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Questions and answers on meditation

58 Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature

Part of an ongoing series of teachings (retreat and Friday) based on the book Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature, the third volume in The Library of Wisdom and Compassion series by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron.

  • Meditation on dying
  • Examining our mental projections, habits, reactions
  • Importance of being kind when we are alive
  • Being able to relax
  • Suggestions for working with the difficulties in visualization
  • How visualization and chanting help to transform our mind

Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature 58: Questions and Answers on Meditation (download)

Contemplation points

  1. What comes up for you when you do the meditations on death? What attachments do you need to work on so that the time of death is peaceful and your mind steeped in virtue?
  2. In what kinds of situations do you respond with fear? Imagine being in one of those environments and observe that feeling of fear arise in your mind. Venerable Chdoron suggested some methods to address fear. Which of these are helpful for you? Resolve to practice them each time a feeling of fear arises in daily life.
  3. What is your habitual response when you make a mistake? Is your mind tight, determined for perfection? Do you struggle with imagining someone looking at you without judgment and with infinite love and compassion? How might relaxing the mind in this regard be beneficial to both yourself and others?

Setting our Motivation

We all want happiness, and we all want to be free of suffering. What is it that keeps us apart even though we have the same goals, the same yearning? What keeps us apart is the mind that grasps I as truly existent, that makes a separate I: there’s me and there’s others. The me seems very solid and the others are different, unrelated, and also very solid.

 Of course, that I in fact is only merely designated on the aggregates, but it’s our I. We think there’s a real me here who needs to be protected, who wants happiness, who is more important than everybody else. That mind that grasps that I is the trouble maker. We’ve got to see that however much it feels like there’s a real I, when we search for what that I is, we can’t really pinpoint it. 

Let’s say you get embarrassed; you’re embarrassed when Buddha Bear wants to chant “Namo Amituofo” with you. [laughter] You feel very self conscious: “Uh-oh, Buddha Bear is paying attention to me; everybody else is paying attention to me. What are they going to think of me?” Then you’re embarrassed, so you’re no longer a brown bear, you’re a red bear. [laughter] So, who is that I that is embarrassed? Is it your body? Your mind? Something separate from your body and mind? What are they going to think of me? They’re all looking at me. Who is that me? 

It seems like something really firm and solid, something mixed in with the aggregates, but when you try and locate it, to point out an aggregate that is I, you can’t really do that. What would it be like to drop that image of a truly existent I? It’s almost difficult to imagine because it’s there all the time. 

Let’s make a determination to keep tracking that I. Let’s see if we can discover what it is, because if it exists the way it appears, we should be able to find it. If we can’t find it, then maybe it doesn’t exist that way, and we have to alter our perception, our conception, our view. 

Recognizing that this is the difficult point for all sentient beings—where all of the ignorance, anger and attachment in the world comes from, where all the suffering in the world comes from—let’s make a determination to keep investigating, “how do I exist,” or “what is the I and what isn’t the I?” “Do I exist as I appear to?” With compassion for ourselves and others, even though we don’t know who that self is, let’s learn the Buddha’s teachings and follow the path to freedom.

It’s interesting to watch, when you’re just sitting there and hearing about Buddha Bear, what’s the sense of I? How does the I appear at that point? It’s not a real strong feeling of I at that point, is there? But as soon as Buddha Bear comes near you, what happens? [laughter] What happens? Does how you see yourself change when Buddha Bear comes near you? What’s the feeling of the I at that point? 

It’s quite different than when you’re just sitting here and kind of waiting for teachings or watching what’s going on. What’s the sense of I when nothing is going on, and what’s the sense of I when Buddha Bear comes near you? What’s the sense of I if a real bear comes near you? [laughter] Or even a dog? Our neighbors have some pretty big dogs. Do you feel comfortable with those big dogs? Some of you, “Yes,” some of you not. Watch how the sense of I changes in these different situations.

Questions & Answers

Meditation on death

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC) [reading]: “Thank you for giving us the homework of doing the death meditations.” 

VTC: Who did the death meditations? Did they have an effect on your mind? What kind of effect?

Audience: I’ve got a mental habit of spacing out after a while in my practice, when I sit for long periods of time. It kept me much more in my seat. It kept me much more present in my mind, and when I would take off, I would bring that back, and it sort of helps me to ground myself more in what I’m doing.

