A Trackless Path I
Teachings | Training
How do you go deeper into body, beyond words, and rest? Once there, what’s next? Recorded in Des Moines, NM, 2010.





Introduction Download

Explore “Why am I here?”; become quiet enough to listen to your own heart, the “stammering voice;” initial answers usually conceptual; go deeper into your body; go beyond words and rest there; what arises brings us in touch with natural knowing present in experience.




Section 1

Student: Recording now.

Ken: Okay. Have you got a level? Can you hear me?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay. Good. All right.

A Trackless Path August 18th, 19th, 2009 Des Moines, New Mexico or the Mandala Center, New Mexico.


So this retreat is an experiment. It came out of some ideas when we were here last summer. And the original idea was to have an extended time. We originally planned a month. And where people could come and go according to their vacation plans and individual schedules. And pursue practice for an extended period of time. Where people could just pursue whatever practice they wish. There wasn’t going to be a set practice as we’ve done in past retreats and is done in probably most retreats.

During the days I’m going to meet with everybody who is here which right now is 4 people but I think later we’ll be about 18. That right? But everybody who is here will be able to meet with me everyday to discuss their practice. And in the evenings we have an extended discussion, conversation really, which I’ll probably initiate. But it’ll be where you can bring up general questions not necessarily pertaining to your individual practice. Though you can bring those up certainly in the evening discussions. But also generated by what’s coming up for people in their practice that I’m discerning in the interviews.

And we actually tried this for what 3 days, was it? When we had a break between retreats. But here the idea—and this goes to your question, Larry—is that you decide how much you practice and when you practice. We’ve set up general practice times in the morning and we have a group session which we want everybody to attend before breakfast. And another group session in the late afternoon which we want everybody to attend. But the rest of the time each person is going to decide how to use the time for their practice in the way that is most suitable for them.

So that may mean on certain days that some people just take a very long walk. Or get some exercise that they want. Or they may choose to meditate in a group, with a group in here. Or they may choose to meditate individually either in their own rooms or elsewhere on the mountain.

And the idea was to make it very open so there wasn’t a structure. People didn’t feel they had to conform to a structure and they could really pursue practice according to their own a sense of where they were, what felt balanced to them, and without having to conform to a given structure. At the same time they have regular exposure to interaction with a teacher or guide so that they aren’t just left on their own swimming.


Section 2

I thought this would be an interesting experiment really, because most retreats are far more formally structured and there are more pressures for that, which has its own benefits. But this kind of very open structure I don’t think has been explored that often.

So that’s the basic idea behind it. And before going any further I can actually answer any questions that any of you may have about that.

Janet, anything? Larry.

Larry: No.

Ken: No. Okay. Gary? Claudia? Okay.

So I think one of my senior students, George Draffan, came up with the title The Trackless Path. But I think he called it The Trackless Path, which we changed to A Trackless Path, which coincided with a card that Claudia sent me recently, which had a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And Emerson always managed to screw up his quotes to make them palatable. And the part of the quote that’s relevant here is he says, Go where there is no path and leave a trail. But it’s actually much better if you change it slightly: Go where there is no path and leave no trail. And that’s the idea here. You’re going to explore your own spiritual questions in whatever way you find works best for you. You have the opportunity to have guidance or reference through discussions with me on a daily basis. But it’s really about exploring or creating or following—whatever the right verb is for you—your path of practice.


Section 3

Now in a series of talks on Buddhist life Steven Batchelor opens with a question—here in the West we talk about practice and working at our practice and doing our practice—and he was curious as to what this would translate into in Asian culture. And when he started researching that and looking at what the Asian equivalent of that English phrase might be—and I won’t trace all of his reasoning—but basically it comes out to creating one’s path in life. Which if one now begins to approach practice from that point of view, that’s a very different sense from working at a formal set of practices to get a specific kind of result. It’s much more open. And there are many, many more possibilities.

So if you look at the support booklet, which has got all kinds of stuff in it, on page 4 you’ll see that I’ve included the Four Instructions of Gampopa, which comes from the Kagyu tradition, of course. Very famous four lines which are often used as a framework for teaching. And here I’ve translated them somewhat differently, very much in keeping with Steven’s interpretation of practice.

