A Trackless Path 4

Section 1

August 22nd a.m.

So any questions, practical points you want to touch on?

[Students talking—unclear]

Ken: Is it? It’s not…

Janet: I’m sorry. When doing the primary practice, is it important to conclude a session resting in the experience of the breath as you do, say with doing the four immeasurables? And if so, why?

Ken: It’s better to just leave it on. [Referring to the mic]

There are really two different kinds of practices here. One way that I break practices down into different kinds are: there’s practices which are primarily the practice of presence. There are practices which you can call purification, in the sense that you’re working on something. And then there’s energy transformation practices in which the purpose is to transform energy into higher states to power attention.

Now, primary practice is the first and third. Four immeasurables are the second and third. So because the intention in the primary practice is to come into, as completely as possible, the experience of what is happening or what is arising right now—it’s good actually to just continue that practice into one’s experience. A word or two more about that in a minute.

When you’re working with something like the four immeasurables—and it could be death and impermanence or any number of other practices—you’re bringing attention to the operation of patterns. So a lot of stuff is getting churned up and moved around. And for that reason, it’s usually better to have a period at the end of the practice where you allow all of that stuff to resolve itself. And hence resting with the breath or resting in open awareness at the end of the immeasurables or that kind of practice is better.

Now going back to primary practice and the relation of the formal meditation with what we’re doing the rest of the day. One way to view formal practice where you’re sitting and devoting that time to practice is that you’re cultivating attention or forming a relationship with awareness or presence unmixed with other activities. When we get up and have breakfast, and wash, and take care of the things that hold life together, this is an opportunity to cultivate attention or form a relationship with awareness mixed with activities.

So, one actually makes the same kind of effort, though most people find it more difficult to bring the same quality of attention, mixing it with activity in the beginning. But it’s very definitely something to work at. And it’s best done by working at it with simple activities such as walking. And so you can walk with the same sense of the primary practice.

Section 2

Now one of the tendencies we inherit from much of Buddhist teaching is the sense there is something to work towards. Certain experiences, certain states of mind, which we are meant to achieve. You follow? I think this actually is quite problematic.

And at least for the duration of this retreat, as much as possible I’d like you to let go of that notion completely. Not working towards anything but through our efforts in practice learning both the skills and developing the capacity to live, and we could say experience life—because I want to make those almost synonymous—a different way. And that’s something that’s going to evolve through our efforts.

It’s not at all clear to me that it evolves the same way in every person. And through the course of our time here together, you’re going to sense where imbalances are in your ability to be present in your experience. And that’s something we’ll discuss in interviews and so forth, but that’s where the next effort in practice is going to be. And it may mean adaptation of a particular method that you’re working with or it may mean bringing in something a little different or maybe completely different. Does this make sense?

Janet: Very much. Very helpful.

Section 3

Ken: Claudia.

Claudia: Did you put the primary practice as an energy transformation practice? Is that the category you put it in?

Ken: It partakes of both practice of presence and an energy transformation.

Claudia: Okay.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. [Bell rings] Saved by the bell. Do you have another question?

Student: No.

Ken: Okay.

Student: [Unclear] purification.

Ken: Purification. You’ll find these in Chapter 2 of Wake Up To Your Life. Okay. Breakfast time.

[Recording stops and then restarts for new session]

Ken: Okay. So it’s August 22nd in Mandala Center, New Mexico, evening discussion.

I received a note requesting that I follow up on the discussion we started yesterday evening around this verse in Longchenpa’s 30 Pieces of Advice about which I translated as, “Don’t be close or opposed to anyone. Maintain your independence. That’s my sincere advice.”

I was not able to find the Tibetan text online. I sent a request to a friend who may get it to me sometime in the next 24 hours. He’s pretty good at digging this stuff up but he’s not sure that he can find it. I checked another translation which has a somewhat different reading.

But I think a more fruitful direction rather than narrowing down on that particular passage when we don’t have the source text available would be to engage a broader and possibly deeper matter. And that is, how do you live in a way that supports your spiritual practice? And there are many, many aspects to this. And there are also all kinds of advice and teaching on it. And a lot of the advice and teaching, well, some of it seems to be directed at certain populations.

I made the suggestion that Longchenpa is writing as a monk and within a context of Tibetan culture in which a monk of his stature would naturally be regarded as an elder, and would be called upon to adjudicate disputes and sort things out within the village or town which he was close to. And that has been a traditional function of clergy in all traditions throughout the ages. Elsewhere he says, you know, just stay out of that stuff completely. In the same thing he goes even further saying, “You may think you’re helping people but actually you’re just getting caught up in stuff.”

And then there are other forms of advice that we receive that if you do this you will experience being born in the hell realms for infinite numbers of lives in the future. So it’s not a good idea to do this. And there’s all the promises of painful or pleasant consequences if you do such and such an action. And we find this in other traditions as well.

And I remember reading in some texts that when you act this way the buddhas are pleased. So there are many, many different forms of advice. And I want to say different levels at which this advice operates. And I think this is part of something we need to keep in mind.

When we act on the basis that we’re going to be rewarded and punished for our actions, if that’s how we approach them, we’re really bringing the mentality of a child to our life. Cause that’s what happens in the family. There’s a certain reward and punishment in many, many families anyway. And there’s an authority figure who determines whether you’ve done good or bad. And there’s possibly the same figure or someone else who determines what the punishment or reward is. And then there’s the person who executes it.

