Pointing Out Instructions 6
These teachings touch on many different practices and texts ranging from shamata and guru yoga to One Sentence Pith Instructions and Aspirations for Mahamudra.

Awareness Download

The problems of idealizing; seeing the mirror; awareness; commentary on Aspirations for Mahamudra.




Section 1

Student: Based on your talk last night, something that caught in my mental craw was, you described the process of dualistic view, coming about when we draw a duality between the objects of our experience and the awareness of the object. My question is, isn’t it part of Buddhist teaching that there is awareness without an object? That there is the possibility of awareness without an object.

Ken: You want to jump right into it, don’t you?


Student: Always. [Laughs] I’m thinking in particular of reading I’ve been doing lately about dream yoga, and the dimension of dreamless sleep. But also—and perhaps this is an erroneous conclusion on my part—but I’ve been coming to think of mahamudra and dzogchen as capable of being described as when one realizes that none of the objects that are arisings in one’s stream of experience can be coalesced together as an ego because of their emptiness, their impermanence, and their tendency to arise and dissolve, and so forth. That one comes to identify one’s being with sheer awareness itself, what is sometimes described as luminous space, or luminosity and clarity, or the mirror, the dimension of the mirror, which is unchanged and unaffected by what it reflects. That when one has total confidence in that, then one has realized the pinnacle of the Buddhist path, the dzogchen and mahamudra realization.

Ken: I’ve heard rumors to this effect.


Ken: I don’t buy them.

Student: Okay. That’s why I asked; that’s why I brought it up.

Ken: Yes, Leslie?

Leslie: I’m just listening.

Ken: No, you’re not.


Leslie: I’m waiting to see what you’re going to say. You said you’re going to entertain us tonight.

Ken: Yes, I’ve started. So what were you thinking?

Leslie: I was thinking it sure hasn’t been like that for me.


Leslie: But….

Ken: That’s not all that you were thinking.

Leslie: [Laughs] There’s too much suffering in the world, if you get into the world.

Ken: Ah!

Leslie: It’s very difficult to not be affected by it.

Ken: Well….

Leslie: Never mind the stuff you’ve brought, up to the time you started practicing, but to live well….

Ken: What Leslie is saying, far more politely than I would; I’m just going to translate it into my usual abrupt rudeness. Idealization is a problem.

Student: I’m sorry?

Ken: Idealization.

Student: I?

Ken: Idealizing.

Student: Oh, idealizing, okay.

Ken: Is a problem.

Student: Right.

Ken: As soon as you set up an ideal, which you just did, you have a problem. You’ve split the universe into two. That’s what ideals do.

Student: Well…the two being the state of realization of dzogchen and mahamudra….

Ken: And everything else.

Student: And everything else?

Ken: Yeah. Is the universe two?

Student: Then what the hell are we doing?

[Loud, long laughter]

Student: Why are we sitting here? Why are we here? I mean, why are we…

Ken: There’s only one person who can answer that.

[More laughter]

Ken: So, it’s not, “Why are we here?”

Student: Oh, why am I here? [Laughs]

Ken: Why are you here?

Student: Well, I took a samaya vow in 1987, I mean 1985, and that samaya vow—all it commands me to do is to go the full tilt.

Ken: And who’s to say? Samaya vow doesn’t command you to do anything.

Student: Okay, but nevertheless, I took a vow.

Ken: Yes.

Student: And that vow was to follow this path to its ultimate, and….

Ken: Oh, dear!

Student: In other words, not not [unclear] this Buddhist path, or this path of waking up.

Ken: What path are you talking about here?

Student: Well, my preference is the Vajrayana.

Ken: Yeah, I’ve heard these terms, but what path are you talking about?

Student: The path of applied discipline, of transformation up to the point where I realize that it’s unnecessary and it’s all kind of roots, but I haven’t realized that yet. [Laughs]


Section 2

Ken: I’m glad I brought this book. I was going to read one story, but we have to start with another one. I’m pretty sure it’s in here. Yes, here it is.

A man who is very easily angered realized after many years that all his life he had been in difficulties because of this tendency. One day, he heard of a dervish deep of knowledge, whom he went to see, asking for advice. The dervish said: “Go to such and such a crossroads. There you will find a withered tree. Stand under it and offer water to every traveler who passes that place.” The man did as he was told. Many days passed and he became well known as one who was following a certain discipline of charity and self-control under the instructions of the man of real knowledge. One day, a man in a hurry turned his head away when he was offered the water, and went on walking along the road. The man who was easily angered called out to him several times, “Come, return my salutation. Have some of this water which I provide for all travelers.” But there was no reply.

Overcome by this behavior, the first man forgot his discipline completely. He reached for his gun, which was hooked in the withered tree, took aim at the heedless traveler, and fired. The man fell dead. At the very moment that the bullet entered his body, the withered tree, as if by a miracle, burst joyfully into blossom. The man who had been killed was a murderer, on his way to commit the worst crime of a long career.

There are, you see, two kinds of advisers. The first kind is the one who tells what should be done according to certain fixed principles repeated mechanically. The other kind is a man of knowledge. Those who meet the man of knowledge will ask him for moralistic advice and will treat him as a moralist, but what he serves is truth, not pious hopes.

Why are you here?

Student: I’m curious.

Ken: About?

Student: Well, what you teach.

Ken: You know what curiosity does to cats.


Student: I think you’re onto something, and I want to avail myself of it.


Ken: So you came here to steal?


Student: I paid my money to come here.

Ken: That was just so you could steal.


Student: It’s the most money I’ve ever spent for a Buddhist retreat, actually.


Ken: Having the opportunity to steal is worth something.


Ken: So you’re here.

Student: Indeed.

Ken: How are you doing?

Student: Actually, I’m doing very well.

Ken: How’s the thievery going?

Student: It’s, um, I’m enjoying every moment of it very much.


Ken: Have you been able to steal?

