Monday, June 20, 2016

Line 5: know that mind has no beginning

Send me energy to know mind has no beginning.

Translation points:
Again, let’s start with some translation points, and, in the process, the meanings of some of the words in this line.

A literal translation might read:

Send me energy to realize that mind is unborn.

For the most part, if you are familiar with Bunglish, you may well prefer this translation. You are used to the word realize, and are used to talking about mind and such concepts us unborn, etc. But, as I’ve said before, my intention is to translate this into language that does not presuppose a familiarity with such terminology.

The Tibetan word rtogs is often translated as realize or realization, in the sense of become fully aware of -- as in "he suddenly realized what she meant." An understandable choice, perhaps, but for me, it leads to a host of problems. It implies that there is something to be realized, an idea that effectively reifies individual internal experience. Emptiness or awareness is often presented as what is to be realized, which not only reifies emptiness but promotes it to absolute status. The use of the word also implies a static state, a state of being realized, along with the notion of a realized person vs an unrealized person (a usage in which the grammar and meaning have changed in a subtle way). An emphasis on achieving such a state distorts other aspects of practice. For instance, one rarely hears of someone realizing impermanence or compassion. Why not? I could go on, but these three reasons are enough for me to drop the use of realize, realization, etc.

To convey the idea of become fully aware of I usually choose the word knowing, and to make sure it is understood that this is an immediate experiential knowing rather than a discursive conceptual knowing, I often add the adjective direct or experiential.

When I am translating prayers such as this one, prayers that are used in practice, the most important question for me is "To what experience is the author referring?" Ideally, every time you read the prayer, the English phrasing elicits an echo (or more) of that experience. What experience, then, is the phrase mind is unborn intended to elicit? Is there another way of conveying that experience or that kind of experience? 

What does it mean?
Whether through pointing out instructions, through practice, through a chance occurrence or through a some combination of these three, you suddenly see or know that this knowing, this looking out through your eyes to see the intricate petals of a rose, this feeling the gentle touch of your partner’s hand, this hearing or recalling a favorite melody -- this mind, this knowing, this awareness -- is just there. It doesn't come from anywhere, doesn't go anywhere and isn't anywhere. It doesn’' depend on a process. It does not involve your personality or conditioning. It is just there.

That being just there quality is brought out by the word unborn. The knowing doesn’t come from anything else. It isn't a result. We could also say that it has no beginning, that there isn't a place or time where it starts or stops. Remember, we are talking about individual experience here, not philosophy. Can you remember or think of a time when that knowing quality isn’t present in your experience? Basically, it's  contradiction in terms. To experience is to be aware. To be aware is to experience. Perhaps this is what Descartes was trying to say, but he made a mistake with the word think.

However, we habitually conceptualize this knowing as a self and equate it with “I”. But there isn't anything there that is a self, not functionally or structurally. “I” itself is just another movement in mind, a thought, a feeling, a concept. When we look at what I am, there is just knowing -- empty, clear and unrestricted -- like space. We can call it mind. We can call it experiencing. This is what my teacher said that mind is: mind is experiencing (Tib. mi dran dgu dran). 

This knowing is like the moon reflected in the ocean, a lake, or a stream, or a puddle. It doesn't matter what the body of water or how many bodies of water there are, the moon is just there. In the same way, it doesn't matter what the experience is, knowing is just there.

In translation, personal preference plays an important role. Here we have four possible combinations:
  • mind is unborn
  • mind has no beginning
  • experiencing is unborn
  • experiencing has no beginning.
One can make good arguments for and against all of these. All of them communicate in some way the experience that this direct, non-conceptual knowing is just there. Which of these wakes you up? Which inspires you? Which makes for the best poetry in the prayer? The combination that works for me is "mind has no beginning," but you may find one of the other combinations works better for you. If so, use it.

The role of prayer
As I said above, we habitually conceptualize this knowing as a self. That one-step removal from direct experience means that what we experience is interpreted through a self-other framework. One of the purposes of prayer is to move out of such a framework. Prayer does this by drawing on the non-reactive emotional energy of devotion and awe. By focusing attention on someone or something that inspires awe in you, you forget yourself. You also forget your self, and you may even forget your Self. Forgetting isn’t exactly the right word. It might be more accurate to say that the patterns associated with these different forms of self are first disengaged and then seen through. This disengagement and seeing are made possible because attention is emotional energy. It operates at a higher level than conceptual thinking and draws energy from the level of the direct knowing that is mind itself.

Here, however, such explanations are problematic, even counterproductive, because they tend to leave a conceptual trace which prevents both the disengagement and the seeing. Good instruction, good teaching, leaves no conceptual traces: it tells you what to do, not what will happen. As is said of revolutions, revolutions come down to logistics, not strategy. What to do and how to do it determine what happens. To hold ideas about results when you practice prayer or meditation is to place practice in the self-other framework. 

