Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Gampopa Variations — Line 4

Let’s start with a traditional translation:

May confusion arise as timeless awareness.

We sit in this mass of confusion and, seemingly without our doing anything, there is suddenly an infinite expanse of knowing, with no center or periphery, and the confusion seems to have evaporated, vanished, like clouds disappearing in the sky.

(I’m using timeless awareness to translate jñana (ཡེ་ཤེས་) to avoid the problems associated with the word wisdom, not the least of them being that wisdom does not refer to an experience but a quality we ascribe to others.)

Next, a looser translation:

May confusion become timeless awareness.

Strictly speaking, this rendering is less accurate, but my aim here is to put the emphasis on transformation. That transformation doesn’t come about through an act of will. It isn’t something we make happen. We sit in the mess, and something changes. Where there was confusion, there is now an open awareness. Where there was anger and irritation, there is now an experience of mirror-like clarity. Where there was prejudice and judgement, there is now an experience of balance. 

Both these translations imply that the confusion goes away. That idea consistently introduces a willful intention in practice — get rid of the confusion and find timeless awareness. That intention inevitably puts us in a box, which I have written about here.

My latest variation then is:

May I find clarity and peace in the difficulties I experience.

This is not really a translation. I’ve replaced the technical term timeless awareness with the more experiential phrase clarity and peace. Instead of confusion, I put difficulties I experience. Difficulties are only difficulties because they elicit confusion in us. And I’ve moved away from the vocabulary of arising and transformation to the vocabulary of discovery.

This variation is based on my own experience. I have found that as long as I retain the slightest wish to be rid of an unpleasant or difficult feeling, the reaction mechanisms stay firmly in place, rather like Milarepa’s demons in The Tale of Red Rock Jewel Valley

The journey to acceptance, however, I find far from easy. That is why I choose now to write “May I find clarity and peace in the difficulties I experience.” In effect I am praying for the courage, strength and patience to go into the depths of my own resistance. There I know I will meet a pain or fear that I do not want to experience. Whether it’s pain or fear, it leads me to view those who provoke the feeling as “enemy” or as hurting me or causing me harm. It moves me to want to cause them pain and difficulty in their lives. That unpleasant feeling is at the core of my judgement, criticism and cynicism. As long as I resist or refuse to experience it, I want to act in way that cause others to experience it, in subtle or not so subtle ways. But that pain or fear is mine to experience. It’s not any one else’s. Often, it is so brutal in its intensity that, when I am finally able to touch it, I wouldn’t want anyone else, even my worst enemy, to have to experience it.

Even so, I cannot say that I decide to experience it. I can only keep facing it, and I do so by resting in all the different experiences, the physical sensations, the emotional storms and the often conflicting narratives, it throws up. At some point, something changes, but not because of an act of will or anything “I” have done. Rather, it’s when the “I” gives up, which is definitely something I don’t decide to do. Then there is a peace and a clarity in the confusion, in all the difficulties. The difficulties don’t go away. The pain or fear doesn’t necessarily go away, but it’s possible to be completely clear and at peace in those feelings. 

At the risk of being a bit technical, let me connect this seeming paradox with the three kayas, dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya. The experience of the pain or fear, physically, emotionally, is nirmanakaya, expression in form. The utter peace and clarity, inexpressible, indescribable, present, yet nothing at all, is dharmakaya. When both the pain and the peace are present at the same time, experience takes on an exquisite quality, and that is sambhogakaya. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Gampopa Variations — line 3

Let this path dissolve confusion.

As far as translation goes, this is probably the most straightforward of the four lines. For me, the steps we take in practice form a path. Thus, “this path” means the ongoing effort that we make in practice. I chose the word “dissolve” rather than the more conventional “clear away” because “dissolve” is closer to my own experience.

In almost all traditions of Buddhism (and, to be fair, in most traditions of contemplative practice), one finds a precise description of the path of practice, that is, a stage by stage description of the experiences that arise and what skills and abilities need to be developed at each stage. While certain understandings and certain abilities are needed before others become possible, when our own experience doesn’t correspond to the formal descriptions, we are often left with the feeling that something is wrong with our practice or that something is wrong with us.

In the vast majority of cases, that is not the case. The paths described in the texts are a synthesis of the experience of centuries of practice and teaching. Individual variations abound, and that’s why the notion of “the” path becomes problematic.

When our practice is effective, it inevitably brings us into our own confusion, or, to put it another way, awareness enters areas in us that we are ignored, shut down, too painful to touch or are passive to the point of being dead. In all these cases, the energy of practice acts like the rays of the sun shining on a cube of ice. The warmth of the sun heats up the water molecules until the ice can no longer maintain its crystalline structure and it starts to melt. The energy locked inside the patterns, those areas that are shut down or lifeless, is released and transformed into attention. With that higher level of attention, we can take the next step and a path forms beneath our feet.

