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Ignorance, anger, purification

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

  • Ignorance and the four distortions
  • How anger destroys merit
  • Taking responsibility, but not for others’ problems
  • Using pain in meditation
  • Gentleness while seeing your stuff
  • Understanding compassion
  • Integrating concentration in daily practice

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A 02 (download)

This discussion session was preceded by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 1-3.

Ignorance and the four distortions

Audience: I’ve been thinking a little bit about the four distortions, and ignorance with that. Is the ignorance that sees inherent existence, is that the same kind of ignorance as the ignorance of the four distortions?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It depends upon which tenet system you are talking about, but from Prasangika yes. The ignorance that is seeing the self and the four distortions from a Prasangika view is the ignorance that is grasping onto people and things as inherently existent.

Audience: What about if I see something that’s suffering as happiness? That seems different in some ways.

VTC: That’s another kind of ignorance. There are many kinds of ignorance. There’s ignorance in terms of the ultimate truth—that would be grasping at true existence—and then there are various kinds of ignorance regarding the conventional truths. Ignorance of karma, things like that.

Audience: So that wouldn’t be an ignorance of karma, then, that would be…

VTC: You mean the other three distortions?

Audience: Yes, if you see something that is suffering as happiness that would be ignorance of…

VTC: I’ve asked that before and I can’t get a clear answer. It’s a yi la je pa. “Yi la je pa” is attention, which is one of the five omnipresent ones, but not all “yi la je pas” are the attentions that are one of the five omnipresent ones, and these four aren’t. So they’re “yi la je pa” but they aren’t the “yi la je pa” that’s one of the five omnipresent ones. One lama I asked, he said that he thought that maybe they were somehow affiliated with attachment, but it seems to me—just in my thinking—that it’s a kind of ignorance, because it’s an active misconception of something, seeing the exact opposite way that it really is.

Audience: So then is it even apprehending the object correctly?

VTC: When I’m looking at this and thinking that it’s going to bring me everlasting happiness, no. My sense consciousness might be perceiving the object, but my mental consciousness that’s saying, “oh, this cup is going to give me everlasting happiness,” that’s not perceiving the object correctly, is it? The mind that feels that we’re permanent, that we’re not changing: “I’m the same person today that I was yesterday, I’m always going to be the same person. And that second grade teacher—always going to be the same person! Whoever it is, whoever we’re mad at: they’re always going to be the same.” That’s not perceiving them accurately.

How anger destroys merit

Audience: I have many questions.

VTC: Good!

Audience: When we’re talking about anger, and when it says that when you get angry, all of your positive potentials are either consumed or they are prevented from ripening—why anger, and how can positive potentials be consumed?

VTC: It’s from the collection of positive potential—those are the ones that get consumed by anger. It isn’t like everything gets destroyed just by one moment of anger. It depends on who’s getting angry, who you’re getting angry towards, what the strength of the anger is—there are a lot of different things going on there. When you sit and you feel the energy of the angry mind, it’s so clear that nothing virtuous can arise in that mind, isn’t it? You get real sensitive in retreat, and you’ll begin to see when an angry thought comes in, you can feel in reverberate through your whole mind: this one, hostile thought, just makes all this noise! Then you get a feeling of, “Oh, that’s how it impedes the positive potential from ripening.” Just the thought, you can feel the energy in the mind, and you can see that nothing virtuous can grow when that’s there.

Audience: That’s my question: I understand that it prevents the positive actions from arising, but how is it that they’re wiped out.

VTC: I’m not so sure that it wipes them out 100% completely, but what it does very often is, instead of ripening sooner, it’s going to be put off and it will ripen later. Or instead of ripening in a big happiness, it will ripen in a small happiness. I’m not sure exactly what it takes to wipe it out completely. It’s a confusing topic, because the teachers say different things at different times. Sometimes they tell you that if you dedicated it beforehand it won’t get wiped out, and then other times—like when you come to Chapter 6 in Madhyamakavatara (Chandrakirti’s Supplement to the Middle Way)—they say, “no, wiped out. Finished.” Then you say, “but you just taught us in the lam rim that if we dedicated, it won’t get wiped out.”

