Subtle impermanence

Subtle impermanence

Part of a series of teachings on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book titled How to See Yourself as You Really Are at Sravasti Abbey in 2020.

  • Developing skills to help others
  • How to cultivate compassion for one’s family
  • Meditative reflection on death
  • Subtle impermanence
  • Extending understanding of impermanence to others
  • Viewing sentient beings as empty of inherent existence

Let’s cultivate our motivation. What does it mean to help someone or to benefit them? What does that mean in practical terms? What are the qualities we need to help or aid others? What do you do if you want to help but you don’t have those qualities or those abilities? What do you do then? Realize that we have some wish to help but we lack the ability to always do so. Think of who has that complete ability to help, without limitations, from their own side; we see that it’s only a buddha who has that freedom; it’s what we call the abandonments in the realizations that enable one to be of greatest benefit. Seeing that, let’s generate the motivation ourselves to become a buddha.

Our present and future really separate when viewed based on an endless and beginningless mindstream. Present is the time in which we can act, and the future has not yet come. The future will become the present, but there is not some permanent, inherently existent future out there waiting to become the present. We are creating it right now.

Questions & Answers

Question: “Implementing these reflections about compassion and practice, how do you help others without getting sucked into or affected by their negativity or without attachment?”

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): There are a few questions along the lines of how to help others; let me read them all now.

Question: “You taught about the three levels of love, compassion, and total commitment. The first day I asked about greed and how do I help someone who has this affliction, and you said that the issue wasn’t how to help them but how to work on my own mind and then possibly set a good example for them – But I’m confused. The practice says I will help this person be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, but you told me to just kind of “chill out.” Please clarify for me how or what does it mean “to help?”

Question: “I got stuck on cultivating the third level of compassion where I resolved to do whatever I can to help someone to be imbued with happiness and the causes of happiness. When it’s a person who can get very negative, how do I do whatever I can to help them without being affected by their negativity? I’m also wondering, does this ever step into the realm of unsolicited help? What if the person has not asked for any help and even resents your unsolicited help?”

VTC: Maybe both questions are oriented around healthy boundaries. “How do we cultivate compassion at this third level by honoring our own and others’ boundaries?”

What does it mean to help somebody?

These questions have a central theme: What does it mean to help somebody? Our usual way of thinking, “what does it mean to help somebody?” is either with a practical thing that they’re doing right now; they need help moving something from one place to another; they need help with one chore or another, that’s pretty obvious what we can do to help. There, our difficulty is usually laziness, and we don’t feel like helping. Sometimes there’s a situation like that, and we want to help but we don’t know what to do. So what do we do when we don’t know what to do?

Audience: [Inaudible]

VTC: They want us to help do something, and we don’t know how to do that. They want help editing a video, and we have no idea how to edit a video. So what do you do? You say, “I’m sorry but I don’t have any ability to edit videos.” If you know somebody who does, then you can bring that person in on the task.

Sometimes in our lives, there are situations where we want to help, we realize we don’t have the skill, and so we go out and we get an education and we learn the skill. I imagine that there are people, I hope there are young people, now looking at what’s happening in the country with the pandemic and thinking, “I would really like to help but I don’t know anything about biology, I don’t know anything about epidemiology, I don’t know much about sociology, and how all those social factors come into who gets the virus and who doesn’t. So I’m going to learn and I’m going to study, and it may take some years to get the qualities to be able to do that, but this is something I really want to be able to do.”

Instead of the blind leading the blind, jumping in, for example, somebody wants to help you when you need surgery but all they have is a pocket knife and no skill, it’s better that they go back to school, and they study, and get properly trained, isn’t it?

So, together with the wish to help, we need the skill to help. The skill has a few dimensions. One is, if it’s a practical skill, knowing how to do that. The second dimension is the skill of dealing with someone. This is where we get stuck. What is the best way to help somebody, especially if they haven’t asked for help? Often, those are the people who really need the help the most. The ones who haven’t asked for help, right? The ones who asked us for help, sometimes we’re a little bit too busy and they’re a pain in the neck but we do what we can. But we kind of wish they’d leave us alone and learn to run their own lives by themselves.

It’s the people who haven’t asked for help that we want to help so much, right? Those people who are so obnoxious. Those people whose lives are a total mess, those people who we have the perfect advice for, about how they can be less greedy and more generous. Or about how they can get off their substance abuse and really get their life in line. How they can do something with their anger so that it doesn’t explode in the family all the time. These are the people we want to help right? These people don’t ask us for help.

