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.
This precious human body (pt. 1)Download
What is the question for which “this precious human body” is the answer?, what is meant by “body,” the eight unfavorable conditions that make practice difficult, the ten factors that must be present for practice, the three types of motivation for practice. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 2.
I’d like to consider the question: what is the question that the precious human birth or the precious human body or the precious human existence is an answer to? Anybody give thought to that one?
Student: What is actualized when you have faith supported by interest, dedication and capacity? And then the other one is kind of different but—when is our one opportunity?
Ken: Okay, anybody else? Susan, then Randy.
Susan: Can I do this?
Ken: Okay. Randy.
Randy: How does Buddha’s nature manifest or realize itself?
Ken: Okay, somebody over here? No? Okay. I think all of these are good possibilities. This chapter describes the conditions that need to come together to make spiritual practice possible. Now, once again we find ourselves totally immersed in a tradition that has existed for a very long time, and this is probably about the twenty-third or twenty-fourth reformulation of Buddhism. By the time these teachings came about—they’re present in Shantideva, which was written approximately 1,000 years after Buddha lived—there was plenty of time for things to be thought and rethought. And in particular the description of the conditions is based very, very heavily on a certain cosmology. That is, the cosmology of the six realms. Hell realm, hungry ghosts, animal, human, titan and gods, and many layers of god realms—with two very different kinds of gods: the gods who have high states of existence because of their good works in previous lives, and the gods who have high states of existence or experience because of their stability in meditation, essentially where they sit for eons in bliss.
A colleague of mine once said that a culture’s cosmology is a reflection of the culture’s psychology. And this is the way the Indian mind, and when it was imported to Tibet, or exported to Tibet—the Tibetan mind—looked at the world and understood themselves. The six realms are the way that we experience the world when we are in the grip of one of the six reactive emotions. When you’re in the grip of anger or hatred you’re in hell. When you’re in the grip of greed you’re in the hungry ghost realm, and so forth. So in keeping with the way that we’ve been talking about this material, rather than think about this in terms of past lives and future lives, it may be interesting and worthwhile to look at this chapter in terms of a description of how often and when in our lives are we actually capable of some kind of spiritual practice.
So I’m going to work from the Guenther translation principally. This is on page 14. In the Konchog Gyaltsen translation this begins on page 59.
First thing you’ll notice is that Konchog Gyaltsen translates this as the precious human life and Guenther translates this as the precious human body. The actual Tibetan is precious human body. But I have a question. What is the body? That may seem like a completely idiotic question, but I can look and here I have two legs, and two arms and a torso and I say this is my body. But I think it’s worth going a step deeper.
William James, who was a Harvard academic around the turn of the century, once wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, which continues to be a classic to the present day, which is 100 years later—no small achievement in American culture. It’s a series of lectures he gave at Harvard. And in one of the lectures he explores what is the actual sense of I. He comes to the conclusion that is associated primarily with a number of relatively small movements around the neck and jaw—that’s what we associate with I.
We have this experience we call life. The body is one aspect of that experience. If you want to be really precise you can say the body is a set of sensations—visual sensations, tactile sensations. And if I smack myself or smell myself, then I can say certain kinds of tactile and olfactory sensation and so forth, and we call this our body.
When Gampopa talks about the precious human body or the precious human life—you could also translate it as the precious human existence—he’s talking about a certain experience. And when that experience arises that is when we are able to practice.
Let’s look at the various conditions that need to come together. First thing: Guenther translates this as unique occasion. Konchog Gyaltsen translates it as leisure In the prayer that we do at the beginning, I translate it as opportunities.
And having the opportunity to be able to practice requires that we not be in any of the eight unfavorable or eight unrestful states or condtions. How well can you practice when you’re raging in anger? Anybody been able to meditate when they’re raging in anger? Anybody able to practice generosity? What happens to your practice of morality, and so forth?
So that’s one thing that we need to observe. For spiritual practice one condition is that we be free of anger, not completely caught up in it.
Second, what Guenther translates as spirits, the hungry ghosts—in Sanskrit, pretas—this describes when we’re greedy or needy. Now a lot of people have the mistaken impression that Buddhism encourages an ascetic life where you don’t need anything. I just finished reading a rather interesting book called Buddhist Economics It’s by a Thai scholar, Payutto. I checked for this on Amazon, but it’s relatively hard to obtain. In used books on Amazon it starts at $112, so don’t steal this, please. We checked on Amazon today. It may be available for free, actually, or by donation to Abhayagiri Monastery—you can check that—which is where I got this copy. But he makes a point that Buddhism is about the middle way. We provide for the basic needs of life, and if we’re not in the monastic system, then we live and work, and the result of working is a certain accumulation of wealth, and it’s not the accumulation of wealth that’s the problem—it is our relationship with it that determines whether there’s a problem or not. And if we use the wealth to support ourselves and our families and do good in the world, what’s the problem?
