The three kayas or forms of buddhahood (dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya) and their characteristics; special traits of buddhahood; understanding the activities of buddhahood as the natural response of compassion instead of viewing them as special abilities; thanks and acknowledgments to everyone who helped manage the class and make the podcasts possible.. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 20 and Chapter 21.
Okay. This evening we have the thirty-seventh class in the series, which is also the last class in Then and Now. We’re at July eighth, 2008.
This evening we’re going to cover the description of the three kayas of buddhahood. Difficult to know exactly how to translate kaya in this context. That will be part one of tonight. And part two will be describing what you do when you are buddha, as in buddha activity.
Now in looking over this material—as we’ve discussed a few times before—one can say, hypothesize, or surmise that Buddhism reached its peak in India probably somewhere between the sixth and tenth centuries. After that, it became steadily more absorbed into Hinduism until it disappeared completely as a separate religion, shortly after which the landscape of religion in India changed drastically because of the Muslim incursions, and eventually Muslims taking over and ruling India for several hundred years. Basically, I think, until the arrival of the British.
The extent to which Buddhism disappeared can be appreciated by the fact that the central shrine of Buddhism, i.e., the place where Buddha achieved, or came to awakening, Bodhgaya, was completely lost in a jungle for several hundred years. And was re-discovered by some British archeologists at about the middle of the nineteenth century. They came across this temple, which didn’t seem to be a Hindu temple, buried in the jungle, and gradually came to the conclusion it must be Bodhgaya.
It was during the seventh and eighth centuries that Buddhism first came to Tibet. And the form of Buddhism that Gampopa was trained in comes through Atisha, who was an eleventh century teacher. So this is when Buddhism was, possibly, a little past its peak, or very much at its peak. Very large colleges in India. And also a very, very elaborate body of teaching which had accumulated for close to fifteen hundred years.
So the descriptions of Buddha and awakening mind and buddha activity are very elaborate. There is a great deal of what I’ve been referring to as coded language here. To the extent possible, in the time that we have today, I want to try to give you my impression of what they’re describing and how to read this so it actually has relevance to us today in terms of our own experience, and doesn’t feel like something that is so remote that it’s beyond any comprehension how any human being could come to this.
Where I want to start with this is the three kayas. The three kayas are dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. There has been some speculation as to whether these correspond to the Trinity in Christianity: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And certainly, from the readings I’ve done, in the Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox, the way they talk about the three persons of God, I’d have to say yes, they definitely have a common source. I have no idea what that means. And very, very different things were done to them in the different religions.
The tendency here is to regard them as—and this is what you find when you talk about the three persons of Christ, of God—it’s like “What does this mean?” and, “Why does it have any relevance?” And the descriptions of dharmakaya can seem similarly remote. So I want to start off with a very simple, experiential perspective on the three kayas. And maybe even a little historical background. Let’s start there.
Buddha once said:
He who sees my form does not see me. So, people immediately posited: Oh, the physical form of the Buddha is not the true form. So there is a true form of Buddha. And that’s what dharmakaya means, the true form. And so now you had the true form and the form form which in Sanskrit is rupakaya. And then that became elaborated into the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. But what does it mean to say Buddha has three forms? Well,buddha means to be awake. Or we can say, it means awakened mind. I’m going to do two runs at this experientially.
When we look at mind, we see no thing. If I say “Look at your mind. What do you see?” When we do that, we don’t see anything. Or we can say this: “We see no thing.” That shows us that mind is not a thing. And yet there is a knowing. The no thing part, or the no thing aspect—not really part—that’s what dharmakaya refers to, that things may appear to us, but there is no thing there. There is no thing in what we regard as what’s essentially us, this awareness. There is no thing there. It is open. That’s dharmakaya.
However, things arise in experience: sensations, thoughts, feelings. And they are experienced vividly. That’s what nirmanakaya refers to. And the no thing quality and the vivid appearance quality cannot be separated, any more than heat and light from a candle can be separated. And when you experience the no thing quality and the vividness, there’s a shift in the way one experiences things. That’s what sambhogakaya refers to.
Now I’m going to do the experiential take two.
Pick a strong emotion with which you’re familiar. It can be anger, love, pride, jealousy, devotion—it doesn’t matter. And bring that emotion to mind and let yourself feel it as clearly as possible. Now, look directly at the emotion, and what do you see? Just as I was saying about mind, you see no thing. So even though you’re experiencing the emotion, there is no thing there. There is almost, we could say, in a certain way, infinite space. That’s dharmakaya. But now, move back to the emotion. You experience it vividly; you know, there’s physical sensations associated with it, and other emotional reactions, and everything. And it’s a very vivid experience, particularly if it’s a strong emotion. That vivid experience is nirmanakaya, the form aspect. Now, open to the being nothing there quality and the vivid quality simultaneously. That is, experience the vividness of the emotion while you know there is nothing there. And I think you may experience a shift. Anybody experience that shift? Okay? What do you experience? Art?
