Heart Sutra Workshop 2

Section 1

Round two.

We need to start, and I probably should have done this earlier. What is a sutra? You know, we have all of these sutras. What is a sutra? You look—oh, sorry that’s not the right one. [Ken reads from An Arrow to the Heart, p. 6]

You take a seat and
     your eyes meet.

Question, answer,
     weave together.

Inside, outside
     fade away.

“That’s it,” echoes
     in timeless space.

You leave.

Everything and nothing have changed.

You are forever lost now.
     That’s the way it goes.

So, as Red Pine points out in his commentary, that’s this book [Ken holds up The Heart Sutra], and this is an excellent commentary on the Heart Sutra.

Student: What’s it called?

Ken: The Heart Sutra. Red Pine. Sutra comes from the same root as suture. It’s a Sanskrit word—to sew. In Tibetan, the word for sutra is mdo [pron. doh], which is the word for crossroads. What these two words share is that they both carry the idea of things meeting. Two roads meet; you sew things to bring them together. You don’t sew things to make them apart.

So, the question is, what’s coming together in a sutra? It’s the Buddha’s mind and the student’s mind. If you look at any of the sutras, you’ll see they always begin with a question. There’s a formal structure to sutras: “Thus I have heard. Once the Venerable Lord was dwelling at Rajagriha,” or the Jetta Grove, or what have you. And this is Ananda describing the circumstances, and then so-and-so asks a question. So, to understand this in modern parlance, a sutra is a Q & A session. That’s what a sutra is. A question and answer session with a teacher, and that’s always been the case. Been the case for thousands of years and remains the case today. So every time you sit down and have a Q & A session with your teacher, you’re composing a sutra. And it is all being recorded these days, because we record everything, so there’s going to be even more sutras. And every sutra tells a story. That’s what I want to get into a little bit right now.

Section 2

For this I need two volunteers. [Someone raises a hand] One. Please stand up. Since you volunteered first you get the choice. This is not Sophie’s Choice. Would you like to be Avalokiteshvara or Shariputra?

Student: Shariputra.

Ken: Have a seat. [Another person stands up] You volunteered. You’re Avalokiteshvara. Please come up.

Student: Okay.

Ken: You weren’t expecting that, were you ?

Student: I wasn’t expecting anything.

Ken: Ah, that’s dangerous. Okay, now in this exercise, Avalokiteshvara, being a ninth level bodhisattva, the embodiment of awakened compassion (I don’t want to put any pressure on you whatsoever [laughter]), and Shariputra—who is a monk confined to the lowly reaches of the Hinayana, but actually he is doing a pretty good job—so he’s going to ask Avalokiteshvara a question. So, you don’t have to ask the question in the Heart Sutra. I just…how long have you been practicing?

Student: I don’t know, ten years. [Student who is taking the role of Shariputra]

Ken: How long have you been practicing?

Student: Thirty-five. [Student who is taking the role of Avalokiteshvara] [Laughter]

Ken: Should be interesting. She is very experienced, and she knew which position to choose. Okay, Shariputra would you please take the microphone and ask a meditation question, a real meditation question, from your own experience. No, no, it’s your question, I’m not going to give it to you. She’s waiting. We are all in suspense.

Section 3

Shariputra: Whenever I sit and I want to really be awake, I fall asleep. What should I do?

Ken: Please, hand the microphone. Okay, Avalokiteshvara.

Avalokiteshvara: Can I just go into deep absorption?

Ken: No, no, you’ve got to answer. I mean, the student has asked a question, you’ve got to answer. Nobody’s watching!

Avalokiteshvara: I’ll be with that.

Ken: Oh, come on!

Avalokiteshvara: Really, an editorial comment?

Ken: This is your answer, not my answer. Come on.

Section 4

Now, when Buddha was asked questions, he answered them in one of four ways. So maybe this will be helpful to you. Depending on the nature of the question and the nature of the questioner, sometimes he just answered the question. Sometimes, he reframed the question, and then answered it. Sometimes, he answered the question with a question. And sometimes, he wouldn’t answer it. So, the question before us is, “Whenever I try to be really awake, I go to sleep.”

Section 5

Avalokiteshvara: Is it instantaneous, or is it a gradual process?

Ken: Hand the microphone.

Shariputra: Well, it’s more a gradual process. It’s sort of like…and then I try to sit up straight and then I start to…it’s like a subtle kind of tiredness comes over.

Avalokiteshvara: And this is every time?

Ken: So, you see how the sutra’s playing out? Now, I need another volunteer. No pressure. You’re Buddha. [Laughter] Please sit in the third chair. No, he doesn’t need the microphone. Now, you remember that meditation we did at the beginning of the program, today?

Student: Yes.

Ken: No, I’m asking him.

Buddha: Yes.

Ken: Good. Would you please do that meditation? Okay, Shariputra ask your question again.

Shariputra: Whenever I want to be really awake, I find that I’m falling asleep. What should I do?

Avalokiteshvara: What…what…what comes up in you as an answer?

Shariputra: I was going to tell you what happened in the past, but I’m going to see what happens right now.

Ken: Okay, so what’s different? Please. Yes, green shirt there.

Student: They’re here.

Ken: They’re here, they’re present. Anybody else? Yes.

Student: Buddha is holding the space for both of them.

Ken: Yes, what difference does that make?

Student: It opens it up somehow.

Ken: Mmm-hmm. It opens it up somehow because Buddha is holding the space. I am repeating what you said just to make sure it gets on tape, here. Okay, anybody else? Yes.

Student: They’re reminded of that meditation we did that includes everything. Everybody’s doing that meditation to some extent.

