Contemplating death may seem like a morbid exercise yet this practice not only helps you accept the changes you experience throughout life but brings richness to your everyday experience.
How Do I Live This Experience Called Life? Download
Group contemplation: “I can’t know what this experience called life is — and I can’t know what follows it. So how do I live this life?”; observing mortality brings you back into life; meditating on impermanence gives you faith, the willingness to open to everything and the energy to do so.
So, this is the last full day of the retreat, and we’ve had two very full days working with death and impermanence. The topic or the aspect of death and impermanence that we’ve been working with may not seem—when I gave it to you last night—to be directly connected with death and impermanence, and that’s what I want to explore this morning a little bit.
And the question I left you with is, When I can’t know what this experience called life is, and I can’t know if or what may follow it, how do I live this life? So what I’d like to start with is just to go around—and we can start with you, Jean—and what have you come to in your reflections? We’ll just go turn by turn.
Jean: On one hand, kind of two things happened. On one hand, there’s something incredibly—I don’t know—inspiring, about living in the face of absolute not knowing. And that just felt very, very deep. And on the other hand—and I feel like this was the most important question that I’ve ever been asked in my entire life by the way—on the other hand, I had some anger coming up. It’s like, “I didn’t sign up for this.” [Laughter]
Ken: Do you mean the retreat or this life? [Laughter]
Jean: No, I mean you’re born and then you die. And, like, what do you do in between? And, so, yeah…you know like I found in that second…that part of me who had some anger coming up, is sort of like, “Well, how do I get my sense of humor back now?” [Laughter]
Ken: We have remedies for that. [Laughter]
Eli: My conclusion was to try to stay with the not-knowing, stay with the groundlessness, and be open to all experiences, all opportunities. And that is my understanding of, I think, what you spoke of a bit yesterday and other things I’ve read. And I think that’s my understanding of groundlessness is, “You’re out there in the middle of nothing and it is nothing.” But as we just mentioned, once over the fear, it’s very liberating, very exciting, but doesn’t sound easy.
[Discussion about speaking into mic]
Student: Well, I’ve found the question one of the most delightful ones I’ve ever been asked in my life, because it just felt so freeing and very liberating. And I feel like I’ve gone through all this thick forest and scree and now I’m in this open place. However, when I look above there’s a big climb ahead and I don’t know what it is, but what came to me was, “Take what I need and give what I can.”
Student: I ended up with two takeaways. One harkens back to last October’s retreat: “Show up. Open to what is. Serve what is true to the limits of perception. Receive the results.” And that resonated for me. And then I veered off onto, “How can I choose when I can’t tell where the choice will lead or how it will end?”
Ken: [Laughs] Could I borrow a pen and paper from somebody? I didn’t—thanks. Melissa?
Melissa: Well, I started out true to form going back and forth between the extremes of despair and this tremendous sense of urgency, and ended up with an image. And I think—I’m really not, I’m really not kidding here—I think that I really need to take up ice skating. It really…it feels like that’s the image I always have. And I used to ice skate as a kid, and I took my daughter recently. It just feels like that’s a way to be with all of this.
Student: When I was thinking about—or sitting with—what it would…you know, that I don’t know what this is and I don’t know what’s to come…as things dropped away, I realized, “Oh my gosh, I’d have to have…I’ve have to live with attention each moment if I had no script, no thoughts, no—not no thoughts—but you know, just nothing.” And I was like…and then I just “whew, whew,” and then it was kind of…scary! You know—
Ken: You’d have to live with attention each moment.
Ken: Why are you here? [Laughs]
Student: I think I’m here to hit my head against a wall. That’s what it feels like. [Laughter]
Student: So, no one else knows either and that feels good! [Laughter]
Ken: Yes, but hand it back to Delia for a moment. So, there was a guy who thought he was a kernel of corn and everybody in the world was a chicken. Needless to say, he ended up in a mental health institution. Worked with a psychiatrist for many years. At a certain point the psychiatrist said, “Bob, you know you’re not a kernel of corn.” And Bob said, “Yeah doc, it’s a great relief.”
“Well, you’ve been here on these grounds for many, many years. Would you like to—tomorrow—go out with me and take a look at a bit of the city, ’cause you haven’t seen much of it for a long time?” He said, “You know that, that’s a really cool idea, let’s do that.” So the next day, Bob and the psychiatrist walk out the grounds, and across the street there was a bus stop and there are a bunch of people lined up waiting for the bus.
