Charlie Awbery and Jared Janes, July 5th 2020, at the Stoa
Transcribed by J. Hansen-Hlebica
Narrator [0:00] : Welcome to The Stoa. The Stoa is a digital campfire where we cohere and dialogue about what matters most at the knife’s edge of what’s happening now.
Jared [0:24] : Alright, so welcome to The Stoa. Peter, or some of the other regular stewards of the Stoa aren’t with us today, but just wanted to first give some appreciation to them for creating this space for us to be able to explore together. Today we’re going to be talking about Sutra to Tantra and I won’t go into too much more, I’ll just maybe hand things off to Charlie here and we’ll jump straight into it.
Charlie [0:55] : Thanks. So the topic today is Sutra to Tantra, it’s quite niche — at least at first glance — it’s quite niche. It’s good to see so many of you here and interested. I think it does have relevance for anyone who’s meditating, if you’re interested in understanding your meditation from the perspective of its principle and how it functions physically, and mentally, in relation with other people and with the environment. How meditation practice functions has as much to do with the mental framework and with the worldview, that is the frame-of-reference within which you’re practicing, as it does with the mechanics of the practice itself. And I think that’s sometimes hidden. So I wanted to say that what we’re starting out with today is presenting an approach, it’s a perspective, not a universal truth. And looking from this perspective, there are no universal truths.
This perspective is rooted in a small and very late development of Buddhism called Dzogchen, which some of you will be familiar with. Dzogchen has been hashed around and interpreted in multiple ways so the perspective that we’re going to present today may or may not sound familiar to you, depending on your background and depending on what your experience has been and your particular path. So this approach is certainly quite different to the underlying framework and practice of many meditation methods, including secular meditations. And I think that is possibly where the interest is coming from as well. Sometimes what happens when I’m presenting this view is that someone will ask: “Well, what about X? What about the Four Noble Truths or the original words of the Buddha or the Anapanasati Sutra?” Or whatever. So I want to give the heads up that my reply is always going to be something like: “From this perspective, X looks like this, or X looks like that, or is irrelevant maybe”. Those types of questions are great for clarification and for figuring out how these various possible frames of reference function and how they can be useful in our lives.
This perspective, specifically, is Buddhist Tantra as seen through the Dzogchen lens, and what matters from this perspective is congruence and fit. So we’re going to be emphasizing appropriate application and context, not codes of right or wrong, that’s the way this perspective looks at activity and practice, and meditation as well. The intention of the session is twofold: it’s to present a particular view, and it’s for you to be able to explore what that means and what kind of impact that view can have in your life and your meditation practice and in the interconnectivity and relationship of those two in practice.
I’m going to give a brief outline of Buddhist Sutra from this perspective and, particularly, I wanted to say something about how to understand that as salient in practice. It’s not really possible to move between the two frameworks of Sutra and Tantra and to consciously have them as frameworks of reference without clearly seeing the stance associated with Sutra, which is Dualist. And that is the aspect that is often unacknowledged or unseen in practice. The other thing is that we’re starting out with quite a bit of Buddhist terminology and as the group progresses, we’ll transition from using quite so much jargon. I want to be clear as well that what we’re attempting here as a community of practice — a Sangha in Buddhist terms — is an orchestrated transition. Understanding where ideas come from and understanding the lineage of ideas, the lineage of knowledge and practice, I think that’s much much more important than our culture generally and currently recognizes. Though in relation to meditation — including secular meditation, including mindfulness, insight meditation, Vipassana — many of the practices that you’ll find if you decide you want to start meditation, there are attitudes and applications and effects that are rooted in Buddhist Sutra and in adaptations of Buddhist Sutra. They’re not always apparent or obvious, so it can be very helpful, to untangle those frames of reference when you want to consciously adapt your practice. So that’s enough as a short introduction and Jared, I think it would be great to hear you speak and to hear you say something about how you came to be here and something about your own practice as well.
Jared [6:59] : Yeah well let’s see here… Sutra to Tantra — speaking of it as a bit of a transition — is very alive for me because I feel like I’m kind of going through it right now. When I think about it from a bit of a high level, I realize that one of the most predominant qualities is that the Sutra perspective really emphasizes renunciation a lot. It tends to look at the form or ‘the material world’ with a cautious, cautious perspective. You know, maybe there’s some kind of danger there to be kind of lost in delusion or something, many different things I suppose. Or a self maybe is the predominant thing. But as I’ve started to engage more with the practice from the Tantric perspective — another interesting thing here is that, technically I’m not doing a lot of specifically Tantric practices, they’re more Dzogchen-oriented practice from the Dzogchen perspective — and Charlie’s gonna jump in here and correct me when I say something that’s completely in the wrong place, but my relationship with my own senses and emotions and things that I used to be very cautious about, are starting to convert to being a little bit more passionately-engaged and appreciative.
It’s refreshing, and yet there’s still this kind of background noise of this kind of renunciative frame-of-reference that so many of the teachings that I spent time with, predominantly Vipassana and Shamatha, that still kind of influences the way that I sit even, or the way that I engage in my relationships, or the decisions I make about how I live life, my career decisions and everything. I think the biggest thing here is that it’s kind of all-pervasive. I think Charlie and I have mentioned before that Sutra’s kind of like the metaphor of the water that we’re surrounded by and unaware of and, if you’re a fish, there’s a lot of Sutric water that I was never aware of and now I’ve only started to get a sense for, so that transition is exciting and interesting, and yet also very bright and aware. I used to feel like, when I was having experiences or phases of my practice that seemed to be working very well, I was kind of removed a little bit from the world — very airy, very light. And now, all of a sudden, things are becoming a little bit more embodied, real, tactile, and deeply-engaged with the material world. So I don’t know, those are a few of my reflections of the felt sense and reframing of a lot of my practice, on and off the cushion. Anything, Charlie, coming up there that you wanted to double-click on?
