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Path of purification: Daily practice

Path of purification: Daily practice

Part of a two-day workshop at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Singapore, April 23-24, 2006.

Daily practice

  • The benefits of a daily practice
  • Incorporating meditation into your daily routine
  • Learning to evaluate ourselves
  • Recognizing our potential
  • Working with praise and blame
  • Working on our own mind

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 01 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Why is it that a person who does harm can feel calm and peaceful?
  • How do I select a spiritual teacher to guide me on the path to Enlightenment?
  • How to deal with frustration when facing handicap and discrimination?

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 02 (download)

Investigating actions of speech

  • Looking at how our speech has harmed others
  • What motivates harmful actions of speech
  • Helping others to feel heard and understood
  • Understanding karma as a way to become more mindful of speech

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 03 (download)

Refuge and precepts

  • Creating a bond with the Buddhas through refuge
  • The benefits of taking precepts
  • Overview of the five lay precepts
  • Resources to learn more about refuge

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 04 (download)

Questions and answers

  • Doing three-month retreat at Sravasti Abbey
  • How to have a playful attitude when doing meditation practice
  • Signs and frequency of purification

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 05 (download)

Advice to participants

  • Refuge gives us something to depend on
  • How Dharma gives us a way to make our mind peaceful, regardless of our external circumstances
  • Using Vajrasattva to purify

Vajrasattva workshop, Day 2: Path of purification 06 (download)

Click here for Day 1 of the workshop.

Below are excerpts from the teachings.

The benefits of a daily practice

Continuing with the good habits built during retreat

At a retreat, when you’re learning the Dharma, building up some good habits, it’s very important to continue to do that right away and just set up a new habit and start doing it from tonight, tomorrow morning, etc. If you get into the habit of doing a daily Dharma practice, you’ll see the benefit—it’s just incredible. You may not see the benefit right away, but if you look back over a period of time, then the benefit is quite obvious.

Change comes after consistent practice

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always recommends that we don’t just evaluate our progress by looking at how we were a week ago or a month ago, because it takes awhile for our minds to change and for the new habits to become firm and stable. He recommends that we look at how we were a year ago, or 5 years ago or 10 years ago, then we can really see the progress that we’ve made due to our Dharma practice. From one day to the next, you may not see that change.

I’ll tell you this right from the start, as it happens to all of us. Sometimes it feels like you’re just doing your practice and nothing is happening, and you go, “Oh, I want something to happen.” [laughter]

But you know what? Although it looks like nothing is happening, actually something is happening but you’re not aware of it. The thing is, you have to go through many of these sessions where nothing seems to be happening, to get to that time where you have a meditation session and something really clicks and you go, “Oh yeah, now I get it.”

We usually just focus on what we call the “good’ meditation sessions where we have some special feeling, some special understanding, and we want every meditation session to be like that. But it doesn’t work that way, because understanding comes only through familiarizing our minds with the Dharma over and over and over again. So we don’t see those insights everyday; we only see them occasionally when the cumulative energy is such that the change becomes obvious in our meditation.

So don’t evaluate your meditation sessions and say, “Oh, that was a good one.” “Oh, that was a bad one. I’m having so many bad meditation sessions; I’m just going to give up!” There’s really no such thing as a bad meditation session. Just the fact that you got yourself on that cushion, is good! Really, think about it. Just the fact that you chose to spend some time with the Buddha instead of gossiping on the phone or watching TV or going out drinking or to the casino, just the fact that you chose meditation over a lot of other distracting activities, you’re already putting a good imprint in your mind. So give yourself credit for that.

Incorporating meditation practice into daily routine

It works so well if you have your own little daily routine. You know how we all have our routines; what we do in the morning when we get up: brush our teeth, have a cup of tea and so on. Well, put in some meditation time into that routine. If it means you have to go to bed a little earlier the previous night, do that, because it’s really well worth your time to spend that extra time in your Dharma practice each day. And especially if you generate a good motivation each morning: not to harm, to benefit others as much as possible and to hold that bodhicitta mind, aspiring for liberation for the benefit of all beings. When you wake up in the morning, cultivate that motivation and do some meditation, it completely changes how your entire day goes.

