envelope

Then and Now, Class 10


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We’re good. Okay. So here we are December fourth, Tuesday, 2007. I think we are just starting on impermanence, right?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Itself, okay. So that’s page 83 in Konchog Gyaltsen and page 42 in Guenther. Yeah, we talked about the four ends:

The end of all meeting is parting.
The end of all accumulation is dispersal.
The end of all building is ruin.
And the end of all living is dying.

Did anyone look up Ozymandias? Okay.


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Monika here? Yeah, that’s you. Did you get my message about the difference between—the opposite of life? Okay. Is that satisfactory? Okay. Just wanted to check.

Student: Do you want to tell us?

Ken: Well, it should have gone to everybody in the Facebook group.

Student: Oh. I’m not in Facebook.

Ken: Yeah and I thought it’s a very interesting question. And it basically came down to—for me, anyway—you look at the ability to respond to one’s environment as a spectrum. And when you get something like a rock, it doesn’t have much ability to respond to the environment; everything is crystallized. At the other end, you get things that are totally responsive. So it’s the degree to which energy is crystallized. And I was thinking about it. When do we say a battery is dead? A battery is dead when it has no juice in it. And so I think it works quite well from that point of view. So when a battery has got juice in it, it makes things happen, can influence surroundings, can influence other things. But otherwise, one becomes more and more passive, or inertia becomes stronger and stronger. Okay?

Crucial distinction here is between, basically, what’s alive, and what’s not alive. Now, one is presented one way here—schools of Buddhism actually have very different interpretations. There’s a story of a Zen teacher who was coming back from town to a monastery. And he was attacked by robbers and tied up with a kind of very, very long grass. When he didn’t show up, the monks at the monastery, got a bit worried about him, and eventually they sent out a search party. And there they found him tied up with this long grass and so they untied him. “Why didn’t you just get up and come to the monastery?” He said, “Well, I couldn’t bear to pull the grass out by its roots.” So he had a…a relationship with the world in which everything, even grass, was imbued with life and spirit.

In the classification that is presented here—this is quite widely utilized in the Tibetan tradition—a distinction is made between sentient beings, which are the inhabitants, or the contents of the environment, which is regarded as a kind of vessel or container. And when I pursued this with various teachers, the difference between the two is that sentient beings can move around for the most part, and the rocks and mountains and trees are relatively immobile. So that was the explanation that was given. Of course, when you get into detail of various esoteric kinds of plants and animals, we find certain animals are extremely immobile, so it doesn’t quite hold up. But as a general principle, that was what was operating here. And basically, I don’t think one has to take—well, let me back up a sec.


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All that follows here is a framework for meditation. And I don’t think it’s that helpful to regard it as a scientific classification of experience. It’s a classification so that it gives you a structure for being able to consider every aspect of one’s experience from the perspective of transitoriness or impermanence.

It utilizes the cosmology that was prevalent in India and Tibet in these times. And I think it’s very important to distinguish between cosmological systems according to the use for which they were developed. The Catholic Church got very, very badly caught with the Ptolemaic cosmology—in which the sun and stars revolve around the earth—so that when Galileo postulated and actually proved the opposite, that the earth moves around the sun, following the work of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, and so forth, well, he was held up for heresy.

Now, when you’re dealing with a mystical, spiritual tradition, the spiritual tradition’s description of the world and of experience is developed for one purpose and one purpose only—and that is, as a way of coming to be more awake. And that’s a very, very different function from being able to predict the behavior of phenomena, which is what a scientific system is primarily aimed at.

From this point of view, there is no real conflict between science and religion. Such a conflict arises only when one or the other ventures into the other’s domain. So when you try to use science to explain phenomena of awakening or of the way experience arises, you get into some rather strange stuff. And most of the studies on consciousness today are really bad, because the basic philosophy is very bad. There’s a persistent tendency to ignore what’s called the “binding problem”—what makes experience our own.

And, similarly, when religion or spiritual systems seek to explain or dictate how the world should be, as Karen Armstrong points out, you always end up with disaster. Because what you’re concerned with in spiritual traditions is coming to know the mystery of being itself—which is not exactly the subject of scientific inquiry. And the methodologies are so very, very different.

One of the things that I’ve been doing here is showing or attempting to show you how a lot of the language here is mythic. It’s not pointing to things that are actually real, but pointing to things that are real in the sense of existent phenomena; but things…that the ways that they are describing different aspects of experience. Whenever these mythic or symbolic descriptions are interpreted literally, then you get very strange things happening.

And this is really at the basis of much of the conflict between fundamentalism and the modern world today, that there is literal interpretation of the Bible which produces such things as creationism and intelligent design and all of this stuff, which is not even a pseudoscience. It’s a misinterpretation of religious truth by interpreting it literally. So, this is a bit of a long aside.

