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Monastic Mind Motivation commentary

Monastic Mind Motivation commentary

A talk on the Monastic Mind Motivation for a pre-ordination course organized by the International Mahayana Institute.

  • True humility is self-confidence
  • Mindfulness means being aware of our precepts
  • Suffering comes when we set up a truly existent “me”
  • A monastic mind requires a reconfiguring of our usual mindset

Taking refuge and generating bodhicitta

Let’s first visualize the merit or refuge field in the space in front of us and ourselves surrounded by all sentient beings. So, we’re there with all beings, the holy ones and the ordinary ones. We think that all of our minds are now turned towards the Dharma, and so we take refuge and generate bodhicitta together.

I take refuge until I have awakened
in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
By the merit I create by listening to the Dharma,
I will attain buddhahood in order to benefit all sentient beings. (X3)

May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes.
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all sentient beings not be separated from sorrowless bliss.
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of bias, attachment, and anger.

Now let’s have a few moments of silent meditation to let the mind relax, get rid of extraneous thoughts so we can focus on the talk, and then after that, we’ll generate our motivation.


We all have the incredibly rare opportunity to take monastic ordination and to follow the Buddhist teachings. With an awareness that this opportunity was created by causes and conditions and it changes all the time, then let’s make a strong determination to really take advantage of it while we have it. Let’s especially use it to generate the bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness. And let’s remember that we do that in order to repay the kindness of the Three Jewels and the kindness of sentient beings.

Introduction and text

Before we begin, I want to introduce you to “Care Bear” [laughter]—who is crowned, yes. You’ll remember that Lama Zopa Rinpoche was surrounded by stuffed animals, so the Abbey follows in that tradition. [laughter] But Care Bear is here also to let you know that you are cared for. Even though we’re speaking over Zoom, you’re not just somebody sitting there. You’re important, and we care about you.

What I thought I would talk about today is a short verse that both lay people and monastics recite at the Abbey in the morning. It’s called the Monastic Mind Prayer, and it’s to help us remember what a monastic mind is so that we know what kind of things to cultivate during the day as we live our lives. I’ll read the whole thing through and then I’ll go through it line-by-line. We’ll see how far we go. I am Rinpoche’s disciple, so I usually don’t finish things. [laughter] It takes me a few talks to do that, but we’ll see.

Having a “monastic mind” benefits our Dharma practice whether we are monastics or lay practitioners.
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.
Being mindful of the kindness I have received from all sentient beings, I will relate to them with patience, kindness, and compassion.
I will be mindful of my precepts and values and will cultivate clear knowing of my thoughts and feelings, as well as how I speak and act.
I will take care to act and speak at suitable times and in appropriate ways, abandoning idle talk and disruptive movements.
With respect for others and confidence in my good qualities, I will be humble and easy for others to speak to.
In all these activities, I will endeavor to remember impermanence and the emptiness of inherent existence and to act with bodhicitta.

This is what is recited every morning, right? Let’s go back to the beginning and unpack it.

Keeping a humble mind

A monastic mind is one that is humble.

Humble: “Oh my goodness, I want to be humble! I want to BE somebody! I want people to notice me! I want to be the perfect monastic that everybody looks up to and somebody who has the answer for every Dharma question who can give the right advice for everything that happens! Then people will appreciate me. They will respect me. Who needs humility?” There you see why we need humility. What is going on in our minds and the trainings often don’t match.

We sometimes think humility means lacking self-confidence—just sitting there meekly: “Oh, I’m humble. I don’t say anything.” No, if you look at His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he is really humble, and yet he has complete self-confidence. He’s not arrogant, and he’s not stuck in a poor quality view either. When you have actual self-confidence in yourself then you can be humble, and you can put other people in front of you. You can give other people credit. When we’re insecure, that’s when we start acting quite arrogantly. It’s a cover for our lack of self-confidence.

We usually think that self-confidence goes together with arrogance or pride, but it doesn’t. Real self-confidence doesn’t need to be proud or to be recognized or praised. When we’re really self-confident, we can be humble, and we don’t feel any ego threat at all. I always like to tell a story regarding this about His Holiness.

