How to be a Good Student

The Buddhist “Middle Way”

DSC_0684How to be a good student is a matrix of many intersections, one of which includes the standard definition of the Buddhist “middle way“: not too tight, not too loose.

Buddhism is the art of living, both an art and a science.

Being not too tight means, among other things, not becoming dogmatic and ultimately closed around Buddhism as a mere religion. Being not too loose means to maintain the disciplines one has been introduced to, the most important being meditation itself, what is generally called practice.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche often told his students, If you want to meet me in your life, practice.

The Definition of “Good”

What does “good” mean? It doesn’t mean becoming spiritually subservient, studiously avoiding being any kind of troublemaker or objectionist.

Good means that one becomes suited to spiritual development, that one becomes a good vessel for one’s own awakening and the reciprocal awaking of others.

The essence of being good is to live by vow. There are many types of vows in the Buddhist tradition but the essence of a vow is a commitment to being awake rather than merely following habitual (samsaric) patterns.

In everyday terms, vow means to implement one’s priority. Mother Tessa Bielecki, a Carmelite nun, put it this way:

You can start by prioritizing your activities, beginning with your spiritual practice. You could look at the day and determine what is the most optimal way to focus on your prayer or meditation, and then build the rest of the day around that. For most people, this usually means getting up earlier or going to bed later. My personal experience, and the experience of hundreds of other people I have spoken with, is that it is better in the long run to get up an hour earlier to do one’s practice than to sleep in.

Structuring one’s day to live by vow or priority is a choice and, like all choices, exists in a crossroads.

Habitual Pattern vs. Auspicious Coincidence

DSC_0671One direction is habitual pattern, what is called the nidana chain (in Tibetan, tendril). Habitual patterns are the usual course of things, all the conventional distractions – and these distractions are built around fundamental core beliefs of various poverty mentalities, all a feeling that we are not good enough.

Thus we might just lie in bed long after our alarm rings because we don’t fully want to feel a particular poverty mentality or depression, much less pass through it.

The direction that differs from tendril or habitual patterns is tashi tendril or auspicious coincidence. Following tashi tendril means to experience a type of mastery in our life, to follow the coincidences that present themselves in our ordinary day. Tashi tendril means that there is a kind of fundamental openness and even perfection that is the background for our usual state – being caught in the distractions of discursive thought.

Meditation: Learning to “Hold Our Seat”

Practicing meditation sets the ground for awareness of tashi tendril by bringing us into the openness and perfection of the moment. In many ways, sitting meditation is a rigorous act, even a martial art, in that we learn to “hold our seat.”
Seat is our body, where we are at any given time. Holding our seat means our mind and sense perceptions are attuned to what is going on around us. In this attunement, whatever shows up as phenomena – the positive or the difficult – we are able to hold our seat and ride the phenomena.

As Chögyam Trungpa put it, The warrior’s path is that you ride phenomena – phenomena are not allowed to ride you.

Trusting Ourselves

Riding phenomena is demanding, a lifetime commitment. But riding phenomena is also personal experience, which brings us to another aspect of being a good student: trusting ourselves.

DSC_0008It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the Buddhist tradition, a feeling that we cannot match the exertion and commitment of the masters of the past. At the end of a weekend meditation program, Chögyam once gave this advice to the students in the room: If you have any doubt about whether you are doing the meditation practice right or wrong, it doesn’t matter all that much.

The main point is to have honesty within yourself. Just do what you think is best. That is called self-truth.

If truth is understood by oneself, then you cannot be persecuted at all, karmically or any other way. You’re doing your best, so what can go wrong. Cheer up and have a good time.



Bill Istanbul2Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.

How to Create a Shrine

Assembling a shrine is a highly creative act. It is one that not only supports one’s Buddhist practice (or any practice) but provides a basis for positively altering one’s entire way of life. Creating a shrine is to manifest one’s intention and to remind oneself of one’s highest priorities. Creating a shine is also a physical act – it might require lumber, glass, bowls for incense and water offerings. And sometimes a curious cat might temporarily become part of one’s shrine.

Shrine vs. Altar

DSC_0203As Buddhism has come to the West, custom has favored the word “shrine” over “altar” for these places of intention. Though both are appropriate and interesting words, usage has probably avoided the word altar because of its strong associations with Christianity – though the root of altar is the Latin word altus, meaning “high.” This might be the first guideline for creating a shine (or altar): elevation. Common sense inclines us create a shine on a table, shelf (or specially constructed box) so that it is off the ground and prominent in the room or environment (an automobile dashboard is also a good place for a shrine).

Our word “shrine” comes from the Latin scrinium meaning “chest for books” – thus a shrine is a place for the sacred word (Hebrew, Sanskrit, Pali). Traditionally, a Buddhist shrine might contain a dharma book, perhaps wrapped in cloth. What book should one choose? This question strikes at the heart of creating a shrine at all. The choice of a book – or any other object – should be a genuine act, which means an act of the heart, an act of affection, and not one of obligation – and hence guilt.

