Teachings | Training
Middle way as holding both extremes in attention at the same time or “How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time?”; discussion of “Vajra Song Recognizing Mind as Guru;” spiritual path as individual exploration; learning from mistakes; letting go of inner holding; look at life as the field of practice; notice space in which experience arises.
Friday, September fourth, A Trackless Path, morning session.
When one comes towards the end of a retreat, there’s a very natural tendency for the mind to start working, anticipating, thinking about things. And one can recall the—well, we can say Tilopa’s instructions, which are in here, on page 13.
Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.
Now, you can recall those instructions, they don’t do much good, do they? [Laughter]
So, for the next couple of days I’m going to suggest—give you another line or instruction, which may be beneficial, I don’t know. And, in an interesting way, this is based very much on the Middle Way.
Now the Middle Way is one of the great traditions in medieval and Indian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, and it finds its inspiration from Buddha’s life where he spent the first part of his life living in luxury and found that he could not find peace or resolution to his questions there. And then he spent six years, I think, on the banks of the river Niranjan, which is a river just outside Bodh Gaya. And you can go there today, more or less the same place that Buddha sat with his five colleagues practicing extreme asceticism. And the only result of which for Siddhartha, by which he was known at that time, was that his body became extremely weak and his mind became extremely dull.
And from there, he said to his companions, this isn’t working for me. To which they replied, flake, you can’t cut it. [Laughter] He said, that may be, but I’m done. And took nourishment, recovered the health of his body, found his mind was very clear. That’s when he sat under the bodhi tree and experienced awakening. This scene of not falling into an extreme has become a very central principle in Buddhist practice.
Now, when people hear the Middle Way, in today’s world, they generally think of okay, we have this extreme here and this extreme here, and I’m going to find my way up the middle. As someone said, “This is the Goldilocks approach to practice.” [Laughter] Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right. In other words, seeking comfort. This—not gonna work.
The Middle Way says not to fall into an extreme. That’s how you tread it. The way you do that in practice—or one way, there may be others, but this is the way I found—is that you always hold both extremes in attention at the same time. You always hold both extremes in attention at the same time. And there are innumerable applications of that principle. Certainly don’t have time go into them this morning.
Nick could you just turn that clock. Thanks.
But I mentioned the one-line summary a few days ago when we were discussing Kalu Rinpoche’s Essentials Of The Dharma. That one line is,
How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time?
Now, this one line is an expression of the Middle Way. On the one hand, there’s experience, which you can call form, or whatever. On the other hand, there’s peace. So you can say, experience, samsara, form, you name it. On the other hand, peace, nirvana, emptiness, whatever.
You get it JP? Pardon?
JP: Yes. I think so.
Ken: Now. How can I experience all of that at the same time? That is, on the one hand, form, whatever is arising in our experience—whether it’s anger, love, turmoil, fear, you name it—and peace, call it openness, emptiness, groundlessness, doesn’t matter. And by approaching practice this way, you’re not denying anything and you’re not positing anything. Which again is another expression of the Middle Way.
What this line does, is it invites you into an exploration of your relationship with whatever’s arising in experience.
So maybe you’re very upset about something. Okay. That’s what’s happening. How can you experience that, being upset, and be at peace at the same time? And you can see how it invites you into an exploration. What are you doing in your body? What emotional posture are you taking? What if you change that? What cognitive posture, frame or however? What if that changes? And it becomes an exploration.
Now, over the next few days, as you naturally start thinking about stuff and what to do, this approach to practice may be helpful. ’Cause stuff’s coming up. How do I experience this and be a peace at the same time? And it’s a question. But it’s a question which leads you into your experience and maybe it’s useful to you.
Questions, comments? [Pause]
Janet: What if your experience, is of resistance to what’s arising?
Ken: How can I experience this resistance and be at peace at the same time?
Janet: It just feels like it redoubles the resistance. [Laughter]
Ken: Well, this is where the exploration starts. It isn’t—and I think this is a very good point you’ve raised. It isn’t: Experience this and be at peace at the same time! [Said as a command] [Laughter] That’s not the instruction. Experience this and be at peace at the same time! It’s not going to work. [Laughter]
Student: That’s what I was doing.
Ken: Okay. It is, how can I experience this… [Laughter]
Ken: That’s a very good point. Nobody’s raised that one before. I like that. I gotta try that—Experience this! Be at peace at the same time! [Laughter]
Student: Or else.
Ken: Or else, yes. Or else what?
Thank you. Leslie. Robert.
Leslie: Sometimes it’s worked for me to say the opposite of what I’m experiencing and experience that at the same time. So if I was experiencing resistance, I would say the word, non-resistance, and try to hold those two together. What do you think about that? [Pause]
Well for me one is not enough and enough. And I would hold those two senses at the same time. ’Cause part of me is always experiencing the opposite, even though I’m paying attention mostly to the struggling part.
Ken: Yes. I think that can work. You know, a lot of people…well, one of my favorites, which I’ve talked with some of you about, anger, say. Now, whenever one feels angry, there is also a sense of hurt in the system. But what happens is that people just feel the anger to avoid the hurt, or they’ll feel the hurt to avoid the anger. And so you can take both poles. You know, feel the anger and the hurt or the anger and the sadness at the same time. This is another application of the Middle Way. It’s those two extremes. And so, “I’m resisting. I don’t want to experience this!” [Ken mimics anger] And you think, okay, “What about not resisting?”
Now, you flip to that, it’s a little terrifying, possibly. But you hold, okay, resistance and non-resistance. Now it’s very difficult to hold the mindset of resistance, the posture of resistance. So I think yeah I think this can work. Yep.
JP: Just hearing this. It’s a very calculated approach.
Ken: Are you doing what Leslie was suggesting, or both?
JP: Yeah. Both. So when there’s an influx of emotion—I guess it’s the same thing she, Janet, was saying. But there’s a calculatedness about that, that the anger sometimes just phhht.
Ken: Oh. [Laughs]
JP: You know and so then you’re out here. Maybe this little thing over here is saying, you know, “What about the hurt?”
