Buddha nature, part 2Download
What makes it possible for the heart/mind to grow quiet? What makes it possible for me to know?; the five types of potential (families); interpreting the mythic; transformation of motivation; the process of spiritual maturation; Q & A. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 1.
Amazing how much better things work when you turn them on. And so I’m going to rather embarrass myself and ask any of you what was the question I put up on Facebook for you to consider? Of course, now everybody’s embarrassed because nobody’s looked at it.
I think we have a little too much on the speaker.
Randye? Oh, we need a microphone up here. One here. Good.
Randye: The first was what makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet?
Randye: And the second is, what in my mind makes it possible to know the quiet?
Ken: Yes. Thank you. Okay.
Last week we started into the discussion on buddha nature, which Guenther had the temerity to translate as motive, which is at best a very free translation. And we looked at two reasons why we all have buddha nature.
One was because it pervades all beings, and the other was—you get one of these wonderful English words, which could only come from somebody of Germanic background—undifferentiatedness.
You know, I remember when I was at university, I had to take a course in scientific German. And so, we had a bunch of math and physics majors with this poor sweet guy from Heidelberg. And he would say, “In Germany you can construct sentences infinitely long.” And we would just look back and say, “Okay, write one of them down, please.” And he would sort of think about that. You get these very long complicated words—the undifferentiatedness of Tathata.
And then it goes into the third one, at the existence of families. And one of the things that I suggested [was] that you cross out the word family and write the word potential. And that’s what the two questions that I posed to you I wanted you to consider: what makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet? How many have thought about this before? Okay. Good. Any ideas, any thoughts? Joe.
Joe: Well, we approached the idea of what makes it possible to grow quiet last week, in a certain sense, well, maybe the specific question.
Joe: The change this week was what makes it possible to…
Ken: To know.
Joe: …to know.
Student: [Unclear] You changed it to the word heart.
Ken: Yes, mind and heart because they’re the same thing, and that’s a good point. So, let’s take both of these questions: what makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet? Or the heart to grow quiet?
Joe: Well, I only have the same answer I had last week, which is that it’s easier to talk about in the sense of what keeps it from growing quiet…
Joe: …which are all these things that arise, when it…when it…that seem to be in the way.
Ken: So you’re suggesting that nature of mind or nature of heart is peace?
Joe: Yes, yes.
Ken: Okay. What makes it possible for you to know that?
Joe: Well, that’s where it gets really impossible to describe. The closest thing I can come to is, at one of the retreats it was suggested that we step back. And this seems to be a very accurate description of what happens.
In other words, when I gave my attention to—the idea came up: well I’ll have to describe this in class, and when I tried to conceptualize what was happening, I realized that I was no longer there. And then I had to step back from that conceptualization in order to again experience what we’re talking about.
Ken: This is very good, Joe, and now I’m going to ask you to do something. Go into the experience and speak directly from there.
Joe: [Long pause] I can’t.
Ken: Well, be thankful that I’m not a Zen teacher—I’d have no obligation—I’d have a total obligation to whack you. If I was a Zen teacher.
Joe: That would be very helpful.
Ken: Now that’s interesting. Why would it be helpful?
Joe: Well, because that would excite me to a point where I would verbalize something.
Ken: George, give him a whack on the back, would you?!
Joe: Don’t! Whatever it is, yeah I mean I would react in the moment to whatever was happening, which I’m sort of doing now.
Ken: Mmm-hmmm. When you say…well, let’s pass it on to somebody else. Anybody else want to take this up? Karim, do you?
Ken: Pick up the—microphone’s right there. Just speak into it. It should be on.
Karim: Is it on?
Karim: Okay. So the question was, what is it that allows us to have quiet in the mind?
Ken: And to know the quiet.
Karim: To know the quiet. I…I’m no expert, that’s why I’m here to learn, but I’ll give it a shot and maybe my…
Ken: That’s—we’re all in the same boat.
Karim: Okay. I think—this is my own interpretation of it—well, actually it’s borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh. So, what allows us to quiet the mind is mindfulness. It’s…I guess it’s a form of energy; something… I notice when I meditate with other people—like when I come here to these groups—there’s something different about it than when I meditate at home.
And throughout my day I have lots of thoughts that come up and rise up, and my mind becomes very turbulent. I have a lot of worry—I’m not here, I’m not in the moment. And somehow, when we all come together and we’re all meditating together, there’s kind of a stillness or peace that comes in. It’s not just that the thoughts are going, but there’s something else coming in that replaces it. And I really think it is a form of energy; it’s a just much more tranquil calm. And I think that that energy is mindfulness: it’s the energy that brings us into the here and now, and that stops thought formations. That’s my take on that.
How do we know it? I think we just recognize it. That’s just, you know, that’s like saying how do we know that what we’re seeing is what we’re seeing? We just kind of…we just know it. There’s no…it’s like trying to explain knowledge by using other forms of knowledge. You can’t…you just know things intuitively. You just have that in you. And it’s that fundamental thing. That’s, what I’m trying to develop in order to recognize everything else in the world. And I think that’s really the foundation. So that’s my…
Ken: Well, thank you. Thank you. Anybody else? Harold?
Harold: I don’t think this is going to go over real well but…
Ken: Ah, you take your chances.
Harold: In regard to the first question, will. What would you say if I said will?
Ken: Ah, are you saying will?
Harold: [Laughs] Well, I don’t want to get beat up.
Ken: Well I’m not a Zen teacher, so.
Harold: Yeah. One way to look at it is will. I will myself…I will myself to be quiet.
Ken: Okay. The second question?
Harold: I am sorry. To answer the second question I would have to get into what is it that knows. I mean, it really, really…my brain starts to get really bogged down with questions, further questions.
Ken: Yeah. Well, everybody’s…what everybody’s said up to this point has merit. One can say what makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet is that its nature is peace. That’s a very powerful statement. It’s also what we find through our own experience and what we find in the sutras and so forth. We can also say that what makes it—taking Karim’s response—is there’s a certain energetic quality which shifts the way we experience things so we aren’t so caught up with thoughts that we begin to experience things a different way, which is how I understood you to say it—mindfulness and so forth.