Ken: Everybody starts joining in this whole process. Okay. So, thank you. All of you. Now, if you want an answer to your question you’re going to have to ask it again, a third time. Maybe, you’ll be lucky that time.

Section 6

Now, yes, we’re finished with these things, thank you. This is the set up of the Heart Sutra. You have Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra and you have Buddha. This is exactly how the Heart Sutra sets up. This is how all teacher-student interactions are set up. There are always the three elements. There is the person asking the question, the person responding to the question, and, ideally, there is a field of attention or awareness. In the beginning in the student-teacher interaction, it is the teacher’s responsibility to hold that field. However, as the student matures, then the student also participates in creating and holding that field. But if there isn’t any field of attention, then you just have an ordinary conversation. So, this is the nature of sutra. And it’s the nature of the teacher-student interaction and how it actually works. And as several people pointed out, and I think almost all of us could feel the shift in energy, it was like—“Oh, something different is going on.” That’s very important.

But there is a little theological problem in here. You notice that the sutra says…if we turn to the sutra [An Arrow to the Heart, p. 2]:

Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra asked noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How does a son or daughter of the noble family, who wishes to practice the profound perfection of wisdom, train?”
And the theological problem here is in this phrase: Then, through the power of the Buddha. Commentary [An Arrow to the Heart, p. 42]:

Pushing people around, is he?
What does this have to say
About the last words of an old man?

If you pick strawberries while a rat gnaws at a branch,
You will know all about this power.

Now, the point here is that…well, I’ll go on with the commentary [p. 42]:

Work out your own freedom!

Section 7

These were, according to tradition, the last words of Buddha before he died:

I’ve shown you a way. Work out your own freedom.

These are very, very interesting words to be the very last words of a founder or inspiration for a whole religion: Work out your own freedom. He didn’t say, “Follow me.” He said, Work out your own freedom.

Okay, so those are his last words. Why then did he not resist nudging his chief disciple? Shariputra was one of his two chief disciples. So, there’s Shariputra, and if he says, if he believes, or teaches, you know, Work out your own freedom, why did he give him this psychic nudge? As it says, Through the power of the Buddha.

And why didn’t he help Ananda? [Laughter] Now, Ananda was Buddha’s cousin. He was quite a bit younger. And he became Buddha’s right-hand man. Hung out with him for forty years or so. Actually it was probably closer to sixty; tradition for some reason says forty—well, maybe it was forty. Anyway, forty plus years, because Buddha taught for a long time. And Ananda had this photographic memory, that is, he remembered everything that the Buddha said. So after Buddha died, when any of the other disciples, the arhats, wanted to know what Buddha had said about a certain topic, they would go to Ananda and say, “What did Buddha say about falling asleep when you’re trying to be awake?” And Ananda would say, “Thus I have heard. Once the Buddha was dwelling at so-and-so….” And this is why all of the sutras start off with that formula, because they are supposedly the words of Ananda. But Ananda, even though he hung out with the Buddha for forty plus years, never woke up. Now, how would you feel if you’d hung out with the first enlightened being of all time and you never woke up, after forty years?

Student: It would get depressing.

Ken: Yeah, you’ve got all of these other people around you, and they’re popping awake like popcorn! [Laughter]

Student: You’d feel like an underachiever.

Ken: Yeah. Pardon?

Student: Maybe he doesn’t know.

Ken: Yes, but he didn’t wake up while Buddha was alive. Can you imagine what that was like? So, we have this—it’s really weird, you know—here he is giving, telling people that they have to work out their own freedom; he gives Shariputra the psychic nudge and he can’t do a thing for Ananda. Now, there are very serious theological issues here. Yes?

Student: He was already on the inside group, Ananda was, I mean, he was right up there with the Buddha, right? So, the only time he got interested was when they tried to exclude him and said, “Look you can’t come to the council, you got to be awake.” And then he really got motivated. He was excluded. So, that could, you know, psychologically…

Ken: That’s a very interesting interpretation. So, what I understand from this is, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to make the student’s life hell. You know, you’ve got to—you can’t let the student coast at all. As soon as there is any sign of contentment or complacency, this teacher is obligated to stir things up a little bit.

Student: This doesn’t seem to be the case—forty years.

Ken: No, Buddha didn’t do that, but that’s what you seem to be saying: Buddha wasn’t doing his job.

Student: No, no. I’m not saying Buddha wasn’t doing his job. What I’m just saying is, I’m going to Ananda’s motivation; you know, it is kind of his makeup.

Ken: And so, Buddha you think couldn’t do anything about that?

Student: Oh, I’m sure he could have.

Ken: Well, but he didn’t. Anyways, I’m just raising this. You know, things don’t always work out, and as you say, after Buddha died, there are two versions of this: there’s a Theravadan and a Zen version. In the Theravadan version, Ananda is absolutely…all the arhats are getting together to have a council to decide what are the right teachings. And by the way, this is something that all the senior students do after a teacher dies, and it’s the worst thing that happens because you know why? This is where they create the institution, and they decide what’s right, and what’s not right. And it’s immediately death to the liveliness, because now they’re saying this is true and this isn’t, instead of having people rely on their experience. But senior students do all of this, which means that before a teacher dies he or she should shoot all his senior students. [Great laughter]

The same thing happened with Khyungpo Naljor, and it goes on and on. So, anyway, so Ananda, because he has this photographic memory and he’s the expert on what Buddha taught, he figures he’s going to come. And Kashyapa says, “No, no, no. This is just for the arhats.” And he goes, “What?” And he goes back to his room. And he is just devastated and broken-hearted. And he’s not…he thought he was one of the in-group, you know. It is all about being part of the in-group. As it says in the Theravadan sutras: And as he started to lie down, he woke up. And it is the only instance where a person woke up, not in either lying down or sitting or walking. He was halfway in between. For some reason that’s important in the Theravadan tradition. I suppose, it’s a way of saying, you can wake up anywhere.

