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The measure of a trained mind

The measure of a trained mind

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.

  • Determining if we have made some progress by using the practice
  • Honestly looking at our minds to see how it reacts to hardships
  • The difference between having an intellectual understanding of the teachings and a conviction in the teachings
  • The five signs of a trained mind

MTRS 45: The measure of a trained mind (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation and really have a sense of joy at being alive, at having all of our faculties functioning properly, at having attraction to the Dharma and faith in it. Let’s make a strong decision to use this opportunity in a very valuable way, because it’s not going to last forever. The most valuable way is to cultivate the bodhicitta—the aspiration for full enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

Cultivating bodhicitta will lead us to put a lot of energy into realizing the nature of reality, and that realization is what will actually cleanse our mindstream of the defilements. So, let’s have a strong wish to develop the conventional bodhicitta (the aspiration for enlightenment based on compassion) and the ultimate bodhicitta (the wisdom realizing the ultimate nature). Let’s really think that this is the purpose of my life; this is what’s meaningful in life.

How to have a happy mind

Last week, we were talking about the Measure of having Trained the Mind. We had just finished talking about the section that says,

Primary importance should be given to the two witnesses.

The two witnesses are other sentient beings who comment on the change that they’ve seen in us, and the internal witness, which is our own evaluation of ourselves that can see how we have changed. Of these two witnesses, our own internal evaluation is the one that’s most important, because we’re the only one that can really see our mind, aside from the Buddhas and beings with accurate clairvoyance.

The main criteria we use to evaluate our mind is questioning, “Is there less self-centeredness than there used to be? Is there less self-grasping, less greed and attachment, less anger and belligerence—or is there more?” If there’s less of these things our practice is going well. If there’s more we need to go back and figure out what’s happening.

The next slogan or phrase in the thought training says,

Constantly cultivate only a joyful mind.

It sounds good to constantly cultivate only a joyful mind. Our depressed mind says, “I don’t want to. It’s too hard.” I remember when I was living in France, Khensur Jampa Tegchok would always tell us, “Keep your mind happy.” I didn’t know what in the world he meant.

How do you keep your mind happy? How do you do it? Your mind’s either happy or unhappy. How do you keep it happy? It seemed like such a puzzle to me. Then, as I began to practice more, I noticed that depending on what I pay attention to, my mind is happy or unhappy. Depending on how I interpret what I’m paying attention to, my mind is happy or unhappy. It helped me see that  I could have a happy mind by switching my mind away from the things that I ruminate upon uselessly and to something that is beneficial.

When he used to say that I used to think, “What is he talking about? If I could cultivate a happy mind, I wouldn’t be asking all these questions.” But that’s the whole thing. What he was teaching us is how to have a happy mind and how to do it ourselves—no drugs, no tranquilizers, no pep-pills, nothing. It just depends on what we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it.

The commentary by Nam-kha Pel says,

Having experienced the flavor of the teaching through meditation, whatever adverse conditions such as suffering and ill repute may arise, if your meditation is unaffected by such discouraging conditions and you only generate happiness and rejoicing thinking ‘The practice of mind training through giving and taking has been meaningful’, then the counteracting forces have been initially effective.

 That’s another one of those long sentences. What it means is that no matter what happens—whether we’re suffering or we have ill repute, people criticizes us and trash us—if our mind, especially in meditation, is unaffected by that and instead we’re thinking, “Practicing giving and taking has really been meaningful and beneficial,” then we have a joyful mind.

Sometimes when something that we normally react to in a negative way happens, initially we may practice the thought training and think, “Oh, this isn’t so bad and I feel very happy. My mind is calm, and this is good. I’m getting somewhere.” But we don’t keep it up and instead our mind goes back to the usual way of thinking, and then three days later it’s like, “I’m so mad” or “I’m so frightened; I’m scared.”

So, it’s not just an initial thing of doing the taking and giving, thinking that it works and then saying, “Okay, I’ve done that. Now I have a happy mind.” It’s a thing of constantly keeping it up and constantly keeping that view in our mind.

