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The commitments of mind training

The commitments of mind training

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 on the “Irreversible Commitments of Mind Training” section
  • What it means to be impartial about the objects of mind training
  • What it means to stand up to the afflictions, not to give in to them, or be patient with them

MTRS 46: The commitments of mind training, part 1 (download)


Let’s cultivate our motivation with a strong sense that wherever we’re born in cyclic existence, whatever we do, none of it will bring any lasting satisfaction. None of it is certain or anything real. Let’s generate a strong intention to understand reality, to make our lives meaningful and to free ourselves from the bonds of ignorance.

Then looking around and seeing that other sentient beings are in the same situation—wanting happiness but continually doing things that create suffering, making choices that are unwise—let’s generate a strong determination ourselves to make wise choices and to practice the path. Let’s generate a strong determination to actualize the path for the purpose of leading others on the path to full enlightenment. That’s our long-term motivation for what we’re doing this evening.

Examining our choices

We’re making choices all the time, aren’t we? And our choices create karma. Our choices are karma in some sense—a choice is a mental factor of intention. But sometimes we don’t really think about the choices that we’re making. We just have a knee-jerk reaction, or we make habitual old choices because they’re the same thing we’ve always chosen to do, so we just do them again.

Sometimes we’re too lazy to think about what is a wise choice and what isn’t. Sometimes we’re just out of control, and we don’t even think about the choices we’re making. The mind is just being pushed here and there. Sometimes the mind may be pushed here and there and we’re aware of it and think, “This is not a good decision. This is not a good choice.” And then we do it anyway.

I think part of Dharma practice is slowing down so we can really look at the choices we’re making and think about the results of those choices. It’s not just long-term choices either, because our short-term choices lead to long-term ones, don’t they? Sometimes one small choice can change so many things that happen afterwards. So, it’s important to pay attention to our choices because we care about the effects on ourselves, the effects on others around us. Thinking about these things is important, isn’t it? Sometimes we aren’t careful and think, “Oh, my choices, my actions—who cares?” And then we wind up in trouble afterwards, don’t we?

Mind Training Like Rays of the Sun is teaching us how to make good choices. To make good choices we have to learn to think properly and to differentiate what’s virtuous and what’s non-virtuous. We have to know how to cultivate virtuous states of mind, and then we also need specific guidelines for what to do and what not to do.

In this section we’re talking about the commitments of thought training. In the next section after that is the precepts of thought training. A lot of these are just very short instructions—do this and don’t do that. It’s very helpful even for those of us who don’t like people to tell us what to do. We’re very funny: we don’t want anybody to tell us what to do, but then when people don’t tell us what to do, we feel very lost. We say, “I need some structure. Tell me how I’m supposed to put this into practice.”

 Isn’t it strange how we are? If somebody says, “Okay, do this job,” we respond with, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Why don’t they give me more direction?” But if they say, “Do it this way, this way, this way,” we go, “What are you bossing me around for?” It’s meshuggeneh, isn’t it? Total meshuggeneh. Do you know what meshuggeneh means? It’s Yiddish for “crazy.” Somebody who is meshuggeneh is not doing things wisely. That’s what we’re like, aren’t we? 

Now we’re on the section called “The Irreversible Commitments of Mind Training.” It has two parts:

The explanation of what appears in the text in verse and of what appears in the text as maxims.

First, “what appears in the text in verse” is how the text is written in Tibetan. Here it’s giving us some instructions: “Do this and don’t do that.” So, blame Nam-kha Pel if you don’t want to be bossed around. Don’t blame me. We should praise Nam-kha Pel for telling us what to do, shouldn’t we? This is wise guidance here.

Three important points

Always train in the three great points. These are as follows: Mind training that is not contradictory to the commitments, mind training which is not led astray and mind training which is impartial.

Mind training that is not contradictory to the commitments” means mind training that doesn’t transgress our commitments, our pledges. That’s how he describes them.

