Alex Li Trisoglio

Public teaching given online in Madeira Park BC Canada
August 22, 2021
Part 1: 50 minutes, Part 2: 50 minutes, Part 3 (Q & A): 20 minutes.

Outline / Transcript / Video

References / Teachings Reviewed:
2020-10-10 – Return to Normal (Taipei)
2019-12-27 – The Way of the Tathagata (Pune)

Note: Transcription in progress (83% complete – Parts 1 & 2 complete)

Program Information Outline Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8


Part 1


Prélude: 10 seconds of awareness

Good morning, good evening, everyone. Welcome to Week 3. This week’s topic is What is the goal of the Buddhist path? What is the meaning of Buddha/Tathagata and “gone beyond”? And what is the Buddhist understanding of authenticity, normality.

This week, it’s based on two of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings. One was a three-day teaching given in Pune, in India, in December 2019, called “The Way of the Tathagata”. And the other is called “Return to Normal”, which was a two-day teaching given in Taipei, in October 2020.

In both cases Rinpoche was talking about the goal of the Buddhist path, the way of the Buddha/Tathagata, which is all about realizing our true nature, which we sometimes refer to as Buddhanature, or the nature of mind. And he used the words “authenticity” and “normality” to refer to this in these two teachings. But actually, he’s talking about the same thing, just using different words.

I’d like to start the way that he started in his “Return to Normal” teaching. He said, so probably some of you may just want to be here for something like 10 minutes, which is fine. You’re very welcome. But before you take off, I just want to tell you one thing, that’s probably a key to being authentic and being normal. And once you hear this, yes, please feel free, go and have a good time. In this teaching, I’m definitely not going to tell you how to pray, or how to meditate. I’m not even going to tell you to do positive thinking. And I’m certainly not going to tell you to think about sunrises or rainbows, things like that. All I want you to do is just be aware of this moment. This now-ness. It’s not complicated at all. You don’t even have to sit straight. I’m not asking you to invoke any kind of special thought or state of mind. All I’m asking you to do is to be conscious or aware of what’s happening right now. It could be something very, very ordinary and mundane. So let’s just do that for a few moments.

[10 seconds awareness]

And that’s it. That’s all I’m asking. And if you have the appetite to do this — and I think you should — I’m asking you to do this at least once every day. You can’t get more authentic or more normal than that. And there’s also no better way to achieve authenticity or normality than this.

Structure of Week 3

Okay, so that’s the setup, which I think is rather lovely. Let’s briefly look at the structure for the week. We’re going to start by talking a little bit about what is the spirit of the Tathagata, authenticity, normality. We’ll talk about how that’s understood in Buddhism, and Rinpoche uses the word “authentic”, which is quite lovely. We’ll talk about what does that mean in the modern world. Because it’s also pretty important in psychology and leadership. And we’ll look at the similarities and the differences between the way it’s understood in Buddhism and the way it’s understood in psychology. We’ll close by saying that even though there are differences, it’s still important for us to understand and aspire for authenticity in the more worldly psychological sense. So we’ll talk a little about that.

Then we’ll talk about mind. This idea that we all have mind, and mind is what we need to be able to follow the path. So we’ll ask the questions, what is self? And what is mind? Those are quite big questions. And that will hopefully take us to the break.

After the break, we’ll talk about how even though we have authenticity, we have this state of the Tathagata, we manage to lose it and misconstrue it. So we’ll talk about how we try to look cool and fit in. How we’re conditioned by our upbringing, culture, society. How we have wrong views. And how we even misunderstand and misconstrue the Buddha, how we have wrong views about what the goal of the path is. And I’ll close that section by saying, Yes, we have already got what’s most precious, but we don’t devote time to it.

So, in conclusion, we need to practice. Because strangely, even though we already have [this authenticity], we don’t realize it. So we have to practice in order to realize what we already have. We’ll talk a little about how the mahasiddhas1mahasiddha (Sanskrit: महासिद्ध) = highly realised practitioner (literally “great accomplished one”); a yogi who has attained the supreme siddhi or accomplishment (i.e. enlightenment). The mahasiddhas were the founders of Vajrayana traditions and lineages such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra, and most lived between 750 CE and 1150 CE – see mahasiddha. [highly realized yogis and practitioners] realize the truth. Then we’ll talk about the 10 seconds of awareness that Rinpoche introduced as a practice, And we’ll close with just some reflections on what it means to taste authenticity.

(1) The spirit of the Buddha/Tathagata: Authenticity

(a) Buddha/Tathagata means being authentic

To be a Buddhist, admire the spirit of the Tathagata

So Rinpoche started by saying that to be a Buddhist, actually the most important thing is to admire the spirit or the principle of the Tathagata. It’s not necessarily to do Buddhist “homework”, by which he means lots of study and lots of other practices. And I like this, because it’s actually widening the definition of what does it mean to consider oneself a Buddhist? Some people might say [that to be considered a Buddhist, you have] to have a regular practice. Others might say, Well, at the very least you have to have taken refuge. But Rinpoche is saying, actually, No, even if the only thing you do is admire the spirit of the Tathagata, that’s actually the most important thing.

As we saw last week, aspiration is key. If you think of yourself as a Buddhist, even if you’ve had lots of initiations and lots of teachings, but you don’t deeply admire the spirit of the Tathagata, the nature of the Buddha, if that’s not a goal or a way of being that you value, then you’re not going to practice. So it won’t matter how much you’ve received in the way of teachings, they won’t help you.

So what is authentic? Well, Rinpoche said, When we say Tathagata, it means something like an authentic presence or an authentic element, at the very least not a concoction, not a combination of things. The traditional Buddhist words for not being a concoction are “uncompounded” or “unconditioned”. And actually, in each of the three yanas2yana (Sanskrit and Pāli: यान) = vehicle or method; “that which carries”; a mode or method of spiritual practice in Buddhism; used in particular to differentiate various schools of Buddhism according to their view and practice – see yana., the three vehicles of Buddhism, the result of the path is considered to be uncompounded, unconditioned:

  • In the Theravada, it’s Nirvana, or to accomplish the state of the Arhat.
  • In the Mahayana, it’s to become a Tathagata or Buddha.
  • In the Vajrayana, again, it’s to become a Buddha, but more specifically, to realize rigpa, nondual awareness.

And in all of these vehicles, the reason that it’s important philosophically for our goal to be uncompounded is that all compounded things — this is basic Buddhist view — are impermanent. They’ll fall apart. Whatever has been put together or compounded is going to fall apart again, which means if your result is going to fall apart, it’s not really a reliable solution to the problems of samsara and worldly suffering. 

Cabbage and salad

So our view in the path is that although the result is uncompounded, the things that are getting in the way — the defilements, the negative emotions, the ignorance — are considered compounded, impermanent or adventitious (that word “adventitious” means it’s not really part of it, it’s just something that’s sort of added as an afterthought3Merriam-Webster gives the definition “coming from another source and not inherent or innate” – see Merriam-Webster.). Rinpoche often uses the example, and we’ll come back to it, of a dirty window. We can clean the window because the window itself, the glass, is actually clean. The dirt is on top of the glass, but we can wipe away the dirt. [Whereas if the glass itself had stains and impurities within it, we would not be able to clean those]. So when we say the window is dirty, actually, no, the window isn’t dirty, the window is still clean. It’s just that there’s dirt on top of a clean window. And that’s the sort of mindset we’re going to need as we think about the path. 

Rinpoche also gave the example of cabbage and salad. He said, Having a raw cabbage is like the Tathagata. But once you add vinegar, salt, Thousand Island dressing4Thousand Island dressing is an American salad dressing and condiment based on mayonnaise that can include olive oil, lemon juice, orange juice, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, cream, chili sauce, tomato purée, and ketchup or Tabasco sauce – see wikipedia., then you no longer have Tathagata. And so in this case, Tathagata can refer to a person, like the Buddha. And the Buddha referred to himself as “Tathagata” in many of the sutras. That is the way he termed [or referred to] himself. He didn’t call himself Siddhartha or Shakyamuni, or anything like that. 

Rinpoche said, similarly, I know that I’m authentically a man, which gives me the confidence to go to the men’s bathroom. Because if I was unsure, I would be fidgety, I wouldn’t know quite what to do. I think here he’s pointing to a much bigger question of what does it mean to have confidence in one’s true nature. Because as we’ll proceed along the path, we’ll talk a lot about things like spontaneity. And we can’t be spontaneous if we’re not confident in the basis of our spontaneity. So we’ll come back to that. 

Definitions of authenticity

Because this word authenticity is going to be so important, I want to talk a little bit about how it is defined in the dictionary. And as I mentioned already, it’s considered one of the highest goals in psychology, and even in leadership. [Abraham] Maslow, the psychologist, [in proposing] his idea of self actualization, termed it the full realization of one’s potential and one’s true self. This is very much an idea of authenticity. Who doesn’t want to be their best, their highest, their truest self? To live at their greatest potential? 

For any of you who are not native English speakers, I would encourage you to look up the definitions of the equivalent of authenticity in your language, just to see what it means and how is it thought about. In English, [authenticity] has a couple of meanings:5The definition of “authentic” is from Merriam-Webster.

Worthy of acceptance or belief, based on fact: First, it means “Worthy of acceptance or belief, as conforming to, or based on fact”. So for example, we might say, “This book paints an authentic picture of our society”. 

Real and actual, not false or imitation: The second definition is that it’s not false or imitation. It’s real, and actual. And if you look up the definition of “real”6The definition of “real” is from Merriam-Webster., it means having an objective and independent existence. Also, that it’s not artificial, not fraudulent, or illusory — it’s genuine.

Rinpoche is using the word “authentic” in both of these senses when he talks about the Tathagata.

