Denial of death

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

  • Getting to the correct attitude towards death
  • What is the purpose of silence in retreat?
  • Practice Dharma to develop emotional maturity
  • Grasping at inherent existence and perceiving emptiness
  • Purifying actions from previous lives

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A #4 (download)

This discussion session was preceded by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 7-9.

Now, your questions and comments…. What’s happening?

Seeing that we’re in denial of death

Audience: I did take your advice, and I spent the week imagining my death in all sorts of creative scenarios. I very much appreciate tonight you saying what the whole purpose of that meditation is for, because I spent half the week realizing how terrified and unprepared I feel about death and how in deep, deep denial I am about it. I remember about seven years ago when I first met the dharma you led a retreat on that very meditation at Cloud Mountain—either a Tara Retreat or Vajrasattva Retreat. It hit me in some place, and by the end of that retreat I was sobbing. It was about squandering my life and dying with regrets…

I realized this week that I had danced around that meditation for the past seven years after that experience. I’ve really not paid it the kind of attention that it really had warranted from me. Because I’ve been looking for something to say, “what will propel you to renunciation?” I’ve been dancing, intellectualizing. “yes, death is certain: it’s time is uncertain; Dharma will help; yeah, yeah, yeah.”

This week I went and revisited it again and ran into huge amounts of self-grasping around this life; huge amounts of denial around the whole process and feeling absolutely terrified. Feeling that I’m not prepared. So when you said that tonight, I moved into those questions about what will I regret; what have I seen good that I’ve done in my life and how do I want to prepare for this? So it’s been really helpful to move me out of this really agitated, anxious, fearful place I’ve been in for the past four weeks. Those questions, they’re helping me move out of that and seeing that that’s what this meditation is all about. To get me –not terrified— but to get me inspired, to get that urgency that I’ve finally found in my mediation today.

VTC: But you know what? We have to go through that thing of seeing that we are in total denial about death, and we do have a lot of grasping about this life, and we are terrified of death, and we are freaked out by it. So that is really good that all that came up. You were doing the mediation correctly. All that comes up because then you’re actually seeing what is going on in your mind. You’re seeing very clearly the grasping, the fear and all of that. The idea is that you don’t leave the death mediation with just that. Because that’s the grasping and the fear and the samsara. You say, “okay, this is going on in my mind. I’m totally unprepared to die. What is really important in my life? So that when the time of death comes I will be prepared to die.”

And that question helps you turn your mind to the Dharma. As you turn your mind to the Dharma you see that there’s an antidote to that kind of fear, the panicky fear. So in one way the panicky fear has to come up in order for us to seek an antidote to it. But the panicky fear isn’t the real fear of death we’re trying to get to, because that we have all by ourselves without the Dharma. The Dharma adds the kind of wisdom-fear we’re trying to get to: the thing of “I don’t want to die with regrets because if I do die with regrets it’s going to be a very unhappy, freaked out kind of death and not a good rebirth either.” It’s the kind of thing that then propels us to practice—to really practice—because we want to actualize the antidote to the fear and the grasping and the denial.

Audience: Well, that’s what I started to experience today going over those questions, saying, “What is the antidote to the panic? I mean, be honest with myself, where is my practice?” That third piece that says the only thing that will help you at the moment of your death is your practice. Right now where it stands there’s some work there. My practice right now, honestly, would not be able to sustain me at that moment. And what do I need to do in my life and my practice in order to get some faith and some confidence that when that day happens I’ve got that faith, that wisdom, those pieces in place?

It really did kind of shake me up to say no [I’m not there yet]. This is helpful because I’ve been looking for things to counteract my laziness, my arrogance, my comfort zone. I’ve been looking for something to kick the heat up a little bit, and this is it. Very fruitful practice.

VTC: That’s why the masters say that if you don’t think about death in the morning, you waste the morning; if you don’t think about it in the afternoon, you waste the afternoon; if you don’t think about it in the evening, you waste the evening, because it does give us that little oomph!

Silence fosters introspection

Audience: I am confused about this point and now that we are a month in the retreat maybe it will help me…. What is the real purpose of silence in the retreat, and to what extent should we relate to each other? To what extent should we have mime-conversations or write notes?

