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Distractions, the mind, and compassion

Distractions, the mind, and compassion

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

  • Dealing with distractions
  • Meditating on emptiness using the four-point analysis
  • If the afflictions are overcome by emptiness why do we need to develop bodhicitta?
  • What is the difference between the mind of clear light and the alaya?
  • How is the mind different from the soul?
  • Is compassion instinctive or does it need to be developed?

Manjushri Retreat 06: Q&A (download)

Questions, comments, how are you doing? What’s coming up in your meditation? What’s going on?

Meditation distractions—memories

Audience: It’s not disturbing necessarily, but something that I’ve not experienced before: just names and faces a lot. When I was listening to you in the teaching: it doesn’t seem particularly like attachment. I mean just names of clients. And just kind of like dispersed in a good meditation or a bad meditation. Any thoughts?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Oh, yes! This is just the mind regurgitating all the imprints that have been put on it. And Venerable Chogkyi, when she was here, the very tall American nun, she was sharing with us, because she did a six-year retreat. She said it all comes up in the mind. And you remember all the jingles that you’ve heard. And she was going, “A horse is a horse of course, of course.” That’s what she had remembered. Somebody else remembered, “The ants go marching two by two.” Actually we got this very nice card from the Bhavana Society, a Christmas card. But I want you to see it after the retreat because it had the melody of “Silent Night” but with Buddhist words and you’ll be going through that.

Audience: They ruined my meditation for at least two days. Because it’s such a familiar tune but the lyrics are quite nice. It’s very peaceful and very inspiring. But then as soon as you think of the virtuous lyrics, the tune comes back in your head.

VTC: So this is all this stuff, I mean you remember all sorts of stuff you haven’t thought of and whatever. So you just let it rise and let it go. Don’t hang on to it.

The mind as having radiance

Audience: I found this idea in books: that the mind has some quality of radiance? But I don’t know from which school of tenets it comes. So I thought, the mind has some kind of radiance, so then the mind kind of starts doing creative writing.

VTC: No, when it’s talking about the mind having radiance, often, not always, but many times (because you have to see the individual situation, how they’re using it) but often it’s talking about, when you’re developing states of samadhi, the mind becomes very bright, very radiant, very peaceful. That’s one situation in which radiance is used. It’s used in other situations too.

Lucid dreaming versus distractions

Audience: What is lucid dreaming first of all? And if that’s what I’m experiencing, why?

VTC: Lucid dreaming is dreaming when you’re aware that you are dreaming. Is that what you’re experiencing? Okay. Why you’re experiencing it—probably because your mind is a little bit quieter and more mindful, more aware of what’s going on, so you can see these different states clearer. If you’re lucid dreaming, a few ways to work with it is to …. Because when you’re lucid dreaming you know when you’re dreaming that you’re dreaming. So you know that what you’re dreaming about isn’t real, but that it’s still appearing to the mind even though it is not real. So you can use that as an example of how things exist on the level of appearance, but they’re empty of true existence. Because in our awake time things appear to us but they don’t exist the way that they appear. And an analogy is a dream because dream objects appear but they don’t exist in the way they appear. So it can be helpful for just getting that in our mind, “Oh, things appear but they don’t necessarily exist the way they appear.”

Another thing you can do in lucid dreaming is to try feeling, thinking, acting, and speaking differently than you usually do. So if you’re aware that you’re dreaming and there’s a monster, then talk to the monster instead of just our usual thing, “Ahhh!” You know, making it into a nightmare. Sit down and talk to the monster in your dream. So do something in a different way that might be a better way. Try out different behaviors or different ways of looking at situations in your dream that you wouldn’t necessarily think of doing in your waking life.

Audience: I appreciate that. For a couple of days I tried to explain it. I guess it was kind of like revisiting Jefferson Airplane because it was just so much stuff popping in and out. And it was so confusing. Kind of like, “Wow! What part, what was that?

VTC: In the dreams? But you were aware that you were dreaming?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Okay, the stuff’s coming and you don’t have to react to it. Because often when you’re doing some purification in the mind, all sorts of stuff comes up. But we don’t have react to it and take everything as real serious.

Audience: Because then I’d have to completely focus real hard to come back to my meditation. Then I thought, “Well then, joyous effort was the tool,” but then I was thinking, “Well, it’s kind of covering all that stuff up. Where is it going to be? Is it still just going to be down there?

VTC: Well, when you’re saying “lucid dreaming” you’re talking about when you’re in bed asleep, right?

