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The fortunes of a precious human life

Taking advantage of our precious human life: Part 2 of 4

Part of a series of teachings based on the The Gradual Path to Enlightenment (Lamrim) given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington, from 1991-1994.


  • Making distinctions but not judging
  • The eight freedoms and how to meditate on them

LR 013: Review (download)

The 10 richnesses: Part 1

  • Born as a human
  • Living in central Buddhist region
  • Having complete and healthy sense and mental faculties
  • Haven’t committed any of the five heinous actions
  • Having instinctive belief in things worthy of respect
  • Living where and when a buddha has appeared

LR 013: 10 richnesses, part 1 (download)

The 10 richnesses: Part 2

  • Living where and when the Dharma still exists
  • Living where and when there’s a sangha community following the Buddha’s teachings
  • Living where and when there are others with loving concern
  • How to do the meditation

LR 013: 10 richnesses, part 2 (download)

Questions and answers: Part 1

  • The US as a central land
  • What it means to cause a schism in the sangha
  • Developing according to our individual dispositions
  • Practicing ethics in tantra

LR 013: Q&A, part 1 (download)

Questions and answers: Part 2

  • What it means to be a tulku
  • Practicing tantra in the West

LR 013: Q&A, part 2 (download)

Making distinctions but not judging

Last week we started talking about precious human life and the value of having a precious human life, and we’re going to continue with this subject. The purpose of contemplating this subject is to recognize the potential we have and the opportunity we have with this rebirth so that we get inspired and invigorated to make our lives meaningful.

Like I mentioned before, the purpose of this meditation is not to make one proud. It is not to make one critical of other people. It’s simply to make one happy about one’s good circumstances. In the process of doing this, we had to make distinctions between different groups of sentient beings. We make distinctions between being born as an animal and being born as a human. There’s nothing wrong with making distinctions in things. The difficulty that comes with distinction is when you then get prejudiced or when you get biased or when you get judgmental. That’s the difficulty. But just making distinctions between things, there’s nothing wrong with that. Like we discussed last time, chili peppers and apples, they are both the same in being food, but if you bake your pie with chili peppers instead of with apples, it’s just not going to work as well. That doesn’t mean chili peppers are bad and apples are superior; it just means that if you are going to bake a pie, use apples and don’t put in any chili.

Similarly, I have witnessed the turmoil that is going on in the Soviet Union. I don’t know about you people, I can’t speak for you, but I feel that, “Wow! I am glad I don’t live there.” Though this country has many problems, I feel very fortunate to live here and not in the Soviet Union. Now, in saying that, that is not saying that all Americans are good and all Soviets are bad. Do you see the difference between that and saying, “I’m happy I live here, and I am glad I don’t live there?” There is a difference between saying that and saying all Americans are good and all Soviets are bad, or Americans are superior and Soviets are inferior. There is a big difference between these statements. You’ll have to listen properly when we are making distinctions here. We are not talking about good and bad, and superior and inferior. The way we should be meditating on these things is applying them to our own personal life and our own personal situation. Could we practice the Dharma as well in this situation as we could in that situation? That’s all it’s talking about. We are not judging good and bad, inferior and superior. We are just trying to look at our own lives and ask, “If I were born in this situation, would I be able to actualize my buddha potential as well as if I were living in that situation?”

I explained this before I started last week’s session, but judging by the questions, I realized that people hadn’t understood it. So I’m repeating it again with an attempt to get through, but I still welcome questions.

Also, this meditation is based on the assumption that there are other life forms, that there is reincarnation. Many people may not believe in that. Take your time. This meditation is not saying, “Thou shall believe in reincarnation!” That is not what this is saying. It isn’t saying, “If you are going to be a Buddhist, you have to believe this.” I didn’t find this anywhere in Lama Tsongkhapa’s text. Maybe our ears hear that, but that is not what Lama Tsongkhapa said.

When we listen and sticky points arise, just acknowledge, “OK, there is a sticky point, I need to think some more about this,” or, “Something isn’t perfectly clear, I need to examine and check up some more, but that is okay.” There is nothing wrong with being confused. The problem is when you think you have it all understood. [laughter] When you think it’s all perfectly clear, then probably something is wrong. But as long as you feel like you still need to grow and check up, then the wheels are churning, you haven’t gotten stagnant.

This meditation is done on the presupposition that it’s nice to be a Buddhist. This meditation is definitely given with the presupposition that we can learn something from Buddha’s teachings. If you personally don’t feel that there is anything Buddha’s teachings can offer you, this meditation is going to sound very, very strange to you. But if you feel that there is something that the teachings can offer you—you feel that you are happy you encountered them because it gives you a lot of possibility that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t encountered the teachings—this meditation will make more sense.

So let’s give it another go.

The eight freedoms and how to meditate on them

Last session we talked about feeling happy because we are free of being born in eight rather inconvenient states. The way to think about this is, imagine yourself being born in a life form that experiences a great deal of pain and fear. Then imagine being who you are now. Ask yourself which situation gives you a better opportunity to practice. Which situation gives you a better opportunity to develop your love and compassion?

