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Grasping at inherent existence

Grasping at inherent existence

Part of a series of teachings on the Manjushri practice given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

  • Precious human life
  • Grasping at inherent existence and the appearance of inherent existence
  • Dependent arising
  • Seeing living beings’ buddha potential
  • Seeing the environment as a pure land, hearing sound as mantra, and the mind as Manjushri’s omniscient mind
  • The meaning of Manjushri’s name
  • Two kinds of Buddha’s wisdom
  • Five hindrances to samadhi and the eight antidotes
  • Two kinds of ordinary appearance and their antidotes—clear appearance and divine dignity

Manjushri sadhana and commentary 06 (download)

It’s easy to forget what practicing Dharma means. It’s very important for us to come back to what our present reality is, review what we’re trying to do, and refresh the Buddhist views. We have to keep remembering the four noble truths, and, especially to recall how our mind is making up stories. We’re not just studying the Dharma to learn, “This radiates here and that absorbs there,” and, “There are 16 kinds of emptinesses—unless you want to divide them into 18, but then there’s the subdivision into 20!”

That kind of knowledge is very nice, but if, on a day-to-day basis, our mind is just projecting mountains of garbage on top of everybody else, and we’re totally oblivious to it, and, instead, we think that all of our projections are real, then we haven’t even scratched the surface of what Dharma practice means. It’s really important to always look at our own mind and see what’s going on in it. We need to practice in a very practical way, a very day-to-day way.

We Mahayana practitioners especially have to watch this mind that says, “I’m working for all sentient beings. I’m doing the taking-and-giving meditation. I’m sending everything I own on light rays out to all sentient beings, and now they are all enlightened. Oh, that’s so wonderful. I’m Manjushri radiating light, and everybody’s now saved.”

But then we get up from our cushion and start flipping through the mail order catalog, buying this and that without any awareness of our own greed and attachment. Or we start getting upset at this person and that person because they’re not doing this and that, and not paying enough attention to us, and not appreciating us. We totally believe that hallucination 100 percent.

We’re so sure that other person’s wrong! So we think, “I’m radiating light to them because they’re so confused. We’re having this quarrel; I’m right and they’re wrong. But I’m so magnanimous. I do Chenrezig meditation and fill them with light so that they can see the way—(which, incidentally, is my way!) See how compassionate I am? I don’t criticize them. I send light rays to them, and then they convert, and do what I want them to do.”

We have lots of little ways of fooling ourselves when we’re practicing Dharma. That’s why it’s critical to really check up on what’s going on in our minds, especially when the mind starts to spin off—which it does quite regularly—into one hallucination or another. One week it’s the jealousy hallucination; next week it’s the arrogance one; then it’s the attachment one; then it’s the poor me. So learn to recognize that all of these are coming from our own mind. That’s what ignorance is about!

Ignorance is the mind that projects all that stuff. It’s based on the conception of this solid “me,” and self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is the mind that believes this solid me needs happiness and deserves happiness more than anybody else in the world. It thinks, “The purpose of my life is to knock down my enemies and protect my friends.” Isn’t that the example we see around us in the world? We do the same thing as well.

All of this is what we have to start to question. When we’re practicing Dharma, we’re really questioning some of the basic fundamental assumptions upon which we live our lives. It’s very important to question these things. If we don’t, then Dharma just becomes some nice little decoration and pretty drawings, but it doesn’t really touch our heart. It doesn’t really have much effect.

So right now, while we have this precious human life and have the opportunity to practice, it’s very good to do the Manjushri meditation. Manjushri is the Buddha of wisdom; and by doing this practice our wisdom will increase. We’ll be able to combat the ignorance that creates all these fantasies—and we should put some effort into doing that.

Emptiness and dependent arising

In going through the sadhana, we started out with refuge and bodhicitta—which tells us what practice we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. Then we meditated on emptiness. As we said, this is the key to the whole practice, even though in the text there’s just this little phrase, Om sobhava shuddoh sarva dharmah sobhava shuddho ham. It doesn’t look long, but that’s where we stop and meditate.

Just because there are places with a lot of words doesn’t mean we spend more time there, or that we spend less time at the places with fewer words. So we stop here and do some meditation on emptiness. If we don’t, then our visualization becomes very much like a little kid pretending she’s Mickey Mouse, because we haven’t touched the fundamental grasping at the “I.” Without this meditation, then instead of being “I” with our present identity, we become “I” as Manjushri, with the attitude, “Respect me because I’m Manjushri.”

Thus it’s very important to meditate on emptiness here, and to really challenge that old fundamental view that grasps at our ideas of self. We also then recognize that everything that appears in the sadhana after this—the entire self-generation1 process—is a meditation on the unity of dependent arising and emptiness.

I keep saying this: the whole practice is a meditation on the union of emptiness and dependent arising, realizing that nothing exists inherently—but within that lack of inherent existence, everything appears. Practicing in that way, we don’t fall to the extreme of non-existence by thinking nothing exists; instead, we remember that it’s inherent existence that doesn’t exist. We also don’t fall to the other extreme of permanence or eternalism by thinking that things are inherently existent; instead, we see that they’re dependent arisings.

It’s important when we say these words that we have some idea of what inherent existence means. It’s easy just to fall into the jargon: “Oh yes, everything’s empty of inherent existence.” But what if somebody asks you, “What’s inherent existence?” If we reply something like, “It just means that something’s really solid, that’s all,” then we haven’t thought about it specifically enough. We have to go quite a bit more in depth than that.

What is it that we’re negating? We have the appearance of inherent existence, and we have the attitude that grasps at inherent existence. That appearance of inherent existence is what appears to our senses. That appearance is an obscuration to omniscience; it’s called a cognitive obscuration.

