The three higher trainings
Ethics, concentration and wisdom
A talk given at the American Buddhist Evergreen Association in Kirkland, Washington, and organized by Dharma Friendship Foundation of Seattle, Washington.
- Where the three higher trainings fit in the Buddhist path
- Ethical conduct means “stop being a jerk”
- The 10 pathways of destructive action
- Ethical conduct is the foundation of all spiritual practices
- Mindfulness and mental alertness
- The difference between mindfulness practice in Buddhism and use in secular ways
- Wisdom and the two principle kinds of ignorance
- Why we need all three higher trainings
I first came to this temple in 1989. I was in the process of doing a teaching tour around the US and wound up in Seattle. One woman said, “I want to take you to this Chinese temple to meet some really cool nuns, (she didn’t say that ‘cool,’ you know). So yes, she brought me here—1989—and I met Venerable Jendy and then Venerable Minjia. This friendship has blossomed since then. Actually, one of my books, Working with Anger, started out here at this temple. I gave a talk called Working with Anger and it was made into this small booklet. That later expanded [into a book] but the original talk was given here.
Venerable Jendy has been an incredible aid to the Abbey. I don’t know what would have happened without her. When we began ordaining people we needed a certain number of senior nuns to come and help give the ordination. She was always there, coming and helping us translate things—because in our monastery we follow the Dharmaguptaka vinaya, the same one followed in Taiwan and China. So she was busy teaching us walk here, bow there. Did you notice I can do Chinese bowing now? Yes. So all this took a while. She also began to come to teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So we had a very nice interchange that way as friends and as practitioners. It’s really nice to be back here again.
Before we start, we’ll do the recitations and then we’ll have few minutes of silence just to calm our mind and center ourselves. When we do the recitations we imagine that we’re in the presence of all of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and all of the holy beings; and that we’re surrounded by all the sentient beings. When we take refuge we generate love and compassion, joy and equanimity. We make offerings and so on.
For those of you who are struggling with what’s happening in the country and in the world these days, it’s very helpful when we do these kinds of recitations—because the recitations are directing our minds and helping us to develop very positive qualities. When I do them I usually imagine the entire US Congress around me. It’s very effective: Ted Cruz on one side, Donald Trump on the other side—and so imagine them generating love and compassion together with you. It’s a way to kind of transform what’s happening. Sometimes I put the young ISIS soldiers, the boys who were propagandized to think they were doing something noble. I put them around me and imagine them generating love and compassion and paying homage to the Buddha too. I find this very helpful for my mind and hopefully a way to bring these people in on some level to something that will bring peace and harmony instead of war and friction. So you can think like that when we’re reciting this too.
Let’s go right into a few minutes of sitting quietly. Lower your eyes and be aware of your breath as it gently goes in and out. Don’t strain your breath in any way. Just let it be and observe it. If you get distracted, notice that. Come back home to the breath. So do that just for a couple of minutes. Let your mind settle.
Before we begin the talk let’s take a couple of minutes and cultivate our motivation. Think that we will listen and share the Dharma together this evening so that we can learn how to identify the causes of suffering that exist within us; and having identified them—how to release them, let them go—and also how to identify our good qualities and enhance them. We do all of this not merely for our own benefit, but really with an awareness of how we’re related to every single living being. Let’s work at improving our own mental and spiritual state so that we can make a positive contribution for the welfare of all beings—especially through advancing along the path ourselves and increasing our wisdom and compassion and ability so that we be of greater and greater benefit to living beings. Let’s make that be our long term intention for spending the evening together.
There’s one other person I wanted to acknowledge. I know there are many old friends here and I’m quite happy to see all of you. But I have to pay a special thanks to Steve because he was my writing teacher when I wrote the first book, Open Heart, Clear Mind. Steve’s a journalist and I gave him the manuscript and I said, “Could you look at this?” He gave it back to me completely marked up—just like all my college professors did. But I learned how to write through Steve’s kindness and he looked at some of my other manuscripts as well. So thank you very much.
The four truths of noble beings
Tonight we’re going to be talking about the three higher trainings. I want to put this in the context of where it fits in the whole Buddhist path. You may know that the Buddha’s first teaching was—it’s usually translated as the four noble truths, but that’s not a very good translation. It’s much better to say the four truths known by noble beings, or known by ārya beings—āryas being people who see reality directly as it is. Otherwise, if you say the four noble truths and the first truth is suffering, well there’s nothing very noble about suffering. So it’s not such a good translation. Actually suffering isn’t a very good translation either for the first truth; because we can’t say everything is suffering, can we? We can say things are unsatisfactory. When we look around in our world, yes, things are unsatisfactory. We don’t manage to find any total satisfaction. It’s just like Mick Jagger told us: Can’t get no satisfaction in samsara. That’s it. But it’s not all suffering. We’re not in pain all the time. But we live in this unsatisfactory state and that’s the first thing the Buddha taught.