Firstly, we should never act in contradiction to the practices common to all vehicles, saying ‘there’s no harm in this because I’m training the mind,’ when we break some minor commitment, claiming that nothing else is required of us a follower of the mind training.

This is the mind training of not transgressing the pledges. The three important points mean don’t transgress the pledges. We should never act in contradiction to the practices in common to all the vehicles. In other words, the refuge guidelines, the five precepts, the monastic precepts, the basic general practices, the ten non-virtues: we should never act in contradiction to these things.

We shouldn’t say, “Well, there’s no harm in me doing that because I’m practicing the mind training.” In other words: “These are trivial practices and I’m a great practitioner of mind training, so I don’t need to follow these.” Abandoning the ten non-virtues and keeping the ten virtues are the core of the whole path for all the vehicles. It’s very important that we keep that in mind and follow that.

On the contrary, we should train in practicing the Buddha’s teachings in its entirety from the instruction on basic logic up to Guhyasamaja tantra.

This is for the mind. Sometimes people say, “Well, I’m a higher practitioner, so I don’t need to do these small practices,” and that’s not the right attitude. If you look at the really great masters, they do the small practices very well. Even in our vinaya, we have guidelines for etiquette, like wearing our robes properly and so on. You look at His Holiness: he always wears his robes properly. They’re not sloppy; they’re not here and there. It’s important to keep even the small things well and to have respect for all the guidelines that the Buddha teaches.

The second point is about not being led astray:

Secondly we should avoid digging harmful earth, felling sinister trees, stirring noxious waters, visiting those afflicted from contagious diseases without precaution or associating by view or behavior with those who are morally corrupt or possessed by spirits. We should follow the pure and unbroken tradition descending from the great Atisha, the sole divine lord, to the all-knowing Tsong Khapa and his disciples.

“Not being led astray” is talking about somebody who practices thought training but gets kind of arrogant about it. This person says, “I’m a very high practitioner doing thought training, so I can dig the earth where other creatures live and stir them up. Nothing’s going to happen to me.” When it says “sinister trees,” it’s based on Tibetan culture and the idea of spirits. So, it means felling these trees and thinking, “Oh, the spirits won’t harm me or the nagas won’t harm me.”

“Stirring noxious waters” is the same kind of thing. It also means visiting those afflicted by contagious diseases without taking any precautions and thinking, “Well, I won’t get sick because I practice thought training.” It’s being arrogant: “Oh, I don’t need to do this because nothing’s going to happen to me. I can do all these dangerous things because I’m not going to fall off the ladder. I’m not going to get killed in the car accident. I can drink and hold it. Nothing bad is going to happen to me.”

It’s this kind of arrogant mind that thinks, “Well, because I practice the Dharma, because I practice thought training, nothing bad is going to happen to me.” So, we become quite careless in our behavior. That’s what this second one is. It’s a kind of arrogance, isn’t it? “Oh, I can cheat on this and cheat on that. Nobody’s going to know.” It’s that kind of thing. This is saying we should instead follow the pure and unbroken tradition from Atisha to Je Rinpoche. We should really follow the tradition well and with respect.

Thirdly, we should be impartial about the object of our mind training, whether it is human or non-humans, friends, foes or strangers, people who are superior, inferior or equal, those that are high, middling or low.

When we practice mind training we should practice it in relationship to everybody. We don’t just practice mind training in relationship to important people so that we don’t lose our temper and look bad in front of them. “I practice mind training when I’m with them because I want to have a good reputation. I want to look good. But with people that I think are inferior, I don’t need to practice mind training because who cares what they think of me. I can be rude.”

Or another example: “I only abandon non-virtue in certain circumstances, like when people are looking at me. When I’m alone in my room I do whatever because nobody is there.” Uh-oh. So, this is talking about being partial towards who we practice mind training with, what situations we practice mind training with.

This is because we should practice compassion without distinction towards all sentient beings under the sky.

