What is this?

Martine Batchelor often talks about a practice she learned while living as a nun in a Korean Zen monastery, the practice of asking "What is this?" Here's a clip from Then and Now (session 9) where Ken McLeod and a student engage this very question:

What is this (from TAN09: Then and Now (class) 00:27:03.00 - 00:36:05.00)

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Student: Going back to the first one about taking experience as fact. I'm struggling a little bit with something I've heard mentioned earlier, that all one really knows is that one is experiencing something. And yet the idea that this is a dream isn't quite right because if one listens carefully it's often said that this is like a dream but not a dream. So the subtlety between--well it isn't really a fact and it's not quite a dream is lost on me. And I know I'm going to regret this. [Laughter] So then, what is this?

Ken: What is this experience?

Student: Yes.

Ken: You've been over to my place a few times haven't you?

Student: Yes.

Ken: Have you ever noticed a calligraphy?

Student: Yes.

Ken: What does it say?

Student: What is this? or What is it?

Ken: What is this actually. It's in both Chinese and English. It says What is this? It's a mystery, isn't it?

Student: [silence]

Ken: If we take this to be real--if we take what appears to be actually how things are, how's life?

Student: [Laughs]

Ken: Full of struggle.

Student: At the moment, concrete and bleak.

Ken: Well, ok, it's full of struggle. It's not bleak for everybody. Some people have a good time but they're still struggling. But what if we take the attitude that none of this is real.

Student: Trivial and meaningless.

Ken. Well not only that. It also doesn't work because--what is it Mencken said? Something about the unknowable--we do all this stuff, but there it is calmly licking its chops. [Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops. H. L. Mencken]

Things happen and we can't just say well it's not real because there's concrete consequences to the experiences. So it's not one; it's not the other. What do you do?

Now, we have the idea that if we could answer the question, "What is this?" then everything would be fine. And there have been untold numbers of philosophers and spiritual people who have tried to describe what this is, and actually it's not helped a single person. What does help?

Student: For me, it is opening up to the experience of it.

Ken: Yeah. So if instead of trying to figure out what this is, so we can put it in this nice box--that just hasn't worked for anybody over centuries. But what you say is, "If I learn how to relate to my experience skilfully then everything is kind of okay." And this is exactly what Buddhism teaches. It's not, if I can use some philosophical terms, it's not concerned with ontology. What is this? It's about--we have this experience--how do we interact with this experience? How do we live with the awareness there in a way that isn't a struggle for ourselves or others. So in this sense it is really, really pragmatically oriented and with the idea of developing a kind of skill in life.

Now what we find is that when we regard things as existing as such, then we are led into ways of acting unskilfully. In order to have full range to skilfull action we have to let go of the idea that things are just as they appear. Then all kinds of other possibilities open up. Just as I was describing, if you regard emotions--and most people experience emotions as fact. Then things become very restricted because there's not a lot of room to maneuver. And very solid, and one can end up getting cornered and struggling and things like that. And if we can go, "Okay, this is a feeling and it causes me to see the world a certain way but none of that is actually true, it's just how I'm seeing it and I can experience this feeling." And then a lot of things change and we find ourselves actually much more capable of interacting with that situation in a way which doesn't cause struggle for our selves and others.

That's what Buddhism is actually doing, and I had this discussion with somebody the other day--this is a very experienced practitioner--and she was saying, "But there has to be somthing other than just ending suffering." And so we had several discussions on this but she hasn't been able to say what it is. Does this help?

Student: Yes

Ken: Do you regret this?

Student: No.

Ken: Damn, I didn't do my job.

Student: So would it be fair to say just within the confines of this discussion that just because something is real does't mean it's a fact?

Ken: Just because we experience something doesn't mean it's a fact. Okay? The word real--it's a very problematic word. And I could look at it in a lot of different ways, but when we talk about something being real, we are in effect saying, this is something that is independent of the framework--a way of looking at things. But the fact is, however we look at the world, we're always looking at it through some kind of framework. And so taking the term real--to say this is what's real means we can ignore the framework--that's not a good idea because the framework causes us to see things a certain way.

So if the framework is financial then money becomes real and we forget what money actually is. It's a means of trading, exchanging life energy in a certain sense. Or if we look at it from a sociological point of view then networks and relationships are what is real, but that leads to a whole different thing. What are those networks and relationships? When you get right down to it they get very intangible too. So everything that the framework says is real is actually a way of looking at things. There isn't some thing there.