So there’s the view we have through our senses—but things do not exist the way they appear to our senses, which means we are living in a 100 percent hallucination without taking drugs. Everything that we perceive through our senses is false. We think that everything is out there: some kind of solid entity with its own essence, its own “thing” that makes it “it.” We think everything is real, objective, totally unrelated to the mind, totally unrelated to causes and conditions, just out there with its own essence. That’s how things appear to us—to our sense consciousness and to our mental consciousness—and we believe that. That’s wrong.

Our whole idea of who we think we are is wrong. Sit with that one for a while. We’re always saying, “I” this, and “I” that, yet our whole idea of who “I” is—is totally wrong.

Things appear to us falsely, and then our mind grasps at these false appearances as true. That’s the self-grasping ignorance. That’s a consciousness, and it is an obscuration to liberation. It’s an afflicted obscuration, so when we start to purify the mind, the afflicted obscurations are eliminated first.

In order to eliminate the self-grasping ignorance, we have to investigate the object that this ignorance is grasping at and prove to our self that no such thing can exist. To do this, we’re not just engaging in blank-minded meditation, trying not to think about anything. It might be very nice if you don’t think about anything, but doing that doesn’t prove that the object that self-grasping ignorance is holding onto is false or wrong. Blank-minded meditation just ignores the whole situation—we stay in our little meditative bliss, which is very nice, but we’re not challenging the view we have of who we are and what everything is.

Instead, we need to take out the objects that this view is grasping at—all those inherently existently-appearing objects—and prove to ourselves that it’s not possible for those things to exist as they appear to us. This type of analysis creates a feeling of a lack of inherent existence. We realize the absence of inherent existence. It’s a non-affirming negative. At the time we are meditating on emptiness with direct perception, there’s no appearance of conventional phenomena to the mind.

Within that space of emptiness, then, things can arise. Because things do not inherently exist, they can therefore exist. Sit with that one: Because they don’t inherently exist, they can exist.

If things did inherently exist—if they had their own essences and independent factors that were them—it would be impossible for them to exist. Why? Because then they would exist without depending on causes and conditions, and we’d have to ask, “How did they get produced? And, how do they change if they’re independent from causes and conditions?” So if things inherently existed, they could not exist at all. It is because they’re empty that they can exist. So “exist” means “dependently exist.”

This whole visualization of our self as Manjushri is a meditation on dependent existence. There’s no solid “I” that’s becoming Manjushri. There’s just an appearance. We start out with the seed syllable. And then from the seed syllable comes the whole deity. The deity is just an appearance; “I” as Manjushri exists just at the level of appearance. There’s no real [self-established, inherently existent] Manjushri there. Manjushri exists dependent on causes and conditions, dependent on parts, and dependent upon the mind.

It’s like when you do those drawings that connect the numbers together. Remember, when you were a kid, doing these drawings? You connect the numbers together and you get an outline or an image. Our mind is like that. There are all these parts and our mind connects the dots, and then we say, “Oh, Manjushri!” So it’s like doing those line drawings as a kid. First you’re just seeing all these different things and then, all of a sudden you see Manjushri there. You’re looking at the same thing you were looking at before, but all of a sudden there’s Manjushri.

You didn’t see it before. Why not? Because now your mind has the idea of Manjushri, and has that label, and imputes that on the line drawing—except it’s not the line drawing. You’re imputing Manjushri on the collection of the aggregates. So based on having an enlightened body and mind, we impute Manjushri. We impute “I.” But there’s no “I” that is Manjushri. It’s just an appearance. Manjushri is an appearance. Manjushri’s body is simply an appearance. Because you’ve joined all the lines—put the arms and legs and all these things together—and called it Manjushri’s body, that appears to your mind, and we say that exists. If there were no mind perceiving that and connecting the dots, so to speak, and giving the label, or if there were no parts there, then that whole thing wouldn’t exist at all.

So things exist depending on the mind, depending on the conception, and on the label that is given to it. As we go through this self-generation process, we’re meditating on dependent arising and how things arise in those three ways: dependent on causes and conditions, dependent on parts, and dependent on the conception and label.

There you are, Manjushri, with your sword and lotus and Prajnaparamita text, with a body of light. It’s not this flesh and bones body, because we’ve realized that this flesh and bones body is a false appearance, and it’s dissolved into emptiness. And what’s appeared after that is a rainbow body. You can’t touch it. Your body as Manjushri is totally intangible. It’s like at Disneyland, when you come out of the haunted house ride and see the ghost sitting next to you—you can put your hand right through the ghost. It’s there and you see it, but your hand goes right through it. Well, now it’s the same with yourself. That’s the kind of body you have; just a body made of light.

When you’re sitting there meditating on Manjushri, you can’t go, “Oh, I have a stomachache,” because there’s just light there. There’s no solid stomach. “My knees hurt, my back hurts. I want to take a bath. I want to go sleep.” You’re identifying now with Manjushri’s body of light, not with this body. It’s very interesting to see if you can get that feeling. Loosen the concept of this body and your attachment to the sensations of this body and try to get a feeling of having a body made of light. Try to get a feeling of having a mind that’s enlightened.

If you’ve done this meditation well, then when you’re meditating on Manjushri, you can’t just sit there and think, “Oh, my family doesn’t love me. Oh, my boyfriend…, Oh, my girlfriend, oh….”

