Bringing Life Into Practice Download
Common mistakes and pitfalls regarding emptiness and Mahamudra (believing emptiness is a thing, attempting to offer explanations to those who do not practice, etc.); a reading of One Sentence Pith Instruction and Recognizing Mind as Guru; integrating practice and life; questions from participants.
Three things for tonight. One is clarifying some meditation points, particularly around emptiness, because people make all kinds of really stupid mistakes around emptiness. Unfortunately it’s not exclusive to Americans. It seems to have been going on for ages because these stupid mistakes are written up in every mahamudra text that I’ve read. It raises questions about the intelligence of humanity.
Student: Present company included.
Ken: Well, I always think people are so much stupider now, but they seem to have been just as stupid in the past. I mean, Charles has been wondering why I’m an apostate. See, there’s another one—I don’t feel that humanity is evolving.
Student: Do you feel it’s degenerating?
Ken: No, I don’t feel it’s degenerating either. All the religious traditions, as part of their mythology, say that humanity is degenerating. The modernists turned it around into a different mythology and they think that humanity is evolving into something better. Neither are true.
Student: The amount of violence on the planet has diminished.
Student: Really? After the First and Second World Wars…
Ken: Oh yes and she’s quite right.
Student: Can you say that again?
Ken: The amount of violence is diminished and Leslie’s quite right. If you lived in a tribal society—if you were a male in a tribal society—the chances that you would be killed by another adult male were about 20 percent, unless you were in the Amazon, then it was 60 percent. Including both world wars and all of the ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century, the chances that you will be killed by another adult, and that’s how you will die, is about one or two percent. So when people say this is a very violent age it’s bullshit.
Student: We just do it [unclear].
Student: [Unclear] overpopulation.
Ken: Oh, yes, so we’ll kill each other off [unclear]. That will change. You know…
Student: Well, isn’t that evolution? Violence is diminishing.
Ken: I don’t think it’s evolution in any meaningful sense of the word. I think it’s just ’cause nothing has changed—it’s just the conditions have changed. As soon as the conditions change, the violence will be back. Have you read Collapse? It’s a little disheartening for a society to go from the peak to cannibalism—two generations at the max—it’s usually twenty years.
Ken: Because you’ve run out of food. It’s what you do. You start killing each other for food which is the most common reason for cannibalism.
Student: But all the structures that we have help keep society safer. I just think you’re wrong. I think there is evolution.
Ken: You’re entitiled to your opinion and when people are starving let’s see what happens.
Student: Yeah, well, so yeah, of course but all the structures that have developed help prevent that from happening.
Ken: Ah, we’re using evolution in two different ways.
Ken: Has humanity evolved? No. Have they evolved structures to govern themselves? Yes. Has humanity itself evolved? I don’t think so.
Student: Don’t you see the structures as part of—
Ken: No, because the structures are dependent on conditions. This happens every damn time in business, you know. When things are going well they bring in all of these consultants. They talk about, you know, getting together and teamwork, etc., etc. Everything goes really nicely and people are feeling really good about each other and creating this wonderful work space. And then the economy turns south. And all the people who buy into that, they’re the ones who get fired. And the people who are really hard and mean and aggressive and really know how to bring business in, they’re the ones that stay. It happens every time.
Student: Not every time. It’s a bit different, you know, like IBM in the depression didn’t lay off anybody, for example.
Ken: Well, there are exceptional businesses like that. But most businesses they go through that cycle. There are occasional instances…
Student: There are other countries besides America.
Ken: Same thing happened in Japan.
Student: There are other countries besides Japan.
Ken: Anyway, back to mahamudra. [Laughter]
Ken: What was that?
Ken: Oh yes, but you have to read it. Didn’t you see South Park Blame Canada? [Unclear] Canada…okay it’s the end of retreat. We’re allowed to do this.
Student: Can you define mahamudra?
Ken: No. [Laughter] You want a definition?
Ken: You would like a definition?
Student: I would like something I can give to other people when they say where did you go? What did you do? [Laughter] They’re not going to understand what I did.
Ken: They may not want a definition. I mean, a definition’s not going to help you at all for that. Because the term mahamudra is usually translated as the great seal. The seal being, you know, the stamp. And what is the great seal? The great seal is emptiness—everything is stamped with emptiness.
So, you have a choice. “Where did you go?” “I went to study mahamudra and practice mahamudra.” “Oh, okay.” Or you can say, “I’m gonna study the great seal.” It sounds like, you know, the great pumpkin. [Laughter]
Student: [Unclear] the walrus.
Ken: No, I mean it gets worse, you know. Okay, so just throw out all of that jargon. “Well, where’d you go?” “I went to study emptiness.” [Laughter] Okay, so that one doesn’t work either, so you can go further. “Well, what’d you do there?” “Well, we meditated.” “What did you meditate on?” “Nothing.” [Laughter] So you’re screwed already.
Student: I went to San Diego.
Ken: My suggestion: “I went to New Mexico and looked at the sky.” Now people could probably relate to that and you’re telling the absolute truth. And they say, “Well, what’d you get out of it?” And you say, “Well, it was pretty good actually.”
Student: What do I say?
Ken: It was pretty good. Yeah, look at the sky.
Student: You could use the word restful.
Ken: Yes. [Laughter]
Student: You went to New Mexico to rest. [Laughter]
[Several students talking at once]
Ken: Is this helpful?
Student: Yes, it is. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay. Now I’ve got to find my place again. Okay.
There are various very common mistakes that are made. One is to think that the point of the meditation is to have no thoughts. There are techniques of meditation in which you cultivate thought-free states for arbitrarily long periods—I refer to the jhana meditations and such. And the reason you do that is to develop a capacity in attention. But that’s not the point of mahamudra practice.
The point of mahamudra practice is to experience things as they are. And, as one person once said, “Thoughts are to the mind what sweat is to the body.” You know, you exercise the body and it sweats. Do stuff with the mind, thoughts arise.
The problem is—as I said at the beginning of this retreat—we take the thoughts to be facts. They consume all our attention and now we are no longer present in our experience; we are in the world of the thought. And the remedy for that is to develop a sufficient capacity of attention so that when thoughts arise you recognize them as thoughts. And images come and go, as many of you have experienced in your practice. Not only do they come and go—that’s one stage of practice. We actually, when you have a sufficient capacity of attention, actually experience them as the movement of mind, like waves on the ocean, etc., many of the traditional analogies. And so now you really know they aren’t facts. They’re just movement of the mind, and as you develop greater capacity of attention, you come to realize that there isn’t anything there which moves.
Student: Could you repeat the last part?
Ken: There isn’t anything there which moves. It’s just the appearance of movement. That’s a bit of a paradox but you can live with it. Okay? No, I know, it’s not okay but it’s okay.
Now. So a lot of people will try to generate or create a kind of frozen state, in which there is no thought. That is usually virtuous in the sense it doesn’t foster reactive emotions, etc., so it’s not a bad thing. But in terms of being awake and present in one’s life it’s not in that direction because you’re kind of frozen.
Closely related to that is a much more problematic state, and that is what is referred to as marmot meditation in Tibetan, but we can translate it into gopher meditation. You know, a marmot is an earth-burrowing rodent—like a gopher—renowned for sleeping all the time. And a lot of people—really a lot of people—that’s their practice. They’re very still but there’s no clarity. It’s a dull state of mind.
In the second retreat our cook—our second cook because the first cook ran into some problems—was from a Zen center in Paris. And when he first arrived, he thought we were the most undisciplined bunch of crappy practitioners that he’d ever encountered, because he was used to this stock still.
Student: [Unclear] zippiness.
Ken: Well, no, just stop. Stock still. Nothing moves, strong posture etc., etc. But as he talked with our retreat director and so forth he began to appreciate that most of the time he’s sitting there absolutely stock still, no clarity in his mind at all. This he thought was meditation.