Student: And I can’t wait to take it back to my abode and count it with relish in solitude.


Ken: Have you stolen what you wanted yet?

Student: I’m greedy. I’ve gotten a lot, but I want more.


Ken: So, what do you want now? Maybe I can save you some trouble. [Laughter] Or maybe if you tell me, I might hide it and make more trouble for you. It’s a risk you take. What do you want?

Student: More confirmation, I think, that I’m….

Ken: More confirmation of what?

Student: That I’m doing what I understand to be what I’m supposed to do as a Vajrayana practitioner.


Ken: Why do you want to be a Vajrayana practitioner?

Student: I think it’s the best thing one can do with their life. I could be wrong on that, but….

Ken: What did you think of the story?

Student: I don’t think I got it.


Student: I don’t.

Ken: Well, I’ll have to read it again.


Student: Well, no, you don’t have to do that, but [unclear]….


Ken: I think I have to read it again. [Laughter] Can I make a suggestion?

Student: Uh-huh.

Ken: Pay attention this time. [Laughter] Are you ready?

Student: Yep. God knows I’m being stripped down here, and he’s coming to my help.

Ken: He’s not coming to your rescue. He knows better than that.

A man who was very easily angered realized after many years that all his life he had been in difficulties because of this tendency.

We’ll go quite slowly. Okay? Strike any chords?

Student: Not so much the anger, I don’t think.

Ken: Does anything else strike you?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Okay. Anybody being struck by chords, here?

A man who was very easily angered, realized after many years that all his life he had been in difficulties because of this tendency. One day, he heard of a dervish, deep of knowledge, whom he went to see, asking for advice. The dervish said, “Go to such and such crossroads. There, you will find a withered tree.”

How many of you’ve found this withered tree? Ken?

Student Ken: Yeah, I think I have. I think I’ve found a withered tree.

Ken: Okay. Keep that in mind. All right. Stand under it, and offer water to every traveler who passes that place. Have you tried that?

Student: Yes. Yes, I have.

Ken: Standing under the withered tree?

Student: Uh-huh.

Ken: Offering water to others.

Student: Uh-huh.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else tried this? What’s it like, Leslie?

Leslie: Good.

Ken: Tell me about it.

Leslie: Well, it gets your mind off your little withered tree.

Ken: Ah! Anybody else?

Leslie: Helps your heart open.

Ken: Say that a little louder please.

Leslie: Your heart opens.

Ken: Doesn’t say anything about that here. The man did as he was told. Many days passed. How long is “many days”?

Student: Could be eons.

Ken: And he became well-known as one who was following a certain discipline of charity and self-control. Why would he become known as such?

Student: It’s public, what he’s doing.

Ken: Yes, but why would he become known as “one who was following a certain discipline of charity and self-control under the instructions of a man of real knowledge”?

Student: Well, I think probably this is a cultural…

Ken: I don’t think we should go there, because I found that these stories actually are somehow magnificently free of culture.

Student: Oh. Well, if somebody is doing something that is at least on the surface appearing to be activity that is not necessarily connected to their own self-interest and selfish gratification, in austere circumstances, in particular….

Ken: Yes.

Student: …it’s, I think it’s yeah, common, for people to assume that this person has good intentions and is disciplined and doing something unusual.

Ken: Yes. In other words, he’s doing something that makes absolutely no sense.

Student: Well, according to the conventional norms, I guess, yeah.

Ken: Yeah. How does that sit with you?

Student: I like it. [Laughs]

Ken: Have you done something that makes no sense?

Student: Many times!


Ken: As a discipline?

Student: Absolutely!

Ken: Okay. Good.

One day, a man in a hurry turned his head away when he was offered the water, and went on walking along the road. The man who was easily angered called out to him several times, “Come, return my salutation. Have some of this water which I provide for all travelers.” But there was no reply. Overcome by this behavior, the first man forgot his discipline completely. He reached for his gun, which was hooked in the withered tree, took aim at the heedless traveler, and fired. The man fell dead. At the very moment that the bullet entered his body, the withered tree, as if by a miracle, burst joyfully into blossom. The man who had been killed was a murderer, on his way to commit the worst crime of a long career.

There are, you see, two kinds of advisers. The first kind is the one who tells what should be done according to certain fixed principles, repeated mechanically. The other kind is the man of knowledge. Those who need the man of knowledge will ask him for moralistic advice and will treat him as a moralist, but what he serves is truth, not pious hopes.

Student: Okay, it’s clear.

Ken: What do you get from it?

Student: Well, from me following the prescriptions of dharma and teachers that I’ve had in the past, probably, at least for me, represent the first adviser. And the second one…well the second instigating person in the form of the traveler that refused the water was the teacher that really broke this person open and applied –

Ken: So you think the murderer was a teacher?

Student: Yeah. No, no, no! No, not the murderer, the murderee, the one that was killed.

Ken: Was a teacher?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Interesting. Why was he shot?

Student: Well, he didn’t buy the so-called good man’s trip, his moralistic trip and by so not doing, he challenged his ground, his sense of who he was, his ground of being, I suppose, his root. And threatened him. And his reaction was to forego his discipline and kill the man.

Ken: Kill the teacher.

Student: Kill the teacher.

Ken: Hmm. How many teachers have you killed?

Student: I think I’m in the process of killing all of them. [Laughter] Because I tend to idealize them, and then they become idols in some way.

Ken: Ah.

Student: So I think part of my task is to…part of my journey, in a way, is to de-idolatorize them.

Ken: We’ll let that go as English.


Student: You know, to dethrone them because….

Ken: Could somebody get me a lower chair, please.


Student: Well, this is post…this is after the fact, not….

Ken: This is after the fact? After what fact?

Student: Well, after the relationship. It’s a psychological thing I’m talking about.

Ken: Well, maybe.

