Imbued with the Buddhist worldview
01 Monastic Mind Motivation
- How Buddhist monastic precepts arose
- The meaning of humility and its influence on our behavior
- How the Buddhist worldview differs from worldly values
- Mindfulness and introspective awareness
- Maintaining love and compassion
- Suffering and its relation to ethical conduct
Recitation and introduction
Homage to our root teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. Homage to our root teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. Homage to our root teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. It is rare to hear the teaching of the pratimoksha sutra. And it may take countless great eons to encounter it. Studying it and reciting it are also rare. Practicing it is the rarest of all.
It is rare, isn’t it? It’s especially rare if we did not grow up in a Buddhist culture, and yet somehow we managed to meet the Dharma, have exposure to it, and are able to meet teachers, have dharma friends, and so on. In my generation, it was much more difficult. There weren’t Buddhist centers in America at that time. Well, there were a couple here and there, but that was it. And then the generation before mine had even fewer. There were ethnic temples in both the generation before mine and my generation, but I didn’t speak Chinese or Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian. The temples all taught in their own language as they should, but I couldn’t understand any of it. So, encountering the dharma like this really is quite rare.
Keeping a monastic mind
This morning I wanted to talk about the monastic mind. You say a verse at the end of your morning practice on the monastic mind, right? I wanted to go through it line by line, because sometimes when you say something a lot you forget what it means. You have it memorized, but you don’t focus on the words when you’re saying it or reciting it. You’re already thinking about what you’re going to do and what’s for breakfast. So, I think it’s good to always go through the meanings of the recitations that we do so that we remember them.
And I think the monastic mind is really crucial. As the course goes on, and especially after the ordination, you’ll be learning the precepts one by one, and so on. But I think that if you have a very sincere monastic mind then you automatically will follow the precepts—sometimes without even being told. Because if your mind is in the right place then you know what to do and what not to do.
The way the precepts arose at the time of the Buddha is very interesting. At the very beginning, for 12 years there were no precepts. The Buddha just said, “Come bhikkhu, bhikshu,” and that was your ordination. It was very easy! There were no precepts, and people had very pure minds, so they listened to the teachings and followed them. There was no need to explain day-to-day behavior or how to construct a community and everything like that. Because the minds of those people who were ordained were already directed towards virtue.
It was only after 12 years that one monk made a big boo-boo. I’ll tell you that story in a minute. “Boo-boo” sounds like something sweet, like a little kid makes a boo-boo. But no, I’m talking about an egregious transgression. He really blew it. As the story goes, there were six naughty monks who continued to do things that were really inappropriate. So, all the bhikshu precepts came from them. When they started having bhikshunis, the bhikshunis inherited the precepts from the naughty monks. Plus, there were also six naughty nuns, so that’s how the bhikshunis got more precepts. The monks didn’t inherit the precepts from the naughty nuns, but the nuns had to get the ones from the naughty monks. That’s why nuns have more precepts than the monks. This means that we have more of an opportunity to really refine our behavior.
But like I said, if you have a monastic mind at the beginning then your actions naturally flow in a good direction. When you start studying the precepts as shikshamanas, you won’t go into a lot of depth studying them. When you fully ordain then you really get the whole package with all the different levels of transgression and all the different levels of making amends and the exceptions to the rule. It’s like a legal code. And you have to be able to figure out what level of transgression somebody committed and how to make amends for that. But if you really have the proper mental state from the beginning, then you don’t get into those kinds of problems very much—if at all.
This verse is called “monastic mind,” but it’s also for lay people. Because when training our mind, it doesn’t matter what color clothes you wear and what hairdo you have. It is what’s going on inside. So, I’ll go through it line-by-line, and we can discuss some of it.
A monastic mind is one that is humble, imbued with the Buddhist worldview, dedicated to cultivating mindfulness, clear-knowing, love, compassion, wisdom, and other good qualities.
There’s a lot in there, so this verse is going to take a while. First, when it says, “A monastic mind is one that is humble,” it means we approach life with humility. We approach life with an awareness that everything we know, every talent and ability we have, comes due to the kindness of others. So, we’re humble instead of approaching life like: “Here I am, dah-da-da-da! The world should be very happy to have me in it because I am so terrific! I am somebody! And you should know I am somebody and respect me.”
You can see the difference between approaching life with a sense of interdependence and gratitude and approaching life wanting to be a star and thinking that of all the stars, you are the most magnificent. Maybe not in the whole universe, but you’re a big fish in a small pond. So, however big your community is, you are the star. What happens when we approach other people like that? We are not humble, are we? We put ourselves up. We put others down. We don’t encourage new talent because we think we are the talent. And we don’t want anyone else to challenge our ability, so we don’t share what we know or teach other people things.
What does “humility” really mean? Some people think humility means low self-esteem and being a little timid mouse: “Yes, I’m very humble. You people are all so great.” No, that’s not the meaning of humility. My theory is that the people who are arrogant are the people who don’t have good self-esteem. The people who are not mouse-like but genuinely humble are the people who have self-esteem. Why? Because when you don’t believe in yourself then you need to manufacture a production to make you appear to be somebody. When you believe in yourself, you have no need to do that.
