Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The disadvantages of cyclic existence: Part 2

The disadvantages of cyclic existence: Part 2

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.

  • Discussion of the third through sixth disadvantage of cyclic existence: having to discard your body again and again, having to enter the womb over and over again, having to constantly change status upon rebirth between a higher or lower status, having no companions
  • Explores the three abbreviated points of the six disadvantages

MTRS 18: Preliminaries—Disadvantages of cyclic existence (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation. And somehow, miraculously, we’re still in this life, we still have the conditions to practice the Dharma. So there are so many things that could have happened to interfere with this possibility, but they didn’t happen since last week. And so again we have this opportunity to listen and contemplate the Dharma. So let’s really make good use of it. And let’s really have a sense that because we have this unique opportunity, we have a responsibility to other sentient beings, especially all of those who made our opportunity possible in whatever small or large way. And so to really listen to the teachings with the wish to attain full enlightenment in order to benefit all beings most effectively. And really extend our heart out to others and rouse our effort and energy to be of benefit to them.

Things going out of control unexpectedly

Sometimes when we’re practicing, we think that we have everything under control. And that our practice is going pretty well and things are happening in a predictable way. And then something happens and our mind goes crazy. And I just received a letter from somebody recently and this is what happened to her. And I think it’s happened to a couple of people here, too. Where you think you’re making progress and then something in your life happens that you didn’t expect, it wasn’t on your calendar for that day. And it caught you off guard. And then you’re going, “Wow! What’s this all about?” And then when you try to figure it out, what you see is many sides of yourself that you didn’t know were there. Or that you knew were there but you try to pretend weren’t there. And maybe anger, or bitterness, or resentment, or jealousy, things that we didn’t think were so bad. And then something happens and wow, we’re looking at a bunch of stuff inside of our self that we find totally disgusting. And yet at the same time one part of our mind is buying into it; because we’re feeling that emotion. We’re feeling the jealousy, we’re feeling bitter, we’re feeling whatever it is we’re feeling. And one part of our mind just, “Ah! I’m justified in feeling this.” And another part of our mind is saying, “I’m so miserable feeling this.” And another part is saying, “I thought I was making some progress on the path. How come this is happening? Poor me. Why doesn’t it just all go away?” And so, has this happened to any of you? [laughter] You’ve seen things in yourselves that wow—just really nasty ugly stuff.

So when this happens instead of getting whacked out about it, to see that this is indicative of our having done some purification. Because before we couldn’t see this stuff, it was there, it was percolating under the surface, but we were ignoring it. But it was still having an effect. Because of the purification now it’s coming to a much more conscious or cognizant level. And so now we can actually deal with it. So instead of getting discouraged and saying, “Where did all this rubbish come from?” or “Why doesn’t it go away?” or whatever it is, to say, “Oh good! Now it’s here, I can see it, I can work with it, I can integrate the knowledge that I have, this side of me into my self-image without judging myself, without going bezerky. And now that I see these things I can start to actively do purification for them. So when stuff comes up to greet it in that way; because throughout our practice this is going to keep happening. It’s going to keep happening. So really take it as a sign of making progress.

Questions and answers

Can we influence through compassion the negative karma of somebody harming us?

So there are a few things here. So somebody wrote in and said that they feel that if they don’t bear a grudge, or have a negative view, or anger towards a harmful action that was done to them—where they were the object of the harmful action, and that if instead they feel compassion and understanding for the other person’s suffering, that then the negative karma has been diminished because the result has not been perceived as harm. So they’re thinking that if they don’t react as negatively, then the other person’s negative karma isn’t as severe. I think that’s what they’re saying. [And they further ask:] “To what extent is this true when in fact great or small harm has been suffered before it was released by compassion?” So maybe you feel harm, then you release it by compassion. [And they further ask:] “I suppose a response cannot touch the karmic result from the motivation, but does it stop much of the negativity with a positive result?”

So we have two things happening here. We have the karma that the other person is creating and then we have the karma that we’re creating in response to the harm that’s been done to us. In terms of the karma the other person’s creating, like I was saying last week, that if somebody steals something from us, if we kind of give it to them then their karma of stealing isn’t quite as heavy—if we’re really giving it. If we’re really wanting it back then there’s not much change there. Okay? But on the other hand, since most of the karma, a good part of the karma is created by the force of the intention—and we have no control over the other person’s intention; that whether we react with severe pain or with compassion, they’re still putting the imprint of their intention in their own mind. So from that viewpoint we’re not lightening or making it heavy. But from the viewpoint of maybe the damage that’s being caused, if we don’t take it so severely, then it’s not as severe for them. But certainly we can’t undo the force of their motivation and that’s going to come up loud and clear. Because otherwise it would be impossible to create negative karma in regards to bodhisattvas; because they don’t have any harm towards us and yet we sure manage to create negative karma in relationship to them, don’t we, by the force of our own mind.