Let my heart turn to practice.

Let practice become a path.

Let this path dissolve confusion.

And let confusion become wisdom.

That last line is very often translated as Let confusion arise as wisdom. So there’s some explanation that’s needed.

And this is essentially the framework that I’d like us to follow for this retreat. And depending on where you are in your practice, one or other of those lines may be more relevant to you. I mean one person that wrote to me who’s coming towards the end of this retreat and says, “I’m just not really sure where I am with my practice right now.” So the first line may be very relevant in that case.

And then for other people, they’re looking, okay they have a connection with practice but it’s very separate from their life. And that’s where the second line would come in. Let my practice become a path of life.

And then, I think all of us can relate to the third line that this way that we’ve chosen to live to actually dissolve confusion, not generate it. As happens often with many ways we often embrace life or approach life.

And then finally moving into an experience where whatever arises actually keeps bringing us in touch with the natural knowing which is present in every experience. And that’s one way to understand that last line.


Section 4

Now why this particular format for this retreat? Well, quite a long time ago basically, well I guess about twenty years no? Yeah, a little over twenty years ago, I was still relatively new to teaching. And I’d come to Los Angeles and I’d done a couple of years building a center, or trying to put a center together. And didn’t like it at all. One of the things I really didn’t like about it is that people would struggle with some aspect of their practice for three, six months, twelve months. Finally bring it up with me in a casual conversation or in a class. And it was something that could have been taken care of with a five-minute conversation very easily. And having experienced that repeatedly I really wanted to set up a way of working so that people had far more opportunity to have interaction around their practice. And that I had much more information about what was actually going on in their practice.

So I started meeting with people individually on a very regular basis and moved into a totally different model of teaching as a result. And this interaction between teacher and student I think is really the heart of Buddhist practice. It’s where learning really takes place. I mean we learn a lot through our meditation practice. But as long as we’re reading and listening and meditating on our own, everything’s coming into our world. When you interact with another person, a teacher or someone, then whatever’s come into your world, now it has to engage the world of somebody else. And that’s where you really find out whether you actually know anything. ’Cause many people are very good in theory, but not very good in practice so to speak.

This I found was much better at—oh I need to go a step further. This is really what the term sutra means. It’s derived from the same word, or the same root, as the English word suture—to sew. It’s about bringing two things together. And what it’s bringing together is the student’s experience and the teacher’s experience. And if you look at the sutras you will see that they are all actually question and answer periods. Buddha is asked a question and he responds.

And many of the sutras, probably most of them, need to be read not as a logical discourse presenting a position or a series of positions, but as a series of exchanges between the student—who is usually one of Buddha’s senior disciples, and the teacher, which was Buddha—in which the student goes through a series of experiences. And the sutra is a record of those transitions in the student’s mind through interaction with the teacher.


Section 5

Now a book that Steven recommended to me recently puts this very, very well. The book is Philosophy As a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot.

True education is always oral because only the spoken word makes dialogue possible. That is, it makes it possible for the disciple to discover the truth himself amid the interplay of questions and answers, and also for the master to adapt his teachings to the needs of the disciple.

So what this points to is, not only is the student having to interact with the world of the teacher, but the teacher is also having to interact with the world of the student in adapting or shaping the particular expressions of teachings so they awaken or enliven or deepen the experience of the student. And it’s only in that live interaction where things actually take place. And that’s one of the things that I’ve wanted to try to create in this retreat through both the individual interviews that I’ll be having with people on a daily basis and through the evening discussions such as this. There is that opportunity for experience and understanding to become lived and non-directly.

So that’s the rationale behind this whole thing.


Section 6

Now again if you look at the opening and closing meditation sessions you’ll see there’s Taking Refuge. And here I’ve adapted a couple of Tibetan formulas and changed them a little bit. The metaphor of refuge is something that has pervaded Buddhism from its earliest days. And it points very directly to the intention that this is finding a way to live our lives without the usual sense of struggle and being assailed by the various forces that we encounter in our lives. Or as other people put it, you know, finding a way to live our life so that we don’t experience it as a veil of tears.

