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ÖAnd I see them very much as conversations, as a continuation of the work that all of you are doing in practice during the day. I meet with each of you during the day and we discuss aspects of your practice. Yes?
Student: Could you say the date for the recording?
Ken: Ah thank you, it’s…
Ken: I will get there. It’s the fifth today, isn’t it?
Ken: April 5th, Thursday. [Laughter]. August, August 5th, August 5th. What am I doing in April? August 5th, Thursday, 2010. That is the right year, isn’t it? Yeah. Okay, and this is A Trackless Path, the first full day, really. Okay.
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So, these sessions we have here in the evening I see very much as a conversation, a continuation in a different form of the kind of conversations we have during the day in the individual interviews. Probably not as personalized to your individual experience, but hopefully touching on some of the same themes and in a way that is fruitful to you, which may be clarifying or illuminating or completely flummoxing—that also can be very helpful—maybe not as enjoyable, but very helpful.
Since last year, I’ve made a point of having conversations with a number of people on different aspects of Buddhist practice and actually, more generally, on religion, and even more generally how people think about their experience of life. Another avenue of exploration of that has been a certain amount of reading.
One of the things I’ve become aware of through this is that there is a very significant shift taking place globally in all of the major religions and probably all of the religions, but it’s evident in the major ones because of the level of resistance to it. The shift is in a fundamentally different conception of what religious practice or spiritual practice is. I’m not going to get into making the distinction between religion and spiritual practice. Or for our purposes, between transcending the human condition—which has been the defining metaphor for spiritual practice for two or three thousand years at least—and embracing the human condition.
When you look at the vocabulary of most of the Asian traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, most of the vocabulary is very, very much in terms of transcending the human condition, becoming something that is beyond human. And we even find this reflected in Ken Wilber’s vocabulary of transpersonal development. That is also present in a certain way in Taoism, though the Taoists were always more practical than anybody else. But it is reflected in the mythology of the Taoist immortals, and so forth.
Concepts that arise again and again in the context of religious practice point to this. Eternal life, universal selfhood, which is like Brahma or Atman, or something like that. Buddhism does this a little more subtly, saying, “Well, yes, in universal selfhood, you become nothing whatsoever.” But it’s in the same genre, actually.
Original purity, which is actually a dzogchen term, also is appealing to something that transcends the human condition. We have one more: eternal life, universal selfhood, purity, what’s the fourth one? Who’s got Wake Up to Your Life here? It’s in there. Chapter seven, end of the chapter. Anyway, it’s there. [The fourth one is “the promise of bliss,” page 307.]
In Christianity and Judaism and Islam, those aspirations take different forms, but universal redemption, which is very important in Christianity, is along the same lines. And people’s way of thinking for generations, for centuries, has been along those lines. What we find is a response to the human condition that is, like, “Let’s find a way out of here,” heaven, nirvana, all of that stuff.
Well, we know there isn’t anything up there except empty space. There isn’t anywhere to go. According to Stephen Hawking, the universe is a closed, four-dimensional, compact manifold in space-time, etc. A lot of these questions about what the world is, what the universe is, have in a certain sense been answered in different ways. So, a lot of the mythology or mythic thinking that accompanied this approach no longer has any basis. And slowly, quite slowly, it’s moved people to ask, “Okay, since we can’t get out of here, how do we be here?” Interestingly enough, this is where religion and philosophy originally started.
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In Eastern thinking, religion and philosophy never split the same way that they did in the West. The split in the West—Charles will no doubt correct me on this—I think really goes back to Socrates and Plato. Because for the pre-Socratics, and I think primarily for the Stoics and the Epicureans, philosophy was religion and religion was philosophy. Like, “How do we live in a way in which we aren’t struggling with experience all the time?”
You read some of the early Stoic stuff, even as it was later formulated by such people as Marcus Aurelius, it’s extraordinarily similar in many respects to Buddhist formulations, particularly when they’re talking about impermanence and the operation of attention. You read passages and they could have come out of one of the Pali or Sanskrit sutras, without any question.
And what we’re seeing on a global level, in a certain sense, is the beginning of the relegation of academic philosophy to a rather sterile discipline. For the ordinary person struggling with these kinds of questions, religion and philosophy are now converging again about, “How do I live,” around those kinds of questions. “How do I live in a way in which I don’t drive myself and others crazy? How do I make sense of this existence, or this experience,” and so forth. These are very, very deep questions. They don’t trouble everybody, but they trouble all of you. [Laughter] Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You know, we embark on practice as a response to some kind of questioning.
This brings in a second theme which has emerged from some of the conversations and reading I’ve been doing. And that is that one way of looking at religions in general is that they’re very, very long-term conversations about certain questions. What keeps a religion alive is that the conversation never comes to an end. And in particular, the questions are asked and answered anew in each generation.
When you look at the history of Buddhism, you find that that’s exactly what has happened. Buddhism has displayed a remarkable capacity—to use a modern phrase—for reinventing itself in generation after generation. And not only in generation after generation, but in culture after culture.