And I remember reading, I think it was Shcherbatskoi on I think it was The Fundamental Concepts of Buddhism. It’s a very short book. But he noted there were five functions that needed to be addressed in any spiritual system. You need to have the account for the creation of the world—creation of this experience; a source of being; the moral authority. And basically this breaks down into law—the judge who’s the authority, the prosecutor who brings the case against you and the executioner who carries out whatever the moral decision is.

And there are many, many religious traditions, spiritual traditions, which take that approach. And I’ve found it rather odd. Because when you’re highly trained in a certain skill and you run into a situation which requires the employment of those skills, you don’t regard it as a matter of right or wrong or of some moral issue in a sense of conforming to an authority. What I’m thinking of here is if you’re a doctor, say, and you come across a person who is injured or has a disease you heal them. Or you do what you can to treat them. And it’s because it’s the appropriate response given that you have those skills.

And this is a very different way of functioning in the world compared to doing things because they are deemed right or wrong or good or bad. And in our discussion yesterday and from what I gather on the Ning site, people are looking at that particular line—Longchenpa says, “Don’t be close or opposed to anyone”—as is this the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? And some people may be approaching it that way because many people are very caught up in behaving “the right way.”

I think the deeper consideration is how do we live our lives in a way that both supports and gives expression to our understanding, or the qualities that we cultivate in practice and are important to us. And a very important element here, I think, is the element of balance.

Section 4

I was faced with this myself when I was writing Wake Up To Your Life and I had this one chapter which was very problematic—Chapter 5 on Karma. And up to this point I carved out a certain amount of time but I continued to see students individually while I was in the process of writing the rest of the book. But I was really stuck on this chapter for a number of different reasons.

So I decide to follow the advice of many, many writers and not see anybody. And just really focus my attention on this. It was a complete disaster. I went nuts. I didn’t get anything written either. And I realized from that, that while that may work for a lot of other people it certainly didn’t work for me. That having contact with people—discussion of their practice and so forth—that kind of exchange was actually very important in terms of having a balanced state of mind so I could think and write clearly. So I went back to seeing students—a few—and did get that chapter…well actually what I did was I took off for three days and went skiing in three days of a blizzard which made me even in a worse mood. So I really came back. Then I saw students. That’s when I just had…that way just didn’t work for me.

And so because we inherit a very rich tradition we inherit all kinds of advice and guidance, it’s a little bit like going into a supermarket and trying to figure out which kind of shampoo you’re going to buy.

So there are very deep and very general principles. There are ways of approaching life which people in the past have found helpful and supportive or definitely non-conducive. And then there are very specific…anywhere from recommendations and guidelines to instructions or moral imperatives. So there’s a whole spectrum there. I mean, just as a very deep and very large-scale principles there’s the very famous quotation—I think it’s from the Dhammapada, [Verse 183] but I can’t remember. My teacher quoted it all the time.

Cease to do evil.

Learn to do good.

Tame your mind.

These are the Buddha’s teachings.

Now that’s very, very deep principles. It’s actually pretty easy to write a commentary on those three which embrace what in the Tibetan tradition we refer to as the hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana. The hinayana is about adopting a way of life which avoids doing evil. The mahayana is about adopting a way of life which does good. And the vajrayana is about adopting a way of life in which you tame your mind. Hence, very, very big picture but it can be broken down and applied in each of those contexts also.

In the second category—principles by which people have found to be helpful—then we have things such as the 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice. There’s another very famous one by Patrul Rinpoche: virtue…“Virtuous in the beginning, the middle and the end,” which has been translated into English several times.

There’s other ones. There’s Padampa Sangye’s advice to people in the village that he hung out with all the time. And that’s from the 11th or 12th century. And we also have, in the support booklet here, the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva which are worded as injunctions. But I think are better understood as principles.

And then you get down to things like the Seven Points of Mind Training which give you very specific things like, “Don’t lash out. Don’t rely on a sense of duty, and don’t make a demon out of a god,” and so forth, and very, very specific.

And then you come down to moral codes. The two most fundamental in Buddhism probably are the five vows, or the core of the vows associated with the monastic tradition which are not to kill a human being, not to lie about your spiritual attainments, not to steal anything of value; for monks, nuns, not to have sexual intercourse; for lay people, it’s to be chaste and not to commit adultery, etc., and not to take intoxicants. That’s one.

And then the other one, the ten non-virtuous actions. Not to kill, not to steal, not to have inappropriate sexual relationships, not to lie, not to speak harshly of others, not to use harsh language, not to slander, not to gossip, and then not to covet, harbor ill-will or be skeptical—wrong views—but I like to translate it as skeptical.

If one approaches these as absolutes you get tied up in knots pretty quickly.

If, however, you approach them as ways to create the conditions in your life so that you can deepen your experience of life, then they work very, very differently. Some people, the way that they practice most effectively and can open completely to their experience is to be in complete solitude. So you’ll find that they write texts about, you know, “Live at least 2 bow shots from any village,” “Don’t speak to anybody unless you absolutely have to,” and so forth. But for whatever reason that particular approach to spiritual practice is one that no one here has chosen.

Claudia: Yet.

