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.
Sky gazing and other practices Download
Practice of sky gazing; working with intense experiences; the five step practice (from the Anapanasati sutra); imagining experience at a distance — and reeling it in slowly — to attenuate painful intensity; taking and sending as a way of forming relationships with alienated aspects of ourselves; more on the three kayas.
Wednesday, August 11th, A Trackless Path II, evening session. I’m getting this down.
There’s one question that was posed to me a couple days ago which I have not responded to but I should since the subject matter’s been mentioned many times without any other reference, and that is sky gazing. In The Jewel Ornament of Liberation in the discussion of the Perfection of Wisdom, there’s a quotation from a teacher, I think—I don’t think it’s from one of the sutras—which says in reference to the Perfection of Wisdom: Look at the sky. Learn what that means. A little enigmatic.
There are a number of teachings in various traditions on sky gazing but the one that I’ve been exposed to and feels most complete is one from the Dzogchen tradition in which there are three skies—just to make it complicated. The practice consists of sitting or lying down in a location where ideally all you have is sky in front of you. There were caves that were carefully constructed in Tibet on the sides of mountains so that when you sat in them if you sat in a certain position you saw nothing but sky. There was no other reference point whatsoever.
So not always that easy to arrange but here we have, particularly in the morning, generally speaking we have very clear skies, and we’ve been very fortunate during this retreat that way. Other retreats it hasn’t been so obliging. So it’s not too hard to find a place where you can sit and have very, very little in your peripheral vision. And then you quite literally look at the sky.
Now as Tilopa says, When you look at space, seeing stops. When you look at mind, thinking stops. INSERT It is important to look at the sky, or to put it slightly differently, to look into the sky. So you’re actually looking. You’re not just letting your eyes go into soft focus because there’s nothing to look at. When you do that you actually become passive and probably move in a somewhat dull direction. The looking is active.
And the first sky is what we ordinarily call “sky”—it’s infinite expanse of blue in front of us. And you look at that or into it. And just because the way the eyes are constructed there will be pixelation, and variation in shades and so forth you know. Pay no attention to all of that, that’s just stuff. And look. If the looking is active you’ll find a couple of things. In the beginning you probably won’t be able to do it for very long ’cause the intensity, the clarity is like, “Eah,” a little overwhelming. And you just find like you’re sort of short-circuiting. But as you do it again and again you’ll build up more capacity. And as you look with that active looking you find it is actually difficult to hold any train of thought. I should mention one other thing on the practical side: at this altitude wear sunblock.
If you’re wearing sunglasses the best kind of sunglasses are the ones that cool skiers wear that just cover everything so you don’t have any frames or anything like that. But in the early morning if you’re lying in the shade looking out, you actually don’t need sunglasses. But if you’re doing this later in the day—and of course you don’t look in the direction of the sun. This is bad business. There are practices which do have you looking in the direction of the sun but they are quite different.
One of the reasons I liked the Mandala Center when I first checked it out several years ago was that I noticed it was on the north face of this mountain, which made it really good for sun gazing because it was facing away from the sun. Or sky gazing rather, not sun gazing.
So there’s that active looking into the sky. And as you engage that and increase your capacity to hold that gaze into the sky—very hard to hold together the ordinary train of thinking—it just keeps disintegrating. Which of course is part of the purpose of this practice. And you find you’re beginning to experience calm-abiding, shamatha—just resting. But it’s got a little more juice than shamatha and meditation because you’re opening to the sky, and there’s just all that energy of the light coming in filling your whole mind and being with light and energy. So it’s quite a powerful practice.
And as your mind or the thinking process crumbles and disintegrates, and it doesn’t do this immediately so don’t give your hopes up [laughter], you find—well if you speak technically, the sensory consciousnesses become less and less dominant in one’s experience. That’s the five associated with the senses except the one for seeing, of course, and the mental consciousness, which is associated with thought. And you’ll find that the seventh consciousness, the emotional, which is what I like to call it, also subsides. And you’ll find yourself resting without much sense of “I.”
And basically what’s happening here is that you’re experiencing basis-of-everything consciousness. Sanskrit term for that is alaya-vijnana. I can spell it if you really want but—the basis of everything consciousness. Now in basis-of-everything consciousness there is no explicit sense of “I” or “other” but it is not beyond duality. There’s no explicit sense of I or other, and as Dezhung Rinpoche explained to me, It’s clear, empty, and ineffective. And for those who want the Tibetan for “ineffective” it’s lung ma bstan (pron. lung ma ten). Do you approve? [Laughter]
Carolyn: That’s interesting.
Carolyn: That that’s lung ma bstan.
Ken: Microphone. Go ahead. You’re allowed to speak; you just have to make sure it’s recorded.
Carolyn: It’s interesting that that’s lung ma bstan because that’s the dullness in meditation too.
Ken: Sure, yeah. I mean it’s as Dezhung Rinpoche would say, stong gsal lung ma bstan (pron. tong sal lung ma ten). You know, lung ma bstan is often translated as neutral but there’s no juice to it—that’s the idea. Now, this is a little bit of an aside but it’s—particularly in reference to Carolyn’s comment—it’s important. There are countless meditators over the centuries who mistake resting in alaya-vijnana for enlightenment. And it’s not—basically.
Again Dezhung Rinpoche explained when he was giving us mahamudra instruction: it’s empty, clear, and ineffective. No juice—however you want to describe that to yourselves. It’s like a block of ice. And alaya-vijnana to buddha mind is like ice to water. That is, ice is clear, can see right through it, you don’t know it’s there, and it can’t do anything because it’s a block of ice. And when you rest in it bringing active attention into it basically the ice melts. And then you have empty, clear, unrestricted experience. And the lung ma bstan becomes or in effect it becomes unrestricted. So it becomes very, very alive. Juice.
Sonia. Microphone please.
Sonia: You made reference to buddha mind and with the refuge prayer, it’s like we want what’s been coming up in practice. But when I do the sky gazing the lines remind me of the experience of the sky gazing.
Ken: The refuge prayer lines?
Sonia: Yeah. Nothing outside or inside to free me…experience and awareness are not two.
