Appreciating the opportunity to practice
Appreciating the opportunity to practice
Part of a series of teachings from a three-day retreat on the four seals of Buddhism and the Heart Sutra held at Sravasti Abbey from September 5-7, 2009.
- The things we take for granted
- Setting priorities
- Finding meaning and purpose in our lives
- Preparing for death
The four seals of Buddhism 04 (download)
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so your discussion, what did you think about taking things for granted? And what lies behind that? And what would your life be like if you didn’t? Was it a helpful discussion?
Audience: Yes. First of all we discovered there were lots of things to take for granted—lots of people, you can take yourself for granted, things around you, many things you can take for granted. I think eventually we came to the conclusion that prioritizing and deciding what the most important thing is might help.
VTC: Yes, okay. So spending time thinking about what is the most important thing in our lives and setting those as priorities, might help us to appreciate those things more and not take them for granted. And then what criteria do you use to decide what’s important in your life? What criteria do you use?
Audience: The benefit for the sentient beings.
VTC: Okay, one criteria is the benefit for other sentient beings. When we were kids, what were we taught was the criteria? What does our society take as the criteria? Often it’s money, what I want, good looks, high status, lots of possessions, fitting in with what everybody else is doing. But do those criteria really work in your life?
Audience: They bring pain and misery.
VTC: They bring pain and misery? Really? But lots of people when they get money they’re happy. No? How does that not bring happiness?
Audience: My brother for some time was kind of poor, and then he got a lot of money. He realized pretty quickly that once you have a certain amount, it doesn’t do anything.
Audience: He just needs more?
Audience: It might just keep some of the miseries away that you would have if you didn’t have money, but other than that it doesn’t contribute to your happiness.
Audience: And think of what happens to those Lotto winners…
VTC: Right, and how many problems the people who win the lotteries have afterwards in their lives. But I think it’s very important in our life to have quite clear in our mind, what are the criteria we use for deciding what’s important and what’s not. Because if we haven’t thought about this well and we don’t know what criteria, then we just kind of follow whatever is going on in our mind—and it’s kind of murky. We’re making decisions about what’s important and what’s not, but we’re not really clear why we’re deciding one thing is important and something else isn’t.
Audience: Decide based on what will be important at the time of death.
VTC: Okay, so that’s another criterion—what will be important at the time of death. Why is that a good criterion to use?
Audience: Because death is what’s going to come. Death is the big event. It’s the period at the end of a sentence.
VTC: Okay, but what’s important then, why is using that as a criterion important?
Audience: For future lives, because of state of mind, because of karma.
VTC: Because of karma, because of future lives—but you’re just going to die and there’s no future life, right?
Audience: But it’s going to be scary and I want to be ready. I mean, if I go, if I’m going to have to experience something that’s painful, then I want to be as ready for that as possible. I don’t want to spend my whole life deluding myself and then come to that moment and just have to have it all without being ready. If it’s going to come I should at least try to make it easier. I know it’s coming.
VTC: It’s true, isn’t it. I mean, death is one thing we know is coming, yes? It’s the only thing we have to do. If we can prepare for it, then they say it can be like going on a picnic. For the great masters dying is like going on a picnic, they have a good time, nothing fearful, no regrets. But to have that kind of death, we have to really practice in our life.
Audience: I received a great benefit when I met the Dharma because it gave me a purpose in life. Once that purpose was clear, then establishing the priorities was clear because then everything that furthered the purpose was my priority and everything that kept me away from the purpose was something that I had to abandon. It brought a lot more clarity having that goal that I wanted to do.
VTC: So what is your goal?
Audience: I want to be the best person I possibly can—so that I can be of the highest benefit. That is my purpose. It may take me more than one life. It may take eons, but every step that I take gets me closer, I hope. And so everything that helps me further along that path is a priority and then everything that does not then is something I need to abandon.
VTC: Yes, it makes sense. I think that’s very true. When we have a very clear purpose in our life, even if it’s something that’s quite, you know, becoming the best person you can to benefit others. When you think, “The best person I can be,” well, that means a Buddha. Yes, it’s going to take a long time. But when you know that, then you’re going in that direction and you have your priorities. You have your purpose. You can make decisions based on that. And then to shed the things that aren’t conducive for the direction you want to go in, it doesn’t become so painful when you’re really convinced that’s the direction you want to go in.
