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: 

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.