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37 Practices: Verses 7-9

37 Practices: Verses 7-9

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.

  • Continued discussion of the 37 Practices of the Bodhisattva, Verses 7-9
  • Importance of our relationship to our spiritual mentor
  • Sitting on the cushion and entering an enlightened environment
  • Analogies linking our spiritual practice and nature
  • Refuge and karma

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: 37 Practices: Verses 7-9 (download)

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

How is everybody? Como esta usted?

Audience: Muy bien….

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You’re still here? [laughter]

Audience: Sometimes. [laughter]

VTC: Other times you’re roaming the universe? A third of the retreat is over. Have you realized that? It’s gone very quickly, hasn’t it? One month like this [snap]—the retreat’s a third over, and in a couple of weeks it will be half over. It goes really fast, doesn’t it?

Retreating from samsaric trips

The first month is often the honeymoon month. [laughter] It’s just wonderful: Vajrasattva is just wonderful, your mind is sometimes a little bit of a mess, but it’s still wonderful. The middle month: you’re just kind of entering the middle month now, aren’t you? [laughter] Has something shifted? Oh yes, the honeymoon’s over, isn’t it? [laughter] We’re really getting down to work; it’s not just “ohh, such wonderful experiences”—we’re getting down to work, and we’re doing the same thing every single day, not one day off. We don’t have one day off from samsara, so we don’t have one day off from practicing either. Everyday we’re with the same group of people, the same schedule, the same deity, the same practice, doing the same thing. The weather changes a little bit from one day to the next, but not a whole lot, and after a while, the mind goes: (VTC makes frustrated face. Laughter ensues).

At the beginning, everyone in the group is wonderful, and then, around the second month, you really want to punch the guy who closes the door so loudly. The first month, you did okay practicing patience, but the second month, it’s like, “Come on. Haven’t you learned already after one month how to close the door?” [laughter] And then the one who doesn’t bring his dishes from the table to the sink, or when he does, forgets to scrape them—then that one you really want to clobber. Or the one who snores when you’re trying to sleep. Or the one who walks in a way that you don’t like, the one who breathes too loudly, the one who makes too much noise when he takes off his jacket—all of a sudden we think, “I can’t stand this! Haven’t these people learned how to practice the dharma and be considerate yet?!” [laughter] Is any of that coming up? (Retreatants nod.) What’s happening is that our own inner anger is just looking around for whatever happens to be around to project itself onto. So, it will: whoever happens to be around, when we have anger inside, we will find somebody or something to be aggravated about or angry at or ticked off with. That often starts coming up—we start projecting it onto others.

We start getting into trips: “Gee, that one sits so much longer that I do. I’m so jealous. They’re such a better practitioner than I am. How dare they be! I want to be the best practitioner here!” We get into jealousy with people. We start competing with our dharma friends: “I’m going to be the first one to finish the mantra. I’m going to be the biggest bodhisattva—I’m going to show them how kind and compassionate I can be. I can be more kind and compassionate than they can!” We’ll get into trips of arrogance, where we think that we’re better than everyone else; of competitiveness, where we’re equal and competing; of jealousy when we feel inferior. All these are different ways that we compare ourselves to others—it’s just the same old comparison trip that we’ve been doing since we were little: Compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters, to our parents, to our playmates, to the kids across the street.

And then to our dharma friends, we’re always in this thing of either jealousy, competition, or arrogance. It’s good just to be aware of that. If that starts coming up, just be aware. “Okay, this is just my mind doing what samsaric minds do. This is why I’m here practicing. This story that my mind is making up has nothing to do really with the reality of the situation.” Just use any of that stuff that’s coming up. That’s part of the retreat. The stove [heater] that makes too much noise—“why didn’t they get another stove to heat that room?”—the roof that leaks, the sink that’s stopped up, the toilet that smells, whatever it is, the mind will find something to complain about! [laughter]

Audience: I know. The toilet paper is in such a difficult place to reach behind the toilet…..

