In-depth series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation and how practitioners in today’s world might approach traditional texts written hundreds of years ago.
Karma, pt. 3 & Loving-kindess and Compassion, pt. 1Download
Participants reflection on intentionally engaging in a non-virtuous act; patterned behavior as a way to avoid experience; ascription, inevitability and karma; how to respond to questions like “Do you believe in evil?”; loving-kindness and compassion as remedies to attachment to the pleasure of peace; the maturation of motivation and practice; is compassion the natural outcome of awareness or something one must cultivate?; meditation instruction for upcoming week: what is it like to receive kindness? The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 6 and Chapter 7.
Ken: Two or three things to do this evening. First is to talk about your experience with the exercise that I left you with at the end of the last class, which is to explore the experience of doing one or more of the ten non-virtuous or the ten virtuous actions. What was your experience? [Pause] Anybody want to take a crack at this or at least open the door? Racquel, I know how much you got out of this meditation, obviously.
Raquel: This was lying intentionally in attention?
Ken: Well, it was to explore what that would be like.
Ken: What did you come up with?
Raquel: Well, you’ve given this before and I have kind of an ongoing struggle with lying; in my family we call it “exaggeration”. I have an experience where I found myself — I didn’t sort of plan ahead of time to lie, but I was in a situation where I had some time to think about what I wanted to do and I decided to lie. There was some amount of attention. It wasn’t exactly the assignment. What it felt like writing about it after was when I was actually saying the lie over the phone it felt like a reverberation, it felt like it had a a wavelength of being in and out of some amount of attention. Or, maybe it was the resistance going in and out. It felt like a kind of in and out.
Ken: Okay. So you didn’t feel like you were staying in attention, you were moving in and out of attention. Anything else? How did it feel in your body?
Raquel: I was just uncomfortable. Of course, I had thought about it a ton, wasted a lot of energy, thinking about the lie and how to say it and all these different things. By the end, I thought it was a poor choice.
Ken: What led you to that?
Raquel: This is an ongoing struggle for me. I tend to lie in siturations where it’s not really that necessary. It’s sort of like this was….
Ken: Digging yourself ever deeper.
Raquel: Am I? This was just where a couple friends asked me for a ride to the airport and then two days later back home from the airport. It’s out of the way, they don’t live near me, I’ll bring them to the airport. But I made up a story about how I was busy and I couldn’t pick them up and bring them home. I could have just said, “I can do one way. I just can’t do the other way.” But I made up a detailed lie.
Ken: Thank you for being so open about this. I’d like to go just a little bit further if it’s okay with you. You decided on this course of action for a reason. You obviously thought about it quite carefully so there was a very clear reason why this seemed to be the appropriate, let’s say, better choice for you at that time. But as you went through this whole process and you were bringing some attention to it you wondered if it was in fact the better choice. It would be interesting to, and certainly noting the level of discomfort you had in the process, so how did you arrive that this was the better choice?
Raquel: It was just….
Ken: Let me put it this way, maybe this will help. My sense is that if you were to tell the truth, you would have had to experience something you didn’t want to experience.
Ken: Do you have a sense what that was?
Raquel: Yeah, I can feel it. It was just like having to be uncomfortable with telling people I can’t do something that they’re asking me to do. I don’t even have a good reason for it, other than I thought it was too much.
Ken: Other than that, you didn’t have the time. Of course, that’s not a good reason.
Raquel: Yeah and actually I thought it wasn’t a good enough reason but…
Ken: Okay. That’s very helpful. You may recall in the karma chapter of Wake Up To Your Life, we talk about the karma imperative or the pattern imperative. This is a very, very good example and I thank you for putting this out there. Because from what you’ve said I can infer, and you can tell me if this sounds right to you, that the pattern imperative: “Must conform to other’s wishes or expectations, can’t do what just is right for me.” Something along those lines.
Raquel: Yeah, that’s right.
Ken: Yeah, okay. What’s it like living that pattern?
Raquel: It’s not clean. When I have been in that same situation, done what I think is going to be so uncomfortable, it actually ends up being usually fine and I don’t feel all tied up in knots and it feels more clean so I’m just a slow learner.
Ken: Yeah. Well, I think this is a very good example of what we’ve been talking about. We do non-virtuous actions and we also do a lot of virtuous actions out of pattern. And they’re all about avoiding a certain experience. That’s why we do them. And because we are avoiding that very specific experience which is arising in our world of experience, the fact of avoiding it introduces an imbalance in the world we experience and now everything becomes harder.
Raquel: So, in a way it’s almost possible that me actually telling them I could drive them in one direction could have been operating out of a pattern. Is that what you’re sort of saying?
Ken: No, I’m saying that could have been. That’s not what I’m focusing on, exactly. It was avoiding the discomfort of saying, “I can take you one way but I can’t bring you back, so you’ll have to make other arrangements for that.” And just being clear like that, there’s a very specific experience in you that you didn’t want to or weren’t able to experience.
