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.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Three Worlds

We live in three worlds simultaneously, the world of matter, the world of emotional and social connection, and the world of mind and spirit. Each of these worlds has its own rules, its own way of functioning. What works in one world usually does not work in the others. These three worlds interact with each other in subtle and complex ways, making life difficult, if not impossible, to predict or control. 

Three Ways We Struggle

  • In the world of matter, we struggle with birth, old age, illness and death, the four great sources of struggle in the human condition.
  • In the world of emotional connection, we struggle with chance and the four lesser struggles, not having what we want or need, keeping what we do have, being with people with whom we don’t want to be with, and not being with people we do want to be with.
  • In the world of the mind or spirit, we struggle in subtler ways. We struggle with identity, not knowing what or who we are, what the world is, and the mysteries of life and being itself.

No political or social system is going to eliminate these three ways we struggle with life. Just as Buddha did 2500 years ago, we have to look inside, not outside, to find a way to live without struggling.

How each struggle comes to an end

  • In the world of matter, our struggles are with pain, in one form or another. Pain is a sensation. We can learn to experience pain as a sensation, as an arising in mind. When we are able to experience pain as a sensation, we stop struggling with it. 
  • Then we become aware of the emotional reactions that pain triggers, attraction, aversion, and indifference. We can, similarly, develop the ability to experience emotional reactions as movements in mind. We then stop struggling with them, and can let them come and go without having to express or suppress them. 
  • When we can do that, our conditioned sense of self, our identity, and our relationship with life are called into question. Who am I? What are these feelings that dictate so much of my life? What is real? We can, again, develop the ability to experience self and everything associated with a sense of self as deep structures in mind, structures that are, by their very nature, neither absolute nor fixed.

When we are able to experience the contingency of self and everything associated with it, we find a peace, a clarity, and a freedom that we cannot put into words. Among other things, we stop struggling to define or maintain that sense of self or any fixed posture with respect to what we experience. 

How to do this

As long as you are alive, you breathe. The breath is already there. Rest in the experience of breathing, an experience that includes your whole body, and everything else you sense, feel, or think. When you lose touch with the experience of breathing, you never lose touch forever.

As Saraha said over a thousand years ago, mind is like a bird on a ship in the middle of the ocean. It may fly high in the sky for miles and miles, but in the end, it always returns to the ship. It has to. It has nowhere else to go. In the same way, mind always returns to itself.

A moment always comes when you go, “Oh, where was I?” Or “Oh, where did I go.” At that moment, you have returned to what is already there. Rest right there. There is nothing more to do. 

This is one of those instructions that unfolds as your ability to do it develops. It will take you a long way, a very long way, out of the world of struggle and deep into the mystery of being. 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Hell realm

Week 1: the hell realm

Apportion your meditation session as follows:
rest with the breath for 1/3 of your meditation time,
do the following contemplations for 1/3-1/2 your practice session,
gain rest with the breath for the balance of your session. 

The hell realm is about anger and hate, fire and ice. The only way you know to connect with anything is to oppose it. No joy, no humor, no pleasure, no human warmth of any kind. You are utterly alone, against everything, and everything is against you. 

The hot hells describe the subjective experience of anger. Anger is like fire, every cell a ball of raging incandescent flame. Anger is like a red hot spear, piercing your whole body. Anger is like red hot rocks, tumbling down on you and carrying you down to the depths of hell. When anger takes hold, anything and everything is a threat, to be struck down, killed, demolished and destroyed. You have no friends. You have no allies. You trust no one. You would like to reduce the whole world to a mass of black cinders, quietly smoking in a hellish ruddy glow, and then stand glowering in the smoldering ruins. But it is usually the world that destroys you, and you end up fighting the same battles over and over again, to no avail.

The cold hells describe the subjective experience of hate—cold, hard, unremitting. Hate freezes you from the inside out. Your heart is ice. You cannot let even a ray of sunshine in. Anything different, anything new, is a threat, because it requires you to move. Even the slightest movement, whether in your heart, in your body, or in how you view the world, is excruciatingly difficult, and painful beyond endurance. 

