A Trackless Path II 16


August 12th Thursday, A Trackless Path II, evening session. See, getting better all the time.

How many of you find yourselves in some way in teaching roles? Oh, almost half of the people. Okay. So, that’s what I’d like to focus on. We don’t have to focus on that topic exclusively. And I’m quite happy if you ask questions, and this is all coming out of Paul’s original question about his relationship with people in his group. ’Cause after we talked afterwards, I realized that this was much more about a teaching question than just that relationship.

So, now, it’s a big topic. I’m not quite sure where we’ll start, but I think the first thing is: a teacher is not an identity; it is a role. Which is to say it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, how brilliant it is, if nobody is listening or paying attention, you’re not a teacher. [Laughter] You may think you are. [Laughter] So it takes two to tango as they say. And it’s equally important to remember that being a student is a role, not an identity. And basically the test is, not whether teaching occurs, but does learning take place? There’s a difference there.

I’m reminded of a quotation from Red Auerbach who was the coach for the [Boston] Celtics, I’m not sure when but for a long time. It isn’t what you say to the players that counts. It’s what they hear. And so there are two or three ideas in there. Teaching is a role not an identity, it’s about learning. It’s about whether learning happens, not about whether teaching takes place. In fact what we ordinarily think of teaching is only one way in which people learn. So one of the ideas I’ve paid more attention to over the last little while is to focus on creating learning situations, rather than teaching all the time.


It was many, many years ago I did a workshop with a group in Vancouver. Many of the people I knew there, ’cause that’s where I’d been in the early ’70s with Kalu Rinpoche when he first set up the center there. And in this particular weekend, the focus was death and impermanence. And for whatever reason—it may have been because I was ill, I can’t remember—I just really didn’t feel like teaching. There were about twenty, twenty-five people in the group. Fortunately we had quite a large room so people could sit in a very large circle.

Now you may recall from Wake Up To Your Life, in the section on impermanence there are the five meditations, you know: everything changes, nothing stays the same, everybody dies—though the wording I think is, “Think of all the people who have died.” The third one is, “Think of the number of ways you could die.” I never get out of my bedroom when I do that one. [Laughter] You know, I just think of so many ways that I can die just getting out of bed and getting to the bedroom door. And fourth one is, “Think of what happens when you die,” and then “Think about what happens after you die.”


So on this occasion, I used a tool that I discovered in a totally different context, which we used in the TDP a couple of times. And it’s a completely artificial construct, that you put an object in the center of the room and you go around the circle, and a question is posed by the workshop leader, in which case, it was me.

And first person goes, when they’re ready they take the object, they answer that question and then they put the object back in the center of the room, or if it’s just a small group around a table, in the center of the table. And then they sit until they come up with their question. Then they go and get the object. Come back to their place. Ask their question. Put the object in the center of the room.

And then the next person goes through the same thing. So each person gets the object twice: once to answer the question, once to pose the next question. And after you’ve gone around once, so everybody’s contributed, then anybody can take the object, but it’s always the two times. They take the object first to answer the question that’s just been posed. And the second time to pose the question that arises for them.

Now, as I said, it’s completely artificial, but what it does is it requires everybody to be in attention the whole time. Because they have no idea what question they’re going to have to answer. And equally they have no idea what question they’re going to pose, because it’s going to be a response to what happened just before. The only problem that arises is if somebody isn’t paying attention and just starts talking. And that kills it. But if people keep their questions and answers succinct, then a very powerful pool of attention forms. And in a group of 15 or 16 people it usually will take one hour to go around the circle once.


So in this group, we were meeting for about two, two and a half hours so it went around and then there were questions. And what was very interesting is that—we did this several times with each of these main themes like everything changes, is there anything which doesn’t change, I think that was the first question—and as this went around this way, because people were taking in and really listening to the questions and the responses, so a great deal of attention in both what was said and how it was received, the contributions to both questions and responses became very deep very quickly. And people were very surprised to hear themselves saying, or hear other people saying, exactly what they had read in traditional texts. And so afterwards everybody said, “That was the best workshop we’ve ever done with you, Ken.” [Laughter] And I said like about five words or something.

It’s creating a learning environment. And I was very happy with the results and I did this at the Death, Friend or Foe. You were there weren’t you? Anne and Sonia. So a few people here. We did something very similar. Because it allows people, or makes people maybe, realize that wisdom isn’t in somebody else. You know, it’s in ourselves. And when there’s sufficient attention, then things just start to come out which are the same as you would read in any text written by any teacher because it really is the same stuff. And so it provides learning on many, many different levels.

Now, I use that as an example of what I mean when I say, creating a learning situation rather than focusing on teaching. And there are many, many other possibilities, and actually in the West, we have a far, far greater range of pedagogical methods than they ever had in the East. And I draw on them sometimes and I think it’s very interesting. People often in a dharma context aren’t expecting it, and then they find themselves like “Wow.”


Another thing that I did for a long time at retreats—I haven’t done it for a while—is we’d have group discussions. And as a friend of mine in Vancouver said, “I hate them Ken but they’re very useful.” [Laughter] And it would just be like an hour and a half or so in the afternoon. Divide up, make sure the groups were relatively small—five or seven people, maximum seven, usually five worked better—and I’d give them a very definite topic and some basic guidelines for the discussion. But I started this because I observed that, unlike in eastern societies, one of the ways that people learn in western society is talking with each other. It is a way we learn.

So the reason I’m going into this, in this level of detail, is that if you’re in a teaching role you may find it interesting and somewhat less problematic if you focus on creating ways of learning, or possibilities of learning rather than sticking to teaching.


And, I doubt that I could find it, quickly… [Pause while Ken searches a book.]

Yeah. True leadersÖand you can substitute “teachers” here. It’s going to get me into trouble in about three lines. So I’m just going to substitute “teachers” here and see what happens with this. [Paraphrased from “Acting Simply,” Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, Ursula K. Le Guin]

True teachers

are hardly known to their students.

Next after them are the teachers

that people know and admire;

after them those they fear;

after them, those they despise.

Told you I was going to get into trouble in about two or three lines.

To give no trust is to get no trust.

I’m going to come back to that line.

When the work’s done right,

with no fuss or boasting,

ordinary people say,

Oh we did it.

Or people feel they did it themselves.

Now, if you can do that you’re in good shape. People discover that they can know themselves. And as you may have observed even in these situations when there’s a more formal teacher-student set up, when people ask questions, most of my effort is to put them in touch with their own knowing rather than me telling them how it is. So I’m trying to apply those principles.

Do you have a question? No. Okay. And if you have questions come up, just let me know and I don’t have a lesson plan which I’m following very closely. And I won’t fall to pieces if I fall off the lesson plan, like some teachers I know. [Laughter]


This couplet—To give no trust is to get no trust—one of the characteristics of the positive virtues is that you have to give them away to receive them. If you want people to trust you, you have to trust them. If you want people to be kind to you, you have to be kind to them. If you want people to be honest with you, you have to be honest with them.

