Point 6: CommitmentDownload
Function of Buddhist ethics; descriptive v. prescriptive; importance of ethics; benefits of memorization. Commentary on mind training commitments including: the three basic principles, intention and behavior, giving up hope for results; not forming an identity around practice; working with reactive emotions; not hoping to profit from sorrow.
Today we begin the discussion of ethics associated with taking and sending. Now, there are a couple of points that are probably worth noting about ethics in general and Buddhist ethics in particular. And maybe a few other things too. I think in the larger picture the whole subject of ethics arose because it was how a society sought to govern the behavior of people so that the society could actually survive and wasn’t torn apart. We aren’t the least bit concerned with those ethics, or that sort of ethics.
Buddhist practice ultimately is asocial. And it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to argue that it was also amoral. Because the role of what we are calling ethics here is not about acting in such a way that we hold society together or we don’t contribute to its disintegration. That is of actually no concern. It is how do we comport ourselves in our lives to support the practice of waking up or being awake. So there’s a very, very different approach, a very different understanding.
An example, which many of you have probably read in my book, you come into a situation, you know what the right thing to do is. It’s going to cost you something. Maybe it’ll cost you some money, maybe it’ll cost you your job, maybe it’ll cost you a friendship. But you know what the right thing to do is and you do it. How long do you think about it afterwards? The answer is, not at all. What if you don’t do it? Then you think about it a lot. And this is the essence, in my mind, of the Buddhist approach to ethics. It’s how do we comport ourselves in our lives so that our mind is clear, open and awake, and is not disturbed or distracted by reactive processes and emotions and things like that. So that’s one piece.
Second piece is that in Buddhism—even though they’re not always worded this way or even taught this way—the moral injunctions are primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. By that, I mean when you read these lists of do this and do that and do this and don’t do that, they’re describing how a person who is awake actually behaves. And this fits with what I was saying earlier about the difference between modern and traditional societies. In that in a traditional perspective the way that you realize your potential—your spiritual potential in our case—as a human being is by emulating past examples of perfection. So these descriptions become very important because then we emulate that behavior and it moves us in the right direction.
The emphasis on individualism in American society in particular and some other societies in the world, and the peculiar quirks of the American archetypes—mainly the puritan and the cowboy—put most of us in a relationship with ethics that is one of conflict. You know, “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.” And then at the same time we’re vying to be completely pure in our practice, but, “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.” So you have the puritan and the cowboy.
Student: I’m confused about the difference between prescriptive and descriptive. Can you give us an example?
Ken: Well, prescriptive means, you do this, you do this, you do this. And the Ten Commandments are prescriptive., okay. Descriptive is how a person who’s awake is likely to behave. This is what it looks like. They don’t kill, they don’t tell lies. That. And then it’s up to you what to do. But now you have the example.
Student: So the long list of vows that monks and nuns have to take are considered descriptive rather than prescriptive?
Ken: [Laughs] The intention—and that is absolutely true of those vows—is that this describes how an awake person behaves, so that you don’t see an awake person frivolously dancing and singing. So that’s why one of the precepts is not to dance or sing.
Now, I need to correct something here. As you say there is a long list of precepts and for a fully-ordained monk it’s something like 253 or 256 depending on the tradition. But in the actual ordination ceremony you only make five commitments. The rest are guidelines. And, you know, and the ones that are regarded as very serious offenses, and the ones that are regarded as moderately serious offenses, and the ones regarded as so-so offenses, and then ones regarded as just minor offenses, and then very minor offenses. And it’s all laid out like that. But the actual vows…and vow is really not the right word.
Ken: No, that’s at the Vajrayana level. It’s totally different. Well, I suppose vow is okay. It’s ordination that’s the wrong word. You say in the presence of—in the case of monk’s vows—of an abbot, “I will not take the life of a human being. I will not steal anything of value, (which is defined as a weeks supply of rice). I will not lie about my spiritual attainments. I will not have sex, (in the case of a monk or a nun). And I will not take anything that has been fermented.” That’s the vow against intoxicants. Those are the actual vows—the promises—and you just say, “These are the actions that I am going to refrain from.” That’s what the ordination ceremony consists of. Everything else are guidelines for behavior, which is about holding the community of the monks together in a way that supported awakening. Okay?
Student: So those five are prescriptive and the rest are descriptive?