Ken: Well, what you may be speaking to is the matter of willingness. Sometimes when we’re upset about something, part of us just wants to be upset about it! And doesn’t want to listen to anything else or consider anything else. Just wants to run. I think you were talking about this last night, Judy. And that’s where willingness comes in. Are we willing to work with whatever is arising?
JP: Just soften a little bit, maybe. I mean I guess I’m looking for a strategy, but—
Ken: And so now you’re back into the calculation, right? [Laughs]
Ken: I’m reminded of something—I think it was Bell Hooks who told me at a Buddhist conference back in 2001. She studied with Lama Yeshe, who I never met but by all accounts was a quite wonderful teacher. And one day, Bell was in just a really bad mood, and at the center was just doing little things to irritate everybody. [Laughter]
And it was quite obvious from her demeanor and what she was doing that she was really angry. Lama Yeshe walked up beside her and whispered in her ear, “Buddha mind very angry today!” and left.
Student: He whispered and…?
Ken: And left. [Laughs] “Buddha mind very angry today.” So maybe that’s helpful to you. Because we can’t—and this may be what you were referring to by softening—we can’t work with our mind until we accept how it is, right there. That’s how it is. And as long as we’re fighting that, well, we’re in opposition. And in a certain sense that’s what I’m trying to get to, maybe in a different route but, how can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? It’s, you know, what’s arising? That’s arising. That’s a fact. Can’t pretend that it isn’t. But I don’t have to be consumed by it. There are other possibilities. Can I embrace those as well? Okay?
Helen: I honestly think it is possible to—if something is arising, like deep hurt—to allow it to go to the extreme and then it lets up by itself, quite naturally, without trying to counter it or, you know, do anything with it. It’s kind of paradoxical that way.
Ken: Yeah. It’s not just deep hurt. You can do the same thing with deep anger, you know, outrageous pride or arrogance. Which gets a little interesting. Consuming greed, you know. I mean, but relatively few people actually want to experience things at that intensity. But you’re quite right. If you open, and this is a somewhat different approach, but if you open to the experience completely, then—and you’re right as if by magic it becomes an experience.
And I think I was referring to this earlier, where it becomes an experience and that driving component drops out of it by experiencing it completely.
Helen: Right, and by experiencing is like allowing it to be as it is.
Ken: Yeah. Exactly. Okay.
Last comment. Judy?
Judy: Would you say that what you’re describing in this sentence is a kind of resting? I ask that ’cause, you know, as I’m integrating what you’re saying there’s the form of whatever practice one is doing at any given moment. And then something arises that maybe gets so big that it’s fighting the form. And so the ability to recognize that that’s happening and move into this kind of exploration seems like you are taking a kind of break.
Ken: Maybe it’s a break. Maybe it’s remembering something you’ve forgotten. Okay?
Student: Remembering something…?
Ken: You’ve forgotten. Okay?
All right. Let’s stop here for breakfast. And we will continue.
This is really the last evening, quotation marks, “talk,” because the great bulk of tomorrow will be taken up with presentations by the rest of you ëcause we’re all leaving the day after, as far as I know.
So first thing I’d like to do this evening, I’d like to take up any questions, you know. This is your last chance. I’m sort of like Bilbo Baggins about to disappear. [Laughter] So. If you’re never to see me again, what would you ask tonight? Bill.
Bill: This is not that question [laughter], but I would just appreciate a little background on The Vajra Song Recognizing Mind As The Guru, which I read today and I was really struck by.
Ken: Kyergongpa, say eleventh to twelfth century teacher, third Tibetan in the Shangpa lineage. The Shangpa lineage starts really with Khyungpo Naljor, who’s in the eleventh century, journeyed to India and studied with supposedly 150 different teachers. But of the two that he felt closest to and felt had the greatest impact on him, were Niguma and Sukhasiddhi, two women. And he came back to Tibet and taught, and actually western Tibet, and his main student was an individual called Mokchokpa. And Mokchokpa’s principal student was Kyergongpa.
He’s a remarkable individual in a lot of different ways. Had a very special relationship with Chenrezi or Avalokiteshvara. And there’s a transmission of meditation, Avalokiteshvara meditation, that comes directly from him. Also had a very close relationship with Mahakala. And this is one of probably many songs that he wrote. But it was one that Rinpoche encouraged me to study and work with in the three-year retreat. And for various reasons I didn’t pay that much attention to it until considerably later when I was in a different frame of mind and was very, very struck by it.
So after that I translated it and have it included in most of the retreats we’ve done here, because it speaks very powerfully. And I really worked at translating it into a form that communicates in English. There’s another translation by a colleague of mine in the book called Timeless Rapture, but it has a very different flavor, a much more academic translation.
But I’ve tried to translate it in a way that I felt gave some expression to the poetry and sentiment. So I’m glad you find it helpful. That sufficient?
Bill: Well, I have a lot of other sort of detailed questions like that, but I’d rather give other people a chance.
So, Helen, microphone.
Helen: In your experience with either the three-year—did you say you went on a seven-year retreat?
Ken: I did two three-year retreats.
Helen: Two three-year, okay. During that time, in the sangha community, were there situations in which…polarized situations between people arose, and if so how did you resolve them?
Ken: [Laughs] Ah, in the first three-year retreat there were seven of us.
Student: Was it silent?
Ken: No. I mean, for portions of it yes. But we were doing a lot of studying so it was not practical to observe silence for a lot of it. At various points in the retreat, each of us tried to take over the retreat. [Laughter] It always failed of course, but…
Student: [Unclear] from the retreat master?
Ken: Pardon? Pardon?
Student: To take it over from…?
Ken: No, no, take over political control. We didn’t like the way things were going, and then somebody else would try to take over. And somebody else would try to take over. And that became somewhat amusing after about the end of the second year.
[Laughs] A lot of personal stuff comes up and people meet with it. Meet their stuff in different ways. So within the three-year retreat—it’s a charged atmosphere, but that charge has multiple dimensions to it. So something happens over here and affects things over here. Yeah there were tensions.
One of the lamas, who was in charge of the overall center where we were, where the retreat center was located, went to visit a yogin in the mountains of India and was telling him about this group of Westerners in the three-year retreat. And the yogin was singularly unimpressed. And then he asked a few questions, and two of the questions he asked was, “Did anybody leave?” “No.” “Did they fight each other?” “No.” “Oh. Maybe they got something done after all.” So.