Think about it. What do people normally wake up to? Sometimes it’s the alarm clock ringing. What does that do to your mind? You’re sleeping; the mind’s so subtle, and you get that really harsh noise. Or you wake up to the news: so many people are killed in Iraq today, so many are starving in Sudan, etc. Your mind is subtle in the morning; when you wake up to this kind of stuff, what does it do to your mind?

It’s not so good for the imprint it leaves on your mind, because what we want to do is train ourselves each morning to wake up to a Dharma thought, so that when we die and we get reborn, we wake up in our new rebirth with a Dharma thought. So every morning when we wake up, we practice for our new rebirth, starting it off with a good motivation, starting it off with a kind heart. So we practice like this, day by day by day.

Then in the evening, again do some practice. Review how your day went. If there are things that happened during the day where maybe you lost your temper or you were greedy or dissatisfied or whatever, then sit down and do some meditation and apply the antidotes that the Buddha taught to counteract that specific negative emotion.

Or if you spoke harshly to somebody, or you gossip behind somebody’s back, or you lied, or were deceptive in some way, then do the Vajrasattva practice and right away, do the confession about this negative action that you did. If we confess and apply the four opponent powers right away, then the negative karma from that action doesn’t build up. If we don’t apply the four opponent powers and we don’t purify, then because karma is expandable, that little seed that is planted in your mind begins to germinate and grow and grow, and then it might ripen as a really huge result even though the negative action was a small thing to start with. That’s why you want to purify it right away.

Anyway, we have a whole stock of negative karma from previous lives to purify. We’re not going to run out. If you run out of things to purify, that’s really good. That’s really excellent. [laughter] I don’t know about you, but I don’t think it’s going to happen to me any time soon. So it’s good to keep doing the purification practice. It’s very, very helpful. It not only helps us spiritually, but also psychologically, because it stops so many of our psychological problems.

You really take the time to adjust your motivation, adjust your intention, and if you see that you get distracted by values that aren’t really Buddhist—for example, the mind that’s thinking, “Oh, I want a lot of money! Other people will think I’m a good person if I have a lot of money”—then you stop and you think about it. You think, “Really? Are other people going to think I’m good because I have a lot of money?” Bill Gates has a lot of money. Do people think he’s good? Osama Bin Laden has lots of money. Do people think he’s good?

Is the value of your life measured by how much money you have? I don’t think so. If you think your family or other people are going to judge you based on how much your income is, well, if that’s their value system, that’s their business. Let them judge you, but it has nothing to do with who you are.

In other words, other people’s opinions of you are not who you are. REPEAT, this is really important to remember: Other people’s opinions of you are not who you are. People can think that you’re bad—it doesn’t mean you’re bad. People can think you’re wonderful—it doesn’t mean you’re wonderful.

Investigating our motivations

We have to look in our own hearts and see what our own motivations or intentions are. And then we can evaluate ourselves, our own actions and how we are living our lives. Other people’s ideas about us are only ideas. Some days they praise us; some days they blame us. People’s minds change so quickly anyway.

I’m sure after yesterday’s sessions, some people probably said, “Oh, it was so wonderful!” And some others probably said, “Oh, it was horrible!” Some probably said, “Oh, she gave such interesting Dharma talks!” And others probably said, “I slept through the whole thing; it was so boring!” [laughter]

Everybody is going to say whatever goes through their minds at that particular minute. Does that have anything to do with who I am or how this retreat went? No, it has nothing to do with it!

From my side, the karma I create depends on my motivation and my intention, not on other people praising or blaming. And the value of this retreat doesn’t depend on anybody’s particular opinion of it; it depends on everybody’s individual experience.

