37 Practices: Verses 1-3
37 Practices: Verses 1-3
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.
- Importance of lamrim meditation
- The things that come up during retreat
- Motivation for practice
- 37 Practices: Verses 1-3
- Giving up familiar patterns
Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A 02a and 37 Practices Verses 1-3 (download)
This teaching was followed by a discussion session with the retreatants.
Importance of lamrim meditation
So what I thought to do in our sessions is a few verses each week of the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, just to go through them, because you’re chanting them out loud after lunch every fourth day. It’s also very good to have an understanding of this text. His Holiness often teaches this text before he gives initiations, and also when you’re doing retreat it’s so incredibly important for you to do lamrim meditation. This text contains the fundamental lamrim meditations, so I’d like to spend time on a few verses each week, just to talk about them.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is during the retreat to do lamrim. You’re purifying, but what’s really going to change your mind and really going to help you do things differently in the future is changing how you think—changing how you look at the world. It’s the lamrim meditations that are going to help you do that, because those are the meditations that are going to shift the way you conceive of yourself and the way you conceive of the world. Just saying mantra, just doing visualizations alone will not necessarily do that, because, for example, to really shift we need first of all to be able to discriminate what is a constructive thought, a constructive motivation, a positive mental state, and what is a destructive thought or a destructive mental state. If we can’t do that—in our ignorance sometimes we aren’t clear what’s positive and what’s negative in terms of karma or in terms of our mental state or our behavior. If we can’t do that, then it’s going to be very difficult to purify, and it’s going to be very difficult to change, because there’s no clarity in the mind about what we want to change from and what we want to change to. So you need the help of the lamrim to help you recognize these mental states, and we need the lamrim meditations to actually show us a different way of looking at things. That’s why I just can’t emphasize enough really doing that.
You’ll see that it’s the whole lamrim outlook, the whole Buddhist worldview that creates a very different shift within us. Unless that shift occurs, we might visualize up and down the mountain and recite gazillions of mantras, but we’re still going to look at life in the same old way: with “me—center of the universe, everything I apprehend is permanent, pleasure is what I experience by my senses, and there’s a real me and everybody else, and real everything out there!” Unless we start to change some of those viewpoints and realize what cyclic existence is, and what it means to be caught in cyclic existence, and how we really want happiness but what we’re doing is the opposite to happiness…. and that’s it’s our mind that’s causing the problem, not the external objects or people…. Until we can really get a handle on that and really shift how we look at life, not a lot is going to change.
I suspect as you’re going through and purifying now, are you noticing a little bit of your old worldview? Not your “old” worldview—but just what your worldview is, how you look at things. Are you noticing some habits in your mind? Are you noticing different perspectives, how, for example, we think that whatever happens to us is never going to change? If it’s pleasurable, we think it’s never going to change—or it never should change; and if it’s painful, like our knee hurts in the sessions, also, that’s never going to change, is it? Look at that view, the one that doesn’t even recognize that things like this change, and how much confusion it causes in our lives—let alone the view that we’re going to last forever, and that death happens to other people but not us! I mean, do you feel like you’re going to die? We say “yes,” but we believe that death happens to other people. Or the view that’s probably coming up a lot in your meditation: all the things you wanted to have in life but couldn’t get. Is that coming up? No? You’re not sitting there dreaming about the perfect relationship that you always wished you had, but the person never turned up? Or the perfect job you always wished you had, but it never happened? Or the perfect house you really wanted to live in, but it never came about? Really? What are you getting distracted about then? [laughter]
Audience: I’ve been going back to grade school. I’ve been having people come up in my meditation that I haven’t thought about in forty years: clear as a bell!
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Of course. They come up, and you haven’t thought about them in forty years, and what’s your reaction to them?
Audience: I play out the relationship that I had with them, whether they were a friend of mine or someone I didn’t like. I play over the old story. And then I catch myself and ask, “that’s odd: why is this person coming up in my meditation right now?” That’s when I realize that I’m starting to run up against my mind that gets bored, my mind that gets frustrated because I’m not farther along in the meditation than I should be. I get entertained by my past.
VTC: Oh yeah. The thing is, when those people come up from the past—when you’re going through them and replaying the relationship—isn’t your mind kind of wishing it would have been different, some aspects of it? “Wouldn’t it have been nice if this had happened, that had happened, or this other thing had happened? Maybe the relationship could have turned out like that. Or, how nice it would be if we had kept in touch all these years….”