Now Rinpoche gave us the advice at the beginning, and it was very good advice:
A cow flicks her own flies. A monk attends his own ethics. So you pay attention to what you’re doing, not what everybody else is doing. Okay?
Any questions about practice? [Pause] You’ve learned everything you wanted to learn? Or are you full? Okay, well, you know, you just got to top it off then. We won’t make it too heavy tonight. [Pause]
Student: Would you mind saying—
Student: Would you mind saying a little bit about the kind of way the retreat is set up, in the sense of, is it really isolated? Do people go into town on Sunday?
Ken: No, you never leave the…never leave the grounds. No visitors. It’s a retreat.
Student: This was a very effective retreat for me, and you’ve said that you’re not going to run a retreat next year.
Ken: I’m not going to organize any retreats next year.
Student: Oh, so there may be a retreat.
Ken: I don’t know. [Pause] [Laughter]
Student: Oh. I think you have some customers! [Laughter]
Ken: Okay, thank you. [Pause while Ken searches through a book] Oops, that’s not the story I want.
Student: Do you take personal inquiries about one’s practice outside the retreat?
Ken: Do I take personal inquiries about practice outside the retreat? Yes, I meet with people. Well, people send me email questions, and not all questions, a lot of questions can’t really be answered through email. But I also meet with people individually over Skype. I prefer over Skype rather than phone—and can have a, you know—
Student: Is that because it’s visual?
Ken: Yes. Yeah, there are two reasons. One is visual so you can actually see the person, which makes a very big difference. And the other is that you also have that chat thing so if you want somebody to read something, or something like that, it’s very easy to send right there. So the actual interaction is quite rich. It’s not as…it doesn’t replace in-person meetings, but it’s a very considerable improvement over phone connection. Yeah.
Student: And you do have individual meetings once in a while?
Ken: Yeah, yeah, and I see people quite regularly while I’m in Los Angeles, either over the Internet or in person.
Student: I’m sorry, what?
Ken: Either over the Internet or in person.
Student: I see.
Ken: Yeah. This is certainly not the only way that I work with people.
That’s very strange. Where did that go? [Looking in a book] Oh yes, I was going to do that tonight. Let’s do that. [Pause]
Okay. This is called The Story of Tea. [Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah]
In ancient times, tea was not known outside China. Rumours of its existence had reached the wise and the unwise of other countries, and each tried to find out what it was in accordance with what he wanted or what he thought it should be.
This is very important. One hears about something but we understand it in terms of what we’re looking for or what we think it should be. And certainly when we come into the spiritual practice, all of us come with an idea of what we want from spiritual practice. But probably more influential [Ken clears his throat] (excuse me) is our idea of what we think, say enlightenment or awakening should be.
Now I thought things were getting a little better because people have been practicing in the West for now half a century or more. But actually when I go to some groups and things like that, I see things haven’t changed that much. And people come with really extraordinary ideas. These…I think they’re extraordinary now but I actually had the same ideas when I started about what enlightenment is, and what it will do, etc., etc., etc.
I mean Trungpa used to use the phrase, “That you think of enlightenment as like having a super PhD.” And there are all kinds of very, very unreasonable expectations placed on, you know, being awake, being present, etc. A lot of these are completely mythical and result from interpreting various texts and descriptions literally.
But that’s the nature of the thing. We come in with ideas and tend to interpret everything that we hear in terms of those ideas, which can lead to quite distorted understandings.
The King of Inja ([which means] ëhere’) sent an embassy to China, and they were given tea by the Chinese Emperor. But, since they saw that the peasants drank it too, they concluded that it was not fit for their royal master: and, furthermore, that the Chinese Emperor was trying to deceive them, passing off some other substance for the celestial drink.
So, if we come into this with the idea this is something really, really special. And then we see just everybody kind of awake, more present, then we don’t think it’s special anymore and we’re very disappointed. And we think, “No there must be something else, they’re holding out on us.”
The greatest philosopher of Anja (which means ëthere’) collected all the information he could about tea, and concluded that it must be a substance which existed but rarely, and was of another order than anything then known. For was it not referred to as being a herb, a water, green, black, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet?
Well, here we have the mistake of taking something that has many different forms and reducing it to one thing. And then trying to think, well it has all of these properties so it must be extremely rare and very, very special for it to have all of these properties. And we can actually define it right out of existence by piling on all of these properties to the point they become mutually exclusive.
So again, rather than actually tasting something, we are working with an idea. And the idea gets very complex and very elaborate and further and further removed from experience itself.
In the countries of Koshish and Bebinem, for centuries the people tested all the herbs they could find.
They were looking for tea. So here we have people testing all kinds of practices to see which ones work.
Many were poisoned, all were disappointed.
’Cause this looking for a quick fix type of thing. And people would try one practice, and there’s a long history of Westerners over the last four or five decades going crazy from trying things, approaches, things which didn’t work, experimenting with stuff, etc., that they didn’t understand. And it’s just like people, you know, “Well—maybe this is tea.” “No, that was deadly nightshade.” [Laughter] You know, “Well, maybe this is tea.” “No, that was hemlock.” [Laughter] And so forth.
And even if you aren’t poisoned then it doesn’t taste very good so you end up disappointed.
For nobody had brought the tea-plant to their lands, and thus they could not find it. They also drank all the liquids which they could find, but to no avail.
In the territory of Mazhab (which means ’sectarianism’) a small bag of tea was carried in procession before the people as they went on their religious observances. Nobody thought of tasting it: indeed, nobody knew how. All were convinced that the tea itself had a magical quality.
Anybody relate to this aspect? [Laughter]
A wise man said: ëPour upon it boiling water, ye ignorant ones!’
Guess what they did to him?
They hanged him and nailed him up, because to do this, according to their belief, would mean the destruction of their tea. This showed that he was an enemy of their religion.
