Tuesday, October 4, 2016

taking care of your relationship with your teacher

It's always a little humbling when you discover that something you have held as more or less sacrosanct isn't quite what you held it to be.

To be specific, I have long held that the teacher-student relationship, particularly in the Tibetan tradition, was an aspect of practice that had to be protected and maintained at all costs. I had originally intended to write a short newsletter about the sanctity of the student-teacher relationship, but when I did a bit more research, I failed to unearth any references that unambiguously supported this view. After I talked with a few colleagues, it became clear that this was just my view on the matter.

What led me to this view? I grew up, spiritually speaking, in the Tibetan tradition, where the student-teacher relationship is taken very seriously. The culture regards it as sacrosanct, even continuing from one life to the next, so it was easy to feel that there was something sacred about it. That view was also reinforced again and again by any number of comments and readings. Here are two that were particularly important to me.

First, in Mind-Training in Seven Points, Chekawa writes: 

Take care to prevent three kinds of damage.

In his commentary, Kongtrül explains that the first kind of damage is damage to your relationship with your teacher and this is to be avoided because "All the fine qualities of the mahayana depend on your teacher."

The second was a conversation with Kalu Rinpoche. He was telling me how happy he had been earlier in his in an isolated mountain retreat, living on roasted barley and tea and meditating the live-long day. After a few years had passed, he received a series of letters from the hierarchs at Palpung Monastery asking, and then demanding, that he return to the monastery to teach the three-year retreat. He told me that he ignored these letters. But then a letter arrived from his teacher:

"You can stay in the mountains if you want to, but if you don't come down and teach the three-year retreat, never come to see me again."

"What could I do?" Rinpoche sighed. "I had to leave the mountains and start teaching."

From what he said, Rinpoche had been compelled to give up his life's calling in order to maintain his relationship with his teacher. The story, especially the wistful tone in his voice, left a deep impression.

What Kongtrül says is true, at least within the latitude of poetic license. For most of us, whatever spiritual understanding we develop begins with our teacher's example and instructions. Like any meaningful and valued relationship, the student-teacher relationship requires attention and care. How this is done in today's world is not always clear. We are caught between two models, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in You Must Change Your Life

In the Indian world, the license to teach is dependent on the master's own complete realization. In Greek and Christian traditions, you have the imperfect teacher, who overrides his or her weaknesses by incorporating them into what he or she teaches.

In the Indian model, your teacher is never regarded or treated as a peer and the primary way in which you take care of the relationship is through service, reverence and obedience. In the Western model, it is more a peer-relationship, though obviously, you regard the teacher as someone who can teach and guide you in your spiritual practice. Here, it seems to me, the primary way you take care of the relationship is through making use of what you receive from your teacher.

simple buddha with vases
We live in a changing world. What were once generally life-long engagements -- marriage, career and spiritual practice, for instance -- are subject to change in ways that they weren't in traditional societies. Because your relationship with your teacher is an important relationship, if it has to change, make the change in such a way that you avoid unnecessary rupture and that leaves you feeling as whole and complete as possible. 

For this, I draw on a traditional model, that of Atisha. Early in his spiritual practice, he studied with a red-hot yogin (a loose translation, but it expresses the point) who was skilled in vajrayana, energy transformation and debate (debate being a necessary skill in Indian monasticism). After several years, Atisha had a number of visions that called him to pursue instruction in bodhicitta (awakening mind) and he realized that he needed to take leave of his teacher. His teacher was a bad tempered person and did not know anything about bodhicitta. Atisha went to him, presented him with generous offerings, thanked him for all that he received and took his leave. The teacher, from what Atisha writes, was not at all happy at losing a capable and talented student and he got quite angry. However, Atisha had taken leave of him in such a way that there was nothing he could do.

