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The mind and renunciation

From December 17 to 25, 2006, at Sravasti Abbey, Geshe Jampa Tegchok taught on A Precious Garland of Advice to a King by Nagarjuna. Venerable Thubten Chodron complemented these teachings by giving commentary and background.

  • The two natures of the mind
  • The ultimate deeper mode of existence of the mind
  • The emptiness of all phenomena
  • The problems of self-grasping ignorance, self-centered thoughts and afflictions, actions and their karmic effects
  • The six realms in the Buddhist world view
  • Uncontrolled recycling in samsara
  • Renouncing the dissatisfied mind
  • The determination to be free of “low-grade happiness”

Precious Garland 02 (download)

Setting the motivation: precious human life, bodhicitta and determination to attain Buddhahood

Let’s cultivate our motivation. As Khensur Rinpoche said yesterday, reflect on how few are the number of beings with precious human lives. Think of all the beings that are in the unfortunate hellish state, so many that it makes the number of hungry ghosts look very small, almost non- existent. And the actual incredible numbers of hungry ghosts makes the number of animals look minuscule. And then so many, many animals and insects and numbers of various critters that it makes the number with human lives seem infinitesimally small. And yet not everybody with a human life has a precious human life with the opportunity to practice the Dharma. Think of all the things that people we know and people we don’t know are doing at this very moment; how they’re using their precious human lives; running here, running there, living on automatic; harmful words automatically come out of their mouths; sometimes vicious motivations towards each other, incredible greed.

And even though we have a precious human life with the opportunity to meet the Dharma and practice it, our mind is so often in that very spaced out state as well, full of negativities, one after the other. And yet right now sitting here, in this hall there’s a little bit of clarity in our minds; enough clarity to have gotten ourselves here and to want to listen to the Dharma. So that little bit of clarity that we have in our minds; not always but just right now, is very precious. And so it’s important that we really nurture and cherish it and try to increase it. And so we do that by learning the Buddha’s teachings contemplating them, meditating on them and putting them into practice. And let’s do that not simply for our own benefit but recalling the incredible number of other sentient beings born in all the various realms and life forms that have been kind to us in the past, who want to be happy and free from suffering just like us. And let’s generate the supreme altruistic intention of bodhicitta; aspiring to become Buddhas in order to best benefit them. And really think that whatever it takes, whatever I have to go through to actualize Buddhahood, I’m going to do it. I’m not going to give up partway, because it’s the one really truly beneficial thing to do in my life.

The nature of the mind and the nature of samsara

So I would like to continue on from where we were yesterday. I was talking a little bit about the mind and the mind’s relationship to the body and then what samsara is. So we were just getting into that whole topic of, what is samsara. Let’s back up just a little bit and come back to the mind again. So the mind has two natures; actually every phenomenon has two natures; its conventional nature and its ultimate nature. So the mind’s conventional nature is clarity and awareness. Sometimes clarity is translated as luminosity; it’s the same Tibetan word. So that’s its conventional nature. So the mind can be likened to clear water; completely clear, colorless. Now if you take some dirt and throw it in the water, the water itself is still pure but it becomes mixed in with the dirt. So the dirt is the pollutant but the dirt’s not the nature of the water. Sometimes there’s a lot of dirt and we shake the container so that the dirt is all over the water; no clarity. Sometimes we keep the container still and the dirt starts to settle to the bottom. At some point we might even take the dirt out of the water completely. So it’s kind of like our mind; the basic nature of our mind is just clarity like that; colorless not tainted by any particular mental state just clarity and awareness. If we throw dirt in it, that’s like the afflictions, resentment, greed; these kind of things. And sometimes that dirt in the mind is really agitated; our mind has manifest afflictions. The thing is that we usually don’t notice when the dirt is shaken up, filling the water. We kind of assume that that’s the way things are.

