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Then and Now, Class 8


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This evening we’re going to continue with this fairly thorough discussion of the teacher-student relationship. There are many, many aspects to this—many aspects which people find problematic. As I’ve said in previous talks: arguably, it’s the most important relationship in your life.

As you read in the text, in ancient times, you showed respect by doing circumambulations. That is, where ever your teacher was seated, you’d walk around in a circle, you’d bow, you’d gaze at him or her, just look at them. And you’d serve them, providing them with the necessities of life: with a seat, clothes, with everything they needed. What do you make of this?

Student: You are out of luck?

Ken: I’m out of luck. That’s one way of putting it. Anybody else? Do you see many people doing this kind of stuff today?

Susan: You see it in traditional settings. People still do that, some of that.

Ken: Some of that. How does that strike you?

Susan: To me, if the feelings are genuine, then it’s a genuine expression of how one feels, and it’s sincere and it’s motivated. If the true feelings aren’t there, then it becomes kind of a dead and meaningless expression.

Ken: Okay. Anybody else? Agnes.

Agnes: You have to help me with the names because I was very touched when I read about what’s his name, who covered the garden with gold leaves and purchased a place for Buddha.

Ken: Jetavana?

Agnes: No, something that ends with a bendica (?) something. He bought this place from the prince and Buddha loved it so much he spent 20 years during the rainy season there.

Ken: That was Jetevana groves.

Agnes: I thought, that’s really devotion, and that was even before he really knew Buddha. It was a way of providing a suitable place at any cost. Incredible devotion.

Ken: Okay. I think we’re going to have to take a step back.

Last week I think I asked the question what is the teacher? Did we discuss that? Do you remember one of the perspectives I threw out for this?: that aspect of your own mind which is trying to tell you how to wake up. If you want to give that aspect of experience a significant role in your life, what would you do?


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Agnes: I guess, you honor the mentor who shows you the way to practice, with the learning process?


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Ken: I want you to take this right into your experience. There’s an old story. I’m sure many of you have heard it. It’s usually told in the context of an American Indian who’s counseling a troublesome young brave.

This is one of the elders of the tribe. He takes the young brave for a walk. The brave has a certain respect just because of the elder’s position in the tribe. The elder says, “I have this great war that’s going on in me.”

This surprises the young brave a lot, because he sees the elder as a very composed, wise and peaceful person. So, to hear him say he has this war…The elder goes on describing the nature of this conflict. He says, “I have these two wolves in me and they are fighting.”

He describes the one wolf as being selfish and opportunistic and the other being patient, and kindly and respectful. Eventually the young brave said, just so disturbed by this, “Which of them is going to win?”

The elder turns to him, looks him right in the eyes and says, “Whichever one I feed. Depends which one I feed.”

So, if you look at the teacher as this element in your experience which is showing you how to wake up, how you relate to him or her is an expression of the priority, the importance and the value that you place in your own waking up.

One of the first questions that I ask people when they come to see me and we have a conversation about their interest in meditation and Buddhism is, “What do you want from your practice?” The purpose of that question is to get a sense of where practice figures in their lives.

It varies a lot. Some people want to improve their lives through meditation practice. Some people want to become a better person, they feel that they have certain weaknesses and they want to overcome them.

The Buddhist point of view is not really concerned with improving our lives nor with becoming better people. They’re concerned with ending suffering. That’s it.

Buddha was asked periodically in his life, What doctrines do you teach? What’s the belief system? He consistently replied that he only taught two things: suffering and the end of suffering.

One of the things I’ve suggested early in this course was that we replace the word suffering by the word struggle, since that seems to be something that people connect with more easily than the notion of suffering. All of you agreed, quite readily, that you experience struggle in your life.

A lot of people think that the fundamental premise of Buddhism is that life is suffering or life is struggle. That’s not really the case. It’s more that there is struggle in our lives. It doesn’t consume our lives—perhaps it does for some. But there is struggle in life; we experience struggle. The appropriate response to that is to get curious about it. That’s where we started.

Why do I struggle? For most of us, we live in a pretty comfortable environment. We all have enough food to eat, we have shelter, we have income. And yet we experience struggle in virtually every area of our life: our relationships, our work, what we are doing with our life and so forth.

And I will make a bold statement: that the reason most of you are here, perhaps all of you are here, is because you think that by being here you may find a way not to struggle as much—to put an end to struggle. Would that be fair? Anybody who doesn’t fall into that category? Okay.


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A teacher is something we experience. It’s a person, in the context we’re talking here, who shows us by their own example or shows us through experience, how it is possible not to struggle, to put an end to struggle.

Now, the question is, how important is that to you? If it’s important, then quite naturally you’re going to respect that aspect of your experience. And you’re going to provide that aspect of your experience with the conditions that are needed so it can speak to you and you can listen and hear what is says. You’ll notice I’m using the pronoun “it” here. I’m talking about this aspect of your experience.

