envelope

Then and Now, Class 29


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This is the 29th class in the Then and Now series on Tuesday, May 6, 2008.

Some of you may have noticed I sent out an email—or at least to everybody on Facebook—saying, “How many of you are actually listening to the podcasts?” and asked them for a number of questions about what they were finding of value, and I got back—I had about 10 replies (8 to 10 so far), and they’ve actually been very positive. And I printed one of them out this evening (but I forgot to bring it with me), because the person was expressing very much her appreciation for the participation of you in the questions and answers and so forth. And she feels like she’s got to know everybody, and so when somebody gives a reply, she goes, “Yes! That’s right!” [Laughs] and “Good point, Julia!” and things like that. So, that’s what’s going on. Another person said that he doesn’t find the discussion helpful at all, but that’s one out of seven or eight replies, so that’s definitely the minority.


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Ken: Okay. The question I left you with, if I recall correctly, was the difference between acting morally because it was the natural thing to do and acting morally because you knew it was the right thing to do. Is that right? Have I remembered it pretty well?

Joe: Yes.

Ken: Thank you, Joe. So, Joe. This is…

Joe: I actually don’t think people are doing the right thing because it’s the moral thing to do. They’re doing the right thing because it’s the natural thing—

Ken: The natural thing to do. Interesting. Okay. Thank you. Okay. That’s all right. So, how was this? This is actually a fairly subtle one, so…

Joe: It’s extremely subtle. I mean, first thing, I would like to have the words moral, ethical, virtue, and hell banned from any translation of Buddhist texts, now and henceforth, always.

Ken: And the reason for imposing this moral injunction on the Buddhist texts, on translators is?

Joe: Is that for me, [with] my particular background, these terms are so weighted…have such a cultural baggage that it’s hard to contemplate them without positing an external applier of these…

Ken: An external authority.

Joe: Yes. A punisher…a…

Ken: Well, we should talk about this a bit. Okay. So, why do you cling to these outdated notions?

Joe: [Laughs] Why do I cling to them? Your suggestion is that I can just let them go.

Ken: [Laughs] I’m feeling feisty today in case you haven’t noticed. Yes.

Joe: Yes. I must find them useful or somehow attractive in some way.

Ken: Exactly.

Joe: Okay.

Ken: How do you find them useful and attractive? Well, not you. I think we have to be a little careful in our wording here. What use does holding onto them serve?

This is a non-trivial question. You may recall Stephen Batchelor wrote…his most recent book—I think a new one’s coming out shortly—was Living with the Devil, in which he explores quite deeply the notions of right and wrong—good and evil, I think it is—in Buddhism because, as he says in the introduction, he found these two skeletons rattling around in his closet. And I read the book and I have a great deal of respect and affection for Stephen. We’ve had a number of very good conversations, but I found myself disagreeing with him immensely, with a lot of things that he was saying, until he got to the section on Taoism and balance and no good and evil existing, etc.

And I realized that those two skeletons aren’t rattling around in my closet, but they do rattle around in a lot of people’s. And that’s what, how I’m understanding you. So what price would you have to pay to clear out your closet?


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Joe: Well, let me make my response more clear, because I might be going down a road which I don’t really mean.

Ken: Okay.

Joe: What it does is it slows up…it’s not that I, that I cling to them, it’s that they pop up and they block me for a while…my understanding and my ability to apply the suggestions made in a text like this because of those words. And then what I do is I say, well, this whole set of rules is as provisional as any set of rules I have ever ingested and taken on in my life and rejected at some point. And I merely go to, well, what is my experience in the moment?

What can I do again that is the right thing or the moral thing, to use those words, in this moment, at any given moment: when I’m sitting on the cushion; when I’m driving in my car; when I’m with other people? And what relationship does that have to these rules that are supposedly made up? And my conclusion is that these rules are only useful insofar as they bring one into the present moment and knowing their own experience.

Ken: Yes. This is helpful. Okay. There are things that I think that it would be good to speak to in your response there. Okay. Anybody else with this one? Randye.


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Randye: When you gave the assignment I thought I knew what you were talking about. And then I walked out of here and realized I didn’t. And I spent some time trying to differentiate moral, and right, and natural. And I found that very difficult to do. I wasn’t interpreting right as right and wrong, but rather appropriate behavior. More so rather than a wrong meaning misbehavior. But that’s kind of where I got stuck. I really couldn’t tease them apart very well.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Alex?


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Alex: I guess I would say that I sometimes feel that trying to do the right thing is…you know, sometimes there’s kind of a feeling of, sort of a conflict. And I guess, as you were saying, it’s maybe very subtle and I think, kind of, you know, beyond me. Do you understand?

Ken: Thank you for your honesty. Okay. Alita. You work with this one at all? Alina?

Elena: Elena.

Ken: Elena, I’m sorry. I’m terrible with names.


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Elena: Yeah. It, it took me a few days to get into the, whatever you were asking but…well, every time I think about the right thing to do, whatever it is, there’s always some, you know, some moral questions coming up. Always.

Ken: Moral what? Questions?

Elena: Questions. Always. They seem very attached to each other. And, depending on what, I might—and just being sort of freed, you know, from that—but, other times it just doesn’t happen. And it usually happens when there is a stronger, I guess, relationship to the people probably I’m dealing with, you know. So, that’s pretty much it. But it makes me feel very confused though.

Ken: Okay. Susan.


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Susan: I had a real life situation that I was able to subject this to or use for this. And what ended up happening is that what conventionally was supposed to be right was wrong. And what is conventionally defined as wrong turned out to be right. And it’s because the knowing knew that. And the discomfort that I was feeling in kind of wrestling with this situation had to do with my, I guess you’d call it my conditioning, fighting the knowing.

