Impermanence (pt. 1)Download
Medieval context; definition of lamrim; translation issues; four reasons (obstacles) why we aren’t already awake: taking experience as fact, habituated tendencies to satisfy cravings, mistaking peace for being awake, and not knowing what to do to wake up; if experience isn’t real or a fact, what is experience?; differences in the meaning of “ego” as used in Buddhism and psychology; manufacturing vs. growth process; remedies to the four obstacles; impermanence and the four ends. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Gampopa, commentary on Chapter 4.
Gampopa has been establishing the framework for a systematic presentation of Mahayana teachings. And I’ve mentioned this before and I’m going to mention it again because I think it’s very important to keep in mind. This is such a classically medieval presentation, and by that I mean several things. One is, in the culture of Tibet—and I think it’s quite fair to say the culture of India from which these teachings came—there was an overarching view of the world, a cosmology, an understanding of how things worked, karma, and so forth, which everybody accepted. And any inequities that showed up in that were regarded as the result of natural law—that’s just how things are.
Another characteristic of medieval cultures is that education was very limited and limited to a very small segment of the population and usually the population that had devoted their lives to religion, in other words, in the monasteries. To a lesser extent there were people within the aristocracy who could read and write and understand texts. But the ordinary person was generally illiterate and depended on the educated for anything more than just ordinary functioning in day-to-day life. If you wanted to send a letter to somebody you went to the monastery or the local church or chapel, and you had the lama there write the letter for you and then it was sent and the person at the other end that received the letter would take it to the local lama to have it read to them. There’s a Nasrudin story about this, which goes something like—
Nasrudin was asked to write a letter but he couldn’t remember how to write and how to spell certain words, but he said, “Well it doesn’t really matter because I’m not going to have to read it, am I?”
Another [characteristic], because of the scholastic bent, things were presented in terms of lists. One of the reasons for those lists is to make things easier to memorize. There’s a heavy reliance on quoting from scripture. A lot of the scripture and a lot of the texts were written in poetic form, that is, in stanzas. Again, that made it easier to memorize, and so forth. So we find all of these characteristics here. This is implicit in what I said earlier, but it’s also helpful to make it explicit. It’s a closed system; there isn’t any truth or any knowledge that comes from outside. So it’s very self-referential.
So if we take a look at Guenther’s translation, and this is on page 41, and in Konchog Gyaltsen’s translation we’re on page 83, I think. Yeah, page 83. Yeah, both in chapter 4, the instruction in impermanence.
Again, I want to emphasize how very much at the mercy of translators we are. They don’t—actually, we should go back in Konchog Gyaltsen’s to about page 77, the introduction to part 4. Because having laid the framework of the genesis for spiritual awakening, which is buddha nature; the framework for spiritual awakening, which is the human existence; and the condition for spiritual awakening, which is reliance or attending a teacher, these were the subjects that we’ve dealt with up to this point. Now he’s going into—the rest of the book basically is about what the teacher tells you. So these are the instructions of a teacher.
I think I mentioned this way back at the beginning: The Jewel Ornament is an example or an instance of a genre of texts in Tibetan literature known as lamrim. Lam is the word for path and rim is the word for stages, so sequential exposition of the path. In other words, we can understand it as a curriculum. There are many, many lamrims in the Tibetan literature. They’re all based on a text written by Atisha, who was a great Indian teacher who came to Tibet in the eleventh century and saw the sorry state of Buddhism where things had been terribly corrupted and misconstrued. And there was a lot of confusion. So he wrote a text which was called The Lamp of—Jang Chub Lam Drön [Wylie: byang chub lam sgron]—The Lamp which Illuminates the Path of Awakening. And it was the first of these lamrim texts. And there were many, many written after that.
So now we enter into the actual sequence of instructions. Now you’ll also notice that while he talks about meditation, and so forth, he doesn’t actually give any instructions about how you do it, how you sit, and so forth. There’s just none of that. And again, this reflects another aspect of the culture. Usually, when you’re going to practice spiritually you would have a number of people that you would rely on. One would be the teacher from whom you receive guidance, but then you would have a secondary teacher who would actually explain how to do these things. So one was kind of a high level, pointing out, [with] emphasis on transmission. Then you’d work with somebody else who would show you how to sit and actually talk with you about how to do all these reflections, and so forth. And then you might have another person that you would talk to about issues that came up or ethical issues, and so forth. All of these different roles in our society tend to be concentrated in one individual, which may be a good thing and may be a problematic thing. It’s just none of that’s mentioned in here but it’s just something to keep in mind.
So we start off: Because [Since] we have Buddha-nature as our driving force [Guenther, page 41]—right away we’re running into Guenther’s predilection here. Now I may seem critical of Guenther. I’m not really. I had the good fortune to meet him in the 1970s when I invited him to Vancouver for a series of workshops we did. And he’s such a completely personable, open person, very warm, and totally interested in helping people to understand. It’s just the fact that he’s so bright that he always talked about two levels above where you were. So you really had to work hard to keep up. But one of the great things that he did was he made no attempt to translate word-for-word. He tried to put the meaning into English in a way which conveyed some of the power and moved away from what was the standard approach up to that point, which was called lexical or dictionary translation. He really tried to translate the meaning. One can argue whether he was always successful, but he certainly opened up new possibilities in translation which I very, very definitely followed, and I’ve gone even further in those directions.
