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Understanding Buddhist concepts

Understanding Buddhist concepts

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

  • In regard to self-grasping and self-centeredness, how can you eliminate one and not the other?
  • Do arhats lose the direct perception of emptiness if they take the bodhisattva path?
  • What is a ripened mindstream?
  • In the death process culminating in the clear light of death, is that a time when you could attain Buddhahood or gain realizations?
  • What is the point of emanations?
  • How does saying the mantra in Sanskrit help the mind?
  • What is the proper way to set the mind to listen to others speak?
  • Can you explain the phrase, “your mind becomes non-dual with the dharmakaya”?
  • In the self-generation practice can you explain how you view yourself as the Buddha?
  • Do emotions themselves create karma?
  • Using the image of the Buddha as an object of concentration
  • Doing visualization in the Vajrasattva practice
  • Can you use lucid dreaming without doing tantric practice?
  • Can you go too far in the taking-and-giving meditation?
  • Doing the meditation on emptiness
  • Precious human life

Medicine Buddha retreat 2008: 05 Q&A (download)

The reason I wanted to change the time of the Q&A was so you could do another session afterwards. I think you can get a lot of benefit when you can meditate immediately upon what you’ve heard. So I thought it would be good to change the time.

So, what questions do you have?

Self-grasping vs. self-centeredness and arhatship

[In response to audience] So the self-centeredness and the self-grasping, how you could eliminate one, but not eliminate the other because they seem so intertwined? They are intertwined, but when you understand the subtle sense of self-centeredness, then you’ll see.

Let’s look first at the self-grasping ignorance. The self-grasping ignorance is the root of samsara. Because of this we are grasping at an inherently existent, “I”, inherently existent people, inherently existent phenomena. That is an afflictive obscuration. That grasping at an “I” that doesn’t exist, is what gives rise to the anger and the ignorance, and the anger and the attachment, and all these other things.

When you realize the emptiness of all inherent existence of both self and phenomena; that neither self nor phenomena exist inherently, then you use that to cleanse the mind from all the afflictive obscurations, which means that ignorance and all the disturbing emotions and negative attitudes it gives rise to, and their seeds. You eliminate that and you arrive at arhatship. Okay?

So you’ve eliminated the afflictive obscurations, you arrive at arhatship. The arhats still have a subtle kind of self-centeredness, because they are motivated to free themselves from samsara. This is according to the Mahayana tradition; the party line. They’re motivated to liberate themselves from samsara, but they don’t aim for full Buddhahood, the full enlightenment of a Buddha.

Bodhicitta and non-abiding nirvana

To attain the full enlightenment of the Buddha, you have to eliminate also the cognitive obscurations. Those are the subtle stains on their mind. In order to have the motivation to get yourself from arhatship to Buddhahood, you have to have a motivation that’s more than wanting to free yourself from samsara, because it’s the motivation of renunciation, and seeking liberation that got you to liberation, to arhatship; that motivation won’t get you to full enlightenment. That’s where the bodhicitta comes in because the bodhicitta is what cuts away, even that subtle kind of self-centeredness that says my liberation is more important than anybody else’s. It’s only with the bodhicitta that you’re going to be able to create the merit and have the internal strength of mind, to do everything that you need to do, to get yourself to full enlightenment.

Without that bodhicitta motivation you say, “I got myself out of samsara. Good enough!” So you don’t have any motivation to go further and beyond that because you still have that self-centeredness.

So the arhats are an example of somebody who eliminated the self-grasping ignorance and its seeds, but haven’t eliminated all of the self-centeredness. They’ve gotten rid of the gross self-centeredness that comes with the ignorance, you know, like, “this is my piece of cheese toast, not yours.” And, “I want a blue book cover, not a pink on.” You know? All this kind of stuff that we’re so actively involved in. You know, the kind of self-centeredness that accompanies the eight worldly concerns? The arhats are free of that kind of self-centeredness. But the subtle kind of self-centeredness that cares about their own liberation, that they aren’t free of.

Thangka image of Medicine Buddha.

The Buddha has what’s called the non-abiding nirvana. (Photo by ze1)

That’s why we say that the Buddha has what’s called the non-abiding nirvana. In that the Buddha doesn’t abide in samsara; also the arhats don’t abide in samsara, but also a Buddha doesn’t abide in the self complacent nirvana of an arhat. Because the Buddha said, “look, I’ve got to work for the benefit of all sentient beings and to do that I need to eliminate also, even these subtle stains on my mindstream and I don’t care how long it takes or what I’ve got to do. The benefit of other sentient beings is my top priority.” Okay?


