envelope

Guru, Deity, Protector 2a


Section 1
 
Listen  
Download

Yesterday evening I covered more ground than I actually was planning to, so we’re changing the format and do guru today, yidam tomorrow, protector, and that will leave Sunday to try to put it all together—or not. We’re not going to make any pretense of having an organized presentation here because there are so many different streams and lines of thought and considerations. It would be very nice to have them sorted out and all very clear. So if this seems a bit jumbled, it probably is.


Section 2
 
Listen  
Download

What I want to try to do is, on the one hand, you might say, demythologize Vajrayana, because there’s a great deal of myth about it. And on the other hand, try to convey the power and sense of the practice or these practices, or this approach to practice, in a way that you can relate to without going through what are sometimes quite considerable cultural distortions. Do you know of which I speak?

Student: Some, yeah.

Ken: The last few years, one of the central questions I’ve pondered is: In the post-modern society in which we all live, what is the appropriate form of the guru-student relationship? And to answer this question or to explore it I think we need to take a look at both the cultural form of the guru-student relationship in India and Tibet and also its soteriological function, that is to say its spiritual function.

In 1989, when Kalu Rinpoche died, I was in a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. I’d been asked to come to the retreat. My expenses had been paid. When I got there, I said to an organizer who had invited me, “I know that there’s a string attached, I just don’t know what it is.” “Oh,” she said. “You’re giving the presentation on Wednesday night.” This is Monday. I said, “Oh. And what do you want me to do?” “Upset the apple cart,” she said. “Oh.”

Rinpoche died Wednesday morning. Interesting coincidence. So I gave a talk, and the next morning, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was not present at it, swept the whole thing under the rug. It was kind of interesting to experience.

Ken: And then he was asked by someone in the audience, “What’s the relationship between culture and dharma?” He said, “Well, culture is like the salt—it gives flavor to the vegetables.”

And of course, the question that immediately popped into my mind was, “What if there’s too much salt?”

There is the possibility of there being too much salt. I think there has been in the past. And that’s just natural. It just has to go that way. So, you don’t have to add quite as much salt anymore. And that’s what I mean about demythologizing.


Section 3
 
Listen  
Download

In every spiritual tradition that I know of, the teacher plays a very central role for ninety-five percent of the people in that tradition. There are a small number of people who have experiences of spontaneous awakening, such as Krishnamurti, apparently, and Ramana Maharshi. Eckhart Tolle seems to have come to something quite interesting through extraordinary depths of depression, which makes it very interesting. Byron Katie is another person I’ve met who’s an interesting lady. Generally, there are two things such people tend to say: you don’t need a teacher and you don’t need a path. And from their experience that’s exactly right. They didn’t have a teacher and they didn’t have a path. Something just happened.

Well, if you’re one of those people, fine. Or you can just sit around and hope that you’re one of those people and see what happens, which to me is kind of like buying a lottery ticket. Or you can work with a teacher.

I have some knowledge of some of the approaches in contemplative Christianity, both Orthodox and Western. A little more perhaps in Sufi. And I’ve certainly had lots of conversations with people in Zen, in Theravadan, and in my own training—the Tibetan tradition. As we’ve talked about before, the flavor of the teacher-student relationship in all of these traditions varies. One may not think of Christianity as having a particular teacher-student variation, but it definitely does. The teachers are usually called spiritual directors, and they are generally not part of the hierarchy. A Catholic priest friend I had many years ago, his spiritual director was a layperson who lived out in Riverside. And he would drive out from Antelope Valley to Riverside quite regularly to see this person.


Section 4
 
Listen  
Download

The teacher has three functions, three responsibilities: to reveal presence to the student; to train the student in the methods and tools that the student will need for his or her own growth; and to point out—to put the student in touch with—the internal material that is in the student’s way. On the other hand, the student has two responsibilities: to practice the instructions as they are given, that is, without editing; and to make use of the instructions and the understanding in his or her life.


Section 5
 
Listen  
Download

One of the aspects that I think tends to be a bit overlooked in the monastic tradition is that practice produces real behavioral changes. One of the reasons I think it gets overlooked in the monastic tradition is that there isn’t a lot of range of behavior. You get up in the morning and do the prayers in the temple; then you go and you have breakfast, and you go about your monastic duties. There’s not a lot of variation in behavior.


