How are we different from turkeys?

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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.

  • Thinking of future lives
  • Questioning how attachment makes us think of only me, this moment, right now
  • How we relate to our body

Vajrasattva 2005-2006: Q&A #8 (download)

This discussion session was followed by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 22-24.

How’s everybody doing? [To one retreatant in particular who was having trouble deciding what to do next in his life] Did you figure out your life?

Audience: Sort of. Well, I’m just going to try to be a little less serious. It’s becoming more non-negotiable.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Did other people write out how this life and the next are going to turn out for you?

Audience: Yes, in one I became a peanut farmer.

VTC: If it’s okay, I’d like to read them. I was thinking one can spend a lot of time planning this life and it’s not quite certain how long this life is going to be … it might end tonight, right? Do we spend much time planning our future lives? Have you ever spent a whole meditation session planning your future life? Just one, I’m not talking about a lot of sessions, just one! Have you spent one, because you’ve spent so many planning this life…. But have you spent even one planning your future life? What’s your motivation for doing this retreat? Can you have a bodhicitta motivation without thinking about your own future life? So if you’re not thinking about your own future life, then why are you doing this retreat? Hello?!

Audience: I have been thinking about that, and it feels clueless for the most part, except who I am doesn’t really mean much to me anymore. It’s kind of weird, not that it’s negative or I’m down, I’m just this person named such-and-such, and I’m doing this now. I’m not sure what all that means but I can feel that [change]; it seems significant.

VTC: Is it significant—in what way?

Audience: Well, because I’m like everybody else and I’m still pushing away what I don’t want and trying to get what I do want, but it’s got a different feel to it now.

Even on a practical level, self-centeredness is harmful

VTC: So one result that’s coming from the retreat is how you feel about yourself and the world has changed. Like you were saying, you’re one amongst many now and maybe the self-centeredness has gone down a little bit.

Audience: Even on a practical level it doesn’t make any sense. Not just altruistically. I was thinking about us here: if I would just think about myself, eat when I wanted and all that sort of thing, I’d be feeling guilty. I’d be sneaky. I’d feel awful. Why would you even want to do that?

VTC: That’s interesting: even on a practical level, seeing that how the self-centeredness and doing our own trip creates so much discord, but that in turn makes us discordant inside, not harmonious within ourselves.

Audience: How I see the retreat is….. How I’ve been watching my mind is that until I start believing in my future rebirths, I have to remove that misconception that this is the most important thing right now—this life. This self-cherishing and this self-centered attitude have got me so boxed in to this present life that it takes me sitting in these retreats and feeling my own level of suffering that conceptually I can even start thinking about not wanting to be here and seeing something beyond this. My self-cherishing spends an awful lot of time telling me that the biggest investment I have right now is this life, and not to even worry about that [future life], that’s way far in the future, this is really what you have to be focusing on right now.

VTC: And that’s the big trick of self-centeredness and self-grasping: is that our whole image of who we are in this universe and what our potential is, is limited so much to this body and this life. How can we even think of becoming a Buddha if we can’t even think of having another life after this one ends? Buddha is completely like—WOW—and how can we imagine that if we can’t even imagine another life in samsara and what’s going to happen in that one?

We’re so locked into this feeling of I am this thing, completely bounded by our conception of our body and how strong the sense impressions are. Have you noticed in the morning when you wake up; you know when you first wake up the mind’s in this kind of clear neutral state, and as soon as you open your eyes … it’s like—WHAM! Have you noticed that? It’s like this whole concrete thing descends upon you. Or sometimes you don’t even need to open your eyes, there’s just the thought: “I am so-and-so” or “I have to do such-and-such,” and then it’s all of a sudden like putting a string in something and it just crystallizes [like in science experiments].

This concept of “I” just crystallizes and we get so stuck in thinking that we’re this person that we think we are right now. And so much if it is based on the body—and the body, how long is it going to last? Not so long. And if you think that so much of our identity is based on this body and then, of course, we have a whole mental and emotional identity: “I am an angry person; I am a selfish person; I am a depressed person; I am this, I am that.”

