Friday, August 22, 2014

Verse 1.8: too much doing

When the way you are renders the ups and downs of life of no consequence,
The conventions of outlook, practice and action simply evaporate.
Yet because of your investment in intelligent and skilled behavior,
Behavioral tantra wears you out — doing when there is nothing to be done.
How tiring your chosen disciplines, you followers of behavioral philosophy!

It is no small feat to reach the point where you are not concerned with the ups and downs of life. The Zen story of the hermit accused by a young woman of fathering her child is the paradigmatic example. But the story says nothing about what the hermit experienced internally. It only records what he said and did. Aristotle’s idea that the truly virtuous person is not even tempted is wonderful, too. Such inner peace! In practice, however, these stories and examples often lead people to suppress their emotions and feelings in an attempt to conform to these ideals.

A friend of mine, a Zen teacher of many years of experience, told me that she felt her practice was incomplete because she was feeling more than a little anxious at the prospect of her husband’s coming brain surgery. She felt that she should be able to accept whatever happened with equanimity. Another colleague, again with many, many years of experience in practice and teaching and who has a delightfully wicked sense of humor, insisted that she had to give up her sense of humor for the sake of practice. Perhaps, but I see things differently. 

We are humans and we love those close to us, we care about them deeply and we experience pain and grief when we are separated from them. We feel anger for those who would or do hurt us or those close to us. The teachings of mind training and other practices show us how to use those feelings and how to use adversity (as well as good fortune) to deepen our relationship with life itself. They don’t tell us not to have those feelings. They don’t tell us not to cry. And they certainly don’t tell us not to laugh. And, yes, it is possible to come to the place where we genuinely feel love and caring for those who hurt or harm us or cause great suffering for others. Yet that love and caring,  while they open up extraordinary possibilities, do not blind us to what needs to be done when problems arise.

In the practice of direct awareness, mind is likened to the sky. What about the weather? The wind blows, clouds form and grow into thunderstorms or hurricanes. Lightning flashes. Thunder crashes. Winds howl Rain and hail fall, often with great force. At other times, fog forms and one can barely see one’s own hand. Then the sun shines and everything is bathed in its warmth and light. Through it all, the sky doesn’t stop being the sky. In the same way, the ups and downs of life stir up storms within us, bring us great joy and happiness, utter peace and heartache beyond bearing. The question is can you be in what is arising, experiencing it in all its intensity, and be the sky at the same time?

When you can, as Jigmé Lingpa says, the conventions of outlook, practice and action evaporate. Lines such as this are often misinterpreted and taken to mean that you are no longer bound by conventional mores, that everything you do is the manifestation of some sort of “crazy wisdom”. Not at all. To me, this line means that the conventional distinctions, the usual designations, no longer mean anything.

When you can be present in the mess of life itself, you no longer approach practice in terms of “This is the outlook that I hold, this is the practice that I do, this is the kind of action that supports and gives expression to the practice.” That way of practice is analogous to sounding out the words when you are learning to read. When you can actually read, you don’t sound out the words. You just read. 

Whether the mess is wonderful beyond imagination or painful beyond belief, you are, at the same time, the sky. There is an openness and clarity in your experience that the conceptual mind cannot touch. You trust that open clarity for it is, as far as one can say these things, what you are, and you are prepared, even committed, to live it, to be it and receive whatever weather life brings you. 

This way of being in the world, a way that is not concerned with happiness or unhappiness, gain or loss, respect or disdain, fame or obscurity, is not for everyone. Many people, when faced with the vast openness and utter groundlessness of such a life, of living moment to moment guided only by that open clarity, turn away. They use their practice, their chosen disciplines, to figure out the right action in each and every situation, employing intelligence on one hand and skill on the other, where intelligence is the ability to make appropriate distinctions and skill is the ability to sense and do what the situation calls for and no more. This is a noble way to live and much good comes from it. 

These disciplines, however, are really intended to bring you in touch with your reactive patterns in such a way that you have to cut through their operation again and again, again and again coming into that openness and groundlessness. It’s a very different matter when you use those same disciplines to maintain your sense of yourself, to define your world and what is right and wrong. This is how you become emotionally invested in them. All that you do may be good because of the intelligence and skill you employ, but you are not free. You have to work at your life, more like the gardener who carefully waters the flowers than the rain that just falls from from the sky.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Verse 1.7: purity and ritual

Because mind itself doesn’t take up the good or give up the bad,
A shrewd moral practice acts as an added pollutant.
The forms of dualistic fixation distort what is not two.
Ritual tantra seeks to attain a state where there is nothing to attain.
How elegant you are, you followers of ritual philosophy!