But when we’re reading texts like this, and many other texts like the Bodhicaryavatara [Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life] and so forth, as well as spiritual texts from other traditions, one should understand them as descriptions of psychological and spiritual evolution—not an internal experience—in the same way actually, in very, very similar ways that fairy tales are descriptions of internal experience.

My favorite example, for instance, is Cinderella. And in the beginning of Cinderella you have this young girl whose life is wonderful. And she’s adored by her mother and father, and has everything that she wants, and she’s able to do whatever she wants, and it’s just great. And then, her mother becomes ill and goes away, and dies. And her father remarries. And the new wife brings two children. And the first child’s world is completely ruined. And now she has to take care of these two children, and she no longer is the sole focus of attention. This is exactly the experience of the eldest child when siblings come along in the family. The mother gets pregnant and goes away, and when she comes back there’s this other “thing” that has just ruined her world. So children gravitate to these stories, because—even though this is rarely explained in these terms—it echoes with their internal experience in a way that they can relate. And it tells them that they’re not crazy for having the feelings that they are, and so forth.

And spiritual scriptures and accounts and stories, and so forth, do exactly the same kind of thing. And I think it’s very, very important for us to read these things with this kind of attentiveness. Otherwise, one take’s these things literally, and then you get some really, really strange things happening.

So, primarily this is a guide how…how to reflect on one’s experience, so that one can take in the truth that everything changes and nothing stays the same. And what we…we have, the way we experience the world, is, well, there are all of these people and animals, and so forth, that move around, and then there’s the rest of the stuff that doesn’t move around very much.


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So now we get into the cosmology here.

From the lower cosmic circle of Wind up to but excluding the fourth stage of meditative concentration, there exists nothing of a permanent nature nor anything solid or unchanging. Sometimes what is below the first stage of meditative concentration is destroyed by cosmic Fire, what is below the second stage by cosmic Water and what is below the third stage by cosmic Wind. [Guenther, page 43]

What is all of this about? What are these four levels of meditation, and so forth? Well, part of the cosmology here is that we have the realm of desire, which is basically dictated by wanting. And this includes the hell realm, and the hungry ghost realm, and the animal realm, and the human realm, the titan realm, and the desire realm gods. But it’s possible for the mind to become so still, that it is no longer functioning on the basis of desire. And that’s what these four meditation realms refer to—levels of stillness in the mind—so that desire is only there actually in potential; it’s no longer there explicitly.

Now, how many of you have rested in your meditation sufficiently deeply that the hankering after experience has subsided, even if it’s only for short periods of time? Where you just don’t want or need anything, you’re just completely at peace. Now, broadly speaking there are four levels, and they are actually broken down into seventeen, and so forth. We don’t need to get into all of that at this point. But this is a map of states of mind, not a map of the universe itself. Now, I haven’t thought all of this through, but this terminology of the elements—of water, fire and wind—I suspect refer to specific qualities that are present or not present in some of those very, very quiet states. And if I did a bit more research I could probably establish a correlation.

For the most part, this stuff is just presented as how things are because for the Tibetans and for Indians, they thought the world was like this. And so they didn’t question it any further. And I remember Ato Rinpoche, who’s a wonderful teacher who still lives in England, expressing his complete dismay when he went to a meeting in the early sixties or maybe the mid-sixties after the Tibetan diaspora, where the senior lamas of the Tibetan tradition were going to debate seriously whether the earth was flat or round. They were that wedded to that cosmology.

There is a mistaken translation that I should point out here in the Konchog Gyaltsen. When I read it in the middle quote it says:

This world will be destroyed by fire seven times and then once by water. When it has been destroyed by water seven times, then it will be destroyed by fire seven times. [Italics added, Gyaltsen, page 84]

I think that [“fire”] actually should be “wind,” that there’s a progression from fire to water to wind.

What this is saying is that even the stillest states of mind are subject to impermanence. That you just can’t hang out there forever. And a lot of people, they think, Oh, well, I could just hang out here forever. It’s saying even those very, very still states of mind pass, and you’re going to be back in the swim of things. And the reason this is important from a Buddhist point of view is that just quieting the mind is not enough. One has to know the nature of experience. Just resting isn’t enough.

And this becomes quite important because there is a stage of shamatha—resting meditation—which is very, very commonly mistaken for being awake because the mind just opens, and it’s very still and clear. And you think, Oh! This is what it’s like to wake up. But no, one’s actually just experiencing the stilling of the conceptual mind; that the knowing the nature of experience is another level of attention that needs to be developed.


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And then transitoriness or impermanence of the subtle is what we ordinarily take to be impermanence [Gyaltsen, page 84]. Seasons come and go, days come and go, and so forth. And when we live in the city, we aren’t as much in tune with the coming and going of the seasons. When I was in the three-year retreat, we lived extremely simply, of course. And we just had our rooms. There were no cars, there was no traffic. And we lived in a grove in the woods. And because every day was just the same, it was…it was almost like watching an accelerated movie of the seasons passing. You’d wake up one morning and—oh, the trees are in flower. And then the next morning—oh, now they have leaves. And then the next morning it would be—oh, now the leaves have fallen. Oh. Now there’s snow on the ground. And time actually, sometimes went almost that quickly. And you would get just a feeling of this constant change. And, of course, if you are out and you are seeing the phases of the moon every night, you get this sense of change.

