Monday, March 23, 2015

The command transmission and an introduction to protectors

In the command transmission, the guru or teacher commands one of the protectors or one of the protector's attendants to take care of the student. 

What is a protector? How do they function? I'll write more about protectors and protector practice the future, but for today, it's sufficient to say that protectors are representations of how the direct awareness that is our human heritage acts in our lives to create conditions conducive to practice and to clear away conditions that undermine practice. 

That sounds beneficial, right? We have a big powerful force on our side. Beneficial perhaps, but not necessarily benign. 

In today's world, almost everyone, students and teachers alike, relate to practice in terms of the horizontal dimension, that is, of how practice can improve our lives or resolve psychological or social issues. For example, I recently received an email asking if I wanted a review copy of a book by a couple of well known Buddhist teachers. The email described the book as "an eye-opening book that addresses the problem of how to become rich and powerful while doing good." This is straight materialism. It's not even spiritual materialism.

The horizontal dimension focuses on our lives in society, our relationships with others and our identity and sense of who we are in the world. In my own training however, practice was always about the vertical dimension, understanding what we are (which means going beyond our identity in society) and experiencing life directly or, at least to the extent possible, free from the distortions of conditioning (karma), habituation (samsara) and conceptual knowing.

The work of protectors is to bring this vertical dimension into our lives. As expressions of the non-conceptual knowing that cuts through culture and conditioning, they are not particularly gentle. First your phone rings. If you don't answer the call, there is a knock on your door. If you don't open it and start your journey, the door is broken open. If you still don't go, your home is destroyed. And so it proceeds. Your life is steadily taken apart until you start relating to the direct awareness that has been calling you. This is but one way the protectors create conditions conducive to practice and clear away conditions that undermine practice.
In his introduction in The Great Path of Awakening, Jamgön Kongtrul says that Mind Training in Seven Points "contains limitless instructions that stand firmly in the sutra tradition yet have some connection with the tantra tradition." A good example is Tokmé Zongpo's enigmatic prayer:
If it is better for me to be ill,
Give me the energy to be ill.
If it is better for me to recover,
Give me the energy to recover.
If it is better for me to die,
Give me the energy to die.

This prayer is clearly is not about how to make your life better. It is about how to be in your life completely and how to receive and be with whatever life brings you. In this way, it definitely has a vajrayana or tantric flavor. 

Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen tradition, points to something similar when he writes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

This is the vertical dimension. It is at right angles to any effort to improve your life or become a better or happier person. 

To return to the command transmission, when the teacher commands the protector or an attendant to look after you, your teacher is introducing you to the vertical dimension. In receiving that transmission, you are taking on the spirit of Tokmé Zongpo's prayer: put me in touch with whatever will bring me into the direct experience of life itself, free from culture and conditioning. 
Such an intention, of course, means that you are prepared to face the deepest and darkest areas within you, those patterns and beliefs that developed in the course of your life to insulate you from the shocks and terrors you could not face at that time. You are prepared to question and see through the fundamental beliefs from which the fabric of society is woven. You are prepared, or at least willing, to step beyond the only kind of knowing that you know into a mystery that you can experience directly but never put into words. 
Thus, when you consider practicing vajrayana, do so not because you think it will bring you understanding and capabilities that will make you or your life better, but because it is a calling, a calling that you must answer -- whatever it brings you, wherever it takes you.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Transmission in Vajrayana, reading of texts

Empowerment, initiation, transmission. Initially intended as methods to prepare students for various practices and teachings, they are often used nowadays to deny students access to those same practices and teachings. In the next few newsletters, I want to throw a little light on this topic by describing the forms of transmission in the Tibetan vajrayana tradition, their origins (as much as we can determine) and what they might look like in today’s world.