Sonia: So you just made reference to Buddha and the quality of that…I’m not making the leap with the quality of that, how that relates to buddha, dharma, sangha. It’s like it’s almost there but I’m not making…it’s a quality it’s not—
Ken: Let’s pick this up when I finish talking about sky gazing then we’ll pick that one up.
Ken: And I don’t know that I’ll be able to field it but I’ll try. You can hit it again. Maybe you’ll hit it over the fence then I don’t have to worry about it.
So that’s the second sky, which is basically the mind at rest. When it’s deeply at rest it’s alaya-vijnana or basis-of-everything consciousness. So you’ll have an internal experience of empty clarity, and there’s no explicit sense of “I” as I said in that. But as soon as there’s any movement [Ken snaps fingers], the duality’s there. I mean if you really want to get technical you get into the immediate consciousness, and as things pop into immediate consciousness then they go either into the emotional mind and are experienced as a sense of “I,” or they go into one of the sensory consciousnesses and are experienced as an object. That’s your technical explanation.
Student: The five or seven?
Ken: Seven or any of the six. Paul.
Paul: I think I missed the difference between the effective and ineffective way of doing it.
Ken: I’m coming to that.
Ken: It’s not the difference between the effective/ineffective way of doing it. These are stages. First you look in the sky and that’s the sky you’re looking into. And as the mind settles then you become aware of this quotation marks “internal sky.” And I’m describing what that is in really technical Buddhist vocabulary because I have to earn my money somehow. I just can’t crack jokes and tell stories all the time. [Laughter] At least I think I can’t crack…
So you’ll find that you start looking into that internal sky. Now your eyes will still be looking into the external sky but there’s going to be a shift inside, and now you’re going to be staring into that clear, empty space which is mind.
And as you do this, and please don’t think you just sit down and this unfolds in an hour and a half. [Ken makes ticking clock sound.] Then what in dzogchen is called rigpa—translation “awareness or direct awareness”—you begin to experience that. I don’t want to say it “arises”—I don’t even know how to put it into English really. I don’t want to say you become aware that it’s there, because there isn’t any “you” there. Let’s just say “it’s there.” That works for me. And so what was empty, clear, and ineffective now is experienced as empty, clear, and dynamic. That’s the third sky.
Now you don’t make these things happen: they unfold in practice. So you can’t lie back and say I’m going to look at the third sky—it doesn’t work that way. [Laughter] You laugh! I will bet when you do this you actually have that thought when you do it. [Laughter]
Student: That’s why we were laughing.
Ken: Okay. Sophie did you have a question?
Sophie: I was just curious—I found the clear nights I was staring at the night sky, and I know the Milky Way and the stars are there. Except for a falling star I felt very absorbed into it.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah you can do this with the night sky, too.
Ken: Yeah, yeah. There’s a Zen teacher who lives in northern California. Never met her in person actually she just calls me up occasionally. She called me up about her practice at one point. She lives right out in the woods so she’s fairly isolated so she can do what she wants. And I think she’d sustained some kind of injury or something so she couldn’t do her normal sitting. I said, “Why don’t you just do this and you know get your lawn chair and lie out in the day and in the evenings and look at the sky.” And she found it really, really helpful. Why? Because in Zen practice what do you do? [Ken imitates Zen technique] So she just went [Ken imitates her meditating—laughter] and it’s perfect! And that was fine for the summer and then around October she called me up, “I’m not going to be able to do this over the winter and it’s really good. What do I do now?” I said…
Student: [Unclear] box.
Ken: Doesn’t work. You need that so. Just a sec, Sophie. So I said, “Remember the feeling.” When you’re looking in the sky there’s a certain body sensation. When you’re looking into the inner sky there’s a body sensation. When rigpa is there or this direct awareness is there there’s a body sensation. You remember that body sensation and rest right there. And so she found that that just worked perfectly for her—she just continued the practice without any problem. Sophie.
Sophie: Just a follow up to that. The two nights that I did it because it was just so magnificent I had so much energy I couldn’t go to sleep till like 2 or 2:30 in the morning.
Ken: Duh. Yeah.
Sophie: I’m looking at, you know, I didn’t realize until I went in and I’d lay there. I was just like you know.
Ken: Yeah it’s a highly energizing practice. By the way, official announcement. It’s August 11th, it’s the Perseid meteor shower tonight. [Oohs and aahs and laughter] It’s usually around 2 or so but it’s pretty good fireworks.
Michael you had a question.
Michael: So this may be apple and oranges but I was taught sky gazing that sounded really different [Ken laughs] that had very definite postures that weren’t sitting or lying. And also had what sounds like a different goal although it involved rigpa but it was also looking at, I don’t remember the exact language, but in movement or it might have been called impurities in your basic energy that—and when those movements ceased that was a sign of some kind of stability. That doesn’t sound like the same practice.
Ken: You’re not talking about tögal?
Ken: Oh, that’s a totally different practice.
Michael: Oh, oh, okay sorry.
Ken: Yeah. No, no.
Michael: I was thinking boy this is not where I’m—
Ken: No, no that’s not sky gazing; there’s no satisfactory translation. Some people call it taking the leap or whatever but it’s tögal. That’s a dzogchen practice and it’s totally different from this.
Michael: Okay. Okay.
Ken: Yeah, yeah. So that was from Khenpo Tsultrim?
Michael: And some other people.
Ken: Yeah, right, okay yeah. That’s a very different practice so. I mean in the dzogchen scheme you would say the sky gazing I’m talking about is more in the trekchö area.
Michael: Yes that’s what it sounds like.
Ken: Yeah, yeah.
Michael: Although it was powerful in the same kind of way where you would lose your—
Ken: Oh it’s a very, very subtle—
Michael: …sense of “I.”
Ken: It’s a very subtle practice which—and in that practice you’re assuming, there are three postures and a couple of gazes, and the purpose of those postures is to put stress in the body…
Ken: …in a certain way so that it brings out a certain energy. There’s an energy transformation. And it only works if your body actually can assume those postures. There are lots of people for whom it puts way too much stress on the body and there’s just no possibility of resting. So it’s a very, very refined practice.
Larry: If you don’t have any clear sky or the sky is hard on one’s eyes, is a blank wall pretty much the same thing, do you think?
Ken: No. [Laughter]
Larry: I thought you’d say that.
