BG 126: Natural Wakefulness

Episode Description:

This week we speak with Shambhala acharya and cultural anthropologist, Gaylon Ferguson. Gaylon speaks about the view of Natural Wakefulness, in short that innate wisdom is there from the beginning. We also discuss the four foundations of mindfulness as they were taught by Chogyam Trungpa, and the differences between emphasizing naturalness and training on the spiritual path.

We wrap up by exploring how cultural anthropology and the study of religion fit in with being a practitioner of the dharma. And since Gaylon has done and taught all three, he has a distinctly interdisciplinary approach that you’ll probably find quite interesting.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn. I’m here in the studio here in Boulder with Gaylon Ferguson. Gaylon, thank you for joining us today. Really appreciate it.

Gaylon: Good to be here.

Vince: Just a little background on Gaylon. He is a Shambhala Acharya and also professor at Naropa University. And we’re talking today a little bit both about his work as an academic and also his new book which just came out, which is called Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With. And we want to talk a little bit about that book because it’s his first. Kind of surprising because you’ve been around the dharma scene quite a long time, yeah?

Gaylon: I began studying with Trungpa Rinpoche in 1973.

Vince: Nice. So what motivated you to write your first meditation book?

Gaylon: Well, I was encouraged by Trungpa Rinpoche’s lineage heir Sakyom Mipham Rinpoche some years ago, to do more writing. And also, the book comes out of my experience leading retreats. I lead weekends, weeklong and month long retreats. And the process of having conversations with people over several years, particularly this is when I was living in Vermont, where this was. I was not teaching university or academic work but just one after another, this weekend, this week, this month. And I noticed certain themes emerging out of that I felt would be useful, I think, to write these down, offer them to the general culture of awakening that’s developing, let’s say, in English speaking countries.

Vince: Would you say that you describe as a “meditation manual”?

Gaylon: Well, that’s how some people think about it. Since the core of the book, the main chapters in the middle are the four foundations of mindfulness. But before it goes to the practice part, the training part, what you actually do, there are three or four chapters that introduce just kind of an approach to the spiritual path all together. And I thought those were equally important in a sense. Rather than, what should I do and how should I do it and what are the details? But how should we, all together, what should our approach be? Traditionally, that’s called “the View”. Before you actually begin walking and doing something, you first have a kind of perspective on, “Why are we doing this? Or what’s the way we’re going to go about this?”

Vince: Just in short, what would you say the View is?

Gaylon: Well, it’s the title, Natural Wakefulness. So before the actual engagement with meditation practice or details that go with the meditation manual, as you say, there’s just the sense that awakening is something completely innate and inherent to us. It’s a kind of basic sanity or fundamental intelligence. There are all kinds of technical terms like jnana in Sanskrit or yeshe in Tibetan. Some kind of original knowing that is there from the very beginning. It’s not just there after we practice meditation or after we’ve completed a retreat or done this or that. It’s given as the fundamental basis of our nature. And in fact, it explains why we’re interested at all in the subject of waking up. Otherwise, we might go, “Well, no. I’d rather go back to sleep.” Or, “I’d rather continue sleepwalking.” So the very fact that we have some question, some inquisitiveness that we pick up a book on meditation or compassion or rigpa or whatever it might be, is a sign of this intelligence. “Oh. What’s that? Is there more? Is there deeper?” That’s the View. This is something completely native and natural to us. And the implication of that view is that we could be very gentle in uncovering that and letting that flower.

Because it isn’t really trying to get ourselves to be completely different person or something we’re not. If we’re going to turn ourselves into something we’re not, we’re going to need aggression. We’re going to need almost violence to make ourselves, “Oh, how will I become a Buddha?” But if we have, as my teacher phrased it “enlightened genes”, if our fundamental genetic make-up in some way, if our nature is wakefulness, then it’s just a matter of letting that come out. So one could be non-aggressive, very gentle in this approach. So that view is really important. I mean, that’s why the book is called that. It’s not called a Meditation Manual for Waking Up. Which there are many wonderful ones. But this particular approach to the path, which we find, I think, in many traditions. I don’t think it’s particularly unique or that we have some kind of patent or copyright on that. But that flavor of, this is a matter of a natural unfolding. Natural wakefulness.

Vince: Would you say that flavor is something that you have gotten from your practice lineage?

