Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Transforming adversity into the path

Transforming adversity into the path

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.

  • Beginning of the section of the text explaining the five precepts of mind training
  • Five practical ways to practice mind training
  • The first two points
  • How one can transform adverse circumstances into the path
  • Looking at such problems as opportunities to practice and decrease self-centeredness

MTRS 39: Transforming adversity into the path, part 1 (download)

Last time we finished the section about the process of cultivating the bodhicitta concerned with attaining the fully awakened state of mind. And in that section, we generated the first intention—which is to work for others’ welfare. We then generated the second intention—which is to attain enlightenment in order to do that most effectively.

Now, we’re going into another section that is called Instructions concerning the five precepts that are factors of the training. These are five kinds of advice that are factors of thought training and so these are very practical aspects of how we actually train our mind. Having generated the bodhicitta, or even aspiring to generate the bodhicitta, and wanting to attain enlightenment, then these are five practices that will help us to maintain whatever altruistic intention we’ve developed so far and to enhance what hasn’t been developed; just as we always dedicate our merit at the end of teachings by doing the bodhicitta prayer.

These are the five practices: 

  1. Transforming adverse circumstances into the path.
  2. The integrated practice of a single lifetime. 
  3. The measure of having trained the mind. 
  4. The commitments of mind training
  5. The precepts of mind training

Now we’re going to speak of the first subsection which is Transforming adverse circumstances into the path. This is a very, very important practice because there are a lot of adverse circumstances, aren’t there? If we crumbled every time we had an adverse circumstance, we would never get anywhere in our spiritual practice because samsara is nothing but adverse circumstances.

If we’re expecting that we’re in samsara, but we don’t have adverse circumstances, then somehow, we’ve got it all wrong. If we’re expecting to be in samsara and expecting everything to be conducive, perfect conditions to perform Dharma practice, then we’re out of touch with reality, aren’t we? Why are we expecting samsara to be perfect with all the right conditions for practice? We do expect that, don’t we? But isn’t it a rather foolish expectation? If we had all the perfect conditions, and since those perfect conditions arose due to causes, it means we would have created perfect causes, and that means we would have had wisdom and compassion already and would not have had ignorance, anger, and attachment.

In other words, we would have already been somewhere high on the path. But, if we look at our own mind, we are not there. Why do we expect to have the results that the aryas have when we haven’t created the cause for those results, because we don’t have that level of mind? We have to put our feet on the Earth some time.

Will your practice environment make a difference in your ability to practice?

You know that mind that says, “I’m having so much trouble in my Dharma practice. If I only went to this place, it would be better?” When we’re out working in the community, and then we think, “Oh, I’ll wait until I go on retreat, then I can practice Dharma.” Then, whileen we’re in retreat we think, “Oh, but I should be out working in the world, that’s how I really show my bodhicitta.” Then, we stop retreating. When we’re working in the world, our mind gets confused. We thinkgo, “Oh, I really should go back to the monastery and study in the monastery.” Then, we’re back studying at the monastery and., working in the monastery., and our mind thinks, “Oh, it’s too busy here and there’s too much to learn. I can’t learn it at all. I want to go and do a retreat because otherwise I won’t have any realizations when I die.” 

So, you see how the dissatisfied mind keeps going around and around thinking, “I’ll be able to practice in this other circumstances that I don’t currently have and so that’s why I can’t practice very well now, because I’m not in that really excellent, wonderful circumstance.” It’s the fault of the environment, isn’t it? That’s why I can’t practice. It’s the fault of the environment. Too many difficulties, too many adverse circumstances, and so then we just sit there and kind of suck our thumb and feel sorry for ourself. [laughter] You’re not laughing! [laughter] This must be striking home. 

I’ve observed this behavior for years…you go to India and then everybody’s always saying, “Oh my practice is really going to begin when I go and study with this and such a lama.” So they go there, and then you see them a year later and they’re saying, “Oh that was nice, but my practice is really going to begin when I go into the three-year retreat.” Then they start a three-year retreat, and you see them a year later and they say, “Oh that was nice, but too many obstacles. My practice is really going to begin when I go and work for Mother Teresa [laughter].” 

