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.
Obstacles in the Body Download
Answering questions on thoughts and “subconscious gossip”; mantras; taking and sending; obstacles in the body from experiences we were unable or unwilling to fully experience; Dzogchen and Mahamudra; dakinis; groundlessness.
Saturday, August 7th, A Trackless Path II, evening session.
What I’d like to do actually is to continue on with the questions. So where did we get to? I think you were the last one, were you, Nick?
Nick: Okay, so from The Wisdom Experience of Ever-Present Good, on page 29, the top verse there.
Ken: Well. I don’t guarantee anything here. The very first verse?
Some use their ability to know movement as mind, to mull over the traces as thoughts and feelings ebb and flow. People who track arising and fading in stable meditation just spin in confusion even if they practice for a hundred years.
Yeah, it seems clear to me. [Laughs]
Nick: Okay, what does that mean, to track arising and fading in stable meditation?
Ken: Okay. So you’ve developed the ability to let the mind rest, let’s say. Without distraction, without too much contrivance. You aren’t trying to control your experience. So you’re just sitting there. And something happens. Pop, there’s a thought and you go, “Oh, that was interesting. There was a thought. Ah, I’ve let it go. Okay, yeah, that’s all right.” That’s called tracking. And so, “Oh, there was a thought. Now it’s gone. There was a thought. Now it’s gone. Oh, there’s a thought, now it’s gone.” That’s tracking. You know, tracking arising and fading in stable meditation. You’re there, but you’re actually commenting and noting it. Which means that even though the quality of your attention is pretty good, it’s stable, by constantly doing that, you are staying in the conceptual mind. And in particular you’re staying in the observer mind. You follow? So you never actually drop into non-conceptual awareness. And that’s why he says, “People who track,” so you get the feeling of mulling over the traces as thoughts and feelings ebb and flow. There you are, you’re sitting, “Oh, anger, wow! Hm. Oh well, that wasn’t so bad. I was able to sit through that. That’s kind of nice.” You’re mulling over your experience. You follow?
How many of you have this little commentary that goes on in your meditation? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. You know, Trungpa had a great word for it—sub-conscious gossip.
Nick: It’s maddening because it seems like it’s so pervasive.
Ken: Well yeah, exactly.
Nick: Shut it off.
Ken: Well, the way I’ve often described this, this is more in the context of beginning meditation: when you first start meditation, thoughts are like elephants at a picnic. You know there you are having a nice picnic, and an elephant herd comes in. Not too much left of the picnic after that. [Laughter] So you practice for a while longer, then thoughts are like dogs at a picnic. You know and you have to fight them for the food and you get around, but you actually stayed with the picnic, more or less. And then when your meditation gets more stable, it’s like ants at a picnic. They’re everywhere, but you know there’s nothing you can do about them.
Now, you can’t block that stuff. A lot of people try. It’s like an undercurrent of chatter. As the quality of your awareness increases, you come to recognize it more and more frequently. Whenever you recognize it, place the attention. You can do that in a lot of different ways. One of them is to just hold your breath for a second. Another is to breathe out and let your attention really ride with the breath as it goes out. And at the end of the breath there won’t be any of that little chatter. Another way is to come into your body. Usually stops that. What you’re doing here is you’re cutting the continuity. Any of those techniques, and there are many, many others. I’ll say a word about mantra in a minute.
It will stop, and then it will start again, and then will come a moment of recognition, and you cut it again. So you just keep cutting it. The trick here is to cut it dispassionately, because once you get upset with it, you’re screwed. [Laughter] So it requires a great deal of patience. This is what it means to practice meditation. You just got it, okay. The thing about practice is you’re allowed to fail. It’s not performance. You know, you’re expecting to fail. So it doesn’t matter, you just cut, it starts up again. You do this over and over again, keep dropping into that really clear non-conceptual mind and gradually one forms a relationship, and now a very different quality of attention begins to develop. First it’s not so stable, but its stability comes. Realistically, when we’re in the usual madness of our lives, the system is sufficiently churned up just by the ordinary demands of the day that there tends to be an undercurrent of that thought all the time, and so don’t be upset if it’s there. Just do the practice.
Now, there is an important connection with mantra here and a lot of people don’t understand. I remember Dezhung Rinpoche was so inspired by Kalu Rinpoche’s teaching of Chenrezig, because Dezhung Rinpoche had been in the West for years, at the University of Seattle, and nobody had ever come to study with him. There were very few people, and then Kalu Rinpoche came and all these people were suddenly doing Chenrezig meditation. So this inspired him to do a hundred million manis before he died, which is quite a lot. And he was, you know, mid to late sixties at this point. So whenever we visited him, he was, om mani padme hung, om mani padme hung, om mani padme hung (pron. om mani peme hung), just all the time. The purpose of repeating a mantra all the time like this—and the same thing applies to the Jesus prayer in the Orthodox Christian tradition—you say it over and over again so that it becomes something that’s just going on in you all the time. And what happens when you say it that much all the time, waking, sleeping, all the time, it replaces that sub-conscious gossip and you have a still mind. That’s one of the ways mantra works. But you’ve got to take it very seriously and just really, really do it. It doesn’t matter what the mantra is, though usually it’s the shorter ones are better because with the other ones, there’s too much involved in just remembering them. Okay, does that help?
Nick: Yeah. Very much. Thank you.
Ken: Okay. Are you next?
Charles: Guess so.