Psychological or neurological explanations of what is happening in this process are problematic for the same reason: they reinforce the conceptual mind. In particular, such ideas as “rewiring your brain” or “praying to your true nature” place the practice of prayer (and meditation) solidly in the self-other framework. As long as you are in that framework, the harder you practice the more you reinforce that framework. If you are rowing in the wrong direction, rowing harder does not help. 

To pray, then, let go of hope, expectation, control, safety, assurance or frame of reference. Let yourself feel this calling to the mystery of a knowing that is not dependent on your personality or conditioning, the mystery of what, in the mahamudra tradition, is called mind or experiencing itself. Forget about results and accept that calling, wherever it leads you. Any idea you have about where you are going or where you will end up is just an idea. Drop it and return to the feeling of that calling in your heart, the stammering voice that is asking the questions, that part of you that says, "In this direction I must go." That calling gives rise to a longing in your heart. Express that longing through prayer -- not with the expectation, or even the hope, that it will be fulfilled. Express that longing through prayer because it is what your calling calls you to do. T. S. Eliiot puts it this way in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

These lines, except for the last, are instruction, what to do, and that is what makes them so valuable.

In today's world we have been brought up in the myth that we can and should control whatever arises in our experience and that we can do so if not through force of will or through reason, then through technology. Myths die hard. When you pray, let them die. Let them die as you feel that longing for a way of experiencing life that stands outside of time, place, personality or conditioning. You, as you are now, cannot experience that, and the first step for you is to lose your self in prayer.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Line 4: reactive thinking comes to an end

Send me energy for reactive thinking to end.

Translation points:
Let me begin by noting that I made a translation error when I rendered this line “Send me energy to end reactive thinking.” This rendering could be construed that I am going to end reactive thinking.

Many Tibetan verbs have two forms, one which indicates that an action is brought about (to be technical, this means that the change and the changed are different) and one which indicates that an action has taken place (only the change is indicated). For instance, sgrol.ba means to set free (or, in the English passive, to be set free) while'grol.ba means to be free -- something lets go or releases, but not because something is let go or released. This distinction is not exactly the same as the transitive vs intransitive or active vs passive distinctions we have in English. In this line of the prayer, the verb “to stop”, “to end” indicates that an ending is to take place and it might be rendered as “to come to an end” for instance. The point, as I mentioned in the last newsletter, is that the prayer is referring to results that arise from a process, not to changes brought about directly by us. Thus, “Send me energy for reactive thinking to end” avoids the possibility of misconstruing the meaning.

A second point is the translation of the phrase chos.min.rnam.rtog. 

rnam.rtog is often translated as thought, but it refers to any discursive or conceptual mental movement and, as such, includes feelings and emotions that we would not ordinarily consider as thoughts in English. In particular, it includes all the reactive emotions because these are based in the conceptual framework of self-other. It also refers to the conceptual thinking process, which, when compared to the experience of mind nature or mind itself, is a duller state of knowing because that form of knowing is mired in the subject-object framework. To convey that this term is more about movement, I translate it as “thinking” rather than “thoughts”.

chos.min is interesting. Literally, it means not Dharma.  A couple of newsletters ago, I offered “secular” as a translation. That choice provoked quite the hue and cry. My ears are still ringing!

Secular is actually dead accurate, but as often happens in translation, the most accurate word is not necessarily the word that works in a particular context. Several people wrote in suggestions (noting, for the most part, that in doing so they were violating Neil Gaiman’s fifth rule of writing), but Gaiman’s rule held: none of their suggestions worked, primarily because most who wrote wanted to transcend the dualism of this vs not this, Dharma vs not Dharma. Too bad. The Tibetan is clear: not Dharma. (Aside #1: Tibetan teachers seem to be less concerned with the transcendence of dualism in their writing and use of words than Westerners. Aside #2: Non-dualistic language gives only the appearance of non-dualism, not the fact.)

What to do?

Many years ago, I asked Trungpa Rinpoche about the Tibetan for the title of his bookCutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He replied, “Oh, that’s simple. chos.min.gcod.pa.” I was stunned. A literal translation of the Tibetan phrase might read “cutting through not Dharma.” In other words not Dharma = spiritual materialism. Pretty creative, I thought, and this example has long been an inspiration in my own efforts at translation. In any event, the idea is that not Dharma (or spiritual materialism) is that which takes you in the wrong direction.

Many people take this line to mean that you are praying to end even such thoughts as “What do I need to buy when I go to the store?” I don’t think this is what is meant, either. I take it to mean the coming to an end of the kind of thinking that takes you in the wrong direction.

So I choose “reactive.” The word makes possible a differentiation between reactive and responsive, a distinction that I have found helpful. The distinction may not hold across the board, but it is certainly useful at various stages of practice. It avoids the associations of “secular” and is in line with what Trungpa Rinpoche was pointing to.

What does this line mean?
A third point to consider is what it means for reactive thinking to come to an end. What does this mean operationally? What does this mean experientially? 

