Clarifying the practice

Clarifying the practice

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

  • Using the antidotes with old, habitual mental patterns
  • When visualizing the the Medicine Buddha in meditation, are we supposed to see the whole body or focus on the face?
  • When visualizing the Medicine Buddha, what is the ideal size of the image?
  • Visualizing the Medicine Buddha on your head
  • Can you do the Medicine Buddha visualization using the merit field?
  • Taking notes during Dharma teachings, is it valuable or distracting?
  • If you are doing the Medicine Buddha practice for a specific person who is ill, what is the best way to do the visualization?
  • When you are trying to enlighten all beings including the gods, how does that work since they have so much pleasure?
  • It’s easier for me to think of the different realms here on earth because there are beings I can see

Medicine Buddha retreat 2008: 08 Q&A (download)

Cultivating motivation

Let’s recall our motivation and really treasure each moment that we have to practice, because we’re not sure how many more moments of this precious human life there will be for us. Let’s really determine to use our life wisely and in particular, to generate the renunciation of cyclic existence and the determination to be free and in addition to that, the loving compassionate bodhicitta, aiming for full enlightenment to benefit all living beings.

So, how are you? Are you able to keep your mind here even though there are just a couple of weeks left in the retreat? No you’re not? [Laughter] Your mind and your body are separated? That’s what they call death. [Laughter] So, your mind’s gone back somewhere else?

Staying present

Audience: I’m not going back, but just in general, the mind going out of the meditation hall and [inaudible] I’m dragging it back.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Keep bringing it back. And remember that from the viewpoint of the two-month retreat, the last two weeks seems like not very much. But from the viewpoint of a two-week retreat, two weeks is a long retreat, isn’t it? You know, when you sign up to go to Cloud Mountain for one week, you’re wondering if you can make it. So, two weeks is a long retreat from that viewpoint. So don’t just kind of brush it off as though it were almost over, but really use it.

Okay, what else is happening?

Applying antidotes to our stories and to anxiety

Audience: I would say in the past week really, it occurred to me about three weeks ago that I have rarely ever used the antidote for [inaudible]. So, I really spent some time going over the lamrim and antidotes. I found that the one that works for me, and I don’t even know where [inaudible] is to cut it off at the pass as soon as it arises, as soon as I feel some sort of agitation, some sort of unpleasant feeling in my body, because I get so hooked into the story line so quickly that I have to say, okay, it stops right here. And I have found that to be an extremely powerful antidote because small annoyances or just getting attached to thinking itself generates a lot of things from my past that have been coming up that I want to purify. But there’s the temptation to get into the reminiscing, and the people, to wonder what they’re doing now, and wonder would I like them now and to remember I didn’t really like them back then. So I have to really just say to myself, this is a purification practice, this is not a trip down memory lane. [inaudible] I need to stop it really, really quickly [inaudible].

VTC: Okay, so you’re finding that because you buy into the storyline so quickly, that as soon as you notice something going on, just right away to tell yourself to stop, and not get involved in the story line. Or, as you’re saying, you’re doing purification of things from the past that are coming up, then purify what you need to purify, but don’t start remembering everything from your past and getting all into it, wondering what are the people doing now and maybe actually go on Google and look them up again and to find out what they’re doing [Laughter].

Audience: The other thing that has also been a powerful antidote is if I can just spend a moment to say, you’ve done this story before and it causes you nothing but trouble. You know the attraction and seduction of the old way of thinking. If I can give myself enough time to come to my senses in the beginning and just cut it off then…

VTC: So, I think actually that’s a big thing too, noticing that the old habitual mental states don’t make you happy. And even though they’re familiar and there’s some weird, perverted kind of comfort in the familiar pain, we want ourselves to be happy, so why just continue allowing ourselves to think like that?

Actually that relates very much to this letter I brought in from one of the inmates and this relates to what he was saying. He said,

I have a lot of anxiety and I find it extremely hard sometimes to sit and do the retreat because my mind will just wander about and I can’t seem to get myself calmed down and relaxed. I’m very hyper at times. Do you have any advice I could use for these times?