And because of, from my point of view—and this probably reflects my training in the Tibetan tradition—that it’s actually through the contact with a live teacher, someone, another person. And then the first refuge is I take refuge in my teacher, and I put in there, treasured Buddha. Because one’s teacher, the person you interact with, is how you actually experience awakened mind. You know, that’s how awakened mind is appearing in your own life. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher is awake or enlightened—whatever that means. But it’s how you’re experiencing that possibility, and it’s what is inspiring and guiding you.

And then there are the traditional three jewels, the buddha, dharma and sangha, which refer esoterically to qualities of mind. Then you have the three sources, usually translated as the three roots—in Vajrayana, guru, deity and protector—where guru carries the sense of energy, deity carries the sense of ability, and protector carries the sense of expression and life.

And then—

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Guru carries the sense of energy, deity carries the sense of ability, and protector carries the sense of expression and life. You like that?

Student: Mmm-hmm.

Ken: Okay. You’ve all had that before.

Student: Is expression and life like power?

Ken: Well what the protector represents is how awakening mind manifests in activity. So that’s expression. It’s immediate, it’s direct, it doesn’t depend on the conceptual process. It isn’t solely about power. The traditional description of protector takes expression through the four kinds of awakened activity: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing or compelling, and destroying.

So for instance if you come into a situation—and probably all of you experienced this—and you see that there’s some problem there. And you immediately move, without thinking, to resolve it.

And there’s a very good example of this from The Empty Mirror. I don’t whether any of you know that book? It was written by a Dutch guy who went to Japan in the ’50s to study Zen. And it’s pretty clear that he winds up at the same monastery that Gary Snyder was studying at. But he hasn’t quite got the discipline of Gary Snyder. And he keeps screwing up all over the place. And so it’s a record of how he keeps screwing up.

But on one occasion he and another person are responsible for serving tea one day in the middle of a sesshin. And one person was to distribute the cups and the other person was to come with the big kettles and pour tea into each of the cups. And it was his job with the kettles. But when he came out with the two kettles he saw that the person who was meant to have distributed the cups hadn’t done it.

So he immediately put the kettles down. Went back to the kitchen. Distributed the cups and then filled everything up. And he couldn’t understand why all of the monks including the abbot of the monastery, at the end of the meditation session clapped him on the back and said, “Good job! Good job!” And the reason was he hadn’t thought for a moment. He had seen and acted. And done what was appropriate.

Now that would be example of what I’m referring to as a kind of protector activity. You see what the situation needs and it just happens.

Does that answer your question?

So it isn’t about, you know, wielding power necessarily. Though it may involve that. It’s, okay, here’s the situation, you do what’s necessary. And that’s how awakening mind manifests. Does that clarify?

Student: Yes.


Section 7

Ken: Okay. There’s a microphone for questions, and find one to ask them.

The last line here in the refuge is what refuge is really about. I take refuge in experience itself, which is empty, clear, and without restriction. Now I’m translating the word that is usually translated as mind here as experience, because I think it points more clearly to what we’re doing.

We tend to think of mind as something that is separate from experience. That is, there’s mind where awareness is, and awareness is aware of experience, etc. It creates a whole sense of separation. But if you think of, “I take refuge in experience itself,” that’s moving into a very intimate relationship with life. ’Cause life is just what we experience. But when we bring our attention to that experience we can’t find anything to it even though it’s very vivid. It’s very clear. And it arises without any restrictions; it just keeps coming, whatever we do. You follow? Okay.

And then just to continue this a step further, the next thing you’ll see is awakening intention, which most of you will know more familiarly as bodhicitta. Here, rather than the Tibetan formulations, which are actually very late and very much tied to the sense of following in the footsteps of others, I’ve used what are known as The Four Great Vows in the Zen tradition. But I’ve retranslated them. And I’m very grateful to a page on the internet that Maezumi Roshi and Bernie Glassman put up—I don’t know how long ago—in which they have the Japanese; many, many different translations of these.

And you go through them here.

Beings are numberless, may I free them all.

Reactions are endless, may I release them all.