So when he says, Since we have Buddha-nature as our driving force, the word for driving force is the word for genesis; so we have buddha nature as the genesis of spiritual awakening. We have the framework or
…working basis the precious human body (or human existence) which we have obtained from beginningless time in the course of generations, and as a contributory cause (or as a condition, we have) the spiritual friends we have met, why is it that we have not already obtained Buddhahood? [Paraphrased from Guenther, page 41]
Why aren’t you awake already? What’s the answer to that? Well you got the genesis, you got the conditions, you got the framework. Why aren’t you awake? Anybody? Agnes?
Agnes: Obstacles, such as attachment.
Ken: [Laughs] We don’t see or experience things very clearly do we? No.
So, Gampopa’s answer to this question is there are four influences which prevent us from being awake. One is attachment to sensory experiences in this life. Next one is to sensory pleasures; next one he calls self-complacency, and we don’t know how to wake up. Again, I think, these need to be translated.
What does Konchog Gyaltsen do? He says:
Attached to this life activity, attached to pleasure of samsara, attached to peace, and not understanding the method by which enlightenment or awakening is achieved. [Paraphrased from Gyaltsen, page 79]
The first one, this whole notion of attachment is problematic because most people feel that attachment has to do something with liking things—that’s why you’re attached to them. I think the better way of understanding attachment is ways of relating to experience that you cannot let go of. In other words, in the vocabulary that I use—habituated patterns. I think it’s difficult to say that we’re attached to habituated patterns; most of us would very much like to be free of them. But they run, and we can’t do anything—it seems—we can’t do anything about it, which, of course, is a source of frustration and suffering and struggle in our lives.
Now what are the particular patterns. Naming four of them. The first one is sensuous experiences during this life [Guenther, page 41]. Konchog Gyaltsen says, attached to this life’s activities [page 79]. I prefer to put it this way: we take everything that we experience to be real—to be as it appears to us.
I was working with a student the other day and in our work together various feelings would come up. And I would ask, “Is this a fact or a feeling?” And as her mind grew quieter and clearer, she could see that a lot of the things she was taking as facts were actually feelings. That’s one small example of what is being referred to here as attachment to sensuous experience. It’s really got nothing to do with sensuous experiences. It’s taking what arises and regarding it as real, as a fact that we have to act on. Uchiyama Roshi in his book, which is now published under the title Cooking Your Life…How to Cook Your Life. It’s a pity, I think the other titles were better: the first one was Refining Your Life, then From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment, now it’s How to Cook Your Life.
He talks about a problem that people would come to him with in the following way. And this is, of course, in Japan in the middle of the 20th century.
I have an arranged marriage and while we live well enough together I’m really in love with someone that I work with. What do I do?
Uchiyama says this kind of nonsense comes up all the time, and then he’s very careful to say, When I say it’s nonsense I’m not saying I haven’t experienced this because I killed two relationships as well through my own whining.
So along very similar things. And he says when he really looks at this, the problem is the word really. Now I’m really in love with so-and-so, because now we’re taking the feeling as a fact. When you take the feeling as a fact, then you have to act on it because it’s true—it’s a thing. Whereas if you take…if you can relate to it as a feeling, then you have a lot more movement. You can just experience it. And as all of you know from your own meditation practice, feelings come and go. Facts don’t really come and go. Now it’s true in as much as we have that experience, but what the feeling is telling us isn’t necessarily true.
The same things happen with anger. We have a partner and sometimes the partner does something that upsets us and so we get angry. And in the moment of anger, we regard the spouse as an enemy, as someone who has to be opposed. That’s a feeling—it’s not a fact. And yet most of us act on that. And this comes up over and over again. This is the kind of thing that’s being referred to as we take as real or as true or as facts these experiences that arise in life. And the experiences are thoughts, feelings, and sensory sensations.
Then the second one: Attached to sensual pleasures in this world. [Guenther, page 41] This is actually going to be quite central to the workshop I’m doing here on Sunday on Living Awake: Money and Value, because it’s based on making a distinction between two ways of living. One is to seek out sensory experiences, sensory pleasures, which you can think of as food, sex, power, wealth—you know, everything the advertising industry throws at us, and they’re very good at it. And the other is to live in the way that brings about well-being, which leads to a very, very different approach to life and actually a very different economic structure of our lives, and if it were practiced broadly, of the world. So when he says attachment to sensory pleasures, it means the habituated tendency to satisfy any kind of sensory craving that comes up. And so we look to feed something in us. Of course, we can feed it, but then the food’s digested and then we get hungry again. So this constant need to feed is what creates a lot of struggle.
Then the third one, Guenther translates as self-complacency; Konchog Gyaltsen translates it as peace. What they’re referring to here—I looked up the Tibetan for this—I couldn’t figure out what the Tibetan would be for self-complacency. As you practice meditation and your mind becomes still, you experience pleasure. You think, Oh, that’s cool. I can just sit here quietly. I don’t have to do anything at all. Maybe that’s how I’ll live the rest of my life—just sitting here quietly at peace. The pleasure of peace. Well, that may be fine for you but it doesn’t really do very much for anybody else. And it’s a state of peace, of individual peace; it’s not really being awake in the totality of your experience.
And the fourth one is just not knowing what to do, you know, how to wake up, what’s necessary and how to do it.
So this is Gampopa’s list of things which keep us stuck in our present struggles.
