Ganges Mahamudra 1


…on this. It’s just an experiment. Modern…Are we all right? Okay.

January 5th. 2010. Ganges Mahamudra. First class.

Is it recording?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay.


The text for our course is this, which you should all have a copy of. Pith instructions on Mahamudra. It actually has two or three different names, The Pith Instructions on Mahamudra, the Mahamudra in Twenty-Eight Verses, and The Ganges Mahamudra, three different names. There are two commentaries in English, this is one of them. It’s by Thrangu Rinpoche, and it’s called The Life of Tilopa and The Ganges Mahamudra. It’s very difficult to get a hold of. I had to pay sixty-four dollars for this one. I checked on Amazon recently and there is one for eighty and there was one for eighteen, so, they will appear occasionally in used as used books. It’s a very good commentary.

There’s another commentary, a much shorter one. I can’t remember the name of it, but, it’s been translated into English, with a different translation.

The main resource for this course is a website of one of my students called naturalawareness dot net, not dot org or dot com, dot net, naturalawareness, all one word, all lowercase, dot net. And if you hunt around on that website for the mahamudra section, he set up a folder called Ganges Mahamudra. And you will find on that, six or seven different translations of this text.

I’m working on a new translation, and I’m using all of those six or seven translations, as well as this commentary, and a hundred and fifty-eight page Tibetan commentary. So, I got a lot of stuff going on here.

It gets worse. There are two versions of this text and some of the translations are from one version and some of them are from another version. As far as I can tell the lines are the same in the two texts. They’re just in very, very different orders, and it gives rise to very different experience of the text. And I’m still trying to track down which is the original, or if they both came from India or exactly what happened and I’ll discuss the history of this text for a little bit this evening. So it’s the usual mess, and what do you do? You just work with it as best you can.

Ken: So, any problems Peri?

Peri: The volume issue.

Ken: Okay. Well, they’re the ones who can help you with that.


Now, first I want to set a little context. Well, there are twenty-eight verses, we’re going to actually be a little hard-pressed to get through everything in five weeks, because, especially in this hundred and fifty page commentary, almost any verse could be the subject of an evening’s talk. So we’re going to do five an evening, approximately, so, we’re just going to have to push a little bit.

This text comes from about one thousand years ago. Now, we should take a look at the situation, or the picture a thousand years ago, in India. In what I think would be, the first half of the eleventh century. Buddhism had already been in India for fifteen hundred years. Now, so, it was a very old religion by this point. And, India had gone through some very significant changes in its culture and social organisation since the time of the Buddha. It had moved from being a primarily agrarian society into being a mercantile society with very substantial cities, a middle-class, and along with that middle-class came all kinds of learning and trade in all kinds of things.

So, there was a great deal of study and large monastic universities developed. And one can really think of Europe in the middle-ages. It’s pretty comparable, except that you didn’t have all of the mountains and ravines and forests and things of Europe. It was, the northern Indian plane was pretty flat. And even though were very large jungles at that time, you could walk pretty well everywhere. There were rivers to cross and that was the main impediment, but a lot of those were relatively shallow at certain times of the year.

So, you had a great deal of movement back and forth and you had wandering religious mendicants, which has been a part of Indian society since very, very early; it goes back thousands of years. And it’s practiced to this day. You had large monastic universities—both Hindu and Buddhist, but we’re primarily interested in the Buddhist universities. And these were very large and there’d be like ten thousand monks at one of the largest—that was Nalanada and Vickramasila was the other large one, but there were many, many others.

Scholasticism was very, very important as a way of determining status and rank. You had philosophers whose exploration of epistemology had anticipated pretty well everything that western philosophy developed up ’til the twentieth century. So, you had a lot going and within all of this you had those people who just didn’t fit into the whole thing.


So, along with these very, very large institutions and the monastic institutions, the scholastic institutions, and so forth, you also had a whole ’nother stream of Buddhism, which developed really out of sorcery cults. Probably about the beginnings of this that we know about, really about five hundred years after the beginning of Buddhism. This is where the Vajrayana developed, or the tantric Buddhism. It goes by all of these different names, or mantric Buddhism, which is one of the more common names in Tibetan language. And what this consisted of was an extraordinary blending and of three, as far as I can tell, three different elements.

First there were the sorcery techniques, which were basically straight magic, in which you learned how to charge objects with your personal energy and affect a transformation of experience, for yourself and for others, which you could use for propitiating gods and deities, and making rain, or helping crops grow, and doing all kinds of things. And there is a lot of that.

And then there was another whole stream coming through the working of energy within the body and the transformation of energies so that you could experience more and more subtle, or higher states of experience. Bliss experiences, clarity experiences, non-thought experiences and so forth. And origins of that were probably in the kundalini tradition. That became tummo in the Tibetan tradition. Along with such practices as being able to recognize dreams, and to what happened in one’s dreams and so forth. Being able to experience deep states of meditation while asleep and many, many other practices.

