Three higher trainings
Three higher trainings
Part of a series of teachings given during a three-day Lamrim Meditation Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2007.
- The kindness of others
- Our mistaken conceptions
- The wisdom that overcomes ignorance
- Investigating the four noble truths
The four noble truths and eightfold noble path 02: Part 1 (download)
The three higher trainings
- Ethical discipline
The four noble truths and eightfold noble path 02: Part 2 (download)
Questions and answers
- Difference between mindfulness and alertness
- The true nature of sentient beings
- How different schools view nirvana
- The definition of permanent and eternal
The four noble truths and eightfold noble path 02: Q&A (download)
Let’s generate our motivation and just sit with the fact that everybody wants happiness and wants to be free from suffering just as intensely as we do. When you sit with that for this moment, don’t just think “everyone” like some vague blob of people, but think of individuals—people you know—whether you like them or don’t like them. Think that they want to be happy and free of suffering just as much as I do.
Then contemplate that we’ve also received incredible kindness from these people, that they have benefited us directly and indirectly. Again, think of how specific things—the food we receive, the clothes we wear, the buildings we live in—all come due to others. Then let your heart open in response to all these other beings and wish them well. Think how wonderful it would be to repay their kindness, to give something to them to show our appreciation for all they’ve done for us. Contemplate that one way to return kindness is by giving material things, giving love, and so on.
There’s another way of returning kindness, where we try to improve ourselves spiritually, in order to gain more capabilities so that we can be of greater and greater benefit. With that in mind, generate the aspiration for full enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings.
This awareness of the kindness of others, I think, is something quite important and it helps us really feel that we belong in situations with others, and helps us to know that we’ve been the recipient of a tremendous amount of kindness. Sometimes we think about kindness and it all just seems very abstract, or kindness seems like, that’s the people who give me birthday presents, or put me in their will. We shouldn’t be strictly meaning the kindness of something small like that.
At the Abbey, you’ll notice that we function as a community. We’re not a Dharma center or a retreat center, and so when people come here to visit us, you are all a part of the community and so you all get different opportunities to offer service: cleaning dishes or making applesauce or weeding, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom or whatever.
There are a few reasons for this. One reason is so that we have the opportunity to put our effort into something and to learn how to do daily-life actions with a good motivation. Usually we do a lot of our daily-life actions with, “Well I gotta do this, so let’s do this as fast as possible and get it done so I can do something more interesting.” That kind of attitude permeates our life and there’s no joy in that. When you come here and do different tasks and whatever, we’re trying to do it—and there’s the prayer that we read in the morning for offering service—with a different kind of attitude so that this becomes an extension of our wish to repay the kindness of others.
Another reason why we do this is that not only are we doing something to serve the community but we look around and we see that everybody else we are living with is doing something to serve the community and therefore us. That allows us to really be aware of the kindness of others in a very immediate way.
When you’re at work a janitor comes and cleans your office or your factory when you’re not there and you’ve never even met the janitor and never think to say, “thank you.” Here, the people who are helping the community to offer are the same people you are meditating with and eating lunch with. You’re seeing them sweep the floor or whatever it is. So you feel very directly—Wow, what they’re doing is something that’s benefiting me! Because if they weren’t doing it, well, I would be eating carrots this long for lunch—they wouldn’t be chopped into small pieces. I’d be walking on a dirty floor, and my dishes would be all encrusted with last night’s meal because nobody would have washed them!
We directly see and feel and experience how we benefit from others’ efforts. This is something that’s very good for our heart in general and very good for our Dharma practice because it takes the whole thing of receiving kindness and giving kindness out of this abstract kind of airy-fairy, spacey thing and into something that’s quite hands-on.
That’s something to keep in mind as we’re generating this bodhicitta motivation to be of benefit for sentient beings and then choosing the way we’re doing it, seeing that progressing on the path spiritually is a very unique and very wonderful way to repay that kindness. By practicing the Dharma we remove our own obstacles to being of service to others and we also enrich our mind so that it becomes easier to be of benefit and we have more skills, more wisdom, and more sensitivity to be of benefit.
Yesterday we talked about the four noble truths and specifically about the truth of dukkha and the truth of the origin of dukkha, and we touched on the last two very briefly. It’s good to understand and spend some time contemplating these first two noble truths. It helps us to look at our situation in an honest way, which I think is really important for us. I don’t know about you but for me, this kind of honesty is very relieving; I find it much more of a relief to say, “yes, we get old and sick and die” than to do this whole dance that our society does about pretending that it doesn’t happen. Our society puts a great deal of effort into pretending that we don’t get old, or at least trying to reverse aging. That makes aging even more difficult. We put a lot of energy into pretending that we don’t die, and that too, makes sickness and death more difficult because if we can face things in a very honest way then we can prepare for them and then the charge goes out of them. There’s even the opportunity to make these experiences something meaningful.
