The Practice of the Three Excellences

In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha taught that the Dharma is “good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end.” In the Mahayana tradition, these three types of goodness are known as the three excellences, or three noble principles. They have to do with motivation, staying open, and dedicating the merit of one’s practice toward the benefit of all beings in everywhere. When done daily the Three Excellences serve to empower not just our meditation practice, but our post-meditation practices of mindfulness and relative bodhicitta.

The Practice of Setting One’s Intention
Setting one’s intention is related to what Trungpa Rinpoche said about “the pregnant aspect of the present.” This means we have an aspiration of some sort. But to realize it, we actually need to do something. The doing begins with setting our intention. The practice of setting our intention has three steps.

The first step begins with setting aside some time to contemplate what, for just today, or maybe for the next week or month, is the most important thing for you to be mindful of. It might be working with generosity. It might be cutting a particular habitual pattern; it might be one of the mind training slogans; it might be the qualities of one of the four dignities; it might be right speech. But whatever it is, it needs to speak to your experience, either in terms of a wish to abandon harmful behaviour, or cultivate wholesome, virtuous habits.

Once you’ve chosen something, take time to become familiar with it. Let’s take generosity, for example. Questions you might ask yourself include: Where does generosity manifest in my life? When, or to whom is it easy to give? Where do I hold back? What attitudes accompany generosity? What attitudes hinder generosity? What are the beliefs or fears that accompany such hindrances? The point is to do a thorough investigation of all aspects, including challenging ones, associated with generosity (or whatever you choose to work with). The intention is to become familiar with the object, with its supporting factors, and with the factors which counter it so that, depending on how one is feeling, or depending on what’s going on in the present moment, you can practice refraining from harmful behaviour related to your object of mindfulness, or you can cultivate positive actions in relation to the object. That way there’s always some way of practicing with the object.

The second step is to reflect each morning on where you are in relation to your aspiration. This is a matter of simply checking in with yourself, usually when you get up (but any time is fine), and asking “How do I feel today?” It is very important that we ask and answer this question genuinely and honestly. Some days we wake up, and for whatever reason, we feel grumpy or edgy. So, in this step we adjust our aspiration to reflect how we actually are feeling.

If we’ve selected a virtuous habit to cultivate, then on this particular day our practice may be to concentrate on avoiding those attitudes that we’ve already identified as obstacles to cultivating that quality. If we wish to cultivate generosity, for example, then on this day maybe you will guard your attention and avoid acting impatiently or arrogantly. It may turn out that on this particular day we can’t save all beings by lunchtime, but at the very least, maybe we can avoid causing harm to some of them, or to ourselves.

The third step begins once you’ve decided where you’re going to concentrate your mindfulness, and it has two parts. The first is to contemplate how this aspect of your life or practice affects your behaviour, and the second is to consider how your environment and the people you relate with, support this aspect. For example, if you’ve decide that for the next seven days you’re going to focus on being less speedy, you contemplate, “What does being less speedy look like when I get up in the morning?” “What does being less speedy look like when I’m in meetings?” “What does being less speedy look like when I talk with the people at work?” and so on.

Then the second part is to contemplate how your routine and how all the people around you mirror back to you speediness, or absence of speediness. Some situations will provoke speediness, and others will push back if there is any speediness (or, if your practice is cultivating a wholesome behaviour, like generosity, some situations will naturally offer the opportunity to be generous, and others will really challenge you). You can consider the energy of these different situations as teachers. Sometimes the teacher is gentle, and sometimes the teacher will be a lot less subtle.

One way to visualize this third step is to view your waking day as a sort of mandala. There’s the part of the mandala when you’re getting up; the part where you’re going to work (or wherever); the part where you meet with people; and so on. Each part of the day’s mandala offers the opportunity to work with your object of mindfulness – either by giving you the opportunity to be of benefit to others (because today you feel potent, happy…) or to not cause harm (because last night you only got four hours of sleep and you found out you had run out of coffee).

The Practice of Dedicating the Merit In Advance
Having set your intention for the day, or week, or month, and having reviewed how to carry that intention into our life, and where you can count on support from your environment, and having checked in with yourself and determined what you can reasonably accomplish, you are well prepared to practice formally. But before beginning the practice session, do the practice of dedicating the merit in advance. This practice has three short contemplations.

The first reflection is on why you’re practicing. There’s not an exactly right answer, and your answer may evolve as time passes, but quite simply, your practice should be beneficial for yourself and for others. If it’s not, then what’s the point of practicing? So in this contemplation you’re just connecting with what is meaningful to you about your practice and this path.

The second reflection is on the relationship between the transformative power of practice in our life and our ability to be of benefit to others. In other words, one reflects on the value of the practice in relation to one’s path. Merely wanting to be of benefit isn’t enough to overcome the obstacles thrown up by impatience or other habitual patterns. We actually need to contemplate what it would take to be of benefit, and how your practice is geared to accomplishing that.

The third reflection is to bring to mind someone you know who struggles and suffers. It doesn’t have to be an enemy or difficult person, and it might be better, at first, if they were someone you already genuinely cared about. Having brought them to mind, you simply say to yourself, “May the merit of this practice be realized by So-and-so.” Next, imagine them enjoying the benefits of your practice (e.g. if you’re practice is centered around patience, imagine them enjoying you being patient with them, or they being patient with a difficult person). Then begin the practice session. You can still dedicate the merit at the send of the session.

The Practice of Staying Open
The practice of staying open is the practice for the post-meditation period (and if it’s a practice, then there’s not really a post-meditation period, is there?). This practice doesn’t involve contemplations so much as it involves the attitude with which we meet the world. To the extent that we’re working with our intention or aspiration, this practice means staying open to the myriad teachers our environment offers us, and not shutting down, and not falling back into habituated patterns of behavior. So the attitude we need is one of fearlessness and daring. It takes real courage to go beyond our comfort level, and staying open really pushes us beyond our preferences.

Something Trungpa once said is especially useful to this practice. He said “live your life like an experiment.” In other words, you can afford to have some curiosity about your life, and what’s happening in it. If in the first practice you’ve contemplated what your routine, what your environment, what the people around you have to offer in terms of providing practice opportunities for you, then you can afford to be curious when you meet them. You can afford to wonder “How do other people see me?” Or, “What’s it like to be with me?” You can afford to wonder, “What is it like to be that person?”

But you also have to be willing to be broken-hearted. When we stay open, when we have some curiosity, we connect much more directly to our environment and see much more clearly. We don’t just see our neurosis, or other people’s hang-ups — we also see the fundamental basic goodness of ourselves and others. This can rip our hearts wide open, make us feel vulnerable, raw and naked. But ultimately, it makes us completely available.

Finally, from time to time, throughout the day, reconnect with your intention. When one situation ends, like the work period, just stop and check in. Think about what you’re going to do next, and how it relates to your intention.

Closing the Practice
At the end of the day reflect back on how you did. It’s important to do this with the same gentleness, genuineness and honesty as you brought to checking in with yourself when setting your intention. The point is not to discover whether you “screwed things up,” but note where you overcame, to whatever minute degree, a habitual pattern, or were able to be generous or whatever. Likewise, it’s important to note where you got hooked, and thus to make the simple aspiration to be more mindful next time you find yourself in that sort of situation. Then dedicate all the merit of the day and go to sleep.