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Appreciating our opportunities

Chapter 11

Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are at Sravasti Abbey in 2015.

  • Not taking our present situation for granted
    • Appreciating all the causes we’ve created to have a human body
    • Appreciating all the conditions we have to practice the Dharma
  • Questions and answers
    • What karma creates our present compassion?
    • Why do we sabotage ourselves?
    • How much purification do we have to do to clear up our negative actions?
    • Understanding our upper rebirth helps us to become more humble
    • Can we change our karma?
  • Chapter 11: Realizing that you do not exist in and of yourself
    • The status of the person
    • How we solidify others’ actions to justify our anger

Let’s cultivate our motivation. Again, rejoicing at the opportunity we have which is hard to come by because we need to create the causes for it. And when we look in the world, the causes are not being created by a great number of people; the causes being ethical conduct, the six perfections, and then sincere dedication, and prayers. But somehow whoever we were in a past life created a lot of virtue and dedicated it properly so that this lifetime we have a really wonderful opportunity. So, let’s appreciate the hard work we put into the path in previous times, appreciate a present opportunity, and then have a strong determination to use this opportunity to recall the kindness of other living beings. And to develop the wish to repay it and then to practice the path so that we can become more and more capable of repaying the kindness of others in the best way possible, which is by leading them on the path. Because while helping people with basic necessities to stay alive is truly wonderful, it doesn’t solve their long-term problem of being in samsara. Whereas when we can help them learn the causes of happiness and how to create them and abandon the causes of suffering and how to avoid those, then we’re giving people the real key to be able to attain a lasting state of security and peace. So, in order to do that we have to progress along that path ourselves and that’s why we’re here to learn so that we can approach full awakening for the benefit of all living beings.

(Bell rings) Okay, so coming back to taking our present life for granted, not only do we take for granted the kindness of others, but we usually are pretty oblivious to everything we had to do just to have the present opportunity that we have. We’re just kind of born us and say “okay, that’s nice, what else”. Whereas if we have a big picture that sees over many lifetimes, then we see that this life, the opportunity we have at present, arose due to causes; that who we are in this lifetime, where we’re born, what our mind thinks about, what tendencies we have and so on, all of this came due to causes and these causes were created in previous lifetimes. And that means whoever we were in a previous lifetime, the continuity of the mere” I” in the past, that person created a lot of virtue that brought the result that we have now.

The Tibetans have a little saying: if you want to know what your previous lives are, look at your present body. And if you want to know what your future lives will be, look at your present mind. The idea being that on the basis of this human body we can do so much; how did we get this body: from the causes we created in the past, which means we must have been doing a lot of virtuous actions and dedicating them properly and putting a lot of energy into the path in previous lives in order to have the present body. And who will we be in the future, to know that, we have to look at our present mind and what we think about right now, and what emotions we have, and how we act–what our intentions and motivations are, because those will determine the karma that we create, that will influence what we’re reborn as in the future. Okay? We are not some kind of solid independent being who just happens to be “I am me and that’s it”. We are dependently arising phenomena that is continually creating causes for what we will become in the future. When you think about the causes that we must have created to have this present opportunity, we see that it wasn’t so easy and that we worked really hard.

First of all, just to have an upper rebirth in a happy realm, a realm that isn’t filled with all sorts of horrible physical suffering, just to be born in a place where you have some modicum of comfort, it requires ethical conduct. But you may say there’s a lot of human begins who are suffering a lot of physical pain, that’s true. But just having the body of a human being means that there’s the possibility of having more happiness than if you have the body, let’s say, of an animal. If you are born as a mosquito, what are the chances of having some kind of happiness in your life? Not so many. And when you talk about death could come at any time, mosquitoes, that really holds true for them, doesn’t it. At least we have the body upon which we can have a human intelligence. Mosquitoes don’t have a body that can support a mind stream that at that particular time has the kind of intelligence that human beings can have.