Ken: I mean the Soto Zen work with blank walls and they find it very effective. But it’s not the same thing at all.
Larry: And it’s not the same thing with a cloudy sky?
Ken: Not really because you don’t have the same light pouring into you.
Ken: I mean you can develop and will develop a certain equanimity and when you know how to do this sky gazing you can probably use a clear sky. But you know this is a product of Indian, Tibe—
Larry: You mean use a cloudy sky?
Ken: Yeah a grey sky, sorry.
Larry: A grey sky.
Ken: And one can have quite an interesting experience meditating in the fog, etc. But it doesn’t have the same quality as this because you don’t have that light coming in. Here you’re making use of that light to really bring out the clarity aspect of mind.
Larry: I find that the stage I’m at, my mind must seek out entertainment or something because I get really vivid pictures in the sky with the clouds. That’s just the mind trying to put order or something on it isn’t it?
Ken: Well yes, I mean the sensory deprivation experiments show that when there’s no stimulation of mind the mind manufactures it own stimulation. What we’re doing in meditation and one needs to understand this: a lot of what we’re doing in meditation is TOTALLY against the biological, psychological and cultural conditioning we’ve grown up with. It’s not natural at all. You know, this business about natural awareness it feels that but it isn’t natural at all. I mean it’s very simple; for example, two cavemen are walking along. They hear a sound. One says, “That’s interesting.” And the other runs as fast as he can. Whose genes survive? [Laughter] So this is not natural.
So there you have the manufacturing of all of this stuff to, as you say entertain, to provide stimulation, and this is where a few days ago I talked about bringing that emotional quality whether it’s trust, or faith, or loving-kindness or whatever. That’s where it’s really important because all that stimulation comes up because you’re feeling alone and there’s fear coming up. And so there’s automatic stuff just to get something going so that mind can be engaged and you don’t have to—existential terror is kept at bay—basically by distraction. And this is where that emotional quality becomes very, very important because it gives us the emotional energy, the emotional basis to actually rest in our experience and not automatically generate entertainment and so forth.
Larry: Well it certainly isn’t purposeful so it just needs to unwind right? Work its way out.
Ken: Well it depends on your point of view. In terms of raw automatic conditioning it is purposeful. It’s not intentional—that is we aren’t doing it—but it is purposeful in that it provides stimulation. There’s the tradition of the bardo retreat where you’re 30 or 90 days in total blackness. Yeah, well a few Westerners do it. A long time ago in Tibet they just gave up doing it because people just went crazy because it is a sensory deprivation process. And the aim of it is to learn how to be present with all the hallucinations that the mind will generate—not the mind—the physiology of our mind-body system will generate automatically. And so how do you be present with that? Then you can be present with anything. But very, very high incidence of insanity. A few Westerners have done it, but it’s demanding.
Gary: Yeah the question I have is in regards to how the physiology is setup for shock when something you know very surprising or sort of out of the norm happens. And so hearing you talk about this practice and what you just said about it runs counter to a lot of conditioning. But I’m looking at mainly more the physiology because I’ve been finding what you’ve talked about in terms of what we couldn’t experience before because we didn’t have the level of energy or attention. And then building the capacity through stable attention, energy practices, etc., to eventually meet that—that makes sense. And then looking at the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva in terms of what you take into your life, I imagine, that’s more of a stretch for me in terms of encountering things that do shock and stun us.
And I know this is probably not fair to you to mention, but one of the things that always stayed with me was the story I heard about a mother of I guess these were Boston University students that were in the Lockerbie disaster, and she was a sculptress. And what she did was to remember her first moments when she heard the news—which was collapse or whatever. So she did a sculpture of herself and then she decided she wanted to see all the news clips because the news media went to the airport and captured people getting the news. That to me is shock.
So I think when we talk about being present at everything that arises I think it sounds great [laughter], but I’m kind of going to the extreme here because there is something about our physical bodies and we can kind of say, “Hey you know it’s a survival mechanism, etc.,” but I think it’s there for a good reason.
Ken: It’s there for a very good reason and—I don’t know this for sure—but even when you’ve trained very deeply dealing with really very, very fundamental terrors and fears, which one deliberately incites through practices such as Chö and so forth, as you say there is the basic physiology. And when things happen just because you’re very awake and present doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions.
I mean we have the record of Marpa. Marpa’s son was killed in a riding accident. And then Marpa heard the news—and Marpa was a pretty awake guy by all the accounts—he was devastated. He loved his son Darma Dodé (Tib. dar ma mdo sde) very much. Had planned to pass on the transmission to him and so he was just heartbroken. Shattered—not only that he’d lost his son—but that it shattered all his dreams. And he sobbed. He just cried his heart out. And his wiseacre students who were probably just like us said, “You always told us that everything was illusion. Why are you crying?” And you read Marpa’s biography he says, “This is extra illusion.” [Laughter]
And there’s another story from the Zen tradition of a woman who is a very highly regarded teacher and she lost a child. When the child was being buried she was sobbing. And her stupid students—students tend to be stupid [laughter], nobody here included—said, “You always told us everything is illusional why are you crying?” And she just turned and gave them that lovely Zen stare [Ken makes growling cutting stare]. “If you don’t understand how every tear I shed saves countless sentient beings you know nothing about Zen.” And then she went back to crying. [Laughter] So, it’s not that these emotions and feelings go away—it’s quite the opposite. You get to experience them in vivid technicolor, 3D! Happy now? [Laughter]
Gary: Well that raises my next point. There are some people that have very high tolerance to physical and emotional pain.
Gary: And others don’t.
Gary: So when you say that I’ve heard you say in the past it’s like having no skin.
Ken: That’s compassion, yeah.
Gary: Okay. So…
Ken: I’ve always wondered why people say, “I want to be more compassionate.” I look at them and say, “Are you nuts?” ’cause it’s like having no skin. Everything, “Yow!” [Laughter] Go on.
Gary: So to keep engaging that, I mean don’t you think after a while you’re going to be down to your bones?
Ken: Yeah well that’s what Suzuki Roshi says—and then you get serious. What’s the problem here?
Gary: I think that’s where the crazy part comes in.
Ken: Why do you say that?
