What Is Ultimately True Download
Practice on awakening to what is apparently true: taking and sending. The audio for this series of podcasts was originally recorded on audio cassette. As such you may find the sound to be of a lower quality.
One of my favorite stories is of Seung Sunim, who’s a Korean Zen teacher, giving a talk on the east coast at a dharma center. And Seung Sunim starts off his talk with, “What is the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching? If you say anything, I’ll hit you. If you don’t say anything, I’ll hit you.” One student takes up the challenge and says, “I hit the Buddha.” To which Seung Sunim replies, “You understand one. Do you understand two?” The student replies, “I understand three.” He wasn’t going to be outdone, you see. And Seung Sunim summarizes with, “I thought there was a leaping lion here, but I see that there’s just a slinking fox.”
Now this is a typical, highly coded Zen exchange. When Seung Sunim asks or challenges, “What is the meaning of the Buddha’s teaching? If you say anything, I will hit you. If you don’t say anything, I will hit you,” he’s asking somebody to stand in their own experience. “If you don’t say anything, I’ll hit you,” because you’re not willing to stand in your own experience. If you say something and it’s just parroting the words of the Buddha, “I’ll hit you.” So you’ve got to come right from where you are. So this student says, “I hit the Buddha,” saying “I don’t need Buddha, I’m right here.” A little presumptuous perhaps, but one has to admire his temerity.
And Seung Sunim says, “You understand one. Do you understand two?” Well the one is the one nature of all experience. Empty. What does the two refer to?
Ken: Anybody else?
Student: The arising of experience.
Ken: Yes, that’s right. The arising of experience. Because in the arising of experience there’s subject/object—two. So what Seung Sunim was saying is, “You understand the nature of all experience, do you understand how experience arises?” Or course, the student had no idea what he was talking about. “I understand three.” Which is why Seung Sunim dismissed the response.
This morning, I talked about, or gave you a set of instructions, which had to do with awakening to what is ultimately true. Just being, without any qualification. But that’s not enough to negotiate the world. So now we’ll turn to this other aspect. These nasty things which arise and cause so much inconvenience and difficulty in our lives. How do they arise and how do we work with them? This is awakening to what is apparently true, because this is what appears to us as being real or being true. But isn’t. It isn’t real or true the way that we ordinarily experience it to be because our experience is based on a misperception. But you still have to deal with things.
Now, for those of you who are so inclined, the development of Buddhist philosophy over the centuries is a very accurate record of the problems that people encounter in meditation practice. The only difference is that the development of the philosophical schools took several centuries to unfold. And most people experience these difficulties in meditation practice over the course of several years.
But one goes through the Theravadan schools in which it’s quite clear that the I doesn’t exist, but everything else does. And then you go into the Yogacara schools, or the mind-only schools. Well, everything is mind, everything is experience, there is nothing outside of experience. Then you go into the Svatantrika Madhyamika and then the Prasangika Madhyamaka, and so on and so on.
And you eventually get to the philosophical position that what is ultimately true and what is apparently true are not different. There was a major debate about this for several centuries. Even though you will see reference in Buddhist texts, time and time again, to the two truths, Tibetan bden-pa gnyis. In almost any Mahayana text you read in translation, you will see mentioned the two truths. The two truths are what is ultimately true and what is apparently true. I am giving you that so you can decode the translations. But in the end, what is ultimately true is not separate from what is apparently true. And we are going to go into this in more detail when we turn to the Heart Sutra. For our purposes, this morning’s meditation,
Everything is like a dream
Examine the nature of unborn awareness
Let even the remedy release naturally
The essence of the path is rest in the basis of everything
Now, when you rest in the basis of everything, that is, you rest—let the mind clear, empty, open—does experience stop? No. And this points directly. Experience doesn’t stop. Is it necessary to be disturbed by what arises in experience?
Ken: No. How many of you still have a little tendency to be disturbed. [Laughter] That’s another story. That’s what we’re working at. But you begin to see the possibility of being able to experience anything without disturbance. Guess what that’s called?
Ken: We go a little further than equanimity.
Ken: Yeah. It’s the third noble truth.
Student: Cessation of suffering.
Ken: Cessation of suffering. That’s what it’s actually referring to. You know, so it’s a little bit more than equanimity.