I find all of that quite relieving, not something that’s fearful. I should say it’s fearful in the sense that if you think of doing it again and again and again, uncontrollably, under the influence of ignorance, clinging and karma, that gets scary, if you think of doing a rerun of all your beginningless, previous lives and projecting that into the future. Nuh-uh! I don’t know about you but it doesn’t sound appealing to me. Somebody once said to me, when they thought about being an adolescent all over again, then they really wanted to be liberated! Think about it—think of going through adolescence an infinite number of times. Is that something that sounds like fun? That might give us some energy to try and reverse the situation.
The root of the whole thing is this ignorance that actively misapprehends how persons and phenomena exist. It’s not just an ignorance like an “unknowing” but it’s an active misapprehension; it’s an act of misconception.
When we talk about misconceptions, we’re not necessarily meaning intellectual misconception. It seems to me that when the Dharma is talking about conceptions, it often refers to modes of apprehension that are conceptual in that we’re perceiving something through a mental image, a generality of that object, but it’s not conceptual in the sense that it always relies on language and that we always know we’re thinking of it.
For example, we have a conception that mistakes impermanent things for permanent. In Buddhism, impermanent means something is changing momentarily; permanent means it doesn’t change. We might say, well on an intellectual level I know everything’s changing moment by moment—we study that in our science class, all these electrons are zipping around the nucleus and everything’s changing all the time. But, when we look at something—this is the same cup as yesterday, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Isn’t this the same meditation hall as yesterday? It didn’t change at all. You see how, when we look at things we just assume they’re static. “Me? Oh, I didn’t change. I’m the same person as yesterday.” This grasping at permanence is there, and it’s a very subtle kind of conception, so we’re not thinking, oh, everything’s permanent. But we’re somehow assuming, grasping, holding everything as existing in that way.
We can see how that works because when something breaks, we’re so surprised that it broke, aren’t we? When our computer breaks, we’re so surprised. Now if that isn’t total insanity, to be surprised when your computer breaks—how many of us have had computers that break? All of us! Why are we continually surprised when our computer doesn’t work? We’ve all had the experience of computers not working. But every time we sit down, it’s with the expectation that it’s going to work. So you see, somehow our mind isn’t totally attuned to the reality of situations. There’s a lot of misapprehension going on here.
The idea is that if ignorance is misapprehending things, apprehending things in a way that they do not exist, then when we generate the wisdom that perceives things directly—nonconceptually, as they actually are—then that wisdom certainly overpowers the ignorance. You can’t have an incorrect consciousness that is overpowering a correct one that sees things directly as they are. Clearly, the wisdom is going to win in this case.
That means that the afflictions can be eliminated, and when they’re eliminated, the karma that causes rebirth ceases. When that karma ceases then all the dukkha ceases. In that way it’s possible to attain a state that is free from dukkha and its causes. That state is called nirvana, and that’s the third Noble Truth, which is often called true cessations because it’s talking about the cessations of dukkha and its causes.
Then the question is, “Well, how do we get there? We’re here where we are now, how do we attain nirvana?” This is something to really think about. When we look at the four noble truths, this is how we see some of the unique qualities of Buddhism. In terms of the truth of dukkha, most people agree on at least the coarser levels of what we describe as suffering as misery. On the more subtle levels, not all religions may agree. But at least on the coarser levels, a toothache hurts—everyone knows that.
When we talk about the truth of the cause, the truth of the origin, then different religions are going to have different ideas about what caused the suffering. And then, depending upon what you think causes the dukkha, you’re going to propose different solutions, different paths. Depending upon what path you follow, you’re going to get different results, different cessations.
It’s interesting to examine various religions and try and understand how they would present their own four truths, and then see if that makes any sense to you, and kind of compare and contrast with Buddhism. In that way you can begin to see some of the unique qualities in the Buddha’s teachings.
We discussed yesterday that the real root of our difficulties lies inside of our own mind; it’s not other people, it’s not the environment. We created the cause to be in specific situations. In addition our anger, our clinging attachment, our resentment and so on, arises in those situations, grasps the situation inaccurately, and then we wind up in more suffering.
If the cause, the origin of the mess, is inside, then the solution also has to be an internal one. That is, I think, actually a sign of hope because it means that we’re responsible and we can do something about our own situation. If the cause of our misery were something outside then there’s really no hope, because how are we ever going to make something outside do what we want it to do? But if the actual root is something inside, then since we’re the ones who potentially can master our own minds, then we’re the ones who can do something about our situation. This also means that we’re responsible, which means we can’t blame anybody.
