Understanding our situation
Understanding our situation
Part of a series of teachings given during a three-day Lamrim Meditation Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2007.
The four noble truths
- The importance of understanding these truths
- The truth of dukkha
- The truth of dukkha’s causes
- The alternative
Questions and answers
- Cultural views of our suffering
- Working with self-blame
- Creating karma for those who have precepts
- Working with discouragement
- Collective karma
Let’s cultivate our motivation, and remember that we are here because we are seeking happiness and seeking to be free of suffering. In our life we’ve tried so many different ways to bring that about but none of them have worked so far. Now we are looking at the Buddha’s teachings, seeing what they have to offer in this regard, and trying them out so that we will be able to tell from our own experience whether they work. But in this process of exploration, let’s seek not only our own happiness but let’s have the big picture and remember that there are countless living beings all throughout the universe, all of whom have been kind to us, all of whom we are interdependent with. Let’s do this exploration and spiritual practice for the benefit of all of us, and specifically, for the enlightenment of all of us. Generate that motivation.
The topic for this morning was “The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind,” and I got as far as the number “four,” and I thought that rather than talk about the “Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind to the Dharma,” it might be better to give you a broad view of the outlook of the Dharma via the four noble truths. It’s still four—kind of on the topic—but it’s the four noble truths.
Having the Buddhist worldview
I’m doing this because I’ve always felt that it’s important to have this Buddhist worldview, this perspective on life, and if you have it, then the other topics make sense. When His Holiness was teaching in Hamburg, he mentioned this specifically, the importance of having a broad view of what the entire path is and what the entire worldview is.
I see this, actually, in terms of my own practice. Look at the four thoughts that turn the mind: a precious human life, impermanence and death, the law of karma and its effects, and the miseries of cyclic existence. Look at the first one, the precious human life. When I first began learning the Dharma in 1975, before there were all these books around that explained things, we had this one mimeographed book called The Wish Fulfilling Golden Sun, written in kind of Tibetan-English. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, when he was first translating, didn’t know a lot of words so he would look them up in the dictionary. We got great words like, “heresy” and these kinds of things, because he didn’t know English and the connotations, so he just looked them up.
When we first started meditating on, for example, precious human life, which is the first of the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma, I was sitting there going, “Well, what meaning does this have? Okay, I’m not born in the lower realms and I have a good life, but what else is new? It’s like, this meditation didn’t mean anything to me.” I realize now it was because I didn’t understand the situation that I was living in. I was just looking at my situation from my ordinary mind—here’s little old me, a spoiled American kid, and there’s only this life, and I want my own pleasure. From that viewpoint, precious human life doesn’t make a lot of sense, or at least it didn’t to me.
But then, when I started learning about the Buddhist view and learned about the four noble truths and started looking at the situation that we’re in, what exactly is samsara and what is the situation that I’m in, and how did I get here, and who am I, and what happens after I die? After I began to examine these kinds of areas and understand what the situation I was in was and then what the Dharma path out of it was, then having a precious human life makes more sense.
That’s why today I’m choosing to go back to the four noble truths so that you have this background. Otherwise, you might have the same reaction to “The Four Thoughts” that I did, thinking, “Well, precious human life—so what? Death and impermanence? That’s for other people. Karma? That’s what Asians believe in. And suffering—it happens to other people.” Unless we have this worldview, everything becomes kind of distant from our own experience. Whereas the four noble truths, I think it’s fairly straightforward to see how they describe our life really accurately.
The four noble truths
In terms of the four, the first one is called dukkha. Sometimes dukkha is translated as misery, sometimes as suffering; both of those are not good translations. It means more like, unsatisfactory, but unsatisfactory is an awfully long word: “the truth of unsatisfactoriness”—my spell-check goes nutty every time I do that! Dukkha—it’s a Pali/Sanskrit word—I think it might be good to use “dukkha.” It has this connotation of it just doesn’t cut it—something is wrong, something is unsatisfactory about our existence. That’s the first one.