And as we noted in our first meeting we had this wonderful line from Guenther, Samsara is notorious for being without end. It doesn’t lead to dissolution. This leads into Harold’s contribution—there’s a will or intention, or something like that, that operates.
And every one of those responses touches part of the question. What I’m actually encouraging you to do here is, when we pose a question such as what makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet or the heart to grow quiet, it causes us or leads us to look at mind, to look at the heart, to look at experience, in a different way.
Now, one of the things—because many people are habituated to do this—is they start thinking about it. One of my favorite quotations these days is from John Audubon: When the book and the bird don’t agree, trust the bird. You know, the famous ornithologist.
Now, when we look at [or] pose these questions, and we start thinking about them, we are actually trusting the book, not the bird. Because there is an experience that arises when we ask these questions. What makes it possible for the mind to grow quiet? There’s an experience that arises right there, but most of us don’t know how to relate to that experience, or we’re unfamiliar with it. And when we push a little bit further—what makes it possible to know the quiet?
Now, in one sense, well, we just know. Yes—but when we pose that question there is an experience; it’s closely related to the experience with the previous question. It’s also a little bit different because, as you noted, Harold, you had a somewhat different reaction to that question. And in particular, it scrambles the mind, and so you get flooded with all of this stuff. But let’s go back to the experience itself.
So I just want you to take a moment and pose the question: when I rest and let the mind or the heart rest in meditation, I experience some form of quiet. What makes it possible for me to know that quiet? In a sense the question is—a different way of putting it is—what is this knowing? Or where does this knowing come from? Or something along those lines. And we could ask those questions, too. When you pose any of those questions, what do you experience before you start thinking? Chuck?
Chuck: You look.
Ken: Yes. But I’d like you to describe the experience of looking. Now let’s do it the usual way. What do you experience in your body?
Chuck: Sort of an opening. Sort of a…
Ken: Okay. What do you experience emotionally?
Chuck: An opening there, too.
Ken: Okay. What do you experience cognitively?
Chuck: A big question mark.
Ken: A big question mark?
Ken: Before that?
Chuck: What’s that? Oh, before that. I guess an opening there too. Before…
Ken: So there are these three openings. Okay. What’s happening—thank you, Chuck—what’s happening and the reason for these questions, is that these questions put us directly in touch with the potential, which is called buddha nature. And while all of this material is expressed very academically, very scholastically, what I’m trying to do in these classes here is bring out the experiential quality.
So in what we now go into in this text, I want you to remember that experience—those three potentials or those three openings. Did anybody else have a similar experience when I asked those questions? Okay. Was what Chuck was describing somewhat familiar? Okay.
So. I’m working from Guenther’s translation, which is on the middle of page 3; in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation, we’re on page 50, the middle of that. Well, maybe, we’ll work from Konchog Gyaltsen’s.
“All beings have a ‘family’” means that sentient beings be categorized into the five families of the Buddha. What are they?
Now I’d like to read this again with potential:
All beings have potential means that sentient beings can be categorized into five kinds of potential. What are they?…Disconnected potential, indefinite potential, Hearer potential, Solitary Realizer potential, and Mahayana potential—
Does this begin to make more sense?
Now, the form of argument here is—the thesis is—that all beings have buddha nature, have this potential. The method of argument is to look at all the different—figure out some classification scheme for all beings—and then to look at each of those categories and see if the potential is present in each of those categories, thereby you’ve proved that it’s there for all beings.
I mean it’s a very straightforward method of argument, but this is the kind of thing that medieval scholastics just reveled in. And not just in Tibet, but also very much in the Catholic Church and also in medieval Judaism and so forth. It seems to be a characteristic of medieval societies.
The disconnected potential refers to people who have no connection with their potential for awakening. And so we see that they’re—and because they have no potential with it—they tend to be very, very reactive. So at the top of page 51 we find—this is from the teachings of Maitreya [Ornament of Mahayana Sutra]:
There are some who only commit nonvirtuous actions. There are some who consistently destroy positive qualities. There are some who lack the virtue which leads to liberation. So, those who have no virtue do not possess the cause of enlightenment.
Now, I was very, very disturbed when I saw that word cause there, because it’s like saying they do not have the buddha nature, and so I checked the Tibetan which I have here [rigs]. And the word—I don’t know why it was translated this way—it isn’t the word cause at all. It isn’t the word for seed, potential, or anything like that. It’s the word fortune. So when you’re disconnected from your potential to awaken, then you do not have the fortune to wake up. And this then allows [one] to make sense of what follows.
Because in the next paragraph it says [Ken paraphrases slightly]:
They will wander in samsara for a very long time, but this does not mean they will never achieve enlightenment. If they made an effort, eventually they would achieve awakening or enlightenment.
So, the point here is that there are people who are completely disconnected from their potential to wake up. Now, living as we do here in Los Angeles, most of us know one or two of these. And we live in a city where many, many people are completely caught up in defining themselves in terms of their material existence, in terms of their status, in terms of their wealth, power, so forth, so forth, and never, or if ever, give any thought to spiritual understanding or spiritual possibilities.
I remember one person (this is back in the mid-eighties), a woman that I met, who simply said, “My money is…my god is money.” Pure and simple. And when I look around and see the quite horrendous things people do to each other for the sake of money or power, the only one way I can understand it is they are disconnected from any sense of this quiet or peace that points to what we actually are.
The indefinite family comprises the vast majority. That is, these are people whose spiritual potential…it’s not clear how it’s going to do it. I mean, they could become disconnected from it, they could embark on one spiritual path or another spiritual path, and that’s what basically what this paragraph refers to.
And this is what we find is that, what happens to us spiritually—part of it has to do with our own sense of ourselves and sense of our lives. But a not insignificant part of it also has to do with who we hang out with and who we happen to meet.
