Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.
- Getting in touch with dukkha to generate renunciation
- Working with the feeling of dissatisfaction
- Mindfulness and not blocking out the rest of the world
- Keeping the mind in virtuous activity
Manjushri Retreat 11: Q&A (download)
So, how is everybody? How’s your retreat going? Does it seem like it’s going very quickly? I have this feeling like it was just two days ago that we sat here and I asked this same question. This is going very very quickly. How are people doing? What’s happening? What’s coming up?
Using the recognition of dukkha to fuel the path out of samsara
Audience: So I’ve been doing this meditation on dissatisfaction, not really intentionally I guess I would say. Kind of naturally on one part because I’ve kind of developed some semblance of concentration and that’s not really possible until you [inaudible] But I have a sense that maybe I’m doing it wrong or something. Just it’s incredibly, it’s just become completely arduous just to do anything. It’s like every single thing I do is totally consumed with the thought of, “How can I be happy?” And it’s like, “It’s just not going to do it.” And I just, and it’s exhausting. It’s like I don’t know what to do. It’s like I want to go to sleep. It’s like I know I’m just going to wake up with the same thing. Everything is exact the same way, I want [inaudible] personally, but you know, I get the cup of water, or something, I put it in front of me and say, “I think that this is going to give me something.” And it won’t. And I know it won’t. But it’s just, it’s just exhausting. And I’ve just like lost feeling any sort of joy—because I just can’t.
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So what you’re seeing in your mind is that the mind is constantly looking for happiness, and that you look at something and you think it’s going to give you happiness and you know it’s not going to and you just go, “What do I do?”
Audience: Yes. I don’t think I’m supposed to stop there. But I just don’t know what else to do. I mean like I know, I know what to do on one hand, like I know, “Well, think of bodhicitta and all others,” and I kind of like have an idea of what Dharma is, but it’s like in that moment when I’m totally like just ….
VTC: Just like seeing there’s no way to be happy?
Audience: Yes and no. In a way, not that there’s no way ever to be happy, but like if I really look at my situation there is no happiness here anyway. And it’s almost to the point where it’s like, “Yes, there’s no way,” but there is some side of, “Yes, there’s some possibility to be happy, but man!”
VTC: Well, what I meant by there’s no way to be happy is there’s no way in samsara to be happy. That according to the techniques you’ve been using until now to be happy, there’s nothing that’s going to work. So you’re really getting in touch with what samsara means. We talk about samsara is unsatisfactory, you are in touch with it. This is it. So then you use that and you say, “I want to be liberated. And I want everybody else to be liberated too. And liberation is possible, and that’s where I’m going.”
Audience: How do I do that?
VTC: You make that strong determination for liberation, you make that strong determination for bodhicitta, and then you make really strong prayers to the Buddha and the teacher to please inspire you, please help you along the path, please grant you all the realizations and the inspirations so that you can transform your mind and completely undo this samsaric mess for yourself, and then be able to help others undo it. Okay? So it’s like when you feel in samsara that you’re backed into the corner, then you have to jump over what’s in front of you. You have to jump over it. It’s not like, “I’m backed in the corner and there’s nowhere to go and I’m just unhappy, and miserable, and frustrated, and depressed.” But it’s like. “I’m getting out of here.”
Audience: Do your ninja jump.
VTC: Yes. Yes, your ninja jump. And it’s like this, “What I’m experiencing is why they say samsara is unsatisfactory.” And then the important thing, it’s so important, is there’s an alternative to samsara. That’s the key—there’s an alternative, number one. Number two, there are people who are going to help you because you have all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas rooting for you. So don’t feel alone in the whole process. And then three is, you have the potential to help everybody else who are also stuck in this. Okay? So you feel that way—what you’re feeling—and you then use it to really understand the Dharma and to make strong virtuous determinations, which actually bring a lot of clarity and joy to your mind. Because it’s like you feel miserable because you’re seeing that, “Whatever way I turn there’s no happiness,” but you’re still turning to those same old ways. So what you need to do now is you turn to in a way that you’ve never turned before, and you turn towards liberation. And you take really strong refuge in the Three Jewels as your guides. Okay? And that totally transforms the whole thing and it gives you a very clear direction in life. It’s tough, but you’ll do it.