It was quite interesting this year at the Cloud Mountain Retreat. I remember we had a discussion group about responsibility; do you remember how people squirmed a little bit? I mean, people reacted very differently to it. I was saying, “to me, I think responsibility is great”. But one guy said, “I want to appear responsible but I don’t want to be responsible.” [laughter] I think it really summed up how a number of people were feeling. That’s kind of how we are in our spiritual practice, too. We want to look like we’re responsible but we really don’t want to take responsibility for our lives. We’d much rather go, “Poor me—somebody else come and fix me!” But that’s not going to happen—it’s just not going to happen.
I noticed, after a while of Dharma practice, how I have this one kind of behavior when I’m upset “of course it’s somebody else’s fault,” so I just withdraw and get kind of sulky and quiet. And then other people are supposed to notice that I’m unhappy and they’re supposed to come to me and say, “Oh, Chodron, are you unhappy? Please let me fix it for you.” Anybody else do that? You know, they’re supposed to read my mind—I really want other people to be clairvoyant in this one aspect! [laughter] I don’t want them to know all the other things that go on in my mind but when I’m upset and unhappy, they’re supposed to be clairvoyant, and they’re supposed to come to me and say, “Oh, poor you—let me do something to make it all better.” In the meantime, I’m being quiet and sulky and withdrawing—just the kind of behavior that is going to attract people to me! Is that crazy? Yes, totally!
This is the mind that doesn’t want to take responsibility. But the thing is, when you’re in Buddhist teachings, we realize at some point that we have to take responsibility because when we’re sitting there, kind of doing our own little “violin thing,” nobody’s going to come to us and fix it. We’ve got to be responsible.
True path: the three higher training
It’s in this light that the Buddha taught the true path. The true path, in a broad way, is explained as the three higher trainings, and then in a more detailed way as the eightfold noble path. When you’re doing Mahayana practice, you also throw in the bodhicitta. Well, not “throw in” the bodhicitta; you place it respectfully in there. [laughter] But actually, the bodhicitta is included in the three higher trainings, if you look closely.
Let’s look at the three higher trainings and go briefly through them. The three higher trainings: higher training in ethical conduct, higher training in concentration, higher training in wisdom. Remember these, because you’ve got to practice them. They’re usually practiced in that order; in other words, we start with ethical conduct. What is ethical conduct? It’s the aspiration of non-harmfulness. It’s the wish that our body, speech, and mind not be damaging to ourselves or others.
Ethical conduct implies restraint, and what we’re restraining from is actions that cause harm; specifically, physical and verbal actions that cause harm. Of course, to restrain from physical and verbal damaging actions, it throws us back on our mind and to look at the mind that’s motivating those actions. At least on the gross level, to start with some kind of restraint of the actions that are very damaging to others, and by extension, to ourselves.
We start on the Buddhist path when we’re talking about ethics. We start with refraining from the 10 nonvirtues. Specifically, among those 10, the 10 negative actions of body and speech. What are the three physical ones? Killing, stealing, unwise sexual conduct. What are the four of speech? Lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle talk. The three of mind? Covetousness, ill will, and wrong views or distorted views. Remember those! I mean, we do them all the time, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t remember them; it’s not like things that we have no experience with. But, we don’t remember that those are the things to abandon, so it’s quite helpful to learn this list and then to be able to catch our behavior when we start to engage in these, and then to refrain.
When we restrain ourselves, we have to look closely at why we do it. Because many of us grew up in a family or in a religion where we were taught to be good but the motivation was, “If you’re not good, this is what’s going to happen to you!” So we were “good” but the goodness came out of fear: If I’m not good, I’m going to hell. If I’m not good, I’m going to get whipped. If I’m not good, I’m going to get grounded or sent to my room or spanked or told off, or screamed at.
A lot of our refraining from negative actions when we were younger was not done out of wisdom but out of fear, so then when we come to religion and we hear about ethical conduct or if it’s translated as morality, then we go, “Ehhhh! I don’t want that—that’s yucky!” But if we employ our wisdom and look, then we’ll know with wisdom why these are actions to be abandoned, because we’ll know how they harm us and how they harm others. I mean, killing, stealing, unwise sexual conduct—it’s easy to see how it harms others. But it also harms us.
