Death: Friend or Foe 7
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.

Peace and ClarityDownload

The value of retreats; making the transition from retreat to ordinary life; you can’t take this experience with you; finding the peace and clarity that exists in any situation; defining awakening as experiencing whatever arises as expressions of peace and clarity.




Section 1

A number of people have expressed their concern about, “This was a very nice experience, Ken, but what am I going to do in the rest of my life? How do I take this back?”

And this is a question that often comes up in retreat settings. Retreats such as this are very valuable for several reasons. First, we step out of the routine of our regular lives. And emails, phone calls, family, work demands—that’s all at a minimum here. Cell phone reception is crappy here, which just makes it one of the better places to hold a retreat. Most of the other retreat places that I go to, cell phone reception is all too good, so people are out with their Blackberries and their iPhones.

So that’s one thing—we get out of the routine and the demands, etc. of our regular lives. And we do so because we come here with an interest to explore this aspect of our lives, this aspect of our experience which for lack of a better word we call spiritual. It’s actually a very important dimension to our lives. And following up on this morning’s discussion, one can look at fundamentalism as an attempt to correct the imbalance in the human psyche created by the dominance of modern and postmodern perspectives. It’s a very misguided and mistaken attempt to remedy that imbalance, but it’s actually an attempt to remedy that imbalance.


Section 2

I was at a panel discussion on the role of religion in the modern world at the University of Southern California, and the discussion was actually better than I expected, which is always a pleasant surprise. There was a Pakistani scholar who is at Loyola Marymount, a scholar in Islam, and he quoted his mentor, who is a Presbyterian minister at the University of Toronto in Canada. And this is something that his mentor had said to the mentor’s son when his son said that he wasn’t going to attend church anymore. He said that, “If you give up religion, then you’ll lose the vocabulary with which to talk with your friends about the things that matter to you most.”

That made my ears prick up. Because even though the way we live our lives—constant distraction, constant involvement—in many respects, what we’ve been dealing with these few days are the things that matter most: How are we in the world? How are we in our lives? How do we meet—to use the Zen phrase—the great matters of life and death? So, that’s what these few days provide us. But there’s more.

We do so in the presence of like-minded people. And we engage in practice. Yes, we’ve had some discussions, but the majority of our time is spent in practice. That is, working the material one way or another inside us. Not dealing with it theoretically or academically or analytically or psychologically, but meeting it as a matter of experience. That of course requires some attention, and that’s where the second great benefit of retreats arises. Because when we work together in this way, each making what efforts they can, a pool of attention is built up. And you can feel this in the zendo. We felt it here when we engaged in the morning exercises yesterday and the day before. It has almost a palpable feel.

The benefit of that pool of attention is that each of us can draw on it, and make a greater effort or a deeper effort—depending on the word you want to use—which may be greater than what we could on our own. So often people have deeper experiences or different experiences or understandings which arise in a retreat context that don’t arise—or may not have arisen for a long time—in the context of ordinary, individual practice. So it’s a special situation. And it also gives us an opportunity to build our attention muscles. And to work with issues—without the ordinary distractions—at a deeper level, again, drawing on that pool of attention. So there are many benefits.


Section 3

And the question that is frequently expressed is, “How do I take this back into my regular life?” Now as most of you can tell by now, I pay fairly close attention to language. Some people call me very picky. I don’t think that’s fair, frankly, I don’t think that’s the right word. I think they could choose a better word. [Laughter.] But be that as it may, precise, I think.

But let’s look at this question, “How do I take this back into my regular life?” The short answer is, “You don’t, and you can’t.” But the wording, the grammar of the question, reveals how many people try to work with their spiritual practice. And that is that they try to build up, or uncover—or whatever word you want to use—a quality of clarity and peace which they value. And then they want to take that clarity and peace to other experiences or other situations in their lives.

Well the pertinent quote here is from military strategy. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s to the effect that, “The best battle plans last until first contact with the enemy.” So people think, “Oh, I have all this peace and clarity,” And sometimes before they even get home, something happens and “Kaboom!” It’s all gone. Now there are reasons for this. It’s good to understand them. And I decided to talk about this more at greater length this evening rather than try to cram it in tomorrow at the end of the retreat.


