Teachings | Training
What Is Ultimately True Download
Review of lineage; 5 practices on awakening to what is ultimately true: regard everything you experience as a dream, examine the nature of unborn awareness, the remedy itself releases naturally, the essence of the path: rest in the basis of all experience, in daily life, be a child of illusion. 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.
A great source of power and strength in the Buddhist tradition, in my mind, is the emphasis on lineage. In the Kagyu tradition, the lineage prayer, which is part of the preliminary practices, has 43 or 44 teachers in it. So it’s quite a long list now. And it goes back to Saraha, around the third century of the Common Era. And the emphasis on lineage has created some interesting anomalies in the Buddhist tradition. In the Tibetan tradition the inevitable gaps and historical gaps were usually accounted for by certain individuals having extraordinarily long lives—several hundred years in a couple of cases. The Zen tradition took quite a different approach, they just made up a bunch of names to fill it in.
Recently I had occasion to attend a talk by a Burmese teacher who was trained in a tradition which doesn’t have any formal meditation practice; it’s totally mindfulness in your life. And she’s very solid. But someone gave me a reference to her lineage and it’s a small tradition of monks who live in the jungles of Burma. They actually trace their lineage right back to Buddha Shakyamuni, very explicitly.
And the importance of lineage is that not only is it a guarantor, if you wish, of the validity of the teachings—they’ve been passed from generation, teacher to student, generation after generation. But every one of those teachers has used this practice for their own spiritual awakening. So realistically speaking each one of them makes a bit of contribution to it because it’s not something that is theoretical. It’s something alive that they have used themselves. And the importance of lineage then is a way of insuring that the very life of the teachings passes from generation to generation.
So I want to spend a few minutes just acquainting you with some of the many names in the lineage prayer. Now, I’m in no way a Buddhist scholar and there are many, many people who really know who all of these people are in far more detail than I do.
The prayer starts off with Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and here is one of those little anomalies that I was talking about; it goes straight to Maitreya. Now Maitreya hasn’t yet appeared. He’s the Buddha of the future. Right now he’s hanging out in the Tushita Heavens waiting for his time, just as Shakyamuni did before him. However, the Indian master Asanga—many of you may know the story, it’s in my book—about how Asanga meditated in a cave for many years, praying to see Maitreya and nothing ever appeared.
So he walked out and came across this person who had a feather which he’d dip in water and sprinkle against this cliff. And Asanga said “What are you doing?” He said: “Well, this cliff is blocking the sun from my house, so I’m washing it away.” Asanga thought: “Oh, this person’s got great perseverance. I’ve only been praying to see Maitreya for three years. I better go back and try some more.” And he goes through several incidents like this and eventually he has this vision or comes across this mangy dog and tries to heal the sores and the dog with his own tongue. And this last act of compassion clears away his obscurations. He finds himself looking at the feet of Maitreya.
And, so that’s how the connection is made between Buddha Shakyamuni through Maitreya to Asanga. And then Asanga and Vasubandhu, I think, were brothers.
Now, there’s another important piece here. The Mahayana tradition—in Tibet anyway—had two main lineages. One is called the lineage of Profound Meaning and the other is the lineage of Vast Action. The Profound Meaning came through Manjushri and Nagarjuna and Vast Action came through Maitreya and Asanga. And the meaning of the lineage of Profound Meaning focused principally on understanding how things are. And so you get all of Nagarjuna’s exposition of emptiness and all of those dialectics. The tradition of Vast Action emphasized living awake and in presence. And that’s why it’s called the lineage of Vast Action, and that comes through Asanga. And this teaching is primarily in that lineage.
Then he goes through a whole list of Indian masters down to Dharmakirti who lived, as far as we can tell, in Indonesia. And Atisha journeyed to Indonesia by boat, which was a very dangerous undertaking in those days, and received the mind training teachings from him. Atisha—in the way I was describing yesterday—came to Tibet and his principle student was Dromton Gyalwe Rinpoche, who was a layperson actually like us. And from there it went into the monastic tradition: Potowa, Sharawa, and to Chekawa who wrote The Seven Points of Mind Training.