Audience: No, I’m talking about in meditation.

VTC: Oh, that’s not lucid dreaming, that’s distraction.

Audience: Just something that you don’t know where it came from or what it is?

VTC: Yes, that’s just distraction. Lucid dreaming is when you’re asleep and you know that you’re asleep and you know you are dreaming. But when we’re in the hall and we’re awake—kind of like what the other retreatant was saying, the names of clients and all this rubbish from years ago is all coming, this is just the mind spewing forth of all this stuff that we’ve put in before. Sometimes I see it as the mind’s kind of vomiting all this stuff it doesn’t need. So you vomit it, and then it’s gone, you leave it. But you don’t get locked into it. So if you’re remembering all this stuff from years ago, don’t get locked in and like, ”Oh yeah, I remember! And they did this and I did this. And someone did this. And why didn’t I do this? And I should have done that.” Don’t get locked into it. That image comes and it goes.

If you find yourself getting locked into it, because I often do, you know, the emotion of a situation comes back very strongly. Then what I do is I say, “Okay, here’s that situation. If instead of me being in that situation, it were Manjushri, how would Manjushri think, and feel, and act in that situation?” So if it wasn’t deluded me reacting whenever I hear some harsh word or something disagreeable, all my buttons being pushed, and how radioactive I am, reacting to everything. How would Manjushri look at this situation? “Okay, somebody stole my stuff. How would Manjushri look at it?” And train my mind to think like Manjushri. Say, “Well, Manjushri wouldn’t mind.” Why wouldn’t Manjushri mind? How would Manjushri think? He’s not just sitting there stuffing the anger down. He has a particular way of understanding it. Maybe he’s looking at this person who ripped my stuff off and saying, “Wow, that person’s creating the cause for his own unhappiness. How can I be angry at him?” Or, “That person, clearly they must have needed this.” So what would Manjushri do? Manjushri would just give it to him. So then I give it to them mentally.

Audience: I thought I was only insane for a while! [Joking]

Emptiness meditation and the four-point analysis

VTC: Next comment, question.

Audience: I’m having a little trouble with the emptiness meditation. So I’ve been reading and I went over the four-point analysis. This is a big question that can lead to a lot of discussion, but maybe you just give me some guidance on the four-point analysis. I have a little trouble not identifying “I” with the mind. I can’t seem to get a visual or something, give me some guidance for how to concentrate on that one.

VTC: Okay, so how do we see that the “I” isn’t the mind?

Audience: Right.

VTC: Well, look at it as: if “I” were the mind, then what would happen? If “I” were the mind, then first of all, we wouldn’t even need the word I, we could just use the word mind. So we would say, “Mind is walking down the street,” and, “Mind is taking a bath.” Is that correct? No. So we can’t just say that the “I” is the mind because everything the “I” does, the mind doesn’t necessarily do. They are different things. Sometimes the word use is like we could say, “I’m thinking,” or, “The mind is thinking.” But we can’t say, “I’m walking down the street” as “Mind is walking down the street.” We can say, “I stubbed my toe.” But we can’t say, “Mind has stubbed its toe.” So they’re different.

Another way to do it is: Well, if they were the same, then why do you even need a self? Why do you need an “I” at all? Because “I” needs to be doing something different than mind. So if we say, “Oh, but there’s still the ‘I’.” Well, what’s the “I” doing that neither the body nor the mind is doing? Because if everything you say about the “I” refers to the body and mind, then what’s special about the “I”? Because sometimes we’ll come to it, “Oh, I am the one that thinks.” Well, no, mind is the one that thinks. It’s mind that’s thinking. On the basis of that I say, “I’m thinking.” But it’s actually mind thinking. So what is “I” doing? What is “I” doing that neither the body nor the mind is doing?

Audience: And then in the visualizations that I do with that? I mean phrasing it that way is going to help, I can contemplate that for a while. But then even just visualizing it, and this is probably where it just takes a while to get my mind wrapped around the concept. Because if I can accept the points, then trying to visualize, and I’m going to say conventional, “Who am I?” trying to visualize that, and it’s like I become this distorted thing.

VTC: What are you visualizing?

Audience: I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get a visualization going.

VTC: You mean when you’re coming out of …

Audience: Visualizing. Trying to meditate on emptiness and moving into the visualization.

VTC: Oh, when you’re meditating on emptiness, you’re not visualizing anything.

