Purelands Meditation Retreat Day 7 - October 2013
This morning I want to talk about how we can bring the teachings into daily life, especially when you are encountering difficulties. There are two slogans in the Seven Points of Mind Training that are particularly useful. Actually the teachings of the Seven Points of Mind Training are made up of meditation instructions and also little pithy sayings that remind you of some of the teachings. They call them slogans. Two of these slogans are about how to handle difficulties in daily life, how to deal with our self-centredness in daily situations.
How we interpret a situation, whether we see it as an obstacle or whether it becomes an oiling of the wheel, an aid to our progress is all up to us. So many things happen in our life, so many unexpected issues arise, and we can either learn from the situation and grow stronger, or we can succumb to the difficulties and start blaming everything around us. We can blame the conditions or we can blame others. But if we blame others we don’t benefit ourselves. If we can learn to become more skilful and respond differently to events around us, this will help us. When you look at a situation you can see that everybody responds differently. Something happens and one person will be devastated, another person will respond with calm and ease, another person will respond with kindness, for somebody else it will feel as if their world is falling apart. And really that is all in the mind. It all depends on how we relate to that particular message that came to us at that time, that event that happened. How we react, whether through anger, jealousy, kindness or joy is up to us. It is in our mind. When we react negatively we tend to fixate on things, which makes them even worse. Again this is in our mind. But these teachings also show that we need challenges to grow. Without challenges we don’t really develop our strength and our skill. So we should recognise that if we apply ourselves properly we can learn from difficulties and we can develop skills and strength. We can grow. We tend to be very lazy and to find faults quickly but the fact is if we never have any hardships we become very spoiled, we stay very soft. If we are never exposed to any difficulties or hardships we don’t become skilful.
These teachings, these slogans are about taking responsibility for our own lives and not seeing ourselves as a victim. If we regard ourselves as a victim our suffering is even worse, increasing the negative states of mind we make the suffering grow. So do not develop a victim’s attitude by blaming others. Instead we need to try to take responsibility for our own lives and empower ourselves. That is really what the spiritual path is about. We take responsibility for our own lives. We take our own life in our own hands. So don’t float on the wind.
With regard to these 2 slogans, the first one relates to ourselves and the second slogan relates to others. The first slogan is about helping us to diminish our selfishness, our obsession with our self and our own situation. The second slogan is about increasing our value for others. The first slogan is: Drive all blame into one. The second slogan is: Be grateful to everyone. Be grateful to everyone and everything. This slogan is related to the core verse about the mind training that says that you should give all victory to others and take all suffering onto yourself. It is similar to that.
Drive all blame into one. Shantideva, who was a great scholar at Nalanda university in India said: Oh my mind! What countless lives have you spent working just for yourself, and how tiring it was while your reward was only misery. He’s kind of telling himself off, saying that we all go on and on, being so involved with ourselves and there is very little reward. This slogan is about the way we tend to blame others whenever something negative or difficult arises in our lives. If we become sick, if we have mental difficulties, or if we don’t get on with other people, or if others are blaming us, we tend to think that we are suffering because of all these other people. Because of all these other people I am unhappy, I am unable to carry on with my life. This is our automatic reaction, but the mind training teaches us that we should do exactly the opposite. We should think that this is an opportunity: Drive all blame into one. What is meant by the one is our ego clinging and self cherishing, holding on to how important we are, our self importance. We should drive all blame into this one thing, our own self cherishing.
We think we are the centre of the universe, we feel that we are so important, we feel that everything revolves around us. But what the mind training teachings tell us is that we should see that this self cherishing is actually our problem. This is what causes all our problems, this fact that we see ourselves as being so important. And so we should ask ourselves, who is this I that is so important? Where is this I? Where can we find this I that is so important? Shantideva says O my mind, how many countless lives have you spent working for yourself? It’s like he is talking to somebody else, he is talking to this I, this I that we can’t find anywhere. If we look for it in our meditation we can’t find the sense of I anywhere. If we look in our body we can’t find this I anywhere. If we look in our name we can’t find it anywhere. Where is this I in my body? Is it in my hands, under my skin, in my heart, in my brain, where can we find this I? We can’t find it anywhere, it has no colour, no shape, but still it is there giving so much problem. All of our negativities are based on this sense of self.