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When you look at the forms of Zen versus Theravadan versus Tibetan Buddhism, when you look at the actual forms, nothing looks similar. The whole monastic thing got completely screwed up in Japan because the Japanese government and the emperor weighed in heavily. So you had these family traditions of temples, and the word for lay ordination and the word for novice monk ordination were translated in Japan by the same word. So you could never tell what you were, what ordination you’d received. I mean, just all kinds of things messed it up.
I remember translating a wonderful conversation between Dr. Ratnasara, who’s a Sri Lankan monk who lived in L.A. and who died quite a few years ago, and my own teacher when he was visiting.
Dr. Ratnasara looked at Kalu Rinpoche and he says, “What do you do with all these demon dancers and everything like that?” As if to say, that’s nothing to do with Buddhism. And Rinpoche made some reply. Then Dr. Ratnasara decided he was going to show Rinpoche what Buddhism was really about, and started talking about the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment, which is a body of teaching in the Theravadan tradition. And he enumerated a number of them. Kalu Rinpoche said, “Oh that’s very interesting,” and enumerated the next five in the list. And Dr. Ratnasara said, “You know this stuff?” He was like, “Whoa!” Because from the Sri Lankan point of view, Tibetan Buddhism was way beyond the pale. And yet it isn’t.
I bring this up because here you have three different traditions—and we could add the Chinese and other forms in there as well, the Russian forms of Buddhism and so forth—which really look like different religions, but aren’t. And they aren’t because one way of looking at this is that they’re all talking about the same question. I think it’s very clear what the question is in Buddhism, because it goes back to Buddha’s life: “How do I live this experience that I call life in a way in which I’m not struggling with what arises in experience?” That’s a very elaborate way of saying, “How do you end suffering?”
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But I choose to elaborate it, to put it in a more modern context, to move it away from the traditional formulations. We have this experience that we call life. We don’t know what it is, and actually there is no way of knowing what it actually is. We can make up all kinds of stories and theories about it, but it’s an experience. And in this experience, things arise and we find ourselves struggling with what arises, and if we aren’t struggling with what arises externally, we’re struggling with what arises internally. And just as Buddha did 2,500 years ago, we’re looking for a way to relate to that experience in a way that we aren’t struggling. Buddhism has come up through the course of the generations with extraordinarily powerful and effective responses to that.
We have that in the Theravadan practices of bare attention, which take a somewhat different form in the Mahayana practices of bodhicitta. And then in Zen and the Tibetan tradition, there are the direct awareness practices like shikantaza, dzogchen, mahamudra, and so forth. There are very definite similarities, but all of those practices come out of conversations around this question. And I’m using “conversations” here as a very broad term.
What we’re doing at this retreat is we’re continuing those conversations, because they’re very general conversations in one sense, and they’re also extremely personal conversations in another, because this is the question that engages us. I tend to paint things with very, very broad strokes, but my view is that in the modern age, people are going to be attracted to the religions which talk about the questions that are of concern to them.
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I think the questions in Christianity are very, very different from the questions in Buddhism, for instance. I think they have to do with, “How does the sacred take expression in the world?” That’s not a question that Buddhism is particularly interested in. I think the question in Taoism is subtly but significantly different from the question in Buddhism. In Buddhism it is, “How do I relate to experience in a way that I’m not struggling with it?” In Taoism I think the question is—and really I have to have a Taoist formulate the question—but is more along the lines of, “How do I live in harmony,” or, “How do I live in balance,” which is very close but slightly different. And leads to different forms of practice and different emphases in practice, and so forth.
Student: Can you say what Christianity’s question is [again].
Ken: I think it’s something along the lines of, “How does the sacred take expression in the world?” Because you take the beginning of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh. And the whole myth of Christ is about how does God take form in the world. I’ve read other authors who’ve come to the same conclusion. But I tend to listen to them because they’re speaking from within the Christian tradition. This is something that I think is worth noting—that you can’t really understand any other religion from the outside, which is why I want to be cautious about saying that these are the questions.
I had lunch with a Pakistani guy who’s just developing a hedge fund. And at the end of our conversation I asked him, “What is the central question in Islam?” And he just like looked at me and said, “You’ll have to ask my mother that,” because she’s apparently very devout. So I want to get back to him about that, because I’d love to hear that. It’s not clear to me what the question is in Islam. I know that in certain forms of Indian Islam, it’s very, very much about moral purity, because that’s what they’re focused on. It may be broader than that. But I think it’s an interesting thing, what is the question in your tradition. People are attracted because that religion makes sense to them, because it’s talking about their question. You see where I’m coming from with this? Yeah? Okay.
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This reminds me of this wonderful cartoon which I told Claudia about earlier. There are six cavemen at the top of a cliff and they’re being addressed by another caveman. And behind, right at the edge of the cliff there are two other cavemen who’ve just thrown another caveman over the cliff. And the caption is, by the one who’s addressing the six,
So, does anybody else feel their feelings aren’t being met? [Laughter] So, is there anybody here who’s not interested in ending suffering? [Laughter]
There are many, many levels of subtlety to this. And I’m constantly amazed at the profundity with which Buddhism has engaged this question. One of the themes that has come up in many of the individual conversations I’ve had with you is about how to experience something that is arising. In some cases it was fear, in some case it was anger. It could be longing, it could be grief. But there were things like that coming up. Anybody recognize this in their practice? Okay.
