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.
Course Introduction Download
Studying ancient texts in modern times; three approaches: study/reflection/practice; texts to be covered; looking for the questions behind the answers; participant’s questions about text/course. The Jewel Ornament of Liberaton by Gampopa, class covers Introduction
This evening is the first of this series of classes, for which I grabbed this title of Then and Now out of thin air. The idea for this class came from a number of requests of, “We’d really like to learn something about Tibetan Buddhism, not just about meditation practice.” So we’re going to work with some texts.
One of the aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is that it developed in a pre-modern, agricultural, semi-nomadic society, and we live in a post-modern, post-industrial, multi-cultural society. These are very, very different circumstances. Time and time again I found myself in the process of translating from one instruction and perspective from that culture, to this culture. So that’s basically what we’re going to try to do here; work with texts, or work with teachings which, at the very least, are a thousand years old. Many of them are much, much older than that, but nothing we’ll work with is more recent than a thousand years ago. Take these teachings and ways of approaching practice—ways approaching life, in a certain sense—and explore and see how to understand and how to work with them in the context of our own culture. So this is not about trying to go back to another age or create another situation, but how to bring these things forward into this set of circumstances.
Traditionally, there are three ways of approaching or developing an understanding; they’re usually referred to as listening, thinking and meditating. I like to translate those as study, reflection and practice.
In early times, the only way you actually were able to study something was to listen to somebody very, very carefully because you usually didn’t have access to a text. There just weren’t any texts to have access to, so you had to listen very carefully. Today we have not only have books all over the place, we also have the Internet and all kinds of other resources; so we have our own ability to study.
Through study we develop a conceptual, an intellectual understanding, which is the basis. That’s helpful, like we understand the stuff. But then we enter a second stage in which we actually think about it, reflect on it, roll it over and over, until it makes sense to us, which is different from just learning the material. You chew on it until it actually makes sense to you.
And then you cultivate it through meditation practice so that it really becomes part of you, or you remove whatever is inside you that prevents you from living that directly. So we’re going to be working primarily—in the context of this class—with the first two, because practice just takes a lot more time.
In terms of how to put this stuff into practice, this is the book I recommend [holds up Wake Up To Your Life], because it just happens to be written by somebody in this room. This lays out the practices quite clearly for a modern context.
One of the things I will expect of all of you is that you put some effort from week to week in actually learning this material. You don’t come here and just sit and absorb, you actually learn some of the concepts and some of the lists.
We’re coming from a very scholastic tradition—I’ll say more about that in a minute—so there are all kinds of things that one can learn. And it really is very, very helpful to learn them because then they become accessible in your day-to-day life. And that makes a huge difference: you aren’t trying to think, “Okay, what was that teaching?”
It’s a very old fashioned thing that I’m talking about, it’s memorization. I don’t expect you to memorize 10 pages a week or anything like that, but there are a few key things which it would just be very helpful to commit to memory, so that when you’re thinking about them, you actually don’t have to keep looking them up and trying to remember what they are, you can actually just think about them.
And the second thing that I expect is that you actually do think about this stuff. You may want to do some extra reading from time to time to get different perspectives. The Internet is an extraordinary resource because there’s just so much stuff up on it, even in these relatively esoteric areas.
And the key thing is, does this make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, then why doesn’t it make sense? And it’s those kinds of questions that I want you to bring to the class, so this isn’t just a one-way street where I’m giving you material, but you’re actually thinking about this quite actively. If something doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t understand it. We can have a discussion about that.
Practice is basically your responsibility. I suggest that you practice at least half an hour a day. Better, 40 minutes to an hour, but half an hour is really the minimum. Whatever form your practice takes, it is going to help you very significantly in absorbing and being able to make use of the material because it is through practice that we get a somewhat quiet mind, and the quiet mind is one which becomes naturally clear, and that clear, quiet mind naturally understands things much more than the busy intellectual, thinking mind. In some ways it’s a different kind of understanding, an understanding that a lot of people in this culture are not used to, but it’s a far stronger, far deeper, far more vibrant understanding.
And that’s again why I recommend this [holds up Wake Up To Your Life], because it has the practice. You will also find resources for practice in the Unfettered Mind website, in the Practice and Study Guide.
In terms of what we’re going to actually be doing, we’re going to cover what’s a fairly large section of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s by no means all of it. We’re not going to be dealing very much with what’s called Vajrayana. We’re going to be dealing with mainly the Mahayana, or Sutrayana as it’s called, and in a way that is characteristic of the Tibetan tradition: a genre of literature which was called lamrim—usually put together as one word, but sometimes separated into two. You can look it up on Google and get a bunch of stuff.
Lam is the word for path; rim is the word for stages. So it’s literally the stages of the path. Basically it’s just a sequence of teachings which set out the whole path. It was a genre of literature that was initiated in Tibet by a figure called Atisha who came to Tibet in 1042. He was the leading Indian master, basically somewhat like the pope of Buddhism in India at that time. And he’d been invited numerous times and consistently turned them down because Tibet, as far as the Indians were concerned, was a land of barbaric savages. But circumstances conspired so that Atisha finally acceded to these invitations. He came in the eleventh century and taught there for the rest of his life.
Part of it was [spent] writing a book which became the model for a very large genre of Tibetan literature. There are innumerable texts which set out the stages of the path. The one we’re going to focus on is The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Now for The Jewel Ornament of Liberation there are now two translations in English, this one by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche and this one by Herbert V. Guenther. And there are pros and cons of both.
