Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Verse 3.3 — when reactive energy enters the life channel

Some people cut off the ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings
And construct an emptiness practice infected with goal-seeking.
Their forced and constricted practice wears them out.
Serious problems develop when reactive energy enters the life channel.

In the three-year retreat, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that one of the essential abilities for mahamudra practice is the ability to rest. That became a big problem, because I simply couldn’t rest. I couldn’t rest physically and I couldn’t rest mentally or emotionally.

I became quite ill. By the end of the second retreat, there was no possibility of my continuing into a third retreat. My body had quit, utterly and completely, and I was pretty shaky emotionally. The illness took physical form, but it wasn’t physically based — a fact that I was more than a little resistant to accepting. I had had dreams during the retreat that indicated it was a karmic illness, a category of illness in the Tibetan tradition that cannot be cured by conventional treatments. Other dreams indicated a karmic block — again, a category of block that is not amenable to treatment, even ritual treatment. Nevertheless, after the retreat I continued to look for treatments of one form or another, all to no avail.

In retrospect, one way to describe my illness is that it was due to the stagnation of energy, energy that developed through practice but was not able to circulate smoothly. In energy transformation practice, it is important both to refine energy so it is not carrying a reactive charge and to open the channels through which energy flows so it can circulate smoothly. Energy transformation practices, if practiced effectively, bring unresolved emotional material to the surface. Often we do not know what emotional material is stored in us — we do not know what darkness lurks within. If not worked through (using methods such as Seeing From the Inside), the emotional reactivity creates imbalances that manifest as physical and emotional disturbances. I now know the emotional blocks that prevented me from understanding the messages that my body was giving me and inhibited me from taking appropriate steps. At the time, I just kept trying to make my experience conform to my expectations — a forced and constricted practice, to use Jigmé Lingpa’s words. 

The quality of resting is important for three reasons. It helps to create the conditions in which emotional reactivity can resolve itself — leading to a refinement of energy in the whole system. Resting also allows energy channels to open so that energy can circulate smoothly. And it makes it possible for us to listen to our whole system and sense imbalances before they become serious problems. 

In both mahamudra and dzogchen, we are essentially allowing energy imbalances in mind and body to resolve themselves at progressively deeper levels. To do so requires high levels of stability (resting) and clarity (insight), both of which depend on the level of energy in our attention. As those imbalances resolve, the energy locked in those blocks becomes available to us. We experience greater depth and breadth in awareness and we are also able to work at yet deeper levels. But if we carry fixed notions about how things are meant to be, we can, as I did, run into serious problems. It was only when I was ground into the dust that I began to see that my problems were in those fixed notions. Even then, it took over twenty years of slow and patient work to recover, with many setbacks along the way. I learned a lot about energy, about how it is generated in practice and about how important it is for it to circulate naturally in the mind-body system, particularly when engaging deep and powerful awareness practices such as mahamudra or dzogchen.

Two of my teachers, Kalu Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, took considerable pains to impress on me that, in Nyoshull Khenpo’s words, “Mahamudra and dzogchen are two names for the same person.” They each had their own way of pointing this out to me, and they did a good job. Their message has stayed with me. Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference in emphasis. In mahamudra, the emphasis is on no distraction. In dzogchen, the emphasis is on relaxing and opening. Both are essential, but part of the difference in flavor between the two is this difference in emphasis. Thus, in dzogchen resting is, if anything, more important and an inability to rest is even more of a problem.

Is resting the key to everything? Probably not. After decades of teaching and working with students from different backgrounds and with different capabilities, I’ve come to the conclusion that each person’s path is unique. While there are important principles that apply in most situations, each person needs to find the appropriate way to work with those principles. Some people need to learn how to develop and focus attention. Others need to learn how to relax and open. Some need to learn how to stand in the face of their patterns and cut. Others need to learn how to let things unfold on their own. A good teacher doesn’t teach in just one way, but guides the student according to his or her needs and abilities.

For additional thoughts and information on these topics, please look at:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Verse 3.2 — how to get rid of an elephant


Pure being has no foundation. It has no essence.
When you make it a concept, a knowing without beginning or end,
It’s as if you turned the formless into form and
You lose track of natural resting. How reactive you become! 

There is something wonderfully tenacious about the human proclivity to name an experience and then make a thing out of the name. An academic word for this tendency is “reification” but it has been known since ancient times. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching point to it in this way:

A way that becomes the way is not the way.
A name that becomes the name is not the name.

Pure being is such a name. As soon as it solidifies into a concept, it ceases to function as the pointer it was intended to be. Pure being cannot be labeled as this or that. In particular, it cannot be labeled as something that has no beginning or end. Again, as I’ve said before, one fares better taking these line “Pure being has no foundation. It has no essence” as poetic expression, not philosophical statement. At the very least, you will get into fewer arguments.

When we are present, deeply present, in our own experience, we don’t experience any thing: no ground, no core, no color, no shape, no movement, no absence of movement — nothing. But we don’t experience just nothing, either. There is a knowing, but we can’t put any words to it. It’s just there, like the light in a room. The “nothing” is like the space in the room. The knowing is like the light. We can’t say where the light comes from or what it is made of any more than we can say where the space come from or what it is made of. Neither the space nor the light have a beginning or an end. They are just there and because they are we see everything that there is to see. Our vision in unrestricted. In the same way, that empty knowing is unrestricted. 

We find we can function just as before, but not exactly just as before. Now we know that the content of experience is not solid, ultimate or determined. Thoughts, feelings or sensations, they all just come and go, seeming to come from nowhere and go nowhere. It is really quite miraculous.

This experience is so vivid and so illuminating that it shatters our ordinary way of understanding and our world. It frees us from the prison of our own projections and, most important of all, it frees us from the need to react. Other possibilities, extraordinary possibilities, open up. Naturally, we want to tell others that such a shift is possible, so we give words to our experience. We might say, “There is a knowing that has no beginning or end.” 

As soon as others hear those words, they form an idea. Once they have that idea, they carry it with them and constantly check their experience against the words. Agh! What a curse! Once we hear about that possibility, we can never rest. Never! And we are so stubborn, too. Once the idea has taken hold, we won’t let go. There is a knowing that has no beginning or end, and I’m going to know it! That’s how I took it, and that is how I’ve seen others take it, one after another. 

The more we try to know it, the more we tie ourselves up in knots and the more reactive we become.

The idea gives us a goal, but it’s rather like the carrot and the donkey. It gets us moving. While that’s probably a good thing, somehow the carrot always stays just out of reach. We keep trying. We build up strength and stamina and abilities, we learn methods and skills, but the carrot is still dangling in front of us and we are no nearer than when we started. 

It’s hard to let go of words and concepts. It’s hard to let go of ideas. If you try to let go of an idea consciously, it imprisons you. 

Don’t think of an elephant. Now, how do you get rid of the elephant?

The only thing to do is to stop. To do that, we have to let go of everything, especially the tendency to relate to experience through concepts. It comes down to this:

As soon as you find yourself conceptualizing your experience, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

As soon as you notice that you are explaining or describing what you are experiencing, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

When you find yourself hoping or fearing or dreading anything, past, present or future, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

If you think you see, understand, feel or know something, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

Whenever you notice that you are bored, elated, depressed or flooded with well-being, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there.

And if you ask, “Where does this go?”, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Verse 3.1 — a cage of inventions

Wonder of wonders!

Thus, awakening mind — nothing to remove or attain,
Buddha nature — awareness and peace,
Is present in you. Still, it is stuck in a cage of inventions.
Any notion of practice clouds the heart of the matter.

In this verse, the instruction is in the last line: any notion of practice clouds or distorts the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter is buddha nature, of course — the potential for awareness, peace, freedom, presence, whatever you want to call it. Buddha nature has been a contentious idea for a long time. Witness Joshu when he was asked whether a dog has buddha nature. His "Mu!" has echoed down the corridors of time for centuries.