When you’re not so convinced, then, well… And so I think part of our practice is really establishing that purpose and that meaning. Then asking ourselves, “Okay, what is conducive for that and what is antithetical?”
This kind of reflection is very important to do. When we’re brought up and in our school system they don’t teach us this. Yet, I think this is probably the most important thing to think about in our lives. I say this because when we don’t have a clear purpose, then our actions become very confused. Wouldn’t you say that’s true in looking at your own life? Yes? If we don’t have a clear purpose or if we have a very self-centered purpose, then our actions become pretty confusing, don’t they?
This takes some reflection. It’s very good that we put the time on the cushion and really reflect about that. Then we wind up being able to live our life very well. Then at the time of death, we don’t have any regrets—because we’ve been able to live well and make wise decisions. And even if we make unwise decisions and do really stupid things, which we’ve all done, right? If we can look at those things and learn from them; so that we can look at the stupid things and regret them—but really learn and really understand, “How did I get myself in that position? What was going on in my mind that I did that?” To really understand how the mind works, we can investigate that deeply. Then we can learn from those experiences. In that way we can look back on them and say, “I’m glad they happened, even though they were painful, even though I may have done harmful things. Yes, but I learned something important that I wish I didn’t have to learn through that way. But now, I want to remember what I learned so that I don’t harm others and hurt myself in the future.” I think that if we learn to deal with things in our past in that way, then we don’t carry a lot of baggage with us in our life. We’re baggage-less and, as you know, they charge for every piece of luggage nowadays so it’s better to travel light.
It’s interesting, the conversation I just had with my niece. She was saying that it seems that as you get old that your life just becomes worse—because you’ve made more mistakes, and you have more losses. There are more things that happen that are distressing to you—just kind of a cumulative effect. And you have more friends that die. And you’re getting older, and you’re getting uglier, and you’re fat, and your health is getting worse, you know.
Audience: It sounds terrible.
VTC: It sounds terrible, but it’s true, isn’t it? All this is happening, isn’t it? She’s not lying, all this is happening.
Audience: [several people back and forth, difficult to hear, then:] I’m happier being me now than I was at any time earlier in my life.
VTC: Okay, so you’re happier being you now than you were earlier. Why? What changed?
Audience: Absolutely. You know, I mean I wasted a lot of time in my youth being an incredibly [inaudible] person and wanting things that weren’t ever going to happen and all that stuff, you know. I mean, I still do. I’m not saying I’ve given all that up, but my mind’s a lot more stable—whatever happens, happens a lot more. I don’t seem to have all this trauma and drama for things that I can’t control [inaudible]. I mean, I may just have come from a really bad place and the line has come down or whatever. But no, but it’s true—for some people it is true that they become … I think Bev said it the best. She still lives and works with older people in their 90s, 80s, like that. She said you become distilled at that age and you either become distilled into something that’s kind of sour and bitter or you become really pure and beautiful and caring.
VTC: Yes. How many of you feel that your life has gotten better as you’ve gotten older? Interesting. [Laughter] Yes, all the people in their 20s and 30s were kind of like…
Audience: I’m an older person and I didn’t agree. There’s one of us holding out back here.
Audience: I think one of the really great things about getting older is that you can look back on your life—like by decades. And you can get a perspective that you don’t, you just don’t, I didn’t have anyway when I was twenty for sure. I didn’t have enough distance. You know it’s sort of like looking at art. If you’re up too close to a lot of things, you can’t really see the picture. But if you stand back, then you can get a sense of it. And I think that my life has been like that. Now that I can look back, I can see things I couldn’t see when they were happening.
Audience: This also brings an urgency. It’s like that thing about wanting to live a long time so you can practice the Dharma longer, you know? It’s like trying to keep the body, despite all my falls and spills, trying to keep the body going so that I can … I came to the Dharma too late in life. There’s an urgency. I’ve got to read everything. I’ve really got to study everything. It’s like everything else gets left behind. Everything else is just fluff and I don’t need it.
Audience: If I hadn’t met the Dharma, I think the answer to that question would’ve been very different. Before I met the Dharma, the patterns, the habituations, the negative space of mind was becoming more embedded, more rutted. My perspective was actually getting narrower and more panicky and more disillusioned. So if I hadn’t met the Dharma, I think my answer to that question would be different.
Audience: I would just concur with that. I’m 36 and I raised my hand that as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten better—but only because I met the Dharma. I had so much suffering in my twenties. So really, only because of the Dharma everything’s gotten better. Otherwise I’d just be cycling around and just suffering.
