37 Practices: Verses 25-28
37 Practices: Verses 25-28
Part of a series of teachings and discussion sessions given during the Winter Retreat from December 2005 to March 2006 at Sravasti Abbey.
37 Practices: Verses 25-28
- The basic practice of giving
- Ethical discipline, the cause of our own happiness
- Seeing harm as help
Questions and answers
- The kindness of others
- Being in control
- How should we respond when teachers are controversial
This teaching was preceded by a discussion session with the retreatants.
Should we do the 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas? Verse 25. The next few verses are about the six far-reaching attitudes.
The basic practice of giving
25. When those who want enlightenment must give even their body,
There’s no need to mention external things.
Therefore without hope for return or any fruition
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
So giving is one of the basic practices of Dharma whether you’re on the Bodhisattva Path or not. Giving is one of the basic practices, and giving is just a good quality of a good human being, isn’t it? So Togme Sangpo would say, Bodhisattvas give even their body. If we want to prepare ourselves to give our body—although we’re not actually allowed to until we have a direct realization of emptiness. But if we want to practice in preparation and think about being able to do that one day, then what need is there to talk about giving material things that “come-come, go-go?” Do you see what I mean? This cup, this recorder, these glasses. [Looking at the cat] I don’t own him so I can’t give him. [laughter]
Audience: Did I tell you he’s going to Mexico! [laughter]
VTC: No, we don’t own animals, we just take care of them. All these things, just to think—they’re impermanent, temporary things—give them and how much joy comes from giving. It doesn’t mean we have to send our self to the poor house. Just releasing the attachment that has so much fear, that if I give I won’t have. That’s why in the inner mandala offering there’s that phrase, “without any sense of loss.” That’s very important.
Without any fear that if I give I won’t have; and what he’s saying here about expectations, when we do give that we’ll get some perks. So we might think, “Oh, I’ll get some good karma.” Giving to get some good karma, that’s a good motivation. But if we’re practicing the Bodhisattva Path, we don’t want to give for that reason. We really want to let go of even fruition in terms of next life and dedicate it all to the benefit of sentient beings. But for us ordinary beings even if we get to the point that “I’ll give so that I can have wealth in a future life,” for us that’s actually good compared to where we usually are at. Because we’re usually at, “I don’t want to give. If I give I won’t have.” Or, “if I give, instead of expecting something in future life, if I give then these people will be nice to me. Then they’ll give me things in return. Then they’ll do favors for me. Then I’ll have something to kind of hang over their head so if they do something I don’t like I can say, “oh I gave you this and this and this” so they’ll feel obliged to do things my way.” So sometimes we give with a lot of expectation.
Or we give because we want to be acknowledged. When we read the names of all the benefactors out every month, don’t we all listen: “is my name on there? Are they dedicating for me?” Whenever there’s a list of benefactors, do we always check, “Oh, don’t worry; it’s not ego attachment. I’m just seeing if the secretary is really efficient and got all the details.” (in hushed voice) “Is my name there?” So try to give this kind of expectation up and instead just give for the joy of giving.
There are different kinds of giving: there’s material giving; there’s giving of the Dharma which is said to be the best kind of giving; there’s giving of protection so when other being are in danger, protecting them, helping the flies or the bugs that are going to get stepped on; giving love when beings are in emotional turmoil, giving love and support, encouragement. So there are different kinds of giving. That’s one thing that I think the Abbey—as part of our practice, what we’re aiming towards is trying to make everything we do in our life a gift.
Verse 26 is the far-reaching attitude of ethical discipline:
The cause for our own happiness – ethical discipline
26. Without ethics you can’t accomplish your own well-being,
So wanting to accomplish others’ is laughable.
Therefore without worldly aspirations
Safeguard your ethical discipline—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
This is so true: without ethical discipline, we can’t even prevent our own suffering. So talking about saving all sentient beings is laughable, it’s inane, it’s silly. We can’t even keep ourselves out of samsara. This is a point really to think about because you see lots of people, “Oh, I want these high teachings, Mahamudra, Dzogchen, union of bliss and emptiness. I want to do that and a three-year retreat.” [Then] “You said one of the precepts was to stop drinking. No, I’m not taking that one. You said one of the five precepts is to stop lying. I’m not taking that one either. And to stop sleeping around. Definitely not taking that one!”
We want this high stuff but like the basic stuff [forget it!]. So if we can’t create the cause for our own happiness through ethical discipline, which is the foundation in practice, then thinking we’re going to gain enlightenment quickly through these high practices and save all sentient beings from samsara, is laughable, isn’t it? Ethical discipline is so important. When we practice good ethical discipline, then our mind is free of regret; it’s free of guilt; it’s free of shame. Because we haven’t done anything to feel guilty or regretful or shameful about. I think ethical discipline is a very good way to have a peaceful mind, to save ourselves a lot of suffering.