Art: I don’t know how to say it other—other than the emotion was no longer taken personally by me.
Ken: Okay. Right. Chuck?
Chuck: More of just an openness to the whole surrounding.
Ken: Yeah. So the way that this is regarded is that there’s an enrichment in the experience. Is that fair? It becomes a richer experience than it is ordinarily, where you’re just consumed by the emotion. And that’s what sambhogakaya means. It’s literally the form of enjoyment. We could even say, could almost translate it form of enrichment. So you have the form of what is true, the form of enjoyment, and the form of the way it appears. And that’s what dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, nirmanakaya mean, respectively.
So, I wanted you to have that perspective before we go into the very formal descriptions that Gampopa offers here, starting on page 228 in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation.
Before we go there, I want to turn to page 287, which is where the discussion of dharmakaya starts. And you see you have this quotation from the Perfection of Wisdom,
One should not see the Buddha as the form bodies. The Tathagata is Dharmakaya., and
One should not see the Victorious One as the form bodies. So what this is saying is that being awake—that quality of wakefulness—is not a physical thing. It’s not even something that takes appearance. It’s a shift or a change in the way we experience things. It’s not something that happens to us physically.
Then it says,
The two form bodies should be understood to manifest through the combination of these three. Now, these three kayas are analogous to mind, speech and body. Mind corresponds to dharmakaya, speech to sambhogakaya, and physical body to nirmanakaya. In other words, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya are the way that Buddha, or awakening, expresses itself in experience. And you see that they come from—there are three things that give rise to this expression, or these expressions. One is what I would translate as the energy of wakefulness itself. Here it’s translated as the
magnificent blessings of Dharmakaya.
Now, I looked quite carefully; I even went back to the Tibetan to look up,
the projection of the trainees. Because Guenther handles that quite differently. And, if you look on page 263, it says the two form kayas are,
formed for the purpose of leading people to maturity. It’s a very different interpretation. I think the right understanding is about halfway between these two. That is, in an odd way, it’s a bit like: If a tree falls in the wood, and there is no one around, does it make a sound? It’s meaningless to talk of something taking form, unless—or taking expression—unless it’s experienced by somebody. Right? So there’s the experience of, we can say, students or the people to be trained or developed. They have a certain experience. I’m going to come back to this. That’s what I think point b is referring to. And point c is very important.
These expressions are also formed through intention, actually. That is, one intends to manifest in order to help beings. And one way of looking at this is that when you come to, when you are completely awake, you no longer have any choice about things. Now, that may seem like a strange thing to say. But, the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom. I’m just going to let you ponder that one.
Suppose you’re a doctor. And you’re trained in how to take care of someone. You see a person. If you know what they have, and you know their condition, then all [your] medical training is probably going to allow you to do one, possibly two, forms of treatment. But if you really understand their condition, you’re only going to pick one form of treatment. All of that training gives you enough awareness to know exactly what the right treatment is. You have no choice. And yet, there is an experience of freedom there and we’ll come back to that later.
When we become fully awake, we actually have very little choice. Every situation that arises, if we see it clearly, we know what the appropriate response is. And that’s it. If we have the illusion of choice, it usually means we’re not seeing the situation really clearly. And that’s why I say it’s an indication of a lack of freedom.
So, what determines the degree to which this willingness to help others manifests? That is, what determines how much we have aspired to do that in the course of our training? Which is why the bodhisattva vow is regarded as so very, very important, because this is where we formulate that intention that to work for the welfare of beings—to wake up in order to work for the welfare of beings. So, all three factors come into how, you could say, our awakening actually manifests.
Now what follows, are three very convoluted arguments about why no one of those could be responsible for the form bodies. They have to come from all three together. I’m not going to take our time up with that. Nor am I going to go through why there are definitely three kayas, because there aren’t definitely three kayas. There were originally two kayas. And now there are—in some systems—four, or five, or even six.
Let’s turn to the bottom of page 288 and 289 and discuss this dharmakaya. That is, what we are discussing here is the awake mind.
Well one thing is, a lot of this is a kind of interesting logic game, or the kind of interesting logic which occurs when you move towards an absolute. Because mind is no thing. When one is fully awake you’re awake in exactly the same way that all other Buddhas are awake. So, it’s the same. The Tibetan says mnyam pa which means equal more than same. And I think equal here is probably the better way to look at it. It’s also profound. Now, the profundity here is extreme. There is no bottom. That is, it is infinitely deep.
And with the next one, we get into a kind of interesting logic. There is nothing born. There’s nothing that comes into being here. There’s nothing that goes out of being. Therefore, it is permanent. You follow? Taranatha loved this kind of stuff. He was a seventeenth century teacher. I have a short thing from him in which he just revels in this kind of logic.
