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When things fall apart it’s time to practice

When things fall apart it’s time to practice

  • How pure appearance also means seeing our own mind as pure
  • Viewing situations as an enlightened being would view them, without our habitual rubbish attached
  • Settling past difficult situations by examining them from an enlightened point of view
  • Maintaining our wisdom while giving up our ego and self-grasping
  • Using a difficult situation to learn from and inspire our practice

To continue from yesterday about pure appearance. It’s usually described in highest class tantra as seeing your environment as pure, the beings in it as pure, of course your teacher as pure. In other words, it being an enlightened environment filled with awakened beings. And I was describing how the purpose of that is to keep us from our ordinary appearance, ordinary grasping, all of our projections. Sometimes in the process of doing that we forget that we’re supposed to see ourselves in pure appearance. Earlier in the practice we’ve dissolved into emptiness, our wisdom mind appearing in the form of the deity, but then we just continue to think our same old thoughts. While we’re doing session we may visualize ourselves as the deity, but our manner of thinking is not like a buddha’s manner of thinking. We think we’re practicing divine dignity, but in actual fact our mind is still the same critical, judgmental mind as before.

What I would like to propose is yes, see things outside as pure, but the main thing, I think, is to see our own mind as pure. If we see ourselves in the fully awakened aspect, then we would view all situations that we encounter in that way. So then if you’re in a situation, let’s say, like it happened in this one center, where the teacher punched somebody in the gut and made them double over, if you were that person and you saw yourself as the deity, you wouldn’t get angry because you would have eliminated the ignorance of karma and its effects, and instead you would say, “I’m experiencing this as a result of my own previously created negative karma, there’s no reason to get angry, there’s no reason to blame somebody else. I can still say this action is inappropriate and unacceptable, but I don’t have to have the same emotional, judgmental, critical mind that I usually bring on in that kind of situation.

If your teacher’s propositioning you, if you see yourself as the deity then: “I’m the deity. I don’t need somebody else’s attention to be special. I don’t have ordinary sexual desire because I’m the deity. And I have the complete confidence to say ‘no, I don’t want to get involved with this.’ And I’ve already checked and I’m not the quality of Naropa and Marpa, so I’m not going to say ‘yes I can do this.’ But again, I will not get offended, insulted, angry, or anything else, because I’m seeing this situation with my mind being like a buddha’s mind, with the full awareness of karma, the full awareness that the situation is empty of inherent existence, the full awareness of bodhicitta and wanting to serve others more than myself, considering their happiness more important than my own.”

You train yourself to see situations as a buddha would see them.

Personally speaking (to diverge here a little bit), I’ve found this to be a very good way to settle, in my mind, situations from the past that when I think of them still disturb my mind. If I go back into those situations where I feel somebody didn’t treat me properly, or whatever, but I go in and instead of thinking I am ordinary little old me, I go in thinking I have a buddha’s renunciation of samsara, their great compassion for others, their wisdom, and I play out that situation from the past except now I’m seeing it as a buddha would see it, and I find that really healing. Because when I don’t see it that way….

[Short interruption by power going out]

You’re in the middle of going back in a situation from the past, except instead of replaying it in your mind the way you usually do, which ends up getting feeling hopeless, or angry. or resentful, or jealous, or offended, or whatever it is, you replay that situation and you’re a buddha, you see it in an entirely different, enlightened way, and then that’s very psychologically healing, and then you can put the situation down, because your mind isn’t troubled by it anymore with “well how dare that person act like that to me’, and “look what I did and I made such a mess,” and blah blah, because you’ve completely looked at it from an enlightened perspective.

I think instead of pure appearance being like superimposing something unrealistically (and) whitewashing all situations, and instead of superimposing garbage on the outside, (we need) to learn to see everything with a pure mind from OUR side, instead of just: “I think I’m a deity, but I still have the same old mind, and gee why’s this person acting like that anyway that isn’t right….”

Like I said, you can still say, “This action is not suitable and it’s not appropriate,” but you don’t get all angry and upset, and so on and so forth, because of it.

In this talk of following a spiritual mentor, they always say follow your teacher’s instructions. Then some people use the word “surrender.” I don’t hear that word so often from my teachers. I don’t hear the word “surrender.” I think “surrender” can be a very confusing word. What we want to do in relationship with our spiritual teacher is to relinquish our ego and our self-grasping, but we don’t want to relinquish our wisdom. And often people get this very confused, and they hear some language like “surrender to the guru,” and then they think “okay, I give all my money away, I do whatever I’m told, just like a robot, or just like a baby.” But that’s not the idea. The idea is to give up the ego grasping, give up the wrong conceptions, and strengthen our wisdom. We don’t give up our wisdom.

Lama Yeshe would sometimes get…. People would say, “Lama should I do this? Lama should I do that? Should I do that or should I do that?” Not being able to act like an adult and make their own decisions And Lama used to say, “Oh, next time they’re going to ask me where to go pee-pee.” Now, if Lama were alive, we would say, “Ask the Texas state assembly, they’ll tell you where to go pee-pee.” Because of their bathroom bill. [Laughter] This is not the point of Buddhism.