Ken: Well, those five are promises you are making to yourself. You know, you aren’t making them to the abbot, you’re making them to yourself. You’re saying it in the presence of the abbot. But you’re saying, “This is how I’m going to live my life.” Do you feel the difference? That’s very important. Okay.
So, one of the idiosyncrasies of Tibetan Buddhism is the muddling—I think is not too strong a term—of Vajrayana and Mahayana or Sutrayana elements. So, for instance—and it goes back to some extent to Indian Buddhism though not as much—and whenever things cross boundaries you’ve got a bunch of scholars who just raged on and on about what was really going on here. So, for instance in the Heart Sutra you have Shariputra asking Avalokiteshvara how does a son or daughter of a noble family train in the perfection of wisdom? And you wouldn’t believe the amount of commentary in Indian and Tibetan commentaries but, “This is a Mahayana sutra. What’s Shariputra doing there? He’s Hinayana. He shouldn’t be there.” And so there are long, long explanations of this.
And then there is an equally long explanation of, “What is this mantra doing in this Mahayana text? It shouldn’t be there.” You know,
om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. And so here we have this term commitments of mind training, and it is the Tibetan word dam tshig, which is a translation of the Sanskrit word samaya. Which is usually used only in a Vajrayana context.
So the question is why did Chekawa—who is obviously aware of these distinctions, being an extraordinarily brilliant scholar, academic, among other things—why did he choose this very, very strong word. It’s a very strong word in Vajrayana. That when you violate…what the word dam tshig—what the word samaya—means is, it literally means holy word in Tibetan.
So it’s a very deep level. You can say it’s a spiritual promise. You know, it doesn’t get much stronger than that. And if you violate that, it can rupture your relationship with your teacher. So it’s very heavy-duty stuff. So why is he using such a heavy-duty word here? In the discussion of the bodhisattva vow you never find any discussion of spiritual promise in that sense—samaya. What you do find is precepts to be observed and guidelines for training. You find that, but you don’t find this spiritual promise. So my theory is that he’s using this very, very heavy, very powerful word to say, “These are really important points that I’m going to give you right now.” Underlining it. So just imagine this whole section in red highlighter.
Student: What page are you on?
Ken: In here? In the book I’m on page 30, and 22 in the pamphlet.
And part of the reason, I think, is that we tend to get very adamant, very strong about things that we really value, that are really, really important to us. You ever notice that? We get very adamant about things that touch us deeply. And this practice was obviously something that was very, very important to Chekawa. So he has some very fairly strong things to say. And again remember that there are a total of 59 instructions in here grouped into seven points, and the point of them was to make them easy to memorize. And so that every time you remembered one instruction it opened up a whole body of teaching and instruction to you. And we saw that in the summaries.
There is a case of a Russian chemist who defected to Canada in either the late fifties or the early sixties. He was one of their top research chemists, and he decided to defect. He knew that he would not be able to take many papers with him. So he started taking all his research papers—which had been restricted to certain journals in Russia—and he would write a précis of them. And then he would write a précis of the précis. And he continued this until he got down to one of these very small little booklets that he could put in his wallet or something like that—where each word would basically be the précis for a whole paper. And that’s how he brought all his research out of Russia. Because he knew he wouldn’t be able to bring the actual papers. Well, this is similar. And I know that memorization is out of fashion these days. In a spiritual context it’s really, really useful.
Now, I doubt that I could repeat all of the mind training teachings by heart. But I’ve got an awful lot of them in memory, so they’re just available to me. And it’s wonderful. It’s extremely handy when I’m teaching. But it’s also very, very handy in daily life, because you see a situation, and, bang, out pops an instruction. So you may not feel like it, but it is very, very definitely worth your while memorizing the root text, which is in the pamphlets, just the stuff that’s in ordinary type. The stuff that’s in italics in the pamphlet are my very abbreviated comments. You can memorize those, too, if you find it helpful. But I’m really just talking about memorizing the root text.
Student: Is that why Trungpa calls them slogans?
Ken: Yeah, when he first came up with that, I just thought it was a complete travesty. And I think Trungpa had a fascination with language and he could be brilliant, but every now and then he just missed. And that was a miss. Because slogan is something that has always been associated with political or commercial use. And I think that those associations make the term unacceptable to me, because it necessarily brings in that kind of thinking when you use it. And that’s why I don’t use the term, and I don’t find it helpful at all.
