Open Heart, Clear Mind study guide

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Based on notes from an introductory course on Buddhism taught by Venerable Thubten Chodron, all referenced readings in this guide are from Open Heart, Clear Mind by Venerable Chodron. The book and study guide offer a foundational understanding of Buddhism that is both profound and accessible.


V. The path to enlightenment

The Four Noble Truths

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 1

These four truths describe our current situation as well as our potential:

  1. We experience suffering, difficulties and problems
  2. These have causes: ignorance, attachment and anger
  3. It is possible to cease these completely
  4. There is a path to do so

To get a better sense of the unsatisfactory conditions of our present situation and thus to motivate us to remedy the situation, consider the difficulties we human beings experience:

  1. Birth
  2. Aging
  3. Sickness
  4. Death
  5. Being separated from what we like
  6. Meeting with what we don’t like
  7. Not obtaining the things we like even though we try so hard to get them
  8. Having a body and mind under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. Birth: Is it a pleasant, comfortable process?
  2. Aging: How do you feel about aging? Is it frightening? Consoling? Both? What benefits and disadvantages do you see with aging? What aspects of aging give you the most difficulty? How does this relate to attachment?
  3. What is your experience of illness? How does physical sickness affect your mind and emotions? How does your mental state affect your health?
  4. How do you feel about death? Do you feel your life has been complete? Do you feel ready for death when it comes?

Make examples from your life of the next three:

  1. Not obtaining the things we like even though we try so hard to get them
  2. Being separated from what we like
  3. Meeting with what we don’t like
  1. Finally, consider that due to having a body and mind under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma, the above seven unsatisfactory experiences occur. How much control do we have over these difficult experiences? Can we stop our body from sickness, aging, and death? How hard is it to control strong emotions and how do they influence our minds? How can we look at these difficult experiences so that they help us on the path?

The determination to be free

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 2

The eight worldly concerns

Examine how the following attitudes operate in your life. Do they make you happy or confused? Do they help you to grow or do they keep you in prison?

Attachment to…
Aversion to…
(1) receiving material possessions(2) not receiving material possessions or being separated from them
(3) praise or approval(4) blame or disapproval
(5) a good reputation (having a good image, others thinking well of you)(6) a bad reputation
(7) pleasures of the 5 senses(8) unpleasant experiences

Conclusion: Feel like you don’t want to continue living your life “on automatic” and that you want to change the attitudes that cause you to have problems.

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. Sometimes it initially may seem that without attachment and aversion, there’s no way to be happy. Is that true? Are there different types of happiness? How does happiness from sense pleasures rank?
  2. Having compassion for ourselves is very important. What does this really mean? From a Buddhist perspective, making a determination to be free from cyclic existence is considered having compassion for ourselves. Do you agree

Developing the courage to free ourselves from a bad situation

The eight worldly concerns dominate our lives, cause us problems, and make us waste our potential. They arise easily when we think only of the happiness of this life. Reflecting on impermanence and death enlarges our perspective and helps us set our priorities wisely. This, in turn, enables us to turn our attention away from the eight worldly concerns to more important activities, such as cultivating compassion and wisdom.

Meditation on impermanence is discussed on page 138. In addition, the following meditations may help you clarify your priorities so that you make your life most worthwhile and meaningful.

The nine point death meditation

  1. Death is inevitable, definite
    1. Nothing can prevent our eventually dying
    2. Our life span can’t be extended when it is time for us to die and with each passing moment we approach death
    3. We will die even if we have not had time to practice Dharma

Conclusion: We must practice the Dharma

  1. The time of death is uncertain
    1. In general there is no certainty of lifespan in our world
    2. There are more chances of dying and less of remaining alive
    3. Our body is extremely fragile

Conclusion: We will practice Dharma continually beginning now.

  1. Nothing else can help at the time of death except the Dharma
    1. Wealth is of no help.
    2. Friends and relatives are of no help.
    3. Not even our body is of any help.

Conclusion: We will practice purely.

Imagining our death meditation

  1. Imagine your death: Where you were, how you were dying, your feelings, the reactions of friends and family.
  2. Ask yourself, “What do I feel good about having done in my life? What has been worthwhile? What do I have regrets about?”
  3. Also ask yourself, “Given that I will die one day, what is important in my life? What do I want to do and to avoid doing while I’m alive? What can I do to prepare for death?”

Conclusion: Have a sense of the certainty of your death and the importance of making your life meaningful. Make specific conclusions about what you want to do and to avoid doing from now on.

Ethics

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 3

The ten destructive actions

Reflect on which destructive actions you have done. Understand how you got involved in them, what their immediate and long-term results are. Although we may regret many things we’ve done, these can be purified and a sense of relief arises from being honest with ourselves.

1. killing
2. stealing
3. unwise sexual behavior
4. lying
5. divisive speech
6. harsh words
7. idle talk
8. coveting others’ things
9. maliciousness
10. wrong views

Conclusion: Be aware of your inner potential and how you’ve abused or ignored it in the past. Resolve to put your energy in constructive directions and to avoid acting in ways that harm yourself and others.

