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Complementary nature of the perfections

Overview of meditative stabilization and wisdom: Part 1 of 2

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.

Complementary nature of the far-reaching attitudes

  • Generosity
  • Ethics
  • Patience
  • Joyous effort

LR 105: Meditative stabilization and wisdom 01 (download)

Far-reaching attitudes of meditative stabilization and wisdom

  • Overview of meditative stabilization
  • Overview of wisdom
  • How concentration and wisdom complement the other far-reaching practices

LR 105: Meditative stabilization and wisdom 02 (download)

Questions and answers

  • The importance of doing purification and understanding emptiness
  • Terminology in the West vs. traditional usage

LR 105: Meditative stabilization and wisdom 03 (download)

Practicing the first four far-reaching attitudes in relation to the other five

As we go through and review the far-reaching attitudes, I especially want to emphasize how we practice each one in relation to the other five, so that we don’t think that they are different and isolated things.


When we are practicing generosity, we also practice the ethics of generosity. This means that when we are being generous, we’re also trying to be ethical. We aren’t generous with booze and firearms and things that can actually harm others. And so this involves being ethical and being wise in how we give.

Giving doesn’t mean just giving everybody what they think they want, but it means seeing things from an ethical perspective and understanding how our gifts are going to be used, and then deciding how and when to give. So, that’s the ethics of generosity.

We also have the patience of generosity. Sometimes when we are generous, people don’t appreciate it. Instead of being nice and kind to us in return, as we want them to be, they may be rude and nasty and say: “You only gave me this much. How come you didn’t give me more?” or “How come you gave me this but you gave that other person more? That’s not fair!”

And so, sometimes, even though we’re coming from a generous mind and a kind attitude, other people don’t appreciate it and they speak harshly to us. In such cases, it’s really easy to lose patience and become angry. But when we do that, we destroy the positive potential of giving. That’s why it’s very important to practice patience as well when we are giving.

I think there’s a lot in here to think about, to review different times in our life when we have been generous but wound up getting angry afterwards. Or we regretted it because the person hasn’t behaved in the way we wanted or expected them to, or the person hasn’t behaved in the way they ought to, by having good values and proper manners.

Also, we want to practice joyous effort with generosity; we want to take delight in being generous. In other words, not being generous out of obligation or guilt, or the mind that feels we should. We want to be generous out of a mind that has joy and is enthusiastic about giving. Giving becomes a pleasure. They say that when a bodhisattva hears that somebody needs something, the bodhisattva gets so happy and excited: “Somebody needs something. I want to go and help!” So that’s the joyous effort of generosity.

Practicing concentration together with generosity refers to keeping our motivation very stable and very clear. Concentrate on our motivation, which is to be of benefit to all sentient beings, and keep that motivation stable at the beginning, in the middle, and at the conclusion of the action of being generous. We do not start out being generous because we want others to notice how wealthy we are or because we want others to like us, and only cultivate the bodhicitta motivation in the middle [of the action]. Try to generate the altruistic intention from the beginning, and keep it throughout the action so that we have the motivation, the action and the dedication, all imbued with altruism.

Practicing wisdom together with generosity means not seeing the whole act and the participants in the action of giving as solid, concrete, inherently existent entities. If I give these flowers to Leslie, practicing generosity means recognizing I’m not inherently existent, she’s not inherently existent, these flowers aren’t inherently existent flowers, and the action of giving is not an inherently existent action of giving. Recognize that all these things exist because the others exist; you don’t have one without the other. Recognizing the whole interdependence of the action of giving.

Giving is taught as the first far-reaching attitude because they say that it’s the easiest. But the Buddha was very skilful in realizing that for some of us, it’s not so easy. I think I told you the story that for one person who had a lot of difficulty in giving, the Buddha had her practice giving from one hand to the other so that she got the energy of giving. [laughter]


The second far-reaching attitude is that of ethics, which is the wish to abandon harming others. The three types of ethics are:

  1. Ethics of abandoning harmful actions
  2. Ethics of creating positive ones
  3. Ethics of working for the welfare of others

There is a list of different kinds of people to specifically look out for when we are helping. Examples are the poor and needy, the people who have been kind to us, travelers, people who are grieving, people who don’t know how to distinguish constructive from destructive actions, and so forth.