The experience of early Western students of the Dharma

It was interesting yesterday, just as a tangent here. When Khensur Rinpoche was talking about the difficulties that the early Western students went through to learn the Dharma, I went back last night and was thinking about what he said and I went back to those years. It was very special for me because Venerable Steve, Khensur Rinpoche and I knew each other in those years; that’s when we were all together in France. And I was thinking about the various difficulties that existed then. The nuns lived in the horse stables. We had a little bit of heat in the meditation hall but I couldn’t afford heat in my bedroom. We had limited food because of limited money and very little money, your choice of horse trough but nothing much else. He mentioned the physical difficulties yesterday; like what he was saying how Western people look at you, what kind of strange person are you—women with no hair, men wearing skirts? You people are weird. Why don’t you get a job and make some money and do something normal? Those were the kind of things that he mentioned yesterday.

But when I was thinking about it, for me when I remember those years, the first thing that came to my mind last night was the incredible kindness of my teachers, Khensur Rinpoche and there was another teacher Geshe Tengye(??), who was there and how much they taught us and nurtured us. And the second thing that came to my mind was how completely my mind was like the water container with the dirt just like everywhere, how totally confused and overcome by defilements my mind was during that time. Just taking the container and just shaking it. And that was really the difficulty that I went through then; not the physical stuff or what other people said. It was the difficulty of dealing with the berserky mind. And realizing that at that time I didn’t even see what was going on in my mind as afflictions. Okay once in awhile I was angry but most of the time I was just right! I wasn’t angry, I was right! I couldn’t even see the anger—that’s how afflicted the mind was. Or on the other side, once in awhile I recognized a little bit of greed or attachment or something. But most of the time it was, “I needed that!” There was no choice for my survival, “I needed that!” At those times not even a doubt coming in the mind that the mind was under the sway of afflictions, but being so totally convinced that whatever appeared to the mind and however I thought about something or interpreted it was true; was the way it was. So that’s what the real difficulty was. A little bit of cold, a little bit of people saying some things about you; that was not the problem. So, you know I was just marveling last night as I sat there at how our teachers stuck it out with that; because we were a wild bunch. We were really something.

The conventional nature of the mind

Anyway, the conventional nature of the mind just, you know, shaken up with all the dirt like that. When we meditate, sometimes the dirt calms down, and that’s why I was saying this morning in the motivation, the dirt is a little bit calmed down, so at the top we have a little bit of clarity of mind. How precious that is, to have a little bit of clarity of mind to be able to see that what the Buddha’s teachings say actually describe our own life experience. Just having that much clarity, to be able to see that, and then that gives you very strong faith. So that even in the times when your mind is just completely bonkers, with what Lama Yeshe called ‘garbage mind’, then still you remember that little bit of faith, those few moments of clarity that you had of knowing that what the Buddha said is really true according to your experience. And when your mind is obscured, it is so important to get you through those difficulties; because otherwise you’re in the middle of the difficulties and you go, “Well I might as well go out and get a boyfriend, it might make me happier than sitting here with this crazy mind.” So, you just kind of throw it up and go off and do something else, thinking that’s going to bring you happiness, and of course it doesn’t.

So, conventional nature of the mind is actually clear. It gets colored: sometimes it’s colored by virtuous mental factors, things like love and compassion. Most often in our state it’s covered by the obscuring mental factors. But all those mental factors too, we can see that they are not permanent. And although we can’t have two contradictory mental factors active in our mind, manifest in our mind at exactly the same time, we can go back and forth between them. So for example hatred and genuine love are opposite mental factors. We can’t have them in our mind at exactly the same time because they view their object, the other person, in completely contradictory ways. So they can’t be manifest at the same time. But we’ve all had the experience of loving somebody one day and hating them the next. And so, you know, our minds are very changeable and the different mental factors that come in are not anything permanent, they’re transient, even though that clear, luminous and aware nature of the mind continues on.