This one was made in the 1950s by an Austrian scholar by the name of Guenther, whom I had the occasion to meet. A very wonderful, kind, generous person, and smart as hell. And there was no concept too easy that he couldn’t make difficult. But he was a traditional European philosopher who decided that he wanted to convey the depth of Tibetan thinking in the West when it was regarded as pretty primitive. And this is the late 1950s and early 1960s, so this is one of his first translations. The English is very, very difficult because it’s his second language and he’s writing very scholastically. The big thing about this is that the footnotes are absolutely full of really useful information.
This [other] translation is made by a Tibetan lama name of Konchog Gyaltsen who speaks English quite well. It’s also been heavily edited, so it’s quite readable. The very nice thing about this is, in addition to being readable, it includes a whole bunch of the stories, which the author of this text—Gampopa, which I will get to in a minute—alludes to. They’re all included in the appendix. It fills in all the gaps basically, which is very nice. Both books, as most of the stuff that is in English, have serious translation problems, and that’s my job, is to help clean up those translation problems.
Another book, which deals with the same material, is a commentary on a seventeenth century teacher, Jigme Lingpa, by a contemporary teacher, Kanjur Rinpoche. This covers much the same material in a somewhat different way, just very, very readable. It’s called The Treasury of Precious Qualities. There are two books by that title. This is the commentary on Jigme Lingpa by Kanjur Rinpoche. These are all on the recommended reading, or suggested reading on the website.
Third book-third, fourth, fifth—I don’t know which—The Words of My Perfect Teacher is not exactly a lamrim. This is one of the central texts in the Nyingma tradition. It occupies basically the same position in the Nyingma tradition as this Jewel Ornament does in the Kagyu tradition. And again, this is quite a good translation. It’s a very famous text mainly because this is the text from which all the lamas draw all their stories. So whenever the lamas are telling stories, you can almost always count on finding it somewhere in this book.
A much lesser known book is one written by one of my teachers, The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception by Dezhung Rinpoche. I’m not sure how available this is. Dezhung Rinpoche was one of the great master scholars. Whenever you asked him a question you had to be prepared for a two-hour answer and it didn’t matter what the question was. He was just such a wonderful source of information and a very, very warm person. And this is written very simply, very nicely, and covers again the same material. The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception.
Now, in terms of resources, anybody who’s taking this class, if you aren’t already I want you to enroll on Facebook.
Ken: Facebook’s changed; your teenager will die! Look, Steve Chase and people are on Facebook. Facebook’s changed and it’s become a very convenient site for networking, basically. I’ve set up a group on Facebook specifically for this class. It’s called ThenandNow. Now that’s run together because when I had it typed in as Then and Now, as separate things, you just couldn’t find it. The words are too common.
So, ThenandNow without any spaces, and you will be able to find it quite easily. You can enroll in the group. I’m going to use that to list these kinds of resources so you don’t have to take notes, etc., and to give you updates on the class and things like that.
But it’s also a place for you to throw up questions and things like that. If you come across stuff in your own studies and research which are interesting, you can put links to it there, and then everybody in the class. So we’re going to use Facebook as a community resource for this class and you can send a friend request to me or whatever and on it goes.
Student: Is this a wiki?
Ken: No. Facebook is a commercial site. It originally started as a way for high school and college people to connect with each other, things like that, but it’s expanded hugely beyond that. It’s very well designed and with a much cleaner interface than MySpace.
Where’s Deborah? There she is. We had a meeting the other day and Deborah said, “Facebook? No way!” What’s your attitude to Facebook now?
Deborah: I think it’s a time-waster, but I’m on it. [Laughter]
Ken: A little more than on it.
So anyway, at some point I want to set up that kind of community site for Unfettered Mind but we aren’t there yet, so I’m just going to make use of stuff that’s free and available and it works. That’s where I’m going to be posting stuff so you can keep tabs on the class from there.
The other thing is that in your reading on the Internet as I say any of the stuff that we discuss in this class, you will be able to type stuff into Google and you’ll get bunches of stuff, because there’s really, really a lot of stuff up. And if you find something that’s particularly interesting, post it in the “Links” section in the class group and then everybody will be able to benefit from it.
Okay, those are those two sections. Now the actual structure of the class each evening.
My plan is that we do half an hour of meditation just as we did this evening, an hour of covering material, and then a half-hour for questions and discussion. For this I really encourage everybody to be here on time.
Actually, Susan, if you’re doing the bell, what I’d like you to ring the gong about five times at 7:25, which can be a signal for everybody to get in their places so we can really start at 7:30 so we aren’t starting late.
And so I’m going to try to be quite prompt because we all have busy lives. We can end at 9:30 so that you all know you we aren’t going to off until midnight and burn the midnight oil.
Are there any other logistic points we should cover? [Brief discussion about getting into the building omitted] I think that takes care of the logistics.
So the next thing I want to do this evening very briefly, is to go into a little bit more context.
The book we’ll be working with principally, is The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Again either of these two translations—this is the more readable one—but it’s your choice which you get, or you can get both. I have a copy of the Tibetan if anybody wants it.