Are we helping or are we trying to change somebody?

Audience: Are we helping them or changing them?

VTC: This is the question she’s asking: “Are we talking about helping them or are we talking about changing them?” Sometimes, our wish is to change them. We have an agenda of how they should change, because we know what’s best for them. Is informing them of our agenda and pushing our help on them helping?

How do you respond when people give you unsolicited advice? My guess is probably not so well. If it’s somebody that you know very well, who you trust a lot, comes to you with ears that are ready to listen and says, “Oh, it seems like you’re doing this. I’m wondering how you’re doing,” and they want to hear from us what’s going on, but they’re also okay if we don’t feel like talking – These people we might listen to, because we can see that they’re coming with concern for us and they want to listen to how we’re feeling.

Sometimes, the thing we need the most is for somebody to listen, not for somebody to give us advice. So if somebody comes to us in this way, we’re going to be more willing to trust them. It’s similar when we look at other people. If it’s somebody that we’re close to, if we can go to them with an attitude of, “I’m just observing this but I don’t really know how you’re doing, but if you want to talk about it, I want to listen” and then give them space to share or not share, and then based on what we hear from them, we could better figure out what would really help them.

Maybe just listening and taking it in and understanding is what they need. Maybe they need some advice, but we have to see first before we give the advice. A lot depends on your relationship with the person, and a lot depends on our ability to slow down and let go of our agenda. Because if our agenda is wanting to change them, basically because what they’re doing is causing us suffering, then we usually stick our foot in our mouth. So we have to develop the skills to be able to help.

Do we have sufficient wisdom, compassion and skill right now to be able to help people? I don’t know about you, but I don’t. So what am I going to do? I’d better get an education and develop those skills. I may not be able to help immediately, but I need to train myself first. It’s like somebody who sees people suffering from disease and wants to help them, but they need to go to med school first, and before they go to med school they need to do a four-year degree, and before that they need to finish high school.

It’s the same way, if we want to help but we’re lacking in wisdom, compassion and skill, who has those abilities and how can we develop them? A buddha has them, so that’s why we generate the bodhichitta motivation to become a buddha. Does that mean that we don’t help anybody until after we’ve attained buddhahood? No! We do what we can now, but we don’t do what we can’t, and one thing we can’t do is make people conform to what we think they should be.

Asking for our help

If somebody comes to us for training and somebody comes to us for an education, then they are asking, “Yes, please train me. Please give me the education. Please point out to me the areas in which I need to learn more or develop more ability.”

When somebody comes to us they’re asking for that type of help, then we know we have their permission to say things to them that we wouldn’t ordinarily just say to people because they’re  asking for that help. But for people who don’t ask for help, it’s really much better that we just listen, and establish a good relationship with them, and do our own practice so that our abilities increase and our hindrances decrease.

Hindrances to our help

What kind of hindrances do we have to helping? Aside from what I mentioned before, we don’t have the skills and so on, one big hindrance is when we try to help, people don’t do what we want them to do afterwards. In other words, our help doesn’t “work” because we know what our help would or wouldn’t look like. Following our advice, helping them means these people would change to be like X, Y and Z. What happens when we offer help and they don’t follow it? Or what if they get mad at us because we’re offering help?

I mean, “I want to help them, but they’re telling me to get lost. Don’t they realize how much I care about them? Don’t they realize the extent of my compassion, that I really want to help them live a good life? I know how they can live a good life, and how to stop self-sabotaging! Why don’t they trust me? Why don’t they follow my advice? I am so frustrated! I am so angry! Here I am going out of my way to help but they ignore me, or they tell me to get lost, or they even get angry at me!”

Have you ever felt like that? What’s wrong there? We have an agenda, and we’re being just a wee bit arrogant in thinking that we know how other people should live their lives. We’re also being a wee bit arrogant in thinking that we should be able to change somebody immediately. Even our own bad habits we know are going to take a while to change. But other people’s bad habits, when we give them advice, they should practice it and get rid of their bad habits immediately. A little bit of a disconnect, huh? “I need time, I need patience, I need understanding, but other people – because I really can’t stand what they’re doing–should change immediately.”

This is a hindrance on our part to being effective, because we push people away. We may think that we want to help, but maybe our intention is more to change them than to help them, and so we are impatient. We are not accepting that it takes time to change and that maybe some other approaches are more helpful than the approach we are giving them right now. Those of us who were school teachers (there are a few of us in this room), you know that with some children, when they misbehave, you have to call them out and talk strongly to them. Other kids, when they misbehave, you have to go and say, “What’s wrong? Something’s bothering you, what’s wrong?” And you don’t discipline them, you go and talk to them. I look back on my time as a teacher, and there were situations where I did totally the wrong thing.