The year that he got the Nobel Peace Prize, he was in California for a conference. He was a speaker on a panel with all sorts of experts. At one point somebody in the audience asked a question to His Holiness, and His Holiness paused and thought about it. And then in front of thousands of people at the conference, the expert speaker the Dalai Lama said, “I don’t know.” Can you imagine that? We would never say, “I don’t know.” We would change the topic or humiliate the person who asked the question or invent something even though we didn’t know the answer. We would do anything except being humble and telling the truth and saying, “I don’t know.”

His Holiness then turned to all the other experts and asked, “What do you all think?” He did this with complete self-confidence. He had nothing to prove. He wasn’t afraid of not knowing. He was completely comfortable in his own skin with saying what was true about him at that moment. So, when we’re humble, there’s an openness about us. When we try to be “somebody,” it’s very off-putting because we’re not being ourselves. We’re not being comfortable. We’re trying to be some image we have.

Especially after I ordained, I had this aspiration to be the perfect monastic. I didn’t want to be a Grade B or Grade C monastic; I wanted to be the perfect one. Because I really felt my teacher’s kindness in ordaining me, and I wanted to attain enlightenment in this very life—like they promised. By the way, His Holiness later told me that’s propaganda. You can aspire for enlightenment in this life, but don’t count on it.

I tried so hard to be the perfect monastic, and it didn’t work. One problem was the cultural difference between the Tibetan monastics and us Westerners, but more than that, it was just learning to accept myself. I have virtuous aspirations, and it’s going to take time to become like that. And I can’t fake it. You can try to be the perfect monastic, but it’s unfakeable. You can’t do it right. You try and be that, but people see that you aren’t, and you know that you aren’t. So, it’s much more realistic and kind to others and ourselves just to accept where we’re at and go forward from there.

Lama Yeshe would often say, “Good enough, dear.” It was one of his short quips. He called everybody “dear,” and he kept telling us we were good enough. Of course, we didn’t believe him; we thought we should be better. But his meaning was that what we are is the reality of who we are at this moment. So, it needs to be good enough. It is good enough. That doesn’t mean we don’t grow and change in the future—of course we do. But where we’re at now, compared to where we came from and all of our previous conditioning, is good enough. And we’ll improve from there.

Imbued with the Buddhist worldview

A monastic mind is one that is imbued with the Buddhist worldview.

This one is really important, and sometimes I wonder if it gets skipped over in the rest. Because to really understand and practice the Dharma, we have to have the view of multiple rebirths, karma and its results, emptiness. We don’t need to realize all these things, but this needs to be our view of what we think the world is and what our place is in it. Of course, when you’re just being introduced to Buddhism, that’s not necessary. But if you really want to generate bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness, it’s difficult to see that happening if we don’t believe in rebirth and karma. If we don’t believe that things are changing moment-by-moment and that things lack any inherent existence, it’s difficult to generate those.

It’s good in our practice to really take the time to meditate on these topics and to contemplate the disadvantages of samsara. What I find very often happens in the West is people go to tantra very quickly. They attend one or two Dharma teachings—sometimes not even that—and they’re taking an empowerment. And they get confused afterwards: “What did I just do?” It’s really important to go slowly and to have a very solid base before we construct walls, before we put on the roof. Vajrayana is the roof. It needs to be supported by the strong walls of the bodhisattva practice and the foundation of the pratimoksha and the Fundamental Vehicle—the four truths. That’s quite important, so don’t rush through all of that. I meet a lot of people with a lot of confusion because of jumping to tantra very quickly.

Cultivating mindfulness

A monastic mind is one that is dedicated to cultivating mindfulness, introspective awareness, love, compassion, wisdom and other good qualities.

Let’s start with cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness has many meanings, and Buddhist mindfulness is very different from secular mindfulness. We need to be very clear about the differences, especially when people come to Buddhist monasteries. We’re not teaching secular mindfulness; we’re teaching Buddhist mindfulness. And what did the Buddha tell us to be mindful of—what’s going on with our body, our feelings, our mind, and then all the other phenomena, such as the mental factors.