Ken: Sure! There’s actually two books in here. There’s The Jewel of Ornament of Liberation, and then Filling In the Gaps of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. This is not the copy that I read originally back in the early seventies when I learned Tibetan, but that’s what it looks like [holds up book]. And it says right there, Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
Ken: Pardon? Take my word? [Unclear] Okay. But the reason I dug this out is so that as we’re going through this I can actually check the Tibetan and possibly clear up any confusion by referring to the actual source. Joe?
Joe: Ken, since we’re on books, do you have any comments on Path to Buddhahood?
Ken: Yeah, I ordered this and took a had a quick look at it. And unfortunately I looked at a page where I read something which I just thought was wrong. This is kind of…
Ken: Pardon? Path to Buddhahood, a series of teachings on The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Basically he takes the six topic areas and gives a lecture on each one. And I’m sure most of it is fine. It’s like a summary of the book. Okay?
The Jewel Ornament of Liberation is part of a genre of literature, which I’ve referred to already as lamrim. And there are innumerable lamrim texts.
In the Gelugpa tradition you have the great lamrim, which is like huge, and the short lamrim. I know probably about 10 different lamrim texts. They all cover essentially the same material, which is where Buddhism had evolved to in India up to the tenth or eleventh century. That’s what Tibetan Buddhism is based on. Now, we have to look at that.
Buddhism started 500 BCE. Tibetan Buddhism in this formulation is starting fifteen hundred years later. That’s a long time. So things had been thought through and evolved and chewed and teachings had been developed and lost countless times during those centuries. And as tends to happen with spiritual traditions over time, particularly in medieval cultures, because this is really medieval India we’re talking about.
The monasteries became the repositories of learning, and so there is a great deal of emphasis on scholasticism and reason and logic and all of that. So that is one of the reasons why Tibetan Buddhism has a very academic tone to it, an academic tone which is really quite out of sync with most people’s interest in it today. They aren’t interested in learning lots of stuff: they want to learn how to practice and approach this in a way that is directly relevant to their lives. And that’s very much how I’m going to try to approach this.
The author of the text is a person called Gampopa, who is also known as the doctor from Dakpo. Dakpo is a certain region of Western Tibet, I believe. And his story, he’s a very important figure in Tibetan Buddhism for a number of reasons. He started off being trained as a physician. He was a very, very skilled doctor. He was married, had a couple of children. His two children and his wife all died of diseases of which he was unable to cure them. His wife died extremely painfully and this was very difficult for him, as any of you know when you have a loved one who is dying and there is nothing you can do about it. That is really, really difficult.
And through this experience he just felt that life had no meaning. So he just gave up his medical practice, entered a monastery and turned to spiritual practice. And he trained for many years as a monk and became a very well regarded scholar, but that path did not answer his deep spiritual questions, even though he was regarded as a great teacher by virtue of his study and mastery of the material.
His spiritual quest led him to give up his place in the monastery and journey to meet another teacher, a person called Milarepa, who was a mountain yogin, who lived in the mountains of Tibet. So powerful was his practice that he just wore a cotton sheet in, you know, these very cold, snowy regions. And Gampopa became his principle disciple.
The reason he’s regarded as a pivotal figure is that he took these two traditions: the scholastic, monastic tradition and the mountain yogin tradition, which are regarded as two rivers, and brought them together. This became the basis for a large number of transmissions in the Tibetan tradition: what are called the Dakpo Kagyu, Dakpo after this Gampopa. And there are several lines of transmission some of which are extant today, like the Karma Kagyu and the Drukpa Kagyu and so forth.
So, here we have a highly trained scholastic who also has developed yogic abilities in isolated practice in the mountains, and this is what he puts together as the basis for practice. So that’s what we’re going to take a look at.
Now this evening what I want to deal with is just the introduction, which is just a page and half, if that. The principal challenge that I find we face in looking at Tibetan Buddhism, is that, since it developed when Buddhism had been around for fifteen hundred years already, we have extremely well-formulated answers to spiritual questions, and the questions aren’t actually named. So we’re going to play a little “Jeopardy” here.
What are the questions? Because spiritual practice always starts with certain questions. And this is something that I would like you to reflect on as you approach this text, as you approach this class. And I want you to reflect on this in two ways.
One, what are your spiritual questions? Which is, to put it very simply: why are you here? What are the questions that you’re looking for answers to? And so that’s one thing. And keep bringing that to mind so that when you’re reading this you say, “okay, what relevance does this have for the questions that I’m working with?”
And if you can’t see that relevance then what I’d like you to do is to ask, and say, “This is the question that I have. Does this particular teaching, or where in this is there some kind of response to that?” And I’d really like you to be active participants in that way.
Then the second way that I’d like you to reflect on this is that for everything we go over—and I’ll be doing this very much with you—is, what is the spiritual question for which this is an answer?
I don’t want to say it’s the answer because there are many possible answers. But what is the spiritual question for which this is an answer? And I’ve found that this is a very interesting way of reading some of these texts, rather than just saying, “These are the teachings, now you just understand them,” is to come back. What are the questions that motivated this? And that’s what to try to go over with you this evening. So…
In every Tibetan text that I know of, it always starts off with an homage. Here’s the homage is [Konchog Gyaltsen, p. 44]:
I prostrate to the noble Manjushri in youthful form. I pay homage to the Victorious Ones, their followers, the holy dharma, and to the lamas who are their foundation. This noble teaching, which is like the wish-fulfilling jewel, will be written for the benefit of myself and others by depending on the kindness of Mila and Lord Atisha.
Now one of the things that you may come to appreciate here, is that whoever they pay homage to tells you something about the text. Here the homage is being paid to Manjushri. Manjushri is a tenth level bodhisattva, who is regarded as the embodiment of awakened intelligence.
So that tells you right away that this is a scholastic treatise. This is about wisdom, it’s about knowing stuff. Other texts will pay homage to Avalokiteshvara, who is the embodiment of awakened compassion. They have a very different tone to them, they’re very different subject matter.
Here it’s to Manjushri, and then the Victorious Ones. This is an epithet for the buddhas; their followers, the bodhisattvas; the holy dharma, the teachings; and the lamas which is an acknowledgment of the sangha. These are the three jewels. So that’s who he honors.
And then he declares his intention: This noble teaching, which is like the wish-fulfilling jewel, will be written for the benefit of myself and others by depending on the kindness of Mila and Lord Atisha. So he’s referring to the two streams of his training.
Lord Atisha is what gave rise to the scholastic tradition and the monastic tradition in Tibet in the New School, and so he’s acknowledging Atisha there and that whole sequence of lamrim texts. And he is also acknowledging Milarepa, who is his, I would say, principal teacher, one through whom he came to the deepest realization.
The first sentence [Konchog Gyaltsen, p. 45] is very simple: In general, all phenomena are included in the two categories of samsara and nirvana.
Right here we run in to two different problems. One is a fairly serious translation problem which I want to talk about. The second is two technical terms: samsara and nirvana.
Let me first talk about the translation problem: all phenomena. Now the word here in Sanskrit is dharma; in Tibetan it’s chos. It’s usually translated as phenomena, but phenomena is not really accurate because phenomena refers to the objective pole of experience. What this word dharma refers to is experience.
Now, there are two different aspects to experience: I experience objects out there but I also experience a subject, like me, I. Anybody else have that experience? Okay.
And so it isn’t just what is perceived, it’s also the experience of perceiving, of knowing. So I prefer to translate that word as experience. And so I would say all experience rather than all phenomena. If you want to cross that word out in your text and write in experience that’s fine by me.
So all experience, and this, again, we have are included. This again is what I call the idiocies of Buddhist English, where people translate very literally without really paying attention to English idiom.
We have the two categories of samsara and nirvana. Now he’s going to explain what samsara and nirvana are. But basically he is saying is: all experience can be divided into two categories: samsara and nirvana.
What does he mean by this term samsara? Now the term samsara literally means cycle, or cycling—not like a bicycle, but something that goes round and round.
And nirvana literally means passing beyond misery. That’s its literal meaning. Samsara refers to how we ordinarily experience things in terms of subject/object duality and all the confusion that arises from that.
Nirvana, as he’s using it here, refers to experiencing things without that confusion, which is not how it’s used in a lot of other contexts. That’s one of the things we’ll be faced with, is the fact that words are used differently in different contexts.
Then he goes on to say, That which is called samsara is empty by nature, it’s a confused projection. Its defining characteristic is that it manifests as suffering. That which is called nirvana is also empty by nature but all the confused projections are exhausted and dissipated. Its defining characteristic is freedom from all suffering. Now having read that, what is the spiritual question that this is an answer to?
Student: The emptiness?
Ken: No, that’s more part of the answer. Oh, by the way, do we have the microphone here? Because this is podcast, we would like you to use the microphone, that way people can hear things.
Now, any ideas about what the spiritual question here is? Let me read it again: That which is called samsara is empty by nature, a confused projection. Its defining characteristic is that it manifests as suffering. That which is called nirvana is also empty by nature but all the confused projections are exhausted and dissipated. Its defining characteristic is freedom from all suffering.
So Chuck? Joe, could you pass one of the mics to Chuck there?
Chuck: I would say it answers the question, “What is experience?”
Ken: Okay, Art?
Art: What is the cause of suffering, or why is there suffering?
Ken: Yeah, so I think both of these are good candidates. Okay, if we take Chuck’s suggestion a step further it’s like, What is life? That’s a fairly deep question. What is this experience we call life? And if we take Art’s contribution: it’s okay, I experience suffering in life. Why? Right? Why is it this way? So this is where our starting point is. We have this experience; do you understand this experience of life? You know…
I always recall a radio interview I translated for Kalu Rinpoche, my teacher, in Canada, in which the interviewer started off with the question: “Rinpoche, what is the meaning of life?”
And I tried to translate this, and I quickly wound up tied up in knots because I could not convey that question in Tibetan. So I interrupted the interviewer and asked if we could start again. Fortunately it was being taped, it wasn’t live, that would have been very embarrassing!
Then I translated the question again and Rinpoche’s reply was: “Life is the time between birth and death.” [Laughter]
I just let the interviewer, who was a very skilled interviewer, struggle with it, and by the end of the half-hour he was just sweating because of these different ways of interpreting things. But I realized I couldn’t ask this question in Tibetan.
What is life? What is this experience we call life? What’s going on here? We’re born, we come into this world of experience. Things rarely go according to plan. It seems to be far harder than it actually needs to be, consistently. And that isn’t something that’s particularly true of this age, that goes back you know, thousands of years. What’s going on here?
This is where I’d like to suggest that where Gampopa is starting. But because this has been chewed and chewed and chewed over hundreds of years, he’s already starting with a kind of answer rather than with a question. Okay?
Then he says, okay, one aspect of our life is that we suffer. Now the word for suffering in Sanskrit is duhkha. And basically, while it is generally translated as suffering it covers everything from mild discomfort—physically or emotionally—to torture, to extreme agony—physically or emotionally.
And lately I’ve been experimenting with a different way of talking about it. How many of you struggle in your life? [Groans from listeners] Okay. I’m going to suggest that’s what this term refers to. So when he says: That which is called samsara is empty by nature, a confused projection. Its defining characteristic is that it manifests as struggle. Okay?
So whenever you find yourself struggling in life you are experiencing what Gampopa is referring to as samsara. Okay. And I really want to underline this. A lot of people think of samsara as life in the city and of nirvana as life in nature. This is… No. Wherever you’re struggling, that’s samsara.
By contrast, how many of you have experienced situations, interactions with a friend or others, where things have just flown extremely—flowed not flown—extremely easily? There’s absolutely no sense of struggle. It goes so far that you don’t feel separate from things. You don’t have a really strong sense of I. You’re just there. Anybody have this kind of experience? Okay, I want to suggest that is what they are talking about when they say nirvana.
Okay. So we have these two contrasting things: one is struggle, the other is this flow, or peace, or no sense of separation, openness, I mean there are all kinds of words we can come with it.
The rest of this is, how does this come about? So he’s asking, who is it that is confused in samsara? And his answer is, all sentient beings of the three realms are confused. Now again, what’s the question here? In a certain sense it’s like, What am I?
I experience struggle. I experience confusion. Where does that come from? Why do I have to deal with it? And he gives all of these answers, which are very good answers, but they’re a little removed from our own experience.
’Cause he says, where does the confusion come from? His answer, confusion comes from emptiness. Now how helpful is that as an answer? [Laughter] You’re laughing, I mean, is it helpful? I want to suggest that it’s extremely helpful.
Because when he says the confusion comes from emptiness, he’s saying in effect, it isn’t something that is fixed. You know how that sense of struggle can seem solid, like it’s carved in stone, like there’s no possibility of working with it? Anybody have that sense of things? Okay. So when he says it’s coming from emptiness, he’s says that that way of perceiving things is not true.
One way Trungpa, and I think other teachers have said this, what’s being said here, is that all situations are workable. There isn’t anything we experience which isn’t workable. It may be extremely difficult but everything is workable. That’s quite a profound statement.
Student: Except the IRS.
Ken: Got tax troubles lately, Pat?
Now the next question: Where does this confusion come from? And he comes up with another really helpful answer: it comes from great ignorance. Okay. What’s he talking about here? I want you to just sit quietly for a moment and then ask yourself the question: What am I? [Pause]
What happens when you ask that question?
Student: I get quite confused.
Ken: You get really confused, okay? Please use the mic so that this can go on. You get really confused, Randye. Anybody else? Chuck, do you have a mic there?
Chuck: I asked somebody that who was very knowledgeable, a Geshe, and he just said: “Bad question.”
Ken: Yeah, what happens when you ask that question of yourself?
Chuck: I thought about what Geshe said for two or three years, and I have no idea. I have no idea.
Ken: Okay, and that’s what happens when we ask the question, we have no idea. That’s what Gampopa is referring to as great ignorance. I don’t think it’s a bad question at all, I think it’s a great question, because it puts us right in touch with the central problem of our life; we do not know what we are.
And when we look, we have no idea. That’s very significant. And what Gampopa is saying here is, we struggle in life because we don’t know what we are. Is this making a little more sense now? Okay, let’s continue.
How does this confusion operate? It operates through the activities and experiences of the six realms of migrators. I think this is a terrible translation; I’m sorry, Konchog Gyaltsen. Let’s take another look at that. We have this confusion, we have this struggle. What does it look like?
Okay, how many of you experience anger? What does the world look like when you experience anger?
Ken: Struggle, but in particular, it looks like everything’s against you. Okay?
How many of you experience greed, or to use a slightly less pejorative term, neediness? Okay, so, some of you aren’t holding up your hands but I know you do. I can just ask, how many of you are trying to get your emotional needs met? See everybody has to hold up their hands for that one. So we experience neediness. When you experience neediness, how does the world appear to you?
Ken: Yes. It isn’t there, and the world’s not supplying it. If it were supplying it, you wouldn’t feel needy.
How many of you do things on autopilot or instinct? When you function on autopilot or instinct how does the world appear to you?
How many of you saw the movie Thank You For Smoking? There’s a perfect line here. Because everybody’s asked, “Why are you doing this?” after they do something particularly horrible; and the reply is always, “I’m just trying to pay my mortgage.”
This is survival mentality. This is doing things on autopilot. They aren’t really thinking about the implications, they’re just trying to get by. It becomes a rationale for everything: I’m just trying to pay my mortgage. That’s that kind of automatic approach to things.
How many of you like to have fun? How many of you work hard at your jobs so that you can have a bit of fun? You don’t often get a chance because you don’t get much vacation time, etcetera, but we try to do that. What does the world look like to you when you’re trying to have fun? It’s okay, there’s just not enough time, right?
How many of you are a bit competitive, jealous, envious, or whatever? How many of you are trying to get ahead in your life? And what does the world look like then? You’ve got to get your elbows out, right, you’ve got to make things happen. [Laughing] Right, Jessica? And this is all because there’s a sense of deficiency, I’m not enough just as I am.