I have seen too many people who, for one reason or another, were not able to change their relationship with their teacher in a good way, and the rupture left its mark. I've also worked with a number of people who did want to change their relationship with their teacher, in some cases to study with someone else, in others because they felt they could no longer learn from this particular person. For various reasons, they felt trapped and did not know how to proceed and they came to me for advice. My role was to help them find a way of expressing where they were in a way that honored their teacher and the relationship, but also made it clear that the relationship was changing, or had already changed. Once they were clear about where they stood and how to put it into words, they were able to meet with their teacher and say what they needed to say. In each of these cases, the teacher responded positively and the relationship changed without rupture.

The teacher-student relationship is important. It may be one of the most important relationships in your life. But it is not necessarily sacrosanct. As in any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Differences emerge, some of which are reconcilable and others that are not. And, like all relationships, it will come to an end, due to death of the student or teacher or for other reasons. Take care of this relationship, as it begins, as it lasts, as it changes, and as it comes to an end.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

faith or blind faith?

In 1971, I met the Sixteenth Karmapa for the first time, at his monastery near Rumtek in Sikkim. He was a person of tremendous presence, yet he alternated between laughter and seriousness with bewildering speed. At one point, he looked directly at me and said, "Your faith in Kalu Rinpoche must be the same whether you see him fly in the sky or kill a dog."

The look in his eyes as he said these words has never left me and I remember it clearly to this day. I was taken aback by this directive, and it made a deep impact on me. Was he talking about blind faith, to accept unquestioningly whatever my teacher did? Or was he pointing to something else?

Blind faith is essentially belief, belief in a fixed idea. Belief is based in reactive emotion and usually centers around identity. It takes whatever happens and explains it in a way that conforms to fixed ideas that are already held inside. We see this process play out in fundamentalism, whether political, economic or religious. Blind faith has an explanation for everything. It does away with mystery. No matter the evidence presented, the evidence is always interpreted to reinforce the belief. As James Carse writes in The Religious Case Against Belief, it marks the point at which thinking stops.

It made no sense to me that Karmapa was advocating blind faith. By this point, I had met several teachers and their depth of thought and learning, their responsiveness and compassion, and their humility and lack of pride just didn't point in the direction of the rigidity or forcefulness one encounters with blind faith. He meant something else, I was sure, but what?

I've come back to this directive many times, and though I feel I know what Karmapa was pointing to, I have never been able to put it into words. A few weeks ago, I discussed the incident with a good friend, and asked him what he thought. His response was succinct. "It means that your faith has to be unchanging and to come from a place that doesn't involve reason or judgment."

Blind faith, again? I didn't think so. This friend is about the last person on earth to advocate blind faith, so he, too, was pointing to something else. 

When I reflected on his response, I found that it fit very well with my experience. The faith that I have in my teacher is definitely not conceptual. It is not rational, either, but neither is it irrational. I cannot give an explanation or a reason for it. It is just there. It comes from a place in me that does not use or need to use reason, so rational and irrational just don't apply.

"Was it always there?" you might ask. And my response would be, "No, it wasn't." When I started to study with Rinpoche in India, I had been told only that he was a highly respected meditation teacher and one of the few that was willing to teach Westerners at that time. Nothing magical or earth-shattering happened when I first met him. I simply attended his class, studied Tibetan and practiced as best I could. Over the years, a relationship formed, partially through practice, partially through my serving as his translator and seeing how he responded to people's questions and challenges. But I would be hard put to say at what point faith reached the point of commitment and I let go of a conventional life or career in Western society.

Nor does this faith involve judgement. I was never very interested in the supposed miracles and signs that meant so much to other people. Much more moving, I found, was when Rinpoche described his struggles with sleep in the the three-year retreat and how he slept leaning against the door so he would be woken up when it was kicked open in the morning. 

Nor did I judge Rinpoche's actions and decisions. On a number of occasions, I disagreed deeply with how he saw things or what he wanted me to do. When that happened, two principles were of primary and equal importance to me. First, I had to find a way to proceed that did not lead to a break in my relationship with Rinpoche (not always easy given the differences between our cultures). Second, I had to find a way that did not compromise my own sense of what felt right to me. When you hold two seemingly contradictory principles in place, you are forced to go deeper. In each case, by holding those two principles firmly in mind, I found something else that I could let go. In one case, it was my cultural biases. In another case, it was my status and position as a teacher. In a third case, it was what people people might think of me. And so on. Difficult as each of those situations were, I am grateful for them as they led me to aspects of freedom I might not have had to consider otherwise.

