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Pith Instructions Download
Increasing our relationship to emotional material through practices of loving-kindness, compassion and devotion; awareness of body is key; Mahamudra pith instructions; “body like a mountain, breath like the wind, mind like the sky; heart and mind not distinct; difference between method and result; developing capacity by stopping before attention dissipates; relationship of Mahamudra to primary practice.
Sunday, August twenty-third, A Trackless Path, Des Moines, New Mexico. Okay, just doing the necessaries.
I’ll probably talk more about this this evening, but let me just say a couple of words right now. The emotional relationship in practice—I’m not quite sure what to call it, we’ll use relationship right now—or the emotional component of practice, is vitally important. As many of you have heard me say before, it can take different forms. The three principle forms, with which I’m familiar, anyway, are loving-kindness, compassion, and devotion. And whichever of those you work with, the challenge—and maybe it isn’t a challenge for everybody—is to feel those, any of those, as deeply as one is capable.
Now, in the Tibetan tradition the primary one is devotion, and you have prayers which go by such titles as Soothing the Pain of Faith. This isn’t an actual title of a prayer, but it’s a paraphrase of Ripping Your Heart Out With Faith, or something like that.
The same happens with loving-kindness. Loving-kindness is an opening to people first, but actually to everything that arises in experience with a very deep warmth and tenderness. And in either of these cases, there’s this quality of opening and that is what is important.
Many, many aspects of what we call a sense of self or attachment to a sense of self are deeply, deeply threatened by that kind of opening, and one has to open to those parts as oneself as well. Not to brush them aside or dismiss them as saying, tough beans. That actually doesn’t work very well.
So with whatever practice you’re doing today, when you feel that kind of opening, basically go with it. Not in the sense that you’re devolving into some kind of sentimentality, but feeling the vibrancy and vitality of that heartfelt emotion.
I just wanted to touch on those because we often get caught up in knowing, which in English doesn’t necessarily carry that emotional quality. But it’s very important. Any questions that people would like to take up? That or anything else before we break for breakfast?
Student: What would be the warning signs that you were devolving into sentimentality?
Ken: Well, one is a sense of ownership, and another would be a compulsion to connect. I think if you pay attention to the physical manifestation—how it manifests in your body—you have a pretty good indication. I mean, if you think of a person that we love, there’s a very complete opening to that, and it can devolve into a wanting to own, or control, or have. But you can actually feel those in the body, and I think that’s probably a pretty reliable way of going there.
Julia: There’s another confusing aspect of devotion you haven’t mentioned, which is masochistic submission.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. “Masochistic submission.” Where did you come up with that phrase? I think that goes straight back to something we discussed in the teacher development program, in which you don’t feel there’s a connection unless there’s an element of coercion—either coercing the other person or the other person coercing you. And it’s the only the way you can feel connection—that you’re being coerced into something. I think that’s speaking to the masochistic submission that you’re referring to. And I think that is an important point, but again, I think you’ll feel that in the body, and being in touch with the body when we’re working emotionally is extremely important because you’ll know if something is out of balance or it is—to put it another way—the expression of or feeding a reactive pattern, by how it plays in your body.
Ken: Janet you had a question.
Janet: When you encounter a part of you that resists the practice…
Ken: Of this kind of emotion?
Janet: This kind of emotional practice, right. In my experience, it’s an old familiar part of me, and I’m wondering how to work with it because speaking to it, in a sense, sort of stills it for a while but it still lives there. I mean, is there a practice to do to sort of integrate?
Ken: This is important, so let’s make it a little more specific. Let’s say you feel this openness and there’s a part of you which is saying, “No!” Something like that?
Janet: That’s it, yeah.
Ken: Yeah, okay. So when that arises there’s a tendency for some people just to go with the openness and ignore that part. And that results in something being shutdown. Not very helpful. So instead, when that happens, open to the tension between one part of you and this other part of you. They’re all parts, remember. There isn’t any one that is “us.” That’s the important point, too. So there’s the tension of opening and closing.
Now, you may identify with the part that’s opening or you may identify with part that’s closing—it could be either case. But when you become aware of both, then just open to both and don’t try to make it go one way or the other. That’s being in the experience.
Janet: So I hear what you’re saying [Ken chuckles] and yet I have a tendency to personify the different parts even when I have them in my attention at the same time. Is that a mistake or can that be useful?
Ken: How I’m understanding what you’re saying is that stories start to run.
Ken: Okay. When you notice that, come back to your body—not with the intention of blocking or stopping the stories—but come back to your body, and you’ll probably have a mixture of feelings going, or sensations going on in the body. And to the best of your ability, be in that, and in the emotional sensations, and the stories. And yes, sometimes we will engage a dialogue in this, we’ll go on. If we stay in touch with the body at the same time, we’re less likely to get carried away into some kind of other world. And by staying in the body you’re actually staying in present experience and not getting lost in the past.
