Through practice you develop the ability to experience whatever arises in your life. When you have difficulty experiencing something it is often due to a problem with willingness, know-how, or capacity. The teachings from this retreat, recorded in Des Moins, NM during 2010, focus on how to increase these capabilities, the importance of intention and related matters.
Understanding and applying texts Download
Mahamudra, translation, and how to read texts like Tilopa’s Ganges Mahamudra; the metaphor of space; relating to thoughts and other “movements of mind” in mahamudra; looking in a different way and resting in the looking; the three kayas.
Evening session, A Trackless Path II
Going to look at Ganges Mahamudra INSERT, or a few parts of it.
Student: We didn’t get today’s date.
Ken: Okay, August 9th. Twice in a row I got it right. Evening session, A Trackless Path II.
A couple of intentions here. One is, possibly to teach you something about mahamudra. It could happen [Laughter]. The second thing is something about translation and what to watch for in translation. It’s a little pet peeve of mine these days. And the third thing is how to read text like this. Because texts like this are different from most of the texts that we read in our education and if we apply those ways, we often end up with some rather strange results. So, I’ll try to point these pieces out as we go along.
Now, we already looked at the first verse:
Mahamudra cannot be taught, Naropa,
But your devotion to your teacher and the hardships you’ve met
Have made you patient in suffering and also wise:
Take this to heart, my worthy student.
So, there are a couple of things worth noting. The first line, Mahamudra cannot be taught. Okay, what is one then to do? There are probably a lot of different ways that you can understand that one line. And a couple of them we’ve already touched on. I can’t teach you mahamudra the way that I might be able to teach you how to add, or teach you how to bake bread, or teach you how to fix a flat tire. Because there isn’t that thing there that says, “Do this. Now do this. Now do this.” That’s one facet.
The second facet is that this is about experience. And even though we have this term mahamudra and we talk about learning how to experience the world a different way, you have your experience, I have my experience. And it’s really very difficult—if not impossible—for us to compare our experiences.
We can talk with each other and have the impression that we’re talking about the same thing, but there’s no guarantee. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you thought you were talking about the same thing and then you discovered some time later that you really were talking about two different things? And there was actually really no common ground? So, that’s the second point.
And the third, somewhat related to the second, is that the way of experiencing that we call mahamudra is something that’s going to evolve in you. It’s not going to be transplanted or anything like that. It’s going to evolve in you. There are things one can do to facilitate that evolution. Maybe there are things one can do to initiate the possibility of that evolution. But a lot of it depends on the conditions in your life and how you approach practice, and cultural, psychological, emotional factors and so forth. And through this something may evolve.
Now, as you all know, in the interaction between teacher and student, the student relates their experience or the teacher asks various questions. And something can happen in that interaction. Formally this is called, say, pointing out instruction, in which the student experiences a shift in their way of experiencing. Most teachers who are capable of giving pointing out instruction—hopefully anyway, but I think it’s the case—are sufficiently skilled to be able to detect a shift in energy. I don’t know what the actual physiological mechanisms are, and I should, but I prefer more informal language: to detect that some kind of shift has taken place. And then they may push or challenge the student to see how stable that shift is.
In the primary Kagyu training text, which is The Ocean Of Definitive Meaning, the title under which has been translated in the Instructions To The Teacher, it says, at this point, try and trick the student. [Laughter] No, say something that is just wrong. Push on them, etc., and see what they do. That’s the actual instruction in there.
So, as I said the other evening, here something’s happened in Naropa. He’s gone through all of these hardships, jumping off cliffs and getting beaten up by security guards. You know, it just goes on and on. And finally there’s Tilopa, jumping up and down on his back as he tries to be a human bridge and he just can’t hold it, and Tilopa completely loses his temper.
Now, if you were in Naropa’s shoes, what would be happening in you? I mean, there you are, you’ve done absolutely your best. You know, your last ounce of strength is gone. And you slip up in the smallest way possible. And your teacher is slapping you across the face with his slipper. How is this for you? [Laughter] I mean do we have to do this, in fact? I’ll oblige. [Laughter]
So how is this for you? Anybody? Jeff.
Jeff: Like that. Like just…boom. Open.
Jeff: Shock. Open. Startled.
Ken: No, now come on. Let’s get realistic. Shock? Open? I don’t think so. [Laughter] Maybe the shocked part, but the open part, I’m not so sure. What’s going on? I mean let’s just say you and I went for a walk [laughter]. Okay? We’ve done that a few times. [Laughter] We go up in Red Rock Canyon, right?
Jeff: There’s no water.
Ken: That’s fine. You know those steep steps, steps carved in the ring? I’m a little afraid of going downhill. I want you to carry me. [Laughter] And as you’re carrying me down—you know how tricky those are, okay? I’m jumping up and down saying, “Faster. Faster. Faster!” Okay? [Laughter]
Jeff: Well, you know what I’d do. [Laughter]
Ken: I haven’t finished yet. Okay. And you slip on one of the steps. And I go, [gasps], “How dare you!” And I jump off, and I grab you, and I flip off my shoe and go, “How dare you, Jeff! How dare you!” What goes on in you? [Laughter]
Student: You’d cry, Jeff. We know you.
Jeff: I think it’s a quick elbow strike. [Laughter]
Ken: Something like that, okay. Anybody else? [Laughter] If I really had a student…
Student: I would think that you were completely deranged.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. Anybody else?
Student: Devastated and furious.
Ken: Yeah. Okay.
Student: I might want a new teacher. [Laughter]
Ken: [Laughs] Okay. But this isn’t what happened to Naropa. Why? Naropa had been trying so hard. He’d been trying so hard to be the good student. Really trying hard. And had nothing left. He just couldn’t be good enough for his teacher. And something just gave up in him. There it was. Let go completely, any hope, any fear, because he had left, any identity as being a great scholar, a good student, a real student of the dharma, etc. That was all gone. And he just like, awww. And thus created the conditions in which he could just be.
