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Emotions, refuge, and emptiness

Emotions, refuge, and emptiness

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

  • Sleep patterns during retreat
  • How are the continuum of the mind and the continuum of the body connected?
  • How to contemplate fear of a lower rebirth
  • Identifying the object to be negated when meditating on emptiness

Manjushri Retreat 07: Q&A (download)

Audience: Venerable, I was just wondering why ignorance is one of the six disturbing attitudes, and why it doesn’t have its own supreme category, like above the other five; because if you nail that one, then you’re in good shape, right? It’s so powerful.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, root affliction also means that that’s the root of them and the secondary ones. So you can see some of the secondary afflictions are branches of attachment, branches of anger; so for that reason. But within those six root ones, you can say ignorance is the root of samsara. But also, it’s interesting, I’ve just thought of this, this is just my own hypothetical thing: because in the Pali version you eliminate ignorance at the very end, but there are also other ones that you eliminate at the same time as ignorance. But still, there [too] ignorance is said to be the root one. So I don’t know. If you want to put ignorance in its special category and the other five as something else; it’s just a way of categorizing things.

Retreats and sleep needs

VTC: So, how’s the retreat going?

Audience: Venerable, I found that it’s probably the most exceptional thing that I’ve ever done. It’s been really difficult. And today I was so fatigued and tired. I feel that the energy has shifted. Usually when I’ve gone to retreats in the past, I can go to bed and fall asleep immediately. And through this retreat I’m still sleepy in the morning, but I don’t allow myself to nap. In the evening I’ve been getting some physical exercise, and the energy increases to the point when it’s time to go to bed, I’m just wired. And that has never happened to me, ever, never. And it’s been very frustrating through the whole retreat. I’ve only been getting three to five hours of sleep a night. And it’s amazing: I can stop the mind so that there’s nothing going on, but it’s still going on. I wanted to comment and see what you had to respond.

VTC: You know many people find that when they’re in retreat they don’t need to sleep as much, because your mind is calmer and your mind isn’t filled with so much rubbish. So you may not need to sleep as much.

Audience: You know, that doesn’t sound right. It may be right, but it doesn’t sound right.

VTC: You know we get very attached to our sleep. And we get very attached not only to our sleep, but to the idea of sleeping. Because they say this happens as you grow older too, like our older parents—they don’t need to sleep as much. But sometimes they feel so frustrated because they go to bed at the same time. Their bodies don’t need as much sleep, so they don’t fall asleep. And then they say, “Oh, but I’m not getting enough sleep, this isn’t good for me.” And so they’re creating a disturbance where there’s no need for one because their bodies are actually doing fine without quite as much sleep.

Audience: So we just put a night light out in the gompa?

VTC: [laughter] Are you saying that you go to sleep later and so that you’re tired in the morning?

Audience: No, no, I’ve always been a night person. Morning has always been a challenge, like always. But now the energy just seems to increase throughout the day.

VTC: Yes, many people find that in retreat, really, like I said. And they find they don’t need to sleep as much because, my theory is, when I look at myself, “Why is it that I get tired?” It’s because there’s too much nam tok going on in my mind. Nam tok is this Tibetan expression for proliferating thoughts. When we have a lot of disturbing emotions, when our mind’s really emotional, we get tired more easily, don’t we? When we have lots of these useless thoughts and ruminations and this and that and the other thing, we get tired more easily. When we’re in an environment where there’s a lot of sense stimulation, it becomes exhausting and we need more sleep. At least this is what I find. When you’re in retreat and you don’t have such sense stimulation, your mind doesn’t have quite as many ruminating thoughts, then you don’t need as much sleep. And don’t worry about it. Don’t create a worry about not getting enough sleep if your body is okay without it.

Audience: I just physically, like today you know, perhaps I’ve reached a breaking point or something.

VTC: Well, then take a nap. See what happens. How do you feel now?

A boy squatting down with his hands covering his head.

When we have a lot of disturbing emotions, when our mind’s really emotional, we get tired more easily, don’t we? (Photo by Tjook)

Audience: There’s more energy now, but of course doesn’t last the entire day. Another thing too, because there still is a lot of nam tok with meditation, with fighting kind of with the old existing I and new concepts. And it just seems like sometimes that it hurts, it physically hurts from the internal back-and-forth and trying to figure out what the ego is doing. And then it’s tapping it down and saying, “Okay, what have you been up to?” Turns out that they (the ego) decided they were the ones that were going to be Manjushri, and my mind is going, “Oh, my God!” That’s a lot of work, going through that process.