It’s easy to develop an abstract idea of buddha nature as something that is present in all beings. That interpretation has repeatedly provoked a refutation of buddha nature, namely, that it implies a self, a soul, some kind of concrete entity that negates the notion of non-self. “You Mahayana essentialist!” is an epithet that has been hurled at me on more than one occasion. Such problems arise only because a poetic expression is taken literally and everyone engaged has lost touch with the experience that the original expression is pointing to. Buddha nature, though it has evolved into a philosophical or theological concept, refers, first and foremost to an experience.

Instead of positing a potential for awakening (a position that all too easily leads to the rigidity of belief), I find it more fruitful to start with what I’m feeling, what I’m sensing and what I’m thinking. And just sit.

I sit because there is a longing in my heart. Whether I call that a longing for freedom, for peace or for knowing, it doesn’t matter. It’s there. it’s a felt sense. I can try to put it into words, but the words always fall short.

Further, the longing is often paradoxical. It takes me to places that I would not necessarily choose to go. One person wrote to me describing how it was now possible for her to feel a pain that she hadn’t known was there. She didn’t understand the pain but it seemed to want to be felt. When she just let herself feel it, she felt both more complete and more at peace, despite the intensity of the pain. Others have told me that they discover a peace, a freedom, that is different from anything they imagined and anything that they felt worthy of.

This is what I mean by paradoxical. Where that longing takes us may be radically different from where we think we should be going, where we want to be going or how we are used to being.

If we have any notion of practice, we inevitably have an agenda: this is what I’m going to do and this is what is meant to happen. That agenda prevents us from from listening deeply and letting that longing resolve itself it its own way, in its own time. Its resolution may be no resolution, but that is still its resolution.

This takes us back to the box, of course, though here Jigmé Lingpa calls it “a cage of inventions”.

When I sit, quite often I’ll notice that I’ve been following a train of thought, thinking about something. When I recognize that, I come back. If the distraction is insistent, it’s usually because I’m not feeling something in my body. I reconnect with my body and, lo and behold, there it is — something that I didn’t want to feel. Sometimes I experience a deepening peace and clarity. Hope often springs up, hope for some kind of insight or transcendent experience. I now know those hopes are just thoughts, and they don’t have the power they once had. The same holds for fear, the fear that all my efforts are pointless. Sometimes I experience nothing special at all. Sometimes my body is uncomfortable and it’s difficult to sit for the whole period. Even so, I don’t think in terms of good days or bad days, just, “that’s what happened today”.

How is it possible to practice this way? “Absolute confidence in our fundamental nature,” says Suzuki Roshi. I don’t for a minute think he means that we have a fundamental nature. That, again, is an example of how a poetic expression is taken literally.

When I read Suzuki Roshi’s words, or say them to myself, my body straightens, I feel a strength and determination that seems to come from inside but it’s not certain that it does. My mind clears and I have a direction — though it may be hard to put it into words. I practice from there. Where does this capacity come from? That is buddha nature.

Where does it lead? Mu! I have no idea. The heart has its longings. This way is a response. The rest is not my business.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Verse 2.8 and 2.9 — nothing to do, nowhere to go

Practice or not practice - place attention past that. 
Do or not do - these decisions fade away. 
Empty or not empty -  awakening mind is beyond. 
Am or am not - there’s a space where these differences fall away.

Awareness - not a word, not a thought, no description at all.
Its axis - no corrective, no holding a position. 
Bare, steady, fresh and constantly unfolding,  
A vastness free from effort and complication. 
Rest there, with no movement in past, present or future.

In these two verses, Jigmé Lingpa eloquently describes just how radical Great Completion practice is. They remind me of a Nasrudin story. 

On this occasion, Nasrudin is a magistrate. A man, dressed only in underwear, enters his courtroom. He says he is a tourist and that his clothes have been stolen by someone in the village. He demands that Nasrudin search the village, arrest the miscreant and restore his clothing.

Nasrudin looks at him carefully and then asks, “You are still wearing your underwear, aren’t you?
“Yes,” says the tourist.
“Well,” says Nasrudin, “it wasn’t someone from our village. We do things thoroughly around here.”

The first verse here is all about letting go, letting go completely. If we are going to do this, we do it thoroughly. We don’t leave the underwear, either. 

Forget about practice. And forget about not practicing, too. (Note what happens when you read these last two sentences.) 

Decisions and judgements reverberate, of course, but they fade away if we don’t feed them.

What is emptiness? What is empty? What is not empty? We don’t need to engage these questions. They don’t go anywhere. An instruction from Mind Training in Seven Points covers this -- let even the remedy release naturally. Just look, and poof! We return. 

Other ideas come, too. Do I exist? Do I not exist? We don’t need to engage any debate here either, nor analysis, nor speculation. All that can be left to the philosophers, the psychologists and the neuroscientists. We just rest in the space in which these questions arise, and they fall away (again, if we don’t feed them).

When you let go so completely, what's left?

What’s left is a particular kind of awareness, a knowing that cannot be understood or described, a knowing that needs no correcting or balancing. If we don’t do anything with it or to it (and that’s the hard part), it is there, almost spartan in its simplicity, constant in its presence, vivid and awake, revealing and refreshing itself moment to moment. It seems both extraordinary and absurd that anything could be so simple, so effortless, so wonderful and so immediately at hand, right under our noses, so to speak. One just has to shake one’s head at how obvious all this is when we happen upon it.

Here is a peace, a freedom, that goes beyond anything in our ordinary lives. It is extraordinary, yes. People have built whole philosophies out of it. Others worship it. Others ritualize the practices associated with it. And all to no end.

The point is to know it. Nothing more, nothing less. And to do that, we let go, completely.


Here Jigmé Lingpa concludes the second section of this poem, which he calls a description of the natural freedom of Great Completion.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Verse 2.7 — outlook, practice, behavior and result

Therefore, don’t let hope and fear tie you up in knots.
Let go and forget about outlook’s razor-like edge.
Leave and forget about deep practice’s cozy cocoon.
Destroy and forget about behavior’s pretentious enmeshments.
Cast aside and forget about result’s grand expectations.

Up to this point, Jigmé Lingpa has been describing the ground, the basis for practice. Now he talks about the practice itself, which consists of the refinement of the fine art of doing nothing — absolutely nothing.

When I began meditation practice many many years ago, resting with the breath felt like I was doing nothing. And I couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t restful. I was far too agitated in my body to have any sense of resting. I didn’t see how it accomplished anything. It wasn’t productive. I quickly gave up and kept asking my teacher for something I could do. Eventually, he said, “Okay, do a hundred thousand prostrations.” And I did. That was something I could do, but I had to do that several times before I could even begin to think about resting.

In the three-year retreat, when we started direct awareness practice — mahamudra, it quickly became clear that I was going to go nowhere if I couldn’t rest deeply. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t rest at all, and I soon became completely tied up in the knots of hope and fear. It was more than frustrating. Any movement I made pulled the knots tighter. Whenever I thought I had untied a knot, I found that I had created several more. I didn’t know which way to turn, which was just as well as the knots were so tight that I couldn’t turn anyway.

In short, learning how to do nothing did not come easily.

Outlook has always made sense to me. It is a direct pointing to the utter groundlessness of experience. When you connect with this way of looking at the world, you can cut through all kinds of projections and confusion. Of course, a lot of people just do it conceptually, labeling everything as empty, which doesn’t cut anything at all. I always found that there was some relief, some release, when I remembered and returned to the direct knowing that what I was experiencing, no matter how painful or confusing, no matter how intense or banal, was just that, an experience that comes and goes. It was a like a razor that cut through the solidity of my own projections and that was a relief. 

As for practice’s cozy cocoon, I’ve certainly worked with students who related to practice this way, particularly people who have trained in the janas (the four levels of attention practiced in the Theravadan tradition). I have less ability here, but there is still a certain appeal in resting deeply. Mind and body are refreshed in a way that a nap or even a good night’s sleep doesn’t do. The experience itself is usually quite pleasant, if not blissful. And you have the satisfaction of feeling that you are meditating deeply. 

