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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Verse 3.10 — losing your way

Even in this experience of naked presence
In which there is no movement or change,
If you don’t avoid the mire of position-based correctives,
You lose your way in analysis and speculation.

When you watch a flag flapping in the wind, is it the flag that moves, or the wind that moves? One teacher quipped that it was the mind that moved. His quip soon became legend, but, like most legends, it is not exactly true and has led many astray. Mind is not a thing. 

The first two lines of this verse are frequently misunderstood to mean that there is a state in which there is no movement or change. There is. It’s called death, but that’s not what is being referred to here. 

It is possible to watch waves crashing on a beach and have the experience that nothing moves. The waves tumble over each other in a sea of foam, but you do not experience any movement — not outside, not inside, not anywhere. You can experience traffic the same way, but you still have to be careful crossing the street. Not infrequently, athletes and musicians have the same kind of experience. Likewise, it is possible for you to experience thoughts and emotions arising and disappearing like clouds in the sky, yet you experience no movement. The freedom and peace is amazing.

Just because you experience no movement doesn’t mean that there is no movement. Just because you experience timeless awareness doesn’t mean that there is a timeless awareness. When poetry is taken literally, things tend to go badly, very badly.

When we put our experience into words to communicate to others, others often hear only the words. They aren’t able to see the moon to which our finger is pointing. It’s as if we tapped out the rhythm of a melody and expected the person listening to be able to identify the melody. Our own enthusiasm just adds conviction to our description. “This is how things really are,” we say, our eyes ablaze, our face lit up by what we have experienced. The listeners, however, form their own idea from what we said and that becomes what they seek.

Many phrases in the Tibetan tradition are misunderstood this way — no change, no movement (འཕོ་འགྱུར་མེད་པ), no ground, no origin (གཞི་མེད་རྩ་བྲལ་), etc. These all refer to experiences and these experiences are so vivid and transformative — simultaneously transcendent and immanent — that they are taken to be true or real. They are taken to be how things really are, and that is where the misunderstanding starts. 

We can never know how things “really are”, but we find it difficult to live with the groundlessness of that not knowing. Thus, more or less from the dawn of history, we, as human beings, have sought to find explanations and understandings for our lives and the world in which we live. Even when we experience immediate and naked presence, questions arise. What makes this possible? How do I return here? What else is possible? It’s a short step to practices and rituals, another short step into the maze of belief and positions and an even shorter step into the quagmire of analysis and speculation.

The canons of Buddhist teaching are simply the dust left by extraordinary practitioners losing their way. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Verse 3.9 — deep into the mystery

Whenever conceptual thinking arises,
Don’t look at what arises: know what knows the arising.
Like an oak peg in hard ground,
Stand firm in awareness that knows, and go deep into the mystery.

Here is the genius of the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism. In just four lines, Jigmé Lingpa gives precise instruction on the deepest aspect of meditation practice, connects it with the Heart Drop (སྙིང་ཐིག་) tradition of dzogchen, differentiates it from other approaches, and provides a vivid simile for practice. What more do you want?

What do you do when a thought arises? This is the central question in virtually all contemplative practice. 

When we have no training or insight, we take our thoughts as real. Soon after we begin meditation practice, we see that, in the words of Henepola Gunaratana, our minds are shrieking, gibbering madhouses, completely out of control. As we progress in practice, we see more and more that the problem is not in what we experience but how we experience. We discover new possibilities, a clear open awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations simply come and go. 

Different practice traditions take different approaches to the arising of thoughts. Most esoteric traditions agree that thoughts themselves are not the enemy. On the other hand, when we are thinking, awareness is dulled and confused. Some traditions encourage the development of a dispassionate observer, but that simply replaces one problem with another as I wrote about in connection with verse 2.5. The direct awareness traditions of Tibet teach the possibility of an awareness that is not an observer and is not affected by the coming and going of thought, an awareness in which thoughts, feelings and sensations form and dissolve like mist or like clouds in the sky.