I mean, when you’re visualizing the tree of the assembled merit field, do you think that’s what all those holy beings are discussing when you take refuge? “Oh, I have these disciples and they’re just too much!” Gyaltsab Je is saying to Khedrup Je, “Oh, my disciples…. You can’t believe it.” And Khedrup Je is saying, “Well, you should see these people that are coming to my class. Oh! And then look at the whole society. The whole society is totally screwed up. None of them appreciates us. We’re sitting here in the field of merit, and they just walk by, and don’t even say hello. Who do they think they are? We work so hard and attain enlightenment for their benefit, and look how much they’re showing their gratitude toward us.”

That’s kind of silly, isn’t it? So if we’re identifying with an enlightened mind, we can’t get into our usual self-pity trips. It just doesn’t hang together.

When you’re doing the meditation on Manjushri and visualizing yourself as Manjushri, carry that appearance and that divine dignity with you into the break time. Then watch all your habitual mental patterns, and what your mind thinks, and what your mind projects on the world. Ask yourself, “Is this an accurate view given that I’m an enlightened being?”

Watch that habitual mind, how it obsesses about different things. We all have our own little things that we obsess about. Some of us obsess about our body, some of us obsess about our social situation, some of us obsess about our interpersonal relationships, some of us obsess about our fame and gain. We just sit there and obsess. So now, in the middle of your obsession, try and get distracted from that. Say to yourself, “Is this what Manjushri would be thinking about?” Then you come to have a little bit of a sense of humor, because clearly Manjushri wouldn’t have all this rubbish going through his mind. Here we learn to laugh at ourselves, and we learn to let go of some of this garbage without taking it so seriously.

Pure view

In the tantric practice they teach you to see all appearances around you as Manjushri in the pure land, think of all sounds as mantra, and think of all your thoughts as Manjushri’s omniscient mind. This instruction applies in the break time as well as in your meditation session, but especially in the break time. What that means is that you think of your body as a body of light instead of this poor-conception body, this mind that thinks, “I can’t meditate because my stomach hurts…. Where’s Mommy?” No. You change that view and identify with a body of light.

When you look at other sentient beings, don’t see them as ordinary, thinking, “Oh, that one’s really good looking, I want to talk to that one. But that one! Yuck!” Instead of letting the judgmental mind run on towards everybody around you, think of everybody as Manjushri. If you want to, you can think of all of them walking around with golden bodies made of light.

Or—even better—you can recognize that on the basis of their Buddha potential, you’re labeling them Manjushri. You’re not seeing them as the relative karmic bubble that’s just temporary and very superficial and illusory. Instead, you’re looking deeper and seeing that they have this clear light nature of mind in a relative and an ultimate sense. You relate to them and respect them for that. If you can do that, then you’ll have lots of respect for the people around you.

Especially if you are doing retreat, look at the people serving your retreat in this way. Instead of thinking, “These people who cook me lunch, and these people who clean up after me are all here to work for me,” stop and really see, “No, there’s Buddha potential here. These are living beings with Buddha potential that are appearing as karmic bubbles.” Or you can see them as sentient beings, but you’re looking into their Buddha potential, and on the basis of that labeling Manjushri and seeing them as Manjushri.

If you see people that way, then of course, you’re going to have a lot of respect and deference and affection for them. That automatically helps with our interpersonal relationships. If, instead of projecting rubbish on people, we see them as having the Buddha nature, as being Manjushri, then our whole view of them changes. With that view we’re going to get along with them better because we treat them better. When you treat other people like stupid sentient beings, they act like that. When you treat them like Buddhas, they might act better.

I heard a great story when I was participating in a forum in Singapore. This couple was married, and then their marriage went really bad. The wife came in to the counselor and said, “I can’t stand living with my husband anymore. I just can’t stand him. I want a divorce.” The counselor replied, “Well, if you divorce him, that’s exactly what he wants. You’ll make him happy.” The wife said, “No way! I’m going to stay married to him then. No way am I going to make him happy, so I’m staying married.” Then the counselor said, “Okay. If you really want to make it rough on him, if you really want to hurt him, be really nice to him. Be very sweet, be very considerate, talk nicely, have good conversations with him, because he’ll fall in love with you again.” So the woman went home and did that. She was very excited about it. She thought, “He’ll fall in love with me again, and then I’ll divorce him, and that will really get back at him for everything, for how awfully he’s treated me.” She went home and started treating her husband so nicely, and so considerately. Sure enough, he fell in love with her all over again. Then she went back to see the counselor, who said, “How about filing the divorce papers?” But the wife replied, “Oh, we’re getting along so well. I don’t want to get divorced!”

Do you see the process of the story? What I’m explaining here is the same kind of thing. If you see other people as stupid and treat them that way, they become that. If you see them in a nice light and you treat them respectfully, then the whole relationship is going to change.

Question: When Manjushri appears empty and void, and then Manjushri disappears, and then he reappears as a rainbow light, does that reaffirm emptiness?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): At the end, after the mantra recitation, you radiate light out to the whole universe and all the sentient beings. That is to reaffirm that they’re all Manjushris and that all environments are pure lands. Then all that dissolves into you—into the dhih at your heart. It all dissolves into emptiness. Then you reappear as Manjushri, and that again is reaffirming the emptiness, and reaffirming you appearing in the break time in the form of Manjushri.

Question: What is Manjushri thinking?

VTC: What is Manjushri thinking? I was just talking about this: you see sentient beings as Manjushri and you see the environment as a pure land. Then you train your mind to think that what you see around you is beautiful. Instead of looking at the one spot of dirt and complaining about that, look at everything that’s very nice around you. So Seattle weather is terrific! Isn’t it? We see the environment as a pure land and see some beauty in what’s around us instead of developing the complaining, critical mind.