Again, when we are practicing ethics, we try and practice it with the other five far-reaching attitudes.

  1. First, we have the generosity of ethics, which means that we try and teach other people ethics. We try and lead people in that path and help them to appreciate the value of ethics, teaching about it, showing through our example and so forth.

    For those of you who are parents, or who have nieces and nephews or people who look up to you, when you act in ethical ways, you are setting an example for them. That becomes the generosity of ethics. Whereas, it is not so kosher if you teach your kids how to lie, cheat, and do things like that, or you tell them to do as you say, not do as you do: “It’s okay for mum and dad to lie, but not for you!”

  2. Then we have the patience of ethics. Sometimes, when we are trying to keep our ethical discipline, some people may not like it. They may get upset with us. For example, if you have taken the five lay precepts and you are trying not to steal, then somebody else who wants you to participate in their shady dealings might get mad at you. Or if you have the precept not to take intoxicants, then somebody might get mad at you when you say: “No, I’m going to have grape juice instead of wine.” Or they might make fun of you.

    We need to be patient while we are being ethical, so that we can go through those situations without getting upset by others’ negative reactions to our practice. That’s really important, because sometimes we can get very self-righteous: “I’m keeping the precepts. Get off my case! Don’t be nasty to me. Don’t be mad at me, because I’m keeping the precepts!”

    We are not talking about getting self-righteous, because when we get self-righteous and defensive, there’s a lot of clinging and a lot of solidity. But, rather, we are talking about not going to the other extreme of letting ourselves be influenced by people who disapprove of us acting ethically. Or not getting angry with them and losing patience when they make snide remarks or comments or ridicule us.

  3. Then, we have the joyous effort of ethics—taking delight in being ethical, having delight and feeling a sense of personal satisfaction from keeping precepts. So, if you have taken refuge and the five precepts, have a real sense of delight in the fact that you have them. To see your precepts as something that liberates you, something that protects you from harm.

    Also, take delight in taking the eight precepts—getting up early in the morning to do it. In the winter, it is especially easy to take them because the sun rises later and you don’t have to get up so early! [Laughter] Really taking delight in taking the precepts for one day, because you see the value for yourself and others in doing it. So that becomes the joyous effort of being ethical.

  4. And then the concentration of ethics, is again to keep our motivation of bodhicitta very clear through the whole process of being ethical—with our motivation, our action, our conclusion and dedication. Although ethics is also the cause for our own personal happiness (ethics is the cause of having a good rebirth and the cause of attaining liberation), it is a far-reaching attitude because we are trying to practice it for the benefit of others as well. We are not just practicing ethics for our own sake.

  5. The wisdom of ethics is knowing how to be ethical. We’re talking about relative wisdom: how to be ethical, because ethics is not a black and white subject. As His Holiness always says, it depends. People ask him any of these questions and he always says: “It depends.” It’s because it’s dependent arising. It requires understanding the different factors, the causes and results of actions, and how to put the three sets of vows together and practice them together (the individual liberation vows which are the five lay precepts or the monks’ and nuns’ vows, the bodhisattva vows, and the tantric vows). That’s involved with wisdom.

    The wisdom of ethics is also seeing that ourselves, the situation, the thing or the person we’re being ethical with and the positive potential from practicing ethics—none of these things are inherently existent. All these things arise dependently. None of them has their own essence.