Someone you'll listen to no matter how crazy you are.....

This is a clip from session 7 of the Then and Now series. I find that the last thing I want to do when then sense of "I" baloons into crazy proportions is admit it, let alone talk about it; but I've learned the hard way that this is exactly when it helps to swallow that pride, that shame and listen...

No matter how crazy (from TAN07: Then and Now (class) 00:55:10.00 - 00:58:42.00)

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Ken begins by reading from Jewel Ornament of Liberation:

Of these four, who is the greatest benefactor? When we are in the obscuring darkness of the karma of afflicting emotions, we have no opportunity even to see the face of a superior spiritual master. So, how could we attend one?

In other words, you are stuck with ordinary beings.

By meeting ordinary spiritual masters, receiving the light of their teaching shining on the path, one will gain the opportunity to see the superior spiritual masters.

This isn't like you're going to see people and astral bodies and things like that. It means that you move into a deeper and deeper relationship with your own mind. But it is a person that we interact with. For most people, that provides us with what we need to begin this path and that’s why it says here that the ordinary human individual is the most important one. There's a great deal written about this. A lot of people have asked me to tell them how to find a teacher.

Well, it’s one of the great challenges of the spiritual path and it’s not straightforward. I don’t think there’s any rules or, you know, there’s the old saying: "When the student is ready the teacher appears." Well, that's nice, that just makes it very easy. And some people look for years and years and years before they find someone and some people happen into one seemingly by chance, or as Trungpa says, "the illusion of accident."

One thing that I have come to appreciate is that of the relationships you have in your life, the relationship with the spiritual teacher is one of the most important and it's probably easier to replace a husband, a wife or a boyfriend or a girlfriend than it is to replace the relationship with a spiritual teacher. That’s not universally true, but generally speaking it’s a very important relationship and there are many, many things which make it difficult to form. So, if you have the good fortune to find someone that you feel you can actually work with, then that’s something to take quite seriously.

How do you know who is your spiritual teacher? I've put it into one sentence. It's someone you will listen to, no matter how crazy you are.

It's someone who can cut through--the relationship is such that no matter how completely nuts you are on some emotional issue or something like that--when you have interaction with him or her, something in you wakes up and you step out of that craziness. So, that is why I say it's someone you will listen to no matter how crazy you are.

Now let's go through the various kinds...


Intention In Practice

What is your intention? Do you know what you want?

Intention In Practice 1 (from Lives 03: Khyungpo Naljor 00:17:58.00 - 00:20:05.00)

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So he got all this teaching, a tremendous amount of teaching and mastered it. But because he didn't listen to that voice, none of the teaching hit the mark. This is one of the reasons why I keep coming back to each of you again and again: what is your intention in your practice? What do you want from the practice? It is so important. Because here's a person who, from the age of 13 to 50, was steeped in this stuff and it still didn't hit the mark. And the only way is for you to be clear about why you're practicing and not listen to all of the reasons why you should be practicing that other people are telling you. You have to come to your own.
When you do come to your own it's extraordinary how similar they are, as we hear Khyungpo Naljor describing. But you have to make them your own, and the only way you do that is by--you can't read about it and say, "Oh yes, that makes sense to me. I'll do that." That's very feeble. That doesn't work. You have to sit down and you think, "Am I doing to die?" Well, the evidence is pretty good. "Do I care about that?" And you may find that you don't. And if you don't care about it, you don't have any basis for practice.

Intention In Practice 2 (from Lives 03: Khyungpo Naljor 00:22:46.00 - 00:26:27.00)

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The point here is, it's not enough to hear it from somebody else. You can take in those teachings, but you've got to think about them, and think about them, and think about them, 'til "Right, I am going to die, and if I die like I am now, I'm not going to feel very good about it. I feel I won't have really done anything meaningful in my life, and I have these questions I haven't answered, and I will die with regret." And that has to become very, very strong.

And the shade and flavor of it is actually a little different for everybody. It can be expressed in general terms, but it really has to become one's own experience and motivation. You can not adopt that as a motivation without having gone through the process of making it your motivation. And you make it your motivation by really thinking about what is important, deeply, deeply important to you in your life. You follow? Ant it's absolutely essential. And then you come to what you want from your practice.

