Jared Janes and Charlie Awbery, May 27, 2021, online at the Stoa
Transcribed by Max Soweski
Jared: Okay, so welcome to the Stoa. I’m your… What am I? I’m not a steward. I treaded on Peter’s territory a bit, now I’m a facilitator. Something like that. This is the fourth… Is it the fourth session?
Charlie: It’s the fourth. It’s the fourth of the actual series, and then we started with zero. So it’s the fifth.
Jared: Fifth, yeah.
Charlie: It’s Number Four, which is the fifth.
Jared: Exactly. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense [laughs]. We start at zero, yeah. That’s how we roll. But if you do want to look at some of the past ones too, they’re not completely required; hopefully this is kind of a standalone thing. It can operate well if you didn’t look at the previous sessions, but they’re probably helpful and we did put them in a specific order for a reason.
So yeah, Charlie is going to introduce the topic, which is going to be Principle and Function, and basically how that view can be applied to practice, and specifically in a Vajrayana context. That’s one of the fundamental things of Evolving Ground’s approach, so it’s a pretty important one. We’re even thinking it might end up being another session on a similar topic, depending on how far we get.
So yeah, Charlie will give a brief background. I’ll probably chime in every once in a while. And then we’ll open up for questions and see where the discussion leads. And then maybe a few people will stick around after we’ve finished up our 90 minutes.
So Charlie, do you want to – I don’t know – did we introduce ourselves? We’ve done that in the past.
Charlie: I think everybody knows us, and if you are in the future and you are watching on the Stoa channel, this one is going to be particularly related, actually, to the second one that we did: View. Was that the second one? Yeah, I think it was Number Two.
Jared: Yeah, I think so.
Charlie: You might want to check that one out as well. There’ll be some connections there. Maybe by way of introduction, just to say that what we’re doing with this video series is laying the whole foundations for a community of contemporary Vajrayana practice, and that is Evolving Ground. That’s at evolvingground.org.
We haven’t quite got our website up and running, but we’re working on that at the moment. At the moment, it goes straight to our Patreon, and actually this is a really nice opportunity to say just how much we appreciate everybody’s support. A lot of people are attending here today who are supporters as well, so thank you for that. And if you enjoy what we’re doing, and if you want to contribute by way of appreciation, hop over to the Patreon and buy us a coffee. That’d be really great, thank you.
So, we’re talking about principle and function. When we’re talking about how things work, that is how methods – social technology, spiritual technology, any kind of technology – when we’re thinking about how things work, what makes them function in context, how they relate or don’t relate with each other, then really what we’re doing is we’re taking a meta-systematic view. So if we want to do that, want to take a meta-systematic view to see the value of different systems in relation to each other, then we have to consider principle and function. So I want to start by saying that meta-systematicity isn’t defined by picking and choosing from different systems according to personal preference or according to some other criteria. That’s kind of what we do all the time anyway because we’re in a time of multiple influences, and exposed to many different cultural perspectives and forms.
The default, I think, is for most people to pick and choose something, pick and choose according to what’s available, according to personal preference. You know, “I’ll have one of those, a few of them, some of that, didn’t like the look of that, and wouldn’t take that, thanks. And a Coke to wash it all down.” That’s not meta-systematicity. It doesn’t define what it means to be meta to different sorts of a type, or different types, to be able to pick and choose from among them. No, that isn’t the definition of meta-systematicity. It might be an aspect of a meta view, but I don’t think it’s really enough on its own. Being meta to a system involves starting to understand how its parts work in context, in relation to each other.
So when you’re immersed in one system, it’s going to work for you if it’s a good system. It’ll function whether or not you understand how it works. When you engage, it’ll do its thing. You pop in the London transport system at one end of town, and pop out at the other end. You don’t need to be an engineer or a train driver to understand how to use the system. This is true for practically everything in our society. But when it comes to applying method, applying a technology for an entire social or spiritual technology in a different context (which is what we’re doing in Evolving Ground, we’re considering Vajrayana outside of the context in which it evolved), then it becomes really necessary to understand it and its important parts in a lot more detail and in a different way than if we were just engaging with Vajrayana.
So we’re not simply engaging with it as a system, or even as multiple systems. In order for it to do its thing and pop us out at the other end, we need to understand it in principle, how its functions are accomplished – what is the mechanism that makes the method or technology do the thing that it does? How does it work? That’s the necessary step to be able to apply different methods in different contexts.
So we’re in a somewhat unusual position. And because of that, I think it would be useful to say something about how things usually work in order for us to really grok what the challenge is here. I want to talk about learning, and personal development. So it’s very easy to separate spiritual path from learning or developing skills, because we like to make it separate and holy. But that’s not actually congruent with the views from Vajrayana, which are all leading towards better relationship in some way. All Vajrayana views and Vajrayana paths, and methods, are in some sense connected to better relationship. We talked a little bit about that in past Stoa events – relationship with self, others, circumstances, environment. So in Vajrayana we don’t need to separate out the spiritual path from individual learning, prosocial development. We can see them as a large overlap. And especially in terms of result, effect of practice.
So one frame from within which you can place spiritual practice methodology is to think about it as a mode of learning. I don’t think people usually do this. But it certainly could be a useful way of coming at it. You can regard it as a mode of experiential learning. Quite pragmatic – makes connection with your practice and your human, social involvement in the world.
That’s probably why spiritual practice is not usually framed in this way, because many spiritual technologies are designed to separate you from worldly involvement. So Vajrayana is going against the grain in that sense in relation to other Buddhisms, and some other religious paths. It’s designed to intensify and make more immediate your experience of awareness, and your capacity for congruent activity in ordinary, everyday daily life.