Then, an example of somebody who may have eliminated the self-centeredness, but not the self-grasping, would be some of the bodhisattvas on the path of accumulation and path of preparation. To become a bodhisattva you have to generate the bodhicitta. Not just generate it for an instant, but anytime you see any sentient being your immediate response is, “I want to become enlightened in order to benefit them.” With that kind of mind you enter the first path, the path of accumulation of a bodhisattva.

You’re not completely free of self-centeredness at that point. You still can lose your bodhicitta when you first enter that path. But then you get to a certain point on the path of accumulation, I think it is, and then definitely on the path of preparation where you’re not going to lose your bodhicitta. You have some understanding of those two paths, if you’ve entered the bodhisattva path initially, but you don’t have the direct realization yet, of the emptiness of inherent existence. You may have an inferential realization, but you haven’t realized it directly, so you haven’t eliminated the self-grasping ignorance or any of its seeds or any of the afflictions from their roots, so that they’ll never return.

You’re on the first two paths of a bodhisattva, it isn’t until the third path, the path of seeing, when you see directly, that then you start eliminating from the root, the various afflictions and their seeds.

So they say that if your final aim is Buddhahood, it’s easier to enter the bodhisattva path fresh and be on those two stages, path of accumulation and path of preparation. You haven’t realized emptiness yet directly, but you have the bodhicitta and that would lead you to the realization of emptiness and then to eliminate the afflictive obscurations and the cognitive obscurations. So they say that’s the fastest way to Buddhahood.

Whereas if you get yourself liberated first, like an arhat does, then when the Buddha wakes you up after, how many eons when you’ve been in the bliss of arhatship, then you have to start all over, back at the beginning of the path of accumulation for bodhisattvas and go through all of that again, fresh and because of the imprint of the strong self-centeredness it takes you longer to go through the bodhisattva path at that time.

It was interesting, because I have several friends who are Theravadas and so I kind of check about this with them and what they say and, also the research I’ve been doing in the Pali canon, yes the Pali canon, definitely it has a bodhisattva path, but they say that it takes more energy and a longer time, because you are aiming for full enlightenment and you have to complete all the paramis, that’s the Pali name for paramitas, the far-reaching practices, you have to complete all of those. So that takes a longer time, you know even in their tradition, than if you just go for arhatship.

There are some people who’ll just say, “Look, let’s get myself out of samsara and that’s the best way to help others. I’ll just get myself out.” But, you know there’s definitely much of a self concern in that. Now sometimes in the Mahayana scriptures they make it sound like the arhats are just a bunch of selfish old people who have absolutely no love and compassion and that’s not true at all. Because, when you’re meditating on the path to arhatship you’re going to also meditate on metta and karuna, loving kindness and compassion.

There are different kinds of arhats and some of them meditate more on metta and more on compassion and others don’t. It was very interesting when I was in Thailand hearing about this. There are some arhats they just do the bare bones minimum to get themselves out of samsara and that’s it. Then other people, they might do, like one of the ways to attain serenity, calm abiding, shamatha, is by meditating on the four immeasurables. That’s one way that you develop that deep samadhi.

So some people who become arhats do that by meditating, let’s say, on love or compassion, or joy or equanimity. Then use that mind of shamatha and combine it with vipassana and realize selflessness.

Form realms and pure lands

Audience: And then when the Buddha wakes them up and says, “Back to work” do they still bring in their subtle mind-stream, that direct perception of emptiness?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Oh, yes. Once you have the direct perception of emptiness, you never lose it, you only increase it. When you’re an arhat, you’ve eliminated the afflictive obscurations; you never again fall back into samsara. So you never lose your realization of emptiness, the direct perception of emptiness as an arhat.

Audience: So when they return, to begin the bodhisattva path in what form do they generally take since they aren’t samsaric beings any more.

VTC: I don’t know. Maybe they would go to a pure land or maybe they could emanate as a human being. Yes, they might just go to pure lands and do it there.

Audience: And it still takes a really, really long time for them because of this self-centered propensity….

VTC: Yes. Right.

Audience: Because [inaudible] working with beings that are fairly well along the path to begin with, to go to a pure land and emanate to benefit sentient beings, I mean you’re in a place where….

VTC: Well, there are different kinds of pure lands. There are pure lands also where arhats are. Not all pure lands are for bodhisattvas. There are different kinds of pure lands.

The pure lands established by Amitabha or by Medicine Buddha, you know by different Buddhas. Those are established by the power and the merit and the bodhicitta and the vows and the aspirations of those particular Buddhas. For somebody who’s following the path to arhatship, there are four stages: You’re a stream enterer, then a once returner, a non-returner and an arhat. The non-returners are so called because they don’t return to the desire realm anymore. The desire realm is like our realm, where you’re full of desire for sense objects. But what they will do, is they will go to a pure land which is part of the form realm. There are four meditative stabilizations or four jhanas, the Pali word; dhyana is the Sanskrit word. There are four of them. Within the fourth one there are, some of them are samsaric beings who have that level of concentration in the fourth jhana. But then there are also some pure lands in the fourth jhana where some of these non-returners will be born and then they’ll attain arhatship in one of these pure lands in the fourth jhana.

