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Remembering to take the medicine

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

  • Why do we keep doing the same stupid things?
  • Do we want the results of attachment?
  • Take the medicine or just look at the bottle?
  • Looking at problems in a Dharma context
  • Rejoicing at being wrong

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A #9 (download)

This discussion session was followed by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 25-28.

So last week the question came up: why do we keep doing the same stupid things again and again? Why do we keep revolving in samsara again and again? Well, samsara—we don’t even realize what it is. We don’t even realize what ignorance is. Even in our daily life—forget about samsara for a minute—but just what ordinary people can see is dysfunctional behavior: why do we keep doing it?

Can’t really live with a bottle in hand

That question came up last time, and we talked about ignorance, we talked about clinging attachment and so on as various explanations. Of course, when we make the picture bigger into why do we keep getting reborn again and again in samsara, it’s the same thing—ignorance and clinging attachment.

One of the inmates wrote something that pertains to this that I will read to you. It was very beautiful. He’s been in prison for a long time: he’s in his late thirties, and he has this very golden, soft gentle heart that he completely masks in prison by being a rough, tough guy. He got in a lot of fights and he was in Aryan Nation because it was a way of coping with that environment.

Even before that, what he did that got him in there—he had a drug and alcohol problem and so on and so forth; and I think a lot of that was all related to him being a quite a sensitive guy with no way to express it or get in touch with that. So it got taken out in all of this rage and anger and carrying on and substance abuse. Anyway, sometimes there’s this incredible honesty about him—he’ll just say the truth. It’s very refreshing. I had written him that another inmate is getting out and that I had said to him and to the other inmate that was getting out that the most important thing they have to do is to really stay away from drugs and alcohol because once they get involved with that, then they’re involved with the people that are involved with that, and the behavior that’s involved with that, and the whole scene that’s involved with that.

Last week we were talking about how we all have our own little addiction problem. Some are socially acceptable and some aren’t. It’s easier to hide it if you have a socially acceptable addiction-problem because then everybody thinks it’s okay. But it’s still the same mind as when you have a socially unacceptable addiction problem. We all have something or another that we do to hide our pain.

He was commenting about this. He said [reading letter from inmate]:

It’s like you said about the other guy you write to that is going to get out soon. My biggest problem will be to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Not so long ago I think that was a major setback for me, but I don’t think so anymore. I know I’m an addict—that won’t ever change, I guess. But I don’t really have the desire to be high or drunk anymore. For a long time I would say that I won’t ever get drunk again—that I won’t use when I get out. But I was just saying that because it was logical—not because I really meant it. I’ve not been high since ’99; not drunk since ’98.

I guess there are a lot of reasons I don’t want to do that anymore. Part of it was that I drank to medicate my problems. Some of those problems I no longer have. Part of that whole scene was part of my identity also. I no longer want to be seen that way. That’s not who I am anymore. Another thing is that I know without any doubt that if I get out of here and drink, I will come back, no question about it. Chodron, I’m done with this place—it’s not fun anymore.

I have a lot of regret for things that I did in my life, but the things I regret the most are the things that never happened—wasted opportunities—the person that I could have been and the people’s lives I could have touched in a positive way. I regret having let so many people down. Not because of things I did but what I didn’t do. Those thoughts are sobering to me—no pun intended! I want to live life now. I can’t do that with a vodka bottle in my hand.

So he’s talking from the point of view of how he medicated his problems. I think we can all take that and generalize to how we medicate our pain, and realizing, as he said, he wants to live life now and he can’t do it with a vodka bottle in his hand. Similarly, when we want to live our life in a very vital way, in an ethical way, to be really alive, then we can’t do it with our own version of a vodka bottle, whatever our thing is—if it’s TV, if it’s shopping, who knows what it is. Whatever we’re doing to mask our suffering is preventing us from actually living and is creating the cause for more suffering. I just love the way he says things kind of clearly and honestly. And that part where he said what he regretted just [Venerable slaps her heart]—Whoa! I just thought I’d share that with you….

