These teachings touch on many different practices and texts ranging from shamata and guru yoga to One Sentence Pith Instructions and Aspirations for Mahamudra.
Resting Without Reference Download
Shamatha and cultivating a basis of attention; infallibility; the end of suffering as a process, not an end state; resting in whatever arises; guru yoga.
I want to touch on these two topics. Let’s start with the practice that we’re doing right now, which is essentially a mahamudra approach to shamatha. Now, there’s a lot of terminology that flies around in Buddhism which I don’t think is particularly helpful—some of it’s even traditional terminology badly translated. What I’m thinking of here are things like shamatha with support and shamatha without support, or shamatha with an object, shamatha without an object; form meditation, formless meditation. Any of you heard any of these terms? Yeah, people get wonderfully tied up in knots about them. The purpose, or what we’re aiming for at this point, is cultivating a basis of attention, and for some people that is more easily done if they use a reference point such as the breath or an actual object, and for other people it’s more easily done if they don’t use an object.
What’s important here is to keep the intention. And the intention is to cultivate a base of attention. Now, there’s only one way to cultivate a base of attention and that is to do something which requires some attention, that doesn’t require much thinking, and to do it over and over again. One can liken cultivating a base of attention to learning scales in music or, if you’re using a wind instrument, learning how to blow the instrument in a nice even tone, or if it’s a string instrument such as a violin, learning how to draw the bow. It’s a basic skill. There’s nothing particularly magical about it, and the way you learn, the way you do any of those things, is you just do them over and over again. When you do them over and over again, you make tons and tons of errors. You know, you miss notes on the scales or the bow wavers or your breath isn’t steady or whatever. But when you’re doing that you don’t regard that as a problem—it’s just “Okay, that’s how that is.” And then you do the next one, and little by little things get better. Now, how many of you beat yourself up every time you fall off the breath? Or there you are sitting in open awareness and you fall out of it, and then you beat yourself up, right? How helpful is this beating yourself up? I’m going to send Ralph to get a good supply of baseball bats [laughter] so that everybody, whenever they fall off the breath, they can bang, bang, bang [laughter].
Ralph: I said gladly.
Ken: Many people approach meditation practice as they would approach SAT or a GMAT or something like that. They have this one chance to get it right. [Laughter] It’s a practice and the thing about a practice is you expect to fail. You don’t expect to do it perfectly, and that’s why you’re practicing it—so you get better at it. How many of you approach meditation this way? Everybody’s trying to do it right all the time. It’s a practice so you fall down, fall off the breath, fall out of attention time and time again. So, that’s the first piece that I want to convey this evening. That is, approach this retreat as practice and if you fall out of attention, okay, start again. And you just do this again and again and again. There’s a saying in Chinese—to learn how to do something do it ten thousand times. That’s all. You don’t worry about the first ten thousand times. After that, if things aren’t coming together, then you can get a little concerned, but not for the first ten thousand, okay?
Something to keep in mind—because I suspect this operates in a few of you: Who are you trying to impress with your meditation practice? Janet? [Laughter] But you’ve got to impress somebody, right?
Ken: Yeah. Not quite sure who, but there’s somebody there that’s going to be impressed. I’m going to make sure that they’re impressed with my meditation practice. You know, the nice thing about meditation practice is when you finish, nobody gives you a round of applause. [Laughter] Now, you think this is funny, but this is how many people practice meditation, as if they’re on stage. They’ve go to do it perfectly and then when nobody gives them a round of applause, they’re kind of miffed afterwards. [Laughter] Where’s my recognition? Okay, so it’s a practice. You’re not going to impress anybody. The consequence of that is you can completely relax in this.
You want the deep, dark secret here? You’re the only person who’s going to notice if you don’t do it perfectly. Nobody else. But that’s not how we approach it. Some of that comes from an idealism—a yearning for an ideal. This is also very problematic and it’s encouraged very, very highly in most Buddhist traditions. I mean, you have in the Zen tradition:
Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
Reactive emotions are infinite, I vow to release them all.
The gates to the dharma are infinite, I vow to enter them all.
Awakenings are limitless, I vow to engage them all.
Nothing idealistic. [Laughter] One of the things that we’ve lost in the West—and this died out about a hundred years ago—is the use of formal language and mythic language in how we communicate with each other. The four vows that I just recited, which is the form the bodhisattva vow takes in the Zen tradition, this is mythic language. It serves to inspire, to move emotionally, and you don’t take it literally because it doesn’t make any sense literally.
We grow up in a culture, in modern culture, postmodern perhaps, in which the intellect, thanks to the likes of Descartes and others, was placed above emotion. To some extent, this goes back as far as Aristotle, but it really gained ascendancy in what’s now referred to as the Enlightenment—which it wasn’t—[laughter] in which reason was seen to be the ideal. And this led to several generations of people repressing their emotions and so forth. A lot of good came out of this in one sense—the development of the scientific method and the use of reason as applying to understanding of the world.
