Last Four ElementsDownload
Review of main points from first talk; two practical frameworks for implementing right action; right livelihood is to bring attention to how you provide for life; livelihood in terms of how we interact with others around earning our living; economies based on consumption vs economies based on intention; right effort is to bring attention to how we are making an effort; four dimensions of capacity; right attention, or mindfulness, is to bring attention to how we are direct attention; right absorption or samadhi is to bring attention to how we rest in attention.
Okay, this is the second talk on the eightfold path. What is it May 24th, right? 2010 at Insight L.A. Okay.
Last week I started talking about the eightfold path and a couple of points I think that are worth repeating or bear repeating. The first is that when we talk about the eightfold path—right this, right that, right this, right that—the term right here, is an old English usage of right. It doesn’t mean right and wrong but it means a sense of true, or appropriate, or accurate. There’ve been various experiments with other terminology to translate the Sanskrit and the Tibetan but this seems to be the one that has become fixed in English. And trying to change things once they’ve evolved this way is very, very difficult.
Second point is that a lot of Buddhist teaching is presented with the underlying assumption that we are essentially rational beings. And that if we are presented with the full information then we’ll make the choice which will make sense. This is a theory that is the basis of most modern economics and war until very recently. Most modern economics and sociology theory and it is a….
Ken: Well it’s not unfounded, it’s just not true. [Laughter] One of the main reasons that it’s used is it just makes all the mathematics work so much more easily. There are now efforts to develop models of behavior which are based on group think and so forth. But there’s any amount of research that you can get people to make completely different choices about the same situation simply by presenting the information in a different way. But it’s not just modern economics goes on the basis…relies on this rational choice theory. It was a darling of the medieval societies. And there’s a great deal of philosophy associated with it and we find very similar philosophical movements both in medieval Europe and in medieval India where a lot of this stuff is developed vis-a-vis Buddhism. It’s a way of thinking that comes to dominate societies at a certain stage of their evolution, but it doesn’t make it any truer. It’s how people think.
And closely connected to that is the assumption…or is something that I’ve observed about how most Buddhist teachings are presented. They describe the results of practice but they don’t tell you that these are the results of practice. And so people listen to these very wonderful and inspiring descriptions of the results of practice and feel that they are being told how to practice. And they find it doesn’t work.
And I think I used this example yesterday, or last week, but again it’s a useful reminder. If you see somebody who’s a bit tense and you say to them, “Relax,” what do they do? Most of the time? They get more tense. They tighten up. Because when you give the instruction relax, you are actually describing the result of a process.
If on the other hand you say to the person who’s a bit tense, “Why don’t you take a deep breath and let it out slowly. And do that again. And do it a third time. How do you feel?” They will say, “I feel more relaxed.”
And one of the key distinctions I make in working with people is to distinguish between the results of practice, which are descriptions, and what you actually do. And what I’m trying to do in these two talks is move away from a description of the results of practicing the noble eightfold path, the results of practicing right speech and right livelihood and so forth, and talk about how do you actually do this.
Now, I think last time we went to the first four which were right view, right intention, right action, and right livelihood. No, right speech and right action. That’s right. And I want to pick up on right action because there are a few more points that I wanted to cover there.
Now the general thesis that I want to present to you and want you to consider here is that in all of these areas we don’t practice say—I’d like to use the example of right speech because it is very easy to see there. We don’t practice right speech by trying to say what is truthful in a gentle way that is non-divisive and timely or relevant. Because when you try to speak that way it always comes out somewhat contrived. You know you’re trying to make your speech fit a certain formula. And it just isn’t quite natural. Even if you get quite good at it it’s like the forced smiles that models wear. You know, when you smile naturally it’s different from when you have the intention to smile, because there are certain muscles which aren’t activated when you try to smile intentionally. And it doesn’t look right.
The way that you practice right speech is you bring attention into the act of speaking. And the method that I suggest here is that you listen to the sound of your own voice when you speak as if you are listening to another person. And when we do this we immediately hear when something is amiss or inappropriate or doesn’t fit the situation. We find we’re speaking too loudly, or too softly, or our mother has suddenly crept into our voice, or maybe our father, or there is some kind of edge which we really didn’t intend to be there. And then I remember many years ago when I was reading Wittgenstein,he was talking about a speech and how words have meaning and so forth and he said, “You know, we actually never know what we are going to say until it comes out our mouth.” Till it actually happens.
So this principle of bringing attention into what we are doing is the core of the practice of the eightfold path. Now when it comes to action it’s basically an extension of speech. Speech is a relatively simple form of action. And I’ve consistently found that people can be very, very good at their practice; they can sit very well, their minds can rest, they can listen very well. They even can walk with good attention, and as soon as they open their mouth it out all goes out the window.
And the reason is because there isn’t much emphasis on actually practicing speaking in attention. And it’s something that I hope you’ll try.
Even more so, people aren’t used to acting in attention. That as soon as they start to act old familiar patterns take over and they’re just gone.
I had the very vivid experience of this when I was teaching a mahamudra class. This is a very, very long time ago and I was working with a group of twelve students and we met monthly. And I wanted them just to explore the experience of listening. So I deliberately chose The Jabberwocky which is full of just all these nonsense words. You can kind of tell something is going on but you’re not really sure what it is. But it was a disastrous mistake for at least for my purposes. Because most of the people in the group were familiar with The Jabberwocky. As soon as I started to read it they moved right back into being a child and their parents were reading them The Jabberwocky. They just went, “Ahh, this feels so good.” And their practice was gone.