But I don’t know if any of you have that problem. [Laughter]

Okay, so this whole thing of anxiety, I think that’s a very interesting one, isn’t it? It’s not specifically listed in the mental factors as we commonly read them, but it certainly is a potent state of mind, because it comes so often, just this kind of worry and ruminating. And it’s funny how anxiety works, because sometimes somebody says something to us and then we start ruminating on that, spinning about that, did they mean this, did they mean that, what does that mean about me, am I deficient, on and on and on. And that becomes anxiety, doesn’t it, because the next time we see the person, we don’t feel relaxed. Our mind is just all bubbling up, what do they think of me, did I do something wrong, I don’t know what I did wrong, how else am I supposed to act. All this kind of stuff goes on and it’s just anxiety producing, isn’t it?

Or sometimes rather than go in the past, we look to the future, and it’s like I don’t have a place to live, and I don’t have a job, and I don’t have any friends, and I have all this work I have to do by such and such a date and I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s got to be done, how am I going to get it done, what are people going to think of me if I do it, what will they think of me if I don’t do it. So we get anxious about that. And none of this stuff is happening right now, is it? It’s just totally our minds really creating quite a miserable reality for ourselves.

So I think when we get into these kind of anxiety states, we have to do what you just said, immediately confront and avert it because it’s not going anywhere. Just recognize that it’s just my mind making up all sorts of things that have nothing to do with what’s going on now. And it would be much more productive if I put my mind on developing renunciation. And, actually, anxiety is a good thing to renounce, isn’t it? You know, anxiety is very symptomatic of samsara. So you say, anxiety is the nature of samsara. I want to get out of samsara. So you use it to develop renunciation, you use it to develop compassion for other beings and bodhicitta. So you turn your back on those mental states that are making you miserable. That is, unless you really enjoy being miserable, and you have nothing else to do with your precious human life [Laughter].

The story of the dog

When I taught in Seattle last week, I told about something that happened when I was visiting my parents. They have a dog, Jody. So, I take the dog on walks and do you know what she finds so interesting? You know what dogs find so interesting; the smell of other dogs’ pee! It’s as though it’s the most fascinating, interesting thing in the world. So I’d be walking down the street and Jody would catch a whiff and she go over to this pole and sniff and sniff, and I’d be pulling on the leash and she wouldn’t budge. You know, for her the smell of this dog’s pee is so captivating and tantalizing and whatever. And I would stand there and look at her and think, here’s a sentient being with the clear light nature of mind. Here’s a sentient being with the Buddha potential, who has the clear light conventional nature of mind, the empty ultimate nature of mind and all this incredible potential, and look what all that potential is focused on, single pointedly: the smell of dog pee!

So from a human viewpoint, looking at what Jody gets all excited about, we go, wow, how silly and how tragic really, when you think of this being having the Buddha nature and then just focusing on pee. And yet, when we look at the things we focus on and get all wrapped up in, it’s as interesting to Jody the dog as the dog pee is to us. And for Jody the dog to think about all the things we get anxious and worry about, she’d think that’s so stupid, who would worry about that? She would say you should worry about your dog food instead or something useful. Don’t worry about what somebody thinks of you [Laughter]. So it’s true, isn’t it? I’ve found it’s very helpful to think like that. You know, like looking at what am I putting my focus on from some other sentient being’s viewpoint. Then I kind of have to laugh at what I’m doing, and also feel the tragedy that I’m putting all this potential I have on something comparable to dog pee. So, I think that’s a very good antidote for getting rid of anxiety.

Okay, other questions, comments?

Hollow body meditation

Audience: I have a question about a meditation that I have found in the Mind Training, the Great Collection, the mind training of guru yoga, and of the particular steps in it. I’ve never really done them before, and I was wondering if you might be able to talk about it a little. It’s the hollow body meditation. I’d always heard of that meditation in the context of it being in preparation for meditating on the winds and channels, which is highest yoga tantra, which I don’t have. So, I’m wondering first of all, is it okay for me to try to do this meditation, and then second of all, if it is, how do I do it?