People can say, “Oh I didn’t benefit at all.” But actually, they benefited a lot; they just don’t recognize it. Because they came here, they got some seeds of Buddha-Dharma planted in their minds. Some of them may have never heard the Buddha-Dharma before. They came to this retreat, they were here just for one day, they learned something about karma; they heard some teachings about cultivating a kind heart. Even if they never come back to another Buddhist teaching again, it was very valuable for them to be here yesterday. They got some very good seeds planted in their minds. Even if they left saying, “I slept through the whole thing,” it was beneficial, because the thing is, even if you sleep, as long as the sound goes in your ear, there is some benefit.

Now, that is not giving you permission to sleep today, don’t get me wrong! [laughter]

But my point here is that people’s opinions are not reliable indicators of what actually happened. Don’t base your own self-esteem or your self-identity on what other people say about you. Why? Because first of all, their opinions change from day to day. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Look at how our opinions change from day to day. Other people’s opinions also change from day to day.

Also, they’re only that person’s individual opinion. That person’s viewing things through their own periscope, i.e. it’s completely conditioned by their own attitude of me, I, my and mine. They’re interpreting everything through how it relates to them, but they don’t realize it. So they say it’s good because they were happy. Or they say it’s bad because they were unhappy. That has nothing to do with whether something was actually good or bad.

So don’t base your value as a human being on what other people are saying, “Oh, you’re so wonderful because you make a million dollars!” Or “Oh, you’re so terrible because you don’t….” Or “Oh, you’re so wonderful because you’re rich and famous.” Or “You’re so terrible because you’re not famous.” Who cares!

Look at Mao Tse Tung. He’s very rich and very powerful. Would you want his karma? Would you want to experience the result of the karma that Mao Tse Tong created in his life? I wouldn’t. Do you know how many people’s deaths he was responsible for? Do you want to experience the karma of having killed people? I don’t. He was rich. He was famous. He had power. Does that mean his life was worthwhile and he created good karma? Does that mean wherever he’s born right now, he’s happy?

There could be another person who’s very humble, doesn’t make a big deal about things but they act consistently with an attitude of kindness and with generosity. Maybe other people ignore them a lot. They don’t have a lot of money and so they’re not rich and famous and they’re ignored, but they help the people in their lives and they’re kind to others. They generate the bodhicitta again and again. These people, when they die, they have a good death, they have a good rebirth, they’re closer to enlightenment by the fact that their lives were very, very meaningful. Maybe nobody on this planet remembers them after they die, but that doesn’t matter, because the real value is in what they become afterwards.

It’s the same case with us. When we die, everybody remembers us. They talk about us, they sniff, they say, “Oh, he’s such a good person!” Of course they didn’t say that about us when we were alive; they always complained about us, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?!” But as soon as we’re dead, “Oh, they were so wonderful! They never did anything wrong. They were so loving and kind.” [laughter]

It’s true, isn’t it? But in any case, when we die, people may praise us, people may blame us, but we’re born somewhere else and we have no idea what’s going on back here! And anyway, all the people who are praising us and blaming us, they’re not going to live very long. They’re going to die too. In the long scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether our names are remembered or not remembered. The whole thing is eventually going to disintegrate, so who cares!

What’s really important is what goes on in our minds, having ethical values and living by our ethical values. That’s really important, because that bears results in the future. That is what enables us to help sentient beings in the future.

Fame and wealth—I’m doubtful if they’re really that beneficial. Actually, they can create a lot of problems, can’t they? George Bush has lots of fame, lots of wealth. Do you want his karma? Do you want to experience the result of the karma this guy is creating? I don’t. My goodness! Again, so many people killed because of him. Do you want to experience the karma of having people killed because of you? I don’t. And I don’t want anybody to be killed because of me.

Recognizing our potential

So we have to really think well and look at the world from a Dharma perspective. If we look at all these things from a Dharma perspective, then we can have very good values and we can have an accurate understanding of the world. And it’s going to be different from the societal view of the world, because people in general society don’t think about future lives. They don’t think about liberation and enlightenment.

When they think about what the purpose of their life is, they don’t think, “I have the Buddha potential and I can become a fully enlightened Buddha and manifest infinite bodies in all the realms to be able to benefit sentient beings and lead them to enlightenment.” Worldly people have no idea they have that potential. What’s their idea of their potential? “Well, I could get a nice flat.” That’s what people think their potential in life is. “I can get a good job and a nice flat.” They don’t even see this incredible potential they have as human beings to do so much good throughout the universe! They are completely ignorant of it.