Then you go on to the next step of imagining yourself being in a life form of constant clinging and frustration and anxiety. Really put your mind into that and feel what that’s like, and then come back to who you are now, “Oh, here I am. OK, I have some clinging and frustration, but I’m not that bad!” [laughter] We will see that we have a lot of potential in the body that we have now.

Similarly, imagine yourself as an animal. I was watching the news the other day and they had an armadillo. Now imagine yourself being an armadillo. What is my mind state like if I am an armadillo? Can I practice the Dharma? Well, human beings have some advantages. That’s not saying armadillos are bad. It’s just that it’s easier to practice the Dharma if you are a human being, and we can feel happy about that.

Similarly, if we were born in the super-duper realm of deluxe sense pleasure (Hollywood without the pitfalls of Hollywood), it would be very difficult to practice the Dharma there because we would be continually distracted by all the pleasure. So being a human being gives us a nice balance and it’s easier to practice.

Suppose we are human beings born in a very barbaric society, e.g. where it is believed that killing is good, that making a sacrifice to the gods by killing is good. In that kind of society it would be difficult for us to progress spiritually because we’d be creating a lot of negative karma by killing many lives.

Similarly, it would be very difficult to practice if we were human beings but we were born without our sense faculties. We are fortunate to have all our senses intact. Just think, if you lost your sight tonight and you couldn’t see when you woke up tomorrow morning, would it be as easy to practice the Dharma as it is today? It is not saying people with sight impairments are inferior; that is not what this meditation is about. It is just saying that in my life, if I have this opportunity or that opportunity, which one gives me a better opportunity for practice? That’s all it’s saying.

And then, if we were born in a place where the Buddha’s teachings were unavailable, or where there is no freedom of speech and no freedom of religion, it would be difficult to practice. But we are not born in that situation. So again, we have a lot of fortune.

To summarize, it’s really helpful to imagine yourself in those other situations, and then just think, “What would I be thinking? How would I be acting? What would my environment avail me in terms of spiritual practice?” And then come back to where you are now, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Wow, I have so much opportunity. I can do so much. I am so fortunate.”

The 10 richnesses (of a precious human life)

Now we are going to go on to the 10 richnesses. These are similar to the eight freedoms but it’s viewing them in another way. This meditation is done to get us to see the richness in our life, that we’re not just free from the bad circumstances, but also that we actually have very good conditions.

    1. Born as a human

      The first five richnesses are personal factors that relate to our lives. The first one is being born as a human being. Why is it good fortune to be born as a human being? Well, because human beings have a balance of happiness and suffering. Our lives aren’t completely miserable, our lives aren’t completely fantastic either. And that, in terms of Dharma practice, is very good because we can observe our own mind. If we have too much suffering, we forget about the Dharma and we get completely overwhelmed in “MY problems” and “what I am going to do.” On the other hand, if we have too much sense pleasure and we are just completely floating along with too much happiness all the time, again, we forget about the Dharma because we forget about our own mortality, we forget about the suffering in the world, we get distracted by our own happiness. As human beings with a human body, we have this balance of happiness and suffering. This is a very good circumstance for Dharma practice—enough happiness so that life isn’t too difficult, enough suffering to remind us not to get too lazy.

      In addition, as human beings, we have human intelligence. Now, it is very true that sometimes human beings act worse than animals. There’s no doubt about that. Animals only kill when they are threatened, or they kill for food. Human beings kill for pleasure. So sometimes some human beings act much worse than animals. But in general, having a human intelligence is a very positive thing. That isn’t saying that everybody uses their human intelligence in a proper or constructive way. But it is saying that human intelligence has something special that other life forms don’t. We can understand things. We can think about things. We can contemplate them. We can meditate.

      Lama Zopa, he was so great. He had these little dogs, and his dogs, I think, came to more initiations than I did. But there is a big difference between being in a dog body and being in a human body at a teaching or an initiation. It’s very fortunate to be a human being, to have that intelligence that understands what is going on, the ability to think critically and evaluate things, and to set a long-reaching goal for our lives. This is something that human intelligence enables us to do, if we use our intelligence in a wise way.

    2. Living in central Buddhist region

      The second richness is that we live in a central Buddhist region. Now, this can have two meanings. According to the sutras, a central Buddhist region is one in which it is possible to take monastic vows. In other words, there are enough monks and nuns so that you can take monastic vows. According to tantra, a central Buddhist region is one where the Guhyasamaja tantra is taught. This is said to be the king of tantras. It has a lot of materials in it. Those are the distinguishing factors of a central Buddhist region. It doesn’t mean that the country we live in is a Buddhist one, but we do have the possibility here of contacting sangha communities, of hearing the Guhyasamaja teachings, of hearing teachings, and having a supportive community around us. So that’s a great fortune. In 1975 when I met the Dharma, I looked at this factor and I said, “Oh, I don’t think I have this one.”

