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Establishing a Steady Foundation for Practice

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A Transcript of the second day of teaching during a Meditation Retreat led by Lama Zangmo at Purelands Retreat Centre in October 2013 shortly after Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche's sudden and tragic death.

From what you have said, it seems that many of you find it difficult to maintain a steady and continuous practice. What you lack is a foundation. If we want our practice to remain after leaving the retreat or a supportive environment then we need to have a strong foundation.

I have already mentioned the Four Thoughts or Four Contemplations. They are part of every teaching that you receive, but they are also part of Sumpa Lotsawa’s The Ear Whispered Mind Training. Sumpa Lotsawa was a Tibetan who lived in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries who translated many very important texts. He was also a teacher of the Sakya Pandita. So he was a great teacher, and a great translator. He was what is knows as a Siddha, someone who has siddhis, meaning someone who has great realisation in his practice.

The Ear Whispered Mind Training is summarised in a short story about one of the times that Sumpa Lotsawa went to India to study at one of the great monasteries there. It seems that he had some obstacle in his practice. He felt like he was not really progressing so he decided to go to Bodh Gaya the holy place where the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. He decided to go there and make offerings, to circumnambulate and to perform lots of virtuous activity.

One day, when he was circumnambulating the stupa he saw two women who were also cirumnambulating. And it seemed that sometimes one was hovering above the ground, and they were talking to each other. One of them said to the other: ”Last night I was feeling terribly restless. I wonder what it means. I hope it doesn’t mean I’m going to die because I’m really frightened of dying.” She was hovering above the ground. And then the other lady answered her with four answers. But all the time she was speaking she was glancing at Lotsawa as if she was speaking to him.

She said to her friend :”If you have a sense of abandonment, O Lady, everything you do will bring happiness. Your mind suffers because it lacks this quality of abandonment.” That was the first thing she said.

And then she said:” If your mind rests where it is placed O Lady, you will be ok even if you travel elsewhere. Your mind suffers because it cannot rest where it is placed.” And again she glanced at Sumpa Lotsawa and she said:” If your mind is turned to the Dharma O Lady, you can die with ease. Your mind suffers because it is not usually turned to the Dharma, to the spiritual path.” And the last thing she said was: "If you have recognised your mind as unborn O Lady, there will be no death. Your mind suffers because you have not recognised your mind to be unborn.”

Hearing these four instructions, Sumpa Lotsawa contemplated and meditated on them and he gained great realisation. These four statements are about how to sustain a stable mind, a joyful mind, and how to transform difficulties that arise on the path. There are always going to be ups and downs, difficulties and obstacles to practice. If we don’t manage to surmount those obstacles then we will find that we cannot maintain our practice.

We have to transform difficulties and prevent them from undermining our practice. If we allow the negativities such as laziness, fear, confusion, grasping, or anger to take over, they will undermine our practice more and more. They can become destructive. So these instructions are about how to maintain a stable mind.

It is said that these two women were an aspect of Tara. One was blueish in colour and one was reddish. As you may know Tara can manifest in many different forms and many different colours – there are 21 aspects of Tara. This was like an emanation of Tara speaking to Sumpa Lotsawa. In her first answer she said that if you have a sense of abandonment then everything you do brings happiness. The mind suffers because it lacks this quality of abandonment.

Now abandonment is not a usual term, but to me it means something like renunciation. If you have acceptance, if you can accept whatever happens then whatever you do will bring you happiness. If we have contentment then we will be happy with our circumstances and won’t envy others.

The idea of renunciation is based on the Four Thoughts. The first of these thoughts or contemplations is to recognise how fortunate we are, to recognise that we have so much going for us, that we have what is called a Precious Human Birth. We have all of the opportunities, freedoms and assets. We have freedom to practice, freedom of choice, material freedom and intellectual freedom.

We are not in a country where there is no religious freedom. In Tibet for example, people cannot practice freely and it is dangerous to have pictures of the Dalai Lama. We have so many opportunities. We have reasonably good health, the ability to understand the teachings, to contemplate and gain understanding, to know what is good and what is bad and then to apply this understanding to our actions.

This means that we have the freedom to create our own karma, to create our own future. We have the freedom to take responsibility for our own life.

This thought tells us that we have potential, but we tend to misuse or waste our opportunities. They pass us by because we don’t realise how precious they are. That’s the first thing to understand, that we have potential and that we really need to make use of it to do something positive with our life. It’s about using our life for the benefit of ourselves and others, using our life in a meaningful way.