It’s not cut and dried. I mean, there are people who can be totally caught up in the stuff of life, and they may have a chance encounter with a spiritual teacher or even a spiritual practitioner. Or maybe they’ll just read a phrase somewhere or something like that, and everything will change. And there are people who have the spiritual strivings, spiritual interests, but what actually happens to them depends largely on who they meet, what traditions they end up studying and so forth, and they can go in very, very different directions.
The Hearer potential describes a different kind of person. When the hearer and the solitary realizer or hearer or listener and the solitary realizer—I usually translate as independent buddhas; the Tibetan basically means that—independent buddhas. Now, these describe people whose interest in spiritual practice is basically to come to some sense of inner peace. And that’s all they’re really interested in. They just want to find some sense of inner peace and they find a path or practice which brings that about. That’s why they’re described as
[What Ken said] Afraid of seeing the suffering of samsara
yearn to achieve nirvana
have little interest in benefiting beings
[Gyaltsen, page 51] One who is afraid upon seeing the suffering of samsara
And yearns to achieve nirvana
But has little interest in benefitting sentient beings
The independent buddhas fear the thought of samsara, yearn for nirvana, little compassion; they’re proud—translated here as arrogant—secretive about their teachers, and enjoy solitude. These are people who want to find inner peace and be left alone. Characterizing them as proud or arrogant, I think, is a little pejorative.
How many of you know people who are very self-contained? What’s your impression of them? It’s easy to think of them as a bit standoffish or proud or arrogant. Do you know what I mean?
Ken: Yeah, they may not actually be selfish, they’re just self-contained. So, I think that’s what the quality that they’re referring to here.
And so, what follows next is a very good example of what I call mythical writing or mythical language—or mythic would probably be better than mythical. Because how many of you approach spiritual practice because you’d like to find some inner peace? Yeah, so that holds for a lot of us. And it’s possible. So Gampopa goes through this and says, if you find this inner peace, the import of that sentence is …even though they achieve the results of their practices, these results are not the final nirvana. [Gyaltsen, 52]
I would translate this or rephrase this to say “when you find inner peace, that is not the fullest realization of your spiritual potential.” That’s what this whole section is saying. And he gives this example of these people that go off, or are on some trading trip and they have all these difficulties and they finally come to an island and can just sit down and rest. And after they’ve rested for a while and recuperated, then they can go on and complete their journey. And so you find down at the bottom of the page :
Likewise, all the Hearers
Think that they have achieved nirvana,
But they have not achieved the final nirvana
Revealed by the Buddha. They are only resting.
Now all of this is phrased as “Buddha revealing,” and I want to go back to comments that I made in our first meeting.
What we have here is a text that was written approximately fifteen hundred years after Buddha lived. And during that time Buddhism developed and evolved through the course of medieval India in these huge monastic establishments, like Nalanda University, which is one of the great monastic colleges—had 10,000 monks, all of them engaged in study. I mean, by today’s standards that’s a large institution. By the standards then, that was a monstrous institution.
And so they thought and rethought—and that was only just one of many, many such universities, though it was probably the largest—they thought and rethought and formulated and reformulated this stuff, and it became more and more elaborate. And, as is the case with things, you look for more imaginative, more eloquent, more articulate ways of saying it, and you also become more poetic and more mythic. And one of the consequences of that is that the individual, in the sense of Buddha as a person, becomes more and more remote. And buddha becomes an ideal, and the ideal itself seems to become more and more remote. And it’s just how spiritual practice has evolved over time.
So what I want to do in going through this next section is to look at possible interpretations which cut through the mythic language and possibly reveal something of what’s really going on in terms of an individual’s spiritual evolution.
So here we have a kind of person who is approaching this practice and seeking practice because they really desire inner peace. And let’s say that they find a method of practice, they find a way, and they come to that inner peace.
And so you start on page 52 [Gyaltsen], the last two paragraphs; and here, in the Guenther translation, for those of you who are using that, this is on page 5, the last large paragraph on that page starting As soon as the Tathagata…:
When these Hearers and Solitary Realizers are well rested in those states, Buddha understands this and encourages them to attain Buddhahood. How does Buddha encourage them? He awakens them through his body, speech, and [wisdom] mind.
“Through wisdom mind” means that light radiates through the Buddha’s wisdom and touches the mental bodies of the Hearers and Solitary Realizers. As soon as the light reaches them, they arise from their unafflicted meditations. Then the Buddha appears physically in front of them. With his speech he says:
Oh you monks! [Ken’s aside] (because, of course, all of these people are monks) You have not finished your deeds; you have not finished all that you are supposed to do. Your experience of nirvana is not the final nirvana. Now all you monks have to work toward enlightenment. You should attain the realization of the Buddha. [Gyaltsen, 52]
Okay. What’s going on here?
Well, first, is Buddha outside us? No. So we can just forget about that part. Here’s what I think is being described. When you find a deep state of inner peace, and you rest deeply, you begin to get in touch with something else. It’s described as the wisdom mind or the light of the wisdom mind. So when you rest deeply you begin to get in touch with a knowing that you may not ever have suspected was present in you. And this begins to speak to you in a certain way, and you realize, oh, just resting, just being peaceful—there’s more possible than that. And so beginning to connect with that inspires one to work in a different way, or more deeply, or however you want to put it. It’s that shift or that change in one’s spiritual motivation that I think is being described in this passage.
Granted, it’s being described in mythic language but one of the things I would hope that we could do in this class is help you to be able to read, dissect, decode or—what’s the term?—decode the language in which these things are expressed. Because Buddhism is full of coded language which allows things to be interpreted in different ways, and for many people obscures, in a certain sense, what’s really being said. I mean, and this is partly because of the way things evolved. You know, priests always like to dress things up because then they have a position being able to translate them into what they really mean.
So if you go to the middle of page 53 then, Being motivated by the Buddha in this way, these Hearers and Solitary Realizers cultivate bodhicitta.
So what’s being said is that when you touch this deep inner peace and you uncover some kind of knowing that you may not have suspected was possible, another quality comes with that knowing—that’s the quality of compassion.