Section 4

The first thing is that in an environment such as this, doing the kind of work that we’re doing, we raise the level of energy. And we do that through our effort that goes into attention, so we have a higher level of attention than we might ordinarily have. But when we leave here, the conditions break up. We’re on our own again, but we still carry that higher level of energy in us. And we also relax our attention and start doing things in a more ordinary way. And that higher level of energy just flows into our habituated way of doing things. So not infrequently, people experience themselves as being more reactive after a retreat. And they don’t understand why when they were so peaceful and present in the retreat.

This is why when you leave here, it’s good to do two or three things. One, give yourself as much space as you can over the 24 to 48 hours following the retreat. Second, maintain some attention. There are ways to do this. One of the ways which I found very helpful—and is quite straightforward—is to make a point of listening to the sound of your own voice when you speak. You’ll be considerably less likely to say something you regret. That can be augmented with the practice of taking a breath before you speak. We could call that the breath that saves a thousand tears. These are two very simple things.

Because of the level of attention, you may find that your physical coordination is a little different. So if you’re driving, allow a little extra space. One of my students after a retreat found herself blithely driving the wrong way down a one-way street. There’s a joke about that, actually. This man’s wife calls him on his cell phone while he’s driving and says, “Dear, be very careful, there’s someone driving the wrong way on a one-way street.” And he says, “No, my dear, there isn’t one—there are hundreds!” [Laughter]

All comes down to perception, doesn’t it? Another thing, touch objects before you pick them up. Just touch it, then pick it up. May save you knocking over a glass or something. When you touch the object, your body now knows exactly where it is and will act accordingly. So these are simple things, but they’re quite important.


Section 5

Now, as I said the tendency is to try and take the peace and clarity into your regular life. Well, there are many problems with this. We’ll just start with the first one; we don’t need to go any further. To do that, it means you have to be holding onto the peace and clarity. Peace and clarity can be a little bit like a cat. How many of you have tried to hold onto a cat? What happens?

Student: Their claws, right?

Ken: Soon as the cat doesn’t want to be there, it’s either out of your arms or things get extremely unpleasant. Very quickly. So, you can’t hold onto this.

Now, where does the peace and clarity go? Let me ask this a different way. It’s quite quiet in here. Sometimes in the early morning in the zendo before the cars start running up the hill, the highway, it’s completely quiet. A noise arises. Maybe it’s the sound of the birds. Maybe it’s the wind. Maybe it’s a motorcycle. Maybe it’s a bomb. Maybe it’s a boom box. Where does the silence go? What happens to it?

Student: It’s still there.

Ken: Yes, what happens to it is we stop listening to it. The silence is present in all sound. Peace and clarity are present in every experience. Now, I’ve had some experiences in which it’s pretty damn difficult to find that peace and clarity. And maybe some of you had some of those, too. And that’s the purpose of practice. It isn’t to hold onto the peace and clarity and try to take it everywhere with us. It’s to develop the ability to experience the peace and clarity in every situation. It’s a very different kettle of fish, and it involves a qualitatively different kind of effort.

Now we’ve already touched on this, particularly this afternoon in the fire circle. A couple of the coaching points that I did going around is, I said, “Just be with what you’re experiencing or open to what you’re experiencing, and something shifts.” And there it is. Sometimes in a way that we—the various parts of us—never considered possible. It’s not unreasonable to define awakening as being able to experience what arises—whatever arises—as an expression of peace and clarity.

If you look at the moment of Buddha Shakyamuni’s awakening, there’s a wonderful genre of thangkas in the Tibetan tradition which shows Buddha at the moment of his awakening. And there he is sitting like this. And around him is Mara’s army, these hordes of demons brandishing and hurling all kinds of weapons: whole universes, cogs, bows, arrows. If someone were to paint this today, it would be AK-47s and nuclear bombs and missiles and tanks and, you know. Buddha’s sitting there like this, but as these weapons rain down on him they’re transformed into a rain of flowers.

