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Practicing the Dharma

Practicing the Dharma

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

  • Practicing during illness
  • Using the antidotes when attachment arises in the mind
  • Identifying the object of negation when contemplating the selflessness of the person
  • Observing the mind
  • Contemplating equanimity

Manjushri Retreat 14: Q&A (download)

Okay. And how is everybody? What’s happening? What’s happening in your meditation?

Audience: This has been an amazing week.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes?

Dealing with illness

Audience: Yes. I think part of it is that I’ve never spent the kind of time with myself and my mind like I’ve had to for the past two weeks. I’ve never, from what I can remember, it’s been a very, very long time since I’ve been sick where I’ve really had to just chill, and watching my self-centered thinking on all the terrible things it has to say about me when I’m sick. And then, if it can’t think of anything else, then it comes up and starts bringing up old ruminations and grudges and stuff about other people.

I have continued to listen to your three years of the nine verses of 108 Verses Praising Great Compassion. The first year was the nine; the second year was a review which was the nine; then the third year you actually got to verse 20, so then you finished up the first 20. But those teachings have been so profound for me these past two weeks; I can’t even put into words how they affected my mind. And I really feel in some ways there have been some shifts inside of me that I can acknowledge and actually feel. And I am getting like acquainted with myself in a way that I’ve never had before and I’m learning the more machinations of my mind that are so harmful to me.

And if I had not been sick; if I had gotten this like in the middle of offering service like doing the forest, I would have been a basket case because I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would have been forcing myself to do something; you would have had to lock me up. But the fact that this retreat has offered me a time to take care in a way I have never taken care of myself before. And to have the wisdom of people of this community who through their own experiences and challenges, have learned how to do it for themselves and they have been just remarkably helpful.

I mean the community has been just remarkable in sharing their insights on how to take care of oneself because I didn’t know how to do this. And my mind and self-cherishing was trying every moment to use it as something to beat myself up with. Those teachings you gave at Cloud Mountain, every time I would turn it off and I’d do something or fall asleep or try to get up or whatever, and something would come up in my mind that self-cherishing trying to tell me, I would turn the teaching on and you would address exactly what was going on in my mind and it would take it and just move it right through.

So, I have learned a lot about the Dharma has started going to a deeper place in the past few weeks. It has been really lovely and painful. I have been up crying a lot this week; I think it’s been good because I have had an awareness of the level of what I’ve been up against and how harmful it’s been for my wellbeing and how the Dharma has been much more nourishing and much more compassionate and much more full of self-sustaining for me. And thank the community, each and every one of you for your love and your prayers.

VTC: How’s everybody else?

Memories that come up in meditation, attachment, self-image

Audience: This week when I’ve been in the hall as I’ve been doing practice, I’ve had these just flashes of different memories, past stuff. So I’ve been kind of examining that and these recollections. It’s interesting. They’re kind of like it’s trying to pull me, feels like it’s trying to pull me out of the direction I’m going. And it’s kind of like I’m heading this way, and these things arise and try to pull me back, because there’s safety there. It’s attachment stuff. So, it’s been really interesting. So I’ve been trying just to not get hooked in them, and just notice the teacher that it’s interesting.

VTC: Yes. And you know that it’s very natural that those things come up. And that’s exactly the time when we practice the antidotes: when we think of the disadvantages of attachment, when we think of impermanence, when we ask ourselves, “What am I attached to here anyway; what do I expect to get out of this?” Yes. “Where does this take me?” And to really understand that that kind of thing is not where you want to go and it’s not beneficial and it’s not realistic too, to really see the exaggeration and the self-centeredness in the attachment. Yes?

Audience: I don’t feel like I, I don’t have any, really, interest in it.

VTC: Yes, but it comes up anyway.

Audience: It comes up. Interesting. But it really does feel like pulling me. I mean, maybe it’s really seeing attachment manifest.

VTC: Mm-hm, exactly.

Audience: Usually it’s slippery for me, [inaudible] attachment.

VTC: Yes, yes. Here’s real live attachment. Right. Spent a long time cultivating.

Audience: And a lot of it has to do with personas and who I was versus what I’m doing now.

VTC: And, “What are people going to think about you?”

Audience: No, not so much. I knew what my role was and what I was doing there and I knew the drill, and I thought, what is—what am I—what’s this? [Laughter]

VTC: Who am I in these grey clothes anyway? You felt that way.