And then, you also had, direct awareness traditions, which as far as I can tell probably came from central Asia. The origins of these particular traditions is not clear. But there are certain indications that they moved along with the development of the Silk Road. They came into India probably through what is now Pakistan or the Swat Valley.

And what the Vajrayana consisted of was an extraordinary blending of these three streams, so that the sorcery techniques and the energy transformation techniques were used to generate experiences, which made it easier. And the natural awareness and deep awareness of the mind more accessible through the high levels of energy. And the people who practiced this, really practiced in secret cults. And this went on for many hundreds of years. It was very often difficult to locate those people if you were interested in them. And over time you had two streams which developed: the scholastic or monastic stream and to use the Indian word, the siddha, stream. Siddha means one of capability.

And they developed in parallel and there was a certain amount of intercourse between the two. And this was the tradition of Buddhism that Tibetan Buddhism inherited. It comes from this very, very rich medieval Buddhism in which you had all of these different elements. And totally different in character from the Theravadan Buddhism that had gone to Sri Lanka and Thailand and Burma and so forth.


So Tilopa was a person who was very, very much in the tantric tradition. A wandering sadhu. He’d been trained as a monk in the early stages of his life. Giving it all up to wander and really engage life in all its complexities, to deepen, enhance his experience of awareness.

And he was an odd guy. I mean he worked as a sesame grinder. You know, pounding sesame seeds for a living. At the same time he was pimping for a prostitute in what’s now Calcutta. So, quite an interesting character.

And one of his principle students was Naropa. Naropa represents the scholastic tradition. He was one of the gatekeepers of Nalanda. Now, what does it mean to be a gatekeeper? I mean, we think of a gatekeeper as a guy who just sits and lets people in. But a gatekeeper at Nalanda was a very, very important position because you had wandering bands of wandering mystics, and people who had their own religious systems, and they battled it out with each other through debate.

And, the stakes were considerable, because if you were defeated in debate, not only you, but all your followers had to follow the person who had defeated you. And if you happened to be representing a monastery then everybody in the monastery had to follow that new tradition. So, there’s a lot of real-estate and political influence at stake. So the monasteries very quickly started training their very, very best people to be the gatekeepers, ëcause those are the ones who would be challenged in these debates by these wandering philosophers.


So, this was Naropa’s role. So, he was good, he was one of the best. Didn’t lose Nalanda in the process. But, at a certain point in his own career he had a couple of visionary experiences. And you can read all about this in The Life and Teachings of Naropa, which was translated a long time ago by Guenther. And left his position at Nalanda facing a great deal of resistance. People didn’t want him to go. ëCause he’d had a vision which told him to seek out Tilopa and he had no idea who this guy was. He just heard this name.

And so he wandered around India and eventually found this guy frying fish, which was, you know, for someone of Naropa’s monastic training and purity, like, uhhh! I mean you could hardly imagine anything more horrible. Fish were kind of low-class food anyway, and this guy was frying it, and what happened to all vegetarianism, etc., and so forth.

So anyway, Tilopa accepted him as a student and put him through extraordinarily painful experiences, in order to shake loose the rigidity that had developed in Naropa’s mind. And, again you can read all about that, we won’t take time for it.

At the end of these twelve very, very difficult experiences. I mean things like, they would go up on a high cliff and Tilopa would look at Naropa and say, “You know, if I really had a student, he’d jump off this cliff.” Or there would be a procession. A wedding procession of a prince, marrying a princess. And Tilopa would say, “Well, if I really had a student, he’d drag that prince down from the elephant.” And, of course, Naropa would do that and all the guards would get on him and beat him to a pulp, etc, you know, just…Sometimes I think I’m too easy on my students.

So after each one of these, he would give him more teaching and instruction, or give Naropa a practice, and he’d come back and Tilopa would put him through something else again.

And, finally one day they were going for a walk together and they came to this stream. And Tilopa said, “If I really had a student, I wouldn’t have to get my foot wet. He would lie across the stream and form a bridge.” And so, Naropa just threw himself across and hung onto one bank and his feet on the other and here’s your bridge. And, Tilopa starts to walks across Naropa’s back but he gets in the middle and starts to jump up and down. And there’s Naropa hanging on. And Tilopa’s saying, “Better not get a foot wet!” Jumps up and down some more. And finally Naropa can’t hold on anymore. He’s just in agony. And one hand slips and the tip of Tilopa’s slipper touches the water, and Tilopa’s enraged. And he jumps on the bank, grabs Naropa, picks up his shoe and slaps him across his face, which is, you know, just a huge insult in Indian culture. And at that moment Naropa wakes up.