The second one is the origins or the causes of dukkha, all the causes. Where do all these unsatisfactory conditions come from? What’s their origin? The third one is the cessation of dukkha and its causes; in other words, does there exist something that is the removal of the first two? Then the fourth noble truth is the path to attain that cessation of dukkha and its causes.
Of these four noble truths, the first two, dukkha and its causes, describe the situation that we’re in; the last two, true cessations and true paths, talk about what we want to develop. Most people, or at least Westerners, when we meet the Dharma, we don’t want to think about dukkha and its causes because thinking about dukkha involves thinking about impermanence and death. It involves thinking about depression, suffering, and grief. It involves thinking about ignorance, clinging, anger—all these kinds of things that are our daily experience but we much prefer not to think about, which is exactly why the Buddha talked about them first. We would much rather come into Buddhism and have light, love, and bliss, wouldn’t we? Just give me a big hit, a big—Whammo!—I want some kind of extraordinary experience that takes me into outer space somewhere!
It’s kind of like, we want a drug high. It’s like, at a certain point, drugs get a little bit too expensive and maybe Dharma’s cheaper? “I’m looking for a high, I want to get zapped.” But the Buddha didn’t start the path out by zapping us. He started everything out by talking about what our situation is and helping us learn to be able to look very straightforwardly at our situation without being afraid of it. We aren’t afraid because we realize that we’re looking at the situation so that we can remedy it.
It’s kind of like when you’re not well. You know how sometimes when you’re not well, part of your mind says, “I don’t feel well. I want to feel better.” Another part says, “Go to the doctor,” and then another part says, “Nuh-uh, because the doctor might find something wrong!” Do you know that mind? “I don’t feel well but if I go to the doctor, the doctor might tell me that something’s wrong with my body—that I have some disease or some this or that that’s incurable, and I don’t want to know.” (If you aren’t like that, I can introduce you to some people who are!)
It’s a similar kind of thing, in terms of our spiritual and mental/emotional life, as well. We kind of want to exit left before taking a good look at what our situation is. But the Buddha said, actually, we have to be able to face our situation and when we do, it will give us the impetus to try and get out of it. Whereas, if we don’t see exactly what the problem with our current situation is, then there’s no impetus to get out and we just stay stuck. It’s like the person who doesn’t go to the doctor because they’re afraid of finding out something is wrong with them, so they just stay sick.
The truth of dukkha
Let’s look at the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha. Like I said, this means “unsatisfactoriness.” When it’s translated as suffering, people easily get the wrong idea because then you hear—in some of these books written by people who aren’t Buddhists—“Oh, the Buddha said ‘life is suffering’.” That’s why the Pope says that Buddhism is a very pessimistic religion. Well, the Buddha didn’t say life was suffering. The Buddha said that our current situation is unsatisfactory—those are different. But when you’re not careful about translation, it can really come out completely wrong.
What isn’t satisfactory about our life? Well, if we weren’t in silence and everybody was talking to each other, I’m sure you would all be telling each other what’s unsatisfactory in your lives! “I was supposed to graduate this year but I didn’t get enough credits. I was supposed to get a promotion but my boss didn’t take it. I want to have a kid but I can’t have one. I have a kid and he’s driving me nuts.” That’s what we mostly talk to other people about—everything that’s not going right in our life. If we look at it that way, there’s a lot of things that are really unsatisfactory, aren’t there?
One of the biggest ones is that we can’t get what we want. The “American Dream” promised us that we’re supposed to get what we want and we grew up expecting that, feeling entitled to it, and we still can’t get what we want—that’s suffering, isn’t it? It’s misery. That’s unsatisfactory. Or we get what we want and it isn’t as good as it was supposed to be. It’s like when you go to one of those five-star hotels. When I was in Germany, attending a conference, they paid for my tickets and accommodations. They put us up in a five-star hotel and you know what? There wasn’t even a water heater to make tea—can you imagine? Finally, I get to stay at a five-star hotel and there’s no water heater for my tea! I mean, this is suffering. May that be the greatest of sufferings that we all ever experience!
