Guru, Deity, Protector 1b

Section 1

And I think this is true of any form of spiritual practice—particularly true. 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 going to be a decision point. Is this a path, or method that I want to use? There’s a lot that goes into that, and 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 and traditions, once you decide, there isn’t really any going back. Something changes and you can’t unchange it. So, it’s worth thinking about this quite carefully, weighing.

I want to emphasize, this is not the case of better or worse. That’s why I get rather tired with all the propaganda. The Theravadan tradition has produced extraordinary people very consistently over the last 2,500 years. Something works. And, actually some of them are quite amusing. You know now that they’ve been told about things like dzogchen, etc., etc., they are sort of going, “They seem to be making an awfully big deal about letting thoughts go in awareness.” And they’re absolutely right. They have their own path and it’s very effective. And the same is true of Mahayana—Chinese, Japanese traditions—which are classical Mahayana. They’ve had their share of very great teachers and masters. Think of people like Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch. It’s wonderful.

So, in making this decision, forget about, “Is this the best; is this the biggest, the meanest, the fastest, the sexiest?” and all that. Those are irrelevant considerations. The only relevant consideration is, Is this a form, a method, approach to practice which speaks to you in a way that you can’t ignore? So ultimately, is it a form of practice that is really suitable for you? That’s important.

I’m talking here very much out of my own experience. As some of you know I’ve had my share of obstacles and difficulties. Even though I was trained in a number of different techniques, because of certain physical problems, and practices which depended on being able to work with the body in a certain way—and there are Vajrayana practices of that kind—I can’t do them. I don’t have the body for it. And there are people who are able to do them very, very easily.

Section 2

What I found is something that Suzuki Roshi writes about, and I’ve talked to you more about it before. There’s a sutra in Theravadan tradition which describes four horses: the horse which gallops at the wish of the rider; the second horse gallops when he catches a glimpse of the whip out of the corner of his eye; the third horse gallops when he feels the pain of the whip on his body; the fourth horse doesn’t gallop until he feels the pain of the whip in the marrow of his bones. And as Suzuki Roshi points out, when we hear this we want to be that first horse. Can’t do that, then the second one. But then he points out, that for the practice of Zen, it doesn’t make any difference. In fact, the fourth horse is actually the best one, because when you really are struggling to use your practice in the depths of your confusion and reactivity, then it’s real. I’ve observed this. Many, many people I’ve met, who seem to have a much easier time with practice, and most of them are missing something.

So, don’t look for a form of practice which makes things easier. Actually you want to look for a form of practice, not necessarily which makes things harder—that’s not so productive—but brings you in touch with where you are most confused. It’s not the same thing. This is a form of practice that is suitable for you.

Section 3

As all of you know, I put some definite restrictions on who is eligible to come to this retreat—certain experience and practice, and also we know each other. Some of you I know better than others, but there’s been some interaction. Some of you may decide at the end of this, “Yeah, this works for me.” And then there’s a possibility of continuing to work and deepening, and going fully into the practices and so forth. And that’s going to lead to a certain kind of relationship.

There are others of you who say, “No, I don’t need to do this. What I’m doing is working just fine.” And that will be the right decision. And I really want to emphasize, one is not better than the other, despite all that you hear, or may hear. And I really want to emphasize that point. Because you won’t hear many other teachers say that. Right, Valerie? Yeah.

There are dangers here. There’s danger in all forms of spiritual practice. And the dangers come about in two ways. There may be more but for the purposes of our discussion I’m looking at two. One danger is working at a higher level of attention than you can sustain. This is why many of you recall one of my recommendations is that when you’re working with difficult or painful areas, you let it open to you, you don’t try to open it up. Many of you have heard me say that. The reason for that instruction is so that you aren’t working at a higher level of attention than you can sustain. You are working at the level of attention that you actually have, and things evolve. And they definitely do evolve and they deepen, but in a way in which you stay in balance—you and the whole world stays in balance. It’s very important. If you work at a higher level of attention than you can sustain, you’re living on borrowed energy. There’s an imbalance. And when there’s a consistent imbalance in your efforts, there will inevitably be an imbalance in the results. That is totally contrary to the intention.

Second danger. You’re working at something that simply doesn’t fit with you. And quite a few people who’ve come to see me over the last few years have been practicing one or more Vajrayana techniques, and I listen to them, and in some cases they simply don’t have the level of attention to be able to do it. They’re just swirling around in confusion and it’s not making anything better.

In other cases, it’s quite clear that Vajrayana practice just doesn’t sit with them. And I’ll say, “Just stop it.” They all get bent out of shape and worried about it, because of all of this big heavy propaganda aboutsamaya and commitment and so forth. But it’s absolutely the case. I mean, we get this same thing in other areas of practice. Some people take ordination as a monk or a nun and it really doesn’t fit them. It’s a long, long path of practice.