Charlie [10:36] : Thanks Jared, I think that was a really great personal explanation of how practice can change, and can change over a very short time as well. If you were to consider a phrase or a couple of words that would encapsulate that, what would you say — how would you describe the difference in what has happened, say, mentally or in terms of your perspective… do you think something’s changed in that way?
Jared [11:15] : I guess the biggest part is, it felt like kind of going from having my practice have a very strict container where it can be practiced and where it’s right and where it’s wrong, to being far more open to all of the circumstances that arise. And not feeling — y’know I used to have a lot of judging, over this emotional reaction that I had — and I’m like “Oh that was a bad one! Oh I better… something there needs to be worked with!” So yeah, a little more accepting, a little more all-encompassing, and it makes it that much easier for me to really apply it.
Charlie [11:59] : Right. Yeah, something I’ve noticed about the way you’ve changed over the last year is that your language has changed, when you’re talking about your practice, your meditation practice. And, if I remember correctly, I think you used to ask things like “Should I do this? Is that right? Is this the right thing?”, and that has changed in some way.
Jared [12:27] : Yeah, now if I were to characterize what I’m more interested in, it is less “Should have” and more of “What am I not noticing? What else is there? Where else should I be looking? What’s being missed or where can I more deeply engage?”
Charlie [12:47] : And I remember you describing a revelatory experience as well, which is fabulous, when that happens in meditation. I think a lot of people here probably relate to that too. Do you want to say something about that?
Jared [13:01] : The Shi-ne moment?
Charlie [13:04] : Yeah.
Jared [13:08] : To put a little context, I practiced Shamatha meditation for about a year, and pretty aggressively in the sense that it was a minimum of an hour a day, but usually two hours a day. Then that culminated in a 10-day retreat. And I kinda came out of that getting a lot of traction on it, but still noticing there was a lot of… constriction, I guess, in the approach. Toward the tail end, things might have started to open up and I had a few experiences that felt very clear. But when I started practicing Shi-ne, which is a very similar practice and the result is supposed to be a deep appreciation of Emptiness — in the same sense that Shamatha does — but it’s from the Dzogchen perspective so it excludes nothing. So I feel I’ve gotten to similar moments of clarity, but when they come from a very unrestricted approach of Shi-ne of not having a preference of what’s in your experience — when that clarity arose, it was kind of all-pervading, and I guess speaking to this idea of solidness or being back down to earth, this moment of really tapping into the empty aspect of my experience, that was kind of pervading and including all of my sensory experiences instead of just my breath, or the sensations of my nose or something like that. It felt like I was so unbelievably embodied, like I was so solid. I was solid as a rock or something like that, and there was no boundary to the state as well. And the naturalness of this condition was so much less manufactured that it felt so much more wholesome and it didn’t really have as much of the striving that had been part of the Shamatha approach as well. I don’t know how super specific we want to go into it, but it’s kind of comparing these two different practices which are actually aimed at a very similar result but from these radically different stances as we’re talking here, whether it’s the Sutric stance or the…
Charlie [15:42] : …Do you think the result is similar? Or, you know, we go backwards and forwards over this…I think, in some ways, if the result is no self or an experience of the world as illusory, then I think that the experience of the results [of Shi-ne as in contrast to Shamatha] are quite different. It’s not to make a judgement about either of those, but that the actual embodied experience, or disembodied experience, can be quite…
Jared [16:18] : …Yeah, well, the more no self’y experiences that I had actually were outside of meditation, previous to doing Tantra. So, when I’m talking about Shamatha, I was never a master of Shamatha and I’m by no means a master of Shi-ne. But I think I’ve arrived at similar glimpses of what possibility they have — they hold — in their kind of ultimate manifestations. The funny thing is that, when I had this glimpse in Shamatha of clarity in a very specific location, it was kind of like “Oh, that was kind of cool!”, and I got off my cushion and things went back to normal quite quickly. Whereas, getting up from that practice of Shi-ne, it was like the residue of that state was carried very directly with me. It was not like something that would just instantly vanish, and I think this had to do with that unconstructed nature. So the profundity of the Shi-ne experience seems to be quite literally bigger… more spacious… although, I’m open to thinking that, if I were to continue practicing Shamatha, things could open up and become less constricted if you continue to go down that path.
Charlie [17:54] : Yeah, I think the paths are very different.
Jared [17:56] : Yeah, there is really no path with the Shi-ne, which is also something that is very terrifying in the beginning because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Had a lot of moments of “I’ve been meditating for six years, what am I doing? I have no idea what I’m doing! I’m not following the instructions!” Whereas, when you have your very concrete maps and step-by-step instructions, it’s quite easy to feel okay with where you’re at I suppose, but also at the same time, it’s like you have such a clear vision of where you’re going, and that creates all this kind of striving and future focus.
Charlie [18:32] : That’s interesting. I think that maybe I could say something about that in relation to the difference between Sutra and Tantra, from this perspective.
Buddhist Tantra moves from the abstract to the specific. It’s a contextualizing application so, where Sutra is global and has general solutions, Tantra is always local and detailed. So however nuanced and contextualized your practice is, or your worldview, if you apply Tantric practice and view then that’s going to further contextualize it. And the thing about that is that it’s an infinite process. There’s no endpoint. There’s no final state, whereas the Sutric perspective is that you are working gradually toward a final state. That’s a very different nuance to the way that the practice works. And so, the contextualization is the mechanism by which it’s going to reveal and challenge and what it challenges is your sacred cows. You may have heard Tantra sometimes classified as a dangerous path or a fast path. And I think that’s what’s dangerous about it, it’s threatening your unseen assumptions and motivations. Because it’s going to uncover them. It’s like knowing the territory, understanding the territory, it reveals the rigidity of the map. So Vajrayana practice reveals your sacred cows and, in revealing them, there’s this threat. Because once your hidden frames of reference are transparent, once your motivations become transparent, they cease to function in the same way. They can’t function in the way they were functioning when they were unseen. So, Tantric practice has this derailing effect, and that is sometimes why it is considered dangerous, challenging, or threatening. But it doesn’t need to be terrifying. It’s not something you can force, either. That’s just a very natural result of the practice method.
