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.
The ten bodhisattva bhumis and buddhahood Download
Discussion of the highly coded text used in these last chapters; overview of the ten bhumis or stages and how they relate to one’s experience; how the stages reflect specific, real-life experiences and shifts; division of stages into impure and pure. Discussion of the first (nature) of the two aspects of the pristine awareness of Buddhahood; evaluating experience; resting in experience and seeing what is, bringing these two together; seeing things as they are, knowing how they appear; meditation instruction for upcoming week. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 19 and Chapter 20.
July 2nd, 2008. This class is class thirty-six in the Then and Now series. This will be the second to the last class. The last class will be next week.
Tonight we’re going to look at the ten stages of the bodhisattva. And start on buddhahood. And then next week we’ll be discussing the rest of buddhahood, whatever we don’t get through today, as well as buddha activity and any questions you may have from the whole course. So bring them on.
Now, these, the last four chapters in the Jewel Ornament of Liberation dealing with the five paths, ten stages, buddhahood and buddha activity, contain a tremendous amount of technical material. The language is highly coded. All of this material, these descriptions, come from the period in India when Buddhism arguably reached its peak. Which was probably in the late medieval period, where you had the huge monastic colleges, you had literally tens of thousands of monks at a place like Nalanda studying and debating. And you had other very large Buddhist colleges in India. And they made lists galore, cross-referenced this stuff, thought it through, all of these different interpretations.
And so we get a series of very, very elaborate descriptions of the progression of the way to enlightenment, all of the different things that happen at each stage, what full awakening is actually like and how it manifests. And these descriptions are very, very far removed from what we understand as the exigencies of day to day life. They sound so high and lofty—and there is a tremendous amount of idealism invested in them—that there is virtually no indication of what this means in terms of ordinary people.
By this point in Buddhism, the notion of buddhahood developed into a symbol of something that was far, far beyond ordinary human experience. And there were extraordinary qualities attached to a buddha, and we’ll be going through some of them. I’m not going to be going through all of them in great detail. They are well-footnoted and the material appears in the glossary, particularly in Konchog Gyaltsen’s book. What I want to do as we go through this is try to penetrate some of the language, and explore—to the extent that we can—what does this actually mean in terms of psychological and spiritual shifts that take place in the course of awakening.
Ken: So, to that end, I prepared this little chart (download PDF version), which I think all of you have, in which I took all of the material on the ten stages of bodhisattvas, and plugged it into an Excel spreadsheet. So on the first column to the left, you’ll see we have the names of the various stages. Cara.
Cara: Can you make this available to people playing at home?
Ken: Yes, I suppose—I think we can convert it to a pdf file and throw it up on the website. [PDF]
Ken: Yeah. And I figure we have to do that. I’ll send it to Franca this evening. It shouldn’t be a problem. We can put it up on the Ning site. Actually, I can do that. That’s easy to do, even on Facebook, I think. Can you attach files on Facebook? Well, certainly, on the Ning site we can do that—it isn’t a problem.
So the first column are the names, and the second column is the meaning of the name or why that’s the name for that particular level. And the third column is the kind of training that takes place at that level. The fourth column is the special practice. The fifth column is the refinement, which is described in terms of a metaphor, which we’ll go through. The next column is what kind of understanding or knowing arises. This is usually translated as realization, but it’s the direct knowing.
And you’ll see that in the column after that, is what is abandoned. This is a mistranslation, in my view, of the term spang (pron. pong) in Tibetan. I don’t know what the Sanskrit is. But it’s various things: We abandon faults—this is a misuse of English. When was the last time any of you abandoned a fault? Did you leave it alone in the woods somewhere? It’s not what we do with faults, you know, the faults stop in us or something like that. Or they dissolve or something like that. We have to pay attention to the actual use of English. But to my mind the best term here, arguably, is stop.
And the last two columns—what kind of birth you experience—this is at best highly metaphorical and it’s possibly just straight mythical. And the last column is about all the wonderful things you can do at each stage, which has been a course of consternation when you try to integrate the Mahamudra description of experience with the ten levels of experience, because the Mahamudra description says, “Well, when you get to this stage of Mahamudra, that’s first level bodhisattvahood.” And it says, “But we don’t experience being able to see a hundred buddhas and enter a hundred absorptions.” So how do we put these two things together, and it’s a big debate about that. And what you have here is the tension that arises quite naturally between descriptions that are highly poetic, highly mythical and highly symbolic, and descriptions which are based on actual experience. And it’s not always easy to integrate those two, mainly because they are using very, very different forms of language. So let’s go through these.
The first stage of bodhisattvahood arises at the path of seeing, if you remember that from the five paths, last time. And this refers to seeing the nature of experience—which is of course emptiness—and knowing that to be how things are.
In a lot of respects, this is where practice actually begins, which may sound completely deflating because—I mean, “I have to get that far before I’ve even got to the beginning?” And in my opinion it’s very questionable, or it’s a very interesting question to consider: what does this actually refer to in terms of our own experience?
