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Retreat questions and advice

Retreat questions and advice

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Part of a series of teachings given during the Manjushri Winter Retreat from December 2008 to March 2009 at Sravasti Abbey.

Question: I have a practical question. It’s mostly about pacing myself through (the sadhana), so that it may be a nice and perfect round queue all the way to the end. Any advice on pacing yourself through?

Venerable Thubten Chonyi (VTCh): Well, you know, every session is different.

Audience: Exactly.

VTCh: You can spend a whole time taking refuge and then …

Audience: Or a big chunk on lamrim.

VTCh: Yes. So there’s not like a guide rule for the pacing really. And the more you get a feeling for how this hour and 15 minutes feels, if you definitely want to do a certain number of mantra in a session for example, then do them. And then when you’ve done as many as you said you were going to do, then stop and go to your lamrim. So I think that’s just something you learn by practice, once you get the flow going. That’s the beauty of being on retreat is that we have the luxury of being able to take all this time for all the various parts of the sadhana. It’s just delicious.

Yes, so … any questions?

Question: I guess I’m looking for basic tips for meditation because today my mind was just (gestures). And I thought, okay, maybe I’m tired. I took a nap, but that didn’t help. I came back distracted, dull, just trying to do the visualization, but it was hard, harder than yesterday.

Audience: Do you have a sword that you could …?

VTCh: A magic wand, if I had one … ding ding ding!

Audience: Use it for everybody.

VTCh: Really, that’s what you’re here to do. Everybody’s mind is like that. I reassure you, to some extent or another, some sessions [are] worse, some sessions better. This is something I’m really, really discovering this last little bit because I’ve been doing more and more breathing meditation in the last few months, training myself to come back more to the breath in a more disciplined way than I used to do. So now what I’m finding is that when I’m distracted in practice, I use the exact same technique. It’s like, “Oh, all right, right now we’re visualizing the light coming in.” Just keep bringing the mind back and keep bringing the mind back. So the key is to do it gently. Not to say, “My mind’s so messed up … blah blah blah!!” then it’s lost even further. But just “Oh, oh, I was thinking about lunch. Okay, where was I? Aha! Okay, back to the light.” And just come back again, again, again, again, again. Sometimes you get in the groove and just go with the flow and then that’s what you want all the time. But that is a moment of grace. So that’s very nice, but it’s not like we’re aspiring to that all the time. I mean the practice itself is this difficulty of bringing it back to the moment. So I don’t know if that’s a tip, I hope it’s reassuring. That really is the practice itself.

Audience: This afternoon I had to say mantra for at least 45 minutes, because I couldn’t even get into the beginning. So I can keep things relatively sane if I just say mantra, and that was so that I said: “Okay, this is all that’s going to work right now, this is what I’m going to do now.”

VTCh: Fantastic.

Audience: It is frustrating sometimes.

Audience: But it’s not just mantra. I mean, you know how we say “It’s just, just something?” I mean if you open your view up a minute and …

VTCh: Like “Wow! You did mantra for 45 minutes! That’s cool.”

Audience: There are people that live and die that never get to do that.

Audience: Then on top of that I watched myself and I said, “You’re not even saying it, you’ve got your mouth closed, it’s just thinking.”

Audience: Just think, that perhaps sometimes the mind just gets tired of doing the same thing and it just needs a break from that and then it’s perfectly fine. Like today I needed to write emails and so when I came back here, I went through other work and like here, boom, it started being interesting again. I could have labeled that laziness or dullness and so on, but I think it was just tiredness, like if you were in any other situation, doing something repeatedly over and over.

Audience: So it’s interesting to think about, they talk about the balance of not too tight, not too loose. And so if you start kind of playing with that and holding that, then you never get to the point where you think, “I need to change the channel or something.” But you can keep that balance in such a way that you can carry it session to session pretty well.

Audience: How can you do that?

Audience: Practice.

Audience: I think I am afraid that if I’m too relaxed then I lose it completely. So I don’t know, this is kind of a question that I have, how can you get relaxed during practice?

Audience: The way I do it is with compassion, be gentle, kind to myself, that’s the energy to draw on. The moment I judge or I compare, “It’s not like the last time,” it’s gone, there’s no balance.

Audience: I was thinking perhaps I could do some breathing meditation sometimes. But then I tried something similar and it didn’t quite work. In a way I became even worse.

