Discriminating wisdom

Discriminating wisdom

Part of a series of teachings and discussion sessions given during the Winter Retreat from December 2005 to March 2006 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • “Bad” friends
  • Thinking of other beings when experiencing intense emotions
  • Using all experiences to increase understanding of the dharma
  • Visualization to reinforce analytical meditation
  • Seeing everybody as the deity
  • Continuing the practice out of the hall
  • Blessing of the deity and psychological effect of purification

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A 03b (download)

This discussion session was preceded by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 4-6.

Okay, now, questions? Comments?

Audience: I was thinking about when you were saying that we have people in our lives who are “bad friends,” that can pull us away from our practice. Instead of just leaving them, one way is to use the relationship as something to bounce off of, to keep your practice clear for yourself. To see that you could get pulled away, and work with that to resist it. Do you see what I’m saying?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): So you’re saying that when you have a friendship with somebody who does not have the long-term perspective or doesn’t necessarily have good ethical values, instead of leaving them, then to keep it as something that’s going to be a reminder for you?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: First of all, I’m not saying to leave these people: “Oh, you’re a bad friend. Buddha said abandon you—Goodbye!” These people are sentient beings. Especially if they’re relatives. It’s not that. It’s how to be compassionate with them but not be influenced by the values and the advice—which is the opposite to the dharma. I think one thing that can be quite useful in that regard—and for me, very often at family gatherings you hear so many different opinions being expressed: opinions about money, or criticizing somebody, or whatever—you just take it all in, and then you go home, and on your meditation cushion, you compare this view with how the Buddha would see those things. You compare the view of the eight worldly concerns, the view of one life, and the view of many lives, the view of liberation and enlightenment. If you do it like that, then you can learn a lot from these kind of things.

But you have to really spend the time and think through it, because if you don’t think through what they’re saying, and just say, “Oh, that’s a bad view—goodbye!” Then, because we ourselves are so familiar with these views, eventually we’re going to wind up being influenced because we’ve heard them again and again and again. Each time you hear it, you have to say, “Okay, here’s this person’s view on something. What would the Buddha say about that?” You have a political discussion with somebody and they say, “we should just go bomb those people and blow them off the planet—they’re not worthwhile.” Then you come back, and you think, “what happens—what’s the karmic result of bombing a lot of people? What’s the karmic result of having that kind of hatred? Does it actually stop the conflict situation that is happening right now? What kind of situation does it create for us and for the other people in the future? Does this person’s view work?”

You really think about it with your discriminating wisdom, and then you think, “what would the Buddha’s view on this be? How would the Buddha look at this situation? When the Buddha talks about having compassion, is he just saying, “Oh, yeah, give Osama Bin Laden some more bombs—that’s perfectly all right. Let’s have compassion and be generous and give somebody what he wants.” Is that what he means? Is that what the Buddha would do? Clearly not. What really is the Buddhist perspective on this kind of thing? So you take something home and you really think about it.

Or, if you’re with your family and friends, and they’re saying, “If you just change the figures a little bit when you’re reporting your income tax—do something with cash instead of a check so you have this income but you don’t have to report it. Nobody knows about it—just do it like that. Everybody does it, save yourself some taxes…” Lots of people talk like that, don’t they? Then you go home and think, “If I do that, what kind of mind is doing that? How does that fit with my precepts? What kind of karma is going to be created by doing that? What would the Buddha say about that?” Then you really spend some time thinking about this. I think if you do that, it helps clarify your views in the long-term.

Thinking of other beings when experiencing intense emotions

Audience: I have a comment: two nights ago I felt that I was dying. I felt very, very bad. It was a difficult time for me. I had a lot of anxiety and wanted to run anywhere. The next day was difficult because in one of the meditations I had the feeling that I had to go, I had to run away—the feeling was so strong! It’s interesting how an emotion can come up, and you can’t control it.

VTC: First, the thing about very intense emotions…. How many have seen your mind in this retreat, at one time or another, just go into incredible, intense emotion—almost uncontrollable? Who’s had that happen to them? (Almost all hands go up.) Who in the retreat has remembered times in their life when they’ve had that happen? (same) Or, you’ve remembered times in your life when you’ve been completely overwhelmed? Times when things come up very strong, and they just seem totally overwhelming at the time they’re happening—this is samsara, isn’t it? Welcome to samsara.

