Teachings on the practices and principals regarding mind training, ranging from making adversity the path to awakening, taking and sending, the four kayas, and the five forces in daily life.
Taking & Sending and Mind NatureDownload
Dissolving sense of other; progression of mind training practice; stopping the mind; groundwork as motivation to explore life as more than the world of shared experience. 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.
…really experiencing, perhaps for the first time, some of the emotions that we’ve suppressed and held in the body, so it feels like every cell of the body is burning up with shame, or burning up with anger, or crying with grief or what have you. And with all of this going on, there’s a lot of energy. So there’s a great inclination just to disperse that energy, and one of the easiest ways to disperse that energy is just have a nice chat with somebody. It comes up very spontaneously and usually accompanied by “I really need to say this.”
I do encourage you, except for the couple of hours that we have set aside, and even then really, to give yourself and be generous with yourself, give yourself the opportunity to experience what is arising before you express it. And the conditions that we have here support that effort in a way that our ordinary lives don’t. So I really encourage you to make use of that.
And when you’re thinking of saying something to somebody say, “Do I really need to say this?” And I think you’ll find that in almost all cases you don’t. That you’re trying to release something or get rid of something. And learning how to work internally that way, that’s how you stop being temperamental and impulsive and so forth. You actually experience what is arising. And when you experience it completely, if something still needs to be said, it’s usually very direct and to the point and appropriate. So work with the silence. Not talking, not communicating, except when it’s really necessary, which may be during the work periods or other times. Okay.
We’re a little over halfway through the retreat; it feels like in one way we’ve been here forever, but not in a bad way I hope. And in another way, it feels like no time at all. And in the first half of the retreat we went through The Seven Points of Mind Training with a more or less traditional interpretation, or traditional commentary. And in the second half I want to explore with you a different way of approaching the mind training teachings, which in all fairness is implicit in the traditional approach, and even breaks through in some places to being quite explicit. But I think offers the possibility of working with your practice in a deeper way that…well, I think you’ll find interesting, I hope so. We’ll see.
Now, I have to be quite honest with you this is an exploration; I do not have all of this worked out. So, if I say things which are contradictory or confusing or whatever, I have great confidence that you’ll bring that to my attention. I appreciate that and we’ll work through it. I mean one of the things that I was thinking about this morning is the equation of shared world of experience with awakening to what is apparently true and the world of complete experience with what is ultimately true. Actually that doesn’t work, so scratch that. Just put an X through all of that in your notes. There’s gonna be a rewrite.
I’ll tell you quite explicitly where this interest in exploring mind training from this perspective came from. As some of you know, my body and I have had a long and difficult relationship. And oh about six months ago I guess, maybe a bit more, I woke up in the morning and was just in an incredible amount of pain in my body. And just thought, “Oh no, not again.” And it was just so unpleasant and uncomfortable that it was a very vivid experience of experiencing me here and my body there.
Now, one of the approaches that I’ve taught in taking and sending, and some of you have been working with this a little bit here, is that when there are very strong emotions up, particularly emotions from early childhood or one has experienced a lot of trauma in one’s past, and so forth, then in order to open to those emotions in a gentle way, basically, have people do taking and sending with themselves, sometimes as a child and at the time of the trauma, or the abuse, whatever. And so take in the experience of a child and give to the child the understanding and enjoyment that one has experienced in this life. Because from the child’s point of view, life looks pretty dark at that point.
And this has been very, very fruitful for people in being able to open up those locked-up feelings. It’s not an easy practice, and I don’t recommend people doing this just on their own as a kind of therapy. I think they either need to have some solid experience in taking and sending and meditation so they know how to stay present in emotions. Or they need to be doing it in connection with a person that they’re consulting regularly, because this will open up those feelings quite strongly and in a good way, but this can be quite overwhelming.
Anyway, so there I was me, my body. I went, “To hell with this. I’m doing taking and sending with my body.” And in the same way that many of you describe from your own practice here, this gave me a way of being present with the pain and discomfort so it ceased to be regarded as something other.
Now, that’s the whole problem in experience isn’t it? That we regard things as other. And so the thought came to me, “Hmm, maybe what taking and sending is really about is dissolving the sense of otherness.” So, anything that you regard or are currently experiencing as other might be a suitable focus for taking and sending practice.
Now, when you think of strong emotions—and this is where it links up very nicely with chö and some of the other things we’ve been exploring here—anger, jealousy, desire—these can feel like assaults, something attacking you trying to take hold of you. So, you can feel very, very separated, alienated from the emotion itself. And in the thing I was reading yesterday from Hakuin, you know, you get into the struggle of here’s you and here’s the emotion, and you’re gonna duke it out. And you have that I-other thing going on right there.
So, another possibility perhaps is start doing taking and sending with your anger. And start doing taking and sending with your anger, with your jealousy. And that has interesting results, too.