Our mind creates our reality

In brief, it is a great mistake to destroy your virtue through anger that rankles over slight hardships encountered in the course of mind training.

That means don’t complain, because getting angry at problems that we encounter just isn’t worthwhile. Here he talks about “slight hardships” and “the mind that rankles over slight hardships.” But the way our mind looks at things, we never have a slight hardship, do we? We always have a Mount Meru-sized hardship. Other people have little hardships, but our problems are just completely insurmountable—horrible, the most dreadful thing that could ever happen. Isn’t that our view?

Anything that happens to me, we think, “Oh, intolerable!” But a problem that happens to somebody else, that’s one of the little ones. When we’re called upon to endure hardship, we’re very faint-hearted because our problems appear to us so enormous. This is our very limited perspective. We hear somebody else’s problem—somebody else is sick; they have to have surgery: “Oh, that’s a pity. That’s too bad.” Then we forget and it’s, “Oh, they didn’t serve what I like for dinner. How can they not do that?” This is the mind. This is the mind that creates our reality.

We can work with that mind and cultivate the courage to bear a little bit of hardship, but we have to start with the small hardships. That means we have to admit that we have some small hardships; they aren’t all huge. That takes something out of our daily drama to have to admit that our problems, our hardships, are not enormous. That reduces our daily life drama, doesn’t it?

It reduces the sense of “I,” and it reduces our ability to attract other people’s attention due to our overwhelming suffering. But if we practice it, and we’re willing to give those things up, we actually wind up happier. We wind up happier. And we’re happier without everybody else pitying us and paying attention to us because of our overwhelming dreadful problems.

We actually can be happy without having to be center stage, doing our Sarah Bernhardt trip. You know our Sarah Bernhardt? I knew one person who must have been an incarnation of Sarah Bernhardt—not that I wasn’t. Maybe there were two of us. She would feel a little bit bad, and she would just lie down in the middle of the meditation hall. She would be completely sprawled out, and everybody had to step over her. I’m serious.

Or you might be so uncomfortable that you need fifteen pillows, and they have to be the right sized pillow—some for under the right knee, some for under the left knee, some for under your tush, some for here and some for there. And if the pillows aren’t arranged properly it’s really dreadful. This is the way our mind works, isn’t it? It’s not just my friend’s mind. We have this own mind ourselves.

The great Shawopa said,

There is no worse form of abuse than to say your spiritual friend has no peace of mind.

That means you’re saying they’re not practicing well. Because if you have no peace of mind and yet you’ve studied all of this, practice isn’t going so well.

Regarding the actual measure of the trained mind the text says, ‘The measure of a trained mind is that is has turned away.’

Another translation is,

A reversed attitude indicates transformation.

I think the second translation is better. The explanation says,

This refers to the arising of an experience of the stages of practice in your mind from contemplation of the preliminary practices up the training in the ultimate awakening mind so that an awareness of the need to make the most of freedom and opportunity under all circumstances without wasting them, arises naturally in the mind.

That paragraph was one sentence—you can see my editor mind coming up here. What

A reversed attitude indicates transformation

means is that through practicing everything from the beginning of the path—the preliminaries up through the wisdom realizing emptiness—what arises is a mind that is able to make the best use of our precious human life without wasting it. If we’re able to do that, our mind has turned away from cyclic existence and from self-complacent peace.

The signs of the trained mind

is very interesting because the various thought training texts explain things slightly differently. In this text it has another phrase for that.

There are five great marks of the trained mind,

so it’s another phrase. In the regular seven-point training of the mind that we have, these five points are actually a sub-category of

A reverse attitude that indicates transformation.

You can see there are different ways of outlining it. But there are five great marks or five ways in which somebody has turned away, has reversed the mind, if you’re practicing thought training.

5 marks of a trained mind

The first one here is called the Great Hero, or another translation is the Great-minded One.

The Great Hero who constantly familiarizes him or herself with the awakening mind in the knowledge that it is the essence of all teachings.