That introduces the imbalance and now it just becomes a big mess. You follow? What we are doing in practice here is developing the capacity in attention through meditation practice to experience those unpleasant feelings. The reason that we don’t want to experience those unpleasant feelings is because we feel that if we do, our world is going to fall apart, we’re going to die, something like that’s going to happen. Perhaps, I don’t know in you’re case, you could say “Well, I can take you one way but I can’t pick you up.” They’ll say, “Well, we never want to speak with you again.” There’ll be some big rupture. That usually is coming from an old belief system and that’s what’s being served. This is a very good example. Thank you. Anybody else?
Cara: I used harsh words with someone.
Ken: And what was that like? [whispers] Great.
Cara: Actually it kind of was. I’m not prone to giving in to my temper with people even though I know that I have a pretty nasty one. But it was someone at school who I’m in close quarters with on a pretty frequent basis who was being pretty glib with me and actually kind of agressive. And I sort of reached a point where I could tell that they were not feeling well but were taking it out on me. I called this person on it and she retorted pretty negatively with me. And I took it very personally. I just felt this kind of caving in of, I don’t know, my inner seventh grader got really upset. It was like: “Everyone likes me. What do you mean no one likes me.” Got pretty victimy about it, and was sort of stomping around for a few minutes. And then I decided to turn it around, and just…
Ken: Blast it?
Cara: I didn’t blast it. This person told me that—this is at culinary school—that other people in the class didn’t like me. Like “Psst, psst, psst, people don’t like you” you know, like what you do in junior high, I guess. So every time someone walked up to our table I asked them if they had been telling my lab partner that they didn’t like me. So every time someone came over to get something I said, “Hey, did you tell her you don’t like me? Cause if you don’t like me just tell me you don’t like me. I don’t care.” And so like within 20 minutes I had my lab partner basically reduced to a puddle. And it was pretty passive-aggressive, but open passive-aggression. And so finally after it had gone on and on and on I said to her, “If you don’t feel well and you need me to consider that in our daily operation,” and this is when I felt this weight just lift off of me. This is the part that I’m getting to, as soon as I said it, there was this flip in my head where “You’re not 13 and you’re not controlled by other people’s behavior. You are responsible for what you’re doing to this girl right now.” And so I just said, “If you need me to give you a wide berth just say ’I feel like crap today, help me out or whatever,’” And as soon as I said it she said, “Look, I know I’m wrong, I’m sorry.” And we were fine from that moment on. It did feel like I kind of wanted to go find myself at 13 and coach her.
Ken: Well, yes. Again, a very good example. What experience were you trying to avoid?
Cara: Being a big dumb jerk. I don’t know. I think that I was trying to avoid dealing with the reality that I wasn’t well-liked among my peers.
Ken: You thought you weren’t well-liked.
Cara: Well, I’m the oldest person in the room that I’m in and I’m not well-liked.
Ken: I see.
Cara: Turn of the tables…
Ken: You mean when you said, “Have you been telling my lab partner that you don’t like me,” everybody said yes?
Cara: No, they laughed. No, but I mean the perception is, that I’m a smarty pants. You know, cause I know the answers and I raise my hand and I do my homework. And I don’t let people use my stuff and I’m particular. So there are people in the class that are like, “Psst, psst, psst, I don’t like you.”
Ken: Well, let’s go back to you moved into this method of the ground, technically speaking, for shattering control. That’s all another thing, where you asked all these people and reduced your lab partner to pulp as you said. When you had reduced her to pulp then you could actually talk with her.
Ken: What would you have had to experience in just talking to her in exactly the same way before?
Cara: I don’t know.
Ken: Okay. But there’s something there.
Ken: Okay. So that would be good to look at.
Cara: But I feel like I tried to in the moment. And I got finger-snappin’, you know, head waggin’.
Ken: So you did something to get her attention.
Ken: Okay. Whenever we do something out of habit, we are ignoring a specific experience. The reason I gave you this exercise is I wanted you to make an effort and see about discovering that dynamic: that I do this, that experience comes up, and we move away from it and we move into lying, or we move into harsh language, or stealing or any of these things. I keep coming back to a quotation from Thich Nhat Hahn that follows like, The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What is going on is very important.
These experiences arise and we move away from them without knowing. When we sit in meditation, those experiences arise and that’s when we start thinking and then we get lost in thought. And the function of thought is the exactly the same: to provide a distraction from certain uncomfortable, possibly quite subtle, physical sensations that are arising. Whenever we move away from what is arising in experience we introduce imbalance in our world of experience and that’s essentially what the whole karmic cycle is about—is that—that imbalance introduces further imbalances which we then compensate in other ways and it just becomes a snowballing effect which makes life more and more difficult and that’s where all the struggle comes from.
