Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Middle Way and the Vertical

 We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we use to create them.

—Albert Einstein

I have lost track of how many conversations I’ve had over the last few months about polarization in today’s world, despair about the future of this country, of Western society, or the environment, or the interregnum we seem to have entered with the crumbling of institutions and the order on which they were based. 

Here are a few thoughts.

In Aspirations for Mahamudra, Rangjung Dorje writes:

It doesn’t exist: even buddhas do not see it.
It doesn’t not exist: it is the basis of samsara and nirvana.
No contradiction: the middle way is union.
May I know the pure being of mind, free of extremes.

Implicit in this verse is some very important meditation instruction. 

The first two lines are two opposing views, each supported by an incontrovertible argument.

Mind does not exist. Why? Even buddhas do not see it. 

We are not talking about belief here. If you tell me something exists, it has to be sensible, able to be perceived, in some way. I cannot sense mind, and if even the most capable people in the world, i.e., buddhas, cannot sense mind, then what does it mean to say it exists?

On the other hand, to say mind does not exist is also wrong. Why? Mind is the basis of all experience—samsara and nirvana being an elegant way of saying all experience.

These are not abstract philosophical propositions. On the one hand, when I look at mind, I do not see anything. There isn’t anything there. On the other, because I experience sights, sounds, thoughts, and emotions, something is going on. I must have a mind.

The next line says that this is not a contradiction. How does that work? This is where the vertical comes in. They come together, not in the sense of merging with each other, but in the sense of no longer being contradictory. 

A basic principle of Buddhist practice is that when you have two apparently contradictory positions, hold them both at the same time. Do not go in the direction of one or the other. Hold them both. 

That is, essentially, the definition of the Middle Way. The Middle Way is not about balance. It is about avoiding falling into an extreme position—order or chaos, eternalism or nihilism, monism or pluralism, etc. To avoid falling into an extreme position, hold both poles in mind at the same time. Don’t try to reconcile them. Don’t try to balance them. Just hold them, both of them. This is not an intellectual exploration. It has to go deeper than that. 

It may take a while. It may take days, months, or even years. Eventually, you see that both views come from a common source, a source you may not be able to put into words, but a source that you can sense, intuit, or feel deep in your being. 

It is as if these two conflicting views are two sides of the same coin. You could not see the coin before. You could only see one side or the other, so heads and tails were in conflict. But when you see the coin itself, everything shifts. The seeming contradiction disappears, not because heads and tails merge, but because heads and tails are seen to be two facets of something that you can now see.

In the case of mind, you come to a knowing that is totally different from the knowing that you are used to. I’ve translated the word for that knowing as the pure being of mind. Others have translated it as mind nature. It is empty, clear, and unrestricted.

This is a movement into the vertical because this knowing is a higher knowing. It is not a rational knowing. It is not a conceptual knowing. But it is a knowing, and when you are able to touch it, apparent contradictions disappear—form and emptiness, for instance, or movement and stillness, or sound and silence.

What is important here is the move to the vertical, a move that comes about through holding apparently contradictory positions at the same time for a long enough period of time for a higher knowing to form.

When you move to the vertical, you are able to experience divergent views, but the move comes at a cost: you cannot hold onto either of the earlier positions as absolute. Long cherished beliefs may have to be let go. Some people find that too difficult. They prefer to hold on to those cherished beliefs, even it it means they stay in turmoil and conflict.

As for applying this principle in your life, make it part of your practice. Hold opposing views in your meditation until the move to the vertical takes place, until there is a shift in how you see and understand. It is impossible to say how long this may take, anywhere from a few minutes to a few years. You cannot manufacture higher orders of knowing with a wave of the hand. 

When you discover how powerful and how wonderful this method can be, you may want to share it with others. That is much trickier. In doing so, you are essentially moving into a teacher role. You must be capable of holding a field of attention in which the movement to the vertical can take place. I did so, both with students and in my business consulting. In both situations, I was in a position to hold the field of attention and address the emotional material that inevitably arises when people see they have to let go of cherished beliefs. 

Better, I think, is to plant seeds, and let the seeds sprout and grow at their own rate. To plant a seed, introduce a different perspective, but don’t argue for it or defend it. Just introduce it and trust that if the ground is fertile, it will sprout when the time is right.

Cultivating Faith

Why do people today have so much trouble developing faith? 

Faith, unfortunately, is often not well regarded in our culture. In the minds of many, it is equated with belief. It is also equated with hope. It is also regarded as something that is irrational, a position adopted without supporting evidence. This last view of faith is particularly pernicious in my opinion because it implies that there is no valid form of knowing outside of the logical or rational mind—and that is just not true. These views are pervasive, and many people have difficulty in letting them go and giving themselves to a path in which faith looms large.

Rather than say more about those difficulties, I am going to describe a way of practice through which different aspects of faith have developed in me. Here, I’m using the word faith to refer to the willingness to open to whatever arises in experience. In this respect, it is the antithesis of belief, even though many people use these words interchangeably. In this vein, James Carse in The Religious Case Against Belief presents a clear distinction faith from belief. 