To work this way, we need to go to the edge, to where we begin to lose attention. Most of the time we don’t need to go hunting for the edge. If we just rest and let the resting deepen, sooner or later we come to a place where we lose attention and become confused, and we don’t know why. That’s the edge.

Our first impulse is often to try to force the issue, break through the confusion or the block to whatever is on the other side. Each of us has to find the ways of working at the edge that work for us. For me, the operative word in the phrase “break through” is “break”, not “through”, so that approach has not worked well for me, though it does seem to work for others. Instead, I had to stop regarding confusion or a block as something that had to be removed or cleared away,  and be willing to experience and learn from that experience, wherever it took me.This is what led me to regard difficulties and blocks as features in the landscape in which I was traveling.

Now I simply bring my attention to it and experience it as completely as possible. I regard the confusion or the block as like a flower in bud and trust that in time it will open in the warmth of attention. I have no idea what will arise when it opens. When it does, my effort is then to experience and not react to what has been locked inside.

Other times, the confusion or the block is like a wall, an impenetrable wall that extends infinitely to the left, to the right. I can’t climb over  it, I can’t go around it and I can’t go underneath it. The only thing I can do is put my hand on the wall and feel it. Whether it’s a day, a week, or a decade, at some point, my hand starts to go into the wall, and then it’s up to me to follow it and again, step into the unknown.

Our path is a constant entering into the unknown. We put one foot in front of the other and those steps form our path. Things don’t go perfectly. We encounter confusion and difficulties again and again. But as Suzuki Roshi says, “In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind.” And that way-seeking mind, the mind that is willing to go into the unknown, enables us dissolve confusion and make our way.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Gampopa Variations — line 2

A very literal translation of Gampopa’s second teaching is “May Dharma go on the path.” 

The word “dharma” has many meanings, and the one I find most relevant here is “instruction”. The “dharma” of an electronic device you might pick up in Thailand or Hong Kong is the set of instructions on the package that tells you how to set up the device and use it. Very practical. But these instructions are only useful if you actually put them to use and that’s why I use the word “practice”  for dharma.

“Go on the path” seems to be an idiom. Obviously, it means “to travel”, so you could say “travel by dharma” just as one would say “travel by horse”. Some teachers, such as Trungpa, translate it as “be successful” or “be effective”, just as we might say “Let’s get this train rolling,” in reference to putting a major project in motion. Others take the view that it refers to “the path” that is defined by “the Dharma”, an interpretation that takes us back to the one overarching worldview that is characteristic of medieval societies. (Note that it is almost always translated as “the path” rather than “a path”. My first book “The Great Path of Awakening” illustrates this problematic use of the definite pronoun. If I were translating it today, I would entitle it “A Great Path of Awakening”.)

Thus, some time ago, I arrived at “Let practice become a path.” 

Peter Sloterdijk, in his book “You Have to Change Your Life” makes practice the central theme of postmodern (or posthumanist, as he calls it) culture. This is no New Age book. The title is taken from one of Rilke’s sonnets and he presents the thesis that modern culture as “an aggregate of undeclared asceticisms” that have been completely removed from and divested of their spiritual context. Sloterdijk defines “practice” as “ as any operation that provides or improves the actor’s qualification for the next performance of the same operation, whether it is declared as practice or not.” Now Sloterdijk is pretentiously verbose and laboriously abstruse, but he does have a sense of humor and some interesting insights. In making practice the central theme, he cuts through and dissolves the problematic differentiation between the secular and the spiritual — far more effectively than I was able to with the phrase “pragmatic Buddhism”. 

As a practitioner, I then have to face two questions “How do I practice?” and “How do I practice effectively?” 

The answer to the first is that I draw on the vast amount of material now available, but I’m probably going to need some guidance if only to have any idea what is appropriate for me at this stage of my development.

For the second question, the blind repetition of an activity does not, by itself, lead to refinement or improvement. I need to have both an ideal as a reference point and a way of obtaining feedback that tells me whether my ability or skill is actually improving. In the realm of spiritual practice, both of these are more than a little problematic, which accounts for the historical tendency to establish some objective measure (number of mantras recited, memorization of texts, dream signs, hours sat without moving, time in retreat and, more recently, the ability to generate certain kinds of signals on fMRI or other neurological devices).

These measures have always been misleading, however, precisely because they seek to replace the subjective with the objective. 