Then we have the far-reaching attitude of patience. This is the ability to remain undisturbed in the face of harm or difficulty. It is quite a noble state of mind. Here we have three kinds of patience:

  1. The patience of not retaliating—when others harm us, not retaliating and getting even

  2. The patience of enduring suffering—when we are sick, when unhappy things happen to us, not getting angry and dissatisfied and out of sorts because of it

  3. The patience of studying the Dharma—being patient with various hardships we encounter in Dharma practice; facing our own internal obscurations or facing the difficulties externally in order to practice the Dharma

To practice patience with the other five far-reaching attitudes,

  1. first we have the generosity of patience, which is teaching other people how to be patient. This can be in terms of acting as a good example. Or when we’re talking with people, when our friends come to us and they are really distressed, to talk to them about patience in the sense that we can discuss their problem using a Buddhist viewpoint but without using any Buddhist jargon. So, that’s the giving of patience, helping others learn to be patient. Teaching it to our children as well. Or, if you’re a teacher, teaching it to students.

  2. The ethics of being patient. While we are being patient, we want to make sure that we are also being ethical—not be patient in a way that counteracts our ethical conduct.

  3. Taking joy in being patient is incorporating the far-reaching attitude of joyous effort. This is very important, isn’t it? Because it means that being patient is something we do happily. It’s not like: “Oh God, I’ve got to be patient. If I’m not patient, what a lousy person I am. All these people are going to criticize me if I don’t stuff my anger and paste a smile on my face.” That’s not the joyous effort of patience. Here, it’s really seeing the advantages of being patient, and so trying to practice the antidotes, do the meditations, so that we can uproot the anger and transform the situation, not just stuff it down. Stuffing it down isn’t practicing patience.

  4. The concentration of practicing patience—we need to keep our motivation clear. Keep the bodhicitta motivation at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. All the time, when we’re practicing patience, to keep in mind that we are doing it for the benefit of all sentient beings. We are doing it so that we can attain enlightenment. When we can concentrate on this motivation and we have that intention in our mind, then it gives our mind so much more courage and endurance to do the practices of patience. Because we know: “Wow, it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings! This isn’t any trivial action. What I’m doing is something quite worthwhile.” This gives our mind some internal strength. Bodhicitta makes the mind quite strong, quite firm.

  5. The wisdom of practicing patience. Understanding what patience is. Patience is not telling other people off. Patience is not repressing our anger. Really understand it at a deep level. Patience is not feeling guilty when we get angry—we have a tendency to do that. We get mad at ourselves. That’s not having the wisdom that understands what patience is. We have to understand how to practice it. Also, understanding that being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be a doormat. It doesn’t mean: “Oh, I’m so patient. Sure. What do you want to do? You want to abuse me? Fine—go right ahead.” That’s not being patient. Recognize that when others are angry, just letting them act out their anger isn’t always so beneficial for their karma or their future lives. Having some wisdom in how to relate to people who are angry.

    On the ultimate level of wisdom, understand that ourselves as the practitioner, the person whom we might be upset with (or whom we’re practicing patience with) and practicing patience—all these three arise in dependence on each other. There is no inherently existent practitioner of patience without having the situation of practicing patience and the person you are practicing patience with. And you don’t have any of the other two without having this one. They’re all interdependent. That’s called realizing the emptiness of the circle of three—the agent who is doing it, the object that you are doing it with, and the action. It’s the same for all the six far-reaching attitudes.

Joyous effort (Enthusiastic perseverance)

Now we have the practice of joyous effort. Here, we have three kinds of joyous effort:

  1. The armor-like joyous effort that is willing to go to the lower realms for eons if it’s for the benefit of even one sentient being. Can you imagine that? That much joy and happiness: “Oh, I get to go to the hell realm for eons to benefit somebody!” [Laughter]

  2. The joyous effort of creating positive actions or acting constructively

  3. The joyous effort of benefiting sentient beings

We also spoke a lot about the three kinds of laziness that they oppose:

  1. The laziness of sloth and torpor, i.e. hanging around and sleeping or lying on the beach
  2. The laziness of keeping ourselves extremely busy with worldly things and useless activities
  3. The laziness of putting ourselves down and self-deprecation</li