So David Nicky, if you’re out there somewhere listening to this: When you were in third grade I want to apologize for what I did. You were acting out in class, you banged the door so that it hit my face, and this kind of thing had been going on for a while, so I hauled you off to the principal. I later learned that your mom and dad were getting divorced. You were in third grade and your family was breaking up. You were scared, you were miserable, you needed understanding, and I didn’t see that. I didn’t know that, and I didn’t offer help or compassion, and instead, I did the opposite of what you really needed. I’m sorry. That’s David Nicky, and there are a few more kids I need to apologize to, too. So we need to (1) develop the skill, and (2) learn how to tune into people.

In terms of somebody asking how not to get involved in another’s negativity; if they are negative leave them alone – in general, you need to see the specific instance. I can’t give you advice that’s going to apply to everything, but if somebody doesn’t want to hear, leave them alone, and make prayers for them, and do the taking and giving meditation for them. Do these practices, especially if it’s a family member, especially if it’s your child and they are in their teenage years. Realize you may not be the best person to help them.

When you have kids, when they are little, make sure they have good connections with other adults, their aunts, uncles, teachers, or family friends. Make sure that there are other adults that they feel comfortable with. Make sure they know they can go and talk with another adult without that adult coming and telling you what’s going on. Because if you make sure that happens when the kids are little, then when they get to be teenagers and they don’t want to listen to you, they will still have some wise adults that they trust, that they can go to. That is very very helpful for them.

You may not be the right person to help

Realize when you’re not the right person to give advice. When my dad was aging (well, he was always aging), but when he got to a point where it was not safe for him to drive, the three of us kids got together and tried to talk to him – it didn’t work. We were not the right ones to say that to him. He needed to hear that from his doctor, from somebody at the DMV, from maybe a friend who has stopped driving. Hearing it from his kids, no. We have to be sensitive if we are not the right person. Sometimes it’s more helpful to link somebody up with somebody else who can help them, than it is for us to enter into the situation.

Audience: I just wanted to add to your comment, Venerable, that it’s also important to teach children from a young age to learn to ask for help, so help-seeking behavior is very important and it can be a determinant of the capacity of the child to thrive, and be well, and take care of themselves.

VTC: There are two things with kids; you need to teach them when and how to ask help, and you need to teach them when and how to manage the situation on their own and grow up. That is a fine line and nobody knows where it is. As a parent, your job is to, as much as you can, give kids the skills that they need to deal with life, and then realize you cannot control them. When they are little, and they are in danger you can pick them up. But at a certain age you can’t pick them up anymore, and they need to rely on the wisdom and good judgment that you’ve given them through discussing situations with them when they were young.

Preventing the ripening of karma

Question: “Will the seeds of negative karma weaken over time if, by following the ethical precepts, these seeds are not brought by fruition? Can the seeds of negative karma be extinguished through awakening?”

There are purification practices that we do to prevent the seeds of our negative karma from ripening. Doing practices such as making prostrations to the 35 Buddhas and doing the Vajrasattva Practice. There is a practice called the Four Opponent Powers, that is in most of my books, where we generate regret, we make a determination not to do the action again, we take refuge and generate bodhicitta to restore the relationship with whoever it was that we harmed. Then we do some kind of remedial behavior or remedial actions. Doing these Four Opponent Powers can help us to purify. So it’s important that Buddhist practitioners try to do these purification practices every day because there is a lot of backlog to catch up on.

Helping family

Question: “I suppose it’s easier to feel compassion for people like your family and friends than it is for strangers. But for me it’s the other way around; it’s easier with strangers since in my family we argue all the time.” So that’s why they call it a nuclear family. “I can do the exercise Venerable suggested like tonglen, and it works but only for the time I am doing it. How can I cultivate compassion for my family?”

It’s going to take some time. One thing that I think is very helpful is to not see them as your family, because as soon as you say this is my mother, this is my father, or sister, brother, child, or whoever it is then, all the expectations of how they should be in that role come to your mind. If you just see them as a suffering sentient being whose mind is overwhelmed by ignorance, afflictions, and karma, then it’s much easier to have compassion for them. Does this make some sense? Can you see how, as soon as you put that person in a role in relationship to you, you come up with a lot of expectations? And that those expectations get in the way of feeling compassion for them? Because you’re my parent, that means you should do this, you should do that, and you should not do this, this, this, and this.