And Bob took one look at that and disappeared. He ran so fast the psychiatrist had no idea where he went. He called the police. A citywide search eventually found him late that evening, cowering in a drainage culvert. Pulled him…got him back to the hospital, cleaned him up, put him to bed. Next day, he comes to the psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist says, “Bob, I don’t get it. You know you’re not a kernel of corn.” “Listen doc, I know I’m not a kernel of corn. You know I’m not a kernel of corn. But those damn chickens, they don’t know that!” [Laughter]
So, nobody else does, but they think they do. How do you live?
Student: I mean, I’ve…you know many times over the years I’ve been practicing meditation, I have seen this and it’s not usually a pleasant thought. And then I think, “So, what am I gonna do, am I gonna just forget all the meditation and say ‘Screw it, I’m outta here?’” [Laughs]
There’s one thought that—I’ve learned through Shambhala—is this idea of an enlightened society, and that’s encouragement enough for me to kind of just say, “Well, I don’t know, but as long as I’m here, could I be part of an enlightened society?” So, that’s another way that I’ve kind of looked at it.
Student: For me, this meditation has created more questions than answers, in some ways. And a great peace that I have not quite felt ever in my life. And…you know I kind of got it wrong. I said, “How do I live when I can’t know what this experience of death is?” So, I worked on that for a while, which was really interesting because it felt like a burden—a weight—and I felt so weary, like there was this heavy Lord of Death over here or over here or all over here. And I had that yesterday in walking meditation, too, and it just…I was slipping into a depression or what I quote-unquote call a depression. And I thought, “Whoa, this is your head doing this depression.” And it was just like a big “aha” moment for me—how I got to depression in ’08 so severely.
And then, there’s also been this great release of tension in my body, which has always caused me great pain. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1991. My pain level was pretty bad yesterday when I was upset, but as soon, as the day went by, and the opening happened and the release of tension—not knowing what that tension was, just opening to it and feeling it and experiencing it—it dropped away.
Student: I have slept better than I’ve ever slept during this retreat. And I’m in significantly less pain after morning meditation.
Student: So, very shortly after I began to reflect on the question, I realized that one of the layers of meaning of the question is that, I do not know whether there will be a future. I cannot know whether there will be anything next after this experience right now. Strangely enough, letting that sink in was an exhilarating experience as you saw. A lot of things in the world became very intensely beautiful.
Moreover, it occurred to me quite forcibly with respect to this habitual pattern that I’ve been practicing with for a while, that neither of the poles of the pattern make any sense in the context of this experience. However, when I check in with my body, the bodily signs of the pattern—although they seem a little bit less intense—are still there. So clearly, there would have to be a deepening of this experience.
Student: I kind of mixed up this investigation on, “How can I live when I can’t know what this experience is or whether anything follows it?” with the practice in life—the four questions. I think that the beginning of this question, “How can I live…” is really…I think I kind of try to see everything as a way to…as a means of survival. So, it’s very interesting to see how the application of the no-self in the four questions could be the answer to the “How can I live” question.
And your clarification on the body—on paying attention to the body—it really is as you were saying, like, you have to pay attention every moment. That’s the only…that’s the only answer to that question. And I really echo what a lot of people have said about an experience of peace and joy and beauty. I think it’s an opportunity to actually live very deeply in each moment through this application of no-self.
Student: I experienced sort of mixed initial reactions or deeply mixed initial reactions. There was this feeling of “No!” I guess a little bit like the, “I didn’t sign up for it, how can I get out of this” panic kind of feeling. But when I really just let it sink like a stone in me, then this energy just came up of, like…since I can’t know, then there is no alternative. Then there’s nothing else but just this, just right…this. And then there was this kind of just pouring out of feeling, of what everyone else has been saying of…just joy. Just intense feeling, like, “Wow, this is it.” And then everything seemed so alive. And I think what Jill said, “If I really take this in, then I have to be alive like that every minute,” then that gets scary.
Student: There was a point last night I think after the teaching session and the meditation on our own death and…which I really felt like, “This is it, this is too much. It’s just too heavy, and I just want to go home.” [Laughter] And almost immediately, the thought came up, “What home do I have to go home to?” [Laughter]
And it was kind of a sense that something has really substantially shifted and changed, and I won’t go back to leading the same life that I was leading before—for so many different reasons. And even in the evening I talked about the straitjacket a little bit yesterday, and I just found this very deep breathing was coming out of nowhere. I felt like there was a real release within the tightness that…in the constriction I hold, and that was quite powerful. And as far as the meditation itself, it seemed kind of like a brainstorming session with a lot of different possibilities coming to mind.
