A Trackless Path 8

Section 1

August 26th, Morning session of A Trackless Path.

Something that I know at least some of you have heard me talk about before is the rhythm of practice and understanding the rhythm of practice and how to work with the rhythm of practice.

As we work and rest in experience one of the things that’s going to happen when we rest in experience—and rest more and more deeply—is we’re going to come into contact with old hurts, old pains, so forth. And in the booklet, page 10, you see a series of five instructions called Seeing From the Inside. The inspiration for the title comes from the Rumi quote at the bottom [WUTYL, pg. 412].

I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door. It opens.

[I’ve been knocking] from the inside!

So you’re always thinking, “Oh we’re trying to get out but….”

Now as it’s noted here that this is a formulation that comes from Thich Nhat Hanh, adaptation of the principles in the The Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra, the Anapanasati Sutra, which in it’s fuller form goes through sixteen steps. But this five-fold formulation is very effective.

So as we sit, and it may be with a problem in our life, it may be with something old, whatever, we open to it. And you’ll note that in this way of opening to it, you’re not trying to do anything to it except experience it. And experiencing it involves experiencing all of the reactions that arise in association with it. And that’s step two.

Through this process, and it’s not exactly a linear process, it’s more a circular process, at some point we begin to find a way to rest in calm. To rest calmly with the sensations and reactions etc., associated with the pain, difficulty. And as soon as we start to rest calmly we actually experience things more completely, so we find ourselves back at step one again. That’s why I mean it’s a somewhat circular process.

And as we go through this not only do we find ourselves capable of resting calmly, but actually relaxing. A sense of ease begins to come in. And of course once that sense of ease comes in then we feel things more completely and we’re back at step one and going through the whole thing.

And when we’re resting at ease in the experience, at some point some kind of understanding arises. Something lets go. We see. Now when that happens—and that’s not something that you make happen. And that’s very important. I go back to the image of the flower bud in the sun. It opens at its own time, at its own rate. So it’s not something that you make happen. Again, quoting from T.S. Eliot [Four Quartets], “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” So we make the effort. What actually happens is not our business.

When that understanding comes, our relationship with that complex is changed. And we’ll experience an openness and a freedom that we haven’t experienced before. Often it’s rather like finding you can move an arm that you hadn’t been able to move for twenty years or something. And you go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And in that openness and freedom we find that if we go back to the another side of practice which is, rest in the looking, look in the resting, you’ll find we’re able to engage that aspect of practice much more deeply.

So when we look we see much more deeply, and we’re able to rest in that much more deeply. Of course, now we’re really excited because now we’re really getting somewhere in our practice. Because we’re not dealing with all that old pain. Now we’re getting close to enlightenment. And we get all excited, etc. Anybody know this one?

Student: [Unclear]


Ken: And we look. And as we rest in the looking and look in the resting, experience deepens. And here’s where catch-22 comes in. As experience deepens, as the level of attention, of energy and attention increases, inevitably we come into contact with another layer.

And there we are, you know, totally present and awake, at peace, open to this deep experience, maybe no sense of self, etc., etc., and then somewhere something starts to gnaw at us. And we go, “What’s that doing here?” And so we look at it, thinking it will just vanish, poof but it doesn’t.

Section 2

And a very good story to read here is The Red Rock Jewel Valleyor something, the first in the stories in The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, where he describes this whole process in metaphorical language very clearly.

Now inevitably—nah I wouldn’t say inevitably but frequently—when we experience that something gnawing or poking or discomfort, the first impulse is try, “Yeah, okay.” Just work with it in the same way that we’ve been working this last little while: just looking and resting. And a very subtle form of trying to manipulate our experience comes in. And you go back to the mahamudra instructions what do we find? No distraction.. Well, we have a distraction. No control. “Anh.”[Ken makes disgusted noise] No working at anything. “Erh, can I get another book? These aren’t the right instructions!” [Ken chuckles]

Oh, I’m leaving out a little step here, which isn’t in the books but it’s frequently what happens. So we manipulate and nothing works and things get gradually worse and worse and worse from our subjective point of view. And we think, “I can’t meditate at all. I can’t do anything with this.” And we become convinced that our meditation has gone down the tubes that we’re hopeless. And, you know, “You know, what happened?” And, “I thought I was really getting somewhere.” You know, you get all these stories, etc., etc. And we get all churned up about this. What is really happening is the higher level of attention is penetrating the next layer. Whatever it is. And we’re beginning to experience the pain, confusion, disorientation etc., etc., etc. that is there.

And now rather than trying to get back to that really deep, clear, open experience, well, we follow the mahamudra instructions. No distraction. No control. No working at anything. And it brings us right back to these five steps. Just being in that experience as completely as possible. Opening to all of the reactions. Not trying to do anything about it. Not trying to work through it. Just experiencing it.

And people ask me periodically, “Does it get easier?” The answer is basically, “No.” It gets progressively more difficult because one is working at deeper and deeper levels.

Now. Over time you accumulate capacity. You accumulate skill. So you have ways of working which you didn’t have before. But the material you’re meeting is more deeply conditioned, has been more suppressed or whatever because you haven’t had the capacity of attention in order to be able to experience it at all. So it’s a mix, you know, six of one half, dozen of the other. You know, it’s very interesting.

Anybody here play World of Warcraft? I have a student who’s a really avid gamer, or at least she was for quite a while. And World of Warcraft is set up exactly this way. You start off, you don’t have very many capabilities. So you go, pop off all of these little things. And as you do you get gold and things like that, and you’re able to buy more and more in capabilities. And so you can take on bigger and bigger monsters. But after awhile you meet monsters that you can’t take on by yourself. So you gotta connect with a team. And now you got to work out strategy and things like that. And eventually you take on these really horrendous monsters where one person just has to sit there blast away while other people are casting spells and doing all kinds of things like that. And you’ve really got to work together and you’ve got to do everything right. Otherwise everybody gets wiped out.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Sound familiar? Bring more and more attention. Apparently there’s a new section going to open up on World of Warcraft which is going to be far more difficult than anything they’ve had before. So everybody’s really looking forward to that. I’ve never done this but she’s a very avid gamer. So. And she finds it helpful in her meditation practice because the processes are so similar.