Karmapa's directive was in a way oddly prophetic. Once they matured, my faith and confidence in Rinpoche never did change. Even though there were periodic tensions in our relationship, when he died in 1989 I didn't feel any separation and never have.

It seems to me that there is a profound connection between faith that does not rely on reason and judgment and direct awareness practices, such as mahamudra and dzogchen. In direct awareness practice, reason can lead you to the door, as it does in the Great Middle Way, for instance. Likewise, pointing out instructions, such as you find in the Shangpa tradition (see Wake Up to Your Life, Chapter 9) or in the Nyingma tradition (see Buddhahood Without Meditation), can and do undermine the operation of reason and fixed ideas, but they don't take you over the threshold, or, to use a Tibetan phrase, across the pass. For that, something else is needed: a willingness to enter what is completely unknown and unknowable to the conceptual mind. That is exactly what the kind of faith I'm describing here does.

That faith has to come from a place that does not rely on reason. Reason and logic keep the conceptual mind in place. They can be used to negate the conceptual mind, but that is all. Many Zen teachers, for instance, place great reliance on "don't know mind" and are skilled in the use of koans and other methods to bring the student to that point. But then what? What makes it possible to arrive at the point of not knowing, and take another step?

Similarly, that faith has to come from a place that is free from judgment. This freedom from judgment is much more than equanimity, though equanimity is a good starting point. Like the "don't know mind", equanimity brings you to the threshold. Again, something else is required to step through. The opening lines of Hsin Hsin Ming's "On Trust in the Heart" apply here:

The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose; 
Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. 
Make a hairbreadth difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart; 
If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. 

How do you find your way here? I wish I could tell you. This is, perhaps, the principal challenge of spiritual and mystical practice. It is a way that cannot be described in words. Each of us have to find our own way. For some, that way can be guided, if not illuminated, by faith, but not the blind reactive faith that won't brook any contradiction. To the contrary, faith must be awake, alive and responsive. Above all, it must enable the trust that allows you to step into the unknown.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

think of your teacher as buddha — really?

In the context of vajrayana in general and guru yoga in particular, you, the practitioner, are encouraged (told?) to think that your teacher is really buddha.

Now, in this context, teacher means a teacher in the role of guru. Several years ago, i wrote an article that mapped out the different roles of a teacher. You can read this article here:  http://www.unfetteredmind.org/what-are-you-looking-for-in-a-teacher/ 

The guru-student role is a particular relationship and is based on a spiritual connection. In some cases, the student recognizes something in the teacher that echoes with his or her own longing or calling. In other cases, the teacher recognizes a potential or a quality in the student, sometimes when the student had no apparent spiritual interest. In still other cases, the relationship evolves slowly over time. There is no rule. 

One of my colleagues heard a teacher speak and immediately recognized that this was his teacher, and has followed that teacher for his whole life. For others, they have come to appreciate that one of possibly many teachers has having a special significance for them, but that recognition came slowly. Still others have had a single meeting, in which nothing was said, but the meeting had a profound effect on them, and they have always regarded that teacher as their guru.

Needless to say, this whole area is fraught with danger. If your longing is based in unfulfilled childhood longings, then you are very susceptible to cults and cult leaders who know how to take advantage of those deep psychological desires. Because susceptibility ranges right across the socio-economic spectrum, education, wealth, etc., are not reliable safeguards. The best book I've read on this topic is The Wrong Way Home, by Arthur Deikman. The book has been reprinted and augmented to include a discussion of terrorism under the title Them and Us.

But let's assume you have found a solid teacher. What does it mean "to think that your teacher is really buddha"?

elephant at sunset 2As a first step, I find it helpful to consider a translation point, namely the use (or not) of a definite or indefinite article. English usage almost always requires the presence of an article, either "the" or "a". This holds for most modern West European languages, but it is not universal, by any means. Linguistically, particles seem to have evolved rather late in the game. They are not present in Sanskrit, Latin or Tibetan, for instance.

