Bringing attention into action

So I want to give you two formulae that I've found helpful for bringing attention into action. Neither of these come from Buddhist sources, but, well I can kind of fudge from a Buddhist source, but it isn't really.

When you're in a situation and it doesn't really matter what, and things aren't going the way that you want or expect, five things:

First, get the facts. Find out what is actually going on.

Our tendency is to make up stories about it. And whenever there's something happening which we don't understand what's really going on, we make a up story. And it's astonishing how quickly we make up that story. And there's a very important characteristic of that story; we're always the hero of it, which makes it suspect right there. So rather than make up a story, get the facts. What's actually happening.

Second, rather than react emotionally, and particularly defensively or judgmentally, which is what we usually do, empathize and understand with the other people.

Find out what they're experiencing and try to understand that. And so that makes an emotional connection, which really changes things.

Focus on what needs to be done, not on what isn't going right.

Focus on what needs to be done. As one person says: "Stop messing about with the past and look to the future." I put this in terms of: "Focus on the direction of the present." What actually needs to happen here to make this work?

And be strategic. You may think it should happen a certain way but that way may not work in this situation. So you've got to figure out what will actually work.

Often when people are consulting with me about problems they're facing, I'll make a suggestion and they say, well, we can't do that because of this, and we can't do that because of that and I can't do that because of this. And their tendency is to regard all of this as obstacles. What they're actually describing is the territory in which they are living at that point. And these are things that have to be negotiated and worked around but they aren't actually obstacles unless you regard them as an obstacle. And I've found that shift in perspective is very helpful to people.

And then the fifth one is: whatever happens receive it and keep going.

One of my favorite quotations is from Churchill. "When you're going through hell, keep going." Certainly applicable in Britain in the Second World War.


The major and minor marks of the Buddha

From: Then and Now 36
Full transcript
After I came back from India the first time--this would be in the early seventies--a teacher that I knew of in India and hadn’t actually met--by the name of Lama Karma Thinley--I knew had come to Canada and lived outside Toronto. So, I called him up and asked if I could go and see him. And my younger brother and my wife and I went to see him. We ended up camping in the fields somewhere in the middle of southern Ontario, near the house where he was staying. And went to see him. And Lama Karma Thinley is quite a character, and he’s still in Toronto. And you can never tell what he's going to do or what he's going to say.

So, we came into his room, and we chatted for a while, and he noticed that my younger brother was looking very intently at a thangka, which Lama Karma Thinley was in the process of painting, and it was only half-finished. And it was a depiction of Buddha. And he looked at my younger brother and said, “You interested in that?” His English was very minimal; I did most of the translating at this stage. And my younger brother said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” And it was an iconic, graphic depiction of Buddha with a gold body and the long earlobes and the topknot--you know, what we see in Buddha images and depictions. And my younger brother said, “Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like that.” And Lama Karma Thinley said, “You want to know what it means?” And my younger brother said, “Yes.” He said, “Come back tomorrow.”

So he came back. And for the next four hours, Lama Karma Thinley went through all of the 32 major and 80 minor marks of physical perfection which comprises the nirmanakaya of the Buddha, which is the spiral of hair at this point, the growth at the top of his head, the long earlobes, and the shape of the lips, and the length of his arms, light web between the fingers, all of these things. There's a list of them in the back here, explaining what they all were. And these are on page 454. You see the 32 major and 80 minor marks there, and what particular karma they developed from, and what their significance was. And just hours and hours of this stuff.

So, this is--and I'm just relating this, because you have this description here of what it means to be a perfect human being, which is what Buddha was regarded--this is the perfection of our human potential. This is not where Buddhism started at all, fifteen hundred years previous to this, where Buddha would just say of himself, what makes you different from other people? “I’m awake.” And that was it. But all of these myths and these symbols grew up around Buddha, and became ways of people expressing their appreciation.


Kinds of meditation practices

Meditation practices (from MMT01 0:01:38.05 - 0:08:22.00)

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Meditation practices can be divided into various kinds. Among the breakdowns the one I find probably most useful is: there are those practices which are concerned with the practice of presence or being awake and present in your life. Then there are practices which transform energy and build a capacity and energy in attention. And then there are practices which we can call purification, but in a very, very broad sense of that term. That is they get rid of the stuff or change our relationship with the stuff that gets in the way of being present. Some examples may be useful.

Mahamudra, dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition, bare attention in the Theravadan tradition, shikentaza in the Zen tradtion are all examples of practice of presence. These meditations are usually very, very simple. You can say that basic shamatha, which is resting with the breath, also falls into this category. They're usually very simple, very little to do, very little to them and one quickly finds that simple does not equal easy. And if you're not actually doing the practice then you're doing nothing, you're just wandering. So that's important.

And the energy transformation practices vary tremendously. In the Theravadan tradtion you have techniques of body scanning, even noting practice can be used as an energy transformation practice. The cultivation of loving kindness is in some respects an energy transformation practice. In the Mayayana one usually relies more on compassion or the four immeasurables: loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. In the Vajrayana there's a whole host of energy transformation practices including most of the yidam practices and then the advanced techniques known as the six yogas of Naropa, for example. And there are a large number of other techniques which can be used to transform energy. All energy transformation practices are inherently dangerous because when you start moving things this way you never know exactly what you're going to run into. And you you can really run into blocks in yourself and it's good to know how to work with those blocks.