The same is true for oneness. It isn’t that there’s one thing. It’s one because there’s nothing there which can be differentiated. It’s perfect because there’s nothing there about which you can say anything.
Next one. It’s pure because it’s free from the distortions—which is my preferred translation of obscurations—of conceptual knowing. It’s freed from distortions of emotional confusion or emotional reaction. And the third distortion here — it’s freed from the distortion of meditation. Actually, it’s a particular form of meditation. It is absorption in states, and specifically they’re referring to the jhanas. And these are covered way, way back in the karma chapter. The logic here is, because this is not a state, it is free from the distortion of states.
Radiance is similar. The way that I think you can get a sense of this: you can sit quietly in meditation and a thought can float up. And you’ll experience that thought simply as the movement of mind, and it doesn’t disturb or cloud or confuse anything. Anybody know what I am talking about? Okay. But as soon as you start thinking, it’s a different story. You follow? And that, I think, is the distinction that is being made here. Because the phrase, non-conceptual thoughts, in a certain sense doesn’t—
only non-conceptual thoughts are projected into the non-conceptual state. One never falls into thinking. There’s a knowing which arises which it doesn’t depend on concept.
And then, relationship to enjoyment. Just as we were describing in that little experiential exercise that we did earlier. When you open to this no thing-ness, it’s the no thing quality of experience which actually makes experience richer because it frees you from that grasping or being grasped quality, the way you were referring to, Art. You follow? Okay. So, all of this is a description not only of what it means to be awake, but how our mind actually is, or how awareness is, right now. Except we don’t recognize it this way.
Now on page 290, as we go through the characteristics of sambhogakaya, or this form of enjoyment or form of enrichment. I want you to recall that shift that occurred when you opened to the being-nothing-there and vivid-experience quality at the same time. Okay? Because this is where, in my opinion, the language is highly coded. That experience is accessible only if you have some experience of the being-nothing-there quality, some experience of emptiness. You with me? That is why this is accessible only to bodhisattvas. What it is saying is, in order to know this quality of experience, you have to have some experience of emptiness. And so you are no longer completely subsumed in the confusion of samsara. That’s what I think that first line—or first quality is saying, in terms of surroundings.
Field of enjoyment? This is what I’ve translated as a domain of awakening. When you make that shift, there is a shift in the level of energy in you. That creates a field in which experience arises differently. You all experienced that when we did the exercise. If that field is strong enough, it also affects the way other people experience things. That’s what’s meant by what I call the domain of awakening, which is here translated as
field. In that shift, you don’t experience being in your physical body the same way. That make sense to you? That is, the way your body appears to you is different. It doesn’t have the same solidity or materiality. And what’s said here is that this experience— how you experience having a body then—is very elaborately described in terms of the thirty-two major and eighty minor marks, and that’s what the marks refer to. Which are all symbols of various aspects of being awake. And you can go through them. There are sutras which go through and explain them in great detail. And I think I related something of that to you last time.
Now, when you experience things that way, what is the fundamental basis on which you act?
Well, Art, you said that the anger didn’t seem to have the same grip, right? When you experience that shift, what was actually underneath the anger?
Art: I don’t know if I’m understanding what you’re asking correctly, but what feels right is an awareness that experiences that emotion.
Ken: And how does that move you to act towards others?
Art: Hopefully, out of that awareness, and not out of the anger, out of the emotion.
Ken: Out of the anger, right. In other words, the expression takes the form of compassion.
Ken: Yeah. And that’s what’s referred to as—when you’re in this shift, everything becomes the experience of the emptiness and compassion. And that’s why it says
the full enjoyment of the dharma is the complete mahayana teaching, which is the union, or the fusion of emptiness and compassion. And what I am trying to do with this is actually relate it to one’s experience rather than be this very dense thing.
I love the next one.
Activities are prophesizing buddhas’ and bodhisattvas’ enlightenment, and so forth. You can tell when other people are waking up. And you can tell when—which is true because, when you have some sense of being awake, and another person who has a certain wakefulness—there’s a resonance that immediately takes place, and you pick it up. You just know it. And you can know when another person moves into presence, because you feel it. Do you know what I mean? You feel it energetically; some people feel it kinesthetically. So, I think that’s what this line is referring to.
Now the next term spontaneity. The Tibetan here is lhun grub, and I’ve never liked the term spontaneous for this. I prefer the term naturalness. It’s not that things are just popping up spontaneously, it’s that everything you do is just completely natural. So all activities, and so forth, are free from effort. They’re completely natural. And the sambhogakaya doesn’t exist as a thing either. It is simply a way things arise in experience. It arises, it’s the way things arise in experience when you have some experience of emptiness. Okay?
