(5.22) I can accept losing my wealth and reputation,
Or even my livelihood or my body,
And I can even accept my other virtues degenerating;
But I can never allow my practice of guarding the mind to decline.
Normally we think our wealth and reputation are the most important things in our life. We know this because we spend most of our time thinking about these things and seeking to protect them. We feel our happiness and well-being depend upon them. Some people are willing to sacrifice anything to secure these two. There is of course nothing wrong with wealth and a good reputation if we use these things for virtuous purposes. But we should not be attached to them, thinking that our happiness depends on them.
Our livelihood and our body are often, quite rightly, considered even more important than our wealth and reputation. Our livelihood is the means by which we acquire wealth, and certainly the cause of generating new wealth is more important than wealth itself. If we lose all our wealth but not our livelihood, we can gain our wealth back. Our body is even more important than all of these. Without our body, we can have no livelihood, wealth or reputation. Without our body, we would lose everything we have in this life. All of these things are important, and we are correct to try protect them, but Shantideva is telling us they are trivial in importance compared to guarding our mind.
In other words, whatever happens, I mustn’t leave my mind unprotected. If I do, I stand to lose everything from my spiritual life. My spiritual life will end. If we lose anything else we can get them again, but we will never regain anything of value if we lose our practice of guarding the mind. All good fortune comes from merit, and all merit comes from virtue. All virtue depends upon the practice of guarding the mind. The cause of wealth is giving. The cause of a good reputation is rejoicing in other’s good qualities. The cause of a livelihood is the intention to help others. The cause of a human body is the practice of moral discipline. All of the things we cherish in fact come from our virtues, which in turn depend upon our practice of guarding the mind.
Our wealth, reputation, livelihood and even our body at most can help us in this life alone, but our practice of guarding the mind can help us in this and all our future lives. Which is more important to protect? Of course we should protect them all, but Shantideva is highlighting for us what really matters, the thing we should protect at all costs. Do we live our life this way? If not, why not?
Geshe-la has said we make prayers, prostrations, recite sadhanas, and so forth, but we never guard our mind. He once said guarding the mind is our most important practice, and then quoted Shantideva with verse 22, indicating that it has to be the most important of our practices. If so, one could argue this is the most important verse in Shantideva’s guide. We should regularly meditate on this verse in order to strengthen our determination.
(5.23) With my palms pressed together,
I beseech those who wish to guard their minds:
Always put effort into guarding
Both mindfulness and alertness.
Mindfulness, quite simply, is remembering our Dharma conclusions. We engage in all sorts of contemplation of Dharma, and in dependence upon receiving blessings, we are occasionally led to clear virtuous conclusions, such as the need to be grateful for what our parents have provided us, not resentful about what they haven’t; or the need to forgive others for the harm they have caused; or even realizing nothing is more important than guarding our mind. It is not enough to have a flash of wisdom insight, we need to maintain the continuum of these understandings for longer and longer periods of time so that they can bring about a deep transformation of who we are. Mindfulness does it. It functions to keep our mind on an object that has not been forgotten, preventing us from losing it, and it also functions to bring back to mind our object after we have forgotten it. Without mindfulness, our virtues will merely be like a flash of lightening at night, providing a temporary glimpse of how things are. With mindfulness, our virtues become like the sun on a clear day illuminating without interruption our path.
Alertness, quite simply, is a wisdom mind that can distinguish fault from non-fault. It is like a Secret Service agent always on the look out for the slightest danger or threat to the virtue within our mind. Alertness functions as a spy. It is a wisdom alerting us to a fault, so that we can take appropriate action such as strengthening our mindfulness. In particular it watches out for inappropriate attention. All delusion arises from inappropriate attention. Inappropriate attention is an exaggeration of the good or bad qualities of an object or situation. Inappropriate attention is then the main cause of delusion. Alertness constantly keeps a watch out for inappropriate attention arising in our mind. When we are driving on a busy road, with cars, bikes and pedestrians moving in every direction, it is alertness that protects us from getting in an accident. In exactly the same way, when internally travelling the path, with delusions, negativities and distractions moving in every direction, it is alertness that protects our spiritual journey.