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Working through cause and effect

Working through cause and effect

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

  • Definition of substantial causes and cooperative causes
  • Taking vows accumulates positive karma, but what about those who are not Buddhist who make a strong determination to do something or not do something?
  • Innate self-grasping arises spontaneously, but how can that happen if everything is under the influence of causes and conditions?
  • Does our intention take our prayers to their destination?
  • Is it more powerful if you have more precepts when you make prayers?
  • What is spirit harm and how do you create the causes?
  • Ruminating on past events
  • Creating stories in our mind and suppressed emotions
  • Self-centeredness and paranoia

Medicine Buddha retreat 2008: 07 Q&A (download)

Cultivating motivation

All the suffering we’ve experienced predominantly comes from harming others—by means of the ten non-virtues, damaging other’s welfare. And as a result it brings pain and misery upon ourselves too. Harming others becomes harming ones self too—they’re not different.

If we want ourselves to be happy, we have to stop harming others and instead try to be of benefit to them.

The Abbey covered in snow with prayer flags in the foreground.

We try to benefit in any big or small way we can during our life. (Photo by Sravasti Abbey)

We try to benefit in any big or small way we can during our life. The greatest way to benefit of course is be able to show them the path to enlightenment. And to do that we need to actualize that path ourselves. And so let’s generate the determination to do that for the benefit of all sentient beings: our self and others. And therefore to discuss right now and to do all our actions in daily life with that long term intention to become Buddhas for the benefit of all.

Substantial cause and cooperative conditions

I just wanted to come back to something that we had talked about last week. Someone had asked about causes. So, I looked it up. The definition of something that is a substantial cause is: “that which is the principal producer of an effect, in its substantial continuum.” Okay, got it?

And then the second thing is: a functioning phenomenon can be a substantial cause, or can be a cooperative cause. The cooperative cause is something that helps produce something else.

The substantial cause is the principle of the producer of an effect in its substantial continuum. There’s got to be a continuum of the “substance.” We were talking about how the wood becomes the table. It’s continuation of the wood as it’s becoming a table. And then when we talk about the mind: one moment of mind produces the next moment of mind. One moment of mind is the substantial cause for the next moment because the two moments of mind have the same substance, or “nature,” or “entity.” Then you have things that are cooperative conditions that are the other things that add in to make something happen.

Remember we were talking about the seed producing the sprout, the seed is the substantial cause and then the water and fertilizer and those things are the cooperative conditions. The definition of something that’s a cooperative condition: “is that which principally produces its cooperating effect, not present in its own substantial continuum.” What that means is that it helps produce something else, but it’s not in the same continuation of “substance.” The person who made the table, that person didn’t become the table—they helped make the table, but they didn’t become the table.

They use the example of the seeds. So in terms of, like, if they were going to talk about a rebirth. It’s saying here that the substantial cause of the rebirth, in other words the principal cause of the rebirth, is the karma. The karma is the principal cause of the rebirth, but our present aggregates are cooperative conditions.

Or you could do it this way, you know in the 12 links how you have: ignorance creates karma—the karma leaves a seed on the consciousness. That karma is the substantial cause for that rebirth. But then for that karma to ripen at the time of death you need craving and grasping.

Craving and grasping are like the cooperative condition for the next rebirth because they’re what make the karma ripen. And, when the karma ripens it becomes that link of existence, which is the karma as it’s almost ready to give its result. And then that produces the next rebirth.

In the same way they say bodhicitta is the principal cause of enlightenment; something absolutely necessary. But it’s not that bodhicitta turns into enlightenment. Because if you’re looking at the Buddha’s mind, you would have to say the clear and knowing of the tenth level bodhisattva’s mind is the substantial cause for the first moment of the clear and knowing which is the Buddha’s mind, because one moment of mind is the substantial cause for the next. It’s a little bit confusing how they use the terms substantial cause here and say it’s very close to principal cause—because they always say bodhicitta is the principal cause of enlightenment. It’s not like bodhicitta itself turns into enlightenment.

Audience: Is that because the bodhicitta is when you reach enlightenment its….