These descriptions make it sound very lofty, as do the descriptions of the five paths, where in order to attain this you have to have twenty-four hour stable samadhi or stable attention, which seems pretty far out there. Not too many human beings ever get to that stage. So, are we relegated to sitting—being like the person who is just looking in the window and seeing all of these wonderful things that we can never know? Or is there something else going on here, where we can actually relate to this?
And my own view—which is not probably a traditional view—is that this is very attainable. That is, we can come to see how things are through our own efforts. And when we do that, everything changes; we can’t go back to our ordinary way of living. And often a tremendous joy that comes with this, because now that we know that whatever state of mind arises, whether it’s peace or disturbance, it’s simply a state of mind. It has no ground, it’s not a thing in itself. And so we know the freedom in everything that we experience. And that’s why it is called The Joyful One.
Now, I’m going to leave it to you to look through all of the different trainings. If you look in Konchog Gyaltsen’s book on page 450 or so, you’ll see that—actually, I think it starts on page 448—these are all footnoted; the ten subjects and ten topics of training at the first level, and there’s a list of them. And then footnote five, you’ll see that there’s another list there. And footnote five, another list. And footnote six, another list. And on page 450 and 451, there’s just one list after another.
And so I have the impression that you had masses of scholars and masters sitting around. And gradually these lists were developed as descriptions. How much of this is based in actual experience, how much was speculation, I haven’t got a clue. All I know is that as we develop, different abilities grow, we need to learn different things. And this gives some idea of the range of things. The richness and all the different aspects to awakening, these things would be subjects of study and training. And you’ll see that they are also highly idealized.
At this level, the primary practice is one of generosity. It’s the first of the six perfections, and you see we just go through the perfections here. And if we look at the metaphor, the metaphor is about making a very beautiful piece of jewelry. And the first step is you get this gold ore. And the first thing you have to do to that gold ore is to heat it in order to burn off or melt the parts of it that are impure.
The particular understanding that arises is that you know the groundlessness of all experience, and so you know that pure being—the technical term for pure being in Sanskrit is dharmadhatu. Oh, I shouldn’t translate it, no, dharmadhatu is not pure being, that’s dharmata. I shouldn’t have translated this as pure being. Dharmadhatu is the totality of experience. Now, actually, they are equivalent; pure being and the totality of experience are synonyms. But this is coming into an experience of complete knowing. And with that, a whole bunch of emotional reactions,kleshas, just stop, because you see through them. They no longer have any hold.
Then we go to the second level. The second level is called The Stainless One. It’s because here you become very, very clear about your ethical conduct. And then, if we look, there are the eight trainings, which you’ll see on page 449. And you’ll see that almost all of them have a sense of morality about them. And morality is the perfection which is emphasized at this level. And then the image here is now you clean the gold by adding acid, which dissolves all of the impurities in it. And again, that relates to morality. And there’s an increased appreciation of what it means to be in the totality of one’s experience. And again, a whole bunch of emotional reactions stop. And it is the same now—those emotional reactions just decrease steadily through the ten stages, and there isn’t any more description in the text of that.
And so we can go through all of these. The Radiant One emphasizes patience, polishing. And I don’t see much point in going through all of these, because the main thing, from my point of view, is how do we relate this to our experience?
Well, if you go through all of the treatments of the ten stages, you discover all kinds of little jewels. For instance, at the fifth stage, which is called Difficult to Train, you have to let go of attachment to results. Well, there’s a little jewel right there.
At this stage, you’re pretty conversant with empty nature of experience, but there’s still this hankering after getting somewhere. And actually letting go of that notion of getting somewhere is a very, very deep, conditioned propensity in us. It’s not so easy to let that go. Also at this stage, it’s said that you give up the five methods of wrong livelihood. I can’t remember all five. And these are applied fairly specifically to monks, but they’re kind of interesting.
Monks were dependent upon the laity for food, clothing, shelter, etc. So, you know, a monk might give a lay person a nice rosary or mala for saying prayers, or something like that, with the hope of getting some better donation later. Or, that’s one of the methods of wrong livelihood. So if you give something to someone with the hope of getting something more back, that’s basically a form of manipulation.
Another one was—our retreat director explained it to us—you’re walking along, and it’s cold, and you see a nice, warm coat. And you say, “Well, it’s awfully cold out here.” So, trying to get something by indirect suggestion. Now, all of us do this all of the time. These are not actually clean interactions. So, at this stage, you’re letting go of these subtle, manipulative tendencies in interactions with others. Julia.
Julia: In this teaching, is there a distinction between manipulation and a straight request for what you need?
Ken: Well, strictly speaking monks weren’t allowed to make that kind of request. It’s one of the obligations or responsibilities of the laity to see what the monk needed. And that’s why there’s proneness to manipulation. But that actually acting strictly within the vinaya, you just took what was given to you and you didn’t try to get things. So, it’s a really hard practice.
Julia: So it wouldn’t be relevant to a lay person, because there is nobody there who is supposed to be looking out for us?
