Awakening From Belief
Teachings | Basics, Training

Opening talk of retreatDownload

Karma as instruction vs. karma as belief, meditation as building a capacity of attention, resting in the experience of breathing, Q&A

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A pleasure to be here finally. The misadventures in Chicago were a wonderful example of the cost of efficiency. Everybody was on the plane, we were taxiing towards the runway. They put us into a holding zone, did a quick calculation and found out there wasn’t enough gas in the plane. Weather systems that caused the reroute—they hadn’t anticipated that. Everybody was very well behaved, though.

Well, the subject matter for our work together over the next few days we’ve called Awakening From Belief. And it’s really about karma. Now, karma’s one of those big Eastern concepts around which there is actually a great variety of interpretation—it means a lot of different things. And there’s also a great deal of confusion.

One way perhaps into the subject of karma—how many of you are familiar with Mullah Nasrudin? Ah good, he’s one of the great Buddhist teachers.

Mullah Nasrudin was walking home one night and he saw some people on a horseback and he thought they might be thieves, so he started to run. And he ran as fast as he could and turned around and he saw that the people on horseback were riding after him. So he ran faster and faster and he came across a cemetery and ran into the cemetery and looked desperately for a place to hide and found an open grave and jumped to the bottom of it and lay at the bottom of the grave.

Well, the people on horseback…what they’d seen was that this person who’d suddenly started to run and thought something must be wrong. So they started going after to see who it was. And they eventually tracked him down and peered over the grave and looked down at Mullah Nasrudin and said, “What are you doing there?” And Nasrudin looked up and said, “Well, just because you can ask a question doesn’t mean there’s a straightforward answer. But in short, I’m here because of you and you’re here because of me.”

Well, this very nicely illustrates interdependence. And that’s one of the central aspects of karma, one of the central tenets. And I hesitate to say tenet. It would be more accurate to say that one comes to understand through practice that nothing exists in its own right—everything is interdependent. Which is very different from saying that everything is relative—not the same thing at all. We may talk about that more later.

Now, we’re very happy to go along with that idea that everything is interdependent until it comes to one small aspect of our experience—the sense of self. And at that point we hit the brakes and say, “What do you mean? I’m here. How can you say…? Is that true?”

When Newcomb and I were discussing this program, I think Newcomb came up with the formulation Awakening From the Belief in an Independent Self and we just shortened it to Awakening From Belief. But that’s one of the central beliefs that we have—that we exist independently. Well, if we don’t exist independently, then it raises a number of questions.

The first question might be, “Do we exist dependently, and if so what does that mean?” And that feels really uncomfortable, that somehow our existence is dependent on something else. But actually, it invites another question, “Do we exist?” How many say you do? How many say you don’t? [Laughter] Ah. So there’s a conundrum here, isn’t there? So, this is what we’re going to explore. That’s one thing we’re going to explore.

There’s another thing which I think is very important and one of the reasons I wanted to put the emphasis on belief. One of my teachers is a Sakya lama by the name of Dezhung Rinpoche, and in the great spirit of interdependence, the reason that he was one of my teachers was thanks to the CIA.

Soon after the Tibetan diaspora, the CIA brought over a number of Tibetans to act as resources to Melvin Goldstein at the University of Seattle. That’s where he was—or the University of Washington in Seattle—and among these was Dezhung Rinpoche. They compiled this Tibetan-English dictionary, which was really intended to train CIA operatives.

They gave him a nice house and everything like that. And then Kalu Rinpoche set up a center in Vancouver in the early seventies and discovered Dezhung Rinpoche just lived about a hundred miles away and invited him up. And a wonderful person—one of the last really great scholars. Some of the older scholars further back in Tibetan history had actually memorized the Kangyur. They knew the whole 108 volumes of it by heart, if you can imagine. Dezhung Rinpoche wasn’t quite in that category. But if you gave him a verse or a quotation he would probably say, “Oh, I think that’s in that book or maybe that one.”

