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Alternative ways to deal with afflictions

03 Vajrasattva Retreat: Alternative Ways to Deal with Afflictions

Part of a series of teachings given during the Vajrasattva New Year’s Retreat at Sravasti Abbey at the end of 2018.

  • Meditation on releasing anger
  • The power of reliance
    • Restoring the relationship with sentient beings
    • Counteracting the afflictions

Think of someone that you don’t get along with, someone who has harmed you, someone you’re afraid of, or who has threatened you. Think of a specific individual. Then, imagine that you were born in their family as a child just as they were born in that family. Imagine you had brought into this life the same karmic tendencies, the same habitual attitudes and emotions as this person. Imagine that you experienced the same things as a child growing up that they experienced. What would that be like?

Having imagined what it’s like to be that person inside and to have experienced in their life what they experienced, how does that behavior that they did that harmed you appear to you now? Does it appear that they were in control and deliberately did that? Or does it appear more due to their previous conditioning to what they came into this life with, that these causes and conditions just ripen that way in terms of their behavior?

When people harm others, they do so with a twisted conception that that behavior will in some way make them happy. Imagine having that kind of mind that thinks that doing whatever they did to harm you would make them happy, and let some compassion arise for that person who has this deep internal suffering.

See if you can let go of the anger or resentment or rancor you had towards that person and instead see them as an object of compassion. Just the way a parent sees their child who has a very high fever, and because of the fever is hallucinating and is out of control The parent cares for the child and loves that child and doesn’t hold the crazy things that the child does against them, but realizes that it’s due to the fever. See the person who you have trouble with as being under the control of afflictions and karma so that they’re kind of impelled to do what they do because of their lack of wisdom and [lack] of conscientiousness. In that way, release the anger and replace it with some compassion for them. It doesn’t mean you have to see them as entirely good, but you’re able to understand and empathize and have compassion for their situation in samsara.

Now imagine that person smiling, being relaxed, being free from the afflictions and karma that made them do what they did that harmed you. How would it feel to see them in that way, in a completely changed way where they were more conscientious, more aware of there actions, more caring and careful? Can you imagine that person one day becoming like that?

Then develop the aspiration to actualize full awakening so that you can be of the greatest benefit to that person and to all other sentient beings who are so adversely impacted by their afflictions and karma. [Do you] feel some change?

Power of restoring the relationship

We, so often when something happens with someone, develop an image of that person that we make very concrete, that we know everything about that person based on one action they [did] towards us. That that’s who they are, always has been, always will be, no potential to change. The way we relate to them, the way we feel about them, always has to be the same. In that way, we lock ourselves in prison.

Certainly, we haven’t all been little angels in our lives, and somebody, given the chance, may be doing this meditation with us as the person. Can you imagine that? Somebody else may have that kind of feeling towards us, and certainly, we would want that person to give us another chance and realize that we aren’t that one stupid action we did. That we’ve changed, we have potential, and so can they not just put us in a box and throw us out the window.

Did you ever think that somebody might be doing this meditation with you as the object?

Audience: Somebody in this very room!

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It might be that way.

When we’re talking about the power of restoring the relationship, this is the kind of really deep work we need to do to actually be able to restore the relationship in our own hearts. Like I said, it may not always be wise to act in the same way towards that person. For whatever reason they may not have changed their ways, but inside we’re not just like this [VC makes gesture]. If we can come to that point where we have an attitude of love and compassion and even bodhicitta towards them, then we really are purifying very deeply the karma we created with them. Whereas if we hold, if we’re still holding a grudge against them, if we’re still tight inside, then it will be very easy for us to act in a harmful way towards them again in the future. We’re all primed for it. We’re holding on to that grudge. Certainly, if we’re trying to purify, the next step we take is to resolve not to do the action again. If we really haven’t cleared up our negative feelings towards the person, it’s going to be hard to make that resolution in a sincere way. Or, it may be hard to keep that resolution because inside we’re primed so that just the slightest thing happens and we go on defense mode, or we go on attack mode.