See, one of the things that we face—and it’s one of the reasons why I pay very, very close attention to language—[is that] whenever you use a term from another discipline, or another culture or another subject area, you necessarily import all the ways of thinking that gave rise to that term. And they start affecting the way that you’re thinking. And I just don’t feel that thinking in political and commercial terms is helpful within the spiritual context. In fact I think it is antithetical.
Another of my pet peeves on this one is the term social capital. It’s completely unrelated to this discussion. But it necessarily brings in all of the ideas of capitalism when you’re actually talking about human interaction, and I think it’s an extremely detrimental way of thinking. There are many, many other examples I could give. So that’s just my little spiel on language. Okay?
Student: The disservice to using repudiation rather than what you’ve chosen, which softens it….
Ken: Yes. Yeah and I used repudiation, because at that point that was the best English I could come up with. It’s why I’m constantly revising my translations. Because as my understanding deepens and my experience deepens, then I think, “Oh no, that’s not what it means at all. This is what it means.” So I feel like I’m approximating and getting it closer and closer.
Okay? It drives people nuts because they memorize—poor Gail, every time I change the translation of the Heart Sutra she has to memorize it again. Because she loves the Heart Sutra and she’s memorized my translations. But she’s gone through three or four translations now. She says, “Ken, please don’t change it again.”
Always train in the three basic principles. Actually Chekawa says they’re intention, action, and balance. Now, intention is, “Why are we doing this?” It’s one of the reasons why I’ve come back to that question a number of times during this retreat. Being clear about your intention and practice—and reconnecting with that intention—is one of the ways to keep your practice active and vibrant. And it’s a necessary thing to be doing. Because if that intention becomes fuzzy, unclear or weak, then the energy goes out of your practice. That’s why he’s saying, “Train in intention.”
How many of you have heard this term crazy wisdom? Yeah. Well we’ve had our problems with crazy wisdom in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Seems it was a problem back in the twelfth century, too. Kongtrul writes:
The second principle is not to act scandalously, that is, to refrain from scandalous acts such as destroying shrines, disturbing trees and other plants, polluting streams or rivers, associating with lepers and beggars and other ways you might behave in the hope that others will think that you have no ego-clinging. Instead, make your way of life and practice utterly pure and faultless.
In other words, don’t do this crazy wisdom stuff. The Zen tradition has a reputation for doing these outrageous things like throwing a buddha on the fire or something like that. And in the Tibetan tradition there is a tradition of mad yogis who do these outrageous things periodically. But, we just hear about these. What we don’t appreciate is these kinds of things happened like once a century in what was an extremely conservative milieu. Every now and then to break things up, somebody would do something, because that was going to serve somebody’s waking up. But it was far, far more the exception than the rule. Of course it tickles our individualistic tendencies that we can just go and do something crazy and do whatever you feel like, this is utterly nonsense.
Everything that we do evolves into an experienced result. This is the basic working of karma. And when we’re training—when we’re practicing—we act in such a way as to create the conditions for practice. That’s what supports our waking up. It’s very, very important. And what has been shown—by experience over the years—to support waking up, is basically being a decent person and behaving in appropriate ways. It may not be very interesting, but our interest is in being awake, not in acquiring a reputation for being someone who’s unorthodox and extreme or whatever. That’s just another form of attachment to a self-image.
The third principle, which I called balance here, is very, very important. Here Kongtrul says,
Don’t be one-sided. How I sometimes express this is,
Don’t protect any area of your life from practice. And the reason for that is, if you protect any area of your life from practice, you’ve got a problem. And the reason you have a problem is that as you practice the level of energy in your system increases. It’s exactly what you want to be happening, because now you have that energy available for attention. So you develop more and more powerful attention, so you can see deeper and deeper into the working of things and dismantle the reactive patterns and so forth. But if you’re protecting an area of your life from the practice, it means you’re not including it in your attention.
