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Mindfulness and compassion

Mindfulness and compassion

A talk given at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Castle Rock, Washington on July 11, 2006.

  • Defining mindfulness
  • Relationship between mindfulness and compassion
  • Mindfulness for the environment and sentient beings

Four establishments of mindfulness: Mindfulness and compassion (download)

I would like to talk about mindfulness and the role of mindfulness and compassion. You can see specifically how it relates to this subject of committing to our group effort and to practicing together and encouraging others, and so that all of us can be practicing in a good condition.

In terms of mindfulness I read an article recently, actually it wasn’t an article it was a correspondence back and forth between Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is a Theravada Buddhist monk in the Sri Lankan tradition, and Alan Wallace, who is a Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition. It was quite an interesting dialogue they were having, and Alan was raising a lot of questions that I have had about what mindfulness meant in the different traditions. Basically the discussion revolved around: does mindfulness refer to just bare attention about what’s happening or does mindfulness have a factor of remembering and steering the mind to a certain object?

It could be that in the various traditions there are various definitions, but in the teachings that I’ve received, mindfulness refers more to the latter, where there’s an element of remembering. Actually the Tibetan or the Sanskrit word Sati and the Tibetan word Drenpa have the connotation “to remember.” That doesn’t mean that you are sitting remembering all sorts of things from the past—I remember my boyfriend in the second grade—it’s not referring to that kind of remembering, it’s referring to a mental factor that pays attention to what’s going on now, remembering your values, remembering your practice, remembering your understanding of reality.

I remember one Theravada monk, who is a friend of mine, telling this story because he was emphasizing that mindfulness isn’t just paying attention to what’s happening now. It involves paying attention to what’s happening now, but it is not just paying attention to what’s happening now. He told the story that, I think, is a made-up story, about somebody, a person leaving their home and telling the gatekeeper to “Please be very mindful when I am away from the house” and the gatekeeper said “Yes.”

And so the person went out and then when he came back to the house he found out that his house had been ransacked, the television was gone, the computer was gone, everything was gone and he went back to the gatekeeper and said, “I thought I asked you to be mindful when I was gone,” and the gatekeeper said, “Oh, I was very mindful, I watched the thief come in, I watched the thief pick up the television, I noted exactly how he carried the television out and where he put it in his truck.” “I did the same for when he went in to take the jewelry and the computer and everything else, I was very mindful.” Is something wrong there? Does being mindful just mean paying attention to what’s going on now?

You can see in the story it doesn’t. What does paying attention mean? It’s not just in my mind I note attachment arising, I note anger arising, I note the intention to speak harsh words, I note the volume of my voice when I am screaming at that person, I note their facial expression as they are hurt by what I say. Is that mindfulness? No. So mindfulness isn’t just being aware of what’s going on. Because what use is it? You just have bare attention on your own negativities. Rather, there’s this element of remembering our values and our principles and how we want to be.

Today we took the eight Mahayana precepts. We want to be mindful of our precepts in all of our interactions with people because we’re paying special attention today to our mind, to our virtuous intention, integrating it in our life of how we speak and what we do. We want to be mindful of how we interact. Are we harming anyone physically, are we taking what hasn’t been given, are we giving off some sexual energy, are we telling the truth, are we intoxicating ourselves by letting the mind go all over the universe? Mindfulness implies, in the Tibetan tradition, that there’s something, somewhere, that you want to go with your mind, and so you’re mindful of that.

In the practice of the four mindfulnesses, or the four foundations of mindfulness, in the Pali canon, the Buddha was talking about mindfulness of the body, for example, so we might be mindful of what the body is composed of. In our meditation we note all the various organs of the body, we note their functions, we see what is this body that we are so attached to, so we’re mindful of the body. It’s not just knowing the sensations without any kind of evaluation. Mindfulness is used to generate some wisdom about what actually is this body that we’re so attached to. We investigate what the body is. We apply mindfulness in our daily actions as we’re moving around and this is especially important when living together in community and was mentioned specifically as part of mindfulness of the body.

This is where the role of compassion comes in. We are aware that when living together with others we have a kind, compassionate attitude—we want to be mindful that we are engaging with a kind, compassionate attitude in our interactions with other people, We are mindful of the chores that we signed up to do. And so our kindness and compassion not only for the staff of Cloud Mountain, that has to pick up after us if we don’t show up, but our kindness and compassion for the other people in the group who are dependent on us, and we remember what our chores are and we do them.

