Nuts and Bolts 1

Section 1

I want to touch on these two topics. Let’s start with the practice that we’re doing right now, which is essentially a mahamudra approach to shamatha. Now, there’s a lot of terminology that flies around in Buddhism which I don’t think is particularly helpful—some of it’s even traditional terminology badly translated. What I’m thinking of here are things like shamatha with support and shamatha without support, or shamatha with an object, shamatha without an object; form meditation, formless meditation. Any of you heard any of these terms? Yeah, people get wonderfully tied up in knots about them. The purpose, or what we’re aiming for at this point, is cultivating a basis of attention, and for some people that is more easily done if they use a reference point such as the breath or an actual object, and for other people it’s more easily done if they don’t use an object.

What’s important here is to keep the intention. And the intention is to cultivate a base of attention. Now, there’s only one way to cultivate a base of attention and that is to do something which requires some attention, that doesn’t require much thinking, and to do it over and over again. One can liken cultivating a base of attention to learning scales in music or, if you’re using a wind instrument, learning how to blow the instrument in a nice even tone, or if it’s a string instrument such as a violin, learning how to draw the bow. It’s a basic skill. There’s nothing particularly magical about it, and the way you learn, the way you do any of those things, is you just do them over and over again. When you do them over and over again, you make tons and tons of errors. You know, you miss notes on the scales or the bow wavers or your breath isn’t steady or whatever. But when you’re doing that you don’t regard that as a problem—it’s just “Okay, that’s how that is.” And then you do the next one, and little by little things get better. Now, how many of you beat yourself up every time you fall off the breath? Or there you are sitting in open awareness and you fall out of it, and then you beat yourself up, right? How helpful is this beating yourself up? I’m going to send Ralph to get a good supply of baseball bats [laughter] so that everybody, whenever they fall off the breath, they can bang, bang, bang [laughter].

Ralph: Gladly.

Ken: Pardon?

Ralph: I said gladly.


Ken: Many people approach meditation practice as they would approach SAT or a GMAT or something like that. They have this one chance to get it right. [Laughter] It’s a practice and the thing about a practice is you expect to fail. You don’t expect to do it perfectly, and that’s why you’re practicing it—so you get better at it. How many of you approach meditation this way? Everybody’s trying to do it right all the time. It’s a practice so you fall down, fall off the breath, fall out of attention time and time again. So, that’s the first piece that I want to convey this evening. That is, approach this retreat as practice and if you fall out of attention, okay, start again. And you just do this again and again and again. There’s a saying in Chinese—to learn how to do something do it ten thousand times. That’s all. You don’t worry about the first ten thousand times. After that, if things aren’t coming together, then you can get a little concerned, but not for the first ten thousand, okay?

Something to keep in mind—because I suspect this operates in a few of you: Who are you trying to impress with your meditation practice? Janet? [Laughter] But you’ve got to impress somebody, right?

Janet: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. Not quite sure who, but there’s somebody there that’s going to be impressed. I’m going to make sure that they’re impressed with my meditation practice. You know, the nice thing about meditation practice is when you finish, nobody gives you a round of applause. [Laughter] Now, you think this is funny, but this is how many people practice meditation, as if they’re on stage. They’ve go to do it perfectly and then when nobody gives them a round of applause, they’re kind of miffed afterwards. [Laughter] Where’s my recognition? Okay, so it’s a practice. You’re not going to impress anybody. The consequence of that is you can completely relax in this.

You want the deep, dark secret here? You’re the only person who’s going to notice if you don’t do it perfectly. Nobody else. But that’s not how we approach it. Some of that comes from an idealism—a yearning for an ideal. This is also very problematic and it’s encouraged very, very highly in most Buddhist traditions. I mean, you have in the Zen tradition:

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.

Reactive emotions are infinite, I vow to release them all.

The gates to the dharma are infinite, I vow to enter them all.

Awakenings are limitless, I vow to engage them all.