In the Zen tradition it’s a little different version. Ananda tries to join the council. Kashyapa says, “No, this is just for the arhats.” He is devastated. Ananda walks away, and Kashyapa says, “Ananda!” And Ananda turns around and says, “Yes,” and wakes up. And he acts without thinking. [Ken snaps his fingers] Just there. So, there’s a happy ending to this story.

Section 8

The consequence—useless arguments that have raged for centuries.

If awakening comes through the power of another, how can you know it?
If it comes through your own power, how can you not know it? [Arrow to the Heart, p. 42]

That’s a big argument in the Japanese traditions—self-power and other-power. If all experience is empty, how do you know what to do? If only samsara is empty, how do you know you are free? This is a debate that goes on in the Tibetan tradition, between self-emptiness and other-emptiness. I’m not going to get into the technical stuff of that. When you hold your hands for meditation, you know, traditional meditation posture like this, do you let your thumbs just touch? Or do you hold them just far enough apart so that a piece of paper can slide through? People will argue about anything! Useless arguments that have raged for centuries. [Arrow, p. 42] So let’s return to the sutra.

Section 9

Student: You didn’t answer those questions. [Laughter]

Ken: No, I was illustrating a different point. That’s your homework. There will be tests.

So, Shariputra asks this question, “How do you practice the Perfection of Wisdom?” Let’s put this into plain English. There you are, you see a person sitting there, and you have the sense that they’re just right there. And what Shariputra says to Avalokiteshvara is, “How do you do that?” That’s basically what he is asking. How do you do that? How do you just be there like that? It’s put in formal language, but that’s what he’s asking. And Avalokiteshvara answers. Now, as the Heart Sutra goes, it’s not an ethical treatise, and it’s terrible meditation instruction. Because, what does Avalokiteshvara say?

Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. [Arrow, p. 55]

How helpful is that? [Laughter] Then he goes on to say, …all experience is emptiness. It is not defined. It is not born or destroyed…, etc. [Arrow, p. 2]

He’s not finished yet, he goes on to say,

…in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no concept, no mental formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind… [Arrow, p.2]

no speech, no…, etc.

How helpful is this? And at the end of it, when he has finished this completely incomprehensible presentation, you know, what happens? Buddha comes out of his meditation and says, “Good job!” [Laughter] And everybody has a party. [Laughter] That’s the Heart Sutra. [Laughter]

Section 10

Okay, so, we’re going to try to make some sense of this. I want to use an analogy. How many of you know anything about accounting?

Students: [Laughter; various remarks about not knowing anything]

Ken: Well this part may make sense to you then. I want you to imagine you’re all accountants. And you can correct me if I say anything that is off the wall here. Now, I do a certain amount of business consulting in my spare time. And one business, a company I have worked for for many years, Finance always knows what’s going on in the company. And you remember the Watergate thing, you know: follow the money. You follow the money, you always know what’s going on. It’s a way of understanding the world. You know, after Enron and all these other things, accounting became sexy for a short period of time. There’s this wonderful cartoon in The New Yorkerof two women in a bar and this very business-like person sitting further down the bar. And one of the women is saying to the other, “Rumor has it that he’s an accountant.” [Laughter]

So…but an accountant has a certain way of looking at the world. There are certain tools. They’re called things like the chart of accounts, general ledger, profit and loss, income and expenses, balance sheet, cash flow, accounts receivable, accounts payable, and you know lots of other stuff. Risk allocation, etc. I mean, a lot of you know about these things even if you don’t know what they are. Right? And by studying these things, one knows exactly what’s going on in a business, but also, I mean, you can tell exactly what’s going on in a person’s life if you have all of that information in front of you. You remember how Eliot Spitzer was tracked down—he billed it on his credit card. Which is extraordinarily stupid but that’s what happens all the time. It has to be billed somewhere. So, we have to do a little bit of history now.

Section 11

The Heart Sutra is part of a genre of sutras called the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, of which there are a quite a number. The Diamond Cutter that was mentioned was another one. The original Heart Sutra was the Heart Sutra in 21,000 or 25,000 lines. It was expanded up to the Heart Sutra in a 100,000 lines, condensed down to the Heart Sutra—not the Heart Sutra—the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 lines; the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 lines. And there is Lankavatara Sutra, the Vimalakirti-nirdesha Sutra. There are a bunch of them.

And they all talk about this perfection of wisdom. And then along comes the Heart Sutra, which was probably composed around 300 AD. Now Red Pine who I am very, very grateful for, because he’s a wonderful scholar and really able to do the research to get at the heart of these matters, he started looking around for books that had a similar title. The only ones that he could find were some Theravadan texts written by, or that were very important in, the Sarvastivadin school. Now, apparently, I am by no means a scholar on this matter—the Sarvastivadin school was one of the 18 schools of Buddhism, early schools. [Ken writes on a large pad] Now, the other 17, we don’t know a lot about. The reason is they didn’t know the key to immortality. Do you know what the key to immortality is?

Student: You have to write it down.