Anyway, I haven’t been able to get clear about that, but it seems to me that there is some hatred that I think is so powerful and so intense that I can see it really destroying your positive potential. For example, in the tantric vows, the first tantric vow is belittling or disparaging your spiritual master. All throughout the lam rim it talks about this, the relationship with the spiritual mentor and how important it is to keep that one clean, and I can see that if you get angry at your spiritual mentor, some kind of very fierce, intense, incredible anger, yeah, that’s going to burn it, that’s going to burn the positive potential. I’m just telling you feeling about things here. And why? Because that’s the person who’s taught us how to do everything virtuous in our life, and if all of a sudden we have hatred towards the person who’s been the most kind to us of any possible living being, then it’s like we’re throwing out all the good that they taught us. We’re diminishing the power of the virtue that they helped us to create. That’s just how it feels to me. So I can see that some kinds of hatred would just burn it.

But then other kind of hatred: you get mad at Achala [one of the Abbey cats) because he scratched you, I don’t think that’s going to do eons and eons worth of damage. [laughter] Unless he’s a bodhisattva—and he might be—so it’s good to make him your practice of patience. [laughter]

Taking responsibility, but not for others’ problems

Audience: I have a question about the bodhisattva vows, I’ve been reviewing those….

VTC: Good!

Audience: I think I’ve broken the first one, but I don’t really know about the degree. Can I give you the situation? A couple of times I’ve talked about a friend of mine, and I think I often make a remark about this person to distance myself because this friend has a substance problem. So I sometimes don’t really want people to know that—I don’t think this friend would want people to know that—so instead of saying that, I just say that “this person’s kind of wild.” But I realized that when I’m doing it, I’m always doing it because I want to put myself away from that person. And this is a dharma friend of mine. I don’t know; it feels wrong.

VTC: So the situation is one of belittling somebody else and praising yourself, that’s the one you’re talking about, right? That’s out of attachment to respect and offering. There’s another one that’s in the secondary vows that’s doing it for a different motivation—I forget if it’s jealousy, or anger…The first one, the root vow, has to do with attachment to receiving offerings and respect. I think the specific situation that vows is talking about is especially when you’re in the role of being a leader in the dharma community, or being a teacher, or having some kind of position. Then, out of attachment to respect and offerings, criticizing other dharma people or praising yourself so that you’ll get it; there’s this kind of jealousy or competition there. I think that’s the primary situation that that vow is talking about. Your situation isn’t necessarily that. What you’re trying to do is, you don’t want to be seen as being affiliated with somebody, so you’re just saying, “Oh, they’re kind of wild.”

Audience: In part. It’s a friend of mine, and I want this person to be my friend, but there’s also a part of me that wants to distance myself from this person’s problems. It’s just how I’ve handled it. It doesn’t feel right at all.

VTC: If it’s something that doesn’t feel right, you have to see why it doesn’t feel right. If somebody has a substance abuse problem, and you want to distance yourself from that, I think that’s quite virtuous.

Audience: Distance myself from that….

VTC: From the substance abuse problem. You don’t want to get involved with their substance abuse problem, do you?

Audience: No, I don’t.

VTC: Right—that’s why you’re trying to avoid it. What you don’t want to do is to give up your compassion for that person. It’s somebody who’s a friend. They have a drug problem. You don’t want to have to say to everybody, “oh, this person has a drug problem.” You don’t want to have to lie about it. You’re distancing yourself from them because you don’t want to get sucked into their drug problem.

Audience: Not really. I’m not planning on taking any drugs….

VTC: Then you have to see: what is the attitude in your mind that doesn’t feel comfortable? Why is it there? Are you feeling like you’re not being compassionate towards this person?

Audience: That’s what I actually came up with, that my response should be instead of saying, “oh, this person is kind of wild,” it should be one of compassion. But, I’m not exactly sure—I haven’t quite gotten there.

VTC: You have to see exactly what’s lying behind it—this is something I can’t tell you. If there’s some discomfort in the mind, you have to see: are you uncomfortable because you’re afraid that if you say that she’s wild, she’ll find out that you said that she’s wild and then she’ll be mad at you because you’re friends? That’s attachment to reputation on your part, or attachment to hearing praise, and aversion to blame because you don’t want somebody to get mad at you. Or is it that you don’t want somebody else to know that you’re friends with this person because they have a drug problem, and if that person knows that they have a drug problem they might think badly of you because you’re being friends with somebody like that…You have to find out what it is in your mind that’s feeling uncomfortable.