Audience: It didn’t work, but it gave you information, so it did work. So you just say “yet” so that you don’t have that fine balance yet. I mean, years we’re talking, I don’t know how long you’ve meditated, but after years, I feel like I’m just starting to be able to work with it a little bit. It’s over 10 years.

Raindrops with a man in the background, with his hands on his mouth

“Why am I taking refuge?” “What are the causes for taking refuge?” “What are the causes for cultivating bodhicitta?” (Photo by Paulin’a)

VTCh: Venerable Chodron is going to do a Q&A on Thursday nights, so this kind of question is also really good to bring to her because she really, really knows that kind of stuff. But for sure I think make sure you do some breathing meditation before you start, so that you bring your mind really clearly to where you are. And one of the answers that she gave to a question before, that we didn’t get in the teachings we’ve been listening to and I’ve been practicing based on that very teaching, is that when we start this practice, we should head right into meditation on emptiness. But if we spend a fair amount of time first thinking like, “Why am I taking refuge?” “What are the causes for taking refuge?” “What are the causes for cultivating bodhicitta?” If we spend a fair amount of time just thinking, really thinking about those things before we get into emptiness and thinking of the suffering of cyclic existence and thinking about the causes of the suffering of cyclic existence and thinking about ignorance and so on … then we are really in a place to want to cut the ignorance that’s the cause. So your motivation is juicy motivation, ready to go. So those are somewhat more familiar topics too, so it warms your mind up and you can be more relaxed in those and so the rest of the sadhana just goes.

Audience: Sometimes when I try to visualize, then if I open my eyes, my eyes would be fixed here (pointing to the forehead). So is that the process? Is that too tight?

VTCh: It could be. It could be that you’re trying to get too vivid of a visual, when it’s not really visual, it’s a mental image.

Audience: The thing is that if I get too loose, then …

VTCh: Yes, so you have to find the place. That’s practice.

Audience: So then when we’re meditating on emptiness then, which is the one part I feel it is really sketchy, you’re saying, and I think I like this, that we can take that piece, think why we are taking refuge, and about the afflictions and think of some of the four distortions that she mentioned. So think about all the negatives, all the reasons which mirror the sufferings and the negatives of samsara, and then take that with me through the whole practice.

VTCh: Yes, although that’s not the meditation on emptiness, that’s the meditation on refuge.

Audience: But that’s what I can do in there because a lot of that can bring me to it.

VTCh: Yes, definitely. Within that, this little one line, very short little one, on refuge, you can spend the whole first part of retreat really thinking about what that is, where does that go and how does it inspire me or motivate me to do the practice?

Audience: Because I’m trying to spend, I guess, five or ten minutes right there just because it is something I’m trying to motivate, and so if I don’t worry so much about trying to find that right meditation practice in the books or various places, really just use that place as my motivation, everything else is taking me right through to emptiness and if I keep that in mind, that’s a good flow, not disrupting my mind starting off that way then?

VTCh: No.

Audience: I would like to do that, if that’s a positive way to go through that process. Well, the other thing that helped me is the first night, you made a comment about your visualizations took years to really be able to go through it. So what I’ve done, which has been helpful is, my process is very abbreviated, each of the different steps I try, don’t understand that I’ve got this down, but I’m picking those pieces that I’m able to visualize and focus on, and maybe not the whole visualization, but just pieces and parts of it as I go through. Even that’s hard. I mean I get distracted. And so that helps me have patience with the practice.

VTCh: Great.

Audience: And realizing I’m here for a month, not that I’m putting stuff off, but that we’ve got several sessions a day, I’m hoping that maybe each day I can add a little bit more and not worry about it. I mean I didn’t even go to a list and check; I’m still on a basic meditation. So that helps me with being patient and not worried about having this great visualization from beginning to end.

VTCh: Yes, Venerable Chodron has often talked about how getting the feeling is much more, much more the point than trying to get the details of the visualization. So for sure looking at our tiny little book with all the images there; we have a Manjushri to look at, we have the DHIHs to look at, we have the om ah ra pa tsa na to look at. Which is great, and really helps get the images in the mind, but it’s still a mental image. It’s not going to be as clear and to spend so much energy on that, instead of trying to get the real feeling, I guess it is effort somewhat misplaced.

Audience: I try to escape in being creative, because you can imagine … this is my idea. Like all the flow you can imagine in different ways. One way is like I imagine, first I say from the DHIH appears Manjushri, so then as many times as I say DHIH, it’s like a hook. Then today it didn’t work. So I had to figure something else and I said okay and I imagined from the three places coming three streams and I imagined that. I didn’t mind where Manjushri was, it’s just important that those three streams are coming, so this is my escape. And also when I do the recitations, I can’t recite the praises to Manjushri. Those are such complicated words for me. So I just bring them in my own language.

