I’m going to flog a dead horse tonight. They say not to do that but, you know. Could you get me a tea towel?
Ralph: A tea towel?
Ken: Thanks Ralph. While Ralph’s getting that any questions that anybody would like to ask? Yes, Charles?
Charles: Is Pema Tötreng Tsal [padma thod phreng rtsal] the embodiment of the enlightened aspect of some emotional quality?
Ken: I’m not really conversant with Nyingma iconography. Pema Tötreng Tsal is one of the manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava, and you know, he’s got 25,000 different manifestations. But I think he’s one of the principal ones. The one where he’s holding a vajra like this and a skull-cup or long-life elixir like this. And there’s another one where he’s holding like this. I’m not sure which is which. But he’s not a yidam in this. This is a manifestation of the guru. And so if you’re doing guru yoga you might imagine, in the Nyingma tradition, you might imagine your guru in the form of Pema Tötreng Tsal or Guru Padmasambhava or any of the other manifestations. Okay?
Ralph: I’m not sure what a tea towel is.
Ken: This is perfect, thank you. This is exactly what I wanted. Okay.
So, we’re going to talk a little but, actually I’m going to talk a lot about resting. Maybe I’m going to talk a lot about it because I find it is one of the most important and also one of the most difficult aspects of practice. That may not be the case for some of you—we all have our strengths and weaknesses. And see, one of the things that’s quite delightful—and this is very rarely discussed in Western Buddhist circles—is the issue of talent. You know, in every other area of life it’s recognized that some people are good at some things and other people are good at other things. But because of the strong egalitarian impulses in our society, nobody wants to discuss the notion of religious or spiritual talent and yet it’s all over the place.
I mean the whole tulku system in Tibet was based on talent and recognition of talent. And behind that lurks a competitive monster. Nobody wants to admit that somebody may be better than them or something like that. It’s wonderful. But there are people who have found certain aspects of meditation very, very easy and others who find the same aspects extremely difficult and vice versa.
When I first came to Los Angeles, there was a woman associated with the center that I was sent to administer who could visualize just like that [Ken snaps fingers], just so easily. She could sit down, she was Chenrezi and the world was Sukhavati. That was that; nothing to it. Didn’t help her practice. That’s the other thing, you know. And there are people who can just sit down and rest. Other people who can see into things but they can’t rest.
So, resting, well there’s this way of resting. See, this is the pea, okay? This is stuff that is in our system. [Ken places items on table.] Anybody have any of that? So, this is one way of resting. In fact this is the most common way of resting. You know, you just rest and you rest on top of it. And you think, “Oh, what a good boy am I.” You know, “Because I’m resting here.” This is very, very common. There is no mixing of internal material and attention. It’s like oil and water.
I’ve worked with a number of people for whom this has been their practice, and they’ve learned to rest. But they have absolutely zero ability to rest in material. They’re fine as long as everything is above it and they can actually have quite blissful and steady states. But as soon as they get up from that they’re a jerk because there hasn’t been any mixing of the material.
Then there’s the second kind of resting. You see, I haven’t been meditating today at all—been thinking a lot. There’s this kind. [Ken writes on board.] This is something of an improvement—but only so much. You know, there’s a certain acceptance of the material, but there’s still a very definitely a holding. And that holding away from the material can be quite subtle; it really can be quite subtle.
Then there’s the third way, which is why I asked Ralph for the tea towel. See? Now you’re offering no resistance to the material so it comes into attention. See? We can see nicely the outlines of the material very easily. Right? This is the way to rest. And you’re going to feel a lot when you do this.
Now, it’s a little bit strange for some people, because as they rest the mind and body relax and then they feel all of these subtle little bumps. And there’s a good deal of meditation teaching which says all of those subtle little bumps are distractions. Ignore them. Which takes us back to something like that.
I have found quite consistently that when it comes to meditation and spiritual practice, you ignore at your own risk. Inevitably what you ignore comes back to bite you. To put it in another way, when you don’t allow something to come into your experience, there are two things that start to happen. One is, it doesn’t come into experience because it’s being kept out. And then there’s the activity or the action of keeping it out, of blocking it—however you do that.
Now, as many of you have already described to me, and you know from your own practice before coming here, when you rest deeply you raise the level of energy in your whole system. Things become clear, you know, experience becomes more vivid, the body feels lighter, etc.—these are all signs of energy being raised.
Energy is very egalitarian, it goes everywhere in the system. In particular when you raise energy in the system it goes to both what you’re keeping out of awareness and also the mechanism for keeping it out of awareness. It goes there as well as it goes everywhere else. The consequence of that is that what is operating out of awareness begins to operate more strongly. And the blocking mechanism operates more strongly. Getting the picture, Nick? Sounding a little too familiar?
Over time, you end up torn in two, necessarily, and you see this phenomenon in many, many teachers. It’s particularly common in yoga teachers who work with pranayama. And you can tell because—not all of them—many of them have a kind of strain in their face. You ever notice that? Because they’re exerting so much control and they have to keep exerting more and more control to keep that stuff out of attention.
And how it shows up in behavior is that people who are doing this will have these areas of their lives which are somewhat out of control. Maybe obsession with sex, money, power—they’re the usual culprits. It can be other stuff, but those are the usual ones. When they’re teaching they can be extremely good, but in other parts of their lives you go, “Huh?” And there’s a lack of integration because they haven’t allowed a particular area of their life into their practice.