So, Tilopa recognized that and sang him this song.
Now, put yourself in Naropa’s position. Here is someone you’ve been following around northern India for probably a few years. I’m not quite sure how long. He’s put you through hell any number of times. But you feel such extraordinary connection with him that it doesn’t matter what he does to you, you just know this is the right person for you. And you just had the last shred of any sense of being anybody at all blown out of you, or smacked out of you. And your mind is completely open and clear. And there is nothing at all there.
And then this person says to you, Consider space: what depends on what? As you hear those lines, what happens in you? Anybody? Consider space: what depends on what? What happens? Ralph?
Ralph: Well I go blank. I can’t figure it out.
Ken: Okay. You go blank. You don’t know how to relate to it.
Ken: Okay. Anybody? Okay.
Student: I feel unsupported. I feel a kind of floating or falling.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Sophie.
Sophie: I find myself am trying to look at space without the objects. And without the objects I don’t see anything.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Gary.
Gary: I feel myself contracting.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else?
Okay. So, what depends on what? So look at space. And you say, “This little chunk of space, right? [Click, Click] Your favorite cubic foot of space. This one’s mine. That one’s yours. [Laughter]
What depends on what? What do you experience? Gail?
Gail: My head opens up and—
Ken: Your head or your mind?
Gail: Whatever you want to call it.
Ken: Okay. All right. Go ahead. Just opens.
Gail: And the experience.
Ken: Yeah. So. This is what Tilopa’s doing. Consider space. What depends on what? And when you look at this, I mean, there’s no answer to that. There’s no answer at all. You can’t even start with an answer. And so it stops. And so everything stops. Likewise, mahamudra: it doesn’t depend on anything. Oh.
This is the first pointing out instruction.
Now comes the practice instruction: Don’t control. Don’t try to make it into anything. So, what depends on what? Let go and rest naturally. Let what binds you let go and freedom is not in doubt. How do you let what binds you let go? How do you do that? Sonia.
Sonia: You relate to what binds you.
Ken: Hmm. Try again.
Sonya: You confront what binds you.
Ken: It just bound you. Try again.
Sonia: There’s no one to bind.
Ken: As one teacher once said to me, that was a very ”cooked“ answer. [Laughter] You practice yoga, right?
Ken: How do you let the posture assume itself?
Sonia: You completely release the form and then you’re in it.
Ken: How do you let go, let what binds you let go?
Sonia: You completely release the form.
Ken: [Laughs] You feel the difference?
Sonia: Absolutely. Yes.
Ken: Okay. You can’t hold on to a thing. You can’t even hold on to letting go. If you can do that, Freedom is not in doubt. So that’s the first pointing out.
And then Tilopa says, When you look into space, seeing stops.
So look at space, right now. What happens when you look at space? Anybody?
Student: You don’t see anything.
Ken: Okay. Say a bit more.
Student: It’s a different experience from what we would normally call seeing, like looking across a room and seeing objects.
Student: You say, look at space.
Ken: There’s a shift right?
Ken: Yeah. I mean, if we had our usual array of attorneys here they would say, ”What do you mean? You still see things.“ You weren’t here when we had two attorneys quizzing each other. That was hilarious. The one finally pinned the other one down, to which the person said, ”Well that’s personal, I’m not going to talk about that.“ [Laughter]
So when you get this instruction—look at space—there’s a shift. Experience continues, but it’s not ordinary seeing. There’s a very definite experience, but it’s not conventional seeing. Seeing stops.
Likewise, when mind looks at mind,
The flow of thinking stops…
So we can do the same thing: Look at mind. And there’s a very similar shift.
Now. Helen. Could you pass the microphone please? Oh sorry, Nancy.
Nancy: Is this related only to meditation? And I ask this because, well, I’ve been trying to look at my experience of being aware of awareness when I’m just looking at the environment and when I’m meditating. And they seem somewhat different.
Ken: How so?
Nancy: Well, for example, tonight I was looking out over the plain at the light coming through the clouds and, you know, there were objects to see but, I was aware that I was aware of all of them. When I’m meditating, it’s more like it’s described here. And I’m curious about that.
Ken: What sees the clouds and the light?
Nancy: Well, the awareness, the mind.
Ken: Let’s try that one again.
Nancy: Didn’t we go through this before? [Laughing] But actually, I don’t really want to remember what you said. I want to come up with it myself. Um.
Ken: What sees the clouds and the light? What are you experiencing right now?
Nancy: It’s that sort of empty, spacey feeling.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. That’s what Tilopa points to.
Nancy: Okay. I guess that it’s just not as strong as when I was—
Ken: You can practice it.
Likewise, when mind looks at mind,
The flow of thinking stops…
And I want to make a very important point here. The flow of thinking stops. It doesn’t necessarily mean thatthoughts stop, or experience stops. It’s the flow of thinking stops. The thinking mind is a duller state of mind. Thoughts may pop up, but there’s no thinking, which is different.
Now, this verse makes it sound very easy: look at mind, flow of thinking stops, bang, you’re fully awake. [Laughter] Nuthin’ to it. A lot of people get confused by this. There’s this little matter of stability and—very, very much—of our practice. It’s about clearing the stuff away that destabilizes attention and developing a sufficient level of attention so that when we look this way, the flow of thinking actually does stop. One needs a certain level of attention for that, and it needs to be stabilized. But they skip over that kind thing frequently. So, that’s the second pointing out.
Mists rise from the earth and vanish into space.
They go nowhere, nor do they stay.