It’s so good that you’re seeing it, because usually these things just come up and they run the show. What’s happening is you’re sitting there on the cushion and you’re watching the movie. Here it is, in Technicolor, with all of its pain—it’s incredibly painful, isn’t it? You remember something in your past, some huge thing where you just completely went nuts—maybe you were just grieving with attachment, or attached and clinging and possessive of somebody, or angry and screaming at somebody, or depressed beyond means, or whatever. This stuff is there. We’re seeing it, and we’re sitting there through it. You watch it. It comes and “nrrrggggh—” and you’re so involved in it, and your mind is going crazy, and your mind is going crazy—and how long can you hang onto that emotion? How long can you hang onto it? It goes away, doesn’t it? Even if you don’t have the ability just to step back and watch it—even when you’re so involved in it, it still goes away. Imagine, if you were able to just step back and watch it some more: it comes, and it throws this whole temper tantrum—this whole scene—and then it leaves this yucky feeling in your mind afterwards. You know how that feels. It just feels so yucky afterwards. And then, the mindstream keeps going. [laughter] And it wasn’t the end of the world.

Sometimes when that happens—when something intense is coming up like that—just say, “Ok, I’m experiencing this. How many other sentient beings have experienced this or are experiencing this right now? While I’m going through it, I will just take on all of their suffering, while my mind is having this horrible rage or anger.” You just think of taking it on for all sentient beings—whatever your mind is going through. Sometimes it’s raw emotion, sometimes the mind buys into the story, and you just go around and around the same story again and again: “there was this fight, and he said that, and I said this, and he said that, and I said this—what would have happened if I said that, but he couldn’t have said that because I said this and then this other person was involved, and then I would have been capitulating again so I had to stick up for myself, but what would the Buddha do? I don’t know because this person is wrong and I’m right, and the Buddha would be compassionate, and AAARRRGHH!” [laughter]

You just watch. It lasts for one session, and then it’s over, isn’t it? The thing to do when that happens is to just catch it. Instead of buying into it, as much as possible, realize “oh, this is what’s happening. We talked about it in the Q&A session. It’s happening right now. What did she say to do? Oh, I forgot, where’s my notebook? I was supposed to do something—what am I supposed to do when this happens?” What are you supposed to do?

Audience: Think of every sentient being and take on all their suffering.

VTC: Okay. So stand back and watch it, and then think of all the sentient beings and take on their suffering. Say, “this is my own negative karma, my own garbage mind causing this suffering. May I take on the pain and misery of all sentient beings.” And, it will be over soon—whatever big emotion it is, it’s going to be over soon, isn’t it?

Using all experiences to increase understanding of the dharma

Audience: For me, it was very difficult at the beginning of this Q&A, because I’ve been thinking a lot about death—especially my own death. I had two dreams in the past two nights. In one dream, I felt that I was dying, and I could actually feel the dissolution of my body. I could notice how my mind was reacting at this time. I was trying to apply some dharma antidotes, but I didn’t know what to do—recite the Medicine Buddha mantra, or Om Mani Padme Hum, or what. In my second dream, I was a prisoner, and I had a dream that I was raped by all the people in my cell. It was horrible for me. Finally, in talking about death, such as that of my relatives, I realized that I am always thinking about “me”: how bad I am going to feel if they die, for example. It’s always about me; it’s not about them. This is my comment. My question is, is the physical pain that we experience part of the purification process?

VTC: Very good question. When you’re doing a purification process like this, things will come up. Sometimes it comes up physically—I told you the story last week of the nun with the boil, remember?—so sometimes the purification comes like that. Sometimes it comes in dreams. And many people will have nightmares while they’re on retreat. How many of you have had nightmares at one time or another on retreat? (Several hands go up.) It happens. Sometimes what happens is that there’s some karma that could have ripened, let’s say in a painful situation this lifetime, or even in, let’s say, eons in the hell realm, but because you’re intentionally doing a purification practice, it will arise as a nightmare. You experience that suffering in the nightmare, and then that karma is consumed that way. That’s a very good way to think whenever you have a nightmare: just think that “this is the result of my own negative karma. Now that karma’s consumed.”