So, when you’re resting, rest completely. And if there’s a little thing over there which you think, “Argh, I don’t what to touch that,” that’s your red flag. And that’s about all the red flag you get. After that, it’s blocked—you don’t get another red flag. So you have to pay attention to that, “Hmm, I know, I don’t want to deal with that.” Next red flag you get, things will probably be fairly seriously out of balance and…you’re grinning Ralph.
Ralph: Yeah I can relate. [Laughter]
Ken: So, you can consider that as one point of flogging the dead horse. It’s why in the interviews, some of you may have noticed, I’ve been poking around a little bit. Nobody’s noticed that? I’ll have to poke harder.
There’s kind of a theme for this retreat, because there was a person who contacted me because of the podcasts, a Zen practitioner. And he was describing his practice. And I was feeling in a kind of ornery mood that day, I suppose, so I just said, “I guess you don’t take the bodhisattva vow in Zen (which is the four vows) very seriously.” And he went, “WHAT!?”
The four vows in the Zen tradition go, approximately, I think I mentioned the other night:
Sentient beings are infinite: I vow to save them all.
Emotional reactions are limitless: I vow to release them all.
Dharma gates are infinite: I vow to enter them all.
Awakening is limitless: I vow to engage it all.
Now, these are very profound. And what is often not noticed is that in these four lines there is a progression which describes the progression that takes place in practice. And this links up, to a certain extent, to what I was talking about last night in terms of mythic language.
First line, Sentient beings are infinite: I vow to save them all. Well, on the one hand this is the basic expression of compassion. Work for the benefit of sentient beings. But then we have to consider, what is a sentient being? Anybody care to take a crack at that one? Dana’s just sitting there. “Not a chance, I’m not going to touch this one.” Ken, what is a sentient being?
Student Ken: I believe from a Buddhist perspective it’s a living being that has consciousness, possesses consciousness. Wouldn’t include plants.
Ken: It depends on your school of Buddhism actually. Yeah, that’s the usual Buddhist notion; yeah, I’m not interested in that.
Student Ken: Well then you…you pose a profound mystery. There’s no…how do you answer such a question? What is life?
Ken: Well exactly, but I want to hear what you have to say about what a sentient being actually is.
Student Ken: You mean as opposed to a non-sentient being, like a rock.
Ken: No, I’m just…Charles.
Charles: In the Platform Sutra Huineng edits the four great vows a little bit. He says,
Beings in my own mind are infinite: I vow to save them all.
Ken: Yeah. What’s your point? Sounded good, but what’s your point?
Charles: I heard you explain this before.
Ken: Ah. But it’s no good parroting my words back to me—you need to do that somewhere else.
Charles: Okay, so I can only engage with other sentient beings as they manifest in my experience.
Ken: I’m lost, start again. You know, too many big words in that sentence. I’m a bear of very little brain—make it easy for me. [Laughter]
Ken: She doesn’t trust me now. [Laughter]
Charles: When you say things like that I don’t trust you either.
Ken: You’re learning. [Laughter] What is a sentient being, Charles?
Ken: Right. It’s an experience. Good. Everybody got that? Nick?
Ken: Have you got that?
Ken: It’s an experience.
Student: Right. How would, then, one distinguish a sentient being from any other experience? For example the experience of stubbing your toe or…?
Ken: Well, I think it was very rude of that rock to hit my toe; it must have willed it. [Laughter] In the burnt offering you have local demons and regional demons and all of that.
Ken: That’s exactly what they’re talking about. They’re investing these experiences with a mind, and it’s all part of the mystery that you were referring to.
Okay, so sentient beings are experiences and that’s what links to the second line because what happens when we have a problem with a certain experience called a sentient being? You’re game for this one aren’t you, Leslie?
Leslie: A problem?
Ken: Yeah, you have a problem with this experience called a sentient being. What happens in you?
Leslie: You…you grasp or…
Ken: Yeah, there’s a reactive emotion comes flying up right?
Leslie: Yeah, yeah.
Ken: So, Sentient beings are infinite; I vow to save them all. Reactive emotions are infinite; I vow to release them all. You’re moving inwards, you see?
Now, what happens when you’re completely cornered by a reactive emotion? Have any of you found yourself completely cornered by a reactive emotion?
Student: You can’t see.
Ken: Yeah, over this way it’s hell, over this way it’s hell, over this way it’s hell. So you turn around and guess what, it’s hell right behind you. Now what? What choice do you have at that point?
Student: You don’t have any choices.
Ken: Yes. This is one of the best things that can happen to you in your dharma practice because when you don’t have any choice, what’s the only thing you can do?
Ken: Yeah, you have to experience exactly what’s there—you don’t have any choice—there’s no way out. What do you find then?
Student: It eventually goes away.
Student: It eventually goes away, it may come again another day.
Larry: Maybe the third line.
Larry: The third line.
Ken: You’re going to have to say more, Larry.
Larry: Well, you’re with the experience that you have rather than the one you’re looking for.
Larry: You relate to that.
Ken: Yeah, you have to relate to it. What happens when you start relating to it?
Larry: Then there’s further texture and further experience and possibility that wasn’t there when you were trying to get away.