If we can actually meet what is arising inside, and it may involve letting go of the self-image, letting go of an old belief, letting go of an old cherished idea, experiencing death in all those little ways, then we actually meet the situation, do what is more appropriate or appropriate, and then no imbalance is introduced. That is actually what is meant in Buddhism by the phrase ending suffering. It’s not necessarily a big “save the world thing”. suddenly there’s no more suffering. It’s a way of meeting experience, meeting what arises, so that no suffering is created in that process. It’s subtle but it’s very, very far reaching. The more that we’re able to meet our own experience, the less problem we have in interaction with others and so the less struggle is created in their lives and so it ripples out, ripples out very effectively.
Ken: The couple of loose ends that I wanted to tidy up from our discussion of karma are the notion of inevitability and ascription. These are fancy terms. What’s being referred to by these is that when we move away and react to a situation so we don’t actually experience it, experience what’s arising for us, we introduce that imbalance, then we set a process in motion and the only person for whom that process matures is us. It always comes. Our karma can’t possibly ripen for other people because what karma refers to is setting in motion a process of evolution in our own world of experience, not in anybody else’s. Another person may react to what we’re doing and in doing so set in process something in their world of experience but that is another process. That’s the ascription part. This is expressed in traditional language as: Actions that we do inevitably ripen for us. We do not experience the results of actions that we do not do. Actions that we do ripen in our own experience. We do not experience the results of actions that we do not do. So, we don’t experience the results of killing unless we kill. Follow?
Raquel: Can you correct some imbalance by—well I’ve been trying to make a habit of every time I do a—maybe it’s not such a little one but maybe a significant either harsh words or lying or whatever, to actually go and have to like come clean?
Raquel: I think it’s good for, whatever, breaking the pattern. I feel better. Is there any actual rebalancing of….
Ken: Well, yes. We’ll be going into this very explicitly when we come to the chapter on Generating Awakening Mind. Part of that process is letting go of unwholesome actions that we’ve done and there’s what are called the four forces. One of those is the force of remedy.
Once we’ve done an action, it sets something in motion and it’s like throwing a pebble into a pond. Once it hits the water, the ripples start. Nothing you can do about that. It’s the nature of the beast. However, you can stop throwing pebbles in the pond and you can do things which change the way that it ripens. And that’s essentially what you’re talking about by immediately regretting it and setting in motion something else. Then you attenuate or diminish the effect of the ripening. This is why it is so important to pay attention to our actions cause everything we do sets in motion one of these processes. As you’ve already remarked, Raquel, what these do is create disturbance in the mind. And the more disburbance in the mind, the more reactive we are, the less clearly we see things and the more likely we are to do something similar in the future again and again. So, part of the power of remedying these things, doing something as a remedy, is that it allows us to let go of it so that we are at peace with it and the effect of our action is also diminished in the world. So, when Cara, in her situation, turned to her lab partner and said, “You know when you’re not feeling well, just let me know, I’m happy to give you room.” That was just speaking to her as a person, respectfully, and saying, “This I can do. I can be with you but you just need to tell me” and the effect of that on the lab partner was to see that she didn’t really need to be snippy with the way she had been with you before. And so, she apologized for her behavior and in that way the two of them laid to rest what could have been an ongoing, escalating thing for the rest of the class, which would have made life really fun. And so, both of you are more at peace. Does this answer your question, Raquel?
Ken: In answering this question, I touched on the other point is inevitability. This is why I liken karma — in the first class we had on karma, I mentioned three analogies: God’s will, gravity, and evolution. The analogy of gravity captures the notion of inevitability. I have this bottle of water, if I let it go, it drops. It doesn’t drop because the world is evil or something’s wrong with anything. This is simply the nature of things. It’s how gravity works. When we introduce an imbalance, then that imbalance inevitably creates further imbalances. That’s just how things work, just as the way, as I said with that pebble thrown in the pond it displaces water, and because it displaces water ripples radiate out. There’s no good or bad with this. That is simply the physics of the situation. In a certain sense, karma can be viewed as the physics of internal processes. There’s no judgement, there’s no appraisal here. This is simply the experience of people. If we pay close attention to our own experience we see the same thing in ourselves.
I remember very clearly in the second retreat, the lama of the overall center, who was a very harsh person, who was very effective at getting things done, but often applying great pressure and, in the opinions of a few people, not always that honest. One person in the second retreat had been basically his bookkeeper so he knew everything that had happened. You work in finances you know what is actually going on. He had developed a pretty virulent hatred for this lama. In the first few months of the retreat he put a lot of pressure on us in the three-year retreat to come up with money for this and money for that and money for this and money for that. And I found myself, cause I knew this guy and we talked quite a bit, absorbing or resonating with this quite virulent hatred. And then I would sit in my meditations and anger…After a little while I thought, you know, this is just not doing me any good whatsoever. Maybe he’s unscrupulous, maybe he’s dishonest, yes it’s a pain in the neck that he’s doing this, but you know, we’re going to live and get through this and this is just stuff. So, I dropped the anger, because not much I can do about it anyway. Just dropped it. He thought that I’d betrayed him because I wasn’t angry anymore. My meditation was much more peaceful.