One of my friends and I, many, many years ago, actually asked ourselves the same question because we were discussing our experience with teaching various people and students and shaking our heads, commiserating. And what really…and the question we were throwing around is what really binds people to their existence; what prevents them from letting go and waking up? This is his formulation, and I thought it very helpful. And, that is, there are three things: survival, trying to get emotional needs met, and identity—status. Now these are equivalent to the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, non-self. They correspond in a certain sense to the first three of these: attachment to sensuous experiences in this life, that is, we take this world to be real. When you take this world to be real the number one thing is—you don’t want to die. Because when you die you stop experiencing this world and that means you no longer have any existence and that’s just not acceptable. And if you look deeply you see that behind the fear of death there’s the fear of not existing, which is the more powerful fear that operates in the human condition.
And then the second one: why do we seek out sensory pleasures? To get away from the pain inside, the pain of not having our emotional needs met. So we keep slapping on band-aids, one after another. The trouble is they don’t stick and even if they do stick the wounds inside continue to fester, so it doesn’t really work.
And then self-complacency—well, if you can just sit quite happily, at peace, then you’ve achieved a kind of identity or status which works for you. It may not work for anybody else but it works for you. So, there’s some correspondence then, there.
Then he asks the question: Who dispels these four obstacles? A person who listens to the advice of a spiritual teacher, because this is exactly what a spiritual teacher does. And so now he goes into the four kinds of instruction. Yes? Microphone.
Student: Going back to the first one about taking experience as fact. I’m struggling a little bit with something I’ve heard mentioned earlier that all one really knows is that one is experiencing something.
Ken: One is experiencing.
Student: Yeah. And yet the idea that this is a dream isn’t quite right because if one listens carefully it’s often said that this is like a dream.
Student: But not a dream. So the subtlety between—well it isn’t really a fact, and it’s not quite a dream—is lost on me. And I know I’m going to regret this. [Laughter] So then what is this?
Ken: What is this experience?
Ken: You’ve been over to my place a few times haven’t you?
Ken: Have you ever noticed a calligraphy?
Ken: What does it say?
Student: What is this? or What is it?
Ken: What is this, actually. It’s in both Chinese and English. It says What is this? It’s a mystery, isn’t it?
Ken: If we take this to be real, to be—if we take what appears to be actually how things are, how’s life?
Ken: Full of struggle. Right?
Student: At the moment, concrete and bleak.
Ken: Well, okay, it’s full of struggle. It’s not bleak for everybody. Some people have a good time but they’re still struggling. But what if we take the attitude that none of this is real?
Student: Trivial and meaningless.
Ken: Well not only that, that also doesn’t work because—what is it Mencken said? Something about the unknowable—we do all this stuff, but there it is calmly licking its chops. [Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops. H. L. Mencken]
Things happen and we can’t just say well it’s not real because there are concrete consequences to the experiences. So it’s not one; it’s not the other. What do you do? Now, we have the idea that if we could answer the question “What is this?” then everything would be fine. And there have been untold numbers of philosophers and spiritual people who have tried to describe what this is, and actually it has not helped a single person. What does help?
Student: For me, it is opening up to the experience of it.
Ken: Yeah. So if instead of trying to figure out what this is, so we can put it in this nice box—that just hasn’t worked for anybody over centuries. But what you say is, If I learn how to relate to my experience skillfully then everything is kind of okay. And this is exactly what Buddhism teaches. It’s not, if I can use some philosophical terms, it’s not concerned with ontology, like “What is this?” It’s about—we have this experience—how do we interact with this experience? How do we live with the awareness that’s there in a way that isn’t a struggle for ourselves or others. So in this sense it is really, really pragmatically oriented and with the idea of developing a kind of skill in life.
Now what we find is that when we regard things as existing as such, then we are led into ways of acting unskillfully. In order to have full range to skillful action we have to let go of the idea that things are just as they appear. Then all kinds of other possibilities open up. Just as in the way I was describing, if you regard emotions—and most people experience emotions as fact—then things become very restricted; there’s not a lot of room to maneuver. And very solid and one can end up getting cornered and struggling and all things like that. But if you go, Oh, okay, this is a feeling and it causes me to see the world a certain way but none of that is actually true, it’s just how I’m seeing it, and I can experience this feeling. And then a lot of things change and we find ourselves actually much more capable of interacting with that situation in a way which doesn’t cause struggle for ourselves and others. That’s what Buddhism is actually doing, and I had this discussion with somebody the other day—this is a very experienced practitioner—and she was saying, “But there has to be something other than just ending suffering.” And so we had several discussions on this. She hasn’t been able to say what it is. Does this help?
Ken: Do you regret this?
Ken: Damn, I didn’t do my job. [Laughter]
Student: So would it be fair to say just between the confines of this discussion that just because something is real doesn’t mean it’s a fact?
Ken: Just because we experience something doesn’t mean it’s a fact. Okay? The word real—it’s a very problematic word. And we could look at it in a lot of different ways, but when we talk about something being real, we are in effect saying, this is something that is independent of a framework—a way of looking at things. But the fact is, however we look at the world, we’re always looking at it through some kind of framework. And so taking the term real—to say this is what’s real means we can ignore the framework—that’s not a good idea because the framework causes us to see things a certain way. So if the framework is financial, then money becomes real, and we forget what money actually is. It’s a means of trading, exchanging life energy in a certain sense. Or if we look at it from a sociological point of view, then networks and relationships are what’s real, but that leads to a whole different thing. What are those networks and relationships? When you get right down to it they get very intangible, too. So everything that the framework says is real is actually a way of looking at things. There isn’t some thing there. Cara?
Cara: I was just wondering if you would think of the framework as the ego?