Now in terms of the karma we create in terms of how we respond to their action, if we respond with compassion rather than bitterness, or anger, or resentment, or rage, then we’re certainly taming our mind and subduing the impact on our mind and not creating so much negative karma our self. And so this is really the key point here because the things when we have contact with—certain objects, feelings arise in us: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral feelings. And then depending on how we respond to those feelings, that’s going to influence the karma we create. If we respond with attachment, if we respond with anger, if we respond with numbing out, we’re creating negative karma. If we respond to the feeling with wisdom, and accept the feeling but without letting any kind of affliction arise in our mind, then that karma that caused that feeling just burns out. And we’re not creating any more. Are you getting what I’m saying?

So often we aren’t aware of what our feelings are, and here by feeling I don’t mean emotions, I mean whether we’re experiencing happy, unhappy, or neutral feeling. So part of mindfulness practice is to know when we’re experiencing happiness, unhappiness, or neutral—or pleasure, painful, or neutral—there are different ways of phrasing it. And then when we’re aware of that, watch what our response is. And if our response is to tainted pleasure, pleasure that’s let’s say coming from sense pleasure, if we’re having a pleasant feeling but we respond with attachment then we’re going down the wrong path. If we have a peasant feeling and we respond by making offerings of the object mentally to the Three Jewels, or making offering of the feeling to “May all sentient beings have this pleasant feeling,” then we’re not creating the karma of attachment. Similarly, if we have an unhappy feeling, an unpleasant feeling, if we get upset at it, then we’re creating karma through our upset and our anger, our hatred. But if we have an unpleasant feeling and we say, “This is the result of my own karma. There’s no sense being reactive to it,” then the whole thing stops right there. Okay? So this is a really key point to be aware of: what we’re felling and to watch what our response is. Okay? You’re with me?

Reflections on Dharma joy

Then somebody wrote quite a long letter, which I won’t read all of, but it was their reflections on Dharma joy. And I’ll leave it out for you to read afterwards. But I wanted to read a few excerpts of it. So they’re saying that, “I made the comment recently that when I was young man I always had this feeling that I was going to win the lottery and have a ton of money. I don’t know why I felt that way and I rarely even play the lottery, but it dawned on me recently that in fact I have already won the lottery in this life. The Buddha’s teachings and having someone as skilled in transmitting the teachings to me every week is better than winning all the lotteries in the world combined. Isn’t that Dharma joy?” So that’s the result of a very good meditation on precious human life, isn’t it?

Then they’re also saying that sometimes they do things that are negative or against the precepts and he said, “How do I feel when I do this? I can tell you in no uncertain terms, that this is 180 degrees opposite of Dharma joy.” So when you think of it, when you’ve taken precepts but then your mind gets overwhelmed by affliction and you do the opposite of it, then the feeling in your mind is 180 degrees opposite of Dharma joy, isn’t it? Because we know we’re in the process of creating suffering for ourselves.

And then he says, “Every time I cut off a negative,” (some negative action that he’s been doing) “there’s an immediate and very noticeable sense of an increase in personal power.” Yes, can you see this? Then when you really make a strong decision and you say, “I’m not going to do that again.” Or even if we look back in the past over things that we did, that we enjoyed at the time we were doing them, but we see now that they were not very good. And we make a very strong determination that we don’t want to do them again and we want to purify those things; then it’s cutting off a negative and right away you feel a certain sense of personal power, don’t you? Because you’re reversing the habitual tendencies to just flow downstream with the afflictions.

So, [the letter continues:] “I often reflect about that because I noticed that the things I have clung to the most, that I really didn’t want to give up, were the things that provided the most fleeting pleasure and a very distinct and solid feeling of dissatisfaction.” Isn’t that interesting? That the things he clings to, that the mind is most resistant to giving up, are the things that provide the most fleeting pleasure and a very distinct and solid feeling of dissatisfaction after you get them. Yes? Isn’t that interesting? That the things that we cling on to the most, that we’re attached to the most, are often the things that give us very little pleasure afterwards and a very strong feeling that: “I got that pleasure, but I’m really dissatisfied.” Anybody know that feeling?