Now, how many of you have experienced something along these lines in your practice? Yeah. That is, when we rest, and rest deeply—and that’s not to say we have achieved this level of resting, but it’s really an analogous process—then we—and, you know, this is jumping a little bit ahead—when we reach this, or come to some experience of that very deep inner peace, several understandings come.
And one of the understandings is that we really understand the process of suffering. We understand how we ourselves suffer and create sufferings through reacting to experience. And we see that even though there’s a huge momentum in those habituated patterns, that none of it’s actually necessary. It may take us quite a while of training and work so that we can actually take those patterns apart and not generate that kind of suffering for ourselves. But when we touch that deep inner peace, we see: it doesn’t actually have to be this way for me.
But with that knowing something else happens. We know that it is exactly the same in every other person. So not only does it not have to be that way for me, it doesn’t have to be that way for anybody else.
And when we look at people we say, “Wow, they’re all caught up in this, too, and they don’t have to.” And that is the beginning of compassion. It’s the beginning of what’s referred to here as bodhicitta, or awakening mind, or awakening heart. And now we move into, as I said earlier, a different spiritual motivation.
It’s not sufficient that we be at peace, because we see that we can’t be at peace in a certain sense until every facet of our experience—which is to say everybody else—is also at peace. And so we move into this notion of working to help others wake up as well, and we know that that is what it means to be fully awake. And so we find through our own experience this relationship with compassion.
And the kind of compassion that I’m talking about here is not feeling sorry for someone—it’s not a form of pity, which both have an element of superiority or separation. This form of compassion is not an emotion. It is an expression of the knowing itself, and as such it is not subject to corruption or decay. So even though we call it compassion, it’s a different beast from what most people think of as compassion.
So, with that as a basis, now Gampopa moves into discussing the Mahayana family, which is the potential to become fully awake, to become a buddha.
Now, I had to go back and reread the Tibetan many times. Because it’s one thing about these medieval scholars, they make all of these distinctions, and it can be a little difficult to figure out what are they really referring to. So, it comes down it has two classifications: the naturally abiding family and the perfectly workable family. Does this make any sense?
Again I want you to change the word familyto potential. And what do you get? The naturally abiding potential and the perfectly workable… is again a misleading translation.
I think Guenther is a bit closer in his translation—which is on page 6. [Checks the text.] Yeah, the evolved potential. What’s being referred to here is whether the potential is what is there, or whether it has been realized.
Now we say a person realizes their potential—okay, they have the talent, maybe they have the potential to become a great musician. So that potential is there. That’s the abiding potential. And they may or may not realize it. But if they sit down and practice, if they work at things, then that potential becomes an actuality—and this is what Guenther is referring to as evolved potential. That’s why I don’t think perfectly workable potential is a very good thing. It’s that the potential is realized, or is in the process of being realized. So this is the distinction that Gampopa is making between whether the potential is there or whether it is something that comes through, or is realized through, an effort. And it’s two different kinds of potential, that’s all.
Now, if you go down to point C here: The synonyms of family are potential, seed, sphere-element [knock out the ‘sphere-,’ just say element], natural mode of abiding which is a fancy way of saying the nature of things.
So you see why I suggested you use the word potential rather than family, because I don’t think in this section it should be translated as family at all. That is another meaning of the word in Tibetan—rigs—but it isn’t the meaning that I think Gampopa is using here at all.
It’s a bit like—oh, what’s an English word that has two very different meanings? The same word.
Ken: Poor? Not homonyms.
Ken: No. Pardon?
Ken: Yeah. Something can be light, or there can be light in the room. That’s a very good example, thank you. And so, it’s as if you translated when you plug in this lamp it fills the room with weightlessness. I think that it’s an error of that order that’s being made here. Now, there are probably people who will disagree with me, but there you are.
He goes into a discussion of its superiority. Now again I want to refer to the fact that Buddhism had been around for fifteen hundred years. You always had to figure out a way to make your spiritual tradition the best. I mean, this is a very unfortunate aspect of spiritual practice, that everybody thinks theirs is the best. It devolves into wars, sometimes.
I suppose at a certain psychological level it’s important to feel that yours is the best because it’s the best one for you. But it does lead to a lot of factionalism and sectarianism and conflict, which really is the antithesis of spiritual practice. I’m very grateful to my own teacher for this point.
In his autobiography at one point he writes a very strong admonishment about getting caught up in sectarian differences or differences among spiritual traditions. And in my own experience I have found that as my understanding, whatever little understanding I have through Buddhism has developed, then I find that I can see the same understandings present in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, in any of the other spiritual texts that I read. It’s sometimes expressed in very, very different vocabulary, it’s sometimes closed to the point of obscurity, in either mythic language or scholastic language or reasoning or what have you, but it’s there. And it’s very important to find a spiritual path which one can follow with confidence, devotion, whatever you want to call it. But I think it’s equally important not to succumb to the very human tendency to say this is the only path or this is the one path or this is the best path, and to recognize that it is simply the path for you or the path for me.
I remember once when I was in Vancouver, I was thinking I should get a job finally. Not that I really wanted to, but I needed to earn some money to go to the three-year retreat. And I was completely unqualified to do anything. I had a degree in mathematics, and so I saw that there was an opening for a teacher in a Catholic high school which was run by nuns.
And (wait a second, have I got my chronology? Yeah…no, that’s right), and so I went, and called them up and set up an appointment for this interview, and walked into this Catholic school, which was really like a monastery—you know, brick walls, tiled floors, things echoing all over the place, very little artwork, austere.
The nun looked at me and said, “You seem to be quite comfortable here. Most people who come here feel very uncomfortable.” And I explained that I had hung out in a lot of monasteries, granted in a different tradition, in India, and the setting was quite familiar. And so, we got into a wonderful discussion on contemplation. Then she told me about what was actually involved in teaching mathematics in this school. I mean, the teaching load was horrendous, so I didn’t even bother going there and got a much easier job somewhere else. [Laughs]
But, there’s something very common among contemplatives, because they understand that all of the battles—to use the Islamic word jihads—these are internal, they aren’t external. They’re dealing with what is inside.
