Practical Buddhism | Thubten Chodron The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Sun, 26 Feb 2017 23:55:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Index of all articles in Practical Buddhism Mon, 01 Jan 2001 15:55:16 +0000 ]]> Optimism and renunciation Mon, 18 May 2015 17:21:40 +0000

  • A talk in response to “The power of optimism
  • Facing difficulties with optimism
  • How optimism is not counter to generating renunciation
  • Being optimistic implies a certain understanding and acceptance of the nature of samsara

Optimism and renunciation (download)

YouTube Video

We got a question from one of the SAFE [Sravasti Abbey Friends Education] participants. She said that she had watched the video I gave a little while ago called “The Power of Optimism,” and she’s enrolled in SAFE class number two where the topic is renunciation, developing the determination to be free from samsara. So she said that she’s faced a lot of difficulties in her life, some of them have been life-threatening, but she’s always had a very positive attitude through them and has been very grateful for the help that she’s received from other people when she’s had these various problems–some have been medical problems, some haven’t. She’s very glad that she’s had this optimistic way of thinking and seen that having that positive attitude has a good effect on your mind, it helps your body heal faster, you have better relationships with other people, and so on.

But her question is, in studying about the disadvantages of samsara, she says,

It now almost seems as if this optimism is at odds with the methods we are being taught to cultivate renunciation. I know my optimism is different from attachment to life’s pleasure. [It sure is, it’s very different.] But I still feel some confusion when considering this in the context of the teachings about the disadvantages of cyclic existence.

And then she asked if I could talk about this is in a Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner.

The thing is, when we have an optimistic attitude about things going on in our lives that’s completely a realistic attitude because we’re just approaching things with a mind that says, “What can I learn, how can I benefit, how can I receive, how can I connect with other people?” It’s a very realistic and beneficial attitude, and everybody’s lives would be much better if they had an optimistic attitude instead of always presupposing the worst.

When we talk about the disadvantages of cyclic existence that, too, is a realistic attitude. We’re not being pessimistic. We’re just seeing what cyclic existence is, and what it isn’t. Okay? We sure are cultivating a certain disillusionment with cyclic existence, but that disillusionment is counteracting the mind that says, “I’m going to find ultimate pleasure and delight and happiness and bliss in cyclic existence.” And that’s a realistic attitude because that’s never going to happen. So we’re just seeing cyclic existence for what it is so that we can deal with it in a practical way, which is to cultivate the wish and the determination to get out of it and to overcome it.

That doesn’t mean we approach life in a pessimistic way, always assuming that the worst is going to happen because that pessimism (is) an unrealistic attitude because that’s jumping to conclusions.

Optimism is something that’s beneficial, it has realism in it. But being optimistic doesn’t mean that we think we’re going to find everlasting bliss and joy in samsara, because that’s never going to happen. So we become optimistic about attaining liberation, about generating bodhicitta, about attaining full awakening, because that is a good state, a state of lasting happiness that we can actually attain, and that we can go towards.

Is it clear developing the renunciation of samsara is realistic? We’re not staying in “samsara stinks” mentality, but we’re cultivating the optimism that will take us to developing our good qualities and giving up our afflictions and attaining full awakening. But meanwhile, while we’re in samsara, on a day to day basis, we try and have a positive attitude and an optimistic attitude, which is also beneficial and realistic.

[In response to audience] Yes, so the optimism that we have the potential to get out of cyclic existence is included in renunciation. And it’s very important—perhaps in SAFE course 2 we need to add some more about this, about buddha nature, about the last two noble truths. Because it isn’t just about the first two noble truths. The last two noble truths, I think, come in a future SAFE course, but maybe we need to remind people also of that when they’re going in depth about the first two truths.

[In response to audience] Yes, and read the letter that introduces the course, because it talks about this there.

Venerable Thubten Chonyi: So for me the letter and the talking about the optimism implies, actually, an acceptance of, understanding the nature of cyclic existence, rather than a denial. So that to experience our difficulties and then have optimism around our capacity to be able to change or appreciating the kindness of the people around us means that implicitly you’ve already accepted this is the way it is, as opposed to pushing it away. And that’s what, it seems to me….. It’s really helpful then in being able to generate the determination to be free we have to accept what it is and have a positive attitude about how we go forward.