There are several ways to understand this phrase. Here are three.

The first is to take the phrase literally, that is, that it means that there are no longer thoughts of any kind. This is a bit like trying to stop the body from sweating. One may be able to do so for periods of time, but it is probably unhealthy and certainly not sustainable. Such efforts are traditionally referred to as blocking meditation. You make thoughts the enemy. You use the energy of attention to block all movement in mind. It is artificial, contrived, only temporarily sustainable and inevitably involves suppression. This is definitely not what was intended in the prayer. The Kagyu patriarch Gampopa once had a student who was intent on stopping all thoughts. When asked about him, Gampopa just shook his head and said, “He won't listen to me. If he stopped regarding thoughts as the enemy, he would have experienced awakening years ago.”

A second interpretation is that it means there is no longer any reactive thinking. Again, this is possible. Non-thought arises in the course of practice. At first, it arises as a result of surges of energy in the mind-body system, energy cultivated through practice, energy release as patterns and blocks dissolve, or a combination of the two. Some people, as a result of practice and a natural proclivity, experience what might be called a system shift in which reactive thinking stops completely. In either case, whether the result of energy surges or a system shift, non-thought arises as an effect or a result of a process, not from an act of will. Non-thought does not prevent you from engaging or functioning in daily life. People live their lives, responding to what arises -- family, work, the daily tasks essential to life -- digesting information and acting on it, all without falling into reactive or discursive thinking. 

There is an important coda, though -- namely, that to function effectively one must develop the necessary skills and abilities separately. When thinking stops, that stopping does not automatically endow you with artistic skills, athletic prowess, or the ability to communicate effectively. The lack of distracting thoughts may make it easier to learn skills, but they have to be learned, trained and developed beforehand or separately.

A third way to understand the phrase “reactive thinking coming to an end” is that you are able to move to a level of attention in which movement arises -- thoughts, emotions, sensations -- but you do not fall into reactive thinking. We find this described in mahamudra and dzogchen texts as the natural (or spontaneous) release of thoughts: like snowflakes landing on a hot stove, like a knotted snake untying itself, etc.

Here the distinction between thoughts and thinking is important. As Gunaratana and others have said, mind (which is to say, experiencing) gives rise to thoughts in the same way that the body gives rise to sweat. It's a natural function. But the essence of mind, mind itself, mind nature, whatever you want to call it, is a non-conceptual clarity or knowing. One can experience and be in that non-conceptual clarity and experience thoughts coming and going without lapsing into confusion. In Zen parlance, this is known as moving but not moving, resting but not resting. (See The Demon's Sermon on Martial Arts and Other Stories

What role does prayer play in this process? 
The combination of prayer and devotion is an effective method for stepping out of our ordinary sense of self. (There are others, but prayer and devotion work well for many people.) Devotion rests on a sense of awe, where awe is a feeling of being intimately connected to something that is infinitely greater than you. To use Sloterdijk's terminology, that something is the Great Other, whether you think of it as God, emptiness or what have you. It is not you as you currently know yourself rationally, emotionally, or even spiritually.

The feeling of awe can be cultivated through prayer, and for this, a sense of humility is essential. While several people wrote to me to say “In the end, aren't you just praying to yourself?” that is not how I see it. The notion that you are just praying to yourself is a mental conceit that undermines prayer, and, really, all one's efforts in spiritual practice. From a philosophical perspective, this view might hold, but it does not work emotionally. As long as you take the attitude that you are praying to yourself, or your self, or even your Self, any sense of awe will be artificial and contrived and your prayer will remain mired in the same conceptual mind that holds the idea that you arepraying to yourself. Yes, in one sense, you are the Great Other. In the Cakrasamvara Tantra, for example, the key pointing out instruction is “Your father is you.” But the Great Other is not knowable by the conceptual mind. This effort to avoid the emotional challenge of reaching out of yourself -- of stepping out of the whole conceptual framework that defines who and what you are -- is self-defeating.

The Great Other is “over there”. “Over there”, you may recall, is precisely what paramitaor perfection as in the perfection of wisdom means -- gone over there. Something calls you over there, even though you, as you are now, may not know what that means. Drawing on that calling you pray, you pray to someone (or something, possibly) that represents that "gone over there" quality to you. Needless to say, that person inspires awe and devotion in you, and that awe and devotion are what impels prayer, whether prayer is expressed in words or not. Through devotion and the act of praying, you form a non-conceptual, non-reactive emotional relationship with that person, and that connection opens up possibilities that are usually not accessible otherwise. Yes, in a certain sense (philosophically, ultimately, you can supply the adverb of your choosing), there is no difference between you and the Great Other, but, practically speaking, there is a difference. Otherwise, you would not be reading this. Respect that difference and relate to it. It's part of how you experience life, the world, yourself, right now and you have to start from where you are. To start from anywhere else is to remain in the world of ideas and concepts.

