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Motivation for the retreat

Motivation for the retreat

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks given during the Green Tara Winter Retreat from December 2009 to March 2010.

  • Setting the motivation for doing the Tara retreat
  • How to approach the retreat and practice
  • How to watch the mind during the retreat to see the habitual ways we think
  • Developing wholesome ways of thinking that lead to long-term happiness
  • Counteracting mental states that lead to unhappiness

Green Tara Retreat: Motivation and teaching (download)

Motivation Part 1

You’re going to have a three-month vacation with Tara, and she’s a very nice person to go on vacation with. She’s very even-minded. She’s not grumpy and grouchy. You know what you’re getting from day to day. She doesn’t vacillate moods, and you know that she’s going to be very compassionate. So if something is wrong in your holiday, it’s not coming from Tara.

Working with afflictions

We have to remember that it’s our afflictions that are the source of suffering. If all you get from the retreat is this understanding that the afflictions are the source of suffering, then your retreat has been wildly successful. Our usual pattern is that the source of suffering is outside, or it’s somebody else, or it’s something else. We have to change the world, or we blame ourselves for everything—there is this big “I” who is inherently bad, and unqualified, and stupid, and ridiculous and that this self is the cause of all suffering. We’re very into blaming either outside or inside.

This blaming either outside or inside doesn’t really work; because trying to control the external world is a dead end. We can’t do it. Even if we could, we would change our mind the next day of what we want the external world to be, this is because our mind is not so stable. Blaming ourselves is also a dead end because we have the buddha nature, and we have the ability to become completely enlightened beings. Torturing ourselves with a lot of self-blame also doesn’t do anything productive.

The afflictions, which are mental factors in our mind and are not who we are, are the source of misery. It’s the afflictions: jealousy, conceit, attachment, anger, it’s those kinds of things. They’re all rooted in ignorance, all rooted in the wrong view of how we exist and how phenomena around us exist. Yet, we don’t realize that we have a wrong view. We don’t understand that we hold the wrong view to be reality. It’s like we were born with sunglasses on and think that everything from inside is dark, because we’ve never seen it any other way.

How things appear to exist (and how knowing this helps with afflictions)

This is where meditation comes in, and specifically analytical meditation. We begin to analyze: can things really exist in the way they appear to me to exist? Things appear as if they’re objective things out there with their own essence, permanent, and coming from their own side. However, if they were, if they had their own essence from their own side, then they would be independent of all other entities. If things are independent, then they can’t affect each other. If everything had its own inherent entity, for example, if this was a bell from its own side, this is a drum from its own side, and I’m me from my own side, then this feeling that there are just solid, concrete essences to everything. If there were really such an essence that was just strong and independent and there, then it couldn’t change. If things can’t change, then there would be no way we could relate to each other and affect each other.

When we really look, we see that things are dependent on other factors. We as a human being are dependent on many other factors. It’s not like there’s just this big self that’s always been there. The body depends on the sperm and egg and all of the food. The mind depends on the previous moments of mind. Both of them are influenced by the external environment, and how the environment affects us depends upon us having sense organs and consciousnesses that perceive objects and so on. When we begin to look, we see that things really influence each other and affect each other.

If things are dependent on other factors like that, then there’s no way that they can have their own solid, independent essence. It’s not that there’s really this fixed me, but then these certain aspects around me change. You can’t be both independent and dependent at the same time. There’s part of a real me, but then I change my mind and my body changes, and so on. But wait a minute, what’s this solid me that we think is there? The one that’s separate from the body and mind, and can there be something about us that’s independent and then the rest of us interacts with the world and changes and is dependent. It simply can’t be like that. We have to reflect on this, and through doing so, we get some understanding how our usual view is incorrect.

This is the first view of how things appear to exist to us, and then how we can hold them to exist from our side. Next, because we think everything is independent with its own essence, we then think that there’s a real me and there’s these real things, and so you’ve got to fight with them. It’s either that or grab at the ones you want and fight with the ones you don’t want. So that’s kind of the story of our life, isn’t it? It seems to be that we are always doing this.