As for behavior, there are so many guidelines and, like it or not, they rub off on you. You may absorb them or you may reject them, but they still affect you, even if only by defining the context in which you practice. In my case, I tend to conform to expectations, whether my own (coming from the practices I aspired to) or from others (what is deemed “socially acceptable” behavior). What I noticed, over time, was that the constant conforming lead to subtle forms of suppression. My idealism and efforts to be responsive, not reactive, to others ending up freezing me from the inside out: I became an emotional iceberg. 

As for result, at this point, I really don’t know what the result of practice is or what it is meant to be. The lofty descriptions in the sutras and tantras are beautiful poetry, but I can’t relate to them in my own experience, even when I regard them as metaphor. At the same time, it’s a little hard to accept T.S. Eliot’s:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

But maybe that’s because I’m not there yet. I don’t know.

When I read these lines in Jigmé Lingpa’s poem, I’m struck by how they describe a subtle way to move in the direction of balance. I’m always going to be cutting through my own projections. That way of approaching experience has just become part of me. But I can cut too much, and that’s when I need to let go and forget about cutting. 

I enjoy the experience of resting deeply in practice. Why not? But I can grow too comfortable, and that’s when I need to interrupt my “deep meditation”, forget about it and just sit there. 

I know I’m unlikely to be free of that conforming habit of mine. When I notice the pattern running, I need to forget about any notion of “right conduct” or “right action” and just rest in the experience of what’s running the show. 


And I still live with expectations, even though I’m not sure what they are about. When they catch me, it’s time to cast aside any sense of achievement, now or in the future, and just relate to what’s happening now. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Verse 2.6 — a light goes on

My nature is universal presence: 
How could seeing come through paths and levels?

You are in a dark room. You can just see the outlines of a few objects, but there isn’t enough light for you to see things clearly. You stumble around, bumping into stuff, knocking things over. After a while, you figure out that all you can do is to sit or stand quietly, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and move slowly and carefully, relying on the subtle play of shadow that you can just detect at the limit of your vision. Then a light goes on. At first, you can’t see anything. All you experience is light — bright, bright light. It has no inside, no outside. It’s just light. You are surprised, shocked, perhaps exhilarated, perhaps afraid. Then your eyes begin to adjust. Now everything in the room is brilliantly clear — no more vague shadows and barely discernible differentiations of murky grays and blacks. You see color, shape and form. It’s a completely different world, yet it’s the same room you have been in all along. You are also aware of the space in the room, which was always there, but you did not know it because you couldn’t see clearly. Your vision is clear and vivid now, even though you have the same eyes. And there is no restriction on what you can see. Everything is bright and full of life, and you can navigate the room much more easily. You feel you can do anything!

The last three couplets are descriptions — not instructions — descriptions of a profound shift that takes place when you stumble upon this way of experiencing life. You feel free, awake and at peace — free from groping around in the dark and bumping into things you couldn’t see or didn’t know were there, awake because you now understand that you lived in the dark, and at peace because you know where you are, perhaps for the first time. 

When this shift takes place, good and evil don’t mean the same as they did before, but that doesn’t mean you are free from karma — you can’t walk through things and you still bump into them if you don’t look where you are going. Your new ability isn’t something you developed — your eyes are the same as they were before the light went on. Your new sight enables you to see things more clearly now, but not because your vision improved. 

All that has happened is that, somehow, a light went on. You didn’t turn it on, but it happened.

It’s tempting, very tempting, to generalize our experience and say, “This is how it is.” We immediately want to describe how it is to others, in the hope that our description will help them experience a similar shift. That’s how compassion operates. When people don’t “get it”, we tend to describe our experience, the result of the shift, as if that would help them. All too often, we end up saying the same thing over and over again, sometimes more loudly, sometimes more insistently and sometimes more slowly, just as William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience over a century ago. But it doesn’t help.

Explanations are often counterproductive, I feel. They fail to communicate because they rely on the conceptual mind, an ineffective method when it comes to communicating non-conceptual experience. Further, they lead to in-groups, those who “get it”, the “awakened”, etc. — a problem that goes back right to the formation of the first council after Shakyamuni died. 

I feel the same way about descriptions of results. People often take our descriptions of the result as instruction and can’t understand why their efforts in practice go nowhere. Again, this problem goes far back in history. It is clear to me now that much of what I’ve read in various sutras is a description of results, and one has to dig deep and pay close attention to find the few nuggets of actual instruction.

Further, the people who are inspired by such descriptions often cling to their conceptual understanding even when the light has turned on. What was originally open and free now becomes an achievement and a credential. Thus it is said, when you meet the buddha on the road, kill him.

When I read verses such as these three couplets, I don’t try to understand them. Instead, I let them work inside me.  I read them with a quiet open mind and when something shifts inside, I put the book down and rest right there, if only for a moment or two. When I sit down to practice, I may recall that shift and rest right there. I don’t think about the lines. That is just distraction. I rest in the experience or the memory of the shift. In this way, I let these lines lead me into unknown territory and new possibilities.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Verse 2.5 — deity practice revisited

What are deities, mantras, and absorptions meant to do?
I am not a wakefulness that comes from practice.

In these two lines, Jigmé Lingpa seeks to wean the reader away from the idea that the wakefulness (buddha) he is describing is something that we control, not to mention the superstition and magical thinking that surrounds deity practice. 

I’m reminded of the Zen story of the monk who was sitting in the courtyard. When his teacher saw the monk, he asked, “What are you doing?” 

“I am meditating to attain enlightenment,” the monk replied.

The teacher sat down beside him, picked up a stone and started to rub it with his robe.

After several hours, the monk turned to his teacher and asked him, “What are you doing?”

“I’m polishing this stone to make a tile,” was the reply.

“You can’t make a tile by polishing a stone,” said the monk.

“Nor can you attain enlightenment by meditating,” said the teacher.

Jigmé Lingpa does not see wakefulness (buddha) as something that can be made, that can be conjured into experience or generated by energy transformation practice.  The wakefulness that Ever-present Good represents does not come about through methods aimed at control or transcendence. It is just there.

Does this mean that such the deity practices of vajrayana are pointless? Not at all, at least, not in my own experience.

I found deity practice more than a little difficult. The approaches and methods described in the texts didn’t work very well for me, so what follows isn’t in any way authoritative. It’s just how I work with these practices. 

When I imagine myself as a deity, be it Chenrezi, Tara, or any of the many other deities that I’ve practiced, my efforts to visualize the form clearly usually leave me with a headache. I find it works better to feel as deeply as possible that I am the embodiment of the awakened principle the deity embodies, e.g., compassion in the case of Chenrezi or the power to destroy emotional disturbances in the case of Hayagriva. As I rest in that feeling, a sense of the form of the deity arises, and also what the form expresses through its symbolism. I don’t think much about the form or the symbolism, for thinking just leads to distraction. I keep a sense of the deity present in my mind. In other words, the feeling of being the deity is a place for me to come back to, and I let that feeling grow and evolve on its own. The symbolism, which I have usually learnt from study, begins to speak in its own language, directly, bypassing the intellect.

Mantra works a little differently. As it says in the texts, you recite mantra when you have run out of juice for deity practice. It’s a way of resting and refreshing your energy. While I repeat the mantra, thoughts come up and distract my attention. When I recognize what has happened, I go back to the mantra. Gradually, the mantra replaces the subconscious gossip (to use Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase) that is the basis of distraction. When the mantra has completely replaced the subconscious gossip and repeats itself, my mind is quiet and the mantra just echoes on its own.

