Five Elements / Five Dakinis 01

Section 1

Mercury was the symbol for fire in the old system of cures. Air refers to all the thinking we do, and again void is the space in which all of those emotional movements can arise, and activity arises. And then we get to the way mind is. Earth refers to mind as ground.

Now mind as ground means that there is no ground, [unclear] that quality of presence. And then water refers to the clarity. Fire refers to the knowing quality of mind, where you just know. And air refers to the way mind moves, as I said earlier, thinking. And void is the aspect of mind in which there’s nothing you can make of it. So these five elements form a language in which we can describe all these different aspects of our experience.

And it’s actually helpful to become conversant in this language, which is one of the reasons, one of the objectives for this retreat is to gain, to develop some familiarity and become conversant with the language. Because it becomes extremely useful, not only in terms of transforming the way we experience things, but also in actually just interacting; understanding things in terms of the elements.

Section 2

And what the dakinis are—let me talk a little bit further about the dakinis. Do you have a question?

Student: Yeah, there seems to be distinction. Can you give further clarification of what is the difference between the fluidity of water and movement of air?

Ken: Ah, well that’s something we’ll go into in more detail. What’s the difference between the fluidity of water and the movement of air? Water when it flows stays together. Air just moves. For instance if water is still you can still sense it. But you can only sense air when there’s movement. For instance when you hold your hand up you don’t feel any air, when you do this [moves hand] you feel air. So if there’s no movement you could say there’s no air. But water has a cohesive quality. So some people say it is a cohesive element. That runs into the solidity aspect also. So that’s why I say it’s [unclear]. It keeps some kind of form, but it usually doesn’t necessarily keep any form. The water element assumes the form of whatever it’s flowing in.

Section 3

Now let’s talk a little bit about dakinis. Dakinis, the origin of dakinis, these were the aspects of experience ascribed to supernatural entities, that were called dakinis.

Mingyur Dorje, one of the karmapas, wrote a very nice composition about dakinis, in which he describes the origins a group of four dakinis, which corresponded to the first four of the elements; earth, water, fire, and air. The water element, for instance, corresponds to the dakini whose name is Changeling. And Changeling was this spirit or demon that would appear to you in different forms and seduce you into doing things that were really bad for you.

And another one was called the Murderess. These were regarded as female entities. There were in Indian lore also male entities. They were called dakas, and dakini was the female form. And they were originally supernatural spirits. What happens in Vajrayana is that these elements of folklore—the way that experience is interpreted—then became symbols for the way mind works. Does anyone here have a copy of my book, who can loan it to me? Thanks very much. Oh actually, it’s in here.

And I included this song by Khyungpo Naljor, who’s probably known here as Tsultrim. He describes what the crucial element is. The ordinary dakini represents these unruly aspects of our mind. The wild, untamed, reactive mind which just take over. So he says:

When wanting and grasping hold sway, the dakini has you in her power. Wanting nothing from outside, taking things as they come. Know the dakini to be your own mind

What’s being expressed here is, whatever arises in experience, when we regard it as something other, then attraction, aversion, all of the reactive emotions operate. And we are in the thrall of dualistic fixation and dualistic interpretation. And alienated from our own nature, our own knowing. And just react to things. That’s what it means when he says that the dakini has us in her power.

Section 4

Then he says:

Wanting nothing from outside, taking things as they come.

Those meditation instructions—Wanting nothing from outside—now how much of our lives do we go around trying to get something from the world to make us feel better? Relationships, money, possessions. You know, the list just goes on and on. Trying to get these things from outside to make us feel good in some way. It doesn’t work. Well, no it doesn’t work. It never works. It’s temporary at best. Does that stop us from doing it? No, you keep doing it.

Taking things as they come.

This again is a meditation instruction. All too often, most of the time, we don’t take things as they come. Something arises and we want it to be a little bit different. [Chuckles] It’s not quite right. Many years ago I had a girlfriend who was just exactly right. I was never quite right. [Laughter] Never quite fit. Life was tortuous. It was very difficult.