And there’s another thing I found today which is on the same theme:

[“Keeping the contract,” Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, Ursula K. Le Guin]

After a great enmity is settled

some enmity always remains.

And that’s just how things are.

How to make peace?

Wise souls keep their part of the contract

and don’t make demands on others.

People whose power is real, fulfill their obligations;

people whose power is hollow, insist on making claims.


So if you want people to be honest with you, you have to be honest with them. And you’re giving honesty away and you don’t always get it back. But if you don’t give it away, you certainly won’t get it back. If you try to be dishonest with people, then they will very quickly be dishonest with you. That’s quite reliable.

So I find that a very significant part of teaching is trusting in the ability of the student. And I’ve infuriated more than one or two students by just looking at them and saying, “I have full confidence in you.” And I don’t say that glibly, I say that quite sincerely but they’re looking to get something from me because they’re not feeling that they can do it. And I’m just saying, “No. I have full confidence.” And it puts them right in their material, and they have to deal with it. Sometimes they yell and scream at me for it. You see certain grins around the room so these are the guilty parties.


So, those are some ideas. So, questions up to this point? And does this strike any chords for anybody?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Please, microphone.

Student: So I’m a teacher in a different context.

Ken: Yes.

Student: It seems to me that many people—and I work with young people in their twenties to thirties—many people at first resist the idea that you’re not there to give them the answer but to help them discover their own answers. And you have some clear techniques of doing that, Ken. [Ken laughs] So, could you discuss that a little bit? Of overcoming the kind of cultural resistance that we have to approaching that.

Ken: I think it’s a little more difficult in the university context because people are getting certificates and degrees, etc. And they’ve paid a lot of money so they feel they have the right to say, “I’m paying this money, give me this knowledge.”

Jeff: [Unclear] [Laughter]

Ken: Pardon? Yes hand the mike over to Jeff here. He’s got a comment. [Laughter]

Jeff: [Unclear]

Ken: Ah, okay. So nothing?

Jeff: I’ll comment on that though.

Ken: Yeah.

Jeff: We paid a lot of money. [Laughter] And we know you have the answers.

Ken: [Laughs] It’s always the older students who will cause you the most grief. Yeah. Okay.

Student: One problem for me is that what I teach is something where the students actually have to make it their own.

Ken: Yep.

Student: So it’s really essential that they discover how to answer their own questions. Otherwise I haven’t done my job.

Ken: I quite understand. Yeah.

So the distinction I found useful—I don’t think it’s a hundred percent useful but I find it useful in certain contexts—is between information and knowledge. Information is, you know, what you find in a book. This has got a lot of information in it. You know, any textbook on engineering has got a lot of information in it.

And I see the teaching role or the interaction between teacher and student—I think this quite broadly—is how information is transformed into knowledge. Which is very, very different because information…I mean very simply, any of us can look up how to play a violin or how to perform an appendectomy, on the Internet. [Laughter]

Ken: [Laughs] But none of us would have the knowledge of doing either of those things. So transforming information into knowledge requires effort. It requires time, and energy, and effort on the part of both the student and the teacher.

And in answer to Jeff’s question, “Yeah, and I’ve been working very hard to help you transform information into knowledge.” [Laughter]

Jeff: Thank you.

Ken: You’re welcome.


Because, I mean, it’s one thing to give students a handout on something. That’s just giving them information.

Student: [Unclear] [Laughter]

Ken: I’m sorryÖ

Student: I want a handout every day.

Ken: You want a handout every day. You may rue those words. [Laughter] We shall see. Boy that’s tempting. [Laughter] Just a second…


So, a student has to start working with the information and will quickly come to—or in most cases, will quickly come to—“Oh. Yeah. There’s this information but I don’t know what to do with it,” or “I don’t know how to use it in particular situations.” And that’s where the interaction of the teacher becomes very important because when the student says, “Okay. I don’t know how to use this information in this situation,” the teacher now has to step out of being the repository of all of this information, and actually work with the student in some way because the challenges for the student will be different from student to student ’cause everyone’s different and everybody’s going to use and work with that information slightly differently.

So, there has to be actual live interaction. This teacher has to relate to the student as that student is. And the student’s got to work with the information and all of their own stuff at the time, and it’s through that interaction process that knowledge begins to develop in the student. And I imagine you set some of this out at the beginning of the year with your students. Do you? You have the microphone?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Yeah. And of course like most students, they don’t believe it, right?

Student: Well, one problem that I have is that many of my classes are quite large.

Ken: Yes. This does make it more difficult.

Student: And many of the students come in without the trust. I think the trust is very, very important. The trust being that you’re really there to be on their side to help them learn. And so your comments on trust for me were really at the core of maybe what is going wrong in some situations.

Ken: Well, I think there are two things there. The trust is very, very important. And when a student feels the teacher trusts their abilities, it’s extraordinary. And there have been many Hollywood movies made on exactly that theme. But the other aspect that may be operating is students often don’t know what it means to learn. In many cases they think it just means absorbing information. And so I think that spending some time and possibly posing a few examples of what it means to learn might help clarify things there. It’s a thought. Okay?

There are some questions over here. Larry?


Larry: Ken, in this area of creating learning environments and situations—and we’re speaking specifically about this particular area ofÖwhat would you call this area we’re in?

Ken: New Mexico.

Larry: No. [Laughter]

Ken: I don’t know. [Laughter}

Larry: What should I call it?

Ken: Whatever you want, Larry.

Larry: No. I don’t know what to call it.

Ken: Okay. Anyway, what’s your question?

Larry: WellÖ

Ken: This undefined area that we’re talking about.

Larry: All right. In this undefined area, do you see the teacher having objectives?

Ken: Yeah. It’s a very important point. I mean, the teacher-student relationship is a shared aim relationship. And the aim being the student acquiring a skill or knowledge in whatever area the activity’s being engaged. So, I mean if you’re learning medicine then it’s to acquire skill and knowledge in the exercise of medicine.

Here, in this context, what my aim is, is to help you learn how to be present with experience without struggle, you know. And you’ve heard me talk about that in a lot of different ways. And for that I draw very extensively on my own training in Buddhism but also on quite a lot of other things. But that’s my objective, very definitely.

And, I mean to say—for lack of better words—would say “the spiritual arena.” If a person comes to me and says they’re interested in studying with me or working with me, but is not interested in finding ways to be more completely present with their own experience then I can’t do anything. Some people come to me and they’re interested in having a connection with me of some kind. And I say, you know, “No. Go. Done.”

