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Verse 67: The wise and skilled teacher

Verse 67: The wise and skilled teacher

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • The importance of developing internal wisdom
  • Integrating Dharma into our lives
  • Knowing how to work with our mind but seeking help from an external teacher when we need to

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 67 (download)

Who is the wise and skilled teacher guiding one away from places of negativity?
The force of mental attentiveness awake to the realities of the moment.

They often talk about the external spiritual mentor and the internal spiritual mentor. The external one is the person who teaches us and guides us and leads us on the path. But the internal spiritual mentor is the one that we have to develop. Ultimately it is the dharmakaya of the enlightened mind. But on our level our internal spiritual mentor, where we start out, he’s talking about mental attentiveness.

What does this mental attentiveness do? It is awake to the realities of the moment. It’s not just paying attention to what’s happening here and now (like we hear, sometimes, “be in the moment, pay attention”). It’s not just, “oh there are bowls over there and there are grapes over there….” That kind of attention. It’s the attention of what’s going on in my mind? What kind of tendencies are arising in my mind right now? How do those tendencies relate with the external environment? How am I perceiving the external environment? Is it realistic? Is it not realistic? Are the ways that I’m responding to it, are they realistic, are they beneficial? Where are my responses coming from? Are they coming just from old habits, or are they coming from reasoned thought? Are they coming from a kind heart? Are they coming from resentment?

Why do they call this—at the basic level, our level, mental attentiveness—why do they call this a wise and skilled teacher? It’s because we’re trying to become a doctor to our own mind and develop these abilities in our own mind. And in doing so, then we can lead ourselves…. “Guide one away from the places of negativity.” We can guide ourselves away from the places of negativity.

If we don’t have this kind of internal mental attention to what’s going on inside of us, as well as to the Dharma—in other words, if we haven’t integrated the Dharma in our mind—then every time we face a situation we kind of freeze and think, “What do I do?” And so sometimes you meet people who every time they encounter a new situation the first thing is they get flabbergasted and they say, “What do I do?” Or, “I’m doing it wrong. Tell me what to do.” They want somebody outside to tell them what to do. What we’re trying to do on the path is cultivate a mental attentiveness that can assess things ourselves.

Now, having said that, there are times when our mental attentiveness is not very good and we do need to seek help from people who know more than we do. So we tend to be extremists. Either we’re like children and we just, every time something happens, “What do I do, where do I go, what do I say? Am I doing it right?” Or we go to the other extreme of, “Okay, I’m going to be my own teacher, so don’t tell me what to do. I’m going to make up my own mind according to what my ego thinks.” That’s not so smart either.

This mental attentiveness has to be a mind that is integrated with the Dharma, a mind that has wisdom in it, that can look at the situation and step back and say, “What’s going on in me and where’s that coming from? Is it coming from a deluded place, is it coming from a realistic place? What is my motivation here? What is the situation exactly?” Because sometimes in a situation we pick out one element and then we build a story about the whole thing. Or we just pick out one word and then our mind goes crazy about that one word and then we create a whole reality about it, which again isn’t very helpful. So this is where the mental attentiveness comes in and makes us pause and kind of be aware of what’s really going on.

Let me see if I can give an example. I was thinking the other day that as we age…. Aging, sickness and death, they’re coming. You’re healthy now but you know sickness is coming. Unless you die first, you’re going to get sick. Or, unless you die first, you’re going to face old age. But then, how we respond when we hear a word. Like when we hear the words “old age.” Or “dementia.” Dementia’s a good one. We hear the word “dementia.” What happens inside of you when you think of dementia in terms of yourself? [Push it away.] Or you hear the words “heart disease” in terms of yourself. You freeze. And yet, that’s something that’s coming, isn’t it? We’re actually quite fortunate if we haven’t had it beforehand, because some people start having these things when they’re really young. If we’ve gotten as far as we have without a lot of this, we’re quite fortunate. They’re coming. But why does my mind react that way? Dementia. Like, [gasp] You know? Terror. Or “heart disease.” Cancer. Kidney disease. Any of these words. Terror comes in the mind. And it’s only a word.

I was thinking about this, thinking, “Wow, I hear a word, and then the mind goes into terror/freak-out mode and creates a whole image of pain and suffering and disaster because of one word.” I was thinking, “Isn’t that interesting?” Whereas if you really look…. Like dementia. There are lots of kinds of dementia. Heart disease. There are lots of different kinds. There are lots of different ways things can unfold. There are lots of different ways to respond to these things.