Ken: Yeah. You have anything to say Cara?


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Cara: I think I kind of…is it [the mic] on?

Ken: Yep.

Cara: I think I kind of wrestled with it this week. I don’t know. I definitely had a couple of situations where I felt sort of at an impasse as to what was the moral answer versus the right answer to questions. And I think sometimes when I wrestle with that I have a tendency to throw myself under the bus in the name of what might be right for someone else. And that can be kind of an unhealthy conundrum. So.

Ken: Okay.

Cara: Yeah.

Ken: Right.


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Well, let’s see if some of this gets straightened out as we go through this chapter this evening. Turning to Joe’s first point, or before we turn to that point, I think it would be good to look at the translation point that you are raising because there are some, I think, some important translation points in here. I want to take a big step backwards and look at things from a slightly larger perspective, which I think also speaks to some of the points here.

There’s a Russian scholar, it may have been Stcherbatsky, but I can’t remember, who observed that in any formulation of a religion, five things have to be accounted for: what is the source of being; how is the world created; what is the source of moral authority; who determines or how is it determined whether you’re acting morally or not; and who or what rewards or punishes you. One can use a legal analogy for this: you have the judge, the prosecutor, and the executioner, to put it very literally or dramatically.


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Now in most religions—particularly the Abrahamic religions—all of these are vested in God or Allah or Yahweh or what have you. In Buddhism, it’s quite different. The source of being is in some schools of Buddhism regarded as emptiness, in other schools it’s regarded as empty clarity. A subtle difference, which we don’t need to go into, but basically the source of being is open, clear awareness, empty awareness.

The other four are all ascribed to karma, which is not a person, but is simply a process. Do you follow? And this, this makes Buddhism—I don’t know how it breaks down in Hinduism; I just don’t know enough about Hinduism—but you do have creators, like Indra or Vishnu.

Cara: Brahma, it just depends on what your—

Ken: Yeah. And you have the destroyer, of course, which is Shiva. But the…

Cara: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay. So anyway, all religious traditions do this.

And Buddhism is a little different because there isn’t any person that is regarded as the…or, any figure which is saying, “this is right” and “this is wrong.” Now, there are a lot of people who will disagree with me on that, so I need to qualify it, which I will in a moment. That’s just the way things work. And so—and from this point of view—karma is a bit like gravity: it’s just a principle which governs how experience arises, and or evolves, actually, in the same way that gravity governs how bodies move in relationship with each other—unless they’re extremely small, and then the atomic forces take over.

When I say there isn’t a person, there are a number of people who would say that, well, Buddha said, you know, these actions are right and these actions are wrong. But if you scratch that a little more deeply, you find that there are actually two notions of right and wrong. There are actions which are right and wrong because they are just right or wrong, and that’s in keeping with the way karma works. So, it’s not someone saying they’re right and wrong, it’s just that if you do these things then they evolve into these kinds of experiences. And then there are the actions which are right and wrong because one’s made a personal commitment, and that is, such as the vows of ordination.

So, you know, having a partner is not in itself right or wrong, but if you’ve taken ordination as a monk or a nun, then it becomes wrong for you to do that, because you’ve made a personal commitment to a certain way of life. You follow? So, that’s one piece, which actually is a very different way of looking at things, from the way that we’re used to in our culture.


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The second thing, and when you start going through the text I’ll point this out, is the approach that we take to morality. And I have certain problems with the notion of morality, also. I often favor the word discipline as opposed to moral, because I think actually it’s a better—especially reading this chapter this time—I think it may be the better term.

But there are people who do things—you know, act morally or observe moral vows—because they feel that they are going to get something from doing so—like some kind of reward—and be punished if they don’t. When we take this approach to morality…to our behavior, how we act, we’re actually taking a very childish approach. This is how a child acts.

A more mature and appropriate way is because we see that acting this way is skillful. That is, it produces better results—not that we’re going to be rewarded for it, it just is the way that is appropriate to act, and so we start acting that way, not because it’s going to bring some kind of reward in the future, but because it is the right thing to do in each moment, or the appropriate thing to do in each moment. And so there’s a shift away from that authoritarian to a very, a very natural kind of thing. That’s what I want to try and bring out through this. Now does this address some of the issues that were raised? Okay.


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Ken: Well, six of one, half a dozen of the other, which translation here? So, we’ll probably use both again. We are on page 163 in Guenther and 196 in Konchog Gyaltsen. Now, we have the same headings as we had for Generosity, and we’ll have the same seven headings for each of the six perfections. And we also had a brief discussion last time about rational choice theory.

And you can see, it just goes through the same kind of thing like all of these good things are going to happen if you practice discipline, or moral discipline, or whatever you want to call it; and all of these bad things are going to happen if you don’t. But in reading through these, I think it’s—even though that’s how Gampopa is presenting it—there’s a deeper meaning, which is implicit in each one of the quotations. So, I just want to take some of these and try to point to what I’m discerning as the deeper meaning. And, again, what I’m trying to do here, is show you how to read these texts so that you just don’t feel like somebody’s wagging a finger at you all the time. Because it’s easy to read them, like thinking “No, you do this, and you don’t do that, and you do this, and you don’t do that.” Do you remember Polonius in Hamlet? You know? Yes.


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Okay, so if you take the first one:

Even if one achieves wealth through generosity,
The being who breaks his leg of moral ethics will fall to the lower realms. [Gyaltsen, page 195]

Okay. That sounds like a really bad thing. The way that I would read this is that the exercise of restraint or discipline—restraint is one form of discipline—but say the exercise of discipline is how you start stepping out of conditioned behavior, because if you don’t exercise any discipline at all then you just do what is conditioned. Do you follow?