Ken: In the late 80s, I had a friend who worked a great deal with people who had AIDS and this was before the drug cocktails, so most of these people were dying. Some of the people that he tended as they were dying had some fairly interesting things to say. Two that I remember: “Philosophies melt like ice cubes in the presence of death.” I always thought that was pretty good. The other one was, “Gates look like corners until you go through them.” When you get completely cornered it’s actually at that point that you find a gate. And that takes, as Larry pointed out, into the third line. So, every one of those reactive emotions is a potential gate. Every sentient being is a potential reactive emotion; every reactive emotion is a potential gate. And yes, you’ll be able to get to the fourth one fairly easy. What is every gate? It’s a potential awakening. Yeah.
So, this formulation of the bodhisattva vow in the Zen tradition is a way, it leads us from regarding experience as external to opening up to the possibility of awakening in each moment of experience. Very powerful. The reason I’m making a big deal of it this evening is that there’s a word that is common to all four lines. What is it? Well, I suppose it’s not really common, there’s an idea, a theme that’s common to all four lines.
Student: This infinite….
Ken: Yeah, infinite.
Student: …which is no reference point.
Ken: Well, it is no reference point, but it’s everything, right? And so right in this is a sense of relating to the totality of our experience, which is exactly the point I was trying to make earlier. We find this in the traditional teachings. It’s expressed often more poetically, not as rationally as I’ve been talking about it. And because it is expressed poetically, people often miss the point. They either take it literally and think they have to save every sentient being, which gets a little tricky. Or they just think, “Oh that’s nice,” and they don’t really take in the meaning that it’s pointing to—which is this is the totality of our experience. And our practice is working with the totality of our experience.
What time do we have? Could you just turn that around? Okay, you could just put it down there. Thanks. Okay.
So, one of the things I thought I’d do this evening, ’cause I want to—I’m just in the mood for flogging dead horses, that’s all there is to it—I want to look at Verses on the Faith Mind, page 44. I’m not going to give an exhaustive or profound commentary on this. But I just want to go through this, and I don’t know how far we’ll get. But exploring it from the point of view of applying this principle of resting. So the first two lines,
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
What happens to preferences when you rest?
Student: They see them.
Ken: You see them. Okay anybody else?
Student: They might dissolve—eventually.
Student: Eventually. They’re very strong.
Ken: Say more Randy.
Randy: You know, the stories start arising and what you think you see clearly is now muddled because you’ve attached something to it.
Ken: This is what happens when you rest?
Randy: Sometimes, yes.
Ken: Okay. Well let’s take it a little further. There you are and you’re just resting and you notice, “I like this, I don’t like that.” What do you do at that point?
Randy: Sometimes start over.
Ken: When you start over what do you do with, “I like this, I don’t like that?”
Randy: [Unclear] [Laughter]
Ken: I got to love your honesty. [Laughter] This is very helpful. In light of what we were just talking about [laughter] what are you going to do next time?
Ken: Okay and then what happens?
Randy: It can be a struggle, conflict.
Student: Rest in that conflict.
Ken: Then what happens?
Randy: Hopefully then the conflict would open something up.
Ken: Let’s forget about hopefully.
Randy: Something would open up between the two.
Ken: Is that your experience?
Randy: Yes. Sometimes to fall to another conflict.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Nancy.
Nancy: Well, I guess in meditation, normally, preferences don’t seem to have much substantial nature to me.
Nancy: And so I’ve never thought that I was, you know, blocking or ignoring it. They just don’t seem to have much weight.
Ken: Preferences arise, as Randy was describing. And you experience this conflict and this tension as I’m inferring from what you’re saying because you’re holding a position, right? Now, can you rest if you hold a position?
Ken: Okay. What happens if you let go of that position and just rest? Now, granted, that can be like prying one’s fingers away from the very principle you regard to be the center of your life and you don’t let go easily. Know a little about that. Where’d the mallet go? Ah, there. But if you don’t actually hold a position, what happens?
Student: There’s a crack, a little gate.
Ken: How does that feel?
Student: Sometimes I want to kind of stay above it and be in it but sometimes a little too dangerous.
Ken: Like this?
Student: Nooo, the other one. [Laughter] Sometimes you don’t want to go over the edge, you just kind of want to look.
Ken: Okay, are you resting then?
Student: No, there’s agitation.
Ken: Yeah. So how do you rest?
Student: In it.
Student: In that crevice.
Ken: Whatever’s there, yeah.
So, as Nancy says, when we actually rest, then “Like this, don’t like that”—they subside, they dissolve. Now, please don’t get the idea that you can make them dissolve. This is hubris of a very problematic sort. As human beings, particularly in this culture, we’re quite deeply conditioned to regard ourselves masters of our fate. That we can decide what our life is going to be and it will manifest like that. Now, for how many of you has that actually been the case? But we carry that idea very, very deeply in us. And it comes up in many, many peoples’ meditations. They think, “Oh, I’m going to just stop liking that and I will just start liking that.” You know this one, Janet? How does it work?
Janet: Very, very poorly.
Ken: Yeah, but we do it anyway, don’t we? We do it all over the place. A lot of the time we’re doing it because it’s what’s expected socially. But in spiritual practice, it really doesn’t work, because now we’re dealing with an artificial creation and not with how things actually are. And this is why I asked Ralph for the tea towel. Because if we have one of those positions and we experience it then it doesn’t just dissolve. There’s a lump there. Can you rest with the lump? Not this way resting, but this way resting.