The authenticity of the Tathagata

The first one is [that it is] worthy of acceptance, because it’s based on fact. I think this is very much so, although in this case, the fact is not so much a scientific fact established through experiment, but much more the first-person fact of meditation experience. We talked last week about the Buddha and his teachings to the Kalamas where he said, Go and experience for yourself and only then judge the validity of a teaching.

So similarly, here, if we practice we will come to learn and understand and experience our own nature. So it will then be authentic to us, it will be worthy of acceptance, because we will have experience. And there’s a much bigger question here, which we could talk about, about the nature of the Buddhist idea of first-person experience [i.e. subjective truth] versus the scientific idea of third-person experience [i.e. objective truth]. And what might it mean when some people are saying that Buddhism should be considered some kind of science of the mind? A lot of people talk that way, a lot of other people disagree. We can come back to this in future weeks if you’re interested.

The second sense [of authentic] is when something is real or actual. Something not fake, not illusory. And, of course, the problem in Buddhism is that all our appearances are illusory. We know that according to the Madhyamaka7madhyamaka (Sanskrit: माध्यमक) = the middle way free from all extremes (including the extreme views of eternalism and nihilism). Used to refer to the Madhyamaka school, a tradition of Buddhist philosophy founded by the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna – see madhyamaka. [the middle way teachings at the heart of Buddhist philosophy], all phenomena do not have an objective, independent existence. They are all interdependent, none are real in the sense of being “truly” real. So, we start to ask ourselves, what does it mean then for something to be authentic and not illusory, if it’s not existing as some objective, independently real phenomenon?

And hopefully, this will immediately make you realize that when we talk about the Buddha, the Tathagata, when we talk about authenticity, we’re not talking about the same sorts of things as are in our ordinary world.

Emptiness and form, wisdom and compassion

In Buddhism, and we’ll talk more about this especially next week, we talk about both form and emptiness. We talk about how form is emptiness and emptiness is form. And we might apply that principle here to think about [aspects of authenticity that are more form-oriented and more emptiness-oriented]. We can reflect on the form of our life [as it is expressed or manifested] in the world, The way we show up as humans, our jobs, our roles as parents and as partners. And there is also the [more emptiness-oriented or] beyond-worldly aspect — our relationship to life that [goes beyond everyday hope and fear and] is free from worldly constraints. And [these two aspects] come together [in the Buddhist understanding of authenticity].

And we often talk about these two aspect also in terms of wisdom and compassion, loosely speaking. Where the emptiness side often corresponds to wisdom, where we’re free from the idea of true existence and true self, and all the usual constraints [and clinging and ignorance]. And that is for the benefit of self. We talk about being our own master, as we talked about last week. The Tathagata.

The form side is more about compassion. It’s about how we design our lives. It’s about skillful means [i.e. how we can live with wisdom, compassion and mindfulness in our everyday lives so as to benefit ourselves and others]. It’s the Bodhisattva path. It’s how we are of benefit to others. And this [aspect of how we live in the world is] also very important. [The Buddhist path is not simply about finding freedom for ourselves so we are no longer subject to the sufferings of samsara and worldly existence]. We need to learn to treat people well, actually to treat all beings well — other animals, all sentient beings. We need to learn to rehumanize [other people]. Too often we treat people as objects, we lack the basics of emotional intelligence, we lack the skills.

We don’t know how to live an authentic life. We are so often pulled into living a life that’s about looking good. Doing things just to fit in. Remember the top regret of the dying, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”. And if we are interested in the Dharma path, an important part of our ordinary worldly life involves creating opportunities for study and practice. [Creating opportunities] both for meditation and integrating [wisdom, compassion and mindfulness into] our life in post meditation. How are we going to integrate the Dharma [into our lives]? We’ll talk about this a lot more in the weeks ahead.

Rinpoche places a strong emphasis on view and wisdom

In terms of Rinpoche’s approach, he places a very strong emphasis on view and on wisdom, whereas a lot of contemporary teachers are much more focused on compassion, on meditation, on changing our worldly life. All of which is great. But as we talked about in the first week, Rinpoche cautions us that this can end up just as a version of self-help, or perhaps philanthropy. [It’s very easy to lose the view and wisdom that is at the heart of the Buddhist path]. And so we really want to challenge ourselves, how can we do both? Both the worldly aspect of authenticity — living well, living with wisdom and compassion — but also the beyond-worldly aspect, to really [practice the path that leads] to awakening.

Another thing about Rinpoche is that he’s from a lineage and a family of yogis [i.e. practitioners], so he actually places very little emphasis on the specific form that one might follow in worldly life. He’s very happy for people to live pretty much in any way they want. His students literally run the gamut from CEOs and government ministers and billionaires through to homeless people and vagrants and prostitutes, and they’ll all show up at teachings together. It’s quite amazing.

So for him, there’s very little requirement that one’s external life should look a certain way. So that’s also very important as we go forward to keep asking, Well, what does it look like for me to integrate Buddhism into my life? And one thing we’ll start to realize is that it’s much less about what we’re doing and much more about how we’re being. We’ve said this before, and we’ll keep coming back to this.

I just want to read a brief excerpt [on authenticity] from Rinpoche’s Madhyamaka teachings in 1996. He said:

When we talk about truth, it is like a basic instinct that we have. Truth is something that we adopt, and what is not true, or fake, is something that we do not adopt. For example, we distinguish between genuine Italian leather – truth – and fake leather made in Thailand. We do this. You should also notice that without the imitation, there is no such thing as something genuine. If it were not for imitations, advertisers could not brag about how genuine their products are. But in the ordinary world distinctions such as fake and truth, genuine and imitation, are completely taken for granted. There is not much reasoning behind them. The decisions are mostly made by common or majority agreement, or by direct cognition, such as when you touch the fire and it has heat, so you decide that from now on it is hot. That is as far as it goes, and it does not go very far. [. . .] But Chandrakirti does not believe in genuine leather. Well, he believes in genuine leather [i.e. as a conventional truth], but not in truly existent genuine leather [i.e. as an ultimate truth].

How can we talk about something that is beyond words and concepts?

So, yes, we will talk about authenticity in the world. But we should always [bear in mind] that the result — the Buddha, the Tathagata — is beyond aspiration. It is beyond this world. It’s not a “thing” that we can identify and aspire towards. And if we try and turn this nonduality, the state of the Buddha, into something fixed, then we’ve already missed it.

One of the really big challenges whenever we talk about Buddha or enlightenment is that there is indeed a result to which we aspire. But we can’t grasp it with concepts or with language. And especially for newcomers to Buddhism, this can be incredibly frustrating. Because you might think, Well, hey, you’re telling me the most important thing is Buddhahood, the Tathagata, and you’re telling me you can’t even talk about it? So we’ll have to figure this out, How can we talk about something that cannot be talked about?

Rinpoche also talks about Tathagata as uncontrived and unfabricated. Here the meaning is a little bit like uncompounded and unconditioned. Uncontrived means that it’s natural, it doesn’t have a false appearance or false quality8Merriam-Webster defines uncontrived as “not showing the effects of planning or devising ; not having an artificial or unnatural appearance or quality ; not contrived” – see Merriam-Webster.. Unfabricated means not invented, not created, not made up, especially not made up for the purposes of deception9Merriam-Webster defines fabricate as “invent, create ; make up for the purpose of deception” – see Merriam-Webster.. So again, just take 10 seconds, just be aware what’s happening right now.

[10 seconds awareness]

Authentic and uncontrived

I find that “uncontrived” is a much more helpful word than “uncompounded”, even though uncompounded is the more standard philosophical word, because uncontrived also has an everyday meaning. We have a sense of what it means in our normal lives, this sense of living without contrivances, fakeness, things being fake and made up, putting on airs, all that kind of thing. So we have two ideas which come together, and they’re subtly different:

Authentic is more around the idea of being true to yourself, living according to your values and so forth. It’s more a positive segment [i.e. a statement about what is present].

Uncontrived is more a negative statement [i.e. a statement about what is absent]. It’s more about living naturally, living spontaneously, living without deceptions. Being uncontrived is more about the things that we’re free from. Going beyond any and all of our self-descriptions and self-narratives.

And these two also have a connection to the [two aspects of] worldly and beyond-worldly, and also to wisdom and compassion, as I’ve already mentioned.

(b) How we understand authenticity – psychology and modernity

I’d like to talk a little bit about how do we understand authenticity in the modern world. I looked up a few references from psychology:

(i) Being true to ourselves – acting in accordance with our values and beliefs

It is a common exhortation: Live authentically. But what does authenticity actually mean? As a psychological concept, authenticity simply means embracing who you really are, at your very core, and acting in accordance to your own values and beliefs. (Elizabeth Seto, Aeon/Fast Company).

Being authentic means coming from a real place within. It is when our actions and words are congruent with our beliefs and values. It is being ourselves, not an imitation of what we think we should be or have been told we should be. There is no “should” in authentic. But wait a minute. If being authentic means being our true self, how many of us have really taken the time to know ourselves on this deep level? Part of knowing ourselves is knowing what we believe in. Throughout our childhoods we are picking up messages that become part of our belief system. Left unchallenged, we can walk around thinking that these beliefs are our own. Part of finding our authentic self is sorting through these beliefs to find out which are truly our own. Are they beliefs that come from a mature, healthy, grounded place within us, or are they remnants from our childhood, coming from an insecure place? (Diane Motti, PsychCentral).

To be effective leaders of people, authentic leaders must first discover the purpose of their leadership. If they don’t, they are at the mercy of their egos and narcissistic impulses. To discover their purpose, authentic leaders have to understand themselves and the passions that animate their life stories. (Bill George, Professor of Management Practice and a Henry B. Arthur Fellow of Ethics at Harvard Business School, 2006, personal website).

So there’s one set of definitions around knowing ourselves and acting in ways that are true to ourselves.