The second thing was that this unsatisfactory state has causes. And its causes are not some creator being or some extra-terrestrial something. The causes of our misery actually lie inside ourselves—especially our own ignorance. We don’t know the way things exist and in fact we actively misapprehend how things exist. Then this gives rise to greed, to anger, to jealousy, to pride. I think all of those things.
These were the first two things that the Buddha taught. Of course, most of us, when we come to spiritual practice we don’t want to hear about dissatisfaction and its causes. We want to hear about light and love and bliss. But the Buddha had to teach us how to look at our own situation clearly—because until we able to see our own situation and understand what caused it, we won’t have any wish or inspiration to free ourselves from it. Those first two of the four truths, dissatisfaction and its causes (which include ignorance, anger, and attachment) are very necessary. But the Buddha didn’t stop with just those two. He also taught the last two of the four truths which are true cessations (the stopping or cessation of the unsatisfactory states under ignorance, anger and attachment) and then the path to follow—the path with which to train our mind in order to attain that state of nirvana or actual freedom.
When we talk about the last two truths we’re talking about how to overcome our situation and really use our potential to its utmost. Buddhism has a quite expansive view of human potential. We usually think of ourselves as like, “I’m just little old me and I can’t do anything right and hmmmm. You know, I’m depressed all the time and I have a bad temper and my life is like blaah.” That’s how we see ourselves but that’s not how the Buddha saw us.
Our buddha potential
The Buddha looked at us and saw, “Wow! Here’s somebody who has the potential to become fully awakened. Here’s somebody who the fundamental nature of their mind is something pure, untainted. They have the potential to generate impartial love and compassion for all beings. They have the potential to realize the nature of reality.” The Buddha saw us as beings just overflowing with potential that was untapped and unused. So he taught us the path of how to use that potential.
One way to describe the path is in terms of the three higher trainings which the topic of our talk tonight. These are the higher trainings in ethics, in concentration, and in wisdom. Another way of describing the true path is in terms of the eightfold noble path which starting out with correct view, correct intention; going on to correct speech, correct action, right livelihood and then continuing on to right joyous effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Very conveniently the eightfold noble path—you can subsume the eight into the three higher trainings. So they aren’t contradictory. You just categorize them in that way.
If you like lists and numbers Buddhism is a really good religion for you—because there are important list of four truths, and the Eightfold Noble Path, and the three higher trainings. And then you have the two truths, you have the three jewels. We have lists galore. These lists are actually very helpful for us to remember in training our minds in remembering the teachings.
When we start on the path if we use the model of the three higher trainings—and by the way they’re called higher trainings because they are done with refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. So they’re higher for that reason. But the whole thing starts out with ethical conduct. Now, in America, do people like to hear about ethical conduct? No. We excel in unethical conduct. Just ask any CEO. Ask any politician. The society is filled the opposite of ethical conduct. And this is precisely why we have so many societal problems; and also why we have so many personal problems.
The higher training in ethical conduct
Do you remember going to Sunday school and they taught morality? You don’t remember that? Oh, I remember them teaching morality. Morality—ugh! It was like: “You can’t do this and you can’t do that and you can’t do the other thing.” It was always kind of a lesson on, “No. Don’t do this. Don’t do that.” Nobody ever told you why not to do all those things. So, of course, once you could get out from under your parents’ gaze, you went to do them and see—because they must be pretty exciting if you weren’t supposed to do them. So we went out and did them.
What I learned from that whole experience is that when I don’t monitor what’s going on in my mind, and I don’t monitor what I say and what I do, I wind up creating a lot of messes in my life. Any of you have that problem—of creating messes in your life? Like you get in a situation and go, “How in the world did I get here? What is happening? This is craziness.” Then if you really look back—we can trace—there are some choices that we made, some decisions that we made along the way. We thought those decisions were going to bring us happiness but instead they created big messes. Then of course have to clean up the mess. Creating a mess is like breaking your leg. You can repair your leg but it’s better not to break it. So it’s the same with our messes. We can clean them up (kind of), but it would have better not make them to start with.