Somebody is a Great Hero, a Great-minded one, if they constantly familiarize themselves with the two bodhicittas. In other words, they devote their whole time to cultivating bodhicitta. They don’t waste any time. This is a reversal from hanging out, playing, joking, entertainment, chatting, and other things of diversion that we use. The reverse of our usual mind that likes to waste time is the mind that is really devoted to practicing bodhicitta all the time.

To have this mind we have to have an understanding of precious human life and of impermanence and death. If we don’t have an understanding of impermanence and death, we’re not going to have any energy to reverse these bad habits through which we waste an incredible amount of time.

When we hear the teachings like this sometimes we beat ourselves up and say, “Oh, I’m such a bad practitioner. I waste so much time. I’m just really a lousy practitioner. I need to remember: ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die.’ I’ve got to practice harder, ugh!’” And we try and push ourselves. While giving ourselves a nudge at the beginning is very helpful, we can’t sustain that for a long time. We need to really bring wisdom in here.

That means it’s not sufficient just to say, “I’m going to die, and what’s going to happen to me after death?” It means really thinking about it. “Okay, I’m going to die: what does that mean? What’s that going to be like to have everything here that I’m so comfortable with evaporate? My consciousness goes on alone, and I don’t have this body. I don’t have my social status. I don’t have my money.” The mind’s just buffeted around by karmic appearances. “Am I going to have any control over my mind? Am I going to be able to deal with that experience?”

It means really thinking about it, and when we think about it like that something gets a little nervous inside. So, we use that nervousness and think, “Okay, that’s why I really want to put energy into cultivating bodhicitta. Because if I cultivate it now, then at the time of death in the intermediate stage, I’ll be able to have some familiarity and be able to continue with that practice.” We have to have that wisdom, not just a lot of “shoulds.”

At the beginning we might need to nudge ourselves, and sometimes we need to “should” ourselves, but we can’t sustain that for a long period of time. We have to really do the meditation that brings internal awareness so that naturally our mind shifts what it’s interested in. If our mind isn’t naturally shifting what it’s interested in, we need to do more meditation on impermanence and death.

The second mark is the Great Disciplinarian, or another translation is the Great Holder of Restraint.

This person is someone who is careful to avoid even the slightest offense out of his conviction in the law of cause and effect.

This person who practices great restraint has a very deep conviction in cause and effect, in karma and its results. That conviction aids them in protecting themselves from getting involved in the ten non-virtues of body, speech and mind, and it increases their mindfulness and their introspective alertness.

This very deep conviction in cause and effect comes about through meditation on karma and its effects. It’s not just hearing the teachings and saying, “That makes some sense.” Instead, it’s really thinking about karma as we go through the day and we see various people and various events. It’s applying our understanding of karma to those events that we see, that we read about in the newspaper. It’s looking at people’s actions and thinking of what the results are going to be, looking at people’s present situations and thinking of what the karmic causes can be. It’s important to look at both the positive and negative, happiness and suffering—to examine both so that we really gain some sense that there is a link between our actions and what we experience.

This really takes a lot of familiarity to generate because we talk a lot about karma, but when push comes to shove, we don’t always act like we believe in karma. We always hear, “Generosity is the cause of wealth,” but when it comes to actually being generous, we think and other people tell us, “Oh, you’ve got to take care of yourself first, so make sure you have a nice huge amount to take care of yourself and then you can give a little bit away.”

That kind of attitude implies we don’t really believe in karma. Now, that doesn’t mean that we go and give everything away. That’s impractical, and then we become burdensome on other people. I’m not talking about going to the other extreme and just making ourselves a burden for others.

I’m talking about really examining how we think. Do we really believe that generosity brings wealth? Do we really believe that we create merit through generosity which will fertilize our mind so that we gain realizations on the path? Do we really believe that? Do we believe that doing the thirty-five buddhas and Vajrasattva practice with the four opponent powers purifies our negative karma?