So, we have this example of a person who really wanted very, very much to listen to the Buddha so he bought this large estate and made this whole place. It was so that Buddha would have a place to be able to speak and this person would be able to listen. As in Eastern custom, he made it possible for lots of people to listen.

That’s the way that it worked largely in the East. One person would make it possible for the teacher to teach and anybody else who wanted to come along, that was fine. It was regarded as a bit selfish to have private audiences or private sessions. We work in a different context here.

The point here is that respect and service come not out of following the customs of a culture, or the expectations of an individual, or even the demands of an individual. They come out of your personal appreciation of the importance of this relationship or this experience in your own life and in your own spritual path.

It’s very, very important that it come from there. Because if it doesn’t come from there, then almost inevitably you will be reproducing family dynamics, where you’ll be regarding the teacher, in some way, as a mother or father and all of that stuff starts to run.

How much struggle has that stuff caused you in your life? Some? A lot? “Oh my god, I don’t want to talk about it!”? Somewhere, along there. Why would you bring that in here? That just doesn’t make any sense. We do, inevitably.

The way that I’m describing this is very, very different from the way that one is encouraged to think in the Tibetan tradition.

When I took refuge with Kalu Rinpoche many years ago, when you finish the refuge ceremony his first words were “Now I am your father. Learn Tibetan.” There is a very definite equation: I am your spritual father, you’ve entered the spiritual life and this family model is used.

It’s very, very widespread. It’s definitely used in the Tibetan tradition. You’ve now moved into a spiritual family: you have a spiritual father, spiritual mother, spiritual brothers and sisters. In Eastern cultures the filial respect and devotion is very, very strong. Still is.

A whole way of relating to your teacher was brought in from your family experience. This is not the situation in which we live and function today. We have very, very different kinds of experiences in families, many of us. For many of us, because of the nature of nuclear family and our culture—while there’s a great deal of appreciation for what we’ve received from our parents in forms of life and education—there’s also a lot of “stuff” there.

And bringing all of that stuff into our practice is not very helpful because that’s what we’re struggling with. What we’re trying to find, is a way to live our life without getting lost in those particular struggles.

This is why I put an emphasis in our practice environment here on looking at the teacher as that element in one’s own experience which is showing us or teaching us how to wake up. It’s our own mind, as it were, teaching us how to be awake, how to stop struggling. How we relate to that element of our experience is an expression of the importance that has in our lives and what we do with it. So, do we give it a place in our lives? Lynea.


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Lynea: If, in our practice, we’re coming closer and closer to the roots of our patterns (I suppose that’s one way of putting it) and our patterns are going to do everything they can to maintain themselves.

Ken: Okay.

Lynea: Okay, I’m wondering, I guess there are many different ways, but I’m wondering how the importance we place on something is inevitably tied to what it’s getting at. You understand what I’m saying?

Ken: I do, I think. What is important and what is a priority is, to some extent, influenced—and some would say determined—by our patterns. So how do we find our way out of this mess?

Lynea: Exactly.

Ken: Buddhism, as you well know, is full of these lists. One of the lists is the 37 Factors of Enlightenment, which is broken out to four of this and four of that, etc, etc, etc. At one time I knew them all but they keep falling away. The second list of four is what’s relevant here.

This list is called—or one translation of it—The Four Right Efforts. The first effort is to reduce doing things that are making things worse. The second effort is to stop doing things that are making things worse. The third effort is to start doing things which make things better. And the fourth is to strengthen or reinforce things which are making things better.

When you hear it that way it sounds like just common sense. But when you look at how most of us relate to our lives, do we actually do this? No, we don’t. Not at all.

So this is how we find our way out of the mess. That we’re working toward something, we may not even know what it really looks like. We find that if we do certain things, then things just gets worse.

So, why do you continue to do those? Through this we start exploring our experience. We explore what we are doing to create our experience. This is very, very much what meditation practice is about.

A lot of people, when I tell them, “Okay, sit for a half an hour” they go, “What?! Half an hour? That’s a long time!” Well, this is very interesting. We don’t have the ability to sit quietly for a half an hour. So, we try this. We’re given some instruction.

But all of you know that you really learn how to practice meditation through your own efforts. The instructions are sort of helpful, but only up to a relatively small point. Because you have to find your own way to work with all the mess that comes up as soon as you sit quietly. Right?

The first thing we try to do usually is, “I’m just not going to think about those things.” For some reason that doesn’t work very well. It’s sort of like, “I’m not going to think about an elephant.”

So, what do you immediately start thinking about? An elephant. And what we do, gradually, is we find a way to sit so that we aren’t struggling with everything. We aren’t struggling with our body, we aren’t struggling with all the thoughts, we aren’t struggling with the emotions. And that we find through our own experience.

From time to time we talk about it with someone who’s been doing it a while and they can give a few pointers. We have to go back and actually do that ourselves.