This, I think, is where ethical conduct comes in. I say this because ethical conduct is teaching us how to create the causes for happiness and how to avoid the causes of messes. For people who don’t like hearing the words morality or ethical conduct—they sound too heavy—I renamed ethical conduct. I call it “stop being a jerk.” Because when I create a mess I’m being a jerk. And how do I create messes? Well, it’s so remarkable that the way in which I create messes in my own and other people’s lives happens to be the Buddha’s list of the ten pathways of destructive action. Very coincidental, isn’t it?
The ten nonvirtues
So how am I jerk? How do I create a mess? Well, first of all I harm living beings physically. Killing them—so I don’t think any of us are going to go out and kill a human being, but you know what I did for my twenty-first birthday? My friend’s took me out. We were going to have a good time—my twenty-first birthday. We went to one place where you pick out the live lobsters and they throw them in the boiling water just for you—and this was something exciting and wonderful to do. I didn’t realize until years later that, “Oh my goodness! That was some living being who just wanted to stay alive; and I had him thrown in boiling water and then ate it. I wouldn’t particularly enjoy somebody throwing me in boiling water and then eating me. It really made me think about the different ways in which we harm others physically.
Then stealing—everybody goes stealing, stealing. That’s what the other people do, the people who break into houses at night. But it’s not just people break into houses at night. In fact, I don’t know how many of those there are, but what about white collar crime? In New York they just sent one of their governmental officials, he’s been an assembly-man for like forty years, and he’s going to prison for stealing—except they have a fancy term for stealing when you’re white collar. But look what happened on Wall Street, our recession in 2008. People misusing other people’s money is a form of stealing—and it creates a lot of problems.
Then unwise and unkind sexual behavior: So let’s skip that one—no one wants to hear about that one. The primary one about that is if you’re in a relationship going with somebody outside of your relationship, or if you’re not in a relationship going with somebody who is. This creates a whole lot of problems for a little bit of pleasure. I can’t tell you the number of places I go and people come and talk to me. I hear all sorts of stories from people, and they say, “You know, I was a little kid and mom or dad was out having an affair. It influenced me when I was growing up.” And of course mom and dad think, “Oh no. The kids don’t know what’s going on.” Kids are smart. They know what’s going on. This causes a lot of problems in families.
Then lying. None of us like to say we lie. We just say something in a skillful way so that it won’t hurt somebody else’s feelings. Right? Does that sound polite enough? “I don’t lie. I just, for the benefit of the other person, lie.” You know how we justify our own lying? Somehow it’s out of compassion. In our mind we’re saying it’s out of compassion so we don’t hurt somebody. But usually it’s to cover up something we did that we don’t want other people to know about. If you have hard time understanding that ask Bill Clinton. He has had some experience. He’ll help you understand that one.
Actually lying is one of things that I find very disturbing. If somebody lies to me—usually if somebody lies we find out about it. I feel very offended when I find out that somebody lied to me because to me if somebody lies to me it’s like they’re saying, “I don’t trust you to keep your cool when you know the truth.” To me lying shows a lack of trust in me as the listener. You know, I can bear the truth. In fact I can bear the truth much better than I can bear somebody lying to me.
So if somebody lies, immediately, the red flag goes up—because if this person isn’t going to tell me the truth, then I really can’t trust very much of what they do.
Creating disharmony is another one we do when we’re in our jerk mode. How do we create disharmony? I’m jealous of somebody in the workplace, so I go around and I talk to everybody else in the office, and try to turn them all against this person. Have any of you ever done that? “Who, me?” Well yes, we have, haven’t we? We’ve created a lot of disharmony. In our families, boy, we do this in our families too. We try to turn one relative against the other relative—often out of jealousy, out of anger, out of clinging attachment. And then we wind up with these lovely family dinners, like we just had last week [for Thanksgiving].
Then, there’s harsh words. It’s another way of being a jerk. But of course, when we’re in the middle of saying harsh words—which again we do out of compassion, right? Right? When you tell somebody off and when you point out their faults to him; and when you tell them how much they hurt your feelings and how all your problems are their fault—aren’t you doing it out of total compassion for them—so they’ll learn a lesson and not treat other people that way? Right? Isn’t that how we explain it to ourselves? Then we begin to tell them everything that they’ve done wrong—because we’ve kept a very nice list of it in our minds. Do you do that sometimes? Especially with the people you know very well. You’re close to people—so sometime or another you’re probably going to have a fight. But in the meantime there are all these little things they do that just bug you to death. But you can’t have fight over every little thing so you kind of have a check list in your mind: “Okay, Saturday my husband did this, and Sunday he did that, and Monday he did this…” And then when you finally have a fight, you have all your ammunition. So it’s not only the thing that set off the fight, but it’s everything that’s storing up. We yell and scream, or we get so angry that we don’t talk. We just go in our room and slam the door and don’t talk to anybody. Then we think that when we act like that—yes, we yell and scream and we don’t talk—we think that by acting like that, that’s going to make the other person feel so sorry for what they did that they’re going to apologize. How often has that happened? Does that happen? Do they actually come and apologize? They don’t come and apologize. We keep waiting for them to come and apologize.