To do this, that is, to let our attention actually, let’s say, join with the lump, you know, mix with the lump, assume the shape of the lump, however you want, we have to let go of being someone. Of being what we want to be or what we think we should be, etc., etc. In fact, we don’t get to decide what we are—what we experience determines what we are. This is how we begin to become truly responsive to the world of our experience. That’s why it says
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised. Now, I have no idea what the actual Chinese is but I would be inclined to translate that slightly differently and say,
When attraction and aversion are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised, because I like to keep the words love and hate for other things. But what this line is referring to is continuing the theme of preferences, of course. When we’re attracted to something, we are pulled off balance. When we are averse to something, we actually push ourselves off balance in the actual pushing away. That’s why in Buddhism we have the three poisons which are attraction, aversion and indifference. They are called the three poisons because they poison our experience. Karen?
Karen: Yeah, I’ve always had a question about this one. I was reading something by His Holiness that said, well, maybe we shouldn’t love our children so much, you know. And my experience with kids who’ve been raised in spiritual families—where their parents kind of spread everything around and didn’t treat them as more beloved than other children—those kids, and maybe there were a lot of unconscious elements going on there, like, here I’m talking about Quakers mostly, but those kids got really fucked up. So, how do you apply that to one’s child or children?
Ken: Okay, see that’s a very good question. The way that I would interpret what His Holiness said, and I wasn’t there when he said it or….
Karen: It was in one of his books.
Ken: Okay, so I don’t know the context.
Ken: Is not the kind of equanimous or pseudo-equanimity that you’re describing that operates you know… There’s a song by a guy called Dan Berryman who’s having an argument with his girlfriend and his girlfriend says, “Do you love me?” And he says, “I love everyone.” [Laughter]
Student: What a dodge.
Ken: So his girlfriend says, “That’s just a way of saying you love no one.” So, I think that’s some of what you’re referring to there, and that’s definitely a problem, because the child isn’t feeling love from the parent. Now, in the parent-child relationship, attention, and it’s usually attention in the form of love, flows from parent to child. And when that happens the child grows up in the right way.
But in our culture, not a few parents have really serious attention needs and they demand attention from the child. They want the child to tell them that they love them all the time. So, the child now feels that they are responsible for loving the parent. Children love their parents quite naturally—they just may not express it the way that the parent wants. But by the parent requiring this love to be very, very explicit, then the child experiences a demand and this screws up the child. Really problematic. And I think that’s maybe what the Dalai Lama was referring to that: trying to make the love too explicit, if you see what I mean. So it’s another way of looking at it.
Karen: Yeah, I can’t remember the context.
Karen: But how does this apply to [unclear]?
Ken: Well, this is why I don’t want to use the words love and hate here. I prefer to use the words attraction and aversion, which are reactive processes, as you know. In attraction, we’re trying to own what we experience. In aversion, we’re trying to ignore or to push away what we experience. And those prevent us from seeing things clearly.
I mean how many of you remember falling in love for the first time? Okay. How well did you see your partner? [Laughter]
It’s because this attraction is just booming out there, and your best friend says, “You don’t want to get involved with this person.” And you say, “You don’t understand, all the pop songs make sense for the first time in my life.” He says, “Yes I know, that’s why I’m really worried about you.”
And the same with aversion. I had a business situation come up with someone and it just made me so angry. Fortunately, I was involved with another person in it. So I just said to him, “You’ve got to handle this because I can’t see things clearly.” And so he did, he wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I was. I was just, “Argh.” I was also sick at the time, which may have helped.
You can’t see things when you’re angry, when you’re actively pushing things away. So this is why it says, When attraction and aversion are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Now, attraction and aversion are not the same as liking and not liking. You can like something and see it clearly. What it requires is the capability of being in the experience of liking.
Let me give you an example. Pick a person or object to which you’re attracted. Somebody you’d like to connect with or are connected with or something that you’d like to own or have exposure to. And let yourself feel the desire. So just imagine this object or person in front of you right now and feel the desire.
Now, how do you experience the desire in your body? So just let yourself feel however you experience the desire in your body. Maybe it’s something in the heart, maybe it’s something in the stomach Maybe it’s something in the hands, it’s possible, maybe it’s something in your eyes—maybe it’s all of that. Just let you feel yourself experience how that desire, how it manifests in your body.
And then include all of the emotions associated with it: longing, yearning, wanting. But there may be others—guilt, shame, pride. Maybe there’s an opening of the heart. We include that. Maybe there’s fear, include that.
So, you have the physical expression of that desire and all of the emotional expression of that desire. And now include all the stories, “My life will be complete.” “I deserve this.” “I don’t deserve this.” Whatever the stories are. They’ll be different for each one of you. And there may be many stories and they may not be logically consistent—they often aren’t.
So, you have the physical experience of desire, you have the emotional expression, and you have all of the stories. Now just sit in the whole thing. Experience all of these aspects, dimensions of the desires, experience it completely. Now look at the object of your desire. How do you experience it now? Him, her, or it. Anybody?
Student: As a composite.
Ken: As a composite? Say more.
Student: Well it’s a combination of emotions, body sensations, whatever story you were telling. It’s no longer an object, it’s an experience.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else?
Student: A slight shift in that flash of the person. It was like noticing before, all the other stuff got generated. It just, like touching [unclear] for an instant.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else?
Student: The attraction is gone but the liking. But do you think desire and liking are the same, in your…?
Ken: Well, just use your own words there, forget about mine.
Student: The liking might stay….
Ken: The liking’s there.
Student: …maybe like a pleasant feeling.
Student: But the attraction…
Ken: That trying to own is gone.
Student: …is gone, yeah, now the exaggeration that you project on the object is gone.
Ken: Okay. Anybody else find that? Yeah. This is what happens. This is actually how you transform a reactive emotion—by experiencing it. And then the emotion is transformed. So the liking is still there, and that’s why I say you can like something and see clearly. But it’s the attraction, the needing, that distorts things. You can do exactly the same thing with aversion. You can do it with all of the three poisons, you can do it with all the reactive emotions.
Student: …the liking here is not a reactive emotion [unclear]?
Ken: No, no. I mean, in certain sense, if it’s with a person, it’s just an opening of your heart. I hung around Rinpoche and Karmapa enough to know that they certainly liked certain things and didn’t like others.
Rinpoche was particularly amusing. Because when Rinpoche first came to Canada, he stayed at my parent’s farm. And we didn’t have much money at that point. The main patrons of the visit had fallen through. So, I made oatmeal for him and his attendants every morning. I learned many years later Rinpoche hated oatmeal. He regarded it as horse food and wouldn’t touch it. His attendants, they just said, “This is really good, you should have some.” Rinpoche said, “No.” However, my mother had a recipe for oatmeal-lace cookies, which, you know, are rather delicate oatmeal cookies—very light. And she would cook up a batch, take them to Rinpoche, and they would disappear just like that. He loved them. So it’s the real lesson about like.
Student Ken: Well, how would that relate that to preferences then? We do tend to prefer what we like….
Student Ken: It’s a different kind of….
Ken: Well, they operate and we’re often confused by preferences. If you want to see things clearly, we have to open to the experience of preference, just the way that I went through the experience of attraction. And then we will see things clearly. But that involves letting go of the preference. In order to experience the preference, you have to let go of the preference. Do you understand? You can’t be engaged in the preferring, you have to go into the experience of preferring.
Student Ken: Ah, yeah.
Ken: You see?
Student Ken: You mean…oh, I see, so the preference that one transcends is the detached, the distant, objectivized kind of….
Ken: Actually it isn’t objectivized, and this is a very important point, cause we’re so used to thinking in those terms in this culture that we take a step back.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Yeah, this is actually not the case. From the Buddhist point of view, we do not take a step back, we take a step forward.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Into the experience.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: But in…in our language it’s always called, you know, take a step back and see it objectively.
Student Ken: Yeah, yeah.
Ken: That isn’t what we did….
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: …with the attraction, that little meditation I just led you through with desire. We didn’t take a step back and look at the desire objectively. And then weigh it and all of that nice conceptual stuff.
Student Ken: No I meant this is what one avoids doing.
Ken: Yeah, you step into the experience of desire….
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: …and now it changes.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Larry: What I got from what Ken was saying is that a preference is a posture towards something rather than the experience of it.
Student Ken: Yes, that’s true, yeah, sorry I missed that. Yeah, okay, but that…
Larry: That’s what he meant.
Ken: Yeah, okay thank you, Larry.
Okay, so we’re making great progress here: four lines.
…everything becomes clear and undisguised.
And you know, just the next two lines—type them up, put them on your refrigerator, just memorize them, paint them onto your forehead in reverse type so you see it whenever you look in the mirror in the morning.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
These are wonderful lines, because you’re talking about separating from experience. And as soon as you do that, you create heaven and earth, or you create heaven and hell. Heaven and earth. In the Chinese system, you have heaven and earth and harmony arises when heaven and earth are interacting with each other. This is what the I Ching is about. But when you set them apart, then chaos and disorder and imbalance arise.
If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
Now, I want you to take note of these, in particular in respect to meditation practice, because it is wanting things to be one way and not wanting them to be the other that actually prevents one from resting in the experience of what is. We don’t have any call on what arises in experience.
I was giving a talk when asked to cover for a teacher at a center in Los Angeles, and somebody asked a question about meditation: “What to do with all the thoughts?” And I said, “Well, do you control what your next thought’s going to be?” And he went, “Hmm, sometimes.” And this is a line, I can’t remember where I got it from, but I just love it. “Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious animal in the world.” [Laughter] And everybody just collapsed in laughter because it [unclear] away.
Amoeba doesn’t have anything to do with meditation practice, but I mention amoeba and what do you think about? So, it’s the circumstances outside us that determine what arises. And there’s the classic one you know, “I want you to pay very careful attention—don’t think about an elephant.”
We don’t have any call on what arises in experience. We like to think we do, we like to think we control our experience. Particularly when we’re meditating, we really like to think we control our experience. But we don’t. All we can do is be there and meet to the best of our ability what arises.
Sometimes very little arises, then you have the experience of resting. Sometimes it’s rather chaotic. And what happens when it’s rather chaotic is preferences start to operate like crazy. Like, “I want it to be quiet.” “I don’t want all this activity.” “How do I calm my thoughts,” etc., etc.
One could explore the possibility of resting in the chaos. Just, it’s a mess, can’t do anything about it, so just sit there and rest.
