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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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Tomas Howlin said...

I really like this commentary Ken. I like how direct your words are, with no help of examples. This way of writing is the one that reaches me the most.

cree vega said...

Thank you, Ken, for this commentary. And generally speaking, I'm quite grateful for your presence as a guide - your clear articulation of complex concepts has benefited my practice and study enormously.
Cheers and thank you,
Cree Vega, Seattle

Rebecca Stack said...

Being the good practioner keeps alive the illusion there is a self that can be rescued and sequestered to a ‘good’ life away from the ‘bad’.

Wisdom arises from confusion like a palace constructed from a junkyard. No junk no palace.

The sky never becomes the sunshine or the clouds, yet is the stage for both. The clouds and the sky continue a dance. What is it like from the inside?

The watcher can only see a pale faint description. The experience can know.

Literal thinking treats ritual like an exam with magical rewards.
Open thinking treats it as tonight’s work; whole in and of itself. Happy Sissyphus! And yet there is a kind of magic when the focus is on opening not receiving, is that the mystery?

Practice more ritual and yet be ready to let the ritual go completely.

The elegance of the wrist of the tea maker,
from the molecules to the view from outer space.

What if we could rest right there?

Back to the cleaning the toilet.

Diane de Ford said...

Sitting with this verse and the commentary, words seem less available than a strong felt sense of what is being shared.

There is much to reflect on here... I am reminded as I read the commentary on mind and mind itself of a teaching given by my teacher Dzigar Kongtrul. He speaks to "renouncing the hook" as a means to knowing mind itself.

I believe I'm beginning to understand this as a feeling. And, I have always thought it would be something I'd be able to explain with words!

georgegarvin said...

"a distinction is made between mind and mind itself. "

I find this confusing. The distinction may be described as between the relative and absolute mind, though this may sound like jargon. Alternatively, the distinction is between the nature of mind and what the mind apprehends or perceives.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this one, Ken.

Mri said...

This line particularly spoke to me: "In particular, the careful calculations we tend to make as to what is right or wrong in any given situation dissipate energy. ". To me this points to the subtle emotional forces that are driving the need to 'sort everything out', or to make sense of things.
This line about ritual, you might need to unpack a bit more. I think I understand what you're talking about, but I'm not sure I could explain it: "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." An example might be helpful, perhaps contracting the non-conceptional approach with the childish approach.
Enjoying this commentary very much. Thanks.