Section 5

Know the dakini to be your own mind.

That is, know that what arises in experience is not something other. Now, when we know that, and this is not an intellectual knowing, this is an experiential knowing, then everything changes. The way that we experience the world changes. And so rather than being fixed in this dualistic I/other framework; when we know what arises in experience to be your own mind. You know there is no difference—there is just experience. And you’re awake in that experience. So he goes on to say:

Know that the crystal is the non-thought of mind itself.


Crystal dakini guards against interruptions.

This is a very deep instruction. The crystal—you can regard, this is the water dakini.

Crystal is the non-thought of mind itself.

So when you have a level of attention in which you can rest. And there is no conceptual process taking place in the mind. There’s no thought. Then things can arise. And it doesn’t matter what arises. It doesn’t disturb. You follow? And thus nothing can interrupt the quality of your attention and the quality of your presence.

Section 6

Know that the source of wealth is contentment and the jewel dakini fills all wants and needs.

There’s a story from the life of Buddha in which a poor person, a very poor person comes across this wish-fulfilling jewel and he recognizes what he’s found. And he says, “Wow, this is so important and valuable. I don’t know what to do with this. The Buddha will know what to do with it.” So he went to Buddha and said, “I found this wish-fulfilling jewel. I don’t know what to do with it but you’ll know the person who needs this the most so I’m going to give it to you. The Buddha said, ”Thank you.“

Later that day there was a big festival and sponsored by the local ruler, the king. And in middle of this festival, Buddha called the king and said, ”Here’s this wish-fulfilling jewel. I was told to give it to the person who needs it most and I’m giving it to you.“ The king said, ”Why?“ ”Because you have more want than anybody else in this community.“ [Chuckles]

So, no contentment. When there’s no contentment it does not matter how wealthy we are—and we can think of wealth in terms of financial wealth or possessions. But it doesn’t really matter. It applies to other kinds of wealth, some people are greedy for knowledge, some people are greedy for connections, some people are greedy for power. It doesn’t make any difference.

When there’s no contentment, then the jewel dakini has us in her power. When we know contentment, then we are the richest person in the world. Because we don’t need anything. So, this is how the dakinis transform experience. And that’s what we’re going to be working with [unclear].

Section 7

The five dakinis symbolize the five elements. So, and there are many systems of dakinis. This is the one we’re going to use here. So the earth dakini symbolizes the nurturing, supportive, powerful quality of earth. And instead of that rigid solidity. She symbolizes stability. And there are similar one’s for the other elements. The water dakini symbolizes the clarity that we refer to of the nature of mind. So instead of this not being able to pin anything down. This constant movement of dissipating energy which is what the ordinary water reaction is. There’s clarity. So you know what’s actually happening.

In every element of passion, there is fire. There is a knowing. Often that knowing is confused and distorted. What the fire dakini symbolizes is the knowing. The knowing that just arises without any reference. And knows things directly and instantly.

The air dakini transforms busyness of activity for activity’s sake into effective action. And the void dakini transforms that spacey, bewildered quality of experience into presence, oneness. And then in making those transformations, then the dakinis open the doors, or the doors are open for us, to the five aspects of pristine awareness. Now the five aspects of pristine awareness occur many times to [unclear].

The usual translations are evenness or sameness pristine awareness, that corresponds to earth. Mirror-like pristine awareness that corresponds to water. Distinguishing pristine awareness which corresponds to fire. It’s usually translated as accomplishing pristine awareness, which I think is completely burned in translation and translated to effective pristine awareness which corresponds to air. Totality pristine awareness, which some of you know asdharmadhatuthat’s the Sanskrit word for it; which corresponds to the void.

Now you can place it—evenness pristine awareness—I’ve been playing with the translation, balanced pristine awareness. Balance is a very important term in dzogchen teachings. The tibetan is nyam nyid and it’s usually translated as sameness or evenness. The literal translation nyam is the word for even, and nyid is the nessand makes a noun out of it.

