A Trackless Path II 5


A Trackless Path two, I guess. Afternoon session. Or evening session. Do we have the microphone ready? Hand it to Paul. No, that’s Paul, Okay. We’re just gonna go round and take questions. You’re first. [Laughter]

Paul: What should I do when my body’s in lots of physical pain from sitting?

Ken: That’s an important issue. Whenever I’m asked a question along these lines I always remember sitting in Dezhung Rinpoche’s living room in Seattle. And a group of us from Vancouver in the early 70s had asked him to teach us basic meditation. And he’s extremely kind. He actually wrote a small manual on shamatha, vipashyana, mahamudra for us and then taught it to us. And when he was talking about shamatha practice he described how he was trained. In the temple all of the monks and tulkus who were being trained were seated on a bench, or on benches and a string was strung. And everybody sat so that their noses just touched the string. [Laughter] And every time the string moved everybody was beaten. [Laughter] And he leaned forward—he’s a very warm and generous person—he said, “This is not how you learn how to meditate. This is how you learn to sit still.”

Now, the way that we sit in meditation depends on actually a lot of different factors, not the least of which is the tradition in which one is training. Soto Zen particularly, the posture is the repository of faith in that tradition, so you just surrender to the posture completely. This doesn’t always have good results. The story is told of the Japanese man who was enthusiastically going to emulate Buddha Shakyamuni and he wrapped himself up in full lotus under a tree in the woods, vowing not to move until he had attained enlightenment, just like it says in the books. Three days later they amputated both legs for gangrene. So as I say, this doesn’t always have good results.

Idries Shah in writing—a Sufi, Afghan Sufi writer, don’t know whether he’s still alive—makes a distinction between stretching and stressing, or being stretched versus being stressed. Stretching is good. Stressing is bad. And the reason stressing is bad is you do damage to the system. On a practical level what I’ve found is that it is okay to push in meditation, not just physically, but emotionally as well, as long as there’s some resilience in your work. That is, there’s some give, or to put it another way, you can still experience some softness. You follow? Once you harden up, now it’s rock against bone. That’s where the damage is done. And so it’s important to gauge one’s practice. If you are simply hardening against the pain you are inevitably suppressing stuff. You’re gonna pay for that later.

In my experience it is much better to meditate for short periods when body and mind are clear and comfortable, so you form the habit of being really clear and present in your practice. And that’s actually difficult to do when you’re struggling and hardening against pain, whether it’s emotional pain or physical pain. It’s an individual matter and you’ll have to gauge it. And one of the reasons I’ve moved towards more and more unstructured retreats is to provide people with the opportunity so that they can gauge and develop their own rhythm in practice, rather than being constrained to follow a rigid schedule where everybody has to sit for X number of minutes, or X number of hours and so forth. Because that’s where people end up getting stressed. The rock meets bone kind of thing.

Now there are people who, when they meditate, are able to work through extraordinary levels of pain, but they’ve never hardened up. And so they’re able to work very intensely, very deeply, but they never actually move into that suppression even though they may be in great—my closest friend in the second three-year retreat was like this, a wonderful Frenchman—and the pain just didn’t mean anything to him. He didn’t harden against it. It didn’t distract or disturb him and he could just sit. And he used to look to me and say, “Ken you’re so lucky.” And I was having a really, really hard time—this is the second three-year retreat—and I would say, “Why?” He’d say, “’Cuz you learn from suffering. I don’t.” [Laughter] It’s like I never really got my head around that one. But he’s very, very good, a great person.

The importance of not hardening and really paying attention to that hardening, the development of that hardness, whether in the body or in the mind, was one of the few pieces of meditation advice that Kalu Rinpoche gave to us during the three-year retreat. And many of you have heard me say this before, but I think it bears repeating. In Tibet they used bags, leather bags to store liquids and the two principal liquids that they had were water and butter. And Rinpoche said that when a leather bag was used to store water it worked very well for a while and then the leather would harden up, and when the leather hardened up you could soak the whole bag and then knead it and it would become soft and supple again and then it would hold the water without leaking, without problem. However when leather was used to store butter, gradually the butter would soak into the leather, the leather would become hard and it would start to crack. The butter would leak of course, and you couldn’t rework those bags because they’d been impregnated with the butter. They had to be thrown away. And he said, “Never let your mind become like that.” [Laughter] So when you’re sitting, first off, pay attention to the physical posture and rather than assume the posture and try to make everything conform to it, you may find that it works a bit better if you feel the quality of attention in your mind and body and when you just feel the quality you find that your body just naturally wants to straighten up and so you just let it straighten, but now it’s going to straighten to the point that it’s able to straighten. It’s very different from holding it up, you see. And as you keep working that you’ll find that you will sit straighter and straighter in your meditation, but you’re going to move into it naturally over time, rather than force your body to comply to an idea of straightness.

And the same goes for attention. You just feel the quality of attention and there’s a shift. It’s a subtle one, but now you’re sitting in attention, and I find that if you allow yourself to move into the idea of it rather than trying to impose it, then it’s like something is growing inside you. You follow? And really meditation practice is about letting attention grow in us.

There are various stretches, yoga stretches or ways of working with the body which increases its flexibility, particularly in the hips and things like that, so that it’s easier to sit in meditation posture, but it varies greatly from person to person. My ex-wife never ever had any problem sitting. You know, we met Rinpoche in 1970. She just—boom!—that was it. And I always had the worst time, you know, and extremely painful and very, very difficult for me. And it actually remains so to this day. So you have to find your own way of working with it. Does this help? Okay. Right. Sophie.