Student: I think the import to me of the story is that you have to be who you are in order to wake up, rather than who you think you should be or who somebody…who you think that somebody tells you to be, and come to terms with who you really are. I mean, that’s sometimes very difficult, and can cause a lot of problems for yourself and others around you.


Section 3

Ken: Okay. [Pause] It’s very important to be clear about one’s intention in practice. When we start a practice, we start to follow a path. Because we inherit teachings that have been developed and practiced over the course of centuries, it is very easy—in fact, it’s what happens for most people—that they have the feeling that the path is laid out in front of them. All they have to do is follow it.

Student: Right.

Ken: Now, how many of you have had that idea? [Pause] For how many of you has it turned out to be the case?

Student: Well, I mean I think I…you see changes in yourself over the years.

Ken: Uh-huh. But is the path of your practice the one that you thought was laid out in front of you? Is that how your practice goes? My own experience is, no it isn’t. Every now and then….[chime sound] [Laughter] Every now and then, you pass a rock or a tree that you think, “Oh, somebody told me about that rock or tree.” And you may think, “Oh, I must be on the right path.” But that’s not even clear. But things unfold in us in ways that we cannot predict, and even in this retreat in which I’m following a fairly well-laid-out process, one of the reasons that I’m doing the individual interviews is because none of you are following that process.

[Laughter] Not one of you! Mind you, I didn’t really expect any of you would. [Laughter] It’s why I do individual interviews. But in the course of these interviews, how many of you are experiencing something changing, shifting, growing, whatever word you want, in your practice? [Pause] Well, good, some of you, anyway. [Laughter] Dangerous question. The more appropriate metaphor may be evolution, rather than following the path. There’s only one snag with evolution: you never know what’s going to evolve next. And you really don’t; it’s a mystery.


Section 4

This evening, I want to continue the work we started last night, in which we started to look at the nature of experience and the nature of mind. Now, Ken’s original question is, “Can you have objectless awareness?” Because I was talking about awareness and the object being inseparable. How many of you’ve been doing any skygazing? What’s your experience with that? Leslie.

Leslie: It’s a really natural practice. I’m sure we all did it when we were kids.

Ken: Yeah. Yeah. But what’s your experience?

Leslie: My experience is that it settles the mind very naturally, that at times I lose a sense of myself and everything is…almost indescribable.

Ken: Okay. Anybody? Who else is doing skygazing? Andy.

Andy: For me it was a great relief because there really is no instruction, except “look at the sky.” So for me, anyway, that’s…I found helpful. [Laughter] There was nothing I could parse. I couldn’t make any distinctions, couldn’t pirate anything, couldn’t quantify or qualify. So I just looked at the sky.

Ken: Okay. Chuck.

Chuck: Well, it quiets the mind. However, sometimes it’s too quiet and I fall asleep. So, it’s more like looking down a big hole, very empty.

Ken: Okay.

Chuck: I try and think it’s like the mind.

Ken: Okay. Janet.

Janet: It’s very natural-feeling. It quiets and then there does seem to be something else that happens, where it seems to reflect everything. That’s how it feels. Looking into the sky seems to bring a sense that everything is reflected in the sky.

Ken: So I have a question. What looks at the sky? You four experts. You don’t trust me at all, do you, Leslie? [Laughs]

Leslie: [Laughs] Well, yeah, I do.

Ken: That wasn’t the look you were shooting at me.

Leslie: I know; I was hoping you wouldn’t ask me.


Ken: What looks at the sky, Leslie?

Leslie: Well, at times it’s just, there’s nothing there. There’s just….

Ken: So nothing is looking at the sky?

Leslie: The sky is looking at me.

Ken: Oh, you’re just quoting Nietzsche.

Leslie: [Laughs]

Ken: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”

Leslie: I would say that it’s the same thing that other people experience. I’ve….

Ken: How do you know that?

Leslie: I don’t know that. But I suspect. [Laughs]


Leslie: From the way people describe it, it sounds pretty similar.

Ken: So what looks at the sky?

Leslie: [Sighs]

Ken: Okay.

Leslie: I would say it just opens us to awareness. Naked awareness.

Ken: Yeah, but that doesn’t answer my question.

One recurrent difficulty in insight practice is the desire to escape from the practice. The practice tears down the framework of ordinary experience. Your teacher doesn’t help matters because he or she keeps asking what you experience and you have no words.

Sound familiar?

A common escape route is to refer to the indescribable nature of mind. When your teacher asks about your experience, you confidently say, “It’s indescribable, it’s beyond words.” Such responses do not do the job. You’re avoiding standing in your own knowing. When you’re asked about your experience, the conditioned sense of self meets the emptiness of mind. There is no ground. Your effort at this point is to stand where there is no ground, and to speak in your own voice: to be present without being anything or anyone.

Student: What are you reading from? [Laughter] Is it copyrighted?

Ken: Yeah. I’m reading from my book. [Page 377 of Wake Up To Your Life.]

Student: Oh, oh! Okay.

Ken: Sounds better in the writing, doesn’t it? [Laughter] So, Leslie.


Leslie: Yes. Yes Ken?

Ken: What looks at the sky?

Leslie: Well….

Ken: Just keep going. Do you notice the difference? Keep going.

[Long pause]

Leslie: That’s all I can say.

Ken: Now. Put it into words. May I give you a hint? You don’t have to make any sense. Let it speak.

Leslie: Well, it feels like I’m inside-out.

Ken: Okay.

Leslie: And there’s nothing in between….

Ken: Okay, good. How was that?

Leslie: Excruciating.


Ken: Yes. To whom is it excruciating?

Leslie: I generally don’t like being the one talking.

Ken: Pardon?

Leslie: I don’t generally like being the one talking. So, that person didn’t like it.

Ken: Other than that, how was it? You have to reach to a place that you don’t often go, right? What’s it like to go there?

Leslie: That part’s good.

Ken: Okay.

Leslie: It’s kind of like…being naked.