Audience: I don’t have any choice.
VTC: That’s it. There’s no other choice. And so you do it. You do it. It’s like, “I’ve been knocking my head on the wall since beginningless time. I’m going to stop knocking my head on the wall. There is an alternative to knocking my head on the wall. Knocking my head on the wall doesn’t work, I’m doing something different.” So you have to see what it is that you can do that’s different. And that aspiration for liberation for yourself and for others, that’s the thing that’s different. So you’re really seeking Dharma joy. And you’re really developing a very virtuous positive motivation. And then you make strong prayers, and you take strong refuge. Got it?
Audience: Yes. That’s the place. And I wasn’t there, with that thought, [I was] just very much just [with] wandering thoughts and confused—just thoughts.
VTC: Yes. So that’s why you have to turn it towards where you need to go. Okay?
Wanting to leave—the dissatisfied mind
Audience: It’s been a bit of a busy week for me with my mind. I won’t talk about all of it, but today that mind that says, “I want to go home,” came up again. And it really took a firm hold and I wasn’t understanding why because in the morning session I had a thought about how I, I told you, I’ve spent my whole life just chasing, both running away from my dissatisfaction and moving from place to place to do so. And that energy came up again right before lunch, and I got trapped in it and I don’t know if this is a wrong view or not, but the thing that got me out was, there was just this voice in my head that says, “This feeling of dissatisfaction over this particular thing will arise and will cease. And at some point it’s going to arise again and it’s going to cease again; and that I don’t have to follow it”—and it went away instantly. And then I meditated on it in the session that came later. I meditated on the four noble truths. And I can’t remember what. Oh, I thought, “I can feel that reoccurring dissatisfaction while I’m in samsara, chasing after satisfaction, never really getting it. Or I can live a life that’s headed towards liberation feeling dissatisfaction again and again and have that actually have some meaning and a point to it.” And that’s where I left it so far and I don’t know if it will all go any deeper than that, but it’s been really freeing to get to that place. And I feel comfortable being dissatisfied if that makes sense at all.
VTC: Well, you feel comfortable being dissatisfied because you know that it’s not a permanent state of mind.
Audience: That’s what I was going to say, yes.
VTC: Yes. That it arises and it goes away. How may people here have wanted to leave at one point or another since you’ve been in here?
Audience: Not yet.
VTC: Not yet. Just wait. [laughter] You know, everybody’s wanted to leave, huh? Yes? C raised both hands. [laughter]
Audience: Even Achala [the cat]—except he’s too tired.
VTC: So this is quite natural. We are constantly dissatisfied in samsara. And I think that awareness that the dissatisfaction is not a permanent state of mind is a very important one. That nothing that we’re feeling is a permanent state of mind. Whenever we’re feeling something it feels like that’s all we’re ever going to feel and there’s no other mental state possible. But what the thing is, when you start practicing, is you get some space and you realize that what you’re feeling is not a permanent state, it comes and it goes, it’s impermanent. And so you don’t need to latch on to it and be reactive to it. You can sit there and you can watch it. Anyway, you’re going to go home and than you’re going to be dissatisfied at home—which is why you came here.
Audience: Which is why I came here.
VTC: It can be sometimes very interesting to imagine going home. You pick up, you go home, you bring your suitcases home, mom says, “I’m so glad you’re back,” and cooks your favorite meal. Your bothers and sisters are so happy, everybody hugs you. And then what happens?
Audience [others]: … get a job, drive the freeway ….
VTC: Right. Go to work, drive the freeway, everybody’s telling you what to do. You’re into all your old bad habits again.
Audience: I did that, but I could never do it well because my attachment always blocked me seeing it really well. It really seemed like I could say, “Oh, and then they’ll start yelling and I’ll get annoyed, but that would be this and that will make up for it.” And so I didn’t, until I’ve realized that the dissatisfaction would cease and arise, and cease and arise, I couldn’t really fully look at what it means to go home. They’re all these roadblocks to the dissatisfaction.
VTC: Yes. Because the mind paints all these beautiful scenes, doesn’t it? “I’m going to go home, it’s going to be like it never was before.” It’s like what K was saying, what were you saying last week, that you were imagining …. Oh, when you start feeling like, “Oh, you want the relationship back,” but then you go and you think about what it was really like.