This is something that’s quite important: we cannot fix other people. We are not responsible for other people’s faults. Our responsibility is to be compassionate towards them, and to help them the best we can. Our responsibility is not to fix their faults. Don’t get confused and think, “Oh, I’m lacking compassion because I’m not doing everything I possibly can to stop this person who has a drug problem.” Or, “I should be able to make them not have a drug problem.” That’s our grasping at control. That’s our grasping at being “Mr.” or “Ms. Fix-It” taking responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility. These kinds of things, it takes a lot of time through the course of our practice, to really figure out what an appropriate level of involvement is with different people. Sometimes we might be involved at the appropriate level, but we guilt-trip ourselves and think, “Oh, I should be doing more than I’m doing, because if I only did more, if I was only more involved, then they would really change. I know I could get them to change, and it’s just due to my laziness that they still have this problem.” That’s an inflated sense of self-importance.

On the other hand, in another situation, it could be that we should do something to help somebody, but we’re too lazy to do it. We have to learn how to discern these things in our mind, and it’s not always so clear. It takes a lot of time going through many examples over and over and over again, through months and years to figure it out. And we blow it sometimes. It’s always a work in progress to figure out what’s going on. Is this making some sense?

There are a couple of problems: 1) We take responsibility for things that aren’t our problems; and 2) we don’t take responsibility for things that are our problems. And we have those two problems! [laughter] And we can’t always tell. We might have a big fault and we think, “oh, I’m being very responsible.” And we’re not at all—we’re completely ignoring it, and denying it, and covering up our negative attitudes. Then there are other things for which they aren’t our responsibility and there really isn’t anything constructive that we can do, but we feel that, “I’ve got to fix it. I should be able to control it. I’ve got to make it happen differently.” It’s very confusing, especially if it’s somebody that we care about a great deal. Because if we care about them, we really want them to be a certain way—for their own good, right? [laughter] For their own good…well, it’s for their own good, and it’s also for my good, too! [laughter]

It’s incredible: watch this controlling mind that thinks we should be able to fix everybody’s problems. Or this mind that says, “oh, something went wrong. Mea culpa, mea culpa.” That’s just an inflated sense of self. On the other hand, things where we were really rude, or where we lacked conscientiousness—those we need to really open our eyes and take responsibility for. E.g. where we did have a negative motivation and we’re trying to cover it up and pretend like we’re just sweet, little, charming innocent me.

Using pain in meditation

Audience: How can we use the pain? For example in this part of the retreat, I am having a lot of pain, primarily my knees and back hurt. How to use the pain in the meditation?

VTC: Knees hurt, back hurt? Ohhh, can you complain for me too? So how to use the pain in the meditation? One thing is to say, “I’m purifying.” When you purify negative karma, it can manifest in all different sorts of ways. It could be a negative karma that might have caused you to be born in the hell realm for gazillion of eons, and instead it’s ripening as pain in this body right now. We don’t know how karma’s ripening; we don’t know what’s going on. If you think, “this is my negative karma ripening,” then the mind can handle it. Negative karma ripening, I came here that’s the reason to finish this negative karma. I used to not experience a lot of pain and it got me worried I wasn’t doing something right, you know, I should be purifying more. So this retreat I’m having some physical pain. Now the mind is saying it should go away! [laughter] So just remembering this is negative karma ripening, this is very good it’s ripening now.

I love telling this story: I’ve known this person for a long time. There was nun and she was doing retreat at Kopan some years ago and she got a huge, enormous boil on her cheek. Boils are painful, and especially when you’re in Asia you don’t want to have a boil. Anyway, you don’t want to have a boil anywhere! So she was really into “oh poor me.” She was in retreat and she was taking a walk, and she bumped into Lama Zopa. And Rinpoche goes, “How are you?” And she says (whining tone of voice), “Oh Rinpoche, I have this boil!” And he goes, “Fantastic!!” [laughter] “You’re so lucky. This is great!” And this nun is very confused. He continues, “This is great, really, really, good!”

