The first noble truth: Our situation in samsara
The first noble truth: Our situation in samsara
Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.
- Looking at the unsatisfactory nature of our present situation
- Real happiness is not found in external objects
- The three types of dukkha
- Any rebirth in cyclic existence is unsatisfactory, even rebirth in the god realms
- Why the Buddha taught about the unsatisfactoriness of cyclic existence
Easy Path 23: The first noble truth (download)
Venerable Thubten Jigme: Good evening everybody and good morning to those in Singapore. Tonight, I’m going to lead the meditation, and then Venerable will do the teaching. She’s got a bit of a cold, so she wants to save her voice for the teaching.
We will start as we always do with the meditation first, so settle yourself in a comfortable position. Check your posture. We use our spine as our firm base, and our sitbones. Lower our eyes. Right hand in the left, thumbs touching. You can do a body scan to release any tension, allowing the muscles of the body to relax with each out-breath. Relaxation is vital, so relax deliberately as you exhale and set your body completely at ease. Surrender all excess muscular tension to gravity. Release tightness in the shoulders, the arms, the back muscles, the belly. Soften the muscles of the face, the jaw, and the mouth. Open the forehead, particularly between the eyebrows, and relax all the muscles around the eyes.
Now settle the breath in its natural rhythm, releasing all control. Let the body breathe itself without any influence of desires, expectations, or preference. Now imagine in the space in front of you, Shakyamuni Buddha sitting on a multi-colored lotus moon sun disk. This whole visualization is made of light. Not a statue or painting, but a living being made of light, much like a hologram. Have the feeling that you’re in the presence of the Buddha.
The color of his body is pure gold. The right hand touches the earth and the left, in meditation posture, holds an alms bowl full of nectar. He wears the three saffron-colored monastic robes. His body, made of pure light and adorned with the signs and marks of a Buddha, emanates a flood of light in all directions. Sitting in vajra posture, he’s surrounded by your direct and indirect spiritual mentors, and by deities, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, heroes, heroines—an assembly of arya Dharma protectors. You have the feeling you are sitting in the presence of a huge assembly of arya beings and fully awakened Buddhas, and that they are all looking at you with kindness, compassion, and contentment. In turn, at the thought of their compassion and virtue, a feeling of great faith and confidence and trust in these holy beings arises in you. You get that feeling in your heart. Visualize yourself surrounded by all sentient beings as vast as space, and who, just like you, want to be happy, not wanting to have problems. As we recite the prayers, think that you’re leading all these sentient beings around you, generating the feelings and thoughts expressed in these verses.
Begin with refuge and bodhicitta prayers. (Recitation of prayers)
The fact that I and all other sentient beings have been born in samsara and they’re endlessly subject to intense dukkha or unsatisfactory conditions is due to our having failed to understand that cyclic existence is by nature only unsatisfactory and to generate a strong wish to be free of it. Guru Buddha, please inspire me and all sentient beings, so that once we’ve understood that cyclic existence is by nature only unsatisfactory, we will have the strong wish to be free of it.
Then continue to contemplate,
Although by correctly practicing the ethics of abstention from the ten nonvirtues, I may obtain a happy rebirth and avoid the misery of a bad rebirth, unless I attain a state of liberation that eradicates all dukkha, I will never know a moment of true happiness. If I do not reach liberation and eradicate dukkha, unsatisfactory conditions definitively, no matter what kind of happy rebirth I may have, once the good karma that propelled it is exhausted, I will fall into one of the three lower rebirths and be subjected to various kinds of suffering for extremely long periods of time.
Once appropriated aggregates have been produced [appropriated aggregates are aggregates taken under the force of ignorance, afflictions, and karma], I cannot avoid what is by nature duhkha. This is evident for the three lower realms. Having attained human appropriated aggregates, I must experience the duhkha of hunger and thirst, having to seek my livelihood, the loss of dear friends, meeting inimical enemies, not getting what I want despite seeking it, unwanted events occurring, birth, ageing, sickness, death, and the like. Having attained a demigod’s appropriated aggregates, I have to experience the mental torment of jealousy that cannot bear the thought of the gods’ wealth, which in turn leads to being subjected to physical suffering. Having attained the appropriated aggregates of a desire realm god, I suffer having my limbs chopped off, my body cut up and being killed while doing battle with demigods. I suffer from being unwillingly afflicted with the signs of my impending death and knowing that I will lose my divine wealth and be subjected to the torments of the lower realms. Even if I attain the appropriated aggregates of the two kinds of gods of the higher realms, I will not have gained the freedom to stay. Consequently when the good karma that propelled those lives is exhausted, I will experience the endless suffering of the lower realms. In brief, appropriated aggregates are the bases for birth, ageing, illness, death, and the like in this life, and lead to manifest suffering and to the duhkha of change both in the present life and in future lives. When appropriated aggregates arise, their production is by nature a composition conditioned by karma and afflictions. For that reason, by all means may I attain GuruBuddhahood that frees me from saṃsāra, which by nature consists of appropriated aggregates! Guru-deity, please inspire me to be able to do so.
He’s on your head and in front of you, and this light and nectar streams from his body into you through the crown of your head.
