Just go free-form

Just go free-form

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

  • Two ways to deal with the self-cherishing mind
  • Dealing with anxiety and pain
  • Addiction to thinking and new and exciting things
  • When something bad happens, saying it’s good

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A #5 (download)

This discussion session was preceded by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 10-15.

Now, your questions.

Audience: I have a question that relates to two things you were saying before. I’ve been trying to look at the self-cherishing mind a little—and I actually did think of it as like a kid in class that acts up—and you were saying, sometimes with those students, if you just listen to them, the problem goes away on its own. But with the self-cherishing mind, I feel like a lot of the advice is to bash it over the head…. I don’t know….

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so you’re saying with a student that’s acting up, if you listen to them they’ll calm down, but should we really listen to the self-cherishing mind, or should we just clobber it?

Audience: Yes.

Role-playing with self-centered mind

VTC: Here’s where you need to develop some finesse in your practice. What I’ve done sometimes is I’ve had this little role-play: I put self-centered mind on one side, and Dharma- me over here. I’m sitting in the middle: I’m the facilitator. And I say, “Okay, self-centered mind, you’re whining and you’re complaining and you’re acting out, what’s really the problem?” And then I try and really listen to my heart with what self-centered mind is doing. Sometimes self-centered mind is saying, for example, “Oh, nobody loves me!

Everybody’s ignoring me. Everybody else has a best friend. Nobody cares about me. I’m so isolated from everybody else, etc.”

And then say, “Okay, I really hear you, self-centered mind. You’re really miserable. Let’s look at some of the things you’re saying. You’re saying nobody loves you. Is that really true? Is that really true that nobody loves you?” So you listen compassionately to self-centered mind: “Oh yeah, you are really miserable. You’re suffering so much. But is it really true that nobody loves you? Is that really true?”

And then you go back into the role-play of being self-centered mind: “well, is it really true that nobody loves me? Well, no, that’s not completely true. There are people who love me. But I want more love that they’re giving me!” [laughter]

Then you go back into the other person [Dharma-me], “oh, I really hear you. You really want more love than they’re giving you. What do you think could make that come about?” And then you go back—you ask self-cherishing mind: “Is demanding love going to be the thing that makes them love you more? Is that going to help? What’s going to help improve these relationships?”

And then you role-play self-centered mind again, and you think about it. You think, “well, yeah, I’ve been carrying on, accusing everybody of not loving me enough, and whining, and that really hasn’t done any good, has it?” [laughter] “I wonder how these other people feel about me? I wonder how I could be more loveable? Oh! Maybe I could start caring about them. Oh! Hmm, what a novel idea, maybe I can start caring about them….”

So you do this little role play, but when you are self-centered thought, you really get into that role, you really let self-centered thought put out its whole story. We’ve all done role play and improv and stuff like that—you play both roles and then you sympathize with your self- centered mind, but then say, “Is what you’re thinking true? Is your tactic for getting what you want really going to work? Has it worked in the past?”

Sometimes, if you have that kind of discussion with yourself, it gives you some space to just understand yourself, and say, “oohh, poor self-cherishing. You really are miserable. You really are hurting.” Sometimes, when you have that dialogue and role play the two things it can be very helpful.

And here’s why I said there needs to be some finesse in your practice: there are other times when self-centered mind comes up, where you just absolutely need to turn around and clobber it. It’s like knapweed: you don’t have a discussion with it. You pull it out by the roots! [laughter]

Audience: Like when you told us in an earlier Q&A about the time when you were getting into bed, and you thought, “Oh, I can’t take this pain anymore,” and then you just cut it off….

VTC: Right. (claps) You just have to say, “No, I can take it.” So there are other times when you need to completely say, “I’m not going there.” I think knapweed is a really good example, isn’t it? [laughter]

Questions, comments. What’s happening with everybody?

Audience: The honeymoon is definitely over.

VTC: The honeymoon’s over, huh?