So it’s a very different case when we’re very needy. Now one of the very interesting things about our culture and particularly American society—the economy is now based on eliciting a state of neediness in everybody all the time—it’s called the consumer society. So it doesn’t matter how rich you are or how poor you are. Advertising is all about creating a need, and we call it marketing. And this is a rather bizarre basis on which to build a society—the constant stimulation or inculcation of a sense of need in everybody. Because, if you’re needy, how much can you rest? You’re always reaching out and trying to grab something, which is why the hungry ghost realm is regarded as an unrestful state.
And then we come to the animal realm. The animal realm basically describes operating on automatic pilot.
How many of you saw the movie called Thank You for Smoking? There’s a great line in there. Because they do all of these horrible things to each other. The two main characters, writing stories and stuff. And whenever the other person says, “How can you do this to me?” the reply is always, “I just have to pay my mortgage,” which is a way of saying, “I’m just trying to get by.” That’s typical of the animal realm. It’s survival mode.
If you watch animals—there’s a retreat center I used to go to and teach at in Washington, and they have peacocks there. There is absolutely no threat to these peacocks. There never has been their whole life. And one would walk around the cabin that I was staying in on the deck and I would look at it and it would peck, peck, peck and then look around, then peck, peck, peck. And I started to get curious—I timed it. It never went more than 30 seconds without checking if there was a threat to it. This is automatic pilot.
Spiritual practice is about being awake. It’s the antithesis of being on automatic pilot. So that’s another unrestful state. And one of the things you can start checking is, “How much of my life do I spend on automatic pilot?” How many of you drive on automatic pilot? Most of us do.
Then the next realm of the sequence is the long lived gods. This refers to the conditions or the experience in our lives when we are free from any sense of suffering. Joseph Goldstein, who is a Theravadin vipassana teacher, makes the point that we only adjust our meditation posture when we’re uncomfortable. We only make any movement in our spiritual practice when we are uncomfortable. If one’s life is a life of comfort and you never know any discomfort, chances are you are not going to have a lot of spiritual motivation—there isn’t any problem in life. If you translate that into the meditative realm, it’s quite possible to cultivate states of attention in which you do not experience any suffering, or any struggle or any disturbance. You’re not awake; not really in a trance, but you’re just resting there. And those states are useful as a base of attention, but the states in themselves aren’t particuarly helpful because you’re basically just blissed out. So both of those conditions, when you’re not experiencing discomfort, or when you’re blissed out, make it impossible to practice.
Then you have this lovely term, the members of the border tribes. I like this one—barbarians. In India and in Tibet, less so now, but even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there are regions of Assam and the highlands of Burma where things are pretty uncivilized, and you have tribes that live there that are not that far removed from the Stone Age. At the time when this was written, when these teachings were formulated, there were large areas of the world where there were still people living a Stone Age existence. Very, very primitive cultures. What they say about them—they don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. They think killing things is okay—even killing people—cannibal societies.
So this refers to a state of mind, in my opinion, when you’re sufficiently insane that you’re beyond the pale of civilized behaviour. Have any of you ever experienced that? And nobody can get through to you. You’re so upset about something that you cannot see reason. This happens to us, hopefully not too often, but it does. So I think that’s what is being referred to there.
Now, there are so many translation problems in here that I’m going through it rather slowly. Then it says those with erroneous views. And we have this lovely term wrong views. It’s a reasonable translation of the Tibetan, but it doesn’t come across very well in English. Now what consists of wrong views? Here we have to take a bit of a digression. There are three things. So I’m just going to ask you a couple of questions and we’ll open it up for a little discussion here.
Does what you do affect what happens to you and how you experience the world? Does how you act and how you think affect what happens to you and how you experience the world? Anybody? Would anybody disagree with that statement? Okay, that’s basically the principle of karma, so if you disagree with that statement, then that’s kind of stupid, because it’s so obvious. But that’s one of the wrong views.
Is everything in life determined? Anybody? It’s all predetermined? No. Okay.
Is everything in life chaotic—that is, there’s no reason for anything? No.
So the second category of wrong view is to hold the philosophy that everything is chaotic, that actions don’t have any consequences and so forth, or that everything is predetermined. These are extreme positions and you can see that both of these are both pretty stupid too. That’s not how things are.