And I also remember…I don’t know how many of you know of a person called Michael Meade who does men’s groups? An Irish background. But during the Vietnam War he was a conscientious objector. He was drafted and he refused to wear a uniform, so they put him in military jail. And he refused to eat. He would not have anything to do with the military system.
They shuffled him around, etc., etc., etc., and finally he was just put on a transport plane with a couple of military police who were Vietnam vets along with a bunch of other prisoners. And some of the other prisoners started to give Michael a really hard time in the plane—they were being flown to New York or somewhere—but the Vietnam vets could see something in Michael, and they said to the other prisoners, “Leave him alone, he’s fought his war.” And then he found himself dumped on the streets of New York very unceremoniously.
But people who have dealt with combat deeply, internally and sometimes externally, recognize that quality of peace in each other and what it means. Dealing with that internal combat leaves a mark on you. And because—why does it leave a mark? Because you’ve had to let go of something, and you’re not the same.
And this is the quality that evolves through our spiritual practice. It’s that letting go of some sense of self, some sense of the reality of self that is the beginning of waking up. Which leads into the next category, the Causal Characteristics. Yes?
Ken: Sure. Microphone? There’s one right behind you. On the cushion there.
Pat: I just have to ask this—and maybe it’s obvious—but this whole thing you’ve been saying about how this huge sense of time in writing this and that this was a monastic time, and this idea of, you know, you work towards inner peace and it’s not enough, and then you’re pushed to a greater potential that has to go out.
Well, in a monastery there was nowhere to go except to go deeper with the people that you’re with, and with those relationships, and with that life, and with those…with that study.
But in this world, you have to take that inner peace and you have to go to another potential or try and work with other people, or do what you’re gonna do, and this question that always comes up, I think, with people who do this work or do the study now of “well, I can’t go to the mountain and I have to do my job, and I have to apply for the teaching job, and I have to keep working, you know, I have to take the computer job and I have to work in this sterile building, but then I come to these classes.”
It just strikes me that, you know, you’re…we’re kind of going from this “okay, inner peace” at the top of 53 down to “moving on to a greater potential” at the bottom, and in between is, like, such agony, in the sense of it’s not like you get the inner peace and you keep moving, because it’s so hard to hold on to that while you’re trying to do something else. Yes?
Ken: I think I understand your question, Pat.
Pat: I mean, it just seems to me that there’s a lifetime in between.
Ken: Oh, yes!
Pat: I hate to move on. [Laughs]
Ken: You’re quite correct, this was written by a monastic, and a lot of these teachings come out of a monastic—a medieval monasticism. But the processes they described are not restricted to monastics at all. My retreat training was essentially a monastic training. I didn’t take monk’s ordination, but we lived virtually in a small monastery, just seven people and a cook.
Pat: You know what I mean.
Ken: Let me finish…but as you well know, since coming to Los Angeles, I haven’t lived as or taught in any kind of monastic environment. But the process of evolution that is described here is exactly what I find people going through.
Most people come to spiritual practice, while initially they may say they want to benefit others, because they’ve heard that rhetoric, that’s not actually true. And they just want to find some inner peace. And often they have to let go of that idea of helping others because it’s more of an identity initially; and they start, okay, yeah, I want…I need to work on what’s going on in me. And as they do that, then the process that I described earlier takes place. As they develop their meditation practice, and through the meditation practice primarily, they begin to understand the process of suffering.
Then they come to the understanding that the process of suffering works in them in exactly the same way as it works in everybody else. And then there’s a natural movement into compassion and a different motivation for practice. That process may take anywhere from a year or two to five or six years to mature; it usually doesn’t take longer than five or six years, and it can be faster, of course.
But this doesn’t say anything about how they’re living. I mean, they live as computer programmers, they live as cinematographers, they live as attorneys, housewives, advertising accountants—whatever—massage therapists, psychologists. And the process of maturation doesn’t necessarily take expression as social activism. In fact it very often doesn’t take expression as social activism, because what people often see or frequently see is that to truly help other people is a very, very non-trivial task. And it’s something that starts to radiate naturally in their lives rather than just adopting something, a form of life, which is actively helping people.
And it varies tremendously from individual to individual. Some people find that they’re in professions or in situations in which they can make slight shifts in how they’re doing their work, and it suddenly will produce far more benefit for people. And that’s something that they may choose to do.
Other people feel that they cannot be true to themselves if they’re continuing—I see this particularly in terms of financial analysts and so forth. They frequently come to a point in their careers where they know that they’re going to die internally or they have to be of service to others, and they do either one or the other. And then other people find that the way that they’re going to live their spiritual potential is living relatively isolated lives, but not with the intention of finding inner peace but of just deepening themselves, and whoever they run into they will teach or guide or whatever, but they aren’t trying to do it as such.
And so, from this point of view, I think it’s very, very much a matter of how it—what’s appropriate for the individual. I don’t think there’s any way it should be. But it’s how one’s spiritual potential actually matures and finds expression in you and in your life.
And I really don’t think there are any rules or guidelines for you to say it should be this way or it should be that. Okay? I mean, I think you’re a great example, Pat—look at what you do. What are you working on these days, by the way?
Pat: The family of war.
Ken: Ahhh. The family of war. Okay. Yes. Okay.
So, in this we’re talking about whether this potential to practice for the welfare of others—in order to help others—whether that’s awakened or unawakened. So is it dormant in you, or is it something that has woken up and is impelling you in your practice?
And what Gampopa says here is that it comes down to whether you’ve encountered the right conditions or not. The unfavorable conditions are: it’s going to lie dormant as long as you’re cut off from any spiritual teaching (that’s what [is meant by] unfavorable circumstances); if you don’t know of any possibility of awakening; the idea has never occurred to you; you have no propensity for that. If you’re caught up in conceptual thinking, if you’re caught up in your emotional reactions and so forth, it’s going to lie dormant.
