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The disadvantages of cyclic existence: Part 1

The disadvantages of cyclic existence: Part 1

A series of commentaries on Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun by Nam-kha Pel, a disciple of Lama Tsongkhapa, given between September 2008 and July 2010.

  • Fourth of the four preliminary practices—the disadvantages of cyclic existence
  • Introduction to the six disadvantages
  • In-depth look at the first two disadvantages—uncertainty and dissatisfaction
  • Extensive question-and-answer section includes discussions about eating meat, dealing with jealousy, Dharma joy and the meaning of dukkha

MTRS 17: Preliminaries—Disadvantages of cyclic existence (download)

Cultivate motivation

Let’s cultivate our motivation. And here we are still alive for another week—and have the opportunity to listen to teachings once again. So let’s appreciate that opportunity. Let’s remember that the opportunity came about due to the kindness of so many other leaving beings. So it’s not solely through the creation of karma ourselves, that we have it. But all the people who built the internet, people who built the house, all the people who grew the food that fed us, so many things had to come together for us to be alive, and to be here, and to have the interest and opportunity to listen to teachings. And so other sentient beings were very involved in creating all of those situations. And so, let’s have a heart that appreciates what others have done for us. And a heart that knows that we really can’t survive on this planet on our own, that we’re very dependent on the kindness of others. And so let’s generate a mind that, instead of complaining about others, really appreciates them; and in fact wants to attain full enlightenment as a way to repay their kindness, by showing them the Dharma path. So let’s generate that bodhicitta motivation.

Questions and answers

The karma from eating meat

We had some questions from last week, I’ll start with those. Somebody asked if I could talk about the karma from eating meat. So this topic always comes up. And everybody gets very emotional about it, depending upon whether you like meat or don’t like meat, that’s what it hinges on. If you like meat, then the karma is one way, and if you don’t like meat the karma’s another way. Since you asked me. [laughter]

Actually I had a little revision here in my idea, because I had initially heard, in terms of eating meat, that: “Don’t eat meat from animal that you’ve killed yourself, that you have asked others to kill, or that you know has been killed for you.” That’s how I first learned it. However, in this past week I’ve been reading some Vinaya teachings from both Mulasarvastivada and the Dharmaguptaka tradition, and they both say, at least for monastics, that: “Don’t eat meat that you’ve seen being killed, that you’ve heard has been killed, or that you suspect has been killed.” That’s a whole different ball game, isn’t it? Which basically means that the animal has to die naturally; I mean, if you go in the supermarket, don’t you suspect that that meat came from an animal that was slaughtered? Yes, people don’t put the meat from animals that died naturally in the supermarket, I don’t think. So, there you go folks.

Distinguishing habit afflictions from karmic results

Audience: Regarding the experience similar to the cause, it’s the one: “I experienced this because I caused it in others,” Okay? So I criticized others therefore, I experience criticism. So this person is saying, how is it possible for a person to cause jealousy in another; or pride especially since pride is based on the wrong conception of self.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I don’t quite understand how that question fits in here because nobody’s saying that you feel jealousy because you made other people feel jealous. Yes, did you want to clarify your question?

Audience: I don’t think that I understood that, I thought that was the case.

VTC: No. You feel jealous because you have the seed of jealousy within you. Yes? And then you have the habit of conceiving situations in such a way that jealousy arises. So your jealousy doesn’t arise because of karma, it arises because of wrong conception mind.

Audience: So I was thinking that the habit of having your mind fall that way was due to karma.

VTC: Yes, well there’s a habitual tendency to have certain mental states over and over again. But I think that’s more of a mental habit. They do say, in terms of malice, that one of the results similar to the cause is that you have great anger in a future life, okay? And they put that down as one of the results that is similar to the experience, but it’s actually similar to the habitual energy of doing it. But in any case, I think that kind of thing, there might be some karma in terms of the mental action, the mental factor of intention, that’s together with that malice. But basically you have hatred and malice not because of karma, but because it’s affliction. It’s affliction that causes karma, not karma that causes affliction.

Audience: The reason this question came up because I realized in the back of my mind, it was almost like musak. Negative thinking was going on in the back of my mind almost like musak. I was doing other things on the surface, and thinking that’s kind of crazy or odd.

VTC: So you are saying that in the back of your mind there were lots of negative thoughts going on. That’s because of afflictions; that’s afflictions. We have the seeds of afflictions; we have the habit of afflictions, our afflictions are not subdued. So all it takes is tiny little thing and poof! They go from being in the afflictions in the seed form to the manifest afflictions.

