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Questions and answers on the establishments of mindfulness

Questions and answers on the establishments of mindfulness

A series of teachings on the four establishments of mindfulness given at Kunsanger North retreat center near Moscow, Russia, May 5-8, 2016. The teachings are in English with Russian translation.

  • Understanding the practice and rituals we do takes time
  • A Song to Mummy Tara
  • The Bodhisattva’s Confession of Ethical Downfalls
  • Taking precepts and accumulating merit
  • Neutral feelings and how they arise
  • Attachment to children
  • The Buddhas eminate their enlightened activity, beings differ in their receptivity

The four establishments of mindfulness retreat 05 (download)

For this session I was asked to give the transmission, or to read the Tara prayer. I thought I would also give transmission of the 35 Buddhas practice in case people are doing that, they might want that transmission. Then we’ll do the refuge ceremony for the people who are taking refuge. After that we’ll continue with the teaching. That’s the plan. Let’s see if the plan works.

I want to emphasize first, before we start, because it came up when we were talking at lunch, that when I said we should understand all the different things that we’re doing and not just do them indiscriminately, I didn’t mean that you must master everything by tomorrow morning. Sometimes at the beginning we want to know everything all at once and understand everything all at once, but we can’t because it takes time. You hear different things at different teachings, and then you think about them and understand them. It’s a process that takes time. It’s the same with understanding these four establishments of mindfulness. You’re hearing the teaching now, and like I said, I can’t go into all the details of it. You may or may not understand everything, you may or may not agree with everything. Just listen, take it in, work with what you understand, and slowly, slowly, you’ll come to understand more.

At the beginning when I was first learning in Nepal, all of us wanted to go into long retreat. We had known the Dharma maybe six months, maybe a year. We all wanted to go into long retreat, become buddhas. It sounds very good, doesn’t it? We all want to be like Milarepa. But we also want to do our retreat in a nice cave, with a soft bed, decorated walls, a heater, and a refrigerator. We need to ask ourselves: are we ready to do strict retreat, solitary, in a cave? It’s very romantic, but we must be practical.

They always say to follow the guidance of your teacher. Like I said, we all wanted to do retreat, and Lama had different plans for us. There was one monk, for sure he was going to go and become buddha. Lama sent him to open a business, an import/export business, to support the monastery. Because the monastery was quite poor. He sent me to work with the macho Italian monks, to be the spiritual director there. Every time since that I’ve gone back to my teacher and said I really want to do some retreat, I wasn’t even saying retreat for the rest of my life. I was just saying some longer retreat. He’d look and say, “Oh, that’s very good. Go teach.”

What I’m getting at is this is all a process of development. It’s not about having far, glamorous ideas of what we’re going to do. It’s just about step by step, slowly, slowly, learning, thinking about things, beginning to practice, understanding a little bit more, slowly, slowly. Nobody expects you to agree with everything, to understand everything. But I do hope you’ll think about what you’ve heard. If you just say, “Oh, that course was useless garbage, throw it out,” then maybe not so good. But if there are things you don’t understand, just put them on the back burner temporarily, come back to them later, think about them some more.

Similarly, nobody is pressuring you to take refuge or precepts. This is coming voluntarily from your own self, saying, “I feel certain about this path, I want to form a closer connection with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. I’ve thought about the precepts. I’ve thought about my life when I’ve done those different actions, and I see from my own experience that when I act like that, it’s not so good. So, I want to take the precept, because that really supports me in not doing what I don’t want to do anyway.” You’re the one who determines how involved you are with the Dharma. Nobody is standing there saying, “Are you taking refuge and precepts? Do you think your body is made of garbage? You’d better, or you’re going to hell.” Don’t worry about it, okay?

Like I think I told you, one of the first things my teacher said at the first course I went to that made me stay and listen was, “You don’t need to believe everything I say.” He said, “You are intelligent people, you think about it, try it out, apply logic and reasoning, use it, and see from your experience if it works. If it works and it helps you, good. If it doesn’t do anything, then leave it.” So that’s what I did, and that’s how I discovered for myself that the teachings were meaningful and valuable. At my first course, I didn’t go, “Hallelujah! I found the Dharma!” It’s got to be an organic development inside of yourself. Not something that’s forced down you. It’s very important you understand that and don’t pressure yourself. “I’ve got to be buddha by Tuesday.” You have until Wednesday, it’s okay.

