Edited Transcript of a teaching by Lama Karma in the three-year retreats at Karma Ling, Avalon, France.
Today I would like to talk about just the very beginning of Dangway Naljor (The Yoga of Awakening), particularly the moment before you even begin. Before we get into the more esoteric elements of the actual sādhana, what is the experience of getting up in the morning in your meditation box?
There are many different dimensions of waking up and in retreat you are going to train in all of them. You can wake up from sleep as is the case here. You can wake up in a dream. You can wake up in the waking state itself. You can wake up or arise in the bardo between death and life. And as was said in the commentary by Denys Rinpoche, Guru Rinpoche says that awakening is connected to the notion of birth, that birth is a time of waking up.
From the perspective of the Vajrayana, this moment is caught and used in the context of practice in what are called the three, four, or five stages of manifest awakening as a deity.
So before we get to that, I would like to talk about what it is to wake up, and a lot will be framed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on what he calls the “Great Eastern Sun.”
In his presentation of the Great Eastern Sun, it is very much this moment of waking up, how do you meet the day, but in general, how do you wake up to meet your life? This is contrasted with what is called the “Setting Sun” mentality. I am sure all of you have a sense of this, waking up in the morning in your box and your body is in pain, you may have fear, anxiety, you may have depression, whatever you may be feeling at that point. And as Tom Waits says, you would prefer that the sun would just go back down. This is the setting sun mentality, and that is normal.
The basis of the Great Eastern Sun is what is called “Basic Goodness,” and this is the starting point of the sādhana as well. In Tibetan it is called ka dag, or primordial purity. Basic Goodness. And what was presented in the commentary by Lama Denys Rinpoche was “bindu,” and from this bindu in the sādhana here it says that all appearances arise as the five wisdoms. Before that happens, what is this basic goodness, what is primordial purity?
Trungpa Rinpoche says “there is always the primordial dot,” and this is referring to “goodness before thought, in the midst of the worst.” Our job now is to connect with that, familiarize ourselves with that, and trust in that. That kind of familiarity and trust leads to what might be called “renunciation.” In Tibetan this is called nges ‘byung; nges means definitely and ‘byung means emerge or arise.
So in this context you are definitely getting up. And this is mixed with the joy that is the trust in basic goodness. And it is not somehow removed from the sadness or the type of sensitivity that you may have. Renunciation in this sense is not in any way denying or ignoring sadness or suffering or depression. In The Great Eastern Sun there is a whole chapter called “Working With Early Morning Depression.” The key here is that right in the middle of whatever you might be feeling, whether it is fear, anxiety, depression, etc., right in the middle of that, there is a sensitivity and a softness. There is a soft spot, and the recognition of that soft spot brings gentleness and tenderness. So there is gentleness right in the midst of fear, right in the middle of depression. And when he says, “fearlessness comes from the direct realization of fear,” this is what is meant. He says, “From morning depression and its fear and terror, we can step directly into basic goodness.” Right on the spot. He calls this stepping onto “square one.”
In a very potent way, renunciation in this sense leads to a precise understanding of what to accept and what to reject. What we are rejecting here is what he often refers to as “the cocoon.” The cocoon is something that is conditioned by fear and or aggression.
If it is fear, the cocoon is what allows you to replace, repress, or avoid this waking up. It is the feeling of wanting to put the blankets back on and settle down again. And when that impulse is elaborated upon, all of saṃsāra unfolds. Saṃsāra, in various ways, runs on the effort of avoiding or replacing or pushing away this basic wakefulness and substituting it with sense pleasures, distractions and so forth. And because of this, one who is living in the cocoon is living a simulation of life, is never living directly.
And if the cocoon is conditioned by aggression, it is an effort to protect or fortify oneself. So what we are rejecting here is either this putting on a new suit of armor or the indulging in distraction and substitute gratifications.
On the other hand, of what to adopt, what we are acknowledging here is appreciation of our own basic goodness, we are adopting gentleness towards ourselves and our environment, and we are adopting fearlessness. And this comes from a precise knowing, a clear seeing of this soft spot.
For instance, right in the middle of depression, connect with the sensitivity, the vulnerability and the softness that is right in the middle of that. And even if you can’t feel that or sense that, just the knowing that you are depressed, the sensing of that is itself an indication that there is a gap, there is an opening.
Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Renunciation is overcoming the hard aggressive mentality that keeps gentleness from coming into our hearts. Fear does not let fundamental tenderness touch us. When tenderness tinged with sadness touches our hearts, at that point we know we are in touch with reality.”
So what to do if you can’t feel anything? If you only feel hard and if you just continue to go about your day, there may or may not be periods of gaps within that hardness. Try to settle into that hardness by coming in touch with what your body is feeling in terms of sensation, energy, and emotion and get in touch with the tenderness in its midst. Your job then is just to sit right in the middle of that feeling, feeling it directly.