Now, there are those whose capacity in attention is such that when they are introduced to resting in what is ultimately true, it just clicks. They have talent. Our retreat director was somewhat like this. I got into a big argument with him because for two months we were meant to be doing The Great Path of Awakening, and taking and sending, and all of that stuff. In the second retreat that I was in, he just went, “Nah, don’t worry about this.” And I said, “You know, you shouldn’t have done this!” And he just looked at me after I had been arguing with him for about half an hour, and said, “It’s okay Ken, these techniques worked for you. They never worked for me. So I’m not going to teach them!”
But he could just rest in mind-nature. And literally just rest. And very, very little ever disturbed him. And he would experience what arose in his mind, and experience it with complete clarity and openness. I mean you got him talking about the clarity of mind, it got really interesting. But he didn’t use this technique.
So there are people like this. For the rest of us, you know, the more screwed up you are, the heavier machinery you have to use. [Laughter] So we’re going to start developing some machinery now. Don’t worry, none of you are more screwed up than me! [Laughter] I haven’t met a student yet who’s as screwed up as me, so maybe I’ll have a pleasant surprise. [Laughter] Oh, good! You volunteering there, Claudia?
Okay. What screws us up with what arises in experience?
Student: We think it’s real.
Ken: Yeah, but what do we do because we think that it’s real?
Students: We react to it.
Ken: Yeah, we react to it. Okay, and how do we react to it?
Student: Push away.
Ken: Pardon? “Cling,” you said?
Student: Push away.
Ken: Oh, push away. Well that’s exactly right. We do one of those two things. [Laughter] We either…
Student: Or ignore.
Ken: Or ignore. That’s right.
Well, that’s part of getting involved in that. But for the most part, anything that supports our sense of self we say, “I like that.” And anything that threatens our sense of self, we say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that,” and push it away. Or destroy it. And anything that doesn’t seem to make much difference, we ignore. Which has some interesting consequences too.
So, what taking and sending does—it’s a very simple technique, you know—it takes what we ordinarily do, and reverses it. It just does the opposite. What is this like? It’s like rubbing two sticks together. One stick is the habituated pattern of taking what we like and pushing away what we don’t like. And the other stick is the practice. Which is taking what we don’t like, giving away what we do like, and these rub together. What happens when you rub two sticks together?
Student: They get hot.
Ken: Right. And you keep rubbing them?
Ken: Okay, so that’s the object. And what happens to the two sticks?
Student: They burn up.
Ken: Okay, that’s the object of this practice. Is for everything to burn up. What happens when everything burns up?
Student: Energy is released.
Ken: What? Yeah, what happens? What happens to…?
Student: Energy is released.
Ken: Yeah, energy is released. And hopefully you can transform that into attention, otherwise we’ve got some serious problems. But what happens?
Student: You’re left present.
Ken: Yeah. You’re left present. Just it. In other words it takes you right back into awakening to what is ultimately true. You follow? So that’s what’s actually going on here.
So. Now, Tibetan meditation manuals such as this are extraordinarily concise. And if you turn to page 12 and 13, you will see, he has a few paragraphs on loving-kindness and compassion.
This person, my mother, has looked after me with great effort right from the moment I was conceived in the womb, because she endured all the hardships of illness, cold, hunger and others. Because she gave me food and clothing and wiped away my filth, and because she taught me what is good, and steered me away from evil, I met the teachings of Buddha and am now practicing the dharma. What tremendous kindness. Not only in this life, but in an infinite series of lives, she has done exactly the same thing. While she has worked for my welfare, she herself wanders in samsara and experiences many different forms of suffering.
This is a traditional meditation that is used to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion.
Now when most people read this, they think, “Okay that’s nice, yeah, I got the point.” Realistically speaking, those two pages, represent minimum six to eight months work on regular practice on just those two things, so you actually develop loving-kindness and compassion.
A number of people here were with me in Colorado Springs, where we did the four immeasurables over a whole weekend. And that was a rushed course. Yeah Gail, you were there. But when I am working with people in Los Angeles, we usually spend minimum of six to eight months on this. So something really solid develops inside. And that’s very, very important, because that’s the basis of taking and sending.
So even though we’re going through this very, very quickly, even in the ten days here, if you decide to make taking and sending your practice, I really encourage you to take some time and do the meditations on the four immeasurables. You can find one version of them in my book, Wake Up to Your Life. Pema Chodron has a number of them. Also Sharon Salzburg has a book on loving-kindness, on metta practice. Very, very helpful as a basis.