I’m reminded of what the Dalai Lama used to say when he was asked, “Are you angry at the Chinese for invading Tibet?” He said, “Oh, no, if I’m angry at the Chinese I lose sleep, but they don’t.” And so, what we’re doing here is not being nice for the sake of being nice or anything like that but recognizing that harboring these negative states, doing these negative actions, doing any kind of action because it allows us to avoid a certain experience we don’t want to face. We don’t do this because those kinds of things create disturbances in our world of experience. It’s not about good or bad or being rewarded for this and getting good karma for that and so forth. That’s a very childish notion. It’s because it creates disturbance and it’s against what we are actually trying to do. And this is what it means and why the teachings on karma are very important because it is through karma, as both of you have mentioned in your comments here, that we take responsibility for our actions and in taking responsibility for our actions we take responsibility for our experience.
Cara: Sorry, I would have asked you about this last week if I had been here. This is a question I just have wanted to ask you sort of generally and you’re talking about it. It sounds totally pedestrian. Do you believe in evil?
Ken: This is not a pedestrian question. I have been asked this question more times than I can count in the last twenty years. It’s not an infinite number of times but it’s come up again and again. And there are two very problematic words in the question. The first is believe or the phrase believe in and the second one is evil. Usually when this question is asked—I need to check with you about this— it is in the sense of, “There is a force in the world which we can call evil.” The movie No Country for Old Men is kind of a metaphor for that. It’s disturbing, there’s this implacable, virtually indestructable force that would just keeps going. In it’s own way, The Terminator movies were about the same thing. Is this along the lines?
Cara: I mean it is. I’ve been asked this; I get into arguments with people because I don’t believe in it.
Ken: Oh, so why are you asking me if I…..
Cara: Because when we talk about, when you’re talking about remedy and you’re talking about karma. I guess in a way I’m asking for tools to explain my perspective.
Cara: More so than asking. I would assume, given the conversations that I’ve had with you, that you don’t believe in evil, but—
Ken: How would I handle myself in such a conversation?
Cara: Well I heard you asked before what did the Tibetans do to deserve what happened to them? I’ve watched you in awe as you handled it. And so, I guess I would ask you do you believe in evil and how would you explain that when you’re talking to people in terms of karma because everyone believes that karma is cost-benefit.
Cara: You know, you pay into it, like you do a good deed and you get a place to park at the grocery store.
Ken: Oh, this is very naive.
Cara: It is very naive. I don’t believe that but, you know, I’ve got good parking karma.
Ken: Yes. So, this is a question about how do I handle these conversations.
Cara: I guess that’s a better question.
Ken: Okay. This takes us to a bit of a digression but I think it’s worth spending a few minutes on. When people ask such a question, the first thing that I try to detemine is whether they’re actually interested in the question or are they only seeking confirmation of their beliefs? If they’re seeking confirmation of their beliefs, there is little point in engaging the question in any depth. They are not interested in the actual question. They’re looking for confirmation of their beliefs. That you can usually tell within the first two or three exchanges about that. And if that’s the case then I usually just let it drop. One of the principles in Buddhism is you don’t teach people who aren’t interested, which is quite useful.
Student: Do you mean confirmation of their beliefs either way?
Ken: They aren’t really looking to understand anything. They’re just looking to have their beliefs confirmed in some way.
Student: Which is the same thing that she asked. She was saying, “I don’t believe in evil.”
Ken: That’s basically what I was doing. Why was she asking the question?
Cara: I should have been more specific with you about that. I assume that you don’t, right?
Cara: But there are people who believe that there are just as many forces working against us, if not more, than there are working for us. And so, when you are engaged in a conversation like that and you say without hesitation, you know, “Rapist, murderer, death penalty, abortion, whatever, what have you, I don’t believe in evil,” they are befuddled. And my level of articulation is not on par with my teacher’s level of articulation, I hate to tell you. You know, I can talk a good game but I don’t have the same tool box you have. So I ask you the question as a means to obtaining some of your tools.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. This is what I’m saying, one has to first determine if there is any point in having the conversation. Then the second principle which I found extremely valuable I learned from Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind but he traces it back to Dogen. Don’t try to tell people how their thinking is wrong. Instead, help them discover the errors in their own thinking. And this I found extremely helpful. So, you say “Okay yeah well, that’s how you see it,” and then you just ask them some questions and you just help them explore. If they’re truly interested, then when they begin to discover the errors in their own thinking, they will stay in the conversation. If they aren’t interested, when those errors are exposed through the questions that you’re asking, then they will either shut down, break off or get very defensive. Then there’s nothing to do. Okay?
Cara: Thank you
Ken: You’re welcome.
Peter: I just want to say that sounds like the Socratic method.
Ken: It’s not exactly the Socratic method. The Socratic method, as I understand it, is that all knowledge is inherent and you help people to discover the knowledge that they already have.