Audience: Yes.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes. We know it, don’t we? [The letter continues:] “The moment I finally made up my mind to stop, and I mean the moment, there was a huge swelling of Dharma joy.” So the moment he makes up his mind to really stop that thing, then there’s the feeling of personal power and the feeling of Dharma joy because we’ve set aside all that internal turmoil and all the dissatisfaction.

Let’s see, [the letter continues:] “From a realistic standpoint I don’t know that I’m any better at meditating today than I was when I started 20 years ago. Wisdom and the emptiness teachings? I can’t say that I progressed on that front either. However keeping much more ethical conduct than I used to and practicing generosity, those are real to me—and I can see and feel the progress. That’s Dharma joy to me.” Isn’t that nice? Just the real things in your life you can see that happen when you keep good ethical conduct—the mind becomes more generous—really gives a sense of Dharma joy. Even if our meditation practice needs some improvement, even if emptiness we can spell it and that’s about it, still there’s a sense of Dharma joy that comes.

The text: Reviewing the first two drawbacks of cyclic existence

So let’s get back to the disadvantages of cyclic existence. So last week we talked about the first few of them, which are that things are uncertain, there’s no certainty in samsara. That we’re always looking for security and we never find it. We are, aren’t we? We’re always looking for security. We want job security, we want relationship security, we want financial security. When do we ever have any of it? It’s impossible. Yes? Impossible. Things are changing all the time, all the time.

The second one is the disadvantages of dissatisfaction. So we talked about that last week and we talked about it at Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner today. [These are internet streamed video short daily teachings Venerable Chodron does daily.] This pervading feeling of dissatisfaction and, “Why isn’t everybody the way I want them to be?” [sigh] Okay? That mind is a function of attachment to our own expectations. We develop expectations, we develop ideas, we become very attached to them. That the world should operate according to how I think, and when it doesn’t we’re dissatisfied and we blame the world. And so that’s why our mind is always complaining, isn’t it? Always complaining, “Na, na, na,” There’s this Yiddish word, it’s kvetch. “Somebody’s a real kvetch!” It means they just complain all the time. So it’s what you hear from your parents, “Stop being a kvetch.” Then you feel, “But I have things to kvetch about. You should do this and you should do that.” And then they wind up to be right, you’re kvetching. [laughter]

Third, the disadvantages of having to discard your body over and over again

Okay, then the third disadvantage of cyclic existence, which is having to discard our body over and over again. In other words, having to die over and over again.

The bodies assumed by each sentient being have to be discarded, if their bones did not rot, they would be greater than Mt. Meru.

So if all the bodies that we had assumed from beginningless times had not rotted and their bones still existed, those bones would be higher than Mount Meru. And Mount Meru’s bigger than Mount Everest, okay? Mount Meru’s the central mountain, the center of the universe.

(The “Friendly Letter” says,)

“The heap of each sentient being’s bones
Would equal or even be greater than Mt. Meru.”

So think about it, just think about having taken so many bodies in previous lives. Okay, think of this body, and then think of the bones and put [them] out in a room. And then next life you live; another life with all this disturbing things of cyclic existence. And then you have those bones left, and you put them there. And how many lifetimes do you think it will take to fill this room with bones? Quite a few lifetimes, wouldn’t it? Because if you think, your bones when they’re just made into a heap they aren’t very big. They’re much smaller than our body mass and this room is very [spacious]. And then you think, “How much would it take to make a mountain out of bones? And how many bodies we’ve had in previous lives. And that each time we had to die and give up the body. And go through the agony of death: go through the agony of separating from this body, separating from our ego identity, separating from everything around us. And how many times that we’ve done this?” Zillions and millions of times—I mean because even bones of a thousand lives, I don’t think it would come anywhere near to filling this room. And when you think to make a mountain? And you get this feeling of: “I’ve lived so many lives before and to what purpose? For what benefit? I’ve enjoyed things, I’ve liked my friends, I’ve hated my enemies, but for what purpose? I haven’t gotten anything out of it at the end—except just the repeated agony of dying again, and again, and again.” When you think about it, then it feels like, “Enough already. Enough!” When you live in Italy there’s this thing, it goes, “Basta finito!” It’s when you are totally fed up. Basta means enough, finito means finished. “Basta finito!” is like, “Enough already, I am fed up!” And that’s the feeling you want to have about samsara from having died so many times.