In the first three-year retreat, we did a lot of yidam practice. These are big, long, heavy meditations. The setup of the meditation was a minimum ten minutes, often twenty, twenty-five minutes. Reading all the visualizations and going through all the initial rituals and these kinds of offerings and this and that and then setting it all up. So by the time we hit the third major one of these, we did Chakrasamvara first, and then we did rgyud sde lha lgna, and then Vajrayogini was the third one. Actually, no we did two…no we just did the one, Chakrasamvara, that’s right.
And by the time we hit the third one, we were pretty tired. You know, we were doing these three months at a time. Every meditation session was very long elaborate visualizations and rituals and mantras—just thousands and thousands of mantras.
And one person had had it at this point. When he hit Vajrayogini, he said, “I’m done.” So, at the beginning of every meditation period, he’d open the text, read through the whole up to where he meant to do the mantra meditation, and closed the text and just sat there for the rest of the period. Didn’t do any mantras, any visualizations whatsoever. Afterwards he said he felt more connection with Vajrayogini than he did with any of the other yidams. [Laughter]
Sit in the mess. Just sit in the mess. It’s hard, no doubt, but it’s one of the most valuable things you can learn from your practice is to sit in the mess and not exercise preference. Not try to make it into something other than it is. This has huge benefits in daily life, because you can come into really messy situations and you can just be there. “This is a really messy situation,” and not try to fix anything. And then the rest of the lines that we’ve just read come into play. Because you’re not trying to fix anything or you don’t have any ideas about how it should be, you have a good chance of actually seeing how things are. And thus your actions can be more appropriate. So this is very, very valuable.
At a certain point, your mind will be completely clear, there will be no thoughts at all, etc. etc., etc. Sounds very nice, but in the circumstances in which we live, doesn’t happen all that often. And so you read these instructions and think, “Oh, well I should give up my life and go retire to the monastery and spend the rest of my days in tranquility.” Right? We live very active lives, we live very complex lives. So, most of the time when we sit down to meditate, there’s going to be a lot going on.
Learning how to rest in the mess—which is actually surprisingly possible—helps you develop an effective practice without creating these artificial quiet zones.
There’s a group that I used to do a little practice with down in Orange County, south of L.A. And I always thought it was tremendously amusing, because they took great care to make sure all the doors were completely closed and sealed so there would be no outside noise. The irony was, they had one of these old phone answering machines which even when it was turned off—you know, so it didn’t ring— it sounded like a combination of a blender and a coffee grinder. [Laughter]
But I actually encourage students to meditate with a certain amount of ambient noise so you learn to let the mind rest.
Now, we’re very fortunate here. Part of the reason I like this place is because it’s very open and the mind is naturally open with the very big sky and the big view, etc. It’s very, very helpful. But we have the wind blowing and doves cooing and coyotes yapping late at night and all kinds of the things. And that’s fine, we can rest in that, not a problem.
Okay, it’s 8:06 we might even end on time.
Questions? Anything. Anything we’ve talked about this evening, anything coming up in your practice? Yes, Ken?
Student Ken: Well, if we’re truly resting in the mahamudra sense of resting—and I’m not sure what I exactly mean by that but—we’re resting. Doesn’t it not matter—I mean, anything that comes up in terms of preferences in the mind or whether I should do this, whether I should do that, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They’re just to be seen as what arises and dissolves, as manifestations of the nature of mind. That’s the mahamudra view. So whatever arises, you just be with it and it dissolves. I don’t understand why there is a problem there. If you’re actually practicing from the point of view, if you’re actually doing that?
The other thing I want to know is, you said that you can’t do anything about the arising and dissolution of whatever arises, but we know that if you look at what arises it does dissolve.
Student Ken: Not all the time.
Ken: Not all the time. Not immediately. Okay. In your question there’s a certain use of language which is quite important. You see, you know, in the mahamudra way of practicing, there isn’t a you.
Student Ken: Right.
Ken: So you don’t see anything. You don’t dissolve anything.
Student Ken: Right.
Ken: Okay. It happens. That’s very different from doing and it’s a very important distinction. It happens because attention is at a sufficiently high level that when a thought arises….
Student Ken: You’re aware of it, right?
Ken: Actually, in mahamudra, it’s like snow flakes falling on a hot rock. So, what I want to move away from here is what I’m hearing in your language, of having a certain experience, because then we’re trying to take ownership of something. The way that I’m trying to move away from that is by emphasizing this quality of resting, which can only be done by letting go of control of one’s experience.
Student Ken: Yeah, right.
Ken: This goes back to what I was discussing yesterday,
No working at anything.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: And I think I said, it was either yesterday or the night before, I talked a little about distinguishing between method and result. What you’re describing is in the realm of result. It’s not something we do.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: And this is a very, very important distinction. Because if we try to practice a result then we’re making up an experience. And there are lots of people who do this all over the place, but nothing can ever come of that because we’re actually fabricating something. And that’s why I’m, you know, being very clay-footed, in a sense. Just rest without distraction. Whenever you feel an attempt to control what you’re experiencing, just open to what’s there to the best of your ability. And whenever you’re trying to make something happen, or work at something, or develop something—let that go too. That is how you practice. Everything else takes care of itself.