In both mahamudra and dzogchen instruction, a distinction is made between mind and mind itself. The former refers to how we ordinarily experience life, filtered and distorted by reactive patterns. The latter refers to knowing that is free from distortions and projections.

To experience that knowing, you need to be able rest with a level of attention that has two qualities. First, you are not disturbed by the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. Second, you experience thoughts and emotions as clouds forming and dissolving in the space of mind and know that they are nothing in and of themselves. You are the sky and you are the thoughts. This is not the same as observing the coming and going of thoughts, i.e., the experience of the watcher.

Some people are able to generate that level of attention naturally. Others have to work long and hard before they can rest and see. They work at interrupting the arising of projections, interrupting their manifestation, interrupting the worlds they project and interrupting the feedback loops that give them momentum. In doing so, they open up the possibility of just knowing.

Once you can do this, there is nothing more to be done. Anything else is extra.

In particular, the careful calculations we tend to make as to what is right or wrong in any given situation dissipate energy. Ordinary thinking reasserts itself, along with strong emotional reactions based on our moral identity and reputation. We fall into a quagmire of pattern-based experience with remarkable ease.

Ritual is one way of interrupting the self-reinforcing cycle of pattern-based experience. The attention required to perform the steps of a ritual has the potential to transform energy, raising the level of energy in you so that you are able to connect with a  higher level of attention. Ritual also creates a space in which habituated patterns of behavior have no function and start to fall away. When you let them go, you break the spell of habituated behavior and cut its momentum. The symbols and movements of the ritual also cut through the operation of the conceptual mind, creating the possibility of a direct experience of the mystery that the ritual expresses.

These elements are present in all bona fide rituals — the Japanese tea ceremony, for example, or the Catholic mass, or the purity practices associated with kriya tantra (ritual washing, water offerings, preparation of ritual spaces and implements, etc.).

But here is the catch. We cannot approach these rituals with the conceptual mind and understanding. To do so is to stand apart from the ritual as a detached observer. In Western culture, many people find it difficult to let the ritual act on them. Often the only way they can do so is to regress psychologically and become as a child, letting go of their mature intelligence and reverting to magical thinking and naive belief. Practiced this way, the ritual does not transform energy into higher levels of attention and may well simply reinforce childhood belief systems.

When attachment to the ritual itself forms, things go awry in other ways. We become obsessed with doing the ritual perfectly. The need for perfection impedes the letting go of the conceptual mind. We are constantly observing, judging and criticizing our own performance. We become the focus of our attention, not the ritual. The same holds when we are concerned with the role we play and the status of our role. All these prevent the suspension of emotional reactions that enables the ritual to transform experience.

We may perform the ritual to perfection with beauty, grace and elegance beyond belief. Everyone else is in awe. And we know how well we performed the ritual. We take pride in the elegance and grace of our movements. Alas, if we are acting out of habituated patterns, the ritual may transform others, but it only reinforces those patterns in us.

We have to enter the ritual itself, committing to its performance without any attempt to control how it works to transform us or our experience of the world. In other words, we have to trust  the ritual and let it work its magic on us. We do not get to say how that happens. Only when we just do the ritual, not out of any sense of gain, achievement or even purpose, does the ritual become a doorway into the utter groundlessness of experience.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Verse 1.7b The different paths in tantra

Tantra refers to a set of practices and associated texts that are all based on the premise that our spiritual potential is an unbroken continuum present in every moment of our lives. Practice consists of uncovering possibilities for that potential to manifest and take expression. In this respect, spiritual practice is analogous to artistic expression — a theme that I will discuss later.

In kriya level practice, you use ritual to discover and give expression to this spiritual potential. You see the spiritual as something greater than you. It inspires awe and devotion. You connect with it through honor, propitiation, purification, offering, etc. In particular, as was discussed in the commentary on the last verse, you make yourself worthy and capable of communion with the spiritual through the creation of sacred space, purification and precise observance and performance of ritual.

In charya level practice, you discover and connect with the spiritual through your daily behavior. Here you see the spiritual as something that is present in your life, in everything you do, more as a friend or companion than as something greater than you. This is a closer relationship as it covers how you live, not just your performance of ritual. Thus, in the corresponding verse, Jigmé Lingpa talks about intelligent and skilled behavior (or in conventional Buddhist terminology, the practice of means and wisdom).