Sophie: One of the things I had spoken to you about was how a misunderstanding can occur around the definitions of words which you were quite eloquent in explaining, definitions of different words, and one of the things that feels very destined for difficulty is a spiritual practice, the definition of a spiritual practice or quite simply just to communicate to another person. I mean if I’m talking about a spiritual practice or the dharma, or my dharma you know, I’m not quite sure how we all get on the same page. [Laughter]

Ken: After I came back from India, I stayed with my parents. My father wanted to know why I was so interested in Buddhism—because actually Kalu Rinpoche came and stayed at my parents’ farm for six weeks—and so I gave him a couple of books to read. One of them was a commentary on the Heart Sutra, which of course was a huge mistake. [Laughter] I was young, enthusiastic and not very sophisticated. And my father would say, “I just don’t understand why you’re studying this. It says right here, ‘You can not understand this.’ ” [Laughter]

I’ll transpose this to a completely different context. Many years ago I attended a conference for CEOs and one of the people giving one of the keynotes for this conference was the, I think he was the CEO or one of the top people in Wells Fargo. And he was talking about the introduction of ATMs. Now when ATMs were first introduced—and even before that, telephone banking—they did the customer service surveys asking people how would they feel about doing banking over the telephone, you know push button, and what came back—or the automated teller machine—and what came back was universally negative response. “We do not want this!” Well, this wasn’t a very satisfactory answer to the bank because they were faced with ever rising labor costs and they wanted to automate all of this stuff, so they went ahead and instituted telephone banking and automatic ATMs as we all know, and a year later did another survey. And the surveys were universally positive because it gave people flexibility in time and control, etc. All the things we take for granted now. And what the CEO said was, “What we concluded from this is that people cannot tell how they will feel about something they haven’t experienced.”

So I’ll give you one other example. I worked with an investment fund manager many, many years ago who wanted to study meditation, and we were introduced at a wedding I happened to be attending, and before we left he said, “I’m going on a trip for three months,” because he was doing a bunch of investment stuff in Eastern Europe at the time, “What’s a good book that I could take with me?” And I said without any hesitation, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. And three or four months later he called me up and said, “I’m back and ready to start meeting with you and by the way, that was a terrible book. I don’t know why you recommended it at all.”

So I met with him, you know, every other week for five, or six, no about nine months, during which time he established a meditation practice and then he had to go on another trip to look after the investments he’d been making on behalf of this fund. And he said, “I’m going on another trip and I’d like another recommendation for a book to take with me. I don’t want a big book because I don’t want to carry such…” And I said, [laughter] “I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this but I’m going to suggest you take Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” And he looked at me and went, “On the basis of our last months’ work I will take the recommendation.” And then again three or four months later he came back from his trip, he called me up and said, “I’d like to meet with you again, Ken, and by the way could you order a dozen of those books for me?” Now he had the experience and so he could appreciate what Suzuki Roshi was talking about in that book in a totally different way. So when you say that you aren’t on the same wavelength, you’re absolutely right. You aren’t on the same wavelength, and you’re not going to be able to explain to them what this practice means to you and why it is important to you because they don’t have the experience.

Sophie: Well, just along those lines, are you hopeful about the future?

Ken: Oh, heavens no. [Laughter] What’s there to be hopeful about? Come on Sophie, continue. What’s behind that question?

Sophie: That if it takes a period of time for communication to be established it seems like things could blow apart in that time.

Ken: Yeah, they often have in the past. Yeah, we practice this because it’s meaningful to us. We’re not going to save the world through our meditation. Some people disagree with me, but that’s my opinion. I just don’t want to get caught up in all of that. Okay.


Joan: I’m motivated. I put a lot of effort into my practice and my question is, when is the end of reactive emotions? [Laughter]

Ken: Line two, verse three: Reactions are endless. [Laughter] I haven’t finished yet I may ask for follow-up from Joan so give her the microphone back. No, Joan. You don’t get a choice, Claudia. You know that. So. [Pause] It’s about hope and fear isn’t it? Hmm?

Joan: Yep.

Ken: What are hope and fear?

Joan: One is what we grasp for, the other is what we try to avoid.

Ken: Yes. What would your practice be like if you let go of hope and fear?

Joan: Probably blissful.

Ken: Maybe.

Joan: [Unclear]

Ken: Could come under that category. Try again. Take a moment. If I may, I’ll just up the ante a little bit. Okay? Nothing is ever going to change in your practice for the next twenty years. Do you still practice?

Joan: Knowing me, yes.

Ken: Why?

Joan: It’s the only thing that makes sense.

Ken: There you go. You just gave up hope and fear. [Laughs] It’s actually a really, really important point. And always come back to that. It’s the only thing that makes sense right now. So what happens in the future is actually inconsequential. It’s a very, very tough instruction, but you arrived at it yourself, so you’re stuck with it. [Laughter] It’s a very useful one. It’s not an easy one. It’s a very, very useful one. Okay?


Claudia: Why do you say, and send out letters that say [laughter]—

Ken: I love this kind of question. Yes, sure. [Laughter]

Claudia: …that samadhi, whatever that is, is not useful when my own experience is that what happens on the cushion is extraordinarily useful in my daily life.