Four opponent powers for purification

Being aware of the results of your destructive actions, develop a strong wish to purify them by the four opponent powers:

  1. Regret (not guilt!) Not rationalizing or denying our mistakes, but being honest with ourselves in the presence of the Buddhas.
  2. Repairing the relationship: taking refuge and generating altruism
  3. Determining not to do that action again in the future
  4. Remedial behavior: community service, spiritual practice, etc.

Doing these repeatedly can purify the karmic imprints of our destructive actions and can relieve the psychological heaviness of guilt.

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. What is guilt? Where does it come from?
  2. What is the difference between regret and guilt?
  3. How can we free ourselves from guilt?

Nurturing altruism: Developing a kind heart

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 4

The kindness of others

To develop our sense of being interconnected with all others and being the recipient of much kindness from them, contemplate:

  1. All beings have been our parents and dear ones. We’ve had strong, close relationships with all others at some time during our infinite previous lives.
  2. As our parents or close friends, they’ve been extremely kind to us. Think specifically about the kindness of those who took care of you as a child.
  3. We’ve received incalculable benefit and help from others in this lifetime. Contemplate:
    • the help we’ve received from friends and relatives: education, care when we were young or sick, encouragement and support, constructive criticism, etc.
    • the help received from strangers: the food, clothing, buildings, roads–all the things we use and enjoy–were made by people we don’t know. Without their efforts in society, we wouldn’t be able to survive.
    • the benefit received from people we don’t get along with: they show us what we need to work on and point out our weaknesses so that we can improve. They give us the opportunity to develop patience, tolerance and compassion.

Conclusion: Recognizing all you’ve received from others, open your heart to feel gratitude for them. With an attitude that holds others dear, wish to benefit them in return.

Loving-kindness

  1. Beginning with yourself, think, “May I be well and happy.” Thinking of all the various types of happiness–worldly and spiritual–wish yourself well. Let this become a feeling in your heart.
  2. Spread this to others by first thinking, “May my friends and dear ones be well and happy.”
  3. Think, “May all the beings I don’t know personally be well and happy.”
  4. Finally, wish all those who have harmed you or whom you dislike or are afraid of to be well and happy. In all these steps, contemplate this thought so that it becomes a heart-felt feeling.

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. Is it difficult or easy to wish yourself well? How can you forgive yourself and let go of judgmental or perfectionist attitudes?
  2. What does it mean to accept ourselves? How can we do this?

The wisdom that realizes reality

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 5

Dependent arising

All phenomena depend on other things for their existence. They are dependent in three ways:

  1. All the functioning things in our world arise depending on causes. Pick any object and reflect on all the causes and conditions that went into its existence. For example, a house exists because of so many non-house things that existed before it: the building materials, the designers and construction workers, etc.
  2. Things exist depending on parts. Mentally dissect a thing to discover all of the different parts which compose it. Each of these parts is again made of parts. For example, our body is made of many non-body things: the limbs, organs, etc. Each of these is composed of molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles.
  3. Things exist depending on being conceived and given a name. For example, Tenzin Gyatso is the Dalai Lama because people conceived of that position and gave him that title.
  4. Because all people and things exist dependently, they are empty of independent or inherent existence.

Taking refuge

Reading: Open Heart, Clear Mind: V, 7

Refuge: its meaning, causes, objects

  1. Refuge means to entrust your spiritual guidance to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This doesn’t mean they will magically “save” you, but they will show you the ways and guide you along the path to transform your own mind.
  2. The causes of refuge. Cultivating these deepens your refuge.
    • A sense of dread or caution about the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future.
    • Confidence in the ability of the Three Jewels to guide you from this potential suffering and the confusion which causes it.
    • Compassion for others who are in the same boat.
  3. Objects. Knowing their qualities enriches our faith and confidence.
    • Buddha – one who has eliminated all defilements and developed all good qualities completely.
    • Dharma – the cessation of all difficulties and the paths leading to it.
    • Sangha – those who have direct perception of reality
  4. Analogy: we samsaric beings are like sick people. The Buddha is the doctor, the Dharma is the medicine and the Sangha are the nurses. We can be liberated from misery by taking the medicine they prescribe.

Conclusion: With a sense of caution regarding suffering and confidence in the ability of the Three Jewels, turn to them for guidance from your heart.

Points for contemplation and discussion

  1. Do we need spiritual guidance or can we do it alone?
  2. How do we relate to our objects of refuge? Can they magically save us? What is the balance between self-reliance and relying on the Three Jewels? Contemplating the analogy of The Three Jewels as doctor, medicine and nurses may be helpful here.
  3. What is faith or confidence? Is it necessary or beneficial? Are there healthy and unhealthy types of “faith”? How can we cultivate the healthy types?
  4. How do we feel about the religion we learned as a child? Have we made peace with it? Are we reacting to it with a negative feeling? Can we see it positive qualities and respect those who follow it, even though we may not follow that religion now?

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