Monday, July 11, 2016

Introduction to groundwork

First, a translation point. Ngöndro is a typical Tibetan compound word — two words are juxtaposed two create a third word. The first word is the word for before. The second is the word for go. Literally, it means what goes before and a reasonable translation (that is, able to be justified by reason or logic) would be preparation orpreparatory practices  While accurate, in today's performance-based culture, it doesn't work very well Most people, whatever the task at hand, see preparation as a sometimes necessary step before they get to the real matter. Consequently, they usually don't give preparations their full attention and want to get them over with as quickly as possible. Such an attitude undermines their effectiveness. Another term that has been used isfoundation, or foundational practices. This rendering is a little better in some regards but few people see these practices as foundational to mahamudra or vajrayana practice. Why would something so simple as mahamudra require such elaborate and complex preparatory or foundational work? A few years ago, I decided to try the termgroundwork. It carries the same meaning as something that is to be done first, and that it is important. More successful as a translation? Probably not, but one has to keep trying.

Whichever English term you find speaks to you most, a few questions are worth considering. If the practices are groundwork, for exactly what they are groundwork? What is the ground that is being prepared -- you, your mind, your body, your heart, all of the above? And how do these practices do the groundwork?

Traditionally, there are two sets of groundwork or preparatory practices: common and special. In some traditions of meditation, a third set is added, specific groundwork for that particular practice. 

Today, I'm going to offer a few thoughts on the common groundwork in the Tibetan tradition.

The first task of any teacher (and, the first step for any student) is to increase urgency. As it is said in many traditions, to bring about change, motivation has to change. Thus, the first step is to change motivation. The intention behind the common groundwork practices is to increase urgency. In every tradition there are tales of teachers presenting a new student with difficult challenges -- keeping the student waiting for days before meeting with him or her, putting a new student through hardship (building stone towers with bare hands). These tales are often interpreted as a test of the student's seriousness, and this is no doubt one purpose of these challenges. But I want to suggest another. In the course of working through the challenge, the student has to repeatedly reconnect and clarity his or her own motivation. In other words, the challenges serve to increase the urgency for the student.

Most people who come into Buddhist practice today do so for one of two reasons. Some are looking for ways to improve their ability to function in life: be less reactive, be more disciplined, heal old wounds, be more empathetic, etc. MBSR and MBCT have successfully adapted the traditional practice of attention and created practice protocols that are highly accessible and address a wide range of challenges and problems that people encounter in today's world -- the mcmindfulness juggernaut as one friend of mine likes to call it. The other principal reason is that people are looking for a community of like-minded people with whom they can practice. In other words, they are looking for what we usually call churches or synagogues -- an institution, small or large, in which congregations meet to practice their religion, help and support those who form the community and often play an important role in providing needed services to the society at large. Yet, as the Sufis learned centuries ago, such practice groups inevitably become social groups, more concerned with continuity, cohesion, and identity than with actual practice. In short, they are taken over by the three marks of existence.

Groundwork practice, common or special, is a different kettle of fish. It is preparation for mystical practice. Mystical practice is not concerned with either the utilitarian or the societal. People who are drawn to such practice are seeking a certain kind of knowledge or experience. That interest may evolve out of the utilitarian approach. It may evolve out of communal religious practice. In either case, it is a different sort of beast. It has more to do with a calling, a calling to a different understanding or relationship with life itself. As that sense of calling evolves, the utilitarian motivation becomes increasingly secondary or drops away completely and the societal one may, too, depending on the individual.

In the Tibetan tradition, the common groundwork usually consists of four contemplations: the precious human birth, death and impermanence, karma-seed-result and the shortcomings of samsara. Each of these practices has a specific intention. Through contemplation on the precious human birth, you come to appreciate that you have a once-in-an-infinity opportunity to practice. Through contemplation on death and impermanence, you expose the illusions of conventional notions of success and failure. Contemplations on karma and the shortcomings of samsara show you how you are enslaved by reactive patterns and they also point to a way out. The whole purpose of these practices is to increase the sense of urgency. I've written about these extensively in Wake Up to Your Life and you can find more traditional descriptions in any number of books -- The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Words of My Perfect Teacher, The Way of the Bodhisattva, to name just a few.

There is no denying that these practices can and do change the way you see the world and your place in it. However, I'm no longer entirely convinced that they always work as advertised, for the simple reason that they are, in their own way, based on the same rational choice theory that has so disastrously underpinned modern economics and sociology. These disciplines make the assumption that we are rational beings and when presented with all the evidence, we make decisions that maximize our well-being. Well-being in the economic or sociological sense is about how we live in this world. In the spiritual sense, the scope is considerably expanded to the totality of beings in the universe and the infinities of time past and future, but the logic is essentially the same. And that is why I now distrust it.