There was no attention; they just moved right back into that experience. And this is what happens most of the time when we start to act. Now there are some disciplines where you learn how to move your body in attention; dance is one, martial arts is another, because if you aren’t paying attention when you move your body you’re liable to get hit if not killed. But except for a few things like that we aren’t used to bringing our attention into the actual movement of our bodies, which is one component of practice.
We aren’t used to bringing attention into how we interact with people. At a retreat I did at Mt. Baldy, again many years ago, I divided people up into groups of three. One person was to rake up leaves or pine needles mindfully. The second person was to watch them and whenever they saw them not doing it mindfully, they were to correct them. Make a suggestion. And the third person was to watch the interaction and if they saw something unmindful going on in the interaction, then they were to coach that. Well it was very interesting.
The behavior in each of these groups was identical. And we rotated around so everybody experienced every position. But everybody reported exactly the same experience. It was my first lesson in sociology. The person who was doing the actual work regarded the other two as interfering. And they were quite content just to do their work and rake mindfully and not be bothered.
This person whose job it was to monitor the person who was raking, felt that because they were monitoring they had to say something. And if they didn’t say anything they weren’t really doing their job. So they started managing this person even when there was nothing to manage. And the third person felt the same kind of thing and kept stepping in and taking over the second person’s job. So that those two would get into a fight all the time. This happened in group after group, after group.
Well, except for the person who was actually doing the work, there was zero attention. Everybody fell into their ideas of leadership and supervision and things like that, and whatever family models they had running in them etc. And it was very educational for me! I’ve never found another group willing to do that though.
I mean, we got back into the main hall and debriefed and boy it took quite a while to smooth a lot of ruffled feathers. It was very interesting. But it was a very good education for me in how unused people are to exercising attention in the course of daily activities and interactions with people. And this is what right action is about.
So I want to give you two formulae that I’ve found helpful for bringing attention into action. Neither of these comes from Buddhist sources, but, one I can kind of fudge from a Buddhist source, but it isn’t really.
When you’re in a situation, and it doesn’t really matter what, and things aren’t going the way that you want or that you don’t expect, five things.
First get the facts. Find out what is actually going on. Our tendency is to make up stories about it. And whenever there’s something happening which we don’t understand, we make up a story. And it’s astonishing how quickly we make up that story. And there is a very important characteristic of that story: we’re always the hero of it, which makes it suspect right there. So rather than make up a story, get the facts. What’s actually happening?
Second, rather than react emotionally, and particularly defensively or judgmentally, which is what we usually do, empathize with and understand the other people. Find out what they’re experiencing and try to understand that. And so that makes an emotional connection, which really changes things.
Focus on what needs to be done, not on what isn’t going right. Focus on what needs to be done. As one person says: “Stop messing about with the past and look to the future.” I put this in terms of focus on the direction of the present. What actually needs to happen here to make this work? And be strategic. You may think it should happen a certain way, but that way may not work in this situation. So you’ve got to figure out what will actually work.
Often when people are consulting with me about problems they’re facing, I’ll make a suggestion and they say, “Well, we can’t do that because of this, and we can’t do that because of that, and I can’t do that because of this.” Their tendency is to regard all of those things as obstacles when what they’re actually describing is the territory in which they’re living at that point. And these are things that have to be negotiated and worked around, but they aren’t actually obstacles unless you regard them as such. And I’ve found that shift in perspective is very helpful to people.
And then the fifth one is, whatever happens receive it and keep going. One of my favorite quotations is from Churchill. When you’re going through hell, keep going. Certainly applicable in Britain in the Second World War.
Ken: The other one comes from the Toltec tradition and I have no idea how it’s worded in the original language, so these are translations.
Be impeccable with your word.
Now that’s going to happen quite naturally when you listen, when you bring attention into speaking.
Just a little question for you, how many of you talk to yourselves? Okay. When you talk to yourselves, do you bring attention to what you’re actually saying to yourself? Most of us don’t. There is this voice that natters at us and says all of these horrible things and judgmental things. Or if they aren’t saying horrible things then they’re saying quite ridiculously arrogant things. It just goes on and on, and we call it thinking.
So Be impeccable with your word certainly in our interactions with others but also start paying attention to how you’re speaking with yourself. Might be a good idea. That’s the first one.
Second one is: Don’t take things personally.
I’m working with a business owner right now and he’s a good guy, but he has this tendency to take everything terribly personally. So a lot of the coaching I’m doing with him is just about, “You know, that wasn’t actually about you. This is what was going on there.” And he went, “Really? Oh.”
And things happen and people do things but they aren’t…a friend of mine says, Ninety eight percent of what people say is about themselves. You may think they are criticizing you but they aren’t. They’re actually on their own case and they’re just projecting that on to you.
The third one is: Don’t make assumptions.
This is closely related to get the facts. We make all kinds of assumptions about things. Rather than make assumptions, ask questions. Bryon Katie has a very nice formulation here: Is this true? How do you know it is true? She’s got a couple of other ones but those are the first two. And that is usually sufficient to work through an awful lot of projections right there.
And the fourth one is:Always do your best.
Suzuki Roshi makes a very similar statement in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind when he says, Whenever you do anything burn up completely so there aren’t even any ashes. Now the idea here is very simple. When you know that you’ve done your best then you’re able to receive whatever happens.