VTC: Oh yes. “Why did they put the toilet paper dispenser there? What a ridiculous place to put the dispenser! [laughter] These people just don’t think. Why didn’t they just put it at the side?” Who hasn’t had that thought? We’ve all thought that, haven’t we? [laughter] All this stuff—just watch how our mind will go off on all sorts of things—that’s part of the retreat.

The mind sometimes says, “if only these people would … then, I could really concentrate. Then I would really be able to do retreat.” No. Whatever is coming up right now is part of our retreat, and part of our retreat experience. If we’re frustrated, if we’re aggravated, if we’re just daydreaming and filled with desire all the time—whatever it is, it’s all part of the retreat experience. That’s of course why we’re practicing.

Remember, “retreat” means that what you’re retreating from is not the world. You’re trying to retreat from ignorance, anger, and attachment—that’s what you’re retreating from. Whatever’s happening is a possibility to retreat from the afflictions, from the defilements.

I told you about the conditions when I did Vajrasattva, with the mice running in the room and the scorpions falling from the ceiling, and the sujee for breakfast that made you have to pee in the middle of the next session, and the retreat manager quarreling with the director of the kitchen, and then the monsoon rains, and then the water breaking down, and the toilet that very seldom worked—all of that going on! [laughter] It’s sometimes helpful to remember other situations, that it’s actually quite nice here. Don’t you think? Like a pleasure palace, actually.

I had a few other comments. I was thinking a little bit more about the questions that came up last week. One retreatant asked about the visualization actually purifying the ignorance, and I was saying just the visualization alone doesn’t purify, you also have to do the analysis to prove to ourselves that the object of negation doesn’t really exist. But what you can do when you do the visualization is imagine what it would feel like when you have realized that emptiness. So, it can be another way to approach it: “If I really understood emptiness how would I be experiencing what I am experiencing?”

So you use your imagination a little bit. “I’m seeing everything in terms of ‘I,’ what would it be like not to see everything in terms of ‘I?’ And I’m seeing everything outside as so solid, having it’s own nature out there; what would it be like not to see things like that, to see them as not existing in the way that they appeared to?” You can use a little bit of imagination like that as you’re purifying. The nectar is helping you to purify that ordinary vision and give you some space to have some imagination, i.e. what it would be like to see things as a Buddha does.

The most important relationship in your life

Then, a little bit more about the relationship with the spiritual mentor, because that was the first that we had talked about it last time. There’s actually quite a bit to say on that, but one thing that I think is good to add is that the spiritual mentor is the person that we practice a lot with, because if we can’t bring the teachings into practice when we are with our spiritual mentor, it’s going to be even harder to bring them into practice when we are with sentient beings. Why is that? Because our spiritual mentor, from their side, their wish is just to guide us and lead us to enlightenment. That is their complete wish, and from our side we’ve already checked this person out, we’ve checked their qualities, we’re the ones who decided to form that relationship of spiritual mentor and spiritual disciple. We’ve checked them out and we have already determined they are a qualified person, we know what their motivation is, so here’s one person we’ve checked out and we really have confidence in their motivation.

Now [as far as other] sentient beings, who knows what their motivations are, who knows what our relationships with them are? They’re not going to have nearly the same kind of qualities as our spiritual mentor. Are you getting what I am saying? We’ve really checked out this person who is our mentor and decided that they have certain qualities. We’ve decided to form that relationship. We’re already seeing that person as kind to us in a way that other sentient beings are not kind to us. So if, in relationship to the spiritual mentor (who is more kind to us than our parents and than anybody else), if in relationship to that person, all of our afflictions start manifesting and going out of control and we believe in the story those afflictions are projecting onto our teacher, then what hope do we have of practicing with sentient beings if our mind is just completely bonkers in relationship to somebody who we’ve already ascertained is a good human being who wants to benefit us?

Are you getting what I’m saying? And so, that’s why when things come up—because we’re always human beings, so we project stuff onto the spiritual mentor—what is good to do is go back and think, “well what was it I saw in this person to start with? How is my mind misperceiving things now and projecting all of my own internal rubbish on them when I’ve already checked them out and decided that they are qualified, and that their motivation is to benefit me?” So that helps us a great deal to begin to see our projections as projections. If we can do that in relationship with our teacher, then it becomes easier to do that in relationship with sentient beings, because we’ve already had the practice doing it with our teacher.