But I was having a discussion with a Tibetan friend a few years ago and I said, ”You know what, what would be the Tibetan word for balance?“ And he said, ”nyam nyid.“ Oh, that’s very interesting. Because balance in a certain sense is like the ground of presence. In that balance is the optimal condition for presence to arise. And what balance consists of is the complete absence of preference and prejudice, so you can experience everything as just experience. And that’s exactly what this aspect of pristine awareness is about. Experiencing things as just experience. Nothing is better or worse or bigger or lesser than anything else. Everything is experience.

Section 8

Mirror-like pristine awareness is referring to the clarity aspect of experience. Now this is very important. When you look into a mirror, what do you see?

Student: A face.

Ken: Yeah, or you see reflections. You know you maybe looking at an angle in a reflection. Maybe you’re looking at your own face if you are looking straight into it. Or you see reflections. Question. Do you see the mirror?

Student: Only if it’s dirty. [Chuckles]

Ken: No, then you see the dirt. All right? Now we know there’s a mirror there—unless you are a cat or something like that and then you don’t know it’s a mirror. [Laughter] Or we may not know there’s mirror there and we may think there’s something else but we can’t tell. But usually you know there is a mirror there because there is a frame around it or something else. But you actually can’t see a mirror, can you?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: You follow? In the same way, when we look at what we experience, what we’re actually looking at is our own mind. That’s why it’s called mirror-like pristine awareness.

You look around this room, and see everybody in the different clothes and colours and shapes and so forth. And all there is is sensory experience. We’re looking at our own mind. And we can’t see it. And what’s more problematic—it’s not that we can’t see it, you can’t see mind at all. But we think we’re looking at actual people that really exist there. [Chuckles] And we have no idea at all that what we’re seeing is actually our own mind. That’s the mirror-like wisdom.

Section 9

And then there’s distinguishing pristine awareness. I’ve never been happy with that term either but I haven’t found a better word. Give me another five years and I’ll come up with one. What this means is seeing the individual aspects of every aspect of every bit of experience. Now, in its ordinary functioning this is what leads to a lot of judgement. Now you say this over here, that over there.

Student: Would you repeat in seeing the individual aspects?

Ken: Yeah. For instance being able to see the different colours in the carpet, or being able—seeing all the individual qualities and differentiating them.

Buddhism has very simple definition of intelligence. It’s actually a very effective definition. Intelligence is the ability to discern differences. Now, when it comes to buying a carpet, I’m not very intelligent. Because I can’t discern the differences. You know in terms of quality, you know, of weave, in the quality of the material, and the quality of the design, etc., etc. Someone who’s very knowledgeable about carpets is able to discern. In that particular context they’re much more intelligent.

But there are other areas where I can discern the differences. And so being able to see these differences, that’s what makes us able to see what’s what. Now it’s a little bit out of fashion these days because people think well that’s being discriminating. But being able to see what’s actually there and how it’s different for you from other things that are there—that’s all that’s mentioned. And we need that information in order to know how to actually respond to the situations.

And that quality, that being able to see all of those differences very, very clearly that’s distinguishing pristine awareness which corresponds to fire. And let’s face it, when you have a passion for things then you really get into those distinctions. You get somebody who is really passionate, or a couple of people who are really passionate about music and they’ll talk about minute differences. He played that track this way and it should have been played this way. And so it’s an indication of how passionate you are.

Section 10

Then effective pristine awareness—it’s how I like to translate that one—is about effective action. It’s the quality of experience which knows what to do and just does it. Cutting through all the stuff. It’s symbol is the sword because it cuts through confusion. It cuts through duality.

And then to the totality pristine awareness which is the quality of awareness which knows everything. Knows the whole. And those of you who are familiar with Tibetan Buddhism know that a word that comes up repeatedly in prayers and praise and so forth is omniscience. Which is a translation in Tibetan thams cad mkhyen pa. Thams cad is the word for all and mkhyen pa is to know beyond limits. An so we translate this as omniscience. Omni being the Latin word for all, and science comes from the Latin word to know.