Have you ever looked in an animal’s eyes and gotten the sense that, wow, there’s a person in there, but they’re all kind of numbed over and can’t really express themselves. Ever had that feeling? Our neighbors used to have horses and I would go walk down the road and look in the horse’s eyes and it’s like there’s a living being in there, but the mind is totally fogged over, can’t think clearly. And, one time I was in Malaysia, somebody took me to a bird park and there was one bird, incredible colors and a big colorful beak; I thought, wow, that bird must have prayed to be very attractive – must have been very attached to the reputation and created the karma to be very attractive. But, they were in a bird’s body and I was looking—that bird and I had eye contact for the longest time. I just had this feeling there’s somebody there who wants to express and wants to learn but they can’t because they’re trapped in that kind of body. Sometimes with our kitties, it’s the same thing. You look and who are they are underneath all that sleepiness that they have.

In any case, just to have this human body that can support human intelligence means that we kept very good ethical conduct in previous lives. We abandoned the ten nonvirtues or we took and kept precepts, and so we created a lot of merit in that way. When you look around in the world, how many people live really good ethical lives? Do most of our politicians live good ethical lives? How about the CEOs in businesses? How about just average people? Or do people take what hasn’t been freely given when they can when nobody will notice it? Do people just automatically lie whenever there’s the opportunity to do so to get something to benefit themselves? And what about the number of times that we use our speech to create disharmony or the number of times we really use our speech to harm others? So, when we look at just how people behave, we see that a lot of people create a lot of negative karma, ourselves included. We’re not any (more) special than anybody else. Somehow in a previous life we created some good karma that ripened in our present life, but now are we creating the karma to have this kind of possibility in the future? Or with our actions are we just kind of going along and “I can kind of tell my version of the truth when it’s to my advantage and it’s not lying really, it’s just saying it so other people will understand. It’s being compassionate, I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” Right? So, we lie out of compassion to cover up all the nasty things that we did that we don’t want anybody to know. Is that really out of compassion that we’re lying? No. It’s out of self-centeredness.

The problem with lying is you have the initial bad action and then you have the lie on top of that. And if you want some advice about lying and the repercussions, talk to Bill Clinton. And look what one person—first there’s my sexual behavior and then there’s lying and think of how much time and energy and money was spent in this country because of one person’s behavior and the lies to cover it up. You can also ask tricky Dick about it too. Some of you are too young to remember tricky Dick. Some of you remember tricky Dick. So, lots of lies there and again what it did to the country, how much it wasted our resources, our time, our energy; and it’s just one person’s bad behavior. In his case, it was stealing and then lying to cover it up. So, this kind of stuff creates the cause for a lower rebirth in the next life. And then, even if you have an okay rebirth in the next life, let’s say you’re born as a human being, then because of the karma, let’s say for tricky Dick of stealing, then you’re born in an impoverished place, you’re poor and live in an impoverished country and can’t get what you need. And, then the result of lying is in the future other people don’t believe what you say. So, even when you’re telling the truth, people don’t believe; they’re suspicious. Have you ever met people like that; they tell the truth and still nobody believes them. It’s because of this kind of karma from previous lives. We can really see the karma is very, very powerful and what we had to do in a previous life to create just the causes for a human body, I mean we did something quite extraordinary in terms of keeping very good ethical conduct.

Because, like I was saying, even looking at people nowadays, there’s many people who we consider good people, but if you really look closely at their conduct, do they keep totally pure ethical conduct? Or, are there “these my versions of the truth, creating disharmony and hurting other people’s feelings, idle talk, and not paying for tickets to get into the movies or whatever if we’re supposed to pay for them, and lying on our income tax, and all sorts of stuff like that; there’s bugs in the house and you take out the Raid and spray it and kill them”. People that we even consider good people, when you look closely at the behavior, there’s still a lot of negativity being created. And if some of those karmic seeds ripen at the time of death then the person’s future life is not going to be so good. And that goes for us as well. Whoever we were in previous lives and probably over many previous lives created the causes to be able to have just the present human body that’s all we’re talking about first; it’s just the human body we work very hard just to have that upper rebirth that human body. Now when you look at all the conditions that we have to be able to practice Dharma, we see that just having a human body isn’t enough to be able to practice the Dharma. Because if you have a human body but you’re born with severe disabilities, then it impedes your ability to make use of your present life. But, we’re all pretty healthy right now, so again we had to create a lot of good karma to have this.

