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Motivation for the Manjushri retreat

Motivation for the Manjushri retreat

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

  • Setting the motivation
  • Considering the kindness of mother sentient beings
  • The possibility of becoming buddhas

Manjushri Retreat 03B: Motivation (download)

Welcome to the beginning of our retreat. I’ll ring the gong to begin. We’ll sit for about ten more minutes in silence setting your own motivation and getting very clear how you want to use this next month’s retreat. Then I will set the motivation for the retreat.

Since we just had the practice led so beautifully, I’d like for us to start just by reading the auspicious verses at the beginning of the practice, we’ll take refuge together, generate bodhicitta, do the four immeasurables and then do the rest of the practice in silence. Then we’ll dedicate together at the end.

[Bell sounds]

[Period of silence]

Since beginningless time, we have been born and reborn. Beginningless time is a long time. It is hard to imagine. We can think back 100 years and imagine taking rebirth for a hundred years. Just after the turn of the century, think of the clothes maybe human beings wore. That’s not so long ago. You can think back maybe 1,000 years. What do we know about what the world was like a thousand years ago? And maybe imagine having taken rebirths for that long. Maybe we think back 5,000 years, even 10,000 years ago. We know that humans were walking on this North American continent then. So, even being born then is feasible.

Beginningless time is way longer than 10,000 years, longer than 100,000 years, longer than we think there has been anything like human life on this planet. In these thousands and thousands of years, we have taken rebirth after rebirth. Sometimes we’ve been born in the coldest of the hell realms. A night like this makes me think of that. Our bodies so frozen, so cracked, that all we can do is make whimpering sounds, and shiver in our suffering. We’ve had rebirths as animals, the carnivorous kind that, just to feed ourselves, have had to hunt every day, tearing at the throats of other living beings in order to stay alive and not even knowing that another living being was dying by our claws or our teeth.

We’ve taken rebirth as humans on this planet and in all the worlds’ systems. We have been humans that have fought wars, humans that have been enslaved, humans that have even been happy for moments at a time, and then poof, that was gone too.

We have even taken rebirth as gods, so completely besotted with the pleasures of a century that we haven’t bothered to look up. We have just enjoyed ourselves—and every positive karma we have ever created was just used up—until at the end of that deeply pleasurable rebirth, when the karma ran out, we have fallen back into the lower realms, having seen with horror where our next rebirth is about to occur.

There is nowhere we haven’t been in cyclic existence. Nowhere! We continue to cycle through rebirth after rebirth, completely propelled by our karma and our afflictions, all of it rooted in our ignorance, our misconception of the nature of reality that makes us crave and grasp at existence again and again; that makes us defend a central concept of “me,” to seek pleasure for that “me,” to defend, to fight for the life of that “me,” creating tremendous negative karma that just keeps us in this cycle.

Sometimes in those rebirths we’ve also had the fortune to meet teachers. Somewhere, somehow, we met a Buddhist teaching. We had the chance to practice. We learned something about keeping ethical discipline. We practiced the six far-reaching attitudes. We made prayers to have a rebirth where we would meet the teachings again, maybe one lifetime, maybe many. Each one of those was just a flash, just a moment in the beginningless time continuity of this consciousness. But we created the causes and here we are.

Photo of a flower giving out light

The only way to get off the endless cycle of rebirth after rebirth after rebirth is to realize the ultimate nature of reality, and to let go of our ignorance of the way things are. (Photo by Hartwig HKD)

Somehow in this life, this human rebirth, we have been able to meet the teachings again. We have the amazing fortune to have met qualified teachers. Somehow the teachings have resonated with the seed of spiritual aspiration of faith in us and for just this flash of a moment we have an opportunity again to create the causes to meet the teachings again.

And why did we do that? Because the only way out of this cycle is through cultivating our wisdom. The only way to get off the endless cycle of rebirth after rebirth is to realize the ultimate nature of reality, and to let go of our ignorance of the way things are.

And so, for this month, we have a chance to deepen our understanding of all that and to deepen our relationship with Manjushri, the manifestation of the Buddha’s wisdom mind, the manifestation of the enlightened minds of all the buddhas, their wisdom coming together in this deity of Manjushri.