Audience: I felt funny about that this week. [laughter]

Audience: It’s that thing when you think you are somebody and you know something and then you suddenly don’t and aren’t. And in my experience, and it still comes up a lot, I think I know something or I should be treated a certain way. That comes up too. I think I know something. Well I don’t! But, for me too, all the ways I have managed to get through life just don’t work anymore and I can see that they’re just management tools and they’re pointless. Why would anyone care?

VTC: Like what?

How we move in space

Audience: Like what lately? This week S gave me some really valuable feedback about the pace, the whirlwind I getting into when I am overbooked, overwhelmed, or trying to do too much and not paying attention. That sort of [thing] because she’s been sitting up there listening to all of us.

But, because of the way she said it, but also that it will be put in, in such physical terms. Like this energy thing doesn’t make sense to me. I mean it does make sense to me, but I couldn’t grasp it. But when she talked about the physical kind of experience of it, it was so helpful, so helpful. I really, really appreciate it. So I have been doing this for a very, very long time and I don’t know that I can change it. But it was something, like if I can tie it to my body awareness, then it’s something I can really practice it, which is not something I have had before. So, that was very, very helpful. And, I don’t know how to deal with it in some ways because I feel that being in front of a computer and doing the work that I do has a toxicity to it in my particular nervous system. So, I just need to ….

VTC: Take breaks.

Audience: Okay. Yes, right.

Audience: What about the other one?

Audience: Which other one, the poison one?

Audience: You were talking appreciation.

Audience: Oh, yes.

Audience: We all love that so much.

Audience: Oh, boy, we have been talking about this week obviously. Well, one of the things that has come out of this retreat also is really being able to feel the poison arise in my mind, and so I say to myself, “It’s poison, it’s poison, stop.” So, that’s very helpful. But, also in my need for attention, one of the things that, for approval, I just started having the merit field applaud for me when I need it. [laughter] They are very generous about it and very kind. It’s not enthusiastic. It’s not like loud applause, but I played at a 3,000 amphitheater for a number of summers and so it’s like that, 3,000 seats. But, it’s not, it sounds really funny, but it’s just reassurance. If that’s the form my reassurance needs, then they’re happy to give it. So, anyway, I have lots of little tricks that I buy into.[laughter]

VTC: Well, that kind of energy, it’s not the energy they expect of monastics.

Audience: So, do you see that when I go out in public?

VTC: Well, I haven’t been paying attention when you’ve been out in public. I’ve just been noticing it in here. Because, do you have a different persona when you go out in public?

Audience: Yes.

VTC: Then why don’t you pretend you are in public here? [laughter]

Audience: Because I don’t get any applause here.

[Resounding applause from students]

Audience: I think I will be here four years pretty soon and I think it was like two years before I could walk slower. To walk slower I think it was about two years. Before I could actually SLOW down my walking. Or maybe you gave up reminding me!

VTC: Well, you’ve gotten better.

Audience: Well, we’ll work on it.

VTC: Other people?

Studying other Buddhist traditions

Audience: I have been reading a couple of different things, but I appreciated them both. Both are kind of Zen. One is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nature of Consciousness, and then the other is Joko Beck. But it’s been really, really good, just balancing my mind, to very practical, applied kind of things, and it’s a nice juxtaposition say to the Manjushri practice and those which I like a lot. The thing is as I watch my mind in the course of a day, I have found it really helpful and able to, it’s a different view of my day or my mind, so it’s been good to kind of maybe being out of the hall a bit more, but just ….

VTC: One thing about reading from other traditions, it’s good to be aware that sometimes the philosophy is quite different, so you might get a Zen person who starts like Thich Nhat Hanh talking about the eight consciousnesses, and then if you come to teachings where I’m talking and we don’t talk about the eight consciousnesses and there’s no storehouse consciousness, if you start reading in a lot of different traditions that have different philosophical views, just be aware that you are doing that and that may not accord with what we’re learning here. Okay, so you can do that, but come back to what we’re doing here. Okay. Don’t get lost in storehouse consciousness, and these kind of things.

Audience: I guess I would say what’s interesting is I think part of that means different break because the teachings that I am more familiar with than what I might study resonate, so when I look at that or read that, I make the comparisons maybe, but I don’t tend to read that and study it in the same way, but more, kind of like personal experience, so it’s not so intellectual that I might do it a different way, or ….

VTC: So you’re reading it casually.