They do that for a while and then they say, “Oh, that was nice, but I really need to learn to meditate better, my practice is going to begin when I go to Burma. They have a good meditative tradition, I’ll learn there.” Then, they go to Burma, “Oh, I have so many difficulties with the visa, I can’t stay there, too many difficulties, and I need to go somewhere else [laughter].”

It’s called “the grass is greener on the other side of the meditation hall.” In these examples, all the adverse circumstances are basically in our own mind. Now, there are sometimes adverse circumstances that happen in the environment, but they only become adverse circumstances if our mind treats them like that. What this part of the path is doing is it’s going to show us how to not see those things as adverse circumstances, but rather to transform them so that they become part of the path to enlightenment. 

The seven-point thought transformation

This has two parts: the brief and the elaborate explanations. The seven-point thought transformation, says: 

When the environment and its inhabitants overflow with unwholesomeness, transform adverse circumstances into the path to enlightenment. 

Our author says,

The environment is filled with circumstantial results of the ten unwholesome actions, and the sentient beings who inhabit it think of nothing but disturbing emotions and do nothing but unwholesome deeds.

You can think, “Well, okay, it’s filled with circumstantial results of the ten unwholesome actions.” I mean that’s why there is environmental pollution. That’s why we don’t have decent gun laws in this country. That’s why people pick up guns and just do whatever they want with them. That’s why we have a judicial system that imprisons more people than any other industrialized country,  and on, and on, and on.

So, the circumstantial result of the ten unwholesome actions, and then the sentient beings who inhabit the environment. Here it says, 

Think of nothing but disturbing emotions. 

You might say, “Well think of nothing, once in a while they will have a virtuous thought,” but basically our culture is based on greed, isn’t it? I mean, there is a lot of kindness in the world, but the whole culture is based on greed and on consumerism. Our economy’s got to keep growing every year. If it doesn’t grow as much as we want it to grow, it’s called a recession. It’s still growing but not as much as you want it to, so it’s called a recession. Just constantly producing more and more things and we buy into it and then we need this and we need that, and we want this and want that and complain about this and complain about that. I was talking to someone recently who had the same experience that I did of living in third world countries and seeing that people there, despite the poverty, are actually happier than here in the U.S. It’s quite amazing.

What makes us unhappy? This mind that is never satisfied, and in some ways the mind that has the luxury to pout. 

We always say about our parents’ generation that they weren’t very open, and they couldn’t talk openly and things like that. But, if we look, at least my parents’ generation, they grew up in the Depression. When you grew up in the Depression, there’s no time to go to self-help seminars.  My grandma was telling me how she would not eat and pretend that she ate so that her kids would have food to eat. When you live in that kind of situation, you don’t have time to self-reflect about what’s my inner child doing because you’re trying to keep your external children alive. 

If we look at our ancestors, if you’re in a covered wagon (my family wasn’t in this country then),  some of your families may have gone across in covered wagons. When you’re running a covered wagon, you don’t have time to have a group therapy session or to get in touch with your feelings. You’re just trying to stay alive. If you’re a Native American, and there are other people coming into your area, and you don’t know what they’re going to do, you’re just trying to stay alive. 

Sometimes, because we have so much leisure now, we misuse it and we become so  hyper-vigilant and super sensitive to incredibly small things. People who are just trying to stay alive, they don’t have the time to think about those things. 

The time we have, if we use it really well, is an incredible opportunity for Dharma practice. But, if we don’t use it well, it just becomes time to ruminate. You know what I mean? You know rumination? Boy, do we know rumination! Ruminate, ruminate, ruminate! 

As the sentient beings think of nothing but disturbing emotions and do nothing but unwholesome deeds.