Peter: The idea of the pure forms.
Ken: I think it does go back to Plato and so forth. You have this wonderful example in the Platonic dialogues of the irrationality of the square root of two.
Peter: I don’t know that one.
Ken: That’s the standard example that’s given. I suppose you could say it’s the application of the Socratic method. The difference is that in the Socratic method you’re actually trying to teach something. What I’m suggesting is that rather than trying to teach, a person is saying something and you’re just being willing to enter into an inquiry with them.
Peter: Staying open in experience.
Ken: Yeah. Exactly.
Peter: To whatever arises. I see, that is different.
Ken: Those were the two things that I wanted to address about karma was the actions that we do we set a process in motion in our own world of experience and other people can’t set that in motion for us. Only we can. And once it’s set in motion, it unfolds in just the same way that once two bodies start interacting through gravity they circle around or go through their various orbits. While it’s not exactly as deterministic as gravity, it has a certain deterministic quality which I find is very, very well illustrated is in the behavior of complex adaptive systems which seems to capture this.
Ken: Now I’d like to move to the new subject matter which is the next chapter which is Loving-kindness and Compassion. Guenther’s translation’s a little over the top here and makes it a little more difficult than it needs to be. The very first sentence of the chapter of the teaching, and I’m working from Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation: The teachings on the practices of loving-kindness and compassion are the remedy to being attached to the pleasure of peace.
Now, we need to go back to in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation, page 79. In the second paragraph you’ll see that Gampopa lists four obstacles to the attainment of buddhahood: being attached to this life’s activities, being attached to the pleasures of samsara, being attached to peace, and not understanding some method by which enlightenment is achieved.
The first of these, being attached to this life, is counteracted by meditation on impermanence. You may recall my understanding or the way that I see this life is the life as defined by society and not owning or taking responsibility for the life that we actually experience. When we meditate on death and impermanence, we come to realize that there is a difference between these two lives and that we can fulfill the life that society expects of us and not have, in any way, fulfilled or come to terms with the life that we actually experience. There’s a tearing or a separation that takes place there which is very, very important, which is why the death and impermanence meditations usually are done at an early stage because they clarify one’s motivation what one’s actually doing in practice.
Then, being attached to the pleasure of samsara: this was addressed through the comtemplation of the the six realms of existence and the workings of karma. A lot of people think that karma, and you were referring to this Cara, is the balancing mechanism in the universe. You do good karma, you get good results. You do bad karma, you get bad results. This is not the way that karma is viewed in Buddhism, really. It isn’t the justice mechanism because when you study and you observe the way of karma the conditioning becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, and doesn’t dissolve itself. So you just get thicker and thicker and deeper and deeper into this mess we call samsara, more and more reactive and there’s no intrinsic mechanism which is going to reduce that. The only way that that is reduced is through one’s own efforts.
This is very dramatically illustrated by the story which supposedly was how Buddha Shakyamuni started on his career as a bodhisattva. He was slogging away in the depths of hell and he and his companion in hell were hauling this cart of metal and it was extremely heavy while they were being whipped by the guardians of hell. It was just very aggressive, very, very painful. His companion fell down and the guardians of hell jumped on him and were lashing him even more. The person who was going to become Buddha, at this point turned to the guards and said, “Leave him alone, I will haul it myself.” So that was a compassionate thought. The story goes that the guards were so enraged they immediately struck him dead. Because of that compassionate thought he took birth in the human realm and started his career which led to the bodhisattva and eventually to buddhahood. The point of the story, of course, is that the path begins with compassion, begins with some opening of the heart. It doesn’t happen just by itself.
Ken: Now we’re concerned with being attached to peace. That is, we’ve learned how to quiet the mind and you can just hang out there and that feels pretty good. That’s all you want to do. You aren’t particularly motivated to help others. You can just go and live your life quietly without any fuss or bother and that’s very nice. Attachment to peace. Guenther translates this as self-complacency, which is a bit of a gloss. But there’s a germ of that attitude, very definitely, in it. Kenchog Gyaltsen translates it more literally, being attached to the pleasure of peace. I’m not sure how you would really say this in contemporary language because that notion of just resting peacefully at least in this culture, we’re so busy and so caught up, we don’t know of it. As Konchog Gyaltsen goes on to write: It’s the desire to achieve nirvana only for oneself without an altruistic mind for sentient beings.
That is, you’re practicing because you’re interested in becoming free of suffering or ending suffering. You’re not particularly interested in helping others. When people read this they think, “Oh, I should interested in helping others.” What’s being left out here, and it’s very important, is that motivation matures. We all start, unless we’re very rare individuals, all of us start because there’s some discomfort in our own lives and we want to address it. So always there’s an initial motivation that “I want to become free of this.” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And that’s not a selfish motivation. That is how things start. And it’s very important that they start that way because when people start saying, “I want to help all beings,” my own experience is that they’re usually trying to avoid something in themselves by helping all beings. They don’t have any idea of what it actually means to be free. And so they’re trying to do something they really know nothing about. It’s very important when we practice this to come to understand what freedom means for us, first. When we have some taste or experience of that, then one of two things can happen. One is we go “Oh, this is what it means to be free. Cool. Let me just do this”. There is almost a narrowing at that point. It’s just like arranging one’s life so that this works for oneself and there’s almost a narcissitic element in that.