Ken: You actually have to do a little bit more than that: you have to make a list. [Laughter] If you want to be immortal, make a list. I’m now immortal because somebody has named, you remember what I was saying about willingness, know-how and capacity? Someone has referred to this as McLeod’s WKC model. Willingness, know-how, capacity equals WKC. So, I’m now immortal. You didn’t know you were in the presence of an immortal, did you?

Student: We’ll see how long that lasts!

Ken: That’s the trouble with immortality. [Laughter] It doesn’t last!

Okay, so Sarvastivadins, we should look at this term, you see, it’s very interesting. Sarva is the Sanskrit word for all. Stivada is the word for exists. So, Sarvastivadins, I mean, I love the way people name their schools, you know, they’re never pretentious. This is the Everything Exists school. Now, one of the things that became very clear to me when I was writing Wake Up to Your Life, the chapter on karma, is that the first two or three times I was trying to write that chapter I—it was very, very difficult because I found myself writing a theory of everything. And you know you’re in trouble when you’re writing a theory of everything. I mean, we’ve got this unified field theory in physics; it has got all kinds of physicists in trouble. Theories of everything never work because of evolution. Things evolve unpredictably. So, you always know you’re in trouble.

Section 12

Well, here we have the Sarvastivadins, and they were—this is the theory of everything school. Everything exists. And what the Sarvastivadins did was to make a list. And the list is known today as the Seventy-five Dharmas of the Sarvastivadins. This is basically a Buddhist periodic table. How many of you are familiar with the periodic table from chemistry? You know, you can remember the first seven elements by H-heli-eb-car-nof: hydrogen, helium, lithium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluoride. I don’t go any further than that.

Section 13

Well, the Buddhist periodic table consists of the 75 dharmas, and they can be grouped into different ways. And we’re going to go into that, that’s the heavy lifting we’re going to do right now. And this was a way of explaining how experience is possible. Now, it’s very interesting. I mean, you’re going to explain how experience is possible. Well, people do this for some strange reason. We have the same thing going in neuroscience now. And I’m not quite sure why people have to explain experience is possible, but it seems to be a human preoccupation, so it happens.

And in this theory it goes like this, you see, you have a blue dharma. [Ken draws] And then you have a circle dharma. And then you have a seeing dharma. And then you have a consciousness dharma. So, when you put the blue and the circle and the seeing and the sight consciousness together, you get the experience of seeing a blue circle. That’s how it works. Now, if you feel sad when you see a blue circle, then you put a sad dharma in there. And so they sorted dharmas into 75, and all experience could be created by combining the appropriate dharmas. Nice theory. It’s the first atomic theory. And these were meant to be indivisible, etc. The Mahayanas had a heyday with this, indivisible, right? Okay, so here you have an indivisible dharma. This is typical Mahayana stuff. Does it have a right side and a left side? Well, yeah! We just divided it. I guess it wasn’t indivisible after all. So, this was the theory of everything.

Section 14

Now, the Sarvastivadins constructed a number of maps to categorize these dharmas. And there are the five skandhas. How many of you have heard of the five skandhas? Well, lots of people. There are the twelve sense fields. How many have heard of that? Eh, not so many. Eighteen elements. How many have heard of that? Ah, a few, okay. Twelve links. How many have heard of that? Ah, we are getting back into known territory here. Four truths. How many have heard of that? Oh, good we have lots of experts on this one. And time is the last map. Okay?

Now, this is an interesting list. Five skandhas, twelve sense fields, eighteen elements, twelve links, four truths, time. And Red Pine found this same list in the same order in a number of other texts. And so that made it very clear that the Heart Sutra is connected to the Sarvastivadins in some way. And we know this also because, guess who the patron saint of the Sarvastivadins was? The person they found inspiration in? Shariputra. And that’s why Shariputra is the questioner here. Because what Red Pine ventures, and I tend to agree with him—it sounds true—the Heart Sutra is the recognition that the Sarvastivadins’ theory of everything had come to a dead end. Couldn’t go any further. And he is saying to Avalokiteshvara, how do you do that?

Section 15

Now we have to go back to the analogy. We have our accountant here. He has his chart of accounts, his general ledger, all of the other reporting forms that I described. And by looking at all those things, he can tell you everything and explain everything about your life, just like the Sarvastivadins with their map. Okay? So what Avalokiteshvara does, is he comes along and says, “Chart of accounts? No. General ledger? No. Balance sheet? No. Profit and loss? No. Income and expenses? No. Risk portfolio? No. Accounts payable? No, you don’t need that. Accounts receivable? No, you definitely don’t need that.” If you’re the accountant what’s happening to you? [Groans, laughter]

Yeah, well okay, the first thing is like aaah! But then what happens?

Student: A new way of looking at things.

Ken: Yeah, and this is what the Heart Sutra is about. Now how many of you have your own preferred frameworks for looking at the world? [Laughter] I think that was a laugh of recognition. How useful are they to you? How often do they get in your way? Okay, so what the Heart Sutra—one way of looking at the Heart Sutra anyway—it’s a way of destroying or taking apart established ways of looking at and interpreting your experience. Because this is exactly what happened to the Sarvastivadins.

All of you have heard of the five skandhas. Well, each of these maps was developed for a very, very particular purpose. Let’s take a look at the five-skandha map.

The five-skandha map [Ken draws], and by the way, the Tibetan translation of skandha as phung po [pron. pungpo], which means aggregate, is unfortunately wrong. We have a couple of thousand years, a thousand years of history. Again, this is due to Red Pine, but it makes sense. See what happened is that the Tibetans translated on the basis of folk etymologies, not on the real meaning of words. And when Red Pine went back and looked at the origin of this word skandha—how many of you are familiar with banyan trees? Banyan trees are very interesting trees. When they grow up, they branch out, and then they start dropping roots, which then grow into trees. So, in a banyan grove, you can’t tell which was the first tree, if it’s a very old one, because you have all of these really large trees, but they’re all joined together. And you can’t tell which is the real one. And this is apparently is the basis of the word skandha, because the purpose of this map was to identify the real self.

