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Renunciation and bodhicitta

Renunciation and bodhicitta

Part of a series of talks on Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path given in various locations around the United States from 2002-2007. This talk was given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington.

  • The problems that accompany our attachment to the happiness of this life
  • Giving up the eight worldly concerns
  • Having compassion for ourselves and aspiring to help others

Renunciation: part 2 (download)


Let’s contemplate our motivation. We have this precious human life with all the good conditions necessary to practice the Dharma, but how do we use it? How do we spend our time? How much time is actually spent trying to work with our mind and generate, cultivate our positive qualities? And how much time do we simply live on automatic, following whatever thought comes into our mind—which usually has to do with our own happiness now.

We learn about karma and we say we believe in it. But to what extent have we been able to slow our lives down enough, so that we become conscientious about the kind of karma that we create? Living on automatic leads to dying on automatic which leads to taking rebirth on automatic.

We have a choice on whether we want to live on automatic or whether we really want to live—meaning really want to live consciously, with awareness, with mindfulness. One of the thoughts that we may want to consciously cultivate if we choose to live consciously or conscientiously, is the wish to make our life and our lives of service to other living beings. Why? Because they’re just like us, they want to be happy and don’t want to suffer; and also because all of our happiness completely depends on the kindness of others.

Now when we feel these two things deeply and when we’re aware of others’ cyclic existence and how they’re trapped in it, then it’s as if there’s no choice. Compassion arises and we want to be able to remedy their situation. Since we can’t help others until we’ve helped ourselves—one drowning person can’t save another one—then we have to liberate ourselves from cyclic existence and attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all beings. Generate that motivation.

Verse four

By contemplating the freedoms and fortunes so difficult to find and fleeting nature of your life, reverse the clinging to this life.

That means exactly that, reverse the clinging to this life. In another way of saying it, it means give up the eight worldly concerns. The eight worldly concerns come in four pairs. One side of the pair is a clinging and the other side of the pair is a pushing away. The first one is being attached and clinging to material wealth and possessions; and being averse to not having them or not getting them. The second is being attached to sweet words, approval, praise; and having aversion to blame, disapproval, criticism. The third pair is being attached to having a good image, a good reputation; and then aversion to having a bad image, bad reputation. And fourth is attachment to sense pleasures, beautiful sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile objects; and aversion to unpleasant sensory experiences. Does that sound like how you spend most of your time? Story of my life! Eight worldly dharmas, eight worldly concerns.

Remember yesterday that I was saying that the demarcation line between Dharma practice and worldly practice was whether or not there was attachment to the happiness of this life? Well, that’s it, because these eight worldly concerns, we’re so incredibly attached to them. They just kind of run our life, don’t they? Morning to night, running, chasing after one pleasure, running away from some pain, chasing towards another pleasure, fleeing from another unpleasant circumstance. On and on the life goes; and there’s no real transformation in the heart but instead there’s a whole lot of stress.

I heard someone use the expressions “struggling for happiness,” “struggling for pleasure.” That’s kind of the American lifestyle, isn’t it? We struggle to eke out as much pleasure and happiness from everything, and in the meantime get tremendously stressed about the whole thing. Very fearful and anxious because the happiness we have might go away, and the happiness we want may not come. Then we just spin in this worry. It’s all completely centered around the thought of “me”. We don’t get stressed about if somebody in India is going to be happy or have suffering. We don’t get stressed about if somebody in Canada is going to be happy or not suffer. We revolve around ourselves, don’t we?

This self-centered thought is a big trouble-maker, a number-one public enemy. They should have it in all the post offices, the wanted poster in the post office. Wanted: Self- Centered Thought. Biggest Criminal in the Country. Destroyer of the Happiness of All Beings. Terrorist Supreme. True, or not true? True. Worse than Al-Qaeda. Worse than Saddam Hussein. It’s the destroyer of happiness. Nobody outside sends us to the lower realms. It’s the self-centered thought—especially when it manifests as attachment to the happiness of this life. That’s what creates the stress now and creates the karma for lower rebirth later and prevents us from attaining our spiritual aspirations.