Audience: Okay, right. Contemplate on what …

VTC: Yes, you’re contemplating that and when you get some kind of conclusion, just kind of stay in a quiet mind. Try and stay in a quiet mind without this big “I” in it. Okay? Or whatever feeling you get from doing the meditation on emptiness. Stay in that feeling, that experience. But at least something that’s quiet without a big “I”. And then you think: “Within things not having their own inherent nature, then the whole visualization arises within that way of existing.”

Audience: Okay, so I want to just have that feeling going into the visualization without trying to make a visual transition into it.

VTC: Yes. You can’t just visualize emptiness. Because visualization is very much identified with the “I”, isn’t it?

Audience: Okay. Well that’s where I was struggling and you gave me a better phrasing to contemplate the emptiness—that I’m also not transitioning properly either.

VTC: Yes, so there just stay in the feeling of like there’s no big me sitting here.

Audience: Okay, that’s going to help.

VTC: And there’s no big anybody sitting here. There’s no big room around me either.

Audience: Okay, that’s good enough. Thank you.

The role of bodhicitta on the path

Audience: I realize I don’t quite understand the role of bodhicitta on the path. Because it could seem like, you can purify and remove all the afflictions and so on, but using wisdom, and then the Buddha nature remains, let’s say. So that bodhicitta, what could it be? It could be a method to give you energy, or it could make something that can make everything more joyful because you’re helping others. But then, just in the fact like you need to purify all this to arrive at that, there’s no bodhicitta involved in that! Where does it come?

VTC: Okay, so you’re saying that since the afflictions can all be overcome by wisdom, why in the world do we need bodhicitta? So if you want to attain the liberation of an arhat, then you don’t need bodhicitta. You use wisdom to liberate your own mind. You get rid of the afflictions yourself. You attain liberation. But what bodhicitta does is, bodhicitta expands our mind so that we’re not just doing our spiritual practice for our own benefit, but we’re doing it for the benefit for all beings. And we’re doing it not just because we want to attain liberation ourselves and free ourselves from all afflictions, but because we want to remove all the stains from our mind. So then we’ll have the best equipment to be able to benefit other beings. So it’s the wisdom that cuts the afflictions, but it’s the bodhicitta that sets the stage for what we’re going to do. The bodhicitta sets the stage for why we’re cutting the afflictions.

Audience: Well, why wouldn’t it be just enough having compassion for yourself to spin it off?

VTC: Why wouldn’t it be enough just to have compassion? Why generate bodhicitta when you can just have compassion?

Audience: Why isn’t it enough just to want liberation for your self?

VTC: Okay, why isn’t wanting liberation for yourself sufficient? Because there is everyone else sitting here!

Audience: I think perhaps the phrasing is not right when they say that you have removed all the afflictions …

VTC: Then you’ve attained liberation, you dwell in peace, and the world is as chaotic as before and you’re not offering it any direct help. You stopped harming others because you’re now sitting in your own nirvana. But everybody else here who’s made it possible for you to attain your own nirvana, you’ve gone off on your own nirvana and left the rest of us sitting here.

Audience: I think I understand now. I think I confused Buddhahood with nirvana.

VTC: Yes. Because with bodhicitta you want full Buddhahood. With nirvana, you don’t need bodhicitta to attain nirvana.

Clear light mind, alaya consciousness, soul, general and specific “I”

Audience: What’s the difference between the mind of clear light and the alaya? Because they both seem to me … like you could grasp at …

VTC: Okay, the difference between the mind of clear light and the alaya. The alaya is a defiled mind state. Well, they say it’s a neutral mind state, but it’s the one from the Chittamatra viewpoint, that is where all the karmic imprints are piled on to. So it’s a neutral mind but it has all this other stuff on it. And the alaya is not the most subtle mind that comes from dissolving all the winds into the central channel. The alaya from the Prasangika viewpoint doesn’t exist. It’s something that Chittamatrins made up. [laughter]

Audience: But it’s the same thing of something there which is the base, continuously, which is the base for everything else. They seem the same thing.

VTC: Well, no they’re quite different. First of all, the alaya is truly existent, because Chittamatrins accept true existence. So the alaya is truly existent, the mind of clear light is not truly existent. That’s one real big difference between them.

Audience: What isn’t it truly existent?

VTC: Because nothing is truly existent. [laughter] Because it exists by being merely labeled. See, this is why some people are really drawn to the idea of alaya—is our mind makes it into some kind of soul. And it’s very dangerous having the Chittamatra viewpoint in this way because it’s so easy to make the alaya into something, to reify it into something like a soul. And there’s something very comfortable: “There’s the alaya. That’s the thing that’s unchanging about me.”

