Shame and the Four Powers Download
Skipping steps in the primary practice suggests ignoring or suppressing; ascent and descent; three types of shame: shame from acting inconsistently, shame from violating social norms, shame from compromising personal ideals; how do we come to terms with shame and all experiences?; four powers: regret, reliance, remedy and resolve; the impact of practice on relationships.
Are we rolling?
Student: So in doing the primary practice, is it important to keep four distinct steps as you practice? For example, when you open to the field, it feels to me like my heart just wants to open—but it’s an important thing to sort of keep those in stages?
Ken: What happens to the emotional, internal material?
Student: Doesn’t get noticed.
Ken: We have to be careful that way. There’s a phenomenon that occurs quite frequently in meditation practice, spiritual practice in general. One terminology for it is ascent and descent. So we have some emotional material here, and attention comes along. In descent, you go into states of depression, sadness, dullness, etc. In ascent, you go into higher states of clarity and openness, etc. But both of them are about avoiding this, experiencing that. Now, in many centers when people ascend, they’re actually rewarded. But it’s very unreliable because, since you’re avoiding the experience of this, it’s very unstable, so you can’t depend on it. The descent is equally as unstable, but people don’t feel so good about that, so they tend to work at that a little more, but the ascent, they try to ride. So, there you are and you’re sitting in the field of sensory experience. Now start including the emotional material, and it’s probably all of these things that you just don’t want to touch—something like that?
Student: Something like that.
Ken: Okay, other questions. You clear on everything, Larry? Okay. All right. Nothing from you Claudia? Okay. All right, then, we’ll close here and have breakfast at 8, as soon as the bell goes.
Ken: Something that comes up, not infrequently in practice is…to use the words of T.S. Elliot: Shame of motives late revealed, and things ill-done and done to others. Harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue.
The shame of motives late revealed, and things ill-done and done to others. Harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue.
You got a good level there, Gary?
Okay. Well, there are a lot of things we can draw from this. How many of you put a value on consistency?
Ken: [Laughs] No?
Student: I believe I’ve used that word.
Ken: Pardon? All right. Okay, why do we put a value on consistency?
Make sure it’s turned on, that’s all.
Student: It’s the red button?
Ken: Other way.
Student: Now it’s on? Oh, just at first hearing, consistency sounds reliable.
Student: A consistent friend is someone you know that you can turn to and they’ll listen to you, for instance.
Ken: So we associate with reliability.
Ken: Okay, anybody else?
Student: Well, on the dark side [Ken chuckles], it satisfies the need for control.
Ken: Or presents the illusion that [unclear] of control. Okay.
Student: Well, sure. On the brighter side [Ken chuckles], it seems to have something to do with integrity.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Anybody else? Gary? Larry, could you pass the mic.
Gary: Trust, in terms of, sort of having a sense of something being there, even when you don’t think it will be.
Ken: Say a bit more.
Student: Well, something that’s always the same, gets predictable.
Ken: Gets boring? Predictable?
Student: It stops being very interesting.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. I also think it has a bit to do with identity. And we hear people say, “Oh, I can’t do that, I’ve never ever done anything like that.” Now, there are a lot of ways into this. I’m reminded of one of the teachings from mind training: “Don’t rely on a sense of duty.” It’s in reference to a form of anger where you feel a sense of duty when your family or you’ve been dishonored, you have to exact some price or revenge. That’s why I’m saying don’t rely on a sense of duty.
What I want to explore a bit this evening is the relationship between shame and identity. And the reason I was introducing the notion of consistency is that shame is often associated with not acting or acting inconsistently. Reflecting on this, think—for purposes of this evening—and consider three types of shame. The first is, to use the language of John Bradshaw and others, is toxic shame, where in our upbringing, we had a negative self-image firmly implanted in us. So we feel that we shouldn’t really be a member of the human species and so forth, and that we are fundamentally bad or evil or unworthy or undeserving or whatever other adjective you want to put in there. There’s always a component of self-hatred here. And my own feeling is that self-loathing, self-hatred, deep-seated feelings that one is fundamentally unworthy, etc, these are all learned. They aren’t natural emotions. They’re learned because someone regarded us and treated us that way with a fair degree of consistency. And we had to accept that way of viewing ourselves in the world in order to survive.
This is very very deeply implanted stuff. And one of the things that happens as we rest more deeply, at first we start touching that stuff and it feels very hot and very uncomfortable and very threatening. But as we’re able to actually rest in that experience, it’s possible for it to move from being a fact by which we define ourselves to being an experience. This is not particularly easy, but it is very definitely liberating. And profoundly disorienting, because when we have been carrying that kind of self-image for so long, to begin to let go of it means we actually don’t know how to relate to the world at all.
Second kind of shame, and these aren’t in any kind of particular order here. I don’t mean there’s different levels in here by the order. In Buddhism, it’s actually regarded as a virtuous feeling. And it’s the shame that we feel when we violate social norms. The reason that’s regarded as a virtuous feeling in Buddhism is that it puts a restraint on unwholesome behavior, or a constraint if you wish. And it was certainly something that was made use of or is made use of in the monastic sangha. In fact, even in the Bodhicaryavatara, the bodhisattva vow, when it’s repeated, the vow section one says, “I will bring no stain to this faultless and noble lineage,” or family or whatever. And that expression is coming out of, “I will not act in a way which brings shame to the ideal of the bodhisattva.” So you feel the social constraint there quite powerfully.