Ken: “Yet” says Claudia. I don’t mean to be impertinent but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Claudia: [Unclear]

Ken: I’m not going to hold my breath.

[Laughter throughout exchange]

For better or worse we have chosen to live in the world, adopting neither a hermit’s—or at most anchorite’s—approach nor a monastic approach, where you live in a secluded community or you adopt a way of life in which there are specific guidelines and rules of behavior. And I would say, I would venture, that the reason none of us has done that is because that is not how we actually want to live our life.

Nevertheless we cannot practice effectively unless we engage in some sort of exclusion and inclusion. And people often say to me, “I don’t have time to practice.” Okay? That’s not true, of course. It would be truer to say, “I don’t want to exclude certain things from my life.” And what I usually say to people who present that time issue is, “If you wish to develop a practice it has to be one of the two or three top priorities in your life—after eating and sleeping.” And if you approach it that way—that it is just something you’re going to do—then you’ll find the rest of your life forms and organizes itself around that. But if you try to squeeze it into your life then other things will inevitably squeeze it out.

Section 5

So, practice takes time. And the time that we put into practice means that we aren’t going to be doing other things. Those other things may be watching television, or playing video games, or surfing the internet, or—and I’m using purpose quite intentionally at this point—activities which may not be that important. But they may also be things which are important to us. And here the effort is initially not to decide what we’re going to include or exclude but to become clear about what is actually important to us in our life. When we’re clear about that, the things rearrange themselves quite naturally. There may be some effort in making some adjustments, yes, but by being clear about what’s important to us…

Now there are different ways of approaching that. Some people, they just can say, “Okay, this is important, this is important, this is important.” But not all of us are think that way or are that clear-minded.

Another way is to observe where we put our energy. And that tells us in very real terms what’s important to us—where we put our energies. And that can be a very interesting exercise. ’Cause we may—when we actually take note of where we put our energies in life—be somewhat disgusted with ourselves. [Laughter]

I did a workshop, I guess it was a couple of years ago, on money and value. And I thought it was a fairly straightforward workshop. My first hint that it wasn’t, was during the lunch break one of my younger students was sitting like this with her head in her hands saying, “And I thought this was going to be a light day!”

But I really got the idea that it wasn’t a particularly easy workshop ’cause I had four people the following week coming to see me, all of them in tears about what they had come across in the workshop. One of the exercises that I had them do was to draw up a list of priorities according to their spiritual values and then put beside that what they were actually doing with their time or how they were actually approaching things—spiritual approach or a conventional social approach. And when they saw this they saw that where they had thought of themselves as having a vibrant spiritual practice and so forth they were quite disturbed to see that it actually rated about two or three percent of their lives in most cases. And that was very upsetting to them.

Section 6

This kind of honesty with ourselves, it’s hard. It’s hard because until we bring this kind of attention to our lives we are often unaware of how much stuff is just running on complete automatic—whether it’s family conditioning, social conditioning, cultural conditioning just ordinary routines of our life—we just really aren’t aware of it.

And as we become aware of it…I want to go back to this theme of balance. As we bring attention to the totality of our lives, all aspects of it, it’s been my experience that people quite naturally are able to sense or sometimes see very clearly where the imbalances are. And often it’s a relatively short step to the emotional agendas or the patterns that are driving those imbalances. And then a decision has to be made. Is one going to move in the direction of balance or going to continue with the imbalances?

When I say a decision has to be made, that’s true. And it isn’t necessarily one’s going to make drastic changes right away. And here we come to one of the innocuous but really very important teachings in mind training: “Learn the three difficulties.” Or the three challenges. Whatever word you wish to use there.

The first challenge is to recognize an imbalance. The second challenge is to develop a way of addressing it—the component of one’s practice, if you wish. And the third challenge is to work at that method consistently. Things don’t change overnight. In a few cases they do. But I’m reminded of one of the Hollywood moguls who said, “Give me a couple of years and I’ll make an overnight success of her.” And that’s often what it’s like. They start working at something and then a year, or two years, five years later, everything changes. But it does only come about through that consistency of effort.

Section 7

So, bringing this back to the verse which inspired this whole direction, when it comes to how we interact with people what are the ways of interacting with people that actually work for you?

Now, I didn’t bring Shakespeare with me. I’m feeling I should carry Shakespeare around. But you may recall in Hamlet Polonius gives Laertes a bunch of very good advice. “Neither a borrower or a lender be,” etc. And even though Polonius is often played as a kind of stuffy old man, the advice that he gives his son is actually really solid advice about how to live in a balanced way. So that you have friends but you’re not taken advantage of, and you don’t take advantage of people, etc., etc., etc.

My own experience with this—and this probably is just a testament to my stupidity—is that I only learn these things by actually tasting how they don’t work. I can see something written or somebody can say something and I’ll say, “Yeah, that sounds really good. Makes a lot of sense.” But, with me, I have to encounter a situation in which it really becomes alive. Then, I’m much more likely to live by that principle. But if it is a mere concept or an instruction or something like that it doesn’t come alive for me. Anybody else like this? I’m not sure that everybody’s like that. Some people seem to be more sensible.

But very closely connected with that is because I make a lot of mistakes. And as I said last night the key thing is not whether one makes mistakes but whether one learns from them. So if you do something and you learn from it, no big problem. I mean it may be a problem. But if you do the same thing three times and you still don’t learn from it, now you have a really big problem.