Also, be very aware that a nightmare was only a nightmare—it wasn’t reality. Okay, there was that very frightening, horrible situation—like what you said, you dreamt that you were raped by everybody in the cell. It’s a horrible thing to have happened. Even in a dream, it’s frightful. But then (snaps finger) it’s over, isn’t it? And you wake up and you can look back and you could say it was only a dream. It wasn’t reality. It was only a dream, so I don’t need to get so upset about it, because it was only a dream. There was nobody involved. It wasn’t a real me. There wasn’t anybody else really there. All this was simply an appearance to the mind.

They say that dreams are sometimes used as an analogy for what it’s like if we could realize emptiness. If you think of some of the people who are actually in prison who have been raped by everybody in their cell, if those people could realize emptiness at that time, they would be able to let go of that suffering in the same way as you can let go of the suffering of that having happened to you in a dream. You realize that it’s like a dream.

Reality is like a dream. Things appear one way, but they don’t exist in that way. It doesn’t mean things ARE a dream, okay? There are people, there is me, and everything like that. But the way in which we exist is not the way in which we appear to exist, just like in the nightmare where you appear to be a real person and these people doing these horrible things to you appear to be real, but in actuality there’s no real people there, and there’s no real action there. It’s just an appearance. Similar in “real life,” it’s equally as unreal in the sense that things appear inherently existent, but they aren’t.

This might seem very intellectual, but if you look at the situation of having a nightmare—we’ve all had nightmares at one time or another—something frightful happeR:at is it that makes a nightmare scary?

Audience: You think that it’s real.

VTC: It’s because we think it’s real, and because we think there’s a real “me.” If there wasn’t the thought “ME,” then that whole nightmare wouldn’t be frightening, would it? Think about it. It’s like when you watch television: when you watch television and things are happening, they aren’t happening to you. They’re unpleasant to watch, but there’s not this feeling of “me” so much in there, so you can watch the television. You see the dead bodies, but there’s not the feeling of “me.” But in a dream, what is it that makes the suffering in a dream so strong? It’s the feeling “me.” This is the I-grasping, the grasping at the inherent existence of “me.” Even though there’s no real me in the dream, look at how intense that I-grasping is. There’s no real person there that’s getting beat up, or raped, or criticized, or want it to be! And how I get so angry when things don’t happen the way I want them to! Then, to see that, it was like—“Yes! This is exactly why Buddha said that these things are the cause of suffering. Here it is: it’s happening in my life, the second Noble Truth. The Buddha knew what he was talking about.”

The point is that you use whatever you’re experiencing to increase your understanding of the dharma. Instead of just saying, “Oh, I had a nightmare. Oh, that’s terrible! It feels so terrible!” Instead of dealing with things in the habitual way, try to respond to them in a different way. We can’t control what is happening to us; the only thing we have an influence over is how we respond to it. Let me say it again, so you get it: We can’t control what happens to us; the only thing that we have the possibility to control or to manage or work with is what our response is. Whatever our karma was in the past that’s ripening right now, if we didn’t want that thing to happen that’s happening right now to happen, we should have not created the cause in the past. But we created the cause in the past. That cause is ripening right now—nothing to do about it when it’s ripening. If we didn’t purify it before it ripened, once it’s ripening you can’t undo the present, can you? What we can control is our reaction to it. We have certain habitual reactions and ways that we just automatically fall into, how we respond to things. Instead of doing that, try responding as Vajrasattva would respond. Think about it, if Vajrasattva just woke up from a nightmare in which he got raped by everybody in the cell, what would Vajrasattva do? How would Vajrasattva deal with this nightmare?

Audience: He’d see the emptiness of it.

VTC: It’s just a dream, similar to our life being like a dream. Would he use it to generate compassion?

Rs Yes.

VTC: Think of the suffering of people who have this in real life–not only the people who are being raped, but have compassion for people who are doing the raping. They’re creating the cause to have so much suffering themselves. Use it to generate compassion. How else could Vajrasattva see that nightmare?

Audience: As the ripening of his own negative karma.