The favorable conditions are that you find a teacher and something in you wants to move in this direction. And that’s why all of us are here this evening.
And it’s also why I say to people…a lot of people ask me how do I know what tradition to study? I mean, because there’s so many. Particularly in today’s age, we have access not only to virtually all of the traditions of Buddhism that have existed historically in this country, but we also have all of the other religions, too. And I say to people, you have this internal desire or wish or longing or intention or will—whatever you want to call it—to deepen spiritually, even though we may or may not know what that means.
The next step is to find a teacher, and I think it is far more finding a teacher than picking a tradition. You find a person who actually speaks to you, and then you’ll probably end up following that tradition. But what’s really important is that you find a person that speaks to you. When I say find a person who speaks to you, I mean you find a person you will listen to no matter how crazy you are. It’s not who’ll you’ll listen to you when you’re sane—we’ll listen to lots of people when we’re sane. It’s a person that we’ll listen to when we’re completely rabid or crazy or confused or disoriented inside—it’s a person who can cut through that, there’s some kind of connection—that’s the person who is a good candidate for our teacher.
And a spiritual teacher, finding a spiritual teacher is a very, very significant challenge in the spiritual path. When I was writing Wake Up to Your Life, one of my students at that time said, “You haven’t talked about how to find a spiritual teacher,” and I didn’t talk about it per se because I don’t know. When I look at how people come to me, when I look at how I found my spiritual teacher, and my colleagues and people I’ve run into found theirs, there are absolutely no rules. I mean, you can be intelligent about it, you can go to seminars, you can go on retreats, you can do a nice research project—and that may all be completely unfruitful. Or it may be very fruitful. Or you can sit and somebody knocks on the door and there he or she is, and it’s like “Huh?”
And I just taught a retreat and there was someone at the retreat, who was there for the first time, and I asked her, how did you come here?
And she said, “Well, I never got around to buying an iPod and somebody gave me an iPod for my birthday. And so I went onto iTunes and I downloaded a bunch of podcasts, and when I was listening to yours, I thought, ‘oh, this guy makes sense.’ So I went to your website and that’s why I’m here.” So, that was her path, you know, and there are so many conditions and coincidences that can happen.
In my own case I was traveling overland to India for no very clear reason back in 1970. And I ended up coming down with hepatitis in Tehran. And so I was hospitalized and had to go through all of that. I got over that but we stayed in a campsite outside of Tehran and lots of people coming and going, and we were given the name of a place to stay outside Delhi.
And it turned out—and I figured I was interested in Buddhism at that time—and I was surprised when I got there to find that it was a Buddhist mission and it was actually a Theravadan mission. And so we talked—I was traveling with my wife at that point—and we talked to the monk there and he said, “Well, yes, but it’s very important that things progress smoothly over a period, and I’m going traveling so I can’t take you on.”
Okay. Then we met a Dutch nun who was in the Tibetan tradition, and she gave us Kalu Rinpoche’s name and that’s who we ended up studying with. You know, I didn’t go around looking at a lot of different teachers, and other people did. So this finding a spiritual teacher, it’s…it’s difficult—it’s also extremely important.
And then Gampopa describes the marks of the bodhisattva family. And these are a certain degree of idealism. But as you see in the second-to-last paragraph [paraphrased]:
Thus of these five families, some are very close to enlightenment in the Mahayana family, and the Hearer and Solitary Realizers will eventually come to this and the dubious indefinite family some are close and some will take a long time, and the disconnected…those with disconnected potential will wander for a long time but they still have a chance.
[On Gyaltsen, page 55, not in podcast but added from text for clarification]
Thus, of these five families, those who are in the Mahayana family are very close to the cause of enlightenment. The Hearer and Solitary Realizer families will eventually lead to buddhahood, but the cause is farther away and it will take a long time. In the indefinite family, some are close and some will take a long time. The disconnected family is known by Buddha to wander in samsara for a long time, but this does not mean that they absolutely will not attain buddhahood.
And it comes down—everybody has this possibility of waking up. And as you see there’s the conclusion in the last paragraph: Thus, by the above three reasons, it has been demonstrated that all sentient beings have buddha nature.
Now, it then gives a number of analogies or metaphors. And these all come from a book which has been translated into English a couple of times. This is one translation called The Changeless Nature, it gives many, many metaphors for or similes for buddha nature: it’s like silver abiding in its ore, oil in a mustard seed, butter abiding in milk—and there’s about 22 of them or something, each one illustrating a different aspect.
The common feature is that potential for being awake is present in all of us, but something has to happen for that potential to be realized. So you can have silver ore, but then you have to put that ore through a process—and what you actually do with that ore is you grind it up very finely, and you mix it with certain chemicals, and then you heat it, and the chemicals cause the silver to precipitate out in a certain form which you then can refine through smelting it.
We have to go through a similar process and the rest of the book—and what we’re going to be embarking on—is, what are the conditions for that process? You know, where does that process take place? What’s needed for that? And then, what is the actual process by which this comes about? And when this process is complete, what does it actually look like? But this first chapter that we’ve gone through is about is it possible, or what makes it possible for us to come to some kind of awakening? And the answer is—all of us have this potential for awakening.
So, with that, I’ve gone a bit over for our question period, but let’s open it up for questions. Lynea, you have a mircrophone somewhere?
Lynea: I have two questions.
Lynea: One is, what’s the…(sorry, when I hear myself I can’t ask the question)…what’s the difference between opening and resting? Because what I was hearing you talk about—somebody rests in this state and then they open up to this other intention—I was having a reaction to it. But in my mind, I was thinking, if you’re really open, then how can you not on some level be connected to the suffering of others?
And I guess that also relates to—and maybe this is where my confusion is internally—is what‘s the difference between compassion and sympathetic experiencing?
Ken: Mmm-hmm. Okay. Well, this may be a little extreme. When you’re asleep you’re resting, you’re not particularly open—that’s kind of an extreme example. But it’s possible just to rest, and be quiet, and for the mind to remain quite closed. And the heart to remain quite closed.