A third category is probably the largest category of meditation practices: purification practices. This includes again such practices as the four immeasurables but particularly things like meditation on suffering, meditation on impermanence in which you're using these practices to dismantle the operation of various reactive patterns. One of the simplest ways to understand the reactive patterns is from the Theravadan tradition, the three marks of existence which are, probably most of you know, impermanence: everything that's made of other things eventually falls apart. It passes, it's transient. The presence of suffering, all emotional reaction is by nature suffering. And you can say emotional reaction is the reaction we have to experience when we aren't able to stay present with it.

And then the third is non-self. That is there is nothing that we actually are. We are not a thing, even though we tend to go through our lives and operate as if not only we were a thing, we regard ourselves as being the center of the world.

A friend of mine puts it: "You're not going to survive life." Impermanence. "You're never going to get your emotional needs met," and "There's no one to be."

This runs so counter to most of western and American culture--you don't know whether to laugh or cry--which is based in ignoring death until you can't. If you're suffering somebody has done something wrong, so sue them. "What do you mean? I'm special, I'm unique" and you then we get into wonderful things like self-esteem etc., etc., which are endlessly problematic. I almost had a chance to have dinner with a person who started this California Comission on Self-Esteem and I was really looking forward to it. But it didn't come about.

Now, those are examples of purification practices.


Education, Learning and Teaching: Then and Now

Education, learning and teaching (from MMT02 00:02:41.08 - 00:08:42.80)

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And I think a good place to start is with the source. Where does this teaching come from? Now even with this we start right into what I think is a very significant difference between the way that we regard education, learning and training in our culture and the way that learning, education and training was done in other cultures, notably Tibetan culture, which changed very, very little from well certainly 1100, but probably as far back as 800, until the 20th century when the Chinese invaded. And none of us have the experience of living in a culture which doesn't change appreciably for a thousand years. 
It is far easier for me to read a Tibetan text that was written in eight or 900 AD than it is for me to read a text in English such as Beowulf or Canterbury Tales in its original form, which is extremely difficult. Actually you really have to learn Old English in order to be able to read that. But many of the texts that we study go back a thousand years. They're easy to read. That's how little change there was. 
There are a few other things that come up here. Kongtrul in writing his commentary on The Seven Points of Mind Training often copied almost verbatim what Chekawa had said in the 12th century, and without any attribution or acknowledgement. Today that would be regarded as plagiarism. It gets worse than that. Ingrid, my ex-wife, has been engaged in translating an encyclopedia that Kongtrul wrote, and she found that whole sections of the dzogchen teachings were literally word-for-word repetitions of stuff that Longchenpa had written in the 13th, 14th century, like five, 600 years earlier. Again, without any attribution whatsoever. 
So this is an example of the difference between the way that we regard education and training and learning and the way they did. There was no question of plagiarism. The reason was that in traditional cultures one's development as a human being--development of your potential--was based on the emulation of past examples of perfection. So you always looked to the past, say, "How did they do it?", and then you tried to do it that way. Whereas in our culture, our basis for developing our potential is individual exploration and experimentation. And finding out what works for us. So it's constant experimentation going on and it's very much future oriented. 
And the reason I bring this up, and some of you have heard me talk about this before, it is this difference in perspective, looking to the past, looking to the future, that is at the basis of much of the conflict that is experienced in the world today. Significantly between modernist and fundamentalist approaches. Fundamentalists primarily look to the past. Modernists look to the future. And these are very, very different perspectives and to some extent, irreconcilable. 
So if somebody had said it well before, you didn't try to say it any better. You just took what they said. They'd said it well. That's it! But if we write something and it's well written and somebody takes it and just puts it in their book then we file a lawsuit thing, "You copied us." And we don't usually take it as a compliment. We take it as theft. So we're going to find that again and again as we go through this. This is very much building on what people in earlier times had done.

Note:  I found this passage on education, learning and teaching very powerful. With so little change for such a long period of time, it's not surprising that the recycling of old materials and methods by Tibetan teachers was both common and effective. The other side of the coin is the importance of translating Buddhist teachings so that they become accessible and can be practiced in our modern context, which is so very far removed from the culture where Siddhartha Gautama taught and where Buddhism subsequently developed.

Interestingly, the Buddha lived and taught during the Axial Age, a concept coined by the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers claimed that the spiritual foundations of society were laid simultaneously and independently by individuals who lived during this time, including Plato and Socrates in Greece, Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama in India, Lao Tzu and Confucious in China and Zarathustra in Persia. Karen Armstrong paints the Axial age as one of profound and rapid change and as the early stage of the evolution of a different type of society. She suggests that we are experiencing another Axial Age today.



Five Mysteries

From the Warrior's Solution retreat, which is about how to live in power without being controlled by it.

