Four pitfalls of Mahamudra Download
Four pitfalls of Mahamudra: making an object out of experience; thinking you can make thoughts or experience empty; thinking that naming things is enough; “buy now, pay later” — practicing to get enlightened.
Tuesday, August 10th, okay, A Trackless Path II, morning session.
There are two things I want to touch on this morning. A major one is a continuation of what we were discussing yesterday, mahamudra. In the classical presentations of mahamudra there’s a list of four what I call pitfalls, which are divided into the general and the specific. And their wording in Tibetan is reasonably clear but most of the translations that I’ve seen into English really make a mess of it. So it’s like, “What are they talking about?” So what I’ve tried to do is put this into my own words here. And for those of you who want to read it, it’s page 420-421 in Wake Up To Your Life.
The first one actually hasn’t come up too much in this retreat, which is very good. And it’s the tendency to make an object out of anything we experience. And so we move from the experiential or epistemological perspective to the ontological, like that actually exists. And the object of our obsession here is emptiness. What people do is they make emptiness into a thing.
Now this is not a Western proclivity. [Chuckles] It happened long before anyone in the West ever heard about emptiness. It probably happened almost as soon as the first teacher used the word, emptiness. Because relatively shortly after you get into the sixteen or twenty different kinds of emptiness. When you study them each one is a kind of pointing out instruction, but it’s moving emptiness from an experience to a concept. And then you can talk about it endlessly. And you can build careers out of it and so forth. And it’s exactly what’s happening with mindfulness these days, so.
It isn’t a thing. It’s a way of experiencing. It’s a way of experiencing that arises fairly naturally when you rest very, very deeply in actually any experience. Now some experiences are more difficult to rest deeply in than others. So we generally when we practice encourage people to work with experiences that are easier to rest deeply in. But as one develops facility you discover that it doesn’t matter what the experience. It can be peace. It can be loving-kindness or compassion. It can be faith, devotion. It can be anger. It can be love. It can be grief.
And what happens is as we rest deeply in this—and this is exactly what the Seeing from the inside INSERT is referring to, and the whole Anapanasati Sutra, right? I always get those two confused. Which is the The Sutra of the Full Awareness of Breathing. So there what’s being used is the experience of breathing. And as you rest deeply in this and all of the reactions to experience play themselves out. Then you find first there’s this deep peace and then there’s deep relaxation and then a kind of knowing arises. And there’s no object in this knowing, it’s just knowing. And for some people it feels like the bottom has dropped out of the world.
So it’s a way of experiencing. And the other really nice thing about emptiness is it’s so good at stopping people’s minds. And it crops up on our Ning site occasionally in two or three rants of this there. But it crops up everywhere. Everybody always wants to find another word, you know. Because it just leaves you nothing to hold onto. So it’s really good at helping drop out that last little bit of clinging.
So this is why Saraha—and I’ve always loved this line, when I first came across it I don’t know how many years ago:
Those who believe that what appears is real are stupid like cows. Those who believe that emptiness is real are even stupider.
And there’s a person back in the early ’70s who came to see Rinpoche when we were in Toronto and he said, “How do you stop suffering, Rinpoche? I mean I’ve meditated for years, I’ve done this, I’ve done that. How do you stop suffering?” And Rinpoche says, “You know that all experience is empty?” He said, “Oh, I understand all that emptiness stuff. You know, that’s very straightforward but how do you stop suffering?” And that’s how the discussion went for half an hour. I mean, it was impenetrable. And because, and this is very important, because he took emptiness as a thing that could somehow be understood. And that, holding that, prevented him from actually opening to the experience of his pain and suffering.
And you see in practice you don’t bring emptiness or understanding or peace or whatever to experience. That never works. And many people try. You know, they go to retreat. They get nice and peaceful and they’re going to bring that to their lives. It doesn’t work. You know, it lasts until somebody insults them. Or somebody cuts them off in traffic or somebody asks them one thing, one question too many or something like that. You find these things in experience. You don’t bring them to experience.
So whenever you find yourself conceptualizing or objectifying emptiness, you are back in thinking and your meditation is dead. Thoughts not a problem; thinking, big problem.