The third kind, which may be connected with the second, is what we feel when we compromise or violate our own ideals and values. I’m differentiating it from the second, because the second one I see as primarily about social norms, and the third one is about our own personal ideals, which…and there may be a lot of overlap there. I mean some people, their personal ideals are the norms of the society in which they live, but that’s not true for everybody.
Now, I started off by asking you how many of you put a value on consistency. Well, we all do to some extent. When you look at your life, though, how consistent have you been? So, a couple of people are shaking their heads, as in, “No, not exactly.” So, Larry, why not?
Larry: What immediately came to mind is—I think it was Whitman—you say, “I contain legions.”
Ken: I contain leeches?
Larry: No, legions. Legions.
Larry: Legions, Yes.
Ken: Multitudes, yes, yup, okay.
Larry: Yes…I…right. Yes.
Ken: Okay. Your point?
Larry: Well, I could really identify with what Whitman was saying there. I certainly detect multitudes within myself, especially as I look over the vista of my life.
Ken: Okay. I’d like to pursue this a little if I may. I’m going to ask you a question, and then you can decide whether you wish to answer it or not. Do you maintain that perspective when you practice?
Larry: When I practice, I assume that I’m plastic, meaning that I’m in a process of change.
Ken: Yes. But do you maintain or make use of the perspective that “I contain multitudes” when you practice?
Larry: Yes, I do.
Ken: How do you do that?
Larry: Well, I recognize these different qualities, characters if you will, that emerge in my mindstream, that emerge physically, during the course of my practice. And you recall that famous quote by Ajahn Chah about sitting quietly, in the forest pool.
Ken: In the center of the room?
Larry: Well, that’s another one.
Ken: Oh, okay.
Larry: But the forest pool and all of the animals come to drink in the still waters of it. And all of those animals that come to drink are part of that experience.
Ken: Okay. All right. So, is there any conflict among those multitudes, any differences of opinion?
Ken: So what do you do when one member of that multitude does something that is absolutely wrong according to another member of that multitude?
Larry: It happens every day!
Ken: Yeah, what do you do?
Larry: I try to note it.
Ken: You got one part of you saying, “Well, big deal.” Another part of you saying, “How could you do that?”
Larry: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Ken: And you just note it?
Larry: That’s noting it.
Ken: [Laughs] Is that enough?
Larry: No, it’s not enough. If it were enough, I wouldn’t be here. [Laughter]
Ken: So, what’s missing?
Ken: Capacity for what?
Larry: Capacity to stay on-beam.
Ken: On-beam of what?
Larry: My higher self.
Ken: Oh, you’re going to introduce a third one into the mix, are you? And, how does the higher self salvage the situation or remedy it or take of it or whatever word you want to use?
Larry: Pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.
Ken: Okay. So, things happen. And parts of us feel shame. We’ve violated something, or that’s the feeling. Question now is, “How do we live with that?” Right? Okay. Now, we’re not the first people to consider this question. Milarepa murdered 37 people. Milarepa murdered 37 people, and that was his impetus for embarking on a life of practice, was how to live with that. And some form of shame or regret has been the impetus for many many people over the centuries.
In the Tibetan tradition, there are a series of teachings called the Four Forces or the Four Powers, whichever way you want to translate it, which are usually described in terms of clearing away unwholesome actions, which is closely related to our topic. But I’d like to look at them this evening in terms of coming to terms with what we carry in us.
Now whenever we feel shame, some part of us feels that we’ve done something wrong. It may be in our own eyes. It may be in the eyes of someone else. A lot of people spend a lot of time in analyzing, “Well, did I actually do anything wrong here?” and go through, let’s say, a rational process of trying to sort it out. “Well, no it’s justifiable from this point of view. Well, no it’s not justifiable from that point of view,” etc. And you get lots of essays written on morals and ethics and so forth.
Personally, I think it’s much better to go straight into the feeling. Straight into the experience, and open to it. And in doing so, when we’re able to rest in the experience without resisting it, quite frequently, a knowing arises. That knowing can take a lot of different forms. One form it can take is, “Oh, this isn’t as big a deal as I thought it was.” That’s one form it can take. Another form it can take is, “Oh, I couldn’t see any alternative at that point.” There are probably other forms the knowing can take. It may be, “It had to be done, and I’ll live with the consequences.” But in each of these cases, by experiencing it completely, you change your relationship with whatever’s inciting the shame.
And when the knowing takes the form, “I couldn’t see any alternative,” or “I didn’t know better” or whatever, there is implicit in that—and this is important—a sense of regret. And we all make mistakes in life. My view, the big thing is not whether we make mistakes, ’cause we all make mistakes, but whether we learn from them.
Apparently one of the CEOs of Hartford Insurance Company—this was some time ago, I think—had a very simple office. And in his office, there was no wall decoration except for a bronze plaque mounted on a piece of wood. Engraved on this plaque was the single statement, “Mistakes are events, the true meaning of which has not yet been learned.” I thought that was pretty good.
Now we can’t possibly learn from our actions, our past actions, unless we’re willing to open to the experience and all the discomfort associated with them. For in all of these cases, when there’s a sense of shame, there’s also a sense of separation. And it’s that sense of separation which I think we can say is the cause of the pain, or the genesis of the pain. Apparently the original etymology of the word sin is connected with separation. So, one can look at the four forces, which are regret, reliance, remedy, and resolve. I carefully translated them so they all started with “R”. So you can call them the Four Rs if you wish. All of these are ways to address the sense of separation. I talked about “regret” a little bit already.