Now we know this. But we do something a little different there. Because we’re in a modern culture we tend to take this literally. Knowing everything means literally knowing everything. So if somebody asks so and so who knows everything some obscure question about entomology or biology, they don’t know it. And I think this is a complete misunderstanding. You know, this kind of knowing is not a super Ph.D. It’s complete knowing. So it’s knowing our experience in the moment completely. I think that’s a much better way of approaching that term.

[Unclear] obviously is confused between people who have a high level of attention and those who didn’t experience it now. And that has extraordinary power in and of itself.

Section 11

So what I’m trying to do now is just go through the five elements. Get a flavour for those. Go through the five dakinis. Give you some kind of flavour for them. And go through the five pristine awarenesses.

Now one may ask, ”Well why the feminine?“ In Buddhism, the feminine always symbolizes the wisdom aspect. And we’re working very much with the wisdom aspect in the context of this retreat. And we’re going to explore that as much as one wants. The wisdom aspect is very much connected with the empty aspect. The emptiness of knowing. It’s going to sound a little ontological, the emptiness of knowing is what makes knowing possible.

Now…what we’re going to be doing in the course of this retreat. We’ll be doing two or three different things.

One is starting tomorrow. We’re going to start doing this tonight. We’re going to go through the meditations of the dakinis. During the teaching sessions, I’ll probably go through them in terms of a guided meditation so that you can get really clear how the meditation proceeds. And you’ll probably find it helpful to be walked through it. And the follow-up through that. That’s one thing. So we learn those techniques.

The structure of each of those meditations is very similar. You evoke presence of the dakini. Invite transformation. Experience the illumination of ones reactive patterns or reactive chains. The transformation comes through a higher level of attention. And then the flavour or the gesture would be pristine awareness. And a way of experiencing the world—that aspect of pristine awareness embodies. And we’ll go through this in a ritual, dramatic form.

It’s visualized. It’s imagined if you wish. Symbols are used because symbols speak directly to us emotionally. Bypassing the cognitive process which often introduces a whole level of distortion and interpretation which isn’t necessary. So it’s a way of working very directly with the process of the mind. Now, what each of these meditations describes is what we are actually aiming to be able to do with experience when it arises. And I’ll be making those links.

So that, for instance, with earth element. When you begin to feel the rigidity, if you open to the experience of rigidity. you transform that rigidity into a sense of stability which doesn’t require any external input. And that makes it possible to experience everything as just experience. So you’ve moved into pristine awareness. I’ll be going through those processes in more detail when we go through the meditations. So that’s one thing we’re going to do. And that’s how we learn how to transform reactive processes.

Basically the meditation on the [unclear] dakinis is training you in a specific transformation process which when you’re trained into starts to happen in your life. And so you start experiencing the world differently. It’s not that you remember to do it. It does not work that way. You’re trained so that it just happens. And so that’s one thing. Yes.

Student: Excuse me. Does it happen on the spot or does it come upon reflection?

Ken: It happens on the spot. Initially that can happen upon reflection but that’s really after the fact. So we have—the aim here is to train the self so that it just happens. [Snapping fingers] You don’t think about it. You don’t remember to do it. It just happens. And that requires the higher level.

OK. Second thing we’re going to be doing is learning the language of the five elements and for it to work. So in this light evening read. You will find…I’ve been marking this up quite a bit.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: It helps. Yeah, if I’d had a good editor it’d be one hundred pages less.

[Searching through pages] On pages, starting on page 226 and going through to page 231. [Wake Up to Your Life] You will find descriptions of each of the elements in terms of aspects of ordinary experience. So it would be good to spend one day on each element. Read over that section. So we’ll do earth tomorrow. It’ll be a little short on void because that will be on Sunday and we only have half a day.

But you spend one day observing earth. Read over that section. All of the questions that it has. And you reflect on earth element in your life and earth element around. So you really use that framework. You get very, very—so that’s the second thing that we’re going to be doing. Becoming familiar with the language.

