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Doing Vajrasattva retreat

By J. B.

A wooden sign reads "Vajrasattva" in front of a tree covered in snow.

A person in prison writes to Miles, a Vajrasattva retreatant, about his own experience with the practice.

I am a novice in the most basic sense in that I am hoping to formally take refuge and lay vows after the retreat is over. Venerable Thubten Chodron is so very kind and such a blessing—how can we not seek to reach such a state? Your letter and the question-and-answer material that I received was/is very educational. To think that I aid you in some form is very humbling, I can only wish something I do is of benefit. It shows me how our lives are all connected and that nothing we do goes without creating karma. I hope our correspondence can continue.

This is my very first retreat and to repeat the mantra, visualize Vajrasattva, and meditate on all, and I do mean all, the negativities from this life as well as past lives—some of which I do not even remember—is somewhat overwhelming. Each session I do a complete round of mantra on my mala.

This environment allows persons such as myself to spend many hours reading and practicing; though the actual practice (meditation) time is limited for a multitude of reasons. Due to noise—a constant element here—I wear ear-plugs so I can settle myself and listen to my breath.

I believe that through this purification retreat the negativity of our karma is eliminated to some degree. It is my mental continuum that causes me to remember the negative acts of my past, even the karmic aspect of my thoughts, and I confess that I ponder if some aspects can ever be corrected or if I am destined for rebirth in one of the hell realms. Then I remember something I read by Venerable Thubten Chodron saying, “The past is just the past. Concern yourself with the moment.” It went something like that, but what I understood was that the past is history and even though it created some of why I am where I am and I have a truckload of negative karma to purify, all I can do is sincerely regret what I have done, and work not to continue to create negative karma now.

I do try as best as I can to purify my negative karma, and I am slowly moving to a situation where I fully live this in my life.

The pain in the knees I can relate to all too well. As for the lack of forethought about the sessions, always remember that your motivation is for the benefit of all sentient beings when you meditate, so no matter what arises that you must confront, it’s a thought. That’s all it is and you acknowledge it, address it, and regret what you should. I equate all of it to a jumbled-up movie that has ten-second spots to view. I constantly need to keep coming back, concentration is hard and single-pointed concentration is nearly impossible. I have experienced glimpses and this lets me know that peace is there and it is possible, so I keep going.

I had to laugh at your mantra, “What the hell am I doing here?” Boy, does that question blow through our minds every day … ha ha ha ? The reason I am doing this and seeking to take refuge and my vows is quite simple: I’m scared to be reborn in the lower realms and if I can help somebody else not experience the suffering I have, as a decent human being I should do that. I have to fully understand the causes of suffering and how to cure them before I can answer others’ questions or help them begin their path, but I can always make the situation better just by my attitude.

Your question is easy for me to answer, Miles. You’re there because your karma is such that you’re able to advance on your path towards enlightenment. I’m very fortunate to be able simply to have met you and to have had the chance to convey my thoughts. Like a branch on a tree, when the wind blows, the trunk of the tree can feel each branch move and grow. That’s something like getting letters from the people that are participating in supporting your retreat.

Through our letters we offer all we can (even if a bunch of this may be confusing), and on the back-side you can see the various levels of our path through our writings. You and the others there can see which “branches” are new and need nurturing and direction and which ones are older, more mature and sturdy. I hope I don’t sound all goofy here.

I consider my life very blessed to have found the Dharma and to be able to just write to Venerable Thubten Chodron and Jack and now to you is a gift.

Incarcerated people

Many incarcerated people from all over the United States correspond with Venerable Thubten Chodron and monastics from Sravasti Abbey. They offer great insights into how they are applying the Dharma and striving to be of benefit to themselves and others in even the most difficult of situations.

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