Origin of Mind Training in Seven Points, Point 1: Groundwork
Education, training, and learning in Tibetan and Western cultures; brief biographies of Atisha and Chekawa Yeshe Drorje; secret teachings and transmissions; mind-training as a way to refine experience; refining v. training; empty compassion (emotion-free); illusion of choice as an indication of the lack of freedom; meditation instruction on groundwork.
Good morning. So today we start into the instruction for Mahayana Mind Training. And this morning I want to cover three topics: where this teaching comes from; why do we do it; and then the first of the seven points, which is groundwork.
This may not be a completely logical talk because there are various themes and ideas that I want to interweave into our discussions, which I hope will help you to understand and possibly clarify what one is actually doing in practicing Buddhism and practicing meditation. Because I find there is actually quite a lot of confusion about that.
We’re here for the next five days. We’ll have a total of eight teaching periods. So today and the next few days, two periods a day. We found that it’s best not to have another teaching period on Sunday morning, because people are like, “can’t take any more in” by that point. So we give you a break, and just allow that time for everything to consolidate. It’s not a lot of time to cover all of the aspects of mind training. It is probably not possible to cover all the aspects in this period of time, but we can make a good start.
And I think a good place to start is with the source: where does this teaching come from? Now, even with this we start right into what I think is a very significant difference between the way that we regard education, learning, and training in our culture and the way that learning, education, training was done in other cultures, notably Tibetan culture, which pretty well didn’t change for, or changed very, very little from…well, certainly 1100, but probably as far back as 800, until the twentieth century when the Chinese invaded.
And none of us have the experience of living in a culture which doesn’t change appreciably for a thousand years. It is far easier for me to read a Tibetan text that was written in eight or nine hundred AD, than it is for me to read a text in English such as Beowulf or Canterbury Tales in its original form, which is extremely difficult. Actually, you really have to learn old English in order to be able to read that. But many of the texts that we study go back a thousand years, and they’re easy to read. That’s how little change there was.
There are a few other things that come up here. Kongtrul, in writing his commentary—on The Seven Points of Mind Training often copied almost verbatim what Chekawa had said in the twelfth century. And without any attribution or acknowledgement. Today that would be regarded as plagiarism.
It gets worse than that. Ingrid, my ex-wife, has been engaged in translating an encyclopedia that Kongtrul wrote, and she found that whole sections of the dzogchen teachings were literally word-for-word repetitions of stuff that Longchenpa had written in the, I guess, thirteenth or fourteenth century, like five or six hundred years earlier. Again, without any attribution whatsoever.
So, this is an example of the difference between the way that we regard education, training, and learning, and the way they did. There’s no question of plagiarism. The reason was that, in traditional cultures, one’s development as a human being—development of your potential—was based on the emulation of past examples of perfection. So you always look to the past and say, “How did they do it?” And then you try to do it that way.
Whereas in our culture, our basis for developing our potential is individual exploration and experimentation, and finding out what works for us. So there’s a constant experimentation going on, and it’s very much future-oriented.
And the reason I bring this up—and some of you have heard me talk about this before—it is this difference in perspective—looking to the past, looking to the future—that is at the basis of much of the conflict that is experienced in the world today, significantly, between modernist and fundamentalist approaches. Fundamentalists primarily look to the past; modernists look to the future. And these are very, very different perspectives, and to some extent irreconcilable.
So if somebody had said it well before, he didn’t try to say it any better. He just took what they said. They said it well, that’s it! But if we write something, and it’s well written, and somebody takes it and just puts it in their book, then we file a lawsuit saying, “You copied this.” We don’t usually take it as a compliment: we take it as theft. So, we’re going to find that again and again as we go through this. This is very much building on what people in earlier times had done.
Now, mind training, as I mentioned last night, is a very broad category of teaching and covers virtually every aspect of Mahayana. There’s a mind training on every aspect of Mahayana somewhere or other. I have a book back in Los Angeles called the The Hundred Thousand Teachings on Mind Training. I don’t think there were a hundred thousand, but that was just the title that they would give to these collections: the hundred thousand of this; the hundred thousand of that.
But there are dozens, if not hundreds. And some have proved to be easier or more useful, more effective than others. And one of those is Mind Training in Seven Points. You have Mind Training in Thirty-Seven Points, which I think goes back to Dharmakirti himself. You have The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, which is a mind training text. You have the Mind Training in Eight Verses, by Langri Tangpa, and so forth. So we got all of these mind training teachings. But this is Mind Training in Seven Points.
Now all of these mind training teachings trace their origin back to Atisha. Atisha was a great Indian teacher who committed a no-no. He was probably comparable to the Pope of Indian Buddhism. That is, he was the holder of the seat at Bodhgaya, which is where Buddha attained enlightenment, and it is probably the central Buddhist pilgrimage place in India.