It’s so interesting how, especially with the people we’re close to, when we get upset with them we say the most abominable things that we would never say to a stranger. Think about it. Would you ever say to a stranger what you say to a family member? Think about it. Would you? I mean, most people—not. We’re much politer to strangers. Even if they cut us off on the highway. But family members, boy, we will take everything out on them. And then they’re supposed to apologize after we treat them like that. Usually doesn’t work. Not a good strategy. But we keep doing it. Don’t we?
Then idle talk is another one that falls into ethical conduct: “Blah blah blah blah.”
Then three mental ones: Coveting other people’s stuff. Like going into people’s home, “Oh, Venerable Jendy, what a beautiful small gong you have. This is lovely. Where did you get this?” Hint, hint, hint, hint. Yes? “Look at this doily. You must have some very devoted disciples. This is all crocheted. Look at this. This is gorgeous! Wow. I don’t have one of these.”—so coveting.
Then malice: Thinking how we’re going to get even with somebody. We do that one in perfect meditation posture. Have you ever done that? A whole meditation session sitting there, “Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. My brother, fifteen years ago said something to me. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. And he keeps exploiting me like that. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. And I can’t stand this anymore. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. This has got to stop. I’ve got to put him in his place. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum. What can I do to hurt his feelings? Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.” And it just goes on for an hour. No distraction. No distraction. Very single pointed. And then you hear—(bell rings)—“Oh, my brother’s not here; but I just spent a whole hour planning my revenge for something he did fifteen years ago.” Do you know that one? Anybody here ever done that? A whole meditation session—no distraction.
Then, of course, wrong views.
These are just ten ways in which we act unethically, and create messes in our own lives and messes in our relationships with other people. It’s so strange because we all want to be happy, don’t we? All of us want to be happy. We don’t want to suffer. But so many of our actions are involved with these ten. We think when we’re doing them that they’re going to bring us happiness. They consistently bring us problems, but we keep on doing them anyway. So that’s why I call ethical discipline ‘stop being a jerk’—because we keep shooting ourselves in the foot.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that a number of our psychological problems also come from not keeping good ethical conduct. I say this because when we don’t act properly towards other living beings then in our mind we have a conscience. Somewhere buried in there there’s a conscience, and we say, “Mm, what I said to that person was not very good. What I did was not very good.” And then we have a lot of guilt, remorse, different psychological problems. So I think, actually, that keeping good ethical conduct is a way to have fewer psychological problems. We have way less guilt and remorse when we have good ethical conduct. What do you think? Half of you are sleeping. See? I told you—morality…okay.
That’s the first, the foundation of everything. Whatever type of spiritual path you practice it all starts with morality, with ethical conduct. In Buddhism we talk about the Hearer’s path, the solitary realizer’s path, the bodhisattva path. We talk about sūtrayāna. We talk about vajrayāna. All of it starts with ethical conduct—with restraining our body, speech, and mind from destructive actions. When we do this we’re much happier and we have much better relationships with other people.
Ethical conduct, like I just said, it’s the foundation. From there we go on to meditation, we go on to concentration. Now maybe people will wake up: “Oh, I want to learn concentration. I want to learn meditation. Ethical conduct, I learned that in Sunday school. Blah. You know? Meditation, concentration, yes, that sounds good! I want to be enlightened.”
The higher training of concentration: mindfulness and introspective awareness
But when we sit down to concentrate, when we have those few minutes at the beginning to watch our breath—is there anybody here who didn’t get distracted? For those few minutes when we were watching our breath? I think most of us, myself included, got distracted at one point or another.
There are two mental factors that are very important in developing concentration. One is called mindfulness; the other is called introspective awareness. Now, I know mindfulness is the latest craze in, what was it? Time or Newsweek had a cover on mindfulness. Maybe I have to control myself—I’m going to get on a soap box because this mindfulness craze—you know it’s very good, and people are benefitting from it tremendously. But don’t confuse the mindfulness craze that you’re learning from therapists or doctors or whatever—don’t confuse that with Buddhist mindfulness. They’re different. What is being taught secularly as mindfulness has a Buddhist origin, but it certainly isn’t Buddhist mindfulness.