If we look around, what we talk about in the newspaper all day, it’s killing and stealing, unwise sexual behavior, lying, taking intoxicants, harsh words, and divisive speech. I mean the ten non-virtues are right there every day on the front page. Also, when we look around in our lives, there’s so much of that kind of stuff going around. 

For these reasons, the Gods, the Nagas, and the hungry spirits who favor unwholesome actions.

So, the other living beings who have their own problems and like to stir up trouble, when we’re busy stirring up trouble, then they are invigorated and increase in their power and strength.

As a result, spiritual practitioners, in general, are troubled by many interferences and those who have entered the door of the great vehicle are beset by various adverse factors. 

Some of the difficulties may come from non-human beings, especially in this Tibetan kind of cultural view. In our western cultural view, we don’t necessarily believe in spirits; you might say bad vibes, or you might just say obnoxious human beings. Forget about spirits! There’s enough problems with human beings, aren’t there? As a result, practitioners, and especially Mahayana practitioners, have many obstacles and hindrances. We get sick. We have an unhappy mind. We can’t get our visas. There are so many things that come up and create problems. 

Under such circumstances, if you engage in this kind of practice and are able to transform hostile influences into conducive circumstances, to see opponents as supporters and harmful elements as spiritual friends, you will be able to use adverse conditions as supporting factors in the attainment of enlightenment. 

Using non-conducive circumstances to support our practice

If we’re able to practice well, then hostile influences, bad circumstances, an opponent’s harmful elements—any kind of external problem that we may face—we will be able to use it as a supporting condition to help us progress along the path. You can see why this kind of practice is very important. Does anybody here not have hindrances? We have lots of hindrances, don’t we? External hindrances, internal hindrances. In this context, Geshe Chengawa said to Geshe Tsonawa, “It is amazing that your disciples of mind training take support from adverse factors and experience sufferings as happiness.” 

So, when you practice well, when suffering happens, instead of moaning and groaning that you have a problem, you say, “Oh, this is fantastic! This gives me the chance to practice. I have the chance to purify negative karma now. When I get sick, I have a chance to purify negative karma.” 

When our mind is unhappy, “I have the chance to develop compassion for people who are depressed.” When things don’t go the way we want, “I have the practice to develop patience and perseverance all the time.” So, we understand that seeing any condition that we encounter is something that will help us along the path. Because it’s true, every circumstance we meet, if we know how to look at it properly, it’s an opportunity to practice. If we really understand that, then there’s nothing that can happen where we can say, “Poor me, I can’t practice. ” If we know how to look at it properly, it becomes an opportunity to practice. 

An example, you’ve probably heard me say this many times before, imagine being in Tibet in 1959 and you had your monastery, your family, your whole life, your country; everything’s going hunky-dory, then, within a week or two, you have to flee and leave everything and all you have with you is your little teacup. You’re going across the Himalayan mountains from a high altitude, where there’s little disease, into a low altitude, where there’s plenty of bacteria and viruses. You don’t know what’s happened to your teachers, what’s happened to your family. You don’t know whether you’re going to be able to go back or not. You’re living in a country where you don’t speak the language. They put you in an old prisoner of war (P.O.W.) camp, and your friends are getting sick and you’re getting sick, and a lot of people are dying. Have you got the picture? 

This was Lama Yeshe’s situation. He was 24 years old when he had to flee Tibet. He would tell us this story because he came over right after the big uprising in Lhasa, and he went to Buxa, the British P.O.W. camp, the one that Brad Pitt was in, in Seven Years in Tibet, that camp. They got there and they started resuming their studies. All they had were these heavy woolen clothes in India. Lots of people got sick and died. Lama was telling us this story, and he said, “I really have to thank Mao Tse-Tung because I was on my way to becoming a geshe, I was complacent, I was happy, I probably would have been a fat complacent geshe just taking people’s offerings, reciting things and never really understanding the real meaning of the Dharma.” He put his palms together, and he said, “I really have to thank Mao Tse-Tung because he taught me the real meaning of the Dharma.” You see, that was a horrible situation and yet he changed it so it became Dharma practice, and he really meant it. He said he really meant it, “Mao Tse-Tung really taught me the purpose and meaning of the Dharma. I didn’t understand it before.”

