Awakening From Belief 11a


Well, I suppose the short version of this morning’s talk is you can’t wake up by being a nice person. [Laughter]

Student: Does it help though?

Ken: No, it doesn’t. It gets in the way.

The origin of the word nice—I’m not a hundred percent sure of this, but it’s one of the ethnological lines that I’ve come across—is from nescius, nescire in Latin, which is the verb to ignore. The original meaning of nice in English was to be clever, to cheat.

Student: Really?

Ken: Yes.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Yes. That was a nice trick.

Student: Ah.

Ken: That’s the old Shakespearean usage. He’s a nice chap, meaning he was a little too clever and you couldn’t trust him.

How it came to mean more or less what it does today, I’m not quite sure. But its original meaning, as far as I know, is to ignore. But even taking into consideration, its common meaning today, which is an agreeable person—nice means agreeable, pleasant, so forth—it doesn’t work when you’re trying to wake up. And the reason, very simply, is that you’re gonna have to deal with a lot of disagreeable things. And none of my teachers were nice people. They really weren’t.

Student: Were they kind people?

Ken: When it was appropriate. Rinpoche became more and more demanding the closer you got to him.

His own teacher was an interesting guy, Ngawang Lekpa—no, not Ngawang Lekpa—Lama Norbu [Drupon Norbu Dondrup]. This guy had phenomenal clarity. He was a teacher of the three-year retreat. That’s where Rinpoche did his three-year retreat. And when he met with them in the morning, he would say, “Well, you were dreaming about this, and you were dreaming about this, and you were dreaming about this.”

But if you weren’t in your cell to practice meditation when the gong rang, he would stand up on top of the roofs of the retreat centers, which is very much like the pueblos in the Southwest, and would say, “So-and-so is now entering his cell to practice meditation.” And if you didn’t get the message, then he’d hang you up by your thumbs for a day. Yeah. Is this a nice person?


Student: Is it because it creates conflict inside you, creates [unclear]?

Ken: Well, my point here is simply this. If you want to wake up, you have to be ruthless with your patterns. As soon as you start negotiating with patterns, they’ve won. That’s it. You have to be completely and utterly ruthless. And I love the word ruthless, you know. You know what ruth means? You never hear of ruth used anymore. It means pity.

Student: Pitiless?

Ken: Yeah. Ruthless means pitiless. But you never hear anybody talking about ruth, you know. I don’t know what happened to ruth, but we still have ruthless. Someone’s looking for her somewhere.


Yes, Scott.

Scott: Apropos…because I was thinking about this thing, what is this [unclear], and I came back from a walk, and I came up with this haiku for Ken McLeod.

Student: Oh my god.

Ken: [Laughs] Do I run now or later?

Scott: No, no, no…

Gleaming dragon teeth
Buddhas sleep with open eyes
Batteries for breakfast.

Ken: That’s not bad. I like that. Thank you.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Okay. This may or may not be apparent to you, but the way that I wrote this book is actually very faithful to how Tibetan Buddhism is organized.

And in one sense we’ve left out a step, which caused some problems in the way that people were practicing and thinking about things. After you developed some basic attention that you need to do, the next step is to come to some understanding, some emotional understanding of your own mortality.

(Can I get some water, please?)

Now, the reason for this is that it’s by understanding our own mortality—that we are going to die—that we separate from the conventional notions of success and failure. The conventional notions of success and failure are what society relies on to propagate itself, and of course, conditions its people as much as possible in those values so that society continues. This is why I said earlier that Buddhism is asocial.

When you understand deeply that you are going to die, then you realize that, in the end, your life has no meaning other than to you.

Student: No meaning other than…?

Ken: To you.

Student: Well, then what’s the meaning of [unclear].

Ken: Yeah. It’s your life, in other words. It’s not anybody else’s. And it’s the only life you’ll know. I mean, whether you ascribe to past lives or future lives doesn’t make any difference, because whoever you’re born as, it’s a different person; it’s going to be a different life. This is the only life you will know. So that changes a few things. And as I pointed out earlier in our time together, what is this life? This life consists of precisely what we experience. And what we experience are thoughts, feelings, and sensations. That’s it.