VTC: Yes, it helps to ground yourself.

Audience: I saw the attachment. I felt the attachment.

VTC: To what?

Audience: I was surprised because I felt the attachment to [unclear]. I was surprised about that, but it just came up. Because I was doing it laying in bed, and I had a random moment, and I just really went so deep into it, so deep that I really felt that attachment come up. Then I had to talk to myself about how I have everything arranged and organized and taken care of, so everything’s fine. Then I just started talking about how to leave my body; I started to do some analysis about “what am I leaving here?” The nature of my body. It was helpful in that regard, and I realized I need to do more work on that because I don’t want that to come up at the time of death. 

VTC: Right, at the time of death, you don’t want to be grasping onto people or to your body or to your possessions or to your own idea of who you think you are. Keep working at that. It’s a very helpful meditation to bring stuff up for us to look at. These kinds of meditation should be challenging in that way. 

If you’re challenged and then you just say, “Oh, I’ve got to work on that,” it’s been helpful to you. Whereas when you say, “Oh yes, it’s a lovely death, and they’re all around, and I just float off,” then you’re not really getting much out of the meditation. I’m not saying to make yourself afraid. Don’t do that. You don’t need to make yourself afraid, but just do it and see what comes up for you.

Audience: For me, it was interesting to see that it took multiple times to get some sense of a feeling because my resistance—my “it’s not real”—was so strong. It’s interesting to actually get some feeling for it, for it to feel real and relevant, and like it’s going to happen. It took me multiple times to even get there. It was so flat because it didn’t feel pertinent.

VTC: Yes—“this is just a meditation; this is just imagination.” 

Audience: “I’m too young.”

VTC: Yes, “I’m too young.” It’s all those old decrepit nuns who are going to die, not me. [laughter] You’re in the process of becoming one of the old decrepit ones.

Audience: I was surprised by who I would not tell if I had a terminal illness.

VTC: What surprised you about that?

Audience: It was my parents.

VTC: You didn’t want to tell them?

Audience: I thought I should not tell them because my mind would be calmer, and they would freak out and fly here, and it would be much more difficult to let go.

VTC: Yes, that’s the same thing I had come up when my parents were still alive. It was like, “Please, nobody tell them when I’m dying.”

Audience: The other thing was the importance of working on the dislike I feel for different people. Because if they were in the room when I was dying then that dislike would come up. Because I can’t control who’s there when I die.

VTC:  “You stole my marbles in third grade, and I’m still holding onto it.” That was a big discovery I had when I did Vajrasattva—that I was still mad at my second grade teacher because she didn’t let me be in the class play. Do you want to really die with anger at your second grade teacher? It’s like, “Yes, that doesn’t matter.” So, why hold onto it now? Because! Then we have some ridiculous reason.

Audience: Some questions arose from that: “We die as we live, so daily practice is our best protection at the time of death.”

VTC: Very true.

Audience: “In addition, do you have any specific advice for how to prepare for or navigate illnesses that impair the clarity and control of the mind, such as dementia, Huntington’s disease and so forth?”

VTC: My guess is if you have strong realizations, maybe those diseases don’t affect you so much, but I don’t know. Some of my teachers were very old, but they didn’t suffer from dementia. What people tell me is that very often with dementia, somebody kind of adheres to or reenacts the same behaviors that were very common during their life. 

A friend of mine said that his mother was always very generous. He would bring her some cookies or sweets when he went to visit her at the old folks home. She kind of recognized him, but whatever he brought, she would take around and share it with all the other old folks there. He said, “That’s the way she was when she was alive.” She shared things. It seems to me that if we act now the way we would like to be, even if we have dementia or Alzheimers or something, then through the force of habit, that may come through.

Then there’s the disillusion. It’s scary to think of your mind as being “out to lunch” like that, and when it’s really bad, you don’t realize you’re “out to lunch.” That’s not scary at all because you’re out to lunch, you don’t realize it; you’re in your own world. The scary part is when your mind starts to go and you’re aware enough to know that something is wrong.

 My friend told me one time he couldn’t find his address book and then he opened the refrigerator to get something and his address book was in the refrigerator. Has anybody else done that? I was looking for my altar cloth earlier this week; it wasn’t in the drawer where I usually keep it, but it was in the drawer where I keep the towels for the kitchen. How did it get there?