Gary: Well I mean there has to be some lightness about compassion. There has to be some sense of humor, some irony.
Ken: Oh, there’s all that…
Ken: …and there’s also—you also know it is experience. I mean…how to say this? Yes, you have no skin. And you want it to be that way because you’re in touch with the world. And so within that you see suffering and you see the destructiveness of suffering, with vivid clarity and also joy and humor and all of those other things. I mean it’s not all—[Ken speaks in a slow-dull-pained voice] “Oh the world’s suffering….” No, but you aren’t fooled by stuff. You try it sometime.
Gary: That’s where you kind of take the foot and kick the person off the cliff stage, isn’t it.
Ken: Whenever I’ve had that opportunity it feels so good.
Gary: Trying wearing shoes next time.
Gary: Trying wearing shoes next time.
Ken: What? For the person who’s jumping off the cliff it doesn’t make any difference.
Over here there’s a question. And Michael did you have something?
Michael: You don’t want to hear science do you?
Michael: About distressed tolerance. No?
Ken: Distressed tolerance…yeah well we could go into all of that—the physiology.
Michael: Something that I do research on and the short answer is that it isn’t…you actually…
Student: Wait…speak into the mic.
Ken: Just a second. You got it.
Michael: It looks like not so much that you become open to more suffering. It’s not just that you become more porous but you actually become capable of experiencing it without withdrawing so it’s really a strain….
Michael: …that get’s cultivated. And you really don’t let it in, you can’t let it in until you’re able to tolerate it. Like we sort of shut down…
Michael: Involuntarily. And something the practice does. And this is, you know, for you to say this is a mystery of it, is that it strengthens some capacity to suffer without really becoming reactive in a way that closes that door.
Ken: Yeah and I don’t think they’ve got that one sussed out yet.
Michael: Let’s not go there.
Student: Sounds great in theory.
Ken: Yeah, okay. Okay, over here. Over here.
Student: You talk about how this is one way to experience life—not the only way. So if we’re in situations, I guess it really follows up on the comments about the science, if we’re really in situations where we’re not able to tolerate experiencing everything that’s going on, can’t we either choose—probably not choose—but don’t we naturally revert to not experiencing everything so that we can handle it?
Ken: Yeah. I think that’s what Michael was saying; automatic mechanisms kick in and they’ve kicked in all our lives, which is why a lot of stuff gets buried. I mean that’s the automatic mechanisms kicking in. There are consequences to that and later in life they cause us increasing amounts of inconvenience. But through these practices, and there’s a great range of practices, but they have ways of creating the possibility of experiencing quite difficult experiences without those automatic mechanisms kicking in and without it actually being harmful to the organism—to the system.
Student: But even if we can’t experience something we’re at least aware that it’s happened. Right? And you talk about maybe touching things that are too difficult to experience, you know, across the room or something like that.
Ken: Yeah that’s a way of increasing capacity—in technical terms it could be called “progressive desensitization” but it doesn’t really work that way. At least not in my experience ’cause there’s an awakening quality in it as well.
Student: So if you can’t experience something even when you practice and you realize that you weren’t able to experience…
Ken: …experience it.
Student: …it in the moment. Is it locked in you and you really can’t get at right away?
Ken: No, no, not right away, no. But one of the techniques that I give people, and this is an adaptation of the five-step practice from Thich Nhat Hanh. INSERT When he’s teaching it he talks about opening to one-tenth or one-hundredth of the experience. People I’ve worked with and for myself I don’t find that very helpful because you know you crack that little door open it’s, you know, like a blast furnace—“kshoooo” it’s there.
So what I experimented with is putting it at a distance, and this seems to work fairly well. Some people it’s across the room, some people it’s you know outside, some people it’s across the town, some people it has to be on the other side of the country. But what I’m trying set up there is it’s in your awareness at a level which you can experience it, which when it’s some distance away is diluted of course or it’s not as intense. But when you do it that way, I mean for instance suppose there’s a very significant loss and so you imagine that loss at some distance from you and because it’s—you know we think metaphorically or experience things metaphorically—that some distance attenuates the intensity.
So now you breathe and just doing the five-step practice as it’s outlined here. Breathing in I experience this loss; breathing out I experience this loss, until you can do that because the intensity is sufficiently attenuated. And then breathing in I experience the physical reactions to this loss and the emotional reactions to this loss, and the stories, etc. And they’re also attenuated because it’s at some distance so you can actually go through this whole process. And then when you hit that relaxing and being at ease with this then you realize, “Oh I can actually bring it a bit closer now.” And so progressively over time you bring it closer and closer until you can experience it completely.
Student: So that’s something you would use afterwards but it’s not something I mean if you’re in the middle of something shocking like Gary was saying.
Ken: Oh, if it’s happening right now if it’s something happening it really depends on your level of attention. People with a high level of attention who are highly trained could be present right in that. And you see this in some of these emergency workers and first-line responders they’re absolutely amazing what they can do—and a lot of that’s because of their training. Yeah.
Ralph: Many of you probably know that I personally had a devastating loss of magnitude of what I think is the subject tonight, the loss of my wife recently, and so I can speak from firsthand experience of dealing with something that’s probably beyond your capacity. And I think it has to be done in stages, and I think if you are able to approach it in the way that Ken’s saying that it takes on a bittersweet quality. There’s almost a joy in knowing that you can experience it directly.
And once that happens you’re able to work your way out of the wormhole and open up. Because the immediate reaction is that’s all that exists in your world and that world will never change. And I came into this retreat trying to decide if it was worth it or whether or not there could be any way to judge progress in the retreat. And my answer now would be, “Definitely yes,” because all the techniques that we’re learning here and talking about do work in the real world. And sometimes you have to wait for a tragedy to really find out where you’re at and how effective they are. And all the effort that you’ve put in, which sometimes doesn’t make any sense, you don’t want to do it but…that’s all I have to say.
Ken: Thanks Ralph. Okay.
Okay? Other questions about any other aspects of practice? Helen. [Mic is passed] We need a runner.
Helen: Well I was kind of hoping that possibly maybe there is a little more limited view of this process that perhaps it would help increase one’s sense of spaciousness and how that helps tremendously in one’s own day-to-day situations and perceiving others in a more spacious way. There’s a qualitatively different sort of way than we normally would operate.