I remember I told the story before but it’s really strong in my mind. In the early 80’s I was invited to Denmark to give some talks and the person who invited me worked at a home for disabled children. I wanted to go and meet the kids. She took me and we walked into this room; Denmark is a wealthy country and the room was full of kid’s toys and brightly colored things. It was a place like how kids would love with everything there that was brightly colored around them. And when I walked in the room and I just saw all this stuff, and I’m wondering “Where are the kids?” Then, I started hearing some very strange sounds and I started looking closer and there were the kids. Some of them were on a block with wheels and they were lying on it, kind of paddling themselves. Some older kids were lying in cribs moaning. These were kids who were really severely disabled. And it really struck me. You have a human rebirth but some kind of karma, another kind of karma ripen, so the virtuous karma caused the human rebirth but some kind of non-virtuous karma caused this situation of being so severely mentally and also physically disabled. And yet they had created the karma to have wealth because they were in this beautiful room and they ate well so they didn’t suffer along that line. But, because there’s many different karmas, many different actions we did in the previous lives that ripen to form this present life and many karmas that ripen during this life that determine and influence what happens to us. Like with these kids, all you need is virtuous karma for a human body to live in a wealthy peaceful country, but all you need is one nonvirtuous karma ripening at that time, and it’s as if everything else is wasted.

Kind of like our kitties, our kitties have created the karma through generosity to be born in such a comfortable environment. They created the karma to be loved excessively, (laughter) to be pampered, to be treated like Queens, (one of them is named Queen Maha Karuna); so, created the cause to have wealth and love but not the cause of ethical conduct to have a human body. Created the cause to even hear Dharma teachings. Those cats have been to more teachings than some of the nuns have been, because the cats come even when they don’t feel well and the nuns stay in bed when they don’t feel well. (laughter) So, the cats have the whole transmission of the text that sometimes the nuns miss. The kitties have heard incredible amounts of teachings. They were not very happy Friday night because usually Friday night we have the teachings from the other room, so they didn’t get that one. But we make sure they come to all the teachings, get all the imprints. But, didn’t have the karma to have a human body even though they had karma to have other cooperative conditions that are very very helpful.

So, it takes a lot to have the kind of opportunity that we have. Just to be somebody who’s interested in the Dharma takes an incredible amount of good karma from previous lives to be interested in the Dharma. In the early years when I lived in Nepal, I worked in the office of Kopan Monastery and I would see people come up the hill to hear teachings and some would stay and get really involved, and others would come and be in the teaching for 15 minutes and they’d get up and leave. They would say “what are people talking about…this is ridiculous” and just walk off and that was it, no interest in the Dharma. Or if you go to Bodh Gaya the holiest place on the planet where the Buddha attained full awakening, there’s a lot of people there doing business because it’s very good for business. If you sell Buddhist trinkets, if you have a shop in Bodh Gaya, you make a good business. If you’re a beggar and in Bodh Gaya, you do very well. When there are big teachings in Bodh Gaya, the beggars flood the town. Here’s all these people in Bodh Gaya, the holiest place where you have all these Buddhists coming and incredible Buddhist teachers coming, and pilgrimage groups coming, where you can receive teachings, hear chanting and create merit by making offerings; and these people in their minds don’t care about any of that. It’s just some kind of tourist place, but they’re there to make money; no interest in the Dharma.

Questions and answers

(inaudible questions)

Audience: How do we create the karma to take an interest in the Dharma?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Well, the karma involved in producing it is studying the Dharma and asking questions and so on beforehand. We’re going to come to this part on Thursday night where Nagarjuna is talking about how important it is to question the wise; meaning to learn the teachings and to clarify the meaning of the teachings because that creates the cause to be able to meet the teachings in the future. So, whereas some people just come like I say absolutely no interest at all or come because they want to make money or come and sleep; then that creates obscurations in the mind; just having that interest. The other day I was talking about how important it is to respect that part of ourselves that is interested in the Dharma and not to take it for granted because whoever we were in a previous life worked hard and created that interest.

