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Motivation for the retreat

Motivation for the retreat

Part of a series of teachings given during the Winter Retreat in November 2007 and from January to March 2008 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • Motivation for doing the retreat and practice
  • Having the opportunity and being fortunate to do retreat to cultivate our good qualities
  • Watching the mind
  • Bringing problems into the meditation

Medicine Buddha retreat motivation (download)

Motivation for doing the retreat and practice

We are going to generate our motivation now and I think it’s quite wonderful that this is the fourth annual winter retreat that we are beginning at the Abbey. I think it is absolutely amazing because we’re only four years old and this is our fourth annual winter retreat. So I think that just having this as part of our yearly schedule that we do, to deepen our practice, really puts contemplation, meditation and our own spiritual transformation at the center of our lives here.

Although we may be busy at other times, this is a time when we are really going to deepen our practice. So it becomes quite wonderful. And when you think of how many people get to do retreat this month—just think, how many people across Washington State are spending the entire month doing retreat? There might be a few centers here or there where they have a weekend retreat, or maybe a week, or a 10-day retreat. But I wonder how many people really in the whole state are doing retreat? And then if you think of the whole country—how many people in North Dakota are doing retreat?

Throughout this country, think of all the different things that people are so busy doing. This and that, running here and there—how many people are taking out the time to consciously, deliberately develop their good qualities? Our world isn’t structured around taking time to develop your good qualities—our world is structured around getting what you want, when you want it and it is usually external stuff: money, possessions, fame, approval, sex and all that kind of stuff. How many people really think that the meaning of their life is to develop their good qualities? And how many people take the time out to do that? Some people may have time to do it but they have no interest, other people have interest, but they have no time. Some people have neither time nor interest. And we have both the time and the interest! It’s pretty rare to have both time and interest. It’s really quite an amazing opportunity.

Having the opportunity and being fortunate to do retreat to cultivate our good qualities

Medicine Buddha thangka image.

Medicine Buddha is peaceful and calm and completely consistent. (Photo by shankar gallery Richard Lazzara)

You might be excited or anxious approaching this retreat but the basic thing to remember is that you are going on vacation with the Medicine Buddha for four weeks. For a whole month you are on vacation with your best friend—the Medicine Buddha. Having the Medicine Buddha as your best friend is really nice. He is so peaceful, he is calm, and he has all this healing energy. He is not going to sit there and whine at you. The Medicine Buddha isn’t going to be grumpy first thing in the morning! When you enter the meditation room he is peaceful and calm and completely consistent—his healing energy is always there, his love and compassion is always there, his wisdom is always there. He’s not going to be in a good mood today and a bad mood tomorrow. He’s not going to complain about the offerings that you give him because he is beyond being dissatisfied with things. He doesn’t care whether you are distracted or whether you’re paying attention. From his side, it doesn’t really matter. Of course, if we create virtue, Medicine Buddha is happy about that. The Medicine Buddha doesn’t have any expectations; he’s not placing any demands—not like your boss or somebody who is demanding something out of you. So it’s completely up to us. We are on vacation with somebody who is wise and compassionate. That’s a pretty precious opportunity.

Think of all the other times we go on vacation—you go to Acapulco for vacation with all the salsa bands; you’re with somebody and they are looking at somebody else, and you are looking at somebody else. Or the weather is too hot or the weather is too cold, or the bed is too soft or it’s too hard—always something going on, the mind not happy. Those kinds of vacations really don’t amount to much afterwards. But taking a vacation with the Medicine Buddha and really using the time to develop your good qualities—that’s something that’s really quite special and quite wonderful. A very rare opportunity!

Think of all the other things you could be doing. I am sure you will. You will spend time during retreat thinking of all the other things you could be doing now instead of doing retreat. But when you really think about it, do you really want to be doing all those other things? If you really wanted to be doing those other things you wouldn’t have come here, you would be doing all of them. And then you would be having the results of doing all of them! Lying on your Acapulco beach getting sand in your teeth! So here, it’s nice to be with the Medicine Buddha, who keeps on talking about healing. What a wonderful thing to really think about. Not just to heal our body, but really heal our heart, heal our mind, heal this planet and heal the energy all around us. You will develop compassion and wisdom and through that, you will heal inside and by extension outside. It’s really quite precious and quite wonderful.

To have had the teachings on how to develop your qualities, to know what your good qualities are is one way to develop them. Medicine Buddha teaches us what our good qualities are. How many people on this planet have taught us what our good qualities are? Usually what they look at as our good qualities are: you’re good-looking, you play sports well, or you’re rich. But all those kind of good things that worldly people think of as good qualities—they don’t last very long do they? They are here and they’re gone: you age and it’s all gone! And when you die, it’s definitely gone. You make a ton of money—death? It all stays here. The Medicine Buddha is pointing out to us our good qualities and saying look at yourself and see your good qualities and develop these qualities inside. These are qualities that most other people kind of ignore—generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyous effort (not pushing, just joyous effort), concentration, wisdom, love, compassion and forgiveness. There are so many incredible good qualities to develop that most people don’t even think about and don’t know how to develop. So here we are fortunate to have the Medicine Buddha actually pointing out what those qualities are and then teaching us actual ways to go about developing them. That’s kind of special. To have this time is really nice.