The incarnation of Serkong Rinpoche was my root teacher in his previous life. I’ve known his current incarnation since he was five years old. In his previous lifetime he was quite advanced in years, but in this lifetime he is still quite young. One day when he was about ten or twelve we were talking, and he said, “If I’m a good cook, I don’t need to tell everybody I’m a good cook. I just cook a meal and then people see for themselves.” In the same way, if we are confident in ourselves, we don’t need to draw attention to and make a big deal out of ourselves. That confidence is there, so we don’t need other people to tell us we’re magnificent. We don’t need to be center stage.
I’m not saying that nobody should be center stage, and I’m not saying everybody should be quiet and timid, because humility is not being quiet and timid. Humility is an awareness of our interdependent existence and our place in it. It’s an awareness that we are one among many. In one way, we are not very important because there are many and we are just one. In another way, we are important because what we do matters, and we can influence a lot of people by our actions. So, we’re both important and unimportant. I think humility has an awareness of that, and we know how to fit into situations. We don’t fear respecting people who are worthy of respect. We don’t have to tear them down to show that we’re good.
This runs into some of the bodhisattva precepts about praising self and belittling others out of attachment to offerings and honor and so forth. People who don’t feel secure are a bit arrogant. They praise themselves, belittle others, and put themselves in front to be the big star and so on. Humility is not always putting yourself in back, but it’s knowing where to fit in. When you’re with people who don’t have that same confidence, you are totally okay with giving them the floor—unless what they’re doing is detrimental to the group.
I’ll give you one example. If you’ve ever been to His Holiness’s teachings in India, there is a section for Westerners. It’s usually too small for all the Westerners who come, and we are packed in like sardines. We’re almost literally sitting on each other’s laps. And of course, everybody wants to be up front to see His Holiness. You don’t want to sit behind a pole. The best thing is to be along the route where His Holiness walks. So, the Tibetans have their hands together and their heads lowered when His Holiness is walking. But Westerners have their heads up, and they’re looking around. “Is he going to make eye contact with me? Is he going to look at me? Oh, I’m so excited!” [laughter] Really, it’s like that.
So, when you’re new, or a newly ordained monastic, of course you’re thinking, “Finally, I get to sit in front!” Except actually, the Westerners don’t let the monastics sit in front; it’s first come, first go. The Tibetans would never sit in front of the sangha, but the westerners—sure! They’re like, “Who are you?” But anyway, the younger sangha usually goes up front, like: “Oh! I’m sangha, I get to sit in front!” I remember attending one of His Holiness’ teachings with Venerable Nicky Vreeland. He was Khyongla Rato Rinpoche’s student. He had a center in New York, and now he is the abbot of a Tibetan Monastery. Whew! Good lucky, Nicky!
So, at this teaching all these other people wanted to go sit up front, and Nicky and I are sitting in the back, and we’re the two most senior sangha there. You get to the point where you don’t care. You’ve been to so many teachings that you don’t have to be in the front row. You don’t have to see His Holiness. If other people want to do this, let them do it. It doesn’t matter what the rules are; I’m totally fine sitting in back. You just get to a place where you don’t have to step up, and you can be like, “Let somebody else do that.” I’ve sat behind poles in many teachings. And it’s okay because now they have screens, so you can watch His Holiness on the screen.
But actually, when we’re at teachings we shouldn’t be ogling His Holiness and trying to catch his eye. We should be listening to the teachings. This is a whole attitude. We have ordination order: the way people sit. Does it really matter where you sit? When we do the Amitabha chanting, does it matter who goes in front and who goes behind? Does it really matter if you happen to be standing in one place, somebody else is standing in another, and you aren’t in ordination order. Are you going to quickly reshuffle to get in ordination order? Or if somebody’s in front of you, are you going to give them a dirty look? “That’s my place! I go in front of you! I was ordained three months before you. Three months is so long. I must be so very experienced in those three months.”
You sit where you’re supposed to sit, but many times we can’t sit in the order, and it doesn’t really matter. We just sit where we sit, and it’s okay. Do you think everybody else is looking at you and thinking, “Who’s in front? Whoa! Look, I know the ordination order for all the bhikshunis and all the shikshamana’s, and this person’s out of order. Oh my goodness.” Does it really matter? Humility is about really learning to accept situations, especially being a monastic in the West where it’s not a Buddhist culture. People have no idea how to treat monastics. And monastics have no idea how to carry themselves because there are no models. Our Theravada friends really stick to the way it’s done in the Theravada tradition, but the Tibetans are a different culture. They’re more relaxed about some things. So, there are different things for different people.
I brought up our Theravada friends because they even made a booklet about how to treat monastics. “How to care for and feed your local monastic.” [laughter] There are so many rules about what time you eat and what order people go in, and you must hand the food to them in a certain way and say a certain thing. So, they have a whole booklet instructing people on how to do that. We don’t do that. We don’t have the lay people lift up the table and offer the food to the sangha every time. We cook ourselves. We aren’t doing things as formally as they do, and I don’t think that hurts us one bit at all. In fact, I think it’s quite good because we learn to be responsible for ourselves instead of expecting everybody to do things for us.
