envelope

Heart Sutra Workshop 1


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Lama Palden Drolma: So, we’re very happy to have Ken McLeod here, an old Kalu Rinpoche person, from way back, 1970? Or ’69? Or ’70. And Ken studied for a long time, was a translator for Kalu Rinpoche, did two three-year retreats under Rinpoche, and then Kalu Rinpoche sent him to L.A., the land where lamas fear to go, and… [Laughter]

Ken: Very true.

Lama Palden Drolma: Ken has been there since 1985, and thought a great deal about how to really translate dharma culturally for the West. Not just the written words—including that—but really how to bring the teachings of dharma and plant them in the West in a way that’s really very usable, user friendly, and applicable for current modern times. So, we’re very fortunate to have you. Thanks for coming, Ken. I turn it over to you.

Ken: I think we’ll take care of some logistic details first. This goes from 10 till 4:35?

Lama Palden Drolma: Five o’clock.

Ken: Okay, so that means we’ll go from ten till one and two to five, approximately. We may go a little longer in the morning, a little shorter in the afternoon. We’ll have a break at about 90 minutes. I’ve got a clock here, I’ve got two clocks, so presumably, I will remember. We’ll have a couple of breaks, so people can stretch and get the stiffness out of the joints and so forth. Restrooms are back here. And anything else?

Lama Palden Drolma: Tea is in the kitchen, for the breaks.


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Ken: Sometime in the eleventh century—we suspect, we don’t know the exact date—one of the gatekeepers from Nalanda University had a rather disturbing experience. Now, we ordinarily think of a gatekeeper in our culture as a kind of low position, but in Indian philosophical and religious circles, a gatekeeper was a very important position. In medieval India, as you’ve always had basically in Indian history, you have a lot of teachers teaching different things coming from their own experience. (Cell phone ritual, please; that’s just shutting off [Ken turns off his cell phone]).

When you had all of these teachers, they would debate because they had different views on what was useful in practice and what made sense as a philosophical system. And if you were able to defeat a person in debate, then not only he but also all of his followers had to come and learn from you. And if you actually had any real estate, you took over the real estate. So, skill in debate became rather important as these institutions developed. So, the gatekeepers were the top scholars and debaters and masters of their respective traditions.


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This particular gatekeeper’s name was Naropa. And the rather disturbing experience he had was that he came back to his room one day, and he saw this horrifically, ugly woman. She was fat, covered with warts and sores, straggly hair, just, just really, really, ugly woman leafing through his texts. And he was even more confounded when as soon as he walked in she just turned to him said, “Do you understand the words?” And he said, “Well, yes!” After all, he was a master scholar and debater. At which point she stared to jump up and down, the fat and breasts and everything jiggling all over the place, and laughing and dancing. And they have relatively small rooms so this didn’t leave much room for Naropa. [Soft laughter] He was a little confused by this and then [Ken snaps his fingers], she just stopped. She looked at him and said, “Do you understand the meaning?” And he went, “Well I better say yes again.” So he said, “Yes.” And she fell down on the floor and started to scream and cry and wail as if she had been hit or hurt very, very deeply, thrashing around on the floor.

Naropa didn’t know what to make of this at all. And so as she began to calm down, he said, “I don’t understand.” And she just looked at him and said, “When you said you understood the words, you spoke the truth. When you said you understood the meaning, you lied. Go and see my brother, Tilopa.” And then she just disappeared in front of his eyes.

So I have a question for you: how many of you have encountered the Heart Sutra before? How many of you understand the words? [Much laughter from audience and Ken] And how many understand the meaning? [A little laughter]

Jim: Is it a trick question?

Ken: It’s not a trick question, Jim. Okay, so. I am not going to hold you to this, but let’s hear from, say five of you, what would you like to know today? You already admitted you don’t understand the meanings. I’ve already cornered you, so you can’t really say, “Well, I just want to hear what you have to say.” You’re all here to understand or know something, so let’s hear from five. What do you want to know? Yes?

Student: I want to understand the Heart Sutra.