And I ask people this, and sometimes I get different answers and that's fine because each person has their own answer. Some people say, "I want clarity." Okay. And other people say, "I want peace." That's fine. And other people say, "I just want to understand how things are," and that's fine. And one person said, "I just want to feel that I know something before I die," which, if you think about it, it's a pretty profound thing.

So, through that reflection on death, you're going to come to what's important for you. And that's where your intention's going to be, and when you have that intention then you're going to be clear about your practice. And one of the reasons it's very important to do this is that different practices do different things. So you meditate on death and impermanence, that does one thing. You meditate on compassion, that does something else. You meditate on the four immeasurables, that does something. You meditate on insight, that does something. Each of these practices has a different intention.

What Khyungpo Naljor did for the first part of his life, like the first 40 years of it, his spiritual life, was to engage in practices that did not touch his own intention in practice. He had such extraordinary abilities that he mastered them anyway, but because they did not touch his intention, he never fulfilled his intention.


About Intention

Thanks to Janet Hathaway for her transcript notes, which have been tapped for this post.

About Intention (from WS02: Warrior's Solution (retreat) (revised) 00:47:33.00 - 01:03:00.00)

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This is about intention. There are many ways to interpret this story, but one is about intention. And part of intention is how to make things manifest in the world. Now, in the short amount of time remaining, there are various ways of looking at intention. I’m going to give you three or four.

These are all in groups of three. Bring attention, when you bring attention to something, your relationship with it changes. It starts to reorganize. And when you maintain consistency in that, things start to happen. So that’s the first step. Attention, reorganization, and consistency.

Another formulation -- see clearly. When you see clearly, you can know what is. When you know what is, act without hesitation. Because anything else, when you know what is, is thinking is distraction, is movement out of presence.

Another way, and this is very useful for working with difficult situations, either internally or externally. Follow the gesture. This is a way of knowing what is happening. When you follow the gesture, and you know what is happening, then go another way. Do something different. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as it is different. When you do that you will experience everything that tries to constrain you to the original way the system operates. So you have to cut. Cut. Cut. So follow the gesture, go another way, cut.

And finally learn the technique, get it in to your body so it’s just there and remove all of the material that gets in the way of its operation so it can happen.

These are all different approaches to the same principle and that is being able to implement intention. This takes place on your meditation mat and it takes place in your life. The way you strengthen intention is that you intend to do something and then do it. You intend to do something, and then do it. This is the primary practice - or the principle practice you should be doing during the time between meditation periods. Intend to walk somewhere and then walk somewhere. Intend to put something in your bowl at lunch, and then put it in your bowl. Intend to have a rest after lunch, have the rest. Or go for a walk -- intend to go for a walk.

And whatever you do, be in the one thing you are doing. Okay. Questions? Carolyn.

 Follow the gesture means, whatever is arising, you are right with it. That’s the first stage. This is how you get to know it. It’s comparable to attention. As you do this, as you follow the gesture in attention, your capacity -- your understanding of what it is develops. Your capacity in attention develops. And you reach a point where you can go another way. When you can, you do. Because you know what the results are if you don’t. All too well probably. Okay? Other questions. Yes.
         Student: [Unclear]
Ken: I’m not sure that there is a set answer to that. That -- it really has to do with the way that physical challenge arises, and the pattern associated with them. You will find probably that one of these works better than the others. Because they all come from different ways of working. So what I suggest you do is you experiment. And one will make sense. But it may be that with one physical challenge one will make sense, but for another another may make sense. Other questions? Yes.

Student: [Unclear]
         Ken: Umm-hmm.