Ken: I don’t use the term ego. You notice I very rarely use it. And the reason is that the way it’s used in Buddhist circles and the way it’s used in psychology are very, very different. And I think it’s a source of a lot of confusion. There’s a little bit of a digression, but it may be helpful to you.
The term ego came up in English when Freud was translated from German into English. In German the three words are ich, the word for I; überich, which is the over I; and es, which is the German word for it. So when you’re reading in German you don’t have any Latin term there. You have the ich, the überich, and the es. For some reason when it was translated the translator or whoever was doing this chose to put in Latin, so instead of I we have ego. Instead of the over I we have the superego. And then instead of the it we have the id. Now the effect of this translation was that what was actually somewhat experiential in the German became completely conceptual in English.
Because let’s take a look at our lives. Now I got up this morning, wasn’t feeling well, went about my day, had a shower, had my breakfast, took a few phone calls, etc. I’m using the word I there, right? Now that’s not ego, that’s just the I going through life. It’s not ego in the big sense of some thing. That’s what that term meant in Freud’s scheme. But while I’m doing this I have a voice going on inside my head saying, You shouldn’t be doing that, or It’d be better if you did it this way, or Is this in accordance with your ethical values? You know, we have that little voice going. That’s the over I. Okay, and then there’s another part which looks at a piece of food and says, Yeah, let’s just eat that, and then the over I comes in and says, No, no you’re gonna gain weight. And so we have the immediate desire for sensory gratification, which is kind of like it. You know Calvin and Hobbes is wonderful about this—“Calvin, did you take the cookies?” “No, that was the other Calvin.” “How many Calvins are there?” “Five at last count—I didn’t do it. It was all them.” And this is how it is. It’s like there’s another part of us that has its own way of doing things.
So we have this term ego which came to mean…which is used in psychology to refer to the ordinary functioning of the I. And then it was taken over when Buddhism was translated as we have this ego, this thing that we are. And the way it’s used in Buddhism it refers to the sense of being a permanent, independent unit—something we’ll get on to, we’ll start looking at when we get to the chapter on the perfection of wisdom. That’s very, very different from how it’s used in psychology. So in one sense what you say is true—it’s the ego. But then everything gets dumped into the ego—any kind of problem. And in a sense that’s true, the sense…the attachment to a sense of self is at the root of pretty well every problem that we encounter in life. But when we put everything into one basket then it’s not any help at all. There’s a great line that’s in one of Dan Bern’s songs when he says, I love everyone, but that just means you love no one. Because there are no distinctions. So putting everything in one basket isn’t particularly helpful in my view. Okay, probably a longer response than you wanted but that’s what you get. Okay.
So what Gampopa now says is that there are four areas of instruction, and each of these four areas is designed to address one of these problems.
…instruction in the development of concentrated attention to the significance of transitoriness… [Guenther, page 41]
Isn’t that wonderful English.
…instructions on meditation practice regarding impermanence… [Gyaltsen, page 79]
That’s a little better. That’s in Konchog Gyaltsen.
…instructions on meditation [practice] regarding reflections on the faults of samsara [and on] cause and [its] result, instructions on meditation practices regarding loving-kindness and compassion, instructions on how to cultivate bodhicitta. [Gyaltsen, page 79]
And he goes on to say that—and this is very important—this next paragraph:
When we pay attention to the fact that everything changes, everything is impermanent, then we cease to regard things as being real, as existing in their own right.
That’s fairly self-explanatory now isn’t it? Would you agree? You have to translate Guenther into English.
Now what is samsara? It’s the six realms of existence, which means it’s the living in one or more of the worlds which are projected by emotions, reactive emotions. Well, when you’re in the grip of a reactive emotion how much happiness do you experience? It’s always painful, isn’t it? Yeah. So really appreciating that the worlds projected by the reactive emotions always involve struggle: some involve a great deal of struggle, such as the hell realms; some of them involve very subtle forms of struggle, such as the god realms. But in the god realms you’re still struggling because you’re struggling against impermanence.
As I was driving here I was listening to a thing on the radio. Yet again, they’re trying to do something with Olympic and Pico. There’s just no question, it should be made one-way, both streets should be one-way in the opposite direction; it would solve a lot of problems. But the NIMBY lobby gets in the way—the not in my backyard. And so it’s never been able to be pushed through and it looks like this one isn’t going to get pushed through either—we’ll see. It’s an example of god realm mentality: I don’t want this here. I want to keep things just as they are. So when we want to keep things just as they are, we’re in the god realm mentality and there’s a struggle in that because we’re trying to keep things just as they are. We like them that way. It’s an ignoring of impermanence.
And then, the development of loving-kindness, he translates as benevolence, but loving-kindness has come to be the accepted term. Loving-kindness and compassion. This is very important, because—and it’s what I’ve mentioned before—it’s really good to take in. As we become intimately…as we develop an intimate understanding of our own suffering and how we suffer and how we create or generate suffering, we also come to understand that it’s exactly the same for everybody else. They’re doing the same thing. And so the idea that we can just go off and take care of ourselves becomes less and less—what’s the word I want—it’s not…that option becomes less and less available to us. Because we understand how I’m struggling is the same as everybody else. There’s a natural desire to help other people become free of it. So this leads to a way of engaging the world.