Let’s do the prayers, a little bit of breathing meditation, and then we’ll do the transmissions.
[Chants, prayers, brief meditation.]


Let’s begin by thinking how fortunate we are to have been born as a human being with human intelligence, to have been able to meet the Dharma, to have our health, to have the material necessities that we need to stay alive, to live in a place that is peaceful and not in the middle of a war—so many conditions we have that are advantageous to learning and practicing the Dharma. We want to use this precious opportunity and make our life meaningful in the long term. It’s good to aspire to be free from the cycle of existence that is bound by ignorance. And it’s even better to open our hearts and minds to all living beings and want to be able to liberate them from cyclic existence and the ignorance that is its cause.

Right now, we have the buddha nature – it’s a natural part of our mind that can never be separated from us. We have all the good conditions to practice. So, let’s really generate a strong intention, a strong aspiration, to develop all our good qualities and leave behind our faults so that we can attain Buddhahood and be of the best service to other living beings. Although that might take a long time to do, it’s very valuable, so let’s start on that path.

Tara prayer

The Tara prayer: Tara is one of the female manifestations of the buddhas. The most famous Tara is the green one. Here’s a statue of her—this picture was taken at the Abbey during one of our Tara pujas. There’s another famous Tara, the white Tara, who is for long life.
The green Tara is a manifestation of all the buddha’s qualities, but especially enlightening influence—eliminating obstacles, bringing success. There’s also one prayer where we chant praises to 21 forms of Tara, and some of those forms of Tara are peaceful, and some of them are rather fierce. When you see the fierce deities, what that represents is the mind that says, “Okay, this is it, finished.” It’s the mind that’s really strong, really clear: “I’m not taking any nonsense from my ignorance, anger, and attachment. I’m not taking any nonsense from my self-grasping and my self-centeredness. That’s it.” These fierce-looking deities are not ferocious towards us; they’re ferocious towards our obscurations, our afflictions, the things that hinder us from progressing on the path.

There’s another practice that we do, an all-night practice with Tara, and you have the names of 108 Taras on your altar. The idea is that when you’re an enlightened being you can appear in so many different forms, according to what each sentient being needs at a particular moment.

The thing I’m going to read to you was requested by the group. I don’t feel especially qualified to write anything, but somehow something came out. I hope it’s of some benefit. I called it A Song to Mummy Tara. Lama Yeshe used to say that Tara was like our mother, in the sense that she represents wisdom and gives birth to the buddhas. But she’s also like our mother in the sense that we feel we can talk very freely, open up, really trust and depend on her. Lama used to call her “Mummy Tara,” so I do, too.

I’ll read it, and it involves three of the twenty-one forms of Tara, each of which has a different mantra.

Om tare tuttare ture soha.

The dancing gait of your peaceful smiling form signals hope, cheerfulness, and kindness. We need this now, in these times when those who claim to be leaders are pulling our world into hate and violence with their distorted views.

Not allowing ourselves to be adversely influenced and remaining firm in virtue, we will recall the support of all Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and we will stand together with all people who seek peace. Having a sense of our own integrity, we will cultivate tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, and generosity. With consideration for others, we will comport ourselves in ways that inspire empathy, reconciliation, peace, and kindness.

Tam, with the light of your inner joy radiating throughout the universe, please inspire us to act with compassion in this dream-like world.

Om nama tare namo hare hum hare soha.

The fierce stance of your wrathful radiating red form stops all disturbing thoughts and harmful deeds. With mindfulness of our precepts and introspective awareness that monitors the activities of our body, speech, and mind, we will immediately reverse all negativities. We will express the truth clearly and skillfully assess when to speak and act and when to let the illusory appearances fade on their own.