Doors to experience are infinite, may I enter them all.

Ways of awakening are limitless, may I know them all.

If you look at these, you’ll see that there’s a progression. When we start we’re dealing with other beings. And we form the aspiration or the intention to free all beings from the suffering of samsara. That’s very traditional vocabulary. But here other beings are regarded as being in a predicament, we’re going to solve it.


Section 8

But when we go more deeply into our experience we see that the real problem is that other beings provoke reactions in us. And they do this very well. There are an infinite number of reactions that they provoke in us. All the time. So as we move more internally, the aspiration moves to, Reactions are endless, may I release them all. That is, may I not be caught by them. And some of you know this from other retreats—particularly the Releasing Emotional Reactions retreats, where there are number of methods of practice where you are able to experience emotions and not get caught by them.

And that brings us to the next one. Whenever you are able to experience an emotion or a reaction completely and not be caught by it, it becomes a door into a deeper experience of life. So consequently, Doors to experience are infinite; because every reaction is a potential door to experience, May I enter them all. And when you enter that door you find that there’s some kind of awakening takes place.

And there are all different kinds of awakening so that, Ways of awakening are limitless, may I know them all. And so that the vow moves from being concerned with other people and helping them to being completely present in one’s own experience all the time. And I find that quite helpful as an aspiration to set at the beginning of practice sessions.

The last one, The Four Immeasurables, you’re all familiar with so I won’t go over that.


Section 9

Now in terms of the actual practice that you do. I’m going to suggest that over the next day or so that you take as—at least for part of the time anyway—you really consider, why are you here? Because we have this time together; we aren’t under any pressure to accomplish or work through a certain body of material, a text or anything like that. Or to understand a certain practice. Opportunities like this take a great deal of effort on everybody’s part to create the conditions for it. But also to step out of the normal routines of our life. And that’s what we’ve all done to be here.

And so obviously this is very important to you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Why is it so important?

Now this is quite often a very, very difficult question for people to engage. And the reason, or one of the reasons, it may be difficult is because it involves letting go of all of the agendas we’ve absorbed from others. We may have lived by them for decades in our lives. And allowing ourselves to become sufficiently still and quiet that we can, I mean we could use the phrase, can listen to our own heart.

It’s very frightening for many people to actually listen to their own heart. To really let themselves become quiet so they feel what is truly important. They feel tremendously vulnerable and very open. And another reason is that it can bring so much of our lives into question if we actually listen to that. But I just don’t think there’s much point in working, you know, doing the work we intend to do in this retreat without really listening at that deep level. It’s actually what we came for.

And even though there may be many layers and barriers and things on top of that, then our practice becomes one of letting those fall away using whatever particular techniques. So that we can feel very, very deeply what is most important to us in our lives.


Section 10

I’m always reminded, when I’m talking about these things, of another phrase, which I picked up from Steven Batchelor. I think this is in the opening paragraph of The Faith to Doubt. He doesn’t phrase it this way. I’m paraphrasing it a little differently in a way that it spoke to me. And that is: “In its institutional forms, Buddhism has provided very powerful answers to questions of the spirit. But sometimes the power of the answers overwhelms the stammering voice that is asking the questions.” And I’ve loved that image, or that way of wording things.

And so I encourage you very, very much to take this opportunity and listen to the stammering voice. At first you may not be able to hear it. Because there’s so much noise. But that’s one of the opportunities that this retreat provides, is an opportunity to really listen to that stammering voice. And it may be a cry, a cry of despair, a cry of loneliness, a cry of joy that we never allow ourselves to feel. We have no idea, many of us, what is actually there. But it is at the very center of our lives. So that’s what I hope you can do over the next few days.

So that’s everything I had for this evening so please any questions or comments. Janet.


Section 11

Janet: I have a question about method.

Ken: Is it on? [referring to mic]

Janet: About method. When I ask myself, “Why am I here,” there…there are answers or there, you know, there’s a sense. But how do I take it deeper?

Ken: Okay. Just leave it on. ’Cause otherwise it crashes with it.