Okay. And that’s the point that’s being pointed [out] here; it’s not that you’re doing something wrong. It’s that if you don’t start doing something other than conditioned behavior, then you’re just going to end up in, you know, reacting in situations out of anger, greed, or instinct.

And then you take the next one:


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For example, a person without sight cannot see forms.
Likewise, a person without moral ethics will not see the Dharma teachings.

Here, what I think the point that’s being made is that when you’re exercising discipline, you really have to look at things more carefully. So you actually bring more attention to each situation because of the value you place on acting appropriately in it. You can’t just say, “Ah, I feel like doing this.” You really have to say, “Okay, what is the situation?” What are the implications—internally, externally, and so forth. So you bring much more attention to the action.


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Next one, on the top of 196 in Konchog Gyaltsen’s book, translation:

…a person without feet cannot walk a road.
Likewise, a person without moral ethics cannot be liberated.

Again, how I tend to understand this is that your feet provide you with a method of movement, and the exercise of discipline gives you a way of moving in your life. And so with those examples, I think you may be able to…

Well, now he’s moving into why it’s a good thing. So let’s just get down [the page]:


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Just as the ground is the basis for motion and stillness,
So moral ethics is the basis of all the excellent qualities.

Now, Konchog Gyaltsen uses the translation moral ethics. I don’t know how they arrived at that. The word in Tibetan is tshul khrims. Tshul is way, the way, or the mode of doing things and khrims is the word for rules, really, laws, and so forth. I favor discipline over just simple morality. There’s a standard of behavior you’re aspiring to and that requires some kind of discipline. Do you follow? And we’re going to get more into that. So, if you read this instead, Just as the ground is the basis for motion and stillness, discipline is the basis of all excellent qualities, it makes a lot more sense right there, doesn’t it?

Okay, Steve? Do you have a question?


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Steve: My only problem with that is you can be very disciplined in immoral acts or in training to do immoral acts or…. So just the word discipline to me doesn’t imply, doesn’t connect with morality or ethics.

Ken: Okay. Okay. We can say moral discipline, I suppose.


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Skipping a bit further down [Gyaltsen, page 196]:

For one who keeps pure moral ethics [or moral discipline],
All aspiration prayers will be accomplished.

I thought, that’s interesting. So, I’m going to throw this one out to you. How do you see that one working? Anybody?


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Joe: Well, this is actually a response to what Steve just said: okay, if you make an aspiration, that’s where your discipline is directed towards. So, if you’re disciplined, you’re disciplined to—I hate to use the word achieve

Ken: Well. I don’t think we need to use the word achieve. I’ve been reading a book called The Illusion of Conscious Will, which I got out of the library and started, and I promptly ordered a copy from Amazon so I’d have it in my own library, but I’m not sure I should have, because Amazon’s so fast that I’m stuck with it now. It’ll be here in a couple of days.

There is a huge amount of research which purports to show that the idea of doing something consciously is an illusion. And there’s some very, very interesting data that they’re observing. But as I’m reading it—and I’m only a third of the way through it, so, this is very provisional…it may change entirely by next week—we actually have no idea where our actions come from. We tend to think—as if I say: okay, I’m going to move my hand this way—that it’s my thinking that that makes the hand move [that] way. But it may be that my thinking that and the movement of the hand are both coming from something deeper in this. Do you follow?

Now I think this is very important, because this tallies with my own experience of how change takes place in us, is that we set an intention. So it’s not that we just decide to do things and then do them. We all know that—would it were so easy, but it just doesn’t work like that—because there are these deep forces in us which keep taking us off in different directions, against, seemingly, our will. You know, we’re talking about conditioning, and so forth. But when you set an intention, which is like fostering an aspiration in a certain sense, then more and more facets of our being become entrained in that, and eventually we start moving in that direction. That’s what I think this is referring to.

Now, Steve’s point is quite right, that one can do that into reactive and negative ways of acting, just as much as one can do it into positive. But it’s not so much what we decide to do in each moment, because I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from. But we can by consciously setting an intention and fostering things, then we begin to like turn the ship, so to speak. Cara, you had a question?


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Cara: I was just wondering if that was based on some kind of like gestalt theory of…?

Ken: No, this is actual measurements. I have a few questions about the research methods. But the data that’s being reported is that if you put an electrode on your finger and record when the muscle movement starts, that’s about 500 milliseconds before the finger actually moves and before you become aware of the movement. You become aware of wanting to move about two or three hundred milliseconds before moving. So, the finger’s actually started to move almost a quarter of a second before you are aware of wanting to move the finger.

Cara: This is totally off topic. Is that like correlated to people who are paralyzed or who have Tourette’s or…?

Ken: Oh, there’s some interesting research done on things like phantom limbs and coordinating that, but also says a lot about baseball and tennis and very high-speed sports, is that they don’t decide…the decision to swing and how to swing is made way, way before it’s actually being processed consciously.

Cara: Because it’s habit and…

Ken: And it’s trained. It’s not happening that “I am going to swing this way.”


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The bottom of page 196 [Gyaltsen]:

Pure moral ethics bear great beneficial effects.
Because of that, it is not difficult to establish enlightenment.

I have so many troubles with that translation. We’ll see what Guenther does.

Since pure ethics and manners are very useful,
The realization of enlightenment is not difficult.

Guenther’s actually closer to English than Konchog Gyaltsen here. I think both of them are missing the point. I should have checked the Tibetan here, but just from reading these, I think the sense is acting morally engages your energy, and because it engages your energy, it sets things in motion in the direction that you are intending to go. Okay, now—yes?


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Randye: I did note that Guenther in the previous chapter said virtually the same thing about liberality, about generosity. And there’s a flavor that these are sort of stand-alone paramitas, that if you get one, you’re going to be able to achieve enlightenment. I’m being slightly facetious, but there’s a real separation feeling, and we have four more to go.