And I had a wonderful case in the early ’90s, a psychologist came to me. And this was when the HMOs moved in and wiped out therapists all over the place. So he was struggling with his practice, and it was a difficult period for him. And so he came in and after way longer negotiations about how we were going to work together than I usually have—that was a red flag right there—we finally agreed that we’d meet for four sessions for a certain sum of money. Okay. And by the third session it was very, very clear that he wasn’t doing any practice. He wasn’t working. He wasn’t doing the work himself, so I didn’t have anything to work with. And as this became very clear in our conversation, I finally said to him, “What are you looking for?” And he said, “Solace.” And so I just said, “Wrong guy.” [Laughter] Yeah, you all laugh. As I said, “I’m absolutely the wrong person for that. We’re not even going to meet another time.”

So it’s very important that the student and teacher agree on the objective. There has to be a good deal of overlap. Can’t be just a little overlap. There has to be a large amount of overlap for that.


Idries Shah, I think it’s in Learning How To Learn. Anybody who’s teaching should read Learning How To Learn and Knowing How To Know. He’s not a very good writer. It’s rather disorganized, but there’s an awful lot of good stuff scattered all the way through. How many of you have been reading that? I know you have, Gail. Okay.

He’s got a whole section on this, but it boils down to: many people come to spiritual teachers because they are looking to give or to receive or to exchange certain kinds of attention. And this has nothing to do with spiritual work. And that’s almost always pattern stuff operating. Now in some cases, people can grow out of that. And that need for attention or to give attention is something they can grow out of and into working, figuring out how to be in their own experience in a more complete and less tortured way. But if that’s their objective is to give or receive attention, then they’re unworkable. Their intention in the work and my intention don’t overlap, and so it can’t work. And one doesn’t always discover that right away, but after a while it becomes very obvious and then something has to give.

There are other questions I think. Christy.


Christy: Could you say something about transmission, both…and I presume…well, the traditional sense, and maybe a then-and-now kind of sense? WellÖ

Ken: Try that one again, please.

Christy: I would like you to talk about what transmission means. What does transmission mean?

Ken: [Exhale] Quite honestly I don’t know. [Pause]

Okay, you have a candle. It’s lit. There’s another candle. It’s not lit. You light the unlit candle with the lit candle. Has anything been transmitted? [Pause] How many say yes? How many say no? Yeah. It’s a toss-up, isn’t it? You want more? [Laughter]

Christy: [Pause] Not right now. Well I would ask if you believe that there is something transmitted. Is there?

Ken: Are we talking about the candles orÖ

Christy: Either, I mean, would be the same thing.

Ken: Well I think it’s worthwhile taking a very close look at the candles. What are you giggling about Anne?

Anne: [Unclear]

Ken: I mean, this is the kind of thing that philosophers would debate for centuries.

If you take a closer look at what actually happens, then it may become a little clearer. When you bring the first candle close to the wick—because you know full well that if you just bring it to the wax it doesn’t light, you have to bring it to the wick—what happens is that, the heat of the first candle evaporates a very, very small amount of wax in the wick—’cause it has sufficient heat to do that—and raises the temperature, just by proximity, so that the hydrocarbons in there start to break down and some of them break down enough they become volatile, and the heat is such that it’s above their ignition point, and poof, the flame appears.

Christy: No, I understand.

Ken: Okay. Well, it’s equally valid to say that nothing is transmitted or something is transmitted. That’s looking at it from a, you know, what-is approach. But the net result is there’s a new flame.

So as we’ve talked about before, when we practice in these kinds of circumstances, we create a pool of energy. And since we’re all making the same efforts, the level of energy in that pool of attention rises, and if we’re bringing attention to a particular thing, it touches or allows us to bring that level of energy to that. And so it’s possible that things break down there enough so that there is some kind of awakening or insight or what have you. And it happens.

Now highly trained teachers or people who have practiced a lot are able to create a significant field of attention just through their own efforts. People who are within that field have experiences which can be called transmission. But is something transmitted or is something elicited? You know, well, you can spend centuries debating that one. Something happens. It’s a mystery. So when I say, I don’t know, I’m quite serious. But people say, “Well, I had this experience.” Good, now you see and understand how to do something that you didn’t know how to do before. And that fulfills my objective.

Christy: Well that made it much clearer actually. Thank you.

Ken: Yeah. You see, candles, very useful. Ah, Sonia.

Sonia: Umm…

Ken: There are lots and lots of other explanations of transmission which are in complete disagreement with that. But that’s how I found useful to look at it.


Sonia: More practical question here.

Ken: Ahhh. Maybe I shouldn’t sigh in relief.

Sonia: Yeah. [Laughter] In our discussions we were talking about how teaching and learning has to come from this place of aliveness.

Ken: Yes.

Sonia: And I’m wondering—and certainly situations that I’ve been in, where you are teaching by rote—how do you stay motivated and bring that aliveness back so it touches that vitality in the students again?

Ken: Okay. The first thing that comes to mind with that question is my grade six teacher. She was a remarkable teacher. She became a friend of our family actually. Now here’s what she did, “Are you ready? 16 divided by 4 add 3 times 10 add 5 divide by 5 add 1 times 2, what’s your answer?” Okay? Now that was slow. And so here we were, ten, eleven years old and she did this with like grade one, but she could grade it all the way up to grade eight. You’d come in, and you’d sit down, and that was the first thing that happened in the class. And she’d just be firing this stuff at you and, “What’s the answer?” [Snaps his fingers] “What’s the answer?” [Snap] And she’d be giving you five or ten minutes of this. That’s what happened in the class, you know. And then she’d get around to actually teaching something. So she made everything really alive and put everybody on their toes right away. And that is how you teach rote skills. Alive, energetic, so that people have to be working at it and working fast and hard at it. And then they feel challenged, etc., and the big thing in that is to challenge people.

And another thing she would do would be she would write numbers from 1 to 12 around like that in random order, and then put any number—like say 6—in the middle and then you had to do the multiplication tables. And she would just point. [Snap Snap Snap Snap Snap] So this was all rote learning, but she made an activity out of it that really engaged people, you know, young kids. And so you learned. I still know it to today.


So there was a retreat I taught years ago on The Five Elements. Were you at that one Claudia?

Claudia: Probably.

Ken: Yeah. That was the one where everybody’s eyes glazed over after three days and I still had two days of material on The Five Elements. You know. [Laughter]

Claudia: That was many handouts. [Laughter]

Ken: Yeah, there were lots. [Laughter] You would have liked that one, lots of handouts.

It was astonishing the degree to which people just refused to learn the basic material. I handed out cards with the basic aspects, you know, the color, the feelings associated with it, the fears associated with it—they’re all in the charts in here, you know—and said, “Learn this.” Then out of about 25, 30 people at the retreat, two maybe three did.

There’s great value in just memorizing and learning stuff because then it becomes available to you. It’s absorbing information so you actually have access to it. And even though, you know, you can look up anything, anywhere on one of these devices and settle arguments very quickly, it’s still very, very valuable and very useful to just learn a lot of basic stuff—the basic information about any area of knowledge—so that it’s immediately accessible to you. And that actually I think is almost a requisite. If you’re really serious about transforming information into knowledge, you have to have that degree of familiarity with it. I think it’s very helpful. Maybe I’m old-fashioned.