Yet, when thoughts arise, it is all too easy to fall out of such a clear open awareness into the dulled confused state of thinking. The usual approach found in the middle way, mahamudra, dzogchen, and chö traditions, is to look right at the thought as it arises. Kongtrül, for instance, writes in Creation and Completion:

Whatever thought arises, when you look right at it
Without doing anything with it, it releases and becomes your path.

Here, Jigmé Lingpa is suggesting another approach. When a thought arises, don’t look at the thought. Know what knows the arising. In Kongtrül’s words, again from Creation and Completion:

Whatever arises, look inwardly, right at what knows the thought.

What happens when you do this? Basically, nothing, and that’s the point. You end up looking at nothing and, simultaneously, being nothing. Any vestige of an observer evaporates, and along with it, any vestige of conceptual thinking. If your attention is stable (and that’s the challenge for most people in this sort of practice), then, as Jigmé Lingpa writes, you stand in awareness. And just in case you don’t know, he tells you how to stand in awareness — like an oak peg in hard ground.

Where this takes you no one can say. It’s been given many names, but that’s a problem. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There is no there there.” People talk endlessly about this nothing. They call it emptiness, the realm of totality or infinite space (dharmadhatu, ཆོས་དབྱིངས་), pure being or the essence of reality (dharmata, ཆོས་ཉིད་), buddha nature and so on, but all too easily, they forget that they are talking about an experience. The experience is so powerful, so meaningful, so wonderful and so transformative that it must be real, in some sense of that strange and mysterious word. The language of poetry — the language of metaphor, allusion and awe — gives way to the language of philosophy — definition, distinctions and reason. Then the fixations start. As I wrote in An Arrow to the Heart

First it was an opening, then a memory, then an idea. Unnoticed, it became a belief and then an ideology. Now it’s a casus belli, and you are ready to wreak havoc on all who disagree.

When you look at what knows, you enter a mystery. Go into it as far as you  want. It will probably change your life. But please don’t make anything out of it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Verse 3.8 — the treasure at the world's end

Stop all your reactive checking, 
Managing and goal-seeking.
This direct knowing, unappreciated and dismissed,
Stop distorting or altering it. Let it be.

In almost every tradition I’ve studied, there is a story about a person who travels far and wide, searching the world for wisdom or secret treasure. He fails to find it, no matter where he goes, no matter whom he seeks for advice. The last sage he visits tells him to tend to a tree growing in the garden behind his own house. With nowhere else to go, no one else to see, he returns home and finds that the tree is ill. Something is wrong with its roots. Digging in the soil, he uncovers an ancient scroll or a treasure of gold. His search is over. What he was seeking was in his own garden all along.

This story, and stories like it, I find simultaneously helpful and infuriating. They are helpful because they remind me that what we seek, whether we call it freedom, enlightenment, buddha nature, direct awareness, God or whatever isn’t “out there”. They are infuriating because, even when I feel I understand the story, the story doesn’t tell me what to do. I could never find the tree. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t even know where to look.

It’s all very well to say, “Stop checking or tracking your experience. Stop managing it. Stop your goal-seeking.” Personally I find it hard to give up those tendencies. They are deeply ingrained. Maybe some people can let these tendencies go through an act of will. I can’t. Any attempt to exert an act of will just puts me back in the box (verse 3.6 et al). 

By now, I know that checking my experience, or tracking, analyzing or trying to make sense of it (by appealing to any of the different logic schemes available to us — psychology, sociology, neurology, biology, astrology, etc.) is pointless. Those perspectives may be helpful for problems in other contexts, but for the direct awareness that Jigmé Lingpa is talking about, they are worse than useless. Like the person in the story, I’ve journeyed to the ends of the world trying to find the fabled wisdom and I’ve come up empty. Nevertheless, I still check my experience, track it, analyze it or try to make sense of it. The difference is that now, as soon as I notice that I’m doing any of these, I stop, take a breath, and start again. 

