Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Verse 3.3 — when reactive energy enters the life channel

Some people cut off the ebb and flow of thoughts and feelings
And construct an emptiness practice infected with goal-seeking.
Their forced and constricted practice wears them out.
Serious problems develop when reactive energy enters the life channel.

In the three-year retreat, it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that one of the essential abilities for mahamudra practice is the ability to rest. That became a big problem, because I simply couldn’t rest. I couldn’t rest physically and I couldn’t rest mentally or emotionally.

I became quite ill. By the end of the second retreat, there was no possibility of my continuing into a third retreat. My body had quit, utterly and completely, and I was pretty shaky emotionally. The illness took physical form, but it wasn’t physically based — a fact that I was more than a little resistant to accepting. I had had dreams during the retreat that indicated it was a karmic illness, a category of illness in the Tibetan tradition that cannot be cured by conventional treatments. Other dreams indicated a karmic block — again, a category of block that is not amenable to treatment, even ritual treatment. Nevertheless, after the retreat I continued to look for treatments of one form or another, all to no avail.

In retrospect, one way to describe my illness is that it was due to the stagnation of energy, energy that developed through practice but was not able to circulate smoothly. In energy transformation practice, it is important both to refine energy so it is not carrying a reactive charge and to open the channels through which energy flows so it can circulate smoothly. Energy transformation practices, if practiced effectively, bring unresolved emotional material to the surface. Often we do not know what emotional material is stored in us — we do not know what darkness lurks within. If not worked through (using methods such as Seeing From the Inside), the emotional reactivity creates imbalances that manifest as physical and emotional disturbances. I now know the emotional blocks that prevented me from understanding the messages that my body was giving me and inhibited me from taking appropriate steps. At the time, I just kept trying to make my experience conform to my expectations — a forced and constricted practice, to use Jigmé Lingpa’s words. 

The quality of resting is important for three reasons. It helps to create the conditions in which emotional reactivity can resolve itself — leading to a refinement of energy in the whole system. Resting also allows energy channels to open so that energy can circulate smoothly. And it makes it possible for us to listen to our whole system and sense imbalances before they become serious problems. 

In both mahamudra and dzogchen, we are essentially allowing energy imbalances in mind and body to resolve themselves at progressively deeper levels. To do so requires high levels of stability (resting) and clarity (insight), both of which depend on the level of energy in our attention. As those imbalances resolve, the energy locked in those blocks becomes available to us. We experience greater depth and breadth in awareness and we are also able to work at yet deeper levels. But if we carry fixed notions about how things are meant to be, we can, as I did, run into serious problems. It was only when I was ground into the dust that I began to see that my problems were in those fixed notions. Even then, it took over twenty years of slow and patient work to recover, with many setbacks along the way. I learned a lot about energy, about how it is generated in practice and about how important it is for it to circulate naturally in the mind-body system, particularly when engaging deep and powerful awareness practices such as mahamudra or dzogchen.

Two of my teachers, Kalu Rinpoche and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, took considerable pains to impress on me that, in Nyoshull Khenpo’s words, “Mahamudra and dzogchen are two names for the same person.” They each had their own way of pointing this out to me, and they did a good job. Their message has stayed with me. Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference in emphasis. In mahamudra, the emphasis is on no distraction. In dzogchen, the emphasis is on relaxing and opening. Both are essential, but part of the difference in flavor between the two is this difference in emphasis. Thus, in dzogchen resting is, if anything, more important and an inability to rest is even more of a problem.

Is resting the key to everything? Probably not. After decades of teaching and working with students from different backgrounds and with different capabilities, I’ve come to the conclusion that each person’s path is unique. While there are important principles that apply in most situations, each person needs to find the appropriate way to work with those principles. Some people need to learn how to develop and focus attention. Others need to learn how to relax and open. Some need to learn how to stand in the face of their patterns and cut. Others need to learn how to let things unfold on their own. A good teacher doesn’t teach in just one way, but guides the student according to his or her needs and abilities.

For additional thoughts and information on these topics, please look at:

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Verse 3.2 — how to get rid of an elephant


Pure being has no foundation. It has no essence.
When you make it a concept, a knowing without beginning or end,
It’s as if you turned the formless into form and
You lose track of natural resting. How reactive you become! 

There is something wonderfully tenacious about the human proclivity to name an experience and then make a thing out of the name. An academic word for this tendency is “reification” but it has been known since ancient times. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching point to it in this way:

A way that becomes the way is not the way.
A name that becomes the name is not the name.