When everything is open and clear we get attached to the idea we’re getting somewhere. Pride. You know why we say [Ken knocks] “knock on wood” whenever we feel pride? Well, what corrects hubris is nemesis. You know, Nemesis is the goddess or the spirit of retribution of some form. So whenever Hubris—Hubris was a Greek god, demon or whatever—got out of hand, Nemesis would come along and knock him down. Nemesis is a wood spirit. So when you knock on wood [Ken knocks] you’re paying homage to Nemesis. Okay? “Don’t knock me down, thank you.”

So inevitably, for most of us, things open up. There we are. This is why we practice. Yeah. And then stuff starts to happen and we think, “Oh, something’s going wrong.” And it takes a while to really be able to recognize these are the rhythms of practice. Nothing is going wrong. It’s that as things open, we experience things more deeply. As we experience things more deeply there’s stuff to be experienced. As we experience other possibilities become available to us.

Section 3

Now in traditional accounts that fluctuation is often very, very disguised. You have to read between the lines or read very, very carefully. The story that I was mentioning about Milarepa. When it is related most people who are telling the story leave off the first part. And the first part’s really important. So I’m going to give you the whole story. And you’ll see what I mean, I hope.

Milarepa’s been working at his practice, very diligently. And hasn’t been paying much attention to his body. He’s extremely weak. He says, “Oh, I guess I really should get something to eat.”

Now he’s up in the mountains of Tibet. So what he lived on for a long time was just nettles. And he looks around and he sees well he doesn’t have any nettles around him and doesn’t even have any wood to heat any water. And he’s very, very weak ’cause he hasn’t been paying attention to his body.

So he gets up and manages to gather some nettles, which grow in abundance. And then starts looking around for some sticks. And gathers up a pile of wood and is carrying it back. But he’s so weak that he can barely carry it. And he stumbles and falls. And all the wood tumbles all over the place. And he’s flat on the ground and hurt. And he’s just like, [Ken sighs] “Oh, God.”

But now he’s with all the pain in his body. And he just feels it all. And feels how much pain he’s in. And out of that he just pours his heart or opens his heart to his guru, Marpa. And just, “Help me here. I can’t deal with this.” And sings this song of longing and devotion to his guru.

And in that total open, heartfelt things he’s relating so completely to his experience, Marpa appears in a vision to him. So he has this extraordinary, brilliant experience. And Marpa says, “Well, you’re working hard, keep going,” etc. You know, all the usual totally unhelpful things that teachers say to you.

But this experience just energizes him and lifts him up. And now he’s totally awake and present again. Gathers up all the wood, goes back. And he finds there are five demons in his cave. Now this is where everybody else starts to tell the story.

But those demons are there. He can see them now because of the opening that he had. And just as I was describing, the first thing he tries to do, “Oh. These are the local spirits. I haven’t been giving them their due.” So he sings a song of praise to them. And they go, “Big deal.”

“Hmm. Well, I guess I should give them some offerings.” So he sings another song to them presenting them with wonderful offerings, etc., etc. And they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah. Like we’re impressed.” So he thought, “Hmm. These must be evil demons. I have to get them out of here.” So he chants a wrathful mantra. Draws on his very considerable sorcery powers which he developed before he studied the dharma.

One of the demons leaves. And the others go, “So what else you got?” And he said, “Oh, I forgot. These are all empty. They don’t really exist. These are just conjurations of my mind.” Another two leave. Or three, I think.

So he’s got one left. And this one is just looking at him saying, “You gotta be kidding.” And he looks. “Huh. None of this stuff worked.” And you see what he’s been trying to do is manipulate, control his experience.

So he looks at the demon, he says, “You and me. Right? Okay. It’s you and me. Open your mouth. I’m jumping in.” Starts to relate to things. Now everything clears up.

Section 4

This is highly coded language in these stories. As I say one has to learn to read these stories because they describe really important aspects of practice. But people get caught up in the magic and the imagery and the metaphors and things like that. But they’re actually very, very precise descriptions of what happens in the course of practice. That’s why I encourage a lot of people to read fairy tales. Because all of the old fairy tales are similar descriptions. Most of them were never intended for children. They were descriptions in coded language used in the mystery schools of Europe. And when Christianity came through, it screwed most of them up.

So, it’s important to find the old versions. And they screwed them up quite intentionally because they wanted to destroy the mystery schools. But you can still get a lot out of reading them. Things like Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty. The Handless Maiden is extradordinary tale about how women come to terms with sexual abuse. It’s just really powerful. And Conan of the Fiery Hair [Connla and the Fairy Maiden] is one of the oldest Irish fairy tales.

Student: Say that again.

Ken: Connla. You can find it on the web. Maybe I’ll talk about it this evening coz it’s almost 8. Just look up C-o-n-n-l-a. And I came across it in a book, but I didn’t have that book with me and I needed it. And I typed it into the Google and it’s on so many different sites. But there are many, many. Some of them are more psychological, some of them are more spiritual. But they’re all very precise records of internal experience.

And it can help, and it’s good to gain a facility so when you’re reading something like the Ten Levels of Bodhisattva you can read between the lines to. ’Cause the stuff’s in there but it’s usually just slipped in there. Because they want to make it all sound very wonderful. And it’s just like a smooth, wonderful progression.

Section 5

But for instance at the fifth level of bodhisattva, this is where you give up the five inappropriate ways of providing for yourself. Now don’t forget this was written for monks; monks have no possessions, or very few possessions anyway. So what are the five inappropriate ways? I can’t remember them all.

But there you are hanging out with your patron and you say, “You know, you’re really a good person!” Flattery. Hoping you’ll get what you need for another month to live. Or trading. “Oh, I have here a rosary that I got from this really great person. I’d like you to have it,” hoping he will give you something more.