I won’t tell you how long I spent translating that particular line. If you look up some of the other translations, you’ll see why. But, I’m quite happy with how it turned out here.
Mists rise from the earth and vanish into space.
They go nowhere, nor do they stay.
Where are the mists? And when we look at this this way, it becomes magical, right?
Student: It’s wonderful.
Student: It’s wonderful.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. It’s a metaphor for thoughts. They arise like mists.
Now, let’s…favorite thought, ”Don’t think of an elephant.“ What have you got in your mind right now?
Students: An elephant. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay. So, where is the elephant? Straightforward question. Anybody? Well don’t all speak at once. Come on. Where is the elephant?
In the room, yes. Charles.
Charles: It isn’t anywhere.
Ken: Do you experience it?
Ken: [Mimicking sternness] What do you mean it isn’t anywhere? How can you experience it?
Charles: I can’t explain how it is.
Ken: You mean you can’t explain such a straightforward thing as experiencing an elephant?
Charles: No. And so far as I can tell, nobody else can either. [Laughter]
Ken: Ah, but there’s nobody here but you right now. [Laughter] So, you got that elephant clear in your mind?
Ken: Where is it? Is it inside you or outside you?
Charles: Can’t be either.
Ken: Okay. Let it go. He’s very cooperative, this guy. Where did it go?
Charles: It didn’t go anywhere.
Ken: It went didn’t it?
Charles: Yes, but it didn’t go to somewhere.
Ken: [mimicking sternness] What do you mean it didn’t go anywhere. It went. [Laughter] So what are you experiencing, right now? [Pause] Yeah, just say it.
Charles: Umm. Stops. There’s a part of me’s afraid.
Charles: It’s very big.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Keep going.
Charles: Everything’s there, but nothing’s going on.
Ken: Okay. Good.
So, this is what’s going on here. Tilopa gives this analogy, and what’s very important here is you take it as it arises in our experience. Look as these mists. They arise from the earth. They don’t go anywhere, but they go. They’re not there anymore.
Now, we have all kinds of scientific explanations in terms of the viewpoint of the air, and you know, heat of the sun, what have you. All of that’s immaterial, here. They arise. They are there. They don’t go anywhere, but they’re not there. And if you look at how thought arises in experience, it’s exactly the same.
There’s nothing there. The thought’s there, it can be in thoughts and words. It can be in sound or it can be an image. Doesn’t matter. It comes from nowhere, is there, but isn’t any where that we can point to. And then it isn’t here anymore. But it didn’t go anywhere.
Now, that’s not normally how we relate to thoughts. But that is how one learns or develops the ability to relate to thoughts in mahamudra practice. And all it involves in a certain sense is looking a different way and then stabilizing that looking.
Likewise, though thoughts arise,
Whenever you see your mind…
That is to say, whenever you look at space, etc., etc., the clouds of thinking clear. And even though thoughts may be there, the thinking process is disengaged. And there’s a clear experience, a clear awareness.
What’s very important when I’m going through it this way, is this is something that you do. It’s not something you think about. It’s not something that you study. It’s not even something that you contemplate. This is something you do. You look this way and you rest in the looking.
Larry: We’ve been talking about thoughts. You’ve been talking about thoughts from the text. The other day, am I correct in understanding, that you said that in Tibetan, this is just designated as movement of mind?
Larry: So, basically you could substitute the word thoughts for movement of mind. And it would comprehend even more…
Ken: Yes. Because it would include things like feelings and images, and it’s all of that. Yeah.
Larry: Yeah. As well as appearances through the senses, the sensitors.
Ken: Yes. I mean, Tilopa’s going for what’s subtle and relatively easy to see this way. Experiencing sensory perception the same way requires quite a bit higher level of attention. But it’s the same principle.
Larry: Right. And those two would be called movements of mind.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah.
Larry: Thank you.
Carolyn: On those wonderful occasions when my mind is calm enough and quiet enough, I notice something literally moving, like boiling. And I look at it, so to speak, and it just vanishes. That’s looking at mind as a thought. That’s looking at the movement in mind, right? Then what is it when mind is that quiet but I’m seeing, not not-seeing?
I can sit and look at the hillside. And if I’m incredibly lucky, there will come some part of a retreat’s meditation when the hillside is there. I’m not calling it a hillside. I’m not calling it anything, but I’m seeing it. And those boilings still come. And I can still look at them, and they go away but the hillside stays. What is that?
Ken: I’m not quite sure what you’re asking.
Carolyn: Maybe I misunderstood.
Ken: Experience arises in us in different ways. So the way sensory experience arises is through a very, very different mechanism or process from the way thoughts arise. And thoughts are more subtle and more fluid. It’s fairly easy to generate the level of attention so that one, so to speak, ”sees through“ them. There are a lot of people who, when they look at mind, their sensory perception dissolves, or dissolves into light. Yeah.
Carolyn: That’s part one.
Carolyn: But what I don’t understand, is how sensory perception can remain, and that this other thing can be dissolved by looking.
Ken: What needs to understand this?
Carolyn: [Sighs] God. [Under breath] Oh, Ken. [Laughter]
Ken: Thank you.
Carolyn: Okay. There’s another thing that happens and this, when I talk about it, I’m gonna feel crazy.
Carolyn: When I am working with someone, in therapy, and I’m really quiet inside, very, very present. And it’s one of those times when the thoughts dissolve, when I look at them, internally, obviously. But there will be a boiling in that same field. And if I look at it, it doesn’t dissolve. It becomes a kind of little play. But it’s not mine. And over years now, I have sneakily asked questions like, ”What were you just thinking about?“ And it’s their thought. Now I feel completely crazy saying that out loud.
Ken: Yeah, well then there are quite a few crazy people in the world. Can I give you a technical explanation of what’s going on?