So if you look at it like that: “Oh, this is so great my back hurts, my knees hurt: this is great! This is fifty million eons in the hell realms I’m experiencing in one meditation session!” It could be worse, right?

And then you do the taking-and-giving meditation, and then you think, “Oh, Chodron’s out there, and her knees hurt [laughter], oh, and all these other people in the hall, their knees hurt and their backs hurt too.” Anybody here who hasn’t had pain in their knees and pain in their back? And then you say, “Oh, I’m experiencing this. May I take on all their knee pain and back pain. May I take it upon myself, and experience it for them.”

Audience: I was actually going to ask a question about this, because at the end of a session, my legs were really hurting. I was trying to do taking and giving, and so I was thinking about one retreatant who I hear getting out of bed painfully in the morning, and I was thinking about another retreatant who has a bad back…But then I thought about the inmate I am writing to, and I thought, “I’ll take on the pain of being in prison.” And then I thought, “wait a minute! Maybe that’s a little too much!” [laughter] The [physical] pain of others, that was fine—it was nice and theoretical—but when I really thought about this guy being in jail, I thought, “I don’t think I can take that on. Maybe I’ll just wish him well…” [laughter] I don’t know what to say—I got sort of stuck.

VTC: That’s really good when you see that happen, because when taking and giving is too easy, when you feel, “oh yeah, I can take on their suffering, no problem,” it’s a little too easy then. I mean, it’s fine to let yourself have those moments. But when your mind says “Whoa, wait a minute—I don’t want to take that on!” [laughter] Then you’ve caught the demon. Then you’ve caught the demon of the self-centered thought. So you take it right back to the meditation of the disadvantages of the self-centered thought: “this is the mind that’s kept me in samsara all this time. This is the mind that’s made me create so much negative karma. This is the mind that’s blocked me off from opening my heart with love and compassion.” And you just point your figure at that mind.

Audience: On the pain subject: I think that discouragement and self-pity are pretty useless, but I don’t actually know what the antidotes are. What I think is useful, though, is that I made a vow to myself: if I have a moment of self-pity I’m going to do the four immeasurables.

VTC: Good!

Audience: It seems like maybe that’s the antidote. I’m not sure.

VTC: I think the four immeasurables are definitely the antidote for self-pity, because you’re pulling yourself out of that very narrow mind that’s just thinking of me. I had an interesting experience this last week with my pain. I’ve never had a lot of continuous pain—and so it’s happening—and there are these weird pains when you least expect them. It’s not getting any better—well, it is. You know how this is: it goes up and down. Have any of you had this happen in your life, where you just have a mind that says, “I can’t take this anymore! I just can’t take it!” And your mind freaks out? You just freak out, and say, “I can’t take it anymore, aaahhhhh!” My parents have this home movie of me at age four or five throwing a temper tantrum because my skates wouldn’t go on right. It’s that mind that says, “I can’t stand this,” and freaks out. It’s that freak-out mind. You can’t stand it; you freak out. To me, I think that’s got to be the mind that you have in the hell realm. It’s not just the pain, the physical pain in the hell realm—it’s the mind that’s freaked out about it. So I’ve seen at certain points in my life—thank goodness not too often—the mind will just say, “I can’t stand this,” and freak out, and go into this rage or hysteria or cry—you know what I mean. Uncontrolled emotion just takes over.

I was getting into bed a few days ago, and all of a sudden, this thought came in of, “I can’t take this pain anymore.” [laughter] And then instantly, the next thought was, “don’t go there.” And I just stopped it. I stopped it right there: “don’t go there; it’s too much suffering.” And I stopped. You can see that the physical pain is one thing, but the mind that rejects the reality of it is the real pain, the real painful thing. The mind that says, “I can’t take this anymore.”

Audience: When they talk about pain tolerance—I’ve had some experience with pain—I think pain tolerance is almost completely mental. I really do. You have days where one day you have pain, and another day you have pain, and one day it’s driving you crazy and the other day it isn’t. Sometimes the
amount of pain you’re having on the day it’s driving you crazy is less, but it’s when you have more fear, because you think it won’t leave. That’s why it’s like, “don’t go there.” Or at least to recognize that it’s mental, because then you can calm yourself down; it’s easier to recognize that it’s not just physical.