Ken: What you’re calling spaciousness comes directly out of being in the experience of whatever you’re doing. If you think “spaciously,” it’s artificial. But if you’re right in the experience of whatever you are doing, then you find there is more physical space and more temporal space, and it comes from the quality of attention.
Larry and then Paul.
Student: Larry’s off getting two mics.
Ken: We did have two mics. One of them got damaged and this is just so much simpler than the old, I mean, it’s not simpler technically but in terms of being able to carry it around and set it up it’s so much simpler than the old system. Yes?
Larry: These are practice questions.
Larry: You have encouraged me to open my heart and—
Ken: Not just you. [Laughter]
Larry: Well I couldn’t speak for other people so I, you know, I’ll take ownership and that opening process. I’m sure you’ve talked about this before but I’m also sure you can put it in new words. [Laughter] Fresh words. As you open…
Ken: “Hopes spring eternal in the…”
Larry: “…with youth.”
Ken: Keep going Larry.
Larry: And what I’m trying to understand is as one works with this opening you can’t say I only want raspberry feelings surfacing. You’re going to get whatever fruit or vegetable comes up. [Laughter] And you can go into wanting to investigate one thing and all of a sudden you’re investigating something quite different. With that, a lot of bad affect comes up and a lot of energy comes up even when you try to be aware. And within formal meditation practice I’ve found that getting off the cushion I can be kind of growly.
Ken: [Laughs] This sounds like a good sign.
Larry: Yeah well my wife is growly too when she gets off the cushion…I mean not all the time. But this happens and we know enough to give each other space.
Larry: But sometimes you have to go out in the world, and you’re still feeling pretty growly about this. So I’m trying to understand any thoughts you would have in how you manage all of these flavors of affect that come to the fore when we’re out there trying to function in the world and control what comes out of our mouth. [Laughter]
Ken: Oh you’re asking the wrong person. [Laughter] Having spent two weeks daily screaming at AT&T! [Laughter]
Student: I’m going to take this answer down. [Laughter]
Ken: Well you’re quite right. When you open emotionally you don’t get to choose what’s there. I was teaching a mahamudra class a few years ago, and it seemed to be going fine and then this guy asked this question—he’s a screen writer in Hollywood—“So when you become more aware can you choose what you’re aware of?” And I said, “No!” and he really didn’t like that. When you become more aware you’re more aware of everything, and when you open emotionally then it’s all there.
Now if, I love the way you put it, if you’re a bit growly whenever you get up from meditation it does suggest something: that there’s a certain amount of suppressed anger.
Larry: Or whatever.
Ken: No. Well anger.
Larry: Growly covered a wide spectrum of grumpy emotions.
Ken: No I pay attention to…grumpy emotions.
Ken: Okay fine, I’m fine. Grumpy, anger, whatever, you know. [Laughter] Do you want to throw Sleepy and Doc in there too? Bashful? No, so whether you call it anger, grumpiness, growly, irritable, slow burn, rivers of volcanic lava seething below the surface. I don’t care—it’s all the same stuff.
Ken: It’s all in that camp yes. Okay. When was the last time you opened your heart to that?
Larry: Well I was gonna go home and do it right away. [Much laughter]
Ken: I have a question for you, Larry.
Ken: Why wait?
Larry: Well that volcanic lava has to come to the fore in a real [unclear] way.
Ken: Why wait? Why don’t you do it now?
Larry: You want me to get angry?
Ken: That’s not what I said.
Larry: Well then how can I…?
Ken: I said open your heart to the anger.
Larry: But it’s not there right now—I mean that I can see. I’m sure you could make me see it. [Much laughter]
Student: Use your magical powers.
Gary: Where’s Marpa when you need him?
Ken: What was that Gary?
Gary: Where’s Marpa when you need him.
Ken: Where’s Marpa when you need him? Right.
Student: Would AT&T help?
Ken: But I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Larry would AT&T help.
Larry: I understand—you don’t have to say anything.
Ken: Can you feel it in you?
Larry: When it arises?
Ken: No. Can you feel it in you right now? It may not be particularly active but if you’re growly after meditation on a regular basis then it’s fairly likely that you can touch something there that’s in that area pretty well anytime.
Larry: But I didn’t say it was on a regular basis.
Ken: That was the impression I had.
Larry: No, no it just happens once in a while.
Ken: Okay, well anyway can you feel it now? People are moving away from you slowly [laughter]. Please remove all sharp objects.
Larry: I really can’t feel it in the way that I know anger. It doesn’t—
Ken: That’s not what I’m asking. Can you feel…let me put it this way.
Ken: Can you feel anything that is in the aversion quadrant of emotions? Actually it’s the—what do they call three…
Larry: Yeah I can certainly feel aversion right now. [Laughter]
Ken: Now are you willing to play with this a little bit?
Larry: You mean later or…?
Ken: With me right now.
Larry: If it’ll serve a purpose.
Ken: Forget about it serving a purpose. You know, are you willing?
Larry: Sure, okay.
Ken: So you can touch something in the aversion quadrant?
Ken: Okay. What happens when you open your heart to that?
Larry: Well there’s a softening process that begins.
Ken: Okay, that’s how you practice.
You know somebody mentioned the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva earlier this evening as about how you relate to the world. It’s one way of interpreting the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Another is to read it mythically—it’s how you work with all your internal material. Just to take a juicy line here. Now let me know if any of you have ever experienced anything like this in your meditation practice.
When you are down and out, held in contempt, desperately ill and emotionally crazy…. [Laughter] Okay, anything like this. Even if a person you have cared for as your own child treats you as his or her worst enemy…, okay so this is another way of working with it.
And many of you may know the Dharmapada, a collection of verses which has been translated into English innumerable times. It actually wasn’t translated into Tibetan until 1929 I think. You know, it was Gendun Chöpel (Tib. dge ’dun chos ’phel) who found the text and realized, “You know we don’t have this one,” and translated it into Tibetan. He was an interesting guy Gendun Chöpel.