Now there’s a lot of—I’m not saying that that’s typical in Zen. I’m just using that as an example. But you find that that resting in dullness is very very prevalent in all traditions of Buddhism. People are warned against it. But because of the emphasis that is put on meditation, people think it’s really important to sit there. And if the only way they can sit there is to be in a kind of dull state then they do that because they think they’re doing the right thing.
And Trungpa Rinpoche in one of his books recently said you know, “Take a break from your meditation, go to a movie, relax.” And there’s a lot of wisdom in that. Refresh the mind. Because this relaxed awake quality is really, really important in the dzogchen and mahamudra traditions. That relaxed awake quality is the basis for meditation practice. And the dull states and the frozen states and so forth are not.
And there’s also the bliss bunnies and people getting attached to states of emptiness or non-thought or clarity and things like that. So…oh, I didn’t bring it, it’s in my room. In An Arrow to the Heart, my commentary on the Heart Sutra, one of the lines in the commentary, some people generate…or no, worship states of bliss, clarity or non-thought, feeling perhaps, or believing perhaps that some state will save them.
So there’s a lot of that. I mean, in Hinduism there’s an awful lot. The idea is to bliss out. That’s freedom. And as we were discussing I think earlier, yesterday, the purpose of generating some of those states is they’re very very powerful states of mind so you can use the attention in those states to see, to look. And that’s the purpose behind the generation of those. And there are many techniques for that in Vajrayana using transformation of the energies of the body. They’re a bit dangerous so you need to study them with a person who has experience in them. And even then, you can run into quite serious problems.
But there’s again a lot of confusion about people getting attached to the states, rather than using them to see how things are, and particularly see into the emptiness of the sense of self and the emptiness of experience.
So, those are some of the common faults in meditation.
Now, there’s a whole listing of the eight faults around emptiness which I’ve tried teaching from the traditional texts a couple of times and the terminology is difficult. And then I realised I had written it up in English in my own words in Wake Up To Your Life so I’m just going to work from there.
Student: What page is it on, Ken?
Ken: Page 420 to 421.
Okay, call these the four pitfalls. The first one—and this is what my opening remarks when I said, you know, people have been stupid for centuries—I have a question for you. Does emptiness exist? How many say yes? How many say no? How many aren’t sure? Okay.
Student: How ’bout the…neither. Doesn’t…
Ken: Ah, he wants to hedge his bets. [Laughter] What kind of work do you do? Okay.
Well, if emptiness was a thing would it be empty? No. So it doesn’t exist. How many of you believe in emptiness? You see how it works? Probably I should have asked that question first. This is what Saraha said: “People who believe in reality are stupid like cows; people who believe in emptiness are even stupider.”
And there are an awful lot of people who think emptiness is where it’s at. “I want to get to emptiness.” Any of you ever had that thought cross your mind? Okay. Where is it you want to get Randy?
Ken: Kind of like thrashing the person who’s been infected with the demon so the demon would leave. That idea? Okay.
So, that’s the first thing—to take emptiness as some thing. And that you’re going to meditate on emptiness. I mean, they have that phrase in Tibetan stong pa nyid la bsgom pa [pron. tongpa nyi la gompa]. And emptiness is such a genius of a word, you see. I’m pretty sure it was invented in India. You have to remember that the Indians were also the people who invented zero. Actually they didn’t, there was some stuff before then but they used it as a place holder which was pure genius. Because if you know anything about mathematics, how many of you have ever tried to do long division in Roman numerals? Yeah, this is where you really appreciate this place holder.
So that principle of being no thing had a lot of power and emptiness is simply what makes everything possible. And as we did at the beginning of this retreat, we look at our experience and it all seems so real. But when you really look at it—don’t groan—the green rectangle, and what a lot of people do is look at the object.
But what you have to do is look at the experience. That is in this case the seeing of the green rectangle, or the hearing of the rain or what have you. And as soon as you start examining that, it gets really, really mysterious because, you know, well, where does the hearing take place? Well, it can’t be out there and it can’t be in here, and it’s not clear where in between is.
And so you realize you can’t actually say anything about it. And that’s what emptiness is pointing to—this ineffable quality. That’s why it’s such a genius of a word, because it just stops the mind. And people have toyed with translating it as openness, which is, you know, really watering it down—it’s such a chicken approach to it. And then when I did this seminar on the Heart Sutra with this guy from New York and he said, “Well, we could call it the void.” And void actually is fine, but it’s not a word we use. And the thing is that in Tibetan you say, “The box is empty.” You say sgam de stong pa red [pron. gom dé tongpa ré].
Student: What’s the word?
Ken: stong pa and so you just say, “The box is empty.” It’s actually the same word. So it’s quite brilliant, because you go, “Huh?” And that’s exactly what you want because the mind stops. And because the mind stops now other things become possible.
So, that’s the first thing emptiness isn’t a thing so there’s no point in believing in it. Just in reference to Alan’s comment about what is mahamudra—and I will answer that more substantially this evening—don’t try to explain to anybody where you’ve been. It’ll just cause you a great deal of grief and it will cause them a great deal of grief, and nobody will understand. Just don’t bother.
And there are several reasons. When I first brought up, at the beginning of the retreat, this nature of experience, several of you said “This is scary.” You remember that? Why is it scary? Whenever I talk about emptiness there’s always someone in the room who just argues with me. And for a long time, you know, I tried to argue with them but it wasn’t getting anywhere. He or she would just [Ken makes a digging in noise] really just dig in. And then I realized that person was serving a function. Because often the arguments that were being presented weren’t particularly rational. But there was absolutely no way to use any kind of intellectual approach to undermine them because the person would just dig in further and further.
So it occurred to me it wasn’t rational at all. It was an expression of emotion. And this person was actually expressing the fear of everybody in the group. So I started to change the way I interacted with that. It still happens. But there’s no point in having the argument. So, what are you afraid of?
Student: Losing everything.
Ken: It’s not everything—it’s something very specific.
Student: Losing a lot of what we value.
Ken: Closer. Let’s make it more specific.
Student: Losing our identity.
Ken: Nah, actually people are less attached to that than what they think. Though it’s close.
Student: Losing a sense of control over the world.
Ken: That certainly can be a factor, yes. But I’m thinking of something else. And that is the fabric that holds society together, because you suddenly feel alone, very alone.
When I was teaching the Heart Sutra class online I found this wonderful poster. How many of you know of the site called despair.com? Oh you’ve got to go to despair.com. It is wonderful because you have all these demotivational posters. [Laughter] You know, relationship: “Have you ever considered that the common thread in all the dysfunctional relationships you’ve had is you?” [Laughter] My particular favorite is a picture of a bear in the middle of rapids and a salmon is jumping into its mouth, and the caption is, A journey of a thousand miles will end very, very badly. [Laughter] The one I’m thinking of shows a pine tree on a snowy slope and the caption is, Have you ever felt that you were all alone? Well, you’re not alone. On the other hand you are alone. Very alone. [Laughter]
So, that’s one of the fears—it’s suddenly like everything else disappears. That’s why Karen’s going in the right direction and like there’s only experience. And people may or may not get that at the conceptual level, but they feel it at some level. And that’s the fear that comes up.
So, this is why I say don’t explain or even try to explain this because if you actually try to explain what you’ve been doing you’re going to stimulate that fear. And that’s going to create grief for you and for them. You know, this is the actual meaning of the phrase in the Mahayana sutras that emptiness is not to be taught to the arhats and sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, and so forth, because it causes them to have heart attacks and vomit and cough up blood and things like that, because it’s so frightening. Okay, did that help Alan?
Student Ken: I agree.
Ken: Yes Ken?
Student Ken: How do you look upon the idea—with respect to emptiness—that emptiness is when you realize the non-existence of concepts? You know, what…in other words, when you…when you have divested yourself of fixed concepts about your experience?
Ken: Emptiness is or isn’t anything.
