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.
Life as experience Download
Uchiyama’s “How to Cook Your Life” as a commentary on the four immeasurables; equanimity through seeing life as no more and no less than what we experience; building capacity to relate to life in ways that end suffering (without afflictive reactions); experiencing completely can be painful but not disturbing; joy.
Thursday, August 12th, A Trackless Path II, morning session. That’s three days in a row I haven’t said April.
The last couple of days, we’ve been focusing on some of the subtle technical aspects of practice, coming out of The Wisdom Experience of Ever-present Good in the Ganges Mahamudra. These are fairly detailed and quite inspiring, quite clear accounts of how to cultivate this way of experiencing life, the world, ourselves, you know, the whole mess. Or to use Zorba the Greek’s phrase—the full catastrophe. But there isn’t much talk about the full catastrophe in these texts, and in a day or two we’ll be returning to “the full catastrophe.” [Laughter]
So, the subject matter for the interviews for the next couple of days, I want to be a little bit different. Today, as usual, I will be seeing all of you. And I want you to tell me what you’ve gotten out of this, your time here. What have you learned, what you have found that you are able to do, what you have come to understand, you know, about life, the universe, whatever, yourself. I mean, we think these three things are different but they aren’t. And then tomorrow turn attention to, where do you intend to go from here. This is the subject matter for the interviews today and tomorrow.
This morning I want to return to a theme that I talked about last year and mentioned a couple of times here. It’s something that’s come up in my own practice which I’ve found very useful and does relate to “the full catastrophe.”
So I’m just going to step back a little bit and talk a little theoretically and then somewhat a little more practically.
Did anyone bring Uchiyama’s book with them? You have it?
Student: But it’s in my room.
Ken: Okay, maybe bring it this evening then, thanks.
Uchiyama is a Zen teacher who wrote a number of books, but I think actually the books are basically transcripts of talks. But they’re very good, many of them. And the one that I’m thinking of is now being published under the title How to Cook Your Life. Previously it was published under the title Instructions to the Cook, and later then it was From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, and now it’s How to Cook Your Life. I don’t know why they keep changing it.
I find it a very, very good book to read because it’s the only book that I know in which he’s really describing how to relate to life from this perspective. You know, two plus three sometime equals seven. You know, you can read that in there. The first time I read it, I couldn’t understand what he was really doing, and then the second time I realized it was a very high-level commentary on the four immeasurables actually, from a Zen perspective.
In the first one—in the sequence of equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion and joy—the basis for equanimity is a remarkably simple statement that’s very important: Everything you experience is your life. Your life is everything you experience. It’s somewhat Kantian, I suppose. No?
Student: More Hume-ian than Kantian.
Ken: Okay, Hume, thank you.
But I’m going to put this in another logical form. Other than what you experience, there is no life. [Laughter] And I put it in that form; it is saying the same thing, because maybe that brings it out more clearly for you. Life is what we experience, not more, not less.
Now, we don’t control what arises in experience; we expend tremendous effort in trying to do so.
I belong to a networking group in Los Angeles, and we’re divided up into various local groups. And the person who leads our group, he’s an attorney, but he comes up with great questions for discussion. And one of the ones that he came up with was, “How did your life evolve in a way that you didn’t expect?” Well, that wasn’t the exact wording, but it was words to that effect. And about thirty of us, they went around the room, only one person said, “Well, my life actually evolved pretty much as I expected it to.” [Laughter] That’s relatively rare.
Things happen and we don’t control them. Sometimes when I’m talking about this I say to people, “I have more control over what you think than you do.” Because depending on what I say, different thoughts are going to arise in your mind, and you have absolutely no control over that. [Laughter] I put this in the middle of Wake Up To Your Life at one point: Pound for pound the amoeba is the most vicious animal in the world. Were you expecting to be thinking about amoeba this morning? [Laughter] I mean, it’s a very trivial illustration but it’s important. Things happen.