When you’re working scientifically—whether it’s in medicine or physics or biology—whatever you write you intend it to be taken absolutely literally, because you’re trying to describe things very precisely. And when you read an account of a scientific experiment or a diagnosis of a disease or what have you, you read it absolutely literally. It’s not poetry, it’s not symbolic, it’s not mythic or anything like that. And over what’s now a few hundred years, this has been the primary way we relate to things. We’ve lost that, to a large extent; being able to talk about things symbolically, indirectly. I had a very explicit experience of this when I was having a conversation along these lines with a psychologist.
He said, “What do you mean, this mythic language?” And I said, “Well, in Tibetan Buddhism, it says ’Regard your teacher as Buddha.’” Before I’d even finished the sentence, he said “So he’s infallible, right?” I said, “Perfect. That is the literal trap that you fall into.” It doesn’t at all mean that your teacher is infallible. That’s taking it literally. What it means is that—for whatever reason—you regard this particular person as how you experience awakened mind in the world. That’s what it means. That’s how you experience awakened mind. It’s through this person that you come to learn and understand and come into connection with awakened mind. That is one of the primary functions of the teacher—to reveal awakening to the student. But that has nothing to do with infallibility. That’s another projection, a modern projection, on the notion of being awake—that you’re perfect, like some kind of superman. Thank you, Nietzsche! You see, this is where all ideas come and they’re laid on top of these traditional teachings.
Student: You know the Catholic doctrine in terms of the Pope being infallible.
Ken: Do you know when the doctrine of papal infallibility developed?
Student: Twentieth century.
Ken: It was very late 19th, 1892.
Student: Yeah, yeah.
Ken: 1892. That was when it became official doctrine, and it was a reaction to the ascent of science. They needed to add something that said this is how it is. It’s not a traditional or an ancient view. It is a modern view and it’s a reaction to what was taking place in the culture. Okay. It’s very important to know these things.
Student: Yeah, well it coincides with what you were saying, what’s also mythic….
Ken: Yeah, that was about the period where it was really largely lost. It’s a pain in the neck for translating. You can’t translate anything into High English anymore because it just sounds stupid. Because we don’t use High English, formal language. The only place it is used at all is somewhat in diplomatic circles now.
Okay, so a lot of instruction in Buddhism is expressed in mythic language. I will give you one example. It happens to be a mahamudra instruction—I thought I’d keep it on topic. Body like a mountain, breath like the wind, mind like the sky. Now, I think this is quite a good example. If I say body like a mountain what do most of you think of immediately?
Ken: Yeah. Okay, now what’s it’s like meditating like that?
Ken: Does it work? No. So, is this what it means?
Ken: No. So, what does it mean? Nick?
Nick: You be very stable.
Ken: How do you become very stable? Can you just say “I’m going to be stable.”? Does that work?
Nick: To relax your body.
Ken: What does that have to do with a mountain?
Nick: Mountains don’t make any effort to sit there like that.
Ken: Exactly. Say it again loudly so we get it on there.
Nick: I said mountains don’t make any effort to sit like that.
Ken: Yeah. This phrase Body like a mountain means to sit without any effort whatsoever. And you come at this by actually just taking it in and letting it speak to you, not trying to analyze it and figure out exactly what it means, etc., etc. Okay. This is the language of poetry. It’s a similar thing with Breath like the wind, mind like the sky. So, in what we work with in these days that we’re here together, let the instructions sit in you. Let them reveal their meaning. You’ll know when they’ve revealed their meaning by what happens in your practice.
A lot of people think that shamatha means having no thoughts—calm abiding means having no thoughts, and we find lots and lots of descriptions of states of mind in which there’s very little thinking going on, or there’s no thinking. How does that come about? Does it come about by trying to have no thoughts?
Ken: Yeah, so you have a little experience in that. [Laughter] How does it come about?
Student: Resting where it’s born.
Student: The resting where it’s born.
Ken: Yes, and that’s why I’m emphasizing the resting. You’ll notice I’m not emphasizing being quiet. This is another thing worth noting. I make a moderately big deal of this in Wake Up To Your Life. When you are receiving instruction from anybody—and if any of you are ever in the position of giving instruction or guidance in meditation—pay very, very close attention to distinguishing method from results.
What happens over time is that the distinction between these two is blurred, and there’s definite reasons why this happens. Because all of you have some experience, I can talk in a kind of shorthand, and I can say “do this” and all of you already know how to do “x”. Where properly speaking, “x” is a result of doing something else. So, if I were working with another group of people I wouldn’t say do “x” because they don’t have that experience to work with. I would have to say do “y” and then they experience the result “x”. For instance, if you say to someone who’s a bit tense, “Relax,” what happens?