Ken: Which letter are you referring to? [Laughter] Well, picking up on something Sophie said, people have a lot of ideas about samadhi, and because of those ideas, they make a lot of misguided efforts or unproductive efforts in their meditation practice. They either have a very idealized notion of samadhi and feel anything short of that is ineffective practice, which you know from your own experience is very, very far from the case. They feel that they have to be able to experience certain things if they’re to get anywhere. That also is not the case. Or, even more problematic in some ways, is they have a mistaken idea about samadhi, so it’s some kind of trance state, and what they end up doing is they end up practicing states of varying degrees of dullness. So sometimes it’s just better to throw a word away.

Claudia: Well, I can understand that but I think, I think you have a couple of choices here. You can clarify what samadhi is about, or you can replace that with something. But there’s a sense of—

Ken: I’m going to turn to a totally different context. How familiar are you with the Punic Wars? [Laughter] The Punic Wars.

Claudia: Not very. [Laughter]

Ken: Well, Charles, who knows everything can correct me on this. But there were three Punic Wars, Rome versus Carthage. Rome won every one of them. After the first Punic War, it utterly defeated Carthage, their army was then ruined etc., etc., okay fine, and all the Roman army and navy went back to Italy and little by little—and they just left Carthage alone, they thought they’d taught Carthage a lesson—but Carthage built up its power again and started to threaten Rome. Well this didn’t sit very well with the Romans so we had the second Punic War, and they rowed across the Mediterranean and really trashed Carthage this time. And replaced it with a whole bunch of people. And little by little the energy of Carthage came back together and threatened Rome once more. Rome had enough of this. They beat up Carthage again, defeated the army, etc., and then they dismantled the city brick by brick so nothing could ever grow there again. Sometimes you just have to throw things away. [Laughter]

And you know what the next candidate is that we’re going to have to throw away? [Student whispers, “Enlightenment.”] Well that one’s long gone. It’s mindfulness. Why, because the way it has come to be used now is totally different from the way it is understood in Buddhist practice. And well, I talked to some people who recently went to a conference on mindfulness, and everybody under the sun—you know you have the improv people and the drama people, and you have the art therapy people and you have this, and they’re all trotting out their stuff and saying this is mindful therapy and using these techniques to teach mindfulness. And you have people coming in, I’ve had some people come and talk with me, and they feel that now that they’ve studied mindfulness in a rather academic setting—and studying mindfulness consists of taking a six-week course in it—now they know all about Buddhism. So it’s complete nonsense. And there are a whole bunch of us who’ve decided we won’t use the term anymore. Okay? No. [Laughter]

Claudia: Could you say what your definition of samadhi is?


Ken: No, it’s Christy’s turn. [Laughter]

Christy: What do you do about meanness in yourself?

Ken: [Takes a breath and looks around his seat.] Oh did I leave it outside? I did. You’ll find the computer case just outside. It’s very interesting you should ask this Christy—I think it’s on the couch there. I didn’t bring it in. Because there’s a wonderful quote from Rumi right on this. Perfect. I’ve actually put it in an article that I’ve just submitted to Tricycle. But I haven’t memorized the quote so I have to look it up. Okay. [Ken searches on his computer.] Here you are.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Do you want me to read it again?

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Now, from the tone of your question I’m inferring that you regard meanness as an enemy.

Christy: Well, in that it can certainly harm others, yes.

Ken: Okay. So when’s the last time you can recall being mean, or feeling mean?

Christy: Today.

Ken: Good, so just recall that right now. And there’s probably a hardening and tightening in the body a little bit?

Christy: I go more through grief recalling it.

Ken: Because it’s an unpleasant memory, or…?

Christy: Yeah.

Ken: I want you to do it anyway, please. And I want you to imagine welcoming the meanness with open arms and tell me what happens. [Pause]

Yes, what’s happened?

Christy: It’s a pattern.

Ken: Yes, but what happened? [Pause] It’s very fast. Everybody can try this. Take anger or meanness, you can take greed and just open your heart to it. What happens?

Student: It softens. Oh, I’m sorry.

Ken: Christy? I’m inviting you all to do it but this is Christy’s.

Christy: It feels like a child.

Ken: Okay, and what do you do with that child?

Christy: Embrace it.

Ken: And then what happens?

Christy: [Pitch of voice rises considerably] Well! [Laughter]

Ken: You get my point. Now like the hope and fear that we were discussing with Joan, this is a very, very demanding instruction. It’s a very, very profound one. It’s exactly what Rumi’s talking about. You receive this. And it can’t hold the way that it usually does. It holds when we resist it. When we regard it as, “No, this is not me, this is something other.” But when you open your heart to it, then as you described, it’s like a child, it’s something young that is very, very upset. And this is at the heart of Thich Nhat Hanh’s technique, which I’ve named Seeing From the Inside, where you’re holding just those feelings tenderly in attention.

Christy: Thank you.

Ken: Okay.


Student: I had a question about the mind as guru [The Vajra Song Recognizing Mind as Guru] INSERT. The section where it says, You are not subject to conditioning and Finer than everything, you don’t attach to anything. I don’t understand mind not being conditioned. Page 23.

Ken: From a technical perspective there’s an assumed distinction here between what in the—I’d better use the Tibetan because I can’t remember the Sanskrit—sem, which is the word for mind and sems nyid, which could be translated as mind-ness or mind itself. Now usage is very fluid in Tibetan. Often when they’re talking about mind they’re talking about it in quite profound ways, and often when they’re talking about mind they’re talking about it as just all the activity. And then when they want to make a distinction between the essence of knowing, or that essential knowing, rather, and all the activity then they make this distinction of sem and sems nyid or mind and mind-ness. So this was probably an impromptu song or something that Kyergongpa just scribbled down because he felt like…he was just so moved by his experience. And so the language isn’t super precise, which is what helps to give it its poetic quality. If you want to kill poetry get really, really precise about what you’re trying to say. So let’s see if we can get a sense of what he’s talking about. I’ll give you your choice of poisons—hope, fear, anger, meanness, greed, joy, compassion, love, dullness, busyness—what do you want to work with.