His Holiness gave a really nice analogy one time of what being alive was in that relationship [of body to mind]. So our body is like the house. The clarity and awareness of the mind is like the permanent resident of the house. So as long as we’re alive, that clear, aware nature of the mind lives in the house of the body. And the mental factors are like visitors. Some visitors come and they’re kind; they’re reliable; they bring peace in your house. You welcome them. Other visitors come and all they do is stir up trouble. So, even if you’re a little bit attached to them, when they stir up trouble, you know you have to ask them to leave. Okay, that’s kind of how our mind is. That’s conventional nature.

The ultimate nature of the mind and of an object

The ultimate nature of the mind is: how does the mind really exist? What is its deeper mode of existence? So there’s a phrase in the Prajnaparamita Sutra, “that the mind does not abide in the mind.” It sounds like one of those Zen phrases, like one hand clapping, like what in the world does that mean? What it means is that a truly existent, an inherently existent mind; something that is mind by its own nature, independent of other factors, that kind of mind does not abide in the conventional mind. So the conventional mind is a dependent arising due to causes and conditions. Mind has attributes and qualities and different aspects and different parts; so mind exists dependent on its causes and conditions, dependent on its attributes and parts.

It also exists dependent on being conceived of and labeled as mind. So mind is actually a dependent arising. That’s also part of its conventional nature. But we don’t usually see the mind as that. We see the mind, the way the mind appears to us as some solid concrete thing. Sometimes we even feel like the mind is a physical thing. Even if we get over that hump and don’t think of the mind as something physical, we still think of the mind as a solid, permanent unit that has its own nature; that exists by itself independent of other phenomena. But when we challenge that view; that way that the mind appears to us, when we scratch a little bit at the surface and look at its deeper nature, we can’t find anything from its own side is the mind, in that clarity and awareness. When you look at the clarity and awareness, there’s no solid thing in it that is mind. Rather the way mind exists in relationship to the clarity and the awareness, is the clarity and awareness are the basis of designation, are the attributes, and mind is just the label that is gently affiliated in dependence upon the clarity and awareness. Okay?

So this is different here because like I said we usually think of a mind as there right inside it. But actually mind is just a convenient label that’s given to the clarity and awareness. Besides that label, that we’ve conceived and given to the clarity and awareness, there is no mind there inside the clarity and awareness. Sometimes using a physical object might be a little bit easier as an analogy, talking about the ultimate nature. So instead of mind, let’s say we say ‘book’ When we look at this (holding up a book), we see book. Everybody knows it’s a book. You walk in the room and everybody knows this is a book, not a grapefruit, not a tangerine, not Iraq. It’s a book. So the way this appears to us, as if it’s a book from its own side; it’s a book and the book is appearing to us when we look at it. Book is there and book is coming at us. Isn’t that the way it appears? And we completely believe in that appearance. We don’t question it at all.

We start to question it and say, “Is there a book here, something in here that is really a book? What is that book that is coming at us? What is that book that is in here?” So you start with this, “Is that cover the book? Is that page the book? Is that page the book? Is the binding the book?” None of those things, none of the parts individually are a book, are they? When you look through the parts—if we took the binding out and put the binding here and the cover there tossed the pages around, would you have a book? What happened to the book that was there inside there coming at us—the book we were so convinced was in here in this space? It disappeared. Was it ever there? Was there once really a book inside here and then it became non-existent when we spread the parts around? No, there was never a book in here; never a book in here. So our mind that sees a book in here and a book coming at us, is that mind hallucinating or is that mind valid?

It’s a hallucination, isn’t it? Lama Yeshe, we asked him if we could take drugs to meditate and he said, “You’re hallucinating already dear. You don’t need drugs.” When we look and we think that there’s a real book inside here, it’s a hallucination. There’s no book in here. Okayay? What the book is, is just an appearance to the mind. And the book is not appearing from the side of the object. It’s not appearing from the side of the covers and the papers and the binders. The book only appears because you have these parts and your mind generated a conception and gave it a label and said, “Oh this is a discreet object, ‘book.’ We’re calling it ‘book.’” But we forgot we gave the label book to it and instead we started thinking that there was a book inside of it and that that book was coming back at us for the side if the base. That’s the hallucination, because actually, the book exists. But the book exists because we label it in dependence upon this base. But the object labeled book is nowhere inside that base. It’s just a mental creation.