Audience: Well, what’s interesting then, because I was thinking that the way to work with this was what you taught about the weight of karma. It really gave ways to combat these things; but actually I’m going out after the wrong thing then. But the only way to deal with that [afflictions] would be to realize emptiness.

VTC: That’s not the only way to deal with jealousy is to realize emptiness. Realizing emptiness wisdom is the ultimate antidote to get rid of jealousy, but there are many other antidotes too; like rejoicing and all sorts of other antidotes that are much easier to practice. When you do purification practice you can imagine that you’re purifying your jealousy, in the sense of, weakening the seed of the jealousy, weakening the habit of jealousy. So you can think of purifying the afflictions when you’re doing purification practice. But, you can purify, you can say as many mantra of Vajrasattva as you want, but that’s not going to cut the root of jealousy. Realizing emptiness is what’s going to eliminate it all together. But since realizing emptiness takes some time, then we use the other antidotes that are easier. Okay. Got it?

Dharma joy

Then the next question: What is Dharma joy and what are its causes? Okay, so I have a question for you: you just took bhikshuni ordination, did you feel happy?

Audience: Yes I did.

VTC: Don’t say but.

Audience: Yes I did, most definitely.

VTC: Okay. I don’t want any buts; I want a yes or no. You took the bodhisattva vows, did you feel happy?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Okay. [Now addressing various audience members:] You just learned a new meditation that you’re doing; do you feel happy with that?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Okay. And you’re doing retreat, intensely, for the first time; do you feel happy with that? Yes? Okay. So, is that Dharma joy? Okay! Yes. You have been doing retreat do you feel happy with what you have been doing? Yes. And you just took precepts; do you feel happy with that?

Audience: Yes, very.

VTC: Okay. So, that’s Dharma joy. Got it? What are its causes? Practicing Dharma, transforming your mind! Okay? So Dharma joy doesn’t mean you’re like [gesturing a wild grin], it’s not what we’re used to thinking of as happiness. But there’s a certain satisfaction in your life knowing that what you’re doing is meaningful. And that it’s going to bring about something good for yourself and others. And that it’s actually transforming your mind. So there’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes. [looking at the original questioner] She’s the champion of doubt. [laughter]

Audience: I had the same kind of joy when I was in relationships.

VTC: No you didn’t, no you didn’t!

Audience: It didn’t last!

VTC: No, you look. You spend some time in your meditation, the kind of happiness that you had when you were in a relationships and the kind of happiness that you have when you’re taking the bodhisattva vows. They’re very different. And the causes are very different. And the results are very different. So really investigate. Because see, that’s the thing, it’s like we all had some worldly happiness before, and it just seems so wonderful, but we forget what it’s actually like to have it, or we romanticize what it was actually like to have it. And then, you know, just check up, and see if it is the same quality of happiness that you get when you have Dharma happiness. You say it’s not, why not?

Audience: They are not the same at all.

VTC: How are they different?

Audience: Well, I’ve been meditating on this quite a bit, about attachment to my last significant relationship, and I’ll get in this unhappy place of missing that. I just sit down and go, “What was it really like?” Really put yourself back there, really be in the room with S and really remember, and it just poof goes. And then I can remember all the things that made me upset, that I didn’t like, you know, also nice, good things. It’s just a different ball game. It’s a completely different ball game. Also that’s very small, all things of just me and him, me and him, very small focus and the Dharma, the focus is huge, infinite.

VTC: Yes. So I’ll repeat what you said for the people. So you’re saying that it’s very very different. And sometimes, because you just left a major relationship, you feel longing and miss him and everything. But when you really go back and remember the nuts & bolts of what it was like: to be in the room, in the daily things that you did, you realize that you weren’t that happy during the whole thing. There were all these things you didn’t like and on and on. And then also, you realize that the way your mind was in the relationship was very narrow, there was the bubble of us two people. So it’s quite a small mind. Whereas, when you have a Dharma mind, and you’re happy because of that, the mind is very expansive. Yes, it’s quite different.

Audience: I’ve just been dealing with this also and the last few days I’ve been quite successful in my own mind it feels like. But I found when I go back like that, there is never a point in time in my past worldly life that there wasn’t just some tiny element of dissatisfaction with what I had. No matter what it is, it’s just something there: “It could have been better.” It’s not like, “Oh, yes, this is horrible.” It’s like, “Oh, if I had just got this a little bit different, it could have been, always it, ‘Could have been better.’”