Another thing that comes up is, somebody wrote me and said, “Well this whole thing that’s happened with this teacher has made me very discouraged.” Because he had such good teachers, he practiced so long, he was so well-respected, and then he acted like this. So if somebody with that kind of training, and also who was a rinpoche, falls down like this, then what hope is there for me?

That way of thinking is total rubbish. Total rubbish. First of all, comparing ourselves to others makes absolutely no sense. Second of all, we don’t really know the internal state of this other person, so trying to compare ourselves to it doesn’t make any sense. And the whole idea is to work on ourselves, and to hear the teachings, and read them, and study them, and practice them ourselves.

Right before I was ordained in Dharamsala, there was one foreign nun whom I really admired, and then my teacher’s Tibetan translator, one Tibetan monk whom I also admired. Then right before I ordained, they both disrobed and go off to get married. And I’m like [jaw dropped]. “These are two people whom I really admired, and uh-oh….” But the way I used that was, if they can fall down, then I have to be especially careful. I have to really strengthen my practice. I can’t be sloppy. I have to pay attention to things. And I have to make a lot of very strong prayers to always meet qualified teachers, to always practice correctly, to keep my precepts. So instead of using what they’re karmic occurrence to say “what hope do I have?” I used it to say, “I need to pay real strong attention to what I’m doing, and follow the path correctly.”

That’s what you do, because these kinds of things are going to happen. Sentient beings are sentient beings, and some people will have really heavy karma from the past and it ripens and you kind of go “whoa, what happened to that person?” But all of this you should always take to be “that means I have to pay attention and really study well, really take the teachings to heart well.” Not just to have Dharma as a hobby. Not just to mouth the words, but I’ve really got to practice training my mind.

You take it like that and then, instead of being discouraging, actually it inspires you. And anyway, if we’re bodhisattvas-in-training, we’re going to have to get really used to seeing sentient beings doing dumb things. Because when you’re a bodhisattva, and when you’re a buddha, it’s not like you go around and teach everybody and they all go, “Oh yes, what you said is true, I’m going to practice purely.” And then they practice and in two weeks they’re buddha. No. Look at the situation for the buddhas and bodhisattvas. Even with us. They’ve been trying to get us to enlightenment since beginningless time, and look at us. They didn’t get all disappointed and fed up and discouraged, so we can’t afford to do that either. Don’t think, “Oh I’ll just become a bodhisattva, then they’ll all admire me, I’ll get so many apples and oranges, and sweet cards telling me how much they love me, and they’ll be so devoted to me and do everything I say. Finally they’ll put the glasses upside-down in the cupboard because I said so.” No, that’s not going to happen. They’re going to say, “Who are you telling me what to do?” Aren’t they? What do you say to your teachers? “Tie your shoes, do this, do that. Why are you bossing me around? You don’t do it yourself.” And then there’s the shortcut: Just flat out “no.” “Please do this, it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings, it’ll help you in your practice, it’ll help you purify your mind.” “No.” “Why?” “I don’t feel like it.” That’s too polite. It’s, “I don’t feel like it. Who are you to tell me what to do? I don’t want to. Give me some ice cream first, then I’ll do it.” So, get rid of those delusions.

Then the question arises, “What does it mean for an organization in which the lead teacher…this whole thing has happened?” First of all, it indicates (this is my personal opinion), you need new leadership. Especially if people in the organization were told, essentially, to cover up for what the teacher was doing. Now they’re suffering a lot because the whole thing’s fallen apart and they realize the deception going on. I think you need some fresh blood in the organization. Need to make contact with other teachers and invite more teachers to come so the organization doesn’t just center around one person. Within the organization more openness in terms of how decisions are made. And definitely having an ethics policy. And then I think it would be very good for people in the organization in general to do some purification practices together. Instead of just getting all busy with lawyers and this and that, writing news releases, also sit down and, as a group, do purification together. Because all of the people need some healing, and to be able to put this in perspective so that they learn from the experience and they go on into the future with more wisdom than they had.

This is the whole thing, whenever something in our lives collapses—and believe me, it will, because that’s just the way life is—instead of getting down in the dumps, you learn from the experience. If I had been more clear-thinking beforehand, what would I have noticed, what could I have done? And you think about these things. Not in the sense of beating yourself up, of “oh I was so stupid, I should have noticed this, blah blah blah…. What was wrong with me?” Not in that sense. But in the sense of, “What can I learn from this situation? From what I could have done. From the mistakes the teacher made so that I don’t make those same mistakes in the future with people.” In that way you learn from the whole situation and you’re able to go on with a lot more wisdom and a lot more confidence than you had before.

This is the way I think we should approach all situations in which things in our lives fall apart. Not just something in a Buddhist organization. But when things just fall apart, then okay, how am I going to see it? How am I going to work with it? What am I going to learn?