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): No, the bodhicitta’s still there, and bodhicitta is the principal thing that’s going to get you to enlightenment. But you’re in meditative equipoise when you attain enlightenment. At that point when you’re in meditative equipoise the bodhicitta isn’t manifest. It’s actually the consciousness with the wisdom realizing emptiness that’s the last moment of the sentient being that becomes the first moment when you’re a Buddha. Then when you’re a Buddha you’ll also still have the bodhicitta. But now you can have them both manifest at the same time.

Then they also talked in here about direct and indirect causes because there are different ways to divide functioning things.

Before I go on to direct and indirect causes, because you had asked last time if everything is a substantial cause for at least something else. And the answer is no. For example, sound. It doesn’t have a substantial continuum—sound ends. You can have one moment of sound producing the next moment; but at a certain moment sound doesn’t produce anything afterwards, it ends. That last part of sound is not the substantial cause for anything in the future because it doesn’t turn into sound in the future.

Audience: It turns into something, doesn’t it?

VTC: I don’t know. It turns into something, but it wouldn’t turn into something that’s the continuum of sound, because the sound ceases. Maybe it just turns into some kind of waves or energy, or whatever.

Or like the last moment of a candle. The fuel becomes the substantial cause for the flame of the candle. When the fuel ceases, the candle ceases and then the light of the candle ceases. That doesn’t have another substantial cause, that light doesn’t, it ceases.

Setting conditions for positive karmic seeds to ripen

Think about the principal thing that becomes something else. It’s very helpful—what it gets us to do is to think about how things come about; because sometimes we’re very narrow-minded. We think one cause produces one result. It’s like when you’re in kindergarten, the way they explain karma is if you kill somebody you get killed. Well, it’s not exactly that simple. You know that’s kind of kindergarten karma. There’s that actions produce the karmic seed, that’s the principal thing that’s going to create that situation. But then, it’s not good enough to have that karmic seed, because we have all kinds of karmic seeds in our mind right now, don’t we? Incredible number of karmic seeds from previous lives, some good, some bad, who knows what is in our minds.

Now, what karmic seed ripens this specific time, depends on cooperative conditions and that’s why it’s really good to stay around Dharma friends, because Dharma friends act as good cooperative conditions that are going to nourish your positive karma to ripen. And then when that positive karma ripens, hopefully you’re going to create more positive karma.Whereas if you stay around people who don’t have good ethical values, then as we all know, we start copying them and get influenced by them. And they become the cooperative conditions for our creating more non-virtue which gets us into more trouble.

You can see some karma ripening. It’s not just good enough to have that karma, you have to have the conditions that make it ripen.

Another good example is, when you’re drinking and drugging, that’s a really good condition for negative karma to ripen. If you’re driving a car and you’re drinking and drugging and you have the karma to get hurt in your mindstream. Well, that’s a good cooperative condition to make that karma ripen. That’s why we look not just at what the main cause is, but what are the cooperative conditions; because if one cooperative condition isn’t there then the whole thing doesn’t happen.

Remember, for example the 9-11 day and how some people missed a plane and then some people were on standby and got it at the last minute; and how weird that seems. A plane going down: that depends on the karma of everybody in it having that karma to be injured or killed, and that karma being ready to ripen at that moment. And then the terrorists, acting as the cooperative conditions for that, but then somebody who doesn’t have that karma to be killed, then they missed the plane.

Or maybe, let’s say there’s somebody who doesn’t have that karma but they get on the plane, maybe that makes it so that the whole thing is going to be really different because somebody’s got to survive because they don’t have the karma to be killed in it. The whole thing’s going to turn out different. Do you see what I mean?

Things are very, very complicated: this web of interrelationship. We talk about the butterfly in Singapore that flaps its wings, and then that makes somebody else in a good mood, which makes them be nice to somebody else, which makes them do something and then la, la, la, la, la, and then down the line somebody in New York gets the benefit, gets some result from that. That’s how cooperative conditions work.

Cooperative conditions are just as important as the principal cause. For example, one of the things is when we take precepts: we’re stopping the substantial causes for negativities. But then also because we’re limiting our behavior, we’re limiting some situations that could be very good cooperative conditions for the ripening of negative karma.