Audience: More casually, but more in terms of a feeling or something rather than studying it as a comparison, if that makes any sense, more in terms of my experiences, not so much in terms of the structure of how, whatever, the consciousness and the storehouse consciousness, but what has resonated are the examples of things of how thinking as opposed to a concrete concept that might be different than what you might teach here.

VTC: So, more the examples, huh?

Audience: Doesn’t feel that I’m trying to figure out if it’s a conflict of an intellectual kind; it’s more how I might relate to somebody or what I’m doing with my mind. It doesn’t feel like, “Oh, yes, I like this because it’s different or feels in conflict.” At least that’s part of the way that I can relax with that. As I review teachings from the last year, with a lot of Geshe Dorji Damdul, it’s more focused and requires a lot of my intellectual and mental capacity in a different kind of way.

VTC: Got it. Okay.

The object of negation

Audience: I’ve been seeing the kind of focus of my retreat, the focus of my retreat and what I’ve concluded from it in a way, that I’ve haven’t really been able to carry that with a whole lot of, I won’t say energy in general, but more like emotional energy, so well. It feels like I have had experience where I know something but that I’m not having the experience at this point, but it’s not that I’ve forgotten, or anything like that. But there’s like a part of me that always says, “Well you know something to be true because you’ve experienced it in a certain way. You know, it might not at all be your experience at this point in time, but there’s no doubting the original experience.”

But anyway, I tried to carry a lot of that energy and I realized I just can’t do it with all this much activity around me, and I try to bring it up whenever I can and bring up the sort of emotional state and that, but it doesn’t seem to, there’s just too much activity I guess. So, it kind of dissipated, that actual quiet sort of emotional state, how to bring out that emotional state of mind, even though I still look at people I think with compassion and do that, but I just don’t try to do it at the same level.

And so, having some space to feel uncomfortable without really, really feeling uncomfortable, without pushing, without a lot of aversion, but at the same time, not really wanting to be there. And so it’s got me into the emptiness of the [inaudible]. And turning towards the emptiness and why do I feel this way. More the object of negation, where you go to the emptiness side: seeing what this self-grasping is. And this experience of just not really wanting to be involved in something, what is that based on? And what that’s based on I felt must be based on in some way I could access the result.

So, I’ve sort of contemplating that and I’ve realized that a lot of the ways that the object of negation is kind of presented, I don’t really understand it in a lot of ways. And I started thinking about it, and thought, “What is the object of negation?” I know what it’s topic, but how do you actually define it?

I realize now that it is just the grasping at the inherent self. But, it took me a little while to realize that because I realized I was doing it too intellectually. And so, my question would be that you have a way to identify the object of negation by pulling up an experience of anger or something like that and saying here is the object of negation.

But in my experience, that mind isn’t a whole lot different from my everyday mind. It’s just a little more reified. There’s not a whole lot different, because I am always opinionated about something; I’m always sort of angry about something a little bit. You know, “Did he wash the dishes right or [inaudible]? The sort of good, bad, everything. So, I am wondering if there is kind of a state of mind or general way that we can look for when the object of negation isn’t manifest.

VTC: When it isn’t?

Audience: Yes, when it isn’t manifest, and thereby get a better sense of what it would be like to not have it and thereby get a sense of what it is by the lack of it.

VTC: You know, I think, what’s it like when it’s not manifest, so you could see when it’s not there, there are a lot of times when we don’t have a particular emotion and nothing special is going on, so there is no strong thought, “I”. So that’s a time when it’s not manifest, but you can’t really say it’s really absent at that time either, because there’s always this underlying feeling of, “I’m here.” There’s just that feeling of “I am.” That’s it, you know. And it’s there all the time.

And one thing that I find interesting is just because sometimes you forget about it even though it’s there all the time, but just how we have a certain feeling toward a person, and here I’m talking about the self-grasping of the person rather than phenomena. But there’s always, like when you look at somebody and you think, “There’s a body and there’s a mind.” And you really focus, “body, mind,” “body, mind,” when you really focus like that, you don’t see, there’s isn’t a feeling of like a person so much; there’s nothing personal, there’s just the impersonal factors of the body and mind. But then so, like nothing, it goes into being a person. So, just think nothing and it’s a person. And what’s the difference between “it’s a body and mind” and “it’s a person?” What’s the difference in that feeling?