Another example of humility that really sticks in my mind happened in 1989 when His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was at a conference in Irvine, California and also at a Mind and Life Conference when the announcement came. This other big conference had a few thousand people at it and a panel of experts. Somebody asked His Holiness some question, and His Holiness paused, and everybody was waiting, like: “Here’s the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s going to tell us THE truth!” And His Holiness said, “I don’t know.” And the auditorium went silent: “Oh! The expert said ‘I don’t know.’ He’s obviously not American.” [Laughter] No American would say “I don’t know” in front of a crowd, would they? Just watch how other people are. And then His Holiness turned to the other experts on the panel and asked, “What do YOU think about this issue?” Then he pulled out their ideas.
The reason that stuck in my mind so strongly is because you don’t see that behavior in many people. If you are presenting something and somebody asks a question you don’t know the answer to, what do you do? You say something to humiliate the person who asked the question, insinuating that the question’s dumb and they’re dumb. You change the topic. You make up an answer that has nothing to do with the real answer. But you definitely don’t say, “I don’t know,” and you definitely don’t call on other people there to answer the question for you. So, you can see what humility looks like, and His Holiness was not feigning humility when he was doing this. There wasn’t the feeling of, “Look how humble I am. I’m letting these dimwits answer the question.” No! He just was being himself.
Letting some things go
When you’re a monastic in the West, you never know how people are going to treat you. I remember the 1989 Kalachakra Initiation in California. You’d walk down the street and people would go, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” And I’d go, “No, I’m not a Hare Krishna.” People would do that. Sometimes you would go to a Dharma Center, and nobody’s there to greet you. You just figure out somehow where you’re supposed to go or one person sort of shows you. And maybe it’s a residential retreat, so there’s a long line of rooms where the participants in the course stay, and you stay in one of those rooms—not a fancy room—with a community bathroom.
Other times you go to Dharma Centers and people are so formal. You arrive and they bow to you; they have flowers and bend over and escort you to this incredibly beautiful room. You never know. And you just have to go with whatever is and not judge the people according to that. “I’m happy to have a place to stay. I’m happy to have food”: that’s it. It doesn’t need to be the best room, the fanciest room, and all this formal blah blah, okay?
You become a real pain in the neck for the host if you’re the guest and you say, “Do you have this? Do you have that? I want this. I want that.” It’s the same thing if they say, “Help yourself to everything in the kitchen,” so then you go rummage through all the cupboards to see what stashes they have here and there, and you take all the nice, expensive food you really like that you never get to eat at the monastery. No. When they say, “Help yourself to whatever you need,” it means that if you’re making tea you can have tea and some sweetener and maybe some milk. It doesn’t mean you rummage through the cupboards, okay? So, humility has many different levels, but it’s an attitude of how we see ourselves amongst others.
Audience: How do you stay humble but stand up for your rights?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Give me an example.
Audience: Say you’re the last to the lunch line and there’s very little food left. Someone ahead of you takes all the food, and they don’t leave you with anything. It’s sort of advocating for yourself.
VTC: It’s very seldom that all the food gets taken. There’s usually something else that remains. So, you eat what remains.
Audience: Or if you’re a nun, and you’re not treated the same as a monk, is it appropriate to say, “Hey, can you move? I can’t see.”
VTC: You have to be very delicate with these things. If some big monk is sitting in front of you, you could politely say, “Oh, could you move a few inches to one side?” But you don’t go, “I can’t see, and you’re big and fat! Can you just move a bit?” That’s not going to create good feelings. In those kinds of situations, you see what the situation is, but very often you just leave it.
Here’s one example. I was at Geshe Zopa’s teachings in Madison. The nuns are in the front row, so I’m a senior nun in the front row and behind me are more junior nuns who are also bhikshunis. We have a few characters who are nuns. There’s one nun who’s much bigger than I am who always has some health problem. And everybody has to know what her health problems are, and they’re dramatized very often. She would sit behind me, and she would come in with many pillows—a pillow she sat on, a pillow under this, a pillow under this side, a pillow under the knees. And then of course she had to have a big table, because she had her books and her pen and her whole thing, so she was always asking me to move. Okay? Because she needed more space! So, she would ask, “Can you move here? Can you move there?”
I realized this was going to go on every day for the whole course, so when she sat down I started turning around and asking, “Can you see? Do you have enough room? Do you want me to move?” And then she would tell me, and it was great that way. Okay? It would have been different if I had turned around to her and said, “You know, you’re really a pain in the neck to sit in front of. Why are you always asking me to move? You have plenty of space! You don’t need to bring so much stuff!” That’s not going to create a very good feeling, is it? So, it was better to ask her, “Do you need me to move?” I moved a little bit, no big deal.
Audience: It sounds like you’re saying to let it go most of the time. But being humble doesn’t mean becoming invisible and not communicating your needs to others.