How about if we took all of that away, and we said there’s a suffering sentient being, who grew up in such and such environment, with such and such conditioning in their life. So, they have a certain way of thinking now. They have certain limitations, they have certain good qualities. But they are a sentient being in samsara, who wants happiness, who means well, but who is under the control of afflictions and karma. I’m not going to expect them to be perfect. I’m not going to put a role on them. Society may put a role on them, but I’m not going to have those expectations.

Then you might say, “But I was a kid, and isn’t it right for a kid to expect that their parents would put food on the table? My parents didn’t do it!”

Well, in general, yes that’s a responsibility of a parent. But why didn’t your parents do it? “They were taking drugs, they spent the money on drugs.” We had one young woman come here for a course and this was her story. They spent money on drugs, the kids didn’t have enough food, but this young woman was remarkable in her attitude. She wasn’t angry at them, she realized that they had problems. They loved their kids. Every parent loves their kid. They don’t always know how to show that love to the child in a way that the child can recognize it.

 They love their kid, but they also have their own problems, maybe they have a strong temper, maybe they have a substance abuse problem. Maybe they’re even competing with their own children. I heard of somebody whose father was like that with him. Your parents had problems, but they did the best they could. Considering their problem, considering how they grew up, considering their conditioning, they did the best they could. They were not perfect, but can you have compassion for them? Because compassion for them is going to help you a lot more than anger towards them. 

So, don’t give them the title of whatever family member they are. See them like you would see a stranger, without all those expectations on their head, even if society thinks it’s fair to have those expectations. You got married, and part of that is you don’t go sleep with other people. That was part of your wedding vows. Why are you going off now and having affairs? Well, you married somebody who is a sentient being whose mind is under the influence of afflictions and karma.

Does that mean you stay with them while they have affairs? Does that mean you stay with them while they beat you? No! Does that mean that you’re entitled to hate them? Well, it’s a free world. If you want to consume your own life in hatred, go ahead, but it’s not going to help you. Can you forgive? Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting, it means you are going to stop being angry, then you can go on and do something else with your life. Maybe you decide “that’s enough,” especially if there’s domestic violence. You don’t want to stay in a situation with domestic violence, but that doesn’t mean you have to hate the other person.

Back to the book

Let’s start the class. We are on page 214.

Not only must you die in the end but you do not know when the end will come. You should make preparations so that even if you did die tonight, you would have no regrets. If you develop an appreciation for the imminence of death, your sense of the importance of using time wisely will get stronger and stronger.

We won’t do things that we regret later? Because, before we act, we’ll stop and think, “What are the results of the action going to be?” As Nagarjuna expresses in the Precious Garland of Advice:

You are living amidst the causes of death 

Like a lamp standing in a breeze. 

Having let go of all possessions 

At death powerless you must go elsewhere, 

But all that has been used for spiritual practice 

Will precede you as good karma.

Whatever good karma you have created in your life, by acting in virtuous ways by working on your mind, that comes with you and will precede you as you go on. But everything in this life, family, possessions, reputation, praise, certificates, honor, wealth, all that stays here.

If you keep in mind how quickly this life disappears, you will value your time and do what is most helpful with a strong sense of the imminence of death, you will feel the need to engage in spiritual practice, improving your mind and not wasting your time on various distractions ranging from eating and drinking to endless talk about war, romance, and gossip.

Maintaining the intention off of the cushion

That’s reminding me there was one other question somebody asked, “I feel calm and fairly focused when I’m on the meditation cushion, however, when practicing meditation with any intensity, such as when in a retreat or simply trying to increase my practice time, I find it affects my emotions post-session. I mostly get grumpy, angry and irritable.”

Somehow this paragraph about death reminded me of this question. So there’s a link there, you can figure it out. But what to do? You know you’re fine in the meditation sessions and then after a session you know you are grumpy, irritable, and like stuff. There could be a few things going on. Probably you are pushing yourself. Probably you have too many expectations: “I’m going to sit and meditate and conquer my anger. I’m meditating on all these sentient beings, who are under the control of afflictions and karma, so that I won’t be angry with them when they act out of their afflictions and karma. That’s really true; I can’t be angry with them. My anger has decreased.” [laughter]

I think all of us, especially in the West, we tend to push ourselves quite a bit. Or even if we are not pushing ourselves, the meditation session goes well, it’s natural, it’s comfortable but after the session we expect that we should have permanently changed, but we haven’t, and the same stuff comes up again, and then we get mad at ourselves.