I practiced taking and sending for several years, before doing the three-year retreat, and I got a lot out of the practice. But in the first three-year retreat, we had two months set aside for taking and sending. And I decided on my own to take the first month—and we were meditating eight to twelve hours a day, so, it’s a lot of time—I took the first month and did two weeks on loving-kindness from Jewel Ornament of Liberation, then two weeks on compassion. And then spent the last months on taking and sending. And it’s such a different experience, because I had established that foundation. So, do pay attention to this. It really makes a difference.
Now, the actual practice of taking and sending consists of a very simple principle. As we breathe in, the root instruction is,
Train in taking and sending alternately. Put them on the breath, very simple. But there are a few little wrinkles in here. I’m going to do my best to explain them as clearly as possible.
When you breathe in, you take in the suffering of others. Now, you can make that very explicit, or you can make it very general. Both work. And some people work better doing it very generally, some people work better doing it very explicitly. But everybody experiences initially, a resistance to it. Like, “Oooh, do I want to take this in?” Particularly in this age of New Age thinking. Everybody’s afraid that they’re going to be dirtied by other people’s suffering. Two thousand five hundred years of Buddhist history, it hasn’t happened yet. I think we can write that one off.
So you’re going to take in the suffering of others. And you imagine that you experience that suffering. The first thing that happens is there is resistance to this. There’s a reaction, “I don’t want it. I’m afraid of it.” That’s the first thing that happens. So, don’t skip over that reaction. As soon as you feel that fear or reluctance or resistance, take that in. So experience your own reaction completely. So the first stage of taking and sending is using it to experience your own reactions completely.
And with the out breath, when you breathe out, you’re imagining you’re giving away all your happiness, intelligence, wealth, joy, virtue, courage, patience, understanding, your favorite ring, your house, car, your enjoyment of music. All of that stuff. And you’re giving that to other people. What’s the first thing you experience when you do this? “I don’t wanna.” And again, do not skip over this.
As you breathe out, let yourself experience that reluctance, that resistance. But you may find some other things in here, also. As you breathe in the suffering, you may think, “Hey! This is not bad. I mean, I can do something for the world here.” So there can be a kind of joy in that. Don’t skip over it. And when you’re giving out, you think, “Yeah, I mean it’s nice to give things to the world.” The act of giving actually makes the mind clear, makes the mind more open. And so as soon as you recognize that, give that too. In other words, do not skip over whatever reactions arise in connection with the taking and sending. The first step is really to use the practice to come in touch with those.
Now, what happens when you experience a reaction completely?
Student: It’s gone.
Ken: Yeah, it’s gone. When you experience something completely, it’s finished. And that’s very important here. By experiencing these reactions, in either direction completely, they dissolve. They disappear. Now you can actually do taking and sending because you don’t have those impediments. You don’t have that resistance. Now, ironically…easier to work from here.
And over time, the level of resistance decreases. So you don’t have to spend so much time. But you always have to deal with our own reactions first. Whatever the practice. So, if you look at the root text on page 36, it says:
Train in taking and sending alternately. Put them on the breath. And three lines below that you find,
Begin the sequence of taking with you. And that’s what I am talking about here. This is a line that’s often skipped over. It’s extremely important. Otherwise one tends to practice taking and sending suppressing one’s own reactions to the process. What happens when you suppress your own reactions? Yep, they get stronger. They go into the body, you get sick, all kinds of things happen.
Student: Isn’t that about taking on suffering?
Student: Isn’t it about taking on suffering?
Ken: Isn’t that what you’re doing when you are taking in your reactions? That’s exactly what you’re doing. And yes, the classical way of saying is, “taking on your own suffering.” They talk about all the suffering in the future, etc., etc, but it really means opening to your own reactions, right now. Okay?
Student: And they’ll all show up?
Ken: Oh yes, if you give them a chance, they’ll all show up! They’re quite helpful that way. Be generous, let them come.
Now a couple of other things. In order to make the practice a little more vivid, or give you something a bit more to hold onto. The general instruction is, when you breathe in, imagine all of the suffering and negativity and pain and craziness and criminality. You know murders, rage and all of those things. That’s what you’re going to be working with. And things like cancer, and leukemia, and wasting diseases and things like that. And everything that is painful and ugly and horrible in the world.
You know, people who torture. I mean, put yourself in the state of mind of people who torture others. And take in that state of mind. That gets a little intense. And what it’s like to be tortured, take that in.