The second pitfall is thinking that you can make thoughts and reactions and everything empty. You know, I’m going to make them empty. Now the relevant saying here is,
You cannot wake up a person who is pretending to sleep. [Laughter]
It’s very, very important. It’s impossible to wake up a person who’s pretending to sleep.
You can’t make thoughts, emotions, experiences empty. Why?
Students: [Unclear] [Several students talking simultaneously]
Ken: Pardon? Anybody?
Student: They never were anything. There’s nothing—you can’t—when something isn’t something you can’t—well, how can you undo—
Ken: Could you tie yourself up any further?
Student: I’m all mixed up! [Laughs]
Ken: But you sense it.
Student: I’m confused but I’m kind of getting that you—[makes garbling noise] [Laughter]
Ken: Anybody else want to try? [Laughs]
Okay. Yesterday, I said this famous line we all know, “Don’t think of an elephant.” And, of course, pop there’s the elephant. And I asked Charles, “Where is the elephant?” Well, the elephant is very vivid, in experiencing. And you can’t say where it is. Experience is there and it’s empty at the same time. It’s just there and there’s nothing to it. So you don’t make the thought of an elephant empty. All experience from this perspective is empty in that it arises.
Now what may be helpful here is to understand that emptiness and form aren’t opposites. I find the, often the easiest way to illustrate this is with sound and silence. But it can be done with stillness and movement and a lot of other things that we see as opposites ordinarily.
And here things can be pretty quiet, when they’re not working on the road. And then a sound arises. And what happens for most of us is that as soon as the sound arises, our attention goes to the sound and we stop hearing the silence. And we have this reflected in our language. We say the sound shattered the silence or broke the silence, quite violent images. But the silence never goes anywhere. It’s there.
And so, to say that the nature of experience is empty is exactly equivalent to saying that the nature of sound is silence. And it’s very useful to train yourself to hear the silence in sound all the time. It will change your relationship with irritating noises, among other things. It will change your relationship with how you listen to other people and it may actually change your relationship with your meditation. Because there’s silence in sound, stillness in movement, and we can think of that in at least two different ways. There is physical movement but you can also train yourself to experience the stillness in movement. And then there’s the movement of mind. And you can train yourself to experience the stillness in movement in mind. Because what happens when a thought arises is we forget the stillness that is always there and now we’re just getting caught up in it. Same as we get caught up in the sound.
And all we’re doing all through this is training ourselves to experience things in a different way. And it makes a huge difference. In a certain sense there’s nothing magical or mysterious about it. It’s just training ourselves to experience things in a different way. But the results are extraordinary which is why people attribute magic and mystery to it.
So you can’t make your experience empty you can only experience things so completely that you know this quality to them. Okay? That’s the second one.
Ah, the third one. It’s basically naming things is enough.
“You seem to be very upset.”
“Yeah, but it’s empty.” [Ken makes “raspberry” noise.]
“Then why are you pounding me into a pulp?”
“Oh, that’s empty too.”
I’m sorry. [Chuckles] I have a little trouble with this.
Remember at the beginning of this retreat, I talked a little bit about Rumpelstiltskin. When you name things for what they actually are, they lose power. The converse of that is when you name things what they aren’t, they gain power. [Chuckles]
So if you’re sitting in meditation and thoughts or emotions arise and you say, “Oh, that’s just empty,” it’s a subtle way of suppressing your experience. You’re actually closing things down. You’re shutting the experience out. And by shutting the experience out by naming it as empty, or saying, you know, it’s empty, you prevent yourself from experiencing it completely.
And what you end up with is kind of an intellectual, flat way of experiencing things. There’s no life in it. And you may be able to live in that walled garden for a while but inevitably life will break it down. And then you’ll be back in the muck with the rest of us.
Fourth one is Buy now, pay later. [Gentle laughter] It’s actually the reverse of that.
How many of you practice in order to get enlightened? Yeah, see, that’s the problem. [Laughter]
There’s only one place you’re going to find wakefulness, in the present experience. It’s why Gampopa and Longchengpa and others said, “Don’t think of the past. Don’t chase after the past. Don’t anticipate the future. Don’t dwell on the present. Rest, right now.” INSERT
If you think that by meditating now “I will wake up sometime,” you’re engaged in the comparison game. And you aren’t in present experience ’cause you’re harboring this idea, “I will get there. I will get there. I will get there. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. One of these days it’s going to happen!”