Audience: Could sleeping be related to arrogance?

VTC: Possibly, if somebody was quite arrogant and thought I don’t need to listen to these teachings. Could be that it could be also disrespecting the Dharma. But often if somebody’s arrogant, then they easily disrespect the Dharma. So, it could have something to do with that. Just the fact that we have these causes and conditions ripen and come together right now, whereby we can learn and then having learned put it into practice, it’s very rare. Especially if we think how many countries are there in this world where there’s warfare right now; and if you live in Somalia, if you live in Syria, even if you had the teachings there, would it be easy to practice? Extremely difficult. I mean if you’re not being a refugee and fleeing for your life then you’re shuttered up in your house fearing for your life; not easy.

And yet, we live in a country where we don’t walk around in-what I was thinking about this the other day because we read so much in the in the newspaper: “Oh, there was the suicide bomber and so many people were killed in this Iraqi town, there was this suicide bomber and so many people were killed in Afghanistan,” and you read so much about it, that it’s just at a certain point. And then I thought, “Well what would it be like if they had in the news at our Safeway in Newport: There was a suicide bomber and 12 people were killed in the Safeway in Newport”? I mean the grocery store you go to, what would it feel like if there were a suicide bomber and people were killed there? You happen not to be there at that particular time, but you live in a society where there’s suicide bombers here and there. And you never know where they’re going to go off or what’s going to happen. Where even going to the grocery store is entering a war zone: very difficult. Wouldn’t it be very difficult to practice the Dharma and those in that kind of situation? And yet right now, I mean, we can be here. And we feel safe. I don’t think anybody woke up this morning and thought “Oh maybe there’s going to be a suicide bomber in the Meditation Hall.” Whereas if you live in a place like that, before you go to the market, I’m sure it’s in your mind. To live in a place that that is free of violence, that’s a result of abandoning killing, abandoning taking life including the lives of animals and insects. We did that in previous lives so that we have this opportunity right now. So, again, when you really think about every condition that’s necessary to really have a good opportunity to practice, we see that it’s not easy to have that opportunity. There’re even a number of people who registered for the retreat and then couldn’t come. Always something like that happens so sometimes there’s the thing of you’re attracted to virtue, you want to do something, but then something happens in your family or something happens at work and you make the choice to take care of that. So, to really appreciate who we were in our previous lives and how hard we work to get the opportunity that we have right now and to not take that opportunity for granted and to really think that this opportunity we have was due to the kindness of other living beings.

Because when we created virtue in previous lives; like we all have enough to eat; we have that situation because of being generous in a previous life. But who are we generous to in a previous life? Other sentient beings. Without other sentient beings to give to we couldn’t create the karma of generosity. Without other sentient beings to refrain from harming, we couldn’t create ethical conduct. Without people who try and harm us, we couldn’t create the virtue of fortitude. All this good karma that we create that bring about our present situation were created in relation to other living beings. And now having this situation, it isn’t like the food appears magically and everything else appears magically. Even we have the karma to receive these things, other sentient beings are involved in being the cooperative conditions for us to receive the food and books; and even having a microphone where you can hear all others and human beings are involved in creating those circumstances. Then, we really again, come to see our dependence on other living beings; even for our own welfare, even to have a precious human life, and have even for the opportunity to practice the Dharma. Then that helps us to really appreciate these sentient beings and develop the wish to be of greatest benefit to them. And the thing is that to become fully awakened we need the Bodhichitta, which is the aspiration to become fully awakened for the benefit of sentient beings. And the Bodhichitta is created in relationship to every single sentient being. If we omit one sentient being, then we don’t have the Bodhichitta; which means we can’t become buddhas because we’ve emitted one sentient being from the field of our love and compassion. So, when you think about that, that means that our enlightenment depends on each cockroach, our enlightenment depends on each Isis soldier, our enlightenment depends on Ted Cruz and Huckabee and Rand Paul, and our enlightenment depends on these people. If that’s the situation that we can’t get enlightened without having love and compassion for every single ant, every single grasshopper. Then, we’re indebted to each of these sentient beings and we’re dependent on them. So that really changes how we look at sentient beings because they’re really the field upon which we practice and can create merit and have temporary, as well as ultimate, happiness. Having this opportunity of a precious human life and very important to really use it: to create more ethical conduct, to practice generosity, to practice fortitude, to hear the teachings, and get the imprint of the teachings on our mindstream. That’s why we have the cats attend all the teachings; they’re getting the imprints. Some future life, it’ll ripen and they’ll understand. But just putting those imprints in our mind, making the effort, creating a strong connection with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, then since we have that opportunity, to really make use of it.