This thinking that I am so important, that I am so special is the main cause of our unhappiness, is what gives us all of our suffering. It is not external things but this clinging so strongly to a sense of self. When we really analyse and look for a self all we can find is thoughts: thoughts of I, thoughts of I am, we feel I am so strongly. But if we look there is nothing there. There is a whole analytical system where we look for the self, and see how we identify with things and how we solidify things, mainly through thought. We call things names, for example, my self, my body. But when we start to take things apart gradually they disintegrate down to the finest atom, and we see that there was nothing really there called a hand or a body. It is all made up of many parts. When we look for the self we can’t find it anywhere. If we fixate less on the self, if we have a less selfish attitude, we suffer less. Ego clinging is a bit like investing in the stock market. You may have great expectations for a huge return but it’s a bad investment, it gives no real return. You have invested in the wrong area, nothing comes back. So this slogan doesn’t mean that we have to blame ourselves, beat ourselves up, thinking we are no good. It is about the ego, and that we have to recognise that we are more than just the ego. Behind the ego is so much more. By stopping being selfish we are not annihilating ourselves. When we stop being selfish we don’t disintegrate, it’s not the end of the world, it’s the end of us feeling miserable.
The key message of this slogan is that whenever difficulties arise we try to look at them in relation to ego clinging, in relation to this strong sense of self and how out of proportion that is. Even a small thing can make us suffer greatly, because of this strong sense of self. When there is strong suffering if you look directly to the core of it you can see that there is very much a sense of me, it’s all about me, myself. So it is a great selfishness. Even when big events happen that in terms of proportion should be much more important than our own feelings, we are still so involved with ourselves and our own interpretations. The slogan is telling us to blame our ego clinging, instead of blaming others. It is not about blaming yourself, saying I am so bad, because underlying our confusion is this Buddha nature, this potential, clarity, presence, compassion and wisdom. When you give up ego clinging that is what emerges.
The second slogan says be grateful to everyone and everything. Of course we find it easy to be grateful when others are nice to us, but when things are difficult it is harder. So we need to cultivate patience and tolerance. It says be grateful to everyone and everything, it means good and bad. It means we should be grateful for whatever arises in our life because all of it is opportunity for growth, manure for growth. Good things, bad things, if we use them skilfully we can learn and grow stronger. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we have learned, everything we have gained, comes from others. Whatever we have learned either spiritually or in terms of ordinary worldly skills comes from others. We are all interdependent so education, food, clothing, upbringing, there is nothing that doesn’t arise dependent on others, due to others. Instead of seeing all the negatives we should see that all our pleasure, our joy comes due to others and we should be grateful. Instead of blaming, we should remind ourselves that we are reaping the result of the kindness and effort of others.
We recognise that when we are tested then we mature spiritually, so we should appreciate those who give us problems. Of course that is difficult but when we look back on our life we can see that sometimes there were real difficulties and although we think we would rather have been without them, we may realise years later that we have grown much stronger due to those difficulties. We have learned so much. So again Shantideva says: Like a treasure found at home, enriching me without fatigue all enemies are helpers in my bodhisattva work and therefore they should be a joy to me. This says that our enemies are our greatest friends because they really give us strength, they really make us grow. Shantideva says enriching me without fatigue, because we don’t even have to go looking for them, they are always there. All of these people and difficult situations help us to become more resilient, to become more intelligent and stronger. You could say that how well you are able to deal with difficulties is like a measure for how strong you have become. How easily we are overcome, how easily we succumb to difficulties and to blaming others is, in a way, a yardstick for our growth.