So from there I thought it would be interesting to go through this, the whole set of mind training teachings, from this perspective. And that’s what I want to do with you in this second half of the retreat. And who knows where we’ll end up. We may end up in a big mess. Pat?
Pat: Is it okay at this point if you don’t understand what the terms mean…?
Ken: Yes, we’ll get to that tomorrow. I’ll make that explicit. Yes, it is okay not to understand that at this point.
Okay. So, first instruction is First, do the groundwork. Well actually I’ve got a little more background before we get there.
When you look at the progression of experience in mind training, the traditional approach, you start doing taking and sending with all sentient beings. And as many of you have discovered, as you do that you become aware of how much of your experience is filtered through your own projection. Or is distorted by your own projection. So, it’s like you have the other person there and there’s this colored glass, you know, and usually many different colors, and it’s like stained glass, it’s all different thicknesses, so everything gets bent. And you’re looking through this at the other person, and you think, you know, “Oh, they’re really ugly, and they hate me,” and so forth. But as you do taking and sending you become aware that it’s actually this filter or this piece of colored distorted glass. And then from there you start being able to be aware of your actual experience in terms of thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
So, you’re moving from shared experience distorted by projections to what your life actually consists of which is thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And as you continue to work more and more deeply you begin to understand the nature of experience, which is empty. And from there you come to an understanding of the nature of being, which is, Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness.
That’s the progression. And what has happened historically in Buddhism is that teachers keep pointing their students at the nature of being and going through a process like this or other processes, other things. But in order to point their students at the nature of being, I have to use concepts, words; and good teachers are very careful about the words they choose, because as we experienced yesterday when we were doing the commentary on the Heart Sutra, the only way really to point the student’s mind at the nature of being is to get the student’s mind to stop. So you have all of these strange expressions in Buddhism, which when you hear them, you don’t know what to think. And guess what? That’s the point.
So, when we went through Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness, you didn’t know where to go from there. It stopped. Originally, the term emptiness did that all by its little old self. That was enough. But what happened was that after a relatively short time there turned out to be 16 different kinds of emptiness. And then there were 18 different kinds of emptiness. And you know what the last kind of emptiness is?
Student: The emptiness of emptiness.
Ken: The emptiness of emptiness, yes. [Laughter]
Student: The complete emptiness of emptiness!
Ken: Well, you know, you have the emptiness of the high, the emptiness of the low, the emptiness of the long, the emptiness of the short. And then you have the emptiness of the emptiness. And nirvana I think is another term which had the same sad history; buddha nature is another one.
When I was in retreat we had access to Jamgon Kongtrul’s miscellaneous writings which was a 14 or 15 volume set of stuff. Commentaries on everything that didn’t fit into one of his other five big treatises. But I found in there a book which was literally a question and answer session with Jamgon Kongtrul. And I was amused to see that one of the questioners was actually Kalu Rinpoche’s teacher Norbu Döndrub. And there were just questions all over the place. But obviously someone had been sitting around when people were asking Kongtrul questions and just wrote down the question, wrote down the reply, and then carved it into wooden blocks and made the book.
And one of the questions was, “What is buddha nature—it pervades all sentient beings—what does this mean?” [Repeats] “Buddha nature pervades all sentient beings, what does this mean?” And Kongtrul’s reply is, “There is no such thing as buddha nature. There’s no thing which pervades all beings. There’s no substance or anything which does that. Buddha nature is simply what is left when all of the confusion of samsara is removed.” It’s nice and clear isn’t it? That’s it. Now, when you try to say what that is, it gets a little hard. But that’s a Tibetan formulation. In the Zen tradition they do things a little differently.
So, this goes back to China and one master asked, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” “No.” Yet it says in all the sutras, Buddha nature pervades all sentient beings. So what’s going on here; how can he say no?
Student: The dog doesn’t really have…
Student: There is no thing for the dog to have.
Ken: Yeah, no-thing for the dog to have is closer to it. The “no” means exactly the same as Kongtrul. But it’s a different way of communicating.
So you can see that buddha nature also had a sad history of at first stopping the mind and then becoming a concept that people attached to and grabbed onto as a thing. And there are many, many others. This is why Buddhism generally reinvents its vocabulary, oh about every hundred and fifty, two hundred years. Because it takes about that long for things to get stuck. Actually, it’s surprising how quickly things get stuck.
So, what I want to do here is to explore mind training teaching in a way which I know will eventually get stuck, but maybe it will be useful to you. So, first the groundwork.