Student: Fear.

Ken: Okay. Recall an occasion when you felt fear, okay and maybe you can feel it in your body or at least an echo of it. So there’s maybe like a fluttering in the heart, or maybe the heart’s pounding a little bit and a certain tension in the skin, and there’s the emotion—huuuhhh—you know maybe a little coming out in the breath. Now look at what experiences the fear, or what knows the fear. Does what knows the fear feel fear?

Student: You mean in the moment that you’re feeling fear…

Ken: In the moment that you’re feeling fear, you know that you’re feeling fear.

Student: Right…

Ken: Does what knows that feel the fear?

Student: No…I…mmm…I think it’s the awareness that knows—

Ken: Don’t go intellectual, just right to your experience. There’s the fear and then knowing the fear. Does what knows the fear experience fear?

Student: I can’t answer that, because I don’t know what you mean by what knows the fear.

Ken: What knows the fear?

Student: In that moment it’s like the I or the self feels the fear.

Ken: Yes the I feels the fear. What knows the fear?

Student: I—

Ken: When I ask that question what do you experience? In one moment there’s the fear, and then I ask the question, What knows the fear? What do you experience when I ask that question?

Student: Well, there’s like a moment of nothing.

Ken: Is there fear in that moment?

Student: No.

Ken: Okay. That’s what Kyergongpa’s referring to.

Student: So does that mean that the fear itself is based on past occurrences? Past conditioning.

Ken: Yeah, it may be there’s a tiger staring you in the face. It may be very present. Yeah. But when you make that shift and look right at the fear, the experience of fear itself, there’s a shift, and now one is no longer identified with the fear. And when people such as Kyergongpa are talking about the mind that is free of conditioning, it is that quality of knowing.

Now don’t make it into a thing. That would be a big mistake. It’s a way of experiencing things. Does that help?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Helen.


Helen: Umm. Well. That leads to several questions.

Ken: You only get one. [Laughter] You don’t want to be greedy here. [Laughter]

Helen: Well I’m interested in the page on karma, page 8, and there’s a Sufi saying at the bottom of it that I don’t quite understand.

Ken: Well, I may not be much help because George put those in [chuckles]. Oh!

We have about as much room to move as a violin in a violin case. But it’s enough.

Helen: But that’s enough.

Ken: Yeah.

Helen: It must be kind of a small space to work with.

Ken: Yeah. Okay. How much are you run by conditioning?

Helen: Oh, quite a bit.

Ken: Percentagewise, how much free attention do you experience? Percentagewise.

Helen: From conditioning? Free attention separate from conditioning.

Ken: Yeah, well, percentagewise.

Helen: That would be about one percent. Or maybe a half!

Ken: A half! Given the percentage of space in the violin case how much space does a violin have to move?

Helen: Within that case?

Ken: Percentagewise.

Helen: Not much. I’d say 5 percent, 8 percent.

Ken: It’s more like half a percent, too. That’s what it’s referring to.

Helen: Oh. You mean the amount that we have actual free attention.

Ken: That’s the only time we can actually change anything about our lives.

Helen: Oh I see. Mmm.

Ken: The rest of it, we’re just running.

Helen: Okay. Our conditioning.

Ken: Yeah, we’re being run by—

Helen: Sure. Okay. Thank you.


Janet: I’m not sure that this question has crystalized. It’s probably just a mess.

Ken: So fumble around.

Janet: I was intrigued by the Rumpelstiltskin magic of naming kind of thing. Because so often we do the opposite with words. Instead of using the word to sort of summon and bring in the power of the object, we use the word to replace the actual experience and to actually represent the thing, and then the thing itself gets forgotten.

Ken: That’s very true.

Janet: Like we talk about buddha nature and then we forget whatever that was—

Ken: And we actually think the thing exists, and so you’re run into—

Janet: And that thing is just a thing—

Ken: Till you run into Zhaozhou [checked].

Janet: Right. So these things become relics and we’ve forgotten about them. And so for me one of the real difficulties of practice is to figure out what those words refer to like bodhicitta and buddha nature and to uncover what those myths are about. And so I guess my question is, how do you get back to the magic? It’s sort of the opposite of the Rumpelstiltskin thing. How do you get the magic back?

Ken: It’s sometimes not even a case of getting the magic back. It’s understanding what the words mean at all. About halfway through the first three-year retreat, Dennis [pron. Denni] [checked], he was the only French person in the retreat, and we were discussion translations. This was after we’d done a whole bunch of stuff on mahamudra, etc. And I said, “Well how would you translate gsal ba (pron. salwa) [checked] now? It’s clarity, translated in various ways. ”How would you translate…“ We were just batting ideas back and forth about these, and one of the Americans who knew very little Tibetan came in in the middle of this conversation and said, ”You change your translations?“ And Dennis just looked at him, ”Yeah, everything we translated before this retreat was just wrong.“ [Laughter]

And because, and I put this in an article in Buddhadharma recently, it’s as if I was translating a description of the word sweet without every having tasted a mango or ice cream or honey or anything like that. And we didn’t know…we could infer from the way words were used, but we didn’t actually know what we were talking about. We had to translate anyway. So, this is a very far from trivial matter. It’s not infrequent for me to come across a phrase in Tibetan and I go, ”Oh, that’s what that means!“ And this is one of the big problems in translation. Because many, many texts are being translated by people who are primarily academics and not practitioners, and it affects the translation.