That’s why we’re so fortunate to have met the Buddha’s teachings and to have the opportunity to think about them and adjust our perspective and see the world in a very different way. We can do this and still live in society, but how we live, what our values are, what we measure as success and failure completely changes. We’re not afraid to be different from society. We can think differently, but still fit in. We don’t have to be like everybody else.

Anyway, it’s impossible to be like everybody else, because everybody is different. We aren’t cookie-cutters. Everybody has their own individual unique talent and ability to be of service and of benefit. We may try to be like everybody else, but there is really no common thing that is ‘everybody else.’

We always say, “Everybody else is like this. And I’m the only one that doesn’t fit in.” Does everybody feel that way? I remember when I went to high school, we all felt, “Oh, everybody else is like this but I’m the only one who doesn’t fit in.” I had that thought all the way to secondary school.

And then afterwards, I talked to a lot of the other people, and I realized that everybody felt that way, [laughter] and that there was no common standard that was everybody else, because everybody else felt that they didn’t belong.

We all have our own unique talents and abilities. We need to appreciate that. And think of the values we want to have for ourselves. Come to our own conclusions. Just because somebody says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Somebody says you’re good, somebody says you’re bad, that has nothing to do with anything.

Working with praise and blame

When I first began teaching, sometimes people would come up to me and say, “Oh, that Dharma talk was so good.” And I would always get embarrassed. It was like, “Oh, they’re saying something good about me, what do I do, I feel funny, I am not good….” It was like a lot of me was shaking inside in reaction to it. So I talked to a friend of mine who had been teaching longer and I said, “What do you do when somebody compliments you about a Dharma talk?” And he said, “I say thank you.

I thought, “Oh yeah, that’s the best thing to do. You just say thank you. It has nothing to do with me—with me being good, me being bad, this, that, the other thing. I don’t need to feel embarrassed. I don’t need to … anything. It’s just somebody else is creating good karma when they praise us, so we say thank you. And leave it. We don’t have to feel, “Oh, I don’t deserve it. If they knew what I was really like, they wouldn’t say these nice things….” You know, all these other kind of stuff that we go through. Just leave it!

So similarly, if somebody criticizes us, we reflect. If we made a mistake, then we have to apologize. But if we acted with a good intention and somebody else misunderstood, all we can do is explain it to them and hope they understand. But we can’t control them. All we can do is try and benefit, try and influence in a positive direction, and then we have to let go.

Learning to work with our own mind

The only thing we can possibly “control” is our own mind. That’s why we do Dharma practice, because we’re trying to work on our own mind. We’re trying to reformat the hard disk of the mind. Because right now, the operating system of the mind is ignorance, anger and attachment. We need to do a whole reformatting job so that our operating system is love, compassion and wisdom. So we’re working on reformatting the hard disk. It’s going to take a while. There’re lots of new programs to install. And there’re lots of old programs to remove. So we just keep working on it. But this is what makes our lives beneficial.

If we don’t work to get out of cyclic existence, what else are we going to do? Because we’ve already done everything there is to do in samsara. In samsara, we’ve already been born as everything. We’ve already done everything. We’ve been born in the god realms zillions of times. We’ve been born in the hell realms zillions of times. We’ve been rich and famous zillions of times. We’ve been beggars zillions of times. We’ve done it all. So if we don’t try for enlightenment, all we’re going to be doing basically is a repeat of past lives. Who wants to do that?! It’s like watching the same boring movie again and again. If we really aim our minds for enlightenment, then we’re really doing something new and different.

You know when they’re trying to sell us some thing, they have these tags on the ads: “New!’ “Different!’ “Improved!’ That’s what the path to enlightenment is: New! Different! Improved! The path to samsara: Old! Boring! Done that already! So we just need to do some Dharma advertising so we’re all inspired, “Oh, path to enlightenment, I want to go out and get that!” [laughter] The thing is you can’t buy it at a store. You have to get it in here [pointing to the heart]. Things you buy at the store come and go. But if we develop good qualities in here and make them stable, and eliminate any causes for them to degenerate, then they last forever.