So the precepts are really something to cherish; something very, very precious—to cherish our precepts. There are two lines here that touch something in me because I remember when I first met the Dharma, and I was thinking…. This crazy thought entered my mind that “oh, maybe I should ordain.” Then, of course, I heard my mother on this shoulder and my father on that shoulder and my husband above my head and my friends all around me and everybody saying, “you can’t do that because we’ll be miserable if you do that! Think about how miserable we’ll be because we won’t see you and you won’t be part of our lives and dah, dah, dah!” They made up a whole scene that wasn’t realistic.
And then I was thinking, “You know, I could live the life that they all want me to live, and try to make them all happy now. But I’m never going to succeed in making them happy. And by living that kind of life my ethical discipline is going to be in shambles because I won’t have the strength of mind to avoid the ten negative actions. I could live a life that everybody else will say they’re happy with me living, but I’m not going to be able to help those people at all because in the next life I’m going to be born in the lower realms.” So it was the same kind of thing. You can’t accomplish your own well-being—we can’t keep ourselves out of the lower realms, so how are we going to help anybody else if we can’t keep ourselves out of the lower realms? Aiming to keep ourselves out of the lower realms, we can be of benefit to others.
It says, without worldly aspirations, safeguard your ethical discipline. What does it mean to have worldly aspirations in terms of ethical discipline? It means having this mind that is arrogant: “I keep my precepts so purely. Look at how purely I keep my precepts. I’m very holy.” That’s why when you took the eight Mahayana precepts this morning—where it talks about ethics without conceit, that’s what its referring to: getting a swollen head out of conceit because we keep our morality so purely. So it’s saying, let that one go too.
Someone who harms helps our Dharma practice
27. To Bodhisattvas who want a wealth of virtue
Those who harm are like a precious treasure.
Therefore towards all cultivate patience
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
Just as when you want to practice generosity a beggar is not a hindrance; when you want to practice generosity, a beggar helps you. I remember this last trip to India, I had some extra bread and I wanted to give it to a beggar, and then I forgot to take it out the time I was going out. So then it was right before I was going to leave Dharmsala. I took it out then.
There was this one beggar who always sat in a certain place on the Lingkor (a circumambulation route in Dharamsala), and I went to where he was and he wasn’t there. I was like, “but I have this bread!” I looked all around; I couldn’t find a beggar. I had been so mindless that I had forgotten the bread in my room in the morning when, of course, I saw the beggars then. When I brought the bread out the beggars weren’t anywhere to be seen. It was, “Oh my goodness!” Finally, he came. I was very glad.
So just as a beggar is not a hindrance to generosity, you really miss a beggar when you want to give something. So too, the person who harms us is somebody who helps us practice patience. They aren’t a disadvantage or hindrance to our Dharma practice; they’re somebody who helps our Dharma practice. So that’s everybody who cusses at you, everybody who throws things at you, everybody who cuts you off on the highway, everybody who dumps their garbage in front of your house, everybody who doesn’t DO what they’re supposed to DO when they’re supposed to do it!
This verse is the source of your being able to practice patience. So to really see that to Bodhisattvas who want a wealth of virtue, those who harm are like a precious treasure. So that person—you’re filing your taxes and they’re supposed to send you a certain form and they don’t send it to you: They are a precious treasure. And your kids who do the exact opposite of what you tell them to do are a precious treasure. I’m so glad I didn’t have any! [laughter] I missed that precious treasure! [laughter] Whenever I was naughty my mother would say, “Wait until you have kids. I hope you get one just like you, then you’ll know what I went through!” So I was a smarty-pants. [laughter] I didn’t have any.
So therefore towards all cultivate patience without hostility. Patience doesn’t mean sitting there and stuffing the anger in our heart and going, “ yeah, I’m really patient…. [Then, as an aside:] This guy’s driving me crazy!” That’s not patience. It’s “patience without hostility.” In other words: “This is the way it is. Might as well relax and be happy about it. This is what the person said; this is what the person did. What to do?”
Some of the inmates tell me that one of the big sources of anger in a prison is somebody cutting you off in chow line. So you’re waiting in line to get your food, and someone else just butts in front of you. You can have a violent fight.
Audience: It happens here too! [laughter]
VTC: I’m glad you didn’t put that in the e-news. [laughter] Everybody’s so sensitive: “This is my place. You can’t cut in front of me.” From the outside you look at that and it’s so silly, isn’t it? How silly. It’s so childish. I just remember being in grade school. Remember how in grade school people would have fights because somebody butted in front of them in line?
After a certain point you just realize, this is so silly; it’s so childish. Then you hear that you can have big fist-fights in prison because of this. It’s so childish.