Pure being is such a name. As soon as it solidifies into a concept, it ceases to function as the pointer it was intended to be. Pure being cannot be labeled as this or that. In particular, it cannot be labeled as something that has no beginning or end. Again, as I’ve said before, one fares better taking these line “Pure being has no foundation. It has no essence” as poetic expression, not philosophical statement. At the very least, you will get into fewer arguments.

When we are present, deeply present, in our own experience, we don’t experience any thing: no ground, no core, no color, no shape, no movement, no absence of movement — nothing. But we don’t experience just nothing, either. There is a knowing, but we can’t put any words to it. It’s just there, like the light in a room. The “nothing” is like the space in the room. The knowing is like the light. We can’t say where the light comes from or what it is made of any more than we can say where the space come from or what it is made of. Neither the space nor the light have a beginning or an end. They are just there and because they are we see everything that there is to see. Our vision in unrestricted. In the same way, that empty knowing is unrestricted. 

We find we can function just as before, but not exactly just as before. Now we know that the content of experience is not solid, ultimate or determined. Thoughts, feelings or sensations, they all just come and go, seeming to come from nowhere and go nowhere. It is really quite miraculous.

This experience is so vivid and so illuminating that it shatters our ordinary way of understanding and our world. It frees us from the prison of our own projections and, most important of all, it frees us from the need to react. Other possibilities, extraordinary possibilities, open up. Naturally, we want to tell others that such a shift is possible, so we give words to our experience. We might say, “There is a knowing that has no beginning or end.” 

As soon as others hear those words, they form an idea. Once they have that idea, they carry it with them and constantly check their experience against the words. Agh! What a curse! Once we hear about that possibility, we can never rest. Never! And we are so stubborn, too. Once the idea has taken hold, we won’t let go. There is a knowing that has no beginning or end, and I’m going to know it! That’s how I took it, and that is how I’ve seen others take it, one after another. 

The more we try to know it, the more we tie ourselves up in knots and the more reactive we become.

The idea gives us a goal, but it’s rather like the carrot and the donkey. It gets us moving. While that’s probably a good thing, somehow the carrot always stays just out of reach. We keep trying. We build up strength and stamina and abilities, we learn methods and skills, but the carrot is still dangling in front of us and we are no nearer than when we started. 

It’s hard to let go of words and concepts. It’s hard to let go of ideas. If you try to let go of an idea consciously, it imprisons you. 

Don’t think of an elephant. Now, how do you get rid of the elephant?

The only thing to do is to stop. To do that, we have to let go of everything, especially the tendency to relate to experience through concepts. It comes down to this:

As soon as you find yourself conceptualizing your experience, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

As soon as you notice that you are explaining or describing what you are experiencing, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

When you find yourself hoping or fearing or dreading anything, past, present or future, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

If you think you see, understand, feel or know something, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there. 

Whenever you notice that you are bored, elated, depressed or flooded with well-being, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there.

And if you ask, “Where does this go?”, stop. Take a breath. Let it out. And just sit there.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Verse 3.1 — a cage of inventions

Wonder of wonders!

Thus, awakening mind — nothing to remove or attain,
Buddha nature — awareness and peace,
Is present in you. Still, it is stuck in a cage of inventions.
Any notion of practice clouds the heart of the matter.

In this verse, the instruction is in the last line: any notion of practice clouds or distorts the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter is buddha nature, of course — the potential for awareness, peace, freedom, presence, whatever you want to call it. Buddha nature has been a contentious idea for a long time. Witness Joshu when he was asked whether a dog has buddha nature. His "Mu!" has echoed down the corridors of time for centuries.

It’s easy to develop an abstract idea of buddha nature as something that is present in all beings. That interpretation has repeatedly provoked a refutation of buddha nature, namely, that it implies a self, a soul, some kind of concrete entity that negates the notion of non-self. “You Mahayana essentialist!” is an epithet that has been hurled at me on more than one occasion. Such problems arise only because a poetic expression is taken literally and everyone engaged has lost touch with the experience that the original expression is pointing to. Buddha nature, though it has evolved into a philosophical or theological concept, refers, first and foremost to an experience.

Instead of positing a potential for awakening (a position that all too easily leads to the rigidity of belief), I find it more fruitful to start with what I’m feeling, what I’m sensing and what I’m thinking. And just sit.

I sit because there is a longing in my heart. Whether I call that a longing for freedom, for peace or for knowing, it doesn’t matter. It’s there. it’s a felt sense. I can try to put it into words, but the words always fall short.

Further, the longing is often paradoxical. It takes me to places that I would not necessarily choose to go. One person wrote to me describing how it was now possible for her to feel a pain that she hadn’t known was there. She didn’t understand the pain but it seemed to want to be felt. When she just let herself feel it, she felt both more complete and more at peace, despite the intensity of the pain. Others have told me that they discover a peace, a freedom, that is different from anything they imagined and anything that they felt worthy of.