In Tibetan vajrayana, there are five levels of transmission: command (བཀའ), spoken transmission (རླུང་), permission (རྗེས་གནང་), energy wave (བྱིན་བརླབས་), and great initiation (དབང་ཆེན་). In addition, in connection with most deity practices, transmission has three components: empowerment (དབང་), spoken transmission (རླུང་) and instruction (ཁྲིད་).

I’ll discuss all of these in the next few newsletters. This week I’m going to start with spoken transmission (རླུང་) . The word for spoken transmission is lung (pronounced to rhyme with hoong, not hung). It is the word for prana, energy, specifically the energy associated with the breath. The student, sitting in the presence of the teacher reading the text, receives the energy of the teacher’s attention while he or she read the book.

In India when vajrayana was evolving, a book consisted of a stack of dried palm leaves on which the text was hand-written. The Indians did not have a durable medium (such as paper), nor a method of mass production (such as a printing press or a wood-blocks) until much later. Consequently, books were rare and precious items, carefully handed down from a teacher to his or her principal student. They were fragile and most of the time simply disintegrated after a few generations. The lack of durable materials was one reason that Indian Buddhism never developed the same cohesion and standardization of texts and curricula that developed in Tibet and China where paper and wood-block printing made mass dissemination possible.

To transmit the contents of a text to students, the teacher read the text while they listened. This is the origin of the spoken transmission. The teacher might comment on the book as he or she read it. For the student, this might well be the one and only time that he or she would hear the whole book. Obviously, rapid and accurate memorization was a highly valued talent. Ananda, for instance, had a “phonographic” memory. He was regularly consulted to repeat what Buddha Shakyamuni had said on various topics. Most sutras start with the phrase “Thus have I heard. Once the Buddha was…”, a literary conceit that ostensibly certified that the sutra originated with Ananda speaking from his memory.

The tantras (texts that contained vajrayana teachings) were often written in coded language, their contents arranged discontinuously with unrelated material intentionally inserted. These steps were taken to prevent those who had not received the transmission from being able to read the texts or understand them as they were intended. This practice of making texts difficult to read or understand continued into the Tibetan tradition. For instance, in the poem I just translated in A Trackless Path, Jigmé Lingpa says, “In this age of strife, these vital instructions for the great mysteries/Are mingled with the authoritative writings  of the analytic approach.” 

The spoken transmission took on even greater significance in the vajrayana context. During the spoken transmission, the student learned how to understand the coded language, the correct sequence in which to read the book and what material was extraneous. Thus, the spoken transmission of a text served two purposes. It provided an energetic transmission of the meaning of the text and it provided a precise and correct understanding of the text itself. 

In Tibet, with paper and wood-block printing, copies of books were available to virtually every student who needed one. In addition, spoken transmissions for the large number of texts preserved in the various Tibetan traditions resulted in the texts being read so quickly that no one could even follow what was being read, let alone absorb the meaning. More and more emphasis was placed on the energetic aspect of the transmission. Increasingly, a kind of mythology developed that you couldn’t study or benefit from a text without such a transmission. Yet the sheer mass of texts involved reminds one of McLuhan’s principal that every new development creates its own negation. If your attention wandered during the hours and hours of high speed reading, did you still receive the spoken transmission? What if you had to leave for a few minutes?

In today’s world, when it comes to spoken transmission, many more questions arise. Is an audio or a video recording of a spoken transmission a spoken transmission? Is it possible to give a spoken transmission over the phone? What about streaming audio or video? When a text is translated from one language to another, what happens to the spoken transmission?

These are questions that only the authorities can answer. In the meantime, new possibilities are opening up every day. With the wealth of material available in digital and electronic form, with communication by telephone, recording and video, there are any number of ways we may hear the words of a text. Many teachers post their recorded teachings online where they are listened to by thousands of people whom they have never met and many among those thousands of people benefit from listening to those recordings. Clearly something is happening and, from all indications, something very good is happening. 