I can’t remember what it was I was upset about recently—you know things come up in retreat. Of course, I have all these reasons because my anger’s right; I’m not wrong when I’m angry; I’m right when I’m angry because I forgot to practice what I taught you about being happy to be wrong! Then all of a sudden, I thought of the inmates, and all of a sudden the thing I was angry about, I thought, “this is just as stupid as getting angry because somebody butts in front of you in line. I think I have such a GOOD reason for being angry, but actually it’s as good as being mad because somebody cut in front of me. So silly; so childish. You just let go…. Then you have patience without hostility.
We’ll do one more verse: 28,
Getting on the ball without pushing ourselves
28. Seeing even Hearers and Solitary Realizers, who accomplish
Only their own good, strive as if to put out a fire on their head,
For the sake of all beings make enthusiastic effort
The source of all good qualities—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.
So people always get confused about this: Hearers and Solitary Realizers with fire on their head—what’s going on? Who puts fire on their head? Sometimes we talk about three vehicles: the Hearer vehicle; the Solitary Realizer vehicle; and the Bodhisattva vehicle. So a Hearer is working for nirvana for themselves, and they’re called Hearer because they hear the teachings and they teach other beings. Solitary Realizer is also working for nirvana for themselves, but they’re called solitary because the life in which they attain nirvana, they usually manifest in a time period when there’s no historical Buddha alive so they teach but just by gestures and sign language and things like that. But they practice in solitude. They’re said to be like rhinoceroses [a solitary animal]. And the Bodhisattva vehicle that we’re familiar with.
So Hearers and Solitary Realizers have compassion but are not working for the benefit of all sentient beings; not working to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
They’re working for their own nirvana, but still—wow, they work really hard! They don’t lie around and drink tea. They work really hard at their practice and they develop incredibly good qualities. So even these people who are working for their own spiritual enlightenment, they work very diligently.
About this analogy of a fire on your head…. I’ve noticed that sometimes they have examples, analogies in the scriptures, that just seem really strange to us; or part of the analogy fits, but the other part doesn’t. This is an example of this, because if you had a fire on your head, are you going to sit around and watch TV? Are you going to sit and indulge, feeling sorry for yourself if you have a fire on your head? Are you going to sit and have a whole meditation session on attachment if you have a fire on your head? No. If you have a fire on your head, you’re going to do something pronto, right? The analogy is like that. You don’t have the luxury to do stupidios. You get on the ball and do your practice.
Now we hear the example like this fire on your head and we think, “Panic! There’s a fire on my head! AAAAAAAAAAH! [VTC is screaming and frightens the cat away]” Sorry! (to the cat) [laughter] Don’t worry there’s no fire on your fur. [laughter] We think, “Freaked out, panic” and then we think, “Is that how I’m suppose to practice the Dharma? Being freaked out with panic? Is that what joyous effort is? That I’ve got to push myself. I can’t rest and I can’t relax because there’s a fire on my head I’ve got to stay up until midnight meditating, fighting my attachment! Ahhhhh!” [With cries of exasperation.]
No, that’s not what the analogy is telling us. It doesn’t mean panic-freak out. Did that last part get on tape? I’m thinking of somebody who needs to hear it. [laughter]
Audience: Could you repeat that for a friend?
VTC: You want me to repeat that for a friend? [laughter] Okay, so “practicing as if there’s a fire on your head” doesn’t mean that you go into freak-out mode and you push yourself and you stress out, AHHHH got to fight my attachment, got to fight my anger, there’s a fire on my head and I’m going to hell, I’ve got to counteract this! No, it doesn’t mean practicing like that because we’re going to go crazy before we get any Dharma practice done. It just means that instead of wasting time, lying in front of the TV, we get on the ball and deal with what’s going on in our mind. But we deal with what’s going on in our mind in a relaxed manner not in a freaked-out manner.
Okay, your turn.
Audience: I have something good to report.
Audience: In the beginning of the retreat I think you asked us to pay attention to our disturbing attitudes. Last summer I realized that I had this trio that often comes together; anger, discouragement, and doubt. So I turned them into The Three Stooges at the beginning of retreat. [laughter] The doubt part I think I actually worked something out that I think is going to be helpful. I figured out that I would have this doubt and discouragement going on and then I would get angry because I found that Buddhism is so seamless. It’s like I was saying at the beginning of the retreat: “[practice/enlightenment/Buddhism] it’s too hard!” One Rinpoche said, “if you start, don’t ever stop,” and I was feeling really trapped and I would get angry and I can remember doing this a number of times over the years. Then Dianne was leading a meditation this week, and she said something at the very end, it was like, I finally got my answer. Which was, well—it wasn’t just that—it was over the course of the last couple of weeks, realizing that I think I was doubting the Buddhas or I thought that I was. So then it seemed really unworkable. Like something that I couldn’t work out; I couldn’t find a key to get out of this. And then I realized that what I was doubting was my own ability to do this. Dianne said something like, “The path that will never fail you,” and I realized that I completely believe that: the path will not fail you. Actually realizing it was all self-doubt made it a lot easier because you can do something about that. If you do meditations correctly, results follow. You have to come to these conclusions; if you’re not coming to these conclusions, then you’re doing the meditation wrong. So you just keep going and work it out. Ven. Tenzin Kacho once said, “it’s only your mind that will turn you away from the Dharma.”