Student Ken: I once asked Sogyal Rinpoche what the difference was between vipashyana practice on the Sutrayana level and dzogchen vipashyana or mahamudra vipashyana. And he said that the difference was that the dzogchen practice is effortless. So is this the kind of fruition you’re talking about?
Ken: Well again…
Student Ken: As opposed to method?
Ken: Exactly. That’s exactly the point. What a lot of people don’t appreciate about dzogchen practice is that it assumes a very high level of attention.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: So things just arise, just like that.
Student Ken: Right.
Ken: And that’s why it’s effortless. Of course, what they don’t talk about is all the effort that went into developing that high level of attention.
Student Ken: Right. Yeah.
Ken: But if you don’t have that high level of attention, you’re just kidding yourself.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: Which, you know, hundreds and hundreds of people do.
Student Ken: So, the methods that you showed us the first talk and the second talk, are they our methods of developing attention?
Ken: Exactly, yeah, that’s right. And this business of resting at the end of the out-breath or doing the primary practice, and there are many, many others, these are ways that you build a capacity in attention.
Student Ken: Yeah.
Ken: One of the frameworks I’ve come to use is officially known as the McLeod’s WKC Model. It is so named by somebody in Atlanta. Willingness, know-how, and capacity—that’s the WKC. This is a very wide range of application but we’ve talked in a number of ways about willingness. Randy’s description of his experience with preference is about being willing to step into that openness. And there’s very definitely a question, “Nah, I don’t really want to go there.” We need a certain willingness just to step into our experience even though it may be very, very unfamiliar to us. And without that willingness, nothing happens.
We also need a certain amount of know-how, which we can define as skill. Just skill in doing things. Knowing how to work with experience. We also need a certain capacity.
If you think of swimming, say, willingness is the willingness to jump into the water—without that you’re never going to go swimming. Know-how is knowing how to make the strokes, you know, crawl, or breaststroke, or sidestroke, or whatever. Capacity is having the strength and lung capacity. That’s what one develops in training. One develops a certain amount of skill but a tremendous amount of training in athletics, it’s all about developing capacity. Because usually if you’re going into athletics, you already have the skill—you are going to have to develop the capacity if you’re really going to compete.
How this shows up in meditation—particularly with something like mahamudra or dzogchen, is that people will hear things and they will try to understand them. And in trying to understand them they primarily use their intellect which is completely ineffective. Most of the time what they’re trying to understand would be completely transparent if they put the energy into developing capacity. It’s the fundamental weakness in most people’s practice.
It isn’t the willingness; occasionally there are problems with willingness. Know-how. In Tibet, they had many more problems with know-how. Its people who practice meditation did some really strange things. But because of our education system, etc., we learn how to do things very, very quickly. We’re very good at teaching methods—at how to convey skills and things like that. And people learn very quickly because they’ve been trained to learn. So that’s usually not a problem, very rarely is it a problem in actually developing a skill.
But capacity is the big one. So people, when they don’t have a certain experience, they try to understand it with the feeling or the belief that if they understand it then they will have the experience. And it never works that way, it never works. And you have to be patient with yourself and build the capacity. Okay?
Student Ken: Yeah, thank you.
Randy: Why is there a differentiation? Maybe that is the intention, to carry mahamudra practice into other areas like impermanence and death, which you can use it as a basis…
Ken: If you do, it becomes extremely powerful. One usually uses impermanence and death, at least initially, to develop willingness. And it also helps to develop some capacity. But in, for instance, the way Wake Up To Your Life is laid out—and this is how it’s done traditionally—people are introduced to death and impermanence fairly early as a way of helping them let go of social agendas, social notions of success and failure in their lives; and so that they can really start to pour their energy into their spiritual practice. But if you’ve cultivated some ability in mahamudra, then you experience very viscerally that all there is is the coming and going of experience and there is no one there—as far as the ultimate impermanence. So, as I’ve said, it becomes very powerful. Yeah? Vladimir?
Vladimir: Technically isn’t the case that we’re not yet at the level of mahamudra…?
Vladimir: We’re not yet introduced to the mahamudra, which is practicing shamatha which is shamatha….
Ken: Yeah, exactly, yeah.
Vladimir: In fact you said that you’re not even going to teach us the view of mahamudra. Ken  mentioned the view….
Ken: Well, I’m going to get there, but, yeah…
Vladimir: Yeah, but we have the…
Ken: No, no, no. Right now my concern in these first three days of this retreat is building capacity, because I want to be able to go there. I want you to have the capacity, so that’s why I’ve been focusing very, very much on building capacity.
Any other questions? Which doesn’t mean to say some people won’t naturally move to mahamudra kind of experience. That can happen at anytime, anywhere. It just depends on conditions. But building the capacity and learning how to do that and understanding how to do that with skill is just really, really helpful.
And, you know, here we have the circumstance of retreat, which is very, very good. If you work these practices on a consistent basis in your regular lives, then you build up a kind of momentum which you probably won’t be aware of. And then when the opportunity comes to have a few days—you’ll find that all of that momentum is suddenly right with you and you can have a good level of experience.
Once you have a certain level of experience, then it becomes possible to negotiate life in that experience. So, now you don’t require special conditions to keep enriching practice. And that’s something I’m very concerned with, because most of the people I work with, most of you, are not going to be leading lives in isolation. You’re going to be living life. So, how do you have that level of attention in daily life? That’s one of the reasons the primary practice is very helpful because you can practice it anytime.