Okay? So that’s a pure land for arhats. Bhikkhu Bodhi called it a gated community because you could only be born there if you’re a non-returner. [laughter] Nobody else can go in.


VTC: To have a ripened mindstream means that you’ve created the causes so that with a little bit of teaching or a little bit of practice, your mind can penetrate or gain a realization. It has nothing to do with emanations.

The point of emanations is, well there are many different kinds of emanations. There are even people who have samadhi who aren’t even on the path to enlightenment who can make emanations. They do so for the fun of it. You know, people like them and honor them and respect them and stuff like that.

For a bodhisattva, the point of emanations is to be able to appear in a form that can benefit somebody when their mind is ripe. In the sense that they’ve accumulated a lot of the merit and they just need somebody to come in the right form to kind of say something or get them going or do something. It’s not like it’s going to happen like that, believe me I’m sure they have to work a long time with us, but that’s why they make the emanations. You know if you can emanate as a Buddha or an Arya Bodhisattva, then you can come back in a form that is going to be the most beneficial one for somebody else to hear teachings from or to motivate somebody else to practice.

Audience: Could it also be that you could also be simultaneously helping a number of sentient beings?

VTC: Oh, definitely. Look at His Holiness—he’s helping a lot of people at the same time. Of course each according to our own degree of being able to take in the teachings.

Audience: So it’s really just a matter on the side of the practitioner of creating causes….

VTC: Yes. If we don’t create the causes, the Buddhas can do back flips and our mind doesn’t change. We have to create the causes and then our minds change.

Subtle mind and emptiness

VTC: So if you’re talking about the death process, where they talk about the eight steps in the death process, culminating in the clear light of death. Then your question is, is that the time when you could attain Buddhahood or realizations or whatever?

It’s one of the times. It’s not the only time. The thing that is important is, in the Tantric practice is that you want to dissolve all the winds into the heart chakra in the central channel and then use that extremely subtle mind to realize emptiness. At the time of death, the winds naturally dissolve into the heart channel so it makes it easy to access that clear-light-mind.

Now of course you would have had to practice a lot beforehand to gain the direct realization of emptiness and also to practice Tantra a lot so you can recognize the clear light when it comes. We’ve all been in the clear light infinite times before, because we’ve all died before, so it comes and “blip” we’re out of it. We don’t even recognize it and we have no meditative experience to be able to use that moment.

So that moment is one time when you could realize emptiness directly. There are also other times when you’re alive, before you die when you practice and you try to dissolve the winds into the central channel of the heart and realize emptiness at that time as well.

Mantra language

VTC: Okay, so why do we have to recite the mantra in the Sanskrit, because you feel that when you say it in English and really focus on it in English it really speaks to you?

The reason they say to recite it in the Sanskrit is because, then it becomes the exact same words that that Buddha said when they were in a deep state of meditative stabilization on emptiness. So it’s really mimicking the words that a Buddha would spontaneously speak from that deep stage of meditation. The Buddha speaks out those syllables. We’re saying the syllables trying to get into the meditation, so it’s going the other way on the conveyer belt. We’re trying to get in to it.

They say that because that’s the exact way that the Buddha expressed it to use that Sanskrit. Also, because there’s some feeling that Sanskrit is a blessed language. It’s interesting because, on one hand, well where did that come from? Why would one language be a blessed language? Now if I can be a little bit of a heretic here. Remember, Buddhism grew up in India and it came out of a culture that was very Brahminical and the Brahmins recited the Vedas and the Vedas were in Sanskrit and you had to say everything exactly, 100 percent correctly in Sanskrit otherwise your ritual was not effective.

So the Brahmins with their Vedas and the Sanskrit is a holy language and you have to say it exactly correctly. Maybe, I don’t know for sure, but maybe some of that influence brushed off on the Buddhists, in the sense of, say the mantra correctly, and do it in the Sanskrit language because Sanskrit somehow was a blessed language.

On the other hand, I’ve never really tried saying a mantra in English, but I know for me, the vibration of the mantras in Sanskrit, I mean there’s a certain physical vibration that I feel in my body from the mantra. Like I said, I never tried doing it in English, so I don’t know if that would happen, but, you know there’s a certain energy just from the quality of the sound, you know, that comes from the Sanskrit mantras.

Motivation to listen

VTC: So you say that you’ve noticed that just people speaking whether it’s speaking the Dharma when they’re setting the motivation, or just regular conversation, that you tense up and get kind of anxious, and so what’s behind this and how can you set a good motivation to, what is a proper motivation to listen to people speak?