This is a big thing of which to be mindful. When we are keeping the pratimoksha precepts or monastic precepts, then mindfulness means being aware of our precepts. It means being aware of the trainings. It means being aware of what the Buddha said that as monastics we should do and what we should abandon doing. So, it’s about keeping these in our mind so that when we go through our daily life, we act according to what we voluntarily chose to become.  Of course, when you’re cultivating concentration, then mindfulness means to hold the object of our meditation without letting it waver or losing the object of meditation.

Mindfulness has many different meanings. It also means memory. The Tibetan word also means “to remember something.” So, we have to see what the context is, but talking from a monastic perspective, it’s to be mindful of our precepts, trainings, motivation—to cultivate Bodhicitta when we do things, and to do that throughout the day. Here at the Abbey we do the Monastic Mind Prayer in the mornings, and then we have a stand-up meeting with a verse there we recite to remember our motivation. If you’re working in the kitchen there’s another verse to recite. So, all day long we’re trying to remember our motivation and our trainings. We go into the day with that.

This should not be some heavy things in our mind, like: “Oh no, now I have all these precepts; I have to do everything perfect.” No, don’t go into the mindset of having to be the perfect monastic. You’re in training. We are in training until we become buddhas. It’s not like you do your training, you graduate, and now you can do something else. Until we become buddhas, we are in training.

Then how do we maintain that mindfulness during the day of what we’re saying and doing and thinking and feeling? We use the mental factor of introspective awareness. Sometimes that mental factor is translated as “clear knowing,” sometimes as “alterness” or “vigilance.” What it means is that we monitor our body, speech and mind. We’re aware of what we’re thinking, feeling, saying and doing. And it’s also seeing if we are following our aspiration to live according to our precepts and our trainings and our values. If we are then we just keeping doing what we’re doing. But if we realize something like, “Uh oh, I’m involved in idle talk,” then we go, “Okay, let’s change the topic or leave the situation. I don’t want to gossip about other people. I don’t want to spend my time talking about sports or who won whatever event there is. I want to keep my mind focused on what’s important.”

That introspective awareness is quite important, and it’s just kind of checking up from time-to-time with what’s going on. We are usually focused on the other people and objects around us. We so often totally forget about ourselves: “What’s going on in me? How am I interpreting things? Am I seeing things correctly or am I projecting my own insecurities or cravings or aversions onto other people or onto the situation? Am I doing that or am I seeing things freshly without all my imputations?”

And here, when I’m saying “imputations,” I’m referring to what the Tibetans call namtok. Lama translated it as “superstitions.” It’s also translated as “proliferations.” I like the translation of “proliferations,” because when we are projecting stuff on other people and the situation, our mind is just proliferating. We have no idea, really, what’s going on in our own mind because we’re so busy saying, “Oh, that person doesn’t like me,” and “That person’s judging me,” and “How do I look in front of all these people—do I look like a jerk?” We’re so busy with that kind of stuff that we don’t even realize that’s what we’re busy with, so we judge other people.

You know the judging mind? It’s the mind that instead of looking at people and saying, “They’re suffering sentient beings,” looks at people and says, “I’m superior to that guy. That guy is inferior. I’m competing with this guy because they think I’m equal. I’m jealous of all the people who are better than me.” We’re projecting status on other people; we’re projecting what we think they think on us. We’re projecting safety or danger: “Is my ego safe or is it not safe here?” But we don’t even realize it.

This is where the introspective awareness is so important. Otherwise, we’re just living in a world that we have projected. We’re doing that anyway because we’re projecting inherent existence on everything, but in addition to that, we’re also projecting all of our judgements and everything else out there without introspective awareness. Someone doesn’t greet us in the morning, and we think, “Why isn’t that person saying good morning? They must not like me.” Let’s give them a break. Maybe they have a stomachache; maybe they overslept, and they’re not awake yet. Why do we put all this stuff on others when we have no idea what’s really going on? That’s why mindfulness and introspective awareness are important.

Cultivating love

And then love is wishing others to have happiness and its causes. It doesn’t mean going up to everybody, throwing our arms around them and saying, “I love you.” We’re not talking about that. We’re monastics, so forget about romantic love. We’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt—forget it. What we’re trying to do is open our hearts to other living beings and see that they have feelings and want to be happy. And we want them to be happy.

