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Cultivating wisdom

Part of a series of teachings and short talks given during the Manjushri and Yamantaka Winter Retreat in 2015.

  • The four distortions
  • Impermanence and death
  • How what we consider happiness is really low-grade suffering
  • Generating bodhicitta shifts our mind to thinking about others
  • Letting go of identities and attachments
  • Dropping the poor-quality view

Cultivating wisdom (download)

Since both Manjushri and Yamantaka are deities that have to do with the generation of wisdom then it’s very helpful for you in your retreat to study the wisdom teachings, and I think in particular to remember the antidotes to the four distorted conceptions. So, four distorted conceptions:

  • Seeing things that are impermanent as permanent,
  • Seeing things that are foul (like our body) as pure,
  • Seeing things that are in the nature of dukkha as pleasurable, and
  • Seeing things that lack a self as having a self.

When you have distractions and so forth, different afflictions arising during the retreat, I’ll bet you that they have to do with one or more of these four. So if you practice thinking about the antidotes to these four …. In other words, to meditate on impermanence, to really think about gross impermanence such as death, subtle impermanence such as the fact that things are arising, abiding and ceasing simultaneously, and that once something has arisen there’s no other cause that needs to come about to make it change, because its very nature, its very being is in the cause of change. So thinking about that really gets us in tune with impermanence and helps us relax and stop holding so tightly onto things. Because we begin to see that they’re changing and we’re changing, so there’s nothing much to hold on to so tightly. And we begin to see the holding as what’s causing us the pain.

And then seeing what is by nature foul as pure. So really looking at your body. When you start saying. “Oh, but I want to be comfortable, and I’m cold, and the room’s too hot, the room’s too cold. I don’t like ….” (Oh, I can’t say that, but I really don’t like lunch.) [laughter] (I just can’t say it to her.) And on and on about our body. To just look at what our body is. It’s skin and blood and guts and this kind of thing, it’s not who we are. It’s just material stuff. There’s nothing there that’s really so gorgeous and attractive that we have to go overboard making it comfortable. Or something that’s so beautiful that when the time of death arrives we have to be worried about leaving it. So really just seeing what the body is. If sexual desire comes up, look at what the body is. Look at the body of the person you’re attached to. It’s like, you really want to hug that? Think of it. So that helps a lot.

Then, if you’re seeing things that are by nature dukkha as pleasurable, then to contemplate the three kinds of dukkha:

  • The ouch kind, the dukkha of pain, that everybody doesn’t like.
  • And then especially contemplate the dukkha of change, the fact that we get happiness and it disappears.
  • And that whatever samsaric happiness we have is actually very low-grade suffering. Very low-grade pain. Because if we continue to do any of those things that we think bring us happiness eventually it becomes something that’s disturbing.

So that helps us to right our mind in that way. Especially good for work against attachment.

And then if we start to see things that don’t have a self as having a self—like ourselves, or like other people that we’re attached to—to really see that, in terms of people, that there’s really no person there. There’s a body and a mind and neither one of them are a person. There’s nothing personal about our body. There’s nothing personal about our mind. So where’s this person that we fabricated and made up and revolved our life around? So that can be very helpful to get rid of so much self-focus that makes such a big deal about ourselves. Because that’s really rather painful.

And then use bodhicittameditate on bodhicitta a lot to shift your mind into a more realistic attitude of working for the benefit of all beings. There are countless beings, so why is one of them more important than the countless other ones? There’s no reason for that. So really generate bodhicitta and shift our focus to the welfare of others, starting out with the welfare of the people who are in the same room with you. And think of them, and wish them well. And think, “I’m doing my practice to benefit these people.” And then gradually expand it out—your family, your friends, strangers, enemies. We’re doing our practice to benefit all these living beings. Including ourselves.

So make that part of your daily motivation, part of your daily whatever. And then just enjoy your retreat.

You [nods to someone in audience] brought up a very good point yesterday that sometimes when we think of giving up our attachments, the things we’re attached to, or giving up our identity, we just freeze, like “who am I going to be if I don’t have that stuff around me which gives me an identity?” So it’s very natural, that will happen sometimes. And just go through it. It’s not a big deal. Anyway, at the time of death we have to leave everything behind, so just think, “Okay, I’m just going to ….” You know when you think, “I’m going to have to leave it behind anyway,” then you think, “I never really owned it to start with.” Because actually anything I have—any of my possessions, any of my hobbies, any of my identities, skills and things—actually all these things came from other people to start with. So they weren’t self-arisen. They weren’t mine to start with. So I don’t need to worry about losing them. Because you can’t lose something that’s not yours. Can you? So in that way you just let the mind relax about this.

And especially what you want to abandon is the poor-quality view. [mimes sucking thumb] Get rid of that, please. Maybe we need to get everybody a pacifier. [laughter] Just drop the poor-quality view. We don’t need it. It’s something that’s totally made up. Fabricated.

Okay. Enjoy retreat.

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.