Janet: Thanks that really helps.
Ken: Okay. Anything else before we break?
Student: Just some logistical information.
Ken: Okay, we can end here then.
Okay 23rd, August 23rd evening session, A Trackless Path.
There are two main themes that are coming up in peoples’ practices. This doesn’t cover everybody, but broadly speaking, on the one hand there’s several of you are turning your energies toward mahamudra, and several others of you are working with fairly significant issues around relationship and living in the world.
I’m not quite sure how I’m going to weave those two together, but we’ll see. An instruction that I’ve given several of you, particularly those moving in the direction of mahamudra, is:
Body like a mountain. br>
Breath like the wind. br>
Mind like the sky.
In the taxonomy of Tibetan Buddhist instructions, those three sentences would come under the classification of pith instructions.
Pith instructions are usually very short, and one of the main reasons that they’re short is so that they can be easily memorized. They also frequently make use of some form of poetic imagery. Part of the reason for that is that we connect with things, with ideas, with approaches to practice probably more reliably through imagery and metaphor than we do through rational explanation.
Another pith instruction, which I used as the basis for Chapter 10 in Wake Up To Your Life, was given to me by a teacher called Nyishul Khenpo.
Crack the egg of ignorance.
Cut the web of existence.
Open awareness like the sky.
Or something along those lines, and you can also feel the poetic quality in that.
There are many, many such instructions. Because we are a literate culture, by and large with—broadly speaking—relatively little connection with poetry and imagery anymore, many people simply don’t know how to work with these instructions.
So they take an instruction like Body like a mountain, and they think, “Mountain: rock, hard, solid, okay,” and that’s how they sit. This is a very good way to become tired quite quickly. Pith instructions generally need to be chewed on a little bit, and as you chew on them they begin to reveal things.
One of the things that Body like a mountain has revealed to me is “How much effort does a mountain exert?” Okay, a couple of you are shaking your head like, “Not a hell of a lot.” Now, how many of you exert a fair amount of effort when you are sitting? A few hands wave guiltily. Okay, so what would it be like to sit without effort? Just chew on that for a few moments.
So I say, “Sit without effort.” What’s the first thing that comes up in your mind? Okay, how many of you panicked? No one?
Student: How long?
Ken: Well, how long to sit? That was your form of panic was it? Or that was the question that came up. Okay, this takes us in a different direction. How long does a mountain sit without effort?
Larry: As long as the mountain exists.
Ken: Yeah. For as long as the mountain exists, okay. Now, what happens when you sit without effort?
Nancy: You can sit for a very long time.
Ken: How does that sit with you Larry?
Larry: I agree.
Ken: Okay, you can sit for a very long time. What else happens?
Rob: Not wrapped up in control.
Ken: Not wrapped up in control. Okay, I’m going to pursue this a bit with Rob. What happens in you when you’re not wrapped up in control?
Rob: Very quiet, resting. Resting.
Ken: I’ll ask Larry’s question, “For how long?”
Ken: Can I hold you to that? [Laughter]
Rob: I won’t try to control it.
Ken: But what actually happens? How long does that “no control” last, actually?
Ken: Yeah, so are we talking about minutes, seconds, or milliseconds?
Rob: [Laughs] Seconds and milliseconds.
Ken: Okay, and what happens to disrupt it?
Rob: To disrupt the…?
Ken: No control, the effortless sitting.
Rob: Usually thoughts come up and then there’s an effort to control the thoughts.
Ken: Something happens before the thoughts come up.
Rob: An energetic shift.
Ken: What happens Larry?
Larry: I would think back and say physical sensations come up.
Ken: Before then. Leah?
Leah: Well I’m not sure because I’m not doing it right now, but what I imagine is the first thing that ends up happening is awareness of that calmness, you know, it’s like, “Oh, I’m so calm now!”
Ken: Where is it that calmness? Okay, and what happens then?
Leah: Then it gets bad.
Ken: And why is that? What’s bad about that calmness?
Leah: Nothing’s bad about the calmness—the calmness is excellent—it’s…
Ken: I think Rob has an answer now. What happens? There it is. Effortless sitting—[Ken sighs happily]—I could sit this way forever. NOT! [Laughs] What happens?
Rob: There’s a movement and I’m trying to identify what that is, but there is a movement, and it gets my attention and that’s where the attention goes.
Ken: Is it something happens and you’re attention goes [Ken makes sound of arrow flying off]?
Ken: Right. And Leah said something there’s, “It’s so calm.” And something like, “Ahh!” comes up right?
Leah: I don’t know if it’s a panic, but the in my case it’s the awareness that then changes. It changes the focus—doesn’t mean that it won’t come back again—and usually the breath can, you know, bring back more of a clear space.