The second of the Four Thoughts is to contemplate impermanence. Because not only do we not appreciate that we have so many good things in our life and so much potential, but we also disregard impermanence. We live our life as if we are going to be here forever. We live every day as if we have plenty of time, but if we really contemplated impermanence properly we would recognise that all things are impermanent.

We tend to think that although some things are impermanent, perhaps there are some things that are permanent, like my situation, my life, my country. It’s not possible that all these things could happen to me!

So it is very important to contemplate impermanence because otherwise, when impermanence does strike, then we suffer. We suffer greatly. You see in your own family and friends, that when things fall apart, when somebody dies or gets very ill then there is intense suffering.

Whereas if we have spent time familiarising ourselves with the whole fact of impermanence then we will be more prepared and better able to deal with the situation. It would not be such a shock when we have to be separated from our loved ones, from our children, our partner, our parents, our teachers because we would understand that everything ends, and that one has to die, We would really have accepted that fact. Deep down we would know that this is how things are. So when you contemplate impermanence, as well as contemplating impermanence in external things, you should consider impermanence in the sense of time.

You could for example consider how you spend your time. I would recommend that you make a habit at the end of each day of looking back on the day and asking yourself: how did I do today? You might have gone to bed, you don’t have to sit formally in meditation, and you look back on your day and think: how was my mind today? How were my actions today? How was my speech? How did I manage? Did I really incorporate everything I understand about the right way of living, about impermanence, about my opportunities, and all the spiritual teachings I’ve had? Did I manage to remember them and act accordingly or did I slip up a few times? And if you did slip up, then you make a resolution to improve. You make a resolution that you don’t want to waste your life.

It’s so easy to forget all these things. We get caught up in all the trivial things. How much of our time do we spend just chasing after material things, or making money? So much of our time is spent making money and working to accumulate possessions that we can’t take with us when we die. We often don’t have time to enjoy them when we are alive.

It’s about finding a balance in our life. We don’t want to be without a roof over our heads. We need certain material things for a reasonably comfortable life for ourselves and our family but some times people get so caught up in the activities that we call ‘the rat race’ that it’s very hard to step away. If you do manage to step away you may look back and wonder why you were doing those things. What was the benefit of so much effort and time being spent on making money and having no time for anything else? Sometimes people even have no time for their family or close ones.

Once we really integrate the understanding of impermanence into our lives we can see how futile it is to get upset about so-called enemies or to get totally attached to our friends because eventually we are going to separate from them. We waste our strength being angry about something that happened 10 or 20 years ago, or just yesterday. We spend so much time in attachment to friends. We may think that we are helping, and sometimes we are helping our friends and our family, but sometimes we expend a great deal of effort for very little benefit. We should try to prioritise and make sure that we spend our time and our efforts on things that are worthwhile.

That’s the core of it: we should devote our energy to things that have a long term benefit for our own peace of mind and mental stability and for that of everyone around us. I think the best present you can give your family is your own peace of mind. If you are happy your family will be happy. If you are content your family will be content. That’s a generalisation but people who really love you want you to be happy. People who really love you will suffer if you are not happy and if your mind is not at peace. If you are chasing after things for their sakes but this is making you unhappy, then this will only create suffering.

Generally our problems are caused by our attachment and our aversion to all these things that are impermanent. So when we really understand impermanence, when it really sinks in and comes home to us that there is not a single thing that is not impermanent, not a single thing that we are not going to be separated from, not a single thing that doesn’t change, then our attachment and aversion automatically decrease. We don’t tend to take things quite so seriously.

You can look in Samye Ling and what happened with Rinpoche. You could hardly think of anything worse, a worse way to die, or a worse thing to happen to Samye Ling but actually people are doing really well. You see how Lama Yeshe is coping, he is working harder than ever. You see how all his family are coping: his nephews are focusing on doing prayers, on doing what is right at the moment. They are not falling apart because they understand impermanence.

Even though everybody is shocked and sad at the loss it’s not like what often happens when family members die, that everybody else falls apart in total grief. Because when there is an understanding of impermanence, it’s almost as if you learn to see that everything is like a dream. In a dream we experience things, but if you know it’s a dream you take it less seriously. You suffer less. If you have less attachment and less aversion, less desire and less anger you suffer less.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t have feelings. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care, because attachment is not the same as love. You cannot equate those two. Attachment is a very different feeling from real love or loving kindness or whatever you call it. Attachment is based on me, grasping for me and what I want from the other person. Aversion is what I don’t want, what I am pushing away. Attachment is based on my own concerns and needs so it is actually very selfish.

