Mahayana Mind Training 1

Section 1

Okay good. Okay, so we’re going to begin. This evening I just want to do a brief introduction to the topic of mind training. And strictly speaking we should call this Mahayana mind training, because there are many, many forms of mind training. Mahayana mind training is a special practice for me. When I was doing the three year retreat, at some points I got very, very ill and was not able to stay with the regular program. I just wasn’t up to it, so all I could do for some periods of the retreat was just do mind training. Because it’s a very simple practice, as Kongtrul says—I think it’s in the colophon, yeah, profound yet easily practiced. And certainly from my own experience that’s very true.

Lets talk a little bit about mind training first.

Section 2

Meditation practices can be divided into various kinds. Among the breakdowns the one I find probably most useful is to distinguish between those practices which are concerned directly with the practice of presence, or being awake and present in your life. Then there are practices which transform energy and build a capacity and energy in attention. And then there are practices which we can call purification, but in a very, very broad sense of that term. That is they get rid of the stuff, or change our relationship with the stuff that gets in the way of being present. Some examples may be useful:

Mahamudra, dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition, bare attention in the Theravadan tradition, shikantaza in the Zen tradition are all examples of practice of presence. These meditations are usually very, very simple. You can say that basic shamatha—which is resting with the breath—also falls into this category. They’re usually very simple, very little to do, very little to them, and one quickly finds that simple does not equal easy. And if you’re not actually doing the practice then you’re doing nothing; you’re just wandering. So that’s important.

Then the energy transformation practices vary tremendously. In the Theravadan tradition you have techniques of body scanning, even noting practice can be used as an energy transformation practice. The cultivation of loving kindness is in some respects an energy transformation practice.

In the Mahayana, one usually relies more on compassion or the four immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.

In the Vajrayana there’s a whole host of energy transformation practices including most of the yidam practices, and then the advanced techniques known as the six yogas of Naropa, for example.

And there are a large number of other techniques which can be used to transform energy. All energy transformation practices are inherently dangerous because you know, when you start moving things this way you never know exactly what you’re going to run into. And you can really run into blocks in yourself and it’s good to know how to work with those blocks.

The third category is probably the largest category of meditation practices: the purification practices, and this includes again such practices as the four immeasurables, but particularly things like meditation on suffering, meditation on impermanence, and so forth in which you’re using these practices to dismantle the operation of various reactive patterns.

One of the simplest ways to think about or to understand the reactive patterns is from the Theravadan tradition, the three marks of existence which are, as probably most of you know, impermanence: that everything that’s made of other things eventually falls apart, it passes, it’s transient. The presence of suffering, that all emotional reaction is by nature suffering.

And you can say emotional reaction is the reaction we have to experience when we aren’t able to stay present with it. And then the third is non-self. That is there is nothing that we actually are. We are not a thing, even though we tend to go through our lives and operate as if not only we were a thing, we regard ourselves as being the center of the world.

A friend of mine puts it, “You’re not going to survive life,” that’s impermanence, “You’re never going to get your emotional needs met,” and “There’s no one to be.”

So, this runs so counter to most of western and American culture. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. You know…which is based on ignoring death, until you can’t. If you’re suffering somebody’s done something wrong, so sue them. And, “What do you mean? I’m special, I’m unique”.

And then we get into the wonderful things like self-esteem etc., etc. which are just endlessly problematic. I almost had a chance to have dinner with a person who started this California Commission on Self-Esteem and I was really looking forward to it. But it didn’t come about.

Now, so those are examples of purification practices.

Section 3

Now mind training is one of these typical practices that emerged well on in the development of Buddhism in India. It’s actually not clear that it developed in India because Atisha journeyed supposedly to Sumatra. Sometimes I think it was Sri Lanka, but traditionally it’s regarded as Sumatra, to receive these teachings from a person called Dharmakirti.

There’s some reference made to the idea of exchanging oneself for others in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, which is about 200 or 300 CE, but Atisha was in the eleventh century, as he came to Tibet in 1042. So his journey to Sumatra was probably around ten hundred. So this is 1,500 years after Buddha lived and so Buddhism in India was very, very well developed—mature, probably baroque and overripe really.

And what happens when you have a tradition of practice which has been around this long is that many, many teachings become compressed into a single practice. It’s quite extraordinary and many, many of the Tibetan practices are like this. There’re so many elements, you know, a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit here, and if when you know the history of Buddhism you look at these practices and you go “Wow!” They’ve got so many different elements. They’re so rich. And taking and sending is, while a very, very simple practice, has a great deal of richness to it.

So in a certain sense it partakes of a bit of all three of these categories of meditation that I’ve just described. It’s almost simple enough to be used as a way of practicing presence, so that’s certainly not its main use. In a certain way it does transform energy too. But its principle point is as a purification practice. It gets stuff that is in the way of being present; it takes it apart. And a very specific thing that it takes apart is self-cherishing.

Section 4

Now, when I translated this book back in the 80s, the standard translation for the Tibetan term bdag ’dzin was ego clinging, and I think I used that term in there. I would never use that now, because it’s very problematic. The ego that is talked about in Buddhism has nothing to do with the ego that is talked about in psychoanalytic psychology—they’re two completely different beasts.