Hum, with the light of your exacting wisdom, inspire us to pacify our own afflictions and those of all sentient beings.

Om tare tuttare ture pey.

Aware that our own life is temporary like a flash of lightning, we will not waste time in distraction and discouragement but will reach out with love to connect to each and every living being. With fortitude we will plumb the depths of our minds, knowing the stillness and silence of their ultimate nature.

Pey! With your sparkling white light, guide us so that our obscurations and those of others evaporate into emptiness. Like you, we will then remain until samsara ends to liberate all beings lost in self-concern and self-grasping.

35 Buddhas transmission

I thought I would give the transmission for the practice of the 35 Buddhas, because some of you may do it daily. And sometime in the future maybe you’ll want to do the Ngöndro practice with the 100,000, so it’s good to have the oral transmission.

During an oral transmission, all you do is listen. This starts out with the names of the 35 Buddhas. Then it goes into some paragraphs where there is confession of our misdeeds, rejoicing at the virtues of self and others, and dedication of the merit. There’s another general confession prayer that follows that I’ll also read.


I, (say your name) throughout all times, take refuge in the Gurus; I take refuge in the Buddhas; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha.
To the Founder, the Transcendent Destroyer, the One Thus Gone, the Foe Destroyer, the Fully Awakened One, the Glorious Conqueror from the Shakyas, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Great Destroyer, Destroying with Vajra Essence, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Jewel Radiating Light, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the King with Power over the Nagas, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Leader of the Warriors, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Blissful One, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Jewel Fire, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Jewel Moonlight, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, Whose Pure Visions Bring Accomplishment, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Jewel Moon, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Stainless One, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Giver, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Pure One, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Bestower of Purity, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Celestial Waters, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Deity of the Celestial Waters, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Good, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Sandalwood, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the One of Unlimited Splendor, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Light, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One without Sorrow, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Son of the Desireless One, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Flower, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, Who Understands Reality Enjoying the Radiant Light of Purity, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, Who Understands Reality Enjoying the Radiant Light of the Lotus, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious Gem, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One who is Mindful, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One whose Name is Extremely Renowned, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the King Holding the Banner of Victory over the Senses, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One who Subdues Everything Completely, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Victorious One in All Battles, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One Gone to Perfect Self- control, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Glorious One who Enhances and Illuminates Completely, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Jewel Lotus who Subdues All, I bow down.
To the One Thus Gone, the Foe Destroyer, the Fully Awakened One, the King with Power over Mount Meru, always remaining in the Jewel and the Lotus, I bow down.

All you thirty-five Buddhas and all the others, those thus gone, foe destroyers, fully awakened ones and transcendent destroyers who are existing, sustaining, and living throughout the ten directions of sentient beings’ worlds; all you buddhas, please give me your attention.

In this life and throughout beginningless lives, in all the realms of samsara, I have created, caused others to create, and rejoiced at the creation of destructive karmas, such as misusing offerings to holy objects, misusing offerings to the Sangha, stealing the possessions of the Sangha of the ten directions; I have caused others to create these destructive actions and rejoiced at their creation.

I have created the ten heinous actions, caused others to create them and rejoiced at their creation. I have committed the ten non-virtuous actions, involved others in them, and rejoiced in their involvement.

Being obscured by all this karma, I have created the cause for myself and other sentient beings to be reborn in the hells, as animals, as hungry ghosts, in irreligious places, amongst barbarians, as long-lived gods, with imperfect senses, holding wrong views, and being displeased with the presence of a Buddha.

Now before these Buddhas, transcendent destroyers who have become transcendental wisdom, who have become the compassionate eye, who have become witnesses, who have become valid and see with their omniscient minds, I am confessing and accepting all these actions as destructive. I will not conceal or hide them, and from now on, I will refrain from committing these destructive actions.

Buddhas and transcendent destroyers, please give me your attention: in this life and throughout beginningless lives in all the realms of samsara, whatever root of virtue I have created through even the smallest acts of charity such as giving one mouthful of food to a being born as an animal, whatever root of virtue I have created by keeping pure ethical conduct, whatever root of virtue I have created by abiding in pure conduct, whatever root of virtue I have created by fully ripening sentient beings’ minds, whatever root of virtue I have created by generating bodhicitta, whatever root of virtue I have created of the highest transcendental wisdom.