So there are certain things in yoga which are very rote. Be creative, find ways to make them entertaining or interesting ’cause one of the things that I’ve discovered—or learned through reading and research and so forth—information enters people much more quickly if the atmosphere is light-hearted, and it’s a positive feeling in the room, is not heavy and fearful and things like that.

Sonia: Would you take my classes? [Laughter]

Ken: I think I’d be terrified to be in your classes. [Laughter] Yeah. Roby.

Does that help?

Sonia: Yeah.

Ken: Okay.


Roby: I just wanted to bring children into this, little children. You maybe both touched on this but there’s a lot happening nowadays with getting children out on the land. And, you know, that’s an easy way to engage them with animals and plants and just doing activities out on the land. But it’s like engaging them with their whole experience. Which is what you’re working with us on.

Ken: Yeah.

Roby: And of course, children, especially getting them out on the land, they just love it, most of them, if they haven’t been beaten down by whatever, emotionally or by the system somehow.

And, but, as we get older, working with our whole experience somehow…and I’m not someone who has the role of teacher, although I think we’re all teachers. We always get in those situations one way or another. But there’s something there, I think about figuring out how to engage people more in their whole experience, whatever the environment is.

Ken: Yes. Multimodal learning is the fancy name for it these days—experiential learning.

I remember when we were learning the musical instruments, for the three-year retreat, one of them is what’s called a gyaling, which is a double reed instrument like an oboe, except it doesn’t sound quite as refined as an oboe. But you have to train so that you are able to hold air in your cheeks and squeeze that air out as you’re breathing in through your nose. So you can just have continuous sound. And it’s not that hard, actually, you know. You do this with a straw and water. When you can finally do it with a straw and water—and you want a fairly deep thing so you need the back pressure in order to be able to do it—and then it turns out to be much easier on the instrument itself. But there are some people who play clarinet, and trumpet and things like that who can actually do this on those instruments.

But we learned these instruments and we learned one tune. And I just couldn’t abide the thought of playing one tune for three years and three months. Every day. Twice a day. So one of the lamas there who’s very good on this particular instrument, I asked him to teach me another tune. And we didn’t have a lot of time between all the other stuff we were doing. So he and I went off and he taught me this tune. And once I got the tune, then he did something very interesting, which I remember to this day. He said, “Give me your arm.” I went, “What?” He said, “Just give me your arm.” And then he put his fingers on my arm as if it was the instrument and then played the tune on my arm. And so I had, you know, the touch sensation of the tune as well as the sound, you know, and I learned how to do the fingering. But he put it into me in a different way. And I thought, boy, these guys knew something about teaching.

So, it’s that kind of thing which led me to—as much as possible when I’m teaching—to elicit the experience in the student rather than tell them. And to elicit the experience in different ways.


I mean Jeff and I were teaching a retreat on power, a couple of years ago. And we did that diamond exercise. Remember that one?

Student: Oh, yeah.

Ken: Yeah, and it is to teach people how they could communicate and cooperate with each other without any words. And it was very effective, as I recall. They learned much more quickly than we thought they would.

Student: Quite quickly, yeah.

Ken: Yeah, they had to form groups of four and whoever was at the vertex—whatever direction was leading—but if they had to change direction, everybody had to turn and then whoever was at the new vertex became the leader. So the leading role was changing very quickly. And they had all these other groups that they couldn’t go through or couldn’t bump into, so they had to be changing direction, and everybody had to get from one side of the room to the other and no words whatsoever. But they did it extraordinarily well. We were kind of bummed out because we thought this would take them quite a long time and then we were stuck with some extra time that we had to figure out how to… [Laughter]

And people at the end of it they were like, “Wow.” They’re going like, “Oh,” ’cause they didn’t know that they could form these basically random groups and develop that level of coordination and communication in just a couple of minutes. So it’s a very useful experience. You want to say a word about that?

Jeff: It was really interesting what it required. It required—and people learned it fairly fast, but at first it was difficult—to both stand in power and give up power.

Ken: Yes, because when they were at the vertex of the square, they had to take the lead. But as soon as people turned to go in another direction to avoid bumping into another group, they had to immediately give up the power.

Jeff: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: I was there. Was it Gremlins Under The Bed, or Monsters Under The Bed?

Ken: No, no, no, no. This was Power and Presence.

Student: Well, I was there, anyway. [Laughter]. Both are both of those. But I remember what was initially tough was to trust the people you were with that they would make the right decision. And so there was a tendency, you were kind of like check out the person next to you thinking, “Are you going to take over the role now?” you know. But it was a very fun exercise.

Ken: Yep.

Student: Can you explain it? [Unclear]

Ken: We’ll do it afterwards. Okay. I don’t want to take up that amount of time and it will be easier to draw diagrams and so forth. Okay.


Student: One thing, I think it’s important to bring out is in doing these exercises, you’re embodying it into your physicalÖ

Ken: Yes.

Student: …body, and, you know, that level of learning is, you know, not the conceptual learning, and so you’re getting an experience of working directly in your body and your body taking information in, in an entirely different way.

Ken: Yes.

Student: And that’s why I think these experiential exercises are so powerful. I remember, after you did all that card stuff with the elements, [Ken laughs] then you did exercises where we had to walk like elements.

Ken: Yes.

Student: That was the first time I saw Gail floating around, and thought, who is this person?

Ken: This is how Gail and I connected.

Student: Yeah.

Ken: ’Cause this was in Colorado, and she was doing water and I said, “That doesn’t look like water.” [Laughter] She’s never forgiven me.

Student: And I think it’s important because in our culture, we are so into conceptual learning thatÖ

Ken: When you look at how Buddhism is usually taught, somebody sits up in front and everybody sits in a circle or whatever and you’re talked at. That’s usually how it’s taught. It’s really, really conceptual. And now in many cases something else is going on in that there’s this field of energy in the teacher which is allowing experiences of various kinds to rise in people. So there’s an experiential component happening with some teachers—not with everybody—and also with some students ’cause not every student is attuned to that. But all of the other senses and things like that, they’re just not involved, though some teachers will use song and mantra, etc., to do things.



Ralph: I was wondering that, I know you do a lot of business consulting, whether these techniques can be applied to the workplace? I think the task is a little bit different. Instead of learning, there’s a reluctance, and I think it needs to be more empowerment because a lot of people don’t believe in themselves. What are your thoughts on that?

Ken: It’s tricky because when you’re doing workshops in the business environment, you have to be very, very sensitive to the business culture.

I was asked to do a one-day program to facilitate communication between two departments. So there were about 30 people, 15 from each of the departments, and I managed to get a certain amount of time to be able to work with each of the people who were going to do some of the presentations. You have to fight for every hour, you know, because they don’t want to pay you. They want to pay you as little as possible.