Higher levels of tantra are talked about in later verses — union tantra in which you use symbols to connect with deeper aspects of the spiritual, supreme union in which you use energy transformation to precipitate similitudes of spiritual awakening, and great union in which you use sorcery methods to transform your experience of life into spiritual presence.

Unfortunately, the complexity of the practices as well as their dependence on a premodern culture and worldview make them difficult, if not inaccessible, to most Westerners. The language of higher and lower is also misleading. It refers to the degree of subtlety involved, not to which is superior or inferior.

Each of these approaches is a viable spiritual path and the challenge is to find the combination or balance which works for you. In every method of practice (sadhana) with which I am familiar, all these elements are present, explicitly or implicitly. This is part of the wonder and magic of practices in the Tibetan tradition. Every method of practice involves the creation of sacred space (in time, in place, in your physical posture, in your thoughts, feelings and sensation) and the practice of ritual, ways of behaving that support your practice, symbols and representations of the spiritual that you create or employ, and energy transformation and sorcery techniques. In other words, you work with all of them at the same time.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Verse 1.6 mahayana sophistry

Mind itself, always complete in its natural expression,
Rests in the womb of uncontrived original nature.
Caught up in logic and analysis, you sophists distort how things are
Because you believe in descriptions of the two truths.
How far away you are, you followers of awakening being philosophy!

I'm not going to explain what the first two lines mean. To do so would be a waste of effort. As Haruki Murakami writes, "If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with an explanation."

No insult is intended here. These lines are poetry, though many people interpret them as philosophy and write endlessly about "uncontrived original nature" and "natural expression". When you read these two lines, don't try to understand them. Instead, let them speak to you. The language Jigmé Lingpa uses employs more than a few technical terms, making it a form of poetry which we, in this culture, are no longer used to. Even though we've encountered several of these technical terms already, let me give you a few pointers so that these lines can just speak to you.

Just sit for a few moments, open to everything you experience, everything in the room in which you are sitting, the chairs, tables, desk, carpet, walls, paintings, lighting, ceiling and floor. Open to all the sounds, the hum of appliances, perhaps, the sound of the furnace or air-conditioning, music if you have any playing, voices, and other sounds from neighbors or the street outside, the rustle of the wind, the patter of rain, the hush of snow. Open to all the physical sensations, too, the texture of your clothes, the pressure of the chair against your body, the texture of the fabric, any physical tensions or discomforts in your body. Include tastes and smells, too, if there are any. Then include all the thoughts and feelings that are there, too.

Rest in the field of everything you experience, and then pose the question, "What experiences all this?" Don't try to answer it. Just pose the question and see what happens.

You probably experience a shift. A knowing quality becomes more vivid, perhaps with a sense of spaciousness, too. Rest right there and then pose the question, "What knows this?" Again, you experience a shift (though it may last only a moment before your awareness and attention collapse into thinking).

In that shift, there is no thing, just knowing. It includes everything you experience. Everything you experience arises without restriction, naturally, nothing rejected, nothing missing. The whole is complete in and of itself and the unrestricted arising of experience feels completely natural.

You may also feel that this possibility is always there, that you don't have to do anything to this knowing. It is not something you bring into being or bring out in you. It is just there. It feels like this is what you are, this natural arising of experience that is nothing in and of itself.

Experiences of this sort arise in different ways, and to different degrees. Some people crawl along the ground to have even a glimpse of something like this while others swim in this sea and still others fly in this sky. It doesn't matter. Once you have tasted it, you know it, and the rest of the work is deepening and refinement, and that's what this poem is about.

You are faced with an amazing paradox. On the one hand, you know that there is nothing there, not a thing. On the other, you have the experience of the fullness of life -- thoughts and feelings and sensations that are vivid and clear.

This experience is so meaningful to you, you need to communicate to others. To do so, you feel you must establish it as true, as a valid cognition (to use another technical term). How do you communicate an experience that seems so paradoxical, yet it so vivid and clear? Your rational mind insists that you find a way to reconcile these two aspects.

In a moment of brilliance, you see that there have to be two truths, one that says there is nothing there, and one that says that things appear anyway. Done! And now you go to work, figuring out detailed philosophical explanations that prove that what you experienced is true and valid.