The third one is a little more subtle. It’s traditionally formulated as not trusting The Three Jewels—The Three Jewels of buddha, dharma and sangha. Now there are many interpretations of what buddha, dharma and sangha refer to. One can take it as the historical Buddha who came and taught—who appeared in the world 2,500 years ago and taught—and the dharma is his teachings, and the sangha are those who follow those teachings. But the deeper interpretation of The Three Jewels is that buddha refers to the empty quality of mind: that is, when we look at what we are—if I ask you the question, “What are you?” what happens? Well, when we look at what am I, we don’t see anything. A very interesting thing happens here. In Buddhism, that not seeing anything is taken to be how things actually are. In the West, when we ask, what am I, and we don’t see anything, we think, there is something wrong with the way I’m looking.
If we touch into that just being nothing, just for a moment, it’s a little strange, it’s a bit mysterious because you realize there isn’t nothing there. There’s a kind of knowing, but we can’t put our finger on it. And that quality is called the clarity of mind—and that’s what is represented by the dharma.
Harold: Can you go through that again?
Ken: Happy to, Harold. When we ask the question, “What am I?” we see nothing; but if we just stay there for a while, we realize it’s not quite right. Because while we can’t see anything, there’s nothing there, there’s this quality of knowing. And technically that’s referred to as clarity, and that quality of knowing is what is represented by the dharma. So buddha represents the emptiness of experience. Dharma represents the knowing of experience.
Now all of you have practiced meditation. When you sit down to meditate, what’s the one thing that you can absolutely rely on is going to happen? Yes, thoughts are going to come up. We all know that. What stops them? What stops thoughts from arising? That’s a little trick question. Nothing stops them. That’s right. They arise without restriction. Now we can take that and extend it: all experience arises without restriction. There’s no restriction on it. We have this emptiness, this knowing quality, and with that, experience arises without restriction. That’s what the sangha represents.
So to say that we don’t trust The Three Jewels is to say we don’t trust our own experience. Well, that’s kind of stupid too. That’s why these things are called the wrong views.
A question back here? You need a microphone? It’s good to get it recorded. There’s one right here.
Student: I don’t really understand what you mean in saying the sangha represents—
Ken: The unrestricted arising of experience? Everything is just there. Right? Now, when thoughts arise we can relate to them in one of two ways. You can fall into confusion and distraction, or you can recognize that it’s just a thought. What happens when you recognize that it’s just a thought?
Student: It passes.
Ken: Yes, and there’s that little moment of awakening. Right?
What’s the function of the sangha?
Student: I don’t think I know the answer.
Ken: It’s to provide support for awakening. So if you relate to experience the right way, then everything wakes you up. Okay. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Okay?
So that’s the idea behind that statement those with wrong views. You have to be pretty rigid or intellectual or something in order to fall into that category. There are whole philosophies which have been developed in pretty well every culture proving that everything is predetermined or “proving” everything is chaotic. I’m using proving in quotation marks. There’s always a flaw in the logic. And we know from our own experience, there is a pattern to life, but stuff happens unpredictably.
Then the next one is born in a period where there is no buddha. This means, traditionally speaking, that one’s in a culture where there is no concept of being awake—there’s no notion of it. If we bring this back to our own lives, our own experience right now, we come across people who live their lives, and sometimes very much of their lives, with no concept of the potential of spiritual practice. No exposure to it whatsoever.
I accompanied my teacher on his first two North America tours as his translator. This is back in 1972 and 1974—a long time ago. Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular was very, very new. But it was very interesting to see that when people met my teacher and often just by the force of his presence, but also by what he had to say, a whole different idea of what life could be would open to them. And I think that’s the kind of thing that’s being talked about here: when you have no concept of spiritual practice—those periods of your life when that’s just completely absent.
And the last one is the stupid. This is probably more accurately translated as the disabled. I think that Konchog Gyaltsen refers to it as the mute. That if you’re deaf, or couldn’t speak, there is no possibility of communicating. That’s no longer the case, because we have sign language and other methods of communication. But if you’re born and have a human body but are sufficiently disabled so that you can’t comprehend the meaning, and that might be through mental incapacity or physical incapacity, then it makes it very difficult to practice, because you just can’t understand. And there are times in your our lives when we’re like that ourselves, and there are places within us that are like that—that just don’t want to have anything to do with spiritual practice.
So that’s one way of looking at these eight unrestful states. And it’s why I asked you just from looking over this. And I asked you in the Facebook group, when you look over your life, what percentage of your life is available to you for spiritual practice? Let’s see, how many would say above 90%?
Student: Isn’t everything available?
Ken: How available is spiritual practice when you’re asleep?