We have all of that and how long is that mental identity going to last? All of this is so fleeting and yet our perspective is so incredibly narrow: just thinking about this life. What you said [to retreatant], seeing that who you are right now is really, in one way, quite insignificant compared to the vastness of this universe right now. Then, if we think of the vastness of who we have been in previous lives, and what’s going to happen in future lives, then this life—whether I have my chocolate cake tonight or not—is really insignificant.

In another way, if you think about having a precious human life with all the conditions to practice Dharma, this life is incredibly significant. Each moment, each minute that we have is so worthwhile, so valuable. It’s like we have it completely upside down: the way in which we aren’t significant we think we are, and the way in which we are significant we are completely oblivious to.

Thinking like the turkeys think

If we want to have a stable Dharma practice and we really want to go through some deep spiritual change, this attitude is a big one that has to change. Otherwise, this whole attitude of me and my life—that’s what the turkeys think about! This is actually leading into what I was planning to talk about….

What do turkeys think about? What to eat, how to be safe, how not to be separated from your friends, how to be safe from your enemies. What do human beings do? The exact same thing! We think about food. Turkeys, you know, all the little guy turkeys are looking at all the cute little girl turkeys; they’re doing their thing. Human beings do the same thing: help your friends, harm your enemies. Human beings and animals are exactly alike regarding that one! Human beings harm their enemies in worse ways and for more insignificant reasons than animals do. I mean an animal will only harm if they’re attacked basically, or if they’re a carnivore, to eat. But they won’t go hunting for pleasure. They certainly don’t drop bombs.

But human beings, we have this incredible potential to progress along the spiritual path that animals don’t have. Yet, the way in which we are similar to animals we almost do in a more aggressive, horrific way; helping our friends and harming our enemies. I mean the turkey would never do an Enron scandal out of greed so that the other turkeys wouldn’t have anything to eat; and they certainly wouldn’t go bomb another turkey flock. Look what human beings do. And it all comes because of just this focus on this life.

We have to really ask ourselves: how are we different from turkeys?

I was looking a lot at the turkeys this week; a lot of analogies come to me when looking at nature. Have you watched the turkeys and how terrified they are of being separated from each other? Have you watched that? The incredible terror that they have when most of the other turkeys are somewhere else and they’re the only one, or even if there are two of them, left behind? Just terror of not being accepted, not being part of the flock. They come in the yard over here and I was watching them. You know, we have the chain link fence with the gate open and some had gone out of the gate and had started to walk up the meadow and some were still inside the yard.

Have you watched how they can’t find the gate? The gate is wide open, it’s wide open and what do they do? They run all along the inside of the fence freaking out. They are totally freaked out, feeling confined and feeling like everyone else is going to be somewhere else. But what they do is just follow the boundary of the fence, and as soon as they come close to where the gate is they get scared. Have you notice that? They’ll come so close to the gate and then they’ll turn completely around and run right along the fence again! It’s amazing isn’t it? It’s like they’re so close to liberation and they can’t go through the gate.

Attachment’s gravitational pull

Audience: I have a question, because that’s it. Like a retreatant said this morning in the motivation: it’s not enough to have intellectual knowledge only, it’s not enough to know the path. There’s this gravitational pull that we’re going to occupy another body, that we can’t just go for the liberation, we really want to have a body, we want to be confined in a body. It feels like this undeniable gravitational pull in that direction. Even though we live so many lifetimes, even if we know it’s just going to be suffering, (my question is) why do we keep doing it, why do we keep choosing it?

VTC: Why do we keep choosing to have a body and keep coming back? It’s the same addictive mind. Why does an alcoholic keep drinking? They know that the alcohol is destroying their life. People who are drugging; they know the drugs are destroying their life. Why do they keep shooting up, snorting, smoking? It’s the power of attachment. I mean people who go from one romantic relationship to another; again, it’s that same addictive mind. They know that they’re not getting anywhere.

Why do they do it? The power of attachment. That’s why in the second Noble Truth when they talk about the cause of suffering, actually, ignorance is the root cause, but when they talk about the Four Noble Truths it’s always attachment. Why? Because of this incredible gravitational pull: even though intellectually we know it goes nowhere, in our heart we don’t believe it. We think if we get a body we’re really going to be happy. Look at all of our useless behavior in this life that we do, that we keep doing over and over again.