The power of optimism Mon, 11 May 2015 17:21:28 +0000

  • Frogs and ground squirrels: two stories
  • The benefit of looking at a situation with a happy mind
  • Rejoicing in what is good in the world
  • Suggestions for mind training practice

The power of optimism (download)

YouTube Video

I wanted to talk about our outing yesterday when we went to see our friends at their land nearby. And in addition to their total love of nature and living beings, what really remained with me from the afternoon was their optimistic take on life.

At one point Jim was telling us the story about being on the 16th hole of a golf course and hearing a frog croaking. (Or was it a toad? Anyway…. I think it was a frog, croaking.) They traced it. One of its legs was stuck in a sprinkler and Jim tried to get it out, he couldn’t get it out, the frog was going to die if it stayed there. So they cut off the frog’s leg—because it was the only way to keep it alive—took it home, nurtured it. They had this little pond that they had created, put this frog in the pond, and he healed. And he lived four months in this pond until one September we had a sudden freeze and then he was just frozen there and died.

Jim told the story and my heart went, “Oh, this poor frog, he died like that, frozen in the water.” And Jim was going, “It was so wonderful that he came and he lived four months with us.” And I was thinking, “Now wow, what an instance of the glass half full and the glass half empty.” And whenever Jim talked about any of the living beings on their land it was with so much love and he totally accepted their impermanence, that they weren’t going to be there forever. That they were temporary creatures and however long they were there he was delighted.

And I thought, now that’s really the Dharma perspective, isn’t it? That’s totally how His Holiness looks at life. Whereas so many of us get bogged down in “what could have been but wasn’t,” or, “what should have been, but isn’t.” Where they’re just looking at what was and being happy about it. “Wow, the frog didn’t die on the golf course, it lived four more months with us, in a happy way, in this pool.” And both of them just rejoiced at that.

So I thought, you know, this is really an important thing for us to learn. Whether we’re working with others or whether we’re looking at world affairs or whatever it is, to always look at what is going well, what has happened that we can rejoice at, without looking at the “woulda, coulda, shouldas.” Which make no difference. But just rejoicing at what was.

I’ve always felt that way about grief, too. Instead of grieving for a future that we’re never going to have, to rejoice that we had somebody in our lives for as long as we did, and feel good about that, and then send them on with love. Just being happy about what was.

I think this is another mind training that we have to diligently work on in our practice. Nobody else can do it for us. We have to do it. We have to practice it. And we’ve heard this kind of thing many times, but still when we feel kind of down in the dumps then we say “what do I do?” So I think we should make a little—everybody should have a little file or little thing of what to think about: when I’m angry, when I’m down in the dumps, when I’m blah blah blah…. And have a little book that we can refer to—that we write when we’re not in those states—but we refer to when we are so we can remember how to work with our mind. Instead of sitting there going “ahhhhhh…. What do I do?”

Also, being able to look at the goodness in the world, being able to look at the goodness in the world and see that.

[In response to audience] Yes, he so much wanted to have Columbian ground squirrels but you’re not allowed to bring live ones onto your property, only dead ones. [shakes head] Some ridiculous rule.

So he was working (in one of his jobs) and there was some flooding or something, he found two baby baby ground squirrels. Itty bitty ones. And brought them home, nursed them that night, brought them to our neighbor who is a wildlife rehabilitator, she nursed them another two weeks, to the point where they were in such a small place that they were fighting with each other, and she called them and said “please come and take your squirrels.” So they took the squirrel’s home and the squirrels started populating so now they have tons of them. But it was, again, this thing of, we could have gone into “oh, these baby ground squirrels that are suffering, ohhhh [sobs] their mama had been killed….” And instead this, well…. (Because they thought the squirrels were going to die anyway): “Let’s take them home, let’s try, let’s see what happens…. Wow, look, they lived.” So that was a wonderful story, too.

And then when the squirrels started digging in all sorts of places that some people would call very inconvenient, again, they didn’t mind it at all. When they were showing us some of the holes, you know? Especially one…. It’s like “oh, we don’t mind, they dig, they’re just trying to live just like us…” Welcome there.