VTC: Yeah, but it depends on what your needs are and if they are genuine needs. A need might be: “I’m really hungry, and I need some food if I’m going to give a talk tonight.” A want is: “I am a nun, and you should treat me this way.” We are wanting to be recognized, wanting to be respected. But on what grounds should other people respect me? Okay, I’ve been ordained longer—so? Is my mind more virtuous than other peoples’ minds? Is it? No. My mind is not the most virtuous mind sitting here in this room. So, why do I need to make sure other people respect me because I’m a monastic?
So, you try and sit where you’re supposed to sit, but if other people are sitting there at a big public teaching, I just leave it. I go sit in the back, and it’s fine. Sometimes people say, “Oh, you’re senior, come sit up front.” I say, “I’m okay.” If they push me, I’ll go up front. But otherwise, I am perfectly happy behind. Because the important thing for me is to hear the teachings. It’s not where I sit. When I went to His Holiness’s teachings in Hamburg, I was so jetlagged. There was the stage where the sangha was sitting, and I sat down below because I was super jetlagged, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to His Holiness.
The people at the private office were saying, “Go up on the stage; go up on the stage.” And it was like, “No. No, I want to stay here.” [laughter] I didn’t want to make a big deal with everybody already being seated and then I go up on the stage, and I’m so jetlagged that I fall asleep. No, I don’t want to do that. I sat down in the audience with everybody else, and it was fine. Then there are other times—I don’t know how I’m going to get all this done in this session, but this is typical for me. There are a few real doozies, okay?
When I was in Italy, some of the monks were really not very nice, and then there were some monks who were kind of friendly and nice. So, one time I was talking to one of the friendly and nice monks, and he said to me, “You know, you really should pray to be a man in the next life.” And I was so shocked. “I thought you were my friend?” This is what I thought inside. I didn’t say anything. It’s such a ridiculous remark that why am I going to say anything to him? Another time there was one senior monk who sometimes had a bit of a difficult personality, and I went sit at a table where he was at a sangha lunch. He said, “This is a table where the monks are sitting. Go sit somewhere else.” So, I went and sat somewhere else. What am I going to do—make a scene? If he has problems with his arrogance and feels the need to proclaim, “This is a monk’s table,” and chase a nun away, that’s his problem.
When you’re at the teachings in India, all the younger monks are charging past you. They’re pushing and shoving, and if you turned around and tried to correct every young monk—forget it! Who’s been to public teachings in India? Many of you have been. You know what it’s like. The young monks are so full of energy. They’ve got their water bottle and their piece of bread, and they go charging in, running! And then when they serve tea, they come with these big pots full of boiling tea. When the Chinese serve people in the monasteries, it’s so polite and graceful and dignified. The Tibetans are a totally different culture.
So, these little boys are literally running across the courtyard. You see—I’m not lying; they’ve seen it, too. These young monks are running across the courtyard with these hot pots of tea, and you better get out of their way if you want to live. [laughter] Because they are not going to detour around you. And then when they start pouring the tea, some of the tea gets in your cup and some gets on your clothes! And that’s just the way it is. You can’t say, “This is my new robe! You idiot, young monk! Why don’t you mind your manners? Bring me a towel. There’s hot tea on my thing. I got burned. I’m going to sue you!” [laughter] We’re not at McDonald’s where you sue somebody when you get a cup of boiling tea. That’s happened at McDonalds.
So, this is the way it is, and you just adapt. You either adapt or you freak out: those are your two choices. There’s nothing in the middle, is there? You either get used to it or you freak out and go home. It’s good training. It’s very good training. And when you’re in India, nuns are nothing. And very often, even in things here, nuns are nothing. That’s their problem, not the nuns’ problem. I talk about this kind of issue with some of the Tibetans that I’m friends with, in a discussion that we have as friends. But in actual situations, I don’t call people out. There’s a group, and there’s things going on, and it’s not appropriate to make a scene.
Imbued with the Buddhist worldview
Should we go on? We did one:
A monastic mind is one that is humble.
Okay, we got through eight words. [laughter] Let’s go on to the next part:
A monastic mind is imbued with the Buddhist worldview.
It’s really, really important when you’re approaching Buddhism to get the whole worldview. There’s a particular take on life and how we see the world that the Buddha presents, and that is very different from how the world in general sees the world and our place in it. When you studied history in the West, everybody everywhere thought the earth was the center of the universe. China was called the “middle land,” meaning the middle of the universe. Everybody thought the world is flat. We’re the center, and the sun revolves around the earth. Everything revolves around the earth. And they were so shocked when Galileo said, “No, that’s not the way it works.” And as science discovered more—that we are this tiny little speck that is totally insignificant compared to the unending limits of the universe—how shocking that was for people on this planet.
But if you are imbued with the Buddhist worldview or more of an Eastern Asian worldview, then you have this idea of multiple rebirths, and you have this idea of many different realms. You have this idea that there are many sentient beings living in different lifeforms throughout this universe. We don’t have to send things in space looking for other lifeforms. There are other lifeforms. Many of them don’t need water to live. That’s how on planet Earth we think we’ll detect if there are other life forms: it is if there’s water. According to peoples’ karma and the bodies they take, there are bodies that don’t need water. Their bodies have some other kind of sustenance.