Audience: I think a lot of it is following the path that’s right for you. When we’re younger, we’re brought up on this certain path that may not fit for us at all. So you try to fit into a box that doesn’t work for you. That doesn’t ever lead to happiness. And as you grow you figure out who you are and what fits—and to me that’s made a huge difference.
Audience: I think it has to do with people who learn from their mistakes partly, and also your ethics. If you aren’t living ethically, then everything just gets more and more of a mess. I think that it is quite a problem—what you were describing at the beginning—although we were laughing. I actually think that’s why my nephew committed suicide when he was eighteen. He looked forward. He couldn’t see any purpose or meaning. But I’ve also met people like my uncle who just died. He had a sense of ethics. He carried it with him through his life. He actually, like you were saying, worked out on the distilled side in a positive way even more and more. And he had ethics that fit him.
Audience: I think there are many characteristics and that’s one of them—and I think an open-mindedness also. As I’ve got older, I’ve gotten more open-minded, more receptive to things. In the Old Testament when they call the people stiff-necked. [inaudible] I used to be very stiff-necked.
Audience: I guess as one that disagrees, maybe it’s because of my experience the last two years. I’ve been dealing with aging parents and one parent died last summer and the other is 89—and becoming older and all the pain and suffering that comes with it. And so I’m becoming extremely aware of sickness, old age, death. I was with my father when he died and he drowned to death in his own fluids. He was terrified, absolutely terrified. I look at my mother who is getting closer all the time and she has always been an I’ll-do-it-myself person and has done very well doing it for herself. She is suffering from the inability to do it for herself any more without anything else to replace it with. It’s just suffering. Both my parents came from the age where you didn’t talk about anything. You didn’t talk about your fears—you didn’t talk—so they die with them. And the thought of where that’s going to take them is terrifying. I agree with most of you in the sense that I think that most of us that are in our sixties, we’ve dealt with a lot of stuff and we feel better about ourselves mentally, spiritually, and psychologically. But we haven’t faced the end yet either. When I look at my parents, what my dad went through dying and what my mother is going through—and then I start subtracting the difference in age. Death, it’s right around the corner. Granted, I’m very thankful for the Dharma because it’s been the only thing that I encountered that has made sense to me. But I am running out of time. Yet the laziness that we talked about is there and it’s like a demon. After our discussion group I want to make my sign that says, “How many lazy bodhisattvas are there?” I know I’m plagued with laziness. It’s a sickness that I can’t instantaneously cure and I’m so afraid. I look at this life and I think, you know, granted I had to have done some positive things to come across the Dharma and the things that have happened to me in that respect. But I’ve done a lot of other things in previous lives that have kept me from being able to apply maybe some stuff that I came with on the Dharma side. And where am I going to go afterwards? It’s frightening really—when you think about it. But I didn’t think about it until I had to deal with, and decide to be with my parents. This is because I suffer too when I see them suffer, and I suffer when I’m angry at my mom because she’s such a pain in the butt, you know. So, like I said, I just see it in a little bit different perspective.
VTC: Yes. So really, the old age, sickness, and death is right in front of you. And you’re seeing what that’s entailed. And you’ve seen in the examples of your parents, aging and sickness and death—the most scary thing. You’re appreciative for the Dharma that you’ve learned. But also you’re aware of this kind of laziness, an obscuration that keeps you from really using the potential that you have. At the same, how fortunate you are to have met the Dharma when you did. I say this because I often think, “What would my life have been like if I hadn’t met the Dharma?” Then I really see what kind of suffering things would’ve turned out as, yes? So there’s a great appreciation for having met the Dharma.
Then also the sense of urgency you spoke of, how … we all feel that we’re not going to die. Or if we’re going to die it’s a long time away—a long time away. Whereas, you’re having the experience of, “No, it’s not that long!” That’s kind of scary and it shakes you up. If we use that feeling of being shaken up in a skillful way, it can help us overcome the laziness. This is because when the aging, sickness, and death is in front of us and we see, “Okay, without the Dharma, this is how I react to it. With the Dharma, this is how I work with it,” and we’re just talking this life. Then definitely you get some energy to practice the Dharma.