Gaylon: I would say that’s very much the flavor of how Trungpa Rinpoche taught. And continuing, Mipham Rinpoche. Even teaching something like shamatha. The calm abiding practice. That in turning the mind into an ally, Mipham Rinpoche says, “Well, we are not making the mind peaceful. We’re discovering an innate peacefulness within the mind.” So we find this though in many, many traditions. I mean, Zen tradition, this is Dogen Zenji’s teaching in Soto Zen that practices a way of expressing enlightenment. Its not that we gain enlightenment by practicing, we’re Buddha’s that’s what Suzuki Roshi says in Zen Mind again and again we’re fundamentally awake and practices the way of kind of resuming that nature. And of course we find this in Dzogchen tradition, we find this in what are called the Uttaratantra teachings on Buddha nature in Mahayana many, many traditions where that sense of innate insight of the Theravada tradition. This is the basis of vipashyana that we have some innate knowing that can know the difference between what wakefulness is and what samsara would love, can be reproduced by. So it’s a thread in the teachings of the Buddha.

In the early stories of people encountering the Buddha people woke up quite quickly sometimes just a phrase and then it would say Shariputra became an Arhat like [snaps] that [laughter] so there is that kind of confidence in it doesn’t have to take 1,000 life times its very available. It right around, It’s near.

Vince: Interesting, I definitely can see that thread running through out all traditions. At the same time as you are talking I was thinking of a related thread which is almost opposite to that which is kind of a heroic effort like the Rinzai masters, Kensho! Kensho! Kensho! And I was thinking of some of my own teachers who encouraged you to practice 18-20 hours a day, in the Theravada tradition of noting everything the moment it arises, you know going straight for enlightenment initial enlightenment, so I guess it’s interesting seeing those two are both threads.

What kind of relationship do you see between those, or how have you made sense of those two? Maybe even in your writing.

Gaylon: Yes, that’s a very good question, because I would say that was also a motivation for writing the book. As I was trying to, just in my own understanding reconcile the teachings about no effort, non-meditation. You don’t need to do anything there is nowhere you need to go. And then Buddhist tradition contains immense numbers of techniques, and practices and antidotes. Do this you know if you don’t have compassion apply this or as your saying this Rinzai flavor of kensho or bust you know you got to reach satori during this particular sesshin or else wise you lost this opportunity of the great matter of life or death.

So, I developed this sense of some teachings are emphasizing more nature, and the naturalness of it and other teachings are emphasizing more the importance of training, and making an effort and having discipline. Those teachings emphasizing training and effort tend to have a keen awareness of the strength of our habitual patterns. That there is a sense that is completely left to ourselves right that we might wonder endlessly. And that we do need teachers to say wake up and apply yourself don’t just go on and on with distractions, selfishness, aggression, and all those things, actually you could engage you could change the direction of your life.

So, I see this as a spectrum depending on where we are and a given time. In our journey we may need teachings that emphasize more effort and training and then usually in the Tibetan tradition the Nine Yana perspective you sort of begin with the 4 Noble Truths and working and effort, and then the Mahayana and at the end it’s a matter of completely naturalness of it, the ninth yana its called ati in Sanskrit or dzogchen in Tibet.

So, in a sense that whole spectrum is available there, and it may not be so linear as to starting with yana one and going to yana nine. But it may be that all along the way there are these invitations to the naturalness of it and at any moment why not apply some effort, its not like effort is bad or training is bad or inappropriate, so the whole thing became much more fluid for me as I chewed on almost like a koan what your bringing up. That we definitely have teachings on training and nature.

Vince: And this particular book Natural Wakefulness you focus primarily in meditation instructions on what are traditionally called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and I’m glad you mentioned the progression of the practice because traditionally, correct me if I’m wrong this is seen as part of the Hinayana teachings to begin with.

Gaylon: Well,

Vince: Please correct me… [laughing]

Gaylon: Within the Tibetan tradition it would be called Hinayana but that of course is a pejorative term that wouldn’t be used, we wouldn’t want say that’s the same as Theravada. And of course in the Theravada traditions these four have been taught and Trungpa Rinpoche would talk about a great Burmese Master Mahasi Sayadaw and the revival of the mindfulness tradition and he had a lot of respect for that. So yes, this is classical teaching of the Buddha, early Nikaya Buddhism as its called. The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths Eightfold Path and Mindfulness is one of those paths, and then there is a shorter and longer version of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness sutta. So I really was happy to do something completely classical that everyone would acknowledge was Buddhist that the Buddha had taught that. It’s not, did he teach Buddha nature? Or did he teach this or that? Did he teach Tantra? There’s a lot of debate about that. But everybody would agree that in the cannon of teachings of the Buddha would be these four foundations. So it’s classical or it’s core.

