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37 Practices: Verses 4-6

37 Practices: Verses 4-6

Part of a series of teachings on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas given during the Winter Retreat from December 2005 to March 2006 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Exchanging one set of problems for another
  • 37 Practices: Verses 4-6
    • Letting go of the whole mess of samsara
    • Imagining your own funeral
    • Thinking about beginningless lives to keep the mind relaxed and vast
    • Giving up friends who give a negative influence
    • Our teachers’ kindness
    • Being attached to our stories

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A 03a and 37 Practices Verses 4-6 (download)

This teaching was followed by a discussion session with the retreatants.

How is everybody?

Audience: Still here.

Exchanging one set of problems for another

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You haven’t run down the hill yet? [laughter] I got a letter from Dan and I wanted to read a little part that he wrote. He’s been out of jail now since October, so about two months. He was just writing about his experience being incarcerated. He said,

All we are really doing upon release is exchanging the problems of incarceration for a different set of problems associated with release.

This sounds like Lama Zopa, doesn’t it? Exactly what Rinpoche says, because in samsara, that’s it, isn’t it? If it’s not one set of problems it’s another set of problems. When you’re not married, you have the problems of not being married; when you’re married, then you have the problems of being married. When you don’t have kids, you have the problems of not having kids, and when you have kids, you have the problems of having kids. [laughter] Pick your problems: there’s no lasting happiness in samsara! So this is a real good insight he had here. He said,

I tried to avoid the trap that so many prisoners fall into: thinking that all our problems will magically disappear once we are released.

How many times have we, in our lives, in the meditation session, thought, “if I only had x, y, z situation, then all of my problems would be over.” We all think that way, don’t we?

I call this “the panacea of physical release.” Simply, it is a fantasy, a delusion. All we are doing is exchanging the physical prison of incarceration for the samsaric prison of so-called release. Don’t get me wrong, of course I’m very happy to get released. I would definitely prefer that over incarceration in any case. But I’m just trying to keep things in perspective, and as long as I temper the joy of release with the understanding that I cannot take the happiness of release for granted, that I must create the causes for my happiness through daily dharma practice and living ethically, then the results will come. I must not be anxious, depressed, or disappointed about expecting the results of happiness and freedom to come immediately.

Practice, practice, practice. Create the causes; results will come in due time. It is a practice in patience. Wanting to create the causes is the reason why I’ve taken my kindhearted teacher’s advice: to participate in the Vajrasattva retreat. It would have been easy for me to decline Venerable Chodron’s request to do the retreat with the excuse that my life is simply way too hectic presently because I’m trying to deal with life after release (which is indeed exactly what I told her when she asked, being the lazy sentient that I can be sometimes!). But, thankfully, Venerable kindly and rightly reminded me that it is precisely times like these when we need dharma the most.

Looking back after a couple of weeks of retreat, I’m very glad that I did participate during this time of release and opportunity. I know in many ways that my journey is just beginning. I’m very grateful to Venerable Chodron and my dharma brothers and sisters incarcerated, at home, and at Sravasti Abbey for giving me this precious opportunity to share in such a powerful and transformative retreat. It is, after all, my sincere and true motivation to improve myself so that I can be of greater benefit to all living beings.

Isn’t that nice? You’ll get to read the whole thing later after it’s typed up. He wrote a very nice poem for his parents too. You can read that as well. I just thought to share that with you so you can see how some of the other people are doing with the retreat.

37 Practices of a Bodhisattva

Okay, should we just dig in to the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva? We did One, Two, and Three last time, so we’ll just dig in to Four,

4. Loved ones who have long kept company will part,
Wealth created with difficulty will be left behind
Consciousness, the guest, will leave the guest house of the body.
Let go of this life—
This is the practice of bodhisattvas.

It’s one of the most powerful verses for me. True, or not true?

Audience: True.

Letting go of the whole mess of samsara

VTC: Do we like it, or not? [laughter] No. We want it to read, “Loved ones who have long kept company will stay with us forever and ever and ever; wealth created—not with difficulty, but with ease—will always be here; consciousness, the guest, will stay in the guest house of the body for eternal life in the dukkha of samsara.” This is what ignorant mind wants, isn’t it? Completely ignorant mind.