And what is the result of that? Well, the result of that is we begin to notice that we can just sit quietly. In that quiet, we find we don’t actually have to react to everything that arises.

Something comes up and we can just say “oh fine” and after awhile it goes. And something else comes up, it goes. From this we begin to get a bit of confidence: “Oh maybe I can just sit here and let stuff come and go.”

And as we do this more and more we find ourselves actually sitting more and more quietly. In other words, what we’re doing is finding a way to sit in which we are not struggling. You follow? And then we begin to extend that: “Okay, how can I relate to my life in ways that I don’t struggle?”

You said: “Our patterns do everything they can to stay in place”. I tend to look at it slightly differently.

The patterns just run. They don’t try and do anything. They just run. They can’t do anything like that because they are automatic. It’s like saying that a train does everything it can to stay on the same tracks. No, it doesn’t try to to stay on the same tracks at all! It just runs on the tracks! It can’t go anywhere else. That’s what happens unless something derails it and then there’s a big mess.

Patterns are much more like a train running on tracks than something that’s trying to do something. What we notice is that as long as that running of the train produces struggle in our lives. So now we begin to see… explore different ways of relating to our life, relating to our experience which doesn’t produce so much struggle. This making sense?

That will also involve this aspect of our experience is which is telling us how to wake up. I mean, how many of you enjoy hearing what this aspect of your experience has to tell you? Molly? Sometimes I think you got quite angry at that aspect of your experience. [laughter].

That happens. That’s where we begin to see when we get angry at that aspect which is showing us how not to struggle. That doesn’t make much sense!

So now we get curious, “Why am I getting angry at this? Why am I blocking that out?” There’s a constant process of exploration here. This is why in Buddhism one is encouraged not to take the teachings on faith and just blindly accept them. They have to be tested in every possible way in your own experience so that you find that they actually work for you. That’s where real confidence comes from.

So, the way we find our way out of the mess is: we get curious about the ways that we end up struggling. As we get curious about those we see, “Oh, well when this condition and this condition and this condition are there then I get completely locked up. But maybe if I let that condition go…”

Just to give a very simple example: sometimes we get totally churned up about something that happens in our lives: this person acted this way and we’re very, very upset about it. And then we find out a very small piece of information which we were missing and completely changes our interpretation of that event. So there we were on one way and we were struggling like crazy and now we get this tiny bit of information and now we’re not struggling at all. You follow?

Well that’s interesting. One of the ways we can not struggle is to look at things differently or understand them differently, change our relationship with it.

In the end, I have to confess, this is not immediately apparent form this very medieval presentation we are working with. The end result of our practice of Buddhism is we become very, very skillful in the way that we live our lives. It’s through that skill that we stop creating the conditions which produce suffering for ourselves and others. That’s how we put an end to suffering.

One of the elements that is key in this—and we talked a bit about this before—is being able to experience anything that arises.

Whenever we’re not able to experience what arises we push that experience away so we can’t relate to the situation fully. Because we can’t relate to the situation fully, then whatever we do is more likely to be unskillful and create more problems.

So, one of the key abilities is to be able to experience things as completely as possible and that’s one of the reasons why we practice meditation. Because that’s what we’re doing. We are training our capacity and attention so that we can experience things more completely. This is how we find our way out—little bit by little bit.

It’s a very long answer to your question, I know, but did you find an answer in all of those words? Did you find anything which is relevant to your question?

Lynea: Yes, yes, it was relevant.


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Respect for one’s teacher is a condition which allows one to form a relationship with this aspect of experience which is showing you how to wake up. Not only form that relationship but also to maintain it in a way that one is able to listen to it. Remember I said that the teacher is someone you will listen to no matter how crazy you are.

One of the more important conditions for that relationship is respect. If you respect somebody very, very deeply, then, even when you’re really, really crazy, you’ll listen to that person.

One of the things I’m trying to put across here is this isn’t something the teacher is owed. It isn’t your duty to respect the teacher. It’s important because it creates the conditions in you through which you can actually maintain that connection and benefit from it.

It’s the same with service. We provide the circumstances for a teacher so that they can teach. In ancient times that meant providing them with a place to live, providing them with food, providing them with clothing.

In today’s world in which we’re not a barter society, we’re not an agriculturally-based society, our economy functions very, very differently. The primary means of exchange and support is through money. So instead of bringing five sheep to your teacher, you bring $50 or whatever. I’m not sure what I’d do with five sheep today!

If you look at the stories, particularly in Tibet, people regularly brought all the livestock from their farm and gave it to their guru, who was often a farmer in his own right. One of Marpa’s students when he received empowerment literally brought everything and gave it to Marpa. That was in order to sustain Marpa so he could be available to teach.

Part of that is creating the conditions for the teacher to able to speak in such a way so you can hear. In Tibet, that often meant putting the teacher on a high seat so everybody could hear him or her very easily, making sure everything was taken care of so the teacher didn’t have to worry about all of that stuff.