Jared [20:44] : And it’s also not only destructive to sacred cows, it can also be destructive to the things that are kind of holding us back, right?
Charlie [20:51] : Right, right, yeah.
Jared : My… so much of my early path was being really obsessed with all of these maps of awakening, and thinking “Oh, I must be stage one, two, three” and all this.
Charlie [21:04] : How far did you get?
Jared [21:05] : Yeah “how far did I get?” and “What’s the Buddha I want to be?”
Charlie [21:08] : Oh which stage did you get?
Jared [21:10] : Oh god [laughs], uh well…
Jared [21:21] : Well at first I thought I was a Buddha, y’know of course, when I had this first experience I was like “Oh well this is enlightenment, right?” and then I was like “Oh shit, that wasn’t it at all, I’ve got a long ways to go”. So yeah somewhere in the middle of that — somewhere after Stream-entry and before Arhat — whatever, this is the weird thing, right? The more I became engaged with Tantra, the more I genuinely — like I used to play act being like “Well, I’m not really interested in the maps” because I knew that they could be a limitation. And I could say that, but I wouldn’t really mean it. It was still always in the back of my head, y’know, trying to size myself up. But now I really have very little interest and I think of it is because, as you say, there’s such an individualized and personalized component as you say, where I know that there’s no map which can describe what my non-dual nature will look like. It’s something that has to be very specifically discovered. And that’s been liberating in the sense of not having to hold myself to some external expectations, I suppose.
Charlie [22:35] : Thinking about sacred cows, I think in some sense the biggest sacred cow of all is the seriousness with which we take ourselves. And we’re very important of course, naturally, because we’re the center of our own universes. In Buddhist terms, we’re the center of our own mandalas. We decided to use this term Degenerate Fuckwits in the introduction because I felt that it was really important that anyone who wasn’t really in a position to be able to laugh at the themselves or just not able to go there at the moment, to deselect themselves from coming because the psychological starting point for practice is that you really need enough self-confidence and stability of self that you’re able to be playful with yourself and laugh at yourself. And that doesn’t mean being serious and it doesn’t mean becoming excruciatingly self-deprecating as a default mode, but because of this contextualizing move in Tantric practice, you’re unseen sacredness of self is gonna loosen up a little bit as well I think.
Jared [23:55] : This kind of speaks to the kind of base or entry point of Tantra, this Emptiness, and I think I’ve heard a lot the phrase that the Dharma is also empty. And it’s one thing to say it but it’s a different thing for Tantra to be practiced from that perspective, it’s radically empty in the sense that it’s hard to take anything radically serious. Or maybe not serious but… take it extremely serious but not literal, and if you’re not taking it literal there can be a sense of humor — something about that dialectic that seems important.
Charlie [24:35] : So I was gonna say something about Sutrayana specifically and talk a little about that, should we go onto that now?
Jared [24:47] : Yeah, I did see a couple things coming at you…
Charlie [24:49] : Okay. Oh maybe we’ll have some questions then.
Jared [24:51] : Somebody was saying that Tantra might be similar to Zen…
Charlie [24:53] : …Let’s have a look at the chat, how we’re doing over there.
Jared [24:59] : Yeah, “does Tantra seem similar to Zen?”, does that ring true to you Charlie?
Charlie [25:13] : “Is Tantra similar to Zen?”… Zen is in some ways more similar to Dzogchen I think and it shares roots with Dzogchen. There is the Shikantaza practice. I’m not a Zen practitioner but the just sitting and the expansiveness of that practice is very similar to the Dzogchen perspective toward the starting point of Emptiness, the preliminary of Emptiness if you like. So I think there are similarities there. I think there are historically crossovers as well. Zen might — correct me if I’m wrong — but my understanding is that Zen is more oriented towards Emptiness. Tantra is oriented towards Form and movement, so it’s always discovering the empty quality or the nebulosity of Form and movement and relationship. And my understanding is that Zen is much more specifically-oriented to Emptiness.
Jared [26:27] : That’s largely correct I think.
Jared [26:31] : Do you have the chat open as well?
Charlie [26:33] : I have the chat here, yeah. A great chat… there’s lots going on in there, really interesting! Thank you for contributing, everyone. I’ll say something about Sutrayana. Yana — Sanskrit for Path, Vehicle — Sutra is like a set or a list or collection, it’s usually a collection of rules or guidelines. Sutrayana, the path of Sutra, from this perspective looks like a path of renunciation. So a path is a framework of reference, I like that phrase to describe a path. If you think about it literally, you’re on a path and everything you see is angled with respect to your position on that path. The path constrains your view and you can only see what you can see from that path. If you’re on a different path, your view would be different, y’know. It’s a very literal analogy, it’s very simple, but I think it works as a way to describe how we are and how we live as well. We’re all constrained by the view from the particular path that we’ve taken thus far. So when I talk about a framework of reference, that’s what I’m referring to. The framework of reference is synonymous for where we’re at now in terms of worldview and perspective and understanding how things work. And it’s a really good idea to know what your frame-of-reference is and I think this is just getting increasingly difficult and confusing because of the contemporary confluence of so many different cultures and traditions and practices. It’s just really, actually quite hard to know and understand exactly where you’re at. Usually this frame-of-reference that you have is very easily occluded by all the different practices and the different approaches that are available. So some of them you try them out, you know a ton of them, you incorporate different practices from different traditions. You try to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work. And it’s good and useful to do that, and it’s probably necessary to do that. But the downside is that it can occlude where you’re actually at. It gives you this false impression that you’re moving between views and systems and references, and it gives you this impression that you think you’re applying different methods and different contexts. And the thing is that the application of different methods is almost always adapted into and by a frame-of-reference that you’re not seeing. It’s like your operating system, it’s like a worldview or an implicit understanding of how things are based on where you’re at. That’s your Yana, that’s your Path. So the starting point of moving into a new mode of practice and view is that you want to understand where you are now, and by that I mean you want to know your framework of reference. It’s not about expressing values, quite probably has nothing to do with your conscious values or what you think they are. It’s about seeing those blind spots and unless you’ve already put a lot of work into that — and of course a lot of people do put a lot of work into that, that begins to reveal your frame-of-reference — but unless you do that work, I think your frame-of-reference is your autopilot. It’s mostly what you can’t see.