You see this is why I say I’m too easy on my students.


And Tilopa of course recognises exactly what’s happened and he sings this song at this. And this is where this song comes from. It was sung after Naropa had gone through all of these hardships and had experienced this awakening. And Tilopa now sings him this song telling him how to practice.

So, Naropa, wrote something down, we think, we’re not really quite sure. Maybe he just memorised the song because the people in those days had extraordinary memories. And some years later, Marpa the translator, a Tibetan, was studying with Naropa and Naropa transmitted, or gave this song to him. And Marpa wrote it down and translated it into Tibetan. And that’s the version we have here. Now, how the two different versions, with the different ordering come about, I don’t know, and I’m still trying to find out how that actually came about. So, this comes from Tilopa to Naropa, to Marpa and down through the Tibetan tradition to today.

And Tilopa obviously was singing a song spontaneously. So, the flow of instruction here is not exactly completely logical. There are many, many songs that Tibetan masters wrote later which really became teaching songs because they’re very, very well structured. This one isn’t so well structured. But one has the feeling that it just came right out of the moment. So, there’s a lot of energy in it. And translating these kinds of things so that they have that kind of energy, with all the tricky vocabulary, this is quite difficult. But I’m trying to do my best.

Now, this is very much, as it says right at the top, this is very much a work in progress. So, I ask you not to distribute it, but keep it for the purpose. I’m going to be continuing to work on this translation, while we have this course. So, you may, by the end of the course you may have a somewhat different translation, at least in bits and pieces. And, part of what’s going to be very helpful to me is, the parts that make sense or the parts that just don’t make sense or, you know, are opaque, or don’t work for you.

I’m actually going to use this text as a basis for a book on translation, which I’m in the process of writing. And that’s why I’m going to pull stuff from all of the other different translations because they all have their merits. A very different approach and I’m taking a particular approach to this translation. Not translating it for scholars, or academics, but very much translating it for practitioners. So, with that as a beginning.

Ken: Joe could you turn that clock around so I have some idea of the time?

Joe: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, I can just see that. Thanks.


Let’s take a look at the text.

I’m going to try and get through the first few verses, today. We’ve covered the title, sort of. Pith instructions. Pith instructions are a particular term. I think the Sanskrit is upadisha. The Tibetan is minot. And these refer not to treatises, not to long discussions, but the instructions that a teacher would give a student to practice.

And they were usually short, very to the point, often composed in verse, so the student could memorise them very easily. And both Sanskrit and Tibetan were very amenable to composing things in verses, much more so than English. And the point was that the student would hear these, be able to memorise them very quickly. Then would receive an explanation from his teacher, or her teacher about them and use that as a basis for practice.

So the term pith instruction has a very, very particular meaning. My own teacher Kalu Rinpoche used to say that the sutras are vast, huge. I mean they just go on and on and on, hundreds of pages talking about this, talking about that. And one of the functions of the teacher in a tradition is to take that material and condense it down into really usable instructions for the student. And that’s what this represents. And there are many things in here which you will find discussed at length in various sutras and tantras. But here they’re boiled down to their practice essence.


And then the text begins with I bow to Vajradakini. Vajradakini is a yidam, a meditational deity that’s coming out of the sorcery cults and that whole stream of Vajrayana practice that I was mentioning earlier. This particular deity or yidam is very closely associated with a mahamudra transmission. She is red, dancing. In many respects she’s the embodiment of awakened sexuality. It was through meditation, associated, where you learnt to transform the very fundamental energies of the body so that they became available for spiritual practice. Very much practiced to this day in the Kagyu and Gelug traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve been trained in several different practices associated with her. But one pays homage to this embodiment of this totally awake energy.

Then the first verse, and here we run into, a thing that just bemused me, because when I was looking at one of the commentaries, I found that the very first line has been moved to the beginning of the second verse. But I’m going to take it here as it appears in the text I have here, Mahamudra cannot be taught. Now, here we jump straight into the deep end of the pool, so to speak.

I love lines like this because they remind me of my father’s complete consternation as I became more involved in Buddhism. And I would give him a book here and a book there. And he was very good about it, and he was reading this book on the Heart Sutra. And he would say, “I just don’t understand why you’re practicing this, Ken!” “Why do you say that then?” “Because it says right here, you cannot understand this.” [Laughter] And I would try to explain that it meant a different kind of understanding, not an intellectual understanding, but that was too much.

As I go on about that Mahamudra cannot be taught, so what are we doing here? Well, I can’t teach you mahamudra in the way that I can teach you how to log on to the internet, or I can teach you how to make a cushion, or something like that. I can’t teach you that way because it’s something subtle, intangible.