It’s really interesting that you’ve noticed this. It might be good to explore some more, just in what situations particularly, you get tense? Because then you might see, you might notice more of a pattern. For example, when somebody says something and you’re concerned that they may have a different opinion than yours. So they’re just opening their mind but the mind goes, “well I’ve heard this person talk before, maybe they’re going to say something I disagree with, I don’t like that.”

So there could be that kind of thing going on at some level, and so tensing up because of that. So listen to what they’re talking about in the situation. Or it could be that your tensing up because you’re saying, “uh oh, maybe they’re going to criticize me.” So be aware if it’s in that kind of situation where somebody could be saying something that might be critical of you. Look at the general context in which you get nervous.

Or maybe you are looking at them and you get anxious for them, “uh oh, they’re going to make an idiot out of themselves.” You know, kind of the wrong kind of compassion, projecting something on to them that maybe isn’t there.

Does it occur any time anybody opens their mouth, or only certain people, or only certain types of situations where they could say certain kind of things? Is it only when people are talking emotionally that you get tense, or if they’re talking intellectually, maybe you don’t get tense?

Because sometimes people have a hard time, they don’t like being around other people who are emotional, they get a little bit panicky, or afraid of other people’s emotions. Other people on the other hand, love it when people are talking about their emotions and they just tune out when they talk intellectually. Everybody’s a little bit different on this one. I won’t mention any names here.

You can self-identify.

So, see what the context is. And in terms of setting a motivation to listen, I see myself, sometimes when I hear somebody saying something that is a different idea that I hold, I get tense and I immediately want to interrupt. Not always, but these aren’t the only situations I interrupt in, they’re only some of the ones I interrupt in. It’s like I’ve got to immediately stop this thought because otherwise they’re going to take the ball and run with it and the situation’s going to be out of control. It’s like I get this surge of energy, like I’ve got to step in right now so this idea doesn’t have any fuel what so ever, rather than, “okay, somebody’s just saying a thought.” Let it go. People say things all the time and nobody acts on them. Let them say this and then later on if it’s becoming a thing, then I can express my opinion.

What is your motivation in listening?

VTC: So sometimes to kind of set the motivation is, you know, I don’t have to control the situation and make sure that people only say things I agree with and stop any idea that has the slightest difference from my version of reality and how I think things should be.

To set that motivation, it’s like, “okay, just relax and listen to what the person says. It doesn’t mean that anybody’s going to act on it. They might actually have something good to say if you give them a chance to speak before you cut them off. They might have understood something that you haven’t understood yet.” So I kind of explain things to myself. Or basically what you want to do is, in a discussion kind of thing is, and that’s why we always set the motivation, is to say, “I’m going to listen in order to learn and to learn about myself, to communicate with the other person to practice the Dharma, I’m going to speak in order to help them and I’m going to listen in order to help them,” because a lot of times, just listening helps somebody else without us saying anything. So just set your motivation for, kind of, “I want to be of benefit to others and so I’m going to listen to what they say and I’m going to speak when it’s appropriate, I don’t need to control the situation. I want to learn.” Remind yourself, “Yes, people are different. They have different ways of thinking. They see different things in a situation. There’s no one absolute reality that I have to make sure that gets promulgated in this discussion. You know. It can be fun hearing different takes on the situation and see how different people think and I’ll learn a lot and I’ll hear new ideas.” So you can generate that kind of motivation.

Or if you find that the anxiety is more of an “Oh no nobody’s going to like me. I’m afraid if I fit in and so people are talking and like maybe I won’t fit in and maybe they’re not going to talk to me, they’re going to talk to everybody else.” Then to remind ourselves that our motivation here isn’t to win a popularity contest, it’s to be of benefit to sentient beings. We never know who likes us and who doesn’t. Anyway, people change their mind like this and so the best thing is to try and benefit those people in the discussion however we can, and learn from them and take interest in what they’re saying.

Even if somebody’s speaking and saying stuff like you just can’t believe anybody would believe, then it can be real interesting to listen to them. We had, one man come here when we first moved in, the guy who put our septic system in and he was a libertarian and he’s telling me how the sheriff came on his property and he took his rifle out and told the sheriff to get off and criticized all these people who’ve moved in from the city who want to do green building so they don’t want to cut down any trees but to get their house in there they have to lift it in with a helicopter. It was really interesting. And how nobody’s going to take his gun away from him and all this kind of stuff.

It was really interesting to sit and talk with him and in the discussion I actually found out that there are many things in which we agree upon. He has some kids in high school and he’s really involved with his kids and he goes to the PTA meetings and he makes sure his kids don’t take drugs and he makes sure his kids aren’t driving around crazy at night and he’s really interested in their education. He’s really on top of it as a parent. I thought that was really cool. He was really genuinely interested in his kids’ education and not just like, “Oh well you know, let them do what they want.”