Ken: Yeah, “Why don’t you just relax?” [Laughter} Okay. That’s an example of “x”. But if you say to the person, “Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, take another deep breath, let it out slowly. Now take another deep breath and let it out slowly. How do you feel?” They will usually say, “Ah, relaxed.” Okay, that’s the method. Now, when somebody knows how to do that you can say, “Okay, relax,” and they will just do what they know to be the method.
This is one way that result and method get confused, because you have people with different levels of experience, ability and so forth. But it’s extremely important when you’re learning something for the first time, or when you’re teaching it, to make these distinctions, because if you describe the results to people, and people try to practice the results, they will get into a hell of a mess. So, the method here is resting. As we rest, we create the conditions in which body and mind can grow quiet. But if we were to say, “Make your body and mind quiet,” we’d have a lot of uptight people very quickly.
Now, in the approach we’re taking to resting, there are certain challenges. All of you are here—as we touched on Wednesday evening—was that yesterday? No, it was two days ago. Good, I’m losing time—this is a good sign. [Laughter] Many of you said you were interested in deepening your experience or understanding of mahamudra. But it’s also important to keep in mind why we’re interested in deepening our experience or understanding of mahamudra. As I suggested, I think on Wednesday, the primary reason, at least for me, is that in order to be able to meet what arises in experience in my life, it’s become clear to me that whenever I’m attached to an identity or an idea of how things are meant to be, I will run into problems. I will either project onto the situation something that isn’t there or I will fail to notice or be aware of something that is there. In either case, my response to that situation is less than appropriate and creates difficulties for me, certainly, and usually for other people.
It’s helpful, perhaps, to remember that the end of suffering is not a state but a process. We end suffering in each moment by responding appropriately to what arises. So meditations or practices around direct awareness—of which mahamudra is one example or one instance—are very useful because we are practicing experiencing and being present in experience without reference. This is not how we usually interact with the world. We’re very, almost always, used to having a reference point.
Several years ago, I was invited to participate in a yearly event that takes place in Pasadena—I’m not sure it still does—it’s called the Day of Conversation. The idea is to get people from all different walks of life to come together and just spend the day in conversation around a certain topic, and they have a keynote speaker who sets up the topic. Then you’re seated at tables of about six to eight people. Well, the table that I was at, we didn’t get very far into the topic because the facilitator asked everybody to introduce themselves, and I’ve obviously been hanging out in the wrong circles.
Because I had no idea what to say so I said, “I’ll pass,” and then the next person gave their family history going back two or three generations and their life history. And the next person did the same thing. It went around the table. So this consumed, you know, an hour and a half by the time we got back to me. I didn’t have a clue what to say. [Laughter] I remember it very clearly, because everything is defined by reference here. I mean, big time. This was old-school Pasadena, so it was quite interesting. I think I ended up saying like, something like, “Well, all of you people have had very productive lives and worked within the context of institutions. By contrast, I’ve done everything I can not to have any role within any institution,” [laughter] “so I’m feeling a little odd here.” I give that example of how deeply reference goes in our lives.
So, the practice I’ve been giving you—and we’ll continue it for another day or two—is learning how to rest without reference. That’s one way of summing it up. Now, resting is hard enough, resting without reference is like making it doubly difficult, maybe triply difficult. Hmm, maybe quadruply difficult. Someone said yesterday, “It feels like I’m simultaneously grounded and falling.” That’s a very good description of resting without reference.
The falling part is the no reference, the grounded part is the resting. Now, somebody sent me a cartoon which I really should’ve saved, a comic strip. It only had two frames. It had a picture of two guys and a bird and a dog, and they are in various postures of terror against a completely dark background. The caption for that frame reads, “Three minutes after falling into a bottomless abyss.” [Laughter] The next one shows the two guys like this, the dog like this, and the bird like this and the caption is “Six months after….” [Laughter] This is your practice.
Why do we fear falling?
Student: It means we don’t exist.
Student: It means we don’t exist.
Ken: Nonsense, no. Somebody else?
Student: We’re afraid to hit the ground.
Ken: Yeah, we believe there is a bottom. That’s why we fear falling. We believe there is a bottom. Well, I’m not going to ask you take this on faith. You’ll have to find this out for yourself: there is no bottom. But you have to find that out for yourself. I’m sorry, I can talk endlessly about it but it doesn’t do any good. You just have to find that out for yourself, then you’ll be able to relax. Okay? And rest. So, you’re going to have that reaction—every time you actually rest without reference part of you is going to go, “Uh-uh, bad idea.” [Laughter] Not good. Now, do you know what to do when that happens? Anybody?
Student: Include it.
Ken: Yes, that’s right. Include it and rest in that experience. You’re going to rest in the experience of freaking out. Of different degrees of intensity, you know, anywhere on the scale from zero to ten. I want to emphasize again, this is practice.