Now, how many of you attach to a sense of self here? [Laughter] But there are many ways to regard a sense of self. In the first way is that we regard self as a unit [Ken draws]—as a permanent, independent unit, which can be abbreviated with the acronym PIU. It’s one thing, it doesn’t change, and it’s independent of external experience. How many of you have that idea of yourself? We all do. I mean, I say to you, I’ve changed lots since I was 20. And when I say I’ve changed a lot since I was 20, what I actually mean is, that there was something at 20, which is here now that absolutely hasn’t changed at all. I’ve changed a lot, but I’m still that person. You see, that’s the permanent one thing. And it is not affected by things—that’s the independent part.

So what the Sarvastivadins did is they said, “Okay, we’re going to divide up all experience into five buckets.” [Ken draws] Okay, five buckets.

First of these is form, which should be understood as sensory sensation. So, sound, sight, taste, smell, touch, the objects of those, that’s all in this bucket, anything there.

Second bucket is feeling. There are only five kinds of feelings in the Sarvastivadin’s system. These aren’t feelings in the sense of emotions. These are the feeling tones that accompany experience. Those of you that have trained in the Theravadan tradition will be very familiar with these. These are the vedana. And there are only five kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, physical, mental. And you see you go back to that dharma…that periodic table theory. You can have one from column A, that’s pleasant, unpleasant and neutral; and one from column B, physical or mental. So you can have a pleasant physical or an unpleasant mental, or—but you get the idea.

And the third column bucket is concept. That’s all the labels we apply to experience, you know: carpet, sad, light, vase, etc., etc. Person, child, parent, job. You know, all of the concepts we use to function.

The fifth one is consciousness, of which for our purposes, we’ll just use six or seven. I think there could be eight, there could be nine. But the six are the five associated with each of the senses and the consciousness of thought. And if you really want to make it, the seventh is the consciousness of self. Which is also the sense of self, which is a kind of consciousness.

That leaves one bucket. Which is usually translated these days as mental formation, but if you are a good accountant, you always have one category in which you can throw everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else. And that’s this one. Pardon?

Student: Miscellaneous?

Ken: Yes, there’s a whole bunch of things, but these are actually the mental processes through which experience is organized, basically. So, you get all of the reactive emotions and the positive emotions and things like faith and embarrassment. But you also get strange things, because we use them, like ownership and date, etc. So, all experience falls into one of these five categories.

Now we use the Aristotelian principle of the excluded middle. Okay, if we have a self, and the self is one thing—actually, this is the pigeonhole principle—what’s the logical conclusion? You have five buckets. You have a self. Where does the self have to be? In one of the buckets. Okay, it can’t be in more than one, can it? Because if it is in more than one, then it wouldn’t be a unit. So now we have to find which bucket the self is in.

Okay. I’ll have to change colors here. Are you your sensations? Can you find the self in the sensations you experience?

Student: No.

Ken: Pardon? This is what you are. Jim says no. How many vote with him? [Laughter; Ken crosses out that bucket] Are you these feelings? Well. [Ken crosses that bucket out] Are you your name or label? Is that what you are? [Ken crosses that bucket out] This is not looking good. Are you all of these feelings?

Student: No.

Student: That’s a tough one. Why does everybody say no? I mean that’s a stretch to X out. I mean we all identify right now at the core with “I am Andrea,” you know…

Ken: Yeah, but you go right to—I am so grateful to you because this is the second time you’ve just given me a wonderful segue. Okay so, this is just a very straightforward question, okay? Can you remember being angry?

Student: Yeah, I understand. Show me your anger.

Ken: No, no I’m not going there.

Student: Yes, I can remember.

Ken: Okay. Now can you remember being happy?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay. Is the you that is angry the same as the you that is happy?

Student: If I were free from that one, it would all be over.

Ken: [Laughs] Is it? I mean how? We have one thing here. How can it be angry and happy?

Student: Oh, okay, it’s a momentary unit.

Ken: Yes, it’s a unit.

Student: It can have attributes.

Ken: Well, yes, but those attributes aren’t the self, are they? So, are you the feeling?

Student: Well, you know this model of a pincushion, and suppose I were the pincushion, and these things were…

Ken: Yes, that’s fine. Where’s the pincushion?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: [Laughter] Is it here?

Student: My objection is at the end of this x-ing out things is, we’re all going to be totally enlightened and free from all of our conditioning.

Ken: That’s your objection?! [Laughter]

Student: We still have one more bucket.

Ken: Okay, anyway, how many are willing to vote this one off the island? [Ken crosses the bucket out] How many of you say the self is consciousness? How many of you say the self isn’t consciousness? It’s really a mess—it’s a complete drag if the self is consciousness. Because as we know from neurological studies now, consciousness is always half a second behind the game. That is, if I start to move my finger, I become conscious of my intention or the motion approximately half a second after the muscles have started to contract, or move. It’s the same with everything. So, if the self is consciousness, there’s no hope!

So, no…

Student: That explains everything.

Ken: We’re not consciousness. We may be conscious, but we are not consciousness. So, what do we conclude from this? This is the mathematical principle called reductio ad absurdum. You know, we started with a hypothesis: the self is a unit. We tried to find it in these buckets.

