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.
Spiritual Teachers (pt. 1) Download
Recap of previous discussion on faith and belief from a perspective of how suffering is viewed in Christianity and Buddhism; students’s reports of what they experience when working with a teacher; what is the question for which “meeting a teacher” is the answer?; three reasons why a person needs a spiritual teacher: scripture, logic, simile; retranslating omniscience, merit, and purifying obscurations. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 3.
I’m going to get myself into a lot of trouble tonight. Harold gave me a paper, a talk by the present Pope, which created a bit of a disturbance in the Islamic community, because he quoted a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor to the effect that one cannot use violence to convert anybody to a religion; that any engagement with a religion has to be voluntary or volitional, which led into a discussion of basically, is God rational? And I’m very grateful to Harold for giving me the paper because it answered a question that I’ve had since about 1970, which is, where did things get screwed up? And they got screwed up when the Greeks translated the Old Testament into Greek in Alexandria, which I don’t know when exactly that happened, but that’s an aside; we can come back to that, if it’s relevant another time.
Last week we talked about faith, and I posed a distinction between faith and belief which many of you corroborated through your own experience. When you thought of belief there was a kind of closing down and a rigidification, and when you thought of faith there was an opening and a relaxation, and there may be a challenge with it, but it was that opening quality that many of you identified.
Buddhism and let’s say the Abrahamic religions, at least Christianity and Islam anyway, they approach things somewhat differently. The central theological problem in Christianity and I would think by extension, Islam also, is the existence of pain. C. S. Lewis who is one of the more popular Christian writers of the twentieth century wrote a little book actually on The Problem of Pain. And the problem arises because of the belief in an all-powerful, all-loving god. And if there’s an all-powerful, all-loving god, then why do we suffer? That’s the central theological problem, why do we suffer. But it arises because of that belief.
In Buddhism by contrast, we actually don’t posit any beliefs as such. As Stephen Batchelor points out in Buddhism Without Beliefs, we start with one of the things that we know about our lives—we struggle. It isn’t to say that life is a struggle, i.e., that life is suffering. That’s an incorrect characterization of the First Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth simply says there is suffering, there is struggle in life. How many of you feel that there isn’t any struggle in life? Okay. We all have that as part of our experience. And Stephen Batchelor points out that’s the recognition and with that recognition we become curious, as “Okay, what’s going on here?” So without positing any kind of belief about this we say, “Okay, we struggle. What causes that? Why does that happen?” And we don’t have to reconcile with anything. We are free to just open to that experience of struggle and follow it wherever it leads us. And that’s exactly what we do in Buddhism. We open to the experience of struggling in our lives and follow it wherever it may lead. Where it happens to lead, if you go deeply enough into it is the Second Noble Truth. We suffer because we react to things emotionally, and that reaction is based on projections arising from a sense of self. And when we explore that sense of self, or that identity that we think we have, we find that there’s actually not very much there. And if we can actually experience that, then life just gets a whole bunch easier. Or as another person I’m currently reading says, it’s about learning how to live life skillfully. And the way that we actually live life skillfully means that we come to discover, as we explore that more and more deeply, that any sense of an abiding identity, or abiding notion of who we are actually causes problems because inevitably we run into situations where that sense of ourself just doesn’t work. So we have to develop a fluid, flexible sense of who we are, and in this way we become responsive to situations. So I just wanted to throw that in as a little coda to our discussion last week. It’s a very significant contrast whether you start with the fact of one’s experience, which is that here we are in this life and we seem to have some problems with it and we just explore that. Or whether you start with a belief about how the world is and then you’ve got to try to explain your experience in terms of that belief. It gets a little problematic.
Now the topic for this evening, probably the next two, perhaps three classes is the spiritual friend which you can understand as teacher. I’m not sure that spiritual friend is a good translation. As Trungpa said, he or she is a very heavy-handed friend. And I apologize because I was a little bit rushed coming over. What were the questions I left you for reflection?
Student: For reflection. [unclear]
Ken: Oh, thanks very much, Joe.
Okay. What I’d like to focus on just for a few minutes before I get into this chapter is—when you think of working with a teacher, what comes up for you? We have microphones? Thanks, Lynea. Okay. Can you pass it to Joe, please. And not so much ideas and stories, but what’s the actual experience? Do you freeze?
Joe: My experience has been a variety of responses—one of which is fear, and also gratitude, a sense of excitement at possibility.
Ken: What happens physically?
Joe: I’m sorry?
Ken: What happens physically?
Joe: If it’s fear I get tense, stomach clenches.
Ken: That’s why you never come to see me, right?
Joe: That’s why, yeah. My story-making facility, you know, goes into hyperdrive.
Joe: On the positive side of gratitude and hope, there’s a kind of a—I was trying to think of it—it sounds sort of corny but it’s like a fluttering of the heart.
Ken: Okay. That’s good. Anybody else? Harold?
Harold: The first thing that came to my mind or one of the things that came to my mind is a question: why is the teacher-student relationship superior to a dialogue relationship?
Ken: Could you bring that question up either at the end of this class or at the beginning of the next one because that’ll be the relevant point for it. It’s a good question. I’d like to pursue it but it takes us a little off topic right now. Okay?
Ken: Great. Thanks. Anybody else’s experience when they think of working with a teacher? Pat?
Pat: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s very intimate.