Now, you know that this is your life and you know what life is. The question is, do you actually experience it? And the answer for most of us is most of the time we don’t. We’re somewhere else, caught up in something or other. We aren’t actually experiencing what is right now. And the reason is that we are swallowed or taken over by reactive patterns.

So now the next question is, well, who gets to live your life? You or your reactive patterns? And that’s the topic we’ve been working with. And one of the better movies to understand the nature of reactive patterns is the first Terminator movie. You like that? It just keeps going. It’s like the Energizer Bunny.

Reactive patterns, as I’ve said, have only one function: to dissipate attention. If you want to experience your life, then, as some of you’ve experienced—and I know I’ve talked with you in the interviews—you have to reclaim your experience from the reactive patterns that are eating it up. There is no compromise.


Now, one of the aspects of people’s practice I run into again and again and again is a certain kind of passivity.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Passivity. We’re all waiting for it to happen to us. What’s the line from Alexander Pope’s [An Essay on Man]—

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blest.

So as long as you think it’s going to happen to you, you’re going to be given something. It doesn’t really work that way. You have to be active agents in your own practice, and better yet, in your own life. This is far from easy. So to dismantle patterns requires attention, intention, and will.


Attention is the ability to be present—that’s a rough definition—and consists of mindfulness and awareness. Those of you who have studied the shamatha, you may know this is as mindfulness and alertness I can’t remember exactly the terms that Trungpa used in the seminary, but it has these two aspects. One is being with the object of attention, and the other is knowing what’s going on. This isn’t the big awareness. This is little awareness. It’s very important.

A rough analogy: You have a teaspoon full of water and you’re walking through a crowded room. There’s one quality of attention on the teaspoon, so you hold it steady, as simultaneously there’s another quality of attention which includes the whole room, so you know where everybody is so you don’t bump into anybody.

And we can all do this. But those two together comprise what we call active attention. Pattern functioning is the antithesis of that because there’s just a collapse.

Intention is the ability to direct attention. So it operates at the higher level. In Mahayana Buddhism, the first kind of bodhicitta is intention, the intention to awake in order to help others. That’s one example.

Will is the ability to direct intention. And again in the Mahayana, the second kind of bodhicitta, which is usually called bodhicitta of engagement, is an example of will.

Another way to think about will—and this is the link with not being passive, being active—is the willingness to use whatever arises in experience; your willingness to use whatever you encounter. So at the level of will, there are no obstacles: whatever arises, you have a use for.



Student: Can you build will?

Ken: Oh, yes, yeah. You build attention by keep coming back into attention. You build intention by directing your attention again and again. You build will by directing your intention again and again. So, yes.

And that’s precisely what we do in practice, until our practice starts to operate at the level of will. And then things start rolling along, because now we can use everything in our experience, if our intention is to wake up.

But you see how that translates as a kind of ruthlessness? Whatever there is. You know, somebody steals everything you own, including your identity. Well, that’s a real good place to wake up. You have nothing. Is it Uchiyama? Gain is illusion. Loss is enlightenment.

Several years ago, I was talking with a Buddhist teacher in another community. And the usual kind of disruptions had taken place, that a teacher changes direction and a whole group of people that were authorized to teach are suddenly disenfranchised. You know the kind of stuff that goes on.

Well, she was one of these. Not that she was de-authorized to teach, she just didn’t have the same standing in the community and everything had changed, and it’s all that disorientation. Anybody know any of this kind of stuff? Okay.

So we went for a long walk together. And I said, “Well, this is perfect.”

And she goes, “What do you mean, Ken?”

“Well, what are you experiencing right now?”

“I don’t know who I am. I don’t have any reference point. There’s nothing I can call home. Everything is just totally open.”

I said, “Well, that sounds pretty good.” [Laughs]

And she sort of looked at me, like, [Ken makes sound of disagreement] “Eh?”

But when you lose everything [Ken snaps fingers], you’re awake. Dogen said, “Mind and body drop off.” You know, if you think you’re gonna get something out of waking up, just forget it. You don’t get anything at all.