How do we remedy this attachment to the happiness of this life? By contemplating the freedom and fortune so difficult to find and fleeting nature of your life. We have a precious human life. But it is not going to last long though we always feel like it is. We think, “Death is something that happens to other people.” We may allow that it might happen to us, but later. In reality we never really know when we’re going to die. Each retreat I do I make a list of the people that I’ve known who have died, and each retreat it’s longer. From one year to the next, one retreat to the next, none of those people who died thought they were going to. We all think we’re going to live forever if possible. Yet death just comes like that.

I was asked to speak at a memorial service a couple of months ago. One woman in Coeur D’Alene had been coming to the Dharma group. Her son had come up to the Abbey one day. Actually both sons had come, but this was her younger son. He had just finished high-school, he was 18, and the family had friends in Jamaica. They sent him to Jamaica to celebrate his graduation and he was staying at the hotel of some family friends. He didn’t come down for lunch one day. They checked the door, it was locked. They had to use the master key to get in. There he was, lying on the bed in his swimming trunks, his hand behind his head, his other hand holding a cell phone, dead. They don’t know why.

We don’t know what we’re going to die of, or when we’re going to die, or what we’re going to be in the middle of doing when it happens. We need to be able to be ready to die at any time. It’s good to think about this a little bit in your meditation, “What does it mean to be ready to die? What would you need to feel to feel like you were ready to die?”

By repeatedly contemplating the infallible effects of karma and the miseries of cyclic existence, reverse the clinging to future lives.

We want to not only stop clinging to the happiness of this life, but also the happiness of future lives. We do that by reflecting on karma. Now often observing karma is what brings the happiness of future lives, but when we see how up and down and up and down we go because of karma then it can also help us reverse the clinging to future lives. Certainly when we understand the disadvantages of cyclic existence that helps as well.

There are some general characteristics of cyclic existence. One is that it’s uncertain. Everything is uncertain. Look at your life, make examples of it. Second is that things are unsatisfactory. Look at your life, look at everything you thought was success and that you did. Has it brought you ultimate satisfaction? Third is we get born again and again. Fourth is we die again and again. We don’t like doing things again and again, it’s boring. We should feel that way about life and death in cyclic existence. Then fifth, also there’s no stability in our status. One time we’re famous, one time we’re infamous. One time we’re rich, one time we’re poor. One time we have a good rebirth, one time we have a bad rebirth. Sixth is we go through cyclic existence, birth, death, and misery, alone. Nobody else can take it from us.

Verse five

When we contemplate the disadvantages of cyclic existence then we really want to get out. When we don’t contemplate them because it’s not so jazzy to contemplate the disadvantages of cyclic existence, it’s much jazzier to contemplate some high practice. But when we don’t contemplate the disadvantages of cyclic existence then cyclic existence seems like a pleasure grove. With that attitude we just want to frolic and dance and laugh. As a result we continue to go around and around in samsara.

Rather, let’s develop this determination to be free, as Je Rinpoche says in verse five,

By contemplating in this way, do not generate even for an instant the wish for the pleasures of cyclic existence.

Even for an instant. Why? This is because if you have for one instant you’re a goner. It’s like AA. If you’re going to get off alcohol, you don’t take even a drop because if you take one drop and there’s the second drop and the third drop. So even an instant of the pleasure of cyclic existence and, since we are samsara-holics, we just keep inviting samsara. It really takes a lot of, I mean, getting off drugs and alcohol takes some energy. Getting out of samsara takes some energy, too! The people who are not substance-abuse-aholics, you might be shopping-aholics, or a sex-aholics, or TV-aholics, or internet-aholics, or fidgeting-aholics, or running-around-driving-your-car-doing-nothing-aholics. Think about it.