When you realize your mind is slipping, that’s a scary time I think. What do you do then? You do lots of Manjushri mantra, and then you just make a determination to be as kind as you can. That means right now, while we have more control over our mind, we need to make that determination to be as kind as we can. We need to develop that habit  now. 

Audience: It seems like strong mindfulness practices could also help because things like that even regular people do, and it’s usually due to a lack of mindfulness. They’re not present in the body.

VTC: What do you mean by mindfulness practices? Being aware of what’s going on?

Audience: Yes, in the present—being aware of what’s actually going on in your body.

VTC: That’s the mental factor of introspective awareness that monitors the body, speech, and mind, but see, that’s the one that lets you know that you’re beginning to lose it. That’s good, when you start to know you’re beginning to lose it then hopefully you can make some adjustments. If you can’t, you just relax and be kind. What else are you going to do? You should also ask other practitioners how they do it.  

I think of my friend we’ve been doing prayers for who was in a coma for so long. Now he’s gaining a little more awareness. He can’t speak yet, but it seems like he can understand things and show things—yes or no—through his eyes. It will be interesting if he gets better to ask him what it was like in those states. I’ve talked to other people who’ve been in comas, and one person told me that she actually knew what was going on around her, but she couldn’t say anything or interact with any of the people. You’re nodding your head; do you have some experience with that?

Audience: Yes, I do. I was with both my parents when they died. My mother was in a coma, and she could hear. She was very upset because she didn’t like people being in her kitchen. She was very aware when she was in a coma of what was happening around her.

VTC:  But she could show that she was aware?

Audience: No, she couldn’t show that she was aware.

VTC: How did you know that she was upset then?

Audience: Because she didn’t die at that time—she was in the coma, and when she came out, she was able to explain her experience. She was very aware of what people were saying, of everything that was going on. They were in her kitchen! [laughter] It was interesting because my father was a very kind person, and yet, at his death he was very tormented. I have that image; it was just like that hell realm. His whole body was in torment. My mom was kind but she was a rough person, and yet, she had a very peaceful death. It’s really interesting.

VTC: Yes, it’s hard to know what comes up. 

Watching the fear of death

VTC [reading]: Here’s another question: “The dissolution of the various elements and consciousnesses is described as being a very scary process. We fear that we are going out of existence, so such prayers as ‘Heart-Spoon’ by Pabongka Rinpoche also talk about some of the eight internal visions as being scary.” Let me read to you from Pabongka:

The terrors of the four fearful enemies descending upon you are going to come.

These are the four elements absorbing.

The appearance of being trapped under a mountain of packed rock and rubble and buried beneath a furious avalanche of earth, what to do.

That’s the earth element absorbing. 

The appearance of being set adrift on the surface of a vast sea and carried away by violent swirling waves, what to do.

That’s the water element absorbing.

The experience of your heart and ears being split open by the sizzling and crackling sounds of a fiery conflagration, what to do.

That’s the fire element absorbing.

The fearful experience of being enveloped and swept away by the swirling dark winds of the end of the eon, what to do.

That’s the wind element absorbing.

VTC [reading]: “When we meditate on the eight dissolutions, should we be imagining them as scary and terrifying to work on our fear? I have not seen such an instruction before.”

I haven’t seen an instruction to meditate on it being scary; however, they do say you have a physical reaction. When the earth element is absorbing, the body feels very heavy, like it’s sinking into the earth. When the water element is absorbing, there can be a feeling of dryness because the fire element is coming on strong. There could be these kinds of feelings arising in the body, or there could be images—the first one being like the mirage shimmering because the earth element is going, and the water element is becoming prominent. The second one is a vision of smoke because the water element is subsiding, and the fire element is coming.  

I think it’s possible that the mind might react to those with fear. I think if I were in a room filled with smoke, there would be fear. It’s not that you sit there and think, “I better make myself afraid so I can have a real experience of it.” It’s not like that, but you imagine you were in that environment and what might it be like and how can you keep your mind present. 

If your mind starts to react because of the various sensations in the body, how are you going to relax your mind again? This is related very much to what Venerable Huimin gave us as our gift yesterday. When we feel dread and fear, our usual reaction is to flee. He was quoting this sutra with the Buddha of you sit there or stand or lie down, whatever position you’re in when this is happening, and you work with your mind.