This means not just practicing compassion with the people we like and forgetting compassion with people we don’t like. It means not practicing love and compassion with people who are kind and praise us and then forgetting about it with people who are mean. Or it might even be the opposite: practicing thought training with people who are kind of mean, but then treating the people who are nice to us very flippantly and not taking care of them.

That’s another thing we can do, isn’t it? It’s not always that we favor the people we like and mistreat others. Sometimes we take such good care of strangers or people that we consider ill or needy, but we take the people we live with for granted. This is talking bout not having that attitude either, but instead practicing love and compassion with everybody.

Applying the antidotes

Given that the disturbing emotions in our mindstreams, the objects to be abandoned, are to be subdued, it is not sufficient to apply a partial or alternative remedy.

In other words, we don’t just apply remedies to some of the afflictions but not to others: “I’m going to work on my anger but attachment doesn’t matter. Everybody has attachment. They’ll understand if I act with attachment. Anger I better practice with, because that doesn’t look so good.” It’s talking about that kind of mind that thinks, “I’m only going to practice with some afflictions and not others.”

We should train in understanding the way the antidotes are to be applied in general, without partiality to the disturbing emotions.

This means, for example, knowing how to use the meditation on impermanence, on selflessness—those are general antidotes to all the afflictions. It also means to know the individual antidotes for specific afflictions.

This is because all these disturbing emotions are obstructions to liberation and omniscience and are equal in dragging us into the miseries of cyclic existence so we need to be impartial if we are to have an unbiased attitude towards all.

Practicing in an “impartial” way is referring to the sentient beings that we practice mind training with and the afflictions that we use mind training to counteract. It means trying to be consistent as a human being. It’s not that we’re polite with important people but impolite with people that we consider inferior, or that we put on a good appearance for benefactors and then we say “whatever” to other people. It’s really trying to practice in an equal way towards everybody—not just towards human beings but also towards animals and insects. It means being kind to all of our animal friends and insect friends as well.

Engage vigorously in forceful cultivation and abandonment.

We hear forceful and we go, “Oh, tension, stress, forceful cultivation, forceful abandonment.” That’s not what it means, okay?

In general, we are not supposed to employ force towards human or non-human beings because it will provoke their anger.

Here I think “aggressively” instead of “forcefully.” We want to practice forcefully for cultivation and abandonment.

But if we act aggressively—forcefully in that way towards human beings—it provokes their anger. Then we wind up with difficult relationships. It’s similar with non-human beings. We provoke their anger. Then people or non-human beings also hold a grudge against us. They harm us in this life, or maybe in a future life we’re brought together in such a way that they inflict harm on us then because of our behavior towards them now. They might harm us in this life, in future lives, as well as in the intermediate state.

So, this means being aware of how we treat other beings and that it’s going to provoke a reaction. Sometimes we’re so surprised when other people are upset with us. “What did I do?” We’re oblivious that maybe we acted in an inconsiderate way—back-biting, not being reliable or something like that. Or maybe we dumped on them, let our anger out, and then we’re wondering why they’re in a bad mood towards us or why they hold a grudge towards us.

Amongst human beings, we should not behave forcefully towards those who have been kind to us or even towards our relatives and servants. Otherwise, the help they have previously given us will become worthless and a cause for anger.

I think it means not being aggressive towards those who have been kind to us and help us, because then the previous help they have given us would become worthless. I don’t think it means that it’s worthless, but they may come to regret the help that they gave us, and that’s not very good for their minds. The previous help they gave us might even become a case of anger for them because they regret it: “Oh, I was such a fool for helping so-and-so.” When other people think like that they destroy their merit.

Towards whom then, should we be forceful?

 If we’re not going to be forceful and aggressive towards sentient beings, what are we going to be forceful and aggressive towards?

In general, all the faults of cyclic existence arise from their origin, karma or actions and disturbing emotions. And actions or karma, are produced because of disturbing emotions.

If we’re going to be forceful, if we’re going to point the finger and say, “Get out of here,” we should point the finger towards the disturbing emotions, because they’re what create the karma which lead to the dukkha.