Ken: I have a follow-up question. How much are you willing to pay? [Laughter]

Student: Ah.

Ken: Or to put it a little more accurately, what are you willing to pay for that?

Student: Ahh. [Long sigh] Yeah, yeah.

Ken: You don’t have to answer, I just want you to think about that. Who’s next? Yes, back there.

Student: Your question led to a question for me, which is, well, what is it worth?

Ken: Yes, but I wasn’t asking you that question, what do you want to know?

Student: I’d also like to understand the , but, so if you would ask me what I would pay for it, I would say, well what is it worth? And how can I know?

Ken: Well, I am not going to try to persuade you of anything, so I will ask you a different question.

Student: Fair enough.

Ken: Why do you want to understand the Heart Sutra?

Student: From what little I have learned I think it’s something…pointing to something very valuable.

Ken: And how much is that worth to you? [Peals of laughter]

Student: Touché!

Ken: Now, with these two experiences, of course, nobody is going to open their mouths, so… [Laughter]

Student: When I saw that you were offering this, what came up for me was, I’ve chanted the Heart Sutra in three languages for, I don’t know, seven years, at a time every day. And I don’t know what it really means. And so just something in my heart just kind of flew out and said, “I’m going to be there.”

Ken: Okay. English, Tibetan, Japanese or Chinese?

Student: Korean.

Ken: Korean okay. Very good. But what do you want to know?

Student: What I remember feeling in those years when I was chanting it every day in three languages, was what does the Heart Sutra have to do with the heart?

Ken: Oh, nothing. That’s easy.

Student: I don’t believe that.

Ken: It’s not called the Heart Sutra because of this heart.

Student: Let me ask the same question in another way. I chant this Heart Sutra every day, what does it have to do with the core of my being?

Ken: Everything. [Laughter] Okay, thank you.

Student: That’s why I am here.

Ken: All right, very good. Two more. Tom?

Tom: I guess, basically the question is, how long will it take to learn the Heart Sutra?

Ken: You want to learn the Heart Sutra.

Tom: Incorporate it.

Ken: Ah. Okay. One more. Up here. Couple of people. We can take six. First Vicki, then Jim.

Vicki: For me, it’s about emptiness and helping me have a direct experience of emptiness in addition to understanding emptiness. And that’s what I’m making from being with you for a day.

Ken: One is possible, the other is not.

Jim: Well, so far everything I know from experiencing the Heart Sutra is that it’s not going to be known in any kind of academic or traditional way of understanding. So, your question already was a bit of a trick question, because I don’t really want to know or understand, but it will probably be more a matter of what I let go of, in terms of my preconceptions of what it means or what things mean?

Ken: What do you want to let go of?

Jim: Well, probably everything and nothing at all. That’s what the Heart Sutra keeps telling us, that there’s actually nothing absolute, in a concrete way that we understand it to let go of, and yet things do have an appearance.

Ken: But what do you want to let go of? Forget what the Heart Sutra says.

Student: There’s…there’s an underlying belief that I don’t understand it; maybe that’s what I want to let go of.

Ken: Ah. Okay, thank you. You have something?

Student: I have an addendum to my answer.

Ken: We’ll allow it.

Student: I’m just sitting here and just going, there’s a part of me that wanted to say everything. I want to pay everything—

Ken: Oh, I see.

Student: —for it. And just thinking that feeling that I am at this brink. I’m just feeling that this is really working on me already. This question, and this answer.

Ken: That didn’t take long.

[Loud feedback from mic] I’ll try to remember to remove the microphone when I am going to cough. Okay, there was one comment here. Yeah, right there.

Student: Diamond Cutter Sutra, if you have time.

Ken: Oh, no, no, no, not a chance. The Diamond Cutter Sutra is a much longer text, and I would have to do some work before I felt confident presenting that, because it’s a very subtle text. Very good, but it’s very subtle. But it’s the same subject matter, so we’ll see what we can do. Okay.