VTC: Yes, as the ripening of his own negative karma. Created that karma, it ripened in a nightmare instead of a horrible rebirth or some other great suffering, fantastic—I’m so glad I had that nightmare!

Audience: In my dreams there are often two options: things that are right to do according to the precepts, or the wrong thing to do. I find myself making the right decision in the dream…

VTC: That’s good! I find very often in dreams you can see a situation very clearly. Sometimes I can see my bad habits very clearly in a dream. Or sometimes, like you said, you can see, “Wow! Something changed—I made a good decision and kept the precepts.” That’s good.

Visualization to reinforce analytical meditation

Audience: Can you talk about how we can use this practice to purify ignorance, to purify our mind? If I do the visualization, I understand the karma: purifying the body and things like that, but with the third visualization, when you try to purify your mind, when you do the flash, the ignorance just feels more deeply rooted. It just doesn’t feel like a quick blast is going to do it.

VTC: So you’re saying how to purify the ignorance when you’re doing the practice? And you’re right, in the third visualization of turning on the light, just imagining that, sometimes it doesn’t feel like a lot has changed inside of ourselves. So spend some time looking at the object of negation in your meditation, and try and identify the object of negation, and then see if it exists or doesn’t exist. Just do some emptiness meditation, or do some meditation about how the I is dependent-arising. Don’t just count on the visualization to get rid of the ignorance, because it’s more like you do the analytical meditation on the dependent arising, or the four-point analysis, and then you use the visualization to seal that, to confirm it, to reinforce it.

Audience: In the Lama Tsong Khapa practice you were talking about (VTC spoke about this on Lama Tsong Khapa day to retreatants), you do these visualization with all these different symbols, such as a sword coming into you. Do those visualizations themselves help to increase one’s wisdom?

VTC: So in the Lama Tsong Khapa practice, when you’re doing the visualizations to increase wisdom, do those practices increase your wisdom? I think the practices motivate us in some way, and get us more interested in the teachings on emptiness. If you’re doing it with a positive motivation—doing the visualization and so on, and dealing with the symbols like that—it’s going to purify maybe some of the karma from having abandoned the dharma, or having abandoned the teachings on emptiness, or having the karma from having wrong views. But just the visualization itself is not enough to give you the realization of emptiness; you have to do the analytical meditation. There is no other way besides that. The visualization and all of this is used to motivate us, to purify the gross karmic obstacles that impede us from thinking about this. But eventually we have to get down to the nitty-gritty: “How do I think I exist? Do I really exist that way?” [Note: VTC provided a further reply to this question in Q&A #4.]

Seeing everybody as the deity

Audience: Aren’t the visualizations sort of a reconditioning of your senses to realize emptiness on a sensory level as well?

VTC: How do you mean?

Audience: I feel like if I can visualize something, then when I see you, for example, that’s like a visualization—things become less solid… Is this reconditioning the senses in some way?

VTC: I think in that way doing visualizations—and it’s like the things with the dreams—when we are doing the visualization they seem so real but they are all coming from the mind. Similarly, we can take that same kind of thing and apply it to things that we see with our senses. They look so real but they exist merely by our imputed mind. I think we can also see with the visualizations how if you visualize somebody you don’t like, you can sit there and generate such incredible rage and anger and that person is nowhere around! So you begin to see you can’t ever say “you made me anger,” cause it’s not the other person that made us angry because we get angry all by ourselves when we visualize.

We also see, through the use of visualizations. You know when you’re thinking about the Buddha we can make ourselves very calm. And it’s not a thing of “I need such and such environment on the outside to make myself calm.” No. I need to change how I’m thinking and if I think of the Buddha and say the mantra and tune into that I can calm myself. You are beginning to see that what we experience comes from our own mind, not so much from outside.

I want to comment on something else that relates to this. They say that in your break time to see, when you are doing a tantric practice, to see everything as the deity, to hear all the sounds as mantra, and then to relate to all of your thoughts as the wisdom of bliss and emptiness. So what does that mean? There is a lot of confusion about this.