So this is what I’m talking about: the mind is taking something and wanting it to be other than it was. The old friendship: “oh yeah, it was really wonderful, but gee, it would have been so nice if it continued.” Or, “it would have been so nice if we didn’t have that fight, and that person could have continued being a really good friend….”
This is what I’m getting at: the mind is still looking out there at the people and experiences we had in the past and evaluating the happiness as if it came from those people and those circumstances, and wishing that we could have tweaked the past. Wishing, “Couldn’t we have tweaked it a little when it was happening so it would be better now so we would have a better memory in our meditation?” This person comes up and it’s such a bad memory; why couldn’t it be a good memory? So this is the mind that’s still seeing happiness out there and wanting even our memories to conform, to be good memories. Or to take what happened in the past, and “let’s replay it again now and it’s going to be different and it’s going to be better with a different person or a different situation….” something like that. But the mind state behind it is: “pleasure exists in the people and objects out there, and so if I can succeed in arranging them all properly, then I’ll have the happiness that I want!” Is there that view in your meditation? If there’s not that view, than either you should be teaching this course or you should be looking harder in your meditation. [laughter]
For most of us, this is what’s coming up: “How can I make things outside be the way I want them to be so that I’ll be happy.” Like you said, things will come up from forty years ago. I mentioned to you before: I realized when I did Vajrasattva [the first time] that I was still mad at my second grade teacher because she didn’t let me be in the class play. I had forgotten it for I don’t know how many years, but I remembered it in Vajrasattva. Then you start to see, how many times in my life have I felt that I deserved something but they didn’t give it to me? “In second grade, I deserved to be in the play and they didn’t give it to me.” How many times does this come up? Oh yeah, a lot in my life I’m playing this out. I deserved something and the world’s not giving it to me. We start to look at these old patterns of how we interpret things, of what data we select in the environment to pull out and make a story about and interpret in one way or another.
People can look at the same situation—(e.g.) you didn’t get to be in your second grade class play—one person could look at it and go, “Wow, am I really glad, because I’m so shy, and if I would have been in front of all those people I would have been nervous and made a fool of myself!” And that would have been maybe their pattern their whole life: always trying to exit-right so that they don’t make a fool of themselves because they’re sure they’re always going to. One person, that could be their habit. Then, another person looks at that and says, “Oh, I deserved it. I was the best one in the second grade. I deserved to be in the class play. They didn’t let me!” Here, that person’s story is, “I didn’t get what I deserved,” and it plays out in all these different ways in their life. Somebody else could have looked at is as, “I wanted to please my mom and dad by being in the second grade play, but the teacher didn’t let me.” What’s my story? “Oh, I’m always trying to please my mom and dad and I never got the opportunity to.” So that’s their thing, how they’re framing everything—not everything, but a lot of things in their life.
It just takes one situation, but everybody picks out different data in that situation and interprets it in a certain way and makes a certain kind of story. We have certain stories—we just put in that video, and it plays throughout various situations in out life. In the meditation itself—sitting there on the cushion all those hours—you’re going to start to see that. But once you start to see that, what are you going to do with it? What do you do with it? When the mind is so involved in making a story about it, it’s hard to see it as even a story—you just think it’s “reality.” This is why the lamrim is so important, because when you notice those old memories or old patterns or whatever… When there is an uncomfortable feeling in your mind then that’s a sign that there is delusion present. When one of those memories comes up, and you’re not completely at ease with it—there’s some feeling of discomfort somewhere and the mind really wants to think about it more—there’s some delusion usually involved in that thing. So what is it, and what’s the antidote to it? That’s when you take the lamrim out, “Okay I’m always feeling depressed.” What’s the lamrim antidote for depression, what do you meditation on? Precious human life, Refuge, something like that.
If you are sitting there and you’re longing for what happened before and you’re saying, “oh it was so wonderful then, I wish it would have lasted. I wonder if we can go back and pick it up with that person.” What is the affliction present? Attachment. And what’s the antidote? Yes, death and impermanence. Or some incident comes up and you say, “I am still so mad at my brother, sister, pet dog or who ever it was. I can’t believe I was an innocent kid and look what they did and they got me all screwed up and they did this and that. This is incredible and I’m still mad about it all these years later!” What’s the affliction? Anger. And what’s the antidote? Patience, love and the bodhichitta meditations. So this is why one needs lamrim here.
