Awakening From Belief 6a


Well, there are a few people still to come so why don’t we take some time and take up any questions you have about your practice?

Student: You know, I was remembering what Thich Nhat Hanh said when he was asked why the Vietnam War happened. He said the war happened to all of us. [Unclear] So I was also thinking of the Iraq War — and that’s been brought up here a couple of times. That’s the sense I have about that, too, that it happened to all of us. Thich Nhat Hanh also said that not only did the Vietnam War happen to all of us, but that we’re all responsible in some very basic sense. So it seems to me that the Iraq War and a lot of other social ills and issues also fit in that category. In some way we are participants in anything that happens, especially when it’s a world conflict and it sort of happens to all of us and we’re sort of responsible for it all. This is following up on a comment by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Ken: I think we have to be very careful how we use words. A few years ago I went to a local book store because there was a person giving a talk on a book he’d written about torturers. He’d interviewed five groups of torturers. One was members of the Israeli army; another was a certain unit in the Chicago police force; third was something in Central America. I can’t remember what the other two were.

It was a disturbing evening. Two things that I recall most clearly from it was that in all cases, the torturers were very ordinary people, and the second is that the torturers felt they had license to do what they were doing. In fact, not only license, they had been tacitly asked by the society to do what they were doing because…

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, because every society has a class of people that they don’t care what happens to.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, I mean, that’s maybe too broad a statement, but when you look closely at most societies you can discover—in India it’s the untouchables—we certainly have it in our society, and certainly in English society and French society. So, if you come up with a counter example, fine, but it’s pretty widespread. Now, there may be a social need, some dynamic in the structure of societies about that, but I haven’t studied that or looked into it. In any event, I have difficulty with the use of the word “responsibility” in the way that you’re saying Thich Nhat Hanh uses it.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah.

Student: I think [unclear] and the way that word is used is the way I interpret it.

Ken: Okay.

Student: [Unclear] but that is what he said, so however [unclear].

Ken: Well, I know what he’s pointing to, but, as I say, I think we have to be very careful what words we actually do use because it’s very easy to create problems that don’t exist through the misuse of language. I was discussing this at breakfast with Newcomb and Barry actually, the use of the war metaphor.

Student: Sorry?

Ken: The use of the war metaphor. Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Okay, who’s the enemy?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Who’s the enemy in the war on poverty?

Student: Poor people.

Ken: Exactly. That’s what you get to. And that’s why it’s inappropriate as used. And I feel something similar in the use of the word responsibility here. As it’s used in normal English.

Now, what I think what Thich Nhat Hanh may be pointing to is that each of us have the same tendencies within us and it is very much a responsibility in our practice to identify and dismantle the reactive patterns that give rise to the same form of discrimination, inconsideration, even hatred, rejection.

Look at the bodhisattva vow. In the bodhisattva vow of aspiration there are two states of mind which violate it. One is despair and the other is rejecting a sentient being. Despair is, “I can’t do this.” And the reason that that’s regarded as a violation of aspiration bodhicitta, or the aspiration to wake up, is because when you say, “I can’t do this,” you’re denying your own spiritual potential. And you’re denying what you actually are.

The definition of either of these two states is that you hold these for more than two hours, which is the length of time it takes for them to become fixed, I mean, approximately. Then you have to renew the vow. Nice thing about bodhisattva—

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Rejecting a sentient being is when somebody does something and you say to yourself, “I will never help that person again.” Now, if you hold that attitude for more than two hours you’ve violated the bodhisattva vow.

This is straight, traditional, classical Buddhism, but you can see those ethical principles within that. There’s instruction that would prevent us from harboring any of the attitudes that make war—and torture and those kinds of things—possible. And I think, yes, we have that kind of responsibility in our practice And I think that’s what Thich Nhat Hanh is pointing to.


Other questions? Yes?

Student: This stems from yesterday from a question about the practice of shamatha leading to insight as different from that leading to compassion To my experience, the two seem so intertwined. I was unable to catch where it separated and how they are not almost one and the same.

Ken: Compassion and insight? Well, they’re quite different.

Student: Excuse me?

Ken: They’re quite different.

Student: But don’t they arise almost co-emergently?

Ken: [Laughter] That’s a big word. Where’d you get that one? [Laughter] Where’s my dictionary? Ah, the lhan cig skyes pa’i ye shes (pron. lhenchik kyé pe yé shé) [co-emergent or co-natural awareness] I guess. Okay, how much do you want on this?