Ken: Okay. How many times?
Leah: That I find is indefinite—you can cycle like that but…
Ken: You can which?
Leah: You can cycle like that.
Ken: Right. Indefinitely?
Leah: I don’t know [Ken chuckles] because then the noise might get louder sometimes you know…
Leah: …or just the stories might get longer. I don’t know.
Ken: Okay, what happened to the mountain in all of this?
Leah: The mountain started hurting in places.
Ken: Do mountains hurt?
Leah: I was wondering this afternoon if mountains get stomach aches. I was like, “This mountain has a stomach ache.”
Ken: Okay. So we see it’s not so easy to sit, “Body like a mountain.” Stuff happens. When you’re working with these kinds of pith instructions—because we’re all smart enough, courtesy of our education system and culture, and so forth—that it doesn’t take most people very long to figure out what the pith instructions are pointing to. Right? How many of you start practicing what they’re pointing to? Anybody guilty there? Okay. How does this work, Paul?
Paul: I don’t quite understand the question.
Ken: How does practicing what the pith instructions are pointing to work? Is it effective?
Paul: Oh, okay. Yeah, sometimes I think so.
Ken: And other times? What is the instruction, “Body like a mountain,” pointing to?
Paul: Stability. Calm.
Ken: And if you try to be stable and calm how does that work?
Paul: Actually, if I focus on stability and calm, I then think about how to become stable and calm.
Ken: And how does that work?
Paul: And then I go to my body and focus on keep going back to my body and trying to get out of my head into my body.
Ken: How does that work?
Paul: By what I do, focus on the physical sensation of breathing, for example.
Ken: You see what I’m trying to point out here is the difference between method and result, and you’re going back and forth between the two. What pith instructions point to is a result. But if you try to practice the result, it’s usually fairly frustrating.
So instead of trying to be stable and calm—since you brought this up—what if you sit and let your body feel like a mountain. What happens then?
Now, some people may say, “I feel like a mountain,” and immediately get hard and rigid. They find that that doesn’t work so they have to go a little deeper and that leads into such things as not making any effort. So you let this feeling like a mountain unfold in your experience. You with me? What’s that like? Everybody try it right now.
Now, you notice what everybody did immediately—they made sure they had a good base. Do mountains have a good base?
Ken: Yeah. What’s it like to rest on that base? Have you ever seen a mountain in a swamp? No. ’Cause there’s no base there. Can you feel the base on which you sit right now? We also noted that mountain doesn’t exert any effort. How do you sit without effort? Well, the spine has to be reasonably straight. The shoulder yoke has to be on the spine so the weight of the body isn’t being held up by muscles, but is actually being held, borne by the skeleton.
Take a few moments and feel that. In particular, notice where you’re exerting muscular effort and explore shifting your posture forwards, backwards, left, right, a little straighter, a little less straight and see if there’s a way to sit with less effort, or what ways require more effort. You may check the position of your chin—you might try lowering it a little bit. See if that makes a difference in the spine. You might check the position of your arms. Are the elbows directly below the shoulders? When you position them that way does that make a difference?
So, with the instruction, “Body like a mountain,” one way to work is a way of exploring your posture in meditation. “How am I sitting?”
And then there’s the second instruction, “Breath like the wind.” What does this instruction mean to you?
Joan: Open. Unrestricted. Changing. Free.
Ken: Okay, how many of you breathe that way when you meditate? How many of you are aware of how you breathe when you meditate? Okay, good. Does it change? How are you with those changes? Larry.
Larry: I just go with it.
Larry: I just go with it.
Ken: You let the changes take place?
Ken: Okay. What if the breath becomes shallow for a period of time? Not a problem?
Larry: No, I don’t see any problem there.
Ken: Good. How many think they should be breathing a certain way? Yeah, a lot of us have an idea about that, but the breath does change. How many of you notice how it changes with thinking? What happens when there’s thinking? Julia.
Julia: The breath moves upward in the chest.
Ken: Comes up here.
Ken: Yeah. Anything else?
Julia: It tends to get shorter and shallower.
Ken: That’s right. So you can actually tell by your breath whether you’re thinking or not. That might be useful. See, in mahamudra practice, the pith instructions in the Kagyu tradition:
Don’t be distracted.
Don’t work at anything.
This is another set of pith instructions—this one minus the poetic imagery.
We’re talking about the breath here. Many people have a tendency to control their breath. How many of you when you practice sometimes notice a tension between your body and your breath? Okay. If that happens, something in you has started to control the breathing. The reason: to avoid experiencing something. So with this instruction, you let go of that controlling, let the body breathe, however it wants to, and you may find—not always—that you start experiencing something, or that you’re in touch with something that you didn’t sense before.
During the course of a period of meditation the breath may fluctuate quite a bit. We just let those movements happen.
