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.
Buddha nature, part 1 Download
What is the question for which Buddha nature is the answer?; what is Buddha nature; Buddha nature is not a thing; difference between knowing and understanding; Buddha nature and emptiness; why it is possible to awaken; exploring potential and motivation; questions and answers. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 1.
This is our second class on Then and Now and the focus is on the topic of buddha nature. I put up one question on Facebook. For those of you who are new this evening, we have a group on Facebook called ThenandNow, with no spaces. It’s now got 38 members, so word is spreading which is great. And that’s where I’m going to put class assignments, and people can post resources connected with the class that they find useful, so it’s a place to share information. The question that I put up there up there was for you to think about is, What is the question for which buddha nature is the answer? And I’d be interested in hearing any reflections that any of you may have had. What is the question for which buddha nature is an answer?
Steve, do you have the mics there? Anybody? Pat.
Pat: Well, maybe it’s just too simple, but I just kept coming back to, how to stop suffering.
Ken: Okay, that’s one possibility. Anybody else?
Joe: What is the nature of good and evil?
Ken: What is the nature of good and evil? Anybody else? How many of you thought about this? [Student’s indicate they have] Oh good. Let’s hear some of your thinking. Back here…your name? Kathy, right. It just takes me a little while to learn.
Kathy: What is our essence?
Ken: What is our essence? Okay, anybody else? There were a bunch of hands here. Harold.
Harold: My comment is similar to that. When I read about it and thought about it, it confused me, because it seemed to imply…it implies there’s a self. This is what popped into my mind, so I’ll sharing it with everybody. And that causes me great confusion.
Ken: We have this little teaching in Buddhism about non-self, right? Randye?
Randye: Almost a seed, the core of what we are that we can use to develop ourselves with.
Ken: And there are some people over here. Art, in the background, has come down from the crow’s nest.
Art: Two questions came to mind: What am I, and What allows me to awaken?
Ken: Okay. And one more. Cara.
Cara: Where do we come from?
I think pretty well all of these questions are candidates for this: Where do we come from, What am I, How is it possible that I can awaken, What is the nature of good and evil?, and so forth. And Harold’s comment is very appropriate—I’m going to paraphrase it a little bit, Harold, if it’s okay: What is the difference between buddha nature and a self? I think that’s what you were asking or along those lines?
Certainly from the Theravadan point of view they look at buddha nature and go, “Yo, what is the difference between this and the self? It seems like you’re making something pretty solid.”
Well, let’s take a look at what it says here.
Working from Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation, this is page 49, and in Guenther’s translation it’s all part of Chapter 1. This is on page 2, about a third of the way down the page.
Every spiritual system has to have what I call a map. This actually is something that Carl Potter, the philosopher, put together a long time ago. It has to explain why things are the way they are, how is it possible for them to be different and what you can do to make them different. It doesn’t matter what spiritual tradition you’re going to embrace. Always those three questions come up: Why are things the way they are, How can it be different, and How can we bring that about?
This is essentially what this chapter is about—not so much why things are the way they are, but what makes it possible for them to be different. So we see things like: “Is it possible for inferior persons like ourselves to achieve enlightenment, even if we make the effort?” That’s the question here.
What makes it possible for us to wake up? There are a lot of assumptions in that. What does it mean to be awake? Why aren’t we awake now?, etc. All of these things.
Buddhism as much as any tradition that I know of starts with what we experience. And I think we went over this last time.
How many of you struggle in your lives? Or put this way, is there anybody here who doesn’t experience struggle in their life? So that, in a sense, is the first noble truth. There is suffering (but I find that the word struggle in today’s age captures the sense of dukkha more accurately).
No, is there another possibility? That comes to the third noble truth: yes, there is another possibility. And this notion of buddha nature is an explanation or an argument to say, “Here is the possibility, this is what makes it possible.”
In other words, it’s saying that we all have the potential to be awake. Which is another way of saying that we all have the potential to experience life without the projection of thought and emotion. Or, to put it a third way, we all have the potential to experience life without struggling—and that sounds pretty good.
Now, how do we know that we have the potential? What follows is a wonderful example of how self-referential a system that’s been around for a thousand years is, because it’s talking to itself and in a certain sense it’s talking in circles. But let’s see if we can break the circle a little bit.
The first thing that happens in traditional texts is that they always give scriptural authority for a statement they’re making. So we’re going to be talking about buddha nature, and we have such statements such as The essence of the Well-Gone One (a term for buddha nature) pervades all migrators.
Migrators is the term that this person decided to use for beings. The Tibetan word is literally goers. It’s droha which is literally the verb to go, like I go to the store. The idea is that they’re constantly moving around the six realms of existence. That’s the outer interpretation.
