Part of a series of teachings given at the Winter Retreat from December 2011 to March 2012 at Sravasti Abbey.
- Setting the motivation for doing retreat
- Using retreat to stop the causes of our own suffering and creating the causes to benefit others
- Contemplating our unsatisfactory situation and its causes as a motivation to practice not only for ourselves, but for others
We start off first with our motivation. That is really the principal thing in the retreat. Motivation is why we are doing this. It is a good thing. I am sure you will ask yourself this during retreat, “Why in the world am I here?” When you ask a question like that you are going to come up with certain specific kinds of answers. They may be true or they may not be true. That is up to you to investigate. But whatever that motivation is we also want to expand it and enlarge upon it. Much of our retreat is about deliberately cultivating a motivation of bodhicitta, not just assuming it, but deliberately cultivating it. We do that by, first of all, just looking at what samsara is—what is the situation that we’re in.
Our situation in samsara
The situation is that we have a body and mind that are under the control of afflictions and karma. We didn’t sit up on some cloud and look down and say, “Oh, I am going to choose this body or that body.” We were completely propelled by things from the past; in this case some good karma, but still we are in samsara and so we took the body that we have. Once we take this body then what happens? The moment after conception, aging starts. It is not like what AARP says that you are only old at 65. We are aging from the moment after we are conceived in our mothers’ womb. We are in the process of aging. As the process of aging goes on, what happens? We get sick. We have all been sick; colds and flu and things, but, as the body gets older and more run down, different kind of sicknesses and dysfunctions appear. Then finally, at some point, the body dies and we die with it. That is something that happens to everybody who is born. They get old and sick and die—and there is no way around it.
When we think about it, is this something that is a great experience that we look forward to? No. Not at all. As it came out in the last session, we are very afraid when our body doesn’t feel well and it is uncomfortable. Aging kind of freaks us out. Can you imagine tomorrow morning, going and looking in the mirror and you look like you are 80 years old? What are you going to think when you look at that 80-year-old face in the mirror? That face doesn’t look anything the way you look now—unless for those of us who are getting close to 80, there might be some. But otherwise, when you are young your face changes so much when it gets old that sometimes people can’t recognize (the change). People who know you in high school can’t recognize when you are old. The body changes that much. How do we feel about being less attractive? No matter what the ads say, no matter what they are trying to sell us, is this reality? We are less attractive, have more physical aches and pains, and we watch our friends get old and die.
This is the situation that is going to happen to us and there is no way around it. The only way we avoid aging is if we die young. And we would rather age, wouldn’t we? But it’s no fun.
We have all gone through different steps with our body—where we can really feel that our body is losing energy and that we are not as young as we used to be. We can’t do the things we used to be able to do. Do you remember that? Those things come and there is no way to reverse them. It doesn’t matter what medical science does, the body is going to fall apart. Are we equipped mentally to handle those changes of what is going to happen with the body? So the body is going to have its own pain, but then the mind is going to have its pain looking at what is happening to the body. Can we accept the aging process gracefully or does it kind of freak us out?
In between all of this, between birth and death, we encounter many unpleasant experiences. Even though we try to avoid them problems come. We try to get what we want and we are not always successful. We know that one very well, don’t we? Work very hard to get what we want—can’t always get it. Sometimes we get it and it turns out not to be very good. Or even if it turns out to be good, we are separated from it.
That is the nature of reality: that things change. As soon as something comes together, it is in the process of disintegrating and falling apart. This is the nature of our lives. We come together with many different people, but we can’t stay together with them always. The relationships end for one reason or another, or they change in very dramatic ways that we didn’t anticipate at the beginning, or maybe we just get tired, or the other person gets tired, or we are separated by war or some kind of external situation that divides us from the people we care about. This is the nature of cyclic existence.