So [pause] where do I want to go from here?

Section 8

One of the ways that I’ve come to approach it—and I suppose this is always in the back of my mind ’cause I gave tagline of pragmatic Buddhism to Unfettered Mind—is, this is primarily about skill in living.

Now there are some interesting things that go along with that. Number 1: Do you want to be skilled in living? Now the answer for me for that is yes. Because when I’m skilled in living everybody suffers less. Not just me but everybody else, too. And then there are learning the skills, [Number 2] and as I said I find it for me there’s a lot of experimentation.

And then the third aspect—and I’ve touched on this before—is that one finds that in order to live skillfully one actually has to have a certain capacity, or certain capacities. One has to be able to endure, without getting bent out of shape, tension or even conflict in different parts of our personality. One has to have a capacity for patience, attention, of course, and so forth.

Through all of this—and I made mention of this right at the beginning of this retreat—I really don’t think there is one right way. And that’s why I was quite happy when George suggested the title for this retreat be A Trackless Path. I thought that was basically right on. What we’re working at here is, for each of us, our path in life. And each of us has come here with past experience which…some of which weighs on us, and weighs sufficiently that we don’t want to live that way going forward. And we have the sense, or the wish, or maybe not just the sense but also the experience that taking the time to develop the capacity and skills to be as completely present in our experience as we’re able to is a way of creating a kind of path in our life, or the way of living that we seek.

So I’ve talked for a little while here. Questions? Is any of this helpful? That was a resounding “yes.” I like that.

Section 9

Claudia: “Develop a way of addressing it and work it consistently.” [Sighs]

Ken: That painful, eh?

Claudia: Well, I guess I just don’t quite know what you’re pointing to with that. I mean it seems like every imbalance will potentially have a different way of addressing it. I think you’re talking about a method or an approach or something.

Ken: Well, that’s a very general principle. Suppose that you come to see that you never give anything to anybody. And, you know, you’re not a generous person. So that’s the first challenge—recognize that. A way of addressing that might be—and I’ve used this one myself—to give something, no matter how inconsequential to somebody once a day. It can be a paperclip or a piece of paper. But to make a point of actually giving a physical object so there’s transferred from one hand, from my possession, my physical possession to another’s. Very tangible. And then you just do that—consistently—that’s the third part. And you find that, when you do that, things begin to change. But that would be one example.

Claudia: Yeah. I guess I wouldn’t pick that as an example of an imbalance. I would pick that as an example of a pattern…something’s underlying. There ’s a reason, there’s something underneath why we’re not giving, and that’s one way of working with that pattern.

Ken: Yes. Because when you do that it’s going to bring you in touch with all of that material.

Claudia: Exactly.

Ken: Yes. So I don’t think we’re really saying different things here. Because one of the characteristics of reactive patterns is they create imbalances.

Claudia: Yes, that’s true but it is my experience that [Ken and Claudia chuckling]—don’t laugh before I get it out—that those patterns create imbalances at a point in our life and we can be faced with the residue of that for many years. And addressing that imbalance many years later can be quite difficult, especially if it involves people, which it almost always does.

Ken: Yes.

Claudia: And the pattern that created that imbalance may have already been worked with, or you’re already aware that that pattern set this in motion. But you understand what I’m saying here?

Ken: I think so. Let me play it back to you and see if—

Claudia: Okay.

Ken: Okay. At some point in one’s life, for whatever reason, you adopted a certain mode of behavior, maybe it was an emotional reaction or something. And it got you through certain situations, but it created a bunch of problems. And you come to recognize that this is not such a helpful way to relate to things. So you go to work on the emotional pattern, and you become clear about it, you know, so it actually doesn’t operate. But meanwhile the imbalances that have been set up have continued to propagate in one’s life and one feels totally trapped and enmeshed in them.

Claudia: Very good. [Ken laughs] Very well put. That’s exactly what I’m pointing to.

Ken: What’s the problem?

Claudia: The problem is, correcting those imbalances can deeply affect the other beings that are involved.

Ken: Ah.

Claudia: And potentially create pain for them or suffering.

Ken: Well. I’d like to change the vocabulary a little bit. Life has taken on a certain structure. And the structure may or may not work for you at this point but it works for a number of people that you’re close to. Something like that?

Claudia: Exactly.

Ken: So glad I’m understanding you. Well, I think there’s only one person who can decide what to do in those circumstances. And I think there’s only one way you can decide.

Claudia: Which is?

Ken: How can I die with the least regret? Now, that may sound very selfish, but it isn’t really. Because when we bring death into the picture, remarkably quickly it ceases to be about us. And it becomes about our whole life and everybody in it. In other words when we bring death into the picture we naturally move into, or open to everything. And it clarifies an awful lot of stuff.

Now most people don’t like doing that because what is tugging at them—and I’m not saying this in your case, but in many cases—is some quite personal agendas, which are causing them—and this goes back to inclusion and exclusion—to exclude different aspects of their life, different aspects of their experience. And to focus on just a couple. But when we bring death into the picture it cuts through that kind of editing. And really brings attention in many, I think, to the relationships which are important to us. And, I mean relationships in a very broad sense.