But he held the seat at Bodhgaya, and there was a big prayer festival, and people came from all over the place. And in Atisha’s tent this Vajrayana practitioner appeared, Maitripa, making love with his consort. And this outraged the monks. Totally inappropriate, I mean, indecent behavior. We have laws against these things even today.
And some of the senior monks looked at Atisha with, “Do we throw him out?” And Atisha didn’t say anything. And the monks took that as a yes. So they went over to Maitripa and seized him, and started to move him to the exit—throw him out of the tent. And Maitripa wrestled himself loose and said, “If I’m going to leave here, I’m going to leave in my own way.” And walked straight through the wall of the tent.
Student: What about the consort?
Ken: History doesn’t record what happened. Maybe she went with him. I don’t know. Ask Maitripa.
At which point Atisha said to himself, “Uh-oh.” Now Atisha had had an intimate relationship with Green Tara from the time that he was eight years old. Anytime he prayed to Green Tara, she just appeared. So he went back to his own personal tent that evening and prayed to Green Tara, and nothing happened. And Atisha went, “Uh-oh.”
So he really started pouring his energy into prayer, and Green Tara eventually appeared with her back turned to him. This had never happened before. And Atisha went, “I did something wrong today, didn’t I.” And Green Tara went, “Yup.” “What’s the karmic result?” “You’re going to be born as a worm which goes around the base of Mt. Meru seven times, and every day birds are going to come and peck at your flesh until you’re just skin and bones. And then the next day you’ll be another worm again, and that’s going to happen for several centuries. “Mmm,” said Atisha. “Not good. Is there an alternative?” Green Tara said, “Yes, you can go and teach the dharma in Tibet.” Atisha said, “I’ll take the worm.” [Laughter]
But shortly after, Rinchen Zangpo, who had been sent to India by the kings of western Tibet, prevailed upon him to come, and in 1042 Atisha went to Tibet and was one of the people who revitalized Buddhism in Tibet after a couple of hundred years of persecution.
Atisha himself had received these mind training teachings, again as I think mentioned yesterday, from Dharmakirti in Sumatra. Atisha had been given many, many indications that the essence of Buddhist practice was bodhicitta, awakening mind, which is the union of compassion and emptiness.
And Atisha must have been quite a stubborn guy because he kept having to get reminders of this. Like he’d be at Bodhgaya and one statue would turn to another and say, “What’s the most important teaching in Buddhism?” and the other statue would say, “Bodhicitta, it’s really important.” After about four or five of these Atisha got the message, and that’s when he started to study bodhicitta itself.
He came to Tibet and established refuge. The vow of refuge is a basis for practice, and was taught widely, was very highly regarded, and laid the foundation for what became the Kadampa tradition. And he wrote the first genre of literature, the lamrim or sequential path, which sets out the stages of practice of what the meditations to do.
That’s been translated into English. I think it’s called The Torch of the Path or something like that. One of the better known lamrims in the West is Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation, which was written several hundred years later. There are big ones like Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, which is huge and very, very detailed. But even my book, Wake Up to Your Life, is a kind of lamrim because it leads one through a sequence of practices. So this is a very basic genre, which started with Atisha.
Atisha had received the teachings on taking and sending and mind training from Dharmakirti. And they were under seal. What that means is, conditions for seals were varied, but in this particular case it meant that this teaching could only be transmitted to one student in each generation.
So Atisha transmitted it to Drom-tön, and Drom-tön to Potowa, and so forth. And that lasted for about seven generations, and then the seal was broken, and it was widely disseminated. But it was a very secret teaching.
Today we’d go, “Why? Why do you keep this secret?” Part of the reason, again it comes from the traditional way of looking at things. These were very deep methods of practice, and only those who had shown themselves to be truly capable of practicing were actually given them. They weren’t given to everybody, but only those who could really use them, and would really use them. And secondly, a way of preserving the power and energy in the teaching is to restrict it.
This is totally contrary to how we approach education and teaching and learning, where we just make everything available, and people pick up what’s useful to them and work with it, and so forth, and so forth.
So eight or nine hundred years ago in Tibet if you wanted this mind training teaching you’d have been very, very hard pressed to get it. It was not easy at all. If you went into the monasteries, you would have studied logic and practiced morality and maybe been given some basic meditation instruction, and only if you displayed any particular ability would you have been given any other teaching. A very, very different climate from our own practice.
I don’t know if you have the chant booklets here, but the prayer that we read this morning, Soothing the Pain of Faith, this prayer was written by Kongtrul and traces the lineage of mind training. And you can see in the third stanza, Dharmakirti and Lord Atisha.