Have you seen that happen sometimes with people that you’re close to? You have such a backlog of stuff that you’ve never settled in your own mind, or that you’ve never communicated and worked out with the other person that then the person says one small thing and we go ballistic. Have you seen that in yourself? Of course, we’ve seen it in other people, they do that all the time, but we do, too. Internally, if we can shift our attitude towards that person… Like I was saying yesterday, if we can make contact with them and talk with them directly, very good. If they are not ready for it, that’s okay. The important thing is that we’ve changed our mind. If they’ve died or if we’ve lost touch with them, we don’t know how to get in touch with them, I find sometimes having a little dialog with them in my mind in my meditation [helps], listening to them explain how they felt and responding with kindness and then explaining how I felt and apologizing for it, and imagining them accepting that apology. Even if the person’s been dead for years and years, I find that kind of thing quite helpful. Sometime in a future life we will meet them again. They won’t look like they have looked in this life, we won’t have the same relationship, but we want to be able to have a good relationship. The thing about bodhicitta is, it has to be based on great compassion for each and every sentient being. If we leave one sentient being out—even one—then we cannot attain full awakening. When you think about that, when you really think about it, if I’m holding onto something negative towards even one person, look how it’s impeding my own spiritual progress, look at the damage it’s doing to me, look at how it’s preventing me from actualizing my deepest wishes.

Then you have to ask yourself, “Is it really worth hanging on to that grudge? Do I really want to hang onto that grudge and to be right so badly that I’m willing to sacrifice my own awakening for it?” Now, if you put that question to yourself, what’s the answer? I mean, come on. I do that often, too, when I am angry at somebody or upset with them. I think the disadvantages of anger create so much negative karma, makes us be reborn in the lower realms, impedes our spiritual progress, cancels out eons of merit, and so forth. Then I say to myself, “Is the ego boost of having the power to be angry at this person really worth it if I have to sacrifice that other stuff?” That I’m willing to give up eons of merit so that my ego can feel triumphant and victorious and righteous. Do I really want to do that? Who’s getting harmed here? Who’s harming me? It’s my own anger, it’s not the other person. Are you getting what I’m saying?

For this to work, you have to have some idea of the benefit of accumulating merit and good karma, and have some faith in the fact that our actions have an ethical dimension and that we create the causes for our own experiences. If you say we don’t create the causes for our experiences, then you should try and posit something that does create the causes for our experience. What are the possibilities? One is: there’s no cause, everything is random. But if there’s no cause and everything is random, why go to work to earn money because the money should come to you randomly without you having to create the cause? Causelessness does not work. Then what about a creator God? God wanted you to experience this. God created this situation. What does that mean? God made you go through hell for what reason? God is supposed to be compassionate, and God created you, so why would he want to punish you? If you say he wants to punish you because you disobeyed him, then why didn’t he create you different so you didn’t disobey him? If God’s holding all the puppet strings, he should have done something different. That doesn’t work. Then, other people are the cause of my problems. That’s it, other people. All those jerks out there. But, as we were meditating yesterday, we depend on all those jerks to stay alive. If we want to obliterate every single jerk there is out there who displeases us in one way or another, how are we going to stay alive? Especially since, often, the people we hold the deepest grudges about are the same people who have been very kind to us, and we’re stuck in this thing of, “They’ve been kind, but…” If you keep saying ‘but,’ and I want to obliterate them and wish they had never been in my life, then imagine your life without that person being there, taking care of you, helping you, supporting you, and so on. Then what? So, are other people the source of our problem?

The Buddha told us something quite profound about this. He said, “Wherever you go, if you have the seed of anger in your mind stream you will find someone to hate.” The seed of anger in our mind stream is the principle cause for our anger, and grudges, and rancor, and everything, and that seed of anger follows us everywhere. It doesn’t need a visa, it doesn’t need a passport, it doesn’t need a health check. It goes right through that concrete wall that they want to build at the border. I wish my anger could not get through the concrete wall. I wish that the immigration officers would not let my anger in when they let me in. But, my anger comes with me and wherever I am I will find somebody to hate, somebody who just drives me up the wall; even [if] I don’t hate them I will be perturbed. That sounds much more polite. I’m irritated, I’m perturbed. That will come up regarding somebody regardless, because I have that seed in my mind stream. Who was it who’s trying to arrange a trip to the moon. [Many audience responses, e.g., It was Mars. Elon Musk.] Who? I can’t hear you. You’re all saying the name together, it sounds like “blehbleh.” So, Mr. or Mrs. “blehbleh” is trying… you go to the moon! What’s going to happen at the moon? We’ll get angry. We’ll get angry at someone. This is the whole thing about Dharma practice, is that our experience is rooted in our own mind and to change our experience we have to change our mind.