Ken: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, we take care of ourselves, but at the same time I think the message for lay people is you don’t use manipulation in your interactions. Which is extremely common, you know. And quite subtle forms of manipulation, as we all know. I think it might at some point be worthwhile doing a class just on the ten levels, and really studying and pulling out all of these gems.
But in the timeframe that we have here, that’s just not feasible. Because you really have to get very, very deeply into the material, read it very carefully, and uncover it. Because these gems are buried in all of this very flowery poetic and symbolic language. Which is where Buddhism had developed, and don’t forget we are talking now approximately at least a thousand years, and really a thousand, fifteen hundred years after Buddha lived. So it is a very, very long time.
Student: Chuck has a question.
Ken: Chuck, please.
Chuck: Do they have to go from one to two to three to four, or can they jump from one to five to three?
Ken: Well, the ten stages—I think we covered this a little bit last time—mark the degree to which the experience of the totality of experience, or the experience of pure being is present in one’s experience all the time. When a first level bodhisattva is resting in emptiness—he or she is supposedly having the same experience as you’d have when you’re Buddha, when you’re fully awakened.
But the difference is, when you get up from that meditation, how much is that experience or understanding actually present in your interaction in life? We all know there’s quite a difference there.
The technical terms in Tibetan are composure and subsequent understanding or subsequent attainment. Composure is when you’re sitting in meditation—that is when attention is unmixed with activity—you know how things are: completely groundless, things arise like dreams, like illusions. You get up from that and at the beginning, that’s not too present in your life. By the time you reach full buddhahood, there’s no difference between when you are meditating—or when you’re sitting unmixed with activity—and when you’re doing things.
So what the ten stages of a bodhisattva describe is the extent to which you’re able to be active and doing things and still have that quality of completely present, awake attention. And in this sense it’s not so much like climbing stairs—it’s actually gradual growth of an ability. I think the better metaphor—rather than looking at it as stages, step one, step two, step three, where that would be the natural question, “can you skip steps?”—is as a process of something growing. And when something grows, it’s a process of evolution. There’s no possibility of skipping steps. You’re growing gradually in abilities and these things unfold. Do you follow?
Chuck: Right, okay, thanks.
Ken: So what I did here was, just to summarize this, and I invite you to read it over in the text. There are various language problems, translation problems, of course. And what Gampopa did here was actually to summarize what’s in several of the sutras.
Ken: There’s a sutra called The Ten Stages of a Bodhisattva Sutra which goes into this stuff in great, great detail. So he’s not giving the fullest explanation himself, which is why Konchog Gyaltsen had to footnote it extensively, listing all of those qualities at each stage.
There is, however, one other point that’s important.
There’s a distinction made between the seventh and eighth stages. Stages one to seven are regarded—if you can believe this—as the impure stages. And stages eight, nine and ten are regarded as the pure. And there’s a shift that takes place. If you look at the metaphors, you’ll see that everything up to stage seven is about making this beautiful piece of jewelry. So you heat the gold, you purify it with acid, you polish it, you shape it into some kind of piece of jewelry, you add precious stones, you add at that point the most precious of precious stones, which is lapis, and then you add all kinds of other things. Now you’ve made this thing, and now what determines its value is who wears it. And so there’s a shift that takes place there.
Up to this point, there’s been a growth or an evolution—I was just talking with Chuck about that—of experience. And the way that this is coordinated with the Mahamudra progression is that between the seventh and eighth stages a different kind of realization arises. And it’s called one taste or one flavor. And it frees you from preference. That is, it doesn’t matter what arises, it all has the same taste, it’s just experience. And this is something that’s stable in one’s understanding. And that’s one of the reasons it’s referred to as immovable. One is no longer disturbed by anything. This isn’t the immovableness or immobility of rigidity. It’s not like you’re really just sitting there. But there’s nothing left in you to react. And so it’s an immovability that comes from being completely open and present. It can’t be disturbed because there’s nothing for anything to push against. Which is a very, very different form. And so these are referred to as the higher levels of bodhisattva.
And these are the kind of distinctions that I think it’s worth digging out and uncovering in your reading. That you can have a very deep experience of emptiness, of the groundlessness of experience, and still exercise preference. And still be run, essentially, by preference. And to reach a stage in your life where preference no longer operates in you—that’s a fairly significant shift. And this is what I mean by reading the language, and reading these accounts, and seeing what are the things that are actually being referred to.
So with that, I think I’m going to move to buddhahood, unless there are any other questions.
So, in Konchog Gyaltsen’s book, this is page 281.
Now, as a religion develops—somebody said, in religions the more remote the past, the greater the perfection, or the higher level the perfection. So, as people recede in history, they come to have higher and higher levels of understanding. And so this goes back to Buddha.
Here we are describing Buddha, and this is fifteen hundred years later. And Buddha is far removed from being a simple, an ordinary human being. The embodiment of the three kayas of buddhahood, dharmakaya, sambogakaya, nirmanakaya, we’ll discuss these to some extent. All of these wonderful qualities, the 32 major and 80 minor marks of the body begin to appear, and so forth. This is a description of what it means to be a perfect human being. And this is something that becomes a source of wonder and inspiration and aspiration for people. You know, giving concrete form and concrete description to the object of our spiritual aspiration.