Sometimes we get what we want but it isn’t as good as it was supposed to be—that happens a lot, doesn’t it? Then we can’t get what we want. And then, everything we don’t like comes to us automatically, effortlessly. We’re always trying to prevent bad conditions but they keep coming, so that’s unsatisfactory.
If you look at the basic state of having a body, despite what the media tells us about “body beautiful” and “body blissful,” and despite all the junk mail you get—the titles of which I won’t even repeat— what is the body? What are the chief activities of the body? First of all, it gets born. Is birth fun? Why do they call it labor? They call it labor for a reason! They didn’t call it “fun and games”—they called it labor. If you’ve ever been with somebody giving birth, it is labor.
And the experience of the child, I think, must be fairly traumatic. Maybe that’s why we all have PTSD nowadays, because we were born! (People have to put up with my jokes!) But you know, people say that birth is very traumatic and if you think about it, here you are, this baby—you have no conceptual ability, you have no idea what’s happening to you, and all of a sudden, this place you were in is pushing you out, and you’re going through someplace that’s narrow and has these muscles, but you don’t know they’re muscles, and you don’t know what coming out on the other end is going to be like. All you know is that you’re getting pushed and wiggled around and then some doctor reaches in with forceps and then you’re out in a totally different environment with air and blankets that feel like they’re scratchy and itchy. It’s not fun being born. But that’s the first thing that happens to us.
After that, we start aging. The moment after birth, we’re aging, aren’t we? We’re all getting older. From when you’re one year old, you’re in the process of aging. Nobody is actually young—we’re all getting older, despite idolizing youth. And we can’t prevent getting older. Today is my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, and I was talking to my dad a few days ago and he said, “I don’t know where all the time has gone.” I remember him saying that when I was young and I used to think, that’s just my parents’ generation who says that. Hmmm, I tend now to think he knows what he’s talking about. Yes? Aging happens from the moment we’re born.
Then, as we’re aging, another thing that the body does is that it gets sick. All of our bodies have gotten sick—all of us. It’s one thing or another. The body is very fragile—little viruses and little bacteria can set off an illness, we get injured. The body can be very problematic. And then, at the end of the day, what happens? We die!
So here is the outline of our life: birth, aging, sickness, not getting what you want, getting what you want and it not being good enough, getting what you don’t want, and dying. True or not true? True, isn’t it? In the middle we say, “Well, I had some happiness.” But if you start examining what that happiness was, “I was lying on the beach with ‘Prince Charming’.” And then you go into your fantasy. You also got sunburned on the beach! And after you were lying on the beach with Prince Charming you got thirsty but he didn’t want to get up and get you something to drink—he wanted you to get up and go get yourself something to drink!
If we look at all these things that we say are happiness in our life, there’s always something in there that could have been better. And even these happy experiences that we have, they eventually cease—they don’t last forever, do they? Any happy experience we’ve had—we go out to dinner, thinking it’s going to be happiness, and the dinner ends. We do have some happiness but it’s not lasting happiness. And even while we’re having it, there’s always some anxiety that it’s going to go away before we want it to. Do you have anxiety in your life? Even when you have something good, you can’t completely enjoy it because, in the back of your mind, it’s going to go away and you’re kind of anxious about that?
This is our situation. It’s helpful to look at it because when we see our difficulties and experience them, we realize that this is normal. Because a lot of us grew up thinking that having problems is abnormal. But it’s normal—everybody experiences problems and difficulties. Seeing it for what it is helps give us a certain perspective on it, where we don’t take everything too seriously in our lives. It also opens us up to see that other people are going through the same experiences. Maybe slightly different varieties, but basically the same experiences: not wanting to have misery and yet not getting the happiness that we want but getting the misery we don’t want, in one variety or another. That’s the first noble truth.