Ken: Yeah. Very naked.

Leslie: So that’s both freeing and scary. Feels like you’re at the front of a ship, cutting through water.

Ken: I’m trying to remember something. Yes. To know what you don’t know, you have to go by the way which is the way of ignorance. And to become what you are not, you have to go by the way in which you are not. That’s T.S. Eliott again, that one. This is what’s required here, and there’s absolutely no point in my sheltering you from it. And you may say, “You don’t have to stand behind us and just keep pushing us off the cliff,” but actually this is it.



Section 5

Okay. So, look at mind. What do you see?

Student: Nothing at all.

Ken: Okay. When you look at nothing, what happens to you?

Student: I disappear. There’s no “you” there.

Ken: And yet, there is an experience. One way of describing this is that when you look at nothing, there is just awareness looking at awareness. Madhyamikas wouldn’t like that one. Yogacarans would go along with it.

Voice: I was going to… when you were roasting Leslie….


Ken: I wasn’t roasting her.

Student: No, I know.

Ken: I was merely cooking. [Laughter] It’s an important distinction!

Student: What if her response was, “Awareness is looking”?

Ken: Is that your response?

Student: If you’d asked me that, that’s what I would have said.

Ken: What is awareness?

Student: [Laughs] I have no idea. I have no idea. I know it when I experience it, but I have no….

Ken: That’s not how Leslie answered.

Student: No, it isn’t.

Ken: No. She didn’t use any jargon.

Student: No, I know. No, I think her response was very…from the heart actually.

Ken: Yeah. It was in her own words.

Student: Yeah.

Ken: She was describing her experience. She wasn’t appealing to any jargon, any vocabulary whatsoever. [To Leslie] I suppose if there’s one thing you hate worse than speaking, it’s being praised in public.


Leslie: Not yet.

Ken: You have to thank [student] Ken for that. Okay, so let’s go back. You look at mind. You see nothing. Is this nothing the nothingness of empty space? Anybody? Nick?

Nick: No.

Ken: What’s the difference?

Nick: It’s totally full.

Ken: Of what?

Nick: Stuff. [Laughter] Perceptions, whatever you want to call it.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Vladimir.

Vladimir: I don’t know. I don’t see nothing.

Ken: What do you see, Vladimir?

Vladimir: I see a lot of things. I cannot see mind, but I don’t see nothing. I just don’t see the mind. I see a lot of other things.

Ken: Okay.

Vladimir: But no mind. But I see a lot of things.

Ken: Like, “stuff.”

Vladimir: Yes, exactly.

Ken: Okay.

Vladimir: But not nothing.

Ken: Keep looking.

Vladimir: Okay.

Ken: An exercise that you might try that some people have found it a bit helpful. If you have a small hand mirror, look at the mirror. Look at the mirror—and I hesitate to say this, but it’s the best thing I can do. I’ll put it this way. Maybe this is better. Ask yourself the question: “What do I have to do to see the mirror, not the reflections?”

Vladimir: Would you say that again?

Ken: What do I have to do to see the mirror, and not the reflections.

Vladimir: Okay.

Ken: How does that strike you?

Vladimir: Well, yes, of course that’s the idea, but how do I get rid of all the objects that are being reflected?

Ken: Ah. I didn’t say get rid of the reflections.

Vladimir: Yes?

Ken: No. And this is the mistake. This is exactly the point, thank you. The question I posed is, “How do I see the mirror and not the reflections?” I didn’t say get rid of the reflections. But how do I see the mirror and not the reflections?

Student: My response would be you have to be the mirror. You have to go beyond the duality of “looking at” the mirror.

Ken: That may be, but I want to work with Vladimir for a moment.

Student: Oh, sorry.

Vladimir: That’s what I was meaning, that you have to get rid of the objects then only the mirror is left because the objects are reflected in the mirror.

Ken: I understand. But I’m saying—let’s put it this way: How do you see the mirror without getting rid of the reflections?

Vladimir: Ah!

Ken: And without inferring the mirror from the reflections.

Vladimir: See it with your mental consciousness. [Laughter] With the sixth consciousness.

Ken: May I make a slight suggestion?

Vladimir: Yes.

Ken: Try again, but don’t think about it this time.

Vladimir: All right.


Ken: I really can’t emphasize enough the uselessness of thinking when it comes to this practice. It really doesn’t work at all.

Vladimir: Well, I visualize this technique while not thinking.

Ken: Just imagine you’re looking in a mirror. What has to happen? [Pause] Yes.

Vladimir: Well, the….

Ken: Go ahead.

Vladimir: Well, if the mirror doesn’t reflect then it’s not a mirror. There’s no problem with the reflection. So I just see it with the reflections. The mirror as it is.

Ken: Okay. Keep looking. Now, one way to describe this is it’s not just empty space, because there is an awareness. Everybody go along with that? So it’s different. This is what you were pointing to in a way, Nicholas. You said it’s full of stuff. But it can only be full of stuff if there’s an awareness. Where does this awareness come from? Where is it? Does it go anywhere? I don’t want you to answer these questions right now. But these are some of the things that I want you to start looking at in your practice.


Section 6

Look at mind, and see nothing. You don’t see an object that corresponds to mind. Yet, there is this awareness. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Where is it? What happens when you look this way? Tom.

Tom: I lose energy; I go away.

Ken: You lose energy?

Tom: The same question is, like, “What is mind?” Same question, same type of question. In my case, I lose my awareness and sort of fall off the track when I do that. Not at first.

Ken: Ah. You fall into some kind of dullness or thinking?

Tom: Dullness.

Ken: Okay. Does that happen immediately?

Tom: Not immediately.

Ken: What happens before you fall into the dullness?

Tom: There’s an energy shift.

Ken: Okay. Can you rest in that energy shift?

Tom: [Pause] Yes.

Ken: Good. That’s the practice. You feel that shift and rest there. What happens when you do that?