Mindfulness in Buddhism has an element of wisdom. It’s an ability to place our mind on a virtuous object and keep it there and begin to understand what that object is about.
Traditionally we have four mindfulness practices—being mindful of our body, of our feelings (happy, unhappy, neutral feelings), mindfulness of our mind, and then mindfulness of phenomena. These are very wonderful practices that you do that help develop not only concentration, but also wisdom. This is because we really have a very sharp mind that’s, like if we’re doing mindfulness on our body, it’s a sharp mind that can hold the body as our object of meditation. But then also investigate it at the same time: What is this body? Is this body something clean or is it something foul? Is this body who I am, is it my identity? Does this body bring pleasure? Does it bring pain? What’s the cause of this body? What’s the result of this body?
So mindfulness of the body has all those kinds of questions and examinations in it; and it helps us develop wisdom. It’s not simply the mindfulness that is in the mindfulness craze—where you’re just watching whatever comes in your mind. But, my point is here, especially when you’re developing concentration, mindfulness is very important. It’s what you call up at the beginning of your meditation session to put your mind on the object that you’re meditating on.
Introspective awareness is another mental factor that is like a little spy. It looks and it checks, “Am I still concentrating on the object that I chose? Or am I falling asleep? Am I distracted? Am I daydreaming? Am I doing something else?”
Practicing in daily life: ethical conduct is the foundation
These two mental factors of mindfulness and introspective awareness are very important. We put the mind on the object, and then to check and see if we’re keeping it on the object. The way to start developing mindfulness and introspective awareness in meditation is to practice it in our daily lives in terms of ethical conduct. Because it’s much easier, the initial development of mindfulness and introspective awareness happens when we’re practicing ethical conduct. On that basis then we’re able to bump it up—the level of mindfulness and introspective awareness— when we start doing meditation.
In ethical conduct mindfulness remembers our precepts. It remembers these ten non-virtues that I just talked about—because if don’t remember them we’re not going to notice when we do them. Mindfulness in ethical conduct remembers our values. It remembers our principles. It helps us to remember what kind of person we want to be so that we can go about being that kind of person.
Then introspective awareness checks and sees, “Am I living according to my own values? Or am I being a people pleaser and contradicting my own values because I’m afraid of somebody else not liking me?” Or, “Am I giving in?” Like somebody else wants me to go in on a bad business deal and I’m afraid of them and I can’t say no. So peer pressure. I’m giving in to peer pressure.
This kind of development of mindfulness and introspective awareness when we’re practicing ethical conduct helps us really keep our life in order. It also develops those two mental factors—so then when we sit down to meditate we already have some mindfulness and introspective awareness. That’s important for developing concentration. Otherwise, we know how it is. You sit down—one breath—then, “What am I going to daydream about this session?” Or (yawns)—okay. There’s actually a lot to say about concentration. It deserves a few days to talk about it actually. But it’s a very important quality to generate.
The higher training of wisdom
In the three higher trainings we start with ethical conduct because that’s easier—that’s the easiest thing to practice. Then, on that basis, we can develop some concentration; and when we have some concentration that really facilitates us developing wisdom.
There are different kinds of wisdom. All of them are important. One of the kinds of wisdom is understanding how things exist. Another kind of wisdom understands conventional phenomena—the cause and effect, karma and its effects, how things operate on a conventional level. Both these kinds of wisdom are important because we have ignorance—which is the opposite of wisdom. There are two principle kinds of ignorance—one which misunderstands the nature of reality, and the other one that misunderstands cause and effect in conventional functioning. So the wisdom has to directly oppose what the ignorance is.
Questions and answers
That’s a little bit about the three higher trainings. I’ve outlined them and sketched them out. What I’d like to do now is open it up for some questions and answers and some discussion so that you can let know more what you want to know about these topics.
Metaphor for the three higher trainings
Audience: I’ve worked for some years as a music teacher, so I find that metaphors are helpful. I’m wondering if you can offer any useful metaphors for doing this inner work of improving our concentration, of who we are or…?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay. Well, the first metaphor just that comes to my mind about the three higher trainings, the metaphor that commonly used is if you’re going to cut down a tree. You need to be able to stand firmly, and have your body in a firm position that doesn’t wobble. You need to know exactly where in the tree to hit, like if you’re using an axe. This is the metaphor: You need to know where to hit and you need power in your arms. So ethical conduct is like being able to stand firmly—because you need that solid base. You can’t cut a tree—you can’t develop your mind unless you have some stability. So ethical conduct brings that stability. Then if you’re going to cut down the tree you need to know where on the tree you’re going to hit. So that is like wisdom. What is the point that you need to understand? How is it that things really exist? How is it that they function? And you need to be able to focus on that point and really go into it. And then, if you’re really going to cut down the tree, you need some strength in your arms. If you don’t have any strength you’re not going to make a dent. So the strength is like concentration. You can put your mind on the topic that you’re investigating with wisdom and keep it there. okay So that’s a metaphor that is often used for the three higher trainings—and why you need all three.