In the Tibetan tradition, to develop faith in one’s teacher or the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), the usual instruction is to contemplate the qualities of one’s teacher, or The Three Jewels. This approach did not work for me—too much thinking, too much scope for idealization, and too much propensity to degenerate into belief.

A first step for me was to acknowledge that there was something I wanted to know—the nature of mind, for instance, or emptiness, or whatever term you want to use. I had to acknowledge that to know that was more important to me than anything the conventional world had to offer. 

That is a reasonable starting point because I think it is very difficult to practice effectively unless you feel that way. To acknowledge that to myself was not easy because to do so meant that I was no longer in control of my life. Control is an illusion, of course, but it is an illusion that many of us in the West are loathe to give up. 

Once I acknowledged that I wanted to know mind nature, it was clear that I was going to follow that calling and submit to its demands, whatever they were, wherever they led me. And that, right there, is one aspect of faith.

A second step was to acknowledge that to know what I wanted to know required a completely different kind of knowing or understanding. It was not hard to arrive at an intellectual, a conceptual, understanding of mind nature, say. But a conceptual understanding did not take me very far. It was like trying to taste an apple by thinking about an apple. It just doesn’t do the job.

One can, of course, go into all the subtleties of emptiness, all the philosophical ins and outs, as masters and scholars have over the ages, but that path never appealed to me, and my teacher never encouraged it.

When I came to understand that a completely different kind of understanding was required, I was stuck. I did not know how to proceed. Sitting meditation has always been difficult for me and I just could not develop the kind of stable clear attention that was described in the texts and that other people talked about and which, supposedly, led to the knowledge I sought. What to do?

Largely through grinding away at the ngöndro or groundwork practices, I first came to understand prayer as a way to form an emotional connection with what I sought to know. In teacher-union practice (guru yoga), for instance, you pray to your teacher as the embodiment of awakened mind, or, to put it another way, as the actual knowing of mind nature. In a series of blogposts in 2016, I discussed in some detail a prayer that is the central to that practice. You can find the blogposts starting at https://musingsbyken.blogspot.com/2016/05/line-1-treasured-teacher-i-pray-to-you.html

Over time, however, I came to see prayer and faith differently. I came to see faith as a kind of knowing, an opening to whatever I was experiencing, and prayer as a way of building that ability. In other words, prayer became the primary way through which I developed or deepened faith.

For me, as least, it was important to rely on actual prayers and to give voice to them. If I just said them in my mind, they did not engage my body. Giving voice to them, saying them out loud, became a physical declaration that I was reaching into the unknown and was prepared to receive whatever came of that. For a long time, actually giving voice to my deepest longings was quite difficult. It required a ruthless honesty that acknowledged that I really was reaching out to the unknown.

That has become the essence of prayer for me, whether it’s the prayer of refuge, a prayer to my teacher, or a prayer to buddhas and bodhisattvas along the lines that I wrote in The Magic of Faith

What I want to know is not in what I know. It is in the unknown, and prayer is the first step in forging a relationship with it.

There are many different kinds of prayer, and the kind I’m talking about here might be called supplicatory prayer, reaching out, asking, to connect with what I don’t know. I have to do this with complete humility. Any sense that I know what I am doing, any sense that I am in control, any sense of “I” at all, means that prayer stays in the conceptual domain, and goes nowhere. Thus, prayer is also a way of letting go of “I”. This is not easy, for any number of reasons including not only my psychological and cultural conditioning, but also my academic training and the way we are conditioned to think in this culture. 

Basically, to reach out to the unknown means that I have to step into the unknown. That is where the relationship begins to form and that is how faith grows.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Rest in the experiencing of breathing.

When you do your regular meditation practice, sit comfortably, and let your breath settle a bit. Then, as you breath out, let the exhalation be a little bit longer than your natural breathing rhythm for three or four breaths. Then let your breath come and go naturally. 

Now rest in the experience of breathing. Don’t focus on any one thing. Just rest in the experience of breathing. 

As you rest in the experience of breathing, you see that it is both very simple and amazingly rich. There are countless sensations associated with breathing, and your inclination is to focus on one or other of them—the sensation of the breath moving through the nostrils, the movement of the diaphragm, the expansion and contraction of the lungs and torso, the coolness at the back of your mouth during the inhalation, and so on and so and so on. In many methods of meditation you do focus attention on specific aspects of the breath. In this instruction, however, I am pointing you to a different approach.

Rather than focus your attention on any of these, keep the field of attention open. Whenever you notice a sensation—the ones mentioned above or any other, include it in your field of attention while you rest in the whole experience of breathing. You don’t have to name the sensation or identify it. It’s enough to include it.

Your attention may collapse down onto a sensation you notice. If that happens, return to the experience of breathing and rest there. The sensation you noticed will probably come and go in your field, that is, you will sometimes be aware of it and sometimes not. That is also part of the experience of breathing. Keep returning to the experience of breathing, keeping the field of attention open, and include in the field everything you experience. 