Our mind becomes stronger when we change the way we think  

In that kind of situation, it’s good to ask yourself, “If that happened to us, if, in the next week, we had to leave here and go somewhere else where they didn’t speak our language and we had no money and no resources, how would we be thinking?” Would our mind be strong enough? Would our mind be flexible enough? Your mind only becomes strong by changing the way you think and really putting it in this kind of direction. That’s why they say that bodhisattvas love having problems because problems have so many good opportunities to practice. Bodhisattvas love when people criticize them. They love when people trash them behind their back because it gives them so much opportunity to practice and to develop patience and compassion. Imagine thinking that. You hear somebody saying stories about you behind your back and you think, “That’s good! This is going to make me more humble. This is really good for me!”

Squashing our pride

Can you see that? Is that true? It’s true, isn’t it? It’s an excellent opportunity to squash our pride, and our pride certainly needs squashing, doesn’t it? Maybe your pride doesn’t need squashing, but mine does! What a perfect opportunity to help me in my practice by squashing my pride. I should rejoice, and when somebody says bad things about me behind my back, I should say, “More, say more, this is great! I’m so attached to reputation, which is foolishness, and by criticizing me behind my back you’re helping me detach from reputation. This is really helpful. Say more lies about me behind my back!”

Can you think like that? Can you even imagine thinking like that? Can you try to think like that? When somebody’s talking about you behind your back, have you ever tried thinking like that? What happened when you did? What happened in your mind when you said, “Oh this is great, somebody’s trashing me!” 

Audience: You don’t get upset.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Yes, your mind doesn’t get upset, does it? It’s true, and we should really practice this. Somebody tells us off, or somebody criticizes us, “Thank you so much! This is really helping my practice, really making me get rid of this awful pride which creates so many obstacles.” Pride is a big hindrance, isn’t it? Our little kind of, “I’m me and you should treat me well. You’re so lucky to have me in your life. I’m very good. I know everything. Well, almost.” That kind of attitude is such a big obstacle. When somebody steps on it, we should say, “Very good, very good.” Try it when somebody does that, try and think, “Very good.” Oh, you don’t look like you believe it! [laughter]

Audience: I’ve been in a situation, and the best I could do was turn the person into an enemy, but later, years later … 

VTC: Years later you could say it was good! [laughter]

Audience: “… but at that moment…”

VTC: At that moment, you couldn’t see it, but years later you could see the experience was good. Very helpful. It makes you grow a lot so that, having had that experience, years later is  when it’s happening, try and see it that way while it’s happening. “This is good. I look like a complete jerk in front of all these people. This is great!” We’re doing this big something, something, something, and I trip? Fantastic! I look like a complete jerk. Good for me. [laughter]

Why can’t we laugh at ourselves? I’ve seen His Holiness sometimes, right in the middle of an incredibly serious ceremony, and the Tibetan texts, the pages are sometimes hard to turn, and he’ll turn two pages, instead of one, and he’ll keep reading and it won’t make sense, and he’ll stop and figure out what happened and then just crack up right in the middle of giving a long or an oral transmission or something like that. We would probably just keep reading hoping nobody noticed that we turned two pages. [laughter]

Another example of this, at least from my own life, is when I went to Kopan, the first year I was practicing, within a few months I had hepatitis A. You get that from unclean food and vegetables, and I was so sick. To me, going to the bathroom (which was the outhouse) was like I might have been climbing Mount Everest for the amount of energy it took me. I was so sick and somebody, while I was lying there, because I couldn’t do anything, brought me a copy of The Wheel of Sharp Weapons by Dharmarakshita.

I started reading that text, and it completely transformed my whole relationship with the Dharma, because, before, I was always thinking. “I should practice the Dharma,” and when I read that text, I thought, “I want to practice the Dharma.” For me, looking back at that time of having hepatitis, I think it was a great thing that happened to me. 