For samadhi or absorption, I bring attention to the personality of the deity, feeling what it’s like to be the deity not just in form but how that would be in the world, in interacting with others. The method of practice (sadhana) for the deity provides a way of acting that out. Again, I don’t think about it. I just feel it as I go through the various dramatic elements of the practice. Parts of me resonate with being the embodiment of compassion — the infinite strength, ability and resilience to help others. Those parts wake up and come to life. Other parts are relieved and relax. And other parts, those that have a problem with that way of being, go into rebellion. Practice consists of coming back again and again to the sense of just being the deity and seeing and appreciating that all those different parts are also expressions of the deity. In doing so, I meet my own emotional material over and over again, not as something to oppose or possess but as something to experience as completely as possible. Approached this way, it can be experienced it in all its intensity or banality without my being carried away by it. 

When you experience emotional reactions without being carried away by them, the energy of those reactions is transformed and becomes available as a higher level of attention. This transformation is not something you notice happening. It’s not something you do. It just happens.

As all that confusion, the nagging, sulking, furious, outraged, relieved, frightened, critical, joyful, proud, angry, open, confident, greedy voices seize and squabble over the microphone, along with their associated bodily sensations and all the confused thinking and projections that arise, I keep coming back to being the deity, in form, mantra and presence, and gradually find a way to be in the whole mess. 

Bit by bit, it becomes clear that everything that I experience —everything, the deity, the symbolism, the emotional confusion, etc. — is mind. At the same time, it is clear that there is nothing that is mind, nothing whatsoever. 

Jamgön Kongtrul, the great 19th century master, put it this way:

When the deity’s form is clear, the clear appearance is your own mind.
Acceptance that it is not clear is your own mind.
While you want it to be clear, what works at meditation is your own mind.
Your mind is also timeless awareness, guru and deity.

Everything is the arising of mind, yet mind itself is not something made.
The beauty of this crucial point of the two phases is how conclusive it is:
No matter how many different creation phase practices you do,
If you make awareness clear and just keep it from wandering,
Clarity arises as clarity-emptiness and disturbance arises as disturbance-emptiness. 

(You can find these verses in Creation and Completion, pg. 49. The above is my own translation. See this note to for a brief explanation of the two phases.)

In other words, you discover how to be awake right in your own experience. This wakefulness is completely different from the idea of wakefulness as the ability to observe thoughts and feelings come and go without being caught by them. That wakefulness is like a person sitting on the banks of a river, watching the water tumble over rocks, swell in waves and swirl in eddies. The wakefulness Jigmé Lingpa is pointing to is more like a person in a kayak, right in the river, tumbling over the rapids, pausing for a split second here or there to balance and set direction, then back into the flow, the swirling eddies and swelling waves, moving in and with the water but not swept away or capsized.

Vajrayana practice is about being awake in the thick of life, which is why it is so challenging and so intriguing.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

An overview of vajrayana


Here is a somewhat non-traditional overview of vajrayana based on what I’ve come to understand through my own study and practice.

The origins of vajrayana are far from clear. My own view is that it originated in esoteric cults in early medieval India, as I describe here. Practitioners in these cults were not concerned with conventional lives. They followed the Indian renunciate tradition, lived apart from society and sought powers and transcendent experiences through the practice of sorcery and energy transformation. 

Many of these practitioners felt that the deity, itself, was the source of power. They invoked their deities through ritual and supplication, praying to the deity to exercise its power on their behalf. Spells (mantras) composed of sacred syllables were also held to embody power and were used to invoke the deity, to protect the practitioner and those close to him or her, to heal, to exercise magical powers and to destroy enemies. They also felt that power came through high levels of attention (samadhi). One reads about sorcerers entering a water samadhi, say, and bringing about rain, floods, hail or drought. The practice of sorcery was fueled by devotion and intense loyalty to both the teacher and the deity. These were, after all, secret cults.

Over time practitioners applied these methods to spiritual attainments, seeking to develop spiritual insights and qualities through the same sorcery techniques. Their whole approach was based on the premise that we can control what happens in our lives and we can control what arises in our experience. That changed when direct awareness methods (which probably came from central Asia) entered the mix.

Vajrayana has three components that have no a priori connection but were brilliantly crafted together by the practitioners of early medieval esoteric Buddhism in India. Outside the mainstream of monastic and conventional Buddhism, in typical Indian fashion, these practitioners assembled bits and pieces from a vast range of practices, forging them into systems of practice that matured over hundreds of years into such collections as The Eight Deities, The Five Tantric Deities, The Six Yogas of Naropa, etc., and culminated in such elaborate systems as the Kalacakra tantra.

First, there are all the deity practices, which are largely derived from sorcery cults. In sorcery, focused attention and creative imagination are used to charge objects or people with energy. This energy in turn is used to generate transcendent or shamanic experiences, develop special power and abilities or to heal or manipulate others. When you perform the sometimes very elaborate rituals associated with deities and protectors, the sorcery elements are very clear. You invite the deity, invoke his or her power, and generate powers (siddhis) in yourself — using spells (mantras), visualization, empowerments, fire ceremonies and other rituals to focus the energies and realize their potential. The essence of sorcery is the ability to transform energy to the point that you experience the world differently and are able to induce similar experiences in others. 

This component forms the basis for creation phase practice in vajrayana, a set of practices in which you aim to experience yourself and the world as the expression of an aspect of timeless awareness. In effect, you are substituting a transcendent identity for an ordinary identity. This replacement loosens up the hold of your conventional identity and conditioning and opens up other possibilities.

The second component consists of a set of high level energy transformation practices. Some are based on or derived from kundalini-type practices. In all these practices, you transform basic energies — the energy in sensory experience, the energy in breathing, sexual energy, emotional energy, etc. — into higher levels of energy and attention. In the sorcery cults, these abilities were first used to enhance the basic sorcery abilities.

Many of the practices view the body as a basis for energy transformation, using natural energies (prana), energy centers (cakra) and the channels through which energy flows. The transformed energy and attention can be used to generate powerful experiences, similitudes of timeless awareness, intense bliss, and profound clarity, including lucid dreaming and other experiences. At first, different practices were associated with different deities, but over the centuries, they were combined into groups of more or less related practices.The possibly unintended consequence was that the solidity of the transcendent identity developed in creation phase is necessarily called into question, and with it, the solidity of ordinary identity. I imagine that the early practitioners were surprised, intrigued and possibly frightened by the possibilities that then opened up. 

This component is called completion phase because you complete the experiences generated by creation phase by letting them go.

Both creation and completion phase practices, because they involve explicit energy transformation, are inherently dangerous, like any powerful tool such as a scalpel, chain saw, or car, etc. If the energies developed are not in balance, you become ill and ordinary medical treatment will not help. In particular, if you are unwilling, unable or don’t know how to experience what arises as conventional conditioning opens up and starts to fall apart, the energies you develop flow into old patterns of conditioning and you fall into obsessions with food, sex, power or money. If you are unwilling, unable or don’t know how to let go of identity, then you become a megalomaniac, convinced that you have transcended ordinary human experience and are no longer bound by social conventions or biology. The warnings for energy practice traditionally include death, paralysis or insanity. Sadly, I have seen all three. 

The dissolution of identity opens up completely new possibilities that differ from the aims of conventional sorcery and transcendent experiences. Those new possibilities led naturally to the incorporation of creation and completion phase practices with the third component, direct awareness methods. Placed in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, the experience and understanding of compassion is similarly enhanced. Awareness came to be viewed as a unity of three aspects: empty in essence, clear in nature and compassionate in its unrestricted expression.

Mahamudra and dzogchen are the best known of these practices, but there are a number of others in the Tibetan tradition. These practices consist of letting your mind (your way of experiencing life) resolve itself. You establish a base of relaxed open undistracted attention, and then you let things take care of themselves. This requires great resolve, great trust, great determination and great patience. Through all this, one develops a quiet resting mind that is able to see (shamatha and vipashyana, to use the Sanskrit terms). One of the differences in vajrayana practice is that shamatha and vipashyana are results, not methods, as they are in mahayana practice.