Student Ken: Yeah, no, but I mean the experience. The awareness of emptiness occurs when you have cut through the notion of fixed concepts. That you…you know that you project onto your experience. The what’s left is emptiness. That’s…I think Alan Watts used to describe it…
Ken: Oh, Alan Watts expressed things very wonderfully and opened doors to lots and lots of people. He expressed things often very poetically. And I mean hundreds, possibly thousands, maybe more were inspired by him. Forget about trying to define it.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Just forget about that because you’re trying to take something that is ineffable and put it into concept. This does you and everyone else absolutely no good whatsoever.
Student Ken: No, but the way I thought of it was that, okay, if you see through the futility of trying to grasp your world with…
Ken: What are you trying to do right now? You’re trying to explain it and understand it. Forget it. Forget that effort. Know it, and when you know it you won’t be able to put it into words either. Any effort to put it into words and it takes you away from the experience. This is the discussion I had with Charles several nights ago, and it’s one of the great dangers.
We’re all very intelligent people. You’ve had very good education. We’re very used to putting things into words. But whenever we put things into words we move away from the experience. Don’t try to understand it. Really important.
All of these words, all of the things that I have been talking about, and everything that you find in the various texts, these are fingers pointing to the moon. Don’t try to understand the finger. The finger’s pointing at the moon, you don’t even need to understand that it’s a finger. All you need to look is in the direction that it’s pointing. I’m going to pound this one, with a big stick if I have to.
Student Ken: Okay.
Now, second one. Thought or emotion arises. Can you make it empty?
Student: Do you mean like can you meditate it empty?
Ken: Can you make it empty?
Students: It already is empty.
Ken: Exactly. How many of you have tried to make thoughts and emotions empty? How successful were you Nick?
Nick: It worked really well [Sarcastically]. Yep. It did absolutely nothing and didn’t help in the least.
Ken: You can’t make something into what it is already. There’s an old Indian adage: “You can’t wake up a person who’s pretending to sleep.” [laughter] You can’t make a thought or an emotion empty because it is empty. Now this comes back to your point Ken. When you know the thought or emotion completely then you know it to be empty because that is the nature of it. That is, it is simply an arising—it doesn’t have any substantial existence in and of itself. But this is a form of knowing, not understanding. There’s a big difference there.
Student Ken: Okay, so understanding is a lesser…
Ken: Understanding, the way I’m using it here.
Student Ken: Right.
Ken: I mean, people will use it differently, is when we understand things we have a conceptual grasp of them.
Student Ken: A conceptual grasp, right.
Ken: To know something is to know it directly in experience—that’s how I’m using the term knowledge—it’s very, very different. For instance, you study violin, okay? Before you started to study violin did you know how a violin made a sound, or did you understand how a violin made a sound?
Student: Not understand it, no.
Ken: Well, you understood the principles—stroke a bow over strings.
Student: Yeah, I knew that, but I didn’t have the experience of actually…
Ken: That’s my point. It’s one thing to understand how something happens. To know it is very, very different.
Student: Right. Yeah, that’s the direct experience.
Ken: The Greeks regarded knowing which did not involve the activity itself was not true knowing. So this notion of being able to know about something was not regarded as real knowing in Greek times. And yet that is the predominant form of knowing in our culture.
Student: Isn’t there also the biblical Semitic word in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, when it says to know a woman…
Ken: That was to be intimate with her.
Ken: Yeah, that’s been a long usage that extended right up until eighteenth or nineteenth century.
Student: Yeah. Oh, in English.
Ken: In English, yeah.
So, your effort in practice is not to make thoughts and emotions empty but to experience them completely. And there’s a very significant difference in effort there.
Jacob Niederman wrote an interesting book called Money and the Meaning of Life. He’s had a little too much wine in the middle of it but the beginning and the end are very good.
His thesis is that people have problems with money because they don’t take money seriously enough. Which sounds a little paradoxical when everybody’s always thinking about money. What he means is—and I’ve found this to be true—people don’t think about what money actually means in terms of their life. Instead, they kind of take refuge in money. They think that if they have money then everything else will be fine. You know, they’ll be happy and everything will go…and meanwhile they sacrifice their health, their marriage, their families, etc., to have money. And everything isn’t fine.
I bring this up as an example because when we take money seriously, “Okay, what does money actually mean to me? What do I want to do with it?” I’ve found consistently that when people say, “Well, there’s not enough money,” it means that there’s another issue underneath that they’re ignoring and focusing on the money. When you really look at what money actually means then you begin to start looking at what kind of life do you actually want.
So by knowing money intimately you come into contact with what your life really is. And then the answers that arise out of that can be very, very different from what the answers might be if you just said, “I need x amount of dollars.” Whereas you might not need anything like x amount of dollars. You may need to let go of certain ideas you have about things instead.
It’s the same with thoughts and emotions. We don’t take them seriously. We think, “Oh, it’s just a thought, just an emotion.” And it runs through our heads and makes a complete mess out of lives.
Do you know how I got started with the dharma? 1969, graduated from university, I was hanging out with some political radicals in university for the summer. And had a scholarship to do a PhD in mathematics in England—not terribly enthusiastic at that point about pursuing mathematics. And my fiancee had said, “I’d like to cycle around Europe.”
So I was talking to one of my apartment mates and threw out the idea. And he looked at me and said, “McLeod, you don’t have the guts.” Well, that was that. [Laughter] Europe became Turkey, became Iran, became India, and somehow I never got that PhD. Anybody had something like that happen to them? I gotta call up that guy and thank him one of these days.
So, I didn’t take that thought very seriously. I just reacted. I didn’t know it for what it was—probably just as well, otherwise I wouldn’t be here now. That’s another story. How many of you reacted on the basis of emotions because you didn’t know them completely? Yeah, all of us. A lot.
We don’t take them seriously, really know them. Because when you really know them then you know—as several of you who have experienced in your meditation here—that there you are. And this emotion arises and it arises and you feel it, and then it goes.
And when this happens there’s one thing we know. We are not our emotions because there we experience this coming and going so we can’t be that emotion. Because it came and went. That’s in the direction of taking it seriously. Now we know something about it, and know it in our own experience. So the next time it comes along it’s, “Oh yes, you again. Oh, thanks for visiting.”
So, this is the second one—when you take something in motion and try to make it empty you’re not really knowing it.
Third one, basically it’s a form of name-calling. You say, “Oh, I’m angry. Oh well, the anger’s empty.” And then you find yourself committing murder a few minutes later. Well, it may be empty but you don’t know it and you think that naming it is enough. Calling it, “Oh you’re empty.” How many of you tried this in your meditation? “Ah there’s a thought; ah the thought’s empty.” How does it work? Anybody?
Student: Well, it’s like two hours later [unclear]. [Laughter]
Ken: Yeah, if it’s a tricky thought it’ll say, “Okay you just call me a name.” It’ll disappear, come in the back door and take you over and two hours later you wake up. Yeah. So you’re not going to get anywhere calling thoughts names like empty, non-existent. It doesn’t work. And yet that’s how a lot of people practice and work with this stuff. Ralph?
Ralph: Generally when I have thoughts there’s usually an emotion underneath it. And if we’re just resting it’s sort of contradictory that you’re going to pursue what’s underneath that thought so that you can really know it. You know what I mean?
Ken: Oh, no, it’s the other way round actually. Yeah, you see, if you rest, a thought arises and if it’s the kind of thought that’s being generated by an emotion—not all thoughts are—some thoughts are generated by emotions. So, “Oh, thought, come back.” Comes again, doesn’t it? Around the second or third time you begin to get this little body sensation connected with it. You start resting with that, “Oh, a little tight here. Oh, tight here too, I got a headache.”
By this time there’s usually a fairly intense blizzard of thoughts, a lot of physical sensations. And if you’re skilled in practice you know to go with the body sensations and not try to sort out the blizzard. And as you rest with those body sensations suddenly you realize, “I wanna kill him. I’m really angry.” It’s like, “Oh.” You get the picture?
Ralph: Yep. Got it.