If we happen to go to town to do something for the monastery, we’re surrounded by other living beings. If you live out in nature, there are many more animals and insects than there are human beings. Love means caring about all of them and realizing they have feelings. They are not objects for us to move around so we can get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. They are living beings with feelings, and when we have the bodhicitta aspiration, we say, “I want to become awakened for the benefit of all these sentient beings.”

But some of them are so troublesome; some of them are such jerks. How can I want them to be happy? Think about the people you don’t like: why are they acting the way they do? Is it because they’re happy, or it is because they’re miserable? If somebody is obnoxious, it’s not because they are happy. Somebody who is in a good mood, who has love in their heart, does not wake up in the morning and say, “I’m in such a good mood. I think I’m going to go hurt somebody.” If people are not being cooperative, something is going on with them. It’s the same thing that goes on with us when we’re not being so cooperative. [laughter] Whatever we see in others, we can also find in ourselves.

So, love is wishing ourselves happiness and wishing others happiness. Of course, wishing others happiness does not mean we wish they get everything they want. Sometimes sentient beings are very confused about what is good for them, and they want what is poison. We care about their long-term benefit because they have feelings, just like us. They aren’t statues or inanimate objects, and what we do affects them. It affects everybody who is near us.

We have lots of turkeys around here. When we walk outside, we affect the turkeys. If we affect the turkeys, we certainly affect the human beings. So, it’s important to be careful of how we are affecting people. That means being mindful of our facial expression, being mindful of how we move through space, being mindful of the volume and tone of our voice. If we have a heart that sees other living beings as kind and valuable then we care, and that automatically influences our behavior.

We could talk about wanting them to have happiness and its causes for three great eons, but I just did it in three minutes—abbreviated. [laughter]

Cultivating compassion

The next part is about compassion: wanting sentient beings to be free of duhkha, the unsatisfactory conditions that being in samsara entails. This is a total change in how we see other living beings because our ordinary view is focused on ourselves. “First, what’s important is that I want happiness; I don’t want unpleasantness. So, my first objective in the day is to be with everything that gives me pleasant feelings and to get away from everything and everyone that gives me unpleasant feelings.”

And then we bump into all these other living beings, and we see them through that lens. “Are they going to give me pleasure, or are they going to give me pain? Can I trust them to say nice things, or can I not trust them because they’re going to criticize me? Will these people give me something or will they take my stuff? Will they speak well of me behind my back, or are they going to gossip and criticize me behind my back?” We judge, and we relate to other people through the perspective of our afflictions. No wonder we have problems and can’t get along.

When we’re trying to cultivate love and compassion, it really entails a total switch in how we are seeing others. We aren’t seeing them in terms of how they relate to me. We’re seeing them as living beings who want happiness, who don’t want pain, who are confused by the ignorance that grasps inherent existence, who are confused by karma and its effects. We see them as beings who have afflictions, just like us. We see them as beings who are influenced by their past actions, their past karma, just like us. And that builds a kind of understanding of other living beings and a kind of tolerance.

By “tolerance,” I don’t mean putting up with someone you actually don’t like. I mean an open acceptance of what sentient beings are. We don’t expect them to be buddhas. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everybody fulfilled all of my wonderful expectations”—which means they only praise me, never point out my faults, only speak well of me, only give me things I want and lots of them. Instead of seeing everybody like that, see them for what they are and what they’re up against being in samsara. They are facing aging, sickness and death—just like we are.

When you’re young, aging, sickness and death is just an idea. You have some kind of intellectual empathy, but as you get older, aging, sickness and death become much more real to you. And what they actually entail becomes more real to you. When you’re younger: “Oh yeah, aging, sickness: I don’t feel well. I have a stomachache.” When you’re older, sickness is serious sickness, or you can’t walk properly, or your mind is clouded, or whatever. You know how they say in the teachings that if young people looked in the mirror and saw what they would look like when they’re old, they would faint? It’s true.

Even when you’re older, you look in the mirror and go, “Who in the world is that? I’m still 21 with the maturity of somebody who is much older, and I’m going to live forever—except it doesn’t look like that when I look at my face.” I not only look like my parents; I look like my grandparents. And that’s shocking. So, really loving and having compassion for sentient beings involves seeing other sentient beings in quite a different way.