(ii) Being honest with ourselves about who we really are – challenging our self-deception

Another one continues on this idea of knowing who we really are. This is from Stephen Joseph in Psychology Today. He says:

To live an authentic life, it is not enough simply to try to be ourselves. We also need to know ourselves and own ourselves. To be authentic, we need to be able to face up to the truth about ourselves, no matter how unpleasant we might find it. Authentic people are honest with themselves. They challenge and question themselves; they look for ways in which they are being self-deceptive and try to see things from different angles. They know what they think, but they are willing to change their views if new information comes their way. Authentic people know themselves. They are able to listen to their inner voice — their gut — and to understand the complexities of their feelings and hear their own inner wisdom. (Stephen Joseph, Psychology Today).

(iii) Accepting that we are “works in progress”

Okay, finally, we have the idea that even if we we are able to be honest with ourselves [about who we really are], the self [that we can identify] isn’t something fixed. It’s a work in progress. So this [next definition] is from Herminia Ibarra, who’s the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School. She’s a real expert in the fields of organization and change. She says:

Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact. [. . .] Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable [. . .] career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities: When we are unsure of ourselves or our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we often retreat to familiar behaviours and styles. But [. . .] the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs. That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviours that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing. (Herminia Ibarra, Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School, January 2015, Harvard Business Review).

(c) Similarities and differences – Buddhism and psychology


I find these definitions are actually quite helpful, because they help us to see some of the differences and similarities between a Buddhist understanding of authenticity and how we define it in psychology and leadership. There are quite a few similarities. Firstly, going back to the three marks we have already touched on (in Week 2):

Anicca = Impermanence: We’re all works in progress, so being authentic means accepting there is no one fixed version of ourself. Our “self” is actually changing all the time. We don’t have a fixed reference. 

Dukkha = Unsatisfactoriness: [Both in psychology and in Buddhism, we have the] idea that facing the truth about ourselves is hard. Self-deception is very common. Even trying to change in ways that more embody the person we desire to be — that feels unnatural. It feels uncomfortable. There’s so much about authenticity that is difficult, uncomfortable, and painful, even in the ordinary psychological sense. 

Anatta = Nonself: Again, we need to learn to see ourselves not as something fixed, but as “works in progress.”

Last week, we talked about being one’s own master. We are all accountable for our authenticity, for our self-authorship. Nobody else can do this for us. Authenticity isn’t something you can delegate, or find an answer in a book, or from a therapist. You have to do it yourself. 

Practice advice

Actually in terms of practice advice, the two insights I found most compelling were from the leadership professors, perhaps because they deal with the practical world.

Practice feels unnatural at the beginning: I like Herminia Ibarra’s comment that change often doesn’t feel genuine and spontaneous. I think the same is true for us as Dharma practitioners. For beginners especially, Dharma practice will not feel intuitive. It won’t feel right. At the beginning it won’t feel comfortable, precisely because we’re challenging our habits. And that’s part of the reason Rinpoche always says we need to spend some time doing hearing, contemplation, and meditation before we practice, [as a way] to support our practice. We need an intellectual understanding and conviction. If we just rely on our emotions, that won’t be enough. Because very often our emotions will be screaming at us, saying, This feels wrong, this isn’t the right thing to do.

We need a clear purpose to avoid feeling prey to ego and narcissism: I also like Bill George’s comment when he said, We need a clear purpose, so we’re not at the mercy of our egos and narcissistic impulses. Again, this is something we’ve talked about already. How on the Dharma path, it’s very easy [to fall prey to these impulses]. Even as we’re trying to transcend and tame and conquer our egos, our egos are very strong and resilient. They’ll find a way of taking the Dharma path and twisting it to suit themselves. It’s very easy to get spiritually materialistic, to get narcissistic, to let your Buddhist practice and identity become something that ego clings to. So we really need clarity of purpose [i.e. the aspiration to live according to the spirit of the Tathagata, our bodhichitta aspiration], to make sure we don’t fall into those traps, which are very real on the path.


So that’s what’s similar. What’s different?

Well, I would say the biggest difference between psychology and Dharma is the kinds of places we’re willing to look, [the kinds of topics that we want to explore and understand]. Because psychology is still very much looking at our minds in the world. Psychology still believes in a self, whereas Dharma is looking beyond this inner dimension of feelings, thoughts, and experiences to the innermost dimension of awareness. We talked about this in Week 1.

We know that in the ultimate truth, there is no true self of either a person or phenomena. [All phenomenal appearances] are an illusion, a magical display. Our aim is to go beyond all views, because all views are false. And once we understand that, it completely changes our relationship to the self and to the world. This view then becomes the foundation for our awakening. We are no longer being trapped inside our current hopes and fears, our limited ways of thinking about our worldly life, our current way of living. In other words, [we are following a path that seeks to realize] the uncontrived and unfabricated. The lettuce, rather than the salad with the Thousand Island Dressing.

[Another important difference] is the idea of being true to oneself or defining one’s true self. We have already seen that many authors like Herminia Ibarra don’t believe in a true self, because the self is changing all the time. But there are many other people in psychology and in the self-help literature who like to have you believe that you do have a true self. And [they will tell you that] your purpose is to try to somehow discover or uncover it.

From a Buddhist point of view — and actually, even from a more sophisticated or accurate psychological point of view — that’s a big mistake. Because there’s nothing there to discover or uncover. We don’t believe in a true self. Nor do we [want to get caught] in all the sorts of clinging and attachment that this would imply. Because once you get into the idea of a true self, then all of a sudden there’s so much fixation that comes with that belief.

Unlike psychology, Buddhism offers a path to realize this no-fixed-self

So, the best Western psychologists and leadership professors understand this. [However, even for them] the big difference is that unlike Buddhism, they don’t have a path. They know the truth that there is no fixed self. They understand it intellectually. But they don’t have a path, a set of practices to realize that [truth]. That’s where Buddhism can offer a tremendous amount to psychology. Yes, we accept the idea there is no true self, that the self is a work in progress. But rather than just talking about it, Buddhism can help you realize it.

The other big difference is that, as I said already, if you accept the Dharma and follow the path, you realize that you will want to incorporate Dharma as part of your life design. Ideally, throughout all of your life design. It will even [come to redefine your] ideas about what is good, what is meritorious. In the Dharma, the definition of something being good, [which includes the idea of good karma] or merit, all comes down to whether or not something supports realization of the truth [for yourself and others]. This applies to teachings, teachers, our thoughts, our behaviours, our whole way of living [and attitude towards life]. And hence there is a whole discussion [in Buddhism and especially the Mahayana path] on skillful means. We will come back to this much more in the last couple of weeks of this program when we will talk about compassion and being in the world.

But right now just to say that we can’t talk about authenticity as a Dharma practitioner, unless our worldly living also makes space for our Dharma. Because otherwise, we’re ignoring something that’s profoundly important to us.

(d) Worldly authenticity is still important

Choosing a more authentic way of living in the world

So although in Buddhism, we talk about authenticity going beyond the worldly understanding, it is nevertheless still important to live authentically in our worldly life. We’ll come back to this, especially in Week 8. Rinpoche has taught a couple of times over the past year or so on this subject of living authentically in the world. He is encouraging us to think for ourselves, [to reflect on] what do we mean by things like wealth, health, and happiness? What does it mean to us to live a good life?

And in particular, he’s challenging us to meet to move from a more conventional, outer, worldly definition to more of an personal, inner definition. In a teaching on “Resilience” that he gave in January 2021 in Bhutan, he said:

How about being creative in how you define things? You know, definitions [of success, wealth, happiness etc]? How you value things?
Okay, let’s say wealth. To be rich. Right now, I think a lot of us have a certain definition of wealth, richness, and prosperity. And our definition is [based on] the general idea [held by society]. But I think we can be quite creative about this. For some, yes, having many cars, many buildings, lots of assets, [and a large] bank balance, may be the definition of being rich and wealthy. But maybe for others, it’s not. And this is where you have to be creative. Maybe for for some, we can sort of define wealth in terms of thinking “Okay, this is enough”. Some sort of contentment, right? This may be the definition of wealth.

The same thing again: How do we define happy? Happy is a very subjective, very general term. How do we define it? [. . .] We should be really creative. You know, it’s really not wise to rely on definitions [or] meanings that are imposed by school, advertising agencies, and all those big companies. Basically, we don’t have to be so uncreative in following definitions that are imposed by others.

So even though as Buddhists our aim is to seek freedom from worldly life — to be able to be in the world but not constrained by the world — nevertheless, we can also aim for greater authenticity, greater freedom, in the way we choose to live.


In psychology and adult development theory, this is called self-authorship. The idea that we write our own story about who we are, rather than follow scripts written by somebody else. And one of the best authors on this subject is Robert Kegan, a professor at Harvard. And he talks about self-authorship in terms of a shift of meaning-making capacity from being outside the self to inside the self. He writes10The following quotes are from Kegan’s 1994 book “In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life”. Marcia Baxter Magolda gives a good summary of Kegan’s approach to self-authorship in her 2008 paper “Three elements of self-authorship”, available at Project Muse.:

A person takes values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states [Ed.: i.e. including thoughts and emotions] as objects or elements of its system, rather than the system itself; it does not identify with them but views them as parts of a new whole. This new whole is an ideology, an internal identity, a self-authorship that can coordinate, integrate, act upon, or invent values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states. It is no longer authored by them, it authors them and thereby achieves a personal authority.

It is a shift:

from uncritically accepting values, beliefs, interpersonal loyalties and intrapersonal states from external authorities to forming those elements internally. The person becomes the coordinator of defining her/his beliefs, identity and social relations while critically considering the perspectives of external others.

Again, this is very much a Buddhist way of thinking, this idea of not just taking things for granted [and leaving them unexamined]. Of course, originally, the Buddha said don’t take his teachings for granted. But even more so, don’t take for granted what you read in the news, or the way that advertising agencies and social media are trying to sell you things.