Ken: So when you really rest with your experience it gives you the opportunity to know what it is. And then you continue and it goes as before. Feel that anger. When you’re in touch with your body and the emotions and the stories and just right in the whole experience, it can become extremely intense. And then you notice that you’re just sitting there. And what happened to the anger? Now, another question. If you’re an emotion, if you’re a feeling, what do you want more than anything else?
Student: To be expressed.
Student: To be felt.
Ken: To be felt.
Student: Aren’t they the same?
Ken: Not the same. Because expressing an emotion you’re feeling is a way of not feeling it, as is suppression. When we express it we dump the energy of the emotion into the world. Everybody else gets to experience it. When we suppress it we dump the energy into the body, or drive the energy into the body, not really dump it. When we just sit in it we get to experience it.
My old office partner who was a very angry guy, the kind of guy that if you cut him off on the freeway he followed you home and punched you out. He was very successful in the business world, not because he was angry, but because he really had a very good heart. He does have a very good heart. But he had this anger. And I remember coming into his office and he was sitting with his feet up on his desk, a scowl on his face. I said, “What’s the problem” He said, “It was a lot easier when I just yelled at people!” [Laughter]. He expressed the anger, he didn’t have to feel it; everybody else did, much easier.
Okay, so, don’t call the emotions names like empty and so forth. Experience them. When you experience them you will know how they are.
Fourth one. This can be summed up in the phrase meditate now, be enlightened later. How many of you are practicing meditation to be enlightened? Let’s be honest now. How’s it going? [Laughter] This is like one of those financial schemes where you pay now with the promise that you’re going to get the big reward later that never comes. Like a Ponzi scheme or something like that.
Student: But that is the way that teachers often persuade or advertise the whole—
Ken: Yeah, it’s the rational choice theory you’re talking about. You know, here’s the payoff, right?
Ken: Okay, again this is from my Heart Sutra commentary: What about your mind right now is impure?
Ken: What about it is pure? Remember in The Heart Sutra? …not impure or free from impurity… Okay. Right now, what about your mind is impure? Anybody?
Ken: Nothing. Do you know that? How many here know that? Not a big show of hands, okay. So, forget this meditate now, get enlightened later. Know-how-things-are-right-now. That’s it.
Now, Vladimir the other night was talking about how these descriptions seemed so remote. And he had these extraordinarily flowery descriptions of everything—and the Flower Garland Sutra, and many of the other sutras. And they do sound, I mean, just majestic, totally unobtainable. This is high poetry. It’s people describing and expressing their appreciation for what they experience. And we need to read them as high poetry, not as that’s what we’ll attain one day if we’re good enough.
Because there’s a Kagyu teacher—can’t remember when he lived— Tsulak Trengwa. And in the retreat I had occasion to read his autobiography. And one chapter that really spoke to me which I translated and it’s up on the website How I Live My Life.
Student: It’s up on your website?
Ken: And he just says, “I have never travelled to the 24 charnel grounds of India,” —holy sites in the Vajrayana. “And I don’t know the demons that terrify people in these sites. But I’ve travelled enough in my mind to know the demons that dwell therein and the problems that they cause.”
And he just takes all of the Vajrayana symbology and relates it to his own experience. It’s wonderful. That’s why I translated it—I copied the Tibetan during retreat—it’s not that long. But I copied it, and then many years later when I was in L.A., translated it into English because I just liked it so much.
There’s all of this extraordinarily flowery language and metaphorical language etc., etc. It’s describing how we actually experience things. It’s what the six realms are describing.
So as you’ve heard many many times, your own mind is buddha. Know it that way right now. How do you do that? You let your mind rest. This is exactly what Buddha did at the time of his awakening.
All of the meditation techniques we do—such as the purification practices and things like mudra and yidam meditations and meditations on the four immeasurables and death and impermanence—all of this stuff has only one objective. And it’s to help…well, you can put it into two ways. One, it’s to help build a capacity of attention so that you can actually rest. And the other is to reduce—that’s why it’s called purification—the stuff that keeps distracting you, so you have a chance of just resting. So it’s all about creating the conditions in which you can just let the mind rest. And so how it actually is, is revealed, or becomes evident.
So when you’re sitting—and this is where mahamudra becomes very similar to Zen, Soto Zen in particular. Don’t sit with the attitude of I will meditate now, get enlightened later. Sit completely awake right now. That’s all.
Ken, you had a question?
Student Ken: Well, I was just going to say would…would it be then precise to say in terms of what you’re saying that rest and recognize? There’s a recognition.
Ken: Yeah, and that’s what I was pointing to yesterday in the pointing out instructions. In the resting mind there is a seeing. In the seeing mind there is a resting.
Okay, mahamudra. This is in the chant booklet but let me read it to you first. One Sentence Pith Instructions, which actually should have been Instruction—I didn’t notice the typo.
I bow to all holy masters
The mind of the buddhas of the three times
That to which all the holy ones aspire
The loudly renowned dharmakaya mahamudra
There’s nothing but your own mind that thinks about this and that
All experienced, conditioned and free, is present in this awareness
It is what all the texts, both sutras and tantras are pointing to
To practice this do not cultivate anything whatsoever
Let awareness rest, free from all elaborations
Vividly awake, just as it is.
You don’t need to worry or think, “Is this really mahamudra?”
Let go of any hope that it will get better
Or any fear that it will get worse.
Don’t pursue thoughts that come and go
Just rest–vividly awake and aware.
Relax completely, and rest
Other than this there is nothing to cultivate in practice.
When you practise this over and over again, at some point you will see the nature of thoughts.
Then you will know directly that awareness has no ground or base.
Attraction and attachment release themselves naturally
And habitual patterns subside on their own.
This is “buddhahood”
This is what is meant by “one moment makes all the difference”
In one moment complete awakening
You have my word that in all instructions of the holy masters
There is nothing more profound than this one sentence pith advice.
Please don’t show this to unworthy people
When the mystery of transmission is dissipated
It’s not possible to connect with the energy of inspiration
Always remember me
There is no mistake here
Rely on the energy of inspiration
And I direct you not to teach this text to anyone unless they have received full instruction in this way.
It’s written by Rangjung Dorje the third Karmapa. So…
Do not cultivate anything whatsoever.
Let awareness rest free from all elaborations
vividly awake just as it is.
You don’t need to worry or think, “Is this really mahamudra?”
Let go of any hope that it will get better
Or any fear that it will get worse.
That’s a little hard.
Don’t pursue any thoughts that come and go.
Just rest vividly awake and aware
Relax completely and rest
Ken: Good. Does that answer your question Alan? That didn’t answer. Okay.
I think it was last night or the night before, I talked about Kyergongpa—the guy who didn’t want to be an abbot—and here’s a song that he wrote. And I apologise, this should have been included in the booklet. Ralph very kindly was able to make copies for me so we have I think one for everybody, don’t we?
Ken: Okay, and it’s up on the website anyway.
The Vajra Song Recognizing Mind as the Guru by Kyergongpa, twelfth century teacher.
Guru bodhicitta namamiThe gurus who point out mind itself are like no one else:
They are done with their own needs and have taken on the needs of others.
Their awareness is limitless, their compassion universal.
To my kind and gracious gurus I bow. Yes, gurus do point out how things are,
But the guru who is natural being is within.
Mind that is my guru, here is how you are: You have no genesis: you are just naturally present.
Misfortune doesn’t hurt you; correctives don’t affect you;
You don’t come or go; you don’t change with time;
And I cannot say you exist or don’t exist. I can’t see, hear, taste, smell or touch you:
You are not a thing, yet you are the source of all experience.
Try as I may, there’s nothing I can point to and say, “That’s you!”
But when I sit and don’t look for you, you are present in everything. You are not subject to conditioning, good or bad.
Finer than everything, you don’t attach to anything.
Not being a thing, you are the basis of everything.
Free from reasoning, you arise clearly when I don’t reason. Because you aren’t anywhere, you arise as anything anywhere.
Yet you don’t belong to any one place.