This attitude, the determination to be free from cyclic existence, what’s commonly called renunciation, what it really means is having compassion for ourselves. Like I was saying yesterday, we hear the word renunciation and we think. “Eww, suffering! I don’t want to renounce.” But actually when we see the predicament we’re in, and we want to give it up, and we want to give up the causes of the predicament, then we really, truly care about ourselves. We really, truly want to be happy and be free of suffering.

I think that’s a good thing to think about sometimes when we’re dealing with our various difficult habits. We all have certain bad habits that we do again and again. To really think, “I respect myself. I care about myself. This habit is not caring about me. I need to let it go.” That is the meaning of really taking care of ourselves. It’s not like all the psychobabble of, “Oh, love yourself, and go out and buy yourself a present.” Waste more of the earth’s resources and buy something that you don’t really need, trying to fill up the hole inside and, “You’ll be happy.” That’s the message we get from the media, isn’t it? That’s not taking care of ourself. That’s destroying ourself. If we really care about ourselves we’ll work on some of these mental-emotional habits that keep us stuck in difficulties.

When you have, day and night unceasingly, the mind aspiring for liberation, you have generated the determination to be free.

That’s the definition of generating the determination to be free: when you have day and night unceasingly the mind aspiring for liberation. That is no small spiritual realization. But when you have it, boy, then there’s got to be incredible energy behind your practice—and incredible focus. Then people criticize you, people praise you, they love you, they hate you—you don’t care. This is because you’re real clear about what the meaning of your life is and what you’re going to do. Stock market goes up, stock market goes down, somebody takes advantage of you, somebody doesn’t take advantage of you, somebody scratches your car, they don’t scratch your car—you don’t care. Wouldn’t it be nice not to care about all that stuff? How would this be so? It’s because you care about something that’s more important; getting out of the whole trip altogether.

Instead of trying to decorate our prison cell and make our prison cell prettier, we now aspire to get out of prison. Why go through all the headache of decorating your prison cell? What do you put on it? Remember the crepe paper? You have your prison cell and you put crepe paper around it, and you put a Christmas tree in it with Christmas decorations and all the tinsel, and you put little light bulbs all around, and pretty pictures on the wall, and nice scents in it, and soft bed. It’s still a prison cell no matter what we do, isn’t it? So why try to tweak samsara, let’s get out.

Okay, so that’s the first principal of the path. If we can make just a teeny bit of headway on that one, our Dharma practice really takes on a lot of energy.

Audience: Venerable, can I ask a question? When we get to a place where we just don’t care, how does opinion fit in there so if somebody asks you, “Do you like this or that?”

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so how does opinion figure in if you renounce. There are different kinds of opinions. We have to learn to think clearly and make wise decisions. Having renunciation helps us think clearly and make wise decisions. You’re not waffling all the time. You know very clearly what’s worthwhile and very clearly what isn’t worthwhile. You’re not a pushover, you’re not just waffling. But there’s a whole other category of opinions. “What’s your favorite color? What do you want to eat tonight? How do you want to decorate your room? What kind of tile do you want in the bathroom? What kind of color do you want to paint the walls? Is this shade right or does it need to be a little bit darker? What color should your new car be? What kind of equipment do you want in your new car?” We can proliferate on opinions like this ad nauseam, can’t we? We don’t really know what we want, “Well, let’s see. Should I get a CD player in my car, or an mp3 player in my car, or maybe a radio, or maybe no, they’ll steal it all.” We go completely nutty with all these opinions. Some of these opinions, I mean, who cares what color your car is? Who cares if the paint is exactly the shade that you want? You’re going to say, “I do!” Well then, okay.

Our whole education system teaches us to have opinions. I think that sometimes it’s to our detriment because we can’t just let things be. We feel like we have to have an opinion about everything and that drives us crazy sometimes. It’s like we can’t just look at what the neighbors are doing, we have to judge them. A lot of these opinions don’t matter. Here’s an example, I go to a restaurant. I can’t figure out what I want to eat. Frankly I’m not interested in spending half an hour like the people around me in trying to decide what I’m going to eat—talking about what are you going to have, and what’s in this one. Watch people at a restaurant. It’s fascinating to watch people order at a restaurant. Watch how long it takes them to decide what to eat. “Does this have bell peppers or not? Are the bell peppers red or green? Is it really spicy or just moderately spicy? Do you cook your rice with saffron or not? Is it brown rice? Is it long-grain rice or short grain rice?” On and on and on! “What are you going to have dear? Oh, you’re going to have that? You had that last year. I’m thinking I’m going to have this one. Do you want to split it with me? Maybe we should get a third one. How about an appetizer? What do you want to drink?”