It was a big solution. I’m sure I’ll have my little trio [The Three Stooges] come up again, but it is different because the seamlessness that was the enemy is now the friend. I’ve looked at this quite awhile and every time I come up to this conclusion. The mind is somewhat clear, and at least I can see how things fit in a certain way and [in the past] I would get upset with the seamlessness; but now it’s like this strength because “the path will not fail you.” So that was good. Of the three I felt that doubt was the worst to have because it was the one that could really turn me away [from the Dharma].
VTC: It’s good to be able to identify doubt as doubt because usually we don’t identify it as the affliction of doubt but instead we believe in it and we think, “oh yes, this is a very good question. I need to check this out: maybe the wrong teaching, wrong path.” That’s nice to see the path is unfailing, then self-doubt, that one.
Audience: Yes, I can work with that one.
Making the connection: the retreat depends on others
Audience: I found this week that the descriptions of the attachment to fantasy and projection and romantic notions that life could be other than it is now, and days were going by and I was totally hooked into the attachment of some sort of idyllic, heroic life that was going to be the fruition of whatever I’m doing here. I got to the point of starting to be discouraged and giving myself a hard time. Then for a dedication one night, Pema gave us that list of all the volunteers who have been helping this retreat [from Coeur d’Alene Dharma Friends, neighbors, Abbey supporters, etc.] and I was sitting on the cushion and I was listening to them. I had the list and so it had the names and what they each did, and it was like for the first time I suddenly realized I was there on that cushion for them. And that they were counting on me.
I mean, I know that they are doing this, that there’s this huge support going on, but it was like I wasn’t connecting it. When I saw their names, and because I know so many of them personally, that each of them were doing this and how we were literally dependent upon their kindness to be here in this situation! It was also in the part in our offering food about not keeping our vows for these people who entrust their generosity, their food, their time, and their money for us to be here to be able to do this practice. Sitting on the cushion and getting hooked into these fantasies was not serving them whatsoever! So even getting out of, “Well, [self], if you can’t hook into this not serving you then step outside your self and see the fact that you are not serving these dear incredible kind human beings who are keeping this place running like a pure land so I can sit here and work on my mind!”
So that whole idea that I depend on every sentient being for my enlightenment, it’s the first time that I’ve ever gotten it really, deep in a place in my heart instead of a concept, and the gratitude that came up for me. To know that they are doing this and we don’t even see them, they’re like these invisible….
VTC: Yes, it’s like the dirty laundry disappears and then it re-appears clean!
Audience: And then this beautiful food comes out of the workshop and goes into the refrigerator downstairs, things show up: film, deodorant, bandages, nutritional yeast, and deer food. And that they depend on us, they are counting on us, they are doing this because they believe in us, and they have faith in the Dharma and the way that it is manifesting by the causes and conditions that we have created. They are so much a part of the causes and conditions that we have created and we have a responsibility to them. It just took that attachment and blew it right out of my head.
Audience: This morning I was thinking about all these people that help us and I wondered if I would be able to do all this work they are doing. It’s such a nice job they are doing and critical job and they rely on us, they believe in what we are doing. Wow, it would be an incredible experience to help others like they are helping us. I can’t imagine myself being in the supermarket with all the lists. I feel very fortunate. I would like to give back to others what I have received here….
VTC: What you said is exactly what Flora’s doing. She was at the retreat last year and then year she came to serve the retreat [this year].
Audience: I realize I need faith, the good faith not the bad faith. I know I have a little, but I need to have more understanding and then I can have more faith.
No afflictions can stand up to meditation on emptiness
Audience: I had an interesting experience this week. One day I became upset and my self-grasping and my big “I” was very strong and for the first time ever I remembered to do the four- point analysis. It was very interesting because I don’t think I did it very clearly, but I did it nonetheless. And the thing that was shocking to me was doing that, all of the garbage in my mind just dropped, it just was gone. That was very shocking to me: it was so efficient! Like six or eight seconds, then gone! And something like that usually would stay around for least a few hours, ruminating.
It also brought up that I have carried this notion in my mind—that understanding one gets when one practices would be on the cushion, but it’s not—it was there, it was that. Very efficient, that’s what amazed me.
VTC: You can see why it’s said that’s the thing that cuts the root of samsara. Because it is very efficient, none of the afflictions can stand up.