Try it out with other people, “body, mind,” and then even with our self, “body, mind.” And as soon as we say “I,” there’s a whole different take on everything, isn’t there? So, this whole idea of there is something personal there, because even if you look at being attached to a person. You think of “body, mind,” “body, mind” attachment doesn’t come up that much. Attachment might come for the body, or attachment might come for the person’s ideas or something. But it’s very different from this feeling of attachment towards a person. Like, as soon as we make a person there, something changes. Yes? And just watching that too.

Audience: I’ve been doing that with myself and it doesn’t seem that, it just doesn’t ever really go to the point where I thought, “Oh this is the body and the mind.” I can identify “body, mind” and I can look and there’s no person. But there’s a whole time there’s the feeling of a person, and there are moments where it’s like, “Oh, there’s nobody here. No, I’m not here. I can’t find it.”

VTC: But if you still keep playing with it a little bit, and really focus, “body, mind.” What is the body? What is the mind? And have very clear ideas what those are. It’s not something that comes quickly.

Audience: The reason I was approaching it in reverse is this feeling of compassion is so far from being self-centered and focused on the self. And of course, there is still the idea of a self and that’s still there, but it’s almost not there. Because if you’re focused on being [inaudible], there is no compassion. Because, I mean you can have compassion for yourself in sort of an objective sense, but it’s just like the subjective like “me.” If it’s compassion for you, then it doesn’t feel like compassion any more. It loses the whole tone. I’m wondering, we’ve got to still do that, the grasping for it, but whether or not we can take that as a way to identify the object of negation, or lack of.

VTC: I’ve never heard them talk about it that way, because we have it so pervasively, that they usually talk about it as seeing it vividly and then proving to yourself that it doesn’t exist. I’ve never heard it talked of as “find the absence of it,” because you can’t find its absence until you know what it is.

Audience: Yes, but just for me, it makes more sense, like if it’s all around you, like if I’m in a room that’s totally painted pink, eventually I can’t see pink any more. But as soon as I have one light spot, I can see pink everywhere, but if everything’s pink I can’t see it.

VTC: But if I say there’s no “ishkabobble” in the room, okay, do you know what in the world I’m talking about?

Audience: No.

VTC: Yes, because you don’t know what an ishkabobble is so you don’t know what to look at to see that it’s not there.

Audience: But if I walked around and there is ishkabobble everywhere and I come in the room and something is missing, I can say, “Well, that’s an ishkabobble”. [inaudible] It’s all around me everywhere. [inaudible]

VTC: No, because there could be an ickyboodoo. You don’t know the difference between an ickyboodoo and an ishkabobble.

Audience: [inaudible due to talk over laughter]

Conventional nature of mind and emptiness

Audience: [inaudible]. Two things. First, I was thinking—for when we had the meeting the other day, you helped me a lot on anger, your experience was very helpful. And I felt like I got dusted off and stood back up and [inaudible due to laughter], it really helped. It really helped.

I have two questions. I had showed you before these verses from this Chenrezig practice from the Sakya monastery; and can you give me a commentary to them. I think it’s the Mahamudra verses, although I’ve had no teaching on this so am not sure. But I use that verse when I do the parts on the meditation on emptiness in our sadhana and found it’s helpful. And there’s this one part on it says, “Look perfectly at perfection itself,” and that’s the same thing as the meditations which I learned at the Sakya monastery which was very brief, “Watch your thoughts.” But, I find that to be one of the most beautiful meditations on concentration.

VTC: Is to watch the thoughts.

Audience: Yes, not watching the thoughts actually. I’m watching the mind. To me, it actually feels like the closest thing, and I don’t know what I’m doing, but the closest thing I can imagine, to looking at the conventional nature of mind. I don’t know what I’m doing, but in a few words, that’s all of that.

So, one day I got so angry that I had a lot of motivation to shut everything out of my mind. And I had the most amazing concentration that day in the hall. So, it was actually quite useful. I hadn’t had this experience in meditation in a couple of years actually, and I’ve only had it a few times. What I learned from that was that I could look at that place and I could hold it.

So, as you’ve always said, we are always single-pointedly concentrated on our anger, and I thought, “Yes, there is a lot of single-pointedness there in that anger, and I don’t want to have any of this anger, so I am going to put it here on the mind itself. And I was able to keep it there. Yet it really didn’t change anything so much afterwards in terms of my anger. It was like what you’ve explained about temporary suppression with breathing meditation. It was like this temporary diminishment. Things go back. Yet there was a nice break , and the thoughts are calmer.