And I kept coming back to Uchiyama’s notion that we prepare tomorrow’s gruel this evening, even though tomorrow may never come. And wondering, you know, exactly how do I follow that instruction—recognizing I have a lot of unfinished business? There are a lot of dirty pots in the kitchen that I need to clean up and take out and work with. I’m not exactly sure what I want to prepare for tomorrow, and I’ve got to come up with that idea. But there’s also this sense that my choices today will create my possibilities tomorrow. And to put a great deal of attention and energy into the choices that I make today, so that tomorrow’s possibilities can be even better. And all knowing that it might come to an end, so it’s a tough one.
Ken: Elena, come on up.
Elena: This morning I woke up, and I thought, “Oh good, there wasn’t an earthquake” or—[interrupted by laughter]—“I wasn’t eaten by the wolves,” and I felt good about it, you know, I was like, “Wow,” maybe every day I can actually wake up like that and think, “Hmm, good, another one!”
Elena: Okay, that’s the part…it was a liberating experience for the most part. Although…and you know I feel there’s a tricky part to it, which is falling into the same illusion of, “Oh, good, there’s a…ooh, there’s energy, there’s a good thing coming out of it.” And so maybe that means that I don’t die or something like that. But you know, I don’t want to fall into the illusion again, obviously. So it looks like there’s a great deal of work that is waiting for me and a great deal of letting go of little deaths. And it’s going to take a while. That’s what I, you know, realized.
Student: This question didn’t really resonate very much with me. Here I’m totally different from everyone else. I was a very deeply practicing Christian as a young child and adolescent and sometime in my adolescence I simply ceased to believe—I couldn’t believe this kind of supernatural construct of the world. And since then, I think I’ve assumed that there is no afterlife, and it’s not…and I’ve tried to revisit in meditation, “This is a possibility, the fact that I can’t know if there’s an afterlife or not.” But I couldn’t relate to any anxiety of that, and I think I just assumed that there isn’t and that that’s it.
And it seemed to me the question of the fact that I can’t really know what the nature of this life is—I’m not a philosopher, right—so I can’t know. So, maybe it’s all a delusion. But if so, you know, me—the person asking this question—is a delusion, too, so I just have to live within the internal logic of the delusion. So, it gets back to my same question, which is still really what everyone else is faced with, I think, which is, “How do you live this life?”
And I was struck by one of the phrases in the opening prayer that we say. I’m going to remember wrongly, but I think it’s something like, The laws of how things work are internal, which I take—is that the one? Thank you. It says, The laws of the way things are work internally, give me energy to live without shame. So I take that to mean that even if it’s a delusion, part of the delusion from the Buddhist concept is that my buddha nature is dictating…if I can find it within me, I should know how to live this life. But then I got to worrying, “Maybe I’m over philosophizing.”
Then I think, I said, “What’s the evidence for that, what’s the evidence you need that—[Laughter]—I really have a buddha-nature?” Because I try to look at, you know, Buddhist societies and see whether they really on the whole have been more enlightened and better than others. And I look at Sri Lanka today, and you think…you’d ask any Tamil whether the Senegalese Army behaves better than our army in Iraq. And I find no evidence of it, so, that’s where I ended up.
Student: So, my experience was similar to Roger’s except I think my words will be different. The whole meditation was infused with the concept of the I from our fire experience and so the words that came up for me were “to live each day as if it’s my last,” and “to still hold the space for miracles to happen.” But the I about this is that over the years, I probably said that to, I don’t know how many people, when they would say, you know, “Should I call the kids from back East or should I this or should I that?” and there was always an I in it, it was always trying to guide them towards a direction. And so, when this came up for me, it was like fresh, it was like new. And along with it, a glimmer of how difficult this is and what a conundrum it is.
Student: When I first heard the words from Ken, I thought in terms of, well, “What would I change if I knew I was dying, what would I change about my life, what would I do differently?” And the answer I came up with is, “I wouldn’t change anything, I would keep doing what I’m doing, because in a sense my life is perfect on many levels.” And then in meditation this morning, I thought, well, “Who would change anyway? Who is changing? What is changing? Where is change?” So, going back into the spacious…the groundlessness. And then I started laughing, but I didn’t laugh out loud—[laughs]—I thought that might disturb you guys. So there it is.
Ken: That’s an interesting point. If tears are allowed in the zendo, why not laughter? [Laughter]
Ken: Okay, anybody else want to make any other comments? Roger? You can use that mic there.
Roger: There’s one other thing I thought of—but I didn’t say—which was, I really notice a feeling of connection with other people.
Ken: Okay, Sophie?