Buddhism is regarded in the popular mind as a religion which talks about withdrawing from the world. But in the full context it’s only really withdrawing from the world in order to become clear enough to engage it. That’s really what it’s talking about because you come back as a buddha and you engage it. Now all of us have chosen to practice in a way in which we’re not withdrawing from the world. And because of that, the way that we’ve chosen to practice puts even more emphasis on what I was talking about a few moments ago, and that is, on developing really consummate skill in the way that we transact our lives and everything that we do—becoming very skillful in every area. That’s what these one-day workshops, the Living Awake ones, are really about: looking at particular areas of life and learning how to be skillful in each of those particular areas. Because when we’re very, very skillful then we don’t create suffering or struggles for ourselves or for others. But it’s very, very much about engaging life in its fullness, not withdrawing from it. And that has its challenges.
And then, how do you actually attain…how do you actually wake up? In the Mahayana that all comes under the heading of generating the mind of awakening. The Sanskrit term is bodhicitta. And as that mind of awakening is generated, then the experience of awakening comes into our experience and we move in that direction.
Now, what he does next is he backs up this basic argument that he’s making.
These factors are experiences, which start with taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), lead up to concentrated attention to the meaning of the two types of non-individuality. [Guenther, page 41]
You can read samadhi or meditation, whatever, for concentrated attention. Two types of non-individuality. Yay! Two types of non-self; if you want to make it little bit [clearer]—non-self of the individual and non-self of experience. That is, as an individual, I don’t exist as-a-thing. And as experience: what arises in experience aren’t things—they’re experiences. This is going to your point, okay.
Question: What are the two types of non-self? What question are the two types of non-self answers to?
Those of you who did the Mahamudra class with me—it was about a year ago, I guess—may recall. What are the two basic questions we have about life? What am I and What is this? That’s what the two types of non-self are answers to. And again, we have these phenomena where these answers are being presented but the questions aren’t being named. And that’s why it has this rather—well, why are we even interested in that? Well, we’re interested in it because the fundamental questions we have are—What am I and What is this? And we come into those questions because we find that we are not able to live our lives skillfully. And that’s why those questions become important to us. There are a few jumps in there but we’ll fill them in later.
There are also those experiences that you have on the five paths. This is referring to a framework of the progression to awakening which is present in all the traditions of Buddhism. And another one is the ten levels of spirituality. These we’ll be discussing in some detail right towards the end of the book. He’s just mentioning them at this point. Furthermore, some of them are the working basis, that is the human existence; others, the frame of reference; others, the method for the formation of enlightenment, etc, etc.
He’s making the argument that if you want to wake up, you need instruction in how to do it, and that you get from your spiritual teacher. I think there’s a sort of argument for the importance of the priesthood here, which is again another characteristic of medieval societies, that the priests were very important figures. They were the mediators between the ordinary person and the divine or what have you.
So okay, we’ve got plenty of time, good. First off, any questions on this section because here we start—go into the instructions on impermanence. Susan?
Susan: I was actually kind of intrigued by the very last paragraph in the introduction where it talked about the different practices. And I was wondering is it referring to specific practices or actual paths when it says, Some are the objects of the cultivation of the mind. Does that mean like it’s talking about shamatha? Or is it talking about something more like say, deity or yidam?
Ken: Oh, in this context it is talking about things like shamatha. This is not a Vajrayana text, per se.
Susan: So everything, every general category that he mentions there, there are actual, specific practices?
Ken: Yeah. And that’s what we’ll be going through. Some of those will be in the Six Perfections, and so forth.
Susan: I see. Okay.
Ken: This is a very—this is a system. I always find it interesting when people talk about systems. In 1986 one of Canada’s top nuclear scientists [Ursula Franklin] delivered a very prestigious series of lectures known as the Massey Lectures at the University of Toronto. And what she chose to lecture on was the real world of technology. And you can actually get those lectures—I think you can get them on Amazon. One of the distinctions she makes, which I found extremely useful in a lot of areas, is the distinction between growth processes and manufacturing processes. In manufacturing processes you do the same thing to each item and you get identical results at the end. Your classic manufacturing process is the assembly line. So everything is reduced to a series of easily described, repeatable tasks. And you get…you put in the raw materials and you get a car or whatever at the other end.
The growth process is totally different because you can never predict how things are going to grow. So you have to have all kinds of other stuff in there because you don’t know whether it’s going to grow too much in this direction, or whether you’re going to need something to support it there, or whether this is going to happen. What I find fascinating is that throughout history, whenever institutions develop, they seek to establish a manufacturing process for whatever they’re doing whether it is appropriate or not. And so, while there’s an awful lot of good material in here as many of you have come to appreciate in our talks so far, what’s being described here is a kind of manufacturing process. We take the buddha nature and you put it with a spiritual friend, and you do this meditation, and you do this meditation, and you do this meditation, and you do this meditation, and—bong!–you’re awake!
Jack: Like a little robot.
Ken: Well that may be a bit harsh, Jack, but yeah, like a little robot. It just doesn’t work that way. Why? Because, at least from my point of view, cultivating that quality of buddha nature in people is much more a growth process than a manufacturing process. And I have no idea when I work with a person, when I work with a student, what I’m going to run into or when I’m going to run into it. And usually they don’t either. So things can be cruising along quite happily, and suddenly, wham—you just ran into some old pattern that nobody knew was there, and now you gotta restructure the whole practice to start working with that. So I would encourage you to look at this as very, very general principles. But in terms of application, be very sensitive to your own experience—as Where do I need to move now? Or What feels out of balance? Or What is missing? Even though I’ve worked with people in a somewhat systematic way, I’ve always found I’ve had to make quite significant individual adaptations in everybody’s practice. And I think that’s quite appropriate. So these are a set of practices, and experience has shown that for many people this particular sequence will be very fruitful; but it doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. And within an institutional framework one can feel—I’ll have to do this, and then I’ll do this—and you’ll get people in various institutions, and they’ll tell you, “I’ve done this practice, and this practice, this practice, this practice, and I’ve done them all in the right order.” There’s a certain amount of understanding but something is often missing. You know what I mean.