And I’ve run into this, more than a few times. When I’ve said to people; No, no, no that’s—don’t do that, Do this. And they say, “But this is what we believe in. How can you tell us not to do it?” “Well because it’s pointless and useless. That’s how I can tell you not to do it.” Well, they haven’t hung me or nailed me up yet, but they don’t invite me back. [Laughter]
Before he died, he had told his secret to a few,
This is the wise man.
and they managed to obtain some tea and drink it secretly. When anyone said: ‘What are you doing?’ they answered: ëIt is but medicine which we take for a certain disease.’
Why did they do that?
Student: Why did…?
Ken: The wise man passed on the secret of tea. You know, pour some water on it and drink it. And this small group of people did that. But when anybody asked them what they were doing, they said: “It’s a medicine we take for a certain disease.”
Student: It’s another form of magical thinking, too.
Ken: ’Nother form of—they didn’t want to get strung up. Yeah, they didn’t want to get strung up, too. Because they realized that, in this country anyway, in this particular region, people had…were worshiping the idea of tea, but weren’t in the least bit interested in tasting it itself. And to taste it, to actually drink it, to use it in their lives was some form of sacrilege.
Now, one of the things that I’ve recently become aware of is that there’s a fairly significant shift taking place, not only in Buddhism but also in most of the other world religions. And that, and I think I made reference to this earlier, there’s a movement away from the model of religion that has persisted for many hundreds of years of which—here is the truth and here is how you get to it—to one of personal exploration. And a theme we’ve been working through this retreat: how can I live in such a way that I can answer these questions that the small stammering voice asks?
And this is not going be a smooth transition. It hasn’t been a smooth transition. It’s probably going to get a lot rockier. But, one of the things that has come out very, very much in the presentations we’ve had each evening here is how your practice is intimately relevant to how you are living your lives or want to live your lives. And I don’t think anybody here is really trying to pursue some idea of truth in the abstract. But really much more about—I mean you can use various words here—being more present, less reactive, freer in the life we actually experience. That a fair assessment?
So, when you contrast that with people who feel it has religion or, in our case, Buddhist practice, should be aimed at transcending the world, this is almost heretical. It is—or sacrilegious. It’s the wrong use of these methods and teachings, etc., which are meant to take us beyond the world, and we’re talking actually about how to be in the world more fully, completely, freer, etc.
And so that what’s being referred to. So here, when they say, “Well I just do these things ëcause they kind of help with my life you know, or help me work things, and it’s a downplaying of it. It’s valued very—these people value it, value the tea, but they’re downplaying it to avoid attracting criticism or as Pat said, ”being strung up.“ You with me?
Student: There is a transcending quality.
Ken: Microphone. Microphone.
Student: There is a transcending quality of our practice.
Ken: There very definitely is. But as you’ve heard many people explain that transcending quality comes by being…bringing it intimately into life, not trying to get away from life. And that’s very, very different.
Student: Okay, I agree with that.
Ken: Yeah. Whew! [Laughter] That was a sigh of relief. [Laughter]
Bill. Could someone hand the mic back to Bill, please?
Bill: You know, I agree completely with the intimacy and the bringing it into life, and it not being transcendent. But in talking about…I mean I think I came here thinking about I want to be freer. I want to be more at ease. And one of the things, I think you’ve confronted me with, and that I sort of…one of the reasons I responded to Recognizing Mind as the Guru is that there’s actually more than that, sort of. I mean, it’s not like there’s more and it’s beyond life but, you know, samsara is destroyed at its root. I mean that’s bigger somehow than—or it feels it to me than—and I feel like one of the things I’ve been confronted with here in a very helpful way is seeing how small I’d made what I was about.
Ken: Yeah. I think that’s a very good point, Bill. And I’m very glad to hear that, too. You came here with a certain idea, and you discovered, through your practice here, that there are more possibilities than you originally envisioned.
Bill: Well, yeah, I guess that’s it. I mean, it also looks like about I’d better figure out a way to live another 150 years but…
Ken: Yeah well, I’ll leave that problem up to you. And that’s very much part of the function of something like this. I mean, as you may recall from Wake Up To Your Life, one of the responsibilities of the teacher, the person in the teaching role, is to reveal possibilities. Because when you experience life a certain way, you can see, well, oh, that’s nice, but then you can see, oh, that much more is possible. And that actually…so one sees a fuller range of possibilities about life. Okay?
Any other points? Robert. Microphone please.
Robert: For me the radical experience is—that comes out of practice is—transcending my own confusion and also transcending entanglement with the confusion of other people. And the possibilities seem to open up with that. I mean the world gets a great deal bigger when you’re not involved in all that stuff all of the time.
Ken: Yeah, that’s correct.
Robert: So I guess I’m responding to what Eugene—I’m not exactly sure whether we’re talking about two different things—but the transcendency, the issue of transcendence in my own experience is only connected to my direct involvement with people I work with, people I live with, all of that stuff.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Yet that’s not how many people would interpret traditional texts when they talk about nirvana and things like that. And that’s the point here.
And so it was throughout the world. Tea had actually been seen growing by some, who did not recognize it. It had been given to others to drink, but they thought it the beverage of the common people. It had been in the possession of others, and they worshipped it. Outside China, only a few people actually drank it, and those covertly.
Then came a man of knowledge, who said to the merchants of tea, and the drinkers of tea, and to others: ‘He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not. Instead of talking about the celestial beverage, say nothing, but offer it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more. Those who do not, will show that they are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.’
The tea was brought from one stage to another along the Silk Road, and whenever a merchant carrying jade or gems or silk would pause to rest, he would make tea, and offer it to such people as were near him, whether they were aware of the repute of tea or not. This was the beginning of the Chaikhanas, or the teahouse which were established all the way from Peking to Bokhara and Samarkand. And those who tasted, knew.
At first, mark well, it was only the great and the pretended men of wisdom who sought the celestial drink and who also exclaimed: ‘But this is only dried leaves!’ or ëWhy do you boil water, stranger, when all I wanted is the celestial drink?’, or yet again: ëHow do I know what this is? Prove it to me. Besides the colour of the liquid is not golden, but ochre!’
When the truth was known, and when the tea was brought for all who would taste, the roles were reversed, and the only people who said things like the great and intelligent had said were the absolute fools. And such is the case to this day.
So. Now. [Pause]
I want to find…[Ken searches for a story in a book] This story always disappears from this book for some reason.