VTC: Right, it is a lot of work. And so at the beginning you do spend a lot of energy on that. But try also to approach the meditation in a very gentle way. Some people you can see as soon as they close their eyes to meditate, they get a little narrow here [pointing between the eyebrows]. Have you noticed? That’s going to make you tight in your meditation, so really be careful when you close your eyes that your face is really relaxed. And that you’re not somehow starting [with facial tension], “Oh, I’m meditating now.”

How to handle sadness and crying

Audience: In the sadhana, where it says the DHIH transforms into light and your ordinary appearance and grasping vanish, does that ever really happen? And the other question is am I ever going to stop crying? So in my mind the connection is that my ordinary grasping doesn’t want to let go very easily, so that’s what I cry about.

VTC: Are you crying a lot?

Audience: Oh, yeah!

VTC: Why? What’s going on?

Audience: It’s like I sit down, I take refuge, I start to cry. I think the people around might be tired of it. This afternoon it was just like, “Okay, we finished preta offering, it’s time to go in the hall.” I realize I wanted to start to cry. It’s like, “Oh, I’m so tired of this!”

VTC: Are there certain thoughts that are going on?

Audience: The mind seems to be quite creative, you know, pick anything. And like, “Five years ago the puppy got hit by a car,” then I can cry about that. Or, “Gee, I had doubts about my asking price when I sold my house seven years ago,” and I can cry about that. But I don’t think that that’s why I’m crying. Sure I can come up with a story, but I don’t feel actually like there’s a lot of attachment. It’s almost like grieving that didn’t get done in the immediate situation. It’s just seems like there’s lots of grieving.

VTC: So there are a lot of thoughts about loss?

Audience: No, just the emotion of grieving, not thoughts.

VTC: Just the emotion of grieving …

Audience: Yes, like I said, I find my mind’s fairly creative with coming up with a story that will go with the emotional state. But it’s like just the grieving or the crying, it’s just there first; like there’s absolutely no dependence on the thoughts. That’s why I was thinking like, “Maybe this is just like my ordinary appearance and grasping, is my ego going to let go?” It’s like totally putting up a fight or something.

VTC: What’s your sense about what lies behind the crying? Do you feel that it is ego not wanting to let go of your identity? Do you feel it’s attachment to things that happened in the past and loss from the past that you’re only grieving now? Do you feel it’s anger from the past that’s coming out as tears now? What’s your sense?

Audience: Not anger, I don’t know. I have to really sit with that and have an answer to that question. But if you have a magic pill to make me quit crying that would be great.

VTC: I think you’ll just stop, K. Just stop. You don’t need to cry. Okay?

Audience: So today at the last session that we did, at the beginning of it, as I felt that emotion come up, I was just like, “I’m not going to cry for this session.” And so then what came up was just sleepiness. And I kept catching myself, that I fell asleep. But I just stayed with the sadhana and then it was like at some point that sleepiness, that dulling out, it was like a palpable letting go. And that was fine. And then I wasn’t sleeping the rest of the session.

VTC: Yes. That happens. It’s not sleepiness from lack of sleep.

Audience: No. Oh, no. No, it was just like, “Fine, if you’re not going to cry, you’re going to fall asleep!” And I was like, “I’m not.” I was just like, “Keep going back to the sadhana!”

VTC: Yes. So you just keep going back to what you need to do.

Audience: I did that for the crying too, as I just keep going.

VTC: I think it’d be good if you got some exercise.

Audience (other): She shovels [snow] a lot.

VTC: Good! Now I think that the exercise is good, and looking out at long views is good.

Audience: What things I thought is that although I shovel a lot, I haven’t gone for a walk, maybe I’d walk.

VTC: Yes, that can be really helpful, looking long views as well. And if we have any of the loong tea (Tibetan tea), do we have any of the loong tea left? Yes? So that would be good to take. And then: you stop crying. Got it?

Audience: Yep. All that said is a magic pill. [laughter]

How to deal with “good” and “bad” sessions

Audience: Any insights about going from one session to the next? It’s not that the particular sessions would be dry, but in some ways I can be so into the feeling of the visualization one session and then in the next session it’s like, I just go through the sadhana, it’s just like, bunk! It’s just the craziness, but I’m not comparing one session with another, but it’s just like …

VTC: You aren’t? [laughter] He’s not comparing the sessions: his mind feels like cardboard and last session it felt like Manjushri.

[Audience inaudible]

VTC: Oh, okay! Yes, sometimes the visualization’s clear, and the mind’s clear, and the meditation’s powerful. And the next session the mind is like a flat tire. It happens like that, doesn’t it? So it’s a thing of setting habits, creating new habits, learning to deal with whatever’s happening in the mind at a certain time, and letting go of expectations and desires to have a continual series of magnificent meditations.