But what is possible and what we’re going to be doing over the course of these five weeks is, I can describe a way of approaching your life and approaching your experience which has the chance of evolving into the kind of experience that mahamudra refers to. That is possible. And there’s a poem I should’ve brought from Chuang Tzu. It’s about the wheelwright who’s just saying to the duke that he can’t teach his own son how to make wheels fit right. There’s a touch to it that develops over time and it’s a feel for it.

And one of the first things I think we need to face here is that this isn’t a thing that can be taught and understood. That it is something that can be experienced if you put your energy into creating the conditions in your own lives that’ll allow this experience to emerge or evolve, or however you want to put it. And, so one of the very important things, aspects, for this course, is going to be the energy you put into your practice. I’m going to very, very strongly recommend that you make a point of practicing every day. A minimum half hour, probably more is better so that through your own efforts in practice you’re going to find that you will hear things and understand things differently.


Just to give you a very simple example. There’s a person who I worked with for many years who I met at a wedding. We were introduced there. And he asked at the wedding, he said, “Could you give me the name of a book that would be helpful to me? I have to go on a business trip and when I come back I’d like to start work with you.” So, I gave him the name of the book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which is one of the great classics of Buddhism in the west.

And a few months later he called me up and said, “I’m back from my business trip and let’s get together. And by the way, I didn’t get anything out of that book. It was a complete waste of time. I hope you have something better.” Okay. Well, at least he called me and we worked together. We worked together for about nine months and then he said, “I need to go on another business trip. Can you recommend a book?” And I said, “You may not like this, but I’m going to recommend Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He looked at me, he went, “Well, I’ve got a lot out of our work together, so, I’m gonna take your recommendation.” It’s a very good book to take travelling because it’s very small, it’s light, etc.

And a few months later I got a call from him, he said, “I’d like to continue work with you and by the way could you get me a dozen copies of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, it’s a fantastic book!”

Now, all that had changed is that he’d had some experience with himself. And now he could read this book and see what it was pointing to. And so, your own practice here is going to create the conditions which will allow you to appreciate and take in what this text, what this song is pointing to. And so the more effort you put into that while we’re studying this text, probably the better.


And, I also want to say that you’ll be able to understand the text conceptually. And the main thing that we need to develop is capacity. Capacity in attention and that, really comes about by putting our time in, in a way that is productive. It’s like learning scales on a piano, or like doing push-ups, or working with weights in a gym. You do scales on a piano and develop dexterity and fluidity and you do push-ups to develop strength and stamina and so forth and we practice meditation to develop capacity and attention. It’s very, very important for the subject we’re going to look at.

So, mahamudra cannot be taught. It can’t even be pointed to. We can use analogies, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at today, to get a kind of idea about it. And role of that idea is to give us a way to approach the practice. So, we’re going to go through that today, and towards the close of the evening I’m going to give you some very specific practice instructions.


And then Tilopa says to Naropa, But your devotion to your teacher and the hardships you’ve met have made you patient in suffering, and also wise. Take this to heart my worthy student.

Now, the student teacher relationship is a very close relationship. And so I tried to translate this to bring out the sense of human connection and warmth in here. Naropa developed tremendous devotion for Tilopa. It didn’t happen immediately, he was very sceptical at the beginning. You know, this strange person who fried fish and was very unkempt, and led a very strange life and really outside, beyond the pale of Indian society.

But he benefitted so much from his interaction with Tilopa that his devotion, and devotion we can understand as a respectful appreciation. The trouble with those words is that they just don’t have the emotional juice they have. Now the devotion that we’re talking about isn’t blind faith at all. But it’s a warmth and opening, and opening to connection, which—I think we’re getting a little feedback here.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay. Let’s do that. [Unclear] important.

Well, a twelfth century teacher in Tibetan Buddhism, a person by the name of Kyergongpa—

Student: [Unclear] speakers.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: No speakers

Ken: Speakers, oh, there we go. Okay.

Kyergongpa said there are three great doors into practice; one is impermanence, the second is compassion, and the third is devotion, slash, insight.

Devotion is a way of developing very powerful emotional energy and that emotional energy then fuels attention. And with that very powerful attention, it’s very easy to see into the nature of things, which is, in a certain sense, what we’re aiming for here. To see very deeply into our experience. And when we’re very devoted to something, we naturally pour our energy into it. It becomes very easy to open and take things in. So, feeling devotion for one’s teacher is a way of being able to learn very easily and to use what one is learning very easily. And it’s one of the main practices in the Tibetan tradition and certainly within the Kagyu tradition.

It causes or arouses a certain amount of resistance in western minds because we’re not used to having that kind of relationship with people and we’ve also seen, what happens when, you form a close relationship with cult leaders and so forth. You know people end up, quite literally, drinking Kool-Aid. And so, there’s a lot of scepticism about this and also because of the whole scientific approach. We’re much less trustful of emotions in this way.