It absorbs into your body and mind, completely permeating them with light. Similarly, think that all the sentient beings seated around you, who also have the Buddha on the crowns of their heads, that light and nectar stream from those Buddhas into all those sentient beings, purifying all their negativities and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time.
Purification’s happening for yourself and for all others.
It especially purifies illness, interferences, negativities, obscurations that interfere with your attaining buddhahood, obscurations that interfere with your being free of cyclic existence obscurations which keep you clinging to the body and mind taken under the influence of ignorance, afflictions, and karma.”
“Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. Then think that all your good qualities, lifespan, merit and so forth expand and increase.
Think about all the things you don’t like about yourself, things that interfere with your happiness and with acting the way that you want to act, that all those things are purified and gone and that all your good qualities have grown and are fully present in you. Think in particular that a superior realization allowing you to attain the state of a Buddha that frees you from cyclic existence, which by nature consists of the appropriated aggregates, that this kind of state has arisen in your mindstream and the mindstream of others.
Hello everybody from a distance. I’m sorry I was gone for three weeks. Well, I’m not sorry I was gone. I was happy that I was gone, but I was sorry that I wasn’t able to teach for those three weeks. I’m back today, but my voice is not so good. We’ll see what happens.
We’re at the point in the stages of the path where we’re talking about the practice of the intermediate stage being. This is somebody who has a feeling for having a precious human life, who doesn’t want to live being distracted by running around like a chicken without its head, looking only for the happiness of this life, but somebody who has taken refuge in the Three Jewels, who has respect for karma and its effects. In other words, somebody who sees that their actions bring effects, that they themselves as well as other people experience and that their actions have an ethical dimension. In other words, that we don’t just do things and there’s no result afterward. The result only comes immediately afterwards.
Somebody who wants to have a good rebirth in the future, but now is beginning to question the whole idea of being in samsara altogether. What samsara is, the real definition, is a body and mind taken under the influence of ignorance, afflictions, and karma. This thing, what we live with every day, the kind of life that we’re so attached to, that we think is so wonderful. It’s somebody who’s beginning to question that whole thing. So really looking closely, what does it mean to take a body? Because most of us have never really thought much about that. It’s like, “I have a body. This is the way things are. I’m born into this world, and I have to deal with it.” But did you ever wonder why you have a body? Or why you were born you and not born somebody else? We always say, when things happen, we don’t like, “Why me?” But we never say it when good things happen, “Why me?” Do we ever ask, “Why was I born to start with? My mom and dad, but you know, why was I born? What does it mean to be alive? What’s going to happen after I die? What’s the purpose of my life?”
These are really quite important questions, but most people in society are totally distracted by sense objects. They’re totally geared outwards towards what’s in the environment and thinking that happiness exists out there, so, “I have to have all the things that I think are going to make me happy and I have to get rid of all the things that I think are going to make me unhappy.” From morning until night, we’re always interacting with the environment, trying to make things externally happy for us, the way we want them to be. But we never succeed. If we had succeeded so far, we wouldn’t be here tonight. We would be off enjoying the perfect situation that we finally attained.
We’re looking deeper. What does all this mean? Where is it going? Trying to make the external world and the people in it be what we want them to be, and we haven’t succeeded so far, and the Republicans haven’t succeeded so far, and the Democrats haven’t succeeded so far, and the Independents haven’t succeeded so far, and thank goodness, the Tea Party hasn’t succeeded so far, we may begin to wonder, do you know anybody who’s succeeded in making the external environment and the people in it exactly what they want it to be so that they’ll be happy. Do you know anybody who never has any problems, no suffering whatsoever, no confusion? When I look, I’ve known a lot of people over the years, my teachers maybe. But still, there’s aging, sickness, and death. To question, “what’s this about, and what’s really the meaning and purpose in my life”?
The part that I was just reading here was getting us to think about different realms of rebirth in cyclic existence where we could be reborn, and to see that from top to bottom, whatever kind of situation we could be born into cyclic existence, none of them are hunky dory. Each of them has their own kind of misery attached. The idea is, by really thinking about that, seeing that wanting to be reborn in cyclic existence is really a setup for misery. It’s a fruitless attempt to be happy because if cyclic existence, our body, and mind comes about through ignorance, mental afflictions, and polluted karma, then it comes about through things that are totally undesirable. Nobody wants ignorance, mental afflictions, polluted karma. If things are like that, but they’re the causes, you’re not going to have a good result coming out of it.
Thinking about that, then we start to ask ourselves, “Well maybe there’s an alternative form of existence besides being born again and again and again.” This is where we start to think about liberation and the path to liberation. We become interested in the three higher trainings, the noble eightfold path, all these things that can lead us out of the present situation we’re in.
When we understand all this, then we know why we’re meditating. It’s very important to know why we’re meditating. We do a lot of things in life that we never really ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” Until we get into a big mess, and then we go, “Why in the world did I do that? What in the world was I thinking about?” The Buddha’s continually asking us to look at our motivations, why we do things. Similarly with meditation. Why do we meditate? What are we trying to get out of meditation? Are we just trying to be a little more peaceful and calm in this life. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s fine. Everybody wants to be more peaceful and calm. That’s fine. But it’s also limited because we get the results according to how we motivate, so if we seek more peace and contentment this life through meditation, we can get that. But the meditation won’t become a cause for our freedom from cyclic existence unless we really understand what cyclic existence is and what its causes are and how meditation plays a role in eliminating the causes of cyclic existence. We have to understand all of that for our meditation to become a cause for actual liberation, for nirvana.