There is plenty of change, as we know here in the city, but we don’t actually stop and experience it as change. We get caught up in it. But stand on a street corner and watch all the cars go by. Watch the people. And just get a sense of how much is constantly changing in one’s world all the time. And this is about the world around us.


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And then on page 44, it turns to sentient beings: The three world-spheres are transitory like a cloud in the sky. [Guenther, page 44] The three world-spheres are what I was talking about a few moments ago—the desire realm, and the form realm, and the formless realm. The desire realm embraces what we usually know as the six realms [hell, hungry ghost, humans, animals, titans, gods]. The form realm consists of the gods who dwell in meditative states with incredible states of stillness. But even though their minds are very still, they still have the sense of having a body. It is also possible for the mind to become so still that you have no sense of having a body. And that’s what the formless realms refer to, is that kind of stillness in the mind. And there are four levels of that, which we’ll be discussing a bit more when we get to the chapter on karma.

But just so that you know what the terminology means: You have what are called the three world-spheres, or the three realms, which are the desire realm, form, and formless realm. And then you have the six realms, which are the hell…hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, titans, and gods. And all of those—well, to be absolutely precise—when you’re talking about the gods, you talk about the desire realm gods, the form, and formless realms; all of those comprise the gods, and the rest are the other five realms, and that makes the six realms.

So that what both of these descriptions do—whether it’s in the three realms or the six realms—they are describing the whole range of ordinary experience, when there’s a sense of a self present. That’s what both of those maps do: they describe it in two somewhat different ways. In the six realms, the whole range of experiencing is being described in terms of the worlds projected by reactive emotions. In terms of the three realms, the whole range of experience is being described in terms of the degree to which mind is disturbed. Is it disturbed by desire? Is it sufficiently quiet that it’s just resting? Is it so quiet that there’s not even a sense of form? So they’re…they’re two different maps of experience. Basically, what they’re saying here is that everything is subject to impermanence. So now it breaks it down into more detail.


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And he goes to concentration on death—the signs thereof; on life as it draws to an end; and on separation. So this is one way you can meditate on impermanence. That the first thing is—I’m gonna die.

And this is Rinpoche’s favorite way of starting off talks with new people. I remember once in Hawaii, we were staying with a couple. She, the woman was very sweet. They were retired. And he was a hard-nosed engineer businessman, from aerospace, I think. And over dinner, he kept asking Rinpoche, “Why…why is it necessary to practice religion? Why is it necessary? Well, what’s the point? Isn’t it all hocus-pocus?” Et cetera. So that evening in a public talk Rinpoche started it off by saying, “Well,”—there were about four hundred people at the talk—“some of you are probably wondering why you’re here. So let me start off by saying that there are three kinds of people who don’t need to be here tonight. First, all of those, all of you who know you are not going to die: there is no point in you being here, so you might as well leave. Secondly, all of those who know that when you die, nothing is going to happen. And if you know that’s the case, then you might as well leave, because I don’t have anything to say to you. And the third kind, the people here who know that when they die, if they’re going to be reborn, it’s going to be in something better than they have now. If you know that, that’s fine. But if you don’t know one of those three things, then maybe you want to stick around.”

And then another time, we were in Vancouver. And we had this wonderful dinner in a very nice home. And it was a typical Vancouver winter night, it was just cold and rainy and miserable. And so after dinner the…the husband of this couple said to Rinpoche, “So why is it important to practice?” And Rinpoche said, “Well, right now we’ve just had this lovely meal. And here we are sitting around. We have a nice fire, and it’s all warm. Imagine what it would be like if you had to take off all your clothes, go out into that cold, dark, stormy night and know that you could never come back here. Well, death is much worse that that.” [Laughter]

And there is the case of—who is it in Minnesota, the Zen teacher, starts with a K? I can’t remember. Anyway, had this huge fund-raiser put on. And so all of the glitterati of Minneapolis are gathered here. And they—you know, the usual things—they had been wined and dined, and now here comes the Zen master that they’re all there to give money to, and so he comes downstairs, looks at everybody and says, “You know that you’re all going to die, don’t you?”

And it is probably the single most important thing to take in about your life—that it is going to come to an end. And it is why teachers talk about it again and again. Because when you really take it in, you begin to relate to your life as your life, not—as we were discussing before—as the life which society has conditioned you for. So, and it takes a lot of work to overcome all of that conditioning.

Then the second thing is attention to the signs of death. And the third here is to be conscious that life is passing moment to moment.

Incidentally, all of you who have a copy of the Bodhicaryavatara, what’s the English that it’s translated into? Entering into the Way of the Bodhisattva?