VTC: So you’re seeing that with worldly happiness, that no matter how much you had in the past, you can go back and remember and it was nice, but it could have been better.

Audience: Always. And in the very moment that it was happening, in my mind, it’s like, “This could be better.”

VTC: So in the moment it was happening you still weren’t satisfied then.

Audience: Yes.

VTC: It was always, “It could have been better.”

Audience: Yes. And it’s because I’m expecting that it’s going to give me happiness, and it’s not, it can’t.

VTC: Yes, because when we expect that of something, that is going to give us happiness, we’re always left feeling short changed.

Joy, dukkha, and all pervasive suffering

Then we go on to the next part of this question: “How can joy be plausible, when we have all-pervasive suffering? Only an absence of suffering in a moment of mind seems plausible.” What does all-pervasive suffering mean, all-pervasive dukkha? Does that mean that you’re in pain every moment?

Audience: No, but the potential is there every moment.

VTC: The potential is there in every moment, but are you experiencing a painful feeling every moment? No. So are happy feelings possible?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Yes. Is joy possible?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Is it going to be a joy that can never disappear?

Audience: No.

VTC: Okay. You see this why I really think ‘suffering’ is a bad translation for the word “dukkha” because this really highlights the confusion that happens. Because we hear: “All pervasive suffering, Buddha said life was suffering.” “I’m suffering, everything’s suffering, there’s no possibility for happiness.” And if I have happiness, then, “I’m bad, because I’m supposed to be suffering, because Buddha said everything’s suffering.” That’s the way our mind thinks, isn’t it? Crazy, illogical, stupid, ridiculous; but when the words are unclear, and we’re bringing in all sorts of assumptions from how we grew up and what we learned as little kids, then we come to these weird sorts of conclusions. So all-pervasive dukkha does not mean that you’re experiencing painful feelings 24/7. Dukkha means unsatisfactory, it doesn’t mean suffering. It means unsatisfactory. Is samsara unsatisfactory?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Yes, 24/7 samsara is unsatisfactory because it’s never going to bring you any lasting happiness. But does that mean that there’s no happiness possible, and no joy possible? No. It does not mean that. Okay?

Audience: I’ll think about that.

VTC: Yes, you better think about it. Don’t translate it as the truth of suffering. It’s the truth of unsatisfactoriness. I prefer to say dukkha.

Is happiness virtuous? Is ignorance neutral?

[Next question] “With every moment of samsaric contact being associated with ignorance, this ignorance must be neutral for joy to be plausible.”

VTC: Let me ask you this, is feeling happiness virtuous or nonvirtuous? The feeling of happiness, is it virtuous or nonvirtuous?

Audience: Neither.

VTC: Neither. Is the feeling of pain virtuous or nonvirtuous?

Audience: Neither.

VTC: Neither, okay, is the cause of happiness virtuous or nonvirtuous?

Audience: Virtuous.

VTC: Virtuous. Is the cause of pain, virtuous or nonvirtuous?

Audience: Nonvirtuous.

VTC: Nonvirtuous. Okay. Whenever there’s a happy feeling in your mind, is your mind necessarily virtuous?

Audience: No. [laughter]

VTC: No! [laughter] Sounds like somebody with some experience. [laughter] When your mind is kind of sad, is it necessarily nonvirtuous?

Audience: No.

VTC: No. So you see, this is another thing that we get all confused; because we have good and bad, we have happy and painful, or happy and suffering, and then we have virtuous and nonvirtuous. So we say happiness is good, yes? Virtue is good. Therefore happiness equals virtue? No. Because the words good and bad are very confusing words, they’re very confusing. You can have a feeling of happiness in your mind, and your mind can be terribly nonvirtuous. And you can be kind of sober and have a sad feeling in your mind, and your mind can be very virtuous. So don’t get those things confused.

And by the way, ignorance is neutral in terms of virtue and nonvirtue. Because remember: virtue and nonvirtue talk about the ethical dimension of our actions. Happiness and suffering are feelings that we experience. How we react to the happiness and suffering creates virtue and nonvirtue. Okay? Because I could have happiness, and then go, “I want more, I want more. I’m going to get it anyway I want and I don’t care what I do to get it.” That’s nonvirtuous. I could have a happy feeling and say, “I want to share this with others.” That reaction to the happy feeling creates virtue. But the happiness itself isn’t virtuous or nonvirtuous.

