Friday, May 27, 2016

Line 1: Treasured teacher, I pray to you.

The first line of the prayer is:

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What difference does translation make?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, a few notes:

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

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