Student: It should be or could be available.
Ken: No, we’re talking about is, not theory. How many above 90%? How many above 75%, How many above 50%? How many about 25%. In retreat, I would say maybe 25%. [Laughter] So you begin to get the picture, do you? [Laughter]
But most of the time we’re caught up getting food, eating food, hanging out with friends, working, etc. etc., and actual work in our spiritual practice doesn’t cross our mind. It’s a relatively small percentage. That’s one of the central points of this whole section.
Then he goes on to describe ten factors that need to be present. You need to bea human being, born in a central country, which is a metaphorical way of saying, where the dharma or some form of spiritual training is present. To have all the senses intact—that is, to be fully capable of communicating.
The next one, not to revert to inexpiable evil deeds. My teacher wrote this small book many, many years ago and he asked me to translate it. And he used a slightly different phrase here. Not to be swept away by the tide of karma. That is, traditionally speaking, you’re not born into a family, or a profession. For example, in the caste system in India, if you were born into a butcher’s family, you were going to be a butcher. If you were born into a thief family, then you were brought up to be a thief. They had these castes. These are not good forms of livelihood for spiritual practice. So that’s where what determines your birth puts you in a position that is going to make it very difficult for you to practice.
And to have confidence in spiritual practice as something that is viable. All of this is present in all of you, because that’s why you’re here. But when you look around our society, we see that most people today discount the efficacy or the viability of spiritual practice and don’t think it’s really possible, and that’s why they are caught up in materialism—taking the things that we experience as the objects of life—consumer society, like I was referring to before.
In this book, basically what he [Payutto] explores is the difference between an economic system which is based on supplying on pleasurable experience, sensory enjoyments—like lovely clothes, and cars and good food, etc. etc., and what an economic system based on fostering well-being would look like. Because we all know that if we eat too much, we don’t feel well, and if we drink too much, we really don’t feel well, and anything we do to excess unbalances things. So what if the way we actually approached life was focused on well-being and feeling well emotionally and physically, rather than on just enjoying things? This would be a different economic system.
Then there are five further factors, and it’s our luck whether they happen. These you’ll find on the top of page 16: The appearance of a buddha in this world, the teaching of the noble doctrine, the stableness of the elements of existence taught in the noble doctrine, the attuning to this stableness, and active compassion and love for the sake of others.
What this means is—my teacher would teach it this way: Buddhas very rarely appear in the world. Even when they appear they very rarely teach. Even when they teach, it’s very rare for anybody to listen to them. Even if somebody listens, it’s rare that it continues for any length of time. Even if it continues for some length of time, it’s very rare that people actually support people who practice. So you get the picture.
When you look at things, there’s some truth to that. The forces arrayed against waking up are very, very powerful. The forces in ourselves that are arrayed against waking up are very, very powerful. So when you consider all the things that have to come together to make it possible to practice, it’s very, very precious indeed. Part of the purpose of this chapter is to instill some sense of urgency, because even though it’s very difficult for all of these conditions to come together, it’s extremely easy for them to dissipate. I just have to not be looking when I cross the street, and it’s all over. It doesn’t take much.
Now, if you look at the bottom of page 16 here, It is difficult to turn away from the eight unfavorable conditions. It is hard for a Buddha to appear in the world. It is difficult to have all the senses. So you get the idea.
And then there are various arguments here, none of which I find terribly convincing. I have to be frank. There’s this wonderful image of this vast ocean and you throw a life ring out there—like a donut that used to be used for lifesaving in swimming pools. And once every thousand years there’s a blind turtle at the bottom of the ocean that swims to the surface of the ocean. What are the chances it’s going to put its head through that ring?
Another example is that the precious human existence is rarer than daytime stars. And all of these things are basically injunctions to say that this is a very precious opportunity, so make use of it. I’m going to encourage you to find your own way for you to establish some value. One of the ways that I do it myself, is that I look with dismay at how much of my life I’m actually available for spiritual practice. When I say in retreat, in retreat you’re meant to be practicing all the time. Okay, sure. But most of the time your mind is distracted. You’re fighting with one meditation after another, and you still have the daily essentials. I was in retreat for many, many years, and it’s set up so that you’re doing about 10 hours of meditation a day. Now people with more capability developed a level of attention so that they can actually be practicing anywhere from 18-20 hours a day. And there are others who developed a level of attention so that they’re able to practice even when they are asleep and dreaming. So that’s great. They’re getting much more. But you still have to eat and and you still have to wash and you still have to be supported in retreat and so forth. It takes an awful lot, and that’s the very best thing. I don’t want to make out that retreat is the be-all and end-all. I’m just using that as an example. In order to be able to practice we have to create the conditions. It doesn’t happen by itself.