And, I heard a very witty commentary on the use of self in western psychology, which the psychologists who were at this really didn’t like, because he basically made it clear that the use of the term self had so many different meanings in western psychology, you had no idea what anybody was talking about.

He went through nine different ones, starting it off with asking his dog, “What is your true self?” And the dog looked at him very attentively so he figured he was getting somewhere, so he looked at the dog again and he went, “What is your true self?” And the dog looked at him even more intently. He thought, “I’m really going to get there”. So he tried a third time, says, “Tell me your true self” and the dog went “roof roof” and wagged his tail and went off to his bowl, expecting dinner. I thought it was the perfect opening to his talk, cause that was the dog’s true self!

So, there’s a difference between, or we make a distinction between attachment to a sense of self, or holding to a sense of self, and cherishing the sense of self. Holding to the sense of self is a very, very deeply habituated pattern, that basically takes consciousness or awareness as a thing and makes it into a subject so that everything else becomes an object—the “I/Other”.

It’s very unfortunate because once we do that then the world becomes conscious-less. There isn’t any…or consciousness-less—isn’t English a horrible language? [Laughter] It becomes completely devoid of conscious because we’ve appropriated it all for ourselves. But that basic way of experiencing the world is what is meant by holding a sense of self.

Cherishing is to take that that sense of self is the center of the universe. Which is basically, how we approach life! “I am the most important thing!” And all you have to do is drive around L.A. for a while, particularly avoiding people with Mercedes or BMWs and you really understand they’re the center of the world! That’s when we take this sense of self and we build up a whole life around protecting it and taking care of it. This is what I mean about making us the center of the world. And what we’re making the center of the world doesn’t actually exist. So obviously, we introduce a fairly serious imbalance into the world of experience, and our efforts to maintain that imbalance is what we experience as suffering, and becomes more and more of a struggle.

The word duhkha in Sanskrit is usually translated by the English term suffering. It could actually be translated by the English term struggle. And in some ways that’s a little more accurate because it refers to the reaction from the, you know, the mild sense of dissatisfaction, to the reaction to extreme torture and mental, physical or emotional anguish. All of that is duhkha or suffering.

So, how mind training in all of its forms works—unlike cultivating attention, in which you do something repetitive over and over again, and whenever you get distracted you come back and do it some more, and you actually build up attention in this way—what you do in mind training is you adopt a perspective. You instill a way of regarding the world of our experience, which is contrary to the way that certain habituated patterns have led us to observe the world, or regard the world. And by adopting the perspective of mind training, you generate friction between the habituated way and the adopted way, and when there’s enough friction, well, you rub two sticks together hard enough and they eventually both burst into flame, and now you can be present.

So this in some respects makes mind training—in any of its forms—a very challenging practice. Now, one of the Theravadan forms of mind training of course—which is used in the Tibetan tradition as well—is just cultivation of impermanence, because our conditioning is such that we believe that we’re going to live forever.

There’s a writer—William Saroyan or someone—who said, “We all know we are going to die, but I never thought that this was actually going to happen to me.” There’s a woman who lived to the age of 96 and she had never been ill in her life, and finally her body started to give out and she went, “This isn’t meant to be happening!”

And we really carry these attitudes, but the fact is, none of us are going to survive life—it’s deadly. So cultivating that understanding that we’re actually going to die, is a form of mind training. You’re instilling, and training a certain attitude which conflicts with the way that we ordinarily regard our lives.

In the context of the Mahayana mind training, one’s using this to develop compassion, very explicitly. And compassion is really about being present, being able to be present with the suffering of others. Which means we also have to be able to be present with whatever we ourselves are experiencing. And this just flies in the face of this self-cherishing attitude that I mentioned earlier, which seeks to protect the sense of self and to protect its status in our world of experience. So that’s where the friction starts.

So this is going to be our focus for the next few days. The text for this is The Great Path of Awakening. In 1972, I’d come to Vancouver with Kalu Rinpoche and he’d just set up a center there—which was his first center in North America—and before he left for the airport to return to India, he handed me a text, handwritten on this wonderfully thick Bhutanese paper, and he said, “This may be helpful to you.”

And my Tibetan was very, very minimal in those days, I mean I could just translate for Rinpoche without having to look up every word in the dictionary. And a few months later, the teacher that Rinpoche had left behind said, “Why don’t you get that text?” and, “I think I should teach it,” because he knew what the text was and it was the Mind Training in Seven Points by Jamgon Kongtrul’s —who’s a 19th century teacher—commentary on Mind Training in Seven Points, which was written in the twelfth, thirteenth century, somewhere around there.

So he got the text and he taught it, and I translated it as best I could, and then a bunch of people said, “This is great, you’ve got to translate this into English”, and I said “I can’t do that, I don’t know Tibetan well enough.” But they just kept insisting, so I did my best. And parts of the text are extremely colloquial so it’s very difficult to figure out what’s really going on.