Discursive thinking, with space in the mind

Audience: I was talking to myself this morning after the second session of meditation. I was saying, “ well, a whole week here and I think you probably have gone through the entire sadhana uninterrupted or at least only slightly from beginning to end maybe six times the entire week in all the sessions. There were some days when the gong went off and I was like, “reverently I prostrate with my body, speech and mind.” I had disappeared into some discursive thinking or lists of springtime tasks for after the retreat is over or the disturbing attitudes that are sort of just making their way around to everybody in the retreat and taking me away from the sadhana. One day, not getting past refuge in an hour and fifteen minutes…. I’d pull myself back; I’d pull myself back, and I was gone before I knew it. Now one of the things I have to say is, and this is very, very different than last year, is that I’m not beating myself up about it. And because I’m not beating myself up about it what I’m finding out is that the beating up and the self-hate ends up tightening the screws even more on the mind that’s already out of control and wandering around samsara and not staying with Vajrasattva at all. By me not doing it this year, it’s amazing, even with all that discursive thinking and the disturbing attitudes and the lists and my senses driving me around too—e.g. I’m too cold, too hot, it smells good, what’s that sound? My senses are just driving me everywhere, but I still have a lot of space in my mind, more this year than I did last year.

VTC: Good.

Audience: Now I’m figuring out that it’s the judge and the jury and the dictator who come in and beats you up after you’ve been wandering around that makes things even worse. You can’t handle it; you can’t deal with it. So I’m not quite sure…. I’ve been using the antidotes, trying to work with those. I’m not quite sure as far as the list thing and getting off on a tangent, just going in my mind, just obsessing.

VTC: We should compare lists. [laughter]

Audience: I’m not quite sure, do I just kind of hang in with this, is this sort of a phase? The space is there; I’m actually having quite a bit of joy in my mind despite the fact that I’m frustrated.

VTC: Just seeing how you’re not beating yourself up, that’s tremendous progress. That’s really totally different than what happened before and you can see that it does give a lot of space. I think with the list…. Go and write it all down. Isn’t everyone making a list? Isn’t everybody making a list of what you’re going to do after retreat? Tomorrow everybody take out black felt pens and write down all your lists of what you’re going to do and we’ll hang them around. Seriously! And have blank paper, or blank space at the bottom of the page, so when you think of new ones you can come and write it down. I’m sure everybody is making a list, aren’t you? You know of what you want to do after retreat, what you’re going to do, what you’re going to buy, where you’re going to go, who you’re going to talk to, what letters you’re going to write. So let’s write it all down, we’ll just put it on the walls and when you think of a new one you can just add it. If you get tired of reading your list you can go to another space on the wall to read all the lists. [laughter]

Audience: So what is the afflictive emotion on discursive thinking? Is there an antidote rather than keep bringing the mind back?

VTC: Well they say for just discursive, just distraction, like that doing breathing meditation. You need some single-pointedness at that point. I think sometimes just really saying the mantra and letting yourself sink into the vibration of the mantra can have that same effect. There’s too much going on with the visualization, just pay attention to the sound of the mantra, focus on the sound, sink. I don’t know about you, but can you see that there are various levels of energy? Especially the list-planning one it’s up a notch and it’s like your voice is up a notch and when you really get into the mantra it’s like you can feel the energy go lower in your body. You kind of settle down and your voice gets lower.

Audience: It’s really exciting despite everything that’s going on.