And then comes the next instruction, “Mind like the sky.” We have a problem in English. I’m not quite sure how this developed historically, but we have the words “mind” and “heart.” Mind is more generally associated with thinking and the intellect; heart is generally associated with emotions and feelings. The word in Tibetan and the equivalent word in Sanskrit don’t make any such distinction. Thoughts and feelings aren’t split into two categories in the way that we have in English.
So. let’s start with “Mind like the sky.” Now when we first hear those words, it sounds wonderful, just so open, right? But here’s where we have to chew on things a bit. Is the mind always clear and open? So we have to ask. is the sky always clear and open? When the mind isn’t clear and open, what do we usually do? Anybody?
Student: Imagine the sky.
Ken: No, no, forget about the sky. When our mind is agitated, or dull, or foggy, or we’re upset about something—what do we usually do when we’re trying to meditate?
Student: Ignore it?
Ken: Well how successful is that?
Student: Not very.
Ken: Okay. What else do we do? (But you’re quite right some people just ignore it.) How many of you try all kinds of little tricks to get it to calm down, or clear up, or something like that?
Ken: Okay. What does the sky do when it is not clear and open? How thoroughly does it do nothing? Does it half-heartedly do nothing or does it…?
Student: In the experience of…
Ken: The sky?
Ken: No. So, people said the sky does nothing. I want to know, how far does the sky go in doing nothing?
Ken: Completely, you see. I mean people complain about Nasrudin stories, but one’s appropriate here.
So Nasrudin’s a magistrate, he did all kinds of things. On this occasion he’s a magistrate. A person comes before his court in his underwear. He says, “I’m a visitor to your village. A thief stole everything from me. I ask you to find the thief and return my belongings.” And Nasrudin leans forward over the bench and looks at the man very, very carefully. He says, “You seem to be wearing your underwear.” And the visitor says, “Yes.” Nasrudin says, “Well, he couldn’t have been from our village then, because we do things thoroughly around here.”
So here is your mind: dull, agitated, confused. What’s it like to do nothing? You want to take a crack at that, Paul?
Paul: Well, if I were to really do nothing I think I would just be taken by all those thoughts. Unless…
Ken: That’s very interesting! We have to go back to the sky now. So, clouds move through. Is the sky taken by the clouds? No, it does nothing, you see. It’s very thorough about this. But if you’re taken by the clouds, then you’ve started doing something—the thoughts. You’ve started doing something, haven’t you.
Leah: I’m not going to speak today.
Ken: [Laughs] You sure? Okay. Leslie.
Leslie: It seems like—whatever’s going on—the clouds in the mind can consume quite a lot of energy, and sometimes it’s helpful when that’s happening, to do something.
Ken: [Laughs] You were here last year weren’t you?
Ken: For that hailstorm?
Leslie: I’ve forgotten already.
Ken: Oh, that’s interesting. You were in the first retreat weren’t you?
Ken: Yeah, that’s the one we had that hailstorm. A lot of energy. What did the sky do? Killed a horse, wiped out all the gardens…
Student: No, that was the second.
Ken: That was the second, okay, yeah. But this drove all the steers, you know, they had to sit through it, destroyed every garden in a radius of 25 miles, etc. What did the sky do?
Ken: [Laughs] She said with a slight edge in her voice. You see we do tend to try to fix things. So when we take this instruction, “Mind like the sky,” or any of these three:
Body like a mountain.
Breath like the wind.
Mind like the sky.
There is no sense of trying to fix anything.
Nancy: Well, I think I understand what you’re saying—and this may seem as fixing—but it does seem like if you have a higher degree of attention, that that doesn’t happen. You know, you can sit still in it, and just let whatever is happening happen. But if your attention is not very high then my tendency is to want to increase the attention.
Ken: How do you do that?
Nancy: I would probably go back to the breath.
Ken: Okay. You’re quite right. Practices such as mahamudra, dzogchen, direct awareness practices—things like shikantaza and so forth—do require a high level of attention, otherwise one’s just pulled all over the place. The three instructions…
Body like a mountain.
Breath like the wind.
Mind like the sky.
…is a way of approaching resting, which when practiced over and over again, builds a capacity in attention, because you keep coming back, keep coming back.
There are other ways. A couple of days ago, we spent some time talking about the primary practice, which was the expansion. That is also a way of building a capacity in attention, because by holding or including more and more in experience, you’re transforming the energy of that into attention.
What happens frequently with practices such as mahamudra—people get these three instructions:
And they find that they’re distracted—distractions come up. So they start trying to control their experience, which inevitably involves them working at something, then it all just goes down the tubes.
The better way to approach these is to practice in such short periods that the problem doesn’t arise. So, we sit right now. No distraction. Don’t try to control our experience in any way. And don’t work at anything. And we do it for that long. Take a break and then do it again.
