Emptiness and conceptual designation
Emptiness and conceptual designation
Part of a series of talks given during the Vajrasattva New Year’s Retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2020-21. The retreat was offered as an online event.
- How the New Year is merely imputed
- Applying emptiness to look at the events of the past year
- Equanimity—changing how we look at others
- Vajrasattva and purification
- Purification and the four opponent powers
Things like New Year’s are rather strange. I think it is a very good indication of emptiness because people get so excited about New Year’s and especially this year, “Oh, 2020 was horrible. Good riddance to bad rubbish. We’re getting rid of 2020, and now it’s the morning of 2021, and everything is new and different, and we’re going to start over.” As if there’s no continuum from one moment to the next moment. As if cause and effect don’t function, and that the causes that were created in 2020 are not going to have effects in 2021. I think it’s so interesting—the ball drops in Times Square, and then they drop all this paper, which is so useless. And it just makes such a mess. But people love it. As if you can point to that one moment when the ball drops. Now is it at the top, when it starts to drop that you go from one year to the next or when it hits the ground? Anybody know? When it hits the ground. They have to time it perfectly, so it hits the ground exactly at the nano second. But whose nano second? Because if you look at all these different clocks and satellites, they can’t agree on the time. We have two clocks that supposedly [audience member comments] Oh, it’s not a clock. It’s an atomic clock. A clock is not a clock. And you get different times from them. But our mind always likes to put everything in nice, neat packages, with a label on it so everything becomes quite predictable.
But to me, the whole thing of New Year’s really shows you emptiness and the whole thing of mental labeling and designating. One of my teachers always says, “We give things the designation, and then we forget that we were the ones that gave the designation, and we think instead that the object exists that way from its own side.” New Year’s is such a good example of it. We label 2020, 2021. Between one day and the next, do you think the animals know it’s a new year? I mean this is all our conceptual blah, blah, isn’t it? Yet we make such a big deal out of it. And some people get depressed because, “Oh, one year’s over so we’re closer to death.” And the other people are happy because, “One year’s over, and we couldn’t stand it, and next year’s going to be better.” But then you couldn’t stand one year of your life? I mean what are you doing if your whole life is something you can’t stand and you can’t wait until the year gets over? We want to put things in boxes and forget that we’re the ones that created the box. And we’re the ones that are making the conceptions. We’re the ones giving the names and instead, thinking that those people or situations or objects are that way from their own side. And this gets us in a lot of trouble. A lot of trouble.
We can see another example of it in that, hopefully we’re going to have an inauguration in 19 days. I don’t know what the Republicans are saying or who they plan on inaugurating, but supposedly that’s going to happen. Somebody gets the name president, and the name president is only given by us on a basis. There’s nothing presidential, especially in the current one, about the basis of designation that it is being labeled president. It’s just one person, and when they go through a certain regime that is stipulated by the Constitution, supposedly, and get a certain number of electoral votes, then they get that name president on the basis of their body and mind and having jumped through all those hoops. And then everybody regards them totally differently, as if they’re a totally different league of human beings. And they regard themselves as different. They are now all-powerful because some people conflate president with king. It’s just something that is dependently arising that we’ve invented and given the name. Then in, we’re not counting the days or anything, but in nineteen more days that name is supposed to change. Then everything, the mind, changes completely. Actually, it’s just sentient beings who are more or less the same from one day to the next. But you change the designation, you change the conception of what they are, and everything changes. And this is all created by our mind. It’s very evident in examples like that. Yet, look at how miserable we get because of it. Look at how many problems we have. There’s attachment to that name, and so fighting and lying and quarreling and back-stabbing and everything that goes on to have that name. Not to do the job. This person doesn’t want to do the job. He wants to play golf, and he is. But he wants the name.
We have to look at ourselves too. What names do we want? Do we want to actually be the basis of designation of that kind of name? Because every name that you want, you have to either fulfill the society’s requirements for it or you have to make other people think you’ve fulfilled society’s requirement, and then you get the name, and then everybody treats you according to that name. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I was thinking of all these football players and sports stars and everything and movie stars and politicians. These people are so important. Yet they eat breakfast just like everybody else. They go to the bathroom like everybody else. They have their ups and downs like everybody else. But we give them some name, and then your income changes, your societal status changes. The basis of designation of that name could be called many things.