Charles: A couple of years ago, I listened to your Mahayana Mind Training podcasts, and I thought, “This is great,” and I started doing taking and sending. Then I got sick, so I did more taking and sending, and I got sicker. I had to have surgery, I had complications from surgery. So I stopped doing taking and sending and eventually I got better. [Laughter] Now—
Ken: I have a slight issue with your notion of causality here. [Laughter]
Charles: Well, actually that’s what my question is about. In that podcast you say taking and sending can’t hurt you. That’s magical thinking, okay? [Laughter] But now, when you present mahamudra, right—
Ken: Mahamudra can’t hurt you either. [Laughs]
Charles: That’s fine. You make this distinction between the world of shared experience and the world of actual experience. So the world of shared experience is the way most people relate to their lives. In the world of actual experience, there’s no inside and outside, there’s nothing grounding experience, there’s no other people, like a dream. Now, if I’m in a dream and I think about an elephant, very likely a dream elephant is going to appear. So if that’s the way things are, it seems like magical thinking would be a totally reasonable way to approach my life. Another way [Peals of laughter]…
Ken: You have some fans now. [Laughter]
Charles: And let me give you another way to get to the same point. [Laughter]
Ken: You’re sounding awfully like some other Buddhist scholars I know right now. They present me with six arguments and then say, “All the same point,” two of which contradict each other. And then say, “What do you think?” [Laughter] Keep going.
Charles: Okay so, I’m about to finish.
Ken: Oh but don’t announce it. You’ve got to work up to a nice climax. [Laughter]
Charles: Right. If you don’t even know that I have feelings, because I could be just an appearance in your dream, how can you possibly know that taking and sending won’t hurt me? [Peals of laughter]
Student: I so want to hear the answer.
Ken: So have you seen Airbender 3? Oh, it’s a pity, that’s me. It’s a kid’s movie, magical stuff. [Laughter] Where shall I start, Charles? Everything is a dream, right? That’s what you said.
Charles: That’s what you said. [Laughter]
Ken: But you seem to be accepting this thesis. I mean, your argument about what happened to you with taking and sending sounded like you have adopted that point of view.
Charles: Actually, I see two ways to go. And I’m not personally sure which way.
Ken: Okay, go for it.
Charles: One way is you go for this idealist understanding of emptiness where everything literally is a dream. And then I think it’s hard to avoid going to something like a traditional Tibetan world picture, where spirits and yidams appear to people. And there’s divination and magic all over the place and, yeah, that’s one way. Another way is, come up with a different interpretation of emptiness like say, Gelugpa Madhyamaka, that doesn’t have this kind of consequence.
Ken: What do you mean the Gelugpa Madhyamaka Prasangika doesn’t have this kind of consequence?
Charles: So far as I can tell, and it’s kind of a hard view to understand, on that view, the object, the physical object, exists in relation to the thought that knows it. The thought exists in relation to the physical object that knows it. They’re mutually interdependent. Whereas if the world is a dream, there’s nothing standing behind experience. There’s no ground. That seems to me to be a very different picture. In the picture where the world is a dream, literally, the mind event exists, but it’s empty. The physical object is completely non-existent. It’s just not there. And the way of understanding emptiness that I find in Tsongkhapa, they’re both there and they’re mutually interdependent, so neither of them is real. That’s not the same, so far as I can tell.
Ken: Hm. So I have to pose a question here. Do you want me to answer your question from where I was at the time those recordings were made, or do you want me to answer the question from where I am now? [Laughs]
Charles: From where you are now, please.
Ken: Oh, okay. You are trying to determine the ontological status of experience. What did Nagarjuna have to say about that? [Ken commenting aside] I can ask him that question because I know he knows.
Charles: Everybody who reads Nagarjuna has a different take on that.
Ken: What’s your take? What did Nagarjuna say about trying to determine the ontological status of experience?
Charles: You think Nagarjuna said something directly about that question [laughter] because you think chos [pron. chö] should be translated as “experience.” So far as I can tell, if you translate chos as experience, you go right to the idealist view, so I’m not prepared to concede that that translation is correct.
Ken: How would you like to translate dharma?
Charles: Well, I still kind of like “phenomenon,” [laughter] actually. But let’s just translate it as “what arises.”
Ken: Oh, I’m happy with that. Okay. So, what did Nagarjuna have to say about trying to determine the ontological status of what arises?
Charles: What the text says is, in effect, if you say it exists, that’s a mistake. If you say it doesn’t exist, that’s a mistake. If you say both, that’s a mistake. If you say neither, that’s a mistake.
Ken: Yes. So, what do you conclude from this?
Charles: How about this? That nothing stands on its own. That everything exists—
Ken: No, that’s not the question. The question is, from Nagarjuna’s point of view, what possibilities are there for determining the ontological status of experience? You said that if you say it exists, that’s a mistake. If you say it doesn’t exist, that’s a mistake. If you say it exists and it doesn’t exist, that’s a mistake, and if you say it neither exists nor doesn’t exist, that’s a mistake. That’s classic four gates. So, what do you conclude from this?
Charles: Suppose we conclude that it’s impossible. We can’t determine the ontological status of what arises.
Ken: Exactly. But that’s exactly what you were trying to do.
Charles: When you say that this is a dream…
Charles: …aren’t you making a statement about the ontological status of what arises?
Ken: No. [Laughter]
Charles: Help me understand why not.
Ken: The reason I’m going into this in this detail is because it’s very, very important. Our way of thinking, largely in the West—though I’m not as conversant in French, German, and Italian, and other languages as I am in English—but our language and our way of thinking is largely ontologically based. Everything in Buddhism is experientially or epistemologically based. So, “everything is a dream” is an instruction. It’s not a statement about how things are. It’s an instruction. And it’s instruction to say, Experience everything as a dream. In my own understanding I’ve come to really appreciate Nagarjuna saying to just forget about trying to determine the status of what you experience. It’s impossible—you always end up in a rat’s nest.