Reliance is the sense of separating from our own personal values and ideals. Traditional language, these are embodied as, say, the three jewels or what have you. There’s a sense of disconnection. And so, reliance means to actively or intentionally renew that connection.
Story is told of Atisha, that’s why he came to Tibet. He was probably the highest ranking Buddhist master in India. He held the title, Holder of the Vajra Seat, which was the name of Bodhgaya. So, we don’t know much of the hierarchy, but he was at least a cardinal if not a pope…something like that. And as such, he had a big pavilion at the annual festivals there. And a sadhu by the name of Maitripa entered into this tent, this pavilion, where all of the monks were seated all in order of rank, etc, and very formal setting. And he and his mistress proceeded to make love, which totally outraged all of the monks, and Atisha’s senior attendants looked at him and said, “Should we get rid of them?” And Atisha said nothing. Which was taken as a yes. So they grabbed Maitripa, and Maitripa shook them off and said, “If I’m going to be forced out of here, I will leave in my own way.” And he walked straight through the wall of the pavilion.
Afterwards, Atisha wasn’t too happy. And Atisha had a very close relationship with Green Tara, and had since he was a young man. And whenever he prayed to Green Tara, she instantly appeared, and he’d have a conversation with her. So he prayed to Green Tara and she didn’t show up. Now he was definitely worried. So he prayed more earnestly. And she appeared, but her back was turned. You can see how this is all about this sense of separation. So he said, “Did I goof up today?” And she said, “Yup.” He said, “So, what’s the karmic consequence?”
“You’ll be born as a worm that surrounds Mt. Meru, and every day a flock of birds will pick your flesh to the bones. And this will go on for X hundred years.”
“Is there an alternative?”
“What is it?”
“Go to Tibet and teach the dharma there.”
It’s recorded that Atisha said, “I’ll take the worm.”
Well, it takes us a bit beyond the point that I wanted to make, but it’s an example of reliance—that you have to renew that connection. And you can only renew that connection by coming to terms with whatever action is causing you shame. You can’t really renew the connection unless you come to terms with that. You can think of Hamlet. Claudius at one point prays to God for forgiveness for murdering his brother. But he recognizes that he’s not sincere, he’s quite happy that he got the kingdom and the girl. And he says, “Prayers which are not sincere will never be heard by God.” It’s pointing to the same thing. So it’s another way to come into a complete experience that we’ve been trying to avoid.
Third one is remedy. Actions always have consequences. They initiate in us a process of evolution. We can’t stop that process, but we may be able to influence it. So if we say something to somebody that’s hurtful, there’s nothing we can do to undo those words. There are many adages in English to that effect. But we can influence how that propensity develops in us, perhaps by apologizing. And again, the only way that apology can be meaningful is if we really have come to terms with it, so that becomes the right thing, the appropriate thing for us to do. Follow? It can’t be just going through the motions. It’s not always possible to remedy something directly like that, and one of the traditional instructions is, when you feel like you’re regretting something or dealing with this kind of shame or whatever, is to go out and do some kind of virtue for the express purpose of moving things in a new direction, even if it has no relationship to the actual action.
And the fourth one is resolve. And when you move into that deep knowing which comes when you open to the experience completely…we make…that knowing may take the form of, “I will never do this again.” Doesn’t matter what. And that’s what’s meant by resolve.
Now, these are, as I said, are usually described in terms of clearing away the effects of unwholesome actions. And that’s part of a much larger system. But I think we can approach them much more simply, much more directly as, when shame and regret arise in our experience, these are four possible ways of coming to terms with it. And all of them, inevitably lead you into being completely in that experience, which is usually quite uncomfortable, I’ve found.
Closely related to this: an exercise I’ve often given students when we’ve been discussing karma—and heaven knows how much bad karma this one will have earned for me, but it’s too late now—is, I tell them to go out and do something unwholesome.
Ken: To go out and do something unwholesome. Usually lie to somebody, or say something offensive to somebody. It doesn’t have to be wildly offensive. But—and this is the critical part of the assignment—they have to maintain complete attention in the execution of the action. Nobody’s ever done it. Can’t do it. When they do something that is unwholesome, that is hurtful or harmful to someone else, something in us always shuts down. And what we’re talking about in terms of shame and regret here is going into the part that shut down. ’Cause that’s what made it possible.
Now, as you’re working in your practice, the memory “of things ill done and done to others’ harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue” occasionally comes up. Maybe you didn’t even regard them as exercise of virtue, it’s just “things ill done and done to others’ harm.” Okay. And also “the shame of motives late revealed.”
Don’t avoid these. In terms of the primary practice, which we were discussing last night, there are two possibilities: one, we push them away. And the other, we collapse down onto them, become obsessed with them. Can’t, you know, just think about them and feel them and just can’t get away from it. You don’t push them away. And you don’t obsess on them. You don’t collapse down on them. In not pushing away, one of the first things we have to work with there, is the discomfort of having that in our experience. It’s like a stone in our shoe. Often something hard which causes discomfort. And so, then we just include the sensations of discomfort: physical, emotional, all the stories associated with it, the internal material.
When, on the other hand we collapse down, and we find ourselves just obsessing about it and thinking about it and not being able to get away from it at all, then we need to expand our attention. At least to our whole body. But it can be quite useful to include our environment. And we include the sensations connected with that discomfort at the same time. So the primary practice, whether we’re avoiding it or obsessing on it, by working the primary practice we end up in the same place of a field of attention in which discomfort is arising, where the feelings of discomfort are present.