Since amongst all disturbing emotions, the grasping at self is chief, all of our spiritual practices of hearing, contemplation, and meditation involving our body, speech, and mind should be concentrated forcefully on eliminating it.

Since the self-grasping ignorance is the root of all the afflictions, we should focus all of our hearing, thinking, and meditating on eliminating it. I think this is important because sometimes we might think, “Oh, eliminating ignorance, that means realizing emptiness. Emptiness is difficult—all these pervasions and counter-pervasions, big words. I can’t understand it, so I’m just going to leave emptiness aside.”

We could easily think like that, but that’s not a good way to think. Rather, whatever understanding we have of emptiness, we should try and reflect on it and apply it to the things that we see in our daily life. That way we feel a little bit more in tune with the nature of reality, and we’re continuing our study and reflection on it.

Focus on the afflictions

With regard to the method by which to do this, the Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life says, ‘To do this will be my sole obsession.’

“To do this” means to obliterate the afflictions. So, if you’re going to obsess on something, this is what you have to fixate on, okay? This has to be your obsession: getting rid of the afflictions.

Holding a strong grudge, I shall meet them in battle. Here, a disturbing emotion can destroy other disturbing emotions, but not otherwise.

So, we say, “Okay, destroying the afflictions is going to be my obsession, and I’m going to hold a strong grudge against them. I’m going to destroy them in battle.” But this is inflammatory language in a way, isn’t it?  We say, “Obsession? As buddhists we should cultivate obsession and holding a strong grudge? That’s not very buddhist. Why am I doing that?”

What Shantideva is saying is that it’s not a usual kind of obsession. It’s not a usual kind of grudge. He’s saying that a disturbing emotion can destroy other disturbing emotions in the sense that if you’re going to be fixated on something, be fixated on destroying the ignorance, because that will destroy it. And if you’re going to have strong aversion toward something, have strong aversion towards afflictions and karma, because that will give you the energy to oppose them.

Shantideva uses this kind of language—kind of warrior language—a lot, and some people really like that language and find it very helpful. “I’m a spiritual warrior and opposing the afflictions.” Some people find that language very helpful, and some people don’t find it helpful at all. They find that they need language that is much more gentle, much more accepting, much softer.

Regardless of which kind of person we are, we have to understand the opposite language so that we don’t fall into an extreme. If you’re the person who likes this kind of strong language, when somebody is talking about self-acceptance and gentleness, don’t go, “Oh, that’s just wimpy.” Instead, try and understand what they’re talking about.

Similarly, if you’re the person who likes softer language about acceptance—being gentle with yourself and being kind to yourself—then don’t get upset when somebody else is saying, “I’m going to be a warrior and smash my afflictions!” Because that’s the way that works for them. The idea is that we need to understand the meaning behind all these different kinds of language, because some teachers may use one language and some teachers may use the other. We have to understand what they’re trying to say instead of just having our knee-jerk reaction.

Sometimes we hear a certain kind of language and automatically react against it. There might be certain ways of putting things in some of our recitations, and we just hear that language and we go, “Ugh!” It’s a real button-pushing language for us personally. We go back to our old associations with that kind of language.

It’s very important when we have that kind of language—either our teacher uses it or it’s written in the recitations we do—that we try and understand what it means and not be so reactive. For example, you take “self-centeredness is our worst enemy,” and say, “But I’m my self-centeredness, so I’m my worst enemy. I hate myself.” That’s the wrong conclusion. We have to understand what the meaning of the teaching is, and it’s not about hating ourselves.

One of my big ones was “pleasing the spiritual master,” because I was hearing “pleasing God.” That was a big button-pusher for me because you please God, but you don’t know what the rules are. And if you don’t please well, you’re in big trouble. Also, it was a very parental kind of language: “be a good girl and please somebody.” I reacted so strongly to that. Then I had to really sit down and think, “Well, what does that language really mean?”