If I hadn’t been so sick, and if somebody hadn’t given me that book, I would have just continued to think, “Well, Dharma’s good to practice. I should practice it,” but without having the umph in the practice…without feeling like I really need the Dharma. When you’re sick, then sometimes you feel “I really need the Dharma.” This is not just fun little things to amuse my mind, but I really need to practice because this is serious stuff. For me, that experience of hepatitis was a turning point, and it was a fantastic thing that happened in my practice. Really good.

So that was the short explanation. The elaborate explanation has two parts:

Taking adverse circumstances into the path 1) by relying on the special thought of the awakening mind; and 2) by relying on the excellent practices of accumulation and purification

The next section is point one;

They are taking adverse circumstances into the path by relying on the special thought of the awakening mind of the bodhicitta.

Then the seven-point thought transformation text says, 

Apply meditation immediately at every opportunity.

It doesn’t say “Fall asleep in your meditation session.” It doesn’t say, “Apply your topic of meditation five years from now.” [laughter] I know no one here falls asleep in their meditation. Just doze a little bit. Just a little bit?

We should take lightly every physical or mental difficulty that befalls us, be it great, moderate, or slight.

This refers to not only physical problems but also to when our mind is unhappy, for example, when our mind has low energy, when our mind is distracted, when our mind is full of rubbish, or when our mind just feels despair. Instead of falling into these low mental states and just letting them continue on, use them to practice. 

Whatever the circumstance, in happy times or hard times, whether we are at home or in a foreign country, in a village or a monastery, in the company of human or non-human friends, we should think of the many kinds of sentient beings in the boundless universe afflicted with similar troubles and make prayers that our own sufferings may serve as a substitute for theirs and that they may be parted from all misery.

We have some problem, instead of focusing and developing our single pointed concentration on my problem, like we usually do, it is better to see the boundless universe and think of how many sentient beings have this similar kind of problem right now at this very moment. Then, how many of those who have this problem right now know the Dharma and have the Dharma techniques to help them? How many of them, if it’s a physical problem, even have access to food and medical care?

So, we may have some disease here; I remember when I got shingles a few months back, I was thinking, “What do you do if you’re in Nepal and you’re poor and you get shingles? What do you do?” And I remembered taking people to clinics down the road, because sometimes I would take my Tibetan friends to clinics: clinics are dirty, and people don’t usually want to go there because it’s expensive by their standards, so it’s very difficult to get good health care. I took one nun to the hospital; she had TB (tuberculosis). At the hospital, you had to bring food to the patients. The hospital doesn’t serve the food. You had to help change their bed pan. There’s a dormitory bed. You’re sleeping in the same sheets as the person who was sick who was there before you. It’s really quite amazing. They give you an injection, you don’t know if it’s a sterilized needle or not.

The taking and giving meditation

So, here, when we get sick, think about what people in other countries who have no access to the kind of medical care we have, and what do they do? Then, it becomes much easier to do the taking and giving meditation. That’s what the section where it says, “Relying on the awakening mind,” you do the taking and giving meditation and say, “May I take on their suffering and may my suffering from whatever disease will suffice for the suffering of all these other people. May they be free of it.” Some years ago, I was helping a Tibetan lama, and one of his disciples had a big, crusty tumor in his leg, and he would take a piece of bone and jab it to drain the fluid and the stuff out of it from time to time. It just got bigger and yuckier, so we took him to the doctor. The doctor did some surgery. He came out of the surgery in a stretcher that was like a hammock with people holding the four sides and then just put him down. We had to bring him food and things like that. He was just so grateful for the attention that we were giving him. 

The conditions there were awful, and then it wound up he had cancer and there was no cancer treatment at that hospital where he was. We were thinking that we would have to fly him to India, but how do you get money to fly somebody to India? He didn’t know Hindi, and so somebody else would have to go with him. It’s very expensive, and where does he stay? You just look and that’s a very real circumstance. He was actually fortunate because we were helping him, because he had had that for a long time and, from his side, he would have just continued having it and would never have it treated until it killed him. 