Okay, so it says at the fifth or sixth level—somewhere around there you give up the five inappropriate ways of earning a living. ’Cause that sounds nice. What does this tell you about the first six levels of bodhisattvahood? Even though you’ve understood emptiness, you’re still trying to work the system. It doesn’t say that explicitly [Ken chuckles] so you gotta learn how to read this stuff, you know. And do you know what it’s like trying to work the system? It causes you so much grief so you can. All of that’s in there but it’s just slipped in like that, indirectly.

Section 6

Okay. Any questions? Nancy, then Paul.

Nancy: When you were telling…

Ken: Just one second.

Nancy: When you were telling a story, what does it mean to jump into you know the last demon? [Ken chuckles] That “jump into” phrase.

Ken: Has anything come up in your life that you don’t want to experience?

Nancy: A lot of things.

Ken: Okay. A lot of things. So there you are, sitting in your meditation, something comes up and you go, “Hmm, I don’t want to deal with that right now.” Ever have that?

Nancy: Yeah.

Ken: What if, on the other hand, “Oh, that’s there.” And you jump right into it. [Laughter] Last place you want to go.

Nancy: Well to me I guess I was thinking that that sounds a little bit different than just allowing whatever it is to kind of move forward. Jumping in, I don’t know, for me it’s, I don’t know how to do that actually, to jump in. But I can think about it.

Ken: Well, there are various ways. There’s this abyss in front of you. It’s all open, maybe it’s deep black. Can’t see anything. Behind you are all of these things that you know are pointless trying to deal with. There’s no path ahead. There’s only the abyss. So you jump. That’s one way.

Another is you can open your arms. Another is you can stand there, let it come to you. It doesn’t matter. Different people have different styles. And different arisings have—we have to work with them in different ways. Paul.

Paul: Yesterday you gave us a suggestion to practice being no one and I’m just wondering if you have any words of advice of how to practice being no one if you’re in a leadership position.

Ken: Oh. Very important if you’re in a leadership position. Bring that up this evening. That’s a longer answer. Okay? Okay. Breakfast time.

[Recording ends for morning session and resumes for evening session]

Section 7

Ken: Wednesday, August 26th, evening session at A Trackless Path.

So. [Unclear] Should be okay for time.

Yesterday, I think, I talked a bit, a little bit about how we come here out of this curiosity. Whether that curiosity about our lives comes from something being out of balance or from experiencing something which doesn’t fit into the ordinary scheme of things. And I think I also talked about how, in my view, every religious teaching, every religious doctrine, every philosophical school, every form of practice comes out of that same curiosity. People seeking to come to terms with how they experience life.

Now, if you look at this from a sociological point of view, there’s a very consistent pattern of evolution. That certain ways of thinking, some of them catch the imagination of other people or speak to them. And so “a teacher” emerges. Maybe evolves into a religious leader which leads to the formation of a sufficiently large group that requires some organization, codification of the teachings, formalization of procedures and rituals and lo and behold you have an institution.

And then those institutions carry teachings and practices over centuries. One of the roles of the sangha, the monastic sangha in Buddhism very explicitly—and this is how it’s often termed—is the holder of the teachings. Because it provides the continuity when everything else may be in various forms of chaos. By which the teachings are passed from generation to generation. Something that it has done very faithfully for 2500 years, which is a reasonable measure of time. And the same is true of other religious institutions.

But at the same time, forms are solidified, ways of behavior are formalized and very often with many institutions certain rigidity and eventually a certain calcification set in. Certain ways of thinking are permitted. Other ways of thinking aren’t. And so what happens over time is that institutions work for some people and don’t work for others. And this goes on and has gone on for centuries.

But now another kind of problem starts to come up.

Section 8

In the early 90s, when I was going through some fairly significant changes particularly in my relationship with the formal institution of Tibetan Buddhism—and the reason these questions were coming up is that I couldn’t do the standard practices. You know, all of those doors had closed very firmly. And even though I knew how the practices worked and etc. my body, my psychology whatever didn’t allow me to work with them. And it was a very difficult period. A great deal of pain—I mean it was fair to say bitterness. It was in the early 90s. I can actually remember being in my car by the parking lot by my old office. When I asking myself the question, “Where are the records for whom the system doesn’t work and they had to find their own way?”

Well, the answer is there are no records. And there never will be any records. Because it’s the institutions that determine what is carried from generation to generation. And the records of those people whose path lay outside the institution, they don’t survive, historically. Every now and then you may come across something.

So this leaves a very interesting dilemma. That if your path lies outside of established institutions, you really do have to reinvent the wheel in every generation. Occasionally you’ll come across a person outside of that whom you can learn from. But it’s something that comes up again and again.

So, a lot of my own questioning has come out of that experience. And when you’re not in the institutional structure—and I’m using institution in a very broad sense here—you’re able to ask questions. And pursue ways of thinking, pursue ways of practice, that you might not otherwise.

And one of the questions, other questions, that I would come up with is, “Is spiritual practice the highest form of human activity?” Now, it’s often presented that way. And great spiritual teachers have been held up as models throughout history. And my own teacher if you asked him what the purpose of human life was would unhesitatingly say, “To practice the dharma.” I mean that’s what it was for him.

Section 9

But a couple of things have to be considered here. One is what happens to the people, or what about the people for whom it just doesn’t work? Well, I remember one of Rinpoche’s young lamas that he’d sent to the West. And this reflects a fair range of thinking or a very common way of thinking within the Tibetan tradition is, for the people it doesn’t work, well, they don’t have the karma. And basically it’s, “Better luck next life.” [Chuckling] And that always struck me as, struck me as actually a very cruel answer. And I just, I could never accept that.

And then there’s another problem.

Student: Ken, what do you mean by people who…those people [unclear]?

Ken: Just a second.

Student: When you said for people that it doesn’t work, did you mean that spiritual practice doesn’t work or Buddhism doesn’t work or institutional Buddhism doesn’t work? What did you mean?

Ken: Yes.

Student: All of them.

Ken: Any of the above.

Student: Well, lots of people just aren’t interested in it.

Ken: Yeah. And from this perspective, they’re dismissed.

Student: But they might already be enlightened for all we know. They may already be way beyond us and they don’t need it.

Ken: Well, if you observe them you generally come to the conclusion that it’s not quite the case. [Laughter] Okay.