I remember one of my friends whose mother had very severe dementia, he said she still had the same personality. She was always going around taking care of all of the other people in the old-age unit making sure they were okay. And as soon as he brought her something she went around and gave everybody a piece of it. And I thought, “Wow, If I’m going to be demented I would like to be demented in that way.” You know? I mean, I’d like to be a nice person, even if I’m out of it. I would like to be a nice caring, loving person. So how am I going to get that way? Well, it’s by acting like that now. So train the mind now, then you develop that habit, that when you get dementia you’re still acting with that same kind of motivation, because it’s so automatic. And if that’s your mental state…. I mean, nobody wants dementia. But if you’re stuck with it, that’s not a bad way to be stuck with it, is it?

Or same thing with heart disease. You hear “heart disease,” and [gasp]: “Now I can’t do this, I can’t do that, and I can’t do this, and I have to eat this, and I can’t eat that.” But then you think, well, heart disease can be a good wake-up call. It can enable you to open your heart—your other kind of heart—to have more compassion for other people. It can help you slow down and think about what’s important in life and set priorities. To see with some of these things, if you look at them in a Dharma way then you can transform them into something that is useful for your Dharma practice. Because they talk about transforming everything into the path. So, like I said, some day or another these things are going to happen to us, so to practice now, learning how to transform them.

This mental attentiveness is attentive to what’s going on inside of us, but it’s also integrated with the Dharma so that it can see the situation in an accurate way and then decide what Dharma approach to use in our own mind to greet the situation. And then that leads us away from negativity.

My point in all of this was that we have to not only learn the Dharma from an external teacher, we have to integrate the Dharma in our own minds. And to know when do we need to ask advice from somebody else, and when do we need to figure it out ourselves? Or when do we need to at least think about it first before we ask about it? And when do we need to ask about it sooner? You know? To try and see some of these things.

And I say this because I remember Lama Yeshe, so many people would look at him and, “Lama Yeshe is so great.” “Lama, should I go here, should I go there, should I do this, should I do that?” And I remember him standing there saying, “Next time they’re going to ask me where they should pee.” You know? “Use your own wisdom, dear!”

Learn how to have our own wisdom in situations. And similarly, sometimes people will make a comment to us, and immediately we go into doubt. There was a situation recently, somebody’s been practicing in a certain way, one person kind of asked about the practice, and didn’t really criticize it but gave that person the feeling that well, maybe she should be doing something different. And initially she went into doubt. It’s like, “Oh, I must be doing something wrong, maybe I should do more things like this other person said,” and etc. And it was like, wait. Slow down. Is that what that person really meant? And think about it yourself. What do you think about how you’re practice is going? Do you think it’s working well or not working well? Instead of instantaneously…. Because sometimes we’re like that. People say a small thing and we just doubt ourselves up, down, and across, without really thinking about, “Well what was that person really meaning?” And, “Do I need to doubt myself? Maybe what I’m doing is perfectly all right.” Because if every time somebody says something to us that is expressing their own opinion and it isn’t exactly our opinion or our way of doing things, then boy, we’re going to be in the state of doubt most of our lives. Because everybody has different opinions. So we have to develop our own wisdom. And start with figuring out where to pee, and then go on from there. [Laughter] Develop your own wisdom.

[In response to audience] Okay, so telling the story how in the early days of the Abbey when we were trying to figure out what kind of generator to get, and she was emailing me “this one, or that one, or the other one, or the third one” as if I was the expert on generators. You know? I can spell the word, and that’s about it. I don’t know anything about generators. They have something to do with electricity and you want one when the lights go out. That’s what I know. And she knew much more than I did. So I had to say, you know, you decide because you’re the one who knows. And don’t doubt yourself when you’ve done the research and you have the information. And if you make the wrong choice, I’ll blame you later, but never mind. [Laughter] Yes, exactly, that’s why you have to have your internal wisdom.

[In response to audience] That’s a good comment, that the more you internalize the Dharma the more you trust your external teacher. And that works because the more you trust the Dharma and you integrate it into your own mind, the more you see it’s true and it works. So then you see, okay, then the person who’s teaching this to me is teaching me what’s true and what works. And so your trust in that person deepens because they’re teaching you what the Buddha taught, and it works.

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.