The origin of dukkha
The second noble truth is the origin—where did all this dukka come from? Where did our life, with its unsatisfactory circumstances, come from? How did we get here? Did the stork bring us? Did God create us? The Buddha’s response is that our mind is the creator and specifically, the ignorant mind and the mental afflictions such as attachment, resentment, belligerence, hatred, clinging, fear—these kinds of mental afflictions. The mental, physical or verbal actions we do— motivated, or under the influence of, this ignorant mind and the afflictions—we say that is the actual origin of our situation, of the dukkha.
Here, I think, is where the Buddhist worldview is very different from other religions. I think, if you look at Christianity, Judaism, Islam—most religions, when we talk about dukkha, most people would agree with that: birth, aging, sickness, death. That’s nothing religious, is it? It’s just, we look at our lives and that’s what it is. But when we analyze what the origin of the dukkha is, then different religions are going to have different answers. Science says, “It’s your genes.” I think that is quite unsatisfactory because genes are material and yet, our experience of suffering and happiness is not material—it’s experience, it’s consciousness.
Christians may say “God” created the difficulties—it’s “God’s will,” it’s God trying to teach us something. Personally speaking, as a child that answer never satisfied me — it brought up more questions. Like, if God is perfect, why didn’t he create things differently?
The Buddha described this and he said that the origin of our suffering comes from inside here. Our usual worldly view is that our misery comes from outside, isn’t it? If we all start talking to each other about our problems, what do we attribute our problems to? Our mother, our father, our husband, our wife, our kids, our pets, our boss, our employees, the IRS, the president. The guy who bashed into my car, the guy who cut me off on the highway, a colleague at work.
Whenever we’re unhappy, we always attribute the source of it to some external element. This worldview is a total dead-end because if everything did come from outside—if our happiness and suffering did come from outside—then the way to have happiness and avoid misery is by changing the external world. Because we’ve had this worldview all along, our whole life we’ve been trying to change the external world. All the time, we try and change the world, we try and change the people in it, so that everything becomes the way we want it to be. Have we succeeded? No. If we had succeeded, we wouldn’t be here today.
Do you know anybody who has succeeded in making everything in their life the way they want it? Do you know anybody who has succeeded in making it so that they do not get sick, age, and die? Or anybody who has succeeded in not having problem? This worldview, saying, “If I just tweak the external world and change the people and objects in it, then I’ll have happiness”—this view doesn’t get us anywhere because we can’t control the external world and the people in it. We cannot control them. We’re always living in this state of frustration because nothing ever is the way we want it to be. When Mick Jagger said, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” he knew what he was talking about. He just needed to enlarge the scope a little bit! This is the point.
Now, if we look in our own mind, so many of our own problems come from our own mind, not from outside. When we say, “Well, I’m unhappy because my boss didn’t give me a raise” and then we get stuck in our disappointment, in our anger, in our this and that. What is actually causing the suffering? Is not getting the raise causing the suffering or is ruminating in an angry, dissatisfied mind causing the suffering? Think about it. If we don’t get the raise we wanted, is it a given that we have to suffer from that? No, it’s not a given. When we generate, in response to that situation, anger, resentment, and belligerence—then we’re miserable. It comes right from our mind, right from our mind.
When we get stuck in craving and clinging, “I want this, I want that.” You know how we always want somebody to love us? “I want somebody to love me!” Lama Zopa always comments on that. I guess so many Westerners go in to see him and say, “Rinpoche, I just want somebody to love me!” He says they never come in and say, “I want somebody to hate me!” actually, if somebody hates you, it’s a better opportunity for practicing the Dharma. He doesn’t understand why everybody is saying, “I want somebody to love me.” We feel so much dissatisfaction because people don’t love us as much as we want them to and then we feel lonely, we feel unloved, we feel desperate, we feel unappreciated, we get depressed.
What is causing the misery? Is it that we haven’t succeeded in getting this “Wowie Kazowie” fantasized relationship that we dreamed of? Is that the problem? Or is the craving and the clinging the problem? If your mind didn’t have craving and clinging for something that was impossible, would you be miserable? No. It isn’t the fact that “nobody loves me” that is the suffering, it’s the craving that we have for that. The craving is coming from inside, it’s not the external situation. It’s our mind developing this fantasy and then holding onto it for dear life—that’s what’s causing the misery.