I think that’s why the body meditations help, because then they tune you in, and you actually pay attention to the sensations, and then the mind that’s freaking out goes to the sensations and finds out, “oh, it’s just throbbing—no need to get freaked out about a throb.” [laughter]

VTC: Very good.

Audience: I’ve been thinking about that in relation to death, when my body hurts and my mind starts spazzing, because sometimes I think, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to die and it will be fine because I’ve meditated so much…” And then I think, “dying is probably at least going to be this painful, and if I can’t have some sort of calm or equanimity or maintain some dharma practice now, what’s it going to be like when my body is totally falling apart?”

Audience: That’s what I was trying to say when I led the meditation a few days ago. When I meditate on death, it’s kind of theoretical. But what I always find helpful, whenever I’m experiencing something—whatever it is: pain, fatigue, whatever—I always say to myself, “if I’m dying right now, and I’m feeling like this…”—I can relate to the feeling, because you want to have some sort of control, I think, or do something with it. But that always works. It cleans up my meditations if, say, I’m distracted. Death is something I’m very much in denial about; it’s very theoretical. But that seems to help, because I can pretend that, “oh, I could be dying right now having this experience. How do I want my mind to be?” It always cleans the meditation up.

The purification visualization

Audience: In the purification of the body, I tend to neglect the crabs and the snakes. I’ve read and I heard you talking about relating to these things as psychological, but I’ve also read Lama Zopa talking about spirits and demons that can interfere with you and harm you. Can you talk a little bit about this part?

VTC: Talk about the part of visualizing the crabs and snakes and frogs….

Audience: Yes. Is it only something psychological, or….

VTC: Or could there really be spirits there in those forms?

Audience: Right. Are we dealing with that?

VTC: No. What you’re purifying in part of the purification of the body is any karma that you’ve created to have spirit offenses in the future, or, if there’s some sort of spirit offense going on right now, you can think that it’s being purified. They say that when you do it, it’s not like you imagine yourself filled with snakes and scorpions, and then they come out. Instead, it’s just as the negativity comes out it assumes the form of snakes and scorpions and these things. So you don’t imagine those things inside your body, but that’s how all that energy comes out—in that form.

Audience: So I shouldn’t neglect that part. [laughter]

VTC: You know, everybody’s going to have a visualization that they really resonate with the most. I really like that one, the downward purification, the snakes and the scorpions, and everything yucky and gooey and disgusting. I can get really into that one. But I can understand that maybe some people can’t. Maybe you like the one of filling up from the bottom, the bottle that fills up—actually I can get into that one too. You’re just vomiting the whole time [laughter], and out of your senses and your ears everything comes out, “blaaaaahhhhhh.” [laughter] It’s just all coming up and out. I think there’s something nice about these visualizations. They’re…

Audience: Very vivid.

VTC: Yes. Does that answer your question all right? So different people will get into different visualizations; you might prefer one visualization over the others. What I think is nice, is that when the nectar is filling you, whether it’s from the top down or the bottom up, make sure it goes everywhere in your body. If there’s one part of your body where you go, “Oh! Got to skip over that part,” look at it. It becomes a mindfulness of the body meditation in a way. Do I really feel that I can purify all these different parts of my body, that the nectar can actually fill all of them up?

Audience: About the nectar, you can be creative? For instance I want to feel a very strong stream of nectar but it feels violent, so can you do it like that?

VTC: So the flow of the nectar is it going to be gushing, is it going to be a trickle, is it going to be violent or this gentle thing? I think if you want something sudden go to the third visualization of it coming in and everything disappearing, like turning on the light in the room. I think do that one. Don’t visualize a lot of energy going through because I think that might create some misbalance. So the nectar should be a very pleasant feeling, it can be powerful but without being raucous, or uncontrolled or violent.

Gentleness while seeing your stuff

This reminded me about something I wanted to say, regarding your visualizations, have a certain kind of gentleness in them and gentleness with yourself in general as you’re purifying. Don’t let your mind get really tight. There’s a thing called lung (a Tibetan word, pronounced “loong”), that sometimes if people are trying too hard to do it right, they get lung. E.g. “ There’s Vajrasattva, his bell, ooh I can’t get all the prongs on his bell!” Or the mind is pushing too hard: “ There I go again, I’m distracted! It’s not my second grade teacher this time, it’s my sixth grade teacher!” The mind’s just getting really tight, so if your mind gets tight that’s what they call lung. It’s an imbalance in the air, the internal winds.