However, although you may not be including it in your attention it’s also benefiting from this increased energy. So it becomes more active, too. Not only does it become more active, but you also have all of that energy you’re putting into the wall—which is keeping it out of attention—so that becomes stronger and stronger. So, now you have a part of you which is more energized and which you are more blocked off from. The eventual result is that you split in two, and this other part goes completely nuts. And you can see this in some people who do this. Because they will be extremely good in various areas of practice. I know a number of teachers, when they’re doing one-on-one interviews they are so there. They’re really, really good. Other areas of life there is absolutely no attention. They’re complete jerks or berserk or what have you. And that’s coming from this imbalance.
It’s difficult. Because we all have parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge, we don’t like, or they are too painful, or whatever. But it’s very, very important not to protect any part of our experience from practice. Michelle?
Michelle: Does this relate to why it’s always the TV evangelists who are found in bed with a hooker?
Ken: Well, it’s not always by any stretch of the imagination. It is why spiritual teachers sometimes have, shall we say, clay feet. In the case of television evangelists, or is it Ted Haggard in Colorado Springs recently, you know, who had this massage person that he hired…
Ken: No, it was just for massage. There’s a double problem there. Not only is their practice not penetrating, but their lives and the image has to be maintained at all costs. So they can’t let any of that out. But because they’re receiving so much energy because of their position, all of that’s going into it. So they become more and more unbalanced this way, and eventually something cracks. That’s why for a spiritual teacher, fame is not really a very good thing. And there are lots of injunctions or recommendations to avoid that. Okay.
Student: A good example would be the roshi [unclear]. The roshi [unclear], and even after you ask him he wouldn’t…
Ken: He didn’t want to go there, no. Yeah. And as I say there are other teachers. There is someone I knew quite well for a long time, and it was very clear that in handling an interaction with one student a mistake had been made. And I asked this person about that and the reply was, “Oh, sometimes I just make mistakes.” But there’s no further curiosity about it. Okay. That’s how it is.
Now, a corollary of this which I practice to the best I can myself. Anytime anybody comes to you with feedback—even if you think it is completely ridiculous—pay attention. Because it may be the only indication, the only pointing to an area of your life that you’re not aware of. So anytime somebody says something, you know, “What was going on there, Ken?” I make an effort never to dismiss it. Just say, “Okay, what are you talking about?” And listen to them very, very carefully to see if I can recognize what they’re talking about. That I’ve found very, very important for me. Okay.
Okay, we’re going through these much too slowly. I’ve got through one. We have 25 minutes left and we only have 17 left to go. It’s all right, there are a few groups coming up shortly so that helps.
Change your intention, but behave naturally. Another way of saying this is, practice in secret.
Here’s the opposite—[Deep breathing sounds] “What are you doing, Ken?” “I’m taking in your suffering and giving you my happiness.” [Laughter] Doesn’t feel quite right does it?
We work very hard to transform how we experience the world, how we approach the world. This is what we’re doing. And we’re doing it for ourselves. Don’t make a big display of it. There’s no point. Everybody will just think you’re kind of stupid, actually.
Student: [Unclear] change your intention?
Ken: You make it plural? Change your intention but behave naturally. It’s on page 22 in the pamphlet. Yeah.
So you don’t look any different from anybody else. Shantideva mastered this. Because as far as everybody was concerned in his monastery, he was a monk who just ate and slept. He didn’t do anything. And everybody thought he was a complete idiot. So they decided to have some fun at the yearly festival. It was a custom for a monk to deliver a discourse on the dharma at this big festival which had a huge amount of royal patronage. But the monks thought they’d have a joke this year, and they’d ask this complete idiot to deliver the dharma talk. So they set up the big throne and at the time Shantideva was asked to ascend the throne he said, “Okay.” So he climbed up the steps, sat down, he looked at everybody and said, “Do you want to hear something that’s been taught before or would you like to hear something new?” And the monks could barely contain their laughter and they said, “Let’s hear something new.” And he started in with the Bodhicaryavatara.
Don’t talk about other’s shortcomings. Well, who benefits from talking about somebody else’s shortcomings?
Ken: Do you actually benefit from talking about somebody else’s shortcomings? No. Nobody does. You know, usually it just gets people churned up, so that’s why this injunction actually—don’t do that.
And it’s the same with the next one.
Don’t dwell on other people’s problems.
Ken: Yes? Sharon, the microphone, John.
Sharon: What about focusing on ourselves with either of these? You know, some people talk about their own shortcomings ad nauseam, or their problems. Comments?
