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A commentary on “The Rose”

A talk given at the Gardenia Center in Sandpoint, Idaho in September, 2010.

  • A Buddhist perspective on Bette Midler’s 1979 popular song
  • Reflecting on our lived experience of love and loss

The rose (download)

Breathing meditation

I think it’s always good that we do some meditation before we hear a talk. So, I will lead you, just do a little body relaxation and then we will focus on our breath for a while, and the purpose of focusing on our breath is to settle our mind down, to develop a little bit of concentration. And to let all these tumultuous thoughts that usually plague us, let those subside. So by focusing on one object, in this case the breath, then the mind can’t wander all over the universe. If your mind’s wandering all over the universe, then we’re not on the breath. And your mind will probably wander all over the universe. Mine does. And so when it does, we just notice that and then we bring it home to the breath. So the breath is like home, it’s like our anchor, so where we bring ourselves back to.

Okay, so lower your eyes. And the body scan, just begin by feeling yourself sitting here on the chair. And then be aware of sensations in your feet and your legs, and if there’s any tension there then let that go. And be aware of your belly and your lower abdomen, and similarly if there’s tension or stress there, let that relax. And be aware of sensations in your torso, shoulders, back. If your shoulders are tight, let them fall. And then also become aware of sensations in your neck, your jaw and face, and let all those muscles relax as well. So your physical posture is firm, but it’s also at ease. And then bring your attention to the breath, just breathing normally and naturally, don’t force your breath, don’t deep breathe, just let your breath be. And place your attention at the upper lip and the nostrils, and watch the sensation of the air as it passes there, or place your attention on your belly and watch it rise and fall as you inhale and exhale. And so in watching the breath from either of these two places, you’re experiencing your breath, you’re being with what is happening at this very moment. And so if your mind wanders or gets distracted, bring it back to what is happening right now, which is you’re sitting in a safe place enjoying your breath. So we’ll have a few minutes of silence.


And then let’s come back to our motivation, and think that we will listen and share now so that we can get in touch with our good qualities, our inner human beauty, and learn how to expand it, how to nourish that within ourselves and others, and to do this so that we can solve more problems than we create in life. So that we can give something to others that is really valuable. Contemplate that motivation for a moment.

And then open your eyes and come out of your meditation.

The commentary

Now in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition we have the way a teaching is often given is there is a root text and then somebody gives a commentary on it. So I was very touched by this song The Rose, so I thought I would just make that like the root text and give a little commentary on that. Were you as touched by that song as I was? I thought it was very beautiful. The lyrics, they really touched home.

I’m trying to visualizing one of my Tibetan teachers sitting on the big Dharma seat, using this as a root text. [laughter]

So we’ll just go through it line by line and share some reflections.

Some say love, it is a river that drowns the tender reed.

So that’s when we love with an agenda for the person that we love. It’s sometimes called loving too much. We want the other person to be happy so much that… And we have our own way of knowing how they should be happy, right? They can’t be happy in their way, they have to be happy in our way because our way is the best way to be happy. So we drown them, they’re like a tender reed, and this often happens with children, you know, we have so many expectations we put on their heads that we drown them in our attempt to help them be happy.

Some say love is a razor that leaves your heart to bleed.

So, but I think most of us have had that experience, when we’ve not really loved somebody but we’ve been so, we’ve clung to them so much, that then when it becomes unbearable for them, and they say, “Look, I need some space.” Then we feel like our heart has been cut up. But it actually comes from our being too possessive, you know. Our clinging, our being attached, which isn’t actually love, is it. It’s trying to own the other person, and people are not things that can be possessed or owned. Even love relations.

Some say love it is a hunger, an endless, aching need.

Okay, some of us are very very needy inside, we don’t feel complete as a human being, we feel like we need someone or something outside of us to love us, to tell us we’re worthwhile, otherwise we feel that we aren’t. So there’s very much a lack of self confidence and very much, um… When we’re in that state we haven’t seen our Buddha potential, we haven’t seen the seeds of love and compassion and wisdom and generosity that exist in ourselves, and instead we’re looking outside for something. Mother Teresa has, maybe some of you can help me, but in one of her prayers she says, you know, “If I need this, give me that.” And in one of them she says something to the effect of, “If I need love, give me someone to love.” Yeah? So when we’re in our neediness and our self pity, we’re so focused on having somebody love us, that we can’t love, because the energy’s all turned in towards me and what I need. And so actually, when we want love, the best way is to enhance our own ability to love.