There were other things we were talking about that we had some similar opinions on. So it was really kind of interesting just to like, “Wow. How interesting to see how this other human being thinks in some ways that are so different from me, and some ways that I really actually respect and agree with.” I don’t need to put him in a box and say, “This is all he is,” I can actually establish a relationship with him and I can learn something from him and it’s interesting to hear.

The other person who was staying here at that time started out in the conversation and she left. She told me later, she couldn’t take it. But I was really intrigued about how somebody thought. It was so different from how I usually think. I didn’t try and argue with him because I knew it was useless but it was just interesting.

Emptiness meditation in the sadhana

Audience: I have a question about practice. When it says your mind becomes non-dual, the dharmakaya essence, before you start meditating on emptiness, do you dissolve yourself into space like awareness?

VTC: Yes, because when it says your mind becomes non-dual with the dharmakaya, that is the meditation on emptiness. Primarily you start off with the meditation on emptiness to dissolve the sense of “I.” And then you can think, okay, my mind is non-dual, on the level of emptiness; it’s the same realization of emptiness and the same emptiness of inherent existence that the Buddha’s mind has. And then you can also think, as you’re coming out of that mediation on emptiness, then you can also think I have the same bodhicitta and the same compassion that a Buddha has. You can think, my mind’s not separated from a Buddha on that level either.

Audience: That realm you try and find a spot that really attracts you: do you do single-pointed meditation then at that point?

VTC: You try and do single-pointed meditation on whatever understanding of emptiness you have.

Audience: One of the things this week, and this sounds almost disrespectful, but, my mind will go, well, I’m not going to find the “I” in the body, and I’m not going to find it in the mind and so I come to this conclusion, okay so I’m not going to find it. One day I felt joyful and another day I felt, okay now what? So I couldn’t put it anywhere.

VTC: Yes, okay. See what you’re doing, you’re not searching for the “I,” you’re just going for the conclusion. You’re saying I’m not going to find the “I” in the body, I’m not going to find the “I” in the mind, what’s next? What are we having for dinner? Because you are just saying the conclusion to yourself but you’re not negating your grasping at an “I.” So what you have to do is call up that grasping at an “I.”

Audience: Look at events where it was really strong?

VTC: Yes, and then see if you can find yourself or at least ask yourself, the mind that’s saying “Now what? Who’s that? Who’s that?” That’s a feeling of “I” right there. I want this meditation to be more interesting. I want to realize emptiness. “Who’s that ‘I’?”

Audience: Okay. I have some more questions. So then as you dissolve yourself into the Buddha. First of all I dissolve just as the body and try to…. In deity yoga there’s a line that says you should be looking out at yourself at a Buddha but you have this awareness of yourself as the Buddha?

VTC: Okay, if you’ve had the initiation to be able to do the self-generation, then when you arise out of the meditation on emptiness, I think they have you do the seed syllable and then as the deity. You are the deity. You’re not Lisa looking at the Medicine Buddha out there, but it’s just that you have the Medicine Buddha body, which is made out of light, so you have the clear appearance of yourself as the deity and you also have what’s called the divine dignity where you identify as the deity. That’s where you try to feel that you have the mind of the deity too. You have the compassion and the generosity, the ethical conduct and the patience of the deity as well.

Audience: You do those two things separately; first of all focus on yourself as a visual Medicine Buddha and then [inaudible] or just do it all at the same time.

VTC: Well, first you arise as the Medicine Buddha. When I say Lisa, do you think first of your body, and then later of your mind, or does the whole thing comes as a package?

Inspiration doing the sadhanas and visualizations

Audience: This is related primarily to the 35 Buddhas practice. There are some times when I can do that and really have a sense of regret and purification and then there are other times that I say, “well, Looks like Mickey Mouse Land to me.” I’m doing this but I don’t. So, the real question is, what I come back to that practice regardless whether I have a clear connection with the Buddhas, is that that practice is really to inspire me to engage in virtuous action. So when I can’t quite get into this purifying or what is it purifying, the piece that is consistent for me is to come back that I am doing this practice, I may not understand all the parts but that it’s to create a sense of avoiding suffering results in the future. How to work with that? It could be any practice where that doesn’t quite fit. When you go, everybody’s doing this and they’re probably getting it but I’m back here doing exercises. Whether it’s doubt, or whatever it is.

VTC: It’s a general question, but you mentioned it in the context of 35 Buddhas practice. When your mind is uninspired, is basically what it is. It’s like, “Okay, I’m doing this practice, why in the world am I doing it?” In the case of 35 Buddhas, it’s like, “Well, it’s good exercise, I can wear off that extra piece of chocolate I ate after lunch.” But you’re not feeling much more inspired than that. So then your mind says, “Well, I’d better try at least to do this practice with some kind of virtuous mind otherwise I’m just going to walk out of the room. If I walk out of the room, everybody’s really going to look at me and I’ll have a really bad reputation.” That’s why Lama Yeshe had us do group practice. It’s called good peer pressure, it’s called support. So, you’re trying to just get some kind of virtuous thing so you can finish the practice off.