      As you go through these 10 richnesses, we each have to check, “Do I have this one or don’t I?” We may have some and not have others. Also, see how each one enriches your life and makes it easier for you to practice.

    3. Having complete and healthy sense and mental faculties

      The third one is that we have complete and healthy sense and mental faculties. We can see. We can hear. Our minds are intelligent. We are not mentally impaired. We’re sane. We have all of our faculties. This is something that we so often take for granted. One summer, when I was in college, I worked at a convalescent home. I was working with people who had multiple sclerosis. Those people had a lot of difficulty moving their joints, so I would work a lot with them moving them and exercising and things like that. I used to go home and look at my hand a little, and I’d wonder, “How come mine moves and theirs doesn’t?” It seemed to me like a complete miracle that I could move my hand.

      So often in our life we just take things like this completely for granted. The fact that we can get out of bed every morning. There are many people who can’t get up from the bed every morning. Their bodies can’t move; it’s too painful to move. We take for granted the fact that we can see things and hear things. Not everybody has that opportunity. It would have been so easy for us to be born with sensory and mental impairments. It’s so easy. So just the fact that we have all our senses intact is a very great blessing, you could say. It’s a very great opportunity, and this enables us to not only live our life in a more functional way, but, especially in terms of the Dharma, it enables us to practice better.

      If we didn’t have all our senses, we’d have to use so much more time just for maintaining our life. We wouldn’t have as much time for practice. We wouldn’t be able to read books or listen to teachings or think about them. We have a lot going for us, just by the fact that our body and our sense faculties are functioning well. When we remember this and stop taking these things for granted, then this incredible feeling of joy and appreciation comes in our heart.

      So often, we don’t notice the things that we have going for us. We just pick out the one or two small things that make us unhappy and blow them up. We spend the whole day complaining, “I stubbed my toe,” and we completely forget the fact that the rest of our body is healthy. We don’t use the great capability of having a healthy body to do anything positive. We just use our energy to complain that our toe hurts. This is a silly example, but we can see in each of our lives how our mind works. We pick out the one thing, “MY stress, MY this and that,” and then we waste all of our human life, all of our intelligence complaining about things that are really the least important. We waste our life that way. In addition, we make ourselves and others very unhappy. But when we do this meditation and we have a feeling for the richness we have in our life and for the things that are already going well for us, then there is this feeling of buoyancy and joy in our life. Then even if you stub your toe or you miss your bus, it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve concentrated on all the good fortune you have.

    4. Haven’t committed any of the five heinous actions

      The fourth one is that we haven’t committed any of the five heinous actions. These five heinous actions are so negative that if one does them and one doesn’t purify, then at the time when one dies, one gets a direct train to the lower realms. One doesn’t have to wait in line! [laughter] There is no delay and the train functions perfectly. This is because these karmas, these actions, are so heavy. The five heinous actions are:

        1. Killing an arhat
        2. Killing your mother
        3. Killing your father

      You can see how heavy these are, why you get this immediate horrible retribution or effect from them.

      1. Causing schism in the sangha community—in other words, dividing the community of the Buddhist followers to make people argue and fight
      2. Drawing blood from the Buddha’s body

      This last heinous action reminds us of the Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta. If you think your relatives are bad, remember Devadatta. [laughter] He was always so jealous of the Buddha. He was always trying to kill him. He drew blood from the Buddha’s body in some of his attempts to kill him. We haven’t done any of those. You might say, “Oh, but this is stupid. Who would do something like that?” Well, there are many people in this world who would! In Newsweek, they had this story last week about one woman using a certain drug to kill her mother. People do these kinds of things when their minds get completely contorted. We haven’t done that, and so we don’t have that heavy karma to purify. We are very fortunate.

    5. Having instinctive belief in things worthy of respect: the Dharma, the value of ethics, the path to enlightenment, etc.

      The next one is that we have instinctive belief in things that are worthy of respect. In other words, there is some feeling inside us that life has some higher meaning than making money. There is some feeling inside us that human beings have an incredible potential and that the Buddha taught something really valuable to us about how to expose and actualize that potential. In other words, there is something in our heart that is directed towards making life meaningful. There is something in our heart that sees that there is more to life than just the attachment to worldly pleasures. As much as we are attached to worldly pleasures, there is something in us that feels, “Hold on, there is something more.” We have some confidence in the spiritual path, some appreciation of ethics. Many people don’t have this.

      In fact, as we’re going through these qualities of a precious human life, we’ll see that most people in the world, for example, lack this one. Now this is a general statement. I am not talking about everybody. I am just making a very general statement and you are welcome to question it. [laughter] Most people in the world are just basically concerned about being happy and living their life, having a nice family, getting enough food. And if they have spare time from that, to work at getting a nice position, being popular with their friends, and having a good reputation. Wouldn’t you say that this is what most people in the world think about when they wake up in the morning? Most people in the world don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I have a day to practice the Dharma to become a buddha.” Most people say, “Oh I have a day, let’s see how I can get some pleasure.” And although many people do have ethical values, people’s ethical values very easily get compromised. People very easily fudge on their ethical values. It is really quite rare in this world to have some distinctive respect for ethical value, some feeling that life has a higher meaning, and some confidence in that path to develop our buddha potential. Most people don’t think about these things, so it’s nice to appreciate that we have this. This is indicative that we have this habit from past lives—if people believe in past lives. [laughter] And it’s something to be really appreciative of.

