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Skillfully connecting with others

04 Monastic Mind Motivation

Commentary on the Monastic Mind Motivation prayer recited at Sravasti Abbey each morning.

  • Benefiting others entails being sensitive to the situation
  • Idle talk and chitchat are not always the same thing
  • Being mindful of our movements is consideration for others

During our siksamana training course, the first talk never got completed, so we’re completing it in our BBC talks. Last time, we discussed the sentence:

I will be mindful of my precepts and values and will cultivate clear knowing [appropriate attention] of my thoughts and feelings, as well as how I speak and act.

That’s really focusing on what’s going on in our mind and how it is being displayed through our speech and our actions. The next sentence is focusing more on how it’s being displayed externally:

I will take care to act and speak at suitable times and in appropriate ways, abandoning idle talk and disruptive movements.

It sounds like that shouldn’t be too difficult. Well, here we are in a period of silence, and since somebody said this was True Confession time, I have to confess I’ve probably been the least silent person out of everybody here. [laughter] That’s not just because I like to talk, it’s because there are things that have to get organized and planned. As much as I would not like to organize and plan them necessarily, they have to be done. But then I get a little bit carried away sometimes. You know how it is; once you start talking it’s hard to stop. [laughter] “Where is the tape? I need the Duct Tape!”

I will take care to speak and act at suitable times and in appropriate ways.

Discerning what’s suitable

What is a suitable time to say something? That involves a lot of sensitivity to different people and different situations. As ordinary beings, it’s always a hit-and-miss situation. You try and feel if somebody happens to be open at that moment. Sometimes they seem open, but when you start talking, they aren’t. So, we have to develop that sensitivity. Sometimes, instead of just relying on that sensitivity, it’s good to ask, “Is this a good time for me to make a comment or give some feedback?” And they might say, “No.” In that case respect it, because you will be much better off not giving feedback when they don’t want it. It’s better if you wait and then give it to them at a time when they’re open.

Sometimes we may have this feeling that we’ve got to say it immediately; otherwise they’re going to keep doing it, and everybody else is going to keep doing it, and there’s going to be a crisis. Actually, it’s our mind that is the crisis, so we just need to calm down and wait until it’s the proper time to give the feedback. At other times you have to intervene and say something right then and there because you know that if you say something right then and there, they’re going to get it. But again, it involves a lot of sensitivity to the person and to the situation.

Let’s say somebody may be upset and you need to console them about something. Sometimes rather than consoling, you just need to listen. And sometimes rather than either consoling or listening, you listen a little bit, and then you say, “Cut it out.” And they get very shocked, because they were expecting some nice, sweet words, and you said, “Cut it out.” But if you’re skillful, they really get it at that time, and they see: “Oh, that’s true. I need to cut it out.”

We had a situation some years ago with a lay woman who was our office manager. Her mother died, and of course when your mother dies, you can be very upset. So, she was very upset, and she was crying a lot. One day I saw her crying, and I just went up and I said, “Stop crying.” Because she had been crying for quite a long time, and it wasn’t helping. At the beginning, crying releases tension and so on, but after a while it doesn’t serve any useful purpose. It’s gone from releasing tension to feeling sorry for yourself. So, at that point, I just said, “Stop crying.” She didn’t cry after that, and you could see that she didn’t have to try not to cry.

But it was hit-or-miss. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “Is this a good time? Is this not a good time? Should I say this? She might think this, but if I don’t say that—blah, blah, blah.” It wasn’t that. It was just right there; that was the feeling, and I said it. Of course, as we all know, very often I have misjudged things. I say things, and then people respond negatively. But just because somebody responds negatively, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have said it. Sometimes it needs to be said. Somebody’s not going to like it but then they’ll go away and think. With some people, if you say something straightforward to them, you can trust that they’re not just going to get angry. They’re going to go away and think about it. Then there are other people you’re not so sure about, and it’s kind of like they get angry and stay angry.