Watching the mind

When you come in here every morning and actually, when you wake up every morning, you should think how fortunate you are. This opportunity is so amazing. How did you ever create the causes to have a month where you don’t need to do anything except heal yourself and heal the planet? Think about how much merit we created in the past in order to have the fortune to be here and do this. It’s unbelievable because there were other people who wanted to come on the retreat. Claudia, our friend from El Salvador, wanted to come but then her business had all these problems and then she couldn’t come. Marita had difficulties and couldn’t come. There are other people who definitely wanted to be here but didn’t have the karma. Once we have the karma and the opportunity it’s just really exceptional. So when you wake up in the morning, think, “Wow, this is really special.” And when you come in the door, come in with a kind heart and come in with a happy heart and just think that you are going to spend an hour and a half with your best friend the Medicine Buddha. Or an hour and a quarter, however long the session is. Wow, how nice. Give love, receive love. Give compassion, receive compassion. Purify, forgive, apologize and do all this stuff—how wonderful!

Just appreciate the opportunity and have a happy mind. Don’t let your mind get all twisted up and anxious and worried about stuff. Come here and just be with Medicine Buddha. And remember, Medicine Buddha isn’t judging you. When Medicine Buddha is sitting, he isn’t going to say are you distracted again? Don’t put words in Medicine Buddha’s mouth that aren’t there. Don’t judge yourself—what ever comes up, it comes up. That’s part of what you incorporate into your meditation, part of what you have to heal.

Carl was saying that recently he’s had all these memories from kindergarten and first grade. That happens during retreat! All those dumb cartoons you watched and you’re playing them right back. Commercial jingles and things you haven’t thought of in who knows how long. At the moment the mind gets quiet, sometimes all this stuff just bubbles up, pops up. So don’t judge yourself, just let it bubble up and bubble over. It’s like when you boil the lentils and they bubble up and you’re not watching the stove and it goes right over and then, it’s gone.

Sometimes you can look at those things in your memories and look at the things you were taught when you were very little. Then evaluate which of those things that you were conditioned with in your past are valuable, that you want to keep on having as things that are important in your life. Consider which of those things aren’t: the things you want to keep thinking or keep valuing, even though you know that people meant well when they taught them to you. Just put them aside. Think of the perspective—your wisdom and your compassionate perspective on those same issues and cultivate that.

Bringing problems into the meditation

Whatever is arising in your mind, just bring it right into your meditation. If you start imagining the future and you’re up at the ski resort or you’re down at the beach—just think about what it’s going to be like there. Go through and think about the three kinds of dukkha: the dukkha of pain, the dukkha of change, or the pervasive compounded dukkha. Dukkha means unsatisfactoriness or suffering. Think about that at the ski resort: is everybody free at from unsatisfactory circumstances? When you contemplate those three in terms of the ski resort and then you generate compassion for everybody who is at that resort. All those people who think they are happy while they are on their way to breaking their leg! Or, on their way to having a big rush of happiness only to be left disappointed when it’s all over. Bring it into your meditation and use the teachings you’ve heard to transform how you’re looking at any distraction that comes in your mind.

While you’re doing the mantra, have the mantra going softly and do some lam rim meditation to really understand the teachings. Just bring it all in and accept what’s happening. I think that’s really important, just accept it and use it. Notice all the patterns you have of getting tight and an anxious, wanting to do it right. Such a ridiculous mind that we have! Wanting to do it right, needing to be better than everybody else. Some might think that they want to develop clairvoyance so that they can make sure that they’re doing a sadhana better than everybody else. They feel that they have to be able to read other people’s minds to know that they are doing better than everybody else. Forget it! Just do the sadhana. Okay? Very important! All your habits of getting down on yourself and feeling inadequate—just let some of that stuff boil over! You know what it’s like when it boils over in the kitchen, it just boils over, and then it’s not there. So let that stuff go and return to the Medicine Buddha and the sound of the mantra.

I love the blue color of the Medicine Buddha because it’s such a beautiful deep royal blue—the color itself makes your mind peaceful. It’s a peaceful color isn’t it? Then let your mind go into the sound of the mantra which is talking about healing. Let your mind to be in the sound of the mantra and quiet down. As you are doing that, really bring everybody in the universe here with you into the retreat. Our purpose of doing the retreat isn’t just to let our mind be calm. By calming our own mind, we generate compassion and wisdom so that we can benefit all other sentient beings.

And how do we benefit them? By progressing along the path to enlightenment because the more we deepen our own spiritual practice, the more we will have the qualities we will need to spontaneously be able to be of great benefit to others. We won’t have to sit there and think about how to benefit other people. Because of our own inner transformation and who we are and what we bring to a situation, we will become intuitive, spontaneous—it’s not difficult.

Remember that we’re doing this for the benefit of all sentient beings. They are all out growing the food that we’re eating, building the roads that we’re using, making the clothes that we’re wearing, or working at the PUD so that we have electricity. They are doing all of that to support us in our retreat, so we motivate and do our practice for their benefit. And then we dedicate also for their benefit. We especially want to attain enlightenment and we dedicate for that so we can be the greatest benefit to them.

Everybody here that is around us is like a representative of all sentient beings. So the people you are doing retreat with are very precious to you. They represent all sentient beings, they are giving you their energy to support you in your practice, and you are giving them your energy to support them in their practice. We are all sitting here doing it together with the same motivation and the same interest. So it’s a very special group of people. Really treasure each other and take care of each other. If somebody drops their mala and makes some noise, or somebody else fidgets—people do all sorts of things. But that’s not so important is it? That’s not really the important thing about that person. You’ll learn who sleeps in the morning and who sleeps at night—okay that’s fine, but that’s not the important thing about the other people you are doing retreat with. The important thing is their kind heart and their incredible aspiration for enlightenment and for benefiting sentient beings. Really respect and take good care of each other.

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.