In Buddhist practice we distinguish quite definitely between two different sorts of emotions. There’re the reactive emotions like anger and desire, pride, jealousy, and those kinds of things, which are all organised around a sense of self. And then there are other emotions such as loving kindness, equanimity, compassion, which are not organised around a sense of self, in fact take us beyond a sense of self into a more complete experience of our world. And devotion is, when it’s practiced appropriately, is of that category. So, it’s a way of moving into a deeper experience of the world.


And then the second part of this and the hardships you’ve met. Well, I described briefly what Naropa did, and one of the things that when we encounter hardship, it causes us to move very, very deeply into our experience. When we face really difficult challenges, we discover what we are actually capable of, and we can refer to Nietzsche’s summary, What doesn’t kill you, strengthens you. But anybody who’s worked with difficult problems, challenging situations, particularly creative processes knows that when the pressure is on, you’ve got to do this thing, and you’ve got to figure out how, you reach deeper into yourself and you discover resources that you didn’t know you have. You discover abilities that you didn’t know you have. And this is one of the reasons why teachers actually need to be hard on students so that the students are being stretched and they’re discovering what they’re capable of and not just coasting along on what is habituated. So, I’ll try and think of something suitable for you. [Laughter]


And what are the results of all this? Tilopa says, It’s made you patient with suffering —and so you can feel that there’s a not lot of reactivity like, “Okay, there’s difficulty, but I can work with this”—and also wise. The role of hardship and difficulty in creating the conditions in which wisdom arises can’t be underestimated. Three of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century; Gandhi, Sadat and Mandela all spent very long periods in British jails in very, very difficult periods in their lives. Now, maybe there’s something special about British jails? I’m not sure. But these three individuals for those long periods of isolation and hardship moved beyond a sense of individual motivation into a very, very deep understanding of the human condition. And when they were out of jail, they worked for that in very, very deep ways. Gandhi through bringing India into independence with relatively little violence. Sadat in being able to see that a relationship with Israel was actually necessary and being the first Arab country to form a relationship with Israel. And Nelson Mandela for finding the way to lead South Africa out of apartheid. And these are all very, very significant achievements.

So, the hardships in our lives. They actually become, if we’re able to relate to them and work with them, the basis for wisdom in our lives.

So take this to heart my worthy student. And that’s often translated as “my fortunate student,” but I chose worthy because I think it gives some sense that Tilopa is recognizing Naropa, and you can feel the affection and warmth that exists in this relationship.


Now, what follows next is a series of metaphors. And the metaphor is space. But different aspects of space are brought out, and space is the metaphor here for mahamudra. And we can say mahamudra, or we can say nature of mind, nature of experience, ultimate reality, perfection of wisdom, original purity, totality of experience. Do you want me to keep going? There are a lot of names for it. I think actually, one could come up with about twenty names from the Tibetan tradition without doing very much work at all.

What all of these are pointing to is a way of experiencing the world, experiencing our lives, experiencing ourselves, which is free of struggle. So it’s called freedom, it’s called nirvana. It’s called a lot different things. It’s a way of experiencing the world.

Now, what’s a very important thing is we have no way of knowing, at all, whether it’s the same experience for everybody. But what’s being pointed to is each of us has the possibility of finding a way to experience our lives which is free of struggle. And one of the common features of all of these different ways is a sense of extraordinary openness and groundlessness of experience, which in Buddhism is often referred to as emptiness.

But people who find this way of experience, or finding their way of experiencing this, often talk about, or almost always talk about, this emptiness aspect. And I mention this explicitly because the term mahamudra, which I haven’t explained yet, is composed of two Sanskrit words maha, which is easy to translate that’s great, big. And then mudra. Mudra has a lot of different meanings. It means a sign, a symbol, a gesture, but the usual meaning that’s given here is that of a seal. Like the seal that you’d use for sealing wax. You know, your personal seal. And, the reason for this, and the traditional explanation, is that there is a great, that’s the maha part, seal, there’s something which stamps all of experience. What stamps all of experience? Or what feature does all experience have in common? It’s groundless. It’s open. It’s empty.

Now, you can say well, you know, “This floor doesn’t feel empty.” Emptiness refers to a way of experiencing things. And when you’re experience things, it’s such a powerful experience, you almost always come out of it saying, “This is how things really are! This is reality!” And, so it’s said, okay, this is the real way things are, ultimate reality and so forth.

But, we can’t get away from the fact that it is a way of experiencing things. And one of the things we’ll have to pay careful attention to as we go on with this course is that we’re very used, in the west, particularly in the English and American traditions of philosophy to thinking in terms of ontology, that whether things exist or not. Whereas Buddhism and eastern thought is almost always phrased and based on epistemology, that is how do we experience things? And you may remember Bill Clinton’s famous phrase from the Lewinski scandal, it all depends on what the meaning of is, is. Well this is actually very true here. I’m gona use it in a different sense from Bill Clinton, but is can mean something exists, which is normally how we think of it, or is can mean this is how I experience it.