And so the question is, how do we meet this experience we call life? And all of the quite refined and very, very sophisticated practice instruction that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of days, I mean, it’s really, really high-level stuff. If you put this in the Catholic tradition, in terms of the study of prayer, this is the very highest level of prayer in the Catholic tradition. And because it’s so readily available to us, we often don’t appreciate just how deep it is.
And then arises the question, “Okay, how do we relate to life?” Well, all of this stuff that we’ve been talking about is intended to help us build the capacity, develop the skills so that we can actually relate to this experience we call life, without struggling. And as I said, I think towards the beginning of this retreat, that’s what it means to end suffering, is to find a way to meet experience, and not struggle.
Now, a lot of people think, “Oh well, then it’s just perfect equanimity; I’m not troubled by anything”. And there’s one of the, I think, Burmese or Thai teachers that visits IMS, or used to visit IMS, I can’t remember his name, but his nickname around IMS was Dr. Zero, because there was never any reaction. There was just, you know, equanimity, just…there was never any reaction to anything.
But then I gave the example of the woman, Zen teacher in Japan, whose son died and she’s crying at the funeral when they’re burying her son. And her students asked, you know, “Why are you crying? Isn’t everything an illusion? Isn’t that what you’ve always told us?” And she said, “Until you understand that every tear I shed saves countless sentient beings, you have no understanding of Zen.” So, how many of you understand that?
Charles. Give him the mic. [Laughter] Go ahead.
Charles: I’m guessing it means that by deeply feeling the experience of grief, and not holding anything back, just being totally absorbed in the grief, this teacher is bringing it about that in the future, in the rest of her life, she’s not going to have knotty internal material that came from being unable to experience the grief.
So, on an internal reading, she’s saving the possible future beings of the suffering caused by suppressing the grief. On an external reading, by experiencing the grief now, she’s going to be clear in future to relate to students and other people.
Ken: That’s very nice. Anybody else? [Laughter]
Student: Somewhat similar. I think by touching her own pain, she’s better able to connect to the pain that she encounters with other people. But on an internal level, I think she’s touching all aspects of her experience and all sentient beings has that sense of it. She’s touching—every tear she sheds, she comes closer to touching what she hasn’t related to inside herself.
Ken: Okay. Sophie?
Sophie: Well I think it’s probably even more in the present moment because I think when you see someone suffering, you connect to that. And I think by her students seeing her actually suffer, she’s not impenetrable, that it allows them to experience their own suffering.
Ken: Okay. Michael?
Michael: It didn’t sound to me so much like it was about her or her suffering at all. But at the deepest level, the universe is suffering and joy, and it is this largest infinite space that holds us and our suffering. And as she is experiencing at that level, non-personal level, she is the support that sustains us through our grief. The thought that I had was, Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.
Ken: Okay. Gary.
Gary: The impression I had of that is there’s probably no greater connection in life than a mother and a child. And so there’s a saying that came to mind, When one is totally open, it’s like the river reaching the ocean.
Ken: I didn’t hear the last?
Gary: It’s like the river reaching the ocean.
Ken: River reaching the ocean, thank you.
Gary: So, if she’s totally open to that bond being cut, connected with the death of her son, then why wouldn’t she be connected to all loss and all suffering throughout the universe at the same time—that occasion, however the metaphor goes. So it wouldn’t really need any explanation to those students that are connected with her in that way.
And it also comes to mind the time the Buddha had a disciple who was, who understood what the flower meant. There weren’t really any words…
Gary: …any kind of expression of communication, it was just there. And so, I thought that was a great story that you mentioned about her.
It’s a good case to study. Which is what koan means, case. And one of the things it points to is that practice isn’t about becoming unfeeling robots. And we get this idea very easily. The Buddha of the East, Akshobhya, means, unshakeable. You know, the unmovable. And we used to think, [grunts], you know. But, that’s actually a very external interpretation.
So, the phrase that I have found very useful in my own work is, How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? Whether it’s something arising physically, emotionally, conceptually, memory in association, story, visions, hallucinations.
How can I experience this and be at peace at the same time? Now as happened last year, this is not an instruction: “Experience this and be at peace at the same time!” No, that’s not—[laughter] it’s an exploration of one’s relationship with what is arising for you right now, in your experience.