We are going to go through the Heart Sutra a few times. In the first section this morning we’re going to do some meditation together. We’re going to talk about the story of the Heart Sutra. And then the second session, we’ll do some of the heavy lifting that’s involved. There’s a certain amount of heavy lifting. After lunch, the crunch. And then we’ll talk about how to live the Heart Sutra. That’s the plan but we have to remember that most military planners say that, “The best battle plans last until first contact with the enemy.”

So, how many of you have a copy in front of you at this point, because I’d like to read through it together just as a way of starting.

Lama Palden Drolma: They may have another translation.

Ken: Well, they can look on with each other. How many have a copy of this? [Holds up An Arrow to the Heart]. You should actually buy this book, it’s quite good. [Laughter] Well, let me just read it through then and everybody can listen, and those of you that have the book can follow.


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Ken: The Sutra of the Heart of Lady Perfection of Wisdom, page 2. [Everyone reads out loud]

I bow to Lady Perfection of Wisdom.

Thus I have heard. At one time, Lord Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, with a great gathering of the monastic sangha and the bodhisattva sangha.

At that time, Lord Buddha entered an absorption, called Profound Radiance, in which all elements of experience are present.

I think we have to stop right here. Jess, you can put down the book for a moment. So, here’s Buddha. He’s meditating. And you notice the situation, they’re perched on top of a mountaintop, which is a place that exactly exists in India. I’ve been there. And he is surrounded by monastics and bodhisattvas. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a few minutes. And he entered an absorption, called Profound Illumination or Profound Radiance—it’s translated in different ways—in which all elements of experience are present. How many of you know this absorption? How many of you would like to know this absorption? Oh, you know this absorption, do you? Oh, good. So, let’s spend a few minutes.


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Now, if you are going to have all elements of experience, it’s probably better if you have your eyes open, so you aren’t shutting things out. So, start just by sitting and resting with something that we all know: resting in the experience of breathing. Now, generally when we rest in the experience of breathing, the first thing we become aware of is the sensation of the breath through the nostrils. But that’s only part of the experience of breathing.

You may also notice that the breath flows through one or other of the nostrils more than the other. Maybe the temperature is slightly different. You may also notice a sensation, a cool sensation at the back of your throat when you breathe in. Movement of the lungs and the chest. Movement in the diaphragm and stomach. So, just experience all of that. [Pause]

You may also experience your back moving, a little bit. When you breathe in, the body straightens up, a little bit. When you breathe out, it bends forward, a little bit. It may only be a couple of millimeters. You may notice that your head moves accordingly; the chin moves very slightly up and down. Whoever said that meditation was actually sitting still?

There may be other sensations taking place in your body connected with breathing, experience all of them. You may find your attention moving from one sensation to the other. You don’t need to do that; you can experience them all at the same time. So experience all the tactile and kinesthetic sensations associated with breathing. [Pause]

Then include a bit more: all of the tactile and kinesthetic sensations associated with your body. Sensation of clothes touching your body; the sensation of your body sitting; sensation of your hands and feet touching or interacting with each other. In addition to that, all the sensations connected with breathing. Just experience all of it. All at the same time. You may find that your attention collapses down on one or other thing, and as soon as you notice that, just expand from that thing that you are focusing on to include everything connected with breathing and your body. Just sit there for a few moments, in the experience of breathing.

[Long pause]

But, our sense of the organ of the body is only one of the five senses. There is also sight. So, as you sit there in the experience of breathing, you could also include everything that is in your field of vision. From where I sit, that’s the faces and bodies and clothes of all of you. All of the details of the thangkas and the glittering of the brocade that frames the thangkas, the lights, the ceiling, the floor, the windows, the walls. That’s all part of the experience of breathing; it’s all part of what we experience right now.