What does the practice of prayer look like?
One method is to open to what you aspire to, however, you understand it , however you name it -- emptiness, awareness, presence, dharmakaya, dharmadhatu, the perfection of wisdom, rigpa, etc. There are many names. Pick the one that is most meaningful to you. When you do, you will have a certain feeling your heart. After all, this is your heart's longing. This is what calls you. This is where you touch awe. Now rest in and with that feeling. Don't focus on it. That's not helpful. In fact, it's problematic. Instead, rest in and with it and let that feeling soak into you. There may be a longing in that feeling. There may be a weightiness. There may be joy. There may sadness. There may be warmth. It may bring up humility, reverence or devotion in you. It may bring up a kind of fear, a fear of being on the edge or of entering a mystery, a feeling often associated with awe. It may bring up a lot of other feelings, too. However you experience it, rest with and in it. Don't try to understand it. Don't analyze it. Don't focus on it per se. Don't try to make it stronger. Just connect with it and then pray and, after prayer, meditate from there. You may find that, as long as you stay in touch with that feeling, thoughts and thinking don’t disturb you. They may arise but then they trickle away, a bit like water off a duck's back, or they just evaporate or disappear, like mist.

As I've said before, the path of prayer and devotion is not for everyone. Particularly in today's world, with our psychological views on projection and identification, our neurological theories on brain functioning, and the pervasive tendency to see all relationships only in transactional terms, this path has become, to say the least, suspect. This is a pity. This suspicion has denied some the joy and freedom of expression of their hearts' yearnings, the joy of letting themselves open to what they feel in the depth of their being. For others, it has left them with no acceptable path, or no path at all, when they seek to come to terms with tragedy in their life or with experiences or intuitions that go beyond the ordinary.

In the end, all spiritual practice is intensely personal. Motivation, intention, practice and direction are different for each and every person. Still, we can and do learn from the dust left by those who have gone before us. When we look for a way, all we can do is take the words that come to us, and then use them to find our own way.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Line 3: Seeing through life's illusions

A prayer may give expression to a deep longing, a difficult transition, a cherished ideal, a powerful truth or any number of other facets of spiritual practice. In this translation, the third line reads:

Send me energy to see through life's illusions.

First a note on this translation. The Tibetan is a bit indirect. Translated literally, into English syntax, it might read:

Send me energy for futility to be born in my continuum.

In this context continuum is synonymous with mind. The word is used to bring out the continuity of experience/awareness. 

Why would you pray for futility to arise in your experience? The futility here is the futility of samsaric existence. In the West, our understanding of samsara has been distorted by the influence of the German Romantics. As a consequence, many people associate samsara with the urban, the technical, the industrial, and nirvana or enlightenment with nature, with beauty unspoiled by human touch. This is a naive and mistaken interpretation. Samsaric existence refers to a life based in emotional reactions, a life in which one bounces from one emotional reaction to another, a life of utter futility. Awakening, or one dimension of awakening, is about freedom from the tyranny of emotional reactions. 

The line in the prayer refers to what is usually translated as renunciation. The word renunciation, because of its place in Western religious teaching, puts the emphasis on turning one's back on the world. In the Buddhist context the emphasis is on being resolute about one's spiritual calling (which, in turn, may lead you to turn your back on the world). That calling is based in the feeling or the perception (or both) that for you what conventional life has to offer is inherently unsatisfactory and illusory. In Theory of Truth Robinson Jeffers puts it this way:

Man is an animal like other animals, wants food and success and 
women, not truth. Only if the mind 
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness: 
then it hates its life-cage and seeks further, 
And finds, if it is powerful enough.

Not exactly the high-minded sentiments expressing the nobility of the spiritual life extolled in the Tibetan tradition. A little reductionist, too. But a meaty enough description of what, at bottom, impels many who seek answers to life's questions: for whatever reason life as it is presented to us is inherently unsatisfactory and we, as Robinson Jeffers says, seek further. 

But to let go of our habitual ways of engaging with life is not so easy. To do so, we train to take notice of what is often ignored, namely, that we live in the paradox of mortality: we are, without doubt, going to die, but we have no idea when. Certainty on the one hand, uncertainty on the other. The Great Matter of Life and Death, as they say in the Zen tradition. Life looks different in the face of death and the vast expanses of time before and after our lives. The prospect of death strips away many of the illusions we have about life and helps us to see clearly, free of the distortion of emotional reactions.

Again, Shelley says it well in his sonnet Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land, 
Who said-"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, 
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read 
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; 
And on the pedestal, these words appear: 
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; 
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away."


What are life's illusions? The illusion that we have an unchanging, independent identity; the illusion that we can control what happens to us, that we can control what we experience, that we can control our fate; the illusion of triumph and disaster, the illusion of love and hate, of gain and loss, and on and on. However, it would be better for you to call to mind the aspects of life that you have learned are illusory, or at least, not what they seemed to be when they were first presented to you, the aspects of life that have left you disenchanted and, can we say, disillusioned?