Student: The Way of the Bodhisattva.

Ken: The Way of the Bodhisattva. The translation I like in English most is the one by the Padmakara group. It’s very, very readable. But there’s a long and wonderful section and poetic form on…on impermanence. And I highly recommend it.


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And the fourth point here is attention to the fact that what happens at death? Well, one is separated from everything that one has known, which tells you that our relationship with these things isn’t what we ordinarily think of it as now.

There is a Theravadan monk who likes to take the point: You know, you think you have this computer. Okay? But in what sense do I have it? I can’t possibly take it with me when I die. It’s much more accurate to say that we coexist, and I have the use of it right now. But I don’t actually own the computer, because I can’t take it with me when this life comes to an end. And he likes to explore things from that point of view. So that’s one particular framework.

In Wake Up To Your Life, the framework that I used was one which goes back many hundreds of years in Tibet, and it was a fivefold framework. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Think about how many people who have died. Think about that you could die at any time. Think about what happens when you die. And think about what happens after you die. And it covers exactly the same territory as these four.

What follows now is a nine-point meditation. It’s the one that Gampopa favors. In the Gelugpa tradition, there’s a twenty-seven-point meditation. These are progressively more detailed. I can’t remember twenty-seven, I’m not too good with nine, that’s why I chose five. However you decide to reflect on this, you can use any of these schemes, you can even make up your own. The point is to take in two or three points very deeply.

One is that everything changes; nothing stays the same. Second, we are going to die, and we don’t know when. And the third is, once we die, everything about our life is fixed. We no longer have the ability to influence anything. And you take these points in very deeply, it really changes how one views one’s life and what one views as important in life.

I think in Wake Up To Your Life, which I didn’t bring with me this evening, I included a quotation from Life magazine by Lee Atwater. Now, Lee Atwater in the 1980s was the Karl Rove of this generation. He was a brilliant Republican political strategist and ruthless as hell. Then he got cancer. And he realized that everything that he’d been doing politically was just nuts. And he writes, he says in this article—Ron Brown was head of the Democratic National Committee at that point. And while he was ill, Ron came to visit him. He was Lee Atwater’s counterpart. And Lee couldn’t believe it because you know, “This is my enemy, he’s coming to visit.” He saw that in the face of death, this division into enemies and sides had no significance whatsoever. And in the last year of his life he sought to try to educate his other political colleagues to the fact that they were really, really barking up the wrong tree. He wasn’t able to, of course, as we all know. But this is the kind of transformation of understanding of what is actually important in life that death and impermanence brings about.

One of my students died of breast cancer a couple of years ago. And I would go to visit her from time to time as she was going through the process of chemotherapy and ending the chemotherapy, and just adjusting to what she knew was going to take place. And she repeatedly would say to me, “I am so grateful for this, because without this, I think I would have died without ever understanding what life is actually about and what was really important.” And you will find this kind of sentiment reported again and again and again. Whatever you can do to inculcate an awareness of the proximity of death and the fragility of life and the meaninglessness of most of what people dispute over, the clearer you will be, not only in your spiritual practice, but the clearer you’ll be in your life as well.

For all of these reasons, this meditation is probably one of the most important in the context of Buddhism and is something that every tradition encourages, though in very, very different ways. In Tibet, they encouraged—Gyaltsen Rinpoche’s secretary—Rinpoche would make him go and sit on a sheep’s corpse all night. He did not like that. [Laughs] But that’s relatively mild compared to what some other teachers would have their students do. You get the idea they want you to understand something.

Yes, Kate. Microphone right here.


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Kate: I’m just wondering if the Buddha himself had a framework for meditating on impermanence, or was this developed later?

Ken: [Cell phone rings.] Sorry. I think it is highly likely. And the reason I say that is that if you look at Buddha’s life, or the myth that has come down to us as Buddha’s life, you may recall that he’d grown up as the son of a local ruler as the myth tell us. And the reason I’m saying it is a myth is that Stephen Batchelor has come out with a book—which I’m not sure when it is going to be published—in which he has pieced together what was actually happening in Buddha’s time, and dispels much of the myth, you know, he goes into all of the political struggles.

But what’s come down to us is that when he was a very young man, he ventured outside the palace grounds, and encountered someone who was ill. And he had never seen somebody who was ill before, and this shocked him. And he asked his driver of his chariot, “What’s that?” “That’s an ill person.” And then he saw an old person. And the third trip out, he saw a corpse. And so here we have illness, old age, and death. And these were so shattering to him, to his illusion of what life was like. And then he saw a religious mendicant who was completely at peace. This so churned up his own idea of what life was about and what was important in life, this is what motivated his practice. So I think we can reasonably conclude that for Buddha himself, the realization or the appreciation of his…of his own mortality was…was a major—and the mortality of all people—was a major impetus to his spiritual practice. Okay? So, what particular framework he used, we don’t know. But it’s there.