Tom: [Pause] It feels…at first, things get clearer.

Ken: Okay. Can you rest there?

Tom: [Laughs] I can try.

Ken: Good. That’s how you work here. Question, Alan. What’s your question?

Alan: I don’t have a question, I don’t think.

Ken: Looks like you do.

Alan: Hmm. I’m in trouble.


Ken: What are you seeking to understand?

Alan: Well, I heard Tom say that there was a dullness.

Ken: I can’t quite hear.

Alan: Tom said that he experienced a dullness after a moment. I was looking for that in my experience, I guess.

Ken: I thought you had a question. So your question is, where does the dullness come from?

Alan: Yeah! Okay.

Ken: Where does the dullness come from, Tom?

Tom: I think it’s more of a reaction.

Ken: Pardon?

Tom: I think it’s a habitual reaction.

Ken: A habitual reaction. That doesn’t tell Alan where it comes from.

Tom: [Pause] I…[laughter].

Ken: I have an additional question for Tom. Are you aware of the dullness?

Tom: Yes.

Ken: Is what is aware of the dullness dull?

Tom: It doesn’t seem to be.

Ken: Can you rest there?

Tom: I can try.

Ken: Good. So, Nicholas, it’s your turn. You rang the bell.


Ken: When I asked you about awareness, not the time…not the accidentally, but the second time….

Nicholas: Yeah.

Ken: …which is fine. So this is a sensory experience, the sound of the bell, right? We won’t use nice technical, philosophical vocabulary [that would] keep the lawyers and the philosophers here happy.


Nicholas: Sounds good.

Ken: So, we’ll just call it a sound.

Nicholas: [Unclear]

Ken: What’s the relationship between sound, that sound or any sound, and awareness? Are they the same or different? Is one included in the other? Don’t think. You may have to ring the bell.

Nicholas: Can you ask the…you asked a couple of questions just then.

Ken: I’ll make it one. What is the relationship between sound and awareness?

Nicholas: [Laughs] I can’t….

Ken: Keep going. Leslie, he needs some help. Could you, please?

Nicholas: You know, it’s like…a sound, or whatever that the thing might… the relationship?


Ken: It’s all a part of relationship, you know?

Nicholas: Yeah, but it’s… it’s there. I don’t know. I can’t….

Ken: Leslie, could you give him some help?

Leslie: When you hear the sound, where does it come from?

Nicholas: It doesn’t. I don’t mean it much to make it scientific a lot. I didn’t think so. [Laughs] No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t come from anywhere.

Leslie: Where does it return to?

Nicholas: No, that doesn’t happen, either. I can’t… I’m sorry, I don’t know.

Ken: It just goes on and on?

Nicholas: Well, it doesn’t… I mean, it ceases, I guess.

Ken: Yeah.

Nicholas: Yeah, I mean it definitely ceases, if you’re talking about a particular sound, like the bell. It definitely ceases, but it doesn’t go anywhere when it ceases like that.

Ken: Okay.

Nicholas: Doesn’t go anywhere, I think.

Ken: Keep going, Leslie.

Leslie: Okay, another question.


Nicholas: Shoot.

Leslie: Where is the silence when it’s the bell?

Ken: Say that a little bit louder so everybody can hear this.

Leslie: Where is the silence when there’s the sound?

Nicholas: [Pause] What silence?

Ken: Are you listening right now, Nicholas?

Nicholas: Yeah.

Ken: Right now, do you hear anything?

Nicholas: Yeah. You mean, do I hear that, what you’re about to do?


Ken: Do you? Okay. So, silence.

Nicholas: Sure, yeah.


Ken: Now answer Leslie’s question.

Nicholas: Yeah.


Ken: Do you want to try it again?

Nicholas: One more time.

Ken: It’s okay. We can do this all night. [Pause] Tell me when you’re ready.

Nicholas: Supposed to hear a silence first? I mean that doesn’t…literally? No, it doesn’t happen.


Nicholas: Humph.

Leslie: Do you have a girlfriend? Where is the kiss when it’s over?

[Laughter and general comments]

Ken: Having fun, are we?


Nicholas: I don’t know any better, so. I hope she does not listen. She’s not a Buddhist, so she probably won’t listen to these podcasts. We hope.


Student: Say the question.

Student: Yeah, couldn’t hear it.

Ken: It’s your question. Say it loud and clear for everybody.

Leslie: I asked him if he had a girlfriend, then I said, “Where is the kiss when it’s over?”

[Several sounds indicating understanding.]

Nicholas: Yeeaah. [drawled]


Ken: I may have to steal that one.

Nicholas: Oh, boy.

Ken: Okay. So let’s go back to the sound and silence. When the sound arises, what happens to the silence?

Nicholas: Ring it again.

[Ken rings bell]

Nicholas: Nothing.

Ken: What’s the relationship?

Nicholas: The relationship?

Ken: Between sound and awareness?


Nicholas: [Quietly] Yiyayee…I can’t really say.

Ken: Okay. The two are [unclear]. That’s good. So these are the kinds of questions that I want you to consider in practice tomorrow. [The] point here: it’s easy enough to uncover some sense of awareness, awareness that seems to stand outside of time or outside of concept in some way. That’s not so hard.


Section 7

A story is told of Seung Sahn Sunim, who’s a Korean Zen teacher. He was giving a talk in Providence, Rhode Island, I believe. I went to one of Seung Sahn’s talks. He doesn’t really give talks. He invites questions and every question he turns to direct the student’s attention to mind. So the talk that I was at, one student said, “I’ve been thinking about going to India. Do you think this is a good idea?” Seung Sahn’s response was, “When you think of India, does your mind go to India or does India come to your mind?”