What’s important about this, from my perspective, is that what brings an end to suffering is the ability to experience whatever arises. Every reaction, and I think I said this the other night, is a way of stepping out of that experience, because for whatever reason, it’s too much. So, ending reactivity is closely related to the ability to experience whatever arises. If you look at practices, direct awareness practices such as bare attention, shikantaza, dzogchen, mahamudra, etc., one way to look at them is that in those practices you are cultivating and exercising—to the extent that you’re able—your ability to experience whatever arises.
Let’s talk about mahamudra specifically. There are sensations which arise, physical sensations associated with the body, visual, audio and so forth. There are emotions and feelings which arise, and there are thoughts. And when you have the ability in attention or the capacity in attention to experience all of those and know them for what they are, you never fall into confusion. And that’s precisely what one’s practicing in mahamudra.
It starts off with resting attention. The shamatha practice in the context of mahamudra means being able to experience what arises, whether it’s a sound, a sight, a physical sensation, and not be pulled into duality or reactivity, or whatever you want to name it, by that experience. There’s sufficient stability and clarity in the mind that those experiences can arise and you don’t fall into confusion. The insight aspect means that as experience arises, you know it to be experience, and not a thing.
Both of these are non-trivial abilities to develop. They’re not only non-trivial to develop, they’re also highly non-trivial to stabilize. Which is why there are a wide range of practices, which develop high levels of energy in the system so that one has the capacity to experience things that way with some stability.
But the result is that whatever arises, you experience it as an arising in the mind and it comes and goes. In dzogchen, you have extraordinary, subtle techniques, something like thod.gal, in which you are using certain types of gazes to elicit very, very deep states of rest in the mind, I mean really, really deep, so that experience just arises just as movement and there is nothing there to be caught by it.
The result of these is that you’re able to experience whatever arises and not fall into confusion, and that actually is the end of suffering. It’s the end of struggling with experience.
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Now, that’s the easy part. This is something I don’t think you’ll find in any text, but it’s something I’ve come to through my own struggles and efforts in practice and working with people. The reason I say that was the easy part is that we’re talking in fairly general terms. What this looks like in any individual person, we can’t say. Each individual person is going to have their own experience of this.
I think I related to you, maybe in another retreat, how I talked a director out of including me in a film that he was making. I received an email, this is about six or eight years ago, which said, “We’re making a film about the shared experience of non-duality that is common to all religious traditions.” There was a list of names and they were very well-known people. “And we would like to include you in this.” I was extremely surprised to get this. So I emailed back that, “I’m surprised and honored; however, in the interest of full disclosure, I think I should tell you that what you take as a fact, I take as a question.”
And fifteen minutes later my phone rang. “What do you mean?” And we had a somewhat difficult conversation, but it basically came to a conclusion when I said, “Look, you and I can eat a slice from the same strawberry pie but we have no idea whether we have the same experience or not. And we actually have no way of telling. So if we can’t even agree on our experience of strawberry pie, it seems to me it’s questionable whether we can say that the experience of non-duality is the same.” And there was sort of a grumbling at the other end of the phone and that was that. And then an hour later I received an email saying, “Yes, I think you’re right, you’re probably not right for this film.”
I think it is very important that as you engage in spiritual practice, you honor the fact that the factors in your life that made you who you are, are unique to you. And the form your practice takes is also going to be unique to you. And the understanding, and insights and the way that you come to terms with these deep questions in life is also going to be unique to you. I find that there’s value in this. And the most significant value is that it stops this dreaded comparison game, which…I don’t know, it’s been a killer for me. Has anybody else suffered from it?
For me it came to a head in the early 90s. I remember being outside my office in my car, and I can remember the light in the trees, when I realized that a central question for me was, “What happened to all the people for whom the system didn’t work?” Well, the result is very simple. Their experiences never get recorded, never passed on to the next generation. So if the system doesn’t work for you, you know, you’re on your own, in every generation. That’s just how it is. And sometimes you find a few little bits and pieces at the edge of the traditional things which are helpful, but the mainstream is about people for whom those particular forms of practice worked, and they were able to do them. And they’re astonishing and very deep, and very, very profound practices. But it was a very important point for me, because I realized, okay, at some point I have to trust my own experience.
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In the Zen tradition for instance, you have your experience being approved by, certified by various teachers and so forth. And there are very important sociological and institutional reasons for those kinds of things. But one of the things that I want you to at least consider is that you’re going to be the final arbiter of whether your practice has been effective for you. Nobody else is. And this is also brought home to me in reading the life of Khyungpo Naljor. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this here before, but I think it is worth mentioning again.
Khyungpo Naljor was a Tibetan master who lived in the eleventh, twelfth century, and he’s the founder of the Shangpa Kagyu, which is actually quite unrelated to the other Kagyu traditions. As a young man he was trained as a Bön priest and became a very well-respected Bön priest. But his practice of Bön did not answer his own spiritual questions.
He then turned to a dzogchen master and reached a high level of attainment in dzogchen and still felt quite empty in terms of his own spiritual questions. So he decided he had to go to India, which in the eleventh century was a somewhat non-trivial trip. But his parents said, “What about us? Who’ll take care of us?” So he said, “Okay, I won’t go to India.” And he stayed to take care of his parents and continued to teach because he was very highly regarded both as a Bön priest and as a dzogchen teacher.