    6. Living where and when a buddha has appeared

      We have the five richnesses that come from the societal condition in which we live. The first one is that we live where and when a buddha has appeared. In other words, a buddha has appeared in our historical era—Shakyamuni Buddha

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

    1. Living where and when a buddha has taught the Dharma

[Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

  1. Living where and when the Dharma still exists

    [Teachings lost due to change of tape.]

    …It is fortunate that there are a variety of traditions within Buddhism. Although all the Buddhist traditions center on the main basic principles, they have slightly different approaches and emphasis. I think this is really fortunate because different people have different ways of approaching a spiritual practice. People of different cultures approach things differently. People with different personality types approach things differently. The fact that there is this wide range that we can actually look at is something very fortunate. It also helps us appreciate the Buddha as a skillful teacher.

  2. Living where and when there’s a sangha community following Buddha’s teachings

    The next point is that we live when and where there is a sangha community following Buddha’s teachings. I find this one a little bit tricky in the West because when most of the people in the West say “sangha,” they mean just anybody who comes to a Dharma center. In the strictest sense, the word “sangha” means any particular individual, ordained or lay, who has direct realization of emptiness. That is the strictest meaning of sangha. And when we say that we take refuge in the Sangha, it’s in those particular individuals who have direct realization of emptiness that we take refuge in.

    The next gradation of the meaning of “sangha” is a community of four or more monks or nuns. In the East, when they talk about the sangha, it’s referring to an ordained monk or nun. Somehow in the West the word has gotten really diffused and refers broadly to anybody who is a Buddhist or thinking about being a Buddhist. But in this regard here, it’s talking specifically about a sangha community of monks and nuns. Of course, in the West, we are very lucky to have a community of laypeople around us—our supportive friends who help us and inspire us in our practice. But it’s also good, I think, to appreciate the fact that there are sangha communities of monks and nuns. I know this is a very difficult point, but leave it to me, I always stick my feet in the difficult points. So here comes another one. [laughter]

    Value of sangha community to society

    I find that sometimes, here in the West, people don’t seem to appreciate ordained beings very much. People often tend to feel, “Well, although you are ordained and I’m not, we’re kind of the same. We both have the capacity to practice the Dharma, so there is no reason for you to sit in front and no reason for you to be supported—go out and get a job! Go and get a job, earn your way, pay rent, pay for your food, and make yourself useful!” Very often in the West people have that kind of attitude towards monks and nuns. They are certainly entitled to their opinion. But I think for a society there is some value in having a sangha community of ordained people who don’t go out and get jobs and pay rent and things like that, for a few reasons.

    First of all, ordained people have dedicated their whole lives to Dharma practice. That’s the whole purpose of their life, so they have more time for practice. I think it’s nice to appreciate people who are ordained. I’m not saying this because I am in robes—don’t get me wrong. (I realize that I am becoming a little bit defensive teaching this, maybe you’ll understand why.) [laughter] I am not saying this about myself, but just in general, that if one has more time to practice, one is going to penetrate deeper into the studies and make more progress in one’s meditation. I think that it’s nice to value people who have done this because they set a good example for us and because they have developed qualities that we can then learn from. So I think it is very valuable for a society, whether it is a Buddhist society or a Catholic one or others, to have groups of people who are really dedicated to the religious practice, who can afford more time to go deeper into it than the majority of people. These people become like experts and they can help the other people in the society.

    Secondly, the existence of a sangha community always poses to society the question of the value of human life. What is the meaning of life? I think it’s good that we live in societies where there are groups of religious people because just by their lifestyle they are posing that question to us. What do we want to do with our life? What is valuable? I think when we live in a place where there is a sangha community that’s following the Buddha’s teachings, that’s nice, because the ordained people set an example, they pose that question to us. They know more than we do and are generally more advanced, so they can teach us. Now, don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that all ordained people are wonderful. It doesn’t mean that all ordained people are better than laypeople. That is not the case at all.

    In fact, in Asian societies, people very much have this view. The laypeople think, “Only the ordained people can practice. I am a layperson, so all I do is bow down and offer money and some incense. That’s my Dharma practice. I can’t practice more because I am not ordained.” That view is very prevalent in Asian countries. It’s completely incorrect. Laypeople can practice the Dharma very well. Laypeople have all the abilities to practice. You should rejoice about that. You should use them.

    And one thing that can inspire you to use your life well, one resource that you have along the path, are people who are ordained, or even laypeople whose whole life has been dedicated to Dharma practice. In other words, having specialists in the field is an asset to us. They are not our competitors, they are an asset. These people can help us on the path. So this is just to help us realize the resources we have on the path and the potential that we have. Like I said, laypeople can practice very well, and you should put energy into practice.