Pat: And that there’s a certain accountability. And I remember going to a six-day teaching with the Dalai Lama and he spent a whole day on the teacher-student relationship. And I remember thinking, “Oh, Christ, how can we spend a whole day on this?” And I remember at one point, and it wasn’t that easy to understand some of it, and I remember at one point he said something about taking three years just to observe your teacher and that made a big impression on me. But I’d already observed for three years, so it didn’t matter.
Ken: Oh okay, I was just going to say, where are we Pat?
Pat: I was long gone.
Ken: I actually had that experience—not for three years but there was a woman that was a participant in a meditation group and she never said anything and any time I asked her a question she never said anything—she would demur. And a year later she said, “Okay, I don’t think you’re prejudiced so I think I can study with you.” It’s like I didn’t even know I was being examined. Anybody else? Yes? Kyle.
Ken: It’s on, just speak right into it, then it gets the best sound. Thank you.
Kyle: Well, if you’re the student I would think that you’d almost have to have a little bit of humbling because if you’re not very humble around your teacher, the temptation would almost be to kind of argue maybe or—
Ken: Never experienced that! [laughter] What about—I’m translating what you’re talking about as humility, as a respectful attitude. Yeah? How do you pose questions? I mean, is that important or—
Kyle: Well, I think there’s a way of posing questions respectfully, isn’t there?
Kyle: I mean, to me a humble question would be a genuine question where you don’t understand, which would be different from questioning in the sense than you’re trying to maybe knock the ground out from under your teacher.
Ken: I think you’re touching on a very good point—that the questions come from a desire to learn, not from a desire to make a point. Yeah. And there’s a very definite difference in that. Okay. Good. Anybody else? Randye. Last one.
Randye: I felt like I probably should have felt fear but I didn’t. But I did feel like I connected with someone who could not only understand where I was at but talk about it in a way that I would understand and would have the right words.
Ken: How did you experience that in your body?
Randye: Quite open.
Randye: And humbling.
Ken: All right. Okay.
All right. Let’s turn to our text here. I’m going to go through this fairly slowly because there’s actually quite a lot of technical stuff which one doesn’t recognize as technical stuff in the translation.
Student: Can I just make a quick request?
Ken: Yeah. Pat could you—
Student: I just wanted to make a request that I noticed in the last couple of classes that I’ve been to that sometimes when you’re reading from the text you speed through it a little bit.
Student: Because you’ll read and then you’ll comment. And I just request that maybe you slow down on the reading part because I don’t have the book in front of me.
Ken: And you’d like to take it in.
Student: Yeah, exactly.
Ken: Okay. I think we can do that. Thank you.
Okay. Now let’s start with our usual question. This is the chapter on teachers—what question is meeting a teacher an answer to? It’s our version of Jeopardy in this class. Let’s hear from some people who haven’t spoken up yet. What question is meeting a teacher an answer to? Susan.
Susan: How will I know what to do?
Ken: How will I know what to do. Okay. That’s good, anybody else? Yes.
Student: How can I go through this?
Ken: How can I do this?
Student: How can I go through it?
Ken: How can I go through it? Ah. Explain the difference there, would you?
Student: Not about doing something but about experiencing something—is the difference.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. All right. So there are two possibilities. Does anybody else have another one? Okay. Steve? Now he’s got two mikes.
Steve: How will I have the opportunity to go down this path and discover—?
Ken: Okay. Peri.
Peri: Is this possible?
Ken: Yeah. I think all of these are good candidates: How will I know how to do this? How will I go through it? How can I discover this path, basically? And, is this possible?
And a teacher, meeting a teacher provides some form of answer to all of those questions. And touching on your question, Harold, you can begin to see how the teacher-student relationship is a bit different from just a dialogue because possibilities are being revealed, techniques, abilities, training, etc., are being transmitted. Okay?
Now, in this first sentence [Guenther, page 30]:
This means that although you may possess the most perfect working basis but are not urged on by spiritual teachers as a contributory cause, it is difficult to set out on the path towards enlightenment because of the power of inveterate propensities due to evil deeds committed repeatedly in former times.
This isn’t quite English you understand. This is Germanically flavored English. Guenther is Austrian, or was. I don’t know whether—I think he died. And he’s a very good person. I had the occasion to meet him. Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation is a little easier:
Even though we have the excellent working basis, the precious human life, if we are not encouraged by spiritual masters then it will be difficult to follow the path of enlightenment because of the power of the nonvirtuous inveterate propensities (oh they liked that phrase, did they) of previous lives and the force of habitual tendencies.
Now, people react in different ways to this emphasis on having a teacher. An old way of analyzing the American mind is that it is composed of two archetypes, the puritan and the cowboy. The puritan wants everything to be just right, and has this idea of everything very ordered, pure morals and so forth, inspiring leadership and so forth. And the cowboy comes from the frontier of course: “Just leave me alone, let me do my own thing, I can take care of myself—don’t want anybody to take care of me, thank you very much.” And we see this played out in the American mind—that as soon as anybody is put up in a leadership position then a bunch of people attack him or her and tear him down and and then everybody laments about how we don’t have any good leaders, so somebody else is put up in a leadership position and everybody attacks him and he’s pulled down, and it just goes around and around. The same thing happens in Buddhism. “You know, well, this is about my own awakening so what do I need you? Besides there have been lots of people in the past who have woken up by themselves so why do I need a teacher?” Cara.
Cara: Just from having lived in a Hindu ashram—
Cara: I think it’s the tendency of people, though, with what you’re saying, in keeping with that, to choose a guru and to all but deify a person.
Ken: Mmm-hmm. That’s the puritan side.
