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A Trackless Path II 4

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All set Janet?

Janet: Just a moment.

Ken: Trackless Path. Okay.

Student: Would you say that again?

Ken: Impossible. Friday, August the 6th, morning session, A Trackless Path, New Mexico. Okay?

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Yesterday evening, I talked about a number of things, among them a way of looking at religions as long-term conversations about specific questions. A couple of people came up to me afterwards and said, “Those aren’t the questions that I’m wrestling with at all vis-à-vis Buddhism.” And I thought, oh, well, this is very good. If my remarks yesterday clarified for you where you are and you’re able to articulate in yourself what your actual questions are, this is something that will be useful in your practice. More than a little useful, actually. Because it’s very, very easy when we study and follow a tradition to take on that tradition’s whole way of thinking and looking at things, which may overlap to a certain extent, with our own interests, but they may not actually coincide. That’s why I gave the example of Khyungpo Naljor yesterday. Because he trained in all of these traditions and it still left something unresolved or unsatisfied in him.

This requires of us a fairly deep level of questioning. And that questioning really takes us into an experience of the unknown, quite deeply. And that’s, I think, one of the very important aspects of practice—developing the skills and the capacity in order to be able to enter into the experience of the unknown—because we find within that a lot of possibilities. So, with that as a kind of preamble, questions or comments? Yes, Sonia.

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Sonia: Yesterday evening, you spoke about acting without putting things in categories. You were talking from the Taoist text.

Ken: Yes.

Sonia: And I’m wondering how that relates to our framework with notions of awake/not awake.

Ken: It reminds of me of a poem by Ryokan.

When you know that my poems are not poems then we can discuss poetry.

Or, and this is again from the Taoist tradition. I think it was Li Po, said, Chuang Tzu says that those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk. My question for Chuang Tzu is why did he open his mouth? [Laughter]

So, there are a couple of things here. Your question’s very interesting to me because in a very definite sense, I’m wrestling with developing, or trying to develop a whole different vocabulary precisely because this awake/unawake or asleep, and things like that, I think actually create a certain kind of problem. Very similar to enlightened/unenlightened. Same kind of problem. Awake/asleep, left/right—okay.

So, practically speaking, I think we have to work through layers or levels here. And that’s quite clearly reflected in the Tibetan tradition. I’ve seen similar stuff in the Zen tradition. I don’t know about the Theravadan; I’m not as deeply familiar with it.

But in the Tibetan tradition, one of the structures in which morality is discussed is under what’s called the three ordinations or the three vows, which are individual freedom, bodhisattva and Vajrayana. The way they’re presented in the Tibetan tradition, individual freedom is primarily about our actions, and they’re virtuous or non-virtuous actions. It’s very black and white, most of it. And the purpose of that level of ordination is to provide a framework, so that even when you’re very, very confused you act in a way that you don’t harm, is what matters. Because there are certain things you don’t do, like take intoxicants, or lie, or kill people, or you know, just basic stuff.

In the bodhisattva vow, in addition to what you actually do in terms of action, intention is very important. The bodhisattva vow is primarily about intention. As it is usually formulated, it is the intention to act in such a way that you help all beings awaken to Buddhahood, or free all beings from samsara. So everything you do in your life is coming from that intention. And it becomes very powerful that way, because even the acts of eating and sleeping and so forth become part of one’s path. Because one is resting, sleeping, in order to restore energy in the body so that you can continue your own practice and evolution towards awakening in order to help beings. You follow? And thus the intention becomes of primary importance.

Now, what often happens there, at least in the West, is that people think, “Well then, as long as I have the right intention then the action isn’t as important,” and there’s a lot of slipperiness that creeps in, which is not really appropriate because these vows build on each other.

At the Vajrayana level it’s very, very different. It’s a commitment to a way of experiencing the world. You experience the world and yourself as an expression of buddha, basically, of awakened mind, however you want to characterize it. It’s fairly demanding. Atisha was an Indian master who came to Tibet in the eleventh century. He was once asked, “How do you practice your morality in terms of these three vows?” He said, “Well, as to the monastic ordination,” which is the individual freedom, he said, “I’ve never violated that. And bodhisattva, every couple of hours. Vajrayana ordination? It’s like rain.”