He saved up his money and studied with a mahamudra teacher in Tibet, someone who’d come from India. And that was helpful, but not ultimately. And then he studied with another very highly regarded mahamudra teacher and after a few months this teacher said to him, “Well, you know everything that I know,” and Khyungpo Naljor said under his breath, “Well, then you don’t know anything because I don’t know anything.”
You’ve got to take a look at this. Here is a person who’s now studied with three different traditions, in depth, has been recognized as a teacher in each of these three different traditions, and feels quite empty spiritually. Okay, you get this picture? So now he’s 57 years old, which in Tibet in those days is like being 75 or 80, okay? His parents have died. Now he goes to India and he studies with 150 other teachers [laughs], and ends up seeking out Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. Those two women teachers were the ones that he finally felt could show him how to resolve his questions. He ends up with four principal teachers, Sukhasiddhi, Niguma, Rahula and Maitripa. And becomes the founder of the Shangpa tradition in Tibet, which is one of the traditions in which I was trained.
But I bring this up because this matter of resolving one’s own spiritual questions is very personal and just because you’ve been recognized by a tradition or certified or whatever, it doesn’t mean anything. Because it means you develop certain abilities, and people appreciate what you’re able to do, but it may not bring your heart or your being the peace which you’re seeking. And the danger is that one can be told, “Oh, don’t worry about that,” or, you know, “You are this,” etc., and actually believe what people are telling you about your own experience. This is poison. This is death. This is why I say, you are the final arbiter of whether what you’ve come to is meaningful in terms of your own spiritual practice.
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So, one of the ways that I’ve come to look at things is that everything that we are, everything that arises in the world is a product of evolution, is a product of some evolutionary process. It can be, like, a piece of paper, a glass, it can be a fashion fad, a car, it could be a system of thought, a system of practice, individual, whatever. We’re all products of evolution and everything we experience is a product of evolution.
But evolution isn’t to anything, it’s just evolution. For instance, how many times has flight been invented, or has evolved in the course of the history of the earth? Any guesses. Five times. Fishes fly in water. You had flying reptiles in the age of the dinosaurs. Then you had birds which flew. Sharks actually fly like planes whereas most fish fly like airships, you know they have gas bags and they float up and down. Flight is invented and reinvented in the course of evolution. We will come across stuff that people have done before, so it’s not about discovering something new, it’s about discovering what is meaningful and relevant to our questions and our lives. And the idea that we’re evolving to something, well, the evidence just isn’t there, though a lot of people want to believe that particular myth.
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One can take those two principles, and get to, “Well then, nothing matters.” But actually things do matter tremendously, because actions have actual consequences. What we do, what we say and what we think have very real consequences in our lives and in the lives of others. And so even if everything is evolution and there’s no fixed thing, we still have to pay very, very close attention to how we act, because the consequences of our actions are very real. And they create suffering and happiness for ourselves and others in many, many different levels.
And then there’s the kicker. We can’t actually know what the consequences of any given action ultimately will be. One is reminded of Zhou Enlai, the premier of communist China back in the 60s. He was asked on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, “Was the French Revolution successful.” And his response: “It’s too early to tell.” [Laughter]
I’ve seen this in my own life. That something I did or a way I would approach situations at one point seemed to be terrible and a horrible thing, and then made a lot more sense at another stage, and then in another way it looked [different]. So, how the effects of our actions evolve over time are also very dependent on context and on a lot of other factors of whether they end up looking good or looking bad. We saw this in spades with the recent financial crash. Certain investment models, which looked insane up to that point, suddenly looked extremely intelligent, and others which looked brilliant, in retrospect looked extraordinarily stupid. What all of those four things point to is that one can only live in the present and act and function given what you actually know and understand at that point.
I had a very long discussion with a Theravadan teacher who I have a lot of respect for on just this point. Because in a certain sense there’s a certain idealism in the Mahayana, of being able to attain a state of undisturbed awareness that goes on 24 hours a day, etc. Well, there’s an interesting corollary to that. If that is actually possible, then you should always be able to act morally, because you’re in complete awareness all the time, so therefore you should be able to act morally all the time.
But somehow that just doesn’t work out in practice. I knew that from previous discussions with this teacher that Theravadans didn’t look at it this way. I had two or three long discussions with him about this. And he would say, îYou Mahayana essentialists!î The Theravadan view of that particular point, at least according to him, was that well yes, there you are and you’re completely present and then it disintegrates. And confused states of mind arise and okay, so you do something.
He pointed out that related to the way that I was thinking, I was also making the assumption of universal agency on my part, which is never the case, of course, because everything is interdependent. So yes, we are responsible for our actions, and things happen. And from this, I hope you’re getting a feeling of how there is absolutely nothing you can actually rely on. Okay. That’s really important, you know? I think that’s really important. And I don’t mean this in any kind of pessimistic way. But there is nothing which we can rely on and say okay, that’s it.