Motivation for practice
I thought I would go through a few of the verses of The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas by Gyelsay Togme Sangpo each week and then we’ll have some Q & A.
1. Having gained this rare ship of freedom and fortune,
Hear, think, and meditate unwavering night and day
In order to free yourself and others
From the ocean of cyclic existence—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
That is your motivation for the retreat! Okay? Having gained the rare ship of freedom and fortune, in others words, a precious human life…. Hear, think, meditate unwavering night and day. So what’s the basic practice you have to do? You have to hear and learn teachings and then think about them and then put them into practice and meditate on them. Why are you doing this? In order to free yourself and others from the ocean of cyclic existence. That’s the reason why. That’s the reason why you are sitting in the meditation hall all these hours every day. That’s the reason why you get out of bed every morning. So if you are having a hard time waking up in the morning memorize this verse and say it to yourself when you first hear the gong or the bell. So that you give yourself some umpf, “this is what I’m doing, this is what my mission is, this is my purpose.”
Benefit of changing environment
Okay, see if this one is ringing any bells in your meditation:
2. Attached to your loved ones you’re stirred up like water.
Hating your enemies you burn like fire.
In the darkness of confusion you forget what to adopt and discard.
Give up your homeland—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
Attached to your loved ones you’re stirred up like water. Anybody have that experience in their meditation? Only two people are raising their hands…. Okay, how about, Hating your enemies you burn like fire. Anybody having that one? A lot of people are lying! [laughter] You haven’t gotten angry?
Audience: Not at others, just myself.
VTC: That still counts, yourself. And check if there’s some anger towards others, too. Check. Really look. It’s hard to get mad just at yourself. In the darkness of confusion, you forget what to adopt and discard. Anybody have that come up? “Where am I in the sadhana? [laughter] Om Vajrapani hum. Om Vajrapani hum. No, it’s not Vajrapani, it’s “Om Vajrasattva hum. Om mani padme hum om namo ratno trayaya…. Now which one is it?!”
Audience: Bodhisattva samaya….
VTC: Supo kayo may bhawa. Anu rakto may bhawa. Tayata om dara dara diri diri duru duru…. [laughter] So, attached to loved ones, you’re stirred up like water. Hating your enemies, you burn like fire. In the darkness of confusion you forget what to adopt and discard. The story of my life! Give up your homeland. This is the practice of Bodhisattvas. Why does it say, “Give up your homeland?” Why doesn’t he just say, just get rid of those thoughts? Why does he say give up your homeland? You have to make a break. With what? And why? You have to make a break with the patterns. When you’re in the same environment all the time, with the same people all the time, those patterns very easily keep rolling, don’t they? They just keep happening again and again. Because other people know us well and we know them well.
Have you looked at some of your closest relationships and seen how there’s kind of like a script you play out repeatedly with that person? Are you seeing that? People have been together for many, many years…. Like with parents and children. There’s a little kind of script you do all the time. You know how to bug each other; you know how to press each other’s buttons; you know how to look like you didn’t. [laughter] It’s so habitual and you don’t even realize it. You don’t even realize it until you come and do a retreat. How habitual, especially certain key relationships where we’re very close to somebody. Same old stuff again and again and again. So give up your homeland! What’s the mind’s usual reaction to that? “NO! I don’t want to give up my homeland! I want to stay right where I am with the people that I love and the environment that’s familiar to me with everything that I own and where I know who I am and it’s all comfy. I don’t want to give up my homeland!” Right? That’s why he says, this is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
Just to make an external change sometimes takes quite a bit for us. It’s really talking about making the internal change. But the external change is something that supports making the internal change. Because unless we’re really, really strong, if we stay in the same environment, the patterns just keep happening again. So I’m not saying that everybody should move to the Abbey, and those of you who are at the Abbey should now move away from here! [laughter] The real thing is to change the patterns. But I think there is something to look at in the sense of really deciding that “I need to change. I really need something, some drastic measures are necessary, to start making that change happen.” But just see what your situation is.
Benefit of a Dharma environment
3. By avoiding bad objects disturbing emotions gradually decrease.
Without distraction virtuous activities naturally increase.