It goes on for half an hour and the longer the people have known each other the longer the conversation about what they’re going to order is. The more fond you are of somebody the longer you discuss what you’re going to order. Boring! I’ve lived in community setting for so long. There you go to lunch, there’s the food. Like the slogan says, there are two choices, “Take it or leave it.” If you take it and are content and grateful to all mother sentient beings for giving you food—it’s so easy.

Many of the things that are opinions are really useless. I mean, you should see me at the Abbey. Last winter when we were trying to decide on what color to paint the meditation hall. I’m just a disaster with this kind of thing. Luckily others have opinions and they have good taste. “Chodron, you want to make the color what!?” “Okay, we’ll do it your way.” “Okay already, my taste isn’t so good.” Do we need to have an opinion on every single thing we read in the newspaper? Do we need to have an opinion about what every single colleague is doing? How everybody is raising their kids? How everybody is not raising their kids? We’re just chock-a-block full of opinions. “Why do you wear your hair like that?! You part it on this side, why don’t you part it on that side?” Who cares?

You know when you go to the optometrist and are trying to decide what kind of glasses to get. “Oh, do I look good in these? Oh these frames, I want them this …”

[audience talking]

Oh well, I’m not the only person who can’t decide!

Okay, are we done with opinions?

You know, it’s very interesting when you meet some of the great lamas. The lamas know very clearly what they want. We think if you have renunciation then you just vacillate. No, of important things you know very clearly what you want.

[Note: The remainder of the transcript is from a recording of the second half of this teaching which has since been lost.]

Verse six

However, if your determination to be free is not sustained by the pure altruistic intention (bodhicitta), it does not become the cause for the perfect bliss of unsurpassed enlightenment. Therefore, the intelligent generate the supreme thought of enlightenment.

This is talking about why we need to generate bodhicitta. If we only have renunciation then we’re not going to aim for full enlightenment. We’ll only aim for liberation, and liberation is freedom from cyclic existence. We’ve removed one set of obscurations called the afflicted obscurations. Those are the disturbing attitudes, the negative emotions, the karma that causes rebirth and samsara. Samsara means cyclic existence. We remove those obscurations and attain arhatship or liberation.

Still the subtle obscurations, what are called cognitive obscurations—the subtle appearance of inherent existence, that remains. We have to eliminate that in order to attain full enlightenment. It’s only with the full enlightenment of a Buddha that we have all the capacities necessary to benefit everybody most effectively. That’s why enlightenment is most important. In order to attain enlightenment you have to have the aspiration for it, and that aspiration has to be fueled by wishing to bring about the joy and liberation of all living beings. Without that bodhicitta we’re lacking the motivation for enlightenment, without the motivation we won’t attain it.

Verse seven and eight

How do we cultivate that motivation? We think as follows

Swept by the current of the four powerful rivers, tied by the strong bonds of karma which are so hard to undo, caught in the iron-net of self-grasping egoism, completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance,

Born and reborn in boundless cyclic existence, unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings—by thinking of all mother sentient beings in this condition, generate the supreme altruistic intention.

This is how to look. Actually all this description is saying is that we first look at ourselves. When we first see our own predicament in cyclic existence, how we’re caught in the four powerful rivers. What sweeps us away? Ignorance, attachment or craving; what was the third one? Wrong views. Those three just sweep us away. We’re a goner. Ignorance arises and takes us away. Attachment and craving arises, we’re gone. Wrong views? Down the river we go.