You don’t sit there and think, “Okay, I’m imagining being terrified.” That doesn’t work. You just work with what you’re experiencing and also look at how you react now to different sensations in your body. You have a stomachache and then all of a sudden you think, “Oh, maybe I have stomach cancer.” That thought comes in the mind and then your stomach hurts even more.

Then you say, “Should I got to the doctor?” No, it’s just a stomachache; it’s nothing. 

But in the back of your mind: “It might be stomach cancer; I better go.”  I don’t want to go to the doctor, I don’t want to know what it is. Then you think, “But if you know what it is, it can be treatable.” Yes, but I don’t really want to feel scared. If they tell me I have cancer then I feel scared. I just want to live my life and not think about having cancer at all.

Then what? Just watch how your mind reacts to these things. Watch the kind of grasping there is, and then, as in the sutra that Venerable Huimin sent us, recognize, “Okay, there’s the feeling of dread, or there’s the feeling of fear.” Can you sit there and just observe that feeling? Do you need to apply an antidote?

 There’s fear, so when I feel fear I do the taking-and-giving meditation. I find it very helpful when I feel afraid to do the taking-and-giving because then it’s like, “Okay, I’m afraid; I might as well take on the fear of everybody else.” That helps the mind. Or, you might think, “I’m just going to sit there and feel the sensation.” Take it into your practice and see how you can work with it.

Don’t sit there and try and make yourself afraid, just do the visualizations and see what comes up, especially in your daily life. It’s much easier. It’s not very helpful to think, “I’m going to feel afraid so I can work with it.” No, just think about the feeling of fear that comes when you’re riding in a car and somebody is coming on and they’re not getting out of the lane, or the fear that you feel when somebody says, “You know, you didn’t put the spatula in the right place.” Oh no, I did something wrong. Just pay attention to what comes up in daily life. 

Difficulties with visualization

Then, there was a whole book written about difficulties in visualization that I think might be good to discuss a little bit here. For example, there can be a problem when visualizing Vajrasattva above your head rather than in front of you, because it seems like, ‘Okay, Vajrasattva’s in front of me, I can put a statue there. I can close my eyes. I can see Vajrasattva. But if I put a statue on my head, then to visualize Vajrasattva, I have to roll my eyes back in my socket and that gives me a headache.” [laughter] That’s what I did when I first started visualizing Vajrasattva on my head. 

Or I think of it here [indicating the space above one’s head], and my eyes are here or there’s a camera here [indicating on the top of one’s head], and I look up, and all I see if the bottom of Vajrasattva’s lotus. Or maybe his lotus isn’t even there, and I see his butt. [laughter] Excuse me, Vajrasattva, I’m getting a little too personal. 

Visualization does not mean you’re seeing with your eyes. It’s called visualization, but what it means is “imagine.” It’s not like seeing with your eyes, so don’t think of it as a camera taking a picture, like, “There’s the camera outside taking a picture of me with Vajrasattva on my head, so all of a sudden I’m out there, but I’m still here; which me has Vajrasattva on their head?” We get so tangled up with these things. 

Throw out the camera, throw out the eyeballs. [laughter] It’s not either of those. It’s feeling like you are in the presence of holy beings. You want to have the feeling that you are in the presence of holy beings. If you have that feeling, then you’re not sitting there, “Okay, where’s Vajrasattva? There he is. Where’s his bell? Where’s his vajra? Does he have long hair or short hair? How far down on his knees is he holding his bell? What if he wants to stretch?”

Don’t try and put it into your idea of what visualization is or what your idea of seeing something is, because I think part of the difficulty is we’re trying to fit it into our conceptualization of something. Somebody wrote here, “Teaching, explaining meditation and the Dharma is much more difficult than physics where things can be drawn or written down in equations.” 

 If you’re used to thinking of things as being drawn in a linear process or written out in an equation, and then when it says, “Visualize or imagine Vajrasattva,” you’re putting it into a mind that conceptualizes things in that way, it’s like putting a square peg into a round hole. We have all these conceptual habits that we aren’t even aware we have—until we hit something like this, and then we can’t make it happen.