To practice enthusiastic perseverance with the other five far-reaching attitudes,

  1. first we have the generosity of enthusiastic perseverance. This means teaching enthusiastic perseverance to others, showing them, by our example, what it’s like to be an enthusiastic Dharma practitioner. Here I think of Lama Zopa Rinpoche who doesn’t sleep at night. He’s just so enthusiastic about not sleeping at night, he wants everybody else to join him in the wonderful practice. [Laughter] The generosity of showing other people that that’s possible, that you can actually do it and be completely together and be very happy doing it.

  2. The ethics of enthusiastic perseverance or joyous effort: When we are practicing the Dharma with delight—keeping our ethical vows, keeping our ethical standards.

  3. The patience of joyous effort: Being patient when we are practicing. Being patient with our own obstacles to having joyous effort. Being patient with other people who criticize us because we take joy in practicing Dharma. Being patient with any kind of suffering that we encounter while we are practicing Dharma. So, being patient while we are taking delight in what is virtuous.

  4. The concentration of joyous effort. Holding on to the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of others at the beginning, in the middle and at the end—of being joyously effortful in whatever we are doing.

  5. The wisdom of joyous effort. To recognize that we as the practitioner and whoever we are practicing with, the action of having joyous effort, that these things arise dependently. None of them are inherently existent with their own kind of independent essence, a “findable” existence separate from the other ones.

In the lamrim, the last two far-reaching attitudes of concentration and wisdom are explained in a very brief way as part of the six far-reaching attitudes. And then in the next section, it goes into them (concentration and wisdom) in depth, because these two are so important for cutting the root of cyclic existence. So I thought I will talk about them in a brief way to finish the six far-reaching attitudes today, and then in the next session, we will talk about concentration and wisdom in a more in-depth way.

Far-reaching attitude of meditative stabilization (concentration)

Meditative stabilization is another translation for concentration. It is a mental factor that focuses single- pointedly on a virtuous object. It’s the ability to control our mind and direct it towards a constructive object that will lead us towards liberation and enlightenment.

Classifying meditative stabilization according to its nature

When we talk in general about concentration or meditative stabilization, we talk about two kinds of concentration according to their nature. One is a mundane type of concentration and one is a supra-mundane or transcendental kind.

The mundane meditative stabilization or concentration is when you are doing the steps of calm abiding or samatha or zhi-nay (in Tibetan) and you reach certain levels of absorption called the form and formless realms concentrations. You get born in the form and formless realms when you develop these states of single-pointed concentration. You have the ability to focus single-pointedly. It is within the form and formless realm types of concentration. Your concentration isn’t imbued with the determination to be free. It isn’t imbued with refuge. It isn’t imbued with bodhicitta or wisdom.

When you have mundane meditative stabilization, you are basically creating the cause for an upper rebirth in one of these realms [form and formless] where you can have the bliss of samadhi all the time. This is great for as long as you are born there, but once the karma to be born there ends, then as Serkong Rinpoche says: “When you get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, there is only one way to go.” So when you get born in these upper realms of concentration, when the karma finishes, there’s only one way to go.

The supra-mundane or transcendental concentration is that of an arya, somebody who has realized emptiness directly. It’s called “transcendental” or “supra-mundane” in the sense that that concentration has the ability to focus on emptiness and realize emptiness with direct perception. Realizing emptiness with direct perception cuts the root of cyclic existence by eliminating the ignorance, anger and attachment forever from their root. This is why this kind of concentration is supra-mundane. It takes you beyond cyclic existence, beyond worldly existence. It is the good kind of concentration that we want to get, because it is the one that will bring long-lasting happiness instead of just big thrills.

Classifying meditative stabilization according to its function or result

There is another way of talking about concentration where you divide it according to its function or result. First, we have the concentration that cultivates physical and mental bliss. When you are doing the calm abiding practice, you can get a lot of physical and mental bliss and that is great. That is good. Though it is limited, it is definitely a step in the right direction.