What we were working on in the session we are unable to continue with in post meditation time. So then we have two problems – what we meditated on has faded away, which is natural for beginners; it’s going to take a great deal of practice to really influence all aspects of our life. But the big problem is that we get mad at ourselves, “I had such a good meditation session. I was so peaceful, and now I got off the cushion and my kids spilled spaghetti sauce all over the rug, and then the dog ate it and barfed, and nobody cleaned it up, they left it!” This is life isn’t it? You know, that’s your chance to practice.

Those times when you’re losing it in post meditation time is the chance to practice. If you can’t practice at that moment and you get angry anyway, in your next session sit down and start out with that situation, remember it, and apply the antidotes to anger at that time when you’re on the cushion so that you again train yourself in seeing the situation in a different way. Remember you are going to die, and when you die who cares about the spaghetti sauce on the rug! [Laughter] This is life, isn’t it? It happens all the time. See if you can laugh! We just have to accept it and learn to have some sense of humor about it. So having said that, I wonder what’s going to happen in break time after this session because now I’ve created the cause for something to blow up! [laughter]

Facing death

For one who cannot face even the word death, never mind the reality of it, the actual arrival of death is likely to bring great discomfort and fear.

This is another one of the things that we want to help our parents and elderly people with, and they don’t want to talk about it. “Mom and dad, do you want to have code or no code, if you go into cardiac arrest in the hospital?” “Oh that’s not gonna happen. Hurry up and get ready, we’re going out to dinner.” They don’t want to talk about it. Can you make them talk about it? Can you make them write up their wishes? No. Neither of my parents wanted to talk about it. Eventually, I think my sister talked to the doctor, and then the doctor talked to my dad, and eventually he signed a paper that said, “No code.” But again, it couldn’t be us. I told him it had to be the doctor.

But those who were accustomed to reflecting on the imminence of death are prepared to face death with no regret. Reflecting on the uncertainty of the time of death develops a mind that is peaceful, disciplined and virtuous. Because it is dwelling on more than the superficial stuff of this short lifetime.

So, the purpose of this meditation is not to make us panicked and neurotic. We can do that all by ourselves, thank you. Rather, it is to help us really think about what’s important and what’s not, and to let go of what’s not important. Then we can have a peaceful mind that is more disciplined.

We all share an existence marked by suffering and impermanence. Once we recognize how much we have in common, we will see there is no sense in being belligerent with one another.

Oh my goodness, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the news read this statement over and over and over again right now? There’s so much anger in this country in the face of the pandemic, and the anger doesn’t help any of us individually, and it doesn’t help the country.

Consider a group of prisoners who are about to be executed. Over the course of their stay together in prison, all of them will meet their end. There is no sense in quarreling during their remaining days. Like those prisoners, all of us are bound by suffering and impermanence, under such circumstances there is absolutely no reason to fight with one another or to waste all our energy, mental as well as physical, on accumulating money and property.

This advice is timeless.

Meditative reflections

Here are meditative reflections you can do in the next session:

  1. It is certain that I will die. Death cannot be avoided. My lifespan is running out and cannot be extended.

Try to accept the reality of that; what does it mean for your life? That you’re not going to live forever. Think about what you would do differently in your life. Especially if you believed in future lives. Especially if you want your life to have some meaning besides having a good time. How would that awareness of death help you gain clarity on what’s important to you in your life?

  1. When I will die is indefinite. Lifespans among humans vary. The causes of death are many and the causes of life comparatively few. The body is fragile.

We always think we have lots of time. We don’t. Right now as a community, we’re doing prayers for Illios who was twenty three years old and Christina who was about the same age. We wouldn’t have thought they would die. As a community we were asked to dedicate for people of all ages and who died in all sorts of ways. So, this is a reminder to us.

  1. At death nothing will help except my transformed attitude. Friends will be of no help. My wealth will be of no use and neither will my body.

But my transformed attitude, the seeds of the virtuous actions I’ve done, that will be very meaningful and important to me when I’m dying.

  1. We are all in this same perilous situation. So there is no point in quarreling and fighting or wasting all of our mental and physical energy on accumulating money and property.

Money and property will stay here. Fighting people will win the fight but lose the war. What use is it? Try to talk to people and work it out. I think war is one of the stupidest things that human beings ever invented. When I looked, because I like to look on the web, when they say this date in history, what happened in history, so much of it is about wars and I think this is so stupid. Why are people killing strangers? The people and the armies don’t even know each other. Why are they killing each other? It’s so ridiculous. What Muhammad Ali said really struck me, when he didn’t want to go to Vietnam to fight in the war, and as a result they stripped him of his title and everything. Why didn’t he want to go? He said, “Those people haven’t done anything to me. Why should I want to harm them? Especially when you’re asking me to defend a country who doesn’t let me be an equal citizen in it.”