Now, the Tibetan term is ngöndro, and the term literally means what goes before. Ngön is the word for before; dro is the word to go, so goes before. So it’s usually translated as preliminaries or preparations. And there are many forms of preliminaries and preparations. But here in the West particularly, how do people feel about preliminaries and preparations? Skip ‘em! Let’s get to the heart of the matter. And that actually has quite a detrimental effect on one’s practice because these things are very important. So that’s one of the reasons why I decided to translate it as groundwork. It means the same thing—it’s what you have to do first. But it’s got more juice in it; it’s a little more difficult to ignore. You know, if you’re gonna build something, and you don’t build a foundation to it, it will just go [makes sound of something falling down] plop.
And there’s another reason. A quotation that I came across some years ago—“For fundamental change to take place, motivation has to change; that is why teachers have always emphasized motivation in their teaching.” Because once the motivation changes everything else follows. But until the motivation changes, you can do all kinds of stuff and still everything just keeps going back to what it was.
Now, in the Tibetan tradition the groundwork for practice in general consists of four reflections which are infamous. They are the precious human existence, death and impermanence, karma, and shortcomings of samsara. And one is encouraged to meditate on these and almost nobody does.
In the way that I’ve developed curriculum in Los Angeles, after people have done basic meditation for about a year, they have the opportunity, if they so wish, to start meditating on death and impermanence. Which is usually about an eight- or nine-month practice. And when I was discussing this with a Tibetan lama he looked at me rather strangely and said, “You actually get them to meditate on that for eight or nine months? How do you do that?”
Because, I mean, Kalu Rinpoche would talk about this stuff all the time. When you’re in Sonada at his monastery, there were a group of us who were there most of the time. But not infrequently someone would come for the first time, and we always groaned when somebody came for the first time, because we knew what Rinpoche was going to talk about. He was going to talk about the precious human existence, death and impermanence, things like that. It was just like starting all over again, he just kept pounding away. So I heard these talks, I don’t know, so many times, Basic Dharma 101. And yet, they are very important. So I want to look at them from this perspective that we’re discussing.
The purpose of these four reflections are to move us away from the position of regarding the world of shared experience as what is most important. And the first step in that is to consider that there might be an alternative to the world of shared experience. And you know, because of your friends and associates in the world around, how relatively speaking, how few are the people who consider that there’s anything other than the world of shared experience. So this is the essential meaning, in my opinion, of this teaching on the precious human birth.
All of us here see that there is more to life than just this world of shared experience, and that’s not common. In one of the teachings I read it says, “It’s easier for a blind turtle at the bottom of the ocean to put its head in a life ring floating somewhere on the surface than it is to have this opportunity.” This is a traditional example; I think Nagarjuna came up with it originally. But it is to emphasize the rarity, and by emphasizing the rarity, to encourage people to utilize the opportunity.
But I want you to consider what led you to consider the possibility that there was more to life than the world of shared experience. Fact is, those who get along and have a good time in the world of shared experience, they don’t have this. [Laughter] Right? You know, it works for them. So, my sense is that one of the factors that contributes to this possibility is the experience of a discrepancy between the expectations on the shared world of experience and the fact. You know, what we felt ought to happen and what actually did happen—there’s just a little gap there.
The other thing which I’ve been mulling over…well before I go on to that point, I mean this is very clear from people who’ve experienced significant loss, a lot of difficulty and pain in the course of growing up, etc. This all contributes to it.
And Gampopa, for instance, who was one of the great teachers of the Kagyu lineage, started off life as a brilliant doctor. And he must have been quite brilliant because in his early twenties he was recognized as a master doctor, and if you know anything about Tibetan medicine that means you’ve learned an extraordinary amount of stuff about anatomy, and physiology, and herbs and how to blend them, and things like that. So he must have started when he was very, very young to have mastered that knowledge by the time he was in his early twenties.
And he was very happily married to a woman who he dearly loved. And she became ill. And he couldn’t cure her and she died. He was just devastated and he went—“What the hell’s the point.” And from there he said, you know, “There’s just no point in this stuff if this can happen. My life was perfect.” And so he went from there into one of the Kadampa monasteries and studied for many years and couldn’t find teaching that really helped him understand how things were, and this loss that aroused his curiosity: what is this thing we call life? And from there he left that monastery and eventually met Milarepa and became Milarepa’s chief student and spiritual heir.
And there are many, many similar stories. Dezhung Rinpoche’s—Dezhung Rinpoche is another one of my teachers—his teacher, Ngawang Lekpa, was the administrator of a monastery. And he was a senior abbot and—monasteries, you know, there would be the main monastery or the mother monastery, and then there would be a lot of other monasteries that were all part of that system. And so, he would have to tour constantly, checking up on things and resolving disputes, and making sure everything was in good order. All the time that he was doing this he would read Milarepa’s biography, and when he was 37 he just—it really got to him. He said, “All of this just doesn’t work for me.” And he just gave up all of his responsibilities, which caused the usual amount of disturbance in the institution. Went to live in a cave just above his monastery, and stayed there for many, many years and just practiced.