We start off by seeing this as all qualities of ourself—our own predicament in cyclic existence. Then developing compassion for ourself and wanting ourself to be free. That’s renunciation, the determination to be free. When we take these same things and we realize everybody’s in the same condition as we are, that’s when compassion arises. So it’s not like you just think of others being swept by the current of the four powerful rivers. We have to think of our elf first and then generalize it to everybody.

… tied by the strong bonds of karma which are so hard to undo …

Karma is so powerful, so powerful. We have the wish for happiness. It doesn’t come our way because we created the cause of suffering. Karma just—it drives us—our actions and our experiencing the result of our actions. That’s why I was saying at the beginning of the retreat, why we’re so lucky to be here. Somehow we had the karma to wind up here. Karma could have been different and driven us somewhere else.

We may have a lot of aspirations. But if we don’t create the causes, if we don’t do the actions, don’t create the karma to actualize our spiritual aspirations? Those results don’t come. Sitting and praying, “Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, I want to be a Buddha,” doesn’t make us Buddha. “Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, I want to be compassionate,” doesn’t make us compassionate. We have to actually do the practice and create the causes. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is undeterred in insisting upon this again and again.

… caught in the iron net of self-grasping egoism…

Sound familiar? The self-centered thought, the self-grasping ignorance—we’re caught, we’re trapped. We can’t be free. It’s so difficult for us to think of anything besides ourself. It’s so hard for us to get out of the idea that we’re some concrete individual who has to be defended from the rest of the world. It’s like an iron trap, these thoughts. And they’re only thoughts, they’re only conceptions, but actually they’re harder to free ourselves from than any external trap.

… completely enveloped by the darkness of ignorance …

There are two kinds of ignorance. One kind is the ignorance about the actual nature of how things actually exist. That’s the ignorance that grasps at true existence or inherent existence. Then there’s the ignorance about how karma and its results work. This is the ignorance that’s confused about what is good ethical conduct and what isn’t. We can see there’s a whole lot of confusion in our society about what good ethical conduct is, isn’t there? A whole lot of confusion.

If we look just at the ten destructive actions, so many people in our world think that they’re good! Actually we do too when we’re in the middle of doing them. Sad, isn’t it? “Oh, lying is not very good,” unless I do it. Using our speech to create to create disharmony? “That’s bad karma.” But when I’m using my speech to create disharmony I don’t think it’s bad karma. I think, “I’m right, and this person deserves to have their reputation ruined, because I’ve got to warn everybody else about them.” Caught completely in the darkness of ignorance, can’t see! We can’t see clearly. So this is us, this is all sentient beings.

… born and reborn in boundless cyclic existence …

Okay, so cyclic existence without beginning—born again, and again, and again. Cyclic existence has an end. That’s why were here. But so far it hasn’t ended for us, and thus we’re

… unceasingly tormented by the three sufferings …

The three sufferings are the “ouch” suffering—or the dukkha of suffering; the suffering or the dukkha, the un-satisfactoriness of change. This is what we talked about yesterday, what we usually call happiness. And then the unsatisfactory condition of just having a body and mind that are under the control of afflictions and karma. That’s pretty unsatisfactory.

They say that even animals realize the “ouch” suffering and spiritual practitioners of almost every other tradition realize the dukkha of change. But really thinking about having a body and mind under the influence of afflictions and karma, that’s something that’s specialized. I don’t know how many other faiths have that or not. Remember before I was explaining how to enlarge our vision and think beyond this life, think in a more expanded way. It’s quite difficult to think of not having this kind of body. It’s not a widely held view.

We’re tormented by all those three sufferings, all those three kinds of dukkha—and not only us, but all sentient beings. It’s very helpful in our meditation and as we think of our own situation and then immediately think, “Oh it’s not just me. It’s also everybody else.” It’s good in our meditation when we’re doing this to think about specific individuals. We might start out just thinking of the ouch suffering, “My knees hurt sitting in Diamond Hall.” Then you look around—because after all you’re not really meditating, you’re thinking about your knees. You start opening your eyes. You cheat a little bit. Well, a lot of people have hurting knees because you’re all looking at each other. (laughs) We begin to see, “Oh, it’s not just me whose knees hurt, whose back hurts, it’s everybody.”

