by Vivienne Kernohan
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Donal is a true seeker, a scholar and full of wisdom he is at pains to share – his teaching is the opposite of dogmatic and proscriptive and often interspersed with great humour. He has a love of the possibilities of language (any – Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chan, Pali…) to give voice to a hint of the sacred that can touch us. From Chan he took the fact that many eastern languages have no word for mind – it is the heart that thinks and so for our discussions on Lhaktong and Shinay we opted for the term mind/heart, particularly as in English, it is the mind that fabricates our experience.
Donal’s influences are varied – Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings and Krishnamurti He also has an affinity for the often poetic descriptions of the Zen masters and quoted extensively from books by Katagiri and Suzuki Roshi.
The retreat’s title was ‘Cutting through Illusion‘ – looking back, it was like Buddhism 101 except that it he took us so much further than we might have expected. For me it was like returning home to the true meaning of all the teachings we have had over the years and a real spur to practice.
But to attempt to summarise everything we covered would only do a disservice. So I’ve opted just to talk about a little of what he said about our meditative journey, beginning as he did with a reminder that we are all Buddha nature – or ‘eternal possibility’ as Suzuki Roshi? calls it. Nothing is missing from our mind/heart -we just need to learn to be it and nurture confidence in the fact that everything we seek is actually already present.
And this point I found especially helpful- that not believing this is a self-centred thought that limits our seeing the vastness of our mind/heart.
Donal was also at pains to point that the dharma is a whole and therefore true understanding of any part of it – whether impermanence, a yiddam, or the vast mystery of emptiness, can result in enlightenment.
He pointed out (and demonstrated to us often that our fabricating mind is constantly moving and is usually moving away from truth, so what we are looking for is something that causes a fundamental shift in our mind/heart.
He described meditation as a journey from the known to the unknown – both the inner and the outer are infinite. The idea is to open up our practice to find the ‘deep stillness within the human heart’ – for this, openness and curiosity are essential.
In one of his many literary quotes he quoted Kabir to describe our aim – ‘We seek to ‘destroy the little house of the mind’
He also gave the example of a package tour to India – the brochure is one thing but at some point how you experience it is your own – so with meditation. We must face the vast ocean of mind/heart, or primordial wisdom alone.
The meditative journey requires that we are sensitive to everything in and around us. We need to understand our individual life and its struggles. The mystical traditions describe something vast and sacred – living from there is very different than living from our ‘little house’.
The sacred is always there but we are unable to see it – we fail to believe in it. He pointed out again and again that we need to have a positive perception based on this profound and positive truth. We must not follow paths that reinforce our feelings of unworthiness – we are uncovering what is already there. We need to have confidence in that – to recognise it. As Tranghu Rinpoche says, ‘the nature of mind is already peace’.
As we proceed with meditation – specifically with mahamudra and shinay and lhaktong – the process becomes more and more delicate & refined. Sometimes in meditation, we have a breakthrough in perception that shifts how we feel about it, but we downplay our momentary experience and choose to focus on the confusion.
But the good news is that our confusion is co-emergent with our inner wisdom, so it may actually be a good sign! Saraha says the two are intimate. (Co-emergence is a specific aspect of Mahamudra – the two arise together).
In the realm of truth, logic and reason do not apply, hence the endless paradoxes so often expressed, as our teachers try to explain and conceptualise that which can only be experienced. For example, ‘The way out is the way in’, or as Drupon Rinpoche says ‘things are neither as they seem to be nor are they otherwise’ while Suzuki Rinpoche says it is ‘Not always so’.
‘The known’ or more correctly, what we think we know – is the field of thought and construct or fabrication. It is limited but we still need to know how to relate to our experience with its limitations and learn to leave things be.
The unknown that is revealed in meditation is always fresh but the fact that thought is constantly trying to mimic the natural state makes the process very challenging.
Mahamudra – the meditative practice of the Kagyu – tries to show us how to live a meditative life and become a totally natural human being – or dharmic living – a truly big picture that takes in bodhicitta and the whole cosmos.
