issue 23 Summer 04
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Teaching fish about water

Shenpen Hookham trained in India with some of the leading Tibetan teachers of Mahamudra meditation before returning to teach in the west. She told Vessantara that the Mahamudra path of relaxed opening to life is as relevant as ever in the modern west.

DL: You are known as a teacher of Mahamudra. What is Mahamudra, and what characterises its approach to the Buddhist path?

In the Karma Kagyu lineage that I belong to, the highest realisation is called Mahamudra. It's a name for Reality and for Awakening. It's also the Buddha Nature - the nature of mind or citta, the heart. In fact it's the nature of everything, the whole Universe. The name Mahamudra arises out of a particular way of relating to that reality, right from the start of the path, and this special way of looking at things in itself constitutes the path.

You can say you are 'practising Mahamudra', but that mixes English and Sanskrit terms. You wouldn't exactly say 'practise' in either Sanskrit or Tibetan. It's more a matter of taking Mahamudra as the path by getting a glimpse of it right from the start. You use that glimpse to steer yourself. So, it's not as if you have no idea of the nature of ultimate reality and you're hoping one day to encounter it as something totally new and unfamiliar.

In a strange way, reality is staring us all in the face from the start. The problem is recognising it, and having recognised it, remembering it. Having had reality pointed out, you then need to see its significance.

DL: How do you see yourself operating as a teacher?

I encourage people to look into their experience in the right way, and find the nature of their being that one could call Mahamudra. Really my job has two aspects. Firstly, helping people persevere until they discover or glimpse this Mahamudra reality - and that means keeping them inspired and motivated to look. Secondly, having caught a glimpse, getting them to value it and commit themselves to following it up, making that their life's work.

Fortunately, it's possible to do those two things without claiming any great realisation oneself. The important thing is that I'm connected to a lineage of realised teachers who are encouraging me to try and set people on the path to Awakening. That is what I'm doing and I feel pleased with the response.

DL: Can you say more about this 'special way of looking at things' that in itself constitutes the path?

In a funny way, one is looking at something that is plainly obvious. It's like trying to get a fish to understand water. How do you introduce a fish to water? It's all it knows. It knows it so well, it cannot distinguish it from the very fabric of its experience. Maybe it's a fish that is always wanting something else, never satisfied, always trying to cling to a particular patch of water as if its life depended on it. So the fish never trusts the river just to carry it along. It has heard of the river and longs for it, but the fish can't understand that it is already in the river and all it needs to do is relax. The example doesn't quite match since the river isn't the true nature of a fish, and my point isn't that we have to go with the flow. I'm saying that we are training to discover and know something that is so close to us and so simple that we can't really believe, 'That's it'.

When we hear this kind of teaching, the danger is that we think there is not much to it. We might even think we understand it already, because intuitively it seems to be saying something to us, perhaps even on quite a deep level. But this understanding on its own isn't a path. It's a flash of inspiration or insight. But then what? It's not as if you have actually got something. There is nothing there really.

You may find that even though you are lost for words, somehow you have enough to go on. You find that you are sufficiently interested in what you are glimpsing to keep coming back to it again and again and make it the basis for your path. On the other hand you may feel that, while you know the theory and can even talk about it eloquently, you haven't a clue how to make that your path. If you don't have a teacher to keep you on track, you start to wander off, looking for something more entertaining or more likely to yield a result.

DL: What practical methods do teachers of Mahamudra use to help us poor fish notice that we are surrounded by water?

Although there are special methods, unless they are linked to the right understanding of reality, or the right way of looking, then they don't help much. On the other hand, teachings that occur throughout the Buddhist tradition but aren't explicitly Mahamudra can be heard in a Mahamudra way, if the student is receptive. It's a matter of exercising a certain skill and learning to play with it.

In Mathematics, when you're wrestling to understand something, you keep worrying away at it for a long time and then your mind gives up and you let go. You relax. Then suddenly the answer comes. You know it's the answer because it feels right; it's simple and elegant. It's the same when you're working with your understanding in Buddhist meditation.

This implies some sort of struggle to understand, but it's not an intellectual struggle. It's more like feeling your way towards a point ... like trying to put your finger exactly on the point that itches. You both know where the itch is and you don't know. Then you find it exactly, you know that's it; then somehow everything changes mentally and physically.

DL: You seem to be describing Mahamudra as a 'path' of discovery rather than of development, in which awakened qualities are uncovered rather than produced. Presumably this affects the approach to meditation. For instance, many Buddhists will work in meditation by cultivating antidotes to what are seen as hindrances: they would work on loving-kindness as an antidote to hatred or resentment. Do you take a different approach to what Buddhism traditionally regards as unwholesome mental states?

Words condition our thinking and responses. So it's important which words are used as we approach the path. It's true that I use words like discovery, confidence and trust a lot. I don't use words like progress and stages. Nevertheless, I use the full gamut of practices available in the Buddhist tradition, which in one way or another are all about applying antidotes. But I present them in the spirit of Mahamudra. From the beginning I'll be emphasising that thoughts are thoughts, feelings are feelings. We don't have to make them into something solid and try to 'overcome' them with antidotes. We can notice that, as thoughts, they're harmless; they're simply the movement of awareness within itself; their nature is as spacious as the awareness in which they appear. This is deep insight practice of course, but right from the start we can adopt the attitude that the path to Awakening is not necessarily a battle of good against evil. We could take a more light-hearted and confident approach that is none the less determined and committed.

DL: Where do love and compassion come in with this approach?