I got another email from one of the other inmates who’s had a drug problem for years and years. He made this comment: “why can something so bad feel so good?” It’s like his koan: ‘why can something so bad feel so good?’ I was thinking about that, and what I came up with is that it just shows how ignorant our mind is. Doesn’t it? That something that causes so much suffering we take as happiness. That’s one of the four distortions. Remember, we were talking about the four distortions—that’s exactly it.

What Togmey Sangpo is compassionately advising us here is to just let go of the whole mess. Think of how much time in your meditations you’ve spent fretting about your loved ones. It would be very interesting some time to keep track for a week of how much time you spend on thinking about what, either during your session or during the day: how much time you’ve spent thinking about your family, the people you love, your friends, the people who are close to you. How much time have we spent? And what kind of thoughts? Longing to be with them, worrying about them getting old…all kinds of different thoughts. And how much time do we spend on this? “Bye, bye Vajrasattva. Hello, all the people I’m attached to!” [laughter]

At the end of the day, what is it? Loved ones who have long kept company will part. That’s the end of it. Nothing to do about it. And yet how much time we’ve spent ruminating over them: for what? Has it changed anything—all of our worry, all of our attachment, all of our daydreams, all of our wonderful memories, all of our visualizations for the future?

It would be interesting to look at how much time in our life we spend thinking about wealth. Our money, how much we have in our account, and how much you earned last year, how much you’re going to have to pay in taxes. And then all of your possessions: what ones you have here, what ones you have in storage, what ones you left at home that you really wish you could have, and what ones you really want to buy after retreat is done. All the little things, e.g.: “wouldn’t it be nice, after retreat is over, I could have this, and this, and this. It will be a different season, so I’ll really need that!” And all of our financial planning also. We had a skit one time in Mexico… It was fantastic. One of the retreatants did the skit at the end of the retreat—everybody, in their skit, was just acting out their distractions—his thing was money. So, on his puja table he had his computer and his cell phone, and he’s doing his mantra but saying, “Hello? New York Stock Exchange? Sell this one, yes! Buy that one,quick, right away! And that one: transfer it from this account to that account.” [laughter] It was great.

You can do a whole meditation session on that: how to manage our money, how to get more money, worry about losing it, our possessions, things like that. We spend so much time thinking about it. And what happens with it? Wealth created with difficulty will be left behind. No choice.

Consciousness, the guest, will leave the guest house of the body. “No it won’t, my body is ME!” This is the big object of attachment, isn’t it? My body is me, and the comfort of my body, the well-being of my body, the continuity of my body, everything. How much time do we spend in one day thinking about the body: what it’s going to eat, what we have to do to feed it, what our bed is like, if it’s too hard, if it’s too soft, if the temperature is too hot or too cold for the body, if we like the climate or we don’t like the climate, if our knees hurt, or our back hurts, or if our nose is too dry, or if we have the sniffles, if our stomach hurts—whatever it is, how much time we spend thinking about this body, making it comfortable as much as possible.

And we worry about it getting old. What are we going to do when our body gets old and we can’t do the things we want to? Can we afford an electric wheelchair? [laughter] What happens if we’re quadriplegic: how are we going to communicate with anybody? What happens if we’re incontinent and other people are going to have to change our diapers? How ashamed we’re going to feel, and who do we want to change our diapers, and oh, it’s going to be so embarrassing—All this stuff about the body! How much time we spend thinking about it. Again, consciousness is going to leave the guest house of the body. That’s all the body is: it’s a hotel that we’re living in for a while. And when we check out, that’s it. You leave it behind. We don’t even clean up after ourselves—other people have to take care of our corpse! We leave the corpse here and it’s smelly and it’s dirty and they’re afraid of it, and they have to handle it: pretty inconsiderate! At least we could dissolve into a rainbow body, so people don’t have to clean up after us. [laughter] We just check out, and the body is there.