The second one according to function or result is the concentration that brings all other advantages. An example is the concentration that enables us to have psychic powers. There are various ways to get psychic powers. Some people get them through karma. You get them because of actions done in your previous lives. But this type of psychic power can be inaccurate.

You can also get psychic powers through deep states of concentration. If you have the bodhicitta, getting these psychic powers can be very useful, because then it gives you a lot more tools to be able to benefit sentient beings. Therefore, the purpose of getting psychic powers is not so that you can open up a shop and tell people’s future. Rather, you are getting psychic powers because you have a very sincere wish to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. If you have the ability to understand their previous karma and understand what they think about, their dispositions and their interest, it gives you a lot more information about others than is immediately available to the eye. It becomes easier to be skilful in serving them.

Thus, psychic powers are useful if we have the proper motivation. If we don’t have the proper motivation, then they just become worldly things. And they may even bring you big problems. Some people who have psychic power get all proud and arrogant. Then, that ability basically leads them to the lower realms.

Audience: Could you give some examples of psychic powers of the karmic kind?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You sometimes meet people who get very accurate premonitions about the future or things like that. Or some people might have a little bit of clairvoyance or clairaudience, and sometimes it’s actually frightening for them. I have a friend who had some kind of power like this when she was a child, and it was very frightening for her because nobody else had that. Nobody knew what she was talking about. So, she was very glad when it went away. Some people who claim to be psychic, they might have some power or they might not. It’s hard to say. And sometimes these abilities are accurate, and sometimes they aren’t.

The third kind of concentration according to its function or result is the concentration to work for the benefit of sentient beings. This happens when you are able to combine calm abiding with penetrative insight, or to use the Sanskrit terms, samatha with vipassana. With this ability, we can work for the benefit of other sentient beings by teaching them these two things and helping them to happen. In this way, we can really help sentient beings cut the root of their own cyclic existence.

Far-reaching attitude of wisdom

On the relative level, wisdom is the ability to analyze what is constructive and destructive. On the ultimate level, it’s seeing the emptiness of inherent existence of all phenomena.

We have here three kinds of wisdom:

  1. The wisdom that understands relative truths

    This wisdom understands karma. It understands how things function. It understands what is a positive action, what is a negative action, what to practice, what to abandon. This is a wisdom that makes you street-smart in a Dharma way.

    Being a Dharma practitioner doesn’t mean you’re spaced out and out of touch with how people live. Rather, you understand relative existence quite well and you understand cause and effect relationships and how things fit together. It’s extremely important, because how can we benefit sentient beings if we don’t understand the relative functioning of things? It becomes quite difficult.

  2. The wisdom that understands ultimate truths

    This wisdom recognizes that all these relatively existent things are ultimately empty of inherent existence. Although they function and they appear, they don’t have any solid, existing essence that is them, that makes them what they are, who they are, in and of themselves.

    This wisdom of ultimate truths is extremely important because when we realize the emptiness of self and the emptiness of phenomena, then we are able to eliminate the ignorance that grasps at the independent existence of self and phenomena. By eliminating that ignorance, then we eliminate the attachment, the aversion, the jealousy, the pride, the laziness, and all the other afflictions, and we also cease creating all the negative karma created under the influence of these afflictions. So this wisdom understanding ultimate truths is that which really liberates us from cyclic existence. This is extremely important.

  3. The wisdom understanding how to benefit others

    Remember when we talked about ethics and when we talked about the joyous effort of benefiting others, we had a list of eleven kinds of beings to take care of or to benefit. Here, we too have a list of beings we can benefit: the sick and needy, the poor, people who are obscured, people who are grieving, people who have been kind to us, the people who can’t tell constructive from destructive actions. So, it’s the wisdom of how to benefit all these different categories of people.

