Padampa Sangye was one of the greatest scholars of classical India. Just before the end of his very long life, in 1117 CE, in Dingri, Tibet, his close disciple Dampa Charchen said to him, “You are about to pass away. When you do, you will go from happiness to happiness, and there will be no difference for you. But all of us who are left behind in Dingri need something to protect us. We need something that we can pray to, something we can have faith and devotion in. Please leave us some testament, some final instructions.” In response, Padampa Sangye taught these verses.
The following eight verses have been selected by the Tricycle editors from Advice from a Yogi (Shambhala Publications, 2015), a collection of the entire one hundred verses. Each verse is followed by commentary from Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, a tulku in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism.
If you waste this life and leave it empty-handed,
you won’t easily find a human birth again,
people of Dingri.
It is wonderful to have the motivation to enter the gate of the dharma and to study and practice. This is an unmistaken motivation. But even if the initial motivation that brings you to the dharma is very good, the contemporaneous motivation— the motivation of an ordinary individual at the actual time of study or practice—might not be so good. You might come under the power of the afflictions, or you might have a neutral motivation.
When practicing and studying, it’s important to have a motivation that is free from affliction. Among the various pure motivations, the most important is the wish to help ourselves and others, the vast motivation of the Mahayana, which means acting for the sake of all sentient beings, who are as limitless as space. You may already have faith, respect, and excitement about the dharma, and the pure motivation of bodhicitta, the spirit of awakening. Still, it is good to recall and reinforce that motivation from time to time. It helps your mind to go toward the dharma, the dharma to become the path, and the path to dispel confusion.
We need to be extremely careful in this life. We need to practice the dharma; we need to use our life for the dharma. We don’t want to leave this life empty-handed. What does “empty-handed” mean? Well, when we are born, do we come into the world fully clothed, with all the knowledge, wealth, and possessions we need? We don’t. We come into this world as newborn babes naked, with nothing, and we have to acquire it all.
All the things we’ve done for the purpose of this life won’t help us at the moment of death. In order to make sure that we don’t leave this life with empty hands, we need to accomplish the dharma properly. If we can have some signs of practice, if we can say to ourselves at the time of death, “I practiced well and I achieved this result,” that is first-rate. But even if we can’t do that, at the very least we need to be able to say, “I entered the gate of the dharma and did some dharma practice.” If at least we can say that, we won’t be leaving this life empty-handed.
Now we have this human body, and with it we can do something meaningful. But if we don’t accomplish anything with this life, we will come to the end of it and have nothing. This is why we need to make sure that we do our dharma practice now, while we are full of life, healthy, and able to practice, so that we do not leave this life empty-handed.
The second line of this verse reads “You won’t easily find a human birth again, people of Dingri.” Attaining a human life is not said to be impossible, but it is difficult for those who waste this life. This is why we need to keep these instructions in mind and tell ourselves, “I am not going to leave this life empty-handed.” It is important not to waste this life but to practice the dharma.
To attain a human life is extremely fortunate, and since we have this good fortune, we need to use it.
Give up this life—focus on the next.
There is not a higher aim than that,
people of Dingri.
Death and impermanence are not very pleasant topics. We find it rather uncomfortable, even depressing, to think about death and impermanence, but in fact it is extremely helpful, because thinking about impermanence encourages us. If we contemplate impermanence, we can accomplish something of meaning and purpose.
As the great yogi Milarepa said,
First I went to the mountains from the fear of death,
But now I’ve seized the stronghold of deathlessness.
Out of fear of death and impermanence, Milarepa went to the mountains; then he meditated there, and the result was that he no longer needed to fear death. This is how meditation on impermanence helped him.
Likewise, in one sutra it says, “The best of all meditations is the meditation on impermanence.” The reason is that in the beginning, it is the condition that leads us to practice the dharma. In the middle, it is the rod that spurs us on to practice, and in the end, it is the companion to attaining the result.
First, meditating on impermanence is the condition that leads us to practice the dharma. Generally, we are involved with both dharma practice and worldly affairs. Normally, if we have to choose between these two, we choose worldly activity. We get distracted by all kinds of worldly affairs and are not able to really engage in dharma practice. But if we meditate on impermanence and truly see how we are impermanent, we’ll develop world-weariness and renunciation that will lead us to think, “I really have to practice dharma.” Meditating on impermanence is the condition that encourages us to practice the dharma.