And why is this important? It’s important because—and we’ll get more into this in the next chapter on death and impermanence—this is the only thing we know. In a certain sense it’s the only thing we’ll ever know. So we can have this experience of life. Do we actually know what it is, or do we go through life never knowing what it actually was? For some people that’s perfectly acceptable. I have a little problem with that, which is why I’ve poured so much energy into this myself.
Pat: Well I never expected to say this and sound so cynical, but right now I’m in the middle of chasing a lot of stuff to do with the war. But I’m a little suspicious because whether it’s Christianity or Buddhism or any of this stuff—it just seems like you spent a lot of time these last couple of weeks about how we all have this buddha nature. We all have this capacity, and so much of Christianity is we all have the capacity to have this godlike quality. But yet the reality is we all have…as a human being…moments where we actually—if you’re lucky—get to be awake; where you’re lucky you get to have spiritual practice; where you’re lucky you get to be compassionate, kind and all those things.
But yet these traditions and practices are set up to encourage to you to do it as a life time—yet constantly. Why don’t we then, teach that what we are going to get, or be or do are moments? Rather than teach that we should try to have 100 percent of spiritual practice, but ’by the way, you’re probably only going to get five minutes.“ Because it’s a set up constantly to feel like—and the truth is, we’re just a bunch of losing jerks [laughter]. And I think we’d be better off if we started out with that premise. Because then every time you got five minutes, you’d feel like a winner.
Ken: That’s basically, as far as I’m concerned, the point of this chapter.
Pat: But the book starts out saying, ”Oh, guess what, you know, you have buddha nature.“ Well the fact is, maybe I do, maybe I don’t. But most of the time I may have it within me, and I love that whole thing that we talked about last week: it’s always there, it’s constant, you can find it. But in a way I might find it more often if my expectation is for five minutes in a lifetime. Do you know what I mean? It seems like we’re always chasing this ideal rather than starting with the premise that we’re violent jerks.
Ken: I agree with you. There’s the carrot and stick approach, right? Now if you have a donkey—the carrot approach is you hold a carrot in front of the donkey. And the donkey starts to move towards the carrot. What do you do with the carrot at that point? You pull it further away. I don’t like the carrot approach. Because the attention of the donkey is on the carrot—it’s not in the present, it’s on the expectation and you never get there.
Now the stick approach is a little different. The stick approach is you get a good solid stick and you whack the donkey on the rear. And the donkey goes, “This is not a good place to be. I need to do something,” so it starts to move. And once the donkey starts to move, you don’t keep whacking it. It’s totally different from the carrot approach The donkey learns that if he relates to his present condition he can do something about it and then he is in a different state. He just has to keep walking, that’s all.
People say, why do you talk about all the difficulties? I talk about all the difficulties because referring to Joseph Goldstein’s point—it’s the difficulties, the discomfort in our life that actually motivates us—causes us to do something. It’s not the comforts—it’s the discomforts, the struggles. Why am I having such a hard time, I’ve got to do something about it.
And the difference between the two chapters could be described as this: we all have the potential to do something about it, but the opportunity to do something about it is relatively rare. And I think you’re right, the opportunity is relatively rare, so when the opportunity arises, make use of it. Does that make sense to you? Okay.
There are other arguments about why it’s so difficult, and then he goes into the section about why it’s so useful, and I think it’s worth spending a little time on this. He divides people into three categories: the inferior, the middling and the superior. or inferior, mediocre and excellent, whatever you want. This is actually a very broad and widely spread method or categorization of spiritual motivations and is not exclusive to Buddhism by any means.
There are people whose interest in spiritual practice is to improve their lives. They practice meditation because it releases stress and makes them more awake and alert and calmer so that they can work more effectively and not be so reactive. It improves the quality of life. It’s a perfectly reasonable motivation for practice, but it doesn’t require any kind of exploration into the nature of life itself. That’s one motivation and that’s what is being referred to as inferior. But it’s a valid spiritual motivation. It’s regarded as inferior because we can go much further; there are more possibilities. I pointed very quickly in tonight’s talk to the nature of our experience, and I think we talked about it in a bit more depth when we were talking about Buddha nature—this empty, clear, unrestricted experience, which is this thing we call life.