Now, if you rest deeply enough, you’ll inevitably—at least that’s my feeling—come into…start to feel the discomfort of a closed heart. And that’s where something begins to open. So I think resting leads to an opening, but I don’t think they’re synonymous. Is that…?
Lynea: Yes. Yeah.
Ken: The difference between compassion and sympathetic experience…well, I’m going to assume that I have an understanding of what you mean by compassion, but I’m going to ask you to tell me what you mean by sympathetic experience, because I’m not sure what you mean by that. I mean I get an idea but I don’t know whether it’s what you mean by it.
Lynea: Being able to deeply feel the suffering of others or perceive that that’s what you’re feeling.
Ken: Okay. I think there are two possibilities here.
One can feel—maybe…maybe there’s more than two. You can see the suffering of others and not feel any empathy. You can see the suffering of others and have empathy for them and not be inclined to do anything. You can see the suffering of others, have empathy for them, and want to do something. And I think that’s where you’re beginning to move into compassion.
Well, we can go further than that. You can see the suffering of others, have empathy for them, want to do something, but what you want to do may be simply to alleviate their suffering—like if they’re hungry you give them food and so forth. But there’s also the possibility of showing them a way of living which doesn’t involve suffering. That is, the possibility of not reactingto experience and just being with experience. And that’s the compassion that one’s talking about at the Mahayana level. So I think there’s quite a range of possibilities here. Does this help?
Lynea: Yes, it does, thank you.
Ken: Cara. There’s another…where’s the…thank you.
Cara: But just continuing a little further with that thought—sorry. If you’re getting something out of it?
Ken: You personally?
Cara: Right. Is it compassion?
Cara: Like, if you somehow…if there’s a payoff for you ultimately, can you consider that to be compassion, even if…if you’re following every step that you just described, but you’re getting something from it?
Ken: That’s a very deep question, and language is very slippery here. I’m actually going to change the wording of your question: if you’re helping others and taking something from it rather than—I prefer to use taking rather than getting something from it. And the reason I want to use that language is that I think it makes things a little clearer—maybe not, but let’s just explore it for a moment.
I could give a lot of things to people and say, you know, “I’m a really virtuous person.” This is the kind of thing you’re talking about, isn’t it? Okay. And there I’m taking something from it. I mean you can translate it as getting something from it, but I like to think I’m taking, like I’m taking it—“oh, this is about me.” Now, it’s still a virtuous action, but it’s tainted because there is a selfish interest.
Let’s contrast that with another situation. Have you ever been in a situation where somebody asked you for help, maybe something major, maybe something relatively minor, and you just responded giving them the help or something and never thought about it again?
Ken: Yeah. Okay. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about here. Does that answer your question?
Cara: Think so, yes.
Ken: Okay. In fact, I knew I brought this book for a reason this evening. There’s a story I have about this. I’ve read it many times, but—Randye, you had a question?
Randye: It might sidetrack the rest of the…
Ken: Yeah, well, we’ll take the chance.
Randye: The whole first chapter really bothers me.
Ken: It bothers you.
Ken: Yeah, I can imagine. Why? But I’m interested in hearing your particular reason.
Randye: The images of Animal Farm—all beings have buddha nature but some beings have more buddha nature than others.
Ken: [Laughs] Yes.
Randye: And there’s a couple of places—and this may just be a translation issue—but Guenther at one point, he says, Can this bewilderment ever become transcending awareness… ? Can it? [Guenther, page 1]
Ken: Can what?
Randye: Can the bewilderment ever become transcending awareness? And then he says you may be reassured by remembering that if enlightenment is possible, we can attain it through hard work. But then he says the cut-off family can’t achieve enlightenment—and to me, there’s—it’s not egalitarian enough for me.
Ken: Well, this is why—I appreciate your concern here—and this is why I’m trying to translate it from a medieval mode of expression. And by the way, it’s not Guenther who’s saying this, it’s Gampopa. We shouldn’t…
Randye: Well, the translation of it.
Ken: Yeah, but it’s how it reads in Tibetan. That’s also why I just didn’t like this translation of family, because it’s like there’s the bad tribe and the good tribe, etcetera. And that’s why earlier this evening I said, “Well let’s just take a look at people.”
There are people who at this point in their lives aren’t giving any thought to spiritual practice whatsoever. And some of those are rapacious people who are doing everything they can to take care of themselves and really don’t care what they do to others. There are people like that. Okay. That’s what the cut-off potential refers to. The point here is that even those people actually do have the potential to wake up; it’s just not going to happen any time soon.
Randye: And yet there are so many teaching stories of all these horrible, rapacious people who achieve this sort of instant enlightenment.
Ken: But that’s what I was referring to when I said, in talking about finding a spiritual teacher, things can turn around [snaps fingers] just like that. There’s a very…one of the other texts that I’ve given as another source text is The Words of My Perfect Teacher.
And in that Patrul Rinpoche tells a story of this bandit chief, or you know, head of the gang—I don’t know what one calls these things. And this was a murderous person. But one time he attacked this caravan—he and his gang attacked this caravan—and slew everybody, but in the course of this, his sword cut deeply into a mare that was right on the verge of giving birth. And the shock of the sword slash—which was fatal, didn’t kill her instantly but she was going to die—triggered the birth.
So she gave birth to her foal. And there she is with this horrible sword slash, and as she’s dying she’s reaching to lick the foal. And the bandit chief saw this and just went, aahhh…and was so struck by this that he stopped being a bandit that day. So there he was as a member of the cut-off—or he would fall into the cut-off potential—but the conditions came together and he changed.
So, even though this is worded this way, I don’t think it’s appropriate to interpret it as being non-egalitarian. In fact, the actual argument that Gampopa is making is completely egalitarian, saying that the worst of the worst have this potential. That’s the point he’s actually trying to make.
