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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.