Student: I’d say you have a magic book.
Ken: Yes it is. It’s absolutely disappeared. Oh here we are, that’s it. Some of you may have recognized this, ‘cause I think I talked about this last year. You can tell me.
[”The Golden Fortune,“ Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah]
Once upon a time there was a merchant named Abdul Malik. He was known as the Good Man of Khorasan, because from his immense fortune he used to give to charity and hold feasts for the poor.
But one day it occurred to him that he was simply giving away some of what he had; and that the pleasure which he obtained through his generosity was far in excess of what it really cost him to sacrifice what was after all such a small proportion of his wealth. As soon as this thought entered his mind, he decided to give away every penny for the good of mankind. And he did so.
No sooner had he divested himself of all his possessions, resigned to face whatever events life might have in store for him, Abdul Malik saw, during his meditation-hour, a strange figure seem to rise from the floor of his room. A man was taking shape before his very eyes, dressed in the patchwork robe of the mysterious dervish.
ëO Abdul Malik, generous man of Khorasan!’ intoned the apparition. ëI am your real self, which has now become almost real to you because you have done something really charitable measured against which your previous record of goodness is as nothing. Because of this, and because you were able to part with your fortune without feeling personal satisfaction, I am rewarding you from the real source of reward.
ëIn future, I will appear before you in this way every day. You will strike me; and I will turn into gold. You will be able to take from this golden image as much as you may wish. Do not fear that you will harm me, because whatever you take will be replaced from the source of all endowments.’
So saying, he disappeared.
The very next morning, a friend named Bay-Akal was sitting with Abdul Malik when the dervish spectre began to manifest itself. Abdul Malik struck it with a stick, and the figure fell to the ground, transformed into gold. He took part of it for himself and gave some of the gold to his guest.
Now Bay-Akal, not knowing what had gone before, started to think how he could perform a similar wonder. He knew that dervishes had strange powers and concluded that it was necessary only to beat them to obtain gold.
So he arranged for a feast to be held to which every dervish who heard of it could come and eat his fill. When they had all eaten well, Bay-Akal took up an iron bar and thrashed every dervish within reach until they lay battered and broken on the ground.
Those dervishes who were unharmed seized Bay-Akal and took him to the judge. They stated their case and produced the wounded dervishes as evidence. Bay-Akal related what had happened at Abdul Malik’s house and explained his reasons for trying to reproduce the trick.
Abdul Malik was called, and on the way to the court his golden self whispered to him what to say.
ëMay it please the court,’ he said, ëthis man seems to me to be insane, or to be trying to cover up some penchant for assaulting people without cause. I do know him, but his story does not correspond with my own experiences in my house.’
Bay-Akal was therefore placed for a time in a lunatic asylum, until he became more calm. The dervishes recovered almost at once, through some science known to themselves. And nobody believed that such an astonishing thing as a man who becomes a golden statue—and daily at that—could ever take place.
For many another year, until he was gathered to his forefathers, Abdul Malik continued to break the image which was himself, and to distribute its treasure, which was himself, to those whom he could not help in any other way than materially.
Thoughts, questions, comments? Anybody recognize anything here? Let’s go through the story.
He’s a wealthy person, does some good with his wealth. But he recognizes he’s getting the better of the deal. And so he gives up his life, everything that he’s known, the way that he is used to doing things. Now, how many of you have found a workable way of life but it doesn’t really work for the big questions? Anybody? Okay.
So you have to find a new way of living. This is what Abdul Malik does.
Resigned to face whatever events life might have in store for him. So there’s a renunciation, or an abandonment, letting go. Now a very interesting thing happens when you do this. There’s an opening.
You know, there’s a story of a—sometimes represented as a Nasrudin story—where a student comes, or a person comes to Nasrudin and he’s very keen to study with Nasrudin because he’s heard so much about him. And Nasrudin tells him, ”Go to the well and get some water.“ And [he] brings some water back. Nasrudin fills up a pitcher and then he said, ”Would you like some water?“ And the student says, ”Yeah“—or the prospective student says, ”Yes.“
And so Nasrudin pours the water from the pitcher into the glass. But when the glass is full he keeps pouring. Of course water starts to spill all over the place. And the prospective student says, ”But you can’t put more water into a full glass.“ And Nasrudin turns to him and says, ”You’re right. And you won’t be able to learn anything until you empty yourself.“
So, if we want to take something in, we have to let go of what we already think we know. Anybody relate to this? Okay.
So a strange figure seemed to rise from the floor. So he’s let go of one whole way of defining himself and now another possibility emerges. It says, ”I will appear before you every day. You strike me; I will turn to gold. And you can do with it what you wish.“
Now this is, of course, metaphorical language. What do you think the metaphor means? Peri? Who has the microphone?
Peri: Well, this golden form is his real self. And that’s his recognition that he is internally sourced. That his wealth comes from within not out.
Ken: Translate it to your personal experience. [Pause] How many of you have encountered this mysterious form and broken it with a stick? Anybody? Gene?
Gene: I can see in terms of personal example and just the idea that if you give up what you’re holding onto, fixed patterns, that new experience is therefore something. An experience different for you arises, your new possibilities.
Ken: Yeah. I think we can go further. As you said, you give up any fixed idea of identity, or any idea of fixed identity. Situations arise. You respond to them. And the response isn’t based on maintaining a new identity. It’s just a response to that situation. So that identity crumbles with it. Everybody’s enriched. You with me?
So one’s able to do things that respond to situations because one’s not holding any idea of being something or being someone. And to the outside observer, it looks like magic. You know?
Student: Can I ask a question related to what you’ve just said?
Student: I was trying to ask this earlier in the week, but it came to me in a different way. When…the idea that we can sort of have some values or ideas of what we would like our life to be like, or how we’d like to behave. In the meantime we work at the discordance between what we’re experiencing and what our values are. Because it’s so hard to know.
I mean if you followed everything that comes into your head, you’d really make a mess of your life. So in the meantime, I think, most of us need some kind of values at least.
Ken: Well, I think you put your finger on it. If you followed everything that came into your head you’d make a real mess of your life. So don’t follow everything that comes into your head.