, you can actually use whatever experience arises to wake up. Those of you who studied The Seven Points of Mind Training will remember that there are many instructions in the seven points which say the same thing. When you encounter adversity, transform; when you encounter misfortune, transform adversity into the path of awakening. And then it goes through the various methods to do so.

When you transform confusion into the experience of the four kayas, for instance, that’s a deep method of doing it. It’s a kind of nice one.

Now, that sounds fine in theory.

Student: Yeah. [Laughter]

Ken: But when something untoward happens in your life, use it. That’s what the practice is about. And, very important, when something very favorable happens in your life, use it to wake up.

In the mahamudra tradition, there’s a certain point in practice which is called the fall. It’s when your attention and practice deepens to the point that all kinds of things get stirred up.

Now, one of two things happens at this stage in your practice. Everything in your life suddenly goes really well. You know, people think you’re great, and they think you’re intelligent, and they want to come around and be with you, and they think you’re the most wonderful person in the world, and they give you lots of things, and they take care of you, etc., etc., etc. Or, everybody thinks you’re an idiot and they don’t want to have anything to do with you, and you get kicked out of whatever organizations or societies you belong to, and your wife leaves you, and everything like that. And the one’s called the good fall; the other’s called the bad fall.

But it’s very clear that in terms of practice, people have a much easier time working with a bad fall than they do with a good fall. Again, when things go good, we tend to go back to sleep.

So good or pleasant situations trigger just as many reactive patterns as unpleasant or painful situations. And please don’t understand or take what I’m saying to mean that you have to avoid pleasant experiences. That’s not very helpful at all. Just stay awake in them. Don’t be seduced by them. There’s bad dreams and good dreams, but they’re both dreams.


So to undo reactive patterns, there are four steps, which interestingly enough—this is the kind of thing I really like about Buddhism—are actually based or connected with the four noble truths.

Now, the four noble truths is actually a very old Indian medical model, which goes back way, way, way back in the Vedas. And the medical model is what is the illness, what is the cause of the illness, what is the cure, and how do you apply it. And this was adapted into the four noble truths. What is the problem? Suffering. What is the cause of the problem? Emotional reactivity. What is the solution? Nirvana, cessation. How do you do it? Noble eightfold path.

In the context that we’re talking about today, the four steps are: recognize—and if you’ll excuse my English, dis-identify, which is probably not a word, but…anybody got an actual English word for that?

Student: Are you saying to disconnect your personal identification?

Ken: Yes. Dis-identify. The four steps are recognize, dis-identify, develop a practice, and cut.

Student: Develop a practice and what?

Ken: Cut. Cut.

Student: What was the third one?

Ken: Develop a practice.

Student: Thank you.

Ken: Now, the first thing is to recognize reactive pattern. And we’ve talked about various ways to do that. The main one is when what you experience as result is consistently different from your intention, that usually indicates that there’s a reactive pattern operating somewhere in the mix.

But there are other ways. One of my favorites is, What you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you can’t laugh about.

Student: Once more, Ken.

Ken: What you don’t notice, what you don’t question, what you don’t laugh about. Queen Victoria’s, “We are not amused.” [Laughter]

Student: I think she had a very strong identity.

Ken: Only just a little. So, those are very reliable.

Now, of course, what we don’t notice, you’re going to depend on somebody else, your teacher or friend, your spouse, to point out to you. And that’s very helpful.

But you can observe what you don’t question. You know, this is where your beliefs are, and where your assumptions about life…

Student: Excuse me. These are four steps to what?

Ken: These are four steps for the dissolution of patterns.

Student: Noble steps.

Ken: No.

Student: Oh.

Ken: These are very… [Laughter]

Student: [Unclear] the four noble steps.

Ken: No. The four noble truths, they correlate with them. [Laughter] We’ll call these the four ignoble steps. [Laughter] Well, or we could call these the four serf steps, or something like that.

Student: [Unclear]

Student: Does that mean you have to question all the time? Lest it become belief?