I wanted to also touch on another technique that I use when I’m upset with somebody or when I’m talking a lot about anger. This works for jealousy as well, it works for pride, it works for attachment, whenever our mind is overwhelmed by one affliction or another and it’s going to adversely affect other people as well as adversely affect ourselves. I find what’s very helpful, if there are specific situations that my mind seems really stuck in—maybe it was a situation of attachment where I was craving, craving, craving something and couldn’t let it go—is to imagine Vajrasattva in that situation with me. There are two ways: he can be another person in the room, kind of changing the energy in the room and then in that way imagine talking to that person in a different way, having a different kind of interaction with them because Vajrasattva’s there; or thinking that Vajrasattva is at my heart and Vajrasattva is talking to that person or Vajrasattva is dealing with that situation.

There’s a big family drama—you ever have a big family drama? Or in your classroom, at your workplace, with a friend, who knows where—we have dramas, things happen that are unexpected, and this situation is stuck in your mind such that you really can’t get beyond it. Then put Vajrasattva in your heart. We’re usually very good at re-running the video of that situation, but this time when you start to re-run it, Vajrasattva’s in your heart and Vajrasattva’s talking. How’s Vajrasattva going to deal with that situation? We read and we see videos now of people really getting very mistreated in public, especially minorities, mostly minorities. Now imagine you’re that person and you have Vajrasattva in your heart and somebody is trying something on you. Or imagine—this might push some buttons—imagine being a cop and you’re dealing with a situation where the other person could be violent because we have gun laws that allow everybody to have guns. You have no idea who’s armed when you come in a situation, so you’re prickly, you’re nervous, you’re uptight, and imagine Vajrasattva’s in your heart when you’re facing that situation. And Vajrasattva’s in the heart of the other person who’s facing the cop. It’s a very good way to see that there are alternatives, alternative ways to think and feel in difficult situations.

Like I said, especially if there’s something that happened in the past that’s really stuck in our mind, some experience, trauma, or abuse, or whatever, put Vajrasattva in that room. Put Vajrasattva in your heart. Put Vajrasattva on the crowns of the heads of all the people there. And imagine that all the people in that very confused situation sit there and chant Vajrasattva mantra together with light and nectar streaming down. If you have difficulty with the people running our country, do that for them. When we do the bowing like we did last night, I often visualize the Congress and the President and the Cabinet bowing to the Buddha together with us. Can you imagine that? I wonder if Trump can even get down and up, to have a belly like that, it’s difficult, and he’s seventy-two years old for goodness sake. It’s nice to think that we could maybe someday—I’m forever an optimist—[be] bowing to the Buddha together, if not in this life, well then in future lives. Somehow, change our fixated video about a person or a situation, because that’s so often what happens when you think about it. Often when you are in the middle of the situation, you’re just trying to deal with it. You’re not sure what’s going on. Afterwards when you think about it, and you hear what happened, then I think you often get more upset than you were before.

What do you think? Do you sometimes get more upset when you think about the situation afterwards than when you were in it to start with? Because afterwards, “Oh my god, they said this, and they did this, and then that happened, and that happened, and how dare they treat me in this way, and that’s invalid, and it’s not fair, and this, and that, and I’m right, and they’re wrong, and I’m going to trample them,” and on and on and on. All of that stuff doesn’t happen while the situation is happening. All that stuff comes afterward. Then we solidify it: “That’s who that person is, that’s exactly what that situation was.” Those of you who are following the Thursday night class, this is how conception works. Conception can be useful in understanding things, but conception also freezes a situation. As we were studying how conceptions are formed, they pick out certain details of things that are similar, like even different moments of time in a situation, and put it all together and make an image and then freeze that. It’s like your computer getting stuck. This is what we really want to avoid, because it keeps us in misery, and it makes us create so much negativity in our life and prevents any sort of healing and spiritual progress.