One woman I know, she was very sensible. She was quite serious about her practice in Buddhism. The bodhisattva vow just didn’t fit with her. Not at the time that I knew her anyway. She wouldn’t take it. She was very helpful and worked with people and helped people in many many ways. But there was something about that that really didn’t suit her.

So, what I’m encouraging you to do here is to weigh everything with your own experience. We are going to be talking about faith. We’re going to be talking about devotion, because these are very significant elements in Vajrayana. You can’t ignore them. You can try to, but it really doesn’t work. Devotion is not something that is appropriate or suitable for everyone.

So through these few days I hope you will get a flavor of what this is actually like. I’m going to do my best to convey that to you, both through our talks together but also through the practice. The form of the practice may be a bit different. It’s experimental, so it may be a total failure. But all through this, I want you to be asking, “Does this work for me or not? Is this a path I want to take or not?” And really weigh that. Because the whole point of our work together—not just this thing, but spiritual practice—is becoming more present, and aware in every aspect of your life. It’s not about getting a credential or being able to say, “I’m practicing the biggest, meanest, sexiest path there is.” That’s not the point.

Section 4

Okay. Let’s turn to the chant booklets. Again, I want to thank George for taking the trouble—this time it was a bit of trouble wasn’t it—to put this together.

It’s fair to say that I’ve received training in three different transmissions: the Karma Kagyu, the Shangpa Kagyu, and a couple of Nyingma transmissions. There are so many Nyingma transmissions. A couple of them, the Padma Lingpa, and then one that comes through Patrul Rinpoche, also. So for myself, and I’m speaking quite personally here, the outer one is the Karma Kagyu.

Section 5

But The Short Vajradhara Prayer is a very wonderful prayer and it represents one of the main streams of transmission from India to Tibet. And it also, in its last four verses, summarizes very very effectively the essence of this approach, this path. So, we’re going to do that first thing every morning when we meet in the zendo.

The second prayer I took from a chö practice. I can’t remember who wrote it. I’ll have to look that up. It may have been Machik herself. It’s very short, on the perfection of wisdom. But it also goes through, in a little more detail, some of the principle elements of spiritual practice. Precious human form, death, karma, suffering, the infamous four thoughts that turn the mind. Then refuge, compassion and emptiness. It’s very nice and complete. So we’ll do that also.

Because we’re working in the Vajrayana context—the guru plays a very important role—we’ll discuss it more. Buddha, dharma, sangha, and then what is characteristic of the Vajrayana: guru, yidam and dakinis and protectors. And then following that, we have the ordinary refuge and the four immeasurables. So we’ll do each of those at the beginning of a session practice. It takes a little bit more, but that’s fine. And then we do these dedication prayers.

Next page is translation of the prayer to the guru that’s used in the Karma Kagyu union with the guru practice. I’ve retranslated it. It would be very good if you just memorize this. That’s the main reason I put it in here. And yes, okay, we can go through the translation.

Section 6

Then on the next page, we have a very long prayer—eight pages. This is a genre of prayers known as, in the Tibetan as lama jang bö. It’s usually translated as Distant Cry to the Guru. But I just found the English of that just didn’t work for me. It depends on how you look at the Tibetan—I put this in the footnote—and I translated it as The Far-Reaching Cry to the Guru. which has a very different flavor to it—it sounds much more natural. So you may find people who are saying, “Oh. That’s wrong.” And maybe it is, but I did check with a couple of people about it, and they seem to think it was okay to take it that way.

The prayer is divided into two parts. The first, which takes us almost up to end of page 13, is homage to the principle figures of the Tibetan tradition. It goes through Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, Padmakara, which is Guru Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal, karma, and terma—that’s all basically Nyingma stuff—and then through Trimé Özer, there’s Longchenpa, very important Nyingma teacher, then Atisha, Marpa, Mila and Dagkpo, Karmapa, Sakya, Shangpa, Tongtong Gyalpo. I’ll go through these in much more detail tomorrow, both who everybody is and how they’re significant. But this was Kongtrul just acknowledging all of the different streams of transmission which inspired him. Because this was written by Kongtrul for Kongtrul’s students, you have all of these names of Kongtrul, the last four or five are just different names. You get a lot of names in the Tibetan tradition.

Then the second part of the prayer is praying to the teacher, to the guru, because we screw up all the time. This is wonderfully honest, sometimes heart-breakingly honest. It’s what we all do, you know. For instance, on page 15:

The slightest praise or blame makes me happy or sad. [How many is that true for?]

One harsh word and I lose my armor of patience.

I see destitute people but feel no compassion.

When I have a chance to be generous, greed ties me into knots. [Can you relate to this?]

Guru think of me; look on me quickly with compassion.

Give me the energy to mix my mind with the Dharma.

It goes through this. We’re going to read this, even though it’s long. Part of the practice here is devotion. This is an exercise in devotion. We’re going to read this at the end of the morning meditation and at the end of the evening meditation. So we’ll be good and tired there, and we’ll be very raw and open. We’ll be thinking about…

Student: When you say, “end of morning,” end of first session?