And one was a finance group and the other was a production group. And so I did very well with the finance people. I went in and sat down with them and they had all their org charts and spreadsheets, and I said, “Forget that. You know, just tell a story. Make people feel what it’s like.” And they were like, “Oh. Wow, that’s such a cool idea.” And they came up with some great stuff, and I’ll fill you in in a minute.

And the production group—who actually were more the creative type—they were much harder to get moving in that direction. And I said to the head of the production department, “You know, these people actually want to play.” And he said, “No.”

So in the actual workshop, one of the finance people got up and she had six hats. And she just started saying, “Well sometimes I have this hat on.” And she put all these different hats on. And all of the production people got it. Like, “Oh, we just thought you just counted numbers.” But, they saw. And the next finance guy got up and started in and just started saying, “Well, let me take a typical day.” And he just started in recounting every activity he did. And then he said, “And then it’s time for this meeting.” And everybody knew this meeting ’cause they all attended it, and you can hear everybody go, “Ohhh.” Because they thought it was like, four o’clock in the afternoon but they knew that meeting was at ten o’clock and he’d only described two hours, and they were all exhausted just listening to him. So they really got the message across.

So then the production people came on, and the guy was very clever. He said, “Well this is about production.” So he just had everybody up doing Y.M.C.A., you know, with makeup and things, in no time at all. So everybody was dancing, you know—woman doing this, and then the men doing this. And they had the department heads with the headsets and, I mean you know, hats and makeup on. He had all this. He was showing that this is what we do. We produce things.

And so at lunch I was walking back with the head of the production department and I said, “I told you they wanted to play.” And he said, “Yeah, but Ken, if you tried that it would have been the last workshop you ever did here.” [Laughter] But because it had come from within the group, it was okay.

So it’s much trickier. You can do a lot, but you’ve really got to be careful, make sure it’s consonant with the culture. Okay?


Now I want turn to another aspect of teaching. And there’s a lot of good stuff on teaching in this book, slipped in here and there. Here’s one… Oh How To Cook Your Life, this is Uchiyama. I met someone who actually met Uchiyama. And this was a Buddhist teachers’ conference I was at in 2000. And he said, “He was extraordinary. He’s a very, very small person.” And he was allowed to be present at an ordination ceremony.

Now in Japanese Zen ordination ceremonies, everything is absolutely scripted. There is no improvisation. Every word, every gesture, everything. Everybody knows what’s going to happen. And so at a certain point in the ordination ceremony, the abbot who is administering the ordination says three times, “Do you intend to keep these vows?” And the aspirants say, “Yes, we do.”

So there’s Uchiyama, this very little man, and he was the presiding abbot. And he was saying, “Do you intend to keep these vows?” And everybody knows. But he was saying it with such force, and there was such power in it that all the aspirants were absolutely sweating with fear. [Laughter] Cool guy.


[Excerpt from How to Cook Your Life, From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, Dogen and Uchiyama, p. 52]


This past summer, a certain university professor came to stay here at Antai-ji. Now, as long as one stays here, whether he is a college professor or the president of some large company, he is just a practitioner like everyone else. This fellow refused to work alongside everyone else and when everyone was working in the garden or chopping wood he would be off reading a book somewhere. He claimed he was not any good at doing physical labor, and said reading would be his work.

I explained to him in no uncertain terms that we do not call reading work. We grow an eggplant or make a piece of firewood with the physical labor of our bodies. Reading does not help plants grow, nor does it get the wood chopped up. Reading is reading and work is work.

He finally wound up choosing the easiest task he could find—sweeping the leaves along the temple path and gathering them up into a big pile to burn. I happened to pass by the place where he chose to burn them, and sure enough, he had picked out a spot directly under the camellia hedge. The flowers were being scorched brown by the heat and smoke. I had him put the fire out immediately; but here was a fellow who, while the fire was burning right under his nose, could not even see where the heat and smoke were going. How can you assign work to a person like this?! I can just imagine all the intellectual professors like him who are unable to cope with the challenge of sharper wits of today’s college students.

So this again, is experiential learning. And there’s a real question there. How do you train a person to become more aware of their environment? Now, this has come up a number of times with this little device [Ken holds up a singing bowl or rin gong]. Some people hit it like this [Ken raps bowl on edge; sound is quiet, tone overlaid with harmonics]. And some people hit it like this [Ken raps bowl in the middle; sound is louder]. And there’s a difference. [Ken raps it again, loudly] You can hear that, versus [raps it softly]. Now that’s just one example.

Another example is that I had this bunch of students over for a meeting at my place, and asked someone to chop up some vegetables. And he put a bunch of nice knife strokes in my table. And IÖso…you know, he didn’t put a chopping board underneath. [Laughter] Every time I see those knife stokes, I go [cringe]. [Laughter]

Student: Is the student still around?

Ken: Not so much anymore. When we had subsequent meetings, I always had him break eggs. He was better at that. [Laughter] Didn’t have him chop vegetables again.

The question there, and it’s actually a quite tricky one is, how do you train people to be more aware of what they’re doing? It’s actually very difficult. Because most of the time, if you point something out in those circumstances, people are offended. And they get offended very, very quickly. So that’s kind of an open question. And interestingly enough, that particular example that I gave, is in the chapter On Parental Mind [Dogen and Uchiyama].

Now I said that one way to look at this book is it’s a commentary on the four immeasurables. The first, not the first chapter, but once he gets into that part of it is Everything You Encounter is Your Life. That’s chapter four. And Seeing the World Without Holding Worldly Values—those two are chapters about equanimity.

And then On Parental Mind, that’s loving-kindness, ’cause that’s the feeling that parents have for their children. And so you have this for the world. Why he was so upset about the professor who’s locked into his books, he did not have this open warmth to the world which allowed him to see what was actually happening; he’s burning the bush, the flowers right beside him as he burned up the other stuff.

And then the next section is Having A Passion for Life and Life Force and Life Activity, which take you through compassion and joy.


So a very interesting exercise, which I’ve never done again but I really would like to, was teaching people how to teach people mindfulness. And if you really want to have fun, you try this exercise. I don’t know whether you were there for this one, Claudia.

Claudia: I was.

Ken: Oh yes. So everybody’s divided up into groups of three. And we’re up at Mount Baldy. And there’s always lots of work to do up at Mount Baldy, so we had rakes. And they were to rake up pine needles. One person was to rake mindfully. The second person was to correct them if they were not raking mindfully. The third person was to correct the second person, if he was not doing the correction mindfully.

Now I didn’t realize at that point that I had reproduced in that little triad, the work environment where you have the boss, the middle manager and the worker bee. Anyway, they were to do these and rotate the roles—what was it every three minutes, or five minutes, something like that? The first fight broke out in 60 seconds. [Laughter] It was, I mean, people were just at each other’s throats. Just like that.

