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.


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.


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".