Audience: Then I thought that’s ego not wanting me to do this because it knows it would stop it. One other question: if one develops calm abiding, is that the mechanism that you are able to realize emptiness over time because you keep yourself in a place of not in ego?
VTC: With calm abiding and single-pointed concentration you’re able to temporarily suppress the very gross afflictions, but you can’t cut them from the root. It’s only the special insight, the wisdom, that cuts them from the root. But when you have calm-abiding, when you combine that with the analytical mind of special insight—because the concentrated mind is so powerful—then when you really see that there’s nothing there to hold onto, you can see it clearly, and you can stay on “there’s nothing there.” So the calm abiding gives the mind the strength to stay with what you’ve discovered, and because it’s also free of the chatter, it’s easier to do the analysis too.
Audience: So is it the repetition of that over time then that gives you the realization?
VTC: Yes. It’s learning, thinking and meditating over time.
Audience: What does samadhi mean?
VTC: Samadhi means single-pointedness—where you can keep your mind on an object with the ability to concentrate. So we have some degree of the mental factors, samadhi now, but it’s undeveloped. So we need to strengthen it. Then the word samadhi is also used like when they talk about the bodhisattvas have different samadhis that they do. It means different practices they do with samadhi; for example, manifesting many bodies and going to the pure lands and making offerings to the Buddhas. There are always different samadhi practices that they do. That’s one usage of it, and another usage is that factor of concentration that we want to be able to perfect so it becomes single-pointed.
Audience: I was doing the Vajrasattva practice but I was kind of able to watch myself doing the practice. I have spent some time trying to surrender to Vajrasattva kind of consciously for some weeks. When this different mind state came that also came up because I haven’t actually been able to visualize while doing the mantra. So I don’t really try to very often. I do a little bit, but I get like I’m juggling. So I just don’t bother. I just stay with my concentration; I try to concentrate on the mantra and not the visualization. I do them separately mostly. But when this was happening I thought—I wasn’t sure whether I should drop the practice and see where this went. But I just decided to see if I could visualize and stay with the mantra instead. It’s hard to know. I wasn’t really sure where to go, and I didn’t really analyze it. I was just doing the practice.
VTC: It was a more focused state of mind?
Audience: Yeah, I was really there. I felt kind of full also. My body felt different. I wasn’t really thinking. I had experiences like this before when you’re just “there.” It was really direct, but also I was able to decide without it changing the experience at all. I don’t know if I can communicate what happened. If that ever happened again…. I remember you said once, every 254 sessions maybe something different will happen. [laughter]
VTC: I think something different happens every session.
Audience: I have had a few times in my life when it feels like it’s altered; your experience is altered.
VTC: Just stay with it; just stay with it.
Audience: Stay with it. Drop the structure a little bit.
VTC: I don’t know. Sometimes the structure is what supports that experience from happening—I mean supports it and enables it to happen. So just see; you have to see.
Audience: [via a translator]: Although she feels that in the outside she might look the same; she feels unknown to herself on the inside. What’s she’s seeing now is kind of unknown to her. For instance, last retreat she spent most of the time working with her emotions. It was basically an emotional retreat, working in her emotions. This year, because she’s more confident [with the practice], she trusts the practice and herself and her ability; she has been more able to work with the practice in a different way. She’s more mindful, and she has more concentration, more awareness of what’s going on. She feels that she’s more able to focus on different aspects. It’s like being able to apply the practice, the different aspects of the practice to whatever is necessary in different moments. Like “this is the moment for me to focus on the visualization or the mantra or what’s coming up or whatever.”
My feeling is that I have real confidence in the practice in what’s going on. Because of that, whatever comes up, whatever happens, I feel okay. At the end of the practice or the session, no matter if I was not being able to concentrate or whatever was going on, I have the feeling I really trust the practice. So I’m sure something good was going on. It’s that kind of contentment that I didn’t know before.
VTC: Good, good.
Audience: I have something to say that’s related to what [the others] were saying. I think the inmate too in the letter. Just looking at my life and seeing how much of it is really involved around control or trying to control things, especially what I was feeling and how the Dharma fit into that pattern for me. I would try to use the Dharma to try to control things. Often when I felt out of control, I would stop practicing Dharma because I couldn’t control myself. Then I would medicate my pain with addictions and things like that. And that’s not so great!
But realizing that there never was control to begin with—just letting go of that idea of control, and then opening to the Dharma a little, and saying maybe just getting past this denial that I’ve got everything figured out, if I just push a little harder things will come to place. But letting go of that just a little and trying to apply some of the Dharma and seeing that it works. And it’s like, “wait.” it’s disorientating almost. [laughter] “Where did that attachment go? I had it for 10 days and now where is it?”
Audience: And looking at the kindness of people who are helping us. It took that attachment and literally blew it out of my mind. It’s like the Dharma just—phew!