Then the second part, where the sadhana says to see all sounds as mantra, it doesn’t mean that when you’re talking to other people or hearing sounds that the only conversation is, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.” Somebody looks to you and says, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih” and then you reply, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.” (Actually, it could be interesting to do it that way. When you feel like talking in your retreat, and your roommate’s still sleeping, you go, “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.”) Anyway, it doesn’t mean that literally. It means that you view the sounds as something beautiful because the mantra is something beautiful. You hear the sound of the mantra and it energizes you. It reminds you of Manjushri’s qualities.

I don’t have a translation of the mantra. (If anybody comes up with one, let me know.) But as you hear things around you, you practice conceptually thinking of those things as beautiful sounds. Again, this stops the judgmental critical mind that is saying, “I don’t like this sound,” and, “I like that one,” and, “How come this person talks this way, and this person doesn’t talk this way?” and, “How come this?” and, “How come that?”

Another thing about seeing all sentient beings as Manjushri: when somebody cuts in front of you in the lunch line, instead of getting angry because they cut in front, you say, “I offer my place to Manjushri.” When your roommate doesn’t clean up the bathroom, instead of getting angry, you say, “Manjushri used the bathroom. It’s a little bit dirtier than I thought Manjushri would be. His hair was supposed to be all tied up, and now it’s lying in the shower.” But you think, “Okay. I’m going to offer something nice, and clean up after Manjushri.” So you think that you’re offering service to Manjushri, and then you don’t get into quarrels with your roommate. (You notice that the hair is blue, by the way.) You just change your attitude towards the people around you.

Then, when the sadhana says to see all thoughts as Manjushri’s omniscient mind, it doesn’t mean that when you sit there and start craving chocolate that you say, “Oh, this is an omniscient mind. Better please Buddha’s mind and get some chocolate ASAP.” When you see your mind going on trips and obsessing about things, it’s not like you say that’s wisdom, that’s the Buddha’s mind. Instead, you look at your thoughts. Then if you start thinking about Manjushri’s omniscient mind, a couple of things come up. One is that it can bring you back to the idea of, “I should try to make my mind like Manjushri’s omniscient mind and stop paying attention to all this chatter and rubbish that’s in it.”

Another way of thinking is to realize that Manjushri’s mind would see the emptiness of all of those thoughts. Manjushri’s mind would just see the thoughts as total dependent arisings, empty, and then wouldn’t take them so seriously. So when you have all these weird thoughts going through your mind—because everybody does, even though everybody thinks they’re the only one that has them—when all these are going through, just realize these are little karmic bubbles created by causes and conditions and don’t grasp onto them. Just let them go.

This practice of seeing yourself, sentient beings, and the environment as Manjushri and the pure land—thinking of all the sounds as mantra, relating to everything you hear in a positive way, and seeing all thoughts as Manjushri’s pure mind—this acts as a preventative measure for our own mind. Instead of projecting negativity or projecting inherent existence, we are constantly reminding ourselves of emptiness. Then if somebody criticizes you, instead of getting mad at them, just think, “Manjushri is pointing my faults out to me.” That can be very beneficial. If you think it’s your little brother pointing your faults out, you get angry. “He’s my little brother. He should shut up!” But if you think it’s Manjushri saying the things, then you might actually stop, listen, and pay some attention to what Manjushri is saying. That prevents us from getting angry.

These are all methods to help us tame our mind and transform our mind.

Again, don’t make these methods inherently existent. I can see some people at the very beginning of retreat thinking, “Okay, I’m doing retreat. Everybody’s Manjushri. They’re all walking around with golden bodies. They’re all saying “Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih.” And, the whole environment is twinkling with things.” They’re projecting some inherently existent Disneyland on everything, and that’s not what we’re trying to do—like, “Oh, everything is perfect.” We’re not trying to do that. We’re just trying to protect our mind from negativity, not to project some inherently existent pure land.

Wisdom beings, offerings, and praise

We are Manjushri. We invoke the wisdom beings. We send out either golden light or blue light from the HUM at our heart, and that invokes the wisdom beings from all the pure lands and from the space of emptiness. They all come back in the form of Manjushri. That becomes the Manjushri in front of us, which comes to the crown of our head, then absorbs into us. That merges with us and becomes undifferentiable. That’s when we say, “Dza hum bam ho.”

That absorption of the wisdom beings into us is a way of actually convincing ourselves that our visualization is inhabited by the real wisdom beings, the real Manjushri; that it’s not just our imagination.

Then we do the offerings and praise. First the offering: “Om arya vagih shara saparivara…” Arya means “the noble, the supreme one,” in other words, the path of seeing and higher. Vagih shara is Manjushri’s name. Saparivara means “and everybody else,” so it refers to all the other Buddhas. Then you offer argham—water to drink, padyam—water to wash the feet (because in ancient India this is what you offered guests), pushpe—flowers, dhupe—incense, aloke—light, gandhe—perfume, naivedya—food, and shabde—music—and you ring your bell at that point. You don’t use the drum in this practice because it’s kriya tantra. “Pratichchha hum svaha” means, “Please accept and enjoy.”

When we make the offerings we imagine offering goddesses emerging from our heart with all these beautiful offerings. Here the offering is being made to our self as Manjushri, so the offering goddesses hold these beautiful offerings and emerge from our heart. Then they turn around and offer them to us. We accept them and experience bliss. Then the goddesses dissolve back into us.

This is another way of remembering emptiness. All these goddesses come from our own mind. They emanate from the seed syllable at our heart, performing functions, and then dissolve back into the seed syllable at our heart. In this way, we see that dependently arising things come and they go. They’re not solid and truly existent—and neither are all these offerings.