Alas, it doesn't work. Despite your carefully constructed arguments and flawless logic, something always seems to be missing. No matter how lucid your explanations, no matter how carefully you analyze perception and cognition, other people don't have the same experience, or understand yours. Yet you want to help them wake up to what you know to be true. You find new and more subtle ways to explain and justify your analysis. You debate your formulations with others, constantly refining them, but more and more you are caught up in logic, analysis, definitions, arguments. Your original experience now seems like a distant and vague memory. Was it a dream? You have your philosophy, but much as you value it, it has no power. You have lost your original path and now wander along the pathways of the intellect, adding argument to argument, constructing sophisticated lines of reasoning that go nowhere.

As with those who fall into belief, the road back for those who rely on their intellect is long and difficult. How did you end up like this?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Verse 1.6b The Two Truths

The two truths (from an old newsletter)

Imagine that you are looking at a tree. It's 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."
Hui-neng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; 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 young woman's gasp of disbelief and despair when her boyfriend breaks things off. You hear the sobs of pain 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.

As I wrote last week, 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 know that something else is possible. We are different because of it. At least, we feel different, so it must be true. 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. You've experienced something, something profound, and it has changed you. 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.


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


Until we experience it,
Emptiness sounds so
Once experienced,
All is empty by comparison.
-- Pema Chödron

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Verse 1.5 self-reliance

Your mind is the source of all experience, patterned or free.
You wake up completely when you rest and do nothing at all.
Instead, you are dogmatic and single-minded in your belief
In the teachings of ignorance, interdependence and samsara.
How pleased you must be, you self-reliant ones, with your artificial awakening!

"Look at all experience as a dream." This is one of the most important instructions in Mahayana Buddhism, and one of the most misunderstood.

In a dream, everything you experience is your mind. When you look at the objects in the dream, you are looking at your own mind, though you don't know that unless you are able to do lucid dreaming.

In the same way, everything that happens in your life, everything you are experiencing right now, whatever you are doing, is your own mind. All the colors you see, the flavors you taste, the aromas you smell, the sounds you hear, all these are sensations that arise in your own mind. Yes, there are flowers and paintings, buildings, cars and garbage heaps, a whole world "out there", but when you look at a flower, you are looking at your mind. You don't see the flower that is out there but a flower that arises in your experience and what you experience is your own mind.

When you act out of reactive patterns, you are experiencing your own mind. When you project your confusion on others, it's your own mind. When you see things clearly and know exactly what to do, it's your own mind. When your heart is filled with love and compassion, it's your own mind. When you are consumed by pride, jealousy or greed, it's your own mind. When you are utterly lost in confusion, depression or darkness, it's your own mind. When everything is clear, vivid, alive, awake, it's your own mind.

What we experience arises freely, without restriction. When you look at a flower, it's color and shape are just there. You don't have to do anything to bring them into experience. When sounds strike your ear, the melody, the tones are just there. It's the same with all the senses. Thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, judgements, prejudices, stories, and insights arise -- unbidden, unpredictable, wanted, unwanted, comforting, disturbing, familiar, strange -- and it's all your own mind.

To be awake and present in your experience you don't have to do anything except rest and do nothing at all. This is advanced instruction and Jigmé Lingpa goes into this more in the second section of this poem. The greatest challenge in practice is to develop the willingness, skills and capacity to be able to rest and do nothing at all. And a big part of that groundwork is learning -- intellectually, emotionally and experientially -- to trust that that is all that is needed.

feet dangling over nothing Most of us find the complete lack of ground difficult -- difficult to see, difficult to take in, difficult to fathom, and difficult to accept. In fact, one could say that you, as you are now, cannot see it, take it in, fathom, or accept it. Much has to change before we can experience the world this way.

When we rely only on our own understanding and don't have the guidance, the encouragement, the inspiration or the experience of someone who has traveled these paths, we usually turn away -- unable to face that infinite depth in ourselves and the complete absence of any ground. We need a structure, a framework, on which to hang our experience. Where better to turn than the teachings of ignorance, interdependence and samsara, the core frameworks of all traditions of Buddhism, time-tested and endlessly refined over centuries of philosophical and contemplative practice? They provide a reliable map of the human condition, complete with directions and a guidebook for the path to enlightenment or nirvana. We adopt this framework and use it to build our spiritual practice.

