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So last year, many of you were here, and we opened…we spent a few days here, working with a Vajrayana method, creation practice, creation stage practice, in the context of Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, this thangka or painting, that John so kindly brought for us. The embodiment of awakened compassion. And a few people from that retreat, this practice really clicked with them. They made that part of their practice, and that’s been a significant method of opening and deepening their practice. And that’s how I left it. It was a personal choice, whether to…you use that practice or not.
Now, in this retreat, my intention is to introduce you to three key principles of Vajrayana. That’s the title of the retreat: Guru, Deity, and Protector. And there are practices associated with each of these categories, I suppose. And the practices serve specific intentions. As I’ve made clear in other contexts, it’s very important to understand the intention of a practice.
So the structure for the next few days is, tomorrow is going to be kind of a general introduction. And then on Friday, it will be about guru; on Saturday, about deity or yidams, some of you may know it. And Sunday, about protector.
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Now, some of you have been exposed or trained in these practices…practices of these yanas, previously. You may find that some of the perspectives that I’m going to offer challenge, maybe even contradict, some of the conceptions you’ve already had. And that should make an interesting time for both of us. Others, you may have just heard about this stuff and have various kinds of ideas. For many of you who have studied with me, you haven’t been exposed to much of this stuff. And so you’ll find it…you may find it a bit strange, a very different way of thinking, and it’s quite possible that it will bring up, you know, the usual discomforts, and questions, and hesitations and turmoil. So, my suggestion is that you don’t try to understand this, at this point. Don’t try to figure it out.
If we use an analogy of eating. I just have a nice memory of Rinpoche, when he first came to Bhutan, they had never encountered oranges. And when they got to Bhutan, and given oranges, “What do you do with this?” And it’s this way with certain tropical fruits, you know, you don’t know how to eat them. There’s a very interesting completion of this story. Because this is a big thing! You remember when Rinpoche told me, “We didn’t know what to do with these. It’s only when somebody showed us, you know, peel it, and then eat what’s inside. Oh, okay. Maybe this is okay to eat after all.”
Years and years later, this would be sometime in the 1980s. So this is like 25, maybe 30 years later, this meeting between Seung Sahn Sunim and Kalu Rinpoche was set up in Boston, where these two masters with their respected traditions were going to talk—Dharma debate—you know, something like this. And Seung Sahn Sunim whips out an orange and says,
What is this? And the whole thing just broke down terribly, because after about ten minutes of discussion between Rinpoche and his translator, the translator turned to Seung Sahn Sunim and the audience and said,
Rinpoche is very confused. Doesn’t he know what an orange is? [Laughter]
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So rather than trying to understand, I mean, if I give you an orange, and you have never seen an orange before, well, what is understanding an orange? “Well, okay, this is orange. Well, I wonder is this where the color comes from, or is this called an orange because the color came from….” You know, you get into these kinds of things, like thinking about it. And what does it mean to understand an orange? Do you have to understand the vine, and the sections, and things like that. I mean that’s not what understanding an orange means. It means peeling it and eating it: that’s understanding an orange.
So, over the next few days, even though there may be a lot of ideas kicked up, don’t worry about understanding them. What I want you to do is to make an effort in the practice of just experiencing this. Tasting it, getting the flavor, what does it feel like. So, keep an open mind, to the extent that you can. Just do the practices. See how it works or doesn’t work. And that’s what I want you to bring up in the interviews and in our discussions together here.
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Now, Vajrayana, in some ways, is a very special path. In other ways, there’s nothing that much special about it, and in still other ways, it’s just kind of weird. I want to say a bit about all three of those.
Spiritual traditions, when they’re healthy and alive, are not static. And they change, they evolve, they develop. And experience is added on to experience. In martial arts, for instance, people say, “Well these are the really ancient Chinese martial arts.” Well, the really ancient ones aren’t actually as good as the stuff that’s actually evolved. Because somebody came up—“Now, this is a good move”—but then somebody developed a counter to it. So the original guy, or maybe his son, or something like that—instead of this—and worked out a more refined way, which took into account, that counter.
So there’s constant evolution, and then there are easier ways of doing things, and easier ways of training, and more effective ways. So it’s not necessarily the case, in fact it’s relatively rarely the case, that the old ancient way is necessarily the best. In these things, there’s the discovery, and really quite extraordinary individuals who have discovered some of these principles. There must have been amazing people—whether they’re…whatever discipline—talk about martial arts, talk about spiritual practice, talk about a lot of other disciplines. But there is a whole process of refinement and evolution that takes place. And in the context of Buddhism, this process of evolution is very, very evident.
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You start off with the original teachings—the four noble truths, three marks of existence—and as people acquired more and more experience with this, found different ways of formulating, different ways of practicing, and so you get up to around the beginning of the Common Era—Nagarjuna is a key figure here—where he takes this idea of mindful attention, and begins to apply it to every aspect of experience, very deeply. And one of the things that evolved out of that was the whole notion of emptiness—a tradition that became known as the transmission or the lineage of the Profound View.
