The Practice of a Bodhisattva

The bodhisattva’s commitment to the benefit of others manifests in the practice of the six perfections, the 17th Karmapa explains.

The Karmapa
1 January 2009
Photo by Anandajoti Bhikkhu

The classic text The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva belongs to the Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) tradition of Buddhism and is based on the Madhyamaka (the Middle Way) school of philosophy, which advocates the use of analysis to attain clear understanding and omniscient wisdom. It encourages the practice of the six paramitas, or perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and deeper knowing or superior intelligence. But when misunderstood, these perfections can have a darker side, which is metaphorically called a “demon.”


If those aspiring to enlightenment give even their body away,
What need is there to mention outer objects?
Therefore, without hope of return or a good result,
To be generous is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The first of the six perfections is generosity. Many religions and spiritual paths agree on the importance of giving, because we can all see that this benefits others directly. For Buddhism, in particular, being generous is important because it directly counteracts our attachments.

When we help others, we should do so with an intelligence that is able to analyze the situation. True generosity requires some wisdom—a clear understanding of ourselves who are giving, what we are giving, and to whom we are giving. If we give using our intelligence, then generosity benefits both ourselves and others. We should not give just for the sake of giving or from an old habit. Further, in the process of giving, we should not become distracted, for losing our focus diminishes the scope and effect of our activity. When we are generous and wise, our giving benefits others and also helps us to deepen our practice as we move along the path.


If lacking discipline, we can’t even help ourselves,
Wishing to benefit others is just a joke.
Therefore, to maintain a discipline
Free of desire for samsara is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The downside of the perfection of discipline is called “the demon of austerity”—taking on discipline as a hardship and making it into a struggle. Done right, discipline is taken on joyfully and with a clear understanding of why engaging in it is good. For example, many people nowadays have given up eating meat. Why would we do that? We should not become vegetarian just because someone says we should, or because the Buddha taught that we should not eat meat, or because it is the custom where we live, or because giving up meat would give us a good reputation. If we give up eating meat for these reasons, it might be better not to do it at all, because our decision is not sincerely motivated.

In the beginning, we have a certain feeling about not eating meat. Then we can ask ourselves questions, such as what are the real benefits? After careful consideration, we become certain that this is the right thing to do. Our answer has to come from within, inspired by real conviction, so that when we do give up eating meat, it does not become a hardship or a struggle but something we do with joy and intelligence. It is the same with any discipline in spiritual practice. Whatever we give up or whatever we do, we should first feel a connection to the practice and then be very clear why we are doing this and not something else. When we act this way, our discipline becomes very inspiring.


For bodhisattvas aspiring to a wealth of virtue,
Anything that harms is a treasury of jewels.
Therefore, never turning aggressive or angry,
To be patient is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The third perfection is patience, which also has an obstacle, called “the demon of too much struggling” or “too much forbearance.” Patience, like generosity and discipline, should not be too extreme, but should arise freely through our understanding. When we have love and compassion, we naturally understand why the afflictions occur and do not struggle to be patient.

For example, when sick, some people keep on struggling with the illness and refuse to take any treatment. That is excessive forbearance. In general, we should not put up with everything or do everything that anyone asks us to do. Enduring too much has the drawback of giving others the opportunity to do negative things. We could also be too patient with our own afflictions. Excessive forbearance is also a problem because we must clearly know the reasons for what we are doing and not just blindly continue without reflection, especially if it concerns something we find objectionable. Otherwise, if without reason a person told us to eat something obnoxious, we would do it without thinking. It might not be easy for us, but we can immediately say, “I will not do that.” This is not a problem but the proper way of practicing patience. It must be a response that comes from deep within.