So, on this occasion in Providence, he started off by saying, typical Zen fashion, “What is the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings? If you say anything, I’ll hit you. If you don’t say anything, I’ll hit you.” This is typical Zen. But he wasn’t talking to a Zen group, so one person in the audience said, “I hit Buddha.” To which Seung Sahn said, “You understand one. Do you understand two?” The person replied, “I understand three.” To which Seung Sahn replied, “I thought there was a leaping lion, but I see there’s just a slinking fox.”


When Seung Sahn asked the first question, “What is the meaning of Buddha’s teachings? If you say anything I’ll hit you; if you don’t say anything I’ll hit you,” this is exactly equivalent to my interaction with Leslie. He was asking anybody in the audience to say what they knew, in their own words. So this person says, “I hit the Buddha.” which is to say, “I’m down with the concept of Buddha.” A somewhat presumptuous claim, possibly, but Seung Sahn took it at face value: “You understand one.” That is, you understand the emptiness of things. “Do you understand two?” Do you understand how things arise? The student had no idea what he was talking about, so he made the even more presumptuous statement, “I understand three,” and Seung Sahn was finished with him.


Section 8

So, it is one thing to know, as we’ve explored the last two nights, that when you look, and look deeply, there is nothing there. I don’t know who said this, it was a verse I learned in retreat, which I translated here. Look directly at your own mind. Look at it deeply. When you look and see nothing, that is the nature of things. So, that’s one piece.

Now, I’ve given you a number of ways of looking, a number of tools how to raise the level of energy, which can be done through guru yoga, or the primary practice, or other methods. And the purpose of raising the energy is so that you can stay in the looking without the attention being disrupted by the inevitable emotional reactions. You heard Tom describe how, when he looks, he’s able to look for a short period of time, then falls into dullness. That is an emotional reaction. The exact nature of the emotional reaction doesn’t really matter. Often it’s some form of fear, but there are other possibilities. But in that interchange I had with Tom, I showed him how to keep coming back into the looking. Maybe that will be helpful to him.

So, you look directly at the mind. And whether you call it “the mind,” or you call it “what is aware,” or you call it “what experiences” doesn’t make any difference. You look right at it. You rest in the looking. When you see nothing, that’s how things are.

Now we enter a mystery. There’s nothing there, but we experience things. It’s very strange. So, the second stage is to explore the nature of this awareness which is no thing, and the nature of experience and its relationship with this awareness. I’ve given you a number of questions to consider. And you can do this in a lot of different ways. I suggest you pick just one and work with it.


Section 9

One is, let the mind rest. Look at the mind. When you can rest in that looking, let a thought float up. What is the relationship with that thought, between that thought and the awareness of it? The awareness is no thing. Thought seems to be a thing. What’s the relationship? This is the question I was asking Nick, except that in Nick’s case, we were talking about a sensory perception, namely sound. You can do it with sight and you can do it with touch. It’s possible to do it with smell and taste, but they’re rather more fleeting, particularly smell, so it’s a little difficult for it to be there.

But, you know, get an ice cube from the fridge. Hold it in your hand. Ice cubes are good; it’s a very vivid experience. What experiences the cold? And what is the relationship between the experience of the cold, which is extremely vivid, and awareness?

Student: Could you say that again, the last question?

Ken: What is the relationship between the experience of cold, which is extremely vivid, and awareness? Now, I will remind you, as we’ve touched on this evening and talked about last night also, this is not the subject of analysis. Because there’s zero logical reasoning here. You’re looking at the bird; you’re not trying to deduce characteristics of the bird from studying it in a book. You’re looking right at your own experience asking, “What is this?”

This is not a theoretical investigation. It’s not an analytical investigation. It’s an experiential investigation. The only thing you’re going to rely on is what you experience. And as you know from your interactions with me in the interviews, all I’m interested in is what you experience. The moment you start spouting theories or something like that, I fall asleep, you know, or I throw a tantrum or something.


Okay, questions. [Pause]

Larry: [Starts talking just as Ken starts talking again]

Ken: Just one sec, Larry. Everything you’ve read is useless to you. Just start there. Larry.

Larry: So this is, in the Zen story you told, the two.

Ken: Well, work on the one.

Larry: Yeah.

Ken: Until that’s clear, then work on the two. Okay? Other questions.

Student: So first we have to see the bird, right that’s what you say?


Ken: That helps.


Student: So all these descriptions and instructions you gave were on the assumption that we can already see the bird.

Ken: Yes.

Student: So those who haven’t seen it…

Ken: If you’re looking for the bird, keep looking. Can I give you a hint?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: One of the Shangpa teachings on this subject is known as the four faults of innate awareness. So close, you can’t see it. So deep you can’t fathom it. So simple, you can’t believe it. So good you can’t accept it. That help?

Student: Maybe.

Ken: [Laughs] Maybe?

Student: Stopping the mind, I see possibilities.

Ken: And that’s exactly right. It’s all about stopping the mind. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. You’ve heard these lines? Whoever composed these was a genius.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Student: I didn’t hear you.

Ken: Whoever composed those lines was a genius. It’s impossible, no matter how many times you’ve heard those lines, to hear those lines and for your mind not to stop. You know, Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form. Form is not other than emptiness. You’ve got nowhere to go. So you may find that that’s useful, to stop the mind and then look. Other questions. Tony.


Section 10

Tony: You said that a thought was a thing. You were describing the arising of thought?

Ken: Yeah.

Tony: You were describing it as a thing. Do you make a distinction between a thought and a sound? Anything that arises? Do you make any distinctions?

Ken: Yeah, well, a thought is a mental phenomenon; sound is a sensory phenomenon. So there is that distinction. But they’re both experiences. You can take a thought, you can take an emotion, or you can take a sensation such as red or blue. And what is the relationship between that thought, feeling or sensation and awareness, mind, whatever?

Tony: Again, using awareness synonymous with experiencing mind?

Ken: Yeah, at this point, not making too much of a distinction there. There are other contexts [where] I would very definitely make distinctions, but in this case I’m not making much distinction.