If we really believe it, we’re going to want to do the practice. If we don’t really believe it then we might think, “I’m just too tired—going to sleep will relieve my negative karma.” So, it’s about really cultivating that familiarity with the idea of cause of effect. All these things depend upon practice and familiarization. They’re not just, “I should.” They’re all the practice of familiarization, and there are specific meditations that you do to develop these understandings.

The Great Holder of Restraint is the reverse of somebody who is completely careless about their ethical conduct and has no sense of consciousness, no mindfulness, no introspective alertness. They just plow ahead to get what they want and don’t even think about the effects of their actions on other people. A lot of times we’re like that, aren’t we? Sometimes we’re not even conscious of doing this. We just have some real strong idea in our mind, so we just plow ahead, and we don’t care about how it influences other people.

We don’t even think about the ethical aspect of it either. You can see this sometimes when somebody asks us a question and we get defensive. We make up excuses, joke around, play around, don’t answer the question—we never think at that time, “Oh, my actions are affecting somebody else.” We’re only thinking, “This is good. I’m covering my own tush.” Rather than answer or explain the situation, we misinterpret the whole thing and become defensive. Then we just say and do things to cover ourselves when it isn’t even necessary to do that, and we don’t think at all of the effect on other people. So, this is all about becoming more aware.

The Great Ascetic is the third one.

The Great Ascetic is somebody who can bear hardships in the course of subduing the disturbing emotions in his or her mind.

What kind of hardship are you likely to have to go through in the process of subduing your emotions? One of them is stopping yourself from just taking off and going in a habitual pattern. That can take a lot of effort to bring the mind back to something reasonable instead of just habitually thinking, “Oh, they did this to me and da-da-da-da. Oh, this is terrible, ohhh.” Or, “I’m sick, ohhhh—I’m going to be dying tomorrow morning.” It can be a hardship to look at what the mind is doing and press the pause button so we don’t get carried away by it.

It can be difficult to sit there and watch all these crazy thoughts without buying into them and without reacting to them—just looking. That can be a great hardship because sometimes when our mind is like that we want to indulge in those negative thoughts. Or if we pause to watch them and see how painful they are, then we don’t like how painful they are and we want to numb out. It’s strange, isn’t it? Either we want to indulge in these painful thoughts or we want to numb out—anything but sit there and watch the crazy mind’s little trips without judgment.

So, it’s talking about these kinds of hardships. The great ascetic isn’t somebody who sleeps on nails, walks across fire, pierces their body and stuff like that. The great ascetic is somebody who can deal with the discomfort of taming the mind, with reversing the negative, harmful patterns.

The Great Ascetic is reversed from running away from looking at ourselves.

You know how we run away from looking at ourselves? This is reversed from that. A reversed attitude indicates a transformation. How do we know that our mind is getting transformed? Now we’re ready to just sit with things that used to cause us to numb out. We’re able to be a little bit more honest with ourselves about things.

I started reading Jarvis Master’s autobiography the other day, That Bird Has My Wings. It’s a good book, but it’s a difficult book to read because it’s painful. He’s an inmate on death row, and in the introduction he’s talking about how he has just the filler in a ballpoint pen to write with because they don’t even give you the whole ballpoint pen. He was saying how difficult it was for him to start writing this autobiography, because he had to ask himself, “Am I honest with what I write?” It’s so easy when you write the story of your life to put, “Somebody did this to me, and this person did that to me,” and then the things we did wrong to show it the other way—how “it wasn’t really me,” and all this kind of stuff.

He said he had to challenge himself to be honest. When we’re honest—when we don’t run away from it and don’t exaggerate—when we are honest with ourselves, we’re able to settle things in our mind and our heart. When they say “the truth will set you free,” I think that’s what it means. When we don’t lie to ourselves, that’s when we’re able to find freedom. It’s when we’re willing to look and acknowledge, “I blew this.” Because only when we can acknowledge that can we fix it and purify it. This is an ascetic practice, developing this kind of honesty.

The fourth one, the Great Practitioner of Virtue, is also translated as the Great Saint.

The great practitioner of virtue who never separates the activities of his body and speech from the ten-fold conduct of the Great Vehicle.