Sometimes you may feel that your attention is darting from one sensation to another. Don’t try to control it. Whenever you notice your attention darting around, let it dart around as you rest in the open field of attention and the experience of breathing. Darting attention is sometimes an aspect of your experience of breathing.

Thoughts and feelings may come. Some of them may come and go on their own. Others may grab your attention. When that happens, sooner or later you realize, “Oh, I’ve been distracted,” Again, don’t try to control your mind by focusing on the breath. Return to the experience of breathing and the open field of attention, and, to the extent that you are able, include the thinking and feeling and all the associated sensations. 

Do the same with sleepiness or dullness. This is a little more difficult, but dullness, too, is a sensation. Include it in the field of attention. That dullness, also, is sometimes part of the experience of breathing.

Keep coming back to the experience of breathing and resting there. 

As you do this on a regular basis, you may see that some of the sensations of breathing are more pronounced or more present on some days than others. No matter. Whatever you experience on a given day as you rest in the experience of breathing, keep including it in the open field of attention. 

Some days, you may be overwhelmed with thoughts about this or that—something happening in your life, memories from the past, or thoughts about the future. You fall into distraction over and over again. Some days are like that. To the best of your ability, keep returning to the experience of breathing, even if it’s only for a second or two before the next thought grabs your attention and carries you away. Keep returning and resting, accepting the turmoil the same way you accept a howling wind, or thunder and lightning.

Some days, you may experience and deep stillness or peace, extraordinary well-being, even bliss, or moments or periods of almost blinding clarity. No matter. Include these experiences as you rest in the experience of breathing. You find yourself hoping for those experiences or fearing that you will never experience them again. No matter. Include all that, too, in your field of attention.

Over time, you find that your relationship with all the comings and goings of your mind changes. Whether you are busy or steady as you practice, clear or dull, happy or in pain, the breath is always there to return to, as is that open field of attention. You begin to sense a quietness, a stillness, a peace, that has little to do with how you are feeling or what is going on on any given day. And there is a concomitant clarity, even when you are sleepy or dull. Everything you experience is there in that clarity and peace, but it seems the clarity and peace are not clouded or affected for better or worse by what arises as you breathe. 

Clouds appear and dissolve in the sky. The sky does not obstruct clouds and clouds do not obstruct the sky.

When you notice that clarity and peace, you may be tempted to hold onto it, or try to generate it, or control it. Whatever you try to do with it, you fail. If, instead, you keep returning and resting in the experience of breathing, you may see that you, that is, the sense you have of yourself, is also a sensation in the open field of attention, and that it is not you at all who is sitting there meditating. And that is a kind of freedom, freedom from the tyranny of "I".

People try so hard to understand all this, but they try to understand it with their minds, and it just doesn’t work. The understanding we seek has nothing to do with us. It is not something we can make happen. The best we can do is to create conditions. Resting in the experience of breathing in the way I’ve described here is one way to create those conditions.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Translator's Studio: Garab Dorje's Three Lines

What makes a translation work? For poetry and for practice-related texts—pointing-out instructions, oral pith instructions, songs of mystical insight, and even certain sutras—what makes a translation work is the effect it has on the reader. Ideally, when I translate a text, the translation elicits an experience in the reader that is at least an echo of what I experience when I read the original.

Garab Dorje’s Three Lines That Hit the Nail on the Head is probably the most famous pointing-out instruction in the Dzogchen tradition. It is a profound and somewhat enigmatic first-century text that has inspired much commentary and instruction. Numerous translations have been made. I have translated it three or four times myself. None of them, I feel, reflects either the power or the poetry of the original. What, I wondered, would happen if I broke a few conventions and really focused on the experiential quality? In this article, I lift up the hood on the translation process and show you a little of how I go about it, what happens, and what it leads to.  

For those of you who know Tibetan, the three lines are these:


Tibetan is a monosyllabic language. Almost every syllable is a word in its own right. Because the formal written language was developed to express Buddhist thought and practice, it often takes only a few syllables to express profound instructions and insights. Yet even by Tibetan standards these three lines are extraordinarily dense. They pack a punch in their combination of key technical terms, poetic meter, alliterative emphasis, precise instruction, and experiential impact.

A word-for-word rendering with minimal accommodation to English idiom or grammar might read this way:

Meet your own face directly.
Cut one rope directly.
Go with confidence and release directly.

As they say in business, “Price, quality, service—pick any two.” The same often holds for translation. Literal accuracy, clear meaning, experiential impact—pick any two. In most translations the highest priority is literal accuracy. If the translation conveys the meaning clearly, so much the better. Experiential impact is rarely a consideration. The absence or presence of experiential impact becomes obvious when you read a translation out loud.