Imagining your own funeral

It’s very good in your meditation to imagine your own funeral. There you are, and they have you nicely laid out. First you do the nice scene: you had a nice death. There you are, and they’ve done the embalming really nice, so you look like you’re just sleeping, and you’re so peaceful, and the complexion is very nice, and your hair is so beautiful, and you’re wearing your favorite clothes, and you just look so good. Then everybody’s coming and walking by you and saying, “Oh, she’s such a wonderful person. How good they look. How kind they were. How much I miss them.” And then they all walk by and they say these things. Of course, you’re dead, so everybody says something nice when they’re there. [laughter] And then they all go and eat. [laughter] They all go and eat, and then they cry a little bit because they miss you, and then some other things come up—some of the things that you did that they really didn’t like. [laughter] Maybe even at the memorial service they tell some of the funny things that you did that you’re embarrassed to death that they remember? Do you have things like that? Just imagine your whole funeral and what everybody’s going to do. How they’re all going to sit and think what to do with your stuff, and how to divide your money.

This happened to someone I know. They were getting married, and one of their relatives flew in from out of town for the wedding. The morning of the wedding, the relative was taking a bath, and died in the bathtub. Here’s this person, getting married that night, and his relative had died in the morning. They decided to keep on with the wedding, although they cancelled the music. They had the wedding. Here he is, getting married and dealing with his relative’s death on the same day, and then another relative goes over to him and starts asking him if he’s thought about what he’s going to do with the investments and the real estate, and the property and the house. That’s what’s going to happen, even if you don’t have stocks or real estate. What are we going to do with your clothes, and all of your books, and this stack of paper that you’ve kept since beginningless time that you were always going to sort through and never did. [laughter] And now your relatives have to do it! They’re dealing with this and that and the other thing.

Do a meditation session on the funeral, the nice funeral. They’re all weeping appropriately and saying how nice you were. Then, run the scene in a different way, and you died in a horrible accident, and your body is very disfigured. Or you died when you were 95 and you had Alzheimer’s for the last twenty years, so your whole body is 95 years old and wrinkled and you’ve been out of it for the last twenty years. Or you die of cancer, and your body is completely emaciated and you look like somebody who just walked out of Auschwitz, and that’s what’s in the casket. No way they’re going to make that one look beautiful: sunken cheeks and everything.

Or maybe you’re old and you lost your teeth. Or you died in an accident and everything is all cut up, so you don’t look very nice. So maybe they decide not even to have an open casket funeral; they don’t even want to show your body. How do you feel about that? Or maybe the brave ones come and look at your body, and they look and respond with shock. Of course, they have a picture of you there from when you were young and looked really nice: one of those nice pictures when you’re young and smiling and happy and look really healthy. There’s that picture and then there’s this emaciated, cancer-ridden or Alzheimer’s-ridden body. And then imagine the funeral from that point of view. What are they going to say?

Don’t necessarily think of it being when—I gave this example—when you’re 95. But think of a funeral e.g. if you died within a month, and there you are, however old you are now, and you’re there in the casket. Everybody is walking by. And where are you? Finally everybody who had never told you how much they love you, finally, when you’re dead they’re sitting there crying, saying how much they love you. But you’re nowhere around to hear it. Just do some contemplation about this. What really is meaningful in life? Our loved ones, our wealth, our body: does any of it come with us to our next life? Nothing.

What comes with us to out next life? The karma we created acquiring these things, protecting these things—all that karma is what comes with us. All the karma created by attachment, craving these things; all the karma created out of jealousy because other people have it better than we do; all the karma created out of anger, protecting our body, our loved ones, our wealth: all that karma comes with us. The things that we created the karma with: Gone.