You can throw a ball and catch it really well. I mean basically that’s what it is. You can throw a ball and catch it very well. You get a name, football player, baseball player, whatever it is, and then everybody treats you differently, and you’re famous because you can throw a ball and catch it. Yet, on that same basis of designation, that same body/mind that gets designated president or football player or whatever, you can also designate a whole bunch of other things. There could be a child of some parents, their son, or their daughter. I think there’s one woman playing in the major league football now, isn’t there? Didn’t they just get someone in? [audience member inaudible]. Oh, college. Well, that’s just as good. They don’t make as much money as the pros do, but all you do is change something, and then they will. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I’ll leave that to other people to figure out.
On that basis that you label football player or president or whatever, you could also label son and daughter. You could also label father or mother. You could also label someone who can dance and call them a dancer. Call them a singer. We had one president who became an artist afterwards. Still is. How identities can change on pretty much the same basis of designation, those five aggregates.
It’s interesting to think about because you can tell what part of the book I’m working on now. It’s interesting to think about because how we label ourselves and how we think other people label us influences us a lot and how we act, how we think. We get one label, and then we just give up trying. We get another label, we feel very encouraged and inspired. Sometimes labels come from other people. Mostly they come from ourselves. There’s the conception and the name that go together, but how much these influence how we live our lives, and how much they limit us, how much we limit ourselves.
I remember when I was in, I don’t know when it was when it started, fifth or sixth grade, I was playing flute. There was always this thing. There was the person who was the best who was the first in the row and then the second and third and on down. They did it for the violins and the cellos and the trumpets and everything too. Of course, you want to be first. Once I got into junior high, eighth grade, seventh grade. I had practiced and played the flute longer than other people, so I thought I should be in the first seat. The second one challenged me. I practiced so hard, and there’s a, I forget what it’s called, where it indicates that you’re supposed to repeat that section, I did everything perfectly, but I forgot to start repeating it. The other person did. They were a grade younger than me, and they got the first seat. The challenge invigorated me to practice. The other person winning took all my energy away. “I tried so hard, and I still lost. Somebody who was a grade younger than me. Why make any effort at this ever again?” [laughter] The idea of enjoying playing the flute was nowhere. It was all about competition and being the first. All you high achiever neurotics understand me very well, I’m sure. I didn’t cut the grade, and boy, you look so sad, finally some empathy from my trauma in middle school!
What I’m getting at is to really look at conceptions and names and how our mind creates our experience and realize that, if we change the conception and change the name, we can change our experience. This is very much what the mind training practice is about. It’s all those teachings about how to transform adversity into the path. It’s all about changing your conception and changing the name, and then your mind changes, and instead of being unhappy and angry, you are creating merit and transforming the situation into the path to awakening. The situation is the same. The designation hasn’t changed. The conception and the name we give it has.
That was just a little introduction, but good to think about, isn’t it on holiday season? Okay, I’m going to go on, it’s going to be more than just a little introduction. [laughter] But thinking about this, “Oh 2020’s over. It was such a horrible year. It was disastrous. We suffered so much. The world… da, da, da, da, da, da. 2020 was disgusting.” It wasn’t bad for everybody. And it was bad depending on how you looked at it. I’ll just take myself as an example because I’m me, and I’m sure you all want to hear about me. I had trips planned. I was supposed to go to Europe to teach in the springtime, and then go to India in the summer. There was going to be a big varsa, international Bhikshuni varsa in India, and then all of our courses here with so many people coming to the Abbey, and we were going to really get rolling on the Buddha Hall and have plans all fixed for what we can do and looking forward to 2020. This is what was going to happen. That’s not what happened, is it? All my travel got canceled. Buddha Hall—we can’t make concrete plans because everything is up in the air in the country, in the world.
There was a choice there. I could have gotten totally depressed—I like so much going to Europe to teach and I was going to go to Russia again, and I like the people, and I want to help them, and now I can’t go. The thing in India was going to be such a unique event, really quite monumental historically, and now that’s canceled, and you know, we’re just stuck here at the Abbey with all of you. [laughter] Yes, you’re stuck here with me too. I could have just looked at it and said, “Oh, 2020, what a lousy year, and all of our guests aren’t here, and so we have to wash more dishes.” I don’t, but you guys do. That’s not my problem. [laughter] No, it is my problem because I have to listen to the grumbling. All the volunteers who come plant the gardens, who help with all the upkeep because this is huge, what we’re doing, and we’re just a small group of people. Now they aren’t coming. It’s like, “Oh now we have to do more work. We have to clean out the walk-in refrigerator – oh God. It was so nice when we had so many volunteers coming, and they would clean it out. Now we have to clean it out. We can quarrel about it for a few months about who’s going to clean it out because it’s so unfair that I have to.” That’s a whole other discussion. But you look and grumble, grumble, grumble.