That’s why doing these kinds of studies is really important. It’s not just simply about sitting down and feeling calm. If we want liberation, if we want more peace in this life, sitting down and doing whatever kind of meditation is fine, but if we’re seeking liberation from this cycle of existence, then we really have to understand what it is and where meditation fits in.
I’m looking at the kitty who’s climbing higher and higher, thinking that somewhere there will be ultimate happiness. It’s not on that counter. It’s not on that shelf. Let’s try a higher shelf. That’s kind of like us, isn’t it? “I have one kind of happiness, but maybe I can do something that’s going to be better.” Whatever we do, whatever profession we have or skill we have or artistic or musical ability, “If only I could be better then I’ll be really happy.” Like her climbing the shelves, we start climbing things. She got to the top, and there’s no ultimate happiness there, so now she’s down on the lower shelf. That’s kind of like us. We get our good rebirths and then kerplunk afterwards.
Let’s look a little bit more in depth about some of the requests that I was reading today as we were meditating. The appropriated aggregates, that means our body and mind. There’re five aggregates. The body is the first one, and that’s the form aggregate. Then we have four mental aggregates: feelings, which refer to pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feelings; discriminations, being able to identify and recognize things; what we call volitional formations or conditioned factors, that’s a grab bag for all the various attitudes, views, emotions that we have, everything except feelings and discriminations; and then primary consciousness is the six consciousnesses that see the six basic kinds of objects, so visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and then the mental consciousness.
Once these five aggregates have arisen, and they arise under the influence of ignorance, which misapprehends how things exist, mental afflictions such as attachment, anger, pride, jealousy, doubt, things like that, and polluted karma, meaning the actions that we’ve created under the influence of ignorance. Once we have those kinds of aggregates, for example, the body and mind that we have right now, then we can’t avoid what is, by nature, unsatisfactory. We look at just the body itself, the body, what’s the story with the body? It gets born. It gets old. It gets sick and it dies. And there’s really no other choice. I know Walt Disney believed in cryogenics and froze his body so that he can be resuscitated sometime in the future. I don’t really believe that’s going to work.
Science doesn’t know what to do with this kind of situation because the body, by nature, is changing. We can’t fix it in a youthful, heathy state. It’s changing and getting older all the time. It doesn’t matter how much you dye your hair, how many facelifts you’ve had, how much you go to the gym, the body is still aging. If we look at our mind too, our mind isn’t perfectly peaceful and happy and content, is it? We suffer from anger. We suffer from jealousy. We suffer from guilt or shame, from anxiety, from lack of confidence, don’t we? These are mental states we all have. No sense in pretending we don’t have them when we all have them. They’re there and you know, why are they there? Because we took a body and mind that’s under the influence of ignorance. When there’s ignorance, there’s going to be all these disturbing emotions and views and attitudes that really make us quite unhappy regardless of what’s happening in the external world. We’ve all had the experience, we could be in a very beautiful environment and inside, be totally miserable. Have you ever had that happen? Or you’re with this fantastic person, and you’re still totally miserable. Why? It’s the way we’re thinking, the emotions in our mind. And we don’t really have much control over our mind, do we? All you have to do is sit down at the beginning and watch your breath for two minutes, and you realize, “I have no control over my mind whatsoever.” It’s thinking this. It’s thinking that. It goes up. It goes down. My teacher said we’re like emotional yoyos. Up and down and up and down. It’s true, isn’t it? Depending on what we encounter or who we’re with. “Up. Oh, I’m elevated. This is fantastic. The best thing.” Then a slight change in the situation. “Oh, what am I doing here? This is horrible.” Then up, “These people are great. Fantastic. I’m so happy with them.” Then they do something else. “Oh, I can’t stand these people.” Same person. “Oh, they’re wonderful.” “Oh, they’re terrible.” “Oh, this environment is great.” “Oh, I can’t wait to get out of here.” It’s true, isn’t it like that? Our minds are like that. Let’s not try and pretend otherwise.
Once we have a body and mind like this, it’s a setup for being miserable. Being miserable doesn’t necessarily mean our stomach hurts all the time. It’s not necessarily that kind of misery. It can be mental misery. It can just be the situation itself of not having actual freedom in our lives. In America we think we’re so free. “I can go here. I can go there. I can do this. I can do that.” But that’s not real freedom because usually we do all those things because we’re attached, and we’re seeking something better than what we have. We’re not really free. We’re controlled by our attachment. We’re controlled by our dissatisfaction. “I don’t like this. Let’s go over there. Oh, I don’t like that. Let’s go over here.”
