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.
Bodhisattva vow, pt. 1Download
Participant’s experience with meditation on laying to rest wrong action; taking the bodhisattva vow in the presence of a teacher; does spiritual understanding lead to appropriate action; insight and compassion; preparation for taking the vow: offerings (developing generosity), clearing away non-virtuous action (remorse, remedy, resolve, reliance); meditation instruction for upcoming week on rejoicing in virtue. Due to a recording error, the meditation instruction was added later. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 9.
Ken: Okay. This is May 25th, right? 24th? March, not May yet, 2008. At least I got that one right. And this is the twenty-third class in the Then and Now series. And we’re talking about the bodhisattva vow. Today we’ll be talking about the ceremony connected with the bodhisattva vow. Now, in terms of homework reflections, what I asked you to do was when you know that you’ve done something wrong, what does it take to lay it down, let it go? What needs to happen? And let’s hear your reflections on that. Who wants to start? Susan.
Susan: I need to acknowledge that it happened, that I did it, take responsibility for it, and figure out how I can not do it again.
Ken: Acknowledge? Okay. What does it mean to take responsibility? Or what do you mean by that?
Susan: Well, there are lots of games I can play with myself around knowing that I have done something that is harmful to myself or to somebody else. Because it seems to give me a view of myself that I don’t particularly like. So it’s easy to put spin on it, basically. So I guess you’d call that either like aversion, or getting lost in it. You know, the stories.
Ken: So taking responsibility means not putting any spin on it.
Susan: Yes. Just knowing it for what it is.
Ken: I think it has to take another dimension, too. You’re on the spot.
Susan: Oh, me?
Ken: Yes. Are there consequences to your actions?
Ken: So when you do something wrong, there are consequences? Does taking responsibility have anything to do with the consequences?
Susan: Well, sometimes you can’t do anything about an action once it has been done. So responsibility, to me, doesn’t necessarily mean cleaning up my mess, like, at least not in the way that I’m talking about it here, although that may be involved. But it more has to do with acknowledging and knowing and accepting the causes in myself that created the action, and the mess, and the harm.
Ken: What about taking the hit?
Susan: What does that mean?
Ken: Well, I think you were referring to it earlier. It shows you something about yourself that you don’t particularly like.
Susan: Yes. You have to be willing to do that.
Ken: You’ve got to take that hit, which is going to lead to other things.
Ken: Yeah, like changing the way that you do things and so forth.
Ken: Okay. Good. Anybody else?
Ken: Well if you don’t volunteer, I’ll volunteer you. Randye.
Randye: Okay. I wasn’t here last week. Better? [Referring to microphone sound]
Ken: No, she moved it.
Randye: Better? Before I can change, I have to stop being angry either with another, which is a nice form of self-deception, or with myself, which is another, different form of self-deception. And when I can let go of that anger, then I can see, take responsibility, and learn, change.
Ken: That’s a very good point. It’s very difficult to learn when you’re angry. Yeah. Anybody else? Art.
Art: My experience was probably similar to Randye’s, if I am understanding her correctly. It was…what came up for me was the need, I would say, to make peace with myself.
Ken: Yes, that’s what we’re talking about. Exactly. What needs to happen in order to do that? Because when you do something wrong, it creates a “disturbance in the force,” to use an old phrase.
Art: I was caught in a loop where I couldn’t make peace with myself, which causes it to go on and on. And when I realized that, it was [long pause]. I don’t particularly like the phrasing here, but it was almost forgiving—allowing myself to acknowledge what happened and forgive myself for that. To then move on.
Ken: Yes. This word, forgive.
Art: Yeah, I don’t know.
Ken: It’s a very Christian word isn’t it?
Art: That’s why I said something like make peace. That’s what resonated.
Ken: Yeah. But I think Susan was touching on it. First thing is you have to accept that you did it. And that involves taking the hit to one’s self-image.
Art: I’m good at that.
Ken: Taking the hit to your self-image?
Ken: I will take that under consideration.
Ken: Just a second, Cara. That’s the first thing is accepting, “Oh, yeah, I did this, I screwed up.” You know? I mean, and along with that goes accepting everything that was operating in us. So, in one sense, it’s not denying anything. And that’s quite uncomfortable—or can be, particularly if we have a definite self-image. That may or may not be sufficient to make peace with it. It may require some other things. It may require—and this is again using terminology from another tradition—penance of some form.
Art: Oh, yeah.
Ken: It may require—well, we’ll go on. But you get the thing. But the first thing is, absolutely is, that kind of acceptance. Elena, what about you?
Elena: I don’t really know how to say that. It took me many days to figure out what to think about, what to meditate about. I couldn’t think about anything, like…I realized that that was a problem.
Ken: You never did anything wrong.
Elena: Exactly. [Laughter] No, I actually—I’m sure I did and I know I did, but I guess many things I have accepted already. But I know there are many other things, I’ve accepted myself a little too much. I almost spoil myself saying that, I tell myself that—
Ken: I kick puppies all the time. That was just an example. I’ve just accepted the fact that I kick puppies. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?
Elena: Well, no. No, really. Personal things, things that can harm maybe other people, too. So it becomes a little bit more complicated.
Elena: You know, it’s not just about myself.