So, while you are not anything I can point to,
You are my guru! What is your spiritual history?
Here it is: Because distance doesn’t apply to you,
You are present in every being.
Because of your pure intentions,
Every being belongs to your family. Because of your great compassion,
Every being is originally placed in full awakening.
Because of your powerful actions,
You engage and master everything in samsara and nirvana. Because change doesn’t apply to you,
Even when I look at things the wrong way, what is true is still right there.
You’ve never gone away for a moment.
And yet, though a long-time companion, everyone has trouble seeing you. Because death doesn’t touch you,
You’ve always been the constant watchman: that’s amazing! Oh, mind that is my guru,
I meet you by recognizing what I am.
I pray to you by letting go of doubt and hesitation.
I revere you by letting go and settling naturally. I serve you by resting continuously in the nature of things.
I provide you with food by resting without strain in empty clarity.
I provide you with drink by knowing attention and distraction make no difference.
I clothe you by knowing appearance and sound as enchantments. I seat you on the cushion of non-reactive ecstasy.
I crown you with what has always been there but cannot be found.
I give you offerings by not doing anything with what arises. Past, present, and future–you always live
In the sanctuary of total knowing that holds no identity.
Attended by no preference for samsara or nirvana,
You are constantly giving higher instruction in experience. How amazing you are, mind that is my guru!
Again, how kind you are, supporting me with compassion!
How much energy you have from practice in earlier training!
How amazing you are–your compassion never ends! When I turn to you in these ways,
Waves of energy wash through me. Without running away, I stop going into samsara.
Without going anywhere, I arrive at buddhahood.
I understand that no experience is good or bad.
The difference between buddhas and ordinary beings is direct knowing.
When I know directly exactly how mind is
And the knowing is full and present, that is buddha.
What one can do then can’t be described in words. When I look outside, a guru may teach, but this is what happens:
Because I don’t know mind itself directly,
I take what is not as what is.
Chasing the past, I fall into old habits and pain.
That’s called ordinary being. Now, let me be my own watchman.
As for samsara, I don’t chase what is past, I don’t let what has happened bother me.
A big effort is not to generate a nirvana:
I rest in mind itself and do nothing. I cannot identify mind itself as this or that.
It arises as I refine this wonderful not knowing.
And this understanding is fulfilling. Here’s how I know it is fulfilling.
Emptiness is just there: I don’t need to hunt for the dimension of truth.
Whatever appears just arises: I don’t need to block the dimension of form.
Mind itself is free as it is: I don’t need to control the three dimensions of being. Samsara is destroyed at its root: I don’t need to discard anything.
My mind is buddha: I don’t need to hope for anything.
It’s always been this way: I don’t need to cultivate anything.
Isn’t this a better way to work? If contemplatives who look at mind without distraction
Are free from the mind that looks, what’s the problem?
If deep meditators who continuously meditate on no separation
Release what meditates, what’s the problem? If practitioners who constantly practice with awakening energy
Understand the natural presence of no practice, what’s the problem?
If truth masters who carefully guard against managing mind
Do away with mind itself, what’s the problem? I have studied with many capable gurus:
Each guru has given me his or her own advice.
All advice comes down to one point–mind.
So, mind that is my guru,
I look at you, listen to you, and seek your instruction again and again. I pray to the seven kind and gracious gurus,1
I praise them, give them offerings, and ask for their energy.
By doing so, I know directly that mind is the guru.
Because this knowing arises internally,
When I see writings that contradict or conflict with my experience:
I consider the meaning, not the words. This song is the babbling of a crazy man.
I don’t ask anyone to pardon it.
No pardon, and don’t offer me anything for it either.
Okay. So, here you are. Hopefully, there’s enough here.
Student: Do you have one?
Ken: We may be one or two short.
Student: It’s on the website?
Ken: It’s on the website, yeah. Okay. Item four for tonight. Anybody? Nick needs one up here. Leslie, you have one?
Student: Does anybody not have one?
[Students talking at once.]
Ken: Thank you, we have one extra. Ralph can’t count! [Laughter]
So, the day after tomorrow we end this retreat. And I said earlier this afternoon people constantly ask and talk about integrating their practice into their life. And it’s something I’ve been asked about time and time again. And it’s a problem because when you ask this question you’ve already divided your life into two.
Now in all fairness that division is something that has arisen in the way dharma has come to the West, partially, maybe significantly because of the cultural differences, and coming from a largely monastic setting into a largely lay setting. But I know many practitioners—Theravadan, Zen, Tibetan—who at some level feel that they’re not really alive unless they’re practicing, which sounds like a completely stupid thing to say because they’re usually practicing a relatively small portion of their lives. And if you practice three hours a day—how many of you practice three hours a day?—then 12 percent of your life is practice.
So, most of us don’t practice anything like three hours a day. So to regard that that 12 percent as the only portion of our life that is when we’re really alive, doesn’t make very much sense. And yet that’s very widespread, and that the you know, the true life is the life in retreat, and the true practice is the practice in retreat. And meditating and sitting is the true practice.
Well formal meditation and formal practice is very important, there’s no question. It’s, I think, quite necessary. But this division between life and practice has been very, very destructive. People feel they have to make a sacrifice, either they’re going to sacrifice their practice or they’re going to sacrifice their family or their work or something like that. It’s very, very unfortunate, and I don’t think it’s a very good way of thinking.
As we’ve talked about quite a bit here, the main effort in practice—and which every meditation technique is directed in some way or other—is the cultivation of attention. When we do formal practice we are cultivating attention unmixed with activity. The rest of the time we’re cultivating attention mixed with activity. That’s all. So I gave the instructions for talking. When you talk you listen to the sound of your own voice as if you were listening to someone else. That’s practicing attention mixed with activity—the activity of talking. How many of you tried this? What was it like? Alan?
Alan: It was great, I mean it was kind of strange to hear your own voice [Laughter]…
Alan: And…and what?
Ken: Were you able to carry on a conversation?
Alan: I was, yes. Quite. Like two people talking, it’s very nice.
Ken: Okay, anybody else? Ralph?
Ralph: I thought it was a more intimate way of talking, more presence in the conversation. My mind didn’t wonder what I was going to say as much.
Ken: Okay, anybody else? I can’t remember everybody who put up their hand so just one more. Nicholas?
Nicholas: Yeah, I have a tendancy to stumble over my words a lot when I speak and..or to speak more than is really necessary. And I would just say that I didn’t find that happen as much. There’s still a little bit of that like feeling of wanting to rush ahead, sort of panicking a little bit you know. I get nervous when I talk in general to other humans so yeah I definitely can feel it.
Ken: So you feel all of that stuff at the same time?
Ken: Yeah, good. So that’s one example of mixing…or practicing attention, mixed with activity.
And when I said earlier don’t try to take practice into your life because what do we do in practice? Well, often in practice we find things calm down, things sort themselves out, get calm, clear, present. And you try to take that calm, clear, presence into life. How does it work? [Laughter]
Student: Took about three days and it dissipates.
Ken: Three days? That’s pretty good! [Laughter]
Student: I found it evolves, gradually.
Ken: Well, there’s a problem. When you try to bring calm, clear presence to a situation in your life does the situation cooperate? No, it doesn’t cooperate. So now you’re at war, which is not where you really expected to be. You have this calm, clear presence—the situation is doing its thing—you got a problem. So this is why trying to integrate our practice into our life doesn’t make much sense to me.
Now, what if you take life into practice? So you have this situation. You take it into practice—what do you do? Randy?
Randy: You look at it in a calm, clear way.
Ken: That might be the result. What’s the first step. Charles?
Charles: Pay attention to it.
Ken: Yeah, Tom?
Tom: Experience it.
Ken: Experience it, that’s right. You take it into your practice. What’s the first thing you do in practice?
Student: You rest.
Ken: You rest. You experience what’s there. That’s what it’s all about right? So that’s the first step. Now what are the chances of being able to work with a situation constructively if you experience what’s there? They improve a little bit, don’t they?