This is another level of being your own master. Not just at the level of behaviours [such as] generosity, patience, non-reactivity, and emotional maturity. But actually taking accountability for how you approach your whole life. Your goals, your purpose, your values, your relationships, your way of living. As we said in both of the first two weeks, you are ultimately accountable. So in that sense, [in terms of] the worldly aspect of authenticity, it very much places that accountability on you. And so, both in psychology and in Dharma, we would very much agree that you are your own master.

(2) Mind: We already have what we need

(a) What is self?

The meaning of Tathagata in Sanskrit: “Gone and arrived from where you never departed”

Okay, so just going back to our outline. We have covered the first section. We’ve been talking a little bit about authenticity, and we’ll transition now to talking about mind, and how we have already got what we need.

Let’s return to the word Tathagata11tathagata (Sanskrit: तथागत) = thus gone, thus come, intrinsically inhering buddhahood – see tathagata. which we’ve been discussing. The Sanskrit “tatha”12tatha (Sanskrit: तथा) = that itself, like that, in that manner, so, thus – see tatha. means something like “as it is”, or “that itself”. It’s kind of an “is-ness”, or a “thus-ness”. And “gata”13gata (Sanskrit: गत) = gone, departed, arrived at, being in, situated in – see gata. means “come” and also “gone”. It means both “departed” and “arrived”. As Rinpoche says, it’s one of those wonderful Indian words that has a sort of nondual meaning built into it.

So as he says, Tathagata really means something like “Gone and arrived from where you never departed”. Which brings back my favourite T.S. Eliot quote from “Little Gidding” [which we first encountered at the end of Week 1]. I’ll read it again as I love it so much14The poem is available online at Columbia University. See also the article about the poem on wikipedia.:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

So, arriving where we started and knowing it for the first time That’s very much the spirit of the Tathagata. As we said in Week 1, it’s very much what we mean by the Hero’s Journey, and also what we mean by transformation.

Going beyond samsara and nirvana

And in the Mahayana, as Rinpoche said, “gone beyond” also has the important meaning of going beyond both samsara and nirvana. Going beyond all conventional ideas, not just of bad but also of good. He quoted Nagarjuna15Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन) = the 1st century Indian master that founded the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism – see Nagarjuna:

“Lord,” (referring to the Buddha) “you have never said that there is liberation by abandoning samsara.
But you have said that the inherent non-existence of samsara is nirvana”.16DJKR did not specify the verse in question. However verses XVI: 8-10 of Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika make this very point:

XVI: 8.
It is not, on the one hand, the bound that is liberated; nor indeed is the not-yet bound liberated.
If the bound were undergoing liberation, there would be simultaneous binding and liberation.

XVI: 9.
“Being without appropriation, I shall be released; nirvāṇa will be mine.”
For those who grasp things in this way, there is the great grasping of appropriation.

XVI: 10.
Where nirvāṇa is not reified nor saṃsāra rejected,
what saṃsāra is there, what nirvāṇa is falsely imagined?”

(trans. Mark Siderits & Shōryū Katsura)

The commentary by Siderits and Katsura on these verses in their book “Nagarjuna’s Middle Way” is helpful in illuminating their meaning – see Mulamadhyamakakarika.

We’ll increasingly see this [as we continue our study of the Mahayana]. We’ll see these references in the Mahayana pointing to the Tathagata, pointing to authenticity, as something nondual. Something beyond our ordinary concepts, our ordinary understanding. So then we might ask, What is self? We say the best way to achieve authenticity is to become one’s own master. Self-mastery. But what is this self that we are mastering?

Rinpoche said the classic answer is that we say “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. But that’s very abstract. What does it mean?

The most important part of self is mind

In the ordinary world, what do we mean by “self”? We mean our body, our life story, our degree, our job [among many other things]. But above all, it’s our mind. Our mind is the most important17Ed.: we may, for example, reflect on the importance of our minds by considering how we can “lose” our minds because of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of cognitive impairment and cognitive decline – see wikipedia.. We are sentient beings. The Tibetan word for that is semchen18semchen (Tibetan: སེམས་ཅན་, literally “endowed with mind”) = sentient being; a being with consciousness, sentience – see semchen., which actually means “endowed with mind”.

So the whole definition of a sentient being is that we have mind. Rinpoche pointed to the fact that we get lonely, bored, we feel ignored, jealous, we get competitive, we have insecurities. All this is a sign that we have mind. A table doesn’t get insecure. It doesn’t get jealous if I sit at another desk. It doesn’t get lonely when nobody is in the room with it. And likewise, if you’re walking in the forest, and a branch falls from the tree and injures you, it’s not because the tree was intending you any harm.

We are stuck with mind

So yes, we have mind. But also Rinpoche also underlined the word “have”. We can’t get rid of it. You can shave your hair, you can even cut off your finger like they do in the Yakuza19Yubitsume (指詰め, “finger shortening”) is a Japanese ritual of atonement and punishment through amputating portions of one’s own little finger. In modern times, it is primarily performed by the Yakuza, the prominent Japanese criminal organization – see “Yubitsume” in wikipedia.. But you can’t get rid of mind. As Rinpoche said, we’re stuck with mind. Sometimes we really feel like we’d like to get rid of it. Sometimes it’s very painful. We experience existential angst, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression. Many people experienced a lot of this during [the past year and a half of] COVID.

So we try to numb ourselves, we try to distract ourselves. Alcohol, drugs, social media, overworking, all kinds of addictions. But if you know how to handle the mind, as the great mahasiddha Saraha said, it is the most precious thing.

Saraha even prostrates to our ordinary worldly mind, because he says, it’s because of this mind that we have our ups and downs, we have happiness and sadness. And so that leads us to wonder, Is there something I can do about all of this emotional turmoil, this unsatisfactoriness of my ordinary condition? And that leads us to seek the truth. And that leads us ultimately to authenticity and the state of the Buddha.

So we can prostrate to our ordinary mind, we can be grateful that we have this, because if we just pay attention, it’s what’s going to lead us onto the path.

(b) What is mind?

Cognizance: mind is luminous

Now, what is mind? It’s the next question. It’s not our brain. It’s not intelligence. As Rinpoche said, If I say it’s cognizance, you have to chew it with a kilo of salt. The dictionary definition of “cognizance” is “to notice or to give attention to something”. [Cognizance is a translation of the Tibetan word] “selwa”20selwa (Tibetan: གསལ་བ་) = luminosity, clarity, radiance, brilliance, luminous clarity, vividness, cognizance. The term is used to describe the mind, cognizance or consciousness in different ways – see selwa., which means “clarity” or “luminosity”. It corresponds to the Sanskrit word “prabhasvara”21prabhasvara (Sanskrit: प्रभास्वर, IAST: prabhāsvara) = brilliant, bright, shining – see selwa., which means something like “brilliant” or “bright” or “shining”. 

It’s the notion that even though a computer or a robot can be aware of its environment, [it isn’t self-aware]. It can even develop an internal state and [representation of] what it is seeing or sensing — for example, is it standing on a certain kind of surface? — but despite its awareness [and its ability to create a representation of its environment], we wouldn’t say that a computer or a robot has a “mind” in the sense of cognizance, at least not yet. It doesn’t have that sense of an experience or an awareness of itself. 

Rinpoche said when the Buddha was asked, “What is mind?”, he gave three definitions in one answer, which include two contradictions. This is from the 8000-line Prajñaparamita Sutra22Ashtasahasrika Prajñaparamita Sutra (Sanskrit: अष्टसाहस्रिका प्रज्ञापारमिता सूत्र, IAST: Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) (c. 50 CE) = The Prajñaparamita Sutra in 8000 Lines (or “Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines”), an important text for Mahayana Buddhism. It is not only the oldest surviving Buddhist manuscript; it is also the first of the Prajñaparamita sutras and is therefore foundational to the development of the Madhyamaka – see Ashtasahasrika Prajñaparamita Sutra., which is considered one of the oldest texts in Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha said:

Mind. There is no mind. Mind is luminous.23This line appears in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (Prajñāpāramitā in Eight Thousand Lines). The Sanskrit original is:

तच् चित्तम् अचित्तम् / प्रकृतिश् चित्तस्य प्रभास्वरा
tac cittam acittam / prakṛtiś cittasya prabhāsvarā 

For further discussion of the origins and interpretation of this quotation, see Mind; there is no mind; mind is luminous.

As Rinpoche said, just this short line is like the spine of Mahayana Buddhist studies. And so just like mind is not inanimate — we’re not like a table — likewise, enlightenment is not like being a stone or a piece of wood. [The state of the Tathagata is] not inanimate like a table. You have cognizance. Let’s go back to the AI example. This is what is termed the “hard problem”24The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining why and how we have qualia or phenomenal experiences. That is to say, it is the problem of why we have personal, first-person experiences, often described as experiences that feel “like something.” In comparison, we assume there are no such experiences for inanimate things like, for instance, a thermostat, toaster, computer, or a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence – see wikipedia. [in philosophy of mind]. We know that a self-driving car is aware its environment, but it has no cognizance. We can also [speak about this cognizance] with words like self-awareness25Self-awareness is the experience of one’s own personality or individuality. It is not to be confused with consciousness in the sense of qualia. While “consciousness” is being aware of one’s environment and body and lifestyle, “self-awareness” is the recognition of that awareness – see wikipedia., meta-awareness26Meta-awareness or metacognition is an awareness of one’s own thought processes and an understanding of the patterns behind them – see wikipedia., and reflexive awareness27Reflexive awareness is a translation of alayavijñana, which is the eighth consciousness according to the Yogachara school, a Mahayana Buddhist school of philosophy and psychology established by Asanga in 4th century CE, also known as the Chittamatra (or “mind-only”) school – see Yogachara., which is to say that when we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re referring to this cognizance. We’re not referring just to our ordinary thoughts or emotions, or assumptions or beliefs. We’re talking about the observer that is experiencing — or able to be aware of or to experience — all of these different inner states.