I had a very nice example of this about ten years ago. A woman who’s a midwife in one of the local hospitals, who is also very valued by the World Health Organization, and was not infrequently asked to go to at that time countries in Eastern Europe to teach midwifing skills because they didn’t have a well developed medical thing and a relatively low technology. Medical techniques were very important. And these would involve a period of absence from the hospital, and the World Health Organization asked her to go on a very long, six months assignment. Which she really wanted to do because she was basically going to set up a whole system for training midwives in this country. But she wasn’t sure how her boss in the hospital would take it.
So I listened to her and I just said, “You know I don’t think there is going to be any problem here because everybody wins from this. What I suggest you do is just make a factual presentation on why this is a good thing to do for the World Health Organization, for the country, for you, and for the hospital, because you’re going to bring back a lot of expertise and so forth.”
So she sat down and made a presentation and I happened to meet with her the morning just before she was going to give the presentation. I said, “Well, how do you feel about this?” And she said, “Well, frankly Ken it doesn’t really matter what happens now. I know I’ve done my best.”
And that afternoon I got a phone call, “I didn’t even get to page two and she said yes.” So, the main thing is because she’d knew that she’d given it her best shot that whatever happened was okay. She wasn’t leaving anything behind. So this is a very powerful way to bring attention into action.
Ken: Now, let’s move on to right livelihood. The usual way livelihood, right livelihood, is described as not living by dishonest means and refraining from forms of livelihood that harm other beings. Well…[conversation about the sound equipment]
Ken: Okay, so what I said, is that right livelihood is usually described as not living by dishonest means and refraining from forms of livelihood that harm other beings.
Well, we live in a complex society where everything is linked to everything else. And the notion of living a pure life is an ideal. But we’re connected with various things economically. It doesn’t even matter if you eat meat, if you’re a vegetarian you’re still engaged, involved in activities that take the lives of countless sentient beings just in the process of agriculture.
Now in early Buddhism this was one of the reasons why monks were advised to renounce the world. So that they could refrain from being involved in the economic system as much as possible. And they would just go around and with their alms bowls around noon and receive whatever was there. So they weren’t requiring anything of the economic system they were actually just taking the leftovers. You know what people were prepared to give them or didn’t want. But also they were expected to take care not to harm sentient beings so all the water when they dipped water from the river they had to run it through a strainer. So they filtered out the bugs and they put the bugs back in the river so they didn’t swallow them by mistake.
Jainism, which is another of the Indian religions, took this idea of a pure life to a great extreme. But what that actually meant in practice is that only the very high priests could live a pure life and the rest of the people engaged in less than pure lives in order to support them. Living extremely pure life—you know they would wear masks all the time and they would just be sooo pure and everything. Very extreme form. People take quite aggressive approaches to food: vegan diets, and Zen macrobiotic diets, and so forth.
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is any time that you’re interested in living really really purely you’re basically motivated by anger. So this hardly falls in the category of right livelihood. Your very approach to living is reinforcing that anger of which drives a lot of the quest for purity.
On the other hand, there are a lot of things that can be done. And now because of the increasing closing of the world economic system and reaching the limits of the environment a lot of things that should have been done earlier are beginning to be done now. Full life cycle design for instance, where you look at every aspect, every part of a product’s life cycle from the beginning of its manufacturing and design process right to when it is no longer useful—how is it going to be disposed of—and designed that whole cycle so that there is as little waste as possible and good energy utilization.
The irony is that when you pay a lot of attention to that, you usually end up with a) a better product, and b) lower cost in the manufacturing. It just takes more time and thought. So that’s happening now and that’s a good thing. But trying to live and oh dishonest means…now when I was in retreat I came across this strange teaching, and I can’t remember all the details but the five inappropriate means of livelihood: flattery, bargaining, and there were three others I can’t remember. But these all applied to monastics. Now how can these be?
Well, when you are a monastic you don’t own anything but you still have needs, right? And you don’t have any money—particularly in the Theravadan tradition you don’t handle money at all. So you’re dependent on your patrons for everything. And it’s just human tendency to butter up your patron a little bit. Saying nice things in the hope that they will give you something. Or someone gives you a little trinket or something and you give that to your patron in the hope that they will give you something more and back.
There were five of these and I can’t remember what all of them were. What is says is that it isn’t until the fifth level of bodhisattvahood that you actually stop using these techniques. Which is a way of saying these are things that are very, very, much ingrained. So when they’re are talking about right livelihood, they are talking about these kinds of things that we do where we’re playing little games with each other in order to make things work in our favor. And just being straight and clear is neglected. So one of the things that we can do in the spirit here is bring attention into how you’re conducting yourself with other people, particularly when it comes to livelihood.
Now, a student of mine—he’s retired now—but he was an executive headhunter. And placed a lot of people in very senior positions. He told me about one case where he had a contract with a gaming company in Las Vegas for a CEO. And he’d found a great candidate in Boston. And they had gone through all of the negotiations. They’d figured out the signing bonus and the stock options and salary, and etc., etc. Everything was done. The deal was all but signed. And he got a phone call from the executive.
He said, “I can’t do it.”
My student says—you know this is a fair hunk of his income just going down the drain right now—and he says, “What?”
“I am sorry but I can’t.”
“Well what happened?”