Meanwhile other people said, “Okay, we can sit here in the forest and in the jungle, and practice this stuff, and get really, you know, really present.” It gets a little tricky when you are talking with people, particularly when they would have lay disciples, and they would say, “I’ve got this big trade deal going down, and it’s really difficult to stay present in the middle of these negotiations. I am trying to sort out some problems in my kingdom here, how do I do this?”
And so you had another whole system that developed: how do you actually live in activity and do this—here, and here, and here—all these different activities. And that gave rise to another whole tradition called the tradition of Pervasive Action, or Great Action. And these became two principle Mahayana traditions, because they were taking things to a new level.
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Now, somewhere along the line, mainly because as things get developed…human…what seems to happen in spiritual traditions, is that the ideal of enlightenment, or awakening, or other religious traditions—God or Allah, or what have you—more and more stuff is heaped on them, more and more projection. You know, so wonderful, and so good, and so pure. You know, all of that stuff is like…is really a kind of appreciation of how profound and how significant it is. But the effect is to make it more and more remote, more and more distant from actual human experience.
So what you have then is a whole bunch of efforts to cut through that projection—right here, right now. So you get another whole process of evolution, it’s things like ordinary mind. What is enlightenment? Ordinary knowing. “Huh? And I thought it was something wonderful. It’s that?!” Or you get really weird expressions like the fourth time. What’s that? Or original purity. You know, there are all these things that come up.
But as this continues, we have this tendency, and it’s more and more remote, and so the actual possibility of being awake is relegated like three kalpas of unreckonable length. That’s how long it takes…this is how long it took Buddha to become—the individual who became Buddha—to become Buddha. That’s a long time. And don’t forget, that the definition of one of these kalpas of unreckonable length is—imagine you had a pile of sesame seeds, which is a hundred miles long, and a hundred miles high, or something like that, and every century, a bird comes and takes one seed. [Laughter] When that pile is finished, that’s one kalpa. This is a long time! [Laughter]
So you have this whole movement, okay, how can we do this faster? And that’s where you had a whole other set of methods come in. We’re bigger, we’re meaner, we’re faster, we’re the best. And this is all the kind of propaganda that comes up. Basically, what you have in Vajrayana is something really very, very ordinary. Ways of working very directly, very directly, with how the mind—and actually the mind and body—function.
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Now, it doesn’t look like that from the outside. On the one hand, you have this whole business about devotion to the guru, which seems like a whole big deal. And on the second thing, you have these complex visualizations and practices based on yidams or deities, elaborate visualizations, symbology, and so forth. And then you have these—very disturbing, in a certain sense—practices of protectors. What are they? Everybody wants to know—what is a protector?
And one of the things that I hope we can do over these days that we have together is to understand how these are working with very, very basic functions of the mind and opening ways to knowing that. And basically, as many of you will recall from the work that we did with Chenrezig last year, it’s actually very, very direct. That’s why the Vajrayana is regarded as a very direct method. It uses this symbology as a way of talking about these things, but they’re working very directly, with what we are, how we are.
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So, that’s one’s sense—it’s actually very ordinary. And it’s also weird. Now, the original meaning for weird in old English is to transform.
Student: What is it?
Ken: To transform.
Student: To transform.
Ken: Yeah, so a weirding—Druid word—it is transforming things, changing things. There is just a vestige of that meaning left. And so all aspects of Vajrayana are aimed at transforming how you experience things. Now historically—and I am speaking historically here, in an anthropological sense, not in terms of ordinary history—there are two methods of effecting transformation. One was sorcery, which transformed the phenomenal world, or the experience of the phenomenal world; and the second was internal—things like yoga, qigong, and so forth—which transformed energies in the body.
We also have ways—which go very, very far back in history—of relating to the world when the world was such a strange and unpredictable place for relatively early humans, that you just had to be prepared to do anything at anytime, if you were going to live. So, you might say the dark forces, and how do you work with the dark forces in the world and in yourself.
Now those three things: transforming experience, transforming energies in the body, working with the dark forces—all of that—that’s the basis, that’s the material from where the creation phase, completion phase, and protector stuff comes from. Now, living in the postmodern society as we do, we are very, very far removed from that, which is why, when we come in connection with this stuff, it’s a bit weird, in both senses. It’s strange, it’s unfamiliar. And yet for many people it speaks to some deep roots inside.
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Now, because of the methodologies, or to put it in a different way, in another sense, Vajrayana is the maturation of practice. You find that unless there are impediments put in place, as there very, very often are by certain philosophical perspectives, you will find that when a person practices, the first thing they focus on is attention—just coming into attention. And that’s really what the earlier traditions of Buddhism were about—Theravadan, dzogchen.