Then we turn to nirmanakaya. And that is, how does experience itself arise? Well, the first thing is, it arises from nothing. And all experience just arises, but it doesn’t arise from anything. Is that too much to—is that too big a jump for you? Or does that make sense to you? I mean, we can go back to my favorite little example of where is the experience of seeing? And as you see, it arises from nothing. It’s just there. That’s what the first line refers to:
Its basis is dharmakaya, which is unmovable. And it’s unmoveable because there is nothing there to move.
The term cause here, again, I think is an unfortunate translation. I would encourage you to cross that out and put genesis. And what we do—which is what we are talking about in nirmanakaya—when we’re awake the genesis of all activity is compassion. And this is a very important point. The more awake we become, the more compassion becomes the genesis for everything that we do because, in compassion, we see the destructiveness of suffering, and we are moved to respond to that. So it’s not pain, our physical pain—our own pain, that causes us to move, which is normally what causes us to move. It is seeing the destructiveness of suffering in others’ experience and we just move to respond. And that’s the expression of compassion. It’s motivated by compassion.
Where does this activity take place? It takes place in all our experience. That’s what field means. Time,
It is as unceasing for as long as the world exists. You all know this too, from your experience. That movement into action, coming from compassion, the more we engage it, the more naturally it comes. And it just goes on and on and on. It’s a bit like the Energizer bunny that way. And it doesn’t require any renewing because it is coming out of the awareness, which is dharmakaya.
How does this manifest? Now, there’s so much mythology in this one. Skye bai’ sprul sku, bzo bai’ sprul sku [pron. key we tulku, zo we tulku] and mchog gi sprul sku [pron. chogi tulku] are the Tibetan. Let’s start with the last one, because it’s easiest. The superior emanation. This is where it manifests as a buddha in the world. And here we have how Buddha has now become completely mythologized—that is, there is an archetypal figure. That whenever a buddha manifests in the world, that buddha goes through the same twelve deeds as Buddha Shakyamuni did. And this is how it is in every eon, and every time a buddha manifests. This is just straight mythologizing of Buddha from a human individual into a universal principle.
The next one, the
birth emanation. This is the way, a way, that people sought to explain the mysteries of the world; where something happened with an animal or a very ordinary person or something like that which gave rise to this wonderful unfolding of events. It was attributed to an expression of awakening manifesting in the world. Again, it is a mythological or mythic way of explaining things. And it was a way of explaining this mystery. The fact is that things happen, and awakening occurs, or—and it’s just what happens. But people need these kinds of explanations. So they make a myth out of it.
And the first one, the
artistic emanation, is a way of explaining how skills and art comes into the world. All of the skills such as pottery or metallurgy or metal-working and so forth. Don’t forget, this is an era which all of these things were actually being invented and developed. Where did these come from? And the practitioners of them were regarded as other expressions of awakening.
In Tibet there was a teacher called Tongtong Gyalpo, lived in about the seventeenth century, I think, maybe a little earlier. A very great teacher, quite amusing in some ways, but a metal worker of extraordinary skill. He had a vision in which Tara told him to fire iron with certain chemicals, with a certain kind of rock. And the product of doing that was that he was able to oxidize the iron and turn it partially into steel, which made it far harder and more durable than ordinary iron. And he used this to construct bridges which lasted into the twentieth century across gorges in Tibet. And so he was renowned as a bridge-builder. He was regarded by many as this kind of emanation of Buddha. But this was a person who discovered how to do these things, very much like the alchemists did in Europe, at approximately the same time.
What does the nirmanakaya—our expression of awakening—do? Well, that’s what you find at the top of page 292.
It induces a variety of ordinary beings to engage in entering the path by creating interest in [the three types of] nirvana. or in awakening. That’s what awakening does. It encourages, induces people—or inspires people—toenter the path of awakening themselves. And this actually is a very, very old principle in Buddhism.
If you go back to the life of Buddha himself, when he is a young man, he leaves the palace. He goes out and he sees an old person, an ill person, and a corpse. And then he sees a religious mendicant who is completely at peace in this world of suffering. And Buddha says,
How is this possible? I need to understand where the suffering from, and how it is possible to live at peace in this. And that’s what inspired Buddha to leave his home life and become a religious seeker himself.
And subsequent to that, it’s always been regarded that Buddhism spreads not so much by proselytizing, by sending missionaries and trying to convert people, but by the way people comport themselves, which arouses other people’s curiosity. Like: “This is a difficult situation and you seem to be at peace. How is that possible?” That’s exactly the way the Buddha himself was inspired. And this is the archetypal method by which one comes into contact with Buddhism. It is time and time again by the example of someone who’s following the way.
It fully matures all the accumulations of those who have entered the path. This is basically just a way of saying that, through your interaction with people, you create conditions in which they generate—remember, go back to the accumulations—they generate goodness, and start to wake up and that whole process is nurtured. And, being a person who is awake, you are actively nurturing that process in people. The result of that is that you create the conditions in which they become free of their own conditioning.