Another interpretation is, if you look the six realms as being the worlds that we project when we’re caught up in a given emotion—so when we’re in anger we’re in the hell realm, when we’re in greed we’re in the hungry ghost realm—then it’s saying something quite different. And that is, it doesn’t matter what realm, it doesn’t matter how much we’re struggling; the possibility of waking up is always there. That’s a very different statement.
I also want to talk about this term pervade, because when we say, buddha nature pervades all beings, which is a quotation from many, many of the sutras, we immediately think there is some thing which pervades everything, and goes back to the nineteenth century, the ether theory.
The ether theory was a theory in physics which said you had this phenomenon that light could travel even through a vacuum. But since light was a wave—at least at that time was thought to be a wave—and waves required a medium, there had to be some kind of medium which pervaded everything. You couldn’t send sound through a vacuum since sound requires a medium the same way that light, if it’s a wave, requires a medium. So they made up the ether. Eventually it was proven the ether doesn’t exist, but that’s another matter.
So we have this idea that there is some thing that pervades all beings. This is a really incorrect understanding of buddha nature.
Jamgon Kongtrul, who was one of the great nineteenth century teachers, was asked this question and he replied this way, Do not think of some thing which pervades all things, because there isn’t any such thing. What is buddha nature? Buddha nature is what is left when all the confusion of ordinary experience is cleared away.
Let’s take a look at that. It’s what’s left when all the confusion of ordinary experience is cleared away. In this statement, Kongtrul is equating being awake with the end of confusion. And that’s a pretty good definition.
I was once at a center, just visiting the center, and a question was posed to that teacher of that center, “What is enlightenment?” And I think he wanted to give me a hard time so he said, “I think we’ll let Ken answer that question.”
And that’s what my reply was, “It’s the end of confusion.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that there is some thing in us which becomes awake; it means that awake quality—which I’ll say more about in a minute—is present all the time and it’s just covered over.
What is this awake quality? The first thing is, it is not a thing. It isn’t something you can point and say, “Ah, that’s it.”
In Buddhism, as we do at the beginning of each of our meetings here, we say we take refuge in buddha, dharma and sangha. For many people that is interpreted as taking refuge in the historical Buddha, the teachings of the dharma, and the sangha of monks and nuns, which has existed for 2,500 years, and that would be external refuge.
It can be interpreted more internally, but if we look at it from this point of view of buddha nature, which is not a thing, what we come to in refuge is, there is nothing outside us which is going to save us from our struggles, and there’s nothing inside us either which is going to save us from our struggles. I’d just like you to take that and think about it for a few moments.
There is nothing inside us and there is nothing outside us. What are you going to do?
I find that a very powerful way of looking at this. Because it means that it is useless or pointless or futile to look for something to save us. It means that I have to meet my experience, whatever it is, which—at least for me—is not always easy. One of the things buddha nature is saying is that we always have the potential to meet whatever arises in experience.
Another way of saying this is, that every experience, every situation is workable. And that’s also very strong. There is no situation which isn’t workable.
Now, granted, it will feel like there are situations which are completely unworkable. We may not have the capacity, we may not have the skill, we may not even have the willingness to work the situations, but those are all things we can actually develop. So the teaching on buddha nature is explaining what is possible for us, how is it possible for us to wake up or be awake, and it reveals this by saying that every situation is workable.
Now, how do we know we have buddha nature? That is the next question. Here he gives three reasons. If you look on page 50:
Because the perfect form of the Buddha radiates,
Because there are no distinctions within suchness, and
Because all are in a family.
There are many translation problems here, among other things. We have this wonderful more-or-less a syllogism, All men are mortals. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal. Here, the Buddhist version is, All sentient beings are pervaded by the emptiness of dharmakaya. (means that ultimate buddhahood is dharmakaya) Dharmakaya is all-pervading emptiness, and emptiness pervades all sentient beings.
Again, the language suggests that emptiness is a thing. One of the most important aspects of Buddhism is to move away from regarding anything as a entity. Thrangu Rinpoche, who was a wonderful Kagyu teacher…I should have brought this with me…
Does anybody have a large piece of paper they can give me? [Student gives Ken a piece of paper. He tears the sheet in two.] This is such a good piece of paper—it rips very easily.
Two pieces of paper. We would usually say this is small and this is big. Right? This one’s small, this one’s big. [Puts down the bigger piece, and gets out a still-smaller piece of paper.] Another two pieces of paper. Now this one’s small and this one’s big.
What this points out is that there is no inherent quality, bigness. Big depends on…the relationship to something else. From the Buddhist point of view, everything is like that.
Another example, how many of you think people and things are different? Most of us think that people and things are different. You treat people one way and you treat things another way.
Any of you had a pet rock? [Laughs] For a while those were a kind of fad and people related to those rocks as people, or at least pets.