I had some other things to share. You’ve been learning a lot about yourself these past weeks. You had a good view of monkey mind. Hopefully, you’ve had a good view of Vajrasattva mind. I don’t know. Last week we were talking about fighting with our body. Do you fight with Vajrasattva too? Think about it. Vajrasattva’s sitting there: the omniscient mind of all of the buddhas. Your teacher appearing in that form above your head, trying to send this light and nectar into you to purify your negativities. Your negativities are purified by bliss: the light and nectar is bliss. It’s not suffering and sin and atonement and repentance. It’s the bliss that purifies!

Fighting with Vajrasattva

But do you fight with Vajrasattva: e.g. “You tried again to put light and nectar into me. Come on! Don’t you realize I’m hopeless! You’re never going to get that into me. I’m just inherently bad. Why do you keep trying to do that? Go sit on somebody else’s head. I can’t feel bliss; I don’t know what bliss feels like. Pain, yes. If you want to shower pain into me—yeah, I know what that feels like—I could get into that really well. I’ll do extra mantras sitting in meditation on my pain because I know that one really well. But bliss—that’s scary! I’m scared to feel bliss, I don’t know what it feels like, I’ve never felt it before. I’m not worthy—I can’t do it!”

Do you fight with Vajrasattva that way? There is the Buddha, the omniscient Buddha who sees Buddha nature in us and we’re going, “Buddha, Vajrasattva, look you’re wrong. Everybody else has Buddha nature but not me.” We’re telling the Buddha he’s wrong, aren’t we? Aren’t we? That’s really dumb! [laughter] Maybe we need to give Vajrasattva a little bit of credit for being omniscient, and maybe he knows something about us that we don’t know. Maybe we should give him a break and let him get some light and nectar into us instead of making it so difficult and fighting him. We’re like two-year olds, aren’t we: kicking and fighting and biting and screaming and throwing temper tantrums. All Vajrasattra is trying to do is make us feel blissful! So anyway, think about it. And maybe don’t fight so much with Vajrasattva. Give him a little bit of credit there.

Not just seeing the stuff – understand why they’re misconceptions

So we have been seeing a little bit of monkey mind. Now it’s very easy when we see monkey mind to get really into it: “Ah, there’s my monkey mind again. There’s my anger, there’s my attachment, there’s my jealousy. Again and again, I do the same stupid things.” We get really into it. We’re seeing the monkey mind, and we’ve already heard—I gave you a warning beforehand that you’d see all this stuff.

So you think, “Okay, I’m seeing it. I’m doing the retreat.” No. Seeing it is step one. There are more steps to doing the retreat. We can really get into seeing our stuff and sit there and wallow in it, can’t we? “Look at me. I’m so stupid. I’m so dysfunctional. My afflictions are so strong. I’m really hopeless. Look at my life! I do the same thing again and again.” We go on and on and on. All it is is self-blame, isn’t it? It’s just standard self-blame, low self-esteem. Nothing unusual, nothing marvelous about that. We don’t need to come here and do retreat to sit and get down on ourselves. We’re quite professional at that one already.

So seeing the stuff is one thing, but then what we have to do is to see how all that stuff that we believe about our self is wrong, and how all those emotions that torment us are not us—how all those emotions that torment us are wrong conceptions. It’s very, very important not just to say, “oh, I have so much anger.” That’s easy.

We need to sit there and look at the anger and understand why it is a wrong conception; why it is an affliction; how it causes misery; how it’s an inaccurate perception or conception or interpretation of what’s going on. Because if we just sit there and say, “I’m angry, and I wish I weren’t, and I wish it would go away,” nothing’s going to happen, is it? We have to completely understand why when we’re angry it has nothing to do with reality, the reality of the situation.

We have to go back and look at how anger is interpreting everything through the eyes of “me, I, my and mine.” And how anger is forgetting about karma: how anger is just focused outward on the other person and what they’re doing and neglecting our self and our responsibility. So to really see how anger is limited and inaccurately conceives the situation.