All the times we break our precepts, why? Because we keep thinking that doing the action that breaks the precept is going to make us happy. That’s why we keep doing it. Why do we lie even if we have a precept? Because we think somehow it’s going to make us happy. Why do we take something that isn’t ours? Because we think somehow it’s going to make us happy.

It’s just this incredible blindness—that’s the ignorance—then pushed by the power of attachment: thinking that this is going to make me happy. Not only will it make me happy, but I will exist. And that’s the thing that, at the time of death, we’re realizing we’re slipping away from this body. This whole ego identity that we’ve created for ourselves, “I’m this person in this role,” and it’s all slipping away, and this incredible fear comes and we just grasp.

What’s the most solid thing to get us an identity? A body. So you jump into one; the mind jumps into one, indiscriminately, push-button karma, all the karmic visions. “That one looks good”—you run for it. Then we’re in our own individual hell again, whether we’re born in a hell realm or not.

Audience: So I’ve been thinking about why we are so impressed with the stories of the inmates and people who live in caves…. It’s because they can’t run to the usual attachments that we’re used to. The ascetics, Milarepa, and all of them, so was that their whole life practice—to get rid of any [every] kind of attachment?

VTC: Yes, and that’s the purpose of monastic life, that’s why you took monastic vows, too. Actually, they say don’t romanticize living in a cave because they say that the hardest thing to get rid of is our attachment to reputation; and you can go up to a cave and spend a lot of time in a cave wondering if the people down in the valley are thinking about you and if they’re going bring you supplies and if you’re famous because your so renounced. [laughter]

Wanting to belong

Let’s come back to the turkeys for a minute. This whole terror that they have about being separated from the flock, this wanting to be part of a group. Several of the inmates, particularly the young ones who are in—and they have written separately from one another—but many of them have said that one of the things in their lifestyle from before that got them into trouble, that led to their incarceration, was that they wanted so much to belong. They wanted to be loved and to belong and to be accepted and to be part of, then, whatever group it was, a group of teenagers drinking, drugging, sex. Adults do it too: they just point at the teenagers more. But anyway, and so you do whatever it is that the group you’re around is doing. In the case of some of the inmates that’s what happened.

Some people grew up in different situations, maybe the group they wanted to be accepted by wasn’t the people who were drinking and drugging and sleeping around, maybe it was the group of intellectuals. So then you have all the peer pressure of belonging, needing to be accepted by your own little group of intellectuals, or whatever your group is as a teenager, as an adult. How we modify our own behavior to become what we think other people think we should be, because of this incredible fear of being on our own.

This leads people to live on automatic, because all you do is figure out what group you want to be part of, adopt their ideals, and then you live it out. I think that was one of the reasons I asked all of you to write out scenarios about [one retreatant’s possible] life: you can begin to see how everybody has a different version about how you should live your life.

When we write out our own version, we begin to see how we have internalized many of the people that we’re close to, their versions of how we should live our life we’ve internalized and we have those different lives in our own scenarios that we write out for our self. How often do we even think and plan our life around e.g. what is virtuous? How often is the criteria for choosing what we do, “how can I live an ethical life, how can I develop the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, how can I develop bodhicitta and realize emptiness?”

Those aren’t our criteria for making decisions. We’re exactly like the turkeys: “How can I live my life so I can be accepted by whichever flock it is that I’m part of.” How terrified we become when we do anything that sets us off a little bit from that flock, because then we face all of their criticism and their disapproval and we freak out. So we become just like the turkeys and how frantic they become, just you watch them. I looked them up in the encyclopedia: they can run up to 15 miles an hour to catch up with the other turkeys because of that need to be accepted and belong. Incredible! So it really made me think about us human beings too.

Running around inside a fence

And what I was saying about how they just walk around the edge of the fence and get scared when they get to the gate, that’s like us too, isn’t it? We get a little bit close to the Dharma and WHOA, there’s some resistance that comes up, isn’t there? “Who am I going to be if I really take this seriously, who am I going to be if I start changing, what are other people going to say about me, are they still going to love me, how will I fit in, where will I be, how will I support myself”—all this incredible fear comes!