They give the analogy in monasteries that it’s like a dog who’s lying in one place and scratching its fleas, and it’s miserable, so many fleas. It gets up and goes over to the other side of the courtyard because there won’t be any fleas there it thinks. What do you say about that? Is that a good strategy? The fleas come with the dog, so everywhere the dog goes, the fleas go too. Everywhere we go, our ignorance, attachment, anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, self-judgement, shame, remorse, self-hatred. You know the whole thing, selfishness. All these disturbing emotions, they just come along with us, like fleas, wherever we go. If the dog can get rid of its fleas, then it has to get some flea medicine that works. It’s the same way/ If we’re going to get rid of these fleas in our mind, we need to get some good Dharma medicine and then take it and apply it and learn how to think differently. What we’re thinking is not a given, and our emotions are not a given. We can change these kinds of things. Right now, they’re conditioned by ignorance, by selfishness. If it’s possible to get rid of the ignorance, it’s possible to get rid of the self-preoccupation also. If we do, then all these other kinds of emotional fleas, these disturbing emotions, then they have nothing to stand on, and we can finally attain actual happiness.
The verse here talked about the different realms, what they experience, to show us, as long as we’re born under the influence of ignorance, of mental afflictions and polluted karma, there’s no real happiness. “Even if I’m a human being, we experience the misery of hunger and thirst and the misery of having to seek our livelihood”. You have to really work very hard to stay alive. It takes an incredible amount of work to stay alive. We have to feed ourselves. We have to have a job, do something to earn the money to feed ourselves. We have to clothe ourselves. We have to have medicine. We need to have houses. When you think about it, it takes a lot of energy to keep ourselves alive as a human being. A lot of what we have to do to do that isn’t necessarily pleasant. Now we live in the kind of economy where we can hire people to do many things, but then we have to work at a job to get the money to do that. Then you may or may not like your job. I wonder how many people really like their job?
We experience the loss of dear friends, don’t we? Sometimes friends and relatives, people die. You know, we’re all going to die so, in a relationship, anything that comes together, by nature, things are going to have to separate. We separate from the people that we care about, either because they die, or we die, or something happens in the relationship. We both move in different directions, either figuratively or literally, so we don’t live near each other anymore. Relationships are in constant flux. Families are together, and then families break apart. This is the nature of cyclic existence that we can’t always be with the people that we care about. Even if we were 24/7 with the people we care about, do you think you would be always happy being with those people? Think about somebody you really like and imagine you’re with them all day and all night for a week nonstop. Are you going to continue to be really happy for that week, nonstop with the same person? No moment by yourself. No moment doing anything else. What do you think? I think after a while, I would go crazy. Like, “I need some space.”
We meet enemies or situations we don’t like. It’s very strange. There’re things that we really want, and we can’t always get what we want, even though we try very hard. The things that we don’t want, they come automatically. We don’t have to do anything to get them. Kind of strange, isn’t it? We work very hard to get what we want; we never succeed in getting everything. What we don’t want, it just comes. Bad moods, they just come. People criticizing us, it just comes. Even though we don’t want it. Then sometimes we do get what we want, but then we have to separate from it. We get it for a while, and then impermanence strikes, and we’re separate from it. Or sometimes we get what we want, and we’re disappointed because it’s not as good as we thought it was going to be. You work really, really hard to get something you really, really want, and you get it, and now what? Certainly, with material possessions that happens. We really want different material possessions, we get them, do they fulfil us? No. You want a certain kind of job or a promotion, you get it, does it fulfil you? No. You want to have a certain kind of relationship, you get it, then what? Relationship problems. This is the effect of ignorance and afflictions and karma.
“As human beings, we also have unwanted things in our life. Specifically, like birth, aging, sickness, and death”. Yippee. [laughter] It’s very strange. When there’s birth. We think birth is wonderful. “Oh, there’s a baby that’s born.” In one way, it’s wonderful, but in another way, as soon as you’re born, unless you die in the next moment, there’s no other alternative but to get sick and age and eventually die. When they do death certificates, what’s the cause of death – cancer, kidney disease, whatever. They should write birth because birth is the cause of death. Once we’re born, there’s no other alternative. We do all these things to try and ignore the fact that we’re going die, and none of them work to prevent death.