Student: I’m asking the question because it’s—

Ken: I can give you a three or four-sentence answer or I can give you two hours.

Student: Make it two hours. [Laughter]

Student: Middle way.

Ken: Ah, there we go.

Student: [Unclear]

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Are you taking this now? Yeah, okay. That’s good. No? What’s behind your question?

Student: Yeah!! [Laughter]

Ken: What’s the practice experience?

Student: Again from my own experience, it’s that compassion has continued to grow as I’ve been involved more and more in practice, and that the insight that develops from the practice reveals the relationship to all sentient beings. Maybe I am using or hearing the word insight incorrectly.

Ken: Compassion is the ability to be present with suffering. It’s necessary if you’re actually going to help somebody. If you can’t be present with the suffering, then you will try to change the situation so that you don’t feel the suffering. That’s not helping the person. So, the number one requisite in compassion is to be able to be present with the pain in the situation. To do that you have to let go of control, which for some people is a bit challenging. I had one student who’s a self-admitted control freak. We’ve been working on his driving—he keeps trying to arrange the cars on the freeway [laughter]. Insight is the ability to see into what is happening, so they’re quite different.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: No feeling implied in insight, not necessarily. You just see into what is, so it has a penetrating quality.

Student: With compassion [unclear] insight.

Ken: Don’t spoil my story. Now, when we use the term insight in Buddhism we are pointing to something that’s quite different from the way the word is used in ordinary English. And even within Buddhism there are significant distinctions in how the word is used.

In the Theravadan tradition, the word mindfulness refers to what in the Mahayana tradition we refer to as the union of shamatha and vipashyana. It’s quite different usage. Even within the Mahayana, in the Gelugpa tradition, insight is used to refer to working with such questions as what is the nature of mind, what is the color of your mind, where is your mind, all that kind of stuff—you know what I’m talking about. In the Kagyu tradition, those questions are viewed as the preparation for insight, and insight actually refers to seeing into mind nature. That’s insight, okay, which you and I were working with this morning.

Now, it’s quite possible to be able to stand and be present in the presence of pain and suffering and have no insight. And it’s quite possible to see into the nature of mind and have difficulty being present with suffering. It’s possible and, unfortunately, that happens.

In the Mahayana tradition, emptiness—which is the result of seeing and compassion—are regarded as…well, the phrase that my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, always used was stong nyid snying rje snying po can (pron. tongnyi nyingjé nyingpo chen). stong nyid is the Tibetan word for emptiness, and sngying rje is the word for compassion, snying po is the word for heart and can is the word to have. To have the heart or the essence which is the union of compassion and emptiness. And this is, I think, one of the aspects of the genius of the Mahayana, is the recognition that you need both.


In terms of practice, as you cultivate compassion—that is, as you become more and more able to be in the presence of suffering—then you can open to more and more experience. You can open to the experience of everyone you encounter. You can open to the totality of your experience because you can be present with the pain in others and you can be present with the pain in you. So, you open to the totality of your experience, and this provides you with a stability of attention, which is awfully useful when it comes to developing insight.

At the same time, when you really see into how things work—and we’re talking about mind, but it’s the same in other areas of knowledge—compassion arises quite naturally, unless there’s an emotional block against it. So, for instance, if you have mastered a body of knowledge—you know, carpentry, psychotherapy, linguistics, it doesn’t matter—but you really know it, you understand it very deeply, what do you experience when you see someone fumbling around and making mistakes in the area of knowledge that you know so well?

Student: You help them.

Ken: Yeah, you feel compassionate. So that’s why I say compassion arises naturally from deep knowing, unless there is an emotional block. And there are all kinds of people who have very deep knowledge of a particular area and aren’t particularly noted for their compassion.

So, yes the two work with each other and can and do enhance each other, but it’s not a given. It’s not a given, and that’s why one is encouraged to cultivate both, okay? All right, Newcomb?

Newcomb: I found yesterday when I was contemplating the karmic armor involved with situations where I had caused harm that it seems that bare insight and compassion arose pretty much together [unclear] as I first explored the whole chain where at happened acutely aware of pain and suffering [unclear] and same time aware of all [unclear].

Ken: That’s right, yes. In our practice, when we sit and we get distracted and we come back, we get to deal with our emotional blocks and we work through those in some way. What we’re developing in the course of all this is an intimate knowledge, an intimate understanding of the process of suffering in us.