But one of the most famous verses in the Dharmapada is Hatred never overcomes hatred. Hatred is only overcome by love. And one usually thinks of this through interaction but it applies just as much to internal processes. If you hate a part of yourself—and let’s face it a lot of us do—that’s a wall you put up between you and this part of yourself, and it will experience being alienated, you will experience being alienated from that, and it can go on for a very, very long time. And it may be for very good reasons: it may be too painful, it may be too horrific.
And one of the ways that I’ve suggested people work with taking and sending, and this is an internal method you don’t find—at least I haven’t found this anywhere stated explicitly in classical literature. And several of you have been working with this in the course of this retreat. But one way that I view taking and sending is a way to start forming a connection with any part of your experience from which you are deeply alienated. So if there’s an aspect of yourself that you don’t want to have anything to do with or is too painful to touch or whatever, then you do taking and sending. ’Cause we actually know what it feels like behind the wall—or we have a good idea so it’s easy to do the taking. And sending means that we have to connect with our own good feeling and extend that to this part that’s alienated, and it starts building a bridge.
Now, emotionally that can be pretty interesting. Not always a walk in the park by any means. But can be very, very helpful in forming relationships with these parts which we then take the next step and then start to include in awareness.
Charles and then Eric. Where’s the mic?
Student: I think Paul’s next.
Ken: Okay Paul. You were right. Yes, Paul first. Thank you.
Paul: About the sky gazing.
Paul: I have never tried it but according to my notes here it says…
Ken: [Laughs] Can’t trust what you write.
Paul: I stare into the sky, and then I forget anything I’m thinking about. And then I’m supposed to remember to bring active attention to everything, and that becomes the internal sky, and then something happens, and then rigpa.
Ken: And then you’re enlightened. [Laughter] The last part was great Paul but there were a few stumbling blocks at the beginning. What I said is, “You stare into the sky, and it’s an active gaze it’s not a…”
Paul: Yeah I got that part.
Ken: Okay. You don’t say, “Oh just forget everything.” The ordinary thinking process crumbles.
Ken: And it’s good that you raise this because it’s really important to distinguish between method and effects and results of practice. Because time and time again people will take effects and results of practice as the method, and they really mess themselves up because it doesn’t work. I mean the trivial example which we all know is, “Why don’t you just relax,” and everybody tenses up when they hear that. Whereas if you say, “Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, do it again, do it once more,” then the person relaxes because to relax is the result of a method. So the method is that active gaze. And one of the results is the thinking process crumbles. It doesn’t crumble immediately but over time. So you don’t forget everything, the thinking process crumbles. That’s part of the process of the practice—it happens. The method is looking into the sky.
Paul: Yeah I think I’m just confused about between part two and three. What happens? What are we supposed to do?
Ken: Nothing. Just…
Paul: So it just happens.
Ken: Yeah, just as you look into the external sky, as the thinking process crumbles, you find yourself resting in what I’ve called alaya-vijnana, in this eighth consciousness, which is the basis-of-everything consciousness. It’s a very still state of mind, and then you find yourself looking into that. And then the same process happens—the dualistic patterning crumbles. That’s when rigpa is present but all you’re doing is continuing the looking.
Ken: All right.
Claudia: Can we add to that? The resting quality is very important in this practice so the instruction as you’re looking at the sky really allow yourself to deeply move into a state of rest because that tends to cut any sort of I’m trying to make this happen or all of that.
Claudia: You need to let all that go.
Ken: Yeah, good point.
Eric then Charles.
Eric: I think instead of just using the retreat to explore non-conceptual awareness my conceptual mind has been churning on something.
Ken: You’ll have to leave. [Laughter]
Eric: I think it was your opening comments on the retreat you talked about a change in world religions moving towards—
Ken: Oh put the blame on me! Thank you very much! [Laughter]
Eric: …moving towards embracing the human condition rather than transcending.
Eric: And I’ve brought that up ’cause it seems to me that much of what you’ve taught—and it’s touched me very deeply and this retreat has sprung from that—and that you’ve been teaching practices about embracing and ending the struggle now, and that there is no future enlightenment, and so forth. And what I’ve been struggling with is, is that possible if you believe in reincarnation?
Ken: Is what possible if you…?
Eric: Is embracing the human condition rather than transcending it and practicing from that view of the goal possible if one believes say some of the traditional Buddhist view in which this life is a burning house, or alternatively we may be sitting here in a comfortable place in New Mexico but we’re about to be exposed to inconceivable torture for countless eons? [Laughter]
Ken: Well [chuckles], I think it just adds a further challenge, doesn’t it? [Laughter] I mean you’re going to have a much deeper practice than me because you’ve got much more extreme conditions to embrace. So I don’t see any problem. You’re just gonna go further, you know.
I mean, if that’s how you look at the world then you shouldn’t think anything of sitting out in the sun all day—it’s just a little warm up. [Chuckles] No? What do you have to say? I mean, if you’re going to take that point of view, take that point of view and really do it. Okay? And if that’s a possibility in your world view, okay then you’ve got a lot practice to do because you’re going to have to be in that experience and be present in it. It’s the only way you’re going to be in that experience and not suffer is by being totally in it.
Eric: I’m not sure I want to go any further than that.
Ken: [Laughs] Do you get my point?
Ken: Okay, good. All right.
Charles: Actually I wanted to hear the answer to Sonia’s question about the refuge formula in the beginning practice and its relation to sky gazing.
Ken: Hand it back to Sonia so she can pose the question. And you’re right—I omitted to come back to her.
Sonia: Yes. My question was the experience of sky gazing and to a certain extent taking and sending has—it reminds me of the lines in the refuge [condensing and paraphrasing]: Nothing outside or inside to free me; experience and awareness are not two; and nothing to grasp or oppose.INSERT
And the lines remind me of a quality, and I’m not able to make the connection to how that’s related to the buddha, the dharma and the sangha.
Ken: Ah, now I understand your question. Well…
Sonia: But experience and awareness are not two, right? There’s this sense of no separation but there’s more. The quality of that is that it’s something I know; it’s not unknown. But I don’t see how that relates to—
Ken: To buddha, dharma and sangha.
Ken: Well why don’t we start with you telling me what buddha, and dharma and sangha are.
Sonia: Well they’re not the literal meaning. [Laughter]
Ken: That didn’t tell me what they are. That’s telling me what they are not.
Sonia: They’re not.