It’s very helpful to think about things like this. It makes us really understand how complex dependent arising is: that things aren’t real simple and direct. And how there are some factors in a situation we can control and some factors that we can’t control. It’s a whole big mix of a lot of different causes and conditions going on.

Direct and indirect causes

They also talk about direct and indirect causes. The direct cause—you’ll love this definition. It is very typical: “The definition of a direct cause is that which produces directly. The definition of an indirect cause is that which produces indirectly.” Here they were giving the example of a direct cause for a sprout would be the seed. The seed’s also the substantial cause. But it’s also the direct cause because it’s the immediately preceding thing that’s going to produce the sprout.

An indirect cause would be the plant that produced the seed; because the direct cause is that which came immediately preceding the result. Whereas you may have had a whole continuum of causes going back; they’re still in that whole continuum, but they’re indirect because they weren’t what’s there right before that object came. The direct cause of the table would be the piece of wood, but the indirect cause would be the tree that the wood came from—something further back. The direct cause of our body is our parents—our parents’ sperm and egg. Indirect cause is all those generations of people before us.

Audience: Can you have an indirect substantial cause?

VTC: Yes, I guess you could put them together.

Audience: It would seem the direct cause would have to be the main cause.

VTC: Yes, something can be a substantial cause and a direct cause of the same thing. There are multiple ways of classifying functioning things. One is into direct and indirect; another is into substantial and cooperative.

If we categorize into direct and indirect, it’s getting us to be attentive as to the element of time element involved in something producing something else. The substantial and cooperative is getting us to look at it in terms of the function of a specific thing, how it helps something else come about. Because how the seed produces the sprout is different than how the person who watered the garden produces the sprout, or how the water produces the sprout.

Our karmic seeds and purification

Audience: We have all these zillions of karmic seeds in our mind which are negative, neutral, positive, so we’re in certain conditions, and if we held ourselves in only positive conditions, like taking all the vows, keeping them, being with Dharma friends and teachers, what happens to all those negative seeds? Do they go away at some point or do they sit there waiting?

VTC: We have a lot of negative seeds. If we always keep ourselves in positive conditions, what happens to those negative seeds? First of all, before I answer that question, keeping yourself always in positive conditions does not guarantee that none of the negative karma’s going to ripen. You can take vows, and live in a good community and you can still get sick, don’t you? You still get sick, you can still have all sorts of things happen to you, or people criticize you, or you don’t have any money or whatever it is. Just because you put yourself in good conditions, it doesn’t mean that no negative karma’s going to ripen. It just means that you’re taking away some of the conditions that could cause that negative karma to ripen. There are still other negative karmas that don’t need much, just sitting there like popcorn ready to pop.

Then, in terms of you having some karma that could ripen: if you put yourself in a certain situation that karma’s still there, remember? Of the qualities of karma one is that it doesn’t disappear. That’s why you do purification practice. That karma’s still there and it’s going to wait until another time to ripen. That’s why we do the purification, because the purification, it either stops the conditions from coming together or it makes it when it ripens: it produces a smaller unpleasant negative effect, or it doesn’t last a long, or something like that.

VTC: We can go on to questions you may have from this week.

The power of determination

Audience: What about people who take vows without being a Buddhist, or secular people who make an intentional choice to not drink, but they don’t do it with the thought beyond this life. They who make a strong determination to do something or not do something. How does this affect their karma?

VTC: In the Abhidharma when they talk about vows, they talk about different kinds and one is the pratimoksha vow that we take. And one is called, if you translate it, it comes out as non-vow, or un-vow, or anti-vow. What it means: a person who’s made a strong determination to do some negative. They haven’t taken a vow in front of anybody. For example, a butcher: a butcher says, “This is my career, this is my occupation, I’m going to kill.” Or a soldier, or a hunter, a who-knows-what. Someone who’s made a strong determination to do some kind of action repeatedly—that’s called this non-vow, or anti-vow, or whatever it is. That makes the karma kind of stronger when you do that.