Giving up clinging and floating on the ocean

Audience: I don’t know if I really have a question but I thought I’d tell you what I’ve been doing. It feels like for the first month often times I’m kind of in this boat out in the ocean waiting for the next disturbing attitude to come in. Sometimes I’m maneuvering; different storms are coming, some are easy, some are hard. Sometimes I’m maneuvering it; sometimes I’m using the Dharma; sometimes I’m sinking and popping back up. Then it’s calm and I do some Dharma reading, and then the next one comes in. But I feel like I’m in this boat. I’ve been dealing with my body the first month [having a lot of chronic back pain]. Then it started driving me absolutely crazy. In fact, I’m used to dealing with pain but I realized that I was having excessive fear. This was intensified; I didn’t really need it. My body just felt out of control. There was a week where I never knew what was going to happen, then it kind of settled down. Then I was nerved out about any little thing: thinking, it’s going to turn into something. But then, “ok, I can deal with that; it’s the body.” But then the last couple of days, until this morning, things were too tight. I didn’t sleep well. So finally this morning I took a page out of your book. The boat image had come but I’d always pushed it aside. So this morning I just played with it. I realized that there was no boat actually. I was kind of out there in the ocean. [laughter] I just kind of went with it— free form. Sometimes in my meditation I do it kind of structured and sometimes I just go free form and let it happen. This was totally free form but I went with the images because images help me. I kind of just gave up my body completely. It was nice actually. I really felt like it was a possible thing at least in one moment of time to actually, just completely, give it up because the accommodation’s a problem. Then I felt like, “but if your mind is still there….” I’ve always asked myself, “what am I clinging to?” That thought comes up to me a lot when things aren’t going so well. But I really didn’t follow that one along. It felt a little bit like a practice for dying actually. I don’t know if I have a question. But I was thinking about dying because you’re going to have to give up your body. But it also seems like you’re going to have to give up your mind.

VTC: Yup. You’ve got to give everything up. We’re giving up everything when we die.

Audience: I don’t know what the question is, what are the best conditions?

VTC: It sounds like you’ve been fighting with your body.

Audience: I realized in the fall that I get quite angry at it. I’ve been a little better. The thing was fear actually. I realized that later today. What made me kind of nervous was I had a few times— it’s happened three times where I was experiencing things that I really didn’t know what they were and I wasn’t comfortable. In fact, today I was thinking, “geez, maybe I’m not so mentally sound; maybe I could have a psychic break.” [laughter] Because I really didn’t know what the experiences were.

VTC: Mental experiences or physical ones?

Audience: I finally figured it out: it’s Fear. Sometimes I walk up to the meadow when it’s dark, and I make myself walk into the woods and I’m fearful; and I do it just because, because actually there is really nothing to fear, and I know that, but I have fear so I just do it. That’s how I figured out what it is, it’s fear and I’m not so used to it…. I really didn’t know what it was when it was happening. It helped to label it; it felt a lot better.

VTC: So is it fear of your body or fear of the future?

Audience: It was easier to see the fear when I could watch my little stories about how I’m going to figure out what to do if my body goes this way or that way. I just didn’t know what was going to happen with it and that was okay. But when it came to my mind, that was uncomfortable. I really didn’t know what I was experiencing. It helped a lot to label it today. You talk about this sometimes with anxiety and I don’t think I have that a lot of time. I used to tell myself I don’t feel fear much except for the unknown, so when I was able to think of walking up to the meadow and what that felt like and I was able to label that, then the whole thing kind of settled out.

VTC: Very often we are anxious and we aren’t aware of it and we think, “I’m not an anxious person.” And then we look and we’re quite anxious: there is a lot of fear and a lot of worry. And so it’s true, sometimes just labeling it is very, very good. Helps to calm the mind down. “Oh, there’s fear again.”

Audience: The thing that was nice actually, was then I was floating out there on the ocean, I had this sense of protection, actually. I felt like the Dharma and the Sangha, and the Buddha were protection, basically—that’s what was so calming.

VTC: Refuge is an incredible protection like that, especially when your mind feels a little bit weird, when you have unusual mental experiences—coming back to Refuge is very, very important at that time. When people have nightmares or whatever, just take refuge. When there’s some kind of mental experience that you don’t know what it is, it’s very helpful to take refuge. Use this as a way to study what goes on in the mind.