“See everybody as the deity.” Does that mean that when you are walking around you start thinking that everybody is Vajrasattva with consort and you are looking at everybody, saying, “wait a minute, you’ve got to separate a little from Vajradhatu Ishwari to get the oatmeal in your mouth.” [laughter] Is that what you’re doing? Is that what is means to see everybody as the deity, that you’re seeing them like this? It even relates to what it says in the Lamrim, when they say to “see the spiritual mentor as a Buddha, or your tantric master as a Buddha.” Does that mean that when you look at your tantric master you’re supposed to see the crown ushnisha, and the curl on the forehead, and the webs on the fingers, and the long tongue… you’re supposed to see them having all the 32 marks and 80 signs?

Is that what it means to see the guru as the Buddha? Is that what it means to see everything as the deity? No. That’s not what it means. Because you just get yourself so confused—you can sit there and look at somebody, and you’re trying so hard to put an ushnisha on them, but meanwhile your mind is still grasping at inherent existence, isn’t it? What does it mean to see other beings as the deity? It means to see that they’re just appearances. They’re just appearances. That person who appears so strongly as an enemy—they’re not a real enemy. It’s just an appearance. You can dissolve them into emptiness, and they can re-emerge as Vajrasattva. The point is, when you’re seeing everybody as the deity, or when you’re seeing your teacher as the Buddha, it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to superimpose more stuff on them. [laughter] What you’re trying to do is take away all your projection of inherent existence that you have.

Similarly, “hear all sounds as mantra.” Does that mean that somebody’s saying “please pass the ketchup,” and you’re supposed to be hearing Om Mani Padme Hum or Om Vajrasattva samaya… Is that what it means? So all day long, you can’t have a normal conversation with anybody because you’re hearing everything as the mantra? [laughter] Somebody says something like, “close the door,” and you say, “Om mani padme hum? Om mani padme hum? Om mani padme hum,” because all you’re hearing is Om mani padme hum?

No, that’s not what it means to hear everything as mantra. Does it mean that you hear all your teachers” instructions as mantra, and they don’t say anything but om mani padme hum all day? No! What it means is this: when you hear “Om mani padme hum,” how does your mind react? The mind is peaceful; your mind is calm. You hear the Vajrasattva mantra, how do you react to it? Your mind just settles right down. You don’t get all involved in “I like it, I don’t like it, and why’d they say this, and why’d they say that…” Similarly, you hear everybody’s speech as if it were mantra, and we relate to it as if it were mantra. So there isn’t some speech that you say, “oh yeah, say more of that. It makes me feel good,” and there isn’t other speech where we say, “how dare you say that!” You respond to everything as if it were mantra: with that same kind of equanimity and sense of calm. That’s what it means.

What does it mean to “see all your thoughts as the wisdom of bliss and void?” Does that mean, “oh, I just had a thought about how I want to run down the hill and go to the movies and pick somebody up… Well, that’s the mind of wisdom and bliss and emptiness, so I guess I better do it, it’s the mind of the deity. Okay, bye everybody!” [laughter] Is that what it means? No. How is the deity relating to thoughts in their mind? As simply thoughts: dependent arising, little blips of energy that happen. The deity is able to relate what’s a virtuous thought, what’s a non-virtuous thought, to watch a thought rise and pass, to see the clear and knowing nature of the thought without getting involved in the content. That’s what “seeing your thoughts as the wisdom of bliss and emptiness” means. Seeing your thoughts as empty, also.

We have to really understand what this stuff is, otherwise it gets very confusing, and we’re walking around thinking, “Oh, everybody’s the deity, and here are two people screaming at each other, so I guess it’s just two wrathful deities saying, “Om Yamantaka Hum Phey” to each other. They’re both saying mantras to each other, and that’s all that’s happening.” Is that what it is? “Oh, they’re both just deities, they’re both right. Everything’s the mantra. All their thoughts are just the deity’s thoughts?” I mean, my goodness, Buddhism is supposed to make us less confused, not more confused! No. What it means, is, if you’re relating to those two people as the deity, how are you going to relate to a deity? With respect. Aren’t you? So here’s two people quarrelling: you don’t put them down and say, “these two ridiculous people, how can they be doing this.”