  1. I should practice now to reduce my attachment to passing fancies.

Look at your bucket list carefully, and if you don’t get to do it on your deathbed, are you going to mourn, “I didn’t get to go to Disneyland. I didn’t get to go to Antarctica. I didn’t get to see  Crosby, Stills and Nash perform live.

Audience: Are they alive? [laughter from audience].

VTC: That’s the question, are they alive? [laughter] I didn’t get to dance with Lady Gaga.” Whatever your thing is, really see, if you don’t get to do it, is it going to be such an incredible loss?

  1. From the depths of my heart, I should seek to get beyond the cycle of suffering induced by misconceiving the impermanent to be permanent.

Subtle impermanence

Now for the subtle impermanence. His Holiness says:

The substances that make up the objects around us disintegrate moment by moment.

Scientists tell us that. It used to be that you could say in America, when science had something to say, people listened.

The substances that make up the objects around us disintegrate moment by moment. Similarly, the internal consciousness with which we observe those external objects, also disintegrates moment by moment, it doesn’t remain the same. This is the nature of subtle impermanence. Particle physicists do not just take for granted the appearance of a solid object such as a table. Instead, they look at changes within its smaller elements.

So, the table looks to us like one solid unchanging thing. Actually, on the atomic or molecular level, it’s changing all the time. It’s not remaining the same. Each moment is disintegrating as it is arising and a new moment is coming up.

  1. Ordinary happiness is like dew on the tip of a blade of grass, disappearing very quickly.

This last week it rained a lot. We had lots of dew on the tips of blades of grass. When you see things in nature, let them remind you of this kind of thing. Where are those dew drops now? Gone.

That it vanishes reveals that it is impermanent and under the control of other forces, causes, and conditions. It’s vanishing also shows that there is no way of making everything right.

There’s no way of making everything exactly as we want it.

No matter what you do within the scope of cyclic existence you cannot pass beyond the range of dukkha.

This means the dukkha of unsatisfactory experiences, because we cannot control everything, and even if we get something to be the way we want it, since its very nature is to change, it’s disintegrating right away.

By seeing that the true nature of things is impermanence, you will not be shocked by change when it occurs, not even by death.

Because you will fully expect things to change, and you will expect that things change when you’re not prepared for them to change. That they will change when you don’t have it scheduled. When it’s most inconvenient for you. This is something that people at the Abbey learn by living here is every morning we have our plan for what we’re going to accomplish during the day, and then, sometimes even before you start enacting your plan, the situation has changed, and you have to do something else. At first you may get frustrated and freak out, and then later you begin to realize this is just the way it is. I remember early on in the Abbey, people used to get so upset,  “But I planned to do this today, then the schedule changed, and I had to do something else.” Do you remember that? [laughter]

Another meditative reflection

Here’s another meditative reflection; you can do this one, too.

  1. My mind-body possessions in life are impermanent simply because they are produced by causes and conditions.

And causes and conditions change, all the time without any other added factor needed to make them change.

  1. The very same causes that produce my mind, body, possessions in life also make them disintegrate moment by moment.

Because that causal energy runs out.

  1. The fact that things have a nature of impermanence indicates that they are not under their own power. They function under outside influence.

So, with the way we see things, it’s as if they function under their own power. They seem self instituting. They seem to control themselves. They seem to exist from their own side without depending on any other factors whatsoever, and this is the way they appear to us. This is how we just innately grasp them to be, and it’s the total opposite of how they actually are.

  1. By mistaking what disintegrates moment by moment for something constant, I bring pain upon myself as well as others.

So, things by their own nature, by themselves—they don’t exist under their own power. They are not fixed and permanent. The more we grasp with them to be like that, the more we are contradicting reality and reality always wins. What we want, how we think things should be, reality trumps them. So the more we grasp onto our fantasies like this, the more we bring suffering to ourselves and others.

  1. From the depths of my heart, I should seek to get beyond this round of suffering induced by mistaking the impermanent to be permanent.

Use whatever you’ve learned from any of these meditations and here, especially the ones on impermanence and death, to strengthen your aspiration to be free of cyclic existence.