On the other hand, you look at what’s going on, and we are so fortunate, it’s just totally amazing. I mean, we still have enough to eat, and there’s how many millions of people in America are lining up at food banks. The food banks sometimes run out of food. We have enough to eat. That’s totally amazing. And then we have this opportunity to share the Dharma. There’s more grumbling, “Oh we don’t have the proper computer equipment, we don’t have enough, we need a green screen and a purple screen and sunscreen.” Then everything breaks down, and you have to start exactly on time now when somebody rings a bell, otherwise you’re so afraid all the people online are going to go crazy. But they’re late, most of them, but you got to start exactly on time, otherwise you freak out because we’re doing a performance, and we’re late by one millisecond. We can always find something to complain about, but actually, when you look at the situation—we have an extraordinary situation here. I think right now, anybody who has a place to live, and food has an extraordinary situation. Yet we all find something to grumble about.
This depends on how we conceive and designate a situation. We can look at it and say, “Oh my travel’s canceled. We can’t do everything we wanted to do.” Or you can look at it and say, “Wow, we have an incredible opportunity to create merit, sharing the Dharma” with how many people? So far 177, and the list is growing. That’s phenomenal for us. To have that opportunity to share the Buddhist teachings that lead people to awakening, that benefit their minds so much. What more could you ask for in your life? We can do that, so what’s there to be sad and miserable about? All this came about in 2020 for us. It’s a cause actually for us to be quite happy. And I’m sure some of the people who are tuning in, they are new to Buddhism, and they’re beginning to explore things because of the pandemic. I write, many of us write, to people who are incarcerated. How many of them tell me that they wouldn’t have met the Buddhist teachings if they hadn’t been incarcerated? How many of them say that they probably would be dead if they hadn’t been arrested? They are thankful for what happened to them, even though when it happened, they complained and were upset.
Is my point coming across here? It really depends on how we look at things what they become. That, of course, influences our mood and our experience. If you want a New Year’s resolution, don’t wait for New Year’s. Make up your mind now to put your mindfulness and introspective awareness on having a happy mind by serving others, by thinking of how to benefit other living beings and having the opportunity to do that and then train the mind to do that. Then your life turns around and becomes quite joyful. That’s the advice. Don’t make it so it goes in one ear and out the other. Have it stick inside a little while, and let’s try that.
Turn your attention now to the situation of other living beings, especially in this year of 2020 that people seem so happy to say is finished now. Be aware of all the different situations that people have been in during the pandemic, together with all the craziness of the country that’s going on in the country politically. While other people may be frightened and stressed, be aware that you don’t necessarily have to go down that road. That you can conceive of things differently, relate to them differently. Having compassion for others helps us to do that. We care about their situation, and we want them to be free of suffering. We care about their situation, and we want them to have happiness and its causes. That’s what we call love. We rejoice at all their well-being and everything that goes well for them, whether it’s in terms of happiness of this life or changing their mind and developing their character, creating merit, good karma for future lives. That’s rejoicing. We care about all these sentient beings equally. Remove all of our judgements about them, about the way we think they should be. Recognize that everybody is the same, wanting happiness and not suffering. Develop equanimity and they want to be involved in creating the causes and the opportunities for sentient beings to be free of misery and have happiness. Make a determination to be involved in that in one way or another according to your temperament, according to the situations that present themselves to you.
This part about developing equanimity is quite powerful. When you meditate on love, wanting others to have happiness and its causes, compassion, wanting them to be free from suffering and its causes. Our judgements about people may still be rolling around there, and we can judge somebody for having a negative quality and use that to generate compassion for them. For example, we can see somebody has a substance abuse problem and judge them for that, but then flip the situation and say actually, instead of judging them, it’s more worthwhile to have compassion because this person’s situation, mental situation, is very difficult and they lack the means to deal with it and perhaps lack the external circumstances too that would help them deal with it. Instead of judging and criticizing, using it to have compassion. When you’re doing equanimity, then you try and drop all the judgements completely and look at each person without any judgement and see how everybody’s exactly the same in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. It doesn’t matter what their experience during Covid has been.