The higher levels of attention and energy developed in creation and completion phase practices increase your capacity to experience the often conflicting and intense experiences locked up in biological, psychological and social conditioning. They can also be used to deepen and extend the experience of not being a thing, of freedom, of peace or of timeless awareness in a number of ways. However, they are not absolutely necessary. You can practice direct awareness methods without creation and completion phase practices. The path may be longer and less dramatic, but it is a lot safer.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Verse 2.4 — freedom from karma

Because I am free from the thinking that distorts experience,
The evolution of good and evil ends completely.

Karma describes how good and evil actions (thoughts, words and deeds) evolve into experienced results. Part of the Indian cultural influence on Buddhism was that you stopped creating karma when you were free from the cycle (samsara) of endless birth and rebirth. From this point of view, it was reasonable to consider that enlightened beings are free of karma or, at least have a different relationship with it. This notion has been an important theological question and source of confusion and debate for Buddhists for thousands of years.  Hyakujo and a Fox or The Fox Koan  confronts this confusion head on. The fact that it is the second koan in The Gateless Gate indicates that this was an important topic.

In modern times, this notion, like most bad ideas, has generated more than a little suffering -- from harm and abuse that has arisen in teacher-student relationships, for example. On the one hand, some teachers claim that their actions should not be judged by ordinary standards because they are beyond karma. On the other hand, some students hold their teachers in such high esteem that a student sees the teacher's behavior as beyond karma and acts accordingly. The combination has created situations in which teacher or student or both are unable to acknowledge or accept that biological, psychological or social conditioning simply took over.

To claim that one is free of karma is equivalent to the claim that one is free of gravity. In outer space, perhaps, but on this planet, if you step off a building, you hit the ground hard. As long as you are alive in this world, your thoughts, words and deeds shape how you experience yourself, the world and life, no matter who you are or what you may have experienced.

Karma is not some magical force. It is the way earlier cultures described the process of growth and evolution of patterns of behavior. It is not cause and effect, at least not in the ordinary Western sense of these terms. My own teacher always used the metaphor of a tree. A seed doesn't cause a tree. A seed grows and matures into a tree, which then bears fruit. In Wake Up to Your Life, I describe how this metaphor applies to reactive patterns, using contemporary lines of thinking from the theory of evolution and complex adaptive systems. See  WUTYL pg. 173ff and 176ff and these podcast-transcripts.

What then, are we to make of Jigmé Lingpa's statement "The evolution of good and evil ends completely"?

Here are two thoughts on this.

First, if you look at The Fox Koan, one of the turning points is when the Hyakujō says, "Be one with karma." Other translations simply give "Do not ignore karma".

While I don't know Japanese or Chinese, I find the first rendering more useful. To me, it means to live precisely in balance with the forces and processes that shape the world we live in, becoming aware of imbalance as it arises and moving in the direction of balance. To be one with karma is to know and respond to the different pulls and pushes we experience in our lives, moment to moment. It is an intimate dance and we evolve, but we cease to evolve as a separate entity. We certainly do not ignore the evolution of action and result that is the essence of karma.

The second thought is similar, but in different words. We consistently want things to be different from what they are and we attempt to control, manipulate or ignore what is problematic for us. This oppositional stance constantly reinforces the sense of being a separate entity. From there, it’s a short step to the development of the concepts of good and evil. When we are free of the thinking that distorts experience, attraction, aversion and indifference lose their influence. We simply experience what arises and let go of wanting it to be different. We do what is possible and accept what is not. Good and evil as concepts don’t arise, and we are able to experience life as it unfolds in all it’s wondrous complexity.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Verse 2.3 — you can't wake up a person who is pretending to sleep

To say “it is not” does not make it empty.
To say “it is” does not make it solid.
It is a realm beyond mind — natural, nothing held, nothing dispelled.
It is space free from the complications of thought and object.

You can’t wake up a person who is pretending to sleep. I can’t remember when I first came across this Navajo proverb, but it has served me well as a constant reminder that you can’t make something into what it already is.

Here Jigmé Lingpa goes into more detail about awakening mind, which he described in the last verse. Again, I want to emphasize that he is describing experience. To read these lines as philosophy will tie you up into knots. My perspective here is probably due to the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein as I have found that way of approaching life tremendously helpful in translation, in my work with students and in my own practice. Rather than view words as representations of reality, Wittgenstein proposes that the meaning of a word simply lies in its use, so it is important to pay attention to how words are used (or misused).

In this spirit, Jigmé Lingpa begins by making clear that the experience of awakening mind cannot be reduced to any philosophical category.

When you fall into a profound experience of groundlessness, you are naturally inclined to say, “There is nothing there.” But those words don’t carry any meaning if they are regarded as representing something, emptiness, say. You don’t make something empty just by saying there is nothing there. On the other hand, when you say, “There is nothing there,” using these words to give expression to your experience (note: when you say them to give expression to your experience, you will use a very different tone in your voice), they come alive and the experience comes alive in others. In the same way, when you are stunned by the extraordinary clarity and vividness of life, you might say, “It's just there!” but you aren’t making anything into a thing, either. (And if someone asked you, “What is there?”, you’d be hard put to answer.)

The experience of awakening mind, groundless and vivid, is beyond words, beyond description, beyond conceptualization.

Don't try to understand what Jigmé Lingpa is describing here. Any such effort is not only fruitless but counterproductive. Understanding is like quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink (into conceptual thinking).

A person I met recently in Europe suggested that to enter or engage the unknown, you have to be very precise in your method, and use that method to enter the unknown. The conversation was about the creative process in art, but it makes sense to me in this context, too. Here, we need a method, a practice, that brings us right into what we are experiencing, neither holding onto what arises not trying to dispel it. That’s tough! And that's why meditation instruction is often so very explicit. We need to be precise in our efforts.

In the end, it comes down to what Suzuki Roshi said about Zen practice: absolute confidence in our fundamental nature. Like Jigmé Lingpa, Suzuki Roshi is not making philosophical statements about the existence of a fundamental nature. Rather, he is expressing in poetical language how to practice.

Meet what arises, open to it completely, look into it until you see and receive what is there. Do this without any thought of anything else. And then do it again, and again, and again, until you know, yourself, what Jigmé Lingpa is pointing to.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Verse 2.2 — awakening mind

Awakening mind is the nature of all experience.
Awakening mind is the heart of all awakened ones.
Awakening mind is the life-force of all beings.
Awakening mind has no apparent or ultimate.

What is awakening mind? It is an experience of such clarity and vitality that all conceptual interpretations of experience fall by the wayside. You are left with the utter absence of any ground to life, despite all its richness. Yet this groundless peace takes expression in the most heartfelt yearning that others know the same freedom. These two do not stand in opposition to each other. Rather, they are not separate, not in the slightest, and this is one aspect of the mystery of being.

This verse is pure poetry, a celebration of awakening mind (Skt. bodhicitta, Tib. བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་). The best way to read these lines is to put aside the philosophical implications and focus on what effect each line has on me as I read it. Trying to understand it is like trying to fly with my feet stuck in clay. It’s poetry, and the aim of poetry is to move, so I try to let it move me.

Awakening mind is the nature of all experience. 
When I read this sentence, there’s a shift. I move from a preoccupation with whatever I happen to be experiencing to the fact that everything I experience arises in some kind of space, though I would be hard put to say what that space is. The shift reminds me of Idries Shah’s The Book of the Book. It includes a short story in which a person says, “When you realize the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.” 

What is the container for human experience? When I ask myself that question, everything stops.

(Unfortunately The Book of the Book is now out of print. You can pick up a copy on Amazon for about $100, but do so at your own risk: this is a book like no other.)