As Rinpoche says, it’s not like it requires lifetimes of practice. You can experience it right now. So again, let’s take 10 seconds, just being aware of what’s happening right now.

[10 seconds awareness]

Okay. So that’s the end of our first session. We’ll come back in 10 minutes. And what we’re going to talk about next is this painful part of the mind. The painful part is that it can be confused, which is something that a table doesn’t have. But the good news is that it can also be awakened from confusion. So with that, I’ll see you in 10 minutes.


Part 2

(3) We lose our authenticity and misconstrue the Tathagata

(a) We try to look cool/fit in

Music: “The Disintegration Loops”

Hello, and welcome back. In case any of you are wondering, that music [that was playing during the break] is part of “The Disintegration Loops”28The specific track is “dlp 2.2”. You can listen to it on Bandcamp and YouTube. by the experimental composer William Basinski29See the article on William Basinski in wikipedia.. I quite like it. Maybe it doesn’t sound very Buddhist, but I think the conception is quite Buddhist. He took an old recording on a magnetic tape. And he played it over and over and over and over again, until the tape started to decay. And he recorded the various stages of the decay of the tape of the earlier recordings. And the entire recording is about five hours long, it’s a long [process of decay and dissolution]. I like this idea of what is the true self of that recording? What does it mean to have an authentic version, as it slowly ages and decays into nothingness?

We’re now going to talk about how we have this authenticity, this normality, this Tathagata state. We have this authentic presence, we have this cognizance, but somehow we lose it. We misconstrue the Tathagata, instead of understanding it. It’s so hard to understand nonduality. We misconstrue it and project something else onto it instead. So I want to talk a little bit about how we do that.

We’re too busy trying to look cool

First, as Rinpoche said, we, we don’t actually end up becoming our own master because we’re too busy trying to look cool, to look good, to impress people, to fit in. And even in psychology and leadership, we’d say that a lot of our problems stem from basic insecurities around looking good and fitting in, in other words, [concerns about our] personal and social identity.

Or, as Rinpoche says, we might experience the authentic state, the state of pure awareness of what’s going on right now. But it can be so scary because it’s so unfamiliar. It’s strange, it’s unbearable. So we fish out our phone to entertain ourselves, to numb ourselves, to divert our minds to something else. And of course, as we do this, we end up becoming the victims of others, of socializing. We worry about fitting in and not being left out. We want our kids to be a certain way, to fit into a certain class in society.

And of course, as we do this, over the years, we learn to be fake. As Rinpoche said, even if we were in a completely deserted wilderness with no people, we would still be uncomfortable walking naked. In Buddhism we refer to all of this confusion and all these defilements as the kleshas30klesha (Sanskrit: क्लेश) = (a) pain, affliction, distress; (b) afflictive emotions, destructive emotions, disturbing emotions, negative emotions; (c) defilements, afflictions, mental afflictions, factors which disturb the mind – see klesha.. They distract you and they cover up your true nature. We’ll talk more about them in future weeks, so I won’t go into them now.

TikTok and Taipei 101

Continuing with this notion of how we get caught up and distract ourselves, Rinpoche said that in the West, people are very concerned with asking, What is my life’s purpose? But for a Buddhist, the question would much rather be, What is the nature of this self? Especially mind? As he said, people who are so worried about purpose about being career driven, diploma driven, status driven, they fear irrelevance. Hence, we [resort to] things like TikTok31TikTok, known in China as Douyin (Chinese: 抖音; pinyin: Dǒuyīn), is a video-sharing focused social media platform used to make a variety of short-form videos in genres like dance, comedy, and education, that have a duration from fifteen seconds to three minutes. As of October 2020, TikTok surpassed over 2 billion mobile downloads worldwide and it has now surpassed Facebook as the most downloaded app globally – see wikipedia.. It numbs you and gives you a temporary life purpose.

Also, when he was teaching in Taipei, Rinpoche talked about [how people get obsessed with] building super tall skyscrapers like Taipei 101, which was officially the world’s tallest building from its opening in 2014 until 2010. It is 1671 feet tall, beating the previous tallest building, which was the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur at 1483 feet tall. And then of course, there’s always something bigger and better. So since 2010, the world’s tallest building has been the Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 2717 feet tall. I think Rinpoche’s point is that whether it’s getting caught up in TikTok, or getting caught up in building the world’s tallest super-skyscraper, is there much difference? He said something lovely:

People ask me what they should buy for their pet dog. They talk about dog therapy, dog sadness, cat sadness, some people even have snakes. What to do with this? All these worries. Some people worry about dog food. Some people worry about the 2020 US election. What’s the difference? There’s not so much difference, is there? It’s just a trick. It’s a trick, it’s a hallucination that we’re going through at the moment.

So as he said, to be normal, forget your purpose and your values, maybe just for 10 seconds.

[10 seconds awareness]

(b) We are conditioned

Rinpoche’s childhood in Bhutan

In addition to self distraction, we also find it difficult to be authentic because of our conditioning. We touched on this already, but Rinpoche shared a couple of such lovely stories that I really wanted to go over them with you. First he talked about his childhood in Bhutan. And he said:

Maybe I did not really grow up [in the] jungle, but I definitely grew up in the forest. And relatively speaking, I used to know a little bit about the forest. I knew what kind of mushrooms you can eat, and what kind of mushrooms you should avoid. But some of this knowledge is now gone, because most of the mushrooms that I eat are from Seven Eleven and other things. I think I’m still good at making fires. But there aren’t so many places to make fires now.

At the age of around six or seven, I was taken away from my family. Actually I was sold, for about five NT325 Taiwanese dollars = approx. 0.17 US dollars as of October 2020.. I’m not exaggerating, this is true. And there is a reason for this. In the Himalayas, as many of you know, the culture believes in recognizing reincarnation and so forth. So [just] when I was having a really good time in this subtropical place among the elephants, rhinoceroses and big python snakes, some people turned up one day [to take me away]. Some strangers turned up and told me that I was the reincarnation of some person. It’s bit like if some Austrians came to you and said “Hey, you have to go to Austria, because you are Mozart’s incarnation”.

Anyway I was sold for such a cheap rate, but not because my family had seven children including me. I guess for my family, it was sort of an honor. That money, that fare or that price, was important. It is the custom that when the child is given to whoever is taking [them] away, the [parents] will give the price. This is to symbolize [that] the family has no more say [over their child]. The property or the commodity belongs to someone else. Yes, that was the end of being with my family. So I don’t have a photo that is complete [with] my family all together. Never. There’s always me missing, most of the time.

Once I left, I was made to study things that were written 2500 years ago. And in fact, I have to say, after half a century I am still studying things that were written 2500 years ago. [. . .] I have been educated and influenced to think that I’m a Bhutanese and I’m a Buddhist.

As we’ve done in previous weeks, I invite you just to reflect on the ways in which your own life experience causes you to have a very fixed notion, a fixed conditioning, which limits your idea of authenticity.

Worrying about the US Presidential debate and the Barcelona football team

He continued with another story. He was talking about his morning in Taiwan, and he said:

I got up a few extra hours early to finish my daily Buddhist meditation so that I could catch the debate between Trump and Biden. And I got emotionally engaged when one of them misbehaved. And when the other one fumbled, my hand sweated. Isn’t it amazing? A man who was born amidst lavender and bamboo has now reached this level, that this man worries about the fate of the United States.

So much changes in our life. Our values. The way we see things. Everything. I grew up in India watching voluptuous Indian girls dancing in Bollywood movies. Now among the Indian elites, girls are trying to look like toothpicks. All just to fit in and ensure that we will not be left out. Bhutan’s national sport is archery. But I worry more about the Barcelona football team. I even know the names of the Barcelona football players and I think I used to remember even their birthdays.

A normal day in the life of a Rinpoche

A final story, which he gave as an answer to a question somebody asked him, “What’s a normal day like for you as Rinpoche?” He told a lovely story of when he’d been traveling in China many years ago:

I was traveling there for some time. In those days, that part of China was really remote so we had to travel by horse. And I hate riding a horse because there’s no seat belt and everything. I just don’t like it. And sometimes you ride a horse on a cliff. It’s very scary. There was a guy who helped me ride and held me. So towards the end of my trip as we were coming closer to the motor road, I gave him my watch as a gift, because he was really helping me. I don’t remember what watch, but it was quite a good brand. So I gave it to him saying, “You should wear this. This is a good brand”.

After a few days, I saw that he was not wearing it. Then I asked him, “I gave you a watch. Why are you not wearing it?” He said, “No, I’m wearing It”. So he took off his locket [which he was wearing around his neck], and his locket was much smaller than the watch. He opened the locket, and by then he already crushed the watch. And in his locket, he had what appeared to be the main engine. The wrist strap and all the other parts he had cut and given to his family members. And he was a little bit embarrassed and he confessed, saying that “I kept the best part. The engine.”

So this is just some lovely context from Rinpoche’s life. What does “normality” mean? How are we even to begin to judge what’s normal for another person? And of course, Rinpoche has taught often about what does this mean for Dharma coming to the west, especially when it’s taught by teachers who are educated and brought up in systems and cultures and traditions that are very different from a modern educated Western world. How do we solve the challenge of translation and mutual understanding, when our contexts and our ideas of normal are just so different?

(c) We have wrong views

The rope and the snake

The next topic is wrong views. The classic example in Buddhism is the rope and the snake. So imagine that you’re in a darkened room, and you can see something lying on the floor. You think it’s a snake, you get scared, you jump back. Then you turn on the light, and you see it’s just a rope. As Rinpoche said, how interesting. We experienced the fear of a snake that doesn’t exist. We’re trying to get rid of a problem that has no base.