So, you have a whole different view of this universe as being populated by countless, countless living beings of all different sorts, each of whom is going through their own individual experience at this very moment. And some are happy, and the majority are not. What produces happiness in some and suffering in others? Their own actions, the karma, the actions they did in previous lives or earlier in this life. There’s no god creating the whole mess. It’s created by our mind. If there were God, then God would really need a complaint box. Because God would be the source of all of our problems—for creating things the way they are. In Buddhism, there’s no divine being. There’s no creator being who controls everything, who manages everything, whose will we have to obey, who wills certain things to happen, who punishes and rewards. In the Buddhist worldview, there’s none of that. There’s no idea that you’ve been born a sinner, or that you are inherently shameful. There’s none of that.
The whole idea is that based on how we think and feel, how we speak and act, that leaves—for lack of any better word, and this is an inaccurate word—some kind of “energy trace.” We call it a “seed” that will “ripen” in the future and influence who we are are born as, what kind of life form we take, whether it’s in general a fortunate or unfortunate rebirth. Our actions influence what kind of environment we live in, whether it’s one full of violence or one that’s peaceful. It impacts what we experience in our life, how others treat us. It impacts our habitual behavior. So, if you have a Buddhist worldview, you never say, “Why is this happening to me?” Maybe your mother said this to you. When I was naughty, my mother would say, “What did I do to deserve a kid like you?” Did anyone else hear that when you were little? [laughter] Like, “What did I do to deserve this?” Well, if you understand karma, you understand what you did to deserve this. [laughter]
And it isn’t actually a thing of deserving. Nobody punished you by making you sick or giving you a naughty child. But you created the causes. We all created the causes for what we’re experiencing based on how we treat other people and the actions we do. So, what did I do to deserve this? Well, if you study Buddhism, you can make some pretty accurate guesses. You may not know the exact situation in your previous life, but there are some things you can intuit. It’s kind of logical.
Similarly, when we get sick: “Why am I sick? Why me? Why does this happen to me?” Well, again, if we have some idea of how cause and effect works on an ethical dimension, then we understand that when we experience happiness, it’s because we did something virtuous and kind. If we experience suffering, it’s because some time in the past—could be a previous life—we acted in an unkind, self-centered way. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? New age philosophy says, “What goes around comes around.” The Bible says, “You reap what you sow.” It’s the basic idea that we must take responsibility for our actions; things do not happen by chance. And that fact that we have responsibility for our actions gives us power. If everything were fated, if everything were predetermined, then we couldn’t do anything about our situation.
But because there’s no fate, no pre-determination, nobody else outside deeming, “You’re going to suffer” or “You’re going to be happy”—since we are the ones who create the actions, that means we have the power and ability to change our experience. So, a Buddhist worldview has that idea. And really integrating that idea is hard. It takes time, a long time. But when you really integrate that idea in your mind, then you don’t blame other people. You don’t say, “I’m suffering because of so-and-so.” You say, “Well, I created the cause for it. It does not mean I deserve to suffer. It does not mean I’m a bad person. It simply means that when you plant daisies, you grow daisies. And when you plant chili peppers, you get chili peppers.”
So: “I planted a bunch of chili peppers in the past, and now I’m experiencing this burning result, and my stomach hurts!” It’s the same kind of idea like that. It takes away all the idea of blame and fault, and this is something that we have to get used to when we grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture. It’s like, “Oh, there’s no reward and punishment. There’s no fault and blame. There’s responsibility, and things happen due to many, many causes and many conditions. And things that happen to us are not all good, and they’re not all bad.” So, let’s take away this whole thing of, “Who’s to blame? Who’s at fault?” Because we always want to find one person to blame; we want to point the finger at that person.
There was a school shooting a few days ago. Four teenagers at the high school in Michigan were killed, and several others were injured. The kid who did it was fifteen years old, and he just ruined his whole life. He ruined the life of four other kids, and he traumatized the whole high school. He traumatized the whole town. Actions of one person: do we blame him for everything? What’s very interesting is that for the first time his parents have been arrested because they “share some of the responsibility,” as the district attorney—or the prosecutor, whatever they call them—determined. Why?
Listen to this story. Four days before the shooting, the father took his son to a gun store and bought him a gun. It was a Christmas present. The next day the kid posts on social media, “Here’s my new beauty,” with a picture of the gun. And then his mother posts something like: “This is a mother-son event, going to use his new Christmas present.” It sounds like they went out maybe to do some shooting or something. The mother wrote this. Then, the day before the shooting, one of the teachers or somebody in the school sees the kid on his phone looking up where to buy ammo. They get alarmed, and they tell the school administration. So, they call the kid in and talk to him. He has no prior disciplinary record. Who knows what they said. When the mother found out about this, she emails her child and says, “LOL”—laugh out loud—“No, I’m not mad at you. You just need to learn how not to be caught” shopping for ammo.