This is another book that I’ve taught from and it’s a very, very good book on mahamudra. It’s called The Lamp of Mahamudra. It’s been reprinted. Tselek Rangdrol. It’s okay, Lamp of Mahamudra, you’ll find it. The end of it is a little more theoretical than Dakpo Tashi Namgyal’s book, but the body of the book is just really, really good. I have the Tibetan for this and I spent a year teaching it to a group of people many, many years ago from the Tibetan, which is my favorite thing because then I can just complain about translation endlessly. [Laughter]
There are three instructions that are traditionally given in mahamudra—I think I mentioned them the other night. You’ll find different translations—one I’ll use here is, Don’t wander. Don’t control. Don’t work at anything. You’ll more often find them translated as, Don’t wander, Don’t be distracted. The other one’s fairly straightforward—No contrivance is the usual translation. But when I thought about “contrivance,” well why do we make things contrived? Because we’re trying to control our experience. So, Don’t control, I find, works better. And the third one, No meditation, is the usual translation, but the word for meditation here is the word to become familiar with something, and that’s why I translate it as Don’t work at anything. So, No distraction or no wandering. No control. No work.
Now, when you hear these you immediately feel, or sense, there’s no reference point and part of our being promptly goes into panic. “How do I do this?” When we were here four years ago, I was teaching a dzogchen retreat—dzogchen is very similar in this way—and one of the people at the retreat was getting more and more exasperated with the practice because they had the wonderful meditation instruction, Do nothing. During one of the interviews, she finally got so exasperated with me she said, “I wish the hell you’d tell me how to do nothing!” [Laughter] “I don’t know what to do.” And then she heard herself, “Oh, shit!” This is no reference, okay, there’s that part of us that just panics. Don’t ignore it. That’s what you’re experiencing. If you’re going to rest without reference, you’re going to rest in whatever is arising. This isn’t a case of making everything nice and quiet and then resting. This is, you don’t have that reference point. It’s not first make everything quiet then rest without reference. That isn’t the instruction. It is: rest.
Let’s go back to our friend the mountain. We have a very good example of a mountain right here. It’s an old shield volcano built up by layers and layers of lava. In other words, it’s solid rock, not like the one over there, which is a cinder cone. It’s pretty windy here and you haven’t really experienced how windy it can get, it’s being relatively quiet. It’s so windy here that whenever Gaye wakes up and there’s no wind she goes, “What’s wrong?” How much concern does the mountain give to the wind? Okay. How much concern do you give to the winds of your feelings when you’re resting? So, this is another example of be like a mountain. Does the mountain ignore the wind?
Ken: No. It feels the wind, and if you really want to feel the wind, climb up to the top. It’s usually about three times as windy up there—it’s really windy. But [the mountain] feels the wind. It’s not the least concerned about it. So just imagine resting like that. Have these little breezes, maybe you have these gale force feelings. Can you rest right there? And remember our friends falling into the bottomless abyss at the same time. Completely relaxed. We getting the picture here?
I mean, this is so unfamiliar to us. You know, we don’t approach life this way. It’s like, “He’s got to be kidding,” but this is how you actually approach the practice. So that part of you that panics, that’s wind. Just rest in that experience, and then another part of you panics at that prospect. “And so it goes,” courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut. What happens, you see, is that we grasp for some reference point, some characteristic of our experience—we go “ugh” and try to hold onto that. That’s why the first instruction is No distraction. because that grasping is distraction.
This is actually the first of the three gates of freedom. The three gates of freedom are the Mahayana equivalents of the three marks of existence. The first mark of existence is impermanence. The Mahayana equivalent of the gate of freedom is no characteristics. We can translate that into our parlance as no reference points, and no distraction is how we practice no reference points. Then the second one, No control. How many of you try to sit just right? The perfect posture—it’s a big thing in Zen, right? Well, I’ve either been cursed or blessed—I’m never quite sure which—but I have a body which just does not like the traditional meditation posture, so I’ve never been able to sit perfectly, that’s why I could never practice Zen. Hopeless—they’d throw me out in fifteen minutes, sixteen if it was a good day. We try to control our experience through how we hold the body, through how we breathe, through how we hold the mind. We’re trying to control our experience.
What if you just stop doing that? Well, you’ve got to approach this practically. If you just lie down you go to sleep, not much going on there. So you sit, but you sit in a way that allows you not to control your experience. It’s a little different intention in sitting. It’s not to sit perfectly still—it’s to sit in a way in which the tendency or the need to control one’s experience is diminished. Now, the traditional meditation posture in the Tibetan tradition in which you sit in lotus, and lock your hands up like this, and you have a meditation belt is very, very definitely designed for precisely that. It’s an extraordinarily strong posture because when you sit in that posture all kinds of emotional stuff can arise, and you can just sit in it. It’s that strong, the posture and the yogins of Tibet—that’s why that posture was developed. It was originally developed in India. It’s an extreme posture, but it was so that you could rest completely in experience without control. I’m going to leave how you do that up to you individually. I’m very happy to talk about your efforts with that in our individual interactions.