Implicit in that is the implication that we are not what we think we are. Right now I think that I am some thing, but when we look at this, we see there isn’t any thing there that is me. Now it’s relatively easy to understand that, but to know it experientially and to live from there is actually quite difficult. But when we do, there is a very, very big difference in how much struggle or disturbance we experience in life, because so much of what we struggle with comes because I have this sense of me against the world—the basic position of existentialism—trying to make meaning out of it. If I don’t regard myself as a thing, I don’t have to make any meaning out of it, and I can just experience things as they come and respond to things as they come, and life becomes a lot simpler. That’s what Gampopa refers to as a person of middling motivation.
But then, one of my favorite quotes is from Mark Twain; I think it’s Mark Twain. They say we’re here to help others. I can buy that, but what I don’t understand is, why are the others here? [Laughter]
Well, the fact is they are here, and one of the things which I found through my own practice of Buddhism is that the more deeply I understand the process of suffering in myself or what makes me struggle in my life, the more I understand and appreciate that it’s the same for everybody else. It takes different forms; the content is different, but the process is absolutely the same. And we find this echoed in the writings and sayings of various teachers. There’s a very famous one by Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen tradition in twelfth century Japan, who says, The study of the dharma is the study of the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened or to be awakened by the 10,000 things.
A contemporary teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says: The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What is going on is very important.
And a quotation that I found in here from Payutto—can I find it again? I don’t want to take time looking for it, but he says, As we come to an inner calm we begin to penetrate one of the profound ironies of life. In seeking happiness we create suffering. In understanding suffering we find peace.
So inevitably when you begin to understand that the process of suffering, or struggle, or whatever you want to call it, is the same in every person, that everything that everybody does, they do because at that moment they they think it is going to improve their world. Even though sometimes they’re tragically wrong, but that’s why they do it, then naturally a quality of compassion begins.
How many of you know the experience where you learn how to do something, and it’s taken you some difficulty, and then you see someone struggling to do the same kind of thing? What do you feel? Your heart goes out to them because you know what it is. It’s exactly the same as that. So when we come to a place in our spiritual practice where this kind of understanding arises, it’s natural that we want to be able to help others through our spiritual practice, and this is a very, very different motivation from the previous two. It actually makes our work in our own practice far more powerful. As a friend of mine says, we will do for others things that we would never consider doing for ourselves. And it’s true.
So all of these possibilities—and I need to also throw in the additional interpretation. In my experience many people—I won’t say all people—but many people go through these three kinds of motivation as a maturation of practice. So they start off with actually quite a materialistic approach to spiritual practice. They want to just make their lives better. But as their practice and their understanding matures, they begin to see that it’s not really about making life better—it’s about knowing what life is and knowing what I am. You can only improve your life better up to a certain point, and putting those doubts and demons to rest inside takes on a much greater significance. And from there it matures into: “Well, this is the same for everybody, so how can I develop the ability so I can actually be helpful to everyone, because we’re all having essentially the same problem.” Does this make sense to everybody?
Actually, let’s open it up for discussion at this point, because the next part is fairly important and we may or may not get to it. Any questions you’d like to ask, or any points you’d like to bring up?
Harold: I’d like to ask you to define spiritual practice.
Ken: Oh dear.
Harold: I’m sorry, but I had to do it.
Ken: And fair enough. Very broadly, what I call spiritual practice is what a curiosity—actually I’m going to appeal to the Four Noble Truths here. We find ourselves struggling in life. Some people just accept that as how things are. Other people say, “why do we do this?,” and so they become curious. Where does that come from? That curiosity naturally leads to the appreciation that the struggle in life comes from a kind of not knowing what we are and what life is. And so a spiritual practice is one which is bent on, which is directed to, remedying that not knowing. That’s a very, very broad definition and I think it could be applied to any of the great traditions. In Christianity you seek to know God, or know your relationship to God and so forth. So I don’t think that’s an exclusively Buddhist definition. Does that clarify things for you?
Harold: Yes, I like the answer. I like the answer.
Ken: I’m so relieved.
Harold: You didn’t give me a one, two, three, four, five list of things I have to do.
Ken: You liked that? Actually my answer is much harder than giving you a list of one or three things to do.
Harold: Thank you very much for answering that.
You’ll get back to me, will you? Randye?
Randye: One of the questions you asked on the web is, “When in my life is it possible to do spiritual practice?” And I thought about that a lot because over the years it’s shifted radically. I realized I sort of live my life in one of four mindsets: I’m either happy or I’m sad, stressed or not stressed. And when I spend more of my life in practice is when I’m stressed or unhappy. And when I’m happy and content I find myself less on the cushion.
Ken: That’s exactly what’s being talked about here.
Randye: Yeah, it was really depressing because it’s now going to taint all happiness for the rest of my life with the thought that I’m giving up part of my spiritual practice to attain happiness. But I also thought it’s also going to make the unhappiness less unhappy because I’m gaining in my spiritual practice by virtue of being an unhappy place in life, and that seems to be what this chapter’s about.