And when I’m talking about love, I’m talking about the wish for others to have happiness and the causes of happiness. I’m not talking about romantic love, okay? I’m not talking about possessing people. I’m talking about really sincerely wanting them to have happiness and its causes. No matter who they are. So this applies on a personal level, in our personal relationships with people. But if I say it applies also on a group level, on a national level, and I think with what is happening in our country right now, especially the Islamic bashing, the anti-Islamic rhetoric that’s going on, I say that comes from a lack of love, that comes from fear. It comes from our own insecurity. And everybody is equal in wanting to be happy and not wanting to suffer, and when we can really see that very clearly, how we’re all alike in that respect, then we have to let down this protective measure, mechanism of fear and actually extend our heart in love. Very very important. And if we really believe in the principals our country was founded on, then this I think is our duty as citizens to extend our heart in love to everybody who is here. To me, that’s what upholding the constitution means. Yeah. The constitution is based on equality, on liberty, on wanting everybody to have happiness and its causes. So that’s the mind of love, that’s what we have to practice, as individuals, as groups, as a nation.

I say love it is a flower, and you its only seed.

So, we have this seed of love in us right now, that is there, and that can never be taken away. In Buddhist terms we say that’s part of our Buddha nature, it’s something that can be developed limitlessly to the stage of full enlightenment. So it may be a seed in us right now, might be a little bitty sprout. We need to water it and nourish it, and the way we do that is by training our mind to see others’ kindness. Yeah. And making it a point to, every day spend some time and think about the kindness we have received from others, not only the people we know, but also the people we don’t know. The kindness of the people who make the electricity run. The kindness of the people who do the road work. The kindness of the people in the grocery store or the bank. Okay. So all the strangers upon whom we depend so that our society functions, and to remember their kindness and to want them to be happy and have the causes of happiness. Okay. So that’s how to water that seed within us.

It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.

Can you feel that in yourself sometimes? Like we’re so afraid of getting hurt that we can’t open our heart to others. Without realizing that the problem is our own fear of getting hurt. Nobody else can actually hurt us, yeah. Nobody else can actually hurt us. It’s our own distorted way of thinking that causes the pain. We might say, “You rejected me, you abandoned me.” But actually, that’s not the–what causes the hurt inside of us. What causes the hurt inside is our way of thinking that blames the other person and says, “You rejected me, you abandoned me.” When actually, I don’t think that was the other person’s motivation. They were aching, they were unhappy, they were suffering themselves, and in their confusion, they thought that doing whatever they did would bring them happiness. But it didn’t. Didn’t bring them happiness, and it hurt us. But we’re only seeing the hurt, we’re not seeing their suffering. When we see their suffering, then we can extend love and compassion to them for their suffering. And then we don’t feel like our own heart is breaking, because we’re still connected to the other person, aren’t we, and have love and compassion for them. So when we have that love and compassion then we can dance. Maybe we won’t dance with that person, but we will dance. And it’s the dancing that’s important, isn’t it?

It’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance.

So we’re caught up in our own little dream. We’re afraid to really be practical and so we don’t take the chance, we don’t extend ourselves. Again it’s this fear, this self protective thing, and it’s founded on thinking that there’s this big “I” inside, meeeeee. King, queen of the universe. And grasping onto that “I” is going to cause us a whole lot of suffering, okay, because we’re completely focused on ourselves. It’s called self-centeredness, self-preoccupation. We need to switch that, and by really consciously training ourselves to see the kindness of others, cherish others. When we cherish others, there’s no space for fear inside of us. Then we can take the chance. And when we take a chance, we have an attitude that we’re playing, yeah. When we have an agenda it’s like, “I’ll only do this if I’m assured of getting my way at the end, and getting what I want at the end.” And when can we ever be assured of getting what we want at the end of anything? We can’t ever be assured of anything. So we have to have an attitude that plays with the situation. “My purpose is not to get this person to love me and keep them with me forever after. My purpose is to learn and grow.” And I learn and grow by going through all the difficult things that are required when you live with other human beings. And it’s not just living with other human beings that’s hard, it’s hard to live with ourself sometimes, isn’t it? So we need a lot of love towards ourself as well, not so much judgment and self-criticism, not expecting ourself to be perfect all the time, okay. Even, we need some compassion for ourselves.