What you can do is train yourself to experience things differently. And that is exactly what one’s doing, in as far as I can tell, in all Buddhist practice, whether Theravadan, Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana; whether it’s particular techniques like taking and sending, or the shamatha/vipashyana, mahamudra sequence, or Vajrayana with the yidam practices and the energy transformation techniques and the six yogas, and so forth. Not one bit of it is about knowing what is true, even though that kind of vocabulary crops up all the time. It’s about experiencing things differently. Experiencing things in a way, as I said the first evening, so that we don’t struggle with experience. And it becomes quite extraordinary.
So, we go back to your experience with taking and sending. When one is ill, a way to experience that is to approach it in the instructions of Mahayana mind training. Which is to say, Here’s the suffering that is arising; I’m ill, may all the illness and unhappiness and pain and misery of all beings come into me and may my happiness, health and understanding go to all beings. What actually happens to you there, that is, the progression of the illness, that’s not affected by the practice, it’s affected by a lot of other factors. But the way that you experience the illness changes very significantly because you no longer fight it. And so even though one is quite ill, one is clear and at peace. Now, clearly you had quite a significant medical condition and it kept unfolding and required greater and greater levels of intervention. But to ascribe that to this way of training, to your experience, is a classical example of magical thinking.
We often, I think, approach practice with the idea that, “If I know the truth, then I will be at peace.” It was quite a startling realization for me to recognize that that was completely wrong. Wrong on many counts. The most important one being, there is no truth. Which is said in Buddhism time and time again in various more elaborate ways. So this business about knowing the truth is a complete pipe dream. And I began to appreciate it. This particular formulation doesn’t come from me, but it comes from a previously rather obscure professor of economics at the London School of Economics—obscure until he wrote a certain book that got him into all kinds of hot water in England. But it’s a very good book.
Religions are not claims to truth, but ways of learning to live with what we cannot know. Okay, and we don’t know how long we’re going to live. We don’t know when we’re going to die. We don’t know how our life is going to unfold five years from now or even tomorrow. How do we live with that? There is no way of knowing, because stuff happens. We think we can have everything nicely ordered and in place and something happens and everything’s turned upside down. Well, what happens in Buddhist practice is that we train ourselves to open to whatever arises. That’s what we’re training ourselves to do. So we experience the world in a very, very different way. We don’t experience the world in terms of expectations and goals and achievements and things like that. It is a radically different way of experiencing things and it gives us the ability to meet whatever arises with a certain degree of equanimity, say, and warmth, joy and understanding, as in compassion. You’re very familiar with these. So I think it’s very, very important for us at this point to understand this is about experiencing things differently.
Now, there are experiences which arise. There you sit and the mind becomes still. “Mind” means the way we experience things—so let’s get rid of the word “mind” for a few moments. The way that we experience things becomes very still and open, and in that stillness and openness there’s no experience of something other. Does this mean that there is no I and no other? No, it is a way of experiencing. But that way of experiencing makes such a difference and is so profound and so impactful that people label it as “the truth,” when actually it’s just another way of experiencing. Not only do they label it as the truth, they celebrate it. And one of the most elaborate celebrations of it is the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is like a thousand pages, celebrating impermanence as change and the joy of change, and suffering as opening into the intensity or bliss of experience, and emptiness as the interdependence of everything, so that we’re all connected. Just thousands of pages of celebration.
Student: What sutra? Ava-tamsa?
Ken: Avatamsaka. It’s been translated into English a couple of times, I think, Flower Garland or the Flower Wreath Sutra. But there are many, many others. The Prajnaparamita, The Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines is a celebration of this. “You can’t say anything about anything!” [Laughter] And it just goes on for a hundred thousand things because they’re just blown away by this!
And then the human mind, somebody, says, “This is how things are.” Somebody else says, “That’s the truth.” And now the fixation comes and that screws everything up, as we know, time and time again. And so you get Saraha coming along and saying, “Oh, those that believe in reality are stupid, like cows, but those who believe in unreality, they’re even stupider.” [Laughter] And he’s absolutely right, because they’ve moved from this way of experiencing things to saying, “This is how things are.”
I think Buddhism is extraordinary and wonderful in that somehow, through the ages, it’s done several things and it’s done them extremely well. One is it has maintained the vitality and the validity of experience over the written word in a way that very few other religions have. So, the experience of contemporary masters has always been regarded as on par with the sutras. And in very, very few other religions is that the case. Secondly, it has preserved the vitality of actual practice, in all of the major traditions. Every now and then there’s a little hiccup, and so things get bogged down. In China you had this new school which calls itself the Meditation School, which we now know as the Zen school. But Zen is the Japanese version of the Chinese word chan, which is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. So Buddhism had so bogged down that in China you had this school which called itself, the “Meditation School.” That’s how absent meditation was from Buddhism at that point. And we had similar things in Tibet and elsewhere. The Thai Forest tradition represents a similar movement in the Theravadan, and so forth. It happens. But it’s maintained that vitality of actual practice as opposed to scriptural authority, philosophical categorization and things like that.
The other thing that Buddhism has done extraordinarily well is move from culture to culture, and brilliantly. In transition and transition. It goes to China and becomes one thing. It goes to Japan it becomes something quite different. Goes to Sri Lanka and Thailand, and quite different and then goes to Mongolia and the regions around the Caucasus and the old Russian Buddhist monasteries, etc. And now it’s coming to the West, becoming something totally different. But it does that. And through all this it maintains this kind of vitality. But if we start latching onto it in terms of truth and “this is how things are,” then we just get into a mess, and actually create conflict and suffering in that. It’s all about first learning the possibility of experiencing what arises without struggling with it. And having learned that possibility, then actually cultivating it in one’s own experience, and if one can cultivate it to the point that it’s stable in one’s experience, that is the end of suffering. Is that easy? No it’s not particularly easy. But the end of suffering is not a state; it is a way of experiencing what arises.