Any of you worked in a statistics department or anything like that? There you treat people as things. They’re numbers and they comprise things. You don’t relate to them in the same way you relate to someone in a conversation.
So, whether you relate to people as things or as people, or relate to things as things or people, depends on the actual relationship. Those aren’t inherent qualities; those are terms that we use. And when you start beginning to appreciate that absolutely everything is like that, then the world becomes free of entities and the conflict that is set up between entities and the idea of right and wrong, and you’re looking at what is actually happening in each of these interactions.
Because what things are called really depends on the interactions, and the idea that things have inherent qualities which make them what they are falls by the wayside, and you actually begin to relate to things much more as they are, as you’re experiencing them at that time.
So emptiness, which is a very far-reaching concept in Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is a term which stops the mind and stops us from regarding something as a thing. We increasingly just experience it, or experience it in terms of our relationship and our interaction with it.
This is why, in the Zen tradition, for instance—this happened to my teacher Kalu Rinpoche. He and a well-known Korean Zen teacher met in Boston many, many years ago and there was going to be this big debate between the Tibetan tradition and the Zen tradition. So they’re up on stage and Seung Sunim—which is totally typical of how things are done in the Korean Zen tradition—takes out an orange and says to Rinpoche (my teacher), [sternly] “What is this?”
Rinpoche says something to the translator and the translator says something back and they go for about ten minutes back and forth. Eventually the translator turns to the audience and says, “Rinpoche is very confused. Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?”
Now, in Zen if you say, “Well, that’s an orange,” you would immediately say, “Okay, you cling to form—you cling to the idea it’s a thing.” If you just took it and ate it, then that would be a demonstration that you knew what it actually was. That it’s not an object of experience, it’s something that is alive and part of one’s experience and one interacts with it. Yeah, maybe you might catch it and throw it and make a ball into it but you would do something, you wouldn’t just say, “That’s an orange.”
Very, very different styles of talking about things so there wasn’t much communication.
So rather than thinking of something pervading everything, just take a few moments right now. I want you to go to the question that I left you as practice. And that was, What makes it possible for your mind to grow quiet?
What makes it possible for your mind to grow quiet? All of you have some experience with meditation. Breathe. Rest in the experience of breathing. And at some point you just find you’re experiencing breathing; mind has become quiet. It may only be that way for two or three breaths or something like that, but it’s a possibility.
What makes that possible? Let’s hear from you. [pause]
Don’t think about this. In this way of working we’re going to be doing all through this, you need to look at your experience, not try to think it through. Thinking is not going to be helpful. Maya.
Maya: I choose to direct my attention to my breath.
Ken: Yes, you choose to direct your attention to the breath. What makes it possible for your mind to go quiet, though?
Maya: Is it because the quiet’s there?
Ken: The quiet’s there? Okay, that’s one possibility; but if that’s the case, do you always know that quiet? Why not?
Student: I guess Maya was saying that you choose not to—
Ken: Well, take it back to Maya. I have another question for her. Do you actually choose?
Maya: What are you referring to?
Ken: Well, you said “I choose to do this.” Okay. Do you actually choose?
Maya: I think so. [Laughter] You try to go below… What comes before choose?
Ken: Okay. So you can direct your attention. Can you actually stop thoughts from coming?
Maya: Uh, no, I haven’t figured how to do that yet.
Ken: When you do let me know, you’ll be the first person! [Laughter]. But there is some element of choice in that when you find your self distracted by a thought, you can choose to continue with the thought or you can come back to the breath, right? And you’re saying that the mind, the quiet is always there. Randye. Your thought.
Randye: The image I had is that the stars are always there but in the daytime you can’t see them because the sun provides noise, static that obscures the signal. And the possibility of being quiet is there and can be seen only when the noise is absent.
Ken: How many of you would go along with this notion that the quiet is always there? Okay, we’ve got a lot of agreement here.
I’m just going to have another small question then: What is this quiet? [Pause] Anybody want to take a stab at that one? Joe, and then Chuck.
Joe: The experience you’re talking about is most easily describable in the negative. What obscures this thing we’re talking about, for which we’re using the word silence for now, I can’t—there is nothing to say about it but I know what gets in the way of it.
Ken: Very good.
Chuck: Well, it might have something to do with the buddha nature.
Ken: Ah, you’re always getting ahead of the game, aren’t you? [Laughter] Okay—and you’re quite right—but I want to get there in some smaller steps. Joe said, or offered, that it’s easier to talk about it in the negative, and we get caught up in what it is, and what obscures it, etc. But it’s very difficult to say what it is. Did I understand you correctly?
Ken: This is a very, very important point. It is extremely difficult to say what it is. In fact, if you look at the scriptures they will say it’s impossible to say what it is. Why? Because it is not a thing. But it is something that can be experienced. It’s a way of experiencing things that every one of you can move into by creating the right conditions. And as Maya pointed out, there’s an element of intention in that.