Ken: What is buddha? Straightforward question there.
Sonia: It’s a place that knows but it’s—it permeates everything.
Ken: What is it?
Sonia: It’s not a thing. It’s a quality. That’s why these things keep coming up as qualities for me.
Ken: What’s the quality of buddha?
Sonia: It’s everywhere and nowhere.
Ken: I’m sorry I’m having a really difficult time understanding this.
Sonia: It’s like sky gazing, it’s like the sky. I can only use it in metaphors and—
Ken: Buddha…sky, you got to help me here.
Sonia: It’s what’s not overlaid with anything.
Ken: “It’s what’s not overlaid with anything.”
Sonia: It’s when there’s no reactions, no compensations, no…it’s just what is.
Ken: Read the first line of the refuge.
Sonia: There’s nothing outside or inside to free me. It’s my experience.
Ken: Make sense now?
Sonia: Makes sense now.
Ken: Okay. So what’s the dharma? [Laughs, Sonia joins him]
Sonia: It’s that quality that knows.
Ken: So read the—
Sonia: No separation makes sense.
Ken: Okay you’re…okay. Two out of three; let’s go for a third—what’s sangha?
Sonia: Nothing to grasp or oppose—I’m working through that one [laughter]. The way I feel nothing to grasp or oppose is when there’s nothing to fight.
Sonia: …and you release that, and you’re a bit more aware of something or you relate to things differently.
Ken: You’re right. Exactly.
Ken: And sangha is about relationship, relating to things without grasping or opposing.
Sonia: But that’s the quality of compassion, too, right?
Ken: Yes very definitely, yeah. In Wake Up To Your Life, page 46, those who want page reference: mind is originally empty, clear, unrestricted experience. It says unimpeded here because I didn’t have the word unrestricted when I wrote this. To take refuge in Buddha is to rest in the emptiness of original mind, free from any reference or defining characteristic. Okay? That’s the emptiness aspect.
Sonia: The emptiness.
Ken: To take refuge in Dharma is to experience the clarity of original mind, the natural awareness that knows what experience is, how it arises. Experience and awareness. To take refuge in Sangha is to be one with the unrestricted arising and subsiding of experience, free from attraction, aversion and indifference. Make sense now?
Sonia: Makes a lot of sense.
Ken: Good. Always works better if you work for it you know. [Laughter] Okay.
Anybody else? Nobody’s going to ask any questions now. Too much work.
Student: Just a technical question: is it possible to do star gazing inside looking out a window?
Ken: Yes probably if it’s a nice clear—
Student: You don’t have to be in direct light, or…
Student: …connection with light.
Ken: Well you can try it, yeah. Well I mean it’s so much better when there’s just like all those stars. But you try it and see. Yeah, okay. Let’s see we’re 8:15.
Ken: Oh. Please.
Christy: Just a simple clarification question. In the Vajra Song Recognizing Mind as Guru INSERT…
Christy: …on page 25.
Here’s how I know it is fulfilling.
Emptiness is just there: I don’t need to hunt for the dimension of truth.
Whatever appears just arises: I don’t need to block the dimension of form.
Mind itself is free as it is: I don’t need to control the three dimensions of being.
I got confused there. I understand truth is one dimension, form is another dimension. But I wasn’t sure what you meant by the third dimension.
Ken: [Chuckles] The technical terms here are dharmakaya, nirmanakaya, and sambhogakaya—the trikaya. They’re translated in various ways—very difficult terms to translate. There are various theories as to the origin of the three forms or the three dimensions but my favorite one is, it starts with a line, I know it’s in the—oh it’s in the Diamond Sutra; I also think it’s in the Lankavatara Sutra, but I think it’s actually in some of the Pali sutras, too.
Buddha must have had a very difficult time ’cause the Indians are irritatingly literal at the same time as being extraordinarily good philosophers. And so among the many things they would attach to was the physical presence of the Buddha. And this reduced Buddha to saying at one point, He who sees my form does not see me. Which of course threw his students into massive confusion and like, “But okay….” And so they said, “Okay, if the physical form of the Buddha is not the Buddha then there must be a true form of the Buddha.” And that was termed the dharmakaya, which is the true form.
And the physical form was called rupakaya, which means the form form literally or physical form. When people really started going into their experience they realized that there was a third way that the Buddha…or there is a third experience—that is, when you’re in the presence of Buddha things just felt extraordinarily open; that was the true form or dharmakaya. And then you were in the physical presence you could actually see this person walking and talking, and eating, and so forth.
But then there was an emotional/energetic experience where you know you just like, “Oh!” and this became termed the sambhogakaya or enrichment form—again very difficult term to translate. So this matured into a whole way of describing how awakening manifests in experience known as the three kayas: the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya. And when Vajrayana evolved I mean it just provided a wonderful vehicle for discussing all kinds of things. It became a paradigm, which was a fantastic shortcut to pointing to all kinds of aspects of experience with just these very, very few words. And of course it developed into massive, massive philosophies on the nature of each of these forms, expressions of awakening, and their interrelationships, and so forth. And just goes on and on and on, both in the Indian and the Tibetan traditions.
But I mean whenever I asked Kalu Rinpoche about this—I also had the same kind of conversation with Nyishul Khenpo and other teachers—when you read the sutras you think these are these fantastic things which only the most astute and highly realized people can possibly even get glimpses of. That’s all part of the mythologization of awakened experience but they’re really very simple. And Kongtrul in Seven Points of Mind Training basically does the same kind of explanation.
So you take any experience. And you can take an emotional experience, you can take an experience of a flower, or you know a sunset, or the view over the prairies. Sound—it doesn’t matter. Take any experience. It can be a sensory experience or emotional experience.
Now, what’s important here is to focus on the experience not the object of the experience. Okay? This is in keeping with the fact that everything we’re talking about is from an experiential point of view not from a does it exist/does it not exist point of view. So take any experience, and you know, Larry, you can take anger [laughter]. And it can be sensory experience or emotional, and let it become very vivid for you so it’s a vivid experience. You can look at this light for instance—that’s fine. So it’s the experience of seeing light or seeing the red cushions. Okay, that vividness of experience is the form aspect of experience. Okay?