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So, now, one of the challenges here is that we all know this stuff. None of us believe it. Yeah. William Saroyan was a writer, and he said it beautifully: We all know that we’re going to die. But in my case, I really thought an exception would be made.

For most people, the intimations of impermanence begin to take hold at around forty-five. Around forty-five, there is just no doubt your life is more or less half over, and maybe much more than half over—you don’t know. But you know that things are going in a certain direction, and you can’t avoid it anymore. So, one often sees people making significant changes in their…in their lives, commonly known as “mid-life crisis.” Which I think is actually a sign of health, referring to a kind of reappraisal.

The author of this text, Gampopa, was in his early twenties when his wife and children died. And it was their deaths and his inability to treat them medically that impelled his spiritual practice. So over and over again, when you read accounts of Buddhist teachers, and Buddhist scriptures, and Buddhist teachings, you come back again and again to this.

And as I say, there’s no big mystery here. We all know that everything changes. Nothing stays the same. You know—stars burn out, seasons change, mountains are thrust up and then they are washed away by erosion, seas dry up, and so forth. We’ve got plenty of geological and archeological evidence. We know that whole peoples come and go. There are these waves of civilized and uncivilized societies coming and going in all quarters of the world. We know the body is constantly changing, etc. But we don’t really take in to account the significance of all of this. We still cling to things as if they actually existed, and we still live and approach life as if we’re never going to die.

So, and in some sense, we’re running up against biological programming, and not just social programming. Because the body is programmed to live, it’s programmed to fight to live. But we’re not going to live forever. So what is actually meaningful?

And as a friend of mine said—about relationships—what’s the one thing you know about every relationship you have? It’s going to end. Okay, so, if you know the relationship is going to end, what is the appropriate way to approach the relationship? Now it may end with the death of one of you, or it may end before that. What’s the appropriate way to approach it? Savor every moment of it.

And it’s the same thing with life. We know our life is going to end, so the appropriate thing is to live it fully. Savor every moment of it. In a certain sense, that’s exactly what one’s doing in Buddhism is developing the ability to be able to experience completely every moment of one’s life.

So you have the certainty of death, my not knowing when it will come, and of nothing following me to the hereafter. Those are the three big heads.

And I love this quote from Ashvaghosa:

It is doubtful whether you will hear
Or see anyone
Who did not die, who had been born,
Either on earth or in the heavens.
[Guenther, page 45]

And the next one, which I don’t know where it’s from:

The great sages, with their five kinds of miraculous knowledge,
Though they were able to walk far in the sky,
Could not go to a place
Where they would not die. [Where there is no death.
[Guenther, page 45]

And one of the big shocks is that it doesn’t matter how much spiritual expertise you develop, it doesn’t stop you from dying. You know you can have the most profound realizations—you’re still going to die. So this means that the point of spiritual life, or spiritual practice, is not eternal life. Because it’s not going to happen.

So he goes down to Even the Nirmanakaya of the Buddha dies. [Guenther, page 45]

Student: Ken?

Ken: Yes?


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Student: I’ve heard you say a few times in these classes, saying something like acting as if all of this were real.

Ken: Real or like a dream?

Student: No…no, like, well, it’s more like, pointing out, more like a critique. Like people, us or whoever, is acting as if all of this were real.

Ken: Oh, I see. Okay.

Student: And I was wondering if you could talk about…flesh this out a little bit. Because maybe there’s stuff that comes before that that I haven’t learned yet, to kind of understand that statement.

Ken: I’m not quite clear about your question.

Student: I just don’t understand when you say that. Acting as if all of this were…were real.

Ken: Oh…okay.

Student: Which is to say, “All of this is not real.” What…what do you mean by that?

Ken: Ah, thank you. Now I understand. Okay.

Well, appreciating death and impermanence is the first step towards what you are talking about. A few moments ago, I said I don’t really own anything. You know, I have a sweater. Well, do I own that sweater? Now ordinarily, “to own” means, like, we control it. But the sweater is subject to decay. It’s going to wear out, and I can’t keep it forever. You follow? But we act and behave as if we can keep that sweater forever. Okay?

Now we can go deeper than that, but I don’t want to this evening. But that distinction between acting—knowing that the sweater isn’t going to last forever, but acting—you know, having a fight about it, sometimes. As if it’s a solid object who’s always going to be there. We act as if it is going to be there forever.

And that’s analogous to acting as if all of this were real. That is, when I say that, and I probably should use more precise language.

The way that we experience things now is that I’m sitting here and you’re sitting there. And you experience me sitting here and you think there’s a person here and I think there’s a person there. And we’re really two very different things. But, if we look at our experience, that actually doesn’t hold.

What am “I”—this person—in your experience? I’m a set of sensory impressions. There’s a certain shape and color and sound of voice, etc. And you put all of that together and you call that “Ken.” But there isn’t any thing “Ken” there, it’s just a set of impressions that you put together. And we do the same with a book, etc. And so when we analyze these things, and look at them, we can’t find the thing there itself. But we act as if it’s there. You follow?