Elena: It’s also about…you know. No, just I spoil myself, you know. I tell myself: well, you did this because you had that problem. And that problem comes from that problem, and that comes from that problem…
Ken: So you make up this wonderful story about it.
Elena: Yeah, wonderful. [Laughter] So, but finally I found something. Yeah, like every time I meditate, it’s like I feel panicky at the beginning and then it goes eventually away. And, you know, and I might have to figure out maybe a way to solve that problem. It touches a lot of other problems. So…
Ken: All right. We’ll talk more about that somewhat later. But I think I know what you are talking about. Okay. Joe, what about you?
Joe: Well, I had an interesting time with the idea of doing something wrong. The question arose—I think it’s a good question—“Do we do anything wrong?” When I think wrong, all these internal patterns arise based on external criterion of what is right and what is wrong. And it seems to be associated with a judgment as to whether I will be punished or not for it. So I went to what you suggest is the result. And that’s disturbance. So I could go backwards and say well, if something has caused disturbance, it must have been wrong. Regardless of whether I thought it was or whether the world says it is or… So that definitely happens.
Joe: As far as the remainder of the question, lay to rest the disturbance, or how much, well, how much it disturbed me depends on what it is, I think. It’s variable.
Joe: The only way I can lay to rest the disturbance is to experience it.
Ken: Actually experience the disturbance.
Joe: Experience the disturbance. I don’t know about penance unless it’s a by-product of experiencing it.
Ken: Or a means to experience it.
Joe: I suppose. Yeah. But the experiencing seems to be the active and important—
Ken: What happens when you experience it? I mean, it seems to be the importance. I am curious about what happens.
Joe: It’s hard to find words for it. But I own it; it becomes part of me. It ceases to become something that I’m looking at externally. I’m not sure of its effect on me, that experiencing. I start to make up stories about it when I get to this part, you know. I want to tell you what I think it should do. You know, I’m not sure exactly…
Ken: But that’s not, that’s not what experiencing involves.
Ken: Okay. Because I think you are touching on something very important here. As long as you’re not experiencing it, it acts on you. Would that be accurate?
Ken: And when you experience it?
Joe: It ceases to do that. It—
Ken: And why? This is the important part.
Joe: Because there is no separation.
Ken: Exactly. That’s it. There’s nothing for it to act on. It’s really important. But it involves accepting it and experiencing it completely.
Ken: Yeah. Very good. Chuck. Were you here last week? You weren’t here last week.
Chuck: No, I wasn’t here last week, but I was thinking of…
Ken: Yeah. Okay. Would you [pick up the mic]…
Chuck: I think acknowledging is an important part. Like if I had a misunderstanding or an argument with somebody, and it turns out later on that I realize that I was in the wrong, then it’s sort of, “What do I do?” and it causes a state of confusion, and I feel like a jerk. [Laughs] And I think I would try to figure out a way to talk to the person to try to make it more leveled out. So that maybe apologize for—
Ken: So you’d try to remedy it in some way?
Chuck: Yeah. Right.
Ken: Yeah. Okay. Julia.
Julia: I’d like to talk about another side of this issue, which is what about a situation where you feel that you’re always wrong?
Ken: Would you be talking about an identity?
Julia: Yes, probably. I’m thinking about the comments. That example, I think you brought it up, where somebody explained Westerners’ self-hatred to the Dalai Lama and he kind of didn’t get it; he didn’t understand. And, um, [clears throat] (I’m sorry, I’m dealing with a throat issue here) so that this kind of accepting and taking the hit can slip over into a kind of punitive dynamic that, rather than being releasing, actually can put you in a situation where you’re actively punishing…
Ken: Could be reinforcing.
Julia: …yourself, if you like.
Ken: Yes. Okay. We’re talking about two somewhat different things here. Where you have the identity, the self-image of doing things wrong…
Ken: …as opposed to doing something—not ordinarily working out of that one self-image—and you do something: “I did something wrong there. How do I lay that to rest?”
Now, this is very similar to—and it may actually be the same—the difference between ordinary shame and what some people call toxic shame. Ordinary shame is an embarrassment. It’s what we feel when we do something that violates the understanding of a group or our relationships with people.
But some people have an identity they carry with them, an identity of shame. They are ashamed to be alive, if you wish. And that’s a different order of things. That’s an internalized projection. It’s internalized…it’s a projection because when we have that sense of ourselves, it’s because somebody else had that sense of us. And we’ve internalized the way that they are seeing us. And we did this probably for extremely good reasons. That is, that’s how we negotiated those situations. But it also became the way that we related to the world. And undoing that is rather different from what we’re discussing here right now.
We’re discussing more that other level of, you know, do something that you realize that wasn’t right. How do we lay that to rest? The kind of thing you’re talking about is very much how do we divest ourselves of that particular identity.
Julia: Yes, but I would say that there’s a task of discrimination here if you have that kind of a tendency at all.
Julia: Which I think is something that’s very conditioned in Western society in many different ways. A task of discrimination between—we’re talking about taking this whole thing, about taking the hit.
Julia: There’s some wisdom required there, I would say, to discriminate between are you taking an appropriate hit or—
Julia: Or, are you flagellating yourself?
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. You’re quite right.
Julia: Thank you.