The last part of this chapter has quite profound claims. And I think really these are more aspects of logic than anything else. It’s a reiteration in many ways of what we’ve referred to before. Because there is no ground to anything. In some sense, awakening is the same in every person. Because there is nothing there, there is no coming or going, so it is permanent. And it arises according to the conditions. In particular, the dharmakaya is just there, this being nothing there quality. And we come to know it as the distortions in our knowing are cleared away.
Sambhogakaya arises when we stop reacting. When we stop reacting, we experience the world in a different way. And it’s more natural, and it’s richer, and it’s more enjoyable. And then nirmanakaya—which is basically what we actually do and how we appear in the world—arises quite naturally when all of the negative conditioning is cleared away. Then, we just do what is natural and appropriate in each situation, which is basically what nirmanakaya refers to. Okay. Any questions on this before I go on to the activities? I know I’m going pretty quickly over some fairly deep stuff. But I hope that to some extent I’m connecting these very, very high level descriptions to our own experience today. Any questions on this? Is this comprehensible? Chuck? Okay.
Now, the activities of Buddha—this is very simple and also potentially misleading. And that’s what I want to try to get at here. Again we have these very, very powerful metaphors or similes—that the activities of Buddha are like Indra, the drum, clouds, Brahma, sun, a wish-fulfilling gem, space, and earth. And just from reading that list of similes, you get the idea of super capabilities and infinite expression and all of this stuff. So it’s easy to form the idea that this is some kind of super being.
Now, it’s interesting to contrast these descriptions with Taoist descriptions of being fully present. And that is
the perfected man leaves no traces; no one knows whether he has come or gone. It’s a very, very different picture. Like, you can’t even see him. And Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, says:
The worst leaders are feared and hated. The next best are loved and admired. But the greatest leaders are only known to exist because the people think they have done it themselves.
So again, you have this idea, coming from Taoism that, the more awake you are, the less remarkable you appear. And what I want to do in this discussion is actually put these two together.
As you become more awake, just the way I was referring to earlier, you actually find yourself with less and less choice about what you do in any given situation. And you have less choice because you see it more clearly. This is a very important point. Clarity doesn’t create more options. It eliminates more options because you see that they aren’t appropriate or they don’t work. And, so, when you’re awake and present in the situation, you just go “Oh. This is what you do here.” To you, subjectively, it feels like nothing at all. It’s like, well, it’s not more mysterious or wonderful or amazing or difficult than drinking some water when you’re thirsty. It’s like, well, that’s just what you do.
But other people, because they don’t see the see the situation clearly or they don’t have the skills or whatever, they watch you do this and they go “How did you know to do that? That possibility would have never occurred to me.” And it’s because they can’t see or aren’t able to see at that point as clearly into the situation. Or they may be more attached to a sense of self, and they don’t have the freedom to just manifest what’s appropriate for that situation.
So this is one of the interesting paradoxes about being awake. The more awake you are, the more ordinary you feel, and the more naturally you find yourself acting in situations And it just seems totally unremarkable. And for other people, they see you doing or saying things which are beyond their way, beyond what they can imagine or seeing in the same situation.
So, with that as a preface, Indra in Hinduism is the king of gods. And the image here is that in Indra’s palace, the walls are made of polished lapis lazuli, which is a deep blue semi-precious stone, [that] comes from a certain mountain of Afghanistan. It’s the only source of lapis lazuli in Asia, and it’s almost mined out. But it’s been coming from there for centuries. The walls are so highly polished, and Indra’s radiance is so brilliant, that all of these reflections of Indra appear everywhere. And so you have no idea whether you’re dealing with Indra or whether you’re dealing with a reflection of Indra. The point here isn’t that one is able to manifest in multiple forms all over the place. That’s just a myth. It’s the clarity and the radiance, with the complete absence of any personal agenda other than to respond to what is appropriate in the world, [that] allows you to manifest in any form that is necessary anywhere. So again, it’s another expression of this naturalness.
You find the same thing in the drum of the gods [Gyaltsen, p. 298]. There’s this drum that sounds in the heavens, and it:
reminds the heedless gods by sounding the dharma that: all composite phenomena are impermanent, that all phenomena are non-self, that the afflicted states are of the nature of suffering, and all the cessations are peace.
Now, those four things are known as the four seals. And they’re good to know. Rinpoche would quote these all of the time. And they were the basis of many, many talks that he gave. So if any of you are giving a dharma talk, this is a very good thing to have up your sleeve because you can give a wonderful dharma talk without any effort just based on these.
And I translate these, I offer them, right at the end of Wake Up to Your Life. Little different form there. The first is
all composites are impermanent. That is, anything which is made of other things, of things coming together to form something, is by its nature impermanent. The second one is
all reactive emotions are suffering.
Student: What was the translation, again?
All composites are impermanent.
All reaction is suffering. Third one is usually translated as,
All phenomena are without self. The way I would translate it is,
All experience is empty. There is no thing. And the fourth one is
Nirvana [which literally means passing beyond misery] is peace.