Ken: Well, that’s not particularly helpful either, is it? But this was directed at people getting together and saying, “You know so-and-so over there, he just, you know, he’s not too bright or he’s not…” I mean it’s a form of idle talk or gossip. Things like that. It dissipates energy, churns up. And you’re quite right, in talking about our own problems, ad nauseam, as you say, we’re actually reinforcing that story in ourselves. And that’s not particularly helpful either.
Don’t dwell on other’s problems. Thinking about other people’s problems doesn’t help much either. And yet a lot of people do that. Because it’s a way of staying preoccupied with something so that they don’t have to face something in themselves. And so I worded that alternately,
Don’t pick up what isn’t yours. And it provides you a way of negotiating situations. Which can be very helpful. Somebody comes and says, “Well, can you help me with this?” And you can see if you move in that direction it’s going to be a big mess—an enmeshment of one kind or another. “No. I can offer you some advice if you want. But no, this is for you to deal with.” So it’s helpful in maintaining boundaries.
Work on your strongest reactions first. That’s pretty straight forward. They’re the ones that are doing the most damage.
Next one’s very important.
Give up any hope for results. As long as you have the idea that you’re going to get somewhere, you’re already in the grip of a self-image, “I’m going to get somewhere.” Now, when you’re dealing with a particular problem that caused you a great deal of grief, it’s very, very natural to think of working through it so, “I don’t have to deal with this anymore.” And you’d really like to get somewhere. But, as long as you have that attitude, it means that you’re not really willing to experience what is arising right now. You’re looking to get through it. To get rid of it.
Here’s how Kongtrul describes this in more traditional terms:
Give up the hope of subduing gods and demons by meditating on mind training, or the hope that you will be considered a good person when you try to help someone who has hurt you. These are hypocritical attitudes. In a word, give up all hope for any result that concerns your own welfare, such as the desire for fame, respect, happiness, and comfort in this life, the happiness experienced in the human or god realms in future lives, or the attainment of nirvana for yourself.
It’s like taking everything off the table, right? And what are you left with? Relating to exactly what you’re experiencing now. That’s what the practice is actually about.
Give up poisoned food. If you do taking and sending with the idea that you’re going to become noble or respected or that this is going to define who you are—you’re going to be the champion taking and sender—you’re building an identity around your practice. Something’s wrong there. Okay? So, let go of any sense of being special because you’re practicing mind training. You’re not special. You have these reactive tendencies. You’re doing this practice. Okay, that’s it. No big deal.
Now, the next few have to do with particular reactive emotions.
Don’t rely on a sense of duty. Don’t go for the throat. They have something to do with anger. Now, in this book you’ll find this one translated as,
Don’t rely on a sense of consistency. or something like that. The reason for that translation is I could not figure out what this Tibetan word actually meant. Gzhung (pron. zhoong) in Tibetan. And I talked with many, many people, and I would understand what they were saying, but I couldn’t understand how it connected with this term. And so that was the best I could do at that point.
But several years later I came across Cyrus Stearns, who’s a person who’s very highly trained—studied with Dezhung Rinpoche for years—and he translated this in the way that it’s actually meant,
Don’t rely on a sense of duty. I mean, the word has something to do with government and the main way things are done, etc. Just this idea of duty never occurred to me, but it occurred to him and I’m very grateful to him for that. Because the example that Kongtrul gives is when somebody hurts somebody in your family, you know, then you want to get even with them. Because you feel—and we find this in a lot of tribal and early cultures—you feel it is your duty to, right? And this takes the form of honor killings and so forth in some Middle Eastern cultures. But it’s all based on a sense of duty and a sense of honor and these things.
And what Chekawa is saying, and given that Tibet was very much a tribal society at this point, this is a very, very powerful statement,
Don’t rely on a sense of duty. In other words, do what is right, not what the society is telling you. So if somebody hurts you or your family, don’t regard it as your duty to get even. And what I say here is extended beyond that particular example to whenever we are relying on a sense of duty, it means that we are not interested in taking the nuances in the situation into account. It’s the easy way out. And so we’re letting go of our attention in awareness. And that’s not living awake, it’s living automatically.