Cara: Definitely. And when they don’t live up to your expectations—
Ken: Then you tear them down.
Cara: Then you tear them down. But I also think that people are prone to wanting to give all their power away. So they don’t have to accept responsibility. And a teacher is someone from whom you can learn, from their example, but they’re still allowed to be imperfect.
Ken: Oh, thank you! [laughter] A couple of teachers, Maurine Stuart who is a Zen teacher who lived in Cambridge and Ajahn Chah both used to say the same things—quite different from what Gampopa is saying. He [Ajahn Chah] said, A teacher needs to make their faults very evident otherwise the student will think the Buddha resides in the teacher, not in themselves.
But, the reason that a teacher is regarded as important is that we have this wonderful phrase: the inveterate propensities due to evil deeds committed repeatedly in former times. In other words, we’ve made a mess out of our lives so far, which is why we’re studying. You know, if our lives were fine we wouldn’t be here, and we need someone to show us a way out of this mess of habitual patterns or whatever you want to call it.
Now there are some people who experience spontaneous awakening. Most of those that I’ve met, the awakening is partial. They get one piece or another piece, it’s not complete, it’s not well rounded. There are a few who are quite remarkable, but most of them, it’s a partial awakening. This is one of the things that I think is important—that it’s not an on/off switch. You can be a little bit awake, and then more awake and ideally completely awake. I’m not sure that completely awake is a theoretical possibility, and it’s something I’ve discussed with a lot of people.
Certainly, in traditional things it’s the idea that there is the Buddhahood and that’s it, but when you read the text you find there’s ten levels of bodhisattva in the Mahayana or four levels of arhat in the Theravadan. Then there’s Buddha, that’s the eleventh stage in the Mahayana, and then strange enough, you find a twelth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, I think in even one text I found a sixteenth stage. You’re getting pretty rarefied at this point, but what it points to is that there may be a whole sequence of openings.
So I’m not sure that there is an actual limit to the extent we can open or be awake. The main thing is that we have these habitual patterns and they’re sufficiently strong; they sufficiently condition our experience so that it’s a very difficult for us to find a way out of the maze that we find ourselves in. How many of you have felt that you were doing absolutely the right thing in a situation only to discover that you were completely wrong? Yeah, I think we’ve all experienced that. And so one of the functions of a teacher is to be able to point us to possibilities beyond the functioning of our habitual patterns. That’s one function of a teacher. The second function of a teacher is to point us to the functioning of the habitual patterns—when even if we think it’s actually being awake, it’s not. And the third function of a teacher is to provide us training in the techniques and development of the skills that we will need in this journey that we’re embarking on. So I think it’s fair to say that for somewhere between ninety-five and ninety-nine percent of the population, we need a teacher. We’ll let the other one or two percent worry about themselves.
Now, Gampopa does the usual thing here. The first thing he discusses is why is a teacher necessary. The first thing that is usually done in traditional texts is they quote scripture—teachings of the past. So we have from one of the Prajnaparamita sutras [Guenther, page 30]:
Virtuous disciples having respect for the Guru, Should always be in touch with wise Gurus Because from them the virtues of a wise man spring.
Then from another one:
Thus a Bodhisattva Mahasattva who wishes to attain unsurpassable enlightenment must first approach, then meet and honour spiritual friends (or spiritual masters).
Now what Guenther calls necessity is really just logic and that’s how Konchog Gyaltsen translates it. I want to say a bit about this word omniscient, that we find on page 70 in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation.
One who wishes to achieve the omniscient state should attend a spiritual master because of not knowing how to accumulate merit or how to purify obscurations.
So there are two or three words that I want to talk about here because we’re going to encounter them again and again. I think it’d be good to get clear about them. First there’s this word omniscient. Now, the Tibetan is thams cad mkhye pa [pronounced: tam che kyen pa], and it literally means all-knowing. Is it possible to know everything? Okay. The smartest people in the world, how much of the sum of human knowledge do they know? An extraordinarily small fraction at this point. I listened to a professor way, way back and he said the last person to know everything in western culture was a person called Willian Black who died in 1842. And by that he means this was a person—who lived in England, I believe—who was conversant with the whole range of Western knowledge at that point.
In Tibet it was possible to know everything. Because you had teachers as late as the nineteenth century, Jamgon Kongtrul the great, Khyentse Wangpo, and even one teacher I knew in the twentieth century, Dezhung Rinpoche. I mean, these are people who knew the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures, which are a hundred and eight volumes, all somewhat larger than this, they knew them virtually by heart, and if you quoted something they would say, that’ll be in that book, that chapter on that page. Phenomenal. And they were also completely conversant in medicine, grammar, astrology all of these things. They really knew pretty well everything that covered the range of Tibetan learning. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote an encyclopedia, which again is about four of these volumes in which he summarizes all of Tibetan learning. And it’s being translated into English, into ten very, very large books. I mean, but it’s not possible, even if you are a brilliant scientist, or a brilliant expert in one field—that’s all you know, you don’t know the vast range of other knowledge. And by modern estimates there is more knowledge being generated each year than existed for most of previous humanity.
So what does this phrase omniscient refer to when it is not possible to know everything. I mean, we get the idea that getting Buddhahood is like getting a super Ph.D., or something like that. And one would be conversant with nuclear physics, and biometrics and all kinds of sociological theories, etc., but that isn’t what it means. What I’d like you to consider is rather than all-knowing, let’s change that all to complete knowing. So in each moment of experience knowing is complete. Everything is known in each moment. Everything in each moment of experience is known. And you say, “What’s the big deal there?” Well, I want to put this in really practical terms that we may be able to relate to because this is part of the demythologization or demythification that I’m interested in.