Further, when translating from Tibetan, most of us have habitually used the definite article. It makes things definite, it adds authority, and the Tibetan tradition is freighted with authority, as we all know. For instance, my first book was published under the titleThe Great Path of Awakening. The Tibetan does not have any article, however, so whether Kongtrül had in mind "the" or "a" is impossible to determine. If I were to republish the book now, without question I would use the title A Great Path of Awakening. The indefinite article opens up other possibilities where the definite article eliminates them.

Thus, when we come to this phrase in Tibetan, we could translate it in three ways:
  • think that your teacher is really the buddha
  • think that your teacher is really a buddha
  • think that your teacher is really buddha
Each of these three possibilities has a different meaning. Is one of them the right one? If so, which?

The first, "the buddha", implies some form of connection with Buddha Shakyamuni, or at least with a universal buddha principle such as Vajradhara (the tantric form of Shakyamuni in the Kagyu tradition). 

The second, "a buddha", says that your teacher has the qualities and attainments of a buddha -- quite wonderful if true, but given the traditional descriptions of buddha in the sutras, unlikely, if only because the traditional descriptions have been heavily mythologized. Of course, this raises the question What is a buddha?, but I'm not going to dip my toes into those waters today.

The third possibility is the one that intrigues me. Many years ago, I was part of a small informal conference of Western and Asian teachers (from all traditions) and this topic came up in the conversation. At one point Gelek Rinpoche quietly said, "For me, my teacher is buddha." Not "the buddha", not "a buddha", but "buddha". There was something about the way he said it that caught my attention. It seemed to me that he was not describing his teacher or claiming any special qualities for him, but simply describing how he related to his teacher. I was quite moved by the humility and reverence that infused his words. By omitting any article, he had transformed this instruction into an exploration, and exploration imbued with faith, devotion and commitment.

As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, as Westerners, we are not used to having a symbolic relationship with someone we actually know. We are used to thinking in concrete rather than poetic terms, and, in today's world, in transactional terms almost exclusively. These implicit frames of reference do not serve us well when it comes to following the calling in our hearts. That calling often doesn't make sense in rational concrete terms, but it is the very core of our lives. And that calling, as I've said before, is not about getting something that makes our lives better. It is not a transaction at all. It is something we pursue, regardless of what happens to u. Usually, that calling cannot be expressed in words, and when we find a person who seems to be able to guide us in that calling, that relationship, also, cannot be put into words. 

Thus, we enter a mystery, as we do whenever we give our word, whenever we commit ourselves to a relationship and whenever we commit ourselves to a path. And that is what I think this instruction is pointing to. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

How am I meant to understand these teachings

In vajrayana, one is consistently encouraged to regard your guru as buddha, particularly in the context of guru yoga. In fact, the practice instructions are to imagine your teacher in the form of a buddha, i.e., Buddha Vajradhara in the Kagyu tradition. What does this instruction mean? How is it to be understood? 

I think it is fair to say that more than a few Western practitioners have puzzled over this matter. Does it mean that your guru is omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Or does it mean that you regard your guru as omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Such questions lead to a more fundamental question. "What is a buddha?" Is a buddha omniscient, infallible, perfect, etc.? Certainly, in the Tibetan tradition at least, a literal reading of sutras, tantras and other texts leaves one with the impression that a buddha is a superhuman figure with superhuman abilities. Are you to feel or think that your guru has these abilities, too?

There are several possible sources of confusion and my aim here is to sort through some them as best I can. Here are four:
  • how to relate to teachers and teachings in general,
  • cultural differences,
  • translation issues and
  • the nature of vajrayana practice. 
This week, I focus on the first, and to do so, I revisit some traditional advice found in this well-known four-line verse:

Do not trust the person; trust the teaching.
Do not trust the words; trust the meaning.
Do not trust the literal meaning; trust the real meaning.
Do not trust conceptual knowing; trust timeless awareness.