How do we feel after we kill? How do we feel about ourselves after we steal? How do we feel about ourselves when we’ve used our sexuality unwisely and unkindly? There’s not a feeling of happiness and ease in the mind, is there? Right away there’s a sense of edginess, restlessness, and ehhhh. This is indicative of that kind of negative karma. First of all, that uncomfortable feeling we have now is some suffering we’re receiving now from those actions, but then those actions also place imprints on our mindstream that influence what we encounter later. Engaging in those actions not only makes us feel uncomfortable now but they are the chief thing that makes us encounter unpleasant situations in the future.
The next time we have some misery, instead of saying, “Why me?” or when we say, “Why me?” then we can say, “well, because I did these 10.” It’s very clear. It’s the same thing with the four verbal ones. When you’re intentionally deceiving somebody, do you feel comfortable inside? No. When you’re using your speech to create trouble amongst other people, are you happy with yourself? When you’re speaking harshly to somebody, telling them off, do you feel good? When you’re sitting blabbering, or standing blabbering, or walking down the street with your cell phone blabbering, do you feel good? I mean, maybe you think, “Oh yeah, I’m having a great time talking,” but what’s the motivation for talking? There’s usually some kind of restlessness inside.
We can see when we’re engaging in destructive actions, there’s not a sense of comfort in the mind, and also we create negative karma which leads us to encountering misery in the future, later this life or in future lives. Seeing that with a wise mind, because we want ourselves to be happy and we want others to be happy, we refrain from doing those actions that cause harm. There you see that ethical conduct is backed by wisdom but it doesn’t have to be something that we do motivated by fear or guilt or “shoulds” or “have tos” or “supposed tos” but it’s something that we want to do because we see that ethical conduct brings peace of mind now and it brings happiness in the future.
I know some people, a brother and a sister; one of the families was cheating on their income tax and the other family, although they were in a higher income tax bracket, was completely squeaky clean on their income tax. The family that was squeaky clean was telling me what their siblings were doing and they made the comment to me that they may be doing that and they may be saving thousands of dollars in taxes every year but when we go to bed we sleep very soundly. Because they’re being very honest with their taxes. It was quite interesting because actually later, the family that was cheating, the IRS came to their house at 7 o’clock one morning and it was a big mess.
You can see that just keeping ethical conduct allows us to sleep well in the evening because we aren’t tense, we aren’t worried, we aren’t anxious because we know that what we’ve done has been done with integrity. That itself is its own reward, isn’t it?
The 10 non-virtues and the five lay precepts
We start out the higher training of ethics by avoiding the 10 non-virtues, specifically the seven of body and speech. Then, when we feel ready, we take the five lay precepts. These are actually making a commitment in the presence of our spiritual teachers, and the buddhas and bodhisattvas, to abandon, in specific, killing, stealing, unwise sexual conduct, lying, and taking intoxicants.
The reason that taking intoxicants is included here but it’s not one of the 10 non-virtues is that taking intoxicants itself is not a naturally negative action but what you do under the influence of intoxicants often is. The idea being—and I think we’ve all had experience—that when we get intoxicated we do things we wouldn’t usually do and we wind up in a lot of trouble. We say incredible things to the people we love when we’re intoxicated, don’t we? I mean, incredibly horrible things. We’ll do things we wouldn’t normally do.
In the prison work that I do, I think 99% of the guys I write to were intoxicated at the time that they did whatever it was that landed them with a prison sentence. That doesn’t mean that the intoxication excuses it—no, not by any means at all. The idea is, if we look in our own lives, if we want to avoid negative actions, then one good way to start with this is by keeping our mind in good shape so that we can make wise decisions, and that means avoiding intoxicants.
Those are the five lay precepts. As we practice ethical conduct more, some people may wish to take the monastic precepts, and there are different levels of monastic precepts: novice, full ordination, and so on. So that’s the higher training in ethical conduct. There are also the bodhisattva vows and the tantric vows but those we take later on. They fall under the higher training in ethical conduct but they’re not the initial thing that we do.
Actually, when I think about ethical conduct, to me, if I’m going to put it in vernacular, it means stop being a jerk. If I look at my own behavior, when I engage in those 10, I am being very “jerkish,” or jerk-like. Because look at it, when we look at other people and we criticize them and say, that person’s such a jerk—what are they doing? Think about it. They’re usually doing one of these 10. That’s what earns them the honorary degree from our own institute: we issue them the degree of having completed the perfection of being a jerk! It’s usually because they’re doing one of the 10. Well, then the same with us. How do we become jerks? When we’re trashing somebody behind their back or we’re blowing up and accusing people of things that they didn’t do, or we’re gossiping about people, or we’re not being very responsible in our sexuality. You know, one thing or another—that’s how we become a jerk. I think ethical conduct is basically abandoning being a jerk. What do you think? That’s the higher training of ethical conduct.