Then if you look beyond this life, if I die as somebody who is terrified, where am I going to wind up? If I’m able to practice now, and maybe I haven’t completely calmed my mind by the time I die, but maybe there’s a little bit more calmness. Even if there’s not, at least I planted some virtuous seeds. So if at the time of death, maybe some negative thought arises, still I’ve spent a good chunk of time in my life creating virtue. I can rejoice at that. You know that as much as you can put your mind into the Dharma, that much more is going to alleviate that fear and panic at the time of death and the possibility of a lower rebirth—because you’ve really used the time that you have now.
We can always look at our lives and, “If I could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, ought to have done this,”—and all of our shortcomings and what lousy practitioners we are. We’re very good at seeing all of our faults. I think it might also be good to look and say, “But I have done this, and I have done this, and I have done this,” and rejoice at our own merit. Encourage ourselves. Because one thing I’ve learned is that if we say, “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve,” or even if regrets for the past (and even for the present), “Oh, if I really understood impermanence, I would practice a lot more.” Yes? We say this, “But if I really understood,” you know, “So I should practice,” you know, “I should practice the Dharma more because I’m going to die and so I should.” And, “I should give up these attachments because they don’t lead anywhere but to suffering and I really should give them up.”
But as much as we “should” on ourselves, it doesn’t work. Why? Because should is all up here. This is where the maturity comes when we have done a lot of meditation. Instead of saying should, we have some deep understanding in our heart. When there’s the deep understanding in our heart, then we naturally want to go in a certain direction. Then we don’t have to say, “I should not be so lazy, I should do this.” When we’ve really spent the time thinking about impermanence and death, thinking about Buddha nature, thinking about what samsara is, thinking about what the path is to get out. When we’ve really thought deeply about those subjects, then that acts as the causal basis for the energy to naturally go in those directions—whereas “should” doesn’t work very well. So to get beyond “should,” we need to put time on the cushion and really think about things.
Audience: Yes. When I was in our group I also became really aware that I have an either/or mind—and there’s really no compromise, nothing in between. It has to be this way or that way. So I really have to watch that.
VTC: Right. And to really learn to rejoice at our own and each other’s virtue; this is very important.
Audience: I would like some advice about something that happens to me. I haven’t yet found a way to manage it. And that is, well, I’m a householder and I also feel like there’s an urgency to study and deepening my understanding of the Dharma. What happens, for example, is I concentrate on the Dharma for a period of time. Then the house goes to pieces and the dirt accumulates and the laundry overflows, I’m not spending as much time with my family or my daughter. And so then I go, “Oh huh, I totally need to correct that,”—like make a course correction. So then I have all this work to do now on the house because everything is upside down. And I haven’t talked to my family in ages; and my daughter, I need to go and spend time with her and take her places. So I do all that. And now I’m in the other direction and not doing … I spend a lot of time doing that. How can I have a more balanced…
VTC: I see a lot of heads nodding. Yes! Okay. So you’re bringing up the challenge of the householder. What’s actually the challenge? It’s actually the challenge of living with a body—that we have to take care of our environment. I mean, you even hear that at the Abbey too, “Oh, we work so much!” You know, “We’re working too much doing this, doing that, we don’t have enough time for Dharma.” Then we have retreat for three months, “Oh, I’m on the cushion so much. Things aren’t getting done. Yes, I’m out of shape. Nothing around here’s getting done.” This is just our mind, isn’t it? Yes, whenever we’re doing one thing, we think we should be doing another thing. Or we just completely go too much this way and too much that way. Yes, too much—just only Dharma. And then too much—only samsara.
We need to start not having this black and white mind about Dharma and samsara. We need to learn how to see things in our daily life from a Dharma perspective—so that the things we do in our daily life enrich our Dharma understanding. So instead of seeing them as hindrances and as pain in the neck, you use them to increase your Dharma understanding. Then when you’re doing more formal Dharma on the cushion and whatever—to also remember to extend that out into the practical world you live in and your daily life activities.
Practicing Dharma doesn’t mean that the dirty dishes have to stack up. The garbage stacks up, and the phone messages stack up, and the e-mails stack up, and your daily life falls apart. No, but rather you do your meditation and then when you’re washing the dishes think, “I’m cleaning the minds of sentient beings with the realization of emptiness,” okay? When going to work, “I’m offering service to sentient beings.” When things happen, conflict situations, “I’m learning about myself. I’m learning about how the mind works. I’m learning that not everybody’s like me. I’m learning how to be skillful in dealing with other people.” All those kind of skills and things that you learn, you take into your Dharma practice. Then also, you learn through your Dharma practice to generate a more loving, compassionate heart which will help you be more skillful. So you find a way to stop seeing these things as so different, so black and white.