Here is where our attention operates like the sun on a flower bud. Just working that without trying to analyze or figure out or dissect, over time—and over time may be anywhere from like five or ten minutes to five or ten years—that flower opens, and then the whole experience becomes available to us, and it shifts from being a fact to an experience. And there’s simultaneously a freedom and a knowing. Maybe they’re two expressions of the same thing; I don’t know. The freedom is: you don’t have to avoid it anymore, or you don’t have to obsess on it anymore. And the knowing is: you know where you are in relationship to it.
Are there any questions? I mean, yeah, well, it’s okay…Claudia, then Gary, then Larry. You had a question too, Larry? Yeah, good. Is this making sense?
Claudia: Yes, but I actually have two questions.
Ken: Oh, well, be greedy!
Claudia: The forms of shame.
Claudia: It seems to me there’s another form.
Ken: Oh? What would that be?
Claudia: And that is, “I really screwed up, and I created pain and suffering for another person. I’ve damaged them, and I was completely asleep when I did it. It was completely my fault.” I mean, the others seem not such a big deal. It’s a big deal sometimes. Sometimes, it’s a big deal.
Ken: Well, yeah, I would put that in the second and third one.
Claudia: “I couldn’t see any alternative at that point?”
Claudia: I mean, C’mon! Of course you see other alternatives, they’re just not as juicy to do at that point. They don’t give you the same satisfaction.
Ken: Oh, I see, okay, you’re talking about. Now I understand what you’re talking about. Yes, there is that feeling, “Yeah, I really screwed up here.” Yeah, okay.
Claudia: And that one is the worst. I mean it’s the hardest to…for me, it carries the most deep pain of shame and regret. The others, sort of, are ways of justifying, you know, “Okay, maybe there was a better way but—”
Claudia: “I didn’t know it at the time.” But sometimes you darn-well do know it at the time and you just—
Ken: Ignored it.
Claudia: Ignore it.
Ken: Yeah, okay.
Claudia: And, to me, that is the worst shame to sit with and brings up the worst regret. But anyway…
Ken: Okay, no argument.
Claudia: And the other issue is, when you talk about obsessing. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with this one, as you well know!
Ken: I’m sure you’re the only person in this room who has.
Claudia: No, I’m sure everyone has. My experience with this—and I’ve worked with it a lot—is that expanding out doesn’t stop the obsessing at all. Whatever tape is running, sometimes that tape is just going to run.
Ken: Oh, I didn’t say expanding out doesn’t stop the obsessing…or I didn’t say expanding out stops the expanding. But it stops the collapsing down. So, now you’re sitting in an open field, and that tape is running!
Claudia: Yeah, I mean, I’m just more aware that the tape is…that it’s a tape.
Ken: Yes, it changes you’re relationship with it, and over time, whatever’s locked up in that…
Claudia: Yeah, years!
Ken: Sometimes. Yeah.
Claudia: It doesn’t feel very satisfying, I have to say, when I do that. I mean, I still have a lot of—
Ken: No, the stone’s still in the shoe…
Claudia: Yeah, I mean, and there’s a lot of secondary emotion that arises and reactivity that arises when a particular tape runs.
Claudia: Which is, “Not this again! I don’t want to go here! Why is this happening again? I’ve already worked this through.”
Ken: No you haven’t. [Laughter]
Claudia: Yeah. So, why don’t you have a magic bullet for that?
Ken: I gave you one, it’s just very slow-acting. [Laughter]
Gary: What struck me as you were talking about the different forms of shame was the first one, which I think’s the big one in my experience which…the phrase that came to mind, was “loss of innocence.” And, you know, brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition with the Eden sort of sense of childhood, and once that loss of innocence is taken away through no choice of your own. For me it’s like that sense of separation, it’s like being objectified. And, so I’m just sort of making a comment just to see what your reactions might be about a loss of innocence. And, I know in some sense what motivates me in this practice is somehow trying to get a sense of that. Maybe there’s a sense of greed in wanting that sense of innocence. And the other reaction I have too, is about when there’s a mistake that we make that harms other people, and whether or not we’re conscious of it or not I think for those of us that have experienced a loss of innocence, it’s almost like you want to take innocence away from someone else. I mean maybe that’s not the conscious intention when you find yourself raging or you know, sort of like a reversal of the shame. And, so I think that first shame in my experience is probably the most destructive because…and also in the work that I do with people—you know, experiencing depression or childhood trauma, things like that—I mean, your talk tonight has really struck a nerve in me in terms of them seeking help for their loss of innocence of some kind, or regret or shame for harming other people.
Ken: Your comments raise an interesting point for me. That’s the possible connection between loss of innocence and the desire for purity. Longing for purity for some time now, I’ve seen as being motivated by anger which would very much fit with what you’re describing. The other thing that occurred to me in listening to you is that loss of innocence is basically a childlike state, or a child-state, and we cannot return there. So the question then is, “How do we live?” Ethically, if you wish, and recognizing that we can’t return to that childlike purity, where you know…well, you get what I mean. There’s a pain in that. And I would say that part of being an adult is learning to tolerate that pain. Does that answer your question?
Gary: Most of it. The other question that I have is what society does in terms of exiling people that somehow don’t conform. Now I’m not talking about, say, violent criminals are obviously exiled for a good reason. But we find it in, I think, creative people or people that, you know, don’t go with the flow or don’t, you know, tend to be conformists. There’s always that sense of separation or sense of exile, and personally, I’ve always bend drawn to those types of people. Not that they’ve, you know, lost innocence or something, but they sort of, you know, they’re rebellious in a sense, or they’re always challenging. And I don’t know if that’s fueled by a sense of anger as much as, you know, choosing to be separated. So there’s also that sense, too.