That’s what it says in the text. He transformed the attacks of Mara into a rain of flowers. Now, in keeping with what I was suggesting yesterday, what experience is this depicting? Well many, if not all of you, know exactly what experience this is depicting. You sit in these turgid, visceral, horrific, overwhelming, painful experiences. And you open to them and you find you can just be there. And all you’re experiencing is the extraordinary dynamism and energy of experience—of mind.

And that’s what it means to find peace and clarity in experience. And the only way is to open to the experience. Not to try to bring something to it, because as soon as you do that, you’re engaged in a war. And it’s a war between the forces of peace and clarity on one hand, and confusion and turmoil on the other hand. Well, we all know who wins that war. You find peace and clarity in experience. So what you take from this retreat is your experience of that possibility, and the experience of having done it a few times. Now life being what it is, how you did it here may not work there. That’s just how it is. But you know the principle. Now in daily life, it can be very difficult to do this.


Section 6

Something slipped out cause we weren’t paying attention, and now our spouse is very upset with us. What do we ordinarily do? Get defensive. Start an argument. What do you do from the perspective of this practice? Die. Die to all of that habituated stuff. And you just open to the experience of your spouse being very upset with you. Of course this is the about the last place you want to go cause it’s heartrendingly painful. It’s embarrassing. You feel stupid, young, and ashamed—in no particular order. That’s how you work the practice. You just open. And when you do that, what comes out of your mouth is likely to be a little different. So what you take from this retreat is the practice of opening to experience. That’s all you can take from here. And when you encounter these situations in your life, then you can do it. And people say, “Well, there’s not enough time.” That’s simply a matter of practice.

Years and years ago I was taking a few kayak lessons. We were up on the Pacific Ocean around Ventura, and we were going to be shown how to work with waves. The instructors were looking at the waves and thought, “These are a little bit too big for practice.” But one of the instructors was already in the water—and her kayak was broadside to the waves—and a big wave rolled in. And her kayak was picked up, and she was in danger of just being rolled, like that. And even though her body was turned to us and she was saying something to us, as soon as she felt it up, she just jammed her paddle into the wave, reached it, and rode the wave in. Why? Because she practiced.

The mark of practice is that you do it without thinking about it. Most of the time, if you have to think about it, it’s too late. But that’s the purpose of training—so that you do it without thinking about it. Now, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book is Outliers. You know how many hours you have to train? Ten thousand. Chinese have an expression, “Ten thousand times.” Cal Ripken, Jr., the shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles, played the greatest number of consecutive games in baseball. Do you know how he practiced? Every day, he fielded 1,000 balls. Every day. That takes two or three hours—1,000 balls—have a machine or somebody batting them to him. That’s why he was so good!

If you really want to use this in your lives, then you practice it. Every opportunity you get until you’ve done it 10,000 times. Then maybe you’ll start getting the hang of it, and maybe you’ll be able to do it without thinking about it. But it’s not going to come naturally, because there’s all kinds of conditioning in us that has us going in different directions—as you all know very, very well. And that conditioning just doesn’t go away by itself.


Section 7

Guenther was a wonderful person—Herbert Guenther—translated a number of texts, made a wonderful contribution. The only trouble was he was from Austria and wrote in Germanic English. But he did get one good line, Samsara is notorious for being without end. That’s a quotation from The Jewel Ornament of Liberation—actually, first or second paragraph. That was his best translation. That’s a good one. What this is pointing to—there is nothing in our conditioning that resolves itself. It just continues to build up more and more and more, until we become frozen or completely nothing but reaction. And we see this as people age. If they don’t have a practice, their patterns become more and more pronounced and more and more rigid. So, this is how it is.

Now, it doesn’t have to be formal practice. You will devise your own ways of practicing, but it is a training. And it requires repetition. And it requires consistent effort. It’s serious biz—it’s our lives that we’re dealing with. It’s very serious business.

Okay, that’s my rant on that one. Questions? Comments? This give you some idea of what to do when you go back to your regular lives? Okay. Questions, comments, and then I want to move to meditation instructions for this evening. Roger?

Roger: Kind of embarrassed to admit this, but whenever I go to a retreat like this, I always have some grand scheme that I’m going to implement. And I find that that doesn’t work very well.