So that possibility is present in all of us. And that’s what this paragraph is saying. It’s using all of this very, very high-flown technical language—Ultimate buddhahood of dharmakaya—that sounds very intimidating. Dharmakaya is all-pervading emptiness and emptiness pervades all beings.
I’m going to translate this a different way. That quality of being awake is present in everything that we experience. It’s present in everything that we experience because nothing that we experience is actually a thing, so there’s always the possibility of experience free from projection.
Student: Say that again.
Ken: Impossible! You’ll have to listen to it. [laughter]
Maya: This is really obvious, but isn’t what you just said—technically—isn’t that the whole reason why it always has to be in the present moment, because you can never have five minutes ago awakeness.You can’t take it with you.
Ken: That’s exactly right, Maya.
Maya: That everything you experience, not only is there only no thing, but it always has to be in the present moment whether you’re meditating or not.
Ken: You’re quite right and we can actually go further. From that point of view there is no such thing as past or future.
There’s a wonderful sentence in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—I can’t remember exactly where it is in the book. It’s in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, actually. Somebody is asking this person, who is supposedly the ruler of the universe, this question.
And he replies, “Oh that would be a question about the past. How do I know that the past isn’t a fiction that I’ve created to account for the discrepancy between my current mental condition and my current physical state?” It’s wonderful! [laughter]
The second reason: ’There are no differentiations in the nature of suchness’ means that the suchness of the Buddha is identical to the suchness of sentient beings.
This is a very powerful statement, and it’s unfortunate about the translation because the word for buddha nature in Sanskrit is tathagatagarbha. Gharba is the word for nature, roughly. Tathagata is an epithet for buddha and it means one gone to suchness. Tathata is the word for suchness. So this use, the relationship between suchness and buddha nature, is not apparent in the English because they’re translating one as suchness and the other as buddha. And there’s no happy way to do this, I would say. Agnes?
Agnes: This long word tathagatagarbha, that is motive.
Ken: Oh, let me come to that.
Agnes: Okay, because I’m confused.
Ken: I understand. That’s perfectly understandable.
The Sanskrit word here is tathagatagarbha. What it’s saying is this idea of suchness is the quality of being that anything has. Well, the quality of being that anything has, is that it is not a thing, in the same way we saw above, these pieces of paper: big isn’t a thing. It’s relative. It depends on the relationship with other things. So the quality of being that everything has is that it is not a thing. Which means that a buddha is just as much not a thing as a sentient being. None of us are things.
One way we talk about it in the modern times is that we’re not things, we’re processes. But that actually causes just as much problem. There’s nothing—this goes back to a point I made earlier—there is no thing that I can point to and say, “That is me, that is what I am.” There isn’t anything like that, and that is as true of a buddha as it is of a sentient being.
This is wonderfully illustrated by a woman, Belle Hooks, who is a student of Lama Yeshe. One day—I think she was in Nepal at this point—she was really, really angry, and it was obvious that she was very angry; she was throwing a tantrum. And in the middle of this Lama Yeshe came up and whispered in her ear, “Buddha mind is very angry today.” [laughter]
Now what would you do if you were very angry and someone kept saying, “Buddha mind is very angry today?” How long would your anger last? This was extremely skillful on the one hand, but it’s also profoundly true.
In just what I was saying earlier, this quality of being awake—this possibility of quiet—is present in everything that we experience—even when we’re extremely angry or extremely caught up in jealousy, or desire, or stupidity, or depression, or anything like that. That quality of being awake is there. It may or may not be something that we can access and that’s what we’re going to move into in a minute.
It isn’t good, it isn’t bad, it isn’t this, it isn’t that, it’s not many, it’s not one, it’s not eternal, it’s not eternalism, it’s not nihilism. There isn’t any quality you can put on it, but it’s an experience that is always available to us. One can argue that the main thrust of Buddhist practice is to experience that. And when we do, we experience being without projection and that’s one way—without projection/without confusion—of talking about being awake.
Now the third thing is, Because all are in a family. This is a terrible translation, I’m sorry. It’s very understandable. Because the word they’re using is the Tibetan word rig, I think it’s the Sanskrit word gotra, but I’m not very good at Sanskrit. It’s the word for tribe, clan. It has about twenty different meanings.
I would like you to just cross out family and put potential, because that is what it really is talking about. What he’s saying here is, a third reason is because all beings have the potential.
What follows is a typical form of Buddhist logic. That is, you take all possible beings from the worst of the worst to the most enlightened. So Buddha is at one end and really, really confused and distorted people at the other end. Divide these up into five groups, five kinds of potential. Then to see if this quality, this possibility of being awake is present in each of those. And if it is it’s in each of those, then you know it’s present in all of them. It’s a simple form of argument, but one that is used over and over again.