When we have some illness or ailment, if we think of these situations and think, “My goodness, I’m so fortunate. I just drive down the road and there are doctors and there are nurses and  medicine, and people to help me and so much support.” I mean it’s just incredible. Then really say to yourself, “Can the suffering I have, which seems like nothing compared to people in underdeveloped countries, may it release their suffering, may it suffice for theirs. May their suffering ripen upon me.” Or, if we’re depressed or in a bad mood, instead of thinking, “I’m so miserable. I’m so depressed,” say, “Wow, what am I depressed about?” One of our problems of some sort. “What would happen if I lived in a third world country and my children were malnourished, and they were dying, and I couldn’t get them food, and I couldn’t get them medical care, and I was trying to get work but there’s war in the area where I live and I can’t get the work to get the money?” 

You just start thinking of real-life situations that other people face. They might feel despair, distress, or depression. So you think, “Okay, I’m feeling bad. My feelings are hurt about something, but may I take all of their suffering upon myself. May all of their mental suffering ripen on me and my little bad mood, may it suffice for all the depression and despair and loneliness of all those other people.” And really think, even just on this planet, of what’s going on, and take the suffering of others. And if you start expanding this thought, you think of beings born in different realms and what they’re going through. It’s quite a strong practice, and a very good practice; this thing of always remembering other people’s circumstances, it helps us put our own problem in perspective, which is often very, very important and a very strong way to change our mind.

I remember the first winter retreat we did here, and we started the tradition of the retreatants writing to inmates, and we would get letters from some of the inmates who were doing the retreat from afar, and one guy wrote, “While I’m sitting in a dorm [dormitory] room full of 300 other people, I’m on the upper bunk and the light bulb without a shade is about a foot and a half in front of me, and there is yelling and screaming and people are playing music and shouting, and I just got done  doing my sadhana.” 

Remember that? It was incredible because the people who were doing the retreat here didn’t complain about anything, because we thought, “Oh my goodness, look at that situation that somebody’s practicing in, and they’re going ahead with it, and I complain because somebody clicks their mala in the meditation hall. I get so upset about that. What would I do if I were in this situation, a dormitory with 300 other people, trying to do my practice?” This thing of opening our eyes and seeing what’s going on with other sentient beings is very good for our mind. It really cuts through the self-centered thought. I’ve often thought that every American teenager should have to spend six months in a third world country. I think it would change this country dramatically if people really had the opportunity to see what went on in other places, or even if people went to the poor areas in our own country and spent some time. 

When we have some problem, think of this situation that other people are living in and really take it upon ourselves, and then, whatever problem we have—we might be sick, we might even be very sick and have a very horrible disease—if we do this meditation, our mind is going to be okay. We might be very depressed or very distressed about something that’s going on or very worried, but if we do this meditation then our mind is just going to chill out and be much calmer. That’s really something very good to practice. 

Considering how wonderful it is to have fulfilled the purpose of our practice of compassion by taking on the suffering of others, we should sincerely rejoice. 

When we do this practice, when we take on their suffering and think, “My suffering is standing in, is acting as a replacement for all of theirs,” then, really rejoice and feel happy about it. 

When we enjoy happiness and prosperity and suffer no lack of food, clothing, dwelling, friends or spiritual masters but possess these external conditions in abundance, and when suffering no internal problems such as sudden discomfort caused by mental or physical sickness, we are able to put our faith and so on into practice, and we should recognize that all these favorable conditions for following an uninterrupted great vehicle practice in these hard times when the teaching is degenerating are the fruits of merits accumulated in the past. 