Even these instructions are prone to misunderstanding. For instance, if you have no experience of timeless awareness, then how do you trust it? Or, what does the phrasereal meaning mean? This is a translation of the Tibetan phrase nges.don, literallydefinitive meaning. One could also say actual meaning, I suppose, but the problem remains: who decides what the actual meaning is? 

Verses such as these contain both implicit and explicit messages. Because we are so used to literal interpretations in our culture, we often miss the implicit messages. One message imbedded in these four lines is that they describe a progression in practice experience. Thus, the 3rd and 4th lines are intended not for people who are just beginning practice, but for people who have a good bit of practice experience under their belt.

You start by trusting your teacher. You have to. People may start Buddhist practice or meditation practice by reading, etc., but, for the vast majority of people, practice doesn't start in earnest until they begin to work with another person. One of the main reasons is that it is quite difficult to give yourself the appropriate feedback about your efforts in practice and how to refine them. People usually find that their meditation practice changes substantially when they start reporting their experience to a teacher and receive feedback and guidance based on their experience. So that's where you start.

As your experience of practice matures, however, you start to distinguish what you are being taught from ordinary human interaction. Your teacher is both a source of guidance and a human being, and you find that you need to recognize and accept that distinction. You learn to trust the teaching and instruction and you learn not to get caught by the inevitable missteps and confusions that arise in any relationship between two people. (And, yes, I'll address the matter of pure vision in a future newsletter.)

In the context of vajrayana, for instance, one principle is to obey your guru. However, that principle applies only to the practice instructions your guru gives you, not to what you do with your life, though many people are not clear about this. Your teacher may have ideas about what you should do and you may even ask for advice, but it's your responsibility, and yours alone, to decide what course you take. This was brought home to me when I talked with a respected Tibetan teacher about decisions I had made about teaching in Los Angeles. He said, "Ken, how you teach your students is up to you, not Kalu Rinpoche." He said this not out of any disrespect for Kalu Rinpoche, as he had also studied with him, but to make clear to me where the responsibilities lay.

The second line describes a second stage in understanding, the stage when you understand that much teaching takes place through metaphor and poetry and you have to focus not just on the words, but on the intended meaning. For instance, in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, Gampopa says:

Do not give up the dharma "through fear." For example, someone may come up to you and say, "If you do not give up the dharma I will order three hundred soldiers to cut five ounces of meat from your body every day." Even then you would not give up the dharma. 

When I taught this passage many years ago, the people in the class couldn't relate to it. Even if it was translated into modern idiom, that you were going to be tortured if you didn't give up the dharma, that situation was so removed from their lives that they just dismissed the example as having any relevance to them. But then I asked, "How many of you have faced those three hundred soldiers in your meditation?" Everybody in the class immediately related to Gampopa's instructions because, in their meditation, they had encountered those three hundred soldiers countless times. 

The third line continues this theme and describes even more explicitly how to understand teachings, whether oral or written. The myths that describe the origin of the protector the Six-Armed Mahakala (pg. 295-6 in Wake Up to Your Life) or Vajrakila are dramatic accounts of deep internal spiritual processes, as are the myths of the second-coming, the resurrection, Abraham and Isaac, Job, etc. The meaning of such myths becomes alive in you only when you have experiences that correspond to the shifts and experiences that gave rise to the myths in the first place.

And that brings us to the fourth line, which makes a strong differentiation between a conceptual understanding of a teaching, whether through myth, poetry or otherwise, and direct or experiential understanding, that is, when what is being described becomes lived experience. For instance, Trungpa once described the experience of compassion as "having no skin". Everyone can understand that, and even get a bit of the flavor, but it's still in the conceptual mind. When you experience compassion yourself, it is intensely yet exquisitely painful. It is so intense that you wonder how you can bear it. It is like having no skin, yet you wouldn't forfeit it for the world because, and I hesitate to use these words, it is so real and true.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