Looking at harmful actions of speech

When have you used your speech:

  1. To deceive, to lie or to exaggerate? Why?
  2. To create disharmony or division among people? For example, talking behind people’s back, telling one person what others said about them? What was your motivation when you engaged in such speech?
  3. In a harsh and insulting way, ridiculing or criticizing people, speaking to them in a very unpleasant manner? What’s your motivation?
  4. In idle chatter, just talking about nothing of much use, wasting our own and other people’s time? What’s your motivation?

Note: Think of specific instances for all cases.

It’s very good to do this kind of reflection. This morning, I was saying that it is good, at the end of each day, to review your actions for that day and examine how things went. You can do this kind of checking: “How did I use my speech today? Did I deceive anybody? Did I create disharmony? Did I speak harshly? Did I waste somebody’s time chattering?” If we did, to notice it right away, understand why we did it, and make a determination to refrain from it so that in the future, we won’t get ourselves in that same mess.


Very often what motivates us to lie is attachment to our reputation. We don’t want somebody to find out what we did because then they’ll think badly of us. But we forget to ask ourselves in the first place, “Why am I doing something that I don’t want other people to know?” Whenever we find ourselves lying, ask ourselves that question.

Sometimes we did a negative action that we don’t want people to know about, so we create a second negative action by lying.

Other times, we say, “What I did wasn’t a negative action, but if somebody knew about it, it will hurt their feelings.” Well, I don’t know. We have to check up about that one. For example, lots of time, if somebody calls and you don’t feel like taking the phone call, then you tell your family member, “Tell them I’m not at home.” You are telling your family member whom you love to create negative karma by lying. And then after they die, you come and ask me what you can do so that they’ll have a good rebirth.

Why can’t we just say, “Please tell them that I’m busy and I’ll call them back later.” Why can’t we inform our family member to just tell the person the truth? Why not? Nobody’s feelings are going to get hurt. Everybody knows what it’s like to be in the middle of something and you can’t immediately stop right then.

So I think there are many situations in which we lie when we don’t need to. We have to ask ourselves why we do this.

Sometimes we lie due to anger. We say something untrue because we want to hurt somebody’s feelings. And then we wonder why we have low self-esteem. Do you see how your ethical conduct affects your self-esteem? When we use our speech in an improper way, we’re not only harming the other person but we also lose our own self-respect.

Divisive speech

What’s the main factor that motivates divisive speech? It’s jealousy. You’re jealous of one person, so you say things to ruin their reputation or to make other people think poorly of them. Jealousy is really a poisonous motivation, isn’t it? Jealousy is a poisonous emotion. Is anybody happy when they’re jealous? No. We’re miserable when we’re jealous.

You know what the antidote to jealousy is? It’s the exact opposite of what you feel, which is to say, “Good! I’m so glad that person is happy!” Rejoicing is the antidote to jealousy. Instead of saying, “Oh I don’t want that person to have happiness. I should have it. They don’t deserve it. I do!”, we adopt a happy mind and say, “How nice that they have something good happening in their lives. There’s so much incredible suffering in this world, but now something good has happened to them, how wonderful!”

But our ego doesn’t want to say that, does it? Our ego would rather sit there and burn with jealousy! And plot how to get our revenge, and how to ruin that other person because we can’t stand them. Are we happy when we think like that? No. So in being jealous, who is actually feeling miserable? Is it us or the other person? Maybe it’s both.

Harsh words

It’s so funny. Like I was saying yesterday, sometimes we use the harshest words on the people we love the most. And then we wonder why we don’t have a good relationship with them. It’s like I insult you and I scold you so much that you should realize that you’re wrong and then you should love me. [laughter] That’s what we’re thinking when we use harsh words, isn’t it? “I’m going to yell at you and tell you you’re wrong and insult you up, down and across until you realize that you’re wrong and I’m right and then you’ll love me.” It’s so stupid the way we think, isn’t it?