Ken: Well, both hold, in my opinion. Any one of these is a path, and a viable path at that. So, when it comes down to practice, one really has a choice of practicing all of them, which is very good, but if you really practice any one of them, you will end up practicing all of them. Because I think a point was made in the introductory section, introducing the six perfections. You know, you have the generosity of morality, and the morality of morality, and the patience of morality, etc., etc. So, any one of them becomes a path. And some people may choose to make generosity a path, but if they choose to make generosity a path, then they’re exercising that that path defines a moral sense around generosity. It also requires a certain amount of patience, etc. Do you see what I mean? Okay.


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The next is the essence of ethics and manners: point number two. And this is very interesting. You see, the four points break down to

(i) to accept properly from others; (ii) to be inspired by pure motivation; (iii) to mend one’s ways when one has fallen from one’s code and (iv) to avoid so falling by being mindful and devoted. [Guenther, page 164]

And you see that these are organized into acceptance and preservation. And the first one is acceptance and the other three are preservation; it’s fairly straightforward.

But I think it’s good to look at this that the notion, or a way of acting in the world, is something that we learn from others. And it may be through the formal vows of a monk, or the bodhisattva vows, or it may be informally, as it often is with many aspects. But we learn from others about a way of living in the world and then it is up to us to do the other three: to be inspired by that—that’s our internal process; to remedy it when we fall away from it; and to live our life in such a way that we fall away from it less and less. You follow?

So, I hadn’t thought about this until I was reading this in preparation for it, but in a fairly explicit way Gampopa here is pointing to the fact that morality, moral discipline, or whatever you want, is learned and is learned through interaction through community. It isn’t something that exists off by itself. You follow? Okay.

Then the next one—Susan, did you have a question?


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Susan: I think I might be a little confused because I thought the idea was that there was no external authority that was telling, handing a set of behaviors down. And now you’re saying that there is.

Ken: Not exactly. Good point to raise though. Remember the story of Buddha before he became Buddha? Left the city and saw an ill person, an old person, and a corpse. And then he saw a fourth person—the mendicant who was completely at peace. He thought, “How’s that possible?” That’s really what awoke him to spiritual questions in him. How is it possible when you have all of the suffering to be at peace? This just blew his mind and caused him to renounce everything and go search for an answer to that question.

So, we see someone who is at peace in the world and we observe how they are living. That isn’t the same, that isn’t an authority saying you have to live this way, but we learn about living this way from an example of another person. And so you receive that knowledge through our association with that person or people. But that’s different from there being a right way, a set of rules which we have to follow. A set of rules is a much later step in the evolution of this, and that’s when things become pretty restrictive. We’re gonna be talking about that. Do you see the distinction I’m making?

Susan: I do. You had also mentioned earlier—meeting…meeting each moment, resting in your own knowing or awareness. So, I guess you could see somebody else who’s doing that and be inspired by it, but if it’s different for each person in each person’s own life and own moments.

Ken: Exactly. But that’s what you would learn from hanging out with someone. First, you would start emulating behavior, but then you’d realize that doesn’t quite do the job.

Susan: Mmm-hmm.

Ken: And think, well, so you start talking with this person, they say, “Well, I, you know—no, I’m not following a set of rules here; I’m bringing my attention to bear in each moment. So each moment tells me what the right thing to do is.”

Susan: Ah. Okay.

Ken: And there are many people that I’ve gone through exactly that process with, and the example you raised from earlier this evening was just such a point—where they’ll come and say, “Well, I have this situation but I know that the right thing to do is this, but this doesn’t feel right because of x, y, and z.” And so we’ll just explore it. And eventually they’ll come down to the point you know, “No, this is what I have to do, and it doesn’t really matter what all the rules say, because this is what the right thing to do is in this situation.” And then a lot of the work is helping them find the confidence to act on that, on that knowing. And you know from your own experience that’s pretty challenging sometimes.

Susan: Yes. Okay, thank you.

Ken: Okay.


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This threefold classification of ethics—we’re at the top of page 165 in Guenther. This is a very classical classification.

(A) restraint, (B) acquiring the good and wholesome and (C) working for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Konchog Gyaltsen’s translations are

A. moral ethics of restraint (or the moral discipline of restraint),
B. morality of accumulating virtuous Dharma, and
C. morality of benefitting sentient beings.

Again, translations really miss the point. The first one about restraint: there’s no problem with that. We restrain ourselves from actions we know set in motion a problematic process of evolution of karma. So that one’s fairly straightforward.

The next one: we’ve discussed this a bit before in respect to the two accumulations, and so forth. I don’t feel either the word accumulating or acquiring are right. I much prefer to regard this as generating: generating the good and wholesome in us and in the world we experience. And we all know from our own experience that when we do things that generate the good and the wholesome that has an effect on us and on those around us. It opens things up; it makes a lot of other things possible that weren’t possible, and so forth.

And then, working for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is very, very misleading. To me it’s misleading because it implies an agency. That is, we’re working for the benefit of sentient beings. Again, I think it’s appropriate to remember that when we’re talking about all sentient beings, we’re talking about mythic language—it’s poetry. If we translate that from the mythic language, you know, all sentient beings out there to all aspects of our own mind (we’ve done this translation before), what does this mean? [Pause]

That’s a question.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yes, I gathered that was the response at this point. [Laughs] That’s why I think I had to say, “It’s a question.” Okay. How would you translate benefitting all sentient beings into non-mythic language? This is the whole point I’ve been trying to get across to you guys for the last year. [Laughs]

Cara: [Unclear]

Ken: Thank you, Cara. [Laughs] Would you care to take a stab at it Joe?