Awakening mind is the heart of all awakened ones.
Perhaps I’m being too punctilious in my efforts to render this poem in English. “Awakened ones”, of course, are buddhas, but I wanted to avoid the preconceptions that come with that word. When I read this line, it reminds me that without compassion, all the insight or wisdom in the world is useless. Again, it brings to mind what Jamgön Kongtrül wrote at the beginning of The Great Path of Awakening, “Even when you attain buddhahood, there is nothing to do but work for the welfare of beings with non-referential compassion.” In other words, compassion is the core of the whole enterprise. I value these blunt reminders because it is so easy to get lost in the descriptions of insight, awareness, wisdom, etc.

Awakening mind is the life-force of all beings.
Another potent reminder. This is probably the one article of faith in Buddhism, namely, that, at bottom, we care about each other. Numerous philosophers and theologians, biologists and neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists have sought to prove through the logic of their respective disciplines that, despite the atrocities of which humanity is all too capable, our being is fundamentally based in compassion. I have always had a problem with such “proofs”. They seek to impose an ontological certainty, a straight-jacket, on human experience. 

Human experience is too varied, too diverse. Far more moving and inspiring is that even John Le Carré, as disillusioned an author as you are likely to find, makes the same point in The Secret Pilgrim when he puts these words into the mouth of the master spy George Smiley, “If you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait and see what you become.” 

The implication is that absent compassion we cease to be human.

These lines are not laying out a philosophy or an argument. It’s a mistake, I feel, to read them as categorical statements. Rather, they are an expression of Jigmé Lingpa’s joy and awe in the possibilities that are opened up by the experience called awakening mind. What possibilities does it open up?

Awakening mind has no apparent or ultimate.
A hint is contained in this last line.  When we see through the confusion of life, on the one hand, we know viscerally the utter groundlessness of experience. On the other, we are awed to the point of overwhelm at the fullness of life. There is no way to put into words this dichotomy which is not a dichotomy,.

These two aspects evolved or calcified into the notion of the two truths: what is ultimately true and what is apparently true (also translated as absolute truth and relative truth). Jigmé Lingpa, however, is not fooled by such formulations. He simply points out that in the actual experience of awakening mind, such notions don’t even begin to arise. They are after-the-fact interpretations as I discussed in an earlier newsletter.


Again, rather than try to understand this last line, just read it and let it go to work in you. See how everything falls away, if only for a moment, and then rest in that moment. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The two truths are not truths

Imagine you are looking at a tree on a windy day. You feel the gusts against your cheeks. You see the leaves shaking and flashing as they twist and turn. You see the branches swaying back and forth. You hear the leaves rustling and the tree creaking. And you are so clear and open that there is no movement, not inside, not outside, not anywhere. Nothing moves.

Case 29 from The Gateless Gate:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. 
One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Over-hearing this exchange, Hui-neng said, "Neither flag nor wind is moving; mind is moving."

But Hui-neng is wrong here. Nothing moves.

Now imagine that you could experience your thoughts and feelings the same way. They come and they go, but for you there is no movement, none at all. It doesn't matter what arises - love, anger, need, pride, grief, joy - you experience it, you experience it all, you know it, and yet, nothing moves, nothing whatsoever.

It is possible to experience life this way and when you do, words are utterly useless. This way of experiencing is indivisibly immediate, unfathomably profound, unthinkably simple, and unimaginably ennobling. It must be true!

And thus is born the notion of ultimate truth.

Stay with that experience for a few moments. Inside you are as quiet as a pond that lies in the center of a deep forest, a pond that, protected by the trees around it, has been undisturbed by even the slightest breeze for a thousand years. Feel the stillness, the infinitely deep stillness, within you.

Because of that stillness, you hear everything. You hear the cry of a baby when it first comes into the world. You hear a young woman's gasp of disbelief and despair when her boyfriend breaks things off. You hear the sobs of fear of a woman stricken by breast cancer. And you hear the rasping breath of those whose time in the world has come to an end. You hear the sufferings and struggles of those brought low by misfortune, bad luck or their own folly. You hear the cries of pain and hurt of those who are oppressed, exploited or abused. You hear the pain in the voices of those who have to oppress, exploit or abuse others. You hear the suffering of the world.

You see and hear others struggle, locked in beliefs, flooded by emotions, or burnt to ashes by their worries, their concerns, their obsessions. And it's all so unnecessary. They don't know that there is another way. You see that and know that. It must be true!

And thus is born the notion of relative truth.

Profound, transformative, and liberating experiences are frequently recast as higher or deeper truths. As human beings, we struggle with life, and when we find a way of experiencing life that ends all struggle and suffering, we grasp, we hold, we cling. Nothing is more important. We now know that something else is possible. We are different because of it. We want others to know it, too. But how do you tell them?

You put your experience into words, whatever words you can. You come up with ways to explain why this is possible, how it comes about, why it is so important. But these words, these explanations, are, in the end, as relevant as proofs of the existence of God. You can debate and argue all you want -- and people have for centuries -- but these explanations, these systematic conceptualizations, are beside the point. If they don't help to bring out something of that experience in others, they are, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, a rope with which people tie themselves into knots.

There is no ultimate truth. There is no relative truth. These are just notions, ideas. You have not touched cosmic consciousness, the one true reality, the ultimate, the infinite, the totality pure. Those words don't refer to anything. They are poetry, but people forget that. You've experienced something, something profound, and it has changed you.

Good!

But for heaven's sake, don't make a religion out of it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Line 6: Complete -- all guidelines end in no do's or don't's.

In the same way that all paths of practice end in making no effort, all guidelines for behavior end in no do’s or don’t’s. However, this journey takes place in the richness and messiness of daily life. For that reason, it’s a bit more difficult than meditation practice.

Guidelines for behavior inevitably bring us into the domain of morality. In the Tao Te Ching, stanza 18 (from Addis and Lombardo's translation) reads:

Great Tao rejected:
Benevolence and righteousness appear.
Learning and knowledge professed:
Great hypocrites spring up.
Family relations forgotten:
Filial piety and affection arise.
The nation disordered:
Patriots come forth.

From this perspective, moral guidelines are expressions of a disconnection from the mystery and immediacy of life. They arise to counter imbalances, but they generate imbalances of their own.

Right and Wrong
Gone are the days of traditional societies, at least in most parts of the world, when everyone held the same over-arching worldview and consensus about right and wrong. Many people in modern societies would like to return to an absolute standard, a wish that often takes expression in various forms of fundamentalism, in set beliefs or in what are claimed to be universal truths. In a pluralist society, we rely on our own personal values. Our sense of right and wrong are frequently defined by context and perspective. Ironically, we are more likely to be dogmatic and strident in the advocacy and defense of these personal values than we are of generally accepted values. We seek to validate our stance and persuade (if not coerce) others to adopt it.

Group Cohesion
This leads to a second function of morality: it provides groups with cohesion - a set of shared values and priorities that determine with whom we do or do not connect. This function is also intimately connected with reputation, with what other people think of us. In the world of social interaction and especially in the worlds of social media, our reputation, our “personal brand,” determines to a large extent which groups we belong to and which deem us worthy of consideration or respect. The cohesive function inevitably leads members of a given group to diminish (or dismiss) the values and priorities of other groups. Conflicting ideas about right and wrong and about what is true become the seeds of tension and conflict - conflicts that are resolved or fought out in the political, economic and social spheres. Hence, as the Korean monk Manhae wrote in Everything Yearned For:

Yes, I understand ethics, morality, law
are nothing but the smoke worshipping the sword and gold.

This function of morality with its attendant concern for belonging and reputation is in stark contrast to the morality and ethics of, say, Mahayana Buddhism, in which we find such guidelines as this one from Mind Training in Eight Verses:

When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.

Expression of Practice
This and similar guidelines serve a third and very different function. They describe how the qualities and understandings one is seeking to develop through practice take expression in life. They are descriptions, not prescriptions. They are not about right and wrong per se, though they are often interpreted that way. Nor are they about the values of a group or community, though they have often been corrupted for that purpose.

In the context of direct awareness, this third function inevitably takes the form of “no do’s or don’t’s”.