When we think of the offerings, they have three qualities: their nature is emptiness, their aspect is the individual offering (water or fruit or light, or all these beautiful things), and their function is to give supreme bliss. When the goddesses turn around and offer you these things, you as Manjushri enjoy them.

Similarly, in the break time, you think that whatever you use is being offered to you by goddesses. When you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you are eating blissful wisdom nectar. As you eat the food it produces a sense of real bliss and satisfaction.

It can be very interesting to practice feeling bliss and satisfaction. It sounds great, but when you try to do it, you sometimes realize that you have no idea what bliss feels like. We talk about bliss but what in the world does bliss feel like? Then again, with satisfaction—who has ever felt satisfied before? It’s like a koan—our tantric koan. For example, when you dress in the morning, as you put on your clothes, you imagine that it’s Manjushri putting on the celestial silks, and the contact of the silk against your rainbow body produces bliss. When you’re taking a shower, the water falling on your rainbow body is nectar-producing bliss. So for every sense contact that you have, instead of producing attachment—and duality, craving, grasping, and discontent because we want more and better—we practice feeling bliss and being satisfied with every single sense perception.

This is a whole practice in itself, isn’t it? Just to be aware enough so that when you touch something or when you eat something that you practice letting yourself feel satisfied. With whatever is around you, practice feeling satisfied with it. You look at it and it’s beautiful, and you feel totally blissed out and satisfied. You train your mind. You practice.

This is the chief practice of the break time: to let yourself be happy. Our dualistic mind is always saying, “I want to be happy. I want to be happy.” But its whole modus operandi creates unhappiness and misery, doesn’t it? The dualistic mind is always saying, “Oh, I ate this but it’s not good enough. I want some more. How come they don’t make it better? They should do this better. Oh, I got this new thing, but look—it’s torn. And that thing’s dirty, and this one isn’t clean enough.” And, “Oh the shower feels good, but the water’s too hot. I really need a new showerhead. I want one of those pulsating ones.”

The mind has some kind of commentary about how everything can be better than it is. In retreat—as well as in your basic Dharma life—what you’re trying to do is cut that dissatisfied mind and just love whatever it is that you’re experiencing at the moment—just practice being satisfied and happy.

This is a very new, unconventional, highest, best, exotic practice that you all should do as much as possible, especially with yourself. Practice being satisfied with yourself. We usually have a critical judgmental mind, “What I did isn’t good enough. Somebody else is better than me. I did this, but it wasn’t perfect, and I should do it again”—always criticizing yourself. Instead of that, practice, “What I did is good enough.” Just practice being a little bit compassionate with yourself. That doesn’t mean being lazy and self-indulgent. It just means stopping this ridiculous, critical mind.

This is how you should practice. Imagine practicing being satisfied with yourself. Try that one for your homework this week.

After we make the offerings we recite the praise. Again, the goddesses emerge from our heart and they all turn around, and they say these three verses to us. There you are, Manjushri, and all these goddesses are saying to you, “I make obeisance to your youthful form, oh, Manjushri, like that of a dynamic and graceful sixteen year-old. You repose upon the full moon as your cushion, at the center of an expansive, milk-white lotus.” That’s the praise to Manjushri’s body. All these goddesses are reminding you of who you are, your new identity.

You’re sixteen years old, dynamic, and graceful. The full moon is your cushion, and it represents the method or compassion side of the path. The lotus represents the wisdom side of the path—they are method and wisdom combined. You’re sitting on top of that in this beautiful golden body that radiates light. You have an incredible blissful expression on your face. This is one of the beautiful things about doing the meditation on the clear appearance of yourself as Manjushri. As you meditate, you imagine yourself having Manjushri’s face—and it’s so beautiful, and it looks happy. When we think of our self, how often, do we think of our self with a happy face? Not a zingy kind of happy, but with just a pleasant look on our face, a beautiful countenance. We’re trying to cultivate that self-image here. The more you do it, the more your self-image changes. You really start having a beautiful expression on your face.

Then comes the second verse: “I make obeisance to your speech, oh mighty Fulfiller of Wishes, so mellifluent to the minds of countless sentient beings, a lucent euphony to accord with each listener’s capacity, its multiplicity embellishing the hearing of all fortunate ones.” Isn’t that a beautiful verse? It’s referring to Manjushri’s speech. It says “Fulfiller of Wishes,” because the Buddha’s speech fulfills the wishes of sentient beings by teaching them how to be liberated from cyclic existence.

Manjushri’s name in Tibetan is Jam-pel-yang. Jam means ‘smooth.’ Our disturbing attitudes are like thorns, but Manjushri’s mind is beyond all these thorny preconceptions. Yang means ‘vowel,’ because all sound depends on vowels. This name emphasizes that actually Manjushri is the essence of Buddha’s speech; he represents Buddha’s speech. That’s probably because he’s the wisdom aspect. His name emphasizes giving teachings—because hearing teachings is the basis of gaining the realizations.

That was the Jam and the yang. The pel in the middle syllable (Jam-pel-yang) means ‘magnificent’—the magnificent body, speech, and mind. It’s Manjushri’s speech especially that fulfills all wishes, not because it praises you and says, “Oh, you’re such a good meditator,” but because Manjushri teaches you how to be free of cyclic existence.

“So mellifluent to the minds of countless sentient beings.” ‘Mellifluent’ means ‘very smooth and sweet.’ Whenever Manjushri speaks, it’s coming from such a positive motivation, and such skillful means that it just conveys goodness. Anybody who hears it, hears it with happiness. Wouldn’t that be nice? Think that whenever anybody heard your voice, they were happy. Whenever anybody heard your voice on the other end of the telephone, instead of thinking, “Oh god. This one again!” they actually said, “Oh, wow, so nice to talk to you.” So think of making our speech like that.

