Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Make it real, make a promise.  Keep your word.

(2.63) Whatever I have done
Out of unknowing and confusion –
Be it a natural non-virtue
Or a transgression –

(2.64) With my palms pressed together
And my mind fearful of suffering,
Prostrating myself again and again,
I confess them all before the Protectors.

(2.65) I request all the holy beings
To free me from all my evils and faults;
And since these bring only harmful results,
In future I will not commit them again.

Shantideva concludes his chapter on purification with a prayer we can memorize and recite at any time we wish to engage in purification.  Sometimes people struggle with recollecting the meaning as they recite Sanskrit mantras, other times we can’t begin prostrating to the 35 Confession Buddhas during a meeting in the conference room at our work.  But there is never a time we can’t recite these verses as a prayer of purification.  In my view, they capture perfectly the essentials of purification practice.  It is advisable to memorize all of Shantideva’s Guide, but at a minimum we can select specific verses that speak to us and memorize them.  These three verses certainly stand out as worthy of memorization.

This is Shantideva’s conclusion: “since these bring only harmful results, In future I will not commit them again.”  We must cease engaging in any harmful actions arising from attachment, aversion, ignorance. If we feel like Shantideva that we need to stop, we will stop.

When we make a promise, we do so because we genuinely “want” to stop (not “should”). We think, “I feel like stopping.”  Then our promise has real power.  This only happens when we make a direct and irrefutable connection between our negative actions and our suffering.  As long as we are not convinced of the relationship between the two, our promises to stop our negativity will lack power.  We do not struggle to make promises to never drink poison again, so why should we struggle to make a promise to not engage in negative actions again?  It can happen that poison does not harm us, but our negative karma always will.

It is vital that we no longer want to engage in negativity.  Because we are desire realm beings, we have no choice but to do what we desire.  If in our heart we still want to engage in negativity, such as taking intoxicants, engaging in sexual misconduct, cheating on our taxes or expense reimbursements, etc., but out of some feeling of obligation or attachment to reputation we refrain from doing so, all we will really do is repress our deluded tendencies.  They will eventually grow in power until we “crack” and like a bulimic, binge on our negative habits.  If we change what we actually want, then there is no danger of this.  Our promises are the nature of wisdom knowing actions and their effects.  If we gain this wisdom, we will promise because we want to.  Later, when our delusions remanifest, we can remind ourselves of the wisdom that took us to the conclusion to refrain from negativity.  After we have done this a few hundred times, we will begin to change, not because we “should” do so, but because we “want to.”

It is important that we have promises.  When we do make a promise, it is important to focus on some specific behavior.  We need to take the time to honestly examine our own behavior, admit where we are making karmic mistakes, contemplate deeply the consequences of our wrong choices, and then make specific promises to refrain from such behavior again knowing what awaits us if we don’t.  Generalized promises of “I won’t do anything wrong ever again” are so vague they lack sufficient concreteness to change our behavior.

We should likewise feel we are actually making promises to holy beings that we will stop.  Sometimes people post on Facebook for the world to see New Year’s Resolutions because doing so in front of others makes it more real.  In the same way, when we make our promises we should feel like we are actually going before Geshe-la and making an actual commitment (offering) that we will change.  This makes it more real and powerful in bringing about real change.  If we were to make an actual promise in front of Geshe-la, we would certainly keep our word.  This is how we should feel when we make promises in the context of our purification practice.

Sometimes in dependence upon such a promise, especially when we ask for help, results come quickly.  We quickly turn around a behavior that we have had for a very long time and we never turn back.  All it takes is the decision from our own side to do it and to let go of trying to do both stop and not stop.

We very often overlook the power of the promise, but this is in many ways the most important. The power of the promise purifies the tendencies similar to the cause to repeat our bad actions.

Every time we resist the direction of our delusions, in other words keep our promise, we create the cause for an upper rebirth.  So this reframes the choice:  the choice is not between having something we want or depriving ourselves of that thing; rather it is a choice between an upper rebirth vs. lower rebirth.  The reason why we have a precious human life now is because in the past we resisted the grain of our delusions.

Finally, when we make promises we need to make mini-promises and train gradually.  If we make too big of promises and break them, then decrease confidence and capacity and it gets worse.  If make too small of promises, it doesn’t do anything.  If we make promises which push us slightly, and we keep them, then our confidence and capacity increase and we can gradually abandon all negative actions.

This concludes the second chapter of Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, entitled Purifying Negativity”.

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