I can have pain, and I can be angry at my pain, that anger is nonvirtuous. Or I can have pain and say, “This is a result of my own negative karma,” and kind of chill the mind out. And that mind is virtuous. So very important not to get these things confused. Because you can see how—often this comes from previous training; because sometimes we’re raised with the idea that if you do something bad you get punished. And so then we say, “Oh, nonvirtuous, punishment. They’re the same thing.” Like you get sick, “Oh, I’m getting punished. So I’m bad. So I’m nonvirtuous because I got punished.” No. The cause of the unhappiness, the cause of the difficult situation, was nonvirtuous; but the situation itself is neutral. How you react to that situation creates virtue or nonvirtue. Okay? Clear?

So for example, arhats: arhats who have cut off all ignorance, all of the three poisonous attitudes. They still experience pain. They still experience pain as result of previously created karma. But they don’t react to that pain by creating nonvirtue. So that’s it for the questions. Did you have anything to follow up on? Okay.

Fourth preliminary practice: The drawbacks of cyclic existence

So now we’re going to get into the fourth of the four preliminary practices. What was the first one? These are the preliminary practices in terms of the thought training practice. Remember the first point was: “First, train in the preliminaries.” What was the first one?

Audience: Precious human life.

VTC: Precious human life; and the second one?

Audience: Death and impermanence.

VTC: Death and impermanence; and the third one?

Audience: Karma.

VTC: Karma, karma and its result, we should say; and the fourth one?

Audience: The disadvantages of samsara.

VTC: The disadvantages of samsara. Remember them. So this text talks about the six disadvantages of samsara. And, I must say, I remember my first Dharma course hearing these, and some people kind of get depressed hearing them, I felt so relieved! It was like, “Oh, finally somebody’s talking about reality.” Because we kind of go through our life with, “You’re supposed to feel happy, and “Everything supposed to be great.” And so if you’re not just buzzing around because, you know, you’ve got all the coolest, grooviest stuff, then something’s really wrong with you. And then, here are the disadvantages of samsara, and it really talked about my experience. And I was just, “Oh, thank goodness, somebody finally understands.” Because I wasn’t just kind of surfing around and [thinking], “Oh, this is all fantastic.” Not all Californians surf. [laughter] No pervasion. [laughter]

First, the disadvantages of uncertainty

So the first of the six disadvantages of cyclic existence is the disadvantage of uncertainty. The text says:

In cyclic existence relationships with friends and enemies are very changeable. Things of this world are not at all reliable. They are miserable. “The Friendly Letter” says…

Who wrote The Friendly Letter?

Audience: Nagarjuna.

VTC: Nagarjuna.

“The Friendly Letter” says,

Your father becomes your son, your mother your wife, and your enemies become friends. The opposites also take place. Therefore in cyclic existence there is no certainty at all.

So this quote is especially pointing out [that] with relationships, we feel that there’s a certain amount of permanence or durability in relationships, a certain amount of certainty or definiteness in them. But when you look at the big picture of samsara and multiple lives, you’ll see that everything’s changing all the time. And the relationships are changing all the time. Even within this life they change, don’t they? Because some of the people who you were very good friends with at one time; now you don’t like, they’ve become enemies. Or you’ve lost contact, they become strangers. People who at first you didn’t like or get along with now become friends, or maybe become strangers. We were born and everybody was a stranger and some became friends and some became enemies, and all of those are constantly changing.

And there’s one story that they tell, that I really love this story. It was about an arhat who—I don’t know if it was at the time of the Buddha, or when it was. But he was going on alms round and he was at one house and looked in. And at the house, the father of the house was sitting with a baby on his lap. And the mother, his wife, was feeding fish to the dog. And the arhat made some remark like, “Wow, samsara is really startling. It’s really amazing.” Because he saw, with his psychic powers, that the fish that the wife was feeding to the dog? The fish used to be the wife’s mother. The dog used to be her father. So she’s feeding the incarnation of her mother; and her father is eating it. The baby, on the husband’s lap, who he’s cuddling and thinks is adorable, was the incarnation of his wife’s lover. So here you have everything changing, don’t you? Nothing at all being reliable; so nothing to get attached to in there, is there? It’s all changing all the time.


“The Questions of Subahu Sutra” says,

“At times enemies turn out to be friends,
And similarly friends turn into foes.”