And in a discussion with someone earlier today it came up: Buddha’s renunciation, where he had a wife and child and was groomed to be the next king—or really just local chieftain of a particular principality in northern India—and he walked away from it. Now if you’re the wife or child it doesn’t matter what the reasons are, it just doesn’t feel very good. But I suspect—I don’t know, of course—but I suspect that for Siddhartha at that point his questions about life were so compelling that that was the only course that he could perceive.

Now historically we look back and, you know, all kinds of good has come out of that, and as religions go Buddhism isn’t too bad. It’s not been the cause of too many wars. But still, it started with the abandonment of a wife and child. Well, you know, and this is, of course, in the monastic community, this is praised. It’s one of the great deeds. Twelve great deeds of Buddha is that he abandoned his wife and child. [Ken chuckles.] And the…

Claudia: Well, it’s true in Christianity, too.

Ken: Okay.

Claudia: Jesus told his followers…

Ken: Yeah.

Claudia: Yeah, to walk away.

Ken: Right. So, the reason I bring this up is get away from the idea of right and wrong. I would couple with that with don’t be narcissistic in one’s life. But we’re going to encounter choices, decisions, and we won’t know what the consequences of them are and we will have to make a choice. And that’s one of the better ways that I’ve found, is to bring in the matter of death at that point.

Section 10

I think Christy also had a comment she wanted to make.

Christy: I haven’t formulated my [unclear].

Claudia: I was just going to comment that I mean I’ve been in that place of facing death.

Ken: Yes.

Claudia: And I didn’t choose to resolve the imbalances. In fact, I took more of it on.

Ken: And at the time how was that for you?

Claudia: I felt like I was doing what I had to do to take care of all the other people. And it was the right thing to do.

Ken: Right. And now?

Claudia: Now, I can’t believe I did that.

Ken: Things change, don’t they.

Claudia: I mean, I can just see the pattern that created that. But yeah, things change and I think things actually get more difficult. When you’re operating out of a pattern you’re in autopilot. You just do it. When you’re not and there’s some sense of clarity about what’s really at hand or at risk here, I think that process becomes more challenging.

Ken: More challenging in the sense of there are more possibilities or more challenging in the sense it requires greater courage?

Claudia: Probably both. But the one that’s sticking at me is the courage.

Ken: Thank you.

Section 11

Ken: Christy?

Christy: Well, I’m still muddy with my thoughts here. So…

Ken: Well, just…

Christy: All right. Blurt it out.

Ken: Blurt it out.

Christy: Okay.

Ken: I didn’t do too badly understanding Claudia. So maybe…

Christy: So in all of these reflections and trying to decide what to do about things there’s something in you or something that trusts or knows. And one of my questions has to do with “what knows, what vows?”—I don’t know whether it should be “who knows?” or “who vows?”—but in any event, whatever the–

Ken: Is the second one vows?

Christy: Vows.

Ken: Who promises.

Christy: Right.

Ken: Yeah. Okay.

Christy: All the bodhisattva vows…

Ken: Right, right. Okay.

Christy: All those vows. The marriage vow. All those vows.

Ken: Who takes on the vow. Yeah.

Christy: Right. “What’s doing the vowing?”

Ken: For a muddied question that was very clear. [Chuckling] Well, that question is the basis for most of Buddhist philosophy. And it arises this way. In order for a monk to break his vows he has to know what he is doing. So there’s a huge amount of energy was spent in exploring and trying to establish the conditions in which there was a valid cognizer—to use the clumsy English translation.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: The conditions in which there was a valid cognizer. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m totally unequipped to engage that question at any depth because I haven’t studied any of that stuff. I take a rather different approach.

“Who knows, who vows?” I think these are quite different questions, these two. I had an email from, I presume, a fairly young person. I would say in his twenties. Maybe older. I don’t know. He lives in another part of the country completely. But it reminded me of many things that I experienced when I was in India and starting the studies of Buddhism, where many people took ordination with a great deal of sincerity and found themselves completely unable to live it. And sometimes they just stepped out of it. And sometimes it was quite messy and quite traumatic. And this person was describing a similar situation. So it continues to this day.

Section 12

When we were talking about vows we’re talking about intention. Wendell Berry wrote a very nice piece on relationship. And the crux of it is when you give your word, you enter a mystery. When you make a commitment, you enter a mystery. You have no idea what is going to come up or what you’re going to have to meet. So I think an important piece—something I think is very much overlooked—well, when you take a vow, you must be willing to enter a mystery.

Many years ago—mmm probably a good 15 or 16 years ago—I found myself in a situation which I really struggled with. And what came out of that was an appreciation of an aspect of the bodhisattva vow that I had never considered and I can’t recall having ever seen written about. Though it must be there in some form or another somewhere. And that was that when you take the bodhisattva vow one aspect of it is that it’s a vow never to indulge your own confusion.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Indulge your own confusion.

And bodhisattva vow is a vow that is always, from the time that I first heard about it, always meant something quite special to me. What I found over the years is that it cuts deeper and deeper the longer you work with it.

And it’s very much reflected in this adaptation of the four vows from the Zen tradition that they put in their opening meditation sessions. It starts off with “Beings are numberless: may I free them all.” Well this is usually how it’s worded in the Tibetan tradition anyway. But what I’ve come to appreciate is that that’s…that’s actually mythical expression. Where beings are a way of talking about everything you experience. Because the next line is about reactions and the reason that beings are a problem is that they elicit reactions in us. So that’s why reactions are endless. And you have to deal with every one of them. You can’t indulge any of them from the bodhisattva vow. Can’t indulge your confusion.