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Joe: Sure. Said in a totally different way, the best thing we can do for all sentient beings is to achieve enlightenment. In fact, the only thing we can do for all sentient beings is to…whatever achieve enlightenment means.

Ken: Okay.

Joe: And that’s the aspect of our own mind, you know, to work in that way. So that’s an outcome to be sought.

Ken: I’m waiting for the translation.

Joe: The actual translation…the [unclear] translation…

Ken: The translation of this phrase, working for the benefit of all sentient beings or brings all sentient beings to full spiritual maturity. What I’m suggesting and the position that I’m taking is that this is mythic language, and I would like it to be translated into non-mythic language.

Ken: Anybody? Art?


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Art: It’s opening the—how do I want to say this—the totality of one’s experience.

Ken: Mmm-hmm. [Agrees]

Art: It’s…perhaps the way to put it, it’s working to liberate the totality of one’s experience.

Ken: Okay.

Art: Yeah.

Ken: See, when it says to bring all sentient beings to full enlightenment or full awakening, to translate that into non-mythic language, one way would be to wake up in every aspect of our own mind. You follow? So, the only way we can do that is to regard no aspect of our mind as an enemy. And to work to bring every aspect or awakening into every aspect of our own experience in the way that Art was saying. Randye.


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Randye: This was an interesting one as a psychologist, of not rejecting parts of ourself, in the sense that we accept pieces, we reject pieces. Learning how to let go of that, the only way to do [this] is by seeing very clearly what is actually there.

Ken: That’s right.

Randye: Okay.

Ken: And we will see when we do that, that every piece of us—even the parts that are really hurt and angry and don’t behave very well—actually probably arose for their definite purpose at a certain point in time, and they just—

Randye: They’re inappropriate.

Ken: Yeah. But they’re still acting, and so bringing all of that into balance is one way of looking at what the task of waking up is about.

Randye: And you can’t learn to let go of what’s out there until you learn how to let go of what’s in here.

Ken: Well, I would go a bit further than that: to let go of something out there, we have to see what its reflection is in us. So, it’s all about letting go in here rather than letting go out there, okay? Okay. Is this clear? Okay, good.


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You have the primary characteristics of each type of ethics; you have common and uncommon. I think it would be better to say common and special. Now what I find interesting here is that what’s called the common—and this is the ethics of restraint or the discipline of restraint [or] however you want to regard it—the common, this is basically what’s called the vows of individual freedom and is the basis of the monastic discipline. But the paragraph in the middle of page 165 in Guenther is very important:


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Ethics (or discipline) are not to be observed for the sake of kingship, the bliss of heaven, the position of Indra, Brahma, or Isvara; nor for the enjoyment of wealth, for the world of forms and other experiences.

So, you’re not doing this because you’re going to get these good results out of it. Again, this is the childish approach.

They are not observed out of fear of hell, of rebirth among animals, or in the world of Yama.

Again, this is a very childish approach.

On the contrary, ethics are [to be] observed in order to become like the Buddhas and to bring profit and happiness to all sentient beings.

That is, ethics are observed because that is simply what is to be done.

Now, an example, this may not seem entirely analogous, but perhaps it’s useful. Suppose you’re a doctor. You come across a person who has broken their arm or needs some first aid. You don’t perform the surgery or treat this person because you’re hoping something good is going to happen to you. You don’t treat this person because you fear something bad is going to happen to [you]. You treat this person because you have the skills and the know-how and that is what is to be done. And this is the more mature approach to morality and discipline as far as I’m concerned. That as we begin to wake up we see, “Oh this is what needs to be done here; this is what needs to be done here.” And, the notion of gaining some kind of reward or being punished in some way becomes increasingly less and less a motivation for us. Cara, did you have a point?


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Cara: Now I have a question and this is something that we’ve discussed and I don’t know if we’ve discussed it on the podcast before but especially in generosity and now with this, I have a real hard time because I have friends in the city who practice another form of Buddhism that is a very disciplined and diligent practice, but at the same time is very much focused on “If I do x, I’m going to get y, and I put my energy on y, like I’m going to do my practice because I need to make money, and if I put that energy out in the universe I’m going to make money.” And so, they’re very like a much more iconoclastic set, and when I try to dialogue with them about, you know, I don’t want to say our belief system, but the way that I choose to practice, it tests my moral limits not to yell at them.

Ken: [Laughs] Okay, now.

Cara: And call them children.

Ken: Pardon?

Cara: And call them children.

Ken: And call them children. Well. What’s your investment?

Cara: This group of people tends to be pretty high and mighty about the superiority of their practice.

Ken: So?

Cara: I don’t like that.

Ken: What sticks in your craw?

Cara: Um…I guess on the base level, that I don’t understand the purpose of saying my Buddhism is better than your Buddhism?

Ken: Yeah, so, from your point of view, there’s no purpose to that. So, what do you feel for someone who feels there is a purpose to that?

Cara: Oh, depending on my mood, sometimes I feel sort of sorry for them. Sometimes I’m just glad that they have a practice. I feel like on an intellectual level, if I step back and I look at it, what I find disheartening is that it would never occur to me to sit down and meditate because I want to make money, but because I feel like that energy could be much—I don’t want to say better appropriated—but it’s not just for me, and it’s not about me.

Ken: Okay. All right. There are two—

Cara: He’s laughing at me.

Ken: I’m not laughing at you at all. There are two points here. They found a path. You may not agree with the basis of the path, or their motivation, or whatever, etc. But, the fact remains that they have found a path, which is causing them to do less harm and more good. Okay, period. Okay? So that’s one piece.

The second piece is you can’t comprehend practicing out of what for you would be a lower form of motivation. Okay? Why do you get angry? There’s a difference here. Why do you get angry about it?