And if you ever asked him a question, be prepared for a two-hour answer. I mean, you just ask him anything and he would just go on and on and on and then funny sort of look and say, “I talk too much, don’t I?” Very difficult on translators. I translated [unclear]. I go, “Please stop, please stop.” Couldn’t do anything.

But Dezhung Rinpoche one day told me that he’d been walking with his teacher—and this was in Tibet. His teacher was an individual by the name of Ngawang Lekpa. And Dezhung Rinpoche was a young tulku and Ngawang Lekpa said to him, “Dezhung Tulku-la, you believe in karma?” Dezhung Rinpoche: “Oh yes!” And Ngawang Lekpa said, “You’re really lucky. I find it really difficult.” And Dezhung Rinpoche went, “Oh.” I mean this was his teacher.

Well, I think one of the big sources of confusion around karma is that for some people it is a belief. And one gets into all kinds of problems when you approach it that way. And on the other hand, you have what so many teachers have said—I’m thinking of Milarepa right now—saying, you know, when you understand emptiness, then your appreciation of karma becomes very, very precise.

And for a long time I thought that it meant, well, that it all kind of made sense. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate it’s a little different from that. There’s karma as instruction and there’s karma as belief. And they’re really very different.

Karma as belief is susceptible to all of the problems that any belief system is susceptible to. And I think it’s fair to say that Buddhism and practice of Buddhism is about exposing and dismantling beliefs. Karma as instruction, however, is quite wonderful. It’s a little intimidating, because when you appreciate how karma works—I’m going to say a little bit more about that this evening—you realize that it’s actually a gigantic injunction about mindfulness.

Student: Did you say “injunction?”

Ken: Injunction about mindfulness.

When I studied with Kalu Rinpoche in India in the early seventies, Rinpoche taught us about karma, which as you well know is usually translated as the law of cause and effect. He would always draw a diagram of a tree. We have a seed which grows into a shoot, and grows into a tree, and it has branches, and then it has leaves, and then it has fruit, and then the whole thing starts up again.

The translation as cause and effect is, I think, quite wrong, quite misleading. And I’ve had the discussion with a number of translators, and the first thing they do is they laugh me out of the room. I had one person said, “Well, if this word in Tibetan isn’t cause, then this isn’t a book!” And he held up a book. He just thought it was the most ridiculous thing.

But I want to pose a question to you: does an acorn cause an oak tree? Is the acorn a cause of an oak tree? Well, in a certain philosophical sense yes, but it’s not how we normally use the word cause. Karma is much more a process of evolution. That’s what happens with an acorn. You put it into the ground, and water soaks into it, and things start happening inside it. And after it goes through all of these changes, and roots starts to go down, stuff starts to come up, and then breaks above the ground, and then it starts getting stuff from the sun. And it evolves stage by stage into an oak tree, which then evolves into leaves, and flowers, and things happen to them and they eventually become other acorns. But in the process, the original acorn is long since gone.

So, the idea that actions that we do now cause things to happen in the future—which is often how people think about karma—that’s not how I’ve come to understand it. It’s that the actions that we do now are like the acorn. That’s something we’ve done and in doing that action we’ve started a process and that process evolves in a number of different ways—and if we have time over the next few days, I’ll try and sketch that out—but it evolves into an experienced result. It doesn’t cause an experienced result. The action itself evolves into an experienced result, because it creates conditions so that other things happen—and just goes on, and on, and on.

I think that when you begin to look at karma as a process of evolution, then what evolutionary processes are you starting when you get angry with your spouse? You know, is that a process you want taking place in your world of experience? Well, some of you may say yes. But I will tell you one thing and I’ve had so many illustrations of this. When a process is initiated by a reaction—that is by confusion or ignorance—it’s always an effort to avoid experiencing something. Well, the nature of the beast is that whatever process is initiated by that effort to avoid experiencing, let’s say x, guess what that reactive process delivers? It delivers precisely x every time.