Once I met someone, and when I told him that I was a Buddhist, he said, “Buddhists are no good. Religion is something that should inspire people and give them strength, but Buddhists only talk about impermanence, emptiness, selflessness, and suffering. You always talk about negative things and never give people any encouragement.” Maybe he’s right. We do always talk about impermanence and suffering and selflessness, but there’s a good reason: it encourages us to practice the dharma.
The second reason for meditating on impermanence is that it is the rod that spurs us to diligence. Sometimes we lose our diligence and get a bit lazy; we don’t feel the wish to practice dharma. At that point, if we think about suffering and contemplate impermanence, it will spur us to practice. If we lack diligence or faith, we can gain diligence and faith.
People often ask, “I really like the dharma; I really want to practice dharma, but I just can’t seem to do it. What should I do?” The answer is to meditate on the four thoughts (the advantages of precious human birth, death and impermanence, karma, and the sufferings of samsara) that turn the mind to the dharma and in particular to meditate on death and impermanence, because this is the rod that spurs us to diligence.
Finally, meditating on impermanence is the companion to obtaining the result. First it encourages us to enter the gate of the dharma, then it encourages us to be diligent, and through our diligence the good results of the dharma come right into our hands. How do we meditate on impermanence? As Padampa Sangye says, give up this life and focus on the next. When you have a choice between dharma activities and the affairs of this world, you should forget about the worldly concerns. Put them aside. Concentrate on dharma practice instead. Give up this life.
If you think the affairs of this life are more important, you will put most of your effort into them and end up setting dharma activity aside. You’ll concentrate so much on this life that you cannot put the dharma into practice at all. You’ll forget the dharma entirely.
How does it help you to give up this life and focus on the next? It helps because it brings you the highest aim. In other words, you come to attain a result. Then you can say to yourself, “I did something that was really meaningful. I truly accomplished something with this life.”
Like the children of the gods while living,
fearsome as a mob of demons dead—
your illusory bodies have you tricked,
people of Dingri.
We have a strong attachment to our own body. We cherish it, but this does not actually help us. One day something will go wrong with our body. No matter how beautiful our body is while we are alive, the day we die, it becomes a corpse. As a corpse, it’s completely horrifying, and no one wants it. So we see that there is no essence to the body. Our illusory body has us tricked.
In order not to be fooled by our body, we need to put it to use for the dharma, as Shantideva said. This benefits us and others. For example, the Buddha appeared in the world, attained perfect buddhahood, and turned the wheel of dharma; through this he helped countless sentient beings by bringing them to the ultimate state of liberation and omniscience. Likewise, many extraordinary masters have appeared and taught the dharma; they helped many others and also freed themselves from samsara’s vast ocean of suffering. They did this by using their body well to practice generosity, discipline, patience, and the other paramitas[perfections]. In particular, there have been many masters of the Vajrayana who have used their body in this way and attained a good result.
As Shantideva said, “Use the body as a boat to cross to the other side of the ocean of samsara. And when you come to the other side, leave the boat behind.” We are on the shores of the great ocean of samsara, the ocean of suffering. In order to free ourselves from these waters, we need something to bring us across. We need a boat, and that boat is our body. We need to use our body well, and if we do, we can free ourselves from samsara. But if we are tricked by our attachment to this illusory body, we’ll forget to do so.
While you are distracted, death will seize you.
Practice from this very moment on, people of
Padampa Sangye gave this advice to encourage us to practice the dharma with diligence and to counteract distractedness. Why do we get distracted? We get distracted because of clinging to permanence. Thinking our lives will last for a long time, we become attached to worldly activities, our mind gets distracted, and we don’t practice the dharma. Yet there is the danger that in the interim impermanence will strike and we will die. In order to urge us to practice the dharma now, Padampa Sangye talks a lot about impermanence. This is easy to understand.