And judging by time, I’m not sure we’ll have time to go through all of that. I want to respond first to Agnes’ question: why did Guenther use the term motive here?
Well, I’m going to go into a short digression, because in these two translations we have two very different philosophies of translation. There are those who translate the words and those who translate the meaning.
By translating the words, one seeks to find words in English which correspond to words in Tibetan, and then you use those words wherever it’s appropriate. And so it’s like a dictionary: once you’ve established the correspondence then you just have to find the right words to translate. That is successful up to a point, if there are fairly strong correspondences between the languages.
The second school of translation is translating the meaning. So you read the sentence, and you figure out what it actually means, and then you write down that sentence in English that has that meaning and corresponds as closely as you can to the actual structure of the sentence and the words in the sentence in Tibetan. But you’re really concerned with making sure that the meaning comes through; you’re not just applying “this word is this and this word is that.”
Both approaches to translation have their pros and cons.
For myself, when I first started learning Tibetan, I was greatly influenced by Guenther, whom I had the good fortune to meet at one point. I have always felt it was far more important to make the meaning accessible rather than translating the words.
Jeffrey Hopkins is a very well-known translator of the opposite school and that’s why we get words like migrators which don’t make much sense in English but correspond in some way to the meaning of the Tibetan. Guenther was one of the first translators who took Buddhism very seriously, and he wanted to translate the meaning.
Buddha nature we’ve talked about as what makes awakening possible, and Maya referred to this matter of choosing, intention. Where does that intention come from? Cara.
Cara: I would say the ego.
Ken: Well, let’s not use too fancy language, you know. I don’t know Latin very well. Where does it come from in you? Why are you here?
Cara: My mom made me come. [Laughter] She’s listening to the podcast. Hi, Mom.
Ken: That’s actually true, everyone. You say your mother made you…
Cara: No, she didn’t…
Ken: Of course not. Okay. So why are you here?
Cara: Well, my background is actually in Zen Buddhism. I studied with Jude Bacio and Fukushima Keido in Japan. So in Zen there’s you and then there’s your ego. In my limited understanding.
Ken: Fair enough, it’s all language. Go on.
Cara: And that’s where I have a lot of frustration with Zen because I feel it’s a lot of semantics, especially in Rinzai. It’s more like you’re having a debate with yourself, more than leading towards enlightenment. So when I hear set the intention, what’s me? What’s my nature? What part of me—is my nature setting the intention? Because if my nature is…
Ken: And you get yourself tied up in knots in no time!
Ken: Let’s just forget all of that, okay?
Cara: So I think it’s the ego.
Ken: Well, no. I’m going to push you a little bit. Your mother will be so happy. So just forget all of that stuff. Okay? Why are you here?
Cara: To learn.
Ken: To learn what?
Cara: I don’t know.
Ken: Well you’re going to have to do better than that. Why are you here? To learn?
Cara: To learn, to re-immerse, to learn from you?
Ken: What do you want to learn? This is very serious.
Cara: Yes, I know. It is very serious. And…I don’t know. I want to learn more…
Ken: But there’s a feeling you have.
Cara: Yes, it’s a feeling I’ve always had.
Ken: Okay, talk to me about that feeling.
Cara: I don’t want to, like, spill my biography.
Ken: No, I’m not talking about all the past history, just talk to me about that actual feeling, there’s something there. What is that?
Cara: Well you know my mother…
Ken: Forget all that. Right here, right now, there’s this feeling. You don’t need to bring your mother into it.
Cara: She told me she told you my birth story and that you had a conversation about that. And that’s a feeling that she has always told me. And because I was never raised anywhere near a church, for me, I’ve always had this feeling that there’s a greater entity that I was a part of that I would refer to as the universe. And so I would always have this sense, even as a child, that it’s like we’re all made of stars. Like everything that exists in a star exists in me.
Cara: And…I don’t know. Another way I would look at it is in Hinduism…..
Ken: You’ve done fine. You’ve got all that.
Cara: Why am I here?
Cara: Why am I here? [long pause]
Ken: Can I put words in your mouth?
Ken: You want to know that.
Cara: Yes. From a textual perspective, I want to know that.
Ken: You also want to know it from an experiential perspective, right?
Cara: Yes, yes.
Ken: You want to know know it.
Cara: Well, instead of like, knowing it, I want to Big K, Know it. Okay.
Ken: That’s the connection with motive, Agnes. Does everybody follow?
Cara: I’m so embarrassed now.
Ken: [Laughing] Thank you very much. You’re very generous.
Agnes: In the note it says The goal-seeking character of life. Is that what Cara meant when she said…
Ken: Read it again, please?
Agnes: The goal-seeking character of life.? That’s what’s in the footnote.