So learning and development are natural facets of human experience. There’s a connection with adaptation. We’re always adapting, we’re always learning something new from our circumstances. In that sense, learning is absolutely fundamental to being human. It’s kind of interesting when you think of it all like that, to say “Well, how do we do that? How do we learn?” The most obvious, primary answer to that, I think, is by imitation. That’s the first, most foundational learning experience that we all have, and it continues throughout life. So imitation is really a basic social technology. It’s a lot of how individuals work. It’s how groups cohere. It’s how societies develop, it’s biologically ingrained, into our adaptive experience – to be able to imitate. It’s a pretty important basic, natural learning mechanism. We certainly do that. There’s no doubt about that.
I’m reminded of – there’s a lovely scene in one of the David Attenborough videos; it’s a more recent one that the Planet Earth one. There’s a little baby chimpanzee – or maybe it’s a gorilla, I don’t remember. She’s learning how to break into nuts with a stone. She keeps getting it wrong, and she’s using the wrong sort of stone, and it’s not the right shape or something like that. Mom shows her how to do it, and she still gets it wrong, and you can see the mom gorilla’s like rolling her eyes. Eventually, she gives up and she gets some food from the mother. You know that she’s going to learn how to do it right. Eventually she’s going to get it right, she’s going to tap in the right way and she’s going to learn that skill.
That ability wasn’t right there from birth. She had to learn it through imitation and practice. And we’re also apes, right? We learn also by imitation and by practice. One of the natural human relationships is between a skilled person and a learner, a teacher and a student, or you know, in many, many cultures a master and apprentice (a craftsman, say).
These kinds of relationships cross cultures, they’re part of the way knowledge is transmitted. You can see really beautiful examples of these learning relationships in practice, in YouTube videos of weaving traditions in Southeast Asia, for example. There are lineages of these specialized fabric weaving traditions that have been passed on from one generation of women to the next over the years. It’s really lovely. There’s this kind of learning relationship that’s about embodying understanding through practice, and there’s an aspect of that, as a learner you’re honing a skill through imitation. Imitation isn’t the only aspect, but it’s really significant. To naturally learn something like that without the foundational basis of imitation – you can’t do that.
You can’t learn something like that without being able to imitate, and the willingness to do that. But of course that’s quite natural. We do it all the time. You want to learn to skateboard or snowboard, you’re going to be copying other people. The idea that you can somehow be kind of romantically free from imitation—which of course is a ritual in some way—but the idea that you can be miraculously free from that and produce amazing originality without imitating, without that being part of your learning process is obviously bollocks. But because we’ve got this idea of individuality and autonomy, and creative autonomy, self-expression, is ultimately desirable, and it’s dialed into us culturally. It’s really easy to miss how important and how prevalent the socially-connected, imitative learning process is as well. And obviously that can have a downside and can go wrong too – you get dysfunctional group processes through that going off in a particular direction.
If you want to learn anything, including meditation or other practices (ritual visualization, energetic practices, song, whatever) in a normal setup in any group situation, or any tradition, you’re going to be significantly mimicking, imitating, copying what other people have done for a long time, often for centuries. And there are some obviously good reasons for that – that process is inherent in the idea of a spiritual path, you know, “path” – you’re treading where other people have been before. It saves you from getting scraped up in the bushes, saves you from falling down in a canyon and getting eaten by a bear, or whatever. It’s all the way through to whole societies widely adopting different social technologies; imitation is kind of embedded into every social concept of development, you know – Confucianism, scholarly learning, the whole western concept of development, industrial development, economics. Imitation is just kind of fundamentally there as an aspect of everything.
So I think I’ve kind of thoroughly made that point now. Imitation is natural, it’s foundational for learning. So I’ve given some examples of how it keeps knowledge and understanding alive when it’s part of a living tradition, a person-to-person process of transmission. And it’s interwoven with intelligent inquiry and learning dialogue.
So when does it become dysfunctional? It’s really interesting to ask that question and to look at examples of what dysfunctional imitation can lead to, because of course the danger with it is that it becomes kind of hollow and empty, and a meaningless dead ritual. Then it’s not contributing to learning; it’s not contributing to personal development or to social development in that case. Something’s gone awry. So as spiritual practitioners a useful question for us to ask is “When and where does imitation appeal?” Because learning doesn’t happen unless there’s inspiration.
There has to be this really strong sense of resonance and connection. A big appeal, like a draw to really want to do something. When you see someone skiing in a particularly fluid way and you think “Hell yeah, I’d love to ski like that! How can I do that?” That inspiration has to be there in order for imitation to even start occurring, and eventually for ritual practice to have a place to seem worthwhile or even par for the course, something that you would even consider engaging with. So in terms of human culture and adaptation, human history, imitation is always kind of foundational. It’s always been there. It’s always been inseparable from cultural context for millennia: culture imitation, lineage tradition. All of those have been kind of inseparable from each other, for most humans historically. And then then you get these periods in time where cultures mix and clash, or emerge, or co-exist, and then there’s some kind of cultural transition happening. And that can take place over centuries, or it can be quite fast. In times of conflict, for example. So there are periods of cultural stability for some societies in some times, and then periods of cultural transition and change. In other times – and we’re in one of those times now, and we’re in that kind of transition on a scale that’s never been experienced by humans before as far as we know. Because that’s the case, I think it’s worth asking:
How does that affect learning? How does that affect our kind of ordinary adaptive process of learning, and the way that we as human beings usually would engage with transmission of knowledge, transmission of understanding?
Of course it has a massive effect, because the whole context in which imitation is reliable and can be fundamentally trusted is just in total upheaval. The whole context is changing, and it’s not yet settled itself so we’re in this centuries-long period of cultural transition where, to our point here today, Vajrayana is being made available by the cultures within which it evolved, and almost entirely to date it’s been presented and available in terms of imitation. In terms of tradition, it’s being presented as a system in itself. From the cultural perspective within which it evolved, the history and a tradition which a particular form worked in, could be imitated, could maybe be tweaked and adapted a bit here and there. But mostly it could be more or less the same, generation to generation.