I'm stuck in my practice

A good place to start is to watch a stream run down a hill. At certain points, the stream encounters a hollow or a depression or a bunch of rocks that block its course. The stream stops there. It cannot go any further. You could say that it is stuck in its practice of running down the hill. What happens? Water continues to flow. The volume of water builds up. But the stream doesn't do anything. It doesn't remove the rocks. It doesn't fill the hollow with earth. A pool forms, perhaps. And, at a certain point, the pool overflows, or the water finds a way through the rocks. Then the streams continues to run down the hill. What is the subjective experience of the stream? Who knows? The stream doesn't think about it.
Practice is like a flowing stream. You make a consistent effort, and the consistent effort gives rise to a continuous flow of energy. Certainly, from time to time you encounter blocks, depressions and confusion. It would hardly be practice if you didn't. As long as the flow of practice continues, your system fills with energy and it finds a way through, over or out. Many people regard those pauses as an indication that something is wrong. Maybe. Maybe not. Subjective assessments of progress are notoriously unreliable. In fact, even being concerned with progress is a bit of a problem. It puts you into a goal-oriented framework in which you think you are responsible for how your practice unfolds. You don't get to decide that, any more than the stream gets to decide how it is going to run down the hill or a flower decides how it is going to bloom.
In today's world, we are losing, or have lost, a simple appreciation of different aspects of life. More and more we hear or read about everyday actions being justified in terms of their economic, evolutionary, medical or other value. Enjoyment for the sake of enjoyment, decency for the sake of decency, etc. seem to be falling by the wayside. Everything has to be justified as making us or the world better in some way. 

The same now holds for certain genres of spiritual practice. Many people appear to approach them because it will help them relieve stress or improve the quality of their lives. They approach practice with a definite objective or goal in mind.

Some spiritual methods may certainly have those effects, if that is what you are seeking. But ngöndro and other practices in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism do not fall into those genres. That is why the notions of progress and achievement have to be questioned. They don't apply. One engages these practices for a different reason. One possibility is that they are response to a calling. Where that calling takes you, no one knows. Thus, you are like the stream, that is called to flow down the hill, but it doesn't know where that will take it or how it will get there or what will become of it in the process.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Have you finished ngöndro?

The ngöndro referred to is the special groundwork or preparation practices -- a set of five practices, each of which is done 100,000 times, or 111,000, or 111,111. (I've never been sure what the right number is but I know it's very important to get it right.) 

This set of practices was originally developed as preparation for mahamudra and dzogchen practice, but it has become a kind of rite of passage. Teachers have used it as an indication of a student's seriousness. In the process, however, it became a sort of numbers game. 

One practitioner used to visit various teachers. When he asked for instruction, he was invariably told to do a 100,000 prostrations. He had become so used to this request that it took him only ten days to complete the 100,000. Needless to say, he devoted all his time to practice. He didn't have a job. And the physics worked in his favor: it's much easier, mechanically speaking, for a short person to do prostrations than a tall person.

Most people take months, if not years, just to do 100,000 prostrations (which is actually the practice of taking refuge). Then 100,000 repetitions of the bodhisattva vow. Then 100,000 repetitions of the 100-syllable mantra associated with Vajrasattva -- a purification practice. Then 100,000 mandala offerings, symbolic offerings of all the wealth in the universe. And, finally, 100,000 repetitions of a prayer to one's teacher, with the aim of uniting your mind with your teacher's mind.

undulating roadWhen they have completed the required number of repetitions, students are deemed ready for instruction in mahamudra  or dzogchen and/or empowerment for deity practice. A number of teachers have lowered the numbers to 10,000 of each, but in my experience, students would be better off going the other way -- doing more, not less. 

Initially, these were individual practices. Students did them until they had clearly learned something or some change had taken place in them. The teacher of one of my teachers, for instance, at the age of 39 gave up his role as the chief administrator of the monastic estates of a major monastery and went to live in a cave above the main monastery. There he did 100,000 prostrations 44 times, that is, 4,400,000. The numbers didn't mean anything to him. He was taking refuge, praying for refuge, in the way that I described prayer in the recent series of newsletters. That was his practice. Period.