Don’t go for the throat. Now, anger is a very fast moving emotion. Something comes up and we just go. One instruction I’ve found very helpful is, “Always take a breath before you say anything.” That can just be so helpful. And if someone says something that makes you really angry, take that breath. And now, you can’t remember to take that breath, you’ve just got to train so that it just happens. And it can make all the world of difference between saying something that you regret and something that might actually be useful in that situation. But when anger arises in us something just wants to destroy. That’s the hell realm. And basically we need to be able to develop our training to the point that when that surge of anger arises, we’re right in it—experiencing it, not acting on it.
Don’t put an ox’s load on a cow. Well, life brings us things that are difficult to deal with. And there’s always a temptation to try to shift it to somebody else, so we don’t have to deal with it. What this instruction is, is when life brings you something that’s difficult to deal with, well, deal with it. Don’t give it to somebody else. Don’t slip your responsibility.
There’s a story told of Dudjom Rinpoche visiting a monastery in Nepal, which was part of his responsibility, and he arrived and he saw these horribly mangy, sick dogs. All monasteries had dogs prowling the courtyards because it protected the monastery at night. And these were just really, really sick, vermin-infested creatures. And he came in and said, “These dogs are sick. Why aren’t they being taken care of?” And one of the monks timidly approached him and said, “Well, we didn’t give them medicine because we didn’t want to kill the bugs that are making them sick.” To which Dudjom Rinpoche replied, “Give them medicine. Make them well. I’ll take the karma.” So he wasn’t putting the ox’s load on the cow. Now, the reason for that metaphor is that an ox can carry much more than a cow. When something difficult comes your way, that’s your responsibility—you don’t give it to somebody else. Okay?
Don’t be competitive. Well, a lot of these injunctions were directed at monks in monasteries. Now, most of us who have not lived in a monastic environment can’t imagine it being particularly competitive. After all you’re all wearing the same clothes and doing the same things and you’re all engaged in a really holy way of life. So where would the competition come from? A Catholic priest friend of mind described his novitiate, which lasted several years. At the beginning of the novitiate there were 16 of them. I can’t remember whether it was a two or four-year program. Let’s say it’s a two-year program. At the end of the first year there were four left because there had been so much elbowing and jealousy and stuff. And he said, “When we got down to four we met together and we just looked at each other. And we all agreed that from now on we would be nice to each other.” And so they got through the rest of it.
When there’s a lot of similarity it’s easy to become competitive. Because what distinguishes you are very, very small things. So, place in line, attention of a superior—these become really, really important. So you become highly competitive where you can. But in my commentary here I take it out of that context and put it into a larger one.
Competition is always based on a sense of internal deficiency. “I’m not enough. I have to prove myself in some way.” So, instead of being competitive, bring your attention to that sense of deficiency in you that is making you competitive and work with that through taking and sending, or whatever, so that it stops running your life.
Don’t lie in ambush. This is also about anger. Somebody does something and you go, “Umm, okay.” A year later, two, five years later, you’re just waiting for the opportunity, “Yeah, it’s going to feel good.” [Laughter] Do you know how much damage harboring that anger for that length of time is doing to your spiritual practice? Unbelievable. You know, so somebody hurt you. You know, you experience it completely. And if you want to apply a different instruction here,
Drive all blame into one. It’s very useful in that circumstance.
Don’t lash out. Whenever we act on anger, it reinforces the anger. It’s very similar to
Don’t go for the throat.
Don’t go for the throat is where you really want to kill the person.
Don’t lash out is more general where you can’t be with the anger inside you. So you just lash out at anything that’s around you.
Don’t make practice a sham. Well, this is fairly self-explanatory. It’s when you have a covert agenda. You’re not really interested in being open and present with the suffering of others. You want everybody to think how wonderful you are. That’s making practice a sham. Closely related to that is,
Don’t turn a god into a demon. The god here is the practice of taking and sending, of mind training. And if you use it to build up an image of yourself as the noble practitioner, now it’s become a demon that is an emotional obsession. That’s what demon basically signifies or represents. So, we have to be very, very careful and attentive to the tendency to form an identity about any aspect of our life.