And so like I said earlier, for a particular technology to be of any appeal it’s got to inspire, and for that to be the case there must already be a sense – maybe it’s entirely implicit – but there already has to be some kind of understanding of how it functions (that is, what it actually does), of what benefit there would be to learn it in context. What is its purpose? Without that, therewouldn’t be a felt connection, there wouldn’t be a desire to be involved with it, to have it work. That is, to have it function in one’s own life.
Many millions of people very quickly adopted Facebook social media technology because it was so obvious, just really super explicit, how facebook would function in their lives – how it would transform opportunities for connections with people. So the function of the technology was so obvious that it didn’t really even need any explanation at all; quick adoption is just very possible when function is really explicit, really obvious. In stable continuous cultural settings functions don’t need to be explained; they’re just kind of contextually obvious.
There was this lineage of beautiful fabric weaving from generation to generation in Bali because the fabric had both functional and ritual purposes in that context. Everybody already understood that; when you understand the function you see how it’s going to work for you individually and socially. In context and in relationship you see its relevance, then you can love the thing. So I think the most important thing to understand here is that when a tradition is alive it’s actually the function that resonates. When a tradition is dead or dying, then you get some form of imitation for its own sake. Their function is increasingly obscured; it’s non-obvious; it’s not making that connection with the people who might engage with it.
How are we doing for time? Maybe I’ll say a little bit more about relating this to spiritual practice in general, and then maybe we’ll have a check-in – a bit of a chat.
Jared: Sounds good.
Charlie: Yeah, so thinking about the function of spiritual practice, usually you would think it’s fairly straightforward, fairly explicit. Like most spiritual technologies, you can have an initial encounter with them and have some good idea of how they’re going to function. Often that function has a strongly individual orientation. Religions in pre-modern societies were one of the standard ways that focusing on individual spiritual development and change would – were deemed kind of acceptable, in some way – big individual emphasis – you develop piety practice, asceticism, as a means to purification of yourself or purification of your soul.
So most highly-systematized spiritual paths were inwardly, individually focused and would involve some kind of separation from society. That would be somewhat different in shamanic traditions where you have much more socially-oriented function.
So people who who have been joining the Evolving Ground community – we’re getting on towards 250 members now, so I’m talking about everyone who fills out the form to join our online community and wants to have access to the Happy Yogi slack, into the community practice Q&A, and the book groups, and the community groups, so people who join Evolving Ground – pretty much everybody who’s joined our community is initially attracted to Vajrayana because they understand it to be life-affirming spiritual practice that includes and works with all aspects of life: emotional, physical, social, in a non-renunciative framework.
So there are questions on the form that we have people fill out that ask you “Why do you want to join?” and we get a very good idea how people think about Vajrayana practice. What all of you think you might – why you might want to become involved. And the moment we describe ourselves as a community of contemporary Vajrayana practice, nearly everybody who fills out the form (pretty much everybody) says that it’s because of its life-affirming orientation that they’re attracted to Vajrayana. So there’s some initial sense making going on, that Vajrayana is going to provide a spiritual contribution to functional relationships in work and family, in community life, and that’s reassuring because that is how it’s supposed to function. But that’s kind of interesting – that’s really interesting – nearly every one of you who’ve responded, you’re not already Vajrayana practitioners (or filling out the form), most people who are responding in that moment, they’re not already Vajrayana practitioners. They’ve heard about it, related it to meditation practice, to life experience and there’s some desire to learn more because there’s some resonance there with the function.
So you see how I was saying understanding how methodology functions is what makes it resonate. It’s how the connection happens. It’s the initial draw, it’s the pull, if you like; the purpose, the function is how you establish a connection initially with the practice, with any developmental technology, any learning process. It’s via the function usually. So talking about the function of Vajrayana in this way is pretty much the most general, abstract, wide-angle view that you could possibly take. Of course Vajrayana includes many paths. It’s multiple paths; they have many hundreds of practices. It developed in very different cultural contexts over centuries, so to encapsulate it into a single function or two like this is to be very very general about it. Nonetheless it’s also a pretty useful starting framework to have.
It’s really good to have a big picture like that, and it’s in its traditional cultural context in Tibet. That’s the tradition that I understand best, so I’ll talk about that one. Vajrayana did develop elsewhere in Asia as well, but in Tibet it had a long history. You can look at its function in multiple ways over the centuries: socially, economically, spiritually, morally. It functioned in those spheres in very different ways. Vajrayana was eventually really embedded inside the monastic system, and within Sutrayana or Mahayana, and it was embedded in a really quite specific way. So it became contained within a particular form. It became subject to a much wider vehicle whose multiple functions were inseparable from the society and the political economy of Tibet.
There’s a great deal more to say about that, but you know – probably not so much time here today – but what we’re doing in Evolving Ground when we talk about the function of Vajrayana in this very wide, all-encompassing way as being life-affirming leading to functional relationship, congruent everyday response, is that we’re recognizing a particular spiritual function that was coherent within and intrinsic to the early evolution of Vajrayana. We’re honing in on that very particular spiritual function and its implications for world view and for methodology and practice, and we’re seeing that as positively relevant and pertinent to contemporary times.
And briefly – why on earth should something so obscure and ancient from quite a different time and place have anything interesting to say about contemporary experience? The answer to that is exactly where we’re at. We’re living, increasingly over the last few decades and half a century, in an evermore individualistic, atomized society. We’re more fragmented culturally. We’ve reached a point where self-expression is the ultimate cultural expression. Many people recognize the downsides of that. Many people are feeling that, acutely, there’s a lot of isolation and alienation, a lack of purpose, a lack of connection, and a great sense of loss. There’s a sense of a loss of cohesion and a loss of solidarity in many ways for many people.