Now from the perspective of someone like you, you’re not gonna learn Tibetan, but you have these words like bodhicitta, and shunyata, karma. There are tons of them. They’re being imported into English language. It’s going to be a combination of reading and hearing how the words are used and your own experience, and interaction with people who have also worked with those words that is going to invest those words with meaning for you. Because we think there is such a thing as the English language. There isn’t. As we grow up we learn to communicate first with our parents and other people. When our form of communication—and basically a language evolves in us—when it corresponds sufficiently closely with other people’s evolved languages, then we are deemed to have learned English. But it’s actually our own language. It’s something that has developed and evolved in our own experience. And it’s the same with dharma vocabulary and everything like that. It’s not like these words actually correspond to fixed things out there. They’re all invested with meaning through our own experience. And that’s why I can go to some places and I will use words that I think are completely clear, and nobody will have a clue what I’m talking about. Or vice versa. It’s because we use the same words, but the meaning that they have evolved in that particular group or that particular context is totally different. And so they have different associations, different meanings, and there has to be agreement on the associations in order for there to be communication.

So the question you ask is quite nontrivial. For something like bodhicitta, what I’ve given you is maybe accurate, but also completely unhelpful. So let me try to give you something that may be a little bit helpful.

This may be my own bias, so you should take that into consideration. But I find it better to focus on what does the word mean operationally, not how is it defined in the abstract. How is it used? In particular, what experience is it referring to? Or what action, in some cases, is it referring to? What emotion or complex of emotions is it referring to? What sensations? So, ground understanding of words in what experiences they’re referring to. This I find more reliable than precise academic definitions. They’re fine until you take them out of that context, and then they just fall apart.


Janet: Can I do a short follow-up?

Ken: Sure.

Janet: On bodhicitta, one problem that comes up, just one of the many problems, is that it has become so honorific in a way, a lot of the literature suggests that to experience it is so rare, and so exalted—

Ken: You want to experience bodhicitta?

Janet: Sure.

Ken: Okay. [Laughter] We’ll do this in a Western context. Are you familiar with the Hubble Gap?

Janet: The Hubble Gap?

Ken: Yes.

Janet: Ah, not, no.

Ken: Okay. Then I won’t worry about that. It just would help, but it’s okay. So how many stars do you see in the nighttime sky?

Janet: How many do I see? Um. Dozens?

Ken: There’s few more, there are actually [laughter] for most people with ordinary vision. [Laughter]

Janet: Okay. But I live near San Francisco!

Ken: Tonight! Outside!

Janet: Thousands.

Ken: Yeah, thousands, it’s about four thousand, okay. What percentage of stars in the Milky Way is that? In the Milky Way Galaxy?

Janet: It’s probably a millionth.

Ken: Yeah, it’s some ridiculously small number, you’re quite right. Okay. So imagine that around every one of those stars there is another planet like Earth.

Janet: Okay.

Ken: And it has as many beings as Earth has, six, seven billion, okay?

Janet: Okay.

Ken: Now, how many galaxies are there in the universe?

Janet: I can’t imagine.

Ken: Yeah, that’s why I asked you about the Hubble Gap. It’s an unbelievable number. It dwarfs the number of stars in the Milky Way. And every one of those galaxies has as many or more stars as the Milky Way does, so I want you to imagine a planet around every one of those stars. And it’s filled with beings, like Earth, too. Okay?

Janet: Okay.

Ken: This is a fairly large number we’re talking about. [Laughter]

Janet: I’m getting boggled.

Ken: That’s good, good. We’re in the right direction. Now, I want you to form the intention to free every one of those beings from the vicissitudes of samsara.

Janet: [Silence]

Ken: It takes a little while but keep going. [Laughter] I’m not talking about the freeing of them, it takes a little while to work up to that, but keep working at it. Okay. Okay that’s good. That’s good, that’s fine, that’s good. It’s right there. Now—you’re going to free every one of those beings; you’re clear about that?

Janet: I just feel completely flabbergasted.

Ken: That’s fine, but you’re just forming that intention. Please. You said you wanted to experience bodhicitta. You have to follow the instructions. [Laughter]

Janet: Can you just be smacked, is that part of it?

Ken: No, no, no, no. Just do it Janet, just do it! Stop mucking around. Just do it!

Janet: Just do it? This is—

Ken: Thank you, Nike. [Laughter]

Janet: This isn’t easy! There are others who are more equipped than I…

Ken: You’re just limited by time and space. This is your follow-up question. [Laughter]

Janet: Sorry about wasting your time folks!

Ken: So, you got that? Just bring that really clearly to mind.

Janet: No problem.

Ken: Just take a few minutes, really let it sink in. Okay. Now, know that whatever you do not a single being will ever be liberated. What happens? What did you experience right there?

Janet: [Softly] Just fell right through.

Ken: That’s bodhicitta.

Janet: [Whispering] It’s just so heartbreaking.

Ken: Yeah, but it was just totally open, just nothing.

Janet: Just complete opening.

Ken: That openness, that’s bodhicitta.

Janet: That open space is it?

Ken: The experience of that—everything stops, right? That’s bodhicitta.

Janet: That is so helpful.

Ken: Good. Follow-ups? [Laughter] Roby.