That’s one long sentence.  So, when we’re enjoying happiness, when things are going well, we have enough to eat, we have a roof over our head, we have clothes, we have medicine, our mind is relatively happy, our body is relatively happy, we have friends and things, we have access to the Dharma, and we have spiritual teachers who we can learn from, when we have all these good conditions, instead of taking them for granted, like we usually do, we should think, “I have all these good conditions due to the merit that I created in my previous life, and so I shouldn’t waste this opportunity, because whoever I was in a previous life I worked very hard to get the situation I have now, so I shouldn’t waste this opportunity. In fact, I should use my time and energy to create more merit to ensure that I will have the same kind of opportunity again in the future and also to progress along the path to enlightenment since I have such good conditions.” Are you getting what I’m saying? Especially in these hard times, where the teaching is degenerating, we have the opportunity to study and practice in this environment. 

It’s so incredible and, like I was saying this morning in our stand-up meeting, how we look, and  people who’ve never been here, people who don’t even know us, send us things and make donations. It’s absolutely astounding, isn’t it? The goodness in people’s hearts and the kind of faith they have? While we have these opportunities, and we have such a good situation to practice, we need to really use it and not take it for granted. Use it and create merit and do purification and listen to the teachings and think about the teachings, because in a snap of the fingers, this whole situation could change. It doesn’t take much and the whole thing changes. So, don’t take it for granted, but really think, “Wow. What I did in a previous life was something so I should continue in this life.”

One of the inmates I wrote to told me that one of the things that keeps him going is he thinks, “Whoever I was in a previous life worked really hard, so I don’t want to blow it for him. If I blow it by having uncontrolled behavior and creating a lot of negativities, then it’s like blowing somebody else’s good effort,” except you’re actually experiencing your own results. You feel like it’s another person because it was a previous life. This is important because we really take good circumstances for granted, don’t we? So much! Our mind always picks out something small to worry about, to fret about, to ruminate about, to create a problem about. This is the way the deluded mind works. One small thing and we blow it up. 

Therefore, it is essential to endeavor to accumulate merits on the basis of pure ethical conduct so as to obtain such uninterrupted prosperity in future lives. 

So, we have to really create merit on the basis of having good ethical conduct, because if you don’t have good ethical conduct, how are you going to create merit? How are you going to make your mind virtuous when you don’t practice being virtuous? 

Those who cannot see the point of this due to their having obtained even a little wealth are in many cases governed by pride, arrogance, and disdain. 

People who have even a little wealth, but take it for granted or those who can’t see the importance and necessity of creating more merit for future lives and taking advantage of the opportunity we have now—that kind of person—their mind is ruled by pride, arrogance, and disdain. In other words, they think they’re above the law of karma, “I have these good circumstances because I’m some kind of special person and nothing bad is going to happen to me so I don’t need to try and purify and create good karma and listen to teachings and practice. This came to me because I’m entitled to it.” It’s the way we feel so often, isn’t it? “I’m entitled to it. I deserve this.” 

When these people encounter even the slightest mental or physical trouble, they become discouraged, despondent, and defeatist.

That’s true, isn’t it? When you take a good situation for granted then, when you have the smallest trouble, your mind gets all out of whack. Or, when you feel like you’re entitled to have every good condition in the universe, but then when you face a little problem, your mind is despondent, “I can’t handle it.” There’s nothing to do, it gets to feed us. We see this don’t we? It’s very sad. It’s the function of the self-centered mind. 

We are taught not to behave like this but to be undisturbed whether we encounter happiness or suffering. 

That’s what the Dharma teachings are teaching us—to be undisturbed whether we have good external circumstances or bad ones, whether we encounter happiness or suffering—to take all experiences into the path to practice. 

Questions and Answers

Audience: The times I’ve had to do this, really with much suffering going on, when it’s too much. It seems in this reading they’re saying that it’s really more of a time where you should be appreciating your situation, and I’m thinking that we should be able to do that practice in a more heart-felt sense, even if your mind is heavy.

