Saturday, January 17, 2015

Verse 3.6 — the end of practice

In general, work and effort only create opposition.
When you practice, you stir up all sorts of pains and discomforts.
When you don’t practice, you forget what you are and wander in confusion.
In either case, you lose touch with what is straightforward and natural.

This is Jigmé Linpa’s description of the box. Any effort you make brings you into opposition with something. If you don’t make any effort, you just sit there in a dazed confused state. This is the classic double-bind — damned if you do and damned if you don’t — the most reliable way to drive a person insane (or psychotic)

In this section of the poem, Jigmé Lingpa has set out a number of subtle mistakes that we may make in this practice. In verse 3.1 he talks about a cage of inventions. The conceptual mind constructs a framework to interpret and understand experience, but the framework turns out to be a cage that prevents direct, immediate and unrestricted knowing. In verse 3.2 he describes how even the action of conceptualization keeps us from knowing experience directly. In verse 3.3 he talks about how problems arise when we try to control or force experience. In verse 3.4 he warns about the deadening effect of the dullness we easily slip into when we try to be present and do nothing. In verse 3.5 he alerts us to a subtle form of busyness, the busyness of tracking what is happening in one’s practice. 

In summary, any concern with the content of experience distances us from direct knowing, any effort to force things creates problems and any degradation of the quality of attention leads to dullness and inattention. 

It doesn’t leave much room for maneuvering, does it?

To touch what is truly straightforward and natural, we have to let go of all the ways of knowing that we are used to. This is no small matter. We do not let go of those ways willingly. Some people, it seems, can do so intentionally, but I am certainly not one of them. Kicking and screaming is what comes to mind, but that assumes we know how to let go of those ways of knowing. Most of us don’t. We do not and cannot see what is possible. For that reason alone, most of us have to be pushed, tricked or tripped into letting go.

In the Zen tradition, a question is put to us, and before we can say anything, the teacher says, “If you say anything, I’ll hit you. If you don’t say anything, I’ll hit you.” How to respond? This is crazy-making, of course, but the point is to push us beyond the ordinary thinking mind. 

In the mahamudra and dzogchen traditions, we are given pointing out instructions. These are often interpreted as logic games, but that is not their intent. They, too, are designed to push us beyond ordinary thinking and into direct experience. Like the Zen questions, they only work if we are ready, if all the conditions are present.

Probably the most reliable method, the one that historically has worked for the largest number of people, is devotion. Through practice and prayer, through study and service, or through some other combination of practices and activities, we form a visceral emotional connection with a teacher or historical figure, someone who represents to us the possibility of being completely awake, even if we don’t know what that possibility actually means. That emotional connection enables us to be let go of how we are used to knowing. Again, when the conditions are right, the power of the faith and devotion flows into awareness. It lights up and we see — we know directly. Over the centuries, in tradition after tradition, it has been the most effective path for many, but in the modern world, unfortunately, it is misunderstood, suspect and abused.

In the next section Jigmé Lingpa continues his instruction, but he places this verse here for a definite reason. We cannot make use of what he presents next unless we have utterly and completely exhausted our usual approaches to practice and to knowing.

Texts such as these are quite misleading for the average Western practitioner, because we do not appreciate how condensed they are in terms of time. Each verse assumes months, if not years, of practice. How long does it take for our practice to mature through each of the eight pitfalls outlined in section 1? How long does it take to understand and appreciate the possibilities he describes in section 2?  How much practice must we do before we recognize the problems outlined in this third section? How long does it take for us to exhaust the repertoire of tricks we think will get us out of the box? 

Some of us are more stubborn that others. For me, it wasn’t until I experienced viscerally how conceptual understanding is indeed a cage and I simply could not rely on it. It wasn’t until my longing to transcend my limitations had left me bereft and abandoned and I had no place to turn. It wasn’t until every effort I made brought me up against one wall or another and I was left with no path, no door, not even a window. Only then did I begin to recognize what was there all along, the possibility of being straightforward and natural. 

As for living there, well, that seems to be a life’s work.


