From the murals of Shechen Monastery. Used with permission of Rabjam Rinpoche.
by Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpe Nyima
Sleeping but once can yield a hundred fault-filled dreams.
O Mañjuśrī, in your perfect wisdom you have awakened entirely
From the very heaviest of slumbers, long-acquainted ignorance,
And now your eyes are forever open wide—let everything be auspicious!
The unsurpassed Secret Mantra has its own uncommon methods for transforming sleep into virtuous activity, and even in the vehicle of transcendent perfections sleep can be made consistent with the path. Yet there are those who lack the skill to employ such methods and who still lose much of their time to sleep. Since this is a serious fault, proscribed by the Buddha, I will here offer some brief advice in two parts: 1) reflecting on the faults of sleep, and 2) having reflected, applying this in practice.
1. The Faults of Sleep
Glorious Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra VII, 14) says:
Take advantage of this boat, the human body,
To free yourself from the great river of suffering.
Since this boat will be hard to find again,
Now is not the time for sleep, you fool!
The free and well-favoured human form we currently have at our disposal is difficult to obtain. We can appreciate this by thinking about its causes or reflecting using metaphors or numerical statistics. And when we consider that this unique situation in which we find ourselves will not last, but will soon come to an end, we must turn to the Dharma with all the urgency of someone whose hair has caught fire and who is desperately trying to douse the flames.
With half our lives spent during the day and half at night, if we waste not only the nighttime but even much of the daytime too in idle repose, we will never attain any real diligence. Yet if we are able to practise virtue, then, as is taught in detail in the sūtras, cultivating bodhicitta even for the brief time required to milk a cow can yield vast merit––as vast as the particles of the earth are numerous. The Sūtra that Inspires Noble Intentions (Adhyāśayasañcodana) tells us:
Sleep is the source of many muddled views,
The squanderer of Dharma's noble virtues—
Knowing that it robs them of their diligence,
How could the wise ever take delight in it?
Once we have taken the bodhisattva vow, in particular, then, having pledged to lead innumerable beings to unsurpassable bliss, to spend time in sleep or idleness could only ever be a cause of shame before the victorious buddhas and their heirs. As The Ornament of Sūtras says:
When shouldering the destiny of all who live,
How could sublime beings ever dally or delay?
When the Abhidharma explains the types and functions of the various mental states it says that sleep functions to disrupt activity. This is readily apparent: even short-term aims and minor projects are spoilt when we become overly fond of sleep.
To put it simply, then, the Buddha and his later representatives taught that all mundane and transcendental accomplishments come about through diligence, and there is no greater opponent of diligence than sleep. If we constantly fall under the influence of sleep, then, it will surely bring about all kinds of mental faults, and these, in turn, will bring even greater problems.
What is more, one who has grown so used to sleep as to be under its control might well be physically present at a Dharma gathering, but what will be the point of spending an entire session drowsy and befuddled? Carrying on in this way, you will not retain even so much as a single verse! It would be like attending a great feast only to get up and leave without even having so much as tasted anything at all. Even opening great sack-loads of texts and staring at them intently will not bring conviction as long as sleepiness clouds the mind—it will all be as futile as attempting to seduce a eunuch! And when seeking to focus the mind in order to develop the wisdom born of reflection and gain certainty about the real meaning, the onset of sleepiness will prevent even so much as a single profound insight. But that is not at all; as it is one of the five faults in samādhi, sleepiness also prevents the arising of the wisdom born of meditation. Over time sleep degrades consciousness and blunts the intellect, naturally weakening the wisdom that discerns things and events. It inhibits memory and increases forgetfulness. On the subject of these many faults, The Sūtra that Inspires Noble Intentions says:
Whoever takes delight in drowsiness and sleep
Will find their intelligence thereby made weak.
And with the diminishing of mind's capacity,
Purest wisdom will remain forever out of reach.
Whoever takes delight in drowsiness and sleep
Will find mind enfeebled and memory impaired.
Verses heard or recited will not be retained,
And teaching too will prove a constant strain.
Both The Sūtra that Inspires Noble Intentions and the dedication chapter of Introduction to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life explain that those who are excessively weighed down by sleep prove easy prey for harsh, non-human forces, who would steal their vitality. There have been many cases of intrepid warriors who, overcome with sleep, fell easily at the hands of much weaker opponents—and this is something we can witness directly for ourselves. In addition, the way in which excessive sleep can prove harmful to longevity is explained in such texts as The Staff of Wisdom. It was with all this in mind that the Omniscient Drimé Özer (Longchenpa) wrote the following in his Tale of the Rabbit:
As you lie about in sleep your plans all come to naught;
And, inattentive as you are, your enemies assemble,
While demons too seize the chance to strike—
Thus, without limit are the perils and pitfalls of slumber.
And to succeed, therefore, cultivate a diligence beyond compare.
It is not only mental qualities that are affected by sleep; the body's functioning too is also impaired. As sleep causes a reduction in the fire element it becomes harder to digest food, and sleepiness also brings a loss of appetite. Somnolence can also cause phlegm-related illness, skin disease, chronic fatigue, and other ailments. And it is also said to contribute to many other problems, such as flabbiness of flesh and discolouration of the skin. For a more detailed description of these faults you should consult The Compendium of Training or the sūtras.
The fact that sleep is so irresistible to us in this life is, as it says in the Prajñapti treatises, an effect similar to the cause. When we were born as snakes and other creatures in the past we grew highly accustomed to sleep and its cause, dimness of mind. Now, if we condition ourselves to sleep once again, it will not only bring problems in this life, but will also lead inexorably to effects similar to the cause in future lives. And this is why we must do all that we can to uproot this unhealthy tendency and eliminate it once and for all.
2. Applying the Remedies
You can counteract excessive sleepiness by reflecting on sources of inspiration, such as the advantages of diligence, or by contemplating signs of light. Alternatively, whenever sleepiness occurs, reflect on its faults. It says in Introduction to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life (VII, 72):
How hurriedly I would stand
Should a snake fall into my lap.
Likewise, whenever sleep or laziness occur,
I shall avert them with due urgency and haste.
We must be alert as we put an end to sleepiness, and we must make strong aspirations that we shall not succumb to it again in future.
All these points can be applied in order to avert sleep before it occurs and just as you are beginning to feel sleepy. In the midst of heavy sleepiness however, you can dispel it by getting up and walking about, or by gazing at the stars, or by splashing cold water on your face. There are also other remedies in Stages of the Śrāvakas (Śrāvakabhūmi). And the means of contemplating death which appear in chapter seven of Introduction to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life are also very powerful.
In response to a request from the virtuous ascetic Darlo, Jigme Tenpe Nyima wrote down in an instant whatever came to mind. May there be virtue!
Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2015. With gratitude to Alak Zenkar Rinpoche for his clarifications.