It doesn’t say anything about people who aren’t Buddhist or who are Buddhist but don’t go through the ceremony. My personal feeling is that whenever you make a strong determination it’s going to affect the karma. So if you make a strong determination, even it has nothing to do with Buddhism or whatever and [they] don’t even think about future lives. [But] like you said: Somebody saying nothing but they just think, “I’m not going to drink,” or, “I’m not going to lie” or what ever—the force of that strong determination is something quite positive in the mind and it’s going to hold them back from doing something negative.

Innate self-grasping and karma

Audience: I have a question about innate self-grasping that arises spontaneously. But how can that happen if everything is under the influence of cause and condition?

VTC: Spontaneous doesn’t mean opposite, un-caused. Spontaneous just means, “boom” like this [laughter]—spontaneous doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cause. It’s kind of like something that spontaneously ignites; it doesn’t mean there was no cause for it catching on fire. There was a cause.

Prayer and intention

Audience: I was wondering about, I have no doubt about the power of prayer. But when we make prayers for someone, it’s my feeling that mantra and prayers are so powerful, they go beyond who we’re dedicating them for. We’ve also read stories about certain groups of people, like heart patients who are prayed for and another group that wasn’t prayed for. Our intention, does it truly direct where our prayers and aspirations go?

VTC: Do you mean that if you pray for one person, can many people receive the benefit as well?

Audience: Does our intention take those prayers right to the destination?

VTC: Does our intention take the prayers to their destination? You have a UPS driver who never gets lost. [laughter] I can’t tell you the exact dependent arising of how the power of prayer works, but I think the mind is very powerful. We understand physical cause and effect because we see it with our senses. But mental cause and effect is a lot more difficult because we’re very sensually oriented, aren’t we? There’s got to be some way of dependent of arising, whereby somebody praying for somebody else can bring a good effect—it can help benefit that person. Of course that person needs some good karma themselves.

I heard a joke one time—I’ll put it in a Buddhist context. This person was praying and praying, “Buddha, I want to win the lottery, tell me the numbers to win the lottery.” He prays for that and he doesn’t hear anything from the Buddha, and so he prays again: “Buddha, I want to win the lottery.” This goes on and on and on. He still doesn’t get his numbers and he still doesn’t win the lottery. Finally he says, “Buddha what’s wrong?” And Buddha said, “Buy a ticket.” In other words, it isn’t just the power of somebody’s prayer that helps, that person has to create the karma themselves to be benefited by this whole interconnected web of causes and conditions.

Audience: Along those lines, I was also wondering about the difference between someone who, like a lay person making prayers and someone who’s monastic who has all these vows, and so wouldn’t their prayer be more powerful? But then there’s this thing of karmic connection.

VTC: Is it more powerful if you have more vows, more precepts when you make prayers? Yes. That’s why people often make offerings to the monastic community and ask them to do pujas. But, as you brought out, it’s also a thing about having the karmic connection with somebody. And if you’re a layperson, that can make your prayers especially strong because of your karmic connection with somebody.

Remember there are multiple causes, it’s not just one—and different causes can be of different strengths. There are different things going on here.

Some people think, “Well, okay, I’ll just go down to the monastery here and make an offering and then I’ll have tea and they can do the prayers for my relative.” That’s not so good. They have the karmic connection; it’s good if they also do the prayers. But if they make an offering and then ask for prayers, that’s also very good because then there’s people who have more precepts, who are directing their energy in that way.

Spirit harms

Audience: I’m wondering about spirit harms. What do we do to create the causes? How is it recognized?

VTC: In my way of thinking, spirit harm is basically like when another person harms you. It’s just not somebody you can see. But it’s the same thing. In a previous life, you did something harmful to somebody so you created that karma to be harmed. This time, instead of somebody physically coming and doing something to you, it works in another way through a spirit causing some kind of damage. But it’s the same thing.

How do you recognize it’s spirit harm? That’s a good question. His Holiness says that a lot of times the Tibetans attribute things to spirits that have nothing to do with spirits. He says, “Oh, you call this a spirit harm, it’s not a spirit harm.”