People in Wall Street are delighted. They’re making a fortune. The stocks are way up, and corporate income is way up. I don’t know how that works when so many people don’t have enough money to purchase the goods that they’re making and selling. Anyway, some people may be having a lot of goodness happen to them, in a worldly way, during Covid. Then other people are suffering horrendously, either through being sick themselves or their loved ones dying and being unable to be with their loved ones and say goodbye or having no control over the situation and their loved ones getting sick and so on. You can have people having so many different situations, and it’s very easy to feel some sympathy and compassion for the people who have suffered, especially through all the deaths that have happened in the country. Then to be quite angry and resentful of the people in the corporations on Wall Street who are making a load off of this.
That’s coming from the small mind of just looking at this situation right now. Any situation is not going to last. It’s going to change. Remember, every situation you can look at in a different perspective. Or maybe when you’re developing equanimity, you drop the judgmental perspective and you adopt the perspective of, actually at the beginning and end of the day, everybody is simply a sentient being wanting happiness and not wanting suffering. Everybody is a being under the control of their self-grasping ignorance, their self-centered mind. Some people are experiencing the result of good karma created in the past. Other people are experiencing the result of bad karma created in the past.
Most of our lives are a mixture of experiencing some good results and some bad results or unfortunate results. We’re all the same in wanting happiness and not pain. When you come down to that level and you drop the judgments about the rich people and the essential workers and how unfair society is, then you have a whole different take on what it looks like, and you see that, in the past the situation has been different and in the future it will be different, that the people who are experiencing the result of their good karma, if they aren’t being generous and sharing their wealth, if they’re being arrogant about their good situation and disregarding and full of contempt for of others, then they’re frittering away their good karma, experiencing pleasant results now, but not creating any more virtuous karma to create happiness in the future. Those people actually, in many ways, are quite unfortunate.
Then you have people, the essential workers, who really sacrifice a lot because they care about other people. During the first wave of Covid, when it was mostly in New York, there were doctors and nurses and aides from all over the country flying into New York to help. Why were they doing that? Because they cared about other sentient beings, and they knew they had something to contribute. There are people who don’t have very much, but they give some food to the food bank, and they share some with their neighbor, and they reach out and help somebody who’s older or whatever, or they play with the children. There are many ways to connect with other people. Those people may be going through a lot of hardship now, but they’re creating so much virtue that will ripen in their own happiness in the future. Plus, their minds feel very happy now. They feel connected to other living beings, and that feeling of connection prevents depression.
You look at these two situations. Everybody has some fortune. Everybody has some misfortune. Some people are creating more cause for suffering in the future, even though they have a good situation now. Some people are creating more cause for happiness in the future, even though they don’t have such a good situation now. But everybody is equal in wanting happiness and not wanting suffering, both now and in the future. Changing our attitude, changing the way we look at people in this way, really changes a lot for us.
Many people have had friends and relatives die, and the grief can be really overwhelming sometimes. Yet we all get through grief. We all survive bad situations, and in the process of doing so, we learn a lot. I think very often when people have gone through grief, those people become so much more compassionate towards other people who are grieving. That’s why you have these new groups forming online to share the experiences they’re going through. I was reading that since more men die of Covid than women, there are a lot of women who are left as widows, and they’re now starting online groups to bond and share their grief because they can really support each other because they understand the situation the other one’s going through. You see a bad situation and yet people using it to connect in a really important way that will serve them for the rest of their lives and enable them to really be more sensitive and compassionate to other people.
I think that whatever difficulty we go through, it’s important to remember that it’s not going to last forever and that we have internal resources and there are external resources as well. But especially the internal ones. Those ones we have to develop ourselves, and if we do, then those heightened internal resources, those good qualities that we develop, are going to be really wonderful, and they’ll be qualities that we would not have developed otherwise if we hadn’t gone through hardship.
They say that having a human rebirth is very advantageous in all of cyclic existence because we have enough happiness and good experiences to have the leisure to practice the Dharma, but we have enough suffering to remind us that we need to practice the Dharma. In some kinds of rebirths, so much suffering, but no opportunity to practice. Other rebirths, so much happiness they don’t see the need to practice. To really use this situation, we’re in for something good because it wasn’t on my radar that I would live through a pandemic or die in a pandemic. Did any of you think previously in your life that there would be a pandemic and that this kind of thing would happen? No. That was like 1918 or that was Ebola—that was across the world. That’s somebody else’s problem. But we live in the most powerful country in the world which has four percent of the population and the highest percentage of Covid deaths. How did that happen? Did we ever think we’d be living in this situation? How many Americans thought that the country would become like that? I never thought in my lifetime that people would be trying to overthrow a legitimate election in this country.