Of course, that’s an analogy for ego itself. As Buddhist philosophy demonstrates, there is no such thing as a self, a truly existing fixed self. And yet we cling to it as if there were. And then of course, once we start with that clinging all the other negative emotions, the hope, the fear, everything else comes. Where does fear come from? Well, it comes from habit. And we’ve been doing this for so long, we’ve been relating to the world in this way, we’ve been taught to relate to the world in this way.

The demon dance

He gave another example. We have talked a little about wrong view. Well, another way of thinking about Tathagata, even the word can refer to having the right view. And having the right view, realizing the right view, is awakening. It is liberation. He gave the example of a demon dance:

It’s a bit like a child looking at a stage, and there’s a performance. There’s a demon dance, and the child gets scared. But the moment the child goes behind the stage and realizes that’s just a mask performance, then that’s the end. That’s the end of that illusion of demon. The child has discovered the view. Whether the child then continues to watch the dance or the play, that depends on their motivation, companion, whatever.

A shift in attitude, a shift in view

The point here is that when we talk about the result, it’s really much more important, as Rinpoche says, to think about a shift in attitude [than the grandiose descriptions of enlightened qualities that we read about]. It’s a realization of a new view. We’ll talk about this much more starting next week. This is much more important than what we see in these images of Buddhas with halos or read about all these [descriptions of] enlightened qualities.

And actually, this idea of awareness and view, even when it comes to worldly authenticity — this idea of knowing ourselves, making better choices about our purpose and our values and our way of living — awareness is very important for that. Awareness of our current state. Awareness of the root causes [that are creating our current state]. Why is our life the way it is? Why do we behave the way we do? What would we like? How can we imagine ourselves? What is our desired mindset, our desired view, our desired way of living? How can we change it?

So for all of those, this cultivation, this [practice] of 10 seconds of awareness is so important.

Rinpoche also said in passing that our mind in its natural state is like water. But it’s currently frozen. Throughout these teachings, he was talking about the mahasiddhas, especially Saraha. And this is a quote from Saraha’s “King Doha”33This is from Kyabgon Traleg Rinpoche’s translation and commentary on Saraha’s “King Doha” in his 2018 book “King Doha: Saraha’s Advice to a King”.:

When icy winds gust over water,
What was fluid becomes like stone.
So, with our distorted beliefs,
We fools solidify the formless.

We’ll talk much more about view starting next week, but for now just to say that wrong view is part of the defilements, part of the ignorance, part of what stops us seeing the Tathagata or the authentic state. And a lot of the path is about identifying and then disassembling these wrong views.

(d) We project the Buddha

You can experience it, but you can’t put it into words

So now to talk about how part of the way a wrong view shows up is how we project the Buddha. We’ve said many times that you can experience this enlightened awakened state, but you can’t talk about it or conceptualize it. Well, it’s not that you can’t talk about it. You can write poems, you can sing songs of realization like Saraha’s Dohas. But you can’t describe it in a rational, conceptual way. It is beyond that. After all, it is that which holds all our thoughts, our awareness. So how can we find words for that raw cognizance?

Rinpoche said, what is sanity? To even answer your question, I already need to use language, which is already not normal. Once I have surrendered to language, sanity is gone. That’s why the great masters of the past kept quiet. It’s like if you’ve fallen off a cliff with your arms bound behind you, and you grabbed onto a branch with your teeth. If somebody asks you how you’re doing, the moment you say anything, you will fall. That’s how it is with talking about the awakened state.

All appearances are like a magic show

There was a question about can we even talk about the experience of what it’s like to be a Buddha? You say that our ordinary everyday experiences are like a magic show, but do they continue? Does the dream continue after enlightenment? And here Rinpoche said, let’s go back to the idea of a magic show. I guess it’s a different spin on a demon dance.

The audience watches the show and is just totally transfixed and taken in by the magic. It’s amazing. It’s entertaining. It’s addictive. It’s enthralling. The magician, of course, he’s playing the game, but he knows it’s an illusion. He may be conjuring up a trick, but he knows the trick is a trick. He’s not taken in by it. So you could say he has something much closer to a correct understanding, a correct view. But Rinpoche said for the Buddha, he’s not even an audience. For him, nothing has happened. There is no dream. There is no awakening.

And indeed, in the Mahayana, as Rinpoche said, we talk about the three kayas [the three “bodies” or “dimensions” of the Buddha] — dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Don’t worry too much about that now, we can talk about this in future weeks. But just to say that the nirmanakaya, the manifest aspect of the Buddha, is considered a display. All phenomena, the manifest aspect of anything, are considered an illusory display just like a magic show. Likewise, all teachings are just a display. They’re not true in some ultimate sense. They’re just pointing us towards truth. They are skillful means.

The story of two buddhas discussing the infinite

So let’s ask then, What is the state of the mind of an enlightened being? And here Rinpoche told a lovely story. which is I think from the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Flower Ornament Sutra.

It’s about two buddhas called Kuntuzik and Sangye Karmala Garwa. So one of these buddhas, the one called Sangye Karmala Garwa, his name means The Buddha who Enjoys the Stars. The other buddha is Kuntuzik, the All-knowing Buddha. It’s basically when Mañjushri, who’s supposedly still a bodhisattva, finally attains enlightenment. His name will be Kuntuzik, the All-knowing Buddha, or the Buddha Who Gazes at Everything. So these two buddhas are having a conversation. And Sangye Karmala Garwa, the one who enjoys the stars, he talks about how his buddhafield, his realm, is as big as the size of a thumb. And the duration of his buddhafield, from its beginning to its end, is like the duration of a spark coming out of a fire. [Snaps fingers]. Like that. That’s it, finished.

Now Kuntuzik, Mañjushri as a Buddha, his buddhafield is infinite. The duration of his buddhafield is endless. And as these two buddhas are talking about space and time, they realize it’s all a trick. Because the moment we think in terms of “infinite”, we think of big, especially those of us who are not mathematically trained. But no, it doesn’t mean big. Here, when we talk about an infinite buddhafield, it means measureless. It’s beyond any kind of measure, beyond any kind of thought or conception. The buddhafield of the other buddha is measured. It’s thumb sized, and has the duration of a spark. But actually, as they talk, they realize they’re talking about the same thing. “Oh, I thought yours was so small and so thumb-sized, but I realize that actually, it’s as big as mine”.

I wanted to include this story as another kind of pointer, another taste of what do we mean when we talk about the Buddha being beyond duality, beyond our everyday rational conceptual understanding.

The appearance of The Buddha: the 32 major marks and 80 minor marks

Rinpoche also talked about the traditional 32 major marks and 80 minor marks, the descriptions of the qualities of the Buddha in the Theravada sutras34For a complete list of the 32 major marks and 80 minor marks, see wikipedia.. If you read about the Buddha’s qualities, the Buddha is supposedly very beautiful to look at. No matter how much you look at him, you’ll never be satisfied. You just want to look and look and look some more. Supposedly, one of his disciples, Maudgalyayana, looked at him for many eons.

And there are many descriptions in the sutras about his beautiful qualities, these 32 major marks and 80 minor marks. But if you read them, some of them are very strange. He has antelope like ankles. His body width and height are exactly the same. He’s boxy. Really, is that beautiful? And he has an ushnisha35ushnisha (Sanskrit: उष्णीष) = the protuberance on the head of a buddha, one of the 32 major marks of the Buddha – see ushnisha.. Would you date someone with a giant lump on their head? His skin is golden-coloured? Well, maybe if you’re a kid, and you’re like Star Wars, you might think it’s cool to hang out with someone who’s kind of plated with gold.

But as Rinpoche said, these things are difficult. There are actually intended to throw you, to pull the rug out from under your feet, again and again. So we’ll find this a lot, especially in the Mahayana. An important part of establishing the view is to realize that there is no ultimate view. And so a lot of the path then involves this pulling the rug out from under our feet. Deconstructing all these relative views. All these ways that we think we found something that’s true and stable and right. But we haven’t.

How we project the Buddha: representations of the Buddha in art

I’d like to turn now to the way the Buddha is represented artistically. I’d like to spend a moment looking at the idea of projection.

Rorschach inkblots, kcarner, Imgur

These are classic. These are the so-called Rorschach inkblots36For a description of the Rorschach test, see wikipedia.. They are used in psychology, and there is a practice that’s still used in psychoanalysis where you’re invited to look at these inkblots, and talk about what you see. And even this is quite good, as I’m sure for each of us, something [different] is suggested by this. The reason I wanted to show you this is just to make the point about projection. Usually we have an idea, we have an image, and we don’t think of it as a projection. These images are nice because they’re not obviously about anything in particular. Okay, so let’s transition to some Buddhist images.

[L] Shakyamuni Buddha, Gandhara, 1st-2nd century CE, Tokyo National Museum, wikipedia;
[R] Shakyamuni Buddha, Pala, 10th-11th century CE © Jamyang Zangpo, Getty Images

The first image, above on the left, is of a classic Gandhara Buddha. Gandhara was a kingdom in what is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan [that flourished] roughly between the 1st century BCE and the 7th century CE. It saw the first depictions of the Buddha in human form, which were done by Greek artists. Alexander the Great brought a lot of artists with him, so there’s a lot of Greek influence in the Buddhist art of Central Asia from those times37For an overview of Greco-Buddhist art, see wikipedia.. When you see the early images of the Buddha, they look like Greek statues, like this image. Rinpoche says these are some of his favourite Buddha images, and I certainly love them also. But we might look at this image [especially if we are used to the representation of the Buddha in a different Buddhist tradition such as Tibetan Buddhism or Thai Buddhism], and we might wonder, is that really [what I imagine the Buddha to look like?] Is that how I would project the Buddha?

