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Friday, February 13, 2015

Verse 3.14 — conclusion

In this age of strife, these vital instructions for the great mysteries
Are mingled with the authoritative writings of the analytic approach.
Those knowledge holders who are not different from me
Will make my vision clear.

Masters of this teaching, the expression of the awakening beings of the three families, 
And those blessed with natural talent, enjoy and make use of it.

An age of strife? This is traditional religious rhetoric, or, to be more accurate, this is the rhetoric of traditional religions, most of which look to the past for models of human behavior and society. The further back in time one goes, the more noble and greater people were. Buddhism is no different. The cosmology of traditional Buddhism is based on a myth of the progressive devolution of human behavior and society. Modern thinking, though it carefully avoids the label “religious”, is based on the equally questionable myth of progressive evolution — to a higher consciousness and an ideal society based on higher consciousness or technology.

Basically, we are going nowhere, but we seem to be going there faster than ever. 

However, what Jigmé Lingpa says next is important. “These vital instructions for the great mysteries/Are mingled with the authoritative writings of the analytic approach.” 

In earlier verses, Jigmé Lingpa has been clear that the analytic approach is different from direct awareness practices such as Great Completion. Because the analytic approach is inevitably based in concept and language, it cannot bring us into the direct experience of, say, the various kinds of releasing described in the preceding verse. Peter Sloterdijk, in “You Must Change Your Life”, uses the example of throwing a discus.

“One can only carry out a throw of a discus by throwing it; no amount of chatter about discuses and the right way to throw them can replace the throw itself, and neither the biographies of throwers nor the bibliography of throwing literature will lead a single step further.”

One can train in the philosophy and reasoning of the analytic approach or one can train in the contemplative practice of direct awareness. They are two different disciplines. One does not necessarily lead to the other, nor is either a necessary pre-condition for the other. In Tibet there were people who trained in one or the other (basically monastic college scholars and the mountain hermits) and there were some who trained in both. One title for such individuals was scholar-master (མཁས་གྲུབ་), those able both to teach with authority because of their scholastic training and to teach and guide others in practice because of their contemplative experience. These individuals were highly revered and became the models to which most people aspired. While this blend of analytical philosophy and contemplative practice did much to ensure a solid line of transmission through the centuries, it is not without problems, perhaps the most significant being the tendency to rely on definition, analysis and reason for contemplative practice and not one’s own experience, refined and deepened with the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

Jigmé Lingpa was a self-taught person himself and thus less invested in the analytic approach than his institutionally trained colleagues. If I were to put what he says here in my own words, it would be, “Don’t get caught in this mishmash. Find someone who knows what I’m talking about and work with him or her.” 

In the last two lines, he states explicitly that he is not writing for everyone, but for those who have already mastered such practice and for those who have natural talent. Such a statement goes strongly against the egalitarian anti-elitist sentiments in modern society, but let’s be practical for a moment. While I might learn something at a physics seminar taught by Richard Feynman or Albert Einstein, a fully trained physicist who is conversant with their research is probably going to learn a lot more. There are levels of practice and ability. That is why we train, to improve our understanding, our skills and our abilities. The more we know, the more we can appreciate and the more we can learn. 

The guidance Jigmé Lingpa offers here is not for beginners. Milarepa started with a similar practice, Buddhahood without Meditation. He took the instruction “Do nothing” literally. He didn’t do anything. Fortunately, his dzogchen teacher saw that this practice wasn’t going to work for Milarepa and sent him to Marpa. Under Marpa’s guidance, Milarepa developed the understanding, skills and abilities he needed to practice. In the same way, most of us, if we practice this way without preparation, will end up doing nothing and going nowhere, but in the wrong way. This is why, in traditional contexts, texts such as this one were sealed, to be shown and taught only to those who could benefit from them. 

A few talented people will be able to make immediate use of the instruction Jigmé Lingpa offers here. For most of us, though, the subtlety and depth of these teachings reveal themselves as our understanding and abilities develop and then we can enjoy and engage them.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Verse 3.13 — awakening, buddhahood

When you open and relax,
There is an emptiness that goes beyond true or false.
Here, if you know arise and release, natural release, and direct release
You are no different from all the awakened ones.
You are awake and no different from me.

It sounds so simple. Just open and relax. But the opening and relaxing to which Jigmé Lingpa refers is not quite what we do when we come home from work and let the cares of the  day subside. Nor is it what we do when we go on a vacation. He is talking about the opening and relaxing that takes place when we cease to do anything, when we let go of any effort whatsoever. This is not easy. Our whole being is keyed to striving. Biologically we strive to stay alive. Emotionally we strive for connection and fulfillment. Cognitively we strive to be someone, to have a narrative for what we call “I”.