Have you had that experience? Yes? I have. People that you got along with and you were so close with at one point, then what happens? Don’t talk to each other. Just go to any divorce court: very good example. A person that you were so enamored with then sometime later you don’t speak to. And have you ever had it that the people you didn’t get along with later become friends? I know when I travel in India; it’s really very pointed because when you travel you always need a friend to travel with. And so sometimes you’re traveling with somebody who you normally don’t like, but that person becomes your friend when you traveling together. And you help each other and you actually like them. Yes. Quite amazing.

“Likewise, anyone can become your father or mother,
And even your parents can become your foes.”

So as we go from one lifetime to another, anybody could become our mother or father. In a future life, maybe the incarnation of one of those turkeys is going to be our mother or our father; or maybe an incarnation of one of the spiders. And even our parents can become our foes. Because our parents die, they get reborn, we’re in a different situation with them, different karma ripens: they become foes. So nothing’s stable in any of our relationships with anybody.

“Because friendship is changeable like this,
The intelligent shun attachment.”

Do you see the connection there? It isn’t, “Because friendship is changeable like this don’t trust anybody.” That’s not the conclusion. Or, “Because the friendship is changeable, don’t care about anybody else.” That’s not what the text says. It says, “The intelligent shun attachment.”

So we’re not trying to get rid of trust, we’re not trying to get rid of care. We’re seeing that attachment is what causes the problem. Because it’s attachment that clings on—that is based on clinging on to the idea of the other person and their relationship to us being permanent and everlasting in that way. And thus we get attached and we expect them to always be that way. And it’s that attachment that creates the problem.

The changeability of relationships, that’s just natural in samsara. And you can trust different people to different extents at different times. And that’s always something that’s in a state of flux. We want to learn to extend our care and affection out to everybody. But care and affection are different than attachment. And that’s what we have to really research in our mind, you know, “What does attachment feel like? What does genuine care feel like?” and be able to discriminate them. And we really have to spend some time on this, because when attachment comes in the mind, we lose our ability to discriminate and then we say, “Oh, what I’m feeling is care and affection” and it’s actually attachment. Anybody had that happen? [laughter] Yes, we’ve all fallen victim, haven’t we? And we just rationalized the whole thing, “Oh, this is just really so much care for the person.” It’s attachment, but we don’t realize it until after the thing crashes. We don’t learn from our mistakes, do we?

Shunning attachment—the joy of engaging in virtue


“Because friendship is changeable like this,
The intelligent shun attachment.
The misconceived thought that relations are pleasant
Is replaced by the joy of engaging in virtue.”

This one you should put on a Post-it and put it where you can see it. “The misconceived thought that relations are pleasant ….” Then you think that relationships are pleasant and they are stable and they are going to bring you happiness, is that a true thought or a misconception? It’s a misconception, isn’t it—based on attachment. So you want to replace that inappropriate thought, that misconceived thought, with “the joy of engaging in virtue.” Because the previous one, “The misconceived thought that relations are pleasant,” that’s the one that’s saying, “I’m going to get happiness out of this relationship,” isn’t it? “The misconceived thought that relationships are pleasant….” I’m going to get happiness out of this relationship. You get a certain kind of happiness, for certain period of time, mixed in with a lot of other things going on in the relationship—as you were just talking about. But you replace all of that yo-yo stuff that is completely uncertain and unstable; you replace it with, “The joy in engaging in virtue.”

So especially as monastics, that’s got to be something really prominent in our lives, is replacing that longing for one special person and one special love affair and one special whatever, you know, with the joy of practicing virtue, so that we are getting a sense of satisfaction and well-being in our life. That’s quite important. So that’s why I said put it on a post it, and hang it somewhere, where you’re going to see it.

Second, the disadvantages of dissatisfaction

Then the second disadvantage of samsara is the dissatisfaction. And this is the one that when Rinpoche taught it at the beginning I went, “Finally somebody is talking about what I feel.” You never feel satisfaction. And this was right at the time when Mick Jagger [a musician] was telling us so, [laughter] and he was right. “I can’t get no satisfaction” in samsara.

“The Friendly Letter” says,

“Each individual has drunk more milk
Than the four great oceans, yet
In the ordinary person’s continuing cyclic existence
There is still more to be drunk.”

