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Concentration, wisdom, and spiritual teachers

Concentration, wisdom, and spiritual teachers

Part of a series of teachings on a set of verses from the text Wisdom of the Kadam Masters.

  • Levels of the uncontrived mind
  • All the ways in which we identify with “I am”
  • Conventional identities and “identity politics”

Wisdom of the Kadam Masters: Concentration, wisdom, and spiritual teachers (download)

My police lady noticed that in the teachings on the Wisdom of the Kadampas that I hadn’t finished. She noticed four more things. One is,

The best concentration is the uncontrived mind.

When you’re doing concentration meditation, falling on the side of stabilizing meditation.

There are probably many levels of uncontrived mind. The most superficial one would be without all the mental chatter of the discursive thought. That’s pretty contrived because we’re inventing all sorts of assumptions and projections and opinions and we’re fabricating stuff, so that’s very contrived.

The deepest level of an uncontrived mind would be the realization of emptiness because there we’re not fabricating inherent existence and putting that on all the persons and objects that we perceive. So, “The best concentration is the uncontrived mind.” All the layers of projection and superimposition that we put on ourselves and on other phenomena.

The next one is,

The best wisdom is to make no identification of “I am” with anything.

Wouldn’t that be a relief? No identification of “I am” with anything because we identify so much. “I am” this therefore people should speak to me in this way. “I am” that therefore people should talk to me in this way. “I am” this other thing therefore they should treat me this way. All this identification with “I am” and all of our assumptions and projections and expectations of how the world around us should relate to us, which it never cooperates and does, creates a lot of suffering for us.

Also it was very interesting talking to Venerable Cheng Yen yesterday about the kinds of identities that people have and how she finds that a lot of people are interested in Buddhism now in a way because it is so relevant to social issues.

They like it for that reason but even with social issues now there’s becoming so much identity and I’ve heard the term of “identity politics,” where we develop our political views based on our identity as a certain this or that, our identity with a group.

While we all have conventional identities, which is fine, your passport has to say something, but the problem comes when we think that those identities are fixed, that they are who we are and then have so many other assumptions about how the people and the world should treat us.

With identity politics, which is a social issue now, on one hand you can see people getting in touch with their cultures and their backgrounds and people certainly standing up for civil rights and equal rights. That’s something that’s very very good. But what I also see happening with identity politics is people get so locked in their own identity that they can’t see the humanity of other people. The big accusation now is, “You’re not me, how can you understand what I feel? You’re not me how can you understand what my group feels?”

If we look at the world that way then we will never understand anything about each other because it’s a foregone conclusion that we can’t because we’re different people with different identities. I don’t think that that’s very helpful to us at all. What our Buddhist practice is doing is teaching us to look at these identities as just conventional phenomena, as things that exist merely nominally not inherently, and even on the conventional level these identities are quite fabricated.

When you look into the heart of each sentient being—somebody’s a baby, if you look in their heart they don’t say, “I’m black,” “I’m white,” “I’m Latino,” “I’m Chinese,” I’m this or that,” “I’m Buddhist,” “I’m Christian.” Babies don’t say that.

What do we find that’s the innate thing that’s common across the board with all sentient beings? It’s the wish to be happy and to be free of suffering. So even on a conventional level those other identities are really quite superficial. I think if we get used to looking below into people’s hearts then we can really understand them.

Yes, it’s true some people like rice and some people like noodles. Maybe the noodle people will never understand the rice people and the rice people will never understand the noodle people. If we look at the world that way we’re doomed. But, if we look at it on another level, we all want to eat and be nourished and some people like rice and some people like noodles. Big deal! The important thing is we all need food and we want to be happy and we need nourishment.

If we concentrate on seeing the unity of sentient beings in that way then we will not get so locked into our identities and feel so estranged from others, or accuse them of never understanding us, or relegating ourselves to an identity of never being understood.

The best wisdom is to make no identification of ‘I am’ with anything.

And that’s really good I think in our daily life happenings. Because when we identify with “I did this job,” you know what happens after that. “I did this job,” so it’s clearly the best one and better than anyone else could do, or absolutely the worst and I’m totally humiliated. Everything that we touch becomes a big deal. Every small interaction with another person becomes this huge thing where we have to assert, “I am” and dominate and that is exhausting. I don’t know about you but I find that totally exhausting and I think if I’d just give that up I’d have so much more energy and a whole lot more happiness. So to give up this identity with “I am.”

And then the last one,

The best spiritual teacher is to challenge your weaknesses.

Now you’re going to go “Good, I can dump my spiritual teacher. She’s bugging me too much. She’s not the best spiritual teacher. I’m going to get another one.” Then you hear what you have to take up instead to challenge your own weaknesses and, “Well maybe then I’ll go back to my regular spiritual teacher.” Our spiritual teacher doesn’t challenge all of our weaknesses, they cherry pick. Which is good for us. Here it says we need to challenge our own weaknesses, which means that we can’t cherry pick. When we see our weaknesses we have to challenge them. And when we challenge our own weaknesses then we’re not feeling like anybody else is pushing us or anybody else doing anything to us because we’re simply practicing the Dharma, following the instructions of the Kadampa masters. This is not me who said this. So we follow the instructions of the Kadampa masters and then we see that it helps us.