Then, of course, motivated by these mental afflictions, we do verbal, physical, mental actions—that’s called karma, which leaves imprints, or energy traces, in our mindstream. Then, these karmic seeds ripen in terms of what we experience. That’s how Buddha described the source of our dukkha—it’s not coming from outside, it’s coming from inside, the afflictions and the karma.
You know how at the beginning I was saying how important it is to have a Buddhist worldview? I think this is one of the chief things about a Buddhist worldview that’s important to have. It’s also difficult, because we have so much habituation with thinking that what we’re perceiving as an objective reality, and happiness and suffering come from outside.
We can practice Dharma for years and years and know all kinds of teachings and recite texts but when we’re miserable, “It’s his fault!” Just because of the old mental habit of, “I’m miserable because of (something outside of me).” Really getting it in our own mind that it’s these mental attitudes and our own actions that are the real origin of the problem, that takes time and repeated understanding. It takes repeated reflection, really looking at our lives and investigating and analyzing our life so that we see that this is really true through our own experience.
Until we do that, we’re always in this habitual thing of, “I have problems because of somebody else.” That view, that my problems come from somebody else, makes it impossible to actually practice the Dharma, because practicing the Dharma means transforming our mind. If we really think our problems are coming from outside, then we are not thinking about transforming our mind, are we? We’re still thinking about transforming everybody else, and their minds. Those are the first two Noble Truths, our present experience.
True cessations and true paths
In the last two noble truth, true cessations and true paths, the Buddha is presenting an alternative. When we look at the causes of the dukkha and see how all of them can be traced back to an ignorance that misapprehends phenomena, then we can ask the question, if that is the original cause of the misery, can that cause be eliminated? Can this fundamental ignorance that misapprehends the nature of persons and phenomena be eliminated? The good news is that yes, it can. The reason why is because ignorance misapprehends the nature of phenomena; it’s a wrong conception, it’s erroneous.
If the view of ignorance were correct, something that is a correct view cannot be eliminated. But something that is an incorrect apprehension can be eliminated. How? By seeing things as they are. It’s like, when you have a wrong conception, like when you’re walking down our road and you go past the neighbor’s garden and you look and there’s this very strange-looking person in the garden who’s there all the time. Well, that’s a misapprehension because it’s a scarecrow. The mind that perceives a person can be eliminated by the mind that sees it’s a scarecrow. In the same way, the ignorance that holds things as being inherently existent can be eliminated by the wisdom, or the mind, that sees that things are not inherently existent.
Ignorance can be eliminated when we stop misapprehending the ultimate nature of phenomena and then the other afflictions—the clinging, craving, anger, hatred, these kinds of things— they have nothing to stand on because they all came about due to this fundamental ignorance. When the ignorance is snatched out, when you pull the tree up from the roots, the trunk falls down—the trunk is out and the branches are out, the fruit is out and the flowers are out—the whole thing is gone. Similarly, when we are able to uproot this ignorance, then the mental afflictions are cut and the contaminated actions—the actions of our body, speech and mind created under the influence of ignorance and afflictions—these can no longer occur. That’s pulled out, also.
Then, the origin of the dukkha is no more, and since the origin of the dukkha is the cause for the dukkha, without the cause you can’t get the result, so all the unsatisfactory conditions also stop. These gradual levels of cessation of the origin of dukkha and dukkha, these are called the true cessations. It’s the cessation of misery and its causes.
Then the question comes, “How do you bring that about? How do you get there? What’s the method? This sounds very good, but here I am, stuck in my old trip. How do I get from where I am now to uprooting this ignorance and the inflictions and the karma?” That’s the Noble Path, and that’s why we practice the Noble Path, which is a whole other topic.
