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The power of determination

05 Vajrasattva Retreat: The Power of Determination

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

  • Meditation on living an ethical life
  • The power of determination
    • What can we say we will never do again?
    • How strong is our belief in karma?
    • Cultivating external and internal circumstances to support our ethical conduct

I want to congratulate all of you for being here on New Year’s Eve instead of in Times Square where they’re going to have 3,000 pounds of confetti dropped when the ball goes down. Everybody is going to think that all their problems are solved like that. Then tomorrow, the cleaners are going to come and take away 57 tons of garbage that is not going to be recycled. This is happiness? I congratulate you for being here. I know you are going to miss the football games and the Rose Parade tomorrow, but you know there is suffering in samsara. I think that people who are choosing to use their minds and do something different on New Year’s are touching base with something really important inside and not just getting lost in the glitter somewhere. So, thank you very much.


In your own life, to what extent do you value following the law of karma and its results? Is that something important to you? Or, to put it another way, to what extent do you value living an ethical life and how much attention do you pay to doing that? Or, to put it in an even simpler way, to what extent do you want to live a life of non-harm and how much do you pay attention to that in your own life?

When push comes to shove, in your life when there is a choice between your ethical principles and getting what you want, or expressing your unhappiness about something, which side do you go on? Do your ethical values, your belief in karma, get compromised by the force of attachment or anger? In other words, we say we believe in karma and its effects. We say we want to live a life of non-harm, but when our own immediate happiness is at stake, even small things of happiness, to what extent do we follow our values? To what extent do attachment and anger dominate our thoughts and our actions?

What ideas do you have for internal and external circumstances that will support you to live according to your values and your precepts, without compromising them when there’s an opportunity for some immediate pleasure or to get our revenge or whatever? What external circumstances can you put yourself in, or people that you can hang out with, that will support you in doing this? What internal things in your own mind, what understandings or beliefs or values do you need to reinforce through your study and meditation practice? How can you go about doing this?

We’ve talked about the power of regret and differentiating that from guilt, and how important it is to be able to own things and admit them and have regret for them but without beating ourselves up. Beating ourselves up is completely counter to the effect that we want to have. We’ve talked a lot about repairing the relationship, especially in terms of sentient beings, and really changing how we feel about different sentient beings so that our mind is more open and receptive to them. We haven’t talked so much about repairing our relationship with the Three Jewels. But that one’s important. We’ll see, maybe we’ll come back to that.

Power of determination not to repeat the action

Now we’re getting into the third of the four powers: making a determination not to do it again. This usually comes—well, it does come—at the end of the Vajrasattva practice, when you do the 35 Buddhas. You do the prostrations and recite the Buddha’s name, and then after that you do the confession. There’s a short sentence in there about not doing it again, but this is actually a very important point in the purification practice. It’s one that really involves some self-honesty because there are some things that we’ve done that, can we honestly say, “I will never ever do them again”? Things that we may regret. We may for a while be able to repair the relationship with the person, but do we really say we’re never going to do it again? For example, talking behind people’s backs. Would you regret that? Somewhat, but sometimes talking behind people’s back is really good. It lets me blow off steam, I have a release from it. Then other people give me good information about the other person, and they can give me ideas about what to do, sometimes they even side with me in a conflict, I like that. So yeah, it’s not so good to talk negatively behind other people’s back, and yeah, I kind of want to stop doing it, but…!

Are you getting what I’m saying? To what extent can we really say, “I will never talk behind anybody’s back again”? Can we even truthfully say, “I don’t want to talk behind anybody’s back again?” Except… [x, y, z]. It’s like the first time I took five precepts. I took all five, but they all had exceptions to them. I’ll keep this precept except in this situation, and I’ll keep that precept except in that situation, and so on. That was my first experience with the five precepts. That has changed since then, but there is still some work to be done. I think it’s very helpful to look at, especially at some of our habitual negative actions and do we really want to stop them? This relates to the meditation that we just did at the beginning. I think at the beginning if we say, “Do you believe in karma and its effects, and do you want to live by that?” then everybody wants to be a good Buddhist. We all say resoundingly, “Yes! I believe in karma! I want to live like that! But…” You see, this is that three letter word ‘but.’ It’s a very important word in our language. But… do I act like I really believe in karma? Do I monitor my mind, and my speech, and my physical actions? As if I really believed that they have an ethical dimension and I will experience the result of that. Do I really think about the causes I’m creating in my actions? Do I really think about the effects? Not just immediate effects, long-term effects of what I say and do and think.