Fourth, the disadvantages of entering the womb over and over again

Then the fourth disadvantage of samsara is entering the womb over and over again. So not only have we died repeatedly, countless times—the bones of all of our previous bodies make a mountain, a huge mountain. But in addition, we’ve taken rebirth again and again and again uncontrollably. And so,

(The same text says,)

“The earth would be insufficient to count the number of one’s mothers
With pellets of soil the size of juniper berries.”

So if you had teeny weenie juniper berries and if you tried to count the number of lives that you’ve had, or the number of mothers that you’ve had in previous lives by filling the mass of this planet with these little berries, it still wouldn’t be the same number of times that each sentient being has been your mother.

Actually in the sutras, actually here it says,

The commentary to the “Friendly Letter” quotes a sutra as follows,

And I’ve found the sutra in the Pali canon. Unfortunately I can’t find these sutras in the Tibetan canon because the Tibetan canon isn’t translated into English. And the Tibetans rely mostly on the Indian commentaries so sometimes it’s hard to find out what sutra a quote is from. But many of, at least some of the sutras in the Tibetan canon have similar counterparts in the Pali canon. And so I’ve found this one about the juniper berries. It was in the Connected Discourses. So the Buddha says:

“O monastics, if a person were to take pellets of the earth the size of juniper berries, saying, ‘This is my mother, this is my mother’s mother, and so forth….’ [this is my mother’s mother’s mother]1 as he castes them aside, O monastics, the soil of this great earth would soon be exhausted, but the series of that person’s mothers would not.”

So that’s looking back in history, how many mothers that we’ve had, just in terms of this body going back, we would never reach an end. Now, I don’t know, maybe Darwin would say that at a certain point you come to an end or something like that. But if we look in terms of the continuity of our mindstream instead of the continuity of this physical body, never reaching an end to the number of mothers that we’ve had and to the number of times each sentient being has been our mother. And if we think like that, then how many births have we had? And how many times have we had to go through the process of being born?

Everybody says that birth is like so exciting and so nice, but actually in the scriptures… You’re saying no?

Audience: It’s very hard.

VTC: It’s very hard. That’s why they call it labor.

Audience: For the baby and the mother.

VTC: Yes, it’s hard for the baby too. They say that for the baby it feels like they’re being squeezed, because they’re going through this very narrow passage. And then they’re completely confused. You’re going from one environment to another environment in not a very long time and you have no idea of what in the world’s happening to you at all. Must be quite scary.

Fifth, the disadvantages of continually changing from high to low

Then the fifth disadvantage, the disadvantage of continually changing from high to low. So this is the one of changing status. Because we always want high status, we don’t want low status. And yet our status is always changing, we go up and down, up and down.

And today, how do you say the name of the governor in Illinois, Blagojevich, the one who was accused of selling Obama’s seat. The Illinois senate impeached him today. So he went from being top dog in Illinois to the bottom of the ladder now. And he’s not only lost his job, but people don’t respect him for what he’s done. So here’s a very good situation of somebody who was very tall and then—I mean he did it by his own actions, brought this upon himself. But even if it was his own actions this lifetime, sometimes it’s things we’ve done in previous lives and then… I was telling you before about this big German billionaire who killed himself because he made bad investments. And so fortune is constantly going up and down, up and down, and up and down, and up and down; we see this, it’s like the value of the dollar—up and down [laughter]. And it’s like you look, what the big CEOs of some of the companies are doing with their huge bonuses; thinking that they will keep their status very up. It’s only a matter of time before it all comes crashing. It was very nice, Obama called them shameful. He said, “It’s shameful what you people are doing, taking huge bonuses while the economy is bad and ordinary people are suffering.” He spoke very strongly. I’m so glad, finally a president who says something! Very nice. But you can see in this kind of thing that people are trying to secure their place on top and they’re going to crash.

Okay, so:

The “Friendly Letter” says,

“Having been Shakra….” [Shakra is one of the lords of the gods, the desire realm gods.]
“Having been Shakra worthy of the world’s veneration,
One falls again to earth through the force of action…,”

Through the force of karma. So you might be born as this very famous god and enjoy it but the karma runs out, then you fall to earth and you’re just ordinary Joe Blow.