More important, at least for me, is to listen as carefully and completely as possible to what leads me to practice, to return again and again to the small stammering voice that is asking the questions, even if the questions are not in words. If there has to be an ideal as a reference point, that, and that alone can serve. Although the stammering voice seems to be about the past, it is not about the past. Rather, I sometimes need to work through something before I can hear the stammering voice that is not about the past. Nor is the stammering voice about the future. If it seems to be, it is usually just a reflection of the past. The stammering voice is about something else, and I’m not even going to try to put it into words, but just say that, it provides both the direction and the feedback to know when I’m moving in that direction or not.

And that’s why my present variation on the second line of Gampopa is “Let me follow this path without compromise.”

Gampopa Variations — line 1

In Tibetan culture, there was one overarching worldview, a characteristic of all medieval and traditional cultures. "The Dharma", the body of teachings, philosophy, ethics, and meditation instructions that Tibetan had brought from India was the central organizing principle of Tibetan culture. Although there is no equivalent in Tibetan for the English capitalization of nouns that have special significance, this body of teachings was held to be sacred. Thus, it would have made sense to talk about "The Dharma" in that culture. The culture also provided an overarching framework to understand the world and one's place in that world. My own teacher was very clear about this. From his point of view, the highest form of human endeavor was to practice the Dharma. If you weren't able to do that, then the next best thing was to work in the world and support those who could practice. And this was, essentially, how Tibetan society was organized.

However, in today's world, we have no single overarching worldview. In Western society, we place great value on individual exploration, valuing that on par or possibly higher than cultural cohesion. Further, unlike the traditional cultures of Asia where there were only one or two forms of Buddhism available, every major tradition of Buddhism is represented in every major city in this country. The vast body of teachings amassed over centuries in different Asian countries are now available to all and sundry on the web. 

Many of the people I worked with over the last 30 odd years came because they had hit a wall in their practice. When I asked them why they were practicing, they usually gave me stock answers. These were learned answers. The mind can engage all it wants, but if the heart isn't engaged, nothing happens. They were practicing according to what they had been told, what they had come to believe, what they had absorbed, but it didn't come from their hearts. As Stephen Batchelor once said, the power of the institutional answers to questions of the spirit overwhelms the stammering voice that asks the questions.

Thus, in my work with students I encouraged them to forget about the traditional formulations and, instead, asked them listen to the small voice inside them that had led them to practice in the first place. Why am I doing this? -- and then listen and feel, and feel and listen.

 Sooner or later, an answer comes, but I would encourage people to ask "Why?" again. And again. In this way, they would eventually come to a place where they felt something that they could not put into words. When they touched that, there was energy and vitality. They could feel it, in their hearts. Even though it could not be put into words, they knew why they were practicing.

 Thus, for the first line in Gampopa's Four Teachings, I moved away from the traditional 

May my mind turn to the Dharma.

to a rendering that reflected the emotional connection with practice, 

Let my heart turn to practice.

But now, I move away from the traditional view that there is only one goal or one path and make it completely personal,

Be as clear as possible about what you are seeking.

Variations on a Theme by Gampopa

One reader suggested that these different translations of The Four Teachings of Gampopa were more akin to variations on a theme, like, for example, the numerous variations of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. (See for a discussion of Rachmaninoff’s composition.) 

Thus, however presumptuously, I’ve decided to call this series Variations on a Theme by Gampopa.

I’m posting these “variations” on this blog I set up for exploring topics in translation. You are invited to add your own variations in the comments section, or comment on the variations you see posted there.

Here is the original.

And here are three variations.

A traditional translation might read:

May my mind turn to the Dharma.
May Dharma become the path.
May the path dispel confusion.
May confusion arise as wisdom.

Many years ago I translated The Four Teachings of Gampopa as part of contemporary set of prayers to use at the beginning and end of practice sessions. Like Sakya Pandita's Separating From the Four Concerns, these four lines are a wonderful summary of the essential practice points in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism.

Let my heart turn to practice.
Let practice become a path.
Let this path dissolve confusion.
Let confusion become wisdom.

But now I would be more likely to render these four lines this way:

Let me be clear about what I am seeking.
Let me follow this path without compromise.
Let me see confusion and difficulty as the path.
Let me find understanding in confusion itself.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Four Separations — no holding

You cannot decide not to hold a position, if for no other reason that to decide to not hold a position is, in itself, a position, and you are back in the holding mindset again -- an example of both an ancient and a post-modern dilemma.

You are in a box. If you take the box apart, it remakes itself as you do so and you are back in it. If you step out of it, you somehow end up back in it, too, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. If you make an effort to understand it, you are in the world it defines and you are still in it. If you try to ignore it, you live in the world it defines and you never leave. If you try to change it, it restricts your movement and confines you. If you try to rise above it, you find that you are tied to it.  If you analyze it, you may work through an intricate maze but the maze leads you right back to where you started from - the box. 