The more you think of the dukkha of change, “Oh, I had this wonderful thing happen in my life and it didn’t last forever.” Or even, “It lasted for a long time, I got really disillusioned with it. Oh, that’s not only me, that’s everybody.”

Then consider the dukkha of having a body and mind that’s under the influence of ignorance—that has to get born and die. I found it very helpful to start seeing other people in that light, because we usually see people as these true personalities. We look at somebody and think, “There’s a real person there.” Like I was saying the other day, you know how we think of ourself as just being this present body at whatever age we are? When we look at other people we think that’s who they are too. They’re just who they happen to be in the present body and the present circumstance that they are in right at that particular moment.

If you start thinking of people as karmic bubbles your whole vision of them changes. Basically this is all we are—karmic bubbles. Karma we created in a past life, certain karmas ripen so this bubble, this appearance of a person. It comes because certain karma ripened, appears, and then at one point, “Ping!” The pin gets stuck in the bubble and the bubble pops and that person dies. Then another karmic bubble comes.

The relationship between one karmic bubble and the next isn’t always so obvious. It’s not like, “Oh, here’s my best friend here. They’re just incarnate and they happen to look exactly like they looked in the last life and had the same personality.” No. Somebody is a human being this life, an animal in the next life. Somebody who’s a god gets born as a human being. Personalities change. Everything changes.

It’s quite helpful to see people as just karmic bubbles—just an appearance that was created by karma, that lasts for a little while, and then gone. When we look at people this way we can see how they’re trapped in cyclic existence. Then we can really have compassion for them. It’s like this. Here’s this person who looks so real, who looks so happy, who looks like they have this particular personality. They’re just an appearance due to karma. They’re not going to be alive forever, and, “Boing” they’re gone! And they’re caught by their own afflictive emotions and their own karma that are going to sweep them away into the next life, into the next experience. What can I do? They aren’t some kind of permanent, inherently existent personality that I can keep with me—that I can control. Not at all.

When we see people like this it becomes much easier to have compassion for them. This is because we see how they’re subject to all the disadvantages of cyclic existence. We see how much misery they have because they’re bound by their own self-centered thought. They’re bound by their own ignorance grasping at true existence. All the people that we think are wonderful, this is still their situation.

You know how we take refuge in other people? We say we take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—but who do we really take refuge in? Think about it in your life, who do you take refuge in? Do you really take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha? Or do you take refuge in your spouse, your parents, your kids, your best friends, your credit card, the refrigerator, your car? Think about who or what you really take refuge in, where you go when you’re suffering.

Seeing other people like this really helps compassion arise because we see them much more accurately for what they are. Then with compassion our whole view on others changes and how we relate to them changes.

… by thinking of all mother sentient beings in this condition, generate the supreme altruistic intention

Actually in the thought training practices it recommends two principal themes to think about. One is others’ dukkha which is what we just talked about. The second is others’ kindness. When we contemplate those two themes, their dukkha in cyclic existence and their kindness to us, then a deep feeling of love and compassion can come for them. This is because we feel so indebted and grateful for everything others have given us, how they’ve kept us alive all this time, how everything we have depends on them.

We always like to think of ourselves as these independent units. It came up in the discussion group this afternoon, “I’m going to take care of myself.” Well, if we look at our life how much did that happen? Did we educate ourself? Did we take care of ourself when we were infants? Do we pay ourself? Do we grow our own food? If we look around everything we have came from others. Every skill we have is because others taught it to us. If we look we’re so incredibly dependent on others, more than any other time in human history I think.

When we think of others’ kindness in this way, then we feel a deep interconnection with them. We generate the supreme altruistic intention—that’s the second of the three principal aspects of the path. Tomorrow we’ll start on the third principal aspect, the correct view.

We have few minutes left for some questions.

Audience: I’m a little stumped here. What exactly, precisely, is the supreme altruistic intention?