So on the one hand we really understand and appreciate the social freedoms that individualism has given us. And there’s a very strong cultural heritage that assumes that there’s this kind of zero-sum game, that in order to have more community orientation, more civic and socially-functional engagement, that some degree of self-sacrifice or self-abnegation is required. Like we’re on some kind of sliding scale. If you look at nearly all the competing spiritual and religious and social and political views, they’re all doing something like that. They’re all based on this kind of idea that spiritual technology is to do with self-sacrifice and self-denial, and they’re bumping up against the individual ideal in that way because they’re contrary to it in some way. So then you get a lot of solutions that are to do withmoderation or the middle way or balance or, you know, “more of this, less of that,” that kind of thing. There’s this sort of sliding scale that understands the relation of the individual to community as being kind of zero-sum in that way, quantitative. You find a lot of the ways that communities or the individuals or people are trying to address the fragmentation of culture and society and atomization at the moment is to put it back into that kind of a box. Vajrayana doesn’t do that when it’s approached as a spiritual path in its own right. The particular Vajrayana heritage that we’re evolving here, it doesn’t take this zero-sum view, and it doesn’t separate spirituality from social fulfillment such that sacrifice or self-abnegation, or down regulation of individual personalities and characteristics are required in order to fit in to a prescribed spiritual condition.
So we can see Vajrayana as having a peculiar and quite unique social function, potentially in contemporary culture. It’s both-and; it’s not either-or. Quite distinct, I think, from other available spiritual methodologies. You can see how that gives it this overlap with personal developmental processes and with social learning. There’s no deliberate opposition there, there’s no tension between spiritual, social, and individual skill acquisition.
So I’ve been going on for a little while. Maybe we take a break and think about some of those things and how they’re relevant.
Jared: I was going to add something to what this actually looks like. Because you know I’ve been kind of bouncing around the modern Western Buddhist communities and things, and there is this – to kind of renounce the self or distance the self – the group becomes more and more similar over time, where there is a kind of a flattening of polarities and difference in the name of being able to connect with each other. To your point, it makes sense. It’s noticing that there’s a limitation to hyper-individualism, but when, in the way that the community is developing in Evolving Ground, it’s connecting through appreciating all of the different perspectives and all of the unique individual personality traits, and contexts and cultural backgrounds and everything. Interests and stuff. And still does lead to a group cohesion, but it is not limited to only being able to connect when we agree completely on every every aspect. And so that just makes for a really lively, interesting, and quite natural and mundane way of contact, of building relationships with people. I see it very – it is also – we also – we talk about the community being a bit of a sandbox too, because it so easily integrates into the rest of life. The way that I relate to friends and people, work colleagues and acquaintances and in-laws and everything like that, are – there’s not a different approach that needs to be brought here because in the sandbox we’re practicing what it’s like to enjoy people for their difference. And just being humans.
And so it was a refreshing shift for me because there was always a bit of… I started in this more general, predominantly renunciative frame. Like we said though, renunciation is still a principle that can be applied within Vajrayana, so it’s not saying that it’s off limits. And yet if that’s the broad container, it leads to these kind of… it’s almost the water that we’re all swimming in in the Buddhist scene and it’s not really talked about very often.
Charlie:I mean, in some way if you have a strongly renunciative view then what you’re doing is reinforcing the individualist emphasis that we have culturally. You’re reinforcing that going more and more into your own kind of self bubble without making the connection aspect of the practice.
Jared: Yeah, I’m curious – so yeah we can definitely move into questions too. So I’m sure Charlie and I will continue to ramble and go off on tangents because that’s what we do, but feel free to raise your hand and/or send something in the chat. Tanner: “Is there a tension between learning through imitation and appreciating difference?”
Charlie: Yeah, I think that’s the tension that I was drawing attention to. There’s, you know, putting this emphasis on individualism because that’s kind of the cultural water that we swim in, and we assume its good points and that is important. We assume the benefits that it has brought to us. Even 30 years ago it simply would not have been possible to self-express in the way that we’re able to now. We just couldn’t. So we don’t want to lose that. We don’t want to lose the personal autonomy, the personal integrity that it affords – the capacity for intelligent dissent and disagreement (rational disagreement), but at the same time we want to be able to hold those in relation to understanding what has been lost in the process that got us there.
So the tension that is often drawn out [between individualism and the natural, communal mode] is that when culture is the water that you’re swimming in, that isn’t individualism. When yyou’re immersed within a single, cohesive cultural system then that is the other end of the extreme, if you see what I mean. That’s a different polarity. So we’ve in some sense, I think, we’ve kind of lost the recognition of what the benefits of that were. They’re much less readily available now, and so I’m not saying everybody go out and imitate. I’m saying this is what we do. This is what we are already doing. This is how groups work. But that process is hidden from us because we’ve moved towards understanding self-expression as being the way that we are. So we don’t notice all of the imitative aspects of who we are as well, and how that makes groups work in some way. There’s always going to be this kind of tension, I think, in a multicultural, in a meta-systematic approach. So it’s good to draw attention to that.
Derek: Evan M., do you want to ask your question about the cooking analogy? It seems connected to what Charlie was just saying.
Evan M: This was just more of a comment. So when you were speaking of, say meta-systematicity with respect to this not being simply the act or capacity to select between sort of a-la-carte, different systematic approaches. So by analogy, I said in the chat that it seems sort of like the difference between creating a meal by ordering a Mexican appetizer, an Indian entree, and a French dessert versus the art of creating a fusion meal in which all three courses are created by having a blended understanding of the underlying principles of those three cuisines.
Charlie: Yeah, I think that analogy works. I was thinking about it.