Ken: No. No. I can’t [Laughter] I mean, there are probably three or four modes that I could give you, a string of words. But let me ask you a question, a much simpler one than the ones you’re asking me.
Ken: Why is the sky blue? Or let me ask, according to the Tibetan tradition, why is the sky blue? It’s because at the center of the world there is a giant mountain which has four faces. And one face is lapis lazuli. One face is emerald. One face is ruby, and one face is topaz. And the light from the sun reflects and the sky and the ocean take on the color of that facet. So north is yellow, but in the southern continent it’s blue, because it faces blue. Okay. That’s according to the Indo-Tibetan tradition. According to Western science, why is the sky blue?
Carolyn: Something about the refraction of light and stuff.
Ken: Yeah well, light from the sun comes in and it just happens to be the frequency. It filters out everything except blue so we see blue. Okay? Do either of these explanations explain why the sky is blue?
Carolyn: Not in any useful way.
Ken: No, exactly.
Carolyn: Okay, Ken, so am I crazy?
Ken: No. You are not crazy. This is your experience. Okay?
Ken: That’s it. All explanations are after the fact, and they involve some kind of assumptions, some kind of theory, some kind of speculation. The purpose of explanations—and it’s a good thing you raise this—the purpose of explanations is so that we can go back to sleep.
Carolyn: Okay. Another walk into groundlessness.
Ken: [Laughs] I try to oblige.
Carolyn: Good job.
Ken: You know, you experienced this. Okay? It’s not an unusual phenomenon, actually.
Ken: Someone close to you experiences a shock. They walk into the room, they don’t say a word. What do you know?
Carolyn: You know.
Ken: You know.
Carolyn: Oh. I see exactly what you mean, because I have an explanation for that one that works for me, internally. I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have to think about it. And the other one where I—
Ken: It allows you to go back to sleep.
Carolyn: Exactly. And the other one because I don’t…
Ken: …don’t have a nice explanation for—
Ken: So you can’t go to sleep. Good!
Carolyn: Now I see exactly what you mean.
Ken: Yeah. And the other explanation isn’t worth a piece of shit anyway.
Carolyn: Probably not, but it works for me.
Ken: No. It puts you to sleep.
Carolyn: Is it asleep when you use it?
Ken: It allows you to step out of the mystery of the experience.
Carolyn: Ah. Ha. Okay. It allows me to pretend that there’s separation. [Ken laughs] That’s what it does.
Carolyn: Yeah. Yeah. [Ken laughs] It allows me to pretend, I’m over here, they’re over there, and I still—
Ken: You’ve got this nice neat explanation which keeps you over there and me here.
Ken: Yeah. Got It?
Carolyn: Thank you very much.
Ken: You’re welcome. Pass the microphone to Ralph, please.
Now I mean, you can talk to neuroscientists and shamans and people like that, and everyone will have an explanation for this.
Ralph: This is the only—
Carolyn: Well, a neuroscientist will—
Ken: No, no. Don’t worry. It’s okay. I just wanted to throw that in.
Ralph: I’m trying to make this simplified for myself. And let’s take the example of a flower. If you have a flower in front of you and you think to yourself, ”That flower’s beautiful,“ that’s one level. If there’s a shift when you experience the flower, the experience of the flower may be joy or pleasure. The flower’s still there, you’re just not experiencing it the same way, but it’s still vanished. Because you’re now experiencing it, you’re not thinking about it. Is that correct?
Ken: Well, the concept of flower may have evaporated.
Ken: There is an experience still taking place. And—which, if I followed your example—there’s an emotional component in that experience. And one doesn’t have to give a name to any of it, in order to experience it.
Okay. Yes, please, Helen.
Helen: It feels like it could be a problem in, well, we know this could happen to a few people in the world, that there becomes something to hope for or an ambition to have this state of mind, so to speak.
Ken: Big problem.
Helen: And then it’s a problem. Yeah.
Helen: A couple of times, I had a female sacral therapist work with my mouth area, and she has such presence that all of a sudden I became extraordinarily quiet. I’d never experienced that before by myself and I still can’t do it by myself. And even when I’m resting fairly well, I drift off into oblivion or what you refer to as dullness.
Helen: But, I just have real doubts about being able to do this. Does it matter? Does it really matter?
Ken: Well, you know the possibility’s there. And you know what you do. That you become calm and then you become dull. So that’s what you work at in your practice. Being stable in attention without dullness.
And the way that you do that is very short periods of meditation. Like my favorite is the one-breath meditation. [Ken demonstrates] And one can usually stay stable and clear for one breath. Relax. Then you do it again. Resting on that ten, fifteen, twenty, a hundred times. Then you try two-breath meditation. [Ken demonstrates] And you build capacity. Okay.
Space is beyond color or shape.
It doesn’t take on color, black or white: it doesn’t change.
So, we haven’t been doing too well in the sunset department this week, so far. We usually have a few good ones here. And as Ogden Nash said, any time somebody says, come and see the sunset, you know that it’s going to be outrageous—garish. All of these colors—brilliant, subtle, beautiful. Is this space affected by that color at all? Yet without this space, could we perceive the color?
And again, when you look at it this way, it’s like, ”Huh?“ It allows us to experience the color in a different way. And now turn to your mind. Whatever’s going on in your mind, doesn’t change mind. [Repeating] Whatever is going on in your mind, doesn’t change mind.
Think of the most virtuous thoughts you can possibly imagine. And then think of the most evil thought you can possibly imagine. What about mind is different?
Now, how many of you are concerned with being good? How many of you are afraid of being evil? When you look at mind this way, what is the basis for this hope and fear? There’s nothing there to change.
What’s it like to look at mind that way? Anybody? Nick?
Nick: It’s tremendously liberating, to be honest with you.