Lynea: The thing that comes up is that, if I’ve done something wrong or that I recognize afterwards didn’t have the result that I intended, usually it’s because there’s some value system operating beforehand I’m invested in. And I think for me it’s really recognizing what set of beliefs were operating. Usually I’m not going to go into a situation thinking, “Oh, this is wrong, and now I’ll go do it.”
Ken: No, at that particular moment, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But we wake up from that little delusion and then we go, “Oh, dear. Now what?” That kind of thing?
Lynea: Yeah, exactly.
Ken: Exactly. We’re going to be discussing that kind of thing at the workshop in a week Saturday—Who am I?—because we actually become different people in different situations. Okay. Steve?
Steve: Can I change my name before we start talking about the wrong things?
Ken: John. [Laughs]
Steve: Well, I resonate—I know you say it’s a slightly different issue—but with what Julia is saying; that the whole issue of “doing things wrong” for me initiates the stories of defending…defending negative self-image or…so it wraps into that.
Steve: And so in paying more attention to it, that story rises to the surface. That, of course, I did a wrong thing or do wrong things. That’s…
Ken: Who I am! [Laughs]
Steve: …who I am.
Ken: [Laughs] There it is.
Steve: You know, it’s like, “See, I told you so.” And that’s what John has to say about this. [Laughter]
Ken: Thank you. Cara.
Cara: I don’t really believe in—I don’t know. I don’t think of things in such black and white terms as right and wrong. So when I was debating this, or when I was trying to meditate on it, I couldn’t come up with some concrete example of something wrong that I had done to focus on.
Ken: Have you ever done anything you regret?
Cara: Um—you know, if you asked me that like a year ago, I would just sit here and regale you with like, “And then I did this, and then I did this, and then I did that. Oh, my god! And then I did this. We won’t talk about what happened next.” [Laughter] You know, I would just go on and on. And on.
But I can say now that I don’t. No, I don’t regret things. I learn from them. I really don’t. I think that you regret the things that you don’t do, not the things that you do do. And for me, even if I make a wrong choice, at least I’m making a choice. For me the scariest thing is to be stagnated by indecision and afraid of what is the wrong choice. So even if I’m leaping off the high dive into a concrete pool, at least I am leaping.
Ken: Okay. Sophie.
Sophie: I’m just picking this up. But I have thought about this a lot. And—
Ken: Hold the microphone like this. Thank you.
Sophie: You know, when I think of something “wrong,” I just immediately can think of a lot of things. Because it’s a disturbance within myself.
Sophie: And just a simple example—the other day I was coming home at night and the car behind me, the light changed and he started honking. And as I started to go, I was like angry that he was honking at me for not being so quick to respond, so I put on the brakes.
Sophie: You know, and it aggravated this guy. And he started swearing and he threw something at my car that dented the hood of my car.
Ken: Welcome to L.A.
Sophie: I don’t even know what he threw. It was like a rock out of his car. It just went boom! And afterwards, I thought, “Wow, my action created that reaction.” And it just made me really think of how little things I do, like sometimes when I interact with people, of a response I give, or something—it just seems like there could be a more harmonious way to hook in. But I notice it’s not necessarily like quote “wrong,” of like what you’re saying. But there’s something that can antagonize or create a reaction. Especially that situation that happened a couple of days ago. It just stunned me.
Ken: Yep. Okay. Alex, do you have anything?
Alex: I would just say that, for me, I think of things that I’ve done wrong, it’s usually because of being confused. And my mind might feel…I experience some disturbance in my mind and then, by practicing meditation, then the disturbance may subside a little bit. And so I guess I think to myself that it’s important to think about or reflect on my actions but not to dwell on it too much.
Ken: Okay. Randye, you wanted to add something. Sophie, could you pass the mic?
Randye: There is something Cara said. To me it’s two entirely different experiences. One is to do something, act in such a way that in that moment I know that I’m going to regret it later. Acting out, misbehaving in some way. Another is to make a choice consciously aware and then discover that subsequent events suggest that that might not have been the wisest choice. And to me, those are two very different types of doing wrong.
Randye: So that came up for me, because when I first read the assignment, I went with the latter. Because I’m sort of struggling with a decision that might not have been the best one. And then I sort of pulled myself up, back to that acting, you know, knowing in the present that what I’m doing is harmful to myself or someone else.
Ken: Yeah. They are two somewhat different situations, and the process is going to be a bit different.
Okay. I’d like to turn to our text.
We’re going to start into the actual vow ceremony. The first part, starting in Guenther’s translation on page 117, it discusses whether you take the vow in the presence of a teacher or on your own. And the critical thing is whether it’s possible for you to take it in the presence of another person, a person who basically transmits it to you. Or you do it on your own. And the big thing there seems to be whether you have access; and you’re not meant to put yourself in danger in order to do that, according to Gampopa. That’s point 1b on page 118.
The deeper point that is being made here is that there is great value in having a witness—particularly someone whom you have respect and regard for—to your formalizing your intention to strive to be awake. But while very helpful, it isn’t absolutely necessary. That is, one can form this intention with oneself.
Don’t forget, the bodhisattva vow is very much about forming an intention, which, as we discussed earlier, can mature into the level of will. And the big thing is forming that intention, and being in the presence of someone who has formed that intention; so there’s a sense of following that example and, having that person witness your own intention, can help you to form that intention very strongly within yourself. But Gampopa is saying here that it isn’t absolutely necessary.