Then it goes a step deeper. Because all of you know from your experience that when you are actually present in the re…in the experience of a reaction it releases and something opens. Something that you couldn’t see or couldn’t experience before. There’s an opening. It’s a door to experience. So now the question is, are you going to take every opportunity—or not? You see, it gets heavier and heavier. And every one of those openings becomes a way of awakening which you can use time and time again.

So how the bodhisattva vow deepens is clearly expressed in these four lines.

One second.

So, that I think’s the important thing. And it may be that one part of you made the vow. But now the rest of you has to live with it. Unless you find yourself so out of balance, as people do, that you may have to change the relationship with the vow. And for some people making a commitment and living it is a path of practice.

Now Valerie has a question and then I’m gonna come back to the who knows part.

Section 13


Valerie: I just can’t quite wrap my mind around what does “indulge your confusion” mean? Does that mean let it direct you? I’m not sure what “indulge” means.

Ken: You come into a situation. You know what the right thing to do is. But you don’t want to do it. So, do you live your clarity or do you indulge your confusion? You have all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but you know that they’re all bullshit. Sorry Claudia.

Valerie: But you said…you said…but—wait a second—but you said… I guess I’m maybe I’m just quibbling with semantics. If I were confused I wouldn’t know what the right thing to do was in the first place. You said I knew what the right thing to do was. But I didn’t do it.

Ken: Okay. Then I’ll take a step further back. You come into a situation. You’re not sure what to do. Do you make the effort to become clear? Or do you just do something?

Valerie: So, that sounds more like indulging confusion. Thank you.

Ken: Okay.

Section 14

Ken: Comment? Larry, or [unclear]. Yeah.

Larry: Yeah. I think an old expression for this is “Getting on your high horse”.

Ken: [Laughs] Well, that’s certainly one way. Yeah.

So the question “Who knows?” Well, you can use this question in practice. You could also use the question “Who vows?” But that takes it in a very different direction from what I was just talking about.

Let’s take the question “Who knows?” So, you’re holding a pad of paper, right?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Who knows that you’re holding a fat pad of paper? Now, when you ask that question of yourself, what happens? See, it’s a bit like Mullah Nasrudin.

Christy: I don’t know.

Ken: Mullah Nasrudin was invited by a friend. They wanted to get together and talk. So he went over to the friend’s house. And they got so engrossed in their conversation that neither of them noticed that it had gotten dark. And they were continuing their conversation in the dark. Eventually his friend said, “Nasrudin, it’s dark. Light a candle. You’ll find candle and matches in the drawer by your right hand.” “What!” said Nasrudin. “How do you expect me to tell my right from the left in the dark!?”

Christy: I have a tone deafness when it comes to Nasrudin stories. [Laughing] Sometimes they ring and sometimes they don’t.

Ken: Well…

Christy: But…

Ken: Can you tell your right and left from each other in the dark?

Christy: Yes.

Ken: How? Who knows?

Christy: My body has a wisdom. Well, right and left is an arbitrary designation but…

Ken: Well, both of those exits didn’t work very well, did they?


How do you know?

Christy: This isn’t going to answer the question. This may confuse things even more. But have you read A Beautiful Mind? The story about John Nash, the…

Ken: I’m familiar with the story. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. I’ve seen parts of the movie but…

Christy: Okay. The very first page of the book, there’s this scene where he isn’t—he’s a schizophrenic, and he’s in a hos…at that point in his life, and he won a Nobel Prize for math—he was…he’s sitting in his chair kind of all slumped over. And another mathematician professor is visiting him. And says to him, “How could you? How could you have believed that aliens were telling you to do…how could you believe that?” And Nash’s immediate response was: because it came from the same place where he got his understanding of experimental truths, experimental proofs.

And when I read that, that’s part of my struggle with the understanding of who knows. It’s both when I think about me holding the paper it’s an opportunity to have that kind of gestalt shift of the “I” not being there. And everything is there. And nothing’s there. But these are really, for me, tricky places because I wonder then how rapidly I might jump to some kind of interpretation or magical thinking, or as you try to absorb the experience…well, I get lost.

Ken: Ah. Thank you. It’s a question of capacity then, not understanding. Very important. So, you know how to tell your right from left in the dark. Right?

Christy: I think so.

Ken: It’s probably quite difficult to explain how that knowing works. Would you agree?

Christy: Yes.

Ken: What would it be like to live from that knowing?

Christy: Say that again.

Ken: What would it be like to live from that knowing? This knowing which you experience, vividly and clearly, but can’t explain.

Christy: Well it sort of feels like falling through the universe.

Ken: Yes. Is that a problem? [Laughter]

Christy: Only if you need to get across the street with the traffic coming.

Ken: Really? I would think this knowing might function quite well in those circumstances. No? Where would it be a problem?

Hold the mic up, please.

Christy: If there’s more than you that’s in the knowing, or in the experience. But then you’re going to tell me you can’t have a shared experience.

Ken: Well, I could go that route but…so you’re saying when there’s another person involved.

Christy: Yes.

