Proficiency and Commitments Download
Proficiency: knowing what you want from your practice, achieve a sense of balance, joy as a consequence of no separation; commitments: be clear about your intentions, appropriate action, relate to the totality of your experience; behave naturally; don’t talk about others’ shortcomings; don’t dwell on others’ problems. The audio for this series of podcasts was originally recorded on audio cassette. As such you may find the sound to be of a lower quality.
Ken: Proficiency, this is all…take two.
All teachings have one aim. Again, Stephen Batchelor, in one of his books, I think it was Buddhism Without Beliefs, opens it with something along the lines of, “In its institutional forms Buddhism provides very powerful answers to questions of the spirit. But sometimes the power of those answers overwhelms the stammering voice which is asking the questions.”
Now, I said this morning that when it comes to internal work, internal transformational work, which is the way I prefer to think about spiritual practice, it must be volitional. That means you have to know what you want from your practice. That’s a question I posed to you at the beginning of the retreat and brought out in the first set of interviews. And there’s a great range, as there should be, because there’s a lot of different people. I want to emphasize the importance of knowing what you want from your practice. Because by working with that question you will be able to form a strong intention, it’s your intention that is going to keep you going in practice.
The fact is, adopting another person’s intention, whether it’s an institution, a teacher, a friend, or whatever, will serve you for a while, but only for a while. That while maybe five years or more, but at some point you’re going to have to meet, you know, “What do you want?”
It’s particularly so in as formal an institution as Tibetan Buddhism,. It may be the same in Zen, and is probably the same in Theravadan. But Tibetan Buddhism has all the subtlety of the Catholic Church, so asking what you want from your practice is almost heresy. And yet, when I’ve read the lives of a number of teachers, it’s very carefully coded so as not to sound like that, but you can actually sense the points in their lives where they were coming to terms not with what the institution of Tibetan Buddhism is saying, but when their practice—the phrase that I like to use is, became their own.
After you’ve had a fair amount of training, and you know how to practice, you’re familiar with the methods, and the difficulties and challenges, you know how to work with them productively, then there will come a time when you will say, “Well, what I want from this isn’t what the tradition is telling me that I should want from it.” This is a very difficult point in a person’s practice because you feel at that point as if you’re stepping out of the tradition, if not betraying it. And since you have a very powerful emotional relationship here, it can be quite heart rending. Not everybody makes it.
The irony is when you do make the practice your own, another process starts. And you begin to see more and more clearly, not in any kind of intellectual or conceptual or learned way, but a very experiential way, that the central problem in presence is hanging onto—there are various ways we can phrase this but—hanging onto a sense of self, trying to be somebody. Those are the two most important ones. A third one is trying to get one’s emotional needs met, but that’s actually the lower level.
So, you find your own motivation, your own intention of practice actually becoming what has been written in the texts for the last two thousand five hundred years. But this is very, very different from just accepting it, you know, “This is the right thing to do.” This process of coming to this through one’s own process is very, very important in my opinion. And one goes through this very difficult and often very painful reappraisal of every aspect of one’s practice and every relationship, and it’s this stage where one’s practice is really becoming one’s own.
So, Chekawa says,
All teachings have one aim. Yes, this is true, but the process by which that aim becomes your intention is not quite as straightforward as that one line would suggest.
Two witnesses, rely on the important one. Now, there is one witness from the world of shared experience. Everybody says, “Gee, you’re so much easier to get along with, you know, your practice must be doing some good here.”
But the witness that comes from working with the world of complete experience is very different. And it has much more to do with an internal clarity, a sense of balance, a sense of justice, any of these. There are four ways that I can see arriving at it, maybe more. One is very much, “Is everything being included?” “Am I aware of the whole?” And if you have that sense all the time, then, as it’s written in the commentary here, a sign of proficiency in mind training is there’s never any shame or embarrassment about your state of mind.
So, depending on the way one works it’s either going to be a matter of understanding, inclusion, standing up for what needs to be stood up for, or a sense of service. And those basically are individual proclivities. For some people a sense of connection with everything is what’s important; for other people it’s a sense of understanding.