Doing the chores isn’t just, “Oh, I got to do this and I’d really rather not.” “What a drag, okay, I’ll just do it and get it done as soon as possible so then I can go practice the Dharma.” It’s not like that. I’m living together with other sentient beings who are kind to me. My being here in Cloud Mountain depends upon all these other sentient beings. Nobody’s going to have a Dharma course just for me, and I’m the only one who shows up. It depends on a group being here, it depends on people having built Cloud Mountain, it depends on the Cloud Mountain staff, it depends on all of us helping each other so the retreat goes smoothly. Being aware of this interdependence and the kindness of others, and then seeing the benefit of cultivating a kind and compassionate attitude ourselves, then we pay attention to what’s going on and what we can look to do and we carry it out.

We carry it out with a happy attitude, and we carry it out like here is my opportunity to offer service to this group. I’m here and how many people have been working for years to make this retreat happen. You’re going to say, “People work for years to make this retreat happen, what are you talking about?” Because we just got in our car and in the afternoon drove down here, didn’t put much energy into the retreat at all.” Well, think about it, how long has it taken Dhammadasa to build Cloud Mountain? He basically built it himself with the help of some volunteers. It’s taken years to build this. He’s been building this place since the early or mid-eighties, no actually the early eighties. Are you aware of that? Are you aware of how many people helped him in building this place?

I’m doing this training, are you aware of how, I’m doing this teaching and guiding this retreat. Are you aware of how many years I’ve spent practicing and studying to get to the point where I can offer this? Are you thinking of the cooks and the people, and how many years of training they’ve done to be able to offer the service of cooking for us? So when you think about it, it’s not just that on Friday afternoon at six o’clock the retreat starts, but it’s rather that so many people have been putting in the effort for many decades to make this retreat happen. So when we are aware of that and feel a sense of gratitude for others and have a kind attitude, a compassionate attitude, towards not only those people but, everybody else together in the crew, then we pay more attention to how we are moving through space and how we relate to the other people in the group and how we do our chores and so on. And so then our life isn’t just—we talk about this a lot because we often have this tendency—the meaning of my life isn’t to cross things off my chore list.

How many of us have a list of things we have to do? And we’re in total happiness, every day is crossing something off. That is the measure of happiness in the twenty-first century. How many things you can cross off your list. Is that the meaning of our life? The only reason we’re doing something is to be able to cross it off our list and having the joy and fulfillment of having one less thing that we have to do. What kind of life are we living if we have that attitude? Just think about it, I mean there’s no joy in the life that just wants to get things done so it’s not on our list anymore. (inaudible) If we change our attitude, and our attitude is one of kindness and compassion and we are mindful of that attitude, then doing all those chores is something pleasurable, it’s something joyful. It’s not, oh, I have to do this. This is part of our practice, are we expressing kindness and compassion and being aware of our interrelatedness with all the other living beings.

So when you are washing the dishes, don’t just think, oh, I have to wash the dishes and get done with them and then I can go read a Dharma book. But wow, there’s all these people who cooked for me, those I’m dependent on who grew the food, and I just show up and have this incredible meal to eat and now it’s my turn to be able to offer service with a happy mind, to offer service that supports these people. And encourages them in the practice. So I get to wash the dishes, and while I’m washing the dishes I think that the stuff on the dishes are the defilements of sentient beings, and my soap and my sponge are compassion and wisdom and with compassion and wisdom I’m cleaning off the defilements on sentient beings’ minds. And then it’s so much fun to wash the dishes, it’s not a drag and you really enjoy it. You think of who you are washing the dishes with, and you exude a kind, joyful attitude towards the other person whom you’re washing the dishes with and to all the people who are putting the dishes in the bowl. You don’t think why did you make that dish dirty, I have to wash it now, yes put it in there, I’m completely happy to do this for you, Then you wash the dishes and when you’re done your mind is happy.

