakya from Sickness: A Prayer for Pacifying the Fear of Disease. To create benefit, he assured everyone:

We do not need to move the sky or shake the earth, we just need to join our two palms and focus our mind one-pointedly. Even if we just recite a few mani mantras, then there is a benefit to the other person, whether direct or indirect. ...From another aspect, definitely making aspirations will produce results.

The fifth action is benefitting those who are stricken by grief. This is described in The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows as dispelling others sorrow. It means benefitting people who have mental sorrow and suffering. It might be in regard to people whose parents, good friends, people close to them, their lamas, and even beloved pets like dogs and cats have died, or it can refer to loss of wealth by theft. These days, His Holiness observed, more commonly, it could be losses on the stock exchange. A bodhisattva commits to help alleviate people’s worries, mental suffering, and sorrow. There are numerous people nowadays suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, or who are overcome with grief. In particular, there are many young people who are depressed and need someone who can help in a positive way and give them a good direction.

The sixth action is benefitting those who are deprived of things. In The Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows, it says that the downfall is ‘not giving to those who want wealth’. This means we should give to those who have no food, no clothes, or no wealth. It means giving to beggars, in order to try to benefit them in any way we can. For example, giving food, money, and access to education is extremely important. His Holiness cited the work of the Tong-Len Charitable Trust in Dharamsala. Founded by a Tibetan monk, Lobsang Jamyang, Tong-Len has helped countless poor and displaced children gain an education, and have broken the cycle of poverty. At first it was not easy; parents were reluctant to send their children to school. They had been living as beggars for generations and this was a break with that tradition, but with patience and determination, Jamyang worked with the slum community and eventually persuaded the parents of the benefits of education.  His Holiness stated the importance of understanding that giving an education actually means giving practical advice to others and widening their experience.  Drawing on the experience of the nuns and of his own nomadic childhood, the Karmapa talked briefly about restrictions on the education of women experienced in traditional cultures because they had not been exposed to a broader view. “I never knew that girls needed to learn how to write because my sister, mother, and great-grandmother didn’t know. They didn’t need to know anything. They even asked, ‘If they go to school, who will milk the cows and who will do the housework?’” he admitted. No one was at fault. They simply lacked experience of an alternative view.

The teaching concluded at this point. His Holiness requested everyone in the time remaining to recite the Twenty-One Praises of Tara for the benefit of all sentient beings: “Since today there are over 400 nuns here, you are wearing the robes of a Buddhist, you have gone forth and you are different from ordinary people. As the Buddha said, those who are my followers are better than a 100,000 ordinary people."


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2020.02.16 HHGK Teaching Day 3: The Discipline of Benefitting Sentient Beings