When we talk about the Path, the basic outline is called the three higher trainings: the higher training of ethical conduct, higher training of concentration, higher training of wisdom. That’s the basic outline. If you want to subdivide these three then you get what’s called the noble eightfold path: right view, right thought, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Questions and answers
Do you have any questions or comments about what we’ve talked about so far?
Audience: The idea of blaming external circumstances for our problems seems to be very consistent with Judeo-Christian conditioning and beliefs, and I’m wondering if, in the Oriental culture, they don’t have that same thing. Obviously, they did at least when the Buddha came along but do they still tend to blame external factors for their suffering or do they just take it more on themselves?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): You’re asking about Oriental cultures and if they tend to see suffering as the product of “outside” as much as we do, or if maybe they see it as “inside” more. I would say that ignorance that thinks that happiness and suffering come from outside is not just a culturally-conditioned thing; this is very innate. Even the kitties have it, even the deer have it, even bugs have it. You can see, when you look at the kitties, “I feel miserable—meow, meow!” “I want food!” “Don’t pet me!” (Or “Pet me!,” depending on which cat you’re near.) This is just something that is an automatic product of this fundamental ignorance that sees everything as inherently existent. Now, how much different cultures buy into that view? I think it’s kind of universal. Certainly, if you look at the government rhetoric of Asian countries and Western countries, it’s all the same, isn’t it? Our problems are somebody else’s fault!
Audience: Is there a danger then to just turn that from blaming external circumstances to blaming yourself?
VTC: Is there a danger in changing it from blaming external circumstances to blaming yourself? If you don’t meditate correctly, there is that danger. Do you know what that’s like? That’s like the person who goes to the doctor, the doctor says, “You have kidney disease,” and the person says, “Oh, I caused the disease myself. I brought it on myself. I’m so terrible!” Then they also dislike the doctor—it’s “shoot the messenger.” You can see that that view isn’t correct, and that view isn’t beneficial at all. Why not? This whole thing of blaming ourselves, that “self” that we’re in the process of blaming when we’re stuck in our self-hatred, that self is the very object that the ignorance grasps at as existent. That self that we think we are, that is so miserable and rotten and is the cause of all my suffering and why I hate myself—that is the self that is the object to be negated in the emptiness meditation, because it doesn’t exist that way.
Whenever we fall into self-hatred and self-blame, I think that is simply because we are very habituated with blaming, and there’s a difference between blaming and seeing the causes of something. When you go out in the garden and you see these red flowers that are just coming up now, do you “blame” the seed for the existence of the flowers? Does anybody blame the seed? No, of course we don’t blame the seed! The seed is there and when the seed has all the cooperative causes, it grows into the flower—you don’t blame the seed. Similarly, when we see that dukkha is coming from our own disturbing attitude, we don’t need to blame ourselves.
This self-blame comes in because we have not differentiated the conventional self from all the afflictions, and instead we think that we are our afflictions. We hear, “Oh, negative karma is created by anger and that creates a horrible rebirth—I’m such an evil person because I get angry all the time!” That mental state, which is the mental state of self-hatred, conflates “I” and “anger” and thinks that “I am anger. I equal anger.” Is that true? Is our anger us? If our anger were us, we should be angry 25/8. We aren’t. The anger is one thing; the conventional self is not the same thing as the anger. It’s the deluded mind that conflates them.
So please don’t use the Buddha’s teachings to generate more suffering, because they aren’t about blaming. That’s why I gave the example: you don’t “blame” the seed. It’s not about blaming and pointing fingers, it’s about seeing what the cause of something is and then doing something about that cause.
Audience: All human beings have this feeling of, “There’s something wrong” but Westerners go “there’s something wrong with me.”
VTC: With me. Yes, very good.
Audience: I was thinking about karma—I wonder, if there are two people committing the same negative action and one of them does it knowing the laws of karma, do they experience more negative karma than one who does it totally out of ignorance?