I had never thought of myself as an anxious person—everybody’s going to laugh, “ha ha, Chodron, everybody else knows you are”—but I think I’m not. And then I see, “oh, I have some anxiety there.” It was very interesting discovering that, and then doing Taking and Giving meditation with it. For anxiety, what I think works very well— I was doing this in relationship to my leg and the pain I was having, with this shooting pain that sometimes came out of nowhere—I had a determination that, every time it hurts I’m going to say, “That’s Good!” I just trained myself to say every time something hurts, “That’s good: It’s negative karma being used up.” Or, every time I don’t get what I want—I’m pushing and pushing and trying to control things, and it’s not going the way I want—every time I don’t get what I want, I’m going to say, “It’s good!”

We usually forget, but if you keep reminding yourself: every time people say something I don’t want to hear, “Oh, that’s Good!” We usually say, “that’s bad.” But, why is it bad? Why not label it “good”? Why do we label it “bad”? Why can’t it be good? Something hurts. Why can’t that be good? Who says it can’t be good? Or things aren’t happening the way I want to: “Good! Self-centeredness is not going to get his way. It’s good!”

The mind is a dependent arising

Audience: Last week, I told you that I was obsessed with finding my “I.” Yesterday morning, I was thinking, and at first, I thought there was something that possessed my body and my mind. Suddenly, I realized that I am not my body, and I am not my brain. I began to think in another way. At first, I was confusing my brain with my mind. Then I thought the brain is like the hardware and the mind is like software. I have this kind of brain, and that’s why I have these kinds of thoughts and mental factors. But then there was an observer that was watching the relationship between the mind, the hardware, and the software, and karma. But yesterday, I found another observer that was watching my observer—so I have observer #1 and #2!

VTC: Tomorrow there will come a third one and a fourth one….[laughter].

Audience: I had a sense that if I continue looking, I’m going to find a lot of observers. Then I thought that my mind is like a dependent arising: there is a mind, but I will never find it. I realized that I was looking for a concrete thing. I just gave up: I will never hold the mind. I will never say, “ah! This is the final Observer!” No. It was a dependent arising—always changing.

VTC: This relates very much to what one retreatant was saying last week: There are these decisions, but who in the world is deciding? It’s like this— there’s a retreat going on, but where’s the retreat? Is there somebody running the retreat? What’s the retreat? Or your workplace— there are all these people working together. Is there one person in charge that makes everything happen in the whole thing? No. There’s this retreat going on, but is there one person in charge of the whole thing? And what in the world is this retreat? We can’t find anything, but it’s all happening, isn’t it? The retreat is happening, things are going along, this and that happens, decisions are made, but is there some big thing doing it?

Audience: And I feel so relieved about that—it is a release. Really, you feel free. It is a very incredible sense of feeling this. I don’t know how to express myself. I tried to find something, but I know I am going to fail, but I continue, continue…. So I don’t know who is going to be reborn, or anything….

VTC: That’s okay. It’s like another retreatant said: “There’s no boat, but instead of sitting in the water and flailing, I’m just going to float.”

Seeing negative karma as a teacher

Audience: You mentioned saying “good” when something bad happens, and I have something I want to share. Last week these people were working on the roof of the meditation hall during one of our sessions. At the beginning, there was the hitting on the roof, and I got hooked to the sound; I could not get away from it. And I was working on one of my own problems at the same time; and I was thinking that if I suffer from these problems, it is because I had done something before. That was one thing. Then I thought that if I suffer, life is not punishing me. e.g. God is not saying, “You are a sinner. You should be punished.” So why do I suffer? Because I did something. But how should I respond to this? I thought, instead of this being punishment, it is something that comes up to repair my negative karma, the things I have done. It gives me the chance and reminds me—this hitting on the roof, and on my body and emotions—that I can repair something that I have done before. So I thought that negative karma was a very good teacher, and it’s very good, when you really suffer, to take advantage of that suffering, and say, “This is it. I cannot avoid it now.” If I remember always, that when you have to repair something, there is pain or hitting, and I remember this image of the [roofers] repairing the meditation hall, then it’s an image that can help me.

VTC: Very good.

Audience: I am not a sinner; I am not guilty. But I did do something that I have to repair.

VTC: Right, very good.

Audience: For me, the negative karma is the teacher. And it’s the opportunity that life has given you at that moment to remind you that you did something, and now, if you want, you can repair it.