Ken: Well, the quest for happiness is based on an assumption. And the assumption is that I’m not happy right now. There’s a North American Indian saying that I like: You cannot wake up a man who is pretending to sleep. Another way of putting this is: we cannot get what we already have. So another way of looking at spiritual practice is to come to know what we already have, Harold, or in a slightly different way of saying it—what we already are. And you may find that there is a capacity for enjoyment which is naturally present in us, which, when we don’t appreciate it, leads us to go outside to find ways to enjoy things. And that’s where we create the stress and unhappiness.
There was somebody over here. Another comment or question?
Todd: You talked about before a condition for practice is that you need to be struggling in order to practice, you need to have some sort of struggle in your life in order to be interested in practice. Does that suggest that if you’re not struggling then are you awakening? If you’re not struggling? Or do you know that you’re not struggling?
Ken: In the context of this chapter it’s more that you don’t know that you’re not struggling. There are many different layers of struggling. You can have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, if you really want to map it out. There’s the struggle for survival, and the struggle to get emotionally satisfied in life , the struggle for identity, the struggle for meaning, etc. And all of these are forms of struggle. And it’s the presence of struggle that makes us curious about this experience we call life. And spiritual practice is very, very much a response to a certain kind of curiosity. Some people are plunged into it. Gampopa was. He was a very well trained physician, and his children and his wife died of illnesses that he couldn’t cure. This precipitated the crisis. “What? What is this experience? Everything should be so nice and just perfect, and now it’s all gone.” That’s what made him curious.
For other people the curiosity isn’t precipitated by such a tragic sequence of events, but “What is this?” I come across this over and over again, If a person doesn’t experience any kind of struggle, then there’s nothing for them to be curious about. But that doesn’t at all mean that they are awake; they’re unaware of the struggles going on in their lives, or they don’t attach any significance to them, or don’t get curious about them.
Todd: I feel that I sort of strive not to struggle. So I look at them as something that I would aspire to be, to live a life without struggle. It seems like an awakening to me.
Ken: Yes. Why are you here?
Todd: Because I want to live a life without struggle.
Ken: Where does the struggle come from? What produces the struggle?
Todd: The environment that I live in. All the influences in my life, karma, experiences.
Ken: Our first response is usually, it’s the circumstances of my life that produce the struggle, and so we start working with it that way. But you know very well that it really doesn’t matter how much money you accumulate, how much comfort you buy. There can still be a sense of struggle. Where does that struggle come from? You can’t blame the environment anymore.
That’s exactly what we begin to explore. I’ve got everything. Everything’s fine. Why am I still struggling? And we begin to see that the struggle comes from something inside rather than something outside. And that’s where it becomes a spiritual practice in the way that I’ve defined it. And we take it seriously. Where is this coming from and what can I do about it? And that’s entirely what we’re studying here. Does that help? Do you want to go any further? Other questions?
What are your thoughts about this chapter? Does the explanation I’ve given or the way of relating to it help you make a bit more sense of it? This is really very definitely classical stuff—he’s talking about all these realms as out there, but when you look at life in the way that I’ve invited you, what do you see? Anybody? Joe?
Joe: Well, in reading it I was struck with great sense of guilt. And your explanation has managed to turn that guilt into something workable. Guilt for me is not something workable. I’d revolt against it. It’s not an effective spirit of practice for me, personally.
Ken: I think it isn’t an effective spirit of practice because guilt is actually form of pride and is an intensification of the problem. So what’s changed for you, then? You say it’s become workable.
Joe: When I read it in the form that it exists, it seems to be very external to me. When you explain it the way that you’ve explained it, it becomes an internal struggle. In the same way that the jihad is interpreted as an external struggle when it should be most usefully interpreted as an internal struggle.
Ken: That is how it was classically interpreted. It’s only relatively recently it’s been predominately interpreted as an external struggle.
Joe: It’s more effective as an encouragement to practice.
Ken: It’s more effective for you. Okay, good. Anybody else?
Randy: We used the words precious human life in describing the chapter. But you in your questions, called it precious human birth.
Ken: The Tibetan term is precious human body and the idea is that you are born into the body etc., and any one of those things—you can call it precious human birth, precious human life, precious human experience, precious human existence. Any one of those would be an acceptable translation.
Randy: So it’s more a translation question than a differentiation between life and birth?
Ken: Yes, it’s very much a translation question. And the way I’ve been trying to look at it this evening, it’s describing the conditions in our lives when we can do something about the struggles.