The higher training of concentration is learning to focus the mind. With the higher training of ethical conduct, we are abandoning the physical and verbal gross harmful actions and we’re beginning to work with the mind that motivates them. But we don’t have the mind that motivates them under control because we may still have attachment or belligerence or something in our mind but we’re just keeping our mouth shut and not saying those awful words. The mind is still kind of active and we’re trying to work with the mind. With the higher training in concentration, we’ve very actively trying to work with the mind and in particular, by learning to focus the mind single-pointedly, this suppresses the gross levels of afflictions. When you’re single-pointedly focused on a virtuous object, your mind can’t be sitting there going on trips about how much you hate somebody. That kind of hatred is certainly going to make it difficult to concentrate when you’re meditating, isn’t it?
With the higher training in concentration, we’re learning to focus the mind in a single-pointed way and make the mind very peaceful through it being focused and concentrated. Here, we do practices that are especially geared towards cultivating serenity, and practices that involve a lot of stabilizing meditation to help the mind learn to focus on something single-pointedly. The more we can do this, the more it suppresses these gross levels of afflictions.
The afflictions haven’t been uprooted completely from the mind because even if we attain full single-pointed concentration, the seeds of the afflictions are in our mindstream and when we come out of the single-pointed meditation, there they are! The seeds blossom and we have manifest afflictions again. Somebody can attain full single-pointedness but when they come out of their meditation, sometimes they do behavior that isn’t so cool, or have all sorts of things running through their mind, because it’s only a temporary level of suppression of the afflictions.
What we actually want to do is eradicate the afflictions from the root. This is done by eliminating ignorance, and to eliminate ignorance we have to have wisdom. Therefore, we get the higher training in wisdom. This, in particular, is the wisdom that realizes the ultimate nature that realizes how things actually exist, because when we realize that they are empty of all the fantasized things we’ve projected upon them, such as true existence or existing from their own side, or having their own essence, when we realize that things lack that false way of existence that we’ve been projecting and holding onto, then the ignorance collapses, meaning the afflictions collapse.
That’s why the higher training of wisdom is the real thing that we need to do to eradicate the afflictions from the root. Now, a lot of us like to go to the highest path right away, and so people may love to study emptiness but then their conduct in their daily life is a little bit “iffy.” It’s completely possible to go and study emptiness, and know all the texts, and have it memorized, and you can explain emptiness up, down and around, but then when somebody says to that person, “You lie a lot, and that causes a lot of problems for the people around you,” that person says, “What are you talking about?” The other person says, “Well, how about stopping lying?” “Why do I have to do that? I don’t want to do that. I’m practicing the sublime path of emptiness!”
Here you see some confusion in people’s minds, wanting to go to an advanced teaching and then shunning the lower teachings as if they’re too simple: “Not taking intoxicants is ‘too trivial’ of a practice for me,” so the person keeps on drinking and drugging. You see, there’s a certain kind of arrogance involved in there; that “I’m kind of above doing these ‘lowly’ practices of ethical conduct.”
When we get involved in that way of thinking, we may learn about emptiness conceptually but it’s going to be difficult for us to have an actual insight into emptiness because our mind is still going to be distracted by all these negative thoughts. It’s going to be distracted by the misery that we experience due to the negative karma that we’ve created. When we don’t keep ethical conduct, we’re actually putting more obstacles in our own path to generating concentration and wisdom. That’s why ethical conduct is kind of at the beginning, and where I say it just means stop being a jerk.
We practice these in order, but that doesn’t mean that we have to perfect ethical conduct before we do concentration. And it doesn’t mean we have to perfect concentration before we engage in wisdom. Once we’ve gotten some teachings on all three, we try and practice all three together in our daily practice, and when we’re doing retreat, we do all three together. But we might be giving more emphasis to ethical conduct because that’s easier and because that’s going to establish the foundation and make concentrating in our meditation easier, which will make discerning the right view of emptiness also easier.
Questions and answers
Audience: What’s the distinction between mindfulness and alertness?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): In Buddhism, these two mental factors often come together: mindfulness and alertness. There are various translations for alertness; sometimes it’s “vigilance,” sometimes it’s “introspection.” In Pali they usually translate the same term as “clear comprehension,” which in many ways, I think is a very good translation. The way they explain it is in a much broader way than it’s usually explained in the Tibetan tradition. But in any case, these two mental factors are often spoken of as a pair, and sometimes they’re hard to differentiate but they can be differentiated.
Mindfulness is the mental factor that is familiar with an object and that focuses on that object that remembers that object, in such a way that the mind doesn’t get distracted by other objects. The word sati in Pali or Sanskrit, or drenpa in Tibetan, can also be translated as “memory” or “remember.” There’s this element of remembering what you’re supposed to be doing, or remembering the object that you’re focused on.