Cultivating wisdom

Next is wisdom. Yes, the wisdom realizing emptiness, but we’re pretty wise already, aren’t we? They talk about the conventional wisdom and we think, “We’re pretty wise”—especially the younger generation. You know how to attain single-pointed concentration on a cellphone this small. You know how to fix it, and you’re totally glued to it. And if somebody asks you to give up your phone, you say, “Wait, you’re asking me to cut off my hand. I can’t give up my phone. I can’t give up my computer. And I’m wise. I know how to fix a computer. I know how to code the computer.”

Well, I know how to fix the computer: I call somebody else who knows. That’s what I do. See how wise I am? I know who to call to fix the computer because I have no idea what’s going on. [laughter] But we often think we know this or we know that. Emptiness is a little bit harder, but we actually understand emptiness, right? We’re the special disciples because of so much previous life familiarity.

Deep inside of us we know things. We know there’s no thermos in this thermos. We know that. We’re almost awakened, you know? In fact, maybe I’m a Rinpoche, and they just haven’t recognized me yet. What do you think? You think you’re a Rinpoche, and they just haven’t recognized you? Because you have all this inner wisdom—so much. [laughter] And if they only just recognized you, then you could wear brocade and sit on the higher seat. You could walk in front of everybody, and they would all stand with devotion around you. And then you can pretend to be humble. [laughter] That will really impress them with how great you are.

But seriously, it’s important to really try and apply wisdom—especially of impermanence and emptiness—to see the people and things around us, as far as we can at the beginning. It gradually grows as we grow in the Dharma. Especially when you are plagued with attachment to another person, ask yourself, “Who am I attached to?” Who? We have this idea that there’s some person inside that body that is just A-Number-1-Super. And we want a special relationship with that person. But who in the world are they? What do you want a special relationship with? And then ask yourself, “Who is it that wants this?” And when somebody trashes you and criticizes you, still ask, “Who are they criticizing?”

They are only criticizing ME if I set up a truly existent ME. If there’s just a body and mind and a very lightly designated I in dependence on them, then I don’t get hurt when people criticize. I don’t get conceited when people praise. But when I think there’s something in there that’s really me then: “Don’t you dare criticize it!” Wisdom helps in that regard.

Cultivating other good qualities

And then when it comes to “other good qualities,” there are lots of them. There are a couple that are so important for us, especially as monastics. One of them is integrity. Sometimes you’ll find it translated as “shame,” but “shame” is a horrible English translation. It’s one of the eleven virtuous mental factors, so “shame” is a horrible translation because in English, “shame” has two meanings. The usual meaning is: “I did something wrong, and I’m ashamed. Something is wrong with me. I was born defective, so I’m shameful.” That is not a virtuous mental factor. That is leftover garbage from growing up in a Judeo-Christian culture.

Integrity has a good feeling to it, doesn’t it? It’s like: “I’m clear on what my values are. I respect my values. I respect my precepts. And I’m going to do my best to live according to them because I respect myself. I’m not trying to do this to put on a show for other people about how virtuous I am. I’m doing it because I respect myself, and I have a sense of integrity, and I don’t want to mess up. I know that I will sometimes, but when I will then I need to do purification, and I do that purification. I don’t stuff it under the table and rationalize it. I purify when I mess up.”

But I’m not full of shame like I’m defective goods. It’s not like that. His Holiness says bodhisattvas have to have a very strong self-confidence, but you have self-confidence without having a sense of an inherently existent self. Chew on that for a little while. How does that work together?

And then the other one of the eleven virtuous ones so important for us as monastics is consideration for others. Some call it “embarrassment,” but I don’t like that translation. How can embarrassment be virtuous? It’s like shame—shame can’t be virtuous. So, I call it “consideration for others.” In other words, we know that our actions affect others. We’re aware of that. And we care about the effect our actions have on others. We may be in a bad mood, but we don’t want to dump that on somebody else because we know it might adversely affect them. If we’re having a problem with anger that day, we can go to a friend and say, “I’m angry. Will you help me with my anger.” That’s very different than going to a friend and saying, “I’m so angry because so-and-so said this and that, and they don’t blah blah blah, and nyah-nyah-nyah.”