It’s very easy to say, “Oh yes, I believe in karma. Oh yes, I think living ethically is important. But…” How much does that wise mouth influence our actual behavior? The topic of some of the scandals has come up and maybe this is the missing link for some of those people who teach ethical conduct but don’t quite believe that it applies to them. We all like to point at Trump and say he thinks that he’s beyond the law, that he can go in the middle of Times Square and shoot somebody and nothing’s going to happen. He lives his life like that, so we look and say, but if you ask him, he’ll probably say, “I want to keep a good ethical life.” But he has a lot of ‘buts’ in it. It’s easy for us to point out his ‘buts,’ but we need to point out our own. In what areas do we say, “I don’t want to bad rap anybody behind their back, unless I’m really frustrated, and I feel all isolated and alone in this conflict, and I really want somebody else on my side.” Or, “I don’t want to speak in a way that causes harm to anybody, but sometimes they deserve it and they need it, a little bit of hurt feelings isn’t bad, after all look what they did to me, maybe this will help them wise up.” Or, “Lying is bad…” 

This is actually one of the things that got me into robes, is I started looking at my double standards. “Lying is bad, politicians, people in the business world, all these people lying right, left, and center, lying is horrible. I don’t want to lie. It’s sad but I don’t want my parents to know about what I’m doing and then lying is okay because if my parents really knew what I was doing they would explode and who wants to face a family crisis?” All these ways in which we kind of negotiate. As I always point out, when it comes to making the vow never to speak to someone again, we never renegotiate that one. “I hate you so much, I’m never going to speak to you again.” That’s it, I never break that vow. Somehow, something’s amiss, something’s upside down here. That’s why it’s important, when we come to this power of making a determination to avoid the action again, to really be quite honest with ourselves and see where our own belief in karma, and our own belief in ethics, and our own value of non-harmfulness, how strong it is in difficult situations. This is very touchy, and it’s very difficult because we all like to think of ourselves as good people, and yet…

External circumstances that support practice

If we’re really committed to working on ourselves, which I’m assuming that we all are—otherwise you’d be in Times Square today instead of here—if we’re really committed to that then we have to ask ourselves, “If I’m weak in some areas of my ethical conduct and my belief in karma and its effects, then what are the external and internal circumstances that will support me in growing in the direction that I want to so that there’s more accord between what I say and what I actually feel and do when push comes to shove?” External circumstances—one thing is, hang out around people who share your values, and don’t hang out around people who don’t share your values. This is one of the challenging things for many people when they get into the Dharma because we all have our old friends [and] we think about what we did with all of our old friends. Now we have new values, and how are we going to get along with those old friends and do what we used to do with them? Then it becomes a little bit uncomfortable because they’re my friends. If I give them up, then what? Who will I be friends with? Am I kind of out there on my own and nobody’s supporting me and they’re all going to call me a prude? If I really give up drinking and drugging, if I really do, then, wow, what’s going to happen when I go to a family dinner and they’re all drinking wine and I say I don’t want to drink wine? Are they all going to look at me like, “You’re a Buddhist? Who do you think you are? You think you’re morally superior to the rest of this family? Kiddo, you have another thing coming. You used to drink like a whale,” or whatever. Fish? Fish is too small! Whale is better. “You used to drink like a whale, and now you’re sitting here with your nose in the air, you think you’re so good.”