Over time, however, in order to move students through the system (and this goes right back to Buddhism in India), teachers required only that students do a practice until they had certain dreams or visions, and these were taken as indications that the learning had taken place. Then the practices were reduced to a given period of time, or, as became more common, students had to do a certain number of mantras or repetitions to have "done" the practice. The idea, of course, was that some understanding or learning would take place in that period of time or during all those repetitions. Human nature being human nature, however, once the goal was set up, students focused on achieving the goal and the learning became secondary, or ignored completely. 

Many people now complete the required number and say that they have "done" ngöndro, but it is not clear what they learn in the process.

What to do?
For these reasons, when students requested to do ngöndro with me, I made it very clear that they would never be able to say that they had finished or completed it. They would start with refuge (prostrations) and do that as their practice. They would check in with me periodically, and when some real understanding or learning had arisen, then they would move to the next practice. Needless to say, very few students practiced ngöndro with me.

All in all, I think there is too much weight put on teachers. Learning is what is important. Learning can and does take place without teaching, in many different areas, from athletics to chess, from cooking to mathematics. A teacher can greatly facilitate, enhance and/or deepen learning, no doubt, but we all know from our educational experience that teaching can take place without any learning necessarily happening.

Many kinds of learning cannot be taught. Ngöndro is really about those kinds of learning -- things that can be learned only through your own experience, only through the experience of doing without goals or milestones or markers of achievement of any kind. Through these practices, you may learn what faith, commitment and devotion actually mean for you. That cannot be learned from a teacher or anyone else. That is why it is an important preparation for other forms of meditation. And that is why you never finish ngöndro, because there is always more to learn about faith, commitment and devotion.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

I know I should be practicing all the time

Let's start with the different between principle and technique. Technique is way of doing something in a specific manner. Principle is a generalized pattern that can be applied in a wide range of situations. In soccer, to probe the defense of the other team is one principle. A technique for doing so would be to move the ball among your own players until you perceive a weakness in the opposing team's defense, such as a person who moves more slowly, or who leaves open space between him and the other players. The passes necessary to probe the defense need to be precise and quick, which is, again, a matter of technique. The ability to apply a principle in a given situation depends on the skill or technique of the players. If there is no technique, understanding the principles won't help much. 

A teacher taught her students how to write the numbers from 1 to 10. One young boy seemed to be having difficulty writing the number 1 but when the teacher looked at his work, she could not see a problem. "Good," she said, "you can write the number 1. Now start writing the number 2." 

"It isn't right," he said, and continued writing 1's on his slate. 

Eventually the teacher became impatient because he was holding the class back. "Off you go," she said, "and come back when you feel you have it right." 

Several weeks later, the boy returned to the classroom and said to the teacher, "I think I have it now." 

"Okay," she said, "go up to the blackboard and write the number 1." 

The boy went up to the front of the class, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote a large number 1 on the board. As he finished, there was a loud crack and the blackboard split in half.

Mindless repetition does not train technique in and of itself. Technique training consists in repetition and learning from each repetition until the technique is right there. For instance, in the Locket Mahamudra tradition, there is a technique for placing attention on the breath. When you have trained this technique, attention goes straight to the breath and rests there, cutting right through distractions -- a bit like the young boy writing the number 1. 

Another misunderstanding, somewhat related, is the difference between training in movement and training in facility. Take reading, for instance. Most of us don't even remember learning how to read, but, it's probably a safe bet that in the beginning, we spent quite a bit of time spelling out the words and making the sounds. Our parents or teachers would correct us. Bit by bit, we learned various words, how to sound them and what they meant. But then something strange happened. We stopped thinking about how to sound them. We even stopped thinking about what they meant. We just read, and we could understand the meaning of what we read. We had developed the facility of reading. Now higher levels of learning became possible. We could notice and appreciate the rhythm of the words, the allusions, the metaphors, the lines of argument, etc., and our skill in reading became increasingly more sophisticated.