Ken: Say that again.
Nick: It’s tremendously liberating, to be honest with you.
Ken: It’s tremendously liberating.
Ken: Say a bit more.
Nick: Just for me personally, I don’t necessarily have the hope and fear of being good or evil in terms of, you know, my states of mind. But, I’m definitely not in a place where I want to do actions that are going to be harmful to myself and other people.
So, when I look at mind this way—I was thinking about the same thing, before you said that. I have a really good thought float up sometimes, even if it makes like a really good memory. And it has a texture and a feeling in my body. But whatever is aware of it, whatever experiences it, whatever facilitates it to arise, doesn’t change.
Same thing with a ghastly awful time or thought, or something like that. It doesn’t change. And then the experience of what happens, the way that I relate to that is, hah, I’m not either of those things. And now I can be at ease.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Very good.
Sophie: It’s almost as if that part of me that’s always a judge, is out of commission.
Ken: Yeah. How to decommission a judge. [Laughter] Okay. Anybody else? Can you connect with this? You’re shaking your head. You can’t connect with it. Okay.
Student: I don’t think that my concerns of good and evil have to do with how they affect my mind. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that they would. But it’s about suffering.
Ken: You can do the same with suffering and pleasure.
Student: Right. But I guess that’s interesting to say. That’s a place where I won’t let go.
Ken: It’s not easy. I mean, one of the killer lines in The Great Path Of Awakening, Kongtrul’s commentary on Seven Points Of Mind Training, after he’s gone through Chekawa’s [Chekawa Geshe Dorje’s] seven points, he pulls in a bunch of stuff, among them some lines from Serlingpa. And the one that I really had trouble with is Suffering is a dance of what is. [Repeats] Suffering is a dance of what is.. Actually, that’s my translation, but what he’s saying is that, suffering is the dance of the dharmakaya. But it’s exactly what we’re referring to here.
Student: And so I believe that and can feel that from that absolute point of view. But from the relative point of view, where I live my life, I’ll still make choices based on the relative truth of suffering and the affect that my actions have on it. That doesn’t contradict anything that you’ve said, I just…
Student: I’m not going to act that way now. I’m not yet ready. Maybe when I really get it, I’ll be ready to do that.
Ken: Yeah. And if the circumstances call for it.
Ken: Which, you know, may or may never be encountered. Okay.
So Tilopa, here, is pointing Naropa to the fact that there’s this quality of experience that just doesn’t change. In a short text by Taranatha that I had in the retreat, Taranatha was just very glib about this thing: It doesn’t change, because there is nothing to change.
But all of these are pointing to the mystery of experience. And how to experience the mystery of experience completely is what all of this is about. It’s not about trying to understand it. It’s about being completely in the experience of this very, very strange thing we call life. In which, when we really open to it, doesn’t make any rational sense. It just arises out of nowhere, goes nowhere, isn’t anywhere and yet it’s a very, very vivid experience. And whenever we step away from it, that’s when we get into trouble.
The darkness of a thousand eons cannot dim
The brilliant radiance that is the essence of the sun.
Likewise, eons of samsara cannot dim
The sheer clarity that is the essence of your mind.
Now, Rinpoche, when he taught about mind, he almost always would teach it in terms of emptiness, clarity and unrestricted experience. You’re benefiting from many years. When I was translating for him, I didn’t have that really good word, unrestricted. It had much messier translations.
Look at your mind. When you look at your mind, you don’t see anything. But if you’re asked, there’s nothing there. That’s how you experience it. You’re unlikely to say, ”Yeah there’s…“ It’s not like the ”nothing there“ of empty space. There’s a quality. That quality is called clarity. Other translators have other terms for it, but clarity I think is fine. And you can say it is the potential for knowing.
If you’re asked, what is the difference between the being nothing there and the clarity, you’d find it very hard to answer. The emptiness, or the being nothing there, is the clarity, and the clarity is the being nothing there.
When you experience that, it doesn’t matter what arises in your mind. That quality of experience is always there. We don’t always know it because of habituation and conditioning and all of that stuff. But it is actually always there. And this is what this verse is referring to.
We’ve done this already this evening in another way. Whatever is going on in your mind, even if it’s completely crazy, as it sometimes is, if you’re asked, ”What is aware of the craziness? What is aware of the depression? What is aware of the dharmas? What is the aware of the anxiety?“ Any of those questions. The moment that question is asked, you experience the clarity. It may only be for a fleeting second, but the moment that question is asked, you experience it.
And this is what Tilopa’s saying—eons of samsara. Which is a poetic way of saying that, however confused you are, that clarity…there’s still a knowing going on.
In the dzogchen tradition, there’s a practice where you imagine that you are in various of the six realms. And you really get into it, you know, being in the hell realm or being in the hungry ghost realm. And then you imagine that you’re an enlightened being. You imagine yourself in all of these different things. And the purpose of this exercise is it doesn’t matter how bad, how horrible it is, or how enlightened, how brilliant, or how ephemeral it is, or how solid it is, how black it is, how light it is, whatever. There’s always that knowing. It’s always there. That’s why we say in the refuge, Knowing that experience and awareness are not two, take refuge in the dharma. It’s always there. And much of our practice consists of recognizing it, and then stabilizing that recognition.
Student: You make a distinction between clarity and looking.
Ken: Between clarity and…?
Student: Between clarity and looking.
Student: And so based on what you just said about the clarity always being there, is it fair to say there is an experience, or the act of looking and the quality of that experience is clarity?
Ken: The looking brings out the clarity aspect, yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why in pointing out instructions one’s told to look this way. It’s to bring it out. Hopefully so that you recognize it. [Laughter] That’s how it’s pointed out.
Ken: Okay. Jeff.