Now you say, “Well, of course, we do. That only makes sense.” Well, in terms of functioning, and being able to do things somewhat efficiently and effectively, yes. Because it would be very, very cumbersome to say, “See that approximately five-foot-eleven person, or thing that looks like a person there, etc., etc., who happens to be wearing this today”—you know, it is much easier to say, “That’s Ken.”

But what we tend to do is forget that our life consists of just these experiences. And so, that blue cushion there—you know, I think, it becomes a dispute. Who does that belong to? Because we think there’s an object, an actual object there. And either you get it or I get it. Do you follow? Okay. I’m just a little thickheaded this evening, so that’s why I made the jump there.

You have a certain experience of things; somebody else has another experience of things. Both of you think your experience of things is the way things are. So, you see this cushion, they see this cushion. You say, “Well, that cushion’s mine.” “No,” they say, “that cushion’s mine.” What you are actually fighting over is a set of sensory impressions, not an actual cushion. You see. And who is going to, quotation marks, “own” it? And when you look at things from this point of view, a lot of disputes suddenly make no sense whatsoever. Is that a little clearer?

Student: Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. And so when I say, people act as if things are real, acting if all of the objects of the world exist independently, and they have got to grab and own as many as they can, and not let other people have them because if other people have them then they don’t get to own them. And in this sense we’re all a bit like children, squabbling over toys.

Suzuki Roshi was once asked, “Is war inevitable?” And Suzuki Roshi happened to be walking through the zendo at San Francisco Zen Center, in the main meditation hall. And Suzuki Roshi pointed to two mats, two cushions, one of which was slightly overlapping the other. And he said, “Well, there it is.” Okay? There is the perceived infringement of one person’s space on another. That’s what produces war. Now, the space is just there. But when people say, “No this space is mine, and this space is yours.” And then there’s a perceived infringement of one on the other, then you have war.

So, this is what I’m referring to as we act as if these things are real, when actually they’re rather arbitrary ways of breaking up our experience. And if we broke up our experience in this way a lot of the conflicts just disappear. Is that a little clearer?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Thank you. Okay. Good.


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Now, in what we’re discussing—how are we doing for time? There we are. We’re going through these reflections on death and impermanence as if we were reading a book. One of the things that is difficult to appreciate about many of the books in the Tibetan tradition is that they’re meditation manuals. And we can read this over, you know, in ten or fifteen minutes without any trouble. But to take in these ideas so that they change how we understand our experience and how we relate to our experience—this is a major bit of work.

I find that for most people, they need to work at these practices for a minimum of eight to nine months. And that’s usually enough to begin the process of change, of seeing and experiencing things a bit differently. Basically, you probably can’t do enough meditation on death and impermanence.

When I was in the three-year retreat, at the beginning of the retreat, at the first month of the retreat, we spent one week on each of the four contemplations: precious human birth, death and impermanence, six realms and karma—karma and then the six realms. We’ll be getting to the other two in a minute—in the new year. But when you say a week that means that you’re meditating on it eight to ten hours a day—just that one topic. That’s regarded as a relatively short time, just seven days on it. And we’d all had these teachings before, regarded, you know, okay, this is Dharma Talk 101, just repeated again and again and again.

But when we came to studying and learning some of the quite advanced techniques of energy transformation and the methods for being able to maintain awareness in dreams and in sleep, we were all surprised—I was quite surprised—to find that the number one meditation which was regarded as essential in order to be able to develop these abilities was death and impermanence. Because in order to be able to free the mind from the conditioning to the extent that you can actually be aware of when you’re dreaming and be aware of when…when you’re sleeping, you…you have to take this contemplation on death and impermanence that, that much deeper.

So, in my own experience, you cannot go wrong meditating on death and impermanence. A lot of people think, “Oh, don’t you get depressed?” And actually it’s the opposite. The more fully you take in your own mortality and the possibility that you could die at any time, then the more fully you relate to life. And so, it actually is quite a powerful antidote to many problems that people have in life.

There was a student I had, a very intelligent woman, who kept telling me that she was depressed and wanted to know why she shouldn’t commit suicide. And I met with her off and on over quite a long period of time. And she kept coming back and asking me somewhat disturbing questions. And I asked her, “Okay, so you are subject to depression. Have you explored medication, etc.?” And so we went through a bunch of things. Finally I said, “I don’t get it. You don’t want to take medication, because you want to be totally aware of what you are experiencing, unmediated by medication. You don’t want to do this because you want to rely on your own power, etc.”

And went through a whole bunch of things and through this she understood that the way that she was approaching life, which was with this high awareness of death, meant that she had this passionate intention to experience life to its full. And when that dawned on her, she just collapsed, laughing, and basically, moved out of the city, and lives in another town, and has an extremely full and engaged life, which is exactly what she wants. She stepped out of the corporate rat race, etc. And just has a full relationship with writing and gardening as well as her business activities. And it is really coming out of, coming to understand that she really wanted to live life herself.