But the process of suffering in us is exactly the same as the process of suffering in every other person. The content, the fixations, they may be different, but the process is exactly the same. And the more deeply we know that in ourselves the more deeply we understand it in others. And then, as you say, understanding and compassion arise quite naturally. But it comes from knowing ourselves deeply. In connection with this—did I talk about the four horses?

Student: No.


Ken: In one of the early scriptures there’s reference to the four horses. Now, the first horse gallops as fast as the wind at the rider’s urging. The second horse gallops just as well as the first horse when he sees the whip in the rider’s hand. The third horse gallops when he feels the whip contact his skin. And the fourth horse doesn’t gallop until he feels the pain of the whip in the marrow of his bones. Which horse do you want to be? [Laughter]

When we hear this story, as Suzuki Roshi says, most of us want to be the best horse. How much does the best horse understand suffering? From the point of view of our practice, you may find the fourth horse is the best horse. I’ve noticed people who are able to sit easily have a difficult time really understanding. People who have more trouble sitting or more trouble with their practice, they usually end up knowing something.

So, think about it. It’s really about knowing your own experience intimately, directly, completely When you know that, you know everything that’s really important, because then you know what is happening in another person because you know it in yourself. And you know how to be present with it because you’ve learned how to be present with it in yourself. So, there’s your insight and compassion, okay. Yes?


Student: I feel relief now that we’re [unclear]. It’s been a very, very rough day for me. I felt like I was in a minefield. It’s like I don’t want to talk, you know. I don’t want to do anything [unclear]

Ken: I didn’t say don’t talk.

Student: As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem, but the phenomenon I was having—one of them that I identified this morning—was I felt as [unlcear] what’s coming into my mind were things that I’m already experiencing a lot of [unclear] and wanting to maybe work with those. I’m not sure quite how to do that.

Ken: Okay. That first day was just to get us into things and show you a way of working with that traditional material, which can be very fruitful, but also to help you identify reactive patterns that are operating in you. If you’re able to identify those then work with those, and just go through the process that I was describing this morning, where you know a situation or a genre of situations in which you fall into reaction.

Okay, then walk through it very slowly, noting what you’re experiencing at each moment so you actually begin to experience the reaction in you. And as you do this—and you may have to do this several times—you’ll begin to get a sense of the discomfort—which you’re avoiding or seeking to avoid—by falling into reaction. Or which the reactive mechanism is getting you away from. Now you start bringing attention to that, okay? Our practice here has unearthed some things and given you fuel for your practice. Start burning the fuel. Okay?


Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, we’re going to do something a little lively right now.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, there’s the one-breath meditation.

Student: That’s all we get? [Laughter]

Ken: Yeah, that’s all you get. The one-breath meditation looks like this. You know, you’re really sleepy, you’re really tired or you’re really distracted, or you’re really sleepy, tired and distracted, you know.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay, so you do one breath. Not so bad was it? Can you do one breath? Just one. Breathe out and be…no no, not forcefully, just quite naturally…so that by the end of that breath you’re fully awake and present. Can you do that?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, try it. Just one breath, and with that one breath you’re going to cut through all of the tiredness, confusion, distraction, sluggishness, torpidity, toxic narcolepsy [laughter]. Just one breath. There wasn’t so bad, was it? Okay. Then you stop. One-breath meditation. Then you do it again.

Student: Do I get to breathe in?

Ken: Well, you can breathe in naturally. If you’ve finished your meditation, you relax, okay. And then when you’re ready, you do it again. You do that for 15, 20, 30 times, just one breath at a time. Maybe by then you have enough confidence to try two-breath meditation. Okay?

Now this is just an extreme application of a well-known meditation instruction. Short sessions many of them. Well, the session has now been shortened to one breath, but it works very well. One breath and then you relax. And maybe you just fall asleep, but now you’re not and that’s fine, okay, because you’re tired, and then one breath. But you’re totally clear.


One student approached Munindra and said I keep falling asleep when I meditate.

He said, “Okay.”

“Well, what do I do about this?”

“What’s the problem?”

“Well, I keep falling asleep when I meditate.”

“Yeah, yes I heard you. What’s the problem?”

“I keep falling asleep when I meditate.”

“Yes I understand that. What is the problem?”

And then Munindra said, “Now, before you fall asleep, which nostril is there more air going out?”

“I don’t know.”

“Ah, now I understand your problem.”


The point is to be right in your experience. Okay?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, yeah but you’re right there okay. It’s all we can do. Okay, what I want to do is to avoid toxic narcolepsy and other deadly diseases, we’re going to do an exercise. It’s a paired exercise.

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.