I have some tea, I’ll put it downstairs and if you feel you’re getting kind of moody or something like that, take some tea. It’s good to drink before you go to bed or the first thing in the morning. But best thing is to keep a relaxed, happy mind and also that’s why I think it’s good to go outside every day and look at the sky, move your body, get some exercise. Don’t sit there and squeeze yourself. “Oh here’s that problem coming up again in this meditation session and I still don’t know what my motivation was for that, do I purify at this or do I rejoice at it? I don’t know what my motivation was, ahhhh!” Just relax.

Audience: On that note, if you’re in retreat and you’re realizing your attachments and your anger and all these other things, how do you not feel lousy about seeing those things?

VTC: It’s like when you are cleaning your house, how do you not feel lousy about seeing all your garbage? It’s like when you’re cleaning your house, you have to see the trash to clean it! If you go into a room and it stinks, completely stinks, but you can’t find out what it is that smells, you’re going to have a really hard time cleaning it. When you find the corner, “that’s where Achala peed,” then you know exactly where to clean. You’re so happy you found it, because now you know where to clean. It’s the same thing when you’re doing this and you’re seeing some of your internal garbage, just go “good now I’m seeing it! All these years I haven’t seen it and that’s when it’s really made me miserable. Now I’m seeing it; now I can do something about it; I’m on the path to recovery.”

Audience: I’m seeing it, but I don’t want to do anything about it. [laughter]

VTC: Oh, does anybody else have this one? “I’m seeing it but I don’t want to do anything about it, I just wish all of the bad stuff would go away, and the attachments—I would just get what I wanted.” I had a friend who told me that sometimes she talks to herself in her meditation sessions like you talk to a child. So her difficulty was getting herself on the cushion. She would say (tone of voice as a mother to young child), “Well, I know you don’t feel like going to the meditation cushion right now, but this is what we’re going to do. Come on, give me your hand. We’re going to go sit there.” [laughter]

It’s very similar if you’re seeing your attachment, when you wish you could get everything you wanted and you didn’t have to do anything about your attachment, and you wish all the pain of the attachment would just go away without having to do anything. “I don’t want to give up all these things! Can’t I blame just one person for being unhappy?” [laughter] “It’s not really my attachment—it’s just this one person, they really betrayed me.”

(VTC again takes on the motherly tone of voice) “I know you don’t really want to face this one. I know you don’t want to clean up your room right now, but it’s time to clean up our room, so let’s take a look at this attachment and clean it up a little here.” [laughter]

Audience: When you go back to the room, for meditation, sometimes the feeling is, “Oh, again I have to go through the sadhana.” It gets a bit mechanical. I would like to enter the practice quicker. Which parts of the sadhana are ones we can skip, and which parts are ones to go through all the time?

VTC: With the sadhana, you should go through the whole thing every time, but you can speed up or slow down whatever parts you want to.

Audience: The mantra: sometimes I feel that I go too fast, and that I am missing some words or some syllables. But I feel also that if I slow down….

VTC: …you’re trying too hard. Try and say the mantra as fast as you can. You don’t want to go so fast that you skip some syllables: “Om Vajrasattva samaya ah hung phey.” [laughter] If you’re doing that, you know you’ve missed a little bit. Then you know you need to slow down. You don’t want to go so slow; don’t drive yourself crazy. You should be coming along with your mantras. Three months is enough time to finish them in. You shouldn’t be going very slowly (VTC then says mantra very slowly); you’re going to drive yourself crazy, and you’re going to lose the energy of the mantra. But if the “suto kayo me bhawa, supo kayo me bhawa” are all merging into one, then that part you need to slow down.

Audience: This has been a very helpful session for me, Venerable. The whole thing about relaxing into seeing your stuff. There’s part of me that’s accepting the fact that I had some expectations coming into this retreat. I’m realizing that I’m having an expectation about wanting this retreat to be profound but gentle. But I’m right in the middle of my stuff after only a few weeks.