I think that often what we call love is selfish love. It is about what this other person can give me or what I can gain from this situation. That is attachment based on grasping for oneself, whereas if you really care about somebody deeply then you want them to be happy.

Nobody is expected to be Buddha, but at the same time a relationship may be a very strong example of attachment. If you really care for somebody you want that person to be happy. You would be joyful and rejoice if they found something wonderful that makes them really happy. You would not be jealous, or feel left out, or unhappy or angry. That’s not really love is it?

If you really love somebody you would feel very happy whenever they are happy. Maybe there are some limits. In a relationship you understand that certain actions cause suffering. So an example of a positive action would be to be faithful to your partner so that you don’t cause unnecessary suffering. But I’m saying in general that if there is real care and love for somebody you will be happy when the other person is happy. Less attachment and less aversion will create more peace of mind.

When we contemplate impermanence we have to recognise that we are all going to die, and that everybody we know is going to die. There is nobody who is not going to pass away at some point. So it doesn’t make sense to live our life as if we are going to be here for ever. It doesn’t make sense not to think about death and impermanence. We should think about death and impermanence. We should plan accordingly. We should recognise that impermanence is part of life. We will be separated from everybody.

The way you prepare is through practice and contemplation. If you think about impermanence again and again it becomes quite natural and familiar. You begin to realise that all of the potential and opportunities that you have now could be lost at any moment: just like that. That’s the fact of life. We see it happening all around us. We see and hear about people dying unexpectedly all the time and we don’t know if it’s going to happen to us.

When we have understood impermanence and the preciousness of our situation it’s like a boot up the bum reminding us not to just sit around and do nothing. Don’t waste your time, don’t spend every evening watching TV, don’t live as if you have forever and ever. Live your life in a way that makes you feel good about yourself so that if you were suddenly told by your doctor that now you have a very short time to live, you would be able to look back and feel good about your life. Or you would at least be able to look back and not feel terribly upset or regretful that you had made huge mistakes and not had any time to make amends, to make up with your enemies or to apologise to those you’ve hurt.

If you practice in this way then you will have a sense that you did your best, so you can feel quite happy, You will think: I’ve done my best. Every day I’ve tried to remember, to make an effort. That is why thinking about impermanence and the rest of these four thoughts is so important, because when it has really sunk in, we get our priorities right and we use our life and our time very well.

We look at our life and think about what is really important. What do I really want to have, how do I want to feel when I die, what do I want to look back on when I die? We want to feel that we have no regrets and if possible no fear because we have practiced enough. We have had enough time to tame our mind and to settle our mind to develop this one pointedness so that we have no fear.

The second point in the Ear Whispered Mind Training is that you suffer because you cannot settle your mind. If we meditate we will develop stability and we will be able to deal with death when it comes. Fear of death is a big thing for people, but we will be able to deal with whatever arises and we won’t have so much fear. We will feel that we have got our priorities right and that we have tamed our mind to some extent. If we have developed some stability we will have less suffering which will help us to overcome this fear of death. This is very important. It is said that at the time of death our thoughts and state of mind will have a huge impact after death.

The second thought is impermanence, and the third is cause and effect. Cause and effect means that we recognise positive and negative actions. We know that life is short and we understand that positive actions create happiness. Positive actions create goodness and wellbeing for ourselves and others and if we act negatively then it causes suffering.

When we understand impermanence and potential then we won’t act contrary to the laws of Karma. We will try to act according to cause and effect not just letting out our anger when we feel like it, not living according to attachment and aversion.

The fourth thought is to look deeply and wisely at our own life. Instead of looking for pleasure we should try and look for happiness. We tend to think that pleasure is happiness. We think that fulfilling our desires is equal to happiness. We haven’t really understood that happiness arises when we have tamed our mind, and our negative emotions, when we have developed some ability to master our mind and our activities in terms of cause and effect. Then we will be happy. Happiness and joy is naturally there when we are free from attachment, aversion and ignorance.