Also include the sound of my voice and the sound of the traffic, just include everything. The feelings in your body as you breathe, and all of the other sensations that arise in any of the senses. You sit in a field of sensory experience. [Pause]

And you may notice, as you sit in this field, that there are other elements of experience. Maybe some thoughts arise because of the honking outside, saying, “I wish it would go away.” And there are feelings of dislike or displeasure. Maybe there are other thoughts, other emotions. In other words, there is all this internal stuff that goes on, too. So, just include that: the sensations of the body, all the other senses, thoughts, feelings, sensory sensations, emotional sensations, cognitive sensations—we call those thoughts. Don’t push any of it away, don’t try to organize or understand any of it, just experience it all. And whenever you find yourself collapsing down on one thing, just expand back and include everything. You don’t have to actually sit stock-still to do this; you can let your eyes move gently and slowly around the room, taking in all the visuals, but including the body sensations that are involved in that.


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So, here we are in a field of experience: sensations, thoughts and feelings. You sit in this way long enough, you begin to wonder what outside and inside mean. So maybe we could just let those go and have this field of experience.

Now, open your heart to this field of experience. Some of you may say, what does that mean? But you know what it is to open your heart to your spouse, or your partner or your child. So, you just do the same thing with what you are experiencing: just open your heart.

So you have all of the physical sensations and all of the sensory sensations and all of the internal material, the thoughts and feelings, and so forth, and you have an open heart. Now, in a moment, I am going to suggest a question. I don’t want you to answer the question. I simply want you to pose the question to yourself. When you do this, you’ll probably experience some kind of shift. When you experience that shift, just include that experience, too, with everything else.

So, physical sensations are breathing, all the sensations with the body, all the other sensory sensations: sight and sound, taste and smell. All the mental and emotional sensations: thoughts and feelings. The whole field of experience which we experience with an open heart. And the question is, what experiences all this? As I say, don’t try to answer the question, just experience the shift and then include the experience of the shift with everything else. What experiences all this?

[Silence]

[Gong]

So that’s what Buddha was doing. How was this for you? At the back there.


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Student: Should I use the mic?

Ken: I think, it is good to have the mic.

Student: So, the shift that I experienced was that, well, I think I didn’t quite understand you the first time you said it, so I was in sort of a limbo. And then when you said it again, it felt like the room got a lot brighter for me and bigger. And more stable, there was like a sense of something stabilizing or getting still. But then it felt like I felt afraid. I had some sort of weird sense of…I couldn’t really figure out what I was afraid of, but it felt like edgy.

Ken: Edgy?

Student: Edgy, yeah.

Ken: Thank you. Anybody else?

Student: I turned 60 this year, and I have to say, I did not understand the question. I heard “what,” and I heard “experience,” that was all that I heard. Is that all you said? “What experience?”

Ken: No. What experiences this?

Student: What experiences this? Thanks.

Student: For me, I had a very familiar experience of a lot of contraction and a lot of trying to make sense of everything. [Ken chuckles] And do it right and get the experience.

Ken: It’s very important to do it right, isn’t it?

Student: Yeah, yeah. But when you asked the question, and I repeatedly asked the question, there were moments of some relaxation.

Ken: Okay. There’s somebody up here.

Student: As I was doing the process, the exercise as you were guiding us, I felt like I was doing pretty good with adding more and more elements to the experience. Sort of going back and forth between what I was thinking about, different things that were coming through. But basically staying with the whole thing, pretty much. When you asked the question, for me, there was this pointing out of…“Oh!” You know sort of like, “Oh, there’s the me that’s sort of coordinating this whole thing.” And in that moment I had this, something dropped away. And I don’t know…it was—just something dropped away.

Ken: How was that?

Student: I don’t know how to answer the question. It was…

Ken: Well, did you like it?

Student: I felt good, yeah. I would say…

Ken: Was it frightening?

Student: No, I wouldn’t say it was frightening. It was…I don’t know. It was like pointing out something obvious that I hadn’t seen before.

Ken: Okay. Would you like to live there?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Okay. Vicki.


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Vicki: To follow up on Steven, so in my natural ego-clinging state, I was sure you made a mistake [laughter], because you didn’t say who experiences all of this, instead you said, what experiences all this?

Ken: Oh, you’re right. [Loud feedback]

Vicki: But obviously, as Steven said, when I realized you didn’t make a mistake, and you intended to do “What experiences all this?” there was that feeling of letting go and, “This is okay.” And I don’t have to run the whole thing.