Most of what I say and do is shaped by emotional and biological conditioning. Like the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the world, reactive patterns shift and move inside me in ways that I can neither control nor predict. These movements may open fissures in my personality into which I tumble out of control. They may cause massive earthquakes that shake me to my core as different patterns collide and fracture. The notion that “I” exist as a seamlessly integrated personality is a Platonic pipe dream.

When I follow my teacher’s favorite pith instruction, “Just recognize and rest,” a clarity arises. I cannot say what that clarity is. It is not something that I can point to and say, “It is this.” That clarity is, simultaneously, a knowing. My effort in life consists in living that knowing. I do not know where it leads, and it has led to some very difficult, painful and dark places. Despite the difficulties, there was always a sense of where the balance might be and I found a way through. I have also learned that when I depart from that knowing, problems arise and things go seriously wrong. (This leads quite naturally into the role of protectors and protector practice, a topic that I will take up later.)

Thus, my effort in life is simply to keep moving in the direction of balance. Any other aim seems arbitrary, contrived and self-serving.

In this approach to life, I cannot ignore what arises or what I encounter, nor can I shut out what is inconvenient. I cannot manipulate what I experience nor control what happens or doesn't happen. All I can do is meet what does arise, open and stand in not knowing until a way is clear. There is no guarantee that things won't turn out badly. When they do, I learn, and I learn at a level that makes a similar occurrence unlikely.

If I adopt or accept a set of guidelines that tells me what to do, I’m no longer living that clarity. I’m just following guidelines.

Why do I choose to live this way? Rilke, perhaps, said it best in Letters to a Young Poet: it’s not a matter of choice.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Box

You cannot decide not to hold a position, if for no other reason that to decide to not hold a position is, in itself, a position, and you are back in the holding mindset again — an example of both an ancient and a post-modern dilemma.

You are in a box. If you take the box apart, it remakes itself as you do so and you are back in it. If you step out of it, you somehow end up back in it, too, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. If you make an effort to understand it, you are in the world it defines and you are still in it. If you try to ignore it, you live in the world it defines and you never leave. If you try to change it, it restricts your movement and confines you. If you try to rise above it, you find that you are tied to it.  If you analyze it, you may work through an intricate maze but the maze leads you right back to where you started from — the box. 

The box consumes you. It's all you experience. You want to get out but there is no door, no window, no exit of any kind.

What do you do?

Start from where you are. You are in the box. Open to the experience of the box as best you can. This is usually the last thing you want to do, but that is all you can do. Don't try to change or control your experience, because that just reinforces the box.

Take care to distinguish between resignation and acceptance. Resignation is a form of ignoring: you remain confined and defined by the box. Acceptance is opening to what you are experiencing without trying to change it. 

When you open to the experience of the box, you are usually overwhelmed and fall out of attention. You lose awareness and you are back in the box, and you aren't even aware that you are. 

The trick is to open to the experience without being overwhelmed. Open a little, for a short period of time, even just a moment, and then stop. Then do it again, for a moment or two, and stop again. Gradually build capacity.

Two qualities are essential in this practice: resting and looking. Resting is how you stabilize attention. Looking is how you bring out the clarity that enables you to see. You can start with resting or looking, but most people, by far, find it better to start with resting. When you can rest, then look. Learn how to look in the resting. When you can look a bit, then rest in the the looking.

What is looking? When you rest, pose the question "What rests?" Don't try to answer the question. Just ask it. A shift in your awareness takes place, right then. It may last only for a half a second, but that shift is the shift into looking. What do you see? Nothing, of course, and that's the hard part. You see nothing and you panic. A subtle agitation in the body triggers a thought, a question, and bang, you are back in the box. Let your mind and body rest again, then pose the question, and look. Little by little, you are able to rest in seeing nothing. Do this for very short periods, because the mind can also slip into a subtle dullness that is not helpful.

When you can look and rest in the looking, you can also ask "What looks?" Again, don't try to answer. Just rest in the shift.

As you do this, you experience the box more and more vividly, more and more clearly, and that is where things begin to change. But as soon as you entertain the wish for the box to change, bang, you are back in it. Whatever you experience, just recognize it and rest.

When you practice this way, a certain kind of seeing develops. It is a non-conceptual direct clear awareness that doesn't involve language or explanation. This is the seeing to which the verse refers. That seeing holds no position, not even wanting to change the box. And in that experience of the box, awake, vivid, clear and open, things change, in their own time and in their own way. Primarily, what changes is how you experience the box, and that changes everything else in your life.  Thus, change comes about indirectly. It is not something you decide or control. T.S. Eliot writes about this practice in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

and


For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Verse 2.1 — practice, making no effort

“No effort” is deceptive. In sports, in crafts, in the arts and even in business and politics, some people are able to accomplish amazing feats without apparent effort. Mind and body are aligned and everything just flows. Skiers in their 70's slip gracefully down the steepest slopes. A potter forms beautiful cups and vases, but it looks as if the clay grows into the shape rather than he or she molds it. A facilitator brings a fractious group into agreement and commitment just by posing one or two questions.

The contradictions are puzzling, sometimes infuriating. Often, when I make an effort in practice, I soon end up tired and tense. If I don’t make any effort, I just sit in confusion.

What’s being left out of the picture, what is assumed but not mentioned in these verses, is the building of capacity and the maturation of ability. We have to begin with an effort. I sit straight, for instance, but if I sit rigidly, I quickly grow tired. If, however, I allow myself to make small adjustments, I find and connect with the natural straightness in my body. Now I sit just as straight, but with less effort or strain.

Often, it seems, teachers place more emphasis on adherence to forms than on natural resting. For instance, students are often told to let their eyes rest in soft focus on a point about twelve inches in front of them. Students then look at that point, and their eyes never come to rest. In contrast, I usually told students to do nothing with their eyes, just as they do nothing with their ears. When they just let their eyes rest, they come to rest in soft focus twelve inches in front of them. It’s a subtle point, but it makes a difference.

The key, it seems, is whether we take instructions as what to do or instructions as pointing to an exploration of what is possible. Much of what is presented as instruction in Buddhist teaching is actually descriptive, not prescriptive. It is a description of what can happen, not what to do. It really helps to distinguish between method, i.e., what efforts you make in practice and result, i.e., what those efforts lead to. Confusion on these points is very common.

(For more on this topic, see Up Against a Wall?)

The same holds for the breath and for stable clear attention. Some people try to breath a certain way rather than let the breath find its own depth and rhythm. As we rest more and more deeply, our ability to sense imbalance becomes more and more refined, our ability to make adjustments becomes more and more subtle, and our way of responding to imbalance more and more intuitive or natural.

The result of all these efforts in practice is twofold. We are able to rest in empty clarity without effort and we are able to rest in difficult and intense experiences without disturbance. It seems like we end up doing nothing at all, but this nothing is very different from the nothing we began with.

The same principles apply to all forms of practice: attention to the breath, koan study, deity meditation, energy transformation, ritual and, of course, mahamudra and dzogchen.


Again, we can’t just decide to practice this way. It’s something we grow into. Most of us will benefit with expert guidance along the way. In fact, most of us probably need the guidance, just as most of us need a teacher if we are going to play a musical instrument or learn to paint. In the same way that the hours, days and years of work on a guitar enable a musician to play even the most intricate passages without seeming effort, the hours, days and years we put into practice mature into a practice that is free from effort.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Verse 2.1 — outlook, holding no position

Last week, I talked about lines 2, 3 and 7, which are based on the ground, path and fruition framework. Lines 4, 5 and 6 make use of a different framework -- outlook, path and behavior. I've talked about this framework in several retreats, for example, talk 2 from the Buddhahood Without Meditation retreat in 2008.

Outlook is the way we look at what we are, what we experience. In a sense, it's a kind of philosophical stance. Practice is what we do in order to experience life that way. It usually takes the form of some kind of meditation practice. Behavior is how we live that in our lives. While often expressed in terms of do's and don't's, the guidelines for behavior are not ethical codes in the conventional sense, but ways of living that express and support the practice and outlook.