From the perspective of literal accuracy, the phrase meet face in the first line is an idiom and is usually rendered in English as “recognize.” “Face” is taken to refer to one’s own mind or mind nature. Thus a typical translation might read “Recognize your own face,” “Recognize your own nature,” or “Recognize mind nature.”

In the second line, Cut a rope is also an idiom. It means “Decide.” Thus we have “Decide on one option.” However, the word “decide” in English is quite a bit weaker than the Tibetan idiom. The Tibetan carries the idea of coming to a decision so deeply that all other options are eliminated. “Conviction” might be one possible rendering, but because one can be convinced about something that is completely wrong, it is not the right word. In an earlier translation, I had tried “Be absolute about one point”—a choice that is accurate in terms of meaning, perhaps, but unattractive in terms of sound and rhythm.

Literal accuracy, clear meaning, experiential impact—pick any two.

Finally, in the third line, the idea is to continue, to keep going, to become familiar with this way of experiencing life. You have recognized your own face or nature. You have decided on the one option. Now you make it part of your life by relying on your confidence in the experience that movements in mind release themselves or let go on their own. The idea of release is often rendered as “liberation,” or “liberate,” but the form of the verb in Tibetan has no agent; there can be no liberator as such. Because an agent is implied by “liberate”— someone or something sets you free—some translations use the term “self-liberate.” It is workable, but I feel that the image is wrong, and with four syllables it is clumsy English. I use the word “release” because, at least in theory, an outer agent is not necessarily implied. A knotted snake unties itself. Thoughts and other movements in mind just let go, seemingly without reason or agent. They vanish as they arise, like drawings on water or snowflakes on a hot stove, when the energy in your attention is at a sufficiently high level. But I am getting ahead of myself a little.

When we choose literal accuracy as our top priority, we usually end up with something like this:

Recognize directly your own nature.
Decide directly on one option.
Continue directly with confidence in release.

This translation has quite a bit going for it. It is clear, to the point, and straightforward. I am being told to take three actions: recognize, decide, and continue. Yet although the translation makes sense, it does not move me. As I think about it, questions arise. What does “recognize directly” mean? It doesn’t sound quite like English. Ditto for “decide directly” and “continue directly.” My own nature— what’s that? One option—what option? Continue with confidence—continue what?

Stumbling blocks are places where the reader starts to think about the words. In writing and in translation, they are problematic, particularly when you are trying to move the reader into a nonconceptual experience.


Now that we have a basic translation, we need to take another look at what we are doing. Is there a way to eliminate these stumbling blocks? Is there a way to make these lines pop with energy? Is there a way to make something happen in the reader? Perhaps we should start with the key ideas—recognize, decide, continue—and see what can be done with those.

Here we run into a peculiarity of English: we have two vocabularies. We have a sophisticated, intellectual, and conceptual vocabulary based on words with Latin roots, most of which came into English after the Norman Conquest. The French invasion did not obliterate the language of the countryside and the streets completely, however. Old English with its Germanic and Norse roots survived, though it first broke up into several regional dialects and then recoalesced into a common tongue. Philosophers, intellectuals, and academics generally gravitate to the Latinate vocabulary because it offers a wide range of precise terminology steeped in classical thought. Poets and writers, however, find that the energy and power of English are in the old language, in words that have Old English, Germanic, or Norse roots.

“Recognize,” “decide,” and “continue” are all Latinate—reconnaître, décider, continuer. They are accurate and precise translations, but they lack power and energy. What to do?

In translation, when I run into difficulty expressing something in English, I go back to the Tibetan and go deeper into the meaning. What does it mean to recognize your own nature, your own mind, your own face? What experience does this refer to? Where in life do we find ourselves committing to one option and eliminating all others? What does it mean to have the confidence that thoughts and emotions release themselves in the groundlessness of experience? And what about this “directly”? What’s going on with that?

“Directly” is the one word that is repeated in each line. The Tibetan is ཐོག་ཏུ (pronounced tok tu). It means “directly” or “immediately.” Again, we run into those vocabulary issues: Both these words are Latinate and both have lots of syllables. They are adverbs, too. You lose power in writing and speaking when you use too many words, too many syllables, or too many adverbs. Here we are translating pointing out instructions, which are pithy, poetic, and punchy. How do we point something out in English and deliver a punch at the same time? We say “There!” We could say “Right there!” for even more emphasis, but in writing, less is usually more. “There!” seems to say everything in one syllable.

We could also ask to what the Tibetan ཐོག་ཏུ refers. It refers to what you are experiencing right at that moment. When you sit with your teacher and follow his or her instructions, when he or she asks you a question and your mind just stops, your teacher might say “There!” or indicate in some other way that you are experiencing what he or she is pointing to. There is a sense of immediacy in the Tibetan. According to the 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of a word is its use. If we follow his guidance, “There!” conveys the meaning at least as effectively as “directly.” Let’s try “There!” to translate ཐོག་ཏུ.