Ken: That’s coming from the philosophical background that Guenther was carrying from, which was Austrian, and all of that, and existentialist, phenomenological. But the question here is, where does the interest come? I’m going to make the suggestion that the interest comes from the quiet. How does that sit with you, Cara?
Please understand that from time to time I will put people on the spot because it’s so extremely helpful to everybody else. So I appreciate you generosity here.
Cara: So one more time.
Ken: So, I’m going to make the suggestion that that interest comes from the quiet.
Cara: I agree with that.
Cara: But I don’t agree with the semantics that enlightenment is a goal.
Ken: Oh no, I’m not going there either. Yeah, that’s Guenther’s vocabulary. So we have this interest in knowing the quiet, but the interest is coming from the quiet itself. That’s why Guenther uses the term motive for this. Because it’s not only a potential, it’s also something that moves us. It’s not a translation in a literal sense at all. But he was trying to bring out that quality, that aspect of meaning in it.
Agnes: Can I carry this one step further as a move to move us to be away from samsara?
Ken: Move us to be away from samsara, move us to be awake, yes. Okay, Susan?
Susan: So, another way of saying what you’re saying is: we don’t know that we know, but on some level we do know that we know? Because otherwise how could the knowing want to know if it doesn’t know it knows?
Ken: I think you’ve been reading too much Shantideva. [Laughs] First off, it’s not our knowing. It’s just knowing. And it’s a felt experience which moves us. And yes, I think you’re right, that that movement, as an expression of the knowing, indicates that the knowing is present.
Susan: I’m sorry, can you reword, “The movement of the know…” Can you say that again?
Ken: The movement that comes from the knowing is an indication that the knowing is present, which is basically what you were saying, in other words.
Susan: Yeah, yeah, okay, thank you.
Harold: It just came to my mind and I’d like you to address this, that the interest would be karmic.
Ken: Could be. [Pause] It’s attributed to karma, but at the level that we’re talking here, I would say the interest is intrinsic in buddha nature, and it is more or less obscured by conditioning.
So when it’s less-obscured by conditioning, that’s when it’s attributed to karma. Because then it’s more evident. When it’s very, very obscured, then there’s very little interest. It manifests very little because of the heaviness of the conditioning. Do you follow?
Ken: Okay. The more conditioning there is, the less interest is going to be apparent. The less you’re going to feel it.
Student: What do you mean by conditioning?
Ken: Believing in the solidity of society and of your emotions and your thoughts, and things like that.
For instance, I’m part of a networking group of people who are building careers and things like that. They’re really great people but they take all of this to be totally real [laughter] and there is very little interest in being awake or questioning the nature of this experience.
That’s what I mean by conditioning. But when there is less conditioning then the interest in things spiritual becomes more and more evident. Less conditioning is also karmic, if you follow.
I want you to think about that one. Examine what you mean by the word karmic—that would be a good place to start.
Harold: What I mean by karmic—to me, it’s like a striving. Many, many lives of striving. Does that help?
Ken: Yes it does, I’d like to come back to your question in a minute, if I may. Okay? Julia?
Julia: I have a point of clarification about moving. You said it is a felt experience that moves us. Normally when I think of moving, I think if some sort of emotional surge, like listening to music. But I’m getting here that you’re meaning something different, it’s actually “shifting energy” in a way. Is that correct?
Ken: One can call it shifting energy. But there is a movement. There is a reason why everybody is here this evening.
Julia: So we’ve moved ourselves to be here.
Ken: Yes, at least I don’t seem to be sitting at home right now, Julia. But that may be my impression.
Julia: I just beamed myself.
Ken: Thank you, Scotty. [Laughter] Okay, Cara?
Cara: When he asked about karma, I was thinking—maybe for myself—it’s like it’s your samskara. You talk about a choice, and a path, and a groove that’s been worn, and I think of samskara as a groove, and this is your groove, it’s not your karma but it’s what has been dug for you. And so perhaps that’s what moves you.
Ken: We’re talking about—and this is coming back to your question, Harold—we’re talking about two different influences here.
In response to Agnes’s original question, why did Guenther use the word motive, we’re talking about an intrinsic, natural movement towards awakening which is not karmic. Inherent is one possible word. It’s knowing itself—seeking, giving expression. One gets very metaphysical here.
Then there’s a second level or form of motive which is much more along lines that Cara was just referring to, that is, when we act in certain ways, the propensity to continue to act those ways is reinforced. Classic conditioning.
So, if we constantly regard everybody with dislike and distrust, then we increase the tendency to regard everybody with dislike and distrust, and we get stuck in that path.
On the other hand, if we cultivate the habit of opening and including everything we experience, then we do that more and more and that leads more to the path of awakening rather than getting more and more reactive.
So you have those two different influences, if you wish. And in the context of buddha nature I’m only talking about the first one: the natural movement for knowing to know. Other questions over here? Lynea? And then Alex.