Audience: I found that that’s a place I get stuck, like the idea of a subtle mind that carries the karma from one rebirth to the next. And I find myself getting irritated, because it’s like, it sounds like it is talking about the soul. And that doesn’t exist, so…?

VTC: So how’s the mind different from the soul? First of all, the soul is unchanging. The mind is changing moment by moment by moment. The soul is the person. There is something unique about the soul that makes it inherently you. There’s nothing about the mind that makes it you. There is nothing personal about the mind, it’s just mental processes arising and ceasing, arising and ceasing. There’s no person in there, there’s no personality in there.

Audience: But sometimes it sounds, like even in the other day, you said, “Get in the habit of as soon as you wake up, you think: ‘How fortunate I am. I want to be of benefit today.’” Right? And then my memory is that you said, “Because one day you’re going to be waking up in another body.” And I’m just like, “No you’re not! K’s not!”

VTC: Yes, I did. I said, “One day we’ll be waking up in another body.” The word you is a conventional word. There are different ways of positing the person. There’s the general I, which is what is merely labeled in dependence upon whatever body and mind happens to be there at any time. And then there’s the specific I, which is merely labeled in dependence upon the body and mind of a particular life. So while K is not going to wake up into a future life, because K ceases when these aggregates cease. What we label “I”, which is labeled in dependence on whatever aggregates happen to be there in the continuum, that “I”, which is merely a label, that I wakes up into a next life. But that “I” is not the same thing as K.

Audience: Yes, it’s just my own irritation somehow with the semantics of it.

VTC: It’s a hard thing, because in another way you could say somebody else will wake up into other life. But the thing is, it is somebody else. You might be Harry in your next life. So Harry wakes up in the next life. But we call it “I” because K and Harry exist within the same continuum. In the same way that the Mississippi River in Iowa and the Mississippi River in Missouri exist within the same continuum. So you could say, one way of labeling, you could say the Mississippi in Missouri is totally different than the Mississippi in Iowa. But in another way because they are existing in the same continuum, you can just say Mississippi for both of them.

Audience: Actually compassion came a lot in my meditations, and maybe I’m lost in the woods, but I’m starting to bring up this analogy, like functional compassion. Like for example sex and desire for offspring is the driving force for biological form, compassion is the driving force of evolution maybe. For whatever you call it, like ecosystem.

VTC: Compassion is the driving force for evolution? What do you for mean?

Audience: Like for example if you think, “Okay, I’m K in this life, but then next life I don’t know who will be carrying the continuum, but yet I do want to do virtuous things to have my karma good for …”

VTC: Right, for whoever it is who is going to experience it.

Audience: But then, could it be come sort of natural force, that is instinctive and we just realize it when we purify enough, when we get the precious human life?

VTC: So you’re saying, is compassion instinctive in the mind or does it need to be consciously cultivated? Is that what you’re asking?

Audience: It’s maybe close to the definition of buddha mind, which is discovered.

VTC: Oh, there are different ways of looking at it. Compassion is a factor in our mind, it’s been there since beginningless time. Some people look at it as Buddha is already there and we just have to discover the buddha within us. From the school that we follow here, it’s said that we have the buddha nature within us, but we’re not already buddhas, because then we would be ignorant buddhas. We have compassion now. As we purify our mind, the compassion has more room to spread. But we also meditate to enhance the compassion and we have to develop it consciously as well.

Audience: Yes, but what carries that wish to do it. Like I have a friend and I talked about Buddhism and she said, “Well, answer a question: ‘I’m not going to be existing as me in my next life, so why am I doing so much work?’”

VTC: The person that you are when you’re 80 yrs old, is that the same person as you are now?

Audience: Yes, and I told her that too. But we still remember it.

VTC: Yes, but memory doesn’t …. Are you saying the same person at 80? No. But you work to benefit that person, don’t you? So we work to benefit that continuum in the future life as well even though it’s not the same person; because we’re not even the same person from one moment to the next, whether we remember it or not. Okay? I can’t remember what I did five years ago last Tuesday, does that mean that I don’t live in the continuum of that person who existed five years ago last Tuesday? Because I can’t remember it? No, I still live within that continuum.

Body restlessness versus mental distraction

Audience: I have a question from a retreatant from afar about the front-generation sadhana. There’s not a point where you visualize the DHIH at your heart. It just gets referenced after the image of the DHIH on your tongue.