Life is full of uncertainty, and to embrace the human condition means to embrace the uncertainty and unpredictability of life and of evolution and of all of these things. Whether it’s evolution in ourselves, the way our body evolves, the way our thinking evolves, the way our personality evolves, or evolution in the world, we have no idea how things are going to be tomorrow. And the idea that we can come to a final understanding or a consistent way of approaching experience that works in every situation, I’m sorry, you know? And that’s part of what I’m trying to get across to you here, and I want to encourage in your practice, is to actually embrace this. Because this is the stuff of life. And it’s what makes life as full and rich and diverse and also as confusing and sometimes painful, etc., as it is. Anyway, those are some of the ideas.
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Just to go back, there’s one other thing. It’s just something I really like and I wanted to touch on, and that was again to do with respect to morality. Here we go. I warned you that I was going to be slightly Taoist-influenced this retreat.
I remember being invited to talk to the Young Presidents’ Association. Now, the Young President’s Association is a very interesting group. It consists of individuals who have developed national companies that are worth more than I think 10 million dollars, by the time they’re forty, or thirty-five, or something like that. That’s why it’s called the Young Presidents.
Someone arranged for me to talk with them, so over dinner I asked them what they were interested in me talking about, because I hate going into situations like this—I never know what to talk about. So I asked them what they’re interested in talking about and I was quite stunned. Here you had all of these extraordinary, wealthy people and very, very capable people, obviously. And the one thing that every one of them wanted to know: How do you know what the right thing to do is? Everybody phrased it in different ways, but that was the question. The twelve people who were there, every one of them was asking that question. For how many of you is this a question? [Laughs] Yeah. It’s a question for all of us isn’t it? How do we know what the right thing to do is? And this is where morality comes in.
We look initially to guidelines for this and we get into right and wrong. This is how a child is trained in morality, and it extends up into a lot of adult lives, the concept of right and wrong. But that’s a very primitive notion of morality, the idea that you can define right and wrong. There are lots of wonderful examples in all the spiritual traditions of the world where things that looked right are absolutely wrong and things that looked wrong are absolutely right. Just to confuse that.
There’s a Sufi story in which a king was asked about morality once and he didn’t say anything. Instead, he instructed a massive boulder to be placed in the middle of the crossroads of the main intersection of the village or the town. So there it was. And this was hugely inconvenient to everybody, because carts couldn’t get by and people had to walk around it, and why did he do this? And the answer snuck in the text here is perhaps this was to demonstrate the fallibility of rulers’ decisions. We should have such creative leaders today.
Another level of morality has nothing to do with right and wrong, it’s responding appropriately to the situation as it’s presented to you. And by analogy, or a sort of example for this: a doctor doesn’t debate whether it’s right and wrong to perform an appendectomy. He doesn’t think in terms of right and wrong. Okay, the patient has a burst appendix then you do the operation. That’s it.
So this leads to a different approach to morality, the one of appropriate response, which is one many of you have heard me talk about a lot. There aren’t necessarily any rules. In fact, I don’t think there are any rules which define the appropriate response, because in the same situation the appropriate response for one person may be different from the appropriate response for somebody else in exactly the same situation. Because one person brings one set of skills or abilities and another person brings another set. A lot of people find this very threatening because there aren’t any rules or guidelines here. It really depends on your experience and your ability to perceive.
You’ve heard me talk about this in terms of the four steps of standing up. You show up, open to what arises in experience, serve what is true, though I might change that to serve balance to the limit of your perception, because it’s same thing. But…
Ken: Serve balance, serve what is true to the limit of your perception, and there is always a limit to our perception. And then receive the result.
Will what you do always work? No, because sometimes there’s things beyond the limit of your perception that you couldn’t and didn’t take into consideration, but it’s not too bad a set of principles.
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And in reading the Tao Te Ching, I’m not sure whether this is really addressing another level, but it seems to me that it is.
It opens up, at least for me, another level of subtlety. This is verse two and verse three in the Tao Te Ching. I won’t read all of them, but you’ll get the idea. [Ken appears to be reading and paraphrasing from the Red Pine translation.]
All the world knows beauty, but if that becomes beautiful this becomes ugly
All the word knows good, but if that becomes good this becomes bad
Have and have not create each other
Hard and easy produce each other
Long and short shape each other
High and low complete each other
This raises the possibility of acting without putting things into any categories, which I think is another level of subtlety. Here’s what it looks like in society. And you can compare this with where American society is at.
Bestowing no honors keeps people from fighting
Prizing no treasures keeps people from stealing
Displaying no attractions keeps people from making trouble
So, if you don’t make a fuss out of people, you don’t raise any basis for comparison, and now people live in harmony. If you don’t value anything, then other people don’t value it and they don’t steal. This is I think quite extraordinarily subtle and deep, and worth considering.
When you’re working with other people, particularly in a leadership role, things you might keep in mind.
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Okay. I’ve talked for about an hour. Questions? Conversation topics? I’ve sort of rambled around here, I hope some of this was interesting or helpful.
Carolyn: Well, the very last thing that you said intrigues me, because from the way I understood your Taoist text, it was really talking about words, and not about experience or labels or categories, and not experience. And that intrigues me because to experience without labels does all those things, but it’s not transmittable.
Ken: Yes. Go on. Why is it not transmittable? Lovely word, that.