There are other forms of transmission where you actually have to be in the presence of the person…or it is regarded that you have to be in the presence of someone who can give you that transmission. But that’s not the case with the bodhisattva vow. It’s primarily a vow of intention.
And then we come into the ceremony.
Now, Gampopa discusses two slightly different ceremonies which reflect the two major schools of Mahayana Buddhism that Tibet inherited. The names in Tibetan are the lineage of Profound Outlook and the lineage of Vast Action. So the lineage of Profound Outlook, that’s the one that comes from Shantideva, originally from Nagarjuna, inspired by Manjushri, who is the bodhisattva of awakened intelligence. And the lineage of Vast Action comes from Serlingpa, who drew on Asanga, who had direct inspiration from Maitreya, who’s another bodhisattva, the bodhisattva associated with loving-kindness. These are sometimes—though not completely accurately—associated with the…oh, gosh!…the Middle Way and the Mind Only schools of Mahayana Buddhism. But the one coming from Nagarjuna and Shantideva stressed seeing into the nature of things. And the one from Asanga, inspired by Maitreya, emphasized how you comported yourself—your behavior.
And the difference in emphasis represents a very, very old and important difference in emphasis, which I think we all have to come to terms with. In one sense, it doesn’t matter how deeply you understand things. If it doesn’t translate into how you actually act, what good’s the understanding? So the one school put an emphasis on how you actually act, how you’re interacting with people.
And you can be very good at interacting with people and not really understand the nature of things, how they are. So there is a certain limitation to the depths with which you can interact with situations. So these actually represent two complementary aspects of spiritual practice. One is knowing the nature of experience very, very deeply. And the other is translating that understanding into how you actually act.
It reminds me a bit of something that Seung Sunim, the Korean Zen master once wrote, which is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but I enjoyed it very much. He said,
You know, we’re lay people. Forget about getting enlightened. That’s not our job. Getting enlightened, that’s the job for the pros, the monks and the nuns, the people who are doing this full time. They’ve devoted their lives to it. So you let them get enlightened. Our job, as lay people, is to function properly. You know, that’s what our practice is about, is functioning properly.
And then he slips in, Mind you, the point of getting enlightened is so you can function properly.
Now, I find this very helpful because how we act, how we are with others, how we interact with others, I mean, many of the things—and actually how we interact with ourselves. Do we live our lives in a way in which we are ending suffering moment by moment? Or do we live our lives in a way in which we are creating or generating suffering moment by moment? This comes back to the very basis of Buddhist practice.
However, in order to be able to do that, we have to become increasingly free of an identity—of “I am this” or “I am that”—in exactly the way that Julia was describing earlier. If we have an identity of ourselves as always doing things wrong, then very likely we will continue to do things wrong and find ways to do things wrong, which generates suffering for ourself and others because we need to keep maintaining that identity. So seeing that we are actually—oh I’m gonna make it easy—identity-free, that’s our nature—that’s a really significant understanding. And which makes it possible, far more possible, to act appropriately, to function properly.
Steve, you had a question. Could someone hand a mic to Steve, please? Or do we call you John tonight?
Steve: [Unclear] I think two weeks ago you talked about the difference between reading about something and actually being able to do it. What I’m wondering when you talk about this—it seems like almost opposed. Could you really know the nature of things if you weren’t acting on it? Isn’t that just having a book…being somewhat learned on a subject?
Ken: This is actually an astonishing, complex question. I mean there are several things that just come flooding to mind when you raise this. This question that you raise was a central question at a Buddhist teachers’ conference that I attended back in the mid-90s. And basically, it was an attempt to reconcile that there were teachers who had very deep levels of understanding who really acted inappropriately in certain situations. And how could this be? But it does happen.
To take it a big step in that direction, Brian Victoria, who’s an Australian, I believe, wrote a book called Zen at War in which he researched how the major Zen teachers regarded the Japanese war machine in the Second World War and was quite surprised to find out that many of them bought into the propaganda and regarded the war machine as the instrument of karma, which is exactly how the Christians stylized themselves in the Crusades.
And this is just utter nonsense. Whenever you start feeling that you are the instrument of divine fate or cosmic justice, or something like that, you’ve got a serious problem. And it usually ends in some kind of disaster. And we have something similar going on with Iraq right now, which, you know, has produced some very serious problems. So what a lot of us have come to realize is that it is actually somewhat naive to think that just straight understanding necessarily translates into appropriate action in all circumstances.
And here I have to go to my favorite quote from Yogi Berra: In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. In theory it should. But in practice because of the way, the complexity with which we’re constructed as human beings, our early conditioning or social conditioning, these play huge roles in what we regard as right and wrong.
Here is where I’ve come to the conclusion that important as that spiritual insight is—into emptiness, into non-self, etc.—its real purpose is to make compassion possible. Because it’s compassion which makes action appropriate. It’s not necessarily insight that does. It’s compassion that does. So compassion, I’ve come to conclude, is the spiritual quality. And emptiness is a way to come to a very complete relationship with compassion, which is why it is important. It’s not sufficient in and of itself, if you understand what I mean. Okay? Do you want to follow that up?
Steve: So there’s perhaps a different quality in the knowing of something, or a heightened quality when it actually translates into compassionate, or action, I would say.
Ken: Yeah. And there very definitely is. When we are free from a sense of self, then we are free to act appropriately in a situation.