What is the self?

So if we go back to the mind, the mind is the same way. Within the clarity and awareness there is no thing in there that is mind from its own side. It becomes mind simply because we had that conception and gave it that label but there is nothing in there. This is going to be a little bit of a tangent, because I’m talking about the mind, but what is the self? Here’s where it gets dicey and by dicey I mean challenging, okayay? Because we walk around and our whole internal feeling is there is ‘me,’ isn’t there? “Here’s me and I’m walking around and I ate breakfast and I went to the meditation hall and I did my chores, or I didn’t do my chores,” whatever it is. “I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m thinking this, I ‘m feeling that.” And all the time there’s this feeling of ‘I’ and we totally take it for granted. And when we look at other people we think that there are “I’s”; there are selves inside all these other people. There are real people there, there are real selves, there are real “I”s”. Where it gets interesting is to ask your self, “Where?” “What?”

So relating back to the morning motivation of ‘my space’, who’s the ‘I’ that wants my space? Who‘s that ‘I’? What is that ‘I?’ If you take apart your body, if you’re going to look for that I; it’s got to be either in your body or mind or something separate from your body and mind. If you take apart the body instead of taking apart the book, take apart the body. Put your kidneys over there and your liver over there and your brain over there, some intestines strung around. Your bones over there and some skin and some blood and some lymph and some pituitary gland, you know all these things; spread them out there. Is there any person there; anybody there? No, it’s basically a bunch of junk that we’re very attached to. Basically that’s what it is. So there’s no ‘I’ in the body there’s just all this kind of rather putrid looking stuff; eyeballs, earlobes.

Is the ‘I’ in the mind or the soul?

What about in the mind? Is the ‘I’ somewhere in the mind? Is it the awakened mind? Is it the sleeping mind? Is it the mind that sees color and shape, the mind that hears sounds, the mind that thinks? Which thought is it —a happy thought, an unhappy thought? Which mood is it? Am I my moods? Which mood? I have so many moods in the course of one day, so many moods. Is each of those a self? So as we look at the body and mind we can’t identify one single thing that we say is me. So then we say, there’s a soul, something separate from the body and mind, right? “Yes, I got it, I’m not my body, I’m not my mind but there’s me, some soul there, permanent, unalterable, the nature of me.” So I exist forever and I am independent from my body and mind. So we develop this concept of a soul; some kind of independent me. Well what is this soul? Where are you going to find it? Where are you going to find this soul? You say the soul is what feels. No, actually that’s the mind; the mind is what feels. The soul is what perceives. Well, no it’s the mind that perceives. Can you find a soul that‘s independent of the mind? If some kind of soul like that existed, it would mean the body and mind could be here and you could be somewhere else. It means that the soul has some attribute that the body and mind doesn’t have. Go find it.

So when we explore like that, we can’t find some kind of concrete soul either; some essence of “ME-ness”. But then we say, “But I feel it!” We always come back with that, don’t we? “I feel it! I know there’s me because I feel it! I feel ME!!” Well, analyze that a little bit. “I feel ME.” What in the world does that mean: “I feel me.” So there are two MEs: one that feels it and one that is it? Yes? And does everything we feel really exist? We feel a lot of things don’t we? Does that mean that it has anything to do with reality?

Dependent origination and ignorance

Okay? So what we discover whenever we look at any phenomenon is that the base and the object-labeled are dependent on each other, but they are not the same thing. In dependence upon the collection of body and mind, we label the self. But the self is not the body and mind. In dependence upon all the consciousnesses and the mental factors, we label mind, but the mind is not any of those consciousnesses or mental factors. Nor is it something findable, separate from them, just as the self was not findable, separate from the body and mind. When we look at the body, all we see are these various parts. None of the parts are the body; but the body is not findable separate from the parts either. The body exists by being labeled in dependence on the parts.