Many people, when they practice mindfulness in daily life, say, do normal activities slowly, so they can put their full attention on the activity. This is analogous to sounding out words when we read. It is not doing things mindfully. It's training in mindfulness. It may be a way of training the initial ability, but it is an ineffective way for negotiating the exigencies of life, just as sounding out words is an ineffective way for reading a novel or a contract. Yes, we have to become conversant with the vocabulary of mindfulness, but that is only the beginning, not the end. We haven't trained mindfulness until we can go about our day as any other person would, except that we bring a consistent quality of attention to everything we do.

A possible comparison is tai chi. In tai chi, one does the movements very slowly so that the body, right down to the level of the sinews and tendons, knows the movement. But in execution, one does not move slowly. The body is trained so deeply that the movement happens without thought, without even a first thought.

In addition, when you go about your life doing things slowly, you may actually be suppressing patterned reactions. The attention that goes into moving slowly blocks the patterns and you don't have to meet the material locked inside. This, of course, is a form of repression. When you move at a normal pace in your life, patterns of reaction arise. Practice in daily life means that you bring attention to the pattern as it arises, not to block it, but to experience it completely, the body sensations and impulses, the complex of feelings and the various stories that sustain and propel its operation. When you can experience all that and not fall into confusion, then you are beginning to live in attention.

In vajrayana, people engage in mantra repetition in much the same way. That, they have been told, is what it means to practice all the time. But that is just repetition. Nothing is really being trained, not even technique. The purpose of the repetition is to replace the habitual undercurrent of thinking in the mind with the mantra. Many people use it to block thinking. For it to replace thinking requires a consistent attention to the sound of the mantra, not just mindless repetition. When the mantra has replaced the undercurrent of thinking, you have a quiet mind, and continuous practice now becomes possible.

Many of the misconceptions about continuous practice arise because methods developed for monastics and anchorites living in pre-industrial societies have been unthinkingly taught to people like you and me who live in complex post-industrial societies where principle is often valued more than technique. In the medical profession, for instance, the adage for a new medical procedure is "See one, do one, teach one." This is hardly a way to develop mastery in technique and this kind of problem permeates our culture. 

In my business consulting, I once helped develop a robust team subculture based in collaboration, open communication and cross-functional teams where the dominant culture was authoritarian, secretive and communication was restricted to silos. How? By training the team I was working with in basic meeting skills: starting and stopping on time, setting an agenda, being clear about who was responsible for what actions, etc. As those skills became instilled in them, a different culture developed on its own. 

In order to practice all the time, we need to instill different behaviors, and to do that, we need to train in technique -- doing something over and over again until it becomes part of us. The ability to control and predict a wide range of phenomena has given us the illusion that we can control what we experience in our lives by an act of will. We feel we should be able to decide to be a certain way and everything will follow. But it doesn't work that way. On the individual level, we end up repressing patterns of emotions that return in unpredictable ways when we encounter difficulties. 

Practicing all the time is a result, not a method. It is a result of making specific efforts at the level of technique so that those techniques become part of you and the way you relate to the world. It takes time to change behaviors. If you try to do too much too quickly, you end up repressing unresolved emotions and subjecting your mind and/or your body to more strain than they can handle. One of the signs of too much strain is increasing rigidity, and if you go to far down that road, something in you will just break and it may or may not be reparable. 

On a related topic: Several people have asked me recently about pushing through physical difficulties in the practice of prostrations. I've had my share of physical difficulties, and I had great difficulty at various points finding a way forward. People vary tremendously, and some people are able to push through difficulties. For other people, that approach doesn't work and can be quite harmful. What I've come to is this: follow your heart and listen to your body. In other words, let your body and heart work out the right approach for you, and take your conceptual mind out of the mix. When you follow your heart, you follow your intention. Your body knows what it can and cannot do. And the two can understand and talk with each other in a way that the conceptual mind cannot fathom.

You might consider that working with heart and body together is a good way to practice in daily life. The effort requires attention to what you are feeling and what you are sensing in your body, and you begin to function from something other than the conceptual thinking mind. 

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.