The third thing is that we’re going to do a number of exercises over the course of the retreat. This is what I usually do in the afternoons. And these exercises are designed to bring you in touch with specific aspects of the elements. So you get what each element feels like in the body. And that can be fun. Can be interesting. We won’t do that tomorrow afternoon. We’ll take tomorrow afternoon off. We’ll catch up with the exercises to make adjustment for the retreat. So tomorrow’s Wednesday. So Thursday, Friday, Saturday which is just about right. You have to come up with three sets of exercises. And so you get the experience of the elements and also the transformation of the elements right into the body. So they’re not just abstract ideas. You actually have a physical experience. It’s not so clear to me…is that enough? You want more? No.

Last time, not last time, one time I taught this retreat we had a full five days. It was a six day retreat so there were five days running.[Unclear] I kept adding more and more stuff, by day three everybody’s eyes glazed over. [Chuckles] People said ”Ken have you ever heard that less is more?“ [Laughter] And I said ” No, no is more for Ken.“ Less is less, more is more. [Laughter]

Section 12


Student: I want to know quickly do we bring our book?

Ken: This. Oh, are we using them for the practices?

Student: Well just whether we do.

Ken: Well, I’m hoping when we’ve gone through this with the guided meditations, etc. That’s why we gave you this because we have here a handy dandy chart.

Student: We haven’t been given any of this.

Ken: I know. We haven’t given them out yet. [Laughter] George is with us—I don’t know—for how many years now we’ve been doing this?

George: Too many.

Ken: Too many. [Chuckle] About a month or a month and a half—he calls me up and says ”Ken, we need the booklet for the next retreat.“ He’s so reliable about that. ”I go, oh yes you’re right.“ And so each time we put together this booklet. And this is the booklet for that now. This, you’ll find in here a lot of strange, actually…could you…

Ken: I have decided to make the work easier again. If you look on page 8 in here. Probably should have called this A Song of the Elements rather than A Song of the Dakinis. We read that in the title song. You’ll see that the word here means five in two verses.

George: Does everyone have one?

Ken: Everybody got one? So if you read through them you’ll see the whole meditation. We’re going to read this everyday.

Student: Where are we on this?

Ken: Page 8. I composed this so that you have something to read and that gets the stuff into you. Because I asked people to memorize this stuff and nobody ever does. So I think you’ll find that helpful.

Section 13

We’re going to begin to move to—so you’ve got that and you’ve got the chart. There’s a lot of stuff to learn here. I think that you’re going to…[unclear] Yes.

Student: Have you ever seen a person that has achieved all this? You know, how do they behave? Like when they can do all these things? What do they look like? And how will we know them when we see them? [Laughter]

Ken: Very unremarkable. That’s what they look like. Why? Well, as one develops a higher level of attention. And frees oneself from the tyranny of reactive processes then you see things more clearly. The more clearly you see things, the more clearly you see in what’s required in these situations.

When you’re really clear, usually you only see one thing to do in each situation. And so you just do it. It’s no big deal. And things just flow naturally because it is what is appropriate. And nobody notices. So if you come across a person that seems totally unremarkable and things just seem to flow around that person. Probably good to pay attention. You follow? It’s not magical.

One second. I’ll give you an example. I use these techniques in the corporate consulting as well. I was working with the COO in an organization, a corporation, who had very, very volatile CEO. Very fiery guy who was constantly losing his temper and challenging and intimidating and turning the company upside down about one thing after another.

And he said, “What do I do with this guy Ken? He keeps taking us off from what we really need to be focusing on. And he’s disrupting and taking care of things that should be taken care of with much, at levels much lower down. What do I do with this guy?”

So I go, “The next time he blows his stack about something, just look at him and say “I know this is a difficult situation, we’re going get through this together.“ And this guy looked at me and said,”What! [Laughter] I said, “Don’t ask me any questions. Just say that to him”. “Okay.”