“A lucent euphony to accord with each listener’s capacity.” Whenever the Buddha speaks it accords with the tendencies and the dispositions of each disciple. He says whatever is appropriate to that particular individual. He doesn’t give teachings that are too easy or too complex or not appropriate, but he is totally able to understand people and teach them according to their disposition.

“Its multiplicity embellishing the hearing of all fortunate ones.” ‘Multiplicity’ refers to the fact that when you’re a Buddha you can teach so many different paths. You can give so many different teachings because you see the different tendencies and dispositions of people. You have a very big mind. I think it’s important for us to understand this. Sometimes when we practice the Dharma we get a little bit patriotic about our own particular tradition. First it’s ‘rah, rah’ Buddhism. Then it’s ‘rah, rah’ Tibetan Buddhism, and then ‘rah, rah’ Gelugpa, and then, ‘rah, rah’ my Dharma center. That all comes down to ‘rah, rah’ me—that’s what we always come down to.

It’s fine to realize, “This is what works for me. This is what speaks to my heart and invigorates me.” But there are many different dispositions and different tendencies of sentient beings, and so there are a lot of different spiritual traditions. Within Buddhism too, there are many different Buddhist paths, and within any particular path there are many different teachers. Within the disciples of one teacher, there are a lot of different ways of hearing and interpreting what’s going on. It’s good to have a big mind.

We can discern what speaks to our heart and what fits best for us. We don’t want to get spread too thin because we’re running all over the place to investigate different paths. We need to stay on track. But we also need to be able to respect other people’s paths and teachers and so on—even though they may not be something that speaks to our heart. We can see that it benefits those particular sentient beings, so we rejoice.

We don’t have to compete with other people—not people of other religions or people of different Buddhist traditions or even competing with other disciples, or competing with the ‘my teacher’s better than your teacher,’ kind of stuff. We don’t get involved in any of that waste of time. Instead, we have a big mind, and we see that Buddha teaches in different ways for different people. We’re lucky we found something that suits us, and we hope everybody else finds something that’s suitable for them too. But we don’t need to compete with everybody else. We don’t need to prove to them that our brand is the real one, and our teacher is the best one, and our practice is the best. We make space in our mind for everybody. That’s very important.

Then there’s the third verse: “O Manjushri, I make obeisance to your mind wherein is illuminated the entire tapestry of the myriad objects of knowledge. It is a tranquil ocean of unfathomable profundity, of immeasurable breadth, boundless like space itself.” This verse is prostration to Manjushri’s mind.

“I make obeisance to your mind wherein is illuminated the entire tapestry of the myriad objects of knowledge.” The Buddha’s mind has two kinds of wisdom. There’s the ‘wisdom of varieties’ and the ‘wisdom of the mode.’ The ‘wisdom of varieties’ is the wisdom that perceives the variety of all the conventional truths. The ‘wisdom that perceives the mode’ perceives the mode of existence of all these conventional truths. Their mode of existence is that they’re empty.

With these two wisdoms the Buddha’s mind perceives all existent phenomena—the conventional phenomena and their emptinesses—simultaneously. That’s something only a Buddha can do. Even when you’re an eighth, ninth, or tenth bhumi bodhisattva, you might be able to perceive a lot of conventionalities, but not quite all. Also, when you’re perceiving conventional phenomena directly, you don’t at the same time have the direct realization of emptiness. When you enter into meditative equipoise as one of these arya bodhisattvas, then you perceive the emptiness of all phenomena. But at that time you can’t simultaneously perceive their bases, the conventional truths or conventional phenomena. So a high-level bodhisattva is always going back and forth between meditative equipoise on emptiness and subsequent realization whereby they perceive phenomena as like illusions. The phenomena still appear to them as truly existent, but they realize that things don’t exist as they appear, and that those appearances are illusory.

In post-meditation practice, you practice seeing things as like illusions, and then, in meditative equipoise, you practice seeing their emptiness directly. Only high-level bodhisattvas actually do this. The rest of us practice a similitude of this. In other words, we pretend—because we’re trying to build up the causes to get to the path of seeing where we can actually do it. If we don’t build up the causes and pretend, we won’t ever get there.

Even from the path of seeing onward, still you can’t have the two truths in your mind at one time. Actually, in highest yoga tantra, you can, but you can’t sustain it for very long. But the point is that only the Buddha can perceive both the mode of existence (emptiness) and the varieties of conventional phenomena simultaneously, and see them in a non-contradictory way. From the Buddha’s own side there’s no appearance of inherent existence. Therefore a Buddha is able to see the two truths—conventional truths and ultimate truths—simultaneously, without seeing them in ways that contradict each other.

When the sadhana says “wherein is illuminated the entire tapestry of the myriad objects of knowledge,” that’s referring to the wisdom of varieties, for the Buddha sees the variety of conventional truths. “It is a tranquil ocean of unfathomable profundity” shows the wisdom of the mode that it perceives the emptiness of all of these phenomena directly.

“Of immeasurable breadth, boundless like space itself.” This tells us the Buddha’s wisdom is something immeasurable, boundless, inconceivable. Actually, when they say ‘inconceivable,’ what it means is the ability to perceive the two truths simultaneously, directly. That’s inconceivable for limited beings like us, because we don’t actually even perceive the conventional truths as they really are or the ultimate truths as they really are. That’s how out of whack we are.