One of my students, Jeff Bickford—Ralph knows him, and a couple of others here know him—is trained in Feldenkrais and he’s been doing some very interesting work applying that training to meditation and spiritual practice in general. And he wrote this small booklet which as you see is Awareness Through Movement For Meditators, and it’s very much about how to sit in a way in which you can be in your experience without control. And I’m rather struck by the quotation he put at the end from Moshe Feldenkrais, who was the person who developed all of this: The object of this learning is to remove outside authority from your inner life. So, there are a few copies here and I’d like to [unclear] a couple of ways so we have them for the second retreat. There are about ten copies right up here and you can look at those. What I’d like you to do is look them over, read them, find what’s useful, then return it so somebody else can benefit from it. And if any of you want, I can put you in touch with Jeff—actually I think George has this, probably has one on PDF too, so you can get copies for yourself. But this is a way of just exploring through very, very subtle movement, ways to be actually more completely in your body and more completely in your experience. Not trying to control it—just be in it.
Time’s going too quickly. How many of you have been in a situation where you struggle to control it and it just wasn’t working and you had to give up? Okay, what was it like when you gave up trying to control it?
Ken: Uh-huh. Anybody else?
Ken: It felt like defeat? Yeah.
Student: That’s true. I guess with me it’s almost like seeing that it was so ridiculous to try to control it.
Ken: And what happened after you stopped trying to control?
Student: Something else arises.
Ken: Yeah, life goes on, and that’s not always in a bad way. Sometimes in a very good way. Okay, so remember this, you know, in your meditation practice. “Maybe I actually don’t have to control everything here—ah.” And again, this is very much about no reference, because that’s why we’re trying to control. We’re trying to hold things together.
Now, this links with the second of the three gates. The second mark of existence is suffering. The second gate is usually translated as no aspiration, but I think we can put it into a more Anglo-Saxon English, and say hopeless.
Student: No hope?
Ken: No hope, yeah. It’s a very good way to approach your meditation practice—there’s no hope for it. [Laughter]
Student: That’s great! [Laughter]
Ken: Just go to sit here and there’s just no hope. You know, it just takes all the rugs away doesn’t it? No hope. And you stop trying to control etc., etc. because the reason we control things is we are hoping for a certain outcome. We want things to be a certain way. We hope. So this is why no control corresponds to the second one.
Then the third instruction is Don’t work at anything. How many of you are concerned with being somebody? Yeah, very important to be somebody in today’s world. You’ve got to have a story to tell. But it’s all a fiction. When we look at what we actually are, all the stories run out like sand through our fingers and we’re left looking at absolutely nothing. One Zen teacher says, “Gain is illusion, loss is enlightenment.” When you’re looking at absolutely nothing, you’re looking at what you actually are. There’s something a little disconcerting about that but that’s how it is. This is what Buddha experienced at the time of his enlightenment. Mara comes along and said, “Who gives you the right to sit there?” Well, this didn’t make much of an impression on Buddha because he was experiencing not being anybody at that point. The idea of being given a right to sit there and be somebody just wasn’t operating. And we practice meditation in order to develop or to have an understanding of emptiness. That’s nice, then I can go out and tell people I understand emptiness, or compassion.
I didn’t bring the Heart Sutra—my Heart Sutra commentary—I have a line about this in there. So, we’re all working to develop the perfection of wisdom, right? What are you going to do with it? Show it off to your friends? [Laughter] We don’t think about this. That’s the stuff that operates in us. So here, all of that working at things is about trying to be somebody. Just don’t, and be what we actually are. That’s another rug pulled out. So, this corresponds to the third mark of existence, which is non-self, of course. The Mahayana equivalent is emptiness. That’s actually practiced when not working at anything.
Now, all that one does here is rest. Of whatever arises in experience, you move into that experience and rest. So, a thought arises—move into the thought and rest. What happens to the thought when you do that?
Student: It dissolves.
Ken: Yeah, poof! Emotion arises—anger or desire or jealousy. You move into the emotion and rest. It may not dissolve immediately, but remember you don’t move into it in order for it to dissolve, because then you’re back into this business of hoping. You move into it’s because it’s what you’re experiencing. Period. So, I’m angry. And all of this is in the—I can never remember which is which—which is the Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra, the Anapanasati Sutra?
Students: The Anapanasati Sutra.