Carolyn: If I look out the window and see, I have to take another step to say it’s beautiful or it’s not. But only by saying do I have even the pretense of believing that Gail could see the same thing I do, though she sees out the same window.
Ken: Ah. May I pose a scenario?
Ken: You look out the window and your body language changes. Could that have an effect on Gail?
Carolyn: Yes, it could. [Pause] Hmm. And it does.
Carolyn: I mean not necessarily Gail in this moment, but it very definitely does.
Ken: Yes, so it may be transmittable, but not with the usual categories.
Carolyn: And what is valued by whatever we call this perceiving, that will be actually—I see what you mean—transmittable and transmitted. Whether it’s received or not.
Ken: Yeah. We have the same problem with words too, of course.
Carolyn: Yeah, but the text seemed to be saying, if you dropped the categories or you dropped the labels…
Ken: Yes, but in the scenario that I was painting, you haven’t labeled it beauty.
Ken: There is actually a physical experience which Gail picks up, and the whole sense of valuing as beauty or not beauty doesn’t even enter the picture.
Carolyn: Well, it says exactly what you said last night in a funny way, about only by making a word—whether it is a mistranslation or a translation doesn’t even matter—can you step beside or outside of it. When you were talking about the three persons of God.
Ken: Oh yes, yeah. Okay, yeah.
Carolyn: So as soon as there is anything, there can be an opposite or an other.
Carolyn: Very interesting.
Ann: So if I’m the CEO of a ladder company—
Ken: No high, no low. [Laughter]
Ann: There’s a little bit of a problem there.
Ken: What’s the problem?
Ann: The problem is that if I want to describe…if one of my captains of industry is making tall ladders and another is making little teeny weeny ladders and we can’t sell any little teeny weeny ones, I need to be able to distinguish somehow.
Ken: Ann, what fallacy are you falling into?
Ann: You tell me.
Ken: No, no no, no, no you get to do some work here.
Ann: My point is that you talked about it in a leadership capacity, so leaders have to communicate things. And to communicate they have to use words and they have to distinguish between different things. Now, distinguish doesn’t mean that you put a value necessarily, at least a heavy duty value, on one thing versus another, but you do have to be able to distinguish. And the same language can be used to distinguish or another person might take it as a label that’s permanent and means something very emotional, let’s say.
Ken: [Takes a deep breath] Ah, you’re getting help are you. Share, please. It’s rude to pass notes in class [laughs].
Student: Point to, respond to the situation appropriately. So it’s by context and by individual experience that you distinguish, but that’s not a stuck thing, ever.
Ken: Yes. That’s where I was going to go. Depending on what you’re seeking to communicate, you’re going to choose the appropriate methods or tools of communication. There’s a big difference between talking about big ladders and little ladders and giving people—that’s in terms of what you’re manufacturing—as opposed to how you’re going to reward and motivate your key people.
Ann: That’s very true.
Ann: But let me give you two things that are a little bit closer, perhaps. Sometimes people get stuck on the idea that they should treat everybody similarly, and they’re not willing to distinguish between behaviors that are acceptable or not acceptable.
Ken: Yes, it’s very true. And they’re not willing to call a spade a spade in many cases. Yeah. So, yes, what arises there is that people become attached to an ideal and are no longer able to see clearly because they’re more concerned with implementing the ideal than experiencing the situation and responding to it in whatever way it’s called for.
Ann: So here the ideal would be not labeling.
Ken: I wasn’t raising it as an ideal. I was raising it as another possibility.
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Charles: That sounds like a different category to me because the second category is really just being confused—is having your beliefs about the world and not seeing what’s really there, right? Everybody’s basically good, so he can’t be an asshole. Or… [Laughter] Right? Or I’m never mean to anybody, so I can’t express myself that way. Like, you’ve a belief that you stick to. The first thing was much more complicated because it was about relative and absolute truth. It really seems to me like it just depends on whether you’re thinking about kun.dzob (pron. kun zop) or don dam (pron. dön dam); whether you’re thinking about the way that the world appears to be or what its deeper truth is.
Ken: You may have to translate that into English for her. [Laughs]
Charles: Relative or absolute truth.
Ken: Yeah. No, that you have to translate into English. [Laughter] That’s exactly what you need to translate.
Charles: The way that appearance arises is its relative manifestation, its relative truth, and its absolute truth is what you talked about, or what Ken talked about as the unknowable unfolding of it that will never be the same.
Ken: Charles there’s a little eruption going on here.
Charles: Actually, can I ask about a different aspect?
Ken: Well, just wanted to make sure. Ann, is this finished for you?
Ann: Yes, I’m done.
Ken: Okay [laughter], yes.
Charles: It seems like if you’re not responding any differently to appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior that there must be a lot of ignoring that’s going on.
Ken: Yes. Yes, quite right.
Charles: Okay. So, and that’s going to create a great deal of imbalance in the situation.
Ken: Sooner or later.
Charles: Sooner or later, okay. But this idea of balance seems to be closely connected with this term equanimity, and if you look at the Tibetan, that’s clearly going to be the case.
Ken: Yes, mnyam nyid (pron. nyam nyi).
Charles: Right. So there’s this strange puzzle. I wonder if you have anything helpful to say.