The person who was doing the raking was just happy doing the raking. They had the best time of it. And when the other person corrected them, “Well you need to do this.” Well if they felt there was a point there, they took it in, and if they didn’t like it then they just ignored him. Just like worker bees andÖ [Laughter] So they were okay as long as they were in the raking thing.

The person who was in the supervisor capacity, always felt—well they had to say something that was their job, you know—and if there was nothing to correct, well they had to say something anyway. [Laughter] Sound familiar? And then the person who’s the most senior, it was even worse for them because they didn’t know how to intervene. And they didn’t know how to manage people and things like that.

So we got back in the [unclear] after that and everybody just… [Ken exhales loudly] [Laughter]


Claudia: The one in the middle was the worst.

Ken: Yes.

Claudia: [Unclear] worker bees [Unclear]

Ken: Microphone. Microphone please. Who has the mic? Sorry.

Claudia: Well the middle place was the worst…

Ken: Yeah.

Claudia: …because the boss was telling you that you weren’t doing a good job in leading the worker bee. And the worker bee was either ignoring you or telling you to go away and let them do their job. And it was horrible.

Ken: Yeah.

Claudia: So you’re ready to kill both of them.

Ken: Which exactly duplicatesÖ

Claudia: Middle management.

Ken: Middle management. There’s a cartoon in the Harvard Business Review which shows two cave men with their clubs clubbing a third person, just taking turns clubbing, and two others said, “He’s middle management.” [Laughter]

So yeah. So it was much later that I had unwittingly reproduced this exact dynamic and that it was a very valuableÖit took a little while to calm everybody down afterwards. [Laughter] But it was a wonderful example of how very simple exercises can create extraordinarily powerful learning possibilities.

And so, let me go back to someÖI’ve covered most of the material I wanted to on that idea of creating learning environments, but if there any other questions, I can take up some, but I wanted to shift the emphasis in a bit. You have? Okay. Larry.


Larry: Thanks. I’m still trying to understand what you mean by creating a learning environment. Now, I heard you talk about your sixth grade teacher.

Ken: Yeah.

Larry: And that type of learning and the learning from the horn player.

Ken: Mmm-hmm.

Larry: And I see how you teach. Let me give you a scenario, okay, which is real world although it’s very hypothetical. I’m from NASA. We’re coming to you Mr. McLeod because we recognize, from our research, that you’re an expert in this area of, let’s just call it, shorthand mahamudra. [Laughter]

Larry: I’m a manager, I don’t know anything about it.

Ken: This is shorthand mahamudra.

Larry: Yeah, well the people at the agency have told me it’s called mahamudra.

Ken: Oh, it’s not shorthand mahamudra, it’s just mahamudra. Okay, I thought…

Larry: I guess, I mean you’re the expert. Now we’re sending some people on a deep space voyage 25 years from now. And we have computers that we expect, probably in ten years, will be able to pass the Turing test 98%.

Ken: Okay.

Larry: What we would like to do is work with you, with your training, on these expert systems. We can video record you and do a lot of different things like that. Would you take this assignment where our instructional experts work with you and we’ll get this all packaged up for these deep space voyages?

Ken: I’ll charge you a hefty fee and then immediately referÖ

Larry: No problem.

Ken: I’ll need to refer the job out to Shinzen Young. [Laughter]

Larry: I don’t know who that is.

Ken: Shinzen Young is a very, very good vipashyana teacher. And he’s been teaching for decades. He’s also very deeply trained in Zen and some very, very challenging Native American stuff, very, very bright guy. And this is exactly what he’s trying to do.

Larry: Well, you only have to do two things. You have to say, “Yes, I will do it.”

Ken: Mmm-hmm.

Larry: And, “Yes I think it’ll work.” And then our experts will come in with the tools to design the expert system to do this. I guess what I’m asking, KenÖ [Laughter]

Ken: Will you hold the microphone up please.

Larry: What I’m asking, Ken, is could, what you’re doing here, be designed into a program, an instructional program that would be an ultimate created learning situation that could be used in your absence.

Students: [Laughter] [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah. SoÖ

Student: I didn’t understand the purpose.

Ken: You didn’t understand the question? You know what the Turing test is?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay, yes. This could solve a lot of problems. [Laughter]

Larry: But you see, you denigrated relational teaching, which I think you’re a real model of.

Ken: I denigrated?

Larry: You said it was previous pattern material people were working with in relational teaching situations. And if you go along that modeÖ

Ken: JustÖ

Larry: I misunderstood.

Ken: Well, I don’t know whether you misunderstood or I wasn’t clear. What I said was—and this was from Idries Shah—people who are looking to get or receive certain kinds of attention—which is very different from relational stuff—that makes actual spiritual learning, spiritual teaching impossible.

Larry: Because they’re working out some kind of psychological…

Student: Microphone.

Larry: Because you’re saying they’re working out some kind of psychological situation from their past?

Ken: Yeah.

Larry: Through the student-teacher relationship.

Ken: Yeah. Yeah. But I said exactly the opposite for relational, in response to Anne’s question, where it’s the work that occurs in the relationship where the student and teacher interact that transforms information into knowledge. Okay. So…

Larry: Thank you, by the way ’cause I thought you were just trashing relational teaching modes…

Ken: No.

Larry: …between student and teacher.

Ken: No, no, no, no.

Larry: It didn’t compute with what I see you doing.

Ken: Okay. All right.


Now, do you still want me to answer that question?

Larry: Please.

Ken: [Pause] I honestly think it’s an open question. And the reason I say that, a very primitive program was developed probably twenty years ago called ELIZA, and based really on Rogerian therapy. So it just fed back sentences constructed from whatever you said. And one psychiatrist who developed this program was astonished when he happened on this assistant having a conversation with ELIZA, because she just found it so helpful.

And there are now quite a number of much more sophisticated programs. They aren’t designed to wake people up; they’re designed based on specific therapies. And some of them are getting closer to passing the Turing test. But they do provide an emotional, or what is felt by the individual as an emotional relationship, because it’s the nature of human beings to project. And one of the great examples of this is the movie Castaway. And it’s well worth seeing because Tom Hanks pulls off this movie, 45 minutes, there’s no dialogue. But he ends up projecting this whole persona onto this volleyball, Wilson. [Laughter] And this is what we do. We do it with pets, we do it with cars, we do it with flowers, we do it with people.

I tend to think it is unlikely that that spark of awareness can be elicited with any reliability by a program no matter how sophisticated. But that’s my personal opinion. But I’m also very cognizant that we’re at the beginning of this, still the beginning of this stage. And we have no idea what a computer which has, you know, several trillion processors in it, what might evolve in that. So I just leave it as open.

Larry: Yeah. I think that the essential thing I’m trying to understand in terms of how you see the world, the world of what you teach, really doesn’t have anything to do with the Turing machine. It has to do with whether you believe that the process that you take us through, could be mapped out, could be designed.

Ken: The process I take you through?

Larry: Yes.

Ken: No way. [Laughter]

Larry: Okay. Then you wouldn’t get the job.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Pardon?

Claudia: What process? [Laughter]

Ken: I mean Claudia says, “What process.” Over the last few years I trained a group of people in teaching. And one of them is a very, very astute psychologist up in Vancouver area, who’s worked extensively in the school systems and at a very senior level. And part of this training was, in some retreats, I would have them sitting in on the interviews that I have with people, like having someone sitting in on the interviews we’ve been doing here, so they could watch. They sat behind the student so that they weren’t visually in the field. And so this person, after sitting in on these interviews, just went back to his wife and said, “He has no system.” And it’s true to a significant degree, in that what I do in any particular interview depends completely on what the student is presenting to me and probably, to some extent, on how I’m feeling that day or that moment. You can’t rule that out.

So it’s hopefully—and you guys are the better judge of this than me—a fairly alive interaction. Has it been that way for you?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: And I’ve never understood the reason people dread them.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well no, it used to be the case, you know. The Mount Baldy retreats we’d go over how the interviews worked, and I would talk about this, and newer people would say, “Well what kind of questions do we ask?” And I’d say, you know, “Insights, challenges, questions you have about your practice, etc.” And inevitably somebody would say, “Well what if you don’t have any questions?” And then all of the older students would immediately say, “Never, never.” ’Cause I would say, “Well, then I’ll ask you a question.” And they would say, “Never, ever, ever let him ask you a question. Make up anything. Just never, let him ask you a question.” [Laughter] And inevitably somebody would come in and say, “I don’t have anything.” And I’d ask them a question. And whenever I ask someone a question, the next two words they say—it wouldn’t matter who it is—the next two words are always the same, “Oh shit.” [Laughter] It’s always the same.


So. Charles, do you have a question?

Charles: Oh, I was just going to point out that we found out what your spiritual aspirations are like when you described Uchiyama Roshi a few minutes ago.

Ken: Scared the shit out of you?

Charles: To inspire sheer terror.

Ken: Then you have to admit you’re pretty awake then, aren’t you? [Laughter]

Yeah. Okay, there are other questions? No.


Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Please.

Student: Could you elaborate on what you said about what we currently think of as teaching is one way that people learn?

Ken: Yeah, what I mean by that is, me sitting up here talking to you. That’s teaching. Okay. That’s only one way of learning. And in any group, learning takes place in a lot of different ways. And often very little attention is paid to all the different ways. I mean, a great deal of learning has taken place from people here observing each other. But that’s not usually counted in. Probably some learning has taken place from people watching me. I hadn’t been doing anything particular, but that happens. After this retreat some of you may be in communication with each other and talking about things. There’s another whole kind of learning that takes place through those interactions.

In other retreats here we had work periods ’cause we do that in order to reduce the price of the retreat and so forth. And there’s another kind of learning that took place. Because I would know very, very quickly what the quality of practice was by how much noise there was. The more noise the less practice, the lower the quality of practice. Because when people are in attention they don’t bump things. They don’t put things down hard. So listening to the sound at meals was a way of gauging the quality of practice. And so people could become attuned to that. That’s another kind of learning. And then there are all the normative behaviors and things like that. It just goes on and on.

And in other retreat situations where we’re not in silence, and even when there is silence, there’s a kind of osmosis that takes place from more experienced students to less experienced students. That’s another kind of learning.

And if you’re in a teaching situation it’s good to look at all of those different aspects of learning. For instance, when I was doing the Teacher Training Program, one of the things we did a lot of was triad interactions where people would interact with each other in threes. And there were a lot of different exercises that we did in that format. But one of the things that it did was it involved people interacting with each other a lot and getting to know each other through those interactions. And part of my objective there was that people should form strong peer-to-peer relations, which was largely successful. And so, even after the program, people are still staying very much in touch with each other. Not everybody but a good bit.




Here we are.

If you need teaching stories, this is a very, very good book: Tales of the Dervishes. There are a lot of good teaching stories, and there are a lot of good stories about teaching. And since one of the questions was about transmission, then I think it would be appropriate to touch on that.

[Pause] [“The Time, The Place and The People,” Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah]

In ancient times there was a king who called a dervish to him and said:

“The dervish Path, through a succession of masters reaching back in unbroken succession to the earliest days of man, has always provided the light which has been the motivating cause of the very values of which my kingship is no more than a wan reflection.”

The dervish answered: “It is so.”

“Now,” said the king, “since I am so enlightened as to know the foregoing facts, eager and willing to learn the truths which you, in your superior wisdom, can make available—teach me!”

Sound familiar?

“Is that a command or a request?” asked the dervish.

I’ve actually been on the receiving end of very similar statements.

“It is whatever you make of it,” said the king, “for if it will work as a command, I shall learn. If it operates successfully as a request, I shall learn.”

And he waited for the dervish to speak.

Many minutes passed, and at length the dervish lifted his head from the attitude of contemplation and said:

“You must await the ’moment of transmission’.”

This confused the king, for, after all, if he wanted to learn, he felt he had a right to be told, or shown, something or other.

Now this is an important point. Students want to learn, they say, “Well teach me. I’m ready to learn, etc.” But in many cases they don’t know that they aren’t capable of learning things and a whole bunch of other work has to take place before they can actually assimilate something. And one of the ways that I do that, work with that, is that I drop seeds. So that I will say something which is, you know maybe a year or two out for the student to learn, and they’ll sort of look at me either puzzled or they’ll disagree with me violently, or something like that. But the seed’s been planted. And over a year, two years, it’ll mature.

The dervish left the court.

After that, day after day, the dervish continued to attend upon the king. Day in and day out the affairs of state were transacted, the kingdom passed through times of joy and trial, the counsellors of state gave their advice, the wheel of heaven revolved.

“The dervish comes here every day,” thought the king, each time he caught sight of the figure in the patched cloak, “and yet he never refers to our conversation about learning. True, he takes part in many of the activities of the Court; he talks and he laughs, he eats and he, no doubt, sleeps. Is he waiting for a sign of some kind?” But, try as he might, the king was unable to plumb the depths of the mystery.

At length, when the appropriate wave of the unseen lapped upon the shore of possibility…

I think that’s such a lovelyÖisn’t that a great sentence? At length, when the appropriate wave of the unseen lapped upon the shore of possibility—I wish I could write like that.

…a conversation was taking place at court. Someone was saying, “Daud of Sahil is the greatest singer in the world.”

And the king, although ordinarily this sort of statement did not move him, conceived a powerful desire to hear this singer.

“Have him brought before me,” he commanded.

The master of ceremonies was sent to the singer’s house, but Daud, monarch among singers, merely replied, “This king of yours knows little of the requirements of singing. If he wants me just to look at my face, I will come. But if he wants to hear me sing, he will have to wait, like everyone else, until I am in the right mood to do so.”