“Well, I was having breakfast with my family this morning and my thirteen year old son just looked at me and said, ”Dad, I don’t want you to run a gambling company.“
Ken: And that was that. His son had brought his attention to what he was actually doing. And it bothered his son that this was how his father was going to be earning money was by promoting gambling, which isn’t a great contribution to society. And when his son had brought it up something had woken up in this guy and he said, ”No I can’t do this.“
So that’s what I mean about bringing attention. What are we actually doing with our lives? What are we actually doing in our jobs? And over and over again you will hear people say, ”I’m just doing this because it pays the bills, etc., etc., and I don’t have any judgement about the value of the work,“ etc., etc. But it does take a toll on us. And it may be more difficult to find jobs that actually fit or reflect our values or at least don’t violate them. But it’s very. very important to do so. Because otherwise we’re engaging something which is undermining our very being, all the time that we’re involved in it.
There are other things that I find that are quite important. When you bring attention to how you actually are earning money and what is required to earn money you’ll find that the basis of your life will shift from one of consumption to focusing on intention in life. We’ve already talked about right intention.
Our current economic system is based on consumption, which means that you have to constantly be getting people to buy things that they don’t really need. And this is why advertising has become so sophisticated and so effective, and market research, and so forth. But as you bring attention to the way you actually live and the way you earn your living, you’ll naturally start to question, ”Well, do I really need this?“
And so you’ll move away from just consuming things to, ”Okay what am I doing here, and what do I want to do with this?“ and move towards intention.
Now there is a very good little book strangely enough called Buddhist Economics. Which is written by a South Asian, I think a Thai person called Payutto. This is actually available online and you just look up Buddhist Economics, Payutto. And he does the same thing as Schumacher did, which is develop a whole theory of economics based on intention rather than craving, which is consumption. And there are a lot of good principles in it but I’ll just give one I found quite compelling.
So you’re running a business or you own a business or you’re responsible for a business. What do you do with the money? The formula: one part is to be used for conduct of daily life and fulfilling obligations, i.e., that’s your salary. You know, taking care of yourself, and your family, and so forth. One quarter of the profit for that. So twenty-five percent for that. Fifty percent to be invested in expanding the business enterprises and building it up. Making sure it runs, it goes back into the business. And then twenty-five percent is put aside for a rainy day.
Now when you look at the history of major American companies over the last century, you’ll see that they just completely ignored this. Well into the seventies when the steel industry went into decline, they were using equipment that had been installed in 1904 to manufacture steel. They were seventy years out of date. They hadn’t put any of the money back into modernizing the steel industry. And eventually steel mills in other countries based on much more efficient modern methods were able to produce steel at much, much lower prices.
And so the whole rust belt developed because you had all of these steel companies that weren’t kept up to date. Exactly the same thing happened in the automotive industry. They kept using short term strategies to generate profit, rather than to really look and redevelop their business to adapt to the changing times. The record industry. It goes one industry after another you can see they didn’t apply basic principles like that.
We have the same thing going on with Social Security and pension plans, and so forth, and so forth. The mathematics of this stuff is relatively simple. You put the money away and it’s there when you actually need it. And you put it away consistently and compound interest takes care of the rest.
But what happens is that people get greedy and they want to use that money for other things. And they do but then problems develop. So one of the things you can do in right livelihood is to bring attention to the tendency to move into consumption versus intention in your lives. And if you do that then you’ll live your life in a way which is balanced and productive. You may not be as wealthy as other people but I think there is a good chance you’ll be happier. And you’ll struggle less.
Now. Okay, I’ve been talking for a long time. Questions before I go into the last two. Comments, whatever. Roger?
Roger: The idea of right livelihood, is this all based on a person’s concept of morality?
[conversation about microphone issues]
Roger: The concept of right livelihood is the whole thing based upon a person’s concept of morality?
Ken: Say a bit more about your question, would you?
Roger: Well, when for instance when the guy that was gonna take the job at the gaming company and his son didn’t want him to take it. Now that was based on the idea that gambling is bad for people. It brings pain to people, right? So there’s a moral issue there. So as we look at the eightfold path and things like this, is it based on a morality, a Buddhist morality? Or is it based on karma or what’s the whole…
Ken: Okay. Thank you that helps. The short answer is yes, very definitely. The noble eightfold path is usually broken up into three categories: morality, attention and wisdom. Attention is usually presented as meditation, but I like it to be a bit broader. And right action—right speech—right action and right livelihood all fall into the morality category. So yes, these are expressions of morality or as I actually prefer a moral discipline. There is that element of discipline you’re going to live a certain way. Now, the way that you are going to live is necessarily based on your core values. And in the example that I gave of this gambling or this potential gambling executive, his son reminded him of the core values.
Student: Which he taught him.
Ken: Pardon? Which he taught him, yeah! But this happens all the time. Is that in the sense of urgency or ambition or whatever, we make compromises with things which we actually hold very dear to us. That’s actually a very important thing to pay attention to because we think we can do it and it’s not going to have any effect on us. But it really does have an effect.
So one of the things that I consistently encourage people is to revisit and keep a very clear relationship with one’s core values. Part of the reason I do that is that they tend to change over time. They’re different in different phases of our life. If we don’t bring attention to that, we tend to get caught up in the way that people around us think and relate to the world. We sometimes wonder like, ”How did I end up thinking this way?“
This is particularly true when you work within the context of organizations because you inevitably begin to internalize the values of the organization and the organization rewards you for the way that you function which serves the organization. So over time your behavior usually becomes exaggerated in the way that serves the organization and you become less balanced. And it’s another way that one moves into betraying or stepping away from one’s core values.
When you’ve completed certain phases of life or you’ve completed certain things, things that were really really important to you at one point in your life lose their importance and other things become more important. So that’s why it is important to check into this.