Jared [30:40] : [affirmative]
Charlie [30:43] : Yeah so I think when it comes to contemporary meditation and spiritual activity, for the most part the water that everyone is swimming in is Dualist. It often looks like Monism, but the associated activity is nearly always Dualist and it’s rarely conscious, it’s not well-understood. So I think I’d like to spend a little more time talking about how you recognize a Dualist frame-of-reference. Maybe… are there any questions from that last little monologue?
Jared [31:21] : Let’s see here… I’ll start looking through. I’m curious just as a quick thing, the Judeo-Christian framework that the West kind of has, do you think that’s a major part of the influence…
Charlie [31:37] : …Yeah I do. And very explicitly Sutra was adapted into a Christian framework. David, my husband David, has written about that, maybe somebody could find the links and put them here to share. In his series on Consensus Buddhism, there’s some pages on how the current Insight/Vipassana lineage of meditation was created and that’s actually really interesting history, I found that fascinating to read. Thank you Jake, that’s great! So there is this Dualism… there’s this stance of Dualism that I want to talk about for a little. Because I do think it’s very much tied up with the path of Sutra. Not the endpoint, not the specified endpoint, but the path and the perspective of the whole frame-of-reference.
So, Dualism, it’s a stance that polarizes your whole worldview. It takes the world, being, or reality, or everything, and it splits it into two possibilities. And you usually get this idea that there’s a wholesome, beneficial, cooperative, good way of doing things — one polarity — and there’s this limited and constrained, undesirable, other way. And it’s characterized by these polarized opposites. Often they’re contrasting options, characterized in such a way that they’re mutually-exclusive, and there’s this sense that it’s better to fit yourself into one mode and discard the other mode. There’s usually some kind of tension or friction in between those two options. They’re not necessarily a continuum, there’s this sense of them kind of — you know you have a choice, and one is a good choice and the other is a not-so-good choice. And I think we just love to do this because as humans we’re adapted to differentiating and categorizing in order to make sense of things. And the most simple, obvious, the most easy, the most primary way to do that is “A is A, B is B, A is not B”. It’s having this very distinct separation of opposites. It’s a very familiar pattern, very easy to get caught up in that because it simplifies things, makes things somehow seem a lot more manageable.
So, related to that, these are some of the ways you can recognize dualism operating. Because we all do this, it’s very very natural. So it has this massively good, feel-good factor. It feels really good sometimes, or for a duration. It permeates everything. It permeates psychology, like you have this “Type A, Type B, thinking fast and slow”, people love to have these polarized categories that we can slot ourselves into. I’m specifically taking this out of Buddhism and Buddhist practice because, for this to be pertinent as activity, it has to be relevant to what we’re doing with our time. Like what we notice we’re attracted to, how we think about things, what kind of framework we bring into our understanding of the world. So some of the other ways that you can recognize Dualism is: it’s a feeling, it lacks complications, it lacks complexity and nuance, it tends to attract a lot of fans, like you can kinda get his culty feel around Dualist propositions for Dualist ways of being. It’s got this kind of Right/Wrong feel to it, like purity vs impurity. I think something that happens when you begin to apply this even unconsciously as a frame-of-reference, you start applying this view somehow, you can notice yourself just beginning to feel a little bit averse to people who seem to embrace the wrong way. You feel slightly morally superior because you understand the difference between this wholesome, cooperative, collaborative, good way of being, and then you don’t want to have that greedy, basic, bad — whatever the behavioral split happens to be.
Going back to the Christian influence, Dualism really does have big associations with guilt, like if you start feeling bad about feeling a certain way, or you feel bad that you don’t feel a certain way, then you get all caught up with justifications because as soon as you feel bad about feeling something, your brain starts wanting to justify why you feel that particular way. Cuz that’s just how you feel, so you start justifying your activity, you justify your thoughts, or you start justifying your decisions. If you meditate a lot, you get very used to noticing what and how you’re thinking. So if you look out for it, you can maybe hear this little sneaky voice justify your thinking or feeling a certain way. I think we all do it.
Another characteristic is wanting other people to behave and fit in with how you think they should behave. It’s very subtle. I’m not talking in the general here like, of course we all want the world to be free of bad behavior. I’m talking about noticing how your personal attitude and thought patterns affect your relationship with the world. So it’s like this way of thinking and wanting, it’s wanting others to behave in the way they should and feeling deeply annoyed when they don’t do what you want them to do, when they don’t say what you want them to say, or respond in the way that you want them to respond. This is really fundamental, it’s really basic. It’s really difficult sometimes to see how manipulative this kind of attitude is, this Dualist stance. The reason that it’s manipulative is that every single individual has the same thing going on so, y’know, if you get into that, the only solution if you buy into that way of thinking and projecting, then you’re gonna end up bullying people. That bullying is going to be directed as much to the parts of yourself that don’t quite fit into this Dualist framework, as it is towards trying to have others behave and think in a way that you want them to. People are always wrong on the internet… that one really gets me!
Jared [39:56] : I’m curious, if this renunciative thing is “Off with the bad, in with the good, the wholesome”, and so much of this is about preferences and decision-making, how does Tantra operate from not the renunciative but the transformative element — how does that operate?