We challenge our own weaknesses. We pay attention to what’s going on in our mind. We try and work with our afflictions. When we mess up we acknowledge it and we apologize. We don’t back up into our little box with our wall of pride and arrogance saying, “Everybody knows I made a mistake but I didn’t make a mistake so don’t say anything to me about it.”

Instead of doing that we challenge our own weaknesses. That’s how we really progress on the path, and that makes life so much easier for everybody when we challenge our own weaknesses. When we leave it to our spiritual mentors or to other people to do that, it makes them tired. When we challenge our own weaknesses it gives other people a little bit of respite, it give them a little break. And then we can see things more clearly ourselves and assess ourselves and own what is ours and not own what isn’t ours and learn from it and move on.

Audience: This last thing you said makes me think of some years ago when you were telling me that one of the hardest things for students to do is have compassion for their spiritual mentors. And I can remember thinking around that time, “Oh why should I have compassion for the spiritual mentor?”

It didn’t really enter my mind early on. I think I had that role up on such a pedestal that attributed to it all these characteristics that weren’t really helpful. So what I learned over time from that was that it was a really good thing to think that way and to have compassion. And if I could learn it for you and my other spiritual teachers maybe I would be able to learn it with other people too.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): That’s exactly it.

Audience: But I do clearly remember just having really what I would call now kind of strange notions about what my expectations were of that title and what all that meant and I don’t think it had much to do with how the Buddhist tradition sees that. I think I must have gotten that from someplace else. But I haven’t really thought about where.

VTC: I think it comes in large part from our culture because most people have authority issues. So as soon as we see somebody in authority, either it’s my parent telling me what to do and then anybody, so our teachers we have this attitude towards, our employers, law enforcement, even ticket collectors at the movie theater … anybody who has some responsibility and especially with spiritual mentors.

Instead of seeing them as a person with feelings, we see them as a role and impute what this role means. And we’re very confused about it because on the one hand they bring up all of our authority issues. On the other hand we want them to be the loving mom and dad, brother and sister, that we never had. So we often relate with our spiritual mentors in a very confused way because we’re not quite sure what we want from them and there’s just so many projections that it becomes quite difficult. So here’s where the uncontrived mind comes in.

Audience: Back to the uncontrived mind. “The best concentration is uncontrived.” So it sounds like there’s no effort involved.

VTC: Oh yes, it’s coming in the text and you will hear some in Gomchen Lamrim. You will hear many people say “Yes, effortless meditation … uncontrived mind … the mind at ease … the mind at rest.” It sounds like you don’t have to do anything. There’s no effort. You just sit there and your mind is in, oh, the natural state. Put your mind in the natural state. And so we think we just sit there and close our eyes and that’s the natural state. What we’re not realizing is all of that is the unnatural state because we are full of projections, expectations, opinions, grasping at inherent existence, anger, attachment, jealousy, everything else. All of that stuff is the contrived thing.

You don’t get to the uncontrived mind by just sitting there and doing nothing. It takes a lot of effort actually to clear away the garbage. If you look at the mirror, the mirror is just naturally pure. There’s nothing to clean, the mirror just naturally reflects. It’s uncontrived. It’s natural. It’s effortless. But if you have a mirror that has eons full of garbage on top of it can you say that that mirror with the pile of garbage is uncontrived and you need no effort at all to concentrate on that? No. So don’t be fooled by those words.

The words are trying to get us. For example, in the nine stages of sustained attention one of the descriptions of the ninth stage is that when you sit down to meditate without any effort your mind is focused. Now does that mean that as a baby beginner you sat down and without any effort your mind is focused?

No. You went through the eight preceding stages, all of which had a lot of effort. Then the ninth stage, there’s no effort. But even in the ninth state you still have to do some more to get serenity. Even when you get serenity you have to do more to get the jhanas and to get the formless realms. OK? So I think those words are meant to help us from going to the other extreme of (Gestures tensing up) but it doesn’t mean effortless, do nothing.

Audience: Thank you. I’ve heard that when you’re concentrated your mind should be relaxed. I think most of us think like effort like you have to tense and strain, to concentrate. It requires a lot of forceful type of energy. But my experience has been the other way.

VTC: Yes, and that’s exactly it because if our mind is too tight then restlessness comes but if it’s too loose laxity comes. But don’t make effort synonymous with being tight. That’s a wrong association because first of all remember it’s joyous effort . It’s effort that you’re doing because you want to make yourself a better person and you want to do something better for the universe so it has to be a happy effort.

Nobody’s beating you over the head to concentrate. It’s not, I think you’ve heard me tell the story of when I went to visit a Montessori school and the little kids wanted to meditate and so there was a little girl in the front row (Venerable scrunches up her face) like that. No. We shouldn’t be tight like that when we meditate. But we also shouldn’t be, “Well I just sit there, whatever comes comes.”

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.