You relate to them with respect, the same way as you would relate to a Buddha. You see their speech as empty, so you see that your mind doesn’t need to get bent out of shape about what they’re saying. You don’t need to become reactive to certain things and certain stuff, but you can still act in the situation. If two people are screaming at each other, do something to distract them and stop the quarrel. It doesn’t mean you just have to sit there… “Oh yeah, Yamantaka and Hayagriva.” [laughter] These techniques are methods to prevent us from generating ignorance, anger, and attachment.

It’s like in Bodhicharyavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life); Shantideva says that when certain things happen, such as criticism or something like that, he says, “may I remain like a piece of wood. May I remain like a log.” For a long time, when I first read that, that was the view of “Buddhists just sit there like a bump on a log, going “duuuhhhhhhh—duuuuuhhhhh.” Remain like a log: somebody’s shouting, somebody’s screaming. “I better just sit there like a log—duuuhhhhhhh.” Is that what Shantideva is teaching? No. That’s not psychologically healthy.

Instead, think about a log. Somebody looks at the log and says, “oh, you’re gorgeous!” Does the log have a response? No. Somebody looks at the log and says, “oh, you’re filthy ugly!” Does the log have a response? No. Somebody sits on the log. Somebody kicks the log. Somebody moves it here or there. Does the log have an emotional reaction to every single small thing everybody says or does to it? No. “Oh, well wouldn’t it be nice if I too didn’t have an emotional reaction to every small thing that somebody does to me or says about me.” That’s what being like a log is. The log doesn’t care if it’s praised or blamed. Wouldn’t it be nice: I don’t care if somebody praises me; I don’t care if somebody blames me. Who cares? That’s what remaining like a log means; it doesn’t mean you sit there going “duuhhhhh.”

Continuing the practice out of the hall

Audience: When we are not in the meditation hall, and things keep coming up because we are in silence, and something we brought up in the meditation hall comes up later, do we still keep purifying?

VTC: Yes, because lots of times things will come up in your meditation. The session only lasts a certain time and then you get up, and it’s really important in your break time to keep the continuity of the energy of the session. If something is still very active and present in your mind, yes, continue to think about it. Continue to do the purification. It will make your retreat very rich.

Audience: Should we say the mantra?

VTC: When you’re taking a walk, walk around, say the mantra. Look up in the sky. It’s important—go outdoors, look at the sky, look far distances, and say the mantra. Look at all the snowflakes falling, at all these little Vajrasattvas coming. Say the mantra. Or listen to the silence, and ask, “what would it be if my mind were silent like it’s silent outside?”

Audience: I’ve noticed that as time goes on, I’m much more sensitive to abrupt and loud noises. The other day in the meditation hall, there were these loud cracking noises, I don’t know if the logs are settling or what…it’s very disturbing to the nervous system. Is that just part of this? We’re just so sensitive.

VTC: We are. Our mind is quieting down, so sensory things can sometimes be quite forceful. It can be jarring. Just take it as a reminder: “oh, it’s a reminder to generate bodhichitta. That’s Vajrasattva. Where’s my mind—this time, when I hear the jarring sound, where’s my mind? What’s my mind thinking about? It’s time to generate bodhichitta.” But it is true, your mind does quiet down, and you do become more sensitive to stuff like that. But after a while you just develop an ability to take it, too.

Blessing of the deity and psychological effect of purification

Audience:: This is related to an earlier question. I’ve been listening to some teachings of yours from years ago about Green Tara. In general, the approach that you give to purification—or at least, this is what I’m getting—is that it is mainly a psychological thing, something related to us. It is applying some technique to deal with our inner stuff, but it is basically us dealing with ourselves. But we are using all the Buddha figures, and saying these mantras and all that. I’ve been wondering for a while about Buddhas and bodhisattvas; I know that they exist, and that it’s not just our imagination, and we are using those figures for a reason. We are not purifying without the Buddhas. So my question is, to what extent are we getting touched with something that is not us and is also helping to purify?