And this is the point of the meditations on death and impermanence. They will lead you bit-by-bit to the realization that this life—what you experience as life—is yours and yours alone. And it’s up to you, and no one else— absolutely no one else—to tell you, to decide what to do with it. This is very empowering. It’s very, very powerful. And it’s also liberating, freeing, freeing as I’ve said before from the socially-defined agendas of, you know, have to be happy, have to be rich, have to be famous, have to be respected, and so forth.


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Going back to the text here. It’s one thing to take into account that we’re going to die. But this is balanced by the fact that death can come at any time. We don’t know when. Now, again, in our society we’re not only conditioned to avoid the subject of death, but we’re also conditioned that if death happens prematurely, then something has gone wrong. And there is a great deal of investment in that belief. And it is also subtly connected to the notion that bad things only happen to bad people, which is also completely wrong.

Many people when they’ve practiced these meditations and then experienced the death of someone close to them find that the understanding that has come through the meditations, and through these contemplations, allows them to meet that sadness and that loss in a totally different way.

That is, that when a young person dies—someone was relating to me their nephew was killed in Iraq, not too long ago—it doesn’t come as a surprise or as a violation of the world order. There is sadness at the loss. Yes. There is sadness at the separation. But it doesn’t mean that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world, which is how a lot of people relate to those kinds of tragic events. And their whole worldview and understanding of the world and their relationship to it is shattered.

In Buddhism, we come to understand that no, this is the way of the world. Unexpected things can happen at any time to anyone. We don’t seek them out. We put in place ways to prevent them happening unduly, but we can’t guarantee everything, because we do not actually control our lives. And taking in this aspect of impermanence is very, very important as well because one of the principle implications is we don’t know how long we have to practice. You may think I’ve got fifty years to do this. Well, you don’t know that. We have no idea.

A person that came to me in the late eighties had AIDS. And I encouraged him to do these meditations. And he was a little leery of it at first. But when he hit the meditation on “Death can come at any time,” he came in the next time to see me smiling. And he said, “This is the greatest meditation, Ken.” And I said “Why?” “Well,” he said, “when people find out I have AIDS, the way they relate to me changes, and they start talking to me as if I was half-dead. But after doing this meditation, I could say to myself, ‘You may think I’m half-dead, but you could be completely dead tomorrow.’” [Laughs] And so he didn’t feel like a second-class person anymore. And so, it was very freeing for him.


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Now on page 46 you’ll find these various similes: like an arrow shot by an archer, we move inevitably towards death; like water falling over a steep cliff; like a current of a river; like a prisoner being led to his execution; and so forth. You think, “These are so depressing.” No, they’re just descriptions of how things actually are. And the more deeply we take this in, the more present we will be in our lives. So I could go through all of these in great detail. I think, actually, they are fairly straightforward.

In the middle of page 47 [Guenther]:

Some die in the womb, Others the moment they are born Or while crawling Or running about. Some grow old and some die young, And some die in the prime of youth, In due course they all pass on.

All of these different ways to take in the fact that we are going to die. Now, as I said earlier, all of us know this intellectually. None of us believe it. And what this means is that the emotion, the resistance isn’t on the intellectual or conceptual level. The resistance to this understanding is on the emotional level. Because it is on the emotional level, we have to bring an emotional level of attention to this. That is, we have to spend enough time with this that we actually feel the truth of these statements, not just understand them. And the way that we can do that is when we are working on these meditations—is to note the physical and emotional reactions that arise when we’re doing them.


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So, if you think of, okay—life proceeds step by step—just like a prisoner walking, step by step to his execution. Well, when you think of that, what do you experience in your body? Anybody? Nice and relaxed? No. Okay, so, what do you experience?

Student: Gripping in the lower belly.

Ken: Okay. Microphones, please

Student: Kind of a gripping in the low belly.

Ken: Gripping in the lower belly. Anybody else? Where’s the other mike? Okay. Molly?

Molly: Tightening in the chest.

Ken: Tightening in the chest. Okay. Any others? Okay.


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Now, so you say the statement: Okay, so it’s like being led to the place of execution, and you feel the gripping in the belly, the tightening in the chest, maybe the tightening in the jaw, maybe clammy hands, whatever, all kinds of things can arise. Now you just experience that. You just breathe. Experiencing that.

What you are doing is experiencing the body reaction to the notion, or the idea, of death. And by letting your attention rest in the experience of the body reaction, you’re developing a level of attention that is higher than that body reaction, which is going to allow you to open to the emotional acceptance of this.

And as you take these in more and more, work with all of the bodily reactions, eventually you will start hitting the emotional reactions, like—“I don’t want this to happen; I am afraid of this; I’m angry about this; I’ll do anything I can to avoid it”— all of these emotional reactions. You do exactly the same thing with the emotional reactions. Maybe there’s sadness; maybe there’s anger; maybe there’s fear—whatever there is. And by staying present in the physical and the emotional reactions, you’re going to find that something shifts inside. And something will just go—“Oh. I’m going to die. This is going to happen to me.” And when that shift takes place, you find that you look at things a little differently.