Ken: Yeah, it’s all in the Anapanasati Sutra. It’s very simple. When the monk is cold, a cold monk meditates. When the monk is hot, a hot monk meditates. That’s just this instruction. Whatever experience arises, you move into that experience. That’s it. It’s all in those really basic sutras. And you just move into that experience and rest because that’s what is, right there. It sounds very simple, doesn’t it? The problem is we want to get something out of the meditation. There’s that hungry ghost that keeps creeping into our practice, and if it isn’t a hungry ghost then it’s a god, saying “Look what a good boy I am.” [Laughter] I don’t know about you but for me it’s those two—I’m having difficulty in my meditation then I move into the hell realm, then I go to sleep in the animal realm. [Laughter]
Student: What happens in the human realm?
Ken: [Unclear]…in the human realm? That’s when I start getting blissed out. You know, “Oh, this is cool, I like this,” [laughter] “I could work at this a little bit harder, because that’s [unclear] good.”…and then I glance over at the other person beside me and they’re sitting so still, and I go, “Grrr,” [laughter], and now I’m in the titan realm. That’s my meditation practice.
Okay, now, the other topic I want to touch on is guru yoga. Actually, a better name for this topic would be faith and devotion. In Buddhism, we have two very different types of emotions and they’re so different that they aren’t referred to by the same word at all. In English, the word emotions covers a whole range of things so we actually use the same word. One type of emotion are the emotions that are organized around and defend a sense of self. These are ones you’re all familiar with—the typical list in Tibetan with the six realms—so anger, greed—or neediness. I think neediness actually is a better translation for greed. Most people don’t relate to being greedy, but a lot of people will relate to being needy, but it’s the same thing. Animal realm, which is instinct or dullness, desire, jealousy or envy and pride—being special. And those we call reactive emotions or emotional reactions, the translation of klesha or in Tibetan nyon mongs pa.
But then there’s another kind of emotion. These are emotions that are not organized around a sense of self, so I—with a little bit of irony—like to call them the impersonal emotions. They are loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. You know in the Theravadan tradition there’s the brahmaviharas and in the Mahayana tradition there’s the immeasurables. We could add a fifth to these—fifth or sixth—and those are devotion and faith, because these are also not organized around a sense of self.
I want to distinguish between faith and belief here. And this is pushing English a little, but I think it’s an important distinction. I use the term belief as the attempt to interpret experience to conform to what’s already inside, and faith as the willingness to open to whatever arises in experience. I don’t have a good definition of devotion so I’m going to pass on that one. I’ll have to think about that. Faith is extremely important in this practice. It’s faith which gets you to jump into the bottomless abyss. You actually don’t know that there’s no bottom, but you jump. There’s actually a very good reason why we jump. Does anybody know what it is?
Ken: That’s close, yeah. We’ve all reached the point that there’s no other alternative. [Laughter] Suffering—you know, like, “Nothing else looks good so this is it.” It’s good to remember that—that’s why you’re here. You know all the other alternatives, they don’t look so good anymore. So just as you step off you go, “You know that one didn’t look so bad after all.” [Laughter] And it’s too late at that point.
Now, in Tibetan tradition there are three kinds of faith and they’re usually presented in the order of simple clear faith of appreciation, faith of longing, and faith of rational understanding. Probably because Tibetan Buddhism—and Indian Buddhism before it—were medieval institutions, they presented in that order. I think the order is wrong when it comes to Vajrayana. Start with the other order, start in the reverse. We study and it makes enough sense to us that we’re inclined to have some confidence in it.
This, interestingly enough, is connected with the first mark of existence. It’s a little bit of a convoluted connection. You see, impermanence is the meditation for anger types. Anger types really want things to be a certain way and if they aren’t they get very angry about it. Impermanence is a very good remedy for anger types because it’s nice and rational and you can really reason it. When you really work with impermanence, you see it’s not going to be the way you want it. You’re going to die. Reason is the weapon anger types use when they do not want to acknowledge their anger.
Student: What was the word? What did you just say?
Ken: Reason. How many of you had an emotional discussion with somebody and somebody resorts to reason? Okay. And it’s perfect for our anger types because they don’t have to acknowledge their anger. They can just say, “Well, it’s like this, it’s like this, it’s like this,” and it’s completely ineffective in an emotional argument, because it’s not about how things are, it’s about connection. But they don’t have to worry about any of that emotional stuff because they can just sit, quite content, and be perfectly right. They never have to actually embrace their emotion in the situation. Anger types do this all the time—it’s very irritating. So if somebody pulls that on you, don’t get into the argument. Just say, “This is how I feel. How are you going to relate to that?” That will drive them completely nuts. “I don’t care whether it’s right or wrong. I don’t care whether it makes sense. It’s just how I feel.” This is a good approach.