It’s a natural state of mind, a spaciousness of the mind like the sun shining. When all the clouds are gone the sun is shining and the blue sky is there. So the clouds are like the attachment, aversion and ignorance. Today there are lots of clouds I’m afraid! But the sun is still shining, the sky is still blue. That is how it is with our mind.

When attachment and aversion take over our mind is full of clouds. We can’t see things clearly. We lose perspective in a situation. When we are angry we become very judgemental and we can completely lose our head. Our head is caught in cloud. Then when the anger subsides we can see again. Sometimes anger is compared to fire: wherever there is fire there is smoke. When there is smoke you can’t see the source of the fire and so you don’t know what to do. You lose all perspective on what is right action because you can’t see where it is all coming from, where it all started. Did I start it? We always think somebody else started it.

The smoke from the fire obscures our view and when the fire takes over it just burns everything indiscriminately. It burns everything: good and bad, fresh and rotten wood, leaves, everything is burnt. That is what happens when we get angry and lose our temper. We destroy the good and the bad. We push away both our friends and our enemies. We make stronger enemies, we make more enemies. We destroy everything we have been trying to build up. And when the smoke has gone, and the fire has died down we can see the landscape and the damage.

That’s the power of emotions and that is what we are dealing with in meditation. That is what we are trying to pacify when we say pacifying our mind. We are learning to deal with these emotions and seeing them for what they really are. We are learning to see that pleasure is not happiness and that the way to find happiness is to tame our mind.

Once our mind is tamed there is a natural clarity like the sunshine. There is natural spaciousness like the blue sky. There is freedom and spaciousness. We need to stop looking for pleasure instead of happiness, we need to stop acting contrary to the laws of karma. We need to stop disregarding impermanence and we need to reverse this tendency to misuse our opportunities.

These are the foundations for our spiritual practice. If we don’t do that, then it’s like we are giving with one hand but taking away with the other. We are practising but at the same time we are allowing certain habits to continue unabated like allowing weeds to grow.

So when people say that they find it difficult to maintain a regular practice it is recommended that you think about these four thoughts. But not generally or as a theory: you need to look at your own life. How does this affect me and my life? How do I use my own opportunities? How much do I regard or disregard impermanence in terms of how I spend my time? How much do I live my life according to cause and effect? I have some idea of cause and effect, but do I actually act according to this?

Because of course it is our actions that create results. How much am I caught up in chasing after pleasurable experiences rather than stable happiness, real happiness? These four thoughts should inspire us to put more energy and enthusiasm into our practice.

Simply by contemplating our own death we will know that we can’t really afford to waste time. And if we know that we have only a short time left to live then we know that we would wake up. We would really get on with things. So the fact that we don’t do this is because we have not taken these four thoughts to heart.


Questions and answers:



Q: What you said this is how I try to live my life but what if you are always surrounded with negativity? Would meditation help me with that?

LZ: Definitely. It is about managing our own lives. You don’t have to try and change other people. We need to try and work on ourselves. It’s really about changing yourself more than changing others. But of course in the beginning this is difficult if you are not in a supportive environment.

You may change people through your example. If they see you doing things a certain way then this is like planting a seed that may make them think that there are other ways of doing things. Like opening a window and saying this is interesting, I would like to know more about that.

In a way this applies to all of us because we have not grown up as Buddhists. There is a point where you meet Buddhism or the spiritual path, or meditation if you are not a Buddhist, and you have a sense of wanting to develop yourself. Something sparked it off in you, and something sparks it off in others.

I remember the first time I met Buddhism. I went to visit my brother in Sri Lanka who was married to a Buddhist, they were both Buddhists. They were showing me all these monasteries and temples and talking and I just got really fed up with hearing about it!

The second time I visited them about 2 years later they sent me a book and I read something in that book that somehow sparked off in me and I thought yeah, I could use that. It was just a few sentences about not being at peace, not being happy and they just struck a chord because I guess at that time I was ready.

But obviously when I went the first time I was not ready at all. No matter what they might have said to me I was not interested. Everybody has some moment in their life when it may just take a sentence or a word and that person will think, Oh! It’s not that they are trying to convert that person because that trying to change someone actually has the opposite effect. Nobody likes to be told what to do. So perhaps you will be the seed for some people there.


Q: Lama could you say more about the fourth thought?

LZ: The fourth thought was this general dissatisfaction where we are looking for pleasure instead of happiness. It’s about recognising the underlying dissatisfaction in our life. We are always chasing after something. We are never really content. That’s part of our human make-up. We always want something else, that’s the drive.