The second thing that can happen, and frankly I find this actually happens far more frequently than the first, is that you go, “Oh, this is what it means to be free. Oh, all these people, they have no idea”. And the idea of just being able to experience this oneself without in some way sharing or making it available to others becomes intolerable. That’s the birth of compassion. And as I said that avenue is so much more the case in my own experience that I would regard that as the natural maturation. So I see this movement into loving-kindness and compassion as a very natural evolution of people and their spiritual understanding and this notion of keeping it for oneself is something sufficiently unnatural that to some extent that I think it was something that was made up in order to provide a contrast.
Susan: As I hear you talk about this and think about the way the book’s kind of presenting things, it’s sort of like a progression. It starts out beginning on the path and as the book will progress it’ll work up to more complex and sophisticated states and methods?
Ken: Well, yes. I very much see it as a progression, but what I think is not being clearly portrayed here is, not only is there progression into more complex and more subtle methods, but it’s also talking about a progression in the individual—that we start off here…I mean so many people start off the path because their life’s not working for them and they just want to make it a bit better.
From the point of view of Gampopa’s writing that would be they’re attached to the pleasures of this life. But that’s their motivation for practice, they want to make this life better. What happens, I find, is that as they try to do that they begin to get a sense that then there’s a deeper problem here. And the deeper problem is that this ordinary level of satisfaction never satisfies.
And so, now they become curious about some kind of deeper relationship with their life, deep relationship with the world. And that leads them into what we recognize more as a truly spiritual practice which comes of letting go of having more toys or having more sensory pleasure and moving into a greater balance and a deeper relationship with life itself. Hence the notion of freedom, whatever that might mean for that person.
And then again, as they begin move to some relationship with that, some experience of that, then again there’s another step of maturation in which like “Oh, now that I understand something about freedom I understand that every sentient being is caught up in the same cycle of suffering.” It takes different forms, but it’s actually absolutely the same process. And so a really deep compassion…
Now comes the motivation: “Well, yeah I can be kind of free and cool that works for me, but it doesn’t work for the world” and so there’s a movement into “How can I help others know this too?” Then you recognize you’re really short of capability. As Cara was saying she doesn’t have the tools to carry on certain conversations at this point. So, how can I be of benefit? And then you see a much deeper level of understanding arise. Now, you’re onto the bodhisattva path. Absolutely right, this is a progression.
Susan: Because the question I started asking myself is where does attention, awareness, knowing, rigpa come into all this? It seems like, especially when you start talking about bodhicitta that naturally arises out of those deeper states. But it seems like some of these in the beginning, you just have to take as faith or devotion, you know what I mean….
Ken: Well, I think you’re being a little unkind.
Ken: Most of you here, and I know you have, Susan, have been exposed to teachings of mahamudra and dzogchen.
These are advanced teachings, even though they’re given out to all kinds of people. But a lot of people who receive them don’t appreciate their subtlety or where they fit in the progression that I’m describing. I can describe the progression in another way and that is in terms of attachment to ideas about the world.
So, we start off, think, well, you know, life isn’t bad, but I’m having a certain kind of difficulty and if I could just learn a few skills then everything would just be great, you know. If I could learn not to react so much, then my life would be great. So, sit down and learn how to meditate. And it’s true. I learn how not to react so much.
But in the process of learning how not to react which is basically letting go of thoughts and feelings as facts and just experience them as thoughts and feelings. In developing that ability we become aware of a much deeper problem: that all of that reactivity is organized around a sense of self, and serves to protect that sense of self. And so we go, “Ah, there’s more of a bigger problem here, didn’t realize this. Well if I could just let go of the sense of self, you know, then I wouldn’t react at all. That’d be so cool.”
So, now meditation and one’s practice takes on a different tenor. And you begin to develop not just a calm mind, a mind which is less reactive, but you also develop a certain ability to see into the nature of things because an intellectual understanding that there is no self doesn’t change anything as you well know. It has to be a direct experience. So you’re beginning to move into the realm of direct experience and direct awareness, which is a beginning to approach rigpa and awareness and all of those things.
And so, you come to a point where you go, “Wow, I don’t exist as a thing.” Then, that’s a very definite experience. Some people say, “That’s totally cool,” some people say, “This freaks me out.” People have different reactions to that experience. But, it opens up more possibilities.
But again, it reveals a deeper problem. And that is “Well, if I don’t exist as a thing, then what is all this? And where does confusion arise? And where does being awake arise? If there’s no entity which is me what do all of these things mean?” That’s a really difficult question.