We don’t do that. We have a sense of consideration for others, so we’re willing to be open and admit that we’re angry and that we need help to dissolve that anger. We’re not going to spend our time trashing somebody else and giving the person we’re dumping on lots of negative energy. We care about the effect we have on others. If we slam doors or stomp around or talk loudly, then we recognize that affects other people. Similarly, if we talk so softly that others can’t hear us, we also recognize that it affects people. They can’t hear us when they want to hear us. So, we don’t speak too loudly or too softly because it affects others.

Similarly, we abandon negativities because we know that our negativities affect others. As a monastic, you’re wearing a uniform, so people are going to notice you when you’re out in public. Some people say, “Oh, I don’t like being noticed when I’m in public. This is restricting my freedom because they think I’m a monastic, so I better live up to their expectations. But I’m an imperfect sentient being.” No, we’re not talking about that. Who wants to do that?

Lama Yeshe said, “Be a good visualization for other people.” It doesn’t mean making yourself so tense because you’re trying to be perfect, and it doesn’t mean hiding all your faults even though inside you’re out of control. It means accepting yourself and going forward with an awareness that your actions affect others, and you really care about those others. You don’t want them to be adversely affected. And it’s having an awareness that sometimes you’ll mess up, and you’ll have to purify. But you will learn from that mess up also so that you come out with some wisdom you didn’t have before.

Some people feel very skittish when they go to town and think, “I better dress in lay clothes because I don’t want people to notice me.” Actually, I’ve never felt that. I go everywhere in my robes. The only time I didn’t wear my robes was when I was going through immigration in Beijing many years ago. I think probably it was smart that I didn’t wear my robes then. Wearing robes actually gives other people a way to start a conversation with you, and they do. We were in the store the other day, and one lady came up to us and asked, “Are you nuns.” We said we were, and her face lit up. She was so happy to meet nuns. We represent in that way the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We’re trying to be good examples. As Lama said, “Give a good visualization.” But we’re not expecting ourselves to be perfect or to be what we think other people think we should be. Do you get what I mean?

Lots of times in our lives we aren’t just who we are. We think, “Okay, in this situation, what do those people expect me to be?” So then, I project what I think they are projecting on me, and I try and be that. This is the prescription for going nutty: when you try and be what you think they think you should be. It’s not going to work. But everybody has their own good qualities. Everybody has their own talents. So, you’re there with your qualities and talents, and you share them. And that’s good enough, dear, as lama would say.

We did one whole verse. We are speeding along here. [laughter]

The kindness of others

Being mindful of the kindness I have received from all sentient beings, I will relate to them with patience, kindness and compassion.

This, too, is totally changing the way we view other sentient beings. We are mindful of their kindness. When we go into situations, our assumption is that sentient beings are kind. We don’t assume they are mean and they are out to get us. When His Holiness says, “I see everybody as a friend,” this is what he’s talking about. He meets all sorts of people, and some like him and some criticize him—look at what comes out of Beijing and also parts of the Tibetan community. But His Holiness sees these people as kind, as friends.

When we relate to people as if they are kind and friends, they relate back to us that way. A few of us here at the Abbey are active in prison work. We send books and correspond, but we also go into prisons and lead meditations, give Dharma talks and so on. When I first started doing this, people would say, “Aren’t you afraid going into a prison? I mean, these people you’re going in there with…” But I would just say, “No.”

Before I go into a prison, I usually do a short Chenrezig self-generation for about two minutes. When you go into the prison like that, you react to all these people—who are locked up, who aren’t treated nicely or respectfully in their usual environment—the same way you treat everybody else because that’s just your way of being with sentient beings. All of a sudden, these people who are rapists and murders, they talk and they’re friendly. You realize that most of them are very nice people. There are some who have very severe mental problems that are not getting treated properly when they’re incarcerated, but if you show respect, they show respect.

It’s really kind of amazing to watch how that happens. If you read their rap sheet—what they got arrested for, what they’re in for—you might worry, but you meet them and talk to them, and they are as nice as can be. They become your friends. I remember the first time I slept in a house with somebody who had been incarcerated for rape. I was teaching at a Dharma Center, and this person’s parents lived in that same city, and he was living with them when they invited me to stay with them. I remember when I was going to bed thinking, “You know, there’s somebody who was in prison for rape who is sleeping in a room maybe fifteen feet away from me. But I know him, and I know I’m safe.” And I woke up the next morning, and I stayed a few days there, and it was fine. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sleep in a room near everybody who has been in for rape. You get to know people, and you use your wisdom.