Audience: Just in relationship to what Elise was saying, I was one of the nodding heads. What I realized as you were talking is that what comes up for me is resentment. What I realize is it’s just that I want things my way. Because like if I want to be studying a text, I want to do it for as much as I want, for as long as I want. So now I won’t have to worry about getting up in the morning, going to work and being tired and stuff. It seems like it’s a lot that I just want to do things how I want to do them. This is what also comes up trying to get everything done.
VTC: As you were saying, one of the things that makes the integration difficult is that you would like to be able to read a Dharma text and stay up as late as you want reading and thinking about it and not have to go to work in the morning. But you have to go to work in the morning. So then what you think and you’re seeing that, you know one way to look at it is, “Well, this is my natural way, the way I get more things done, and the way I want to use my energy.” And if you think like that then you’re going to be miserable because everything is going to seem as a hindrance.
Yes? [You’re thinking,] “My natural way is to go with the flow and stay up as late as I want and having to go to work is a nuisance and a hindrance. And you know, I should just be able to make up my own schedule because then my energy’s going in the direction I want it to go in and it’s not getting interrupted.” You hear this around the Abbey too, “I don’t like the schedule!” [Laughter] We get letters. Somebody wrote us, “You know, the schedule really just interfered with my spontaneity. Because I was just really into doing something and having a good conversation or reading a Dharma text and then the bell rings and I have to go do something else.” So, you know, it’s the same thing whether you’re in the monastery or outside, isn’t it?
Audience: I used to meditate in the morning and I’d just set the timer on the stove because I had to go to work. And then I was free and I didn’t have to think about the time forever, until I heard the bell.
VTC: So you can either see these things as a hindrance to the natural flow and the way I want to do it. Or you can see it as, this is showing me how to change gears, it’s showing me how to be happy even when I’m not doing things the way I want to do them. It’s giving me the opportunity to cultivate a happy mind, even though this isn’t my choice of how I would do things. Because if you look at it, if we’re going to train to be bodhisattvas, are bodhisattvas going through life saying, “I want to have my way,” and, “I want the schedule to be the way I like it,” and, “What’s good for my energy?”
When you’re a bodhisattva, you have to navigate things and know when to take an opportunity and when to lay back. You have to have this sensitivity about so many things which means often giving up doing what you want to do when you want to do it. So if you see this as training in being a bodhisattva, “How can I cultivate a happy mind doing this activity?” then that becomes part of your practice. Otherwise you just create resentment, don’t you?
Audience: Yes, I do.
Audience: I can just imagine His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or yourself, or Mother Theresa just saying, “No, not today, I just need some ‘me’ time.” [Laughter]
VTC: Yes. Can you imagine His Holiness saying that? You know, getting somewhere and saying, “You know, I’m really not in the mood to teach today. I mean, I’ve been reading this text and I just want to do it and having to go give this talk is just interfering with the natural flow of my energy.” Can you imagine His Holiness?
“I need some down time. The schedule’s too full. You know you’re making me work too hard. You’re expecting too much of me. You aren’t grateful. You just want more and more and more and you never say thank you for how hard I work.” Could you imagine His Holiness opening a Dharma talk that way? And closing it with, “Look what I sacrificed for you. I’m so unhappy here. I’m so miserable here, but I’m doing this just for you.” You really see the difference between a bodhisattva and a non-bodhisattva.
This gives us some idea of how we need to train our mind. So when these things happen, to say, “This is my bodhisattva training.” You know? “This is my bodhisattva training.” Or when we do something with a good motivation and somebody says, “Blah, blah, blah, blah,” and trashes us and criticizes us even though we were trying to help. To be able to say, “This is my bodhisattva training. If I think this is bad? When I’m an actual bodhisattva, it’s going to happen much more often.”
You think people don’t criticize His Holiness the Dalai Lama? Lots of people criticize. You start with the Beijing government, but even the monks in the Tibetan community, everybody goes, “Yes, yes,” and then they do what they want. He faces all sorts of challenges and criticism. Some people think that he travels too much. Some people think that he isn’t strong enough with China. Some people think he copped out because he’s teaching non-violence and he wants autonomy instead of independence. Some people don’t like that he isn’t head of the government, that Samdhong Rinpoche is. He receives lots of criticism. He told people to abandon one practice. People didn’t follow at all and criticized him.