Cara: Ah…pride.

Ken: Yeah, probably.

Cara: I don’t like feeling like I’m being talked down to, because it’s usually—you know, I grew up in a very, very rigidly Christian environment and was constantly on the opposite end of “Do you want to go to church with me,” and “You do realize that if you keep that up you’re gonna burn in hell,” you know, stuff like that. And I would smile and nod, and, you know, go about my business, and I had never—having lived in Buddhist countries—had never experienced that from another Buddhist, this notion that—

Ken: Well, the group that you’re talking about borrowed Christian fundamentalist methods.

Cara: Oh, absolutely.

Ken: Yeah.

Cara: Absolutely. But I do think that, I mean, certainly, you know, I don’t mean to in any way slight them, because I do think that there are people that do good within it, but at the same time in talking about that within this framework I find it…

Ken: Yes…

Cara: …there’s a disconnect.

Ken: There’s something in you that you find painful and difficult to experience.

Cara: Right.

Ken: That’s your work, okay, whatever that is. Okay, and we’ll get moving into this direction in the next little bit.


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The next part—and we’ll go back to Konchog Gyaltsen’s because they made the list more complete here—this is on page 198. But you see you have this list of 18 downfalls. The five downfalls for a king, five for ministers, eight for subjects, and so forth. Now, and later on further down you see there’s a list of 46, which are…Konchog Gyaltsen included in an appendix, page 443.

All of these are very much connected with the bodhisattva vow. And these are regarded as the precepts—not precepts, I want to get away from that word—the guidelines and training of a bodhisattva is to restrain from this list of 18, this list of 46.

When you read through such a list, I think it’s very important to remember what we’ve already discussed about moral discipline. And that is in Buddhism moral discipline—and this goes to the point you were raising earlier, Joe—is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, it describes how an awake person behaves; it’s not saying you have to behave this way. And this is why the use of the term precepts as a translation I think is very problematic because, you know, you adopt those precepts and these are things I’m being told to do. When you look down this list, most of them are pretty straightforward.

But take a look at g, for instance: expressing emptiness to beings who are not fully trained. This is actually a very important thing, because if you introduce that notion to people before they have a maturity in their own experience to understand what you’re pointing to, it can shut things down really hard for quite a long time, because the only way it can be interpreted is a form of nihilism, which is not what it’s about at all.

And you skip down to something like—oh, where is one—well k is a good example: expressing one’s good qualities in order to get wealth, honor, [and] praise and to abuse others.

Well, this is a form of harsh language actually. It’s a very subtle form—because you aren’t really saying anything bad about somebody, you’re just saying how good you are, but the implication is that somebody else is bad. Basically, you’re manipulating people when you do this.


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So, rather than looking at these as “this rule, this rule, this rule, this rule,” you look at what are they actually pointing to. Each one of these points to a very specific internal way in which we are blocking our own spiritual growth internally. I think that’s the best way to say it. So, you take a look at the last one:

disrupting someone in calm abiding meditation or taking the provisions of a retreat practitioner and giving them to someone who says prayers.

In that, you know, suppose you’re an abbot. It’s an injunction as to where you put the resources. Do you put them into people who are doing rituals or do you put them into people who are trying to wake up? And, so all of these have a spirit behind them, you know. And that’s what I would encourage you to look at: what is the deeper meaning, the deeper significance? And also, it is very helpful to look at these as applying to oneself internally.

So if you take this last one: disrupting someone in calm abiding meditation or taking the provisions of a retreat practitioner and giving them to someone who says prayers, okay, when do you do this internally? How often do you disrupt or disturb your own stillness? Well, we do it all the time. How often do we divert resources and opportunities in our life for practice into something else? Well, we do that all the time.

I’ve got a retreat coming up, and Molly sends me an email from someone who said, “Ah, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make it. Something’s come up in my life, and….” Well, this happens all the time. And Rinpoche would say this all the time: when we do good, when we do virtue, that is, when we start moving in the direction of awakening, we come into contact with the momentum of all the patterns that are keeping us in a reactive mode of living. And it feels like we’re stirring stuff up, but it’s just that we started to move in a different direction so now all of that stuff becomes noticed in a way that we didn’t notice before.

Do we continue with our intention, or do we allow that momentum to carry us back into the stream…precisely the stream from which we are trying to move out of?

So all of these guidelines can be interpreted internally that way. And that’s moving them out of the somewhat mythic or poetic language in which they’re phrased. And also moving them away from a literal interpretation into an indication of how to undertake the internal journey. Molly.


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Molly: I just wanted to know the difference between someone who says prayers versus a retreat practitioner.

Ken: Well, the way I would interpret this—and not a hundred percent—this is what it’s referring to, if you think of your own meditation, in the Tibetan tradition you could spend hours and hours and hours reciting prayers. And people did. And you know, some people had daily prayers literally a stack that thick that they would recite every day, or do recite every day. It’s called verbal recitation. Now, that’s one form of practice. You’re reading these things, many of which are deeply inspiring, very instructive, and so forth, and by reading them over and over again you’re actually absorbing them. So, there’s definite benefit in that.

But there’s quite another level of benefit which comes when you look at your own mind and you see nothing is there and you just rest in that looking so that you’re deeply absorbing and instilling the knowledge, the knowing that you-are-not-any-thing. You are simply awareness, directly through one’s own experience. That’s what a retreat practitioner refers to.

Molly: So, maybe a retreat practitioner meditates and a…?

Ken: Yeah.

Molly: …someone who says prayers just…

Ken: …they’re just reciting things. Which is a beneficial activity, but it’s not on the same order. Okay?


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All right. And then you can read over the 46 in the appendix, yourself. How we doing for time, Joe?