This is where the practice I gave you yesterday is very important. Focus, field internal material, giving rise to presence. And if you’re open to your internal material then how is that fitting with your actions? People can get a very fixed idea that they’re always right, but they’re not feeling what’s going on inside them. That is a danger. Very definitely. This way of approaching things is based on being totally aware of what is happening in you, in your body, all of that emotional stuff there, and be able to be present. But that danger exists.
Joy is a constant support. Again, from the perspective of the world of complete experience, joy is the consequence of the knowing that arises when you are not separate from your experience. So, in the same way, there’s no shame. You know how you’re acting, what you’re doing. It’s appropriate because you are present. And so there’s a joy, a sense of completion, moment by moment in that.
Tibetan lamas have an interesting relationship with Westerners. Maybe it’s changed now, but this has happened to me on more than one occasion. This is one of them: After the three-year retreat, I went to visit a lama in England, Chimé Rinpoche. I don’t know how many of you know him. He’s quite a character. He really likes to turn the screws on people. I went with a colleague and he just totally embarrassed this colleague, who was a former student of his, in front of me. I mean, it was excruciating.
We were asked to answer questions about the three-year retreat from his students. And one of them asked, “Isn’t it rather dull being enlightened? You know, isn’t it boring? You know, you don’t have all these passions flying around. You don’t get excited about anything,” etc., etc., etc. I can’t talk about being enlightened, but I responded to this by saying, “Well, as you practice and as your practice matures and some sense of ongoing attention begins to form in you, some momentum, what you begin to find is that there’s a very quiet, deep joy that you can tap into all the time.” And Chimé, who was sitting up on his throne, sort of looked down at me and went, “Not bad.” [Laughter] There’s many other stories I could tell about him but…
Proficiency means you can do it even when distracted. Again, this is the sense of momentum. In this, you’re not becoming anybody or anything. One might say that through attention, awareness acquires more and more momentum.
Now, when something has momentum, even though there’s a disruption, the momentum just carries it through. So even when you’re distracted, something comes up, the momentum of your practice is right there and you’re still responding to situations appropriately. In meditation there’s this Tibetan term, shin byangs (pron. shin jang) which just means thorough training. It’s just there all the time.
Then, moving to the commitments.
Always train in the three basic principles. Now, you may recall that the three basic principles were, observe your vows, don’t engage in outrageous behavior, and don’t be prejudiced or biased in your practice. One of the things that I try to do all the time when I’m reading texts on Buddhism is to try to understand what they’re really talking about—translating it into terms that make sense in my own life—and this requires a lot of questioning, a lot of critical thinking.
I want to use this as an example because I think this is something that is very fruitful for all of you to be doing and learning how to do, so that you aren’t restricted to the what is often a pre-scripted, “Do this, don’t do that.” But to understand deeply how this applies in your own experience.
So, when I look at vows, you have the three levels of ordination. The ordination of individual liberation, which is about avoiding certain actions, not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, the five precepts, etc. And then you have the bodhisattva vow, which you’re all familiar with, and the Vajrayana vows, which I think I mentioned, which are a commitment to experiencing the world a certain way.
But what’s going on in vows in general? Vows in general, in my view, are a vehicle for intention. So, that’s what I’m going to suggest as another way of formulating the first basic principle. Be really clear about your intention. And then if you take a look at outrageous behavior and the encouragement or the injunction to avoid it, well, didn’t want to get stung there. This to me, particularly in the way that Kongtrül was describing it—and Chekawa does the same thing—this is about doing something to prove to others that you are somebody. You know, “I am enlightened.” A lot of stuff that goes on under the rubric crazy wisdom falls into this category. Had lots of people trying to prove that they were crazy wisdom adepts. Contradiction in terms. And you can feel the sense of separation from experience in, “I’m going to prove I’m somebody special.” The underlying principle that I think is being talked about is appropriate behavior—appropriate action in whatever arises.
And then prejudice or bias in one’s practice means that you aren’t relating to the totality of your experience. If you relate to the totality, there is no place for bias or prejudice to arise. Yes?
Student: Is that about, you know, leaving an aspect of your life…
Ken: Exactly, yes.
Student: …then there’s the draw on all that energy in becoming more and more…
Ken: More and more of a problem, yeah. If you’re right into the totality of your experience, you cannot do that. So, one way I would probably reformulate these three principles would be: intention, appropriate action, and totality of experience.