Now if we flip back momentarily to the Ganges Mahamudra, or The Wisdom Experience of Ever-present Good, or Recognizing Mind as the Guru, any of these three texts that we’ve looked at, that’s exactly what they’re all describing, is a way of experiencing whatever arises and being at peace at the same time. In a certain sense you can regard the peace, I don’t mean this literally, I mean this somewhat metaphorically, as emptiness. It’s the space, and I talked about space at length a few days ago.
And then what is arising in experience that’s, for our purposes, form. And we think of form and emptiness, ordinarily, we think of form and emptiness as opposites. But one of the perspectives I’ve been trying to suggest to you is that they aren’t opposites. In the way that sound is what arises in silence, but the silence doesn’t go anywhere. So, experience arises in all its vividness and the peace, the stillness, the space, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t go anywhere.
And I mean, and you can easily look at this as the two truths in different form and you know, any other number of other Buddhist themes. But when we really learn how to…when that becomes the way that we relate to experience, or that becomes the way experience arises for us, then we feel things very, very intensely because we’re feeling them completely. And, at the same time somehow—and this is really I think the miracle of this practice—we’re not disturbed. So you may be in intense pain from physical injury or the loss of someone very close to us or some catastrophe that has arisen in our lives, and that’s what our experience is now.
And I know from work that I’ve done with people, and my own experience, it’s not about enjoying difficult experiences, but when we meet difficult experiences, difficult things in our lives, and experience them completely, there is a sense of completeness. And peace isn’t quite the right word, freedom isn’t quite the right word, but I’m not quite sure, but there’s—“It’s okay.”
And as we were touching on in the discussion on compassion a few days ago, when we experience life with that kind of fullness, intense as it may be, painful, heart-wrenching, heart-breaking, there’s also, and the term I use is an exquisiteness, I think somebody else used the term joy. It’s not the sense of kind of happy, gleeful joy; it’s much, much deeper than that. And again, words are difficult here. And one can say, there’s that quality because you know you’re touching what is, and here we have another problem with words—true, real, whatever you want to call it. But, there’sÖand it comes from, there’s just no separation: it’s there and you’re there and that’s it. I’m not being very articulate this morning, but I hope I’m getting something across to you.
Ken: Please, microphone to…
Ken: Well, yeah, I mean, I’m not really concerned with finding exactly the right word, I’m trying to convey something more in feelings though.
Student: A sense of wholeness.
Ken: Yeah, don’t worry about the word, just open to it, okay? I mean, because as soon as you put it into words you actually pull it into concept. And that’s, you know, if I was better at this I’d be giving you a poem or something, so it would just speak, I like that. And, because, as we find in many of the texts, it says, “indescribable.” And it is. But in that moment of an experience, and it can literally be anything. It can be—the moment that you taste the chocolate raspberry cheesecake. [Laughter] And just for the record, I was so jealous of you guys. I can’t eat dairy. Yeah, I went, oh, oh, oh oh…
Student: Just like that Zen teacher.
And, you know, it’s one of the reasons why I loved coming here, the Mandala Center, because the space, the view and just the feel of the whole place. Being at the edge of the prairies and the mountains and so forth, it’s just open. So, you know, you just look out over the fields, the plains.
It can be seeing a bug working its way into a flower or remembering someone and how they were kind to you. And it may come up with a memory. It can be sitting with a person who has experienced a loss in their lives. Or it can be sitting with a person when you’ve experienced a loss in your life. You touch. I mean, the experience arises and that’s all there is and whatever it is, it’s okay. And there’s an exquisiteness in that, which I think is what all of the other stuff that we do is about; is increasing our ability to touch that exquisiteness in the various areas of our lives.
So, that’s the theme for today and we’re going to go through some stuff this evening. I want to talk a little bit about teaching because there’s quite a few people, there are quite a few people here who are in, find themselves in teaching, or quasi-teaching roles, so I think that would be something to touch on, it’s very much part of “the full catastrophe.”
So, enjoy your breakfast and we’ll continue.