The human realm is a desire realm. We always need more, always need better, always need faster, always need smaller or bigger with the technology. Every year a new ipad, a new this and that being invented, we are using up all the resources. This is due to this underlying lack of contentment. One can see that in oneself, sometimes in a subtle way, sometimes in a very strong way.

And then you can see how on a bigger scale, there is no rest, no enjoyment, no sitting and saying this is enough, we are content. We have enough now. We can manage with this, we don’t need any more. We always need more, we always need better. So that’s the fourth one: dissatisfaction in existence.


Q: Sometimes I get plagued by terrible doubts. I was thinking about being surrounded by negativity and you were saying we can only change our own life. We can try and do things in our own sphere.


But sometimes I feel, I lose confidence in that and I just want to have extra reassurance.

LZ: Well it is difficult if you are without support, that’s for sure. And I think if you are surrounded very much by people who are living the opposite way of life to you then it is very difficult to maintain your strength and your perspective. That’s one of the reasons that you are recommended to have a supportive environment, not only for retreat but for everything. So perhaps you could consider moving. That’s something that is an option these days.

Maybe this would not be right for everybody, say if you have a family with children at school or this kind of thing but certainly these days people do move east, west, north, south, everywhere. I would say that is something that should be considered because you do need support. Everybody needs support and if you don’t have it on a daily basis then you should try and get it by visiting a community regularly so that you can maintain that confidence.

When you are stronger in yourself then you don’t feel threatened by whatever is going on around you. You don’t necessarily need to express your views or defend your views in any way, if you have that confidence.


Q: I was thinking more about being super-sensitive to things, a bit helpless with feeling things.

LZ: So then you need to develop stronger mindfulness, stronger presence and awareness so that you are not bombarded by all these sense impressions. In the end it comes down to what we are experiencing through our senses,: seeing, hearing, tasting, touching. Our five sense doors are how we experience our daily life. That’s why they say to put a guard at your five sense doors. I don’t go out much but for the younger sangha living in London, they have to be very mindful and guard themselves because we are constantly bombarded with things that are contrary to how we are trying to live our lives.


Q: So it’s like protecting yourself?

LZ: Yes it’s mindfulness. Mindfulness means that you don’t react. You don’t allow yourself to be pulled in to all these things you see. You don’t allow yourself to go, oh yes I want that, or oh that’s terrible. You hear something and you don’t get all caught up in it, stirring up emotions. That’s mindfulness. So the stronger your mindfulness the less sensitive or oversensitive you will be.


Q: Do you have any advice about maintaining an awareness of transience or impermanence?

LZ: Well actually it is these four thoughts, and what I would say is if every morning before you start your day you make a commitment to remember. For example if you have a tendency to anger, you say today I’m not going to let anger take me. Today I’m not going to react. Today I’m going to be really mindful.

In some of the texts it says you should remind yourself every two hours. So if you can do that, remind yourself every two hours that you are not going to do whatever is your main negative tendency for the benefit of yourself and others.

It says we should deal with the strongest negatives first: today I’m not going to let this fear override me. Today I’m not going to let sadness override me. Today I’m going to be present, I’m going to be mindful. Because all of these emotions arise due to thoughts. Thoughts creep slowly into the back of our minds and they build up and become a mood, become an emotion.

But they came because we were not aware, not mindful so you have to keep reminding yourself and it’s a very practical thing to do. Every two hours come back to that. Even that is difficult for most people. If you are in the middle of a work day maybe you can take a little walk in the park and you can think like that.


Q: Do Buddhists differentiate between emotions and feelings? You talk about the negative emotions and positive emotions, but even anger in a certain moment can be not necessarily negative.

LZ: Mostly its negative I would say. I can’t think of a situation where it is positive other than say the example of a mother who slaps a child when it is too close to a fire or a cliff or something and the child screams. But that’s not really what we call anger because the mother wanted to help the child and so it is more like compassion.

Compassion is at the heart of it. The motivation is the key thing. Why did you do something? Why are you angry? And if it’s all about me and myself generally it’s not really beneficial. There has to be a good motivation, and for it to really have a good result there also has to be wisdom. So we talk about the negative emotions as anger, ignorance, desire, jealousy and pride in all the different combinations and all the different strengths and variations of those.

But then you have other emotions of devotion and kindness and compassion and tolerance and patience, these are also feelings.



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