In my own personal experience, it seems to me that certain kinds of…. I have no direct experience, just some kind of feeling I got. Once I had one friend who had very, very severe depression. One time I was with him and it was very, very severe. I started doing Chenrezig mantra out loud. He just started crying. I got the very strong feeling that it was as if it was a spirit harm and the spirit couldn’t bear the sound of the mantra. That was completely my namtok, completely coming from my mind. I don’t know if it’s a valid cognizer or not.

I remember one time I was in a very bad mood, “What’s going on with this bad mood?” Then I thought, “Oh, if it’s a spirit harm, let me do the taking-and-giving meditation for that spirit.” I did that and then the bad mood was gone.

Sometimes basically you need some kind of telepathic power to do that. That’s why people in the Tibetan community would usually go to a lama and ask if it’s a spirit harm or not. If the lama says yes, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is. Like His Holiness said the Tibetans think a lot of things are spirit harms that aren’t. But the basic antidote is compassion. Whenever someone is trying to harm you, whatever kind of body they have, if you have compassion for them it’s a very good remedy.

VTC: How’s everybody doing this week? What’s happening? What’s coming up?

The suffering of the story, the drama, the conception

Audience: I’m really appreciating something that a number of people talked about yesterday in the community meeting and I’ve been trying to be aware of this. In the moment when someone says something or does something that initially appears harmful every moment after—that event has ceased. And every moment after that I’m feeling some sort of pain is totally based on just a conception of it because the whole thing is past. It’s like you were saying yesterday—maybe the harm they did is like this much [indicates a small amount] and the harm I’m doing to myself after in my thinking about it stacks above it.

I was noticing that—I think it’s just being here in this environment and having more space to look at my mind that I’m catching it all over the place. It’s so funny to watch. I think as a consequence that the number of dramas that unfold within a week are actually growing less and less. Things that perhaps two months ago when I first got here and was probably a little less stable would have dragged on for days, sometimes now can last for as short as ten minutes or an hour. I think that this is a wonderful thing. I’m happy about that.

VTC: That’s very good and that’s really true. I think that’s a benefit you can see when you meditate. You begin to see that a situation happens, it ceases, and then the conceptual mind jumps in and makes a story about it and keeps the whole thing going. The person that you have the interaction with, they’re off doing something else, the whole situation is completely over, but our mind ruminates, and goes round and around and around. We make the whole thing enormous, and we make ourselves miserable in the process of it. It’s nice you’re seeing that when you can catch the story, and press the pause button or unplug the machine all together, the number of dramas you have each week, just gets smaller and smaller because the mind isn’t creating the drama. You can see this so clearly when you meditate. You walk into the session, your mind is perfectly calm, you sit down, then you think of some interaction you had with somebody. It could be ten minutes ago or ten years ago, it really doesn’t matter. As soon as you think about it, “Oh, they said this and that. Why are they doing this and not doing that? Why is this? It must mean this and it must mean that. It’s always happening to me. It’s not only this person, it’s that person. What am I going to do about it? I’m so miserable. I really need to stop this meditation session so I can go talk to them. But I don’t have their phone number because it was ten years ago.”

We go on and on and then the bell rings at the end of the session. You open your eyes and you realize you were in your own personally created hell realm because you’re sitting there in the meditation hall and the person you had the interaction with is not there. The interaction is not happening.

It becomes so evident that it’s our mind making the drama. Don’t you think? If this is all you recognize from the retreat, you’ve had a very successful retreat because this is one of the main causes of our problems—this hyperactive conceptual mind that’s writing dramas all the time. When they talk about “let go of the past and let go of the future,” that’s what they’re talking about. Let go of this mind that’s either ruminating about the past, going round and round and round, or ruminating about the future in anxiety going round and round and round. It’s usually with the past we ruminate either in anger and attachment, or the future either in attachment or anxiety. Nothing’s happening now.