During the day, take opposition as your attention alarm. Every time you say no, directly or indirectly, every time you take an oppositional stance, no matter how justified, check your body, heart and mind. What happens in your body? What feelings arise? What stories run?

Next 6 days: alternate between hell realm and titan realm

Continue to do the hell realm meditation. The titan realm and the hell realm are both based in anger. As a titan, you are angry at those who you deem to be better than you. As a hell being, you are angry at everything. During your meditation period, recall occasions when you were angry, for either reason, and rest in the experience of that anger.

During the day, for the first day, go about your life as a hell being. Everybody is out to get you. Don’t trust anyone. Take everything anyone says or does as an attack, even if it’s just a friendly greeting. Notice the effect this posture has on you, on how you relate to people, on how you see others, and, conversely, how they relate to you. 

The next day, go about your life as a titan. Notice where others are better than you, whether in athletic ability or artistic talent, good looks or popularity, money or status, fame or good fortune. You want to be better than them! That you are not infuriates you. Notice what the envy does to you and to how you relate to others.  

Again, alternate one day as a hell being, one day as a titan for the six days.

Next 6 days: alternate between hell realm and god realm

In your regular meditation sessions, continue to explore what it is like to be in hell, to be consumed by anger and hate. Notice how you experience time when you are angry. When you lose your temper, you destroy the world in a flash, but the anger keeps coming back, again and again. It seems to go on forever. With hate, time passes slowly as you sit cold and alone, unable to move, hating the world around.

During the day, on day one, go about your life as a hell being. You are either seething, sitting on a volcano about to erupt and send streams of molten lava that burns everything in its path, or frozen, in hatred, unwilling and unable to change the implacable hatred you direct at everything around you. How quickly does the day go by? 

The next day, go about your life as a god. You are so far above it all that there is no conflict in your life. If anything like conflict arises, you rise above it. It’s beneath you to engage it. 

Both the gods and hell beings are completely consumed by their emotional reactions. Gods are self-absorbed to the exclusion of external awareness, whether the absorption is in their own pleasure or in the serenity of extraordinary states of stillness. Hell beings are absorbed by their environment, to the exclusion of any internal awareness.  

Alternate one day hell being, one day god for six days. 

Next 6 days: alternation between hell realm and human realm

In your practice sessions, continue to explore the hell realm, how you see and experience life when you are possessed by anger and hate. From time to time, imagine that you do not encounter any opposition. Neither the other beings around you nor the environment fight back. There is no one to fight, nothing to battle. What happens now?

During the day, go about your life as a hell being, angry at everything, blaming everyone and everything around you for any difficulties you have in your live, seething inside at the injustice of it all. The next day, go about your life as a human, focusing on what you want or what you want to do. Savor the enjoyment when you are able to bring it about. 

For the six days, alternate one day as a hell being, one day as a human.

Remaining days of the month: awakening in the hell realm

In the hungry ghost realm, Buddha, the possibility of waking up, takes the form of the Lord of Death, the ruler of the hell realms. He is the arbiter of karma, and the mirror he holds reflects to all beings the consequences of how they have lived their lives.

Again enter the hell realm. Let anger or hate consume you. Everyone you encounter is a threat. Everything in the environment is a source of pain. You react to the threats, the aggression, the hostility all around you with anger that rages in every cell in your body. Rest in that experience. Rest so deeply that you are able to be in that experience and be at peace. Then look at what is angry. Look at what hates. There is a shift, and in that shift you touch a knowing that anger cannot touch. Rest in that knowing as the anger continues to rage in you. That knowing becomes a light, crystal clear in its intensity. It permeates your body, all the anger in you, and the whole realm of hell outside you, with all the aggressive creatures and hostile elements in the environment. Everything and everyone dissolve into that light and you rest there.

Dissolve the hell realm into light two or three times, and then rest in the light.