So they’re talking about mother’s milk. If we were to take all the mother’s milk that we’ve drunk, this was written before they had pablum and bottles and stuff like that. If you took all the mother’s milk that we’ve drunk in all of our previous lives, it would be greater than the many great oceans, “the four great oceans.”

Anyway, “in the ordinary person’s continuing cyclic existence, there is still more to be drunk,” because as long as we get reborn in cyclic existence, then there is more mother’s milk to drink. There is no end, there is no satisfaction. So, the point can be taken from this.

The same text says,

“Understand attachment to objects of desire as being
Like a leper’s seeking for comfort, when,
Tormented by maggots, he sits
By the fire, but finds no relief.”

Understand that when you’re attached to objects of desire, it’s like drinking salt water. The more you drink the more you want. That’s kind of a benign example. Here, it’s “like a leper’s seeking for comfort, when, tormented by maggots,” because when you have leprosy your flesh is rotting, so you have maggots in it. You sit by the fire because they try and cauterize their wounds and burn the flesh, to stop it. Do you understand how that works? What the burning of the flesh is? I know it’s something to cauterize and stop the rotting in some way. But they find no relief. You’re trying to get relief from maggots by burning your skin.

So if we look, when we have a lot of craving, a lot of attachment, a lot of desire energy; whatever we do there is no satisfaction from it because we want more, we want better.

It’s like the CEOs with the banks. You know what I read? It was in this book that you loaned to me. That before, CEOs of banks and those people were all getting paid certain amounts. And then the government thought that by making them disclose how much they were getting paid, that it would stop what they were doing. Actually what happened is the wages and bonuses went up even more, because they started looking at each other and saying: “Wow, he is making that much, getting that kind of bonus, I should too, I want more.” And so actually the CEO salaries and bonuses went up because of that, because of people comparing and jealousy. I thought that was quite interesting.

But that’s the exact state of mind, isn’t it? No matter how much I have it’s not enough. I need more because there’s got to be at least as much as somebody else’s and preferably more. And so we look at the smallest thing that we have, and there is always the mind that, “Anything that’s pleasurable I want more, I want more, I want more.” And it’s not until some kind of suffering feeling comes that then we can let go of it. It’s like when you eat, it’s like, “I want more, I want more, I want more.” And it’s not until you begin to feel uncomfortable from eating too much that you stop. And sometimes you still keep eating!

But this idea that whenever we are seeking external happiness it never satisfies us. It’s what you were saying, “It always could be a little bit better.” So it’s this mind of more and better, more and better. So no matter what you have, it’s not good enough. And so that’s why the people who live in other countries look at the US and say, “You people should be so happy, you have so much.” But when you live here and you compare your stuff against other people who have more, then you feel you don’t have very much at all. And so the same mind is complaining, “I don’t have enough, I don’t have enough.” And the same mind is unsatisfied, even though you have twenty times more than somebody else in a third world country could ever dream of. But it’s the dissatisfied mind just keeps going again, and again, and again, and again. And so it’s the same thing, not just for possessions and money, but praise, do we ever get enough praise? Do we ever get enough acknowledgment? Never, even if somebody praises us, it’s never enough. Do people ever appreciate us enough? Do we ever get enough appreciation? No! Do we ever get enough love? No! We never have enough love. Do people ever realize how wonderful we are, so that we have a good reputation? Do they ever really get it? And speak well of us, according to the amount that is due? No!

So we always feel dissatisfied, no matter how much people appreciate it’s not enough. No matter how much they love us, it’s not enough. No matter how much they praise us, it’s not enough. No matter how many nice things they do for us, it’s not enough. And it keeps on like that. And so this is the fault of samsara, due to—what mental factor? Attachment, craving, desire—the afflicted kind of desire.

“The Condensed Perfection of Wisdom Sutra” says,

“Obtaining every thing you desire
And consuming much on a daily basis,
Yet still to be dissatisfied
Is the greatest disease.”

Isn’t it? “Obtaining every thing you desire and consuming [so] much on a daily basis, yet still to be dissatisfied is the greatest disease.” And we’re all suffering from it. So this is why we want to get rid of craving and attachment—because they cause misery. Not because they’re bad, and not because we’re bad, but because they cause misery.

States of samsara—again and again

So, there is no satisfaction in sensual pleasure and if you think especially about what is taught in the “Sutra on Avoiding Sorrow,” you will feel great concern. It says,

“The water in the ocean
Bears no comparison
With the molten copper you’ve drunk
Again and again in hell.”