The relationship with the teacher does bring up some unique challenges. Most of us have a lot of issues with authority; we have a very complex history of our relationship with authority. Starting with how we relate to our parents and our teachers, the government—anybody we perceive as being in a position of authority. A lot of this gets projected onto and played out with our spiritual mentor as well. Sometimes we’re wanting our spiritual mentor to be mom and dad, and to give us the unconditional love that we didn’t get from our parents. But that’s not our teacher’s role. Then we get angry at them, because that’s what we want them to do. Or, sometimes we’re in the rebellious teenager phase: I call it the “give me the car keys and don’t tell me what time to be home phase.” Sometimes it’s like this with our spiritual mentor, where it’s “trust me—and realize what I’ve accomplished in the dharma, and stop telling me what to do! Stop giving me orders!” We can get into that phase.

It’s a very good opportunity, as we start projecting various things on our spiritual teacher, to be able to identify what they are, to use that as something to help us do some research about our various relationships with people that we put in positions of authority before. What are our authority issues? What are our expectations? What are our habitual disappointments, or anger, or rebelliousness, or mistrust, or defiance, or whatever it is that we’ve played out with various people in our lives, and how are we projecting this onto our spiritual mentor? It’s a very good opportunity to do that—it can be really, really useful, because lots of times we don’t even realize that we have these issues, but they’ve been playing themselves out our whole life. It’s a very good opportunity to become aware of them and start dealing with them. All the things of what we feel somebody else is supposed to give us if we’re putting them in the position of authority, or how we feel like they’ve usurped the authority. Here, we’ve given our teacher the position of authority, and then all of a sudden we think, “Why do you feel you have that power over me? That’s just like somebody who thinks they can tell me what to do!’ [laughter] It’s something very good to notice and to work with in our practice.

I think it’s very important to really trust our teacher’s motivation, and that trust comes because we haven’t rushed indiscriminately into the relationship. That’s why it’s so important to really check people’s qualities out before you take them as a teacher, because then you really trust that, and you can really come back to that.

You also see that this relationship is the most important relationship you have in your life. Of course, with other sentient beings we’re creating all sorts of karma, and we’re going to meet each other in future lives in all sorts of different relationships. But the way that we relate to our spiritual mentor—first of all, who we choose as our spiritual mentors, and second, how we relate to them—is going to impact many, many, many, many, many lives.

It’s not just what happens this lifetime: it’s many, many, many, many lives. That’s why it’s so important not to rush into relationships like this, to really check people out, to make sure that we have qualified people. It does have this long-term impact. If you become the disciple of Jim Jones—remember the guy who had everybody drink poison?—well, that’s the path you end up following. That’s why checking out teachers very well before the relationship is important.

After we form the relationship, that’s not the time to check out their qualities. That’s the time to trust them. And, at that point, the relationship has become very important, in the sense that—this is what I’ve come to in my own exploration—this relationship is going to go on into future lives. I look at my teachers and I really pray from the bottom of my heart that I meet them in lifetime and lifetime and have the opportunity to be their disciples. Because I want that, then it’s so important this lifetime not to walk away from that person with anger. Sentient beings, we get angry at them, we break off relationships right, left, and center at the snap of a finger—we’re just out of there, goodbye!

But with our spiritual mentor, that’s one relationship where we can’t do that. I mean, of course, we can, but if we do then we reap the consequences of it. That’s why it’s so important to work out whatever issues that come up in our minds in relationship to our spiritual mentors. We can work them out in our minds, or talk with our teachers, or whatever has to be done, but we don’t just say, “ciao, bye, I’m out of here!” Even—if you remember some years ago, there was a whole period in the early 90s where there were a lot of a abusive situations going on—even in those kinds of situations, where there were some shenanigans going on, even in those kinds of situations it’s so important not to just get fed up and swear at them, and that’s it. It’s really important to make peace in own minds because that relationship is so important. Therefore, always see the kindness of that person in one way or another.