Starting first with recognition of the emotion, “I am feeling this.” And then acknowledging it, saying “this is ok.” Then looking into it, exploring it, how does it feel in the body, what are its emotional tones? And then on the basis of that, creating a bit of space where it is something that is happening, but it is not you. And with that gap you can step right into basic goodness. That opens up space, another gap, where you can recognize that your basic goodness includes both the feeling and the one feeling it.
And then from that place, compassion arises. But if you try to pour compassion onto the difficult emotion without going through these stages it is just like pouring something sweet onto a wound. It would be superficial.
The context of all of this is the arising of what are called “habitual tendencies.” In Tibetan these are called bag chags. One experience that I had many times in retreat was waking up in my box and having absolutely no idea where I was. And then having a vague notion that there was a clock. And then looking at the clock and slowly the numbers appearing, and seeing eventually that it was 4:30 or whatever, and not knowing if it was 4:30 in the morning or the afternoon. And then in the moments following, watching slowly as all these reference points start to form like a spider web, and connections between them starting to form, and then suddenly the realization, “Oh, I am in retreat. . . . Oh shit.”
This is an illustration of what is called, “one ground, two paths.” The one ground here is basic goodness and the two paths are one in which there is recognition and a staying with that recognition of basic goodness, and the other in which there is a lack of recognition or misrecognition. And in this case all of the habitual tendencies start to snowball, they start to become larger and larger. And then there is all of our “tricks and occupations” that substantiate this—ways of trying to make this mistake work. But thankfully you are waking up in a meditation box—there is no way to make it work without first recognizing basic goodness.
So lets return to the text to tie everything together. We have basic goodness as this primordial bindu, the starting point. And in the moment before we start the practice, there is an arising. And actually in my retreats we were told to do this first part standing up in the box, playing the damaru and bell. So there is a moment of rising, of getting up. And this rising, this renunciation is done with both courage and gentleness.
If there is not courage, this stepping up, getting up, everything that you do after that point, this whole sādhana and all of the practices you do during that day, if you don’t do them with courage, there is a risk that it all becomes a fetish (or you don’t do them at all). All of the practices that you do are then just another layer on the cocoon, spiritual materialism in other words, using the practice to support your own ego. I say “fetish” because in Tibetan Buddhism we have all of these truly beautiful, elegant, detailed, lovely things that we do. But without courage, you get up in the morning and you have your “damaru,” and you hold your pretty bell between your delicate fingers, and you do this “sādhana,” and it is all bullshit.
And on the other hand, if you don’t get up with gentleness, if you arise with aggression, a whole other series of mistakes ensues. For instance in my case, for years, before I would do this practice I would jump out of my box and do as many pushups as I could, like eighty pushups until I couldn’t anymore, and that was how I started the day. It was completely conditioned by aggression, trying to be better than the environment, to use strength and effort to create another layer of armor.
In terms of our habitual tendencies, we are going to continue to have fear, depression, anxiety, etc., that is natural. In addition to the practice of recognizing basic goodness within those experiences, on the basis of that, as Vajrayana practitioners, we have what is called “pure perception” or “sacred outlook.” In Tibetan this is called dak snang. Kadak is basic goodness and daknang is sacred outlook. The first word of the text is this nang. Trungpa Rinpoche says, “Sacred outlook is the brilliant environment created by basic goodness.”
In the same way, we have this bindu of basic goodness from which emerge the pure appearance of the five bindus of rainbow light mentioned here in the text. This is the brilliance of the environment of basic goodness. That is always there, this is the way that things already are.
There is an instruction from Dzongsar Khyentse Chöki Lodrö, who was the previous Dzongsar Khyentse, that in the morning, just as when you light the candle on your shrine and the whole room is illuminated with a gentle light, in the same way you think that when you wake up, all appearance arises as the pure realm of Guru Rinpoche, the Copper Colored Mountain, and that the space is filled with the sound of the damarus of the dākinīs. In one sense this is something that we are creating, the reading of this sādhana creates this experience and you imagine that this is happening. We are using that act of imagination as a creative tool to reconnect with the luminous nature of basic goodness. But in another sense, just as all the objects in the room were fully present before the darkness was illuminated by the candle, all of this is already there, and our recitation and imagination is an acknowledgement and integration of what is already there with our experience.
In this case, and in sādhanas in general, they are both methods to connect, and the actual expressions of that purity. What is happening here with pure perception is that it is interacting with our habitual tendencies, our bag chags, allowing us to liberate them into this recognition.
On the basis of all of this, compassion and devotion naturally arise. This is the point of doing all of this—because it opens your heart. And in the text as well, after this initial visualization and recitation, immediately there is this line that says, “May all sentient beings arise from the bed of saṃsāra. May all beings achieve the dharmakāya of the Buddha.” Again that (dharmakāya) is basic goodness.
I hope you have a sense of the whole environment that we are trying to cultivate here in using the sādhana and the recognition of our own pure nature, and how these interact with our conditioned nature, our suffering. Waking up is a practice of recognition, and a practice of courage and gentleness.