You read about all this stuff that went on in the past, but it all kind of worked out in the end. Or at least the way they told us the history, it looked like it worked out. Actually, when you learn the history, you find out it didn’t really work out so well. I never thought I would live through a president and a good chunk of a major political party denying the vote of the people and trying to basically have an electoral coup. It never entered my mind. Our lives are quite unpredictable, not only in terms of the difficulties we may encounter, but also in terms of the goodness we may encounter. For myself I look and it’s like I met the Buddhadharma—my goodness, what amazing fortune that was. I never thought earlier in my life that I would meet something that would really provide grounding and meaning in my life. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and if we have the attitude of learning from everything we experience, then everything becomes valuable on our path to full awakening.
Now, I suppose, by this time, some people are getting fed up with me and saying, “I signed up for Vajrasattva retreat, and you’re not talking about Vajrasattva. You’re talking about politics and nuns aren’t supposed to talk about politics.” That’s a whole other discussion. I’m not talking about politics, I’m talking about ethical conduct, because I think ethical conduct isn’t just what you learn in Sunday school. Ethical conduct is how you live your life in whatever you’re doing.
Vajrasattva is one manifestation of the Buddha whose specialty is to help us purify our nonvirtue. All the Buddhas have the same qualities. All the Buddhas can help us purify nonvirtue, but Vajrasattva’s specialty is that because of the form that he appeared in and because of the structure of the practice that we do. If you look with Vajrasattva, he’s white in color, radiating light. That indicates some kind of purity. You’re radiating light. It doesn’t really matter what color the light is. Dark blue light, but his happens to be white. It reminds us of purity.
He’s sitting there with a very peaceful expression, very much the opposite of ours. We’re like, “Agh, Agh” with all of our moods, but just to be peaceful and accept everything and be more concerned with other’s welfare than with one’s own, that creates a certain internal stability. Not just because having that concern, but also Vajrasattva has the ability to help other sentient beings. We may often have that concern, but we don’t have the ability. I think most of us look around at what’s happening, and we have a lot of concern. We wish we could jump in and change everything, but that’s not possible. You know what, it’s not possible for anybody to do it because there’s too many causes and conditions, and we can’t control all the causes and conditions.
There we are, us and Vajrasattva, and Vajrasattva saying, “Well, if you want to purify, I’ll help you.” Us going, “Yes, I want to purify, but I really don’t want to look at all the horrible things I did, because then I either get too depressed or I get too self-critical.” Anybody have that problem? Vajrasattva says, “Look, you don’t need to get depressed. You don’t need to get self-critical when you purify. Nobody is criticizing you, and I’m here to help.” Do we trust that? Or do we think Vajrasattva’s sitting on the crown of our head with his hands on his hips or sitting in front of us with his hands on his hips, looking at us going, “You stupid idiot, did you really do that? I’ve been trying to lead you to enlightenment since beginningless time, and every single lifetime you screw up.” Do you think Vajrasattva’s saying that to us? You think somebody works so hard to become a Buddha only to have that kind of personality? [laughter] Do you think Vajrasattva’s tweeting all day long? Telling us how awful we are, how unqualified we are. Actually, he has an emissary, a few emissaries, who’s doing that for him. No.
Vajrasattva’s not doing that. Who’s doing that? We’re doing that to ourselves. We have to own this. If we’re feeling guilty and depressed and low self-esteem, there might have been some influences from other people, but we bought into those influences, and the big thing is not to make the other people stop doing that because we can’t control them. The big thing is for us to stop buying into it. For me to stop thinking that, just because somebody a grade younger than me is now first chair flutist, that that means that I’m a failure. I really don’t think anybody in the whole music department thought that about me looking back on it now. I thought that about me.
Where was the poison coming from? It wasn’t coming from the person who beat me. It wasn’t coming from my music teacher. It was coming from my own, what the Tibetans call namtok, superstitious thought. Conceptualization. We create all these garbage conceptualizations that we impute on ourselves and on others, and then we feel stressed and imprisoned by them. What purification practice is designed to do is to help us begin to release all of that. We do that by a process called the four opponent powers. I think as people lead you in the meditation, they will point these out and give you time to meditate on these four.