What form that takes in our culture is very, very different. I remember, with Rinpoche, when I was translating for him, he would sometimes be asked to give a talk at the University. We’d walk into a university amphitheater. You know how the university amphitheaters are. You’re down in the well when you’re the teacher and everybody’s up in the seats above you. And Rinpoche’s attendants would just go nuts, because everybody was sitting higher than the teacher!

They’d say: “He can’t talk in here.” This is how we do things in our culture. This is the way we set it up so that everybody can hear. It was never, ever done that way in Tibet. The teacher always sat higher because that was a gesture of respect.

So we have very, very different ways of showing respect and creating the conditions in which a person can be available and can provide instruction to people. This is why it’s important to understand the principles that are in operation here and not say, “This is how it was done there so that’s how we should do it here.” That’s importing another culture and it’s not really an appreciation of the principles that are involved.


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It’s very, very similar for devotion and reverence. Whereas respect and service is about behavior, devotion and reverence are more about attitude. Specifically, really, one’s emotional attitude. Devotion’s a tricky term.


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What do you understand by it? What does devotion mean to you? Anybody? Everybody’s terrified of speaking now.

Nava: It’s willing to die for something. Almost. Or dying or killing something in you for something.

Ken: Sounds a bit drastic. Could you expand on that?

Nava: I want to say something else. Everything you said in the last few minutes, I felt that there’s more to that because in respect, in service, there is emotion there, also, in each and every one of them. It’s not just the practical aspect. Right?

Ken: This goes back to what Susan was saying earlier: if the feeling is genuine. What I’m doing is I’m picking them apart. There’s respect and service which can be behavioral; behind that is emotion. I’m making that kind of distinction here. Devotion is being ready to…how’d you say it?

Nava: Ready to die for something or to kill something in you for something. What I mean is: almost to fight or to find courage to fight for a cause that is very, very special to you or for something that is very dear to you.

Ken: [pause] Okay. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes. Anybody else?

Aaron: When I think of devotion, I think of two words for this. One sense of devotion which is what you said, when Kalu Rinpoche said “learn Tibetan” and and you learned Tibetan, that’s devotion. It’s doing whatever is called for by the teacher.

And then there’s the another… when I usually think of the word devotion I think of devotion practice which is more easily accomplished by us all.

In other words, I can, for a particular teacher for a particular moment, say I am completely devoted to them. But if they said, “move to India tomorrow and sell all of your belongings”, then that ceases to become a practice and it becomes more a reality. So maybe you could talk about that distinction between the two uses of word, or maybe I’m just using the word differently.

Ken: Okay. Other people. Randi, Michelle.

Randi: For me, devotion is what I am willing to give my attention and time to.

Student: I’m going to cheat now because I actually looked it up in the dictionary before I came here. I had the same question and there were two different definitions.

The first one which is profound dedication and consecration. I would use that devotion as something like a monk or a nun where it’s a profound dedication, where they dedicate their life to it regardless of what religion this is or belief. It could be a Scientologist, for example.

The other one was, which is one you describe as lay people is an earnest attachment to a cause or a person. And I think, by earnest, it’s something that you have a passion for and that you also have faith in.

If we go back to your conversation about faith and belief, it’s something that you have faith in the process. For example, I work with Growing Spirit, which teaches kids mindfulness and meditation. I feel I am very devoted to that cause. I don’t fully understand how it works exactly but I know from the results that I see after doing it for two years that it works. I’m very devoted to it and I give up my free time to run the program, raise funds, do whatever is necessary. And I get a lot out of it for myself but I get great joy seeing what the kids get out of it.

Michelle: I’m not sure I have anything to add to the dictionary definition. Except that I would say, for me, if you look at those two forms of devotion, the one which is ritualistic and the other, to me, the other has an element of cherishing.

Molly: Maybe this says the same thing, but I was trained to feel what devotion is for me—there’s a caring or a endearing quality there.

Ken: Cara, then Lynea.

Cara: Surrender.

Lynea: I think my understanding relates somewhat to surrender and that there’s a willingness to be open and not be separate from that which I’m devoted to.

Ken: I think you’re covering a lot of the essential points. I think, on just a very practical level, it’s what we are willing to put our time and energy into. That tells us what we are devoted to. Some people are very devoted to having the perfect body. They put a lot of time and energy into it!

The other key element, and I think this hooks up Nava’s comments (though maybe not quite so violently expressed), that—I’m not sure which comes first here, but there is a connection between devotion and faith—that when we feel that devotion then it’s possible for us to open to whatever arises in experience. There’s a trust there and actually a strength which comes through that.

That’s highly relevant for us in our practice because if we are going to open to whatever arises in experience that’s going to take us out of our ordinary way of functioning. We’re going to be stepping off the tracks of the patterns. It’s going to be different.

We need a certain strength to be able to do that, a courage, if you wish. Often that courage or emotional energy—without putting any particular term on it—one place it can come from is devotion.