So were you setting me up here? [Laughs] You don’t have to answer. Pass the microphone. [Laughs]
Student: He took my question. [Laughter]
Ken: That’s between the two of you. [Laughter] But look at that, you got an answer, no?
Student: Although if he does sending and taking as good as it seems, I hope he does it right now. I was so angry.
Student: I wanted to ask about how obstacles get stuck in the body, which is where I am in my own practice and…
Student: …I think where I’ve always been in that, I think that I’m doing something about my mind or with my meditation, but I keep finding that the obstacles to clarity and freedom are actually held in the body, and I find them there. And I just find them as sensations really, without any other content. I have one of those, which was a pain in my heart that ached in various ways, which I sat with for almost fifteen years. And I’m feeling a different one now. So I’m wondering how is it that these things get stuck there? And how is it that just noticing them seems to unbind something in a way that creates a relative liberation?
Ken: Okay. The best book which provides a modern explanation for that, and I think it is quite a good book, is called The Trauma Spectrum by Robert Scaer, which is S-c-a-e-r. It’s his second or third book, but the first one, is [The Body Bears the Burden], but The Trauma Spectrum covers all of that material in a better way. He goes actually into exploring a lot of spiritual phenomena from the point of the neurology and physiology of the body. And I think it’s pretty solid. I have my own fairly rough theories about that. And there are people here who are very, very good at it. Their work is helping people form a different relationship with stuff that’s stuck in the body. Four or five people here, that’s their work. I know that they’re really good at it. I don’t want to name names because I don’t want to embarrass them, but I can tell you who they are afterwards.
So let me respond to the second part of your question because that’s the really operational one. And this may sound a little woo-woo, but it’s the best I can do. Something happens at some point in our lives in which we encountered an experience, frequently negative, but sometimes it can be a positive experience, which we had insufficient capacity to actually experience. So there’s an undischarged emotional energy. And that often goes into the body—and don’t ask me how it goes into the body—that’s why I referred you to Scaer. It frequently goes where there is weakness in the body, where there’s already a tendency for energy to stagnate, and where that is just depends on people. Many different factors. Where there’s stagnant energy in the body—and this is borrowing from the Chinese medical tradition—stagnant energy tends to attack, so that weakness festers and prevents the natural flow of energy in the body. Over time, anything which resonates with that undischarged emotional energy triggers mechanisms to protect that experience from coming into awareness, because it wasn’t able to come into awareness originally. So there are layers and layers on top of this. One of the best versions of that is Sleeping Beauty. That’s what the story of Sleeping Beauty is about. The princess is poisoned, she goes to sleep, and these hedges arise, impenetrable brambles, which prevent anybody from entering. And the prince in those stories always symbolizes awareness or attention, and the female symbolizes the knowing. The attention has all of this stuff get in the way, and can’t get through. There are many, many stories with that theme. But Sleeping Beauty is one of them.
As we practice, one of the things that we’re doing is raising the level of energy in attention. And as the level of energy rises, what operates at lower levels of energy ceases to disturb. So we all know that when we sit down to practice, the first thing that we realize is we’re just completely distracted by thoughts. They’re all over the place. It’s because our attention has insufficient energy and is disturbed and distracted by thoughts. But as we cultivate more and more attention, or a higher level of attention, then thoughts come and go. They don’t disturb the quality of attention itself. And eventually there may be movement in the mind, but there’s no disturbance in the attention. That’s what I mean about levels.
As the level of energy in attention rises, attention penetrates deeper and deeper into the system. And so it starts penetrating those layers. And that’s where we experience a lot of confusion and pain and disturbance and a great deal of reactivity, because that’s what stored in those layers. That’s what those layers consist of. And through this process we may come—and it sounds like you’ve had this experience—where you experience that undischarged emotion. When some people experience that, it brings real memories and associations. But that’s not always the case. In my case, I very rarely get any memories, associations. But I have these rather intense emotional experiences. Like really, really intense. And then something that has been there for a very long time is no longer there. It sounds like you know what I’m talking about. It’s been nicknamed the Big Green Book, not by me, but at the end of chapter five, section ten, there’s a fairly detailed description of this whole process, if you’re interested.
But essentially, that’s what one is doing in practice. When you’re doing things like cultivating the four immeasurables, you’re raising the attention by significant levels, developing a relationship with those kinds of emotions. When you’re doing yidam practice, that’s jacking up the level of energy still higher, and the six yogas and such are all about developing very high states of energy—with the intention that you now have the sufficient level of attention to be able to experience whatever is there. When we have a lot of this stuff in our background, this is not a smooth process. The emotional ups and downs, and how painful it is, is usually left out of the traditional descriptions. It’s described as a nice, happy journey to nirvana. But I’m going to introduce something I was discussing with somebody earlier in this retreat.
One of the phrases that you find in the Vajrayana, which I find very intriguing is Wisdom resides in the body. And it’s only by experiencing this stuff in our body that we can be free. Experiencing it intellectually, or even emotionally isn’t enough. That stored emotional charge in the body has to come out. Sometimes you may find that, when you are touching that, your face will contort in certain expressions or your body will even move in certain ways; it will want to move. And that’s all part of the discharge that is taking place. I don’t know whether you’ve read The Life of Pi?