And how many of you, this may not be so true for a lot of people here, but how many of you have experienced a having certain amount of comfort in your life and you’d just like to hold on to it?
So what I’ve run through here are the six realms. The hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the titan realm, and the god realm. And we’re going to go through these in much more detail later.
This is what our life consists of: of all of these kinds of struggles. Opposing things, trying to get what we need, trying to achieve things so we can feel like we’re better than we do right now. This comprises the struggle of life. And that’s what he’s saying here. How does this confusion operate? It operates through the activities and experiences of these six realms. That’s what this confusion looks like.
How can we understand this confusion? How many of you remember your dreams? Okay, in a dream does everything appear real?
It may be somewhat more fluid than it is right now, but while you’re dreaming it appears real. One of the great teachers of the nineteenth century had a dream in which he was being chased by a lion. And he ran into a temple where one of the ancient heads of that tradition was sitting on a throne laughing his head off. He said to this guy, “You can’t be any great lama if you don’t even know that you’re being chased by a lion in a dream and you’re this frightened.” And then he woke up from the dream. But during the dream it feels very real.
How do you know you aren’t dreaming right now? This actually is a deep philosophical question. There is no way to know. How do we know we aren’t a dream in the mind of God? We don’t know. There is no way of telling. That may be a little disturbing to you, but there is no way of telling.
When I was in the three-year retreat, this was made very, very clear to us, because the retreat schedule is pretty demanding, and basically you’re functioning on four or five hours of sleep a night, six if you’re lucky.
You’re meant to be resting in your meditation, but you get tired. And several of us experienced this: we’d wake up, and we’d set up the offerings which was part of the morning ritual, and start doing our prayers and things like that. We’re all in our individual rooms.
It would be going quite nicely, and then we’d wake up [laughter], and we’d go, “What?” Because the offerings wouldn’t be done. Several times I had to wake up twice. In the first wake-up I was actually dreaming, but I had no idea that I was dreaming. And then I’d wake up and go, “huh?”
So we don’t know. And that’s what this confusion is like. We experience all this stuff. It feels so real, we act as if this is it, but we really don’t know what the hell’s going on, at all. And the only thing we know is that we struggle. There are a couple of other things we know, but I’ll get to those in a minute.
Now he says, What is the error of this confusion? I would translate that as, What is the problem here? And the problem is that, as it says, experience is suffering. We struggle. It wouldn’t matter being confused if we had a good time being confused, but we don’t.
Now the next is what an attorney would call a leading question, When can this confusion be transformed into primordial wisdom?
He’s making the assumption that it can be transformed into primordial wisdom. Okay. That’s a very powerful thing.
Here I think the question that’s being asked is, can we do anything about this confusion? He’s already assumed the answer, but is there anything we can do about this confusion? And the answer in Buddhism is actually, yes, there is. There is something we can do. We do not actually have to live in confusion.
That’s one of the central principles of Buddhist practice, and it’s probably why most of you are here this evening. Because you experience struggle in one form or another and you’re here just out of the remote possibility that it’s actually possible to do something about it.
And then a very key point, and Guenther has a much better translation here: If you think this confusion will disappear by itself, remember, samsara is notorious for being without end.
In all the work that Guenther’s translated, this is his best line. It’s a little free translation but has a nice ring to it. This is a very important statement. The question here is, well, what if I don’t do anything and just live my life? That’s the question. Why do I have to do anything about this confusion? Do I need to do anything about it?
And the answer is, if you don’t do anything about it, it’s just going to go on forever. Now suddenly that doesn’t sound so cool. If it were for a day or two, or a year or so, that would be fine. But to put this another way, there is nothing within this confused experience which is naturally going to lead to it clearing up, ending. In other words, we have to take responsibility for our experience. So this is actually very, very powerful stuff that he’s saying here.
And when you contrast this with a lot of other spiritual traditions where there’s the whole notion of being saved or being taken care of and everything: if you live a certain way then everything will be taken care of for you.
In Buddhism, you don’t have that idea at all. Whether you are awake or asleep, is entirely up to each of us individually. So there is a very, very powerful, very strong principle of taking responsibility for one’s life for one’s experience, for how one’s experiencing things.
Jessica: This is a bit of an offshoot, but maybe it’s okay for me to ask. Why is it that when you practice for a while and then you stop practicing, the energy that you’ve built up in the practice then goes back into that cycle even worse?
Ken: Well, plumbing is a good example…yeah I think electricity is a good example. You put a lightning rod on top of your house to lead the electricity down into the ground. And practice, in a certain sense, is a way of grounding us very profoundly. Okay? Now suppose you leave that nice iron spike on top of your house but you break the connection with the ground. Now what happens?
Jessica: I don’t know, but it’s not good.
Ken: Well, lightning is far more likely to strike your house, and kaboom! So when you build up some energy, and you no longer making an effort in attention, that energy’s going to go somewhere. And it’s going to flow where there are habituated patterns; but because there’s more energy in the system, the habituated patterns are going to be stronger. You follow?
And your question is quite relevant here because Gampopa’s just said samsara doesn’t dissolve itself, so we start working on it. And it becomes important once you start working on it to complete the process because otherwise you end up worse than before.
Jessica: What does that mean, really completing the process?
Ken: Well I think there are different stages of completion, but at the very least, come to a point where there is a self-sustaining shift in the system.