Student: All right. Go on.

Ken: Thank you.

Then there’s the matter of talent. Now some people have artistic talent, can be musical talent, or writing. Some people have mathematical talent, scientific talent, business talent, athletic, you name it.

One of the questions or one of the topics that is very, very rarely discussed in western Buddhism is the matter of spiritual talent. Other cultures were much more honest about that. Shamanistic cultures usually had a way of recognizing spiritual talent and developing it. In North American Indians they became the shamans and the medicine men of the tribe. When a child showed that proclivity then it was given to the shamans for raising. And other cultures have had other ways.

And the simple fact, as I’ve come across over and over again, is that different aspects of spiritual practice come much more easily to some people than others. Any of you who’ve read accounts of Tulku Urgyen in Nepal. He’s a wonderful teacher. Obviously someone for whom this stuff just arose very, very easily. And not only experience arose very easily; even from a very early age, from his teens, he was able to talk about it extraordinarily clearly.

Now within the framework, there’s a whole story about that. Good karma; it’s training from previous lives, etc., etc., etc. But again, you get into a classification of human beings. As these people are better in some sense than these people. And so whether it is, you regard it as the highest form of human activity or the question of talent, you get into this classification of people. And in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation it’s very explicit. In the chapter, second chapter, on buddha nature, you have the five potentials. You have the cut-off potential, which is basically the hopeless people with hopeless potential. They don’t have a chance. You know, they have buddha nature but very little chance, if any, of doing anything with it.

Then you have the people of uncertain potential. It depends who they run into and which direction they go. Then you have the shravaka potential and the pratyekabuddha potential. And then some people have the bodhisattva potential.

And for whatever reason I just didn’t like the implications of that whole way of looking at the world. Because time and again and I suppose this is in some way good fortune, I would run into people who hadn’t done a scrap of Buddhist practice or any form of practice who sometimes they were just extraordinarily good people, and sometimes extraordinarily kind.

I think of a friend of my mother who lived in Yorkshire, England. Must have been quite the character when she was a young woman. She basically took Cape Town by storm. But my mother once told me—her name is Flo and my mother’s name is Rachel—she said, “Rachel, if you ever commit a murder come here.” You know, well, that’s a pretty dramatic expression of loving-kindness, isn’t it? Yeah. “You can always come here.” And if you’d ever met this woman, you know that she absolutely meant it. Probably hidden you in her basement or something like that.

So, that human goodness depended on practice or on spiritual proclivity or things like that this just didn’t wash with me at all.

And I would meet people—sometimes artists, sometimes business people, sometimes craftsman—who would have an extraordinarily quality of presence. Truly remarkable people. And I haven’t traveled or particularly widely. So even in my relatively limited exposure I’ve come across them. Many other people have come across many more such.

So, out of this. I’ve come to really question and I would even go so far as to reject quite a lot of the traditional formulations because they have these unfortunate side effects. And I want to read a story and we can pause at various points in discussion for this which is very much about this.

Section 10

It’s called The Story of Fire. [Tales of the Dervishes, pg. 39]

Once upon a time a man was contemplating the ways in which Nature operates, and he discovered, because of his concentration and application, how fire could be made. This man was called Nour.

Which I’m told is Arabic for light.

He decided to travel from one community to another, showing people his discovery.

So here we already we have a person who curious about life and discovers something. Discovers something that’s actually quite useful. And decides to share it.

Nour passed the secret to many groups of people. Some took advantage of the knowledge. Others drove him away, thinking that he must be dangerous, before they had had time to understand how valuable this discovery could be to them. Finally, a tribe before which he demonstrated became so panic-stricken that they set about him and killed him, being convinced that he was a demon.

This is very much the way of the world. Shopenhauer once said that, “A new truth is first greeted with derision and ridicule. It is then met with violent opposition. In the third stage it is accepted as a matter of common sense.” People are very afraid of change. Deeply conditioned, often incapable of recognizing something that is helpful because it threatens existing structures.

Centuries passed. The first tribe which had learned about fire reserved the secret for their priests, who remained in affluence and power while the people froze.

If you look at the history of religions you’ll see that almost all religions go through a period where there is a small group which are initiates into the mysteries. They have a great deal of power. They get the teachings, etc., etc. And everybody else is treated as either unworthy or incapable of teaching. And this is very definite a hierarchical model set up. It occurred in Judaism. It occurred in Christianity. It occurs in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism—several different forms there. Many others. Jainism is a wonderful example of this.

The second tribe forgot the art and worshipped instead the instruments. The third worshipped a likeness of Nour himself, because it was he who had taught them. The fourth retained the story of the making of fire in their legends: some believed them, some did not. The fifth community really did use fire, and this enabled them to be warmed, to cook their food, and to manufacture all kinds of useful articles.

Section 11

Ken: Reading the biography of Miyamoto Musashi who is arguably Japan’s greatest swordsman. Quite interesting guy. He had sixty duels in the course of his life. Which is an extraordinary number because these duels are fatal. He stopped killing his opponents after the 30th and developed a school of swordsmanship. Later in his life he turned to art and Zen practice. There’s a very famous painting by him of a shrike bird on a branch. And the branch is executed in one brushstroke. And you look at this and you just can’t believe that somebody could draw something so alive with one brushstroke. And I haven’t seen the actual painting. I’m not sure where it is. I’ve seen pictures of it. And it’s quite extraordinary.

He also wrote a book called Five Rings which was his theory of his approach to sword fighting. And in it he makes a statement which, when I read it, I realized this is really how I feel about Buddhism so I stole it. And wherever he put martial arts I put the way of the Buddha. Even though I stole it I haven’t really memorized it, so. But it goes something like, “The way of the Buddha is a way of freedom. Many people who study this way feel that the skills and capabilities that one develops may not be useful in ordinary life. But the way of the Buddha is to study these so that these skills and capabilities can be used in every situation that you face in life.” And it fits very much with my whole theme of Pragmatic Buddhism.