Steve: So is that the key? What is the step that one takes, that you feel happens, when you go from an insight, let’s say. What is the step that happens when the intention, the insight into some of these issues, turns into a way of life? Something has to shift.
Ken: You let that insight flow into compassion. Or to put it in other words, yeah, what has to shift is you have to let go of any story you have about the world and about yourself. And that’s hard. You have to let go of the cultural stories. You have to let go of the conditioned stories. You have to let go of the personal stories you’ve made up to survive. You have to let go of absolutely every one of them. And that’s why it is so hard. The insight shows you that they’re all stories, but then you actually have to let go of the stories.
Steve: Thank you.
Ken: Okay. Joe.
Joe: These people who were judged to have deep understanding or insight and yet behave in a way that was not reflective of that deep understanding and insight—how were they judged in the first place to have this deep understanding and insight?
Ken: Ah, now we get into very complex questions. They did have deep understanding and insight. The degree to which it was integrated or had spread is what is in question. And that depends a lot on social context. And for this reason, I’ve come to appreciate how very powerful social context and—the context in which spiritual understanding arises shapes how that spiritual understanding is expressed.
And the question that arose out of that for me is why in certain cultures were there people who could see the conditioning of their own culture? What was the quality that allowed them to see the conditioning of their own culture and the suffering that their own culture created, when most people just saw it as the natural order of things. And what I came to is it’s compassion which allows them to see that; it’s not the insight. Okay.
That’s when I went, “Oh, this is really important.” That’s why this ethic of compassion which is what the bodhisattva vow is…it’s about really expressing compassion. And in a sense—and this is one way of looking at the bodhisattva vow—it’s the vow not to let that insight remain insight, but to let it flow into compassion. This is how I intend to express this understanding. And just as I was saying to Steve, letting go of all of those stories. And that’s the hard part, is letting them all go.
Joe: And the suggestion is that it is not necessarily a natural consequence of insight and understanding.
Ken: This goes back to some early formulations of Buddhist understanding. If we go back to the 75 dharmas of the Sarvastivadins. Aren’t you sorry you asked?
Joe: Yeah, I am.
Ken: Okay. So, we have the 55 here and things like that, but we are only interested in three, the three unconditioned dharmas, or experiences, or units of experience. Space is one. Cessation that takes place on seeing is the second one. And cessation which comes about through practice is the third one.
So right in there you have the distinction that some things just vanish as soon as you see, but other things you really have to work at through practice before they vanish. And so there’s a recognition of that. And another way of looking at this is that the progression of the 10 bodhisattva levels up to buddhahood—which we’ll be going into later—is a progressive letting go of more and more stuff. So that that understanding is becoming more and more fully expressed in how you live. And when it is completely present, that’s buddhahood.
Okay. Susan. Obviously we’re going to have to get a mic for everybody.
Susan: This feels like it might be a good place to ask you. I think it was when you sent out the Then and Now assignment, you said that the bodhisattva vow is at the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. So is this kind of what you were referring to?
Ken: Yeah. Yeah, just exactly this. Randye.
Randye: If insight does not necessarily lead to behavior change, is the converse true? In order to behave appropriately, does one first need to attain a stable, deeper understanding?
Ken: I don’t think one is dependent on the other. They really are two aspects. So you can have deep insight and not have it fully translated into life. And you can have people who are very responsive and appropriate and not necessarily have deep insight. The spiritual ideal that the Mahayana is aiming at is both together, because both—and an analogy which Rinpoche liked to use, my teacher, which is a very common analogy, is like two wings of a bird. When you have both, then you can do so much more than with just one or the other. Okay?
So, plowing on. I’m just amazed how much we cover every week here. But this is good. These are very important points.
We have these two ceremonies. And Gampopa goes through both of them. The first part is the preparation. That’s what I asked you to read over. So I want to go through this.
Here there are six stages or six sections of the preparation. You will see that frequently, that there’s—in the Tibetan tradition anyway—they’re divided into seven.
The first one, which Guenther terms worship, is divided into homage and offerings. And then the others are the same. Now, there are a lot of translation problems here. I don’t like the word worship. It implies an object out there that you’re reifying in some way. Yes, because Konchog Gyaltsen on page 154 refers to this as offerings.
Now, in this context, an offering really is the better term here. This is not a transactional offering. In many spiritual traditions—and this goes back to early times—you made an offering expecting to get something in return. That was a transaction. So you propitiated the gods of game so that you would be able to find food. And you propitiated the gods of war so that you would be victorious in battle. And you propitiated the gods of, goddesses of, healing so that you didn’t get sick, and so forth. This is transactional; it’s basically a projection of parental roles onto deities, and one is acting like a child in that. This is not the form of offering or honoring which we practice in Buddhism.
First off, when you imagine making, or you make offerings to Buddha, buddhas don’t need anything. So there’s no transaction possible. You know, they have no need of it. One makes these offerings and does these rituals for a couple of reasons. Probably there’s a list somewhere of like the 16 reasons, or the 13 reasons you do this, but I’m just going to boil it down to the two which I’ve found work or are meaningful to me.
The first is, it’s the practice of letting go and it’s a practice of generosity. And Buddhism is quite subtle about this. If you offer something you imagine, how attached are you to it? Cara? If you imagine all of the wealth in the world right now and offer it, or you know, give it to somebody, just imagine giving it, how attached are you to that?