Sophie: Well, I’m having the opposite problem—as you are—of sleep. What’s happening for me is that I am so awake at night. I just feel like it’s releasing so much energy, and I’m like lying there not knowing what to do. And so I feel like I’m vibrating. And I’m like, “I’ll try and meditate.” And then I went through the death meditation again and floated around the light for a little bit, and then looked out the window. And you know…and every single noise in our room, I would just pop up like a rabbit or something. It’s like I’m ready for something, but I don’t know what.
Ken: Well, thank you all for your comments. I want to tie a few things together, ’cause we’re going to go into a somewhat different direction this evening.
One of the things that I’ve tried to bring out in the way that we’ve worked together over these few days is that reflection on death and impermanence isn’t simply a beginning or preliminary practice. It’s wonderful to see how human behavior—very habituated human behavior—functions in spiritual circles. I suppose, actually, it would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. And people look for status. And when there’s no way of defining status, people will latch onto anything for status. I thought of playing a little trick on you this morning, saying, “Please remember your pine cones. Please bring a pine cone and remember…and there’s a rumor that bigger is better.” [Laughter] Just to see what the result would have been! [More laughter]
Yeah. Because everybody knows what the pine cones are for, but just that hint that there might be something else entrains all kinds of other things. [Laughs] So, one of the ways that people determine status, at least in themselves, is, “Are they advanced or experienced practitioners or beginner practitioners?” And in the Tibetan tradition we have the four thoughts which turn the mind, and a whole bunch of other meditations. And ngöndro, Vajrayana, and the six yogas, and dzogchen, mahamudra—all these stages to go through. And since the second meditation is death and impermanence, it’s regarded as a beginning meditation. But I think from your experience here, certainly from what we’ve heard, this theme in Buddhist practice—and it’s very, very important—functions many different ways, many, many different levels.
In Tibetan tradition, there is—and this of course comes from India—there is the image or the symbol of the wish-fulfilling cow. Now, in Indian society, the cow was the source of everything. It was the source of milk. It was the source of clothing; when the cow died, you used its skin. It was the source of disinfectant; cow dung was used to disinfect rooms, and so forth. It was the source of fuel to keep you warm. And so, the cow was symbolized and mythologized as this source of everything, this wish-fulfilling gem. And that became a mythical element which the Tibetans inherited, a treasure which could not be exhausted.
And many of you are very experienced practitioners here. Some of you are just beginning. But one of the things that I hope all of you will take from this is that attention to our mortality—it doesn’t matter where you are in your life—it will always bring you back into your life. And, one can go from there back into presence, back into not knowing, back into letting go of assumptions, back into all of these things.
So, I want to do two things…got the wrong order here. First, we’re going to take a traditional meditation on death and impermanence—and this is the way one frequently finds things expressed—and explore ways this can be translated. The universe, this external world will be destroyed by fire and water. The four seasons, mere moments come and go, everything is impermanent, bound in the four ends. The four ends refer to a verse which goes back probably to Indian Buddhism. I don’t know its actual origin, but it was something my teacher liked to quote all the time, The end of building is ruin. The end of meeting is parting. The end of accumulation is dispersal. The end of birth is death.
’Bout sums it up!
So, this particular verse that I just read is about change. About, Everything changes, nothing stays the same. And as I said at the beginning of our time together, that’s the classical way of doing it. You just start enumerating all the way things change, with the idea of taking it in, that, say, conceptual or analytical process. What I invited you to do was more of a reflective process—just feeling that. And it seems you’re able to work with that in a good way.
There has never been a person born who doesn’t die. Well, you’ll all recognize that one. Life and breath are like lightning and dew. It is not even certain which will come first, tomorrow or the next world. And so, this verse we have what we spent time with on the second day, which is, We are going to die, and we don’t know when. And what’s marvelous about this is that these are statements of the blindingly obvious. But even though these are blindingly obvious, we consistently ignore the significance of them. I mean, if you went to the ordinary man in the street and said, “You’re going to die, and you don’t know when,” he would say, “Yeah, tell me about it, Bub. So what else is new?” Unless he was Bart Simpson, in which case he would say, “Well, doh!” [Laughter]
But again, when we stop and actually take that in—“Oh, I am going to die, and I don’t know when.”—two things start to happen. One is, you begin to question how you live because, in many cases—we’ve heard some people mention this—most of us, we live our lives the way we’ve been conditioned to. That conditioning takes many forms. It starts in our family and is refined and reinforced by the society, our educational system, culture—all of these things. But all of these are different forms of conditioning.
And we usually don’t start questioning them until we begin to notice how things aren’t lining up quite the way that we were told that they were going to. One of the first windows there is the early twenties. The next window shows up—usually—in the early to mid-thirties. And the one following that is around the mid-forties. But we don’t question this. And one of the fundamental purposes of meditation on death and impermanence is to cause us to question the assumptions that we have about the way we’re living.
