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.