Practicing each of these (concentration and wisdom) with the other far-reaching attitudes

Likewise, when we practice concentration and wisdom, we also practice them with the initial ones.


  1. First we have the generosity of concentration. Helping others to practice concentration. Helping others learn to meditate. Setting up the physical situation so that people can develop concentration.

  2. The ethics of practicing concentration: Being ethical while we are practicing. Actually, ethics is extremely important for developing concentration, because if you can’t keep ethical precepts, which means controlling the speech and the body, then it’s going to be very difficult to develop concentration that is controlling the mind. So, ethics is really essential for the practice of concentration.

  3. Being patient while we are practicing concentration: It’s going to take a long time to develop the ability to concentrate. Being patient in that whole process. Being patient with ourselves, with our obscurations, with anybody else who might interfere with our practice, having that kind of incredible stability and immovability so that the mind isn’t like a yoyo when we are practicing concentration.

  4. The joyous effort of concentration. Having joy in doing it. Recognizing that developing calm abiding is going to take a lot of effort and a long time, but taking joy in that process, having that long, far-reaching goal that is going to keep us hanging in there, instead of the perfection of impatience, the perfection of wanting to do it right the first time and getting it down immediately. [Laughter]

  5. The wisdom of concentration. Knowing what the teachings are. Knowing what concentration is and what it isn’t. Being able to recognize excitement when it arises in the mind. Being able to recognize laxity when it arises in the mind. These two things—laxity and excitement—are two of the chief hindrances to the development of concentration. So, having some kind of wisdom or intelligence that can discriminate between all the different mental factors that we need to cultivate in order to concentrate and the different mental factors that are obstacles for concentration.

    The wisdom of concentration is also understanding that we, the object of meditation, and the process of meditating, are all empty of inherent existence.


We also practice wisdom with the other five far reaching attitudes.

  1. We have the generosity of wisdom. Teaching other people how to be wise. Showing a good example of being wise.

  2. The ethics of wisdom. Maintaining our ethical conduct while we are practicing wisdom. When we practice wisdom, not going to the extreme of negating relative truth and thus negating the value of karma and ethics. We want to be able to balance our wisdom with an understanding of relative truth and the functionality of things, and so having a lot of respect for ethics.

    At the last teacher’s conference, His Holiness made a very important point. He said if you realize emptiness correctly, then automatically, out of a correct realization of emptiness, you have more respect for cause and effect and ethics. Not getting wrong notions like, “Oh, I’ve realized emptiness. So I’m beyond cause and effect.”

  3. The patience of wisdom. Having lots of patience as we are trying to develop wisdom. Wisdom is not easy to develop, as we all know. We are still here in cyclic existence from beginningless time. It’s not an easy thing. We need some kind of patience.

  4. We also need enthusiastic perseverance…

    [Teachings lost due to change of tape]

    … wisdom is the thing that is going to save ourselves and others and free us and liberate us. And so having the joy to practice wisdom instead of getting discouraged. And you will see this. The teachings on wisdom can be presented in a nice, simple way. But once you start getting into the philosophical teachings on it, it’s like a whole new vocabulary. It really stretches your brain. It really does. And so you need to have a lot of patience and a lot of joyous effort to keep up with that study.

  5. And, then, we also need concentration. We need to concentrate when we are developing wisdom. We need to maintain our good motivation the whole time that we’re developing wisdom, so that we can conjoin the good motivation of bodhicitta with the wisdom realizing emptiness, which will lead us to full enlightenment.

Audience: How capable are we to develop wisdom if we need the other qualities first?

VTC: I think that’s a good point. It depends a lot on the person. In order to realize emptiness, we do need to do a lot of purification and a lot of collection of positive potential through all the other practices. They’re really essential to do. And so it’s important to do all those other practices.