Ken: I’m sure you’re the only person. [Laughter]

Roger: But I think these concrete suggestions about listening to your own voice and taking a breath and touching something before you pick it up—they’re great. But I was hoping for something more grandiose, I guess.

Ken: How do you move a mountain, Roger?

Student: One teaspoon at a time.

Student: One rock at a time.

Ken: Yeah, “One rock at a time.” And, yeah, we all want the big fix, don’t we? Or the silver bullet. Well, yesterday, we talked at some length and you worked at some length with the total absence of ground. We don’t know what this experience is and not only we don’t know, we can’t know. And we don’t know and can’t know what, if anything, follows it. In Buddhist parlance, that’s emptiness. But there’s the other side of emptiness, which in Buddhism is called pratitya samutpada, interdependent origination. I think one of the better words in English for this is evolution.

What we are right now in terms of our personality and the way we relate to the world is a product of several different processes of evolution interacting with each other. There’s the evolution of our brain. There’s the evolution of our experience, the evolution of actions, predispositions within us, etc. Jean came up with a wonderful phrase which I’m stealing from her. But you can say it, your microphone’s right there—

Jean: No, go ahead it’s your microphone.

Ken: No, yeah, go ahead. It’s your phrase.

Jean: Maybe karma is just brain plasticity.

Ken: Karma is neuroplasticity, I love it.

So, because the current way that brain development is looked at is that it’s a process of evolution. And the way the body grows—the way an acorn develops into an oak tree—is a process of evolution that different things turn on according to different conditions. What we are doing in practice is introducing a different evolutionary dynamic. In traditional Buddhism, you have dharmas of the path, experiences that belong to the path, and experiences that belong to nirvana.

And the Sarvastivadin classification, which is suspect because they were a theory-of-everything school, but that’s another whole matter. But it’s the same idea—we’re introducing a different way of evolving. That’s why there is no grandiose scheme that just fixes it all. There are things that happen, as there is in evolution. If you look at the way that evolution takes place, you have a few species, and then a proliferation of species. And they get up to a certain point and something shifts. And everything dies out and the whole process starts again with higher level organisms. And there have been several big transitions to that in the evolution of this planet. Because as things evolve, new spaces open up, and then you learn how to function in those spaces in totally different ways.


Section 8

We can see this in very real time with the evolution of the Internet. You know, and first there were websites, and then there was FaceBook. And then there were other possibilities. And there will continue to be. And who knows where it’s going to end up? But higher levels of organization in which totally different things are possible. So, we do sit in our practice and it seems like we’re getting nowhere. But at the same time, the level of energy in our system, and the degree to which it permeates our system is evolving. And when it reaches a certain point, whole behaviors which we thought we’d never get rid of have suddenly vanished. And it’s like, “What? How did that happen?”

And it’s like entering a new world, “How do I function now?” And that goes on for a while, and some of those old habituations manage to reassert themselves. And others, they’re gone. And then the same thing happens. And these big shifts, you know, they have fancy names, like first level bodhisattvahood, or stream-winner, or something like that. And that’s why I’m encouraging you to look at these things and see what are they actually talking about.

You connect them with your own experience. Because every one of those is something that somebody experienced at some point. And they valued it so greatly, that they described it in this wonderful, poetic, metaphoric language. I mean you look at something like the Avatamsaka Sutra. It’s a total celebration of this kind of opening, you know. In the most formal, high-flung language that you can imagine, is how the sutras are written. But they’re talking about very, very human experiences. So, yeah, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Student: Practice.

Ken: You see. And the miracle is that when you do this, things actually change. Usually—at least from my experience—when you’re least expecting it. Which is very disconcerting. We like to control our own experience. But there we are laboring at our practice, and it just seems to be getting thicker and heavier and thicker and heavier. And then we find ourselves sitting open and relaxed and we go, “What was all the fuss about?”

And you’ll develop things again and again. And it’ll feel like you’re doing it the same, but it won’t be the same. And you’ll revisit issues again and again. And you’ll think, “Gee, I thought I’d worked through all of this.” But you’re actually working through it at another level, you know. How many times did flight evolve in the course of evolution? You know—just biological evolution—how many times did flight evolve?

Student: A bunch of times.