And at the same time, my own teacher Trungpa Rinpoche gave a couple of seminars on the Four Foundations that did not go in this order of body, feeling, mind and phenomena, which is how they classically are. He varied that and he said based on what had been transmitted to him orally, in his version that he taught us, it was body, life, effort, and mind.

So the main body of the book, Natural Wakefulness, is really sort of contemplating both of these. Here’s what the Buddha said. And here’s what this Buddha for me, Trungpa Rinpoche said. How do those swim together or where are they different and so forth? And also, nowadays, through the work of someone like Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness has become extremely popular. In the United States, as least. It’s taught in wellness settings of outpatient clinics. So mindfulness seems like one of the most accessible aspects of the Buddhist teachings.

Traditionally, in Asia I don’t know that mindfulness would have been such a big deal the way it is in this part of the world. I think people might have…There would have been lay people and how they would have approached a temple. And maybe you would have done Ngondro, the prostrations, first or something. But in this part of the world, mindfulness has become a main street to enter in the Buddhist teachings. And so I wanted to be part of that dialogue as well.

Vince: So would you say that pretty much anyone coming to this book, no matter their background of practice, could find something here in the Four Foundations that would be useful or helpful to their practice?

Gaylon: That’s what I felt and that’s what’s been borne out in my own experience. I teach a month-long retreat, usually in Northern Colorado at Shambhala Mountain Center. And we’ll take each of the four as the themes for the four weeks. So the first week, mindfulness of body. And at some point ending on, depending on how the stew of the group of us sitting together cooks, mindfulness of feelings and mindfulness of mind as well. And we’ve had people who have been sitting for years. And we’ve had people who’ve never sat at all. They just come in and for some reason they see it on the web and they say, “I’m going to sit for a month.”

Vince: Those crazy folks! [laughter]

Gaylon: Yeah! They just jump into the deep water and sometimes they do very well. So I’ve found that this is a topic… I’ve also done a little work teaching meditation in prisons. A couple of prisons won a federal place in Alabama and then a state prison in Oregon. And both those settings as well, seemed like the mindfulness teachings were very accessible. That we could talk about our own experience and practice. So I’ve just found it a…every summer, in a sense, I’m going back over that and it just seems endless as to how much there is in the teachings of foundations of mindfulness.

Vince: Fantastic. And you started to talk about how in Asia it would probably be slightly different interest. And that kind of connects in with another part of your training, which is that you received a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford. And I’m wondering how you bring together on the one hand, this kind of western academic tradition with teaching the eastern contemplative path? How you see these things fitting together? Because I’m sure that’s has been a living question for you probably for some time.

Gaylon: It has. And “living question” is a nice way to put it. These things are like existential koans in a way. Of sort of, okay, there’s the nature teachings. And there’s training teachings. And there’s in my own life, a sense of how those go together. And then likewise, I studied with Trungpa Rinpoche for 13, 14 years while he was alive. And then that’s when I went back to graduate school and so forth. So that whole process of I hadn’t completed an undergraduate degree and doing fieldwork and writing my dissertation. That was, say, another ten years. And then how do those go together or not go together?

One thing is in cultural anthropology that I’ve found very useful and helpful and that I use even teaching at Naropa, was this emphasis on what’s the cultural matrix, so to speak, in which any given phenomenon or practice or individual or even group of people? What’s going on systemically or overall? So that in the book, for instance, when we talk about materialism and the materialistic outlook, that’s not a matter of a single bad person somewhere.

Even Dick Cheney, who’s sitting in sort of emanating materialism, that’s something that we all breathe and live in every day when we’re surfing the web or when we’re seeing billboards or ads in magazines or whatever it might be. We’re living and breathing that sense of, am I getting and spending? Am I acquiring? How am I doing with that? What do I want? Do I want an upgrade? How am I going to get another one of those? That’s something that’s kind of almost in the whole atmosphere. I feel like my training in graduate school has repeatedly shaped my ears to like listen for that then rather then to focus on, Oh its her or its him, or whatever what’s the bigger perspective.