So, we start having some confidence because things make sense. Out of that there develops a yearning. Like, “Gee, I’d like to move to that. I’d like to go in that direction.” Which is very much what has brought all of you here, too. That’s the faith of yearning. It’s a longing. It’s heartfelt. It’s deeper. It’s much deeper than a rational appreciation. The heart longs for something. We may not be able to put it into words but we can feel the longing. And as we let ourselves feel that longing—and some of us are very afraid to feel it—in the burnt offering in the Seven Point Prayer, or the Seven Section Prayer, the second last one:
Uprooting patterned existence from its depths (patterned existence is samsara)
What this line is describing is letting yourself feel that longing so deeply that it makes chaos out of all of your habituated patterns—reactive patterns—because that’s what comprises samsara. It’s a scary place to go to for a lot of people. For some, it’s actually quite an easy place to go to. This is connected with desire types, of course, but to feel that yearning so deeply that it completely messes up our habituated way of relating to life, that’s what prayer consists of. It’s very, very powerful. And when you open that way and everything is disrupted, there’s a kind of opening, and another kind of faith comes out, which is just an open appreciation. There’s a lucidity and clarity. Nothing that you can put into words—it’s not rational. It’s not really clear that it’s actually emotional, in the ordinary sense of the word, because there’s almost a knowing in it. And that’s what’s called in Tibetan, it’s an appreciative faith or a lucid faith or…. Yes, Leslie?
Leslie: I listen to your mahamudra teachings on podcasts and you were talking about the nine levels of consciousness.
Ken: Oh, yeah.
Leslie: And it struck me that—maybe you said it—but that devotion is where the emotional consciousness meets the pure consciousness?
Ken: There isn’t—at least in that [unclear]—there isn’t a pure consciousness, but I think you could say that’s where the emotional mind, which is the seventh consciousness, meets how things are, yeah. The nature of experience, the nature of being, yeah. I think you could say that.
Leslie: Because it feels very naked.
Ken: It does. You’re absolutely right. It feels very, very naked—very raw—and one feels frighteningly open, and there’s some people for whom this is a totally natural path, and for other people, this is a really, really difficult place to go.
So, cultivating all three kinds of faith, but, leading up to that, just…openness. That’s a very important part of practice. It involves being able to open emotionally. This is one of the reasons why I included the Verses on the Faith Mind, because it speaks to this. The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. Well, there it is, first two lines. Letting go of preferences, just taking things absolutely as they are. It demands that kind of opening, and you can read for yourselves going on, but it’s very, very much about opening to our experience in this way.
Now, all of you have to some extent cultivated this, each in your own way, and I would encourage you to cultivate it. There are different ways. One of the ways that I encourage people to cultivate is to become very, very clear about what their own spiritual questions are. Not to simply accept the formulations we get in the Tibetan tradition or in other traditions, but really become very clear about what one’s own spiritual questions are, because when we know what those are then it’s going to be very easy, much easier, to open to the path that they point to. That’s one approach.
A traditional approach is guru yoga. Every practice tradition has what I call a repository of faith. In the Zen tradition—Soto Zen particularly—the repository of faith is the posture. That’s why they make such a big deal about the posture. Trust the posture, call it a repository of trust, too. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition, it’s the bell.
Student: It’s what?
Ken: Mindfulness bell. In the Theravadan tradition, it’s the Dharma, the teachings. That’s why they’re always talking about “the Dharma.” Drives me nuts. In the Tibetan tradition, the repository of trust is your teacher. That’s where you place your trust, it’s where you place your faith, and he or she holds that. And if they don’t, then you have a big problem, as many people have experienced, unfortunately. But that’s one of the functions of the teacher, of the guru, in the traditional Tibetan approach—they are the repository of trust. And that links up with what I was saying right at the beginning, that you regard teacher as Buddha, which means it’s how you connect with awakened mind.
So, the practice of guru yoga is actually the cultivation of faith and devotion through that repository of trust, and the purpose of it is to develop a level of emotional engagement with one’s practice so that all of that emotional energy becomes available for attention. In the Theravadan tradition, this is done through loving kindness, in the Mahayana tradition it’s done through compassion, and in the Vajrayana it’s done through devotion.
They’re all ways of transforming emotional energy into attention, and they all have their pros and cons. Guru yoga consists of imagining yourself in the form different from your own form so you let go of all of those associations. It’s usually one of the higher yidams such as Vajrayogini or Chakrasamvara, but it could really be any. Or, you could just imagine yourself as a bodhisattva or a figure of light—that’s one element. The second element is you imagine your teacher in the form of an awakened one, a buddha. In the Kagyu tradition, that’s usually Vajradhara and Dorje Chang, in the Nyingma tradition it’s usually Guru Padmasambhava. If you have a deep relationship with your teacher, then you can imagine your teacher in his or her ordinary form. Rinpoche used to say “Well, if you pray to me in my form all you do is get the blessings of an old man.” [Laughter] But I’ve found many people in the West—because we’ve lost the relationship with symbol—it’s easier for them to develop faith and devotion imagining people in their actual form rather than in a symbolic form.
