A Commentary on Zurchung Sherab Trakpa’s
Eighty Chapters of Personal Advice
~Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
The great eleventh-century Tibetan master Zurchung Sherab Trakpa was someone who, by practicing the Buddha’s teachings throughout his life, attained the highest possible level of spiritual realization. Shortly before he left this world, he shared his extensive experience of Buddhist practice with his disciples in a series of instructions, the Eighty Chapters of Personal Advice. Beginning with basic topics such as faith, impermanence, and renunciation, these simple yet profound instructions cover the path of the three trainings—discipline, concentration, and wisdom—and culminate in the extraordinary view, meditation, and activity of the Great Perfection. Zie Snow Lion
Showing the importance of faith as a prerequisite—
without faith there is no way one can even begin to practice the Dharma—
and the fault in not having faith,
for without faith one is not a suitable vessel for the teachings.
Son, since it is a prerequisite for the whole of the Dharma, it is important to recognize the fault in not having faith and the virtues of having it.
Here “Dharma” means “that which will lead us to liberation from samsara and to ultimate omniscience and enlightenment.” The word “Dharma” derives from a root that means “to correct.” Just as when one makes a statue out of clay, first sculpting a rough form and then carefully correcting all the small defects to make a perfect representation, when we practice the Dharma, it corrects all our imperfections and brings all our good qualities to perfection.
Another meaning of Dharma is “to hold,” or “to catch.” For instance, when a fish is hooked, it cannot but be taken out of the sea and end up on dry land. Once one has entered the door of the Dharma and been “hooked” by the Dharma, even if one does not practice very much, the blessing of the Dharma is such that one can only be benefited and drawn toward liberation. Of the many different kinds of activity, the Dharma, which is the activity aspect of the enlightened Buddha, is the most important. And
when we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, the ultimate refuge is, in fact, the Dharma.
The Dharma has two aspects, transmission and realization—the teachings in the scriptures of the Tripitaka, which we can study, reflect upon, and practice; and the experiences and realization that grow out of such practice. These two aspects include all the Three Jewels. The Buddha is the one who expounds the Dharma; the Sangha comprises the companions on the path who accompany us in practicing the Dharma. Of all the different meanings of the word “dharma,” the most important is this Jewel of the Dharma, the vast and profound teaching of the Buddha.
One might wonder whether the scriptures are the Jewel of the Dharma. They are not the ultimate realization, but they are nevertheless the Jewel of the Dharma. This is because they are the support for that realization. Just as, on the physical plane, a statue or other image of our Teacher inspires devotion when we look at it, and through generating devotion we receive blessings and can progress along the path, similarly the scriptural Dharma sustains our realization. This is why, when Lord Buddha passed into Nirvana, he said that the Dharma would be his representative. Through studying the Dharma one can know what the Buddha himself is like and what the teaching is like; one can know the path to enlightenment. The Dharma is thus a likeness of the dharmakaya; it is the dharmakaya made visible.
In order for us to practice the Dharma, faith must come first. We need to know what are the drawbacks of not having faith and what are the qualities and benefits that come from having it. Faith, disillusionment with the world, and the desire to get out of samsara are not things that everyone has naturally, from the beginning. But they can be developed, for every sentient being has the tathagatagarbha, the buddha nature, within himself or herself. The presence of the buddha nature naturally helps all good qualities to grow, just as the presence of the sun in the sky naturally dispels darkness over the earth. It is this tathagatagarbha that is pointed out through the instructions of Mahamudra and the Great Perfection, and because of this buddha nature that we have within us, it is quite easy for faith, determination to be free, and so forth to arise on their own within our minds. To help these qualities grow in us, we need to receive teachings from our teacher, to follow him, and to reflect on the enlightened qualities we can see in him. As we do so, we will naturally understand the drawbacks of not having faith.
Now we may talk about faith, but unless we know what we mean by faith, it will merely be an empty word.
The essence of faith is to make one’s being and the perfect Dharma inseparable.
When the Dharma and one’s being have truly mingled, then there is perfect faith. Faith also implies aspiration, a sense of longing. When we long to become very rich, for example, we do everything necessary, undergo great hardship, and expend a lot of energy to achieve this goal. The same is true for wishing to become famous or to achieve any other worldly goal: if our aspiration and determination are strong enough, we will manage to achieve what we want. This is a very powerful quality. Similarly, with faith there is a strong motivation and wish to achieve something, and a natural understanding of the drawbacks of not having this sort of aspiration. When faith has become truly blended with one’s mind and become part of it, then one’s Dharma practice naturally becomes genuine and pure. This is what is meant by the “perfect Dharma.” This clear aspiration to practice the Dharma is what we call faith.
The etymology of the word “faith” is: the aspiration to achieve one’s goal.
When we hear about all the qualities of the past Buddhas, the lives of the great teachers, and the realization they achieved, we may aspire to achieve such qualities ourselves and to set out on the path. This longing is what we call yearning faith. We may, for instance, think that the Dharma is something valuable and therefore start to learn Tibetan. As we gradually begin to understand the language, our longing to understand the teachings will grow more and more. This is the fruit of our aspiration. If we were to distinguish different kinds of faith,
The categories of faith are three: vivid faith, yearning faith, and confident faith.
The first of these, vivid faith, is the natural interest and vivid joy we feel when we hear about the lives of Guru Rinpoche and the great siddhas, and the miracles they performed.
Yearning faith is the longing and hope we have when we then think, “If I practice the teachings, then in this life or at least in a future life I myself will achieve the level of Guru Rinpoche and the siddhas.” We may also experience yearning faith when we hear of the qualities of Buddhafields such as the Pure Land of Bliss and aspire to be reborn there.
Confident faith is the confidence that gradually builds up when we have both vivid and yearning faith and we think, “If I practice these teachings, there is no doubt that I will be able to attain Buddhahood myself.” It is the certainty that as in the past beings were able to gain realization through the Dharma, so it will be in the future. It is confidence in the truth of the teachings. It is confidence in death—in its fearfulness, imminence, and unpredictability— and in all the other aspects of the teachings.
There are six faults that come from not having faith.
If we do not have faith, we will not be suitable vessels for the teachings.
Without faith one is like a rock at the bottom of the ocean—
the Dharma will not benefit one’s being.
A rock on the bottom of the sea may remain there for thousands of years but it never gets any softer. It stays as hard as ever. Similarly, if we do not
have faith, the Dharma will never penetrate our being and benefit us.
One is like a boat without a boatman.
If the ferryman or boatman is absent, there is no way one will be able to cross a big river or lake. In the same way, without faith
one will not be able to cross to the other side of samsara.
One is like a blind person who goes into a temple—
he is unable to see the precious relics and sacred objects, such as statues, that represent the Buddha’s body, speech, and mind; and since he cannot see them he cannot give rise to faith, respect, and devotion.
Similarly, if one has no faith,
one will be unable to understand the words and their significance.
One is like a burnt seed—
the sprout of enlightenment—devotion, diligence, and compassion—will not grow.
One is like a sheep stuck in a pen
or like a sheep that has fallen into a steep-walled pit with no way to climb out:
there is no liberation from suffering in the ocean of samsara.
One is like a maimed person who has landed on an island of gold.
Someone with no hands, even if he lands on an island filled with gold and precious jewels, is unable to bring anything back with him. Similarly, although in this life one may have obtained a precious human existence, met a spiritual teacher, and entered through the gateway of the Dharma, if one has no faith, one will not be able to reap any of the achievements or qualities of the path:
one will return empty-handed at the end of this precious human life—
the freedoms and advantages will have been squandered.