VTC: The supreme altruistic intention—the Sanskrit word is bodhicitta. What it is, it’s the mind aspiring for enlightenment. Aspiring for enlightenment because we aspire to work for the benefit of all living beings. Sound far flung?

Audience: I’ve also heard the phrase liberation of all beings. Are those two the same thing?

VTC: The supreme benefit of living beings is leading them all to enlightenment, helping them get out of samsara, helping them actualize their own Buddha natures and become fully enlightened Buddhas. That’s the best way to benefit them. We start off by smiling at them, and then take things from there. There are lots of different ways to benefit.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: No, the mind isn’t the brain. The mind doesn’t have a shape or a color or a form. It’s just the clear and knowing consciousness. We often think of the root of our consciousness as is in our heart because that’s where we feel things the most strongly. But the mind is not anything physical. The Tibetan word that we translate as mind can also be translated as heart. So don’t think of mind and heart as two separate things. In the West we do. Mind is up here, heart is down here, and there’s a brick wall here. [indicating at the neck] No. Mind and heart are unified, they’re the same.

Audience: You mentioned earlier one of the first things you can do to change your mind is to start being of service, to change your life I should say. But then you started talking a lot about that to really be of service to sentient being … to liberate them and all that. But for those of us that are … it’s kind of confusing. Say I want to be of service, I want to volunteer in hospice or Big Brother, Big Sister, that kind of stuff. You get involved in that kind of activity and there’s a sense that, number one, you’re kind of overwhelmed because you’re not able to alleviate a lot of their suffering. There’s a sense that you’re almost perpetuating it, you’re almost like enabling people in samsara. Should I really be doing this, or should I just be sitting at home and meditating? It’s hard to figure out where that balance is in between active engagement and …

VTC: What’s the balance between actively being of service to others and indirectly doing it by meditating or by formal practice? What His Holiness recommends for lay people is 50/50—of course knowing we all have our own version of 50/50. But what he’s getting at is some of both. In other words, do some of both. This is because we need formal practice in order to have the quiet to really go deeper and to experience the path in a deeper way, in a more sustained way. And then we need the active service so that we have a mirror about how we’re doing.

Now you mentioned the concern that you do active service and then sometimes you wonder, “Am I really doing anything good at all? Is this really doing any benefit?” I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that when we’re doing active service, it’s not just us benefiting the people we’re helping. It’s them benefiting us in our practice. When you’re doing active service try and get out of the idea of, “I’m benefiting them.” When we got locked into the idea of, “I’m benefiting them,” there’s a separation, isn’t there? There’s a me—who is somehow wiser and more together, and them—who aren’t so wise and together. That creates, it can create some condescension, or some arrogance, or something else going on. It’s much better to just think of it as, “We’re equal. I happen to be able to do this and so I do it. They benefit me in some other way in return.”

Don’t expect them to benefit you. This is because if you do, the way in which we usually expect them to benefit us is not usually the way they do benefit us. It’s better not to expect anything, but just to leave it open. You hear me talk about the prisoners a lot. Now somebody might look at it and go, “Oh, Chodron benefits these guys so much. Isn’t she such a sweet bodhisattva!” Well, no, because actually they teach me much more than I teach them. These guys benefit me tremendously. Somebody’s going to go, “How do these prisoners benefit her? I mean, we lock them up and throw away the key because they’re useless.” Well, no. That’s not it. I mean, these guys have a lot to offer when we open our ears and open our eyes and listen and see.

I think that the two, service and formal practice, go very well together. If you only do service, then you tend to suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue. If you only do formal practice, sometimes you get stuck. When you do both then they really help each other. This is because our practice informs our activities to try and make sure we have a good motivation and go deeper in our practice; and our activity, when we’re active then we see all of our junk come up. So then we know what we still have to work with. You can see, you know, you go out to offer service and like, “I don’t want to do that!” Or like, “Why didn’t you call me earlier? Take two aspirin, call me tomorrow morning.”

Okay, let’s sit quietly.

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.