I think that’s what you were referring to when you were saying, “willing to let something die in us”. What we are letting die are ways of relating to experience that we now see as problematic even though they may be very, very familar.


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Ken: Now, what do you make of reverence, then? Real popular term these days.

Student: I thought for awhile about the difference between respect and reverence and I decided that respect is a subset of reverence. In order to have reverence for someone you would respect them. There is an air of almost like “supernatural” about the person you have reverence for.

But if you respect someone you don’t necessarily have reverence for that person. I struggle with the concept at least what was in the book with reverence that is you are assuming that the teacher is perfect.

I felt that’s what it was saying there, that you even at one point when I read the story, which I can’t remember now, but it talked about even if you see what the teacher is saying or doing [and] it looks incorrect or wrong to you, that the teacher is always right.

Therefore you are interpreting it incorrectly and you need to be more open until you get to the point where you aceept that what he or she is doing is correct which, of course, I think is a load of hogwash, but…

Ken: Okay, so if that’s what reverence means, that’s hogwash?

Student: No, I’m not saying reverence is hogwash. They contradicted what you said earlier about the fact that you should question all of the beliefs so that you have the experience yourself. But based on what this is saying here, reverence is sort of holy. That’s the word I’m looking for; that the person, the teacher is “holy” and therfore is always right.

Ken: Yes, we have these two different things going on. don’t we? Buddha himself said, “Examine my teachings, make them make sense for you.” And here we have, “It doesn’t matter what the teacher does, if you see it as being inappropriate, that’s your own obscurations or distortions.” How do you reconcile these?

Student: I don’t think you can. I think you question everything. If you see… in particular .. I think you pay specific attention if you think you see the teacher doing something that believe is wrong or inappropriate you need to see how you are labelling that and be open to the experience of “why do I think that” and give it time. But I don’t think… You may still come to the conclusion that it’s wrong, so…

Ken: Anyone else? Cara, then Randi?

Cara: Just one thing that came up while you were talking. The idea of expectation and reverence. I think it’s a misnomer for people to think that because they might have reverence for their teacher that that will set an expectation or a standard to which the teacher has to live up to. The most equivalent relationship that I can come up with where you would use the word reverence would be personal relationship—be it with a parent or with a partner.

I might have a great deal of reverence for a parent or a partner, but it would be unwise or unrealistic to think that they would somehow embody absolute perfection. To extend that sort of expectation to a teacher, I would simply be setting myself up for a defeat. It’s just the degree to which they are human and follied or whatever that I would have to be able accept.

Ken: Not only setting yourself up for defeat but you’re setting up teacher for…

Cara: …for a heartache, you know, yeah.

Randi: When I thought about the distinction between reverence and respect, reverence carries a sense of humbleness, of being able, being willing to say, “Yep, I can be wrong, and for the moment I will put aside that ego and accept the teacher as being all right.” To me, it was more feeling of being able let go of that ego.

Ken: Of that need to be right.

Randi: …of that need to be right. “I’d rather be right than be loving,” attititude. We’re all pretty hooked in on that. And to sort of detach us from that a bit.

Ken: Okay. Lynea?

Lynea: I’m wondering what the relationship is between reverence and ecstatic practice? If there is one?


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Ken: I didn’t bring the Tibetan with me this evening, but I’m pretty sure that the word in Tibetan is gupa. Devotion and respect will be mugu which is a very important combination, particularly in the Kagyu tradition which Gampopa is writing in.

One of the things we need to remember, not only is this being expressed in a medieval culture in which there was a great deal of—there is in all medieval cultures—an idealization of the teacher. It’s also touching on what are some very important approaches or perpectives in Vajrayana. This is not talking about Vajrayana explicitly, but this way of relating to the teacher is, you might say, the basis of Vajrayana, which is highly devotional.

So I want to offer a way of looking at this which may not lead us into this, what I see as quite a problematic, attitude: that whatever the teacher does is in some way right and it’s just our obscurations, because that seems to leave the teacher without any kind of accountability. I think in our modern culture that just raises our suspicions a little bit.

Let’s go back to a theme I’ve been expressing this evening and in some of the earlier talks. That the teacher is that aspect of our experience which is showing us how to wake up. Maybe, it’ll be easier if we look at this in a dream context, or imagine everything is like a dream.

The teacher is the element of the dream who is teaching us how to wake up. But it’s our own mind, because it’s our own dream. You follow? So now we see the teacher in our dream, having had this wonderful teaching from him or her, getting really angry at somebody in our dream. What do we do with that? Maybe we see them lying, or doing something you know…What do we do with that? Cara?

Cara: I’ve had several occasions with teachers…when I lived in an ashram, I was chastened in the kitchen when I was a cook for eating tuna because it was supposed to be vegan, and then I was doing the Swami’s recycling and I was clearing up all of his beef broth cans. Needless to say, I packed and left.