Are we afraid of that? Even if we are afraid of that, is that really going to happen? If it really happens, is it the end of the world? Is the whole family dinner going to be ruined because I don’t have a glass of wine? Well, yes it will. Or, with old friends, similarly, with intoxicants. So many of our social relationships revolve around intoxicants, don’t they? You’re drinking, you’re doping, or whatever you’re doing, and that’s what you do with your friends. “I don’t do that anymore.” What are my friends going to say? “You’re so prudish.” Look at even the Buddha’s friends, when he was doing those six years of extreme asceticism with his five friends and he decided that that wasn’t the path and he left. All of his friends said, “You softy, you flake, you’re giving up these ascetic practices because you want to go eat a bowl of rice with raisins in it. You’re giving up your whole practice for something stupid.” The Buddha did it anyway, even though his old friends made fun of him and disowned him and kicked him out. Then he was the one who wound up teaching them the Dharma and they were his first disciples.

It’s very interesting to explore what we think will happen with our old friends if we change, and really look at the attachment in there. That’s one thing. The second thing to think about is what qualities do I really value in friendships? When I am becoming friends with people, what qualities attract me to those people? What kind of people do I want to hang with? It’s very interesting to really ask ourselves that question. We may find that we’re not really hanging out with the kind of people we want to hang out with. Or, maybe we want to hang out with them, but they aren’t a very good force in our life. My mother had this thing—I quote my mother often. I will get around to writing that book, Expressions of my Mother. Maybe your mother said it too, “Birds of a feather flock together.” Well, mom was right on that one. We become like the people we hang out with. It’s so important to look at who we hang out with and what are those people doing and how do they act. How do they speak and what do they think about and what are their values? I say this because when we stay with them, we’re going to become like them. This happens I think, too, in looking for Buddhist groups where you feel at home. Look at the way the other disciples are acting, and say—not that disciples are perfect, we are not—but how are they acting and do you want to become like them? There are, for example, some groups that drink and drug. Is that an atmosphere that’s good for you in your spiritual practice? I know for me, given my afflictions in the areas in which I have very strong afflictions, that I needed a certain kind of teacher, a certain kind of group in order to progress. Drinking and drugging and sexual affairs were not included in the qualities of the teacher or the group. I needed to clean up my life.

It’s quite interesting to think about this, and this is just on the external level, what environment do I need to put myself in so that I can live in a way, with integrity, where I feel good about my actions? What environments do I put myself in where I compromise my values? Now, this can sometimes be very challenging in relating to our families. My family: completely unreligious, even in their own faith, unreligious. I often wonder why I was born in that family, because I’m quite different than the rest of the people. I think I had a good upbringing and I received a lot of love, but I had to look in my family and say, “They’re great people, they’re kind people, but there are certain areas where I don’t want to be like them.” [I needed] to learn—because they are my family—how to be with them and not have conflict all the time over different values. One of my techniques was, when I went to visit, I didn’t stay more than two or three days. My mother also had a saying that guests are like fish, they smell after three days, or they get rotten after three days. Something like that. “Okay, mom, that includes me, too.” I will happily do that because I noticed that three-day visits went very well, because all they basically wanted to know is how I am and see me and have a few meals and that was good enough. While I was there, yes, I watched television. Normally I don’t. Why did I watch television when I visited my parents? If you didn’t watch television there was no other time to talk to them. The television was on morning to evening, they were retired by that time, so if I wanted to talk to them and be with them, I had to watch the television and tell them to mute it during the commercials. Then we would talk during the commercials, and then when the program came on again, they would watch the program. That worked well, I just had to be flexible. I couldn’t say turn off the TV altogether, although once in a while I did succeed in doing that. It was short and sweet visits, and it worked very well.

Think, how do I navigate my external life and who inspires me in my practice that I want to be around? What environment inspires me to practice and to really keep my values? Like I said, it can be difficult at the beginning of our practice as we look at our family and our old friends and we make some decisions about it. With old friends, it doesn’t mean that, “You’re just a dope head.” You’re friendly, you’re pleasant. We have to be friendly and pleasant in society, even with people who have different values than we do, whether we know them or not. This is redneck land here, so we are one little island in redneck land, but rednecks can be very nice people, and very hospitable, and very friendly, and very kind. You just ignore the guns that they’re holding and hope they left the gun in the barn when they came out to talk to you, or whatever it is. [They’re] very nice people, so you’re friendly and you’re kind and you see that, okay, you may have very different political views, and different views on guns, and different views on immigrants, and different views on a lot of things, but we can be kind to each other. We live in the same community and we share some of the same concerns. Here in our community, there’s a Canadian company that wants to build a silicon smelter and there are a lot of us who are opposed to it. We’re meeting together with other people in the community who are not the people that we would usually be friends with but who, similarly, like us, have the same value of respecting nature and not wanting a smelter a mile from downtown Newport. So, expand the people we relate to in a compassionate and friendly way while at the same time really choosing our friends, and the people who we’re very close to, and the people who we confide in. Choose those people very carefully because they will influence us a lot. Making some sense?