So, it’s this discrepancy between what we think we’re going to get from life and what we actually do get that arouses our curiosity. Just—okay, there’s more to this.
And the other thing that I’ve been musing about is that in the texts traditionally it says that what creates the possibility for practicing dharma, for spiritual practice in general, is moral behavior. And the classical accounts say, you know, we’re all here because we were good boys and girls in past lives. And when I hear things like this I always say, what’s really going on here?
Well, as I mentioned yesterday or earlier in this retreat when you do virtuous activity the mind is clearer and lighter. You’ve all had that experience. And I think all of you also know that when you adhere to a suitable moral code, you have a lot less to think about. And one of the supports for meditation practice is ethical behavior. Ethics is such an unfashionable thing. It has been for the last thirty or forty years, but—you know, people always turn up their noses. And I say, well let’s just make it very simple.
When you encounter a situation, and you know what the right thing to do is, but it’s gonna cost you something—maybe it’s gonna cost you some money, maybe it’s gonna cost you a little bit in your reputation, or how people look at you. Maybe it will cost you a friendship, might even cost you your job. But you know what the right thing is and you do it. How long do you think about it afterwards? But what if you don’t do it?
Okay, so this to me is the essence of ethical behavior in Buddhism. That when you act ethically your mind is quieter and clearer. Well, if your mind is quieter and clearer, you have a better chance of seeing the discrepancy between what you think should happen in the world of shared experience and what actually does happen. So, I think that may be the link there. That’s just an idea.
Now the next step is coming to understand more clearly this possibility of something other than the world of shared experience. And that is brought about, or at least one of the ways that it is brought about, is through meditation on death and impermanence. Another one of the great popular topics.
I was in Norway many years ago and was giving a talk, and one person stuck up his hand at the end of the talk and said, “I don’t think the world’s really interested in the dharma.” And I said, “What makes you say that?” He said, “Well when I go to a party and start talking to people about death and impermanence, nobody…” [Laughter] I said, “If I went to a party and you started talking to me about death and impermanence I wouldn’t want to talk to you either.”
But when you start working with this, the first thing is you see that everything changes. Okay, well that tells you one thing right away. In the world of shared experience there is actually nothing that you can really rely on. Even the sun’s gonna burn out, you know. Actually, before the sun burns out the earth’s orbit is going to collapse and be torn apart, so the earth itself will be torn apart by tidal forces. But you can take your choice of either burning up in the sun or just being abandoned in empty space, you know, whichever turns you on more.
So, and then you start thinking about, well death is actually something that is gonna happen. And I love this quote from the writer Saroyan, “We all know that we’re going to die, but I really thought that in my case an exception would be made.” [Laughter] Yet, that’s how we all think—really. Yeah, I’m different. I’m going to be the first one who survives life. [Laughs]
And then is the rude awakening that it actually could come at anytime. And then there’s the death process itself. And then you start thinking what happens after death. And I often find it is that reflection which really wakes people up. Because they see that everything that has had meaning for them in their life, when they’re gone, loses its meaning.
So you have a lock of hair from a girlfriend in high school; that has tremendous meaning to you. But when you die, it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else. And about one’s work, and one’s contribution to society, you know, all of that stuff just goes on. Different things happen, and so you begin to understand, in a different way, that whatever’s going on out there, you only have your own life. And it’s your life; it’s not anybody else’s.
And what people say success means, which is gaining a lot of stuff, being rich, being happy, famous, respected—or being a failure, unhappy, poor, obscure, disdained—a lot of that is all the result of conditioning and in the eyes of other people. And as Chekawa said at the end of these teachings, I ignored suffering and criticism. Now when I die, I’ll have no regret.
So, we begin to appreciate that there’s whatever we’re experiencing now—this is my life and it’s nobody else’s. And that’s the start of the differentiation between the world of shared experience in which you feel a duty or an obligation, or whatever, and what you actually experience. You’re beginning to make that distinction.
And then there’s this business of what actually happens in this life, in your own experience of life. And the next thing you begin to appreciate is that we don’t really experience it as it is. There are all of these filters, which we call the six realms, and you begin to appreciate that as long as you’re working in this filtered experience, thing’s just don’t work out in a very good way. In fact, they work out horribly.
And so you begin to see that there isn’t any possibility of peace or happiness in the very way that you’re experiencing the world. And it’s around this time that the sense of a self and its contribution to how you’re experiencing things begins to suggest itself as a possible source of problems. And then you start to look at how this operates, and you see there’s all of this conditioning inside. Because when this happens—[snaps fingers] this crops up even when you wanted to go in that direction. Or when this happens—[snaps fingers] this crops up even when you wanted to go in that direction. And you begin to see that… [recording ends]