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37 Practices of the Bodhisattva - Verse 5

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Ken McLeod continues his commentary on the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva with Verse 5. Watch the other videos here.

With some friends, the three poisons keep growing,
Study, reflection, and meditation weaken,
And loving kindness and compassion fall away.
Give up bad friends — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

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khrystene's picture

Ken thank you too, your commentaries are really useful.

Patricia.I's picture

I see what you mean, Eva...
Your comment points to the problem of trying to apply a general rule to a specific situation. The conditions for spiritual growth vary from person to person; what looks like martyrdom to you might be child's play to me. The conditions or people surrounding us are not “good” or “bad” in any objective fashion. Moral precepts may be helpful as temporary guides but to rely on them as an absolute authority for inner work is to mistake the scaffolding for the cathedral.

Sareen's picture

The point seems to take refuge in both the scaffolding and the cathedral until such a time that the scaffolding is no longer needed. My experience so far has shown me that many people abandon the scaffolding long before they are ready and the cathedral becomes a boiling pot of confusion and disastrous actions,creating hellish results both for themselves and others. And this observation includes buddhist spiritual communities and spiritual teachers, which seem to be at greater risk because of the high energy levels present in spiritual practice and the lack of cultural history to support clarity around healthy boundaries.

And we all have deep opportunity to learn from the new set of circumstances we experience when we are guided by spiritual highs into unwise action.

eva.incognito's picture

I had a teacher who once pointed out that, while I was martyring myself to someone's bad behavior in the hopes of becoming stronger and letting it all fall off my back, I wasn't really helping them by sticking around and enabling things. In this case, apparently, it might be a lesson to them if you leave their company for your own. This also reminds me of the 61st verse from the Dhammapada: If a traveller does not meet with one who is his better, or his equal, let him firmly keep to his solitary journey; there is no companionship with a fool.

khrystene's picture

I like what you've written a lot, it certainly rings true. Thank you.

Patricia.I's picture

To your answers:
1) The nursery is an apt metaphor. During sesshin, I often think of the zendo as a greenhouse. But there I frequently sit with the apprehension of being plucked from that practice environment and being immersed in everyday life. Have you heard about that experiment with the chicks that died as soon as they were exposed to the air outside the incubator?
2) Yes. Then again, if you survive the hurricane, you build great quads! Gradual exposure is of course ideal.
3) Maybe “immunity” in this case looks the same as getting sick. Is resistance (non-reactivity) the goal of practice? Or is it about becoming more supple, open and accepting of ourselves and others, slowly eroding self-defenses so we can be, not cured, but mentally freer from the dis-ease of being human.
You're right about Benoit. I was equating this aversion to the insipid more generally with the avoidance of what we find unsavoury.
Thank you. This is very helpful.

Ken McLeod's picture

To your points:
1. When you plant a garden, you take care to create an environment in which the plants you want to grow can grow. You weed, you provide nourishment, shelter, etc. Thus, at the beginning stages, it's helpful to create, to the extent possible, an environment in which things can grow.
2. Yes, definitely to be applied internally. Hence the Cherokee story. But you don't learn to windsurf in a hurricane. First build up ability before one takes on the world.
3. In theory, yes, in practice, immunity doesn't always develop. The other day I had a talk with a very experienced practitioner who had got into a bad situation because of the people he chose to hang out with. There was an emotional issue in him that made him susceptible to these particular people. From this perspective, I'm not sure what immunity looks like.
I see a big difference between the poison and the bland. Benoit seems to be saying that we seek extremes in experience instead of quiet growth and evolution.

Patricia.I's picture

Ken, thank you for your very clear comments on the 37 Practices. They are very stimulating and have been very helpful to my current practice.
But this verse was hard for me to swallow. It seems to be basically saying: you are what you eat so, if you want to be healthy, stop eating poison. This includes toxic relationships. Did I get that right or is that an over-simplification?
I have a few problems with this.
First, is avoidance really the cure or is it the equivalent of, say, being a dry alcoholic? In real life, we are constantly faced with sub-optimal conditions (unless we choose to take up a monastic lifestyle and, even then, you never know who might turn up at your hermitage...)
Second, one has to be careful not to externalize the cause of sub-optimal behaviour as “bad friends” (my dad used to call them “evil spirits”) when this advice should be applied “internally”, as you say, in terms of my own reactions.
Finally, shouldn't we be taking the poison to build up our immunity to it?
My (Zen) teacher recently shared this quote with me:
We search incessantly after the exquisite. When we cannot find it we settle for the bitter. But at no costs will we accept the insipid, yet it is through the insipid that the path to ourselves is to be found.
(Hubert Benoit)
The poison, the bland-- whatever the object of your attraction, aversion or indifference-- isn't this the very stuff of practice?