Ken: Valerie’s sitting beside you, right?

Christy: Yes.

Ken: What’s the problem?

Christy: I’m not talking to Valerie.

Ken: Pardon.

Christy: I said I’m not talking to Valerie.

Ken: Okay, you’re talking to me. What’s the problem? There is that knowing, isn’t there? It’s just there. The reason I say it’s a matter of capacity is that for many people, probably for most, it’s very difficult to rest in that knowing for more than a second or two. But when you rest in it even for a second or two, how do you experience things? Right there.

Christy: Just is.

Ken: Isn’t that what you’re looking for?

You see, the function of such questions as “Who knows?” is not to engender a school of philosophy—though it’s done that far too many times in the course of history—it’s to bring you into that experience of just knowing. It’s one of many, many ways. And having tasted it you then cultivate the ability to rest there. And eventually to function from there.

Now it costs a little bit. How aware of you of “I” when you’re in that knowing?

Christy: Well, if there’s some problem it jolts you out of it.

Ken: [Laughs] Then it becomes very vivid, yes. But in the knowing itself? Well, so that’s one of the prices. There are others.

Section 15

The story is told of Ananda. This is the Zen version, not the Theravadan. Zen always changes things a little bit. Ananda had this phonographic record. He listened to Buddha’s teachings and he knew every word and every occasion and who was present, etc. So when anybody was trying to figure out what Buddha said about something, they’d go to Ananda and say, “What did Buddha say about this?” And he said, “Thus I have heard in such and such a place with such and such and Buddha was…” Well that’s the next sutra.

After Buddha died, the core disciples were going to meet together in the first council to decide what was the Buddha’s teachings. This is something that chief disciples always do. It’s a very bad thing. But that’s another matter.

And Ananda came to the gate. Kashyapa said, “No, you can’t come in. You haven’t woken up yet. I mean, we’re very grateful for you knowing all of the Buddha’s teachings. But you haven’t experienced any awakening, so you can’t come in.” And Ananda was crestfallen. Right? “How can you do this?” There was nothing he could do so he walked away. As he was walking away Kashyapa said, “Ananda!” And Ananda went, “Yes?” and woke up. Right in the knowing. Okay?

So, do you know how to come into the knowing?

Christy: Well as part of the practice, I think so. At least, I’ve set up an opportunity for it to happen. And sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it happens all on its own.

Ken: Right. Do you have a way that usually leads you there?

Christy: Not reliably.

Ken: Okay. Primary practice is one such way. And you can extend that, by anytime you’re experiencing something, looking at something, you can ask, “What’s looking? What’s experiencing this?” Don’t try to answer that question. But when you ask you’ll experience a shift. Rest in the shift. [Resting] When you do walking meditation, “Who’s walking?”

This is a fairly reliable way. As long as you don’t try to answer the question ’cause that just produces thinking. There’s a shift and you rest in the shift. ’Cause when we ask this question there’s a looking. So you rest in the looking. And as you gain facility you’ll find that you can also look in the resting.

Christy: I’m sorry. You find that you can also look…

Ken: Look in the resting. That’s how you practice.

Larry: You’re saying do this shift for short bursts [unclear].

Ken: Initially you do it for short periods of time, you know, anywhere from two to five seconds. And as you gain facility and build capacity you’ll find you’ll be able to do it for longer.

Larry: And you…

Ken: Microphone, please.

Larry: Yet in the Zen tradition, for example, and this story you gave of Ananda, there was a permanent shift.

Ken: Well, this goes back to…

Larry: I mean at least that’s what’s inferred here.

Ken: Yeah. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about the Hollywood mogul, “Give me a couple of years and I’ll make an overnight success of her.” So, you work at this, it builds capacity, builds familiarity and it creates the conditions in which something can shift. And then you experience…then something changes in the system. You can’t bring about that change just by turning a switch.

Larry: The soil needs to be prepared.

Ken: Yep.

Larry: Yet there’s all of the discussion that’s gone on for a long time in terms of sudden versus gradual.

Ken: Well. Yeah there’s sudden and there’s gradual and there’s unstable and there’s all of this. We have a third one in in the Tibetan tradition. I’m always reminded of Nyoshul Khenpo who is a Nyingma teacher that I’ve studied a little bit with. He would say, “Some people say when you hold your fingers, thumbs in meditation, there should be just enough space to slide a piece of paper through. And other people say they should just touch. What I understand from this is people will argue about anything.”

Okay. So some people, the way that their path unfolds is gradually. Other people experience sudden shifts, quite dramatic shifts—like they wake up and the whole way they experience the world is different. And it never changes. What people then seek to do is to explain, so that all of these things can be fitted into a system, so that people can feel comfortable with it. That’s all those explanations and debates serve, is trying to make people comfortable, so they aren’t dealing with a “mystery”. And for me, as far as I’m concerned, they’re completely pointless. I mean I could give a very nice explanation in terms of fractals if you wish. But, so what? You have no idea whether you are going to be gradual or sudden awakening one. It’s all just, you know, taxonomy. And really quite irrelevant.

It may not be irrelevant to a teacher who is seeking to guide. But to a student it’s completely irrelevant because you just have what you have in front of you and how do you be with that? You know, when you’re in a teaching position, having familiarity with a range of possibilities helps you recognize and maybe provide more accurate or appropriate guidance. So it’s somewhat useful there. But 90% of it’s just stuff.