Questions, comments? (inaudible)

Audience: How did we create the karma to have compassion in our present life?

VTC: First of all, the compassion we have now is a mental factor, so that’s part of our mind that can never be eliminated. In other words, we can never totally lack compassion. Our compassion can be pretty weak, but it can never be eliminated. But then what we need to have done in a previous life that creates our easily having compassion in this life, is learning about and meditating on compassion in previous lives. It’s this whole thing of habituation, familiarity, repetition, practice; it’s not quick cheap and easy. It’s practice; putting those imprints and putting the seeds in now, and then they ripen.

Audience: (inaudible)

VTC: That is an excellent question. I think because sometimes we forget about our incredible fortune or we take it for granted and this is also why we do the meditation on precious human rebirth, repeatedly. Because each time we do it, it makes us remember. It’s more connected with just ignorance, plain old ignorance. We’re just not aware because when we could become aware automatically, because we want ourselves to be happy, then we act. But when we’re not aware and we just slip into the ignorant dullness that we’re so used to. When we just take this life for granted and think that this life is all there is, we forget that there’s past lives and future lives. We forget about the law of karma and its effects; all that forgetting is just ignorance. (inaudible)

Audience: How much purification do you have to do to completely purify a negative action?

VTC: You need to do 53,418 prostrations (laughter) with a motivation of 99.735142% Bodhichitta. You purify. You just keep purifying again. They say that sometimes you’ll have indications and dreams and so forth that you’ve purified that karma. But in my mind, if you’re not purifying that karma there’s so many more that need to be purified too. If you look at how the great masters practiced, they keep on purifying, every day they’re doing purification. It’s not like “Okay well purify, got that out of the way. Oh good, now I don’t have to do any more prostrations, they were quite a hassle, I’m too tired to do it.” No, you keep on doing it. That fear, there’s a wisdom fear and there’s a panic fear. If it’s a wisdom fear like, “Wow, I did something negative out of my own stupidity or anger or attachment and I don’t want to experience the bad result,” that fear will fuel your energy to purify and so that’s good. That’s good. It’s not the kind of fear “Oh I killed a rat, that’s terrible, oh I’m the worst one in the world, oh what are we going to do”. No, not that kind of fear. But it’s like you’re aware of cause and effect and knowing about that, then that motivates you to purify. That’s good. But if you use that to motivate you to purify but you don’t live in perpetual fear. Because if you live in perpetual fear then you’ve gone to the panicky kind of fear which is actually a defilement: that’s something to be eliminated. And like I said, they do say that you can receive signs of having purified to karma, but to me, I don’t worry. I don’t look so much at that as like “Oh, I want a sign that I purified this,” because there’s so much other stuff I need to purify. And also, my way of thinking is if you just keep creating the cause. Even if you’ve already purified that and you keep purifying it, it’s not going to do any damage. It’s going to instead purify some other things that need to be purified and it’s also going to really make very strong, our determination like not to kill in the future, because the more you purify you have to keep generating this determination not to do it again.

I mean when I do purification, I even confess things that I haven’t done in this lifetime because who knows I probably did them in previous lifetimes. And in any case, until I reach a certain level of the path because the afflictions are always in the mindstream then there’s always the possibility of making a mess and doing something quite heavy. So, I figure, if I purify for those things that even I haven’t done this lifetime, then if I’ve done them in previous lifetimes, it gets purified. And even if I haven’t, I’m imprinting in my mind very strongly, “I am NOT going to do this. I’m NOT going to do this,” which is a very good preventive measure. So that when situations arise where we could very easily do something negative, we’ll have that strength in our mind of saying, “No, I’m not going to do that.” I don’t look at it so much in terms of how much do I have to do, because I mean even the tenth level Bodhisattvas are still purifying. And I’m no nowhere near where they are; because when you purify you can feel the change even in this life.