Audience: I’m still at the stage where it’s “I.” If I can’t control a session perfectly, it’s not as big of a deal anymore. Well, for the last two sessions at least. There was never control to begin with. It’s just giving up this idea of control that was just wearing me out. Now there’s a little bit more space, a little more room.
VTC: You said something very interesting at the beginning, about using the Dharma to control your mind. A lot of times that language is used, our mind is so “out of control.” we’ve got to “control our mind.” We use the Dharma to control our mind. So you were probably picking up on that and then just putting it into that [grinding sound] control. [laughter]
When that wasn’t what it meant at all.
Audience: There were times I would say to myself, “I can’t meditate now: I’m too out of control.” I had this idea that meditation, it wasn’t just sort of relating to what was going on. It was controlling and suppressing probably more than stopping it or clamping it down. That was the exact phrase. I can remember specific instances where I would say, “I’m too out of control to practice Dharma.”
VTC: Kind of like, “I’ve got to do it perfectly. It says to visualize this; I’ve got to do that. If I’m not doing it, I’m out of control; what’s the use?”
Audience: Yeah, even just watching my breath….
Practicing patience when Dharma teachers do harm and in the face of atrocity
Audience: I have one question about one of the verses. This idea of patience and not acting with hostility towards the person that is harmful. This has been in my mind for some time where things have happened in our world. Sometimes we’re in different situations where we have to choose either to act or not to act. We know we don’t have a pure motivation but something is going on that is really wrong. So sometimes I have the feeling—it must be of course my delusion. In a Dharma context with some teachers it’s generally understood (or that’s my feeling), that if your motivation is not clear, even if you know that something bad is happening, maybe you don’t act. Because you’re acting with anger or something. For instance, maybe you’ll know why I’m saying this….
I know that right now I’m not angry with a certain person, a certain Dharma teacher. I really know that I’m not angry anymore. I know it, but I know what’s going on. I really know what’s going on. I know many people are being harmed by that person. Because I saw it, I really saw what’s happening. So that’s one situation.
I have read for instance the Dalai Lama saying “when you know that one Dharma teacher is doing harm you should denounce the teacher.” I read it in one book. So that’s one example with something that is in my mind. Another thing, for instance, in the world there are some atrocities. I don’t like war; I’m never for violence. But there are some situations like what was going on in Afghanistan or in some countries where the girls—they take out the clitoris. All those atrocities that are part of certain cultures that I really find unacceptable for me. So if you have the ability or power to stop that, should you just stay away and let them deal with it? Or you take the responsibility of doing something, knowing yourself and knowing your motivation? But doing something—and then you take care of dealing with the bad karma or whatever. So it’s a bit complicated.
VTC: So you’re saying, I kind of heard a few different examples. One of them was your motivation isn’t—there’s some anger or something going on. But you also know that it’s harmful. You were giving the examples of different things that happen in different cultures, and should we intervene? You said one thing in there: if we have the power to stop it. I think that’s the really crucial thing. If you’re somewhere and one person is beating on another.
You might be angry, but if you have the power to stop that harm without killing the other person or something like that and you’re willing to accept the karma, then you can do it. Accept the karma, and try and let go of the anger afterwards. But that’s a situation where you can really stop the suffering. When you gave those examples of those certain cultural practices that you think are horrific, we do not have the power to stop those. One person standing up and denouncing something.
And in terms of practices in other cultures that we may not agree with, I think we have to be incredibly sensitive because a lot of those cultures are facing modernity and threatened. A lot of the good things in those cultures could get wiped out by modernity not only the things that may be unfair or unjust or whatever. So I think in talking and trying to do cultural reform on other cultures, I think is takes a tremendous amount of sensitivity. We could really devastate a whole cultural group by finding one thing that we didn’t like about them.
They think they have to become like us. Then they lose a lot of the good qualities of their culture. We have to be very, very delicate in how we speak about things. Sometimes it’s easier to change things within our own culture because we know how to do it; we know the avenues. Hopefully, we could be more patient. Because one of the things in our culture that needs to be changed is how we try to affect change in other cultures! We come at it in a very imperialistic way: we’re this very supreme culture. Forget about what happened in WWII in Europe and all the white people who did the most horrific things that probably have been done on the planet. Forget that! Our culture knows how to oppose it, injustice. Somehow its Euro-American culture, blah, blah, blah. Its just arrogance. I think often times we really have to work within our own cultural context.
Then the other example about a Dharma teacher and the things that are going on…. When His Holiness commented on that, he wasn’t advocating “let’s make a big stink.” Like put it in the newspaper and make a big stink duh- duh- duh- duh. I remember after he said that some people did that about one teacher. I thought it was very unpleasant, especially because the people who did it were really angry at that teacher, even though they weren’t his students. I think it involves a great deal of tact because there’s a lot of karma involved when you interfere with a relationship between a student and a teacher, even if the teacher is doing some funny things. If they are teaching some things that are beneficial…. It’s very, very delicate karma.