Faith, at least the way I use the word, is the willingness to open to experience, whatever it is, however, pleasant or unpleasant, and let it unfold and resolve itself. In the process, it extends, deepens or wakes us up to new possibilities. Belief, on the other hand, is how we interpret what arises in experience to confirm and reinforce what is already inside us. The one opens, the other closes. All too easily, however, faith, whether in a teacher, a teaching, a text, a ritual or a practice, decays into belief and that belief then becomes the organizing principle of our lives.

When confronted with the utter openness and groundlessness of experience, of mind, of awareness, it's only too human to reach for something solid. We take what brought us to that openness, what inspired us, and now use it to confirm our understanding, our sense of who we are and our place in the world. And that is what often happens to the teachings on ignorance, interdependence and samsara. We see the map as how things are, and we increasingly interpret everything in terms of the map. Bit by bit, the map solidifies into a set of beliefs because we it gives us a way of understanding the world, life, ourselves. We go on about our lives, confident in our understanding of what it means to be awake. Unnoticed, ignored or forgotten, the utter groundlessness of experience slides away, out of sight, out of mind. Without noticing the change, we become a bit rigid, a bit brittle, a bit defensive, or a little too smooth, a little too eloquent, perhaps. We live in an idea of being awake, the feeling of being awake, and increasingly avoid anything that threatens that sense of ourselves.

It's very difficult to let go of that artificial awakening, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in it. What would we be if we let it go? That's a direction that most people find very hard and very few take it. This is why it is so important never to let faith degenerate into belief.

Verse 1.4 listeners

Mind itself, like the sky, is originally pure.
As long as you use conceptual knowing to look for it,
You get stuck, like a bug caught in its own spit.
With strong determination, you turn your back on what is truly meaningful.
How worn out you must be, you listeners, from rejecting everything!

What does it mean to say mind itself, or the sky, is originally pure? Just for a moment, recall what it’s like to be stopped, completely stopped, by a painting, a piece of sculpture, a dance, or beautiful view. You, as a separate entity, cease to be and there is just the experience, vivid and clear. There is no need to reject (or attach to) anything. Thoughts, feelings and sensations arise on their own and dissolve on their own.

Originally pure? In all honesty, this is an unsatisfactory English rendering, bordering on Bunglish (Buddhist Hybrid English) and it would be good to find a more poetic, less literal expression. (If you have any suggestions, please use the comments link below.) While one could take this as a philosophical statement (and many have done so and built their systems on it), the phrase “originally pure” is more a description of an experience, made with the intention to elicit a similar experience in the person who reads or hears this phrase.

Technically speaking, the phrase “originally pure” means that the sky is the sky, whatever is going on in it. Clear or cloudy, rainy or sunny, the sky is the sky. Violent hurricanes or typhoons, calm breezes, fog, mist, clouds, snow, rainbows, or the aurora borealis, the sky is still the sky. When you look into the sky, clouds and rainbows form and dissolve, arising from nothing and dissolving back into nothing. The sky remains — open clear space.

In the same way, it doesn’t matter what thoughts, feelings or sensations arise, mind is mind, experience is experience, awareness is awareness. Thoughts, feelings and sensations arise out of nothing and dissolve back into nothing. The only difference is that we are the sky. Awareness is not something that we watch (such as clouds in the sky). It is what we are. Experience and awareness are not separate.

There is no point in trying to understand this intellectually or conceptually. All we are doing then is becoming more entangled in thinking. When we just listen to teachings, even if we take them in and work with them, our understanding tends to be largely conceptual. In effect, we end up talking with ourselves and can easily become convinced that we have a sound experiential understanding— of emptiness, of compassion, of non-duality, etc. Like a bug that uses the spit it secretes to trap other insects but traps itself, we end up trapped in our conceptual understanding and never experience the open pure space of mind itself.

As we hold onto our conceptual understanding of non-self or emptiness, we start rejecting the thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise in our experience. We reject them because, according to our understanding of emptiness, they intrude on it. It’s a bit like rejecting wind, fog, rain, rainbows, mist, etc., because they intrude on the sky. But the sky is there all the time regardless of what is going on in it. Because we are so caught up in our idea of how it should be, we don’t see it, no matter how determined or how strenuously we strive. When we make our own experience the enemy, we are going to have a very difficult time.

And it doesn’t matter how hard we try to understand. “Rowing harder doesn't help if the boat is headed in the wrong direction,” says Kenichi Ohmae

The best outcome from all this effort is that we collapse, utterly worn out, and give up trying to understand anything. Not infrequently, there is a moment then when our thinking, along with our conceptual understanding, collapses and we are there.