It doesn’t mean, “be a good girl and do what somebody else wants.” That’s not the meaning. The meaning is that our spiritual masters want nothing more than for us to be happy and to create the causes of happiness. When we create the causes of happiness they’re very happy, so we please them. Creating virtue is what we want to do anyway. We’re not doing it for the purpose of winning brownie points with somebody else. That’s the meaning of that language, “to do what pleases the spiritual master.”

Other people may like other language, like “do what’s good for you.” They might think, “Oh, do what’s good for me? That’s good. I’ll do what’s good for me.” But then they think, “Oh, what’s good for me is a half-gallon of ice cream right now.” So, you have to understand what that means. It doesn’t mean indulge. It means to really think, “Well, what actually is good for me? What does that really mean?”

I’m just trying to say don’t get too locked into language. Because even in our normal interactions with each other sometimes, somebody will say one word, and we have a story with that word, so we go ballistic when we hear it. We put all of our meanings on this one word or this one comment, and our mind just goes, “Ahhhh! This person is ahhhh!” They just said one word or made one comment, but because there’s something that we have a big button about, our mind gets all out of whack. Doesn’t that happen?

Shantideva continues, ‘It would be better for me to be burned, to have my head cut off and be killed than ever bowing down to my enemies, the ubiquitous disturbing emotions.’

That’s pretty forceful. It doesn’t mean that every time you say a mean word to somebody you should go cut off your head, or think, “I deserve to die rather than criticize this person.” That’s not the meaning of this. What Shantideva is saying is when we really see that the disturbing emotions, the afflictions, are the real thing that creates unhappiness for ourselves and others, we should have some energy and stand up to them.

We shouldn’t just seccumb to them and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be compassionate to the afflictions,” or something like that. No, we should stand up to them and think, “If I give in to this affliction, that’s really damaging. That’s going to cause me much more suffering in the future because that affliction will send me to the lower realms. Whereas having my head cut off in this life, the worst that happens is I die. That’s it.”

With that viewpoint, you can see that rather than buying into our afflictions and going on and on and on with them, we should stand up to them and say to ourselves, “Why am I doing this? It’s better that I lose this one life than create the cause of suffering for so many future lives.” So, we use that in a way that gives ourselves some energy to stand up to the afflictions.

Really, it makes us think about how harmful the afflictions are because sometimes we are way too patient with the afflictions. We’re too gentle and compassionate with our afflictions: “Oh, anger, you want to say something mean to somebody else? Go right ahead. Oh, anger, you want to beat me up? You can get into some self-criticism. Oh, attachment, you want to take something that belongs to somebody else because you want it? It doesn’t matter.” We shouldn’t be indulgent of the afflictions in this kind of way because it just winds up detrimental in the long run.

We must persevere in combating the self-grasping and familiarize ourselves with concern for others.

That’s the conclusion.

Regarding what we must do to give up our self-centered attitude, the text says,

subjugate all the reasons for selfishness, for self-centeredness.

That’s the root text that says, “subjugate all the reasons for self-centeredness.”

Gross and subtle impermanence

We should suppress every instance of attachment and hatred that gives rise to exaggerated prejudices about friends, foes, or strangers, the attractive and the unattractive. That is because worldly phenomena in general are unreliable and relations between friends and foes in particular, are uncertain.

So, it’s talking about every instance of attachment and hatred, every instance of exaggerated prejudices, of inappropriate attention that says, “Oh, this is really good, wonderful. This is really bad, awful. I have to have to have this. I’ve got to get rid of that.” It’s all these kinds of reactive emotions and behavior towards friends, foes, or strangers as well as towards what’s attractive and what’s unattractive. It’s this yo-yo mind basically. The yo-yo mind that is drawn to this, thinking, “I have to have it,” and pushes against that, thinking, “I can’t stand it.” It’s the mind that’s so reactive—just knee-jerk reaction, button-pushers.

He’s saying to really slow down and look at the prejudices we have, and to look at the way we create biases for or against certain people as individuals, certain groups of people. Because all of that is pretty deadly. Whenever we start generalizing, there may be general characteristics shared by certain people, but to think that everybody in that group has that characteristic is not a very helpful way of thinking.