In traditional literature, you will come across the phrase, Cut attachment to this life. Now that is usually explained as, “Don’t worry about this life, worry about the next.” And there are many myths and stories that are told to reinforce that. But I think a more operational interpretation is that this life refers to the life which society and culture and our conditioning presents us. And several of you in just what we were discussing a few moments ago expressed a sense of freedom and a sense of fear. Well, the freedom is—or could be interpreted as—a freedom from conditioning or seeing the possibility of being free of the conditioning. And the fear is sensing the possibility of being free of the conditioning. Like, “Now what?” Okay?
Then this author goes on to say, If I only think about dharma but don’t practice it, the demons of distraction and laziness carry me away. Well, I’ve got a twenty-five-dollar word here. We have the word dharma that’s imported from the Sanskrit, of course. We could import another word, the tao, possibly. We could possibly use the English word the way. In English itself, the term spiritual or spiritual practice, it’s very problematic. Do you know what you get if you look up the word spiritual in the yellow pages? [Laughter] Palmistry and astrologers!
And the problem’s actually deeper than that. Spirit is derived from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek psyche. Which in turn…these are all words for breath. And they all go back to Genesis, where God breathed into Adam. So in Western thinking—Western practice—the quality of being human is associated with breathing. Very deeply. In the East, the breath was recognized as very important, of course, but the quality of being human was associated with awareness, not with breathing.
So this is a twenty-five-dollar word, if you can come up with something.
If I only think about dharma, the way, spiritual practice—whatever you want to put in there—but don’t do anything—now, what is this saying? Let’s translate this. If I only think about this stuff—that is, “Oh, there’s all this conditioning,” and “I could be free of that,” things like that—if we just think about it, but we don’t actually do anything about it, nothing happens.
In my business consulting—coaching—I give people suggestions and sooner or later somebody says to me, “Okay, I’ll try to do that.” I want a volunteer. Anybody? [Laughter]
Student: Oh, all right.
Ken: Thank you, Jean. Hold up your pen, would you? Hold it out, okay. Now, listen to me very carefully. Try to drop it. [Laughter]
Jean: Well, I’m trying…but I can’t do it. [Laughter]
Ken: So, trying doesn’t count here, because nothing happens. And this is very important. There are actual things that we do. This morning—during the breakfast bake—I was thinking, “You know, I really haven’t done a very good job teaching people.” I realized if I was going to start all over again, I’d do it very, very differently. So, now I’m going to tell you the right way. [Laughs]
Jean: Oh boy!
Ken: Finally! Well—pardon?
Student: This just came over breakfast?
Ken: This just came over breakfast, yes. You have to do something to fill the time, you know.
So, the first things one needs if you’re going to learn to do anything well are the basic skills. For instance, how do you learn how to write? You make the shapes of the letters over and over again. How do you learn arithmetic? Well, you practice addition and subtraction. So, it seemed to me, that probably the first thing you should learn when you’re meditating is how to pay attention to one breath. So, screw this 30 minutes of practice every day.
I’ve got a new client who wants to learn to meditate, so I think I’m going to try this on him. Say—[Laughter] “Poor guy,” says Jim, but maybe he’s lucky! So, forget about meditating for half an hour at a time. The first thing you do is you do…every morning, you get up and you practice a hundred one-breath meditations.
[Ken models doing one breath.] Finished. [Ken models another one-breath meditation.] Basic skill, right? Being present with one breath.
So, move onto death and impermanence. Same kind of thing. You really want to learn this stuff? Practice it. Take in one thing that changes every day. Doesn’t really matter what. It may be the movement of shadow as the sun goes. You go, “Oh.” And what this is going to do is bring attention to some minutiae in your life, and you see change. And you’re practicing exposing yourself to change. Basic skills. I don’t have all of the levels worked out, but you get the idea.
Just for interest, what would it be like if you’d learned meditation that way? Really basic skills. So, I’m gonna try that. I’ll let you know how it goes.
So, this is not theoretical stuff. This is not philosophy. This is learning, practicing, doing. And they can be broken down into really basic skills that we can learn. So that’s something I encourage you to do is, “Look, okay, how can I really take this in?” And don’t deal with the abstract; don’t deal with the philosophical. “How can I really take this in?”
Another practice that I’ve sometimes given people when they’re doing death and impermanence meditation is that every day—all the time they’re doing meditation—they have to buy a cut flower and put it in a vase where they meditate and not give it any water. So every day they sit down, they see the plants change. And eventually it shrivels up and dies, and then they get another flower and do the same thing. It’s like, “There is change.”