We’ll go through some examples. But I’ll just give you one. My office partner, who used to be in an executive search firm, he complained about the CEO who he said, you know, never really holds people accountable. He just wants to make nice with them about everything. And so people get away with murder and things don’t get done. My office partner was very good at complaining and he would complain about this quite loudly.

I listened to him carefully and I said, “Well, what’s going to happen is that this firm is going to go under. Because this person is afraid of conflict he’s going to find—because he’s afraid of being rejected by people by being nice to everybody—he’s not going to be able to move the firm where it needs to go. The firm is going to go under, and he’s going to be rejected by everybody.”

And when the economic crunch hit, when the internet bubble burst, that’s exactly what happened. And all these people who’d worked very closely with this person were furious with him because the firm went bankrupt. And everybody lost their health insurance—which as you know is kind of a big thing in this country.

But it was wonderful, in a certain sense, how it delivered precisely what he was trying to avoid. And that’s just one example. I’m sure you can think of many examples from your own experience.

What I’m talking about here is the importance of paying attention—or I should say, being aware—of how we are acting and behaving, what we are actually doing in each moment. Because every moment that we’re not, and every moment that we’re checking out and avoiding something, we’re instituting an evolutionary process which is going to deliver precisely what we tried to avoid. So, you have a choice: you can either pay for it up front or you can pay for it at the end. And you know, it’s a lot more expensive paying for it at the end. [Laughter]

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: I said compounded interest.

Ken: Oh yeah, a thousand fold, yeah.

So, I very much appreciate you staying and indulging the eccentricities of United Airlines. But I don’t want to keep us up too late tonight. We’re meeting what at 6-6:30? 5:00? 3:00? 2:00? 11:00?

Student: Could we try 9:00?

Ken: Oh, we are doing an early morning meditation.

Student: 6:00 your time.

Ken: That’s not a problem. I get up at that time. Pardon?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, okay. We’re meeting here at 9:00, is that right?

Student: Right.

Ken: Okay. Well, I want you to do a period of meditation in the morning anyway—you just don’t have to do it together.

The purpose of meditation, or one way to regard meditation, is building a capacity of attention. I don’t know whether you’ve had it explained that way to you before, but you’re building a capacity of attention. Why is it important to have a capacity of attention? Well, arguably, a reasonable translation of the term samadhi, which I imagine some of you have heard, is attention.

Now, those of you who are familiar with such esoteric teachings as the five paths, and the ten stages, and all of that stuff, may recall that at the end of the tenth stage the bodhisattva enters vajra-like or diamond-like samadhi and becomes enlightened or awakened—becomes buddha. Let’s put this into English. The fundamental effort in Buddhist practice is to develop a sufficient capacity in attention so that you can experience your own non-existence.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: That’s fine. The essence of Buddhist practice is to develop a sufficient capacity in attention so that you can experience your own non-existence. That’s exactly what Buddha did under the bodhi tree. Such relief—don’t have to be anybody. It’s a little counter-intuitive.

So, all forms of mediation practice—and it doesn’t matter what—they’re developing attention. Sometimes they develop attention very directly, as shamatha does. Sometimes they’re getting rid of the blocks in the way of developing attention—things like death and impermanence. Many of the purification practices in the Vajrayana, sometimes they’re developing energy which you’re going to use to power attention. Guru yoga is an example of that, loving kindness, compassion are examples of that. And there are also esoteric methods of developing states of attention, states of energy—but it’s all about developing attention so you can actually experience what is. Taking and sending is another good example.

So, tomorrow morning, get up. We’ll keep this simple, practice for at least half an hour—half an hour to an hour, depending on your schedule and ability. You have a little gong?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Ah, thank you. Now this may seem very basic to many of you because I know many of you have practiced for a long time, but I just like to go over these things. A lot of people think attention is an intellectual activity—it’s not. Attention is emotional energy. We talk about mind in Buddhism a great deal but the word in Sanskrit is citta and the word in Tibetan is sems. In many cases it would be just as appropriate and sometimes more appropriate to translate it as heart.

