To Listen, Contemplate, and Meditate Is the Practice of a Bodhisattva

A Guide to the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva

Now we have this great vessel of freedoms and resources, so
     difficult to obtain.
So that we may liberate ourselves and others from the ocean
     of samsara,
Day and night, without distraction,
To listen, contemplate, and meditate is the practice of a

This body, which is like a vessel, was not born into the eight leisureless states and has the ten resources. This is difficult to obtain from the point of view of analogy, number, and cause. Now that it has been obtained, if one wishes to accomplish the great aim of omniscience, one has the ability to do so at this time. Without letting this opportunity go to waste by engaging in activity that has little or no meaning, day and night and in all situations, always without distraction, listen to the profound instructions in the presence of the spiritual friend of the Mahayana, contemplate their meaning, and properly take them to heart by meditating upon them for the sake of liberating everyone, self and other, from the ocean of samsara.

Also, the Entrance to the Way of a Bodhisattva says:

It is difficult to obtain the freedoms and resources
Whereby the aims of beings may be achieved.
If I do not accomplish benefit with it now,
Later, how could I obtain the perfect resources?

Not being born in the eight leisureless states, and being at leisure to practice the genuine dharma, is what is called freedom; and having no freedom refers to the eight leisureless states.

Nagarjuna said:

Hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals,
Barbarians, long-lived gods,
Having wrong views, born in a time with no buddha,
And being dumb: these are the eight leisureless states.

Due to the results of each of their own previously accumulated negative karma, the beings of the three lower realms are constantly propelled into the sufferings of heat and cold, hunger and thirst, and so forth. Constantly experiencing this, they are not at leisure to practice dharma.

As for the long-lived gods, since their time is spent in a state of mental blankness, they are not at leisure to practice dharma. In outlying lands, the teachings of the Buddha are not extant, and so those born there are not at leisure to practice dharma. Non-Buddhists, or those with views that are in accord with the non-Buddhists, are not at leisure to practice dharma because their own mind streams are corrupted by such views. Born in a dark age, one will not hear even a little of the sounds of the three jewels; one is not able to practice dharma because of not recognizing what is virtuous and what is unvirtuous. If born dumb, then due to deficient cognition one is not able to practice dharma. These are the eight leisureless states.

The conducive conditions for practicing dharma are the five “selfresources,” i.e., resources that are complete in relation to oneself; and the five “other-resources,” i.e., resources that are complete in relation to others.

The Five Resources in Relation to Oneself

Nagarjuna said:

Being human, born where there is dharma, having intact sense
Being free of extreme karma, and having faith in the correct place.

If one does not obtain a human birth, one will not meet with the dharma; thus, having a human birth, the support, is the first resource. If one is born in outlying regions where there is no dharma, one will not meet the dharma. Having now been born in a place where there is dharma is the second, the resource of place. If one does not have all of their faculties intact, that is a hindrance to dharma. Being free from that condition is the third, the resource of possessing the capacities of the faculties. If one has extreme karma, one always engages in nonvirtue and one’s back is turned to the dharma. Having interest in virtuous conduct at this time is the fourth, the resource of having the special intention. If one does not have faith in the correct object, the Buddha’s teachings, one’s mind will not be oriented toward the dharma. Now, having the ability to turn one’s mind to the dharma is the fifth, the resource of faith.

The Five Resources in Relation to Others

Nagarjuna said:

The coming of the Buddha; the Buddha having taught dharma;
The remaining of that teaching; disciples following that teaching;
And the love and compassion for the sake of others.

If one is not born in the fortunate age in which a buddha has come to this world, there will not even be the word dharma. Now to have been born in an era in which a buddha has come is the first, the resource of the special teacher. Even if a buddha comes, if he does not teach the dharma, there will be no benefit. The turning of the wheel of dharma in three stages, the resource of teaching the genuine dharma, is the second. Even if the dharma is taught, if the teachings diminish, it will not be of benefit. Now the period during which the teachings are extant has not yet ended; the resource of time is third. Even if the teaching remains, if one does not enter into it, it will not be of benefit. Now having the fortune of entering the gate of the teachings is the fourth resource. Even if one has entered the dharma, if one does not encounter the favorable condition of a spiritual friend, one will not understand the essence of dharma. Having done so is the resource of superior compassion, the fifth. If one investigates one’s own mind stream and, accordingly, finds these eight freedoms and ten resources, totaling eighteen, perfectly complete, that is what is called the precious human birth endowed with the eighteen freedoms and resources.