Okay? Now, what Gampopa does now is lay out the basic structure of the text. He says, okay, this is what we’re going to talk about: we’re going to talk about this problem of confusion and struggle and what to do about it. And he’s going to talk about what to do about it using the following framework.
The words here are primary cause, working basis, contributory cause, method, result, and activities.
I would offer these as the genesis—genesis of the practice. What makes it possible for us to do something about it? That’s what I’m translating as genesis. It’s usually translated as primary cause. I just don’t like that translation in English, for reasons we’ll go into next week probably.
So, how’s it possible for us to do something about it? What is it about our experience that makes it possible to do something about it? That’s what the first big topic is.
The next topic is, what do you need to work on it? What do we actually need? That’s like the working basis or the framework. Then, what helps? What other things, contributory causes are, like…what are the conditions? And then how do we actually do it? How do we actually make this transformation? What does life look like when you’ve actually gone through this process?
Now he answers these. The genesis or the primary cause is what is known as buddha nature, in Sanskrit, tathagatagarbha. It’s a very interesting idea, and that will be the subject of our class next week, is this notion of buddha nature and what it is. What makes it possible? buddha nature is what makes it possible for us to be able to move out of struggle and move out of confusion.
Then, what do we need to do that? We need to have certain conditions in our life as human beings: so that will be a second topic.
What makes it all come together? Is instruction and guidance from a person that’s qualified and able to do that. So there’s a discussion of the spiritual teacher, or the spiritual master.
And the how do we actually do it? By working with those teachings; and that comprises the bulk of the book, all the stuff, all the different methods.
What is the result? The result of this is that we wake up from this ignorance, and that’s what buddhahood is. That’s the result. We wake up in our lives.
Finally, the last thing is, what does life look like when you’re awake? That’s the final chapter. What life looks like is that we work for the benefit of beings.
So you can see in what we’ve gone over that in this introduction, he’s laying a foundation by looking at the central problem of human existence. He says we struggle because we don’t know who we are, and because of that confusion we have difficulties in our lives.
That confusion is not going to resolve itself. It’s only going to be resolved if we make certain efforts, and what he’s going to describe are all of the different things that need to come together in order to make those efforts. And that is going to be our subject matter for the next few weeks.
So at this point I’d like to throw it open to questions in the time that we have remaining.
Lynea, microphone please.
Lynea: I feel like this is a little bizarre, but what is a spiritual question?
Ken: Oh, you know, the Japanese have a nice phrase for this, the great matters of life and death. Okay, you can call these existential questions: Who am I? What am I? Where do I come from? What’s going to happen to me, in the ultimate sense? Okay? Those are the things…how do I know what’s right to do?
So there are a whole bunch of moral questions. Questions of that order are what I’m referring to as spiritual question. Does that answer your question?
Lynea: It does; It just seems sometimes like there is only one question.
Ken: Which is?
Lynea: What is this? [Ken laughs] That’s my question.
Ken: I think that’s very good. That’s the question which forms the basis of practice in the Korean Zen tradition.
I don’t know, in my apartment you may have seen that calligraphy I have in the hallway. It’s just an enso with What is this? in Chinese and English. It’s by Seung Sunim. That’s exactly right, what is this?
Well, right now what this is, is an experience of struggle. Where does that come from. And that just leads into all the other questions. Thank you. Kate?
Kate: In a lot of teachings and books that you pick up, when you get the basics of Buddhism it would be the four noble truths and the eightfold path. And obviously I can see that there is really all the same material, but I’m just curious about why this isn’t, you know, presented in a similar way.
Ken: That’s a very, very good question.
The noble eightfold path comes up like in chapter 22 or 24 or something like that, right at the end of the book, and the four noble truths come up somewhere back there in terms of when you move into the understanding he describes a very detailed process by coming to understand the four noble truths.
And anything I say in response to your question is speculation, but I think that it is the difference between traditions which took the early teaching and just stayed with them. And the Tibetan tradition, which as I described before, built on 1,500 years of evolution within India in which things were worked and reworked so that they really came to a different starting point.
One of the difficulties with the Tibetan tradition is that it’s so self-referential, as you can see from these opening comments. You’re assumed to know everything so they are talking about it in that way.
It’s assumed you know the four noble truths and the eightfold path, so you don’t even need to worry about those. You can go straight to the What is this? What is this experience, and what do we do about it? As you said in your question, that’s essentially what the noble truths are doing.
The first truth is the truth of suffering; there is struggle. And then, where does the struggle come from? Can we do anything about the struggle? That’s the third noble truth, the truth of cessation, and so forth. And I can only surmise that it’s just been worked and reworked so that didn’t need to be talked about explicitly. It’s just understood.
But you’re quite right, it’s a very different way of formulating things compared to the Theravadan tradition, which is always about the four noble truths.
Agnes: Are there differences really between Buddhism as 500 BC versus Tibetan Buddhism? Or is it just…Why do you call it Tibetan Buddhism, just because it is from Tibet, rather than Cambodia Buddhism or others?
Ken: Well, this is a very interesting point. When you look at Buddhism in China, Tibet, well I was going to say Japan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand, to the outside observer you’re dealing with really different religions because you’ll find almost no forms that are common.
In terms of rituals: in Thailand they have the bathing of the Buddha, unknown in the Tibetan tradition. In the Tibetan tradition you have these lama dances, unknown in the Theravadan tradition; it just looks like demon worship. In Zen, in Japan you have people going around hitting each other, unknown in Theravadan, not unknown in Tibet, but done very differently in Tibet, nothing like the precision and formality in Japanese.