In many respects this is one of the hardest of the pitfalls to let go because you have to give up all hope. I mean, I’ve always thought that Dante had it wrong.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here, aren’t the words for the portal to hell.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to teach this in his own inimitable way. At least one occasion he had come in his usual hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours late for the talk. Everybody sitting around. And he’d sit down and just say, “It’s hopeless.”
“It’s completely hopeless.”
“It’s never, ever going to happen.”
“How present are you right now?”
He was very good at this stuff.
So there’s a little exercise you can do. We’ve just done one, we’ll do another.
Unknown to you, I was very busy last night. This is my little timer. And I’ve now set if for one minute. [Pause] [Timer makes boing sound] [Laughter]
In one minute when you hear that sound—actually you won’t hear that sound because I rigged a bunch of explosives and this room is going to explode in one minute. [Pause] You’re going to die in thirty seconds. [Pause] Boing, boing, boing, Boing
So what’s that like? How many of you were hoping to get enlightened? [Laughter]
That’s how you practice. It’s a little drastic but I think I made the point. Okay.
Charles: I have a question about loving-kindness practice but I think it’s related to—
Ken: Okay. Go ahead. Okay.
Charles: The second instruction in the verses is in the first person form is,
May I welcome whatever arises. So, something that I found out that I can do is when pain or emotional reactivity comes up, say to it, in my head, “Welcome.”
Charles: Now on the one hand that seems to help the stability of the practice but I’m concerned that it goes against the guideline that says don’t try to change the reactions. Just open to them. So do you think that this is helpful or not?
Ken: Yes, I think it’s quite helpful. Well, first off we have to start somewhere. You know, I mean, if we were all perfectly present all the time, there’s no point in you being here. So you’re exploring a different way of relating to experience. And when painful experiences arise, our usual way of relating to them is enough [Ken makes noise] push them away.
And so you’re exploring this possibility, “Okay, oh, anger. Welcome.” And I imagine it’s a little discombobulating sometimes, yeah. So you’re exploring a different way of experiencing things. You’re not trying to change the anger. And that’s what I mean about not trying to change the reactions. You’re changing the way you experience or receive the anger.
Which is, I mean, going back to my old officemate. He’s given me total permission to talk about him anytime. Such a character. Really angry guy. I mean he’s the kind of guy that if you cut him off on the freeway he’d follow you home and punch you out. You know, well into his forties, he would do that. [Laughter] And so we did quite a lot of work with anger. And he did some very, very good work.
And I explained to him that when any emotion, but we were talking about anger here, arises, we either express it or suppress it. When we express it, the energy of the anger goes into the world and everybody else experiences it. When we suppress it, the energy of the anger goes into the body and causes all kinds of problems and illness, etc., stress in over time. One of the things that we’re doing in meditation is neither suppressing it nor expressing it which means we experience it. And this is—you know, we experience it.
So, he was always popping off about this, about that. One time I came into his office and he was leaning back with his feet up on his desk, his arms folded like and sitting like this. [Annoyed sighing] I said, “What’s wrong, Dave?” He said, “It was much easier when I just expressed it!” [Laughter] I said, “Good for you!” and walked out. [Laughter]
Okay. I’m just going to tidy up this last loose end very quickly. It’s about war. And then we’ll go for breakfast. It’s what Lao Tzu says about this [Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin]:
A Taoist wouldn’t advise a ruler
to use force of arms for conquest;
that tactic backfires.
Where the army marched
grow thorns and thistles.
After the war
come the bad harvests.
And then he goes on to some other stuff. That’s literally true. It’s also metaphorically true. And elsewhere in here but also in Sun Tzu repeats this a lot. You know, the military is an ill-omened tool. Always produces unpredictable results.
So one of the principles I’ve come to—I think it’s always true, but I’m not quite sure. But it’s true enough of the time that it’s worth taking note is that if you have to use violence to gain what you want, what you want is actually unattainable because by the use of violence something else is going—almost always happens. And this applies in the world but it also applies in us.
So in your practice don’t be violent with yourselves, please. It makes a mess of things and very—I don’t know whenever it’s produced good results by working internally.
So, that’s all. Breakfast.