When you recite these verses, you’re thinking of Manjushri’s qualities and you’re thinking that you have those qualities now. Thinking like this gives you some direction as to what kind of qualities you’re trying to develop. Then you start thinking, “Well, Manjushri sees the emptiness of all phenomena. What does seeing the emptiness of all phenomena directly mean?” That sets you into a meditation on emptiness. Then you think, “Well, Manjushri sees all conventional truths; this whole tapestry of conventional truths. How does a Buddha see conventional truths? How do they appear?” Like illusions. “What does that mean, seeing things as like illusions? And why do they call it a conventional truth, anyway, if it’s a falsity? If conventional truths don’t exist the way they appear, how come they’re called truths?” That sets you into a whole way of thinking and examining.

These verses of praise are things to instigate your curiosity and also to help you change your self-image. As you think of the meaning of these things, the more you understand them, then the more you actually have them, so to speak.

Clear appearance, divine identity, and five hindrances

After you do the praise and offerings, although there are no words in the sadhana telling you this, you stop and do a big, long meditation. You don’t zip on to the mantra recitation right away. You stop and meditate. This is similar to practicing the Chenrezig self-generation sadhana where we develop clear appearance and divine identity on ourselves as the deity.

We meditate here to develop two things: clear appearance and divine identity. This is actually the core part of the meditation—this along with the mantra recitation. We spend a lot of time reciting mantra, but that’s basically because we’re baby beginners.

When you first do a retreat, you mostly emphasize the mantra because we can’t meditate very well. But actually, as you do the retreat more and more and get better and better at meditation, then the mantra becomes merely what you say to relax your mind. It’s not the core of your retreat. The basic meditation is what you do right here at this point in the sadhana where there are no words that tell you to do it.

Here’s what you do: you develop the clear appearance of yourself as Manjushri, and you meditate on that. That helps to develop calm abiding or concentration.

To start off, you might go through the details of Manjushri’s body—not in too great detail; you don’t want to get hung up on it. You want to get a general image of yourself as Manjushri and then you hold your mind on that general image. Some days all you may get is some kind of golden or orange blob. That’s good enough, but as you practice, developing concentration on this more and more, then the image gets clearer.
This is one of the special techniques in tantra—developing calm abiding and samadhi on the image of yourself as the deity. It’s a very special meditation object. You’re going to develop concentration, but by developing it on the image of yourself as the deity, you’re also going to do some drastic rearranging of your self-image in the process. It’s very profound, and it has a lot of ripple effects in your practice.

So go through and do a general analysis of the different features of Manjushri, then hold that image of yourself as Manjushri in your mind. If it starts to fade, then go through and remember: the eyes look like this, and the mouth looks like that. Remember that you’re imagining yourself with this beautiful expression on your mouth. That doesn’t mean that you have to sit there with a stupid grin on your face in meditation. But you imagine having a pleasant expression on your face—and it’s going to change your mood. Guaranteed!

There you are wearing these magnificent silks (and you didn’t even have to kill any silkworms to get them, so they’re environmentally friendly) with your double-edged sword, hewing down suffering and wrong conceptions, and illness, and holding your lotus with a Prajnaparamita text, being able to teach all the sentient beings. You develop that as the image.

When you’re meditating to develop calm abiding, you still meditate as it teaches in the sutra. In other words, you still have the same five hindrances, and you still practice the same eight antidotes. This is explained in the Lamrim Chenmo in the chapter on calm abiding. To review the five obstacles: the first one is laziness; the second one is forgetting the object; the third is laxity and excitement; the fourth is not applying the antidote; and the fifth is over-applying the antidote. These arise in order as we’re meditating, and we have to apply the counteractive forces to them.

Laziness means that we have no interest in developing concentration. Therefore we tend to run through this part of the practice, and because there are no words in the sadhana, we pretend it doesn’t exist and we don’t do the meditation. We’re lazy. To remedy that we have to develop faith or confidence in the good effects of calm abiding. We need to have faith in the benefits of having a mind that can concentrate on an object at will—that is, we can place our mind on an object and not have it get distracted. That’s the first antidote—faith or confidence in the benefit of calm abiding.

The second antidote, also to laziness, is that then you develop the aspiration to develop calm abiding. The third antidote is effort, meaning you have the effort to develop calm abiding. The fourth is called pliancy or flexibility. This is a mental factor that is a serviceability of body and mind so that it can stay focused on the object for as long as you want. These four—faith, aspiration, effort, and pliancy or flexibility—are all antidotes to the first hindrance, which is laziness.

The second hindrance is forgetting the instruction. This means you’ve either forgotten the instructions on how to meditate on calm abiding or you’ve forgotten your object of meditation. For example, you’ve visualized yourself as Manjushri, and then, all of a sudden, you’re thinking about your boyfriend, or your girlfriend, or your dog, or your frog, or your boss, or whoever it is; your mind is off on something else. At that time the antidote is memory or mindfulness. This is a mental factor that is able to remember an object in such a way that your mind doesn’t get distracted from it. Especially at the beginning of your meditation you have to have very strong memory or mindfulness. You have to know what your meditation object is and have a clear image of that as much as you can, even though it may not be perfect. Then you firmly remember that object, firmly place your mind on it. That’s what mindfulness is. If you do that well at the beginning, then your meditation will have more stability, because your mind will be on the object. It won’t be so shifting. It won’t be so easy for distractions to occur.