And that’s the usage we’re going to be making here so when we say things are empty, or experience is empty, we’re referring to a way of experiencing which is very powerful and transformative. It changes the way we relate to everything. So, it has real effects in the world but I’m not going to getting to its ontological, you know does it exist or not and all that stuff because that’s not particularly helpful.


So we’re going to go through, in the time that we have, these different metaphors of space and the first one is on what does space depend? And what depends on space?

Well, when I ask that question what happens in you?

Steve, Alan, do we have the mic handy?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Okay. Peri, can you pass that up please?


So, I asked the question, on what does space depend? And what depends on space? What happens in you when you consider that question? Anybody? Art.

Art: Well my mind stops for a moment.

Ken: Mmm hmm. What do you experience? I mean, I’m going to push here a little bit ’cause you say my mind stops. That’s a description of an experience, so I’d like you to not use the words and try again to describe that experience.

Art: Okay. For a moment there’s a stillness, there’s for lack of a much better word there’s a blankness. In other words—

Ken: Yeah, tell me about the blankness. Is it blank like a sheet of paper?

Art: No. Maybe another way to say it is—and I have a hard time differentiating it from the stillness—but the narrative in the head stops and it is not likeÖinterested—

Ken: You don’t check out?

Art: No, no not at all.

Ken: So something else—

Art: Yeah. There’s…

Ken: It’s hard to put into words, isn’t it?

Art: Yeah it really is! It’s—

Ken: Too bad [laughter]. Okay—

Art: There is a clarity—

Ken: All right. if I take away that word, what would you say? [Laughter]

Art: I’d like to buy a vowel [Laughter]. Stillness, ’m gonna go back to that word. Dropping of the narrative and all of a sudden there’s—you probably won’t like this either—alack of d uality. There’s a very briefÖthere’s justÖ[unclear]

Ken: May I suggest a word to you?

Art: Please!

Ken: There’s something. Because it’s not just blank, right?

Art: Oh, not at all. No.

Ken: So there’s something. But you can’t say anything more than that. Would you—

Art: Yeah.

Ken: Now that something has been the subject of a lot of discussion over the centuries, an awful lot. Okay. And yes people use words like clarity. Some people use the words like knowing. How would that sit with you?

Art: I’m having a little bit of difficulty with it in the sense that knowing to me, there’s so much weight that comes with that word, knowledge in the head and stuff like that, that I would use a phrase like there’s a different type of knowing.

Ken: Fair enough, fair enough okay.


Now, how many of you can relate to what Art’s talking about? Okay? You hear this strange question on what does space depend and what depends on space. You take it in and something shifts. Okay. So, we can use language this way. people say well you can’t use language to talk about this stuff. Well, you can use language. You can use language to elicit an experience or nudge people in the direction of experience or however you want to call it. And as Art was explaining something stops. Right?

Art: Yes.

Ken: Yeah. And there seems to be nothing, but there isn’t nothing. That fair?

Art: Yes.

Ken: I’ve had more practice than you. {Laughter]

Art: Indeed!

Ken: Okay. But I have one more thing. What happens to all of this? This whole room with all the lights and stuff. What happens?

Art: It remains but comes into a different type of focus.

Ken: Yeah. It“s experienced in a slightly different way, right?

Art: More than slightly but yes.

Ken: Oh, okay, now you’ve—

Art: [Unclear]

Ken: [Laughter] You’ll going slightly all of a sudden—

Art: [Unclear]

Ken: [Jokingly] What’s this very different way? Tell me about that.

Art: In a class that we held quite a while ago. You had us put an ice cube in our hand. And then you had us describe the experience. And I think I mentioned that it felt—once I really focused on it—it felt differently than before. And we had to have an exchange and I said that it was like I stepped back from something and experienced it differently. And, you sort of chuckled and then mentioned that instead of maybe stepping back, it was more like stepping into. So, that’s kind of what happens here. IT’s stepping into the surrounding rather than having the surrounding blocked by, or covered by the internal stuff.

Ken: Thank you very much Art. Now, people have struggled over the centuries to find words in which to communicate this to people. Why? Because of the great value they place on this way of experiencing things, ’cause it changes so much in our lives. And a traditional way, and one my teacher used very, very frequently, is to say that it’s empty, clear, and experience arises without restriction. And he would use the analogy of like this room that has space in it—that’s the empty part and the light is like the clarity. And where you have light and space then experience arises and we see everything without any problem at all.