VTC: So you’re asking to what extent is the purification just a psychological thing—we’re dealing with symbols—and to what extent are there actual beings who are Vajrasattva who are helping us purify? I can’t give you percentages. [laughter] I think there are both things at play. When I think about this, this is another area where I can really see where the grasping at inherent existence comes in. Either I think, “Oh there’s Vajrasattva up there. There he is! There’s that Buddha sitting on my head, a real Vajrasattva, and there’s real nectar, and Vajrasattva’s purifying me. There’s a real being who’s Vajrasattva who’s purifying me.” That’s grasping at inherent existence, isn’t it? “There’s a concrete person who’s Vajrasattva, and there’s this concrete nectar that he’s pouring into me, and everything is concrete and it’s all coming from outside.”

The other way is, “Oh, well there’s actually nothing and it’s all just my mind. There’s absolutely no Vajrasattva. It’s totally my imagination. It’s just my imagination.” I think that’s also an extreme too. If it’s just our imagination, why in the world did Vajrasattva spend three countless great eons getting enlightened? If sentient beings get liberated just by their own imagination, why does anybody need to practice the path to attain buddhahood to help them get liberated?

I think that both those things—either it’s an inherently existent Vajrasattva or it’s an inherently existent me-and-my-imagination—both of them are based on inherent existence somehow. There are beings who are Vajrasattva. There’s not just one Vajrasattva, many people can be enlightened in the aspect of Vajrasattva. Vajrasattva is also empty of inherent existence. Vajrasattva also exists by being merely labeled. There’s no concrete Vajrasattva there that you can draw a line around and say, “This is him.” There’s no concrete negativity. There’s no concrete nectar. There’s no concrete “my imagination.”

I think somehow, through us doing the visualization, in part it’s a psychological thing, but in part we’re making ourselves more receptive vessels so that the beings who are Vajrasattvas can actually help us. It’s making ourselves more receptive so that they can actually help.

It’s like, why do we do all these request prayers? The Buddhas and bodhisattvas are trying to help us all the time, why are we asking them? Because we’re trying to make ourselves more receptive vessels so we can receive the help that they are giving us. So I think it’s both things going on at the same time. I once asked His Holiness a little bit about this—why do we make all these requests and why do we make them to the Buddha?—and he said (He used Roosevelt as an example), “I guess you could make requests to Roosevelt but could Roosevelt really bless your mind?” So it made me think, “Okay, let’s say I’m saying, “oh dear, FDR., please may I attain Bodhicitta.””

From the point of view of me expressing my deepest wishes, that’s the same as making requests to Vajrasattva. “Please, I want to generate Bodhicitta. Please inspire my mind.” But His Holiness said, “Even if you requested him, could FDR really help you?” Well, no. If Roosevelt—let’s assume he’s an ordinary being—what’s he going to help me with? He’s probably in some other realm totally oblivious to what I’m requesting. Or even if one of you is the manifestation of Roosevelt, you’ve forgotten it and don’t even realize I’m requesting you [laughter]—if you’re Roosevelt’s rebirth or something. Roosevelt from his side doesn’t have the ability to help me.

But if I make requests to a Buddha, from the side of a Buddha, they’ve spent all this time developing their own capabilities to be of benefit. So they have some capability that Roosevelt doesn’t have. I may not be able to say EXACTLY what it is, what’s going on. But something’s happening there. It’s kind of a cooperative effort.

What to give to others during tonglen

Audience: I have a question that’s related to something you were saying earlier. When I was doing the meditation I found the same problem. Thinking in the Taking and Giving [tonglen] meditation, when I put in front of me our friends, George Walker, Osama, and all these guys. So when I’m thinking about giving them what they want—because that’s what it says in the guideline… So I think, something like, “Okay, think about them, what do they want, what do they need?” I was wondering. These guys want more money for bombs. So the question is, do I give him –in my Taking and Giving—what he wants or what I think he needs to become a better person?

VTC: What do you think?

Audience: Oh that’s my idea but…

VTC: Do you imagine giving him bombs in Taking and Giving? Does that mean you become the world’s chief weapon manufacturer in your meditation?

Audience: It doesn’t make much sense.

VTC: No, it doesn’t make much sense at all. What sentient beings really want is a peaceful mind. What they think they want is more bombs. What they really want is a peaceful mind. So you’re giving them what they really want: some security, some peaceful mind, some ability not to feel afraid, to be more patient and tolerant. That’s what you imagine giving them in the Taking and Giving meditation: what they really want, not what they think they want.

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.