Granted, some people have an easier time with spatial relationships or whatever. I remember when they gave you tests every year, and they would show you pictures of a glove like this [indicating a hand with palm down], and then the glove like this [indicating a hand with the palm up], and the glove like this [indicating a hand turned sideways]. You were supposed to match up which gloves were upside down and like that. 

Some people can look at these drawings and think, “This is a left-hand glove; this is a right-hand glove.” They get it like this. Other people look at the drawings and it’s like, “Okay, the drawing looks like that.” They’ve got to move their hand like that to get it into that position. Meanwhile, the person who can easily visualize it, they’re on question 94, [laughter] and you’re sitting there like, “The thumb is on which side? It’s here, but is the palm down or up?” 

With spatial relationships, some people have different talents or not, but it’s like every kind of skill, the more you do it you can develop it. We can’t just say, “I’m hopeless at spatial relationships, so forget it.” It’s more like, “That is harder for me, so I have to play with it a little bit more.” You play with it, and you try and do that. 

First, “Vajrasattva on my head”—when you finally get your eyeballs down into your eyes, you’re not rolling them back. It’s like, “Okay, I can visualize Vajrasattva, but he’s facing this way [indicating facing backwards], and we’re supposed to face him this way [indicating facing forward]. But he’s going backwards, looking at—who’s sitting behind me? Vajrasattva is looking at you, did you know that? Where’s that nectar? Is it going back into the person behind me who Vajrasattva is looking at or is it going into me?”

“Well, it’s coming down into me, but it’s splattering all over my head. I can’t get it into my body.” Have you ever had that, where you can’t get the nectar in your body, and it’s just rolling out all over the floor? [laughter] It’s like, “I’m sure glad this is a visualization; otherwise I’m going to have a mess to clean up here.” 

When that happens, it’s like, “Oh, what’s the problem there?” The problem is I’m thinking of my body as something concrete. If my body is concrete then of course the nectar can’t get in because there’s concrete! Not just around my body, but my whole body is made of concrete. Sometimes it seems like that way to us, so no nectar can get in. Then you have to play a little bit with trying to visualize your body as hollow so the nectar can get it.

It’s these kinds of things where you play with it, and it shows you in many ways how you’re so used to thinking one way that it seems like you just can’t imagine another way. You cannot turn that glove like this and recognize it as a right hand. But if you practice, you can slowly develop it, especially here, since the important thing when you’re doing the visualization is not seeing Vajrasattva with your eyes. 

“Okay, there he is. What color are his scarves? Oh yes, light blue and yellow. Yes, like the Ukranian flag. Oh, hmm, no, I shouldn’t be visualizing Ukraine. What color are his celestial silks?” One meditation session they have polkadots; the next meditation session they’re stripes; the next meditation session, “is Vajrasattva changing clothes in between sessions?” Look at what your mind does. It’s really quite interesting, isn’t it?

Then it’s helpful to think that this is how our mind projects on the people around us, too. We’re always projecting—projecting and forming opinions. “Oh, his celestial silks, they’re made out of silk. Those poor silk worms. Really, this is not environmentally so good. They shouldn’t be silk. Why do the Tibetsan have silk katas; they’re supposed to be people who cherish life. Why all the silk katas and silk brocade? Is brocade really made out of silk? It’s so stiff, how could it be made out of silk? How do they make silk anyways? Do they take one part and pull it out?” Your mind is off and running, isn’t it? 

You saw His Holiness yesterday sitting on the throne. Could you get any sense of what it would feel like to sit there with His Holiness in front of you? Is there some feeling like that? You just see him and you feel joyful. How are you going to feel when you’re with a holy being? “Uh oh, I’m sitting in front of His Holiness, what’s he going to think of me? I’m going to do something wrong.” There’s all this etiquette: “I’m going to do something wrong!”

I made a really big boo-boo once, a really big boo-boo. I had led a retreat of some sort and then we were given permission to meet with His Holiness. We came in, and the way his Holiness’ room is setup is the door is here [indicating the left side of the room], the altar is there [indicating the middle of the room], and then he has his seat here [indicatingthe right side of the room]. Then there’s usually a big couch and some other chairs back here; once in awhile there may be another chair here [indicating that all are on the right side of the room, down from the His Holiness’ chair].