Audience: I’m not sure how to phrase this exactly, but given that Buddhist practice is not the same as psychology and they serve different purposes, from my side it almost sounds like you’re sort of making light of people’s suffering. People have experienced profound abuse and it’s not just that it was sort of in your mind as a post-event conceptualization. It did actually happen. So, it’s a little difficult to say, “Well, you know, if you would just imagine Vajrasattva with all these people and yourself,” that it would change the situation. I’m not sure I’m articulating…

VTC: I understand what you’re saying. Let me repeat it back, see if I’ve understood: That people do experience real abuse and real suffering, it happened, it’s not make-believe. They’re still dealing with the effects of that and so it sounds like when we say, “Just imagine Vajrasattva there,” that we’re dismissing that suffering as something that’s not important. Certainly, what you say is true. People do experience profound suffering. Those situations do happen. I’m not arguing with that.

What I’m talking about is how our mind deals with the situation after the fact, and how our mind solidifies it. At the risk of pushing some buttons here, but that’s kind of my job, we often make identities out of our suffering. I am the person abused by that. I am the person unloved by X. I am the person persecuted by X. We develop a conception of our self based on what happened in the past, or even based on what we’ve heard our family say. Even something [that] didn’t happen to us, [but] we hear about it in our family history and we hold on to it, and we develop an identity about that. We forget that the awful experience that happened in the past is not happening now.

I’ve found, in watching my own mind, that there may have been something that happened in the past that was painful. Every time I re-run it in my mind it’s as if I’m doing it again—to myself, the other person isn’t even here. The other person’s gone, but every time I remember it and go through it, I imprint it deeper and deeper in my own mind. Even though at this very moment, we’re sitting here right now in a room full of people who are friendly and in a safe space. Are you in a safe space right now? Are you here with people who are friendly? Can you trust the people around you? We’re sitting here right now, but our mind goes back to that as if it’s happening now and filters our present experience through the conditioning of the past event, such that we react. What I was saying before: there’s a small thing but because of the previous event, we haven’t been able to really in our hearts make peace with [it]. Some small element of the present reminds us of that past thing and ‘boing’, there we go. We’re not even aware of it. That’s what I’m talking about.

In Buddhism we talk a lot about conditioning, that we are conditioned phenomenon. If you have Buddhist taxonomy, there are phenomena that are existent; if you divide them up, there are phenomena that are static and permanent; there are phenomena that change. Something that changes is conditioned. It’s affected by causes and conditions. It never remains the same in the next moment. We are that kind of phenomena. We are changing every single moment. We are conditioned by the past continuity of our body and mind. We’re conditioned by the society around us, by our family, by the food we eat, by whether people smile at us or not. We’re conditioned phenomena. If we remember that, then we see that it’s always possible to recondition ourselves. That when we take something from the past and freeze it, we’re conditioning ourselves, putting that in our mind again and again and again. “Look at what happened to me, I wasn’t respected and I feel full of shame.” “Look at what happened to me, they dominated me and I have no power.” “Look at what happened to me, I’m completely unworthy.” Meanwhile, that situation’s not happening but our memory is conditioning our self like that. What I’m saying is we have the power to re-condition ourselves and to change that fixed identity of being somebody who’s like [VC makes some noise] to being somebody who’s different.

I’m not saying that there’s no suffering. I’m saying that we can heal from it, and our healing from it comes a lot from our side. We can’t wait for the other person to acknowledge it and apologize. If we wait for them to acknowledge and apologize, we are probably going to die first, even if we don’t die for another 50 or 100 years. Yeah, it would be great if somebody apologized. People have seen me do this before. You imagine a great apology. When I think of the people who’ve harmed me, “Oh, they feel such incredible regret. They finally go to the Dharma course on Vajrasattva and they feel so much regret for how they’ve harmed me.” Then they crawl up the aisle on their hands and knees, “Oh, I harmed you. I feel so sorry, this is terrible. How could I have done that? I feel so guilty. I’m an awful person for harming you. Please forgive me.” And I sit here [laughter], “Well, I’m glad you realized it finally, you idiot, what you did to me. I’ll think about forgiving you.” It sure would be nice, then we could stick the knife in and get our revenge. What kind of person does that make us? Same as them, doesn’t it? Don’t run that video because that one’s not going to happen.