In my family, you weren’t supposed to talk about death because if you did, it might happen. Meaning if you didn’t talk about death, then it won’t happen. But you know what it happened anyway, even though we didn’t talk about it. I think what’s worse about not talking about it is that then there’s no way to make preparations. We need to make preparations on a spiritual level, on a relationship level, on a material level. If we make preparations, then when we die, it’s not going to be a big deal. If we don’t make preparations, then all of a sudden, it’s like having a cat bite your toes when you’re not expecting it. [laughter] You go, “What in the world is that?” (Speaking to kitty) “Yes, hello there, sweetie. Where did you go?” Oh, she’s over there. For the people who are listening, we have a new kitty. Our two first kitties are Maitri, or love, Karuna, or compassion. Guess what the next one is? Mudita for joy. That was Mudita, scratching her fleas, but she’s not supposed to have any. We already have the name of the next kitty, which is Upekkha. But hasn’t arrived. This one just arrived at our doorstep. She came, and she said, “I want to live here. Let me in.” We let her in. Then she bites your toes. [laughter]
Birth. We usually think birth is such a splendid thing, but they don’t call it labour for no reason. Labour is very, very hard work, and it’s very painful not only for the mother, but also for the child. We can’t remember our birth, but if we could, they say it’s not so pleasant. You’re getting squeezed because you’re coming out through the birth canal, and it’s kind of narrow. You come out, and it’s a different temperature and a different environment, and the first thing they do is turn you upside down and whack you on the bottom, and then put drops in your eyes, and then put you in a blanket, but that feels very rough compared to what it was like in the womb. Then, as you live, you get sick. We’ve all gotten sick before, and if we live so long, we’re going to get even sicker in the future because that’s the nature of the body. Especially as the body ages, we get more prone to illness. Then there’s aging. I mean sickness nobody likes. Aging, especially in our culture, I think aging is really difficult because we really accentuate youth. But nobody is getting younger. We’re all supposed to look young and attractive, but nobody’s getting younger and more attractive. Everybody’s getting older and uglier. When you look at pictures of people when they’re young, they’re quite attractive, aren’t they? Then you look at them as they get older, not so attractive. [audience comment – inaudible 59.52] I do this. I travel a lot, so I look at people’s faces, and I try and think, you see these elderly people on the flights, and I think, “What did they look like when they were young?” It’s so hard. You look and it’s like, “That person must have been attractive when they were young because anybody who’s young is fairly attractive.” You look at them when they are older, and it’s like, “That one used to look attractive? How did that happen because they certainly aren’t that way now. Of course, on the other hand, I’m naturally 21, until I look in the mirror, and then I go, “Hmm, that doesn’t look like the old pictures of me.” Aging, losing our attractiveness, being more prone to illness, getting weaker, not being able to do what you were able to do before, having health problems. When you’re young, you could do different things. Then, as you get old, due to injuries, or due to just wear and tear, the body can’t do what it used to be able to do.
They talk about in the scriptures just how an old person sits down. When you work with really old people – I’m thinking of my mom and dad, my mom was in her 80’s, my dad in his 90’s. It’s really true, when you go to sit down and you’re old, sitting down is a big process. You have to make sure you are centered above that chair because when you sit down, you go kerplunk, and if you miss the chair, you wind up on the floor which happens sometimes. Then there’s the whole danger of falls and broken bones and everything that entails. Then how people treat elderly people, they treat you as if you don’t know anything. Especially now. “We’re young. We know all about computers. You’re old. You don’t know anything. We’re kind of young and hip and you’re old and over the hill.” It’s true, isn’t it? When I was a teenager, I knew a lot. My parents didn’t know anything. They had lived so long, and they didn’t know anything. I had lived so short. I knew almost everything. Then I aged, and somehow, I got stupider. How did that happen?
Then death. Death, we have to separate from everything, friends, relatives, possessions, even this body, the whole external environment in terms of which we get our identity. All of that disappears. Not something that most people look forward to, but once you’re born, that’s the nature of cyclic existence.
Then even the upper realms, like the demigods. They talk about the demigods and the desire realm gods. Where they live, it’s on this mountain. The desire realm gods live up the mountain. The demigods live down the mountain. The roots of the trees that bear the fruits are in the demigod’s land, but the fruits go over the fence, and they’re in the gods’ lands. They fight over it. They fight over the food. Just like human beings. We fight over food. In future years I think we’ll be fighting over water. We fight over land. We fight over nothing basically. We fight often over just honour. We’re very attached to our reputation. People disrespect us, we’ll go to war.
The god realms, even though they have a lot of sense pleasure, they’re still stuck in these situations of having a lot of warfare, which is no fun at all. Then also the desire realm gods, they have incredible sense pleasure deluxe. Until the week before they die, and then their body starts getting old, and their friends don’t want to be around them anymore because they smell bad, their clothes look ugly, their flower garlands are rotten, they have bad breath and BO. Their friends just don’t want to be with them, and they’re left the last week of their life completely alone after a whole lifetime of being spoiled and pampered by pleasure. They’re left alone, and they’re having visions of what their future lives are going to be, which, because their good karma to be born in these celestial realms is finishing, then some karma to be born in lower realms is going to be ripening, and kerplunk, they get born in another kind of realm. (Speaking to kitty) “Like you, you got born as a kitty.” A kitty is considered a lower rebirth in the sense that they don’t really have much control over their lives. They’re often in a lot of danger. One of our kitties lives outside and is feral and could easily get picked up by an owl or somebody else who wants lunch. This kitty has, in terms of throwing karma, some negative throwing karma ripen because it got a cat rebirth, is sitting here in the room, where Dharma is being taught and can’t understand anything. On the other hand, they have good completing karma because this kitty, she’s only been here a week, and we love her to death. She eats whatever she wants, and she’s even born able to hear the Dharma, which some human beings don’t have that good karma. But she can’t understand anything, (speaking to kitty) “Can you?”
Even if you’re born in the states of the form realm gods or the formless realm gods, sometimes it’s called material and immaterial god realms. These are states of existence that people are born in when they have attained different degrees of samadhi. There can be a lot of bliss in these realms and especially in the immaterial realm, they don’t have a body like this, so they’re free of all of that kind of problem. But their minds are not free of ignorance, afflictions, and polluted karma, so when the karma to be born in those realms gets exhausted, then kerplunk, they still have karma to be born in lower realms in their mindstreams, and that ripens and then there they are. The whole idea is that anywhere we are born in cyclic existence, it’s not going to be satisfactory, so rather than trying to tweak our cyclic existence and make it better, it’s better to aspire for full awakening.