With clarity of mind, conviction in the teaching arises.
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
This verse is the opposite of the previous one. The previous one was telling us what our problems are. Every time I read that verse, Verse 2, it’s like WHOA…. I tell myself, it has me pegged; that’s exactly it! Then what do we do? What’s the advantage of leaving our homeland, going to a dharma environment? By avoiding bad objects, disturbing emotions gradually decrease. “Bad objects” doesn’t mean the people you love; they’re not bad objects. It means whatever it is that makes your attachment, hatred, jealousy, arrogance and all these things arise. The things and the people from their side, they’re not “bad.” They’re called bad objects in the sense that our mind is so under their captivity that attachment, anger and bewilderment just spin around and around whenever we’re around those objects.
It’s like the inmates who are getting ready to get released from prison. It’s so important that they go into a new environment and not be back with the old people and the old things and everything that was going on before, because that just stirs up the mind. But if they’re in a new environment, and if they’ve made patterns in their mind through the time they’ve been incarcerated, patterns of thinking in different ways, then by avoiding “bad objects,” and I think, specifically, intoxicants here…. For so many of the inmates, intoxicants are one of the major things. Intoxicants and friends that don’t have good moral values. Those are the two things. So, by avoiding bad objects, disturbing emotions gradually decrease. If you’re around people with good ethical discipline, if you’re around people who don’t drink and drug, if you’re around people who don’t gossip. If you’re having problems with your speech, if you go around with your old friends who gossip and talk about this one and that one, your speech is going to be the same old way. If you remove yourself from that situation and you’re with people who talk in a different way, then you’ll talk in a different way.
One of the nice things I see when people come to the Abbey is that they find themselves behaving differently, and they like themselves better. And I think part of this is that they’re not with the (quote-quote) “bad objects” so the disturbing emotions gradually decrease because there’s nothing to set it off. Of course, we can usually find something or another to set us off. Without distraction virtuous activity naturally increases. So if you’re really trying to steer your mind in a virtuous way, if you’re not having the distraction of what you usually have in your life, then your virtuous activities are naturally increasing.
You all are actually doing what this verse says: you’re on retreat right now. That’s the cultivating seclusion part and you can see very well for yourself that you’re not around the bad objects so the disturbing emotions are decreasing. Without distraction your virtuous activities naturally increase. It’s easier to do a daily practice here, isn’t it? Could you do six sessions of meditation at home? You have a hard time doing one session of meditation at home, let alone six! Here, it flows so easy, doesn’t it? You’re just in that hall and you’re doing it. You’re doing Prostrations to the 35 Buddhas. Because of the environment. What else are you going to do? Without distraction—what are you going to distract yourself with around here? You can ONLY look at the snow melt off the roof for so long! [laughter] You can only look at the turkeys for so long! [laughter] There’s not a lot to get distracted by….
With clarity of mind, conviction in the teaching arises. So, do you find that happening on the retreat? That because you’re really practicing and you’re really looking at your own mind and the teachings are coming into your mind…. As you’re looking at your mind, your conviction in what the Buddha said is growing. You can see that he really knew what he was talking about. These are things that are the total antidote to the second verse. How do you get them? Cultivate seclusion. Seclusion here doesn’t mean like staying in a room all by yourself. It means that you’re secluded from things that set your mind off. You’re secluded from having lots of sense-distractions around you.
When there’s a lot of sense things, we get so distracted that it’s very difficult to focus and concentrate. I think we actually get exhausted. One of my theories is, one of the reasons that we sleep is not because the body’s tired but because the mind is tired of having to deal so much with sense objects. When you go to sleep, how often do the muscles in your body feel tired? How often is it that your body is physically tired? Or is it just a feeling of tiredness around your eyes? Or is it mostly that the mind just wants a break from all this stuff that’s in your face all the time? So there’s a certain way that the mind quiets down and we don’t have a lot of the sense-distractions here. That’s all I thought we’d do this week. Now, your questions? What’s happening with you in your meditation?