The Fifth Dalai Lama said:

Now, the basis of achieving all benefit and happiness,
The vessel of freedoms and resources, has been found this once.
If I were not to go to the precious land of certainty
But return again to samsara empty-handed, my heart would rot.

These freedoms and resources are difficult to obtain from the point of view of number, cause, condition, and analogy.

Being Difficult to Obtain from the Point of View of Cause

The Entrance to the Middle Way states:

The cause of the higher realms is nothing other than discipline.

There is much nonvirtue performed by sentient beings, and the virtue they perform is little. Obtaining this life in which one has the dharma has come about due to its cause: discipline and the power of accumulating much merit.

Being Difficult to Obtain from the Point of View of Condition

The cause is obtaining the precious human birth. The condition is being accepted by the spiritual friend, the guru. If one can practice the genuine dharma, the means, one can definitely obtain buddhahood in one life and one body. Meeting with such profound key instructions is extremely difficult.

Being Difficult to Obtain from the Point of View of Analogy

The support of this precious human birth is like the analogy of the meeting of a blind turtle with a single yoke on a great ocean.

Shantideva said:

Like a turtle’s neck poking through
A yoke’s hole on the churning ocean,
It is taught that a human life is very difficult to obtain.

The Special Contemplation from the Point of View of Number

If one examines the quantity and the levels of sentient beings that exist, obtaining a human birth is just barely possible. Accordingly, the hell beings are as many as the particles of dust in a vast land. Hungry ghosts are as numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges. Animals are as many as the dregs from making chang. Jealous gods are as many as the gusts in a wind storm. It is taught that the gods and humans are only as many as the motes of dust on top of a fingernail. Generally, the bodies of the higher realms are rare. Thus, the freedoms and resources of a human birth are also rare. However one thinks about it, if one should wonder about the purpose of obtaining this human birth that has the six elements and is certainly difficult to obtain: it is only through relying on this support that all the buddhas of the three times arrived at the primordial state. If we do not obtain it, there is no way to have even a little of the result of the bliss of the higher realms, let alone liberation.

The Second Buddha, Padmakara, also said:

This precious human birth of freedoms and resources is difficult to
Whether examined in terms of cause, condition, analogy, or number,
Obtaining it is certainly difficult; all the victors relied on it to go
Thus, think of the difficulties of finding the freedoms and resources
And, day and night, without leisure, practice the genuine dharma.

Even if all the supports of these outer freedoms and resources come together and one actually obtains that which is so difficult to obtain, still, [consider] the inner leisureless states. The omniscient Gyalwa Longchen Rabjam’s Wish-Fulfilling Treasury says that it is very important for those who desire the genuine dharma to examine in detail whether their mind stream is going to waste with respect to the eight leisureless states that are temporary conditions and the eight leisureless states of the mind of the cut-off class.

Likewise, the Wish-Fulfilling Treasury states:

Agitation by the five poisons; ignorance; possession by maras;
Laziness; the erupting of a great ocean of negative deeds;
Enslavement; no protection from fear; and pretending to be dharmic:
These are the eight leisureless states that are temporary conditions.


Being tightly fettered; extremely negative conduct;
Not being dissatisfied with samsara; having no faith whatsoever;
Unvirtuous conduct; having a mind free of dharma;
And violating the vows and the samayas:
These are the eight leisureless states of the mind of the cut-off class.

The Eight Leisureless States That Are Temporary Conditions

Those who have the five mental afflictions that are very coarse, such as attachment and aggression toward friends and enemies, may occasionally give rise to the wish to practice the dharma genuinely, but if their mind stream is overtaken by the five poisons, they will likely not practice dharma. This is the first leisureless state that is a temporary condition.

Those who are very ignorant, even if they enter the gate of dharma, cannot understand even a little of dharma’s meaning; they do not have the fortune to practice dharma with their three gates. This is the second.

If one takes on a teacher who teaches incorrect views and conduct—a mara of the teachings—one’s mind becomes perverted and is contradictory to true dharma. This is the third.