VTC: So what’s the purpose of the silence and how can we have a positive result and what are the fudge lines, huh? The purpose of the silence is to give us time to become friends with ourselves, and to be more introspective without having to spend a lot of time creating a personality. Usually we spend a lot of time relating to others and in the process of doing so creating a personality: “I’m the funny one or I’m the intellectual one or I’m the one who does things wrong or I’m the one who’s skilled at this.” We create these personalities and then we believe in them. Our words do a lot to create those images. So by not speaking we don’t perpetuate those images. So that’s one purpose.

The second purpose is it just gives us time to think about what’s going on instead of being distracted, because when we’re paying attention to other people, then we’re thinking about what they’re saying and thinking about what we’re going to answer to what they’re saying and thinking afterwards about “oh I said this; I shouldn’t have said this; I should have said that; what are they thinking of me? In the next break time I should say this, so then they’ll get a better image.” So we get very hung up and a lot of energy goes into “what are other people think about me; did I say the right thing? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So first of all, the energy’s going there, and we’re completely distracted from looking at what’s going on in ourself.

What we should be doing is asking, “Oh, that’s interesting. Why do I care so much what other people think about me?” But we’re not asking that because we’re distracted by the conversation and we’re thinking, “Oh, do they like me; do they not like me?” Instead of asking “why do I care about whether they like me or not?” We’re thinking, “Did I say the right thing; did I say the wrong thing?” instead of asking ourselves, “why did I say what I said? What was motivating me?” By being silent we’re able to look at what our role in relationships is instead of being distracted by what’s going on with others.

Now we are living in a group so you get to know each other very well, don’t you? Even though you don’t speak, you get to know people veeeerrrrry well living together. So it creates some kind of feeling of transparency because we’re all here together; we all know our faults—each other’s faults. We all know each other’s qualities. There’s nothing to be ashamed of; there’s nothing to be proud of. It creates some sense of learning to be transparent, learning to trust other people enough that they will like us in spite of our faults. We don’t need to sit there and be cheerful chipmunk to impress them about what a nice person we are. Are you getting what I’m saying? So it stops a lot of the habitual speech karma: it prevents lying; it prevents gossiping; it prevents bad-mouthing people behind their back; it prevents harsh words. It just stops a lot of negative karma by keeping silent.

Now in terms of the fudge line: when should you have a mime-conversation? You really need to check your motivation about this kind of stuff because sometimes its nice just to goof off. But sometimes you realize you’re goofing off because you’re agitated inside and you’re looking out. You have to know how to work with your mind. When I’m agitated inside, is it really fair to the other people in the retreat that I start goofing off with them? Because if I start miming and doing this and that with them, maybe they’re in the middle—maybe something really big came up for them in their meditation and they really need to focus on that. And I’m sitting there playing, being funny comedian and I’m taking them away from something that’s very valuable for them. So we really have to be careful and be considerate of other people.

At the same time, it’s just this whole thing of learning to work with our mind, because sometimes our mind gets really tight. Then it is very good to laugh. I’m not saying we should all be so serious throughout the retreat—not like that. It’s good to laugh and we let go. We relax and everything. But to look at also our habits, like when we’re agitated inside. Do we immediately want to do a comic scene with somebody else? Or what other kinds of things can we do when we’re agitated inside? Maybe we can take a walk. I know when I’m agitated inside that’s a really good thing for me—if I take a walk and look at the view or if I just take a walk in the garden and look at all the trees and branches and the buds and look at these kind of things, I find it really, really helpful when my mind’s agitated. So it’s also a way to see how else could I deal with my agitation? It’s not a thing of stuffing our agitation, “I’ve got to be serious!” I’m sure there will be times when the whole group just bursts out laughing. I think I told you when I did Vajrasattva, about one time when the mouse was going around and around, we just all lost it in the middle of the session because it was just so hilarious and you know that happens. Sometimes one person at the table will get the giggles and then everyone is cracking up, that’s fine when that happens. To get some kind of sensitivity here and balance is the key. That’s a good question.

Developing emotional maturity

Audience: I think I have known this for a while and it was very clear in a dream I had. Now I am forty years old and I can feel how during my life my emotional maturity or age has not been linked to my real age. I still feel like a kid in many ways. I can see how I relate to people in very different ways, like expecting them to act as someone they are not. So this brought a question about emotional maturity. How can we be emotionally mature?