So you’re saying, “Okay, I don’t understand what the meditation is, I don’t know what the world I’m doing, but this practice is about creating a virtuous mind, and I am thinking about the Buddhas, and my mind is different when I think about the Buddhas than when I’m thinking about President Bush, so if I think about the Buddhas, and think I want to have a virtuous mind and just bow to the Buddhas like that, it’s true, it has some good results.” It does have good results. Your are seeing that actually, thinking about the Buddhas affects your mind a lot different than if you think of Donald Rumsfeld or someone like that, Rush Limbaugh. You can see right there, the object I think about does influence my mind, so that’s good. And I’ll keep my mind in a virtuous state. That’s good. That’s kind of the minimum; but that kind of thing will keep you in the room. So that’s good and you create some virtue.

Now, how do inspire your mind to go beyond that, if you want a little more juice in your meditation? Well, there’s the meditation on death, and the meditation on the lower realms. Hopefully you can think about that a little bit, that should give you some juice. Like, okay, I could die tonight. Am I ready to die? I’m going to leave this body. I’m going to leave this ego identity. I’m going to leave everything I’m familiar with. Am I ready to do that? And I don’t know where in the world I’m going. I don’t know what’s going on in the death process. They gave me this general script of the eight visions but I can’t even find them when I’m falling asleep. So forget it about death. I don’t know what’s going to appear to me in the bardo stage. Am I ready to do this? That might wake you up a little bit.

And then you think, okay, even if I do feel ready to leave everything I’ve known behind, what am I going to? Do I have any security about what I going to? Can I control my mind when I’m awake? If not when I’m awake, how can I control it when I’m dying? How am I going to control it in the bardo stage? Have I created some negative karma? Um hum. And then the mind goes, but I have also created some good karma. But look at the intensity with which you create negative karma versus the intensity with which you create good karma.

When you set up the altar in the morning, do you have a really strong intention to make offering to the Buddha and be generous? Do you have a strong intention when you set up the altar in the morning? A strong bodhicitta motivation? No. It’s more like okay, I guess it’s my day on rota—”Om ah hum, om ah hum, om ah hum”—if I do this fast enough I’ll be able to sneak a cup of tea in before first session. So that’s my motivation when I’m doing something virtuous. How intense is my good motivation?

Now, when I’m mad at somebody, even if I don’t say anything, because he doesn’t say anything. Even if I don’t say anything, what’s the strength of the anger in my mind? It’s there; enough to get me going to take a walk. We’re out of there. And that’s just when I was angry and didn’t say anything. What about the times when I’m upset and said something? What about the times when I lied? What about the times when I did all sorts of other stuff with the intensity of the motivation? Then if you think like that, you think I guess I have some things to purify after all.

Audience: When we feel [inaudible], or something that’s so sad; times when I have felt anger, I also feel the same amount of intense joy or sorrow or compassion. Do those things create good karma? If the anger is creating negative karma are those feelings of joy for others create good karma?

VTC: It depends how long. So you’re asking if it’s the emotion itself that creates the karma? Karma is the mental factor of intention. So it has to be not just the emotion but some kind of intention to either think a certain way, or feel a certain way, or speak a certain way. There’s some intention in there too. So we usually say the karma is the emotion when the emotion is more fully developed. But then it’s also good to check our intense feelings because sometimes we think a certain emotion might be virtuous, but when we look deeply it’s not necessarily virtuous. Like attachment. Very difficult to tell when our mind has attachment and when it has genuine concern and care for somebody. Or like you were saying sorrow. When is it sorrow that leads to compassion and when is it sorrow that leads to self-distress? So just investigate a little bit.

And similarly, you might have the feeling, like sometimes there’s the feeling of sorrow about samsara. And at those times our mind feels completely like somebody popped the balloon. But that’s actually quite a virtuous state of mind. Like, all those things I thought were going to make me happy, they aren’t. Forget samsara. It’s not worth it those things, they aren’t going to cut it. If you just have that feeling of sorrow and get depressed, then you’re creating some negativity. You use that feeling of deflation, and you say “It’s just samsara, and that’s why I want to get out and I’d like to take everybody else out with me too.” Sometimes there’s an incredible feeling of calm in that feeling of deflation.