VTC: Okay, so you’re asking about doing the hollow body meditation in the context of Guru Yoga. I would have to see what you exactly read, because I’ve always also similarly heard that the hollow body meditation is a preparation for meditating on the channels, winds and drops. So I would have to see it to comment.

Visualizing the object of meditation

Audience: I’ve been wondering about getting the object of my meditation in focus. So, for example, when I’m thinking of Medicine Buddha, I can zoom in and get details of his face. But, for example, if I look at you right now I can see you clearly, but I don’t see your whole body clearly. In time, with practice, as a meditator, do you get the whole image absolutely clearly even though that’s not how we usually see?

Thangka image of Medicine Buddha.

Medicine Buddha (Photo by Damon Taylor)

VTC: Okay, so you’re asking about the clarity of the object of meditation and you’re saying in daily life you might focus in on a certain aspect. You see somebody’s face, but you don’t see the rest of their body clearly. So in meditation, are we supposed to see the whole Medicine Buddha’s body clearly, or just the face?

You know, I think it depends a lot on what you focus on, because if you focus on a whole person’s body, then you can get that somewhat clearly and the background isn’t as clear. Okay? If you focus on the face, then the body isn’t as clear. If you focus just on the [body], then the face isn’t as clear. So I think it depends on how you focus, you know, what exactly you’re focusing on.

So it seems to me that in developing this, you start with going over all the different features of the Medicine Buddha, adding the clarity of each one to the whole image that you’re getting and then try and focus on the whole thing for as long as you can. And if you lose it, start going over it again. Or if there’s one part that really attracts you and it’s easier for you to focus on it, stay with that. That doesn’t mean you block everything else out. If you focus on Medicine Buddha’s [eyes], that doesn’t mean that there are just two [eyes] and everything else is dark in the universe. You’re still aware of everything else. Okay? So, I think it depends more on how you focus.

Audience: Also, what is the ideal size? I’ve read different things.

VTC: Okay, so the ideal size, and here we’re talking about developing shamatha or calm abiding with the object in front of you. You know, they do say different things. Sometimes they say four inches or your hand span. Sometimes they say as small as you can get it. When it’s the Buddha on top of your head, sometimes they say a cubit, which is actually quite large. Sometimes they say smaller. So, I think you use the size that works for you. They say that sometimes it’s more helpful to make it small, because it helps your mind focus on something small. But I think sometimes it can also make your mind tight if you make it too small, because then your mind becomes like that. And sometimes it can be helpful if it’s large. So, I think you have to see what size works best for you.

Audience: I have one more question. When the Buddha is on my head, I feel like I would like to turn my body around to get a look at him. Can I put him out in front and also have him on the top of my head?

VTC: Okay, so you feel like when the Buddha is on your head that you kind of want to twist your head and look up and oh, there’s a ceiling fan, what happened to the Buddha? [Laughter] So can you think of the Buddha out there, but visualize him up here? No. I think that you keep the Buddha up here, above your head. What I find interesting about that is that it reminds us of how we seem to have this “I” in here somewhere, don’t we? There seems to be this reference point from whence we look at everything, and since our e are in front of us, it seems like the “I” maybe is there, right in front of us. Like when you’re visualizing a mandala and you have to visualize the deities in back, it’s like you want to turn your head; but you can be aware of things in back of you, even though you’re not seeing them. You can be aware of things above you, even though you’re not looking up at them and you begin to see that the whole idea of space is somehow very conceptual in some ways, isn’t it, because there’s this “me” in the middle that’s looking in the different directions.

Audience: I do that too with emptiness.

VTC: Yeah, it’s not really empty is it? There’s a big “me” in the middle.

Audience: It’s a matter of size. When I first start, the first 15 minutes or so, is that. Then it gets smaller and smaller, and I notice that I start [inaudible]. And then it gets quite small. The emptiness is very small. Is that normal?