One of the more reliable methods I’ve found is to let go of all of the answers that first come up. Because almost all of those are conceptually based. And whatever way you phrase the question, “Why am I here,” or “What do I want from my practice,” or you may find your own way of wording the question that speaks to you. “What is my stammering voice saying,” you know. It’s when you ask that question, open to what happens in your body.

Now that’s why I was saying earlier, actually for many people, it’s a very difficult question because when they ask that question, they can feel layers and layers and layers of armoring in their body immediately. And it’s like “Ach.” And not everybody, necessarily. But for many people, some people will experience something relaxing very, very deeply inside. They haven’t because now there’s a chance of something being listened to that hasn’t been listened to before. You follow?

So whatever it is there’s usually a set of physical sensations that arise. And it may take a little while to be able to sense those. But you know the drill there. Not sensing something is a sensation, too. And very often I’ve found there’s a kind of weight to the question—you may even feel that as a weight in your heart. Which is another aspect of the physical sensations or another part of them. And you go with that not in the sense of, you know, being absorbed into it. But opening to that experience as you stay present in your whole body. And as you do this then very often you find all different kinds of emotions coming up. Well, you know what to do there, you just open to the physical sensations associated with the emotions, etc., etc.

And you’ll find all of this actually nicely set out on page 10 [retreat booklet], which is an adaptation by Thich Nhat Hanh of the principles of the Anapanasati Sutra. And you can use that, this process, directly with this question. You know, “Breathing in I feel this pain, breathing out I feel this pain,” etc.

That’s probably the last thing you wanted to know, right?

Janet: Actually, that [unclear].

Ken: Okay.

Janet: Doesn’t sound fun, but it sounds—

Ken: It is what it is. Yeah.

And basically what this booklet contains is a bunch of stuff from all levels, all stages of practice. And actually a considerable range of practices. There’s no intention that you should work through everything in here. There is every intention that you may find something useful in here for you during the course of the retreat. But this isn’t a workbook. You don’t have to work through everything. Okay.


Section 12

Other questions. Gary.

Gary: Okay. Question I have for you, Ken, is regarding answering the question in terms of “Why you’re here,” and also relating to awakened activity. You spoke about the three jewels and the protector of awakened activity. So opening to a protector—I mean not as a separate entity but just awakening to whatever’s arising—I kind of come up with the idea of protection that somehow awakened activity allows one to feel somewhat protected but not in the sense like you’re trying to shield yourself from whatever you’re experiencing.

That’s sort of what I’m pondering and I’m just sort of opening that to you in terms of what your thoughts or reactions might be to that.

Ken: Hmm. Well, I may have to revisit the translation of protector…translating as protector. You’re right, the Tibetan and before that Sanskrit carried that idea. The traditional definition of what the protectors do and how they protect is that they create conditions conducive for practice. And they dispel conditions not conducive for practice. So they can be a little brutal. So that if you’ve earned a lot of money and are living a distracted life in the lap of luxury they may decide to, you know, crash the stock market or something like that [Ken laughs] ’cause it’s not a conducive condition for you.

So it’s not really you that is being protected. It’s the possibility of being awake that is being nurtured. Okay?

Now this invites an exploration, of course, into the relationship between you and the possibility of being awake and present. That can be a fairly interesting exploration, I found, because what we are isn’t a single entity, of course. It’s multiple things. And at least I know for myself some of them are very uninterested in being awake and present. Do you see where I’m going?

So I think it’s a very good question. But it’s not about us as we ordinarily conceive of ourselves as what is being protected. I think it would be better to think of the protectors as that aspect of our experience which nurtures the possibility of awakening. And does whatever is necessary to nurture it. So it could be very, very direct. And so that can have a very different relationship with who we think we are. Okay?


Section 13

Okay. Larry, any questions?

Larry: Some days intention is very clear and other days it’s very fuzzy and distant. Very elusive. On the days that it’s clear, these awakening intentions that are articulated here or the bodhisattva vow seem like they don’t get any better than that in terms of intentionality. But as I look at it on those days sometimes it looks like Mount Everest—

Ken: It’s better if you hold the mic…yeah.