After I came back from India the first time—this would be in the early seventies—a teacher that I knew of in India and hadn’t actually met—by the name of Lama Karma Thinley—I knew had come to Canada and lived outside Toronto. So, I called him up and asked if I could go and see him. And my younger brother and my wife and I went to see him. We ended up camping in the fields somewhere in the middle of southern Ontario, near the house where he was staying.
And we went to see him. Lama Karma Thinley is quite a character, and he’s still in Toronto. And you can never tell what he’s going to do or what he’s going to say. So, we came into his room, and we chatted for a while, and he noticed that my younger brother was looking very intently at a thangka, which Lama Karma Thinley was in the process of painting, and it was only half-finished. And it was a depiction of Buddha. And he looked at my younger brother and said, “You interested in that?” His English was very minimal; I did most of the translating at this stage. And my younger brother said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” And it was an iconic, graphic depiction of Buddha with a gold body and the long earlobes and the topknot—you know, what we see in Buddha images and depictions. And my younger brother said, “Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like that.” And Lama Karma Thinley said, “You want to know what it means?” And my younger brother said, “Yes.” He said, “Come back tomorrow.”
So he came back. And for the next four hours, Lama Karma Thinley went through all of the 32 major and 80 minor marks of physical perfection which comprise the nirmanakaya of the Buddha, which is the spiral of hair at this point, the growth at the top of his head, the long earlobes, and the shape of the lips, and the length of his arms, light web between the fingers, all of these things. There’s a list of them in the back here, explaining what they all were. And these are on page 454. You see the 32 major and 80 minor marks there, and what particular karma they developed from, and what their significance was. And just hours and hours of this stuff.
I’m just relating this because you have this description here of what it means to be a perfect human being, which is what Buddha was regarded—this is the perfection of our human potential. This is not where Buddhism started at all, fifteen hundred years previous to this, where Buddha would just say of himself, you know, what makes you different from other people? “I’m awake.” And that was it. But all of these myths and these symbols grew up around Buddha. And became ways of people expressing their appreciation.
So, if we start in to this chapter, we see that the nature of the complete, perfect buddha is perfect purification and perfect primordial wisdom. The perfect purification means that—here it is the two obscurations, and I prefer now to translate obscurations now as distortions. That is, arguably there are three. In some versions there are three. We’ll hit that one later.
But here the two, and these are translated variously as the two veils, the two obscurations. I’m experimenting with translating it as the two distortions. You may even see things like shadowings or what have you. But obscurations is the most common translation. Now, what are they? The first one is the way that emotional reactions distort how we experience things. Anybody familiar with this?
Ken: Familiar with this? Yeah. When we are angry, we see things one way, we don’t see them clearly. When we’re filled with desire, we see things another way. Again, we don’t see them clearly. Because the emotional reaction itself, projects a world, colors all our experience, causes us to misinterpret what is there. We don’t see it clearly. So that’s why it’s an obscuration or distortion.
Ken: The second and deeper distortion is experiencing things through the filter of conceptual knowing, not knowing things directly. And this is a deeper obscuration or distortion because it is actually the basis of emotional reaction. And, I referred earlier to the impure and pure stages of the ten stages of bodhisattvahood. The lower seven are regarded as the impure stages because there is still some active distortion operating from the power of emotional reactions, even though you have all of this very deep experience of emptiness. And that’s finally finished at the end of the seventh level. So the eighth, the only active obscuration is the obscuration of conceptual knowing. And again, if you think of this and step out of these high-level descriptions, what’s really being said here is that even when you are no longer subject to emotional reaction, the tendency to see things and understand things conceptually is still very deep-seated. And it requires another level of work to really know things directly, without the mediation of concepts. It’s possible, but it’s very very difficult.
And then there’s this discussion of primordial wisdom. Now, the translation I usually use for primordial wisdom, this term, is pristine awareness. And Gampopa notes that there’s a whole bunch of different opinions about this. And there’s been an awful lot of discussion over the course of Buddhist history as to the exact nature of pristine awareness. A lot of the problem in a lot of the discussion is in trying to determine its ontological status. You know, how is it, does it exist, etc. One of the very important things to remember about Buddhism—and I think I’ve mentioned this before—is that determining the ontological status of anything is an impossible task. We can only know things experientially. So in this regard, Buddhism is ultimately an epistemological approach to experience, not an ontological. But it didn’t stop people from trying to ascertain the ontology of things. And that’s what gives rise to all kinds of discussion and argument and controversy, etc.
My view now is that—and I suppose this is a somewhat radical view—when I was doing the Heart Sutra class the other night, somebody asked me, “Well, is this experience the same as that one?” And it is actually impossible for us to say whether any two experiences are the same. You can have an experience of emptiness. You can have experience of strawberry pie. You can have an experience of smelling a flower, the fragrance of a flower. I can have an experience of the fragrance. smelling the fragrance of a flower, strawberry pie, or emptiness. But there is no way to know whether we’re having, whether we have the same experience. There is absolutely no way to know.