Jared: It’s funny, this is – the cooking metaphor – is something that I’ve talked about before. And it was, yeah, I think the context that I had in there, it was just – this is connected – but maybe approaching it from a bit of a different angle. But in the sense of, if your history of cooking is in a very specific cuisine and culture and ingredients, and then tomorrow you’re thrown in somewhere completely new and all of a sudden you don’t have any of the existing stuff. If you don’t understand the principles of the ingredients – “Oh, this is the part that brings the acid. This is the part that brings the salt. This is the part that brings out knowing what composes a proper dish.” If you don’t have that, then you’d be very lost, as when you’re looking at new ingredients. But to your point, if you understand things from a principle, then any of the cultural ingredients, as long as you understand that function, can be utilized. And you know how they’ll kind of work together and what the result will be. But yeah, if you’re only imitating, if you’ve only learned by imitation, it’s just the memorization of these ingredients in this order, and this method (or this technique probably is a better word), and then you can be a little lost and less flexible.
Charlie: It’s to do with the organizing principle. So the organizing principle for pick-and-mix is preference, it’s self-preference. The organizing principle for meta-systematicity is something entirely different. It’s not about choosing according to like and dislike, and rejecting according to dislike. It’s – the organizing principle for meta-systematicity is understanding relationship, understanding function in relation to other functions. It’s understanding how parts fit together in one context. So it’s actually an entirely different organizing principle, it’s – you cannot extract meta-systematicity from context, whereas you know, if you’re picking and choosing according to preference you can you can be anywhere, and just like, “Oh, that’s nice, and that’s nice,” and the context is much less pertinent because the context that matters is the self – the self that’s doing the choosing. When you’re being meta-systematic in principle, the context that matters is the place of application, how things are going to work together or not work together. So it’s actually orthogonal in some ways. It’s just a different relationship, a different principle.
Jared: To get even more meta, too. There is still a relationship of the individual there. It’s always part of the context; is the individual preference, but when it’s interfacing with the… you know how the pieces of the puzzle or the parts of the cuisine are working together? You can clearly separate them.
Charlie: It’s certainly an aspect that would play into the overall flavor and style and aesthetic that you might end up with, but it’s not like you could be meta-systematic with only that. That’s not the way that the process itself could be defined.
Derek: Maybe the context is involved too. This is riffing a little bit on what Ignacio put in the chat, but I’m thinking of when I’m making dinner for the week, a daily dinner, right? I’m prioritizing speed but if I’m making a feast, different things are at play and I want my understanding of the whole – like what it’s about – and what I’m going to be like, and what kinds of things are going to be appealing, is totally different. But in some ways the cooking process is not really that different. I don’t know if that adds anything there.
Charlie: Yeah, I think the food analogy only goes so far, to be honest. Because I think it’s very easy to say, “Oh yeah, you know, it’s like instead of just doing this, that, and this, and that we’re just going a little bit deeper.” But it’s not that we’re going in more detail in the same sphere, somehow. It’s like we’re talking about a different organizing principle, like a different thing. Derek: Maybe this is playing for the next part, the principal and function. We’ve been talking a lot about function. I’m a little confused about where the line is and how we decide, because your initial analogy of the subway system as somebody who doesn’t have the opportunity to use a lot of public transportation… If I’m in a city I feel like I do need to know a lot of how this thing works in order to use it. Like I can’t just get on a station and get off at the place that I want. The maps are really confusing, and how it works…
Charlie: Yeah, okay so then that is a bad analogy for you. That analogy doesn’t actually work well for you. So you know the analogy I used was to try to demonstrate what it has been like for most humans most of the time in their context.
Derek: And it’s because the principle is already built into the culture. The principle is just that you’ve sort of absorbed it somehow, or because the idea of the engineer – like what the engineer knows versus what the people who ride in the subway know – that feels like a difference in, kind of…
Charlie: Yeah. It is a different kind, yeah.
Evan P: Well, isn’t it – it’s like the difference between growing up in Manhattan versus growing up in Poughkeepsie. If you’re in that system, just over time you absorb it. And you don’t have to if you’re on a trip to Manhattan and you have… you’ve packed in your weekend. The learning curve is like this if you grew up in Manhattan, and the learning curve is this different kind of arc.
Derek: But you haven’t learned what the train engineer knows, and the people who design the subway. Living in Manhattan hasn’t taught you that.
Evan P: Right, exactly. That’s my point. It’s just over time through exposure. So I get – I’m just saying that it’s still – in my mind it still holds if you didn’t grow up in Manhattan, it’s just a question of exposure.
Charlie: So what you’ve been exposed to, you usually would get the function. Like if you’ve been immersed in something, you kind of know how it’s going to work, what it’s going to do, how it’s going to take effect or whatever. But I think becoming meta, being meta-systematic, that’s when the principle actually really starts being important. And you can’t – there’s a way in which it’s really not possible to only know how a principle works in one situation and be meta to it. If all you know is lightning, and that is – you know lightning is how electricity manifests in your life – that’s the only thing that you’ve … the only electricity that you’ve experienced is lightning, then you cannot separate lightning from electricity. If somebody says to you “Lightning is electricity,” okay lightning is electricity, you know it’s only if you’re exposed to electricity working in lots of different situations that you understand something like electricity is capacity to make stuff happen. Electricity makes things work. You begin to understand what that thing is separate from, the form that you initially encountered it with.
So function works immediately. Function is always kind of obviously apparent. If it isn’t, then tradition is kind of dead in some way. But principle is not always obviously apparent, and it becomes increasingly apparent as you see it applied across different methods.
So think about remaining uninvolved, the principle. If you only ever sit shi-ne, then what you know is remaining uninvolved in terms of what arises in mind, what your experience of remaining uninvolved means, is that experience. If you begin to practice that principle in many, many different situations it takes on a very different flavor. You’re not just talking about what the experience is like on the cushion, it’s a much bigger, wider thing. It has lots of different contexts and flavors and applications that actually mean something a bit different. So it becomes separate from the method. It isn’t shi-ne when you practice remaining uninvolved in an argument.