What counts is the understanding that arises in your own experience. The most important question is: how do you find the courage, confidence and resilience to engage the challenges you will inevitably encounter in spiritual practice? Spoken transmission may play a role here, but that is for you to decide.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mind nature, transmission and teaching

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool: shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is ignorant: teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep: wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is a saint: follow him.
— Middle Eastern saying

This week’s tip is more a teaching tip than a practice tip. It is about transmission, the often mysterious and magical interaction between student and teacher in which nothing happens and everything changes. Transmission is about mind nature, emptiness, buddha nature, direct awareness or any number of other terms that have been used through the centuries, and how students come to an experience that opens them to new possibilities. One of the functions of a teacher is to create the conditions in which this transmission takes place.

Mind nature cannot be understood. You can know it, but you cannot understand it. Consequently, there is little point in giving a student an explanation of mind nature, mind itself, buddha nature or any these terms. How do you explain the taste of ice cream or chocolate? If the student has no actual experience in this area, then he or she can only form an idea of what you are talking about. That idea rarely leads toward direct experience and, in many cases, it leads away because such explanations induce further conceptual thinking in the student.

In the case of people who have been practicing for a long time, many of them have had glimpses or tastes of mind nature. However, for a variety of reasons, they do not appreciate or recognize them. They continue doggedly at their practice, striving to make their experience conform to what they have read or what they expect to happen. Explanations don’t work here, either, because the student cannot recognize what you are talking about. As Red Auerbach said, “It’s not what you say to the players that counts. It’s what they hear.”

Often all that is necessary is to point them to what they have already experienced, show them how to be in that experience and what possibilities are open to them when they rest there. What happens then can be quite astonishing. Whole new worlds open up for the student. But those worlds open up because you take them into their own experience rather than trying to explain something to them. Generally, they can work from there to deepen, expand and stabilize what they already had experienced but didn’t appreciate.

For other students, the difficulties they have with mind nature, emptiness, etc. are due to  a lack of capacity. They are unable to access this level of experience because they lack sufficient stability or clarity or both. Because intellectual understanding doesn’t develop either clarity or stability, explanations don’t help here either, no matter how lucid they may be.

Instead, have the student build capacity in both stability and clarity. If necessary, give him or her specific practices to undo the reactive patterns that prevent resting or looking. When the student has sufficient stability and clarity, point him or her to mind nature, using any of the standard pointing out instructions (e.g., what rests, what moves, what is aware) or draw on any of the many methods that have developed (stories, koans, quotations, poetry, movement, etc.). If a shift occurs and the student sees, then give the student practices to stabilize attention in that seeing (e.g., look in the resting, rest in the looking). If no shift takes place, then use a story (Nasrudin is often useful) or koan or even Lewis Carroll to stop the conceptual mind in the student. Then have the student rest in that experience. This doesn’t always work, but it does often enough.

It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as mind nature, or buddha nature, or mind itself. Emptiness, too, is not a thing. These words refer to certain shifts in how we experience ourselves, the world, our mind. These shifts produce a profound experience of freedom, presence, awakening or peace, so profound that it changes everything in how we relate to life. Remember, it is not clear that everyone has the same experience. To my mind, it’s pretty silly even to talk about this or that experience in its own right because there is no way to compare one person’s experience with another.

As a teacher, what you are looking for is a fundamental shift in the student. You can tell that a shift has taken place by what you feel as you sit with the student, by how he or she talks about the experience, by what changes in his or her meditation practice, what changes in his or her relationship with reactive patterns, etc. There are many indications.

You have to have enough experience yourself to tell whether something has changed or whether he or she is just repeating accepted phrases. If you aren’t clear in your own experience, you may be taken in by the student. Also, take care that your own experience and preconceptions don’t prevent you from seeing or hearing what is actually going on in the student. You may miss the shift because it doesn’t conform to your ideas of what is meant to happen and you may dismiss the experience of the student.