Ken: This is very interesting, Charles. How elaborate an answer do you want? [Chuckles]
Charles: I want an answer that’s going to help me out.
Ken: Okay, then that’s good. What is your dilemma? [Pause] I could be Zen here and say, “Speak or I’ll beat you.” [Laughter]
Charles: Maybe I’m making the error of trying to understand equanimity.
Ken: No, I think you’re being unkind to yourself. Balance and equanimity, you’re quite right, they’re intimately related. And your question, I think, has got some substance. What I’m asking for is how in your life would this question arise? Okay?
Charles: Yes. So, if I’m making an effort to let go of my own prejudices…
Charles: …that’s one thing. If I’m making an effort to let go of my preferences, that seems much stronger. So here I am in a situation, somebody’s behaving in a way that seems to me to be violating a boundary. Okay?
Ken: Yours or somebody else’s.
Charles: Mine or somebody else’s.
Charles: Okay, now if I’m going to respond to that in a way that is in the direction of restoring the balance, how do I do that without activating preference?
Ken: Very good. Well done. I can easily imagine how some people might answer that and say, “By appealing to some absolute awareness,” or something like that. I’m doing this right off the cuff, so. It’s a great question.
I think the question arises only because you make the assumption that there’s a “you” that exists apart from preferences or values. That is, I think you can only ask your question if there’s the assumption that it’s possible to have a “you” that is value-free. Do you think that’s possible?
Ken: No. Okay, so those values are going to play out, whatever they are, in the situation. And if I can appeal to a body of Buddhist teaching, they’re going to play out through the five aspects of pristine awareness. Because the mirror-like pristine awareness is going to allow you to see clearly what is arising. Distinguishing pristine awareness is going to enable you to make distinctions, like is this a jerk or is this a confused person, or is a mean person, or what have you. Effective pristine awareness is going to be how the sensory consciousness is manifest in action. So, because that’s what effective pristine awareness does, it mobilizes the sensory consciousness. As we develop in practice, we see deeper into situations, but I don’t think our actions are ever value-free. I don’t think that would even make sense.
Now, I think it is appropriate to distinguish between—and I’m not sure one can do this all the time in practice, but I think as a general principle it can be helpful—to distinguish between balance in the situation—or to use Uchiyama’s phrase,
the direction of the present—on the one hand, and personal preference. I think there’s a valid distinction to be made there. And from the perspective of Buddhist morality, one is moving in the direction of addressing imbalances as they arise in one’s experience, not exercising one’s personal preferences. Now those may coincide, they may overlap, they may contradict, and that makes life interesting. Does that help? Okay.
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Helen: I was just thinking about how one might think back on one’s own experiences as to whether you did the same thing. And sometimes there is some little thing there that’s similar. And what that does is to kind of break down the barrier between you and the person, in the sense that you’re more connected.
Helen: And then, you can respond, however…
Ken: This, I think, is a very important principle and it’s something that I’ve talked about many times. I think you’re absolutely right, seeing the situation in the other person’s skin. And for instance, it’s one of the things that I use frequently in my business-consulting when somebody is having a dispute with one of their colleagues. Or take an even more extreme example, when they have to fire somebody. And they say, “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this,” etc., because nobody really enjoys firing somebody else, or giving them negative feedback or something like that. I will say, “Okay, if you were in this person’s position, how would you want it to happen? How would you want to receive that feedback or how would you want to be told that you didn’t have a job? How would you want that to happen?” And by putting themselves in that person’s position, then they often see it from a very, very different point of view and then find a way to do that which is respectful of both parties involved. So yeah, I think this is a really good principle.
Helen: I have two other things.
Helen: One thing I was thinking about today was how to sort of lighten up our experiences in a sense, because they can be so strong, whether it’s positive or negative. I thought of the times when I feel really good about something, but I wondered about sort of…
Ken: Had the sense…
Helen: …why it had to be so strong. I mean, could it not be just ordinary? Couldn’t everything be sort of ordinary? But I’m not sure exactly how that comes about, except insofar as some of the suggestions that have been made, some of the practices, maybe that there was some element of not being aware of it. Something, not sort of fully taking it in. Like, when you’re fearful. If I allow myself to feel the fear then it seems to dilute, or that power you were talking about, about identifying. And then it loses its strength.
Helen: And so I was thinking about that in terms of the positive. Exuberances so to speak, too. So ultimately, do we really get to that place of equanimity? I guess I’m kinda doubtful. I see some possibilities, but I’m not sure if that really can happen. I don’t know.
Ken: Along the same lines, Charles brought up equanimity, but we could really talk about any of the four immeasurables here. A very good way to break up the seriousness of things is to have a sense of humor. And one of the ways to bring that into one’s practice is to just take what you’re experiencing and shift it into another context. And often, as soon as you change the context it’s just completely ridiculous. And I’ve sometimes done this in interviews. Like somebody will be really, really uptight about something, and I’ll say, “Well, what if you put it in this context?” And then they just can’t hold it together. And it shows how our investment, our emotional investment in things is really dependent on context and on taking certain things really seriously, which actually are highly questionable. And far more fluid than we think they are. So yeah, I think it’s a very good idea to let…
Helen: Okay, the second thing I have. We talk about allowing things to arise? So say anger arises, but there’s something else hidden, like somewhere in the back you didn’t realize you had these expectations of this other person. And that’s not there, it’s not in consciousness, but your anger just explodes. And then you sort of think back and say, “Well I was expecting this to happen. It didn’t happen.” And then it’s too…it’s kind of late [laughter]. And even so, it’s kind of hard when you think back and say, “Well should I really have expected that of that person?” Like it was sort of a flimsy expectation, like unreal, unrealistic, idealistic and not with much substance.