How many of you have had the experience of being, I have to use this terminology, of being totally present in a situation so like there was an all encompassing knowing and you were aware of everything that was going on around you. Anybody had that experience? Okay. What is your ability to respond at such moments? I mean, how well are you able to function when that’s happening? One’s able to function pretty well. Because one is completely aware. In fact one can be functioning so well that what one does can look like magic to somebody else. Okay. This is what I think this term is actually referring to. It’s not like one knows everything in the universe. It’s that there is completely knowing of that experience and because of that complete knowing there is complete understanding, complete responsiveness and so forth, so forth. So I’m going to suggest you think about omniscience in that way. It’s something that’s actually very accessible to all of us, and not as this very, very remote possibility.
There’s a microphone here. What’s your name?
Ken: Thank you.
Valeria: I guess what I wanted to say to add to what you just said. There’s almost a sense of effortless experienced in those moments—different than the experience of knowing or of knowing details of facts. Just being and knowing the experience, there’s a sense of no effort.
Ken: That’s quite right, but what I wanted to bring out right now was that rather than think of omniscience as some kind of like super Ph.D., it’s an immediate knowing of what is arising right now.
Then we come to this phrase accumulate merit and purify obscurations. Well, these are technical terms and you’ll come across them again and again. And sometimes they’ll be called accumulate merit, or accumulate the gatherings or gather the accumulations—some things like that. And then you have this wonderful phrase purify obscurations, which is completely idiotic English. Because we don’t purify the obscurations, we purify ourselves of obscurations. We don’t want to end up with pure obscurations. [laughter] Unfortunately this kind of Buddhist English has developed so I’m going to do my best in this class to move away from it.
Now, we’ll run across it several times in the chapter. This notion of merit—did we discuss this before? A bit. Okay. It’s the word for luck. If you do good things good things happen to you. Right? In other words, if you do good you have good luck. Now, this is intimately connected with the workings of karma.
By the way, I was looking in a bookstore the other night and I came across this phrase in a book written by one of my colleagues called How to manage your karma, [laughter] and I thought that was very strange because, from a Buddhist point of view, karma is just the way things work. The most comparable thing would be gravity in science. And gravity is just how things function, it’s the law of attraction between bodies, so that when I let something go it falls. The sun revolves or the earth revolves around the sun and the moon around the earth and so forth. It’s all because of gravity. How many of you think of managing gravity? So managing our karma just struck me as another very strange phrase to be using in English.
What merit or luck—and the word that I prefer to use for this is goodness—that we generate goodness in our lives. I think another author likes to use the term well-being. And I think…so rather than this abstract quality which we can accumulate—merit—if you think of this as generating goodness, generating well-being, then I think it’s a little easier to understand. Because when you generate goodness or generate well-being in your life you naturally generate a sense of balance, you naturally generate the conditions where you are more responsive, more open, less reactive, more empathetic and so forth. And you generate an environment in which good things can happen. So a very important part of practice is learning how to generate goodness or well-being in our lives.
Then removing obscurations—I’m not going to say purify obscurations—removing obscurations. Or refining away obscurations would also be a translation. I’ve thought a lot about this word and it seems that the best English word, or the word that comes closest to the meaning as I understand it is the word distortion. Now, you have a glass of water, this glass isn’t a particularly good example because it has all the things, but if you have a clear glass of water—just a plain simple glass—and if the water is still, then you can look through the glass and you can see things very clearly. But if the water is turbid and it’s churning around in the glass, then it introduces a whole bunch of distortion. It refracts the light in unpredictable ways and you can’t see clearly through it. Is everybody with me? Well these distortions are, in the way that I understand them, they’re turbidness or turbidity—whatever the right word is—in mind, which distorts our experience of things so we don’t experience things clearly. In particular we experience things as being something other, that’s the primary distortion.
The two primary obscurations, or distortions, are the distortions introduced by emotional reactivity—so when you’re emotionally reactive you don’t see things clearly. You can experience your spouse or partner or even your child as an enemy when you’re angry. That’s a distortion. You can have everything you need, but feeling you need more—that’s a distortion. So there’s the distortions which are introduced by emotional reactivity and then there are the distortions introduced by conceptual thinking or the whole process of conceptualization. Once we label something we cease to know it. We may understand it in a certain way but we cease actually to know it. Because the experience of knowing something just takes us into it. As soon as we say, well it’s this, we stop that process.
So conceptualizing limits our experience of the world and actually distorts it. One of the exercises I sometimes do with people on this is we pair people up and have them look at each other, just for a couple of minutes, just straight on and say, “Well, what did you see?” And I get wonderful things back saying, “I saw a very wise person, deeply compassionate.” Or, “I saw a person in great pain.” I say, “Oh, that’s very interesting but that’s a conclusion, what did you actually see?” And it usually takes three or four questions of just this kind before they get down to “I saw two eyes, a nose, and cheeks, a mouth,” and so forth. So we are so busy conceptualizing experience that we actually don’t see what’s right in front of us. And you might look around your life and see just how often you do that because most of the time when we’re conceptualizing, what we’re doing is drawing conclusions from the data from what we’re actually experiencing, and we’re not really experiencing what’s right there. So those are the two obscurations or two distortions.