Bringing together all these merits of both myself and others, I now dedicate them to the highest of which there is no higher, to that even above the highest, to the highest of the high, to the higher of the high.

Thus I dedicate them completely to the highest, fully accomplished awakening.

Just as the Buddhas and transcendent destroyers of the past have dedicated, just as the Buddhas and transcendent destroyers of the future will dedicate, and just as the Buddhas and transcendent destroyers of the present are dedicating, in the same way I make this dedication.

I confess all my destructive actions separately and rejoice in all merits. I implore the Buddhas to grant my request that I may realize the ultimate, sublime, highest transcendental wisdom.

To the sublime kings of the human beings living now, to those of the past, and to those who have yet to appear, to all those whose knowledge is as vast as an infinite ocean, with my hands folded in respect, I go for refuge.

General confession

U hu lag! [Woe is me!]

O spiritual mentors, great vajra holders, and all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who abide in the ten directions, as well as all the venerable Sangha, please pay attention to me.

I, who am named ______________ , circling in cyclic existence since beginningless time until the present, overpowered by afflictions such as attachment, hostility, and ignorance, have created the ten destructive actions by means of body, speech and mind. I have engaged in the five heinous actions and the five parallel heinous actions. I have transgressed the precepts of individual liberation, contradicted the trainings of a bodhisattva, broken the tantric commitments. I have been disrespectful to my kind parents, spiritual mentors, spiritual friends, and those following the pure paths. I have committed actions harmful to the Three Jewels, avoided the holy Dharma, criticized the Arya Sangha, and harmed living beings.

These and many other destructive actions I have done, have caused others to do, and have rejoiced in others’ doing. In short, I have created many obstacles to my own higher rebirth and liberation, and have planted countless seeds for further wanderings in cyclic existence and
miserable states of being.

Now in the presence of the spiritual mentors, the great vajra holders, all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas who abide in the ten directions, and the venerable Sangha, I confess all of these destructive actions, I will not conceal them and I accept them as destructive. I promise to refrain from doing these actions again in the future. By confessing and acknowledging them, I will attain and abide in happiness, while by not confessing and acknowledging them, true happiness will not come.

So, you have a Russian translation?

Translator: Of the 35 Buddhas? Yes, on the website.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Okay, so you can read the translation. We don’t have much time left in this session. But I thought we could do some Q&A from now until the end of the session.

Audience: When taking precepts, one then accumulates infinite merits in each moment. It seems that marketing also has tools like that: “If you subscribe to our services, you will get the _______ status.” Could you explain, giving a daily life situation, how that might work?

VTC: Of accumulating the merit?

Audience: So, the question is, like, in an ideal society, let’s imagine we have two people, and both are not killing because there’s a law not to kill, and if either of them kills, both would get the same punishment. But in our case, with regards to the precepts, it seems like one person, by not killing, is actively accumulating points of sorts. So, what’s the difference between the two people if both are abstaining from doing a certain action?

VTC: When you take a precept, you’re making a very strong determination, “I am going to avoid doing that action.” The force of that intention remains in your mental continuum; even after the moment you’ve made it, it is still there. Whereas the other person hasn’t made that strong intention, so the force of that intention does not remain in their mind stream afterwards. Although both people are not killing at this moment, one of them is acting in accord with his decision and his strong determination, whereas the other one who didn’t make that intention is not following up on doing anything virtuous with their mind because they didn’t have that intention to start with.

Audience: Let’s say that I don’t have the precept, but I see an ant, and I have an active intention of not killing. I pick it up and try to move it someplace else. Would the person walking by, having the precept, but not even seeing the ant, still accumulate more merit?

VTC: That you must ask the Buddha. Both are accumulating merit. Which one is accumulating more? I have no idea.

Audience: Question about neutral feeling. What is it? How does it arise? How does it correlate with ignorance and indifference?