Understanding compassion

I’ve really been wanting to understand what compassion is, how to deepen what that means. Here is this wonderful Buddha that I’m starting to—I don’t really have a relationship with. I’m starting to do the lam rim on compassion, and thinking about His Holiness saying that everybody wants happiness and doesn’t want to suffer. And when I even start with myself, I find that the fundamental obstacle is the fact that I don’t have that compassion for myself, and the whole idea about going through a meditation and saying to myself, “[self], when you get all manipulative, and shady and crooked, and passive-aggressive, you’re trying to be happy, and trying to avoid suffering, and this is your strange way of trying to do this.”

So what I’m trying to do is get a different spin. When I look at my negativities, the things I have to work on, I give myself such a hard time. I’m such a taskmaster; I’m so hard on myself. And if I just look at it as myself trying to be happy and not to suffer—in the deluded and crazy way that I do it. And being able to see how I don’t really have compassion for myself. I’m trying to do the equanimity meditation, and trying to think of wishing happiness for people, and I can’t pass my first three intimate friends and my sister—I can’t do it! I can’t move any farther than people I’m extremely attached to, much less my enemies. I don’t even have the attention for strangers—I don’t have enough time for them.

It all comes back to the fact that I don’t even know what it is to have compassion for myself. So I have been going over my life and looking at the things I’ve struggled with all of my life, and not seeing them as these concrete, habitual, negative, nasty, ‘you’re a terrible person, you’re unlovable, you’re screwed up things’—just seeing them as this is me just trying to be happy and not to suffer. It really just opened up the whole thing. And now I’m really starting to look at some really difficult stuff, and I’m getting hooked into how bad I was, how wrong I was, how much work I have to do, and how far I have to go—and it’s just telling myself that I was trying to avoid suffering and be happy. And I can watch myself play this out, and I can watch how I was really just trying to be happy in a situation that was making me miserable.

I’ve always thought about why His Holiness uses that sentence so often. I’ve heard him a few times, and asked myself, “why does he keep saying that?” So I said to myself, “why don’t you discover why he keeps telling the world that?” And that has been a huge piece.

VTC: Yes, yes. I find that same simple phrase—”everybody wants to be happy and not suffer”—so powerful, too. Like you were saying, it’s so powerful when we look at ourselves and our own stuff, to have some understanding for the person we were instead of lambasting ourselves all the time. And then similarly, when we see people do things that we don’t like, to say, that’s just what they’re trying to do—to be happy and not suffer. And they don’t know the cause of happiness, or the cause of suffering, but that’s all they are. That’s all Adolf Hitler was—somebody trying to be happy and not to suffer. That’s all. To completely deconstruct all these images we have of people.

Audience: And the judgments, and the projections. And how we think we know why they’re doing what they’re doing: “of course, they’re doing it just to piss me off.” [laughter] Even in the past three days, I’ve seen this judgmental mind come up in relation to some of the folks I live here with, and I’ve just said, “this is just about happiness and not wanting to suffer. There’s nothing else going on.” It opens up a window, letting some fresh air into the mind.

VTC: Yes, yes. It’s amazing how we make it all very personal. “They’re doing this deliberately to get at me.” First of all, we’re sure about their motivation—most of the time we’re wrong about people’s motivation; we’re just projecting things. Most of the time people have gotten mad at us, we didn’t try and do anything. It was accidental. But even if somebody did something with a bad motivation toward us, is that a good reason to get angry at them? Even if they want to hurt us—does that mean that anger is a good reaction? No. They’re just trying to be happy and not suffer, just like us. And our getting mad at them: we don’t need to lambaste ourselves for getting mad at them, because I’m just trying to be happy and not suffer, and I think that somehow getting mad at this person is going to make me happy.