Audience: I just want to say that I somehow feel this is critically important. At the start of the retreat, I said my main thing is I want to try to find some ways to be more equanimous. I’m just thinking some of the practitioners I’ve met were the sort of practitioners where anything can happen and their minds don’t ruffle. My teacher in Australia is like that. This must be why—because they don’t spend so much time being in the future or in the past or whatever. It’s like they’re able to navigate.

VTC: Right. It’s a very good way to have peace of mind right now. Like you said, the people that you’ve met who aren’t so reactive to everything, it’s because they’re not making these stories up. Because if we look in our own mind, how reactive we are to things—small, small things.

Have you ever had it happen where somebody’s come to you and said, “Oh you did blah, blah, blah, and I felt blah, blah, blah,”—and you can’t even remember the situation. Or maybe you remember the situation, but you had no ill intent toward the person. And yet, this person has been suffering all this time until they came to talk to you because of the story their mind’s making up.

We do the exact same thing. Of course, it’s much easier to see when other people do it because we know the story they’re making up is false. But when we make up a story about somebody else, we are sure it’s true! We are sure it’s true, and then we just go for it. We get quite miserable.

Suppressed emotions

Audience: That describes my feeling the last two weeks. [laughter] The thing that’s hard for me is this thing about emotions that are suppressed. How do you access them? I know it doesn’t work to hang out with the past and all the, “But, but, but [excuses]”—it just doesn’t work. But I don’t see how you deal with the things you wouldn’t necessarily access unless you stay there and allow yourself to feel pain or whatever it is. And then how to not do harm? I found myself walling myself off by silence about a week ago. There’s this thing about containing it as you work things out. But I felt like I just built this huge thing around me—this protection of silence. I just don’t see the way out of the way I’m feeling things.

VTC: That’s a good question. When your mind is making up all these stories and you were talking about suppressed emotions and things like that.

You only have a suppressed emotion because you have a story. As soon as you drop the story, you no longer have any emotion about that. As soon as you drop the story, there’s no emotion.

If I’m sitting here feeling angry because, “So and so did this and that, blah, blah, on and on.” What’s making me upset is not what they did. What’s making me upset is my story. What they did is gone. As soon as I drop my story, there’s no emotion to suppress.

Audience: This is the thing that feels like such a battle. I don’t know if this relates to suppressed emotion but that works [dropping the story], until it quits working. Then it comes back and I try another tool.

VTC: You drop the story and you’re okay for a day. Then all of a sudden, you’re thinking the story again. This is very much because of habit. We have to continuously drop the story. There are some stories we’ve been telling ourselves for so long that they’re just habitual ways of thinking: “I’m the one who’s always left out. I’m the one who always gets the raw end of the deal. I’m the one who everyone rejects. I’m the one who everybody abandons.” Then it just comes back in situation after situation. So we see it and we drop that particular story. We drop the story of, “So and so abandoning me,” but we haven’t dropped the story of, “I’m always the one who’s abandoned.”

Or I drop the story of, “So and so who was insulting me” but I haven’t dropped the story of, “It’s not fair that I’m always the one who gets blamed for things that aren’t my fault, and insulted when I haven’t done anything.” We haven’t dropped the whole story. Sometimes we might have dropped the story of that situation but because we’ve been thinking it for so long, it comes back. Also because we haven’t dropped the whole story, then it comes up again. You have to again apply the antidote and plunk—drop it, drop it, drop it.

Audience: I read [something] last night that helped me to frame it, is to think about it as a chronic illness. If we’ve created these causes throughout beginningless time, that’s pretty chronic. [laughter] Dropping it is hard to do.

VTC: And, you were a therapist. You know you can retrain people’s muscles. They just have to keep doing it.

Audience: Right. Never give up.

Handling negative states of mind

VTC: You keep retraining your mind and it does get easier.

Let me answer the second part of your question. You were saying that what you found when the stuff was coming up, then you built a wall of silence—which was very convenient since you’re supposed to be in silence. But that was in order to protect you from harming anybody else by lashing out at them because of how you were feeling?

Audience: I have felt that way sometimes. I didn’t feel that way this time. I felt like it was because I was so angry. I was just seeing everything as: “All these samsaric beings, all tied up, floating down that river of ignorance. If I interact with any of them, it’s just going to turn bad. [Laughter] Here we all are in samsara. I better not engage.” I was just too angry.