The classical instruction is, imagine this taking the form of thick black smoke, which actually congeals about this far in front of you, and you just breathe it in. And it comes into your heart. And then as you breathe out all your happiness, and intelligence and good health, and wealth and enjoyment, and everything that you enjoy, and cherish and value in your life; that takes the form of white light, silver light, like moonlight. And from your heart comes out, through your nostrils and goes out to everyone.
One wrinkle on this that Rinpoche used to teach, is that you take in the black through the right nostril. And you breathe out the white through the left nostril. You just imagine this. You aren’t blocking the air passages or anything like that. You imagine the black coming in and the white going out.
Student: Is it different for women according to tantra?
Ken: Well, I never heard that instruction, according to tantra. It could be opposite for women. I’m not sure that it makes much difference. And the reason I’m not sure that it makes much difference is that the key thing here is there’s an alternation going on. So, physiologically, you’re switching from one side of the brain to the other very rhythmically. And this actually induces a deeper sense of resting.
That’s how I have always practiced it, that way. But I can’t actually give you a definite answer on that. In the tantric physiology, the reactive channel and the wisdom channel are reversed. So it would seem to make sense to do that.
Student: Black in the left and light out the right?
Ken: No, you reversed it. The way that I was taught, black comes in the right, and the light goes out the left. In tantric physiology, that probably should be reversed for women. Okay? That’s another wrinkle.
Let’s take some questions on this. If there are any, before we go any further. Pat.
Pat: Isn’t there a duality there?
Ken: Realistically, you’re going to do this in probably five or ten different ways yourself. They’ll just come to you. But don’t think, “Oh, I have to really get into it,” and just keep bringing in the suffering, and bringing in the suffering. Or, “I’m not connecting with the happiness. So I have to do that for a while now.” As you develop more facility, you find that you can breathe in the suffering with one, breathe out the happiness. So they are actually both happening simultaneously. And that’s actually what you want to develop. So there isn’t a duality there.
Now, in listening to these instructions, and many of you have experience with this practice, how many of you find it easier to take in the suffering than give out the happiness? Okay. How many find it easier to send out the happiness than take in the suffering? Okay. Well, both kinds of people exist. It’s very important to do both. [Laughter] Okay?
Those who are used to taking in suffering in their lives, they get really into taking in the suffering you see. And they get heavier, and heavier, and heavier. They get, “Oh, I’m really getting into the practice,” and they’re getting heavier, and heavier, and more and more depressed. But just fits with them perfectly because this is what they’re used to.
For these people, the sending practice is really hard. Why? Because in order to send, you have to feel that you’ve got something to send! And this is totally contrary to their self-image. “I am nothing.” You know, “I am the dregs of the world. Give me the suffering, I’m comfortable with that.” And sending, “Oh, it’s very, very uncomfortable.” But that’s why it’s very important to send.
And equally you have people, “Oh, I feel great about everything, just don’t give me any of that suffering stuff.” So they can send happily to anybody, and things like that. But the idea, “Eeww, suffering, eeww, don’t want to touch that.” And so there is this wall between them and the rest of the world when it comes to things negative.
I had a friend who was just like this. You know, he was just, “Eeww, suffering.” Didn’t like that at all. So very important for him to take in the pain and tortured states of mind of others. So, work at both of them with approximately equal emphasis. And you’ll find very quickly, which one you’re predisposed to. But very, very important to work with both.
So, you take in the suffering, breathe out the happiness. And you have to relate to having something to give there, you know? Some intelligence, some good health, you know, something that you enjoy. You have to relate to those aspects of your life. Equally, when you’re taking in the suffering, you have to relate to those aspects of your life that you probably are ignoring. You don’t want to have anything to deal with. So there’s that.
Any other questions? Yes, Janaki.
Janaki: Are you saying that there’s no effort at all in the breathing, you just breathe normally?
Ken: Yes, do breathe normally. You’ll find that the rhythm of the breath in taking and sending, what it evolves to, is different from the rhythm of the breath when you’re just resting in the experience of breathing. It’s usually a bit longer. But it evolves quite naturally. Breathe naturally. Don’t try to control the breath in any way. Yes?
Student: Breathing out, I have trouble finding anything to send.
Ken: Well, okay, so he’s gonna breathe out. What’s the first thing you encounter? “I’ve got nothing to send.” Okay? Well, is that true?
Ken: No. What do you have to send? Are you alive?