Trungpa Rinpoche had a phrase “panoramic awareness” that’s was one of the ways he talked about vipashyana or insight or lah-tong as its called in Tibetan. It’s a kind of panoramic awareness so that was the point of similarity or connection; of like oh okay it’s like a network you know. Indra’s net or those kind of images, of… what’s the network of dependently related causes its not a single link in the 12 links it’s the whole pattern we trying to see the situational patterning of the whole. So that was a point of commonality, a point of difference I would say.

I was being trained in graduate school we did a lot of studies of colonialism, anthropology has traditionally studied indigenous cultures and for many years it studied those ignoring the fact that lets say when Evans Pritchard is in the North of Africa, the reason he could be there studying those people is because they had been colonized by the British. And the people understood that they were soldiers backing him up and if you didn’t go along, of if you harmed him in anyway that invasion would become violent. So anthropology and colonialism were kind of born together. So that has a politics implicit in it of anti-colonial work, post-colonial work. And I would say that in academic settings occasionally maybe a kind of be aggression, kind of an intellectual aggression. Of we are trying to overcome whatever lingering colonialist mentalities.

When we contemplate the suffering historically and in contemporary situation it can bring up in us a kind of anger and we aren’t quite sure what to do about that and I’d say for me it wasn’t always easy to reconcile things I was reading about and contemplating and trying to understand in my time in West Africa where there was a military dictatorship in power. The Nigerians would say “we have a kleptocracy,” ruled by thieves [laughing] that’s what’s going on, they are stealing the natural resources and the oil and they are selling that to Shell, or whoever, and then they’re sending their own children abroad to schools because our own schools are in impoverished.

So, contemplating that on a daily basis I wasn’t sure how to put that together with the gentleness, and non-aggression, and non-violence and the Buddhist outlook which tends in a certain sense to be more cheerful, and that was a word that Trungpa Rinpoche would say “cheer up”. And this was a person who had seen his own country invaded and his own teachers jailed, tortured, imprisoned, and murdered and yet, as with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, there’s a recurring theme of that we should come back to compassion and in the long run that’s what’s meaningful. So I would say I went through some kind of journey of how to put together some kind of awareness of the world that takes into account history, and politics, and collective experience with a kind of dharmic experience and dharmic practice. And I’m still; maybe you can tell in this conversation, I’m still a work in progress, [laughter]. So it’s an ongoing journey. It’s not like I’ve landed and that’s it. I’ve settled in, just it’s all good…

Vince: Or it’s all bad… [both laughing]

Gaylon: Exactly, we should take to the streets or whatever it’s a daily, “oh how do we open our hearts and our minds to what’s going on and what’s helpful what would be skillful to do?” And again like with the nature training perspective sometimes there is an environmental cause; it would be helpful to demonstrate and say no we don’t want you to pollute that river and other times it definitely helpful to do some sitting practice and look at ones own state of mind. So that in that demonstration we aren’t going over into aggression and making things worse, even though we are trying to make things better. So that’s an ongoing process for me

Vince: I’ve heard in some of your classes where you teach about the Buddhist tradition in particularly a class called the Three Jewels, that you use a particular schema that’s related to what you have been talking about, where you look at the difference between someone who is inside of a tradition and someone who is outsider looking in, or outsider that’s not aware of the inside, and how those two relate. And I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that schema because it seems like a really interesting way to approach religion and its relationship to what you are calling the cultural matrix.

Gaylon: Yes I want to give some credit to how I came to use that particular schema and how I heard of it, there was a graduate student, she is now a professor at the University of Colorado named Holly Gayley. She did her graduate training at Harvard and she mentioned to me I was saying I’m gonna teach, wasn’t this course it was another religious studies methodology course at Naropa–a graduate course, and I said I’m thinking of different things there my own background in part is in the anthropology of religion, what would you suggest and she made a number of suggestions and one of them was we did this insider outsider perspective, and there is a collection by Shaw named McCutcheon that’s called “The Insider/Outside the Problem in Religious Studies” and in that collection I believe, or another one closely related, a scholar named Kim Knott has this article on inside/outsider with a schema in which someone could be looking at let’s say The Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha–completely classic Buddhist teaching as an outsider, a scholar, who has no particular practice. You might call them an outsider/outsider, or as an outsider who becomes an insider, maybe as part of their study they go to talk by Thich Nhat Hanh on The Three Jewels, or they go to a Zendo, you know they go and talk to a Lama in Tibet, you know, someone like David Germano, you know, would travel and do field work in Tibet. Maybe they go and talk to insiders and kind of become quasi-insiders themselves for a while. But, in the end they go home and they write their book or their thesis or whatever, so they’re kind of outsider/insiders.