The mind exists by being labeled upon dependence on all these different moments of mind. The self exists by being labeled in dependence upon the body and mind. What we are getting at, is that everything exists dependently, but nothing exists with its own inherent nature, okay? And this is very much the opposite of the way that things normally appear to our senses and very much the opposite of how we normally think of things. So, we can see that from the very basis, our mind is really involved with a pretty big hallucination here; like major hallucination; like everything we see does not exist the way that it appears to us.

So the mental factor that believes that all these things have their own inherent nature is what we call ignorance. Now you are going to think, “Ignorance is inherently existent. Yes, ignorance, there it is, that’s the devil, that mental factor, ignorance, with its cohort attachment and this other one hostility.” And then we think of them as inherently existent. Well, no. All they are, are moments of mind that have some similarity. There are different moments of mind that have the characteristics of being based on exaggeration of negativity and pushing an object away, and in dependence upon those similar characteristics, we give the label hostility or anger. In dependence on the mind that is based on over estimating the good qualities of someone or something and clinging to it, in dependence upon all these different moments of mind that share that kind of common quality, but aren’t exactly the same, we label attachment.

In dependence upon different moments of mind that arise, in which we believe that things exist, having their own inherent nature, then we call that ignorance. We call it ignorance, but it isn’t ignorance. In our usual way of speaking, we say, “That is ignorance,” that’s our usual way of speaking. But when you analyze, you see that it’s not ignorance. It’s called ignorance. This is the ignorance that is the root of cyclic existence. This is the ignorance that is kind of the chief dirt in our mind. And based on this ignorance that misconceives everything, our selves, other people, all phenomena, based on that fundamental misconception, other disturbing emotions and incorrect attitudes arise. Based on that and among all this ignorance, one of the big ones is the one that thinks, “Me.” Because we can see, in our daily lives, that’s the big one isn’t it? This ignorance that there’s a real me? We all walk around with it, except enlightened beings. So here’s this feeling of me. And then based on that very strong feeling of there’s a real me, naturally we assume the happiness of that me is the most important thing. We grasp on so strongly to that existence of I or me.

Happiness, self-centeredness and how samsara arises

We see other people as inherently existent too, but we’re much more attached to the one that’s here; the one that we feel, that’s really me. Then we think the happiness and suffering of that one are the most important things in the entire universe. And then from that, we get attached to everything that brings us pleasure. We want more of those things because we are seeing those external objects and people as inherently existent. We think happiness exists inside them. We don’t realize that the happiness is a creation of our own mind. We think the happiness comes from them. We get attached to them. We cling on to them. We do all sorts of non-virtuous actions to get what we want. We’ll lie, we’ll steal, we’ll do all sorts of things to get whatever it is that we want. And then when someone or something interferes with our happiness, “Whoa, look out, this is a national catastrophe! Somebody interfered with my happiness. I didn’t get what I wanted.” Or somebody criticizes me, somebody disapproves of me, somebody trashed my reputation. This is the most important serious thing that is happening in the entire universe at this moment. And that’s what we feel, isn’t it? This is a common experience. Something happened to me where I am unhappy and, “Whoa, forget the hell realms, forget the war in Iraq, forget global warming. Forget everything else, somebody spoke meanly to me. That is the most horrible thing that is occurring at this moment in history and the planet should stop and realize this.” And we laugh at it, but all you need to do is a little bit of meditation and you see that this is true and that’s how our minds work; right or wrong?

And then hostility comes and then we say nasty words to people; we ruin their relationships with other people. We talk badly about them behind their backs. We want to destroy their happiness, take away their good reputations. Sometimes we might even want to harm them physically, to kill them; or do something that really hurts their feelings. And then we rationalize it, “It’s for their own good. I am doing this with compassion.”