In the first three-year retreat that I did—head of the Kagyu order, Karmapa the Sixteenth, came to visit us, and during that time he gave us what are called the pointing-out instructions. And here’s what he said, “Look, and as soon as a thought arises, relax. And look, and as soon as a thought arises, relax. Look, and when thought arises, relax.”
Now, when he was giving those instructions they had all of the subtlety of being picked up by the scruff of your neck and thrown against the wall. He was just sitting in his throne, just repeating these words, but that’s what it was like, “Right there and then, relax. Right there, and relax.”
You work this way—you build capacity. It requires quiet determination, a great deal of patience. You will also find that after a certain point you can’t do it anymore. That means you’ve run out of juice for that period of meditation. There’s an old adage, “Don’t flog a dead horse.” At this point, you’re a dead horse. There is no point in trying—it’s actually counterproductive. You do something else. As Nancy said, you rest with the breath, read some prayers, go for a walk, whatever—you refresh yourself and then you come back.
How many of you carry in you an image of sitting indefinitely completely awake and present? Yeah, just forget it. [Laughs] Very problematic image to carry. So, when working with these instructions—short periods, really clear.
Ken: You set the intention, no wandering, no control, no working at anything. And when you do that there’s a shift. That’s what Karmapa was referring to or directing when he said, “You look.” There’s a shift that happens, but it doesn’t last. It dissipates. When it dissipates don’t try to hold onto it, don’t try to bring it back—let go completely. That’s what he meant when he said, “Relax.” And then do it again.
There’s a very strong tendency in people who practice meditation to try to hold to mental states or experiences that arise. In the way that I was trained, this was always regarded as counterproductive. Whether it was the four immeasurables, yidam practice, mahamudra, you name it. When the quality of attention, quality of experience dissipates, don’t try to hold onto it. “Let it go. Relax. And then do it again.”
All of you have heard me when I talk about basic meditation: “Return to what is already there and rest.” Put the emphasis on returning, not on trying to hold onto. That holding onto inevitability creates a tension which results in suppression and all kinds of other really problematic dynamics. The aim of this kind of practice is for natural awareness to be able to express itself in our lives. “In order for natural awareness to express itself we can’t be doing something unnatural.” That may sound trivial and obvious but it’s amazing how convoluted we can make these things. And I know very well from my own experience, because I really tried to hold onto stuff in a very unproductive way for a very, very long time. So if I can save you a few years I’ll be quite happy—and I mean years.
In the booklets that you have you should turn to page 13. Well, actually we can take a look at page 12. The longest paragraph on page 12—and these are instructions from my teacher.
Let mind settle naturally.
And that’s really what, “Body like a mountain; breath like the wind; mind like the sky,” are pointing to. Letting the whole system settle naturally.
Don’t control it. Just recognize it.
This was kind of interesting. We all have a mind, we say. How much attention do we pay to it normally? Not very much—just runs amok, right? So right now, just recognize your mind. What happens when you do that? Do it again. Just relax. Just recognize it. What happens? Once more. Just relax. Look around the room, and then just recognize your mind. Okay what happens?
Leah: Well, there was an immediate focus.
Leah: Yeah, just a presence.
Ken: Were you focused on anything?
Leah: No, maybe that’s not the right word.
Ken: Okay, and that’s why I wanted to point it out. We say “focus,” but it’s actually not a focus on anything. But there’s a shift.
Leah: There’s, yeah, clarity or something. Well…
Leah: Presence is the best word—just everything synced up.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Nancy.
Nancy: I experience it as sort of the mind relaxing. Yeah, just sort of…
Ken: Yeah, okay. Anybody else? Tom.
Tom: I experience it as an energetic shift.
Ken: Okay. Anybody have no sense of this whatsoever? Okay, good. Then Rinpoche writes,
If you stay right there, mind on its own is empty, clear, unrestricted—luminously radiant.
Now, you may not get all of that first take, but you practice this again and again. As Leah was describing, hard to put into words. She decided to use the word presence. Other people had other descriptions. But you come to experience that when you just recognize mind: there is nothing there—that’s the emptiness aspect. But it’s not simply nothing there, because there’s a quality of knowing—that’s the clarity aspect. And everything’s there. As Leah said, everything just synced up, right? Everything’s there—that’s the unrestricted part.
So you don’t have to seek any of that stuff out and that’s really important. And even more important, don’t try to make any of it that way. There’s an expression that I came across which applies here: “You can’t wake up somebody who is pretending to sleep.” You can’t make mind empty. You can’t make mind clear. It’s impossible because it is empty and it is clear. So don’t try to make it that way. That just produces an artificial, contrived experience. You recognize and rest right there.