Ken: Yeah, well, the norms of a society are generally what guarantees the stability and continuation of the society. And we find this expressed in Buddhist teaching as the eight worldly concerns: happiness and unhappiness, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, and respect and disdain. Now, when you adopt those as your values, you’ll be a good member of society—you know, you’ll be happy, you’ll aim to be happy, gain stuff, become famous and respected—and this is going to help propagate society and that’s the conventional notion of success. But in living that way, you’re living society’s life for you. So the kind of people that you’re talking about have, for one reason or another—and I agree with you, not all is anger, very definitely—chosen not to live according to society’s agenda. And that interestingly is a source of inspiration for many. Not everybody, but for many because there’s an implicit recognition that, “Oh, there is another way to live.” And, yes, many of those people pay a price for living that way—some form of exile or devaluing by the society. So it takes a certain strength and clarity. Is that a response to that part or do you want more?
Gary: But don’t you think that stepping out, or that voluntary separation does come with a risk of, you know…of course if you’re caught up with an identity that there’s some sort of sense of doing something wrong or some sense of shame—I’m not talking about in reference to the eight worldly concerns but just the decision to, you know, separate?
Ken: Yeah. Some people use it to form an identity which becomes its own trap. To oppose or to be contrary for the sake of being contrary is a form of identity. What is different is, as each situation arises, you sense to the best of your ability what the appropriate action is. And that is not—it may take into account social norms—but is not limited by social norms. And, a part of that is the consequences—the willingness to accept the consequences—the results of whatever action one takes, internally and externally. But that’s not about opposition now. Follow? That’s, to put it in different language, is how you live a life of no regret. Which is the theme. It’s part of this conversation. Okay?
Larry: I don’t know if it’s off-track here, but I am interested in some thoughts on the power of resolve. It seems there’s a continuum here. I’ve heard people talk about resolving not to do something for an hour a day, a week. And then, at the other end of the continuum…isn’t the term samaya?
Ken: That’s a Tibetan, or a Vajryana term.
Larry: Isn’t that though a strong resolution?
Ken: Yes, but it arises in a different context. But go on with the—
Larry: Well, I’m just looking for your comments in terms of the different degrees of resolve one can have and how this helps both personally and could perhaps mend the situation, whatever that might be.
Ken: When people say I’m not going to do this for an hour or a day or a week or a year or something like that, these are ways of building capacity. And that can be very helpful. There are the forms of practice where you make a commitment either to yourself or in the presence of an elder or colleague and say, “I’m just not going to do action X, Y, or Z or all three.” And making that kind of commitment and living it is a form of practice. This is one of the essential or core practices in the monastic tradition of the Catholic Church: Vow of obedience—whatever your superior says, you will do. And its purpose—and I think this important to understand—it’s a way of surrendering—of the Catholic Church—to the demands of God’s will. In Buddhism we can say the way of surrendering to the demands of awareness. It requires, once you make that kind of commitment, that you’re always cognizant of what you are doing. So, you don’t get to ignore. So it’s quite a powerful form of practice. And within Tibetan Buddhism anyway, there are three levels. One is vowing to refrain from certain actions, such as taking human life, lying about spiritual attainments, etc. [Pratimoksha] These are the core of the monastic ordination. And one vows never to do those.
And the second level is a vow of intention as embodied in the bodhisattva vow. That is, the intention to awaken—or whatever other word you want to substitute for that—in order to be able to help others. And there the essential commitments are never to succumb to despair or to reject a being. And then as you pointed out, there’s the Vajrayana level, which is a little trickier. It’s a very different form of vow of intention—I’m not even sure it’s intention—but it’s the vow to experience the world as a manifestation of awakened mind. Now, late in his life, Atisha was asked—’cause he wrote a book on these three vows, which became the basis for a whole genre of literature in Tibet—he was asked, “How well do you observe these vows, Atisha?” He said, for the monastic ordination, “Never violated it.” For the Bodhisattva intention, “once or twice an hour.” For the Vajrayana one, “it’s like rain.” [Laughter]
One of the things to draw from this: you can set a direction, but you can’t make your experience just be what you want it to be. And I see there’s great value, very great value, in setting directions, because those efforts mature over time. And you find if there’s a certain consistency in effort, particularly in the area of building capacity, then one naturally finds one’s self able to do things quite naturally that one couldn’t envision before, ever doing.
Ken: [Calls name of student, unclear]
Student: I have a question about remedy. When it really isn’t possible to directly fix…or apologize to the people who’ve been harmed, is the idea that you just take any virtuous action and sort of dedicate it to their well-being? I mean is the point that you are actively doing something sort of in their name or in their spirit or…I mean, how does this work?
Claudia: You make penance.
Student: It sounds like penance!
Claudia: It sure does!
Ken: Well, we’re dealing with a medieval institution here, aren’t we? Let’s be clear: It’s not about them. It’s about you.
Student: So if you undertake a certain kind of practice—you work at a soup kitchen or you give away certain things that matter to you, but you’re doing it—
Ken: A hundred thousand Vajrasattvas, whatever…
Student: Okay, right. But you’re doing it because you are really experiencing regret about harming others, so is it a way of kind of cementing or deepening your experience, as you say it’s not about them it’s about you.