So, here what we’re seeing is how samsara evolves. Here’s that ignorance that misconceives how everything exists. Then it gives rise to a lot of self concern in there: and attachment to the things that we think bring the self happiness, hostility towards the things that bring the self misery or that deny us our happiness. So out of the ignorance come all the afflictions; the various afflictive mental states. We get a little bit of pride, some conceit, some laziness, lots of other mental factors, negative ones. And then motivated by these various mental factors, we get involved in mental, verbal and physical pathways of action.

So let’s say, based on resentment; resentment is an affliction, we’ll sit and think about how to get revenge. That whole thinking about how to get revenge: that’s a mental pathway of karma. Or based on that resentment then we’ll speak words, kind of go behind somebody’s back and say something: that’s verbal karma. We might do something physically to harm that person, because we resent them. So all these physical, verbal and mental actions leave imprints on our minds. Those are the karmic imprints. Those gross actions cease, but within their disintegratedness—their having disappeared—then there’s still some energy trace. That’s a karmic seed. And then when those karmic seeds get nourished, when they meet external conditions that act as the cooperative conditions to them, then those various seeds ripen and bring about the experiences that we have.

So in terms of how samsara evolves, we have the ignorance, the afflictions, all those actions, pathways of actions. We have the mind with all those karmic seeds planted on top of it. The time of death gets pretty intense, because we’re sitting there and we’re realizing something pretty big is happening, something is changing in our body and mind and our instinctive reaction is, “I don’t want it to change, I’m holding on to what I have.” So that’s craving, we hold onto what we have. Then at some point that craving intensifies and it actually switches, because we realize, “Hey, I’m losing this body and mind. Well, I want another one; because if there’s not a body and mind, I’m not going to exist.” Then comes this incredible grasping at existence; and these two, the craving and grasping, act like water and fertilizer for different karmic seeds in our mind. Those karmic seeds are ripening, it’s called becoming. And then when we leave this body, because of whatever karmic seed or seeds are ripening, then we’re automatically attracted to another kind of body or mental state in order to continue existing because we are clutching so much at ,”I” and, “I need this body and mind.” So then the mind jumps right into another body. I’m using the word ‘jump’ figuratively, it’s not literal.

So we say, “But why in the world would the mind be propelled into the body of an animal or hungry ghost or a hell being?” Well, because the mind gets pretty confused when there’s that very strong craving and grasping. And if a negative karma ripens: the karma influences how things appear to us, and all of a sudden, that kind of life form appears not so bad. Or we’re very much creatures of habit. So let’s say we have a habit of attachment and perpetual dissatisfaction: always attached, always dissatisfied, always wanting more, always wanting better. That’s just this entrenched habit in our mind. Then at the time of death, the habit continues on and it influences the body that we take. And all of a sudden we become a hungry ghost: one of these beings who’s always running around hungry and thirsty wanting this and wanting that and who can never satisfy their desires. So what was a mental habit as a human being can become the actual life form and environment that you’re born into.

Let’s say you’re a person with a lot of hostility and you spend a lot of time being angry, ruminating, “I don’t like what this person did. I don’t like what that person did. Why don’t they do this? Why don’t they do that? I’m going to make them do this. I’m going to get even. How dare they do this to me?” And the mind is just so filled with resentment: “They treated me wrong, why didn’t they treat me right. I want to get even. This isn’t fair, I’m angry at the world. I’m going to lash out, make somebody suffer because I’m so unhappy about it.” So you develop all this hostility in the mind and a lot of ill will and a lot of malicious thought and ruminate on that a long time and what happens at the time of death? That mental habit and of course the mental, verbal and physical actions we have done: well you know, it just goes poof and becomes our body and environment and there we are in a hell realm. Because that same mind that wants to harm others is a mind that’s fearful. So the mind that wants to harm others is very related to fear. So in the next life, we might be born as one of those hell beings that experiences so much fear and so much pain.