Tracing it back further than that is a little dubious. The Tibetan and Zen traditions had two very different ways of establishing lineages right back to Buddha. In the Tibetan tradition where there were gaps they made people live arbitrarily long lives to fill in the gaps. In the Zen tradition they just filled it up with a bunch of completely made-up names. What was very important was to establish it back.
It’s rather an interesting thing because there’s a very mixed message in lineage. One is, in keeping with the traditional way of looking at things, it’s the emulation of past perfection. Well, this person practiced it, this person practiced it, and this person practiced it, so you do it just this way, and you have the feeling that everything is being handed down to you. And this is what it is. And there’s a lot of truth to that, very definitely.
But there’s also another message in tradition, which a friend of mine pointed out to me. He said, “If you’re dependent upon that transmission, the implicit message is what was discovered once cannot be discovered again.” And this is just not true. We can all discover the truth of our own nature and what we are. And the only place we can discover it is in our own experience.
So we have these two themes going back and forth. One is the quality of transmission where there is some kind of understanding, some kind of knowing, which can be transmitted in the sense of elicited or awakened by the teacher in the student in each generation, and that’s been very, very important in Buddhism.
And then there’s also the possibility of discovering it, and Buddhism actually has been pretty successful in keeping both of those things awake and alive. In many traditions, it’s only what is being transmitted that’s valid; what is discovered in each generation is regarded as not being so valid. And another is, the tradition doesn’t matter or what was discovered in the past, it’s only what you come to in your own experience. And there are weaknesses in both of those. But Buddhism for some reason has been able to keep both of those together. Though it’s sometimes been an uneasy tension. There’ll be more of that later.
Then it follows down the Kadampa tradition through all of these names. And you’ll see in the third verse a mention of Chekawa, who is basically fourth generation after Atisha. And if you go on to page six you’ll see it goes down to Tog-me Zong-po [Tib. Thogs.med bzang.po] in the second line. Basically that was more or less the end of the Kadampa tradition.
And then it starts to follow a very different lineage, and the lineage it’s following here is the Jonangpa, and the Shangpa transmissions. Taranatha was one of the great Jonangpa and Shangpa masters, and it became a very—in the tradition which I received from Kalu Rinpoche—became a very fragile line of transmission carried through the Shangpa.
And then you get down to teachers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the third stanza there. Lodro Thaye is another name for Jamgon Kongtrul who was the author of this. He was one of the great teachers of the nineteenth century, and had a tremendous influence on the revitalization of Buddhism in eastern Tibet.
And then in the following stanza it comes down through the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa lineage holders: Norbu Döndrub was Kalu Rinpoche’s teacher. Rangjung Kunchab is Kalu Rinpoche’s formal name; it means self-arising, all pervading. And so, down to the present day.
So that’s where these teachings come from. And they’ve been practiced successfully by every generation of teachers. Chekawa was an extraordinary person. He basically knew all the Buddhist scriptures in Tibetan Buddhism by heart, which is comparable to probably memorizing 10 or 12 Bibles, at least. And so you could just ask him a line, and he would be able to tell you chapter and verse where it came from.
One of my teachers, Dezhung Rinpoche, who died a few years ago, was the last person who had anything close to that. He was almost the same. You could say, “I heard this line…,” and he would go, “Hmm, that’s probably from this text.” Phenomenal. And Chekawa practiced a lot of different teachings, but it’s very clear from the way he writes, that the mind training teachings, The Mind Training in Seven Points was something that was very, very close to his heart. And he just took all of these teachings that he learned from Atisha, or from that transmission, and summarized them in these seven points.
I’ve received this from a number of teachers, principally from Kalu Rinpoche, but also from Kongtrul Rinpoche, Dezhung Rinpoche. I had a very interesting discussion about this with Traleg Rinpoche. It’s been a very important practice for me, as I mentioned yesterday. The nice thing about taking and sending as Kongtrul points out is, it doesn’t matter how well you are doing or how horribly you are doing in your life, you can always practice taking and sending. Totally independent of what you’re experiencing. So you can use it anytime, anywhere. What’s that they’re saying about media these days? You can watch it when you want it, what you want, how you want. Well, taking and sending is kind of like that.
Now, why is mind training, taking and sending, particularly important? Why do we do this? This potentially is quite a deep discussion. As Joseph Goldstein points out in one of his books, and this certainly is the theme throughout Buddhism:
We don’t do anything because we’re comfortable. We only do something because we are uncomfortable.
And we find this in the four noble truths. What motivated Buddha Shakyamuni was the observation that life is suffering, or there is suffering in life. There’s this struggle that we have, and that struggle—we find ourselves struggling with life—some of us find ourselves struggling horribly with life, and some it’s just a niggling inconvenience, but it does produce this sense of struggle or dissatisfaction or something.