VTC: What I find helpful when I’m in a bad mood is to just say, “This is just a bad mood.” Usually my bad moods are over by the end of the day. I find it very difficult to keep the bad mood until the next day. I guess if I tried harder I could do it. [Joking] If you say, “Okay, I’m just in a bad mood today.” All you do is go to sleep—sometimes the bad mood is because you’re tired. You sleep and you wake up refreshed, and you generate bodhicitta and it’s not there. You say okay. Or you do taking and giving for all the people who really have problems with their moods.

Imputing motivations

Audience: I’ve just been exploring my version, my conceptions, and it became very evident that self-cherishing, one of its characteristics in my mind, has a certain level of paranoia. I remember a conversation we had around the lunch table a few years ago regarding one of the residents here. I started coming up with all the things she was doing and why she was doing them. You said, “You have a hard enough time figuring out what your motivation is. How can you possibly figure out what other people’s motivation is.”

I found out that my self-cherishing is so paranoid that when I get into one of these habituated states of reaction to situations, personally I think that people are doing it with intent to harm. Their whole motivation is to cause me suffering. This can happen over the smallest things.

Audience: I’ve really been taking a look at this paranoid self-cherishing. I’ve just assumed that the motivation for a lot of people’s actions in regard to me are to harm or to inconvenience or be inconsiderate or be disrespectful. Of course, the story starts off at a crescendo because I’ve already set myself up to be attacked. It doesn’t even have to build up little by little. It comes in at page 47…. So I got to see that yesterday. And I was glad I made a choice to look at the situation totally differently. But I honestly believed that the way I was perceiving the situation was the only way that it could be perceived. This is a big one for me. It was a high yesterday. It was a helpful thing. For me to know that I have the power to make another choice and that it’s not a big deal. That’s the other part. The ego says I’m stuck in this sort of paranoid framework. I’m not. I just have to drop the story and everything falls away. Cool.

VTC: That’s exactly it. We do have quite a big habit to impute motivations on people and to assume that they deliberately want to harm us. Then we assume that if they want to harm us, that our anger is valid. Now, is that logical? If somebody wants to harm me, that makes my anger valid.

You have a syllogism here: “It is proper to be angry when somebody does something you don’t like, because they are deliberately trying to harm you.” Then you have to go to the pervasion, “If somebody is deliberately trying to harm you, does that mean that your anger is proper and suitable?” Is that true? We think it is, but is it true?

Audience: Not according to Shantideva.

VTC: Right. Somehow we think if they meant bad towards me then I have a real reason to be angry. Then I can take the ball and run with the anger. Shantideva says no, that’s not a good reason. It doesn’t matter whether they wanted to harm you or didn’t want to harm you. As you said, most of the time they have no intention to harm us, but even if they did, it still doesn’t mean that the anger is suitable.

You punched me therefore I can punch you. That’s the logic in there. You threw sand at me therefore I can throw sand at you. You did terrorism in my country therefore I can go bomb your country. Or even if it’s not your country, the country where you live, or anybody else I suspect of being affiliated with you. That’s the exact logic. Not very good logic.

Negative emotions and conceptual mind

Audience: You were saying before that the moment you drop the story, the emotion falls away. I was wondering if—this may be kind of dry, but it has some application to my experience—When you mean the emotion falls away, when the story falls away, you don’t necessarily mean the actual painful feelings, do you? Because I can drop the story and the painful feeling can sometimes continue on and then that tapers off later on. For example, the physiological tightness in my chest with anger, or even just the mental disturbance, because I can drop the story and then there’s sort of like a landing.

VTC: So you’re asking just because you drop the story and the emotion goes away, but doesn’t the bad feeling continue for a while?

If you have some physiological element, yeah, that’s going to take some while for your body to adjust again. But, if that’s not the case—I find myself sometimes once I drop the story, I’m laughing because how I was thinking is so hilarious. Maybe it takes you a while—you’re dropping it slowly, the feelings are going away slowly.