    One thing that I especially appreciate about teaching in the West is that the laypeople really want to learn and practice. Very often in Asian countries, the laypeople, like at His Holiness’s teachings, the laypeople come with their thermos of Tibetan tea and their cups. They have a picnic! You people aren’t sitting here eating cookies while I’m teaching, and I am really glad. You are listening. You are taking notes. You’re aware and you’re thinking. You’re questioning and you’re doubting. You think about the teachings when you go home. That’s fantastic! I find that laypeople in the West have much more enthusiasm for Dharma practice than the laypeople in many Asian countries.

  3. Living where and when there are others with loving concern: patrons, teachers, so we have clothes, food, other conditions to practice

    The last one, is that we live when and where there are others with loving concern. In other words, there are patrons, meaning benefactors, or sponsors of our practice. There are teachers. All these people give us the conditions in which we can practice. Your benefactors are, for example, your boss, your customers—these are the people we should be very grateful to. Without them, we wouldn’t have the material sustenance to practice. We live in a time and place where we aren’t starving. We aren’t homeless. We have the material conditions to practice. This is a great blessing. If we don’t even have the basic necessities of life, we would have to spend so much time and energy getting them, we would not have the time for Dharma practice. The fact that those things have come to us so easily is a very great fortune because it frees us and we could use our time for practice.

    Similarly we have access to teachers. This is a very, very important thing. We need people to learn from. Books can help us a great deal; we can get a lot out of books. But you can’t ask a book questions, and a book can’t set an example for you. Having access to living teachers is very important. I’ve seen the situation in America change so much in the 16 years since I first met Buddhism. When I first met Buddhism, it was very difficult to get teachings here. I had to pack up and go to India. You people don’t need to. You can stay here. You get door-to-door service—the teacher comes here! This is a very great fortune because many people have to go to other places to get teachings.

    Look at the history of Buddhism. How many Tibetans had to cross the Himalayas into India? How many Chinese had to go overland through Central Asia to get to India? Or people in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, riding on ships for years and years and years to be able to get teachings. People had to put so much energy into finding a teacher in the past, finding a place where the teachings were, and finding the texts. When you read some of these stories of the pilgrimages that people did from other countries to India to get the teachings and the hardships they went through, it is like, wow! These people were so dedicated. They were extraordinary! They were willing to undergo anything, because they really valued the spiritual path, they valued the Dharma.

    In comparison, we have it so easy. You get in a nice, comfortable car, and you drive for 15 minutes or half an hour, and that’s it. You don’t have to worry about bandits on the road and starving and all those other things. Teachers come here. So we have quite a fortunate situation. That is something to think about.

How to do the meditation

You examine yourself, “Do I have these qualities?” You go through the eight freedoms, and then the 10 richnesses. What value does each give to my life? If I didn’t have it, would it be easy to practice? In that way you come to appreciate everything that you have going for you in your life. This meditation is very good for overcoming depression. When you get depressed and you think, “Oh, everything is rotten in my life! Nothing is going well and I can’t practice. My mind is berserk and this country is crazy….” Then sit down and do this meditation on the precious human life. And you see that really, we have a lot going for us in terms of the practice. This is really something to rejoice and feel very happy about. So the purpose of doing that is to make the mind joyful so that we get enthusiastic about making our life meaningful.

In the text they say that your aim when you do this meditation is to feel, at the end, like how a beggar would feel if all of a sudden he realized he had a jewel in his pocket. It’s like you are a beggar and you’re completely down and out, and then you realize, “There’s a jewel in my pocket. Wow! I am so fortunate! What am I going to do?” Similarly, we may have this feeling of mental poverty. We feel as though our life is a mess, but suddenly we realize, “Wow! I have so many things going for me. This is incredible! What can I do with my life? How can I make my life meaningful?” To update the example, it’s like you are a little kid in a toy store and all of a sudden you realize you have a MasterCard and you can use it. “I have a MasterCard in the toy store. Wow!” It’s like the whole world opens up in front of your eyes, what you can do. And you are not going to just sit there, lounge around and play tiddly winks; you are going to buy everything you can! So in the same way, when we see that we have so much going for us in our life, then we’ll make an effort to practice the Dharma, because we see that our opportunity now is quite special and quite rare, and we want to make the most of it and not just fritter it away, wasting our time on silly things that don’t bring any meaning or purpose to our life.

So before going on, let me stop here and open it up for questions.

Questions and answers

Audience: Is the United States considered a central land?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, we have to check: is it possible to take ordination here? Now here we are going according to the strict definition of a central land. Well, it might be difficult, but it is possible, because people have taken ordination here. In other words, it is possible to get together the requisite group of sangha to be able to give you ordination. His Holiness is coming to teach Kalachakra. It’s not Guhyasamaja, but you are getting close. [laughter] So I’d say that it’s a little bit more difficult here than, let’s say, if you’re living in Dharamsala, but it’s definitely possible.