Nothing idealistic. [Laughter] One of the things that we’ve lost in the West—and this died out about a hundred years ago—is the use of formal language and mythic language in how we communicate with each other. The four vows that I just recited, which is the form the bodhisattva vow takes in the Zen tradition, this is mythic language. It serves to inspire, to move emotionally, and you don’t take it literally because it doesn’t make any sense literally.

We grow up in a culture, in modern culture, postmodern perhaps, in which the intellect, thanks to the likes of Descartes and others, was placed above emotion. To some extent, this goes back as far as Aristotle, but it really gained ascendancy in what’s now referred to as the Enlightenment—which it wasn’t—[laughter] in which reason was seen to be the ideal. And this led to several generations of people repressing their emotions and so forth. A lot of good came out of this in one sense—the development of the scientific method and the use of reason as applying to understanding of the world.

When you’re working scientifically—whether it’s in medicine or physics or biology—whatever you write you intend it to be taken absolutely literally, because you’re trying to describe things very precisely. And when you read an account of a scientific experiment or a diagnosis of a disease or what have you, you read it absolutely literally. It’s not poetry, it’s not symbolic, it’s not mythic or anything like that. And over what’s now a few hundred years, this has been the primary way we relate to things. We’ve lost that, to a large extent; being able to talk about things symbolically, indirectly. I had a very explicit experience of this when I was having a conversation along these lines with a psychologist.

He said, “What do you mean, this mythic language?” And I said, “Well, in Tibetan Buddhism, it says ’Regard your teacher as Buddha.’” Before I’d even finished the sentence, he said “So he’s infallible, right?” I said, “Perfect. That is the literal trap that you fall into.” It doesn’t at all mean that your teacher is infallible. That’s taking it literally. What it means is that—for whatever reason—you regard this particular person as how you experience awakened mind in the world. That’s what it means. That’s how you experience awakened mind. It’s through this person that you come to learn and understand and come into connection with awakened mind. That is one of the primary functions of the teacher—to reveal awakening to the student. But that has nothing to do with infallibility. That’s another projection, a modern projection, on the notion of being awake—that you’re perfect, like some kind of superman. Thank you, Nietzsche! You see, this is where all ideas come and they’re laid on top of these traditional teachings.

Section 2

Speaker: Here’s a question from Brian, in Los Angeles.

Recently I read a book about the practice of shamatha meditation. The author asserted that, Tibet’s great meditators of the past claim that the achievement of shamatha is necessary for all forms of advanced meditation to be fully effective. Also, I’ve spent years doing Gurdjieff work. And his teaching seems to emphasize developing a similar kind of stable attention, as does vipassana meditation. All this makes me wish to develop this quality of sustained attention.

However, my current practice involves recognizing the ongoing, changing nature of experience, even if my attention wanders, is weak, and never seems to improve in stability. There’s a deep letting-go of having any expectation or judgment of the quality of my states, and I find this quite freeing.

So my question is, does one need to develop a stable, solid form of attention? And does shamatha play a role in your teachings?

Ken: Well let me start with the last question first, “Does shamatha play a role in how I teach?” Yes, it does.

As the quotation–and you point out the Gurdjieff work or the vipassana–what these people say, or these traditions say, is quite true. One needs to develop the ability to rest in stable attention. Usually I encourage people to cultivate…start cultivating that through just resting in the experience of breathing. Now, as they do so, they find themselves doing exactly what you describe: recognizing the ongoing, changing nature of experience. But as you keep coming back to that resting quality, resting in the experience of breathing, you find that the mind–or the heart because it’s the same–actually becomes quiet. In the beginning it just becomes quiet for short periods.

In the monastic traditions one tried to hold onto that stillness or peace. I find that, in the modern urban environment that almost inevitably results in some form of suppression, and is not healthy. So, what I encourage people to do is to return to that resting, and return again and again. And then it naturally stabilizes, so that they can rest for longer and longer.