The thing is that often we expect our teachers to be perfect. What does perfect mean? It means that they do what we want them to do when we want them to do it! That’s the definition of perfect, isn’t it? [laughter] Of course what we want somebody to do changes everyday, but our teacher is supposed to be perfect, so they’re supposed to be everything we want them to be, all the time. Now, of course, this is a little bit impossible, isn’t it? Not to mention that that wouldn’t necessarily even be beneficial for us, would it? Is that how somebody’s going to guide us to enlightenment: doing everything that our ego wants them to do, being everything our ego wants them to be? Is that a skillful way to get us to enlightenment? No! Of course things are going to come up: that’s why it’s so important that we really hang in there and work things out in our mind. Those were a few other thoughts I had about that verse from last week.

Audience: From the student’s side, what type of criteria does a student use to evaluate their readiness to take on a spiritual mentor?

VTC: Okay, so what are the qualities of a disciple that we want to transform ourselves into so that we’re qualified to form a relationship with a qualified teacher? They often say, first of all, being open-minded: not being biased, not being prejudiced, but having an open mind and being really willing to learn. Second, is being intelligent. It doesn’t mean a high IQ; it means the ability to really sit and think about the teachings, to sit and think about he teachings, and investigate the teachings. And then a third quality, is sincerity or earnestness. I think that’s a really, really important one. In other words, our motivation isn’t to become somebody, or any number of samsaric motivations—“I want to be this person’s student because then they’ll love me, and blah, blah, blah”—but just really the sincerity of our own aspiration for enlightenment. So the more we can make ourselves into a qualified student, then of course, the more we’re going to meet more and more qualified teachers. Of course, we’re not going to be perfectly qualified students, are we? We’re not Milarepa; we’re not Naropa.

I really wanted to emphasize also from last week (I haven’t even got to this week yet!), that the reason we do the Death Meditation is because it helps us set our priorities in life. It helps us determine what is important to do, and what is not important to do. It gives us a sense of urgency to get on with what’s important. Be very clear about the reason for doing the meditation; it isn’t to get us upset and depressed, these kinds of things. We can do that without meditating! [laughter]

Entering an enlightened environment

One other thing to explain about the sadhana: when we’re doing a sadhana, from the moment you sit on your cushion, you are entering a different environment. You’re creating an enlightening environment, specifically to help you with your path to enlightenment. What’s the difference in environment? You’re sitting there in the presence of a Buddha. You’re in a pure land—you’re imagining your surroundings as a pure land—you’re in the presence of a Buddha, and you’re having this incredible relationship with this Buddha, whereby all this nectar of bliss and wisdom and compassion is flowing from them into you. What an incredible kind of relationship in an amazing kind of environment! It’s giving ourselves a chance to be out of our usual, narrow environment.

The narrow environment isn’t the physical environment we’re in; the narrow environment is our narrow state of mind, our ordinary view, our ordinary grasping. That’s our narrow environment. The thing of “I’m just little old me.” You may have begun to see some of your self-images in the retreat so far. Have you begun to see some of that? (nods) Images of who you think you are? It can be actually quite good—write it down sometime, who you think you are. Of course, you’ll have several different ones. There’s always, “I’m just little old me….” (whiny tone of voice) “I just want somebody to love me! I just want somebody to accept me!” That’s one for one day. Then another day it’s, “I’m just little old me…. I want some power and authority here!” And then the next day it’s, “I’m just little old me…. but I want to accomplish something—why don’t these people get out of my way so I can do something!” And then other days it’s, “I’m little old me…. but why can’t these other people be perfect?” And then other days it’s, “I’m little old me…. but I want to please all these people, then they’ll think I’m nice and they’ll give me strokes.” You might look and see all sorts of habitual identities and behaviors you have.

What you’re doing, from the moment you’re sitting on that cushion each session, is you are taking yourself mentally out of that limited self-image. Instead, you are creating this environment where you’re having this extraordinary relationship with an enlightened being. That relationship you’re having with Vajrasattva is giving you the opportunity to be a different person: in other words, you don’t have to hang on to some of these old self-images. Because there you are in a pure land with Vajrasattva—you’re not reliving some old pattern that you’ve had since time without beginning. It’s quite extraordinary that way—if you really feel that, “Okay, I’m sitting down, and this is a time where I really have the space and the opportunity to be a different person, because I’m entering into a different conventional reality right now.” That’s one thing to keep in mind.