If we get criticized we should really think, “When I’m a bodhisattva this is only going to intensify. So this is my bodhisattva training to deal with this little bit of criticism, this little bit of inconvenience.” The more you learn to deal with it, then the less problematic it becomes. But if we don’t learn to deal with it, because these situations will keep happening, we become more and more miserable.
This is leading to our discussion about how we get distilled as we grow older. If we learn to deal with things, the distilling becomes very sweet. And if we’re continuously resentful? Distill means like to get the essence, yes? So then we become quite bitter.
Audience: Do you have some advice for people in my situation? My parents are getting older. They’re in their early eighties. My father’s very bitter and all his life he’s been quite mentally cruel to my mother. When I see them, they live in England, and I see them two or three times a year. It’s always a very difficult thing for me to face—because I try and help just being useful, doing cooking, cleaning, taking them somewhere. But it’s difficult to really give your parents advice.
VTC: So when your parents are stuck in some unhealthy habits that actually make them miserable and how difficult it is to be around them and see that happening. And yet it’s very difficult to change them, isn’t it? Anybody else know that situation?
Audience: I have one thing to say about what you were just talking about. The best thing anybody can do is come up with an excuse to get your parents to go somewhere where His Holiness the Dalai Lama is, and Venerable Thubten Chodron is. Speaking from personal experience, meeting you was the most wonderful thing that has happened to my mother—because all these years she thought I belonged to some weird cult. You never heard anybody say that, right? [Laughter]
VTC: Just my parents.
Audience: She met you and she didn’t actually get to see His Holiness but she got to see the reflected happiness of the people that were there. And she listened to the stories about him and just, you know, like two weeks ago she told me the best gift I ever gave her was the daily calendar that had sayings from His Holiness on it. She and her sister read it every single day. So I’m telling you, get them … But you know, I had exactly the same experience. My father was a very angry person. And I thought that he was very cold to my mother. It wasn’t until after he died that I saw my mother’s participation in the relationship.
VTC: I think, you know, these kinds of things, because our parents’ relationship is quite evident to us. We’ve lived with them for a long time. You can use it to see what works and what doesn’t work in life. A lot of the time some of the biggest lessons we can learn is what doesn’t work. So if you watch this and see this and see how painful it is for them. You also think about the karma they create and where that karma’s going to take them in the future life. Then you can begin to really have some compassion for the suffering and for how difficult it is for them to change and to realize things about themselves when they’ve been set in certain patterns for a long time.
So then we say, that applies to me too. What patterns am I set in that don‘t work in my life that I want to try to change? I don’t want to grow older and become like that. I think lots of times we can really look at it and say, “What was that person doing?” So that I know what I need to avoid and then also think about, “How am I going to avoid it?” I say this because very often we may have the same way of thinking, the same kind of emotional pattern that we see in them—that doesn’t work but we do the exact same thing. Sometimes seeing it clearly in another person, then you go, “Oh, I have it too. I know how the other person should change, let’s apply that to myself.”
Audience: For me, that’s why the Dharma’s been so helpful—because on my own I couldn’t change those patterns. It was only after learning about all of the methods, the thought training and mind training methods in Buddhism, that I actually started making headway and could change.
Audience: I don’t want to say, it’s not our job to change our parents—but really, it’s an individual’s job to change themselves. If your parents wanted to change, then you’re there to assist them. Perhaps at some point you could help them with their death, whether they’re Buddhists or Catholic or whatever. But you can’t really try and make them into different people or Buddhists or anything else. Just support them as they pass away.
VTC: Right. Yes. Completely. Really accepting them as they are, encouraging their good qualities, supporting them when they’re open to it, and accepting what we can’t change.
Audience: On that note, I’m thinking I need some kind of class or book that can translate Buddhist and psychological terms into like normal so I can sneakily get it so I can talk to them but they don’t think that I’m throwing that stuff at them. You know what I mean? Because they hear, “Well, in psychology there’s this therapy or whatever,” and, “Oh, in Buddhism…” And they’re like, “No, no, no.” Or they’re like, “What’s that mean?” I’m like, “Well, it’s a Buddhist term.” They don’t want to hear it. But I think there’s a lot of good stuff; like you were saying talking to your niece. How do you say it to somebody who’s not Buddhist, in non-Buddhist terms, and boil it down to the essence of all that’s good and can make them happier?