And then you laugh; then you really start to laugh. I think it’s so good when you can do this. “I thought getting mad at this person was really going to make me happy. Boy, was I wrong. Pretty funny that I thought that.” But I think that’s very good in what you said, especially about other people in the group. You’ll find that—you probably have already, that in the lack of other people in your life, you start projecting on the people in the group: “They slammed that door because they know it’s going to drive me crazy” [laughter] “They forgot to turn that light off because they deliberately want to waste the world’s resources. They don’t care at all, and that’s why they don’t turn the light off.” [laughter] “There’s too much toilet paper in the toilet. They did it because they know I’m the next one in and it’s going to run over because I have to flush it. They wanted me to be the one that has to go with the plunger because there’s too much toilet paper. They did that!” [laughter]

When you see these things come up, laugh. And then sometimes you see in your own mind, “They did that to me. I wish they had a taste of their own medicine. Gee, I can’t speak, but maybe I can just take their napkin or placemat and put it in the laundry and then they’ll know how I feel when I come in and my napkin isn’t there because they moved it without asking my permission. Let them suffer not having their napkin!”[laughter] “Give them a taste of their own medicine: I’m going to take down the water bowls and spill all the water and not clean it up so then they’ll know what it’s like to come in and set up the water the next morning after they took it down!” And then you look and you go, “Yeah I think doing that will make me happy.” And we laugh.

Schism in the Sangha

Audience: In the five heinous actions, there is one causing schism in the Sangha, what is that?

VTC: Okay, causing a schism in the Sangha is having the Sangha, the dharma community and getting people to quarrel and fight. They say that the one that is the heinous action it was only created at the time of the Buddha. It has to be with an actual Buddha who turned the wheel of Dharma. So that was Devadatta who had the “honor” of being the only one who did that. So we can’t actually create that as a heinous action in this life, but what it’s getting at is our mind that likes to create problems, make dharma people quarrel and not get along and divide into factions. That’s something that’s serious.

Integrating concentration in daily practice

Audience: The six paramitas…. There are five paramitas we practice, such as being generous; but concentration, samadhi: I am not very aware of cultivating this one. So I was wondering how should we do it on a regular basis—just meditation, breathing meditation? How to integrate this into our practice?

VTC: So how to integrate some practice of developing concentration in your daily practice. What you can do is see what object of meditation really works for you. For some people, the breath works well; for some people, the breath doesn’t work well. You can do it in the context of, for example, Vajrasattva or Chenrezig: your meditation object is the deity, the figure of the deity. Or, if you do the self-generation, it could be the image of yourself as the deity. That could be your meditation object. Many people find that a visualized object of the deity or the Buddha is easier to develop concentration on.

But they say that when you’re doing it, to just do short sessions. So what you might do as part of your daily practice is to work a little at the visualization and keeping your mind on it, for five or ten minutes, something like that. But then implement concentration in the rest of your practice in the sense of knowing what you’re practice you’re doing. [laughter] If you’re reading a prayer, focus on the meaning of the prayer—things like that.

Emptiness in Vajrasattva practice

Audience: How come we don’t say this mantra that’s in a lot of sadhanas. It’s like “Om svabhava….

VTC: Om svabhava shuddho sarva dharma svabhava shuddo ‘ham.

Audience: Yes: how come we don’t say that one in this sadhana?

VTC: That is the mantra where you dissolve everything into emptiness, and then usually after that, the deity emerges. So it’s very often done when you’re doing a self-generation practice.

Audience: So we’re not working with emptiness in that way in this meditation?

VTC: No, because we’re doing a front generation. Vajrasattva is above your head. You can meditate on emptiness when Vajrasattva dissolves into you, but you can also think of how all the negative karma is empty, and how Vajrasattva is empty.

Audience: Also, in the visualization: you have all the people around you, and you’ve dissolved Vajradhara, and you leave all the people there… When you do the thing at the end, when you dissolve Vajrasattva—in a lot of our practices, all the people around us, the deity goes into them too—but that’s not in this sadhana.

VTC: This one, if you’ve been thinking that there’s a Vajrasattva on the heads of all the sentient beings, then you can think that that Vajrasattva dissolves into them too. But usually, in this one, you’re focusing pretty much on yourself, although it’s certainly good to feel that there are other people around you and that Vajrasattva is purifying them as well.

Was Vajrasattva a person?

Audience: I know Shakyamuni Buddha existed, and that he was a person, but once I was thinking, “What about Vajrasattva?” Did he exist? Was he a person?

VTC: That I don’t know. I haven’t heard any stories about previous lives of Vajrasattva. I don’t know. Tara and Chenrezig, there are stories, but I haven’t heard one about Vajrasattva. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

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.