The four opponent powers: Part 1

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Part of a series of teachings given at the Winter Retreat from December 2011 to March 2012 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Examining our motivation for practice
  • Introduction to the four opponent powers
  • The benefits of purification
  • The difference between regret and guilt

Vajrasattva 10: The four opponent powers, part 1 (download)

10 Vajrasattva – Four Opponent Powers Overview 1-5-12

In the next two little talks, we’re going to talk about the four opponent powers in general. Then after that we’ll get into more specifically into the sadhana.

Considering our motivation for purification practice

As I thought about this topic I really thought a lot about motivation. Like others here, I too thought about when I did the Vajrasattva retreat. Seeing that my mind was mostly thinking just about this life, and my various sufferings of this life, and wanting to be rid of them, and purifying all these problems and things. I really encourage us all to look at what we’re doing with our purification and try to expand our thinking a little bit. Of course we don’t want to suffer. But let’s broaden our view about suffering—and our whole situation with cycling again and again, life after life. That picture is a better perspective, especially if it pulls you away from just thinking about “me” all the time, and “my problems,” and “I want to get rid of this suffering.”

Of course we all want happiness and this leads us to have desire for things. When I think about my motivations for purifying, these verses from Shantideva are really graphic. I don’t know if you’ve ever ridden a horse, and when you’re on the horse and it’s just pulling to get this one little bite of grass. You’re trying to ride along and it just wants this little bit of pleasure so it puts its head down, “I’ve got to have this piece of grass.” You know how that is.

Shantideva says:

Thus, sensualists have much distress and little enjoyment, like a beast that has a hold of a bit of grass while pulling a wagon. For the sake of that bit of enjoyment, which is easily obtainable even for an animal, an ill-fated one has destroyed this leisure and endowment, which is very difficult to find.

For me that image is quite potent. It has given me a perspective about the little pleasures of this life that I run after and waste time on. We’re really just going on, treading along in samsara and grabbing here for this little thing and grabbing here for that, and it’s really not very satisfying. So I find that image helpful for my motivation. Maybe it will help you too.

Then contrast that with the potential that we have, our buddha nature. We can do this purification practice with the thought of at least trying to have a precious human rebirth again and really taking advantage of this life, or maybe even liberation. And then best of all, for us Mahayana practitioners, thinking about full enlightenment and realizing our vast potential. So this is just a little bit about motivation for doing purification.

Overview of the four opponent powers

The four opponent powers are listed differently in the sadhana but I’m going to explain them in this order because it reads a bit easier.

  1. the power of regret
  2. the power of reliance
  3. the power of remedial actions
  4. the power of the determination not to repeat the action

Today, we’ll do a little bit of an introduction and then we’ll talk about regret. Next time we’ll talk about the other three.

One way to think about purification is you sit down (when you’re not in retreat you might just do this at the end of the day) and review your day. You look at what was going well and what really wasn’t on track. You use it to review your day. Look for the things where you were kind of off track, and for things that are out of balance, and really become very honest with yourself. Geshe Phelgye said once that we really need to be honest with ourselves, at least when we shut ourselves behind our bedroom door, or on our cushion, where we’re not talking with anyone. At least then let’s be honest with ourselves. That’s what purification is about. It’s a way to look honestly at what we’re doing; and especially look at our motivations to help us to discern, and to learn to discern, really what we’re doing all day long.

And especially, where is the exaggeration? Often times it’s the things that are off base, that are done under the influence of afflictions. With affliction then of course they’re distorted; and so we’re exaggerating usually the good qualities of something, and so we become attached to it. Or we exaggerate the bad qualities of something and we have aversion to it. This time that we spend doing this helps us look at the distorted ways that we’re perceiving things and kind of clean that up. Know that if you’re suffering, you’re having distortion in your mind. Usually when we do this retreat we become quite aware of the suffering in our mind. So just know that’s a distortion. There’s a distortion there, and let’s look for it, and let’s clear it out, and purify, and try to understand it more fully.