When you start your meditation, you want to bring in your mindfulness quite clearly and discern what your object of meditation is: if it’s the breath, if it’s the image of the Buddha, whatever it is, if it’s loving-kindness. Put your mindfulness on that, because that way you’re remembering that object or holding it in mind, and that functions to prevent the mind from getting distracted. When your mindfulness gets weak, then the distractions come in. We start doing our Christmas shopping, we start wondering if we turned the stove off when we left the house. We start thinking about what we’re going to do in work when we get back there on Monday, and our mind starts thinking about what somebody said to us and what we want to tell them in response, and on and on. That’s mindfulness.
Mental alertness, or vigilance, or clear comprehension, or introspection, the way it’s usually spoken of in the Tibetan tradition is that it’s a mental factor that is one corner of your mind that is like a little spy that is aware of if your mindfulness is still on the object, or if other thoughts and things have entered the mind. Alertness is like that little spy; it’s not so much focused on the object of meditation as it is just surveying the general mental state. It will discern: Oh, I’m falling asleep; Oh, I’m getting drowsy; Oh, my mindfulness is weakening because the object of meditation isn’t very clear; Oh, I’m daydreaming about going on vacation or what we’re eating for lunch.
Alertness is going to figure out, or discern, if you’re still focused or if you’ve gotten distracted. Alertness, in that respect—it’s the one that rings the burglar alarm, that says, “Oh, agitation or excitement or laxity has entered the mind. My mind’s lethargic, I’m losing the object of meditation,” or “I’m filled with all sorts of cluttering thoughts that have nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be doing. Alertness lets us know that and then we apply the antidote to whatever thing happens to be disturbing our concentration at that moment.
Interestingly in the Pali tradition, when they talk about clear comprehension they also talk about it as understanding the purpose of something. It is understanding the purpose of what you’re doing. When we talk about being mindful in our daily life actions, the mindfulness is we are aware of our precepts and abiding by our precepts, remembering our precepts, we’re remembering how we want to be. The mindfulness is focused on what we’re doing.
The clear comprehension understands the purpose of what we’re doing. I think it’s quite interesting because if we understand the purpose of something, that will make us much more mindful. If, in daily life action, we are trying to hold in our mind during the day the fact that we’re the recipient of a lot of kindness from sentient beings, then we’re going to try to be mindful of that thought throughout the day and see it in all of our actions. And we understand the purpose of thinking like that because we see the result. That mental alertness, or clear comprehension, can also see if we’re still focused on that thought or if we’re again ruminating about how to retaliate, which is the opposite of that kind of thought.
This kind of clear comprehension also makes us very aware of why we’re doing the things we do. When we become aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing then we’re going to be a lot more careful about what we do. If these words of sarcasm are about to come out of our mouth and suddenly we become aware of, “What is the purpose of saying that?” That might give us an impetus to close our mouth! Because we’ll see that there’s no good purpose for doing that.
Audience: About inherent happiness but more innate happiness, the debate about whether our natural state is happy, is happiness, and then uncovering that. Then the term “basic goodness” came up, so there was a little bit of confusion about the idea about basic goodness and innate happiness, just in what’s present in our minds. The discussion around the pursuit of happiness and how that languaging wasn’t very reflective. I’m really summarizing this, and maybe I’m not characterizing it accurately, but I want to get your take on it.
VTC: My take is that it’s just different conceptual ways of looking at the same thing. If you say we are innately happy, well, maybe we are but then something is obscuring that happiness. It doesn’t really matter if you’re innately happy or not because the point is, at this moment you’re not. It’s just kind of like a conceptual thing of, do you want to look at, “Well, I’m innately happy.” But so what if I’m innately happy, at this moment I’m not. It still boils down to,” well, what is in my mind right now that I am unhappy with?” Are we innately happy? I have no idea.
Audience: If our true nature is buddha nature, then wouldn’t that true nature be happiness?
VTC: What do you mean by buddha nature? What’s your definition?
Audience: I guess I don’t know because I’m too new to have an idea. But I’m just thinking that is our true nature happy.
VTC: This is why it’s really important that we understand what buddha nature is. Because it sounds very good, yes? We throw it around and we hardly ever know what it means. Most people hardly know what it means. “I have buddha nature.” Well what does that mean? Some people actually actively misunderstand it and make it like a “soul,” like there’s this “real me” that is inherently good and inherently happy—permanently, inherently like that, like a soul. Except now we call it buddha nature because we’re Buddhists.