Larry: …in terms of that the difficulty of transforming this, this person who sits here. In order to realize the intentions that are articulated here that, I think that you also called bodhicitta mind.

Ken: Okay.

Larry: Is that clear?

Ken: I think so. You’ll be able to tell me by the way I respond.

I think this speaks to the point that I was making earlier. Sometimes the power of the answers overwhelms the stammering voice that is asking the questions. And what we have here—and it’s one of the dangers of using prayers and liturgies that are handed down—because there’s an intention embedded in them. And we very easily adopt that intention. It may or may not be in line with why we are practicing. And as you say, some days when things are clear, it’s like “Yeah. This feels just right on. It’s no problem.” But other days it’s like, “I don’t know.” And this seems like very, very difficult, or you’re climbing Mount Everest.

What I would encourage you to do is to take this question of “Why am I practicing?” or “Why am I here?” or “What do I want from my practice?” whatever form it takes for you. Go with that quite deeply. You may find, as I have on more than one occasion and other people I know have, you may find it cuts right across many of the traditional intentions. You know, that we are told—this is the way to practice. And for some people, that’s been very, very difficult. Because they’ve studied and invested a lot of time. And they discover, “No that’s not why I want to practice. This, this is where it feels alive and present for me.”

And I think it’s really important to find where it is alive and present in you. Because then you don’t have that problem that you’re describing. Because you’re not adopting anybody else’s intention. You follow?

Larry: Yes. I follow but if we could take one specific example.

Ken: Please.

Larry: Beings are numberless, may I free them all. This is a basic sense of compassion that would motivate someone to feel this way. I mean I identify with it strongly. Yet what I meant by Mount Everest is I have no idea how to climb this.

Ken: Ah!

Larry: I have no idea how to incarnate it in my life in any other way than I’d been taught to be mannerly and be kind to other people and, you know, just the typical dos and don’ts of civil affairs.

Ken: Okay. That’s much clearer, thank you.

A first step, I would suggest then, is that tomorrow, you know, you’re going to spend some time just letting your mind rest and settle down. Then you might take the question—and I’m not sure of the form that the question takes. So I’m just going to make one up but you can see what form the question takes for you. But one possibility might be “I want my life to be an ongoing expression of compassion. That’s how I want to live.” Okay? “Now why do I want that?”

Now that’s going to take you quite deeply into things. It may take you to a point where there’s just a feeling and no words. And so you rest there, knowing it.

Now when you know it that way, there’s a kind of energy which is very, very different from a conceptual. And when you find wherever that resting place is, so it’s like that for you, then it will be appropriate for you and me to talk.

And because now you know exactly where you are. And there are probably four or five different approaches to cultivating compassion or learning how to live that way which I can offer to you. And you can say, “Well no, that one doesn’t feel right or maybe this one does.” And it becomes a something we work out together. What is a way that you can practice which allows that feeling in you to take expression in your life.

Larry: Right.

Ken: Now, it’s very important here to understand that not every practice works for everybody. Dalai Lama, almost whenever he talks about compassion, or used to, would say that none of the traditional methods worked for him.

Student: Who is this?

Ken: The Dalai Lama. And one of his tutors gave him a very particular method which really spoke to him. And that’s the one that he worked with. And I had the same experience with our retreat director when I was in the three-year retreat. He didn’t find The Four Immeasurables worked for him at all even though I thought they were really, really important and really powerful. He said, “That works for you, Ken. It’s never worked for me.” And he had his own methods for cultivating that.

So, it’s very important not only that you find out what is in your heart but also the method of practice that allows that to express itself fully. And that’s why we have many, many different practices. And why it’s important to interact with someone so you can actually find that for yourself.

So I’m very happy to offer what I may be able to on that. But that’s where I suggest you start tomorrow. Okay?

Larry: Thank you.

Ken: Claudia, do you have anything? No. Okay. Anybody else? Okay.

Then I think we’ll close here. It’s 9:17. And probably we’re all a little tired from our travels. And this place will be open for meditation—what—5:30, right? And then we’ll meet, but all of us will meet here at 7. And we’ll go from there.

Student: You know the doors may be locked so…

Student: Okay.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay.