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. 2)Download
The teacher-student relationship as origin of understanding; the importance of questions; experience as teacher; the four classifications of teachers; defining nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and bodhisattva; ways to approach the mythic language of classical texts. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 3.
This evening—probably this week and next week—we’ll spend on the teacher-student relationship. And this is a very important topic because in a certain sense it is the heart of Buddhism and what one can regard the heart of Buddhism in a number of different ways. Some would say it’s compassion, some would say it’s emptiness, some would say it’s more closely compassion and emptiness—a very deep relationship there. And in terms of understanding or knowing that would be quite accurate. But in terms of how things get understood, how understanding arises, the teacher-student relationship is really the heart of the matter.
The word sutra for instance, which you can understand as scripture, apparently comes from the same root as the word suture. And the root meaning is to sew, bringing things together. And what all of the sutras consist of is a question and answer period with Buddha or some other teacher but usually Buddha. And they all follow the same format: there’s a setting, a certain number of people are there, usually monks or arhats or bodhisattvas or some combination of them. And somebody asks Buddha a question and he gives them a reply and then somebody asks another question and he gives a reply; it’s just Q&A. And this interaction between student and teacher is where understanding begins—where knowing begins. And one can look at it from a lot of different perspectives. One can say in a certain sense that the student and teacher are becoming attuned to each other. And through that process of attunement there is the possibility of a common understanding or a common knowing. One can look at it in the terms of how the student clarifies his or her experience. Or that’s how the Buddha explains what he’s talking about. And so forth.
And in the book I’m currently reading it describes that there are four kinds of questions from the point of view of Buddhism. There are those questions which can be given a straightforward answer—that’s one. There are those questions which need to be reframed. There are those questions which are best answered by a question. And there are those questions that it is not helpful to pursue. And in the Living Awake series of workshops—in one of these I’m going to explore how to work with actually those kinds of responses. When do you give a straightforward answer? When do you reframe it? When do you answer the question with a question, and when do you say, “That’s not helpful”? But just from this short discussion, when you have a series of questions, obviously the question and answer thing is being regarded as very very important.
Now the way that that question and answer process unfolds, how student and teacher interact with each other and so forth—this will be more the subject of our discussion next week. This week I want to look at the different kinds of teachers. And a fairly detailed discussion in Gampopa about that. And I find it wonderfully ironic because, as all of you know, Buddhism makes a big deal about non-self and yet, and about things not existing independently in their own right—that everything is relative or exists only in relationship to other things. So when I read these—the section on the characteristics of a teacher—I really think it’s only half the story. Because you all know the probably apocryphal summary of Berkeley’s philosophy [See end notes for references]. You know, If a tree falls in the wood and there’s no one around does it make a sound? Well my question is, if a teacher teaches and there’s no students is there a teacher? Does teaching take place? Of course it’s absurd.
So one of the things that I want to look at in this discussion is rather than talking about teacher and student as entities, look at what are the conditions in which teaching actually takes place. Which is to say, what are the conditions in which learning actually takes place? So let’s start off right there.
Before we go there, a couple of people have emailed questions in and this is one of the ones that was emailed in which I think bears very much on this topic.
My question is: how is being a student of the dharma like and unlike being a student in all the other venues we study? I’m asking this because I’ve noticed I have lots of patterned behavior and reactivity around my experiences in classes I’ve attended with you and in my experience with distance learning with Unfettered Mind.
For instance just like in my public school behavior I like to sit near the front and raise my hand and answer questions. I like to participate. I also like to be a good student—do the assignments, turn in the homework and if possible receive recognition for what I’ve done. But I’m doubting the usefulness of these patterns in dharma study. For one thing they aren’t getting me the results I expect in this secular learning situation.
Yes, you’re not getting any As on the exams because there aren’t any exams. Very difficult to get As on exams that don’t exist. So anyway she goes on like this and there’s another point which is a little bit of an aside but I’ll mention it.
I’ve also noticed that some students I’ve grown to admire most from hearing their comments in the podcasts say less and less as time goes on. I had a conversation with one of them back at the Mahamudra class last year. I commented that I noticed my eagerness to speak up was because everything looked and felt so much like school. She congratulated me on noticing this and told me she tried not to say anything because she does not like hearing herself in the podcasts. I told her I felt the reverse about her participation and I began to notice that her comments had become rare.
Right now we have almost 90 people in the Then and Now class group on Facebook and I have no idea how many—You didn’t know that Joe?
Joe: How many there were?
Joe: No I was actually laughing at her reason for not speaking up.
Ken: Yeah, because she doesn’t like hearing, obviously she’s not in the acting profession right? Microphone please, I want to capture every word here Joe.
Joe: Obviously I was going through a whole projection of my own about why she spoke at the beginning and why people appreciated it and then missed it. And then to have you say it was because she didn’t like—
Ken: Well no that’s what this person wrote to me. She had a conversation with this person. Yeah, and—
Joe: Well, I go through the same thing about whether to raise my hand. I begin to feel like Hermione in Harry Potter here, [Laughter] but you know I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s part of our responsibility.
Ken: Well, I mean, I’m very glad you take it that way. I hesitate to lay that on everybody because I don’t want there to be any coercion here. I would put it slightly differently and say that when you ask a question and participate in discussion there are several things going on. One is you’re asking a question which you have. And I think most of the questions that are asked—my sense is that the questions that are asked here aren’t to look good in class, which is exactly what happens in the academic environment. You know, you ask a question to look good. But there are questions coming out of points that people want to clarify or elucidate or have a deeper understanding. So they’re coming from a place of genuine interest. And that’s one of the differences between this environment and an academic environment. That will also operate in an academic environment but a lot of other stuff operates. You want to impress the teacher so you get your A and so forth. And also your academic classes play an important role in your careers. This is probably not going to be directly helpful for your resume or anything like that. I’ll be delighted if anybody puts this class on their resume, but I think the chances of that are pretty slim. So in addition to questions coming from an interest in learning and deepening one’s own understanding, they are also an act of generosity because we are recording them.
And I’ve got many, many emails—I get about one a week actually—expressing appreciation for the podcast for this class and many of them mention the interaction. I don’t know, what were our stats? There are somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people downloading this?
Student: Depending on which, six- or seven-hundred, easily.
Ken: So when you ask a question probably ten of those people have the same question, and when I answer, when I interact with you, I’m putting you on the spot. I know that very well. That’s why a lot of people don’t come to this class—or they don’t want to work with me because I put people on the spot and I’m not shy about doing it in public or in private or whatever like that. Because it is through that process of your engaging your material right in the process of interaction that something actually happens in terms of understanding. And when people listen to this, and as far as I know Unfettered Mind is the only podcast which is actually putting the student/teacher interaction out there.
I had emails saying, “Somebody asked this question. I had the same question and it was so helpful hearing how that interaction went.” Because they could actually just follow it along themselves. So it’s an act of generosity, and I don’t really want you to look at it as a responsibility—“I have to ask this question to help everybody.” But it is something you’re actually giving something to the rest of the world by participating. So when I read this—the person doesn’t like listening to herself on the podcast so she talks less and less—I felt a little sad about that. I can quite understand it. And so while it’s an act of generosity, I’m under no illusion; it also requires a certain amount of courage on your part because, even though we’re in this environment and there doesn’t seem to be anybody around, there are actually a whole bunch of people listening.
And that’s how it is. It’s very different. I could sit up here and talk and just give a straight lecture. And some of you would get something out of it and others would just listen and something would be absorbed maybe. But when we have the actual discussion and we push on points that’s where something really begins to move. That’s why I encourage questions and enjoy questions and enjoy the interaction because it’s meeting that resistance and working the resistance and feeling the shift and experiencing the shift that takes place that plants the seeds of understanding, which then grow through your own practice. So there are some important differences between this kind of class and an academic class, a standard school class. But the person who wrote this letter is quite right. We import exactly the same behaviors because it looks the same. And next week when we talk about how teacher and student interact in this kind of environment, we can go into that in a bit more detail, like which behaviors are appropriate and which aren’t and so forth, and why.
How many of you know a film called Meetings with Remarkable Men? Okay, for those of you who don’t know it, it’s directed by Peter Brooke and it’s the supposed life story of a very interesting individual who lived latter part of the nineteenth century, first part of the twentieth—he died in about 1950 I think—called Gurdjieff, who started teaching in Moscow and then when the revolution came moved to Paris. And he was a very very insightful profound teacher and established a whole school which still continues in some way today.
In his younger years, he traveled around Central Asia looking for various teachings. And in one of the scenes in the movie, there is a teacher who’s sitting under a tree and around the teacher are sitting a bunch of students—in more or less a circle—and they’re asking questions. So this format which we have here: we have a person sitting here and a bunch of people sitting around asking questions engaging in discussion—this is the primary format for spiritual teaching. This is how it has taken place and been done for literally thousands of years. And it’s a very simple format, very straightforward. But when we gather here each evening, Tuesday evening, we’re actually reproducing or recreating something that has been tried and tested and done literally for centuries, for millennia. And what is taking place here is that I’ve had the good fortune to receive a certain amount of experience and training. You have a certain interest and, through this interaction, some seeds or understanding is planted or awakened in you, which you then mature through your practice, and you seek clarification and so forth in the way that you find yourself becoming awake and present in your life the way you want to be. And as we were discussing last time, it’s not about instilling a set of beliefs. It’s really about exploring one’s own experience, and exploring it as deeply as we’re able to. So that’s a kind of a long intro to this evening.
Now, let’s take a look at the text. Page 32 in Guenther and page 71 in Konchog Gyaltsen. Where to start on this? I’m going to throw out a question here.
What actually is the teacher? [Laughter]
Student: I think the teacher is the translator.
Ken: Can you expand on that a little bit?
Student: Like a translator of a language. It’s like learning a new language. Looking at a subject and you know you need someone to—if it’s not immediately understandable, you need some help to make the crossing.
Ken: So I think that’s right. Certainly one of the functions that a teacher performs is to translate or actually teach a certain language—a language that’s useful for understanding how to wake up and be present. And in our case, especially when we’re reading Guenther, you have to translate Guenther into English from English. So that’s one of the functions of the teacher. But what is the teacher?
Joe: The teacher is experience.
Ken: That was a big jump. I’m going to need some help here Joe.
Joe: What actually changes me, opens me to the possibility of change, is experience. The teacher has experience. And—
Ken: I think you need to go a step further—not that the teacher has experience. If we go back to your original statement, you said, “the teacher is experience.” From the Japanese Zen tradition, maybe it’s from China, I don’t know. But there’s a story of a Zen master, who whenever anybody asked a question—it didn’t matter what the question was—he would go [gesture] and he would just hold up his finger just like that. That was the only thing he ever did.
One day one of the young monks in the monastery was attending this master. And the master said, asked him a question about something or other and the young monk went like this [gesture]. With absolutely no hesitation, the Zen Master took out a sword and lopped off the finger. And the young kid was like, “Why’d you do that?” And the teacher went [gesture] held up a finger—and the kid woke up.
The teacher is experience, okay. And I think this is a very good way. We think of the teacher as an individual, or something outside of us. But what happens in just the way that I was talking about earlier, is when you and I interact an experience arises, and it’s in that experience that learning or understanding takes place. So I think what you say is very good here. The teacher is experience. Now that being said, I think we have to go into it a little bit further. Randye did you have something?
Randye: Not only is the teacher experience, but the teacher is someone who can help my experience. Who can tune in…if I…you know each individual’s path is unique, and to tune into that unique path and say, “Well you’re stuck here” or “You’re off the path altogether,” “You’re moving in the wrong direction.” And kind of nudge it back in the right place from the teacher’s experience.
Ken: Yeah, these are functions that arise in the teacher-student interaction. But what we actually learn from is experience. Okay, Agnes did you have—?
Agnes: I don’t know, in my mind the analogy is like when I go scuba diving, you know, have a guide. I dive enough, the guide obviously dives, but for that particular body of water the guide will point out what to see, what not to do. The particular experience that I wouldn’t have by myself, or it took long, long time through trial and error. Is this an appropriate analogy?
Ken: Well that’s one of the analogies we had from last week. Gampopa talked about three functions of the teacher: one was as a guide, one was an escort to protect, and the other was the ferryman—the person who rowed the boat, the source of strength and knowledge. But again we’re looking at it as something outside of us. But what I want to do is to look a little deeper.
You see, one way to look at this—there’s a school in Buddhism called the mind only school or…probably a better translation is the experience only school. There’s just experience. So I’m here and there isn’t anybody else here. There are a bunch of forms that look like people and they speak, they have arms and legs and clothes and things like that. But all of that is just experience for me. And so I’m interacting with my own experience. You follow?
It’s a bit of a weird way of looking at it but, to take it a step further, it’s as if I’m dreaming. Now in a dream, somebody comes and talks to us and we have this whole interaction, but it’s something just taking place in mind. There isn’t actually another person there. And it’s one way of looking at our experience now. So from this point of view, the teacher is simply—simply maybe overstating it—but it’s that aspect of our experience that is trying to tell us how to wake up, you follow? But it’s still our experience. Michelle, Maya could you—
Michelle: I tend to think of my experience with you more as something like a mirror for what I’m going through but not in the traditional sense that we would see a mirror as a, say a painting on the wall like the one behind you with a frame. But more like when you’re camping in the Sierras and you get up in the morning and there’s a perfect reflection in the lake. And the mountain meets the lake, but when you look at it carefully you see that there are differences between the mountain and the sky and the reflection because, because there are reeds and logs and what not in the lake.
Ken: Okay, and that’s certainly one way of looking at the teacher-student relationship. But if you look at it a little more, if you take your analogy, just look at it a little differently, you’re still learning from experience. Now, this is what I want you to keep in mind when we look at this first part here.
There are four classifications of spiritual masters: The ordinary spiritual master, the bodhisattva spiritual master, who’s attained certain bhumis, bhumis is a Sanskrit word for stages or levels, the nirmanakaya spiritual master and the sambhogakaya spiritual master. And yeah it’s very interesting both Guenther and Konchog Gyaltsen chickened out. They didn’t translate nirmanakaya or sambhogakaya. These four types are related to an individual’s spiritual realizations.
When one is ordinary or just beginning, one cannot attend buddhas and bodhisattvas, who have attained higher levels of spiritual masters, so one tends an ordinary spiritual master. When one’s karmic obscurations (Ken: read that as distortions) are more purified (Ken: bad English) one can attend the bodhisattva spiritual master who’s attained higher levels. After one accomplishes the great accumulation path one can attend a nirmanakaya spiritual master. When one attains the bodhisattva’s level can attend a sambhogakaya spiritual master.
Okay. so we need to do a couple of things here. One of the central frames I suppose, in the Mahayana, particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, but in most Mahayana and Vajrayana—is this, what are called the three bodies or three kayas—kaya is a Sanskrit word which means body—of Buddha. And they are nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, dharmakaya.
Now, not sure where these came from. There’s been a fair amount of research but one possible reading finds its origin in a line of one of the sutras in which Buddha says, “He who sees my form does not see me.” That is, if you think Buddha is the physical form, then you don’t really understand what Buddha is. It’s probably more accurate to say Buddha is a way of experiencing the world so, if you think of Buddha as an entity, you’re already off the mark and, if you think of Buddha as a person, then you’re really way off the mark.
So the wonderful Indian mind then says, okay—he who sees my form does not see me—then Buddha must have a form which we can’t see, and that must be the true form of Buddha. That’s what dharmakaya means: the true form. Now what is the true form of Buddha? It is the emptiness or the ineffability of experience.
So now you have the true form and the form form. And rupakaya was the first one, which literally means the form form. Rupa is a Sanskrit word that means form and kaya means form or the form body or whatever. So you’re just saying the same thing twice. So you have the true form and the physical form.
Then, somewhere along the line—I’m not quite sure where—the physical or the form form got split into two. That is, the subtle form form and the actual form form. And the subtle form form has, some would say, has much more to do with energy and so forth. That became known as the sambhogakaya and then the other one became known as the nirmanakaya.
And there’s various ways of thinking about this and understanding this, but it’s important to understand what these really refer to. The dharmakaya refers to the emptiness of experience, the emptiness of awareness, actually. The sambhogakaya refers to the clarity, the natural clarity of awareness and the nirmanakaya refers to the unrestricted experience which arises in awareness and is not different from awareness.
Now that’s getting into some really deep stuff which we’ll get into much later in this text, but we need this framework just right now. So…and just a little footnote: I’m fairly sure that this notion of these three kayas of Buddha came from the same source from which the holy trinity comes in Christianity, where you have God the father, son and holy ghost, except that they made it into something much more concrete with a whole bunch of theological problems that came out of that. I remember reading a Greek Orthodox presentation of the three persons of God. It was mind-bogglingly complex. I couldn’t make any sense of it whatsoever. Raquel?
Raquel: What’s the difference between buddhas and bodhisattvas?
Ken: Ah okay, that’s a good point. Very loosely speaking, bodhisattvas are apprentice buddhas. To make it a little more refined, we also need this, in actually both, in all traditions of Buddhism there’s a map of spiritual progress known as the five paths.
There’s the path of accumulation, path of accommodation, path of seeing, path of practice and path of no practice. And in the path of accumulation, you’re developing generating the goodness and well being which lays the foundation for spiritual understanding. And there’s a long exposition way at the end of this book on the five paths—a sufficiently detailed one.
The path of accommodation is where you begin to get some intimation of what experience is actually like—you know, the emptiness and so forth and so there’s a process of accommodation to that. The path of seeing is where you actually wake up. But when you wake up, you have a certain experience of being awake and present, but it’s not fully integrated in your life.
So the path of practice is where you’re working at integrating all aspects of experience into this seeing that’s been uncovered, and the path of no practice is when that process is complete.
You become, officially, a bodhisattva when you enter the path of seeing. That is you understand the nature of experience directly—and then you go through all the stages of a bodhisattva until you get to the path of no practice, which is equivalent of buddhahood.
So from this point, from this map what the Buddha represents is the way of experiencing things in which you can experience all aspects of experience awake and present, which means you can experience everything that arises. Remember we talked about this, the developing the ability to experience everything. The understanding and seeing of a bodhisattva and a buddha are the same—the degree in which it has permeated all experience is different. Okay, so that’s why I say bodhisattvas are buddhas in training.
Randye: A little further along somewhere Guenther translates nirmanakaya as the realm of overt action and sambhogakaya as the realm of verbal communication, neither of which I understood one bit and I don’t know if it’s accurate. I think it’s two or three chapters ahead.
Ken: Oh okay let’s wait till we get there before—one way of regarding, looking at the three kayas is that the dharmakaya is how things are. Well let’s do it very directly. Okay. Take a nice juicy emotion everybody. You know anger, hatred, lust, envy—that’s a good one—pride, shame, you know—you can take love, compassion too. Just make it nice and juicy. Okay? So bring it up and feel it as strongly as you are able to. And then look at the experience of the emotion. What do you see? Look at the emotion, whether it’s anger, envy, sexual desire, love, compassion, faith. Look at the emotion itself. What is it? What do you see? Anybody?
Ken: You see energy Joe?
Joe: See—you say.
Ken: Yes. See. I said look.
Ken: Yeah, you don’t see anything, okay. That’s the dharmakaya aspect. You experience the emotion, you experience it vividly—that’s the nirmanakaya aspect. Okay? Now, the next one’s a little bit tricky. I want you to simultaneously experience the emotion knowing there’s nothing there, because that’s what you see. What happens when you do that? Experience the emotion as completely as possible while knowing it is not a thing. What happens? Chuck?
Chuck: It seems to lose its energy. It doesn’t drag you in.
Ken: Yeah, there’s a shift, right?
Ken: Okay, that shift is what sambhogakaya refers to. You’re actually experiencing things at a higher level of energy, so the energy of the emotion is going into the attention, so you experience things in a different way. And that’s what the three kayas are actually referring to. Now this is a very, very quick—Lynea do you have a question?
Lynea: …As you’re describing this, I can see…applications for relating to the different kayas when meditating. And I guess what I’m wondering is there—is it useful to be aware of the different ways of experiencing it the way you described?
Ken: Actually yes it’s very useful. When you’re in the grip of an emotion how, empty do you experience it?
Lynea: You don’t unless—
Ken: You don’t at all, right. You’re in the grip of it. Wouldn’t be useful to experience the empty aspect? Okay. So that’s one thing. Okay. And you’ll also find if you make a point of experiencing the emptiness and the vividness together, just as Chuck described you don’t get caught by the emotion, you actually start transforming the energy of the emotion into awareness. So this is very, very useful. It’s a good thing to cultivate. You can’t do it by thinking. You have to actually just do it.
Lynea: Can I ask one more question about that?
Ken: Oh, I’ll let you, yes. [Laughter]
Lynea: Looking at something and seeing that there’s nothing there—the way you described the dharmakaya or that…I don’t know…
Ken: Dharmakaya aspect is what I said.
Lynea: That aspect for me seems like awareness but not the actual full experience.
Ken: That’s right—there’s just a kind of understanding of it.
Lynea: So I guess, I’m not understanding how that aspect relates to actually really being in one’s experience.
Ken: Oh. When you develop a sufficient capacity in attention, then when you do something like look at experience, you, you actually experience everything being empty. It’s not a case of understanding it intellectually—it’s how you experience things. So you can experience the mind having absolutely no foundation, no root, complete and utter groundlessness. Or there’s nothing in mind which changes. Nothing in experience, we have all these appearances of change but there isn’t anything which moves or anything like that. These are actually experiences which arise when you have a sufficient capacity in attention and you direct it in certain ways. Michelle?
Michelle: I’m sorry. I’m stuck on a question about buddhas and bodhisattvas—do you mind if we go back to that? I thought that Avalokiteshvara is considered a bodhisattva?
Ken: Ninth level.
Michelle: More please.
Ken: He’s a ninth level, there are ten levels of bodhisattva—he’s ninth—he’s two short of buddhahood.
Michelle: Ah, thank you.
Ken: Manjushri is tenth. Good, yeah he’s considered a bodhisattva. Okay, Kyle?
Kyle: I can understand the benefit of experiencing the emptiness and the emotion at the same time, but wouldn’t be—is the ultimate goal of the practice to ultimately go without the emotion? Because it seems that if the emotion doesn’t really exist, and things like anger and, and other emotions like that can cause so many problems, wouldn’t it just be easier just to…
Ken: Get rid of them?
Ken: Oh yeah, easier said than done isn’t it?
Kyle: Yeah. Well, obviously you’d have to approach it in a very careful way. Would there be a way of doing that without ultimately—maybe I don’t want to use the word suppress, but—
Ken: Well, we might become a nation of zombies. They don’t have any emotions. That’s not the point. We live, we breathe, we have thoughts, we have emotions.
Very broadly speaking there are two kinds of emotions: there are reactive emotions and emotions which are responses. The reactive emotions are organized around a sense of self. There are things like attraction, aversion, preference, indifference, pride, jealousy, greed and things like that. They arise and, when they arise because we don’t have the sufficient capacity of attention, they swallow us so we get angry or we get proud or what have you. But as you practice and you develop a greater capacity in attention then you are able to experience the arising of the emotions without being distracted, without being swallowed by them and then they just become an experience and that’s where what I was talking about comes in—one experiences them as just being nothing, just being a movement.
And its very, very different because you’re not confused by it. So saying, “Okay, let’s get rid of the emotion,” it’s a little bit like saying,“Well, you know, it would be nice if the ocean was always calm without any waves on it.” Because one way of looking at the emotions is that they are simply mind waves. But it’s the nature of the ocean to have waves. It’s the nature for a mind to move, to have waves.
The question is, is that all organized down to sense of self with all the destructiveness of that or can it be experienced openly and freely so it doesn’t cause the locking or reactivity that is the basis of suffering. So what we’re doing in Buddhism is actually not trying to get rid of emotions but trying to develop the ability to experience them completely, so we’re never confused by them.
Student: I had a little click in my head and it kind of fed back into something I was reading in Wake Up To Your Life, so it’s not so much maybe separating yourself from the emotion itself but it goes back to separating yourself maybe from the reactive.
Ken: Well, yeah, I mean it’s funny what people do with English here. We’re going to talk about this process and everybody says, “Oh you’re stepping back,” but that’s actually not what happens. What happens is you step into the emotion with awareness and when you step into the emotion with awareness then you have a far more intimate relationship with it and there’s far less confusion.
So it’s not stepping away and getting some kind of equanimity because one has some distance. It’s stepping right into it, and because one is right in it and is able to be there with presence there’s no confusion, so there is a stability and a relaxation that takes place in the emotion, which is a very different thing and very different from stepping back, which naturally leads to a kind of suppression actually. Okay?
This is something one develops through practice. Did you go to Jean’s group?
Student: No, not this week.
Ken: I’m not sure whether it’s every week or what but you will have to check.
Okay. So, we’re looking at the teacher as experience. Now, from a mythic point of view, this is being expressed very mythically. What I want to point out is that whether you have an ordinary teacher or an ordinary human being, a bodhisattva, nirmanakaya or sambhogakaya, all of these are very specific experiences, and it’s those experiences which give rise to the possibility of learning. And so mythically this would be interpreted like the nirmanakaya buddha, you have the good fortune to be born in the time when a buddha is actually walking on the earth and so forth.
But another way of understanding this is that, at that stage of awakening, you are able to experience everything as being awake to some extent, so everything becomes your teacher. And not just externally, internally you’re clear enough about the nature of mind that you actually learn through its unfolding.
If you look on the website under translations, you’ll see a song which I translated, written by a thirteenth century teacher called Kyer-gong-pa—twelfth, thirteenth century something like that—called Recognizing Your Mind as the Guru. And it is a beautiful song. It’s one Rinpoche told me to study very, very carefully. So, like 30 years later I translated it. Well, better late than never.
But is very much about the nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya experience of the teacher. So, it’s something you can look at.
Of these four who is the greatest benefactor? When we are in the obscuring darkness of the karma of afflicting emotions, we have no opportunity even to see the face of a superior spiritual master, so, how could we attend one?
In other words, you are stuck with ordinary beings.
By meeting ordinary spiritual masters receiving the light of their teaching shining on the path, one will gain the opportunity to see the superior spiritual masters.
This is not like you are going to see people and astral bodies and things like that; it means that you move into a deeper and deeper relationship with your own mind. But it is a person that we interact with, for most people, that provides us with what we need to begin this path and that’s why it says here that the ordinary human individual is the most important one. There’s a great deal written about this. A lot of people have asked me to tell them how to find a teacher.
Well, it’s one of the great challenges of the spiritual path and it’s not straightforward. I don’t think there’s any rules or, you know, there’s the old saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Well, that’s nice, that just makes it very easy. And some people look for years and years and years before they find someone and some people happen into one seemingly by chance or as Trungpa says, the illusion of accident.
One thing that I have come to appreciate is that, of the relationships you have in your life, the relationship with the spiritual teacher is one of the most important and it is probably easier to replace a husband, a wife or a boyfriend or a girlfriend than it is to replace the relationship with a spiritual teacher. That’s not universally true, but generally speaking it’s a very important relationship and there are many, many things which make it difficult to form. So, if you have the good fortune to find someone that you feel you can actually work with, then that’s something to take quite seriously.
How do you know who is your spiritual teacher? I have put it into one sentence. It’s someone you will listen to, no matter how crazy you are. It’s someone who can cut through, who—the relationship, the relations are such that no matter how completely nuts you are on some emotional issue or something like that, when you have interaction with him or her, something in you wakes up and you step out of that craziness. So, that is why it says it is someone you listen to no matter how crazy you are. Okay.
Now, let’s go through the various kinds, nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya spiritual masters. Now, the way that this is talked about here, it’s as if it is somebody outside. But this is really—at this level of experience you are experiencing the clarity and naturalness of mind itself. And it goes back to how we started the discussion. This is the teacher as experience and the experience of mind itself, the experience of emptiness, the experience of clarity, the experience of just how things manifest which will be the nirmanakaya—overt action if you wish.
All of this fuels or continues an awakening process in oneself. When one’s very present and you have a high enough capacity in attention, then as thoughts arise, each one of them precipitates a moment of awakening or elicits this. And that’s something like what they’re talking about here or it’s in that direction.
Then we have bodhisattva spiritual masters. They have all of these powers. Anybody know anybody like this? Anybody can live as long as one wishes, maintain meditative concentration as long as one wishes, shower down the rain of limitless necessities on sentient beings—it sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? What’s actually going on here?
This is mythic language. Yes, Kyle.
Kyle: Well, as far as the one can live as long as one wishes, from what I have read and I think I understand is that there’s, with something like impermanence, you don’t necessarily want to live forever in the sense that a lot of people would. I mean you are more willing to, I guess, to use a kind of a cliché, accept your own time or something like that.
Ken: Okay. That’s one possibility. Anybody else? Joe.
Joe: I thought at one point that I could further classify these four into two, one of which the text suggests we will meet and the other three the text suggests we won’t meet. But the reason we won’t meet those three is that because when we get to the point where these experiences are real to us, there will be no buddha, because buddha is, in fact, a concept and those concepts will disappear. And I suppose each of these ten are levels of experience or can be seen as levels of experience that will cease to have these kinds of categorizations and separations because they will no longer be concepts, they will be experiences.
Ken: Yes, and my invitation to you right now is—what are these experiences? What is the experience of power over life? What is the experience that power over mind refers to? What is the experience that power over birth refers to? I’m going to make you sweat a little bit.
Joe: You’re going to make me what?
Ken: I’m going to make you sweat a little bit.
Joe: Thank you. I suppose since I am not there right now it would be an experience of the relative nature of say, birth—the dependent nature of birth. I don’t know. I’m making this up. I ain’t there.
Ken: My point here is that it’s not a case of being there. Because that’s all making it out there. And I think we can understand this in ways much, much closer to home. And one of the problems…things that are good to keep in mind here…much of what’s being talked about here is in mythic language. It’s highly symbolic. And what I’m trying to do in part of this Then and Now class is help you translate the symbology into actual experience because people tend to take the symbology literally.
So let’s start with power over birth. Means one can maintain meditative concentration and if born in the desired world one will not be affected by its faults.
Well, in the prayer that we do at the beginning we say, Suffering is present in all six realms, may I not be born in those states. Now in mythic vocabulary you regard the six states, the six kinds of beings as actual places where one will take birth. But in the way that we tend to approach things, it says to be born in one of the realms is to succumb to that particular emotional projection. You with me? So from that point of view what would power over birth be? Kate? Joe could you hand the mike?
Kate: Well I’m thinking maybe it would be—it would be a moment of presence.
Ken: Yeah I think we could go a little bit further. That is, we can move into any way of being intentionally at any moment. So I can drop into quiet, stable attention. I can move into compassion or loving kindness. Even If I move into desiring something, it’s not the same kind of clinging desire.
So what I want to suggest here—these are—it’s not talking about magical powers or anything like that. But these ten powers are talking about ways that we’re able to work with our own experience. So being able to move into any state of mind at will. Well that’s actually pretty impressive. Cara? Michelle could you pass the mike, please.
Cara: Sort of what…what I was thinking even previously when you brought this up was John F. Kennedy saying, We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Ken: Actually I think it was…
Cara: Churchill said that. Oh, Churchill said that.
Ken: No, no it was Roosevelt.
Cara: Well again, did Kennedy quote him or something during the war?
Ken: Of course, yes. No that was—
Cara: Well I was around back then you know. Like that’s right.
Ken: That’s Kennedy, yeah, but Franklin Roosevelt said that in the Second World War.
Cara: That’s right. I could hear it in my head like in a Boston accent. I don’t know and it’s late. Maybe it was my seventh grade math teacher. She talked like that too, “Where’s the hypotenuse?” Take this [microphone] away from me!
What I was gonna say is that I think that a teacher from whom I could learn from is someone who is capable of transcending emotion. Not transcending it—I don’t know what the proper way of saying it is. Like when you watch a child get really freaked out about something and you’re like, “Dude it’s a bug and it’s this big. Like chill out.”
You know, a good teacher is someone who can impart that wisdom to you and help you attain—I don’t want to say—like get above it. But when I see someone who is able to do that where I would flip out over even a minor thing and then I can see someone in the same situation with me remain calm or then that is someone from whom I can learn and that is someone that I would point to as having attained a higher level of—not a higher level but…
Ken: Yes but I think we need to be very, very careful here.
Ken: Do you ski?
Ken: Okay, you watch these people ski in powder?
Ken: Nice to watch isn’t it?
Ken: You don’t, why?
Cara: Because it’s my empathy just kicks in and I’m terrified.
Ken: Why are you terrified of powder?
Cara: I fall down a lot.
Ken: Yeah, okay. See when you’re skiing in deep powder, you have to be totally attuned to the snow. Because it looks—I mean you see these guys just go [sound effects] just so, make it look so easy. But when you’re actually doing it you find that the snow is varying all the time. It’s pulling at your boots. It’s pulling at your skis and things like that. And what these people are able to do is to make these micro-adjustments so quickly that when you look at it it’s just so smooth. And this is the same in any area—I’m just using skiing as one example.
You watch somebody play tennis, you watch somebody play golf, you watch somebody do things and it looks so effortless. And it’s—but it isn’t that they aren’t—the more that you learn, the more refined your movement gets. So it isn’t, this notion of transcending emotions I think is a very dangerous one because I don’t think that’s what happens. I think it’s that one becomes so attuned that one can make those adjustments as emotional material is arising. So they actually experience it but they are never caught by it the way we are. We get clumsy. And so it looks like they’re unmoved but actually they’re moved—they know the emotions. Actually they know them even more intimately than we do. But they aren’t caught or confused by them. And that’s very different from transcending them, if you follow.
Cara: Well I guess I think of transcendence as like the ultimate detachment. But not in the negative sense.
Ken: Yeah and I understand, but I even want to push on that one a little bit. Because rather than detachment which is kind of like this, it is not attaching at all. So it arises but you don’t attach so you’re never caught so there’s just a continuous smooth movement. And it isn’t that the emotions don’t arise, it’s that they arise, but because one isn’t attaching at all, the emotional energy can move freely and it doesn’t create the hiccups and the bumps that reactive emotion does.
But I just want to encourage you to not think of it in terms of transcendence but actually intimate experience of the emotion with a high level of attention so that one isn’t caught by it. Okay, Michelle, then Jean, then Randye.
Michelle: I like your powder analogy also because the only way to ski powder is to keep your weight forward—the moment you lean back on your skis—
Ken: You’re dead, yes.
Michelle: You’re dead, exactly. And there’s a nice analogy there to being disconnected.
Ken: And you can’t do anything suddenly. You know, when you’re skiing in powder, I’m not very good at it, but the few times I’ve got it, you just think about turning and you turn. Yeah, okay.
Michelle: You also can’t do anything half way. As soon as you lean heavily on one ski, you’re dead. You have to be very balanced.
Jean: I was just thinking of it in terms of it being reactive or responsive. And I, when you talk about reactive emotions that brings thoughts, negative thoughts, but if you’re responding to emotions then to me that’s an interaction and without attachment but—
Ken: Yes, the point that I’m trying to express here is that stuff’s arising in everybody but it’s how we experience it that makes a difference. And when a reactive emotion arises, there’s something there that we don’t want to experience and that’s what produces the reactivity where there’s always a pushing away or a protecting. But when something happens and we don’t need to protect ourselves then the energy just moves and it doesn’t come out as a reactive emotion, doesn’t come out as anger or jealousy or something like that. It comes out as clarity or what have you.
Jean: Just one comment, I’ve found as a student that I learn—probably only learn—when I am responding rather than when I’m reacting.
Ken: Yeah, I think that’s true, yep. Randye you had a comment?
Randye: When I read the power over, I translated it as being free from conditioning. And the image came up somebody had been talking about an interview with the Dalai Lama and noted that when they talked about the death of a mutual friend he got very sad and then in the next sentence they talked about the success of another friend and he got very happy. And there was a very immediate response. It was deep and it was heartfelt but it was moment-by-moment.
Ken: That’s right.
Randye: Totally appropriate to whatever was happening at that moment.
Ken: Exactly, yes.
Randye: So is that the power over?
Ken: That’s what I think this is talking about. It’s that, it’s not these magical powers but right in each moment you are completely there. So the power over aspiration prayer: you can give rise to those aspirations. Power over provision of necessities: whatever situation you’re in you find a way to use what is actually there.
Randye: There, you’re okay with it.
Randye: The other question is are these ten powers related to the ten levels of bodhisattvas?
Ken: I don’t think these ones actually are. There’s the ten perfections which are related to the ten levels of bodhisattvas but I don’t recall…I don’t recall any correlation, but there may well be. You know, somebody may have done it somewhere. Okay.
I want to move on and cover the section C here, if we can.
There are three types of ordinary spiritual masters, those who possess eight qualities. Those who possess four and those who possess two. Concerning the first one, the bodhisattva bhumis, say, “One should understand that a bodhisattva’s eight qualities is a perfect spiritual master. What are the eight? Possesses the moral ethics of a bodhisattva, is learned in the bodhisattva’s teachings, possesses realization, possesses compassion and kindness, possesses fearlessness, possesses patience, possesses an indefatigable mind and is excellent in verbal expression.”
How many do you know?
Student: Just you.
Ken: Yeah right! [Laughter]
Let’s see…I can cross off eight of those right away.
I said earlier from a certain point of view it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the teacher as an entity in his or her own right. It’s an experience. And there will be times when you’re sitting with someone and this may be how you experience them. Or maybe experience them as four or two. And when you have that experience, when that experience arises, then you’re capable of learning.
This goes back to Jean’s comment because when you’re experiencing like that you’re going to be quite responsive. And it isn’t necessarily the case that the teacher has all of those quantities—qualities because again when we speak that way we are making the teacher into an entity.
But the teacher-student relationship is a relationship and it arises when two people interact a certain way. What’s being described here are the qualities that need to be present on the teacher’s side of that interaction. I think it would be very useful and I think Guenther talks about it in there to look at the qualities that need to be present on the student side of that interaction.
And that’s what we’re going to focus on next week: looking more at the actual interaction between—how do these two people interact in a way that makes learning or awakening possible. And just to give you something to think about, we’ll close with a story on this subject. Of course they always move these stories around when I want to find them. Oh dear. Yeah here we are.
It is related by Ibrahim Kawas that when he was a youth he wanted to attach himself to a certain teaching master. He sought out the sage and asked to become his disciple.
The teacher said, “You are not yet ready.”
Since the young man was insistent, the sage said, “Very well I will teach you something. I am going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, come with me.” The disciple was overjoyed.
“Since we are traveling companions,” said the teacher, “one must lead and the other obey. Choose your role.” “I shall follow, you lead,” said the disciple. “I shall lead if you know how to follow,” said the master.
The journey started. While they were resting one night in the desert of the Hejaz, it started to rain. The master got up and held a covering over the disciple protecting him. “But this is what I should be doing for you,” said the disciple. “I command you to allow me to protect you thus,” said the sage.
When it was day the young man said, “Now it is a new day. Let me be the leader and you follow me.” The master agreed.
“I shall now collect brushwood to make a fire,” said the youth. “You may do no such thing, I shall collect it,”said the sage. “I command you to sit there while I collect the brushwood,” said the young man. “You may do no such thing,” said the teacher, “for it is not in accordance with the requirements of discipleship for the follower to allow himself to be served by the teacher.”
And so on every occasion the master showed the student what discipleship really meant by demonstration.
They parted at the gates of the holy city. Seeing the sage later, the young man could not meet his eyes. “That which you have learned,” said the older man, “is something of the nature of discipleship.”
[pg 146, Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah]
And the disciple in this one went on to become a very great teacher himself. But this is how he started.
Okay, we do the dedication please there.
Endnote: For more about George Berkeley’s philosophy, see the Wikipedia entries for If a tree falls in a forest and George Berkeley.