Ken: Then we get the last two lines: Since I must go empty-handed and naked, I should practice the supreme dharma without delay.
Judith: [Laughs] So we’re all going to get undressed!
Student: I don’t think that’s what is meant… [Laughter]
Ken: Well, I mean, you laugh at this, Judith, and you think we’re all going to get undressed now, but when my teacher was in Vancouver in 1972, we’d been asked to dinner by this very nice middle-class couple in one of the better parts of Vancouver. And it was wintertime in Vancouver, which means it was rainy and wet and cold, you know, like, 35, 40 degrees. And rainy, typical winter. And we’d had this very nice dinner, and we were sitting around the fire. I’m not really sure what got into Rinpoche that night. But the husband said, “So Rinpoche, why is practicing the dharma important?” And Rinpoche looked at him and said, “We’ve just had a very nice dinner, and we’re sitting around here, and there’s a nice warm fire, and it’s very comfortable. Imagine you had to take off all of your clothes, walk out into that cold, wet night—with nothing—and you could never come back. Death’s much worse than that.” [Laughter] After-dinner conversation. [Laughs]
So again, this is metaphorical language. But when you were making your comments earlier this morning, you were expressing in your own language “going naked and empty-handed into the future.” So, I’m going through this in this kind of detail, because one of the things that I find quite problematic is that people don’t know how to read these traditional teachings. Everything in these traditional formulations is a highly coded, metaphorical expression of things all of us experience.
So, “I have no idea what this experience of life is. I have no idea what’s going to come.” At that point, you’re empty-handed and naked. And what I want to encourage you to do—with those of you who find reading and study helpful—is read and study this stuff but ask, “Okay, what are they actually describing? What experience are they actually describing here?” None of it is literal. And this is very, very important, particularly in this day and age. We are at the very, very beginnings—and I want to emphasize the very beginnings—of the development of a form of spiritual practice that is appropriate for postmodern societies.
Things that worked pretty well in the world up until the beginning of modernism, which you can trace to about the seventeenth century. The Islamists have probably done the best job on this, which is a pretty thorough integration of practical ways of living in the world and deep spiritual practice. And so, in the eighth, ninth centuries, you had this extraordinary breadth of knowledge and scientific investigation—mathematical, biological—throughout the Islamic world, and it didn’t in anyway threaten or wasn’t threatened by the practice of Islam itself.
And the depth of that knowledge was such that well into the seventeenth century the major text used by doctors in Europe was one that was written in the eighth century in Baghdad. Then the scientific method and capitalism and all kinds of other things changed. And the whole way the world functioned changed. And the result of that is still being played out today—in that evidence-based knowledge became paramount; the reliance on intellectual reasoning became paramount in Europe. And Europe progressed extraordinarily rapidly in these domains, to the point that it could dominate the rest of the world for several centuries.
One of the first manifestations of this was the expulsion of the Muslims and the Jews from Spain. So, their first brush with modernism was, “It destroys our way of life.” Not exactly an advance from their perspective. Not too much later, you had the Thirty Years’ War between France and Germany, which was a direct result of Martin Luther’s Reformation. It was basically a war between Catholics and Protestants, which killed almost half the population of Germany at that time. And the only reason the two sides stopped fighting is they didn’t have anything left to fight with. And they said, “Okay, we’ve got to figure out some way just to get along.”
People who valued the traditional approach did not know what to do in the advent of modernism. It took them a long time to figure out, and they made some very, very bad mistakes. What they did was they interpreted the way that modernism works—reliance on the intellect and reliance on taking things literally, because that’s how you work in science and other areas. You know, you want your results to be reproducible. You write down exactly what you did. You do not put it in coded language. So what they did, they said, “Oh, literal interpretation is what works.”
So, starting in the, maybe the eighteenth, but really in the nineteenth century, they had the bright idea of interpreting the Bible literally. Never had been done before. That was relatively new, that’s a new phenomenon—gonna interpret the Bible literally. So you get such idiocies as creationism, and so forth. But fundamentalism from this point of view is not an old phenomenon, it is a modern reaction to the advent of modernism and represents an attempt to preserve a kind of life. And that’s why you have people literally fighting for their lives.
We are so used in our culture to interpreting things literally that when we come to old texts such as this and others, we do it without thinking and we end up with very, very naïve interpretations. Karen Armstrong notes in her book—and I think others have—the book, The Battle for God—that any time you try to transpose internal truths into society, you always end up with a disaster.
And we see this—people who try to take these deep internal truths, and make them into political systems or social orders or whatever you want—it always produces a disaster. At best it produces a benign dictatorship, but then you have the problem of succession. It usually produces some form of atrocity. It’s been used to justify the killing of millions of people because they don’t get the New Order. And that’s something that happened with the French Revolution, it spread through fascism, communism, radical Islam, and so forth.