So when you do the actual practice of tonglen you should use objects that don’t make you too emotional, or too overwhelmed. If when we do tonglen we become helpless and sad, if we feel it is too much and we feel overcome because there is so much suffering, then that can be a bit unhelpful. We need to have a balance with the actual tonglen practice. In order to find that balance we need to remember what we call ultimate bodhicitta, the state of non-duality. Ultimate bodhicitta is the fruition of relative bodhicitta, and relative bodhicitta is the gateway to ultimate bodhicitta. We should try to develop some understanding of both of these when we practice otherwise it can be a little bit unbalanced. You use relative bodhicitta to focus on the ultimate goal but the ultimate needs to balance us along the path. This means that we should try to develop compassion and kindness with equanimity, with a certain detachment. Detachment doesn’t mean indifference or coldness. It is more a way of seeing that the way we experience things on a relative dualistic level is like in a dream. We experience things and emotions fear and suffering arise but actually none of it is real, it is like in a dream. Ultimate bodhicitta, ultimate reality is like when we wake up, and we recognise that it was a dream all along.
You could also say that we are trying to remember the impermanence of everything because an extension of impermanence is the understanding of emptiness: emptiness of self and emptiness of other. The more you think of impermanence, the more you see the lack of solid reality in all things because things are constantly changing. The more you contemplate impermanence the closer you get to this understanding of the ultimate bodhicitta or non self, non-duality. In your practice of tonglen, try to combine compassion and kindness with this detachment or equanimity, seeing all things as equal. The teachings of emptiness and impermanence also relate to how everything is interdependent. If we say something is real, it has to exist independently on its own, standing by itself. So when we say things have no true existence it means no independent existence. Everything depends on something else for its existence. Everything is dependently originated. This is something to consider. To see how everything in our life depends on something else. In a sense this impermanence or emptiness aspect permeates everything in our life, our emotions, our confusions, our thoughts, everything around us. Everything is constantly changing, there is nothing solid there that we can hold onto and say this is it, this is real, this is permanent, this is really existing. Everything is constantly changing. So if we start to see that more and more we become less fixated on things as being real. We don’t solidify our own suffering so much. We don’t solidify whatever we experience in general.
There are different supports for your practice and it is said that if we apply these then gradually our practice will increase, and we will develop more of the qualities that we are aiming for in our practice.
One support of course is mindfulness. We should try as much as we can to apply mindfulness: being aware and both mentally physically of what is happening, not being so caught up in our own thoughts but being fully present in the moment. Just be present here and now. The more we can do that, the easier our practice will become. If we have less mindfulness we are more overwhelmed by things, by our internal reactions to what happens around us. We are overwhelmed by our attachment, our aversion, our ignorance, but with mindfulness they won’t be so strong. It is very important that you should try to incorporate and remember mindfulness in all your daily activities. Every two hours try to remind yourself to come back to the present moment, to be mindful. Have some little system to remind yourself again and again throughout the day to come back, and if you do that you can deal very well with whatever arises. If you are present in the moment then you have all your faculties and you are in the best position to deal with whatever positive or negative things happen. But without mindfulness we are like somebody blindfolded and we walk into walls, and have all kinds of accidents. Mindfulness is extremely important.
We are also recommended to discriminate between what we really need and what we think we need. This is something we put a lot of effort into in our daily life. We put a lot of anxiety, desire, jealousy, greed into trying to get things that we don’t actually need. We think we only have 24 hours each day so we have to prioritise our time. We tend not to think very carefully, not to discriminate but if we are mindful we can think about getting our priorities right both in terms of material things and how we spend our time.
Another point is to try and have right livelihood. We should try not to earn a living through others’ suffering, which is kind of obvious but still it is a delicate balance for many people in their jobs. But I guess it means at least you should not be exploiting people, you should not be exploiting the environment, because this goes against all the teachings and everything we are trying to develop. We are trying to develop loving kindness and compassion and of course if we act contrary it doesn’t work. So we should try as much as possible for our actions to be beneficial, or at least not to be harmful in terms of right livelihood, how we live our lives. That means both how you earn your money and how you live in general. All these things will support your practice.