And you asked it is it based on morality or karma. Well karma is very much about morality. But what I want to say here is it’s not based on…I think in terms of the eightfold path and the way that I approach Buddhist practice now, it’s not really about adopting a moral system. It’s about developing one’s own moral system. And one’s own moral system is going to depend very, very much on what your fundamental questions are about life. And I very much encourage people to look at that, ”Okay, what are my questions about life? What are the ways that I as a person want to be in this life?“ And I keep coming back to that.
One may not do it all the time. It’s a work in progress we can say, but by revisiting it again and again, in effect by bringing attention to it, then you create the conditions in which there can be a process of evolution. And those ways of being in the world and meeting with other people and so forth, become more and more a part of what one does, not in some way of adopting but because you actually move into it. If you see the distinction I am making. Okay. Thank you, other questions?
We’d like to record this on the microphone.
Student: Is morality and ethics closely related? Because for example in Hipocrates oath, they say do no evil and do no harm, something like that. Are they closely related?
Ken: Ah, every now and then somebody would ask me about the difference between morality and ethics and I’ve heard it so many times and I forget it every time. [Laughter] But morality is kind of a problematic word in our society because people associate it with rules to live by. The way that I usually approach it, and many of you have heard me say this before, and this doesn’t work in all situations, but it works in enough to make it useful. And that is, you come into a situation and you know what the right thing to do is, but it’s going to cost you something. It may cost you some time, it may cost you some energy or some convenience. Maybe it will cost you some money. Maybe it will cost you a friend or possibly your job, you know depending on the situation. But you know what the right thing to do is and you do it. How long do you think about it afterwards? Most people say, ”No I don’t think about it at all.“
What if you know what the right thing is in a situation and you don’t do it? How long do you think about it afterwards? And that I found is a fairly useful way of getting at what for me anyway is the essence of morality; acting in a way which is true to one’s core values so that you are at peace.
Remember the purpose of the practice of Buddhism is to end our struggle with experience. Struggling with life. And if we are acting in a way that is contrary to things that we hold fundamentally in us then we are going to be struggling with our life. Very simply. Okay? Marie you had a question.
Marie: What you were saying earlier got me thinking about the Sutrayana teachings versus the direct awareness teachings such as dzogchen or mahamuhdra. See if I can get this question out in a clear way.
Marie: So in the Sutrayana teachings there’s the emphasis on morality and ethics and discipline and in the direct awareness teachings there’s the emphasis on that understanding arising from awareness. But you get to the same place, like it feels like you’ll get to the same place but it’s somehow talked about in a different way. I know historically like things…
Ken: What’s the question?
Marie: I don’t know. My question is just they start to feel the same the way you talk about them. But I know in Tibet that the dzogchen teachings were considered, you know they were stamped out at certain periods in history because they were considered too threatening…
Ken: Oh yeah, that’s…I am not going to go into that one because that’s a whole other discussion. Both of them are about bringing attention. And one way you could describe is one works from the outside in and one works from the inside out. So that in the sutra, what you are calling the Sutrayana, you bring attention to how you are actually acting in the world. And that puts in you touch progressively with your motivations and intentions and moves more and more in. In the Vajrayrana, you are putting attention on how you are experiencing the world so you’re starting off very internally and that gradually manifests out into how you act. So that might be one way to look at it.
Marie: Seems like in the Sutrayana there’s an emphasis on creating an environment….
Ken: Well most of them, you create environments, it’s just how you create the environment. Okay. Art you had a question, are you sure? Okay. Anybody else. Joe, no questions today?
Joe: Yeah. I have a question.
Ken: [Laughing] That’s what I thought.
Joe: Yeah, a lot of questions, but they’re all very personal and specific, you know. Why do I do voiceovers for advertising? [Laughter] That kind of strikes close to home. [Laughter]
Ken: [Laughing] That’s a very good example isn’t it?
Joe: Yeah it certainly is and I remember, It used to make me nauseous the idea of doing that and now I do it with, you know, great joy. [Laughter] And I’m wondering if it is just a lack of ethics or that I actually my intention has changed? And that’s a possibility.
Ken: That is a possibility and I think that this is one of the reasons why I think it’s very difficult to prescribe what’s right action or right livelihood. It’s a combination of factors of the action, of the motivation for the action, and of the intention behind the motivation. And all three are in play all the time. And I don’t think it would be very difficult to construct situations where a certain action would be right for one person and really wrong for another. So this is why I responded to Roger’s question about being clear about what one’s own core values and revisiting them on a fairly regular basis, like ”Where am I now? What’s important?“
Before going on to right effort, there are one, two other things, one other thing I wanted to touch on. This is a book, which is a collection of writings from Chinese called The Book of Leadership and Strategy. It’s a little deep, wonderful example of the beginning in the introduction:
How do you bring a country to ruin?
And the answer is: Many victories and many wars.
And the person says, I don’t understand. Please explain.
When a country wages many wars, it exhausts its resources. And the population suffers. When it is victorious in those wars, the leadership grows arrogant and arrogant leaders presiding over a depleted population is a recipe for ruin.
So as I say it’s somewhat deep. Well, here is something which I just found wonderful, just one paragraph here.
The basic task of government is to make the populace secure.
Okay? Nobody would disagree with that. To provide a safe environment for the population of the country. Now it gets interesting:
The security of the populace is based on meeting needs. The basis of meeting needs is not depriving people of their time. The basis of not depriving people of their time is in minimizing government exactions and expenditures.
Well no argument.
The basis of minimizing government exactions and expenditures is moderation of desire.
This is where we run off the rails. [Laughter]
The basis of moderating desire is returning to essential nature. The basis of returning to essential nature is in removing the burden of accretions.