When I was living in Taiwan I had a good friend who’s an amazing yoga instructor. I reshuffled my life so I could do some training with him. I really believed in him and thought he was a pretty spot-on guy. As things unfolded within the training, it turned out that he had, at one time or another, been involved with at least five people that I knew of.

They were also in the training and I had had no involement with him beyond the fact that he was my friend and my teacher. But in both circumstances I looked at what I liked about the teacher or felt I resonated with about them. But in neither case was I able to carry on the kind of devotional—

Ken: It ended the relationship.

Cara: It completely ended the relationship. Because for me, they’re allowed to be flawed but the degree to which they’re flawed, if it extends to hypocrisy…

Ken: It’s a problem for you.

Cara: But what you’re saying, within the dream, if it is a dream and I see my teacher doing that in a dream then I accept that they are somehow in some way expressing what is very much a part of me and of my behavior and attitudes

Ken: I think that’s where we need to go.

The teacher student relationship functions on two levels, at least. One is, it’s a relationship between two human beings. As in any relationship, there will be connections and there will be misses. There always are.

On another level, it’s a symbolic relationship. That is, the teacher is regarded by the student as a symbol of the teachings; this is the object of the student’s devotion and respect and reverence and all the things we’ve been discussing. Those are very, very important aspects of the relationship which create the conditions in the student to be able to receive and benefit from the teaching. Everybody with me?

And so this injunction, or this statement to “regard everything the teacher is doing as an expression of one’s own obscurations” can be interpreted as a way of protecting the symbolic relationship from the inevitable human foibles that are going to show up.


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As Cara explained, there are situations and conditions where the teacher’s behavior is a deal-breaker. Right? That is, that they are saying one thing and doing something else in private.

There’s a wonderful phrase in Tibetan called ko jura mepa. Ko is the word for privacy and how you are in your private life and jura, in this case, is how you behave publicly and me is negative. What it’s saying here is there is no distinction between your private life and your public life. That’s something to aspire to so one doesn’t get into these discrepancies.

I find it very helpful to regard the teacher as how my own mind is manifesting the sense of awakening. If it’s manifesting as a very flawed human being, then that’s who I’m stuck with because that’s all I can see at this point. Maybe as I progress in my spiritual practice then it becomes someone who is less flawed, eventually it becomes seomeone who is actually inspiring and so forth.

Now I was very fortunate: I had people like Kalu Rinpoche, the Sixteenth Karmapa, Dezhung Rinpoche. These were quite extraordinary, very, very…quite remarkable people.

At the same time, we tend to, in the West… we don’t have the formality, so we see people much more in all of their humanness. So we need a way to negotiate this territory so that we can have the respect and devotion which actually provides energy for our practice without suppressing or compromising our own sense of what is right and wrong, because that’s just as destructive.

This means the teacher-student relationship, in my opinion, takes a somwhat different form in this culture. Now, there are many variations on this and it’s going to depend upon the particular context in which teaching is being given and the environment. As Susan was saying, there are some teachers whose environments are much more traditional so they’re creating a very particular environment where there are certain standards of relating.

By and large I think it is very, very important for us to find a way of relating to the teacher so that we aren’t experiencing tension in the relationship. That means that we can experience devotion without compromising our own values.

Many years ago I was at a conference of Asian and Western teachers – there was about 20 of us. Gelek Rinpoche was at it. We discussed a lot of different things over the weekend. But one of the things that I remember was we were discussing exactly this topic.

Gelek Rinpoche just said, “My teacher is Buddha.” But the way that he said it was not that “My teacher is a Buddha.” That wasn’t the sense that I got. What he was saying is, “My teacher is Buddha for me.”

That’s very much what I’m talking about or trying to get across to you here. Is that, one sees—whoever you’re studying with—you see them as this aspect of your experience which is showing you how to be more present, be more awake, how not to struggle in your life. Then respect and devotion flow quite naturally and if they are… if they have the inevitable human flaws that is how teaching is manifesting for you, so you don’t regard that as something wrong with the teacher. That’s the big thing.

Because when you regard it as something wrong with the teacher it means you have your own idea of what the teacher should be and he’s not measuring or she’s not measuring up to that. This is just how it’s manifesting in your life and you either relate to it as something that is helpful to you, or you find that it isn’t helpful to you.

This raises the whole question, which also gets a little messy sometimes, is it okay to leave the teacher?

And the question [sic] is: Yes, it is. It’s always okay to leave a teacher. When you, for whatever reason you find that you cannot learn from a teacher, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned everything they have to teach you. It means something has arisen and you no longer can learn, then it’s perfectly alright to leave. But you do so respectfully and respecting particularly what you have received from them. Then you find someone else you can study with.

Now, if you keep doing this, you may want to look at yourself because there may be some problem there. But by and large… A lot of teachers say ’no, you aren’t allowed to leave’. That’s not the teacher’s choice because the student chooses the teacher, the teacher doesn’t choose the students.