Jeff: You could do that with listening, as well. Could you?
Ken: Yes. But elaborate for everybody else, please.
Jeff: Well, I don’t recall if I tried that before or after reading Stephen Batchelor’s book, when he was in—
Ken: Which one?
Jeff: The dharma as experienced during Zen. I think it was that.
Ken: Faith to Doubt?
Jeff: No, there was a guy in L.A. It was a client. He was talking about, ”Listen…just listen.“ And if you do that, it’s very similar.
Jeff: Takes you right there.
Although you say space is empty,
You can’t say that space is ”like this.“
Okay? Yeah, I think I said it very well there. [Laughter] We come up with all of these words, as I mentioned before. But it’s impossible to describe in words. And—
Student: And yet you make us try.
Ken: And yet—that’s not quite true. I don’t make you try. What I do do is I push you as best I can into the experience so that you will let go and let the experience speak. It’s quite a difference. Because as long as you are trying to speak, you’re getting in the way. And I just keep bashing you around until you give up and let the experience speak.
So, this is very much to the point. If I try to describe the experience, then inevitably it becomes something else and it’s objectified. If instead, saying it one way, I speak directly from the experience, or saying it another way, the experience speaks or expresses, then it’s absolutely direct. And in the pointing out instructions, that’s what the teacher’s actually looking for. It’s the same in koan practice in Zen, that you’re given these things and what the teacher in Zen is looking for is the experience speaking. Doesn’t matter what the experience says, as long as the experience speaks.
And it’s very difficult, because we want to control everything.
I remember doing some work, in a small group that I was part of. There was a psychiatrist in the group who had some ability. And my friend and I kept pushing him and pushing him to let the experience speak. And finally, he just sat there like this, ”Humph.“ Well, that was good. [Laughter] Because there was no himthere anymore. He was just directly from the experience.
Thus, the nature of mind is inherently like space:
It includes everything you experience.
That’s what the Tibetan says, it includes everything you experience. I would just say, it is everything you experience. Mind is what you experience. What you experience is mind.
It’s wonderful. You can dress this up in really formal, philosophical vocabulary and it sounds so much more sophisticated and significant. Ah, how does it go? Your mind, yes, Mind itself is the phenomenal world. Or the world of phenomenal experience, or something like that, you know. But it just means the same thing. Mind is your experience. Your experience is mind.
Now, what happens when you hear that? What happens in you? Mind is your experience. Your experience is your mind. What happens in you when you hear that? Sophie.
Sophie: It makes me feel connected.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? [Pause] I do not approve of silence.
Student: I feel a kind of ”whoa“ inside. It just like whoop!. Opened up.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else?
Student: I think I’m the opposite. I was kind of like, a rest, just like—
Ken: Okay, but there’s a shift, isn’t there?
Ken: Yeah. And you experience that shift in different ways. But you can feel a letting go. Maybe things opening up. Okay. That’s how it is. And it’s that way of experiencing things that we’re seeking to cultivate in this practice. Because it has all of those qualities of extraordinary space and openness, and rest. No separation. Okay? Larry.
Larry: I think that my conditioning—that I have to work to put aside—is this notion that the mind is up here. And so I have to tap myself on the shoulder and bring it down to the heart, or in here somewhere. I know you’ll remind me that it’s the whole package and I don’t…
Larry: Nevertheless, it’s difficult. It’s a challenge because of that conditioning.
Ken: Yeah. You’re not alone, of course. The whole Cartesian sense of the homunculus is the little thing inside which is actually our mind. But it is very present in Asian ways of thinking, too. And you can look at Mahayana Buddhist practice as a way of prying ourselves away from that way of looking at consciousness in here and experience and things out there, rather than this world of experience.
Larry: And what is that practice?
Ken: Mahamudra, dzogchen, bare attention, shikantaza, you know, all of these.
Eric: You said, something to the effect of, this isn’t to be studied or even contemplated. Is this practice, that we’re basically doing here tonight, worthwhile to do even if one is not at the level of practicing mahamudra?
Ken: Why not?
Eric: Just asking.
Ken: [Laughs] I did a retreat with a teacher, Kilung Rinpoche, in, many years ago in Colorado. Quite unexpectedly, it was quite a significant retreat for me. It was a three-week retreat, and we had an interview with Kilung Rinpoche about every three or four days.
I was meeting with him one afternoon—he was quite tired through the whole retreat—and I was muttering something about my experience. And he was saying, ”Yeah, yeah, okay, fine, yeah, yeah, yeah.“ And then I said, ”And it’s very clear to me that none of this is possible without clearing“—a phrase in Tibetan tradition—”clearing away the obscurations and gathering the accumulations.“ tshog bsags sgrib sbyangs (pron. tsok sak dreeb jang). And it’s very interesting. He immediately went, ”Oh, I’m so glad you hear you say that, Ken.“ And he just woke up completely and expressed his quite heartfelt frustration that people felt that because they had had some kind of pointing out, some kind of glimpse of possibilities, that that constituted mahamudra or dzogchen practice.
It’s the seed. And as I’ve said a few times in this retreat, much of the work is building the capacity, so that this can be present and stabilized. And that’s, traditionally speaking, why I do things like prostrations, and Vajrasattva, mandala offering and all of those. They aren’t the only ways. That’s the way that capacity is built, largely, in the Tibetan tradition. Yidam practice, guru yoga, all of these things play a role. There are other ways the capacity can be developed. And I think one of the things that’s happening in Buddhism in America right now is figuring out ways that are more appropriate for our culture, for those same kinds of processes to take place.