In all of these rebirths in every realm, every time, life after life, we have had a mother. For 1,000 years, 10,000 years, 100,000 years, a million years, endlessly we have been born by a mother who cared for us. We know of the hungry ghost mother who, at the time of the Buddha, in her attempt to feed her five hundred starving children, was killing human beings left and right.

We have seen the kindness of animals in relationship to their children. A mother will sacrifice her own life when she and her child are being hunted. Mothers of all varieties will make sure that their children are fed, will do whatever they can to protect. And the same thing happened to us in this life. We know that or we wouldn’t be here. Our own mother, or some caretaker, somebody, made sure we were warm, made sure that we were fed. When we burned up with fever, somebody worried intensely, trying to understand what to do. When we cried through the night, someone, a mother or some kind somebody, held us and rocked us until we were soothed.

Someone made sure that we learned to stand up. They began to mimic sounds in our faces so that we would learn to talk, answered our endless questions about why things were the way things they were, encouraged us, guided us. Really it’s due to that kindness that we’re alive right now. If we think of all the endless rebirths, the endless mothers, actually it’s not so hard to think that every single being could have been our mother. Every person in this room has been our mother and, in every single instance, that mother has been incredibly kind, unbelievably kind, has given us so much.

Let’s think now about them too, our countless mothers taking rebirths since beginningless time, over and over, living as hungry ghosts, living as sea creatures on the bottom of the ocean forever, and so on. All of these existences are in the nature of suffering, every one of them. So our hearts open up to them too. And through the kindness of our mothers, the kindness of our teachers, the kindness of more beings than we can ever imagine, here we sit in the meditation hall at Sravasti Abbey with an opportunity to spend 30 days on this practice with Manjushri, developing our own wisdom, developing our compassion, creating the causes to get ourselves out of this cycle of existence.

We know getting ourselves out is not sufficient, really. It hardly seems fair because all of these kind mothers who have been with us since beginningless time also deserve to be happy. We have the capacity to help them out of that suffering, not right now, not right this minute, but every one of us has the potential to become a completely enlightened Buddha, as does every one of them. And so, right now, with this opportunity, we make a determination to use every single moment that we’re here, thinking about all of our mothers, thinking about our own wish to be free of this cycle of existence and we dedicate this whole practice, every bit of it, to the complete liberation and enlightenment of ourselves and all of those beings.

We have a chance to actually come to know how it really is possible for us to become buddhas. We have a chance to more deeply know the wisdom teachings that can cut through the ignorance that drives us, the ignorance that propels us to seek and get attached to everything that brings us pleasure, propels us to fiercely try to get away or destroy whatever gets in the way of that pleasure.

So, on behalf of that particular appearance or appearances who worked so hard to create the causes to bring us here, on behalf of all the mothers who have born us, cared for us, encouraged us, raised us, and showered us with their kindness. On behalf of our kind teacher, our teachers, who have given us everything they know, and continue to give to inspire us to let the flame of bodhicitta really burn and to ignite our desire to become completely enlightened on behalf of all of them, we set this clear, strong motivation for this Manjushri retreat, that we all use it as well as we possibly can, to create the causes for future precious human rebirths, to give us the opportunities again and again to move steadily toward complete and perfect enlightenment so that we can liberate all these mothers, every one of them, from all suffering and lead them into happiness.

So with that motivation really strongly in our hearts, we’ll read the auspicious verses that begin the Manjushri sadhana.1

[In unison]:


I make humble obeisance to you, great Tsongkhapa,
Personification of Manjushri in human form with all the marks and signs of perfection.
Your magnificent attainments were nurtured in the matrix of motherly method and wisdom combined
Of which the vibrant syllable DHIH is an embodiment.

Sipping the nectars of the profound teachings
Directly from Manjushri´s masterly eloquence,
You realized the heart of wisdom.

Inspired by your example, I will now set out
A description of the steps for actualization
Of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom,
In accord with your realization.


In my heart I turn to the Three Jewels of refuge. May I free suffering beings and place them in bliss. May the compassionate spirit of love grow within me that I may complete the enlightening path. (3X)

The four immeasurables

We pause between the four immeasurables and then, when we finish the last one we will be in silence and just continue the sadhana for another 25 to 30 minutes.

[In unison]:

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.

[Continuation of the sadhana in silence]

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into either a highest yoga tantra practice or the 1000-Armed Chenrezig practice). Otherwise, please do the front-generation sadhana

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.

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