I will relate to sentient beings with patience, recognizing they are doing the best they can—”even though I wish they could do better, and I know how they could do better, and I want to tell them how they could do better!” [laughter] Don’t you want to tell everybody how they could do better? Don’t you want to tell them how they could become exactly what we want them to become? Isn’t that our role as monastics: we’re going to make everybody into virtuous sentient beings—at least when they’re around us, so they treat us properly. When they’re near our enemies, they can do whatever they want; they can trash them and hurt them. But when they’re near us, they should be what we want them to be, and we’re going to tell them everything they could do to improve. [laughter]

You’re laughing. You don’t do that, do you? Nobody does that to you, do they? I do need to tell you that you need to do X, Y, Z a little bit better, got it? [laughter]

People are doing what they’re capable of doing in that moment, and they will do something different in the next moment. We like everything to be very stable and predictable, especially in a monastery. Everybody has their job—not just one job, several jobs. So, you are responsible: “I’m the responsible one. I always show up for everything.” But other people are not so responsible. “But they should be; we’re all living together in a community. Why aren’t they responsible? Why aren’t they doing what they should be doing?”

It’s for the same reason that we aren’t always doing what we should be doing. So, what in the world am I criticizing them for? Sometimes we do need to gently remind people of what they should be doing. If it’s your day to cook and you’re supposed to have three helpers but nobody has come and you have to have food ready for the community, you might need to remind people they need to come. But foremost, we need to look at ourselves and make sure we’re the reliable ones and we show up. And if we know that we can’t, we tell somebody so they can make other plans or find a substitute for us.

So, we relate to them with patience and we see them as kind. When we sit down for lunch every day, do we really think of the kindness of the people who cooked our lunch? Do we think of the kindness of the people who worked in the fields and who transported the food we ate, who packed it and worked at a minimum wage job at a grocery store to make it available? Do we think of those people and remember their kindness? Do we think that we have food because of them? Do we think of the benefactors—all the people who make offerings to the monastery and on whose kindness we depend to eat? Do we remember them and remember to dedicate for them?

You can see how this is all involved in reconfiguring how we look at others. We see how we’re dependent on them. And if we have a monastic mind, we challenge ourselves to stop our prejudice. We have all sorts of prejudices. I grew up in Los Angeles with the Hell’s Angels, so it was all these guys with leather jackets, beards, shaved heads, and who loved to turn their motorcycles up as loud as they could to show how powerful they are. So, one of my prejudices involves bikers. A couple of years ago, a biker got killed outside a bar in a nearby town. The family wasn’t Buddhist, but the mother wanted us to do Buddhist prayers for her son.

So, we did prayers and so on for him because he was murdered, and then his friends who were also bikers heard about this, and they thanked us for doing prayers for him. One Sunday afternoon, we heard loud engine sounds coming up the road, and who showed up? It was a biker on a big bike, one of these super status symbols when you’re a biker. He came roaring up, and it turned out he was actually riding the motorcycle of the guy who was killed. It was painted all different colors and everything. Somebody called us to go out and say hello, and I thought, “Oh god, there’s a biker out there.” This guy was killed outside a bar, so it’s like: “Who are his friends?” I went outside, and this guy takes out an envelope. He and his biker friends had taken up a collection to say thank you for the prayers we did for his friend. I almost melted in place; I was so touched by what they did. It was like: “Yippee, that’s one more stereotype out the window. I can’t put bikers in stereotypes anymore. That’s not really fair.”

Keeping a monastic mind means noticing how we make generalizations about all these kinds of people: all the people in this group are like this; all the people in that group are like that. There may be general characteristics, but we should remember that people are not those traits, and second of all, they are still kind sentient beings, and our life depends on them. We shouldn’t get into classism or racism or discrimination based on religion. When it comes to religion, if people are very involved in wrong ways of thinking or wrong ways of acting, we have to realize that the actions and the thoughts are not the person. We have to learn not to judge the person. They all have buddha nature, so we can see them all as kind.

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.