Ken: Ah. Running the whole thing is very important.

Vicki: It’s exhausting.

Ken: It’s also an illusion but we’ll come to that. Yes?

Student: I also had that sense of…I already felt pretty expanded from the meditation, but when you asked the question, more so. But from that place, there was also…I could…I had an experience of kind of like this little space of billiard balls just back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth.

Ken: Brownian motion.

Student: It was strange because it was like being in an expanded place and yet having the view or the experience of somewhere there’s this little thing going on.

Ken: Okay, one more.

Student: When you got to the point of saying, “Now open the heart,” I felt myself get soft and expanded then. And then when you asked, “What experiences this?” I felt myself actually contract. So, for me it was kind of like the question of, “What?” It was like, “What?” [Speaker changes inflection] And I felt myself immediately contract with that. The instruction to open the heart, at that point, I felt myself get soft and open.


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Ken: Okay. This is how you experience everything [snaps fingers]: all elements of experience are present. You see, things are much simpler than they are often presented to us. There are only three things we experience: thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Everything else is a construct or an abstraction from that.

In order to experience, to do this kind of practice, any kind of practice really, there are three things that we need: willingness, know-how, and capacity. As several of you have observed, when you do this form of practice, the sense of self comes into question. If you happen to be quite attached to a sense of who you are, this raises a problem. So, willingness becomes an issue. You cannot do this practice and experience yourself the way you ordinarily do.

Know-how is also important. In guiding you through this, I was actually teaching you how to open to all elements of experience. So, this was a skill-building exercise, if you wish. And many people have found this approach has helped to counteract certain imbalances. You know, a lot of meditation is taught in terms of concentration, and so forth, which I think is unfortunately very, very misleading. Concentration is what you do to light rays and oranges. [Light laughter; Ken speaks up] Concentration is what you do to light rays and oranges. And has very little to do with what actually happens in meditation. It’s a most unfortunate use of language, misuse, I would say. The word meditation in Tibetan means to become familiar with; there’s no sense of concentration in it at all. So, I think it’s important to have the know-how. It’s about opening and resting in experience.

And third is capacity. Capacity is how much you can do. This figures in all disciplines, in all situations in life, really. Take rock climbing, for instance; one has to have a certain willingness to hang from holds if you are going to climb. You also—there is quite a bit of technical skill to develop. There’s a way of doing things that work. And there are ways of doing things in rock climbing that really don’t work. But even if you’ve got all of that, you need a certain amount of just sheer physical strength: fingers, wrists, core of the body, legs, and so forth. And it doesn’t matter how willing you are or how good your technique is, if you don’t have the strength, there are certain moves which you won’t be able to do.

It’s the same for spiritual practice: you need capacity. Capacity not in muscular strength, but in attention. So, one needs to build that. Of course, building capacity is always the most boring aspect of practice. In music, how do you build capacity ? It’s called scales, up and down on the piano or whatever. If it’s a wind instrument or a string instrument, then you also build capacity by holding notes for a very, very long period of time. So, the breathing becomes very smooth, or you develop the strength to be able to hold the bow for violin. If you play rock guitar, capacity means building calluses. And a great deal of people’s efforts in meditation practice go awry, because they struggle to understand something that they simply don’t have the capacity to experience. And it’s completely futile because you cannot, as someone pointed out earlier, understand this. This is what my father always said when I gave him a textbook on Buddhism. He would read it and would say, “I don’t understand why you are studying this, Ken. It says right here, you cannot understand this.” [Laughter] So, capacity is very important.

Now, this practice that I have just given you: you have the know-how. Willingness is largely up to you. You do this on a regular basis, and your capacity to experience more and more will increase, because the practice consists of including more and more. It’s a very good practice. You can do it anywhere, at any time. Shopping malls during the holiday season are a very good time to practice this. But you can do it when you go for a walk, whether it’s on the city streets or in the country, nature. If any of you are teaching, it’s a very good practice to do when you are teaching, because you will see everything that’s going on in the classroom. And that can be helpful. And as you work at this more and more, you will gradually be more and more in your world of experience.