Student: So it is a way of taking you into the experience at a fuller level and keeping you present with it?
Ken: Until you experience it completely, yeah. ’Cause then, when you experience it completely, then your relationship with it shifts. And it no longer weighs. But I mean…and when I say that, it sounds very expedient. This is not expedient at all. And Claudia said, doing penance. Well, that was actually the original intention of penance. It wasn’t about punishment. But it was about becoming clear inside and so one had the freedom of that clarity.
Larry: It seems though that this so quickly becomes institutionalized.
Ken: Well, this is the danger. Very much so. But none of these practices were started off as institutional forms. They started off as individuals struggling to come to terms with things that they had done, in a way that they could go forward in their lives. Nagarjuna once said—can’t remember where though—“There’s nothing more wonderful than an evil person becoming virtuous.” Or a person who’s done evil becoming virtuous. There’s a very very profound shift there. And this is not about absolution. These are all stories that are made up. It’s about coming to terms with what we’ve done in our lives so that we’re no longer fettered or chained or restricted by them.
Larry: Well, I appreciate the high ground here.
Ken: I have the feeling we’re going to wade through a marsh very shortly. [Laughter]
Larry: Well, we don’t have to but I’m sure you’ve been in temples and halls in the far East that are just filled with plaques of donors who have given something to this head monk, or the building of this building and it’s all around this currency of merit. And you know the Catholics may have penance and previously they may have had indulgences, but we Buddhists have plenty of merit that we’re trying to whip up here.
Ken: Do you want me to comment on that?
Larry: Well, I [unclear]
Larry: We’re inventing something new here, aren’t we?
Ken: This is a—
Larry: Or make something new or more vital—
Ken: Yeah, I like that word “vital.” The whole notion of merit—sönam punya I think in Sanskrit—this comes again from very early medieval societies when monasteries were the banks. They stored the surplus. And so this metaphor came into being where you could accumulate merit. In Asian societies, merit equals luck. And it’s very important.
Larry: Merit equals what?
Ken: Luck. So when the Chinese make lots of donations, they are intentionally doing this to increase their luck. Trungpa’s term “spiritual materialism” applies here. Now, that is a socialization of a spiritual principle and if you look at the dedication prayer that we use, which is actually a translation, probably my fourth of fifth translation of a prayer in Tibetan:
Goodness comes from this practice now done.
Now, the word that I’m translating as goodness there is the word for merit, or virtue, can’t remember which. But the fact is, when we practice or when you give something to somebody—you practice generosity or you know, any form of virtue—there is an almost palpable sense of goodness, and it has an effect in us. It lightens us or we feel lighter and we feel clearer. Okay, that’s the spiritual principle that is operating. And that’s what merit referred to, now as socialized in exactly the ways you’re describing. So it’s not so much that we’re trying to make some thing new, but trying to connect with the vitality of that spiritual principle. Not in a way that is self-aggrandizing or materialistic or whatever, which is why the second line is:
Let me not hold it just in me.
’Cause that’s exactly what one is doing when you give merit. And we come across this all over the place, you know, people wanting to hold onto the goodness that they’ve done. But right here it says, “Don’t hold on to it.”
Let it spread to all that is known
So, rather than just holding it here, it just goes out into all experience, all is known, all experiences—same thing.
And awaken good throughout the world.
Because that’s the effect of it. Good actually is infectious which is a rather nice quality of it, so by not holding on to it, it awakens other possibilities, we have no idea where. And that’s the spiritual principle of which the accumulation of merit in the sense of what your personal spiritual bank account is a crutch. But I see no reason—and I think it actually very important—to avoid the vocabulary or the principles. I see no reason to avoid the principles because they’ve been corrupted. I see every reason for embracing the principles in the way that they actually operate. And that’s what I struggle to do in this kind of discussion is point to, “These are how things actually work,” and you know, we don’t have to make them into that…Human tendencies do that all too frequently and cause all kinds of problems, but that doesn’t contradict or—
Ken: Dismiss the validity of the principles involved. Okay, good.
Ken: Christy? Don’t move, it will come to you!
Christy: I’d like to go back to the magic bullet that Claudia mentioned. I have two kids.
Ken: Could you hold the mic straight.
Christy: I’m sorry.
I have two kids, and I had an anger problem. Still do. And at one point in time, I met a wonderful Tibetan Geshe, and I was asking about how to deal with anger. And he began some long thing, and my attention span was zip, and my ability to act on what he was saying…I think he even brought in reincarnation or something, that was it, I just wasn’t there!
Ken: One moment’s anger is—
Christy: He saw that, and so he dropped that rather quickly and he told me a story about the Buddha’s tooth and he suggested to me that I say a mantra, the Shakyamuni Buddha mantra [om muni muni maha muniye svaha]. And so, sure enough, whenever I would fall into a certain obsessive pattern, whatever, whatever a little chant that I or not chant, but your little obsessive thing…whenever I caught myself at it, I would just drop it and immediately just start saying the Shakyamuni Buddha mantra. And I was reminded of that wonderful story of—I think it’s in Shaw—of where the master gets his servant to build him this tower, and the master is up there in the tower and he has the servant running up and down the stairs all day long with this mantra, so that he can do the real work, while the servant’s doing this mantra. And as time has gone on, I’ve realized that I can’t just keep doing that mantra forever, I do have to come to grips with my real feelings, but by the same token, it got me out of a kind of a reactive knee-jerk and I suppose just gave me a different way to deal with it.