If you turn to the Mahamudra Prayer All experience is a manifestation of mind. As for mind, there is no mind; by its nature it’s empty. Empty and unrestricted, mind arises as experience. By looking into mind deeply, may I be clear about how it is. This is exactly what we’re engaged in right here.

Next stanza. Remember the exercise we did with, “What do you see?” So we have this perception, which, you know, this scene of green. And it could also be done with [rings bell] sound. The experience of seeing, the experience of hearing, is what is being called perception here. When we looked at it, we couldn’t find where it is, or where it came from, or where it went. Remember all of that?

And as Charles pointed out, when we can’t say where something is or where it came from or where it went, we say, well, it doesn’t exist. So, Perceptions, which never existed in themselves. That’s what that line’s referring to, that ineffable nature. Are mistaken for objects. That’s precisely what happens. There’s the experience of hearing and we objectify it and make it into a sound. So, the perception, the experience, is confused and it becomes an object. And now we say “Ah, there’s an object out there.”

Awareness itself, because of ignorance, is mistaken for a self. Ah, there’s awareness. That must be me.


Section 11

So, one night, Nasrudin arrived at the caravanserai and he’s a little overwhelmed with all the people. People were having a good time, some were drinking and partying, some were gambling, etc., etc. He got the number for his bed, lots of people around, and his wag saw that he was a bit confused and said, “Nasrudin, what’s the problem?” He said, “Well, there’s so many people, and there’s so much going on here, I’m afraid if I fall asleep I won’t know who I am when I wake up.”


And the wag said, “Ah, not a problem! Here, take this balloon and just tie it to your toe, and when you wake up, just see where the balloon is, and you’ll know that’s you.”


And Nasrudin says, “Thanks!” Lies down, goes to sleep quite happy, sleeps very well, wakes up in the morning. Meanwhile, in the middle of the night, the wag’s got up, untied it from Nasrudin’s toe and tied it to his own toe.


Nasrudin wakes up in the morning, looks for the balloon, goes over to the wag and says, “If you’re me, who am I?”


Awareness itself, because of ignorance, is mistaken for a self. Through the power of dualistic fixation, I wander in the realm of existence. It doesn’t exist. Even Buddhas do not see it.

Now, when I first came back from India, naturally somewhat enthusiastic about Buddhism, and I gave my father some books on it, and he took a rather dim view of the whole thing. But he was a good sport; he read the books. And then he came up to me and said, “I can’t understand why you’re studying this, Ken, why you’re practicing it. Because it says right here, ’You cannot understand this.’”


“Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

So, as I said before, in the practice of insight, experience is the only thing that counts. Deduction, logic, etc.—not worth a thing. You look at mind. And as you say, see, it says right here, Even Buddhas do not see it. What’s really important is that you not see it yourself. Okay? That’s what it meant earlier, “When you see nothing.”

Now, seeing nothing is not the same as not seeing anything. You know? Alice in Wonderland, maybe Through the Looking Glass, I can never remember. A lion and the unicorn are having a race and the White King and Alice are watching it. And the White King says to Alice, “Do you see them coming?” And Alice says, “I see no one.” And the White King says, “What sharp eyes you have, and in this light, too!”

Now, it’s very important to see nothing, which isn’t the same as not seeing anything. So that’s why you keep pushing here. You keep looking, and you keep resting in the looking. That’s the bird.

It doesn’t not exist. It is the basis for all experience. Samsara and nirvana, no contradiction. This is the Middle Way. We have these two categories, “exist,” “don’t exist.” They’re just two polarities of how things actually are. We make up the categories.

Skipping down: Since perception is mind and emptiness is mind, since knowing is mind and delusion is mind, since arising is mind and cessation is mind, may all assumptions about mind be eliminated. This is the process which I’m introducing you to tonight.

Again, logic and deduction count for nothing. What we’re engaging in is very serious business and it takes work. And you really look at what you experience. And you may think it’s rather arcane to puzzle over. “Well, is sound and awareness the same or different?” The purpose of this—and this is, granted, one approach to this—is to come to…it’s a very difficult term to translate. Let me put it into English another way.

It’s to know how things are sufficiently, through your own experience, that you can actually let go of all your preconceptions about how things are. You know, relying on what somebody else has said, or what you read in a book, isn’t enough to let go. Why? Because the holding is emotional, and thus the seeing or the experience has to be at least at the level of emotion. Intellect just isn’t strong enough. And that’s why we keep raising the energy, so that the experience is first at the level of emotion, and then at the level of direct perception. Then it becomes possible, though not altogether easy, to let to of the emotional attachment to certain preconceptions about how the world is and how things are.

Skipping down: Look at objects and there is no object. One sees mind. This is, again, what I was doing with this. When you really look at this, you find you’re just looking at mind. Look at mind and there is no mind. Mind’s nature is empty. Look at both of these and dualistic clinging subsides on its own.

So, this is the process in which we’re engaged right now. Questions.


Section 12

Charles: Ken, when you say that not…that looking and not seeing anything is not the same as seeing nothing, isn’t it better to say that when you look at mind you don’t see anything, rather than that you see nothing? Because putting it that you see nothing has the implication that the nothing is a thing that you see.

Ken: [chuckles]


Ken: Uh…

Charles: Whereas not seeing anything doesn’t connote that so strongly. You know? Does it? I’m just thinking of, like in the Madhyamika teachings.

Ken: Oh, I’m right with you.

Charles: Okay.

Ken: And your logic, as usual, is impeccable.


Ken: Which has more emotional punch?

Charles: Ah! That’s a good question.

Ken: That’s what I’m trying to communicate. This is at the level of emotion. Forget about the damn intellect. It’s useless here. I can’t state strongly enough how useless the intellect is here. Every time you go back to the intellect, you undo everything that you’ve built up. That’s the problem. And for people who are intellectually inclined, and I have to count myself one of them, this is a real pain in the neck. But it is completely useless. The only thing that counts here is experience.

Charles: Yeah.

Ken: Suzuki Roshi used to say, Give me somebody off the street, two or three years, some direct experience, not a problem. If they’ve taken one class in philosophy, it’s going to be at least 12 years.


Ken: Good luck, Charles!


Charles: Thank you!



Section 13

Ken: Okay. We’ve gone way over, way over time! Okay, Leslie, yes, fire away. This is all very important.

Leslie: This question is sort of connected, but you’ve given us the instruction to rest and not do anything with whatever arises. And I had a choice before I came here tonight, because I was having a lot of chest discomfort from emotional pain, and I don’t think my mahamudra [helped]. I tried, but [the pain] just wouldn’t go away, and I didn’t want to come here and not enjoy the talk. So I used some antidotes, like tonglen and loving kindness and it went away. So, can you talk about that?

Ken: What do you want me to talk about?

Leslie: Well, does that just mean that I need to develop a higher level of attention for mahamudra practice to be effective? And really, I was adding energy?

Ken: You think that mahamudra practice is going to make everything okay.

Leslie: Well, if something else works better, I’m going to use it.

Ken: So you think the point of dharma practice is to make everything okay?

Leslie: No, but…

Ken: But that’s how you were using it.

Leslie: I just wanted to enjoy the evening. Seems like a sensible thing.

Ken: [Laughs] Stick around.


Okay. So, take some medication, do some meditation, whatever, so you’re not uncomfortable, allows you to listen, pay attention better, etc. Right?

Leslie: Yeah.

Ken: Okay. What about just experiencing?

Leslie: Well, I did that for quite awhile.

Ken: Okay.

Leslie: And I had the sense that I knew what it needed.

Ken: Well, what you needed to do to get rid of it.

Leslie: Well, it was telling me something.

Ken: Okay.

Leslie: And I found out by doing tonglen.

Ken: Okay. Please don’t think that the purpose of practice is to get rid of all of the little things that make life uncomfortable. The purpose of practice, Buddhist practice, mahamudra particularly, is to be able to experience whatever arises. That’s it. When we are able to experience whatever arises, a lot of things happen that wouldn’t happen ordinarily, but those are all after-effects, or side-effects. And yet, many people approach practice as if they are the point. There’s a basic confusion on that.

When you can experience whatever arises, which is one way of defining vajra-like samadhi, the samadhi of Buddhahood, when you’re actually able to experience what arises, you don’t have to react to anything. That’s freedom.

Leslie: So then, my thought is, from what you’re saying, that because I couldn’t experience it, my level of attention is not adequate.

Ken: You’re bad, bad, bad!


Leslie: No, not that it’s bad. I added energy so that I can experience it. That’s what I think. That I added energy so that I could experience it, and I released it. Ha, ha.

Ken: You released it?

Leslie: No, the energy released it.

Ken: Thank you.


Ken: We do have this tendency to take credit. Now. Yes, I think this is relevant for this evening.


Section 14

A certain king one day called a counselor to him and said: “The strength of real thinking depends upon the examination of alternatives. Tell me which alternative is better: to increase the knowledge of my people or to give them more to eat. In either case, they will benefit.”

The Sufi said: “Majesty, there is no point in giving knowledge to those who cannot receive it, any more than there is point in giving food to those who cannot understand your motives. Therefore it is not correct to assume that ‘in either case they will benefit.’ If they cannot digest the food, or if they think you give it to them as a bribe, or that they can get more, you have failed. If they cannot see that they are being given knowledge, or whether it is knowledge or not, or even why you are giving it to them, they will not benefit. Therefore the question must be taken by degrees. The first degree is the consideration: ’The most valuable person is worthless and the most worthless person is valuable.’”

“Demonstrate this truth to me, for I cannot understand it,” said the king.

The Sufi then called the chief dervish of Afghanistan, and he came to the Court. “If you had your way, what would you have someone in Kabul do?” he asked.

“It so happens that there is a man near such-and-such a place who, if he knew it, could be giving a pound of cherries to a certain necessitous man, gain a fortune for himself and also great advancement for the whole country and progress for the Path,” said the chief dervish, who knew of the inner correspondence of things.

The king was excited, for Sufis do not generally discourse upon such things. “Call him here and we will have it done,” he cried. The others silenced him with a gesture. “No,” said the first Sufi, “this cannot work unless it is done voluntarily.”

In disguise, in order not to influence the man’s choice, the three of them went straight to the Kabul bazaar. Divested of his turban and robe, the chief Sufi looked very much like any ordinary man. “I will take the part of the exciting cause,” he whispered, as the group stood looking at the fruit. He approached the greengrocer and wished him good day. Then he said, “I know a poor man. Will you give me a pound of cherries, as a charity?” The greengrocer bellowed with laughter. “Well, I have heard some tricks, but this is the first time that someone who wanted cherries has stooped to ask me as if it were for charity!”

“You see what I mean?” the first Sufi asked the king. “The most valuable man we have has just made the most valuable suggestion, and the event has proved that he is worthless to the man to whom he speaks.”

“But what about ‘the most worthless person’ being valuable?” asked the king.

The two dervishes beckoned him to follow them.

As they were about to cross the Kabul River, the two Sufis suddenly seized the king and threw him into the water. He could not swim.

As he felt himself about to drown, Kaka Divana—whose name means Insane Uncle—a well-known pauper and lunatic who roamed the streets, jumped in and brought him safely to the bank. Various other, more solid, citizens had seen him in the water, but none moved.

When the king was somewhat restored, the two dervishes intoned together: “The most worthless person is valuable!”

So the king went back to his old, traditional method of giving whatever he could—whether education or help of any kind—to those whom it was decided from time to time were the most worthy recipients of such aid.

Okay? Yes, Nicholas?

Nicholas: I….


Ken: 9:42. Do you need a break?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay, five minutes….