Now, most religions are quite happy with the first two. It’s the third one that raises some eyebrows. But it is totally characteristic of Buddhism. That is all experience is empty, it isn’t a thing. This doesn’t mean to say experience doesn’t exist or doesn’t happen. Of course it does. But there isn’t a thing there. It’s just something that arises. And this is what makes it possible to live without reference. And that’s a very, very big deal.
Student: Live without reference?
Ken: Without reference. Yeah. Because whenever we take something as a reference point, we’re making that reference point a thing, an absolute. Okay? Because now we measure everything or refer everything to that. You follow?
Student: I think so.
Ken: Yeah. And then the fourth one,
passing beyond misery is peace, is basically saying that we experience peace when we stop reacting to things. And we stop reacting to things when we see how things are and are able to stay in that knowing.
So this is what the drum is beating out: it’s beating out these four things. Well, this is a simile. That is, when you’re awake, when you interact with people, they’re going to start seeing their experience in this way, just because that is how you manifest. I was in Norway or Denmark years and years ago, and this guy said—(after a question and answer period after a teaching I was giving there—he said
You know, I don’t think the world is very interested in the dharma. And I said
Really, what makes you think that? And he said
Well, when I go to a party and I tell everybody everything is impermanent, nobody wants to talk with me. I said
Well, yeah! If I was at a party and you came up to me and said everything is impermanent, I wouldn’t want to talk with you either. That’s why I wouldn’t go to a party for that.
It’s not that kind of thing where you are preaching this stuff. But by the way you live, by the way that you handle your own experience, handle your own affairs in life, et cetera, people come to see “Oh, everything is impermanent, reaction is suffering,” et cetera. They actually see that. Or hear it. Not because you’re preaching to them but because of the way you are living. That’s what this buddha activity is like, the activity of speech. It’s that the message is being transmitted. But it doesn’t in any way mean that you’re preaching to them.
Activities of mind. “Like a cloud.” This is a simile for how the wisdom mind benefits sentient beings without conceptual thought. [Gyaltsen, page 299.] That is, the clouds naturally gather in the sky and pour down some rain. That’s very nice. And it’s easy to think that this means that somehow we are putting out energy to beings everywhere, and they’re just lapping it up. It’s a little less dramatic than that. It just means that when we’re awake, we aren’t in any way stuck on being some thing. Because we know the emptiness of our own experiences. And so what arises is natural—is the natural expression of compassion. And in this way, that’s like the cloud effortlessly or without thought providing rain. Here, the rain is the activity that comes out of compassion. We just naturally help people in the way that is appropriate. And what that looks like in any given situation depends entirely on the situation. It can be providing support, on one hand. It can be challenging people to work harder in another situation. But it’s what I was saying earlier. You aren’t thinking about how to help people. You are just responding naturally to what is because you see situations so clearly.
like Brahma. [Gyaltsen, p 299.] The idea here is that our activity in the world—we don’t get lost in confusion. We are able to stay present in action. And that’s actually non-trivial. How many of you have found that you’ve been able to see a situation clearly, and you start to respond to it, and then you fall into confusion and it becomes a bit muddier? You know? Okay. What’s being talked about here, in my opinion, is that even as we engage the situation, we stay clear. We don’t fall into confusion. And thus, if adjustments need to be made at any point, as it often does because situations unfold in different ways, then we just make those adjustments. Because we are staying present in the action itself.
Like the sun. [Gyaltsen, p. 299] Again, this is easily interpreted as a kind of super-ability to warm sentient beings all over the planet. But to my mind it just means that there’s a natural radiance. And in that radiance, in just the same the way that a flower naturally opens to the rays of the sun, in the presence of someone who’s awake, people just open and are able to experience things more deeply and work more deeply than they would normally be able to.
Like the wish-fulfilling jewel, [Gyaltsen, p. 300] we respond to what actually serves the awakening of others. And that’s a natural response. It’s not something that we have to think “Oh, I have to do this now.” That quality of awakening is—that’s just what we do. And I think that brings us to an end of this book.
So the point that I want to emphasize here is that, the more awake we are, the less we are concerned about maintaining an identity. We see situations more clearly, and so are able to respond more appropriately. It feels more natural. It doesn’t require any particular effort. Because if we see we can help, we do; and if we see we can’t help, we don’t. And that in itself is very, very important. And when there’s absolutely nothing in the way, then the result is quite remarkable. But it’s unlikely that we will experience it as being remarkable because, from our point of view, it’s just how things are.
As I’ve said earlier, from this development all through India of thousands of years, these wonderfully elaborate, very flowery and very powerful descriptions, it’s easy to think that this must be some kind of super-state. And what I’ve been trying to bring home through this whole book is that Gampopa is describing in formal language exactly aspects of things that we experience every day. In the earlier chapters, some of the basic questions— remember we started off by saying what is—like the chapter on the motive or the Buddha nature—what is the question to which Buddha nature is the answer? And this is a very, very fruitful way of approaching this text, is to look at every chapter and ask “What is the question to which this is the answer?”