Thinking about beginningless lives to keep the mind relaxed and vast

Really do some serious thinking about that, about what’s really important. And when you do this kind of serious thinking, it’s shocking okay, but it should not be depressing. If it’s depressing it’s because you’re holding onto the view of only this life. And so if we only believe in this life, then the idea of separating from loved ones, our possessions and our body becomes terrifying. Then the idea of separating from it leads to depression. So if you’re feeling unhappy it’s because the minds really only thinking in terms of this lifetime. If we think in terms of many, many lifetimes, if we think in terms of our Buddha nature and what the meaning and opportunity of our life is, i.e. the ability to make our life meaningful by creating the causes for liberation and enlightenment… When you think of that and that deeper meaning and long-term purpose of your life, then separating from these things is not at all scary or depressing. Because this life is like a flash of lightning (snaps fingers) just like Shantideva said, like a flash of lightning (snaps fingers). Here, and it’s gone.

When you think of beginningless, previous rebirths, this life is nothing, you know. It’s like it seems so real now, the appearance of inherent existence is so strong that everything seems so real and solid and fixed and permanent. But like this (snaps fingers) it goes, it’s changing moment to moment and between one breath and the next we could be in the next life. So if we look at our present experience in this big picture of past and future lives, then separating from these things is not scary, it’s not depressing because your mind is focused on something much more important, much more worthwhile.

You realize you can’t hold onto your loved ones; and even if you could, you can’t pull them out of samara when you yourself are deluded. And even if you tried to do everything that pleased all your loved ones, they’re never going to be completely happy with you, never. So when you see that, then you see the real relationship to have with the people you love is the same kind of relationship you have with all sentient beings. Trying to internalize and actualize the dharma as much as possible ourselves so that we can teach it to them when their minds are open and receptive. And that’s the biggest and greatest way to help the people we cherish and to help all sentient beings.

But if we don’t practice ourselves and we live our lives simply trying to take care of our loved ones, and our money and our body, forget about helping them—we’re not even going to be able to keep ourselves out of the lower realms! Sometimes when we first get into the dharma we start to see our attachments and our eight worldly concerns and we don’t have much of a feel for future lives but we see the attachments clearly. And then we get very down on ourselves, “Oh I have so much attachment. Here’s this peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I’m just craving it! Ahh! I have so much attachment—sinful, evil! [laughter] Why am I so attached to this stupid peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I’ve been daydreaming about during my whole meditation?!”

We dwell on these small things and we get so down on ourselves. “Oh I saw somebody who was very handsome and my mind, ohh—I just want to look at this attractive person. Oh how evil I am! How much attachment I have! Oh this is terrible; I’m never going to get enlightenment this way. I am just a horrible dharma student! My teachers are going to give up hope on me. How can I ever practice the dharma?”

You know how it is. We get into these incredible guilt-trips, over some small attachment or something. Then we sit there and squeeze ourself (with eyes closed): “Okay. This attractive person, they’re just blood and guts—blood and guts—blood and guts—blood and guts! I’m just going to see the blood and guts—blood and guts! Yeah, okay, I’m not attached anymore.” Then we open our eyes and look, “Ohh, they’re sooo gorgeous! Ohh, I’m so evil! Oh I have to think they’re just blood and guts—blood and guts—blood and guts!” We just drive ourselves completely crazy.

So instead of doing this, the way around this is to start thinking and change the whole paradigm in which you see your life, start thinking of past and future lives. Start thinking, “I have beginningless rebirths. Wow! All these different rebirths. I’ve done all these different things. I’ve been in the hell realm; I’ve been in the sense pleasure deluxe god realm. I’ve even had samadhi before, the peak of samsara… these incredible samadhi absorptions. Believe it or not, I’ve really had that. I’ve had all these things in samsara. I’m going to have future lives. Who knows where I’m going to be reborn. Everybody’s been everything to me: friend, enemy, lover, stranger. They’re going to continue to be that way to me.”

If you just put what you merely label “I”… instead of thinking of it as just in this lifetime, this mind, this body, this personality, etc. Think of it as an “I” that’s merely labelled on whatever five aggregates that happen to be there during any particular rebirth. If you put yourself in that perspective—of this vastness of infinite time and then say, “within this vastness of infinite time, is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich important? No. Is a good looking person important?” In that way your mind just sort of loses interest in those things.