That is always the basis for practice because that struggle makes us curious. Like, does it have to be this way? Is there an alternative? Is there another way of living? And out of that curiosity humankind has come up with all kinds of things: the desire for eternal peace, the desire for eternal life, eternal bliss, universal selfhood, all of these spiritual longings. And they sound wonderful. And they’re all myths.
The fact is that here we are. We experience having a body. We experience going through our life. How do we do this without struggling? That’s the core question, and one that has been the subject of inquiry for centuries. It’s certainly what motivated Buddha Shakyamuni, or Gautama the Prince, and motivated him to leave the life of a prince behind because he saw that that wasn’t the answer. And then he tried starving himself, you know, living a life of complete simplicity, and that wasn’t the answer. What he came to is that all we can do in this life is develop the ability to experience whatever arises. Then we are at peace.
So taking and sending and mind training—I’m going to say a word in a bit about the term mind training—is a way of refining the way that we experience things. Now, it’s come into English as mind training, and back when all of us were learning Tibetan we had this term lojong. lo is the word for mind or attitude and jong is the word to train. It also has a lot of meanings; somewhere along the line I realized probably the better translation for this is refining, rather than training.
And it was with some bemusement that I came across Uchiyama’s book, which has now been retitled for the third time, How To Cook Your Life. But it’s original title was Refining Your Life. And it’s a very good book, so I recommend it. And it fits very well with mind training.
So rather than think about this as training you to think a certain way, or to experience things a certain way, think about it as refining how you experience the world. Now, that’s very important. Because when we think about training, you know, that’s what we do with animals: we train them, and we train people to do things. And there is a sense of making them into something that they aren’t already, in training.
Whereas refining has a very, very different meaning. You take a piece of what looks like rock, and you pound it into bits, and you mix it with acid, and stuff dissolves, and you pour that stuff off, and then you heat it up and burn more stuff off, and what are you left with? Pure gold. But that gold was always there. It wasn’t brought into being by the process. You refined the ore until the gold revealed itself.
And that’s a really good way to approach practice in general and particularly the teachings we’re going to be working with over these few days. That this isn’t about making us into something that we aren’t already, but working with our experience so that the stuff that gets in the way of experiencing things just as they are falls away, and now we have the pure gold of our actual experience. And that’s actually quite different from the way that we ordinarily experience things. So it probably should be retitled mind refining. It doesn’t work in English as well because it has an extra syllable, but we’ll work on it.
Now, it’s probably good to have some idea of what does the gold look like. You know, you can do things to this rock, but you don’t know whether you’re going in the right direction. And here we find a phrase that my teacher liked to use all the time: stong nyid snying rje snying po chen [pron. tong nyi nying jey nyn po chen]. stong nyid [pron. tong nyi] is the word for emptiness in Tibetan. snying rje [nying jey] is the word for compassion, and snying po [pron. nying po] is the word for heart in the sense of core or pith, and chen is to have. So, to have the essence, which is compassion and emptiness. That’s the pure gold.
Now, the last few years my understanding of this has shifted a bit, or understanding—maybe appreciation would be the better word. And this came through three or four different lines of influence, but the essence is that what I’ll call empty compassion, is the definitive spiritual quality.
And I say empty compassion—maybe we can come up with a better term than that—to distinguish it from compassion as an emotion. Compassion as an emotion is very important, of course, but it’s still based in a sense of I-other. Empty compassion is not based in the sense of I-other, and it’s probably not correct to call it an emotion because it is a quality of experience, a quality of awareness. It’s difficult to match up English and Tibetan terms, but there’s a clarity and a naturalness to it which takes it beyond what we ordinarily think of as emotion because that empty compassion is simultaneously a knowing. And it’s a knowing which does not depend on conceptual processes.
Now, I think it is highly likely that everybody in this room has experienced this. I would actually be a little surprised if there was a person here who hadn’t experienced this. You may not recognize it as such, so let me give you a couple of examples. Or one example anyway, which is quite common.
A friend comes to you. A good friend. Maybe a very close friend. Maybe someone in your family. And they’ve experienced something really difficult in their lives. They got fired from a job, maybe a child has died, maybe they’ve realized their marriage is over, maybe they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness, something really, really difficult.
And for whatever reason you immediately sense that there’s absolutely nothing to do in terms of recommending remedies, and saying, well you do this and this and this. That it’s not about making them feel better or taking care of them, etc. It’s just about being with them.
So you’re there. And in that being there, there’s a kind of openness, and you don’t know where the words come from, but the words come. Or maybe you don’t know where the silence comes from, but the silence comes. And there’s something very profound and immediate. And at the same time completely natural.
Anybody experience this? I think all of you know what I’m talking…okay. That’s what I mean by empty compassion. You don’t think of yourself as feeling compassion for them, but in a very—I would say—visceral sense, that is the quality that is present.