I came in, and he greets everybody one by one, so then I’m walking over here, and I’m standing kind of in the middle of the sofa, because you wait until His Holiness sits down before you sit down. I’m waiting there, and then the attendants were saying, “No, go further. Go further.” I inched up and they said, “Go further. Go further, and sit down,” because all these people are coming in. 

I went further and further, and I went to the last chair in the row, and I sat down. Then His Holiness finishes greeting everybody, and he goes to sit down, and he says, “I think you’re in my chair.” [laughter] It was like, “Oh!!” And then how do you react? You just made a big boo-boo, how do you react? Do you hide? Do you just crawl under the sofa? Do you laugh at yourself? Do you laugh at yourself and what you did, and say, “Oops, sorry!”

It’s helpful to look at all these kinds of things, to see how we work with our mind and see our conceptualizations, because we’re conceptualizing all the time. We’re not even realizing it because we’re so used to thinking of things fitting in this pattern. Remember, “the pickpocket sees pockets.” 

The pickpocket doesn’t see the colors of the celestial silks; the pickpocket sees the pockets in the celestial silks. Somebody who is a fashion designer sees the colors of the celestial silks; they don’t see the pockets. Somebody who’s an environmentalist goes off on this big thing about, “It’s silk, and it’s destroying lives, and I thought they were Buddhists.” It’s how we’re habituated with conceptualizing things.

You just relax, and there you are in the presence of Vajrasattva—who is your friend, who is not going to judge you, who is not going to say, “You know, I’m supposed to be facing the other direction on your head.” His Holiness loves telling this story of one person who came to him and said, “You know, I was trying to visualize the deity on my head, but I’m bald, and he kept falling off.” [laughter] Poor Vajrasattva’s falling off my head. Somebody else came in and said to His Holiness, “I’m trying to visualize Vajrasattva on my head, but the best I can do is I was sitting on Vajrasattva’s head!” [laughter] 

We all go through this, so just kind of chill out. It doesn’t mean you have to get all the details of what something is looking like. If you’re using Vajrasattva as your object to develop serenity, I would recommend putting Vajrasattva in front of you instead of on top of your head. It’s fine. He can sit in front of you. He can send the nectar going this way. But the idea of why Vajrasattva is on your head is that Vajrasattva is an extension of you, not something separate. 

You’re in direct contact, so that nectar just comes straight down into your heart and fills your whole body—not just your heart but your whole body. Again, it’s not this thing of, “Okay, how fast is the nectar coming down? Is it like whoosh! Or is it like drip, drip, drip?” Just relax. If it comes down in one meditation session one way and in another meditation session another way, that’s okay.

Audience: I wanted to share how I’ve changed doing visualizations. At first, it was very exact. It had to be perfect, and I noticed I was really straining my eye muscles, but that was producing a lot of tension. Now I feel like I’m using a different part of my brain? It’s more like when I’m dreaming or when images just kind of arise naturally, and I feel like it’s a very different faculty of the brain or the mind that’s in play, and there’s also more imagination and openness. You sort of let these things emerge; you don’t control the process completely. That way you can get deeper insights into what’s going on inside of you.

VTC: Yes, whereas if you’re thinking, “I’ve got to do it perfect”—“They said he should be this big. Aw, that’s too big. For me, Vajrasattva being that big is too big. I like Vajrasattva this big. But they said to make it that big! Oh no, I’m doing it wrong. But can he just be smaller? Oh no, I’m not following instructions; I’m not doing this right. This is a disaster.”

Look at how your mind is so exacting of yourself. “Why can’t Vajrasattva be smaller? Okay, he’s smaller, now exactly how tall is he?” When you’re imagining Vajrasattva on your head, can you measure how big that Vajrasattva on your head is? Can you measure that? No. If you’re sitting there visualizing Vajrasattva, can you take a ruler and measure how big that Vajrasattva is? I can’t. It doesn’t really matter. 

Another thing that’s difficult about the visualization is we can never think of being in the presence of somebody who is not judging us, of somebody who is looking at us with compassion. You’ve been doing the refuge visualization for years, even visualizing in front, but are the Buddha, Je Tsongkhapa, any of them looking at you with compassion? Or are you looking that them like, “Uh oh, authority figures. They’re looking at me like, ‘You say you’re taking refuge in me, what’s really going on in your mind? I don’t believe you really have refuge. You don’t know anything.’” 