The thing is to recondition our mind. Is that making some sense to you? I’ve been accused, in the modern climate, of being insensitive to people’s identities, to not crediting people’s identities. If they’re gay or lesbian or trans or black or white or brown or Asian. Everybody has an identity, and everybody is a victim nowadays. I come and talk about letting go of identities, and people get really mad at me because I’m not acknowledging the pain that they’ve experienced due to their identity. That’s the way they see it. That’s not what I’m doing. What I’m saying is our identities are constructed phenomenon, and we can deconstruct our identities and we don’t need to make everything so concrete.

Then somebody is going to say to me, like they usually do, “But you’re white and you’re straight and so how do you understand?” Especially my white liberal friends say that to me. It’s true, that’s who hits me the most with that. “How do you know?” Then I say, “I know from my own experience.” I was born in 1950 in a Jewish family, second generation born in America. I was born in the shadow of the Holocaust, where all I heard about as a child… I grew up in a Christian community where everyone celebrated Christmas, except three families. Everybody had Christmas lights, Christmas trees, got presents, except three families. I learned all about the Holocaust from a young age. I realized that my grandparents who came over here had relatives in the Pale area and in Russia and of course those people would have been murdered in the Holocaust. So, I grew up, I was taught an identity of, “Our people have been persecuted for four thousand years.” So, if you think your ethnic group has been persecuted for a long time, the Jews trump you. We’ve been persecuted longer than anybody else. This becomes a part of how you are taught to see yourself.

When I was in seventh grade in Mr. Reese’s class, it was current events time and something about Israel came up. This one kid—I still remember his name, I’m sure I’ll meet him sometime. He said—because he knew I was Jewish—he said, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” I got up, burst into tears, ran into the girl’s bathroom, and spent the whole rest of the day sobbing. Looking back on that experience now, and just feeling so hurt, so disrespected, so everything. I don’t know how many rolls of toilet paper I went through. Looking back at that experience now, I see, “Why did I behave in that way? Why did I feel so traumatized by it?” Because I was taught that I was from a people that everybody hated, that had been persecuted for four thousand years, and here was another instance of it and I had no other possible way of seeing the situation except to feel as you do when you feel prejudice against you. And how do you react when you’re a 12-year-old girl? You burst into tears and you go cry in the girl’s bathroom, the whole rest of the day.

In looking back at my own experience, having met the Dharma, this is how I’ve come to the conclusions that I’m saying to you now. Through looking at my own mind and how my own mind works and operates, and how conception works, and how we solidify things, and how we create an identity and then hang on to it. I got to the point when I was a teenager where I decided I did not want to grow up with a persecution identity. I refused to carry that identity. I remember going to Israel in 1997 to teach and they wanted to interview me for some newspaper or magazine. I was there as a Buddhist nun and the reporter said, “Well, are you Jewish?” This was the perpetual question asked us in Sunday school, “What does it mean to be Jewish? Is it a race? Is it an ethnicity? Is it a religion? What is it?” We debated a lot in Sunday school. So, when this reporter said to me, “Are you Jewish?,” I said, “What do you mean by being Jewish?” And the woman whose house I was at said, “The next time they come to kill us, are they going to kill you, too?” This is the identity. This was in Israel. The Holocaust is alive and well in Israel, and that’s why the Israelis are behaving so abominably towards the Palestinians, because the past is very present in their minds. I don’t agree at all with what’s happening, how they’re treating the Palestinians, but I can understand it because I grew up in that culture, so I can understand it even though I don’t agree.

This is why, having become Buddhist, I feel very passionately in this day and age where everybody has an identity—I’ve been practicing my whole Buddhist life to dissolve my identity. What is meditation on emptiness about? It’s not about concretizing our identity, it’s about realizing that the identity is totally fabricated and exists by name only. That it’s nothing more than that, and that you can be totally free in your heart if you want to be. That view doesn’t go over very well in America nowadays. There’s one young man in Australia, I’ve never met him, he’s furious at me because I talk about politics, because I talk about women’s issues and I don’t talk about men’s issues, and because I’m talking about not having an identity. I gave a talk somewhere at a Dharma center recently and it was kind of billed as, “Here’s this nun who’s a feminist who’s going to come and talk to us,” and I spent the session basically deconstructing identities. They were not very happy with me. They said, “Who do you look up to as your model?” They wanted me to say, “Tara, Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Labdrön.” I said, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” I was supposed to look up to a woman as my model, but in my life—yes, Tara and Machig and Nal-jorma and all have been very important to me—but my primary model for who I want to be like is His Holiness. That didn’t go over very well there. It’s quite interesting now the way the country is. I went way off on that thing. Maybe people have some comments or questions?