VTC: You know, they use the analogy of space-like emptiness because space is the closest thing we can think of that resembles emptiness in the sense that there are no obstructions. But emptiness doesn’t have a shape and it doesn’t have a size, so you’re not seeing small emptiness or big emptiness when you’re talking about the emptiness of inherent existence.

Audience: Well, it seems like it gets more subtle. [inaudible]

VTC: Yeah, you might get more focus, but it’s not like your world is becoming smaller.

Audience: [inaudible] It looks like a little peephole, [inaudible].

VTC: But see, that’s the thing, they say that we perceive emptiness non-dually. When you think about that, what in the world does it mean to perceive anything non-dually? Have you ever in your life perceived anything non-dually? Because whenever we perceive something, there’s always the “I” that perceives it. So it’s not non-dual. So I think, what in the world does that mean? What would that be like, to experience something non-dually?

Audience: I always get confused when I’m visualizing the Buddha on my head and then I do the seven-limb prayer and I visualize prostrating. Do I prostrate towards myself from the front of myself to the Buddha on my head, or do I prostrate from where I’m at to the Buddha in front of me, or do get up and turn around and…. [Laughter]

VTC: Okay, so when the Buddha is on your head and you have to prostrate, how do you do it? First of all, you imagine, you keep the Buddha on your head, but you imagine all your previous lives in human form all around, and they’re all prostrating to the Buddha that’s on your head.

Audience: And, so when I make offerings?

VTC: Yeah. Well you can emanate offering goddesses from your heart and then they make the offering to the Buddha.

Audience: So, this is an object of meditation question, too. I’m sitting there, I am blue Medicine Buddha and I send light out to sentient beings. When I start sending light out to the beings, of course the more attachment to them that I have, the more I get sucked in to a story. So then I go, oh ok I’ll sort of stay away from all the ones I feel close to, my family and then I go ok I’ll think about people in Afghanistan and I won’t get quite as sucked in. But pretty soon I’m into politics, then I try cutting that. I’m just hopping around between the beings, the mantra, the visualization and every time I start sending the light out I get sucked into a story.

VTC: Okay, so every time you’re the Medicine Buddha sending light out, you get sucked into the story of what’s happening in Afghanistan, if you’re sending the light to Afghanistan or what’s happening with your family, if you’re sending the light to your family.

Well, here you can see that in your self-generation, you haven’t dissolved yourself into emptiness. Because it’s not Kathleen Medicine Buddha, you know, it’s blue Medicine Buddha. And all sentient beings are your family in previous lives when you’re Medicine Buddha, but you have equanimity towards all of them. Okay? So you have to go back and meditate some more on emptiness, and when you arise as the Medicine Buddha, you are no longer Kathleen. And there’s no Kathleen’s family. Yeah? There is Medicine Buddha and there are all the kind mother sentient beings, who, as Medicine Buddha, you see equally. So you definitely have to do some more meditation on equanimity.

Okay, when you visualize the merit field, it’s always in front of you. In the Lama Chopa puja, when the merit field dissolves, everything dissolves into Lama Losang Dorje Chang, who dissolves into you, and then you reappear as the deity. But when you reappear as the deity, you don’t have the whole merit field around you.

Audience: So when we do visualization [inaudible], there wouldn’t be a time when you would visualize the whole merit field?

VTC: Not For Lama Chopa merit fields, you wouldn’t.

Audience: The one that we learned when we were doing the Shakyamuni Buddha practice and it starts out with the Buddha in front, [inaudible].

VTC: When we do the Shakyamuni Buddha practice, you have the refuge visualization with the Buddha surrounded by all these other Buddhas and that dissolves into you. Then you manifest as the Buddha afterwards. And then if you’re doing Lama Chopa, you visualize the merit field with Lama Tsongkhapa in the center, and Manjushri and Maitreya and all that and that’s also in front of you. If you’re doing Medicine Buddha, you would dissolve and you’re doing the meditation on the entire mandala of Medicine Buddha. Then you appear as Medicine Buddha, and you imagine the other deities in the mandala around you. Okay? But the merit field that we visualize for Lama Chopa, and in the Shakyamuni Buddha practice, that’s particular for that practice. Okay? You may have different merit fields for different practices according to the lineage of the Lamas that are in that practice and what else you’re visualizing.