Then the next day, the morning of the shooting, a teacher finds a note that the child wrote, and there’s a drawing of a dead body. He wrote, “Blood all around.” He wrote, “The thought won’t stop. Please help.” The teacher saw that, so he went into the principal’s or admin office. They called his family, so his parents came. They talked to the parents. The parents didn’t want to take him out of school; they let him stay in school. No one opened his backpack to check and see if he had a gun. They were having a conference with the parents about the kid, that there were signs he’s troubled and thinking about doing something violent. No one checked his backpack to see if there was a gun. The parents refused to take him home. The school admin let him go back to class. And then, I don’t know how much time later, the shooting started. So, for the first time that I remember with a school shooting, the parents are being held responsible. And you can see why they’re being held. They don’t have the same responsibility. The kid is getting charged with counts of murder, and he’s being tried as an adult at age fifteen. Tried as an adult: this is brutal.
But they’re charging the parents with involuntary manslaughter, because for the parents there were ample warnings that the kid was troubled and something was happening. And they gave him a gun! He’s then shopping for ammo at school, and the parents just say, “Don’t get caught.” After news came out about the shooting, the mother texted her son and said, “Ethan, don’t do it.” The father then texts or calls the cops and says, “I think my son may be the shooter.” So, the parents knew the child was in danger of doing something like that, but they didn’t do anything. Do they have some responsibility? Yes.
Then, what about the school? When the parents refused to take the child home, they let the child go back to class because he didn’t have any prior disciplinary records. Some people are saying, “No, they should have kept the child somewhere else until school ended.” Where are you going to put a child in a school where they’re not going to harm themselves or harm others? So, it’s difficult for the admin. They’re not trying to do this. When I went to school, nobody even thought of school shootings, and now the admin must think about these things.
The point I’m getting at is that we can’t just point at one person: “Oh, this kid, he’s like the devil,” or, “Oh, these parents, they’re disgusting,” or, “Oh, the school, blah, blah, blah,” or, “Oh, the gun manufacturers,” or “Oh, whatever it is.” We have to see that there are so many causes and conditions that had to come together. In my view, the legislators who don’t make proper gun laws have some responsibility for that. I would also say the people who make firearms have responsibility. Legally? No. Morally? Yes. We have to realize that what you get in trouble for legally is not the same as what you experience the result from ethically. Kyle Rittenhouse is out free, but he created the karma of killing two people and injuring a third. He’s not free of that karma unless he does some pretty intense purification. But he’s not going to do that, because now he’s become the star of the right and all the gun enthusiasts.
My point here is that when you have the Buddhist worldview, you see multiple causes and conditions. You don’t just blame one or two people for everything. You see that it’s just this complex thing that’s going on. Some parties have more responsibility than others, and they’ll experience the result of their own actions. So, it doesn’t matter if you win the battle in a worldly way, karmically you still will experience the results of your actions. If you look at Trump, at Mao Tse-tung, at Stalin, at Hitler, many of these people were triumphant. They were adored by their population. But they will experience the results of their own actions in future lives.
And we don’t sit there and go, “Heh-heh-heh, you’re gonna get it,” and rejoice over sentient beings suffering. That’s not how we are to react. Part of the Buddhist worldview is you don’t wish harm on others. And you see that when people harm others, it’s because of their disturbing attitudes, their disturbing emotions, their wrong attitudes, their wrong views. So, you talk about the action being bad, but you don’t say the person is evil. And we don’t rejoice when other people get punished, because that person is just like us, and they want to be happy and not suffer. And just like us, they’re under the influence of their mental afflictions.
The more you adopt this Buddhist worldview, then there’s automatic tolerance and forgiveness. And you know that forgiveness does not mean that what those people did was okay. It was not okay. But you’re not going to hate them, and you’re not going to wish them to suffer because of it. What you wish is for them to learn from their error, to change their ways, and to develop wisdom and compassion.
Audience: With the story you were telling us about the teenager and the gun, and some of those things that have been happening lately, the theme that comes to my mind is: “Just because something is legal that doesn’t mean it’s good.” And people confuse those two things. They surrender their wisdom. They surrender their better judgment to the law. And sometimes it’s to their detriment. I see that is what is happening now also with the kids who now have a pass card for buying drugs. Because drugs are legal now, so they must be good. It’s the same thing with alcohol: it’s legal to drink, so it must be good. So, there’s this confusion that legal means good, and without further analysis and further wisdom, it can completely take us into some deep holes.
VTC: Yes, that’s a very good point. And so often you’ll find in the sutras that the pali talks about the worldly being—or the world—and aryas. We’re kind of somewhere in the gray area between. But he really points out the difference in how a worldly being thinks and looks at things and how somebody who has realized the nature of reality looks at things. So, the whole thing on the Buddhist path is really to develop our own wisdom and to think about things deeply.
It is not a path where somebody says something, and you go, “Aye aye, I believe,” or whatever you do. It’s very important that we think about things, that we analyze them, and that we develop our own wisdom. And we ask questions. In some other faiths, you do not ask questions, and you learn very quickly that you’re not supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be quiet and believe. Buddhism is not like that. We have to exercise our wisdom and develop it.
Mindfulness and introspective awareness
Okay! Is that all on the Buddhist worldview? Probably not [laughter], but it’s some of it, okay? What’s the next one?
A monastic mind is dedicated to cultivating mindfulness and clear knowing.