In the beginning, you’ll only be able to rest there for very short periods of time—that’s just how it is. In the mahamudra text it says, “You rest there for the time it takes for you to swallow.” So, on the order of one second. But that’s where everything starts. And Rinpoche goes on,
Although all kinds of thinking may arise—attraction, aversion, so on—if you rest, just recognizing what is there, it [that’s the thinking] will release itself naturally and have no effect on you.
How many of you have had this experience? Okay.
Let’s try a little experiment. Think of something that made you angry in the last week. Recall the situation. Let the anger come up—it will be an echo but it will probably be sufficient for our purposes—and when the anger’s up, just recognize it. What happens? Anybody? Tom.
Tom: It dissipated.
Ken: Anybody else? Yeah. Sounds easy, don’t it? Now, that’s not too hard because it’s an echo. You develop sufficient capacity in attention and even quite strong anger transforms in the moment in exactly the same way. Very important point: you don’t transform the anger> And if you hear anybody bragging about how they’re able to transform their emotions, you know they’re full of bullshit. The transformation takes place quite naturally—in fact completely naturally—when there’s a sufficient level of attention. You don’t have a thing to do with it. Which is very disturbing to our egos, but…
Rinpoche goes on,
It’s like water and waves.
When there’s a sufficient level of attention emotions come and go and it’s the movement of mind.
If you keep that empty, clear, radiant, unrestricted present mind, that’s mahamudra.
There are about five or six sentences here. Meditation instructions and meditation manuals are very, very deceptive in the way they’re written. We’ve gone through about five sentences here. This is anywhere from six months to one year of consistent work. By consistent work I mean, like, six to eight hours a day. When you’re reading meditation manuals they do not give any indication usually of how long it takes for these things to unfold. Because we read things literally, we think, “Oh. That, then that. Then that, then that,” and we’re very upset and disturbed when it doesn’t just happen, you know, all in the same day or in the first time we sit down. What is implicit in here is that doing this again and again builds a capacity, and then these things take place quite naturally. Because what we’re talking about here is building a capacity to experience things a different way.
We can’t really say how things are—it’s impossible. Right now we experience things as subject-object, and thoughts, and emotions tumbling and crashing through our minds and us getting carried away by them and confused and unclear in our actions as a result. But by applying ourselves to this kind of practice, we can develop the ability to experience things in a very, very different way. That is, when the mind is quiet and clear, then everything appears as an expression of mind. And mind itself—there’s nothing there. And this leads us into a very, very different way of life. And it’s basically why many…most of us are here.
How am I doing? [Checking the time]
I want to go back and pick up one piece because I’ve talked a lot about mind. We go back to the instruction, “Mind like the sky.” I want to change it now, and you tell me what effect this has on you, “Heart like the sky. [Pause] Heart like the sky.”
What effect does that have for you?
Larry: It’s easier to access, I think. I think it’s, for me, it’s easier to access.
Ken: What happens? First, when you say “Heart like the sky,” where’s attention come from?
Larry: When you say, “Heart like the sky?” I feel attention dissipating.
Ken: Yes, attention. Where does it feel like the attention comes from? Valerie.
Valerie: When you said, “Heart like the sky,” my energy—which had been up here in my mind sky—dropped down, my heart opened up, and I felt, like, a warm extension.
Ken: Larry’s going, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” [Chuckles] That right? Yeah.
Larry: Well said.
Ken: “Well said.” Okay, so let’s go through this again now.
Let your heart settle naturally. Don’t control it. Just recognize your heart. Stay right there. Your heart on its own is empty, clear, unrestricted—luminously radiant. Although all kinds of feelings may arise, if you rest just recognizing what is there, they release themselves naturally and have no effect.
What’s that like? Tom.
Tom: I have exactly the opposite reaction of these other two.
Tom: It terrifies me [Ken laughs], and it’s, like, a place I don’t really know where to go.
Ken: Wonderful, wonderful. So you practice this way. [Ken laughs] Why am I telling you to do that?
Tom: Because I need to be practicing that way.
Ken: Why do you say that?
Tom: I don’t know. I think in my practice I go where it’s easier for me, and this idea of opening my heart is difficult.
Ken: Yeah. Anybody else? Claudia.
Claudia: You just gave us demonstration of what you said this morning. You said, “The emotional quality in your practice is very, very important.”
Ken: Yeah. I like to be a little consistent now and then. [Laughter] Nancy.
Nancy: I can’t tell the difference.
Nancy: They seem the same to me.
Ken: All right, you’ve practiced a long time, though, and when you practice a long time you realize the mind just isn’t the intellect, it does include feelings. So, yeah. Anybody else? Joan.
Joan: For me it felt softer and more open.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Okay. So, we have this unfortunate division in English. Whenever you hear people talking about mind, remember heart. It may make a small difference in how you practice. Very important.
Leslie: Why do you translate it as mind?