Jared: Yeah we kind of… when we were talking about this session and the – when we’re saying “Oh well, principal, you know, principal, it’s so multifaceted and so… and really it’s – you can’t just jump to the principle and understand it immediately.” And so it’s like the function actually is kind of the connector to understanding the principle, but it’s through interaction and relationship with the function that the principle starts to become illuminated. So that’s why we just talked about if we focus a lot on function, it basically is just taking a step back and saying “Well, why am I doing this and how is this working?” That question, that exploration, will lead toward the principle. You could, you would know the – somebody could tell you – the principle, but if it’s not something that you have some kind of experiential understanding of, of knowing how it interacts in your experience, it’s going to be kind of just not relatable in some sense. It’s just an abstract concept that sounds interesting, and I guess especially since some people might not have seen some of the previous sessions, in Evolving Ground we talk a lot about how Vajrayana has multiple vehicles of practice. And each of those vehicles we define – we always talk about their principle first, and so renunciation is something that we’ve come up with, which is in Sutrayana. Then there’s tantra, which is a separate vehicle which works on the principle of transformation. And then dzogchen, which is the mercurial, strange, paradoxical one that’s spontaneous liberation, or whatever. Yeah, there’s a bunch of… it’s more of an immediate, strange, and mercurial, immediate liberation as opposed to having to go through some process or something. But yeah, that one’s a little bit more hard to describe in a quick way.
But that being said, once you understand that these three principles are – all these three vehicles for practice – are available, and that each one of them is going to lead to a very different place, and you also notice how they’re interacting with each other, it changes the nature of your individual spiritual path quite drastically. For the most part, I guess what we’ve been saying is that the assumed, the unseen principle of renunciation has been the default. Even in the way that the language of spirituality is presented, it’s coming from that perspective. And so being able to disambiguate it, and see in which context how it works, and how it interacts with everything else in everyday life, is just really important.
And I think to Charlie’s point too, so many people are getting engaged with Evolving Ground because they’ve noticed that their practice is leading to something, there’s something missing, and that, I think often, is how is this – why does this feel either in conflict, or –
Charlie: Tension, a lot of people express some sort of tension between the results of the practice, the way that meditation is functioning, and what they want for their life in terms of relationships, and social contribution as well. There seems to be this kind of tension there. So that shouldn’t exist within a Vajrayana framework, within the view, because Vajrayana is oriented towards functional relationship. Basically that is the end point of the path and within Vajrayana, and I think relating to what you were saying there Jared, the cognitive understanding of principles often comes before the experiential understanding, and that’s good and useful. I think it’s really important when you’re approaching any practice methodology to be able to at least ask and figure out “What is the principle by which this works? How does it work?” I think we have to do that in the situation that we’re in, in relation to different spiritual technologies, different psychological technologies as well. Are they functioning and what is the end result? But how do they get there? And if you can understand that cognitively, then at least you’ve got some kind of framework that you can relate to, some sort of reference point. And then you begin to get the experiential understanding from different methods and context.
I just want to check in and ask – is anybody, anyone got any sort of sense of “Whoa, this isn’t working,” or “Doesn’t sound right,” or “Doesn’t feel right,” or “Something’s missing,” or any sort of queries about the content so far? Nobody’s sitting there thinking “Ew!”
Jared: Rory wrote something in the chat a minute ago.
[They look at the chat.]
Charlie: Yeah, there’s this really interesting experience that can happen when you’ve been outside of the culture that you’re so familiar with for quite a long time and then go back into that culture, and it just seems so odd.
There’s this uncanny familiarity and yet strangeness. You see things that you were embedded in, like I remember going back to Britain after I hadn’t been there for some years and somebody was sitting outside a coffee shop with a comforter, like a duvet, wrapped around them with an umbrella and working on their computer, and it was kind of raining and they were just sitting there. And that in Britain is normal in some way, and I remember seeing them, and there was this sort of strange mixture of “Oh Britain, you know, where people sit in the rain with their computers, and you know, it’s just fine.” And yet, man, that’s really strange. It’s really kind of – there’s holding those two: familiarity, and yet distance. I think there’s a sense of that when you’re relating to different spiritual technologies that you see have been extremely functional in the particular context as well. And so you have that kind of relationship in a way that, yeah – this is – how does this relate to me? Here as a human being, what is the relationship? There is some way that this resonates or not, and there’s often a kind of tension there as well, I think. Jared: It’s interesting too when we’re talking – so Rory was talking about culture and context, and how the relationship can change over time. And I think that this does point to something that we are often rambling on about. So the foundational meditation that we start with Evolving Ground is called “opening awareness,” which is based off of shi-ne. It’s been developing into something that’s a little bit unique, so we decided to give it a different name. And so much of what it is doing, the process of getting familiar with this style of meditation, is learning how to let reference points go. And it’s very similar to that being, knowing, what it’s like to be a reference point, and this would be a cultural reference point. “Yep, I grew up in this. I’m familiar with it.” And then being able to drop it and actually see it, like see that there’s a perspective that can be seen from the outside or from the inside in a different… It changes the relationship all of a sudden. Yeah,here’s space around it to explore and it also creates a relationship with other reference points at the same time.
So Charlie, I’m assuming that this is largely like American culture viewed from… This is like, all of a sudden you could see both from the American view and the British view, you know what it’s like to be in both of them. And yet you’re able to maintain a space between both. So all of a sudden they’re in relationship in which before they might have been in conflict. So that, developing a space and being able to drop reference points and be fluid with them, I think is actually one of the kind of foundational ways for meta-systematicity to start to be available. And I think that’s something that arises in that opening awareness practice. That is kind of foundational.