Student: At least three.

Ken: Yeah, at least three. Yeah, fish fly in water. Then you have two kinds. You have the sharks, who are like jet planes. They have to be constantly in motion or they sink. And then you have the dirigibles—which are mostly the other kinds of fish—because they have their gas bags and they float up and down. And then you have birds. So, different forms of flight. Sorry, no grandiose schemes here. Kerry?


Section 9

Kerry: Yesterday, I was left with the impression you were going to say a few words about past lives. And I wanted to make sure that I heard correctly, and that was going to happen?

Ken: That was another life. [Laughter]

Student: Yours or his?

Ken: That’s a good question. [Laughter]

Kerry: Not satisfying.

Ken: Yeah, I don’t know anything about past lives, in all seriousness.

Kerry: How should we read reports about the Buddha and his awakening and his vision of his past lives? Or how would you? How do you read that?

Ken: Boy, you’ve put me in an ethical quandary here. So, there’s only one way out. [Laughter]

Student: How do you get out of ethical quandaries? I want to hear this.

Ken: What difference does it make how I do it? [Laughter]

Student: Who wants to know?

Ken: No, no. What difference does it make to you what I do with it?

Kerry: Because it’s something I reflect on often, and I think that maybe if I understood how you approach it, it might help how I approach it.

Ken: I have no such confidence. Mmm, no, I’m going to have to leave this one to you.

Kerry: That’s interesting. Can you tell me more? [Laughter]

Ken: Here we go! Though the correct one was, “What leads you to say that?”

It’s your life, and I can tell you the result of my own reflections. But I don’t think it has much to do with practice. It’s just where I’ve come to. And my hesitation is that by describing where I am, you may use that as a bouncing board, or you may just adopt it. So, if you adopt it, that’s not particularly helpful to you. You’re just following somebody else. That’s what creates the ethical quandary for me. If you’re going to use it as a bouncing board, well you don’t need it anyway, because it’s right there for you to bounce off anyway.

Kerry: I know when to stop. [Laughter]

Ken: Eli? Now, before that, that’s how you get out of an ethical quandary. And the point here is don’t pick up what isn’t yours.


Section 10

Eli: Getting back to staying within experience, you used the example of our spouse getting on us for something. When we met this morning, in passing I mentioned that I had had a terrible night with an issue that has come up for me. You know the tapes were running in my mind. I recall sleeping maybe an hour early on, and the rest of the time, I simply tried breathing and other things and they just kept running. And by the time I got up this morning—and particularly after the teaching this morning—the issue for me was totally resolved. I mean, the energy was totally gone. I still will deal with the issue. It’s up.

So my question is, can we stay with the experience? Now this was an experience—I don’t know whether I was dreaming or in a semi-conscious state. I think it’s the latter because I remember them so vividly. And I normally—in deep sleep—I don’t recall my dreams well. And the other thing—I know there are times that I definitely got hooked. But then I reflect…throughout though, I felt that I was watching it. But I was very involved in it, involved in discussions with people and everything. So, could I be watching and be in it as well? But something happened to me. And my question is, does that also identify as staying with the experience?

Ken: Oh, you make it so easy. Yes. It’s nice…let me expand on that a little bit.

Whenever we enter a new layer of conditioning, it feels like we’ve gone back to square one in our practice. Because there’s no stable attention. Stuff is bouncing around all over the place. It’s complete chaos. Somebody let a herd of elephants in. And we think, “Oh gee, I…I can’t practice, I…you know, I thought I had some ability.” But what’s really happened is the awareness or attention has penetrated into a layer of conditioning which hasn’t been experienced before, and it’s chaos in there. And that can be precipitated by a situation, whatever.

When we have a certain amount of experience, you go, “Oh, yeah, okay, I gotta keep trying…come back to something.” As you say, “Come back…just experiencing it.” That’s how I understood you when you said “watching it.” And, so, we go in and out. Sometimes we’re just experiencing it. Sometimes we’re lost in it. Sometimes we’re distanced from it. Sometimes we’re experiencing it. Sometimes we’re lost from it. Sometimes we’re distanced from it. And it’s just a big, big jumble. But little by little, we actually experience it. And when it’s experienced, it’s done, at least at that level. And we sit, just as you’re saying, “Well, what was all the fuss about?” But at the time, that’s not what it’s like.