Student: I know but—sometimes you think you know, like you’re pretty sure you’ve figured it out. And then, and then, you have to act. The thing is, you have to act. Right?
Student: And you know you’re always only probably seeing part of the story.
Ken: When you—
Student: So that’s where I think values can be helpful.
Ken: Probably. But I want to suggest something else. You come into a situation. You open to it. You see how things are to the limit of your ability. And you act. There two possibilities: things work out or they blow up. Things work out, one goes on. Things blow up in an unforeseen way, you receive that result. Because when things blow up in an unforeseen way, if you’ve really done the best you could, given what you could see, what you get then is being able to see what you couldn’t see before. There may be a mess to clean up, but now you see more. And that’s how one proceeds.
So it’s not about not making mistakes. It’s not actually learning from them.
Student: Okay, so why did you say ”probably“?
Ken: Well, for a couple of reasons. Being clear about one’s values allows you to know where to draw a boundary. That’s one piece. And the other is that being clear about your values also helps you to negotiate situations when you don’t want to take the kind of risks that I was just talking about. Okay?
Ken: Oh, sorry, okay, Jeff.
Jeff: In the power method you just mentioned—went through.
Student: Could you speak up?
Jeff: In the power method you just went through, there are no boundaries, right? You’re not trying to draw a boundary in order to act? If there is a boundary it just comes out of the situation.
Ken: Yeah I mean, and the boundaries will be dependent on the situation and your relationship to it.
Nick: Sort of go back a little bit to the story, something that comes to mind is the idea of complete divestment of everything.
Student: Divestment of what?
Nick: Everything. In the way in as much as it relates to spiritual practice. ëCause I’m reflecting a lot on my experience in this retreat. And it’s been very positive, I think.
But there’s a sense of having gotten something out of it. Like something [pause]—I think it’s that book Women of Wisdom. There’s a version of the life story of Machik Labdron, which I’m reminded of. She was a prodigy, right? When she was a little kid she could read a million miles an hour and all this and she did a lot of practice at a young age. And I don’t remember really how things progressed, but at some point, during a ceremony or something, maybe an empowerment or like an overnight practice, she kind of takes off, I think, and they find her—in this version anyways—up a tree, naked. [Ken chuckles] Yeah. Like in the middle of like a lake with the nagas and stuff right. It’s just a really powerful reminder to me of the need to let go of or be divested of all those senses of one’s self when you enter situations.
Ken: Yeah. And this is an important point. People often try to do this literally. You know. Get rid of everything, etc. But that’s not what’s really being talked about. It’s letting go of all of the inner holding.
Nick: It’s like this idea that’s been floating around in my head that when I leave, because I feel differently about myself than I did when I came here. And I began relating to my life a little bit differently—that I’m going to be able to relate to my life differently on the basis of what I’ve learned and experienced here. I’m going to have this thing to bring with me.
Nick: You know, which is, I think, really dangerous. Or when I say really dangerous, it seems…’cause it seems so subtle. If you hadn’t said that I might not have thought about it. [Ken laughs] And I feel like, it’s like you go amongst—around these situations, that were your ordinary everyday life situations, and you’re like, well I have this suddenly to offer, in a different way. That’s a conscious, subconscious idea, which is…it’s like a gloss over the situation. I don’t think is helpful.
Ken: Yeah. Right.
Robert: I wanted to respond to Leslie’s remark about values. I’m also a big believer in values, goals and things. But I think that it’s necessary to allow for the values to be, I don’t know, maybe you could say empty or at least porous, because I don’t think it helps if the values are just too monolithic or solid.
When I was working on studying the eightfold path, I did a lot of kind of investigation into the meaning of the term right, like right mindfulness, right view, and right action, and so forth. And the thing that comes to mind right now is some guy, who I don’t even remember who it was, was making the point that right is different in different situations. It’s not.
Ken: Okay. Helen.
Helen: Well it seems to me the hardest part of this is being able to let go of your own sense of self, ego, identity, because—and the test to me comes if you feel criticized by someone. [Ken laughs] You know, you really take offense. Well having to let go of one’s own identity, I mean, I don’t see how it’s really possible. I mean, I know they talk about it—it’s ego is emptiness and all that. But I don’t—
Ken: It’s very simple.
Helen: I don’t see—
Ken: When somebody criticizes you, agree with them.
Helen: So I don’t see where that takes you.
Ken: Try it sometime.
Helen: But it would have to be a genuine agreement, I mean. Don’t you think? Not—
Ken: Just try it.
Helen: You mean just try it even if you have to kind of fake it? [Laughter] If you don’t agree, truly agree, but you try it, you mean?
Ken: Just try it, see what happens.
Student: Does it matter if you…?
Ken: Okay. I think Bill was first.
Bill: Does it matter whether you believe or don’t believe the criticism is correct?
Ken: Just agree with them.
Ken: Just agree with them.
Bill: Regardless of what you think of it?
Ken: Just agree with ’em.
Student: You know I—
Ken: Leslie has something to say about this, I can tell.
Leslie: I was trying to think of an insult to see what happens. [Laughter]
Student: So here’s my [unclear]
Ken: You’ve got a few minutes while Bill speaks. But make it good would you? Nothing half-hearted here.
Bill: I’m glad you said that, Helen, because one of the things that when I came here I was afraid of was, you know, I’m not gonna be able to live up to the community norms and I’m gonna fall short in a lot of ways.
Ken: You’re right. You’ve failed completely. [Laughter]
Bill: Well but I did fail in at least one important way, which was, you know, I could feel the discipline about talking going maybe yesterday.
Bill: And, I knew I shouldn’t, I knew, but I was feeling so warm towards everyone, and these—
Ken: That’s what I said earlier about—
Bill: No, I know. No, no, no I’m not trying to defend it, I’m saying—and I thought—I’ve been thinking all evening about, first Jeff very helpfully pointing out that I should shut up. [Laughter] And I mean that literally. And then you sort of saying it in a different set of words. Two things: first there’s just off to the side it’s like there is an important discipline about being a Buddhist student that I’m beginning to grasp thinking about that.