Lynea: How do you know that the desire for spiritual practice isn’t the expression of a hungry ghost realm?
Ken: Well, my first response is you’ve got to start somewhere. In a sense it’s about trust. I think we’re a little too concerned sometimes in our culture of having the right motivation or the pure motivation or something like that. We can start spiritual practice with a great deal of desperation, neediness. That will certainly cause us to put a lot of energy into it. But we will find that when we put that kind of energy into it, nothing satisfies because that is the hungry ghost realm. There we are pouring our energy into it and it’s not working.
And now we get curious about that and that leads us to, okay, maybe the attitude with which I’m approaching this is part of the problem. And so the motivation begins to refine itself through the practice. And I’ve seen this many, many times.
In my own experience I think most of us started with the idea that we’re really going to get something here. and as time goes on you realize you’re not going to get anything at all, and as more time passes you begin to appreciate that it’s the whole notion of getting that is the problem, for the reasons I was describing earlier, because a fundamental assumption there is that I need something more to complete whatever I am.
And slowly, though for some people it may not be so slowly, one begins to sense that there’s a completion in experience that is already there. So one’s understanding and motivation and the way one works in practice matures through the practice, but if we waited until our motivation was absolutely the right one, the most sophisticated, the most subtle, we’d never get started. So I don’t see any problem in starting with the hungry ghost realm.
Any other questions or comments you’d like to make?
Joe: You suggested that you’d do one other thing, and that was to identify what prevents us from practicing, both in meditation and in daily life. And I suppose what that question really brings into focus, makes visible to me, is what you’d call pattern reactions in the book—I can almost see them dragging me off from whatever it is at the moment I consider to be practice.
Ken: Yes, how many others notice that? What were some of your answers to the question of what prevents you from practice? Maya and Heather?
Heather: The answer to what distracts you?
Ken: What prevents you?
Heather: Well, I don’t remember which realm it was, but I was really wrapped up in the suffering.
Ken: That could be all of them. Animal realm? Just doing things on automatic pilot, just struggling to get by.
Heather: Yeah, that too. Maybe the border tribes, just feeling like you don’t have time. Because you have to be doing all this.
Ken: So that’s what prevents you.
Maya: I think that one thing is that I want to be distracted. I spent last weekend in North Carolina for a friend’s wedding and a bunch of us got together and rented a house for the four days we were there. I woke up in the morning and thought about meditating. But all my friends were in the living room hanging out and I don’t get to see them that often. So I didn’t meditate.
Ken: So the desire for companionship, and one thing after another—all of that comes up. Anybody else?
Randye: Ironically, I found that one of the biggest obstacles I have is that when I’m feeling more compassionate towards people, I volunteer for more activities. I get busy, and the busier I get, of course, the less time and the lower on the priority list the meditation becomes.
Ken: I don’t want you to take away the idea that, even though it’s somewhat expressed in these traditional writings, that the ideal life is one in which you’re practicing all the time. We come to spiritual practice because of the kind of curiosity I suggested, and I think that probably holds with both of you—so you honor that curiosity. And I can certainly say that consistent effort done on a regular basis does yield results. You don’t have to be sitting in meditation 24 hours a day. That’s one style of life. It’s not one I’ve been able to do myself.
But we come to this out of a curiosity, and the formal meditation you do is in one sense an honoring of that curiosity. And we begin to find that that honoring of that curiosity initiates a different way of understanding our lives. And then we begin to find a different way of living our lives. And it isn’t a case of sacrificing something we enjoy for the spiritual practice.
I’ve always found that approach to spiritual practice counterproductive, because it creates a tension. But when we honor that curiosity, we make it a priority in our lives, and then I’ve found this very consistently—when you make it a priority in the same way that we make eating and exercising a priority in our lives, then the rest of our lives just organize around it. There’s an adjustment period, but that’s actually all that’s necessary—makes it sound really easy. Last comment, Randye, and then we need to close.
Randye: The issue of spiritual practice that it’s volunteer work keeping me off the cushion—that might actually sort of count towards spiritual practice.
Ken: We’ll get into more of these various components of spiritual practice. Anything can count as spiritual practice, but I don’t think that’s the best way to approach it. In order to be able to, let’s say, go rock climbing, you have to have certain capacities and certain skills. And if you go rock climbing without those abilities and skills, then you don’t have very much fun. In spiritual practice there are certain capacities and certain skills we need to build. That’s what the practice consists of. As we build those capacities and skills, we are able to employ them more and more in our lives. Then helping others does become spiritual practice because we’re approaching it that way. You follow? Let’s close here with the dedication.