Then it follows the Kadampa tradition, which is one of the four original lineages in Tibet, and comes into the Shangpa tradition with Drungpa Choje Kunga Chokdrup, which is the last line on page five there. It then follows the Shangpa tradition which was the lineage of my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche.
Another very significant name in that is Taranatha who is a brilliant scholar and extraordinary historian as well as a wonderful writer about practice. Many of the texts that we studied in three-year retreat were written by Taranatha.
Student: How do you know this is Taranatha? Did you mention that previously?
Ken: I didn’t say it last night? Well, I’ll take your word for it. The first one is Drolma because that’s what Tara is, Natha, and oh, Drolma Gonpo is Taranatha. Just had to remember the Sanskrit. Natha is Lord or Protector that’s Gonpo and Tara is Drolma. Drolma Gonpo.
Now the Shangpa tradition—for various political reasons we don’t need to go into—was basically suppressed and there was a very, very thin line of transmission which interestingly enough included the heads of several other lineages. So you come down to Trinle Shingta was a Drukpa Kagyu lineage holder; Tsewang Norbu was a Nyingmapa lineage holder; Tai Situ Tenpa Nyinje was the Tenth Situ Rinpoche who’s the Karma Kagyu lineage holder and so forth, down to Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye who is the author of this text. And this was another person whose texts we studied a lot in the three-year retreat.
Lodro Thaye lived in the nineteenth century and did a tremendous amount to gather rare lineages which were in danger of being lost and put them together in these huge collections and preserved them. Khakyab Dorje was the Fifteenth Karmapa. Shiwa Nyingpo, Padma Wangchuk Gyalpo, and Palden Khyentse Ozer were all very important teachers in eastern Tibet in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Norbu Dondrup was the teacher of Kalu Rinpoche, his primary teacher, and Rangjung Kunchab is the actual name of Kalu Rinpoche, my own teacher. And I received this teaching primarily from Kalu Rinpoche, but also from a Drukpa lama. He was actually the first person who gave this line of teaching to me.
I was in Delhi, and it was murderously hot. And the Canadian High Commissioner said, “The head of the Drukpa Kagyu is in town. Why don’t you go and visit him?” So I went through this crazy motorized rickshaw drive through regions of Delhi. I had no idea where I was. And by the time I got there I had a splitting headache. I was dead from the heat, dying of thirst. So the only question I had for him was, “What do you do when you’re suffering?” What he said was, “You take in the suffering of others and give out your own happiness.” I had a very difficult time relating to the instruction at that point.
But I’ve also received teachings from Dezhung Rinpoche, a Sakya lama who lived in Seattle for many years. We studied this deeply in retreat with many other teachers. So that’s to give you some idea of the historical framework for this lineage.
Two other small points. The line,
to dismiss and dispel, which occurs in the lineage prayer—dismiss means to get rid of attachment to an identity or self-image, popularly known as ego-clinging, but I don’t like to use that translation anymore. And dispel is to dispel the power of reactive emotions.
If any of you have any questions about any of the prayers at any time, please feel free to bring them up. I’ll be quite happy to explain them to the best of my ability.
Student: Could I ask, from the prayer we did last night, two aspects of awakened mind?
Ken: Yes, they are usually translated as relative bodhicitta and ultimate bodhicitta or absolute bodhicitta. I prefer to translate them as awakening mind for what is ultimately true and awakening mind for what is apparently true. Okay, but they’re usually translated as relative and ultimate, or relative and absolute.
Buddhist shorthand, you know, it’s murderous. Awakening mind for what is ultimately true. What is ultimately true? All experience is empty. So to hold that in mind is that the easiest way to do it is to regard everything as a dream. We’re going right into that instruction. And awakening to what is apparently true essentially means compassion. So it means to hold emptiness and compassion in your experience all the time.
Now, as I said earlier, the essence of the Mahayana is compassion and emptiness. We are studying the Mahayana tradition of mind training, which basically means we are studying compassion and emptiness. The emphasis in our work is going to be on the compassion aspect, but this work takes place on the ground of emptiness. So our first period of meditation will be concerned with this. And there are four instructions. And you will find these on page 36 in the booklet:
Look at all experience as a dream.