Once the student has experienced that shift, then it is appropriate to provide a suitable framework so that he or she understands the significance of the shift, how to work with it and what the possibilities are. This is where an explanation of mind nature can be helpful. Timing is important. Before the shift, such explanations feed into and reinforce the student’s conceptual understanding. After the shift, they feed into and illuminate his or her experience.

Much mystery surrounds transmission. Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is to think of two candles, one lit, one unlit. When the flame of the lit candle is brought near the wick of the unlit candle, a flame appears, as if by magic. The flame is transmitted from one candle to the other. Too much wind, a wet wick, a weak flame or any number of other factors will prevent the transmission from taking place. But if the conditions are right, it happens.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An example of Bunglish -- Buddhist Hybrid English

While revising my original translation of Jigmé Lingpa's poem The Visionary Experience of Ever-present Good (kun.bzand.dgongs.nyams), I am checking my work against Sam van Schaik's translation in Approaching the Great Perfection.

There is a world of difference between our approaches. Sam seeks to be scrupulously accurate in rendering the words and phrases of Tibetan, while I favor a looser more poetic approach, striving for fluid and ease of comprehension in the English.

The difference in one verse provides a good example of Buddhist Hybrid English on the one hand and something else, I'm not sure what to call it, on the other.

Do bear in mind that Sam and I are translating for completely different audiences. His, I believe, is primarily academic, while mine is intended for practitioners. This difference alone accounts for much of the difference in result.

Here is Sam's translation:

Mind itself, which is without good or bad, acceptance or rejection,
Is adulterated by the alloy of adroit rejection and acceptance of dirt and purity.
When the nondual ultimate truth is fabricated by the duality of subject and object,
To aspire toward the rank of ultimate truth, which is not a thing to be obtained,
Is to hold the tenets of the
kriyatantra of conduct. How attractive!

And here is my rendering of the same verse:

Because mind itself doesn’t take up the good or give up the bad,
A shrewd moral practice acts as an added pollutant.
The forms of dualistic fixation distort what is not two.
Ritual tantra seeks to attain a state where there is nothing to attain.
How elegant you are, you followers of ritual philosophy!

Monday, July 28, 2014

What language is that?

In many Buddhist circles, the English used to talk about practice and Buddhist concepts has evolved in some strange ways, different in different traditions, but sufficiently widespread that one can now call it Bunglish, for Buddhist Hybrid English.

There is no doubt that Buddhism changes languages as it becomes part of a new culture. It affected the evolution of Sanskrit, leading modern scholars to coin the term Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Paul Griffiths, as far back as 1981, used the term Buddhist Hybrid English to refer to the "often incomprehensible result of attempts to faithfully translate Buddhist texts into English."

Over the next few months, I will post examples of Bunglish from various translations and suggest alternative ways of expressing the same ideas in more natural English. I invite you to send in your own examples, too.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Forget happiness

Forget happiness!

This is the title of an article in the current issue of Tricycle magazine. It consists of two verses and their commentaries from my book Reflections on Silver River. In publishing these excerpts, Tricycle is calling into question the current obsession with happiness that pervades American (Western?) society and much of what is written about Buddhism today (e.g., The Art of Happiness by H.H. The Dalai Lama, Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg). 

These are all solid books. However, even if you discount the commercial pressures that lead to such titles, they are still selling happiness as a goal of spiritual practice. 

This is nothing new. The Tibetan tradition has long sought to persuade people to practice with the promise of great bliss. Other religious traditions seek to attract followers with the promise of bliss, universal selfhood (Atman, Brahma, cosmic consciousness, etc.), eternal life (heaven or paradise) or total purity. As I discussed in Chapter 7 of Wake Up to Your Life and in An Arrow to the Heart, all four of these goals are reactive patterns that seek to escape the messiness of life for an idealized life.

However, you cannot experience the fullness of life without experiencing the messiness of life. Mess is part of life, not something extra that can be done away with if you just manage to live the right way. (The mistaken belief behind the pursuit of happiness as a goal is that you can actually control your life and your experience of life.)