VTC: If there are two people doing a negative action and one of them knows something about the law of karma, at least intellectually, and the other person doesn’t, does the first person create more negative karma than the second one? Actually, there are a few aspects to look at it here. When we are creating negative karma, there’s automatically in the mind the ignorance that doesn’t understand cause and effect, because at that moment, if we really understood cause and effect, we wouldn’t be doing that! That person, at that moment, intellectually know something about karma but in their mind, even at that very moment, that intellectual understanding is gone, isn’t it? Or sometimes it sneaks in there—sometimes we get this little voice in the back of our mind that says, “You shouldn’t be doing this!” You know that voice? “You shouldn’t be doing this!” That’s the little voice of wisdom. Then, the big trumpet of ignorance said, “Shut up!” and our wisdom at that point is not as strong. We need to really strengthen that wisdom and bring it back up so that we really have it in our mind, because then we won’t be doing the action.
Now, if I could rephrase that question in a slightly different way. If you have a precept, if you’ve taken a precept to abandon an action and then you do that, do you create more negative karma than the person who did it but without having that precept? It’s a similar question but not exactly the same, and there’s a very interesting answer to this: it’s yes and no. The “yes” part is that yes, the person does create more negative karma because they have that precept and they had to generate a stronger intention to do the action to overcome the resistance that the precept provides. A precept is likened to a dam; when you build a dam, it prevents the force of the water from going downstream. Of course, the water has to be very strong to break through the dam. In one way, the mind that violates a precept does create more negative karma because the intention has to be stronger to do it. On the other hand, because that person holds precepts, it’s much more likely that they will realize that they’ve done something negative and they will apply the four opponent powers and purify. By applying the four opponent powers and purifying, their karma is going to be less than the karma of the person who doesn’t have the precept, who knows nothing about cause and effect, and who therefore doesn’t even have the thought enter their mind to do purification. That’s why it’s yes and no.
But there is a certain thing about hearing Buddha’s teachings—that little voice, it’s kind of in there, and our ignorance may tell it to be quiet but it can’t make it go away totally. Sometimes that little voice is in there and we are not paying attention to it or we’re ignoring it or we’re smothering it, but it always comes back, doesn’t it? I think we do have some kind of wisdom that recognizes when, in some way, our mind is under the power of afflictions or that we’re doing something harmful. We really squash it and we ignore it, but I think it comes up later, very often.
Audience: When you have that wisdom that sees what you’re doing wrong, when you’re doing wrong, but the power of the affliction is so strong, so the wisdom is there but the power of the affliction also is so strong that they can counteract each other?
VTC: That’s it, yes. The wisdom is there but the wisdom is very weak. Wisdom is a mental factor that we have but if we haven’t cultivated it, it’s very weak. The afflictions, we’re so habituated to them from beginningless time and they come so quickly in our mind and we follow them so easily, they just kind of squash it. That’s why we have to really increase our wisdom, because our wisdom isn’t fully developed. It’s like a little baby; we have “baby-like wisdom.” [laughter] “Baby-like wisdom” can be pushed over easily, can’t it? Even an itty-bitty dog can push over a baby, but an itty-bitty dog can’t push over an adult. When our wisdom grows, it becomes more stable and then the force of the negativities can’t knock it over or stifle it as easily, until we get to the point where the wisdom actually eliminates the afflictions altogether.
Audience: I was thinking, as you were talking about the four noble truths, that there’s a sense of whatever my experiences, you look at the state of things, there’s a certain discouragement or it feels a bit overwhelming and maybe, in some ways, that’s the impetus to move to the second two. But in the same sense, sometimes I might experience the same kind of discouragement of feeling like being able to implement or being able to understand cessation or put in the path. So, discouragement is what was running through and I’m wondering if you might –
VTC: When we meditate on the first two noble truths we do have a certain sense of discouragement and sometimes that can inspire us to meditate and actualize the last two noble truths. But sometimes we can just sit there and be discouraged. It’s funny, whenever I brought up or indicated any kind of discouragement to His Holiness, he just says, “That should make you work harder!” [laughter] “What are you thinking? That’s stupid! That should make you work harder!” [laughter] And he’s right! He’s right! Because you know that discouragement, like you said, when we get stuck in discouragement, what is lying behind that discouragement?