And, so, from my point of view, this is very, very important when we look at our practice, because how many of you have approached practice trying to have the right experience? Right. And so you come and you ask somebody, “Well, I experienced X, Y and Z.” And if you were to come to me and ask me that, how can I know? You put up your hand, Cara. You are here. How can I know whether you’ve had the right experience?
Cara: How can you know whether I’ve had the right experience?
Ken: Yeah. You’re trying to figure out if you’ve had the right experience. You come and you say, “I’ve had this and this and this, is this correct?” And I mean, you have this all of the time where students go to teachers to have their experience tested. You’ve heard about this.
So how is the teacher going to do that?
Cara: Well, I guess on some level you would determine, just in your own listening and observation whether they are telling the truth.
Ken: Well, there’s no way I can know whether you are telling the truth.
Cara: Well, I could come to you and say, you know I had a vision of X, Y and Z, and it was amazing, and I think I’ve woken up.
Ken: Yes. There’s many stories about this. How am I going to tell whether you’ve told the truth or not?
Cara: ‘Cause—I don’t know—because you are you.
Ken: [Laughter] You want to help her out, Art? That microphone is just sitting, itching to be used, in front of you.
Cara: Well, can I just toss something in here, real quick?
Cara: Sorry. I’ll let Art have it in a second, I think. Because I would think of it like, you are to Buddhist teaching to what I would say I am to, like, batter-making. And so, I can look at the end result of something, and I can ask questions and say, “Did you put the eggs in at this point?” “Did you do this to the butter?”, you know, like “Did you turn the oven temperature down?” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And sometimes I can pretty much determine, regardless of their answer, what they did.
Ken: And how do you do that? This is a very good example you are bringing up, Cara. And so how do you do that? How do you determine that?
Cara: By looking at the end result. And also by their reaction when I ask them the question.
Ken: Okay. So what are you basing your appraisal on?
Cara: On, usually on sort of mildly observing. You know not watching like a hawk, when I’m in a kitchen with somebody, but, you know, I will observe how their technique is applied.
Cara: And then if the end result is wacky, then I can say, well, you know, I can ask questions, and I can also say, “Well, I saw this, you tell me if I’m wrong.”
Ken: So you are basing your appraisal on observable things, such as behavior.
Ken: Okay. And that’s exactly what I’m going to base my appraisal on.
Ken: Because I can’t know your experience.
Ken: But I can observe how you behave, how you report it, what the quality of your tone of voice, presence in your body, etc. etc.
Ken: And so from that I can go—and the feeling that I have when you are reporting it. So, again, this comes down to an experiential thing, but I can’t—I don’t know whether you’ve had the same experience. What I can tell is what, how that experience is manifesting in what you’re presenting to me.
Art: This may be making it more convoluted, but is it fair to say then, that you are basing her experience on your experience? Not your own personal experience, in terms of what goes on in your practice, but your own personal experience of observing her?
Ken: Well, I think Cara’s analogy of looking at somebody’s batter preparation is a very good one, because when you are trained in batter preparation, you can look at the batter and sometimes figure, no, they added the butter too soon, or it wasn’t at the right temperature. You can just tell that by looking at the batter. And in the same way that when you’re familiar, deeply familiar with all of the ways attention grows, you can see the manifestations of attention in a person, in the way a person carries themself, in the ways they express themself, and not only can you see, but you can also feel it.
And I know you have some sense of that. And yes, it is based to a good degree on my own experience and what I’ve learned through my own training. Which is why when you are trained in very, very different systems, sometimes people don’t communicate very well. I’m thinking of the great debate between Kalu Rinpoche and Seung Sahn Nim, which took place in Boston. And Seung Sahn Nim whipped out an orange and said, “What is this?” which is a typical Zen way of communicating. And Rinpoche looked at this, and said something to his translator, and the translator said something back, and this went back and forth for a time, and finally the translator just said, “Rinpoche is very confused. Don’t they have oranges where he comes from?”
And so the whole way of communicating was different. At the same time, when you have people from different contemplative traditions talking, there can also be a very deep form of communication that takes place, if they aren’t stuck on various forms. Because they feel the presence of the other person.
So, yes, I’m basing it on my own experience. And to the extent, which is why it is very important that one’s teacher have some actual experience, because they may or may not—if they don’t have a certain level of experience, then they may not be able to connect with what you are talking about. And they may say, Well, that doesn’t make much sense. And yet, you know in yourself that something has happened and it’s important, even though you are trying to understand it a bit better. And teacher-student relationships can break down because of that.
A friend of mine studied in the Gelugpa tradition, which holds the view that logic is a necessary prerequisite for any deep spiritual experience. And he would go with his meditation experience, and his teachers would say to him flatly, “You haven’t finished your logic courses; you can’t experience that.” And he would go, “But I did experience that. And I haven’t finished my logic courses. This doesn’t make any sense.” So you get into all of these kinds of problems.