Because control is an illusion, the only question is how to meet what happens in your life. Tokmé Zongpo, in verses 12-19 of Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, provides frighteningly cogent instruction on just this point, relying on the practice of Mahayana mind training in general and taking and sending in particular. He isn’t talking about how to be happy, at least not in any normal sense of that word, but how to be free and at peace in whatever life throws at you.

As I wrote in an earlier newsletter, when you start to practice, you don’t necessarily start with this motivation:

You may begin to practice with the idea that it will help you in your life, but as time goes on, you realize that you have become more interested in what you can accomplish through the practice (awakening, presence, whatever you want to call it). But as still more time goes by, you come to appreciate that any kind of goal, any kind of objective, prevents you from being present in your experience and, increasingly, the only thing to do is experience whatever is arising as completely as possible.

From this perspective, you might think of spiritual practice as akin to artistic expression, be it dance, poetry, painting, or music. You can take up art because you enjoy it, because it helps you in some way, but when it is your life, it requires a different level of commitment.

Take renunciation, for instance. Many artists endure years of poverty, hardship, obscurity, disdain before their work is recognized or appreciated. What is important to them is the art. Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues masters of the mid 20th century, only began to win Grammy awards very late in his career. Other artists are recognized or appreciated only after their death. Many artists (and we don’t know how many) are never recognized, but pursue their art against all odds and challenges because that is their life.

Like artists, spiritual practitioners have to put in years of study and training to develop the needed skills and abilities. Like artists, spiritual practitioners search for teachers or guides who can help them give expression to the small stammering voice that is asking questions or seeking a relationship with life that can be experienced but not described. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are questioned for leading unconventional lives that make no sense to most people or behaving in ways that call into question  the norms of society. Like artists, spiritual practitioners are denounced for not following the established orthodoxies as they follow the directions that their questions take them.

Thus, when you consider your own path of practice, forget about happiness. Take to heart the teachings on letting go of conventional notions of success and failure. Even if you are tremendously talented spiritually (and there is spiritual talent just as there is artistic, athletic or business talent), find a teacher. Expect to put in many hours on the cushion and just as many hours in other ways to develop the skills and abilities you need to recognize and follow your path. And don’t be concerned about whether anyone else recognizes or appreciates what you are doing. Again, like art, spiritual practice doesn’t produce anything that is tangibly useful, yet it is one of the most important, the most meaningful, aspects of life.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Five Elements at Work

The practice question today is about the practical application of the five elements.

Recently, one of my business clients asked me for advice about their HR department as they are rapidly expanding and need to build new capabilities. Being a creative company, the well-being of their staff is crucial to their success.  

An effective HR department has five functions in a company:
  • administration of compensation and benefits
  • addressing employee issues
  • training and coaching resources
  • strategy and organizational development
  • change agent, when change is needed.
It struck me that these five functions correspond precisely with the five elements:
  • administration corresponds to earth as it provides structure
  • addressing employee issues corresponds to water, as it addresses feelings and tacit understandings
  • training and coaching corresponds with fire, as these areas are about energy and expertise
  • strategy corresponds to air, as it is about ideas and vision
  • and change corresponds to void, doing what is necessary when new situations arise.  
As an exercise, look at your own work and break it down into the five elements:
  • what provides structure and support?
  • what flows and how is that flow managed?
  • where is the energy and what happens with it?
  • what are the underlying values and/or strategy?
  • how do you meet changes in circumstances?
Then look at possible weaknesses or imbalances among the elements. Is the structure too weak and doesn't provide enough support, or is it too strong and stifles you? What provides the fire and energy? Do you have a plan for the future or do you jump from crisis to crisis? 

Please post your thoughts, reflections or observations below in the comment section.

For more on the five elements, see Wake Up to Your Life (pg. 154-5 and 226-232).