Disillusionment is crucial. We only have so much time and energy and we have to decide how to use them. This kind of motivation flies in the face of the utilization of spiritual methods to improve our lives, whether through enhanced functioning or psychological healing. These approaches just reinforce the notions that we can control what we experience, find the ideal connection and community, strengthen and solidify our sense of who and what we are, etc. When we feel a calling to know life more deeply, how to improve our lives is not our principal concern. In fact, it is not a concern at all and we are prepared (or need to be prepared) to follow our calling wherever it takes us, whatever it brings us.

A conceptual disillusionment, though, is not sufficient. Something has to take hold inside, and this, again, is where prayer comes in.

A good prayer, that is, a prayer that is good for you, is one that gives expression to your own heart's yearning or one that puts you in touch with the dilemmas that haunt your life. If a prayer doesn't express something that is your own, it must  at least express something that you want and can make your own. How that comes about is a bit of a mystery. Sometimes, a prayer acts like a great bell -- each line resonates with something in you and sets those parts of you ringing. Sometimes, however, you have to experience something in your own life before those lines resonate in you. Without that resonance, there is the possibility that you may simply be trying to instill an idea, a sentiment, that you don't really feel. In Hamlet, Claudius, trying to repent of the murder of his brother, says of his prayers:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

One of the reason why many people find it difficult to pray, I think, is that it is frightening to acknowledge and embrace the aspirations, the inspirations, the truths or the dilemma held in the core of our being and to give them expression in prayer. We feel naked, exposed, with nowhere to hide, not even from ourselves. 

In fact, I often have the feeling that some practitioners use meditation as an end-run around prayer and its emotional challenges. They use meditation as a way to feel that they are giving expression to what they are seeking without really touching the place inside from which that seeking arises. Meditation and prayer are intimately related and I think quite a few practitioners might find their meditation practice different -- clearer and less of a struggle -- if they spent more time touching directly what is in their hearts, giving that verbal and physical expression in whatever ways are appropriate (prayer, song, dance, movement, recitation, etc.), and then sitting down to meditate. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Line 2: Letting go of belief in self


This post continues a line-by-line discussion of a prayer from the guru-union liturgy in the Kagyu tradition. You can read a couple of translations here and a discussion of the first line here. 

I've recited this prayer literally hundreds of thousands of times. And I've translated it many times, too. I come back to it again and again, partially because it is so wonderfully poetic and succinct in the Tibetan and partially because I keep looking for ways to render the prayer in clear, succinct and poetic English. As I write these newsletters, I continue to explore different renderings and here is my most recent version:

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.
Send me energy to let believing in self fall away.
Send me energy to see through life's illusions.
Send me energy to end reactive thinking.
Send me energy to know mind has no beginning.
Send me energy to let confusion resolve itself.
Send me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Before discussing the second line, let me say a few words about this prayer and about translation. When you want to learn a prayer or a text, you have to study it, and then reflect on it, until you connect with the meaning. But most people I know find that when they teach the same prayer or text, they have to learn it at a completely different level. That's fine, but when you translate a prayer or text, then you need to understand it at still another level.

So it is with this prayer. As I've pondered the various lines, it is clear to me that in each line one is praying for a result -- letting go of a sense of self, seeing through life's illusions, etc. As with many aspects of spiritual practice, these results cannot be brought about by an act of will. You can't say, "I'm going to give up a sense of self" and then do it, in the same way that you can say, "I'm going to build a boat." It's a bit like the person who said, "I never make a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong." 

To say, "I'm going to give up a sense of self" is inherently contradictory and any attempt to do so through an act of will is self-defeating. By the way, that last use of the word "self" was the reflexive in English, not to be confused with self as an entity in its own right -- another reason that I like to avoid phrases such as "self-fixation," but the alternative "fixation on a self" is clumsy in English and destroys any sense of poetry.

Now, as to the second line, in the Tibetan (adjusting the word order to English syntax), it reads approximately:

Send me energy to let go (send away, dismiss, etc.) of a (the?) mind that clings to self.

The construction "a mind that clings to a self" is a literal translation of a typical Tibetan mode of expression. For instance, to say "That is pleasant" in Tibetan, one would say "That comes to my mind." A number of translators, in an effort to be faithful to the Tibetan, have imported that whole construction into English and it has become part of what I call Bunglish (see Buddhist Hybrid English).

In this dialect of English, one tends to talk about mind as if it was something else apart from what and who you are and how you experience the world. I absorbed this way of thinking and speaking myself, and didn't think anything of it until I stepped out of Buddhist circles and people pointed it out to me. 

The other day, I was discussing this line with a good friend who is an experienced practitioner, but, blessedly, doesn't know Tibetan. I was struggling to come up with a better English but was caught in the reflexive use of self and multi-syllabic words that destroyed any sense of poetry. He said that, for him, the line meant that we stop believing in a self.