There are two points here. One is that I had to reach the point where I knew that these approaches were fruitless and pointless. The second is that, even with that knowledge, I still have to cut the pattern of checking, again and again. I am practicing a different way of relating to what arises in experience. While on the one hand this new way is utterly natural in that it just lets experience be what it is, in the beginning it is not at all natural. No judgment, no appraisal, no story — it’s a very different way of relating to what arises.

The same holds for managing my experience, the constant and pernicious tendency to want things to be just a little different from what they are. In meditation, I find myself tweaking this here, adjusting that there, and before I know it, I’m completely involved in making my experience conform to my expectations. Again, the same principle holds. As soon as I recognize what I’m doing, I stop, take a breath, and start again.

In some ways, I find goal-seeking the hardest. One would think with all the disappointments and defeats, I wouldn’t pay attention to small victories in the quality of attention, but again and again, the thought pops up, “Ah, I think I’m getting somewhere.” Now, when that thought pops up, a rueful smile of recognition arises too. I stop, take a breath and start again.

There’s an old joke about fish. One fish asks another fish, “How's the water?" The other fish replies, “What the hell is water?" Like the fish, we swim in water but the water we swim in is a subtle absolutely clear awareness. We don’t notice it, we don’t recognize it and we don’t appreciate it.

Everyone knows the example of the glass of turbid water. The water becomes clear when it is left undisturbed and allowed to become still. What we may overlook in this example is that we are not watching the water. We are the water. 

Mind is not a thing we watch. Everything we experience is mind. If we are watching the mind, watching what we experience, we are already one step removed. If we are trying to change our experience, analyze it or track it, we are more than one step removed. Every movement, whether it is checking our experience, managing it or anticipating it (goal-seeking) stirs up the water, along with all the sediment. The treasure is there, but we won’t know it as long as we keep stirring things up.

The natural clarity of the water is unnoticed, unrecognized and unappreciated because it is transparent. We see right through it. We don’t see it. No one has ever seen it. It is often likened to a mirror. The natural clarity of the mirror is transparent. We don’t see it. We never see a mirror. We see only the reflections in the mirror. We take the natural clarity for granted. In the same way, we easily miss this subtle clear awareness. We don’t see it. We see right through it. It’s too ordinary! 

Many of us, it seems, have to take that long journey, work through many, many challenges and endure just as many hardships before we really and truly give up, return home and see for the first time what has been there all along.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Verse 3.7 — letting go of practice

How wonderful!

Because these mistakes stop you from going beyond ordinary experience,
Be clear that the approach of practice versus not practice
Relies on an artificial distinction. Be in what you experience right now, 
Without trying to reshape it in any way.

This is a tough one! How do you sit without feeling you aren’t practicing, aren’t working at anything at all?

By the time you reach this stage of practice, you have learned a lot: how to cultivate attention, how to bring that attention to bear on what prevents you from experiencing what arises, how to rest in the often difficult physical and emotional sensations of patterns unfolding and releasing, how to look at and see nothing, how to mix awareness and experience, and so on.

Not only have we learned these skills and built this capacity of attention, these kinds of efforts have become second nature to us, as they should.

But we still have the idea of practice, that there is something to do, there is an effort to be made. That idea is deeply embedded in our way of thinking and puts us into the box, the double-bind described in the preceding verse.

What to do? For this, I go back to one of the instructions in Mind Training in Seven Points, namely, “Let even the remedy release naturally.” One aspect of the genius of these instructions is that, as our experience and abilities evolve, we see how to apply them at ever deeper levels and in different ways.