These are just some random thoughts I’ve had during the week, some things I wanted to bring up. I think it’s very important that you’re bowing to each other—not only bowing to each other in the meditation hall, but also as we enter and leave…. as we run into each other, we bow to each other. Sometimes you might be deep in thought, and it’s not as if you have to pull yourself out of deepness and thought and make sure you make eye contact with everybody all the time. Likewise, don’t be insulted if somebody doesn’t bow to you or make eye contact—they may be in the middle of processing something.

But I think this whole thing of learning to cultivate respect is very, very important. If you think about it, that’s one of the chief qualities of an enlightened being, isn’t it? A Buddha respects everybody. Bowing is a way to develop that kind of respect and appreciation for others. It also takes us out of the mind of “why don’t they appreciate me?” And put us into the mind of “I’m so fortunate to have these people in my life, and I want to show my appreciation to them.”

Also, we are now up to 82 people participating in the retreat: 69 from afar, and then 13 here at the abbey. I think it’s quite remarkable that we have so many people involved in this retreat. It’s really something to rejoice at, and feel the community with those various people who are involved in the retreat.

Analogies with nature and expressing our inner process outwardly

I had another little idea. I know that what happens to me sometimes when I’m doing retreat is that I start to feel inside that I want to let go of stuff, so on the outside, it comes out as wanting to clean, or wanting to cut away old stuff in the garden—this whole thing of doing outwardly the process that’s going on inward. If you’re feeling like you want to do that, there are certain bushes and things in the garden that can use some pruning. I actually found it quite nice last year—I did a lot of that. Cutting across the old, dead lilacs, for example. It’s a nice way of feeling like you’re cutting away the things that are old and unnecessary; you’re doing outside the process that’s going on inside. When you’re doing it physically, you can think about the things inside that you want to prune and leave behind.

Another analogy with nature: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the buds are forming already on a lot of the trees. Here we are in the dead of winter (even though we’re not having the cold we usually do), it’s the beginning of January. Those buds aren’t going to bloom for a while yet, but they’re forming. Remember how I’m always saying, “just create the cause, and the result is going to take care of itself.” It’s like our dharma practice too: we’re creating the causes. A lot of those buds could be forming. They’re not going to ripen for a while, but they’re in the process of forming. If, in the middle of winter, we’re so busy looking at the grey sky and the rain that we don’t see that the buds are forming, then we’re going to go, “OHH, there are just gray clouds and rain! It’s never going to be summer!” But if you look in winter, of how things are growing even in the winter—even though they won’t blossom for a while—for me, it gives this feeling of also what happens in the Dharma practice. This is why I really encourage you do be outdoors and look at long views and take walks—all these kind of analogies with practice will come as you look.

37 Practices of Bodhisattvas

Let’s get on with the text [The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva]. Verse Seven:

7. Bound himself in the jail of cyclic existence,
What worldly god can give you protection?
Therefore, when you seek refuge,
Take refuge in the Three Jewels that will not betray you—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

This is the verse all about refuge. This involves meditating on the Buddha’s qualities, which is a very good meditation to do when you are doing Vajrasattva Retreat because the Buddha’s qualities are Vajrasattva’s qualities. If you’re sitting there wondering who this guy Vajrasattva is, pull out the Lamrim and look at what the 32 and 80 marks of a Buddha are; look at the 60 or 64 qualities of the voice of the Buddha; look at the 18 attributes of the Buddha’s mind, and the 4 fearlessnesses and the 10 unshared qualities and these kinds of things. In that way we will learn what the qualities of an enlightened one is.

Meditating on the qualities of an enlightened one has a few different effects. One, it makes our mind tremendously happy because usually all we’re doing is contemplating people’s faults—either our own or others—so when we sit down to do this whole meditation about these wonderful qualities of a Buddha, our mind gets very happy. It’s a very good antidote when your mind is feeling down or you’re feeling depressed: meditate on the qualities of the Buddha.