I say this because there are certain words in Buddhism that people throw around a lot and don’t understand very well. And “buddha nature” is one of them. “guru devotion” is another. A lot of times, we really need to look more closely: What does “buddha nature” really mean?
Different schools give different definitions to “buddha nature” and different explanations of what buddha nature is. There’s one school that says buddha nature is the empty nature of our mind, the ultimate mode of existence of our mind, its lack of inherent existence. They say, together with that kind of buddha nature, there’s another kind of buddha nature called “transforming buddha nature,” which is any aspect of our mind that can be built upon and increased, and go on to enlightenment.
For example, love, compassion, and virtuous mental factors; those can be buddha nature. There’s also a lot of mental states that are not buddha nature because their continuity has to be cut in order for us to attain enlightenment. For example, anger. We have to abandon anger to become enlightened. You can’t say that anger is part of buddha nature. When we talk about buddha nature in this way, it involves differentiating what are constructive states of mind, what are nonvirtuous states of mind? What’s to practice, what’s to abandon?
Then there’s another school that says, “Well, we all are already buddhas but we just don’t know it.” That view can be very encouraging for people to think, “Oh, I’m already a buddha, my mind’s already inherently pure, I’m already a buddha.” If you look at that concept with reasoning, it can’t hold up because if we’re already buddhas then we’re ignorant buddhas, and an ignorant buddha is an oxymoron! We can’t be ignorant buddhas. We can’t be buddha and ignorant at the same time because buddhas have no ignorance. That way of looking at it, it’s encouraging to say we’re buddhas already but actually, if you look at the basic fact of our present existence, we’re not!
What I mean when I say that sometimes these things can come to the same point is that the basic thing is that there is some potential there and there’s some purity there that is now masked by obscuration. That purity, that potential, has never been contaminated. That’s never been contaminated. But, you can’t say that everything’s inherently pure now either, because that’s all been obscured. It always comes down to the point of, there’s a lot of potential and we still have to practice and get rid of the obscurations. It just depends upon whether you look at buddha nature from the viewpoint of the result, the resultant state of Buddhahood, or if you look at it from the causal state of where we are right now.
If you look at the ultimate nature of the mind, its emptiness of inherent existence, that emptiness is always empty—there’s nothing that can make things not empty. There’s nothing that can pollute that emptiness and make it not empty. In that way you can say, “Oh, there’s some kind of basic purity; things are purified from the beginning, they’re not inherently existent.” Or you could look at the mental factors of love and compassion. Or you could look at just the mind, the conventional mind that is the nature of clear and knowing. The nature of the conventional mind is clear and knowing—it’s always that, it’s always going to be that, because that’s the definition of mind. Nothing is going to change. Something that’s naturally clear and knowing is not inherently contaminated.
When anger is in our mind, that mental consciousness that has the mental factor with anger in it is polluted and it has to be abandoned. The continuity of that mental consciousness can’t go on to enlightenment because it’s an angry mental consciousness. The continuity of the clear and knowing of that consciousness can go onto enlightenment but the continuity of the anger can’t. We have to be able to discern these things. This gets into some philosophy here, so people may not understand everything, but it’s something to look at closely. Regardless of what your position is, the basic point is, right now are we happy? That’s telling us what we need to work on right now, isn’t it?
Audience: That was very helpful. I’m just wondering, especially with regard to the different views of buddha nature and of the different schools, can you recommend any further reading on that? Does anything come to mind?
VTC: There are various books. The book called GyuLama in Tibetan, translated Uttaratantra, The Sublime Continuum. That talks a lot about buddha nature. Then, of course, you have different commentaries explaining the meaning that talk about it from different perspectives.
Audience: Could you explain a little bit the difference between the Mahayana approaches to cessation.
VTC: You’re talking specifically about the Vaibashika school and Sautrantika school?
Audience: You mentioned about cessation and you mentioned the word “nirvana” connected with cessation, and I understand that from the Mahayana point of view, which is the teachings we follow, we don’t actually go to nirvana.
VTC: There are different kinds of nirvana. Buddhas do attain nirvana; it’s called non-abiding nirvana. Non-abiding nirvana means that you’re not abiding in samsara, which is one extreme, and you’re not abiding in the self-complacent peace of a hearer or a solitary realizer, which is what you’re calling a Hinayana nirvana. I tend not to use the term Hinayana because it’s quite offensive to some people.
Audience: What do you use?
VTC: I use “Pali tradition” or, if I’m talking about the philosophical tenets, I’ll talk about whatever school of philosophical tenets it is. Even if you’re following the hearer vehicle or solitary realizer vehicle, if you attain the nirvana of that vehicle, from the Prasangika Madyamika view, the consciousness does not cease, it just stays in the state of meditation on emptiness for eons, and then the Buddha wakes you up and says, “Hey, there are other sentient beings around you. You’ve got to work for their benefit.”