Ken: It’s effective use of mantra. It’s an effective use of mantra. And you took it to heart. Which is a very important piece of it, that you were sufficiently troubled or concerned with your anger, that when he said, “You know, whenever you’re angry, say this.” Okay, I will. There’s your resolve if you wish. And it sidetracked the anger, so that it didn’t take its full expression which is probably a good thing in the bigger picture. So it prevented a lot of harm both to you and to others. And over time, as you just noted, you realized, okay this is very helpful but it is not enough. Now I have to come to terms with anger itself. So…and that invites a deeper exploration. And there’s probably a way to use the mantra for that too, but it would be in a different way. So, yes, it’s a kind of magic bullet. It doesn’t take care of everything but it short-circuits what would normally be quite destructive process, a very good thing. And some people may say, “Well that just leads to suppression,” but the way you’re using it doesn’t lead to suppression: It buys time, which is a different thing. And buying a bit of time can be immensely valuable. Now Claudia wants an actual magic bullet where it just goes…she wants a magic wand, “Poof! All gone!” Right?
Claudia: Well, the thing about the process is that as you open to these obsessive patterns or tapes, you cut a little bit each time and you build capacity in doing that but—and that’s why it does take time—but of course, you never warned me in the very beginning that every cut is a little worse than the first one! That it just…the deep…
Ken: I think I did.
Ken: I’m pretty scrupulous about those warnings. Most people just don’t pay any attention to them. That’s the other one.
Claudia: That might be it. Maybe I didn’t want to hear that part, but it gets actually harder and harder. And I will say that in the end, it released. And it isn’t that particular type that I’m thinking of right now…doesn’t run anymore. But it ran faithfully in a certain situation related to the teaching group, for, let’s say, three, four years almost, regularly, before it let go. So…
Ken: Three or four years? Not bad. [Laughter]
That’s pretty good!
Claudia: Well, in the end—I can’t even believe I’m admitting this ’cause it was so tortuous—but in the end, it was extraordinarily useful because that particular tape, although it was related to one particular situation—actually, what was underneath it was a very core pattern—so I was really cutting into more than just that particular situation, so…but it is not for the faint of heart, this process. So…
Ken: I think you’re quite right. I mean at the beginning of this when you first arrived and I said, “Why are you here?” And various people responded to that in different ways. But one way, which I think includes maybe not everything but a lot, is we’re all here because we’re seeking a way to come to terms with this experience we call life. And there are memories and associations, some of which we find very difficult to come to terms with. There are also…some of those experiences are painful, some of those are very extraordinary or very open. And we’re seeking to come to terms with those just as much. And I think it’s very helpful to remember that.
One of the ways that I find it helpful, is I don’t get carried away by any grand scheme. It’s very personal, and when you say it’s not for the faint of heart, you’re quite right. Whatever experiences or lack of…or disturbance or whatever you want to call it, is sufficiently strong that we come here to work on it in this very focused way. So, yeah, we must really want to do this and it’s going to cut quite deeply into the ordinary way we experience things because that’s just not acceptable to us. And this is why very often when I meet with people for the first time, I ask them, you know, “What are you here for?” And from the given response, I say, “What are you willing to pay for it?” Not talking about money. And most people who take up a practice, at some level or somewhere in their system, they are saying, they are willing to pay whatever it takes. That’s how important it is. It’s not that important to everybody in the world, you know. And you can…people say, well, you know, we’re different from other people. No, we’re just maybe more tortured than other people.
I don’t see it necessarily as a higher calling. But a lot of people prefer to look at it that way.
Gary? Larry, could you pass the mic.
Gary: On that note, Ken—
Ken: What button did I push now?
Gary: Many. I was glancing through the 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice by Longchenpa and the one that struck me, and I don’t know why it’s coming up now, but maybe to add a little bit to what you just said…
Ken: What page?
Gary: It’s on page 28. It’s the third…let’s see, no it’s the fourth stanza from the top, Wherever you live in towns, in spiritual communities, or in isolation, don’t seek out special friends, don’t be close or at odds with anyone, no matter who is around. Be independent, that’s my sincere advice. I’ll let you run with it, Ken.
Ken: Well, I might translate—I can’t remember what the Tibetan is—but I might choose something other than “independent” here. Yes, Valerie?
Ken: It’s not very practical in your setting is it?
Valerie: This verse happens to be the verse that’s up on the Ning site right now. And the definition of independence has been, I would say, one of the hotly…
Valeria: Hotly-debated or questioned terms in that.
Ken: Yeah, I’m trying to remember if I have the Tibetan for it. I’ll have to check. ’Cause I had the Tibetan for it. Let’s see if I can find it.
Don’t be close or at odds with anyone no matter who is around.
Ken: Equanimity? I think it’s going a little further than that. I think the question here is, “How do you want to live?” Now, what was important to Longchenpa was a clarity of awareness. And that’s what he lived for. And this is very clear in very poetic writings. And that was what was most meaningful to him. I think the question is, “What is most meaningful to you?” Because I know many people, what is most meaningful to them is their relationship with their spouse. And that’s what their life is about. And the people who’ve gone deeply in that direction, they’re under no illusions. They know that when one or the other dies, there is going to be heartbreak. They’re under no illusions about that. But that is what is important to them, or to that person. And this is why I encourage you, here…is not to adopt Longchenpa’s value, stating it very explicitly—and this might be a good thing to put up on the Ning—but to take this, “Okay, what is really important to me?” What brings meaning…or actually I think “meaning’s” the wrong word. I’m trying not to use standard vocabulary here. You might say, “How do I live so that I feel complete in every moment?”