Rather than fighting with yourself and feeling guilty because you have so much attachment and squeezing yourself to apply an antidote that is only on the intellectual level, instead broaden the scope of your mind to take in past and future lives. Just play with it a little bit. See if your whole relationship to the things you’re attached to changes or not. “Oh that skiing trip I wanted to go on that I didn’t go on. Is it a big loss? No. It’s okay. No sense getting bummed out about it.” Are you seeing what I’m saying?

If you change your perspective then you stop the guilt-tripping and the internal civil war because your mind just loses interest in those things. Why? Because it’s directed toward liberation and enlightenment; because it’s directed to being of benefit to sentient beings. That’s the thing that’s more important to you at that time.

Giving up friends who give a negative influence

Next verse:

5. When you keep their company, your three poisons increase.
Your activities of hearing, thinking, and meditating decline and
They make you lose your love and compassion….

Who’s that? Bad friends. So,

Give up bad friends—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

When Geshe Ngawang Dhargey used to teach this, he said bad friends don’t come with horns on their head and fearful faces and evil expressions. He said bad friends come with smiles, and they’re people who really on the surface mean well and seem to care about you. But because they only have the perspective of this life, the advice they give you isn’t good advice in the long-term for your spiritual practice.’ So people who only have the perspective of this life, for them having the most money is very important; having good possessions is very important; having comfort and pleasure of the body is very important; defending yourself from slander is important; having a good reputation is important; being well-liked and popular is important; avoiding blame and censor is important. To those people those things are important.

They care about us so they want us to do the things that will make us happy according to their version of happiness because they don’t understand that when you follow those things with attachment and hatred, then you create negative karma, which is the cause for unhappiness. Often it’s the people who seemingly care about us the most who are the ‘bad friends’ because they’re the ones who are saying, “just come out to the movies… come on in the hot tub… just change the figures on your income tax—everybody changes the figures on their income tax. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

These are the people who will give you advice that is, at best, distracting from your dharma practice and, at worst, unethical because they’re thinking of the benefit for your life [now]. In the newspaper all the time we’re reading about CEOs and government officials and all those who have been so corrupt. Who gave them the advice and who supported them to do all those activities? Their friends! Didn’t they? It was their friends who came and said “oh just come and we’ll go to this bar, or go to this porn website, or we’ll just do this business deal, or just change the figures on your reporting taxes, or just deal with the lobbyist in this way.” It’s always people who are their friends, those who allowed them to be involved in these shenanigans.

So those are ‘bad friends’. It doesn’t mean we look at these people and we say, “Oh, you’re a bad friend; get away from me!”–or this kind of thing. Rather, we don’t deliberately cultivate their friendship and treasure their advice. We’re polite; we’re compassionate to them. But we have the friendship, the relationship in a certain perspective: we know that because they’re only looking at things through the viewpoint of one life, so of course they’re going to give certain advice. That doesn’t mean we have to listen to it. Or they’ll want us to do certain things because they’re only thinking about our happiness in this life and they’re not thinking about the karma you create to do it. So, of course, they’re thinking like this! So we’re compassionate towards them. They might be our relatives. So we’re kind; we’re compassionate—but we just don’t follow the advice. Then for people who aren’t good friends to be with, who are like this, we don’t become good friends with them. We cherish our dharma friends. Friends are very important, aren’t they?

Our teachers’ kindness

Let me do the next verse:

6. When you rely on them your faults come to an end and
Your good qualities grow like the waxing moon.
Cherish spiritual teachers even more than your own body
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

We often hear it quoted that the Buddha said that spiritual friends are all of the holy life. This quote is often taken out of context to mean just dharma friends or anyone who comes to a Buddhist center. Actually if you look at the whole context in the sutra, in the very next sentence, the Buddha is talking about himself as a spiritual mentor guiding these people. So when he’s referring to “spiritual friends”—which is actually the literal translation of “geshe,” the spiritual friend—it means your dharma teachers. They’re the real spiritual friends.