That’s the purpose of doing these meditations. Yes, they’re sobering, yes, they pop our bubbles and fantasies, but they will help us see reality more and generate a motivation for our life. A freedom that can actually be attained, and they help us to generate that wish for freedom not only for ourselves but also for everybody.

Extending this to others

Since our attitudes of permanence and self-centeredness are what ruin all of us, the most fruitful meditations are on impermanence and the emptiness of an inherent existence on the one hand, and love and compassion on the other.

Meditating on impermanence and emptiness is the wisdom side of the path. Meditating on love and compassion is the method side of the path. Oh, the next sentence says that!

This is why Buddha emphasized that the two wings of the bird flying to awakening is compassion and wisdom. Extrapolating from your own experience of not recognizing the impermanent for what it actually is you can appreciate how it is that other beings wander through limitless forms of cyclic existence by making the same mistake.

We see our mistakes in our limitations, and we know everybody else has the same thing.

Contemplate their inconceivable suffering and dukkha and their similarity to you in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Over the course of innumerable lifetimes they have been your closest friends sustaining you with kindness which makes them intimates. Seeing that you have a responsibility to help them, possess happiness and to help free them from suffering, develop great love and great compassion.

This is how meditating on the wisdom side of the path helps us generate the method side of the path of love and compassion.

Sometimes when I am visiting a big city, staying on a high floor in a hotel, I look down on the traffic, hundreds and even thousands of cars going this way and that, and reflect that, although all these beings are impermanent, they are thinking, “I want to be happy.” “I must do this job.” “I must get this money.” “I have to do this.” They are mistakenly imagining themselves to be permanent, this thought stimulates my compassion.

Can you see how that thought would stimulate your compassion? You see their predicament?

More meditative reflections

Bring a friend to mind and consider the following with feeling:

  1. This person’s mind, body, possessions and life are impermanent because they are produced by causes and conditions.

We’ve already thought like this in terms of ourself. Now we’re doing the same meditation in terms of others. On the previous page we were reflecting on ourselves. These reflections are on others.

  1. The very same causes that produce this person’s mind, body, possessions in life also make them disintegrate moment by moment.
  1. The fact that things have a nature of impermanence indicates that they are not under their own power. They function under outside influence.
  1. By mistaking what disintegrates moment by moment for something constant, this friend brings pain upon him or herself as well as others.

So, the same way of thinking you do exactly with others.

Now, with ourselves at the conclusion, we generate the wish to be free of samsara. When we do the same meditation with regard to others, we now generate the three levels of love, the three levels of compassion, and we cultivate a commitment. I’ll read through those. You can see as we read this, the repetition; these are things we covered yesterday, aren’t they? Or these are things we meditated on ourselves, so now we do the same thing for others. And the same meditations are coming again and again. What does that mean? I don’t think it’s just because His Holiness wants to fatten the book up. It’s because we need to do these meditations over and over again, and do them in slightly different ways—sometimes focusing on ourself, sometimes on others.

The Three Levels of Love

Now cultivate the three levels of love:

  1. This person wants happiness but is bereft. How nice it would be if she or he could be imbued with happiness and all the causes of happiness!
  2. This person wants happiness but is bereft. May she or he be imbued with happiness and all the causes of happiness!
  3. This person wants happiness but is bereft. I will do whatever I can to help her or him to be imbued with happiness and all the causes of happiness!

It’s the same meditation we did yesterday. We need to do it some more.

The Three Levels of Compassion

Now cultivate three levels of compassion:

  1. This person wants happiness and does not want suffering, yet is stricken with terrible pain.

Or stricken with the insecurities of impermanence.

  1. If this person could only be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
  2. This person wants happiness and does not want suffering, yet is stricken with terrible pain and must undergo impermanence and transience. May this person be free from suffering in the causes of suffering.
  3. This person wants happiness and does not want suffering, yet is stricken with terrible pain and by nature is impermanent. I will help this person be free from suffering and all the causes of suffering.

Total Commitment

Now contemplate total commitment:

  1. Cyclic existence as a process driven by ignorance.

If you have doubts about that, reflect on the six analogies with the bucket.

  1. Therefore it is realistic for me to work to achieve awakening and to help others do the same.
  2. Even if I have to do it alone. I will free all sentient beings from suffering and cause and the causes of suffering and set all sentient beings with happiness and its causes.

In other words, I want to do this so badly that I’m generating that aspiration. Whether it’s actually possible to do this is not the issue. Right now the point is to have our love and compassion and altruism so strong that we are willing to make that pledge to do that. Because that helps us when even simple situations come to us to help. Then when somebody asked you please can you carry this for me? Please can you vacuum this? We won’t go,“Oh God,” we’ll go, “Yes,” because we’ve already made the pledge to lead them to full awakening, even if it takes countless eons to do that. So yeah, vacuuming and washing a dish, that’s easy.