This path is not about preferring one experience to another, one feeling to another, but about being present in everything that arises. Nothing is rejected! It’s tough, believe me, but that’s the magic, too. We find a natural purity even in the most painful, most tragic, most repugnant experiences.

Verse 1.3 Philosophers

What is it like when you turn your back on the natural path?
Because you are overwhelmed by mistaken beliefs,
You become puritanical, clinging to 
A single tenet of some flawed metaphysical theory —
How reactive, you irrational extremist! 

From the dzogchen point of view, all you have to do is sit, rest, and do nothing, and let all the confusion of mind sort itself out, until mind (the way you experience life) becomes utterly clear, empty and free of any restriction. This natural path sounds simple, but it is not easy, if only because the conditioning that prevents us from knowing this clarity and freedom is so very powerful. It is no small matter to develop the ability to rest at peace in whatever arises in experience. You need the willingness to do so, skill or know-how to meet what arises and the capacity to be present in what you experience without becoming lost in it. I've written about these three qualities and what it is like to do nothing, for even a relatively short period of time.

Ajahn Chah says, “If you want to practice meditation, put a chair in the center of the room. Sit in the chair. See who comes to visit.” Most of us don’t have sufficient willingness, skill or capacity just to experience the visitors, to the let them come and go like thieves in an empty house. We are flooded with ideas of what should or shouldn’t be happening, of how things are or how they should be. As a reaction to the chaos, we reduce everything to a single principle, a single perspective. It works as an anchor, a reference point or a way of organizing our experience. Here are some examples: “I exist throughout time.” “I think, therefore I am.” “I am one with the universe.” “I exist independently of what I experience.” “I am nothing more than the neurochemical processes in my brain and body.” “I am just an instrument of God’s will.” “I am an illusion.” “I am what I experience.” “I am the author of my life.” “I can attract whatever I need by an act of will.” None of these are true, of course, but every one of them (and many others) have been a fundamental tenet of one religion or another.

Each of these metaphysical views gives us something to hold onto, something to believe in, so that we know what we are and, just as importantly, what we are not. Anything that opposes our belief or calls it into question we see as a threat. Anything that reinforces or corroborates it we regard as “right” or “true”. Holding more and more to our idea of right and true, we become increasingly rigid and reactive, often relying on elaborate reasoning to establish, justify and defend our position. Most of the time we do not even see how irrational or extreme we have become, nor the prison we have built for ourselves.

In terms of practice, the way out is to notice whenever extremist thinking arises. Any time you here yourself use the words “never”, “always”, “must” or “have to”, you can be pretty sure that a pattern is doing the talking. Whenever you take an extreme position, you are in the grip of a pattern. As soon as you say “never” or “always”, you have shut down a possibility. In all likelihood, something has come up in you that you are not willing, aren’t able or don’t know how to experience. Your position is a reaction to that. Thus, whenever you hear yourself use any of those phrases, or anything similar, stop. Take a breath. Open to what you are experiencing, first in your body, then in your heart, and see what happens.

Verse 1.2 Samsara

What is it like when a poor man has
A wonderful treasure in his home,
But doesn’t know it? Just as he is still poor,
You are still entangled in a net of unaware thinking —
How heartbreaking, you beings, benighted in samsara!

A key principle found in all of the great contemplative traditions is that when you are able and willing to rest in whatever you are experiencing, however difficult it may be, you discover possibilities you did not know were there.

Take any experience, anything that troubles or disturbs you. Open to the experience, resting in it while you look right at it.

Don’t recall.
Don’t imagine.
Don’t think.
Don’t examine.
Don’t control.

Translations of traditional teachings often say to examine or investigate your experience, but in my view, these instructions are mistranslations, influenced by the mistaken view that Buddhist practice is some kind of science of the mind. Forget this idea, which was originally developed in the late 19th century as a way of establishing credibility for Buddhist thought in the face of colonial domination in Asia. Buddhist practice has a totally different methodology from science (and different aims). The core methodology of science is to develop a model or theory that can be tested against experimentation and observation.

Another interpretation, more due to Western psychological methods, is to analyze where that particular experience comes from, what gives rise to it, etc. From a meditation perspective, all you are doing here is building stories out of other stories. You get lost in endless narratives, albeit narratives that are often seductive though sometimes helpful.