Of course our dharma friends are also very important because our dharma friends understand that spiritual side of us, and if they’re real dharma friends, they’ll encourage us in that. If your dharma friends are saying to you, “let’s go out and have a drink or smoke after dharma class,” then you have to be careful. I don’t know if they’re real dharma friends. The dharma friends you can talk about practicing with, those are people who are quite important. Of course, our spiritual teachers are the most important because they’re the ones who show us the path. When we think of who’s the kindest to us—it’s an interesting thing to think about as we’re changing our paradigms and perspectives—who’s the kindest to us? We usually think, “oh the kindest person to us is our lover, our husband, our wife, our partner, our parents, our siblings”—somebody like that. But if you really think about it from a dharma perspective, sometimes these people don’t know anything about dharma. From the point of who’s really a friend, who’s caring about our ultimate long-term welfare, who’s caring about that the most?

It’s our spiritual teacher, isn’t it? They’re the ones who are dragging us to enlightenment as we’re kicking and screaming and saying, “I want to go to the beach instead!” And they’re just sitting there lifetime after lifetime. Think of what the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have to go through trying to guide people like us. We’re so lazy, and our mind is full of excuses why we can’t go for teachings: “we can’t practice; the dharma’s too hard; the goal’s too high; the path is too difficult; we’re too inferior.” We have all these reasons why we can’t possibly do it. And then here are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, lifetime after lifetime, hanging in there trying to drag us towards enlightenment!

So if you think of that kind of kindness, it’s really something beyond words. They say that the holy beings have more compassion for us than we have for ourselves. You can see it in that light because when we think of compassion for ourselves, what do we think of? A nice warm, cozy bed! When they think of compassion for us, what do they think of? “Oh, this person has Buddha Nature! They have the potential to have love and compassion for everybody. They have the potential to have infinite bliss and see the nature of reality and make manifest bodies throughout the universe!” That’s what they see when they look at us and when they have love and compassion for us. So you can see why it’s said that they have more care for us than we have for ourselves.

Therefore, our spiritual teachers, the people who really guide us along the path are very, very important in that respect. That’s why the relationship with them is so important. It comes first in the lamrim because it’s really important for us to know how to properly rely on a spiritual mentor. In other words, not to project all of our fanciful expectations on the spiritual mentor, e.g. “oh well, this person is a Buddha so I don’t have to tell them anything because they have clairvoyance and will read my mind.” Or “they’re a Buddha so they’ll just whip in and rescue me from whatever difficulty my karma’s gotten me into.” It’s not having fanciful ideas about our spiritual mentors like that. But also not having ideas like, “well, they’re just an ordinary sentient being. Look, they eat and they drink and they poo and they get mad and they sleep and they do everything like everybody else. They’re not anything special. Why should I listen to them? Especially when they say things I don’t like. Especially when they call me on my faults—spiritual mentors aren’t supposed to do that! They’re supposed to be loving and compassionate, and always say, ‘oooh, I know you were trying so hard.’”

And all the excuses we can’t make up for ourselves about why we don’t do things, they’re supposed to be compassionate and make up for us. Right? Isn’t that what we think? “Oooh, I know you were trying so hard to practice the dharma, but your little toe hurt you, and oh, it was so much suffering, and I understand completely why you had to stay in bed all day because of your little toe. It’s fine. Don’t worry, there was no self-cherishing or laziness involved there.” [laughter] This is what we want our spirituals mentors to do, don’t we? They should think of all the excuses for us, be so compassionate, and then they’re supposed to look at us and say, “oh, you’re the best disciple I’ve ever had! You’re so wonderful, so conscientious, so devoted, so intelligent, so compassionate. You’re better than all the other people who come here.” That’s what our teachers are supposed to say, right? This is just our namtok (a Tibetan word often translated as “hallucination”). This is not the proper way to rely
upon a spiritual mentor.

This is why in the lamrim, at the beginning, it talks about seeing the teacher’s qualities, and then from that, generating respect for them and faith in them. Seeing their kindness to us, and generating a feeling of gratitude. And seeing that their kindness to us can often take the aspect of them saying things or doing things that at the beginning we don’t seem to understand.

Who cares if we’re right?