So it’s saying in a sense that the function of government, if the government is to function well, it should be intimately concerned with helping people to live in their basic nature, not in driving them to consume. Then everything works but if they’re driven to consume then the whole thing goes off the rails.
Student: Is this Confucian?
Ken: This is more Daoist then Confucian, yeah. But I thought that was just wonderful. Okay. That is the way that government is effective for the people is by adopting policies which will reduce people wanting things. No, totally un-American but there you go. [Laughter] Joe. Oh yes you’re back in the advertising business, aren’t you?
Joe: I am but that quote is in the book, is it not? That’s in the book? Is it not, the one you just read?
Ken: About the way? Yes, it is right from here.
Joe: No, I mean it’s also in Wake Up to Your Life, right?
Ken: Did I put that in Wake Up to Your Life?
Joe: I’m pretty sure I’ve read it a number of times. Every time I have a question with the middle one there. Which maybe you can speak a little bit about, The essence of meeting people’s needs is not depriving them of their time.
Joe: I always stop there.
Ken: The point is people need time to take care of their needs. [Pause] So if you deprive people of their time by making them work for the government, i.e., paying a lot in taxes, then they can’t take care of what they actually need themselves. So the way that you get the society to function well is encourage people to moderate their desires. Then everything works well.
Joe: So depriving people of their time means, it’s conscripting them or making them work for the government, or…
Ken: Not only that, it’s also taxing them.
Joe: Or taxing them.
Ken: Yeah. And so government is going to need a certain amount of tax but..and this is sadly what Europe is facing in spades right now. The structure of modern economies is such that the viability of the welfare state as it was conceived in the mid-20th century is highly questionable now, because it is too expensive. More and more of people’s time is taken up to fund the system.
Joe: I see.
Ken: The whole system of intergenerational transfers—retirement plans—was developed by Bismarck at the beginning of the twentieth century, end of the nineteenth, when people, very few people lived past sixty-five. Not very many and then it made sense. Asian countries as their economies modernized never moved into intergenerational transfers. They have from the beginning have made retirement plans self-funding. You fund your own retirement. The West is now moving in that direction. The only trouble is, one generation has to pay twice. And it’s the generation after us that is paying twice. You follow?
Joe: Yes, unfortunately.
Ken: Okay. Any other comments? So when you really bring attention to livelihood, you get into all kinds of what I think are delightfully, nitty-gritty issues. Everything from flattering people so they’ll give you business and doing those things, which easily slides into manipulation and so forth, to the very basis of the economy and economic and social policy in countries to how do we live our core values. I mean it’s tremendously rich.
And bringing attention to these different facets of life particularly facets that we can actually exert some influence over is vitally important if we’re going to realize our intention in Buddhism which is, as I said a few moments ago, to experience our lives without struggling with what we experience. That’s my translation of end suffering. Ann, please.
Ann: Well, I was a business woman for twenty years and now I’m also a grower of pistachio trees. I have 5,000 pistachio trees and what I’ve found in terms of morality is that I had to keep asking questions because ignorance is the thing that keeps you most in the dark about possibility. And after I asked many questions over and over again, being a business woman I had to do things that were less ideal than what I wanted to do in order to be competitive. And in doing farming, I had to look into the organic possibility, and it is not possible for me to do. Organic farming, no one is doing it in that industry.
Ann: Ideally I would not like to use chemicals.
Ann: So I can be at peace because I haven’t been ignorant in my investigation.
Ken: Yeah. So you’ve looked at the situation and you’ve figured out what is possible, what is viable and wasn’t possible and what isn’t viable.
Ken: Yeah. A friend of mine pointed out an interesting relationship between idealism and pragmatism. One ordinarily thinks of these very different but a real idealist is very pragmatic. Because he or she wants to get something done. And a person who is very pragmatic, if you look very closely at them, is probably pragmatic because they have very strong ideals.
Now our last two. These are under the middle category of meditation or attention practice and they are what is usually translated as mindfulness. And the last one is—oh sorry we’ve got effort. So I have to move quickly now. We haven’t done effort yet, have we? There we are.
Now we still have a bit of our Victorian legacy with the word effort. You know we have such wonderful words as diligence, and perseverance, and so forth. All of these words have the notion of nose to the grindstone, you know, you gotta push. The way that effort is usually described in Buddhism, it’s very closely related to joy or enthusiasm. Because when you feel good about something you pour your energy into it. That’s actually what the word means is that flowing of energy into something because you feel good about it. And that’s very, very different from, ”I’m gonna push at this and make an effort“ etc. Very, very different.
Now here Buddhist teaching is utterly pragmatic and flies in the face of a lot of idealism, and there is a teaching in Buddhism called the four right efforts. Or that may not be the right title but something along those lines. And they’re very simple: reduce the things that you’re doing that are making things worse. That’s the first one. Second, stop doing the things that are making things worse. Start doing things that make things better. Reinforce those things which make things better.
Now when you hear this you think, ”Oh, it is not rocket science,“ but it makes a lot of sense. Rather than just trying to turn a switch and move into ”Okay, we’re just going to do things this way.“ It never works that way. There’s always a transition process and what these four suggestions describe is the transition process. You’re going to evolve into a new way of living. So start slowing down or diminishing the things that are making things problematic. And when you get to the point that you can actually stop doing them, then you stop doing them. And then you start the things that make things better, and so forth.