But, I also have this thought that if you can look at that place in your mind, making assumptions of what I’m seeing, but if you can look at that place, why can’t you just look at the emptiness of your mind then? If you’re seeing the conventional nature of mind, now I’m asking this theoretically because I don’t know what I’m doing. But if you are seeing that luminosity, this is the field where the thoughts come into, why can’t you if you have concentration, why can’t you then just look right at the emptiness of the mind then?

VTC: They say that very often what happens is when people are looking at the conventional nature they think they’re perceiving the emptiness of the mind. And they’re not really, because the thing is very much, at least in our tradition how it’s taught is, “You think this exists, this specific thing. You think this exists [pounding table],” and then showing that it doesn’t. [rings bell]

Whereas, when you look at the conventional nature of your mind, it’s kind of open space, and relaxed, and so to say, “Oh, there’s no bell,” it doesn’t hit you or anything. But when it’s like [makes sound like knocking head], this thing that’s like clobbering you all the time that you’re knocking your head against, the center of your life, and all of a sudden you realize, that’s not there?

Audience: Like giving up personal responsibility that’s not yours. It’s like taking off shackles.

VTC: Yes, exactly, exactly. So it gives a whole different perspective rather than there’s just openness.

Audience: I find I don’t know about the emptiness side of that, but when I think about the dependent arising side, I could see more usefulness for my practice with these verses. Because the next verses are, “Look perfectly at perfection itself. Seeing perfection, you will be free. Since whatever arises is the natural condition, if you pay attention and leave what appears alone, it will appear as pure emptiness.”

So that to me, now that I am doing this every day for some time, always gives me this feeling of, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to have anything happen—and just leave it alone.”

I had the idea that if you actually paid attention, then whatever arose, you’d see it as an actual condition of all these causes and conditions, and so the dependent arising side of that has a lot of merit because you could actually maybe have yourself in a state of mind where just paying attention to all this happening.

It’s like that whole teaching in Shantideva about our anger which I find really useful and calmed me down quite a bit when I realized, yes, I know I had the seeds of anger, but those seeds need conditions. Also helpful was his verse about, “You don’t plan anger.” You don’t plan like, “Yeah, I’m going to go get angry now.” It occurs like the flower that blossoms. All the conditions are there, and the conditions are also neutral.

And that really is so calming, I think seeing where the dependent arising is would be quite calm, I could maybe relax. But I would be seeing things more clearly as they were happening.

VTC: And when you see the dependent arising and you’re focused on, “Oh this exists because the causes and conditions come together,” when you see that, then you are not going to be seeing something that’s solid and concrete there. And so that gives you some feeling of what’s missing. It’s the inherent existence that is missing.


Audience: And my other question is from tonight’s teaching. So I don’t see the method of developing equanimity. Would the method then be to recognize all these situations, and just see within ourselves? Like these things are arising. And like during the meditation, you see where you make this discrimination, “friends, enemies, strangers,” “friends, enemies, strangers.” I guess the method is that you recognize that that whole trip is not logically even possible.

VTC: Yes, like when your mind is discriminating “friend,” to say, “Why do I call this person a friend?” or “Why do I call this person an enemy?”

Audience: It would make it more spacious with [inaudible] because it seems like you have to realize emptiness to get rid of it all.

VTC: Well, that’s true.

Audience: And equanimity?

VTC: Oh, oh, I see what you’re asking. I think there’s one level of equanimity you can arrive at without realizing emptiness, but I think when you realize emptiness, then it becomes a totally different feeling. But there is one level you can get to.

Audience: The cultivation with the meditation makes you much more expansive in your mind because can see, “I’m just labeling all this,” I’m just discriminating all this on that more conventional level.

VTC: Yes, I’m labeling, I’m discriminating and on what basis? It’s not something that’s in the object. It’s something that’s completely coming from my mind.

Audience: So, that lets you just let it go. But it doesn’t get rid of it.

VTC: Get rid of what?

Audience: The discrimination.

VTC: That that’s a friend or that’s an enemy. Well, if you realize that the whole label “friend” is something you are making up based on self-referencing, that’ll get rid of it.

But you have to analyze it to see how you’re the one who created it. Because if you just go to, “Oh, friend is just an appearance; it’s illogical,” you’re not disproving it to yourself, you have to really see like, “No, there really isn’t a friend inside that person and it’s completely my mind that’s making these boxes.” And really do that analysis: “On what basis am I saying this is a friend?”

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.