Ken: Well, I translate it in three ways depending on context. Sometimes I translate it as mind, sometimes I translate it as heart, though you have to be careful with that; and other times I translate it as experience. And one of those words usually works. But we’ve created a very strange beast in English in our Buddhist vocabulary, because we talk about mind as if it was “something other than us.” Mainly I translate it that way because that’s fairly standard translation now, but it’s also because it has some problems. That’s why I try to remember to take the time to point out that there’s a whole ’nother side that people tend not to relate to because of the word mind, and that emotional quality is very, very important.
Some people have experimented with translating it as mind/heart—that doesn’t really work. It actually makes things worse. So I don’t know what the solution is. We’re better off than German, because they only have one word, Geist, which is the same word for “ghost.” Yeah.
Leslie: How about a new word?
Ken: Any suggestions? Mart? Hind? No, both of those words are already taken. Okay.
Valerie: And where does awareness fit in? I guess I’m confused because I think of awareness as all of it—as the bigger—and somehow mind is thinking. Sometimes the way you use it, it’s interchangeable, so it’s confusing.
Ken: We’ve actually got quite a rich vocabulary in English compared to other Western languages. Awareness puts the emphasis on the knowing quality and works perfectly well, but that’s usually a translation for words like rigpa in Tibetan, vidya in Sanskrit, where there’s an explicit emphasis on the knowing quality in experience. Okay? I mean to some extent these are all arbitrary choices but…
Valerie: It’s kind of a problem though, because how we “name things” is how we experience them.
Ken: Yes, you’re completely right here, and so we move here into a rather different topic, but it’s probably good to spend some time on it.
The way things are translated shapes how people practice to a far greater extent than most people realize. Last winter I started work on a book on translation, and I thought, oh, okay let’s dig up some theory of translation, and I typed “theory of translation” into Google and hit return. Guess what came up?
Ken: No. Nope. Thousands and thousands, all about translation of The Bible, which has been the central translation problem in Western history. And it’s a no-brainer, when you think about it, but it’s the last thing I was expecting.
The first translation of The Bible from Aramaic into Greek—I think it was called the Septuagint—was a really bad translation. You have no idea how many theological problems started with that bad translation. So the influence of translation on how things are understood is huge. It was a very good point to raise. It’s one of the reasons I still continue to translate because I like refining translations so they get closer to communicating what I think is really intended.
As far as I can tell, relatively few translators pay that kind of attention. And people who don’t have knowledge of the source languages are completely at the mercy of the translators. And many of the people who now teach have learned vocabulary which is basically first-generation, maybe second-generation of translation, and now assume that that is the best vocabulary.
I talked about this in the very beginning of this retreat. In the meditation instructions and commentaries on meditation, you find the definition of mindfulness is the mind—and you can also say heart here—joining with the object of attention. And then people are told to “concentrate on,” “focus on.” Now, when you’re concentrating on something, focusing on something, how do you join with it? Becomes very problematic. Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons why in my own practice—but also how I work with people—I never talk about “focusing on” or “concentrating on,” because I think it points people in absolutely the wrong direction. And I tend to talk much more about opening to or including, because those don’t foreclose the possibility of joining with. Do you see what I mean?
Somebody came to see me the other day for the first time. She had a background in Theravadan practice, and so I said just take a simple object—we can all do this right now. It can be a pen, a piece of paper, whatever you want. So do this in two ways. Focus on it. Focus your attention on the object you’ve chosen. Okay. Let that go. Now, open to the experience of this object. How’s that? Anybody experience any difference there? What was the difference you experienced? Leslie.
Leslie: The focusing-on is the narrow vision and telescopic vision, and the opening-to is wide and it’s more body.
Ken: More body, okay. Anybody else? Janet.
Janet: I found that when I was focusing there was tension in my belly, and when I was opening-to it wasn’t there—the tension wasn’t there.
Student: More just broadly aware in opening-to and constricted in focusing.
Student: Sometimes I leap into stories about the object. The object starts having its own agenda, story, whatever.
Ken: So what’s the difference between focusing-on and opening-to for you?
Student: Well, focusing, it’s just the thing, sort of inert.
Student: But if I open to it then it can be almost anything else.
Ken: [Chuckles] Okay, so I want you to go a step further. Open to it and don’t go into the stories. What happens then?
Student: Then everything’s equal.
Ken: Yep, okay. Anybody else? Joan.
Joan: With focusing more it’s more, for me, more looking at, more the subject-object, and opening-to it was less distinction.
Ken: How many else found that? Okay, so that’s a demonstration in the problem of translation—so it’s very, very important. Valerie, throw out all the books—burn them!
Valerie: I’m sorry, Ken, it’s just that I think I was talking about it from the other direction.
Valerie: In that, because we’re habituated by our language itself to think “mind,” “heart,” how do we join what has been rent asunder? And maybe Josephine is the person to ask that question since she’s experienced both. I don’t know.