But second—so you’re criticized, and you have this upsurgence of a sense of self, because you feel like either you’ve done wrong or there’s shame or you feel anger as a result. But what I thought was, okay, I’m getting all this evidence for something that isn’t there out of this. What is that evidence? It’s a kind of gripping of the stomach. It’s a kind of whatever. The fact that you have these powerful, somatic things going on when you’re criticized, doesn’t mean you are really a self. It just means that there’s this very—this is the kind of critical evidence in a way that we use to create that idea.
I mean, I think that in a certain way that the criticism—and I don’t know why it’s so important to agree with it—but I think noticing how you react to it, is, at least to me, in this very moment, was really incredibly helpful.
Leslie: I don’t want to do it now; I want to pull one when you’re not expecting it.
Ken: You want to ”pull one,“ when you’re not expecting it. Okay. Fine. Whatever.
Helen: I think I suddenly understood what you said by agreeing with him. Because in a way you’re already agreeing with him, or you wouldn’t feel criticized. In other words, it’s kind of like what George was saying; if you really feel okay about…if you don’t agree, truly agree with the criticism, you won’t be bothered. It won’t bother you. But, in fact there’s a part of you way back somewhere feels insulted because—
Ken: Helen, you’re doing the worst thing possible. You’re thinking it through.
Helen: No, it feels that—
Ken: Don’t think it through. Somebody criticizes you, just agree with ’em and see what happens. It’s going to be far more valuable than thinking it through.
Helen: Well, I was just explaining—
Ken: I know.
Helen: …why I think that could work.
Ken: I know. I’m saying—
Helen: I think.
Ken: Yeah. And this is what we tend to do. We understand it intellectually. It’s very—and then we think we know. And there’s nothing wrong with your reasoning, but it’s not a replacement for actual knowing.
Helen: Mmm-hmm. Okay.
Larry: Well it seems like we’ve been talking about one of the eight worldly concerns. And would it work the same way when someone praises you? Just agree with them. Yeah.
Ken: So, a few more minutes on the story.
When you don’t hold any sense of identity, then you’re available—and one could put this in different words—to serve what is, to enrich the world, or whatever. In this particular story, the metaphor is becoming gold, which can be distributed to everybody. So it’s a sense of enrichment. And, it’s inexhaustible. It’s not something that can be depleted.
But other people tend not to understand because it doesn’t make sense to them because they are coming from a point of self-interest and not of service. And I think a very good example of this, after the Waco, I think it was the Waco fiasco, Janet Reno said, ”I take responsibility for this.“ By uttering those words, she lost the trust of every member of Congress, like that [fingers snap]. Because it’s the one thing if you’re a politician you never take responsibility for anything [chuckling].
And saying I take responsibility for this. It’s on my watch. I wasn’t directly involved in this, but it was under my watch, my responsibility. It’s a stand-up thing to do. But for people who never stand up—you know, can’t trust you, because you could stand up. So I give this as an example of how people who are invested in a sense of self can’t understand how a person cannot be invested in the sense of self. It’s one of the other messages in the story.
So as you grow and mature and your practice takes form, one of the things you’re going to find, probably, is that you want people to understand what you’re doing. You want people to understand, because wanting to be understood is a very, very deep human desire. And a lot of people won’t. And this is another reason why I’m very happy to see people being willing to talk about their experience. Because where they have the opportunity to talk about their experiences and what they’re doing in their practice with a group of people who do understand, because they’re doing the same kind of thing. I think it’s very, very important.
Okay, final questions before we close with meditation. Nothing? All right. Jean.
Larry, hold it, could you turn the mic on and hand it to Jean, please.
Larry: Turn it off?
Ken: Turn it on and…
Jean: Well, you just got done saying that sort of the desire to be understood is a very, very human thing. Where do you think those four spiritual longings come from?
Jean: That seems to be a very, very, very human thing as well.
Ken: The ones I refer to in Wake Up To Your Life?
Ken: Eternal life, bliss—
Jean: Eternal bliss.
Ken: Eternal bliss [Jean laughs], yes but also eternal life.
Ken: And universal selfhood and purity.
Jean: [Simultaneous with Ken] Purity.
Ken: Yep. Where do they come from? I don’t know. The way I present them in Wake Up To Your Life is that they’re spiritual manifestations of the same patterns that run all through our lives, manifestations at the spiritual level. We don’t want to die. The body is programmed to live. So that gets sublimated or transformed say, into the notion of eternal life.
We want to be happy. That gets projected into the notion of eternal bliss. We want to control our world. That gets translated into the notion of universal selfhood. Or we aren’t content with becoming god, we want to become godhead. [Laughter] And we want to be free of any stain, you know, feel clean. That gets translated into the notion of purity.
So I think they’re the projections of, as you say, very basic human things. But when we—and when we try to achieve those, make those our spiritual aims, then we get all kind of problems coming up, which is what I’m writing about there, rather than relating to things just as they are. And one of the things is we get old and die.
You know. All of the great masters got old and died. But some of them died young. In this book it’s stories composed by Sufi masters over the ages. Astonishingly a number of them were assassinated because they went against, you know, the Sunni faction or the Shiite faction or the cultural, prevailing cultural thing, and so they were killed. Not a new phenomenon at all.
Ken: Did you have something?
Ken: Okay. Thank you. We’ll close here.
This is our last full day—oops—Saturday, September fifth, A Trackless Path, morning session.
This is the last full day of our retreat and our time together. Many, many directions one can go. One of the most common questions I’m asked is, how do I take what I’ve practiced here into my life. This comes up again and again. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the wrong question. And the reason is that if you take a look at the set of practices seeing from the inside, it’s a five-step process. [https://www.unfetteredmind.org/five-step-mindfulness-practice] That practice is about, or shows how to find peace and clarity in what one is experiencing. It doesn’t in any way talk about how to bring calm and clarity to what one is experiencing. I think this is a very important distinction.
So one of the things I’ve suggested to people in the past is, rather than think about how you can take this into your life, what about bringing your life into your practice?
And if you look at the prayers that we open each of the meditation sessions with, page four. The Four Instructions of Gampopa:
Let my heart turn to practice.
Let practice become a path.