Audience: These teachings seem to be saying that people with an interested in the Dharma are higher than those who don’t, and those are fully able are higher than those who are disabled.


VTC: It’s not a question of high and low. It’s a question of you have an opportunity. If you’re not disabled, you have an easier opportunity than somebody who is. If you’ve met the Dharma, you have more opportunity to create virtue than somebody who hasn’t. It doesn’t mean that you’re a better person or you’re a higher person, it just means you have a certain opportunity. When you have that opportunity, if you understand your opportunity well, you actually become more humble because you see that your opportunity depends on causes and conditions, and that other sentient beings are part of those causes and conditions; that you are in debt to sentient beings. It’s not that I have food today because I could have the karma and generosity from a previous life so that I can stick my nose in the air and say, “Well I must be superior because I have the karma to be to have food.” I mean if I have that kind of attitude then I’m creating the karma to not have food in the next life. If you actually understand how karma works and like I have the karma to have food today. This is fantastic. I’ve got to be more humble and work for the benefit of sentient beings. Because especially for the ones who don’t have the opportunity that I have right now. It’s not an issue of higher and lower and these kind of things. It’s a good question.

Audience: Can we change our past karma?


VTC: Karma means action. It’s the action, the volitional actions, that we’re doing with our body speech and mind. Karma are conditioned things so as we change our mind and our motivation, then the actions we do change. Then even the karmic seeds that we’ve put in our minds from actions that we’ve already done, those aren’t things that are cast in concrete, they can also change. In the case of negative karmas that we’ve created, if we do the purification process, we can impede their ability to ripen. In case of our virtuous karma, if we get angry or generate wrong views, then we impede their ability to ripen. Karma is not cast in concrete.
It is true that happiness always comes from virtuous karma and that suffering always comes from non-virtuous karma, that doesn’t change. But exactly how the karma will ripen or when it will ripen or the degree of suffering or happiness, that is something that can be changed. That’s why we’re practicing because if it couldn’t be changed then might as well go watch TV, eat chocolate cake, because nothing can be changed, so then everything’s useless. And now our lives are not useless; our lives are very meaningful.


So you’re saying that doing a lot of virtue you don’t put yourselves in situations where negative karma can ripen, but those seeds are still there if you haven’t done the purification. In some ways, yes. But deliberately creating virtue is also a form of purification, just as doing purification is also a form of creating virtue so they kind of go together. Because, just the example of generosity, if you practice generosity, you’re creating the cause for wealth. But you’re also impeding the ability of previously created karma from stealing, let’s say, to ripen because you’ve created so much karma for this wealth it’s going to make it harder for the karma from stealing to ripen. But you still need, I think, to do the four opponent powers for the karma of stealing because we have to overcome that tendency and that habitual action and also have a strong determination not to do it again. But those two things go together, purification and accumulation of merit. They’re different but they’re very related and it’s hard to totally dissect what’s going on.

Actually that’s in the thought training teachings; they say that one way to create virtue is when you bathe or take a shower, and the showers coming, to think that it’s like the nectar from the Buddha coming and purifying.

Chapter 11: Realizing That You Do Not Exist in and of Yourself

So that was the motivation (laughter); you commented on it yesterday but for one of my teachers, Zopa Rinpoche, this would be a short motivation for him because he would probably wait until about two minutes before the time is over then start the talk and then continue for another three hours. But I’m going to spare you that. Because I looked at what’s ahead and all these chapters kind of need to be done together to actually make a good place to stop, we would have had to get to page 167 today which we can’t do. We’d be reviewing it next year anyway but anyway good to go on.

We’re on [page] 126.