This final chapter which we’ve just discussed, it is—this description of buddha activity is—the question is, or one possible question would be “When you’re awake, how do you know what to do?” Well, in the Tibetan tradition, that question is answered by coming up with all of these very powerful similes. In the Zen tradition, it might be answered somewhat differently. “When you’re awake, how do you know what to do? Wake up, you’ll find out.” Which puts the emphasis exactly in the right place.
In Buddhism, we don’t deal with hypotheticals. We don’t really deal that much with explanations. Buddhism, right from the beginning all the way remains true to one thing: it’s about suffering and the end of suffering. Or, to put it in more modern language, it’s about seeing how we struggle in life, and through getting curious about these struggles that we have in life, finding a way to stop struggling in life. And the way that we stop struggling in life is to wake up to how things actually are. Which is, if we go back to the Perfection of Wisdom chapter, knowing that we aren’t a thing and that experience just arises, which opens up tremendous space. When we actually know that, then we find that compassion arises quite naturally because we don’t need to regard anything as an enemy. There is nothing to fight. And we see all too clearly, and know all too clearly through our own experience, the destructiveness of suffering.
So, this concludes our class. And I’m very, very happy to have been able to go through this book with you at this level of depth. I’ve never tried this kind of thing before. And I very much appreciate your perseverance, because we’ve been at it close to forty weeks, been about ten months since we started.
Ken: Yes, I think it was a year ago May or something. I can’t remember exactly. How has this been for you? Chuck.
Chuck: How has this been?
Ken: Yep. Pick up the microphone. This tour of Tibetan Buddhism.
Chuck: I think one one of the things I’ve learned is not to ever give up on anybody, including myself. And I think that’s important. I think there are a lot of individual gems of knowledge that I learned.
Ken: Good. Art.
Art: I guess because of my background, and just sort of prior life experiences, I always tend to read texts like this—or used to read texts like this—in a very literal way. And this has given me an insight on how to decode things, to use your word.
Ken: Elena. I know you joined us about two-thirds of the way through, or something like that.
Elena: Yeah, I know. Well, it’s been extremely rich, but not just, I guess not just because of the book. You know, I just—I got in and I don’t even remember. It’s been quite difficult to understand everything, but it opened up a lot of doors. And the whole process, mainly that.
Randye: I feel good that after twenty years I’ve finally got through the book. [Ken laughs.] I started reading this book in ’91, I think.
Randi: I started reading it in ’91. I never could—you could tell by the different color of high-lighter pens that various times I’ve tried to make it through. I’ve had some personal epiphanies. I’m not sure yet how, you know, they’ll play out.
Julia: I thought it was very useful de-mystification. Usually when I pick up something like this it looks so clodgy and indigestible I don’t know what to do with it at all. [Ken laughs.] And to have it sort of translated into something that was both simpler and related to personal experience was very helpful. Thank you.
Joe: When the class started, I presented it to myself as an act of devotion because I hadn’t the slightest interest in this book. [Ken laughs.] At all. But I felt that was what you wanted to teach, so I’d come.
Ken: But somebody asked me to do it. It wasn’t you, obviously!
Joe: No, it was not me.
Student: Is that person in this room?
Ken: No, no, she left a long time ago.
Joe: And through the course of working on it in the way that you have, and that we have, I think I experienced for the first time the real usefulness of those three forms that you speak about sometimes: study, reflection, and meditation. I don’t think I ever really understood before how they can work together, and they’re not antithetical, they’re not…
Ken: No, no, no.
Joe: They can really enrich each other and add to the final—the real point, which is experiencing things.
Joe: And finally I was struck with how much more energetic meditation is when I have a really firm and direct intention. When there is an assignment, so to speak, rather than just…
Ken: Ah, I see. So you like meditation assignments?
Joe: I find that I do.
Joe: So, thank you.
Ken: You’re welcome.
Student: I’m glad I took the class, because I think if I were to try and read this book on my own, I wouldn’t know what it was saying. So it was extremely useful for me to come to the class and have you translate it, help me to understand what was in the material. And then earlier this year, I stopped coming to the actual classes and started listening to the podcasts, mostly. And that was—it was harder not being in class, on the one hand. On the other hand, I found that I took much better notes at home.
Ken: Because you could stop?
Student: I could stop. I could go back. What was he saying? I need to hear that one more time. So that was helpful too.
Ken: So it helped you to absorb it that way.
Student: I think I absorbed differently.
Ken: Yeah, okay.
Student: Each one. Thank you.
Ken: You’re welcome. It’s nice to see you again. Cara.