When we use harsh words, we get the exact opposite of what we want. This is because very often when we use harsh words, what we’re really wanting at that moment is to be close to the other person, isn’t it? What we really want is to have a loving relationship with them. But our harsh words spoken out of anger create the exact opposite result of what we want, because when we use harsh words, we’re pushing people away, and those are the very people we want to be close to.

That’s why it’s very helpful to learn how to manage conflict without getting angry. If we define “conflict’ as people having different ideas, then conflicts are really quite normal. All the time, people have different ideas, don’t they? All the time! And it doesn’t mean somebody’s right and the other’s wrong just because they have different ideas. I can like noodles and you can like rice; it doesn’t mean one of us is right and the other is wrong. So we don’t have to turn that situation into a conflict and get angry with each other.

When we have different ideas, it’s helpful to talk with the other person. Try and understand why they’re thinking that way and how they’re looking at the situation. Ask them some questions and then be quiet and listen. When you’re having problems with somebody, it’s very important to listen attentively to what they are saying and not react to it. Usually what happens is we’re reacting. And sometimes we’re reacting not so much to the words they’re saying as to their tone of voice, their body language and the volume of their voice. Somebody could be giving us very important information, but because they’re screaming at us, we don’t listen.

Similarly, we could be saying something important for someone, but because we’re screaming, they’re not going to listen to us either.

Sometimes when we’re in a discussion with somebody, they’ll say something that we consider incorrect and we feel we have to jump in right away, correct it and tell them that they got their detail wrong. I’ve realized that I often have to really pull myself back and just listen to that person, rather than interrupting and correcting them.

Also, as they’re talking, we repeat back to them the content of what they’re saying, as well as the emotions that we are hearing them say it with. So if somebody is going on and on, telling this whole story, then we might say, “It sounds like you’re upset because you thought I was going to be there at two o’clock and I wasn’t.” Maybe that’s just what they’re saying. When we say it like that, when we rephrase the content of what they say and when we ask them about the emotion they’re feeling, then the other person often feels heard. They will feel, “Oh, somebody understands what I’m trying to say.”

Or you can respond in this way, “You expected me to be there at two o’clock, but you never made that clear. You’re always doing stuff like that! Who do you think I am anyway for you to talk to me like that and take me for granted? All these years I’m been doing stuff for you and every single time it’s the same problem!”

Which way is likely to make the other person feel that you understand them? It’s real clear, isn’t it?

Face it. When we’re upset, don’t we just want to know that somebody understands how we feel? Sometimes it’s not so much that we want them to do something for us; it’s just that we want to know somebody understands how we feel. We’re not too worried that they weren’t there at two o’clock. But we want them to know that it was inconvenient for us. We want some acknowledgement from them. We want them to acknowledge that when we’re waiting for them and they don’t show up, that is inconvenient for us.

So sometimes, if the situation is reversed and we’re the ones who didn’t show up or we were late and kept somebody else waiting, then to realize that maybe what they want is just some acknowledgement that our lives are inter-related and they expected us to be there but we weren’t there and it was inconvenient for them. So then we can say, “Yeah, I thought I was able to get there at two o’clock and I wasn’t able to. If it inconvenienced you, I’m sorry.” That’s all.

But often instead of doing that, we go, “Why are you yelling at me like this?! Every single day you yell at me. I don’t know why I married you to start with, what kind of idiot was I. I want a divorce!” [laughter]

Using harsh words is really something to look out for. Especially with your kids, if you’re yelling at your kids all the time, and if your kids don’t want to be at home or they don’t come by to visit you. Or it’s holiday time and they go somewhere else, well, maybe you can ask yourself why this is happening, “Am I difficult to be with? Every time I see my kids, do I just yell at them?”