But it’s also important to have some understanding of emptiness because when we do the other practices, we are also supposed to practice them with wisdom—the wisdom of generosity, the wisdom of ethics, the wisdom of patience, and so on. Therefore it’s also very important to develop some understanding of the teachings on wisdom, because it helps us practice the foregoing practices in a much deeper way.

For example, let’s say you don’t know anything about the teachings on wisdom. Then when you do a visualization of the Buddha and the light coming, you’re going to see the Buddha as inherently existent, all your garbage as inherently existent, the purification as inherently existent, and the light coming as inherently existent. You are seeing everything in a boxed-in and categorical way. Whereas if we have some teachings on emptiness, then when we do the visualization, let’s say of the Buddha and the light coming, we might begin to say: “Oh the Buddha isn’t inherently existent. All my garbage isn’t inherently existent either. Imagine that!”

Once you start realizing that your garbage isn’t inherently existent, then your guilt starts to go away, because guilt gravitates towards inherent existence, towards that wrong view. So the understanding of emptiness can really enhance all the other practices, just as the other practices enhance the understanding of emptiness.

In the same way, when we get even some understanding of emptiness, it can help the bodhicitta increase. When we understand emptiness, we begin to see that there is actually a way to end samsara. That it’s actually possible to remove the ignorance. And all the suffering that other beings are undergoing—they don’t really have to undergo. That makes your compassion and your altruism much stronger. So, I think it’s important to get them both together and practice them hand-in-hand.

And also, we shouldn’t think that you do all these other practices without knowing anything about wisdom, and then all of a sudden, you start studying wisdom from scratch. Because the whole way of studying Dharma is.. we talk a lot about planting seeds. I remember when I first started getting the wisdom teachings, it was like: “What are you talking about, Geshela? What was that word? How do you spell it?” And then the second time I heard it, it was like, “Oh yeah, I remember those weird sounding words.” And then the third time, “Oh yea, I remember what they mean.” And then the fourth time, “Oh yeah…” And so it’s really a thing of learning it in a gradual way, training the mind in a gradual way so that you can understand.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: A number of words used here in the West are not the traditional way of using those words in Asia. For example, the word “vipassana.” “Vipassana” means special insight, particularly special insight realizing emptiness. It is a particular type of meditation. What has happened here in the West, is they have taken the name of one type of meditation and made it sound like a whole tradition. Usually, there is the Theravada tradition, Zen tradition, Tibetan tradition, Pureland tradition, and so on. And now all of a sudden, in the West, we have the Vipassana tradition. But actually, the people who say “I practice Vipassana,” learned it from Theravada masters. But when the Westerners took the teachings to the West, they didn’t take all of the teachings of the Theravada masters like refuge and karma and all the other topics. They basically extracted this one kind of meditation, because they thought it was really effective for Westerners, and made it like a tradition. But actually vipassana meditation is found in all the Buddhist traditions. It’s a type of meditation.

Therefore, what they now call the Vipassana tradition is not really the Vipassana tradition. It’s the Theravada tradition and in there, not only do you have the vipassana meditation, you have refuge, you have karma, you have metta, you have many other teachings too.

So there is a whole bunch of words here in the West, that are not used in the traditional way. Like the word “yogi.” When I came back to the West, anybody who goes to a retreat is called a yogi. In Asia, that’s not how you would use the word “yogi.” In Asia, yogis are the ones who go up to the mountains and they are the really serious practitioners. A yogi is not just somebody who goes to a weekend retreat.

Similarly, take the word “sangha.” In Asia, when you talk about the three refuges, Sangha are the beings who have realized emptiness. Or in a general way, Sangha refers to the monastic community. It’s only here in the West that anybody who comes to a Buddhist course is automatically called a sangha. It was interesting. One time in the US somebody asked His Holiness a question about sangha, and His Holiness started talking about the monastics, because that’s what it means in an Asian context. So you find all these words that are used differently here than the traditional way.

[In response to audience] I always use the terms in the traditional way, because that’s how I grew up. My Buddhist babyhood was in Asia.

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.