Then there’s usually a section in which one acknowledges the role of lineage—an unbroken line of transmission down from the time of Buddha. That’s done, to greater or lesser length, depending on the particular ritual being used. There are sometimes additional acts of honoring, such as the seven-section prayer and so forth. And then you start praying to your guru, in which you just open your heart in the ways that I’ve been describing. In the Kagyu tradition, a very short prayer is often used Karmapa Chenno, which basically translates as, “Karmapa think me. Just think of me Karmapa, think of me.” And you say that over and over again. The prayer that Rinpoche had us do, which I formed a relationship with, is the one that I’ve translated, the six-line prayer. Treasured teacher, I pray to you. Give me energy to be free from the fixation on self, and so forth.
There’s another prayer which is used in the Shangpa tradition in the Sukhasiddhi guru yoga, where you’d imagine the guru in the form of Sukhasiddhi. So you do that and the purpose of repeating the prayer is just as a vehicle for you to open your heart. And through opening your heart, you develop this devotion that actually powers your practice. At the end of the period, you take the four symbolic empowerments, imagining light of three different colors—white, red and blue—coming from the forehead, throat, and heart of the teacher into yours, and then all three together, and you feel that you’re getting the traditional empowerments. The vase empowerment, the secret empowerment, the wisdom awareness empowerment and the fourth empowerment. And these again are symbolic acts. Then you imagine that—actually imagine is too weak a word—you feel that the guru dissolves into you, and your mind and the guru’s mind become one. When Rinpoche explained this, it’s like two rooms: you open the door and now there’s just one space. And then you just rest, you know, do your mahamudra practice. Through this development of emotional energy, your attention is deeper, so you’re less distracted and less disturbed by what arises, and more capable—or have more ability and capacity—to open to whatever arises in experience without being disturbed or distracted. And eventually that becomes so deep that you move into the experience of being no thing, which is awakening.
This is one method of transforming energy into attention. One of the reasons I gave you the primary practice yesterday is that it is another method for transforming energy into attention. Here the transformation process is a little different. You start by transforming the energy of sensory sensations and then the energy of emotions—the internal material. Again, you have that opening to the heart which boosts the opening, and this is an accumulative process of transforming the energy of the experience of all aspects of life into attention which then powers our practice.
There are other methods. There are methods of Qigong and internal Qigong, such as the microcosmic and macrocosmic orbits. And in the Tibetan tradition you have very high-powered levels of energy transformations, and tummo, and so forth. These transform the energies of the body and as such are inherently dangerous. If you get out of balance with those, you get sick and there isn’t any medicine in the world that will cure you. I know this from my own experience because I did get seriously out of balance and it’s taken me something over twenty years to heal that. It can be quite difficult, so one has to be quite careful with those. If you’re going to go in that direction, make sure you learn them from someone who knows how they work and you stay in touch with them until you are quite well-trained in them because there are lots of things that can go wrong and you can get really screwed up by them, as lots of people have. But they’re also very powerful and very effective.
So I think I’ve covered everything I wanted to this evening. Too much? [Laughter] Somebody sent me an email the other day saying there’s a couple that wanted to come to this retreat, but things didn’t work out for them. And it said, “I read your book—it’s a little encyclopedic—I guess that’s your style [laughter]. I’m also getting over your Heart Sutra class, the one you did on the internet, it’s a little encyclopedic too.” [Laughter] Sorry, it’s what you signed on for.
Okay, to review very briefly—oops, I’ve gone longer than I thought, that’s strange. Two minutes ago it was 8:11 [laughter] and now it’s 8:26. Resting without reference—you’re going to fall forever. Get used to it, you know. It’s a very good way to approach practice: you’re just going to fall. Forget about doing it right, just do it and use whatever methods you’re familiar with from your own practice so that you have the sense of opening to whatever arises in experience.
Don’t try to control what arises, don’t work at anything. This is why I’m putting such emphasis on this quality of resting. If you’re using any of the energy transformation methods, in particular the primary practice, the guru yoga, you’re going to be alternating between pushing and resting. When you’re opening to all the sensory sensations you’re pushing a bit—there’s an exercise of power in that, but once it opens and you’re there, stop and just rest in it. Don’t keep pushing. This becomes extremely important when we move into the practice of vipassana—knowing when to stop and just rest.
It’s the same with guru yoga—you pour your heart out in the prayer, and there’s definitely some pushing there. I mean, you really pour your heart out. It gets scary inside because you’re so open and then when your guru dissolves into you, you just rest. And all kinds of stuff may be there that wasn’t there before because you’re able to experience it now, and you just experience it. You just fall and you fall forever. So that’s the [unclear] version of tonight, okay? So, let’s just take a very short break to stretch and we come back for meditation. It’s 8:28, let’s just take five minutes if you can.