I’m going to go through the four in a little bit different order than they are when you actually do the sadhana because the first element if you want to purify is to have regret. If you rejoice over all your rotten deeds, then you can’t purify them. If you say, “Oh good, I ruined that person’s reputation. I created a disaster in the country. I ruined the political party. Yippee for me!” Or “I made a mess in my family, and I humiliated other people by my behavior.” If you feel happy about that then forget purifying. We have to have a sense of regret. But regret is different than guilt, and regret is different than shame. This is something that I recommend you really contemplate in your meditation. What is the difference between regret, guilt, and shame? To be able to identify those three in your own mind and to recognize experiences in your own life where those three mental states have arisen.
Let me give you some clues how to recognize them because they’re actually very different. Regret is, “I made a mistake. I regret harming others. I regret harming myself by doing that.” You see the situation clearly. You realize the harmful effects your behavior caused not only on the other person, but also on yourself, and you’re sorry that your mind was out of control and your speech, and your body were out of control and your wisdom was absent, and you’re sorry about that. You want to change it. You want to prevent the suffering results from acting in that way from continuing, from ripening on you in the first place. You feel like, “I’ve been carrying around this burden, now I just admit it. I’m transparent. I put it out there because I want to get rid of this burden of carrying it around.” That’s regret.
Guilt is, “Oh look what I did! How could anybody have acted that way? What in the world was wrong with me? I did such a hideous thing and damaged so many people and created so much negative karma. I don’t want anybody to know about it because I feel so guilty, and the only way I have to get over my guilt is through suffering.” Because that’s what some of the world religions tell us. If we suffer, we are absolving ourselves from guilt. We think suffering is purification. That is wrong. We think, “I hate myself. I make myself suffer. I beat myself up with my own low self-esteem. I make myself suffer. That is somehow purifying the negativity I created. Or I hit myself with, what are those things? whips? those things that the Catholics used to use? If I wear those hairshirts or I beat myself up somehow, then somehow that’s going to purify all my horrible sins.”
Do you see the difference between guilt and regret? Regret is you just see it clearly, you make amends. Guilt is, “I am the worst person in the universe.” Guilt is very involved with self-centeredness. “I am the worst person in the universe. I screwed up so badly. Nobody can forgive me, and I hate myself for it. I feel lousy, and I feel guilty.” That’s guilt. Different, isn’t it?
Shame. There are two kinds of shame. There’s one kind of shame where we know we could have done better, and we feel bad about that. That’s a good kind of shame. That’s what the word shame used to mean a few hundred years ago. Usually, what people nowadays mean by shame is, “There’s something defective about me. I came into existence as defective goods. It’s my fault because something is wrong with me.” Guilt is,” It’s my fault because I did something wrong.” Shame is, “I’m just inherently corrupt, and there’s no hope for me, and that’s why it happened.” Shame is really poisonous that way. Really poisonous. Shame is what makes our mind so contorted. Shame is what makes the victims of sexual abuse feel like they were responsible for the sexual abuse when they weren’t. That’s what shame does, “I am defective, so there’s no hope.” I just gave that one example. There’re many, many examples.
We really get ourselves quite stuck when we feel shame or guilt, because there’s so much emphasis on the I. The I is inherently existent, and inherently, in the case of shame, defective. In the case of guilt, hopeless, always making mistakes. So that is adding a lot of conceptualizations onto something that doesn’t have to be so complicated. If we recognize our part in something, we regret it. Good. Leave the whips and the hairshirts and the mea culpas behind.
That’s the first opponent power, having regret. The second opponent power is reforming the relationship with whoever it was that you harmed. It’s more reforming it, re-forming. Forming again the relationship in a different way with whoever you harmed.
There are two groups that we usually have our negativities in relationships. One is the Buddha Dharma Sangha, our spiritual masters. The other is other sentient beings. If we’ve done something negative towards the Buddha Dharma Sangha, for example, making up our own philosophy and marketing it as Buddhism, when it isn’t. Or taking offerings, stealing offerings that have been given to the Three Jewels. Things like that. Then the way to restore that relationship is by taking refuge in them. Instead of seeing them as objects, “Oh, the Three Jewels, they have lots of offerings. I can siphon something off for myself.” Instead of seeing them as like that, just see their good qualities and take refuge in them.