In terms of discipline we should make a commitment, a strong motivation. The mind is the boss so if we make a very strong commitment, motivation and determination then we can achieve what we set out to achieve. But without that commitment, that discipline and determination it will be very difficult for us to actually achieve very much. These are supports for your practice in general and for developing bodhicitta.
Another set of attitudes are called the Eight Worldly Dharmas. It is said that wars have started due to these Eight Worldly Dharmas, people are killed due to these Eight Worldly Dharmas. We should be aware of these eight attitudes or patterns. They are to do with gain and loss: if we are very attached to gain or if we have great suffering when we lose things; if we have aversion to loss or pain and great attachment to pleasure; attachment to fame and aversion to infamy or bad reputation; attachment to praise and aversion to blame. These are all attitudes. If we get insulted, we get very upset; if we get praise, we get very happy. But we need to see that all these things just come and go and try not to react so strongly towards them. In a sense these attitudes seem natural, it is natural not to want pain, but the fact is that they tend to give a lot of suffering on both a small scale and on a very large scale and it comes back to these simple attitudes.
How is it possible to want to change in a situation, like changing a job. Is it due to my ego?
LZ: There is a limit to what we can do before a situation becomes so unworkable that there is no benefit anymore. You can’t put yourself in a situation where you are completely overwhelmed and where all the reactions become negative. I think that the situation is positive if you are still able to handle it and not constantly react to it. Once that stops happening then maybe it is better to move on. We have a certain level we can go to, our strength goes to a certain level and beyond that maybe we should not stretch ourselves further than we are capable of. Gradually we become stronger.
I don’t understand the difference between relative and ultimate bodhicitta.
LZ: Relative and ultimate are like two sides of a coin. You could say the difference is that relative is the realm of duality, self and others, where we have the belief in an I. And ultimate is where we have seen through that illusion of an I. It is like waking up from a dream. Sometimes the example is used of the rope: you come into a room that is dark, with shadows in the corner and you see something lying in the corner and you see a snake. You get really frightened because there is a snake there, but when you put on the light it was just a rope. So that’s an example of relative and ultimate: on the relative we react to something that is not really there. We react through this dualistic approach. Similarly a woman who dreams of giving birth is elated because she has given birth to a child, so she is totally joyful at this and then in the dream the child dies and she is completely unhappy and suffering. But it is still a dream, like the relative world. And we can wake up: when through practice and understanding we have seen through the illusion of an I, it is like waking up from a dream into non-duality. It all comes back to ego-clinging, holding to a self. But when through meditation we’ve seen this as being something we have made up, like a dream, then it’s like we wake up from that dream. The Buddha is called the Awakened One because he has arisen out of that dream, he has awoken from that dream and that means that the suffering in that dream does not happen. That is the difference.
But ultimate reality is something that has to be experienced. It is beyond words, an experience beyond concepts, beyond an I. You have to wake up from the dream, you have to be awake. You cannot experience the awakened state while you are still dreaming. The relative world is where we have an I and everything is based on this belief in an I. Out of that arises attachment and aversion, the dream-like experience, suffering the ups and downs, but not true happiness. That is what we experience on a relative, dualistic level, and the ultimate level is when, through meditation you have come to that understanding of no-self and you have woken up from that dream. This is not a state of nothingness. It is a state of clarity, wisdom and compassion like a mother who is watching her son sleeping and having a nightmare. She will feel great compassion, will feel a wish to help her child. But unfortunately it is not as easy as just going over and shaking.
Ultimate bodhicitta has the qualities of wisdom and great compassion, the compassion of understanding what all beings are going through on a relative level. Like a mother who sees her children sleeping and knows by the thrashing around in bed that they are having a bad time, so in the same way from the ultimate state there is that awareness and understanding of the ups and downs and sufferings of the relative. So it is a state full of great compassion and wisdom.