So if you reach that point with someone you say, “Well, I’ve learned a great deal form this person but I can’t learn anything more. I don’t feel the devotion. I don’t feel the reverence. It’s not speaking to me. I don’t trust them.”

When we see a big discrepancy between behavior and the teaching, that raises questions in us that may eliminate the conditions which make it possible.

That being said, one of the instructions in Mind Training is: pay very careful attention to the relationship with your teacher because it’s a very important relationship. Don’t let things destroy it because it can be a very difficult relationship to replace.

So, if there is difficulty in the relationship then sit down with your teacher and talk it out and find out what’s going on in you and/or him or her or whatever. You actually nurture and take care of the relationship. But again, I want to emphasize not in way in which you feel you’re compromising yourself. That will never work.


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The last topic which I want to touch on here, well actually we got two more topics, see if we can get them done.

Practice and persistence.

The student’s responsibility, in the teacher-student relationship, is to take what is given without editing and make use of it. That’s the student’s responsibility in the relationship.

The teacher’s responsibility is to reveal—by whatever means possible—to the student what it means to be awake and present; to provide the instruction and guidance in developing the skills and abilities that will be needed; and to point out when the student’s own internal material is getting in the way. Those are the responsibilities of the teacher.

Responsibilites of the student are to receive the material as it is presented and make use of it in their practice and in their lives.

That’s where the practice comes in. You actually do something with it. People who say, “so and so is my teacher” and they go to this ceremony and they go to this teaching and they don’t do anything with it. Well, that’s not really a teacher-student relationship.

How you make use of it, how you practice it, that will be up to you. And I find that people that I’ve worked with varies considerably. Some people whatever I say they just go and do it. They bring back their experience, and we talk about it, and they go off and do it. They progress.

Other people, it’s very, very different.

There was a person who used to come to retreats. I learned very early on—though it took me a little while to really get it—that it was pointless giving her any instruction. And it was pointless asking her any question, because as soon as I did she just shut down. It was like talking to a brick wall.

However, if, when she came for an interview I just sat there, and she would talk. Every now and then she would ask me a question in the middle of talking and I would give an answer. She would tell me what was going on in her practice, as long as I didn’t ask her about it. This worked quite well.

Here was a person who, for whatever reason, needed to be very much directing her own thing. It actually worked out quite well. I had to listen very, very carefully and really be very precise in what I suggested or directed in response to her questions. But That’s how the teacher-student relationship functioned. Very, very different from how you might ordinarily think about it.

And then there are people who, you know, come and take teaching and then they come back. They don’t do anything with it. You can’t do anything with that as a teacher.

If the student isn’t making an effort and doing anything with the material, then the teacher has nothing to work with. So in order for the teacher-student relationship to be productive, the student has to work with the material.

So many times, particularly at the beginning of meditation, people will come to me and I will give them initial meditation instruction, and they’ll call up a couple of days before their next meeting and say, “I don’t think there’s any point in coming in.”

I’ll say, “Why?”

“Well, I’ve been practicing every day but my mind’s all over the place and it hasn’t settled down at all. So I don’t there’s any point. I think I should just work with this until I experience a quiet mind and then there’d be some reason to talk. But right now I’m just failing at this practice and I just want to work at it until I can succeed at it.”

I say, “Come on in,” because they have an idea of it’s meant to be like, and as all of you know by now our ideas of what practice is meant to be like and what it’s actually like are very, very different. What I say to people in these circumstances is that, “you took the material, you worked with it, what’s important now is to discuss your experience”.

This is going back to the theme that we were talking about earlier because all of this is learning how to not to struggle in your experience. So if you’re going to sit there and get a really quiet mind, you’re going to work at that for five years before you come and see me again, that’s not going to be very helpful to you!

How do you work with your experience so you aren’t struggling all the time? That’s what comes out. So as long as people work with the practice, whatever they bring is experience, that’s fuel for the next step in their practice.

From this point of view there isn’t any such thing as success or failure; there is only the next step. That’s why it’s talked about in terms of perseverence: you just keep doing it—trying it—one way or another. Bring that experience, discuss that, and from there move to the next—whatever “next” is. This is how learning takes place. This is how teaching takes place.


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Right at the end (this last thing I want to touch on today) there’s a very quick reference to how one relates to the teacher.

[Reading] “Asking the spiritual friend for the dharma is done in three ways:” on page 36 in Gampopa… sorry, in Guenther’s transalation and it’s on page 75 in Kenchog Gyaltsen’s.

The preliminary step is to make the request with the mind bent upon enlightenment.

You don’t ask teachers questions because you want to be regarded as a good student. That’s just coming from a sense of identity or wanting to get strokes or things like that.

You don’t ask questions because you want to show off how much you know, although I do get some of that sometimes.