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Now, I spoke a few moments ago about entering into the unknown. What the Vajrayana level of ordination, or practice, is referring to is you can go into situations and you just know what needs to happen. And there isn’t any consideration of right and wrong. Often when we find ourselves just knowing what to do, it’s difficult for us to trust it. It’s a little frightening to trust it, because it feels like there’s no restriction. Do you follow?

Sonia: Yes.

Ken: Vajrayana level practice is about relating to experience that way. The other two levels of ordination provide a protective mechanism so that you don’t do really stupid things. And it’s not something that one just plunges into. It is the result of a great deal of training. And you start to let go of such categories as awake/asleep, because they don’t make sense in the context of one’s own experience. They’re useful up to a point, but then you’re entering into a different way of relating to things. And it can be very challenging to do that.

One of the synonyms for compassion in the Tibetan tradition is fearlessness. Because when you’re present in a situation and you just know what to do, then one needs to have the fearlessness to just do it. But it’s coming right out of the evolution of one’s training in bodhicitta and so forth. Do you follow?

Sonia: Very much. Yes.

Ken: Okay.

Sonia: Thank you.

Ken: Hope that was helpful.

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Okay. Rita.

Rita: If you’re sitting with things that are difficult, sometimes your experience of what arises is very vivid. It’s all there and there’s a lot to work with. Then sometimes maybe the next time you sit and everything’s pretty clear, and maybe the next time you sit, you just feel numb. And it’s a familiar numbness, because you’re aware that you’ve been keeping something suppressed. You know because you feel like you shouldn’t be feeling this. So there are a couple of ways to work with that. One would be to sit with the numbness, and let it unfold itself as it will. And the other would be to poke it a little bit by bringing to mind those things that you know that you’re suppressing in that moment. And so I’m wondering if they’re both kind of equal in ways of working, or if one is better than the other?

Ken: I don’t think one can say one is better than the other. There are additional ones, in addition to those two. When we start to practice, we learn various techniques, methods. Some traditions, they train you in just one and then you learn how to apply that in everything. In others, and I’m thinking of my own training in the Tibetan tradition, you’re trained in hundreds, so you always have these arrows in your quiver and you pull them out.

The first step is to learn the techniques and learn them well enough so that you really know how they work and you develop facility with them. The second level of training is to train probably in a fewer number of techniques to the point that they just happen whenever you encounter certain things. That is, they become second nature. The third level of training is to remove everything inside you that prevents that technique from manifesting when it needs to.

As one trains in these, one is developing a great deal of knowledge about one’s self, about how the technique works within you, what works and doesn’t work, and there’s even a kind of evolution of the notion of what “this works” means. So as you mature in your practice, it becomes increasingly important to be clear about one’s intention. Because intention itself evolves. And I don’t mean you’ll always have a good reason, “I am doing this because,” that’s at the rational level. As one’s experience of practice matures, it can become much more intuitive in a felt sense rather than a conceptual sense. So, there’s “Oh, I need to go in this direction.”

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And one of the things that I’ve learned, actually from Jeff here, is that one has to be a little careful with this—to explore one’s relationship with resistance. I’m going to put this in a kind of oxymoronic way. “How can I experience resistance without encountering resistance?” That is, you were saying there’s something in you that is causing some difficulty or disturbance. Okay, how can I experience that or work with that without creating more resistance, or making things more imbalanced than they are. Or maybe I need to make it more imbalanced. But it becomes an exploration of experience. And it’s an exploration of experience that is informed by the accumulated experience and understanding. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum, if you follow. So, there’s something you experience, you sense that is there, creates or generates a numbness which is basically a protective mechanism. So okay, experience the numbness. Maybe that helps. Maybe you poke at it. Maybe that helps. Maybe you just sit and wait because nothing works.

Within your question there’s another whole consideration and that is, to what extent are you trying to control or manipulate your experience? And one of the purposes of this retreat actually is to provide the opportunity of actually exploring not manipulating one’s experience in any way, and what’s that like. Because certain approaches to practice you get very used to, you know, directing experience in a certain way. Is this helpful?

Rita: Yes.

Ken: Okay. I feel like I’m floating in unknown territory here.

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So. What have we got? 7:59, amazing. Two questions. Okay. Breakfast time. We’ll close here.


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.