Charlie [40:16] : I think it’s about preferences and decision-making but it’s also a lot about noticing. The reason I want to emphasize noticing Dualism and understanding the Sutric perspective as well is that you can’t really apply Tantra until that is there. The Tantric way of going about things would be passionate engagement. It’s this contextualizing move, so you’re moving towards relationship with the world and the environment and with other people and passionate engagement. So noticing, in your engagement, what kind of flavor that has can be very useful. Really useful to understand whether you’re trying to, really subtly, whether you’re trying to manipulate a situation, or whether you are receptive and engaged and allowing the situation to unfold.
Jared [41:34] : It seems, especially from my perspective, it’s so important that the foundation of Emptiness is there, because the passionate engagement is engaged in the Emptiness. If Emptiness isn’t there, it’s not Tantra, then we’re acting in Dualism whether we realize it or not I suppose, right?
Charlie [41:56] : Yeah. I think there’s often this kind of assumption that the normal, default behavior is limited and constrained, greedy and mean, and we live in this kind of Hobbesian world and we’re all out to get each other. And I think sometimes Dualism comes from that perspective, and you know of course we have both. We’ve adapted to be both collaborative and contentious.
Jared [42:30] : I know we’re getting a bit in. It’d be good to move into some breakout sessions. Do we wanna open up some questions for a bit and see?
Charlie [42:42] : Shall we do that? Yeah.
Jared [42:44] : I’ve seen a few things, but there’s been a lot of chat, so if you do have a question, if you could restate it. And then also if you’re monitoring the chat, +1s are always helpful as well so we can find the signal.
Charlie [43:03] : That’s funny. Would someone like to ask a question? What are you seeing there, Jared?
Jared [43:20] : You have a repost here: “How does one go meta and approach Dualism itself with a Tantric attitude? Is Dualism always bad and to be always avoided?”
Charlie [43:33] : From the Tantric perspective, the moment you notice Dualism, you wanna drop it. Let it go. Embrace the aspect that you’re noticing, that you’re pushing away. You’ve got to obviously be sensible and sane and cautious, and figure out how you can do that in a safe and useful way, but it’s helpful to think about functionality as well. Like, “what is the purpose that Dualism is serving here?”, “How is it being useful for me in this situation?”, “What is its function?”, “What is it protecting?”. So you can consciously ask questions like that, or you can simply notice what’s going on in your body. That’s very useful. Notice the sensation that’s occurring in your body and just allow that to do its own thing. Passionate engagement. Another thing is to notice how you talk. I was gonna mention this really typical Dualist mode of being with other people, it’s kind of a clue that you might be behaving or thinking in a Dualist frame-of-reference. It’s how, when you’re with people you talk about the out group. Quite often in ‘wholesome’ groups with a very strong Dualist inclination, there’s this way of dissing someone while being really nice about them. You’re talking about this person in such a positive way and pointing how they kind of just don’t get it, but Dualism requires that you maintain the split whilst continuing to manifest the good, wholesome side of things. So that’s how you do it. You’re really nice and you make sure that person is in the category that you want them to be — that’s so funny!
Paul [46:05] : Can I make a remark? In Taoism, they say that what you call Dualism, or what I call polarization, is essential to thinking. If you didn’t have warm, you wouldn’t have cold, then you wouldn’t have temperature.
Charlie [46:24] : Polarization i s somewhat different to categorization. We do need to categorize, that’s for sure, categorization is always pretty useful. I think it’s possible to move beyond polarization and have a little more complexity and nuance as maybe the first thing we start to do, I don’t know.
Jared [46:57] : We have a number of people looking to talk about applied practice or practice pointers and I think we even mentioned leading us in some applied practice. And this was actually something you and I talked about — of whether or not to do some sort of guided thing, so that might be something fun to open up.
Charlie [47:15] : Do you want to say something about that, Jared?
Jared [47:18] : I don’t know… I guess I’ll say this, in the sense that I’ve had my interest in guiding meditations has largely subsided in the sense that, again, since it’s such a personalized exploration, it’s harder to fit into — because in a similar way, a guiding is kind of creating this structure for meditation itself. It’s kind of directing it and having a preference. So I haven’t been as much into the guided element yet. I feel the core intentions and stances as being kind of the predominant area of investigation and kind of trying to see clearly, because that seems to be what has the biggest impact on my practice. But maybe you could also shortly introduce Shi-ne if that’s… I don’t know, whatever’s up for you.
Charlie [48:20] : Right. Something to say about guided practice is that really, really works for Sutra-style meditations. Because Sutra is general and the same thing applies to everybody. The move in Tantra is more and more personalized, because it’s contextual. So there’s a certain point where doing a generally-guided something is going to prevent the movement towards a Tantric style, or a Tantric approach to meditating. Because in any guided session there’s an assumption that we’re all starting as ‘on the same platform’ or that we’re all malleable in the same way, and from the Sutric perspective that is correct. That there are general answers. From the Tantric perspective there are no general answers and there are no general guidelines, it’s very difficult in some ways to have — when you look at Tantra from the Dzogchen perspective — it’s very difficult to have this simple map that applies to everybody. I mean you can but it’s more in the spirit of Tantric approach to become more individually-oriented, and I think that’s probably why in a lot of traditional Vajrayana sanghas, you have very small groups.
Jared [50:05] : This kind of speaks to my experience too, right. There’s a number of times, especially when we first started talking, where I was looking for very specific answers from you, where I was like “Here’s my practice, this is what I’m running into.” And I was so used to there being a very specific “You do this in this case.”
Charlie [50:21] : “You do that”. Yes, there’s a very set, specific answer [in Sutric guidance].
Jared [50:25] : Yeah and with you it was more of… when you would respond to me, you’d understand where the question was coming from and then allow me to kind of arrive at the appropriate response to it. That worked for me. Very specifically, it would be that I’d realize that from a lot of my past concentration meditation, the importance of being completely still and upright and never moving, just composed throughout the entire thing. And then realizing that it’s okay to adjust from time to time. There’s just a naturalness t o Tantra that feels… it has a natural quality that’s very individualized.
Charlie [51:11] : Right. And for somebody who’s coming from different backgrounds, having that discipline and rigidity might actually be really useful. It really depends on who you are as an individual and where your frame-of-reference is.