We can’t go isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Sometimes we come to Buddhism—especially Tibetan Buddhism—and we think you go off and the ideal is to become like Milarepa. Where are those nettles? Well, we’ll leave behind the nettles, I want a nice meal. I want to go live in a cave with a stove and a refrigerator and a soft bed, but I want to go live in a cave like Milarepa and be away from all these obnoxious people who are driving me crazy. We can never get away from other living beings. We always live in relationship to other living beings. Even you move to the moon, I’m sure there are living beings on the moon. They may not look like us, we may not be able to see them with our eyes, but why do we think that in this universe, we’re the only place with living beings? This universe is pretty big. You think this is the only place, really? They’re always looking for water on other places that will indicate that there’s life there. I’m sure that due to karma there are many living beings that don’t need water to stay alive, and don’t need oxygen to stay alive. They’re somewhere in this universe, and we may even be born there next lifetime. What I’m getting at is we can never get away from other living beings, so in our practice, let’s not have this thing of, “I’m going up to the mountains, I’m going to be alone,” the lone yogi with my television and my phone, and I want to have enough bandwidth to do some Skype and watch movies. We’re never apart from other sentient beings, so we have to learn how to be friendly and kind and relate in a peaceful, pleasant way. It’s just a thing of choosing what environments are best for us.

That’s one external thing. Another thing to really look out for is our relationship with the media. What things do we read? What things do we listen to? That is really going to shape us, too. What kind of movies do you watch? Someone’s rolling their eyes. Are you hooked on movies with lots of sex and violence, which are what most movies have? If you listen to the radio in your car, what do you listen to? What do we read? Are we reading romantic novels, or sci-fi books? Especially on the internet, my goodness, you could go listen to anything nowadays. Do we go to some of those sites on the—what do they call it?—the dark web, where you can buy guns and sell prostitutes, are we hanging out on there somewhere? Do we read all the billboards? Do we learn all the jingles? Do you remember some of the jingles from when you were a kid? Those things get planted in your mind, don’t they? We had one nun here for EML one year and she had done a three-year retreat and she was telling us that when you’re in a three-year retreat, everything comes up. She was saying that she was chanting, “The ants go marching one by one.” I remember, “M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E, Mickey Mouse!” See? Everyone can join me. Did you have Mickey Mouse in Singapore? Did you have it in Germany? Audience: No! [Audience chatter about childhood TV programs].

So, look at how we relate to the media. Do we know all the latest songs and the pop-culture and the lyrics to rap? How do these things influence us? What do they make us think about? How do they affect our values? How do they affect our actions? Video games! Do you play video games? What do they do to your mind, where you’re shooting people one after the other in a video game? So, really look at how we relate to the media, and to the culture around us. Really do some analysis and some observation in our own mind about how this influences us. The news. How do we listen to the news, and how does the news influence us? You can listen to the news like it’s a lamrim textbook, that’s one way with the news. Boy, is it a good… you are on that chapter with karma for a long time when you pay attention to the news. Or, do we listen to the news and we get angry and we get full of despair? How are these things affecting us? If they aren’t affecting us in a good way, then we need to see what other kind of the outside things are going to help us keep our values strong. We need to learn about the rest of the world. I think documentaries are excellent for that, but really watch how things are presented because the media today is really based on getting you to have some strong emotion every few minutes. If it doesn’t produce some strong emotions then we get bored and we turn it off and then the advertisers don’t like that, so they have to present things in a way so that we stay plugged in, or addicted, depends how you want to say it. Look at things like that in our life.