When we do purification, there are these four powers and all four are needed for purification to happen. It’s often said that regret is the most central one and that’s certainly true. The other three factors you might do in your life but without regret you won’t really have purification. You still need all four and you need to do the purification practices repeatedly. And why is that? Well, from the Buddhist perspective, we’ve been here since beginningless time. We’ve got some really entrenched habits. It’s kind of like a chronic illness and just one dose of medicine isn’t going to cure it. We need to purify repeatedly to get this force to counteract a lot of our habitual patterns. It’s helpful to know that and be realistic about how purification works. Also, if you think about it, when you’re doing a session you usually don’t do all four powers so perfectly, they aren’t all so strong. So you might have to do them repeatedly just because we don’t have all four fully engaged, and to really get all four powers there.

Benefits of purification practice

There are many benefits in doing purification and these will come up as we go through these various talks. One that Venerable Chodron pointed out (something that I appreciate at lot) is she likened doing purification to peeling an onion. The idea that she had was that you purify just like you’re peeling off layers, and that as you purify you gain more clarity. That’s what we see as we look at our minds, our actions, and our speech. As we look at our motivations and really sit with things they become clearer. We have much more discernment and there’s a lot more clarity that comes over time. Our minds become clearer.

Another of the many great benefits of purifying is that it makes the mind more fertile so the teachings can come in. If you don’t have enough merit and you’re not purifying, the mind becomes like concrete, a little hard. I think purification is very helpful. It’s humbling in a way, but it’s a good kind of humble. It helps us to see ourselves more clearly and we work with these things and it makes us be more receptive. It gives us a fertile ground for the teachings to grow in. These are just two of the things that are of great benefit.

Often times people wonder, “Well how do I know if I’ve purified?” There are things that they write about in the texts about your dreams, and this and that. But what makes the most sense to me actually is what Milarepa said:

You may have doubts that confession can really purify actions but if your thoughts have become positive you are purified.

For me this rings true. The things that I’ve purified repeatedly, where I see a shift in my mind around these things, that’s purification at work. I use this as my definition—when I’ve made the change inside. Of course there are layers to things, and things revisit you. But you can still see the changes over time.

The power of regret

The first of the powers we’re going to talk about is the power of regret. This is hard for us to discern properly, it takes a long time. I don’t know what it would be like for someone in another culture. That I don’t really know. For a Westerner, we have a difficult time discerning regret from guilt—and it takes most of us years. It’s a process of learning what regret is. Simply said, regret is like an acknowledgement of our mistakes. It puts us in the position of power because we can take responsibility. We can just acknowledge it, as if I’ve drunk this poison and wish I hadn’t. In my own mind I always try to see the harm that something is doing, if it’s toward me or someone else. That’s how I generate regret.

Contrast that with when we might move into guilt. This is really something that blocks our development. You’re kind of stuck when you go into guilt. There’s a lot of “me” going on there. Often times, I think of it like a reaction to a reaction—a reaction to myself. I may have made this mistake, and then I react to it, then I feel kind of crummy about myself. You could even say you hate yourself in a way. I wouldn’t have admitted that to myself in the past. But you’re just really getting on your own case. You’ve kind of taken it too far, is how it goes for my mind.

Now when I try to work this out in my mind (and I think this is probably pretty different for different people) I acknowledge this as a mistake and I just kind of go, “Wow! I wish I hadn’t done that.” And I stop there and go through the purification. I don’t go to my next flow of thoughts, which may be how I feel about myself for doing this. From the guidance of Venerable Chodron, I’ve learned that I need to cut that there.

I think this aspect will be different for different people. You have to get to a place where you recognize something as something to be regretted. But then, if you see that you’re thinking about yourself a lot, “it’s all about me” and “I’m so worthless” or you’re feeling bad or anything like that. That isn’t really it. That’s the self-centered thought with sort of a sneaky counterattack. It doesn’t want you to change; it wants you to stay stuck. When you see that happening just go, “No, that’s not what I’m here for.”

Venerable Chodron has spoken about this in terms of responsibility also. I haven’t really thought about in this way yet. She said that we need to discern what we’re responsible for and what we aren’t responsible for. Many times we feel guilty about things that are really not our responsibility. I’ll pose that as a koan for you to work with. Let’s look to see where that may be coming up as we purify.

That’s it for today. We’ll pick up next time with the other three opponent powers.

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