Jared [51:32] : Yeah and I will say too that I don’t know if earlier in my practice, I could have started sitting the undirected Shi-ne, I might’ve given up very soon because I wasn’t getting traction. You know, all of that…
Charlie [51:48] :…Right.
Jared [51:50] : …That container is very secure. It creates a foundation for you to start practice on.
Charlie [51:54] : Yeah. And when you’re starting out, I think if you’ve never meditated before, it’s very useful to have a very clear, supportive physical and mental set framework. Some discipline is really good to begin with as well.
Jared [52:18] : A couple of hands raised. Doug, I think you might’ve been the first, do you want to unmute yourself for a question?
Charlie [52:24] : Hello Doug!
Doug [52:32] : Hello! This is wonderful.
Charlie [52:33] : Hello!
Doug [52:34] : Wonderful to actually see you in livestream Charlie. Or Rin’dzin.
Charlie [52:39] : You too, you too! (My other name is Rin’dzin).
Doug [52:44] : Y’know I didn’t really bump into the notion of nondualism and dualism until three or four years ago. And kind of like all the meta-modern emergence ideas, I’ve really had a hard time nailing down what people mean by it. So over time I came up with what I thought was nondualism or dualism referring to the subject/object split, and you’re seeming to be using it more as a relational dichotomization of the object world, which is kind of really messing my mind up.
Charlie [53:31] : Oh! Sorry about that!
All [53:34] : [laughter]
Doug [53:35] : It’s okay if my mind was not in alignment, y’know, if I really had arrived at the wrong definition of dualism and nondualism.
Charlie [53:44] : I don’t think there’s a wrong, is there?
Doug [53:47] : Well [laugher]…
Charlie [53:49] : I don’t know, I mean it’s really interesting to hear you say this Doug. I’m sorry to kind of jump in there as well. I don’t use the word nondual myself. I probably do sometimes, but I’m attempting to not use “nondual” and “enlightenment” and “awakening”. I think they’ve become so hashed-out in different contexts and they’ve just come to mean so many different things. And I’m tending to veer away from that terminology. Sorry, I kind of broke your flow there.
Doug [54:31] : No, no, I appreciate the conundrum that you’re attempting to address. But the fact that people still use language means that it would be nice to know what they’re pointing to. And even if we don’t have that for enlightenment and other things, I’m curious if you could give me more of a definition of what you mean by the nondual or the dualism that you’re talking about.
Charlie [54:58] : Oh! because I’m talking about dualism, doesn’t mean I’m aiming for nondualism. Nondualism has become like a sort of opposite to dualism in some way. Dualism can shatter pluralities and multiplicities and nuance and complexity and all kinds of things. The relationship is asymptotic so it’s not like there’s a thing you’re heading towards that you can get. There’s always more contextualization, there’s always more movement into congruent activity. So, y’know, if one were to frame things in that kind of language of there being an endpoint, that’s really difficult. It’s like there isn’t an endpoint, there’s increasingly congruent activity and response and behavior. So the congruence is the thing. Does that make some kind of sense?
Doug [56:27] : I’m close. I think I’m following but I’m not sure. Can you use dualism and congruence in a sentence?
Charlie [56:36] : Can I use dualism and congruence in one sentence? So let’s see… you can move from a dualist frame-of-reference into congruent activity.
Jared [57:08] : Is congruent activity… how is that related to nondualism?
Doug [57:13] : Thank you Jared.
Jared [57:26] : Did you get that out?
Charlie [57:27] : Yeah, I’m just kind of thinking how to respond in a way that makes some kind of sense. What do you want to be nondual? As soon as you don’t have the dual — the polarities — then you have some sort of nondualism. But that doesn’t mean that you have congruent spontaneous activity. I mean what I’m trying to avoid is framing things in terms of everything being ‘one’… because things are both the same and different. There’s distinction, difference; also there is nebulosity, and empty quality to all phenomena. So what we’re not heading towards is some kind of cosmic transcendent world that is outside the world that we’re in, that somehow causes this world to be illusory. Does that make some kind of sense?
Doug [58:34] : I totally appreciate what you’re saying. Maybe let me see if I can frame it more clearly. When I was on meditation retreat at the monastic academy and I had more time to hang out in meditation states, I could walk around and I could shift into a sense of unity with all things, but there was still Doug walking around being unified with all things.
Charlie [59:04] : Mhmm [affirmative].
Doug [59:05] : And there was also a state where I — where I — would disappear, and everything was just arising and flowing and, y’know, my hands were no different than the leaves on the trees or the wind blowing. And my sense of existence just expanded to all of it as opposed to this me thing that I was. So I assumed that’s what people referred to as nondual, that the subject/object split kind of disappears.
Charlie [59:41] : I think people do, yeah. I think people do use nondual in that way. The subject/object split is a little bit of a red herring I think. There is a relationship, so we tend to want to fix things into subject/object, but this whole idea of an object and focusing on an object, yeah that’s a very Sutric idea. That’s not the starting point in Buddhist Tantra so if you don’t have that as a starting point, then there’s no sort of strong relevance of subjectivity and objectivity suddenly becoming nondual because, you know, they were always nebulous. It’s just a different frame-of-reference I think, in some ways. It sounds like a great experience though. And useful.
Doug [1:00:47] : Yeah, I mean there’s just so many different experiences we can have, I’m just trying to get a sense of what people are pointing to when they use different languages.
Charlie [1:00:56] : Yeah, I think that’s really important. I’m glad you do that, thank you.
Doug [1:01:01] : So thanks for trying to answer this as you have and I’ll let you go back to the rest of what you were trying to communicate.
Charlie [1:01:09] : Thank you.
Jared [1:01:11] : So I know we’re running out of time, we have a ton of questions coming in and, first off, apologies to everybody who is sending questions that we’re not able to field. Charlie and I were thinking “Yeah let’s put something on the Stoa, maybe five or six people will show up”, so we weren’t prepared for this…
Charlie [1:01:28] : [laughs] Maybe when everyone’s in breakout groups, if you and I don’t go into a breakout group we could filter through, y’know, pull questions out or something like that would be useful.