We become attached to our wealth and possessions, to food and clothing, to our home—all the good things in life. Through clinging to these things, we get distracted. We might have faith in the dharma and understand that we need to practice it, but we are so distracted that we don’t get around to it. Even though we understand death and impermanence, and we know that death is going to happen to us, distractedness makes us lazy. This is a difficult situation. The verse is an exhortation to practice the dharma now—from this very moment onward. Don’t take your time getting around to dharma practice. Do it right now.
Mind’s propensities are like old friends
who keep on coming back; don’t chase the past,
people of Dingri.
Sometimes we can be extremely diligent about subduing ignorance and the afflictions, but sometimes they keep coming back and we cannot be diligent. We have become accustomed to these bad propensities since beginningless samsara, and so sometimes we can only partially eliminate them. We want to develop the qualities of realization, and sometimes they come, but sometimes they don’t. This is just how things are. Our habitual tendencies are old acquaintances; we go way back with them. We need to try to get rid of our old bad habits and create new good habits. When we create good habits, sometimes they take hold and sometimes they don’t. We need to be continually diligent about this. Our old habits are harmful. Don’t chase the past.
When afflictions come, apply the antidote.
Concepts will be naturally freed, people of Dingri.
Sometimes afflictions arise. Do they arise because we are poor, miserable, and unfortunate? No, they arise because we have imprints of the afflictions from beginningless time. When the afflictions occur, we address this in dharma practice by suppressing them with an antidote. For example, if hatred arises, we apply an antidote and meditate on patience.
Sometimes we think, “I want to get rid of these afflictions, but I just can’t do it.” But that is not the way it is, because actually the afflictions are fleeting; they are adventitious. They are like clouds that hide the sun. The light of the sun is always naturally present. Clouds are just temporary; eventually the wind will come along and blow them away. In the same way, the nature of the mind is naturally present, and the obscurations and the afflictions are just adventitious. When we use an antidote against the afflictions, sometimes we will be able to suppress the afflictions, but sometimes we won’t. Even though we sometimes can’t, if we gradually keep trying, eventually we accustom ourselves to doing it. Because the afflictions are not present in the real nature, we can suppress and decrease them. They are not established as anything, and therefore we can eliminate them. They will just naturally disappear.
Lust and hate arise but leave no trace,
like birds in flight; don’t cling to passing moods,
people of Dingri.
Even though the mind is the root of everything, our afflicted thoughts of greed, lust, and hatred appear, strong and powerful, and we engage in the greed and hatred. We think of something, and we think of it again and again, and it gets stronger and stronger. How do we get rid of these thoughts?
We experience the afflictions of desire and hatred, but their appearance is like the flight of a bird through the sky, leaving no tracks. They just dissolve into emptiness without leaving any trace. There is no reason to be attached or to fixate on them. They arise, and then they’re the past, and they can’t do anything to us.
Since everything comes down to the mind, we can attain the ultimate result. We are able to give up all of samsara because samsara is just the mind. We are able to achieve nirvana because nirvana is just the mind. The afflictions of desire and hatred sometimes seem like solid things that we can’t get rid of. But if we look at their ultimate nature, how they actually are, we see that we can get rid of them. Since we have the instructions, we should have confidence that we can eliminate the afflictions of desire and hatred.
Like the empty sky above, the mind,
has no center or periphery, people of Dingri.
This verse is about the indivisibility of appearances and emptiness. Various external appearances occur—visual forms, sounds, scents, tastes, and sensations—but their essence is naturally empty. Where do they occur? They occur in our mind. They appear in the nature of the mind. They seem to be external, but they cannot actually be established outside the mind in any way. All appearances are actually the mind.
There is what is called the reason of clear awareness, proof that everything is the mind. There are external appearances, and the reason there are is that they appear to the mind. There is no other thing that we can point to that does not appear to the mind. For that reason, appearances are mind. The nature of the mind is empty. Therefore appearances and emptiness are indivisible. Appearances occur, but while occurring, their essence is empty; while they are empty, they appear as anything. These two are inseparable. This inseparability is like the empty sky.
Appearances occur in the mind, and mind has no limits. You cannot say that the mind has a center or periphery that is either large or small. The nature of the mind is that it permeates everything.
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