Section 12

So what we do here is develop skills and capabilities which make it possible for us to live our life the way that each of us wants to be able to live our life, because that’s what brings us here in the first place. And for a very long time—this is a whole ’nother chapter which we won’t go into too much—I approached things as looking for truths. Saying if I could find what is truth then I will know all the answers, right? Anybody else think that? And actually it just doesn’t hold water.

As both Valerie and Christy expressed this evening, each in their own ways. We work this stuff, we work it deeply and then we’re able to be in our experience in our world in a way which feels congruent and natural, present without separation, however you want to call it.

And so it’s intensely, from my perspective, practical and needs to be approached that way. It’s not ethereal, It’s not idealistic, it’s not transcendental. It’s very, very much about being completely in this experience and being able to act in a way which leaves no traces. Hence, a trackless path.

So this fifth community really did use fire. And this enabled them to be warmed, to cook their food and to manufacture all kinds of useful articles. Able to make use of what Nour had discovered.

After many, many years, a wise man and a small band of his disciples were travelling through the lands of these tribes. The disciples were amazed at the variety of rituals which they encountered; and one and all said to their teacher: “But all those procedures are in fact related to the making of fire, nothing else. We should reform these people!”

The teacher said: ’Very well, then. We shall restart our journey. By the end of it, those who survive will know the real problems and how to approach them.’

When they reached the first tribe, the band was hospitably received. The priests invited the travellers to attend their religious ceremony, the making of fire. When it was over, and the tribe was in a state of excitement at the event which they had witnessed, the master [that is the master of the small band] said: ’Does anyone wish to speak?

The first disciple said: ’In the cause of Truth I feel myself constrained to say something to these people.’

’If you will do so at your own risk, you may do so,’ said the master.

Now the disciple stepped forward in the presence of the tribal chief and his priests and said: ’I can perform the miracle which you take to be a special manifestation of deity. If I do so, will you accept that you have been in error for so many years?’

But the priests cried: ‘Seize him!’ and the man was taken away, never to be seen again.

So what’s going on here? Julia. And then Rob.

Julia: The system is moving to preserve itself—in a rather violent way.

Ken: Rob?

Rob: Not facing experience. Not facing what’s right in front of them in the moment.

Ken: Why not?

Rob: Preconceived ideas and notions and agendas. Perhaps whatever is within them that doesn’t allow them to do it.

Ken: Were the people given the chance to do this?

Rob: The people in the tribe that was….

Ken: Yeah.

Rob: No.

Ken: No. What prevented them? What stopped them from having a chance to see.

Rob: Someone else.

Ken: Yeah. The priests.

Rob: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah.

Rob: So the priests had agendas for preventing the experience.

Ken: For protecting it from becoming general knowledge. Okay.

Any of you run into this? Anybody? Tom, you run into this?

Tom: Yeah, I’m a business consultant. I see it every time I walk in a building, practically. The high priests are keeping the secrets from the tribes.

Ken: Yeah. Why do they do it?

Tom: Power.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. Claudia.

Claudia: So, in the context of say Buddhism. [Chuckling] Let’s just say Buddhism. It doesn’t seem like power.

Ken: Say more. It doesn’t seem like power. Where have you been? [Laughter]

Claudia: Well. I’m I’ll take a fairly recent example. When I was trying to get some information from Cyrus Stearns on Thangtong Gyalpo and he would not send it to me because he didn’t know me. And I hadn’t had whatever empowerment was connected with that particular practice. That’s about power? [Laughter]

Ken: Well you have your companions here all nodding their heads and [unclear].

Claudia: Well, well well…it didn’t….

Ken: Now, let’s be clear here. His power? No.

Claudia: No. That was my point. He was I think trying….

Ken: But what does this mean? He’s accepted a way of thinking which is about power. And just as Tom was saying about the business world. Okay.

So. How do you get this empowerment?

Claudia: You have to go to [laughing] somebody who’ll give it to you. Some teacher.

Ken: And? Now connect this with your comment about power. What does this mean?

Claudia: It means you have to play the game in order to get the goods.

Ken: Yes.

Claudia: But in Cyrus’ case I thought, I almost felt like it, it’s fear in that sense because he is part of the inner circle so he doesn’t want to violate the rules.

Ken: Knowing Cyrus I wouldn’t say he’s part of the inner circle. I mean, I think he has his own relationship with it. And I don’t know whether it’s respect or fear which motivates him. That would be conjecture on my part. But taking it out of that particular context yes, in many cases it is fear which leads people to co-operate with those who are, who hold the power.

Claudia: So, what if it’s respect?

Ken: It still concentrates power, doesn’t it? There’s a power structure there.

Claudia: Yes.

Ken:— Yeah. So that’s the first one. How something that can be used by everybody is restricted by a small group of people to a few. So that they are able to wield power. Now, we find this in every area of human experience. Okay?

Section 13

We’ll go on with our little journey here.

The travellers went to the next territory where the second tribe were worshipping the instruments of fire-making.

You know, so they have a flint and a steel and maybe a couple of wooden twigs and they are encased in gold cases and studded with diamonds and….

Again a disciple volunteered to try to bring reason to the community.

With the permission of the master, he said: ‘I beg permission to speak to you as reasonable people. You are worshipping the means whereby something may be done, not even the thing itself. Thus you are suspending the advent of its usefulness. I know the reality that lies at the basis of this ceremony.’

This tribe was composed of more reasonable people. But they said to the disciple: ’You are welcome as a traveller and stranger in our midst. But, as a stranger, foreign to our history and customs, you cannot understand what we are doing. You make a mistake. Perhaps, even, you are trying to take away or alter our religion. We therefore decline to listen to you.’

How many of you run into this? I’ll give you an example. In the mid-80s, in the state of Michigan, the State Department of Education had developed a new curriculum for all the schools in Michigan. It contained within it the recommendation that if you’re feeling angry—and this is something students were to be taught—count to ten before you said anything. It was challenged by the fundamentalist right as a form of mind control. The judge agreed. And five years of work was thrown out.

We hear that, we think it’s absurd.

Quite frequently, people focus on the means or the rituals which in many cases are means and methods and miss the thing itself—what’s being pointed to. And if you say to them, “You’re missing the point.” They will say, “No, you don’t understand.”