It’s the one who won’t be taken who cannot seem to give.

So giving is so important, you know, to practice giving without an expectation that somebody’s going to say, “Oh thank you so much, you are wonderful.” You know. Just make the delight in giving, don’t make the delight in the other person giving something back to you, because we can never guarantee that. Make the delight in just extending our heart and giving. That’s the [inaudible].

And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.

So again, “Oh the pain … ” Yeah? And you know, everything is transient, everything is insecure. The more we cling on to trying to make things permanent and secure, the more we never really live. Because how can we ever nail anything down and make it secure? It’s a frightening truth, but when we really accept that that’s the reality, then we can let go of fighting reality, and it’s when we fight reality that so much pain comes. Isn’t it? Yeah. When we want something to be permanent that by its nature change, changes, when we want something to be 100% secure but actually it’s dependent on causes and conditions, so it can’t be totally secure, so the more we familiarize ourself with reality the more it’ll be easier for us to stop fighting reality.

When the night has been too lonely and the night has been too long.

Now when I feel that, I don’t know about you, but when I feel that I am in the midst of a big pity party. “The night has been too lonely, the road’s been too long… And I think that love is only for the lucky and the strong. Poor me! Poor me…” And I throw this huge pity party, with lead balloons, starring myself. And I’m so involved in my own pity party that nobody else can even come in the room. I won’t let them in the room. And if they try and come in the room, I say, “Go away, I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself because I’m so lonely.” [Laughter] Are your pity parties like that? That’s what I do in my pity parties, you know. I just have the privilege of being so rejected and abandoned and unloved, and I won’t say anything to anybody, they’re supposed to notice how miserable I am. And then they’re supposed to come to me and say, “Oh dear Chodron, you look so miserable, can I help you?” And I say (with a sniffle), “I’m not miserable I’m perfectly all right. Go away.” So, when we’re in the middle of a pity party we need to change. In prison they have this thing called “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and that’s what we’re in the middle of in our self-pity mind. Stinkin’ thinkin’.

And remember in the winter far beneath the winter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

So even when we’re going through hard times, there’s always the seed of goodness in us, that can’t be taken away. But I want to question something here: “Just remember in the winter far beneath the winter snows.” That makes it sound like in winter you’re suffering. In winter there’s beauty too, isn’t there? Isn’t winter beautiful? We’ve been in the most beautiful part of the country in the winter. The snow here is gorgeous. The mountains and the clear sky and watching the snow. So how about when in the winter in our lives, how about looking at the beauty that’s still there, yeah. We have long winters here. If we just stay inside in the winter and complain about the snow, we’re going to be miserable many months of the year. But okay, you know, we have to shovel the snow and sometimes it’s slippery, and sometimes the sun doesn’t come out for a while, but if we can still look around us and see the beauty in the winter then it won’t matter that we shovel the snow, and that it’s foggy sometimes. There’s still beauty. So, like I said, even when things may not be going exactly as we want them in our life, we can still see the beauty around us. Instead of locking our mind into focusing on the one or two things that aren’t the way we want them to be, let’s open our heart and focus on all the fortune we have, because we have incredible fortune in our lives. We have food, my goodness, yeah. Nobody’s bombing our place. We have friends. We aren’t refugees. We have incredible fortune in our lives. So very important to see that, and to rejoice at it, and to use our fortune, and the remembrance of our fortune, to really open our heart to others, and extend that wish for them to have happiness and the causes of happiness. And then to do what we can to give them the things they need so they can have happiness and its causes.

Like the seed that with the sun’s love in the spring becomes the rose.

But when we grow that rose, we should make it a special variety, one that doesn’t have thorns. Okay? So our own love for others should be thorn-free. Should be blame-free. So this afternoon I’m going to be talking about how to abandon that blaming mind. Yeah. And create that thornless rose.

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.