Audience [other]: Like really think about it. Like picture a day. And it just starts crumbling pretty fast. I mean the good things are there, but the other things are really present to you. But I’ve done that meditation over and over and over until the romanticizing has gone down. Because it’s vague at the beginning, it’s like, “No, no. That was really wonderful.”
Audience [other]: What I’ve been doing is just looking at my state of mind in those, like I when I get what I want, just okay, yes, you got it, will it actually going to have any … is your mind going to be any different than it was the rest of your entire life, even for a second? How could it be? In the same way, as long as I’ve ever known it, I know how anything else, anything anywhere is ever going to change that? Anything outside.
Audience [another]: The whole talking of trying to leave, your mind just goes with you.
VTC: Yes, your mind goes with you.
Seeing both our final goal and the steps to attain it
Audience [the person continues]: Wherever you go. This is the place with the best of conditions to make a change. The rest is just the same thing with a different package. What I’m happy about this year, I realize, is that every year before it came up, “Well, can you become liberated?” And I’d go for this thing during retreat about, “Can you become enlightened?” and this year what it feels different is that the thought hasn’t come up and I realized that from reading Geshe Sopa that I’ve been focusing a lot on faith. And that, when he describes this, the story about looking at the gold and checking out the gold, the question he’s asking there, is something that’s more at my level, which is, “Do what I’m doing, is this aspect of the Dharma, or this activity, or whatever, is it going to lead more towards happiness or more towards suffering?” And that’s like the test for the gold, rather than, “Am I going to get enlightened?” Because to me that’s so, all of the steps that go that far are like in my future, but they’re not where I’m functioning. And so that was, I think, actually very helpful for me because it took the whole question and put it into more of my world, something I can work with, that I can see. Eventually I can answer that question, but I don’t have that big, “Is this possible?” thing going on. I just go nuts.
VTC: So just seeing that, “Is this going to lead to more happiness than suffering?”
Audience: Because I used to always, when I evaluated my own experience in relationship to the Dharma, even not exactly knowing what the Dharma was, I would always look at, “What were the results?” That was kind of how I evaluated it and it just was this, “Is this leading into something that was wholesome or unwholesome?” And then that’s how I judged it; and so that’s more something I’m used to. And then reading Ajahn Mun. It’s really out there for me, like a fairy tale. Ajahn Mun became an arhat; I read his autobiography and it was just so out my realm of experience and it’s like it was almost very far away from my level of understanding. So, it’s been helpful to me because then I know that the steps are right.
VTC: Yes. I think it’s good to have two things in mind: our final goal is enlightenment, and then to get there we need to take these steps. So we go in that direction. Yes?
Audience: Lama Yeshe in Introduction to Tantra talks about specifically the guru, but it’s something that always reminds me of something that I found important, which is to look at people further along the path than I am and have faith that they’ve been doing it this life. Perhaps if I work hard enough I can too.
Audience: I have been really inspired by the group care that’s been happening a lot this week. Like just seeing people’s effort has been really [visible]. I don’t know if I just didn’t see it before very much, or was it [that] I was kind of in my own little world or something. But seeing the consistent effort of everyone here, go in the hall, no matter how we feel, to work hard when their in there, and then to come out and do service and go back in. And just realizing how incredibly rare that is—that we’re a group of people who will do that. And now that I’m talking, I remember about halfway through Vajrasattva [retreat] that became very prominent, it was the little group. It’s like climbing the mountain together.
Audience: So I’ve been feeling very touched by that. And by J’s extra effort, I’ve been very inspired by that. So I tried a couple of things myself. And I added in another 35 Buddhas and going on precepts longer because I know, I’ve been watching him really spend many, many hours in the hall. So very inspiring. The whole group though. Just everybody in here.
VTC: Yes, and we’re all helping each other.
Audience: Yes, just by showing up.
VTC: Just by showing up.