There’s said to be ten Mahayana practices. I don’t know if it means the ten far-reaching attitudes. I think there’s another list of ten, but I don’t know what they are. I’d have to see if I can find that somewhere.

It’s somebody whose actions of body, speech, and mind are never separated from the cultivation of bodhicitta and are permeated by bodhicitta.

This is a reversal from acting under the influence of self-centered thought. Acting with bodhicitta is the reversal of acting under the influence of the self-centered thought.

Five is the Great Yogi, someone who constantly practices the yoga of the bodhicitta and its associated teachings. Somebody who cultivates the bodhicitta that hasn’t yet been cultivated and who increases the bodhicitta that has been cultivated so that they don’t regress.

This great yogi is someone who is reversed from the self-centered thought and the self-grasping ignorance.

As much as we’re able to imitate these five great kinds of beings, that is indicative of the success of our practice. It means our mind is becoming familiar with the thought training. It involves practice. I think one of the big things to see, and this will probably come later, is when something that our mind used to go completely nuts with, now doesn’t affect us the same way. Just seeing that, then we know our practice is getting somewhere.

I think we all know different things where our mind goes totally berzerky, so when our mind doesn’t go berzerky we know we’re getting somewhere. Or maybe our mind does go berzerky, but we’re able to recognize it’s berzerky. So instead of just keeping on with it and multiplying it exponentially, we’re able to catch it when it’s small and apply the antidote. That means that we’re getting somewhere in our practice. We should congratulate ourselves, not just look at what we’ve done wrong but really think, “Okay, there’s some progress here. This is good.”

Practicing even when distracted

Then the text says,

The trained mind retains control even when distracted.

Another translation is,

One is trained if one is capable although distracted.

What this means is the trained mind is capable—it exerts control even when we’re in a situation that’s distracting.

Just as a skilled rider will not fall if his horse bolts while he is distracted, similarly, even if we inadvertently hear unpleasant remarks such as the accusations from hostile quarters or we are criticized and marked, as there are many who even criticize the Buddha, the transcendent subduer, we should understand that it is undoubtedly the result of negative actions we have committed.

That was all one sentence. You see the way they write? Tibetan isn’t nice short sentences. They put many clauses together and join “when this in dependence on that, “having done this”—da-da-da-da. So, the sentences can be quite long. If you try and translate it like that, it comes out like this.

If a skillful rider is distracted—even if their horse gets startled and bolts—they don’t fall off the horse because they’re so attuned to what’s going on. They can rebalance themselves immediately. Another example could be somebody who is a good driver and even if they’re talking a little bit can still hit the brakes in time to stop a collision.

This does not pertain to people who are texting when they’re driving, because when you’re texting when you’re driving, you are beyond distraction. You aren’t even looking at the road. So, don’t text when you drive for your own benefit and for the benefit of others. And don’t hold the cell phone when you’re driving either. It’s really dangerous. I don’t want anybody taking this in the thought training section and thinking, “Oh, but I’m just a cell phone person and can drive even when I’m distracted. That’s what this line means.” No, sorry.

What we’re trying to get to in our practice is having a mind that doesn’t completely fall apart even if somebody insults us, we get injured, somebody robs us or some misfortune happens. In other words, we’re able to rebalance ourselves fairly quickly. Especially here, he uses the example of criticism. If you get criticized when you least expect it, just remember that many people are going to criticize us—they criticized the Buddha also. So, instead of getting whacked out by it just remember this is a result of our own negative karma.

We have a slogan here at the Abbey: “Don’t plan for more than half a day in advance because things change.” When you first come to the Abbey and things start changing, you get completely freaked out. It’s like, “But I have my day planned! What do you mean somebody’s calling on the phone and I have to take care of that?” Or, “What do you mean the whole community is going to focus on this project?” Or, “What do you mean that somebody is busy and I have to cook for them?”