But my point here—going into this— is that we have the idea when we read this that there is one right experience to have. And what I’ve moved to is you can’t really say what that experience is. But we can know the degree of a person’s actual spiritual attainment because we’ll see how it manifests in action. And then we’ll get into this when we discuss nirmanakaya, because that’s about the manifestation of awakening.
I know some teachers who supposedly have very, very high levels of experience, and they don’t treat the people around them with anything that I can see that even remotely looks like compassion. So I wonder, like what’s really going on there? And, but, I want to move away from the idea that there’s something that you have to conform to. As you rest more and more deeply in your own experience, shifts are going to take place. And that is—it’s resting deeply in your own experience—that’s where spiritual practice comes, spiritual understanding comes from. Not from generating the right experience according to the books. Okay?
So you get into the possession of primordial wisdom. Well it’s very strange to think of possessing primordial wisdom. It’s not a thing that you can actually hold. It’s much more: to what extent is that pristine awareness active in how we experience things? And so I’m trying to shift the basis for this. Bottom of 282, we have, primordial wisdom, actualizing reality as it is. Just take a look and see what Guenther does with that wonderful phrase.
This is talking about ji lta ba mkhyen pa’i ye shes (pron. ji ta wa kyen pe yeshé) and ji snyed pa mkhyen pa’i ye shes (pron. ji nyé pa kyen pe yeshé).
Pristine awareness has two aspects, which can be described basically, knowing how things are, and knowing how things appear. Now, to put this in very simple plain language, how things are and how do they appear, like a dream, like a mirage. You know, both aspects are important because it is through knowing how things are that we become free of taking things as real. You know that everything is groundless or empty, or open, and when I say things, I really mean experience. That all experience is groundless. There is absolutely no reference. Which is really, really difficult to take in. And is quite terrifying in some ways to live like there is no reference, everything is completely open. And yet experience arises. And a good analogy for this is reflection in a mirror. When we look at a mirror such as this, what do you see when you look at the mirror? In particular, do you see the mirror? Art?
Ken: No, okay. When we look at the mirror, we don’t see the mirror. We see no thing. In that sense. That’s like the pristine awareness of actualizing reality as it is, Or what I prefer to say is: seeing things as they are. When we look at our experience, we don’t see any thing. And what’s very important, that not seeing any thing is seeing mind. Put this a different way: when you look at space, what do you see?
Ken: Space, not outer space. When you look at space, what do you see? Nothing, okay.
And if you look at space long enough you find you have to let go of anything, because you are not seing any thing, then any sense of being something, which is looking, eventually disintegrates. Which is why sky gazing and looking into space, is a very big practice in Buddhism, and where you end up is, awareness is aware of itself, and in being aware of itself, it’s aware of no thing. That’s like looking at the mirror. But when you look at the mirror, even though we don’t see the mirror, we see reflections. Now are those reflections really there? Are those reflections things that exist?
No, except maybe if you’re a cat or a bird you’d regard them that way. But we see them, and know these to be reflections, and that’s seeing things as they appear. So here we can look at the space of this room, and when we look at the space, there is nothing there to be seen; that’s the pristine awareness of seeing things as they are. At the same time, what do you actually see when you look at the space in this room? That’s a really hard question. Randye?
Randye: Looking at the space? Nothing.
Ken: What happens when you look at the space? What do you see when you look at the space in this room?
Randye: We see the things that are in this space.
Ken: Exactly. We see walls, and pictures, and carpets, and people, and so forth. Now, I want to move away from those things.
All of this experience arises. The shapes and colors and sounds, etc. Right? Ordinarily, we know those conceptually—which goes back to that second obscuration, or distortion, and we posit that there are things out there. But if you just look at this, and there is all of that experience, and we don’t construct anything out of it, then we’re just in a world of experience and we have these two aspects to it. Experience is arising—that’s knowing things as they appear. And there is no thing there, at the same time. You getting the picture? Okay. That’s how things are. And that’s what’s being referred to as, in this section on, about primordial wisdom.
Now, knowing things as they are and knowing things as they appear is possible when we can rest in knowing without the projection of thought or emotion, which is a different way of describing those two distortions. The distortion of conceptual knowing is the projection of thought. And the distortion of emotional reactions is the projection of emotion. So we can say that what buddhahood is, is to know things without projection of thought or emotion.
Now, just take that in for a moment. What would that actually be like? And the first thing that often arises is—we can’t imagine this, because we are so conditioned to thought and emotion. But if we stay with it a little bit longer than that, we can see that it’s going to be a clarity and a precision and an immediacy in that kind of knowing which are almost unimaginable. And there is going to be no possibility of editing, there’s going to be no operation of preference or prejudice. And there’s actually not going to be any sense of separation between subject and object. There will just be experience itself. Experience and awareness arising together. Do you follow?
And this is basically what Gampopa is trying to describe here. Now on page 284, we get into one of the typical kinds of thing that happens with people who study things and try to understand them through studying rather than knowing them through experience. And the question is: so if you have this primordial wisdom, how is it possible to know what is conventionally true? Because if you knew what was conventionally true, that would contradict this primordial wisdom or this pristine awareness. You follow? Now, you can’t possibly know things conventionally because you have this pristine awareness. There must be a special way of knowing.