Audience: It’s not only attachment to that. It’s almost like there is a disconnect, that it’s different. But one of the things I’ve done, especially if I’d have that sense early in the session, when the sessions were kind of back to back, I’d go start doing the mantra without a lot of the preliminaries in the sadhana. And it seems to not necessarily evoke a different feeling, but it kind of short circuits that a little bit. And because the practice hasn’t been like a big long break, but I come back so that it seems to energize it, or at least if nothing else, it creates a diversion rather than being stuck.

VTC: Well, that’s one of the things. Normally if you have a really long sadhana you do the complete version in the morning and the evening. And your middle sessions are shorter, because you’ve just came from a session, so you don’t need to spend a long time doing all the visualization in detail in the other sessions. So you can go right into them. Speed it up and go right to the mantra. So that’s a nice thing about these practices. Don’t think that you have to do it all at the same speed and have the same feeling in each session. Like you said, if you start and your mind isn’t so interested in what’s going on there, then speed it up a little bit and get to the part you’re more interested in, or the part that mind’s interested in that session.

Now, what you might also look at is this thing of feeling that you keep calling a disconnect. You have one feeling and then the mind is in another state that feels so disconnected. How often does that happen in your life? Look back a little bit. Sometimes you’re really plunged in and you’re there; and then sometimes your mind goes into some kind of disconnected state. And just see if that’s maybe some kind of mental habit that’s playing up here too. Okay? Does that make some sense?

Audience: Yes. And then actually one of the things that I really appreciate about the sadhana is that whole sense that the sadhana is designed for things to be changing. To me that’s the part when, just like you said, to be able to change the speed, it can be so really effective. Just when I can get in touch with what is really important and makes the practice, regardless of what’s going on, meaningful. I don’t know a better word for it.

VTC: And sometimes what you can do you just put the whole text aside and you just do the visualizations and you make up the words of the prayer yourself to express that meaning. So you’ve got to be creative with this. You know, I had a friend who had a bakery in Montana. She had some really good cookies, but whenever she made them, they always looked the same, they always tasted the same. And if you have a bakery, your cookies have to be always the same because people are coming to buy it with the expectation of getting what they got last time. But when you make homemade cookies, you don’t expect them always be the same, do you? Because even if you follow the same recipe, they’re always going to be different and that’s the neat thing about homemade cookies, is that you’re not sure how they’re going to turn out. Because sometimes they’re flat and big and sometimes they’re small and bumpy, so they’re different each time, aren’t they? And you make any kind of cookie and when they’re homemade cookies none of them have the same shape. And that’s nice, isn’t it?

Mind and body connection

Audience: I’m having some good meditations on emptiness. And I’m getting to see my wrong views about inherent existence. But there is one piece that I can’t seem to let go of, which is how the mindstream continuum and the continuum of the body, how they stay joined to each other. How they stay connected. I know that we grab this body, within the bardo, we grasp at a body and we end up connected with the physical form at the time of conception. But how that’s conjoined? And how it stays connected when the mind is not a physical presence? It’s something that’s just impossible.

VTC: You mean how the mind stays connected to the body? I think it’s through the winds, through the energy winds, because at the time of death all the winds are dissolving.

Cultivating the causes of refuge

Audience: So when they explain about the causes of refuge they say fear and faith. When they talk about fear they talk about fear of the lower realms, and I don’t really have that, because I’m not so bought into the lower realms in any way that creates any vividness for me. So I’m wondering if it’s acceptable to more just think about it in terms of causality, and look all the crazy mind states that I have that are …

VTC: Do you believe in rebirth?

Audience: Yes, I do. I have some sense of rebirth …

VTC: Do you want to have a good rebirth and not a bad rebirth?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Do you have some concern of having a bad rebirth?

Audience: That’s what I think I don’t have enough of. I really feel like there’s a part of my mind that is too much on the intellectual side. I’m trying to make it more like a motivator, more real. And I can think of it more in terms of whether I really do believe in that verse from Shantideva where he talks about darkness in the night and a flash of lightning and our virtuous thoughts are just that brief. And that I can see. And I try to think of it more in terms of causality for the things that are very tangible to me. But when I try to tie this to rebirth in the lower realms, I just like …

VTC: Okay, if it makes more sense, you can think of having a human rebirth with a lot of handicaps and difficulties, think of that. But then spend some time, and maybe it helped me because when I was in school I did drama. When you do drama you have to pretend to be all these things and really feel the way they are, and that’s the way you are. And so here’s Manju [the house cat walked in], right now, when I was going to make an example about him. Think of what Manju’s day is like. And think of what it would be like to have to be Manju and for that to be the extent of your capacity to think, being so close to the Dharma, and yet so far away, no? And so really do that.