Larry: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay? What time? 8:34. Okay. Anything you like to discuss this evening? Valerie. You’re very bad at hiding questions.

Section 16

Valerie: Pardon me?

Ken: You’re very bad at hiding questions.

Valerie: Me? You oughta play poker with me sometime.

Ken: Never. I’m worse.

Valerie: You’ll win. [Laughter]

Ken: I see when there’s money on the table you become very good at it, do you?

Valerie: No. I notice I have an urge to bring the discussion into around as to where we began. And I keep finding myself asking, you know, you started out with Longchenpa and how do we build our lives so that we can do what’s important to us. We end with these…the discussion of awareness—how to look for it, where to find it. And in the middle of this was the discussion with Claudia. And of course, what Christy said about the problem being when there’s someone else in your awareness.

Ken: This going back to Sartre now?

Valerie: Well, I think it’s probably too big of a question to even start at 9:30 or 8:35 at night. But, for instance, I found myself asking well how does…how does who experiences this, why wasn’t that…you know, why wasn’t that the answer to Claudia’s question? In some ways bringing death into the picture makes that question happen. But I guess I’m finding myself wondering, you know we’ve talked about walking in awareness. Mixing awareness with activity. How do we mix relating with other human beings?

Ken: How do we mix awareness…if we’re leading…

Valerie: Or what, excuse me [interrupts Ken] how we mix up ourselves with other human beings? Well, that’s not quite what I was trying to ask. But to me this is really challenging.

Ken: Yeah. No, it’s very good.

So, you do the dishes after dinner. Clean up, right? Several people working simultaneously. How much talking is going on?

Valerie: Well, with this crew, very little.

Ken: How do you know what to do?

Valerie: It’s pretty clear how dishes are washed.

Ken: Sure.

Valerie: I know, I’ve done thousand of them already in my life.

Ken: Yeah, but some people are washing dishes, some people are wiping tables, some people are putting things away, some people are doing this. All these different people doing different things. But it all works out somehow, doesn’t it?

Valerie: Yes.

Ken: How does that happen?

Valerie: As I said, it’s a relatively simple task.

Ken: Yeah well maybe it’s a simple task but that doesn’t answer how it happens.

Valerie: [Chuckling] I have no idea how it happens, Ken. [Laughter] I think…

Ken: But it does happen, doesn’t it.

Valerie: And I think driving in traffic is like a miracle. How does that happen! How do we all hurdle through space and not die all the time?

Ken: Well, you know, so, it happens. That knowing is active, isn’t it.

Valerie: But I think of all the conflict in my life over who does the dishes. Why am I always doing the dishes, etc, etc?

Ken: Well, we’ll get to that in a minute. But it happens. And we might explore that a little bit. People are present with each other doing all of these different tasks. One person starts to go to wipe a table, another person moves, starts wiping the table. And okay the job is being done so the other person now moves off to do something else. No words are said. But there’s coordinated activity. And what needs to get done, gets done. And nobody says a word.

Now I’m not disputing, it’s a relatively simple matter. There are limited number of tasks, limited number of people and relatively short duration, etc. But one of the things that I’m going to propose here is that there is a sensing or a knowing that’s taking place all the time. If everybody tried to wash the dishes it would be a big mess, right? So, when somebody’s washing dishes that’s taken care of and effort goes somewhere else. So there’s a balancing and re-balancing going on constantly. And this goes back to my discussion with Claudia.

So, how come you end up washing the dishes all the time?

Valerie: Because I’m not living at a retreat. And let’s say it’s not clear to everyone that doing the dishes is an important task. And some people feel it’s more important to watch video games or listen to something else or…

Ken: And?

Valerie: And…

Ken: You’re not prepared to pay the price for changing the balance.

Valerie: Well, thus comes the muck. So…

Ken: Yes.

Valerie: Um…

Ken: So, now it is more complex and there’s a lot of other things in play that aren’t in this situation but I was using this situation as an illustration of possibility. You can bring the same kind of knowing into your life. It will produce changes. You may not able to predict all of the changes. You enter a mystery.

Valerie: I enter a mystery and I become a critical—what do they call it—martinet?

Ken:You don’t have to do that.

Valerie: I…I know. But…I think it comes…it’s really what Claudia was talking about, also. I don’t…I don’t…I’m just…

Ken: Yeah.

Valerie: There’s a lot going on. A lot to take into consideration.

Ken: You’re quite right.

Valerie: And the sacrifice versus endurance versus…I mean there’s just so many things going on, so.

Ken: Yes.

Valerie: Start with the dishes.

Ken: And this many seem completely impractical but I found it useful, I think it can work. Open to everything. Not just that situation but everything all the time. It’s one of the reasons we practice this way. So you understand or know the interconnection and feel it. Then you’ll move away from the notion of sacrifice. And feel far more natural.

We’ll continue with this tomorrow. Okay. But think about it in the meantime. Okay.

No arrivals yet?

Claudia: They’re getting settled [unclear].

Ken: Okay.

Claudia: [Unclear] traveling for 18 hours.

Ken: Oh, I bet. She’s from Montreal. Yep. Okay.

Let’s just sit for a few minutes then.

Creative Commons LicenseThis transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.