Giving up familiar patterns
Audience: Okay, confession time. I had a dream yesterday night and it was exactly about this. It was very clear. I was thinking we have been here for two weeks and nothing really extraordinary has happened, you know? The meditation has been okay, I have been following the lamrim, and thinking a lot. But because I have previous experiences with purification and big things coming out, I was expecting more. I was thinking “something is not working; maybe it’s the mantra. I’m saying it too fast.” Actually I noticed there were a couple of syllables missing. So yesterday I was struggling with the mantra to put the syllable back in its place, it wouldn’t stick though. I was kind of worried but I knew there was something else, it was clear. But it was clear and it was not clear. So I went to bed and I had this dream that was really shocking: I had gone to Canada in the dream. I had taken a plane and flew away. And I was working there with some guy who was a friend from my past, about twenty years ago. We were polishing a Buddha statue, a white Buddha statue—we were cleaning it. But for some reason, my family kept bringing me back home; they were taking me back home. It was happening many times. I was back home with my mom and dad and my brothers, and it was okay. It was very comfortable, very nice. But I kept thinking, “This is ridiculous. I was over there, thousands of miles away, polishing my Buddha statue, and now I’m back home with my family.”
So then I was back to this place with my Buddha statue, and I had a bucket of what was supposed to be white milk—it was the nectar, you know? But I was seeing the nectar, and it was all watered down. It was just water; no white stuff. The white stuff was on the bottom, and I gave it to my friend. We were supposed to clean the Buddha statue with this, but it wouldn’t work because it was just water. It was dirty also—there was some dirt and stuff floating around. And he was saying, “This is not milk. We can’t do anything with this—it’s dirty!” Then I woke up and that was in my mind. So my conclusion was very clear. First, I thought, “my family: they’re guilty of everything.” But then I said, “it is not my family—these are my habitual patterns and everything that is familiar to me.” So I’m here very far away, trying to stay with my white Buddha, cleaning it and everything, and I keep going back to this same place—my habitual patterns of behavior, liking things and disliking things, and wanting to be liked by people, and this and that. So my nectar is watered down—it’s not really working.
So my conclusion, which was very strong for me, was (this is one thing that has been clear for years but I’ve never really wanted to take the steps to work on it) is that you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you really want to purify your negativities, you really have to give up your familiar patterns. You can’t go back all the time and have a good time and just relax, thinking your nectar will do everything for you. You really have to do the work. So it was very shocking. For me, it’s very revealing, and it’s very painful, because the spiritual path was supposed to be very smooth and very nice: “I will do what I want to do.” And now I can see that I don’t want to give up attachment—it feels good when all these objects of attachment are appearing all the time, very appealing. It’s all the happiness I know. To take that decision to cultivate seclusion, to say, “no more,” is not an easy thing. So that’s what happened.
VTC: Very good. Very good.
Audience: Can I say something about this? My experience about the homeland and habits and familiar habits, the city…. is I find it very difficult to get rid of the habits you got when you were a kid and you were conditioned. For example, I lived in Japan for about seven years, and when I was going back to Mexico, I thought I had changed very much. I thought I could do everything differently, and I could relate to my father and my brothers differently, and the surprise for me, after seven years in Japan and going back and thinking that I had changed, was that the habits are so strong when you go back to your homeland. After some time, your family and people—they think you are the same person and they want you to be the same—so the two energies get together and after a while, I got back completely and had worse problems, maybe. I wanted to say this because it’s very strong, very difficult to get rid of these habits. You really have to work, but this is very hard. The question I had is, I thought I had to go back to work with this kind of problem, to work with my relationship with my father and my brothers and everybody, and I thought it would be worth it. But at the same time I think I lost the battle in a way, because I got back into these habits.
VTC: I think what you said is quite true. We have our patterns, but our family—what I was saying before about the patterns of relationships—they have their patterns of relating to us, and they’re not really keen for us to change either. Because everybody kind of knows how everybody else is, and even if you fight all the time, it’s still familiar. I think that’s one of the hardest things when we’re trying to change, is when we start doing things differently and then people are shocked and they don’t know how to handle us. “But wait a minute….this is the script we play out all the time. How can you not say this when I say that?” It happens in anger scripts, attachment scripts, the competition scripts, and it is sometimes jarring for the other people in our lives too—people who see us as permanent and fixed with a very rigid concrete “I.” That’s why being in a different environment—such as when you come here, when you don’t even know everybody who’s here—you have the space to be a different person. You don’t have to be who you were before. There’s space to be different here.