I say this because some people come into Buddhism and it’s like, “Oh, well I’m going to realize the nature of reality and become Buddha by next Tuesday!” They’re all full of energy; and “This is easy, and I’m just going to sit down and realize the nature of reality and get it all together. Then I’m a Buddha, cross that off my list, I can go on do the next thing.” Yes? We come into this with all our naivety cum arrogance and then we fall flat on our face. You really need the three together to get somewhere spiritually.
Audience: This is useful. Thank you. I’m feeling some hunger, or need for this power, and intuitively I’m thinking it’s about confidence and belief and faith that we can do what needs to be done. I do see myself, not happy. When I was younger and ‘going for it’ I was filled with confidence. “Yes!!” And now I have lots of doubt. I know Buddhism talks about doubt. So isn’t there a way to clean up our doubt and to get our power back?
VTC: Okay. So you’re saying when we’re young we have lots of confidence. Is it confidence or is it arrogance and stupidity? I don’t know about you, I mean, I had that too. But when I look back on it now some of the things I did were like, my goodness—stuuupid! So I think when we get older we begin to see that actually we’re mortal. When you’re young, you’re invincible. Other people die, we don’t. Yes? When you’re older you’ve watched people die; and you begin to realize that, “This pertains to me too.” We become more cautious. The thing is to not go to the other extreme and be overly cautious. Not go from over-inflation of confidence so that it’s arrogance and stupidity, and then go to the other extreme of being super cautious and unwilling to try anything new or unwilling to take a risk.
Confidence is very important on the spiritual path—and confidence is different from arrogance. Arrogance is an inflated view of our self. Confidence is an accurate view based on knowledge that we have the potential to do these things. The potential to do these things doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to do them by next Tuesday. It takes a while to develop our potential. You have to plant the seed in the ground. Then you have to water it. You have to wait for the temperature—for the weather to change and it to get warmer. You need to get all the causes and conditions together for the seed to grow.
I look at spiritual development—and development as a human being in general—as a thing of creating the causes. How can I create the causes for the kind of human being I want to be? Instead of, “There’s the result. How can I grab it?” We tend in this culture to be very result oriented and we want to skip over the process. But the process is the education that allows us to get to the result. So I think it’s really a thing of—I have a little slogan: Be content to create the causes. If we just keep creating causes the results are going to come. But if we’re always looking for the results, it’s like, you planted the seed in February; it’s still cold, yes, and you go out in the garden and dig up the seed the next day to see if it sprouted. And it hasn’t so you cover it up, then you dig it up the day after that and it still hasn’t sprouted. Okay?
Pain relief at the time of death
Audience: It maybe doesn’t fit in with the topic but it’s been on my mind. If you would talk a little bit about in the final days, in one’s final days—free of pain or not—with pain relievers.
VTC: Oh. So you’re talking about when somebody’s terminally ill, is it good to use pain medication or not?
Audience: Well, and maybe you’re not ill, maybe it’s just that time.
VTC: But you’re terminal?
VTC: Yes. Okay. I think it depends very much on the individual. Spiritual practitioners, by and large, will want to avoid pain medication when they can. However, when the pain is so great that you can’t concentrate on your spiritual practice then it’s good to have some pain relief—because then that enables you to focus on your spiritual practice. For people who don’t have much of a spiritual practice, I don’t know how much it matters one way or the other.
Balancing spiritual practice with actively benefitting society
Audience: So the stereotype of Buddhism that many people may have is people living in remote places and meditating on the mountain—and of course this has changed. Now we live in this modern world where there’s so much happening. I think even His Holiness the Dalai Lama said earlier this year that it’s time for people to get more involved in what’s happening in the world; and try to influence things in a positive way. I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit about something of how you see—how can we benefit the world and still focus internally on developing on ourselves.
VTC: Okay. So how can we benefit the world and still keep up our spiritual practice and grow internally ourselves? Actually those two things are both needed. It’s not a question of either/or, it’s a question of how to balance those two—plus everything else that’s going on in our life in a reasonable way. That balance is going to be up to each individual because everybody is in a different situation. But we definitely need the inner work.