In that quiet, stable attention you may be aware of thoughts, and sensations, and emotions. They may come and go. But it doesn’t disturb the quality of the attention. We say that attention has two components. One is resting with the object of attention, whether it’s the breath, or a visualized object, or whatever. And the second is the quality of knowing what’s going on, knowing whether the mind is active or dull. And when those two qualities are present–that is, you are with the object of attention and you know what’s going on–that is attention.

I would also suggest a possibility here. You say your current practices involves recognizing the ongoing, changing nature of experience. What recognizes that? And can you rest in that? Maybe you’ll find a way to cultivate the attention…the stable attention there.

Section 3

Speaker: So this is from Dave, in California.

He says, “My own current life situation is not conducive to a traditional cushion-top session. Instead, I rely on a few specific daily activities to focus practice upon. Nothing so difficult as taking a breath when passing through a doorway, but simple, regular daily acts nonetheless. So far the practice has allowed me to rebuild a very basic foundation, at least insofar as bringing back the same discomfort and challenges experienced during my own past sitting experience. How would you recommend cultivating attention for those who are not able to keep a regular sitting practice?” That’s the first question.

Ken: Well. (Sighs) Perhaps it would be helpful to look at this as a stage of practice. From your question, I understand you did have a sitting practice. You now feel that you life circumstances don’t allow you to sit regularly, that there’s something there that is meaningful and important to you, because you keep making some kind of effort. Simple acts of attention, if I understand you correctly, though nothing so difficult as taking a breath whenever you open a door. I find it interesting that you characterize that as difficult.

Basically, practice is about the cultivation of the development of attention. And anything that we do that helps us to cultivate attention, will be helpful in our practice. You also note that even with the little efforts, or the small efforts that you’re doing, you still encountering the same kind of discomfort you experienced when you were doing sitting practice.

Our lives are largely run by avoiding experiences we don’t want to have. And we constantly rearrange our lives so that we don’t have to experience certain things. In doing so we necessarily introduce an imbalance in our lives, because those experiences are part of our lives. And if we’re not engaging them–opening to them–then we are, in effect, avoiding our lives. This is an unbalanced situation.

So when the discomfort arises, just experience it. It may only be for two or three seconds, just touching it, moving on, but even that effort–just touching it and moving on–is going to bring about a process of change. It’s going to start changing your relationship with the discomfort, because, little by little, you’ll discover that, “Oh, I can experience this. I don’t have to avoid it.” And now you’ve gained another dimension of freedom in your life.

Many people try to do too much too quickly, so I would advise you to just pick one area, work on that for a while. When you can do that, then move into another area. So there’s this sense of constant expansion of your practice. If you have one or two activities which help you to drop into attention, then add a couple more. Work with those for a few months, then add a couple more.

And you may find–strangely enough through this process–that a point comes where you may actually be able to do a sitting practice again. And have that much more available. But the practice is really just about bringing attention to whatever it is we’re experiencing in each moment. And as long as you’re making that kind of effort in some way, then you are following a path.

Speaker: So, more specifically, he asks, “If a person successfully builds a reasonable foundation in attention in a non-sitting practice–evaluated, of course, by someone other than oneself–are there ways to execute some of the other meditation techniques off the cushion, for example, the four immeasurables, dakini practice, taking and sending, and even mahamudra?”

Ken: In theory, yes. And as Yogi Berra says…or said, In theory there’s no difference between practice and theory, in practice there is.

What’s key here, in what you’re asking about, is intention. Reactive patterns are not dismantled. They don’t fall apart fortuitously. In fact, the nature of reactive patterns is to create conditions in which they are progressively reinforced and strengthened. So we have to be the active agent. And if you find that you’ve been able to build a way to come back into attention consistently in your life, then, within that framework, you can bring in practice of equanimity or the practice of loving-kindness, and eventually the practice of compassion and joy, which are the four immeasurables.

