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We have a lot of ground to cover in the next two and a-half days. We’ll do our best.
I’m going to do a very quick digression. One of the strengths of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism is that it inherited virtually all of the teachings of Indian Buddhism. The Theravadan became known in the Tibetan tradition as the Hinayana. The Mahayana teachings—compassion and emptiness—and the Vajrayana teachings—deity practice, energy transformation, and direct awareness. In that sense, Tibetan Buddhism is unique, inheriting the earlier teachings that had migrated before the ethic of compassion became a central component of Buddhism.
And China, for some reason or other, never took to the Vajrayana. There are elements of Vajrayana scattered through Chinese Buddhism and there’s references to the Black Hat Sect, which of course is the Karma Kagyu and so forth. Even though the Karmapas and some of the Sakya patriarchs were priests to the emperors, that was mainly the Mongolian Emperors not the actual Chinese Emperors.
And Japan, of course, inherited the Mahayana tradition from China, but just the very vestiges of Vajrayana. So Tibetan’s quite unique.
So, you have the Hinayana, and the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana. And there’s a certain amount of polemics, shall we say, about the various relationships.
Now, you take something like dzogchen. Dzogchen is a direct awareness practice like mahamudra, like path and fruition in the Sakya system, and so forth. Like the great Middle Way. It’s very sophisticated. And I had the pleasure of doing a retreat in dzogchen studying one of Longchenpa’s Treasuries—Treasury of Basic Space and it was very good. One of the things that Longchenpa does in this is to go through all of the other approaches to practice and discuss their shortcomings.
There is great benefit in that but there’s also a great danger. And it’s very easy for people who, out of a feeling of loyalty or devotion to a tradition and a way of practice, do not understand that when Longchenpa is exposing the shortcomings in a particular approach to practice, he’s really talking about what is happening in the individual. He’s not actually criticizing the school.
So, for instance he says, oh, there’s one verse about, those who follow the bodhisattva path getting caught up in the sophistry of negating self. Well, I don’t know how many of you’ve looked at Jeffrey Hopkins’ Meditations on Emptiness. Anybody know this? It’s like this thick and it’s a very, very detailed philosophical analysis of the concept of emptiness. Utterly boring from my point of view.
But that’s one of the things that happens when we practice. How many of you have had a little internal debate about what is emptiness, etc., etc., inside you? And this is really what Longchenpa is pointing to—that tendency. He’s using language but he’s not really lambasting the whole Mahayana tradition.
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Yesterday, in discussing skepticism or wrong views, I made reference to a description of refuge which I’ll actually read,
To take refuge in Buddha is to rest in the emptiness of original mind, free from any reference or defining characteristic. To take refuge in the Dharma is to experience the clarity of original mind, the natural awareness that knows what experience is and how experience arises. To take refuge in the Sangha is to be one with the unimpeded arising and subsiding of experience free from the three poisons of attraction, aversion, and indifference.
Okay, what tradition is that from?
Student: Baptist. [Laughter]
Ken: Pardon? Baptist. [Laughter] What does it sound like?
Ken: It sounds like Vajrayana.
Ken: Pardon? It’s a Theravadan formulation, yeah. Changed a couple words, but it’s basically a Theravadan formulation.
In Los Angeles, I started a group of teachers. And we have representatives from the Tibetan, Theravadan, and the Zen traditions. We’ve been having a number of discussions. We meet about every two or three months. And we spend an hour talking about scripture or teachings, an hour on practical teaching matters—you know teaching skills—and then an hour on practical matters like how to organize a retreat or something like that. So, it’s very fruitful.
One of the other teachers is a very bright and, to my taste, a refreshingly eccentric Theravadan teacher who knows Pali and translates, so it’s very good. And in the last meeting, we were discussing the first two verses of the Dhammapadda which is this poem of aphorisms.
This particular text wasn’t translated into Tibetan until the nineteenth century, which is horrifically late. And the translation of the Tibetan is significantly different than the opening line from all the other translations into English. So, I raised this point. I said, “Is this word existing in the Pali, the word for nature? I think it’s, All experience is the nature of mind.” I thought that it doesn’t sound like a Theravadan formulation. And he said, “No, it isn’t, and you Mahayana essentialists…” And I just laughed because the Hinayana has been setup as a straw dog by the Mahayanists to make the Mahayana look good.