And that’s the question that I would ask. That make sense? You want to respond? Larry, would you pass him the mic please?
Gary: The reason I brought it up was, I guess because of tonight’s topic about different types of shame and the whole thing of being separate. So from my own…I think the reason it struck me before was that from my own subjective perspective is that it could be a way to form an identity that, you know, you don’t fit in. You don’t really fit in. You can really…you know, this is sort of a path that’s going to isolate you from other people. And that brought up a sense of pain in me. I didn’t read this entire Longchenpa, you know, tract in detail but I just glancing over it and that one actually brought up a sense of pain. And some fear about, you know, the path or maybe the Trackless Path or whatever you want to call it.
Ken: Yeah. But look—and I can well understand that—but look at this verse in another way. Say you live in a town, and you interact with people completely, you know. Go and buy some things, you’re friendly with the storekeeper, you’re courteous and polite, and you’re present in each of those situations. Somebody causes you some problems, you’ve got to say something to them. You do that as appropriately and clearly as possible, but there isn’t a grasping, trying to hold onto something or trying to define yourself in any way in any of that. It’s just each thing happening. I think this is what the independence is pointing to. So, you’re engaged with everybody. But you’re not holding onto anything in each interaction.
Gary: But in a way, you knew the “but” would come…
Gary: You knew the “but” would come. In a way though, isn’t that creating or could create some sense of a barrier? I mean you could have the sensation, you know…of course if you’re awake…
Ken: But it’s not a posture.
Gary: Mmm-hmm. Right.
Ken: That’s important. If it’s a posture, absolutely it creates a barrier.
Ken: I’m saying it’s raising the possibility that you do what is natural and appropriate in each situation. Then there’s no barrier created.
Gary: Okay, just don’t get close.
Ken: Well, the word close here I think carries the idea of attaching. It’s possible to be very close, very intimate, and yet there’s a freedom in it. There aren’t strings, you know, which bind. That’s the kind of thing I think he’s pointing to, we’re talking about. In the same way that when something unpleasant comes, you don’t push it away either. Which, you know, what we tend to do is to appropriate the good and try to hold onto it and push away what’s unpleasant. The thing is, you don’t either of those. Okay? Anything else?
Claudia: I kind of don’t want Gary’s comment to go away yet, because I know what he’s talking about in a sense. When Longchenpa says be independent, relationships and people move into your life and get formed and there are times when, to stay true to your own sense about direction and movement in your own life and following your own unique path and whatever that takes you, those relationships pull away. They dissolve because whatever brought them together is no longer there because of movement in you that takes you away from them. And it happens on this path. And it happens profoundly that people that have been close and important in your life, the…whatever brought you together is dissolved in you, and that relationship doesn’t hold. And there is a great deal of sadness and loss that comes with that, so…and I feel that when I read Longchenpa’s, I know in a sense what he’s pointing to in that because of the tendency in us is to want to hold on to that intimacy and those relationships and not to let them go, and sometimes, I know in the past, I’ve held on too long, knowing full well that I couldn’t I…it wasn’t going to work for me.
Ken: Yeah, but part of what’s going on there is you become capable of a greater intimacy.
Claudia: That’s true.
Ken: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I find very frequently with people…and this usually happens about the first year, year and a half into meditation practice. Usually it doesn’t take longer than that. But as a person sits, they begin to form a different relationship with themselves. And that’s often characterized by a quiet, not arrogant confidence, but just a quiet confidence, and a much clearer perception of balance in relationships. And not infrequently, they start to address some of the imbalances, and they’re rather surprised that those relationships just disappear because they were with people who were taking advantage of them. And as soon as they started to question being taken advantage of, kaboom, those people just disappeared. In other words, there’s greater clarity, greater balance in our relationship in the world. And it starts actually quite early in the path, the shifts that you’re describing. At the same time, that person now becomes capable of a more balanced, more intimate relationship because they have that quiet confidence. And so, that those may be harder to find, sometimes are, but they’re become capable of a different quality of relationship. So…and the same thing happens, exactly the same thing happens when someone’s dying slowly of a terminal illness. People who they thought were friends, as their own abilities become less, they become very very discerning about people who suck energy or who need to control or place demands and people who can just be there. And they start sorting out and getting rid of people who may’ve been friends for a very long time, because there’s a subtle or not-so-subtle demand there and they start surrounding themselves with people who can just be with them. So, these kinds of changes take place in our lives anyway, as things evolve. And there is sadness.
I know Longchenpa used the word independent and I want to, or at least I use the word independent there. Longchenpa used a Tibetan word. I want to check that, because as we have less sense of ourselves in interaction, all relationships actually become more intimate. If you follow what I’m saying.
Claudia: I do follow what you’re saying, but I guess there’s another aspect to it in that there’s an ability and a capacity to allow a relationship to just be what it is. And not to try and make it into something else.
Claudia: And so one that maybe doesn’t meet some goal or idea you have of the level of intimacy you would prefer in a relationship or something…all of a sudden those simple more light relationships become quite satisfying because you are just able to be with what is really there in that relationship and it’s okay. And it has a satisfaction of its own that is a different quality than you’ve experienced before.
Ken: Yeah I understand. I think we’re saying the same thing in different words.
Ken: Yeah. You’re probably saying it more clearly than I was. But that’s what I was pointing to. Yeah. Okay, yes, we need to close here. We’ll do a little meditation to close.
Poor people have to listen to these. [Laughter]