Jared [1:01:41] : Yeah I could probably pull us into our own breakout group. And maybe, I’m wondering, do you have a kind of prompt or question that you think might be fruitful for the group? Even if we wanted to, we could allow for a little more exploration because things are still quite open, and we’d do the follow-up after recording.
Charlie [1:02:03] : I think that sounds great. I would say in the practice groups, discuss and focus on application and whether this actually has any salience or usefulness in terms of where you’re at now both in meditation and in life in general, experientially. So focus on experience, whether this is pertinent in some way.
Jared [1:02:38] : Let me continue to look around. El, if you wanted to — I know there’s a few questions that are still floating out there and I’ll continue to do some…
Charlie [1:02:47] : Right, okay, I’m going to take a look at the chat. Here’s a question from Rory. Rory are you here?
Rory [1:03:03] : Yep.
Charlie [1:03:04] : Hello Rory. Would you like to say something about your question and ask it?
Rory [1:03:11] : I have to remember which question it was.
Charlie [1:03:13] : Oh, ‘sketching practices other than Shi-ne’.
Rory [1:03:22] : Well yeah, I suppose in the context of this framework you were suggesting a transition from a Sutric approach to a Dzogchen-influenced Tantric approach, what practices can people outside of the structures of the Tibetan groups that are available can they explore? I’m a little unused to asking questions live so you’ll hear that in my voice.
Charlie [1:03:57] : I love your accent, I really like your voice! Thank you for asking the question, it’s a great question. I think meditation-wise, the meditations that Jared and I are talking about are called the Four Naljors, they do come from Tibetan Buddhism. They are available in the Aro online email course that has a really nice week-by-week instruction set and lots of different exercises that you can try in your meditation practice, so I recommend that as a good starting point for the style of meditation that we’re talking about. Maybe somebody could find that and put a link in the chat.
Rory [1:04:50] : I’m aware of that, I did not follow it all the way through.
Charlie [1:04:54] : [Affirmative] And so that is a good starting point for the meditation. In terms of practice off the cushion, it just really depends on where you’re at. It’s very difficult to generalize. I could say something about if you sense that there is some kind of dullness or if you’re feeling a bit depressed or if there’s a sort of sense of not being fully in touch with the world or your environment, the practices of sensation are very valuable indeed. Just noticing the texture of things, noticing the texture and visual quality of things, noticing movement. When you’re out and about, just honing in on movement and the textural quality of movement can be very conducive to helping with the understanding of your own relatedness.
Rory [1:06:13] : Okay, that’s something to consider.
Charlie [1:06:15] : Yeah, do you want to say something about where you’re at personally? Or not, don’t if you don’t want to, but what would you like to address, is there something? Feel free to say.
Rory [1:06:36] : I don’t think I have much to add. I have a Zen background, Soto background. Let’s say I grappled with that and failed in some sense to find my home in that tradition. Shikantaza kind of won the battle on me and then recently I returned to, inspired by Shinzen’s approach, which is much more creative and playful but also, y’know, Enlightenment for Dummies kind of. And so I’ve enjoyed that and enjoyed maybe stepping out from Shinzen’s approach into one that is more, as you say, more appreciative, more expansive. More…
Charlie [1:07:28] :…Thanks for mentioning appreciation, that is a major practice in this stance. Active appreciation. So, in any situation there are qualities that it’s possible to appreciate. You appreciate the tenor of something, you appreciate textures. You can engage in appreciation as a practice at any time.
Rory [1:08:05] : That’s great, thanks. I think maybe I’ll leave it for somebody else to ask a question.
Jared [1:08:10] : I fixed the breakouts so we can do that.
Charlie [1:08:12] : Oh Jared, well done, amazing.
Jared [1:08:15] : So did you wanna just kinda quickly restate — so the main prompt is here, talking about how some of this might be applied to your specific practice and maybe even just orientation outside that too.
Charlie [1:08:28] : Yeah.
Jared [1:08:29] : Alright, well we’ll throw you in there and then I think we’ll do that for fifteen minutes. So that’ll be at our ninety minute marker, we’ll come back here then we’ll stop recording and we can take some follow-up questions, I think Charlie and I will stick around for a bit.
Charlie [1:08:43] : Cool.
Jared [1:08:49] : Those who are still here, did you guys rejoin and didn’t get anything? Well let’s have this be our unofficial breakout room then, so go ahead and feel free to unmute yourself.
Jared [1:09:04] : Well I guess, does maybe anybody feel like starting kicking things off in our large breakout group?
Dan [1:09:12] : Yeah, I’d like to jump into something if that’s possible.
Jared [1:09:18] : And this one is recorded, just FYI.
Dan [1:09:20] : Oh good. I’m If I Knew I’d Tell You on Facebook and I’ve had exchanges with both of you, hello. You’re two of my faves. My understanding is, because I was given a proper introduction to Dzogchen back when it was ‘secret’ and it’s not secret anymore — and that’s something I wanted to talk about, like y’know you can buy ‘The Ancient Secrets of Tibet’ on Amazon these days — and the other thing is that you have to be introduced to Dzogchen or Mahamudra in order to do Tantra, like that is the proper introduction. And I might be wrong so please correct me, but some people just stick with Dzogchen and don’t go through Tantra. That’s another thing I was told so, if I’m incorrect, I’m actually looking for clarification.