The “examination” or “investigation” in Buddhist practice is more akin to looking carefully to see a bird or other animal in nature, looking until you can see the animal even though it is camouflaged against its background — resting and looking until seeing arises rather than hypothesis and experimentation that develops into a theory or analysis and deduction that leads to a compelling story.

When we rest and look, we become aware of a mass of unaware thinking. These movements in mind have many layers — reactive thoughts, bodily sensations that both trigger and are triggered by thinking, reactive emotions that spill into thinking and other bodily sensations, beliefs, prejudices and ideals, emotional projections, agendas and interpretations, stories upon stories, uncomfortable and difficult feelings on top of other uncomfortable and difficult bodily sensations, feelings of extraordinary well being, physically and emotionally that we seek to hold onto or duplicate, clarity, dullness, peace, turmoil, all piled on top of each other and interwoven in a bewildering and chaotic mess. The truly surprising discovery is that when we don’t try to sort any of it out, when we drop our attraction, aversion and indifference to what we are experiencing, we find a knowing quality that seems as vast as the sky, that can and does include everything and that is at one and the same time freedom, peace and clarity. This is the wonderful treasure we did not know was in our own home.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
Seng Tsan

In other words, it is from knowing completely our own experience, through and through, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, that we discover what is possible. This is not about a psychological understanding of why we do things, what motivates us or how our reactions are structured. That may arise in the process, but it’s a side-effect. Nor is it about being a better person, whether in the eyes of the world or in our own eyes, though that again may arise as a side-effect of our efforts. In the process, we come to know intimately how our own pain and suffering comes about, how it comes from wanting things to be a little different from what they are and from struggling to make them be what we want, internally or externally. Long before we find any freedom or clarity, we feel compassion for others, because we know, through our own experience, that they are doing the same thing — struggling with their experience of life because they want things to be different from what they are. This compassion is not based in pity, mercy or charity. It is based entirely in our own knowledge and experience of the human condition.

When we then discover this peace, freedom and clarity, our heart also bursts open. We see how we have been entangled in our own reactivity (samsara), living in the darkness of ignorance, unaware of a totally natural clarity that is present in all that we experience and we understand that others are caught in the same web of confusion. Compassion now takes on a different quality. It is no longer a feeling. It now becomes that clarity expresses itself in our lives.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Verse 1.1 intro

Mind itself is like space — it cuts through everything.
The nature of space is that there is nothing that is space.
In the same way, examples cannot really describe awareness.
Yet I rely on such methods to shed light on key points.

Mind itself, this knowing that is present in everything we experience, is like space: it is not a thing, yet it is always there. Jigmé Lingpa uses the analogy of space just as did Tilopa in The Ganges Mahamudra:

Although you say space is empty,
You can't say that space is "like this".
Likewise, although mind is said to be sheer clarity,
There is nothing there: you can't say "it's like this".

Space is present whether there are objects or not. In this sense, space cuts through everything. The same could be said of silence: silence is present whether there is sound or not. And stillness is present whether there is movement or not. The same holds for awareness: it is there whether thoughts, feelings or sensations arise or not.

These are examples or analogies. Neither Tilopa or Jigmé Lingpa are presenting facts, or even theories, about mind or reality. They are describing their experience, experience that is so vivid and meaningful for them that it has transformed their lives and their whole understanding of life.

Yet these comparisons carry the danger of giving us an idea, a picture, something we can think about. We easily fall into the illusion that we understand awareness when we understand these examples. As Jigmé Lingpa says, "Examples cannot really describe awareness." Understanding isn't the point here, in the same way that understanding a painting or a dance performance isn't really the point.

Instead, pay attention to what happens in you when you read, "The nature of space is that there is nothing that is space."

Do you experience a letting go? If so, just rest right there. Don't try to explain or put in words what has let go. Just rest right in that experience. 

This, essentially, is the way we read poetry. This is what Jigmé Lingpa means when he writes, "Yet I rely on such methods to shed light on key points." He is using words to point to something. As has often been said in Buddhist writings, don't mistake the finger (in this case, the words) for the moon (the shift in experience). 

When you read this and the subsequent verses, imagine Jigmé Lingpa is speaking to you, communicating something that is vitally important to him and vitally important to you. Even though examples and comparisons cannot point out awareness to you, he uses them to elicit something in you. That is what is important here -- not the understanding of the words or concepts in the poem, but what it elicits in you.