We find some degree of happiness in between, but all that happiness doesn’t last too long. We had a very nice lunch today, how long did that happiness last? Not so long. We have very good conversations with people, how long does that happiness last? We have sexual relationships, how long does that happiness last? I said to my dad one time (because in my family we thank our parents for raising us), “Thank you for being my dad and having me.” He said, “It’s okay, it didn’t take very long.” That’s exactly it, isn’t it? That pleasure doesn’t last very long. And what do you get instead: a screaming child like me. So, if we look at whatever we consider satisfaction and pleasure, it really doesn’t last very long. What we see instead is people having social status and losing it; people having wealth and losing it; having relationships and then them disintegrating. Things are changing all the time. This is not a pessimistic view. This is just the reality of the situation.
The causes of samsara and how to get rid of them
When we realize that reality and we realize it is unsatisfactory, then we seek what causes it. And contrary to how we have grown up, the cause of our confusion and our misery and our problems is not external people. It’s not the government, and it’s not the terrorists, and it’s not what we usually blame. But why are we in this situation to start with? Why did we take this body and this mind that are under the control of afflictions and karma? Why did we take them? It’s because of our afflictions and our karma. If we want to stop this cycle of existence, then we have to stop the karma that causes the rebirth. To do that we have to get rid of the afflictions that create the karma. To get rid of the afflictions we have to root out the ignorance which is the root of all the afflictions.
This is a whole lifetime of practice. It’s not just a hobby that we do for a little while in- between going to the discotheque and having family dinners and Christmas trees. It is real serious business because this whole cyclic of existence will continue on and on and on unless we end it. We’re not guaranteed that it’s always going to be in the good state that we have now. It’s very easy to be born as an animal, or a hungry ghost, or a hell-being. You might look at our little kitties and say, “Oh, they are so cute,” and, “They don’t have any fears and concerns and all they do is sleep all day.” But they are only alive for a short period of time. Their consciousness is completely trapped in what they can do with that body and brain. No chance to practice the Dharma. No chance to create any virtue. After living just a few years they die and they go onto another rebirth. So we can’t say that being a kitty at the Abbey is going to be continuous bliss because we just are stuck in cyclic existence. She is showing us that.
There is an alternative, and that alternative is what we call nirvana or liberation—or in the terms of Mahayana practitioners full enlightenment. It’s breaking out of this cycle of existence and having real freedom. We usually think freedom means, “I can go where I want to, and do what I want to, and nobody can tell me what to do.” Actually, what is it that tells us what to do? It is our self-centered mind, our attachment, our anger, our pride, and our jealousy – they tell us what to do all the time. We aren’t really free from those things even though we may have political freedom.
For real freedom our mind has to be free of these mental afflictions. It’s possible to eliminate them because they are based on ignorance—and ignorance is an erroneous consciousness. In other words, ignorance apprehends things in the exact opposite way from how they actually exist. Because ignorance is erroneous, once we see things how they do exist (and this is the direct counterforce to ignorance), then how ignorance says things exist, wisdom says they do not exist that way. Wisdom says that they exist in the opposite way. It’s possible by cultivating wisdom to totally overpower ignorance. That’s what we want to do, and it is something possible to do.
In this particular life we have been fortunate to be born at a time when the historic Buddha has lived, when the lineage of those teachings still exist, and where it is possible to meet teachers who can give us instructions on the path. We’re fortunate in that we have all the conditions here to be able to practice. It’s very hard to get all these different conditions together so that we can really do something to get ourselves out of cyclic existence. Yet we have that opportunity right now.
We completely depend on other sentient beings
Just to focus on getting ourselves out of cyclic existence doesn’t really cut it, because we are in a world where we are totally dependent on other living beings. We don’t grow our own food. Most of us didn’t cook our lunch today—maybe a couple of people did. We didn’t make our own clothes, or make the fabric, or grow the cotton, or get the wool, out of which our clothes are made. Everything we know comes due to the kindness of our teachers and all the people who taught us when we were little. If we look at every quality we have, every ability we have—they actually come due to the kindness of other living beings. We cannot survive on this planet without the care, and affection, and efforts, and knowledge of other living beings. We are totally dependent.