Examine the nature of unborn awareness.
Even the remedy releases naturally.
The essence of the path: rest in the basis of all experience.
And then, for going about the day:
In daily life be a child of illusion.
This first instruction:
Look at all experience as a dream. The first piece here is to understand a little bit about the nature of experience. [Ken holds up a book] What do you experience?
Student: A book.
Ken: Okay, that’s the starting point. That’s what most of us would say, “The back of the book.” Is that what you actually experience? Any particular color? Brownish. So this is the first step. From the color and the shape and many, many other associations which come down to us through the process of growing up, we infer, “Oh, back of book.” But color and shape are a little bit closer. Let’s continue. What do you experience?
Because there isn’t just color and shape here. There is also the looking or seeing, right? Now can you see? Can you experience seeing without an object? Can you experience a visual object without seeing? These are very deep questions. We’re talking about seeing right now. You can’t experience a visual object without seeing, and you can’t see without there being a visual object. So, what’s the relationship between seeing and the object? In terms of experience? Yeah, you can’t separate them. So what we experience is seeing color and shape. Now we have the big question, Where does that seeing take place?
Student: In my brain.
Ken: In my brain?
Ken: Yeah, that’s when. Where?
Ken: Where is “here?” Gee, Elizabeth, I don’t think there’s enough room in this room for the two of us. Okay, where does it take place?
Student: In the looking.
Ken: In the looking? Where’s the looking? Nowhere?
Student: Did we already say “in the mind?”
Ken: Well, I’ll just ask where “the mind” was then. So, that wouldn’t get you anywhere. Several people sort of figured that one out. That’s why they weren’t saying, “in the mind.” Yeah.
Where does the seeing take place? Ah, the intersection. Between what and what? Okay, so it gets rather difficult to say doesn’t it? Okay, let’s go a little further. Okay, shall we try that again? Okay, so where did the seeing come from? Where did it actually come from? There’s an experience that arose, right? There was an experience that arose. Where did that experience arise from? Anybody?
Ken: Nowhere? Okay. So now we got two down. It doesn’t come from anywhere. It isn’t anywhere. Let’s try one more. Where does it go?
Student: Your lap.
Ken: Do I have your seeing on my lap? Well, I don’t want it. Here, take it back. Okay, so what do you usually say about something that doesn’t come from anywhere, isn’t anywhere, and doesn’t go anywhere? [pause] It doesn’t exist. Yet there it is.
This is the nature of experience. And when you look at it just as experience, it takes on a somewhat dreamlike quality doesn’t it? This is what it means to say,
Regard everything as a dream. Regard what you experience, the experiencing itself, as a dream. You don’t go around saying, “I’m real and everything around me is a dream.” That’s not what it means. The experiencing itself is a dream.
Now what happens when you do that? Things open up, don’t they? If someone gets upset with you, what happens? If you fall in love with somebody? People get quite good at working with anger as being a dream, but as soon as they fall in love, they’re gone. Much harder for people to work with, but it’s actually the same thing. Okay. Now regard everything that you experience as a dream. That’s the first line. What experiences the dream?
Student: Did you ask, “What experiences the dream?”
Ken: Yes. What experiences the dream? Look. What do you see? No thing. Okay, is it actually no thing in the sense of empty space? No. There is this a knowing quality there as well. This is what the second line means:
Examine the nature of unborn awareness. And examine…did I use the word examine? I did, okay.
Examine does not mean think about. It does not mean analyze. It means to look right at. You might say scrutinize. Just to look, look very, very carefully. As you become more adept with this you find yourself looking at nothing. And what most people have difficulty with, is not seeing nothing—we can all do that—but is maintaining attention in seeing nothing. That’s much harder. And one of the purposes of meditation practice is to develop the capacity of attention so that you can rest in the seeing of nothing and not fall into distraction or dullness. So that’s the second line,
Examine the nature of unborn awareness. So you look, first you regard everything as a dream. You look at what experiences the dream. You see nothing. Then what happens? None of you have done this before?
Ken: Yeah, after the panic what happens?
Student: It dissipates.
Ken: Yeah. But sometimes something happens before it dissipates.