Ken: That’s right. Yeah. Before breakfast.

Student: Before breakfast.

Section 7

Ken: Now, that basically takes care of things. Well, I’ve decided we’ll talk a little bit more. How I Live the Practice. This is from Tsulak Trengwa. I happened to be reading his autobiography in retreat, and I hit this chapter and went “Wow, this is what yidam practice is about. Great!” So I actually copied it out. I translated this and I put this in here so it helps you understand what yidam practice is about. We aren’t necessarily going to do that every day.

Then page 25, we have an excerpt from a Mahakala practice. The traditional time for doing the protector practice is in the late afternoon. So at the end of the teaching we’ll do The Short Vajradhara Prayer, and the fulfilling intention and the dedication prayer.

Student: In here.

Ken: Yeah. It won’t take very long.

Student: Okay. So we have to take our booklets back and forth.

Ken: Yep.

Student: You memorize it after the first day.

Ken: Well, you may or may not want to memorize it. Again, my main purpose in translating this is so that you get a flavor of protector practice. And you’re familiar with all this, Danny. It reads a bit differently.

Danny: Ah, yes.

Ken: We’re going to use the usual form of practice, you know, sitting for a half an hour, doing qigong, sitting for a half an hour and so forth. If you have regular practices, such as taking and sending, or power practice, or Chenrezig some of you are doing, death meditations, whatever. Use one of those half-hour sessions—if you have two then you can use two—most of you just have one regular practice. Use one of the half-hour sessions—which one I’ll leave up to you—so that you actually do your regular practice every day. Energy transformation for some of you and so forth. Lot of different practices going on here, which is good.

The second thing is, since that everybody here is quite experienced, we’ll be in silence for the retreat. Excluding questions and answer periods, and interviews and so forth. But I don’t see any reason not to observe silence for the whole retreat. Including the afternoons. We may be doing some exercise in the afternoons, I’m not sure. I may just give you a different form of meditation to do—something a little more relaxing—including walking meditation. But we’ll observe silence.

Section 8

Interviews will be as usual. Okay. Any questions? I’ve put out a lot of stuff. Yeah, Danny.

Danny: You haven’t mentioned what one practice you’d like us to be doing?

Ken: Oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Danny: A small point.

Ken: Yes, but tomorrow morning I just want you to take your time to settle. So just do regular sitting practice, whether it’s mahamudra or resting with the breath or whatever. And then I’ll actually introduce practices as we go forth. Thank you. Okay. Guy.

Section 9

Guy: You said that Karma Kagyu was your outer?

Ken: Well. Sort of.

Guy: What does that mean, though? I’m not sure.

Ken: Well, when Rinpoche introduced me to things, we did Karma Kagyu practice principally. And then in the three year retreat, in addition to that, we learned all of the Karma Kagyu practices: Vajrayogini and The Six Yogas of Naropa. In addition, we learned the Shangpa Kagyu, which is a separate line of transmission, and it has a very different flavor to it. This was Rinpoche’s principle line of transmission. He was lineage holder of that tradition.

Guy: Shangpa?

Ken: Shangpa. He’s also in the Karma Kagyu lineage. He was the lineage holder of the Shangpa tradition. There was a certain resonance—I found that there was a certain resonance for that in me, so that, that’s closer to me internally. And then subsequently, I’ve received a certain number of dzogchen transmissions, which have been very interesting because the pointing out instructions in the dzogchen tradition is exactly the same as in the Shangpa Kagyu. It’s exactly the same thing, even though one’s mahamudra and the other’s dzogchen. There’s no difference in the pointing out instructions. And I benefited very much from them, so. And that’s just how they configure in me. Other people, they’ll feel much more resonance. It’ll be differently configured. This is why it’s important for you to feel your way into this. Feel what opens the doors.

And it’s very interesting because, for instance, in the bardo practice, the Shangpa bardo practice is a very explicit practice. It’s a nice practice. You can walk into a football stadium and have everybody up. You can imagine doing it in certain ways. The Karma Kagyu bardo practice, Six Yogas of Naropa, there isn’t much of a practice there. It’s pretty tenuous. But most of us in the retreat found ourselves getting much more of a flavor of the bardo from the Karma Kagyu practice than from the Shangpa practice. It’s very weird how these things work. You know, like yeah. And so everything is actually very individual. Yet most of the time you’re going to get teachers who say, “Here’s a line of transmission and you do this.” My own approach, and how I try to work with people is: here are these tools and let’s try this one and let’s try this one—only ones that are speaking to you. This one speaking? Okay. You work with that one. Well, what about all the other ones? Don’t worry, you got one that speaks to you, now. Mine it.

And so, that’s how I want to work. So you find the tools, the approaches, the ones that really really speak to you. And then you mine them very, very deeply. Okay?

Anything else? Okay. Well, thank you very much. I know we’re a bit over and I want to go through the qigong so I’m going to do that now with people, okay?

Have a good night’s sleep.

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.