Now, what to do with “recognize”? Let’s go back to the actual experience of recognizing. Here it is not recognizing another person, but recognizing something about yourself, about what you are. Consider the situation when someone, a good friend perhaps, or someone you are getting to know, says, “Do you know that you are . . . ?” and she names some quality. It may be a compliment. It may be a criticism. It may be just an observation. At first you don’t see it. What is she referring to? She says it again or gives you an example. You still don’t see how that quality applies to you. And then you do. “Oh! Yes, I am that.” You recognize that quality in you.

That is what is happening here. A teacher, a fellow practitioner, a line in a book or a song, or a question from a student points you to a clear empty knowing that cannot be described in words, a knowing that does not rely on understanding or concept. You are a bit stunned at first; there is absolutely nothing there. But then you see. Underneath all the confusion of conceptual thinking and emotional reaction, underneath all the ideas you have about who and what you are, there is nothing—no self, not a vestige—but there is a clear empty knowing. There! This is what you are.

At this point, we could take a chance. Instead of trying to find another word for “recognize” that conveys that experience, why not go right to the experience? This is what you are. Recognition is implicit here, but that fits well with how the Tibetan original works. In Tibetan, grammar is centered more on what happens rather than who does what. Let’s take this for our first line.

There! This is what you are.

Interesting. Let’s keep going and see where this approach takes us.

The next line falls into place a little more easily. For some time now, I have been comparing mystical practice with musical practice. They are different, of course, but there is a lot of overlap in terms of the calling, the yearning, seeking out guidance, apprenticeship, training, experience, tribulations, struggles, transformation, accomplishment, and acquired skills. Many musicians pursue music at considerable cost to their health and well-being, they ignore or let go of alternative careers, and they may even neglect important relationships. They do so because they have to—nothing else matters. The same holds for mystics. Nothing else matters.

Nothing else matters? That phrase seems to capture the decisiveness of the second line better than “Decide on one point.” “Nothing else matters” conveys more than an intellectual decision. It carries emotional and experiential weight. Nothing else matters! And it does not contain any adverbs or any long words. It is a leap, of course, and it is definitely not a literal translation. However, we are going for clear meaning and experiential impact, not literal accuracy. And, perhaps fortuitously, the act of deciding now becomes implicit in this line, just as the act of recognizing became implicit in the first line. Let’s go with it.

There! Nothing else matters.


The last line is the most difficult in Tibetan—so many ideas, so few words. We now have an additional challenge. At this point, we have

There! This is what you are.
There! Nothing else matters.

Both lines are six syllables. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to put the third line into six syllables, too? In practice, that means five, because “There!” counts as one. Five syllables to express confidence, release, and continuing—definitely a challenge.

Perhaps we could get away with using trust instead of confidence? That would help with the syllable count. But what about release? What about continue? I could not find any shorter words that might work. I tried different formulations, including one that was a bit dubious grammatically: “Trust— let it unfold.” Still, I was not satisfied. Something was off.

Most teachers explain these three lines in terms of view, meditation, action, or, to translate them in another way, outlook, practice, and behavior. Outlook is the utter groundlessness of experience, that empty clarity that is our human heritage—this is what you are. Practice consists of coming to that again and again, whatever we are experiencing—nothing else matters. Behavior, how we live this, how we make it part of our lives, is based in the confidence of what we have already experienced—movement in mind releases itself, and this knowing is always present. If we let it, this knowing unfolds in every moment we experience. Mystically speaking, we make it part of our lives by having the confidence to step out of its way and just let it be. How do we say that in five syllables?

I am OK with “Let it unfold.” It isn’t literal, of course, but it seems to carry the idea of stepping out of the way and letting awareness be itself. The sticking point is the idea of trust or confidence. Ah! To keep the parallelism with the other two lines we should make the key idea implicit rather than explicit, and the key idea in this line is confidence. How do we make it implicit? I tried different ways, but nothing worked. Then, while I was listening to a flute duet played by a couple of friends in a bookstore in Sebastopol, California, it came to me:

There! Now let it unfold.

Why does “Now” work? I’m not quite sure, and it may not work for everyone. Perhaps it’s because it says (again implicitly) that you have come to this point and there is nothing to do but live in this awareness. To do that requires a great deal of confidence—confidence that mind, or mind nature, or natural awareness, functions just fine when it is freed from the fetters of conceptualization and reactivity. “Now” seems to say all that without saying it.

We are finished. The translation is complete, or, to be precise, we have taken it as far as I know how. As you see, at each step I have chosen clear meaning and experiential impact over literal accuracy. Does it work? The only way to know is for you to read it aloud and let it resonate in you. Then you will know whether it works or not. Here you are:

There! This is what you are.
There! Nothing else matters.
There! Now let it unfold.

Links for Taking and Sending (tonglen)

 Links for instruction, exploration, and practice for taking and sending and Mahayana Mind Training

Taking and Sending on the Front Line

Last month I received an email from a social worker in Germany. I found it quite moving and she subsequently gave me permission to quote her email. 