So I saw him a couple of weeks later. And I said, “Well, how’d it go?” He said “Really weird. I did what you said. And he got really upset about something last week. I did what you said. I just said we’re in a difficult situation, we’re going to get through this together, don’t worry about it. And he just looked at me and he said,” “Huh?” [Laughter] “Let’s get back to work.” And that was it! [Chuckles]

Now the way that works and we’ll be going into this later, is that the fire element reaction—why a person is so explosive—is that they feel completely alone. They feel isolated. And they fear, they’re afraid. They feel isolated and everything’s going to be on them. So when I told the COO to say, “This is a difficult situation, we’re going to get through this together.” It was a connecting comment and it defused the fire reaction in the CEO just like that. He didn’t even though he was feeling it. He just went, “Huh, let’s get back to work.” And so it funded…actually he needed. And so it really looks very unremarkable. But things flow. Okay. Rick another question.

Section 14

Student: I keep having this question about, suppose we’re in difficulty, right.

Ken: Suppose we’re in difficulty. I’m arguing…

Student: I’m in difficulty…[raising voice over Ken] I don’t speak the same language as anybody in this room.

Ken: OK.

Student: And I’m presented with these symptoms; sword, breath, circle of light, jewel.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: And I don’t understand a word. Are those symbols going to speak to my unconscious?

Ken: Well, I don’t want them to speak to your unconscious at all! [Chuckles] I want them to speak to you.

Student: Well, but when you say that words distort.

Ken: Okay. So your question is, “Will these symbols,”—and you named some of them: the circle of light, the sword, the rose or lotus, red ones, mirror and jewel—“Will this speak to me?” Okay. When you think of a jewel what comes to mind?

Student: A jewel.

Ken: Yes, what else comes to mind? What does a jewel symbolize for you? Just forget everything. Just what does a jewel? You know, this beautifully cut, rich, yellow jewel. What does…

Student: Well I think that that’s the point, right?

Ken: Well, what does it mean?

Student: Well…I get innumerable images.

Ken: Yeah. What, so? Give us two or three. You get a myriad? You can give us two or three.

Student: I see a ring with a jewel in it. For some reason I see a roulette wheel for some reason. I don’t know why. I just, so I feel like I…

Ken: Now just a second, just a second. Okay. Now what’s the common teacher there? Ring, roulette. Well it starts with—

Student: An “R.” Well it’s going to sound so silly but I’m going to say wheels.

Ken: Well there’s that. There’s also a quality of richness, isn’t there?

Student: I wouldn’t have thought of that originally. That’s why, that’s what bothers me about this. Is that, I feel like the images I get, I’m not on track here. [Laughter]

Ken: Well, you’ll get the images you get without adding. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be fine.

Student: Okay. [Laughter]

Ken: The, I mean there’s, there’s two points. [Can you close that door the mosquitos are starting to come in]

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, it’ll probably be fine. How are you doing Diane?

Diane: I’m doing all right, Okay.

Ken: You’re feeling chewed in other words. Okay, please.

Student: Ken, I think my question here is, “You can’t do this without the workbook.” You can’t separate them from the symbolism, from the words.

Ken: Agreed, you can’t separate the symbols from the words. But there’s thinking about and there’s letting the symbols speak to. I mean, everybody has a certain association with a sword, you know. If I were to put a sword into the centre of the room. I could guarantee everybody would go like this…you know, there would be a shift, cause that has a certain meaning. They may have more meanings in some cultures. Meanings in different directions in some cultures than others. But it has meaning. You all know what a sword does.

Student: Well, I would get that. I want to know if that sword is pointing down or pointing up. Or is it double double-bladed? Is it a twisted handle? [Chuckles] It’s funny how many things come into my mind. I can’t—

Ken: Okay. So what’s your favourite sword? [Laughter]

Student: I know a story but I—

Ken: Yeah, but when you think of a sword what comes to mind?

Student: I think, it can point up for me. Is it going to have a blade in it. It’s going to be==

Ken: And you know what. That’s exactly the symptom. I guess you’re on track on that one. Okay. [Chuckles] Red rose, do you have a problem with that?