VTC: How can we develop a sense of emotional maturity? Practice. Because what’s emotional maturity? It’s learning how to be a doctor to our own mind. It’s learning how to be a friend to ourselves. I think that’s what emotional maturity is. How do we get that? Dharma practice. Dharma practice is the fast way to do it. The slow way to do it is to let life knock you around. And life knocking you around, some people it may get emotionally mature…. Some people, it makes them emotionally bitter. So life knocking you around is not the guarantee for growing up. It can help a lot, but it depends upon if we learn from our mistakes or if we get stuck in what happens, in which case sometimes our old immature patterns get more entrenched when life knocks us around. But if we really develop some wisdom by going through what we go through in our life, then I think we can become mature. This thing that happens at forty, I think every decade—you know when you have to change the first part of your age— there’s an emotional change that goes with that and I think especially forty. Well, I say that every decade. [laughter]

But by thirty you’re already realizing that your body is going down. Do you realize that? When you hit forty you’re realizing it even more, but at forty you’re also realizing probably half of your life is over. That’s provided that you’re going to live to be old, you may not, you know. That thing about still feeling like a kid—I can relate to that because it’s this whole thing of feeling…. Well, it can be many different things. One is that it can be a denial of death: “I’m still a kid. Death is not going to happen to me; death happens to old people.” Every year your definition of “old” changes. Do you remember when 40 was old? Do you remember that? I remember when I was in my twenties, my friends and I worked with someone who was forty and she became our friend. I was amazed that I was friends with somebody who was “so old!” Then you realize that every year your definition of old changes and now 40 is young; 40 is not old. But this is part of the thing that’s going on, it’s this whole denial of death and the whole denial of ageing. Then I think that some where around 50 it really hits you. Now you’re really getting old. Now it’s really happening. I think around 50 it really begins to hit you.

But there’s still one part of the mind feeling young…. And feeling young in one part can also be this incredible inquisitiveness and curiosity about life. So I think having that kind of youthful aspect is very good. Don’t think that cynicism equals maturity. It certainly doesn’t. I think having this kind of curiosity about life and curiosity about people makes you feel quite young. But at the same time you have that you can also have a certain amount of maturity in the sense of “been through that! Hopefully I’ve learned something through it.” Sometimes you look back and it’s like, “Oh, I’ve been through that two times, or three times or four times, or…. I think I had better start learning from that already.” So if you really start learning you get mature.

Back at square one with emptiness

Audience: In an earlier Q&A you said that one of our problems is that we can’t distinguish inherent existence from existence and emptiness from non-inherent existence. But my question is, if all we’ve ever perceived is inherent existence, how can we ever have even a mental image or idea of non-inherent existence? Because presumably even that idea would still be shot through or covered with this grasping at inherent existence.

VTC: Yup, yup. [laughter] That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to get out of samsara! It’s because all we’ve ever known is inherent existence. So we might imagine it: what would it be like to see things as empty? But it’s just an imagination because, as you said, everything’s just permeated by grasping at inherent existence. But what does start to happen is, we begin to notice what the object of the grasping at inherent existence is. We begin to notice, “Oh, I’m trying to imagine what perceiving emptiness is like.” But you can see how you’re grasping at where it is. There’s still an “I’m—I’M—experiencing emptiness.” You know that as soon as there’s “I’m experiencing emptiness’ that you’re back at square one. But at least this time you know it.

Or when you think, “Oh, I’ve got it now! This is emptiness.” Back at square one. Emptiness—they say it’s non-dual. I don’t know about you, but I have no clue what it means to perceive something as non-dual. No clue at all what it would actually be like to experience emptiness, non-dually—anything non-dually. No clue!

But I think even realizing that I don’t have a clue is progress. More and more you start realizing what the object of negation is, and the more and more you can see the object of negation clearly, the more you can get some kind of inkling of “what would it be like if I weren’t perceiving that, if I weren’t holding on to that?”

Audience: It sounds like often though, when the object of negation is talked about, it’s not an object as much as it is a way of apprehending an object or a way of grasping onto something.