Here, slightly edited, is what she wrote:

I had had many really bad experiences with Tonglen (taking and sending). At the best it sent me into a deep depression and it would take me months to climb out. If I tried it when I was not in a good state of mind, I became suicidal. 

Last week I was listening to a podcast from you about the 37 practices of a bodhisattva and you started to explain taking and sending. First I thought about skipping this part but finally decided that just listening to the explanation won’t harm me and that then I could still decide what to do with it. And listening to you finally there was someone who addressed my problem with Tonglen practice, a problem with which I have been struggling for about 15 years now. The teacher here had explained that I have to breathe in the bad stuff, let the heart transform it, and then breathe out the good stuff coming out of the transformation. My heart just would not transform the bad stuff I had breathed in into something positive, no matter how hard I tried. I just couldn’t do it. (This touched stuff inside me which directly sent me down the road of depression, meaning of life, why live at all...) To hear from you that this is not what the practice is about was such a relief that I gave it one more try. And it was amazing. Breathing in all the bad stuff other people experience and breathing out all the good in my life I have finally something I could do. What a relief! I couldn’t believe it. I kept doing the practice this way, and it was doable. 

The next day at work (I am a social worker in a big hospital in Munich taking care of palliative patients and severely burnt patients) I was visiting a young cancer patient and her daughter. The patient herself and her daughter have both worked as cancer researchers in alternative cancer treatment, convinced in their belief that the treatments they developed could cure people. But there she was now, in a normal hospital, dying, completely in panic. In addition to the grief and pain in the face of approaching death, their whole belief system about their life’s work was also breaking down. Just physically being in a room with them was excruciating. I felt myself retreating and trying to find something to do to make it more bearable at the same time. Instead I stopped myself from reacting and did taking and sending for two or three breaths. The effect it had inside me was amazing. Instead of trying to get away from the pain, I could move toward it. My ability to just be there (there was not anything more to be done at this point) changed the atmosphere in the room completely. When I visited them the next day, the daughter followed me out of the room and thanked me. 

After that I tried both ways of doing the practice, the way you describe it and the way my German teacher taught, trying to do the transformation in the heart. I wanted to get some understanding of what makes such a difference. As far as I can see at the moment, the transformation thing gets me out of direct experience and into a subject-object thing. I have to do something with the object to stop the suffering of the world. It feels like a battle lost before it had even started.

Now when I do the practice, I first just sit and let the experience of everything being mind arise, and then move into taking and sending. There is all the negative stuff but encountering it from there it is just experience happening and the good stuff is like an infinite space of joy which is just available, never getting less no matter how much I give away, not even if I try to give it all away.

This, of course, was a wonderful email to receive, and there are several points in her account that I’d like to touch on.

First, taking and sending (Tonglen) is an exchange, not a transformation in which you change the pain of the human condition into something good. As this person noted, “the transformation thing gets me out of direct experience and into a subject-object thing. I have to do something with the object to stop the suffering of the world. It feels like a battle lost before it had even started.”

This misunderstanding, which is now quite widespread, comes from an unwillingness to face the facts of the human condition, namely, that we struggle with life. We struggle with life because things are always changing. When our lives are going well, we struggle to keep them going well. When our lives are difficult, we struggle with the difficulties. We can, through practice, or through life, learn not to struggle with what arises in our lives. Taking and sending, when done as an exchange, not a transformation, leads us and trains us to be in what arises in our experience, good or bad. Or, as a friend of mine puts it, it undermines our tendency not to feel.

The second point is “let the experience of everything being mind arise.” How do you do that? Here is one method you can try. The idea for it came from a tweet by Brad Warner, a Zen teacher in LA. 

Ordinarily, we think of ourselves as being in the world. But in a dream, it’s the other way round. W e feel that the world of the dream is in us in some way. (That being said, other cultures see the dream state in different ways.) Take a moment now and open to everything you experience, feeling that you are in the world. Everything, your room, buildings, cars, roads, trees, mountains, wind, sounds, etc., is, in some sense, out there. Rest in that for a few minutes. Now, imagine that you are dreaming and that you know that you are dreaming (a lucid dream). Again, open to everything, your room, buildings, cars, roads, trees, mountains, wind, sounds, etc. Feel how everything is, in some sense, in you, without trying to define what “you” are. Rest in that for a few minutes. Now bring both views together and hold them at the same time. You may experience a shift, a few moments, or longer, in which there is no thought, just knowing and experience together. Rest there.

The third point is about the nature of compassion we cultivate in Buddhist practice. In our daily lives, if a person who is clearly in pain asks for help, we usually try to do something. We see a person who, like us, is struggling in the world, and we do what we can. Now, what do you do if you are dreaming, and you know that you are dreaming, and a person in your dream who is clearly in pain asks for help? Some people say they would try to help. Other people say that there would be no point, because the person is not real. He or she is only a figment of the dream. 