Isn’t that much more valuable than rushing through the dishes with this kind of angry resentful mind so that you can cross it off, so that you can sit down and read a book about compassion. This is what mindfulness is all about: it’s about remembering these things so that we can make our minds happy in the moment that we are doing them. Mindfulness is also about being aware of how we move through space here together, you might have noticed that there are groups of people who live in different buildings. Are you aware of how sound travels in those buildings? Are you aware of how you open and close doors? You might be aware of how other people open and close doors, bang, bang, bang. But are you aware of how you’re doing it? Do you care about how you open and close doors and the effect it has on other people? Think about it, be aware. When we open a door, think you’re opening the door to enlightenment for sentient beings. When you close the door you close it gently, you’re closing the door to the lower realms.

So make your opening and closing of the door part of your Dharma practice, think about what’s important, do it gently, do it sweetly. If you’re paying attention to these external things your mind will follow along and be gentle and be sweet.

What happens when we are in a hurry, when we are not paying attention, when our mind is elsewhere, we open the door, whoosh, and we close the door, bang, and we aren’t even aware that we did it. What kind of energy are we putting into our common environment by opening and closing the door like that? What are we expressing of our internal mental state by how we open and close the door? Do we want our mental state to continue to be like that? Mindfulness here means, I’m mindful of my internal mental state and transforming it into one of kindness and then having that come out or be expressed by how I open and close doors. The energy that we put into the environment. We are all aware, aren’t we, of how people open and close doors. It gives a certain feeling, doesn’t it?

Mindfulness and compassion together also apply to how we move through space. You can watch sometimes, and we can tell in ourselves what’s going on in the mind, by the way people walk. We can tell that some people, when they’re walking, their body is here but their mind is already in the place where they are going. And you can see it because they’re not aware of how their body has been moving through space. Their mind is intent on getting over there to where they think they need to be. And of course once they get there their mind is on the next thing that they are supposed to be doing. So they are always leaning forward, they’re walking with this certain kind of rush, intentness, looking down, and not really being present to what’s going on around them.

They don’t see the sunlight filtering through the trees, they don’t see the buds on the ground that they are stepping on, they don’t see the people around them, feel the presence of the people around them who are walking by them on the path because their mind isn’t there, their mind is where they’re going. And so there’s no joy in how they’re walking from here to there because their mind is going, “I’ve got to be there, I’ve got to be there, I’ve got to be there.” It’s not saying Om Mani Padme Hung [laughter]. Try paying attention to how you’re walking, and walking with grace, and I don’t mean in a ballroom dance sense, grace, I’m talking about the grace of somebody who is mindful. The grace of somebody who is in this present moment, expressing their kindness and compassion through the energy that they give out in the environment by how they walk.

We’re keeping silence, but even when we speak, if you’re asking questions or when you go back home and you’re speaking, be aware of how you’re speaking, what are you saying. Here, keeping silence, we certainly notice all of our impulses to speak, don’t we? We’re going to do something and the intention comes up to speak and before we know it the words are out of our mouth and we’ve broken the silence. And we’ve just assumed that of course the other person wants to hear what we have to say. Well, maybe the other person is trying to be mindful themselves and maybe they’ve been thinking about something that’s important for them and our breaking of the silence intrudes upon that and distracts them from it.

Or maybe when we’re at home, we aren’t careful of the volume of our voice and we’re trying to communicate something important but we’re screaming. And can the other person really hear when we’re screaming? Or be aware of how we speak and our body language, because we might use a low voice but we have ways of telling other people with our low voice and our body language that we’re angry also. So how do we communicate what we have to say to the people around us? Are we taking care with that or are we just dumping our feelings out on them in any old way? Without a lot of awareness or care.

This whole thing of mindfulness is imbued with care for the environment, for the other sentient beings living in it. We want our being in the world, our body and speech, to reflect the compassion that’s going on in our mind. So we have to make sure that there’s compassion and kindness in our mind. That’s why we start out every day with our motivation, remember today as much as possible I’m not going to harm anybody, today as much as possible I’m going to be of benefit, and today I’m going to hold my long-term motivation of attaining enlightenment for the benefit of all beings as the most precious thing and act from that motivation as much as possible.

We remind ourselves of that every morning, throughout the day we try and come back to that, and then we review it in the evening and check out to see how we’ve done. And then make a determination for the next day to keep on practicing. We will get things done probably just as quickly, just as efficiently by having mindfulness and compassion as we will by having this self-centeredness and rushing. Because I don’t know about you, but when I rush I tend to forget things. Because I’m so focused on being where I’m not, because I get out the door, which I’ve slammed, and then get halfway down the path on which I’ve ignored all the other beings there and then remember that I forgot to take something out of my room. So I have to go back and get it.