So we stay within the little fence of our mentally-created prison because it’s secure. We just run along the outside perimeter of it saying, “I want to be free, I want to be free, I want to be free, I want to be free, I’m miserable!” But when we get to the gate we get scared and we turn back. Isn’t that just like the turkeys? I notice when I go out there with the turkeys and try to help them. You try and say, “Here’s the door, go this way, all your friends are in the upper meadow and here’s how you get there….”

What do they do? They go the other way! You try to help and what do they do? They see you as an enemy and they’re afraid and they go further away. It’s like the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and our spiritual mentors, when they give us advice and they try to help us and what do we do? “Whoa, can’t stand you, you’re the enemy!” and we go the other way. Just like the turkeys.

I was watching once when they got stuck in the little area by my cabin, so they were in there and a couple of them flew over the fence, and a couple went under the fence, so most of them were still in that area, just a couple…. But maybe the leader had gone out and started running down the road. Well the rest of the turkeys stuck in that area were freaked out and were trying every way they could to get out. Of course there was a hole towards the back to get out, but forget about that!

They would even see the other turkeys fly over the fence but they couldn’t do that. They kept running around looking on the ground for an out; even when they would see another turkey go under the fence, they couldn’t do that. Only when they were so desperate, that they were the last two or three turkeys, so it was incredible—even when they saw other turkeys go outside the fence, get liberated, and they saw how to do it—actually saw other turkeys do it and they still couldn’t do it!

It’s like us, isn’t it? We see people practice, attain realizations—you know Shakyamuni Buddha—we were probably hanging out with him on retreat a few eons ago but he really became a Buddha and we just kept running around the inside of the fence! [laughter] I think there is a lot to learn from this and really to think about in our own life, what we’re doing and how am I any different from the turkey?

Last spring they were hilarious, one morning we were all in here and I think there was one boy turkey and he was chasing all the girl turkeys. They were all just going around in circles, making so much noise and Miles looked at us and said, “ That’s just like my mind.” And he was right. It’s just like all of us, isn’t it? We run around in circles not getting anywhere, making a lot of noise, just like the turkeys. “I have a problem—cluck, cluck, cluck gobble cluck, I want something—yiiiii!”

A healthy way to relate to our body

So that was one thing I was thinking about this week. Another thing I was thinking about this week is a totally different subject: Different ways people have of relating to their bodies. So we’ve been talking a lot about the body being the principal thing that we’re attached to that keeps us in samsara, as well as the whole attachment to “I” which, actually, is the principal one, but the notion of “I” comes a lot from our body.

Various people have commented during the retreat about difficulties with their bodies and some of the inmates have commented about difficulties with their bodies. I was thinking that there are two principal ways in which we relate to our body when we’re off balance. Two principal off-balance ways: One way is we are very indulgent, “My little toe hurts, quick call the doctor!” A little bit of hunger, “Quick, I’ve got to eat something!” This beds a little bit too hard: “I’ve got to get a new bed!” “The room’s too hot, the room’s too cold, I’ve got to change something.” So this incredible way in which we pamper our body, have to get the temperature of the water just right, have to have the food just right—we design menus in our meditations, exactly what we would like to eat. So there’s this whole way in which we pamper the body and we freak out at the least bit of discomfort. So that’s one way: very indulgent pampering, and that’s off-balance, isn’t it?

Another off-balance way people have of relating to their body is that they fight with it. They and their body are adversaries. “My body drives me crazy, I hate my body, it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t do what I want it to do. I’m mad at it because it feels bad, I’m mad at it because it’s uncomfortable, I’m mad at it, I hate this body!” So fighting the body, getting quite tense and pushing the body: “It doesn’t want to do what I want, I’m going to push it.

I’m going to sit in this meditation position and not move; I don’t care if it hurts so much I’m going to overcome this because I can’t stand the limitations of my body!” [laughter] So this an incredibly combative, adversarial role with our body. That’s also quite off-balance, isn’t it?

Have you noticed how in our relationship with our body, even within one person, we often go to one extreme and then we go to another. We might have one of those two extremes that we go to more often, but often we’ll go to both of them in different ways. You can see that both of those extremes are incredible suffering and neither of them bring happiness, neither of them are Dharma.