Audience: With all the different Buddhist teachings, which roadmap is the roadmap?

VTC: They are all roadmaps. You have to know the central Buddhist teachings, and then you check up each tradition to see if they have them. I am saying this because in recent years there have been many people who call themselves Buddhist but they are mixing in many other things with Buddhism, so I think that the roadmap might get changed. For example, when I was in Singapore one time, one man came from Japan, and he said he was a Buddhist. He came to the Buddhist Library. He was very controversial, and some people had told me about him. So I went there to listen. When this guy started talking about God creating the universe, I asked him, “Can you cite a scriptural source for this?” He was talking about God creating the universe and many other teachings that were not Buddhist teachings. He had mixed Christianity and Buddhism together. And so I said, “Can you give me some scriptural sources? How come none of the other traditions say this?” There are people who do this kind of thing. We should not just indiscriminately follow anybody. But the major existing Buddhist traditions are all quite solid. They have different emphasis but they are all very, very good. It’s more of us having to find the tradition that’s best suited for our temperament and our personality.

Audience: What does causing schism in the sangha mean?

VTC: Actually, technically speaking, to be a heinous action, this has to be committed at the time when a wheel turning buddha is alive. In other words, when a founding buddha like Shakyamuni is alive. Buddha’s cousin Devadatta committed this one too. Devadatta wanted to split the sangha and proclaim himself as the new guru. He drew people away from following Shakyamuni. Technically speaking, to be a heinous crime, it has to be done at the time of a founding Buddha. However, that doesn’t mean that we can be negligent in our behavior, because you can see how harmful it is to the Buddhist community to split people into factions. Now it is quite natural that people will form different groups. There is nothing wrong with that. People forming different groups and different groups having different emphasis, no problem with that. The problem is when people are judgmental and want to cause fighting and quarreling so that they can get power, so that they can get fame and prestige. That’s the difficulty.

About the fifth richness: Having instinctive belief in things worthy of respect: the Dharma, the value of ethics, the path to enlightenment, etc.

[In response to audience] It’s true that everyone does have buddha potential. Everyone does think about ethical things sometimes in their life. Everybody does want to be a good person at some level in their being. We can say that. That is true. So this point is not saying that other people are just unethical and everybody’s mind is like concrete, they don’t have any spiritual intention. It is not going to that extreme. Here we are talking about making it something that is really central in your life. Making it something that is really important to you. We can even look in our own lives and see that; perhaps this hasn’t been an important thing for us our whole life. If I look back on my past, for many years I was much more interested in other things. So did I have that quality at that time?

So you see, we are talking here about levels. Everybody has it in some way. But just how many people really listen to that part of themselves? Although everybody is brought up to be ethical, the ethics is up here, in the head, but it’s not in here, in the heart. The minute it becomes a little bit inconvenient to be ethical, ethics will be the first thing to go. We tell white lies because it’s more convenient. We criticize people because it’s easier. And many people actually think it’s quite good to do that kind of action. That doesn’t mean that those people have no ethical and moral quality in them. They do have, but it’s overshadowed by all this other stuff. So all we’re doing is saying that this time in our lives we do have some feeling that there is a path to enlightenment, that our life has this kind of higher meaning and greater potential.

Audience: In a person’s spiritual practice, are there some things that are going to be easier for some individuals than for other individuals?

VTC: Yes. And I think this depends a lot on previous habits, previous karma. The kinds of things we are interested in, the kinds of things we gravitate towards, the kinds of things that come to us easily. Of course to become a buddha we have to develop our capability in all of the different fields. So when they talk about the bodhisattva who excels in ethics, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t meditate. He does meditate. And the one who excels in meditation also practices ethics. And when they are buddhas they all have the same realizations. On a more conventional level, it may be that one practices his concentration through the basic practice of ethics, and another one practices his ethics through the basic field of concentration, or something like that.

As you can see amongst us, some people are so interested in emptiness from day one. For other people, it’s bodhicitta that really appeals to them. So everybody has something that kind of grasps them, and we are all different in that way. But as we develop along the path, we have to develop understanding of all the different things.

Audience: Can you explain what it means to practice ethics?

VTC: Ethics is the wish to not harm others. It is expressed in the most basic way by abandoning the 10 destructive actions. These 10 destructive actions are the basic things to abandon because generally when people do these they are motivated by ignorance, anger, attachment, jealousy, or other harmful attitudes. Although ethics at the highest level is the wish not to harm others, we start practicing it on a very basic level by abandoning these 10.

Audience: I’ve heard people say that when you practice tantra, you’re beyond ethics. You’re beyond good and bad. Is that true?