During the day, pay attention to how you speak. One of the best ways to know when anger is rising in you is to listen to your voice when you speak as if you were listening to another person. You are immediately aware when an edge has crept into your voice, or a tone of sarcasm, or a dead tone, indicating that you have shut down. As soon as you are aware of anger rising in you, ask these three questions:

• What am I opposing in this situation?
• Do I have to oppose it?
• Is opposing called for at all right now?

These questions break the enchantment of the hell realm. The first question puts you in touch with the oppositional posture. The second question reveals if it is an emotional reaction, as it almost always is. The third questions whether opposition, and anger, are relevant to the situation at hand. With these three questions, you step out of the hell realm into a greater awareness and freedom.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Hungry ghost realm

Week 1: the hungry ghost realm

Remember to apportion your meditation session as follows:
  • rest with the breath for 1/3 of your meditation time,
  • do the following contemplations for 1/3-1/2 your practice session,
  • gain rest with the breath for the balance of your session. 
The hungry ghost realm is the world of greed. Bring to mind an occasion when you felt greedy. Look at how greed expresses itself in your body. The body tightens. Hands and arms tense, preparing to grasp or hold. The throat constricts. The nostrils flare. The eyes dart here and there, scanning for something to take. You feel an impulse to reach out and snatch or grab what you can. 

Now look at what emotions accompany greed. Want, neediness, certainly. But also fear, harshness, and even cruelty. The stories, too, are all about “I have to have this,” “It’s mine,” “You can’t have any,” and so on.

When you are consumed by greed, you see the world as a desert waste. You cannot see or find anything to ease your hunger or slake your thirst. You search desperately, oblivious to others, scrambling, fighting, clawing to find something, anything, to ease the desperate need inside. If you find a crumb of bread or a desiccated pea, your mouth is so small you cannot eat it. When you pick it up, it rots in your hands. When you touch it to your lips, it scorches them. A drop of water becomes a fiery fluid, burning your mouth and your body from the inside out. Greed is so intense that if we do find a small piece of what we are looking for, our desperation is magnified.

Next 6 days: alternate between hungry ghost realm and human realm

Continue to do the hungry ghost meditation. In particular, feel how insatiable greed is. Greed arises when a want is mistaken for a need. No matter what you want, you can never have enough, not enough food, money, attention, affection, security, status, etc. Feel how greed is a blackhole, swallowing everything it can draw in, but without any satisfaction or satiation. 

During the day, for the first day, go about your life as a hungry ghost. Any time you notice that you want something or are attracted to something, make it a need. You have to have it! What is it like to live life that way? When you make everything a need— something you have to have for your survival, for your emotional well-being, or to establish who you are—how often are you able to get what you think you need? How do people look at you? How do you look at other people? With greed, we see others as objects whose only function is to fulfill our own needs.

What is the difference between the hungry ghost realm and the human realm? The human realm is based in want. You want things to be different from how they are. That want keeps you busy, but every now and then, you do get what you want. For a short time, at least, you experience enjoyment and relief. The want is satisfied, and that feels good. It doesn’t last, and you are soon back working for this or trying to get that. In the hungry ghost realm, however, there is never any sense of satisfaction, no relief, no moment of enjoyment. You are driven, driven, driven. You can never rest, and that insatiable sense of lack constantly prods you and keeps you moving. 

The next day, go about your life as a human. As a human, you always want things to be a little different from how they are, a little more of this, a little less of that. There are things you want, but you know you don’t need them, not at the level of survival, emotional well-being, or identity. When you have what you want, savor the satisfaction and enjoyment for a few moments, before you move on to your next project. When you are not able to get what you want, you feel disappointment and frustration, but you know you can live with it.

Again, alternate one day as a hungry ghost, one day as a human for the six days.

Next 6 days: alternate between hungry ghost realm and titan realm

In your regular meditation sessions, continue to explore what it is like to be a hungry ghost, to be consumed by greed. In particular, feel how volatile it is, how it takes hold of you and so distorts your perception of what you need that nothing can possibly satisfy it. Let yourself feel the crazed volatile nature of greed, without letting it take you over.