Then third distraction or hindrance is called laxity and excitement. Actually it’s two, but they’re lumped into one. Excitement is the mind that is distracted towards objects of attachment. For example, you’re sitting there—you’ve gotten over laziness so you’re there on the cushion—and you’ve stopped at this part of the sadhana to meditate. You visualize yourself as Manjushri. You have mindfulness; you’re remembering that image of yourself as Manjushri—and then you think about chocolate. Then the mind gets excited about chocolate, or about the job you want to get, or about the place you want to go on holiday, or about the new jewelry you’re going to get, or whatever it is. Excitement is the mind that goes off towards objects of attachment. Again, you lose the object.

Laxity is a kind of dullness of the mind. It has subtle and gross forms. The very grossest form is that you fall asleep in your meditation. A little less gross is when your mind is just slightly foggy or not quite clear. Then there’s a very subtle kind of laxity where you have clarity and stability in your meditation, but your clarity is not very intense—it’s a lack of intensity of the clarity. Many people are not able to realize that in their meditation. They think that they’ve attained calm abiding, but in actual fact, they have subtle laxity in the mind. The texts and the great masters always warn against this.

At our level of practice, we probably don’t have to worry about this very subtle laxity. We’re more worried about staying awake during the meditation session. But the antidote to those two things—the excited mind, which is too hyped up, and the dull mind, which is too slowed down—is a mental factor called introspective alertness or introspective awareness. This mental factor is like a little spy, and it pops up from time to time and it checks: “Am I concentrating? Or have I fallen into excitement? Or have I fallen into laxity?”

Of course, there are other distractions besides those two—yet those are the big ones. But we may also fall into anger. You may find that you’re not distracted so much by objects of attachment, but you’re always getting angry in your meditation and your mind is always complaining. Every time you sit down to meditate, you can’t even get to the bliss of thinking about chocolate and your boyfriend because you’re too hung up about complaining and getting angry at the people around you. That’s another kind of distraction. It’s not mentioned specifically here, but anything like that falls under this third hindrance of laxity and excitement. We have to notice if they arise in our meditation and then apply the counteractive measures.

If we’re falling asleep, we need to wake up. Check your posture, make sure your eyes are a little bit open, get some exercise in the break time. We usually think that the antidote to drowsiness is going to sleep in the break time, but that doesn’t necessarily work. You have to see. Sometimes you need to sleep, but sometimes what you need is to get exercise. Splash your head with cold water, and wear fewer clothes so your body is a little bit cooler. That will help you stay awake. Also, don’t eat so much. These are all things that can help you stay awake. If it gets really bad, then stop your meditation and think about something that uplifts your mind like precious human life, or the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, something like that. These things uplift the mind, and it’s very good to contemplate them when the mind has low energy.

When the mind is too excited, then you’re holding the object too tightly, so you need to relax your mind a little bit and bring it back to the object of meditation. If you do that but the mind keeps getting distracted, then again you need to pause from that meditation and think about something that’s going to sober your mind. Common topics for this are thinking about death and impermanence, or the lower realms, or the disadvantages of cyclic existence—something like that.

This is how you learn to become a doctor to your own mind. Whatever’s going on, if your mind’s off balance, you know what to meditate on to bring it back into balance. If you’re having a lot of complaining mind and angry mind then meditate on patience. Do all those meditations.

Then the fourth hindrance is not applying the antidote. That means if you notice that a hindrance has arisen—let’s say excitement, for example—but you don’t apply the antidote because you’re really enjoying this daydream. Or you notice that your mind is getting dull, but your mind says, “Well, I didn’t sleep very much last night. Might as well make up for it in this meditation session.” So you don’t apply the antidote. The counteractive measure for that is applying the antidote.

Then the fifth hindrance is over-applying the antidote, which means that you’ve brought your mind back into balance, but you keep applying the antidote when it’s no longer needed. That’s like a parent when their kid’s finally behaving, but they keep reprimanding her. The antidote to that is equanimity: just be cool.

Here you’re developing calm abiding on yourself as the deity, but you use these same methods for managing your mind as you practice in the sutra. It’s good to study these methods in the lamrim.

So here we are: you’re developing the clarity of yourself as the deity, and this counteracts its ordinary appearance. Ordinary appearance has two aspects: the appearance of true existence and the appearance of things being ordinary. The appearance of things being ordinary would be like thinking, “I’m just little old me. I can’t do things very well anyway.” By visualizing yourself as Manjushri, instead of appearing as little old me, you’re appearing as Manjushri. This helps counteract that ordinary appearance. Then there’s the other aspect of ordinary appearance—that it appears as truly existent or inherently existent. Here you’re trying to have the image of yourself as Manjushri appear as like an illusion. In other words, Manjushri doesn’t appear as something truly existent, but as something that is dependently arising. Both of these together counteract the ordinary appearance.

Along with developing clear appearance, the second thing you’re trying to develop in this part of the meditation is the divine identity or divine dignity of yourself as the deity; that is, identifying with yourself as the deity. You’re not only imagining yourself as Manjushri, but you’re also saying, “This is me.” It’s not an inherently existent me; it’s just a conventionally appearing me—but you’re identifying with that. This develops the sense of divine dignity; it develops a new self-image. Instead of always saying the mantra, “I’m so stupid. I’m incapable. I make a mess of everything,” you’re saying a new mantra, which is, “I’m Manjushri, and I’m kind of a nice person. I’m compassionate, and I’m considerate, and I’m wise.” You’re developing a good self-image.

That divine dignity or divine identity counteracts the ordinary grasping. So again, ordinary grasping, like ordinary appearance, has two aspects: grasping at things as inherently existent—believing things to exist in that way—and believing that I am ordinary little old me. Identifying oneself as Manjushri counteracts both of these.

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into a performance tantra, yoga tantra, or highest yoga tantra practice). Otherwise, please do the front-generation sadhana

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.