Audience: It’s quite tangent to me when I think of meeting people who have profound mental impairments. And I can imagine being born like that and the profoundly impaired. You can say anything to them. It seems like, unless I’ve seen it, it’s hard for me to transform myself that way. So when I think of the hungry ghosts I always think about people with addictions and myself overrun with craving.

VTC: Yes, well think about that picture of [a woman addicted to methamphetamines] when we went to Airway Heights [the local prison].

Audience: So maybe I’ll maybe just stick with that.

VTC: No, try the animal realm, you’ve seen and experienced that.

Audience: Right. Yes.

VTC: So stretch it a little bit. Do human but also try and imagine being born as an animal.

Negating inherently existent “I” and the body

Audience: Venerable, I have one thing that’s bugging me a little bit and this is been going on for a while. But the more I’ve been looking for the object to be negated, in someway it seems like that “I” is getting more and more vivid. I actually feel like it’s gotten so vivid that it can’t possibly be the object to be negated. I’m also a little bit worried that I’m spending time with something that is so off base.

VTC: How does it come up?

Audience: Well, in the meditation, when I remember the situations when I felt really embarrassed or really caught, those are the things that evoke it.

VTC: That’s what they say.

Audience: It seems right, but they also say that it’s so important that you get it right and somehow now it seems so clear to me, that I can’t believe that this is really it.

VTC: Well, of course it takes some refining to get to the exact object of what the Prasangikas are talking about. But if you’re getting a strong feeling of I that seems very real, that seems threatened, that you have to defend and protect, analyze that one. Look at that one.

Audience: Yes, that’s the one I’m using, but I wanted to make sure I’m not getting it wrong.

VTC: Well, that’s what they say to look for. And then of course as your Prasangika understanding gets more refined, then it becomes clearer. So you know what to look for, but still, just seeing it, seeing this big feeling of I being there is good. Most of us have it so often we’re just oblivious, and it goes right by.

Audience: So taking up from there. So then doing that; and then working on not finding that “I” anywhere; and then there’s still some clumpy lumpy body and I just feel so solid?

VTC: Then you haven’t really negated the I.

Audience: But the body is not disappearing. I mean it feels more cement-like and solid than ever.

VTC: Then your mind’s not on emptiness, it’s on the body. Isn’t it? Because if your mind’s on emptiness, then you’re not going to be feeling the physical tangibility of your body, because your mind is going to be on something else. When you’re thinking about chocolate, you’re not going to be thinking about purple, are you?

Audience: Right. There’s just, I don’t know, also something very frustrating going on in the self-generation 1 thing for me.

VTC: Yes. Well that’s very normal because our body feels inherently existent. It’s not just the “I”; it’s the body. So that’s why when we do things it sometimes feels like, “Well, but I’m still me, but I’m just superimposing Manjushri here. But I’m still me because I still feel my body. And my body’s here, my body is me.” So then go through and mediate on the emptiness of the body. What is this body?

Audience: Well, it feels like the body isn’t me, but there is a body.

VTC: Right, that’s why we meditate on the emptiness of the body, because you’re holding on to the body as being truly existent.

Audience: Ah, okay.

VTC: And so then you might feel a certain physical sensation in the body; and say, “Is that my body?” Well no, that’s just a feeling of heaviness. Or you feel another sensation, “Is that sensation my body?” No, that’s just pressure from the floor, that’s not the body.

Audience: Yes, I think I’ve been more on the mind and the me and less on the body.

VTC: And see that there’s nothing here that is an inherently existent body. The body just exists by being merely labeled. And the body’s made up of all these things that aren’t bodies, because if you look at any of the arms, and legs, and intestines, and teeth, and all these things, none of them are bodies. So the body’s made of no body things. And then how do you know you have a body; it’s just all these different sensations. But are any of those sensations the body? So what’s this body? I don’t know what my body’s feeling now. Well, what body’s feeling that?

Audience: Yes, I still mostly end up dressed up as Manjushri.

VTC: Yes. Mediate on the emptiness of the body. Go to the selflessness of phenomena instead of the selflessness of persons.

Mantra of emptiness

Audience: The mantra that comes in between meditating on emptiness and then sort of resting in that feeling or that experience of emptiness …

VTC: Om sobhava shuddoh sarva Dharma sobhava shuddho ham?

Audience: Why is there a mantra that splits those two pieces apart? It seems almost counter intuitive at times?

VTC: Yes, like because it says to meditate on emptiness and then say the mantra. I always say the mantra and then meditate on emptiness. It just feels better that way, because the mantra reminds you of where you want to get your mind. I cheat. I’m teaching you my bad habits. [laughter]

Audience: Is that okay?

VTC: I don’t know.

Audience: It feels like it leads into it.

VTC: Yes, it feels much more natural.

  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 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.