Ken: Well, at the beginning of The Life of Pi, this young man is in India and he goes around and forms a relationship with all of these religions, but then he asks this great question. You’ve got your choice of two icons and these are arguably the two most powerful icons in the world. You have Buddha sitting in meditation, utterly at peace, earth-witness mudra, touching the ground, and you have Christ hanging on the Cross. And he said, “Well, why would anybody choose Christianity?” [Laughter]
Here’s my theory: I think Christianity was seriously distorted quite early in its evolution. When you go through the process that I’m describing, you’re sitting in meditation, you may be just recognizing mind and you find yourself encountering pain that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. You know, you think an itch feels like you’re being crucified. And it’s physical pain as well as emotional pain. You have to open to the body. If you try to ride above the body, nothing ever changes. There’s always that level of stuff that isn’t touched. And you can see it in people and in teachers if they haven’t done it, because there’s something that’s missing. There isn’t a connection with the ground. Do you know what I mean?
So, you have to come into the body to experience the pain that is there. The pain that blocks you from knowing and experiencing what you actually are. Do you follow? And so from this point of view, what the image of Christ on the Cross represents is the Spirit coming into the body to experience the pain that is there in order to be free. And I think at some level, people feel that that’s what’s going on and that’s why they connect with that image. Because it is a very, very powerful image and people do connect with it, but often not in a way that they understand very clearly. So does this respond to your question?
Student: And you suggest working with that through the body as well from the top or from awareness coming into the body. But working with the body to have it be felt through the body.
Ken: Yeah, when you take mahamudra, for instance. The way it is presented in the Tibetan tradition, very little mention is made of the body. And because of that, very, very few people really connect with the practice. As their attention develops, when it starts to hit or penetrate that undischarged emotional material, one of two things happens. They go down, get very, very depressed. But it’s away of avoiding this material, okay? They may get sick and all kinds of things. Nobody knows what to do, and everybody thinks, “Well, that’s your bad karma and that’s that,” basically. I’ve been on the receiving end of it—I know it.
The other thing that happens is that they go up into quite high states of clarity and emptiness, or non-thought or bliss. But it’s all about avoiding that undischarged emotional material. And the consequence is that those high states are relatively unstable. Unfortunately, in most dharma center contexts, people get rewarded for that and this material is never penetrated. And it’s for this reason that, as you’ve heard me say many times—just in this first couple of days of retreat—always go to body. Whatever your practice, whether you’re doing bare attention, whether you’re doing taking and sending, whether you’re doing yidam practice, whether you’re doing the six yogas or whatever, always go to the body. Because that’s where you’re going to find out what’s happening. People say, “How do you do yidam practice in the body?” Well, it’s very simple. There you are, imagine you’re Chenrezi. What does your body say about you being the embodiment of Awakened Compassion? Well, most of the time the body says, “Let me out of here.” And now you’re dealing with how it actually feels to you. But very, very few people do yidam practice that way.
Student: That’s actually how it happened to me, on a long yidam retreat, and I couldn’t not feel it, so then I got stuck, got depressed. It’s just exactly what you said…
Student: …the way that it happened.
Ken: Yeah, okay.
Student: Thank you.
Ken: Okay. You’re very welcome.
Student: So as you know, I’m more familiar with the dzogchen way of saying things and I’m learning…
Ken: Yeah try it out I’ll see [student laughing] if I can keep up.
Student: No, no, no. I’m learning more of the mahamudra ways of describing things. And so that idea of watching mind move isn’t something I’ve heard a lot about in the past and it seems like something that’s very helpful. And it seems like I’ve heard the statement practicing with mind moving and with mind stillness. So I was wondering if you could say something about that.
Ken: Oh, that’s right out of dzogchen.
Student: Yeah, they just don’t say it exactly like that.
Ken: Oh, it’s pretty close. So, you really want this?
Student: Well…yeah! So, here’s the thing so [laughter]. So a thought arises and you recognize this is mind moving, and what it is that’s aware that mind has moved that doesn’t move right?
Ken: Charles you’ve infected her. [Laughter] For shame. [Laughter] Try again. You’ve made a philosophy out of it.
Student: No! But one of the prayers that I really work with a lot is:
[The Prayer of Calling the Lama from Afar. His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche]
The primordial ground of one’s own awareness is unchanging and unmoving.
Whatever arises, as the expression of the dharmakaya, is neither good nor bad.
Etc. So I’m trying to tell if we’re saying the same thing there.
Ken: Okay, this is wonderful and your question takes us to what I think a very, very important point. Say those two lines again.
The primordial ground of one’s own awareness is unchanging and unmoving.
Whatever arises, as the expression of dharmakaya, is neither good nor bad.
Ken: Okay. Is that a statement of fact?
Student: It’s a statement of experience.
Ken: And approach it as a way of experiencing things.
Ken: Now, as such, it is a result. Can you practice a result?
Ken: Okay, so you don’t even try to practice that because you can’t. And yet you have no idea how many people try to do that.
Ken: And really makes a mess. What is the corresponding method for that result?
Student: Say that again.
Ken: What is the corresponding method for that result? What is the method of practice which will give rise to that way of experiencing things?
Student: Watching mind move?
Ken: Was that a question? [Laughter] I don’t mind asking the question here.
Student: So that’s the…?
Ken: You’re allowed to say, “I don’t know.”
Student: No, it seems like that is what it is.
Ken: It’s watching the mind move?
Ken: Oh dear.
Ken: Do you want to continue or are you retracting? I’m being very kind here.
Student: Well, the part: “The primordial ground of one’s own awareness.”
Ken: No, no, we’re past that.
Ken: We’re into watching the mind move. Yes. Do you want to stay with that or do you want to retract?
Student: Bingo! I’ll stay with it. [Laughter]
Ken: What watches the mind move?
Student: So that would be that primordial ground right?
Ken: [Sighs] You see what I mean, Charles.
Student: What does the mind move?
Ken: Totally infected. Let’s try this again.
Student: It’s non-conceptual mind. No?