Still, the need to increase urgency remains. For that, I have increasingly moved in the direction that Stephen Batchelor once referred to as "the small stammering voice" inside. Rather than trying to accept and absorb the logic of Indian and Tibetan cosmology, I feel that listening to your heart may be a more reliable way to increase your urgency, listening to your heart until you hear what it is saying so clearly and completely that your path and the place of your path in your life is clear. This is what I tried to convey in my commentary on the first practice verse of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva in Reflections on Silver River. When you are clear about where your heart wants to go, then reflections on mortality, etc., quickly clarify and focus intention.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Line 7: beyond words

Send me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Translation points:
This last line is the culmination of the prayer. Translated literally, using technical philosophical terms, it might read

Send me energy to realize that what appears and what becomes is dharmakaya (ཆོས་སྐུ). 

This, of course, is virtually unintelligible unless one is familiar with these terms.

Let’s take them one at a time.

As noted in a previous newsletter, I prefer to use the word know instead of realize forརྟོགས. For reasons that will be clear in shortly, we don’t need to add directlyKnow by itself is sufficient.

The next phrase, what appears and what becomes is a bit ambiguous in the Tibetan. It can mean everything that one experiences when confused and bewildered (i.e., samsara). Or it can mean everything that one experiences, that is, samsara and nirvana. One of the challenges of translation is what to do when the Tibetan is ambiguous. On the one hand, you could make the meaning as precise as possible in English. Such translations may be clear, but they also lose something, particularly in the context of prayer and poetry, when the ambiguity in the Tibetan allows a spectrum of meaning. Thus, whenever possible, I seek to translate in such a way that the English is ambiguous, too.

A further point here is how to translate compound words. Tibetan expresses abstract ideas in a couple of ways. One is to juxtapose two opposites, or two juxtapose words that have a similar or related meaning. For instance, temperature = heat-cold, distance = near-far and size = big-small. It is sometimes difficult to find the right English word for some of these pairs. Hope-fear is one example and many translators find it is easier (and better) to say no hope or fear rather than no concern. Another pair that is usually translated literally is samsara-nirvana, when it just refers to the totality of human experience. 

Most of the time, one has to resort to abstract nouns in English, and their use undermines the power and force of a translation. This is partially because abstract nouns in English tend to have Latinate roots (1066 and all that) rather than the Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic roots, which is where the power in English lies. Verbs present even more of a problem. Taking-sending = trading or exchanging. Come-go = move. But what about expand-contract, increase-decrease, add-subtract, radiate-absorb? All these indicate certain kinds of change, but the Tibetan is able to express exactly what kind of change, where additional words would be needed in English.

Similar challenges arise with Tibetan words that are formed from two words with related meanings, as in the Three Jewels (དཀོན་མཆོག་), where the first word means rareand the second one excellent or supreme

Here we have appear (སྣང་) and become (སྲིད). Not exactly opposites, but the phrase does refer to a spectrum of experience. Note: it refers to what arises in experience, not what exists. Aside: such phrases as "see things as they really are" are commonly used (and I have been guilty of using them in the past) but they are fundamentally misleading. Buddhist thinking, and Buddhist practice, is not based on notions of what is (ontology) the way English is, but on how life is experienced. Thus, I arrived at the deceptively simple phrase what arises as a possible translation. 

And then we come to the big monster, dharmakaya. It’s an incredibly powerful and rich term, but it has no equivalent, or even near equivalent, in English? It refers directly to a description of awakening (buddha) that is widely used in both Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings, namely, the three kayas or forms. It has several different levels of meaning and provides a powerful shorthand that refers to large bodies of philosophy and teaching. In essence, dharmakaya refers to the emptiness aspect of experience, nirmanakaya to the form aspect, and sambhogakaya to the quality of experience when the emptiness and form aspects are experienced at the same time. Many translators (Including yours truly) have come up with various philosophical terms in English, but nothing comes close to doing the term justice. As a consequence a number of translators feel it is better to leave the terms in Sanskrit. For academic translation and for technical texts, this is a good solution. However, I feel it doesn’t work for practice texts or poetry.

Dharmakaya points to an experience (and it is important to remember that all these philosophical terms originally arose to point to specific experiences), one in which words utterly fail. The experience may be one of depth, vastness, brilliance, emptiness, freedom, peace, ecstasy, bliss, oneness, etc., or, as is usually the case, a combination of any or all of these (and others). I would hesitate to say that it points to only one experience. Rather, I think, it points to a spectrum of experiences whose intensity and profundity make everything else pale in comparison. One is left in such awe and wonder that words fail completely. Inconceivable, inexpressible, non-conceptual, ineffable, unutterable, etc. -- all these words are simply saying that you cannot say anything about it. Thus, in order that the prayer read poetically, I decided to avoid technical terms and go straight to the point - this cannot be put into words.
The role of prayer
Again, in this regard, prayer plays an important role. The practice of prayer as an expression of devotion is ecstatic: it involves opening to deeper and deeper levels of our experience of being. That opening transforms energy, which becomes available for attention. The combination of heartfelt opening and higher levels of attention floods your whole system and can completely change how the way you experience life. This transformation was at the heart of an instruction I received many years ago: pray to your teacher until thinking (i.e., conceptualization) stops, and rest there.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Line 6: let confusion resolve itself

Send me energy to let confusion resolve itself.