But when it’s the flipside, whether people say something that we like or don’t like, we should go away and think about it before we either get angry or react with pleasure. Sometimes it’s necessary to go and think about it, and it may not be pleasant, but that person‘s right. I know I’ve had situations when people have said something quite directly to me. I don’t like it, but it’s true, and I have to own it. And it actually winds up being quite helpful. So, speaking and acting at suitable times and in appropriate ways is really important.

That is true also when we want to give somebody positive feedback. Do we say it in front of a lot of people, or do we say it privately? Again, it’s going to depend on the situation. With some people, it’s better just to do it privately because then they can really take it in. With other people, if you do it publicly then they feel very happy. Like when the guests leave here at the Abbey, we usually give them a gift and say something nice about them publicly. I think that’s quite fitting, and they’re very happy about that. They know we’re expressing genuine appreciation, and they’re able to receive that in a public situation. If it was something else where we were over-the-top and praising them publicly, they might get embarrassed. That’s not appropriate at that time.

If it’s something we know they’ve really been working on, then not always but many times, it’s best to say it privately because they may want to have a little bit of discussion about it. If we say it publicly, then they may not feel so comfortable. They may think, “Oh, I’m getting praised for this, so now everybody knows I was doing the opposite.” It’s always touch-and-go. So, it’s important to really develop some kind of sensitivity to this.

From our side, when we’re the object people are giving feedback or doing things in relationship to, we want to not judge the other person, thinking, “Well, this isn’t the appropriate time.” It’s slightly different when we’re the actor and when we’re the recipient. Whenever we’re the recipient, our job is to learn from the situation: “Whatever somebody says or does, what can I learn from it?” When we are the actor, it’s important to really have a good motivation of wanting to benefit somebody. And if the other person doesn’t like it, we need to check our motivation. If we had a good motivation, there would be no need to doubt ourselves.

Sometimes we might check our motivation, and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I thought I had a good one, but actually it wasn’t so good.” Have you ever discovered that about yourself? I think in retreat is a very good time to work with this. I know for me, I go through life thinking, “Oh, I had a good motivation.” Then you sit down in retreat and things come up that you don’t feel completely peaceful about. You look at it, and it’s like, “My motivation was actually stinky. I thought it was good at the time, but it wasn’t.”  So, then you own it, and then you can fix it and learn from it.

Idle talk

The next part is about “abandoning idle talk and disruptive movements.” Idle talk is when we just “blah blah blah.” Now, what defines idle talk? Because we usually think, “Oh, just chit-chatting is idle talk.” In many situations it usually is. But in some situations, chit-chatting is how you initially connect with somebody, and that is very important for establishing a relationship.

For example, somebody was organizing a talk back in 1975 in LA, and some people from out of town were coming in for it. I knew nothing about Dharma, but I said, “If somebody wants to stay at our flat, they’re welcome.” So, somebody came to stay at our flat—Vicky, for those of you who know her. Anyway, Rinpoche was coming into LAX, and she wanted to greet him at the airport. I said, “Okay, I’ll drive you.” So, we went to LAX. Rinpoche got out of the airport, and we said hello to each other. I didn’t know anything, so there was no kata, nothing. I didn’t know anything. But we started chatting, and guess what we talked about: dolphins. Because he had just come from Hawaii and had seen some kind of Sea World thing.

That was the level of my mind; how he could initially connect with me was by chit-chatting about dolphins. It was very skillful because I met him, and he was very nice and pleasant. I had signed up to go to the retreat they were having, so I felt very comfortable about that. And then at the retreat I got HIT! [laughter] In many situations, you just chit-chat about something that is interesting to both people, and sometimes you can slip a little Dharma in there without being too obvious. The point is to make a connection that you can then follow up on and to talk with people on their level.

There’s this thing called “mansplaining.” I suppose there is womansplaining, too, but the term mansplaining came first. I guess because men are more important. [laughter] Mansplaining is when a man tells a woman something she already knows and that she may actually know better than him, but he assumes he has superior intelligence, superior whatever, and is trying to educate her about something. This happens a lot in work situations, and it happens in Dharma situations, too. And it’s not limited to men; women can womansplain, too. We want to be careful that we’re not doing that, because people usually react very adversely when they feel like they are being looked down on as somebody who doesn’t know something, when actually they know it quite well.