So, when we talk about mind and I use the word “mind,” it’s really about mind and heart. It’s not a division there. So it’s thoughts, feelings, all of that stuff. And we use the breath as a base. Rather than focusing attention on the breath—which is how a lot of people think about practice. You know, don’t concentrate on the breath; that’s what you do to oranges. I want you to think about practice as resting in the experience of breathing. Resting in the experience of breathing.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Sorry. Resting in the experience of breathing. Okay?

Now that puts a whole different complex on it. If you’re going to rest in the experience of breathing, where do you have to be? You have to be in your body. It’s very difficult to rest anywhere else if you’re not in your body because your body’s doing the breathing. So, you sit and you’re in the body. And the body’s breathing and you rest in that experience. Just let the body breathe naturally—don’t need any fancy tricks, nothing—and so we rest in the experience of breathing.

Now, what happens when you practice meditation? At least that happens to me. Maybe it doesn’t happen to all of you. It happens to me all the time. We place our attention in the experience of breathing and it falls off.

One of the great miracles of our being is that the mind always returns to itself. This was a verse from Saraha who was one of the mahamudra masters, Indian mahamudra masters around the third or fourth century. He wrote a number of songs, or dohas. And in one of them he says, this is a rough translation because I can’t remember the Tibetan literally, something like: Just as a bird flying from a ship in the middle of the ocean has nowhere to return but to the ship, whatever thought arises in your mind has nowhere else to return but your own mind. So, what happens is: ah, fall off and you go off on this whole thing and at some point you go, “Oh, I meant to be meditating. Aren’t I? Oh.” Now that “oh” is the really important point. “Oh.” Just go back into the experience of breathing.

So, you think of meditation as placing the attention, resting, falls off, recognition happens—may happen in 30 seconds, may happen in five minutes, maybe it happens an hour later, I don’t know—but it happens. Return attention, rest, fall off. So there’s a constant sense of returning and resting. I want you to try that approach. Returning and resting, returning and resting, rather than trying to hold attention. Return and rest, return and rest. This quality of resting is so important in your practice—it’s where the power really develops.

There’s a movie called Message of the Tibetans by a Frenchman called Arnaud Desjardins. It was made in the late sixties, very soon after the Tibetan diaspora and it focuses on Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Karmapa. I’ve only seen the film once, but the opening shot just made a very profound impression on me.

It’s in the main shrine hall of Rumtek Monastery and everything’s very dark and you see some distance away a figure sitting on a throne. It’s Karmapa, the sixteenth Karmapa. And there is this phenomenal quality of stillness. It is so still that you aren’t sure whether you’re looking at a movie or a slide. Just a photograph. And gradually the camera zooms in and after quite a long time it gets close enough that you can see that it’s a movie because the lips of Karmapa are just moving ever so slightly—he’s reciting a mantra. But the reason I remember it is there’s no effort in this person. He’s sitting there totally still—at rest.

So, in your meditation practice be at rest. That’s how the practice deepens, by resting deeply—it’s not by pushing or by forcing. Whenever we force, we ignore. You can do this with a friend, you know, if you tense your arm and you have someone touch it and they move it a bit, it’s harder to feel it. If your hands are relaxed you feel it immediately. So this quality of resting in practice is very important.

Now, the reason I’m plugging this so much is it took me twenty years to understand this. I figured I would save you guys like well a couple of years anyway. It’s very, very important and every aspect of practice, every aspect of practice cultivate that resting quality—and so you’re just there. Just there.