In the bodhisattva path we’re aiming for nirvana but we’re aiming for this non-abiding nirvana. We’re not aiming for the self-complacent peace nirvana because if we enter that kind of nirvana then we have broken our bodhisattva vows. We’ve given up on benefiting sentient beings and then are satisfied with our own liberation alone.
To clarify, when you’re following the bodhisattva path, some people misunderstand and they say that it means you stay in samsara forever and ever and you never attain liberation. But that’s not correct because bodhisattvas, their whole focus it that they want to attain liberation; in fact, they want to attain enlightenment because when we have freed our minds from all the afflictions and all the latencies of the afflictions, we can be of more benefit to sentient beings than we can be when we’re a bodhisattva, because a buddha has many more skillful means and abilities than a bodhisattva does. Bodhisattvas definitely want to attain nirvana, or true cessations, but they’re doing it for the benefit of others and they’re making sure that it’s motivated by bodhicitta and great compassion so that they don’t slip into the self-complacent nirvana.
Audience: Non-abiding nirvana would be enlightenment?
VTC: Yes, non-abiding nirvana is enlightenment.
Audience: I was wondering about that, because I know so little about Buddhism in general. If you attain nirvana, or the Pali nirvana, and you stay there for eons, for them that’s the ultimate goal, right? So, if we are empty of inherent nature and impermanent, then it seems like our consciousness would continue on for eons but if we’re impermanent, wouldn’t the ultimate goal be to be free from…? I don’t understand one we live in nirvana and the other we’re impermanent.
VTC: Impermanent and eternal mean different things. Impermanent means changing moment by moment. Eternal means lasting forever. If somebody attains arhatship and self-complacent nirvana, their mindstream is still impermanent in that it’s changing moment by moment, but they never lose that state of nirvana—nirvana is eternal. In other words, the afflictions never come back; ignorance can never return because it’s been eliminated. But, because they do have the buddha potential, the Buddha does come and kind of wake them up from their meditation and say, “Come back and develop love and compassion and bodhicitta, and go through the bodhisattva paths and grounds and become a fully-enlightened buddha so that you can really use all of your potential most effectively.”
Audience: All mindstreams are eternal?
VTC: All mindstreams are eternal; our mind never ceases. Then you have the choice of having a suffering mindstream or a happy mindstream. It isn’t just, like many people believe in society that you die and then there’s nothing. It’s not like that. The mindstream continues on. What state it continues on in is up to us.
Audience: Do the Theravadas share that view of eternal minds?
VTC: Some do and some don’t. Many Theravada schools say no, that once you’ve eliminated the ignorance and the afflictions then the mindstream ceases. But what I found very interesting is Achan Mun, who is the founder of the modern-day Thai Forest tradition—he was an incredible meditator in the late 19th/early 20th century—he, from his own personal meditative experience, saw that the mind did not cease at the point of nirvana. I thought this was very interesting. He used to also have visions of arhats and buddhas which, if you adhered to a strict Theravada approach, these beings just ceased at the point of nirvana, and then he couldn’t have visions of them. But he had lots of visions of them; from his own experience he saw that.
Audience: I have a question about shamatha, breathing meditation. Yesterday you said not to have a running commentary but there are techniques such as counting the breath or in Theravada they say “breathe in, breathe out, rest, breathe in, breathe out, rest” and sometimes I find these to be very helpful to keep on the breath, so I was wondering why you are suggesting not to have—
VTC: Your question is about when I said, “Don’t have a running commentary about your breath.” What I meant by running commentary is, “Oh, now I’m breathing in. Gee, I wonder why my breath was like that—am I breathing properly? Oh now I’m breathing out—this breath wasn’t as good, that breath wasn’t as smooth as the last one. I must be doing it wrong!” That’s what I meant by running commentary. [laughter] If you’re using a word, like in Theravada they use “boo-doh” for in-breath or out-breath, or you’re counting your breath. That’s okay because there you’re focusing on something simple that’s helping you stay focused. You’re not doing this whole, “Oh, my lungs are filling with oxygen—I remember my biology class, you know, where, what was it—the oxygen goes through the membrane, into the lungs, and then something else comes out and ….” No. That’s what I meant by a running commentary.
Audience: That concentration such as counting, would that be alertness or would that be subtle mindfulness?
VTC: That, I think, is more on the mindfulness side because you’re remembering. Because you know when you can’t remember the number. They usually have you count from 1 to 10. You don’t want to get to 599 million.
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.