Visualizing mandalas and merit fields

Audience: My question is whether there is any correlation between the Medicine Buddhas in the mandala in the picture in the book to the Medicine Buddhas that we visualize on our crowns?

VTC: The ones in the mandala are the same Medicine Buddhas plus Shakyamuni Buddha, but they’re arrayed in the places in the mandala and they have all the yakshas and all these other beings there with them.

Audience: So, are you saying we only visualize the merit field when we do that specific practice?

VVTC: No. There’s a merit field that can be unique to each practice. And the merit field of the thangka in the meditation hall is only for doing the Lama Chopa puja.

Audience: So sometimes when we do three prostrations, somebody will say, visualize the Buddha and the merit field. Is that all right?

VTC: That’s fine to do prostrations to that whole merit field and it’s good if on each atom of the merit field, you visualize another merit field. So that there are infinite merit fields that you’re prostrating to and infinite bodies that you’re prostrating with. And don’t worry. You don’t have to see all of them clearly. You can just get the feeling of having them all around you.

Taking notes during teachings

VTC: So the whole thing about taking notes during teachings, is it valuable or is it distracting or how does it work? I think it depends on the person and on the situation. Some people are auditory learners, other people aren’t. They learn by reading written stuff. Other people learn kinesthetically. So you have to see how you learn best.

Personally I have developed this little note-taking method with all these abbreviations. And I found that to try and write down, word by word what is said, a very good practice for listening intently. Because I found that there’s so many different ways of saying something and if I hear it and can write it down exactly as it was said, I’m going to understand it differently than if I hear it and then reword it into what I think it means and then write it down.

So I found that particularly very helpful for myself. Also when I started, there weren’t very many Dharma books and so, if my teachers were going through ten points, if I didn’t write them down, then I wasn’t going to remember them and could not easily look them up. Now there are more Dharma books. You can go look them up. I also found that as I studied, I began to know what those ten points were, then I could listen without taking notes and I heard it in a very different way because it gave a little bit more space for contemplation as I was listening to the teachings.

So I think you need to see what works for you. And I think also this is where it can be very valuable that we now have the good fortune of being able to tape things. You might find that you want to listen to it the first time without writing anything down and then listen to it another time on the tape and take some notes on it.

There are different ways of listening. Sometimes you’re listening just to get the feeling and the experience of something, but then if I ask you, what are the eight freedoms in a precious human life, and after five years of studying the Dharma you can’t say them. Then it’s going to be hard for you to do the meditation. So at a certain level there are some points that you have to memorize and learn.

Helping specific people vs. helping many

VTC: So how specific should you focus if you’re doing Medicine Buddha for one specific person who has cancer? Is it good to focus just on that one friend and imagine Medicine Buddha on their head and the blue light really going into their body and purifying them?

I think it’s good, as much as we can to make the visualizations expansive, even if we don’t have clarity on so many things. So even if you’re doing this for one person and focusing on that person, still there are all the other sentient beings, as far as space exists, sitting around that person and they’re also being purified with Medicine Buddha on their heads.

We do have karmic connections with certain people and it’s helpful to do these practices and prayers visualizing them. But we also can’t let our minds get so narrow because we start getting involved in attachment and stories and worry and we forget all the other people who have cancer.

So I think it’s always good to make it bigger. I think it keeps our minds more balanced, to include more sentient beings.

Helping beings in the god realm: We have not always been in our current form

VTC: So you are asking when you’re trying to enlighten all the beings in the god realms, how does that work, because they have so much pleasure? But, this shows where we’re so hooked in to thinking that whatever somebody is now is what they’re always going to be. The beings that are now born in the god realms are not always going to be gods. When that karma is up, you know, probably some negative karma ripens and they get born in a lower realm. So don’t just think of those beings as always being gods. Think that they’re still in samsara. They’re still subject to afflictions and are born under the influence of karma. There’s still a lot to purify in their mind streams. Really remember that beings go up and down and up and down in samsara. Samsara’s very unstable. Beings are always dying, getting reborn, dying, getting reborn, going from down to up and up to down.