So they really look like very, very different religions. Yet when Buddhists from those different countries start talking with each other they find that they’re working with very, very similar material, some of it more elaborate and some of it less elaborate, but with very similar understanding, virtually the same understanding.
When you contrast that with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, which are totally comparable because they all stem from Abraham. They are one religion and yet there are these tremendous difficulties and tensions among them in a way that does not exist among the Buddhist traditions.
So the reason that we call things Tibetan Buddhism and Cambodian and things like that is primarily because of the geographical isolation that these different Buddhist traditions experienced for hundreds of years, thousands really.
And now that geographical isolation has ended, there is a great deal of interaction taking place, which is very interesting. So we’re seeing different forms emerge. But that’s the primary reason is because these are the ones associated with different countries.
Agnes: What you’re describing, the differences seemed to be more the ritual. What about the essence, the dharma itself? Does it have basic differences between these countries?
Ken: Not in my experience.
There are some people who would say that dzogchen and Theravadan are different religions; I don’t buy it. I think they’re different ways of talking about the same thing.
The rituals and the forms that go with them are very, very different. To a certain extent the spiritual ideals are different. That is, you have a different picture of what they look like, but in the actual experience and everything I don’t find those differences.
I have a colleague who is very, very similar to me except that his training was all in the Theravadan tradition. Whereas I know Tibetan, he knows Pali. He’s put a lot of thought into translation and we have very, very interesting discussions. Because Theravadans are all set up as straw dogs in the Mahayana—you know, it’s the Hinayana [lesser vehicle]. And I discovered much to my amusement that the Mahayanists are set up as straw dogs [in the Theravadan tradition].
He said once, “Oh you Mahayana essentialists!” which is like, you know, a terrible thing to call a Buddhist, an essentialist. But we have virtually no differences in our understanding of what Buddhism is actually about and what the aim is. He’s evolved a way of teaching which is quite unique, which is different from—but is analogous to—what I’ve evolved. There’s just that kind of commonality.
Leslie: When you were talking earlier about the confusion and great ignorance and then gave that instruction to ask, What am I? and then used that as an example of what the great confusion is (or ignorance), it felt a little funny to me. Because when you’re sitting for a while and then you ask a question like, What rests? or that kind of a question, it felt to me, tonight, like the same thing. It doesn’t feel confused to me, so…
Ken: You’re leaving out one small part of the equation here. [pause]
Leslie: Which is that we were…
Ken: You’ve done quite a bit of practice, Leslie. You’re not exactly a beginner.
When that question is asked you work with it in a different way. You know how to connect, how to rest in that experience and there’s a knowing there which you’re able to appreciate, let’s say.
Okay, so that question now functions for you in a very different way than it does for people who haven’t explored any of this at all. Because when we’re new to this and we say, What am I? it’s like, “I don’t know.” It’s a completely crazy-making question.
But we can learn how to be present in that confusion and that’s where we begin to discover the process of transforming that confusion into a form of knowing, which is what he’s referring to as primordial awareness. And that actually is the answer to the question, What do we do about all of this? But you’re neglecting how much you’ve developed through your own practice there.
Leslie: Thank you.
Ken: We have time for one more question.
Steve: Just a small question. You’ve referred to Buddhism as a religion. I just wanted…maybe it’s too long for the last question of the night. Can you comment on that?
Ken: Well, some people like to make a distinction between established religions and spiritual practice. And I think it’s fair. I’m speaking pretty generally; I mean because Buddhism is regarded as one of the great religions of the world. Personally I don’t approach it as a religion in the sense I don’t approach it as a system of belief, which is how a lot of people think of religions, but as a set of tools for exploring and coming to know what is this? to pick up on Lynea’s question.
And that’s one of the things that I really like about Buddhism. It’s primarily a set of tools that we use to explore our experience. And that’s how I want to approach this class: What are the questions that you have, that we have, and how do you explore them? How do you explore them in terms of possible answers, how do you explore them in terms of building the capacity and the skills you need to do that?
And so we’re using this material which has come down through the centuries, but we’re using it to undertake our own spiritual exploration or journey into the questions that are important and relevant for us. Is that sufficient for you for tonight? Okay.
In terms of preparation for next week, I would like you to read the chapter on buddha nature, which is the next chapter, and come with your questions. I have no idea whether we will get through the whole chapter next week. I’m going to play this very, very much by ear.
We’ve got this room booked for 15 or at least 12 weeks, it’s up to the end of January anyway; but I suspect we’re going to go longer than that, and probably quite a bit longer. So we may spend two or three weeks on the next chapter. I doubt we’ll do it all in one.
I would also invite you to read about buddha nature, looking it up on the web. There are other books on it.
The main sutra, sort of a sutra, is Uttaratantra. Guenther footnotes it. It’s been translated into English two or three times. I’ll see if I can find an English translation and put it up on the Facebook so you can look.
Thrangu Rinpoche has written commentaries on it. You can look up the term Buddha nature and find some of Thrangu Rinpoche’s stuff on it on the web, but there will be lots of other stuff. I’d like you to read and explore this whole topic of buddha nature.
The Tibetan formulation or Gampopa’s formulation actually is, again, in some sense, quite abstruse. So I’m going to try to translate it into something you can relate to and that’s what we’ll focus on next week.