In the nineties, there were some very bad fires down in Malibu, down in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach area. And one of my students had a family down there. And his wife was away when the fires came, but they were coming up the ridge in which his house was situated. And so he called a neighbor who lived in another part, and said, “Can we come over.” And they said, “Certainly.” And he’d done these meditations on death and impermanence. And his two children were a little frightened, and they said, “Well, what do we do?” And he just looked and he said, “Look. Everything in this house is replaceable. What’s most important is we’re safe. So take one thing that means something to you and we’re going to go and stay with our friends. And that’s it.” And the calmness with which he could approach this was directly a result of the, of his practice. And because he was calm, his children were able to be calm. So, okay, just do what is necessary.

This is the kind of shift that comes with this, when you work with the physical and emotional reactions and you say, okay—this is actually true; I am going to die. And it’s not only understood at a conceptual level, something in your system understands it and knows it, like—Oh. And there’s a letting go of a belief, letting go of an illusion. And often there’s a bit of sadness or possibly even grief with that, like, “Oh. This is the way life really is? Oh.” So there could be something like that. But at the same time there is—what actually—there’s a relaxation in body and mind. And…and I’ve always found that when people are able to see and take in what is true, even if what is true is very difficult or unpleasant, when they see and take in what is true, they relax in body and mind. And that…that’s quite extraordinary, and.it’s quite profound.

And this is how I’m…I’m trying to encourage you to relate to…to these practices here. That they’re challenging and they’re difficult; they contradict much of what we’ve been conditioned—or how we’ve been conditioned to look at our lives and understand our lives. But when we really take this in we find that we can actually relax and open to our life in a very, very different way because what they’re talking about is true.

Uchiyama in How to Cook Your Life writes about the…the fundamental paradox of the human condition is that we’re going to die and we do not know when. And because we know we’re going to die, there is nothing to hold onto. But because we don’t know when, we have to plan and actually approach life in some kind of orderly way. We can’t just do whatever we want. And so we’re caught between the order and the chaos.

It’s not all ordered; it’s not all chaotic. It’s this mixture of the two. And he goes on to write that the only way to relate to this is by living in each moment, awake in each moment, but not attached to experiencing the results of whatever actions we pursue in each moment, because we simply don’t know whether we’re going to be around to experience those results. So what we do in each moment has to be meaningful in and of itself in the moment, not because there’s going to be some result that’s going to come to us. This is a very—possibly a difficult way to live, a very challenging way to live but it means that we live completely in each moment.

And again I refer to Suzuki Roshi who says in a very different way, Live each moment so that there is nothing left over. And not even ash remains. So, that’s in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

So we’re just about there. Yes, Molly?


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Molly: Is there a connection between this kind of experience and then kind of like working with the dying of a pattern?

Ken: Yes, very definitely.

Molly: Could you say a little bit about that?

Ken: Sure. And thank you for bringing this up.

Another reason that meditation on death and impermanence is so important is that in the course of our spiritual practice many aspects of us are going to die. Associated with each pattern—we’ll talk more about this when we get to the section on karma—but associated with each pattern, there is a sense of self. And the function of that sense of self is to protect us from some core emotion, which we’re not able to experience for whatever reason. So we’ve constructed this idea of ourselves.

As our ability to experience things increases, then we’re going to be able to experience a lot of those undischarged emotions. And the sense of self associated with each one of those will die. And a lot of people try to hold on to that: this is who I thought I was, this is what, who I wanted to be. All of those ideas.

But when we’re living out of a sense of self, we’re living in an illusion, some kind of illusion; we’re not living with how things actually are. So one can look at spiritual practice as a series, or a progression of deaths. And by becoming familiar with the fact that things are impermanent, that we’re going to die, it helps us to receive or accept those deaths, as they will inevitably come in our practice.

I mean, just very simply, how many of you when you first started to practice…when you first started practice thought you could sit quietly for half an hour? You thought you could? Yeah. A lot of people, you know, “I can’t sit for half an hour.” And so they come, and the next thing you know, they’ve sat for half an hour. Well, a certain sense of self just died there. And—

Cara: I thought I could, but I couldn’t.

Ken: You thought you could, but you couldn’t.

Cara: Yeah, I really couldn’t.

Ken: Yeah. Right. And so there is a sense of self that was active. And then as you developed the ability, that sense of self died. And probably raged against, you know, it says, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore. Can’t we get off and do something interesting?” And so, that’s another illustration of what I’m saying is that this idea of ourselves goes through many, many deaths in this. So this is another reason to take death and impermanence to heart because it helps very, very much with this process.

Okay. It’s 9:30. We should close here. We’ll conclude here. I…I’ve got a couple of announcements to make.