Letting go is not something I decide to do. But it can happen, more often by accident than by design, though, as Trungpa once said, the purpose of practice is to make ourselves accident-prone.

People have described what happens in different ways. We become an empty mirror. Mind and body drop away. We fall into an emptiness that goes beyond true or false. And then, as so often happens, others seize on our words and miss what we are saying. Tomes, great and wonderful tomes, have been written about emptiness, trying to describe it, trying to understand it, trying to explain it. 

Emptiness is not a thing. At the same time it’s not nothing.

It is a description of an experience, or, possibly, a way of experiencing. It is not a statement about the ground of being or anything like that. 

What is that way of experiencing? Here, ordinary language fails because it relies on and generates conceptual thinking. We can only use the language of metaphor, and there are several — a cathedral, snowflakes on a hot stone, a knotted snake thrown into the air, a thief entering an empty house.

The first time I went to Yosemite, I was completely and utterly stunned. The sheer cliffs, the mass of rock, the vertical grandeur towering over the tranquil meadows, rivers and lakes of the valley floor — a natural cathedral. My mind just stopped. 

When we look at mind, when we look at nothing and actually see nothing, the same thing happens. All effort disappears and the mind stops. It’s not something you or I make happen, but it happens. This is not just the quiet mind. It is no mind (not literally, of course, but that is how the experience arises). No thinking, no conceptualization — good, bad, true, false — nothing. 

Sometimes, too, when thoughts arise, they vanish in the moment of arising, like snowflakes landing on a hot stone. Beautiful intricate structures in incomprehensible numbers, swirling, dancing and — one by one — they vanish, not even a trace.

Sometimes it’s as if we are inside a thought as it arises and it unties itself, leaving us in empty space, somewhere over the Grand Canyon or in the Hubble Gap — again, not because of any effort we make.

Sometimes a thought arises and pokes around for a while. Or perhaps it’s a whole gang. Still, there is nothing for them to connect to, nothing they can take or push against or steal. At some point they just leave and the house is empty again. Good, bad, better, worse — these don’t even enter the picture.

In all of this, “I” doesn’t do anything. “I” is based in thought, in language. The efforts we have made make it possible to be without engaging the conceptual mind. Other possibilities are now available.

To experience arising and releasing and not have to react, to know what arises and for it to take care of itself — this is what it means to be awake and free. In more technical language, experience is empty, groundless. It comes and goes but it is not a thing. Yet it is not nothing. It is also knowing — unrestricted, unconfined by concept or conditioning. That unrestricted knowing naturally manifests as compassion, as continual movement in the direction of balance in the totality of experience.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Verse 3.12 — and so it ends

The great treasure is to be free of thought and thinking.
To know that there is originally no buddha
Is to be where wanting has never been.
With this special teaching that rots the roots of samsara
Wake up from the realm of misery. 

And so it ends. 

Experience arises. Because of our conditioning, it’s almost never exactly what we want. We want things to be a little different from what they are — a lot. We push away what we don’t like, cling to what we do like or ignore what we don’t care about. Each of those reactions involves an effort.

When we discover the possibility of making no effort — no effort whatsoever, the whole edifice of ordinary experience crumbles into dust. It crumbles because ordinary experience rests on these three fundamental emotional reactions: attraction, aversion and indifference. 

Buddha? Full awakening? What’s that? In a certain sense, we discover that we were never asleep to begin with even though it feels as if we have woken up from a bad dream.

Wanting? What’s that? Where there is nothing to grasp or oppose, wanting doesn’t even enter the picture.

The great treasure is to be free of thought and thinking. 

This line, like many others, is susceptible to misinterpretation, particularly when taken literally. Perhaps a slightly different take on a much-used metaphor will help. 

Look into the sky. The expanse of the sky does not obstruct the floating white clouds. Nor do the floating white clouds, or even the heavy dark thunderheads, obstruct the expanse of the sky.

When we take that in, something shifts and there is no more struggle.

When we know this experientially, that is, when we can be both the sky and the clouds, then, even when we are in great physical or emotional pain, when our world is a complete mess and we don’t know what to do, when nothing makes any sense and we have nowhere to turn, we are no longer dreaming in a realm of misery. We are free and at peace. Samsara has come to an end.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Verse 3.11 — another letting go

All the technicalities of outlook practice, and behavior
Are, in terms of what is natural, just intellectual chaff.
Let correctives based on mindfulness, position and effort subside into space.
With the chosen discipline of not naming wandering or not wandering,
Just let things be — not sending out or drawing in, not keeping or removing.
There’s a space there — free from the complications of effort.