Student: The mind instinctively, a rose for a rose.

Ken: You like lotus better than rose? It’s a red, deep red flower. Many petals, rich. Very passionate. A red rose, red lotus’s. They’ve been used in the cultures for exactly the same thing. To educate your lover while you’re asking them out. [Chuckle] Okay?

Student: Good.

Section 15

Ken: Other questions? Meredith?

Meredith: It would be helpful to have the phrases. So with fire you’re comforting them in that they’re not alone.

Ken: Oh, we’re going to be going through all of that. And it’s, we’re not going to do that tonight. That would be overkill. But we’ll be going through the exercises and things like that so you’ll get to hear all about it. Yes, yes.

Student: I need to question you. This woman asked about, “what does that person look like?” It’s very important because I think some of us want to be able to translate what we’re learning into, into our actual experience of being present.

Ken: Yes, I agree that this question’s very important. And I answered the way I did because I don’t want you to emulate anything.

Student: Okay.

Ken: This is not about emulation. A lot of what we do is in our culture when we see something,we try to act like it. We try to emulate it. But emulation, all that does is gives us a way of acting. It doesn’t necessarily change anything its self.

Student: But if we’re in really difficult situations and we find ourselves making—you know, all of a sudden stop making a choice. Okay am I going to get in there and fight this battle, or am I gonna, you know, step out of it? Or am I going to, you know, how will I engage in the turmoil of whatever is happening to you?

Ken: Well, we’re going to talk about that. But what we’re training to do—is when that turmoil comes up—is to recognize what your turmoil is. And then move into the experience of the turmoil.

Student: Which could mean being reactive? Like getting into––

Ken: No, no, no. We’re reactive when we don’t move into the experience of turmoil. Then it just runs.

Student: Oh it just runs. Okay.

Ken: So we’re going to move into the experience of turmoil. And so it’s far more important from my point of view is not about describing but behave like this, and then like this, and then like this. Because people will adopt those behaviours and it won’t come from any wisdom or knowing from inside.

My aim is for our time together here, is to give you the tools, and help to guide you in your experience. So that you start discovering these qualities in your own experience. And then how that takes expression in your own experience will take care of itself. And you’re not going to be emulating anybody. You’re going to be acting directly from your own knowing. Which is the intention in Buddhism. Emulation is a method of practice but it’s really a relatively beginners level of practice. And we are much more concerned with discovering the abilities and qualities in your own experience. And learning how to give expression to them. Other questions? Yes.

Student: You talked about [unclear]. Does anyone do this type of practice? Can help those of us with less stable, with less strong attention, eventually perhaps see or directly experience emptiness? Even just for a moment.

Ken: Well the experience of emptiness is very easy. It’s not particularly difficult. Living from emptiness, that’s much more difficult. Basically––

Student: Fair enough. Maybe I should say stabilizing.

Ken: Yeah, stabilizing, stabilizing experience of emptiness is purely a matter of developing a sufficient level of attention. Right now we have all kinds of reactive processes running around inside us which keep destabilizing our attention.

And so one of the reasons we do the practices such as the five dakinis, or the four immeasurables or any of those things, is to knock out the fullness of the reactive processes, so they stop operating. And then our attention naturally becomes more stable. And then being able to live in the sense of emptiness of experience becomes more possible. So we are creating the conditions for that to arise.

Section 16

But there is a huge amount of mystification. If you read the mahayana sutras, they’re wonderful. They’re beautiful. They’re elaborate, and they leave you the impression that you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being really awake. [Laughter] Right?

Student: The Heart Sutra.

Ken: The Heart Sutra is relatively innocuous, try the Avatamsaka Sutra. It goes on and on and on. Even the Diamond Sutrasare intimidating that way.

But when you get to the core experiences they describe, the picture is different. For instance, how many of you know the four stages of arhatship? Stream winner, once returner, no returner and arhat. Right?