Same thing when there’s attachment. You’ll have a whole meditation session on attachment. Pick your object of choice. You can spend a whole meditation session—2, 3, 4, or maybe a few days—meditating on our object of attachment. Then you go, “that’s a nice fantasy, nice daydream. Umm, beats the anger meditation.” But we have to identify: “oh, that’s attachment.” We can’t just sit there and let attachment romp in our mind and make a mess. But to actually identify, “that’s attachment and how does attachment make me feel? Attachment makes me feel dissatisfied.”

Look at our own experience. What’s the result of attachment? Dissatisfaction and fear, isn’t it? Because when we’re attached to something we’re afraid of not getting it, and if we have it we’re afraid of losing it. Where does anxiety come from? That’s the same thing. I’m anxious because I’m clinging and craving it. I’m anxious that I won’t get it, or I have my object of attachment and I’m anxious that it’s going to leave me or it’s all going to be over. So look and see what’s the result of attachment.

Attachment’s here. This is the result of attachment. Do I want the result of attachment? Do I like the result of attachment? No. I’m perpetually dissatisfied—always wanting more, always wanting better; no matter what I’m doing, feeling like I should be doing something else, that I’m never good enough, what I have isn’t good enough, what I do isn’t good enough. Really seeing that—seeing the result of attachment for what it is, and saying, “hey, I’d better do something with this attachment because it’s making me miserable.”

Then also seeing how attachment misapprehends the situation. Why do we get lost in our daydreams? Because we think attachment is apprehending the person or object or situation or idea or whatever it is correctly. But if it were, why are we so miserable? So then we have to look: “Okay, here’s this thing, whatever it is I’m attached to, and how am I apprehending it and does it really exist that way? This person that I’m just longing for. Do they exist like I think they exist? This peanut butter sandwich that I’m craving, does it really exist the way I think it exists? [laughter] This job that I want to have or this lottery I want to win or whatever it is we’re craving—does it really have the ability to provide me with the kind of happiness that I’m imputing it has the ability to provide me with?”

And look in our life at all the past situations when we’ve been attached to similar people or objects or places or things or ideas or whatever. Check our past: has that ever brought us lasting happiness? Then when you see that attachment makes you miserable, and you also see that it’s a wrong conception, then applying the antidote and letting it go is very good and very easy. It’s not a problem then. You’re not fighting with yourself.

It’s the same thing with anger or jealousy or arrogance or whatever it is that’s manifesting at that time. If we clearly contemplate its results, its disadvantages—what happens when it runs our life—and second, clearly analyze how we are interpreting the situation and see if it’s true. See very clearly that it’s hallucinating. There’s nothing to believe in, the stories that our attachment and arrogance and jealousy and pride and so on tell us. They are just hallucinations. Then, when we see that so clearly, letting them go is very easy– it’s not a big problem, because who wants to drink poison anyway.

But if we don’t see the disadvantages because we’re sitting there telling ourselves, “I’m so bad for having this emotion,” because when we’re sitting there telling ourselves we’re bad, we have no time to look at the results of that emotion, do we? When we’re sitting there feeling guilty for having that emotion, we have no chance to check up that emotion and see if it apprehends reality correctly. Just sitting and wallowing in our stuff is not practicing.

That whole thing about waking up and, “oh yeah, I’m the patient.” That’s a big realization: I’m the patient. That’s a step in the right direction. But some patients just sit there and look at all the medicine on the shelf and say, “oh, that’s very nice. I remember the pharmacy where I got that medicine. That pharmacist was very nice. And I remember that bottle. It’s a nice looking pharmacy bottle. I remember where I got that.” That patient is sitting there going, “I’m a patient. I’m miserable. I’m a patient.” But they haven’t gotten the point of taking the medicine yet—they’re just looking at the bottles!