Audience: If I understand what you’re saying correctly, our identities are a place to work and shedding them… yeah, I think I kind of get that, loosening that. Realizing the emptiness of identity is the way to feel better, certainly, and help more skillfully, all those kinds of things. I often work in circles where I think people get part of that, but they say “Okay, so welcome to samsara.” This is the ticket, if I can use that word, of surviving in samsara, which is riddled with oppressive systems that remind people all the time of just how others think of them. They may not think of themselves that way, but they see society and social structures in a way that make their existence so much harder. My heart goes bang and wang when I think about that.

VTC: When we’re talking about dissolving or deconstructing identities, we have to realize that not everybody in the world is doing that. Many people don’t want to do that and that we’re still interacting with them and that there are structures in society that keep people down and oppress people. We’re not negating other people’s experience. We’re saying I want to feel and live in a different way, that’s what we’re saying. Another example, I was a Vietnam war protester. I remember at UCLA one day, the cops were on one side and the protesters were on the other side. You could tell something was going to… it wasn’t a peaceful environment, put it that way. The guy standing next to me picked up a rock and threw it at the cops, and I thought, “Whoa, that’s not cool. If I throw a rock, my mind becomes exactly like the mind of the people that I’m protesting against.” This is what I’m advocating, to not trap our mind in a small way so that actually we become like the people that are persecuting us, or oppressing us, or tormenting us, or whatever. I also am aware now that not everybody wants to hear this message and that not everybody can hear this message. However, I am not going to stop saying it. Just because people don’t agree, I am not going to stop saying it, because I think it’s helpful to plant the seeds in people’s minds. They may hate it, but maybe the seed is planted, and some time they’ll see that it’s possible to change and that it will alleviate their suffering when they change.

Audience: I’m trying to formulate what I want to say. I’m going to speak for myself. Personally, trying to be practicing and being a Buddhist practitioner for years, and then being in this work of looking at our different identities and race and white privilege, and noticing my own trajectory over my own mind and my own grasping through that particular arena for years. Then, finding now, the toting the two, as a practitioner of ultimate reality and conventional [reality]. This is something that’s very important to talk about, and so I’m learning for myself how to frame this in a way that is incorporating this idea of letting go of identity, at the same time the dualistic approach of holding it in the moment to facilitate a conversation about it. I’m working this out. What I find from a personal level again, identity, which is if you walk down the street, I’m white and I hold power. What I’m noticing is how can I use this to alleviate suffering? I can use this to alleviate suffering but becoming aware of things that I say that are in my culture, that I thought were just okay to say: Different sayings, or even just like that childhood rhyme eeny meeny miny, where that comes from, or there are other things that we say that impact that I wouldn’t know unless someone pointed that out to me. So, how using these things as a person who holds this particular thing that I work to deconstruct, and facilitating these conversations in a way of opening up to that and using this as a way of stepping in. When there was, on October 27th in Pittsburgh and the synagogue, an example was those of us decided to go to a synagogue to go and sit and to be with them, using that as an opportunity to say, “We’re here.” I was thinking about you and being a young person and how wonderful it would have been if maybe 5 other people in your classroom went, “Hey!” and joined you in the bathroom. Because it’s a gender-neutral bathroom and there wasn’t the binary issue. [laughter] But just thinking about how, because it seems like you have to do some of this in order to open up.

VTC: Thank you.