Guarding the introspective alertness
Audience: I have a question. So, in the chapter in Shantideva, he talks about guarding awareness, guarding your introspection. So I equate that with this introspective alertness. So that is really that little spy that’s watching your own mind, is watching to see if you’re on the object of mindfulness. Correct? So what I’m finding kind of difficult is like being in the group. And so trying to guard the sense doors, I always get the feeling like I’m so unable to do that without like pulling so far out. That I feel like I just remove myself. What I’ve been thinking lately is that is because I interpret that wrong. Like this introspective alertness is like this alertness to everything that’s happening outside of me. And I’m thinking, “Oh, in my trying, like say I want to have this mind that has like an open heart towards everyone around me; but at the same time not being so involved with everything.” Because if I get involved with everything I just get drawn in and I can’t hold that [introspection]. So it always feels like I’m too withdrawn. Like the only way I can do it is I can either be in—interacting, or I can go out—and just kind of be in my own little cylinder.
VTC: So you’re wondering how can you maintain mindfulness and a sense of this one of sampajañña—introspective alertness, or clear comprehension—how can you maintain that and at the same time not feel like you have to block out the rest of the world to do it.
Audience: Because it almost feels, like the way I do it, it feels inside me it has an almost unfriendly feeling. I don’t feel as connected as I want to be. But if go out, then I’m like I don’t …
VTC: You just get drawn into everything …
Audience: … I just get drawn into things and this is been actually very helpful for me to not be drawn into things so I can just have the clarity of my mind and get myself out some of my habits, which is working.
VTC: You see, that’s the purpose of being in retreat, is that we all understand that we don’t have to be so interactive with each other like we usually are. And that’s not a thing of being unfriendly, and it’s not like, “I can’t relate to you because I got to block everything out.” Not like that. But it’s like we’re all respecting each other and giving each other space so that we can all go inside. So don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m isolating myself from everybody else because otherwise I get so distracted.” But rather, “I’m respecting everybody’s wish to be more internal and I’m respecting my own wish to be more internal.” And just by the fact of our sharing this environment, we’re communicating still on all sorts of levels, aren’t we? Because even when you’re being more mindful of what’s going on inside of you, and you’re not smiling at everybody, and joking, and everything like that, still you’re automatically aware of the energy in the people around you, aren’t you? And that’s a feeling of being connected to those people, whether you’re speaking to them or not. So it’s not a thing of, “I have to block out everybody’s energy.” But you’re just not engaging with all the frivolous things so much, so you can stay more present and be more centered. And like you were saying: work on some of your bad habits which you can’t work on when you’re too busy saying hi, and greeting, and chatting with everybody. But you’re not isolating yourself because everybody knows what you’re doing and we’re all doing it. And we’re all extending kindness to each other as we’re doing that together. And do you see how you’re still in the environment; you’re still interrelating even if you’re not talking a whole lot?
Audience: Well, in the past experiences doing retreat, I always felt like basically the quality of the interactions without the speech was better. I got to know people better and it was in a nicer way. And I think that just because of what I’ve been working on it seems … I don’t know how to say. In the teachings on this, where you talk about the factors that bring the arising of disturbing attitudes, and talk about contact, the question you ask there is, “How can I be more aware when I’m in contact with this?” And I feel like I’m not really able to do that. I’m more like, “How can I avoid contact?” I feel like I’m more on the avoiding side.
VTC: Well sometimes to learn how to become more aware when we’re in contact, you have to temporarily avoid so much contact, so that we can be more aware of what in the world is going on inside of our own mind. But avoiding contact doesn’t mean you go on like this [gesture], okay? If you have that feeling in your mind like, “Aaa! Everybody get away from me! I don’t want to relate to you because you’re distracting me!” That’s not a very relaxed happy meditative mind.
Audience: I don’t really know what to do.
VTC: So it’s got to be more of, not that you’re blocking other people out, but that you’re paying more attention to what’s happening here.
Audience: I think that I’m so visually oriented that I find that I just look down a lot, because I’m so visually oriented, it pulls me out, that’s why I close my eyes so much.
VTC: And that’s why if you go to vipassana retreat, people never make eye contact. They tell you not to make eye contact because just the eye contact pulls you out of your meditation. But we have the ground rules set up here where we know that if we don’t make eye contact is not because we’re mad, it’s not because we hate each other, it’s not because we’re being unfriendly, it’s because we’re trying to focus inwardly. So you don’t have to feel like you’re blocking everybody out, you’re doing what you need to do. But still, I mean you sit in a room with people, you know what’s going on, don’t you? So you’re still in touch with everybody.
