Vows, commitments and modern life:  How do we observe the Fifty Verses if we don’t know what they are?

Acting in contradiction to the Fifty Verses on the Spiritual Guide. 

This scripture explains how we should rely upon our Spiritual Guide by means of action.  If we neglect these instructions we incur a gross downfall.

There is not, to my knowledge, a translation that has been done for our tradition of this text.  When I first encountered this vow, wanting to keep all my vows purely (or at least know what they are) I asked my teacher if she had a copy.  She said she did, but she said for us we keep this vow through practicing sincerely the instructions we have already received on reliance upon the spiritual guide, in particular the instructions in Joyful Path of Good Fortune and especially Great Treasury of Merit.

I have read some translations from other traditions, and I understood why this specific text is not translated for us.  Practicing these verses in the context of the relationship even Kadampa students had (or even currently have) with their Tibetan teachers in Tibet and India may be appropriate and even normal, but in a modern Western context, not so much.  In Tibet and India, when you enter into the room of your spiritual guide, you immediately do prostrations.  In the West, when a student tries to do that to Geshe-la, he says, “that is the Tibetan way, get up.”  Instead of focusing on external behavior and practices, we instead focus on the essential meaning of reliance upon the Spiritual Guide, namely to consider our spiritual guide as a Buddha, and to sincerely put their instructions into practice with faith.  If we do this, we are keeping this vow even if we don’t know what the 50 versus are.

To take this a little bit further, Geshe-la says Buddhas appear in ordinary forms intentionally for us to act “completely normal” with them.  It is by acting completely normally that we will gain the realizations we need to gain.  When we fail to understand this, we start acting in all sorts of goofy ways with our teachers and spiritual guides.  For example, if our teacher makes some mistake but we think we are supposed to view them as a Buddha, then we try tell ourselves that the mistake wasn’t a mistake at all, it was exactly correct.  But this ties us in all sorts of knots because, conventionally speaking the action was a mistake.  So is a mistake correct?  Confusion reigns.  Or we think, perhaps my spiritual guide isn’t a Buddha after all, because look at all of the mistakes they make.

If we relate to them exactly as normal, then our reaction is different.  If a normal person made some mistake, we would discuss the mistake with the other person, telling them that it appears they are making a mistake.  They would then clarify their point of view, and then either we realize we were wrong or they do, and everyone changes accordingly.  That is the “normal” thing to do.  If they refuse to admit their mistake, then that teaches us something too and we say this person is showing an example of what not to do.  We do this all of the time in all of our normal human interactions.  In exactly the same way, if our spiritual guide makes some mistake we can say, “my spiritual guide is a Buddha appearing in an ordinary form making mistakes to teach me what not to do.  By learning how to relate to such mistakes, I will practice certain things and gain certain realizations.  How skillful they are to make such mistakes!”  Then, just like normal, we discuss the mistake with the other person, try come to understand one another, etc.  In this way, we can simultaneously keep our pure view of our spiritual teacher while still acting conventionally in completely normal ways.

If we fail to do this, then the tradition can quite quickly degenerate into all sorts of cult-like ways of being.  Students repress their doubts, teacher pretend to be better than they are, nobody talks to one another to get better.  Wrong behavior then goes unchecked, bringing the entire tradition into disrepute.  People lose faith, abandon the path and sometimes become disillusioned with all things spiritual.  Then, in future lives, when like a lucky blind turtle they manage to put their head through the golden yoke of Dharma again, they take no interest and plunge back down into the depths of samsara.

So what is the modern Kadampa translation of the Fifty Versus?  “Act exactly as normal.”

One thought on “Vows, commitments and modern life:  How do we observe the Fifty Verses if we don’t know what they are?

  1. This is a cool article :). Yes, in general– I think in the event that we feel our teacher is a Buddha (like for me with Geshe-la yes) then internally I see him as a Buddha but, externally, I would act normal, as you describe. With someone we are REALLY convinced is a Buddha, like for me in this case, not hard at all on the internal view— generally we can practice like everyone we meet is a Buddha— so— in that case– I really don’t always know– but sort of do something similar as with the spiritual guide– like internally see them as a Buddha and outwardly just say and do whatever people normally logically should do.

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