VTC: The grasping is the way of apprehending. But the object is what we’re holding on to, what the mind is perceiving. I’m looking at an inherently existent orange—this is the object of my grasping. Now, when I’m just looking at the orange casually, there’s not a lot of grasping at the inherent existence of it. I’m not seeing the orange as inherently existent or as non-inherently existent; I’m not grasping it either way. Even though it’s still appearing as inherently existent, I’m not grasping at it. But when I really want to eat this orange, then, that’s when—when I have this grasping: “I want to eat this orange.” How’s the orange appearing to me to exist at that time?

Audience: And it’s the way it appears to the mind, right?

VTC: Yes.

Audience: I’ve been getting stuck on this: not the way it appears to the eyes.

VTC: No. Well, it appears to the eyes that way, but the eye consciousness isn’t grasping at inherent existence….

Audience: Right, it couldn’t….

VTC: The sense consciousnesses don’t grasp inherent existence—it’s all the mental consciousness. We’ll all have different things that maybe we can see it quicker on. I find that it’s quite effective with people. When I look at people, my whole way of looking at people—there’s not just a body and mind there. There’s something more there. There’s a person. There’s a real person there. There: that’s the one that you can start questioning. You can either do it in terms of other people—if you’re feeling a lot of attachment or aversion for them—or do it about yourself. This assumption that, yes, there’s not just a body and a mind. And there’s not just something that’s called a person, there’s a real person, a real individual, with their own personality, because they’re really like that, and they’ve always been like that and they always will be like that! Something real there.

Who’s the owner of my body and emotions?

Audience: Is another way to get at this the visualizations? If you generate yourself as the deity, since you’re so attached to the physical, you’re loosening that. So that’s another way to kind of get at not holding the body so solidly?

VTC: Yes, yes. That’s the whole purpose in tantra if you’re doing a self-generation process. You dissolve into emptiness, and then your wisdom reappears as the form of the deity. It loosens that grasping at “I am this.” Especially—like you’re saying—the “I am this” that is centered around the body. How much we feel the body is either “I” or, if it’s not “I,” it’s “mine,” So stop and question ourselves, “Is this body me? Is this body mine? Who’s the owner of this body? Is there an ‘I’ or a ‘mine’ inside this body?” You do it with your body.

You also do it with your feelings. For those of us who are addicted to our emotions, this is a marvelous meditation. All of us—even the people who aren’t emotional addicts—when you’re feeling an emotion so strongly, “It’s my emotion. I’m feeling this. It’s my emotion. Nobody else has ever felt betrayed like this. Nobody else has ever felt angry like this. I feel this.” And then to look at that emotion and ask, “Is that emotion ‘I?’ Is that emotion ‘mine?’ Who’s the owner of this emotion?” And then you hear this resounding, “MEEE!” And that’s your object of negation! [laughter] Because who in the world is that “me” who’s the owner of that emotion, or the owner of that body? “My body’s sick. My body’s painful. My body’s aging. I don’t like this body….” What about the body is “I” and “mine?”

It’s really interesting to sit and do some meditation about all the identities you create around your body: all the self-concepts about our age, our race, our nationality, our gender, our height, our weight, sexual orientation, hair color, wrinkles. All these things—how much we generate identities and self-images based on all these things, and how much judgment is involved with them. Similarly, with the pain in the body, or the good feelings in the body—how much we generate self-images from them, about them. Or whether our body is attractive or not attractive to others, or to ourself: so many, many, many self-images. Then we just spin around and around and around.

Audience: On that note: I can’t seem to get handle on this. I’m looking for the “I,” and doing this continuously, it still seems like—even if it’s conventional—the functioning part. If I get up and walk over there; there’s something functioning in this thing I call “me” that conventionally is doing this. But there’s an element of intention; “I”m’ deciding to do it. Now, I can’t find the “I,” but it seems like there’s something, the mental factors deciding to get up and do something.

VTC: Who’s making this decision to walk across the room?

Audience: I have no idea, but it seems to be happening!

VTC: Yes, I know and isn’t it weird? It’s like, “who’s making this decision, I don’t know but it’s happening.” It’s pretty weird, isn’t it?

Audience: It feels not normal…. And then I have this doubt of like, I know there’s nothing inherently happening, but there’s still this function. And I’m stuck.