Lynea: I feel like this question is related. I’m not really sure, but I feel like I’ve been meandering about the word stillness and quiet and how that relates to interdependence, and if there’s an interaction between things.
Lynea: I guess I’m asking for some clarity.
Ken: You’re skipping ahead to about chapter 20. [Takes a piece of paper.] You’re meant to have three hands for this exercise. Okay. I should label these A, B and C but we’ll say the middle piece is big in one context and small in another context. You’re gonna hate this. Is the middle piece big or small?
Ken: That’s not true.
Ken: At the same time?
Ken: Nnnno. It’s not big and small at the same time. I only can do it one way. Okay. So is it big or small? Now, what’s happening right now?
Lynea: I’m choosing a perspective.
Ken: Before you choose, what is happening? [Pause] There’s the stillness, right? [pause] And that’s the relation of the stillness with interdependence.
Lynea. Would you call interdependence paradox?
Ken: Oh, no, no, no, no. Paradox is very useful. These are big and small only in relationship with each other, okay?
When just going along we just switch from one to the other very quickly. But when I asked you is it big or small, everything stopped. And the possibility of being one or the other comes out of the stillness. So, in a certain sense, stillness is the basis of interdependence and interdependence is the basis of stillness. Which is just what Nagarjuna meant when he said emptiness and interdependence are synonyms. It’s helpful to get it experientially, which you got a small taste of.
Randye. Oh, I’m sorry! Alex. You were next.
Alex: I just wanted to ask what beings know and understand the buddha nature?
Ken: “What beings know or understand the Buddha nature?” So tempting, so many ways to go there! Say a bit more about your question. I’m not sure where you’re coming from.
Alex: In a way, I feel like I don’t understand this at all, but at the same time I would think that perhaps many people understand to some extent these concepts.
Ken: Okay. In the discussion that we’ve been having, what have you—not understood—what have you experienced?
Alex: I’d say that if I observe a person who seems to be relaxed, and comfortable, and awake, that there would be some relationship or connection to that person understanding buddha nature, but I don’t think that that’s the same as really understanding directly.
Ken: What I was trying to point to, Alex, is that in some of the questions that I’ve been asking people you may have noticed that they’ve just stopped at a certain point. And when the mind stops thinking, when we stop trying to understand, then the possibility of just experiencing buddha nature is right there.
So when you ask the question, what kind of person or people understand buddha nature?, I would be tempted to say that nobody understands buddha nature. It’s not something that we understand. It’s something we can know, we can experience. And that possibility—this is exactly what this chapter is saying—is always present in everybody, at every moment. Okay?
Ken: Somehow I feel you’re not convinced. There was another person. Oh, Randye.
Randye: Something I’ve been feeling and you’ve just made an equivalency between, is the relationship between stillness and shunyata, emptiness. Where I’m getting confused is that the motive, the volition, whatever, arising from stillness which is an absolute, which is unchanging or content as is, or not relative, seems to be an oxymoron to me.
Ken: Exactly. You’re trying to understand it.
Randye: I usually do.
Ken: Yes. Stop trying to understand it. It’s only an oxymoron if you try to understand it intellectually. The moment we try to understand something intellectually, we separate from our actual experience and we’re trying to know our experience in concepts.
On the other hand, if you just sit and allow yourself to become quiet, then a knowing and a wanting to know arise quite naturally. And there is no contradiction; that is one’s experience. In our work here together I want to emphasize: yes, there is the desire to understand this intellectually, but far more important is to get some experiential hit of it.
And you trust your experiential hit of it and create the conditions in your practice so that experiential hit can arise and can grow and become stronger in your experience. Then you won’t have any problem understanding it because you will know it. And for those of you who have the misfortune of having had an academic training this will be a challenge. [Laughing] Right? Okay, Joe.
Joe: This question arose for me last week and this seems to be a good time to bring it up. Of all the formulations that have been created over the years to point to this experience that we are talking about, what is so attractive about this very complex and convoluted formulation, that we’re all here, trying to…?
Ken: I don’t think there is anything necessarily attractive about this “very complex, very convoluted” (I’m sure Gampopa would take issue with that!) formulation. You’re here because you want to know something—that’s it, right?
Ken: And you had the misfortune… [Laughter]
Joe: …to choose this one?
Ken: What led you to this madness?
Joe: I needed for it to be proven to me, and your book gave the promise of if you went from the beginning to the end and did everything in it, at the end of the book you would be enlightened, or I would be enlightened. Unfortunately, I found this not to be the case. Not that I did go from beginning to the end.
Ken: Oh, then you don’t really know if it’s the case or not…
Joe: That’s true!
Ken: I can assure you, Joe, that if you do absolutely everything in the book, that… [Laughter]
I want to spend a few minutes on a couple of other points.