He didn't offer it as a translation. He just said that this is what that line meant to him. Then I realized that it does serve well as a translation. Indeed, I think it is a good translation for three reasons. 
  • It is clear and concise. It communicates immediately.
  • It avoids the "mind" construction. After all, when we say, "I have a mind that clings to a self," aren't we just saying "I believe in a self"? "Believe", in this context, includes a state of mind and a clinging to a certain idea, whether we are explicitly conscious of holding that idea or not.
  • And it is quietly provocative. In directing attention to that belief and our relationship to it, this rendering brings it directly into question. A more philosophical rendering would not provoke the question in the same way.
I took his idea and came up with this rendering:

Send me energy to let believing in self fall away.

Practice tip: beliefs and prayer

Beliefs are problematic. They largely determine how we understand our world. They are remarkably resistant to evidence to the contrary. For instance, a study of the effect of greater information on decision making in the military intelligence community revealed that, no matter how much more information people were given, they consistently interpreted it to support the position they had originally taken. Beliefs are not so easily uprooted, and certainly not by reason or rational processes.

Logic and reason are largely ineffective in addressing our emotional investment in belief, particularly the belief in a self. Tom Metzinger in Being No One presents detailed arguments based solidly in philosophy reasoning and evidence from neuroscience to establish that there is no self -- not functionally, not phenomenologically, not structurally. But those arguments do not change how we experience life. We still experience it in the framework of I-other. To change the belief in a self and that way of experiencing life we have to open up other possibilities, and that requires a concerted effort to undermine the physical, emotional and cognitive structures that support the sense of self.

What to do? You pray for the result, yes, but the act of prayer itself begins the process of letting go of the notion, the belief, that you can or do control what you experience. That letting go is a form of opening, and that is one of the functions of devotion and prayer -- to open to the possibility of experience and understanding that are beyond or outside your control. And it is precisely because this form of prayer goes in that direction that it can bring up so much discomfort, unease or fear.

That is why prayer is important. Through prayer, we set our intention, our direction. Through the emotional connection of devotion, we open to that direction, letting go of the rational and conceptual minds, and, progressively the reactive emotional mind that holds the belief in a self. This does not come about through an act of will per se, but through the practice of prayer itself. We set a direction. We establish a practice. And openings arise. But we don't make them happen.
There are other ways to create the conditions for openings, of course, but, prayer and devotion has been one of the most reliable and effective ways throughout the ages.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Line 1: Treasured teacher, I pray to you.

The first line of the prayer is:

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.

Prayer is nothing if it is not heartfelt. For that reason, as I said in the last newsletter, I chose "treasured teacher" instead of the more usual and more literal "precious teacher." The alliteration works and the word "treasured" brings in the our side of the relationship, where "precious" tends to objectify the teacher.

In our culture, to pray to a living person, other than the pope, perhaps, is suspect. We are not used to it, and, in the light of modern psychology, we regard it as silly, if not dangerous. Part of the reason is that we have lost touch with any sense of symbolic or mythic relationships. In this prayer and in this practice, the teacher represents our connection with buddha, with awakened mind. We are, in effect, praying to awakened mind as we experience it in our teacher. As the traditional instruction says, "In form Vajra Holder, in essence your teacher." (Vajra Holder here is the vajrayana embodiment of awakened mind.)

If you are unable to feel how that stirs you, this is probably not a suitable practice for you.

That being said, to whom you pray is not as important as the act of praying itself. One teacher advised me, "Forgot about true or false, correct or incorrect. Pray to your teacher until thinking stops and then rest there." My own teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, had passed away many years ago, so this teacher was directing me to pray where I felt the connection, and to let the emotional energy of devotion move me beyond the ordinary thinking process. This is one aspect of the connection between devotion and insight.

Many people have said  to me that they feel their prayer and devotion is contrived, that it doesn't spring naturally from their hearts, that they are being inauthentic in this practice. In the beginning, yes, prayer and devotion may well feel contrived, for the simple reason that it is difficult for many of us to touch the place of devotion in our hearts.

The key, at least for me, is to touch the place where I feel awe, where I feel an intimate connection with something that is infinitely greater than I am -- in this case, the inconceivable and infinite openness that is mind itself. And then, to the extent that I can, I let the prayer come from that heartfelt connection.

That way of praying necessarily involves a letting go of the rational mind. You may feel like you are stepping off a cliff. So be it. Take the step. It also involves letting go of the conceptual mind. You stop being able to think at all in the way you are used to.

You also encounter the mind of emotional reactions — anger, boredom, restlessness, impatience, self-loathing, jealousy, pride, you name it. Only when those feelings have been exhausted do you start to touch something solid inside. Reactive emotions are organized around the sense of self and function to maintain it, one way or another. Through the practice of prayer, you come to a point where your efforts to use prayer to reinforce your sense of self, of who you are, fail, utterly and completely.