We need to really take the medicine, not just look at the bottles and think about the kind pharmacist. “Oh, I remember where I learned about the antidotes to anger. That lama was so nice, and that text was so nice, and we had such a good time at that teaching, and he was so compassionate.” That’s nice but we’re not taking the medicine! Do you think the pharmacist goes through all that labor so that we can look at the bottle? Do you think that our teachers go through all that labor so we can reminisce about when we received a certain teaching? No, it’s for us to take the medicine. Be very attentive in your meditation, and remember to take the medicine.

Also, whatever is coming up, put it in a Dharma context. So let’s say you’re having a meditation session and you’re off on the beach with prince charming. Or you’re off in the kitchen with the peanut butter and the chocolate, or you’re off at your job with your diplomas and degrees and pay raises and a fat bank account—whatever it is, whatever you’re doing.

Again, instead of just feeling bad about being distracted and getting discouraged and beating yourself up, and instead of just psychoanalyzing it, “Oh yeah, I’m feeling anger again, I wonder what the root of my anger is? Well when I was a little kid that happened, and then this happened, and maybe I’m borderline, maybe I’m manic-depressive.” We go through these because we’re all amateur shrinks, aren’t we? If we aren’t psychoanalyzing somebody else we’re psychoanalyzing ourselves. Just drop that! That’s not what we came here to do.

Instead, put whatever distraction or whatever it is into a Dharma context. “Oh, I’m on the beach with prince charming; that’s eight worldly concerns. Oh, that’s what eight worldly concerns is about.” Or, “I’m sitting here being so afraid I’m going to have a horrible reputation, all these people are going to find out how horrible I am, and I’m so filled with fear and anxiety about my reputation and all of this.” Look at it and identify: “This is one of the root delusions. This stems from attachment, oh, six root delusions.”

Or you’re getting really angry because somebody trashed your reputation, so you’re not only clinging onto it but you’re really mad at the person that trashed it. [Identify:] “Eight worldly concerns. Anger, one of the six root delusions. This is what the Buddha was talking about.” Or you’re sitting beating yourself up and then beating yourself up because you’re beating yourself up and then feeling guilty because you’re beating yourself up for beating yourself up. So when you’re in that, look at it: “Oh, this is the laziness of discouragement. It’s part of the obscurations when we teach about Joyous Effort; the laziness of discouragement is one of the hindrances for joyous effort and doing virtue. Oh, this is what that is, this is what the Buddha was talking about there.”

No matter what we get, it never fulfills us

Or you’re sitting there feeling so discontent, so dissatisfied, “Oh, this is one of the six sufferings of samsara. The suffering of dissatisfaction. Oh, that’s what it’s about.” Or you’re all bummed out because something that was really wonderful faded away, “Oh this is another one of the six sufferings of samsara, that of impermanence, instability.” What I’m getting at is this: everything that’s happening in your mind, relate it to a Dharma thing—not to some kind of psychological stuff. That way you will really understand the Lamrim from your own experience. Are you getting what I’m saying? Then it isn’t just a list of six of that, three of that, and eight of this.

Especially when they talk about the suffering of human beings, not getting what you want, losing what you like, getting what you don’t want: Wow, that’s our life, isn’t it? And that’s only three of them out of the eight. Every time you see one of them in your mind, “Oh that’s one of those eight sufferings, one of the eight dukkhas of being a human being or of samsara, not getting what I want– here it is again.”

We can see it in big things in our life, we wanted to do such and such and such by the time we were this age and it didn’t happen, we didn’t get what we wanted and we can see it every day after lunch because we didn’t get what we wanted. And part of it is we don’t even know what we want! [laughter] So it has nothing to do with the cooks, because we usually get better than what we fantasized, but in our mind: “I wanted a McDonald’s double burger for lunch today and instead I got this healthy stuff!” [laughter]

Audience: I’ve realized I have this mind that sort of wants “not this.” Whatever is in front of me. I don’t know what I want, I just know I don’t want this. I don’t want to deal with whatever’s in front of me.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, when the Buddha talked about the disadvantages of samsara one is dissatisfaction. That’s it, that’s such a good illustration. Whatever we have, it’s just like “I don’t want this, I want something else.” We don’t know what something else is.