Guilt-Free Shrines

DSC_1859To create a guilt-free shrine one could assemble signifiers of one’s heart connection to Buddhism, and to the phenomenal world at large.

Typically this would include a photograph of one’s teacher(s), a candle (or two), a dharma book, perhaps bowls of offering water and a statue of the Buddha.

On the other hand, one’s shrine could be ultra simple: merely a candle, merely a photograph. Interestingly, in Islam, the “shrine” or altar of a mosque, called the mirab, is simply an indentation in the wall, in other words, an activated space. To create a Buddhist shrine, in its most universal essence, is to create a space one will practice in front of. In a sense, where ever one chooses to meditate could already be considered a shrine.

Shrine As Reminder

This brings us to another meaning of a shrine: a reminder. Everything on one’s shrine could be a consciously chosen reminder; a reminder of one’s faith, one’s affection, one’s love.

On some level, looking at one’s shrine is looking at oneself: from candles to a statue or thangka, the ritual objects express one’s own Buddha nature.

DSC_7002.JPGAs one travels the Buddhist path, invariably one’s shrine might develop and conform to certain practices one’s teacher has empowered one in, such as ngondro or the practice of Vajrayogini – in the latter case, the shrine includes nearly a dozen offerings and representations of the enlightened deity of Vajrayogini.

A shrine becomes alive for many reasons, and as we look upon it, it looks back at us. Since a Buddhist shrine personifies our relationship to practice, it haunts us in the same way our teacher and own awareness does, to be awake. Our resistance becomes a guest the shrine seeks to drive out, so that we surrender to the open moment.

Keeping It Alive

Sometimes a shrine becomes strangely outdated, perhaps devoid of life, like a musty museum. In any case, over time, I can’t imagine any practitioner’s shrine remaining the same – I certainly don’t know of anyone’s who has. Some go from the elaborated and doctrinaire back to something utterly simple, like a photograph and flower arrangement. Shrines need housekeeping and occasional remodeling.

Shrines reflect our changing journey on the path.

Shrine As A Place of Offering

Another purpose of the shrine is as place of offering. This brings in the animistic or shamanic dimension (in all countries, Buddhism has absorbed and commingled with the indigenous), the dimension of ancestors, spirits and the invisible world (which is also the dimension on Buddhist lineage, of Dogen, Milarepa and Nagarjuna). It is innately human to offer to what we cannot see, to sublimate ourselves into gratitude, especially as a rite in the beginning of the day.

DSC_0233The shamanic may be the most important dimension of invoking one’s shrine, so to speak. I say “invoking” because of the relationship of sincerity to one’s shrine. The shrine is merely an orientation point, if it doesn’t evoke a shift in our attitude – and an awareness of gratitude – it means next to nothing. It is necessary to feel – and invoke – some relationship with the “invisible world.”

I once interviewed the late and highly venerated master Traleg Rinpoche and asked the following question, Rinpoche’s answer is worth some study and related to this dimension of one’s shrine, or relationship to the invisible:

Bill Scheffel: “If could ask you this question: two major pitfalls of the student or practitioner are eternalism and nihilism. I think there is, if not a consensus, a widely held view that in the west there is a lot of experience of nihilism. There is a kind of diminished sense of this kind of co-participatory relationship with the world at large and the (invisible world).”

Traleg Rinpoche: “I think so. I agree with you there completely and wholeheartedly. And it is a big problem and I think what has happened there is that people have embraced the western secular view of the world so totally that they have incorporated only certain aspects of Buddhism into their lives, and the other aspects of Buddhism that do not fit with that world view they have sort of ignored that completely, at their own peril. People can relate to Buddhist philosophy of shamatha and vipashyana and emptiness and even bodhichitta, I suppose, but anything to do with the other side of Buddhism – deities, and trying to make some connection with invisible beings – If we don’t see them then they don’t exist and if we live in the modern world they are not real.”

When I asked Traleg Rinpoche about his own practice he went on to tell me that he prayed frequently and made food and other offerings to the invisible dimension. He especially felt the need for this when he arrived at a new location, to make a relationship with the “local deities.”

Invoking the Invisible

Another way the invisible in invoked is through fire. Burning incense seems particularly Buddhist, but Tibetan Buddhism has many “fire rituals,” including lhasang, a practice of burning juniper smoke and making offerings to the dralas and other invisible beings. The lhasang is ancient, indigenous and predates the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet by probably milleniums.

One can easily perform one’s own lhasang each morning by simply burning juniper or sage (the native American traditions of smudging are akin to lhasang). The smoke that rises quite literally dissolves into the air and space element, thus linking the visible and invisible. Conversely, the strength of the invisible world descends the smoke into one’s own being.

Now we can begin to see that a shrine, perhaps above all, is a place where we make a ritual and literal connection to the “elemental” or fundamental level of life. The shrine typically contains water offerings in the form of one or more bowls filled with water; the candles, incense and/or lhasang express fire and air; the table, shelf or dresser the shrine objects sit on expresses earth.

To create a shrine is to consciously restore and empower one’s connection with the phenomenal world. What could be more creative than that?


Bill Istanbul2

Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teaching and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.