Ken: It’s a path of practice. That’s one path, absolutely. In fact (excuse me), the teachers teach various things. In a group of teachers that I used to meet with, we posed a question: What do you actually teach? And one of my colleagues, he’s very good—he’s in Portland, Oregon—and what he teaches is the joy of wakefulness. I mean, he teaches traditional dharma, etc., but that’s really what he’s teaching.

And what I try to do is teach you how to know what is true by questioning.

Student: So…but you could say get rid of the doubt, say notice everything, question everything, and laugh about everything.

Ken: Well, that would be kind of a neat way to live, wouldn’t it? Thank you. That’s good.

So, recognize patterns. Now, when you first recognize a pattern, it’s, like, “That’s me. That’s who I am. I can’t change. That’s who I am,” right?

Student: Right.

Ken: [Laughs] Wrong. That’s not who you are. But it feels that way.

So you’ve got to get some distance and be able to see it as a pattern. And much of the work we have done over the last two or three days is looking at these things, these behaviors, and seeing that they aren’t what we are. They are a mechanism which runs under particular circumstances, utterly predictable, utterly mechanical, and it is not what we are at all. And that’s the process of dis-identification.

Student: So the fear is that when we lose our identity…

Ken: Exactly. I’ll come to that point in just a few moments. But you’re exactly right.


Now, the third step is to develop a practice, to develop a way of working with that particular pattern. Now, in Buddhism, there are a number of different approaches. There’s the log-cabin approach.

Student: What’s that?

Ken: And there’s the…I’m just making these up, but the [laughter]…there’s the…I’ll explain in a minute. You’ll see what I mean.

And then there’s the wood-carver approach, okay?

Now, the log-cabin approach, you know, when people settle, they only had one tool—an axe. And they did everything with the axe. They cut the tree down, trimmed off the bark, squared the timber, notched it, thus built a log cabin. They did everything with the axe. A lot of work, but they just had one tool.

And there are many traditions of Buddhism, very, very effective traditions, where that’s essentially how you work. You have one tool, and you really learn how to work it. That’s very solid and very reliable.

There’s a story of one Zen master [Jinhua Juzhi]—I can’t remember his name now—but when anybody asked him a question, he held up his finger. And that was his method. That’s the only thing he did. Had lots of enlightened students.

Student: Is that a reference to the koan of the moon?

Ken: Which?

Student: Look at the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon.

Ken: No, no, no, there’s no reference to that, no.

Student: It’s not that simple?

Ken: No, not that simple at all.

And then there’s the woodworker’s approach. As a woodworker, you’re doing a lot different things, so you have all kinds of tools. You know, so you have, like, fifteen different chisels of different shapes, and you have several different planes, and so forth, which you might say is the Tibetan approach. As I said earlier, I’ve never counted, but it’s probably up to one-hundred-fifty, two hundred different practices, methods of meditation.

So you’ve got—as one person said—a lot of arrows in your quiver. Now, that’s great, you know. You’ve got something for everything. There’s only one small problem. Which one do I use now?

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Maybe there’s a happy medium. I don’t know. But the big thing is to develop a practice. And you develop facility with that practice and you bring it to bear on a pattern.

Now, what I tend to do when I’m working with people is make up practices. So I had one person who is quite narcissistic. And so I said, “Okay, during your meditation, I want you to feel a plastic bubble around your heart. And during the day, I want you to imagine that you’re walking around inside a plastic bubble all the time.” Because this is exactly what a narcissist is doing. And it was a way of helping him to recognize what he was actually doing all the time.

That’s an example of making up a practice. And there are all kinds of things you can do. And you can use traditional stuff, and you can use other stuff. It’s fun. And there’s all kinds of traditional things you can use, too. But the big thing is to develop a way of working with that pattern.

As soon as you start doing this, of course, all kinds of stuff kicks up. Because as soon as you start working on the pattern, you’re bringing attention to it. And in particular, you’re going to bring attention to—sooner or later—the feeling that’s underneath the pattern, which is exactly what the pattern is…

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: …has developed to prevent, yeah.

Student: It’s like a guard dog.