I was reading a book on Zen the other day. It was interesting because the Zen master who wrote it was talking about the role of the Zen master. It was exactly like in our tradition: it’s a thankless job! The Zen master will sometimes try and really put people in front of their stuff and then the people get angry and just walk away from the practice altogether. It’s the same old thing. That’s why it’s important to know how to properly rely upon a spiritual mentor, so that when things happen that don’t make sense to us, or when our teacher says something that is not pleasant to our ears, and our ego gets involved, that we don’t just give up the whole dharma because of something like this, some superficial, rather silly thing like this. That’s why it’s really important to really think about this topic.

One of my dharma friends—actually, he’s the abbot at Shasta Abbey—he was telling me a story about their master, Jiyu-Kennett Roshi, who was quite a Zen master. He was quite a close disciple of hers, and he was telling me different stories about her. He said that whenever your mind was stuck on something, she would continually bring it up and talk about it. [laughter] Whatever you were stuck on—really attached to, very confused about, very angry about—she would just keep on bringing it up in conversation. Whatever it was, she just kept bringing it up, so you were just gritting your teeth, saying, “Oh, here it is again.” She wouldn’t necessarily even say something directly, but just would bring the topic up, and of course your whole ego gets involved… He watched this; and this is what happened with him. He said, “As soon as my mind let go of something, she never brought it up again.” [laughter] “But as long as I was hooked on it, it kept coming again and again and again and again.”

One of their animals got lost, and he had heard about putting these little chips in them, so he said to Roshi, “maybe we should put a little chip in, so that we can keep track of the animal’s whereabouts.” And she got so upset. “How dare you think of doing something like that! That’s horrible! Why would you do that do a poor animal?” She really chewed him out. And then about a year later, they were watching some kind of documentary, and the documentary was talking about putting chips into animals to keep track of them, and she looked at him and said, “Oh, Eko, don’t you think that’s a good idea? We should do that with our pets.” [laughter] And he said that he just said, “Yes, master.” He realized at that time that that was his practice: learning how not to get defensive when the ego wants to sit there and say, “I told you that a year ago and you chewed me out!”

What’s there to learn in that particular thing? Is being right your dharma lesson? Who cares if you’re right? Being right doesn’t count for anything. His dharma lesson at that time was learning some humility. And he got it. He said that after years of defending himself in those situations—“oh, I did it because of this and this and this, and you don’t understand this and this and this and this, and actually it’s your fault, master.” It’s important to really see that there’s a lot of training going on just in the day-to-day things that happen. It’s not just what happens in the dharma session. Sometimes it’s hard enough to take the dharma teachings and what happens in the dharma session, isn’t it? “I don’t like that teaching!” But then, just in day-to-day interactions, watching our mind and watching our buttons get pushed—and learning how to deal with that. That’s definitely part of the practice, definitely part of it. So it just depends on whether we get it, or whether we just keep on playing out our same old habitual things. That’s what we tend to do with our teachers, we play out our same old habitual things.

Venerable Jampa in Madison, she’s Geshe Sopa’s secretary. Geshe Sopa thinks George Bush is fantastic. Actually, a lot of the Tibetan lamas like George Bush. Of course, the rest of us are going, “HUH?” Just the practice of being able to sit there and listen to a political view that you just don’t agree with at all, that you think is very mistaken, and not get angry, not get upset—just be able to sit there and take it.

I’ve watched this. One time I was reading something and I was with His Holiness, and he was trying to explain something—something I was doing had turned out all screwed up, and he was trying to explain this dharma point to me. I kept on saying, “I don’t understand and I don’t get it… I don’t get it.” Finally, he looked at me and said, “I’ve explained this in so many teachings! Have you been sleeping the whole time?” My old mechanism (snaps fingers) of get defensive, “oh, well, no, it’s just that actually I didn’t understand the Tibetan terms you were using because I didn’t understand what the translator was saying…”–making excuses for myself! And then I finally realized: “Just shut up. You were sleeping. [laughter] Why do you need to defend yourself?” Why do you need to defend yourself? Many things like this.