“Or having been a Universal Monarch,
One again becomes a servant in cyclic existence.”

Universal Monarch is said to be one who is like the monarch of the universe. But then the karma for that runs out, bang! Serkong Rinpoche had this great thing when they took him, his previous life, to the top of the Eiffel Tower. He got up there and then he said, “And now the only way to go is down.” It’s like being in the god realms, once you’re up the only way to go is down. Yes? And it’s the same with all the things that we’re trying to find: security, and status, and something in samsara. Whatever we get the only way is going to go down afterwards. So like what’s the use in hanging on to it? What’s the use of wanting to be born in samsara if this continues to happen?

“Having long experienced the pleasure of fondling
The breasts and hips of celestial maidens,
One undergoes the unbearable contact of crushing,
Cutting and slashing operations in the hells.”

They should put that on the porno site when people log in. [laughter] Don’t you think so?

“Think of how, following the pleasures of the ground’s
Yielding at the touch of our feet, while dwelling
Long on Meru’s peak, the unbearable suffering of the
Fire-pit and the Swamp of Filth will strike again.

“Having frolicked in lovely pleasant gardens
Waited on by celestial maidens, again your
Arms and legs, ears and nose are cut
In the Forest of Trees with Leaves Like Swords.

“After resting in gently flowing streams
On the golden lotuses with beautiful celestial maidens,
Again you fall into the unbearable caustic,
Boiling water of the infernal Fordless River.

“Having attained the magnificent pleasure of celestial
Realms, and even Brahma’s bliss of detachment,
Again you undergo endless suffering.

“As kindling for the fires of the Hell Without Respite,
When you have attained the state of sun or moon,
The light of your body illuminates the entire world,
But on returning to darkness again, not even
Your outstretched hand can be seen.”

The ”Transmission of Discipline” says,

“The end of all accumulation is exhaustion,
The end of being high is to fall low,
The end of meeting is separation,
The end of life is death.”

True, isn’t it? And saying that is not being pessimistic. There’s nothing pessimistic about it, it’s just accurate. And the thing is the more we accept the reality of the situation we’re in, two things happen. First, when we encounter the separation, or we encounter the fall, we aren’t taken off guard as much because we know this is the nature of samsara. We know it’s been coming. Second thing is that by understanding this is the nature of samsara we develop the very strong urge to be free from samsara. And that wish to be free, that determination to be free, that’s the renunciation of suffering that is going to give us energy in our Dharma practice. That’s the mind that’s saying, “Basta finito!” “I’m done with this!”

Sixth, the disadvantages of having no companions

Then the sixth disadvantage of cyclic existence, this next one is the disadvantage of having no companions.

(The “Friendly Letter” says,)

“As the disadvantages are like this, take up
The lamplight of the three kinds of merit,
For you enter the infinite darkness,
Where sun and moon cannot reach, alone.”

Meaning that we experience suffering alone. Now we think, “Oh, but when I’m suffering all my friends are around me and when I die I want everybody around me.” But having everybody around you, can it eliminate your suffering? Can any human being around you, no matter how much compassion they have for you eliminate your suffering when you’re dying, or when you’re ill, or anything like that? No, they can’t eliminate it. They may say things that help you, but they can’t take away your suffering. And when we die, does anybody else come with us? Even if they die at the same time as we do? No, we go into death all alone. When we’re reborn, even if we’re reborn—they just had a thing of octuplets, where you’re born with seven siblings. Are you really born together with others? Or are you born alone? You’re facing the situation of being in that crowded womb all alone even though you’re crowded together with seven others. So what it’s saying is that we may have like a lot of nice things around us, but when we undergo sufferings we undergo them alone.

And so our best friend, therefore, is the merit we’ve created. Because while other sentient beings can’t come with us—the merit, the good karma we create, does come with us. And similarly the way in which we’ve habituated our minds, that comes with us. Because we live moment to moment under the force of habituation, we’re creatures of habit; and at the time we die, we die the way we live. And you can see how the way we respond when things happen in life, we respond so habitually, don’t we? And then you think about it, “Wow! If the smallest thing happens on a daily basis, and habitually I get bummed out by it, what’s going to happen when I die and something big is happening? And I’m undergoing that alone and it doesn’t matter how many other people are around cheering me on, I’m still the one who’s responsible for what my mind is doing.” So that really wakes us up, because we have to practice now to re-habituate ourselves to something else—because it’s that tendency that’s going to be really important at the time of death.

