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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. 


Anonymous said...

Dear Ken,
Your translation and commentary go straight to my heart - and are validation. In my experience, any opening that has occurred has always been complete with an overwhelming wish that others could experience it too - compassion is the heart of the matter. You also succinctly expressed my own concerns with how our institutionalized and corporatized lives are eroding the compassion we all have as human beings. I truly feel many humans are not so human anymore. Thank you so much for this commentary. It is another "wake up" call for me - another reminder, not intellectual, of why we practice what we do.
I so appreciate your teachings.

Diane de Ford said...

These verses so precisely get to the heart of it, of practice on this path. Reflecting on "awakening mind" I feel amazed and a sense of longing as things just continually unfold and change, some deeper process that never ends.

Thank you for these teachings!

Brandon said...

Hi Ken,

Can you elaborate on the line' institutional thinking undermines compassion'?

Thank you.

Ken said...

Institutions are necessary for managing large numbers of people and/or managing people in a systematic way. Therein lies the problem. People who work in the institution and people who interact with the institution are required to think of themselves and each other as abstract entities that the institutional system is designed to manage. Institutions are felt to be impersonal because they are. This can be mitigated to some extent, but that abstract impersonal quality is always present. It has to be, in order for the institution to function.