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Windows of opportunity

  • The relationship between Siddhārtha and his meditation teachers
  • Having a clear goal
  • Recognizing opportunities
  • Making a decision—or not

It’s been really wonderful to get teachings based on the stories of the Buddha’s life. There’s so much richness in it. And there are certain points in that story that kind of haunt me. Haunt me in a way that, you know, I go back and think about them again and again and again.

One of those points is about the relationship between—first Siddhārtha and then later the Buddha—the relationship between him and his two meditation teachers. That’s really kind of a fascinating point in the story for me in that once the prince left the palace and was clear that he wanted to pursue an understanding—and really to overcome suffering, that was his intent—to meet with a meditation teacher who took him to great levels of concentration. So much so that Siddhārtha surpassed him, and he was invited to stay and be the co-teacher in that community. But the prince—now Siddhārtha on his way to becoming a Buddha—was very clear about what his intention was, and so he wasn’t in any way distracted by that invitation. It was like “thank you very much, but on I go.”

And then he met the second meditation teacher who, again, took him to very deep levels of meditation that might have even seemed like (to that teacher, I don’t know) that maybe this was liberation, because the afflictions and things were so suppressed. But Siddhārtha knew this wasn’t the end goal. And so even though, once again, he was invited to stay and co-lead that community—and it could have been a really nice life for him—but that’s not what he chose to do. And so, fortunately for us, he continued on his journey and actually did achieve his ultimate outcome, and that’s how we get to learn this.

But there’s always something, for me, in two parts of that. One is: he was so clear what his goal was that he was not in the least bit distracted by this invitation to do something slightly off the course. Not at all. And the other thing that kind of haunts me is that, after he achieved his awakening, after he saw the nature of reality, he saw that maybe a couple of people might understand what he was talking about, these were the first two people he thought of. And both of them had recently died. So that opportunity to actually learn from him was completely gone.

What is this thing about opportunity? How do we recognize them?

One other story. When I was thinking about moving to the Abbey I interviewed a lot of nuns, trying to get their stories, and how did you decide, and what was meaningful for you…. And so I was talking to one nun who told me her story, but at the end of that she said, “There’s something else you should know. I’ve seen several situations where the person had the right circumstances for ordaining but the window of opportunity closed before they took it. And it never came again.”

This is the other side of opportunity. It’s like, for some people the window is there, but by not taking it when it’s presented, the window closed and it never came again. So that handful of people who were really quite intent on ordination didn’t, because the opportunity passed.

This has made me think—and that story was very meaningful to me…. How do we know, how do we discern what a real opportunity is? What’s the difference between going off to co-lead this community and “Oh well, never mind, I’ll get enlightened in some future life and all the rest of you sentient beings, too bad, I’m busy leading this group now.” The Buddha didn’t do that. And at the same time, I could see how easy it would be to go, “Oh well, the Abbey is there, Venerable Chodron’s there, it’s always going to be there, I’m not quite ready to ordain so maybe someday I’ll go there.” And can see the window close.

I was just thinking about how much our Dharma practice gives us in terms of really discerning what really is an opportunity for us.

You know, first of all—as we were just talking about—holding the precepts clarifies for us where we want to go. Somebody says “I want you to come run my bar.” Or, “I want you to come be the lead singer in this rock and roll band.” [Laughter] Okay, well, I’m not going to go there. That decision is clearly made. So that’s the first level of trying to discern what’s on opportunity.

But then I was thinking, too, you know, the more we spend our time thinking about the meditation on death and impermanence—which really makes us think about what’s important, what do we value, what do we want to have done. It’s an interesting exercise someone proposed once, if I knew I were going to die 1,000 days from today, what do I want to have done in that 1,000 days? Well, that makes things get way narrower. Way more narrow. And then an opportunity comes that fulfills one of those things, no hesitation. [snaps fingers] You do it.

So doing that meditation, amongst its many other benefits, also helps us get clear about what’s important and how to take the opportunities when they come.

And then also I was thinking about the meditations on developing bodhicitta. You know, we get very clear that we want to develop equanimity, we want to develop love and compassion for every single being. We want to do what’s beneficial for larger groups than “me.” Or “me and my best friend.” Or, “me and my little group.” You know, as we begin to expand our awareness and then our commitment to being of benefit to a wider and wider range of people, then I think it also gets clearer what’s an opportunity that’s going to be of benefit to whom. You know, where we can more assess how great the benefit of any particular opportunity would be.

So, the Buddha could look at that wonderful opportunity to co-lead this meditation community and say very clearly “Well, it’s good for these guys but it doesn’t really help all sentient beings. I think I’ll keep going.

Our decisions and our opportunities are maybe not that big right this minute. Although they will be someday. But I was just thinking how important it is to use the Dharma as a way of assessing what we do. And how we make our choices. And when we’ve thought about it, when that window opens we don’t waste time going, “Well, should I or shouldn’t I do that?” Because if the window’s only open this long, and we spend a lot of time thinking that we can put it off [claps hands] then that’s an opportunity we’ve lost for this life.

So it’s kind of practical application Dharma. How we use this thinking to really guide ourselves moment by moment, and to see the opportunities as they arise. Because they come all the time. They come every day. And which ones do we take? Which ones are for the benefit of ourselves and all beings? And which one can we just go, “well, [waves] I must have been a rock singer sometime, but not this life.”

Venerable Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She lives and trains at the Abbey, where she received novice ordination in 2008. She took full ordination at Fo Guang Shan in Taiwan in 2011. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and, occasionally, in other locations as well.

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