Like when we have a lot of attachment, “Oh whee! Samsara’s pretty good.” It’s kind of perky and I’m going to get what I want. I feel good! Then we think that’s virtuous because the mind feels happy. Not necessarily. And then, we feel, “Oh my goodness, I’ve been doing all this stuff to feel happiness, what an idiot I am because all this stuff I’ve been doing is not going to make me feel happy at all.” Then you just feel like “Huh.[deflated]” Then you take that feeling of deflation and feel, “That’s why I want to get out of samsara.” Then that’s actually a good mind. And if you look closely at that deflation, there’s a certain kind of peace in it. There’s a peace in your mind that you don’t have when your mind is all excited about getting some samsaric specialty. There’s just a peace of “Aahh, I don’t need to struggle anymore.” Because you realize, all these things we do to get our ounce of happiness from potato chips. It’s like, “What a struggle!” Give up and see that releasing the attachment itself is a state of peace and happiness.

You’re not falling into apathy. “Awww, none of this stuff in samsara matters, I’m apathetic, where’s the dope?” It’s like, “Oh, I thought that was going to bring me happiness, it doesn’t? I don’t have to struggle anymore to get that happiness. I can just be happy with what is.” And then there’s this peace in the mind. “And I can practice Dharma, and there’s the possibility of developing some virtuous mental states and that’s going to be even nicer. But I don’t have to struggle for happiness anymore.”

Audience: Another point on visualizing Buddha, I’m one of those persons who really, I’m very visual. It works best for me to visualize Buddha rather than follow my breath, so I’ve taken to visualizing Medicine Buddha on my crown. But also because he radiates healing blue light, I visualize that coming down through my body and just hold that. It feels really good.

VTC: For some people the breath acts as a good object to develop concentration. For other people it doesn’t. Actually, they recommend that if you can use a visual image of one of the Buddha’s for concentration, it has the extra added benefit, when you remember the Buddha, and when you think of the Buddha’s qualities, like you were saying, you don’t just visualize Medicine Buddha there, he’s also radiating light and that light’s coming down into you. And so you get that benefit from visualizing him as well as the benefit of using that as an object of concentration. So it makes you feel closer to the Buddha and that is an extra added benefit.

Audience: I have a question about what exactly is, or at what point do you cross into tantric practice? I guess I’m probably the only one here concerned about that. Everybody else here does tantric practice. I don’t really do that, but I do the Vajrasattva, what I’m permitted to do, basically, but I don’t do more than that.

VTC: Not all of you have had the Medicine Buddha initiation, have you?

Audience: [another retreatant responding)] I’ve had the initiation, but not the self-generation because I didn’t get the prior initiation.

Audience: So, imagining yourself as a body of light, because with Vajrasattva the light comes down into your body, it’s kind of natural to kind of become light, is that crossing a boundary somewhere?

VTC: No, no. That’s fine, if you are doing Vajrasattva practice, and Vajrasattva dissolves into you, it says that you then feel non-dual with Vajrasattva, and you think your body becomes clean-clear like light and you focus on that at the conclusion of the Vajrasattva practice. That’s very nice, actually because it relieves you of this heavy feeling I am this body which is so heavy and painful, and this and that and the other thing.

Sleeping, dreaming, and dying

Audience: And then another one that probably is something I’m not supposed to do, I’ve been reading one of the Mind and Life texts on sleeping and dying. It has a section on lucid dreaming but I do lucid dreaming kind of naturally, often. What can I do in that and have a good state of mind and not be doing highest class tantric yoga?

VTC: If you are doing highest class tantric yoga you can use lucid dreaming to do certain things, but you can use it in a virtuous way anyway, because if you are dreaming and you become aware that you are dreaming, then try acting like a really virtuous person. If you’re dreaming and you are aware you are dreaming, imagine making offering while you are dreaming, and imagine seeing many Buddhas and making offering to all those Buddhas while you’re dreaming and imagine that you can go into all sorts of places and help sentient beings who are having all different problems and pain and experiences. If you are a lucid dreaming, really use it and use your imagination and imagine yourself doing things that maybe you haven’t done in this life but all the things you imagine doing are quite virtuous.

Audience: So I can visualize the deities and all that.

VTC: It’s outside of yourself—yes. You can say I’m dreaming, okay, let’s visualize the Buddha here and you know make offerings to the Buddha while you’re dreaming.

Audience: Another question I had is not about tantra but about maybe going too far. I was in a pretty nasty mood for a while and it was kind of like a discouraged mood. Last night after our group went into the meditation hall, I just kind of popped out of it. And I went back and realized what it was. I was I think the four immeasurables. It was actually kind of tonglen sort of but without the visualization. Just here I am and I’m suffering, so I might as well hope that everybody—I mean I’ve been working on getting rid of the suffering for the last week and I’ve done everything but it hasn’t worked, so just take on everybody’s suffering and I could feel instantly a relief from that. Is there a way to go too far with that? I was doing prostrations. I was visualizing the light coming in, and then I was, well, seeing it as rain coming down, what about seeing at the same time the suffering of sentient beings? It says in Lama Chopa, it talks about the suffering of sentient beings pouring down like rain? Is that going over the edge? Will I hate myself?