If Hearers and Solitary Realizers for their benefit alone
Practice diligence as if their heads were on fire,
To develop diligence, the wellspring of all qualities
That benefit every being, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

The demon of diligence is struggling or pushing too hard. This is a problem, for true diligence means taking joy in doing positive things. Whatever practices we do should be done in a spontaneous and natural way. Essentially, meditation practice is about entering into the nature of suchness. It is not about beating ourselves up and forcing ourselves to do something. There is no need to strain and think, “I don’t want to do this, but I have to.” It should be a natural reaction, as if a fire were burning on our head. (This example in the verse refers to practitioners from the Foundational Vehicle, who are thought to have the more limited aim of freeing only themselves from samsara.) If our hair catches fire, we do not say, “I should probably get rid of this fire, but I don’t want to.” Nor do we turn it over in our minds, consult our teachers, conduct research, or send off a stream of letters. Without thinking, we immediately jump up and extinguish the fire effortlessly. True diligence happens with a lively interest and joyful spontaneity. We do something because we see clearly that it is important and essential.

A while ago, the BBC broadcast a program about birth, old age, sickness, and death. Watching it, I saw many people who were suffering and thought how much they could be helped by dharma if they really understood it. When I see millions of people suffering, I feel completely energized to do something about it. It is not a struggle or a matter of coercing myself to do something I don’t want to. Diligence is really about our motivation: we feel totally absorbed and joyful in wanting to do something.

Meditative Concentration

Knowing that deep insight fully endowed with calm abiding
Completely conquers all afflictions,
To cultivate a concentration that transcends
The four formless states is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Meditation, the fifth perfection, has a demon called “attachment to experience.” It is not easy to fully understand meditative experience. The verse refers to formless states of meditation, which are categorized as follows: limitless space, limitless consciousness, nothing whatsoever, and neither existence nor nonexistence. Much has been written about these, but they lie outside the main point here. What we need to know is that when we meditate, all sorts of experiences will come, both good and not so good. These experiences, however, are not important. Here, the key is the extent to which our meditation serves as an antidote to our afflictions. How many obscurations and how many afflictions have been subdued or cleared away? This is the true test of meditation, not what wonderful or special experiences we might have. In fact, if we become attached to these experiences, that is a problem.


Without wisdom the five perfections
Cannot bring forth full awakening.
To cultivate wisdom endowed with skillful means
And free of concepts in the three domains is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Wisdom is the sixth perfection and its demon is the obstacle called “the demon of increasing poison.” This obstacle is very serious, even monstrous, like an immense beast with nine heads. It comes up after studying, reflecting, and analyzing, when we reach a certain conceptual understanding and our afflictions are not too active. We find something our conceptualizing mind can seize upon and take pride in. One way our mind does this is through “concepts in the three domains,” which relate to the three aspects of any activity: a subject, an object, and an action. When our mind conceptualizes like this in a very solid and concrete manner, our view becomes extreme. We are convinced that we have found the “right” way and we are proud of it.

This process resembles how the rigid views of people caught in the mundane world are developed. Nowadays, these stubborn positions are a great problem. And they also contradict progress as it is understood in the dharma: As we move along the path, inferior views are gradually surpassed by superior ones, until finally there is no view at all, nothing to be seized upon. Therefore, we should not go to an extreme and cling to one position as the truth. Our view of how things are is not something to grasp with a tight fist.

We might think, “I’m a Buddhist, and my Buddhism is the best. I can look down on others.” When our intelligence takes this form, instead of reducing aversion and attachment, it increases them. We should not relate to others in such a way that we put them down and raise ourselves up; rather, we focus on developing our wisdom through listening, reflecting, and meditating. If it causes our afflictions to increase, wisdom turns into a demon. When our view or practice harms others, they run contrary to Buddhist teachings, for their very basis is to cherish all living beings in our heart. Developing wisdom through listening, reflecting, and meditating is central to Buddhism, but more important are living beings.

From Traveling the Path of Compassion: A Commentary on the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa (KTD, 2009), translated by Ringu Tulku Rinpoche and Michele Martin. Reprinted with permission from Karma Triyana Dharmachakra and Michele Martin.

The Karmapa

The Karmapa

His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje is the head of the 900-year-old Karma Kagyu Lineage and guide to millions of Buddhists around the world. The Karmapa resides in his temporary home at Gyuto Monastery in India after making a dramatic escape from Tibet in the year 2000. Traveling the world, the Karmapa teaches traditional Tibetan Buddhist teachings, while also advocating topics such as environmental care, feminism, and more.