Ken: Yes, there’s a calmness and then what happens? Obviously everybody’s meditation experience is much better than mine. I’ll tell you what happens with me. There I am, I look and think…I go, “Oh, everything is empty. Ah, there’s nothing here.” You know those kinds of thoughts arise, right? Does this happen to anybody else? Am I just all alone here? [laughter] Oh, okay.
Now, this is where the third line comes in.
The remedy itself releases naturally.> Because, you know, this is what we’re talking about. “Everything is empty. No good or bad in emptiness,” etc. But these are just thoughts. And the instruction is, look right at the thought and see what it is in the same way we looked at the experience of seeing. And what happens when you do that?
Ken: Yeah, “poof” and that’s what it means. That’s what the line means. Even the remedy releases naturally. That is, when you direct attention right into it, what is it? It releases naturally. You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t have to push it away or try not to be distracted. And you return to resting in seeing no thing. Okay? You can observe that you’re thinking and just watch the thoughts parade across. This is a more awake quality, a more active quality where you’re looking right into the thought.
Experientially it’s the difference between watching people go by you and looking right into their eyes. Okay? And you know if you watch people go by you, they just go by you. You look right into their eyes, different things start happening. You follow?
You just look right at it. What is it? Not what it’s about. What is it?
Student: As experience.
Ken: Yeah, as experience. What is it? There it is. Now it just arises—right at it. It’s there. And then you’ll find that that quality of looking dissipates. And another thought will arise, you know, “Well, this is nice.” Look right at that. It’s that looking quality that is the characteristic of wakefulness. You follow?
Now, these three instructions describe what is known in the Tibetan tradition as examining meditation, examining practice. That is, regard all experience as dreams. Examine the nature of unborn awareness. Even the remedy is released naturally. Just what we’ve described. Through this you develop the capacity to rest with stability in looking. And that’s what the fourth line describes, what you do.
The essence of the path, rest in the basis of all experience.
One description of ordinary experience is that you have the five consciousnesses associated with each of the senses. So you have the consciousness of seeing, the consciousness of hearing, the consciousness of touch, the consciousness of taste, the consciousness of smell. You also have the sixth, the consciousness of thought. “Right, I’m thinking something.” When we rest in meditation, the activity of those six consciousnesses dies down. We find ourselves initially resting in the seventh consciousness which is called the emotional mind. It’s called the emotional mind because this is where the sense of I resides. And so you’ll sit very peacefully in practice and there will be a sense of, “I’m here.”
Now, there’s not a lot of reactivity at this level, because the mind is pretty quiet. But it’s very much oriented around a sense of self. And any objects that arise are immediately appraised as attractive, aversive, or indifferent. Through the instruction of looking at experience, you actually get the mind to rest even more deeply. And you find yourself resting in what’s called the eighth consciousness, which is called the basis of everything consciousness, or the basis of experience consciousness. The subjective experience of this is empty clear mind. It is frequently mistaken for enlightenment. Because everything is open—very clear—the mind is totally at rest. However, as soon as there is any movement in mind, the sense of I, or object arises, along with attraction, aversion, and indifference.
As Dezhung Rinpoche explained to me, the basis of everything consciousness is like ice. By practicing in this way—with the mind very awake—and looking so you have that active attention. And you are looking into experience and at rest at the same time. And that’s what’s very important here, that stability quality and that looking quality together. You rest in the eighth consciousness—the basis of everything consciousness—and it melts. Its structural integrity dissolves.
Now you experience mind as empty, clear, and immediate. It has a very alive, dynamic quality to it. Now when experience arises there is no preference. There is no judgment. There is no sense of Ior separation. And that’s why it says,
The essence of the path, rest in the basis of everything. And this basis of everything isn’t the basis of everything consciousness, it’s the basis of everything. Unceasing.
Now, the way that you cultivate that ability is to be awake and present at the same time. And you’ll find when you do this that you’ll be able to set the mind, be totally awake and clear, look and be seeing nothing, and rest there. And then the quality of attention will dissipate a bit. At that point, what most people do is to try to hold onto what was there before. Deadly. Doesn’t work at all. Relax completely at that point, and then reset. And when it dissipates again, relax, and then reset.