[A student asks a question about the difference between intention and will]
Ken: Attention is the ability to direct energy. Intention is the ability to direct attention. is the ability to direct intention. Recall that? Okay.
Now, here I’m interpreting vows as a way of carrying your intention. You’re going to direct your attention in this way, this way, this way, and this way. In the way that we were talking about this morning, we were talking at a very different level. That is being one with one’s world of experience. And then your intention being the direction of the present. Which means in practice that whatever arises, you have the ability to direct your attention to what needs to be addressed in each moment. So, in that sense, yes it does become very fluid but it’s still that ability to direct attention. Does that help?
Student: But, the vows are derived from sort of what happens in presence to some degree…
Ken: Yes, but vows are very much a method of practice. Yes?
Student: But I mean do you ever, in presence, do you ever find that you are violating one of the vows because you are following…
Ken: The direction of the present? Yes. Oh yeah, that could happen. Yeah?
Student: One of the guidelines of the bodhisattva vow is you don’t follow the rule if it violates your intention…
Ken: Serve the welfare of others.
[A student asks a question about always telling the truth]
Ken: Be very careful about the vows. The vow isn’t to be truthful. The vow is not to deceive another person, which you can do in any number of ways. You can use the truth to deceive another person. Okay. And that’s the difference. You’re right, you may not know the what the truth is in a situation. Truth is a whole rat’s nest as far as I’m concerned. But you can have the vow not to deceive another person. That’s very clear. But that’s specifically what the vow means: Lying is intending to deceive another person. That’s the purpose of a lie is to deceive.
Student: What about not saying anything?
Ken: If your intention is to deceive the other then however it is brought about constitutes a violation of that vow. And if somebody says something and you know that if you don’t say anything you are going to deceive them, then you are lying by not saying anything.
But anytime that you say, “Well, I’m doing this for their sake,” and you’re doing something that’s deceptive or unwholesome, that’s very, very tricky stuff. I’ve talked with many, many people about exactly those kinds of situations. And I would say a good ninety-five percent of them come down to a person not wanting to face something in themselves which they’re projecting onto the other person. I would say that’s the most common thing. Okay, these three and then we’re going to move on.
Student: In other words you’re saying this person can’t handle the truth. If it’s the truth for me, why can’t it be the truth for you.
Ken: Again, I don’t think we can talk about it in terms of general things. I think it’s a question of being present in the situation. And it’s conceivable that it might be appropriate to deceive the person. But you can also just tell them straightforwardly, “Yes I know what’s going on here and I don’t want to tell you.” But when you make the judgement, you’re presuming that you know them better than they know themselves which is, yeah, maybe true, but you’re really stepping into their life now. That’s what I see as a danger.
Ken: I want to move on here.
Change your attitude and stay natural. This is I think fairly straightforward, because by putting on a display, it’s about being somebody. And being somebody is separating you from your world of complete experience.
Don’t talk about failings. Why do we talk about failings of other people? You know, how they haven’t lived up.
Students: To make ourselves feel better.
Ken: Yeah, it’s a reflection of our own idealism, isn’t it? Okay, maybe I’m being too generous, yeah. Okay, I’ll be generous here. But we have an idea about how things should be. So, in talking about other people’s failings, we are coming out of our idea of how things should be and not dealing with how they actually are. Right?
There’s a book called The Four Agreements, and the first of the four agreements is
Be impeccable with your word. The author is Don Miguel Luis, or something like that.
Ken: Ruiz. Let’s throw in a very nice facet of this. Be impeccable with your word in the way that you talk to yourself. So, if you keep saying, “I’m just stupid, I never understand anything,” this is not only not a true way, but it’s also a damaging way to be constantly framing one’s self-image.
Student: Reverse pride in that.
Ken: Yeah, reverse pride.
Don’t dwell on others’ problems. To me this is about being really clear about what’s your business and what’s not your business. Because when you’re not in your world that you experience, you’re in a story. In the world of complete experience, can you trade any part of that world or share any part of that world with somebody else?
Ken: No. So, if you’re dwelling on somebody’s else’s problems, you’re in a story. You can’t be in their experience.