When we see the person as like us, a person in the world, experience arises in one conceptual frame. When we see the person as a figment of our dream, we bring another conceptual frame to our experience. Use the exercise in the second point above to elicit a shift in awareness and experience. In that way of knowing, the sense of self is not present in the usual way. Nor is the sense of other. The compassion that arises has a different quality because it is not based in a sense of I and other. Do taking and sending from there. Then the compassion you cultivate in tonglen practice is not based in a conceptual frame. 

The next point is about effort. Even though this woman had been given incorrect instruction in taking and sending, she had worked at it for a long time. Was all that time and effort a waste ? Perhaps not. When she happened across the correct instruction, she could move into it quickly and effectively, possibly because of the effort she had already made.

Finally, and this is probably the most difficult point, in today’s world, you probably need to check on the instructions you are receiving. From basic meditation to taking and sending to meditation on emptiness to vajrayana practice, I have come across mistaken, misleading, and incompetent instruction over and over again. Find the best teachers you can (and the best is often not the most famous, the most well-known, the most articulate, or the most successful). Talk with other students and see how they are. Do your research here. It may save you years of problems. It may save your life.

That being said, practice rarely proceeds linearly. We may spend years at practice, struggling with feelings of futility, incompetence, or inability. Then, seemingly out of the blue, something happens. It may be an internal shift. Or it may be something we hear or see for the first time. Suddenly a way becomes clear. That’s how it is.

An Empty Room: taking and sending in difficult times

 An Empty Room

When a society is orderly, a fool alone cannot disturb it; when a society is chaotic, a sage alone cannot bring it to order. 
The Book of Leadership and Strategy

Where we are
As I write this, in the last 24 hours over 3,000 people died in the US from Covid-19. The numbers are not going to get better any time soon. Even though vaccines offer light at the end of the tunnel, millions of people in this country face uncertainty, isolation, and hardship over the next few months—some through mistaken beliefs, some through personal choices, many through the force of circumstances beyond their control.

Even with the election more or less behind us, ideological, political, and economic forces continue to shred the fabric of our society. When these factors are combined with the challenges of widespread pollution and its effect on the planet’s climate, we have at best a temporary respite from the troubles of our times.

Where we may be going
We may want to make a better world, but more than a few people hold the view that in the short term (the next decade), we are heading into a maelstrom of unrest comparable to that of the Civil War. Like most storms, this maelstrom may have to play itself out before anything solid can be built, or rebuilt. Even that may not be possible given high tech's willingness to destroy the body politic with social media for nothing more than financial gain. Quite different forms of governance may have to evolve, a process that usually takes decades, if not centuries. If history is any guide, this process usually involves a lot of turmoil and, quite often, bloodshed.

What to do?
For me, what to do is hard to put into words, but it has something to do with fulfilling a responsibility—a responsibility that comes out of my own training, in particular, my training in the bodhisattva path, a path that has always resonated with me and one that has provided me with guidance and direction in some very difficult situations.

Mahayana Buddhism talks about the two aims. The aim for oneself is to clean up one's own mess. In more formal language, it is to find a way to end our own struggles with life, not by creating an ideal world, but internally, by finding a way to live in and with the human condition. In Buddhism, this aim is realized principally through seeing through life's illusions and knowing the groundlessness of experience.

The aim for others is the expression of that understanding through how we live, an expression that sees the humanity in each and every person, treats them with courtesy and respect, stands for justice, and understands them for who they are, in short, the social expressions of the four immeasurables, equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and joy.

Even wise leaders must await appropriate circumstances. Appropriate circumstances can only be found at the right time and cannot be fulfilled through being sought by knowledge.
—The Book of Leadership and Strategy

In the current uncertainty, I put my attention and energy into living the best way that I can and the best way for me is the practice of taking and sending (tonglen). It is through this practice that I fulfill my responsibility to both others and myself, by taking care of my own garbage and cultivating the qualities that will translate into help for others.

Taking and Sending and Mahayana Mind Training
All methods of Buddhist practice are directed to that result in one way or another. Taking and sending is one that speaks to me. The following instructions are taken from Mind Training in Seven Points, the mind-training text that I know best. You’ll find links to it and to other resources at the end of this article. 

Taking and sending is not a complicated practice and it can be applied to everything we experience. Its applications are broad and profound.

Whether I am happy or sad, ill or well, having a miserable time or enjoying life to the full, whatever my circumstances, I can practice taking and sending. When I was ill in the three-year retreat, this was the only practice I could do, and it was then, I think, that I forged a solid relationship with it. Among other things, it led me to my first significant experiential understanding of what Buddhist practice is actually about—the end of struggle.

It’s a simple practice. Whatever my reactions are—attraction, aversion, indifference—taking and sending gives me a way to relate to them without being consumed by them and without dumping them on others.