So, this is what Buddha was doing. He entered an absorption called Profound Radiance in which all elements of experience are present. Now we return to the sutra.


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At the same time, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, was looking right at the experience of the profound perfection of wisdom and he saw the five groups to be empty of nature.

So, now we have to figure out what Avalokiteshvara was doing. Well, I’d like you to put the books down. You are never going to find this in the book.

How many of you remember the fairy tale of The Princess and the Pea? Hmm, lots of you don’t know this story. What do they teach in school these days? [Laughter] I won’t go into all the details of the story, but there is a prince and he has to determine who is a suitable wife. So these various princesses are invited, and he has an old aunt or grandmother who is helping him choose the right wife. She has a bed prepared. It consists of a hundred mattresses. And under the bottom mattress she places a dried pea.

One after another of these princesses come in and they sleep in this bed in the night and she asks, “How did you sleep?” And they all say, “It was wonderful; I had a very nice sleep.” Until one woman says, “Ah! It was terrible. There was something in my bed and I just feel black and blue, and all bruised.”

Grandmother says to the prince, “This is your wife.”

Now, there are many ways we can understand this story. I’m not going to explore that particularly. What I want you to do is be that princess.

We’re just going to sit here. I want you to rest. Now, we will do this up here so that everybody can see. Can I borrow a piece of paper? Thank you.

Now, the way most people rest is like this. [Places a book on top of a glass.] It is a form of resting, but in resting that way you don’t experience very much.

There’s another way of resting and that’s like that. [Places the somewhat flexible sheet of paper on top of the glass. It bends a little when placed on the glass.] It’s a little more complete resting, you see these parts are resting more fully than the book was. But it’s still only a partial form of resting. Can I borrow that cloth? Thank you.

There’s a third way of resting which is like this. [Places a soft silk cloth over the glass. The cloth drapes over and takes the shape of the glass.] You feel everything that is there in your experience. Like the princess and the pea. That’s how I want you to rest right now.

Be the princess, feel all the peas. None of the peas are an enemy, though we often think they are and so we rest like this [Rigidly] [Laughter].

And see what has to happen in you to rest that way [Like the princess]. So there will be sensations, there will be feelings, and there will be thoughts. There may be sensations in your body. There may be emotions that are connected to things that happened this week or things that you’re concerned might happen next week or next year. And there may be some thoughts and stories. Don’t try to get rid of any of it. Just explore “How can I rest with this?”

Now, this doesn’t mean go with the flow. As one person, Jim Hightower, once said, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it’s conformity. Even dead fish go with the flow.” So this is not about being a dead fish! That’s kind of like this… (sighs as he goes limp).

No, this is about opening to and resting in exactly what is there. So we’ll do this together for a few minutes now.


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You may find the exercise we did on opening helpful to this. You may find it helpful, I don’t know.

[Silence]

If you start to rest and something stops you, rest with that. Don’t try to overcome it or go to war with it. Just rest with that, too.

[Silence]

From time to time, check your body. Is it resting? Many of us meditate with our chins jutted forward, it creates tension in the jaw and the neck. Not exactly resting but we try to ignore that because we are trying to meditate “the right way.”

So, don’t think about doing this the right way, just think about resting.

[Silence]

Resting in the body. Resting the heart. Resting the mind.

[Silence]

Check your shoulders…check your stomach…let yourself open to whatever is there. All of the old pains…all the monsters under the bed or in the basement. Rest completely. Allow yourself to feel what you may have never felt before, what you’ve held away from.

[Silence]

If thoughts or emotions start up, don’t ask, “How do I get rid of these?” Instead ask, “How can I rest with these?”

[Silence]

Now we add one more element.

[Silence]

As you rest, look at this experience of resting. Don’t start to think about it, just look at it. And rest in the looking. Look at this experience of resting and rest in the looking.

[Silence]

Rest in the experience. Look at the experience of resting and rest in the looking.