This is where the meditations on working with anger come in. If we can practice them and become familiar with them, then when a situation happens, we’ll be able to quickly change our perspective and think in a different way. If we don’t practice the meditations on anger when we’re calm, then they’re not going to work for us when we’re angry because we’re too angry to see things clearly. That’s why we have to do the meditations when we’re calm. Recall situations from the past—some grudge or some unresolved feeling—and think through those situations in the light of the Buddha’s teachings about anger.

Idle talk

Idle talk is when we talk about things that aren’t important and for no particular purpose.

Sometimes we may talk about something that is not important, but we have a particular purpose for doing it. For example when you go to work, it’s not like you can have a deep, meaningful discussion with everybody in your office. Sometimes you just chit-chat but when you’re doing that, you’re quite aware, “I’m chit-chatting to establish a friendly feeling with this person whom I work with in the office.” You’re very aware that you have a good motivation for doing it, and you do it just enough to establish a friendly relationship.

What we want to avoid is doing too much idle talk for an impure motivation, for example, “I want to make myself look good. I can tell funny stories. I can tell lots of stories. I can be the center of attention.”

Sometimes our gossip may even turn malicious and the idle talk becomes divisive speech.

Sometimes what do is, we get a lot of people on our side and we make somebody else a scapegoat, don’t we? This is the favorite thing to do in the office. We talk behind somebody else’s back and everybody picks on that person for no reason except that it creates some group feeling. What an unhealthy way to create a group feeling, at the expense of somebody else! Some people really get a kick from criticizing somebody else behind their back. It becomes almost like a sport to see who can say the most insulting thing. I’ve always found that so unpleasant. When people talk like that, I’m out of the conversation. I leave because I just do not like being around people who are badmouthing somebody else for no reason at all.

If somebody comes and they start talking badly about somebody else, often what I’ll do is I’ll say, “It sounds like you’re upset.” The real problem is not what the other person did. The real problem is that the person who is talking to me is upset. So if that person wants to talk about their anger or their feeling of being upset, then okay, I’ll listen. We’ll talk about it and maybe I can help them to work it out. But if that person just wants to go blah, blah and criticize somebody else, I don’t like to be there to listen to it. And especially if it’s a whole group of people scapegoating one person.

Haven’t all of us, at one time or another, been the scapegoat for other people’s criticism? How do we feel when we’re the scapegoat? Not so good. Why do we want to make other people feel that way then?

US invaded Iraq because it’s said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which of course it didn’t. But sometimes I think the way we use our speech is our own personal weapon of mass destruction. What do you think? Can you think of times when you’ve been tremendously cruel with your speech to somebody else? Having a weapon of mass destruction, you just drop your bomb on somebody else.

Speech is very, very powerful. We can use it for so much good, or we can use it to cause others pain and to create a lot of negative karma which will bring unpleasant results upon ourselves. If we really think about karma, and think about the karmic results of our actions, then that often helps us to be much more careful and mindful before we say something, because we know the kind of results we’re going to bring upon ourselves when we talk about somebody else in a certain way.

Refuge and precepts

The Buddha doesn’t force these precepts upon us. These are things that we choose to follow. They are not rules or commandments that are being forced on us. Rather, the Buddha encourages us to look with our own wisdom, to see what actions create the cause for happiness, what actions create the cause for suffering.

If we can see very clearly that certain actions continually create the cause of suffering in our lives or in the lives of the people around us, then in order to strengthen our determination not to get involved in those actions, we take the precepts. When we take a precept, it helps us to refrain from doing what we’ve decided we don’t want to do anyway.

From this discussion, for example, we may see that lying creates a lot of problems in one’s own life and in other people’s lives. It’s unethical. It creates negative karma which brings suffering upon us in future lives. Having seen that, we may decide, “Well, I don’t want to lie.” But we also know ourselves well and we know that sometimes we have a lot of energy in that direction; we have some habitual energy that makes us lie even though we wish we didn’t. In such a case, taking a precept not to lie could be very helpful because when we make a promise in the presence of the holy beings, the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, it becomes much easier for us to abandon that kind of harmful action. We value the promises that we’ve made in the presence of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Benefits of precepts

So the precepts act as a protection and the precepts also make us much more mindful. Sometimes we may not realize what we’re doing, but when we have a precept, we become more aware of what we’re doing. That can be really good, because when we’re aware, we have a better chance to make a wise decision and abandon doing that negative action.