Audience: I’ve been doing some thinking about identities because I hold quite a few that have not been very conducive to my own happiness. Some of the things I have discovered as I’m working with them is that when I do that, when I hold on so tightly to an identity, what happens is that this identity is held on the basis of other people who are not it. The moment that I do that, I give others the power to signal me as other, as I’m not it either. So, I lose my power to become autonomous, because I’m either responding to what the other do to my group or I’m responding to what my group does to the other, and so get pressured from both sides. It’s much more difficult to stand in an ethical, and my own autonomous, ground when these are all the other influences. Then there is another situation that I also found quite troubling, which is that when I hold so hard to an identity, then I tend to relate most frequently to the people that are within that identity, so that are the same as me, to the exclusion of the other people, even if I’m not doing that consciously. That also fragments how I move in the world. It’s disconnecting. It goes against my Buddhist practice to become disconnected, whether consciously or unconsciously. It’s particularly more troubling or more hurtful when I’m unconscious because then I’m not even aware of what’s happening. Ultimately, it hurts me the most because in a situation when I am looking most for connection and belonging and being with, I find myself being without. That is sort of what comes up as I examine all these identities.

Audience: This weekend I just started practicing a visualization, and I’m not sure it’s correct, in addressing all the issues we’ve been talking about: trying to hold to the embodiment of Vajrasattva and at the same time bearing witness, basically, to all that goes around. I’ve been just visualizing Vajrasattva, sometimes at the top of my head, so calm and staying steady, just steady. Then there are these reverberations and winds of ongoing negative karma or samsara, but this being, maybe me, sometimes, stays steady. So, I get to hold this sort of dualistic bearing witness and holding steadiness. Would that be appropriate? Is that an appropriate visualization or not?

VTC: Yeah, I think so. You want to be Vajrasattva. Think of yourself as an enlightened being, somebody whose mind is wide open, can accept everything, isn’t going to get bummed out by things, but who can also discern what is virtuous and what isn’t, what is beneficial and what is not beneficial. It’s not like you’re saying, “Oh yeah, it all goes.” No. You can still discern and discriminate, you still see people experience suffering and people experiencing happiness. You see that, but for yourself you don’t have to be the rubber toy that goes back and forth as the waves come. You can watch how everybody else goes back and forth and up and down, but for myself, I’m going to stay steady with compassion for everybody involved here. Compassion is the thing for everybody, but I can also acknowledge that it’s crazy. I mean, sometimes I feel like I am living in an insane asylum in this world. Really, it’s just… so, OK, don’t judge, have compassion, stay steady, realize that all of this is created by the mind, and that there’s a solution to it. It doesn’t have to be like this, but it will be like this for a while because it takes sentient beings being receptive to a different message. I’m still working on making myself more receptive to the different message. I’m not there yet, I’m still working at it, so of course other people are working at it, too.

Audience: Part of my experience in talking with people about these things, and discussing compassion and empathy and similar qualities, has been inviting them, most often as a guided meditation, to imagine themselves as other people and sometimes as other types of beings. When it’s a guided meditation I usually give them several random combinations of different traits, so to say. It’s always different and in this way, you can see in people’s faces as you’re watching them how many people struggle with just that. How many men have a difficult time imagining themselves as a woman, even that simple, without going into more radical differences? What I have noticed from talking to people afterwards is that it’s also one of the biggest emotional obstacles towards accepting rebirth. It’s not so much that it makes no intellectual sense or it’s difficult to accept something non-material or anything like that. The emotional difficulty for so many people is just being able to imagine yourself as something different, and in many cases imagining yourself as the person you are now discriminating against, or imagining yourself as the oppressor of the group that you now belong to. There’s a lot of difficult emotions around that.

VTC: Yep, I’ve found the same thing. I led a meditation, when I was teaching in Israel, on a kibbutz, a forgiveness meditation where we brought Chenrezig into the concentration camps. Imagine Chenrezig there in the concentration camps. It was very, very powerful, but the thing of people thinking of themselves as loosening that identity, of thinking that they could possibly be somebody else. It’s difficult. Especially what you said about rebirth, when you talk about the possibility of being born in another life form, then people really reject that. “No, I cannot be born as a gopher! No way! That idiot over there who I don’t like, he can be born as a gopher, but no way have I ever been or will be.” See, this is the thing of not understanding conditioning, of not understanding dependence, of not understanding how things are impermanent and change due to causes and conditions, so [we] get so frozen.

We’re going to close now.

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.