Now these are two things that are vastly misunderstood in worldly, secular society. When we talk about mindfulness in Buddhism, the word “mindfulness” relates to memory and remembering. It doesn’t just mean paying attention. It’s remembering what is virtuous. In the context of ethical conduct, it’s remembering your precepts, remembering your values. Because you want to live according to your values. You want to live according to the precepts that you have voluntarily taken because you know that they will help you grow in the way you want to grow. So, you’re more mindful, and you remember these things when you’re going through the day.
Then, what is translated as “clear knowing,” I usually translate as “introspective awareness.” It’s also translated as “vigilance.” There are several other different translations. The Sanskrit word is “sampajanna.” These two are kind of best friends; they really help each other. With mindfulness in the context of ethical conduct, we remember our precepts and values. And then with introspective awareness, we check up and monitor our actions. We are aware: “Am I following my precepts? Am I following my values? Am I living sincerely with integrity, or not?” And if we find out we’re not, then introspective awareness presses the alarm bell and reminds us: “Better apply an antidote and get yourself back on track now. Don’t keep going down this slippery slope.”
In the context of developing concentration, mindfulness is aware of the object on which you are developing concentration. And mindfulness functions to keep your attention on that object and not let it stray to other things. Also in the context of developing concentration, introspective awareness has the function of monitoring the mind. It kind of monitors: “Am I still on the object of meditation? Am I getting drowsy? Am I distracted? What am I distracted by? Is attachment? Is it anger?” And then again, if it sees we’re going off the object or whatever, it rings the alarm and says, “Be careful. Apply the antidote. Get yourself back on track. I mean this figuratively; don’t get a headache because it rang the alarm in your brain. [laughter]
A monastic mind wants to be aware of how we want to live and lives accordingly. In secular society, mindfulness has now come to mean just being aware of what’s going on. That is not the Buddhist context of it. Mindfulness in Buddhism leads to wisdom, because you’re focusing on what is virtuous. You’re focusing on what is good. So, it develops your wisdom. It’s not just: “Oh, I’m getting angry. Yes, I’m getting angry because I think that person is a real jerk. Yes, I’m thinking about all the times when they were jerks before. And I’m planning on saying something to them, so they know how they need to behave. I am very mindful of all of that.” No, that’s not what mindfulness is. That is one variety of stupidity. [laughter] We have many varieties of stupidity. Mindfulness is not just, “Oh, what’s going on in my mind?”
Mindfulness has wisdom; it has discerning. “What should I practice? What should I abandon? What actions bring the kind of results I want to have? What actions bring the kind of results I don’t want to have?” And then mindfulness helps us to guide ourselves properly. And the clear knowing or introspective awareness reminds us to practice the antidotes if our mind is getting overwhelmed by a disturbing emotion or wrong view or whatever.
Love and compassion
A monastic mind is dedicated to cultivating love and compassion.
From a Buddhist worldview, love is the wish for others to have happiness and its causes. Compassion is the wish for them to be free of suffering and its causes. It sounds like a simple definition. Probably not with this course but maybe with the Sharing the Dharma Days, we should do a discussion on what is the Buddhist meaning of love, and what are the causes of the happiness you’re wishing for sentient beings. Because in a worldly way, what’s the cause of happiness?
Audience: Money. Power. Respect. Getting what you want. Good job. Pleasure. Good reputation. True love.
VTC: Yes to all of those. “True love”: I was waiting for someone to say that. It’s so interesting. They write about people who are now going “looking for love.”
Audience: In all the wrong places.
VTC: Yes. Well, no, they’re looking for love, but you go on some dating app. Because everyone there is looking for love. And when you meet somebody, the whole criteria for how you look at them is: “Are they going to love me? Are they worthy of my love?” Because somehow you find the one and only, right? The one and only! And you will live happily ever after. Until… and then you can fill in the rest [laughter]. Okay? True love. Popularity. Social recognition. Gifts. Praise. So, from a worldly viewpoint, when we talk about wishing people to have the causes of happiness, that’s what we wish for them! Good health: a Medicare plan that includes dental, hearing, and glasses. This is the kind of thing that we wish for people. Just wait until you get on Medicare, and then you’ll see. [laughter]
But from a Buddhist viewpoint, those things may be the conditions which may or may not cause happiness. A good job may cause you happiness, but it can also cause you a lot of misery. A good reputation may cause you happiness, but it may get you entangled in all sorts of problems, too. Fun, pleasure, drinking, drugs: they may make you happy, but they may dig you a hole. You dig yourself a hole and go sit in the bottom of it with your alcohol and your drugs. Okay? So, that’s what worldly people consider the cause of happiness. What’s the cause of happiness from a Buddhist perspective?
VTC: Yes, virtuous actions. Putting our minds and emotions in a productive way, using our body and speech in a kind way to be of benefit: that’s the cause of happiness. But most people in this world wouldn’t say that’s the cause of happiness. They would say just what we were talking about previously. So, what are the causes of suffering we want others to be free of? What do people have sometimes that makes them suffer—besides a daughter like me. [laughter] No, I wasn’t always bad. But what do people suffer from?