Charlie: Right, exactly that. Yeah, it’s providing the space from which you can allow other forms to arise. So in a sense, that’s like some kind of metaphor for what we’re doing in the community as well – we’re providing space in which it’s going to be possible to have tantric practices and different forms of Vajrayana arise naturally within that context, without being tied to their original cultural forms.
But in order to be able to do that, experiencing what they are like in their original cultural forms is also really important. So over the last… how long we’ve been going, like nearly a year now, nine months, something like that. Quite a few people have been immersing themselves in some different forms of Vajrayana just to experience what they are like, personally. Just to understand what is yidam practice like when I engage in a quite traditional style, in order to be able to eventually, in some years, personally or whatever be able to relate that to a somewhat different context? That’s just a little example.
And we’ll have the same opportunity for understanding the principle itself, so that it doesn’t have to be attached to any particular form. So if you understand, first of all, cognitively understand how – what does transformation actually mean in relation to emotional experience, what does that mean? Are we talking about exploring meaning, well no, no, that’s not how transformation operates in that context. So understanding the method and the way that it works in terms of working with the raw sensation, then, that can be taken intact and applied in different contexts as a practice. It doesn’t have to fit into a very specific outward appearance.
Jared: Evan, did you want to ask your question?
Evan M: Yeah, this is going to be clumsily phrased, I’m afraid. But I guess one thing that kind of has come up for me during this discussion is, at least in my own experience, I’ve observed a sort of interesting connection or correlation between say, what I might consider high-level Patreon practitioners and skill in physical art or craft, right? Whether it’s a painting or woodworking or photography or any of these sorts of types of things, right? Cooking… Ah no, go back to that. And this to me is one of the things that initially really sort of sparked my interest in and engagement with various Vajrayana lineages and traditions, was that – that it had this sort of aliveness and a lack of… It stands to me in some contrast to the sort of renunciative qualities of most of Sutrayana, and I’m wondering if you have thoughts. I have a ton of thoughts about this. I guess I don’t know. For me, I feel like there’s something unique in terms of developing human capacity, especially and situated in a context where you’re not removing yourself from society and civilization, like getting skill in physical craft seems to occupy really interesting space in between what we normally think of as meditation, say from anything from say shi-ne up to moving meditations, like qigong or tai chi, and then you have a sort of – the high level, abstract philosophizing, considering cognitively, things like meta-systematicity. Or like writing tracks on the relationship between emptiness and form. Or things like that. Right, and there seems to be this almost missing middle of skill development at the level of the physical engagement with the world, and the transformation of objects within it. And so I’ve been kind of thinking and writing about this aspect recently. So I’m wondering if you have thoughts regarding that connection between say Vajrayana and like, mastery or skill at crafts.
Charlie: Yeah, totally. It’s kind of intrinsic to the tantric approach, working on a project and honing that project with other people. Learning a skill. It’s very much connected to appreciation as well, like appreciating form. Because the tantric path starts from spaciousness and then moves towards beauty, which is always form, arising beauty. And there is always a sense of creativity there when you are in relationship with beauty. You’re bringing beauty into being in some sense, so a lot of the approach in tantra is to… I think you really nailed it there, Evan, when you said working creatively in order to make something new, like make a beautiful form, and there’s this relationship between the skill itself, the craft, the art and the way that you would relate to other people as well. So it’s not just that you are bringing a beautiful object into form or whatever, but very often those creative projects that tantrikas engage with, they are methods of communication in some way, in the same way that a cabinet maker who’s a really, really, really skilled, years-long professional, where they’ve made this beautiful unique table or something.
And that in itself is an act of communication, communicating something about the appreciation and the joy of just experiencing form, experiencing being in relation to a lovely thing that you can sit at and enjoy, enjoy the tactile feel of it, enjoy the visual aspect of it. It’s always related to the sense fields as well, the tantric practice of creativity is. It has these different things that are coming together. There’s communication in the process and in the finished project, whatever that is, and then there’s appreciation, and then there’s the sense fields and the engagement of all the sense fields in being able to bring something into being. The way that you do that with a creative project, a physical project, you also regard your relationship with the world, with other people, with society, with your circumstances and context as a similar sort of communication in some way.
In tantra, it’s much, much more active, actively creative than say from a dzogchen perspective. Which is maybe more responsive, fluid, and more simple in some ways. In tantra there’s infinite possibilities for elaborate communication and elaborate creation. Even the way that you dress or the way that you’re moving is a communication in some sense.
Jared: The thing that came up for me, Evan, too is that I think I love the comparison of a well-accomplished craftsman, of any sort appearing like a tantrica. And I think that’s largely because if somebody really does master some sort of skill, some sort of creation skill, they kind of go through that standard learning process, and it starts as being very solid and anybody who’s learned anything, it feels like “Oh yeah, I’ll get all the rules, I’ll know how everything works,” and there’s a period even where it all, everything, feels quite quite set and understood and everything makes sense in a very obvious way.
But if you spend enough time learning all of the different elements of the craft, all of the sudden, eventually it turns into something that is a more fluid evolution. So the cabinet, a cabinet maker, a master cabinet maker has never made the same cabinets. Every piece of wood is different. He’s changing the way that he expects this to degrade and die, and be reappropriated. Or all of a sudden this very solid thing has become quite nebulous and empty. So this is what emptiness and form look like together, is this living, fluid process. And the nice thing about having – you know, I said the only difference is that a tantrica is really making sure that they’re establishing emptiness so that it is available in all aspects of life.
And so it’s the fluid nature of how they interact with things, or how things transform in their life, is just very quickly accessible. And they aren’t quite – there’s not as much defending, so that spaciousness, the empty aspect of how they interact in the world, is very readily available. They don’t have to spend a decade mastering a system before they can start feeling comfortable with the fact that things are complicated and it’s always changing and it’s an evolving process. There’s not as much of a safety mechanism. But yeah, I think the display of a master craftsman and the tantrica are almost indistinguishable in those specific – in the right context.