When we pay attention to the nature of thoughts and feelings, love and happiness increase by themselves without our having to cultivate them separately, because they are the indestructible qualities of the sensitivity that is our true nature. When that sensitivity isn't twisted into anger and hatred it is naturally loving and kind. You could even say the anger and hatred themselves are a misguided way of reaching out for happiness, and that urge is the basis of compassion.

So in principle anger and hatred should decrease as we sit and relax in meditation, letting thoughts and feelings play freely in their true nature in the space of awareness. But what often happens is that we can apparently be meditating in this formless way, not particularly focusing on anything conceptual, but not much seems to be happening. The same old bitter and resentful thoughts keep coming up and not much love and joy start to manifest. So then it can be helpful to use more effortful and conceptual practices - such as trying to develop limitless love and compassion for all beings.

After a while trying to develop loving and compassionate thoughts might start to feel a bit phoney and contrived, but that doesn't mean that it's not good to keep doing it. It's like breaking up the ground, making it more fertile and ready to let the life within it spring forth. Then bit by bit our love and compassion start to manifest. Somehow they come upon us.

DL: You say 'Somehow they come upon us' ...

I don't think you can say exactly how it arises. The arising is in some way related to the work on cultivating qualities, but it's not a simple matter of cause and effect. The love and compassion are spontaneous and happen without our trying. The real thing feels quite different from how it felt when we were trying to develop it in our practice. Meditations like the Maitri Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) help us to notice what we need to let go, but we can't argue ourselves into compassion.

So there's always this play going on between the practice of applying antidotes and the natural process of uncovering our true nature. You can work with both approaches at once, moving gradually towards less and less contrivance as the practice matures.

DL: Your own Tibetan Buddhist training was essentially as a 'men-ngak-pa'. What does that mean and how does it influence the way that you teach?

It means that I was trained by teachers giving me 'direct pointing' out instructions. Men-ngak corresponds to the Sanskrit word upadesha. It means instructions that are given directly to the student in a way that makes the student understand. It may not be a formal teaching, or words of the Buddha. The teacher simply communicates in his or her own manner what needs to be put across in a way that gets through to the student. So it's fresh, spontaneous and very challenging. You have to be open to the truth and really want to receive it.

I was always asking questions, trying to get at what was really being said. When I did this I found the teachers would open up more and more, and they still do. Sometimes, when Bokar Rinpoche was teaching me from a text, I would get exasperated and say something like, 'What does that really mean?' And Rinpoche would say, 'You mean, really?' And I'd say 'Yes'. Then he'd just lay his book on one side and take on a whole different persona. He would look at me in quite a different way and say something like, 'Well if you really want to know, you have to look directly into your own experience'. Then he might ask me a question like 'what is the nature of your thoughts?'

That wouldn't necessarily do the trick for everyone. To some people that kind of question is an invitation to look with greater clarity and honesty. To others it is incomprehensible, and the men-ngak has to be adjusted to the way the student responds. A teacher tries to find ways to get the student to drop habitual assumptions and look in a different way.

The conditions have to be right for the penny to drop. It's no good telling the student to try terribly hard to look at things right. In the end you have to just settle down to being straightforward, trusting and honest, in a relaxed way. But that takes a lot of vision, confidence and commitment. As much as anything it's the openness to truth and trust in the teacher that matter. There's a kind of magic in the way teacher and student interact that goes beyond whatever is said or done.

So the path of upadesha isn't like the path of study, where you learn lots of texts and analytical arguments. You don't have to study much actually. You just have to understand the essential points and really put them into practice.

DL: In working with westerners do you find yourself having to teach differently from how Tibetan teachers have traditionally worked with their Tibetan students?

Tibetans brought up in the traditional way have a lot of faith and a worldview that incorporates Dharma and a path to Awakening into the fabric of their language and customs. A lot of the time it would be a matter of reminding them of things and galvanising what is already there, lying latent. It isn't like that when teaching westerners. Some of the most fundamental concepts are totally missing from our worldview, and our words lack the connotations of the words Tibetans use when teaching Dharma. So I certainly do emphasise different points or at least emphasise them in a different order.

An obvious example is the traditional approach of teaching about the hells and what negative actions lead to rebirth in hell at the start of the path. Very few westerners would benefit from starting there, but for a Tibetan Lama that's an obvious place to start teaching a newcomer.

When I first went to India Kalu Rimpoche wouldn't teach us anything else for months. I asked him why and he said that it would stop me wandering off down to the shop when I was on retreat. Of course, he was quite wrong. He had no idea, at that point, what he was dealing with. Having said that, he did also give me various pointing out instructions that deeply affected me and which I never forgot. That was all the more amazing since he had to do it through a translator who hardly knew English.

In my own teaching it's a matter of selecting which bits of the tradition to use when. I've put a lot of work into creating courses that communicate the fundamental principles of Buddhism in an accessible way. In many respects it's a completely new approach, yet I can explain what I am doing to my own teachers and colleagues in a few words, and they are quite satisfied. One lama told me once that it was good Dharma commonsense, which is what westerners lack and yet they really need.

Another lama said that the problem for westerners isn't that they lack enthusiasm and intelligence. What they lack is a sense of trust or faith in anything. That's why I place so much emphasis on people really looking into their hearts and into the nature of their awareness, to find what there is that they can trust. It's about discovery and trusting. Without trust there is no possibility of being truly able to relax.

For further information on courses run by Shenpen Hookham: www.buddhism-connect.org