         Student: [Unclear]
         Ken: No, it’s the internal material that keeps us from doing what we need to do. Yes?
Student: [Unclear]
Ken: Well, it’s a simple matter. Who is going to live your life, you or the ogre? How often has the ogre lived your life for you? Do you want to change that? It goes back to that old saying from the west, “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.” [Laughter.] And that’s how it is, that’s what we’ll be working with. That’s exactly -- unable to face that ogre. It lives your life. And tomorrow we’ll be talking about that very explicitly. 
Student: [Unclear] 
Ken: No, the story is a manifestation of the internal material. 
Student: [Unclear]
Ken: Well, as I say the story is simply a manifestation of the internal material. So you come into a situation, and you feel uncomfortable in it. You know what you need to do, but you aren’t comfortable. Then the stories start up -- well, this is not a good idea to do this because X Y and Z is going to happen. that’s a story, right? But it’s a manifestation of the internal material.
Student: [Unclear]
Ken: It can be any of the emotional reactions. You are going to have physical manifestations, you are going to have emotional manifestations, all of the different emotions that arise, and you are going to have cognitive manifestations. That’s all of the different stories and associations and memories. I can’t do this because -- If I do this, this is going to happen etc. And when you are seduced or enchanted by the stories, then you fall out of attention, and you cannot do what you intended to do. So in the primary practice, you include all of that internal material, but you are in attention. You are not consumed by it. It’s a way of developing what we call free attention, attention which is at a sufficiently high level that the energy of the attention isn’t consumed by the stories and other stuff. You don’t need a lot. All you need is that much. But you have to have that much. Yes.

Student: [Unclear] 
Ken: A good point. At this phase, I recommend that you do what you originally intended, and regard anything that arises contrary to your attention as the operation of patterned material. Intended to go here, fine. Something may come up next practice session, you may want to go that way. Whatever you intended in this practice session, you do that. Okay? Yes.

Student: [Unclear]
Ken: Yes.  
Student: [Unclear] 
Ken: Yes. And you just do the action. Now, if when you are doing this you find, “I can’t do it,” there’s a definite experience right there. It’s a very explicit experience. Be right in that. Because is the internal material that prevents you from doing what you intend right there. So experience that. And then tomorrow I’ll be introducing some other -- an extension of this practice which will take you further into it. But be right in that. And if you really can’t do it, then pick something else you can do so you have the experience of doing it. Okay? But if you can, work with this one. It would be fruitful.


Right Time, Right Place

Right Time, Right Place (from WS02: Warrior's Solution (retreat) (revised) 00:40:21.00 - 00:47:52.00)

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... It is all a question of the right time, the right place, and the right conditions.

This is about intention, there are many ways to interpret this story, but one is about intention, and part of intention is how to make things manifest in the world.


A Nation of Zombies

This clip from Then and Now, session 7, mentions zombies, but reminded me of Dr. Spock's species, the Vulcans! Since our human emotions are here to stay, is there a middle ground between suppression and being engulfed and overwhelmed by them?

Zombies (from TAN07: Then and Now (class) 00:47:15.05 - 00:51:03.06)

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Kyle: I can understand the benefit of experiencing the emptiness and the emotion at the same time, but is the ultimate goal of the practice to ultimately go without the emotion? Because it seems that if the emotion doesn't really exist, and things like anger and other emotions like that can cause so many problems. Wouldn't it just be easier just to--

Ken: Get rid of them?

Kyle: Yeah.

Ken: Oh yeah, easier said than done isn’t it?

Kyle: Yeah. Well, obviously you'd have to approach it in a very careful way. Would there be a way of doing that without ultimately--maybe I don't want to use the word suppress, but--

Ken: Well we might become a nation of zombies. They don't have any emotions. That's not the point. We live. We breathe. We have thoughts, we have emotions. Very broadly speaking there are two kinds of emotions: there are reactive emotions and emotions which are responses. The reactive emotions are organized around a sense of self. There are things like attraction, aversion, preference, indifference, pride, jealousy, greed and things like that.

They arise and when they arise, because we don’t have the sufficient capacity of attention, they swallow us, so we get angry or we get proud, or what have you. But as you practice and you develop a greater capacity in attention then you are able to experience the arising of the emotions without being distracted, without being swallowed by them and then they just become an experience and that’s where what I was talking about comes in--one experiences them as just being no thing, just being a movement. And it's very, very different because you’re not confused by it,

So saying, "Okay, let’s get rid of the emotion" it's a little bit like saying,"Well, you know, it would be nice if the ocean was always calm without any waves on it." Because one way of looking at the emotions is that they are simply mind waves. But it’s the nature of the ocean to have waves. It’s the nature for mind, to move, to have waves.

The question is, is that all organized down to the sense of self, with all the destructiveness of that, or can it be experienced openly and freely so it doesn’t cause the locking or the reactivity that is the basis of suffering?

So what we’re doing in Buddhism is actually not trying to get rid of emotions but trying to develop the ability to experience them completely, so we’re never confused by them.