During the day, on day one, go about your life as a hungry ghost. Everything you touch turns to dust. Nothing works out. You are driven by desperate need. You can never have enough. Any good words from others, any success or achievement, or any good fortune falls into the black hole of your need for attention and appreciation and makes no difference to how you feel. You desperately hold onto what little you have, even though you don’t find any of it in the least bit comforting or satisfying.  

The next day, go about your life as a titan. You have to be better than everyone else. Notice where others are better than you—athletic ability or artistic talent, good looks or popularity, money or status, fame or good fortune. Then work harder, play harder, exercise harder, do whatever you can to demonstrate that you are at least their equal. 

Envy and jealousy and greed and neediness are all hair triggers for reactivity. Almost all the demons in the Tibetan tradition come from one or other of these two realms. They represent emotional obsessions arising from a sense of lack, of not having enough.

Alternate one day hungry ghost, one day titan for six days. 

Next 6 days: alternation between hungry ghost realm and god realm

In your practice sessions, continue to explore the hungry ghost realm, how you see and experience life when you are consumed by greed. From time to time, imagine that you have everything you want and everything you need. You are able to eat and drink. Food does not turn into a putrid mess when you touch it. Water or wine does not turn into a fiery fluid when you drink it. Your body goes not recoil or tense when you pick something up. You enjoy the pleasures of aromas and flavors. No matter how much you grasp, there is always more. As a hungry ghost, how do you react to this change?

During the day, go about your life as a hungry ghost, angry, frustrated, never able to get what you want  or need. The next day, go about your life as a god, swimming in luxury, every want or need fulfilled before the thought is complete in your mind, every person you meet there only serve your every whim, able to rest completely at ease in a bliss that seems to endure forever.

For the six days, alternate one day as a hungry ghost, one day as a god.

Remaining days of the month: awakening in the hungry ghost realm.

In the hungry ghost realm, Buddha, the possibility of waking up, is symbolized by Flaming Mouth, the queen of the hungry ghosts. When her greed is appeased by offerings from the monastic sangha, all her subjects in the hungry ghost realm are also appeased.

Again, enter the hungry ghost realm and let the experience of greed arise in you. Make it as vivid as you can, feeling the grasping quality in every cell in your body. Rest in that all-consuming greed. Now look at what experiences greed. You may experience a shift in which you touch a clear empty knowing that knows the greed and is at peace at the same time. Let that knowing permeate your whole being, your body, heart and mind. Let that knowing take the form of intense clear light that permeates everything you experience. The whole hungry ghost realm dissolves in that light.

Dissolve the hungry ghost realm into light two or three times, and then rest in the light.

During the day, notice when your inner hungry ghost asserts itself. Whenever you think, “I need that,” pay attention. As soon as you notice that kind of thought, check your body. What is happening in your body? Usually, you notice a bit of tension, and under that tension, a feeling of being threatened, threatened by lack, loss, or deprivation. Notice other reactive emotions that arise, anxiety, fear, harshness, even cruelty. These emotions may be fleeting, but any of them may be the door through which you step into the hungry ghost realm and are consumed by needing and grasping. When you feel any kind of grasping or neediness, ask these three questions:
  • What am I trying to get in this situation?
  • Do I have to get it?
  • Is getting called for at all right now?
These questions break the enchantment of the hungry ghost realm. In particular, they put you in touch with how the impulse to grasp is almost always not in keeping with what is actually going on in the situation. Something has triggered the reaction of greed in you, and you have fallen under its spell. 

The aim of these meditations is not to make us averse to greed. It is to know the experience of greed, to know it so deeply that we know what it is, a movement in mind. When we experience greed as a movement in mind, we are in touch with a knowing that greed does not touch. As with other emotional reactions, greed loses its power as a drive. We have discovered the possibility  of experiencing it without either acting on it or suppressing it. That is freedom.