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Ooooo. We got a lot to cover. Yeow. Okay. Do my best.


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The next one is relatively short, it’s the moral ethics of, and I would prefer to say, generating goodness here, generating the good and wholesome. And again, this is generating an internal environment in which things can grow and flourish and the seeds that we’re cultivating can actually grow. I don’t think there’s anything too mysterious about that.

Then we move to The Discipline of Benefiting Sentient Beings. This is in section C on page 199 in Konchog Gyaltsen: Supporting meaningful activities, dispelling the suffering of those sentient beings who are suffering, showing the methods of those who do not know them, recollecting others’ kindness and then repaying it…, etc.

Again, I think it is well worthwhile approaching these both as things we do in the world and ways that we work internally, at the same time.

And then it goes into considerable detail of how you comport yourself in the world in order to live being awake. And I think the descriptive side of this comes up very, very strongly here. So, you look at the guidelines for physical actions. You’re quiet physically, there’s a sense of discipline and relaxation and composure. And you can almost feel the quality of peace that’s being created as you read through these. And I think that’s…

I should desist from inconsiderate and noisily
Moving around chairs and so forth,
As well as from violently opening doors;
I should always delight in humility. [Gyaltsen, page 200]

You get the idea. Joe?


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Joe: I just wanted to remark on how extraordinarily different it is when it’s phrased in the first person, than it is when it’s phrased as something everybody should do or more correctly you should do. When in the more poetic form as in the Bodhicaryava

Ken: …the tara, exactly.

Joe: …it’s much to me personally, it’s much more effective than in this form of precepts.

Ken: Well, yeah because you’re describing your behavior rather than saying, you know, “I have to do this and this and this.”

Joe: Right. And it’s also a person talking to oneself, which is what we should all do, as opposed to saying what anybody else should do.

Ken: Yeah, yep. And do remember in doing this, what you’re doing here is creating an environment for awakening to take place. It’s not about following a set of rules. It’s about creating an environment. And then the same thing for speech.

Now, I want to throw a caution in here. The way that you actually do this is not by adopting modes of behavior, because that can produce a contrived surface level. It’s like trying to smile intentionally. An intentional smile doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because it doesn’t involve many of the muscles that take place in a natural smile because a lot of those muscles are involuntary, are unwilled. If you just smile [Ken puts on fake smile] it doesn’t have the same effect. So that’s why you see models’ smiles and actresses’ smiles and unless they’re extraordinarily skilled actors, they just, they’re just like…you know.

Student: Politicians.

Ken: Politicians. Yes, okay. (Who are you thinking of?!) Okay. So, what I’m saying there is that the way that you actually practice this is you bring attention to how am I moving my body, how am I speaking, listening to the sound of your own voice, feeling the motion of your body as you move. And if you feel the motion of your own body as you move, you will naturally not move things harshly or violently or suddenly. Because your attention will be in it.

And if you listen to the sound of your own voice when you’re speaking, there’s a self-corrective mechanism that just operates immediately and as soon as you start speaking in an insincere tone you will hear it and you’ll stop. And then you’ll think, “Okay, what do I want to say?” And then you start again, you’ll be speaking sincerely, not because you’re trying to speak sincerely but because you’re putting attention into the act of speaking. You see what I’m driving at? This is very, very important because otherwise you’re just emulating people rather than having it generated from within one’s own experience. And the same is true for mental processes. They’re more subtle and more difficult.


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Cara: So what about like “Fake It ’til You Make It?”

Ken: That’s Vajrayana. And the way that that’s practiced is really the same way. Suppose your yidam is Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of awakened compassion. And you’re at cooking school, right? So it is your—

Cara: All day!

Ken: Okay. So you’re hanging out with these kids…

Cara: Uh-huh. And they frustrate me.

Ken: Pardon?

Cara: And they frustrate me.

Ken: And they frustrate you. Okay?

Cara: Okay.

Ken: Now. How would Avalokiteshvara interact with these kids?

Cara: Probably in a nicer way than I’ve been as of late.

Ken: Okay. So when you think of being Avalokiteshvara and interacting, you immediately feel all of the stuff in you that gets in the way, right?

Ken: Okay. Now, very important question: how would Avalokiteshvara work with all that stuff?

Cara: Either by not getting caught up in it or by just being compassionate with it like…

Ken: Now what does it mean to be compassionate with all of that confused internal material? What does that actually mean in practice?

Cara: I try not to judge it if I’m confused. I just try to be confused until I’m not confused, anymore.

Ken: Okay. And so, how does that work for you?

Cara: Well, the stance that I’ve taken in class is probably one of being a bit more aggressive and confrontational.

Ken: This doesn’t sound like you’re right in your internal experience.

Cara: No, I actually think I am right in my internal experience instead of like—I can talk to you about this later—but instead of saying, [adopts a high-pitched whining voice] “They’re tattling on me because they don’t like me and I’m working really hard.” Mur, mur, mur [whine, whine, whine], you know, instead of making that like that sort of victimish statement, if…

Ken: Yeah.

Cara: If my chef says, “Show everybody how this is supposed to look because yours is perfect”…um…

Ken: You just do it.

Cara: And?

Ken: And?

Cara: My mom’s going to kill me. [Ken laughs] And I say….I did this this week and I felt like it was the only way to do it because I was kind of getting pushed around a little bit. I said, um, “This is what your lady fingers are supposed to look like. Now if this challenges your self-esteem, [Ken laughs] take it up with Michael.” And Michael is my chef. And I said it preeetty much with bearing eye contact to the girl that I know had been telling Michael that I was being arrogant.

Ken: Yeah. But what if you just let all of that drop.

Cara: I think I will next week.