Another way that they talk about the disadvantages of cyclic existence is in terms of the three types of dukkha. The first one is the unsatisfactory condition of pain. That’s physical and mental pain that everybody recognizes. Even our kitty doesn’t like it. That’s a situation nobody likes, everybody recognizes. Then the unsatisfactory condition of change. That things change. We have happiness, and it disappears. Whatever we do, if we do it long enough, it becomes a source of gross pain. We’re hungry, and we start to eat. “Wow, this is good.” If we keep eating, if eating in itself were a cause of happiness, then the more we ate, the happier we’d be. But that’s not what happens. Then the third kind of dukkha of unsatisfactoriness conditions, is just again, having a body and mind under the control of ignorance, afflictions, and karma. They call that pervasive conditioned dukkha because it pervades all the realms. It pervades all of our bodies and minds, and it’s conditioned by ignorance, afflictions, and polluted karma. They say that the dukkha of suffering pertains to unpleasant feelings. The dukkha of change pertains to pleasant feelings and how it disappears. The pervasive, conditioned dukkha pertains to neutral feelings, which again, don’t last because, even when things are going well, we’re always on the very edge of the cliff where some negative karma could ripen at any moment.
In cyclic existence, there’s no actual security. Real security, from a Buddhist viewpoint, involves taming our mind. Real security is creating a mental environment that is free from ignorance and afflictions. If we can create that mental environment, then no matter where we go, we’ll be content, we’ll be satisfied. But as long as we have anger inside of us, we’re going to have external enemies. As long as we have greed inside of us, we’re going to have people who cheat us. As long as we have arrogance inside of us, we’re going to have people who put us down. As long as we have jealously inside of us, there are going to be people who are better than us. But if we can change our mind and root out these mental afflictions, then there’s the possibility that wherever we go and whoever we’re with, we can feel okay because we don’t have all these emotions percolating in our mind, disturbing our mental peace.
From a Buddhist viewpoint, real happiness occurs inside here because it’s impossible to arrange the environment and everybody in it to make it be what we want and to stay that way. It just doesn’t work. Better to change inside, and then when we’ve changed inside, then wherever we go, we can be happy. You see this. I look at the lives of many of my teachers, and they were refugees. They had to leave their own country and leave their families, leave with nothing, with no notice, climbing over the Himalayas. It’s not like they had a few weeks to pack a suitcase and could get in the car. Walked over the Himalayas and had a lot of suffering in their life. When they arrived in India, it was not easy. Yet they’re happy people. Why? Because of the internal transformation. Whereas in this country, you find many people who have everything they could possibly want, and they’re miserable. They don’t feel loved or they themselves are unable to love. Even though they have who knows what.
The reason the Buddha taught all of this, this is the first of the four truths that the noble beings, the arya beings apprehend. The reason the Buddha taught about unsatisfactory conditions and their causes is so that we could really understand the present situation we’re in very thoroughly and so that we want to be free of it. True suffering or true dukkha, the first noble truth – the way to interact with that is to identify it, recognize it, admit it’s there. The true cause, which we’ll get into next weekend, of all these disturbing emotions and karma, the way to relate to that is to eradicate it. True cessation is liberation, nirvana, the state of real freedom. The way to interact with that is to actualize it, to attain it. True paths, which are the way to attain liberation, we interact with those by cultivating them.
The Buddha had to teach us about the disadvantages of cyclic existence so that we would recognize the situation we’re in and want to get out of it. Otherwise, if we don’t recognize the situation for what it is, it’s like a person who was born in prison, and that’s all they know, and they think prison is the only thing they can expect in life because that’s all they’ve ever known. It’s like people who were born in very poor situations or in abusive neighborhoods where there is a lot of violence and abuse, they grow up, that’s all they know, that’s normal. These kids growing up in Sudan and Syria, where there’s perpetual warfare. Or Afghanistan, for goodness’ sake, how many years have they been at war? War is natural. War is what life is about. There’s no thought that it’s possible to live without war. Imagine that. Being raised in that environment, where that’s all you know. You assume what the rest of your life is going to be. If somebody would come along and teach the disadvantages of war, they would go, “Yeah.” Then if you taught them, “And here’s how to stop war and here’s what to do.” They would go, “Yeah. I want to do that.”
The same thing for us. We have to look at our situation, see its disadvantages, and then that inspires us to do something to get out of it. What we have to do is our own internal work. Learn the path and practice it. Since we all have the Buddha nature and the potential to do that and it’s entirely possible to be free of all these kinds of bodies and minds that we have right now. (Speaking to kitty) “And it’s possible to get along with other kitties. Yes.”
We have some time for questions.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:19:10]
VTC: The fourth aggregate? It’s called volitional factors or conditioned factors. It’s kind of the grab bag for everything else, all the other mental factors and different things, karma and so forth, that doesn’t fit in any of the other aggregates.
Audience: Do our emotions fit into that?
VTC: Yes, most of our emotions are right into that fourth aggregate. Good emotions and disturbing emotions.