But when you develop a certain level of attention, the way you experience things begins to shift, and it shifts in two ways. One is, because you understand the process of suffering as it arises in you very, very clearly, you realize it’s exactly the same in everybody else. So, compassion naturally arises. And many teachers who are deeply practiced, they can make you…they can really express the feeling of greed, or pride, or all of these negative things, very clearly. Why? Because through the practice, they know them intimately.
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Now, one of my students, when he was first introduced to the six realms, said, “Yeah, I can relate to the titan realm, and the hell realm; I’ve got a lot of anger, I’m competitive. But I don’t think I have much to do with the others.” I said, “Okay.” Six, eight months later, “Yeah, I can see I’ve got some preta stuff in me, too—hungry ghost—and a bit of animal, that’s about it.” A couple of years later, “They’re all there aren’t they!”
Because they’re all there. They are states that we move into, and so the deeper we move into our own experience, the more intimate our knowledge of the reactive emotions, kleshas, the process of karma, how actions actually evolve into experienced results, the wonderful dynamics of fixation on the self image—truly extraordinary. And the more intimately we know those in ourselves, the more clearly we see them in others. Because it’s no different. The form and content may be different, but the process is exactly the same. And so when we see somebody getting upset about something and getting upset with us, it doesn’t trigger anger because we know what’s going on. So we have this compassion arising.
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At the same time, as our capacity in attention develops, we find ourselves spending more and more time looking at absolutely nothing. And through this process, we begin to appreciate that there really is nothing there. And it’s okay. In fact, there being nothing there, is what makes room possible, which, when you first present that idea to people they go—huh?! It just doesn’t make any sense at all, but through this experience, maturation of this experience, we begin to see that.
Now, the consequence of that, of looking at nothing, is that space opens up. And I remember many years ago, I was talking to Jack Kornfield, and he said,
What would you say the principle difference is between Theravada and Mahayana? And, I didn’t have a lot of acquaintance with Theravada at that stage—somewhat more now. I said,
Well, as far as I can tell it is the whole notion of space. You know, emptiness is very much about space. And Jack said,
That’s very interesting. Ajahn Chah is the only one of my teachers that ever talked about space. And if you read Ajahn Chah’s stuff, it’s virtually identical to a Tibetan teacher talking about mahamudra.
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But there’s a maturation there. So there you have emptiness and compassion, which is the natural evolution of mindfulness. But now you have another step. There’s this whole phenomenal world. This world of experience. So the next step is—of evolution—is actually living the ethic of compassion and emptiness in everything that you do. And becoming no-one in the process. And so the notion of withdrawing from the world to become something drops away completely, and it’s replaced by a sense of doing the practice, doing whatever you do in life. And that finds expression (and I didn’t bring this with me, I only thought of it as I was talking here) to the body of, a group of individuals, The 84 Mahasiddhas, who were totally strange people. Thieves, cobblers, arrow smiths, which is equivalent to being an arms manufacturer, you understand—a gun-maker in today’s parlance—kings, courtesans, everybody that was part of the trip here. They practiced doing whatever their life was. One of them was a glutton. He had an eating disorder, okay? [Laughter] Put this into modern parlance. The instruction that he was given—(I really wish that I had brought this with me, it would have been useful. They still have the library here don’t they? See if they have The 84 Mahasiddhas.)—anyway, the instruction that he was given for his meditation practice: eat the world. That was his practice. So, whenever he sat down to meditate, he just ate. And he was just chomping through the world. Now, you have to understand a practice like this. You don’t get to say, “I’ve had enough!” There isn’t any of that choice, and so he ate the world. And of course, eventually there wasn’t any world left, and then he woke up. Sounds very simple, doesn’t it? It’s not as easy as it sounds.
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So, Vajrayana represents a maturation of practice. It represents a maturation in the student, a maturation in the teacher, a maturation in the relationship between the two. And I’m going to talk more about that, the day after tomorrow. But, this is very important: Vajrayana isn’t for everybody. Now, when Rinpoche talked about this, he would say,
Hinayana, that’s a Volkswagen. Mahayana, that’s an ocean liner. Vajrayana, that’s a rocket ship.
Now when you hear this, everybody wants to take the rocket ship, right? You know, that’s fast, sexy, the whole bit. One forgets that the point of the exercise is to go from A to B. A Volkswagen can do the job just very nicely. Because of the nature of Vajrayana, and I think this is true for any form of spiritual practice—particularly true here—there is, for each of you, going to be a decision point, not necessarily this weekend; this is very much introductory, though I hope we can go fairly deep. But there is gonna be a decision point: is this a path or method that I want to use? There’s a lot that goes into that. The point of our time together is to get a feeling for all of that, so you actually know what it is, rather than having to stand on the outside, and say do I want to do this?
But as with most spiritual practices, traditions, or movements, once you decide, there isn’t really any going back.
|This 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.|