Being attached to our stories

In the West, we’re so attached to our emotions. When we’re in crisis, the world is supposed to stop, right? Everyone is supposed to pay attention to us when we’re in crisis. One time I was leading a course at Tushita, there were 70-80 Westerners, and I was co-leading it with a Tibetan lama. This was in the 80s, a long time ago. I was doing this, and Zopa Rinpoche was there, and he was going to do self-initiation that night. You know, Rinpoche just does things all night. I so much wanted to do self-initiation—it’s so good when you do self-initiation because you purify your tantric vows—so the benefits of doing it are just enormous. But I also knew that if I stayed up all night doing it, that the next morning when I had to lead the course, I would be completely wasted.

I was sitting there completely guilt-tripping myself, “Oh, I should go. I should go. If I was really somebody with compassion I wouldn’t go to sleep. I’d go. This just shows what a lazy student I am, how little compassion I have. Rinpoche’s going to be so ashamed if me if I don’t go, and everybody else is going to renew their tantric vows and enter the mandala, and I’m just going to be sleeping…But if I go, I’m going to be too exhausted….”

And on and on and on—it was completely a mess inside my mind. So, finally I decided that I was going to sleep. I woke up the next day, led the session, and it was fine. I went to see Rinpoche that afternoon, and I was apologizing all over myself: “Rinpoche, I’m so sorry that I didn’t come to the self-initiation.”

And he looks up and goes, “Then?”

“Oh, well, it was really hard because I would be tired staying up all night, and I had to lead the course the next day.”


And I would go on and on and on and on. I was asking him for absolution: I wanted him to absolve me. And he just kept looking at me—Rinpoche has this way of looking at you and going, “then?” Like saying, “So? Then? What else do you have to say for yourself? Then? Then?” [laughter] Until I realized, “Hey, it’s just my mind that’s making a big deal out of this. He doesn’t care.” Why am I asking him for absolution? I have to make my own decisions and bear responsibility for them and not ask somebody to absolve me. There are all these kind of things. There is so much to be learned from little situations like this.

It’s amazing—our Tibetan teachers, in general, they don’t care at all about our stories. We are so attached to our stories in the west. My story, my family background: “I was raised like this, and the family was so dysfunctional, and I was traumatized and this went wrong, and that went wrong. Then I was a teenager and such a mess, and this happened, and that happened, and (sighs). Always the world’s been against me! Then I was an adult, and the people I trusted betrayed my trust, and everything I put my heart into didn’t work out…”

You know how we are with our stories. We are so attached to our stories! And we can tell them over and over. We create this whole persona, this whole personality: this is who I am. And none of my Tibetan teachers have been at all interested in it! [laughter] They don’t care. They aren’t interested at all. And it’s like, (melodramatic voice), “Wait a minute. This is my story. Don’t you need to know all my hurts and abuses and pains and suffering so you can lead me on the path to enlightenment and show me your compassion?” No. That’s the bottom line: No, he doesn’t need to know all of that. Just the attachment we have to our stories. It’s incredible. The Tibetans are not into their stories at all.

And I realized: in our culture, how do we create friendship? By telling each other our stories. That’s how we become close friends and intimate friends. That’s the currency of our friendship—how much of our suffering story that we tell to somebody indicates how close we are, and the level of trust we have in them. In Tibet, the currency of friendship has nothing to do with that. People don’t care about that at all. The currency of friendship is how much physical help you provide to someone. Not emotional help, but physical help—when you need help with a particular job, or doing something, or getting something. The people you are close to are the people who you give help to and who you help. It has nothing to do with our emotional stories. It’s interesting, isn’t it? But we’re so attached to our stories.

It’s very interesting, all these things in relation to our teachers. I mean, how can somebody go, “then?” to my story? It’s like my first Vajrasattva retreat: I told you, my whole Vajrasattva retreat was about “me, I, my, and mine,” and once in a while I got distracted and thought of Vajrasattva. [laughter] So how can somebody not think that my story is important? Okay, that’s enough. Now, questions?

This teaching was followed by a discussion session with the retreatants.

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.