VTC: This is a very common misunderstanding about tantra. Actually, if you know anything about tantra, you’ll know that the ethics are very strict in the tantric practice. They are much stricter than in the sutric practice. Now, it is true that when you are a very high level yogi or yogini on the tantric practice, when you have realized bodhicitta, when you have realized emptiness, you might, on the level of external appearances, go beyond one of the five precepts. For example, the Buddha, when he was a bodhisattva in a previous life, saw that one man was going to kill 499 others, so he killed that one man—he broke one of the five precepts. But his mind was in a state of full, complete compassion for everybody when he did the action. He was following the bodhisattva precept, which is a higher level precept than the precept not to kill. The bodhisattva precept says that if you have bodhicitta and you don’t commit one of the seven destructive actions of body or speech when it is of benefit to others, then you are breaking a bodhisattva precept. In other words, if you have bodhicitta and you don’t lie in order to save somebody’s life, you’ve broken you ethical vows.

If you don’t have bodhicitta, it’s a different ball game, folks. We like to rationalize everything. “Oh, I killed that spider, but it’s OK.” We like to rationalize. But actually, it’s only when you are a bodhisattva or when you have the realization of emptiness that you can do those seven of the body and speech. You are doing them with a completely different mindset than when other people do them. You always hear the story in the scripture about this tantric yogi, Tilopa, who would cook fish and eat the fish, and then make them alive again. These people are different. But it is a very common misunderstanding in the West. People think that tantric practice is so high that they can ignore the 10 non-virtuous actions. They think they can do anything they want because they are high practitioners. People don’t understand that quite well and they use it as an excuse to do anything they want. When you are a regular, ordinary being, you can’t use tantra as an excuse for all of your greed, ignorance, and hatred. [laughter] When you are a high level person, you can do those same actions, but your mind is in a completely different space.

[In response to audience] It’s very true; we never really know what somebody else’s level of mind is. So we can never judge that person. If you see a teacher doing something, you can never say that the teacher is bad. But you can say, “I don’t understand why they are doing that action.” Or you may feel that the action appears harmful, and you need to ask them why. Or, “I need a teacher that sets a different example, because that isn’t a good role model for me.” So we can very well do that. Now, if you look at the very high lamas, their ethical conduct is generally very impeccable. At least this was the way it basically was in Tibet. Of course I am sure there were also corruptions, because sentient beings are sentient beings. But generally the impression that I’ve gotten is that the ethical conduct of most of the high lamas is very, very good. The teachers that I know also have very pure ethical conduct. I selected them as my teachers because they set a very good example in terms of ethical conduct for me.

Audience: Can you explain what it means to be a tulku.

VTC: A tulku is somebody who is recognized as a reincarnation of a great master. When a great master dies, a young child would be recognized as being the continuation of that person’s mind stream. In old Tibet before 1959, if you were recognized as a tulku, you were generally put in a monastery, and this is how the leadership of the monastery was passed down. When the abbot of a monastery died, the way they passed it down was through reincarnation. They had a regent or a temporary authority until they identified the reincarnation and that person grew up. This system of identifying tulkus was very much part of a social system for passing down property in Tibet. So sometimes parents really wanted their kids recognized as a tulku because it meant gaining respect, property, and things like that.

In Tibet, if you were a tulku, you were brought up with a very special education. Certain things were expected of you and you lived according to that. There wasn’t the space for you to do anything else because the societal pressure was so strong.

Then after 1959, the Tibetans came to India, this whole social system disintegrated. Some of the tulkus or monks or geshes came to the West, and many of them disrobed subsequently. Each person probably has a different reason for disrobing; we can’t make a generalization. I remember one of my teachers; he was a Tibetan monk and a geshe. He came to Italy and was working at one of the Italian Institutes for Oriental Studies. He disrobed after a while, became a layman, and got married. He explained to me it was because when he came over in 1959 or 1960, people in Italy didn’t know what a Buddhist was, and they didn’t know what a man with a bald head walking around in a skirt was doing. He just felt he could communicate better with the people at his workplace if he were a layperson. He also felt that it was very difficult to keep all of his 254 precepts completely pure living in Italy, so he chose to disrobe. So he disrobed actually out of respect for the ordination and respect for the lineage.

Other lamas or tulkus might disrobe for completely different reasons. Some of them aren’t so active in Buddhism now. Some of them are still very active in Buddhism. It’s hard to make generalizations why they do what they do. But Tibet has undergone a complete societal upheaval and so there aren’t the same restrictions or expectations on these people as there used to be.

Audience: Somebody said that tantric teachings seem very suited for the West because it fits our lifestyle, whereas sutric teachings were more for a monastic type of situation. What do you think he meant?

VTC: Now, it’s really hard to know. I cannot interpret what somebody else meant. So what I am going to say is in no way going to be an explanation of what that person said, because I don’t know what he meant. I can explain my viewpoint on the subject. In some ways, tantra is very suited for the West in the sense that tantra talks a lot about self-image and very skillful ways of developing a positive self-image, which I think is very good for Westerners. Also, tantra involves transforming things into the path—transforming attachment into the path, transforming sensual pleasures into the path. Each of us is capable of doing that at a different level. For example, when we offer our food, we can imagine a buddha at our heart, or if you have taken an empowerment, you can imagine yourself as the Buddha, and you imagine the food as blissful wisdom nectar. So when you eat, you are not just gobbling down your pizza; you’re offering wisdom nectar to the Buddha because you’re imagining yourself as a buddha figure. That’s the tantric way to transform eating, which is very applicable for us.