But when you really get into the Theravadan tradition, you find things like this all through it. And it was just such a delight to appreciate that the Mahayanists have been set up by the Theravadans as a straw dog accusing them of essentialism, which is the cardinal sin in Buddhism. You know, you think there’s actually a self? A thing? There’s an essence to mind? What kind of nonsense is this?
So, the reason for this digression is that in practice, we all have our own formulations and things that we are comfortable with. But make sure that you understand the meaning in the formulations of other traditions. And don’t just pick at the words. Because my own experience is there isn’t a heck of a lot to pick and choose from. They’ve all really got some very, very important things. I just want to underline that. I find factualism and sectarianism in Buddhism quite distasteful. And there’s enough of it in other ways going on in the world and I don’t think we need to contribute to it. Okay?
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Student: Get to choose one [unclear]?
Ken: Actually, yes. Jamgon Kongtrul once said, When you’re studying, study everything under the sun. When you are reflecting, keep a really open mind. When you practice, do one thing.
That’s very good advice, because to practice we need to go deep and you can’t go deep if you’re doing a lot of different things. I’m trained in the Tibetan tradition. What that means is that I’m trained in anywhere from a hundred and fifty to two hundred meditation techniques. You know, you can’t practice them all. And I’m not even counting individual deities as separate meditation techniques. You add those then it gets up into the thousands. Well, you can’t practice them all and it’s absolutely not necessary.
When I work with students and in my own work, I always say you study and you practice and at a certain point you hit a practice that speaks to you. You may not like it, you don’t always like the one that speaks to you, but that doesn’t matter. When you find one that speaks to you—that’s it.
And the other thing, just since we’re discussing this, is that usually I’ll have people do two practices. One which the emphasis is going to be on the wisdom or awareness side, and one which is going to be on the compassion or side.
Ken: Well, take two practices, very simply. You know, say resting in attention, or mahamudra, or dzogchen on the one hand and taking and sending on the other—which is a compassion practice. That would be one example of pairing, but there are so many practices you can choose different pairs. Deity meditation, which is a visualization practice which has to do with form and manifestation, and a direct awareness practice.
When people are doing things like the death meditation or the karma meditation, I’ll often—because people are pretty busy and they only often can only practice once a day—I’ll have them do one day just resting with the breath and then one day kind of a reflective practice that we’re doing so that it has that kind of alternation.
It’s good to have those two parts, those two components. But very definitely, when you find a practice that speaks to you, mine it, and just keep going with it.
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The person who wrote the original the Seven Points of Mind Training, Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, his practice was taking and sending. He was a person who had memorized the Kangyur—one hundred and eight volumes. And he was completely well-versed in all of the elaborate tantric practices. He wrote commentaries on the Sixty-four Deity Practice of Khorlo Demchog and Chakrasamvhara, and so forth. But, in his colophon to the taking and sending, Seven Points of Mind Training, he said, Because of the arousal of potential from former lives, I ignored criticism [and something else] and practiced this teaching. That was the one that spoke to him.
Another one of my teachers, Dezhung Rinpoche, when he came to Seattle he went, “Hmm, not many monasteries around. What am I doing here?” Then he came and visited our center and he was just amazed that Kalu Rinpoche actually had people doing Chenrezi meditation. And like, “Wow!” He’d been in the States for about ten, twelve years by that point and hadn’t been able to persuade anybody to try Chenrezi meditation.
So, he was so inspired by that that he resolved to say a hundred million mantras before he died. Whenever we went to visit him he was sitting there—Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum. That was his practice. So, very important you find a practice which speaks to you and then you go.
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Student: Would you suggest that when you talk about study, studying a wide range, pick one, read all through it, and then do another, and do another, or just pick and choose [unclear]?
Ken: I always believe in learning things thoroughly. I meant to know a lot about Buddhism. It’s not true. I’ve really only read three or four books—but I know them. One of them is The Jewel Ornament of Liberation.
I mean, we’re so fortunate with the amount of material we have available to us. You take some like the Bodhicharyavatara, Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Words of My Perfect Teacher, Treasury of Precious Qualities, which is a relatively new one by Kangyur Rinpoche. You take any of these books, you actually learn them. Take any one of them and you really learn them, you’ll be in very good shape.
Student: How about Wake Up To Your Life? [Laughter]
Ken: Well yes, you could use that one too, I suppose. Okay.
From your practice….
|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.|