So sometimes we envision this very romantic death, you know in the death mediation how we always make it romanticized. It’s like we’ve completed everything we’ve wanted to do. Everything’s settled. We’ve forgiven everybody we wanted to forgive; and all the people who wronged us happened to have all come and asked our forgiveness. And we’re there, and it’s very comfortable. We know exactly when we’re going to die. And we’re lying in the room, and everybody who loves us is all around, looking at us with so much love, and putting a wet cloth on our face, and holding our hand, and rubbing our feet, and saying “I love you so much. Don’t leave. I love you. I’m always going to love you.” You know how we dream of these romantic death scenes, don’t we? And then our teacher comes in floating and says, “You’ve been the best disciple I’ve ever had, the most remarkable one. And you’re going to be born in a pure land, Amitabha can’t wait for you to get there, he has all the lotuses ready for you.” You think it’s going to happen like that? I don’t think so. [laughter]

Audience: I hope so.

VTC: I don’t think so. So we go through things alone. And we go through things by the force of our karma and by the force of our habits.

And we can see right now when our mind gets all tangled up and stuck. Can somebody else come in and pull you, make your mind change? They may be able to talk to you so you get a different perspective and then you make your mind change. But we don’t have push buttons—“Boing! Oh, all my resentments are gone, thank you for pushing that button.” Not like that.

The three abbreviated points


These six disadvantages can be abbreviated in three points [So the three points]: Cyclic existence is unreliable [is one], whatever pleasures are enjoyed in cyclic existence are ultimately unsatisfying [is two], and this has been so for beginningless time [is three].

So of the six that we’ve just heard, which ones do you think go under the point of cyclic existence is unreliable. Which ones?

Audience: First part.

VTC: The first one, that samsara is uncertain. Which one?

Audience: Fifth one.

Audience: Status….

VTC: Which one? The fifth one? You said the status is unreliable, we’re going up and down. And?

Audience: Dissatisfaction.

Audience: No….

VTC: Dissatisfaction goes in the second one. What else?

Audience: [silence]

VTC: Obtaining a body. Okay? So,

The first can be explained in four ways. Obtaining a body is not to be relied on since it has to be discarded again and again. [So the one of being born again and again.] We cannot rely on receiving help or harm since nothing is certain. [So also the last one of going on alone.] We cannot rely on finding prosperity because our position changes from high to low.

Which is number five. Or actually the one I said before we can’t rely on help or harm since nothing is certain, that’s the first one, isn’t it? And then,

The fellowship of others cannot be relied upon since we have to go unaccompanied.

So those four go under the first three points that cyclic existence is unreliable. Then the second one, whatever pleasures are enjoyed in cyclic existence are ultimately are unsatisfying, that’s which one?

Audience: Two.

VTC: Two, the second one. “And this has been so from beginningless time?”

Audience: Rebirth after rebirth after rebirth…

VTC: Yes. The one about multiple rebirths. Okay. Then:

(The second point concerns the evident disadvantages of dissatisfaction.)
The third point indicates that because we’ve entered the womb over and over again, the origin of our series of births is untraceable.

So we have these three points. The first one is cyclic existence is unreliable, the second one is whatever pleasures are enjoyed are ultimately unsatisfying, and the third is that this has been so for beginningless time. If we go to the second one, that whatever pleasures enjoyed in cyclic existence are ultimately unsatisfying, that’s the second of the six. The third point – this has been so since beginningless time – is the one about being born again and again, which is number four. And then the other four all go under the first point, which is that cyclic existence is uncertain or unreliable.

Audience: Where did we put number three?

VTC: Number three about dying again and again goes into the first one about things not being reliable.

Audience: How being born is unreliable because you have to discard the body?

VTC: No, they have…. The third point is because we’ve entered the womb over and over again. Because the third one is this has been going on since beginningless time, so that’s the one about being born again and again and then dying again and again, goes into uncertain…. Although you’d think that it could also go into this one.

Do the abbreviated contemplation in this way.

So if don’t want to go through six points, go through three points like that.

To develop courage, the ”Friendly Letter” says,

“Become disgusted with cyclic existence,
The source of so much suffering: not getting
What you want, death, sickness, old age and so on.”

Then the author says:

Think about the eight kinds of suffering explained above.