Just even speaking personally, there are several times in my life, after I took ordination, where things really fell apart. One of them was before I started the Abbey after I moved to Missouri, with the hopes of starting something there. It completely fell apart. But I look now and it’s like, wow that was a really good experience, and what I learned from that experience was something that I had to learn, and that gave me more confidence, more clear thinking, once of course I thought it all out and learned from the experience.

These kinds of things we always go [cry], but all you have to do, just change it, make it an opportunity to learn from, and then you really grow.

Then ways to avoid this kind of thing in the future. On the part of the teacher, of course, they need to really practice, keep their precepts, continue hearing teachings themselves, and so on. The organization needs to start out with clearer transparency about finances, the way decisions are made, all these kinds of things. From the side of the students, check your motivation and make sure that you’re coming for the Dharma. You’re not coming for pats on the back and smiles from an important person, but you’re really coming to learn the Dharma and to put it into practice, because you really seek to be out of samsara.

And then another little bit as a conclusion here, what His Holiness often talks about is, instead of people at the beginning starting off with the tantric view of guru as buddha and all that kind of stuff, is he says there are three levels of spiritual mentor: your fundamental vehicle spiritual mentor, your mahayana spiritual mentor, your vajrayana spiritual mentor.

Your fundamental vehicle spiritual mentor, that’s the one who gives you refuge, five precepts, monastic precepts, teaches you the basic Buddhist perspective, four noble truths, and so on. That person you see as a representative of the Buddha. They’re a person who’s senior, you respect. They’re representing the Buddha because the Buddha is no longer here. They know more than you do, you follow their example, but as vinaya says, if the teacher misbehaves, you’re perfectly entitled to say something, because the whole sangha community is supposed to help each other, no matter whether you’re junior or senior. Whenever somebody breaks precepts.

The second level of spiritual mentor is your Mahayana (or your Bodhisattva) Vehicle spiritual mentor. That’s the person who teaches you about the six paramitas (the six perfections), the person who gives you bodhisattva precepts. That whole aspect of the Dharma that has to do with exchanging self and others, and so on. That person you see as an emanation of the Buddha. You don’t see them AS the Buddha. They’re a little bit more than a representative of the Buddha, but you see them as an emanation of the Buddha who’s come to teach you the bodhisattva teachings.

In highest class tantra then you see that person as the Buddha, because they’re giving you the empowerments and so on, and introducing you to the pure vision.

What His Holiness is getting at, describing these three levels, is that we start out with the fundamental vehicle teacher and that practice, then we progress to the Mahayana viewpoint and the bodhisattva vehicle and a teacher who teaches that. Then when we’re prepared, we go on to vajrayana. Each of those three levels of teachers you relate to in a different way, according to the practice. And that makes a whole lot of sense. You want to get away from, “The teacher’s just like me, they grew up with Mickey Mouse like me, so what do they know?” Or, “The teacher came from Tibet, that backward country, what do they know?” Or any kind of mind that deprecates your teacher, you don’t want to fall prey to that mind because it just takes you down the slippery slope to pointing out faults in the person who’s trying to help you the most. If you want to find faults, you do that before you accept somebody as your teacher. That’s the time when you really look and you analyze and you check and you see what’s going on. After you’ve formed the relationship–again, we’re now assuming that this is a reliable spiritual mentor because you have checked them out, and you’ve discerned that they’re competent–at that time, like I explained a few talks ago, you don’t want to let your mind pick faults because that will just lead you to abandon your practice and get all hung up in criticizing, and shoulds, and not-tos and supposed-tos, and righteous indignation. Practicing the path has nothing to do with that. So you want to avoid that kind of thing, so with your fundamental vehicle teacher you see them as representatives of the Buddha.

Your bodhisattva vehicle teacher you see as an emanation of the Buddha. And then when you get to tantra you can see them as a buddha. But you have to understand what that means. It doesn’t mean that you whitewash everything.

Is this a bit clearer now? I’m hoping that it will help people. Because the tragedy is when people don’t learn other ways to see situations, and to see them more realistically and in a more beneficial way, then their usual, ordinary mind takes over and the result is just criticism, rubbish, gossip, and then they leave the practice, which is harmful to them.

Audience: Venerable, just to be clear about the pure view, it’s seeing situations as a result of your own karma, it’s not seeing others as necessarily buddhas and excusing any bad behavior that you see?

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Yes. That’s not the standard definition of “pure view.” But that’s definitely, if you’re practicing seeing yourself as a buddha, some attitude, some outlook, some perspective that you should have. Even in the bodhisattva path, even in the fundamental vehicle path. What happens to me is a result of my karma, there’s no sense getting mad at other people. Because if I didn’t create this karma in the past–under the influence of my afflictions and my self-grasping, my self-centeredness–if I hadn’t created that in the past, then I wouldn’t be experiencing this now.

It doesn’t mean what the other person is doing is right. It just means you’re taking responsibility for your part in it. And whenever we take responsibility then there is a way for us to grow. Whenever we blame, then we dig ourselves into a hole. “I can’t change until this person does something differently. I can’t release my anger until they apologize.” You dig yourself in a hole. Jump in the hole. Decorate your hole. And then complain that you’re in it.

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.