Now, I think it’s very worthwhile examining this experience carefully, because when we do, we’ll see that there are a couple of characteristics. In such moments we’re not conscious of ourselves. We’re not thinking in terms of I. Yet, we are completely responsive in the situation. Now, from our conventional way of thinking, that is completely paradoxical. I’m meant to be in control, but here there is no I, and the right things are happening. It’s very disturbing to the sense of I, but at the same time it’s completely natural.
Another characteristic is there is a timelessness to that experience. You can be with that person, and there isn’t a sense of time passing. There isn’t a sense of time. There also isn’t a sense of limit. One feels open, that there isn’t any limit. You could almost say there isn’t any boundary, but it’s not in the unhealthy sense.
So, by looking at it this way maybe you get an idea why I’m using the term empty compassion because there’s a quality of emptiness, of being nothing there, while at the same time there’s a quality of everything being there. And the compassion refers to the extraordinary sensitivity and responsiveness that is present.
Now, what would it be like to live like that all the time? I mean, we need to take a look at that. I imagine the thought that arose in some of you is, “That’s not possible.” But, is that true? There is a responsiveness in that experience to the needs of the moment. Or to use a phrase from Uchiyama,
A responsiveness to the direction of the present. So it’s not like things that need to be done don’t get done; they do get done. But they don’t get done the way that we ordinarily go about doing things.
I’d like to venture the notion that actually it is possible to live like that. And some of you would be going like, “Aaahhh, I wouldn’t be in control!” Yes! You wouldn’t be there at all. Of course, that’s a little challenging for some of us. But I ask you this question: if you did live like that would there be any sense of struggle in your life? Would you have any regret about anything that you did? Alex, use the microphone please. Is it turned on?
Alex: When things get complicated and you need to think things through in order to make the right decision, you need a model for what’s going on. You need a model of yourself as well. It seems like it’s almost the same thing as this sense of self.
Ken: When things get complicated, you need to think things through.
Alex: To make the right choice.
Ken: Yeah, I know. [Laughter] I want to throw out another idea here. The illusion of choice is an indication of the lack of freedom. Do you want to chew on that one a little bit? The illusion of choice is an indication of the lack of freedom.
I got it from somebody recently and I can’t remember who. I remember talking about this with Michael Conklin up in Portland, so it was a while ago. I can’t remember where I came across it. Trungpa could have come up with it, but no, his was,
We have to get over our preoccupation with the illusion of accidents.
When we see really clearly, we know. Now, most of the time, I grant you, we don’t see that clearly, and thus we have to think things through. And it’s how we actually get to the point of being able to see things clearly. But when we really see things clearly, then we just know. I’m not going to pretend that living this way is easy, that developing the abilities to live this way is easy. It’s not. But I just wanted to raise the question. Do you want to continue?
Alex: Yeah, it seems to me that there are situations where you have to engage your intellect in order to make the right decision. There’s no ethical dimension to a game of chess, for instance, but you’re not going to see clearly unless you…unless you—
Ken: How many chess masters have you talked with?
Ken: You might find it very interesting. I was reading about Capablanca, who was a Cuban chess master. He departed in the twentieth, maybe in the latter part of the nineteenth century, anyway quite a long time ago. A lot of chess masters would play thirty games simultaneously. Some of them could play thirty games blindfolded, simultaneously. They just saw.
And that was the only way they could do it. And what I want you to consider is, how many times do you actually think through a problem? My own experience here is that I relatively rarely think through a problem. I will think about a problem a great deal. I will think about it, and think about it, and think about it. And I very, very rarely come up with a solution when I’m thinking about it. The solution comes usually when I’m not thinking about it. When I’m doing something completely different, often something that’s relaxing, and I’ll go, “Oh, that’s what needs to happen.”
Alex: Yeah, the solution comes that way. But then you have to see the consequences of it. I mean, if you read a game of chess then they go through all those different lines, so an idea will come to you, and then you need to decide, “Well, if I do this, what’s going to happen?”
Ken: What I want to point to here is the process of thinking about it and thinking about it is actually a way of connecting with the problem. When you really connect with the problem, there is no separation. That’s what we’re talking about here. Then the problem tells you what the solution is.
And afterwards then you go and check it out, yes. But the actual knowing comes because there is no separation. And I just want to raise it as a possibility the notion of actually having that degree of awareness so that you don’t experience separation so whatever arises, you know. Just like that. So, we’ll explore that this weekend.
Now, I’ve got a few minutes left. What I’ve been covering here is the reason why we do this practice. It’s a way of refining our experience so that we become empty compassion, which is the gold that we are already. If you want to refer to that as buddha nature that’s fine. Right now we’re pretty unrefined hunks of gold ore. You may doubt that you have any gold in you, but you do. And you’re just gonna have to live with that.