These first two—what we’re doing here is learning to live a different way. Now as I mentioned earlier in this retreat, all of us, for various reasons, have chosen the—chosen to develop spiritual understanding in the context of regular life. In making that decision we have eschewed the traditional path of withdrawing from the exigencies of life to pursue a spiritual practice, which is, of course, what the monastic traditions in all religious traditions have been about. And if we consider our own Western tradition, this puts us much more in the same arena as the pre-Socratics who are usually referred to as philosophers but were really engaged in a very similar exploration about how to live in the multiplicity of life.
Student: What did you call them? The priests?
Ken: Pre-Socratics, before Socrates, who screwed everything up, basically. Socrates, and Plato made a much bigger mess. I mean, there’s some good stuff about Plato, but he really screwed a lot of things up. Though I’m not sure it isn’t a translation problem. But that’s a whole ’nother matter. [Laughter]
Finding a way to live in life without…or I shouldn’t say without, but working with all of the different often conflicting demands on time, energy and resources, and a combination of both internal and external ability. So in this vein, there’s a term in Tibetan called lam du khyer [pron. lam-cher], lam du cheer ba [pron. lam du cher ah] or lam du khyer ba [pron. lam du kyer ah], which is almost always translated as carrying on the path. And I contacted a couple of my colleagues and said, you know, what’s the Sanskrit for this, because I couldn’t really…I just wasn’t satisfied with that translation.
And they scouted around in the Kangyur and found there wasn’t any Sanskrit for it. And so the origins of this term are, at this point, a little obscure. But one of my colleagues managed to dig up something on—’cause the title appeared in a Tibetan text of which there is a Sanskrit original. And looking at that, when he sent me this information, it seemed to me that rather than carrying on the path—oh what this term refers to is like so you’re doing yidam meditation or something like taking and sending, and it’s very much how do you carry it into life, exactly the way that…
And when I really looked at what he sent me on this, it seemed to be more make into a path rather than carry on the path. And that’s very much in line with what I’m trying to present to you here this morning.
We learn these practices. We see and experience how they take us deeper into our experience of life. Now how do we use these practices to make a path in life? And I don’t know whether that does anything for you, but for me it creates a different image or it leads me to explore a different kind of effort. And very much in keeping with what I suggested earlier bringing our life into our practice.
And so rather than regard what we do at this retreat as ”the practice,“ and then we try to integrate that into our life, I think it’s healthier actually, or maybe more fruitful, to look at our life as the field of practice.
And so everything we encounter becomes a basis for making a certain kind of effort. And the effort primarily is in attention. And so, you know, somebody cancels a crucial meeting for no apparent reason. We’re frustrated and angry. And now our whole plan for the day, or maybe for the whole year, has gone up in smoke. And these kinds of things happen. How do we meet that experience? Well most of us react. But what would it mean to find clarity and calm in that experience?
I mean I was quite struck by George’s comment last night. And there I was, calm in complete tension, or completely calm in being very tense. And I think that’s a very good example of what I’m trying to talk about here. It’s not about making things perfect, but finding the calmness and clarity that actually is in all experience.
I mean one of the things that I suggested yesterday, I believe, was how do I experience this and be at peace at the same time? It’s very, very much in the same direction.
Another way that I’ve expressed it in the past is to use the analogy of sound. And many people have found this helpful, both in their practice and in their lives. We ordinarily think of sound and silence, or noise and silence as opposites, and this is reflected in our language when we say the noise shattered the silence, as if the silence was a piece of glass or something like that.
Now that’s certainly—it’s a poetic expression of an experience, very definitely. But the question I’d like to encourage people to consider is, when a noise arises, or sound comes up, where does the silence go? And it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that the silence doesn’t go anywhere. One can think of silence as the absence of noise, or silence as the space in which noise arises.
And when you shift to that latter one, sound and silence are no longer opposites. And there’s a certain effort one can make, that is, even when there’s a lot of noise, you can still make the effort to hear the silence. And when you do that, you find that you can be with that noise in a qualitatively different way.
One of the things that I think Buddhism points to in practice and in all its philosophy, and I think it does this extraordinarily well, is it consistently points to the space, for lack of a better term, in which experience arises. In Mahayana, we call that emptiness. And what happens is that we forget that, or we’re distracted by what arises and get completely involved in the arising in the same way that we can be caught and confused by the noise.
But in exactly the same way, that if we can remember to listen to the silence in the sound, if in our lives we can, I’m not sure what the right term is so I’ll just say—be in touch with—the space in which experience arises while we’re experiencing, we now have a completely different relationship with experience. And I think this is potentially a very powerful way to bring our life into our practice or to find a path in life, because now we’re in the fullness of experience, not just one part of it.
And when we do this, the tendency to react to things is greatly reduced. There’s a far more likelihood of responding because we aren’t separate or divorced from that open space, which is what I think words such as buddha nature, or emptiness, or all of these other terms refer to.
The terminology is relatively inconsequential. As Milarepa once said to Gampopa, you know, ”Whoever coined the term pristine awareness was an idiot because it gave people something to cling to.” And this has been a repeated occurrence in Buddhist teaching over the years is that every generation teachers come up with new terms because students will cling to the old ones and make concepts out of them rather than move to the experience that the terms are pointing to.
And this is also the sense of the Mahayana instruction:
Regard all appearances or everything that arises as a dream. It’s not that it’s inconsequential, it’s that there is an open space, which is very impossible to put into words, in which all experience arises. And when you experience both the arising and the space all the time, then you just find yourself more present. I mean, I isn’t arising in that space. It’s why I like to say that I is an experience, not a fact. But it all points to the same thing.
So today, you can work with that in your practice. But it’s a perspective I wanted to give you because we’re coming to the end of this time together, and it may be helpful in the way that you live your lives after this retreat.
Now, with respect to today, we’ll continue to observe silence until lunchtime. And have lunch 12:30 ’til 2. So that you can actually get to know each other. We have our meditation session from 2 to 5, and then the group meditation, and then again we can have talking during dinner. But I’d really like to respect the practice times and maintain the container of the retreat, well for breakfast, from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 2 to 5. And I think that’s about it.
Any questions or anything people would like to take up? Final point, and we can stop here, Bill.