Now, the reason this comes up is because there’s a subtle assigning of an ontological status to pristine awareness which sets it apart from ordinary experience. But going back to our analogy of the mirror. When you look in the mirror, can you see the reflections? Do you take the reflections to be real things? There is no problem with that. So that’s basically the essence of Gampopa’s refutation of this position. It’s that in pristine awareness experience arises, and you know its nature. So there’s no possibility of falling into confusion again.
And you see he goes on and discusses this with respect to the Kadampa tradition, and it’s very interesting coming down to Milarepa’s position.
He said this unfabricated awareness is beyond words and conceptual thoughts such as existence or non-existence, eternalism or nihilism, and so forth. It will not be contradicted whatever name is used to express it. Those who would be expected to be scholars, even if they ask Buddha himself, don’t think he would say one way or the other. [Konchog Gyaltsen, page 286.]
Guenther translates this somewhat differently. It’s on page 261 in Guenther.
Venerable Milarepa used to say that transcending awareness is not discursive. It is beyond any predication such as existence or non-existence, eternalism or nihilism, beyond the realm of the intellect. Whatever name it is called does not alter its nature. This is particularly true of the word transcending awareness. It [the term] is coined by a numbskull, so even if a Buddha were to be asked to explain it, he could not do so. When it is stated that dharmakaya is beyond the intellect, unborn or ineffable, or such then one can only say, “Do not ask me, look into your own mind.” The statement is not true of reality. [Guenther, page 261]
Now, and what is interesting is that Milarepa’s position is to say, these are simply words. These are terms. They don’t refer to any thing. And if you were to ask Buddha or anybody else, “What is transcending awareness?”, they wouldn’t be able to answer because you are not referring to any thing. And you can see how the ontology, or trying to say what things are, has crept in here. How do you come to know this? You look at your own mind. Now, as we’ve done before, mind, experience—these are really synonymous. So you look at experience, an experience always involves experiencing. So you you look at this, at the experiencing. What happens when you look at experience? Well, we’ve done this many times. You know. We have a piece of paper here, a white piece of paper.
Student: Are you going to tear it?
Ken: Pardon? Pardon?
Student: Are you going to tear it?
Ken: No, I’m not going to tear it. That’s the easy one. This is the harder one. Okay, everybody has this experience of seeing the white paper, right? Where is the experience? Remember this one? Where is the experience of seeing the white paper? Where does that experience take place?
Ken: It does? Then how can I moving it outside affect what goes on in there?
Student: The experience changes.
Ken: But where’s the experience? Is it in your head? If it’s in your head, then how does what I do outside it affect that? How does it experience what is in your head?
Student: How does the paper experience what’s in my head?
Ken: No. How does anything I do affect what you are experiencing if the experience actually takes place in your head? See, when I move this piece of paper, I’m not doing anything to your head. [Pause] Randye. This is really important.
Randye: Although the experience takes place in the head, there is input, there is sensory perception.
Ken: Does the experience take place in your head?
Randye: I can recreate in my head the experience of you moving the paper, whether or not you move it.
Ken: Ah, but that’s not the experience anymore. Now you’ve recalled a memory.
Randye: I can create the experience, imaginal.
Ken: Yeah. But that’s just something you’re conjuring up. That’s a different experience. Right? And we can ask the same thing about that one. Where does that experience take place?
Randye: Again, I think it takes place in the dynamic, in the interaction.
Ken: I’m asking where does it take place physically. Pardon? Because we have the notion that the experience, or mind—this is coming from contemporary neuroscience—these are the product of physical phenomena. Where does the experience take place physically? Actually, we can’t pin it down.
Randye: To me, the question makes no sense at all.
Ken: Why not?
Randye: To say that an experience takes place physically is an oxymoron. Experience is not a physical thing.
Ken: What is it then? If it’s not a physical thing, how is it created? How is it generated by physical processes?
Randye: It’s a group of perceptions.
Ken: And how are those perceptions generated by physical processes? If they are not physical?
Randye: Well, I mean, if you want to get into things like light waves and sound waves….
Ken: Those are all physical. How do they generate experience?
Randye: Well, they are impinging on our sensory neurons, and our neurons are responding with….
Ken: Yes, and how does the electrochemical reactions that take place generate an experience?
Randye: We’re clueless.
Ken: Okay. And so, but experience arises, right? Can you say where that experience is?
Randye: Not in a physical location, no.
Ken: This is very important, because, and you’re quite right. We can’t say where that experience is. Now, in that experience, what is the relationship between what experiences that and what is experienced?
Randye: That’s one of the great con….
Ken: No, but in, when you have that experience—seeing the white paper—what is the relationship between what experiences that and what is experienced?
Randye: Are you asking about an observer of the experience?
Ken: I am actually talking about the experiencer and the experienced. Not the observer of the experience—that’s a whole other level of complication.
Student: You are talking about the paper and the person who sees the paper.
Ken: Well, we’re not sure whether it’s a person. There’s an experiencing, or an experiencer if you wish and there’s the….