Audience: So anytime there’s the emotion, there’s the story that comes with it so anytime we’re experiencing something, we just have to look for what the story is?

VTC: Yes, usually when there’s a very strong negative emotion—because negative emotions are conceptual minds. They’re not direct perceivers. They’re conceptual. That means they have a mental image as their object. That means that there’s some story going on. We see anger as a direct perception, but it’s not. It’s perceiving a mental image or a meaning generality of the person or whatever.

Audience: That’s why when you get angry you have … mind … Oh, why am I angry? Once you work out the story, then you really know what’s going on. Then it’s kind of ludicrous once you see what the story is.

Staying with the feeling

VTC: Exactly. Sometimes you might just have an unpleasant mental feeling without being angry although they usually go pretty much together. Usually, when we have an unpleasant mental feeling, there’s some anger going on. It can be very helpful at that time to just watch the unpleasant mental feeling. One way to do it is to look at the story, another way is to watch the unpleasant mental feeling. You see how long it stays. Just examine this unpleasant mental feeling. What does it feel like in my mind? And what does it feel like in my body?

Usually we’re having an unpleasant mental feeling and then right away we’re reacting, “I don’t like this.” Then we get caught up in the anger of, “I don’t like this. I want it to go away. It’s not fair.”

Sometimes it’s quite interesting just to stay with the unpleasant mental feeling and no story. You don’t tell yourself the story. You just pay attention to the unpleasant mental feeling. That can be quite interesting because how long can you pay attention to an unpleasant mental feeling? As soon as your mind starts to tell a story, you say, “No, it’s not about the story. Let’s go back to the feeling.” How long is that feeling going to stay there?

Anxiety, fear and attachment

Audience: Does that apply to anxiety? I read that anxiety is an offshoot of anger. I’m trying to flesh that out in my mind. It seems like fear. Being anxious is related to fear.

VTC: So what about anxiety and anger? There are different kinds of anxiety. I tend to see anxiety as often related to fear, which is related to attachment. When we’re attached to something and we don’t want to lose it. Or we’re attached to something in the future, and it hasn’t come about but we really want it to come about and we’re afraid it won’t—then we get anxious.

So there are different kinds of anxiety for different reasons.

Audience: It’s complicated, isn’t it? It didn’t seem to me that when I had a terrible anxiety attack once, but I couldn’t really relate it to anger. It didn’t feel like anger. It was more attachment.

VTC: Yes, I think it’s more attachment—fear is very related to attachment also. Fear and worry are attached to something. You don’t want to separate from it, so you’re afraid you’re going to lose it. You worry about losing it. Or you want something in the future. You’re afraid you want get it. You’re worried that you won’t get it, so that worry and fear and anxiety (follows). Sometimes from there, some people go to anger. Some people stay in the fear and worry and anxiety. Some people go to the anger, because when you’re angry, you feel powerful. When you feel anxious, you don’t feel so powerful. I think people sometimes go to anger because it gets them over the hump of the uncomfortableness of feeling powerless.

Audience: This is an interesting thing. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was having a heart attack. I was working in a homeless shelter. Part of it was I was wearing my hearing aids for the first day, and I shouldn’t have put them in because there was so much noise. And there was an emotional thing too.

I had such a pain here that I thought I was having a heart attack. They took me to the hospital and put me through every test. They kept me overnight—it cost me over a thousand bucks. They said, “Your heart’s great. We don’t know what it is.”

Then the next morning, I was doing meditation and I could just visualize acid pouring into my stomach. I knew right away it was anxiety. I’ve never had an anxiety attack before, and I’ve never known there could be physical pain with it. It was quite a lesson that I realized it for myself from my meditation.

Audience: I’ve had anxiety attacks intermittently throughout my life, and I don’t consider myself manifestly anxious very often. But indeed, one of the first things that I notice is the physical pain of it. Your body becomes so hypersensitive, like even moving feels painful.

Audience: It’s horrible.

Audience: I thought I was having a heart attack too. I was like, “What’s going on?”

VTC: Let’s sit quietly and let all the anxiety go.

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.