Having set the stage in the last verse, Jigmé Lingpa takes the next fifteen lines to cut through any kind of effort in practice. 

Mind is how we experience life, how we experience ourselves, how we experience the world. In this sense, there is nothing that is not mind. Obviously, this is quite different from the idealist interpretations of much Mahayana Buddhist teaching, which are textbook examples of what Jigmé Lingpa was decrying in the preceding verse.

As meditation practice deepens, we become less and less concerned with the what of experience and more and more concerned with the how. This shift is not without its challenges. Because of our physical, emotional and cognitive conditioning, what we experience triggers, elicits or stimulates a wide range of somatic, emotional and cognitive reactions. For those who are drawn or compelled to pursue direct awareness, all those reactions are just stuff and we build an increasing capacity to experience them as movement rather than fact. In the process, we discover a kind of awareness that is always there, that is utterly clear and immediate, that we may have never seen or noticed before. Sometimes we happen on it by accident, sometimes it is pointed out to us, sometimes it arises after years of effort. It doesn’t matter how we come to it. Once we know it and see its implications, life is never the same

Now we enter a deep and difficult paradox. On the one hand, if we engage with content in anyway, we lose touch with that awareness — we drop out of it. On the other hand, conversations take place, food is eaten, the tasks of the day are done and our lives unfold — it’s as if life takes place in the awareness and “I”, as a separate entity, is not even in the picture. 

Obviously, this is difficult to talk about. At this point in practice, ideas, explanations, frameworks, techniques, guidelines, etc. have little meaning. If we try to rely or hold on to any of these, we fall back into ordinary conceptual knowing. This is why we find so many analogies, similes and metaphors in the traditional texts. 

Through our training, we have also developed certain abilities that have become second nature to us. We have trained to become acutely aware of wandering and not wandering. In creation phase practice we have trained in expanding the power and scope of attention by imagining that we send out light, deities, dakinis or messengers to every corner of the universe and then draw in the vitality and energy of the universe into the core of our being. In completion phase, we have similarly trained in building, guiding and spreading energy and in dissolving all conceptual experience through expansion or contraction. We have become adept at adjusting, adding a little effort here, resting a bit there, so that attention becomes consistent, clear and stable. Naturally, these patterns from our training are also going to arise. If we try to block them or stop them, we create further problems. 

As these impulses or habits of practice arise, we do nothing. We rest in the direct immediate awareness, letting them arise and play themselves out. Strangely, this both deepens the experience in these practices while releasing our investment in them. Again, this is not the same as observing them, which involves taken a stance that is somewhat separate from experience. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s more like being aware while being inside the practice. Sometimes it seems that practice takes place inside the awareness. A common metaphor for mind and awareness is the ocean. We are in the water, we are the water, but we are not just the waves at the surface. Nor are we just the still depths. We are all of it, and we are all of it without thinking that we are all of it. As soon as we think we are all of it, we are back into conceptual experience. 

These are difficult waters to navigate. I won’t pretend that there are easy or even straightforward answers or that everything always turns out for the best. In fact I go further. I no longer feel there is a single path, or even that different paths necessarily converge on a common goal. But I do feel that most of us, through a combination of our own efforts and the guidance of those who have come to their own understanding, can experience what it is to be utterly and completely free of the complications of effort.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Verse 3.10 — losing your way

Even in this experience of naked presence
In which there is no movement or change,
If you don’t avoid the mire of position-based correctives,
You lose your way in analysis and speculation.

When you watch a flag flapping in the wind, is it the flag that moves, or the wind that moves? One teacher quipped that it was the mind that moved. His quip soon became legend, but, like most legends, it is not exactly true and has led many astray. Mind is not a thing. 

The first two lines of this verse are frequently misunderstood to mean that there is a state in which there is no movement or change. There is. It’s called death, but that’s not what is being referred to here. 

It is possible to watch waves crashing on a beach and have the experience that nothing moves. The waves tumble over each other in a sea of foam, but you do not experience any movement — not outside, not inside, not anywhere. You can experience traffic the same way, but you still have to be careful crossing the street. Not infrequently, athletes and musicians have the same kind of experience. Likewise, it is possible for you to experience thoughts and emotions arising and disappearing like clouds in the sky, yet you experience no movement. The freedom and peace is amazing.