[Silence]

[Gong]


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So, this is what Avalokiteshvara was doing. How was it for you? Where is the microphone? Why don’t you start? You didn’t think you got away scot-free, did you?

Student: Very convenient to have it [the microphone] here. I had a real sense of freedom.

Ken: These mics work if you pretend they are an ice cream cone. You point it towards you, like that. You aren’t pointing it towards you yet. No. There you go. Now. So, you had an experience of freedom? What on earth are you talking about?

Student: The ability to let…and experience things and let them be rather than trying to push them away.

Ken: Okay. Thank you. Anybody else? Please.

Student: Thank you. This meditation practice is actually the practice I do, from U Tejaniya. Have you heard of U Tejaniya? He is a Burmese monk.

Ken: No, I haven’t.

Student: He has been teaching this practice. So, it is the practice I generally do. And one that seems to suit me.

Part of the problem when I do this practice is that I start to fall asleep or I just get really comfortable and the awareness goes away. So, I liked what you said about not going with the flow. That helped when I started to do that. But the practice of resting in awareness of the resting is one that I have been practicing for a while and rarely I am able to even get a taste of it. So, I notice how constricted I got because I couldn’t do it, or felt I couldn’t do it.

Ken: What happened?

Student: The experience—I start feeling as if I am searching for something, which is the ability to rest, the ability to have awareness of the resting.

Ken: Okay. We’ve already talked about peas. We need to talk about birds. John Audubon, the great ornithologist, once said, “When the bird and the book disagree, always believe the bird.” I suggest you take his advice. You experience resting and then you start consulting the book. You follow?

Student: Maybe.

Ken: We’ll come back to it.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: You are welcome. Anybody else? Everybody’s frightened now.


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Okay. Ellen.

Ellen: I had the experience of something like a bellows.

Ken: Expansion, contraction?

Ellen: Exactly.

Ken: Mmm-hmm.

Student: Just experiencing, I was expanded and when I started looking at the experience, it was a contraction.

Ken: Can you do them both together? At the same time?

Student: I will have to try.

Ken: Good. Yes?

Student: What would the difference be between looking at the experience and being the experience?

Ken: Looking at the experience is a way to move into being the experience.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: Being aware is part of experiencing. So, the looking quality is very important, as is the resting. Most people, they learn how to rest. But they can’t look. And whenever they look, they stop resting. This is a very significant problem in practice. You have to look and rest at the same time. It’s kind of like walking and chewing gum. It’s not one or the other. Do you follow?

Student: Yes, thank you.


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Ken: Okay. Here.

Student: When I don’t feel like I’m—well, I can rest, and then it feels like it’s not complete rest. So then I start looking for the reason it is not complete rest. So, then I am examining my mind and then, if—

Ken: It gets really busy, doesn’t it?

Student: If I were the princess, I’d be under this hundredth mattress looking for the pea.

Ken: Yeah, and so that’s counterproductive, isn’t it?

Student: Sort of.

Ken: So, there you are. You are resting but it doesn’t feel like complete resting. Rest with the experience of it not being complete resting. That’s very irritating, isn’t it?

Student: No, I mean, it was all right, but I was very aware that I was searching for…

Ken: Yes, but I am suggesting that now you rest in that experience. You don’t search at all.

Student: Okay.

Ken: You experience all of that dissatisfaction and frustration and feeling of failure and incompetence because you can’t rest. Anybody else have those feelings? [Laughter] That’s what’s arising. That’s where it is, see? It is like our little friend the clock here, or the pea. Whatever’s there. That’s it. We don’t have to look anywhere.

We could put this in other words if you wish. It’s called enjoy the pea. I was having a massage by this tiny Korean woman once. And she was very, very practical about it. She said, “This is going to hurt a little bit. Enjoy.” And then she would do something that was like aaaah! [Laughter] But she was, you know, then she’d say, “No pain, no gain,” and then do something else. [Ken laughs] But she was very practical about it. Whatever it is. That’s our experience. We are always looking to make it something else, aren’t we? That’s why we don’t rest.

Yes? The microphone is right there.