Section 6
 
Listen  
Download

As to the responsibility of the teacher to reveal presence, this can be done in two ways. Some teachers emphasize one, and some teachers emphasize the other, and some do both. One is through their behavior. The other is by creating conditions that elicit an experience of presence in the student. One form of that, of course, is pointing-out instructions. And there can be a combination of those, of course.

I remember Jack Kornfield telling me about one of his teachers. He studied with Ajahn Chah for a while, who told Jack, “I want you to go and study with this monk,” at such and such a monastery. He arrived at this monastery and there were a lot of monks walking around. One of them was smoking a cigar and cursing viciously as he threw stones at the dogs. Jack went [Ken mimes astonishment].

So Jack went to the abbot and told him that Ajahn Chah had sent him to study with so and so. Jack was very surprised when he was directed to the cigar-smoking, stone-throwing monk. But he said that even though this person’s behavior was deplorable, it really made a difference in his meditation. He was able to direct Jack’s attention in such a way that he made it his practice of meditation very, very precise. He could name a cell in your liver and tell whether the cell next to it was hotter or colder than that one. So clearly, this guy had something, but it hadn’t translated into other areas of his behaviour. That’s an example of pointing-out, as opposed to, “Hang around this guy and you’ll learn how to throw stones at dogs and smoke cigars.”

On the other side, Yvonne Rand told me many times about being around Suzuki Roshi and later around Tara Tulku, who was her main Tibetan teacher, and the way that they interacted with people. Particularly with Suzuki Roshi. In the way that he did everything, there was a demonstration of presence and attention, just ongoing. So, these are both methods by which presence is revealed.


Section 7
 
Listen  
Download

Then there’s the actual instruction. One of the things I came to appreciate fairly slowly in the Tibetan tradition is that it wasn’t uncommon for those two roles to be divided between two people. The head of the Karma Kagyu Order, Karmapa, was an extraordinary person. If you were around him, it was like being around the sun, or a thunderstorm, or a hurricane. It was just really powerful, whatever it was at the time. And it could change [Ken snaps fingers], just like that. Because there was no clinging. There’s nothing stuck inside. Quite extraordinary. But very few people actually received any meditation instruction from His Holiness the Lama. But presence was revealed in all kinds of ways just by being around him, in Black Hat ceremonies and so forth. The actual meditation instruction and training came from somebody else, as in, this is how you do it; this is what you do.


Section 8
 
Listen  
Download

Then there’s the third one: the student’s internal material. There are different ways that teachers do this. In the first stage of the Zen tradition—that is, about ten or eleven hundred up to about the thirteenth, fourteenth century—Zen was heavily associated with the samurai tradition. Most of the way that you were shown your internal material was through conflict. And what’s very important here is that the purpose of engaging that kind of conflict wasn’t to win or lose. It was to create the conditions in which you saw, felt, or experienced something. Right there. And that was it. When that happened, the conflict wasn’t pursued any further. So it’s never about winning or losing. This has degenerated to activities like dharma debate, but the real intention of that is so that you see and you react. So it served both as a way of pointing out internal material and of revealing presence.


Section 9
 
Listen  
Download

The Therevadan tradition is another whose essential method of instruction is also based on power. And they don’t go into this conflict business at all—not directly. You come in and you say, “I’m experiencing this and this and this, and this and this, and I keep getting trapped in this.” And they say, “Can you experience it a little bit longer?” “Yes.” “Good, do that.”

Student: Ken, so there the power would be an ability to stay present in action?

Ken: Patient endurance, exactly. So, their teachers were extremely unhappy.

In 1990, we had a retreat here with Jamgon Kongtrul. Were you here for that, Deborah?

Deborah: Yeah.

Ken: A good friend of mine was managing the retreat, Jon Parmenter. We had 55 people here, and a few people stayed across [at] Snowcrest Lodge and quickly realized that the accommodations there were worse than they are here. And the accommodations here weren’t as good as they are now. We had people stuffed in every nook and cranny.