VTC: Right: it’s reminding you that it’s time to repair it, and it’s time—in the future—not to do it again.

Audience: Right, because we live in a conditioned world. And if we don’t stop, we will do it again and again. And if you don’t take the opportunity to repair your karma, then you will only create more conditions for suffering later.

VTC: It sounds like you just learned something very important. That’s good. Very good.

What do we expect from samsara?

Audience: For me, I have a pattern of resentment coming up, and I’m just starting to recognize when it does arise. My sense is the antidote is patience, but how can I stop the resentment from arising in the first place? Right now I feel like, “Okay, it’s another situation, and it’s the same resentment coming up.”

VTC: Things aren’t going the way you want them to go, and you get resentful?

Audience: Thinking that I need to get certain things done in certain amount of time, and when that doesn’t happen, or when someone interrupts me, resentment comes up. And I’m always in this situation. So now I’m seeing it, but I’m not seeing how to get out of it. This pattern has been going on for lifetimes. I can’t stop it, although I can observe it. But where do you actually cut it off?

VTC: So there’s this pattern, where you have an idea of what you want to get done in a certain amount of time, it doesn’t happen for a particular reason—and especially if someone comes in and you have to pay attention to someone else—getting resentful. What I find, because I have that happen too, is to train myself to say, “Good! I’m glad I didn’t get everything done!” [laughter]

Audience: That I didn’t get everything done?

VTC: Yes. Good! This is samsara, of course I didn’t get everything done I wanted to. This is samsara, of course things didn’t go my way. What in the world did I expect? “Well, I expected everything to happen according to my schedule and turn out the way I wanted.” Time to laugh at myself again—“oohhh, a mess-up in samsara! Imagine that! How unusual!” Here I am ranting and raving because there was a mess-up; I should expect these things. In fact, it’s amazing that they don’t happen more. [laughter]

Audience: There’s a whole ethos around “A good day is when things get done; a bad day is when they don’t.”

VTC: Yes. But here, it’s thinking, “Of course. It’s samsara. Of course things aren’t going to get done the way I want!”

Audience: So I can say that to you [e.g. when things are not done or are late]? [laughter]

VTC: And then I’m going to have to say, “No it’s not!” (laughter as VTC bangs table) “It’s got to get done!” And I’ll have to say to myself, “Oh, it’s samsara.” [laughter] Then we’ll have to say to all the other people who are bugging both of us, “Oh, it’s samsara. Sorry, it didn’t get done.” [laughter] t’s good that you’re noticing this as a habit, a pattern. Those kinds of things can be so poisonous when they go on for a long time.

Audience: In relation to that, I find that as this comes up, simultaneously there’s a storyline that has been saying that for so long—I’ve got it memorized. Jealousy comes up, feeling excluded, left out—the whole justification. To reframe it so that we can start talking to ourselves differently seems so important. But there’s a hook, a juice, in that resentment, in that jealousy that is almost something I go for. It’s like a hit, in a negative sort of way. The disturbing attitudes have a buzz on them that I’m hooked into….

VTC: Why? Because when the disturbing attitude comes up, there’s a very strong feeling of “I.” What we’re getting out of it is, “I’M HERE.” [laughter] There’s resentment, there’s jealousy, there’s frustration: “I’M HERE.” It is like a hit.

Addiction to thinking, filling the space

Audience: This thing about getting so much space because the mind is quieting down [in retreat], and we’re working with our afflictions…. It seems that for me, because I’ve calmed down some, the mind is sort of searching for what to put in there. That’s the lists or whatnot. To keep focused on what to do with that, I’ve been telling myself to just stay in stillness.

VTC: There’s kind of an addiction to thinking. “Oh, there’s space in my mind—better fill it up with thinking about something!” Yes, just stay in that stillness. Or, if you put something into it, put the vibration of the mantra. Or that feeling of compassion, that still feeling of compassion. But there is very much this whole addiction to thinking. The notion that “if I don’t think, something is wrong.”