We are used to thinking of practice as a remedy, but it’s not at all clear how to let that notion of practice release naturally. In verse 3.2, I described how to cut through the tendency to conceptualize experience. As soon as you notice any movement into conceptualization, cut the tendency (by taking a breath) and then just sit. This is, essentially, the practice of Chö (cutting, Tib. གཅོད). The same principle applies here. As soon as you feel you are practicing in any way, stop. Take a breath, and open to what you are experiencing, physically, emotionally, cognitively, without, as Jigmé Lingpa says, “trying to reshape it in any way.”

In the beginning, it’s a bit of a mess. It’s confusing. There’s a lot of second-guessing. I often end up like a dog chasing its own tail, but that’s just the conceptual mind going into overtime because I am not doing anything and it is compensating by revving up its activity. Nevertheless, the same principle applies: when I recognize that I’m chasing my own tail, I stop, breath out, and rest.

This one principle seems to apply over and over again: as soon as you recognize that you are doing something or that you are lost, stop, and start again. This is what Kalu Rinpoche taught, over and over again, with “just recognize”. This is what Karmapa XVI taught when he visited us in the three-year retreat. “Look,” he said, and the air crackled with the energy of his attention. “As soon as a thought arises, relax.” And a gentle wave of energy flooded the room where we all sat. “Then look again,” he said and lightning again charged the room. His teaching had all the subtlety of someone picking me up by the scruff of my neck and throwing me against the wall over and over again — I don’t know how many times. “This is what I’ve understood from my study and practice in Mahamdura, Dzogchen and Kalacakra,” he concluded, and then he left.

As I worked with this alternation again and again over many years, the looking and the resting gradually came together and I did less and less in practice. It seemed that there wasn’t anything to do and this not-doing culminated in an understanding that there was absolutely nothing to oppose. It was suddenly clear that I had the potential to experience anything, and thus, there was no longer any need to oppose anything. The very basis for reaction, the need to reshape what arises in experience, crumbled. I could just let things be and there was a peace, or a freedom, that was quite different from any other experience I’d had.

This understanding has brought me closer to the feeling that I am actually in my life and that, to me at least, is freedom. While my life has been shaped by many influences — my genetic inheritance, my parents and family, school and education, friends and colleagues, work, health, the societies and cultures in which I have lived —  my life is just life. It doesn’t belong to anyone or anything, even me.

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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Verse 3.5 — mulling over footprints

Some who know that movement and memory are mind
Mull over the traces as thoughts and feelings ebb and flow
And track the arising and fading of thinking. With this meditation
Even if they practice for a hundred years, they just spin in confusion.

Do nothing. That seems to be what Jigmé Lingpa keeps saying, one way or another. Here he identifies another tendency that pulls us away from doing nothing, a tendency that reflects our insatiable need for engagement of one sort or another.

Do you remember the chair in the center of the room? Ajahn Chah once said, “If you want to practice meditation, put a chair in the center of the room. Sit in the chair. See who comes to visit.”

Some people, when they practice this way, keep a guest book. They can’t just let the visitors come and go. Instead, they look at the signatures and savor what happened while the visitors were there. They note when visitors come and go, or what causes them to come and go.

At best they forget that the guest book is just another visitor. At worst, they deliberately ignore that fact and indulge their need for engagement.

Even when we know and are able to experience thought and feeling as the movement of mind, we all find ways to give certain visitors a privileged status. 

To be honest, I do the same things with waves. When I sit by the ocean and watch the waves roll in, breaking on the beach or crashing against rocks, I find myself noting bigger and smaller waves, which directions the different sets come from, how they combine to become bigger and more powerful, or how they cancel each other out so the ocean is almost calm for a few minutes. When I do this, when I get caught up in the particulars of a wave, I lose the experience of the ocean — the deep underlying roar of the surf along with all the different voices, the regular and unexpected crashes, the long sibilants of rolling waves, the sand and rocks grating against each other, the intermittent peeps and cheeps of different birds, the whoosh and buffeting of the wind. I lose all of that when I follow particular waves and compare them with each other. 