VTC: Oh yes. Then just put it in there at some point. I rewrote it to make it a front-generation so people would have a sadhana, it’s really a self-generation sadhana.1

Audience: Then another question, probably more as a comment. “When I’m doing the lamrim, I find, I’ve been to that point, I can for the most part sit still, my body is starting to calm down a little bit more. But as soon as I hit a juicy piece of the lamrim where I’m really working and seeing something, my body goes nuts.

VTC: Because I would think if you’re working and seeing something, your mind is more concentrated, in which case you wouldn’t be thinking about your body.

Audience: I don’t know what it is. The body says, “Switch. Move. Do something different.”

VTC: Well, maybe it’s because you’re hitting on something important and body wants some distraction. Mind’s creating some distraction through the body. I’m coming close to being honest with myself. “Oh! Got to go pee!” “My knee hurts, got to move it!” [laughter]

What does Manjushri see and do?

Audience: I’m having a problem at the end. I never can do the last part, which is visualizing yourself as Manjushri, or at least imagining a Manjushri somewhere at your heart. Because you come and you’re asked to shovel snow.

VTC: Manjushri puts the sword down and picks up the snow shovel. [laughter]

Audience: Also if I were Manjushri, I wouldn’t perceive, see what I see, right?

VTC: You would see all the snowflakes would be little Manjushris. And you would be saying, “Oh, I get to benefit sentient beings by clearing a path. May I clear the path to enlightenment for all sentient beings.”

Audience: Yes, but I would see reality as it is.

VTC: You would see it all as dependent arising and emptiness.

Audience: Yes, but would I still see the house?

VTC: Yes. Becoming a buddha doesn’t mean the house stops existing.

Audience: Yes, and the body hurts still.

VTC: You can become Buddha. The physical body still gets hungry, but the mind isn’t going to relate to the physical body being hungry in the same way that our ordinary mind relates to it.

Audience: I always end up saying, “Something to be continued.”

VTC: Good. Please continue to think about these things. These are good things to think about.

Self-generation sadhana visualization questions

Audience: So I’m having some trouble with some of the transitions visually in the self-generation.2 So the first one is dissolving everything into emptiness and finding some sense of emptiness. And then the very next thing seems to be, it says “In my heart there is my mind in the shape of an egg.” So there is this me there. Is that an ordinary me out of emptiness or what?

VTC: No, no. It’s not an ordinary you. It’s not like K comes back. But if you’re doing the self-generation, what it’s getting you to think about, if when you’re visualizing the egg, is that it’s here. So that you’re not thinking, “Oh, there’s an egg in front.” That’s why it says, “in my heart.”

Audience: Oh. But there’s no body that the egg is in.

VTC: Right.

Audience: So it could’ve said the mind appears here. It’s all of the language?

VTC: I know, it’s difficult because you’ve dissolved everything into emptiness. So how can you say, “at the level of my heart?” But even though we’ve dissolved it into emptiness, we still feel like there’s a heart there. So that’s the idea, that’s where we put the egg.

Audience: Yes, it’s like all the words seem so solid.

VTC: And you have to really loosen around the words.

Audience: Okay. So that’s one place. So that’s helpful. And then the second one is in the cutting ignorance. The I is lightly labeled on Manjushri, right? Then at Manjushri’s heart in the ghiku, the ordinary I appears with all these people?

VTC: With all the sentient beings, yes.

Audience: So the I is in two places at that point?

VTC: No. You’re Manjushri. You’re Manjushri, but you’re looking at that poor sentient being, K.

Audience: Okay. Who is no longer me.

VTC: Yes. It’s kind of like when you think of the person you used to be and you can have compassion for her.

Audience: Oh, okay. Alright. There. That’s it. I’ve just haven’t had a way to think about those. I’ve just been in confusion in those two places. Okay, but that helps. Thank you.

Audience: Also seeing in the self-generation about the wheel of swords and that they’re spinning all in different directions and you do them at your heart, if I do front-generation, how do I?

VTC: Don’t do that. That’s just a self-generation one. And people who are doing self-generation don’t do that visualization for very long.

Audience: What about the seven wisdoms?

VTC: The seven wisdom ones? You can do that as [part of] the front-generation because you just imagine all of that still dissolving into you. But when the light rays are going out and invoking the different things, they’re coming out of the front-generation Manjushri, and being invoked and then dissolving into you as who you are. Just don’t think K and visualize your body sitting like this. Again, try and loosen that sense of self

So, shall we dedicate again?

  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

  2. Please see Note 1 above. 

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.