Roby: After we finished reading Vajra Song, Recognizing Mind as Guru, you commented that this is worth study, and so my question is, how would you recommend us to determine what to study and how much time to put in on it. Because we only have so much time simply to practice whether it’s sitting practice or practicing during activity. And study is enormously supportive, but how do we make that determination about what to study and how much time to put in on it?

Ken: Again, this varies tremendously from individual to individual. We all have different ways of learning, of taking information in and digesting it. So it’s difficult to say, this percentage of the time, etc. So let me talk about it in a slightly different way.

Kalu Rinpoche was very good about this. There was stuff to learn, and it was important to learn because the material provided a framework and a support for practice in a number of different ways, not the least of which was an understanding of the context of practice. But he consistently discouraged us from…even in the three-year retreat, he very consistently discouraged us from learning a lot of stuff. He said, ”If you are studying, just study the commentaries on the meditation.“

There are many people who just enjoy Buddhist writing. There are some people who just love sutras, and other people who love commentaries. They love the forms of the argument, forms of thinking, and so forth. And it gives them a great deal of fulfillment. Dilgo Khyentse just loved to read the dharma and he would read texts that he had read hundreds of times before. He just loved reading them. And that’s one aspect, but when it comes to practice, read texts which are about practice. And in particular, read texts by practitioners because they are generally qualitatively different than texts written by other people. Their practice is what will come through. I’m assuming that’s your primary interest. And find people who speak to you, and that’s very, very much a matter of personal predilection.

In the Tibetan tradition there’s the tradition of the Sixteen Karmapas. Many of them are prolific writers. I happen to like Mikyö Dorje, who was the eighth Karmapa, and his writing is so powerful that you feel like he is carving the words in the paper with a knife. At the end of one of his commentaries on mind and energy, a very detailed commentary on the six yogas, he writes, ”Bernagchen,“—one of the protectors, or the main protector of the Karma Kagyu—”asked me to write this to throw the blood of the hearts of the unbelievers on the ground.“ [Laughter] And that’s his colophon for the text. And when he’s writing about chö, the practice of cutting, he says, ”Don’t even think about practicing this unless you have faith that can move mountains, compassion which will allow you to give your body to a tiger, and an understanding, experience of emptiness that is vast as the sky.“ [Laughter] Next. [Laughter] This is how he writes. I love it! [Laughter] Because it’s very, very alive.

So find the people that have practice experience, and there are a lot of people in the West now who have very good practice experience—unfortunately not many of them are good writers—and let them speak to you. Things like the Abhidharma and all that stuff, just between you and me, complete waste of time. And yet I know many, many people who just love the stuff. And I know other people who read it and are able to use it in their practice. But for me, I studied it, way back a long time ago, learned a lot of this stuff. Well, yeah, it’s a map and things like that, but it’s really from my point of view academic bookkeeping. I don’t find it that helpful. But other people do, so you’ll have to see for yourself. Explore what you find helpful to you in your practice. Find the people that you find helpful. And then soak yourself in their words. Okay.



Sonia: I don’t suppose I can get away by saying I don’t have a question.

Ken: It’s like me saying, ”I don’t have an answer.“ [Laughter] You know, keeping it balanced.


Sonia: Nothing’s coming yet.

Ken: So don’t think. [Ken snaps fingers.] Just say what comes to mind. [Silence] So, I’ll put it this way. This is absolutely the last chance you’ll ever have to ask any teacher any question about your practice. [Laughter] After this it’s a desert island and you’ll never see anybody ever again.

Sonia: There’s a fringe of something that…the question about samadhi. I come from a yoga background and samadhi, it’s a series of experiences in the ashtanga system. It’s one of the eight limbs—there’s meditation, pranayama, and samadhi is just another experience of the yoga path. And I’m wondering all the practices we do, are they just different experiences? It’s not phrased very well.

Ken: It’s fine. Ah…yes and no. The practices that we do are ways of developing, evolving if you wish, different ways of experiencing life. As someone noted earlier, it’s the human nature to take some of these key experiences and make concepts out of them. And then something frequently dies. And there’s a long history of that in Buddhism. It’s why there’s been a constant reinvention of vocabulary pretty well in every generation. It’s why we have so many different words for nature of mind. But we have to be careful about the use of the word just, as in just experiences. Because how we experience our lives makes a huge difference for us and for others.

There’s a short story I read many years ago, can’t remember the name of it. It describes this young boy who was sent to help this farmer out somewhere in the prairies or so. Probably back in the nineteenth century maybe, maybe in the Depression. I think it was more likely in the Depression. These young boys were sent out to help farmers, and this farmer was an intensely angry person. And apart from instructions about what he was meant to do on the farm to help, they never exchanged a word. But little by little the anger seeped into the kid to the point that he killed somebody. He was in that experience of anger all the time so he came to experience the world as anger, and it completely poisoned and destroyed his life.

So how we experience things is hugely important, and one way of looking at practice and our interest in practice is, we aren’t satisfied. We don’t like the way that we experience things right now. You follow? We are actually looking for another way of experiencing, and we may work at that by working through the body so that we experience things differently physically. And we can also work at it through meditation and any number of other disciplines so that we experience things differently emotionally. We have a different way of understanding the world cognitively, and so forth. There are aspects of our experience that we wish to experience more of. For some people it’s a sense of the sacred. For some people it’s an equanimity, a lack of reactivity. These are all different ways of experiencing things. And the word, samadhi at least within the Buddhist context, refers to a very powerful way of experiencing things, so that they are deeply instilled in us and become part of us. That’s why there are all these references to samadhi, and developing samadhi and why it’s so important. Because it’s a way of instilling experience very, very deeply in us. So we have to be very careful about using that word just because, yes, they are different ways of experiencing, but they are for whatever reason crucially important to us. So they aren’t just experiences. Okay? Gail.