We take the precepts because we can’t keep them perfectly, but we have to have some confidence that we can keep them at least in a reasonable way. If we could keep them absolutely perfectly, then we wouldn’t need to take them at all. If we could keep them absolutely perfectly, if we are never going to lie, steal, or do any of these negative actions, then we don’t need to take precepts.

We take the precepts because we’re imperfect beings and we’re trying to improve our behavior. So don’t feel like you have to be absolutely convinced that you’re never ever going to do any of these negative actions (before you take the precepts). But on the other hand, you should have some confidence that you can abstain from these negative actions to some extent, otherwise promising not to do them doesn’t mean anything.

So you’ve got to assess in your own mind, where you’re at regarding that. It’s not something that others can tell you. You have to decide for yourself.

Precept of not taking intoxicants

What this entails is not taking any alcohol, not even the size of a drop of dew. No alcohol at all. No illegal drugs. No abuse of prescription drugs. Some people get prescription drugs and use that as a recreational drug instead of using it for what it’s intended. Taking intoxicants dulls our faculties. Actually the reason that it’s so important not to take intoxicants is because when you take them, then you usually wind up breaking the first four precepts.

I was talking with one young man not too long ago who told me he went through a very difficult point in his life where he was involved in breaking all five of these precepts. But as soon as he stopped drinking alcohol, he stopped doing the other four.

Alcohol is really bad news. It’s bad for an individual, and it’s really destructive for the family. I really strongly recommend not taking intoxicants.

Now, people always come up to me whining, “Oh, but all my colleagues go out drinking, and to close the business deal, I have to go with them. So I have to drink.” I can’t tell you how many times people have said that to me! You have to drink? Is somebody holding a gun to your head? Do you have to drink? No, you are choosing to drink. It’s completely okay in those social situations to say, “I don’t drink.” It’s totally okay.

What I find so amazing is that all the people who whined to me that they needed to drink because of their work, are the same people who tell their children not to be influenced by their friends’ negative behavior. It’s the same people who say to their kids, “Don’t succumb to peer pressure!” But look what mum and dad are doing! They are succumbing to peer pressure, but are telling their kids not to do so.

So I’m not very sympathetic to that, as you’ve gathered. [laughter] Basically because I don’t see any benefit.

Having a playful attitude when doing meditation practice

One thing that’s quite important in your meditation practice and in your Dharma practice in general, is to have a playful attitude, to not take ourselves so seriously. Yesterday I was talking about how we judge ourselves and all of that. Put all that stuff aside and just have a playful attitude. “Okay, I’m doing Vajrasattva meditation. Let’s see what happens. Vajrasattva is my friend. I don’t have to make any big trips about it or get uptight or neurotic or stressed out. Let’s just enjoy it.” Have a playful attitude. That will make your meditation session much easier.

Advice to participants

Congratulations! Refuge and precepts are so precious and so special in our lives. When you have refuge, then no matter what happens in your life, you always have something to depend on. There’s always a method available for you to help your mind, so you’re never out there in the middle of nowhere without any help. Any time you want, you can turn your attention to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, especially to the Dharma teachings. If you put the teachings into practice, then whatever problems you’re suffering from will get resolved. It doesn’t necessarily mean the external situation will change, but your internal perspective of the situation will change, and that’s the big thing.

So when you have refuge, whatever you’re experiencing, whether you’re sick, or well, whether things are going the way you want or not, there’s always a Dharma method to put into practice in your life, to make your mind peaceful and to make your life meaningful.

Feel a lot of joy that you’ve made that connection with the Three Jewels. And especially that you’ve taken the precepts and you have them as protection in your mind.

If you happen to break a precept, then you do the Vajrasattva purification. You purify the negativity and you make a determination to refrain from doing that negative action again in the future, and you move on. But you do the Vajrasattva purification anyway even if you didn’t break any precept, because we have accumulated negative karma from our past lives.

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.