Ken: Yeah. Randy?
Randy: I’ll get back to you. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay. There’s a four-step method, actually, for working this, and I’ll be teaching it this fall—power retreat. Show up—so you’ve got to show up in the experience, open to what is—notice that’s open to what is, not what you’d like it to be, or what you think is there, but what is actually there—open to what is, serve what is true to the limit of your perception. We very rarely see and know everything. There’s a limit to our perception. We open to what is and we serve what is true. Notice that is what is true, not what we want or what we think somebody else wants but what is true. You won’t arrive at that conceptually. You’ll arrive at that by opening to what is and sensing directly the direction of the present, and you serve it.
People are often afraid of doing that because it may cost them something. But interestingly enough this is where Buddhist morality comes in. If you know what the right thing to do in a situation is and it costs you something to do it, maybe some money, maybe your reputation, maybe your friend, maybe your job, but you know what the right thing to do is and you do it, how long do you think about it afterwards?
Student: Well, if you lose your job you might think about it for a long time.
Ken: What if you don’t do what you know is right? How long do you think…
Student: Then you think about it forever.
Ken: Yes. Exactly. And that is actually the basis of Buddhist morality. It’s not about being good at all. It’s about serving what is true.
Student: When did you say you were going to teach it, Ken?
Ken: That’s the fall retreat.
Student: Is it at Mount Baldy?
Student: Mount Baldy?
Student: Is it full yet?
Ken: I don’t think so.
Randy: You said four steps, I only heard three.
Ken: Coming to the fourth.
Ken: You serve what is true. You act.
The fourth step is you receive the result.
Now, there can be broadly speaking two or three different kinds of results. One is things work out. Cool. Done. The second is things work out but another dimension is revealed, or another factor is revealed. So now you have another situation. Third, it blows up. It’s a mess. It was the wrong thing but there’s no way you or anybody could have known that.
I had a very interesting experience. One of the people I’m helping to develop as a teacher taught a retreat with me a couple of years ago. It went very well but the experience triggered something in her which neither of us knew was there so she suddenly had a whole bunch of stuff on her plate to deal with. That was very difficult. So you never know.
If you have done the first three steps and you act, serve what is true and it blows up you get to see what you couldn’t see before. Maybe something in you, maybe something in the situation. I usually find it’s something in me. A pattern, a block in my perception that I didn’t know was there. The instruction here is you receive the result. That was your reward. So this isn’t a guarantee that everything will work out. It is a way of bringing your life into your practice because when you work this way every situation that you encounter leads you into a deeper understanding of how things are, inside and out. Okay?
So you go into your lives. This is a good way to approach life. It’s a good way to bring life into practice.
A few practical points. Those of you who are driving, you’ve been sitting in a high energy field for nine or ten days. A lot of stuff may have shifted inside. Your physical coordination may be affected so allow a little more space on the roads. More generally, this applies to everybody, you may find your coordination a little different. Today I noticed that three people tripped on the slat step into the interview room. That’s three more than usual, the last seven days. Coordination is affected.
One of the ways to counteract that is before you pick up an object touch it, then pick it up. That way you form the connection and know where the object is, you don’t knock it over or something like that. And this kind of stuff happens.
One of my students quietly found herself driving the wrong way on a one-way street. No accident fortunately. Another student came back from the death and impermanence retreat, his eleven-year-old daughter opened the door, and he completely lost it. Turned to his wife and said, “What am I doing?” This is the heightened level of energy. So if you can, allow yourself as much space as you can over the next 24 or 48 hours at least.
If you’re going back into family situations take some space. Your sensitivity to family stuff may well be heightened—that’s often the case. And you know, you may find that you see things that you sort of knew were there but they didn’t hit you. And you may find your heart breaking. That’s always a good thing actually, though it’s not always pleasant.
Eat good food. It helps to ground. And to the extent that you canp—and I know it will be difficult for some of you, because many of you are flying, you knowp—not being around crowds is really helpful, for a couple of days. It’s one of the reasons why we end the retreat on Saturday, this longer retreat, because you don’t have to go right back into things on Monday. If it ended on Sunday evening, bang, right…work, etc. So, taking a day or two in transition, or more if you have the opportunity, is very good. It’s one of the reasons I drive to these things, because I get to drive back and two or three day transition. And I think I covered the essentials.
Really explore doing things in attention. One of the things I like to do is figure out a very simple way to do things in attention, such as listening to the sound of your own voice. It’s very simple but it does the job. Another one I gave you earlier was when you’re walking, feel that you’re rolling the earth beneath your feet. Any of you tried that one?
Ken: How was it?
Student: All good.
Ken: Yeah, what did you like about it?
Student: It helped to keep you in the view.
Ken: Yeah, and it does very simply. So that’s the kind of thing to experiment with. You don’t need elaborate visualization techniques or things like that, justp—see the thing I like about that walking one is it naturally puts the attention on the soles of your feet so you have to be in your body as you walk. It’s wonderful doing walking meditation, you know.
Student: Do you teach walking meditation?
Ken: Sure. Some people do walking meditation. So we gets these kinds of people. [Laughter]
Student: He’s always in front of me. [Laughter]
Ken: And then there’s this guy. [Laughter] You know, usually when I’m teaching walking meditation I say this is not the Ministry of Silly Walks. [Laughter]
Student: [Unclear] [Laughter]
Ken: Now finally something interesting [Laughter].
So, Kongtrul in his commentary on Seven Points of Mind Training, this is also important.
Practice deeply with little fanfare. This is a very, very old tradition.
Some of you may have heard the story about Shantideva who was regarded by his fellow monks as a complete wastrel who ate, slept and shat. And did nothing else. Little did they know that he was practicing very deeply all the time. Only when they tried to make of fun him by asking him to deliver an annual lecture that they learned as they listened to him recite the Bodhicaryavatara which was his own composition, “Oh, he’s not who we thought he was.”
So there’s no need to make any kind of display or tell anybody. I mean the very worst kind of thing—and this is a dharma center disease—“I’m going to be so compassionate, I’m going to give you the opportunity of being patient first.”
Student: What? [Laughter]
Ken: I’m going to be so compassionate that I’m giving you the opportunity to be patient first.
Student: People say that?
Ken: Often. Nobody’s heard this one?
Ken: Oh, well it’s said in other ways, but yeah.
Student: Oh, yeah, that has happened to me. [Laughter] It’s true. I was carrying a bureau down some stairs at a dharma center getting set up for Kalu Rinpoche’s teachings. I was carrying a bureau downstairs. The bureau was big and heavy, and the guy was like, “Hey, be mindful.” [Laughter] I almost lost it.
Ken: Yes, what you do then is you very mindfully lift it up and lower it with appropriate rapidity on the person’s head. And say thank you for reminding me. Yeah, we get all kinds of stupid stuff like that.
So, work at your practice but don’t make a display of it. And there’s actually no point in making a display of it. And what does a practice look like when you’re listening to somebody, you listen to them. You actually listen to them.
I did a workshop years ago with a group from…many of the people were from one company that came. It was a little meditation workshop, not particularly deep. But one of the exercises I did was to have people pair up in conversation. And the first part of it was to deliberately ignore the person. So, as the other person was talking you’re going like this. And then the second part of the exercise was actually to listen to them with the same kind of attention that they touched in meditation.
Well this particular group it was really interesting. They were really uncomfortable when people were listening to them. They said it’s more comfortable talking to this person when they’re ignoring me because that’s how we are at work all the time. Yeah, you’re so busy you just go on talking about something, nobody pays any attention, they’re going on with their work—nothing gets done. You know, it happens all the time. So, there’s one of my…there’s so many stories I could [unclear].
So, any questions on any of the stuff we’ve covered this evening? Approaches to meditation, in particular around emptiness and not trying to do anything with it. The One Sentence Pith Instruction and The Song Recognizing Your Mind as Guru. And how to approach the end of the retreat and the transition. Any questions?