Then there are insiders like, lets say, my colleague at Naropa, Judith Simmer-Brown, who’s a long time student of the Buddha Dharma, and practitioner herself. But writes a book for other scholars on the feminine principal in Tibetan Buddhism called Dakini’s Warm Breath. So, she’s an insider who can also communicate and be in dialogue with outsiders. Other scholars whether they’re practitioners or not can read her particular approach to interpreting the feminine principle, the Dakini principle, or khandro.

And then there are insider/insiders who may practice, maybe they sit Zazen, maybe they study the teachings of the Buddha according to a particular tradition, and their within their Sangha, and they have no particular interest really in outreach or writing books about it or anything. So, there’s a whole spectrum there from outsider/outsider to outsider/insider to insider/outsider to insider/insider. We just do this as a visual schema on the board of these four different approaches and in the course of that course that you’re referring to, The Three Jewels, we read things and we would often say, “Oh, we’re reading his holiness, the Dali Lama. What’s he? Oh, he’s an insider that can communicate to outsiders.” Yeah? [laughter]

Vince: Sure. [laughter]

Gaylon: Yes. Globally, in fact. Yeah? Oh, we’re reading this scholar and she or he doesn’t particularly have a practice but they’re very learned about The Heart Sutra, let’s say, they’ve read all the commentaries, maybe in the original, you know, “Oh, they’re an outsider/outsider”. So, we would classify, so that we we’re reflecting on what’s the perspective that this person is bringing to bear in approaching The Three Jewels. What is a Buddha? What is the Dharma? What is the Sangha? And one question that we would contemplate would be “Well, which of these is the best perspective?” That’s a frequent question, if you’re going to do an interpretation, like “Which is the best interpretation of Shakespeare, or Longchenpa?”, whatever it might be, and [laughter] we would have to become more subtle than just saying “Oh, well the best is the objective scholar, because they haven’t necessarily practiced to have the experiential”, or on the other hand, saying “The best is always the person who has practiced who has sat that sesshin or done that Vipassana retreat,” or whatever that person, she or he, may not actually know the history of Mahasi Sayadaw, or how that came about or why there needed to be a Satipatthana revival, like, how, why was that, “oh, you mean there was a while in which people weren’t talking about mindfulness or practicing insight, or meditation? “ So, there is definitely something in each of these perspectives can teach us.

At the end when I would ask for papers to be written, I used to try and synthesize everything that we’d read. What do scholars have to teach us? What do those with a so-called “objective” point of view? What do insiders, people who have been thoroughly marinated for years, if not lifetimes as far as we know… you know, Khenpo Kartha Rinpoche, someone like that, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, these people are just completely pervaded by that, I mean they are the ultimate insiders. What do they have to teach us that we wouldn’t gain just by reading a secular scholar?

So, it was an attempt to, kind of, try to be synthetic in the sense of synthesizing, or integral as another way, “integrative approach” some people call this. My position at Naropa is in what’s called interdisciplinary studies, and that’s really what interdisciplinary is often about, is what can you draw from religious studies, anthropology, psychology, that you wouldn’t get by simply taking one lens. How would that sort of “multiple ways” of viewing something get a more holistic understanding? So, that’s the aim of the courses. Overall, what can we come to about Buddha, Dharma, Sangha that we wouldn’t have got just by a single perspective.

Vince: Nice. And that sounds like you’re really the personification of that question. [laughter]

Gaylon: [laughter] Yeah. Maybe it is an existential thing again about my own life has been put together. It’s a good insight.

Vince: Cool. Well, thank you so much for joining us, and for sharing a little bit about your book, and a little bit about your work as both an anthropologist and as a dharma teacher. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Gaylon: Yes. Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s been very enjoyable to talk with you here. Very lively. Great questions.


Gaylon Ferguson