What I Learned Writing Commentaries on all 59 Lojong Slogans
A reflection on what will be a lifelong practice
What I knew of the Lojong slogans when I began writing commentaries on them in 2016 came from reading Pema Chödrön’s book on the subject, The Places That Scare You, as well as listening to years of talks she gave on the practice of Tonglen. Ani Pema credits the slogans to Atisha Dimpamkara Shrijnana (982–1054), but as I studied each slogan in depth, I eventually learned the written version we reference today was first recorded by Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175), someone born forty-seven years after Atisha. These teachings were passed to him by someone who had presumably learned them from someone who had presumably learned them from Atisha at some point. Someone passed them to Ani Pema and she passed them along to hundreds of people, including me.
This game of telephone spanning multiple centuries, languages, and cultures applies to all historical dharma texts. This is true of the Dhammapada, and anything else directly attributed to the original teachings of the historical Buddha. None of these teachings were written down at the time they were taught. They begin with “Thus, I have heard…” because they are a retelling of a so-called original talk. Someone who was there orally passed along what was taught to someone else, who passed it on to someone else, as was the case for most wisdom through a majority of human societies pre-widespread literacy.
Writing a commentary on the Lojong slogans is to add to a lineage of practice notes. Much like koan practice in Zen traditions, the Lojong slogans are open to the interpretation of whomever encounters them. They are something a student can practice with for life, and what that looks like will evolve over time and is entirely related to the context of the student.
This is something I’ve realised is true of a majority of historical Dharma texts. For example, Shantideva states in the opening verses of the Bodhicharyavatara, that what he has to say was not meant to be for anyone but himself. The entire text of The Way of the Bodhisattva that we study today is framed as Shantideva’s interpretation of the Dhammapada, which we have already established is an interpretation of Siddhartha Gautama’s original teachings. And because the story goes that Shantideva disolved into a rainbow body (or perhaps just ran off to live in the woods) after giving his legendary talk, even those practice notes are an interpretation recorded by someone else.
We can’t know anything definitive about the original intent of any Buddhist teaching, including the Lojong slogans, given the subjectivity of language, the perogative of the translator, and cultural contexts from which we are quite removed. This informed how I approached practicing with these slogans, particularly as “Own your own mind” is a teaching I hold very dear. This is to say, my work is to test a teaching in the context of my life, with what I know about my relative experience of our interconnected reality.
As I explored each slogan, (and as the weeks, months, and eventually, years, passed) how I applied them shifted alongside my growing awareness of the systems that impact all of us. When I started this project, I believed there was some inherent truth to be found in each slogan, and therefore often struggled to write a commentary that wasn’t derivative. My first drafts always seemed heavily influenced by someone else’s interpretation of the text. However, as I really reflected on each one, truly considering it in a modern context by applying it to my life and lived experience, something would shift. Writing each commentary push me to meet an edge, to examine the ways I’ve been indoctrinated into capitalism, white supremacy, ableism, and allocisheteropatriarchy. They invited me to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. They compelled me to ask questions that would lead to transformation.
A large part of why this project (That began with a commentary on slogan 7/51, This time, practice the main points in October of 2016) took so long, was that it wasn’t enough to simply write about what each slogan meant. Or rather, what they meant depended largely on my focus at any given time.
My commentary on slogan 6/34, Don’t transfer the ox’s load to the cow, is heavily influenced by the ways I was beginning to understand the pervasiveness of sexism. Just shy of a year later, the relativity of how we interpret the Dharma was something I understood explicitly and explored with my commentary on slogan 2/2, Regard all dharmas as dreams. Throughout 2018, many of my commentaries are reflective of what brought me to Buddhism in the first place, such as my commentaries on slogan 3/16, Whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with meditation and slogan 2/8, Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue. By 2019, many of my commentaries relate to my anti-racist practice, such as 7/49, Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment and 3/11, When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.
In looking back over them, I expected to see radical differences in quality and depth from earlier commentaries to later ones, but I was surprised to find that some of my earliest commentaries, like 6/29, Abandon poisonous foods are as relevant and aligned to my practice today as the final commentaries I published.
While the heart of our practice is liberation, how that looks from one century to the next, from one culture to another, from one individual to another, is as changeable as anything else. I may have completed this public project, but the personal practice of incorporating these slogans into my life is ongoing. This was truly the greatest thing I learned while writing these commentaries.
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