Here we have Gampopa saying very, very strongly, “All beings have Buddha nature,” and giving all these reasons. We haven’t gone through all the reasons—and we’ll do that next week.
And we have statements like, Buddha nature pervades all beings, etc., etc. It’s really a very strong statement in the Mahayana that all beings have buddha nature.
Then we have this Chinese Zen teacher—or Chan. I can’t remember his Chinese name, but his Japanese name is Joshu. And he was asked, “Does a dog have buddha nature?”
And he said, “No.”
In Japanese it’s mu, but mu basically means no.
What’s going on here? [long pause]
Now here’s a person whose been trained in this, who’s regarded as great teacher, and when he’s asked, “Does a dog has a buddha nature?” and he says “No.”
It’s like the Pope being asked, “Is there a god?” and the Pope says, “No.”
Ken: Is that what you’d say to him? Ah, but you asked the question. So you would say to him, how does he know?
Student: No, he doesn’t. You don’t know.
Ken: So we’ll just play it through it here. You ask me.
Student: How do you know?
Ken: No, you ask me, “Does a dog have buddha nature?”.
Student: Does a dog have buddha nature?
Student: How do you know?
Ken: [Pause] I know.
Student: You can’t, because you don’t have the experience of being a dog. [Laughter] As far as I know.
Ken: I like that. That’s very good. So, how do you understand this?
Student: How do I understand it?
Ken: How do you understand this exchange? I think you’ve raised a very good point here. Does a dog have buddha nature? No. And you’re saying, well, that one possible interpretation is that he’s saying that “I’m not a dog so how would I know if a dog has buddha nature?” What does this have to say about buddha nature?
Student: That it’s something you experience.
Ken: It’s something you experience. Exactly. It’s not a concept. It’s not a thing.
So this is what we’re going to get, over and over again.
The Tibetan tradition, building as it did on the scholastic tradition of medieval Buddhism—or Buddhism in medieval India—tends to formulate things very, very much in conceptual, scholastic, academic terms.
But within these formulations there is consistent pointing to this ineffable, undefinable nature of experience, and everything in this text is intended to help you know that, even though the path may get a little convoluted at times.
I don’t really want to get into all the potentials—the families, in other words—because that gets a little messy, and we don’t really have time for that. What I want you to do in your practice over the next week is take the same question that I put up on the group page and we’ll take it little further.
First is, What makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet? And yes, there are many factors, such as forming an intention or choosing, but what I’m interested in here is, What in the mind makes it possible for it to grow quiet?
It will be helpful here to remember that while in English, we generally use the word mind to translate the Sanskrit word citta, we could equally as well translate it by the word heart.
So you may also consider the question, what in my heart makes it possible for my heart to be quiet? That has a very different feel from the word mind. But in our context they’re actually same question. So we want to look not only at the thinking but also the feeling, the emotional aspect. And the extra piece that I want you to add onto this is, What in my mind or what in my heart makes it possible for me to know quiet?
There’s these two aspects: there’s the being quiet but there is also the knowing quiet.
Student: Can you say something about about what you mean when you say to know? Because we’re not talking about knowing.
Ken: We’re not talking about the understanding. We’re talking…
Student: The experience?
Ken: Ya, very much so. [Takes a piece of paper.] What do you see?
Student: I see a piece of paper.
Ken: How do you know it?
Student: Because I’m experiencing the thing in my eye that sees it…
Ken: I’m going to give you a Nasrudin story here.
One afternoon Nasrudin was at a friend’s place and they got involved in a very interesting conversation. Time passed and it grew dark and neither of them were aware of it. Eventually his friend said, “Nasrudin it’s dark, why don’t you light a candle? You’ll find some candles and matches in a drawer by your right hand.”
And Nasrudin said, “You fool, how can I know my right from my left in the dark?”
And that’s the answer to your question. [Laughter] Okay?
Student: Can you repeat that?
Ken: You want me to repeat that? You can remember that…so you work on that.
How do you know your right from the left in the dark? What makes that possible? You don’t have to answer now, maybe next week. Time for one more question, if there is…
Ken: Lisa. Microphone back there, please?
Lisa: Is the buddha nature the same as mind in its own nature?
Ken: What leads you to ask this question?
Lisa: As I began reading this, for some reason the phrase kept floating by. Is he talking about mind in its own nature?
Ken: Well, I’m going to give a typical Buddhist answer: yes and no. Yes it is, and no in the sense that mind in its own nature is just what it is. And that’s a particular vocabulary and term. I know where you get that.
Buddha nature means the same thing but is emphasizing the potential aspect as opposed to the explicitly experienced aspect. That’s something we’ll get into when we go through the five families or the five potentials next week. Does that help?
Lisa: It does, thank you.
Ken: Let’s close here.