VTC: Yes, so how do you take that essence and say it in terms and with examples that are acceptable to the people that you’re talking to, according to their mentality, their culture and so on? If you think of what bodhisattvas are, one of the qualities they develop is this kind of sensitivity to know how to do that. You know who do you speak to with technical terms? Who do you say this to? Who do you say that to? Who do you joke with? Who do you speak serious with? You develop that sensitivity.
I think a lot of that comes through our own practice. I know for myself that the more I’ve had to take the teachings and apply them to my own mind and use them to understand myself and resolve my own difficulties, that the more I’ve done that, the more the vocabulary comes to be able to share it in a non-Dharma way. But that really comes from applying it ourselves.
Audience: I just wanted to say, don’t give up. It took me, I don’t know how long. I had a born-again son (now a Buddhist son) who understands the suffering of change. And if he had thought it was a Buddhist thing, he would never have listened to me. It’s taken a lot of waiting for the right opportunity and knowing him and what words to put it in. But to me that tickles my funny bone any time I hear that, because when I first went to see Venerable Thubten Chodron, it was a retreat in Montana and he said, “Oh Mom, you’d better be careful.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Those Buddhists really have some weird ideas.” Anyway, don’t give up.
VTC: I think a lot of the things come down to putting into practice ourselves what we’ve learned. As we do that we develop deeper understanding. Also by discussing with other people like we’re discussing now, I think we can learn a lot as well—what works, what doesn’t work. Very often we feel like, “Oh, I’m the only one who’s faced this certain kind of difficulty.” But when we talk, we see that we’re all basically struggling with very similar things.
Audience: This discussion especially, it seemed like there was quite a lot of uniformity of how everything was expressed. I learned a lot, especially around the laziness. A lot of our experiences are really very similar.
Audience: I was going to say, I think often a lot of us come to you and ask for advice either specifically or in the context of the group and it’s incredibly valuable. And I think we’re also resources—Dharma friends to one another. That’s really important to know, to be available with our Dharma wisdom, to be able to ask our Dharma friends when we don’t have access to a teacher. That’s really valuable talking in the group. We get a lot of support and strength and encouragement and it’s a really good support in that sense.
VTC: Yes. I think that’s very important because our Dharma friends who understand a part of us that not everybody in our life understands. Also they’re living according to the same principles or trying to live according to them. So we can really help and support each other very much.
You don’t have to think of help as, “I’m coming here with this thing that you just take it and you use it and it’s going to help you and solve your problems.” Lots of times just having a discussion with a Dharma friend, we are supporting that person in their practice, we are helping them. Or having a discussion with a friend who doesn’t practice Dharma, but throwing in Buddhist perspectives while you’re talking with them, yes, in a supportive way. But you’re not sitting pontificating because pontificating doesn’t always work very well.
Audience: What’s so important to me is we have shared experience with those people whether they’re Buddhist or not. So we can relate to them. We relate to each other.
VTC: We know what they’re feeling.
The fourth seal: nirvana is true peace
Audience: We didn’t get to the last of the four seals.
VTC: Well, we kind of did the last of the four in the sense that when you have realized emptiness and selflessness, then that enables you to eliminate the ignorance. That elimination of ignorance is nirvana and nirvana is true peace. This is because when you’ve eliminated the ignorance, then the attachment, anger, and other afflictions don’t have any basis to stand on. Then the karma isn’t created that perpetuates rebirth. And so nirvana is peace in the sense that we’re freed from that compulsive rebirth after rebirth after rebirth.
This is actually another quite interesting topic to discuss, what is freedom? I say this because we have one idea of freedom in our lives—but the Buddha had a very different idea of what freedom is.
Audience: I have one more question which relates to what you’re saying. In some places when I read the text it appears that, it’s almost that emptiness and selflessness are used interchangeably. Do they mean the same thing, or are they having slightly different connotations?
VTC: Like I was saying, in this common interpretation for all the different tenet systems, “emptiness” refers to the lack of a permanent, part-less, independent person; and “selfless” refers to the absence of a self-sufficient, substantially existent person. But when you talk about these terms from the viewpoint of Prasangika, then emptiness and selflessness both refer to the lack of an inherently existent person and lack of an inherently existent phenomena.
Okay, let’s sit quietly for a few minutes and then we’ll dedicate. Tomorrow morning we will talk about the Heart Sutra. Just think about the important points you want to take away from this discussion.
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.