I asked Geshe Sonam Rinchen about this one time, and what he recommended—and I had asked him more about a personal thing—if you have a very good friend who is going to a teacher and that teacher is doing some pretty weird stuff: Should you tell your friend? Should you criticize? What should you do?
He said if that person is already a disciple of that teacher, you don’t criticize the teacher. But you can maintain your friendship with that person and if that person has doubts about their teacher, then they can come to you and you can help them sort that out afterwards.
He said if that person hasn’t become a disciple of that teacher, then you can say that there’s some controversial behavior here that you really need to check into and be careful of. Not in the sense of gossip, but in the sense of just reminding the person that it’s always really important to check out the qualities of a teacher and not just go for somebody who looks charismatic or something that looks good. It’s very hard because a teacher may be doing something that is not Dharma, but there’s a whole group of students who have faith in that person.
If you come and criticize that person, often what happens is people lose faith in the Dharma. So instead of just saying, “oh it’s my thing because I overestimated this teacher; I got into idol worship instead of properly evaluating the teacher—” many people, instead of saying that and taking that responsibility themselves, or maybe [say I was] “not investigating or jumping into things or falling for charisma,” what they do is they say, “oh, I thought this person was so great and they turn out to be so lousy. Therefore the Dharma doesn’t work. So forget the Dharma!” That’s very harmful for people. We don’t want to get people in a position where they just kind of abandon the Dharma altogether because of a negative experience with a teacher. So for the people who are very devoted to that person [teacher], there’s not much you can say or do because they’re very devoted and that’s it. You have to wait for them to realize that there’s some funny stuff going on. Then you can talk with them some more about it and help them process it and redirect them towards other teachers and so on and so forth.
But if somebody is really doing something that is damaging or is teaching something that isn’t the Dharma or being very two-faced about things: pretending to be something that they aren’t. Then I think, with people who have not made that relationship with that person, you can definitely say, “Look you need to really check.” Because sometimes there are a few groups that are a little bit suspicious and their teachers are suspicious and people will come and say, “what do you think about this group?” and I’ll say, “well there’s a lot of controversy about this person and if you choose to go there you need to be aware of that and check up or if you don’t want to get in that position I can also tell you some other teachers where there’s no controversy involved and you can go study with them.” So it’s a difficult thing.
Acknowledging that things are complex
Audience: Can I ask a question on a similar topic? When I first started studying the Dharma I listened to a lot of his talks online; I’ve never met him, I’ve never formally received teaching from him in that way, but I did learn good Dharma. But then, since then some things have happened from his behavior, I don’t know, but there’s controversy about it, I guess. My question is I don’t know how to relate to him as a teacher. I don’t necessarily consider him a spiritual mentor in the sense that I received formal teachings from him or ever met him, but I did learn the Dharma from him, and I don’t know how to make sense of what’s happening now.
VTC: I think you can just say like you did, when I was a beginner I listened to some things online and they helped me and I’m grateful for that and now there’s some controversy about this person’s behavior, and so I choose not to develop the relationship in any way. I think that’s always the solution, even if you had been that person’s student for fifteen years and then you go, “oh boy now I’m seeing clearly what’s going on,” you can still appreciate how somebody helped you.
When you see faults in a teacher or in any person, it doesn’t mean that everything about them is bad and wrong. We’re way into black and white then—but we can still look and say “okay they had some good qualities and they helped me in this way and I’m grateful for that, but here it’s going into somewhere where I don’t want to be involved, and so I’m not going to be involved.” So you don’t have to make it a black and white thing. Even with friendships with people…. You might be a friend with somebody and then something happens, and you think, “I don’t know if I want to be such a close friend anymore.” It doesn’t mean that you need to throw everything out about them and say everything that they ever did was wrong; you can still say they helped me, and there was some kindness and there was some affection there, but now it doesn’t seem beneficial, so I’m not going to be involved.
So it’s acknowledging that things are complex. I think, generally, if there’s controversy about somebody I think it’s better to really keep a distance. If you want to spend a lot of time researching because you’re really attracted to that teacher, then do the research and dispel your doubt and make a decision one way or another. But if it’s not somebody that you are really eager to receive teachings from, then there’s a lot of other people that you can go to. But the thing is, you know, we just can’t control the world and make everybody be the way we want them to be in response to your question.
I just had a situation happen, really quite difficult, where a very old friend of mine, who’s a student of somebody and wanted to take ordination. But I don’t know about the state of that person’s vows [who will be giving the ordination]. So I wrote and asked advice from my teachers and I did it with as much good motivation as I can and I don’t know what the results are going to be.