So let’s turn a little bit to groundwork, which is the first of the seven points. Now, I chose to use the term groundwork because I just hated this term preliminary practices. In the Tibetan it’s sngon ’gro [pron. ngöndro]. sngon [pron. ngön] is the word for before, and ’gro [pron. dro] is the word to go. So, what goes before. So preliminary practices or preparations seem entirely suitable. And what I found consistently is that everybody wants to skip over them. So, you know, “Oh, these are the preliminaries, let’s get to the real stuff!”
And what people find, and we find over and over again, is that almost all of the difficulties that we encounter in our practice is because we don’t do the preliminary stuff thoroughly enough. We don’t do enough groundwork. And so I thought okay, could we come up with another word in English? And I can’t remember how I came across groundwork, maybe in a Thesaurus or something. Well, this certainly makes it much more important. You can’t do something unless you’ve done the groundwork for it because you just don’t have any basis to build on. So I think it’s possibly a useful way of thinking about things.
Now, in traditional teaching, groundwork takes certain forms. Many of you are familiar with precious human birth, death and impermanence, shortcomings of samsara, and working of karma. And these are regarded as the preliminary practices or the groundwork. But I want to say a couple of words about why.
Now, Taranatha, in one of his commentaries, didn’t put a lot of explanation into the precious human birth because he regarded it as a special case of impermanence. So, I’m going to talk a little about impermanence first.
Impermanence is the contemplation, or the idea, which cuts through our addiction or indoctrination—may be the better term—that the world of society is the real world.
One of the things that I think is partially—maybe a lot more than partially—responsible for so much of the suffering and conflict we experience is the evaporation of any sense of an interior life. There is only the life of relationship, of trading and sharing and accomplishing, and doing these things.
What death and impermanence do as meditations is they put very starkly in front of you the fact that what we experience now is our life and our life alone. It isn’t anybody else’s. We’re born into this world alone. We leave this world alone. We have the illusion of being with other people while we’re here. Again, as Uchiyama puts it, this is a completely—as he says in so many words—this is a completely inaccurate way of looking at things.
What is more accurate, he says, is when we are born, the world of our experience is born with us. And when we die, the world of our experience dies with us. This is the world in which we actually live.
The world of shared experience is the world we construct within that world.
Ken: The world of shared experience is the world that we construct within the world that we actually experience. And [unclear] it’s a world we construct as real. This is fundamentally unbalanced.
Death and impermanence points this out to us.
And then, how do we live in that world? Well, this is where we turn to the subject of karma. What we actually experience is shaped, influenced by everything that we think, say, and do from the earliest moments in our lives. What we think, say, and do determines how we experience things.
And so, how we think, or what we think, what we say, what we do become very, very important. And that’s basically what karma’s pointing to. It’s not, in my mind, about past or future lives, you can go into that if you want. It’s understanding that there’s an ongoing process of evolution in our experience, and that what we put into that experience initiates a process of evolution which results in an experienced result: how we experience things. And so, we need to pay very careful attention to what we actually do.
There’s an old story, native American Indian, of an elder speaking with a young warrior who’s causing a certain amount of trouble in the tribe. And the elder goes for a walk with this young man, and the elder says, “I’m very troubled.” And the young warrior thinks he’s going to admonish him, and he gets all defensive. The elder warrior says, “No, no. This is not about you. I’m very worried about me.”
This stops the young warrior, and he says, “Well, what are you worried about?” The elder says, “I have two wolves inside me, and one will do a lot of harm, and one will do a lot of good. And they’re fighting. And I’m worried about what the outcome will be.” Now the young warrior is completely involved in this and says, “Well, what’s going to happen? Who’s going to win?” And the elder turns to the young warrior and says, “The one that I feed.”
And where we put our energy, what we put our energy into is what actually shapes what we experience. And that’s essentially what karma’s talking about.
And then the shortcomings of samsara flows right out of this, and basically says very simply: if you put your energy into opposing, you will experience hell. If you put your energy into trying to get things, you’ll experience poverty—hungry ghost realm. And so forth, and so forth, through all the six realms.
In other words, anytime you put energy into reactive emotions—emotions that are organized around a sense of self—you are creating the circumstances in which you will suffer. Just through the process of the evolution of the actions. And you will never find any happiness there. And that’s true. You’ll never find any peace, because you just keep spinning things around.
Groundwork consists in taking these—and loop back to the precious human birth—it’s very rare that we actually have the opportunity to be able to do anything about any of this. Most of the time all of us are just caught up in the frenzy and busyness of life. Here we have thirty people who have stepped out of the frenzy of life to spend these few days looking at this kind of material, and practicing and developing a relationship with it. This is the start of refining one’s life.