So one of the things that I think is very important for us—and as I say we’re at the very, very beginning of this process—is how do we understand these things, the teachings that come down to us? And what I have found very, very important is to learn to read these things, asking consistently the question, “What experience is this referring to?”
So, if you take, in the Theravadan tradition, the notion of stream-winner—
Student: The notion of what?
Ken: Stream-winner. It’s one of the four stages of arhatship. The stream-winner, once-returner, no-returner, and arhat. The stream-winner is described—and there are wonderful metaphorical descriptions of this—as one who’s now on the path. That’s why it’s called the stream-winner. But the question here is, “What experience is that referring to?” “What experience is once-returner referring to?”
Here’s my interpretation—as we practice, sooner or later, we’ll probably have an experience which completely shatters the assumptions by which we’ve ordinarily lived our lives. And it’s not simply something intellectual. It’s something much more visceral. And you can never look and approach the world the same way again. We can never look and approach ourselves the same way again. So, something shifts in the system. That to me is what stream-winner is referring to.
And then once-returner refers to a quality of attention so that, yes, you get distracted by a thought [Ken snaps finger]. And then you remember, and you come right back. Once-returner. It doesn’t mean that you only are going to come back for another lifetime. Well, it does. The other lifetime is—you just—“one lifetime,” and then you’re back in the present. Each thought is a lifetime.
So, now I’ve gone hopelessly over, ’cause I wanted to do another thing. I talk far too much. Yes, okay—this we’ll have to do more quickly. This is more translation. This is from a thirteenth, fourteenth century teacher, describing death and impermanence:
At first, meditation on death and impermanence makes you take up the dharma. [Words of My Perfect Teacher, p. 57]
As you become aware of your mortality, you begin to look at things more deeply. You begin to search for a way in life, which I think is one way to translate dharma in this context.
In the middle, it conduces to positive practice.
When you really take in death and impermanence, are you more or less inclined to act virtuously?
Ken: That’s all it’s referring to. It’s a natural thing. And it’s really wonderful. But when you really take in, “Oh, I’m going to die,” the impetus to cause pain and suffering to others naturally drops.
In the end, it helps you realize that everything is just experience. That’s somewhat nontrivial.
At first, meditation on impermanence makes you cut your ties with the things of this life; I referred to that already. In the middle, it conduces to your casting off all clinging to samsara, which is…and samsara is the ordinary way we live. In the end, it helps you take up the path of nirvana. You can hear the formality with which this is expressed, but I hope because of my comments, you can connect this with elements of your own experience. This is what’s important here.
At first, meditation on impermanence makes you develop faith.
Student: Makes you develop what?
Ken: Faith. And I wanted to say a word here. Faith, for me, is the willingness to open to whatever you experience. To be contrasted with belief, which is the effort to interpret what arises in your experience to conform to what you’re holding inside. There are some writers who refuse to make a distinction between faith and belief, and they’re able to gloss over a lot of very important stuff because of that.
In the middle, it conduces to diligence in your practice; in the end, it helps you give birth to wisdom.
Student: What page is that?
Ken: This is page 57 in Words of my Perfect Teacher. This is very important: the more deeply you take in your own mortality, the more clearly you see things.
Uses the word wisdom here. It’s actually probably closer to the word intelligence. And in Buddhism, intelligence is defined as the ability to make distinctions, to discern distinctions, to see. And attention to our mortality helps us very clearly distinguish between what’s important and what’s not—what’s truly important.
At first, meditation on impermanence leads you to search for a way; in the middle, it leads you to practice; in the end it helps you attain the ultimate goal. In the beginning, impermanence gives you energy for practice, which protects you like armour. In the middle, it causes you to bring attention to how you’re living your life. And in the end, it leads you to become really curious about what all this is. And you just want to know.
Okay, so, this morning’s meditation. [Pause] Have a couple of choices. One is to deepen your experience with, “Since I can’t know what this is, how do I live my life?” And you work with that the same way you’ve been working with the other practices, that is, just take that statement, “Since I can’t know what this is, how do I live my life?” and just let that resonate, let yourself sink into that, experience it as completely as possible, and see what comes.