And what’s very important here is to feel that you can be pouring your energy into things, and so that’s why when it comes, bring attention into the way that you’re exerting effort. People ask you know, ”How long should I sit?“ or ”How much pain should I tolerate?“ etc. And some schools of Buddhism you just sit there until you know, you just work through all the pain and that’s it.
But what I generally say to people is as long as you can meet what you’re experiencing with some resilience, that is you aren’t completely hard, then you can push as hard as you want. But when things become hard, then you stop. Because when things become hard it means that you’re shutting something down. You’re ignoring something. And that will create an imbalance. So as long as there is some flexibility or softness in your effort then it’s fine to push. When things become hard that’s when you need to stop and step back a little bit.
Very much connected with effort is our capacity. And we build capacity by exerting ourselves and stretching ourselves in our exertion and then resting. If we just push all the time we wear things out, we wear out and we break down. And that doesn’t matter whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental, or spiritual.
I was listening to a report, on I think it was NPR. It was actually BBC World News, about the Colonel who heads the bomb disposal unit in the British Army who’s retiring or quitting his job. And there’s an interview with him where he said that in earlier times people could do this because they weren’t meeting that many bombs to dispose of. But now they would be disarming or disposing of fifteen to thirty devices a day! And every one of these is a life-threatening situation.
He says when people do this they can only do this for a certain period of time and then they need a break. [Laughter] You know, apparently it takes six to eight years to train somebody with sufficient level of experience that they can do this work. But I was just like, ”Can you imagine having to bring that quality of attention to something of that frequency when your life is on the line over and over again?“ So there is where it’s really costly, they recognize the importance of taking a break.
And I found this in my own practice certainly, you can push but at a certain point something sets in and if you push now you break something in you and that is not helpful at all. It’s never helpful. That’s when you step back and you learn to work with the rhythms of practice.
And the last point I will make on effort, in terms of capacity—I came across this in a book I was reading—there are four dimensions to capacity. One is strength; how much effort you can actually make. Second is endurance; how long can you make the effort. Then there’s flexibility, how many different ways can you make the effort; how many different situations. Because some people can be very very good here and just hopeless over there. And the fourth is resilience; how quickly do you recover.
And all of these are best trained by stretching yourself and then resting. Stretching yourself and sometimes the periods of stretching may be several days or something like that or several hours. Depending that you’ll work out. But it’s that rhythm of pushing and then stepping back, pushing and then stepping back that builds your capacity and builds your ability to make greater and greater efforts.
So again, you can feel in all of that or see in all of that how much to bring attention into the experience of making an effort. And see, you know, is energy flowing into this naturally and joyfully. Then it’s just…good.
Now, attention. This is usually mindfulness. And this term has now become somewhat of a clichÈ but like all clichÈs it contains a truth. It’s usually described in terms of the four foundations of mindfulness: mindfulness of the body, which actually means all sensory experience; mindfulness of feeling tones, that is the tone of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral that accompanies experience and whether it is a physical sensation or mental sensation; and then mindfulness of what is usually translated as mental states, but it’s like what’s going on internally; and then mindfulness of all experience.
Now, I’m not quite sure how this happened, I think there are a number of possible ways, but people tend to associate mindfulness and attention with the narrowing of attention. It may be the word concentrate was influential here. And so people often approach their practice and approach any form of practice of attention with the focus of narrowing and excluding things.
And this has been really problematic in a lot of people’s practices. Because when they’re excluding things stuff gets suppressed and that comes back to bite them in all kinds of ways. Creates sometimes quite severe imbalances. And one of the principles which at some point I was forced to start relating to, because I was getting into such a bad place in my practice, is the notion of inclusive attention. That is you include everything in your experience. So you may be attending to something but you don’t ignore everything else.
And so at the beginning of the meditation period when I said to you, ”Rest in the experience of breathing,“ it’s different from focusing on the breath. When you rest in the experience of breathing you are in the experience of breathing but as you rest more and more completely you will include absolutely everything that you experience. Don’t be distracted by any of it but you will include everything in your experience because it is all part of the experience of breathing. And you’ll still be just right there with the breath but experiencing everything. And this notion of inclusive attention really helps form a relationship with your experience which is free from struggle, which is really what the point of the whole exercise is. So that’s something I think you may find helpful.
One of the ways that I’ve found to work with pain and discomfort in the body is an application of this. I had a lot of difficulty with pain in the three-year retreat and I just took the instruction and put my attention on the pain. It was not a good thing to do. I learned much later that when you put your attention on something, energy collects there. And so if you put your attention on a pain in your body then you’re often drawing energy into a place that’s already stagnant. The energy stagnates and makes things worse.
What I found works much better is to be aware of your whole body and include the sensation of pain in the awareness of the whole body. And that way you aren’t focusing on the pain but you are opening to the experience of it. Because you aren’t focusing on the pain you aren’t drawing energy or sending energy into that.
Because you’re aware of the whole body you’re creating the conditions in which energy can circulate freely in the body in the way that it wants to, or the way that’s natural for the body. And that’s going to move energy through that area of pain, allow energy to move through that, and that’s going to break up the stagnation of energy there.
So from a very practical point of working with pain in the body this inclusive attention and working with an expanded field of attention rather than narrow focus of attention I found to be very, very important. So that’s a principle that I hope will be helpful to you.
One other point here. In various meditation traditions mention is made of the watchman or the observer, the observing mind. This I think is also problematic and it’s not something I encourage. It was something that was very explicitly discouraged in our meditation, in the way that I was trained. And the reasons I gradually came to understand are this. When you are observing experience you’ve already stepped away from it. And actually it’s a subtle reinforcement of a sense of self.