This isn’t even dealing with criticism and misfortune. It’s just dealing with ordinary change of plans. And we can see how sometimes we’re really thrown for a loop when plans change. Then, as you’ve been at the Abbey longer and longer and plans change more and more, you get more familiar with it and you really remember the slogan, “Don’t plan for more than half a day in advance.” When things change you flow with it. You don’t get upset. It just happens.

We need to become so flexible that even if somebody criticizes us, even if something disturbing happens, we don’t completely lose it. It’s not just little things, like instead of the electrician coming the plumber comes. It’s also big things, like the electrical completely shorts out and doesn’t work at all or your computer loses internet connection. That’s what happened to me today. And it’s even beyond that, like somebody criticizing you, having an accident, hearing some really bad news or something like that. In those situations, when our mind can rebalance itself, that’s an indication that our practice is going well because we’re much more flexible.

Whereas if every time we hear a little bit of bad news our mind just falls apart and we can’t function, then we really need more practice. This is very practical advice, and we can see it in our daily life. Because we’re always going to have bad news, and there are always going to be accidents. There are always going to be things that happen. So, how able are we to rebalance ourselves when hardships arise unexpectedly?

This is why it’s important to practice the thought training teaching. If every time there’s some hardship we fall apart and dissolve into tears, then we need to practice with that and do some more meditation. We need to train ourselves to think, “This is natural. This is part of samsara. I’ve got to be stable when I hear this kind of thing. Otherwise, how can I benefit anybody?” So, it’s about really working with these situations.

We all have our own situations where we get thrown out of whack, don’t we? Your day has gone very nicely and then somebody in the community does something you least expect or you get some phone call.  I’m always joking, “Can you please schedule your catastrophes?” It would be so much nicer, wouldn’t it, if catastrophes could be scheduled so you knew what to expect? “Okay, today at 9:03, somebody is going to criticize me. I’m expecting it. When it happens I know to just be calm and center myself, and I don’t need to take it seriously because this person’s suffering.”

So, you have it all in your daily schedule. You’re all ready for it when it comes. It would be so nice if life were like that because then we could plan ahead for our hardships. But it doesn’t happen like that, does it? It doesn’t happen like that at all, and it usually comes right when we’re just kind of gliding along thinking, “Oh, things are so nice.” Then—“Whammo!” So, we need to have the thought training practices deep enough in our heart so that we can access them quickly when those kind of situations arise.

Signs our practice is going well

There’s a quotation here:

Whoever criticizes me or inflicts harm upon others or similarly ridicules me, may they be blessed with enlightenment. When a thought such as this one expressed in Guide to Bodhisattva’s Way of Life arises naturally in your heart, that is a sign of having trained the mind.

 When somebody criticizes or ridicules me, inflicts harm on me or somebody that I care about—if they do something really nasty and mean—may my first thought be, “May they become enlightened. May they be free from suffering.” If this kind of thought arises naturally in our mind that’s a sign that our mind training is successful.

That’s why when we do our dedication after lunch, we dedicate not only for the people who honor us and receive us and praise us, but we also dedicate for all the people who harm us and cause us difficulties. Hopefully, by saying and reminding ourselves of this every day—if we aren’t spaced out when we do the dedication after the meals—we’re familiarizing our mind with that. And then when some situation happens, that’s the thought that we bring to mind. “This person who harmed me is suffering. They’re doing what they’re doing due to their own incredible pain. Therefore they’re an object of compassion.”

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by what they did to me, we focus on their pain and we’re able to see our pain as, “This is the ripening of negative karma. This is samsara.” Whenever I would call my friend Alex to complain about this or that, he would say, “What do you expect? This is samsara.” Oh, you’re right. I wasn’t expecting samsara. I was expecting pure land. I’m wrong.

In meditation if we’re less distracted by afflictions that’s a sign that our practice is going well. If we meet situations in which our afflictions would arise and they don’t arise, then our practice is going well, we’re making progress.

We should really try to be mindful in our daily life, because if we are, this kind of awareness comes automatically. It’s kind of like when you’re learning to drive. At the beginning you have to sit on the edge and pay attention to everything because you’re not so familiar with it, but as you become more familiar your fear of driving goes and you become more confident. In the same way with our practice, the fear of blowing it goes and we become more confident.