You ask questions or you ask for teaching because this is what you want. It’s quite personal. It’s actually, for the most part, not difficult very difficult, for the most part, for me to tell when a person is asking a question out of their experience and their own personal interest, and when they’re asking a question either to make trouble (which some people do) or to score points where that element of personal relevance and personal interest isn’t present.

So that’s the key; the first step is: you approach the teacher because you’re looking for something that is personally relevant to you. It’s not abstract, it’s not theoretical. Your interest is coming from something very practical and very immediate.

The actual situation—this is a metaphor that’s been used over and over again—“you regard yourself as if you were ill, the dharma as the medicine and the spiritual friend as a doctor.”

There’ve been some problems with this metaphor in discussing the relationship or differences between Buddhism and psychotherapy. From the point of this metaphor we are all insane. We’re infected with a virus of samsara, and we’re trying to find treatment for that.

The main point of this is that—and this goes back to what I was saying a few moments ago—it’s personally, highly relevant; that’s what’s important. You don’t go to a doctor (unless you’re an academic) to ask theoretical questions about disease and things like that. You go because you’re sick.

You come to dharma practice because you are fed up with struggling with your life the way you are struggling and you’re looking for very practical guidance about how to get out of the mess—how to change one’s relationship with it.

Then the third is translated for Dezhung Rinpoche where he’s talked about these three things for hours. This third thing is the attitude with which you come.

One is usually a cup. I don’t know why Guenther translated as a pot. You have a cup, or the idea is the student is like a cup and it’s receiving teaching. The thing is, if the cup is turned upside down, it can’t receive any teaching.

This is usually connected with an attitude of pride, or a feeling of I don’t need this. If that’s the case, that’s fine, you shouldn’t be there. There’s a lack of humility or appreciation. Basically, it’s because one’s not ready. So if you’re coming at it without a personal interest, then you may be like a cup that’s turned upside down, nothing can go in.

Second is: a cup with a hole in it. Whatever gets poured in, just flows out the bottom. Nothing is retained. Quite a few people seem like that to me, sometimes. If you find that you hear teaching and nothing sticks, there are two possibilities. Maybe there are more, but I’m just going to name two right now.

One is, whatever is being taught, it just isn’t relevant to you, so it isn’t retained.

The other is that there’s something operating in you which prevents you from retaining the teachings. I know this from my own experience.

Sometimes I will hear a particular teaching or a phrase will be said to me. I know it’s relevant and it can be in absolutely plain English or, sometimes, in plain Tibetan and I will get it and the next minute I can’t remember it at all. Or I hear the words and I cannot actually form any meaning out of the words. Either of those situations, I’ve learned, that indicates there’s something in me which is blocking me taking it in. To mix a metaphor, that’s like a cup with a hole in it. Stuff’s pouring straight through and nothing is being retained. That’s our responsibility.

Then the third one is: a cup with poison in it. There are people who approach the dharma and who approach teaching because they want to be somebody. They want to learn stuff and become somebody important. They have an agenda other than finding a way out of their own struggle.

If you have another agenda, it’s like having a poison in your cup because that agenda takes whatever the teaching is and will interpret the teaching in accordance with that agenda. That prevents the teachings from being understood as they are presented.

So, these are three responsibilities on the part of the student: to be able to receive the teachings (so the cup is turned right side up), got no holes in it (so you can actually retain), and it’s not being mixed with any agenda.

Spiritual practice, particularly in the context of Buddhism and the dharma: it’s not about believing anything. It’s not about achieving any kind of ideal state. Buddhism is extraordinarily non-idealistic when you get right down to it. It’s very, very pragmatic. It’s really about finding ways that we can live and bring an end to struggle, bring an end to suffering. It’s very, very personal.

We hear all these exhortations to “work for the benefit of all sentient beings.” But these are all methods by which we bring an end to struggle for ourselves and others. It’s very important to understand them as methods so that we get away from this idea of being or trying to becoming somebody special.

My own experience is that the more we practice, the more ordinary we become. This is very much in keeping with Taoist perspectives.

One travels the path of one’s life but for some reason—mainly because one’s quite aware—one creates fewer and fewer ripples and disturbances and good things just happen around one.

It’s because one is completely in tune with what is happening internally and externally, which again depends on developing the capacity to be able to experience whatever arises. That’s the key. Everything in our practice is about that.

So, I’ve gone a little bit over. Next week we’ll start on the next chapter which is one of the old favorites: Death and Impermanence, I believe. Right? Yes. Transitoriness. Guenther has a long rap on why it should be called transitory and not impermanence. He’s a philosopher so we’ll forgive him for that.

Read over at least the first sections there. What we’re now getting into is the actual instruction. Up to this point, we’ve laid the foundation, which is: what makes it possible for us to wake up? That’s Buddha nature. The context in which we’re able to practice, which is the precious human existence, and how we learn how to conduct our lives so we become free of struggling, which is through the relationship with a teacher.

Now we get into the nitty-gritty of what we actually do.