In Buddhism the term self has two meanings that must be differentiated in order to avoid confusion. One meaning of self is “person” or “living being.” This is the being who loves and hates, who performs actions and accumulates good and bad karma, who experiences the fruits of those actions, who is reborn in cyclic existence, who cultivates the spiritual paths, and so on.

So, one meaning of self is just person, living being.

The other meaning of self occurs in the term selflessness

or in the term self-grasping ignorance,

where it refers to a falsely imagined, overconcretized status of existence called “inherent existence.” The ignorance that adheres to such an exaggeration is indeed the source of ruination, the mother of all wrong attitudes-perhaps we could even say devilish. In observing the “I” that depends upon mental and physical attributes, this mind exaggerates it into being inherently existent, despite the fact that the mental and physical elements being observed do not contain any such exaggerated being.

One definition of self is just the person, a living being. The other definition of self means, or the other meaning of self, is inherent existence. Inherent existence is a mode of existence that in fact does not exist. It’s a way of existing that we have projected. That our ignorance is projected on to people, things, even ourselves; and people don’t have that mode of existence. Inherent existence, this mode of existence that nothing has, but which we think it has, is like independent existence. Something existing independent of causes and conditions, independent of parts, independent of the mind that conceives and labels them.

For example, when we see this building, we say Meditation Hall and it looks like one thing. Doesn’t it? So, it’s one thing, Meditation Hall, right? I mean was going to say it’s not a zoo (laughter) but we wouldn’t usually call it the zoo, would we? And we wouldn’t call it a kitchen. So, we see Meditation Hall, one thing. And it’s like everybody should know this is a meditation hall. I mean everybody knows it’s not a military station. It’s not a doghouse. It’s a meditation hall so we all feel like okay it is. It has something in it that makes it a meditation hall because everybody knows when they look at it that it’s Meditation Hall and nobody doubts that. So, it must have something in it that makes it a meditation hall. Now, if it were true that it had something in it that made it a meditation hall, we should be able to find what exactly that thing is that makes it a meditation hall. We should be able to find some sort of independent meditation hall. But when we start looking at each part of the meditation hall, none of the parts of the meditation hall is a meditation hall. That door’s not a meditation hall. The altar is not a meditation hall. The fan isn’t. The beams aren’t. The walls aren’t. The floor isn’t. When we look to find what appears to be so real to our senses, when we search for that in the thing we call Meditation Hall, we can’t find what a meditation hall is; and there’s no Meditation Hall separate from all of the pieces of it either. It’s not like this whole thing can be here and the meditation hall can be somewhere else. That doesn’t work.

We have this false way of existence that we’ve imputed on people and things. The problem with this false way of existence is that it makes everything seem real from its own side and then we exaggerate its importance. And so, then everything becomes a big deal because we’ve made it very concrete. There may be… well, it really works when you think about it in terms of the person, of ourselves. If there’s a real concrete me here, then I’m incredibly important. And anything that gets in my way is a threat to my very existence. You know how when we get criticized, we feel like it’s almost a threat to our very existence doesn’t it. We go into such threat mode and so defensive. But we feel like this criticism is just going to totally destroy me. All criticism is, is sound waves. That’s all it is; how are sound waves going to destroy us? Sound waves can’t destroy us; they’re just sound waves. But when we see criticism not only are we independent and concrete, but the criticism is independent and concrete, and the person who made those sound waves is also independent and concrete. And we know what their real motivation was, because we have psychic powers and we can read their mind and they’re out to get us. Then all of that creates a whole lot of suffering doesn’t it and a whole lot of misunderstanding.

It happens in our relationships too as soon as we say that person is “my” whatever it is: mother/father/brother/sister/neighbor/spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/boss/employee, whatever friend/enemy/stranger, whatever you label it. As soon as we label somebody “my”, then it takes on a whole new meaning in our life, because my, there’s a real me here that’s the owner of that person that has some rights to that person because they’re my whatever it is. Therefore, because they’re my whatever it is, they should act in a certain way, they should be treated in a certain way, they should treat me in a certain way. If my child fails the science test, it’s a big problem, because it’s my child. And my child failed the science test in second grade, how is he ever going to become a physicist? He’s doomed. Let alone Harvard, he won’t even be able to get into a JC. It’s like this kid, second grade, failed the science test, that means he’s stupid, that means just give up.