Ken: Now when you hear this and think about this what comes up in you? Leslie.

Leslie: I’m just glad I’m an individual and I can figure things out and have my own response to things.

Ken: You ever come across this in the field of medicine?

Leslie: Yes.

Ken: Yeah.

Leslie: But I’m still an individual, I can make up my own mind.

Ken: Okay. Good.

The travellers moved on.

When they arrived in the land of the third tribe, they found before every dwelling an idol representing Nour, the original firemaker. The third disciple addressed the chiefs of the tribe:

’This idol represents a man, who represents a capacity, which can be used.’

’This may be so,’ answered the Nour-worshippers, ’but the penetration of the real secret is only for the few.’

’It is only for the few who will understand, not for those who refuse to face certain facts,’ said the third disciple.

This is rank heresy, and from a man who does not even speak our language correctly, and is not a priest ordained in our faith,’ muttered the priests. And he could make no headway.

So, not infrequently you find people honoring, worshipping the source of their inspiration. And then making no efforts to develop the capacities that this person represents. Thinking that in some way worshipping them is going to, or takes care of the matter, or will somehow bring those capacities through some kind of magical process. This is very, very common.

The band continued their journey, and arrived in the land of the fourth tribe. Now a fourth disciple stepped forward in the assembly of the people.

The fourth tribe is about those that had the legends. That such and such a thing was possible at such and such a time and had these wonderful things, etc, etc.

The fourth disicple says,

’The story of making fire is true, and I know how it may be done,’ he said.

What happens when somebody has heard a story about something that is possible or might be possible, and somebody comes along and says, “I know how to do that.” And maybe it’s a highly revered story and things like that. What happens in that situation? Is the person believed? Very rarely.

Confusion broke out within the tribe, which split into various factions. Some said: ‘This may be true, and if it is, we want to find out how to make fire.’ When these people were examined by the master and his followers, however, it was found that most of them were anxious to use firemaking for personal advantage, and did not realize that it was something for human progress.

Now, this is precisely what’s happening with mindfulness in this society right now. It’s a method, capacity if you wish, which all of you are very familiar with and you know how it is useful. And there is an increasing body of academics who are absolutely out with their elbows with each other trying to establish the standard definition of “mindfulness.” They write papers on it, do research, etc., etc. They call this the commodification of this. And it’s fairly well advanced with mindfulness. There’s two research centers at UCLA, probably a number of others at various universities around the country. Lots of papers. Lots of studies going on. You know what the next candidate is? Taking and sending.

Student: Maybe they’ll patent it and [unclear].


Ken: Well, fortunately I think there’s enough of a history that the patent office will reject that. But you can’t….

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: I understand. Well, if I end up in jail you’ll know why. [Laughter] Okay?

So deep had the distorted legends penetrated into the minds of most people that those who thought that they might in fact represent truth were often unbalanced ones, who could not have made fire even if they had been shown how.

It’s a well-known, well-established sociological phenomenon that when a new way of thinking enters a culture it is embraced by the most brilliant in the culture and the most marginal in the culture. So it gets really weird at the beginning. And since I was around when Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism was coming, I can tell you it was really weird. ’Cause you had extraordinarily capable and bright people. At the same time you had completely marginal weirdos all over the place. And you’re in it, all in it together. That’s how it was.

There was another faction, who said: ’Of course the legends are not true. This man is just trying to fool us, to make a place for himself here.’

And a further faction said: ’We prefer the legends as they are, for they are the very mortar of our cohesion. If we abandon them, and we find that this new interpretation is useless, what will become of our community then?’

So you have all of these different things going on.

And there were other points of view, as well.

So the party travelled on, until they reached the lands of the fifth community, where firemaking was a commonplace, and where other preoccupations faced them.

The master said to his disciples:

’You have to learn how to teach, for man does not want to be taught. First of all, you will have to teach people how to learn. And before that you have to teach them that there is still something to be learned. They imagine that they are ready to learn. But they want to learn what they imagine is to be learned, not what they have first to learn.

Now I’ve never run into this problem at all. You know, people say I want to do x, I want to learn x. In order to do x you actually have to do a, b and c. Oh, I’m not interested in a, b and c. I just want to do x. Run into it all the time.

When you have learned all this, then you can devise the way to teach. Knowledge without special capacity to teach is not the same as knowledge and capacity.’

There’s a lot in those last sentences we don’t need to break it out here.


Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Tales of the Dervishes. It’s filled with very uncomfortable stories. Very good stories.

Section 14

So, when we regard spiritual practice as something special all of these problems follow. And for this reason, as you practice keep a very sharp eye out for whether you are feeling special. Because if you are something is wrong.

Now how are we doing? Yes, we’re fine.

Out of these kinds of considerations, and a number of other ones which I’m not going to take time this evening for. A conversation with someone I was having, I can’t remember exactly who it was, I realized that I could summarize my own approach to things in four sentences. The first is…well, go back, step back a little bit.

Every generation, every culture uses metaphors that are prevalent in their culture and this is for better or worse. So Freud used drives and mechanisms. You know because he started his practice at the end of the 19th century when physics and engineering were ragingly successful. So they provided a very powerful way of talking about things.

Much of modern thinking about mind and intelligence uses the computer as a metaphor—data processing. And so you find brain functioning is described in terms of neural networks, and binary switching, and the processing of data, etc., etc. Whether that’s actually what’s going on? Very, very difficult to say but this is a very pervasive metaphor. And it’s very important to pay attention to the metaphors with which we use to describe things. Because every metaphor suggests possibilities, some possibilities, and denies other possibilities which may be very, very different from what we’re actually describing.

So, with those cautions, one of the metaphors which I have found extremely useful for myself, in my own thinking, is the metaphor of evolution. And there are some dangers in it. And I’m probably not aware of all of them but hopefully, they’ll come out through discussion and reflection.