And this phrase of generating goodness and is broadened to generating both goodness and awareness and removing the distortions, we’ll come across again and again. So it’s good—not only in this text but other texts you’ll read you’ll come across it again and again—so it’s good to understand what it means, which is why I’m taking a little time on it. Harold. Yeah, the mike’s always beside you.
Harold: I really dislike this. Could we maybe spend a little bit of time on this—what you’re just talking about. Because I think about it a lot. And if we go back to where you said the person saw—when he looked at the other person he saw a nose and an eye and an ear—well what comes to my mind is well those are concepts. Those are concepts so—
Ken: Oh sure, yeah. One can trace it back. I mean basically I don’t want to spend too much time on this because this is an aside for the main thrust this evening. But, yes those in turn are concepts but they’re lower level concepts. Eventually you get down to shape and color and so forth, but again as soon as you put a label on it you stop knowing it. If you just keep letting go of the label you’ll find yourself drawn into a deeper and deeper experience.
Harold: But it seems to me like you just get drawn into nothingness because pretty soon it has no meaning. I’ve struggled and struggled with this.
Ken: Yeah, I understand. But you’re quite right. As you pursue this you’ll find yourself entering something where there are no labels, but it’s incorrect to say that there is no meaning. Meaning is different, and this is something we’ll come to much later in this text. I don’t want to go into it now. But it’s not meaning in concept—you know what to do with what you’re experiencing, but the knowing doesn’t come from conceptual processes. It comes in a different way. Okay?
Ken: Now. The positive illustration of this is the Buddhas of the three times. On the other side are Solitary Realizers. These are elements of a process of formal argument in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. That is, you state your thesis and then you give an example which supports it and an example where it doesn’t hold. Both are forms of supporting the thesis. So here, One who wishes to achieve the omniscient state should attend a spiritual master…. The positive illustration of this is the Buddhas of the three times. [Gyaltsen, page 70]
The Buddhas of the three times attended spiritual masters and in the course of that generated goodness, removed the obscurations, and that’s why they’re Buddhas. On the other hand, the solitary realizers didn’t attend spiritual masters; they thought they could do it on their own. Remember we talked about them in an earlier chapter, they’re the independent ones. And so they achieve a partial awakening, so they don’t really become Buddhas. So these are just elements of a form of argument.
To explain: In order to achieve the complete, perfect Buddhahood all the accumulations including merit and primordial wisdom must be gathered.
Now, again I want you to think of translating this as generating goodness. Now it’s a little more difficult with this term primordial wisdom. My own translation of that is pristine awareness, but it’s not a big difference. How do you accumulate pristine awareness? Why are they even talking about this? Well, all of this whole vocabulary comes from a time, as is the case in medieval societies, medieval India—and Tibet was very much a medieval society—and in such societies, monasteries are the repositories of the wealth of the culture. You may recall from the Bible that the priests stored all the grain, and when there’s time of famine, talking about the times of the pharaohs in Egypt, then the priests were ordered to release grain from the stores. And this is characteristic of medieval societies. They had these large monastic estates; they would accumulate surpluses and part of the process was that when harvests failed then the monastery would redistribute that to the population. This is where banks started. Banks all started in monasteries. And so you have this banking metaphor—accumulate stuff—and so the idea, of course, is you have this spiritual bank account in the sky. And you have these two forms of deposit—goodness and awareness, and when you get enough, and hopefully they accumulate interest, and you get enlightened.
But they’re banking metaphors and the way that way that you generate or accumulate pristine awareness or primordial wisdom or whatever you want to call it is by dropping into presence whenever you can. And you just drop. And generating goodness or well-being in your life is a way of creating the conditions in your life so that it is possible to do that. You know, when you’re being hunted by the law, or you’re scrabbling to make ends meet, or you’re fighting it out in a start-up company or duking it out in court because you’re a lawyer, or, you know, run ragged because you’re a doctor in a residency program—you don’t have much opportunity for presence or balance. You’re just running. And a lot of people, that’s how they lead most of their lives.
One of the things that we seek to do in our lives is generate enough goodness and well-being so that we can be present and we can actually drop into presence. And that way we continually acquaint ourselves with what it means to be present. It becomes kind of a pattern or a habit in our lives, and the more that we do that, the more that being present creates further conditions for us. So it becomes a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious cycle.
The thing is, how do we do this? And most of us don’t know how to do it, and that’s where a teacher becomes important. One of the functions of the teacher is to show us how to do precisely this. And then again, you see all the obscurations or distortions and you see they have here, the afflicting emotions and the subtle obscurations to enlightenment—that’s the conceptualizing process—these have to be removed. And how do we remove those distortions? Again that’s something that we learn through our association with a spiritual teacher or a spiritual master.
So the logic here is that there are things that we need to know how to do that we don’t know. There are things that we need to know that are possible that we don’t know that are possible, and it’s through the association with a spiritual teacher that we come to know those things.
Now, this kind of learning is fundamentally different from the kind of learning that we’re used to. Because what actually happens in the teacher-student interaction is that we’re shown how to find this in ourselves. We don’t get it from somebody, there’s nothing to get from outside. That we’re shown how to do this ourselves. And this is wonderfully captured in Buddha’s last words, or what are reported as his last words. He said, I have shown you the way, work out your own freedom. And in Buddhism the paradigm is the teacher not the savior. It’s one who shows the way and then each of us has to implement and do the actual walking that way for ourselves. No one can do it for us.