The second image, on the right, is the Buddha inside the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. This is a painted sandstone Buddha from the Pala period, which was the 8th to 12th centuries in India. It was only reinstated in the Mahabodhi temple in 1884, when the British colonial government began to restore the temple which had all fallen into disrepair. So, here we have, I would say, a fairly classical idea or image of what the Buddha looks like. So let’s go to something a little bit less classical.

[L] Budai, contemporary mass-produced replica; [R] “buddha-bar Greatest Hits” cover, © 2019 buddha-bar

On the left is an image that you’ll often see, especially in Vancouver. When you go to an Asian restaurant, you’ll often see a statue of this fat laughing Buddha. Actually, he’s called Budai38Budai (Chinese: 布袋; pinyin: Bùdài) = a semi-historical Chinese monk who is often identified with and venerated as Maitreya Buddha in Chan Buddhism. With the spread of Chan Buddhism, he also came to be venerated in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. He is said to have lived around the 10th century in the Wuyue kingdom – see wikipedia.. He’s a semi-historical Chinese monk, often identified with and venerated as Maitreya Buddha in Chan Buddhism.

On the right [is the image of the Buddha in buddha-bar in Paris, which is on the cover of their music albums]. For a lot of people now in the West, when they think of the Buddha, they think of images [like this that] they have seen in clubs or yoga studios, places like that. If you’ve never been to buddha-bar in Paris39buddha-bar is a bar, restaurant, and hotel franchise created by French-Romanian restaurateur Raymond Vișan and DJ and interior designer Claude Challe, which opened its first location in Paris in 1996. The Buddha Bar became popular with foreign yuppies and wealthy tourists visiting the city, in part because of the DJ’s choice of eclectic, avant-garde music – see wikipedia., it has the most incredibly large Buddha40Ed.: The Buddha statue is approximately 4 metres tall, but it dominates the dining room – for images see buddha-bar.. But is that authentic?

[L] “Green Tara III”, contemporary, Nepal, Dakini as Art; [R] Yamantaka, contemporary, Nepal, Mandalas Life

There are similar challenges for Vajrayana practitioners. Both of these images are representations of the Buddha [although no longer in the traditional form of Shakyamuni]. On the left, we have Green Tara. [She is] relatable, as she has two arms, two legs, and the right number of eyes. Maybe the skin colour is a bit off, but we can sort of imagine our way into that image. Rinpoche often says that part of the skill, the skillful means, of all Buddhist teachings — in which we can include Buddhist art and imagery — is that it has to be familiar enough that you can relate to it, but unfamiliar enough that it challenges your preconceptions, your fixed views, and your identity.

On the right, we have a wrathful deity, which is not something that a beginner would start with. It’s fairly terrifying to look at. And I think it easy to understand why you wouldn’t want to identify yourself with that image. There are lots of arms and heads and weapons and fire and all kinds of stuff going on. So what on earth [is this]? How do we relate to something like that? And again, it comes back to matching the path to the individual. So it’s not as though the Vajrayana is suitable for everyone. Not all of us will be comfortable with this kind of challenge to our self-conception. But at the same time for those who are able, it’s a very powerful thing.

[L] “Tête de femme au chapeau bleu à ruban rouge”, Pablo Picasso, 1939; [R] “Portrait of a Woman”, Pablo Picasso, 1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I’m reminded also of Western 20th century art like Cubism. Here are two images by Picasso. On the left, maybe we can just about recognize the image as a woman. But if this was your visualization practice, and I tried this actually, trying to visualize that image is quite difficult. Because it really does challenge our fixed preconceptions [of what a woman should look like, and how her features should be arranged on her face]. And the one on the right, even more so. Yes, if you know that it’s the portrait of a woman, you can sort of make out [her form]. But if you didn’t know that, you would probably think it was just a bunch of shapes and curves and lines. So what degree of abstraction can we handle? How much do we need our stories and images to be concrete? Can we push beyond [familiar conventional worldly appearances] to something that is more nondual, more abstract, less grounded?

[L] “Control the Soul #34”, Rivers Have Wings, 2021; [R] “Control the Soul #87”, Rivers Have Wings, 2021

Lastly, I wanted to share these two images, which are actually art that’s generated by an artificial intelligence, an AI program41Ed.: To appreciate the gestalt of this particular AI’s creative imagination, it’s worth browsing the complete set of 992 images in the “Control the Soul” series by Rivers Have Wings at I find them fascinating because they’re obviously even more abstract [than abstract art generated by a human]. It’s not even clear what they are supposed to be. There’s some sense that there is a person or a being present. They have a slight sense of not being very friendly. But again, they are very abstract. [We’re not quite back at the Rorschach inkblot, but it feels like we’re heading in that direction].

[Ed.: addendum]: Following the teaching, many of you expressed interest in AI-generated art. Here are two more images demonstrating “creative” expression by an AI art system (“The Big Sleep”). One image is a response to the prompt “A face like an M.C. Escher drawing” and the other is a visual interpretation of some lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”.42Charlie Snell gives a nice summary of the emergence of the AI art scene and its status as of July 2021 in “Alien Dreams: An Emerging Art Scene” at the Berkeley ML blog.

[L] “A face like an M.C. Escher drawing”, The Big Sleep, 2021; [R] “Visualization of ‘The Waste Land’ by T. S. Eliot”, The Big Sleep, 2021.

I like all of these images to help make the point about abstraction, [representation and projection], and also our own habitual patterns and limitations when it comes to imagination and visualization. Even more generally, they can help us to reflect on our habitual ways of relating to “self” and “Buddha”. When we think about Buddha, how do we think about Buddha? What are we relating to? And how does our fixed way of relating — our demand that the Buddha should fit our preconceptions — how does that cause us problems?

[Ed.: addendum]: In particular, for Vajrayana students who are engaged in sadhana practice and the cultivation of pure perception, I feel it’s helpful for us to challenge ourselves about what our fixed conceptions of what “deity” should look like. Rinpoche has often cautioned that we too easily end up visualizing a deity in a very limited, traditional and literal way as imagined by a sculptor or thangka painter working in Kathmandu43From Rinpoche’s 2012 book “Not For Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices”:

Vajrayana students who were born and brought up in the modern world often have difficulties with visualization practise. Part of the problem, I think, is that Tibetan teachers like myself, assume all sentient beings process things the same way Tibetans do. We teach you to picture the Buddha as he is traditionally depicted in Tibet, adorned with ornaments that are valued by and convey specific meanings to Tibetans. But to become a perfect Tibetan iconographer is not the point of visualization practise.

The main purpose of visualization practise is to purify our ordinary, impure perception of the phenomenal world by developing “pure perception.” Unfortunately, though, pure perception is yet another notion that tends to be misunderstood. Students often try to re-create a photographic image of a Tibetan painting in their minds, with two-dimensional deities who never blink and are surrounded by clouds frozen in space, or whose consorts look like grown-up babies. To practise this erroneous version of visualization is to instil in yourself a far worse form of perception than the one you were born with, and in the process the whole point of pure perception is destroyed.
. We can easily caught up in trying to get the visualizations “right” rather than realizing it’s all a stand-in for nonduality, a way of deconstructing our habitual ways of seeing. As Rinpoche says, all these practices are designed “to pull the rug out from under our feet”.

Starting with a representation of the Buddha that inspires us, but then shrugging it off

It’s important for us as beginners to start with [a representation of the Buddha] that feels noble, aspirational, and inspiring. Something that represents [at least to us] all the [enlightened] qualities [such as wisdom, compassion, awareness etc.]. Something that we want, or think we want. And as we go through the path, we will slowly but surely have to shrug off all concepts, [preconceptions and points of reference].

There’s the famous saying by the 9th century monk Linji Yixuan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Anytime we have a fixed view, a fixed idea [of the Buddha or enlightenment], when we think we found him, we need to stop and remind ourselves “Okay, whatever it is, this isn’t it”. As Rinpoche says, we need to go beyond all concepts. First, we start our path with hearing, with contemplation, and with meditation. But we need to shrug these off. Then we have understanding, then experience and finally realization, but even the understanding and even the experience — even this, we need to shrug off.

Somebody asked Rinpoche, What are some of the signs of realization? He said, one thing is there’s no urge to write about it. In contrast to many contemporary spiritual teachers who talk and write quite a lot about their experience and their supposed enlightenment. Rinpoche is wanting us to be a little bit suspicious of things like that. And the other thing he said is, of course, another sign of realization is compassion. We’ve talked about that before, and we’ll return to it in the final weeks.

(e) We have what’s most precious, but don’t devote time to it

We squander our most precious opportunity

So we have this most precious thing. But we don’t devote time to it. And it’s not our body. It’s not our wealth. It’s not our home or our family. It’s this cognizance, this ability to be aware, to comprehend. It’s the mind. As Rinpoche says, we don’t devote time to it. Why don’t we? How ridiculous. It’s the most powerful, the most precious, the most beautiful thing. But we don’t give it any time. A couple more quotes from Saraha44This is from Kyabgon Traleg Rinpoche’s translation and commentary on Saraha’s “King Doha” in his 2018 book “King Doha: Saraha’s Advice to a King”.:

Forsaking genuine bliss to walk other paths,
Placing hope instead in what is contrived,
Like bees amassing honey but not consuming it,
An opportunity so close is squandered.

Animals don’t make suffering for themselves
That’s the human expertise.
Rather than drinking the ambrosia of space,
Fixation is what we opt for.

We have the authentic nature, but we still need to practice

As we’ve said before, we have this authentic nature. And the question was raised, Well, if we have it, why do we need to practice? Well, yes, we have it. But we also have defilements. The good news is that defilements are removable. If they weren’t removable, there’d be no point in practicing. So there is a point, because we can remove them. But as Rinpoche said, we should practice because as long as we think we have a problem, we need to solve the problem.