Section 15

But the first thing is that everything is a product of evolution. You know, the clothes we wear have evolved through generations of design, and fabrics, and so forth. The ways we think, systems of practice. Governmental, social structures. Houses. Cars. Not to mention trees, and geography, etc. All of these are products of evolution in which changes have taken place over time. And it’s a very powerful way and I find it a very fruitful way of looking at things. Some of these processes of evolution take place over the course of centuries, or sometimes really millennia, if you think of geological evolution. Some of them take place over the course of minutes, if you think of the evolution of bacteria and cell division.

So, and there’s all these different time scales and different physical scales. Makes a big jumble. Very difficult to sort out.

But that’s one place that I start. And that metaphor is actually being widely used to look at how brain functioning develops because the model of evolution is that’s being used is that the infant brain structures evolve through the process of perception and processing. And here I’m using the computer metaphor again. But as it perceives and reacts not exact which actual structures evolve within the brain which shape future behavior and so forth. It’s a metaphor. And potentially quite useful but also has the dangers that we need to keep in mind.

And second is that evolution isn’t to anything. Things just evolve. There is a widespread myth that we are evolving to higher consciousness, we’re evolving to more ideal societies. It’s a myth because there’s absolutely nothing, no evidence at all to support it. If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, it’s extremely sobering in this regard. How long does it take a society at the peak of its civilization to devolve, which is just a different kind of evolution, into cannibalism? Any guesses?

Student: One generation.

Ken: Two generations. When the food goes, everything breaks down. Why? Because we’re animals. And the people who are spiritual are the first ones to be eaten. I’m being very pessimistic here. Because I’m sure Tom will agree with me that it’s all the people who are team players, and powerless, and things like that they’re the first ones to get fired in the economic crunch in business. And the people who are greedy, and are able to amass power, and make things happen, they’re the ones that survive. And it’s just, I think good to be very realistic about this.

So evolution isn’t to anything. It’s just evolution. And another thing, where did this come from? I can’t remember the author I was reading. How many times has flight developed in the course of evolution? Well, according to this biologist 4 or 5 times. One has to remember that fish fly in water. And that the most common form of fish are not like birds but they’re like airships. They float because they have an air bladder and they can float up and down. So they’re like airships being powered by their fins. Few, like sharks, fly in the water. They have to keep moving otherwise they sink. Most fish are airships.

And then you have pterodactyls and birds and so forth, forth—4 or 5 times. And then it falls all apart and evolves again. Over and over again. And we see the same thing in human affairs.

Third principle, actions have consequences. Everything that we do affects other people. Affects how they think, how they feel, what they do. So every action that we do has real consequences.

Where the first principle encourages us to see things in terms of process rather than being fixed entities. And the second one gets rid of idealization and everything’s going to work out in the end because this is some kind of divine plan and so forth. The third one counteracts the tendency to think, “Well then it doesn’t matter what we do.” Well, it does because our actions have real consequences.

When I was studying martial arts at one point I wondered if I shouldn’t include it in some of the work that I did with students. And one of my martial arts teachers said to me, “Well, this is lethal stuff. If you teach it to other people one of the people you teach it to may use it to kill somebody. Do you want that responsibility?” And I thought about it. And I decided no, I didn’t. I’ve trained to a certain extent in martial arts myself. But I didn’t want that particular responsibility. Actions have consequences.

The fourth one, we can never know completely what the consequences of any action will be. Sometimes we can do something and it seemed absolutely the right thing to do. And a year, ten years, a generation later, it’s a disaster. And vice versa.

Section 16

I’ll give you an absurd example of this. A student I had in Orange County many years ago…he had a law degree, a psychology degree and an M.B.A. Very bright guy. Worked as an attorney, hung out with a men’s group. But because he was so well-trained in so many fields, everybody regarded him as, you know, one of these people who knew everything. And he formed a bit of an identity around that.

So I said, “You know time for you to dismantle this identity.” He said, “Well, how am I going to do that?” I said. “Well, people have this projection on you, you’ve got to shatter the projection.” So we talked about it at some length and decided that this men’s group would be a good place for him to shatter this projection. Wasn’t going to have a devastating effect on anybody. And his instruction was to say something irrevocably stupid.

Well, he had a little trouble with this exercise. Because he was very attached to being smart. And he came back you know every meeting, “Nope, not able to do it, Ken.” And I kept pushing him. Finally, he came back. He came to meet with me one day. And he went, “Ken, this is much worse than I ever thought.” I said, “Why is that?” He said, “Well, at men’s group last night there was a young man who is going on about male bonding or something. And I thought of something really, really stupid to say. And I said it. Everybody in the group was absolutely shocked. They looked at this young man and they all bonded with him and, you know, and really took care of him, etc. And that was a very good experience for him. And then they all turned to me and said. ’That was a brilliant strategy!’”[Laughter]

So he got to see that shattering projections and getting rid of identities was actually a lot more trouble. But you have no idea of the consequences of your action. It’s Zhou Enlai was famous for being asked on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, “Do you think it was a success?” His reply, “It’s too early to tell.” [Chuckles]

So when you consider these four principles, at least what I find they do for me, is they give me a way to approach life without expectation. That’s principle number two. Accepting that it’s a mystery. That’s principle number four. Knowing that what I do is significant. That’s principle number three. And that whatever I do or whatever I meet is part of a process that is already entrain somewhere. It’s not necessarily a beginning, not necessarily an end. So it puts me right in the thick of things.

Ken: Paul.

Paul: I’ve heard people use number four as an excuse for bad behavior. You know, I don’t know the consequences of my actions so it, you know, I can do anything I want.

Ken: Guess I may have to add a fifth here. That’s just straight selfishness. Because when they say, “I don’t know the consequences of my actions,” what they’re really saying is, “I choose to ignore the immediate consequences of my actions.” So I say it’s straight selfishness. That make sense to you?

Paul: [Unclear] Yeah. Yes. I’m not sure that would convince someone who thinks that.

Ken: Oh, I think it’s very unlikely [laughter] that it would convince them [laughter] because they’re deeply invested in some kind of magical thinking. That whatever they do the world’s going to take care of everything and it’s gonna turn out for the good of all. And that’s just a myth.

Section 17

Ken: Valerie.

Valerie: Maybe I’m tired or maybe I’m just flipping to the other side but if so many of the things we do we know that they have bad consequences and I’m thinking because we’re enmeshed in the system.