A second effect is that it gives us some idea, of course, of who Vajrasattva is, so that when we do the practice we know something more about Vajrasattva, this being we’re having the relationship with. Another effect, it also helps us understand the direction we’re going in our practice because we’re trying to become these qualities of the Buddha, and we have the potential to develop them. So it gives us an idea of where we’re going in our practice and what we want to become like and what we will become like. It gives us a lot of inspiration in that way.

Another effect is that it really shows us these really amazing qualities that a Buddha has, so it deepens our feeling of connection and trust. That feeling of connection and trust and linkage with the Three Jewels is so important. I think refuge and the relationship with our spiritual mentor are such important aspects of the path, because when those are in place then we feel like we are being held up. We don’t feel like we are roaming in samsara all alone in our confusion. We might be roaming in confusion, but we’re not all alone and we’re not totally lost because we have these quite amazing guides. That gives a feeling of buoyancy and hope and optimism in the mind and that is so important as we go through all the different experiences that we go through in life. Because samsara is samsara, and we have a lot of karma: some of it’s good, some of it’s not so good, so we’re going to have happiness, we’re also going to have suffering.

We have to be able to sustain our mind and maintain some kind of positive attitude as we go through all of these different experiences between now and when we get to enlightenment. I find this practice of refuge and the connection with the Three Jewels and with our spiritual mentor to be, for me personally, one of the things that really helps to sustain me. It’s not like, “Oh, there’s a God out there and, you know, I’m going to pray to God and God’s going to change it….” When you take refuge in the Three Jewels, what’s the real refuge? It’s the Dharma. So when you’re miserable and you turn to the Three Jewels for refuge what are you going to get? You’re going to get some Dharma advice about how to change your mind. And then you apply that Dharma advice, you change your mind and you watch the suffering disappear.

So the deep connection of refuge is what allows you, when you’re going through difficulties and also when you’re going through happiness, so you don’t just spin out, tripping on thinking that samsara is wonderful. The Three Jewels and the spiritual mentor really give us some kind of balanced perspective and show us how to put things in their proper place, and thus, how to transform our mind, to make our mind a balanced, open, receptive, kind, compassionate state of mind. Refuge is really important in that way.

Here, Thogmey Zangpo [author of the 37 Practices] is really emphasizing the importance of taking refuge in the Three Jewels—not in some kind of worldly god. A worldly god is not out of samsara: it’s like one drowning person trying to save another drowning person. It ain’t going to work! That’s why we take refuge in the Three Jewels: they have that ability to actually give us protection. Again, what’s the protection they give us? It isn’t that Buddha is going to whoosh in and do this and that. Buddha is going to whoosh into our mind and give us the perfect Dharma antidote.

In other words, when we take refuge—remember I was telling you before about when you’ve heard a lot of teachings and when your mind gets into a snafu—you just have this little conversation with your spiritual mentor? It’s like you go to your teacher, “OHH, I have this problem! Blah, blah, blah….” and then your teacher gives you that advice and you put it into practice. When you have heard a lot of teachings—which is what makes you have a close connection with various people as your spiritual mentors—then, when you really need that kind of help, you don’t necessarily even have to ask them. You invoke that person in your meditation; you do the whole deity-yoga thing, and you say, “what do I do with my mind in this situation?” And because you’ve heard a lot of teachings and contemplated them, you know exactly [snaps fingers] what you need to do, what antidote to apply.

Then, we just have to apply it. This is actually one of the big things that I’ve really noticed: a lot of people ask for advice; very few actually apply the advice they’re given. I find this over and over and over again. We’re in a frustrated state, we ask for advice, we get some advice—but we don’t follow it. It’s very interesting. It’s very interesting. There’s one person in DFF who’s been practicing for quite a while, and I really admire her practice. She’s one person that always puts into practice whatever advice she asks for. Thus, it always works for her. It’s really something to see. This is the kind of thing that we ourselves should try and do—put it into practice. I’m not saying none of you do—don’t get me wrong! –Don’t get jealous! [laughter]

Just as a way to practice the advice that we’re given, and also to realize that the advice isn’t just the advice that we’ve gotten in a one-on-one with our teacher. Every time we’re in a teaching, no matter how many other people are there with us, our teacher is giving us personal advice. Then we just call it to mind when we need it—which means, obviously, we have to have done some practice beforehand. If we haven’t started putting it into practice beforehand, we’re not going to remember it at the crucial time: when we need it. That’s again the whole reason for practice.