Looking at our mind and experience with clarity

In the retreat, we really start looking at our own mind and how our own mind works. We look at how our mind operates, what kind of mental factors or mental states arise, and what conditions there are and what their effects are. So often, too, we’re really out of touch with what’s going on inside of ourselves, even though we live with ourselves all the time.

Attachment comes, anger comes, depression comes, laziness comes, arrogance comes, all of these things come and go and continue to come and go. We are so often so absorbed in the external world, or so completely spaced out, that we’re not even aware of these different moods and mental factors that have come through our mind. They all have effects, and so if we aren’t aware of these mental states, then it’s going to be difficult to be aware of the effects that they have on us. When we’re angry, what’s the effect of being angry? How does it affect me? How does it affect the people around me? When my mind is filled with clinging attachment, and I’m indulging in sense pleasure, how does my mind feel and how do I affect the people around me.

What makes these mental states arise? Where do they come from anyway? Did we catch them from somebody else? “You made me mad, so I caught anger from you,” like a virus? No.

Motivation Part 2

The whole thing about doing retreat is really to observe what’s going on in our mind and come to understand it better. Then, within that process, we learn to discriminate what are helpful mental states (when they come into our mind) that really produce happiness in the long term, and what are destructive mental states that produce misery in the long term. The next thing after we’re able to discriminate these is: how do I cultivate the ones that are conducive to happiness? How do I counteract the ones that are conducive to misery?

The sadhana practice as a training

This is the kind of inner work we’re going to be doing in the retreat. The structure of the retreat has to do with the Tara sadhana. This practice is training us in positive attitudes and teaching us how to think properly. However, in the process of doing that practice, all of our usual habitual ways of thinking and feeling just come in and interfere like mad, and so we get to see them very clearly. It’s very important to remember they, these habitual ways of thinking, are not us. Maybe you should have a little sticker on your table that says, “This is not me.”

Just remember that this is a thought passing through the mind, it’s not me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good thought or a bad thought, it’s just a thought. It’s not who we are. There is no reason to get puffed up about something, and no reason to get down about something. So you watch these things happen, and then you learn the antidotes from the lamrim stages of the path on how to counteract the harmful mental factors. You then learn how the various meditations can help you to increase the various helpful and virtuous mental factors. This is basically what we’re going to be doing in the retreat, and Tara’s there to help us.

Now, for Tara to help us, it means we need to tune into Tara. If we’re obsessing about ourselves all the time, it’s going to be very difficult to pay attention to Tara. I usually find in my retreats that my number one topic of meditation is myself, and every once in a while I get bored with it and then I think about the Buddha. It should be the opposite. We don’t often think clearly, so we spin around ourselves a lot. So then it’s good to watch it, observe it, remember it’s not you. Try and come back to the practice like I was talking about before. Do this so that you’re not shoving anything down and refusing to look at it, but that you’re not indulging in it either. You’re trying to guide and steer your mind in a helpful way.

Why are we doing this whole practice? Is it because we have nothing else to do for the next three months? We could be out skiing, or sledding, or going to work and making a ton of money? We could do all those other things. We’re giving up Christmas? My goodness! No Christmas carols, no Christmas tree, no Christmas stockings. No Rose Parade on New Year’s. No football games on New Year’s! Oh boy, now that’s suffering. Why are we giving these things up, when we could be out enjoying ourselves and drinking and drugging, and being with a bunch of people singing and dancing, and oh, you’re ready to run down the hill now!

Why are we doing retreat now? Is it because we’ve done all of that other stuff before? We’ve done it many, many times. Has it brought any kind of lasting happiness and satisfaction in our lives? How many years old are you? How many Christmases and New Years have you had? Every year you have a chance to do it bigger and better and to be happier. Does it work? It doesn’t, does it? It seems that sometimes you have a good time, sometimes you don’t. Then, we’re back still struggling for pleasure, and struggling for happiness.