At this point, when your practice of prayer seems futile and hopeless, something begins to form. As one person said, “Gates look like corners, until you go through them.) Unexpectedly, prayer begins to mean something to you. The words of the prayer resonate deep in your being. Each word, each phrase, rings like a bell. And your heart opens. Having come to know your own pain, and how struggling with it just causes you suffering, you understand the pain and suffering of others.

In addition, you feel a deep connection to the person or figure to whom you pray, a feeling of connection and appreciation that is hard to put into words. Many people confuse that opening with romantic or sexual connection because that may be the only place in their lives where they have experienced anything remotely similar. But it's not. It is devotion. It is the opening of your heart to the possibility of awakening and your respect and appreciation of how that possibility is present in the person to whom you pray. That opening may arise as an inexpressible sense of joy, but just as often it arises as a deep intense ache in the heart, and that's another reason that people shy away from this practice. It is also why teachers in the practice have written prayers entitled "Easing the Pain of Faith". And it may be a combination of joy and ache. For others, that opening may include a feeling of fear, even terror, for you are stepping out of any sense (however illusionary) of being able to control what you experience.

It is precisely through facing these and other challenges that prayer and devotion make insight and awakening possible. When you are able to rest speechless and without thought because your conceptual mind cannot function, with your heart completely open, and trusting the utter groundlessness of experience because there is nowhere to stand, then you may find that your practice has a different level of energy.

If you choose to do this kind of practice, recognize that it may take a while for you to touch these aspects. Until you do, yes, your prayer may well feel a bit contrived, but even then, keep touching the place in you where faith resides. If that faith takes the form of a deep longing, then let that longing power your prayer. If that faith takes the form of confident understanding, then let that understanding, even if it's a conceptual understanding, provide the energy for your prayer. And if that faith gives rise to an open clarity, then pray from that open clarity, or however much of it you can touch in the moment.

In all of this, stay in touch with your heart. This is not a conceptual practice. It is emotional. By feeling your heart and feeling your prayer coming from your heart, you will, in time, move beyond any sense of contrivance or artificiality in your prayer.

What difference does translation make?

As most of you who read this newsletter know, one of my pet bugaboos is translation. Much of the translation that has been done from Tibetan into English has been by academics, and if not by actual academics, by people who have been heavily influenced by philosophical and academic perspectives. I count myself among those who used to take this approach.

Unfortunately, an academic translation is useful primarily to academics, whose interests and concerns (publish or perish) are different from the interests and concerns of practitioners. The same is true of philosophically oriented translators (e.g., Herbert Guenther, a wonderful, kind and brilliant person whom I had the good fortune to meet. He was deeply concerned that Buddhist philosophy should be presented and understood to be on par with anything that Western philosophy had produced).

For the practitioner, academic translation, with its emphasis on textual authenticity, is a blind alley. Philosophical translation is another blind alley, as it focuses on conceptual understanding, even conceptual understanding of the non-conceptual. (Granted, this has been a problem in all forms of Buddhism: the philosophers take over and reify what the mystics experience directly.)

Another blind alley is lexical translation, translating the words and trusting (believing?) that the meaning will come through. In practice, this approach generates wooden English in which the meanings of ordinary English words necessarily change in strange ways. Yet another blind alley is literal translation, an approach to translation that, as Julius Borges points out in the lectures he gave on poetry at Harvard in the mid '60s, is a relatively recent development. It came into being in approximately the 18th century, about the same time as religious fundamentalism developed, and largely for the same reason: a desperate but misguided attempt to stop time and hold onto a world that has passed (if it ever existed at all).

In addition, all these approaches often have a definite Victorian flavor, a residue of the early use of Victorian English to translate texts from Tibetan.

Here I offer two translations of the same prayer, to illustrate the difference translation can make. The first uses words and phrases that have become more or less standard in Tibetan Buddhist circles. The vocabulary and grammar are strongly influenced by literal, academic and philosophical considerations.

Why? Because this prayer has special meaning for me. I've repeated it literally hundreds of thousands of times (in Tibetan), and I've always wanted to put it into English in a way that conveys something of what it has come to mean to me.

I supplicate you, precious guru.
Bestow the blessing of dismissing clinging to self.
Bestow the blessing of pointlessness being born in my stream of experience.
Bestow the blessing of stopping non-spiritual thoughts.
Bestow the blessing of realizing that my own mind is unborn.
Bestow the blessing of bewilderment subsiding on its own ground.
Bestow the blessing of realizing that all that appears and exists is being-as-such (or body of truth, founding stratum of being, etc.).

A bit of commentary is needed, of course, but then, it is needed for the Tibetan, too.
The 3rd line (about pointlessness) refers to renunciation, the determination to bring an end to suffering.
The last line is also difficult, as the word dharmakaya (Tib. chos.sku) is very difficult to translate. It has no counterpart in English academic or philosophical thought and the only mystical terms are so heavily freighted with Christian overtones that they are unusable, too.
The whole notion of blessing is problematic. Blessing is an Old English word that referred to the consecration of shrines and religious artifacts in pre-Christian England. When the Bible was translated the word blessing was used to translate benediction. Neither of these meanings reflects what is actually being asked for in this prayer.