Internal qualities that support practice

Then, internal. Those are looking at some of the external factors, and how we need to structure what we let influence us, and also how we let things influence us. Some things we clearly can’t ignore or escape from, but how do they influence us? Then internally, if we really believe in karma, and we want to make our view in karma firmer so that we can, when we say, “I will never do that again,” or, “I won’t do it again for the next two days,” or whatever we promise, to make it so that we can keep it. What internal things do we need to emphasize in our practice? What internal qualities do we need to reinforce inside of ourselves? What qualities do you think would be helpful to reinforce inside of yourself to make this third element of the four opponent powers more truthful and strong for you?

Audience: Discipline. I struggle with that. I go off the rails all the time for just a little while.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): What could you do in your practice to increase your discipline? What could you contemplate in your meditation, maybe, that would invigorate your wish to keep good discipline?

Audience: Maybe the outcome. If I can do that discipline then I get the benefit of learning more. I’ve opened up to learn more.

VTC: Contemplating the benefits. Yes. That’s a technique the Buddha uses a lot in the teachings. Contemplate the benefits of having the quality that you want to develop.

Audience: I was just going to say humility, but it occurred to me that you develop humility by having discipline, so her answer’s better.

VTC: Just looking at the humility, what things would help you have humility? 

Audience: Recognition of the benefits of having strong, genuine practice, the benefits, like you said. My answers aren’t nearly as good as yours or hers.

VTC: Another thing that I find very helpful for humility is contemplating the kindness of others and realizing that everything that I know, or whatever quality I’m feeling arrogant about, actually I have because somebody else taught me or somebody else encouraged me. That lessens the arrogance and helps me feel more connected to other people.

Audience: I was just going to say, I think self-awareness and self-honesty is incredibly important as a foundation, because if you’re not acknowledging the issues you’re having then you’re not going to fix them.

VTC: How can you increase your self-honesty and self-awareness?

Audience: I think the topic of identity that you brought up yesterday, really contemplating how we aren’t a solid fixed thing, it’s okay to have made mistakes or to have a habit that’s very strong and not positive. I think that we tend to go into guilt mode. You don’t want to acknowledge what you did because it makes you feel bad as a human being. Separating out the guilt, contemplating how we are able to change, and being okay with that, so I guess impermanence if you want a one-word answer.

VTC: Or just the four opponent powers, what you said, but doing them in the way that is really healthy for you.

Audience: Applying the antidote to the affliction that caused the behavior, and maybe making even a practice commitment that you’ll do that for a particular period of time.

VTC: Lots of times we’ll see the behavior, we’ll see the affliction behind it, and then we won’t do anything about it. You’re saying to make a practice commitment for a certain period of time that you can keep to really apply the antidote to that particular affliction.

Audience: Cultivating a stronger sense of integrity, particularly by contemplating the disadvantages of going against my values, like the conflict that comes up or the ramifications of acting in unethical ways, using that as a motivation to maintain that sense of integrity and act it out.

VTC: And how lousy we feel when we go against our own values and don’t respect our own integrity.

Audience: Seeing the other as self. I find that really helps me protect and to not create negative karma, negative actions out of self-cherishing.

VTC: To counteract?

Audience: By seeing the other as self, then immediately I want to refrain from hurting or harming them, immediately, and that helps protect me.

VTC: Really seeing others as living beings with feelings, and cherishing them in the same way that you would cherish yourself or take care of yourself.

Audience: I don’t know if it’s right, but when I said, “They are me,” it really gives me a strong sense of, I don’t want to do that. They are encompassed in me.

Audience: For lack of a better phrase, I think reinforcing even small successes. For example, I caught myself early this morning constructing a story that included some anger, but I actually caught myself. I felt kind of happy about that. Then I went, “Oh, ok,” and then I let it go.

VTC: Stopping the stories, if you notice them. You have to notice them first. 

Audience: Increasing introspective awareness so that I can tell when the affliction is coming and when the response is going to follow, and then be able to short-circuit that whole process.