One by one bring to mind individual beings–first friends, then neutral persons and then enemies, starting with the least offensive–and repeat these reflections with them. It will take months and years but the benefit will be vast.

Keep plugging away at it.

Absorbing Yourself in Infinite Love

We start with the Tibetan saying:

It is not sufficient that the doctrine be great, the person must have a great attitude.

So, the buddha dharma must be wonderful. [VTC talking to cat] What we follow must be wonderful, Maitri, but we must have a great attitude. That starts with your brother, who’s sleeping, who’s not even looking at you, so chill out, sweetie. [VTC talking to audience] This is our cat; maybe I should speak to the disciples that way, too. [laughter] Do I say, “Oh sweetie, oh sweetie?” I tell you to chill out, but I don’t always speak in such a sweet way. [Back to cat] Maitri, come on, come on, stop making yourself miserable.

Now we turn to the most profound level of love and compassion, which is made possible by knowledge of the emptiness of inherent existence.

In the previous chapter, the first chapter, we start talking about sentient beings afflicted by suffering in general in samsara. Then in the last chapter, we covered sentient beings afflicted by impermanence. Now, we’re afflicted by impermanence, but thinking things are permanent. Now we’re going on to sentient beings who think that they are inherently existent, who think there is a real “I” and “mine” when there isn’t, and the dukkha that is caused by that.

Chandrakirti puts it this way:

I offer homage to a loving concern, viewing transmigrators as empty of inherent existence, though they appeared to exist inherently, like a reflection of the moon in water.

The reflection of the moon in clear, calm water appears to be the moon in every respect but is not the moon in any respect, which is actually in the sky.

The moon is in the sky; it is not in the water.

This image symbolizes the appearance of I and all other phenomena as if they inherently exist, though appearing to exist in their own right they are empty of such. Like someone mistaken the reflection of the moon for the moon. We mistake the appearance of I and other phenomena for things that exist in their own right.

Things that are dependent on causes and conditions, we see as independent of causes and conditions. We see them as having their own mode of being.

You can use this metaphor as a way to develop insight into how we are unnecessarily drawn into suffering by accenting two false appearances, thereby falling prey to lust and hatred and all the actions that stem from them. Accumulating karma and being born over and over again in a cycle of pain. This insight will stimulate profound love and compassion because you will vividly see how unnecessary all these ills are.

When you meditate on impermanence and you meditate on emptiness, then you can see how much sentient beings grasp at things that are the opposite of permanence and inherent existence, and you see how much they suffer unnecessarily. Why is it unnecessary? Because the cause is within their own mind-nothing external is causing the suffering. It’s by the mistake in our mind that we assent to false appearances and make ourselves suffer.

It’s kind of like little kids who are afraid of the boogeyman. Is the boogeyman is hiding under your bed? The kids are afraid of the boogeyman. You try and say to the kids “there’s no boogeyman, nobody’s hiding under the bed who’s going to get you.” But the kids say, “Yes there is, and I’m terrified. So to help me overcome my fear, Mom and Dad need to sleep in the room with me, and I need to have the lights on, and I need to have some chocolate before I go to sleep because that calms my nerves, and I need to stay up late to watch cartoons because then I’ll be tired when I go to sleep, and all of that helps me not be afraid of the boogeyman.”

This is like us in samsara. How we run around distracting ourselves and self-medicating by doing all kinds of behavior when the problem is based on a mistaken perception on our part. Like the kid really holding on tight to the idea of the boogeyman. So, “This insight will stimulate profound love and compassion, because you will see vividly how unnecessary all these ills are.”

Here sentient beings are seen not only as suffering in a six fold process like a bucket in a well and as imbued with momentary impermanence like a shimmering reflection, but also as subject to the ignorance of going along with the false appearance of inherent existence. With this insight fresh in your mind, great love and great compassion arise in you for all sentient beings. You feel close to them because they want happiness and not suffering, just as you do, and you feel the impact of their having been your closest friends over the course of countless lifetimes, sustaining you with kindness. To gain access to the steps of love and compassion, it is necessary first to understand that you, yourself, and other sentient beings are empty of inherent existence. Therefore let’s review the steps for realizing the final nature of I. This insight will stimulate profound love and compassion, because you will see vividly how unnecessary all these ills are.

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.