Below are the definitions of the five mysteries examined in the retreat:
  1. Power
  2. Balance
  3. Presence
  4. Truth
  5. Freedom
Definitions of five mysteries (from WS01: Warrior's Solution (retreat) (revised) 00:10:29.00 - 00:17:18.00)

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Power is the ability to be present in intentional action.

Balance is the union of knowing, being, and acting at the point at which experience arises.

Presence: being in the full experience of what is arising: internal, external, and awareness.

The definition of truth is what is.

Freedom is the ongoing release of constraints (or being nothing as experience arises).



Negativity (from 37P 03: 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva 00:34:08.00 - 00:39:49.00)

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Give up bad friends.

One could look at this very literally which Thogme Zongpo undoubtedly means. But in the way that we were talking last time one can also look at it as, "What do you do with negativity in your experience?" And here there are three ways of working with it. And which way you use depends on your ability with respect to that particular experience of negativity.

If you have sufficient capacity in attention, you can experience the negativity and not lose attention. And when that happens, what is negative opens up and releases, and the energy locked in it becomes available to you in your practice.

And you can actually experience that with people. If you are present with them, not reacting, their negativity can release and a very different kind of relationship and different possibilities can open up in them. I know that many of you have experienced that kind of thing, either being with someone who had that transforming effect on you or you had that transforming effect on them. So that's where you can actually drink the negativity and it enriches you, which is vajrayana level practice.

If you don't have a sufficient capacity to do that, then trying to do that is actually counterproductive. So then you use...you make the enemy into a friend, an ally. Which is analagous...you're going to have this fight and you meet this person and you say, "Why don't we go down to the pub and have a drink?" And you end up buddies so you change them. The principle practice that you have for that is taking and sending. And in any experience of negativity there is a sense of separation and alienation and in taking and sending you actually bridge that.

But if you don't have the capacity to form a relationship that way, and I was actually working on an area in my own practice and discovered this quite hard area I don't have any relationship with. My work's cut out for the next few months. Oh, it looks like fun ahead.

If you don't have the capacity to form a relationship with it, then it's actually best to limit contact. Because you can't experience it without getting lost in it. It's not where you want to end up. It's a practical thing to do in the short term.

Now, look at these not as absolute injunctions but pragmatic advice. These are not the ten commandments, which is God's word engraved in stone. They've been trying to engrave it in stone and it's on all the courthouses all over. These are instructions. These are practices, which doesn't mean you get to do whatever you want. But how do you use them?

Well, if you hang out with certain people and you get distracted. They want to stay up late and drink and have a good time. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just that it weakens your intention in your life. That's all. So look at this in pragmatic terms. Is that a useful response?



A gem from Then and Now, session 36:

Buddhahood (from TAN36: Then and Now (class) 01:02:31.00 - 01:04:31.40)

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Knowing things as they are and knowing things as they appear is possible when we can rest in knowing without the projection of thought or emotion, which is a different way of describing those two distortions. The distortion of conceptual knowing is the projection of thought. And the distortion of emotional reactions is the projection of emotion. So we can say that what buddhahood is, is to know things without projection of thought or emotion.

Now, just take that in for a moment. What would that actually be like? And the first thing that often arises is--we can’t imagine this. Because we are so conditioned to thought and emotion. But if we stay with it a little bit longer than that, we can see that it's going to be a clarity and a precision and an immediacy in that kind of knowing which are almost unimaginable. And there is going to be no possibility of editing, there’s going to be no operation of preference or prejudice. And there’s actually not going to be any sense of separation between subject and object. There will just be experience itself. Experience and awareness arising together. Do you follow?

We can come to see how things are through our own efforts

More inspiration from class 36, Then and Now!

The Joyful One (from TAN36: Then and Now (class) 00:08:33.06 - 00:11:21.05)

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The first stage of bodhisattvahood arises at the path of seeing, if you remember that from the five paths, last time. And this refers to seeing the nature of experience--which is of course emptiness--and knowing that to be how things are.

In a lot of respects, this is where practice actually begins. Which may sound completely deflating because--I mean, "I have to get that far before I’ve even got to the beginning?" And in my opinion it’s very questionable, or it's a very interesting question to consider: what does this actually refer to in terms of our own experience?

These descriptions make it sound very lofty, as do the descriptions of the five paths, where in order to attain this you have to have twenty-four hour stable samadhi or stable attention. Which seems pretty far out there. Not too many human beings ever get to that stage. So, are we relegated to sitting--being like the person who is just looking in the window and seeing all of these wonderful things that we can never know? Or is there something else going on here, where we can actually relate to this?

And my own view which is not, probably, not a traditional view, is that this is very attainable. That is, we can come to see how things are through, through our own efforts. And when we do that, everything changes; we can’t go back to our ordinary way of living. And often a tremendous joy that comes with this, because now that we know that whatever state of mind arises, whether it’s peace or disturbance, it is simply a state of mind. It has no ground, it's not a thing in itself. And so we know the freedom in everything that we experience. And that’s why it is called The Joyful One

The full audiofile of this class and the other classes in this series can be accessed HERE.