Ken: That’s why actions have consequences and we can see them.

Valerie: Yeah. So, knowing that many of the things that we do have bad consequences, what’s the corollary for that one?

Ken: Well, you can see the consequences of your actions. If they’re harmful to others, then one’s going to refrain from them. I mean, underlying this I’m assuming that one has a kind of moral rudder somewhere other. I’m not talking about everybody in the world. These are just things I’ve chosen to live by.

Now, even when we try to do what is right, we may find ourselves making a mess of things. And equally we may find ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to do something that is contrary to how we want to live. We do wind up in situations like that sometimes. Nice double bind. But that’s just how our life has arisen. And we have to meet it. There’s nothing in here that guarantees that everything works out.

Valerie: Well, I guess I’m just thinking about, oh I don’t know pick something we do in our American lifestyle that has huge, that our collective practice of these things has huge negative consequences.

Ken: Yeah.

Valerie: And…

Ken: Which most people choose to ignore.

Valerie: Yes. I mean you can try and carve out your own pristine lifestyle somewhere….

Ken: Yeah.

Valerie: …that’s just like creating some sort of god realm. The problem is that many of the things that we do have bad consequences and we know about them.

Ken: Yes. Your point?

Valerie: I don’t know. What do we do about it?

Ken: You’re, well…

Valerie: I guess we can’t do anything about it. We just know that that’s happening all the time.

Ken: Yeah, have you ever heard of a thing called World Café? It’s a…

Valerie: Like a franchise radio show or something?

Ken: No. [Chucking] I wish. It’s a way which a large group can have a discussion. So I was present in one which was being led by Peter Senge who is one of the people who developed this. And the question he threw out for discussion was, “What does it mean to think like a global citizen?”

And he started this off by a 15-minute presentation on where things were going in terms of energy usage, global warming and various other factors. All of which, you know, it’s the usual “doom and gloom stuff” thing. Things are not looking good on a lot of levels. The stuff you’re all familiar with.

I found the question extremely irritating. And that was with our group that had been at this leadership conference. And so I was kicking the table like “Rar, rar, rar” [annoyed noises.] But I chewed on it. And meanwhile people were standing up and saying, oh, we have to stop consuming oil and we have to, you know, replenish forests and things like that. I mean, all very well-intended stuff. But not really thinking like a global citizen.

And I just kept chewing on this. And eventually I put up my hand and said, “From your preamble here, it’s very clear that in the years ahead when sea levels rise, energy resources fail, etc., the world’s population is going to go through a drastic reduction. It’s unsustainable at present or future anticipated levels. So a lot of people are going to die. So to think like a global citizen, one facet of that will be to decide whether you want to have any role in deciding who does or does not die.”

Well, that killed the discussion. Peter Senge looked at me like “Okaaay”. Nobody said anything for awhile. And then it was forgotten. But that’s what it means. And because every day what we do we’re making that decision. You know, we fly here, we drive our cars here. We’re making that decision right there.

And so yeah, all of these actions have bad consequences for some people. I agree with you.

Valerie: Well, I just, I don’t really know what there is except that I had an old Zen boyfriend who used to have a t-shirt that said, “Eat Death to Live”.

Ken: “Eat Death to Live”.

Valerie: And I guess, you know on the most simple level because we are human beings, we have to kill things to survive.

Ken: By and large. Yep. we’re part of the food chain.

Valerie: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. And I think a lot of people think that by becoming sufficiently spiritual they can escape being part of the food chain. Don’t think anybody’s done it yet. Maybe.

Section 18

Ken: Paul, I mean Rob.

Rob: I think it relates to what you’ve been talking about but also in terms of your guidelines for living, it seems like most of us grow up thinking that in relationships, wherever they are that maybe 80 to 90% of the time we have to say or do something. But maybe an alternative is to do the opposite. 80 or 90% of the time we say or do nothing. And I don’t mean that in an uncompassionate way. I mean being very aware of where it’s…we really…trying to become more aware of where we really need to say or do something. But if we actually…well…you see where I’m going.

Ken: You remind me of something I’ve read, Leslie probably won’t like this but, the…there were two or three accounts of this. People who found themselves in circumstances where they were the completely untrained medical authority. And, you know, and they would have a medical text or something like that describing diseases, and treatments, etc. And in these cases they found that 95% of the ailments that people came to them with went away by themselves. The answers to about 4% could be found in the text. And then there was a very small percentage which required a level of medical expertise which they just didn’t have.

And I think your point, there are a lot of things that we feel we have to do something about which is actually not the case. And if we can develop the capacity and restraint to let things take their course, a lot of things just resolve themselves. And I think that’s what your pointing to. And that actually is a very Taoist perspective. And being able to discern when it’s actually necessary to take action, and how to take action which can be quite subtle. But in most cases just letting things play themselves out. And they do.

Now there are very clearly some ways in which things playing themselves out will be very harmful to people. But even in those situations it’s not always possible to step in and actually do something which helps. And that is where compassion comes in. Very strongly. Because we can’t make everything work out well. Yep.


Leslie: I’m not offended at the least. People need doctors more to confirm what they already think.

Ken: Yeah.

Leslie: And just for the relationship.

Ken: I think you’re right.

Leslie: So pattern destruction seems to be what’s what we’re maybe talking about. And my experience with destroying my own patterns is it’s very, very challenging. One of the first stages is you notice that the results aren’t what you want.

Ken: Exactly.

Leslie: But there’s a whole lot of work to do before you actually change.

Ken: Yeah. And another evening ’cause we’re getting late now we can go into that. Because for a long time I worked on…from the perspective of pattern destruction. You know, dismantling them. I don’t really take that perspective any more because it creates this opposition. And what I’m working towards is the way of describing how we change our relationships with various patterns. Which has the effect that certain patterns don’t run us the way that they used to.

But it also keeps us awake to the possibility that we may think we have destroyed a pattern and then we run into a situation and bang it’s up again. That happens.

Leslie: There’s the confession.

Ken: Yep. Okay.

Let’s close here with a short period of meditation.

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.