This leads to another level of exploration which is basically what bodhicitta, and mahamudra, and dzogchen, middle way is more bodhicitta, are about is: there is just this experience which is simultaneously vivid and empty. When one can actually experience that moment to moment in a completely non-conceptual awareness that’s what you’re calling rigpa. That’s what mahamudra and dzogchen… Now, that’s the progression as a progressive letting go of more and more.
In Gampopa’s writing when you get The Perfection of Wisdom you’ll see he does write about mahamudra and madyamaka. He doesn’t write explicitly about dzogchen. It’s implicit in this approach but here this is a path, a graded path, a step-by-step path where the dzogchen and mahamudra teachings in the vajrayana take the perspective this is present in us right now. It doesn’t have to be grown, you don’t have to go through a process, you can relate to it right now.
That’s a different approach. It’s a very effective approach. And usually in the Tibetan tradition one worked with both approaches simultaneously because there were abilities that needed to be cultivated. As you well know, one has to have a certain ability in attention otherwise one simply can’t practice dzogchen. One can think one’s practicing dzogchen but you’re not. That’s where a lot of people are today. Does this answer your question?
Susan: Yeah, so, I think. So you’re saying that it’s all present from the very first step but it just deepens as one’s practice deepens.
Ken: Well, I think that’s one way of looking at it, yeah.
Susan: So, what was the unkind part? Why was I being unkind?
Ken: Oh, what did you say? How did you say it in the beginning? You have to take it on faith; it’s a leap of devotion. That’s what I thought was being unkind because, no, it’s a process of exploration. And so, you find what works but each time you find something that works, new possibilities are revealed. So, you’re not actually taking anything on faith.
Susan: I think I expressed it wrong because didn’t he talk about faith and devotion in the very first chapter.
Ken: Yes, but you may recall that we talked about faith as the willingness to open to whatever arises. That isn’t about taking anything on faith.
Susan: It was a mis-expression then. That’s not what I meant.
Julia: I’ve got a question about being attached to peace and it relates to what you were talking about deepening practice. I was thinking there are like two ways of being attached to peace. One is sort of becoming a sort of bliss ninny if you like. You do a lot of shamatha—
Ken: A jhana junkie.
Julie: A jhana junkie. And the other one kind of touches onto that next step. And this is just my take so it might take some clarification here, where you feel you’d like to do something, be helpful or something, but you feel reticent is the word I’m coming up with, because you realize you lack capacity and/or skill. In that case, it might also be that you’re attached to peace in the sense that you don’t want to go wind-surfing in a hurricane to use your analogy.
Ken: Or, it gives you a way out of shouldering that responsibility. Both of these Gampopa talks about. The first one is being attached to the states of creatitude as in the god realms, the Formless Gods. That was talked about in the karma chapter. And the second one, which is saying I’m happy to hang out here. I don’t really want to take all of that on, is exactly what he’s addressing here. That’s exactly what he’s addressing which can be coming from a lack of confidence or whatever. What Gampopa’s saying is the remedy for that unwillingness, if you wish to move into a fuller relationship with the world, is to develop a caring attitude for others. So you aren’t comfortable letting others continue as they are.
Julia: Thank you
Ken: And because you aren’t comfortable then you are prepared to develop the capacity and the skill so that you can do something about it. It’s very, very difficult to help people.
Ken: Many years ago I had a series of lunches with an expert in franchises and marketing because somebody was encouraging me to franchise Unfettered Mind. I’ve never done it, not going to. And he made the very interesting point that when it comes to sales, it’s all about instant gratification. And it is why you can never make real money from education. His point of learning this was, he was trying to do, was some product and the person he was talking to said,“What gives you the right to tell me that I can’t commit slow suicide if I so choose.” That’s an unanswerable question, there’s nothing that gives you that right. That’s exactly the problem that one faces when you turn around to try to help somebody. They are living a life, we call it samsara, which is inevitably self-destructive. There is no possibliity of communication until they become interested in doing something about that. Now, we can try to create the conditions for that. But the moment of recognition, or that quality of recognition and interest or impetus has to come from them. This is why we need to develop great resources of patience and skill so that we can hang out with people and not think critically of them or feel superior to them and at the same time become skillful in creating opportunities or conditions which may spark that interest. This is what all of the sutras are about, a lot of sutras about how difficult the bodhisattva path actually is in a sense.
Steve: This brings back a question I think I ask once a year. A friend of mine says not only is he lactose-intolerant he’s also people-intolerant. I think on some level a lot of…the compassion thing, the path. What I’m wondering is, is what you’re saying somewhat that if, just like you said that gravity, drop the bottle, it falls. Is compassion a natural progression from rigpa, from a high level of awareness, from practice or is it something you have to practice in and of itself, if that makes sense?
Ken: You know what the good Buddhist answer to this is? Yes.
Steve: Is that what you told me last year when I asked? Maybe that’s why I never know the answer.