Okay, do you want to follow up on that? Did I respond to your question or did I just natter on meaninglessly?
Susan: No, you gave an interesting answer. It wasn’t quite what I was asking.
Ken: No, of course, it never is. But what now? Do you want to try again?
Susan: No, that’s okay. I think you pretty much said that the book was going to answer the questions later. I was just wondering if each general form of practice described is actually referring to something specific, a specific practice.
Ken: Either a specific practice or a group of practices.
Susan: This training in the cultivation of the mind—what does that mean?
Ken: That’s shamatha-vipashyana.
Susan: Okay. So you could go through any one of these and it would be describing the practices?
Ken: Yeah, some of them are the working basis—that would be practices on the precious human existence—reflections on that; others—the frame of reference. You could argue that seeing the shortcomings of samsara would be one practice because that’s a frame of reference. Still others are method—so that’s where you’re going to get things like shamatha-vipashyana, and loving-kindness and compassion, and the Four Immeasurables, and things like that. Yeah, they’re methods for the formation of an enlightened attitude. They’re very definitely that. Others are training in the usefulness and the result of the formation of different aspects. He’s going to be covering all of this stuff very thoroughly. Any other questions? Is this somewhat intelligible? Okay good, now.
Impermanence can be summed up very simply. The usual phrasing is, which comes from the time of the Buddha: Everything that is composite is transitory. It’s also translated as: All composites are impermanent. If you want to put it into slightly glib formulation in English: Everything that is composed of things coming together eventually falls apart. And since every aspect of experience consists of things coming together, then every aspect of experience necessarily is impermanent and is going to pass.
The verse that is quoted here is a very famous verse. It’s known as the four ends. It was a favorite of Kalu Rinpoche. He loved to quote it any chance he got, basically.
The end of accumulation is dispersal The end of meeting is parting The end of building is ruin The end of birth is death.
And it’s very simple. We meet here, every week, and so we’re here for this period of time. At the end of this, we all go our separate ways. And that’s the way it is with everything.
The end of accumulation is dispersal. [Paraphrased from Gyaltsen, page 79] Well, accumulation is really popular in our society right now. We have a small number of people who are accumulating extraordinary amounts of wealth, really quite mind-boggling. But if you look back over the centuries you see that numerous individuals have accumulated extraordinary amounts of wealth. Where is that wealth now? Eventually it gets redistributed. It’s just a matter of time. It doesn’t matter how much stuff is developed. Eventually that stuff, all of that, it comes together in one place, eventually it’s going to be dispersed. I should have brought Ozymandias. How many of you know Ozymandias? Two great and headless…trunkless legs stand in the desert. It’s by Shelley, I think. Wonderful poem, about this great colossus, the head of which has fallen off. And it’s just the legs, without any torso or anything, just remain. But the caption or the inscription on this—Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair! Well, there’s nothing there, it’s just desert. So, it’s a wonderful description of impermanence. [ Read Ozymandias here. ]
And so, The end of building is ruin—that’s what I was just talking about. And like the Colossus of Rhodes, where is it now? An absurd example—years and years ago I was going to meet somebody for breakfast in Santa Monica. And we hadn’t seen each other for a while. So I said, “We’ll meet at this restaurant at 25th and Wilshire.” When we got there, he and I met there, but there wasn’t any restaurant. [Laughter] There was a hole in the ground. They’d torn it down. They were building something else. I had to figure out somewhere else to go for breakfast.
The end of birth is death. This actually is very important, because most people regard death as the opposite of life. But that doesn’t make any sense. Because what would birth be then? Birth we regard as part of life—it’s the beginning of life. Death is equally part of life—it’s the end of life. So, it’s not the opposite. It’s part of; and the part that it is, it’s the end of life. So that is what birth inevitably leads to. And whether it is our actual experience, as being an alive individual here, or whether it’s ideas, or projects, or dreams, or other things we give birth to—all of these things are subject to impermanence and will die.
Now you notice he talks about attachment to this life. Again, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that this is…the overarching worldview here is that there was a series of lives, and the series of lives stretched to infinity in the past and potentially to infinity in the future. Now this is what is meant by such phrases, or is one way of interpreting such phrases as from beginningless time or from time without beginning. And this precious human existence that we experience now is like a flash of lightning in this expanse of eternity.
And he also came up with wonderful examples of eternity. Imagine a pile of sesame seeds which is like a hundred miles long, a hundred miles wide, and one mile high. And every thousand years a bird comes and takes one seed away. When that mass of sesame seeds has been dispersed, one day of eternity will have passed. That’s a way of things…Monika?
Monika: So then what would be the opposite of life, if death is the opposite of birth but it’s not the opposite of life?
Ken: Hmm. That’s an interesting question I haven’t thought about that one. Can I get back to you on that? Okay, I wanted to just go on with the thrust here but I’ll think about that.