Okay. Because the thing is, if we’re willing to have the good times in samsara, then we’ve got to be willing to have the bad times.

“The amount of filth you have eaten
When you were born as a pig or a dog,
Would be much greater than
Meru, the king of mountains.

“As a vessel for all the tears
You have shed, when parted
From friends and relatives in cyclic existence,
The ocean would not be big enough.”

This is looking at our lives from a very big perspective, not just this one life, but really thinking about what it means to be born in samsara again and again and again.

“If all the heads cut off
In the course of mutual conflicts
Were to be piled up, the heap
Would reach beyond the realm of Brahma.

“Born many times as a famished worm,
The amount of earth and dung you’ve eaten
Would fill the great ocean of milk
Right up to the brim.”

So this is samsara. This is samsara. Samsara is not fun and games, it’s not, you know, a good time. And this is really how we are so deceived. We get a little bit of worldly happiness and then we think it’s certain. It’s not.

So, as explained, however much worldly wealth you acquire, it is nothing but seduction.

Why is it nothing but seduction?

Audience: Because it’s going to disappear and you do negative things to get it.

VTC: So it’s seduction because it’s just going to disappear and because you’re going to have negative mental states that get you involved in doing negative actions to get the wealth and to protect it.

You should feel apprehensive thinking of how the same could happen to you if you do not make further effort.

So, it’s the stick and the carrot approach of, you know, don’t get too, “Yes, everything’s fine in samsara,” because it’s not; and so exert more effort in our practice.

In the words of the spiritual friend Sang-phu-wa,

“From the first you must face so many ups and downs here in cyclic existence, but nothing worthwhile. Think about this until you are convinced.”

From the beginning you must face so many ups and downs here in samsara, but nothing’s worthwhile, think about this until you are convinced. Yes. So many ups, “Oh, something good is about to happen, yes! Oh!” So many downs, “Whaaa.” So many freak-outs, we hear a little bit of bad news and freak out. If we hear a little bit of good news, and we are like over the sun, over the moon, whatever it is. In the long term, any of it worthwhile? No.

So we’re not saying this life is worthless, okay. When we’re saying these ups and downs are not worthwhile, don’t misunderstand and think that we’re saying life is worthless. In fact it’s the actual opposite. Life is very valuable, life is very worthwhile. But satisfying our attachments is not what’s going to make our life meaningful and worthwhile. Transforming the mind is what is going to make our life meaningful and worthwhile. So life is very meaningful, but getting all up and down, up and down, and up and down all the time, that’s not worthwhile—because situations change like that [snaps her fingers], don’t they?

Questions and answers

The pursuit of happiness

Audience: I was listening to Bhikkhu Bodhi’s teachings and he went through both [analogies] from the Majjhima Nikāya suttas, the one about the mother’s milk and the ocean, and the Buddha also. I guess there were a few suttas that involved that analogy, filling the ocean with tears. He would ask the monks like, “Which one is more, the four great oceans or the number of tears you’ve cried in samsara?” And it’s like “Well?.” And then he really went into great detail on the leper analogy, which was really, really striking. I mean because he’s talking about cauterizing it and the great satisfaction that they’re feeling from burning their skin because it relieves the itch for just, just the briefest amount of time. And then it comes back like twice as strong afterward. Insects are laying eggs in it and it’s like “That is lusting after desires.” That’s just everything: dig your fingernails into your skin just to feel satisfied.

VTC: Very graphic isn’t it? [restating the comment] So he was saying that he was listening to a teaching by Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. And that the analogy of the leper is in the suttas?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: It must be in the suttas. Yes, find out which sutta it is. We should be able to see, we can read that. But how if you really spend some time thinking about it and visualizing it, that the itch from the maggots, and how horrible it is, and by burning your flesh that removes the itch. But what happens afterwards? I mean you’re burning your own flesh, and then the itch is stronger, and then you dig in more. And it’s really, when they say samsaric pleasures are like drinking salt water, like in the 37 Verses, that’s really it.

Audience: He was talking to an ascetic who was actually a hedonist and so this was his explanation for it. And he went on to ask him, “So is the fire actually pleasurable, or what’s going on?” The guy’s like, “No, I don’t think the fire is actually.” The further analogy was, if they cured the man from leprosy and then he came back and saw someone else in the same condition, would he think to himself, “Oh, what great pleasure I experienced by burning my skin and relieving that itch, I wish I could have that again.” And it’s like “No, that wouldn’t be what he’d think.” But at the same time, the leper’s there experiencing great pleasure just by relieving himself from the pain, using burning charcoals.