Just because you experience no movement doesn’t mean that there is no movement. Just because you experience timeless awareness doesn’t mean that there is a timeless awareness. When poetry is taken literally, things tend to go badly, very badly.

When we put our experience into words to communicate to others, others often hear only the words. They aren’t able to see the moon to which our finger is pointing. It’s as if we tapped out the rhythm of a melody and expected the person listening to be able to identify the melody. Our own enthusiasm just adds conviction to our description. “This is how things really are,” we say, our eyes ablaze, our face lit up by what we have experienced. The listeners, however, form their own idea from what we said and that becomes what they seek.

Many phrases in the Tibetan tradition are misunderstood this way — no change, no movement (འཕོ་འགྱུར་མེད་པ), no ground, no origin (གཞི་མེད་རྩ་བྲལ་), etc. These all refer to experiences and these experiences are so vivid and transformative — simultaneously transcendent and immanent — that they are taken to be true or real. They are taken to be how things really are, and that is where the misunderstanding starts. 

We can never know how things “really are”, but we find it difficult to live with the groundlessness of that not knowing. Thus, more or less from the dawn of history, we, as human beings, have sought to find explanations and understandings for our lives and the world in which we live. Even when we experience immediate and naked presence, questions arise. What makes this possible? How do I return here? What else is possible? It’s a short step to practices and rituals, another short step into the maze of belief and positions and an even shorter step into the quagmire of analysis and speculation.

The canons of Buddhist teaching are simply the dust left by extraordinary practitioners losing their way. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Verse 3.9 — deep into the mystery

Whenever conceptual thinking arises,
Don’t look at what arises: know what knows the arising.
Like an oak peg in hard ground,
Stand firm in awareness that knows, and go deep into the mystery.

Here is the genius of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. In just four lines, Jigmé Lingpa gives precise instruction on the deepest aspect of meditation practice, connects it with the Heart Drop (སྙིང་ཐིག་) tradition of dzogchen, differentiates it from other approaches, and provides a vivid simile for practice. What more do you want?

What do you do when a thought arises? This is the central question in virtually all contemplative practice. 

When we have no training or insight, we take our thoughts as real. Soon after we begin meditation practice, we see that, in the words of Henepola Gunaratana, our minds are shrieking, gibbering madhouses, completely out of control. As we progress in practice, we see more and more that the problem is not in what we experience but how we experience. We discover new possibilities, a clear open awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations simply come and go. 

Different practice traditions take different approaches to the arising of thoughts. Most esoteric traditions agree that thoughts themselves are not the enemy. On the other hand, when we are thinking, awareness is dulled and confused. Some traditions encourage the development of a dispassionate observer, but that simply replaces one problem with another as I wrote about in connection with verse 2.5. The direct awareness traditions of Tibet teach the possibility of an awareness that is not an observer and is not affected by the coming and going of thought, an awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations form and dissolve like mist or like clouds in the sky.

Yet, when thoughts arise, it is all too easy to fall out of such a clear open awareness into the dulled confused state of thinking. The usual approach found in the middle way, mahamudra, dzogchen, and chö traditions, is to look right at the thought as it arises. Kongtrül, for instance, writes in Creation and Completion:

Whatever thought arises, when you look right at it
Without doing anything with it, it releases and becomes your path.

Here, Jigmé Lingpa is suggesting another approach. When a thought arises, don’t look at the thought. Know what knows the arising. In Kongtrül’s words, again from Creation and Completion:

Whatever arises, look inwardly, right at what knows the thought.

What happens when you do this? Basically, nothing, and that’s the point. You end up looking at nothing and, simultaneously, being nothing. Any vestige of an observer evaporates, and along with it, any vestige of conceptual thinking. If your attention is stable (and that’s the challenge for most people in this sort of practice), then, as Jigmé Lingpa writes, you stand in awareness. And just in case you don’t know, he tells you how to stand in awareness — like an oak peg in hard ground.

Where this takes you no one can say. It’s been given many names, but that’s a problem. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” People talk endlessly about this nothing. They call it emptiness, the realm of totality or infinite space (dharmadhatu, ཆོས་དབྱིངས་), pure being or the essence of reality (dharmata, ཆོས་ཉིད་), buddha nature and so on, but all too easily, they forget that they are talking about an experience. The experience is so powerful, so meaningful, so wonderful and so transformative that it must be real, in some sense of that strange and mysterious word. The language of poetry — the language of metaphor, allusion and awe — gives way to the language of philosophy — definition, distinctions and reason. Then the fixations start. As I wrote in An Arrow to the Heart

First it was an opening, then a memory, then an idea. Unnoticed, it became a belief and then an ideology. Now it’s a casus belli, and you are ready to wreak havoc on all who disagree.