Second alternative, which is basically just a different twist on the first one, “Where do I go from here?” Now, for this it’s very important to be familiar with Alice in Wonderland. She comes across the Cheshire Cat, who’s sitting in a tree, grinning. I don’t know how many of you have seen a cat grin. [Laughter]
And she says, “Please sir, which way should I go?” Where do I go from here? To which he says, “That all depends. Where do you want to go?” “Well,” Alice says, “It doesn’t really matter.” ’Cause she’s lost in Wonderland, you see. “Well, then it doesn’t really matter which way you go, does it?” says the Cat. “As long as I get somewhere.” See, that’s really important, isn’t it, to get somewhere? To which the Cheshire Cat replies, “Well, if you go far enough, you’ll be somewhere.”
So, “Where do I go from here?” is going to bring you back to intention, inevitably. That’s never an easy contemplation, but it’s usually a fruitful one. Okay? Any questions? Roger?
Roger: When you were talking about literal interpretation, I sort of had an insight that I’ve been approaching Buddhism with the…sort of the mind that I had when I was in Sunday school.
Ken: [Laughs] I see, go on.
Roger: Well, as a young child, Sunday school was very important to me, and the idea of Jesus and heaven and being saved and…it seemed like the Bible was like a storybook where all of the people were, you know, going to help me live my life. And I feel like when I first encountered Buddhism, I had that idea, that all of these scriptures were like a description of this wonderful land, where everything was going to be wonderful, similar to the way I viewed the Bible as a young child.
Ken: Thank you. And now?
Roger: Well, I feel like what you’re asking is maybe to take a slightly more mature approach. [Much laughter]
Ken: Thank you for your honesty there. Yeah, that’d be a good idea, I think. [More laughter]
Ken: Any other comments?
Kerry: So the authors and teachers from years way, way back—when they wrote and spoke these things that we’re reading today—did they write about them intentionally in metaphor? Or as they wrote them were they real to them, but it’s best that we interpret it metaphorically?
Ken: Well, I had a wonderful conversation with a rabbi about the first verses in the Bible, which, in the Hebrew, are very, very different from…the first major translation is the Septuagint, from the—I guess it was Aramaic into Greek—and it was a bad translation. You have no idea how many theological problems have stemmed from that translation, which was made a very long time ago. And when he explains the Hebrew, it’s just—and I can’t remember exactly—but it’s just totally different. And it’s describing the experience of the chaos of the mind and what we encounter in meditation.
Another example, Jewel Ornament of Liberation, main text, comparable text to this, this [Ken refers to Words of My Perfect Teacher] is the Nyingma tradition. At one point, Gampopa says, You have to have such faith, that even if you are confronted with 300 soldiers with sharp weapons, you would not abandon your faith. Now, Kerry, have you ever encountered those 300 soldiers? [Laughter]
Kerry: I was going to say, “No, I haven’t,” but I have wanted 72 virgins.
Ken: Seventy-two virgins, okay. [Laughter]
How many here have encountered those 300 soldiers equipped with sharp weapons? Yeah, yeah.
This is metaphorical language, and that language is used to refer to things that we can’t speak about in any other way—that can only be alluded to, pointed to. And when you interpret it literally, you’re actually misinterpreting it. And that language was used in some cases to hide some of the deeper truths, and we get into all this business about secrecy, and so forth. And there was very good reason to, because some people when—just as we’ve been working with today—you tell them, “There is no meaning to anything,” they just lapse into despair and can’t function. In that sense, such truths are dangerous. So there is a reason to express them in ways that had to be translated or interpreted—where you depended on a teacher to interpret them—and they said, “Okay, this is what this is referring to.”
Kerry: Just to follow up, what we’ve been talking about, and what you’ve been talking about throws a very interesting light on Mormonism, which is where my roots are, because it came about in the 1830s.
Ken: Yeah, yeah.
Student: Ken, Jim has a question.
Ken: Okay, Kerry, can you hand the mic…go ahead Jim.
Jim: I just wanted to make a quick comment, sort of as a follow-up to Kerry’s remark. In our group, we recently followed a suggestion that George Draffan gave us, and that was to read the original text of the four reminders—we took one in each session. And, then we…George has also written a commentary on Jamgon Kongtrul’s commentary—
Ken: And it’s wonderful what he’s written.
Jim: And then we took the time after we had sort of tried to figure out, “Okay, what does this mean?” Each one of the group members took time to write their own reminder of death and impermanence or their own reminder of karma. And the group members found this to be really, really helpful to sort of take the medieval language into a way that they could understand from the perspective of their own lives now.
Student: What happens when you lose your faith—and this is probably a whole retreat?
Ken: You always come up with these great questions right at the end. [Laughs]
Student: I’m over here percolating, that’s why.
Ken: Microphone, please.
Student: Oh, because I percolate my thoughts, it takes time.
Ken: Yeah, okay. I’m going to defer that to this afternoon. But it’s a very good question, “What happens when you lose your faith?”