That’s one way of looking at this, so there’s an endless series of lives and now we have to experience this particular one and one’s encouraged to make use of it. And the way that they counteract the idea, Well, I’ll do it in my next life. Well, I’ll do it in the life after that. Let’s counteract saying, Well you’re next life’s not gonna be as good as this one! And so this is one way and we’ll get into that quite a lot.
I prefer, for myself, to look at all of this much more internally and not to construct this whole external cosmology. Where did I come from? Well, can any of you answer that? Where…you experience being here, right now. Right? I think everybody here experiences being here. Where does that I come from? How far back can you go…in terms of where does the I come from? Anybody? I can’t go back very far at all. Because when you look, well, where do I come from, things kind of vanish right away. That’s your beginningless time.
How often am I in a frame of mind to be able to practice? We went through this before. Well, most of the time I’m struggling with one thing or another—you know, acting like a barbarian, a long-lived god, or a hell being, or a hungry ghost, or what have you. So the amount of…when I have the opportunity to practice, when I’m in that frame of mind, is relatively rare even though I’ve devoted a lot of my life to practice. It’s still relatively rare. So I think it’s very possible to look at all of this quite internally.
Then the question is, okay, so why is the subject of impermanence important? Because I don’t relate to things as if they were ephemeral, fleeting experiences. I relate to most of the things in my life as if they are solid and at least they’re going to be around for a very long time, possibly forever. Not only that, I actually relate to my life like it’s going to go on forever.
There’s a lovely story of Nasrudin. He was in the court of the king and the king was in a bad mood. And the king looked at the nobles and Nasrudin had the misfortune to be hanging out with them that day, and he [the king] said, If none of you can think of something to entertain me with, I’m going to chop all your heads off. Kings were kind of arbitrary like that in those days.
Nasrudin stepped forward and said, “Your majesty, I can do something.” King: What can you do. It’d better be good. Nasrudin: I…I can teach a donkey to talk. King: Well, bring a donkey. Let’s see you teach it to talk. Nasrudin: Your…your majesty, it doesn’t happen overnight. King: How long’s it gonna take? Nasrudin: Ten years. King: Okay. You’ve got your 10 years. But if your donkey can’t talk, then I’m gonna chop your head off. So court was over for the day and the other nobles came around Nasrudin and [they] said, “Well that was pretty dumb on your part. Now you’ve got 10 years of anxiety.” Nasrudin said, “Nah, you don’t understand the situation. The king’s 85 and I’m 80 years old. Something’s going to happen before 10 years are up.”
So what happens when you start to look at life as simply a set of experiences none of which are lasting or permanent or unchanging? What happens then? Anybody? Julia.
Julia: I would say two things: one—terror [Laughter] and the other one—freedom.
Ken: Say a bit more please.
Julia: Well, the terrorizing or deeply frightening—whatever you want to call it—part of it, comes because of a dissolution or a fragmenting or a destruction of just about every basis on which one has been conditioned to live one’s life.
Julia: The freedom comes from what you were talking about before, the ability to move around inside situations, once you can release, to some degree, the grip of that conditioning.
Ken: Yeah. So when Gampopa talks about attachment to this life, how I come to understand it, it is the acceptance of living by the agendas that have been conditioned into us. Now what do those agendas say? They say very simply you are meant to be happy, wealthy, famous, and respected. Right? And it’s bad to be unhappy, poor, obscure, and disdained. Well, we accept that without question; these are called the eight worldly dharmas. What function does that agenda serve? Lynea. Up here. Art, can you hand that back please?
Lynea: The framework of the institution that we are a part of.
Ken: It serves societies. How does it serve society? It’s society’s agenda. How does it serve? What function does it serve?
Lynea: To perpetuate it?
Ken: Yeah. Exactly. It’s all about perpetuation. So you want people struggling to be wealthy so they have the resources, and famous and respected, because that’s how it’s all functioning. You want them to be happy, and they will go forth and multiply. You shun people who don’t do that because they aren’t making the society better and richer; they aren’t propagating or perpetuating it. Yeah?
Julia: It seems to me along with those sort of recipes or ways we should be, there are a lot of taken for granted aspects of social discourse which have permanence built into them. Like you’ll meet someone you like and be happy ever after.
Ken: Oh, yes.
Julia: You’ll find a nice career and do that for your life. So there’s, just inside of this, there’s a lot of social discourse about permanence or quasi-permanence or near-permanence.
Ken: Yeah, very definitely. You’re quite right. How many of you struggle with any of those agendas? Yeah, okay. What would it be like to live not following those agendas, doing what you actually wanted to do. And here you run into Julia’s terror and freedom. To the terror is—aah! What will people think, etc., all kinds of things. How will I know what to do. All kinds of things come up. There’s actually freedom. So the purpose of the meditations on death and impermanence, very simply, is to come to understand that what we call this life is a set of fleeting experiences none of which has any intrinsic meaning in and of itself. And it frees us from this very deeply instilled social conditioning. And, of course, one is regarded as a madman, as a crazy person, as someone who’s not fit for society. And it’s true. So this is where you are headed. I just want you to know. I think actually that this is probably a good place to stop. Randy, we can take a couple of questions.
Randy: My fear is that when you say, okay everything’s impermanent—fleeting experiences—then one just wants to give up, to say, well…why, you know…why seek anything?
Ken: Mmm-hmm. So then you fall into a kind of nihilism. Nothing makes any sense.
Randy: Doesn’t make sense and, yeah, why care?
Randy: If the job’s gonna be lost or the relationship’s gonna be lost—
Ken: Okay, now when you take the attitude—I don’t care about anything—do you still experience struggle?