Audience: I think it’s a difficult topic and maybe it’s pointed for many of us because we live in the West in countries, especially in Mexico where the Dharma is like it was for you 30 years ago or something. We have very little, a very small Dharma group, teachers coming. Even when we come to The States and we see all the magazines with all these teachers and teachings, names and things for sale. Sometimes it’s very confusing. Sometimes it’s exciting, so many things going on! Sometimes it’s bit discouraging, seeing these teachers in the ads in the magazines. Its like a supermarket. You want the real thing, and you would like to have the real thing in your country. But it’s so difficult to have real teachers and to have real teachings. I see it in my own experience. It’s so easy to lose control and take a different track….
VTC: It’s very hard because we live in such a consumer culture, such a materialistic culture. Dharma comes here and we don’t know how to relate to things outside of turning them into consumer products. So you have the ads full of “you need this latest and you need a special cushion and you need a special bell…. You need all these Dharma accoutrements so you can practice non-attachment!” Then all the ads for all the teachers: everybody with this beautiful smile. And of course, it’s “the highest teaching that you’ll never get anywhere else with the best teacher who’s optimally qualified!” And everybody’s like that—so the ads say. I don’t know….
I have a lot of doubt about what’s happening too. The way I’ve thought about it is, different people have different karma. I can’t control everything. I can’t make Buddhism be in this country what I think it should be. So all I can do is what I feel is a suitable way with integrity for me to do things, and whoever is attracted to that way will come. The people who aren’t will find whatever or whoever they’re attracted to. At least they learn some Dharma.
It’s not saying that the way I do everything is the best way. Even if they’re going to Dharma-lite, at least they’re learning some Dharma. What it’s doing is putting imprints in their mind, and the in a future life they’ll meet Geshe Sopa or a teacher with more substance. Maybe they just don’t have the karma in this lifetime to meet a real qualified teacher, but maybe somehow if they go to Dharma-Lite, they get some good feeling about Buddhism. Maybe they create some merit, and then in some future life that can ripen and it can be better.
I think it’s important for all of us to really do things with as much integrity as we have and not succumb to the concerns over materialistic pressure. But we can’t control. We can point things out to people. Some people will listen; some people won’t.
I remember a few years ago there was a whole group that was doing something quite weird. Doing a practice that His Holiness said was better not to do. There were some people who were not disciples of this teacher and did not do this practice. They asked me about it, and I told them the story. I explained why His Holiness said what he did and duh, duh, duh, and all the controversy. I said, “I recommend that you do not have any connection with those people. Stay away.” One of them was so enthralled by something that was controversial that he went and did all this research and started doing the practice! So realize that some people when there’s controversy—“oh, its something that’s controversial?” It becomes more interesting. [laughter] I did warn them but it backfired. So what to do; what do you do?
Audience: When somebody is doing harm to you or you feel you’re being harmed by somebody, and you do not react. You do not do anything. Isn’t it that you in that way are developing karma because of your anger or the way you’re being hurt? If you don’t react or do something, you cause the other person to create karma?
VTC: I’m not sure I understand. If somebody’s harming you and you’re angry about it but you don’t react.
Audience: You’re the kind of person that doesn’t know how to stand up for yourself and defend yourself or react. The other isn’t really conscious or appears not to be conscious of hurting you. If you don’t stop the person, aren’t you allowing that person to create karma because he’s hurting non-consciously?
VTC: Yes, but you have to have a proper motivation in stopping them. It isn’t “you’re creating a lot of karma by hurting me. So I’m going to stop you hurting me because it’s for the benefit of your karma you bleep, bleep, bleep!” No, it’s not like that.
If you’re really calm inside: “oh, somebody is really doing something. It’s causing damage to me, but the real victim is themselves because they’re going to have to experience the result of this.” Then with kindness you can speak with them very firmly, and try to get them to stop their behavior. But if you’re angry about it, then it’s just using Dharma to rationalize. You’re retaliating.
Audience: Sometimes in the bodhisattva practice it goes to the extreme—or to the point that you can say “even if they kill me.” So I want to better understand this point….
VTC: Right. We talk about giving our body or “the point where they kill us.” A lot of this will depend very much on the individual and what level of the Path they’re at. Like I said, giving your body—you have to be on the Path of Seeing before you’re allowed to do that. If you do it beforehand, you’re giving up your precious human life and it could be not so beneficial for either you or the others. So the same thing about if someone is doing something harmful.
Standing up and attacking back. Also we tend to paint these situations in a very black and white way: e.g. “Somebody’s going to kill me so the alternative is to kill them.” Situations are not black and white. There’s a lot of ways to stop somebody from killing you without killing them. If we think about it, there’s a lot of creative ways to deal with things that don’t cause harm to the other person or cause minimum harm.
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.