So when I say rest in the experience of breathing I mean that—you actually just rest. You sit so that your body is straight, the spine is supported by the pelvic girdle, and the shoulders rest on the spine, and the head rests on the top of the spine. You know sometimes it takes a while for the body to adjust to that and some of us—I have a certain physical problem so I have some difficulties with that. But that’s the idea.

And so you just rest, the body rests, the breath rests, and the mind rests. And as that quality of resting deepens, when thoughts and sensations and feelings arise, there is no disturbance. They just arise and they do their thing and they let go. And that quality of resting is never changed.

This is perhaps a little different, I don’t know, maybe all of you know this already. But when you sit together tomorrow morning, just try that. We’ll meet here at 9:00 and we can take up any questions. And I’m happy to take a few questions now if there’s anything that I’ve said this evening that wasn’t clear. I imagine there was probably a great deal that wasn’t clear but…so I’m open. Yes?

[Audio is low and garbled.]

Student: Included in dismantling all the beliefs.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: All of them?

Ken: What one do you want to hang onto?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: Oh…

Ken: Well can you think of a single belief that’s worth hanging onto?

Student: Well, I can’t think like you know [unclear]. I think it’s an outrageous statement.

Ken: Well, it’s not the first time I’ve been called that [laughter].

Student: I understand what you’re saying but…

Ken: What’s the problem? You have an issue here; come on bring it up.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: What’s it hitting inside you?

Student: Well, it’s the consequences of it. That it involves all belief.

Ken: What are the consequences?

Student: Not much left.

Ken: Well, what was there in the first place?

Student: Belief.

Ken: Yes. [Laughter] And what has a belief done for you lately? You know, here we believe that we exist. Has that made your life easier?

Student: I don’t know if it’s made it easier, but the opposite…[unclear] I’m turning a non-belief into a belief too, now.

Ken: Ah, another of Saraha’s warnings. He who believes in reality is stupid like a cow. Or He who believes in a self is stupid like a cow. But he who believes in non-self is even stupider. It’s not about belief, okay? And yeah, it sounds quite radical. Well, Buddhism is radical, number one. But I think if you examine your own experience you’ll see that one of the effects of beliefs is they prevent you from seeing what actually is.

I had a very vivid experience of this. Rinpoche asked me to stay with a lama he left in Vancouver in the early seventies. We were invited up to the Yukon. And so he flew up there and there was a small dharma center up there and went to bed. It was early summer and we weren’t up in the Arctic Circle. We were about three hundred miles from it, but it was still, you know, like 10 or 11 at night—it was barely twilight, you know, you could see quite happily.

And I went off, because I knew a couple of people up there, and we drove around and did some things and came back. And the next morning the lama said, “Ken, it didn’t get dark last night. What’s going on?” And he was really worried. And I said, “Well that’s how it is up at this latitude. It’s no big deal.” And he went, “What do you mean?” So I got out oranges and apples and showed him the whole astronomy bit and he went, “Oh. You know, we had always heard this business about the world being round but none of us every believed it.” And this is the first thing that actually started to effect that belief.

So, beliefs get in the way. They prevent us from seeing what is because when we are functioning under belief, we are bringing a whole set of assumptions to the situation. Maybe they hold, maybe they don’t. What if you brought no beliefs to the situation? What would that be like?

So I’m going to give you a little extra exercise—just for you. You live by yourself?

Student: No.

Ken: Family?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Good. You going to have breakfast with them tomorrow?

Student: Probably not.

Ken: Going to have any interaction with them or are they in another town?

Student: Before coming here?

Ken: Yes.

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay. I want you to approach that interaction and let go of every belief that you have and tell me what your experience is. [Laughs] It’s just a little exercise. I know. Your wife or your children or whoever you’re with—let go of any belief and just approach it totally new. Tell me what your experience is, okay? Alright.

You had a question?

Student: What, you know, you say this Buddhism is a radical….

Ken: I think so.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: No, that’s just a description.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: No….

Student: [Unclear] to be opposite. Why is it radical. It has to be radical compared to something else.