By contrast, here is a translation that I did the other day. I've struggled with this prayer for decades, and this is my latest effort.

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.
Give me energy to let go of fixation on self.
Give me energy to see through life's illusions.
Give me energy to end reactive thinking.
Give me energy to know mind has no beginning.
Give me energy to let confusion resolve itself.
Give me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Again, a few notes:

  • I chose the alliteration in line 1 because it has more heart than the more literal rendering of the Tibetan.
  • I've not made any attempt to render line 3 literally, as the construction even in Tibetan is clumsy. Instead, I've gone straight for the meaning.
  • I experimented with the word secular in line 4, but it didn't work.
  • In the last line, too, I've not made any attempt to translate dharmakaya. Instead, I've gone for the experience of the conceptual framework dropping away completely.
  • I've replaced the use of the word blessing with energy, which is much closer to the meaning of Tibetan than blessing and brings out the theme of transmission, which is what this prayer is all about.

Some will say this is more of a gloss than a translation, but, I beg to differ. The purpose of this second translation is to communicate or elicit experience (rather than conceptual meaning). How do either of these approaches work for you?

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Don't observe. Look!

The phrase སེམས་ལ་ལྟ་བ་ plays a central role in meditation instruction. I usually translate this phrase look at the mind. Others translate it observe the mind. I think this translation is not only inaccurate but it leads people to make the wrong effort in their practice. 

The relevant word in Tibetan is lta.ba. It means to look, but since it is also used in meditation and philosophical contexts, it is often translated as view. or, in the context of dzogchen the view. (In Tibetan, most verbs can quite happily be used as nouns, a flexibility that makes it easy to be both concise and precise but often presents more than a few challenges for translation.)

In meditation practice, there is a world of difference between look and observe

The word observe carries the connotation that you are watching and noting what is significant, you are marking or being attentive to something seen. Many teachers teach people to practice this way and many people practice by observing what happens in their minds. From the perspective of mahamudra and dzogchen, this is not meditation. As Jigmé Lingpa writes of people who observe the mind(see page 102 in A Trackless Path):

They track the arising and fading of thinking. With this meditation,
Even if they practice for a hundred years, they spin in confusion.

Rather than observe (thus becoming an observer), look. The point is not to see or observe the mind or what is happening in it, but to look. When you look at mind, you see nothing -- nothing whatsoever. As Rangjung Dorje writes in Aspirations of Mahamudra:

When one looks again and again at the mind which cannot be looked at,
And sees vividly for what it is the meaning of not seeing,
Doubts about the meaning of "is" and "isn't" are resolved.


How do you look at mind? Just ask yourself, "What is mind?" Immediately, you are looking at mind. It's like looking at a mirror. You don't see the mirror. You see reflections, but you don't see the mirror itself. Most people cannot stay in looking at mind for more than a second (and often less than that). That's where stability in attention comes in and all the emphasis on resting and developing stable attention. But all the resting in the world will not lead you out of confusion. That's where clarity comes in, and you spark the clarity by asking "What is mind?"

When you do this, you will probably notice a shift. It's subtle, but there is a more awake quality in your attention. That is where you rest. Realistically, it will fade or crumble. Then you start again: question, look, rest in the shift. 

A lot of people make the mistake of sparking the attention again and again, perhaps because they are trying to see something. That approach will wear you out. You will develop a lot tension and, if you persist, you will become brittle and fragile. Not a good path.

When you do learn how to make the shift and rest in the looking, thoughts are not a problem. Thoughts may arise while you are looking, but they come and go on their own, unless you engage them. When you engage them, you immediately fall into thinking, which is, by comparison, a confused state of mind. Sometimes you just fall into dullness, which is also a confused state of mind. When either of these happen, relax and start again. 

Over time, you will develop the ability and the capacity to experience stillness, thinking, even powerful emotions such as anger, love, hurt or shame, AND continue to rest in the looking. This is, at least in part, what it means to go beyond thought. To go beyond thought doesn't mean that you don't have any thoughts. It means that when thoughts arise you don't need to engage them, you don't fall into thinking or confusion.

From there, it's not that far to experience the various forms of releasing described in dzogchen and mahamudra instruction. Again, see page 121 in A Trackless Path. For instance, arising release refers to the experience of thoughts arising and disappearing as soon as they arise, like snowflakes landing on a hot stone.

Again, you are not observing the mind here, because there is nothing to observe. To observe thoughts is not that useful because when you do, you, as the watcher, remain enthralled in a sense of self, your identity as the watcher, the observer. 


Use the looking to raise the level of attention so that you are no longer engaging experience conceptually. That makes all the difference.