Ken: Well, you remind me of a quotation I came across recently: “Language begins with the death of the individual.” Language presents the illusion of being able to share experience, but each of us has our own experience, and we can’t trade it, exchange it, give it, or share it with anybody else. You follow? In the course of our practice—it is a very interesting point you’ve raised—we will repeatedly discover how the language that we’ve adopted, used, etc., limits how we can experience things. Which is why there is so frequent reference to “an experience that can’t be described.” Now we’re actually moving into our experience.
We will—through that—we will actually find a different way to use language, but before that, you might say that our practice is opening up the possibility of being in our experience without the dependence of language. And that creates a very different world. This resonate with you at all? Any comment? You have to use words. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay, we’re obviously not going to get onto relationship, the whole relationship aspect tonight, so let us turn to page 13. This is another set of pith instructions, and I’ve taken the same Tibetan phrases and translated them in two very different ways. Let’s look at the bottom one first. If you look at the Tibetan, basically it says: “Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.” And you have to understand the nuances in the use of the word “thinking” there. So I’ve translated this as,
And one of the nice things about this is there’s no mention of mind, so we don’t have the mind-heart problem at all.
I don’t know how it is for you, but when I go through those six, it’s like really precise closing of doors to habituated ways to relating to the world. And at the end you’re not left with many habituated ways. So you get, “Okay, there you are. Now rest.”
The first translation here is more of a gloss in some ways because I expanded—it’s absolutely what the words mean. What I was surprised by is that this particular translation did a whole circuit of a bunch of websites down in Southeast Asia—all without attribution of course.
Let go of what is past.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax right now and rest.
Now, we’re all different. Some people find the first translation speaks to them, some people find the second. And it isn’t a case that one is better or more correct than the others—they’re just different ways of translating.
Let’s go through the first one again.
Let go of what is past.
Joseph Goldstein points out a very interesting thing about “let go.” What does it mean operationally to let go of something? Anybody?
Ken: Release. Okay, so you release your grip on it right? What happens to it then? Okay. Here’s this gong, I’m holding onto it, I let go of it. What happens to it?
Ken: Does it goes away? No. And this is important: when you let go of what is past, thoughts, memories, associations may be there—you’re not holding on to them. That’s what Joseph Goldstein points out in his book, Insight Meditation. Operationally, letting go means letting it just be there. It doesn’t mean getting rid of it. There’s a change of relationship. And I think it’s very helpful because it eliminates a whole set of expectations.
Let go of what is past.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Basically, what Tilopa is saying here is all of that stuff, “ch-ch-ch,” just let it be there—you don’t have to do anything with it—and right there, there’s a freedom. Of course then there’s another human tendency.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
How many of you like to figure things out?
In the first three-year retreat, I spent many, many months thinking about and figuring out how yidam practice worked. And I figured it out. Did it help me do yidam practice? [Laughter] Not the slightest. It enabled me to talk very eloquently and articulately about yidam practice, but didn’t help the least bit in doing it. Figuring out is definitely overrated.
So, we’ve let all of this stuff just be there, we’re not going to figure anything out, but we have to do something about it. So Tilopa’s next instruction is, “Don’t try to make anything happen.”
That’s like nails on a blackboard. Rest, or, “Relax right now, and rest.” And whether you work in the mind or in the heart, the heart often tries to make certain things happen, too—it’s not just the mind. Works a different way but it’s just as insistent.
Okay, any of this helpful to you? Any questions before we close for this evening? Larry.
Larry: In looking at these lines that we covered by Kalu Rinpoche, he basically summarizes the above by saying, “That’s mahamudra.” Would you be able to compare what he has described here with the primary practice? I mean is there any difference?
Larry: Okay. Perhaps you could highlight that a little.
Ken: In the primary practice there is definitely an effort involved. It’s a subtle effort, and the effort is one of inclusion or opening, whichever way, okay? Opening or including, and it is through that effort that one is building a capacity in attention. Now, that effort gets more subtle as one progresses in the primary practice, so in the beginning it’s opening to all sensory experience, and then all emotional experience—which is more subtle—and then opening the heart, and then opening to awareness by asking, “What experiences this?”
Once you reach that point in it, then it becomes mahamudra or dzogchen.
Larry: When you’re accomplished.
Ken: No, not when you’re accomplished. When in any practice period you ask, “What experiences all this?” there’s a shift, and now you just rest in the shift because now there’s just the recognizing that Rinpoche’s talking about here. So it gives people a way to move into it.
In mahamudra and dzogchen teaching it’s generally assumed you already have a certain capacity in attention and can move into it. I mean, that’s what we were doing earlier when I said, “Just recognize,” and you just do that for as long as it’s clear. So there’s a different way of building that capacity. Okay?
Other questions? Okay. Let’s sit and do this for a few minutes.