To just say, “Look folks, I am going for my own enlightenment. Good luck. I have compassion for you. Good luck but I am getting out of here. Ciao.” That doesn’t really cut it, does it? When you think of the amount of kindness that we have received from beginningless time from other living beings, then to just care about our own spiritual practice and our own liberation seems really quite ungrateful. It is not a thing of feeling guilty like, “Oh! I should be more grateful.” But actually when we spend time thinking of how dependent we are on others, and how everything we are, have, and do depends on others, then naturally this mind grows that appreciates other sentient beings. We see them in beauty and want to return their kindness to them.
Eventually we see that the best way to return the kindness is by progressing on the path to full awakening. As a fully awakened being we will be able to benefit others so much better than we can benefit them now. Now we try to benefit others and what happens? The idea comes in our minds, “Oh, I want to give a donation to this charity.” Immediately afterwards there is the mind that says, “Well, don’t give that much. Give less because if you give too much away you won’t have it.” You know that kind of mind that comes right after the thought to be generous comes? Or the thought to keep good ethical conduct, “Oh yes, I’m not going to lie.” And then next thing we know what’s happening? There are some kind of twisted words coming out of our mouth. Yes, just through the force of habit.
Creating the motivation for our own enlightenment to benefit others
It is going to take some time, energy, and effort. We really have to work at it. But we can eliminate these things and stop ourselves from harming others and stop ourselves from creating the causes for our own suffering. That is what we want to do here at the retreat. We want to stop the causes of our own suffering and create the causes to be able to really benefit others instead of being so limited.
Sometimes we may see somebody who is in a huge predicament, and we want to help them but we have no idea how to help. Like a relative or somebody may have a substance abuse problem and you are completely stuck in terms of how to help them. We don’t have the wisdom that knows how to help, or the skilful means that know how to do it. Or sometimes, we see somebody having a problem and our mind goes, “Yes, they have a problem but they deserve it.” We don’t have the compassion that is necessary to really help somebody. We talk, especially during Christmas like now, “Oh, may everybody live in peace and may everybody live in harmony together … blah blah blah blah blah.” But then you go to your family dinners and what happens? People are bickering and talking behind each other’s back and we join in.
We see that we have one side of us that really wants to benefit others, but we also have another side that completely makes problems for us and sabotages ourselves. In the retreat we want to meditate deeply to make our love, compassion, and the causes to be of benefit to others strong. Meditate to lessen the force of the opposing forces that get in our way of being as much benefit as we would like to be. We are doing all of this for the long term purpose of our own enlightenment—so that we will have the qualities to best be able to benefit others.
We can certainly do some benefit now, but also our benefit is limited, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to manifest many different bodies to go out and help all the different people who need help at any particular time? Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you need to do according to that person’s way of thinking and their karma to be of benefit to them? Wouldn’t it be nice to have absolutely no hesitation on our own part when love and compassion comes up? We would just go with the love and compassion without hesitation or fear. That would be really nice, wouldn’t it?
This is what we are trying to do in our practice so that we can really be of greater and greater benefit to ourselves and to other living beings as well. It’s with that motivation that we do the retreat. With that motivation that we practice kindness and compassion with each other and really live together as a community—help and support each other.
Being grateful for the opportunity of doing this retreat
Whether you are doing the six-session retreat or the Vajrasattva retreat, we are all doing purification. We are all doing creation of merit. We are all trying to increase our wisdom, love, compassion, and renunciation. We use the same motivation for all of these practices. Really feel so fortunate to have this opportunity to spend a month or three months doing this. Think about it. In your life before have you ever taken a month out and spent it totally only on spiritual practice? When are you going to get this opportunity again to do one month, let alone three months of retreat? When are you going to do it again? This is a very precious opportunity. It’s very important to take advantage of it and have a strong motivation of 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.