If we don’t do the inner work, how are we going to benefit anybody else? If we can’t control our own anger, how are we going to help reduce that anger of the world? If we can’t control our own greed, how are we going to help reduce the greed in the world? If we can’t sacrifice driving somewhere just because we feel like it, then how are we—you know, because we want to be able to get in our car and go here and go there and do whatever we want. And, “Recycling really is a pain the neck and I don’t want to do that. But all these other political leaders in Paris are supposed to do something for the environment. But don’t ask me to sacrifice anything that’s going to inconvenience me.” That doesn’t make sense.
We have to do our own internal work to be able to control our own greed, our own anger, our own ignorance to some extent. Then based on that to find—and we’re all going to have our own different areas where we have interests, where we feel according to our own interests and our own talents and abilities—but we want to make a contribution. Some peoples’ contribution may be you know taking care of Uncle Joe and Aunt Ethel. Other peoples’ contribution is going to be doing something about climate change. Somebody else is going to work in a homeless shelter. Somebody else is going to teach elementary school. Everybody is going to have a different way to contribute.
We need to create good motivation for what we’re doing—and that’s done through our spiritual practice. We also need to develop the ability to keep working in a steady way even though things don’t go as quickly as we want them to, and they don’t turn out exactly the way we want them to. If we have a lot of expectation and the people don’t act the way we want them to act, then we usually throw up our hands and get frustrated and say, “Well, forget it.” If we have that kind of thought, which comes from the lack of fortitude in our spiritual practice, then we’re not going to be able to help anybody else. Contributing to society is going to take a whole lot of effort. I mean, do you think that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are going to change overnight—as well as all the other people? It’s going to take time. We need to have a very strong mind that can continue to work for the betterment of the world without getting discouraged.
Modeling our spiritual practice for our children
Audience: You mentioned children a couple of times. I’m pretty new to the path like as far as trying to commit to the practice. What are simple ways to introduce some of these principles, I mean we’ve talked about things that adults struggle probably their whole life with, but how do I plant the seeds of some of these teachings with very small children?
VTC: How do you introduce some of these teachings to small children? I think the best way is through living them yourself. That’s the hard way, but it’s the best way. I get asked this question a lot: “Where can I take my kids where they can learn about Buddhism?” I say, “You have to model the good behavior you want your kids to have.” Kids are smart. They watch how mom and dad act—and they copy them. My mother used to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But that doesn’t work for kids. So the hard thing, really, is to model it.
On another level, I think, just even when you’re frustrated to be able to say, “I’m frustrated”—to teach your kids how to label their feelings. Like, “Okay, I’m angry.” I’ve said that. But that doesn’t give me a right to disturb somebody else’s peace. Sometimes sharing your own process with your kids can be very helpful. You’re mommy and you say, “I need a time out.” Because sometimes when you’re mommy and daddy you need a time out, don’t you? I always marvel, you know, because I always see parents screaming at their kids, “Sit down and shut up!” But how much do kids ever see their parents sitting quietly and peacefully? Do parents model that for their kids? If you do a morning meditation practice, even for short while, kids are going, “Wow! Mom and Dad know how to sit and be quiet. They’re so peaceful.” Then your child can sit next to you when you do that—so small things like that. Sometimes having a shrine in your home is good. I know one family, the little girl every morning she would go and give the Buddha a present; and the Buddha would also give her a present. It was very sweet. So she learned how to make offerings to the Buddha.
Audience: Very basic. You were talking about mindfulness—how to explain it and then what the word actually means. With me it is emptiness; and I read the other day that it could also be explained as egolessness. Is that a correct interpretation of emptiness?
VTC: Are you asking about emptiness or mindfulness?
VTC: Emptiness. So emptiness—one translation is egolessness. But we have to understand what does it mean by ego? That’s a very confusing word in English, so I usually don’t use that. What emptiness refers to is when we—our wrong conception mind—when we look at things they look as if, they appear to us as if they are real. They appear as if they had a real independent essence from their own side. What emptiness is talking about is that things lack that kind of independent essence, but they do exist dependently. So emptiness doesn’t mean nothingness. It’s a lack of an unrealistic way of existence that we project on people and phenomena. But it’s not total non-existence.
Audience: So where would that egolessness come in? I could not see the correlation between the two.
VTC: Well, like I said, I prefer not to use the term egolessness because it’s very confusing. Because what does ego mean? When Freud talked about ego—his definition of ego and how the word is used in contemporary language now are very different. So what do people mean when they say egolessness? What do they mean when they say ego? That’s why I shy away from that word because I think it can be very easily misunderstood. What it’s referring to is, you know, the whole concept is we have this image of our self—as like, “I’m here and I’m the most important person in the world.” Especially when something happens we don’t like; it’s a very strong feeling of me, isn’t it? “I don’t like this. This has got to stop. I said so. But I really want this.” You know? The whole way we see the self, or the person, or the I, is in a very exaggerated way—as if it had its own essence there—when actually, it doesn’t. The self exists, but it exists dependent on many other factors. So that’s what we’re talking about.