The other group that we harm a lot are other sentient beings. We get mad at them, we steal their things, we lie to them, we manipulate them. We sleep around and are insensitive. Many things that we do that are harmful toward individual sentient beings and towards groups, whenever we’re biased or prejudiced, and what we do towards even other countries or our own country. The way to re-form the situation, our relationship with sentient beings is by generating bodhicitta for them. Instead of seeing other sentient beings as objects of our attachment, our resentment, our anger and so forth, we see other sentient beings as objects of our compassion and for whose benefit we’re going to aim for full awakening. We completely change our attitude towards whoever it was that we harmed.
Now sometimes our mind doesn’t like to do that. Our mind says, “But they started it.” That’s what we say when we’re kids. “My brother started it. I don’t want to get punished.” As adults, we don’t say it that way. We say, “But this person did this action first, and I was just trying to respond to it and help correct it.” We fudge. Or we make excuses. Or we lie. It’s hard for us to admit as adults sometimes that we had such bad motivations. Actually, it happens quite early. Some of our friends wrote us and they were saying because they have, I think their son’s seven, their daughter’s four or five, and they were saying how young they notice little kids trying to over-rationalize their own mistakes. How we learn that so little. Rationalize and blame.
If we’re going to cultivate bodhicitta, and if we’re going to have sincere regret, two of the four opponent powers, we need to stop the rationalizing and the blaming because it doesn’t serve us. It just gets in the way. It’s all not true. If you think Vajrasattva is on a mission. Are we going to make excuses to Vajrasattva? Maybe your parents you could fool once in a while. My parents, I have to say, were very difficult to fool. Very difficult. I tried and whenever I tried to make excuses, it didn’t work. Who are we going to lie to and fudge to and rationalize in front of? “Buddha, you’re omniscient, you know everything without even trying, and I’m going to try and make you think that what you believe is wrong?” Just coming clean. It’s psychologically quite helpful to be able to do that.
Then the next power is to do some kind of remedial behavior. Don’t just leave it with regret and developing a better attitude towards those whom you harm, but actually go out and do something that is virtuous. It could be in terms of your spiritual practice. Here we visualize Vajrasattva. We recite his mantra. We imagine the purifying light coming down into us and banishing all the darkness of the afflictions and the negativities. It could be offering help. Now is a perfect time. Offer service to others. Help your neighbors. Make donations and be charitable and generous. Reach out and help other sentient beings, and that becomes something of a virtuous deed that is a remedial action in this process.
Then the fourth opponent power is to make a determination to avoid doing the deeds, those kinds of actions. Some things we’ve done in our lives, we may feel so disgusted with, that we can truthfully say, “I will not do that again.” Other things we may not feel that way about, and we also realize we have a strong habit to do them. With those things it’s best to give ourselves a time and say, “For the next three days, or the next week or the next whatever, I’m going to be really, really attentive and not do that kind of action.
We go through those four in the Vajrasattva practice. Actually, we start out with the power, here it’s called the power of reliance, I call it the power of re-forming the relationship. We take refuge and then generate bodhicitta. Then we spend some time thinking about the things that we regret having done and just being really clean, clear, and unafraid. To be careful to take responsibility for things that are our responsibility, but not take responsibility for things that are not our responsibility because another cause of guilt is when we take responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility as if I could control other people’s lives and make sure that nothing bad happened to them. Or I could control them and make them stop shooting themselves in the foot.
Don’t take responsibility for things that aren’t your responsibility. We often do that, and we don’t take responsibility for things that are our responsibility where we could have done something, or we acted in a really inappropriate way. We have to own that part of it. There are many situations that are pretty complex where we have to see what was my doing and what was the other person’s doing. Really learning to discern those two accurately.
We have the power of regret, or we contemplate that, and we see the difference between regret and guilt and shame and what’s our responsibility and what’s other’s responsibility. Then we do the remedial action. In this case, like I said, the whole visualization with Vajrasattva and the light coming. What’s interesting in this practice is that, as the light comes and you really feel Vajrasattva’s compassion, you feel blissful. The light and the bliss help to purify the negativity. It’s very different when we think suffering and making myself suffer is going to absolve me or be the atonement that I need, quite the opposite. Then towards the end we have the power of determination, where we make some kind of determination to abandon the action. It was a realistic period of time. Then we dedicate the merit. Rejoice. Dedicating the merit is an act of generosity because we’re wishing the positive effects of our merit on all living beings, and it’s also a practice of rejoicing because we’re rejoicing that we did something good by purifying our negativity.
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.