Audience: I’m not tuned out.
VTC: Yes, you’re not tuned out at all. What do other people think about what she’s saying?
Audience [another person]: I missed the ground rules. So I was definitely but I was definitely externalizing a lot of stuff. And after our conversation yesterday I started pulling inward and it felt awkward because I’ve been relating to the community in such an external way that it was strange to suddenly pull inward. Plus I had an emotional day and I was concerned people would think I was angry. But it felt really good to go from meditation to truly staying with that mental state, not the mental state but mind frame that I’ve been in from the meditation.
VTC: Yes, because what you do in your break time really influences what happens in your meditation session. And if you’re focused in your meditation session and then you come out, you’re looking at everybody, and smiling, and laughing, and joking, you’re going to go back in, how are you going to meditate? You have to start all over again with everything. So I’m not saying that everybody needs to walk around like this [gesture]. But you just be peaceful and restrained inside.
I remember when I was in Taiwan for the bhikshuni ordination, we had to line up outside and then go in. And they were always saying, “Keep your eyes down.” Because they were so many people all around us, because all these crowds come to see, they’re rejoicing. And we want to look, and who all is there, and what are they doing, what are these people look like, because it’s a different culture. And what are they holding and dha dha dha. And it’s like, “No, you keep your eyes down and you maintain focus and on what you’re doing.” That’s what your job is.
Audience: I think it might be partly from going in and out [of full day retreat and offering service] that I’m fluctuating from being in and out, and I’m just playing like this energy. And has to be out there talking and then, okay, now I’m in here, wow! Where am I now?
VTC: Yes, because you are going in and out, in and out. But as if you look ahead, if there are times when you don’t have to be out so much, because not so much is happening, then just stay in the hall more.
Audience [other]: I was dealing with that also when I came out and the only way that I tried to figure to work with it was to just watch the reactions and interactions that I had with people and what arose with me. So sometimes with some people I get more out. And to just look at that and then work with that a little bit. Because sometimes I go too out and then it doesn’t feel very comfortable and I feel like I lost kind of the retreat mind. So just from my own side, to keep working with my own reaction to whatever it is, a person, or a situation, and whatever, and just keep … I know I was thinking in my mind, “Just keep coming back to base.” That means to me to be not so out, not so reactive I guess. It’s more about what I’m doing, not so much if I’m in the hall more, out of the hall.
Mindfulness in daily activities
Audience: I’m learning a lot about my mind in the past few weeks and I’m continuing to work on the mindfulness and wanting very much to utilize my mind’s time in virtuous activity and how difficult it is for me. I find myself ruminating about the strangest things. I mean they’re so nonsensical; they have no relevance to my life at this point. And it’s just a continual stimulating kind of activity that keeps my juices flowing. And then when I’m not doing that, my mind’s staring off into space, I don’t know where I am, I’m just gone. So I’ve been pulling myself back to the present as much as I can. I had a really lovely experience when I went to Spokane the other day. I drove down Spring Valley as far as Lake of the Woods and I started singing out loud the 21 Praises to Tara: “Om I prostrate ….” I was in the car by myself. Now I would have never, that is not something that comes out of S’s mind. It’s usually, “What I have to do, what I have to get, what time is it, where’s my lunch?” The fact that I even thought about Tara and she stayed with me the entire day! I haven’t been even thinking about her. But I’ve been making this sort of intention: I want to start using this mind that’s … the useless activity that’s generating nothing. At best it’s neutral, at the worst is just attachment, aversion, resentment, ruminating. Is that I want to start working on getting these beautiful, the verses that we’ve been talking about, starting to use these very mundane while I’m doing all these offering services, to start using going to Gotami house and cleaning the windows and polishing the prayer wheels and just using that, making them into virtuous activity. And it’s been hard, it’s not something that’s coming easy. And I find myself getting to three quarters of the day without realizing I had not done well. There’s this whole point about wasting my mind’s life when that’s the part that continues on, and that’s the part that carries all of what I’m doing now. The body, it can fall apart and go away, but it’s this mind that’s got to have some good stuff in it when it feeds this one. And I haven’t been using—the time has not been the well spent; and I’m not even conscious of how little I spend in the Dharma in my mind except when I’m in teachings and on the cushion.