During meditation are you able to glimpse that, or is that not possible?
LZ: You can have a glimpse, you can have an experience of that. That happens. One can have an experience where all of this busyness drops and we see that what is happening is that we are spinning. We are so busy protecting and conceptualising. We see that clearly on a coarse level, but there is also a very fine level. It is a bit as if we had many layers of gauze over our eyes or many different pairs of glasses, glasses of different colours, and gradually they are taken off. You can have an experience where all of that falls away, and you see how you have been tying strings to everything. Mentally you have been solidifying, tying strings to attachment, aversion, all these ideas we have about everything and everybody around us. All of these layers give a sense of solidity. When that falls away then there is total presence, vastness, complete being in the moment. All of those concepts are busyness of mind and these fine layers block us from being in the moment. We might think we are in the moment. Sometimes it feels like we are, but even then we are not. So until all of the finest layers have gone, we are not there. So sometimes we can get a glimpse, but our habits are very strong and also we wouldn’t know what to do from there because we have to complete all of the training for it to be useful. Without all of the purification and accumulation it is not useful to stay in that state, it can become a hindrance. You can’t function. But it is a useful glimpse, it is like seeing a picture of Spain when you plan to go there, so you know what Spain looks like. Having that experience can be very useful, because if you have had a direct experience of no-self all doubts fall away. You have a sense of where you are going but you still have to go through purifying and clearing up all these habits and tendencies which is what all these veils are. And they don’t fall away just like that, but you can have a glimpse.
Sometimes you can also have a glimpse like that through shock, in an unexpected way. There is a story of a monk in Tibet who wanted to travel. He was getting distracted and thought that he didn’t have all the teachings where he was. He wanted to go to more famous monasteries, more famous teachers and his own teacher told him wait, wait, don’t go yet. He didn’t want to tell him not to go because he knew he really wanted to go, so he told him wait, you must first have this empowerment. And so the monk agreed and he stayed for the empowerment and during the whole empowerment he had such a bad stomach, he had lots and lots of air in his stomach, he was all bloated. And at one point in the empowerment when the lama goes around and gives water from the bumpa and gives you blessing, it says that at the point when the lama got to this monk the lama punched the monk in the stomach and the monk let out this huge fart. This is not considered very polite in most societies and certainly not in a shrine room and so in that moment he was so shocked and horrified and everything dropped and the lama said, that’s it, that’s it. It was his way of teaching him directly, saying you have everything here, you don’t need to go anywhere. That is like shock treatment, sometimes it can happen through shock, though very unexpected things or when you really feel very exposed somehow, and suddenly all your defences just drop in that moment.
Is this a common experience? Is it something we can expect? Or is it just monks and nuns?
LZ: It has nothing to do with monks and nuns, it has to do with your practice. Sometimes they say it has to do with your nadis, it’s like some people experience things easier than others. Some people have all kind of experiences, they may see things, some people see auras, some people see deities. When I was in Russia a long time ago for 3 months, there was a centre in Moscow and I was amazed because everybody came to see me about all these experiences that they had. It almost felt like a cultural thing, that they were so used to thinking like that, maybe from the old days from before communism, because religion is really reviving there. All the churches which had been forbidden are very busy and people are very spiritual. And they all see things and it was incredible! In the texts it talks about how the body is made up, that from the time of birth we have 72,000 subtle channels in the body and they are like nerve channels but subtle, you wouldn’t be able to see them. And it talks about all the different elements in the body, how winds travel through these channels and different points in the body that are more sensitive. For some people because of their nadis they are more susceptible to these experiences, and they find it easier. But it’s not really that experiences are good or bad. They can be helpful to have an idea about where you are going but experiences in themselves can be a distraction and a hindrance if it all becomes about the experience rather than working with what one needs to work with.