And you’re going, “What eight sufferings?” Actually in that quote it’s talking, it’s abbreviating the eight sufferings of human beings. So the eight sufferings of human beings are:

  1. not getting what you want
  2. getting what you want and being disappointed
  3. getting what you don’t want
  4. birth
  5. aging
  6. sickness
  7. death
  8. the five aggregates

So those are the eight sufferings, sometimes they tie them specifically to human beings. But I find it very helpful to meditate especially … on all of them actually. Not getting what you want and how miserable we are because we don’t get what we want. Then you get what you want and you’re disappointed, that happens all the time too. Then we try so hard to avoid problems and they come; lots of examples of that in our life. Then we get born which as we were talking about isn’t so much fun. We get sick; not so much fun. We get old; and you can see how much we hate that by how many products there are on the market to try and prevent it. And then we die at the end of the whole thing. And then the basic thing is that we have these five aggregates under the control of afflictions and karma—that’s the basic suffering.

So remember suffering here doesn’t mean “ouch,” it means unsatisfactory conditions. Because otherwise we think, “Oh, you know, people in Dafur are suffering but people in Beverly Hills aren’t.” Okay? People in Beverly Hills are just as much in samsara as people in Dafur. And maybe in 20 years the people who’ve been born in both places have completely flipped and changed places because that’s what happens due to karma and our status being unreliable. You’re in Dafur one life, you’re in Beverly Hills the next, then you’re back in Dafur, then born Israeli, then you’re born Palestinian, then you’re born Israeli, then you’re born Palestinian. We just go back and forth like that. So it’s a really good thing for not being attached to anything in samsara when you think about this.

So these meditations are quite important; and they’re very sobering for the mind. When we do them the mind gets very sober and at first we might feel like, “Oh, I want to be happy. And this is like really sober.” But the thing is when your mind gets sober like that, at least I know from my side, when my mind is sober like that actually it becomes much more steady and even, and it doesn’t go up and down emotionally so much. Because when my mind is sober like that, then the usual things it reacts to with attachment and upset I realize are so stupid, that I don’t give them any energy. And so my mind actually remains much more steady. And then the sobering effect really makes you aware of what the situation is that we’re in—and in that way we don’t get caught up in so much stuff.

Whenever we get caught up in our little samsaric dreams, and our samsaric whirlwinds, and our samsaric, “I’m going to make this happen the way I want to make it happen,” and we get so caught up in that—and how that always crashes at the end. Well, when we have this remembrance of the nature of cyclic existence then we don’t get involved in all this kind of stuff: our frenzied, stressful, hyperactive stuff. And instead we just stay really balanced with what’s happening. We become actually much more effective. It’s true. If we look at what is it that makes us so ineffective in our life—we’re spinning so much. And our moods are up and down, and up and down, up and down: “I want this. I want that.” “Do this. Do that.” “I don’t like this. I want that.” And when you have an awareness that this is all samsara, you just ignore all that stuff, and you stay very steady—you do what you’re going to do with a good motivation. And you become much more effective. You don’t create nearly as much negative karma. And your sights are set on liberation. And so you have the motivation of the determination to be free or bodhicitta with you all the time. And so then you do lot of purification by the force of your motivation and collect a lot of merit.

In this way, think about the three sufferings in cyclic existence in general….2

What are the three kinds of dukkha?

Audience: Suffering of suffering….

VTC: The dukkha of….

Audience: Pain.

VTC: The dukkha of pain. The dukkha of….

Audience: Change.

VTC: …change. The dukkha of….

Audience: All pervasive.

VTC: …all pervading. Okay. And then the six sufferings? The six kinds of dukkha are….

Audience: Uncertainty.

VTC: Uncertainty.

Audience: Dissatisfaction.

VTC: Dissatisfaction.

Audience: Death over and over.

VTC: Dying again and again.

Audience: Being born….

VTC: Being born again and again.

Audience: Status changing from high to low.

VTC: Yes, your status going from high to low.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: And you go through samsara alone.

The disadvantages of cyclic existence fuel the bodhicitta


If you think about them from many angles you will come to see the disadvantages of cyclic existence from a broad perspective. If you think about them intensely, you will develop a strong understanding and if you think about them for a long time, you will develop a lasting understanding of the disadvantages of cyclic existence. When understanding the disadvantages of cyclic existence gives rise to a determination to be free, you should know that the precious awakening mind is the main, supreme path to liberation from cyclic existence and that this should form a part of the training in the awakening mind.