There’s a meditation teacher, a Hindu swami, who would regularly introduce his students as, “This is Jane, she is a great meditator. And this is Jim and his practice is wonderful.” And I always thought there’s something wrong here. I mean in one sense there’s encouragement. But it’s so easy—particularly in relationship with the teacher—to go, “Oh, I got confirmation there.” And then you start changing how you relate to your teacher, because you’re looking for a little more confirmation. Rinpoche was very good about this with us. He never gave us anything to cling to. [Laughter]
One time when we were building the retreat, we had these lintels—these big pieces of oak—which we put above the doors so that the concrete blocks could be supported. They were big pieces of wood like about 8×8 solid oak. But one side was properly finished and the other was full of knots and bark and things like that. And none of us were very experienced builders. So somebody said, “Should we put the good side on the outside or the good side on the inside?” Rinpoche just remarked, “Make them like Ken, good on the outside, bad on the inside.” [Laughter] And everybody just stopped. So he was very kind that way.
Student: And of course he meant the opposite.
Student: Wasn’t that an expression of love?
Ken: You’ll have to ask Rinpoche. It really shocked everybody. But then he would hit me while I was translating for him. I mean he would do this quite regularly. Like he would give his talk, say something, you know, for five or ten minutes, and then I would start translating. And sometimes he’d just pick up a book or a newspaper or a clothes hanger, and while I was translating he would just, bang, bang. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, I’m not quite sure what he was pounding into me but….
Don’t look to profit from sorrow. Well, the example that Kongtrul gives is you hope that misfortune will…you know, “I hope that this person dies, so I get the inheritance.” Or, you know, “Well if that person has a car accident, then I’ll get his job.” This is a completely wrong way to be thinking—if you’re training in mind training—because you’re actually wishing harm on another person for your own personal benefit.
So again, these are things to be avoided. Now, realistically these kinds of thoughts arise all the time. Here’s where it’s important to recognize them as thoughts. You can’t stop thoughts from arising. And we never know what the next thought’s going to be, so we don’t really have much say about that either. What we do have is a say about is whether we experience it as a thought or experience it as a fact. There’s a huge difference there.
So when thoughts arise, if we experience it as thought it doesn’t matter. It just goes and we’re resting in awareness. If we experience it as a fact, then that’s where we need that remembering to come in. And this is where taking and sending works very, very well. Because as soon as that thought comes up, you know, “Gee, I hope that person has a car accident so I can get his job.” And if our practice is well trained, as soon as that thought arises we’ll go, “Oh, may the wish for revenge of all sentient beings come into this wish of harm for me, or harm or revenge or whatever.” So as soon as the thought arises we’ve moved into something else, and that way we’ve stepped out of that. So it just arises, it’s transformed into, actually, a virtuous sentiment. And it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t become part of our habituated way of thinking.
This is how taking and sending works. And the same way, you know, like, “Oh wow, I just did a really good thing there. I must be a really, really good person. I’m probably better than anybody else in the world—[Snaps fingers]—May all the pride of all sentient beings come into me” And send something appropriate to them. When you’re well trained in taking and sending, that’s how it’s working. That anytime any thought arises, immediately [snaps fingers] clicks into place. And that only comes from doing it again, and again, and again.
Now, I think I mentioned this earlier in the retreat but it’s worth repeating. In Tibet there was an expression commenting on the difference between practitioners of Buddhism in India and practitioners of Buddhism in Tibet. And the saying is,
In India they practiced one deity and saw a hundred. In Tibet we practice a hundred and we see none. What this saying, is referring to, is that there is a tendency to try to cover all of the bases.
So, if you need a little intelligence you meditate on Manjushri. But then you want to be protected against earthquakes and inconveniences like that, so you pray to Green Tara. But then you want to have a long life, so you also pray to White Tara. But you may not think White Tara had enough juice, so you also pray to Amitayus or Amitabha. But then you know you’ve realized that some compassion would be good, so you also cultivated a relationship with Chenrezi, and then yeah, but you’re feeling a little weak in the world, so you meditate on vajra power, which is Vajrapani. So you ended up doing all these different practices.
In Indian Buddhism that wasn’t usually the case. A person was given one deity and they just went very, very deep with it. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. And it’s a wisdom that is recognized within the Tibetan tradition, though not always practiced.
So, I was reading some notes by Kongtrul when I was in retreat, and one of his little notes says:
When you’re studying, study everything under the sun.
Learn as much as you can. That’s good. When you’re thinking about things, you’re going through that process of reflection really understanding them deeply in ourselves keep a very open mind. Don’t succumb to prejudice because that just closes us down to possibilities. But when you practice, do one thing.