Cara: I would say that I don’t even know where to start—I mean this has totally changed my life. So I guess I can only say thank you. I mean obviously I’ve experienced terror at the thought that, you know, one day not too long in the future I’ll look back and listen to all of the silly things that I’ve said over the last ten months. Or that, God forbid, loved ones who are mentioned will, or, you know, or who are unborn yet, and hold my feet to the fire on some of it. But I definitely don’t feel like I have anything as articulate to say as everyone who has spoken before me. But thank you very much for your time and effort in this.
Ken: Well, my pleasure. Peter.
Peter: Well, I haven’t been here for a lot of it. But, I actually—one very powerful experience I had was just a very visceral, very visceral experience of how intention affects me.
Peter: How intention affects me.
Peter: And it’s something that I hadn’t ever quite experienced so strongly. It was really striking.
Ken: So, two things that I want to conclude with. I’m very happy to have done this with you. And one of the principle reasons is one which several of you’ve mentioned. In a certain sense, we are translating this text. And there are at least two, possibly three, kinds of translation working here. The first, of course, is the translating from the Tibetan into English.
We worked with two different translations, and, as you’ve heard me note frequently, I felt that there are problems with both translations. Guenther is in very turgid English, and this is because he comes from Vienna. I’ve met Guenther over a period of several days. I invited him to Vancouver back in the early seventies. And he’s a wonderfully dedicated and sincere person and a very, very brilliant scholar. But the way he writes is very, very difficult. So there was not only the translation from Tibetan into English, but then from Guenther’s English into more natural English.
And there were similar problems with Konchog Gyalten’s. Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation is in much less turgid English, but into what I would now refer to as dharma English or Buddhist English, which isn’t really English because it presupposes a whole vocabulary. There are words used in that—and they don’t have their ordinary English values. They actually mean different things in this context. So, in another sense, that’s why there’s a kind of dharma English to be learned.
But that’s just translating from the language—from Tibetan into English is one translation. The second is translating from this mythic language into—much of which is highly symbolic in non-obvious ways. And that’s one of the things that I’ve attempted to do in this, is to show you how to do that translation yourself. So that when you read other books such as other ones that we referred to at the beginning of this class, the Words of My Perfect Teacher, and the Treasury of Precious Qualities,—and there are many, many other books—you’ll have some idea about how to take terms like bodhichitta and some of the formal expressions used and say “Okay, yes, I now know how to understand this,” rather than understanding it literally, which is the way that we’re trained to read. Particularly in a modern, science-based culture, we’re trained to read things literally, and we lose the sense of—in many cases—of reading symbols, and reading metaphors, and understanding things which are being expressed seemingly literally as actual metaphors or similes.
And a third component of the translation is understanding where the Jewel Ornament fits in the evolution of Buddhism so that we can understand it in the context of Buddhism as a whole. And this involves becoming aware of some of the cultural and sociological issues that were operating in the text. And we touched on those.
And still another form of the translation is translating it into things that we can actually relate to our experience. And I think this is very, very important. I would encourage you, whenever you’re reading a text, whether it’s from the Zen tradition or the Theravadin tradition or from the Tibetan tradition, to be constantly asking: “What does this mean in terms of experience? What aspects of my own experience can I relate to this?” And you really read it that way.
And if you find a passage that you can’t relate to your own experience, that is a question to take up with a teacher. And say how does this relate to actual experience? And I think it’s one of the best kinds of questions to ask. Because you are not talking theory here. You’re talking experience, and that’s really what counts. And so, that’s one thing I would like you to take from this, is being able to recognize when things aren’t connecting with your experience. Those are precisely the points that you should be asking about, because if what is being taught in the dharma doesn’t connect with your experience, you can’t possibly really learn it. That’s really important.
The second thing I want to do is to thank everyone who have had a part in providing the infrastructure for the class. There are many people here who’ve played a large part and that aren’t here this evening. Steve, and Mollie and Lynea, all who had kept the sound going all through the last almost forty weeks. And Peter, who’s also part of that, and he’s here tonight, holding down the fort. And Art who has got these all up on the podcasts. And now Michael in Quebec who’s helping getting these up on the net. And then Cara and Lynea and, I think, Heather for a while, and others who took turns managing the class. These are all extremely helpful. And I’m very, very grateful for your help in all of that.
So, here we conclude. We’ll start something in the fall. I’m open to suggestions. I don’t think we’ll tackle another really large text immediately. And one of the things—I’m going to do some more of the internet classes, because the Heart Sutra class worked quite well. So I’ll be doing some of that in the Fall. But nothing replaces—as some of you noted in your comments—actually being in the class and having the kind of interaction that we have in person. So I’ll look to the Fall and we’ll continue—probably the earliest will be the end of September, more likely in October. And so, plenty of time for you to recuperate from this and think about some things, topics or areas that would be of interest or helpful to you. And please let me know about that.
And with that, thank you all very much. And see you in the Fall.