Student: What they say, this is you if you’ve categorized experience; you’ve partitioned experience. And you can say the same thing about experience—that it is not you.

Ken: That’s true.

Student: That’s right. But that doesn’t do away with the self.

Ken: Well…

Student: I gave the same argument to Sophie and Rinpoche once. He and Tony went into a big discussion, and it came back to, there’s a self. He wasn’t willing to give it all up. I mean I…

Ken: So, bear with me. Okay? So, this is the notion that the self as a unit is untenable. Okay? [Ken gets a clean sheet of paper]

Now we have to do something quite different.

Student: Can I ask to clarify? Are you equating consciousness with awareness?

Ken: No. This is being conscious of our experience.

Section 16

Now next one, 12 sense fields. [Ken draws] So in this one, this is a much simpler categorization. We have over here an eye, and we have here a cherry, an apple, a peach, whatever you want. And so everything over here is not only the eye but the organ of sight, but also the sight consciousness. And what we have over here is the object.

So. What do you see?

See, I love it, people are so paranoid now, they aren’t even going to answer the most straightforward question. I love it. There’s a joke about paranoia, you know. This guy thought he was a kernel of corn, no, yes, a kernel of corn. And everybody in the world was a chicken. Well, you know, if you believe you’re a kernel of corn, and you believe everybody is a chicken, life is pretty horrendous. He ended up in a mental institution. Psychiatrist worked with him for years and years and years. And the guy eventually came to understand that he wasn’t a kernel of corn, he was a human being. So the psychiatrist—we’ll call the patient Bob—so, the psychiatrist says to him: “Bob, you know you’ve been here for years; would you like to go outside and see something beyond the grounds here?” He said: “Yes, that’d be really nice, Doc.” “So, let’s do that tomorrow.” So, the next day they go out and leave the gates and start walking down the street. And on the other side of the street there’s a bus stop, and a whole bunch of people waiting in line at the bus stop. Bob takes one look at those people and just takes off. He goes so fast, the psychiatrist has no idea where he has gone. Calls the police and eventually late that evening they find Bob, cowering in some kind of drainage culvert in a totally different part of the city. Bring him back, feed him up, put him to bed. The next day, Bob comes down to the psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist says: “Bob, what happened? You know you’re not a kernel of corn.” “Listen, Doc, I know I am not a kernel of corn, you know I’m not a kernel of corn, but those damn chickens, they don’t know that!” [Laughter] So now I’ve reduced you all to a suitable state of paranoia. What do you see?

Student: A sheet of paper.

Ken: A sheet of paper. Okay. I have another question. This is a very straightforward question. Where is the experience of seeing?

Student: In consciousness.

Ken: Yeah, okay. So, in consciousness, in awareness. Where is that?

Student: In my mind.

Student: My mind.

Ken: And where is that?!

Student: Right here.

Student: Everywhere.

Ken: Everywhere? Yeah, but, what does that…I mean, the way I look at it, you’ve got three possibilities. The experience could be inside me, or outside me, or in between.

Student: Or all three.

Ken: No. How can it be all three? You know…

Student: They’re all integral elements in the perception of the paper.

Ken: No, there is an experience of seeing.

Student: It doesn’t have a location.

Ken: So you’re telling me that, though I see this thing, the experience of seeing isn’t located anywhere. Okay, this is very interesting. Usually, I take half an hour to get to this point but you’ve moved very quickly. So, now we have this principle, that everybody sees this piece of paper, but the actual experience of seeing isn’t anywhere.

Okay. Well, we have to go a little bit further here. Okay, so I’m going to take away this piece of paper. Where did the experience of seeing go?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: So I presume it doesn’t…it didn’t go anywhere.

Student: That’s right.

Ken: That’s very interesting. I’m having a little trouble with this now because, there it was and now it wasn’t. But you’re saying that nothing happened. But I definitely experienced something happening. Let’s try this one more time. [Laughter] Then you didn’t see it, now you do. Where did the experience come from? How many would say nowhere? Vicki? You’re all for that. So I have this experience, and it came from nowhere. Does this make sense to you?

Vicki: No pinpointable place.

Ken: Well, okay, I won’t worry about a pinpointable place. Just tell me where it came from.

Student: You’re talking about experience like a noun, as a thing, and it’s not a thing. So, it’s not anywhere. So, it doesn’t go anywhere and it doesn’t come anywhere.

Ken: And it isn’t anywhere.

Student: What?

Ken: And it isn’t anywhere.

Student: Right, even though…

Ken: So let me get this straight: it doesn’t come from anywhere, it doesn’t go anywhere, and it isn’t anywhere. That’s what we have: the experience of seeing doesn’t come from anywhere, doesn’t go anywhere, and it isn’t anywhere. Is everybody on board with that, okay? Now, what do you usually say about something which doesn’t come from anywhere, it doesn’t go anywhere, and it isn’t anywhere.

Audience: It doesn’t exist. [Laughter]

Ken: Oh! How many of you do…this experience of seeing doesn’t exist?

Student: And yet it does exist.

Ken: Yes it does, doesn’t it. So what’s going on here?

Student: Positive conditioning?

Ken: Pardon?

Student: Positive conditioning?

Ken: That doesn’t tell me anything. I want to know where this experience is?

Student: It doesn’t exist separate from everything else that is happening.

Ken: Yeah, but…

Student: It’s not a separate thing, what we call this seeing.

Ken: Oh, I’m sorry there is. I see this experience. I see. I have an experience. I have a palpable experience. Student: Yes, it is a vivid experience, that there is a piece of paper and a guy asking us about it.