And then I completed the translation and, I think it was in 1974, Trungpa Rinpoche was visiting Vancouver, and I gave him a copy of the translation as a gift, and I got word the next day, he said, “Could you please make him a copy of the Tibetan—he wants this,” and that’s when he started teaching the text at seminary.

And I re-translated this in the mid 80’s when I was requested to do so for a French translation—or I did that actually in the early 80’s when I was in retreat—and then when I came to Los Angeles I took that translation and revised it into this English translation which Shambhala published in ’87. It’s a slim book, but it’s everything you need to know. And there’s a great deal in it.

So my intention over the next few days is actually to work through this book. This particular edition, which is the most recent one from Shambhala, they said they were republishing it and I said, “Would you allow me to revise my translations, at least of the root text?” and they said, “Sure, you can do that”. So, does anybody have the old copy here? This was the original version published by Shambhala. You’ll find that the root text in these two is not the same. So that’s why I’m going into this, so you’ll understand. Well it says this in here, and this in here. Well, this is the right one.

Section 5

Now I’m not going to go into the practice of taking and sending this evening. What I want you to do tomorrow morning is just to take the opportunity—just as we did this evening—to sit and let your mind and heart settle. Is there anybody here who doesn’t know how to do that? I’ll just review very quickly the way we approach it.

That’s breath. This is attention. You place the attention on the breath. How you do that is very simple. You know, you sit straight and breathe out slightly intentionally, and you find you just become aware of the breath. So you’ve placed your attention in the experience of breathing. And then you rest there, see?

And then the in-breath starts, and the out-breath takes place, and you just rest in the experience of breathing. That’s all there is to it!

There’s only one small problem. That’s what happens. The attention falls off the breath. Now usually when the attention falls off the breath we don’t know about it, then we have this revelation that we’re no longer meditating on the breath, and then we go, “Oh you stupid so-and-so, you should be meditating on the breath,” and you know, “You just can’t do anything etc.,” and we go into this big thing! Which really doesn’t help meditation practice at all. The best thing is to, “Oh!” You just put the attention back on the breath. And you rest there. It falls off again. There’s a moment of recognition. Put it back.

Now a lot of people think that meditation practice consists of [Ken claps] holding the attention on the breath. Concentrating, and so forth. That’s what you do to oranges to make orange juice. I found that effort to try to hold attention on the breath is quite counter-productive, particularly in our setting. What I have found works very well for people, is this idea of just returning. Returning over and over again. You just keep coming back. Coming back over and over again, and resting, and gradually you’ll find that you rest longer and longer in the breath. But the important thing is that recognition and as soon as that recognition appears, you return to the breath. And you just keep doing that.

So that’s the practice that I want you to do tomorrow morning. Some of you have your own meditation practices such as death and impermanence or four immeasurables, or various other things that you’re working on. We have several half hour periods during the day. I want you to take one of those half hour periods and do your regular practice so you don’t lose connection with that. The rest of the time I want you to be following the meditation instruction that I’ll be laying out in the course of the retreat. But for our morning sitting tomorrow morning, just take the time, just come here, let your breath settle in, or let your attention settle in your breath and that’ll be fine.

One small point, in Buddhism we talk about mind all the time. But it’s very, very important to remember, that the word for mind in Sanskrit, chitta in this case and in Tibetan sems can in many, many contexts be translated just as well by the word heart. And so you might think about meditation as, Feel the breath with your heart. It has a very different feel to, you know, Put the mind on the breath, doesn’t it? But they actually mean the same thing. So, feel the breath with the heart. You might try that, just approaching your meditation practice tomorrow that way.

Yeah, we can take some questions.

Student: Are there copies of the new translation available or…

Ken: Right now?

Student: Yeah, up here?

Ken: Well, funny you should ask that! We have arranged these, or, I should say, George has arranged for us to have these booklets which have the prayers we’ll be using before and after meditation. You’ll find in them…you have them all…?

Student: They’re up at the zendo.

Ken: They’re up at the zendo, okay. You’ll find in them, morning and evening prayers. I’ll say more about these later, but you can just start memorizing, and do them every morning and every evening on your own. There’s a lineage prayer, which I will go over in the course of the retreat. Then there are the prayers that we will use at the beginning and end of every meditation period. They include refuge and the four immeasurables, and then dedication and aspiration prayers. Then there’s a translation of the Heart Sutra, which we’ll do at various points. There’re some prayers connected with food which I included so that you would have them. You could use them on your own. We aren’t going to do anything formal at mealtimes.

Do we need to talk about o-ryo-ki? How to use the bowl sets, or do they…

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay, good, okay. And then you’ll find Mind Training in Seven Points, and it’s in here. And this is the new translation of the root text, and I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the mind training section on Unfettered Mind’s website? How many of you have seen that? A few people. Gee, you can put all this stuff up—nobody goes to it [laughs]. On the website, each of the instructions from Chekawa Yeshe Dorje, I’ve added in like a two or three sentence commentary. So we’ve included those commentaries in here, so that the essential meaning of each of the instructions is elucidated. You don’t have to wade through a text to find it, its all right here. So you have the new translation and very brief commentaries all in here. Okay?

And that’s everything that’s here. Okay?

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.