This is what I mean by paradoxical. Where that longing takes us may be radically different from where we think we should be going, where we want to be going or how we are used to being.

If we have any notion of practice, we inevitably have an agenda: this is what I’m going to do and this is what is meant to happen. That agenda prevents us from from listening deeply and letting that longing resolve itself it its own way, in its own time. Its resolution may be no resolution, but that is still its resolution.

This takes us back to the box, of course, though here Jigmé Lingpa calls it “a cage of inventions”.

When I sit, quite often I’ll notice that I’ve been following a train of thought, thinking about something. When I recognize that, I come back. If the distraction is insistent, it’s usually because I’m not feeling something in my body. I reconnect with my body and, lo and behold, there it is — something that I didn’t want to feel. Sometimes I experience a deepening peace and clarity. Hope often springs up, hope for some kind of insight or transcendent experience. I now know those hopes are just thoughts, and they don’t have the power they once had. The same holds for fear, the fear that all my efforts are pointless. Sometimes I experience nothing special at all. Sometimes my body is uncomfortable and it’s difficult to sit for the whole period. Even so, I don’t think in terms of good days or bad days, just, “that’s what happened today”.

How is it possible to practice this way? “Absolute confidence in our fundamental nature,” says Suzuki Roshi. I don’t for a minute think he means that we have a fundamental nature. That, again, is an example of how a poetic expression is taken literally.

When I read Suzuki Roshi’s words, or say them to myself, my body straightens, I feel a strength and determination that seems to come from inside but it’s not certain that it does. My mind clears and I have a direction — though it may be hard to put it into words. I practice from there. Where does this capacity come from? That is buddha nature.

Where does it lead? Mu! I have no idea. The heart has its longings. This way is a response. The rest is not my business.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Verse 2.8 and 2.9 — nothing to do, nowhere to go

Practice or not practice - place attention past that. 
Do or not do - these decisions fade away. 
Empty or not empty -  awakening mind is beyond. 
Am or am not - there’s a space where these differences fall away.

Awareness - not a word, not a thought, no description at all.
Its axis - no corrective, no holding a position. 
Bare, steady, fresh and constantly unfolding,  
A vastness free from effort and complication. 
Rest there, with no movement in past, present or future.

In these two verses, Jigmé Lingpa eloquently describes just how radical Great Completion practice is. They remind me of a Nasrudin story. 

On this occasion, Nasrudin is a magistrate. A man, dressed only in underwear, enters his courtroom. He says he is a tourist and that his clothes have been stolen by someone in the village. He demands that Nasrudin search the village, arrest the miscreant and restore his clothing.

Nasrudin looks at him carefully and then asks, “You are still wearing your underwear, aren’t you?
“Yes,” says the tourist.
“Well,” says Nasrudin, “it wasn’t someone from our village. We do things thoroughly around here.”

The first verse here is all about letting go, letting go completely. If we are going to do this, we do it thoroughly. We don’t leave the underwear, either. 

Forget about practice. And forget about not practicing, too. (Note what happens when you read these last two sentences.) 

Decisions and judgements reverberate, of course, but they fade away if we don’t feed them.

What is emptiness? What is empty? What is not empty? We don’t need to engage these questions. They don’t go anywhere. An instruction from Mind Training in Seven Points covers this -- let even the remedy release naturally. Just look, and poof! We return. 

Other ideas come, too. Do I exist? Do I not exist? We don’t need to engage any debate here either, nor analysis, nor speculation. All that can be left to the philosophers, the psychologists and the neuroscientists. We just rest in the space in which these questions arise, and they fall away (again, if we don’t feed them).

When you let go so completely, what's left?

What’s left is a particular kind of awareness, a knowing that cannot be understood or described, a knowing that needs no correcting or balancing. If we don’t do anything with it or to it (and that’s the hard part), it is there, almost spartan in its simplicity, constant in its presence, vivid and awake, revealing and refreshing itself moment to moment. It seems both extraordinary and absurd that anything could be so simple, so effortless, so wonderful and so immediately at hand, right under our noses, so to speak. One just has to shake one’s head at how obvious all this is when we happen upon it.

Here is a peace, a freedom, that goes beyond anything in our ordinary lives. It is extraordinary, yes. People have built whole philosophies out of it. Others worship it. Others ritualize the practices associated with it. And all to no end.

The point is to know it. Nothing more, nothing less. And to do that, we let go, completely.


Here Jigmé Lingpa concludes the second section of this poem, which he calls a description of the natural freedom of Great Completion.