Ken: Yes, that is a very vivid experience right now; I want to know where that experience is. Yes?

Student: For me, it’s here.

Ken: Where’s here?

Student: Right here. [Student bangs on chair]

Section 17

Ken: Yeah, I had that discussion with my nephew when I was riding a ski lift in Montreal. And I said, as we rode up on the ski lift, he was about 12 at this time, and I said, “I just have a problem, Jaime.” That’s his name. “I don’t know where we are.” And he said, “Well, Ken, we’re in Mont-Tremblant.” “Yeah, I know we’re in Mont-Tremblant, but I don’t know where that is.” “Well, it’s 40 miles north of Montreal.” “Yeah, okay, so where’s Montreal?” “Well, that’s in Quebec.” “Okay, so where’s Quebec?” “That’s in Canada.” “Okay, where’s Canada?” “That’s in North America.” “Okay, where’s North America?” “Well, that’s in the Western Hemisphere on the earth.” “Okay, where’s the earth?” “Well, it’s a planet that orbits around the sun.” He thinks I’m really stupid. “Yeah, I know it’s a planet that orbits around the sun (I actually did take a course in astronomy, once upon a time). Where’s the sun?” He said, “Hmm, it’s in the Milky Way.” “What’s the Milky Way?” “It’s a galaxy.” “Oh, so where’s the Milky Way galaxy?” He thought for quite a long time at this one. Well he said, “In the universe.” I said, “Okay, where’s the universe?” He said, “ I don’t know.” I said, “That’s my problem, I don’t know where we are either.” [Laughter]

Section 18

So, we have this experience of seeing, and at the same time—we’ll come back to this again this afternoon—we don’t know where it comes from, we can’t say where it comes from, we can’t say where it is, we can’t say where it goes. Which ordinarily, we say it doesn’t exist. But I want to show…but I want to point out one particular thing. When you focus on the experience of seeing, what happens to subject-object?

Student: Dissolves? Unite?

Ken: Dissolves, unite, either way. The sense of subject-object just disappears, right? It’s like what subject, what object? Okay. So the 12 sense fields was a map developed by the Sarvastivadins to eliminate the notion of the self as the experiencer. [Ken draws] Or you say, the subjective pole of experience. That’s what the self is. And you see when you actually look at experience itself, that sense of there being an experiencer that somehow stands outside of experience just vanishes.

In simple terms, to talk about an experiencer and an experienced makes as much sense as talking about the two ends of a pencil without talking about a pencil. We actually have a far more intimate relationship with experience. You know, everything that we experience we’re intimately connected [with], as connected as the two ends of the pencil. But we ordinarily ignore this. So, we have the experience of separation. So, that’s what this particular map is about. Just to give you the flavor of these. [Ken looks up passage in Arrow, p. 76]

…there is no form, no feeling, no concept, no mental formation, no consciousness…

This is Avalokiteshvara taking away the map of the five skandhas from Shariputra.

He’s been fishing in these buckets
For thousands of years
And never had a nibble.

He’s been looking for the self.

He continues to study them,
Seeking to unlock the mystery of fish.

Now, how many people study the five skandhas these days? It was only developed in order to show that the self wasn’t a unit. And they have become objects of study and it persisted. This is the true genius of immortality. And it is completely beside the point. In case any of you don’t get the idea, I think the Abhidharma, which was developed by the Sarvastivadins, is a complete waste of time in terms of practice. Who am I? Oh—

Useless pails, full of holes—
Throw them away!

What am I?

Not form. It seems so solid, but it always has parts.

Not feeling. Too fleeting, and which one, anyway?

Not concept. I have too many names already.

Not mental formation. Too fluid—sometimes I’m sad, sometimes I’m glad, sometimes I’m mad, and sometimes I’m bad.

Not consciousness. I may be conscious but not consciousness.

He’d have better luck looking for a chariot in his dreams.

So the next one: …no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no mind object… This is the one we are on now [Arrow, p. 78]:

When I looked into her eyes,
There were only the eyes.

When our lips met,
There was only the kiss.

When I awoke, she was not there.

The dream’s fragrance gently lingered.

Go play on half a teeter-totter. How much fun is that?

Section 19

And this, interestingly enough, was something very clearly recognized by the first generation of quantum physicists. Quotation from Schrödinger: The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. They had been trained in philosophy while they were being trained in physics. It doesn’t happen today. So, now we come to the next map. And we are fast running out of time. [Ken gets a new sheet of paper]

Section 20

The next map is the 18 elements. And this one is:

…to eliminate the notion of the self as the genesis of experience [Arrow, p. 81].

So, we have our plum, our eye, and this time we have consciousness separate. That’s a light bulb for consciousness.

[Laughter; unclear comment about drawing]

Ken: Yes, I know. So, this is what you were talking about earlier, Jim.

Commentary [Arrow. p. 80]:

“Eye, do you see?”

“So, does experience originate here?”

     “Only when there is shape or color.”

Shape and color, are you responsible for sight?

For experience of seeing.

     “When does a falling tree make a sound?”

Berkeley’s old argument then—it was the argument for the existence of God. Somebody had to experience all the stuff that happens. So, consciousness is our origin of experience. Right? We’ve eliminated this one, and we’ve eliminated this one.

“Then, sight consciousness, you’re the key!”

     “What can I do without eye or shape?“

So, there is no origin of experience: it’s interdependent origination. Which is what Jim was referring to, in particular, the self isn’t the origin of experience.

The next one, the 12 links, is about the self as agent. How many of you feel you are agents of your life? Nobody? How many act as if you are the agent of your life?