But at the same time, there is this—of all these different things—this is the one that is going to be, is closest to realizing the potential, and this is from his point of view the way to go. So there’s a certain amount of polemic in there as well. Basically the argument could be phrased as, well, if you’re disconnected from your potential, you’re just going to have to wait for the conditions to come, but you still have the potential. If your potential is in the uncertain potential, well, you’re gonna go whichever way you’re gonna go. If you’re the inner peace potential, that’s great: find some inner peace and eventually you’ll wake up to your true potential. Or you could start waking up to your true potential now. That’s a very bald paraphrase of the chapter and the argument. Okay?
Randye: It’s more dynamic than classification.
Ken: Absolutely. That’s how I see it. It’s much more dynamic than classification; I think that’s a good way to express it. Okay. Joe, then, what’s your name?
Ken: Frances. Okay, Joe first. Microphone please. Where’s the other mic? Okay, can you hand that over to Frances.
Joe: I find it helpful—Ringu Tulku suggests that we might think about this in terms of stages rather than classifications.
Ken: That’s…yeah, and as process, dynamics, yeah.
Joe: As an extension can we also maybe think of this as one singular process…a person-singular process?
Ken: Yes, I think it’s a very good [example]. That’s why I went through that internal process: what happens when we really rest deeply? We begin to get uncomfort…or discomfort. I think it can be described as an internal process as well.
Frances: I’m still struggling with the fact that the disconnected families have that potential for buddhahood. I mean is he asking us to accept that like, for example, in the Catholic Church, you know, that everyone was born with original sin concept?
Frances: And then, you know, and I think, given you’re a mathematician and you probably did group theory, right? So, in group theory you can prove that zero is—I’ve done this, too—zero is less than one, for example, where everyone assumes that, but in group theory we prove it.
Ken: Well, those are groups endowed with an ordering principle, yeah.
Frances: Exactly. And I don’t see how he is proving it here. He’s making this statement that discontinued [disconnected] families can achieve buddhahood, they will take a long time, but I don’t see the proof. I’m seeing…I’m being asked to believe it. And having been brought up obviously…born and raised in the Catholic faith…
Ken: Catholic Church.
Frances: It’s my…to reject everything.
Ken: A healthy attitude, which I applaud.
Frances: Yeah, well, it didn’t go over so well in convent high school.
Ken: Well, we have the same problems in some of the Tibetan institutions, but here you’re very welcome. Okay. Yes. Don’t forget there are three reasons that are given: one is that buddha nature pervades all beings, or suchness pervades all beings; the second is that suchness is not differentiated; and the third is that everybody has potential.
And for the third argument, yeah, I mean, he’s just stating it baldly, and as an argument I don’t find it at all convincing for exactly the same reasons that you’ve just expressed.
What I encourage you to do, and what the point of those questions that I put up on Facebook was, is explore this through your own experience. Because everything has to be tested through that.
What makes it possible for you to know? Not theoretically. But you have this experience. You know certain things; what makes that possible?
Frances: But my knowledge is limited.
Ken: Yeah, but what makes any knowing possible?
Frances: Is that a rhetorical question?
Ken: No, it isn’t a rhetorical question.
Frances: It’s a level of awareness.
Ken: Yeah, and where does that come from?
You see, we take this for granted, don’t we? And yet it is thevery essenceof our being. It’s as I said in our first meeting, we do not know whether we’re alive or dead, whether we’re dreaming or awake, whether we’re a figment in somebody else’s dream; we don’t knowany of that and we cannot know any of that. There is no way of telling.
The only thing we know is that we are aware. And we just take that for granted. But that’s absolutely the essence, or the core, or the pith, or whatever you want. And we don’t—because we take it for granted—we don’t explore its implications at all.
And one way of looking at Buddhism is that it’s an exploration of the implications of the fact that we are aware. And as you say, your awareness, your knowledge is limited at this point. Does it have to be? What limits it? What would it be like to be completely aware? Is that a possibility? These are the kinds of questions we’re engaging. What would life look like then? You follow? Okay. So in a certain sense what Gampopa is saying is that because all beings are aware they have the potential to wake up.
Frances: And I have one more question, which is this concept of…
Ken: The story’s gonna have to wait until another week.
Frances: …is this concept of if someone is in samsara, it takes them a long time—is this…are you making the assumption of reincarnation?
Ken: No, I’m not making any of those assumptions. I regard all of that as, again, mythic language.
Frances: So we take someone, for example, like Stalin or Hitler?
Ken: You don’t have to take extreme examples like that.
Frances: An outlier?
Frances: They’re outliers to…?
Ken: Well, yeah, but I mean Stalin and Hitler and people like that were pretty bent people. They were bent people who happened to get into positions of great power.
Frances: I would say mentally…mentally disturbed, you know paranoid…clinically paranoid, yeah I mean they’re clinically ill, mentally; so do they not count?
Ken: Well, we don’t know about that, but we have lots of people who are by modern standards completely sane who are very disconnected from their spiritual potential. And there is nothing—like the bandit chief that I was describing—there’s nothing there which says there’s anything that’s going to change that. That’s the cut-off potential, or that’s why I say I think the right way to think about that, or a way to think about it is that these are people who are disconnected from their potential—profoundly disconnected. Yep. Okay.
Julia, last question because we’re really running over, and if anybody needs to leave, please do so, we’re almost 15 minutes…Frances, microphone please. Thank you, and see you next week.
Julia: Just a quick question, because you often use these types of models to think about mind…different mind states we might be in at any point in time.
Ken: That’s right.
Julia: Would it also be true to say that we each demonstrate each one of these potentials ourselves at different points in our daily life?
Ken: Yeah, thank you very much for bringing up that.
I think that’s what I intended to bring in, so thank you for reminding me. Yes, I think that another way of looking at this is that sometimes we’re cut off from our spiritual potential, sometimes we’re uncertain about it, sometimes all we want is inner peace, and sometimes we’re actually somewhat awake or at least we’re more in touch with that. I think that’s a totally appropriate way to read this. And going back to Frances’s concern, another way of reading this chapter in the light of that interpretation is that that’s—it doesn’t matter how crazy we are—that potential to wake up is still present in us.
Okay. So thank you, Julia. Okay.