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.