Student: Stories.

Ken: As one person or more than one person has suggested that the sense of self as agent is simply a narrative that we string together to give us the illusion that we actually had some say in determining how our lives unfolded. It’s a story. The 12 links of interdependent origination, which I’m not going to go into because it’s rather complex, was a third map, a fourth map, rather, of organizing experience to prove that the self isn’t the agent. But then, because of the wonderful workings of immortality, the list came to be studied in its own right ad nauseam. How many of you understand the 12 links? It’s extremely complicated and not terribly useful in practice.

So, commentary [Arrow, p. 82]:

Who created this nightmare? Who is the writer, the director, or the producer? Who are the actors? Oh, that’s right—Who’s on first.

You can’t stop it because you don’t know where it starts. You can’t start it because you don’t know where it stops.

Section 21

You know, we have the illusion of making decisions. My own experience is, the decisions—something made the decisions long before I became aware of it.

I got myself into a bit of trouble in my business consulting because I’d been asked to work with a person who is thinking about leaving the company and had sort of been offered a package and then it had [been] withdrawn. So, he was quite angry. So, the first time I met with him, I listened to him and at the end of our meeting, I said to him, ”You know,“ because it was my sense, ”I think you’ve already made the decision; it just hasn’t come to the surface yet.“ I didn’t tell him which it was, but I deliberately planted the seed. He went back and told his boss what I’d said. She was furious, and she immediately called up the HR person, who is my main connection with the company, and said, ”How does Ken dare say something like that?“ Etc., etc. And the HR person was very cool. She trusts me a great deal, and said, ”Let’s just see how this turns out.“ And at the end of our third meeting, that decision had come to the surface, and he left the company because he knew it was the right thing to do in his life. And it just went very, very smoothly. But, I don’t know how many of you have had that same kind of experience. Something starts to stir, and we may feel unsettled for a while. And then gradually we realize that sometimes a very significant change has taken place, a decision has been made, but we didn’t actually make it.

To explain all this, they built a big machine: twelve paddles to keep things moving, six rooms to store the grain, stairs up and down. It’s kept moving by a snake, a rooster, and a pig, chasing each other on a treadmill. Meanwhile, one scary monster eats the whole thing every night.[Arrow, p. 82]

This is a description of the Tibetan wheel of life, which I am sure many of you have seen. Do you have one here?

Organizer: It’s in the office.

Student: Good place for it.

Ken: Okay. Shadows vanish in the morning light. No snake, and no rope, either.

Then the fourth one—the fifth one, I guess—is the three noble…four noble truths. This is yet another scheme. You can organize experience into the four noble truths. And Avalokiteshvara comes along and rips this one up, too. He’s rather, he’s getting perilously close to some sacred cows.

In clear open awareness, where is the suffering?

In groundless being, where do things come from?

Where there is no beginning or end, what is there to cease?

When everything is just there, where is the path? [Arrow, p. 84]

Section 22

And finally we come to:

…no pristine awareness, no attainment, and no non-attainment. [Arrow, p. 86]

This is about time. Now, there’s a very interesting relationship between the sense of self and time. When you have a headache, how quickly does time pass? When you are bored, how quickly does time pass? How aware…how much of a sense of self do you have when you are bored or have a headache?

Student: Strong.

Ken: When you are fully engaged in something, how quickly does time pass?

Student: It flies.

Ken: How much of a sense of self do you have then? So, the sense of self is inversely proportional to the passage of time.

One can’t dip his toe into a river.

Heraclitus: ”You can’t step into the same river twice.”

Another can’t outrun a tortoise.

Zeno’s paradox…

An old farmer with a long scythe
Stops them both in their tracks.

It’s because they regarded time as existing independently, like the self.

Watch for this swindler.

In his game of give and take,

You’ll be left with exactly what you started with.

What? No pristine awareness? Give me my money back.

Il faut payer, mais, peut-être tu n’obtiens rien.
(Translation: You have to pay but you may not get anything.) [Arrow, p. 86]

Section 23

I thought this is what the whole trip was about, and here you’re saying there’s nothing at the end of the road. In fact, you just said there was no road, so, I guess you’d say there can’t be an end to the road, or an end, or.

Look, we’ve gone through the whole thing now—no self that exists as an entity, as an experiencer, as a genesis of experience, as an agent, as a controller, as the dominant factor in experience, as the basis of reaction and response, blah, blah, blah. And I’m fine with that. I mean, after all, who needs a self? It’s just another thing to lug around.

But I want to be free. I, me, free—hey, you with the thousand eyes, I’m talking to you!

Pristine awareness, that’s the ticket, right? Like, isn’t that what all the dzogchen boys are endlessly raving about—awareness, realm of totality, suchness, presence, time out of time? You know what I mean.

Now you say that there is no ticket, and I’ve got nowhere to go, and even if I got somewhere, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, because there isn’t anywhere to get, and if I think there isn’t anywhere to get, then I’m not there either.

Next thing you’ll be saying is that I’m not where I am and I am where I’m not! You’re worse than a Cheshire cat and a caterpillar rolled into one. They just killed size and space. You’re killing time, too! No, I don’t want any jam. [Arrow, p. 86]

Section 24

Now that was the product. And I got to this point in writing this commentary, and I had completely run out of ideas. But there is a very useful principle that I had learned from a book Writing from the Inside Out, which is, when you have writer’s block, write the block. So, I was very, very angry at this point. So, that’s that.

We’ll break here for lunch and be back here at 2:15. Please be back here at 2:15 ready to go because we have a lot more ground to cover, including Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

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.