Ken: Worse, worse, worse.
Student: No, no it’s the observing mind that watches the mind move. [Laughter] Teach me!
Student: Teach me!
Ken: Let’s try it again. What watches the mind move?
Ken: That’s a tiny little bit better. What was happening before you said awareness?
Student: Looking, just looking.
Ken: Go on—describe that. You were looking. What did…
Student: Looking, not seeing anything in particular.
Ken: Yeah. That’s the method.
Ken: That’s the method. It’s not, “Watching the mind that moves.” That’s not the method. When I asked you what watches the mind move, everything stopped.
Ken: That’s the method.
Ken: Okay? Now, you work with that. See, what happened the first time I asked the question is you just skipped over that and went into all these nice concepts which have nothing to do with anything. They’re just garbage. Sorry. And so the second time, you hung out there for a little bit but you couldn’t stay there. What happened?
Student: I went into trying to figure it out.
Ken: Yeah, okay. But this is important. Before you started figuring out what happened. There are four things that happened here.
Student: Okay, I really am.
Ken: Okay. First thing is we look, because the effect of the question is to make us look, right? And then, like Alice, we see nothing. That’s the first thing that happens. Well, the first is we look and the second thing is we see nothing. The next thing that happens is we panic. As Nietzsche said, “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you.” And when you look at nothing it is not too far along there that you begin to get the sense that you are nothing, and you panic. That’s not allowed. That’s not written in the contract! So, you panic, and to get out of that panic you go to the conceptual mind and come up with all these brilliant philosophies and explanations which aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. You follow?
Ken: So, what did the practice consist of? Is looking. Now, initially our attention isn’t very stable, so that’s why we do all kinds of other practices in order to develop a sufficiently stable attention and to clear out the big emotional blocks and things like that, so that we have some possibility of actually resting in that looking. And as we’re able to rest in the looking, we find that we are able to look in the resting. This is not about watching the mind. I mean, that’s exactly what Nick was asking about, actually. Some use their ability to know movement as mind (that’s watching the mind) to mull over the traces as thoughts and feelings ebb and flow. People who track arising and fading in stable meditation just spin in confusion, even if they practice for a hundred years. This is Jigme Lingpa by the way.
Okay. This help?
Student: Very helpful, thank you.
Student: The method really isn’t that different then?
Student: I mean that’s dzogchen instruction right—
Student: That’s dzogchen instruction right there, is to watch the thinking. I thought—
Ken: I did a retreat with Nyishul Khenpo in Santa Fe many, many years ago, and a couple of interviews with him. And in one of them—I mentioned this earlier in the retreat, but I’ll mention again—he said, “Ken, Mahamudra and Dzogchen are two names for the same person. Did you understand?” “Yes, Rinpoche.” “Mahamudra and Dzogchen are two names for the same person. Did you understand what I said?” “Yes I did, Rinpoche.” “Mahamudra and Dzogchen are two names for the same person. Do you understand what I’m saying?” He went on for about ten minutes like this, and your turn. [Laughter]
Student: I’m looking for an answer that will be equally enlightening.
Ken: No pressure, I see. Which arm do you want behind my back? [Laughter]
Student: Two or three weeks ago, I was dealing with some intense emotional reactions and looking for some way to approach them. I, of course, got out the Big Green Book. And I thought that the meditation on dakinis would be helpful, so I did use that. What I found was that I had a very strong identification with the dakinis, as if they were a part of myself rather than something outside of me, and so I have several parts to this question. One is whether that’s okay, because I know that it’s not how the meditation is written.
Ken: Let’s answer that question right now. We can take these in parts, is that okay?
Student: Do you need more water?
Ken: No I’m okay thank you. [Laughter] Oh yes. Page 214.
Student: Did I get it wrong?
Crystal dakini guards against interruption[s].
Jewel dakini increases wealth.
Lotus dakini gathers energy.
Action dakini gets everything done.
When wanting and grasping hold sway
The dakini has you in her power.
Wanting nothing from outside, taking things as they come,
Know the dakini to be your own mind.
The essence of mind is knowing.
Know that the crystal is the non-thought of mind itself
And the crystal dakini guards against interruptions.
Know that the source of wealth is contentment
And the jewel dakini fulfills all wants and needs.
Know that the lotus is the non-thought of freedom from attachment
And the lotus dakini gathers energy.
Know that action has no origination or sensation
And the action dakini gets everything done.
Those who do not understand these points
Can practice for eons and know nothing.
So, the heart of the matter is
To know that the dakini is your own mind.
This, sung by a dakini, Lion-headed Dakini in fact, to Khyungpo Naljor back in the eleventh century, so I think you’re in good company.
Student: So, I remember reading that but those instructions weren’t actually in the meditation so.
Okay. So the next question. [Laughter] In working with this, the issue of gender came up for me. Whether it would be useful to have a daka instead of a dakini. And I tried that out because the energy seems really different if you’re identifying with something versus if it’s something outside of yourself. And that didn’t work for me at all. And so this is kind of idle curiosity at this point.
Ken: Well, it’s a bit more than idle curiosity—it’s an important point.
Student: I wondered, as you were saying a little bit earlier, in fairy tales the male figure is the attention and the female figure is often, I think you said, knowing or wisdom, and I wondered if there’s something kind of essential there that comes out in how the meditations are structured, and in fairy tales and everything. And one of my motivations isn’t only my own experience, but in talking about these kinds of meditations with other women, sometimes it comes up whether you should be changing gender or not.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. [Pause] There are meditations in which one is working with the transformation of sexual energy where gender considerations do come up, but in terms of the dakas and dakinis, and in terms of yidams, gender isn’t the issue. There’s a symbolism here which seems to run quite deep in the human condition with the woman or the female, feminine, whatever, representing knowing, or wisdom and emptiness. And the masculine representing form, attention, structure, and so forth.