Audience: Afflictions. Heartbreak.
VTC: Afflictions, yes. Oh yeah, heartbreak. What’s the result of true love in the end: heartbreak. Anybody here who’s never had true love for as long as it lasted? Anybody here who’s never had heartbreak? Most of us are quite familiar with that. You may be saying, “Well, you’re a nun. What do you know?” I wasn’t always a nun. [laughter] So, yes, heartbreak—what else?
Audience: Bad health. Losing your job.
VTC: Yes, bad health. Losing your job is sometimes a huge blessing, isn’t it? But worldly people see it as a problem.
Audience: Aging. Conflict in relationships. Loneliness. Police brutality. Death.
VTC: Yes to all of those. “Death”: yes, that’s the big one. Okay, from the Buddhist viewpoint, what’s the cause of suffering?
VTC: Ignorance: that’s the root cause. And what are the other causes that grow out of ignorance?
Audience: The other afflictions.
So, in a Buddhist way, when you love people what you wish for them is very different than in a worldly way. It’s not that you wish them to suffer in a worldly way. You don’t, but in order for them to even have the worldly happiness that they want, they have to create virtue. Some people think that to have worldly happiness they can get it through nonvirtue. And this is what we see happening with politics in this country. The more you can lie, the more you can accuse other people of doing things they didn’t do in the political realm, the more you can stir up dissent and create conflict and get some people on your side: that’s all non-virtue, but it makes you the big guy in the party. It helps you win votes.
There’s this big thing going on now. And it gets so boring after a while, but I use these things in the news because they are such good examples. So, Ilhan Omar is the representative from Michigan—Michigan’s in the news a lot now. Ilhan is one of three Muslims in the House of Representatives, and then Lauren Boebert is the one in Colorado who had before she was elected or maybe still has a restaurant where they welcome guns and the display of guns. She was the one who said, “I’m bringing my pistol into the House of Representatives.”
Boebert started accusing Ilhan Omar of being a terrorist. She made up some fake story that she’s telling people. She tells the story that she was in an elevator in the House of Representatives, and all of a sudden she saw the capitol police looking very worried, running toward her. The door was closing, and she looked around to see who else was in the elevator, and it was Omar. But Boebert thought, “Oh, she doesn’t have a backpack, so I guess I’m safe.” In other words, a backpack indicates terrorism, a suicide bomber. So, she doesn’t have a backpack; she’s not a suicide bomber today.
But she’s Muslim, so she really could be a suicide bomber. You know, it’s this kind of disgusting thing. So then, she kind of apologizes and calls Omar. But Omar says, “I want you to make a public apology for it.” And Boebert gets fed up and says, “No, I’m not going to do it,” and so Omar hangs up on her. Then our favorite, Marjorie Taylor Greene, jumps in and sides with Boebert. And of course, so did what’s his name—the one who just got censored by the House because he did some kind of animation drawing of him killing AOC and beating up Biden.
People think America is the most powerful country. They think it’s a really together, democratic country. I don’t know, but okay. So, this is the latest big thing that is all over the papers. And then of course everybody else is just saying, “Biden’s fault is this and this, and this is wrong because of that person,” and everything. And why are they doing it? Because even if you’re lying and calling people names, the more noise you make and the more you get in the newspaper, the more people know your name.
And when it comes to getting reelected, they will vote for you if you’re a Trump follower. So, those people are appealing to Trump followers, and they think their behavior is the cause of happiness. They want to be elected. I’m not quite sure why they want to be elected because when they are elected, they aren’t doing anything to benefit the country except saying, “No,” or doing nothing. So, I really don’t know why they want to do that. It must be the fame? Anyway, what I’m getting at is how people mistake the cause of suffering and think it’s the cause of happiness. They have no idea that they’re going to be experiencing the results of this kind of name calling and lying. Especially when you lie to a whole group of people, that creates disharmony, and there’s so much disharmony in the country now. That kind of karma becomes very strong.
And these people have no idea about it. To me, that is suffering: having no idea that your conduct matters. It has an ethical dimension, and you’re going to experience the result. You’re creating the cause for very hellish rebirths. They just think they’re big cheeses and powerful, and that’s a really sad situation when you see it, isn’t it? And people can do a lot of damage because of their wrong views. So, when we wish people love and compassion, and the cause of happiness and freedom from the cause of suffering, we need to know very clearly what the causes of happiness and suffering are. We need to wish people the right thing, so that they will actually find happiness and not find suffering instead.
Audience: This is tangential, but it’s related to your comment about the caricaturing and the general kindergarten atmosphere of the congress. I was reading a book about the revolution, the constitution and what happened during those first years with George Washington’s presidency. And the congress used to do the same thing! They’d publish caricatures and false stories about each other, and each party had its own press. They’d go for it with a lot of gusto and invent all kinds of stories. That was happening way back then.
VTC: And they just passed it down. [laughter]
Audience: Instead of passing down virtue and precepts to hold, they passed down all these things. [laughter]
I’ve explained the Pratimoksha Sutra.
We now dedicate all the merit of studying the Pratimoksha sutra so that all sentient beings may attain Buddhahood.
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.