Thinking about that is so important to get us to stop thinking that everybody really is who they look like right now. Because this is the basis of all of our attachment, we think there are inherently existing people. We think how they appear to us right now is who they always have been and always will be. But there are no inherently existent people.

It would be very interesting if somebody here had the clairvoyant power of knowing the death and rebirth of sentient beings and could tell us the bodies and situations we each were in a hundred years ago. On February 26th, 1908, where were we all? Who were we all? Were any of us together in the same realm? Did we know each other in 1908? Or maybe we came from all different sorts of realms and so many diverse places in the vast universe. Don’t get hooked on to somebody always being who they are now, because that’s really the concept of inherent existence, not to mention the concept of permanence, which is even grosser than grasping at inherent existence.

You know we’re not who we look like right now and who we look like right now is so superficial. I think it’s so fascinating, you know, some years ago we all brought our baby pictures into the Dharma center to try and pick out which baby picture belonged to which adult. And then you can check your high school graduation pictures and try to see which graduation picture corresponds with which adult picture. It’s very difficult. Have you ever been in people’s homes and you see their family pictures around the house? It’s hard to recognize who is who. So don’t think that people, even this lifetime, are what their bodies look like.

In the god realms there are different levels of gods, so when the desire realm gods approach death, their bodies start to decay, their flowers wilt and everybody else just totally shuns them. But for the gods in the form realm and formless realm, that doesn’t happen.

Audience: I think sometimes that’s why our suffering is so great in this country because they say the suffering of those gods when they die is some of the worst suffering that exists. That always resonates with me when I think about all the stuff we have in this country, yet, how unhappy we can be.

Audience: It’s hard for me to imagine these are real realms but it’s so much more fun for me to imagine like the god realm and the hell realm and the animal realm happening here on earth in conventional reality.

VTC: So you’re saying that it’s easier for you to think of the different realms as here on earth because there are beings here that you can see; there’s the Beverly Hills god realm, and there are beings in the Baghdad hell realm and so that is helpful. But again I think it’s really helpful to expand our view and get us out of thinking that this one little speck in the universe is all there is. Otherwise we become so earth-centric. And the earth is just this speck of dust. From our perspective what happens here is so incredibly meaningful and important, but how many different planets are there in the infinite space in the universe with human beings on them? Do we think about the suffering of those other human beings on those other little specks of dirt in the universe?

So this really puts us in touch with how we think that everything in relationship to me is always more important than the rest of the universe. I think especially to develop bodhicitta, we have to expand the mind. We have to. We have to go to different realms and other universes and all these countless beings. Really make the mind big and it’s really helpful for us personally because it puts our little speck of dust into perspective.

Space, emptiness and computers

Audience: May I ask a question about emptiness and space? Is space just an analogy?

VTC: Space is an analogy, for sure. Space is not emptiness. Space is the lack of tangibility and obstructability. It’s a conventional phenomenon. If it were that easy to realize emptiness, boy.

Audience: Then we could just go look outside.

VTC: Exactly. You know. Or just space out. Space is just an analogy.

Audience: Do you think that using computers a lot has an effect on your mind?

VTC: Everything has an effect on our minds. If we use computers a lot it affects our minds. If we handwrite a lot it affects our minds. If we ride motorcycles a lot it affects our minds. So we need to look at how things affect our minds? And how do we let something affect our minds?

What I personally see about computers is that they make it is very easy for us to keep sentient beings at a distance and to not engage on a human level because we don’t have to talk to them, we can just write them a note. Talking to them involves more engagement. Actually sitting in the room with them involves more engagement. This is what concerns me about the younger generation in America—they all go to their own rooms and have their own computers, so who learns social skills? Who learns how to tune into other living beings?