Even though my life is relatively peaceful right now, I am quite aware that I am still affected by the pandemic, the political turmoil, and uncertainty and confusion. Another instruction that comes to mind is: 

I meet what is happening. Millions of people in this country are struggling more than I am with illness and death, unwanted connections and unwanted disconnections, financial uncertainty, fear, and isolation, and threats to their well-being, their families, their jobs, and their homes. I don’t try to avoid, suppress, or ignore the pain, difficulty, unfairness, inequity, and heartbreak. I take all of that in, in the form of thick black smoke and feel it in my heart. It hurts, but I don't try to change the hurt. I just feel it. Then, I send out my good health, my well-being, my home and garden, the food I eat, my ability to understand what I read, the joy I take in music and in walks. I give away everything that I enjoy and value in life and imagine that it brings peace, happiness, understanding, and strength to every person struggling in their lives.

I do this with everyone—no favorites, no prejudice, no bias. I take joy in taking in everyone’s struggles and sending my peace, well-being, and joy into their lives. Yes, it’s an imagined exchange, but it sets something in motion. Parts of me are not happy with this exchange and that leads directly to another instruction.

Whatever arises—anger at what is going on in the world, despair at the lack of leadership and effective action, despair also at the proliferation of conspiracy theories and their adoption by significant sections of the population, disgust with those who feel they have the right to impose their utopian ideals on others and those who feel they have the right to tell others how they should think, feel and live, uncertainty as to how all this is going to play out, attachment to my home and means of support—I take the same feelings from others. In return, I send them the quiet, comfort, peace and support that I do enjoy in my life. 

But then it gets a bit more difficult. With, say, the despair at the lack of leadership and effective action, I now start taking in the mindsets of those responsible, who seem to be capable of doing nothing to alleviate the problems of millions when they have the power and means to do so. I find that taking that mindset into me is harder than taking in illness and fear. I feel the hardness and the cold in me, and wonder what it is like to live that way. When I do take it in, when I actually feel what it might be like to have that steeliness of character, I touch into times in my life when I have ignored or turned away from situations when I could have been more understanding, could have been kinder, or could have done something to help. 

It’s the same when I take in those who resonate with one or other conspiracy theory or ideology. When people see the world differently from me, it’s all too easy to slide into I’m right and they’re wrong. Instead, as much as possible, I take in the feelings of being left behind, unwanted, unvalued, not knowing how to be in a world that has changed beyond recognition, not knowing who or what to trust, a world that has rendered as pointless or out of date much that gave meaning to my life, a world that has squashed me at every turn, a world that is intrinsically unfair, a world that does not support a life worth living.

Having lived outside or at the margins of society for significant portions of my life, I know these feelings and I know the pain and alienation behind them. In exchange, I send what was one of the harder lessons for me, the simple gesture of taking joy in others’ goodness, in their abilities, and in their accomplishments.

I've come to see that when I dwell on the arrogance and righteous anger of those who would tell me how I should think and feel, I'm essentially looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of myself. I then do taking and sending with the reflection in the mirror, no matter how distasteful or disgusting I find the reflection. As I recognize that I have my own ideas about how others should think and live, I remember the disappointments I've felt when the world did not meet the expectations I had as a child, for fairness, kindness, justice, and encouragement. Then my anger and disgust dissolve, and I understand their yearning for the world to be a better place.

More fuel for taking and sending, you may say, but when I touch these points, it forces me to face my own capacity to be cruel, to hurt others, to do evil. While I can sit here now and send out peace and freedom, giving away what I have learned through practice, I still have to face the fact that, in different circumstances, I could have been like the people with whom I’m angry or disgusted. 

As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.

My own capacity for evil is a truth that I have to face squarely. When I see it and acknowledge it, practice becomes real. It becomes a matter of life and death. Only then do I appreciate the real importance of attention, compassion, and faith, three doors to freedom.

This is the heart of the practice, to listen to what is arising in me, to meet it, and to keep meeting it until it lets go on its own. One of the most important practice principles I’ve learned is that I don’t control my reactions. I can only meet them, feel them, and experience them to the best of my ability. They let go when they are ready to let go. I don't call the shots.

If I hold even the slightest hope that they will release, my preoccupation with how I want to feel guarantees that they remain in place.

To rest in what arises, to rest without distraction, to rest without controlling, to rest without trying to do anything, this is one path to the groundlessness of being, to mind nature in traditional vocabulary. To do that, however, I have to have the skill and capacity to experience anything and everything that arises and I have to be willing to do so without any thought of personal gain or benefit. Only then can I know that I am nothing and that, because I am nothing, anything is possible.

In the end
Sometimes I suspect that Chekawa, the author of Mind Training in Seven Points, had a wry sense of humor. His last instruction is a kicker:

For me, this is where I come back to the sense of responsibility I mentioned earlier. In many respects, practice is about cleaning up my own mess, and I can hardly expect to be thanked for that.

We are not always aware of the ways that we help others. Mind nature, empty, clear, and free is like a quiet room filled with light, with an unrestricted view. Whenever I come into or sit in such a room, it evokes something similar in me, a peace, a clarity, a sense of freedom, easing if only for a moment whatever may be bothering me at the time. Maybe it's enough to be that room.