Whatever level of practice, whatever amount of practice, it’s actually quite good to keep dropping into this whenever you can. The problem arises only if you think, ”All I need to do is drop into it. I don’t need to do any of the other stuff.“ Which is where a lot of people go to because they don’t want to work that hard. They feel they’re above it or you know, better than that and so forth. That’s a problem. This is why I was talking the last few days about this longing. Because when you feel this longing, and you sense the possibility, then you get a very clear idea of what it’s going to take to move out of those very deeply habituated ways of relating to experience.
And that’s why I was talking right at the very beginning of the retreat about 10,000 hours and all of that stuff. It requires that kind of investment, because there’s a lot of conditioning to change.
Student: Thank you.
Charles: I’d like to ask more about what’s traditionally translated as two accumulations or the two ways of growing. So I think I have a pretty clear idea of the first one. Sort of merit, right? Things that develop positive momentum in your life. I do not have a good idea of the second way of growing.
Ken: bsod nams kyi tshogs and ye shes kyi tshogs (pron: sönam kyi tsok and yeshé kyi tsok).
Charles: Exactly. Is that just what you usually call developing a higher capacity in attention? Please tell me, how do you work on that?
Ken: [Laughs] I have on good authority that there’s nothing to it.
Charles: So why not have just one accumulation?
Ken: I’ve moved away from the translation of accumulation because it’s the ”spiritual bank account in the sky.“ It even collects interest. You cash it in. You know what is the Chinese word for bsod nam (pron: sonam)? Luck. Yeah, because, how do you get luck? How do you make good things happen in your life? Well according to the Tibetan tradition, you accumulate merit. How do you do that? You make lots of offerings. And Chinese are very clear about this. They make lots and lots of offerings to the lamas because it brings them luck. And it’s total spiritual materialism.
So that’s why I’ve moved away from translating it as accumulation. For the first one, I like to think of it as generating goodness. And it’s quite a shame what’s happened to the English language in the course of twentieth century. ”Goodness“ is kind of an unfashionable term. And yet, there’s power in goodness. It’s very unfashionable to think in these terms. The word virtue is derived from the Latin word which means strength. So virtue means strength. It’s not how we think of it today. We think of it more in terms of Goody Two-shoes. And it’s really very sad that the language has been debased this way, because it prevents us from relating to these things in a powerful, strong way. It’s one of the translation points I want to bring up.
So I use the translation, generating goodness. Now, how do you generate goodness? By doing good. That accumulates momentum and it changes how you experience things.
Mark Twain: The best way to cheer yourself up, is to cheer somebody else up. That’s very true.
I’ll give you an example. Soon after I moved to L.A. in the late ’80s, there’s a woman that I had known when she was very young, when she was in her teens, in Vancouver when I was there with Rinpoche. And I was not expecting to run into her at all in L.A. But she had moved there years before and moved in some very interesting circles. But she was very glad that I was there and she was very helpful to me.
And one day she called up and said that she was depressed. I said, ”So come over and pick me up.“ I didn’t have a car at that point. So she came over and picked me up. And I said, ”Let’s go down to Fisherman’s Wharf.“ And went down there. I said, ”So give me twenty bucks.“ ”Why?“ ”We’re going to free some fish, bait fish.“ And so she gave me twenty bucks and we got some. So she said, ”om mani padme hung, om tare tuttare, om gate gate…“ you know, mantras and so forth. And it took about ten minutes dumping these fish into the ocean at the marina. And then we left. And as we left, she looked at me and she said, ”That worked.“
Student: That worked?
Ken: Yeah. She wasn’t feeling depressed any more. Because doing good. It was a completely meaningless activity. It doesn’t have to be a meaningless activity. You can help people who are sick, you know, do whatever. But there is a lightness, a lightness of mind that comes through doing good. And that’s what the generating of goodness or accumulation of merit really refers to. It’s a lightening and clearing of mind, from doing good. And one doesn’t have to go into the whole karmic bank account, compound interest, and penalties for early withdrawal, all of that stuff.
Now, the second accumulation, the second generation, was probably added on because just doing good isn’t enough. It doesn’t free you from samsara. It gets you higher births and all the stuff, in the traditional descriptions. But without that insight, that seeing into how experience arises, one doesn’t actually get free of the conditioning. So it was necessary to add in this other one, the generation or accumulation of pristine awareness, which is a really tricky thing, because as I said rather glibly a few moments ago, ”There’s nothing to it.“
So, how you actually do that is exactly what I was suggesting to Eric. You drop into it. [Ken snaps fingers three times.] And through this process, you gradually familiarize your whole being with experiencing things that way. And again, that generates a momentum. Okay? But it’s not a thing you do. I mean, you don’t get anything. It’s just something you do.
Okay? Does that answer your question?
Charles: I think so. So, the four Tibetan words that you mentioned earlier. Like when you said you needed to do, to Rinpoche, if we put it in the kind of language that you use now, right? The same idea, would be you nurture or you develop goodness.
Charles: You work on and clear away your emotional activity.
Charles: That would be the sgrib (pron. dreep), right?
Ken: One of the sgrib sbyang (pron. dreep jang).
Charles: One of the sgrib sbyang. There’s the other one. Okay, Ken, How would you now explain one of the other one of the sgrib sbyang?
Ken: I’ll give you the Tibetan so you’ll know it, nyon mongs pa’i sgrib pa (pron. nyön mong pi dreeppa) and shes bya’i sgrib pa (pron. shé ja dreeppa).
Charles: Right, so I was asking about shes bya’i sgrib pa.
Ken: Well, shes bya’i sgrib pa corresponds to accumulating pristine, or generating pristine awareness. Because shes bya’i sgrib pa means the obscuration or the shadowing, or clouding of experience through conceptual knowing. And pristine awareness is non-conceptual knowing, so that’s the correspondence. And so again, that dropping in, even if it’s for a moment, into non-conceptual knowing, helps to clear away the clouding of experience with conceptual knowing. It’s what I was saying earlier, the thinking mind is a duller state of mind.