So when you give rise to this firm determination to be free from samsara, then you should know that that renunciation or determination to be free is a major part of generating bodhicitta. Why? Because to have bodhicitta, which wants to free all sentient beings from suffering, you have to want yourself to be free of suffering or to be free of dukkha. In order to have compassion for others and their plight, we have to have compassion for our self and our plight. What is compassion for our self? It’s not self-indulgence, self-pity. It’s the determination to be free of cyclic existence.

Lots of people come to Buddhism and say, “I hear so much about compassion for others, what about compassion for me? I need to have compassion for myself, I’m so hard on myself!” You want to have compassion for yourself? Generate the determination to be free of samsara. Compassion is the wish for sentient beings to be free of suffering—to be free of dukkha; let’s not even used the word suffering. It’s the wish for sentient beings to be free of dukkha. What is the determination to be free? It’s the wish for yourself to be free of dukkha. That’s compassion for yourself. So compassion for our self isn’t ,“Oh, [lamenting] I’m such a sweetheart, and the world treats me so bad.” That’s self-pity. Compassion and pity are very different.

So our author here is saying that bodhicitta is a very important; and to have bodhicitta a major supporting cause is this determination to be free. And you see lots of people don’t want to think about the determination to be free because they think it’s too sobering. But they like bodhicitta. But they don’t really understand what bodhicitta’s about, they can’t. Because they can’t understand what compassion is about—because don’t have compassion for themselves—because they don’t wish themselves to be free of samsara—because they don’t understand what samsara is. Getting what I’m saying? This is really important.

He says:

This concludes the way to think about the preliminary teaching.

So we’ve finished the first point and we will begin the next point next time.

Questions and answers

Time for a couple of questions, we’ll go over a little bit.

Use of words: suffering versus dukkha

Audience: Mine’s not a question, it’s a thought. I’ve actually been thinking about this use of dukkha of suffering. And for me, as my practice has developed suffering is now a much better word because I have a much bigger picture of what it means. So it’s just an interesting to observe the relationship with the very idea. So then in the beginning, I think dukkha or unsatisfactoriness was about all I could handle. But now suffering of change is suffering, suffering, suffering. That’s just all there is to it. So it’s, anyway it’s just an interesting linguistic thing in the changes of practice.

VTC: Yes. So you’re saying as you’ve gotten to the use of suffering, it stopped meaning ouch and it started meaning something else.

Audience: Yes. And so it’s very moving.

Dealing with the amnesia of ignorance

Audience: So how do we deal with this amnesia? That’s the part: there are some moments in my practice that I get this piece about how important renunciation is and then I have a really good day, or something good happens and I totally forget about any type of dissatisfaction that I have in my mind. It’s like my mind goes totally blank on any of the misfortunes. So how do we deal with the amnesia?

VTC: Okay, so how do we deal with the amnesia of forgetting the fact that we’re in samsara, and this is a dire situation. Because you get it one moment; and the next day things are nice and you feel like a solid, inherently existent person, that’s in control. So you can really see the force of ignorance, can’t you? When we see this: when we get sometimes in our meditation a glimpse of what samsara is about and then we see how two minutes later we totally forget it. We totally brush it aside. That is the meaning of ignorance. It’s at that time that we begin to get some idea of what it means to be under the influence of ignorance. And that isn’t even the root ignorance. But that’s the effect of ignorance—we’re just in a total cloud of amnesia—that for a moment we see what things are, and then totally we go to la-la land. And so this is why repeated mediation is necessary. This is really why: it’s got to be through repeated meditation. So we compliment it by doing purification, by creating merit, and by making request prayers to our teacher and to the Buddha. So those three things are quite important, they’re part of the preliminary practices. And then we do the lamrim meditation and familiarize our self with it again and again. And then especially in the break time as we’re walking around seeing things—training our mind to seeing them from a Dharma perspective; and I think this is part of the beauty of being in retreat. Because we’re not talking to each other so much, we have more time to look at things and remember to think about them from a different perspective. Whereas when we’re constantly interacting with people, we get caught up in, “Do they like me? Do I like them?” And our mind gets taken away from trying to remember this bigger picture—even as we’re going through the small things in our life.

  1. Venerable Chodron’s commentary appears in square brackets [ ] within the root text. 

  2. Venerable Chodron left out the rest of the sentence: “…and each of the six sufferings in particular.” 

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.