Translation points:
As I have done in the other newsletters, I'll discuss the translation points first, then the meaning, and then the role of prayer.

Again, translated literally, the line might read:

Send me energy to let confusion resolve on its own ground.

Here we enter one of the more challenging aspects of translation: what to do with idioms. Some translators favor translating idioms literally, but that doesn't always work out. Try translating "Hit the road, Jack" into German. Here the idiom is on its own ground or in its own place (Tib. rang.sar). It's a wonderful expression and a lovely image -- surges of confusion arising and resolving themselves, like waves in the ocean, perhaps. The point is that confusion is not and cannot be resolved by an outside force. Confusion is just a distortion (admittedly, a distortion with significant consequences) of the natural knowing that is mind itself. It arises in and from this natural knowing and can only return there.

While I like on its own ground, the phrase has a slightly different meaning in English (e.g., meet someone on his or her own ground = an area that someone knows well). Further it suggests the idea of ground of being (in English, at least -- the Tibetan does not carry that meaning because there is a different word for the philosophical notion of a ground of being). Thus, I prefer to keep the English simple and just say, "Let confusion resolve itself." This rendering avoids any possible misinterpretation and accurately reflects the essentially reflexive construction in the Tibetan, but it does lose the metaphor of ground or place.
What does it mean?
One the one hand, as Gampopa points out in the beginning of The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, confusion does not resolve itself. Reactive emotions trigger reactive emotions. Patterns of behavior are laid down that perpetuate themselves because we see and experience the world through the projections of these reactive emotions. Self-reinforcing feedbacks loops form. There is nothing in their operation that leads them to dissolve. Yet here we are praying for energy in order to let confusion resolve itself. Are we praying for the impossible?

The answer to that question is no, because in the context of this prayer some form of attention is assumed to be present. No explicit mention of attention is made, but it is the factor that makes the difference. Attention has two qualities -- stability and clarity. When you rest in stable attention, you aren't taken over when thoughts, feelings or sensations arise. You aren't lost in them. You have free attention over and above what you are experiencing. Because of the clarity component, you know thoughts to be thoughts, feelings to be feelings and sensation to be sensations. You don't take thoughts to be facts. You experience your feelings but you don't necessarily believe what they are telling you. And you know sensations are sensations, that they are dependent on multiple conditions and that they do not point to entities that have an independent existence in their own right. That knowing makes all the difference.

For instance, when a thought arises, if you are not completely consumed by it, you have a chance of recognizing it as a thought. When you do, it has less hold on you. If you then look directly at it, it usually goes poof! and disappears. With practice, this process becomes second nature. 

What determines whether you are caught by a thought or not? What determines whether, when you look at a thought, it goes poof! ? It comes down to the level of energy in your attention. When your attention is consistently at a higher level than thoughts, you do not fall into confused thinking. The same holds for feelings and sensations. Thus, you are praying to develop a level of energy that enables you to know thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings and sensations as sensations. With that level of energy, when subject-object confusion arises, when reactive emotions arise, you know the confusion itself to be movement in mind. This is a direct knowing, not a rational conceptual knowing. And in that knowing, the confusion does not perpetrate itself because you do not fall into conceptual thinking, which is a duller and less stable state of mind. Confusion arises and dissolves by itself in the knowing. 

The role of prayer
Prayer is powerful method for raising the level of energy in your system. It is essentially an ecstatic technique, one in which you open more and more completely to your teacher, the prayer, the feelings of awe and devotion, and to everything you experience. In prayer, you are directing attention to your teacher or to whomever you have decided to pray. This attention is based in an emotional connection, but the emotional energy of awe, devotion and joy operates at a higher level than the emotional energy of reactive emotions. In the course of prayer, again and again you come up against patterns of emotional reaction - doubt, neediness, anger, envy, guilt, pride, etc., etc. The practice of prayer puts you in touch with these patterns while it gives you a way to stand with and in them as they play themselves out. The result is that you experience these waves of emotional reaction without being consumed by them. In this process the energy of emotional reactions is transformed into attention, which then becomes available to you to take prayer deeper or to power your meditation practice. For some, this is truly a joyous journey. For others, it is difficult and challenging beyond comprehension. You don't have a say in how it is (or might be) for you. Like any journey, once you decide to take it, you receive and work with whatever comes. Before you do so, however, it may be a good idea to remember the Tibetan saying: perhaps better not to start, but once started, better to finish.

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.