Ken: Well, when we bring our attention to a situation…suppose somebody does something and they bring their attention to it and we do our absolute best to be really clear about it and we end up furious. We just can’t understand why they did that and we’re very hurt and very, very angry with them about the situation, And it all plays out, and when we’re no longer as emotionally invested we can revisit it and often see things more clearly. Because of all that emotion, we’ve seen how deeply it affected us. But that gives us the opportunity to see, “Oh, I was making these assumptions.”
Now there’s nothing we can do about that situation except possibly apologize. However, the next time something similar happens, we now have that additional experience. We think okay, “What assumptions am I making here and are they valid?” And that may prevent us from losing our temper a second time. Well, maybe the third or fourth time. [Laughter]
Helen: [Unclear] with you.
Ken: Okay. Right.
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Paul: So this year I’ve had a lot of excitement in my life. And I was wondering how to practice with that. Are there beneficial aspects to excitement and beneficial—
Ken: What’s exciting?
Paul: Falling in love.
Ken: Made millions of dollars, fell in love, you know, all kinds of things.
Paul: New things.
Ken: Yeah. Well, what problems do these things create for your practice except for minor distractions in time? [Laughter]
Paul: It didn’t seem like too much, other than I just didn’t think it was a problem in the beginning. It’s, “Well, why should I practice with this, it’s so great.” [Laughter]
Ken: What’s the point of practice, Paul?
Paul: Um, to experience things in a way that I don’t have to struggle.
Paul: To experience life in a way that I don’t have to struggle.
Ken: So, here you are, newly in love, are you struggling?
Paul: No. Well, it doesn’t feel like it. [Laughter]
Student: Yes. [Laughter]
Ken: I was just waiting for one of these old voices to come in. Okay. What does it mean to practice with that? What does that mean? Let me give you an example. I gave a talk on Valentine’s Day a few months ago, on relationship, at a center in Los Angeles. And I gave them five or six tools to use in a relationship. And somebody said, “Boy, that’s an awful lot of stuff to remember all the time.” I said, “You don’t use it all the time. When everything’s going right you just enjoy things. You use this stuff when you start encountering problems.” You’re not encountering any problems right now, so enjoy. And Claudia will help you when things change. [Laughter]. Well, you’re the one who said, “Wait.”
Paul: Well, I can see that unreal expectations are involved and obviously the experience will come to an end, and well, that could be—
Ken: Yeah, I mean every relationship comes to an end. You know, if only in somebody’s death. But every relationship comes to an end. So what’s the appropriate way to be in a relationship you know is going to end.
Paul: Well, be with that person in each moment.
Ken: There you go. And now as you say, unrealistic expectations. Okay, so you have unrealistic expectations?
Paul: Yeah, all the time. [Laughter]
Ken: Okay, now that’s something you can work with in your practice. You know the expectations are unrealistic and yet you very obligingly put them on your girlfriend. [Laughs] And they’re probably unappreciated, right?
Ken: Yeah, okay. So, what is the term? Unrealistic expectations are about feeding stuff from the past. Those expectations are about feeding stuff in your past. You’re trying to get that stuff fed. That puts a burden on the relationship, you’re absolutely right. So, whenever you recognize that you have an unrealistic expectation, it’s your responsibility to experience the pain of that not being fed. It’s not appropriate for your poor girlfriend to try and feed it, because she’s never going to be able to. You follow?
Ken: So, when you think, “It’s just going to be wonderful all the time. You’re going to be like this,” etc., etc., etc., it’s your responsibility to say, “No, this is crazy thinking. This is unrealistic. Let me be with this person as she is now.”
There’s a wonderful cartoon in The New Yorker, years and years ago. It showed a bride and groom at the altar. And the thought bubble from the groom is, “I love you just as you are. I hope you never change.” And the thought bubble in the bride is, “I love who you’re going to be. I can’t wait for you to change.” [Laughter] Unrealistic expectations. Does this help?
Paul: Yeah, it’s helpful.
Ken: Good. Yeah. But that’s very good that you’ve identified, “Okay, I have these unrealistic expectations.” That’s how you work at this in your practice.
Paul: Yeah, I guess just the experience was that it was really overwhelming and it was just likeÖ
Ken: Falling in love is always like that. [Laughter]
Paul: Yeah. Okay.
Ken: I mean, it wouldn’t be falling in love if it wasn’t, you know. So enjoy it.
Paul: Okay, thanks.
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Ken: Okay. Let’s stop here and we’ll just sit for a few minutes. It’s 8:30 already.
|This transcript by Ken McLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. This transcript has been edited to make it more readable. There may be minor differences between the audio file and the transcript.|