Various realms of existence

Now people always ask, “Are these other realms just kind of fictions of our mind, or are they real?” Well, I think they are as real as this realm appears to be to us: they’re as real or as unreal. Because when you’re in it, it’s like when you’re dreaming, the dream isn’t real, but when you’re dreaming, it feels like it is. So similarly, in the hell realm, animal realm, hungry ghost realm and actually now too, we feel it’s very real. But this life? Like that, it’s gone. It’s like last night’s dream: gone very quickly.

Then there are also some upper realms, there’s the human one, where, as Khensur Rinpoche explained yesterday, we get born based on ethical conduct that helps us create the cause for a human body. Practicing the six far reaching attitudes or six perfections and then making strong dedication prayers to have that kind of life, so then we are able to have a precious human life. Not just a human life, but a life with the possibility of learning and practicing the Dharma. And they say that a human life is very good for practice because we have just enough happiness that we don’t get overwhelmed by suffering, but just enough suffering that we don’t get distracted and think that samsara is fantastic. But you can see that we get distracted an awful lot. When we’re in a particular moment of suffering, we can say, “Oh yeah, samsara is awful.” But as soon as that suffering lessens, we’re back to our own ways of just wanting happiness: sense pleasure happiness, ego happiness. We just go back to the same old thing. We’re just like amnesiacs: we forget. It just goes, it’s gone.

Then you have the deva realms and there are various levels of deva realms. Sometimes it’s translated as celestial beings or as gods, I don’t like the translation ‘gods.’ So you have these devas and it’s a very happy rebirth. There’s not much suffering in it, or any at all. And this comes because of the power of that person’s virtuous karma. And like I said there are various levels. So there are the devas of the sense realm. They have sense pleasure deluxe; they eat food, it has no skins, pesticides or pits. They don’t need to recycle stuff. Their bodies are made of light. They don’t need to wash them, put on deodorant or all this other stuff. And they have all the boyfriends and girlfriends that they want; all this sense pleasure and it’s great, until right before they die. And then, right before you die, you’re realizing that this is stopping, okay? And you freak out, because you are losing it; and in addition your body which was made of light and was so beautiful for so long, begins to stink and all your friends don’t want to be around you. So all those people you were hanging out with or having a good time with, all of a sudden it’s, “get away!” And plus you know you’re losing that whole circumstance. And it’s tremendous mental suffering for the sense pleasure devas right before they die.

Then there are other levels of devas called the form realm and the formless realm. And you get born in the various levels of the form and formless realms through what’s called immutable karma. And what this means is that as a human being, you developed certain levels of concentration. And if you developed the level of concentration of the first dhyana then you get born there. Or if you developed the level of concentration of the second dhyana, you get born there; and the same through the four dhyanas. And then the four formless realms: so that karma is called immutable in the sense that if you generate the level of concentration for the first one, you get born in the first one, you don’t get born in the second or the third or the formless realms. So that’s what it means. So the gods of the form realm they also have bodies of light with very little problems and so on and so forth. But it’s also difficult for them as well as for the sense pleasure gods or the desire realm gods as they’re called, to practice the Dharma because they’re so distracted by their happiness.

In the formless realm the beings only have a very, very subtle body and their states of concentration are very deep. But they don’t have renunciation of samsara. They don’t have wisdom. So they have these deep states of concentration, but no wisdom. So they aren’t liberated from cyclic existence. So they stay in these states of concentration for eons. Then when that karma is up, then, they get reborn somewhere else in cyclic existence. Serkong Rinpoche, when they took him to the top of Eiffel Tower, he said, “This is like the formless realms, being born in the formless realm, because when you leave it, there’s only one way to go; down.” So we’ve existed in cyclic existence, in samsara, since beginningless time. Because remember, there’s no first moment of consciousness; there’s no first birth. So they say that we’ve been born everywhere in samsara. So, I find this one very interesting, at some time or another, we’ve had such powerful concentration, such powerful single pointed concentration; that we’ve been born in the formless realm. We actually had it at one time, so what happened? [laughter]

We’ve been in cyclic existence forever:

What do we want to do now that we’ve met the Dharma?