Now, Gampopa then goes on to give three different similes for a spiritual teacher: a guide, an escort and a boatman or ferryman. Each of these three examples points to a particular problem that can arise in practice. So, the first one is as a guide.
Ken: We’re on page 70 [Gyaltsen]: When traveling to an unknown place without a guide there is danger of mistaking the path, of losing the path, or straying from the path. When a good guide is followed then there will be no danger of mistaking the path, no danger of losing the path, etc.
So here the danger is one of losing the path. There’s a path which we can follow and we can lose our way or stray from our way. Now, quite a few years ago I translated a book which is published under the title The Great Path of Awakening, and it’s a description of a technique of meditation called taking and sending. And it’s compassion meditation and in the commentary it’s described as the one path traveled by all Buddhas. It’s extremely easy to infer from this kind of language that there’s the path and we have to get on that path. And when we do that we run the danger of following what is being set out and really leaving our own experience behind and doing what we are told to do, what we’re instructed or is suggested that we do. And as I said right at the beginning of this course, not listening to the stammering voice in ourselves which is asking the questions. So one of the things that I want to put forward here is when they’re talking about path this way—when Gampopa’s talking about path this way—don’t think of it as something that is preordained or set out, even though it’s often presented that way. It’s a path that we have to discover through our own efforts. And it’s our path. And we discover this path by exploring our own experience. What happens when we do this is that we find that what we discover is actually exactly what is set out in all the texts. And that’s…that’s wonderful-–that tells us, oh, okay, this seems to be going in the right direction. But the process here of discovering this through our own experience and getting corroboration from the texts and from the teachings, etc., versus trying to adopt the teachings without actually exploring our own experience—that’s the contrast that I’m trying to get across. Our understanding needs to come through the exploration of our own experience—not adopting what other people have written or said.
Thomas Merton put together a book of poems that he wrote inspired by his readings of Chuang Tzu. I should have brought it. I didn’t know I was going to need it tonight. It’s called The Way of Chuang Tzu, I think. One of them is called the Duke of something or other and the Wheelwright. But I’m not going to do Thomas Merton justice here. But the duke is reading these texts and the wheelwright asks, “What are you reading?” He says, “Books written by wise men.” And the wheelwright said, “Alive or dead?” And the duke says, “Dead, long ago.” And the wheelwright says, “Oh, you’re just reading the dust they left behind.” And the duke says, “You’d better explain this, or I’m going to chop your head off.” You know, medieval China, they tend to take things very seriously. And the wheelwright explains, “I’m a wheelwright…”
Now, a wheelwright is a person who makes wheels and in earlier times this was really a totally non-trivial task. You had to cut wood and you made all the spokes by hand, like wagon wheels. They all had to be exactly the right length, and you had to fit them into a hub so they all ended up exactly the right length, otherwise it wouldn’t be a perfect circle. You had to space this out. And you didn’t have nice slide rules and calculators and things like that, and probably didn’t even know the exact value of pi, which makes things really difficult. Then you had to piece wood around that or bend it around and then on top of that you had to put a piece of iron, which had to be cut to exactly the right length which [needed to be] a little bit longer so you could shrink it down and make a really tight wheel which would actually hold up under the stress as the wheel spins. So making a wheel was a very non-trivial task and that’s why you had specialists who did nothing but make wheels.
So he says, “You know, I’ve done this for many years. I’ve figured out how to do it.” This is what the wheelwright is saying to the duke. He says, “And I get it right most of the time but I can’t even tell my son how I do it. So these wise men you’re reading, they took everything that was worth it with them. What you’re reading is just the dust they left behind.”
So this is a very powerful way of saying that the understanding that we’re seeking here is living understanding. It’s not absorbing the wisdom of the ages, it is discovering in ourselves the wisdom of the ages. Then as we discover it in ourselves and we read about it, “Oh this is cool, you know, somebody else has had this experience. I’m not nuts, this is wonderful.” But it’s very much about discovering it ourselves because then it becomes ours, then it is ours. As long as it’s coming from outside it’s just something somebody else said.
So, this is why I’m giving you some of these to think about in each week, because I really want you to discover this stuff within yourself. So, going back to the path, when we pursue this we’re going to have lots of experiences. And it is very, very possible to get caught up in one or another and go down a dead-end alley or actually to go down paths which actually cause a great deal of trouble for us. And one of the functions of the spiritual teacher is to say, “Hmm, what are you doing there? You may want to take another look at that because, you know, just check your experience here because I can see some problems developing.” And that’s very, very helpful.
One of the reasons why I’ve developed the format that I have with people—which is seeing people individually, and also during retreats to have an individual meeting with everybody at the retreat everyday—is because I’ve found very, very consistently that people get stuck in their meditation practice. Because they think they’re doing something and they think “Oh, this feels right,” and after a couple of days they’re sitting there like this [Ken demonstrates postures], and they’re sure they’re doing it right. Or maybe they’ll be like this [more postures] for six months! So having a conversation—often these things can be cleared up literally in a five-minute conversation. And so that’s what we do at retreats, we have these five-minute conversations and people find that it just resets their practice and now allows them to explore their experience more deeply.
And that’s one of the primary functions of a spiritual teacher is to help the student when the teacher sees that they may be going in a direction that is counterproductive. Now it doesn’t always work like this; sometimes you get someone who says, “Yeah, yeah, that’s all very good Ken but I want to do it this way.” So all you could do is sit back and wait. And six months later they come back and say “Eh, wasn’t working so well.” Or actually I had a case of several people—you know I give them advice at one point and then I don’t see them for five years and they come back and say, “I didn’t take your advice five years ago and now I’m in this complete mess. What do I do now?” And usually I say, “It’s too late now, I don’t know. Five years ago I could help you, but now?”