Learning to make lamrim personal
Audience: Last week, you were saying something to Tom, about labels, and how things are labeled. You said something about, “in order to develop mindfulness; we should pay attention to our body.” So, I did. My question is, are we supposed to feel the same with the lamrim. If we think about love and compassion, for example, are we really going to feel that sensation too? Or is it just going to be intellectual.
VTC: So you’re asking…. when we do the lamrim meditations, for example, trying to develop love and compassion, are you just intellectually going through the points, or are you really aiming to feel it. Is that your question?
Audience: I have gone through this with intellectual questions, ideas, thoughts, and you feel something. And then you cry. Is that enough, or do we have to feel another thing, that complete awareness. For example, I was meditating, and suddenly, I just opened my eyes, and it was like dozens of eyes opening. Are we supposed to feel that when we think of love and compassion in the lamrim? Or are we supposed to feel another way.
VTC: I’m not sure if I know what you mean…. but, don’t have an idea of an outcome you’re trying to get to. Don’t think, “Oh, I’ve got to feel a certain way, and then I’ll know I’ve got it.” That’s focusing on the result. Just do the meditation. Just do the meditation, and let happen what happens. But if you’re trying to say, “unless I meditate on lamrim, and I’m thinking about the kindness of all these suffering sentient beings, unless I cry at the end of the meditation, because I have so much compassion for them—unless I do that, my meditation’s a failure.” Don’t think like that. Don’t think like that, because then you’re not going to feel anything spontaneously or naturally because you have some kind of rigid idea about what you think you’re supposed to feel. Instead, just create the causes. Just contemplate, for example, the first two noble truths in relation to sentient beings. Contemplate the three kinds of sufferings they experience. Contemplate how they’re under the influence of ignorance and attachment even though they want to be happy. Think about that, and think about it in relation to people you know, people you don’t know, people you like, people you don’t like. Then, whatever you feel, that’s fine. If you’re trying to make yourself feel something and judging your meditation, you’re blocking yourself.
Audience: I was thinking, “Maybe I have done the lamrim in that way—the way you are describing.” But now, when I feel that, I think, “maybe I haven’t understood anything!” I was wondering if I’ve been doing it correctly….
VTC: You know, it takes us a while to actually learn what meditating on lamrim means. I know, for me, for quite a long time, I just went through one, two, three, four. “One, thought about that. Two, thought about that. Three…. Four… Yeah, I’m supposed to feel that. Well, I kind of do, but not completely, what’s next?” [laughter] And that’s why I think the real trick is making those meditations quite personal, and putting our life really into them. So it’s not just, starting with precious human life, “Oh yeah, I’m not born in the hells, born in (yawn)….what’s the next one? Pretas? Oh yeah, I’m not born there; I’m not born in the animal realm; not born in the long-lived god—I don’t even know if I believe in those, but anyway I’m not born as one.” [laughter] That’s not the way to do it. Instead, imagine: “what would it be like if I were in a situation of extreme pain. Could I practice the dharma? What would happen to my mind in a situation of extreme pain? Well, knowing my mind, I’d freak out. Totally uncontrollable, can’t do anything useful with my mind. Wow, thank goodness I’m not in that situation.” So do that—make it really personal.
Or you’re meditating on Karma. Karma’s first point: karma is definite. Happiness comes from virtue, and unhappiness comes from non-virtue. “Do I really believe that? Well, yeah, I believe that. Do I live like I believe it?” Then you start looking at your actions. Do you really live like you believe that happiness comes from positive actions, and unhappiness comes from negative actions? Do I really live my life like that? No, I live my life like that second helping of food and that next movie is going to make me happy right now! [laughter] “That’s the cause of my happiness; that’s how I live. And I live my life that if I have to tell a little white lie here to negotiate that, that’s the cause of happiness.” So you make it very personal.
Distinguishing craving from simple habits
Audience: This might be a bit simplistic, but I was going through attachment in the context of the four noble truths. For example, coffee: I drank coffee, and now there’s the suffering of no more coffee. [laughter] So that’s the gross sense level dukkha, the first truth. And the cause of that is craving. So I still—I don’t have a problem with the coffee being gone—but there’s this routine that goes with it. I get up early, I’ve got twenty minutes to read dharma, and then I think, “wait a minute, I cut off the gross level of suffering, but I still have the cause—there’s still craving, but not the coffee.”
VTC: What are you craving?