Retreat as creating the causes of happiness

The reason we’re doing retreat is because we see that looking on the outside for all these things is not a viable way to find peace and happiness. In fact, by running around like that, we often have more unhappiness or inflict unhappiness on others. We’re doing retreat because we want to be happy. Don’t expect to be happy immediately, don’t expect it right away. Just create the causes of happiness and know that the happiness will come.

If we’re sitting here waiting because we say, “Oh, I’m doing the retreat to be happy,” well, what kind of happiness are you going to get from doing retreat? So you think, “Well, I’ll have a vision of Tara and my kundalini will come up, and I’ll go out in outer space.” If you come into the retreat with those kinds of expectations, and you’re waiting for things like this to happen, and then it doesn’t happen, what happens instead? You get mad, you get disappointed. “I gave good dana to have this blissful, far-out experience and all I see is anger!” “And it’s your fault that I’m angry because the food is like this, and the facilities are like this … ”

We have to just be content to create the causes of happiness. As we create contentment in our mind, we’ll realize that happiness is different than what we thought it was. We used to think that happiness was this surge of far-out sizzle, one that just makes you incredibly zingy and giddy. Then you find that happiness actually isn’t a sustainable emotion that is comfortable for long periods of time. You begin to see that having a peaceful mind is much better. Having contentment in the mind is much better. You may not have the big highs, but you don’t have the big lows either. There’s some sense of satisfaction, and some sense of meaning and purpose in your life. So we try and cultivate that kind of contentment. Some sort of serenity, some sort of inner peace—but without grasping at it like we grasp at everything else. MINE!

So, instead of getting a “whoopty-do experience” from whatever it is that we’re used to getting experiences from, when you then find yourself wanting some other “whoopty-do experience.” You have to just give that up, this grasping at “my.” You have to give up that “I want, I want,” and really change the mind to, “I’m creating the causes of happiness for the benefit of myself and others.”

If you have that kind of motivation, you can bring a certain kind of inner peace and inner satisfaction to your life, because you’re doing something meaningful and useful with your life.

Motivation Part 3

I think that this sense of purpose in our life, and living according to that purpose and meaning, and spiritually developing ourselves (in the long term) is much more satisfactory than these kinds of zingy things—the one that we get from getting a new job, or having our name on the front page of the paper, or whatever it is.

We’re changing what our aims are. Instead of looking for my happiness now, we’re beginning to look for peace and contentment now. If it comes, great, but especially (even more) great in the future, because we know it’s going to take a great accumulation of causes to bring about that peace and contentment. We’re trying to develop that peace and contentment of liberation, not only for our own selves, but so that we can benefit all beings.

Practicing the bodhisattva actions

We’re also practicing the bodhisattva actions to develop our ability to be of benefit to others. We are practicing to deepen our wisdom so that our wisdom is strong enough to obliterate, not only all of the afflictions and their seeds, but also the subtle stains on the mind. We’re doing that because we see in the long term, for our own benefit and others’ benefit, that this is the most purposeful thing to do. Somebody may say, “Well, why for others’ benefit? Why can’t I just work for myself alone? I mean, liberation is hard enough. Why should I strive for enlightenment? That’s even harder.”

If we look around, we will see that everything we have, everything we use, every talent, every little piece of knowledge we have is due to the kindness of others. It’s the people who taught us, the people who raised us, and the people who educated us and cared for us when we were little. Even the food we ate today came from other people. With an awareness that we have been the recipient of a tremendous amount of kindness from others, (not just in this life, but in previous lives, too, and that we will continue to receive great kindness from others) to only think about our own liberation and just only that, seems completely unconscionable and unthinkable! How could I even let that thought come in my mind, to work only for my own benefit, when I’ve received so much kindness in my life? It’s just intolerable to even think like that.

We see, then, that the best way to repay the kindness of others is to develop ourselves spiritually. This is so that we’ll have the abilities to manifest many bodies, and understand others’ karma, and know the exact things to say and do that will really help them progress along the path. We generate the bodhicitta motivation and approach our practice in that way. If you have that bodhicitta motivation and hold onto that strongly, then all the ups and downs in retreat don’t matter, because you know where you’re going and you know why you’re going there. Whereas, if we approach retreat with, “I want happiness,” then as soon as you don’t get what you want, you’re miserable.

