& The Meaning of Scriptures
Ken: there is a huge amount of mystification. If you read the mahayana sutras, they’re wonderful. They’re beautiful. They’re elaborate, and they leave you the impression that you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being really awake. [Laughter] Right?
Ken: The Heart Sutra is relatively innocuous, try the Avatamsaka Sutra. It goes on and on and on. Even the Diamond Sutras are intimidating that way.
But when you get to the core experiences they describe, the picture is different. For instance, how many of you know the four stages of arhatship? Stream winner, once returner, no returner and arhat. Right?
Student: Very intimidating. [Laughing]
Ken: Yeah, except that what in the blazes does this mean? Okay. What’s a stream winner? Now it’s someone who—and if you read the formal descriptions—and you feel like “well you know, maybe twenty-five lifetimes if I work absolutely consistently. I don’t do anything else. I never earn a cent in my life. I just meditate all the time maybe I’ll just get there.” Like that, right?
Well, those wonderful descriptions are a poetic expression of how much people valued these things, so they, they blew it up tremendously. So what is a stream winner? A stream winner is a person who has had a sufficiently powerful or strong experience of emptiness that they can’t go back to being the same way. It’s something which screws up the system so you can’t go back. Now you’re on the path. You are in the stream. No? So when you’ve developed a level of attention, you have that experience. Then you’re a stream winner.
What’s a once returner? A once returner is a person whose level of attention is sufficiently high so that when a reactive process comes up, they are caught by it for a moment (one life) [snaps fingers] and then they return to wakefulness.
When a reactive process arises in a no returner, it just comes and goes. They aren’t caught by it. They don’t have to return. They stay in wakefulness.
Buried in this highly metaphorical language you have simple and accessible experiences expressed in code. These experiences are very accessible to all of us. The fact that they are seen as way out there, well, that’s poetry.
Student: But they are taken literally by some. [Chuckles] Some of my teachers anyway!
Ken: Actually some in the group here. [Laughter] Well, there was this student of Zen who had a very, very deep experience at one point. And the circumstances were such that he couldn’t go to any teacher and recount his experience and have it reflected back, which is actually a important aspect. So in lieu of that, I think he picked up the Diamond Sutra. And said to himself, “If I can read this and understand it without having a single thought then I think I am probably on the right track.” And that’s what he did. It was all completely clear to him.
So when you have had certain experiences then you see what the poetry is actually pointing to. Now eastern teachers––many of them, almost all of them––they learned and were trained in this highly metaphorical way of expression. At the same time because they are in traditional societies, they don’t take it literally. They understand and know it as metaphor. Though they don’t talk about it as metaphor. It’s not the way one does things in a traditional society.
We’re in and have been brought up in a modern society. Modern society is characterized by the use of rational processes, particularly at times, in which you take everything literally. When you’re reading an account of a scientific experiment you’re paying attention to every word that’s being very clearly expressed because you want to reconstruct that experiment to see if you can do it yourself. So you take everything absolutely literally. But when we bring that literalness to this highly metaphorical thing the result is disastrous!
I’ll give you an example. I ran into this with a psychologist one time in a conversation. And it’s exactly this conversation. And he said “Well give me an example.” I said, “In Tibetan Buddhism you regard your teacher as buddha.” And he immediately said, “Oh, so he’s infallible.” So I said, “No.” That’s a perfect example of modern literal rational processes being applied to metaphorical imagery or mythic language really.
When you say you regard your teacher as a buddha, as Buddha, it describes the way that you regard a teacher as how you experience awakening mind; how you would want to live that way. It doesn’t say anything about being [unclear], but it says a great deal about, is your relationship with that person. And the role of that relationship in your spiritual process. It’s a huge difference in talking about a person as being [unclear]. Not the same thing at all. And those kinds of mistakes are being made all over the place.