Audience: Is happiness in samsara [partly inaudible: 1:20:03]
VTC: Is happiness in samsara never really ultimate happiness? Authentic happiness? Even when we’re doing something virtuous, like listening to teachings, and that brings us happiness or going on retreat and that brings us happiness. That is a different kind of happiness. It’s still not authentic happiness in the sense that it’s conditioned and our minds are not yet free of ignorance and afflictions and polluted karma. That is a kind of happiness that is much better than sense pleasure happiness, but because it’s not totally stable, because our minds are not stable, then we can’t call it authentic happiness. We’ve all had the experience too of going on retreat and it’s not like when you’re on retreat, you’re happy 24/7, are you? When you’re on retreat, it’s like, “Oh I’m with my mind again.” But retreat is definitely something good and worthwhile to do and will lead you to states of happiness that are definitely better than going out to the shopping center.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:21:48]
VTC: The question is a personal question. Somebody is saying that somebody is very depressed, but doesn’t acknowledge their depression or recognize it, and so their behaviour in the marriage is causing their partner to be very unhappy, their spouse to be unhappy, so they’re separated, but not yet divorced. And so how can you help? I don’t know. If it’s real serious depression, it’s very, very difficult until a person acknowledges that something’s wrong in their life. It’s difficult for them to seek help. I’ve had many people tell me that in situations they’ve been in, that until they really hit rock bottom and acknowledge to themselves that they’re unhappy, that there’s no real motivation to seek help or to change. That doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless and helpless. It’s just that I cannot give advice on a personal situation when I have no idea of the details of it and do not know the people involved. It would be quite inappropriate for me to give general advice about how to help a person who’s depressed in a marriage when I don’t know the whole situation and what’s going on.
I think in general, being present for people and being a friend to people and keeping the door open is always a good policy. The spouse may have figured they may have had enough, but other people can still be friendly and helpful to that person.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:24:37]
VTC: Examples of how to work with greed. Well, I’ll tell you what I do when my mind gets quite greedy. Greed could be over material possessions. It could be over social status. You could be greedy for anything. Certain kinds of relationships, who knows what? What I do when my mind is really greedy is, I sit there, and I imagine that I get whatever it is that I’m craving and wanting. I get it, and I imagine I get it, and then I imagine having it, and then I say to myself, “Then?” Yes? And it’s like, “Yes, then? I got everything I wanted. Is that going to make me everlastingly, forever happy?” No. What did I have to do to get it? Well, sometimes I do unethical things. Greed can motivate me to do many unethical things to get what I want. Do I feel good about myself when I’m greedy? Do I feel good about myself for what I’ve made other people experience when I’ve acted under the influence of greed? Then I see like, “Hey, you know, it’s not worth being greedy for this because it’s not going to make me ultimately happy, and I’m not going to feel good about myself at the end. I might impress a lot of people but impressing people and getting peoples’ praise and reputation on the outside, that isn’t really going to satisfy whatever it is I’m missing on the inside.” I have to see what it is I’m missing on the inside and try and help myself in that way. Sometimes people can be really greedy from material possessions because they feel if they have a lot of stuff, then other people will respect them. But just because you have a lot of stuff doesn’t mean that other people are going to respect you. Some people get jealous of you, and then they try and sabotage you.
The real problem isn’t the lack of stuff or the lack of praise or the lack of respect. The real problem is “I don’t respect myself.” What do I need to do to respect myself? Can I offer myself some empathy? Can I offer myself some kindness? What qualities do I want to develop in my own heart through Dharma practice so that I will feel more comfortable with myself? If I can develop those qualities and feel better about myself, then I’m not so dependent on other peoples’ praise and approval and respect, and then I don’t need to do backflips, thinking that getting more money and living in a better house will bring me all of that.
Audience: Can we completely root out a mental affliction before we attain enlightenment?
VTC: Can we completely root out a mental affliction before we attain enlightenment? There are different kinds of enlightenment. We talk about an arhat’s enlightenment and a Buddha’s enlightenment. We can root out the afflictions at the time of attaining arhat’s enlightenment, not before. We can root out the afflictions before attaining a Buddha’s enlightenment because for a Buddha’s enlightenment, you have to eliminate not only the afflictions, but also the cognitive obstacles.
Audience: I keep hearing birth as a god or demigod is a fortunate rebirth.
VTC: I keep hearing birth as a god or demigod is a fortunate rebirth, and then along comes me and says, “No.” What’s the story? If you’re thinking of rebirth in samara, being born as a god or a demigod is more pleasurable and has more happiness. If you’re thinking from the viewpoint of wanting to be free of all of samsara, then they are not good rebirths. In fact, it is harder to practice the Dharma in some of those realms, whereas it’s actually easier in the human realm. The reason for that is that, because the god and the demigod realm, especially the god realm, you have so much pleasure, you don’t feel like practicing the Dharma, it’s too pleasurable. Or you have very deep states of samadhi, and you’re zoned out in your samadhi, so you have no interest in having to learn about the nature of reality or generating bodhicitta. You have no renunciation because you love the peace of your samadhi. Actually, for many beings in those realms, it’s more difficult. As a human we have a combination of some happiness and some suffering. It’s enough happiness so that we have the opportunity to practice, and there’s enough suffering to remind us that we need to practice. Whereas in the upper realms you don’t have that suffering, so you forget about the need to practice.
Audience: How do you avoid these kinds of rebirths?