We need to be aware of that because lots of times we’ve been conditioned in that way from the time we were young. We were told by our parents to talk to certain people and not talk to other people, to hang out with some people in school and not hang out with other people. There’s even so much prejudice flying around in the media now. It’s important to really be quite attentive and not let our mind proliferate about those kinds of things towards groups of people or towards individuals.

And the reason for this is because worldly phenomena in general, are unreliable and relationships between friends and foes in particular, are uncertain.

Worldly things in general are unreliable. Why? Because they are impermanent.  Many of them have the characteristic of gross impermanence in the sense that they will completely split up so that they’re no longer recognizable as the phenomena they were before. The house will fall apart and you won’t recognize it as a house, or something like that. A person will die: that’s the gross impermanence.

But everything is subject also to subtle impermanence: in every single instant it’s arising and disintegrating, arising and disintegrating, without any moment of actual abiding in stability. It’s just constant arising and disintegrating. This is the nature of all phenomena and quite in accord with science.

It’s saying all the phenomena around us arising and ceasing in each split second, and particularly relationships between friends and foes, are very uncertain. They’re changing in each split second, but also sometimes in bigger chunks of time—over an hour, over a day, over a year—we can watch how our relationships with people change. It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Who were you close to ten years ago? Who were you close to? The end of 1999, that’s where we are: who were you close to then? Are you close to some of those same people now? Have those people changed? If you’re close to some of the same people, have they changed? Is the relationship the same as it was before?

 Some people who were foes before have become friends; some people who were friends have become foes. Things are changing all the time. It’s not very stable, not very certain. Because of that, why buy into all of our proliferating thoughts about “so-and-so is like this and so-and-so is like that?” It doesn’t make any sense, considering how in flux all these things are.

Nagarjuna says in The Friendly Letter,

Your father becomes your son, your mother, your wife and your enemies become friends. The opposite also takes place. Therefore, in cyclic existence, there is no certainty at all.

The people that we relate to in a certain way in this lifetime, we had totally different conventional relationships with in a previous lifetime. In a future lifetime we might also have very different conventional relationships. People who were our parents last time, this time are our children. People who were friends before are foes now. People who employed us before, now we employ them. All these things are constantly changing. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense to latch on to certain people and say, “But these people are more this, that or the other thing than anybody else.”

In a hundred years we’re going to be in totally different relationship with them. At the maximum in a hundred years—probably fewer. I doubt any of us will be alive in a hundred years. So then, the people that we’re so close to now, we may not even know. We may have one kind of relationship with them now, but next lifetime what kind of relationships will we have?

For this reason, it’s important not to get too locked into, “But this person is so meaningful in this way,” or “This person is so awful.” Because it’s all going to change, isn’t it? None of these things have any essence. People don’t have fixed, concrete personalities, do they? We might say, “Oh, but I love their personality.” But they’re not going to have that personality for so long. Even in this life people don’t have a consistent personality, do they? In our next life, we may be born ten bazillion universes away and not even know them.

If you look, you can see a person is just merely labeled in dependence upon whatever aggregates are there. There’s nothing there inside of a person that is some kind of ultimate personality or soul or something that they really are. It’s all just changing. And that also means we can all become buddhas. It’s a good reason not to grasp.

There is also a saying, ‘construct a fort where the danger is greatest.’

Relating this to the previous idea of suppressing every instance of attachment, aversion, bias and things like that, construct the fort where the danger is greatest. In other words, where you have the greatest bias, the greatest anger, the greatest attachment, work on those things first.

I think that’s very important in our practice to know the areas that are the biggest problems for us and work on those. What are the behaviors that are really the most detrimental? What are the emotions that sway us in a bad way most strongly? It’s important to know that and really work with those things, instead of obsessing about small things. We’ll get to the small things, but it’s more worthwhile if we work with the big things.

It is necessary to meditate on the factors which cause your spiritual practice to decline. And the text says, ‘Train consistently to deal with difficult situations.’