Student Ken: Question…question here. If you were to be in a position to talk about the doctrine of emptiness sunyata with somebody that is just coming into dharma practice, what do you think is a good way to introduce that idea?
Ken: Why would you do that?
Student Ken: Well, for example I have a meditation student—I’m an MI at Shambala Center—and his wife is very…she was interested in Buddhism for a while but then she got turned off by this idea of emptiness which she equated with vacuuity or nihilism. And I’ve been very unsuccessful in trying to…
Ken: Well, the first thing is it’s not a doctrine.
Student Ken: Okay.
Ken: And there are numerous admonitions in texts not to talk about emptiness to people who are not ready.
Student Ken: Mmm-hmm. But she hears it from her husband.
Ken: Is the husband a student of yours?
Student Ken: Not a student but…well I’m his MI. Yeah.
Ken: Tell him to shut up!
Student Ken: Yeah. [Laughter]
Ken: You know, because if he’s talking about emptiness you know one thing for sure.
Student Ken: You don’t understand.
Ken: He’s not practicing it.
Student: Yeah. [Laughter] I guess that applies to me as well.
Ken: Well, I’ll leave that to you. But if he’s talking about it he’s not practicing it because it’s not a bloody doctrine!
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: It’s something we come to as we come to know the nature of experience and for most people their first substantial contact with emptiness is sitting through the experience of emotion in their meditation. Whether it’s pride or anger or desire, jealousy, it doesn’t matter. But there they are and they sit down and they’re consumed by this thing. And the person who’s ringing the gong has gone to sleep. [Laughter] And all there is is the jealousy, let’s say, and the stories. “How could she? I’m hopeless,” etc. “When are they going to ring the gong? I can’t stand this. Why did I ever start meditating? I’m never going to come back here. I can’t go home tonight, it’s going to be too horrible.” Oh. And it just goes on and on and on. And the stomach is tied up in knots and “I’m going to vomit,” and “When is that stupid guy going to ring the gong?” [Laughter]
And then for some reason they just find themselves sitting there like that. What happened? I was so upset, kind of nice. Gong! Already? Damn! [Laughter] That’s peoples’…most peoples’ first experience of emptiness. So I wouldn’t even introduce the topic until they report something like that.
Student Ken: Mmm-hmm. I think around the Shambala Center they talk about it in terms of gap.
Ken: They talk too much. That’s all. You have a choice, Ken. That’s what Eldridge Cleaver says. You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. [Laughter] If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, that’s it. Your choice. Any other questions?
Karen: I have a question.
Karen: With your students do you recommend the same amount of time for meditating to all of them or do you give different students different amounts of time that they should be sitting?
Ken: Why is this of any interest to you?
Karen: Because I question the amount of time that I sit.
Ken: Okay. How long do you sit?
Karen: I…Well I cheat. [Laughter]
Ken: No wonder you question it, you know you’re cheating! [Laughter]
Karen: I sit for half an hour every morning…
Karen: But then I walk the dogs and I count that because when I walk the dogs it’s like a walking meditation. And…and usually I do either yoga or tai chi with a group of people. And I count that.
Ken: Why are you counting?
Karen: I’m counting the amount of time that…
Ken: But why?
Karen: …it takes me to become settled I guess.
Ken: But why are you counting?
Karen: Well I feel like you know half an hour is really kind of you know, tacky. [Laughter]
Ken: All of those that meditate for half an hour don’t take any offence with that comment. Okay, so how much time do you feel you want to put into formal practice on a daily basis?
Karen: I’d like to put in more time but I have to, you know, obviously. And so I count these other things that I do.
Ken: Oh so it’s a way of consoling yourself.
Karen: Yes, exactly.
Ken: Okay. Walking, tai chi, yoga, these are all very helpful. But, well let me ask you one more question. Why do you feel that you need to meditate more than you do? Do more formal practice than you are currently doing?
Karen: [Sighs] Oh that gets really personal.
Ken: Okay, so you can take it up with me another time. For some people it’s a score card. For other people they know they need more time. They know they need to do it. So it can be very different. We say we are busy. That’s true. But the problem isn’t the busyness. This is for everybody—the problem is we don’t know what our priorities are. When you know what your priorities are you make time and that’s it. But when you’re feeling conflicted, situations like this, it means we aren’t clear about our priorities. So rather than struggle with no time, less time, get clear about your priorities. What’s important. Everything else will fall into place. It always does. Okay?
Karen: Can I count walking the dogs? [Laughter]
Student: You can count walking the dogs.
Karen: I know. That’s a joke.
Ken: Here’s the problem Karen. Here’s the problem. It doesn’t make any difference what I reply because you don’t count walking the dogs.
Karen: No, I do. I do. [Laughter] In a situation like this I, you know, it makes me feel like, “My god, you know, I should be doing, you know, an hour in the morning, an hour at night.” [Unclear]
Ken: You’ll work it out when you get back. Leslie?
Leslie: Can you talk about doing solitary retreats?
Ken: Good point. Solitary retreats are very powerful. Some people find them very straightforward, other people find them extremely difficult. There is no predicting and the same person may have a simple time with one solitary retreat and a very difficult time with another. So there are many, many different factors that come in.
Kongtrul advises people to build capacity for solitary retreats in the same way you build capacity for anything. Start off with a day and then do a weekend. Then do three or four days, etc. And some people jump in. I remember I did two one-month solitary retreats many, many years ago. And they were hard and they were fruitful. Then I thought I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t.
In doing solitary retreats work with your teacher and develop a structure for the dayp—or a schedule. You may or may not follow it but it gives you something to come back to.
A couple of other points. In spiritual work—as in most other areas of life, but particularly in spiritual work—it’s very important to complete your intention. So if you decide to do a three-day retreat, do a three-day retreat. If it’s problematic don’t leave after two and a half days or two days. This is why you should work up.
This also needs to be coupled with balance though. I mentioned earlier about the mind becoming brittle, hard. When we were in the three-year retreat Rinpoche described this using a Tibetan simile. In Tibet they carried things from one place to another in leather bags. They had lots of leather because of the yaks and dzos and cows and stuff. And they didn’t have plastic and not much glass, so it was leather. Well, they would transport water in leather, they’d transport butter in leather.
When you use leather to carry water after a while the leather gets stiff, starts to dry out. And if you don’t treat it it will crack and then it won’t be good. But when it starts to get stiff you start working the leather, kneading it until it’s soft and pliable again. And then you can carry water. When the leather’s used for carrying butter the butter gradually impregnates the leather and the leather gets very hard and very stiff and cracks. But even though you know it’s getting hard and getting stiff there’s nothing you can do to rework it.
When the mind gets very hard, you don’t want it to crack. You’ve got to keep it pliable. So whether you’re practicing in retreat—solitary retreat or a retreat like this or a more structured retreat—if you find your mind getting hard and brittle, ease up. If you’re in a solitary retreat work with the body more. Go for walks in particular—and it’s good to have this in mind—go to places where you have a large view. It’s very, very helpful.
If it’s a group retreat it can be a bit more problematic so you need to speak with the retreat person. If they’re any good they’ll recognize what’s happening. But there have been problems where people have been pushed and their mind has cracked and most people don’t recover, is my experience. So it’s really not good and I know many people whose mind has cracked.
Practicing on your own in daily life, stay in touch. Generally speaking, when the mind is getting hard and unworkable, don’t work it. Rest. Relax the posture a bit and really just rest. If you can’t rest go for a walk. Do walking meditation. If you’re not in retreat, as I said, go to a movie. You know, go out and play. It’s very helpful. Throw a ball against a wall, I mean literally play. And you’ll know when you can sit again.
So it’s a bit like working with a dog. Some days the dog, you can really work deeply and train them very, very deeply. Other days they’re not workable. And if you try to work them on the days that they’re not workable you may do a lot more damage in terms of actually training than good.
So we need to pay attention, we’re talking about mind here but it really is our whole being. The body can get very, very rigid and this happens a lot. Zen people get really, really tight because they think that’s the way that you practice.