Student: Very intimidating. [Laughing]

Ken: Yeah, except that what in the blazes does this mean? Okay. What’s a stream winner? Now it’s someone who—and if you read the formal descriptions—and you feel like “well you know, maybe twenty-five lifetimes if I work absolutely consistently. I don’t do anything else. I never earn a cent in my life. I just meditate all the time maybe I’ll just get there.” Like that, right?

Well, those wonderful descriptions are a poetic expression of how much people valued these things, so they, they blew it up tremendously. So what is a stream winner? A stream winner is a person who has had a sufficiently powerful or strong experience of emptiness that they can’t go back to being the same way. It’s something which screws up the system so you can’t go back. Now you’re on the path. You are in the stream. No? So when you’ve developed a level of attention, you have that experience. Then you’re a stream winner.

Section 17

What’s a once returner? A once returner is a person whose level of attention is sufficiently high so that when a reactive process comes up, they are caught by it for a moment (one life) [snaps fingers] and then they return to wakefulness.

When a reactive process arises in a no returner, it just comes and goes. They aren’t caught by it. They don’t have to return. They stay in wakefulness.

Buried in this highly metaphorical language you have simple and accessible experiences expressed in code. These experiences are very accessible to all of us. The fact that they are seen as way out there, well, that’s poetry.

Student: But they are taken literally by some. [Chuckles] Some of my teachers anyway!

Ken: Actually some in the group here. [Laughter] Well, there was this student of Zen who had a very, very deep experience at one point. And the circumstances were such that he couldn’t go to any teacher and recount his experience and have it reflected back, which is actually a important aspect. So in lieu of that, I think he picked up the Diamond Sutra. And said to himself, “If I can read this and understand it without having a single thought then I think I am probably on the right track.” And that’s what he did. It was all completely clear to him.

So when you have had certain experiences then you see what the poetry is actually pointing to. Now eastern teachers––many of them, almost all of them––they learned and were trained in this highly metaphorical way of expression. At the same time because they are in traditional societies, they don’t take it literally. They understand and know it as metaphor. Though they don’t talk about it as metaphor. It’s not the way one does things in a traditional society.

We’re in and have been brought up in a modern society. Modern society is characterized by the use of rational processes, particularly at times, in which you take everything literally. When you’re reading an account of a scientific experiment you’re paying attention to every word that’s being very clearly expressed because you want to reconstruct that experiment to see if you can do it yourself. So you take everything absolutely literally. But when we bring that literalness to this highly metaphorical thing the result is disastrous!

I’ll give you an example. I ran into this with a psychologist one time in a conversation. And it’s exactly this conversation. And he said “Well give me an example.” I said, “In Tibetan Buddhism you regard your teacher as buddha.” And he immediately said, “Oh, so he’s infallible.” So I said, “No.” That’s a perfect example of modern literal rational processes being applied to metaphorical imagery or mythic language really.

When you say you regard your teacher as a buddha, as Buddha, it describes the way that you regard a teacher as how you experience awakening mind; how you would want to live that way. It doesn’t say anything about being [unclear], but it says a great deal about, is your relationship with that person. And the role of that relationship in your spiritual process. It’s a huge difference in talking about a person as being [unclear]. Not the same thing at all. And those kinds of mistakes are being made all over the place. Noel.

Noel: Sure. Thank you.

Ken: Other questions?

Student: I just wondered, doesn’t that build on a little bit of our Christian heritage? Where the image of Jesus and some of those images are so pure and rarefied that we in our culture transform, transform those into tibetan culture or eastern religion cultures.

Ken: I think that a lot of us involuntarily in Christianity is equally misunderstood.

Student: And it goes with that as well, yeah and [unclear].

Ken: I think that being able to understand what is being pointed to in terms of one’s own experience, yeah. Without literal descriptions. Being able to understand what the other language is pointing to. Is something that is being lost to us to a significant experience and extent. Which means we don’t, we lack a way of talking about these things. And that’s problematic.

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.