Gail: Will you retranslate The Great Path of Awakening? [Laughter]

Ken: Uh, could you turn up the light a little bit? It’s getting a bit dark. What’s behind that, Gail?

Gail: Well, you translated that a long time ago, and it’s full of lots of jargon. I mean, they keep republishing it, but—

Ken: Yeah, I know.

Gail: I’m just putting it out there—

Ken: I did retranslate the root text.

Gail: Yeah, you did.

Ken: And got it into the newly issued translation. Shambhala won’t republish it.

Gail: I’m not concerned about that. [Laughter]

Ken: In all honesty, probably not. And the reason is that, you’ve heard me talk about differentiating mythic language from—I’m not sure what the right…Charles help.

Charles: Literal language?

Ken: Yeah, I guess so. It’s not—

Charles: Mundane language, ordinary language?

Ken: No, we gotta get something better than that. We’ll work on it. But you get what I mean. It’s very difficult in translating from the Tibetan to untangle those. For instance, what I was demonstrating with Janet earlier. That would be more difficult to do in Tibetan because the term bodhicitta, byang chub kyi sems, and the way the language works, is actually different from the way English works. It’s really quite different. So there are things that are extremely easy to say in Tibetan which are very, very difficult to say in English, and vice versa. Try asking what the meaning of life is in Tibetan? I really got caught by that one once. You almost can’t ask the question. It doesn’t make any sense in Tibetan. So on the personal level, I’m much more concerned to try to express this stuff in English, so it’s not at the top of my list.

Gail: Oh, I’m sure it’s not, but it would be somewhat valuable to have it not in that translation. It doesn’t matter whether you do it—

Ken: There’s something more going on here. What’s going on here?

Gail: Well I’ve been consulting that text with a student…

Ken: Ah!

Gail: And retranslating your translation for the student.

Ken: Excellent!

Gail: So, umm—

Ken: Why don’t you do this?

Gail: No. [Laughs]

Ken: Sounds like you already are.

Gail: You’re much more skilled.

Ken: Flattery’s not going to get you anywhere. You’re actually doing it. It’s alive.

Gail: Well, I mean I’ve had to make it come alive. That was the text she wanted to use.

Ken: Great! I look forward to it. [Laughter] Thank you! It will be very beneficial to countless sentient beings. [Laughter] Don’t you all agree that she should do this? [Laughter] Please don’t throw the mic at me. [Laughter] Eric.


Eric: You gave me a practice for working with fear, and I’ve been thinking about worry and whether that’s something one would work with the same way, or differently.

Ken: Now, I missed the first part. Do you want a practice for working with fear or—

Eric: On the retreat you gave me a practice for working with fear. And I wondered whether one would work with worry the same way?

Ken: What was the one I gave you for fear?

Eric: Seeing From the Inside.

Ken: Oh, okay. [Pause] In theory yes, but I just want to think it through for a moment. The only concern I have is that worry is a lot more diffuse than fear. At least it strikes me that way. How do you experience worry?

Eric: It’s got a thought component twisted in with the anxiety, and so it’s a lot more in the head.

Ken: Yeah, that was my caution. How do you experience worry in the body?

Eric: In the head and throat.

Ken: Nowhere else?

Eric: Probably lots of other places as well.

Ken: In general and particularly in the context of that practice, it’s very, very important to have the physical expression of those emotions. Now, a psychologist friend of mine said to me, ”Anxiety is to emotion what froth is to beer.“ It’s just stuff at the top and you want to get below that. That’s where the meat or the juice is. You may have to start with the anxiety but if you keep opening up, you’re going to find that there are stronger feelings underneath. Any form of anxiety you’re going to find that there are stronger feelings. And by working just with the anxiety you’re actually skating on the surface, if you follow. And I would imagine that the same may be true of worry. Because underneath the worry there may be something that’s actually quite scary. Either something that’s quite scary or something that you are very attached to, that is very important to you, otherwise you wouldn’t worry about it. You follow? So I think you’re probably going to do better working with those more substantial emotions than with the emotion worry itself. I think the worry will lead you there, but you need to be prepared to go there. Okay.

Eric: Thank you.


Student: Ken, before you go on, can you explain what he means by Seeing from the Inside? It’s an answer to a question that doesn’t have anything…

Ken: Page 10.

Student: If this goes on the podcast, then people won’t understand it.

Ken: Well, Seeing From the Inside refers to the Five-Step Mindfulness Practice INSERT. Pardon?

Student: From releasing emotional reactions?

Ken: Yeah.


Ralph: I’ve always found it helpful to look at my practice using the three stands of willingness, knowledge, capacity, and the one that I’ve had the hardest time with by far has always been willingness.

Ken: Oh!

Ralph: Because I find the practice is isolating. I thought that Sophie’s question of how do you introduce the concepts to people who haven’t had our experience, is a very germane one for me because I went back into a household that had no direct experience and was very threatened by it. It caused a lot of fear to arise. And so to me, I think as we go down into this practice, there are a lot of personal sacrifices. In some ways it brings up…it’s a very difficult practice for other people who are close to you to adopt. And so I wanted to ask the question about your experience with that and how somebody deals with people that get hurt by it.