Sounds like an opera diva, right?

It is knowing when to perform and when not which has made me, as it would make any ass which knew the secret, into a great singer.

When this message was taken to the king, he alternated between wrath and desire, and called out: “Is there nobody here who will force this man to sing for me? For, if he sings only when the mood takes him, I, for my part want to hear him while I still want to hear him.”

It was then that the dervish stepped forward and said:

“Peacock of the age, come with me to visit this singer.”

The courtiers nudged one another. Some thought that the dervish was had been playing a deep game, and was now gambling upon making the singer perform. If he succeeded, the king would surely reward him. But they remained silent, for they feared a possible challenge.

Without a word, the king stood up and commanded a poor garment to be brought. Putting it on, he followed the dervish into the street.

The disguised king and his guide soon found himself at the singer’s house. When they knocked, Daud called down:

“I am not singing today, so go away and leave me in peace.”

At this the dervish, seating himself upon the ground, began to sing. He sang Daud’s favorite piece, and he sang it right through, from beginning to end.

The king, who was no great connoisseur, was very much moved by the song, and his attention was diverted to the sweetness of the dervish’s voice. He did not know that the dervish had sung the song slightly off-key deliberately, in order to awaken the desire to correct it in the heart of the master-singer.

“Please, please, do sing it again,” begged the king, “for I have never heard such a sweet melody.”

But at that moment Daud himself began to sing. At the very first notes the dervish and the king were as men transfixed, and their attention was riveted to the notes as they flowed faultlessly from the throat of the nightingale of Sahil.

When the song was finished, the king sent a lavish present to Daud. To the dervish he said: “Man of Wisdom! I admire your skill in provoking the Nightingale to perform, and I would like to make you an advisor at the court.”

But the dervish simply said: “Majesty, you can hear the song you wish only if there is a singer, if you are present, and if there is someone to form the channel for the performance of the song. As it is with master-singers and kings, so it is with dervishes and their students. The time, the place, the people and the skills.”


Okay. So, I’m not sure about that expert system, Larry.

Larry: It’s not the expert system, it’s how you perceive the process.

Ken: Yeah. Rightly or wrongly, I see it as a rising out of circumstances. I mean, to give you one example, I used to have a Tuesday night group which met in L.A., and one Tuesday night a woman asked a certain question. She was a relatively new student and I answered her. And she said, “Okay, that’s good.”

And then about an hour later, a very much more experienced student, someone I had known for many years, asked exactly the same question. And I turned to the woman and I said, “You have to cover your ears now.” Because it required a totally different answer for the guy who had asked this question. That was it.

Larry: And I…

Ken: Microphone please.

Student: …personally…

Ken: Just a sec. Sonia.

Larry: I should be clear that I think what you as a teacher, bring is very unique here. It interests me though to know how much of these created learning environments could be introduced to supplement your role. And we wouldn’t know without a lot of analysis. [Ken laughs]

You indicated, one time you conducted a class, and you said a few words and you backed out and it all happened. And in some environments you can do that. And you can also create algorithms for questions and answers. I’m not saying algorithms is a first step.

Ken: Yeah. I know what you mean.

Larry: And so, in the end though, I’m with you. I don’t think that you can design this process. That’s why I took you to a real right-wing extreme of NASA coming because I wanted to hear your response to try to get an idea of where you were on this continuum between the Socratic method and, you know, a highly, you know, designed expert system. And there are all kinds of subtle increments along that continuum.

Ken: Yeah. Well there’s also more than one dimension to that continuum.

Larry: Absolutely.


Ken: Final comments. [Pause]

If you find yourself being asked to teach, which happens actually quite frequently, one of the things you have to consider, is that it changes your relationship with that group of people. If you have been friends, and you move into a teaching role, the friendship actually becomes secondary. It may not disappear, but it definitely becomes secondary.

And frequently when people ask someone to teach them, they don’t realize that it is changing the relationship. So it’s not something to assent to lightly. I think it is very important to examine one’s intention in moving into a teaching role. There are a number of very sound intentions and there are number of not-so-sound intentions. A whole class of not-so-sound intentions is you want attention. Or something in you wants attention. That’s not a good reason, in fact, it’s a very bad reason to be in a teacher role. You’ll get the attention, but you’ll be feeding on whomever you’re teaching.

A very different intention, and this has very much been the case for me, is that when I teach, something in me wakes up. So it has always been part of my path, part of my practice, if you wish, the activity of teaching. And it may be that for you, it’s certainly not that way for everyone, but it may be that for you.

Another person I know—quite a wonderful person, very, very deeply trained—his motivation for teaching is, quite simply, the love of the dharma. He just loves it. There’s such warmth in his relationship with it. And when you listen to him and he’s talking about it, you feel that warmth.

I’m just giving these as examples. There are many, many possibilities.

But what is very important is to respect that in being a teacher, you have a different relationship with people you are teaching. And sometimes the people you are teaching don’t recognize that it’s changed, and sometimes you don’t recognized it’s changed, and a lot of problems can come out of that. So that’s something to pay attention to. It becomes a shared aim relationship. That is, the student’s learning is the shared aim.


And as I said at the beginning of this, there needs to be a pretty solid overlap between your objective, or your aim in teaching, and the student’s aim in learning. It may be that the student will mature into that through time but if there isn’t a convergence on that, then problems are going to develop. It’s actually too strong to say problems are going to develop. If those aims diverge, then the teaching relationship ends. And it’s very good, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it needs to be recognized.

And I’ve experienced this in my relationship with some of my teachers and certainly experienced this with students I’ve worked with, that people will come for a period of time and actually learn what they came for and that’s it. I remember a woman in the first meeting we had, “I want to learn this and this and this,” and we worked together for about a year, some of it was quite difficult, and then one day she came for a meeting and she said, “Well, I remember I said I want to learn this and this and this. Well, I have learned this and this and this. Thank you very much, Ken, goodbye.” And she was quite clear about that. And I thought, it ended like, “Huhhh?” I went, “Ohhh. That’s right. Okay.” But it really took me back.

Other teachers are different. There’s a Zen teacher I’ve known in upstate New York, and the way he approaches teaching is that any person that comes to him, he has a lifetime commitment to. And that’s it. And he’s always going to be available to them. That’s very much an Eastern model, but that’s another way of approaching it.

There isn’t any right or wrong here. But if you find yourself moving into a teaching role, it is a good idea to give thought to some of these aspects of teaching. And perhaps talk to someone, or a few people so that you have a better idea of what you’re getting into. Otherwise, you find that things change and you don’t understand quite how, and it can be disorienting, and also a little painful. Sometimes more than a little painful.

I generally advise people when they start teaching: Don’t start with your friends. It’s just a bad idea. Even if your friends ask you, don’t start there, because it will change the relationship. And there’s an old adage about this: A prophet is never recognized in his home country.

So anyway, let’s take a short break here and then we can conclude with meditation.

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.