Eli: It is true.

Ken: Yeah. And that’s what it’s like. You’re experiencing all of the stuff that drives the conditioning—around which the conditioning formed—but you now have a level of attention which allows you to experience it. It’s never particularly fun because we lock that stuff up for a very, very good reason. But now it being locked up and exerting all its subtle influences—and sometimes not so subtle—has become more problematic. Okay?

Eli: Thank you, very good.

Ken: You’re welcome.


Section 11

Ken: Okay, I need to— Yes, I have three minutes for meditation. Maybe just enough time.

Going in a completely different direction. We’ve been working very hard over the last three days. It’s very good. And a lot of people have reported their experience and shifts in their understanding, just as Eli was describing. So, your meditation for this evening, “Do nothing.”

Student: [Unclear]


Ken: That was worth it. Thank you so much.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: She didn’t, she just looked at me like, “Are you out of your freaking mind Ken? You just sentenced me to hell.” [Laughter]

Ken: Something like that?

Student: Yes. [Laughter]

Student: She can actually do that.

Ken: Oh, she can’t even count to ten. [Laughter]

Ken: So….

Elena: Okay, that’s it, with the laughters. I’m getting all these signal, that’s it. No laughters.

Student: Well, no more laughter, no jokes.

Ken: Okay, we have to be serious from now on. The sound…our sound crew says no more laughter. [Laughter]

Ken: Okay. So, just sit and rest. Now, you may find a few things start up. If that’s the case, then come back to your breath, come back to your body, and rest. Some of you may find it interesting just to sit and do nothing. From this perspective, if you’re watching the breath, you’re doing something. If you’re thinking about something, you’re doing something. If you are meditating, you’re doing something.

So, it’s something you can explore this evening and tomorrow. And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. I’ve given you plenty to work with, so you have something to occupy your time until you can do nothing. Sorry, Janet.

Jim: Can you ever actually do nothing?

Ken: Can you ever actually do nothing? That’s something good for you to explore, Jim. [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon, Judith?

Judith: It’s a good day for questions. It’s not a good day for answers.

Ken: Yeah, it’s a nice day for banana fish. [Laughter]

Student: I just want to know if I can still walk, if I’m feeling dull or sleepy?

Ken: Of course. Yes. Yeah, absolutely.

Student: Because that is definitely doing something.

Ken: Yes, but do nothing while you walk. Yes, Kerry? Better luck second time, eh?

Kerry: I asked this question while Janet was reacting and…do we alternate that with resting on the breath, as with the other instructions, or—

Ken: If you wish. That works for me. Explore. You know…I mean, it’s very interesting. Where’d all the anxiety come from? [Laughter]

Jean? Could you hand the mic to Jean please, Kerry?

Jean: What’s the difference between doing nothing and resting in awareness?

Ken: That’ll be my first question to you. Except, you had your interview this morning.

Jean: Yup.

Ken: Ah. I’ll work through people really quickly so I can get around to you again. [Laughter]

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: One can cheat, sure. I’m not sure how you cheat doing nothing, but that can be interesting. You’ve been working really hard. Just sit.

Student: It sounds like dying.

Elena: It sounds like a punishment. [Laughter]

Elena: I liked, ah, you know, working hard.

Ken: You need to be on the microphone, Elena.

Elena: No, it’s far. I’ve got the machine here…do I have to say the whole thing? I said, “it sounds like a punishment, I like working hard.”

Ken: Oh, well, that’s easy. Work hard at doing nothing. [Laughter]

Elena: Thank you.

Ken: A few people at dzogchen retreat I taught a few years ago…boy, did they ever work hard at doing nothing. They really worked hard at that.

Eli: We did it last year as well.

Ken: Yup. Yes, you were there, Eli. So…you know, if it’s not working for you, then continue with your practice. But explore it any way. What’s it like? Charles?

Charles: Those people who worked really hard at doing nothing, how’d that work out for them?

Ken: You’ll have to ask them. As Judith says, “It’s not a good day for answers.”