Audience: Right: “what am I forgetting?”

VTC: I should be making use of my mind!

Audience: And that spaciousness that comes up, that is going toward the more natural state of the mind when it is unadulterated by all this thinking and all this projection?

VTC: Yes.

Audience: What an unusual experience that is; it’s somewhat disconcerting.

Audience: That reminds me: I have a relative who’s always on the go, and he would call me when I lived at Gampo Abbey (a Buddhist monastic community in Canada), and every weekend he would say, “So, what are you guys doing this weekend?” [laughter] Always. Or he’d call in the middle of the week: (in a hurried voice) “So, what’s going on?” And I would always just say, “nothing…”

VTC: The sun came up!

Audience: It was the funniest thing—he always wanted something, some excitement. I just got used to saying, “there’s nothing going on that’s any different from yesterday, the last time you called….” He just never could get it—[I’d say] “Well, you know, oh just meditating….” So there is that side of our mind that’s like looking for “what’s going on?! What’s happening?”

VTC:: Something new, something exciting.

Audience: That’s when I start picking fights, when space starts to happen. It’s amazing how my mind will start to go to somebody and pick a fight (in my mind) with the behavior of that person for the day—“It’s Tom today!”

Audience: I don’t know how to make this question very clear but I’m going to try. As we work with the sadhana, we can enter the problem through many doors. I think it’s necessary to find out different ways to focus your problem. Is there any way to try to find out how to go more directly to the root of the problem instead of working with this little side or with that little problem?

VTC: Look at how the “I” appears to exist.

Audience: How it appears to exist?

VTC: Yes: how it’s appearing and if it exists that way.

The rarity of having conditions to practice Dharma

Audience: I have a comment. I wrote one letter to an inmate, he answered me. His letter for me is very strong because he answered with absolute sincerity. I didn’t want this kind of answer. For me it’s not easy to continue this exchange because he is very, very open, very sincere. There are some parts of the letter that I would like to—or maybe all the letter—I would like to share with you. If you like, I could put it out some place. One of the things I would like to comment on him is that on the basis of our experience, the situation that is doesn’t matter if we are inside the prison or outside the prison. (Retreatant finishes her comments in Spanish.) Translation: Half of his life he has been in prison. He has been describing the reasons why he suffers. She’s [the retreatant] saying that many of those reasons are the same reasons she had for looking for a spiritual path. So the strange thing is, that she in no way has been in danger or jail. Even though the experiences are in a way common. You can see the letter. I want to say thank you very much because with this kind of interchange we really can put our experience in a deeper context. We think sometimes that all the people are in our same situation [e.g. this retreat]. If we look at the world, this is a very rare situation, rare conditions to be with our teacher, to be with books, to be in this kind of place, to have all the conditions exactly for our practice. Like we are kings, no? I feel like a queen of the Dharma. It’s a very, very good experience.

VTC: R. shared that letter with me. Thank you very much. It’s very touching. He [the inmate] is very much right there; not trying to cover anything or hide or justify. I think it’s really a call to respond with that same kind of thing of just, “Yes, this is what I’m thinking or this is what my experience is.” [To other retreatants] You’ll see the tone and how it is written. It’s very beautiful.

Audience: I was thinking about that today. When we read our prayer for our meal, we have the opportunity to make these offerings. I was thinking, “why are we so complacent?” Why does our mind go there? It happens all the time. Someone injuries their leg and they can’t walk well and have to use crutches. Then they notice all the people that have to use crutches. Until they have those crutches, they never do. I’ve seen this so many times. Our brain, we’re just set up that way. I feel that way about this life. You have to do a lot of work to build this cabin, right [VTC’s writing studio]? O.K. fine, we recognize that. But we don’t seem to recognize how much work we have to do to get this precious human life. We had to do a lot and we just take it for granted. We could say this prayer all day. I’ve been thinking about so many people I’ve met in hospitals and different places. It’s like what you were saying the very first day…. These people aren’t even able to say the mantra. They are so many people out there— they’re humans but they don’t have a full brain; they’re riding around in carts; they’re in Fircrest [home for severely mentally and physically disabled people]. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. I’m just amazed how much we take for granted. I do it all the time. Until you have an injury, you don’t worry about your toes. Unless we think about things we’re just going to do that.