Then, in even more of a hurry to get where I’m going, to ignore people even more, whereas if we from the beginning kind of paused, [and thought] do I have what I need? How am I going to move through space to get from here to there? It’s just much more in tune with the environment. We affect our environment and the people in it in a very constructive way.

This is all part of practice. Sometimes we have the idea that practice is what we do on the cushion, and only what we do on the cushion. Of course practice is what we do on the cushion, but we think it is only what we do on the cushion. We have all these idealistic fantasies about going on retreat, until we get to the cushion and then after five minutes our back hurts, our neck hurts, our knees hurt, we’re squirming, we’re dissatisfied, and then we start planning the next retreat we’re going to do in our meditation during this retreat.

That’s not what it’s all about. It’s really about learning the Dharma and putting it into practice in every aspect of our life as much as we can. We keep trying to come back to this, trying to remember it. Of course we don’t do it perfectly, it’s a big training, but we keep trying. And if we do, we can notice the improvement and you can see that when you see people who have been practicing a long time, and have been practicing, not pretending to practice. I know people ask me how long I have been practicing and I say, well I have been pretending to practice for x number of years, because a lot of my “practice” is pretending to practice and that’s why you don’t see the results in how I act. Or rather you do see the results of pretending to practice but not really practicing.

People who have really taken some time to train their mind, then you see that result and how they live their life and you can notice that and this is very much what we are trying to do. It’s not a thing of judging somebody else or judging ourselves, we’re all involved in this process of training and so let’s help each other do it.

OK, any questions or comments about this?

Audience: Can you tell me more about pretending to practice.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): OK, about pretending to practice, can I say a little bit more about that. Pretending to practice is: we show up for our meditation session, we sit on the cushion we’re doing Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum… Why is that person next to me switching their position so much? Om Mani Padme Hum… They’re so restless, damn, I wish they would sit Om Mani Padme Hum and concentrate. Om Mani Padme Hum [laughter] Oh, I remember now what my brother said to me 15 years ago, that was not very kind of him to say that at the moment, I really need to talk to him about this, I haven’t forgotten in 15 years, and I’m really going to do something about it. [laughter] And that’s pretending to practice.

And in daily activities, pretending to practice. Oh, then we try and be these very perfect practitioners, “I am the most mindful practitioner, (inaudible) “Please may I serve you this cup of tea.” “Oh, my teacher asked me to bring the tea.” “Get out of the way, I’m bringing the tea.”

That’s pretending to practice.

“I will wash the teacher’s dishes, but not your dishes.” “I’m the only one that washes the dishes of the high teacher.” And that kind of rubbish.

Audience: (inaudible)

VTC: I’m thinking. Some of the teachings in the Theravada tradition talk about mindfulness in this way, but I was really emphasizing the compassionate aspect of mindfulness. I think you’re giving me more work to do. I have to write something about it.

Audience: It’s a very different take (inaudible)

VTC: Yes, it is a different take and it’s one I haven’t heard expressed exactly like that from my teachers because they haven’t always used the word mindfulness and that, but it is very much the way we are trained. Lama Yeshe used to emphasize this quite a bit and I remember him so clearly saying one day, coming into the sangha about this, and he held up his mala and he said, “every day your duty is to benefit sentient beings.” And he took his mala, you know the beads, and he said, “Oh, you think I’m saying Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum… oh you’re so holy,” but actually you should be saying, “I’m the servant of others, I’m the servant of others, I’m the servant of others, I’m the servant of others.”

And whoa, I remember that one. Because he used to always call us on how we pretend to do this kind of practice and that kind of practice, but then we show up late for community practice or we don’t take care of each other, we criticize each other. He used to really call us on that, so that was kind of where it came from.

Among monastics, for example, in the Chinese tradition, the Chinese monastics are very well trained and there’s a certain gentleness and you can see mindfulness in the way that they interact with each other and take care of each other. And I had the fortune to be able to train with them when I took my full ordination and then I have some Chinese karma, so I hang out with them whenever I can and then you find you are naturally becoming like that when you’re around people who practice in that way. But as a group we need to create that energy, it’s difficult as one person to make the group come back. The group has to participate and then everyone goes “Oh yeah, I can do that too.”

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.