And so, what we are: our mind, whatever you want to call it. This way of experiencing things there isn’t any ground. There is an immediacy or lucidity or clarity or awareness or whatever word you want to describe, which we can’t say it is this. I can’t even really distinguish it from the nothingness. And experience is arising and we can’t really distinguish, separate any of those out. It’s simply a way of describing this way of experiencing. That fair?

Art: Yes.

Ken: Okay, thank you.


So, in this first verse then on what does space depend, and what depends on space?. Something shifts and then Tilopa says Mahamudra is like that. It doesn’t depend on anything.

Now often when we hear that something in us goes, What? And there’s a little fear. But if you can just open to that impulse of fear, you find you can just be in the experience.

And then Tilopa goes on to give a very explicit instruction Don’t control, let go and rest naturally, let what binds you, let go. Those are his three instructions.

Don’t control. Don’t try to make the experience into something. Whatever’s arising, don’t try to control it. Let go and rest naturally. Let go of all of those impulses. Now that takes a little bit of practice. And, this is why in meditation instruction, one of the ways that I formulated and this goes back quite a few years is return to what’s already there and rest. [Repeats] Return to what’s already there and rest.

So, the body, is just there, so you rest in the body. The breath is just there you don’t have to do anything special with it, so you rest in the breath. And then attention or awareness, whatever you want to call it, it’s already there. It’s always there. You don’t have to do anything, just rest in it.

Now, we’re really not used to doing that in our lives and this is why it takes practice.


And then he says Let what binds you let go. Now how many of you can feel what keeps pulling you into a sense of self or into something like that. Can you actually feel that operating? Okay. So what happens if you just let it go?

Now how do you let things go? Joseph Goldstein is a very good teacher in the Vipassana tradition though he studied quite a bit of dzogchen. In his book Insight Meditation, which is quite a nice little book, he says, ”Operationally, let go means letting things be.” So when you let go of something, it doesn’t mean that we send it away or anything like that, we just let it be. And this is the way that I’m going to encourage you to practice over the next few weeks, is not try to change anything about your experience. Whatever it is, just to let it be.

Now when you do this, you’re going to feel all these things coming up in you which is going to try to make the experience this or that like; you want to be a little quieter or you want to be a little clearer, or you want to be a little bit more comfortable or something.

And so there are all these little things coming up, trying to take control or make the experience into something other than it is right now. Can any of you relate to this?

Okay, so the practice consists of letting go, just letting everything be as it is. However there are a couple of little wrinkles. Being totally awake in that, and undistracted. Now that’s not particularly easy. It’s going to take practice.

So, I’m going to give you a method here and we’ll just do this very quickly in the time that we have remaining which I’d like you to incorporate into your practice. And what this method does is raise the level of energy in your system, so that you are less likely to be distracted by all the comings and goings and it increases the possibility of just being able to experience things as they are.

And the method of practice, many of you who’ve studied with me before are familiar with it.


We begin by resting in the experience of breathing. And it’s probably best if you do this practice with your eyes open and you rest in the experience of breathing.

Now to rest in the experience of breathing you have to be aware of your body. So be aware of your whole bodyÖand how it breathes. You’re not watching the breath, you’re resting in the experience of breathing.

So you feel the motion of the breath, but you also feel the sensations of your feet on the floor or folded. Sensations in your hands, the clothing touching your body.

All the different physical sensations, and all the movement, you know the expansion of the chest. The slight straightening and bending of the spine that accompanies breathing.

You open to everything you experience in your body; all the tactile kinaesthetic sensations.

But that’s not all there is to the experience of breathing.

We hear sounds, we see forms and shapes and colours. So include everything that we see, everything that we hear, everything that we feel, everything we taste, everything that we smell. In short, everything that we experience in our senses.

Or we may find that our attention goes to one thing like a particular colour or shape or a sound or a physical sensation. And whenever you find that it goes to, that it collapses down on something, then we just expand from that back to everything.


Now, there are several steps to this practice but that’s all I’m going to give you this evening. Those of you who know this practice, you can do the whole thing; all of the other steps. But those of you who are hearing this for the first time. This is what I want you to practice for 10 or 15 minutes, at the beginning of your meditation session.

And then for the rest of your meditation session, just sit—in your experience. Not distracted. Not controlling it. Not working at anything.

These instructions sound very simple, but we’re very perverse and there are lots of parts of us that just keep wanting to make things a certain way. That’s the control. And there are other parts of us that want to achieve something, so we subtly tried to make the experience better, work at it. And there are other parts of us that just aren’t the least bit interested in this and want to talk about something else.

So you get to experience all of that. Okay.


Questions. We have a few minutes. Please, Art, could you hand the mic?

Student: I don’t quite understand the difference between the first half of the meditation and the second half, which is just sitting and experiencing everything. The second half in my mind is sitting and experiencing everything.