Are they looking at you that way? Can you imagine somebody looking at you with compassion? What does it look like or what does it feel like to imagine somebody looking at you with compassion? Can you even imagine what that feels like? Can we let that into our heart, of what it feels like for somebody to look at us without judgment, with total understanding, and really caring about us? They don’t care about how we perform or what we look like or what our status is or how high we score on the test. None of that matters to the Buddhas; they just look at us with kindness. Can we let that into our heart?

Audience: I spent one whole Vajrasattva retreat where Vajrasattva was the embodiment of my self-critical mind, and that’s why it took so long; I was just fighting the whole way. What I found really helpful was to come back to how you’ve written the meditation on the Buddha in Pearl of Wisdom I. I spent a lot of time just on, “Think of the qualities of infinite love and compassion: what is it like to have a mind like that?” I spent so much time with that. 

Then, “Imagine those qualities are physically embodied”—wow! That really helped me. It took a long time to just try and get that feeling. Then I stopped being like, “It must be exact or perfect.” How kind is the Buddha! If you can read, you can connect with compassion like this in this kind of symbology. It totally changed my relationship, so I highly recommend going to page 19 of the Blue Book. It really helped me, just taking my time with those two paragraphs.

VTC: Yes, and it’s important to really take apart that mind that assumes that everybody who looks at us is judging us about one thing or another—how you look, how you score—and to instead imagine those qualities being embodied in a physical way. It takes some work, and you have to relax. When you’re trying to be perfect, it’s difficult to relax. Isn’t it?

[Venerable Chodron mimics placing one’s hands in prayer position but doing so with so much focus on being perfect that it makes the task awkward and leads to emotional distress]: “Okay, how do I do this? How do I do this?” [laughter] Laugh at yourself. You have to learn to laugh at yourself. We have to learn to relax our mind, and it’s difficult because we aren’t even aware so often of how uptight we are and how we want to put everything into boxes. 

Living in a community will make you change because you keep on knocking. My mother used to say, “Don’t knock your head against the wall.” Well, when you live in a community, you keep knocking your head against a wall. “What’s that wall doing there?” Then, “the schedule should be like this, why is it changing?” 

Two days ago, what we’re doing on Thursday afternoon we have to do on Wednesday afternoon: “But, but, I was planning my Wednesday afternoon was like this; I’m not ready for doing that and giving the feedback. I’m not ready for accepting the feedback. I don’t have it all written down, everything I’m going to say. Anyway, I didn’t want to do it then and why did they change the schedule anyway? All these people who are always saying, ‘don’t change the schedule,’ and then they change it!” Well, this is what all of us go through living here because you have your plan for the day and then things change. You have your thoughts for the way things are supposed to be done, and they aren’t done that way.

Audience: One of the things that’s been more apparent as the years go on is that when I find myself physically and emotionally exhausted, and I look at the amount of proliferating that goes on when I sit down, it looks like I’m sitting doing nothing. I didn’t know the extent of how the conceptual mind exhausts one’s self. You start putting together your courtroom; you start putting together your fantasies; you start putting together your arguments, and you leave the hall and it’s like, “I have to go back to bed. I’m exhausted.” 

I’ve been reading His Holiness’ Kindness, Clarity, and Insight book, and he’s got a little paragraph there that says, “Try to just give your mind a rest.” It says to slow the thoughts down, to give your mind a break, and it talks about how hard it is just to stop the proliferating that doesn’t lead to wellbeing internally or externally. I’ve been more aware of that this winter and more able to counteract it before it gets going, and I can see how it impacts my energy and my moods—with how I live here. I can’t get any clarity because I’m talking to myself so much during my practice and setting up all sorts of things!

VTC: Sometimes you move your mouth when you’re thinking. [laughter] Have you noticed she does that?

Audience: I talk to myself, and that’s what you’re seeing.

VTC: All of this is how practice is helping us. Practice is working on all these things. Practice doesn’t give us a list of, “You’re going to find yourself thinking of commercial jingles you heard as a kid, so be aware of that. You’re going to find yourself thinking about yourself. You’re going to find yourself talking to yourself. You’re going to find yourself criticizing. You’re going to find yourself getting confused about the colors of the robes and—‘Oh no, do Vajrasattva’s celestial silks fall down as much as my chogu falls down? Uh oh, is Vajrasattva always going like this? Next time I visualize him, it’s like this [Venerable Chodron indicates throwing her Chogu over her shoulder]. Oh yes, you and I at the same time, Vajrasattva, come on.’”