VTC: It’s potent isn’t it? Yes.

The dukkha of change

Audience: I had a certain experience in my life, I had a very, very bad case of poison ivy. To where I had just huge blisters on my arms and the only thing that relieved it was running it under very, very hot water. It gave relief from the incredible itching that just to put under water there was almost at, I don’t know, I mean it was hot. It was coming up…. And it relieved the itching. And then when I took it away, of course, the rawness of what I was doing…. But it was all on my arm and I would do that a few times a day just to get past the itching.

VTC: And the itching would come back stronger afterwards?

Audience: Come back stronger and of course I had then this redness because I was scalding myself. And like J said, “Do I want go back now that I don’t have the poison ivy?” Go back and stick my arm under scalding water and go, “Oh I would love to have….”

Audience: But it did feel good at the time.

Audience: It felt such a relief from the itching. It’s a strange thing.

VTC: Yes. It’s a good thing to remember when we’re in some kind of situation like that again, where it’s like you want to do something to relieve some pain immediately and then think, “If I were cured from this situation would I long to come back in it and have that pleasure from scalding yourself with the hot water or from cauterizing your skin to get rid of the maggots?” No!

The insidious mind of sense pleasure

Audience: That conditioned mind that doesn’t remember—that even short periods of time, and the same thing comes up. And it seemingly is going to bring pleasure. And our memory is kind of like….

VTC: Yes, yes, and that’s the thing—that we hear this and it makes sense now. But as soon as we see something that looks pleasurable, it’s gone with the wind. Scarlet and Rhett disappeared with it, it’s gone. The Dharma understanding is gone.

This is why they talk about meditation coming from the same verbal root as to familiarize and habituate. This is what it means. That’s why we meditate on these things. It’s not just a question of intellectually understanding them. That’s not too difficult. The example with the leper, it’s not difficult to understand that. It’s familiarizing our mind with it again, and again, and again, so that we remember it when we need it. That’s the thing.

Or what you were saying about the [romantic] relationship and thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be so good.” But if you remember what it was actually like, it wasn’t as good as you thought at the time. But the next time somebody comes in the door and you go, “Wow!” That understanding’s out the window. And that’s why we have to familiarize ourselves again, and again, and again. And this is not pessimistic. It’s not taking the spice out of life. And I’m saying this because many people feel if you meditate on that, then there’s no pleasure to be had. And you think that because you don’t know any other kind of pleasure—except sense pleasure. You don’t know any other kind of pleasure besides scalding water on your hand to relieve the itch of the poison ivy. Yes?

But if you start to practice Dharma and get some Dharma happiness, then you realize there’s another kind of satisfaction that comes. That is, even at our baby infant stage right now, we can see it’s superior to the sense pleasure happiness. So it’s not that sense pleasure happiness is bad and evil, and you have to get rid of it and suffer in order to be virtuous. No. You have to really, with your wisdom, look at the sense pleasure and ask yourself, “Was it real happiness? Was everything I had to do to get it, really worthwhile? And what is a kind of happiness that’s going to bring much more satisfaction to me and to other people in this universe?”

Audience: Is that the dukkha of change, scalding the arm?

VTC: Yes. It’s an excellent example of the dukkha of change, scalding the arm to get rid of your poison ivy.

Diligent determination

Audience: Through my observation I found that if I familiarize myself with something, it works. That if, whatever was plaguing me doesn’t come back for a while, and then when it does come back I’m not continuing to familiarize myself, I’ve decided, “Oh I don’t need to familiarize myself with that any more.” And then I don’t have that strength of that antidote. The antidote works but it’s not as strong and I have to really dig in.

VTC: Yes, right. That’s the whole point that we’ll meditate on something for a while, and it will work for us, and then we’ll think, “Oh, I’ve got that one down, okay.” And then we don’t meditate on it, and then something comes up, and then it’s much harder to re-deploy. That’s why we have to keep up with the meditations. And so especially in your daily practice if you’re doing one of the glance meditations, that’s the purpose of those glance meditations is you remember it everyday. And then you also do more in-depth meditation sometimes too. But when you’re not doing an in-depth meditation on a particular point, the glance meditation keeps it in your mind so that you do remember it.

Okay, people can write in questions for next week, if you like.

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.