Of course, there were lots of inconveniences, so people would come to Jon and say, “This is, this this this,” you know. Jon would listen very patiently and say, “Mmmm. That’s very uncomfortable. Yeah, that’s quite inconvenient. Do you think you could experience this for another 48 hours?” Which would take to the end of the retreat. And the person would go, “Yes.” “Thank you.” That was it. So, very simple solution. [Laughter]


Section 10
 
Listen  
Download

The second method is the primary method of Christianity in both the Orthodox and Western traditions. It’s one of the primary methods of Hinduism and is also present in the Tibetan tradition in several forms. It’s the ecstatic approach, which is opening. And it usually takes one of two forms and sometimes a combination: the two forms of devotion and loving-kindness.

Theravadan tradition, for instance, uses loving-kindness quite extensively. It doesn’t use devotion as a discipline. It isn’t practiced very much at all. Tibetan tradition, of course, uses devotion. One can say that Vajrayana is primarily a devotional practice. And that’s why I’m going to come back talk about this in a minute. But I want to complete this.


Section 11
 
Listen  
Download

Third method is through insight, which consists of pointing the student’s attention into experience. This is the method that is used in Korean Zen, for instance. A large number of the people who wake up spontaneously teach some form of insight practice. It’s the predominant method. So, Ramana Maharshi: “What am I?” Korean Zen: “What is ’this’?”

One of the challenges in the insight approach is that unless there is a developed capacity to stay in the experience of the emotional turbulence that arises when these questions are asked, the method of insight almost always degenerates into logic and intellectual gamesmanship. And that is a problem that has permeated Buddhism for centuries. It’s produced some extraordinary philosophy. The great epistemologists, like Dignaga and so forth, produced stuff that the West is only now catching up to. And they did that in six hundred to eight hundred AD.

And the Tibetan monastic colleges developed very powerful lines of argument, etc., derived from the works of Nagarjuna and others. But I think it was the eighth or the fifteenth Karmapa, who was sitting on the roof garden of Sera monastery and looked at the college, which was a separate building, where logic and reason were studied and taught. At this moment, he saw a building in which snakes with flickering-flaming tongues were coming out of every window. That’s how it arose in his experience. So he ordered the college to be destroyed. He realized it wasn’t helpful for practice. That kind of intellectual exercise actually breeds a lot of anger, which is what he saw.

Insight—as most of you know—is one of the primary methods that I use. One of the primary things that I try to teach is how to know what is true by question. And particularly in the Tuesday night class, people [say], “Don’t let him ask you a question.” We had that last Tuesday.


Section 12
 
Listen  
Download

The fourth method is compassion, through service. It’s one of the primary themes of the Mahayana. You use the energy of compassion to transform reactive patterns into attention. It is wonderfully and beautifully expressed through bodhicitta. The great work on this is Shantideva’s Entering the Way of the Bodhisattva or Entering the Way of Awakening, which is really an epic poem about bodhicitta. That’s really what it is.

It’s beautiful, it’s wonderful, marvelously inspiring, and it’s also got a lot of useful stuff in it. It’s using the way of serving the needs of the world as a way of opening to presence. So teachers who use compassion get their students to do things. I came across the essential gesture of compassion-in-training in a conversation I had with someone who’s training in the Gurdjieff tradition. When your practice is through service, you just do what you’re told. You obey. And in that act of obeying, you’re going to run into all of your internal material. And that’s where you do your work.

It is one of the methods in Christianity. The Catholic monks take only three vows: celibacy, poverty, and obedience to their superior. For many years, my Catholic priest friend and his abbot, his superior—they hated each other. I mean they really didn’t like each other. They didn’t understand each other in any way, so there was constant friction and tension. But because of his vow, this was his practice. So his superior would tell him to do something he knew was just wrong and irritated him. But that’s what service meant, so he did it. And he dealt with all of the internal material that came up from that. That was a key component in his practice. Eventually, his superior retired and then one his best friends became his superior and that worked out much better. But it was a valuable practice.

John of the Cross, who was viciously tortured in the Spanish Inquisition, is one of the great Christian saints. He was tortured by the star chamberlain. And when this whole thing worked through, when that whole madness in Christianity finally wrapped up, the spiritual authority said, “We’re sorry.” By this time, John’s body was broken and he was in ill health. “There’s not a lot we can do,” they said. “But at least we can say where would you like to spend the rest of your days. You have your choice of monasteries here in Spain.”

John said he would like to go to such-and-such a monastery. And the authorities said, “Why do you want to go there? The Abbot hates you.” And he said, “Yes, that will help me in my practice.” So he wanted to work even more deeply. That’s the path of service—you just do.


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.