Understanding karma

8. The Subduer said all the unbearable suffering
Of bad rebirths is the fruit of wrong-doing.
Therefore, even at the cost of your life,
Never do wrong—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

“Subduer” means the Buddha, because the Buddha subdues sentient beings’ minds. This is the topic of karma in the Lamrim, which is a very, very important topic. Hopefully in Vajrasattva you’re doing a lot of meditation on karma. Again, take out the Lamrim; study the Lamrim. Meditate on karma; know all the different factors that make a karma light, what makes it heavy. Your five precepts—know what is a root infraction, what is a different level of transgression. If you’ve taken Bodhisattva vows, it’s a good chance to study your Bodhisattva vows, so you know if you’re keeping them well. Or tantric vows. Really study these things, and try to keep your ethical discipline as purely as you can.

Why? Because if we do, we experience the good results. And if we don’t, we experience the results which are all the unbearable suffering: the suffering of the lower realms, the suffering of samsara in general. Again and again and again—it all happens due to karma and due to our carelessness about karma. It’s very important to understand karma properly.

Clearly, we experience the results of our own karma. We don’t experience the results of somebody else’s karma. We don’t experience results that we haven’t created the cause for. If we’re sitting there going, “Why don’t I have better stuff in my life?” It’s because we haven’t created the cause. If we’re having misery, “Why am I having these problems?” It’s because we’ve created the cause(s).

In relationship to our own misery, when we face difficulties, instead of getting angry and blaming outside, just say, “this is the result of my own karma.” Thinking like that helps us stop the anger about the situation. That’s a very good way to meditate when we’re suffering—to think, “I created the cause for this. What’s there to blame in other people?”

When we see other people suffering, we don’t think, “Oh, they created the cause for it, therefore I shouldn’t interfere and help them.” Or, if we do something and somebody else is hurt because of what we do, we don’t think, “Oh, they must have created the cause to be hurt….” as a way of justifying our own bad actions. Do you see what I mean? People can do that. I speak harsh words to somebody, or I do something really mean, and then it’s clear that the person is miserable afterwards, and then I say, “well, they must have created the karma to have that suffering! It’s just all coming from them from their own karma and their own mind”—as a way of justifying our own bad actions. We don’t think that in terms of other people, as a way to justify our own bad actions…. Are you getting what I’m saying?

And we don’t say that as a way to justify our laziness or our reluctance to help them. “Oh, you got hit by a car, you’re bleeding in the middle of the street, if I take you to the ER, I’m interfering with your karma….” What kind of rubbish is that! What we’re doing is just creating the cause ourself not to receive help when we need it. Plus, if you have Bodhisattva vows, we’re probably breaking them and creating the cause for a lot of suffering ourselves. In order to justify our own laziness, we don’t think, “oh, well, it’s their karma. They deserved it.”

The time when it sometimes can be useful to recall this is when we realize—because sometimes we can see so clearly in somebody else’s life how they’re causing themselves so much pain and misery, and it’s very difficult to get them to change—at the time when we have to face the fact that we can’t control them, and we can’t make them change, at that time, it can be helpful to think that their habit that they can’t get themselves out of is a karmic habit, so it’s going to take them a while to really get at that.

In other words, it’s not a way to excuse what they’re doing. It’s not a way to put them in a category of “oh, they just have the karma to be this idiot….” It’s a way of understanding why it sometimes takes people a while to stop habitual destructive behavior. It’s because they have a lot of habitual energy, a lot of karma behind it. We can’t control them. In the same way, with ourselves, it sometimes can be very hard to change habitual behavior too—we’ve done it very much, there’s a lot of karma behind it. That’s why we’re doing Vajrasattva: to purify.