Or when you are getting dressed, instead of thinking of making yourself look gorgeous, you are imagining yourself as a deity. You are imagining the clothes as manifestations of bliss and emptiness, and you are making these offerings to the deity. This way of practicing can be very, very suitable for us because it gives us a way to transform normal activities and see them in the light of the tantra. How far can you go with this? Each person has to set their own boundaries. In other words, you must know the things you can legitimately transform and the things you are really doing out of attachment but rationalizing it by saying that you are a tantric practitioner. So each person has to draw their own boundaries.

Also, the practice of tantra is not separate from the practice of sutra. It’s founded on the practices of sutra. People should not think sutra is over here and it’s good for monastics, and tantra’s over here, completely separate. Tantra is what you build on top of sutra. So I think it is helpful to have all of the teachings so that you have a complete worldview of what the practice is all about.

Things like offering food, offering clothes, or when you take a shower, you imagine yourself as a buddha and the water is nectar that you’re offering to the Buddha—they’re very good to do. But we should also keep the basic sutric practice of the six far-reaching attitudes—generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom—because the whole tantric practice is founded on these six far-reaching attitudes.

Now, in terms of encouraging people to eat meat, drink, and things like these, here, we have to be very clear about our own level of practice. When the principal part of your practices is aimed towards generating bodhicitta, it’s very helpful to be vegetarian. The force of your practice, what you’re really going for is to generate this loving kindness that cherishes others more than you cherish yourself, so you want to avoid all harm to other beings.

Now, people whose principal practice is tantra and are far advanced on the tantric path need to have a very strong constitution when they do the very subtle meditations with the channels—the drops and the subtle energies in the body. So they eat meat to make the body and the different elements very strong. If you have bodhicitta and you are doing the tantric practice on that basis, then eating meat is quite in line with your bodhicitta. You are at that level where for the benefit of sentient beings, you need to keep your body strong, so you eat meat to do that. The whole purpose of your practice is to become enlightened for others. When you are an ordinary being and you are really attached to meat, and you say, “I am practicing tantra, so I can eat meat,” then you have to look again at your motivation and what’s going on. This is not an area where we look at what other people are doing. We should look at ourselves. Everybody is free to choose whether they want to be vegetarian.

In terms of alcohol, when you are very high in the tantric practice, people can take some alcohol because it works with the subtle energies and the bliss that you’re supposed to be developing in the meditation. So somebody who is a very, very high yogi or yogini can drink, and it’s completely in line with their precepts and with their meditation. If we are ordinary beings and we like alcohol, and we say we are practicing tantra so we need to drink alcohol, then again, we need to look at our motivation. What level of practice are we really at? We should keep the practice to the level where we are at. So this is something we each have to look inside and not look at what other people are doing so much.

[In response to audience] There is a certain puja that is called the tsog puja. It is done on the 10th and 25th of the lunar month. You have two little bowls usually, one with alcohol and one with meat. These are put on the altar together with other offerings. As you do this meditation, there is a whole process in the meditation in which you generate yourself as a buddha. You dissolve all these things into emptiness. Then through your visualization, you imagine transforming them into very pure substances. This is really to help us get out of our ordinary view and ordinary grasping—that this is this, and that is that, and this is good, and that is bad. So you take these things that ordinarily are abandoned, you transform them, and then at a certain point in the puja, they are circulated around and you dip your finger in and you take a little piece of the meat. But at this point, if you have been doing the meditation, these things are no longer seen as alcohol and meat. They are blessed substances and you see them as nectar, the nature of bliss and emptiness.

Now, I have seen some situations where people pour huge glasses of beer out at the puja. I know some people do that, some traditions do that. In the tradition I grew up in—I am not talking about what the other traditions do—that is not done. You just take a little drop on your finger to avoid the rationalizing mind.

[In response to audience] How do you balance that? Well, again, this is why just a little bit is taken, and not a whole lot, and that once you do that, I feel you really have a responsibility to meditate well. In other words, your meditation isn’t an excuse for your eating that meat, because anyway, you only get this much. But you are using that thing to help you overcome your obstacles to enlightenment. You are doing that meditation for the benefit of that animal—whose meat you’ve eaten—and the benefit of all sentient beings.

[In response to audience] So you are saying that even if we’re vegetarian, to remember that our food is coming through other people’s efforts and that other beings have lost their lives in the production of our food. So to not take it for granted.

Audience: I think whatever action we take, we should also think about the benefits versus the disadvantages, and if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, then, maybe we should go ahead with the action.

VTC: Yes. We always come back to this thing of whether the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. So one has to have a flexible mind in any situation.

Let’s just do a little bit of digesting meditation right now.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.