Ken: Pardon? It’s like a guard dog, yeah. And so it’s going to growl. It will even bite. And, unfortunately, there’s some people with patterns that are so strong that they will kill them rather than change. So undoing patterns is non-trivial. And you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.

So, people don’t do this. I tried to do this with people, but there are the traditional warnings for doing this kind of work: death, paralysis, and insanity. [Laughter]

Student: That’s what you want to avoid?

Ken: No. Those are the possible results of your practice.

Student: Oh, oh, oh.

Student: Well, you can’t escape death…

Student: [Unclear] paralysis [unclear].

Student: All of them or just one? [Laughter]

Ken: First you get paralyzed, then you go crazy, and then you die. [Laughter]

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: Well, yeah. What I’m saying is that when you start into this work, you have no idea what you’re going to encounter and what’s going to happen.

And most people don’t give the traditional warnings, as you know. They say, it’s going to be wonderful. Well, if you survive [Ken chuckles].


Now, the patterns are going to rear up. So when you practice, you often feel more reactive. This is not a sign that something is necessarily going wrong. Maybe, but it’s not necessarily. And it’s why a capacity of attention and mindfulness is so important—so that you can stay present in what is arising, and you don’t get caught up by what is being kicked up. You actually experience it.

Student: [Unclear] you wind up feeling that it’s all [unclear].

Ken: Oh, yes.

Student: [Unclear] this window that suddenly has no perspective, no horizon.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: Like everything’s seems to be [unclear].

Ken: Yes. And then from there, you can actually recognize, “Oh, this is the pattern, running.” And when it’s running, that’s what you experience.

So you can have the very strange experience of, as you’re saying, seeing things this way, at the same time knowing that’s not the case.

I remember once in the retreat, I came into the shrine room for our evening prayer service, and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. I looked around at everybody, the other six guys in the retreat, and [Ken drops his voice] I knew they were all out to get me. I couldn’t trust a single one of them. And you know, I went, “This is crazy, Ken.” And I would look. But that’s how I saw it, even though I knew it wasn’t the case. The pattern was up.

And that’s why it’s very important to have a capacity of mindfulness. Because you start acting on this stuff, then you run into some problems. Yes?

Student: These patterns, you’re…in that situation that you were just talking about, then you come just into a feeling.

Ken: That’s right.

Student: And the feeling itself is horrendous, and you have to sit in the feeling. But there isn’t a pattern going on anymore. It’s just a feeling.

Ken: When you get down to the core feeling, that’s exactly right. You’re getting into the core feeling. And it is horrendous, because that’s what you’ve been avoiding for very long. And you’ll feel confused, etc., etc., etc.

But what’s very important here is you experience the feeling in attention. You don’t just relive it.

Student: [Unclear]

Ken: You know what it is as you’re experiencing it. When you relive it, you don’t know what it is—you’re just reliving it. That actually reinforces the conditioning.

Student: What do you mean by you know what it is? You know it’s…

Ken: You know it’s a feeling. You know it’s the pattern, and you’re experiencing it. It’s running, and it feels terrible very often. You see…

Student: But often you shift from the pattern into thinking the feeling is you.

Ken: Yes. And eventually when you have a sufficient capacity in attention, you can experience the feeling and know it to be a feeling.

David: [Unclear] the body [unclear]?

Ken: You’re quite right, David. This is one of the reasons why I do emphasize the body. Go into the body. And that’ll take you into the feeling, but it’ll also keep you in attention.

See, what happens in many, many people who practice meditation is that they sit and they develop sometimes quite significant capabilities in attention, but they never bring that attention to bear on internal material. In psychotherapy, on the other hand, they bring up all of the internal material, but there’s no capacity in attention, so they simply go through it again and again and again, and nothing gets resolved. Nothing changes. I know people who have been in therapy for fourteen years, and nothing’s changed. You have attention and you have the internal material. They have to meet, and that’s the purpose.

That’s the aim of your practice is so that you experience your internal material in attention. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. That method I gave you yesterday, the five-step method and the whole Full Awareness of Breathing Sutra, this is exactly what it’s talking about.

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