Cara: I think it totally depends on the thing that you are imagining. If it’s—
Ken: But you are imagining it, and you know you’re imagining it. What’s something you’re really attached to?
Ken: What about you are you really attached to?
Cara: My friends.
Ken: Okay. So offer your friends. In your imagination, just give them away, in your imagination.
Cara: Who am I giving them to?
Ken: You’re giving them to Buddha, let’s say.
Cara: I would do that.
Cara: I would do that.
Ken: Yeah. Okay, the thing is, when we imagine something, there’s no attachment. We can just imagine doing. We give it freely. So what we’re doing here is actually practicing giving something away without any attachment. Very sneaky psychology.
Cara: I’ve been wanting to ask you something about this for weeks.
Ken: Go ahead.
Cara: Okay. Maybe, like the last time Chuck was here, we were talking about giving homeless people money on the side of the road. And I’m terrified of rolling down my car window to give anybody money. And, I think it’s the last vestige of suburbia that’s left in me, but, oh my god! But there have been instances where this has just totally racked me with guilt. You know, why am I so attached to my dollars? You know, what, what is it that is preventing me from helping these people? And then I think you know this is a safety issue. Like you don’t roll your window down in traffic and give people money. It’s not safe.
Ken: You only have to open it a crack.
Cara: I know, but then it’s kind of like—
Ken: Just squeeze that dollar bill through. [Laughing]
Cara: It seems kind of like, as my old man would say, he would say that it seems kind of “nye-ggardly.” He would say that. My dad would say like, “Why are you being so stingy?” And then he’d say lots of other funny things, you know. But what’s wrong with me that I am incapable of giving that? That’s my wrong thing. You want to know what my wrong thing is? That is my wrong thing, right there.
Ken: I was just thinking as you were saying this, but she doesn’t do anything wrong.
Cara: But that’s a thing that I don’t do. We regret the things that we don’t do.
Ken: Okay. By action or inaction.
Ken: Okay. So what’s your question?
Cara: Am I a bad person? [Laughter] Am I lacking in compassion?
Ken: There’s only one person who can answer that question.
Cara: You awesome [unclear].
Cara: No, no! I mean it bugs me because there are like…it bugs me.
Ken: It sounds like you know the answer.
Cara: I tell it to my soccer mom friends and they pat me on the back and tell me, “Oh, you’re being smart.” But I don’t really feel that way, like—
Ken: No. So there is only one person who can answer this question, and it sounds like she already has.
Ken: I mean, you know, don’t you?
Cara: Well, you talk about social conditioning with spiritual practice.
Cara: I am socially conditioned not to roll my window down to give people money.
Cara: But I am socially conditioned to give cans of food and clothes to shelters.
Ken: Okay. Mmm-hmm. So you work this out.
Cara: This wasn’t just me asking you a pointless question. This really bugs me. Like—
Ken: I did take that in. And one way or another I think everybody in this room wrestles with exactly the same kinds of dilemmas. I can do it here, but I can’t do it there. And I may have very good reason. For you, it is a safety issue. And if you take it in to a slightly larger picture, you’re part of a society in which there may be some danger to acting generously.
Now I think all of us have run into that, where we’d like to do things, just like to help somebody out. But from a legal point of view, from a physical security point of view, from appropriate behavior point of view, social conditioning point of view, a lot of those things are proscribed in our society. And the question is to what extent do you live within those proscriptions? Or do you undo them and figure out ways which you can live and express your generosity the way that feels appropriate for you.
And that’s really what you’re talking about. To jump to “Am I a bad person?” I think is exactly what Julia was talking about earlier. That if I don’t do everything properly the way I think I should, then I am a bad person. Now, that’s a certain story that we have in us.
Cara: We talked about should last week.
Ken: Yes. Yeah. But these are challenges that we face. Lynea.
Lynea: This is sort of related to the conditioning of being a bad person. I know you don’t like the phrase compassion towards oneself, but I guess—
Ken: That’s putting it mildly. [Laughter]
Lynea: Yes, I know. [Laughter]
Ken: I think it’s a corruption of language.
Lynea: Somewhere in here, I guess I’m wondering if you can explain something about how, if the wrong action or the harmful action is towards oneself, cultivating compassion in there, if that’s what actually, you know, moves a person away from harmful action.
Ken: Well, you may think this is a bit specious. We can’t have compassion towards ourselves, because there is no self. Now, that sounds like a very convenient argument, but I’m not using it as linguistic sleight of hand. Compassion is the emotion that arises when we see the destructiveness of suffering. Follow?
Lynea: I do. I think there is some practice involved in seeing—
Ken: Oh, yes.
Lynea: Recognizing suffering.
Ken: Exactly. That’s where I was going to go.
Ken: But when we see the destructiveness of suffering, then our heart is moved. That’s compassion. When I said a few moments ago, there is no self—as all of us know from our meditation practice and from our negotiation of life, there are many parts of us. We are not one thing. So it is quite possible we see part of ourselves which is suffering, which has a very difficult way of relating to the world. Maybe part of us doubts whether it belongs to the world at all. Now, in the larger scheme, it’s a story, it’s an identity. It’s one we fall into and one that we can sometimes just observe. When we see the suffering that that creates, and appreciate the destructiveness that that has in our lives, and also in the lives of others, then compassion will arise. But it’s not compassion for ourselves. Okay? It is a response to the destructiveness of suffering.