VTC: By praying that your merit ripens in a precious human life. Not just as a human life, but as a precious human life where you have all of the opportunities and conducive conditions to practice the Dharma. Or you dedicate for your merit to ripen so that you’re born in a Pure Land, again for good conditions for Dharma practice. Or even if you develop very deep states of samadhi, at the same time you study about the nature of reality. You meditate on emptiness. You meditate on bodhicitta. You think of the drawbacks of samsara. You make your Dharma practice very complete by meditating on all the different teachings that the Buddha gave instead of just attaining samadhi and getting stuck in that pleasurable state.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:33:08]
VTC: Can you remove one affliction before you become… The way the afflictions are eliminated is you don’t do them one at a time like, “First I eliminate all my greed. Then I eliminate all my anger. Then…” No. There’re different levels of each of the afflictions, and you eliminate one level, then another level, then another, getting to ever more subtle levels. It’s not like you eliminate one affliction and then it never returns because the thing is, as long as we have ignorance, we’re not completely free. The afflictions may become very subtle, but as long as there’s the continuity of ignorance and the seeds of ignorance in our mind, our mind still isn’t free, and those afflictions will reappear. That’s why even you’re born in these states of samadhi where the very gross afflictions are suppressed. They’re not manifest so you don’t have great anger or out of control desire, frustration, or anything like that. They still have the ignorance, so when that karma for that rebirth ends, the seeds are still in the mind, and it comes back full force.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:34:27]
VTC: There’s some anxiety knowing that you’re making progress this life, but if you don’t attain liberation or full awakening, then you could lose some of it by transferring to the next lifetime. You understand about the karma, so all the virtue that we’re doing does put good karmic imprints on our mind. The more we practice, the more we’re transforming, and the stronger our virtuous qualities become and the weaker our disturbing emotions become. All of that is not for nought. Samsara functions on the system of causality, so when you have created those kinds of causes, they’re not going to go to waste. You have to dedicate them. That’s something that’s very important is to dedicate our merit so that it doesn’t get destroyed by anger or wrong views. We make those kinds of dedication prayers to steer our good karma to ripen in good situations.
No sense getting anxious. We pray. There are lots of prayers. “May I be born in a good family.” Good family could mean be born as a bodhisattva. Of course, we’d have to have those realizations this lifetime to be born as a bodhisattva next lifetime. Also, to be born in a family where we learn about the Dharma from when we’re kids and where we are encouraged to practice the Dharma from when we’re kids so that we can really start going without wasting a lot of time. To make prayers to meet really completely wise and compassionate and qualified Mahayana and Vajrayana teachers early in our lives, and not just to meet them, but to recognize their qualities, to follow them, to listen to teachings, to put the teachings into practice, to be guided by these kinds of people. We make a lot of strong dedication prayers that steer our virtuous karma in these kinds of directions. If you do that a lot while you’re alive, then when you die, you don’t have any regret because you really used your life wisely.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:36:54]
VTC: No, no, you don’t need to know who the family is and what their names are and what country and what universe. You might actually limit yourself if you make it specific. It’s better to be general, so your mindstream is really attracted to a very good situation.
Audience: [inaudible: 1:37:36]
VTC: The karma of doing good deeds or having a job where you’re providing service to others, yes, you’re creating the karma for a good rebirth. It’s really important before you go to work to generate your motivation. Even if your career isn’t specifically a helping profession, still to think, “I want to benefit whoever I come in contact with. I want to help my clients and help my customers and create merit and be kind and be honest and stuff like that.”
Everything requires multiple causes and conditions. You can create a whole lot of virtue through your career, but you also have to do the dedication prayers. You need that condition too. That’s quite important, and you need a good motivation before you go to work, and you need to keep on checking your motivation, and you still need to do purifications. There are a lot of different things that we need to do. There’s time to do all of them.
Please meditate on this between this week and next week. Think about it, not only in your meditation sessions, but also as you’re walking around. Just look at situations. Some people when they hear this kind of teaching say, “Oh it sounds so depressing.” Actually, for me, I felt like being able to talk about aging, sickness, and death, and not getting what I wanted, and getting what I don’t want, I felt it was a huge relief because these were the situations that were happening in my life, and the fact that nobody wanted to talk about them, that was suffering. When I came to the Dharma teachings and then finally, here’re people who are willing to sit and talk about death and what does it mean and what happens and what do you do and how do you prepare for it? It was like, “Oh what a relief. Here’s somebody who’s willing to acknowledge, Yeah, we don’t always get what we want, and we’re frustrated and dissatisfied, and it’s coming from ignorance so that there’s something you can do about it. There’re antidotes to all these disturbing emotions.” I personally felt like it was such a relief to hear these kinds of teachings. It was like there was an elephant in the room my whole life, and everybody was saying, “There’s no elephant.” Finally, somebody was saying, “Well yeah, there’s an elephant.” “Whew, good. Let’s talk about this elephant instead of denying everything.”
Think about it and know that there are antidotes to all these disturbing emotions and that there is a path that takes us out of this situation. The Buddha didn’t teach all of this so that we could feel disheartened and depressed. We get depressed and disheartened all by ourselves. We don’t need the Buddha to teach us how to do that. He taught us this so that we can see the situation and do something about it and bring our mind to a state of lasting peace and satisfaction.
Recitation of prayer.
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.