I became friendly with one of the women in the early Mind-Life conferences. She was a PhD, and she was one of the presenters when they met with His Holiness. Her field was the History of Science, and she gave a brilliant talk. Of course, at the follow up event, the people who greeted her directed her to the room where the wives of the presenters were. She had to say, “No, I was a presenter,” and then they re-routed her. She was telling me that this kind of thing happens all the time, because what does a woman know about science?

So, we should take care when we’re talking about dharma or about anything, to make sure to talk at a level that does not look like we’re being condescending by telling somebody something they already know. And we should also try not to look like we’re showing off by talking about something that they don’t yet understand. Again, it’s hit and miss, and it really involves sensitivity. It can also involve asking, “Does this make sense? Does this answer your question?” You’ll see me doing this a lot. It’s good; you ask and then you find out. Because if their question was about this but you’re talking about that, it’s not very helpful. It’s good to know in order to try and actually help them.

Disruptive movements

Then the part about abandoning disruptive movements is talking about stomping around, slamming doors, doing everything very noisily. Case in point: we have a door here at the Abbey that is quite noisy when you push it quickly. Pushing it slowly indicates that you’re trying to be considerate, even though you can’t make it totally silent. Also, something we need to often remind guests about is that our plates are very noisy. When you’re used to eating in restaurants where there’s so much noise, you don’t notice how noisy it is when you take a metal fork or spoon and scrape it along the plate to get all your gravy or whatever. When you come here, you may still not notice it, but other people do. [laughter] So, it’s important to watch how we eat and whether we make a lot of noise doing that.

There are all sorts of things like that. We saw such a beautiful skit when the Colombians were here about how you greet people at airports. In America, you greet people in one way. In Latin America, you can greet them in a totally different way, and that’s appropriate. But if you greet them that way in some conservative place, the people are not going to think well of it. Okay? So, again, it’s important to have sensitivity to different cultures—what’s appropriate, how you say something, how loudly you speak.

It is true that Americans tend to be louder. I’ve been to many airports in many countries, and you can usually hear Americans when they speak. But with people from New Zealand or Australia, some of them talk loudly, but some of them speak so softly it’s barely audible. Maybe that’s the way they talk in those countries. But I also know other people from Australia who talk like Americans, and you can hear them. [laughter] So, again, it’s really important to be sensitive to the situation. And all of this is an expression. Why do we try to be sensitive to the situation? It’s not so that other people will like us but because we’re trying to benefit people. If we do things that are annoying to them, we start off on the wrong foot, and it’s difficult to correct after that.

I remember other skits we did about people arriving at the Abbey. There was one visitor who came with her 15 suitcases; the other who came with their dog [laughter]; and others who didn’t listen when you tried to explain the schedule. It’s all about trying to connect in a way that it is fitting. When we talk to people and when we visit other places, it’s important to act in a suitable way.

At the end of the Bhikkshuni and Bhikkhu Ordination Program, the seniors, or the guides, do a skit showing how to go visit another temple. It’s usually hilarious. I remember in my ordination they did it, too. It’s a hilarious skit. But the purpose is to remind you that when you go to another temple, it’s important not to go in and do things your own way. Instead, we need to consider things, like at what point do you prostrate? And who do you prostrate to? And how many times do you bow? And when do you make offerings? And when do you sit down?

This kind of stuff is different from one place to the other, so sometimes it’s good to ask about it beforehand. Or, again, we can just assess it out when we’re there. And for us, when new people come to Sravasti Abbey, it’s important for us to coach them and let them know how we do things so they don’t feel so self-conscious. This is all very practical stuff, but it’s amazing how much practical stuff and how many small things we just completely space out on—we’re just completely out to lunch.

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.