So they say we’ve been born everywhere in cyclic existence. We’ve done every possible thing that any body can do in cyclic existence, except practice the Dharma. Every single samsaric pleasure we have had. As they say, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” We’ve done it all. We’ve had every single possible pleasure in samsara, not just once, but infinite times. We’ve also been reborn in the hell realms and done all sorts of horrible negative actions infinite times. So, we’ve done every possible thing there is to do in cyclic existence; not once, but many, many infinite number of times. And where did it get us? [The audience:], “Going around again and again and again.” That’s exactly it. We just keep doing the same old dysfunctional, stupid, self-destructive stuff again and again and again. That’s what samsara is. You talk about self-sabotaging: holding onto samsaric pleasure is the ultimate way of sabotaging our own happiness. Because every time we hold onto samsaric pleasure, “That’s really going to do it for me, if I only had this” And we say, “If I only had this then my mind will be relaxed enough that I can practice the Dharma.” Yes? That’s what we do. “I need this and then I can practice.” Or, “ I need this. I want this; this will really do it for me.”

So we’re like those mice that just sit and peck at the same little lever even though they don’t get a grain. Or once in awhile they get a little grain: so once in awhile we get born in an upper realm. But most of the time the mice are sitting there pecking and nothing’s happening. And we keep just seeking the samsaric pleasure again and again and again and it’s just a waste of time and energy isn’t it, like those mice. You know what it is? This is the addictive mind, the gambling mind. You put your quarter in the machine and you think, “This time I’m going to get the jack pot. All the other times, I did something wrong. This time, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to get this happiness and it’s going to last forever and ever.” But we’ve already done that and we’ve had that happiness. We’ve gotten that samsaric jackpot and we’ve spent it all and we’re back where we are.

So when we talk about the first principle aspect of the path: renunciation or the determination to be free, what are we determining to be free from? What are we renouncing? We’re not renouncing happiness. Happiness is what we want. We’re renouncing all this addictive behavior and all the misery that it brings, okay? Now there are different kinds of misery and I think I’m going to have to wait until tomorrow to talk about it because I want to get into it and there’s not a lot of time right now. But to really think about this, because we are so hooked into what is appearing to our senses right now, that we think that is all that there is. But actually there is not only this universe full of other beings, but what we label ‘I’ comes from the past, goes into the future. So we’ve been there, done everything, had samsara since beginningless time. What do we want to do now? We’ve done all of that before. We’ve met the Dharma now. What do we want to do now? So this, I think, is the real thing that we need to think about and to see it in this big picture.

So instead of just seeing what appears to us right now, where we get locked into it: “Oh this clock is the most precious thing, because it’s in front of me right now.” To really think about this whole situation of being in cyclic existence and going from one body to the next uncontrollably; and having chased after and struggled for all these happinesses; and having gotten all of them. And what good did it do? And to really ask ourselves, “What is happiness?” Buddhism is not telling us to renounce happiness. What the Buddha is saying is that we’ve been addicted to low grade happiness for a really long time; but there’s high grade happiness. So why remain addicted to low grade happiness that doesn’t really satisfy you when there’s another form of happiness, that you haven’t experienced yet that might be longer lasting and actually be satisfying? So that’s what the Buddha is asking us. The Buddha is not asking us to be miserable. We hear renunciation and we think, “Oh, living in a cold dank cave, eating nettles.” You know, living in a cave doesn’t get you out of samsara. Samsara isn’t where we live. Samsara is a mental state. Samsara is the body and mind under the control of ignorance and karma. That’s what samsara is. That’s what we want to get rid of. And incidentally, lots of people talk about, “How do I have compassion for myself?” Wanting to get your self out of samsara is the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself.

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.