VTC: Who’s stuck? [laughter] It’s very interesting. Who’s the one making this decision, whose intention is this? It’s very interesting trying to figure out who’s running the show here. Because we feel like there should be somebody running the show. It’s really like in the “Wizard of Oz” where there are all these flashing lights, flashing, flashing— we’re sure there’s somebody running the show. We’re sure if we pull the curtain back we’re going to find the wizard back there. How we’re trying to impress everybody, that’s the big show but we’re sure that there’s a wizard back there. But there’s no wizard there, and we say, “I’m walking” just by the fact that the body is walking. And we say, “I’m feeling” just by the factor of the aggregate of feeling doing something.

That’s how Lama Zopa has you do walking meditation. As you’re walking, to think “who’s walking?” and to think, “I say “I”m walking’ only because the body is walking. Only by the body walking do I say “I’m walking.” Or something that’s merely labeled “I” is lifting the feet.” It’s true isn’t it? Something that’s merely labeled “I” is speaking. Who in the world is that? I don’t know. And you stay with that not knowing.

Audience: I was really obsessing trying to find my “I,” how I really exist. The “I” is everywhere, so I decided to take it easy in a few sessions and [I thought]: “I’m going to play jacks with the Buddhas. I’m going to imagine my body is just pixels, and there is a lot of space between the pixels. I wanted to stop looking so hard for my “I.” I’m thinking but I’m not thinking with my brain, I’m seeing but I’m not seeing with the eyes.” I was trying to relax but I couldn’t.

VTC: It’s very good what you’re visualizing and thinking, but you just have to have the attitude –with emptiness— of playing. You have to play with it, if you’re trying to GET IT: e.g. “I WANT TO REALIZE EMPTINESS, I WANT TO REALIZE I DON’T EXIST!” [VTC shakes her head.] You have to have a very, very playful attitude….

Feelings, the 12 links, and the story behind a feeling

Audience: Last week you were talking about becoming a log, and I’ve been playing with that and started thinking about the twelve links. So when I get frustrated with thinking about ignorance, I was trying to figure out where becoming a log might fit in. Would it be connected to feeling?

VTC: Your question is where does becoming a log fit in with the twelve links? Usually, in reaction to feeling, we get craving and grasping. Becoming a log is right between feeling and craving. Instead of moving from feeling to craving, the log just doesn’t react. Yes, there’s this feeling—pleasant, painful, whatever—but I don’t react. I don’t have to have an opinion or a reaction about everything. It cuts it.

Audience: How do you cut the feeling?

VTC: The feeling is the karmic result, so it’s very difficult to cut feeling. The aggregate of feeling is one of the chief ways that karma ripens: our feeling—pleasure, displeasure, and neutral—are the ripenings of past karma. So those come when the karma ripens. If we want to stop those, we have to purify the karma. But once the karma’s ripening, and we’re having the feelings, then the thing is to not use the feelings as the jumping-off point for having more reactions to them. “I like” and “I don’t like” and grasping onto them, and pushing them away, and battling—all that.

Audience: When we’re talking about feeling in the sense of the second aggregate, is that the same as one of the five omnipresent mental factors?

VTC: Yes.

Audience: So then we’ll always be feeling. We’ll always have some feeling.

VTC: Even the Buddha has the aggregate of feeling, except it’s purified.

Audience: I was seeing how a feeling is the result of a story behind the feeling. When we are feeling something, there is a story. If we change the story, that will change the feeling. Yesterday and today, I was working on a story, and I remembered that you said that we can change our perspective. So instead of repeating the outline that I knew, I tried in my analysis to find the good qualities of this person. I had never considered his [good] qualities before; I always repeated all the bad qualities over and over. At the beginning, I resisted this change—I thought, “It’s not possible! Which qualities?” But I decided to do the practice, and I started to look for the qualities. It was really hard for me. But when I realized that other people liked him, then I saw that my own reaction covered all his qualities. So I relaxed, and I started to look for his qualities, and at the end, I couldn’t believe all the qualities of this person! I was creating the image of this person. At some point today, I realized that many of the things that I have that are valuable for me, come from this person. And I felt very happy to discover this, because at a very deep level, this relationship was transformed. My feeling is different, but not because I tried to convince myself, but only because I accepted that this person has qualities.

VTC: That’s wonderful. Especially when we have a real big issue with somebody, we don’t think they have any good qualities. We can’t see a single one.