Now, come back to the experience and ask yourself, “What is this experience?” I mean you’ve been with me I think when I’ve done this before Christy, but just in case you haven’t I’ll put you through it. What do you see?
Christy: For the purpose of the podcast I will say [Ken laughs]…for the purpose of the podcast he’s holding up a white napkin [laughter].
Ken: Okay, now I have a very simple question for you: Where is the experience of seeing?
Ken: How can you say that? You’re seeing this white napkin?! It can’t be nowhere otherwise you couldn’t see it. Shall I make it easier for you? Okay, is it inside you or outside you?
Ken: Neither. Then where is it? No fair throwing microphones [laughter]. Okay, what are you experiencing right now? When you look at your experience and you say, “Where is it?” what do you experience right there?
Ken: Okay. True form—that’s dharmakaya. Okay, that’s dharmakaya.
Ken: Okay. It’s that empty quality of experience. That experience arises very vividly—that’s the nirmanakaya aspect—but when you look at it, as you said, “It’s nowhere,” that’s the dharmakaya aspect. Okay? Now, vivid experience of white napkin? Please say yes.
Christy: [Laughter] Okay.
Ken: Okay? Look at where the experience is which we just went through. Okay. Now both of those together. The seeing and the experience being nowhere at the same time. Experience both of those. What happens? Is there a bit of a shift?
Christy: Yes, but it’s going back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth very fast.
Ken: Okay so just open to both of them at the same time. And don’t try to understand this rationally because you can’t. Doesn’t work. Just open to both those aspects of experience at the same time. What do you experience? [Pause] That’s not bad but just put that into words.
Christy: It’s just calm.
Ken: Yeah but there’s a shift in the actual experience of the napkin right? Okay, that’s sambhogakaya.
Christy: Okay. The labeling stopped.
Ken: The labeling stops.
Christy: Actually the visual experience…the conceptualization of the experience stopped.
Ken: Yeah but the experience itself had a quotation marks “richer” quality. Yeah. That’s why it’s called the enrichment body.
Christy: Thank you.
Ken: Okay. Now just to complete the picture. You don’t have to worry about this I’ll just give this to everybody. There’s the fourth kaya in which all three of those are experienced simultaneously. It’s called the svabhavikakaya or essence thing. And just then you know you get into the five kayas and I think there’s even six kayas somewhere but we don’t have to worry about that.
The idea is that these three kayas—the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya—originally arose when people were trying to understand their experience of Buddha. But I don’t know how quickly—over a course of a couple centuries probably—generalized to this is how experience arises. And in all kinds of theories and everything where it develops around them but in terms of working with experience there’s the empty aspect of experience, the vivid aspect of experience, and what happens when we experience the vividness and the emptiness together. And when we experience the world that way that’s a good step in the direction of being awake.
So going back to your original question, Christy: emptiness is just there. I don’t need to go looking for it. I don’t need to look for the dharmakaya. You follow?
Whatever appears just arises. I don’t have to block appearance in order to move into this totality of experience. I don’t have to move into formless states or anything like that. Mind itself is free as it is…; that is, experience is just experience so I don’t need to control or manipulate or do something with all of this. I mean it’s fairly helpful quite frequently to substitute the word “experience” for “mind”—and it’s not inaccurate. One way to read the fourth line there is, “Experience is free as it is; I don’t need to control experience.”
Does this help?
Christy: Part of me keeps—I probably don’t want to go at it this way but part of me still keeps trying to think of the other Trinity that a lot of people are familiar with—God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. In terms of metaphor is there a…would those be similar metaphors?
Ken: Well, my personal opinion? The three persons of God I think potentially is very closely related to the three forms of Buddha. And the term kaya was translated by the term, the word person and gave rise to a whole bunch of problems. Now I don’t have any scholastic basis for that. I think there’s been some speculation about it but I don’t know anybody who has established any correspondences. [Aside to another student] Do you know? No. But they’re contemporaneous. We know that.
But one of the problems with translating it as person, which is a reasonably valid translation for kaya is because it’s the honorific for person in Sanskrit. You know you’ve referred to something. In Tibetan for instance the word is sku mdun (pron. kundun), so when you come into the presence of the form is how you say you meet a lama. And when they’re considered as persons that entrains a whole ’nother metaphor. The term in Sanskrit means form, it’s honorific form, and it’s translated in Tibetan by the honorific for form. It wasn’t translated into anything else. I have no idea how it was translated into Chinese.
But because it hasn’t been personalized by use of the word person then it’s available to become a metaphor and a paradigm for all aspects of experience, and that’s how it functions today and has for centuries in Tibetan Buddhism anyway. But yes we think of the trikaya, or sorry, the three persons of God, it seems out there and much of practice is to realize that your mind is the nature of the three kayas. Which is to say experience arises that way.
Helen: I’d like to go back to dharmakaya. It seemed as if when you were asking where is your experience of the napkin that it seemed very conceptual and wasn’t the whole point that it’s non-conceptual? Emptiness is non-conceptual? [Laughter]
Ken: Do you see this napkin?
Helen: Yes I do.
Ken: Where is the seeing?
Helen: Well I feel it’s in myself.
Ken: Where’s that?
Helen: In my mind.
Ken: Where’s that?
Helen: In my experience.
Ken: Where’s that?
Helen: Does it matter where it is? If it just is. It just happens. It just—
Ken: Oh, it just happens. Now you have just dropped a concept.
Helen: Oh. Well I still don’t see… [Laughter]
Michael: Not for long.
Ken: Not for long. [Much laughter]
Helen: I mean I don’t see why it’s necessary to ask where a location is if an experience is a direct experience. It just happens.
Ken: It was a way of moving you into direct experience, and miracle of miracles it actually worked for a few seconds [laughter]. But as Michael so eloquently said, “But not for long.” But everything stopped for a little bit right?
Ken: Yeah, good [laughter]. That was the point, because everything you were saying before, well you know, “Well it’s in me.” “Well where’s that?” “Well that’s in myself.” “Well where’s that?” “Well that’s in my experience.” “Well…” That’s all concept. And then you ran out, and for a few moments you experienced things without concept. That’s your practice.
Ken: Very good.
Okay, You guys had enough? Let’s take a break here and we’ll come back for meditation—few minutes.