Ken: Thank you. And if Michael asks you to do something you just get up and you do it and that’s it.

Cara: Well Michael wasn’t there, it was a different chef. But…

Ken: Okay. All right. And that’s what I’m talking about is that you’re not being anybody. And you’re not trying to teach anybody anything. And you just…you know, you’re asked to demonstrate something, you demonstrate it. And that’s it. What about that, as a possibility?

Cara: That’s what I was doing, and that’s what got me in trouble.

Ken: Mmm, I don’t think so.

Cara: Really! Seriously! [Ken laughs] Okay. Like everybody in the world now knows what I do for a living, but in my first round of baking class, I was so rigid, like I was channeling my grandmother, my German grandmother. It was like if you’re unprepared for class, you know, hand gesture for you, like your problem. And in this class I really felt that I was going to take it in stride and be compassionate with people because they’re culinary; they’re not pastry; they don’t know what they’re doing; they think it’s a slough-off class; I’m going to…etc., etc. And I really walked in there with like a pure intention. And had no idea that I was alienating people. That’s why I was crying after my chef told me that because I was just like, “this is retarded.”

Ken: Okay. Now, so there was one piece of learning, now there’s another piece of learning.

Cara: Uh-huh.

Ken: Okay. And this is what happened. This is how we learn how to be in the world in a natural way which is not off-putting to other people, but is also not victimizing. And it’s very, very much a case of constantly unfolding as we become more and more aware of the stuff inside us, that is operating. You look devastated.

Cara: I’m not devastated. I’m just…I…I don’t know. It’s…

Ken: Okay. But the point that I’m trying to bring out…you asked about “fake it until you make it.” You do that when you act that way it brings you in touch with the internal material in you. And then you work with that material, just as you said—Avalokiteshvara—okay, it’s not judgmental, you work with it very gently, and then this way by working with both the outside and the internal material as the expression of compassion things change. And they change in a somewhat magical way because it’s not like this causes that. But as we take this more and more deeply we actually find a different way of being with all of that stuff, which now is actually much more natural when we discover it. It doesn’t come overnight. Randye.


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Randye: Are morals innate or acquired?

Ken: Are morals innate or acquired. [Pause] Yes.

Randye: We have buddha nature, we have the laws of the way things are that work internally.

Ken: These are not in conflict.

Randye: Yeah. But the way I’ve kind of operationalized it for myself—the way I work—is that my task is to sort of get out of my own way, to stop obstructing myself.

Ken: Yeah.

Randye: And then what will emerge is what I’m looking for versus going out and seeking and learning and acquiring ways of behaving.

Ken: Well, I think both processes are important: there are skills that we can learn, that we don’t have. And then there’s plenty of stuff we have to just get out of the way in order for those skills to manifest. So I think both sides are important. Some people want to rely on just getting out of the way and they assume the skills will be there. They may be and they may not be. There are other people who just want to concentrate on learning skills, but then all the internal material keeps messing things up. So, both are important in my view. And when I said “yes,” we have to be very careful about asking questions with an or—are they innate or are they learned.

Randye: I do that a lot, too.

Ken: Yeah. Well, the answer is almost always both. And when we ask the question or, we’re really splitting things into two different things—I mean, you know—this or this. Instead of working with the fact that both of those processes are going on, you know, we often know what the right thing to do [is] and we just know. But another case is it’s something that we actually come to appreciate through the maturation of experience: it’s something that is learned. So, I don’t think it’s helpful to regard it as this or that. Just wherever it comes from, that’s where it comes from. And so, as a person once said to me years and years ago, “Beware of the tyranny of the or and the inclusiveness…and appreciate the inclusiveness of and.” So, they’re both innate and learned. Okay?

Randye: Thank you.


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Ken: All right. Last part I wanted to touch on is the result here. We actually made it through. Sorry to go over. It’s just a little bit longer than we can manage in our time. Point six:

They are purified and supported by Sunyata and Compassion. [Guenther, page 170]

Or, emptiness and compassion.

This is exactly the same point that was made with respect to generosity. This is what moves it from ordinary morality into the perfection of morality is that—and this is why I asked you that question last week—this is where, whether it’s restraint, generating goodness, or what is beneficial to beings—arises directly out of the union of emptiness and compassion; it’s a non-conceptual, immediate response to what arises.

This is something that only comes about—and going to your point, Randye—it requires deep training in order to be able to access it, but it’s possible because there is nothing there, if you follow. Because we are not a thing; we are open awareness. Then the possibility of appropriate action arising is possible in all situations. Do you follow that? Okay. But, in order to be able to do that, we have to train very, very deeply because there’s so much stuff that gets in the way. Okay.

The result is fulfillment and effectiveness in our situation in life. Well, that’s true. Moral discipline is a path to awakening in and of itself. And through cultivating discipline we do become more effective in life, because we are able to restrain our behavior when it’s appropriate, able to generate good, able to work for the welfare of others. Okay. So we got through everything.

Now. Patience. What do you think the assignment should be Cara? [Laughs]

Cara: Run around the block eight times.

Ken: Run around the block eight times, okay.


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On the website you’ll find a short song by Milarepa—well actually it’s just a verse of a song, in which, how does it go?…that’s right, I think I’ve got it right: When you have no sense of ownership, that is the perfection of generosity, or when you’re free from any sense of self, that’s the perfection of generosity; when you are free from any sense of shame that’s the perfection of morality or moral discipline. A Song On The Six Perfections

I think for patience it’s when you are free from any sense of fear, or when you are able to stand in fear. So what I’d like you to explore over the next week is when you experience impatience, what are you unwilling or afraid of experiencing? When you find yourself being impatient, what are you unwilling or afraid of experiencing?

Okay? Very good. See you here next week.


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