They don’t tell you everything that you’re going to be made aware of; it’s not all spelled out. It would be nice if it was all spelled out, so when things happen—“Oh yes, that’s normal. It’s number 73-A that Vajrasattva’s sliding off my head, and you have get him right on there [Venerable Chodron indicates the middle of her head].”

 Do you have that problem? [Venerable Chodron mimics Vajrasattva falling off all sides of her head] Does he slide off to this side, back, front? Or no, I have hair, so he gets stuck on my hair—oh no, Vajrasattva’s stuck! That’s why they said to visualize him four-fingers width—or is it four inches? Four fingers, four inches? About the same? No, an inch is…where is he? He’s floating in space; I can’t have Vajrasattva floating in space!”

Audience: What happens to me more frequently is that after I don’t know how many mantras or malas, I realize I’ve been reciting the wrong mantra. [laughter] I don’t remember for how long I’ve been doing it.

VTC: Who else has that happened to? This is what purification is about. We have to see the dirt. Some of it isn’t even dirt; it’s just fluff, but it’s in the way. We have to see it in order to cleanse it. 

Audience: What are we trying to develop during visualization versus chanting mantra versus calm abiding meditation versus absorption? What are the major differences?

VTC: Chanting mantra is very psychologically useful, because what are we doing all day? We’re imagining things all day, and we’re talking to ourselves all day. Instead of just imagining all your fantasies about this and that, you’re taking that same faculty of imagination, and you’re imagining Vajrasattva and being purified. 

We have this tendency to blah blah all the time—even to ourselves. We take that, and we flip it into chanting mantra. It’s taking the habitual things that we usually use in a very worldly way and instead steering them towards remembering the Buddha. How are they different? You can see when you’re developing calm abiding—or I translate it as serenity meditation—that you’re trying to be single-pointed on what your object of meditation is. 

This is what Geshe Thabkhe is teaching, and it’s written in volume four, “Following in the Footsteps of the Buddha. You’re visualizing something, and then with serenity or calm abiding, you’re putting your mind on that and developing concentration. Of course your mind is going to stray and go to other things, and you’re going to get drowsy—that’s why there’s all the instructions for what to do when you get drowsy, what to do when you start wandering to an object of attachment, what to do if you’re just plain old distracted. 

All of that comes up, so that’s the purpose of your meditation. When that person said “absorption,” I’m not quite sure what they’re talking about. We talk about meditative absorption, which can be any level of serenity, and it could be a dhyana or a formless realm absorption. Then what was the other one?

Audience: Visualization.

VTC: Yes, visualization—it’s like what I said before. You’re taking something you do normally that often we’re not even aware of doing. People hear “visualize” and think, “I can’t visualize.” Of course we can. If I say, “Think of your mom,” do you have an image of what your mom looks like? Your mom could have been dead for decades, but do you have an image? Are you seeing something with your eyes? Do you know exactly what hairdo she has? No, you have some image of your mom, and that’s visualization.

So, instead of visualizing the things that incite ignorance, anger, and attachment, we’re visualizing a Buddha who is full of tolerance and love and compassion and wisdom. We’re sitting in that presence, and then that Buddha dissolves into us, and we imagine having those same qualities. What would it feel like to be somebody who doesn’t judge others?

 Imagine Vajrasattva dissolves into me. He doesn’t judge anybody. What would it feel like for me not to have the opinion factory going all the time, judging people? What would it feel like to look at people just with kind eyes, with compassion? What would that feel like? Then you imagine feeling that way, and that’s how it begins to change you.

In a way, it’s like what we did as kids. When we were kids, we imagined being all sorts of things, didn’t we? It was very much encouraged; that’s how you became creative. “Imagine being this; imagine being that.” We were very used to imagining things as kids. Here, we’re training that imagination, that verbalization, in a direction that’s going to be useful to us.

With that, we will close this evening. We read “Aging and Death,” and next week we will again try to go through this section. Do you see how we’re procrastinating every Friday night? We can’t seem to get through aging and death? It’s like we’re going to put it off for another week, but in that week, we are aging, and death is approaching. 

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.