Audience: I was very resistant to consider this possibility.

VTC: Right: we don’t want to consider it, because we don’t want to change our opinion of them. We have a lot invested in hating them. When we really can get ourselves to look at what their qualities are, like you said, then our whole way of relating to them and feeling about them naturally changes. We don’t have to force the change in feeling; it just happens by itself because of seeing how many good qualities they do have. And, as you said, seeing how it’s our mind that made up the whole story that caused the suffering.

Audience: It’s easy to stay with these stories and the feelings.

VTC: Yes. We make a lot of stories, and the stories produce certain emotions, and the emotions a lot of time have feelings attached to them—unpleasant feelings, because certain emotions are very unpleasant—or just the story, when we think about the story, it causes an unpleasant feeling. We don’t like the unpleasant feeling, so we dislike the person who we think is the cause of it. That’s very good. It sounds like you really broke through something there.

Audience: (smiles)

Audience: I was thinking that there have been some changes in the second month of the retreat. I have two options: if someone is doing or saying something, I can engage or get involved. But then I’ll create karma. The other option is to not react. In one or two minutes, that other person will stop what they’re doing. I don’t know if this is a healthy way to do this? Trying not to react, and not get involved? I’m trying to change my habits….

VTC: This is the whole meaning of becoming a log. A log doesn’t care. It doesn’t react. It doesn’t care. So these examples: somebody’s doing something and you feel irritated, then you realize that they’ll stop doing it in a couple of minutes. Then you realize that the real thing at this time is, what is my habit pattern that I’m so reactive to what they’re doing?

Audience: In one part in the meditations, when we get to the six paramitas (far-reaching attitudes), it says that we can mix them: for example, the generosity of ethical discipline. I found this to be really great.

VTC: Isn’t it nice?

Audience: But I have some problems finding my way with mixing them all—it has one example, but I was wondering, are we supposed to experiment with them….

VTC: Yes

Audience: Is there a guideline or something?

VTC: I think they give us one example so that we can try and figure out how to do the rest. I think that’s part of the thing of playing with it, thinking, “there’s the one example, but what’s the generosity of ethical discipline? What does that mean? Or, what’s the patience of ethical discipline? What could that mean?” It makes us think about it a little bit.

Audience: In the sadhana, it says to think about what you want to purify in this life or in past lives. So I have plenty to look at in this life, but I haven’t looked much at past lives. To get a connection to that—how important is it?

VTC: So how important is it to purify things from past lives? Clearly, we probably can’t remember what we’ve done in our past lives, but it’s very good, when we can think of, for example, all the times I’ve lied in my past lives. I could have lied to family, to friends, to my teachers—whatever kind of lies I may have done in a past life. Sometimes you can think of actions that you’ve seen other people do, and you think, “how could anybody possibly do that?” And then think, “Oh maybe I’ve done something like that in my previous life.” Maybe one time I was a ruler…. One of the inmates wrote me and he was just lambasting Bush—and I’m going to write back to him and say, “Hmm. It looks like you have compassion for all the ants but not for Bush.” One thing is to think, “in a previous life, maybe I was a ruler like that, and did all these things that I don’t feel comfortable with the president doing. And I have to experience the karmic result of them, so I better get busy doing some purification!” Especially if there are actions that you’ve seen other people do, and you feel like, “how in the world could anybody have done that ?” Think, “I’ve had beginningless previous lifetimes—I probably did it too.”

Meaning of the word “phenomena”

Audience: When you do the dependent arising meditation, I’m still confused on something: is “phenomena” everything? It’s easy to do the meditation with form—house and chairs and things like that—but when you start doing things like pain—is pain a functioning thing?

VTC: Yes.

Audience: Or the “I.” The “mere I.”

VTC: Yes.

Audience: So pretty much everything? Is it all knowable things?

VTC: “Phenomena” means everything that is existent. Things that function arise depending on causes. So, what are their causes? They also exist depending on parts. So, what are their parts? They also exist depending on the mind that conceives and labels them. So, what label am I giving to something?

Audience: So there’s probably nothing that….

VTC: Everything is dependent arising. Because if it wasn’t dependent arising, it would be inherently existent.