I remember I was at a Buddhist teacher’s conference in the mid 90s and a woman got up to talk about this and went on a rage against the sexism in Tibetan Buddhism, and she was just completely off the mark. Because, for instance, Kalu Rinpoche’s successor, Bokar Rinpoche, had an intimate relationship—very, very intimate relationship—with Green Tara. And Kalu Rinpoche’s own teacher was—after he’d done the three-year retreat—he was the tailor at the monastery. And after a couple years of sewing banners and things like that he said, “This is just a waste of time.” Now, Tibetan monasteries weren’t the easiest places to practice, because there’s a lot of work to be done. So he locked himself in one of the toilets, the latrines. And you really don’t want to know what the latrine of a Tibetan monastery was like. And he prayed to Tara, Green Tara actually, and he stayed there for seven years. After a while, they stuck food under the door for him. But that was his practice. Dezhung Rinpoche, as I mentioned earlier, formed this very, very close relationship with Chenrezi, and if you look through the teachers over the generations, some of them it’s Vajrayogini, some of them it’s Chakrasamvara. Female teachers meditate on male teachers, male teachers meditate on female or male. It just goes back and forth—there isn’t any gender thing. It’s much more a matter of personal connection.
So, let me say a word about the practice, because twice you’ve used the phrase “something outside of you.” You may recall the discussion I just had with Charles about the ontological status of things, right? In what sense is the dakini outside of you?
Student: Well, it seems that’s how the meditation is setup.
Student: You have somebody approach you.
Ken: In what sense is that figment of your imagination outside of you?
Student: Well, I’m with Charles on this one. [Laughter]
Ken: And where are you, Charles [laughs]? Now look.
Student: I didn’t really mean that.
Ken: Yes, I know that.
Student: Can I really answer?
Student: Can I really answer?
Student: So, I understand that it’s a figment of your imagination and it’s in your head. But….
Ken: It’s not in your head. [Laughter]
Student: It’s in my body.
Ken: That’s just as bad as saying it’s outside, [laughing]. It’s not in your head.
Student: Let me try one more time.
Student: So, it’s part of my experience that I am—no I’m just going to stop. [Laughter] Here’s the distinction I was trying to draw, though.
Student: When the meditation has the dakinis looking into your eyes and you’re looking into the dakini eyes, for me, it was like looking into myself. And the reason that she knows everything about me is because she is me, except without all the garbage. You know, the reactive stuff. And that was extraordinarily powerful for me and actually gave me a feeling of power. Meaning that I was able to act in ways that I normally wouldn’t act, for example, and that was just really profound for me. Whereas if when I started doing it, it didn’t have that impact on me. It was more like, here’s this, how I felt, I know that obviously it wasn’t, but how I felt was here’s this idea that I’m creating outside of myself and they’re going to pour all this elixir in me and I’m going to be okay. I mean, it was like it was very superficial and I know that’s not how it was supposed to work, but at the beginning that’s how it felt. And then when it felt like it was me, it was explosive. I mean, it was so amazing.
Ken: So what happened to change that?
Student: I got to my favorite emotional reaction and realized that the dakini was a part of me that I’ve identified in the past.
Ken: Just so. This goes back to some of the things I was talking with Michael about. What you’ve described is exactly how these practices work. When you started the practice, you did not have any connection with this aspect of yourself. Right?
Student: I don’t think I agree with that. I think I had a connection.
Ken: Pretty tenuous. Could you move there whenever you wanted?
Student: Well, it would be more—
Ken: You just bear with me and then you’ll see where I’m going. What these kind of practices do is dramatize a process which is taking place in us all the time. They dramatize it, we act it out in order to form a connection with it, because most of the time we don’t have a connection with it.
So, there’s the dakini—she looks at us, we look at her and we feel known in that way which is exhilarating and intimidating at the same time. We make a gesture to say that we’re interested in this transformation, she pours the elixir in, our level of attention rises, because that’s what the elixir symbolizes. We become aware of this massive reactivity going on in us, but as we become aware and we’re imbued with the energy of that elixir, we’re able to experience all of that reaction. And within the reaction, we find, let’s say, the earth dakini, a stability that doesn’t require an external reference. And that opens the possibility of balance pristine awareness, etc. You know how it works. We do this a few times, and as we form this connection and we become familiar with this, and in your case, provided a little extra juice by your favorite emotional reaction. It’s like, “Oh, this is me.” And now it’s no longer something you’re visualizing or imagining outside happening to you—you recognize, “Oh! This is something that has always been in me and I haven’t known it or I haven’t had access to it before.” And now you can continue to do the practice, but it has a very different quality to it. Is that fair?
Student: I realized while you we’re talking that although I’ve had, I think, a relationship with this part of me in the past, and she would be able to act on my behalf, if I could put it that way.
Student: In some situations that in other situations she couldn’t. And so you’re talking about being made whole.
Ken: Yeah, she becomes more available to you now, right? Yeah. Okay, very good. Is that all your questions?
Ken: [Laughter] Was that said out of fear or relief? [More laughter]
Student: I’m having a real difficult time formulating this question, because I don’t understand why it’s so important to me.
Student: So maybe I’m gonna have to go into some history. I’m—
Ken: Just go straight to the question first and then we’ll see what we have to fill in.
Student: I feel loss, frustration and need, and it seems to have to do with wanting a something. I really want a “label,” a concept, a construct—that kind of something. [Sighs] I’ve lost, as you know, the remainder of a mythic perspective on practice, and what you were talking about very directly, about what is true is not true, it’s only what’s experienced that…reformulation of what practice is about and what the goal is. There’s a something that I want still.