One of the things I’m going to encourage—and it’s part of the reason why we’re doing the Who Am I? workshop in a week or so—is learning to see, learning to—
The way that we relate to this thing that we call I as a bunch of stories and a bunch of parts actually opens up extraordinary possibilities. Because the only thing that is actually there is a knowing. But the knowing, as you well know, isn’t a thing. But it can know all of this and so, when we move into—and that knowing actually manifests as compassion. But as long as we’re caught in the language of I have compassion for myself or something like that, we’re actually reifying a sense of identity which prevents us from moving into that kind of knowing.
And in that sense, we inevitably put ourselves at war—two different parts of ourselves at war with each other. And that only serves to reinforce both of them. So stepping out of this is not particularly easy. But the thing that it comes down to again and again is letting go of any sense of identity, of any sense of being somebody or being some thing. This is a challenge. Does that help?
Ken: Now let’s continue on. So, I’m working from Konchog Gyaltsen translation right now on page 154.
He talks about to whom you make offerings. And what I was emphasizing here is that this is not transactional in nature; it is intended to be transformative. Because one is—the two aspects that are important in my own experience—one is it’s a practice of giving. And when you get down to the offerings themselves, you know, you can put flowers, and water, and incense, and food on a shrine, and that is an act of giving. And that’s important because you’re letting go. And there’s a transformative quality associated with letting go. You’re saying, “This is something I had an ownership relationship with, it was mine, and I’m letting go of that.” So it’s a practical application of something from the Zen tradition: Gain is illusion, loss is enlightenment.
The second part is that in doing this, and imagining you’re presenting this to the buddhas and so forth, you’re actually honoring your own potential to wake up. It’s a way of cultivating that and giving that a space and a place in your life, which is very, very important.
People always ask me about meditation, and when should they meditate, and so forth. And I always say it has to be a priority. Because if you try to squeeze meditation into your life, your life will squeeze it out. The only way to do it is you establish that you’re going to practice, and you let the rest of your life organize around that. And it does, quite nicely. But if you try to squeeze it in, it just doesn’t happen. And the reason that we have shrines, the reason we have shrines in our homes, as many people do, is it’s a symbolic, a ritual way of saying, “This has a place in my life.”
And that’s what’s important. And sometimes, having that ritual element is what makes other forms of practice, deeper forms of practice, possible. So, that’s why this particular step in the preparation is…you are making a place and giving something to make a place for the bodhisattva vow to take root. That’s why the offering is important.
Now the second one: purifying non-virtues. Ah, language! When you purify water, what do you end up with?
Ken: When you purify non-virtue, what do you end up with?
Ken: No, you end up with pure non-virtue. This is not exactly what we want. So this is a wonderful example of Bunglish, that is, Buddhist English. It’s a misuse of English here, but it is very widespread. We should be saying not purifying non-virtues but clearing away non-virtues.
Student: Do they sell Brita filters for that?
Ken: No Brita filters. But this is why I gave you the exercise. Now, what makes it possible to clear away non-virtuous actions that we’ve done? What makes it possible is the emptiness of experience. That everything is an experience. There is no ground or solidity to anything.
Several times over the last years I’ve been asked, “Do Buddhists, or does Buddhism, or how does Buddhism regard evil?” There are religious traditions which regard evil as a fact, something that actually exists. When you encounter people, situations, it can really feel that way. But from a Buddhist point of view, and I would also say from a Taoist point of view, evil doesn’t exist as a thing. Simply because nothing exists as a thing. These may be extremely solidified, very, very dense patterns which are very difficult to work with, but they’re still stories. They’re still simply experiences which arise which, if they can be experienced completely, one will know them to be not a thing. Mind you, one still has to deal with it. But this tendency to make experiences into things is precisely what Buddhism, Buddhist practice, is about undoing or counteracting.
Now the reason that non-virtues or un-virtuous actions and so forth create suffering is because they introduce an imbalance.
A couple of weeks ago, I gave you the exercise of thinking about doing something unwholesome intentionally. And many of you described how, in doing that, you had to check out at some point. You had to go blank. You had to go ignorant. You couldn’t stay one with the situation and do it. And it’s that checking out, having to ignore, that introduces the imbalance and instigates this process of evolution which matures into how we experience the world.
So when we talk about laying these things down, dispelling the disturbance that these imbalances inevitably create—and this is the exercise I gave you over the last week—this is very, very important. And basically, in your responses, you covered the essential points. If you look on page 156 [Gyaltsen], you will see that these are listed as the four powers. And they are remorse, antidote (which I like to translate as remedy so that they all begin with r), and resolve, and reliance. Yeah, you also find these on page 199 in Wake Up to Your Life.
Now in order to lay something to rest, according to Gampopa and according to the sutras, any one of these, if done fully enough, is sufficient. And you’ll find stories at the back here relating how it was sufficient for one individual. These are quite wonderful stories to read. But let me just touch on these briefly.
The power of remorse or regret involves two or three things. One is acknowledgment: “I did this.” So there is no separation. You’re no longer holding, “Well, I didn’t really do it, you know, somebody made me do it,” or something like that. These are all just ways of keeping it at arm’s distance. You can’t possibly let the disturbance go without accepting that this is something that happened in your experience, and you were the agent, or something in you was the agent. That’s the first part.