So that’s one of the functions of the spiritual teacher is to point out when a path may be going in the wrong direction, or when you’re following experience the wrong way. Do you have a question, Kyle?
Kyle: Can you give an example of like maybe an experience?
Ken: Oh sure, from my own experience. In the Zen tradition they say sit—posture is really important. And I have certain physical problems, and so when I was much younger I tried very, very hard to sit in full lotus, which didn’t come naturally. And I found that when I did sit in full lotus my legs would go completely numb, not in a good way. And so, being a good young student I would push at this and I managed to get one of my legs to go numb for about half a day. It was a great relief when the feeling finally did come back to it. I was taking this instruction too literally, I was not exploring my own experience. I was taking what was coming from outside as this is how you do it. Now full lotus posture is an extremely powerful posture but if you have physical or emotional problems which prevent that posture from working then just to push like that and ignore those problems, that’s not exploring your own experience, that’s adopting what you’ve been told. And what I had to do was to explore what was my own experience and that has led me in a very, very different path, one that I don’t find in many of the texts, but it is the only path that actually is viable for me. But if I had been in the Zen tradition I wouldn’t be a teacher today. No question of it, as I pointed out to some Zen teachers at a conference once, and they said “Really?” So we need to find the path through exploring our own experience.
And if you have a good teacher—I’ll give you another example. There’s a woman in New York who came to one of my retreats and she just found the approach that I was giving about how to work with emotions really helpful. And she had a Theravadan teacher in New York. And so she wrote to me and said, “He’s not teaching anything like what you’re teaching, Ken, but how do I study with you when you’re in Los Angeles and I’m in New York.” And so I wrote back and said “What are you interested in?” She said, “How to work with emotions.” And so I said to her, “What I suggest you do is you take what you got out of the retreat, in particular your experience with working with emotions, and you go to your teacher in New York and you talk about that experience and ask him what he can give you from his own training in that way.” And so she did and she wrote back and said thank you for that suggestion, we had the most wonderful conversation, etc., etc. But what she was doing up to that point was just taking what he said and just doing it, rather than exploring her own experience. But when she explored her own experience and took that to the teacher, then the teacher could really give her things to work with. So I was very, very happy with that result. I thought that was great.
And so we’re now getting into something we’ll get to towards the end of this chapter is how do you relate to a spiritual teacher? You bring them your experience so you’re actually working together to find the right path for you. And that’s determined through your experience. You follow? Okay.
Now the second simile is an escort. Think of this as a bodyguard. You’re going into a dangerous place. If you were going into a jungle, you went with an armed escort. If you’re going into territory where there are robbers and thieves and muggers you have someone who not only knows the territory but can protect you. So that’s the point of the second simile. The first one is about losing the way, the second one is about how to meet dangers in the spiritual path. And people say, “Dangers? What are the dangers in the spiritual path?” Well, the traditional warnings, which are not always given but I think they’re important so I’ll give them: death, paralysis and insanity. [laughter] Okay. Let me go through those one by one.
We’re very, very complex. We have all kinds of things going on in us. As we were growing up we learned various ways of negotiating life, certain survival strategies. Most of the problems that we now experience in our lives are because those survival strategies are still running even though they’re not needed anymore and they get in the way. So that when somebody threatens us we lose our temper and walk out. This isn’t a very good thing to do in a business meeting because it prevents us actually negotiating a good business deal. But we have that tendency in us. I imagine all of you can think of certain propensities in you which you know perfectly well don’t work, but you do them anyway. Am I right? Okay.
Now, depending on the strength to which those have been conditioned in us, when we try to change and move into something else, those things will usually kick up a fuss. And if we don’t know how to handle them skillfully, they may actually lead us into forms of behavior which will result in our death. That can be addiction, obsession or so forth. And these patterns, these conditioned patterns, they have no awareness in them; they’re just automatic ways of functioning. But from their point of view they would rather kill their host, which is us, than change. So we need to have a certain skill in being able to meet those kinds of dangers.
Paralysis. At a certain point in spiritual practice we will find ourselves utilizing and working with energies in the body. And it can come about through working with emotions or come about through working with certain ways of working with the body so that we are actually enhancing the level of energy in the body so that we can be more present and have more energy in our attention. But what we’re doing then is causing the energy in our body to flow differently from the way that it has before. Again, a lot of that is stuff that got screwed up in our bringing up, and again as we make those changes, if we don’t do them the right way then energy can go into the wrong directions and really shut down the body in ways that will be like paralysis. People who have done pranayama in yoga or even certain yoga postures know the risks involved with this. It’s not talked about a lot in terms of just meditation, but it can and has happened in the past. And the same is true of insanity.
Now if you want the really bad news, once you’ve been on this path for about three or four years it’s very hard to stop without going insane. And if anybody wants to leave right now, I will quite understand. And why do I say this? After you’ve practiced for about three or four years and you’ve developed a certain momentum. You’ve begun to relate to things in a certain way. And as you keep riding that momentum so that you’re moving more and more awake, if you just say, “Okay I’m tired of this, I don’t want to do it any more,” that momentum doesn’t dissipate, but the energy will now flow into habituated patterns and they will tend to get stronger and stronger because you’re not making any effort any more. You’re not directing the energy in your system so it’s naturally going to go into habitual patterns, and so you become increasingly weird in certain ways, and that can manifest as obsessions on sex or food, or money or power or any of the usual culprits. And so once you’ve formed a connection with this path, and are taking it seriously, it really is better to continue. The Tibetans have a wonderful phrase, saying perhaps better not to start, but once started, better to finish.