Charlie [1:10:15] : That’s really interesting because it’s usually presented the other way around, that to approach Dzogchen you would start with Tantra and then work towards Dzogchen. But you know, there are different presentations in different lineages. Kagyu sometimes has sort of a mixture of Mahamudra and Dzogchen — you know Nyingma and Kagyu mix up — you get lots of lineages within Nyingma that present it from a perspective of Mahayana. So there’s no… y’know some people, when they’re coming from a particular tradition they will have learned that this is the correct way to do it, and so that also has to be taken into consideration. Like you kind of respect somebody’s perspective if that’s the one that they’re using. But from the perspective of Dzogchen, because of the nature of the stance, it’s not really possible to say that things have to be in a particular order. One of the mechanisms that Dzogchen uses is to — in the root text of Dzogchen Sem-de — is to regard all Yanas as being method rather than as truth. That is a really interesting flip in the history of Buddhism, it’s the first time that there’s a kind of conscientiously meta approach to all of the different Yanas as practice.
Dan [1:11:54] : Thank you, thank you. I was gonna ask about the secrecy thing. I know you’re Aro gTér, was that ever presented as a secret thing, or you don’t talk about this, or was it always open?
Charlie [1:12:16] : No, so I think what has happened — so two things… the history of Tibetan monasticism has created structures that would then lead to certain esoteric practices being regarded as very secret and not available to the general public or not available to the ordinary monks or whatever. So there’s that aspect and it’s secret in the sense that we understand ‘secret’. And then there’s also this idea of self-secrecy, which is that something is secret in the sense that it cannot be known until you know it yourself through experience, and so it discovers itself to you at the point that it becomes discoverable and therefore is no longer secret. So that is often taught as what secret means. Then there’s also secret in the sense that there a lot of traditional rituals and practices which are ostensibly one thing but that once you’ve been around long enough or reached a certain style of practice or whatever, that they then come to have a different application and you can practice them in different ways and that’s not necessarily always known. Like for example you could have a practice that is ostensibly a ritual song or a group practice and then some people could be practicing that as Chöd practice while still engaging in the group and engaging with it as yogic song. So there’s that kind of ‘secrecy’ as well, so there are often different layers of things. But yeah as you say, pretty much everything is available online. I think something I would want to say about that as well is that there is a way in which secrecy is used to prevent people from accessing practices that they could have in order to maintain a particular kind of structure and hierarchy and buy-in, so I think it can be used in that way as well.
Dan [1:15:01] : Oh yeah, of course. Thank you Charlie.
Charlie [1:15:08] : You’re welcome.
Andy [1:15:11] : Question about initiation and direct transmission. Are they important, are they necessary? And a follow up question, is there a wrong or perhaps a way of approaching this material that is so off base as to be detrimental?
Charlie [1:15:39] : The second part of that question… you could approach anything in life in a way that is so off track that is detrimental. So it’s not the material, it’s the approach. Does that make some kind of sense?
Andy [1:15:59] : Yes, totally.
Charlie [1:16:03] : There are ways that it is said that Tantra can be not right for some people at some time. I think that’s true of any path, because in some sense they’re systems, there are ways in which you can predict that systems will fail or are more likely to fail. So there are certain ways that Tantra is more likely to go wrong than Sutra, and certain ways that Sutra is more likely to go wrong. You know, the kind of obvious way that Sutra fails is splitting and then — you split and then you intensify the split so much that there’s a sudden explosion. Or you end up acting out the negative side of the split in your life in a surreptitious or secret way because you’re trying to fit into this sort of limited, good, pure presentation, you’re kind of committed to that in some way. And the side that you’re repressing comes out in different ways. So that’s the typical failure mode of Sutra, and then the predictable failure mode of Tantra is insane ego power trips. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last few years, and I think one of the reasons that Jared and I are even doing this is that Tibetan Buddhism has kind of exploded spectacularly. It’s just failed in that kind of predictable way.
Andy [1:18:03] : And how about the transmission/direct…
Charlie [1:18:08] : Right, so depending on the framework — in Buddhist Tantra, there are ritual ways of initiation and transmission so it’s ritualized into a practice that very often is group practice, and so that becomes a structure within which the transmission is supposed to take place — and maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, whatever. And the Dzogchen informal transmission, that is much more something that is openly available all the time. There’s a teaching called the Five Certainties… Certainty means kind of congruence, like congruence of place, time, teaching, teacher, retinue, and there’s this idea of transmission — the word transmission very literally means the passing of understanding from one person to another, one generation to another. So it has these connotations of lineage and conscious maintaining of knowledge in the experiential sense. So the experience of transmission is very real. You can be in a situation and suddenly there’s this kind of “Aha!” moment, it’s like you get something where it’s very difficult to explain exactly what that is, what is happening in that moment. I think it’s not well-described or documented usually. Usually transmission is turned into this… it’s sort of reified in some sense, and it’s made to be inevitable.
In a traditional sense, the role of the teachers is to transmit and then if you’re in the presence of the teachers transmission can happen and there’s sort of an inevitability that there’s some sort of literal seed-like thing that they plant in you that’s gonna sprout, or whatever. So that’s, I think, metaphorical for the actual experience of transmission which can be really extraordinary and is very real.
Andy [1:20:52] : But not essential, necessarily, to work with the material or to teach it.
Charlie [1:20:59] : It’s not essential to work with the material but I think it is at the heart of the approach. I think it’s something that, once you really engage with the material and start applying the perspective and the worldview and living that view, then it is something that occurs, and it occurs as a natural result. You can’t force it, but it happens. It’s not like it’s not going to happen either, with application of the approach. That’s kind of the mechanism by which Dzogchen comes to manifest itself.
Andy [1:21:41] : Thank you.
Charlie [1:21:44] : This is turning into questions and answers… and I was gonna be a fly on the wall, I’m kinda nosey [laughs].
Jared [1:21:55] : Yeah so… everybody should be back in the main room now. So anybody who’s been listening to the recording, thanks for tuning in and thanks again to the Stoa. For those who don’t know, the Stoa runs on a gift economy, so if you go to the stoa.ca there’s places to direct your generosity; I’m a patron of theirs and really love what Peter’s doing so if you feel inclined I would encourage you to support this platform as well. That being said, we’re going to end the recording here now and then we’ll continue to kinda see what happens if anyone wants to stick around.