Audience: Something really shocking is that we don’t know what something else is but we know that whatever something else is we can get, it will work. It never is enough. No matter if we really get what we think we need, that’s not it.

VTC: Yes, that’s exactly it, and that is one of the six disadvantages of samsara: no matter what we get, it never fulfills us. And that’s not just this life because they say we’ve been born in every realm in samsara. So we’ve been born in the desire realm, gods…. If you think a McDonald’s burger is good (it makes me want to vomit!) but anyway, if you think that’s good, what they have in the deva realm is way better and we’ve been born in the deva realms countless times. Everything there is so nice until right before you die, and still it never fulfills us, it never makes us totally satisfied. We’ve had all of that before.

Really identify when that mind comes up: “Oh this is one of those six disadvantages.” Or, when you’re sitting there mourning because you lost something that was really good, you had this great job and then you lost it, you had a great relationship and then it didn’t go well, you had your health and then your health disappeared, you had some good status and then you lost it. That’s another one of the six, of fluctuation, going high, going low, going high, going low—no stability.

Faith based on experience

If we really identify it in these Dharma terms it brings a lot of understanding of the Lamrim into our hearts. Then Lamrim isn’t lists and conceptual stuff, but we see that the Buddha was really talking to us about us. When we see that, that makes our faith and refuge so strong, because it becomes so clear that the Buddha really understood us in a way that we’ve never understood ourselves. Then we have very strong faith and that’s not undiscriminating faith, it’s faith based on experience, it’s faith based on understanding.

When we have strong faith in the Buddha or when we have a close relationship with our spiritual mentor, that makes our mind much more courageous. And it becomes much easier to penetrate deeper in our meditation and expose further layers of garbage because we realize we’re not alone in this horrible universe, stuck in samsara with no alternative—but there’s the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha right there by us. There’s Vajrasattva working so hard trying to get us to experience some bliss, and so that sustains us and allows us to go deeper in the meditation.

Then of course as we see things clearer in a deeper way, that increases our faith because we understand the Dharma more from our own experience. When the faith is stronger then the understanding increases, so the two things go back and forth like that, okay? So the faith here is not faith that we can make ourselves have. We can’t say, “I should have faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” If we just do the meditations correctly and really identify things, then we automatically see that what the Buddha said was correct from our own experience and the faith comes without trying.

All that other kind of faith, e.g. “Oh my teacher’s a buddha; I got goose bumps; I saw a rainbow.” Five years from now, those people aren’t going to be around. Sometimes those people can transform that faith and make it something really, really deep. But usually that kind of faith is not based on understanding—it’s Hollywood. It’s wanting to get a buzz from the teachings.

It’s nice to be wrong

Then, some other things [to tell you]: One thing is rejoicing at being wrong. “What are you saying: I should be happy that I’m wrong?” Well, yes. Take our grasping at inherent existence. If things really were inherently existent, that would be really bad news. We’d really be stuck. So isn’t it nice that we are wrong? That we think inherent existence exists but it doesn’t, isn’t it wonderful that we are wrong?

I think that getting all of this samsaric stuff—“it’s going to bring me permanent happiness, it’s always going to be there. I just have to set my samsaric life up in a certain way. You know, get all my ducks lined up and then samsara is going to be perfect: I’m going to be satisfied. Everything is going to go the way I want and it’s never going to change.” We think like that, don’t we?

Isn’t it nice that we’re wrong? Isn’t it wonderful that that’s a totally wrong way of thinking? Because how many times have we worked so hard to line our ducks in a row and they all swim off somewhere else! [laughter] So isn’t it nice that our mind that’s grasping at impermanent things as permanent— isn’t it nice that we’re wrong?

