Sunday, June 5, 2016

Line 2: Letting go of belief in self

This post continues a line-by-line discussion of a prayer from the guru-union liturgy in the Kagyu tradition. You can read a couple of translations here and a discussion of the first line here. 

I've recited this prayer literally hundreds of thousands of times. And I've translated it many times, too. I come back to it again and again, partially because it is so wonderfully poetic and succinct in the Tibetan and partially because I keep looking for ways to render the prayer in clear, succinct and poetic English. As I write these newsletters, I continue to explore different renderings and here is my most recent version:

Treasured teacher, I pray to you.
Send me energy to let believing in self fall away.
Send me energy to see through life's illusions.
Send me energy to end reactive thinking.
Send me energy to know mind has no beginning.
Send me energy to let confusion resolve itself.
Send me energy to know whatever arises is beyond words.

Before discussing the second line, let me say a few words about this prayer and about translation. When you want to learn a prayer or a text, you have to study it, and then reflect on it, until you connect with the meaning. But most people I know find that when they teach the same prayer or text, they have to learn it at a completely different level. That's fine, but when you translate a prayer or text, then you need to understand it at still another level.

So it is with this prayer. As I've pondered the various lines, it is clear to me that in each line one is praying for a result -- letting go of a sense of self, seeing through life's illusions, etc. As with many aspects of spiritual practice, these results cannot be brought about by an act of will. You can't say, "I'm going to give up a sense of self" and then do it, in the same way that you can say, "I'm going to build a boat." It's a bit like the person who said, "I never make a mistake. I thought I did once, but I was wrong." 

To say, "I'm going to give up a sense of self" is inherently contradictory and any attempt to do so through an act of will is self-defeating. By the way, that last use of the word "self" was the reflexive in English, not to be confused with self as an entity in its own right -- another reason that I like to avoid phrases such as "self-fixation," but the alternative "fixation on a self" is clumsy in English and destroys any sense of poetry.

Now, as to the second line, in the Tibetan (adjusting the word order to English syntax), it reads approximately:

Send me energy to let go (send away, dismiss, etc.) of a (the?) mind that clings to self.

The construction "a mind that clings to a self" is a literal translation of a typical Tibetan mode of expression. For instance, to say "That is pleasant" in Tibetan, one would say "That comes to my mind." A number of translators, in an effort to be faithful to the Tibetan, have imported that whole construction into English and it has become part of what I call Bunglish (see Buddhist Hybrid English).

In this dialect of English, one tends to talk about mind as if it was something else apart from what and who you are and how you experience the world. I absorbed this way of thinking and speaking myself, and didn't think anything of it until I stepped out of Buddhist circles and people pointed it out to me. 

The other day, I was discussing this line with a good friend who is an experienced practitioner, but, blessedly, doesn't know Tibetan. I was struggling to come up with a better English but was caught in the reflexive use of self and multi-syllabic words that destroyed any sense of poetry. He said that, for him, the line meant that we stop believing in a self.

He didn't offer it as a translation. He just said that this is what that line meant to him. Then I realized that it does serve well as a translation. Indeed, I think it is a good translation for three reasons. 
  • It is clear and concise. It communicates immediately.
  • It avoids the "mind" construction. After all, when we say, "I have a mind that clings to a self," aren't we just saying "I believe in a self"? "Believe", in this context, includes a state of mind and a clinging to a certain idea, whether we are explicitly conscious of holding that idea or not.
  • And it is quietly provocative. In directing attention to that belief and our relationship to it, this rendering brings it directly into question. A more philosophical rendering would not provoke the question in the same way.
I took his idea and came up with this rendering:

Send me energy to let believing in self fall away.

Practice tip: beliefs and prayer

Beliefs are problematic. They largely determine how we understand our world. They are remarkably resistant to evidence to the contrary. For instance, a study of the effect of greater information on decision making in the military intelligence community revealed that, no matter how much more information people were given, they consistently interpreted it to support the position they had originally taken. Beliefs are not so easily uprooted, and certainly not by reason or rational processes.

Logic and reason are largely ineffective in addressing our emotional investment in belief, particularly the belief in a self. Tom Metzinger in Being No One presents detailed arguments based solidly in philosophy reasoning and evidence from neuroscience to establish that there is no self -- not functionally, not phenomenologically, not structurally. But those arguments do not change how we experience life. We still experience it in the framework of I-other. To change the belief in a self and that way of experiencing life we have to open up other possibilities, and that requires a concerted effort to undermine the physical, emotional and cognitive structures that support the sense of self.

What to do? You pray for the result, yes, but the act of prayer itself begins the process of letting go of the notion, the belief, that you can or do control what you experience. That letting go is a form of opening, and that is one of the functions of devotion and prayer -- to open to the possibility of experience and understanding that are beyond or outside your control. And it is precisely because this form of prayer goes in that direction that it can bring up so much discomfort, unease or fear.

That is why prayer is important. Through prayer, we set our intention, our direction. Through the emotional connection of devotion, we open to that direction, letting go of the rational and conceptual minds, and, progressively the reactive emotional mind that holds the belief in a self. This does not come about through an act of will per se, but through the practice of prayer itself. We set a direction. We establish a practice. And openings arise. But we don't make them happen.
There are other ways to create the conditions for openings, of course, but, prayer and devotion has been one of the most reliable and effective ways throughout the ages.

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