Even if someone desires to train in the dharma, if they are lazy, without even the slightest diligence, they do not practice dharma due to falling prey to the habit of procrastination. This is the fourth.

Even if someone has diligence, if they are obscured by negativity that does not allow good qualities to arise in their mind stream, their great ocean of negative karma erupts forth; they do not understand that the negative karma of their own actions is a weapon turned on themselves. Not developing confidence in the dharma is the fifth.

If someone is enslaved by another, there is no freedom. Even if they desire to practice dharma, they are not allowed to practice because of being under another’s control. This is the sixth.

And if someone enters the dharma in order to have protection from the fear of not being able to obtain food and clothing or of someone harming them, then because they have no conviction in the dharma and have old habitual tendencies, they engage in non-dharmic activity. This is the seventh.

Pretending to be dharmic while only having concern for this life, one distorts the dharma as a way to obtain respect, renown, honor, and gain and is separated from the path to liberation. This is the eighth.

These are the states that do not allow leisure to practice dharma.

The Eight Leisureless States of the Mind of the Cut-Off Class

Tightly bound by the fetters of this life—children, wealth, enjoyments, and so forth—one is distracted from diligent effort and does not have time to practice dharma. This is the first leisureless state of the mind of the cut-off class.

Because of one’s negative mind stream, there is not even a sesame seed’s worth of good character and one’s conduct shows no sign of improvement. Even if one meets with a genuine spiritual guide, it will be difficult to follow the genuine path. This is the second.

If no fear arises toward the faults of samsara in general, toward the lower realms in particular, or toward the sufferings of this life and so forth, whatever they may be, the cause of entering the dharma will never arise. This is the third.

If someone does not have even a little bit of faith in the genuine dharma or the guru, then the entrance to the teachings is blocked, and they will not enter the path of liberation. This is the fourth.

If someone enjoys engaging in unvirtuous, negative deeds, their three gates will not be at peace. Being devoid of any positive qualities, they are turned away from the dharma. This is the fifth.

If the dharma’s good qualities, virtue, and so forth are not evident to someone, then they will have no interest in the dharma. They will be like a dog that has dirt placed in front of him. Good qualities will not arise in their mind stream; this is the sixth.

If, having entered the common vehicle, someone breaks their vows and becomes cut off from generating a good intention, they cannot be liberated from the leisureless states and can only go to the lower realms. This is the seventh.

Having entered into the uncommon vehicle of mantra, if someone’s samaya with their guru and dharma brothers and sisters declines, then due to such behavior, which brings all involved to ruin, they will be cut off from
the good fortune of attaining the siddhis. This is the eighth.

These states are called “distant from genuine dharma” and “the dimming of the lamp of liberation.”

If one does not examine these sixteen leisureless states well, though one may appear to practice dharma and to have the freedoms and resources intact in this polluted age, then, falling under the power of these leisureless states, even with intention of practicing dharma, they will only turn away from the genuine path. This being so, the conduct of always carefully examining one’s mind stream is important.

The incomparable Atisha said:

The body replete with the freedoms and resources
That is extremely difficult to obtain has been obtained.
Since it will be difficult to obtain again,
Through effort in practice, make it meaningful.

Gyalwa Tsongkhapa said:

If you understand the difficulty of attaining it, you will not remain
One who sees its great significance would be devastated to spend it without purpose.

Geshe Chen-ngawa, never sleeping, only engaged in virtue. Geshe Tönpa said to him, “Son, if you do not get some rest, you will endanger your health.” Chen-ngawa replied, “My body is perfect now. When I consider the difficulty of obtaining the freedoms and resources of this body, there is no time to rest.” He did 900 million recitations of Akshobhya. Because of that, we can be certain that he never had time to sleep in his life. Likewise, it is very important to make this precious support with its freedoms a meaningful one. Right now, moreover, do not let the path go to waste. Always, day and night, you should engage in the dharma with your three gates. Like that, the practice of the bodhisattvas is to make meaningful the freedoms and resources of this body that is difficult to find.


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DZATRUL NGAWANG TENZIN NORBU (1867–1940/42) was an accomplished Tibetan Buddhist master who founded a monastery on the northern slopes of Mount Everest where he lived. He was the primary teacher of the late Trulshik Rinpoche, a teacher of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and the former head of the Tibetan Nyingma lineage. He is especially known for his insightful commentaries on the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva.