Working with painful or difficult emotions is something everyone encounters in practice. This series explores ways to let go of reactions associated with powerful emotions so you don’t have to repress them or express them in the world.
Releasing through taking and sending, part 1Download
Taking emptiness and compassion as the framework, difference between actual and projected experience, working with actual experience, instruction in five-step method that uses taking and sending (tonglen) to release emotional reactions.
Here’s your reflection for today:
Visiting a sick friend, Nasrudin was just in time to see the doctor arrive. The man in the house was in the house for less than a minute, and the speed of his diagnosis stunned the Mullah. First the doctor looked at the patient’s tongue. Then he paused briefly, and he said, “You’ve been eating green apples. Stop doing this. You will be well in a couple of days.”
Forgetting everything else, the Mullah pursued the doctor out of the house. “Tell me doctor,” he panted, “Please tell me how you do it?” “It was quite simple, when you have the experience to distinguish various situations,” said the doctor. “You see, as soon as I knew that the man had a stomachache, I looked for a cause. When I got into the sick room, I saw a heap of green apple cores under the man’s bed. The rest was obvious.”
Nasrudin thanked him very much. The next time he was visiting a friend, it happened that the man’s wife answered the door. “Mullah,” she said, “we don’t need a philosopher; we need a doctor, my husband has a stomachache.” “Don’t think that a philosopher cannot be a physician, madam,” said Nasrudin forcing himself into the presence of the patient.
The sick man lay groaning on the bed. Nasrudin went straight to it, looked underneath and called the wife into the room. “Nothing serious,” he said, “He will be well in a couple of days, but you must make sure that he cuts down on his habit of eating saddles and bridles.”
These are deep teachings. I’ll let you figure that one out.
Okay. This morning, going start working with another technique. This particular technique is based on the principles of taking and sending. And unlike the work we did yesterday, it has no pedigree. You are guinea pigs, once again. So, I hope you survive. Everybody did sign the release forms, didn’t they? [Laughter] Good.
Mahayana practice is characterized by two themes: emptiness and compassion. One of Kalu Rinpoche’s phrases that he often used was in Tibetan, stong nyid snying rje snying po can (pron. tong nyi nying jay nying po chen). Stong nyid is the Tibetan word for emptiness or shunyata; snying rje is the Tibetan word for compassion, the Sanskrit karuna; and snying po can means to have the essence, the pith. So to have the pith of the matter which is emptiness and compassion.
Now, perhaps it’s helpful to look at how the original formulations of Buddhism—which we find most faithfully preserved in the Theravadan tradition—evolved into later formulations such as the Mahayana. And one very good example of this evolution is found in what are known in the Theravadin tradition as the three marks, which find counterparts in Mahayana as the three gates.
Three marks are impermanence, suffering and non-self. And these are the understandings that arise simply through coming to know experience. By sitting, resting with the breath and being…practicing mindfulness, you observe and actually experience the coming and going of things. And one begins to see that all experience is transitory. Just keeps changing. And you also see that in the presence of emotional reactions, all experience is suffering. There is an unsatisfactory or painful quality to it. And you also see that what we think of as ourselves, which we ordinarily consider as, you know, this entity, me or I, that there is actually nothing we can point to and say, “I am that”.
And these are just observations; these are all understandings which arise from a clear perception of experience. And when Buddha presented them, they challenged quite significantly many of the prevailing philosophies of the day, and not insignificantly, the basis of the caste system in India, which used the concept of a self which moved from life to life to justify the quite horrific inequities of the caste system, which made Buddha unpopular in certain quarters. But as with any tradition, teaching, people work with it over the course of decades and centuries. New aspects come to light. The old formulations may grow stale. And new ways of expressing the same ideas arise.
So in Mahayana we find the three gates to freedom. And the first gate is no characteristics. The second gate is no aspiration, And the third gate is emptiness. The first gate is connected with impermanence by virtue of the fact that when you observe things coming and going, you observe there’s nothing you can hold on to which makes a thing the thing itself. The thing derives its “thingness” from its relationship with other things. You have interdependent origination, which is another important thing. But there isn’t any characteristic “thingness” you can hold onto. So, no characteristics.
And no aspiration follows directly from the observation that all experience in the presence of emotional reaction is suffering. It’s just not going to get any better. And you find this quite wonderfully expressed in the way certain teachers answer questions. Apparently Dilgo Khyentse, who’s one of the great teachers of the 20th century—close friend of Kalu Rinpoche’s—was once asked, “Why do we practice?” And he just said, “To make the best of a bad situation.”
Trungpa Rinpoche is reported one time to have arrived his usual two hours late for a talk. He sat down, looked at the audience, “It’s hopeless.” Which he repeated with various pauses for the next 20 minutes. But it’s also quite a profound teaching. Because while Dante had inscribed above the gates to hell, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here it’s actually a pretty good instruction for practice. Because when you stop wanting or trying to gain something, it actually creates the possibility of being present in what is arising right now.
And then the third gate is emptiness. And while the initial formulation was that there is no thing that corresponds to the pronoun I there’s nothing we could point to say what that is—what I am. It isn’t a very long step to seeing that; it’s very difficult to say what a cup or a bell or a light is. Because as I referred to earlier what it is is always in relationship to something else. And that comes out in Buddhism that everything is empty of independent existence. Which is simultaneously liberating and terrifying.
Now, yesterday, we worked with ways to use the breath to come into the union of knowing and experience. We’re still going to use the breath a little bit. But this, the approach we’re going to use today works much more with our emotional reactions to experience. So it has a different flavor. And the basis of this is found in the what we call the four immeasurables. Which in the Theravadin tradition are known as the four brahmaviharas. Where vihara is the term for residence and Brahmin was the highest caste. So think of the brahmaviharas as where a noble person hangs out.
These became known in the Mahayana as the four immeasurables. And they are equanimity, loving-kindness, compassion, and joy. Now this is a very, very rich area of practice. And it’s a very important area though different Buddhist traditions handle it in very, very different ways. One of the ways that I like to think about the four immeasurables is as emotions. But unlike ordinary, reactive emotions such as anger, desire, jealousy, pride, and so forth, which are all organized around a sense of self, the four immeasurables are not organized around a sense of self. And, in that sense, they’re not defensive emotional reactions.
Shakespeare captured the quality of the immeasurables in The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath
It is twice blessed
It blesseth him that gives and him that receives.
This is a very different dynamic from the reactive emotions in which when you’re angry and you express the anger. You actually don’t feel it, but the other person feels your anger. But with something like compassion, when you move into compassion, you are present with the other person’s suffering or pain but there’s no reaction taking place in you. And the consequence of that is a quality of presence. One might say it opens a field. And in that field, the person who is in pain is more able themselves to be with their pain. And so it diffuses the reactivity. And now both people are present in the situation. And similar dynamics operate with respect to equanimity, loving-kindness and joy.
Now what prevents us from being present in our lives? Well, there are many different patterns of emotional reaction and behavior that arise. But at the core of all of them is an identity, an image of ourselves which stands apart from experience. That image—that self-image—we tend to think as consistent. In fact it is not. Different self-images arise in different situations. But it always stands apart from experience.
So in certain situations, we may hold onto the image of being the authority. In other situations we may hold onto the image of being the helpless one. Some people get attached to a role of scapegoat. Others as the person who doesn’t need any help from anybody or who can’t do anything without help from somebody. All these different images. And much of the time we don’t even know which one we’re operating. But the image or the identity profoundly influences the way we interpret experience. And the way we interpret experience is always in such a way as to reinforce that particular self-image.
So this way of relating to the world which reinforces our sense of who we are we call Mahayana self-cherishing. Which is a little different from clinging to the sense of self: that’s the actual attachment to the self-image. But then there’s the tendency to reinforce that by interpreting experience a certain way. And basically, it comes down to something very simple: everything that confirms that self-image we like and are attracted to and anything that threatens it we try to push away. Just as a little example of that: How many of you are uncomfortable with compliments?
Ken: Compliments. You know. Doesn’t fit the self-image, does it? As an example, pushing something away. So, one of the more profound methods of undermining that tendency to interpret experience and it reinforces this sense of self, is to turn the thing around. So we take in exactly what we’re trying to avoid and we give away exactly what we try to hold on to.
Now, most of us, at some level, are pretty selfish. A couple of stories on this line. A Frenchman invited a friend to dinner. And they went to a restaurant. And the host said to the guest, “What would you like for lunch?” The guest said, “I think some fish would be nice.” So, when the waiter came, the host said, “Two fish, please.” And in due course, a platter was brought and there were two fish. One was a very large, plump fish and the other was a much smaller, skinny fish. And the host took the platter and offered it to the guest. And without any hesitation the guest took the plump fish.
And the host put the skinny fish on his plate but there was something in his movement that caught the guest’s attention. He said, “Is something wrong?” “Well,” said the host somewhat uncomfortable, “In your position, I probably would have taken the skinny fish.” “Well, you got it. What are you complaining about?”
There is a Tibetan monk who’s known as Geshe Ben. Who was a bit of a character but highly regarded because he really tracked what was going on in his mind. In Tibetan monasteries, all the meals were served in the main temple. You came in, you did a bunch of prayers, then cooks would bring in these ladles or these big pots with the food. You’d take out bowl and it would be ladled out and you’d cover it up. And then after the prayer service then you’d go back and eat your lunch. That’s why all Tibetan monks carry around these bowls, wooden bowls with lids.
And in the evening the usual fare was some form of soup. And as the monks were going around ladling out the soup, Geshe Ben who was sitting towards the higher…he was pretty high up in the ranks, suddenly started screaming, “Thief! Thief!” And everything stopped. All the chants stopped. The monks stopped ladling out the soup. And everybody looked around. And there was nobody in temple who shouldn’t have been there. And everybody looked at Geshe Ben and said,“Where’s the thief?” Geshe Ben said, “Right here! I was hoping that when they got to me, they would dip deep into the ladle and I’d get all that thick stuff at the bottom. Get the better soup than anybody else.”
So, all of us have this kind of thing going on. That’s self-cherishing. Taking care of me first. And what the practice…one of the main practices in the Mahayana tradition—and there are different versions of it—but it consists essentially of exchanging ourself for others. I mean, we put ourselves in the position that we normally treat others, which is second. And the technique for this, many of you are familiar with, is taking and sending where you imagine taking in the pain and suffering that others experience. You experience it yourself. And breathing out and giving to them all the happiness and joy, well-being, that you yourself experience. Just literally giving it away so that they can have that themselves.
If you look in the prayer book, page 22, you’ll find a prayer which Kalu Rinpoche wrote when he was quite a young man, I think in his twenties, which expresses exactly this kind of sentiment. If you go down to the third stanza:
May the flesh, blood, skin, and other parts of my body be useful to any sentient being who has need of them.
May the suffering of all beings, my grandmother’s, be absorbed by me.
May they receive my virtue and happiness.
For all beings who are poor, hungry, or thirsty, may I be able to give them whatever they want effortlessly.
May I take on all the great burdens of intolerable suffering such as the hell realms.
May those beings be free of them.
And these are typical aspirations coming from this form of practice.
So, the technique that I’m going to give to you today is also a 5-step technique. It’s very easy; all techniques are 5-step techniques. We like to keep things really organized here. First step, and remember, all of this is about working with emotional reactions. Emotional reactions arise when we encounter something we don’t want to experience. In other words, emotional reactions arise when we encounter pain. And it may be what we encounter may be something positive but it elicits pain in us so we don’t want to experience it.
So the first step is take in the pain. And this is very similar to the first step in the technique we did yesterday, which is “breathing in I experience the pain; breathing out I experience the pain.” So the first step is take in the pain. And if you want to use your breath with this, this is fine. And whether the pain is in someone else or in yourself, it doesn’t make any difference. The first step is to take it in.
The second step is also very similar: Open to your own reactions to the pain. This, in essence, is the practice of compassion. By opening and being willing to experience our own reactions to the pain we uncover the capacity to be present with the pain, that is compassion. We no longer have to shrink away from the it or change the world so that we don’t experience that discomfort. We can just actually be present in it.
The third step: touch your own happiness and send it out to others, particularly if you’re working with someone who’s in pain—to that person. Touch your own happiness and send it out. And by way of reference, “touch your own happiness and send it out” is essentially the practice of loving-kindness. Wanting others to be happy, so you give them your own happiness, whatever form that is. And many people have difficulty: you know, “What do I give?” Anything which makes you feel good is what you give.
Many years ago I was working with a very bright person who was both a psychiatrist and a professor of philosophy. And I was teaching him taking and sending. And I looked at him and said, “Of course you’re giving away your intelligence, aren’t you?” And his jaw dropped and he said, “What? I’d never, I never even considered it, Ken!” But he takes pride in his intelligence and things like that. Give it away.
The fourth step: Take joy in the process of this exchange. This is sometimes difficult for people to understand. Why would I take joy in this? Well, I think the answer is found in an interchange between Kalu Rinpoche and a student when Rinpoche was teaching this. And somebody expressed doubts about, you know, “isn’t this emotional suicide, if not physical suicide?” And Rinpoche just looked at the person and said, “If you could actually take away all the pain of the world in a single breath, would you hesitate?” It is our attachment to our idea of who we are which separates us from experience. And we’re so conditioned to protecting that, that the idea of opening and having this actual exchange, well, it absolutely threatens that sense of self.
But that’s exactly why each of you is here today. And one of the things I’d like to ask is, “What has your sense of self done for you lately?” We hold on to it, but maybe it’s not such a useful thing. So if you open to another person’s pain and suffering and actually take it in and you wish them well, and imagine giving them all your own happiness and well-being, something begins to change. And there’s a sense of connection. One’s no longer separate and apart from the world. And something good is happening. And when that takes place there is a natural joy that arises. It’s not any kind of contrived thing; it is totally natural.
To give you another example. When I first came to Los Angeles, I unexpectedly ran into a person that I’d originally known in Vancouver. And I knew very few people in L.A. and didn’t know anything about anything. So it was quite difficult. And she would occasionally take me out to lunch and things like that. One day when we were at lunch she said, “I’m…”. She was obviously quite unhappy, and she had quite a lot of money in those days, so I said, “Well, let’s go down to Fisherman’s Wharf.” She looked at me and said, “What?” I said, “Just, drive down there.” “Okay.”
I said, “You got $20?’ I gave it to the bait guy there. I said, ”We’d like to buy $20 worth of bait fish.“ They have these tanks down at Fisherman’s Wharf filled with all these live bait fish. ”What do you want to do?“ I said, ”Just dump them into the ocean.“ And I said to my friend, you know, ”Say your mantras on the fish, etc.“ She looked at me like I was completely nuts. I said, ”Just do it.“ So, you know, 15, 20 minutes later all the $20 worth of fish were dumped back into the ocean. And as we walked away, she looked at me and said, ”That worked.“
There’s joy, right there. I mean, in the scheme of things it’s a totally inconsequential act but stepping out of our cocoon of protected existence and just being part of the world in whatever way that takes us. There’s joy that comes from that. And that’s what this fourth step is about. You’ve been doing this; you’ve been taking in this suffering; you’ve been giving out your own happiness, now experience the joy. And as you rest in the joy, joy is the emotion that is connected with the exercise of power. And so, just in this process, you yourself are going to feel simultaneously more present and less separated from experience.
So now, experience no separation. And in doing that, you just continue to take in the suffering of the world and give your own happiness because now that the two of you are no longer separate. It’s just a flow of energy back and forth. And in a certain sense a restoring of balance into the scheme of things.
So let me go through the five steps again: Take in the pain. The second one: Open to your own reactions to the pain. When you do this, you’re going to feel, often, a little depressed, a little sad, a little heavy. So, in the midst of that, you touch your own happiness. And in case any of you are wondering, ”well, what happiness do I have?“—I get this question all the time—all of you are in good health. That’s good enough. Be happy for that. All of you have enough to eat. All of you have shelter. We can be really basic about this. But we’re in a warm place; we have food to eat; we’re all alive and able to walk. It’s not bad. So if you can’t be happy about anything else, be happy about those and give that to other people. Yes?
Student: Is it really happiness or is it more to continue to [unintelligible] appreciation?
Ken: Maybe we could use the term well-being. It kind of combines those two. It’s the same idea. Okay?
And you send it out to others. You no longer try and hold it. You’re counteracting the natural selfishness that we all have. And then take joy in what you are doing. Feel the joy. And then rest in no separation.
Now, I’m describing this as five steps. And what I suggest you do in your meditation periods is you go through each of these steps relatively slowly. And by relatively slowly I mean about two to tjree minutes on each one so you really feel them. Once you’ve done that, so you got a really good sense of them.
Then you can move to the practice of taking and sending in which you imagine taking in the suffering of others in the form of thick black smoke coming in through your right nostril, into your heart, so you experience it. And you imagine your own happiness and well-being, everything you appreciate about your own life taking the form of white moonlight, and going out from your heart, through your left nostril, and going out to everybody in the world. And with each breath you do both: that is, with the in breath you take in the suffering; with the out breath you give your own happiness.
And in this simple meditation, you’re practicing all four of the immeasurables. Sending out your own happiness is the practice of loving-kindness. Taking in the suffering of others is the practice of compassion. Feeling good or joyful about the exchange is the practice of joy. And doing this without any preference or prejudice, so you’re with all people—all beings equally—is the practice of equanimity.
And in this you may find at various points that you’re just present in experience. And so you can continue the taking and sending but really resting in that sense of no separation: just presence. Because this is what all these meditation techniques are designed to lead you to: is to dissolve that boundary, or the false duality, of self and other.
For some of you—and I’m just going to throw this in and probably confuse everything—you may find that there are elements of your own experience that you’re very alienated from. Maybe certain reactive emotions; maybe certain physical pains; maybe certain reactive patterns. You could do taking and sending with those, too, to dissolve the sense of “I” and other.
So, that’s the instruction. We have time for a number of questions. Monica.
Monica: So basically you’re saying you [unintelligible] recognize the pain within yourself. And you see that and then you recognize that pain in everybody around you [unintelligible]
Ken: Yes. This is a very good way to do it. I mean, you could do it either way. That is, if you feel there’s some pain that you have then you imagine taking in all of the same pain from others who have it, or you may find that when you are thinking about some pain that others have you recognize you also have that pain. It also puts you in touch with that. So either way works. Yep. Ronnie.
Ronnie: So when you were talking about doing this with parts of ourselves that we’re alienated with, a lot of my pain is not necessarily experienced as pain, it’s just like unskillful emotions or unwholesome emotions. Like desire oftentimes doesn’t necessarily hurt. But it’s every unskillful. So can we do it with [unintelligible] desire and lust you know the opposite of sympathetic joy—jealousy. These things that don’t necessarily have a pain quality to them but are very distressful.
Ken: Well, I differ a little bit. I think they do have a painful quality, and I think it’s important actually to experience the painful quality. For instance, jealousy, do you enjoy feeling jealous?
Ken: Well, there it is right there, right?
Ronnie: I guess you’re right.
Ken: What about desire?
Ronnie: It can be very painful.
Ronnie: But there’s a sweetness to it, as well. There’s almost a…you know what I mean. There’s something very appealing about it.
Ken: Yes. Work with the painful aspect of the emotion, okay? And see what happens. And come back with your experience this afternoon. Okay. and just do that. I think you may discover something here. Art.
Art: I was thinking of doing this with someone who is obviously acting out of pain. But one of the ways they’re acting out is directing some anger at me.
Art: And that raises a whole lot of issues within me doing this. Is that an appropriate subject to choose for this or is there just too much going on internally for me there?
Ken: I don’t know. I guess you’ll find out. And I don’t say that facetiously. I think it was Nietzsche who said, What doesn’t kill you strengthens you. In practice, being killed is losing our attention. So if you can work with very strong feelings and not lose your attention, then it definitely strengthens your practice, enriches it very deeply. If you lose your attention, get lost in it, that’s not particularly helpful. But it can be very helpful working with powerful feelings. If you have the willingness to work with them and the capacity to do so, you can learn more about experience in about a half hour sit with something that is tearing you apart than you can from about five years of just resting in equanimity.
And I know this because I’ve seen people, I’ve worked with people who’ve practiced ten, fifteen, twenty years and they really know nothing because they’ve never included their emotional material in their practice. They can have very, very solid attention when they’re sitting [but] as soon as they get up, there is nothing. So actually mixing emotion with the practice of attention is essential. Because if it doesn’t manifest in how we actually interact with others, what good is it? So, you know, explore. Maryann.
Maryann: [unintelligible] The first is about if you have an emotion that’s really huge—and it’s very powerful—is it possible to do this practice just on like, you know, pieces,[unintelligible] in a way that it manifests and not take in everyone’s hatred and, you know, just work on [unintelligible]?
Ken: This goes back to the theme we’ve discussed yesterday, and it’s a very important one: work the edge. So, if you only work within your comfort zone, all you’re going to do is reinforce the patterns that are already there. If you work beyond your capacity in attention, all you’re going to do is recondition your defensive mechanisms. Neither of those are helpful. You’ve got to work right at the edge. So, you’re being stretched in your practice. And what’s very important here is that each of you learn to be able to go to your edge and be willing to. That’s how you bring energy, and discipline and the appropriate effort to your practice.
In many training situations,the circumstances are made deliberately harsh so that people are pushed to their edge. and that can be very useful but basically you’re relying on an external force to push you there. And one doesn’t develop the ability to do it independently in the way that I’ve been approaching this is really encouraging people to find the depth of inspiration, the depth of commitment, courage and faith as we were talking about it. Actually go to the edge. I mean, in some of the interviews, when people come in and say, “You know, I have this emotion and like, if I go there I’m know I’m going to get lost.” And I say, “Okay, it’s like a pit, is it?”. “Yeah! It’s like a deep dark pit.” I say, “Go to the edge of the pit. Go to the edge of the pit and stand there. And you stand there for as long as you need. You look into that pit. But you’ve got to stand at the edge of the pit. Okay?”
Maryann: The other aspect [unintelligible] the last question isn’t there some [unintelligible] practices and the people approaching these [unintelligible], you know, just by virtue of fidelity and attention [unintelligible] negative emotions will just dissipate? Is there any viability to that?
Ken: Why do you ask this?
Maryann: It seems like there’s a tremendous amount of this going on. I see it all around me. [unintelligible]
Ken: Of what concern is this to you?
Maryann: I guess I was hopeful.
Ken: Well, we’ve already talked about what to do with hope. Now from a deeper perspective in Buddhism, there’s absolutely nothing out there that’s going to save you. And there’s nothing inside that’s doing to save you, either.
Maryann: [unintelligible] non-self.
Ken: There’s you and your experience. That’s it. What are you going to do? That’s all there is. Okay? Other questions. Sorry. Molly.
Molly: I know a little bit about equanimity being [unintelligible].
Ken: Without preference and prejudice as we say in the prayer. So when you’re doing taking and sending, doing this practice, you don’t think, “Oh, I’ll take in the pain of starvation from these people because I think they’re good people but I’m not going to take the pain of starvation away from those people because I think they’re bad people.” Pain of starvation is the same whether you’re a good person or a bad person. So you let go of all of those judgments and you just take in that pain. And the same way, you give without requiring the person to fit your idea of how they should be in order to be worthy of your gift.
I have to laugh because in 1998 Ajin Ameroff, Ivan and I did a week long training for teachers. And it was a very, very intense week; it was a very good week. But we had a little money left over and so we decided to make a donation to the Mount Baldy staff. Because they worked really, really hard and they took very good care of us and it was just great.
And the Mount Baldy staff are typical Rinzai zen—they would say, “fast and sloppy.” And sometimes they would just take a break from the monastic routine and have a good party. And I remember Ajin Ameroff, Ivan and I were sitting together, discussing what to do. And we all agreed we just make this donation and Ajin, who comes from the monastic tradition said, [feeble voice], “I suppose we can’t say, ’Don’t buy alcohol’.” And Ivan and I looked and said, “Nope.” “That’s what I thought.” “Okay.” So that was where his practice of equanimity had to come in. And we run into these things all over. That answer your question?
Ken: Okay. Pat?
Pat: [unintelligible] You recommend that [unintelligible] the loving-kindness that we extend we start with something easy that it’s more local.
Ken: Well, yes.
Pat: As opposed to [unintelligible] the tsunami.
Ken: Yeah. A number of people asked, you know, about working with difficult emotions and things like that. Be practical about this. I’ve said work the edge. In traditional teaching—particularly with respect to loving-kindness and compassion—you’re instructed to work with objects that are easy first. That is, people you like and you can naturally feel loving-kindness towards and things like that. Then you work with people who are more neutral or who easily elicit loving-kindness like the sick and the poor and so forth. And then you work with people who are more difficult for you. And you actually build up your capacity.
And that’s a sensible way of working because in response to Art’s question: there is no point in working in a situation if you cannot maintain your attention. Because all you end up doing is fighting your experience there and that really doesn’t help. At the same time if you don’t push the edge of the envelope, then your practice never progresses.
And we find this over and over again. I mean, I described Atisha and his Bengali tea boy. Another even more striking or poignant story comes from St. John of the Cross who was a Spanish mystic at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. And, you know, the Catholic church doesn’t have a great record with respect to its mystics. St. John of the Cross was quite brutally tortured during the Inquisition.
And eventually that particular chapter of madness in the Catholic church passed and John of the Cross was brought before his superiors and they apologized and said, you know, “We’re sorry.” His body’s broken and you know “we’re sorry.” And they said, “You know, all we can do now is to say, ”[we’ll] let you go wherever you want. So, you have your choice of monasteries throughout Spain. Where would you like to go?“
John said to them, ”I’d like to go to this monastery.“ And the superior went, ”Why do you want to go there? The abbot hates you!“ And John said, ”Yeah. That’s why I’m going there. I need something to work with.“ So, he’s putting himself right at the edge of his practice—even at this stage of his life. It’s very, very important. Okay?
I think we should…Carolyn, last question.
Carolyn: Could you talk a little bit more about [unintelligible]
Ken: Okay. In your meditation practice, and I know some of you have encountered this here in this retreat. There you are face-to-face with a reactive emotion. And for some reason or other, you say, ”Okay, this meditation mat’s not big enough for the two of us.“ So it’s going to go down right now. And you’re right in it. And you’re going to stand right there in the face of everything that that particular emotional reaction’s throwing at you. And you find you can actually be there. What do you experience? It starts with ”j” [joy].
Ken: Yeah. You exercise power. You just went straight through. You just did. Of the various traditions of Buddhism, the one that today has the clearest relationship with power is the Theravadan. Early stages of Zen did definitely but zen has changed a lot over the centuries. But particularly the Thai Forest Tradition—of the ones that I know of—it has the clearest relationship with power. The underlying theme: Can I experience this? Can I experience this? No understandings, nothing like that. Just straight in.
Okay. We’ll close here and we’ll meet for meditation. Take a 15 minute break.