When we’re just pampering the body all the time: that doesn’t get us anywhere because there’s no possible way this body is ever going to be comfortable. When we’re fighting with our body and we hate our body, that doesn’t get us anywhere either, because our body is the vehicle we have to practice the Dharma. We need to keep it healthy, we need a certain degree of comfort in order to practice and in that way we need to like our body and not fight with it and not torture it and not yell and scream at it and be afraid of it.

What we need is some healthy way to relate to our body because, on one hand we don’t want to be overly attached to it, and on the other hand we need to keep it healthy, we need to keep it clean to the extent that it’s possible within samsara so for the purpose of using it for our Dharma practice. If we torture ourselves and get into a lot of mental hatred, that doesn’t help anybody. If we go the other extreme and are very attached, then that doesn’t help anybody either.

It’s this way of finding a balance: “Okay, body, yes, I know you’re hungry but it’s not time to eat so we’re going wait and eat a little bit later and I know you’re hungry.” So you have a little bit of compassion for your body instead of, “Why are you hungry, go away!” Or there’s some pain or discomfort in your body instead of fighting with it. Just, “Oh poor body, there’s some discomfort. Yes that’s the way it is in samsara. I’ll try to make you more comfortable but I can’t guarantee anything….” So maybe we just have to accept that this is the way the body is, but it’s not going to feel this way all the time. “It doesn’t feel so good right now, body, but everything is impermanent and it’s going to change. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

It’s the same as when we cultivate a relationship with another human being: we want to have compassion, but we don’t want to have attachment. So the same thing in relating to our own body: to be kind to it, but not to hate it, but also not indulge it so much. So that’s really important because you see so many people having so much difficulty with their body and their difficulty isn’t the body, the difficulty is the mind.

The body is just the body. What can you expect from a body in samsara? Like I was telling you the first day, you’re never going to find the perfect cushion where you’re always going to be comfortable. And we’re never going to find the right amount to eat; you’re never going to know the right amount to eat. You’re never going to have the most comfortable bed. The body is never going to be totally comfortable, let’s just accept that and do our best to keep the body healthy and clean, to use it as a vehicle for our Dharma practice, but not fight with it. And not freak out: “Somebody took a shower before me and used up all of the hot water and now it’s only lukewarm…. Ohhh—I’m suffering!!”

We’ve got to get past that one at some point. Just another thing to do some thinking about, how you relate to your body and how can you have a healthy relationship to your body; how can your mind have a healthy relationship with the body? You see some people when they age they have incredible mental suffering, don’t they? I remember hearing when I was still in my twenties one of my teachers was saying that it’s always good that you age gradually because otherwise if you woke up the next day and saw yourself when you were old you’d freak out.

I said (at the time), “No, I don’t think so.” But now, I think it’s true! It very interesting just to watch how your body changes, and how the mind is so attached to how the body looks.

Then you see people who suffer incredibly because of the aging of the body. They dye their hair because they can’t stand to have gray hair. Or you go and have a toupee made because you can’t stand going bald. Or you have your face lifted because you can’t stand the wrinkles. As the body’s getting weaker and you can’t do as much, it happens gradually and this freaking out. All the people who were athletic when they were young and then they can’t do what they could do when they were young when they’re older, and they are freaking out.

You can really see the degree of suffering people have when they age is directly related to the degree of attachment they have to their body. Think about this: how can I age gracefully; how can I accept it when my body isn’t going to work so well. Can I accept it when somebody changes my diaper when I’m old, and we’re back to infancy when someone else is changing my diaper because I’m incontinent? How am I going to be when I start forgetting things? Or when I keep forgetting things? You get to a certain age and you see that it’s going in that direction; it’s not starting, it’s going. How am I going to be? Think of Miriam—she just laughs at herself. Can we laugh at our self when we start doing that?

Again, it all relates to how we cling to this body and mind; how we build an identity around them and create a lot of suffering. What we’re trying to do when we generate renunciation and the determination to be free from samsara is—we’re not trying to have an adversarial relationship with our body where we hate it, because you’re just as attached and hooked into the body when you hate it as when you love it. We’re not trying to have a relationship of clinging attachment to it either. This is something to think a little bit about. That was another thing I wanted to share with you.

This discussion session was followed by a teaching on the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas, Verses 22-24.

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