Ken: Well, if I were a Zen teacher I’d just say “yes” or I might say “no”. But I’m not so I’ll try and explain. One of the tenets of Buddhism, but I hesitate to use the term tenet because in my own experience I simply can’t see it any other way, is that as we come to understand the process of suffering in ourselves, it’s impossible not to understand that it’s the same in every other person. Maybe this is my own naiveté, but from that essential equanimity, that’s a very deep form of equanimity, I don’t see how compassion can’t arise, can’t be there. When you know that you are not a thing, you see people struggling around to define themselves, it’s very, very difficult not to feel some sympathy or compassion because you see them caught up in stuff that they don’t need to be caught up in. We all know that experience. So, I definitely see compassion as the natural expression of awake awareness.
At the same time, cultivating compassion is an extremely effective way of clearing away patterns of self-centeredness that prevent us from dropping into that direct awareness.
Ken: You may recall the story of Asanga, here, which is very much about this, pretty sure it was Asanga. He went into retreat because he wanted to meet Maitreya, the next Buddha. Now the term maitreya means loving-kindness. So, if you’re looking at this story as a myth, he went into retreat to cultivate loving-kindness.
After three years of praying to Maitreya and not even having a good dream, he says, “Ah the hell with this,”, comes out of his cave, and as he’s walking along he sees this person dipping a feather into a glass of water and flicking it against a cliff. He says, “What are you doing?” “Well this cliff blocks the sun from my house, so I’m washing it away.”
And Asanga goes, “Whoa, this person has perseverance. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough.” So he goes back to his cave and meditates for another three years. Again, nothing. Comes out and comes across this person stroking an anvil with a silk cloth. He says, “What are you doing?” “Oh, my wife is missing one of her needles, so I’m making a new one.”
“This person has perseverance, maybe I should go back.” So he goes back for another three years. And comes out again. I can’t remember what the third one was but it’s something along the same lines. So he goes back for another three years. And now he’s ready, he’s been there twelve years, he’s had it.
He comes along and he sees this mangy dog. It is so bad, festering with sores all over the place. And the sores are so bad that they’re infested with maggots. And it’s just disgusting and he looks at this dog and he says, “Oh, you poor thing.” And he wants to heal the wounds. So, he looks closely and he sees all the maggots in it and he’s just disgusted with this. And he goes, “eww”. He can’t figure out a way to pick off the maggots. The only thing he can come to is he can lick the wounds with his tongue.
But it’s so disgusting and it smells so bad that he has to close his eyes. So he closes his eyes, sticks out his tongue. And the next thing he knows is that his mouth is in the dirt. And he opens his eyes and he sees these two feet in front of him. He looks and there’s Maitreya Buddha. And here he partakes a bit of Sister Theresa of Avalon.
He says to Maitreya, “Where have you been? I’ve been praying to you for twelve years. Where have you been?”
And Maitreya says, “I was with you from day three, but you couldn’t see me. Then I appeared to you as this person washing away the cliff, the person making a needle, and so forth. Finally, your obscurations were cleared away sufficiently that you could see me as this mangy old dog. And now this last act of compassion allows you to see me. And if you don’t believe me, carry me on your back and go into the village.” So, he picks Maitreya up walks into the village and says,“See who I’ve got on my back.” All the villagers think he’s nuts. Nobody can see anything. Except one old lady who also thinks he’s nuts because he’s carrying around a mangy dog.
So, this is a traditional story. You’ll find it in Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher. It’s a myth, of course. but it’s precisely what you’re talking about. Here he is praying to develop loving-kindness and Maitreya says the loving-kindness was in you from day three. Can’t recognize it. And so, through cultivating compassion we come to recognize that this actually is our nature. So does that not answer your question, once again?
Ken: Already time to close here, for meditation practice, well, just sit quietly, and I’ll just do this quickly as a guided meditation. I want to focus on loving-kindness which is a little different from compassion. So, recall an incident in which somebody was kind to you. It can be anytime in your life. The only thing I would ask is you recall an incident where somebody older than you was kind to you not somebody younger. So, just recall that incident. What was it like for you? Often when somebody is kind to us, especially when it’s unsolicited or a surprise, then we may feel a little uncomfortable. Maybe we’re suspicious. So, check to see if any of that happens. Maybe we feel a sense of obligation. So, take one or more incidents of kindness. And take one is, what’s the initial reaction? All of which is about not letting the kindness in. And then let kindness in or recall letting the kindness in. What happens when you let the kindness in? In both of these, as you’ve done before, what are the physical sensations we experience when somebody is kind to us. What are the physical sensations when we actually let the kindness in. What are the emotional sensations that arise when somebody is kind to us? What are the emotional sensations when we let that kindness in? What are the stories that arise when somebody is kind to us? What are the stories that arise when we let that kindness in?
Be in both, work over the next week, both of those scenarios or both aspects of that scenario. One, what’s it like to receive kindness, what’s it like to let it in? And we’ll take that up next week.