Charlie: Yeah, I think that can also be very much connected to how tantric practice is not separated from worldly orientation, and to really getting your hands mucky and being involved. So there are lots of crossovers and analogies that can be made that are in some sense almost indiscernible, like somebody who has done that thing for 20, 30 years – in some sense they are being a tantrika. In that aspect of the way that they’re manifesting, you can see that in many different circumstances. Like the way that people relate and appreciate things, that just kind of very naturally happens.
Jared: It definitely applies in a lot of spaces. I started playing – my early, first interest was playing video games professionally, or semi-professionally. And yeah, that was – even in that field, the highly competitive scene, they have this concept of the metagame. And the metagame is the part of the competition that is always changing. And it’s a fluid process, but to get to the metagame you first have to really master all of the basics and know the rules, and how things function and what the results of different approaches are. And then all of a sudden, you come out on the other end and it’s this creative, expressive, constant evolution and discovery – a co-discovery with a bunch of different people in community.
Charlie: Yeah, there’s this relational analogy there as well. So the video game analogy is really great. Ari had a session on everyday Vajrayana and video games, and what are the connections between that, what are the similarities between engaging in that kind of world and engaging in the tantric world, like the world of Vajrayana?
And you know, a similar thing could be for musicians, the way that skilled musicians get together and improvise and are able to create something new in the moment that really coheres, and really has this sort of energy itself, has this kind of vibe to it. That also is a very similar kind of analogy to how tantra works. You could say that in that moment there’s a kind of latong thing occurring there. There’s this skill with bringing lots of form together and to finding a sort of awareness in the moment of how that is panning out. It’s unpredictable; it’s always unpredictable, and yet there is coherence as well.
Evan M: Yeah, that’s exactly the part that stood out to me the most, even in something as pedestrian as when I was building a tiny house a few years ago. You have a plan, you draw out blueprints, you get the right wood, you cut everything, you measure everything. And so far it’s very patterned, right, but then you actually get to assembling things: screwing, nailing, putting things together. And there’s always this dynamic of “the unexpected is arising.” And so there’s this sort of, like surfing the wave, or being on the knife’s edge between nebulosity and pattern. Because if you try to too zealously and force the pattern on what’s actually happening in that moment, then you’re gonna – and this happened to me, you know – you’re going to break the material, you’re going to force something into a shape that it just doesn’t want to be in. And then it’s not going to work. But if you have this almost moment-to-moment oscillation between that experience of the the pattern in your mind, and also the sort of inherent nebulosity of what’s actually tactilely going on, then that’s sort of the way you actually get things to work right.
Charlie: Yeah, really nicely put. Yeah.
Jared: We’re coming close to time. I wonder – yeah, especially anybody who hasn’t had a chance to ask a question or reflect or relate to your own experience, or any… I don’t know if we might have missed some. I don’t know, Derek, did we miss any questions in the chat or anything?
Derek: No, I think we covered everything. Jason had a tangential thought, but other than that, no questions.
Jared: Gotcha; yeah, anything floating out there that people want to say? I think as we said we’ll stop recording in like ten. And might stick around too to have a little bit more informal exploration, if you’re compelled to do that.
Charlie: Sounds good. We should say our appreciation to the Stoa for hosting us on their platform. Really great to be able to have this series with them; thank you Peter. So this should be available on the Stoa channel, and we’ll have a transcript available as well for people who like to read things more. Anything else to say before we hit unrecord?
Jared: Yeah, I don’t think so. Maybe the tag or the footnote of – if you are listening and you haven’t been engaged with the community, and want to learn more, evolvingground.org is where you can find whatever is going on with us.
And there is a link too, if you want to know more about the community, to fill out a Google form and just talk a little bit about your interest, and you’ll be added to our newsletter and invited to our Slack channel if you want. It’s a pretty lively, very active Slack channel. So yeah, learning how to navigate it and find things in there can be a little overwhelming at times, but if you’re into the chaos, there’s a lot to be found there. We have a bunch of channels and some threads going on for hundreds of messages, and things like that.
Charlie: Absolutely one of the best ways to become involved with the community is to attend the groups, actually. Then you really get to recognize people and be able to make friends and see people in person. So at the moment we’ve got a lot going on online, but eventually we’re going to be having people meeting up locally now that COVID restrictions are loosening a little bit. So we’re having some get-togethers; I think in New York and possibly Europe and on the West Coast. And there’s a regular monthly practice question-and-answer session that’s available to anybody in the community, and we’ll maybe see you there. That’d be great.
Jared: Yeah, it looks like we also have Ohio; I’m in Colorado – a few people in Colorado as well – Denver, Boulder area.
Jared: Yeah, we’re excited to move. I mean, we do have a lot of online events too, so especially for those who sign up for some sort of membership – we have different membership levels – and so yeah. I mean, Charlie and I are staying quite busy. We got a meeting with a lot of yogis and there is – to Charlie’s point – the Slack can be overwhelming, and I think we want to make sure that people know that doesn’t need to be where you engage with the community. You can just show up to the Q&As, or go to – we have a happy hour that we do in a weird app called Kumospace every month and wear funny hats and have funny conversations, and drink our drinks.
Charlie: Don’t hesitate to reach out to me and/or Jared. DM or email or whatever. We’re very open to hearing from people. If you’ve got questions, or just want to say “Hi,” or whatever.
Jared: Awesome, yeah, I think that that’s a good place to stop there. Yeah, thanks again Peter, and hello everyone at the Stoa. We’ll see you at the next – do we have the name, or do we have the topic for the next Stoa? I don’t remember; I don’t think we do. It’s still up in the air. I think it might be “appreciation,” which we talk a lot about. It’s one of our hobby horses, so hopefully we get that one out a little sooner than this. We had quite a gap between our last session. So cool, see you guys!