Ken: Oh, you’ve got loads to send! [Laughter] There are lots of people dying in this world. Send them life! Right?
Ken: What else you got to send?
Student: I can walk.
Ken: You can walk. Send the ability to walk. Okay? You see how it starts to work? “Oh, I never appreciated I can walk. Oh, maybe I am not completely defunct after all!” [Laughter] Can you talk? You got all five sense faculties intact? Good. So you got a good start right there, don’t you? It goes on from there. Right?
And, if you notice, “I don’t want to take in that suffering,” you’re going to have to make an effort right there. And one of the ways is to have a little conversation with yourself. That’s what all of the phrases are about. You know,
May loss and defeat come to me, may victory and gain go to others. Those maxims are another of the instructions.
And as you do this over and over again, as you recognize the resistance, say, “Okay, there’s the resistance.” And you just feel it as you breathe in. So you don’t have to have that conversation. Do the same thing going out. And you actually feel, the discomfort, if you have that predisposition of sending stuff out. And as you send stuff out, you just feel the discomfort. So you actually just move into the experience.
The key principle in all Buddhist practice is to move into the experience of whatever is arising, right in the present. In the Theravadan tradition, this is characterized as the courage to endure what arises. Mahayana, we cheat. Everything’s a dream. Vajrayana, or direct awareness techniques, sit and be with everything. Never lose attention for a moment. Don’t try to make anything different. The mahamudra instructions—no distraction, no control, no work. That means you’re not distracted by anything; you don’t try to control your experience in any way; and you don’t work to make some kind of experience happen, or some kind of ability happen. You’re just right in what is. It’s the same right across all Buddhism. Move right into the experience and be there. The whole point of all of these different techniques is to develop that ability. Whether it’s Soto Zen, Theravadan, Vipashyana, visualization meditations, Six Yogas of Naropa, dzogchen. It all comes down to that point.
Okay. Now, there is a chance that some of you may be distracted by stray thoughts during your meditation. [Laughter] So I don’t want to leave that stone unturned. The instruction,
Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue, you’ll find that in there.
Now this is usually given in the context of how you go about your day, but you can also use it in meditation. That is, there you’re happily sitting doing taking and sending, hmm hmm hmm hmm [Ken hums] but you’re half asleep. And then you say, “You know, I really like that painting I saw in the store the other day.” And as soon as you recognize that, well that’s desire, right? Or attraction, one of the three poisons. So, the object is the picture, the object of attraction. The poison is attraction. And now, we turn it into a seed of virtue. How do you do that? You think, and you just take it straight into your practice, “May all the poison of attraction of all sentient beings come into me. May they all have all of the art and enjoyment of art that they want.” [Ken snaps his fingers] Done!
If you’re going along in your meditation and think, “I hate this practice! This is dumb practice,” okay, now you’re feeling aversion, right? Here the object is the practice. It’s become an object of aversion. There’s the poison. “May all the aversion to dharma practice in all sentient beings come into me.” Do the world a big favor right there. Right?
Student: You can use pain in the body?
Ken: Yeah. There are many ways to work with pain in the body in this. Okay? Pardon?
Student: I’ll take the knees.
Ken: You take the knees? Okay, you can have the knees. They are the least painful part of my body, but you can have them. [Laughter] Okay. So, “Oh, this is a very unpleasant experience.” Right? “May all the pain in the knees, that all sentient beings have ever experienced when they’ve done sitting meditation, come into me.” That’s a little daunting I know, but there you are. [Laughter]
And you think, “That’s cool, they’re all free of it.” That’s very important. When you take this pain in, you’re experiencing it for everyone else. You turn to the Eight Thoughts of Great Individuals? I think it’s in here.
Student: Page 10.
Ken: Page 10, yes. One of the last lines.
All the great burdens of intolerable sufferings in the hell realms may I take on myself. May those beings be free of them. So this is what you’re aiming to do. Yes?
Student: You use anything that comes up?
Ken: Yes, that’s right, yeah. And that’s the product of training. That you just do it. And the other phrase in the text here is,
Use maxims Is that how I translated it? I think I did
Use maxims to train in all forms of activity. So when you’re getting stuck in your meditation practice, just say to yourself, “May all loss and defeat come to me, may all gain and victory go to others. May all their suffering come to me, may all my happiness go to them.”
I do want to emphasize, this is an exchange. It’s not a transformation. Some people approach this practice as taking the suffering in, doing this little alchemy in the heart and sending it back out as happiness.