My own principle is you can push as hard as you want as long as you stay soft in the pushing. But when there’s no softness in the pushing that’s when you’ve got to pay attention. That’s the warning sign. There’s no softness left. You know what I mean about staying soft in the pushing?
Leslie: I think I know what you mean, but I’m not sure I know what it means.
Ken: Well, we can try it. You can just push against a wall and become really rigid and feel what that’s like. And then push against the wall but stay soft.
Randy, come here. [Ken uses Randy in a demonstration.]
Ken: Just stand over here. Hopefully we won’t disturb [unclear] too much. [Unclear] Have you ever studied any martial arts?
Larry: You could do push hands…push hands demonstration.
Ken: We could do that. Do you know that? Yeah, okay. That’s a good idea Larry. This is a tai chi exercise. [Unclear] Oh you’re going to do it that way. Okay. I’m going to do it this way. [Unclear]
So, I’m going to be hard. We’re going to do pushing…push hands, what you do is you just—you have a butterfly between your hands. You don’t crush the butterfly, you don’t let it go either. So anybody could [unclear]. So let’s do it. And you’re doing this so that if you’re actually in combat [unclear] the person, you’re totally in touch with them but they can never touch you. See he’s trying to push right into me. Try pushing in…someone is off balance; they’re going to be suprised. And you can feel how the person goes rigid. See? Like this? [Laughter]
Ken: Yeah, in just that way because as I went into the center, see it’s not [unclear]. It’s not tightening up. So I’m going to go rigid. You watch what happens. [Ken is knocked off balance.] Good. [Unclear]
That’s what happens when you go rigid. If I don’t go rigid he pushes into me. Push right there. Okay. So it’s the same as your mind. If your mind goes rigid and you push that’s what happens. You fall over.
Randy: Thank you.
Ken: That’s good.
Student: We’re going to have to start doing video taping in here. [Laughter]
Ken: No, it’s my subtle way of saying you should be here [laughter]. Not everything can be passed on electronically. It’s just not possible. Okay. Does that help?
Student: Yes, thank you.
Ken: Okay. Other questions? Randy?
Randy: I’ll try and ask this quickly. I get tripped up by the mahamudra instructions because my…my understanding, at least lately, by that I mean today [laughter]—is you sit and experience arises and that experience can lead to anything. It’s a wild and wacky display—whatever. The instructions tell you don’t do this, don’t do that. What if those things arise? Why [unclear]. Does it make any sense?
Ken: I lost something in the middle there.
Ken: Ah, so it’s says don’t do this don’t do that, right? Tilopa’s Six Words of Advice [speaking Tibetan].
Don’t think about the past, don’t anticipate the future, don’t dwell on the present, don’t control, don’t examine, rest.
Randy: Yeah, you might find your experiences you’re trying to control them.
Randy: Why would you need to do anything with that? That’s just more experience, right? You may find that you’re not really your thing. This is not mahamudra. You may have a sense of artifice. That’s all just more experience right? There’s nothing you need to do [unclear]. So I don’t quite get those instructions. I mean they kind of just…it can go on forever.
Ken: You wouldn’t happen to be a university professor? [Laughter] There’s only two kinds of people—who would [unclear] this—university professors and lawyers. [Laughter] Well, is it true?
Student: Yeah, I thought that too. [Laughter]
Randy: But this stuff doesn’t [unclear] experience.
Ken: No, fair enough. Yes, but it’s a good question and…[pause]. Do you know what it is to rest? A little bit? Yeah. When you’re trying to make something happen are you resting?
Randy: Yeah [unclear].
Ken: When you’re trying to make something happen are you resting?
Randy: Well I could be resting with the experience of feeling like I’m trying [unclear]. [Laughter]
Ken: Boy, did you go through a lot of qualifications in that. [Laughter]
Randy: It can seem to be happening. That can be the experience [unclear] I’m trying to do something here.
Ken: Yes. And you’re trying to make something happen. What do you experience in your body?
Randy: Well, before it was tension and dissipation.
Ken: And now?
Randy: Well today it was just more experience.
Ken: Were you trying to make something happen?
Randy: [Unclear] weird semantic thing here. It felt like it, yeah. It was…at least my brain was telling a story that it was. I was narrating it. “Oh, not trying to make something happen here.”
Randy: I just left it.
Ken: Very different. Very, very different.
Randy: Yeah, okay. Then I guess I could say the same for an emotion at the same time.
Ken: Yeah. You’re hearing the story as a story, not as a fact. That’s why going to the body is so important. The body will tell you whether you’re resting or not. If the body’s tight—tension,—as you say—then you’re trying to make something happen. So you let that go and [unclear] the mahamudra instructions. When you’re trying to control your experience how’s the body? Yes. When you’re investigating or examining your experience how’s the body?
Student: It’s soft.
Student: It’s soft.
Ken: When you’re examining or investigating something?
Ken: Yeah, and…
Student: Okay. Yeah. It’s…the body’s just kind of…
Ken: Mmm. That’s right. And when you’re thinking about the future, what’s going to happen, or could happen, how’s the body?
Student: Well doesn’t that depend on how caught up you are with thinking about the future?
Ken: So you’re mildly caught up. How’s the body?
Student: It’s [unclear].
Ken: When you’re thinking about something that happened in the past how’s the body?
Student: It depends what happened, I guess.
Ken: It was something moderately disturbing. Okay. When you’re caught up with something that is happening now how’s the body? Yeah, that’s about right.
Student: What’s that?
Ken: That’s about right. [Laughter] So your body will tell you. When you’re resting how’s the body?
Student: It’s soft but [unclear] pliant.
Ken: Yeah, it’s straight and pliant. So your body will tell you. Anything more?
Student Ken: Yeah, these four maxims of Tilopa, are they…
Student Ken: Are they meant to be put into effect just in a particular situation of practice?
Ken: There are six.
Student Ken: Yeah, oh six.
Ken: They’re his mahamudra instructions.
Student Ken: Right, but is it possible to…to abide by those in everyday…everday life? Is it meant to eventually get to a point where one has the capacity to live in such a way that those would be descriptive of a person’s life? Does a person who has mastered the practice of mahamudra, would that be descriptive of the way they, at least their inner life is lived?
Ken: Time present is contained—
Student Ken: Oh right.
Ken: T.S. Eliot.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Yeah. These are meditation instructions.
Student Ken: Yeah. Yeah.
Ken: If you’re in charge of planning the construction of a bridge…
Student Ken: Right. That’s what I was thinking.
Ken: …then you’ve got to think about some things. All of that takes place in the present.
Student Ken: Right, yeah, yeah.
Ken: But you’ve got some things to think about. Okay?
Student Ken: Right. And you have things to control externally, right?
Ken: Well you’ve got things to take into consideration. Whether you end up controlling them or not is determined by the event.
Student Ken: Yeah, but you’re attempt is going to be to control those events because you don’t want to lose your job, you don’t want to make a bad bridge and you don’t want…
Ken: You don’t want people to die.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Yeah, so there are things to be taken into consideration.
Student: I’m not sure what six points you’re—
Ken: The six words of Naropa.
Student Ken: Tilopa.
Ken: Oh, Tilopa, sorry, not Naropa. Tilopa. Six Words of Tilopa. Oh how did I translate them?
It’s up on the website. There are two different translations up there. One of them has circulated all over southeast Asia. I keep finding it on websites in southeast Asia. The longer version. One version is a straight translation, the other is a bit of a gloss. And a lot of people like the gloss because it makes it clear.
So. Any other questions? We’re way over time. But it’s our last night. All done? You’re going to let me get away this free. Okay. Let’s just sit for ten minutes and we’ll do the dedication prayers at the end. So just…
- This line probably refers to the first seven gurus of the Shangpa lineage: Vajradhara, Niguma, Sukhasiddhi, Maitrepa, Rahula, Chungpo Naljor, and Mochokpa. [↩]