But, for most of us this is a part-time activity. It isn’t what we’re doing most of the time. And if you say, “Well, I don’t know how to do that most of the time,” in order to be able to do that most of the time, we have to take it very, very seriously indeed. And realize that trying to achieve fame, status, respect, wealth, etc., etc., are secondary concerns.
And that is the point of these themes that I’ve just been going over right now is to get us to the point where we actually appreciate that those are the secondary concerns, and the quality with which we experience our life is the primary concern. And that is not how we generally approach our lives. So that’s one piece of groundwork that’s very important. It clarifies motivation; it gives us energy for the practice.
Second bit of groundwork is creating the emotional/mental basis so that our efforts and practice can be effective. You might say it’s like—just to use a sports analogy—you know, grass courts in tennis are rolled and they’re watered and they’re properly prepared so people can actually play on them. And the ball doesn’t bounce at weird angles all over the place, and things like that. So, every meditation period, there are ways of starting it which calm us down and prepare us for the practice.
Traditionally, one of those is to recall the tradition, the lineage through which the transmission comes, and basically cultivate an attitude of devotion, which brings about a certain calming.
Ones that are standards in all the traditions of Buddhism are refuge. Reminding oneself what am I here for? Refuge is about taking refuge in the natural emptiness, clarity, and spontaneity of our own mind. That’s Buddha, dharma, and sangha. Emptiness, clarity, and spontaneous nature of experience. Not in anything out there, but in what our experience actually is.
And why do we do this? In order to be able to help others. That’s the expression of compassion. But that expression of compassion, in order to help all beings to become enlightened, well, in the world of our individual experience what are all sentient beings? All sentient beings are nothing other than the totality of our own experience.
So, it’s not only to come to know the empty, open nature of our experience, but to know that empty, open nature in every facet of our experience. Nothing left out. So that’s why we do the prayers of refuge and awakening mind at the beginning. And to help that along we also do the four immeasurables, which again reinforces those. And that way we create a basis for practice.
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Now we’re going to go to practice very shortly. I’m running a little bit over. What I want you to do in this practice period is to take these four ideas: precious human birth, death and impermanence, karma, and shortcomings of samsara. I want you to think about them. Think about them in very simple ways. Why am I actually practicing? Why am I here? What am I really doing?
Of course, this is a little risky, it may be at the end or in the middle of the meditation period, all of you get up and just leave. Whoever’s here, we’ll work with that. But just to really think about this.
What am I doing here? Why am I here? And what do I want to get out of these few days together? What do I want to know? What do I want to be different? What is the relationship of what I’m doing here to what I call the rest of my life? What prevents me from living life without struggle, without any sort of struggle?
These are all questions which are implicit in these contemplations. But rather than go through the traditional contemplations, I thought it might be helpful just to pose these questions.
Now, when you pose these questions, it’s probably not going to be terribly comfortable. Stuff’s going to come up. You may just find there are some uncomfortable feelings. So don’t be too concerned with working out answers to the questions. That’s not what I’m concerned with here. When you ask, “What am I actually doing here?” You may find, “I don’t know.” Okay. Then what I suggest is you just use your meditation practice to be in that experience of not knowing.
As I said it’s not a lot of fun, but it’s very important. Okay? And you just let yourself be there, and you may be surprised what happens. And when I say be there, there are going to be physical sensations, there are going to be emotions which come up, there are going to be stories which come up.
First, practice being there with the physical sensations. When you can stay with all the physical sensations, then include the emotional sensations. When you can include both the physical and the emotional, then include the stories as stories, not as facts. That’s important.
And you may say, “Wow, there’s just a whole bunch here. What do I want to be different at the end of this? What do I want to get out of these few days?” And again the answer is, “Gee I just thought I was coming to practice. I don’t know what I want to get out of this.” It’s very, very important for you to be active agents in your practice, not just receiving. What does this mean to you?
Many years ago I was giving a talk to a congregation in San Diego, in an Episcopal church, on the Buddhist contemplative tradition. I really didn’t know what to talk about. So I made what in retrospect was the disastrous mistake of standing up in front of this congregation of eighty people and said, “Okay, all of you came here for a reason. You want to know something. What do you want to know?”
And there was absolutely dead silence. [Laughter] And after five minutes, which is a very long time to stand up in front of a group and say nothing, I gave up and just started talking, because nobody was going to ask a question. Nobody was looking to be an active agent. They were just there to absorb.
It’s not good enough. What do you want to be different? Because I want you to think about that, and then make sure that you take a step in that direction over these few days. And you can tell me in the interviews what you want to be different at the end of this. Michelle.
Michelle: Can you run through the list of those four things again?