VTC: The neutral feeling is just an absence of either pleasure or pain. We have neutral feelings a lot. Like, you’re sitting here, does your little toe hurt? No. Does your little toe feel blissful? No. So, that’s a neutral feeling.

All these feelings, whether they’re pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, for limited beings in samsara, all those feelings are related to ignorance. With the neutral feelings, if we crave for neutral feelings… well, no, let me start over.

There are different realms of existence, and beings in very subtle states of meditative absorption, they have neutral feelings. It’s a very peaceful state. People who are very attached to neutral feelings often aspire to generate that kind of meditative concentration so that they can be born in that state. But the state is still in samsara, that’s the disadvantage.

Audience: Two questions about attachment. First, I understand that attachment in general is negative, but maybe attachment to children can be positive or neutral, right? And the second question – what to do about attachment to people? Not attachment to their bodies, because we’ve covered that, but attachment to their personality or qualities.

VTC: The English word “attachment” can mean different things in different situations.When psychologists use it, they talk about the attachment between the parent and the child. That is a good kind of attachment because it stabilizes the child emotionally, and it helps the baby form a very primary relationship. But that attachment is very different than attachment that is based on exaggerating the good qualities of someone or something. A parent’s affection for a child may start out being that good kind of attachment, but then later it’s like, “Look what MY child did.” Okay?

Translator: And the second question, how to deal with attachment to people when we’re not talking about their bodies?

VTC: The thing there is to realize that this is a person who is still in cyclic existence, they’re still operating under ignorance, so no sense getting attached to them. You still have open-hearted caring concern for them, you still have love wishing them happiness, you can still have compassion wishing them to be free of suffering, but you’re not clinging to this person as “the one and only one that I can’t live without!”

Audience: Do the minds of individual buddhas have any distinguishing qualities? What is left after eliminating self-grasping?

VTC: The buddhas, all their minds have the exact same qualities. They have the same realizations, the same true cessations. But sometimes they may have different karmic connections with different sentient beings because of connections they developed before they became a buddha.

Audience: But the karma is also completely eliminated with the buddhas?

VTC: They no longer have the karma that is virtuous and non-virtuous. Here, we’re talking about connections that depend on imprints from when you were in samsara. So, it’s not the karma that brings a result. It’s just the force of maybe familiarity, or something like that, so that that buddha can be of more help to an individual. But it’s not the karma that results in this rebirth or that rebirth or anything like that.

Audience: Is the recommended way of working with pleasant and unpleasant feelings to remain in observation mode and see them gradually subside?

VTC: That’s one way. That’s a good way, actually. They rise, they go, and you don’t need to get involved in them and reactive with them. If there’s a pleasant sensation, if you feel attachment arising, then you might apply one of the antidotes to the attachment. It’s the same if you feel some anger arising due to an unpleasant feeling – apply the antidote to the anger.

Audience: With regard to the Buddha and karma question, is it correct to say that the beings who have a connection with the Buddha should be actively seeking him out from their side, doing something to encounter his activity, and that the Buddha cannot just impinge himself or herself upon them, from their own side?

VTC: They say that the Buddha, all the buddhas actually, due to their compassion and their altruistic intention, they are spontaneously emanating what we call their ‘enlightened activity.’ Whether a sentient being is open to receive that depends on the sentient being. The buddhas’ enlightened activity, radiating out to living beings, is like the sunshine – it goes everywhere, unobstructed. From the side of the sun, there’s no obscuration impinging upon it from shining in places. From the side of the buddhas, they don’t have any problems helping us. However, if the sun is shining everywhere, but the bowl is upside-down, the sun is not going to shine in the bowl. That has to do with the bowl. In the same way, when our mind is very obscured by wrong views or lots of negative karma, then the buddhas’ energy may be there, but our mind is upside-down. When we’re purifying and accumulating merit, what we’re trying to do is start to go like this [turn the bowl over] until we get like this [bowl upside-up], then the sun can enter the bowl, no problem.

Okay, I think we’re out of time. We’re over time, actually.

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.