Student: So the mythic perspective is gone, and the mythic perspective and the modern perspective shared in me what I’ve thought of as a mystical viewpoint. You can have a mystical viewpoint in both of those, but where I am now, I’ve outgrown the mystical perspective, but I don’t know where I am. I want a thing there.
Ken: Yeah. I suggest that you might consider that you haven’t grown out of the mystical perspective, but you’ve grown into it.
Ken: And there’s no ground at all.
Student: There is no ground at all.
Student: And I keep trying to throw something there that is reductionistic, and that’s what I’m trying to avoid.
Student: That’s good light. [Laughter]
Ken: Just a second here. Here we are. This is a little bit long but I hope you’ll bear with me.
[T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Burnt Norton]
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music [hidden] in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
They were [there] as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Student: I don’t have any words. I’ve got little tears but I don’t have any words.
Ken: Yeah. So, funny thing happened in evolution. As human beings evolved, they developed abilities or they developed capacities which allowed abilities to develop which had nothing to do with survival on the Serengeti. And among these—and music was possibly another one—is this capacity we have to experience things in a very, very different way. And I want to emphasize the use of “different,” as opposed to “superior” or “higher.” I mean, the word paramita which in Tibetan is pya rol tu phyin pa [pron. parol tu chinpa], means “over there.” pha rol means “there,” phyin [pron. chin]. So it’s, “go over there.” It’s going to a different way of experiencing things; a different way of doing things. And within the paramita there isn’t really that idea, in the word itself, that it’s superior, or higher, or deeper, or any of that stuff. It’s different. And when we discover in ourselves that different way of experiencing things, and as we’ve talked about earlier, it’s extraordinarily significant people wrote these vast treatises celebrating it.
For some people, it’s what makes their life meaningful. For some people. Each of us seeks a different way of experiencing the world. Each for our own reasons. I don’t think it’s the same for any two of us. And then we find it. And then we find out how much of the conditioned person, a human being, just ain’t up to it and doesn’t want to have a thing to do with it. Even though it is tremendously valuable and appreciated and helps other parts of us, like, “I want that back,” or something. You remember in the Shangpa tradition The Four Faults of Mind?
Student: The Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind?
Ken: No, The Four Faults.
Student: The Four Faults.
So close you can’t see it.
So deep you can’t fathom it.
So fine you can’t accept it.
So simple you can’t believe it.
Student: So what?
Ken: So simple you can’t believe it. Oh, it’s all in here. You know that’s Chapter 9 [pg. 399-402]. Oh, I’ll find it for you. George will have put that in the Index, so it should be pretty easy. He left this one out.
So, this is what T. S. Eliot’s referring to, because that was first part of Four Quartets I was reading. Go, go, go said the bird because human kind cannot bear very much reality. I mean, you have some people who devote their life energy to opening to this because it is intensely meaningful to them. You have others who happen upon it one way or another through their own efforts—sometimes by accident—and it’s very, very valuable to them because it allows them to live a different way. But they don’t necessarily try to hold onto its experience all the time. And there are other people who encounter it and they just have no time for it. They don’t want to have anything to do with it.
Student: I don’t know what to say about that because it is everything.
Ken: To you. And in the bigger scheme of things none of us has any right to tell others how they should [laughing] experience the world. And this is why in spiritual practice all efforts have to be volitional.
Student: The one before that really speaks to this dilemma is that it’s too simple to believe.
Ken: It’s too simple.
Student: It’s like coming out of something that was precious and difficult and…
Ken: That’s all???
Ken: Yeah. And there are people through the centuries, you know, pointing-out instructions. They go, “That’s it?” And there are other people they go, “Oh, I had no idea.” These are just different reactions. The traditional explanation is, “It depends on your karma.” [Laughing]
People react to this in very, very different ways. But you know what it means to you—that’s all that matters. And yes, it would be nice to have some ground to walk on sometimes. It would be nice to have that old external reference to tell me there was something on my right hand side instead of just empty space and no reference point and now I’ve got to figure out what to do with this situation.
Student: The difficulty is there’s nowhere to go, but I have to go.
Ken: Yeah. But at the same time there’s freedom. So it’s not all bad [laughing].
Student: I wasn’t saying it was ever bad, Ken.
Ken: Okay, just wanted to underline the point.
Student: [Laughing] But there’s something that you touched on when you said people react differently because they have different karma. The last discussion we had about what it meant to be on a Buddhist path living a Buddhist life, you were struggling with whether you had to believe in rebirth and multi-lifetime karma.
Ken: This was a very long time ago—when was that?
Student: Like I said I…it’s been I think two years.
Student: What have you done with that? [Laughter]
Ken: I haven’t been struggling with past, future lives—that ceased to be an issue many, many years ago. But to answer your question, I gradually allowed myself to get used to it.
Student: I’m sorry.
Ken: Gradually allowed myself to get used to it.
Student: To what?
Ken: To what she’s talking about.
Student: The information?
Ken: No, the groundlessness.
Student: Oh! [Laughter]
Ken: It’s a [pause]. When it switches it switches.
Ken: And you don’t really get to go back, and most irritatingly, you still have to navigate life. You know, life doesn’t stop and say, “Okay, we’ll just give you time—break!” You know, “Timeout!” It doesn’t work that way, unfortunately, so there’s actually quite a lot of material in the literature about adjusting, and so we can talk about that sometime if you want.
Student: Thank you.
Ken: Okay. I think everybody had a chance?
Student: No, Gary, and Jeff, too. [Laughter]
Ken: Tomorrow night. It’s 20 minutes to 9 already so let’s just sit for a few minutes together. ’Til tomorrow, Gary, ’til tomorrow.