If we have a long-term spiritual goal, then we know, “Boy, I’m just creating the causes. I’m going there, it’s some place meaningful, it’s going to take a long time to get there, but I am so delighted to have the opportunity to go in the direction of buddhahood.” Just that opportunity alone makes your mind very, very joyful. Then you also know that just showing up for every meditation session is getting you further along the path and that the purpose is not to have a “whoopty-do” session. The purpose of each session is to create the cause of happiness. Just showing up and just working with your mind, no matter what is going on in your mind, is creating that cause for full enlightenment. Your mind gets some inner strength to continue. You don’t get whacked around by different upsetting thoughts and different things pulling you here and there. If those kinds of thoughts come up, you’re able to identify them and explain to yourself why they are incorrect ways of thinking and so center yourself on where you need to be. This is our motivation and how we’re approaching the practice.

Rejecting the unhelpful mind states

Take a three-month vacation with Tara? Yes! It’s better than going with Prince Charming. Hasn’t your Prince or Princess Charming had bad moods? They bellyache, they complain, they’re not very consistent and they blame you for when they’re unhappy. Why do you want to run down the hill and be with Prince or Princess Charming, when you have Tara? It doesn’t make much sense.

We always tell people at the beginning of retreat, at some point during the retreat you will be certain that before the next session comes, you’re going to be down this hill. You don’t know how you’re getting there, through the slush and the snow, but it will be, “I can’t stand this one more session. I’m out of here.”

Everybody goes through that. Nobody’s run down the hill yet in one of our winter retreats. Everybody feels as though, “I’m going be the first one.” Just know that this will happen, and when it does, just say to yourself, “Oh yes, they told me it’s going to happen,” and let it go. Either that or you have to run out and get Venerable Jampel’s sled, or his snowboard, but then the problem is, after you get downhill, you have to bring it back up here. You can’t leave it down on the hill.

See each other, the people you’re doing retreat with, as the people who are supporting you in doing your practice and who understand something very important about you and your own inner workings. Often we think, “Oh, those people on the outside, oh, they love me so much.” However, sometimes they’re the people who are saying, “Why are you going on a retreat? What a ridiculous thing to do.” We need to see that our Dharma friends, here, are the people who really understand why we’re going on retreat; they understand why we want to do a practice. You can really respect that part of everybody who is here, because they understand you.

Motivation Part 4

Another thing you’ll probably do during the retreat is you’ll say, “Everybody else is having good meditation sessions. I’m the only one who isn’t.” That, too, happens at every retreat. “Look, everybody else is sitting there so perfectly. It’s only me.” You will think, “It’s only me. They are all perfect meditators. I’m the only wiggly one.”

The way the ego works is, “Well, she said to work for the benefit of sentient beings, so for the benefit of all these people in the meditation hall, I need to leave because I’m ruining their meditation.” Your mind will do that to you. “Really, these people are so serious, they’ve been so kind to me in so many lives … I am disturbing them. So my one act of kindness is to leave.”

Sorry! That doesn’t work, because nobody else is seeing you as the thing that is the source of all their problems. It’s just our own mind that is setting ourselves apart from everybody else. “Everybody else can meditate well, but not me. They’re all a group. I’m the one on the outside. They all follow the rules. I’m the only one who’s always late.” You know, we always do this thing of setting ourselves apart. Somehow we don’t fit in, or somehow we’re special, one way or the other. Either we’re better than them and we’re special, or we just don’t fit in because we’re different. One way or the other, our mind will try and make some distance between us and everybody else. When that happens, we just have to come back and remember everybody’s being kind. Everybody’s doing their best. We’re all just karmic blips. There’s no big me here. There are no solid selves in all these other people. We’re all trying to get out of cyclic existence and be of benefit to each other. We simply come back to that.

I won’t tell you all of the other things that are going to happen during the retreat. I’m sharing just a few now with you now. I’m sure you’ll bring other things up and we’ll talk about them and hopefully we’ll have some good laughs together, because we have to laugh at our minds. We really have to.

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.