That’s the instruction so that we will meditate on the factors that can cause our spiritual practice to decline, which are difficult situations. It’s difficult situations that provoke difficult emotions that provoke unwholesome behavior. So, it’s telling us to train consistently to deal with these difficult situations. The text lists five kinds of difficult situations. There are probably more, but we’ll just talk about five right now.

Five difficult situations

First, since even the slightest misbehavior towards the Three Jewels, your abbot, spiritual master, parents and so forth, who are all very kind to you, is extremely serious, you should be careful not to lose your temper with them.

The Three Jewels, our abbot, our spiritual master, our parents: these are all people who have been very kind to us in this particular lifetime, so any of the virtuous or nonvirtuous karma that we create with them is especially strong. Because they are powerful objects with which we create karma, we should be very careful not to lose our temper with them.

When we lose our temper we say and do all sorts of things, don’t we? And that can be very, very dangerous. Anger can even cause somebody to walk out on their parents or on their spiritual master, to steal, to denigrate—to do all sorts of things that are very detrimental to our own practice. So, it’s something to take care of.

Of course anger arises, doesn’t it? We need to catch it before it comes out of our mouth or gets expressed in our actions and try and do some meditation to calm ourselves down. If it does come out, we need to go and apologize and try and subdue our mind in that regard.

Secondly, as there are many opportunities for disturbing emotions to arise in relation to members of your family, because you live with them all the time, this requires special training.

So, it’s not only the Three Jewels, our abbot, our spiritual master—it’s also our family. I think this means not only our biological family but also our spiritual family. These are the people you live with and why it says, “you live with them all the time, so it requires special attention.” Because the people that we’re around all the time we can take for granted. We stop appreciating their kindness, and we also have the habit of picking their faults. Also, when we spend more time with people, we have a chance to notice them better, so we will see their faults.

Especially if we like to pick at faults, we can really get into it. When we pick at faults with our family—either our biological family or our spiritual family—we tend to be putting them down, so we do things that are not very nice. We gossip about them behind their back. We tell other people stories about them, and then we create factions: the people who are on my side and the people who are on their side. Then the whole thing becomes very, very polarized.

I was just reading an article about somebody who works for a business and one of their principles, if you’re going to get hired, is that no gossip is tolerated in the office. This person was saying, “I’ve never heard that said in the hiring and interview process: no gossip was tolerated.” And she said, “It actually makes working there quite a joy.” You know nobody is going to talk about you behind your back, and if they do somebody is going to call them on it. So, you also keep your mouth closed. You don’t gossip behind people’s backs. Sometimes we might need to exchange information so that people know what’s going on with somebody in order to help, but that’s quite different than gossiping, putting people down and creating factions.

Working with feedback

Audience: You mentioned one of the sayings last week was when you’re checking in to see what your progress is, there are two sources: one is outside yourself and one is inside of yourself. The question came back, what about your teacher? Wouldn’t their reflections on your progress be more important than your own observations?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): We were talking last week about the two witnesses: the internal witness that evaluates our progress, and the external witness. We said that the internal witness is the most important. So, how does feedback from your teacher fit into that? I think that’s quite important because our teacher often sees things in us that we can’t see in ourselves. But we should also not take what the teacher says and go, “Okay, that’s more true than my own internal feeling.” We need to develop some ability to think about what our teacher says and to see what that means in terms of our own practice. We don’t give up our own wisdom.

Let’s think of an example. Our teacher may say, “You’re being kind of lazy, and you need to put more effort into your practice. It would be helpful to put more effort into your practice.” We have to look inside and say, “Okay, am I lazy? What does that mean when the teacher says I’m being lazy, and I need to put more energy in? What does that mean?” Because we’ll hear that kind of thing and immediately think, “I’m not doing it right. My teacher says I’m lazy, and I need to put more energy in my practice. That means I’m not doing it right. I’m just completely a slob. I’m not worthy.”