View a followup to this talk: Optimism and renunciation

Making a real difference Wed, 20 Aug 2014 17:32:55 +0000

Midsummer, on vacation with my husband visiting family, I found myself in one of the presidential museums. As I walked through exhibit after exhibit and read about the problems the president resolved and the crises he averted, it struck me … years later, although many of the names and faces are different, the suffering is exactly the same: poverty, hunger, genocide, racial discrimination, war, greed, disease … I was horrified at this realization. How can the world not be any different? How can there be no less suffering?

Heather standing in front of an exhibit at the presidential museum.

We can’t fix samsara but we can do something that will make a real difference. (Photo by Dave Duchscher)

It finally occurred to me that it’s because the human realm is in samsara. Not only is life in this realm never going to work out, not only is it not going to get better, it can’t. 
Suffering is, in fact, the nature of samsara.

So what was I supposed to do with this understanding—that even the most powerful and influential of humans can’t bring about lasting change; that before long any alleviation of suffering here just crops up over there; that samsara is not fixable? How do I work for the
 benefit of sentient beings if it doesn’t make a difference?

Since that day in the museum, I’ve been examining this, bringing it into both my meditation sessions and purification practice. A number of things have become very clear to me as a result:

  1. Fixing samsara isn’t the point, which is great because it’s obviously not working anyway. The task before me isn’t to change samsara, but to facilitate change in the minds of the beings bound by it. Each and every moment is an opportunity to benefit sentient beings, to alleviate their suffering. Granted, I may lessen suffering here and it just crops up over there, but karma is not lost. It does make a difference. I may not be able to create lasting peace in the human
 realm, but I can facilitate a transformation in the minds of the sentient beings (including my own) that exist in it. Benefiting sentient beings is more than just alleviating temporal suffering; it’s about leading beings out of it.

  2. The human realm is less a “place” than it is a “result.” Somehow, despite all the teachings, I still had the thought that if we create the causes for it, human life on planet Earth could get better, thus it’s important to benefit sentient beings and make the world a “better place.” I mean, if I create lots of merit and have a human rebirth, surely it will be better than it is now, right? But now I see how naive that is. That’s not really how it works, is it?

    Beings born in this realm are experiencing a result within samsara, taking this particular body and mind under the influence of ignorance, afflictions, and polluted karma. The human realm is not some “place” that I need to make better. If I want to make a real difference, I have to help others create the causes for an entirely different result; one that doesn’t include any of the realms within samsara.

  3. The only way to make a real difference is to become a Buddha. The bottom line is that with the constraints of this human body and mind, my abilities are seriously limited. I can only do so much, because while I’m still in samsara, I’m continuing to be part of the problem. Truly, the most valuable thing I can do to create lasting change in the lives of sentient beings is to attain awakening. It’s this wish that must consume my every thought and drive my every action.

Not that I hadn’t heard these teachings before, but I was shocked when I investigated and reasoned these things for myself—this really IS true! The human realm, like the other realms of samsara, is suffering. The power of even the most influential of humans is limited, and although it is essential to benefit sentient beings by alleviating the sufferings of this life, the fact of the matter is that samsara is never going to work out. It can’t. That’s just not its nature. But rather than feeling despondent, this truth has given me a deep and meaningful purpose; a direction. Samsara itself cannot change. For as long as it exists, it will be in the nature of suffering, but the minds of sentient beings can and will. That leaves me with an incredible and meaningful job to do; an opportunity to make a real and lasting difference!

Creating peace in one’s daily life Fri, 21 Mar 2008 21:09:59 +0000

Everyday spiritual practice

  • Practices to do each day to refresh and renew our spiritual aspirations
    • how to wake up correctly
    • the three most important things to do for the day
    • how to remind ourselves of these throughout the day
  • The importance of continually steering the mind towards constructive thoughts

Creating peace in our daily lives 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • The need for suffering
  • Requesting prayers from monastics
  • Consuming animal products
  • The meaning of Dharma realization
  • Setting spiritual intention
  • Dealing with negative thoughts

Creating peace in our daily lives 02 (download)