So, yes when we sit in meditation thoughts are going on. I would encourage you not actually to observe them, just include them. And there’s a subtle difference there which I hope you’ll explore and figure out. You include the experience of them but you’re not really observing them. It’s the same as you’re not watching the breath or focused on the breath. You’re just resting in the experience of breathing. Granted that’s probably a subtle distinction but I think it’s a fairly important one.
The second reason that I have a concern about this is that this experience of the observing mind is actually an expression of the natural clarity of mind. And by forming an identity with it you actually make it more difficult for you to experience it.
So people get into this observing, observing, observing and it becomes a posture, an internal posture that can become quite fixed. So instead rest in and open to experience. You’ll experience everything there. But it won’t be from the stance of observing it. Okay, does this make sense?
Now, yes don’t try to control what arises just keep opening. It sounds so simple. [Laughter]
Okay, Last one. This is the Sanskrit word samadhi which is a very difficult word to translate. And it has actually a wide range of meanings, but in this context the meaning is actually fairly precise. With some reservations I use the word absorption. I haven’t found anything better yet. There are lots of problems with that word but samadhi is active attention and it is composed or comprised of the union of stability and clarity. In just the resting mind there are those two aspects of the mindfulness and awareness and they come together to form active attention. But then that evolves into the stability or the resting quality and then the insight quality which is basic clarity quality. So when those two come together then you’re experiencing absorption or samadhi.
And the way that I’ve find very helpful in regarding this from the mahamudra perspective, it’s from a book called Clarifying the Natural State. As you develop the ability to rest you naturally find that you begin to look at experience. So the way that you deepen the resting is to start looking in the resting. Now as soon as you start looking it brings an active quality into the attention which tends to destabilize the resting.
So by working at this and being sensitive to the balance, you’re not only able to look in the resting but rest in the looking. And that’s the two-liner that I find very helpful. Rest in the looking and look in the resting. Those two lines will take you a very, very long way in your meditation practice. The key thing here is to be sensitive to imbalance. When you are just resting the mind tends to grow a bit dull. When there is too much emphasis on the looking, the resting quality destabilizes.
People talk about balance. I find it’s much more useful to talk about imbalance. Because when things are in balance, we don’t experience anything, we are just there. Chuang-Tzu says, When the shoe fits you forget the feet. When the belt fits you forget the waist.
In terms of developing our skill and abilities in meditation practice, rather than trying to maintain balance become adept at detecting imbalance. And so this involves being in touch with your body, in touch with emotions, in touch with quality of attention and as imbalances arise you can quietly correct them. And there’s constant period of adjustment but the net result is that the quality of attention becomes progressively deeper and more stable. That’s the way I found most useful and most effective for working with this last one. So you are bringing attention to the quality of your attention, if you wish. Okay.
Ah, 9:30. Right on the money. Any questions before we close? Yes Roger, please.
Roger: Mindfulness and the concentration, they’re two different forms of meditation aren’t they? I always think of it as vipashyana and shamatha, I guess. I don’t know.
Ken: Yeah, okay.
Roger: They’re two different forms aren’t they? And the other question is do you practice both?
Ken: Yes, I would like to say two different aspects rather than forms but in the Thervadan tradition they do tend to be practiced in those ways. You’re doing the four abodes of Brahma, right? Loving-kindness as a way developing concentration, at least that’s one of the ways its done. What’s called concentration anyway, is really about stability of attention which you’re calling shamatha, yes? And then the looking quality which is the insight, that’soften practiced by noting experience and so forth.
Now, yes it is very important to do both, and do both either explicitly or implicitly. By explicitly I mean you do practices which develop facility in one and you do practices which develop facility in the other, and then you eventually combine them. That’s working explicitly. Implicitly is that you may find one way of working, say vipashyana works better for you, but you cultivate that resting quality within the context of that practice.
Now I’m not trained in the Theravadan tradition so I’m speaking a little out of school here. My training is in the Mahayana tradition where we have the same pair. The usual way this practice is developed; stability of attention and then bring the looking quality into it. And the reason for that is that without the stability of attention the looking is too fragile, is too quick to…it just comes and goes and there’s no stability in it.
In my own experience you’ll probably do better in the very active lives that we lead just to develop that resting quality and put the major emphasis on that. Then gradually bring that looking or insight quality into it. But both are important because if you’re just resting as I said before there’s a tendency to move towards dullness. There is an awake quality in that looking or noting, whatever, that’s very, very important. The way my own teacher summarized this, is in the Tibetan phrase ngo shes kyi ngang la bzhag (pron: ngo shÈ kyi ngang la zhak).
I don’t expect you to understand that. Just saying that to remind me. It’s not easy to translate, but the jist of it is rest in just recognizing. Which is again…I want to point out the difference between recognizing and observing. It’s not just observing what’s going on, just recognizing what’s going on. So you rest there and you just recognize what’s going on.
There’s usually a lot going on, but you’re not attaching to any of it. [Quiet] ”Oh,” and it’s the resting quality that brings about or develops stability and it’s the recognizing that brings out the awakening or the clarity aspect. And so just in that one phrase he’s put the two together. Does this help?
Okay, any other questions before we close. All right. Thank you for your attention. And I’ll set some other times up with Devon to be back here sooner or later, I don’t know. Okay.
So let’s just sit for a moment.
Goodness comes from this practice we’ve done
Let me not hold it just in me
Let it spread to all that is known
And awaken good throughout the world.