VTC: How can you increase your introspective awareness?

Audience: Slowing down and noticing what I’m doing and what I’m saying. Being connected with how my body is reacting to things because usually when I’m triggered, I can feel things in my body. It’s like, “Oh, okay, this is familiar. Something is coming,” then stopping and seeing what is it that’s coming and why, and then not react to it. That whole chain of events that results in a big explosion or implosion most of the time in my case.

VTC: Just checking in with your body and mind more often.

Audience: I think for me, one very helpful thing is having a useful metaphor or saying that reminds me of values. With humility, for example, recalling that story about the bowl that is already full, or that saying about the grass that doesn’t grow on high hills. It just immediately brings my mind to that quality. With karma in general, just thinking about the wheel of sharp weapons. Even without rereading the text, just remembering the boomerang effect immediately makes me think, “Well, what will I have coming back to me from that?”

VTC: Analogies really work well for you.

Audience: I’m remembering key phrases since Geshe Sopa told us, “Cowboy up, cowgirl up.” I changed that a little bit to ‘saddle up’ because that’s what I remember from my childhood. I’m trying to grow in fortitude, so when I leave the house and I know I’m going to be doing a series of things where I’m apt to become irritated—because I become irritated in lines far too easily—I say, “Okay, time for fortitude and I’m going to saddle up.” It really keeps my fortitude stronger and then if it diminishes, I think about the advantages of strengthening it. Then I think saddle up again. I just always see him saying that, and I think having a little key phrase for me has been really helpful. Actually, it has worked, I am far more patient with things that are tiny triggers of mine. I saddle up!

VTC: It made me think that certain phrases of some of my teachers really helped me in some difficult situations. One of my teachers, well Lama, used to say, “Keep it simple, dear,” and it’s like, “Duh,” because when my mind’s making a story, I’m making all sorts of complexities. Keep it simple.

Audience: I use saddle up for that, too. Sometimes I know what’s coming in the next day, and of course, I’d like to sit in bed with the kitties and a book, but a contractor’s coming or something. There’s a part of my mind that’s like, “Oh, this is going to be too hard, this is such a long hard day,” and I have that sign posted in my kitchen and I see it right away. It says, “Saddle up.” I go, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to saddle up.” That actually can get me through the day, and it’s amazing how often my bones don’t hurt when I saddle up, so the phrase works.

VTC: Good.

Audience: I had a very, very negative mind and one of my teachers was like, “Well, you need to rejoice,” and I was like, “I have nothing to rejoice about.” He was like, “Too bad, so sad, you have to do it.” So I started rejoicing, and at first it was very begrudgingly, but now it takes up a lot of space in my mind that used to be devoted all to negativity. Now I rejoice at even stupid, teeny things. It really feels good. At first it was very difficult but now it’s like I rejoice that you found your cup! This definitely lightened my mind and if nothing else, it takes up some of the space that was devoted to negativity.

VTC: Very good.

Audience: The one thing that I’ve really been working on and actually have learned by spending time here is slowing down enough to set an intention, and not just unquestioningly or habitually moving into situations. If I stop for a minute, I know that maybe I might have a problem in them. Just taking a breath and setting an intention of what my hope is or what I hope will happen has actually made a huge difference in those kinds of things.

VTC: This is the value of setting an intention when we first wake up in the morning. I really recommend setting the intention, “Today, I’m not going to harm as much as possible. I’m going to benefit others as much as possible. I’m going to increase my bodhicitta as much as I can.” You set that intention and then throughout the day, you come back to it. You can have your phone ping at different times and that is your reminder of, come back to my intention. Like you said too, if you know that you’re going to be meeting with somebody who knows how to push your buttons, or there are going to be some difficult negotiations or whatever, to really set your intention before going in the situation of how you want to act and think during it. Instead of being prepared like, “I know that person is going to attack me, and so I’m going to get all revved up so I can give them the old one-two,” is, “Okay, this person may have a tendency to say things that push my buttons and my buttons are my responsibility, so here’s how I need to think if my buttons are pushed so that I can stay smooth.”


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.