There are many kinds of knowing. Each has its own methodologies and its own uses. The kind of knowing cultivated in dzogchen practice is not about how to do things or how to make things. It is not about how to remedy problems or how to heal wounds. It is not philosophical, theological, or soteriological. It’s about how to experience what arises in life, completely, so completely that there is no sense of a self separate from what is experienced. 

To do that, we have to let go of everything. Each of the mistakes in practice that Jigmé Lingpa has been describing is about one or other form of not letting go. Here, it is about not letting go of our tendency to track our experience, however subtly. To track our experience is to observe it and to observe it is to be separate from it. 

Stop watching. Stop tracking. Just be there. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Verse 3.4 — you cannot see when there is no light

Some just do not see what is naturally present.
They are very confused. They take as the essence of practice
A feebleness in which words lead them astray
And a dullness that suppresses thoughts and feelings.

In 2001, I moved into a new office. My assistant pointed to a small painting and asked, “Where do you want to put that?”

“Right above your desk. It will be perfect there. It’s a meditation test and people will or won’t see it.”

This particular painting was a minimalist piece consisting of a uniform green-tinged black with a small bit of bare canvas at the bottom left edge. I explained that students would look at the painting but not see it, because they were not able to look at nothing and see. When they actually saw the painting, it was a sign that they could now look at nothing and actually see nothing.

“That’s crazy,” she said. 

Four years later, a student who came to see me quite regularly stopped at her desk and asked, “When did you get that painting?” 

“I don’t believe it!” she said, leaning back and laughing. The student was utterly confused. I smiled, and let her explain that the painting had been there for four years.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I never saw it there.”

That much was true. He hadn’t seen it until that day.

It is one thing to look at nothing. It is another to see nothing. To do so, one has to be open in a certain way. 

I remember my teacher pointing out the nature of mind in interviews when I was translating. At first, I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. He would ask certain questions that seemed to have little to do with what the student wanted to talk about. I would just translate the questions and answers as best I could. Gradually, I came to appreciate that he was giving pointing out instructions to virtually everyone who came to see him. Most of the time his efforts went nowhere, but sometimes the conversation became alive in a strange way. Though I was translating, I wasn’t really part of the conversation. My teacher and the person present were communicating at another level and, even thought I was translating, I was the one who was “very confused”.

We need to be ready for pointing out instructions. If not, we end up looking at nothing but do not see nothing. We don’t see anything and we think that this weak blank state is meditation. We can’t describe our experience. There's no vitality, no power, no light in it. Thoughts and feelings are dulled, more or less as if they were experienced in a fog but because they don’t disturb us, we think our practice is in good shape. People who are prone to depression easily fall into this state, a dull stasis that goes nowhere except to spiral down into a gradually increasing torpor and immobility. It’s a form of “marmot meditation” and every text on mind nature includes warnings about it.

Long periods of dullness in meditation are to be avoided as they reinforce patterns of depression and suppression. It is, generally speaking, better to have an overly active mind than a dull mind. The former, at least, has a degree of energy and possibly wakefulness in it. If you are prone to the latter, practice intensely for short periods (5-10 minutes) and then move around a bit to throw off any dullness. Include walking meditation, if not running meditation. Get regular exercise so that your heart has to pump vigorously everyday. Avoid television and activities that induce stasis. Go for a walk, instead, or go to a movie on a big, big screen. Regularly stimulate your mind, body and emotions so that you aren’t slipping into that dull state. As your body becomes more alive, your mind becomes clearer. You will be able to rest and look without falling into dullness. 

When you look at nothing, but have no sense of seeing, then look at what experiences nothing. As Mipham writes in A Light in the Dark:

Now, as you experience this vague knowing in which there is no thought or movement, look at what knows that this is happening, look at what is mentally or emotionally inert, and rest there.

This is tricky, particularly if you are prone to depression. But if you can do this, there comes a day when you actually see nothing, and everything changes.