Ken: Exactly. It’s a description. Do I believe it’s radical? No. Compared to other things, it looks radical, that’s all. I mean, from my point of view, and one of the reasons I got into Buddhism is it just made sense. Like, “Oh.” And the more I’ve studied and practiced it—more sense it’s made. Quite different from the sense that I thought it did. In my own experience in practice, it’s a case of stripping away one layer of belief after another. And…

Student: All I’m saying is [unclear] a language [unclear] and I’m not…I’m not disagreeing with your point—I agree with you. What I’m saying is that [unclear] anybody when anybody is spoken so language [unclear]

Ken: Oh, I think we can use language more intelligently than that.

Student: I…I don’t know but I can’t, you know….

Ken: Yeah, well we’ll try, we’ll try. Okay, yes? Yes?

Student: I wanted to make a comment on language also. How easily one could take the anecdote you gave about believing that the world was flat and then realizing that it is not—still people would say, “I believe the world is round.”

Ken: Oh yes.

Student: Rather than say, “I experienced,” or “I observed.”

Ken: Well, actually….

Student: That word belief comes in in many instances.

Ken: Yeah, right, it does. And actually we can even go further than that. We believe that that there’s a world out there. You know, is there?

Student: Well [unclear] question.

Ken: No. [Laughter]

Student: Well, there’s the experience of a world existing.

Ken: An experience I’m going to suggest which is based on a belief.

Student: Well, that’s why I’m—

Ken: That’s why you’re here. Okay, we’ll explore it. Good. Yes?

Student: Suppose that we look around us in the world and we see that the majority of people have kind of blind belief of one kind or another [unclear] operating that—

Ken: Yes.

Student: And so if a person nurtures her or himself to see clearly without resting on that belief—doesn’t that put one at great odds with virtually everybody in the world?

Ken: So?

Student: In a very disruptive manner unless people [unclear].

Ken: Well, what’s the problem?

Student: In other words, shut up and just—

Ken: No. no.

Student: You know speak out.

Ken: I think this is where skillful means comes in. Skillful means. Buddha, after his enlightenment, said to himself, “No one’s going to understand this.” Which is exactly what you’re saying. What can I do with it? Nobody’s going to understand this. And I’m not going to tell anybody. And then according to the myths, the gods appeared before him and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. You’ve got this great, wonderful understanding. It can change the lives of countless beings throughout the course of history—you got to tell somebody.” And he went, “Okay, I’ll try.” And the rest is history.

Now, does it take skill? Absolutely. One of the things that I really like about Buddhism—don’t talk to people who aren’t interested. There has to be a volition, a willingness. People have to be questioning themselves. And they have a sense and something’s not right here. And that arouses some curiosity and that curiosity is an opening.

But yeah, you’re quite right—vast majority of people function under a certain set of beliefs about who they are and how the world is. And we’ve had, you know, five, ten thousand years of warfare and inequity, and suffering and disease, etc., etc., etc.. And that’s how the world is.

And we also have the extraordinary opportunity to come in touch with these teachings which really cut right through all of this. Some mystery has brought us to this—that’s quite wonderful—and what we do with it is really up to us. And where we go from…you know, if we practice and come to some kind of understanding, then what we do with that understanding is very much up to us. And it’s going to vary from person to person—takes many, many different forms.

You know, and I think it was Ekyo, a Zen master, when he completed his training, his own teacher said to him, “I’ve had a vision that you are to go to such and such mountain and establish a monastery of 2,500 monks.” Ekyo said, “Hm, that’s nice.” Well, the teacher said, “It’s time for you to leave, you’ve completed your training.” So he left and he went to that mountain and he sat down. After a while some villagers came and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’m sitting here.” And they talked. Fifteen, twenty years later there was a monastery of 2,500 monks. You follow?

Okay, one more question before we close if there is one? If not we can close here. Okay, thank you very much. See you tomorrow.

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