The box consumes you. It's all you experience. You want to get out but there is no door, no window, no exit of any kind.

What do you do?

Start from where you are. You are in the box. Open to the experience of the box as best you can. This is usually the last thing you want to do, but that is all you can do. Don't try to change or control your experience, because that just reinforces the box.

Take care to distinguish between resignation and acceptance. Resignation is a form of ignoring: you remain confined and defined by the box. Acceptance is opening to what you are experiencing without trying to change it. 

When you open to the experience of the box, you are usually overwhelmed and fall out of attention. You lose awareness and you are back in the box, and you aren't even aware that you are. 

The trick is to open to the experience without being overwhelmed. Open a little, for a short period of time, even just a moment, and then stop. Then do it again, for a moment or two, and stop again. Gradually build capacity.

Two qualities are essential in this practice: resting and looking. Resting is how you stabilize attention. Looking is how you bring out the clarity that enables you to see. You can start with resting or looking, but most people, by far, find it better to start with resting. When you can rest, then look. Learn how to look in the resting. When you can look a bit, then rest in the the looking.

What is looking? When you rest, pose the question "What rests?" Don't try to answer the question. Just ask it. A shift in your awareness takes place, right then. It may last only for a half a second, but that shift is the shift into looking. What do you see? Nothing, of course, and that's the hard part. You see nothing and you panic. A subtle agitation in the body triggers a thought, a question, and bang, you are back in the box. Let your mind and body rest again, then pose the question, and look. Little by little, you are able to rest in seeing nothing. Do this for very short periods, because the mind can also slip into a subtle dullness that is not helpful.

When you can do look and rest in the looking, you can also ask "What looks?" Again, don't try to answer. Just rest in the shift.

As you do this, you experience the box more and more vividly, more and more clearly, and that is where things begin to change. But as soon as you entertain the wish for the box to change, bang, you are back in it. 

When you practice this way, a certain kind of seeing develops. It is a non-conceptual direct clear awareness that doesn't involve language or explanation. This is the seeing to which the verse refers. That seeing holds no position, not even wanting to change the box. And in that experience of the box, awake, vivid, clear and open, things change, in their own time and in their own way. Primarily, what changes is how you experience the box, and that changes everything else in your life.  Thus, change comes about indirectly. It is not something you decide or control. T.S. Eliot writes about this practice in "Four Quartets":

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.


For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Four Separations — awakening mind

Some years ago, I was reading Red Pine's translation of The Diamond Sutra, and my mind just stopped. The Buddha was teaching how a bodhisattva steps out of the thinking mind, and everything just stopped. In Reflections on Silver River, I put the same exercise in contemporary language and added an additional reflection that brings out the complementary aspect of "bodhi" or "awakening mind".

Take a moment and consider all the beings in the world-people in every walk of life, animals, even insects-billions upon billions. Each and every being is just like you-struggling with life in different ways, struggling to survive, struggling with change or struggling to make sense of it all. 

Imagine you have the ability to free all these beings from their struggles and from the pain those struggles cause them. Now imagine you do free them, one by one, over the course of countless eons, no matter how long it takes.

While you embrace the possibility of freeing countless beings over countless eons, recall that there are no beings. All those beings and all your efforts are just your experience of life, nothing more and nothing less.

What happens?

Everything drops away. Rest right there-in that open clarity. Nothing at all, but what a nothing!

That is awakening mind.

Open to the world, to the whole universe, from this empty clarity. What do you see? 
You see joy and pain, beauty and ugliness, love and hate, confusion and wisdom, and everything in between-the whole panorama of the human condition.

What do you feel? A mixture-peace and freedom on the one hand, sadness and compassion on the other. In your heart is a longing, a yearning, to help all beings find a way to live in which they are not struggling with their lives, not driven by emotional reactions, not confused and bewildered about who and what they are and why they are here.

This also is awakening mind.

This is what it means to be awake: to know directly, unmediated by thinking and emotional reactions, that there is nothing but what you experience and, simultaneously, to know directly an intimate connection with all that you experience and the caring that naturally arises with that connection.

In such knowing and caring, concern for own welfare, for just what you want or need, disappears like mist in the morning sun. You cannot imagine living life so narrowly. To do so feels like a form of sleep, and you want nothing to do with it.

How that takes expression in your life is totally up to you. There are no rules. For Milarepa, it took expression as living in mountain solitudes and offering guidance to all who sought him out. For Maha Ghosananda, it took form as leading a walk through the Cambodian countryside, reconnecting people with their land which had been heavily bombed and mined in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. For my own teacher, it took expression as teaching and establishing retreat centers right up to the end of his life.

First, wake up. Then let that awakening take expression in your life.