VTC: It’s very much the thing of taking things for granted and looking at what we don’t have and complaining about that. I pick up on that line of the food offering prayer too: May we always have the opportunity to make offerings to the Triple Gem. It’s true. We take that so much for granted. The opportunity to offer food. It’s such a small thing; we just kind of run through the prayer spaced out. But to have the opportunity to have food and then to know the Dharma so that we can offer the food…. Just that simple thing which we do, how many times? It already took the accumulation of so much good karma just to get that opportunity whereby we can offer food before we eat. Like you said, just looking at everything that we have. It’s true. It’s very easy to come here and say, “I’m working so hard.” But how much did we have to do to have the opportunity to be able to come here and work? The work that you do here is for the Triple Gem. It’s not ordinary work. It’s work for the Triple Gem: it’s work sustaining the Dharma; it’s helping other people progress along the path. Just having that opportunity to work at the Abbey, let alone to meditate or participate in the program. That alone took a lot of good karma, and how much we take that for granted and say, “oh, I’m working too hard; I don’t want to work.”

Audience: We’re like the turtle that came up through the ring!

Compassion without being overwhelmed

Audience: When we suffer about something very strongly, in that moment we can have empathy for the people who suffer that problem.

VTC: That’s the thing. We get so much into our own suffering. Like you said, we can’t have empathy for anybody else. It’s precisely at that moment that we need to catch ourselves and say, “I’m not the only one.” And open our eyes and look and see what’s going on in this planet, and then we’ll see, wow, my suffering is nothing! My suffering is actually quite manageable. It’s like nothing. I’m not living in Baghdad right now. Or whatever it is, whatever situation you can imagine. That’s the whole meditation on the precious human life: I’m not born in the hell realms. Just seeing that our suffering is actually quite manageable. It’s not so bad.

Audience: On the other side of the coin, to let in all the suffering there is. I was trying to think the other day in a session about how to let that in but not feel so pained or overwhelmed. I was trying to think what were the afflictions of that. So would that be attachment? Too much attachment? During the session there was a fly by me that was dying and I really started to try to pay attention to that and look at that, and then I started crying and felt so overwhelmed. So I was trying to think how to have that compassion but not feel so overwhelmed.

VTC: So, how to have compassion without feeling overwhelmed by it? How bodhisattvas keep their optimism is that they always see that compassion, and that the suffering has causes and the causes can be eliminated. So it’s like you can see the pain of the fly when it’s dying and that was created by causes, and there is nothing you can do right now to stop that, but you know you can make a karmic connection with that fly, and make prayers to be able to teach it the Dharma in future lives, so you can teach it so it won’t create the causes for this, and instead it will create the causes for liberation and enlightenment.

Audience: I also thought after it really was dead that, and I was still in such pain with it, then I said that’s just the body and its consciousness is leaving.

VTC: Its consciousness had left and we of course don’t know where it was born, if it was born in a better place or a worse place. That’s why it’s good to do prayers for it and say mantra so it can hear, and blow on it.

Audience: Not a bad placed to die in the meditation hall and hearing the prayers….

VTC: Yes, it’s a great place to die if you’re a fly. But make that connection so you can be of benefit to that living being in the future. And we don’t know where it was reborn if it’s happier or if it’s in more suffering, we don’t know. The thing is, whatever suffering it was experiencing is impermanent: it’s changing, changing, changing. That’s what I tell the kitties sometimes [the 2 Abbey cats, Achala and Manjushri]. When it comes time for them to die, just to let go and the important thing is to have that positive motivation because whatever suffering you’re experiencing doesn’t last for very long— it’s just momentary, its gone, gone, gone, gone, gone. Carry a good motivation because that carries you through and makes a good outcome come.

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.