9 comments:

Bart said...

You know, I usually really appreciate and admire the depth and subtlety and poignancy of the arguments presented - reading about pitfals and being careful about this trap or that trap (and they get ever more sophisticated) gives me some sense of being initiated into some kind of secret knowledge for the ones who know the stuff (or something like that, you know what I mean). I feel kind of priviledged and hopeful that I could do it, even if I needed some more training.

However after this one I actually started to feel pretty uneasy. You know, at some point one must draw a line (at least temporarily) regarding things one is going to doubt. Otherwise it`s all just a terrible disheartening havoc. And when I read about the need to be fit, energetic, emotionally and intellectually stimulated, mindful of dullnes and wrong understanding of deviotion, being bound to be pushed towards the unknown by a qualified teacher (or I`ll sure fall prey to my own stupidity)... it`s like Oh-My-God!, I`m not a super man.

Looking at this text I get the picture: it doesn`t matter, mate, how much you practice - you just won`t make it unless zillion things come together plus a teacher at the right time to kick you. (Besides, I can`t imagine receiving pointing out instructions of this kind through skype. The teacher, I presume, ought to be close by, and I should already have a very very stable and active attention in place, the teacher then comes closer, says something and whack!, there I open).

It`s a pretty dishertening picture considering I practice 75-150 minutes per day. And who is going to tell me if my natural presence is not in fact dullness leading me stealthily towards deeper and deeper depression or suppression. It all seems like "Ah donno much anything"

Mri said...

I appreciate your paragraph on devotion and how it can be pivotal, for some people, on the path of Dzogchen. This to me is one of the interesting things about the Nyingma approach to Dzogchen, which I think can be approached via the path of ‘ecstasy’ or the path of ‘insight’. Is the result different, or the same? I think it’s different.

Ken said...

Dear Bart,

Of course a zillion things have to come together. A zillion things had to come together for you to be on this earth at all, and, yet, here you are.

Your daily practice will, almost certainly, be a good base from which to work.

Now, find someone to work with, refine your practice, and see what happens.

What do you have to lose?

Ken

Ken said...

Dear Mri,

Yes, I agree that dzogchen can be approached through either ecstasy or insight. I'm curious as to how you see the difference in result.

Ken

Mri said...

Hi Ken
re: 'how I see the difference' ...
My feeling is that ecstatic practices (especially when combined with energy practices) radically change the configuration of both your emotional body and your subtle body, in a way that straight insight practice might not. Perhaps insight practice changes your mental structures in a way that ecstatic practice does not.
Let's say Manjushri and Kurukula were having tea together. What sort of conversation might they have? They'd probably have different perspectives about the path, and about life in general.

I read this today in the book 'The Radiance Sutras' (by Lorin Roche):
Love is particular.
When you love someone,
The whole world opens up.
If you want to know the universe,
Dare to love one person.

All the secret teachings are right here-
Go deeper, and deeper still.
The gift of concentration
Is the spaciousness that surrounds.
Focus illuminates immensity


Best wishes,
Marie R.

Michael said...

Dear Bart,

What I hear is that you’re struggling with an interpretation of the path and an imposition of difficulty, if not impossibility, upon the attainment of some goal that’s “out there and in the future.”

May I humbly suggest that your holding on to all that is the very thing that is getting in your way.

For the moment, Bart, let’s have some fun and put all that aside and just rest here, without any concern of having to accomplish anything, without any concern about what any tradition says, without any notion of timetables.

What is the point of the spiritual path? What did Buddha discover, after driving himself to the point of death (which he came to realize was ridiculous, wrong-headed and absolutely not necessary)?

He discovered that, above all and before anything, right here and now, we are naturally present and aware. This is “The Ground of Being,” to use a fancy term.

Bart, are you here? Do you know that you’re here? Of course, it can’t be denied! Then rest in “This” – “This” which is aware and not what we are aware of.

“This” is already the case, it’s what we’re born into, it’s our birthright, so the work is already done and nothing can be done or needs to be done to make it so because it already is. So just relax into “This.”