On the other hand the computer can really put you in touch with beings that you never even would know existed. If you see it in that way it expands your mind to so many other beings.

Audience: I have a quick question. I have a really good friend who has a 17-year-old son. She was just telling me how they had to shove him out of the house and lock him out when he was 13 to 16 to get him off the computer and to stop chatting with his friends. She said all the parents are like that now and they have to make the kids literally go outside.

VTC: You know there’s a school in South Korea for kids who are computer addicts.

Another visualization question

Audience: I have another visualization question. In visualizing the nature of my mind, you know, the clarity and awareness, I see that differently than emptiness. It has a luminosity that’s almost like one plane of a crystal in my mind. It has a slight luminosity.

VTC: You know what’s really tricky with all these things, is we use analogies to understand them, so clarity and awareness is sometimes luminosity and awareness, so then we think, if it’s luminous, it’s like light. But light isn’t the mind. The mind is without form. There’s no color, light or darkness or shape.

Here you see how much we are oriented towards form, towards matter, because we don’t want to visualize the clear and knowing nature of the mind. Because it’s not a form, there’s nothing to visualize. It’s just clarity and knowing. And you see how hard it is for us to get in touch with our basic experience of having a mind, because we’re so outwardly focused. We need to sit back and ask what is it that is cognizing without visualizing luminosity or space or anything. What is cognizing? How do I know this thing that’s cognizing? How is there cognition of clarity and awareness? It’s not a visualization of some kind of sparkling luminosity.

So you really see here how our minds work and how it’s very difficult to actually turn the mind inward. Remember that analogies are only analogies; they are not the reality of the thing. They are just given to help us understand something.

Emptiness and dependent arising come to the same point

Audience: I have a question about the three principal aspects of the path where Lama Tsongkhapa says [reading from Pearl of Wisdom I], “….appearances clear away the extreme of (inherent) existence; emptiness clears away the extreme of non-existence.” I thought the antidotes were the other way around. I thought emptiness cleared away the extreme of inherent existence and appearances cleared away the extreme of non-existence.

VTC: OK, so usually, when we initially meditate on this, the realization of emptiness stops the grasping at inherent existence. And the realization of dependent arising and appearances stops the thought of non-existence. But here it says “appearances clear away the extreme of inherent existence,” what it means is that things don’t inherently exit, but they do exist. How do they exist? They exist as appearances, dependently arising appearances. Things are empty, but they’re not totally empty of existence. They’re empty of inherent existence. So it brings us back from the extremes of non-existence and inherent existence.

Audience: So how come the antidotes are switched here rather than how we normally use them?

VTC: What this is getting at is that emptiness and dependent arising come to the same point. Okay?

Audience: So as antidotes they are interchangeable?

VTC: Right. When you get to the point in your practice where both emptiness and dependent arising can oppose both extremes, then you see them (emptiness and dependent arising) as complementary and not contradictory. Then you’re really sure that you’ve understood things properly.

Audience: Oh, so that’s why it says “as long as these two understandings are seen as separate, one has not yet realized the intent of the Buddha.” I think that ever since I got here to the Abbey, I’ve been reading that line and thinking it’s backwards. [Laughter].

VTC: Well, when you meditate you counteract inherent existence with emptiness, right? And you counteract non-existence with dependent arising, right? But then, if you think about it in a different way, if these are the two extremes (inherent existence and non-existence) how do you bring yourself into the middle? Well, instead of inherent existence, you have dependent arising appearances and instead of total non-existence you have emptiness of inherent existence.

Audience: They’re relative then to what you’re trying to use as an antidote, because they’re both the same thing?

VTC: They come to the same point. What that verse is helping us do is to really see how they come to the same point. And especially after you perceive emptiness directly, to still be able to establish conventionalities afterwards, but to establish those conventionalities without grasping at them as inherently existent, then when you meditate on emptiness, to counteract grasping at them as inherently existent, to not fall into the extreme of total non-existence and nihilism, but to see them as only empty of inherent existence or as dependent arisings. Good question!

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.