Things dependently exist but they’re not solid, concrete—so referring to the person, you know—I and me. This is mine. The whole idea of ‘mine’ is a very good way to see how we solidify things. When this is just sitting here, we go, “Oh it’s a gong. So what?” Or actually car is a better example. Gong you don’t feel much emotion for. But a car—when you see there’s that beautiful car that you’ve really wanted to get. I don’t know if it’s a Ferrari or a BMW or whatever it is, but this gorgeous car is at the car dealers. You go and look at it at the dealer’s. If it gets scratched when it’s at the dealers, does that bother you? No. I mean, cars at the dealers they get scratched all the time. It’s too bad for the dealer. If I go and I trade some paper for that car, I give people some paper, or sometimes I give them some plastic, and they let me drive the car home. I drive the car home—my car. “Look at my BMW. Look at this. My Mercedes. Look at this car. This is gorgeous”—my car. And then the next morning you walk out and there’s a big dent in the side. Then what is it? “Who dented my car?!? Aaaaah. I’ve got to get that person who dented my new car.”
What’s the difference? When the car was at the car dealers, if it got a dent you didn’t care. But the same car, after you gave that person some paper or plastic and you took the car; and now instead of parking at the dealers it’s parked in front of your house. Now if it gets dented? This is pretty serious business. What’s the difference? The difference is the word ‘my.’ When it’s at the dealer’s house it is not ‘mine.’ I don’t care what happened to it. When I am now eligible to call to call it mine, then I care a whole lot about what happens to it. Has anything really changed substantially in the car? No. What’s changed is the label we put on that car. That’s all—just the label. But we forget that it’s just a designation, just a term: ‘yours’ or ‘mine.’ Instead when we hear the word mine? Oooh, ‘mine’ has some big meaning, doesn’t it? You don’t mess around with something that is mine. But the car is the same.
What we’re getting is: it’s not in the car. There’s not a difference in the car. There’s a difference in how we are conceptually thinking about the car. But how we conceptually think about I and mine and me—making everything that happens to us, like super concrete and incredibly important. But is it really? No.
It’s a good exercise in your life to watch what happens as soon as you label something mine or my. Like when you have a child. Your first grade child comes home with an F on their spelling test. “Ah! My child has an F on the spelling test! They’re never going to get into Harvard. They’re going to be a failure. They’re never going to have a job or an education”—because they’re in first grade and they failed their spelling test: “This is a disaster!” If your neighbor’s kid is in first grade and fails their spelling test, does it bother you? So you think that kid is going to be a failure their whole life? No. What’s the difference? It’s that word mine. Mine can be a troublesome word because it’s not just a word. We give it all this meaning that it doesn’t have from of its own side—what we impute on it. And that causes us a lot of problems.
Years ago I was invited to Israel. They tell me I was the first Buddhist teacher to go to Israel. I remember leaving a retreat in the Negev Desert down in the south. We we’re in a kibbutz that was right on the border with Jordan. Jordan is one of Israel’s peaceful neighbors. I also, at one point was up near the Syrian border and the Lebanese border which aren’t so peaceful. But anyway, this time I was in a kibbutz in the south and I remember looking, standing, because the kibbutz was right on the border. There was a fence. This side was Israel. The fence, that side, there was patch of about six feet of sand that was combed—because that way they could tell if anybody stepped on it. It would interfere with the way it was combed. On the other side of that sand was the rest of Jordan. I remember standing an that fence, you know, at the fence line and looking and thinking, “You know, people fight wars depending on where you put a fence and what you call a piece of sand.” That piece of dirt or sand on that side of the fence is called Jordan; on this side it’s called Israel. And we people kill each other based on what you call a piece of dirt. Do you give that the name Jordan or do you give that the name Israel? Look at the Middle East now. Do you give that piece of dirt the name ISIS or Syria or Iraq or Kurdistan? Who knows? But people are fighting over what you call the dirt.
And that comes from our ignorance because we’re imputing things onto phenomena that they don’t have from their own side—and then we fight about it.
Let’s sit quietly for about two minutes—I call this digestion meditation—to just think about what we just talked about and then have your prayer sheet nearby because we will do the dedication verses after our two minute meditation.
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.