I think it’s a little more difficult to work with the dakinis. Though you may find that momentarily flashing on the dakinis–or the earth dakini or the water dakini–so that you touch into that energy and allow that to inform or augment the level of attention that you have. You may find that helpful.

Certainly, once you understand how mahamudra works, it’s possible to practice it. But that usually requires some fairly serious training. But you can always do something just by introducing the question, “What is experiencing this?” Whatever you’re doing, you just say, “What is experiencing this?” And if you become adept–train yourself, essentially–to rest in the space that that question opens up, while you continue with whatever activity you are doing, then you have a form of practice.

One of my students is a jazz singer. And I gave her the question, “Who sings?” So, while she was performing onstage (chuckles), for her, attention was on “Who sings?” And one day, one evening, while she was performing…everything disappeared. She…the song continued, but she was no longer on the stage. And she said it was quite an incredible experience.

So is it possible? Yes. But it requires a consistency of effort, which can only come from a strong intention.

Section 4

Steve: This is Steve, in Los Angeles.

Ken, since I’ve started practicing, over time we’ve talked about practice off the cushion and developing awareness throughout your day. And I certainly have noticed more of it, whether in dzogchen, rigpa, whatever you do, every time you go through a door, there’s definitely a sense of greater awareness throughout the day of what’s around you.

I was thinking the other day…about a month ago I came home from a long day of work and got on the couch, and the basketball game was on, and I was…it was really great to just completely space-out and watch this basketball game. And, not facetiously, I started…I thought about, is there a place in our practice where we don’t strive, where we take a vacation from…or do the equivalent of watching that basketball game? Where it’s okay to know, “Okay, I don’t want to know anything else that is going on, I don’t want to be aware of my peripheral vision or sounds, I just want to space-out.”

Ken: (Chuckles) You just want to space-out.

Steve: I just want to rest from whatever that experience is. It’s an experience that feels differently, it’s an experience of real rest. It’s a different kind of experience than cultivating an awareness throughout the day, I find.

Ken: Well, your question arises because your life is out of balance. And I think most of us here, in Los Angeles, live lives that are out of balance. So that there are so many demands, we’re having to put so much out, that sometimes we just want to rest. The body needs to rest, the mind needs to rest. And those are not ideal conditions for the cultivation of stable attention. It’s one of the reasons why people, who are really serious about their spiritual practice, tend to live fairly simple lives. So that they can be working at it all the time, without trying to compensate for the very deep fluctuations of being totally on and then totally off, which is how most of us function in an urban environment. So that’s where I think your question’s coming from.

If you are able to cultivate a life where you aren’t totally drained by your work, then when you came home, you wouldn’t have the same inclination to just–as you say–”space-out for a while.” So I would say it’s more a question of bringing more attention to the balance in your life, so that you are able to make a…a consistent effort, rather than the off-on thing that you’re experiencing now.

Steve: Well, maybe I should not use the word space-out so much. Let’s take a different example. If I go to see the theater, the experience is richer if I’m not paying attention to the exit signs and the person three rows in front of me. The experience seems most enriching and connected if I’m right in that piece and not aware of those things.

Ken: Mmm, perhaps. But, if you’re at the theater, you might try doing the ecstatic practice, so you’re not focusing on the exit signs or the people three rows in front of you, but you’re in the whole experience of being in the theater including, of course, the stage that’s being performed on.

I mean, when you’re listening to a concert, you do the practice by listening to all of the instruments and not just picking one and following its line for a while, and then picking another and following its line for a while. Which is more or less how most of us listen to music. That you actually listen to the whole thing.

A doctor that I used to work with–or he used to work with me–when he learned the ecstatic practice–he liked classical music–and he was listening to this pianist and he said it was totally a different experience because when he opened it up like that, he could hear exactly what the right hand was doing, exactly what the left hand was doing. He could hear them almost distinctly, and at the same time experience how they were interweaving together. So it became a much richer experience for him. So the more that we open to our experience, the richer our experience becomes.

Steve: Okay. Thank you.

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.