In this tradition, we work with the distracted mind – which has tremendous energy – it is fascinating, but we need not to be knocked by its vitality. Mind is capable of great beauty and meaning and also great distraction.
Although meditation is usually taught as if it were graduated, sequential path, this may not necessarily be the case.
Traditionally, we begin with shamatha, starting with something to focus on and moving on to reflect on mind itself, without a support. This is very close to Lhaktong but Donal explains that in Shamatha there is still a subtle holding to something. Nonetheless shamatha can expand and deepen beyond this initial experience.
Every meditation session is different. Having a sense of humour is important so we don’t take ourselves and our experiences too seriously.
With Lhaktong we are seeing – looking at what mind really is – in mahamudra, there are the traditional methods – look at mind, does it have a colour? Where is it located? Even here there will still be a little holding. Donal suggests we try look at mind as we look at a person – to really see mind/heart, without thinking about what we are seeing. Easy isn’t it!
And we also need to throw out any knowledge we have accumulated. Less is better; knowledge can become an obstacle because mind can manufacture what we have read about – it can fabricate ‘luminosity’.
As Donal says, with Lhaktong you don’t reach a conclusion – you just keep looking. If you’ve already decided what is there based on ‘knowledge’, then you won’t see what is actually there.
The most important thing is to see is the mistake – which is the strategizing mind – the mind’s tendency to fabricate and to say ‘look – this is it! Even deciding not to strategize is fabricating!
Again and again, Donal reminded us of the inspiring truth – that the nature of our mind is fundamental goodness.
In the meditative process, what we have thought about our mind can undergo a significant shift, which also changes our reality and how we move in the world.
When our ‘central HQ’ – fabricating mind – grinds to a halt, we have more space – it no longer imprisons us. What we find is something vibrant and dynamic – we are able to get in touch with our life – and at its core is the mystery of our being; a natural outflow of mind/heart, where mind is swallowed up by heart – this is the natural way of being for all of us. Even if you don’t realise the nature of mind, it is still a fascinating journey full of learning.
When we look into the nature of reality in this way, we find it is intangible – there is a movement from the gross to the subtle. Looking deeper, we find a spaciousness that cannot be dismantled – the ground of everything – which, because of the truth of impermanence and suffering mind/heart must be understood.
And I know that this probably sounds like so many words – but somehow on this retreat, Donal helped us come closer to some fleeting experience of what the words are all about. And this is why poetry and some of the words of the spiritual masters are so meaningful because even when we don’t understand what they are saying, they are able to provide a glimpse of something so much deeper.
‘Dharma is the source of the world – mind the most perfect expression of it.’ Taoist quote from the 7th century.
Another piece that Donal read and that many of us found inspiring was from Katagiri Roshi. It speaks about the relationship between the student and the guru and the process we embark on when we begin to meditate.
It is though we are a chick ready to hatch from its egg. We begin to tap on the shell and when the mother hen hears that tapping, she begins to tap on the shell from the outside, until eventually we are freed from our imprisoning shell – our ordinary mind.
Donal also supplemented his daily teachings with his unique and challenging dialogues – inspired by Krishnamurti’s teachings and by Donal’s own desire to force us kicking and screaming into a personal experience of some of the terms we use so glibly – to gain some real insight into what they actually mean in our lives.
You think you know what compassion is, or what it means to live a meaningful life? Think again, and then think some more, and then apply some rigorous reasoning to those first pat answers.
Gently and firmly, Donal led us to appreciate how swiftly and subtly our minds move away from the difficult and constantly try to provide ‘answers’ or alter the question to something we feel safer with. This process is something I think we might usefully try and explore in some of these Sunday morning sessions in future.
But of course the point of retreat is to bring its benefits into our daily lives – ‘dharmic living’ – constantly changing and dynamic – where we see the reality of suffering clearly, but are not dragged down by it.
Mahamudra is about the ‘big picture’ – an appreciation of the whole of life and keeping to the forefront a sense of freedom and wonder.
But we also need to keep in mind the small picture – mindfulness in our daily lives by taking care of the small details, without obsessing about them. We need both precision and to take into account the bigger context.