Randye: You’re asking where the homunculus is.
Ken: I’m not sure what homunculus means.
Randye: The little man in your head.
Ken: Yeah! [Laughter]
Randye: Neuroscience hasn’t answered that one yet.
Ken: No. But in the actual experience, you can’t separate the experiencing from the being experienced. But that’s exactly what we do ordinarily. Okay?
So, what I’m trying to point to here is that in that experiencing, there is no subject, there is no object and there is no reference as to being outside or inside. There is just experience. We can’t put any name to this, we can’t describe it, and when we experience things that way we are completely freed from subject-object differentiation. We know we aren’t separate from what we experience. But if you’re asked to name, “What is this?” or, “What is this wisdom?” or, “What is this knowing?” you can’t point to anything. And this is exactly what Milarepa is saying here. That experience is ineffable, unnameable, indescribable. And if you want to know it, you don’t get at it by trying to understand it or trying to reason it out. You get at it by looking just straight at experience itself. And what, what you end up doing here is you end up looking at space, in the way I was referring to earlier. And in that looking at space, bit by bit, awareness just becomes aware of itself. And you are resting with no separation.
And the main thing that I’m trying to get across here is that any attempt to describe or understand this intellectually immediately ties us up in knots. And yet this is what’s been going on for thousands of years, even in Buddhism, with these very elaborate, very detailed explanations which Gampopa is summarizing here. We’re going to go further into this next week because we got to go through the three kayas now.
Is it 9:30 now? Okay.
I’m going to give you a meditation exercise.
Take this small mirror, put it in front of you. When you look at the mirror, you see reflections. You don’t see the mirror. You know the mirror is there because of the reflections. And I want you to spend some time just resting, looking right at the mirror. Every time the reflections catch your attention, let that go and return to just looking at the mirror. And as you do this over and over again, your relationship with the reflections is going to shift. You’re going to start looking at the mirror without being caught by the reflections, which doesn’t mean to say you won’t see the reflections. But you won’t be grabbing at them, if you understand what I mean. Okay?
When you’re able to do that, even a little bit, then look at the world around you in exactly the same way. So just as you’ve been able to look at the mirror without being grabbed by the reflections, now look at your world without being grabbed by what arises as experience, and this can include what appears to be objects outside as well as thoughts. And when you do that, you’re going to be looking at mind in exactly the same way that when you’re looking at the mirror, you are looking at the mirror. Do you follow?
I just want you to practice that and tell me what you experience. So here we are sitting in this room. We have all of these shapes, and colors and things like that. And ordinarily, we see these as objects out there. But actually, it’s just experience arising. And when we’re looking at this, we’re actually looking at our mind. And you can do the same thing with thoughts. You can just allow yourself to let thoughts float up, and when you see thoughts, you’re actually seeing mind. Now necessarily these are going to be thoughts coming up one by one. If you get into thinking, you’ve lost that kind of clarity of attention. And you’ve moved into discursiveness, which is very different. But you just look at thoughts. You can even do it with sound. Or sight. You’re just looking. This is going to give you some taste of this primordial wisdom or pristine awareness in which this whole chapter is based on.
Part two of this is when you experience things that way, what manifests in your behavior? Or put in simpler English— how are you inclined to behave? Conduct yourself?
Student: When you experience that…. [unintelligible]
Ken: Yeah, when you experience that shift, how does that affect your behavior? And this is the subject matter of the three kayas, which is what we’ll go into next week. So you can read page—in Konchog Gyaltsen—page, well actually, read the rest of the book, from 287 up to 300. That goes into buddha activity. Which we’ll do a slightly different take of that. And that’ll be the subject matter of our next and last class, next week. Julia, questions? Is this clear? I’m trying to take it out of this very high-flown vocabulary and put it into something that I hope is a little bit closer to experience. Okay. Cara?
Cara: And I would just make a plug for the Youtube video that you posted on the Ning site when you were talking about Buddhism in the modern world. It’s a fantastic lecture where he talks about the portability of Buddhism, and a lot of what you talked about tonight is relevant to that lecture, especially if anyone is feeling lost.
Ken: Okay, good. Yeah, the portability of sanctity.
Student: It’s on Youtube?
Ken: If you go to the Ning site, our social networking site, you know the one? unmind.ning.com, you’ll see that there is a discussion called Buddhism and Modernism, or something like that. Modern….
Cara: Buddhism in the Modern Age.
Ken: Yeah. Buddhism in the Modern Age. And you’ll see that I’ve put a link to a one-hour lecture which is up on Youtube by a scholar at Berkeley who was asked to talk about Buddhism in the modern age. And he introduces the notion that Buddhism, unlike many religions, developed portable sanctity. That is, what was worshiped or regarded as sacred in Buddhism wasn’t tied to a geographic location, it could be moved around and was moved around because of its relics. So it allowed Buddhism to spread far beyond India, in a way that Hinduism has never been able to.
Cara: And it would be very adaptable to the current culture.
Ken: Yeah, to whatever culture. Yeah. Okay. Chuck, ready?