That’s what old Jigme is trying say, though I wouldn’t interpret it as some kind of trap or dilemma – rather, it’s an expression of what is. It is paradoxical, and that creates a feeling of dilemma if we’re trying to make sense of "This" through thinking, or if we’re trying to seek "This" as some thing that can be known.

“This” can never be known through thought or as some thing. “This” is what knows thought and every thing but is itself without any defining characteristics.

It’s not a matter of “it doesn’t matter how much you practice, you won’t make it unless a zillion things come together with some teacher,” as you said. No wonder you feel disheartened!

Nothing has to “come together” for you to be naturally present and aware, does it?

And whatever doubts and struggles you have, what is it that knows all that?

If you’re “practicing with some expectation to attain something,” then you can see why you’re frustrated, because you’re waiting for some thing to happen, rather than resting in natural presence which is not some thing or some happening.

You’re turning away from the open simplicity of the present moment and exchanging that for some imagined future payoff, like a carrot on a stick.

But just recognize that all of that is just thought, which is happening in the open space of the present moment: awareness itself.

Awareness itself is your teacher, the ultimate teacher. No need to go on a teacher hunt.

See that we can make a distinction between awareness and what we are aware of, and then let that distinction naturally relax.

Just allow everything to be exactly as it is, without resistance or grasping and identification.

Relax out of your interpretations that “I don’t have it,” “I need to do lots more,” “This is impossible,” “It’s not here now,” “I need to attain something,” “I need to know something that I don’t know.”

Relax and rest in natural ease, Good Buddy!

Bart said...

Dear Michael,

Your words are kind and I feel like there`s a kind heart behind them too. And there is a point in what you`re saying, undeniably.

Yet I feel you`re missing something from what I wrote, and simplifying the picture far too much.

You see, what I meant was that it is the structure and content of Ken`s text that leave me feeling perfectly unqualified and way behind (not that I constantly perceive spiritual practice as a chase after a carrot to be grabbed somewhere there and in the future).

Secondly, in my view [[and here I owe much to Ken]] what Buddha did was not discovering he is aware (that even I can do) but realizing this potential fully (which I haven't done yet apart from some glimpses perhaps) by removing blocks that prevented him from experiencing life that way (which requires effort and hard work).

Advising me "just relax, you`re already rich" is like telling a man who possesses a parcel of land with a hidden treasure on it "don`t worry, somewhere on your piece of land there is a box that makes you super affluent, you don`t need to work anymore". Oh, is that a fact?

Thirdly, ask Ken how many preliminary practices he had to do before he could "just rest".

You see, there is work to be done. And then work to be done to let go of the habits of working at something.

And I have done some work. Yet when I read (in Ken`s text) how subtle and sophisticated and demanding the views and pratices can get if you want to "just be", I feel (quite rightly, I guess) I`m not there yet, and ah donno much, my Good Buddy!

Michael said...



Realization consists only
in getting rid of
the false idea
that one is not realized.

– Ramana Maharshi



Nothing can trouble you but your own imagination.

– Nisargadatta

Bart said...


One day, Milarepa warned Gampopa that the time had come for him to depart.

He told Gampopa, "You have received the entire transmission. I have given you all the teachings, as if pouring water from one vase into another. Only 1 pith instruction remains that I haven't taught you. It's very secret."

He then accompanied Gampopa to a river, where they were to part. Gampopa made prostrations to take his leave and started across. But Milarepa called him back: "You are a really good disciple. Anyway I will give you this last teaching."

Overjoyed, Gampopa prostrated 9 times, then waited for the instructions. Milarepa proceeded to turn around, pull up his robe, showing Gampopa his bottom. "Do you see?"

And Gampopa said, "Uh...yes..."

"Do you really see?"

Gampopa was not sure what he was supposed to see. Milarepa had calluses on his buttocks; they looked as though they were half flesh and half stone.

"You see, this is how I reached enlightenment: sitting and meditating. If you want to reach it in this life, make the same effort. This is my final teaching. I have nothing more to add."