When you look at what knows, you enter a mystery. Go into it as far as you  want. It will probably change your life. But please don’t make anything out of it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Verse 3.8 — the treasure at the world's end

Stop all your reactive checking, 
Managing and goal-seeking.
This direct knowing, unappreciated and dismissed,
Stop distorting or altering it. Let it be.

In almost every tradition I’ve studied, there is a story about a person who travels far and wide, searching the world for wisdom or secret treasure. He fails to find it, no matter where he goes, no matter whom he seeks for advice. The last sage he visits tells him to tend to a tree growing in the garden behind his own house. With nowhere else to go, no one else to see, he returns home and finds that the tree is ill. Something is wrong with its roots. Digging in the soil, he uncovers an ancient scroll or a treasure of gold. His search is over. What he was seeking was in his own garden all along.

This story, and stories like it, I find simultaneously helpful and infuriating. They are helpful because they remind me that what we seek, whether we call it freedom, enlightenment, buddha nature, direct awareness, God or whatever isn’t “out there”. They are infuriating because, even when I feel I understand the story, the story doesn’t tell me what to do. I could never find the tree. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t even know where to look.

It’s all very well to say, “Stop checking or tracking your experience. Stop managing it. Stop your goal-seeking.” Personally I find it hard to give up those tendencies. They are deeply ingrained. Maybe some people can let these tendencies go through an act of will. I can’t. Any attempt to exert an act of will just puts me back in the box (verse 3.6 et al). 

By now, I know that checking my experience, or tracking, analyzing or trying to make sense of it (by appealing to any of the different logic schemes available to us — psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, astrology, etc.) is pointless. Those perspectives may be helpful for problems in other contexts, but for the direct awareness that Jigmé Lingpa is talking about, they are worse than useless. Like the person in the story, I’ve journeyed to the ends of the world trying to find the fabled wisdom and I’ve come up empty. Nevertheless, I still check my experience, track it, analyze it or try to make sense of it. The difference is that now, as soon as I notice that I’m doing any of these, I stop, take a breath, and start again. 

There are two points here. One is that I had to reach the point where I knew that these approaches were fruitless and pointless. The second is that, even with that knowledge, I still have to cut the pattern of checking, again and again. I am practicing a different way of relating to what arises in experience. While on the one hand this new way is utterly natural in that it just lets experience be what it is, in the beginning it is not at all natural. No judgment, no appraisal, no story — it’s a very different way of relating to what arises.

The same holds for managing my experience, the constant and pernicious tendency to want things to be just a little different from what they are. In meditation, I find myself tweaking this here, adjusting that there, and before I know it, I’m completely involved in making my experience conform to my expectations. Again, the same principle holds. As soon as I recognize what I’m doing, I stop, take a breath, and start again.

In some ways, I find goal-seeking the hardest. One would think with all the disappointments and defeats, I wouldn’t pay attention to small victories in the quality of attention, but again and again, the thought pops up, “Ah, I think I’m getting somewhere.” Now, when that thought pops up, a rueful smile of recognition arises too. I stop, take a breath and start again.

There’s an old joke about fish. One fish asks another fish, “How's the water?" The other fish replies, “What the hell is water?" Like the fish, we swim in water but the water we swim in is a subtle absolutely clear awareness. We don’t notice it, we don’t recognize it and we don’t appreciate it.

Everyone knows the example of the glass of turbid water. The water becomes clear when it is left undisturbed and allowed to become still. What we may overlook in this example is that we are not watching the water. We are the water. 

Mind is not a thing we watch. Everything we experience is mind. If we are watching the mind, watching what we experience, we are already one step removed. If we are trying to change our experience, analyze it or track it, we are more than one step removed. Every movement, whether it is checking our experience, managing it or anticipating it (goal-seeking) stirs up the water, along with all the sediment. The treasure is there, but we won’t know it as long as we keep stirring things up.

The natural clarity of the water is unnoticed, unrecognized and unappreciated because it is transparent. We see right through it. We don’t see it. No one has ever seen it. It is often likened to a mirror. The natural clarity of the mirror is transparent. We don’t see it. We never see a mirror. We see only the reflections in the mirror. We take the natural clarity for granted. In the same way, we easily miss this subtle clear awareness. We don’t see it. We see right through it. It’s too ordinary! 

Many of us, it seems, have to take that long journey, work through many, many challenges and endure just as many hardships before we really and truly give up, return home and see for the first time what has been there all along.