Audience: I’ve got tea now. [laughter] Am I going to see some sensation in this? Am I going to have to go through the whole eight-fold path, the fourth truth, to evaluate the craving? I don’t know how to work with that.
VTC: You’re not missing the coffee so much…. What are you craving?
Audience: I see that I still have the same routine; I just replaced the coffee with tea.
VTC: Is there anything inherently non-virtuous about reading the dharma and drinking a cup of tea?
Audience: No, but there’s attachment to it—or it feels that way.
VTC: Is it an attachment? Is it an attachment the same way as when the mind says, “I really need this,” grasping at something else outside of you. Is it that kind of attachment?
Audience: It certainly doesn’t have the buzz….
VTC: Or is it just a habit that you’re in, that you do to wake yourself up in the morning.
Audience: Right. That’s all it really is.
VTC: There are worse things going on. [laughter] Don’t stress about that one. We have to really learn to discriminate: what’s attachment, and what’s a habit, and what’s liking something, what’s craving, what’s wanting—we have to learn to discriminate these things. What’s aspiration? Just being attracted toward something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re craving and clinging to it. We can be attracted to the dharma teachings. Don’t confuse attraction with craving and clinging. Sure, in some cases, attraction is the predecessor of, and gives birth to, craving and clinging. I’m attracted to that chocolate cake….whomp! There you know there’s some attachment going on. But if it’s just something like you’re sitting and drinking a cup of tea and reading a dharma book and you’re getting some good imprints, and it’s a calming way to start your day, don’t call that craving and attachment and think, “well, I better go and turn on the television set first thing in the morning to prove to myself I’m not attached to reading my dharma book!” No.
Audience: If it comes up confusing, then….
VTC: You need to discern: what is craving, and what is aspiration? Many people get this confused: they think any time you aspire for something that it’s clinging. You aspire for Buddhahood! We’re trying to create that aspiration! That’s not clinging. We aspire to end suffering; we aspire to generate love and compassion in our hearts. We should generate those aspirations as much as possible. Don’t think that everything you’re attracted to or aspiring for is attachment, because then the only image you have of a Buddhist is someone who’s sitting there going, “duhhhhhhh.” Because they’re not attracted to anything, they don’t aspire to anything: “I accept everything, duhhhhhhhh.” You know? Look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama: he’s active; he knows exactly what he wants. I got in this confusion too at the beginning: “Oh, if I have any kind of preference for this or that, then it’s just attachment.” Now if I have preference for wanting to live at the seashore in a condo rather than in the inner city, that’s an attachment to sense pleasure. But if I have the preference that I’d much rather spend this time reading a dharma book or talking with a dharma friend than listening to music with an old friend, that’s not attachment! That’s something virtuous that you’re trying to get your mind to want and be attracted towards.
Audience: Okay, that’s helpful.
VTC: Remember that with attachment, we have to really know what the definition of attachment is. It’s not just attraction to something, and it’s not just wanting something—that’s not the definition of attachment. Attachment is based upon a mind that exaggerates the good qualities of someone or something, or projects good qualities that aren’t there. Then clinging and not wanting to be separate from it. So if you’re sitting there, “oh, I really want to be with this person (whiny tone of voice),” that’s attachment. But if it’s saying, “Oh, I’d really like to have a stable mind, and I aspire to develop some more mindfulness and calmness in my mind. I aspire to have some interest in reading dharma first thing in the morning.” What a great aspiration, to be attracted to dharma first thing in the morning! Go for it! Make this guy a cup of tea tomorrow, will you? [laughter]
We all have our little routines in the morning, don’t we? Some people say, “Oh, I don’t like rituals.” Our life is filled with rituals: we have our little morning routines of how we get up. How wonderful that you put dharma in your morning routine! Isn’t that wonderful? Most people don’t have dharma in their morning routine: they wake up and the news is blaring, they get out of bed and see a stack of bills….
This is very good. I’m glad you asked that. It’s real important to be able to distinguish. There are some tapes on the “Mind and the Mental Factors” downstairs; listen to them. It goes through some of the positive mental factors, the ones we want to cultivate and then what the negative ones are. That can be very helpful, because admiration for virtuous things is a mental factor we want to cultivate. Aspiration for positive things, conviction in the teachings…. all of these are involved in attraction, but there is no exaggeration. You’re not projecting things.
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.