Ken: Well, several things come to mind with that question, Ralph. In no particular order the first thing that came to mind was, a woman at a workshop that I did in the late 80s in Portland. And there were 20 people, a relatively small number, so I was able to ask everybody at the beginning why they were here. And everybody went around—this was second or third to the last person—to respond to this. And she said, ”My husband has practiced Zen for the last 25 years. He’s never talked to me about his practice. He’s never suggested that I should do any kind of practice myself. He just gets up in the morning and meditates. But when I left to come here, there was a little smile on his face.“ And I just found it so touching because there was such maturity in this relationship.

And so the second thing that came to mind was one of the mind training teachings: Practice intensely with little fanfare. We do this practice, and as Kongtrul points out again and again in The Seven Points of Mind Training, The Great Path of Awakening, we’re doing it for ourselves. We make use of bodhicitta and compassion, but we’re the ones who benefit from it. And he goes on to say, ”Don’t expect thanks for doing this.“ Don’t expect a pat on the back. You’re the one who benefits from this. But I’ve always enjoyed, I really like that line, Practice intensely with little fanfare. In other words, don’t make your practice public. Don’t impose it on other people. There is no need to.

And yes, you’re quite right. One of the things I’ve worked with many people on is that in a couple relationship, any couple relationship, when one person gets involved in a practice and the other person doesn’t, for the person who doesn’t it feels like the other person is having an affair.

Ralph: Right.

Ken: And there’s therefore a responsibility on the part of the person who is practicing to honor the relationship and not be the source of anxiety and fear. Now I had a wonderful time with a person who’s now a very good friend, and he’s been extraordinarily helpful to me in my own life, but he started off as a student. And he was a Fox News Republican when he started with me. Very, very aggressive, hard driving business guy. But there was one great thing about him. If I said, ”Do this,“ he just did it. And the twelve, fourteen years I worked with him I don’t think he missed more than two days of meditation. ”You said to do that, okay, I meditate a half hour every day. That’s it.“ Travel, doesn’t make any difference, he just did it. So there are certain good qualities there. But when he got involved with me, his wife just went straight through the roof. And like many people, and this is what we tend to do. When we get involved in something such as practice, it’s tremendously important to us and we want to share that with people who are close to us. One word of advice: don’t. Because they don’t understand for the same reasons that they don’t have the experience, it’s not there. Anyway, he wanted to talk to his wife about it and she from her point of view, he had just gotten involved in a cult and it was six of one whether their marriage was going to last or not. That was her experience.

Ralph: Sometimes early in your practice we’re not that wise.

Ken: I agree.

Ralph: My experience was it was taking my time away from the family to meditate at night, in particular when that would be a traditional time when we would be together.

Ken: Ato Rinpoche who’s a wonderful teacher in England, he married in England and had a daughter, and he was very clear. Family always came first. If he was meditating and his daughter came up and needed attention, that was it [snaps fingers]. And this is what it means: Practice intensely with little fanfare. You find a way of practicing so it isn’t an imposition on your family.

And in this case that I’m describing, about two years later, I received an invitation to this person’s, at that point 60th birthday party. And I was very surprised because the invitation came from his wife. So I went and hung around, chatted with people, and then as I was leaving I said goodbye to him and then went to say goodbye to her. And she just pulled me aside and said, ”Ken, you know I’m never going to meditate, but I have benefited from it.“ [Laughter] And this is what is the result of practicing intensely with little fanfare. There’s another—I remember it was in the Shambhala Sun years and years ago—that kids were interviewed about their parents practicing. And one young girl said it all, ”My daddy is a better daddy when he practices.“

Ralph: I remember a story you told, I think, about a young lady who goes toward Buddhism from a Roman Catholic family, and her family is perplexed by this, and she just decides to give up the practice and go home. And she writes back to her instructor and says, ”They sure hate me when I’m a Buddhist and they sure like me when I act like the Buddha.” [Ken laughs]

Ken: Yeah, that’s not my story, so thank you. I’ll add that.

So yes, I was young and stupid. Most of us were young and stupid, and so, people do get hurt by it, you’re quite right. But my advice is, yes, take your practice seriously, but practice it in a way in which it is not an imposition on other people, and that will require some dedication and some effort.

Now the other side of your question is also very relevant. I think this is somewhat true of the nature of a pluralistic society as opposed to societies where everybody is a Buddhist or everybody is this or everybody is that. As one develops a relationship with attention and awareness and compassion, or any of a number of themes in Buddhism, it’s human nature that you want to talk about it with somebody. That would be really nice. And it can be difficult to find people with whom to have those conversations. And so yes, there is a loneliness that can arise. That’s part of the practice. If you live in a place like the Bay area, there’s much less of that because there are Buddhists coming out of the woodwork, Buddhist teachers coming out of the woodwork. But when I first came to Los Angeles there were relatively little Buddhists active. There’s far, far more now, and it’s been that way in town after town in America that people have found themselves the only practicing Buddhist within 500 miles or something. And that has changed very significantly. It is good to find people with whom you can have those kinds of conversations. The Internet makes it much easier than it used to be to do that. But it is an aspect of practice that most of us have to deal with.

Ralph: Thank you.

Ken: Okay. I think we’ll stop here and just do a short bit—unless you’ve got something burning.

Student: I have nothing, I was going to scrape something up but—

Ken: You have 24 hours [laughter]. So we expect some really juicy scrapings here. Okay, let’s just take a minute or two stretch and move around and then we’ll 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.