The second part is you also need to see its destructive nature—how it creates suffering for yourself and others. You can’t regard it as a good thing in some way. This doesn’t mean to say we can’t learn from it; we’re going to get to that. But you see that it involved checking out. It involved instigating an imbalance. It involved harm for others. Maybe not big harm, maybe just some inconvenience.
And you appreciate—this is the third point—you appreciate what that set in motion. The word for unwholesome action in Tibetan is digpa. It’s derived from the word for scorpion. Now a scorpion curves back and stings. And the idea is that unwholesome actions are actions which come back and sting you. There’s no sense of guilt here. You aren’t violating some cosmic law. You aren’t violating the Ten Commandments or anything like that. We don’t have that in Buddhist practice.
When we do non-virtuous activity, we’re initiating a process, an imbalance in our world of experience, which inevitably creates further imbalances and evolves into an experience of suffering. And that process continues until we actually experience what we couldn’t experience and hence drove us into the non-virtuous action.
Because you will see that, at the heart of every non-virtuous action that you do, whenever you do something wrong, there’s something you don’t want to experience or aren’t able to experience. And until you are able to experience it, the process will continue. So remorse is developing…going through those three things of acknowledgment, acceptance and appreciation—I can’t remember. What did I say?
Student: Seeing the suffering.
Ken: Yeah, acknowledgment, seeing the suffering, and acceptance—and seeing the process—to the point that, “Okay, yeah, no, I just have to accept this and experience it in its totality.” This is what you were talking about, Joe. And when you do that, something lets go inside you. And there is no separation as you were saying. And okay, there it is. And that’s where the learning comes that you were describing, Cara.
The second one is antidote or remedy.
Now, we can’t undo the action. But we can use that imbalanced action as an incentive to rebalance things. Which may be a way of, you know, issuing an apology and restoring things to the extent that we can. Or it may be doing something seemingly quite unrelated but it being impelled by that initial imbalance. We’re actually using that to establish a balance or restore balance in our world of experience.
Now this very easily gets into the area of penance and things like that. Again, this is not transactional; it has to be transformative. So feeling that you can go, “Well, I did that. I can just pay that off by doing this”—that’s a transactional approach to it. You perform the antidote or you do the remedy or whatever the restitution or whatever, not in order to make the transaction even, but as a way to get in touch with what was really going on in you, take it all in, and so to transform your own experience.
The same is true of resolve. Resolve is the intention: I’ve done this. Not a good thing, I’ll never do it again. And that, in itself, is a transformational dynamic.
Just let me finish this Joe, and then I’ll take your question.
And the fourth one is reliance.
When we do something unwholesome, we break our connection with presence. And so, by appealing to symbols of presence such as the three jewels, or whatever is meaningful to us, reconstituting our intention for practice, as in the vow of refuge, or intention to wake up as in the bodhisattva vow, going through those ceremonies, those rites, which is renewing our connection. Again, it’s a transformative process so that we come right into the experience of what was problematic, experience it completely, renew our connection with what is truly significant to us and, in that way, lay it to rest. Now all four of these individually have sufficient power, but one is encouraged to actually practice all four of them.
Joe, you had a question.
Joe: That last one, reliance, just seemed to answer the question. There seemed to be some suggestion that an unwholesome or an evil deed has less to do with the deed than from the state of mind one is in.
Joe: For example, it says non-duality. Let’s just use that word for now. A state of non-duality.
Joe: So, therefore, that the remedy need not have anything to do with that particular deed, but rather establishing a reliance or return to the state of non-duality.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Or at least one’s connection with that effort. Yeah.
Ken: One may or may not be able to establish—and when you read about these wonderful stories of great yogins who did some minor thing and can’t see their yidam anymore or what have you, that’s exactly what they’re talking about. It split them off from their spiritual source, their own spirituality, if you wish. And so one has to go through some kind of process of acknowledgment and actually laying it down to restore that connection. And it is a transformation.
The big thing I want you to take out of this is that this is a transformative process; it isn’t a transactional process. And there’s a tendency—particularly in established and institutionalized religions—to reduce transformative processes to transactional. And that’s not what it’s about. Any other questions?
Ooop! We’re nine-thirty. Plowing ahead with this as usual.
I do encourage you to read each one of these and read the stories associated with it. I mean, and there are a lot of things we have not covered here such as the fear of the result, and the results at the time of death, the evil deeds after death, and so forth. These are all mythic forms of describing the disturbance that arises when we do unwholesome actions. So this will take us through several pages.
And next week we’re going to look at the rest of these, which are rejoicing in virtues. And another way of saying this is taking joy in the good works of others and of ourselves, requesting the wheel of the dharma to be turned, which is the formal expression for asking…
[The recording ended here. The following meditation exercise detail was appended.]
Meditation exercise for Then and Now class March 24, 2008. This week’s meditation exercise is about rejoicing in virtue. Think of something good that you’ve done and feel it. What happens? What do you experience in your body? What emotions arise? What are the stories? Ask yourself, “What in me prevents me from taking this in? What happens when I do take it in?” Next, do the same thing with the good that others do. Feel it. What happens in the body, with the emotions, the stories? What prevents you from taking this in? What happens when you do?