You see the amount of exaggeration involved as soon as you say my child. Whereas, [if] it’s the neighbor’s child who failed the scientist in second grade, is that a big deal if your neighbor’s child fails the scientists in second grade? No, it’s not a big deal at all. So why do we get upset when it’s my child and not when it’s the neighbor’s child? Because we’re imputing something to the word my that were not imputing to the word neighbor. We’re imputing a certain kind of value and importance.

On what basis do we impute that? It’s because there’s a real my, there’s a real me that’s the possessor. Possessor is a strange word to use here, but it’s my child. So, in that way, I’m the possessor because it’s mine and, then everything gets made a big deal about. But when I look at what does mine mean and is there a me that owns this person, that possesses this person as my child or my parent or whoever it is, who does that? Is there something that is you that makes you this concrete being that then owns or has special relationships with different beings? And what does a special relationship mean? They’re my child-we say, well, my genes went into them. So what? What are your genes? They’re atoms and molecules. My atoms and molecules became some of their atoms and molecules. Anyway, where did I get my atoms and molecules? They aren’t even mine. They came from my parents. And also, all my atoms and molecules depended on all the food I ate. So, then my atoms and molecules actually belong to the farmers. What’s this thing of my genes and blood relationship? When you really analyze it, you really analyze it, there’s nothing there. And yet when we don’t analyze it and when we have this very strong feeling of me and when society talks in a certain way about the importance of blood relationships then we build up this whole thing. And then of course we have to fight for the ones who are at our side and kill the ones who have different genes even though all of our genes are the same at being atoms and molecules.

Stupid isn’t it? That kind of stupid is what we human beings do, but this is the result of thinking that things have some kind of independent existence that make them what they are. And thinking we, because remember His Holiness what we read yesterday, the real troublemaker, as well as the one who becomes a Buddha, is the self right now. By exaggerating the importance of that self or by exaggerating how that self exists, then we create all these problems that are really unnecessary, totally unnecessary. When you see that, then you’ve got to have compassion for sentient beings because when you really look carefully, it’s really not necessary that we live in so much pain and havoc. Yet because of our ignorance even though we want happiness, we keep creating the causes for more misery. If that isn’t worth having compassion for them, what is?

So, this is why it’s important to really meditate on emptiness and see that things don’t exist in the way they appear to us to exist. And, therefore, we don’t really need to make such big deals about them and then we can relax a little bit.

Well, we did two paragraphs. Let me read the last paragraph of this section.

What is the actual status of a sentient being? Just as a car exists in dependence upon its parts, such as wheels, axles, and so forth, so a sentient being is conventionally set up in dependence upon mind and body. There is no person to be found either separate from mind and body or within mind and body. (page 127)

Until next Memorial Day, may we all still be alive very much.

Whereas when we grasp at inherent existence, like you said, that person made me angry. And therefore, I have a right to be angry. I have a right to retaliate. There’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And I can go after them and they owe me something and I’m this victim so people should make special allowances for me. We just create a whole scene that creates more trouble. Whereas, when we say [that] nobody makes us angry, then, anger is not a virus that we caught from somebody else (laughter). They don’t. We didn’t. It’s not that the sound waves carried anger and as soon as they hit our ear “Ah, I got the virus of anger. You gave it to me. Now I have anger I’m going to get angry at you.” No, like you said there’s the choice at that time. Nobody makes us angry. So, if nobody makes us angry, that means we have to be responsible for our own emotions which means we can’t go through our life blaming everybody else for what’s happening in our life. Blaming ourselves also is useless. It’s not even an issue of blame; it’s an issue of where does the ability to change lie, and if it lies in me, then let’s use it.

We should, as we’re dedicating, make prayers to be able, next year, to come and read His Holiness’ book. That doesn’t mean that you have to wait until next year to read the rest of the book. I encourage you to read whatever part you haven’t read. If you miss the previous years and then also read ahead but then we will really go through it in more depth continuing next year.

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.