I remember when I first started to practice, and I was so terrified of my attachment. When I first left Nepal to visit my family and there were objects of attachment all around, I was just petrified. It was like, “I’m going to go there, my attachment is going to overwhelm me and I’m going to forget about the Dharma. The Dharma will be a ‘has been,’ and I will be right back in the situation I was in before.” I was terrified of that happening.

I was always very tense. Now I can go into the same kind of situation, and my mind is more relaxed because of the practice and being more familiar. I’m less interested in those objects of attachment—not completely uninterested but less interested. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to be mindful. I still have to be quite mindful and attentive, but there’s some way to work with these things now because of the habit.

This last Sunday I was asked to give a teaching at the Unity Church in Spokane. I did two services, and they play music there. I’m very sensitive to music. Music can make my mind go here and there. I hear a melody and it sticks in my mind, and I can’t get rid of it for a long time. If it’s a song I’m familiar with, my mind goes off into who I was with when I used to hear that song and what I was doing and how I felt—all of that stuff.

So, when they started playing music at the service, I tried to get very still and to visualize myself as Chenrezig. I tried to focus on that visualization to keep my mind still. That’s what I had to do, and I was able to go to that right away because I knew if I didn’t, my mind was going to be very distracted. They were doing these things with the jazzy melodies, and they’re all songs to welcome each other. Everybody’s clapping and swaying, and it’s like, “Boy, I can get into that.” But instead I thought, “No, stay still inside and focused.” Remembering to do it and practicing with that—those are the kind of examples that we’re talking about.

Or say somebody invites you out to dinner and says, “What do you want?” You’ve been in the monastery so long that you’re thinking, “Oh good, now I can pick what I want!” Your mind goes crazy, so at that moment you remind yourself, “No, it doesn’t matter.” Actually, I’ve found that when people take me out to eat and ask me what I want I just get confused, because I’m not used to paying attention to such small details, like what you’re going go eat. Whatever there is, you eat it. And people can spend half an hour talking about what to order in the restaurant.

So, it’s about working with the mind in all these situations—whichever way your mind is inclined to get out of whack, working to control it. When you go to a family dinner or you’re with people that know how to push your buttons, if you’re well-prepared and one of those button-pushing sentences come out, you’re able to stay still and think, “It doesn’t matter that somebody said that. I don’t have to react. They’re saying this because of their own suffering. I don’t need to take it personally.” If we’re able to do that, this indicates that our practice is going ahead.

Questions & Answers

Audience: [Inaudible]

Ven. Chodron: You’re saying because self-centered thought is so pervasive, that makes the taking and giving meditation hard to do. Right, because taking and giving is the opposite of our normal way of thinking.

Audience: [Inaudible]

Ven. Chodron: Well, does it feel flat or does it feel difficult?

Audience: I’d say more flat.

Ven. Chodron: It feels flat because we’re just like, “Oh yes, I’m taking on the suffering of others. I’m giving them my happiness. What’s for lunch?” That kind of flat? That’s because we’re just doing it in an intellectual way. We’re not really thinking about it.

Audience: [Inaudible]

Ven. Chodron: A good way to start is with an ordinary life situation when you find your mind doesn’t want to do something, yet you know that it’s beneficial for somebody else. “I’m taking on their suffering of doing it. I’m giving them my happiness. I’m going to bear the suffering of doing the dishes, and I’m going to give them the happiness of resting after lunch.” Try it with these kinds of things—simple things that the mind doesn’t want to do. Our mind can be quite lazy and find all sorts of ways not to do these things, so we can practice taking and giving with even those small sufferings. Then you can work up to bigger sufferings, like somebody’s heart disease, somebody’s grief and stuff like that.

Audience: I just wanted to know what the number four great one was?

Ven. Chodron: It’s the Great Saint or the other translation was the Great Practitioner of Virtue. This is somebody who never separates their body, speech and mind from bodhicitta.

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.