Randy: Probably even more so.
Ken: Okay. And this is the point of practice. It’s to learn how to live without struggle. So taking the attitude nothing matters, that doesn’t stop the struggle.
Randy: No, it doesn’t.
Ken: No. So and taking the attitude all of this is really real, that doesn’t stop the struggle either. Right?
Ken: Okay, so what we’re looking for, and this is a theme that’ll be very, very important, I think very helpful to keep in mind—how does this help us, how does this free us from the sense of struggle? Well, if we let go of those agendas then we don’t worry about being happy or unhappy, or famous or obscure, or things like that. We just let go of those concerns. Now all kinds of other possibilities actually open up to us. Life actually becomes much richer if we aren’t concerned with those things. Do you follow? Does it make sense to you?
Randy: It makes a lot sense but it just creates more fear.
Ken: Yeah, okay. So this fear has come up a couple of times. What’s the fear?
Randy: Probably the freedom of letting go.
Ken: Why is that fearful?
Randy: Loss of identity. Moving out of comfort zones. [Laughter] Falling into crevices.
Ken: Loss of identity. Wouldn’t know who you are, right? How do you define yourself now?
Randy: I guess by certain agendas.
Ken: Yeah. How’s that working?
Randy: Confusion and struggle.
Ken: [Laughs] So one way of looking at this whole section that we’re going to be dealing with is formulating a different view of life, a different view of our relationship with life, relationship with people, one, hopefully, which will lead to less struggle. And there’s a tearing process, there’s a separation process, and fear comes out with a certain amount of grief, possibly disillusionment, and so forth. All of these are experiences which arise when one actually engages this path. They don’t talk about this. They’re always telling you what a great and wonderful thing it is. But it is actually quite painful because there are separations taking place. And when we experience that it just raises those questions at an even deeper level. So we have to become clear. Now earlier in this series we talked about faith. This is exactly where faith comes in. You start engaging this—can you open to what arises in that experience? You follow? Okay, Lynea.
Lynea: When you’re talking about this, I feel like what I am hearing, when it comes from you, is experience everything. That this is the practice of being able to experience everything.
Lynea: I’m having trouble seeing that in the text.
Ken: That’s why we’re doing this class. [Laughter] And one of the things I’ve been trying to do all along—and it’s part of my intention in doing this class—is to show you how to read texts of this kind. Because these are classical texts, very typical of what’s in the Tibetan literature, and there’s wonderful richness there. But if you don’t know how to read it, you’re going to—and people have done this in the past—they find themselves very confused. This what I get in emails about the podcasts. They say, “Oh this is helping me understand this in a way that I didn’t understand before because it’s bringing it into how we’re actually approaching practice and how we’re experiencing our life now.” That’s very much my intention in this. But if you go back and read it this way, how is it for you now?
Lynea: For some reason, and this could be just right now, I feel like I can see it but then I think, I’m wondering, why it’s not more direct. And I don’t know what I’m saying about “it,” what “it” is.
Ken: Why doesn’t Gampopa talk about it in the way that I’m talking about it? Right?
Lynea: I guess that’s what I’m asking.
Ken: [Laughs] Because he was talking to a different time and age. And there are some substantial issues in here. It’s very, very difficult to talk about this stuff directly, which is why, a lot of time, it’s put into symbolic language and poetic language. Now what happens is that people lose how to understand the symbology, the symbolic language or the mythic language. They come to depend on their rational mind. Where much of what’s being pointed to here is not the rational way of…the way that we’ve been conditioned to relate to the world. And the way people were there, I mean, here he’s talking to people who had very, very definite beliefs about how things were. And he’s giving them a path out of the rigidity of those beliefs. And the fact is that contemplation of death and impermanence really changes how we approach life. One of the things I’d like you to think about over the next week is (can’t remember if I put this up last week or not but it’s a good exercise to do at any time). If you knew that you were going to die in, say, one year—and there’s not going to be any problem with illness or fading away, it’s just that on November the 27th 2008 at 9:30 you’re just gonna go poof and that’s it—what would you do over the next year?
Just something to think about. How many of you would quit your jobs? [Gestures of assent] Okay, that’s interesting, isn’t it. So despite all the propaganda to the contrary, jobs are not what is meaningful in your life. Career is not that meaningful in life, because if you knew you were going to die in a year’s time, that’s not what you’d be doing.
A friend of mine many years ago went to…she felt she had the flu and she was kind of feeling not very well and she went to the emergency. They took some blood, came back the usual several hours later and said, “You’re not going home; we’re doing a triple bypass tomorrow.” She said, “What?” “You’ve got so much cholesterol, your arteries are clogged, etc.” And she’d just been experiencing some difficulty breathing. So she had this operation. While she was recovering—she had to be opened up completely, it’s quite difficult—she said it really changed her attitude to life. She said, “I’m not interested in having ‘I wish I had spent one more day at the office’ engraved on my tombstone.”
So we need to earn money but if we take death into our experience and not regard it as the opposite of life but as the end of life, as part of life, something we’re going to experience, then it brings a different perspective to our lives. What am I actually doing here? And what do I want to do in this…with this experience that I have? And that’s where you can begin to feel the dismantling of the conditioned social agendas in us. So, and you may think this is death and impermanence—we all know everything changes, and so forth—but if you really, really take this in, it’ll completely change your life. Because you will no longer live according to the social agendas. And that’s the purpose of this meditation. Okay.
Let’s close with the dedication. Thank you.