Question: With the Vajrasattva mantra recitations, saying that three times in case we’ve made mistakes; if I say that, then I am singing that through the rest of my meditation. And so, I’ve just stated, “I’m sorry if I’ve omitted it” rather than saying the Vajrasattva mantra, because if I say the mantra then I can’t get it out of my head.

VTCh: I think that is optional. Does it not say that?

Audience: I think I heard that it is optional but it doesn’t say that. The offerings of praise are optional …

VTCh: The second time of offerings is optional.

Audience: Should I just say that I’m sorry if I’ve omitted anything? Because I’ve gone through this and that is all I can think of for the rest, and the lamrim is my favorite part in this whole meditation and I can’t get the Vajrasattva mantra out of my head!

VTCh: Yes, that’s great. That will work.

Question: I was wondering how to visualize Manjushri and then do the mantra. How is that possible because you are continuing to say the mantra and you are to hold the image of Manjushri in the mind at the same time?

VTCh: Your mind can do those things at the same time. You are concentrating on the image and the mantra.

Audience: So you are concentrating on both at the same time?

VTCh: I do know that the image of Manjushri is a place for concentration. So that is what you are concentrating on. So you are taking your mind back again and again. And, just as it says here, we have to create the details of the visualization before we can even hold our mind stable on the Manjushri meditation, and that takes time.

Audience: Is it okay if you are focusing on the mantra, then the visualization, or do you have to focus on each part of the visualization as it is said?

VTCh: The way that I have had it explained is that once you get the image fairly clear, then you need to actually hold steady on the image. Or, maybe even just a piece on the image. I have been taught that you begin by focusing on the Buddha’s bowl and then just allow your mind to take in the image. But while you are creating the image, or getting familiar with the image, going over those details is fine.

Audience: Venerable Chodron told me once, when I was trying to get the image of Chenrezig, she said just keep looking at the eyes first, and then the face, and keep working at that so that you can hold it steady. And then the holding steady is a whole other practice, not too tight, not too loose. And when you are working with your mind with it, it fades, and then comes back, and then fades. And that process takes a long time.

Audience: We have a painting project going on that will help you with images. Feel free to step in and out!

VTCh: Anything else?

Question: I have a question based on a conversation that I had with a friend. I was talking with her about Buddhism. And her response was that she understands that there is another life, but that she won’t remember it and it will not be her. So her response is that I should enjoy this life as much as I can. And I know that questions come up such as “Who am I?” But this just bothers me so much.

VTCh: Which part?

Audience: I can’t explain it to her even though I see her point of view.

VTCh: I think it was in Buddhism for Beginners that I just read this. But I think that would be a really great project to do some reading and see how to refute it.

Audience: What helps me with that is that it is your mindstream that continues from life to life, so even though in this present life it is not the same body, it is your mindstream.

Audience: Well, I told her that but she said, yes but it’s not exactly you, it’s going to be something else.

Audience: You know when you are older you will be totally different than you are now but you care about that older person.

VTCh: Just for your own research, spend some time thinking about what is the answer to that question. Was that helpful? That is a good question.

Audience: A question not everybody has the answer to. I am struggling with the disintegration. Especially as it relates to physics I learned. I have questions about the subtle mind at the time of death.

VTCh: That is a Venerable Chodron question. Is everybody doing okay?

Audience: It is nice to listen to other people having the same problems. No matter how much I have worked on it, I am hypercritical, so to hear someone else say that, I think, “Oh thank you. I am so self-centered I think I am the only one that has that problem.” So I appreciate people sharing; it just takes a load off.

VTCh: Another thing that you could spend a lot of time meditating on is the love and compassion that comes with that light, just drenching ourselves with the Buddha’s love and compassion. That alone is just huge.

Audience: I have trouble finishing the sadhana because I have body pain.

Audience: So then you have to ask, “How does a human become a Buddha?”

Audience: To be continued. [laughter]

VTCh: Venerable Chodron will have the Q&A on Thursday night as she is really interested in what is coming up in our practice. So bring all these things up to her as well.

Venerable Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She lives and trains at the Abbey, where she received novice ordination in 2008. She took full ordination at Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan in 2011. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and, occasionally, in other locations as well.