It’s very interesting to do at a business meeting. [Laughter] You practice it when you’re shopping, you know, I mean in grocery store—anything like that. It’s very good to do in parking lots because everything’s rectangular in a parking lot and so it’s just very easy to open to everything that’s in front of you—practicing visually.
You can actually do it while driving, but you have to be a little careful with that. If you practice it fully, you can see what’s in all three mirrors and in front of your windshield at the same time. Which is actually not a bad way to drive. But I remember I was driving along the 210 Freeway around Pasadena and it was starting to rain and I just thought the pattern of the raindrops on the windshield was so neat. [Laughter] Okay, we got to pay attention to the cars out there too. [Laughter] So you have to be a little careful.
Okay, let’s take more questions? Janet?
Janet: Were you going to speak at all about the sky-gazing practice?
Ken: Oh yes, thank you for reminding me. Today we have an extremely clear sky, so it’s very good day to practice it. You can also do it tonight with a starry sky. I’m not sure what was happening last night because I think it was a little bit cloudy but….
Student: No, it was beautiful.
Student: It was gorgeous last night.
Ken: Because early in the night it wasn’t. But [unclear] the first two nights you’re here, you don’t see stars like that in L.A. You know, you feel it’s a good night when you see a star. So, you can use the chairs out on the deck or you can go up into the pastures or, actually, there’s a couple of benches, park benches, down here. And there are some more up among the pastures up there. And you can just sit or you can take your meditation session.
You want to sit in such a way or you can lie down in such a way that you are looking at the sky without any physical strength—so it’s a natural posture. And if you’re doing this outside, be sure to wear sunblock, because even if you aren’t in the direct sun there’s a huge amount of ultraviolet. So you want to have sunblock on. Otherwise you’ll get quite burned even if you’re resting in the shade. And then you just look into the sky.
Now, when you do this, you’re getting all of that light, so your mind is filled with light. And you’ll find quite naturally that it’s very, very difficult to hold thinking. This is why it’s a powerful practice. Initially, your eyes may get a bit tired of just looking into the sky, but as you work with this, you’ll find that you can just rest with your eyes looking into the sky.
Mind and body grow quiet. As mind and body grow quiet, you become aware of a second sky—that second sky is the natural quiet of one’s own mind. And so, even while you’re looking into the first sky, the sky out there, you also find yourself looking into the second sky, which is the inner sky. You have the outer sky and the inner sky.
As you rest like that, the third sky, which is the mystical sky arises. And in dzogchen parlance this is rigpa or natural awareness. It’s not something you create—it just arises. Now, this doesn’t all happen in a half an hour necessarily. This happens over time practicing this. And there are ups and downs and bounces as there is with any meditation practice. But it’s a very powerful practice. It’s also one of the practices used in the perfection of wisdom. There’s a line in Gampopa:
Look at the sky, learn what that means to know the perfection of wisdom.
It’s a very restful meditation. The only thing I ask you to do is to take care of yourself physically. And that’s because these are relatively harsh conditions and you want good quality sunblock, hat and make sure you’re not looking anywhere in the direction of the sun. That you’re just looking at the sky. Yes?
Student: Do you think wearing dark glasses makes a difference?
Ken: Well, given the intensity of the light here, it probably helps a bit because this was practiced a lot in Tibet, which is a much higher altitude. So, while the light was stronger, there was much less particulate matter in the air, so there was much less scattering of the light and so you didn’t have light coming from every direction. There were caves constructed in Tibet in which you could just sit in ordinary meditation posture. And when you looked out you could not see anything but sky. They were specially constructed for this purpose, so you could sit without having the sun directly on you and just be looking. I’m just thinking my own glasses here. They’re such that I don’t really see the frames. I mean, I can…
Student: I was thinking also of the polarization and whatnot in dark glasses.
Ken: Yeah. I mean it’s going to protect your eyes and…
Student: Yeah, well that’s the reason I wear dark glasses is for that reason.
Student: But I didn’t know if it would interfere with experience?
Ken: As long as your lenses are clean it should be fine?
Ken: This is a dzogchen practice. I don’t know whether it falls into threkchod or thogal—it definitely isn’t the standard thogal practice, which involves certain body postures, and you’re looking at a particular phenomenon associated with the eyes. This is just looking at the sky, so I would think it’s more threkchod practice. Peter?
Peter: You said to go out to a field, but you know, when we started you said not to lie on the ground because of chiggers. Is that still true?
Ken: Well, yes, that’s why Ralph put some sheets….
Ralph: There are some sheets right by the patio doors.
Peter: All right.
Ralph: Yes, just grab one of those and head out.
Ken: Yeah, that’s why I said don’t lie on the ground because we don’t want you to get chiggers. That’s what happened last year when the people went out to do sky practice and they came back, [Ken scratches arms] “Errrrr!” You know, it’s funny because I was doing some of that last year. I didn’t get any, but several people did. The reason I didn’t get any, I had this big ground sheet. So, that’s why we put these things out—if you have a big ground sheet or something. They’re in the grass and so, if you’re not lying on the grass, like there’s three or four feet around you, then you’re probably going to be okay. I don’t think the chiggers hop terribly far.
Okay, let’s take a break here and we’ll meet for meditation five minutes. There’s kind of a theme for this retreat,
|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.|