We go into all these kinds of trips over a little bit of feedback. That’s why I say that we don’t give up our wisdom and just go into these knee-jerk reactions that we have. “Okay, my teacher said I’m being lazy, what does that mean? What are the different kinds of laziness? There’s the laziness of lolling around. There’s the laziness of being too busy with samsaric things. And there’s the laziness of self-deprecation. Which one of those am I involved in? Which one of those are they talking about? And to what extent?”

And we look inside: “Okay, I do loll around a lot, but I waste more time putting myself down than I do oversleeping.” Or, “I waste more time being busy doing samsaric things than I do with oversleeping.” For other people, it might be the opposite. We have to think about what our teacher understands with the feedback they give us and make sure we understand it properly.

Often our teachers will see potential in us that we don’t see in ourselves. Our teacher will ask us to do something, and we just start back-peddling, making up excuses, joking—this, that, and the other thing, instead of taking the challenge. We don’t say, “Oh, they see some potential in me. I need to step up to the plate here and see if I can develop this.”

It’s the same whenever we get any feedback, we always need to think, “What does it really mean?” It’s important to do this even with good feedback. Somebody says, “You’re such a nice person,” and we go, “Oh, I’m perfect in every way.” Whereas maybe what they’re meaning is that last Tuesday you were being courteous to some visitors or something. But we’ll just go, “ I don’t need to improve at all.” That’s usually how we communicate, isn’t it?

Audience: I have a question about tonglen. When I take on the suffering of others, it opens my mind and my heart. It’s a positive feeling. Then I become a wish-fulfilling jewel, and that’s a very good thing. But the part that is a mystery to me right now is the part about smashing the self-centered thought. I don’t know what’s going on there. I don’t know what’s happening.

VTC: You’re saying that when you do the taking and giving meditation, taking on other sentient beings’ suffering expands your mind, and that’s very good. Becoming a wish-fulfilling gem and giving them happiness also feels very good. But smashing your self-centered thought is a big puzzle to you. Maybe you have to think about what your self-centered thought is—how it comes up and how it makes a mess in your life. Maybe this will help you see clearly what the self-centered thought is so that you want to destroy it. Otherwise it all becomes a feel-good meditation: “I’m taking their suffering and giving them my happiness.” We’re not challenging that mind that says, “I want. I have to have it like this. Don’t tell me what to do.”

We have to see what that mind is and consider destroying it. I think that’s a very important point of the taking and giving meditation. We don’t just take on others’ suffering and think, “Oh, I take on their suffering, so now I’m suffering and they’re free.” Sitting there suffering doesn’t do any good. We have to use what they don’t want to destroy what we don’t want.

We have to use their suffering to destroy our afflictions, our self-centeredness. We have to really have a strong intention to destroy our self-centeredness, and normally we don’t have a very strong intention to destroy it. We have a very strong intention to preserve it. We will even use the Dharma in ways that preserve our self-centeredness. We have to really see it and want to oppose it. But this is a process. It doesn’t mean that we should get all uptight every time I do one small self-centered thing thinking, “I’m a failure!” This is a process.

It’s so interesting saying things to you all, because some of you are so different. If I say one thing to you I’m afraid somebody else is going to misinterpret it. And if I say something to that person, I’m afraid you’re going to misinterpret. You know? Because people are so different. This is just what I was talking about, about how we understand words and what are our buttons.

We’ll continue later. We’ve had the first two points about the people we’re around all the time and then about our parents and mentors and abbots, the Three Jewels. Review these teachings in between sessions, and then try and put them into practice in your day as much as you can. It might be good if we all thought of one behavior that we really want to work on.

Let’s think of one physical and verbal behavior we want to work on, and then look at what the mind behind that is and make it work on that mind, too. It’s not just a question of changing the outer behavior. It’s a question of changing the inner mind. So, think of something that you really want to work on—inside and outside—and then let’s see how the thought training practice can be used to help us do that. What might be interesting is if we ask other people what they think we should work on—woo! That could be very interesting.

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.