Charles: Thank you.
I wanted to touch on a couple more points.
Verse 9. This is instruction.
Stop all physical activity: sit naturally at ease.
Do not talk or speak: let sound be empty, like an echo.
Do not think about anything: look at experience beyond thought.
So the first two and half lines, very clearly he’s saying, ”Do nothing.“ And then he gives you something to hold onto. Mahamudra not being quite as drastic as dzogchen, you get this little thing. He’s encouraging Naropa to bring out the looking quality which brings out the clarity aspect of experience. Look at experience beyond thought.
Now, don’t think about it, just do it. What happens? You think about it, you just tie yourself up in knots. Just look at experience beyond thought. What happens when you do that? Anybody? Rita?
Rita: It was like a dropping in and a shift.
Ken: Okay. Yeah. Anybody else? Nick?
Nick: Yeah, dropping in is a good phrase actually because if feels like you’re coming down out of something…
Nick: …that’s dreamlike and confusing [unclear].
Ken: Okay. Christy did you have something?
Ken: I thought you put your hand up, or were you just wiping your forehead?
Ken: Okay, fine. Just didn’t want you to feel left out. [Laughter] So, there’s a shift, dropping in, however you want to put it. That’s practice. That’s it. Sit and shift. Christy!
Christy: I screwed up my courage. When I think I experience that, it’s like, things become three-dimensional.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Very vivid.
Christy: Um. That’s all. Thanks.
Ken: Good. Rest there. And initially it won’t last very long, you know, maybe a second or two. You keep doing it. As you practice this, Verse 10 describes experience.
It’s not describing fact, it’s describing experience. And this is not instruction, it’s describing experience now. And this is one of the tricky things in reading these kinds of texts. It’s very important to discern what’s instruction and what’s description of experience, etc. Because I know many texts that have been translated in which the translator has translated descriptions of experience as instructions. That kind of makes a mess of things.
Or sometimes—and this is even more problematic—they’ve translated instructions as descriptions of experience. And so people think well this is just meant to happen. They don’t realize this is something you’re meant to do. And sometimes the Tibetan verb forms are confusing because, you know, the imperative and the future are often the same. So…
Your body has no core…
You work this way and you experience. It’s just like your body feels hollow, like bamboo. Just like he says.
Your mind goes beyond thought, open like space.
So, saying that when you do it this way, that experience is going to arise. When that experience arises, Let go of control and rest right there.
Mind without projection is mahamudra.
Train and develop this and you will come to the deepest awakening.
It’s very, very clear instruction. Okay.
Paul, you had a question.
Paul: I figure I did something wrong because while you were talking to him, I sat and asked myself, ”What experiences this?“ And it felt like I was feeling the flow of experience. But then suddenly there was panic and nausea. And I opened my eyes and the room was spinning. And it wasn’t pleasant.
Ken: Yeah. That happens. It can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes other parts of us just react against this and shut the whole thing down and make it completely inaccessible to us. And that’s just the mechanisms that I was talking about the other day.
There’s a story that is often referred to, Milarepa and the Demons. And usually just the last part of the story is told. It’s unfortunate, because when the last part of the story is told, you get a very mistaken impression of what’s really going on. What the whole story consists of…Milarepa’s been practicing really, really hard. And he’d been practicing so hard he’s been neglecting his body. He hasn’t been taking care of himself at all. And so he’s barely got enough strength to do anything. He’s just been pouring all of his energy into practice.
So he realizes ”Oh, I can’t do any more. I have to take care of the body.” And he’s barely got enough strength to walk. So he starts walking around his cave and manages, after going some distance, to find sufficient kindling to light a fire so he can cook something for himself. But he’s really, really weak.
And so as he’s coming back with probably not a very large load of wood, he trips and stumbles and all the wood goes all over the place. And he’s just had it. He’s dead. He doesn’t have any more strength. Everything lets go. And he has this vision of Marpa, his guru. And Marpa says something appropriately encouraging and so forth. But this incredible vision just fills him with energy.
He goes back to his cave, with his sticks and he finds these demons there. Now, this is very important. Frequently what happens when there’s some kind of opening, habituated patterns—which operate so that a lot of things are not experienced and not felt—are really seriously triggered. Because now we experience everything, and we can experience everything. And so they just jump into operation. It’s like a switch goes on. And everything just closes down really, really hard. Nausea, sickness, dullness of mind, pain in the body, you name it, can all happen.
Paul: Wanting to run out to another room.
Ken: Exactly. Yeah, that’s it. Yeah. That’s right. So it’s not necessarily that you did anything wrong. This is the stuff that we have to deal with. And that’s where my comments this morning about war come in. Because that’s exactly what Milarepa tries to do. He tries to get rid of the demons, he declares war on them and it goes nowhere. And that’s the part of the story that’s usually related as, until he absolutely accepts this is part of his experience, that he can move forward.
But this first part is very important, because it describes how those demons get there. They’re reactive patterns reacting to the spiritual opening.
Paul: So what should I do?
Ken: What we do all along here. You just open to the experience and be in it to the best of your ability. And it’s like Eww. That’s how it is sometimes.
Paul: It was pretty powerful. I felt like I was going to pass out.
Ken: Yeah. And sometimes you will. And you know what happens then?
Ken: You come to. Life goes on. [Laughter]
Ken: Seriously. That’s what happens.
Paul: I see a potential for that to be an aversion to that practice. [Laughter]
Ken: We all have our obstacles. [Laughter]
Okay. Well, I was planning to do a little bit more on mahamudra but it’s ten to nine now, so maybe we can pick that up tomorrow.
Let’s just take a few minutes, stretch and then we’ll sit together for a short time.