Every time that we got angry, if we were really right—imagine that every time that you got angry, you were right. That would be hell, wouldn’t it? If every time that we were angry, we were right, that means that how we’re interpreting the situation is accurate, and anger is the only response to have. Then we would be stuck in our anger for infinite time because it’s a correct response to a correctly interpreted situation. Isn’t it wonderful that we’re wrong?

Every time that we’re angry, isn’t it wonderful that we’re wrong?

Because we’re wrong, that means we can let go of the anger. We don’t have to be enslaved by it. Similar with attachment, when attachment blows something up: when we’re holding and clinging and fantasizing and daydreaming and wishing and longing and [VTC makes whimpering sounds]…. Isn’t it wonderful that it’s a total hallucination? If this object or person or whatever it is, if they really were like that, we would be stuck in the pain of attachment and longing and craving and fear for eternity because it would be the only correct response to a correctly perceived situation. So it’s wonderful that we’re wrong!

We have to really learn to rejoice at being wrong. Every time we’re bummed out about something, just rejoice: “I’m wrong! Wow! I just have to figure out how I’m wrong and the whole feeling of being bummed out is going to go away. But I’m so happy because I know when I’m bummed out I’m WRONG! Yippee, I’m wrong!” So try that, because it’s true, isn’t it? It’s good to be wrong. It can be hell to be right—very good to be wrong. I’m sitting here worrying about this, obsessing about that, wanting my body to be this way, not wanting my body to be that way. I’m wrong! Yippee! [laughter] Yippee!—this is total hallucination!

Yippee! [laughter] Things don’t exist the way they appear to be! So glad—appearance is miserable! [laughter]

When we see things we don’t like about our self, instead of labeling it, “oh, this is the crappy part of me I don’t like. This part of me I wish would go away. This is the part I hope nobody ever finds out about because if they did, they never would like me. So Vajrasattva, I hope you’re not omniscient because I don’t want you to know about this horrible part of me.” That’s what we think, isn’t it?

But instead of identifying it as “this horrible part of me that I’m so ashamed of,” identify it, label it as “my dukkha.” “This is my dukkha.” That’s all it is. Its just dukkha. Dukkha, what we translate as suffering or unsatisfactory conditions. “This is just dukkha. That’s why I’m practicing Dharma: to dispel this, eradicate this.” If we identify something as, “oh, that’s all these parts of me that I can’t stand.” then we feel like we’re in union, in oneness with it. There’s no way to get free of it. We feel that all that horrible stuff is me, and we’re just stuck in the middle of it.

We’re wrong! Yippee, we’re wrong! If we just see that that’s my dukkha, that’s my suffering. That’s all it is. Buddha talked about samsaric suffering. This is it! The pain I’m having, these parts of me I don’t like and am ashamed of—blah, blah, blah. This is my dukkha. That’s why I’m practicing. Everybody has their own dukkha, and I’m not the only one that has this!

So whatever it is that we feel is this terrible unsightly part of our self—“I’m not the only one that has this and I’m going to take on ALL the suffering of all the other living beings who have the same horrible stuff, demons that they’re fighting with inside. I’m going to take it all on. As long as I’m going through this, I’m going to take all their stuff on myself.” Then the mind is so peaceful.

Those were just a few things. But you have to remember them and practice them now. So I think you should put a big sign on your table that says, “Yippee, I’m wrong!” And another one that says “This is my dukkha. I’m going to bear it for the benefit—I’m going to take on all sentient beings” dukkha as I experience this.”

Audience: Another one should say, “This is their dukkha” to all the people that harm you. You can really relate because you can see yourself in them; you can really understand what they’re doing. Same thing.

VTC: Exactly. We can see that we’re no different than them: our dukkha, their dukkha. When they harm us, it’s coming from their own misery. It’s very powerful to really see the dukkha of the people we can’t stand, the people we feel have wronged us. To really see what their dukkha was and how they were doing the best they could do given the situation they had. It helps us let go of so much resentment.

This discussion session was followed by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 25-28.

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.