While we can always purify the negative karma we create, it’s better not to create it to start with. You can always go to the doctor and have your broken leg fixed, but it’s better not to break it to start with. I like this next verse….

How the mind is painful when craving for samsaric happiness

9. Like the dew on the tip of a blade of grass,
Pleasures of the three worlds last only a while and then vanish.
Aspire to the never-changing
Supreme state of Enlightenment—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

Another example from nature, isn’t it? “Like the dew on the tip of a blade of grass,” it’s there, and then it’s gone. Look at the clouds in the valley here. You can see them moving and changing: they’re there and they’re gone. On the really cold days, where the frost freezes even on the branches of the trees—remember at the beginning of the retreat, it was like that? It’s there, and then as they day heats up, it’s gone. Or like the little bit of snow we had today—it snowed, and then it’s gone. But especially with those clouds— They’re there, and then they’re gone; they’re there, and then they’re gone. To really think: this is like the pleasures of samsara. They’re there, and they’re changing; they’re in the process of moving on, disappearing, changing as they’re happening this very moment, like all those clouds we watched flowing by.

Really think about that in relationship to our own life: all the things we’re holding on to, we’re clutching and clinging to as being the sources of our happiness—they’re all like those clouds, they’re all like the dew on the tip of a blade of grass. Even the sun in these short winter days—it comes and it goes so quickly, doesn’t it? Or the moon, as we watch the cycle of the moon: everyday, how the moon is changing. Just how everything is changing all the time.

Having that as the perspective through which we view all the things that we’re attached to really gives us a whole different take on our life and on what we’re doing and on what’s important. All the things that we get so stuck on, in our mind—“why aren’t these things going the way I want them to go? Why isn’t this happening, and that happening, and that’s unfair!”—it’s all like the dew on the tip of a blade of grass. It’s all like the fog: going, going, gone. So why get so bent out of shape? Why get attached to it? Why be overreacting on a negative side to it? I find it very helpful to think about how transient things are, they only last for a while and then they vanish. So why put our eggs in the basket of samsaric happiness? It doesn’t go anywhere.

Instead of that, “aspire to the never-changing Supreme state of Enlightenment,” where we will actually have some kind of lasting happiness that won’t “come, come; go, go,” as Lama Yeshe used to say. I think the more we can see that in our lives, then the more our mind really turns toward spiritual goals, and the more our mind turns towards liberation and enlightenment, automatically the happier we are in this life.

Why? Because when our mind is turned toward liberation and enlightenment, we’re not scrutinizing every little thing that happens to us during the day to see if it meets with our preferences and likes or our dislikes. We don’t feel like we have to correct everything, or tweak everything or make it the way we want. We’re not so easily offended, our mind’s not interested in those kinds of things anymore, it’s interested in liberation and enlightenment and in creating the cause for those. So when we’re interested in that, we have our goal clear, and the mind becomes quite happy.

If we look, when does our mind get painful? It’s when we’re in the throes of craving for samsaric happiness. It’s either painful because we’re craving for something that we don’t have, or it’s painful because we’re clinging on with fear of losing something that we do have. Or it’s despondent because we’ve lost something that we wanted, or it’s fearful because we’re afraid we’re going to get something we don’t want. Whenever we’re in the middle of samsara and our mind has samsaric goals, our mind is miserable. You can see it again and again and again.

That’s why if we really shift what’s important to liberation and enlightenment, then what happens in samsara is really not so important. So our mind has some space there. Now, it’s “okay: not everybody needs to do things the way I want them to do; not everything needs to go the way I want it to go. Not everybody needs to like me. I don’t have to be constantly acknowledged and recognized.” AND most of our samsara is not fair. Or, should we say that samsara in terms of karma is very fair. But this lifetime whatever happens to ripen is not fair. It’s fair in the long-term. But our mind that likes to complain when we don’t get something— Have you noticed that? How we are so conditioned as Americans to say, “It’s not fair! Somebody else got that and I didn’t!” Even if it’s not something we particularly want; just the fact that somebody else got it and we didn’t, we feel cheated. All this kind of misery that our mind causes itself gets stopped when we turn our aspiration toward enlightenment.

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.