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Student: I have a question about looking. Suppose there was a mirror and things were reflected in front of it, and suppose there was an outside voice that says to the mirror, “Look at it.” It doesn’t grab me functionally what to do there.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: It doesn’t grab me functionally, what to do there. I mean there’s just awareness and there’s experience: you’re already looking. Maybe I’m missing something.

Ken: Does anybody have a mirror? Does anybody have a small mirror? A small mirror is quite…that will be just fine. Thank you. So we even have two.

Student: They’re heart-shaped mirrors.

Ken: Entirely suitable.

Now, does anybody see me holding anything in my left hand?

Audience: Yes.

Ken: Okay. How many of you see a mirror?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Really? Huh. That’s very interesting, how many of you see a mirror? How many of you see a mirror? How many of you don’t see a mirror? Well, what do you see?

Student: I see two mirrors. [Lots of laughter]

Ken: I feel very much like the White King in Alice in Wonderland. Alice and the White King are watching the race between the lion and the unicorn. And the White King says, “Do you see anyone coming?” And Alice says, “I see no one.” And the White King says, “What remarkable eyes you have, and in this light, too.” [Laughter] Because here I am holding this, and I just can’t see any mirror. You see, maybe it’s a little harder for you, but all I see are reflections. But I don’t see any mirror. Now, is there something wrong with my sight? I know it’s not what it used to be, but—does anybody actually see the mirror here?

Student: I see the frame around the mirror.

Ken: Yeah, I see the frame.

Student: I see the reflective device.

Ken: Do you see the reflective device? I only see reflections.

Student: I see the metal.

Ken: The metal?

Student: I mean I see it reflecting.

Ken: Oh, I see the reflections, but I don’t see any reflecting, I don’t see any metal, I don’t see any, you know…

Student: I feel like I ought to modify my question. [Lots of laughter]

Ken: I don’t want you to modify your question because I was going to go here anyways. You just gave me a wonderful segue.

Student: I see something like color.

Ken: What do you see?

Student: I see a frame and I see reflective glossy surfaces that change as you move it in the light.

Ken: Yeah, and you call it a mirror. Yeah, that’s kind of my experience, too. Anybody here with me?

Student: You’re talking about perceptual convention.

Ken: Oh. I don’t think so. I mean maybe we are, but I thought we were going to talk about something a little bit more than that.

Student: Would the same question be to ask, do we see you or do we see tables?

Ken: We can go there, and we will go there later. But I am going to go, in response to this gentleman’s question, I’m going to go in a little different direction.


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You look around this room now [pause], what do you see? Everybody’s really afraid to answer this question. Okay, we see thangkas, we see people, we see chairs, we see walls, we see lights, right? What if we look inside, we see thoughts, feelings, things like that, right? That’s what we see. But what we are actually looking at, in both cases, is our own mind. And we don’t see our mind—in the same way that we don’t see the mirror. But when we look at our experience, we’re actually looking right at our mind. Every now and then, we get the sense, “Oh, I’m looking at nothing.” You know what happens next? We panic.

Student: Don’t you relax?

Ken: Maybe if you’ve done this a few times, but in the beginning, it’s panic, and we start thinking like crazy. And now we are much happier, because now we’re not looking at anything again. We’re thinking. Anybody have this experience in their practice? Rest in the looking, look in the resting. Eventually you come to know that the resting and the looking are not different. And then we’re doing what Avalokiteshvara was doing: looking right at the experience of the perfection of wisdom.


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Now when we were doing that exercise in resting and looking, how many of you thought about your body? Were you thinking about your body when you were resting and looking?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yeah, but were you thinking about it? Were you conceiving your experience in terms of body? If you were really resting and looking would you be doing that? No. Would you be conceiving your experience in terms of concepts? Or emotions? No. So, Avalokiteshvara was looking right at the experience of the perfection of wisdom, and he saw the five groups, the five skandhas, to be empty of nature. That’s what he was doing. So, we only got a little way into the Heart Sutra in this first section. We’re going to take a break now. We’ll come back and continue.


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