VTC: So this is relating to what we were talking about, just that when you maintain your own presence and are more mindful, then you can remember those things and your mind is less distracted in la-la land or in useless rumination.
Audience: It is the habituated patterns of how this comes up without even effort. I mean you’ve been teaching about this for years, Venerable. But I was just saying, “You know, I have a little bit of that in my mind.” [I’m now seeing] it’s almost 99 percent habituated ruminating! So I think it’s like what everybody experiences that are being shared, is that the awareness that we always as a community seem to be developing in how our minds work and what we are meaning to work on seems to become very evident this retreat.
Audience: More articulated perhaps.
VTC: Yes. I think that’s a good observation that we all are seeing our minds more clearly and what we need to work on. And we’re all struggling with it in one way or another, but we’re all finding our way.
Cultivating mindfulness of feeling
Audience: I’ve wanted to ask if there’s a specific technique for cultivating mindfulness of feeling?
VTC: There’s a specific technique for cultivating mindfulness of feeling? Keep bringing your self back to awareness of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings.
Audience: On the cushion and off.
Audience: Similar to what S was saying that offering service sometimes it’s so easy to get focused on completing my tasks. So it’s the constant reminder, it’s like two aspects of the vision. You still have to hold the image of wanting to complete something for a good purpose, without losing just in the mundane of getting it done. That sense of being present along the way and, yes, still be able to check it off. So it’s a balance. Sometimes it’s like, “Yes, I got to check that off, but I wasn’t really terribly present with the journey.” One of the things I’ve done I do keep a “to do” list and on the top is to set my intention and try to be mindful of the steps along the way. It’s a process. Sometimes it’s there more than others. One of the things I’ve been doing is putting the monastic readings together. So in the process I guess I’ve been able to be more mindful with that because it’s the Dharma specifically.
VTC: Yes. Sometimes there’s really the intention of, “Oh, I’m preparing these monastic readings booklets that are really important. And I’m doing it with attention and kindness.” And then other times the mind just goes, “Oh, well, let’s get it done, now this many pages, how many more to do?”
Audience: You’re right. Yes, I caught myself. It’s still it’s different, not being in the hall is as much. Just that acclimating; not just in terms of talking, but in terms of different kind of focus. I’m trying to have a little bit of ease with that for myself and just recognizing that it is different. It is a transition. And it’s not a longing and wanting to be in the hall, it’s just kind of it’s a different energy about what I’m doing with my body.
Audience: Just in light of that I was trying to think of how my experience fits with everybody else. One of the things I’ve really been benefiting from is that exercise of what’s the basis of designation and what’s the designated object. And looking at dependent arising over and over and over, but looking at it in terms of the label I have given it in my mind, or the label I have in the behavior that’s bugging me, just like laying it on everything. And I’m finding it so helpful. So that thing about awareness is just what pops into my mind. I grabbed the tissue this morning off the back of the bathroom, the first time I just looked and thought, “This tissue did not just appear out of nowhere. Somebody gave us this box of tissue.” So there are things, there’s something that is surprising me about the emphasis that I wanted to put on studying emptiness and dependent arising and how it’s so practical. In all the other things that I’m doing, all the emotional stuff that comes up, and it’s so useful. So whatever trip I had about being too heady here, or I don’t know, it’s just so useful. I’m finding it really, really helpful. And it’s helping awareness a lot.
Audience: I wanted to ask … but then kind of the discussion went into another direction. I was browsing through a book on vipassana. And I had the chance to hear about vipassana in derogatory terms, and I was wondering, for a clarification, what’s useful and why is it that I heard it in such a way. So then I was wondering, so, there is a use to it and as I understand it’s a, perhaps the major meditation technique in the Theravada system. So then it’s kind of confusing what part is useful and for what part it has this ….
VTC: Okay. First of all the way the word vipassana is used nowadays is as if it’s a whole other Buddhist tradition. And it’s not. It’s a style of meditation that’s found in every Buddhist tradition. So Tibetan Buddhism has vipassana meditation. It’s not done in the same way as vipassana mediation in the Theravada system is done. It’s done in a different way, but it’s still vipassana mediation.