Line 4: Complete - the essence of all outlook is no conceptual position.
It's a tricky business. As soon as I take any position, I end up in a contradiction. I may say things exist, but they change and disappear before my eyes. It's very hard to pin down what actually exists. If I say things don't exist, I'm confronted with a world of experience. If I say I hold no position, that, in itself, is a position -- an example of both an ancient and a post-modern dilemma. In other words, I'm in a box.

If I take the box apart, it somehow remakes itself even as I'm taking it apart. If I try to step out of it, I end up back in it, too, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. If I make an effort to understand it, I accept the world it defines and I am still in it. If I try to ignore it, I live in the world it defines and I never leave it. If I try to change it, the changes I can make are ineffectual. If I try to rise above it, I find that I'm tied to it and it pulls me back into it. If I push against it, it simply pushes back. If I analyze it, I follow an intricate maze but the maze always leads me right back to where I started from -- the box.

It's as if the whole universe is wonderfully skilled in reductio ad absurbum - whatever position I take, it will be shown to be absurd and untenable. Punk in the late '70s was an expression of this view -- no matter what you do, the universe renders your action meaningless -- a philosophy of despair that led people to express their individuality in whatever way made sense to them.

From a practice perspective, taking a position and holding a position are movements in mind and body, just like thinking, feeling and sensing. When I hold a position, there are subtle tensions and contractions that I'm usually not aware of. If, when I become aware of holding a position, I move attention to the body, I gradually also become aware of those physical tensions and contractions. Sometimes it's the other way round -- I first become aware of tensions and contractions and then become aware that I'm holding a position.

It's possible to rest there, just experiencing both the tensions and the holding of the position. Sooner or later, something lets go, though often I am unable to say what that is. I have no say in what lets go or when it lets go. The letting go, the release, is itself a movement in mind, and there are corresponding shifts and changes in the body. All I can do is experience what happens.

Of course, if I sit down with the intention of letting something go, of getting out of the box, then I'm back in the box and nothing changes.

I can only be right there, in the experience of the box, open, clear and aware, to the best of my ability. I don't control what happens then, just as I don't control what happens in my life. To practice this way is not easy and it can be more than a little frustrating. I hesitate to say "it works", whatever that means, but anything else puts me straight back in the box.

It doesn't sound like much -- no grand philosophy or insight -- but this is how I've come to practice "no conceptual position".

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Verse 2.1 — Ground, path and fruition in dzogchen

Wonder of wonders!

My nature is great completion.
Complete — all experience, patterned or free, is free of anything to discard or attain. 
Complete — the essence of all spiritual instruction is utterly natural release.
Complete — the essence of all outlook is no conceptual position.
Complete — every path of practice ends in making no effort.
Complete — all guidelines end in no do’s or don’t’s.
Complete — the essence of result is to be free of hope.
And this term “complete” is just a concept, too.

Having pointed out the ways we fall into problems no matter how sophisticated, subtle or potent a practice we pursue, Jigmé Lingpa now turns to the non-practice practice of dzogchen or “great completion”. The term dzogchen རྫོགས་ཆེན was initially translated as great perfection, but as Westerners gained more experience and understanding, they came to appreciate that the perfection described here was more a sense of completeness than a sense of an ideal. Thus, most translators now use the term completion rather than perfection.

Line 1: My nature is great completion.
Samantabhadra speaks in the first person now and describes how experiences arise for him. This is important to remember as this kind of writing is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. Over the centuries, people have often taken it as prescriptive and turned it into instructions, philosophies and moral guidelines. In effect, they took a description of a result as an instruction in method, rather like taking "being fit" as a method for exercise.

My own reading is that Jigmé Linpga, using the literary conventions of his day, is expressing his joy and wonder at this way of experiencing life and describing how things appear to him — including, as in the first section of this poem, the folly of trying to make anything happen.

When I read passages such as these next six lines, I marvel at the richness and intricacy of this poetry. What seems like a simple series of negations actually has a definite structure that leads the reader through two carefully interwoven frameworks. The first framework is ground, path and fruition, and applies to lines 2, 3 and 7. The second framework is outlook, practice and behavior, and applies to lines 4, 5 and 6. The two converge in line 7. In line 8, in a gesture worthy of Zen, the whole idea is thrown away.

Line 2: Complete — all experience, patterned or free, is free of anything to discard or attain.
Patterned experience is a free translation of samsara — how we experience the world when we are in the grip of emotional reactions. Free experience is a similarly free rendering of nirvana, those moments when not only are we free of the grip of n emotional reaction, but our experience of life is so vivid and awake that a sense of fullness overwhelms any feeling of self or individuality. Ordinarily, I find myself trying to push away emotional reactions and hang onto those special moments, but the radical perspective of Great Completion teaching is that each moment of experience, whether reactive or not, is complete, in and of itself. In other words, everything we experience is just an experience. This is the ground of no-ground in Great Completion. In Theravadan teaching, this ground of no-ground is expressed in the phrase, “‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not what I am.” It sounds so simple, but to live and practice this is not easy.

Line 3: Complete — the essence of all spiritual instruction is utterly natural release.
As for path, we don’t do anything. We allow experience to resolve itself. 

Put a cushion or a chair in the middle of a room or outside, wherever you choose. Sit down and let your body settle comfortably. Let your breath settle, too. And your mind. Now just sit there, and don’t do anything. Thoughts arise, of course, and they catch you. As soon as you recognize that you have been distracted, take a breath, come back and start again. A puff of wind, the sound of a siren, the pattern of light and shadow before you — these also catch you. When you recognize that, take a breath, come back and start again. Last night’s dinner with friends, a harsh word to or from your partner, a mistake at work, a pat on the back — these also catch you. Come back and start again. You feel inadequate, that you should be doing more — come back and start again. You feel utterly at peace, what a relief! — come back and start again. Experiences of clarity or bliss or non-thought may also arise. Come back and start again. They are often accompanied by a feeling that you are finally getting somewhere or other feelings of pride, achievement, relief, joy, awe, devotion, etc. Come back and start again. 

Bit by bit we find that we can experience patterns of emotional reactions — thoughts, feelings, associations — just coming and going. We aren’t caught by them, even when they are powerful or intense. Bit by bit, you can let experiences of emptiness, transcendence or immanence come and go, too. Every experience it seems, whatever it is, forms and dissolves, like a patch of mist or a rainbow in the sky. 

This is how we let experience resolve itself.

Line 7: Complete — the essence of result is to be free of hope.
For some reason, many people find this idea depressing. Perhaps it has to do with the way different languages are structured? Maybe it has something to do with psychology? I don’t know. For me, the possibility of living without hope is a freedom, because it means that I live without fear. It also means that I live in peace, because I stop wanting (hoping) things to be different from what they are. When we can just accept how things are (even if they are pretty awful), something relaxes in both mind and body, and an unnameable exquisiteness arises, even in the midst of pain, tragedy or devastation. This is one of the central principles of Buddhism, I think, because it illustrates vividly how suffering comes to end.

When I stop wanting things to be different from what they are I am more able to notice and be in the actual experience of life, right now, just as it is. In other words, I’m more likely to stop and smell the roses or just be with a friend in pain. This doesn’t stop me from working at things, such as writing this book, but the meaningfulness of any action or activity is not based in the results that might be achieved but in the fact that  life is calling for this activity right now. The challenge is to find the balance in all the different pushes and pulls that make up one’s life. For that, I have found that the best method is to open to everything that is calling to me in my life, all of it. I don’t try to sort out the flood of desires, demands, challenges, hopes, fears, aversions, longings and ideals. I just sit in the whole mess, until the next step becomes clear. This approach works for me, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone. Yet I have seen that others have also found their own way to engage just what their life is calling for, remarkably free from hope and fear. That is what counts.