Going back to that quote we had earlier from Nagarjuna he said it’s not as if we transcend samsara to find Nirvana. Rather, we realize that there was no samsara in the first place. That is nirvana. In fact, there’s no nirvana either. So realizing that all these experiences, all this clinging, the very basis of all of our suffering, our unsatisfactoriness, our grasping, our hope, our fear — realizing that actually isn’t the problem we think it is. But again, until we get to that place, we have to practice.

And Rinpoche also said that even though we already have all we need, we should long for the un-longable, so that we don’t long for other things. When he says the “un-longable” he’s referring again to this Buddhanature, this nature of the Tathagata. You already have it, so there’s no point longing for it. It’s already there. Nobody can give it to you, and nobody can take it away from you. So it’s un-longable in that sense.

And yet, we don’t long for it, we don’t spend time on it, we waste our lives away with all kinds of other things. And so this precious gem goes unused. So it is important to long for it.

(4) We practice to realize what we already have

(a) The way of the mahasiddhas

We practice to get back to what we already have

So let’s turn now to practice. We’ll talk about this much more in future weeks. This is just an introduction to the 10-second practice.

We need to practice in order to regain and rediscover what we already have. Rinpoche says you must start by trusting that you have, indeed that you are the cabbage. The authenticity, truth, cognizance. Your authentic presence hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s like washing a window or washing a cup. These things are washable, because they are by their nature clean. And remember, here we’re talking about the Buddha-nature, the nature of the mind, the thing that is the heart of who we are.

And if our nature is fundamentally clean, then even though we might appear on the surface to be dirty, covered with emotions, and defilements, and confusion and ignorance, those can be cleaned. And that is the path. As Rinpoche said, the path is contradictory. Because on the level of the ground, the cup isn’t dirty. You have the authentic state. You have the Buddhanature. But because you don’t experience it, you need the path to get back to what you already have. I won’t read T.S. Eliot yet again, but we will end up where we started, except that finally we will realize what we already have.

Learning to listen to arrow-makers and prostitutes

How does that happen? First, Rinpoche told a couple of stories of the mahasiddhas, how Tilopa and Saraha attained realization. These are lovely stories, and I’d like to simply offer them to you as inspiration. And also because this is the tradition. These are the lineage masters in Rinpoche’s lineage, in the Mahamudra and the Dzogchen lineages. As he said:

This can happen if the right causes and conditions are together, meaning the right timing, the right situation, the right usage of words, etc. It’s like the story of Naropa and Tilopa. Naropa had attended the great master Tilopa for many years and he had never given up, even after going through a lot of difficulties and time. And during all these years, Naropa really wanted to ask Tilopa for a teaching, for instructions, for pith instructions, for a path to the authentic realm. After about twelve years, one day they were walking by the bank of the Ganges, and Tilopa said to him “I have nothing to say to you. I have nothing at all whatsoever to say to you”. And that did it. That just did it. And wow. [What an incredible] lineage has come from this great Naropa.

I know that for most of us, this is just a fairy tale. It’s maybe romantic at best. And most people will think it’s about some sort of revelation. Not at all. If you really know how to listen and hear Tilopa’s remark “I have nothing to tell you”, it’s quite profound. But if it was someone like me, I could have beaten Tilopa up. “After twelve years of serving you, you have nothing to tell me? What do you mean?” You know, stuff like this.

The same thing happened to the great Saraha. He was supposedly the dean of Nalanda university. It’s a big deal. Indian Buddhists even claim this is probably one of the oldest universities in the world. Buddhists are very proud of Nalanda, it’s a very big deal. Saraha was supposedly the dean, and the majority of the students were bhikshus and disciplined monastics, so you can imagine the context. We have professors sitting here. They have a certain position. And then what did Saraha do? He said “all these years of intellectual pursuit, this is not leading me anywhere”. So he just took off.

And he met a woman who was making arrows. She was a part-time arrow-maker and part-time prostitute. And she was shooting arrows her aimlessly, everywhere – that’s an important detail by the way, this aimless shooting. Saraha was very puzzled, and he asked her “why are you shooting your arrows aimlessly?” And she said, “that’s your problem. You always have an aim. I have none, that’s why I’m liberated”. And that did it, again. The dean of Nalanda University [one of the most erudite people in India] got the right answer from a part-time arrow-maker, part-time prostitute. We are talking about getting the truth.

(b) 10 seconds

Increasing our merit and ability to see and hear the truth that is all around us

Now, maybe we don’t have what it takes to hear the truth. Maybe some of us feel we can only receive teachings from very high teachers. Or we don’t know how to pay attention to the world around us. We don’t how to receive teachings from the people that we meet, from the arrow-makers and prostitutes in our world. So if nothing else, we can practice to increase our merit, to increase our ability to receive teachings. To see Dharma in all phenomena around us.

Remember, Dharma is truth. The truth is everywhere. The nature of phenomena, the nature of our own minds, it’s there. It will reveal itself to us, if we just look. But as long as we’re too busy looking somewhere else, we won’t find it. As Rinpoche said, practice is about getting more acquainted with our authenticity. It’s making it more stable. It’s building a bigger picture of the presence of authenticity. And indeed, as we practice and our merit increases, perhaps one day we will be able to “get it” in just the way that Naropa and Saraha were able. 

But it’s important to acknowledge that the world has changed. We’re not living in the sort of environment that was around a couple of thousand years ago. Rinpoche said that the image of a small mountain hut on Hua Shan45Mount Hua (simplified Chinese: 华山; traditional Chinese: 華山; pinyin: Huà Shān) is a mountain located near the city of Huayin in Shaanxi Province, about 120 kilometres east of Xi’an. It is the “Western Mountain” of the Five Great Mountains of China and has a long history of religious significance – see wikipedia. is gone. Some of you might wonder what that is. I found one of the classic Chinese mountain paintings, and this one46Ed.: I have been unable to find the name of this painting. One website gives its Chinese name as “石涛 荒亭寻幽”, which Google translates as “Shi Tao’s lonely pavilion: In search of quiet”. If anyone knows the name, please contact me. is by Shitao47Shitao (simplified Chinese: 石涛; traditional Chinese: 石濤; pinyin: Shí Tāo) (1642–1707) = a Chinese Buddhist monk, calligrapher, and landscape painter during the early Qing Dynasty – see wikipedia., who was a 17th century Buddhist monk, calligrapher and landscape painter in the early Qing Dynasty in China. 

石涛 荒亭寻幽, Shitao, 17th century, China Online Museum

We need different kinds of mountain and different kinds of isolation

As Rinpoche said, the image of a small hut on a mountain, that style of being alone, maybe that was possible 2000 or 3000 years ago. But now we need different kinds of mountain. We need different kinds of isolation. In the past, he has also talked about the challenges of even doing a three year retreat. Yes, it’s a wonderful opportunity if you can do it. But for so many people who’ve completed the retreat, they then come back to the ordinary world again. And the challenge of reintegrating and rebuilding an ordinary life is just so great.

So now Rinpoche is saying that he has a preference instead that people integrate their practice into their worldly life from the beginning. So, for example, he has something called the Dharma Gar, where the practice commitment is to practice two hours every day. There are other masters who have even longer daily practice commitments. For example, Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche and Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche in France have a four hour daily commitment. But the point is that having a daily practice, even if it’s not as long as that, at least that’s a way to ensure the integration. Rather than go off on a retreat, have some wonderful experience and insight, and then come back and not be able to integrate [it into your everyday life].

The best kind of mountain retreat is the 10 seconds

As Rinpoche said, maybe we need a different kind of mountain, a different kind of isolation. And he said the best is the 10 seconds. Just be aware of what’s happening right now. No judgement.

[10 seconds awareness]

This 10-second practice of just being aware of this moment, this now-ness, it’s nothing special. That’s it. You do it once a day. You can’t get more normal. You can’t get more authentic. And it’ll help you overcome stress. It’ll even help you become a good human. Although, as he said, that is like a bonus. It’s like a throw-in, like if you buy some electronics at a US store they’ll throw in a charger or something. [Becoming a good human is a bonus but] it’s not the real thing. This is also worth reminding ourselves of, because I think so many of us, as we said in the first week, we do worry a lot about how to think about Buddhist ethics, how to think about being an engaged Buddhist, etc. It’s not that these things aren’t important, they are important. But as Rinpoche said, it’s secondary. It’s not the real thing.

So this 10 second practice, it’s simple. Nothing to memorize. No precepts. It’s not religious. As Rinpoche said, modern people are scared of precepts. You don’t have to sit straight. You can do it in front of a temple, you can do it in front of a movie theatre.

And when you practice, sometimes it’s good to make a really big deal out of it, to infuse it with some sort of sense of meaning and purpose, some ceremony, some ritual. And other times, it’s good to make no big deal at all. For those of you who have a Vajrayana practice, you will know that this is familiar practice advice.

[And to start with, we need to cultivate our aspiration]. As Rinpoche said, my job in the beginning is: I want you to want the 10 seconds.

He gave a very important example [of how to do this practice correctly]. He said you might be addicted to social media. But you know what? You can do the 10 seconds. And by the way, when you do the 10 seconds, don’t stop what you’re doing. Don’t stop your chatting or your texting or whatever it is you’re doing. Do your 10 seconds while you’re texting, while you’re chatting.

And just be aware. This is what’s happening right now.

(c) A taste of authenticity

Initially you’ll laugh at yourself

What will that lead to? Initially you’ll laugh at yourself. But that’s good. You’re not occupied. You’re not obsessing. It’s your first taste of authenticity, normality. It’s your first taste of freedom.

I’d like close by reading a story by Ben Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander from their lovely book “The Art of Possibility”. The story is called “Rule Number 6”.

Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws.

The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.

When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?”

“Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.’”

“Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”

“There aren’t any.”

So with that, I bid you farewell. If you’re coming to the questions and answers, I’ll see you in 10 minutes. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you next week.


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Transcribed and edited by Alex Li Trisoglio