VTC: So, you’re saying that when you do the taking and giving practice while you’re unhappy and having problems, it doesn’t seem to work as well as it does when you are happy, but it seems like you should be able to do it equally well as when you’re happy and things are going well, and that’s true, we should be able to do that. So then the question comes, “How do we get our mind into the state where it’s going to be really affected by things when we’re happy and things are comfortable, and I think here, thinking about how our circumstance could change at any minute, that can kind of wake us up, and, also, I find what’s very helpful is, I start looking at other people and other living beings and really look in their hearts and see their suffering and then, think, in a snap of fingers this could be my suffering. Especially, when I look at the kitties, and I think what would it be like to be born as an animal? Here you are, within a Dharma environment, but you can’t understand what’s going on, you can’t appreciate it, all you want to do is sleep all day or eat, and the mind that is so overwhelmed by ignorance that can’t think straight. To me, it’s very scary to have that kind of mind. Maitri knows what we’re talking about! It’s very scary to have that kind of mind. Then I think there are living beings that I care about who have that kind of state of mind and, wow, “I should do something. I want to do something, and that in a snap of fingers it could be my state of mind, too,” so that really wakes me up. Have you ever, when you walk down the road and you see the cows or the horses, just look in their eyes and think there’s a sentient being in there who used to be a human being and who could talk and read and think of all these things, and now just look, they’re stuck in this animal body and the whole potential of the mind is trapped. How do they even create the good karma to get out of it when you’re in that situation? 

I find doing this, at this time of year when we have stink bugs, look at them or the crickets or the chipmunks and the squirrels… To me, you know how the squirrels are? You know how your mind gets so distracted, because the squirrels are really jerky, aren’t they? [VTC demonstrates] And then watch them; sit and watch them. They’re so impulsive and can’t stay on anything and are very jerky, and I think, “My goodness, what would it be like to have that kind of mind?” I mean, I have a taste of it when my energy gets jerky and uncontrolled, but theirs is like a hundred times worse and no opportunity to learn the Dharma. 

Audience: The coyotes are howling and hunting…

VTC: Yes, the coyotes howling and hunting, or the turkeys. The turkeys, who are so afraid of being alone. Terrified of being alone.

Audience: A question online. How do nuns get more opportunity to practice, such as being with difficult people, when they are in an environment where mindfulness is a lifestyle? [laughter]

VTC: How do sangha members have the opportunity to practice being with difficult people and difficult situations when you live in an environment where mindfulness is a lifestyle? Well, theoretically, mindfulness is a lifestyle, but we’re just ordinary human beings, aren’t we? We’re just ordinary human beings trying to make mindfulness and compassion a lifestyle, but we have a way to go. Internally, we have the afflictions, and then we live with each other, don’t we? We live with plenty of people that drive us nuts! I love these kinds of questions, because the people have the idea that when you live in a monastery everybody thinks alike, everybody acts alike, everybody keeps the precepts the same way, so you’re all very harmonious. It’s not exactly like that because our afflictions come right with us into the monastery, don’t they? Our berserky minds are right there with us, and you have to live with people who in your ordinary life you probably wouldn’t associate with because we’re very different people with different ways of doing things, different ways of thinking. We might all have the same spiritual faith but, boy, we still have different personalities and different ways of doing things, and you have to live with those people 24/7. 

You can’t go home and be with your family who loves you and who says, “Oh you’re wonderful and it’s their fault.” Nobody here does that to each other, so we have to sit there and learn to live with each other. That’s why they say that living in a monastery is like rocks being in a tumbler, that you polish each other and chip off your rough edges. It can be a challenge, can’t it? But it’s an incredible circumstance for growing, because you’re always faced with your own mind because, you know here, as soon as you start pointing the finger, and tell yourself, “He made me mad; she did this,” you know, as soon as you start doing that, you’re wrong. 

It’s like this is a place where you try to do that and it doesn’t fly, does it? [laughter] We keep trying, but it doesn’t fly; pointing a finger at another person, doesn’t fly. So, we’re always in a situation where we have to look back and see what’s going on in our mind? What am I thinking? What energy am I putting out? Am I seeing things accurately? Am I being kind and respectful? and so on.

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.