And you know, people who study with me learn a variety of techniques of meditation. Quite a lot actually. I’ve never counted how many I’ve learned. It’s probably somewhere around 150 to 200. And they all work. Absolutely every one of them works. They may not work for every person, but every one of them works for somebody. And in the Tibetan tradition there are literally thousands of techniques of meditation. You know, there are collections which have thousands of different practice methods.
What’s important is to find one that works for you and then really, really work it. So that it just becomes totally how you relate to the world. That’s what’s important. So, for some people it can be death and impermanence, for some people it’s the four immeasurables, for some people it’s taking and sending, for some people it’s mahamudra. Our retreat director, it was mahamudra. That’s all he did. And he was very, very good. What the right practice is for you is something you will find as you study and learn practices. And you’ll find ones that speak to you more than others. And you’ll find one that really works for you, and that’s the one you work with. So, this I think is very important.
A little over 5:30. Actually got through all of our 18 instructions there. One or two questions before we close. Covered a lot of material. Yes?
Student: What is the mahamudra, concisely speaking?
Ken: Concisely speaking, it’s a form of meditation in which you sit in open awareness. So it doesn’t have any structure to it. If you look in here on page 17, you’ll see that the fourth instruction there is:
The essence of path rests in the basis of all experience. And then the commentary there,
You are clear knowing that is beyond intellect and empty clarity in which experience arises unceasingly. Okay? That’s buddha nature. When you recognize it, you just rest in that. Now, it’s a good idea to be able to recognize it, otherwise you don’t know where to rest. Okay? Leslie. Agnes.
Leslie: Isn’t there…I mean, couldn’t there be an argument made for mahamudra. Because isn’t that the one that’s supposed to allow you to have enlightenment in this life?
Ken: I think you can do pretty well with taking and sending, too. You know, you have all of this propaganda. There are a number of teachings which promise enlightenment in this life. Take your choice. Certainly mahamudra’s a wonderful practice. Taking and sending’s a wonderful practice. They’re all very good practices. In choosing the practice that is right for you, I suggest you don’t go by the one that has the most stars associated with it. You go by the one which actually speaks to you. It doesn’t have to be the most famous one or the best one. It may be the one which, you know, “That’s it.” I mean there are so many powerful deity practices. Dezhung Rinpoche, who was one of my teachers, he dropped all of them and just did Chenrezi. And when he came to America he thought, “This is what I’m gonna do, and I want to complete a hundred million manis before I die.” So that’s what he was doing all the time. And that was his practice. Okay?
Agnes: Could you elaborate a little bit more when you say what you were just saying—prescriptive, descriptive, or whatever, these are amoral?
Ken: Buddhism is amoral in the sense that I said at the beginning of this talk. Ordinary morality is about how we comport ourselves in society. So that society, you know, we don’t want people running around killing each other and stealing from each other. Buddhism’s not concerned with that at all. We don’t steal. We don’t kill. The reason we refrain from killing or stealing or lying is not because it creates problems in society—and in that sense it’s amoral—it’s because it creates problems in our experience. That was my comment there. It’s my way of being cute.
Agnes: Yes. You got me all confused, because I thought the eight-fold path and all these things it has something to do with morality, you know.
Ken: But it’s very, very dubious whether sila should be translated as morality. Sila is a Sanskrit word. Because morality and ethics is primarily about, “How do you function in society?” Where this area of Buddhist discipline is, “How do you live what you are practicing?” That’s the intention there. So it’s coming from a very different place. Okay?
Agnes: So it’s a semantic difference?
Ken: It’s actually an intentional difference. Yeah.
Agnes: I don’t know. I always thought amoral meaning a person who cannot distinguish between right and wrong, therefore is amoral?
Ken: Yes, and that’s the usual definition. And as I said, I was being a little cute there by suggesting that a Buddhist practitioner isn’t concerned with the right and wrong defined by society.
Agnes: So it’s inherent.
Agnes: Then it’s empty.
Agnes: If it’s inherent then it’s empty, then it’s amoral, it doesn’t have any…
Ken: No, no. There are ways that we can act that support or undermine our practice. And the basis of Buddhist morality is, “What supports or undermines our practice?” It’s not the conventional notion of right and wrong. That’s the distinction I’m making. Okay?
All right, let’s close here for dinner and we’ll meet at 7:00 in the Zendo.