Audience: Laziness? Self-centered thought.
VTC: Self-centered thought! What’s going on? You meditate on the first two noble truths and instead of feeling invigorated and energetic to practice because now we found out what the problem is and we can do something about it, what do we do? We get discouraged and we sit there and whimper and say, “I want Jesus to liberate me!” [laughter] We go back to being a Christian! Because there’s something so much more consoling when somebody else can liberate you, isn’t there? There’s something so much more than, “I’m hopeless. Somebody else is going to liberate me. Somebody else is going to save me. Somebody else is going to take me out of this mess because I am incapable!” Yes?
Now you see a little bit why sometimes being a Buddhist involves some special internal strength. The Buddha is there to help us but we have to do the work. If we really examine that kind of discouragement that keeps us from practicing, that’s our very old friend, the self-centered mind: “Poor me! [sniffles] I can’t practice the Dharma properly [makes whimpering sound]. I know I have a precious human life but it’s not as good as somebody else’s!” We whine and whimper. That’s why we need Dharma teachers, because they’re the ones who give us a kick in the pants, and that’s why sometimes we get irritated with our Dharma teachers because we would rather stay there and be discouraged and feel sorry for ourselves than do something about it. That’s why we say, “Ooooooh, my teacher’s pushing me! Buddha’s pushing me! Buddha gave the Eightfold Noble Path—that’s too many! Why didn’t he just give one or two? Why do I have to do all eight?”
Audience: I actually had a question also on collectively creating karma. I was wondering about, when you join a group by choice where you don’t agree with the actions that end up happening later. For example, somebody joins the military not because they want to kill the enemy but because they want to be able to go to school and whatever, and maybe they have a different motivation of going to other countries and getting food out or whatever, and then there’s a war that happens and they get drafted and are forced into it or they don’t but other people are. How does that work in that situation?
VTC: You’re asking about collective karma, when you join a group and then the problems happen later, or what happens if you join a group but not for the same motivation that the group was set up for. Then you gave the example of let’s say, enlisting in the military.
I remember, I gave a talk once at the Air Force Academy in Colorado and it was fascinating, listening to the cadets, because Venerable Tenzin Kacho, one of my friends, was the Buddhist chaplain there, and the cadets, many of them, were saying how they wanted to join the military because they really thought it was the way to make the world a better place, and to have freedom and democracy in the world, and by joining the military they didn’t need to worry so much about supporting themselves and earning a living, they could just do what they thought was best. It was very interesting because it was quite similar to some of the reasons why you become a monastic—you want to be able to benefit people and make the world a better place, and you don’t want to have to worry about earning a lot of income but just about doing the work that you think is good. When I thought about it later, the thing with joining the military is that there’s bias towards “my side” and against others, whereas in Dharma practice you’re trying to help everybody without the bias. I think that’s the chief point.
I think, let’s say, if you join the military and your thought is, I’m doing this in order to go to school (which I think is the case for many of the young people who enlist nowadays, they did it because it was the way they could get out of poverty by going to school and joining the military), I would say that because their motivation was different, the karma they accumulated wouldn’t exactly be the same as let’s say somebody who enlisted because they wanted to go out and “mow down” those “beep-beep-beep” enemies. I think the karma is going to be different because the motivation is different. At the same time, it seems to me that that person did enlist voluntarily and they do know that the military does get involved in wars and killing people. So there was some awareness of that, and the mind agreeing with it to some extent, enough so that they were willing to join to start with.
That would be very different than, let’s say, if there was a draft and somebody is conscripting you and you have to go, because when somebody is forcing you to do a negative action, that’s an example of an action done but not accumulated, because the intention wasn’t your own. I think it’s going to be different in different situations, and also according to the differing mental states. But sometimes, we may join a group that has one purpose at the beginning but then the purpose morphs, and then we need to re-evaluate.
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.