So, now you won’t get a lot of people talking about this because everybody thinks this is wonderful and just go on and wonderful things will happen. And that’s very true, but there are real dangers here, that if you don’t take them seriously, you don’t consider them, then you can succumb to them. And I think it’s better to know about them so that one can factor them into one’s practice and one’s thinking rather than just be rather surprised when you turn a certain corner in your practice and find there’s a monster in us. Nobody told me there was going to be a monster there.
I did a program recently and a person I’m working with said to me afterwards, “I need to come to see you, Ken. One of the monsters just crawled out from under the bed, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.” But she knows, she’s aware of it. Because we do have these monsters in us and they’ll eat us if we don’t pay attention.
So, then the third one, this is the simile of the ferryman. And I thought about this for a while. Because when we read it we get this:
When crossing a big river aboard a boat without a boatman, you will not cross to the other side because the boat will either sink under the water or be taken by the river current. With a boatman you will cross to the other shore by his efforts. Likewise, when crossing the ocean of samsara without a spiritual master to act as the boatman, then even if you enter the boat of the holy Dharma, you’ll be carried by the current of samsara, will drown in samsara.
Now, when you read it, it sounds like, you can’t do this by yourself. That’s what they’re saying. That didn’t sound right to me, so I thought about this, and we have to take a look at what’s the boatman actually doing that we can’t.
Ken: But what does the boatman have that we don’t?
Ken: Yeah, but if we’re in the boat and there’s no boatman there?
Student: Direction. He knows the way to go.
Ken: Okay, microphone’s here, please. Okay, so we’ve got rudder, knowledge, experience. Cara?
Cara: Has a compass, knows the stars so can navigate.
Ken: It’s just a river, I don’t think we can get lost on a river, it’s not like the seas.
Cara: Perhaps I got lost in the metaphor.
Ken: Okay. Steve? Peri there’s a microphone in front of you.
Steve: Well he knows about currents, he knows about the river.
Ken: Yeah, see but this is all in the previous metaphor—these are all about the dangers. There’s something different about this one. Nava. Leslie, could you pass it over please?
Nava: It’s his profession, he does it every day, he does the same thing every day, again and again.
Ken: Yeah and if he does the same thing every day what’s he going to have that we don’t.
Student: They know the way to the other side.
Ken: They know the way to the other side. Come on, there’s another quality. Okay. Strength. [laughter] Okay. He does this every day, right? Look at the muscles this guy’s gonna have.
Pat: This is before motors.
Ken: Okay, yeah, that’s right. This is before motors. He’s going to have strength, okay? What is strength in practice? Strength is energy. Pardon?
Ken: Okay. I don’t know that. Is that a Hindu word or—?
Cara: Yeah. It’s a Hindu word for spiritual fire.
Ken: Okay. Now, we need to develop that strength, but initially, particularly in many of these traditions, one relied on the strength, that is, the energy of the teacher until one had formed a sufficient relationship that one was developing one’s own strength. So that I think is the quality that this particular one. We had not losing the way in the first simile of the guide, and then the escort is protecting us from the dangers, and this one is about having the strength to be able to negotiate because the currents are very strong. The currents of our own conditioning are very strong, and sometimes we literally draw on the strength of the teacher until we develop the ability to be able to meet that ourselves. And we need to be able to develop that ability. But that’s my idea about what’s being focused on in this particular one.
Okay. And it’s 9:30 already. Okay. For next week, we’re going to go into—we probably will spend three—by the way, is going through it at this pace okay with you? It’s not too slow? Okay. Because this to me is very important and I think you can tell by the way I’m approaching it. There’s all kinds of areas that can be easily misunderstood, so I think it’s worth going through quite thoroughly.
Realistically I think that we will get through the classification and the characteristics of each classification and so I’d like you to read those over for next week. And this classification is again something that sounds potentially very remote. We have four kinds of spiritual masters, the ordinary human being, the bodhisattva, the nirmanakaya spiritual master, so obviously we’re going to get into a discussion of that technical term, and the samboghakaya, which is an even thornier technical term. Guenther will provide footnotes on those, which may be helpful. Those of you who have a copy of The Great Path of Awakening, I have a quite extensive footnote on the three kayas.
But what I want you to think about is what is the significance of this classification in terms of what we were discussing earlier here, that is, this is an exploration of one’s own experience. The idea one gets here is that in the beginning, you know, you’re just an ordinary human being so you can meet an ordinary human being, but once you get to meet a real live bodhisattva—and when you get to another point you get to meet a Buddha in physical form, and when you get really, really good then you get to meet a Buddha in spiritual form which is a rough translation of—so, it gets better and better, right? To me it’s an extended metaphor. And I want you to think about what does this actually mean in terms of our own experience here and now, in terms of the unfolding, or the maturation of our own spiritual practice. I’m just going to give you that as a question to think about. It’s not a particularly easy question. So when you read the descriptions of each of these, be thinking of translating, “How do I translate this into my own experience? What does it mean in terms of shifts or things that I’ve noticed in myself?” And that’s what I want to explore in some detail next week.
Okay. So thank you for your attention.