Ken: Well, the first half I asked you to experience all the tactile and kinaesthetic sensations in the body, and all the visual, auditory, olfactory I guess, gustatory, fancy words you know, five senses, and just keep opening to all of the senses. Okay?

That’s what I want you to do in the first part.

Now when you’ve done that, by keep coming back into the sensory experience—that’s the main point—you’re going to develop a different relationship with attention and then when you sit and rest and experience and just rest.

Now, yes, you will experience everything, you’re experiencing thoughts and feelings in addition. And there may be a few other things coming along to pull your attention this way and that. So, does that clarify the distinction?

Student: Yes.

Ken: The first part, very much your sensory experience and then just rest. And you experience what you experience.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: Okay. Other questions before we close? Yes, up here.


Student: I just had a question about the fourth refuge, the I take refuge in experience itself, empty, clear, without restriction I just wanted the Tibetan terms, because I think I’ve heard that in a slightly different—

Ken: Tum, sal and nagkpa [sp?]

Student: I’ve heard… is that the same as dol, rogpa and tsull [sp?]?

Ken: Oh, do,l rogpa and tsol [sp?]. That’s slightly different. You’ve been hanging out with nyingmas. Dol [sp?]refers to radiance. Tsal, [sp?]it’s actually easiest to think of it in terms of light. So dong [sp?] is like the light, the radiance. Tsal [sp?] I can’t remember which, yeah, tsal [sp?] is refraction. The way it—

Student: I always had a lot of trouble understanding that.

Ken: And rolpa isÖsorry, is diffraction So it’s if you have a diamond, okay, the diamond seems to sparkle. That sparkle is due to two different things. One is that the light as it comes out it’s diffracted, so it has all these little colors of the prism, things like that. But it also bounces around inside the diamond before it comes out. And that’s what I’m calling refraction that bouncing around. So the way mind is is there’s this light and the light illuminates mind, illuminates experience inside experience and also givesÖmakes experience itself luminous. And that’s what all that’s referring to. Okay?

Student: Thank you.


Ken: Other questions? Yes, over here.

Student: I have a very specific question. I’m accustomed to a closed-eye meditation; I find that with my eyes open they go out of focus.

Ken: No problem.

Student: No problem.

Ken: Yeah, you don’t have to be looking at anything. It’s just that when you meditate with your eyes open, you’reÖit actually makes your awareness more vivid. So, experiment with it over this time and if it works for you fine, if it doesn’t then let it go later. Okay?


Art: If I approach the first line in section two in the spirit of mahamudra mind, beginners mind. Something happens there rhetorically for me. We say On what does space depend and what depends on space? The very next line seems to provide an answer for that, Likewise mahamudra doesn’t depend on anything. So that leads me to have the experience of thinking that the answer is that space depends on nothing and nothing depends on space.

Ken: Yeah. Yeah. See, here I have space. I have this nice block of space here, right?

Art: Mmm-hmm. And that space depends on your hands.

Ken: No, it’s just sitting right there, you see. And what does it depend on?

Art: Well now it’s not there any longer.

Ken: Well I can see it.

Art: You can?

Ken: Yes it’s right there in front of me.

Art: [Unclear] it disappeared when your hands were removed for me.

Ken: No, no, you were looking at the shape my hands were making. The space didn’t move at all, did it? You see…

Art: So this space within this room doesn’t depend on the walls? It’s not created by the walls?

Ken: I see where you’re going. One could look at it that way, but is there anything on the other side of the wall?

Art: Yes

Ken: And what would you call that?

Art: Space until something else turns up.

Ken: Well now, let’s not worry about that. You’re going too quickly. So you have space here—

Art: Yes.

Ken: And space on the other side and then we have this wall. Now does the wall occur in space?

Art: Does it occur in space?

Ken: Or does the space stop and then the wall start and then the space starts. So, what you’re saying is there isn’t any space in the wall.

Art: So space means something else here. It doesn’t mean the creation of the absence of aÖyes, I think I understand what that sentence means now [laughter] at least a little bit better than I did before.

Ken: Yeah. It’s just space you know. And it may be occupied by things but that doesn’t diminish—

Art: I see what you’re saying. Thank you.

Ken: Okay, but this is a very important point so it’s good that you bring it up. Thank you.


Okay. Any other questions before we close? Okay. Then let’s do the dedication. Joe.

Goodness comes from this practice now done, let me not hold it just in me, let it spread to all that is known and awaken good throughout the world. Awakening mind is precious, may it arise where it has not arisen may it not fade where it has arisen. may it ever grow and flourish. Through the power of truth of aspirations made with the totally pure mind, through the inevitability of dependence and conditions totally formed, and through the force of what is profound and totally true, may the brilliance of good fortune blaze forever.

[Bell rings three times]

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.