Ken: They’re all in here. You should read the book sometime [referring to The Great Path of Awakening]. [Laughter] Precious human birth, that is the opportunity to practice this—it’s rare; death and impermanence; the working of karma; and shortcomings of samsara is how it’s usually phrased. It just means the difficulty of living in reactive emotions or emotional reactions. And you’ll find all of that on page nine [The Great Path of Awakening]. How many of you have The Great Path of Awakening?
Student: Did you bring any?
Ken: No, I didn’t, of course not. I’m terrible about that kind of thing. Sorry. Possibly we can get them from Amazon. It’s Wednesday today, can Amazon get them by Friday?
Ken: That one page? I’m sorry I didn’t put that in the reading list. [Discussion about including material for reading.]
But basically I don’t really want you to think about those things. What I want you to do is think about why am I here? What do I want to get out of being here? What is the place of this in my life? If you want to go further with that, you know, how seriously am I going to take this? Leslie.
Leslie: Are you calling these the preliminary practices?
Leslie: Okay. So it’s not preliminary practices in the way that…like, you said ngöndro, and I think of it as something else.
Ken: Well, we have the ordinary groundwork and then we have the special groundwork. What you’re referring to is the special groundwork. You’re talking about prostrations, and Vajrasattva, and all that stuff. Yeah.
See, this is where the confusion is. If you do these really solidly—the ones I’m talking about—then you’ll find that the special groundwork, which is very specifically aimed at preparing someone to do mahamudra meditation, that will become very easy.
The ordinary foundations, or the general foundations, or general groundwork is for all aspects of dharma practice. That’s why it’s important. If you’re studying…what text are you studying with Arlene?
Student: Wild Awakening.
Ken: Wild Awakening? Oh, okay. Yeah, and he’ll talk about these because these are the ones you do first. And then you do the special groundwork, and then if you want you can do the very special groundwork. [Laughs] And then you can do the very, very special groundwork. In the end it’s all groundwork. [Laughs]
I’m just being a little facetious. There are sequences. I mean, you have these, and you have the groundwork for the mahamudra practice, which are the ones you’re talking about. Then there’s another set, which are for dzogchen, and within that there’s another set for trekchö and tögal, and then there are very special preparations for certain kinds of practices, and so forth.
But the irony is, the wonderful irony, is the more thoroughly you do the ones that I’m talking about—you really take why am I doing this? what do I want to get out of this?—you get really, really clear about this, you will not have any problem in your practice after that. What people do is, well this person said to do this, or this person said to do this, so I’ll just do this, and they don’t really take it in. Why am I doing this?
And that’s the most important question: Why am I doing this? Because everything that you’re told to do is what other people have found has worked for them. There’s no guarantee that it’s going to work for you. You’ve got to figure out, why are you doing this? What is important to you? And then find out how to address what is really, really important to you. Okay? Michelle.
Michelle: What should Atisha have done in the tent?
Ken: Ask Green Tara. [Laughs] You can translate this into life’s circumstances, circumstances in our everyday lives. How many times have we seen behaviors that we have been judgmental about, the real import of which we did not appreciate and rejected them? Right? Often to our misfortune. Okay? That’s one of the messages in that story. Things arise and we cannot see what they actually are because of our own confusion, and so we reject them. So it’s not about what Atisha should have done, it’s about what do you do in similar circumstances.
It’s very, very important the last couple of points that have come up here. This is not about them. This is about you. And so everything that I say…does this make sense to you? And if it doesn’t, then you know, as Alex was doing, ask about it. Because if it doesn’t make sense to you, then you’re not going to get anything out of it.
And I can’t guarantee that it’s going to make sense—I’ll do the best job that I can—but this is really up to you for it to be relevant and make sense and something you can actually use in your practice. But that’s your responsibility here. Okay? One quick question, because now we’re definitely over.
Student: About these questions. Do you think it’s good for us to go over each question that you raised, or if I think I know, then just go to the one that is more problematic for me, or just try all of them?
Ken: Spend a little time with each of them. You may say, “Okay, why am I here?” I mean what did people say yesterday? “I’m here to practice.” Well, there’s a technique you can use here called the five whys. Why am I here? I’m here to practice. Why do I practice? Because I want to be awake. Why do I want to be awake? And by the time that you’ve asked that why five times you’re getting down to something pretty solid. You follow? Okay.
So, even just reviewing…okay, this is the reason…then sit with that…is this the reason? And let yourself feel it. Because if it is the reason, whenever you let yourself feel it, then you’re clear about your practice. Then you just don’t have any problems. So reconnecting with that reason, if it’s clear in you, is a very good thing to do itself. Okay. All right.
We’ve run a little bit over, I tried to end at 10:15, it’s 10:23. Who’s on han? Chuck. Okay…