Audience: How about things that don’t exist, like a rabbit with a horn on its head? [laughter]

VTC: They’re not dependent arisings because they don’t exist. Don’t worry about the rabbit’s horn—it doesn’t exist. You can’t meditate on the dependent arising of something that doesn’t exist. And you don’t need to worry about things that don’t exist either. What’s a rabbit’s horn going to do to you? Your idea of a rabbit’s horn might do something to you—that exists. But don’t worry about rabbits’ horns. “Phenomena” means existent.

Familiarizing the mind with bodhicitta

Audience: In the dying process, especially when somebody has had time to prepare—e.g. it’s not an accident—as they get closer to what we call death, the brain death, it’s serene and quiet, and the mind gets subtler and subtler…. We hear that it’s important to cultivate a virtuous mind at this time, it’s a real great opportunity and it’s really important to do that. It’s hard to imagine what that consciousness is like—I mean even after a month of retreat, things have slowed down a little, but it’s usually just random thoughts one after the other. You know what I mean— wow, it’s a real crapshoot! [laughter] At that point, how do I create a virtuous mind? I can’t even control it when….

VTC: I’m alive.

Audience: When I’m in retreat! [laughter] It seems like I should pay attention to this.

VTC: Yes.

Audience: So my question is, what is a virtuous mind? Am I going to be thinking, “Oh I just lost all the senses, now my mind is getting more subtle, I’m going to go for bodhichitta right now”?

VTC: That’s the thing about familiarizing the mind with bodhichitta as much as possible, familiarizing the mind with virtuous thoughts as much as possible. We’re so much critters of habit. In the process of dying, you don’t generate bodhichitta when you get to that subtle stage, because at that point you’re not thinking, so you have to generate it beforehand. You want to make it really habitual so that you can just keeping coming back to bodhichitta, bodhichitta….

Audience: We should be just obsessed with that, it seems…

VTC: Yes. [laughter]

Audience: Some of us are slow, okay? [laughter]

VTC: Not obsessed as in you’re anxious, but in the sense that our mind is always on that.

New Audience: Is it reasonable then to do the death meditation and create the mind that has virtuous thoughts, to acclimate that and keep it going?

VTC: Do the death meditation and do it different ways. Sometimes imagine that you’re there and that somebody walks in the room who you don’t like, and you have your usual feeling toward them—how are you going to practice at that moment when you’re dying?

Audience: Is it possible to know if you’ve purified something?

VTC: They say that signs of purifying a specific thing are that you might have recurring dreams: not one time, but many times you dream of flying, or of riding on an elephant, or you’re all dressed in white, or you’re drinking milk. Those are considered signs if you have them repeatedly—those kind of things. Also, if you dream of the Three Jewels, if you’re dreaming repeatedly of your teacher—virtuous dreams coming spontaneously can be indicative of purification. But I think, in general, if you’re understanding the teachings better, it indicates that you’ve been purifying. And if your mind is more tranquil, and if you see that there’s more space in between something happening and your reaction, so that you have more space to choose a reaction instead of being knee-jerk, then you know that some purification is happening. Or, if you just find yourself in a situation where you could be doing things the same old way, just stopping yourself and saying, “let’s not do this.”

Audience: When I take refuge, I’m still not clear about “the dakinis of secret mantra yoga and the heroes, heroines, and powerful goddesses…” I don’t get a feeling for them.

VTC: Okay, so when you’re taking refuge in the dakinis and the like…. Think of them as part of the sangha refuge. Think of them as practitioners who, when you will be in advanced levels of the practice, they will manifest to help you.

Audience: Related to that question: Lati Rinpoche says that the dakinis of secret mantra yoga refers to the mother tantras….

VTC: Yes.

Audience: I was wondering, what are the mother tantras and the father tantras?

VTC: That’s all in terms of highest yoga tantra. Is that your refuge verse in the sadhana?

Rs: Yes.

VTC: Oh, okay. That has a lot to do with highest class tantra. In highest class tantra, mother tantras are, for example, Heruka and Vajrayogini. Father tantras are, for example, Yamantaka. That doesn’t mean anything to you, but you asked, so I told you. [laughter]

Audience: So Vajrasattva is….

VTC: In highest class tantra, Vajrasattva is done with all the different sadhanas. The Vajrasattva mantra can actually change according to which sadhana you’re doing.

The session concluded with dedication verses.

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