VTC: You’ll find out if you go over the edge. You’ll know right away.

Audience: That’s what I’m trying to avoid.

VTC: In the taking-and-giving meditation, it’s very good in the experience you had. You’re sitting there in your own suffering, in your own bad mood trying to get rid of it and it’s not going away. And the moment you open your mind and start doing the giving-and-taking meditation, it’s gone. So this is a very good experience. You have your own proof of the pudding. The thing you want to make sure when you’re doing the taking-and-giving meditation is that you’re using the suffering of others to smash the self-centeredness in you own mind and that you then radiate out light and compassion to others. So going too far in the taking and giving meditation would be just taking on all the suffering like rain in your life, like pollution and just sitting there. That’s going to make your mind down. That’s going to make your mind stuck. That’s going not far enough because you have to actually use it to destroy your own self-centeredness. Remember the giving part of the meditation where you imagine giving your body, and possessions and merit to everybody else. When you’re doing the prostrations, imagining the light flowing through you, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re not going to go too far doing that.

Audience: No, I mean imagining at the same time the light is coming, imagining that suffering from all sentient beings is pouring down.

VTC: I think that it might be hard because you’re prostrating to the Buddha and imagining that light is coming from the Buddhas. That might be hard to imagine at the same time a rain of sentient beings’ misery is coming into you?

Audience: Not that hard when you’re suffering. “Awww I hate prostrations.”

VTC: What you could be doing is thinking that you’re taking—you don’t want to think that suffering from sentient beings is raining into you from the Buddhas.

Audience: No.

VTC: So you could think that you’re still doing the taking and giving while you are doing the prostrations. Or you could imagine that when the light’s flowing into you it’s also flowing into all the other sentient beings and purifying their karma. Or if you want to take their negative karma first and then have the light come from the Buddhas and think that’s purifying all of their karma, that’s fine too.

Audience: I never went so far as to do the visualization. It wasn’t even intentional. I just suddenly went back and realized, having stepped out and thought, well, might as well hope for all the suffering at once. I never actually did any visualization. I didn’t even realize.

VTC: That’s fine. Say, let me take on all the suffering and do it. Yes. That’s fine. Good.

Four-point analysis and other meditations on emptiness

Audience: This is a question about meditating on emptiness, the four-point analysis. I can see how you couldn’t find all these different “I’s.” But do you also use all the different things you’ve learned like philosophy and your readings in meditating on emptiness?

VTC: Oh yes. All that.

Audience: All of that. It’s just not laid out.

VTC: When you meditate on emptiness you don’t necessarily have to do that four-point analysis. You can also do the analysis of, are things produced by self, others, both, or causelessly. You can also do that one—any of the ways of meditating on emptiness.

Audience: I guess that’s my question. I don’t know that I know what they are. That whole book Meditation on Emptiness [by Jeffrey Hopkins] is pretty big. You start meditating on everything in it?

VTC: You’ll see that he has different chapters. Meditation on diamond slivers is the one that if you take production of self, others, both, and causelessly and then the four alternatives: does a cause produce a result that is existent, non-existent, both, and neither. He has a few of those in different chapters. And then there’s, you know, Nagarjuna has five points similar to the four points if you add some and Chandrakirti expanded it to seven. You can do any of those.

Realms of existence and Dharma practice

Audience: I’ve been meditating on [inaudible] and I’ve been reading about the northern continent. [inaudible] It doesn’t matter if it’s a real place or not but in a perfect society that wouldn’t be conducive to Dharma because you couldn’t take vows.

VTC: Okay, in the precious human life, it talks about rebirth in the southern continent. In the northern continent, it has some disadvantages because it is so peaceful. It’s interesting in the northern continent, there is no concept of this is my property so you can’t create the negative karma of stealing but you also can’t take the vow to abandon stealing either. So the thing about our particular world, we have enough happiness that we’re not bogged down in misery, but enough misery so that we’re not spaced out in happiness. So they say it’s a good balance, where if you are born in a god realm or the northern continent you don’t have quite the same balance.

VTC: [inaudible] There’s a choice that you could steal or not and you’re choosing not to.

VTC: When you take the vows, you could steal, and you say, “I’m not going to steal.” And you could lie, and you say, “I’m not going to lie.” That’s what creates the positive karma; when we make an intention not to do those actions, which are very possible for you to do.

Audience: Strange karma to be born in the northern continent then.

VTC: Well, a lot of people just want to have a happy life and no problems; so that kind of motivation plus some virtue could get you born there. Let’s sit quietly and then we’ll dedicate.

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.

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